What Does a Movie Star Need a Rocket For Anyway?

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This is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows And Satin, and Silver Screenings. I’ve chosen Timothy Dalton’s suave turn in Joe Johnson’s highly entertaining adventure movie The Rocketeer (1991). Considered a flop on its initial release The Rocketeer now has a deserved cult following and Dalton’s performance as Neville Sinclair, the dastardly movie star who’s secretly involved in a Nazi plan to conquer America, is a huge part of the film’s appeal. Contains spoilers so if you haven’t seen The Rocketeer now is the time to stop reading.

“It’s a rocket, like in the comic books.”

Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo’s witty screenplay retains the nostalgia for 30s’ movie serials, horror films, and dime-store novels present in Dave Stevens original 1982 comic book but changes certain aspects. In Stevens original comic there is no Neville Sinclair. Instead the hero’s main adversary is Lothar, a highly intelligent former circus strongman on a mission of revenge for the death of his beloved who died when an escapology act went wrong. For Lothar, Stevens borrowed the appearance of Rondo Hatton, the 40s’ B-movie villain whose remarkable features were the result of acromegaly. Though Lothar retains Hatton’s physical characteristics in the movie he’s a lunk, a henchman working for Dalton’s Nazi spy.

The leads have also been altered to fit the wholesome family image required of a Disney production. In the comic Cliff is a tarnished angel, a wayward flyboy running from his past and complicit in the death of Lothar’s girlfriend. In the film he becomes a clean cut all-American boy played by former Dynasty star and Moldavian Massacre victim Billy Campbell. Likewise his girlfriend in the comic is not just inspired by 50s’ glamour model Betty Page, she clearly is Betty Page right down to her chosen career as an ‘art’ model. Not going to happen in a Disney movie so worldly Betty becomes sweet wannabe actress Jenny (Jennifer Connelly).

“What’s going on Sinclair? Lenny’s dead, Wilmer’s all wrapped up like a mummy in County General. You didn’t play straight with me.”

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Dalton is the money on this picture though. Between Bond movies as legal troubles kept Eon Productions from moving forward with what would have been their third Dalton 007 outing ‘The Property of a Lady.’ We first see Neville Sinclair in a meeting with the Mob boss Eddie (Paul Sorvino) he hired to steal the prototype rocket pack from Howard Hughes (Terry O’ Quinn). Instead the prototype has ended up in the hands of Cliff and his mentor Peevy (Alan Arvin) though Sinclair does not yet know this. Dalton looks every inch the matinee idol pulling off the fashion for a pencil thin moustache a la Fairbanks & Flynn which is something not every contemporary actor can manage. He’s wearing leather breeches, a white shirt, and carrying a fencing sword giving us an immediate indication of the type of movie star Sinclair is and also recalling Dalton’s own turn as the dashing Prince Baron in Mike Hodges Flash Gordon (1980).

Eddie does not like being talked down to by somebody he clearly thinks is a fake so resorts to intimidation to try and find out what the package is, but Sinclair doesn’t flinch. Only when Eddie calls him “half a lunatic” does he snap and hold his rapier to the gangster’s throat. The matter is settled by Sinclair offering more money and revealing what the package involves but not what he intends to do with it. From this scene we learn everything we need to know about Sinclair. Strong, smart, physically capable, maybe a little crazy, and willing to do anything to get hold of the rocket. There’s also a hint of villainy which occasionally reveals itself from behind the movie star facade.

“Neville Sinclair? Oh brother. This I gotta see.”

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Cliff and Jenny give us more insight into Sinclair’s star persona when they head to the movies on a date. Jenny is desperate to see the new Sinclair movie but Cliff is not so keen preferring Jimmy Cagney. “Lounging around in a dressing gown and walking poodles in the park” says Cliff dismissively. This marks him out from the swashbuckling actors Sinclair’s looks are modelled on, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn appealed to both male and female audiences. Sinclair is a bit more Ronald Colman, the ladies choice, and the jibe about dressing gowns and poodles suggests Sinclair makes classy dramas set in drawing rooms and romances. Only when Jenny explains it’s a war movie called ‘Wings of Honour’ with Sinclair as a pilot does Cliff give in.

Later in the diner Cliff describes the movie to his flying buddies who all join him in taking the piss while Jenny sulks. No point explaining to them the champagne bottle he drops behind enemy lines at the end is symbolic. These guys will probably roll their eyes when they see Claude Raines do the same thing at the end of Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) with a bottle of Vichy wine. Here we sense a possible rift between these two youngsters. Cliff is happy enough in his world and not seeking to move beyond it while Jenny wants more from life and from her boyfriend. A situation Sinclair will exploit later in the movie when he begins to work his charm on Jenny.

“She gets to play a scene with Neville Sinclair and we play scenery.”

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Jenny is an extra in Sinclair’s latest production, ‘The Laughing Bandit.” It’s a The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Michael Curtiz) style swashbuckler with Dalton dressed up in a Fairbanks/Flynn type outfit and engaged in a Rathbone style duel with a Sheriff of Nottingham type. After running through the villain he swings on a chandelier and lands on a banquet table grabbing a goblet of wine and drinking it down. The take is ruined though by the producer’s daughter cast as the love interest, murdering her only line in a “Yonder lies the castle of our fadder” accent. Dalton’s disgusted reaction shot is priceless, and the first moment he will drop his guard during this sequence and show the villain.

The next take runs smoothly but is ruined by somewhat by Cliff wandering onto the set looking for Jenny and knocking the fake castle wall onto Sinclair.  “Never let it be said Neville Sinclair never brought the house down” but secretly he’s raging. Somehow in the melee it escaped everybody’s attention he deliberately stabbed his co-star for attempting to steal the scene.

Sinclair takes the director aside and demands Jenny be fired, at least until he overhears Cliff describing the rocket pack to Jenny, who isn’t really listening because her boyfriend just flattened a movie star with a castle and cost her her job.. Sinclair pushes most of the crew out of the way to get to Jenny before she leaves. Offering her a part in his next movie Sinclair suggests a date at the South Seas Club, the fancy restaurant she mentioned earlier to Cliff when she complained about having to eat at the diner again.

“Who do you think they’ll believe? A cheap crook or the number three box-office draw in America?”

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The contrast between Sinclair’s world and Cliff’s is clear. The South Seas Club is the sort of place where a cabaret singer starts her act by emerging from a giant clam and singing a Cole Porter song. The first person they meet is Clark Gable, W.C. Fields visits them at their table and compliments Jenny on her breasts. In this scene Sinclair tries to charm the unwitting Jenny into revealing more information about Cliff and the possible whereabouts of the rocket pack. It’s reminiscent of the scene in The Living Daylights (1987, John Glen) where Dalton Bond tries to get Kara Milovy to trust him by claiming to have been sent by her lover to help her. He’s charming as hell even though he’s lying through his teeth.

All through this sequence there are cutaways to Cliff as he tries to escape from Lothar beginning with a scene recalling the opening of Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’ as Eddie’s goons threaten the patrons at the diner, while Lothar pursues Cliff across LA until he ends up sneaking into the South Seas and donning a waiter’s uniform. Interrupting Sinclair & Jenny’s meal it is then we see a side of Sinclair that proves his true villainy. He’s rude to waiting staff. It’s all downhill from there and the evening ends the only way a date like this can, with Sinclair firing a Tommy Gun at Jenny’s boyfriend as he flies through the glass roof in a rocket pack invented by Howard Hughes.

“a spy? A sabouteur? A fascist? All of the above.”

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While Cliff makes his escape Jenny ends up captive in Sinclair’s boudoir. He tries to charm his way out, claiming he was blackmailed into kidnapping her, but he makes a grevious error. She’s a fan, and he starts spinning lines of dialogue from his back catalogue. “You said that to Greta Garbo…” Sinclair changes tack by offering Jenny a dress from the fine selection he keeps in his wardrobe, but hell hath no fury like a scorned fan. Jenny lamps him from behind with a vase.  Locating a radio in Sinclair’s basement she tries to call for help, but a German voice answers. The penny finally drops when she finds his Nazi handbook.

“I do my own stunts.”

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Nazi spy rings were active in America but there does not seem to have been any Hollywood stars who showed much of an interest in fascism, or at least if they did they kept it to themselves. There was however an anti-Nazi League whose members included Edward G. Robinson and Groucho Marx. It seems even Hollywood stars as dodgy as Errol Flynn had some limits, as do mobsters in this movie with Eddie turning against Sinclair when he finds out he’s been working for the Nazis.

The finale takes place on that pinnacle of Nazi aviation, the Zeppelin with Cliff and Sinclair having a James Bond/Red Grant style punch-up in an enclosed area. It’s a pretty even affair with both actors handling themselves well, but ended abruptly by the inherent design flaw of the Zeppelin essentially being a fire hazard and a massive hydrogen bomb. Cliff actually asks Sinclair to help them escape, mistakingly believing a movie star must  have a conscience. Sinclair drops his English RP delivery for the first time and speaks in his German accent as he makes his farewells. “I’ll miss Hollywood,” Cliff deliberately sabotaged the rocket though, but Sinclair is right, he does miss Hollywood, hitting instead the LAND part of the famous sign and and destroying it.

“Film fans were saddened by the news that actor Neville Sinclair was killed in a tragedy when flaming debris fell on his touring car…”

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Hollywood hides the true nature of Sinclair’s death with a fake story that keeps the movie star’s legend alive. Some Eddie Mannix style fixer will have had the night of his life covering up a mass shoot-out between mobsters and Nazi stormtroopers, a burning Zeppelin flying over Los Angeles, and the reason why the famous HOLLYWOODLAND sign reads differently this morning. It’s the perfect Hollywood ending for a film that functions equally well as an adventure movie and a love letter to classic era cinema.

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