This post is part of the Atticus and Boo Blogathon held by Rebecca at her site Taking Up Room. This blogathon is dedicated to films starring Gregory Peck (Atticus) or Robert Duvall (Boo). I’ve went with Duvall and while I could have written about Sam Peckinpah’s ninja movie The Killer Elite (1975), the Donald Westlake adaptation The Outfit (1973, John Flynn). You know, one of the good films, but I’m Scottish and still can’t quite come to terms with A Shot At Glory existing. It’s a fairly conventional and somewhat drab sports movie, but it was written by a guy from Connecticut and he does to Scottish football what Randall Wallace did to our history. There are so many genuinely odd moments in this movie that I can’t help but have a fondness for it.
The best football movies tend to be less about the game and more about what happens off the pitch. Like the coming of age story in Gregory’s Girl (1981 Bill Forsyth), or teenage girls trying to sneak into a match they are forbidden from attending in the Iranian film Offside (2006, Jafar Panahi), or organised hooliganism in The Firm (1989, Alan Clarke), or a player forced to retire young and struggling to adapt to life afterwards in One Man Up (Paolo Sorrentino). A Shot At Glory is an underdog story about a wee team’s cup run which means it can end in only one of two ways. Victory against the odds or glorious failure. Yesterday’s Hero (1979, Neil Leifer) and When Saturday Comes (1996, Maria Giese) both do the former, but this is a film about Scottish football so glorious failure it is.
A Shot At Glory opens with archive newsreel footage of a fiercely contested cup final between Scotland’s two biggest teams Rangers and Celtic, aka the Old Firm. A narrator fills in the gaps for those who are unaware of their history of violence. They hate each other. “Good versus evil, us against them..” and the narration wisely avoids telling viewers who’s who. The narrator claims this is not a film about the Old Firm, but that’s not really true. One of them turns up later as the film’s main adversaries. Their menace emphasised by the casting of the original Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox) as their manager.
Duvall plays Gordon McLeod, the bunnet wearing manager of made-up side Kilnockie who have just reached the 4th round of the Scottish Cup. Not bad for a lower division side, but this is the point when the bigger teams join the competition and nobody’s expecting them to go any further. Yank owner Peter Cameron (Michael Keaton) has lumbered Gordon with a new signing, fallen star Jackie McQuillen (Ally McCoist). At the time McCoist was still playing regularly for SPL side Kilmarnock and had a burgeoning media career as a team captain on the quiz show A Question of Sport. McCoist making the leap to acting didn’t feel that surprising, especially after Vinnie Jones success in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). More incongruous is Keaton essentially channeling his smug FBI agent Ray Nicolette from Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino) and Out of Sight (1998, Steven Soderbergh) as the club’s owner. A 2nd division side are unlikely to attract foreign investment and his plan to move the club to Ireland makes little sense given the Irish leagues are even less profitable than Scotland’s.
None of the drama lands at all. McQuillen’s supposedly personal problems aren’t that serious. He’s not as Gordon says “a fucking head-case” but simply a feckless ex-star who’s had it too easy. While his betting habits might get him a suspension McQuillen wouldn’t get near a list of the top 250 lunatics who’ve played Scottish football. Even a sending-off for chinning an opponent which is met with opprobrium by the press, manager, and fans alike comes after scoring a hat-trick in a cup match. Something that would be forgiven, especially as Scottish fans love a bampot. Plus McQuillen is played by the personable McCoist who is difficult to like unless you are an Aberdeen or Celtic fan in which case it’s easy enough.
None of this really matters. It’s the incidental moments that make A Shot At Glory so entertaining. Like when during a remembrance service being held on the pitch the players start playing keepie-uppie with a ball while a minister carries out a eulogy, or the Argentinian goalkeeper Diego inexplicably turning around and running away during a training session. He literally runs out of the stadium and is never seen again. Somebody suggests he doesn’t like the weather but this is pure speculation on their part. Maybe it’s a nod to Wim Wenders movie The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (1972).
Then there’s casting former Rangers legend McCoist (418 appearances 251 goals) as a former Celtic player, and using shoddy CGI to turn his light blue shirt into green and white hoops for a highlights reel. Most of all it is seeing Duvall, star of three Godfather movies, putting on a shoogly Scottish accent and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Smith and Peter “Silky” Hetherston. There’s also the dubious pleasure of seeing a few well kent faces from twenty years ago. Dodgy ref Mike McCurry, wee Ian McCall as a midfield hardman, big Jim Traynor asking questions with a bright orange microphone (that was a tell), legendary Airdie nutter John Martin in goals, and his old team-mate Owen Coyle as player-coach. Names that will mean absolutely nothing to film lovers, giving A Shot At Glory a limited appeal outside of the very small world of Scottish fitba.
“Darling he’s my masterpiece. I own him. I have turned a common waiter into one of the most fancied men in London.”
This chintzy disco-infused adaptation of Jackie Collins 1969 novel is generally regarded as a joke, but there’s two reasons I feel The Stud is so much better than its reputation suggests. Firstly Joan Collins is essentially auditioning for her role as Alexis in Dynasty, and secondly it’s got a better handle on the British class system than you expect from a film that’s usually categorised alongside 1970s’ sex-comedies or outright sexploitation films. The titular stud however remains every bit as hapless as Robin Askwith’s bed-hopping protagonist in the Confessions of movies. Tony Blake (Oliver Tobias) makes all the wrong moves in a world where he can only ever be an amusement to the rich people he serves in the nightclub or between the sheets, or a problem to be removed from their sight. Oddly it reminded me of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) which feels like a more esoteric version of the same theme.
The film opens by panning across a notice board covered with photos and fond messages from women he’s been with. One of them is from Jackie Collins herself, which is very meta inserting herself into the movie and implying she slept with her own creation. Collins followed her big sister Joan into acting but her heart wasn’t in it. She had a few small roles in films and guested on shows like Danger Man and The Saint (pictured below) before turning to writing and publishing her first novel The World is Full of Married Men (1968).
The Stud was published in 1969, right at the end of a decade when popular culture and sports gave talented young working-class people the chance to move up in the world. Collins must have seen a few of these burn out. I’d imagine one of those was George Best judging by her screenplay for Yesterday’s Hero (1979), which follows a washed up striker (Ian McShane) plying his trade in the old 3rd division while drinking himself into oblivion. Tony Blake doesn’t know that’s where he’s headed. He thinks he’s got it made.
The quietly intense Tobias was best known at this point as the lead in Arthur of the Britons (1972), a gritty attempt at telling the story of the historical King Arthur made by HTV which ran for two seasons. He’d also worked in Australia on Luke’s Kingdom, which was partly directed by Peter Weir shortly after his success with The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975).
The Stud opens with a reversal of a trope common in 70s British cinema. Somebody trying to sneak away from a one-night-stand without waking them, only this time it’s a woman doing the tip-toeing towards the door with her shoes in her hands. The phone rings and spoils her getaway. . He wakes up. “No bye-byes?” Tony’s patter’s pish by the way, one eye-roller after another, but he looks like Oliver Tobias so he everybody cuts him slack. She makes her excuses and tells him she’ll call. He’s happy enough to be used, he’s using them too.
Time has moved on since the novel and the disco generation has arrived. Biddu Orchestra provide the opening track which plays over a montage of Tobias getting ready for work. “Whats his name? what’s his name..Stuuddd..” He picks out a suit from a walk-in wardrobe, divides his mail into two piles then half-volleys the bills out of the door, downs a mouthful of vitamins, chooses a pair of Italian loafers, puts on a fancy watch, picks up his money-clip, grabs a tie, then he’s out the door and into his wee red sports convertible. Finally he uses the privilege afforded to him by being a handsome bastard to dodge a parking ticket.
We’ve seen Tony Blake at play. Now we see him at work albeit briefly, reworking the maitre d’s table-plan for the evening so the right people are on the right table, “Put them back in oblivion where they belong.” Then he’s out the door again when the phone rings, and the staff are all sniggering behind his back because they know the owner Fontaine (Joan Collins) has summoned him for a booty call. When he arrives she’s waiting on the balcony. She is literally placed above him in the frame and by entering this building he is being allowed to ascend to her level.
Fontaine is married to a rich businessman called Benjamin Khaled (Walter Gotell) and The Hobo nightclub and by extension Tony are her playthings. However Khaled doesn’t know Tony is anything but the bright young thing who rose through the ranks from waiting tables to managing the place. So it’s not wise of Tony to have sex with Fontaine in a lift with a CCTV security camera system which is hooked up to Khaled’s apartment.
I’m not even sure they reached the apartment. Tony’s back at the club in no time running the floor, mingling with guests and making sure everybody’s happy. Felicity is there with her boyfriend which is awkward. Disco band The Real Thing are performing onstage and the dance-floor is packed with 20-something’s having a great time. In fact I’m pretty sure that 70s’ dance troupe Legs & Co, a popular staple of late 70s’ and 80s’ light entertainment TV shows, are in there as well.
Then a problem appears in the form of potato-faced Lord Newton (Constantine Gregory) who’s turned up with two of his mates expecting a table despite having no reservation. Tony invokes a rule that single gentlemen cannot enter because it makes couples uncomfortable, a rule that seems pretty flexible because he lets two single gentlemen in while he’s talking to Newton. Something that does not go unnoticed. Lord Newton threatens to cancel his membership but walks it back as a joke when Tony accepts his resignation. Newton has apparently a history with Tony who waited on him when he was younger for little reward. “A waiter never forgets eh?” says his friend as the Lord leaves.
Neither do rich people though and every interaction Tony has in this movie comes back to haunt him. In the gents toilets he tries to convince Thane (Peter Lukas) into providing capital for a new club. They’re interrupted by a Mick Jagger lookalike rock star (played by Mick’s younger brother Chris) snorting coke. When Tony reprimands him he retorts “who ever heard of a seventy-year old rock star?” Which is funny some 41 years later because well, now there’s Mick Jagger. But faux-Mick Jagger hits him with a verbal low blow. “Seventy-year old greeters aren’t much in demand either.” Deep down Tony knows he’s right but his clumsy attempts to machinate a successful exit prove to be destructive.
The music Biddu chooses for each scene complements the film. Some of lyrics feel a little on the nose. When Tony leaves the gents after trying to engineer the deal to leave The Hobo the house band is covering Leo Sayer. “Moonlighting/They’re leaving everything/Moonlighting/They’re losing all their friends.” Then at the end of the night when only the stragglers are left and the disco kids are gone it’s slow dancing to 10cc’s I’m Not in Love. “Just because/ I call you up/don’t think you got it made.” Tony goes home with a playboy centrefold Molly (Minah Bird) but his time with her is ended by a call from Fontaine telling hims she’s coming over. A call she makes to prove to her friend Vanessa (Sue Lloyd) she can have him any time she likes. Molly’s assumes he’s a gigolo. “Hey you do this for a living huh?” Vanessa also has eyes on Tony and asks for Fontaine to bring him to one of their parties in Paris while they’re watching the security camera footage of them together in the lift. Unfortunately for Tony they notice him checking the time mid-tryst and by Collins expression we know he’s done for.
His old mates at an East End snooker club tell him as much. “You’re playing a mugs game Tony.” This from a chancer who makes a living sponging sponging off older women but he’s right. Tony doesn’t own the club, is treated as property by the actual owner, and her husband will find out sooner or later. Especially if he checks the video recorder in his apartment.
Khaled and Fontaine turn up at The Hobo just as Tony has to remove a drunken Lord Newton who had decided to treat the other patrons to a boozy rendition of the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V with a pair of underpants on his head before throwing a haymaker at Tony. “You’re nothing but a working-class bum in Gucci shoes.” Afterwards he sits down with Khaled and his family and meets the person who will be the architect of his destruction. It’s not Khaled, or Fontaine, but a far more cunning adversary. Khaled’s teenage daughter Alexandra (Emma Jacobs).
“Funny place wasn’t it?” Says Peter her chinless boyfriend in the car later. Although they were the ones who looked out of place, turning up at a disco club dressed like the ghosts of Victorian children who died of consumption and now haunt a large house in the country. Alexandra’s best pal Maddie (Natalia Ogle) overheard a conversation between Fontaine and Vanessa in the toilets about their plans to Shanghai Tony in Paris. She’s now watching the videotape of the two of them in the lift which Fontaine has inexplicably left in the machine. Alexandra swears revenge on Tony and her stepmother, changes out of her Victorian frock garment, and heads back to the club in more disco friendly garb to seduce Tony who falls for her hard.
In Paris Tony sits down for what he assumes will be a nice civilised meal next to the cream of French society and that he’s finally moving up in the world. Instead he finds out he’s dessert during an absurd swimming pool orgy sequence involving a trapeze (which quite frankly looks rather dangerous). Then when Leonard (Mark Burns) makes a grab for him in the pool Tony ends up fleeing from the building in a gay panic. “I thought I’d trained all that working-class taboo out of you” says Fontaine who like Victor Frankenstein is about to abandon her creation. How will I get home he wonders and Collins says goodbye with “Why don’t you fuck yourself there darling?”
By now we know Alexandra has shopped Tony and Fontaine to her father and Khaled has watched the videotape and called a divorce lawyer. So it’s even more excruciating than the scenes in Paris when he gatecrashes a Christmas party at Alexandra’s mother’s home in the country. A get together attended by a vicar, and old colonel types who react with astonishment when offered a drink he asks for a whisky and coke. “Comme en cheval” says Alexandra to Maddie which translates as “like a horse” but he’s not here to be taken advantage of. This time he’s here to be humiliated and shown his place.
So the golden boy of the clubbing scene finds himself back at home for Christmas sitting in front of the television with his elderly parents. Nobody’s taking his calls and he finds himself down by the docklands with his old snooker buddy who tells him the patrons at The Hobo have heard various rumours about him. That he’s doing the club scene up North, or he’s fled to South America. Meanwhile he still thinks he can get Thane to follow through on his agreement to help him open his own club.
The last scene is like a nightmare. Tony returns to the club for Hogmanay, but this time when he’s surrounded and pawed on the dance floor by the guests it’s framed like a horror film, as if he’s being overwhelmed by zombies. Everybody’s here, his Ghosts of Christmas past. Peter announces his marriage to Alexandra and tells Tony they’ll be holding it here. Felicity grabs him, then Molly, then Vanessa, then Leonard, spinning him round the dance floor until he’s face to face for one final kiss-off from Fontaine. Khaled has sold his share to Thane and he’s now co-owner of The Hobo. Marco has been promoted to manager. “Don’t be here tomorrow will you Tony” she says, Lord Newton dancing like a muppet in the background. Then one final misstep. Trying to attack Thane in the gents and getting a shoeing from security. It’s like a fever dream now. The countdown for the bells begins. 10, 9, 8… and Tony’s running for the exit. 7,6,5, 4, like Orpheus leaving the Underworld but there’s no reason to look back. 3,2,1 and he’s out and breathing in the London air. The doors closing behind him.
In the sequel The Bitch (1979, Gerry O’Hara) Fontaine is now divorced and returns from New York to find Marco has run The Hobo into the ground. Disco has peaked and the dance-floor is empty. Tony is nowhere to be seen but he does get a mention. If I remember correctly somebody says he’s in Huddersfield running a club but that might just be a story the few remaining punters tell to each other. The Stud never quite escaped the British sexploitation tag, but it feels closer in spirit to the TV mini-series and glossy prime-time soap operas we’d get in the 80s’ when everybody was rich and a bastard. Joan Collins would go on to star in arguably the greatest of these, Dynasty. Tobias would seem a perfect fit for shows like that as well but for one reason of not it never happened for him. Still he was very good in the Richard Carpenter scripted show Smuggler and a memorable villain in the same writer’s other hit Dick Turpin.
In the late 70s’/early 80s Japanese director Tsugunobu Kotani made three English language B-movies which all feel like calling cards towards making big budget films in the US but sadly Hollywood never answered. The Last Dinosaur (1977) is a Doug McClure style creature feature with a big game hunter facing off against a T-rex. The Bermuda Depths (1978) a fantasy film about scientists threatened by a giant turtle and a mysterious woman who seems to have come from the ocean. The last of them is The Bushido Blade, a samurai movie set during Commodore Matthew Perry’s negotiations with a Japanese shogun (played by Toshiro Mifune) to allow trade with the US. Frank Converse plays a cavalry officer forced to team up with samurai warrior Sonny Chiba to retrieve a ceremonial sword stolen by factions opposed to opening the country to outsiders. Along the way they team up with a female warrior Laura Gemser, whose mixed parentage makes her an outsider in her own country. I’m not sure how historically accurate any of this is but it’s a lot of fun and ends with three facing off against many in an inventive final battle.
THE IRON MASK (2019, Oleg Stepchenko)
Marketed somewhat misleadingly in the UK as an Arnie fights Jackie Chan movie, this is really a sequel to the Russian film Viy,. I can see why they tried to sell it this way but the film stars Jason Flemyng as a cartographer. That’s not an approach that’s going to please people when they realise they’ve been dealt a sleight of hand. I really liked Viy, a fantasy film based on Russian folklore released in the UK as The Forbidden Kingdom (nothing to do with the Jackie Chan film of the same name) which saw Flemyng’s mapmaker cross the Carpathian Mountains and into the forests of the Ukraine where he finds a remote village tormented by the supernatural. This sequel moves the action to China and feels like a clumsier version of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee movies but it’s still much better than the reviews suggest. And the few scenes shared by Chan and Schwarzenegger are very funny. There’s also a brief appearance by another 80s’ action legend, the late great Rutger Hauer.
JAGUAR LIVES!(1979, Ernest Pintoff)
Martial arts film intended to launch a movie career for karate champion Joe Lewis. Mimicking the structure of a Bond movie and casting no less than four alumni (Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, Joseph Wiseman, and Barbara Bach) in support the film whizzes around the globe pitting Lewis against a drug smuggling ring and their various henchmen. Jaguar Lives! didn’t succeed in its aim, but it’s not for want of trying with Lewis getting into fights on average once every five minutes. While he might not have much range, even for an action hero there’s no doubt about his credentials as a fighter.
THE FIFTH MUSKETEER (1979, Ken Annakin)
It may lack the panache of the Richard Lester movies but this is an entertaining enough take on the Alexandre Dumas The Man in the Iron Mask with a decent cast. A svelte young Beau Bridges plays dual roles of the King and his identical twin brother, while his old man Lloyd Bridges proves to be surprisingly adept with a sword as Aramis. Jose Ferrer and Alan Hale Jr are Athos and Porthos respectively. It’s quite moving seeing ageing swashbuckler Cornel Wilde leading them all as D’Artagnan, and this sense of a connection to a once popular Hollywood genre is added to by the presence of Olivia De Havilland as the Queen Mother. Like most versions of this story it reworks the material so the poorer twin is the nobler of the lookalikes and the King is an arsehole which plays better with modern audiences.
Mini-series based on George Eliot’s novel about a young man (Hugh Dancy) raised by a rich guardian who becomes increasingly torn between his privileged upper class upbringing and his need to find out more about his mysterious origins. This conflict is mirrored in his relationships with two women. Gwendoline (Romola Garai) a flighty minor aristocrat with a mercenary nature, and Jewish musician Mirah (Jodhi May) he saves from drowning. Kind of wish Hooper had stayed making costume dramas for the BBC because this is easily the best thing he’s done.
DRACULA (1968, Patrick Dromgoole)
Pared down version of Stoker’s novel made as part of ITV’s Mystery and Imagination anthology series. It begins halfway through the book with Dracula already present in England and making his presence felt amongst the local aristocracy. There’s nothing you won’t have seen in other adaptations but it’s worth seeing just for the late great Denholm Elliot as a Mandrake the Magician looking Dracula who clearly detests these Little Englanders and their contempt for his foreign background.
MANSFIELD PARK (1999, Patricia Rozema)
Inventive take on Jane Austen’s novel which manages to weave contemporaneous events and aspects of the author’s own life into the screenplay. I remember this coming out to generally poor reviews most of whom seemed to be from purists upset at the changes writer-director Patricia Rozman made to the original, but this turned out to be great. Up there with Persuasion (1995, Roger Michell) and the Emma mini-series from 2009 which coincidentally also features Jonny Lee Miller.
This 13-part Anglo-German co-production between HTV and Tele-Munchen is more faithful to Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale than the otherwise excellent 71′ Kidnapped (Delbert Mann) which removed the novel’s ambiguity about who committed the story’s murder. Though it’s filmed in Scotland half the cast including lead actor Ekkehardt Belle are German and dubbed with Scottish accents which was distracting at first. Belle plays David Balfour, a teenager disinherited by his miserly old uncle and sold to a ship’s captain on a vessel headed to the New World. Onboard he meets Alan Breck Stewart (David McCallum), a dashing Jacobite rebel who’s trying to get back to France after surviving the massacre at Culloden. If there’s a ship in a Stevenson novel it will surely sink and so the pair end up washed ashore and on the run in the Highlands from redcoats and from clans loyal to the British Crown. HTV had a great track record producing these kinds of adventure shows in the 70s’ and early 80s.’ Arthur of the Britons, Dick Turpin, Smuggler, and Robin of Sherwood all shared a similar mixture of action and humour with a more reflective and melancholy side.
WAR AND PEACE (2007, ROBERT DONHELM)
I’ve sat through all seven hours of the great Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace so I think I’ve earned the right to enjoy a really trashy version. This Franco-Italian-German Euro-pudding approaches Tolstoy’s epic novel with all the gravitas of a prime-time US soap opera and is all the better for it. The cast is made up of all different nationalities to suit each market with Clemence Poesy as Natasha, Malcolm McDowell as Prince Bolkonsky Snr, and German actor Alexander Beyer (Deutschland 83/86) as Pierre. In terms of physicality Alessio Boni (Arrivederci Amore Ciao, The Best of Youth) is the perfect fit for the melancholy Andrej Bolkonsky, but unfortunately in the English version he’s been badly dubbed over.
BEAU BRUMMEL: THIS CHARMING MAN (2006, Philippa Lowthorpe)
Beau Brummell was apparently an impoverished dandy who used his friendship with the Prince Regent (a dippy Hugh Bonneville) to advance his position in society and dodge the many creditors who were knocking at his door. There’s a big glossy Technicolor 50s’ movie starring Stewart Granger and Peter Ustinov which covers more ground but I much prefer this low-key approach. The focus is entirely on the relationship between these two men and a small group of hangers-on. Brummell is stylist and advisor to the Prince Regent, mostly providing fashion tips like don’t wear powdered wigs and go easy on the white make-up. But Brummell overreaches himself and damages the relationship by falling in with persona non grata Lord Byron (Matthew Rhys) then calling his boss fat at a society event. Everybody here is a dreadful snob but the actors make them sympathetic. Pompous though he may be, Bonneville’s Prince genuinely thought he’d made a friend so his cruel response to having his fragile ego damaged is understandable. Brummell is played by a peak-period James Purefoy so it’s difficult not to like him or feel sorry when he’s cast out by all the other fancy wanks.
THE CLEOPATRAS (TV series, 1983)
There’s seven Cleopatras hence the pluralised title and this eight-part series goes through them like a slasher movie. It starts in 145 BC and ends in 35 BC with the death of the most famous Cleopatra of them all. This is such a strange and entertaining show. On the one hand it has that overstuffed feeling common in British television costume dramas of the 70s’/80s.’ Everything’s filmed in a studio and the actors are dialling up the theatricality to the nines. But there’s HBO levels of nudity and violence while the editing uses wipe transitions which I can’t ever recall being used in a BBC costume drama. Philip Mackie’s screenplay has plenty of gallows humour. Kings and Queens die in a variety of gruesome ways and their deaths are treated like a terrible sad joke, then it’s oh well then, on to the next one.
THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH (TV mini-series, 1985)
Mini-series covering the the race to reach the South Pole between the ill-fated Captain Scott (Martin Shaw) and his methodical Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen (Sverre Anker Ousdal). It doesn’t start out as a race. Scott had been punted from the navy for crashing a battleship and only undertakes the expedition in search of glory for the British Empire and to wind up Ernest Shackleton. Amundsen’s original destination was supposed to be the North Pole but he found out his old mentor Frederick Cook was already there so he made a last minute decision to change his route surprising both his financial backers and his crew. It’s an even-handed account giving equal time to both men. The Last Place On Earth offers a revisionist review of Scott’s voyage undercutting the myth of British exceptionalism while also presenting the conditions that breeds that superiority complex. The final episode manages to be incredibly moving and infuriating. Scott fails but gets the glory and his journals are edited to make him seem more heroic. Conversely Amundsen gets to the Pole but makes enemies in high places at home for refusing to fulfil his original journey to the North. Worse still is the condescending attitude he experiences from British and US audiences when he tours afterwards. “You’re the guy who ate the dogs” a New Yorker says to him.
PRISONOR OF HONOUR (1991, Ken Russell)
Ken Russell playing it straight here with this TV movie made for HBO based on a notorious late 19th century scandal. The Dreyfus Affair dragged on for over a decade and divided French society at the time. It also in retrospect feels like a precursor to the conflicts of the first half of the 20th century. Colonel Picquat (Richard Dreyfuss) is appointed to investigate Dreyfus (Kenneth Colley) knowing full well he’s supposed to find evidence of the man’s guilt. Instead Picquat becomes convinced the Jewish army officer is being used as a scapegoat by his superiors. Prisoner of Honour is unusually restrained for late-period Russell but it’s well worth a look. Russell went back to TV after this reuniting with his old Monitor colleague Melvyn Bragg making yearly arts documentaries for The South Bank Show and a well-received adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1993).
Despair seeps out of every frame of this adaptation of John LeCarre's debut novel Call For The Dead. London is a drab and grey city whose only respite from suffering seems to be a pint in a grotty pub or a trip to tortuous West End productions of Macbeth or Edward II. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs (Paramount held the rights to the name George Smiley), an MI5 operative whose suspicions are aroused when a Foreign Official kills himself shortly after Dobbs interviewed him about his student affiliations with the Communist party. A visit to the dead man's wife (Simone Signoret) indicates a wake-up call was placed by the victim for the following morning. An unusual move before a suicide. LeCarre's worldview is bleak and unforgiving and Call For the Dead laid down the groundwork for his Smiley stories. Smiley as the quiet observer of a human tragedy overshadowed by the machinations of the Cold War. The Deadly Affair captures this tone all too well. It makes the Harry Palmer films look glamorous and Callan seem like a cheerful bloke. Mason makes it work though. Not the best Smiley, but the most sympathetic version
EYE OF THE NEEDLE (1981, Richard Marquand)
Tense WWII thriller starring Donald Sutherland as a seemingly well-mannered English gentleman who is outed as a Nazi spy and flees to Scotland where a U-boat is waiting for him off the coast. Big Ian Bannen’s chasing after him so he’s wise to run. He’s desperate to get back to Berlin with information about the forthcoming D-Day invasion but he gets shipwrecked on a wee island and ends up lodging with unhappy housewife Kate Nelligan and her embittered invalid of a husband (Christopher Cazenove). Sutherland is chilling as the outwardly charming but utterly ruthless killer who will do anything to get home. There’s a moment where we learn a little about The Needle’s aristocratic upbringing and his life before the war and a portrait emerges of somebody who’s always been a loner, but this is primarily an old-fashioned chase movie. It could have been made 30 or 40 years before and it would have starred James Mason or Dirk Bogarde.
THE FLORIDA STRAITS (1986, Mike Hodges)
Mike Hodges made this TV movie for HBO in-between Morons From Outer Space (1985) and A Prayer For the Dying (1987) and it’s better than both of those theatrical releases. Raul Julia plays a Cuban political prisoner sent to America after his release, who on his arrival immediately hires a boat owned by sailor Fred Ward to take him back home to find the gold coins he threw from his plane on a mission twenty years ago. Really he just wants to speak to the woman he left behind. Like most films about men going in search of gold nothing works out as planned and the journey becomes more important than the destination. Hodges has a talent for undercutting machismo with vulnerability and in terms of mid-80s’ actors you really can’t do better for leads than the late Raul Julia and Fred Ward.
NIGHT MOVES(1975, Arthur Penn)
Always wanted to see this having heard so much about it. Night Moves was written by Scottish writer Alan Sharp who somehow despite being from Greenock was able to write authentically American genre pieces. Gene Hackman plays an L.A. based private investigator hired by an actress to find her missing teenage daughter which he does easily enough. But solving this case only makes matters worse and leads him onto a more complicated mystery involving a smuggling operation. The details are a little hard to fathom but this feels like a movie that needs multiple viewings to get a handle on. It has the same sense of fatalism Sharp brought to the western The Hired Hand (71, Peter Fonda) and deserves its reputation as one the best films of the 70s’.
Will be going back to work soon so I’m going to round up everything that’s kept me occupied through the lockdown period.
Of all the chintzy British attempts to channel the glamour of US prime-time soaps this is definitely the most unusual. Connie (Stephanie Beacham) returns home to Birmingham from exile abroad to reclaim the fashion house empire stolen from her by her step-sister (Pam Ferris). Jamieson (Richard Morant) is a pin-striped city worker who dumps his wife and leaves behind his comfortable middle-class lifestyle after a brief liaison with Connie. Everything is played dead straight while clearly being a satire on Thatcherite driven capitalism. Ron Hutchinson’s florid dialogue is wonderfully over-the-top. “Come and let me cut your throat for love, and lust, and tenderness for this other woman, you! And Ted from Harrogate arrives and you didn’t TRUST me enough!” Connie led to Beacham getting cast as Sable Colby in The Colbys and it must have bagged her co-star George Costigan the lead as the dodgy husband in Rita, Sue, and Bob Too (1987, Alan Clarke). Think I love this show even more than Howard’s Way.
Summer of Rockets (2019, Stephen Poliakoff)
Not sure Poliakoff would appreciate being placed alongside two glam mini-series but for all his highbrow leanings his shows have the same fascination with the lives of affluent people and his work does tend to follow a formula. Fancy folk in big houses, garden parties, and a mystery that has some kind of hold over the present. Toby Stephens plays a Russian-born inventor specialising in hearing aids who longs to feel accepted in England. A chance encounter at Royal Ascot leads to him befriending an MP (Linus Roache) and his wife (Keeley Hawes) but this new relationship is tested when the secret service begin taking an interest in his work and ask him to spy on the couple. The non-realistic dialogue and slightly mannered performances seem to be a cause of irritation to many of Poliakoff’s detractors, but I think those stylings are as important as the music he uses in his work. Plus Close My Eyes (1991) is one of the best films of the 90s’ so I’m willing to cut him some slack for anything except The Tribe.
To Be the Best (1991)
Back in the late-20th century if writers became super-famous they were allowed to personally introduce television adaptations of their work. Barbara Taylor Bradford opens To Be The Best with a short monologue about her novel, but really she’s letting the viewer know she lives in a huge mansion. To Be the Best completes her Emma Harte trilogy which began with A Woman of Substance (1985) and Hold the Dream (1987). This tale of espionage between two rival fashion houses isn’t as compelling as the rags-to-riches A Woman of Substance and the absence of original star Jenny Seagrove means it loses some sense of continuity . However its fun watching a half-awake Anthony Hopkins playing a suave corporate enforcer in a glossy mini-series made just before Silence of the Lambs put him on the A-list and priced him out of this kind of material for good.
A Magnum For Schneider aired as part of ITV’s Armchair Theatre series and marks the first appearance of Edward Woodward as David Callan, a burnt-out assassin forcibly retired and now working as a clerk in a bookkeepers office. James Mitchell’s script undercuts the 60s’ trend for glamorous spies by presenting a drab, conflicted, lonely man. Callan is recalled by his former handler Hunter (Ronald Radd) to carry out a hit on a German arms dealer but it’s a rush job, with no back-up, and the police are watching the target.
Hunter runs SIS, an intelligence unit specialising in removing potential threats using a variety of underhand methods. Schneider (Joseph Furst) is a red file case, meaning he’s marked for death. Hunter’s right-hand man Toby Meres, played by Peter Bowles, an actor who specialises in cads and bounders and whom I once saw give a director a bollocking during an LFF Q&A, wants to carry out the hit himself. However Hunter wants to find out if Callan has really gone “soft.” The worst thing a man can be in this game. If Callan can kill Schneider then he can invited back into the fold. If he fails then he’s no longer a problem. Either outcome is acceptable.
Hunter chose Callan for the hit because he works in the same building as Schneider. In fact Hunter implies he got Callan the job at the bookkeepers so he would already be in place when the time came to eliminate Schneider. Callan contrives to stumble into Schneider on the stairs knocking the box he’s carrying and sending its contents to the floor. Callan picks up a model soldier and correctly identifies its regiment. Schneider’s annoyance quickly gives way to delight at meeting somebody who may share his hobby and he allows Callan into his office to show off his toys. They bond over their military backgrounds and shared love of history. Though Schneider emphasises he only plays at war these days. “I do not care for blood Mr Callan. Not any more.”
Though these two old soldiers have much in common they are also complete opposites. Callan is taciturn and sad. Schneider outgoing and friendly. He even has a younger girlfriend, Jenny (Francesca Tu), who cares a great deal for him and knows all about his criminal activities. Callan’s only companion is a small-time criminal nicknamed Lonely (Russell Hunter) who helps him acquire a firearm. Though their relationship seems to develop over the course of the first season, here Callan bullies Lonely, making fun of his personal hygiene and threatening him.
You can feel the violence simmering under the surface with Callan. Woodward gives him a slightly hunched demeanour, and in his interactions with Hunter he speaks hesitantly, like he hasn’t spoken to anybody in months. When he breaks into Schneider’s flat and moves through it trying to evaluate the man’s life we hear his thoughts in voice-over, a drab Hamlet in an overcoat reflecting on whether or not he should make the kill. Schneider keeps a record of killings he’s been involved in hidden in a safe and Callan knows Schneider has to go.
Had A Magnum for Schneider remained a standalone play its bleak final scene would be the perfect ending. They have to walk that back in the season 1 opener The Good Ones Are AllDead which tells a variation on the same story, but this time with a less sympathetic antagonist, an unrepentant Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight in London. Mitchell also gives Callan a tragic backstory, no doubt to make this embittered loner palatable to audiences more used to likeable heroes. I’m halfway through the surviving episodes from season 2 now. It’s filmed in monochrome with film inserts for location scenes and I cannot imagine how this downbeat show maintains the same feeling of despair when it switches to colour for its later seasons.
Wonderfully off-kilter gangster film that feels like a bridge between British comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1971, Charles Chrichton) and the grittier British crime films that would emerge in the 1970s’ and 80s.’ Villain manages to be both disturbingly violent and very funny. It’s written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais who are best known for their sitcoms Porridge and The Likely Lads and have a real feel for the English working-class life. Vic Dakin (Richard Burton) is an East End gangster with a violent reputation and a sentimental side. He’ll carve up a grass and display him outside a building like an ornament, but he’s always pleased if you ask how his old mum is doing.
It’s in the pub we get a sense of how he is viewed by those around him. Dakin walks in with his crew and chats happily enough to the landlord about the football and buys an auld fella a drink. He’s more guarded when it comes to work. Vic made his reputation through running protection rackets and one of his clients/victims offers up a potential money earner. Danny (Anthony Sagar) is clearly scared of Dakin and trying to avoid upsetting him. Dakin is focused, polite, but only ever asks Danny questions about the job in hand giving him nothing more. After all it’s business. Danny runs a strip club and a punter has tipped him off about a security detail carrying the payroll for a plastics factory who have yet to upgrade to an armoured van.
However Danny is also being leaned on by the Met, specifically Inspector Bob Matthews (Nigel Davenport) who’s been after Dakin for years but can never find anybody willing to testify in court. Matters are further complicated by Dakin having to team up with a rival firm led by Frank Fletcher (T.P. McKenna) and his brother-in-law Edgar (Joss Ackland) to perform the heist. Extortion and violence may be part of his repertoire but Dakin and his crew have never attempted an armed robbery.
Dakin is also infatuated with Wolfie (Ian McShane), a young hustler who makes a living as a pimp and pusher for the rich set. One such client is Draycott (Donald Sinden), a high-profile politician with a reputation as something of a moral crusader. Dakin loathes him and explodes with rage when he finds Draycott in one of his clubs. “What’s he doing here? He’s an MP isn’t he? I mean the whole country looks up to him.”
For somebody who makes his money from crime Dakin has some rather old-fashioned views, even chastising Wolfie for selling “poppers at four in the morning to little Soho scrubbers.” He’s a contradiction then, but given the character is a composite of both Kray twins these extreme contrasts make sense. Burton keeps Dakin still for most encounters but in the scenes where he explodes with violence he goes wildly over the top, arms windmilling as he repeatedly kicks a man on the stairs or the deranged leer he shows to a croupier before slicing his face with a razor. Davenport matches him with a turn that reminded me of Ben Johnson’s Texas Ranger in Dillinger (1973). Easy-going almost to the point of joviality, but relentless in pursuit of his man.
The heist proves to be farcical. A mixture of slapstick comedy and bone-crunching violence as the the three security guards fight back against Dakin and his men injuring Fletcher in the bloody confrontation. Though they escape with the money thick red smoke from the payroll’s anti-theft security system fills their getaway car forcing them to ditch it and carjack another driver. Dakin figured Edgar for a weak link when he ordered off menu at a fancy French restaurant. These are vicious men, but they are also kind of stupid. Edgar hides out in his own house, nabbed after his wife forgets to clear a dinner table set for two. Matthews finds him in the garage. “Come in Edgar. It’s warmer in here. And you haven’t finished your milk.”
Reviews for Villain back in the day were poor. Maybe it was too close to real events coming only a few years after The Krays were jailed . Critics didn’t seem to like seeing a glamorous figure like Burton playing a seedy East End gangster or the film’s violence. Burton’s star power contrasts with the drabness of his surroundings making Dakin a believably larger-than-life personality. The dialogue wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of The Likely Lads. “Good night on the telly tonight, Donald O’Connor and Vera Allen,” says one of the gangsters at a gangland meet-up. It’s that idiosyncratic Britishness that makes it work. Villain might not be as polished as Get Carter (71, Mike Hodges) but it’s a fascinating snapshot of London in the 70s’.
Paris 1942. France is about to begin the mass transportation of Jews to Germany. Robert Klein profiteers from those fleeing the city by buying their possessions at a knock-down price. We first see him negotiating the purchase of a painting. He’s effortlessly polite and even claims to be embarrassed. “I assure you it’s most unpleasant for me.’ But the seller (Jean Bouise) isn’t taken in and concludes the deal as quickly as possible. As he leaves, Klein courteously opens the door and wishes the man “Bon voyage, and good luck.” Then he notices a copy of the information pamphlet sent out to all Jews lying on his doormat. Assuming his guest dropped it on the way in he hands it back to him only to find it is correctly addressed to a Robert Klein. The Jewish man offers a wry smile. “Good luck to you Mr Klein.”
Klein visits the police to tell them about the mistake. There must be another Robert Klein living in Paris. They check and find out there is. But the police are not convinced he’s the Robert Klein who isn’t a Jew. Klein has inadvertently informed on himself. So he begins to hunt his namesake through Paris visiting places he knows the other Klein to have been. Yet people seem to recognise him and often behave like he’s the same person. “Same height, same hair. Slim, the same look..” says the other Klein’s landlady when he turns up to view his doppelgänger’s apartment. The room seems to have been empty for a while, and she says this Klein would come and go during the night. The police too are hunting for this Klein and in the background there are little changes going on, signs in shops, yellow stars on jackets, anti-Semitic propaganda, and cabaret performances with exaggerated Jewish caricatures as the villain, all showing a gradual acceptance of this othering of a minority group.
Delon played doppelgängers in the Louis Malle segment of Spirits of the Dead (1968), an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Willie Wilson” about a man haunted throughout his life by a namesake who resembles him and turns up at inopportune moments. This is more like Kafka, an innocent man (who feels guilty) searching for an answer that remains forever out of reach and inadvertently bringing about his own destruction. His attempts to clear his name with the authorities just make him look all the more guilty in their eyes. Klein thought his position as a member of the middle-classes would protect him and even right at the end as his fate becomes clear he’s still insisting “This has nothing to do with me.” We never meet the double in Mr Klein, although we do hear a telephone conversation between the two men. Whether he exists or not is a moot point. Mr Klein is about how tenuous an individual can become when society ceases to function in a civilised way. Something a blacklisted exile like Losey was painfully aware of.