The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

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What do you see besides a big dumb guy? A Roman Catholic nun (Deborah Kerr) and a hard-bitten US Marine (Robert Mitchum) are stranded together on a Japanese-occupied island in the South Pacific during World War II. Under constant threat of discovery by a ruthless enemy, strafed by Japanese bombers, they hide in a cave and forage for food together. Their forced companionship and the struggle for survival forge a powerful emotional bond between them and then the Japanese arrive ... Perhaps God doesn’t intend me to take my final vows. Charles Shaw’s novel was adapted by director John Huston and veteran screenwriter John Lee Mahin, who declared this the favourite of all of his films. And what a smooth run it is, taking two established actors and playing with their personae in the way that Huston is reiterating the setup from The African Queen except here Bogie is the hollowed-out macho Mitchum, a much leaner proposition, and Hepburn is replaced by Kerr, replaying her Irish Catholic nun from Black Narcissus and giving her a comic twist (her casting maybe a nod to that beach scene in From Here to Eternity). Their flintiness is worn down by alcohol and great writing with just enough danger to make it a potent admixture. The cinematography by the great Oswald Morris is splendid and Georges Auric’s score is as jaunty as a sea shanty. Kerr and Mitchum have great chemistry and would be paired again in The Grass is GreenerOnly God knows what’ll happen to us

Fragment of Fear (1970)

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She said no – “over my dead body”. Hence, her dead body. Tim Brett (David Hemmings) is a former drug addict who has written a book about his experience. He has been clean for about a year. He had recently become acquainted with his aunt Lucy (Flora Robson), a philanthropist who expresses interest in helping some of Tim’s former acquaintances. She is found murdered in Pompeii. Tim starts a relationship with Juliet Bristow (Gayle Hunnicutt), the woman who found his aunt’s body, and they are soon engaged. When the police investigation stalls,  Tim begins to ask questions of some of his aunt’s acquaintances who are all in a seaside care home. He then begins to receive warnings from unknown persons to stop his inquiries. He meets an elderly woman on the train. She hands him a note of supposed comfort, asking him to read it at home. The note turns out to be a warning about leaving matters to the police, apparently typed on his own typewriter. There’s also an ominous laugh recorded on Tim’s own tape recorder, indicating that someone was in his flat. Tim is then visited by a police sergeant, Sgt. Matthews (Derek Newark), who informs him that the woman on the train had lodged a complaint against Tim. After the woman is also killed, Tim finds out that there is no sergeant by that name working at the police station. He is then assaulted on the streets at night by two men who leave him lying on the ground with a hypodermic needle. Tim throws the needle down a gutter. He makes contact with a secret government agency which tells him that they are after the people who are threatening him, but all is – again – not what it seems to be and Tim and Juliet’s wedding fast approaches… Paul Dehn’s adaptation of John Bingham’s novel is interesting on a number of levels:  the performances of Hemmings and Hunnicutt, who were married at the time;  and the allusions to the government agency because Bingham was acknowledged as the model for George Smiley. Then there’s Yootha Joyce, forever trapped as Mildred in TV’s George and Mildred, here she’s truly sinister as the nasty proprietress of the old folk’s home where all manner of viciousness is evident. Hemmings is fine as the apparently delusional addict. He was a charismatic actor and such a beautiful icon of the mid-Sixties and the counter culture it’s hard to recall his fading from the scene to production and TV directing with anything other than regret:  this, after all, is the little boy singer who inspired Benjamin Britten to write Miles in The Turn of the Screw and the young man who brought Antonioni to decadent Swinging London for Blow-Up.  This outing is far more conventional genre material, but fascinating nonetheless for the central couple’s interactions and ideas about paranoid conspiracies, soon to be a ‘thing’ in cinema. There’s a terrific supporting cast including Mona Washbourne, Arthur Lowe, Daniel Massey, Adolfo Celi, Roland Culver and Wilfrid Hyde-White. Directed by Richard  C. Sarafian (who had worked with Hunnicutt on the previous year’s Eye of the Cat) who keeps the psychological issues on the boil, this has an astonishing jazz score by Johnny Harris which would be used to advertise Levis in the 90s in a memorable Kung Fu scenario by Jonathan Glazer. Shot by Oswald Morris.

Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.

The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber (you’ll recognise phrases which would appear in the forthcoming musical Evita) with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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A friend of mine is under the weather at the moment so I prescribed holiday viewing:  The Great Escape and its fraternal twin, this, one of the best men on a mission action adventures to come out of WW2. It’s 1943.  An Allied commando team is deployed to destroy huge German guns on the Greek island of Navarone in order to rescue troops trapped on Kheros. They’re led by British Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) and include the American Mallory (Gregory Peck), Greek resistance fighter Stavros (Anthony Quinn) and reluctant Brit explosives expert Miller (David Niven). Facing impossible odds, the men battle stormy seas and daunting cliffs. When Franklin is injured, Mallory takes command, and the infighting begins. They have to impersonate Nazi officers and work with local resistance fighters Irene Papas and Gia Scala. There is a spy  in the camp – but who can it be? There’s interrogation and explosives and betrayal and all kinds of good stuff. This is sublime fun and contains probably my favourite movie line of all, from the inimitable Niven:  Heil everybody! Adapted from Alastair MacLean’s novel by blacklisted screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman (who made a lot of changes to the material) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (taking over from Alexander Mackendrick one week before production – that old saw, ‘creative differences.’) Narrated by James Robertson Justice and shot by the peerless Oswald Morris with a majestic soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. Definitely taking this to the desert island. Or even a Greek one.

The Entertainer (1960)

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John Osborne’s dramatic work was like a rocket under the theatrical establishment of mid-Fifties Britain and this excoriation of the disintegrating Empire was lit up by Laurence Olivier’s extraordinary performance as the leering seedy fifth-rate comic Archie Rice at the Royal Court. Osborne wrote this for Olivier and he reportedly delivered a shockingly good performance, bringing him right up to date with the seismic changes in contemporary theatre. Tony Richardson directs this screen adaptation by Osborne and Nigel Kneale, shot on location in Morecambe with Oswald Morris’s glistening cinematography shining a torch on the social decay that Rice embodies in his adulterous and failing private and professional life. Joan Plowright, soon to be Olivier’s wife following the breakdown of his marriage to Vivien Leigh, plays his daughter, who is enduring her own troubles; Brenda de Banzie is the long-suffering second wife; Roger Livesey (Colonel Blimp) is his retired (and revered) vaudevillian father; and Albert Finney makes his film debut as the unfortunate son sent to Suez. Alan Bates also makes his screen debut as the other son (he had starred in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger on the stage) with Daniel Massey rounding out an impressive ensemble that includes the wonderful Shirley Anne Field and Miriam Karlin. John Addison contributes a brilliant score (as ever) to a film of awfully convincing despair as a music hall career comes to a brutal end. “Why should I care?” warbles Archie as everything falls to pieces. Unforgettable.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

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With a screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper from the groundbreaking realist espionage novel of 1963 by the man known as John Le Carre, this is just as complex – in terms of narrative and morals – as the source material. Richard Burton is the British agent unwillingly retired who plays a role to entice an operation run by Control (Cyril Cusack) that will bring him back in the game. Along the way he falls in love with naive Communist Party member Nan (Claire Bloom, a real-life former lover) and we meet George Smiley for the first time on screen (played here by Rupert Davies). The stakes are high and agent Fiedler (Oskar Werner) is running a very dangerous line of enquiry which ends up in a trial at the East German’s presidium. Lives are exchanged with a brutal ending. Shot on location for the most part in Dublin which brought glamour to the dear old dirty place in the form of Burton and Taylor at the height of their fame. Berlin never looked like this – did it?! Grim but repays at the very least a second viewing for unbelievers. Burton is great.