The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

“Now the problem is how to divide five Afghans from three mules and have two Englishmen left over” Peachy Carnehan

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As I make my way through the film career of Sir Michael Caine there are some of his movies I come to for the first time, there are others that I have seen once or twice before and then there are those that I have seen an enormous amount of times. The Man Who Would Be King very much falls into that final category. It was a staple of bank holiday television schedules (much like Zulu and The Ipcress File) and as a favourite of my Dad’s never one to be missed. It remains not just one of my favourite Michael Caine films, but one of my favourite films full stop. It is an absolute joy from start to finish and even after many repeat viewings I was still excited to come back to it for my blog.

For the uninitiated Caine stars alongside his great friend Sean Connery. They play Peachy Carnehan and Daniel (Danny) Dravot, a pair of ex-soldiers now AWOL in India and looking to get ahead any way they can. They hit upon a scheme to make the dangerous journey through Afghanistan to neighbouring Kafiristan and using the skills they have developed in the army make a rise to power. As they make themselves indispensable to one of the many faction leaders Connery’s Danny fortuitously survives being hit by an arrow leading to him being mistaken for an immortal God. The pair take full advantage of the misunderstanding until events finally begin to unravel for them.

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The Man Who Would Be King is part action adventure, part buddy comedy and part male platonic love story. Based on the original short story by Rudyard Kipling it was brought to the screen by legendary director John Huston. Kipling’s involvement doesn’t end there as he also features in the story played by Christopher Plummer. His inclusion not only adds some wonderful comic moments, introduces the important Freemasons element to the plot but also provides a very effective narrative device as Peachy recites his tale to the great writer, then working as a journalist. That allows Caine to add some narration over the beautiful imagery and deliver some of Kipling’s delightful prose straight from the page.

Huston, who included the likes of The African Queen, Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon on his impressive CV had originally planned the movie in the 1950s with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable in mind for the two leads. Even knowing that it seems almost impossible to imagine the film with anybody other than Caine and Connery at the forefront, so perfect are they for their roles. The parts fit them like a glove and they are clearly having an absolutely wonderful time throughout. Great friends as they were in real life it is no surprise to see the chemistry transfer onto the screen so seamlessly. They have always been two of the most charismatic actors of their generation and they imbue Peachy and Danny with a sense of delight that makes it impossible not to like them even when they are doing things on the edge of being morally acceptable.

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It helps of course that the script they are working with is utterly brilliant. With a wonderful Kipling story to work with Huston and Gladys Hill’s adaptation more than does it justice and earned them an Oscar nomination. It’s a witty and clever script with some wonderful dialogue that still retains an interesting and entertaining adventure tale at its heart. When watching the films for this blog I will often jot down a line that I particularly like or has made me laugh. For The Man Who Would Be King I could fill a whole notebook with such lines, but fortunately so familiar with them and so instantly quotable are they that I didn’t have to. There are more laugh out loud moments than in many a pure comedy with the scene of Danny and Peachy delivering their first training to the local ‘army’ being a near perfect couple of minutes of cinema. Danny’s speech, which includes the classic line “when we’re done with you you’ll be able to stand up and slaughter your enemy like civilised men” is a pure joy and it’s obvious Connery is having a ball with it. If that wasn’t already brilliant enough the cut to Peachy and his growing exasperation at one soldiers inability to keep in time with everyone else just adds the icing on the cake. I could watch it on a loop and never stop loving it.

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The Man Who Would Be King is more than just a funny film though (and that is a worthy enough achievement anyway). It creates some wonderful characters who you genuinely care about and want to succeed even though you know ultimately that is unlikely to happen. A classic example of that is Billy Fish played wonderfully by Saeed Jaffrey, a Gurkha and lone survivor of an expedition to map the inhospitable territory between Afghanistan and Kafiristan. Peachy and Danny meet Billy and strike up an instant friendship as he acts as their translator. Billy is a wonderful source of comedy as his English is peppered with entirely inappropriate idiom, “oh dear me alas by Jove,” but he is also far more than just a comic foil. He is a brave and loyal man who both the story leads and us as an audience develop a genuine affection for.

Jaffrey gives a wonderful supporting hand to the two leads and the performances of all the cast are magnificent. Plummer is terrific as Kipling giving a quiet, but assured performance opposite the brasher Caine and Connery. You get the sense of a man in conflict, knowing he should advise Danny and Peachy against their plans, but whose love of a story and an adventure is such that he can’t quite bring himself to do it convincingly enough. There is also a superb performance from Larbi Doghmi, a successful Moroccan actor. He is sensational as Ootah the cowardly, vain and stupid leader of the first tribe they meet. Huge credit should also go to Shakira Caine who after being thrown into a role in her husband’s film at the last moment with little acting experience gives an accomplished performance in a small in terms of screen time, but nonetheless significant role as Roxanne.

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This is Caine and Connery’s film though and they make a perfect pairing. Their performances are often deliberately loud, but in a manner that is entirely right for their characters and the tone of the film. The pair are so in tune with each other that their lines bounce beautifully from their very first scene together as they defend themselves against accusations of blackmail. What we see from both actors isn’t all brash as they also deliver plenty of subtlety. The looks they shoot to each other as they are shown the treasure they are about to inherit are perfect in a quiet and understated scene. Most of all though there is a genuine heart and warmth to their relationship. As it becomes clear they have different ultimate goals and are going to head in their separate ways there is a real sadness that comes across from both of them and it is obvious that neither really wants to leave the other. Any doubts about the strength of their relationship are quelled as we come towards the end of the film and, spoiler alert, things fall apart for them and Peachy accepts unconditionally Danny’s apology for likely getting them killed. Danny’s response of “everything’s alright then” is so matter of fact and genuine that you honestly believe that for him the prospect of death is less distressing than the though that his friend would be angry with him. It adds an extra weight to their separation and is only possible due to the brilliance of Caine and Connery and what they have built on screen over the course of the movie.

For me The Man Who Would Be King is just over two hours of pure joy, fun, adventure and laughter with a real heart. It’s a film loved by an awful lot of people who have seen it and yet somehow doesn’t seem to quite get the credit it deserves. It remains one of my favourite films of all time and I could happily sit down and watch it again right at this moment. A delight from start to finish.

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The Marseille Contract (1974)

“That’s the problem with people. They do too much thinking and too little doing” John Deray

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Going into The Marseille Contract (or The Destructors if you’re reading this across the pond) I knew very little about the film. I’ve never seen it on TV schedules and there is no British release on either DVD or Blu-Ray. All I really knew was that it hadn’t been a great success on release and the reviews I’d read were not positive at all.

Anthony Quinn stars as Steve Ventura, the US head of the Paris office of the drug enforcement agency. When one of his agents is killed he steps up his attempts to bring down drug baron Jacques Brizard, played by James Mason. As he finds opposition at every turn and his own life is threatened he resorts to desperate measures by contracting a hitman to take out Brizard for him.

In my previous blog on The Black Windmill I described it as a bit of a nuts and bolts spy thriller that struggled to avoid cliches. With that in mind it would be unfair not to make the same point on The Marseille Contract. Ventura is a character tired of his work, missing being out in the field instead of being stuck behind a desk. He drinks too much and is having an affair with a colleagues wife. When he attempts to gather support for his chase of Brizard his superiors tell him he is off limits and the local police are of equally little help. There are scenes of ducking in and out of trains, hiding behind newspapers, men in trench coats following him and secret meetings on park benches. If that all sounds a little familiar then it’s because it is. There is little in the film we haven’t seen before and yet I enjoyed this far more than The Black Windmill (and far more than most other people judging by its reviews) and I will attempt to explain why.

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Director Robert Parrish in his final narrative cinema release makes full use of the beautiful Paris and Marseille backdrops to give the film a real visual style. There are a few jumpy edit points, but overall I love the way this film looks with Douglas Slocombe of Indiana Jones fame providing the cinematography. Slocombe has also worked on The Italian Job and there is a definite similarity in the wide shots that use the beautiful French backdrop and the way he used the Italian hills in his earlier Caine collaboration. A scene in which Caine’s hitman, John Deray forces a meeting with Brizard’s daughter Lucienne as they race their sports cars through the hills could easily be cut from the other film such is the similarity in style and colour. It’s wonderfully well realised, as is the scene in which Ventura escapes from Brizard’s thugs who continue to search the Metro as we see his silhouette up high through the beautiful station windows.

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Combined with a pleasing visual style is an absolutely brilliant soundtrack. Once again the man at the helm is Roy Budd, who I have already highly praised in this blog for his work on previous Caine films, but this may be his best yet. His funky score fits the film beautifully and is absolutely key in making the action bounce along while also building a noticeable tension. The best example of this comes as Ventura is initially picked up and forced into a car by Brizard’s men. It’s wonderfully well shot as the camera switches between the men in the car, but it is Budd’s music that builds the tension wonderfully. It reaches a crescendo as Ventura asks where he is being taken and one of the men removes a flick knife from his jacket pocket. The music builds to a point as the same man then removes an apple and cuts a piece from it before replacing the knife. At that point the music draws back down before slowly starting to build again until Ventura makes his move. It’s magnificently done and showcases a man in Budd absolutely at the top of his game.

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Quinn leads the triumvirate of stars at the forefront of the story extremely well. He has a wonderfully sad face that immediately gives him the air of the underdog. He also manages to give off the air of a man who has been through a hell of a lot and can certainly look after himself. He makes the character believable so that even when he takes actions that may seem extreme you can see what has brought him to that point. His first meeting with Caine is also an absolute delight. Deray doesn’t make an entrance into the film until around a third of the film has already passed, but Caine does his best to ensure he makes the most of things when he does arrive. One criticism I have of the film is that not enough is made of the relationship between Ventura and Deray. It’s a surprise to Ventura when Deray reveals himself as the hitman he is hiring as they have a shared past and it’s a shame we never get to discover a little bit more about what than entailed. That’s mostly because Quinn and Caine are absolutely brilliant together. Perhaps excited to be on screen together in a film that they can at least both understand following their previous work on The Magus they really bounce off each other and I could have quite happily seen much more of them interacting. Caine himself is brilliant. There is a light in his eyes from the moment he arrives on screen. He looks amazing and there is a cool charm about everything he does. The little shift in his manner when Ventura reveals the target of the contract and the way he is always checking his surroundings are subtly played and immediately give you a strong sense of his character. We already know that Caine can convincingly play a ruthless killer so it’s no surprise to see him so comfortable in the role. Indeed the only unconvincing element is not particularly his fault as his escape on a motorbike down a series of steps is slightly let down by the stunt rider having hair that is far too long to look anything like him. Otherwise it’s a hugely fun performance and also gives the opportunity for Caine to sport a cravat, which I am definitely all for.

The final huge star in the film is James Mason who has less to do than his co-stars and also has the challenge of attempting a French accent. It’s not entirely successful as he has the same problem that Caine has with accents, namely that his own voice is so distinctive that it seems to overpower the accent itself. Nonetheless with Quinn who has a deep, booming quality, Caine and Mason this is an incredible film for actors with instantly recognisable voices. Playing Brizard’s daughter Lucienne is Maureen Kerwin and she more than holds her own in such esteemed company. She has a nice chemistry with both Caine and Mason and does well with a role that in other hands could easily have been lost or feel overly generic.

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I am aware at this point that I may have made The Marseille Contract sound like an absolute classic. It certainly isn’t that. It lacks substance and the reveal of how Brizard has been supported in his drug deals is particularly unsatisfactory. It really does share many of the flaws of The Black Windmill, but at the same time is much more enjoyable. My reasoning for that is there is just a touch of class about the execution, whether it is in the cinematography, the soundtrack or the performances of three screen icons. I can entirely understand why that wouldn’t be enough for some, but with a running time of under 90 minutes it sustained my enjoyment comfortably. Not a classic, but more deserving of your time than it’s reputation may suggest.

The Black Windmill (1974)

“If there are things you hate about me Alex be grateful for them now” Major John Tarrant

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After the pure joy of Sleuth it feels like a bit of a comedown following it up with The Black Windmill. It isn’t a disastrous film by any stretch and manages some nice moments along the way, but ultimately it never raises itself above the level of a nuts and bolts spy thriller.

Caine stars as Major John Tarrant, a former soldier turned spy working for MI6. After his young son is kidnapped Tarrant finds himself under suspicion from his superiors as the ransom demand happens to be exactly the value of a selection of diamonds MI6 had recently acquired. Without any help from his superiors he soon finds himself forced to take matters into his own hands to bring his son back safely.

With Caine returning to the world of espionage there is an obvious comparison to be made between The Black Windmill and his earlier work in The Ipcress File. Certainly there is a similarity in Caine’s performance as he portrays Tarrant as a quiet, understated man who is not prone to great displays of emotion in a similar vein to Harry Palmer. The films, however are very different in their approach. Whereas The Ipcress File actively attempted to avoid the cliches of the spy genre created by the James Bond franchise, The Black Windmill follows much more of a familiar pattern. One scene in particular as Tarrant meets his superior Harper, played by Donald Pleasance and their conversation is interrupted by a demonstration of a briefcase with a built-in gun by the film’s version of ‘Q’ is directly out of the Bond textbook.

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Indeed the whole of the first half feels a little pedestrian. With Tarrant initially forced to take a back seat in events Caine’s performance is necessarily understated and despite some nice moments in Pleasance’s performance there is limited material to really engage. The villains McKee and Ceil played by John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig have no real character development and their plans often feel a little overly complicated. This is most evident as having captured Tarrant, McKee frames him by murdering Ceil only to then stage a breakout in the hope that Tarrant will be killed by the French police and be unable to tell MI6 what he has discovered. It’s a plan so unnecessary in its intricacy that it even leads to a scene with Tarrant and his wife trying to work out themselves what on Earth the point of it all was. The Black Windmill is also a film that very much relies on the stupidity of the majority of its characters. MI6, MI5 and the police are all shown to be largely incompetent. Whether it’s Derek Newark’s policeman falling completely for an incredibly obvious fake accent and coded conversation between Caine and his wife, the ease at which Tarrant steals the diamonds belonging to MI6 or the agents who try and bug a spy who knows he is under suspicion there are numerous cases of obvious stupidity that first of all place Tarrant under suspicion, but then allow him to go rogue so successfully.

There is a definite improvement in the film in the second half as Tarrant is forced to take matters into his own hands to find his son. As Caine is allowed the opportunity to stretch himself a little more everything unsurprisingly becomes a lot more watchable. Roy Budd as composer deserves a good amount of credit for the upturn as well as he delivers some terrific work throughout. Budd has featured regularly in this blog, most notably for his work on Get Carter and he does his best to enliven proceedings. Not that the second half isn’t without its flaws. The characterisation of Tarrant’s wife, Alex is notably inconsistent. Janet Suzman in the first half gives a convincing performance as a woman broken by the loss of her son. Alex and Tarrant are estranged and it is made pretty clear that she blames the breakdown of their relationship on his career, openly stating that she “married a soldier and ended up with a spy.” Despite this she comes alive in the second half as Tarrant goes into full revenge espionage mode with her sons well-being almost seeming to take a backstage to the thrill she is getting from her husbands actions. It’s an odd and jarring flip in characterisation albeit not necessarily one that detracts from the enjoyment of the film, indeed it arguably adds to it.

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The Black Windmill was directed by the extremely experienced American Don Siegel, most famous for the likes of Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. He does an unsurprisingly solid job although even he has his struggles with the film. Along with The Ipcress File there are a number of reviews that draw comparisons with Get Carter with its theme of revenge. Whereas Get Carter was rated 18 and has a gritty brutality to it, The Black Windmill is a 12 and lacks any of the genuine edge of its far superior predecessor. That is a challenge for Siegel to try and create a threatening atmosphere while maintaining its rating and he doesn’t always succeed. The scene mentioned earlier after Ceil is murdered is designed to be a genuine shock and a reveal of the hard brutality of McKee as he murders his lover just to help with his plan. However the way it is shot so as not to show too much gore doesn’t work at all and actually makes it quite difficult to tell what has happened at all.

With relatively little to work with Caine does his best with what he is given. It’s mentioned a number of times in the early stages of the film that Tarrant is a cool character whose training has taught him to show little in the way of emotion even when under excessive stress. That leaves Caine with little to get his teeth into for much of the first half of the film. It does mean however that when he eventually does start to lose his cool it certainly has an effect. Caine has a brilliant emotional intensity that ensures when Tarrant does go rogue he represents a genuine and believable threat. It certainly isn’t a performance that comes even close to Sleuth, but then the material isn’t in the same class and Caine still manages to be the best element in the film.

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Of the rest of the cast Pleasance gives a pleasing performance as the quietly eccentric Harper and Suzman is increasingly engaging over the second half of the film. Vernon is less convincing as the villain although that may be partially down to a difficulty on my part in taking him entirely seriously due to his brief, but memorable role as the Doctor in Airplane II: The Sequel. Joss Ackland appears as the Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard, but is largely wasted in a role that offers little to the film. With the film not always engaging I found myself diverted to spotting some familiar faces in very minor roles. John Rhys-Davies of Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings fame has an early uncredited role while it’s also a terrific film for spotting Doctor Who guest actors. As well as the aforementioned Derek Newark there are appearances from David Daker and Catherine Schell who played Countess Scarlioni in the Tom Baker serial, and my all-time favourite, City of Death. If that wasn’t enough then I think the most animated I got during the film was in excitedly shouting out “its Peter Halliday” when the regular Who guest star appears on screen in a short uncredited role as a customs officer.

With a renowned director, a brilliant leading man and a talented extended cast The Black Windmill manages to be quite a lot less than the sum of its parts. Ultimately the story just isn’t engaging enough to make it a success. The talent on show just about prevent it from totally running aground, but it’s a curiously flat film. Not a total disaster, but a long way from a success at the same time. You can’t win them all.

Sleuth (1972)

“Playing the game is very important to you isn’t it Sir” Inspector Doppler

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It’s quite hard to know exactly where to start when talking about the original film version of Sleuth. Forty-seven years after its release it is a bit late to worry too much about spoilers and yet there’s no doubt that the joy of the film (and yes it is a joy) is far greater if you can manage to come to the story somewhat blind.

Michael Caine plays Milo Tindle, a young man invited to the country house home of his lover’s husband Andrew Wyke played by Sir Laurence Olivier. Wyke suggests a convoluted plan which would see Milo fake a burglary at the house allowing him to claim the insurance money while Milo makes away with his wife’s jewellery. However, it becomes clear that Wyke has a very different ultimate goal and the pair find themselves locked into a game of cat and mouse with potentially deadly consequences.

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As a film adaptation of the highly successful Tony award winning play by Anthony Shaffer director Joseph L Mankiewicz does an excellent job of bringing it to the big screen. Ultimately Sleuth is a film set entirely in Wyke’s country house with just a couple of trips out into his gardens. Adding a running time of over two hours, the unsurprisingly dialogue heavy script and the amount of time with just Caine and Olivier on screen together Mankiewicz does a remarkable job of not only keeping things visually interesting, but highly cinematic. The set design is wonderful with Wyke’s house a reflection of his love of games and playfulness. His animatronic toys offering a genuinely creepy touch to his traditional country house that adds to the building tension of the film and provides a wonderful ending as Wyke loses control of everything.

Fundamentally though the success or otherwise of Sleuth was always going to come down to the quality of the two lead actors. Shaffer’s script is magnificent, full of wit, sharp dialogue and some genuine surprises in the narrative. Ultimately though it’s Olivier and Caine who steal the show with what are frankly remarkable performances. Both were nominated for the best actor Oscar losing out to Marlon Brando for The Godfather, but either would have been worthy recipients.

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Olivier already had a reputation as arguably the greatest theatrical performer of his or any other time so its little surprise to see him on such incredible form. Shaffer’s dialogue absolutely zings between him and Caine, but there are so many wonderful little physical touches as well. Whether it’s his acting out of his latest detective story as he dictates it into his recorder, the little face pull at the use of the word ‘nick’ rather than ‘steal’ by the lower class Milo or the extra bounce that enters his performance as Wyke becomes engaged in his game. Both actors are made to work incredibly hard as the narrative develops and different layers of their character are either dropped or revealed. Olivier beautifully contrasts the eccentric lover of a game and the far nastier, classist unpleasantness that is revealed. Again without wanting to give too much away the desperation that comes into his performance later is all the more powerful following on from the poised and controlled puppeteer we have seen earlier in the film.

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Acting opposite a genuine legend at the top of his game is a challenge that Caine rises too with flying colours. This is arguably his finest performance and he more than matches Olivier’s skill throughout. On the DVD extras there is an interview with Shaffer who quotes Olivier as saying at the end of the film “I thought in Michael I was getting an assistant, by the end I realised I had a genuine partner.” Like Olivier he has to take his character through an incredible range of emotions over the film’s running time and even is thrown an extra challenge that he is again more than equal to. The initial scenes as Wyke and Milo plan out their faux robbery and carry it out together are joyous. As Milo becomes more and more enthused to the plan to the level of Wyke, Caine and Olivier absolutely bounce around the set with the dialogue flying between the two of them. There is a point where they are looking through a dressing up box and Caine dances around holding a dress where it is clear they are both having the absolute time of their lives. Following on shortly from that scene Caine also produces some absolutely perfect physical humour as he stumbles around in a clown outfit with oversized shoes to match. As he trips over in the garden attempting to carry the ladder to the window and struggles with putty getting stuck to his gloves as he attempts to break in you could be watching a section from a Laurel & Hardy or Charlie Chaplin film rather than a tense thriller, such is the quality of its execution. That it comes so close to scenes with Milo desperate and totally broken, but both link so smoothly is again testament to Caine’s incredible performance. What follows is hard to describe without giving everything away, but suffice to say that Caine delivers some beautifully funny lines, showcases his ability to demonstrate genuine uncontrolled anger and has a lovely physicality as he amongst other things does a terrific impersonation of Wyke’s Jolly Jack Tar animatronic.

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Sleuth is a wonderful film that retains a power to surprise an audience several decades after its release. A writer, director and acting duo absolutely at the top of their games. It is also exhibit A in the argument that Michael Caine is anything other than an absolutely outstanding actor. A film everybody should see.

Pulp (1972)

“The writer’s life would be ideal, but for the writing” Mickey King

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Following the huge success of Get Carter it was just the following year when Caine collaborated once again with writer and director Mike Hodges. Pulp has a very different tone to the gritty, harsh realism of Get Carter as it instead gives a witty and humorous take on the noir thriller.

Caine plays Mickey King a writer making a living turning out sleazy pulp fiction who is then offered the chance to write the biography of a former movie star. Despite some reservations he accepts and soon finds himself drawn into a series of events that see both of their lives under threat.

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Hodges has a lot of fun playing with the conventions of the noir genre. The action is framed by Caine’s own narration as it becomes clear he is taking the events and writing them up for his latest pulp tale. It’s a device that works well and means that you are never far away from a witty and funny line with a lot of laughs to be had from King’s dry take on events. Caine has always had a nice comic touch and with just his delivery to rely on he never misses a beat. There is also some fun to be had as what we see on screen doesn’t always match with King’s narration, as he changes events for the sake of his story or to make his hero, himself, a more impressive figure.

The mystery King finds himself embroiled in is almost incidental to the fun the film has around it. Pulp sets it’s stall out early to pick up the laughs with a series of accidents involving some taxis that are neatly choreographed and could easily slot into any Carry On film. King’s career as a pulp novelist offers plenty of opportunity to have some fun with a variety of pseudonyms and ridiculous book titles, My Gun is Long being the most often quoted.

Hodges clearly has a lot of affection for the noir genre and creates a funny and accurate pastiche. Following on from the gritty realism of Get Carter the fact Pulp has its tongue firmly in its cheek throughout allows for a few more playful directorial touches and most of them land pretty well with the tone of the film. The silliness of the women at a political rally conveniently reorganising their placards so they spell f**k after the inept spy incapable of keeping himself quiet trips over the camera sits entirely comfortably in what is essentially a spoof. What works less well is when Hodges actually points directly at the film’s origins in a brief scene at a funeral as a man points to a statue and asks what kind of bird it is and receives the response “it’s a Maltese Falcon.” It’s a wink at the audience that isn’t really necessary and one of the few moments where Pulp’s knowing humour edges towards self-indulgence.

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Caine is in his element as King. Strutting around in a white suit, with violet tinted glasses and hair at that just slightly too long 70s length he manages once again to be the epitome of cool. Although there have been elements of humour to a lot of his roles up to this point this is possibly his most overtly comic yet and he relishes the opportunity to show how funny he can be. His delivery of the witty narration is pitch perfect and his line “I’ll get you, you bastards” followed by him immediately falling over shows a skill at physical comedy he hasn’t had the opportunity to showcase before now. There is also one of my favourite little Caine moments as he puts on a record and slips in a couple of dance moves that never fail to make me smile.

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Mickey Rooney takes on the other key role of former actor Preston Gilbert in what is an absolutely magnificent piece of casting. The diminutive Rooney is perfect for the ridiculous, vain, ageing star and he has great fun in playing all his eccentricities. Gilbert’s character seems to come fully formed to the screen as he berates his lackey for falling asleep and leaving him stuck in a sauna. There’s an inherent ridiculousness in the tiny Rooney yelling at his giant employee who stands quietly and takes his punishment. That’s followed shortly by a magnificent scene as Gilbert gets himself ready for his first meeting with King. Beginning with him shadow boxing in his underpants his vanity is writ large as he plasters down his hair piece and in a brilliant touch while looking at himself in the mirrors on the doors of his wardrobe opens them only for another mirror to be directly inside them. Even better is the insistence that King and any other guests should be sat down when he enters so as not to draw attention to his lack of height. He is a brilliant creation and Rooney gives the performance Hodges’ writing deserves.

The remaining cast are a mixed bag. Lionel Stander is terrific as Gilbert’s right-hand man. He is a compelling screen presence and also shows a light comedic touch. He and Caine share a nice chemistry and there is a particularly delightful scene as they attempt to watch a video projected upside down by both hunching over and balancing on their heads, “should do well in Australia” is the line perfectly delivered by Stander.

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Far less successful is Nadia Cassini as Gilbert’s young lover Liz. The nature of the film being a pastiche of a particular genre means there is an element of stereotype about many of the female characters in the film, doubling down on the ridiculousness by having most of the girls immediately fall for King and in Liz’s case making out with him within minutes of them meeting. Cassini has most of her success in Italian exploitation movies and it’s fair to say she struggles to keep up as she shares scenes with actors of the quality of Caine and Rooney. Her delivery feels stilted and in a script aiming for a fast pace that relies on a dry wit and humour it unfortunately sucks a little of the energy from the odd scene. It’s a rare misstep in the casting however, which is generally excellent including a brief, but enjoyable performance from Dennis Price as an eccentric English traveler.

Given that the mystery element is incidental to the opportunity to have fun around the noir genre anybody’s enjoyment of Pulp is likely to come down to how the humour sits with them. Fortunately I thoroughly enjoyed it and laughed consistently throughout. Both Caine and Rooney are superb and at just over 90 minutes Pulp never outstays it’s welcome. A fun, witty and occasionally deliberately silly film that neatly showcases Caine’s ability as a comic actor.

X, Y & Zee (1972)

“He likes women to be a mess…that’s why he’s still with me” Zee Blakeley

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Also known as Zee and Co in America, X, Y & Zee sees Caine star alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Susannah York in a tale of a destructive love triangle.

Caine plays Robert Blakeley, a wealthy architect who is married to Taylor’s Zee. Their marriage is not a happy one as they spend most of their time fighting and abusing each other either physically or mentally and yet still seem to have some sense of affection for each other. Their relationship is complicated further when Robert meets Stella, played by York, and after taking her as his mistress falls in love with her. The film focuses on Zee’s attempts to disrupt her husbands relationship with Stella and his inability to cut his ties with his wife despite the toxic nature of their marriage.

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X, Y & Zee is an odd film. At times attempting to be dramatic and at others aiming for a camp humour. It has periods of being highly engaging and then other periods where little seems to happen and the whole thing feels far too long. There are moments of subtlety, but then particularly in the last twenty minutes some plot developments that seem to come absolutely out of nowhere and mean it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the film. In other words it’s a bit of a mess, but it’s not without its strengths and there are plenty of elements to enjoy.

First of all it’s hard not to have some fondness for a film that begins with a long slow-motion sequence of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine playing table tennis. From there they head to the party where they will meet Stella and the next few scenes are typical of the film in that they contain a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. The party is hosted by the couples friend Gladys played with delightful eccentricity by Margaret Leighton. She successfully steals every scene she is and the script is at its most dry and witty when giving Leighton her voice. Unfortunately her time on screen is limited with just an all too brief reappearance at another party late in the film. Aside from Gladys we are also introduced to the far less successful character of Gordon, Zee’s gay hairdresser, played by John Standing camping him up to ludicrous proportions. Such is the stereotypical nature of the gay, hairdresser character that it makes John Inman’s Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served look like a subtle, realistic and nuanced take on the life of a gay man in comparison.

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The other great issue with the party scenes is the overly stylised dialogue. That’s not necessarily a problem in itself. Wes Anderson is one of my favourite filmmakers and his dialogue could never be described as gritty or realistic, but it works within the world he creates. It’s a difficult balance to strike though and sometimes in X, Y & Zee it works well, for example when being delivered by Leighton in witty asides, but there are more times during the party where they sit around speaking to each other in a way that nobody ever would in real life that feels like an attempt to be clever just for the sake of being clever. The second major issue with the script in these early stages is the idea that Stella would actually fall for Robert. Caine is such a charming, charismatic actor, but Robert’s delivers some of the cheesiest lines possible as he attempts to seduce Stella and then caps it all with a particularly remarkable moment as she confides in him that her husband has died and he responds “haha that makes you a widow” as if he’s just answered a particularly difficult question on Round Britain Quiz rather than the more normal response of offering some sympathy.

From the point that Stella and Robert begin their affair there is relatively little in serious plot development and instead we focus deeper on the relationships of the three characters. Fortunately all three actors deliver performances that just about manage to keep things engaging. Zee is an absolutely bonkers character and Taylor clearly has an absolute ball playing all her eccentricities. It’s a brash, deliberately over-the-top performance, but with enough subtle touches to hint at a vulnerability to the character that just about prevents her becoming a totally one-dimensional monster.

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With Taylor giving such a loud performance it’s a challenge for Caine and York to keep up with her, but both achieve that with quieter, yet interesting takes. Caine has a lovely line in sardonic delivery as he listens wearily to Zee’s stories, particularly her bizarre ramble to Stella about Robert’s love of fish and questions about breastfeeding twins (Taylor says tits a lot more than you would imagine she might). He also comes alive brilliantly in their heated rows as he delivers some genuinely funny put-downs faced with the whirlwind Taylor shouting him down and even doing her own impersonation of Caine’s own vocal stylings. His ability to flip between moments of losing control to quieter moments of reflection has been a strength evident in a number of his previous films and its on show again here, particularly in a later scene with York as he shows a quiet and subtle emotion as they sit together in their new flat. York herself also gives a subtly effective performance that often manages to have a grounding effect of the over-the-top nature of events around her. An example of how the quality of the performances raises the standard of the film significantly comes as Zee visits Stella in her dress-making shop. Both actors are superb in their delivery of little moments that help to give much more depth to their characters. Firstly as Zee looks around the shop, slightly turning her nose up at the surroundings before immediately delivering the line “what a lovely shop.” That’s quickly followed by Stella standing outside the fitting room as Zee changes and waffles on, Stella walks away with her in mid-ramble and turns the music on the radio up to drown her out. Both little moments that are played to perfection by Taylor and York and make-up for some of the less impressive elements of the film.

All these elements come together to make a rather strange end product. There are moments when the film is genuinely laugh out loud funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not (I laughed quite a lot at the ridiculous poshness of Stella’s two children) and there are some interesting elements to the relationship between the characters. Ultimately though there probably isn’t enough there to sustain a whole film and it’s ending is a little unsatisfactory as a crucial element of Stella’s character feeling somewhat tacked on for effect. Fortunately the main cast are all very watchable and just about manage to drag things along. Far from a classic, but a little oddity with enough to enjoy along the way.

Kidnapped (1971)

“Am I not a bonny fighter?” Alan Breck

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For the final film release of 1971 to feature Michael Caine we see him tackle an adaptation of a famous literary work. Kidnapped is based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel of the same name and also half of its sequel Catriona. The story is set in Scotland following the bloody battle of Culloden and focuses chiefly on a young Scot called David Balfour, played by Lawrence Douglas. We first meet him as he goes to visit his Uncle to claim his inheritance following the death of his father, but soon things unravel for him and he is sold into slavery before he meets the rebel Alan Breck played by Caine. Together they escape and make their way towards Edinburgh as they build an unlikely friendship as numerous challenges are thrown at them.

Nominally Douglas should be the definite star of this film. He is the first character we meet and has a story arc that sees him grow in stature, showing huge amounts of bravery, standing up against injustice while falling in love along the way. In reality though it is Caine who carries large parts of this film as his star quality shines through. Unfortunately as Caine becomes less involved in the latter stages of Kidnapped the film slowly begins to lose it’s way, which is a particular shame as there are enough strong elements in it’s early stages to have built something more significant around. The opening scenes as David visits his Uncle played with delightful relish by Donald Pleasence have a creepy, dark, almost Hammer-esque quality about them. The narrow stone staircases lit only by candlelight, stormy weather with the eccentric Uncle as the only occupant all help to create an interesting and atmospheric opening to the film. Pleasence clearly has a lot of fun in the role and while he certainly flirts with going a little too over the top at times what results is an entertaining and enjoyable performance.

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While director Delbert Mann should be credited for his part in creating that strong atmospheric beginning there are also some less satisfying directorial choices that point towards some of the difficulties that come later. Most notable is the early decision to add a comedy ‘thwack’ sound effect over David being struck over the head with a club. It’s a minor moment, but simply doesn’t fit with the overall tone and atmosphere everybody has worked to build up to that point. Far more significant a problem comes with the use of incidental music throughout the film. Roy Budd who had done such a fine job with the music in Get Carter returns for Kidnapped and does a more than solid job, but the placement of the score by Mann so that every speech of any significance has to be accompanied by a twinkling, patriotic tune is badly misjudged. By the point of James Stewart’s speech from his jail cell it has started to actively detract from any drama in the moment and shows an alarming lack of faith in the dialogue to do the job on it’s own. Mann does at least manage to make the most of the incredibly beautiful Scottish scenery and  the contrast between the rich greens of the hills and the blues of the lochs and the sky make for a visually stunning backdrop. It’s significant, however that when the action moves to Edinburgh and he doesn’t have that rural beauty to work with the film again loses a lot of it’s interest. Most unfortunate of all is the realisation of the ending as Breck eventually decides to give in and make a sacrifice of himself. Mann throws a lot into that moment with flashbacks to past battles, action early in the film and revelations about how things had really unfolded playing out over more incidental music and quotes from the film. None of it really works together and coupled with the general loss of momentum in the film those final moments instead of being the rousing scene of self-sacrifice that it is trying to be simply comes across as a little insipid.

Mann isn’t helped that in Lawrence Douglas he has a lead actor who struggles to make his time on screen particularly compelling. That isn’t to say that he gives a terrible performance by any means, but he doesn’t have the charisma or screen presence of some of his more senior colleagues. That is less of a problem when he has somebody else to bounce off in his early scenes with Pleasence and in the long periods he spends with Caine on the hills. However, when they reach Edinburgh and Caine’s Breck departs into hiding and Douglas is left to shoulder the film it almost immediately loses it’s way. Vivien Heilbron who plays Catriona, David’s love interest is similarly lacking in any great presence and the film never regains it’s momentum from that point. David has a number of speeches designed to show his bravery and willingness to risk his own head, but at best they come across as uncharismatic and at worst even a little wet.

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Fortunately there are some good performances elsewhere, which do help to retain some interest in the film. Trevor Howard gives a typically solid performance as the Lord Advocate although he suffers from arriving after the point in which the film has lost it’s way. Pleasence returns briefly to complete his delightful performance with a fantastically funny final line and there are cameos for Freddie Jones (father of the magnificent Toby Jones), the always terrific Peter Jeffrey and most interestingly Geoffrey Whitehead who is now so recognisable for playing a series of grumpy old men on British TV and radio that it is actually quite strange to see him as a much younger man. Much sadder is the appearance of Jack Hawkins early in the film, as among other things the deliverer of that comedy ‘thwack’ on the head. Hawkins was a terrific actor as already demonstrated by his performances in The Two-Headed Spy and Zulu covered earlier in this blog, who sadly after developing throat cancer had to have his larynx removed. As a result all of his later roles had to be dubbed and there is a sadness in watching such a wonderful deliverer of words having to rely on somebody else to provide his voice. Another regular actor to feature alongside Caine in his early films is Gordon Jackson and along with Pleasence he gives possibly the best performance of the supporting cast. He is particularly brilliant in the one scene he gets to share with Caine and it is a shame we don’t get to see more of him as he brightens the otherwise mostly mundane scenes in Edinburgh.

Without Michael Caine on screen those scenes set in Edinburgh become at least half as interesting as those in which he appears and that is testament to the screen presence he had developed by this point in his career. He is an incredibly imposing and charismatic actor and he cuts a hugely impressive figure silhouetted against the beautiful Scottish landscape. Caine has a twinkle in his eye throughout and shows a genuine gentle affection for David whilst also managing to be convincingly brutal in his fight scenes. As is often the case in a role that requires him to tackle an accent his own unique tone and style sometimes overpowers his attempts, but for the most part his Scots brogue stands up and there are even a few moments where he seems to have particularly drawn from his great friend Sean Connery in his delivery of a line.

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Kidnapped isn’t a great film, but nor is it terrible either. It’s a fairly standard costume drama that can quite easily slot into a quiet afternoon’s television schedule. Where it manages to elevate itself above that level, and it does on occasions, is almost always thanks to Michael Caine. There are often times when Caine’s ability as an actor are overlooked, partly due to his appearances in a number of films of dubious overall quality. However, what Caine achieves consistently is to make the film he is in, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, better than it would be if he wasn’t in it. Kidnapped is a classic example of that and really as an actor you can’t ask for a lot more from him.

 

Get Carter (1971)

“You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself” Jack Carter

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Of all the films covered so far in this blog Get Carter is probably the most highly praised. It features in a number of lists of the top British films and even comes out on top in some of those. At its heart Get Carter is a revenge thriller. Caine stars as the eponymous Jack Carter a mid-level East-end gangster who returns to his native Newcastle when he is unconvinced by a verdict of suicide following his brother’s death. When his suspicions of foul play are confirmed he quickly sets to exacting his own revenge on the local underworld involved in the conspiracy.

The revenge thriller isn’t generally a genre particularly highly critically regarded in the world of cinema. What sets Get Carter apart is the way that it tackles the subject. It consciously avoids any glorification of the violence on show and there is significantly more subtlety than other films of a similar theme. Crucial to that is the character of Jack Carter himself. While there may be a few reviews of the film that describe Carter as an anti-Hero the reality is that there is nothing heroic about the character at all. Yes the people he is hunting down and delivering his own brand of justice to are unpleasant criminals engaged in deplorable activities, but there is little doubt he is equally as bad. There are moments in the early part of the film when he does seem to show some nicer qualities, but what the film does so well is to slowly erode them and show just how unpleasant he really is. This can be seen in his relationship with Keith, played by a young Alun Armstrong and also Edna played by Rosemarie Dunham. Edna is the unlucky lonely landlady who Carter rents a room from as he arrives in Newcastle. When they first meet Carter is charming towards her and offers to pay for the first night he is there despite not needing the room immediately. What is obvious very quickly though is that Carter has no sense of conscience about the chaos and violence that he is about to bring into her world. His offer to pay extra is also cheapened as we discover throughout the film that his response to any discomfort caused to others is just to throw some money in their general direction. That is clearest in his response to Keith after he is the victim of a brutal beating after being left by Carter to fend for himself. He is shown no loyalty and despite the help that he has given to Carter he receives no sympathy and instead just another offer of a handful of notes for his trouble.

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The scene where Carter visits a bed ridden Keith suffering the after effects of his beating are another example of the subtlety in the storytelling. As Keith is left by Carter he yells out after him, berating him for his selfishness and in among his accusations it is stated that Doreen, who we are first introduced to as Carter’s niece may in fact be his daughter as a result of an affair with his brother’s wife. It’s a possibility that is only mentioned that once and is never confirmed or denied, but it adds an extra layer to the moment when Carter realises that Doreen is at the centre of events that led to his brother’s death. In a poorer film the audience wouldn’t have been trusted to remember the link and the possibility would have been laid on with a trowel. Here it is handled with much more delicacy and that is a tribute to the storytelling of director Mike Hodges who also wrote the screenplay based on the original source novel.

Get Carter was Hodges’ first feature film after a decade working in television and it’s a remarkable debut. It’s initial scene as Carter sits with his East-End gangster bosses has more than a touch of The Ipcress File with its tinkling soundtrack and camera focusing in on a projector showing a slide show of images. From the point of the opening titles and Carter heads off to Newcastle the film shows a style all of its own though that in turn would influence countless future films and directors. The most oft-quoted example is its influence on Quentin Tarantino who has described it as his favourite British film. As Carter makes his journey dressed smartly in his suit with a funky soundtrack in the background that influence is noticeable whether you are aware of the quote or not. Hodges skill as a director is particularly noticeable in the way he frames two of the more sexually charged scenes in the film. The first sees Carter engaging in a sexual phone conversation with his secret lover who is romantically entangled with his East-End mob boss. Britt Ekland plays Anna and the scene is made more notable by the fact Carter makes the phone call on the main telephone in his rented accommodation with the lonely and sexually frustrated Edna gently rocking on her chair also in the room with him. The intercuts between Anna and Edna with the slowly quickening squeaks of her rocking chair make for an entrancing scene while also giving another window into the character of Carter and his own confidence in himself as being at the centre of the universe. The second comes as a sex scene between Carter and Glenda is intercut with her wild and dramatic driving. It’s another classy piece of direction that helps to build a stylish and believable world. There are other moments that don’t work quite as well. Our first introduction to Kinnear as played by playwright John Osborne at a card game and the attempts to frame the shot with players just visible over the shoulders of others doesn’t work as well and feels a little like it is trying too hard to make the game visually striking. That is an exception though and overall Hodges’ direction is key to the glowing reputation the film still enjoys nearly five decades after its release.

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There is no doubt that the casting of Caine in the main role was a huge help to Hodges’ who makes great use of the visual contrast he creates. Seeing his imposing figure dressed in expensive suits set against the often grim industrial background of early seventies Newcastle makes for some genuinely iconic imagery, even if one of the most iconic moments involves Caine wearing nothing at all, but holding a shotgun. Caine is simply outstanding in the role. Carter is a figure who saunters into a city and brings chaos and disaster to pretty much everybody he meets. It’s right then that Caine seems to have an ability to draw the camera. The scene where he visits a busy racecourse is the perfect example of this as even in a bustling crowd he seems to stand out on the screen. The tone of his performance is perfect throughout. From the very beginning he exudes a quiet menace that even before his first act of physical violence leaves you in little doubt of the threat he carries. When he does eventually start to exact his revenge it is brutal, calculated and efficient. There is no long protracted glamour to the violence. Carter is professional about how he does things and doesn’t use two strikes when one will do. That coupled with Caine’s understated performance means that when much later in the film as he loses his cool and becomes increasingly angry and brutal it is doubly effective. Even then though there are still room for more subtle quiet moments, such as the little smile Caine delivers as Carter watches the bond between a young girl and her mother.

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Though Caine is the undoubted star of proceedings the remaining cast are equally strong. As well as those already mentioned there’s a wonderful partnership between George Sewell and the always terrific Italian Job alumni Tony Beckley as the heavies sent to usher Carter back to the capital. It’s a classy cast even in these minor roles with Armstrong in his first feature film particularly effecting and regular Caine co-star Glynn Edwards following up roles in Zulu and The Ipcress File with a typically solid outing. After Caine it’s possibly Ian Hendry who makes the biggest impression though as he delivers a brilliantly unsympathetic turn as Eric the chief villain of the piece.

Hodges’ makes great use of the whole cast as he creates a grim and unforgiving world (given the grim realistic tone of his film debut it makes the change in tone for his other most famous work the camp cult classic Flash Gordon all the more dramatic). Crucially thanks to his direction and the nature of Caine’s performance they manage to maintain the sense that the violence on show is ultimately self-defeating without any sense of heroism. None of the large cast of characters come out from the events in the film unscathed with even those who at least make it out with their lives nonetheless damaged in some other way. Most importantly though is the realisation that even after all the violence and killing Carter still doesn’t come out a winner. Meeting his end friendless and alone with the end credits playing without music, just the sound of the wind and waves.

Get Carter fully deserves its place on any list of the most highly regarded British films. It is undoubtedly one of Caine’s finest performances and influenced an enormous amount of British and Hollywood crime films for decades to come. For all it’s imitators though Get Carter remains the jewel in the crown. A genuine classic.

The Last Valley (1971)

“I am what I am. A killer beast. I was born in war” The Captain

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For The Last Valley Michael Caine ticks off another major conflict in his ever growing list of war films with a dark tale set during the Thirty Years War.

Caine shares top billing with Omar Sharif who plays Vogel a man desperately fleeing the violence that the conflict brings. In the opening scenes we see Vogel witness and escape the brutal ransacking of a village by a group of German mercenaries. As he flees he stumbles across a beautiful valley, the last to be left untouched by the horror of the religious conflict.

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Those early scenes do an effective job of indicating what a bleak and dark world we are entering. There is an early massacre with the suggestion of rape and pillaging from the mercenaries and Sharif has an almost green pallor as he makes his way past bodies piled up having died from the plague and others hanging from gallows. It’s a grim environment to begin the film and the contrast between it and the moment Vogel discovers the unspoilt valley is almost jarring. There is a distinct change in the colour palette and in the soundtrack to demonstrate that we are entering a much more pleasant world.

Of course it doesn’t take long for that tranquility to be disturbed as the valley is discovered by the mercenary army led by Michael Caine’s Captain. Vogel manages to bargain for his life by pushing himself forward as a negotiator with the valley’s inhabitants and an uneasy peace is struck, but with religious tension never far from the surface.

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There were moments in the early stages of The Last Valley when I was concerned it was going to be a little farcical. The initial scenes as the village is ransacked have a very similar landscape and design to Monty Python and The Holy Grail and coupled with some incredibly over the top acting from a very minor character as he screams about Satan causing me to worry about what direction the film would take. Fortunately those moments aren’t indicative of what is left to come and what follows is an interesting and intriguing film.

Key to that is the depth of the character of the Captain and Caine’s terrific portrayal of him. He sets himself up early as a quiet, but ruthless threat as he dispatches any dissenting members of his army. He has a calm brutality about him and it’s obvious that he enjoys his life as a killer. As the film unfolds we learn that there is much more depth to him than might be expected. Late in the action there is a suggestion of a lost family and in a quieter moment he expresses regret for the horror of the war that saw him rip apart the village of Vogel’s family. Even more intriguing is the Captain’s relationship with religion. He is surrounded by extremism and religious conflict and yet he himself has no faith. As a consequence he initially seems more tolerant to different beliefs as his mercenary group includes men of many faiths, but eventually leads to him becoming more and more skeptical and frustrated with what he sees around him. That leads to the best moment in the whole film as he launches into a scathing attack on the valley’s priest. It’s also Caine’s finest moment in what is an altogether outstanding performance and arguably one of the best of his career up to this point. He excels both in the quiet moments and as he becomes increasingly angry and frustrated. Unlike much of the cast Caine makes an effort at doing a German accent and while his accent work is never his strongest quality and it takes a moment to get used to him saying “willage” instead of “village” his controlled and engaging performance is always of a quality that makes that a minor quibble at its absolute worst.

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Caine gets some solid support from the rest of the cast. Sharif gives a similarly quiet and controlled performance and though he has slightly less to work with than Caine they make for a high quality lead pairing. The other standout is Per Oscarsson who plays the priest and skilfully avoids allowing the character to drift too far into caricature. The Priest is a horrific character whose believes are extreme and unbending and who thinks nothing of using torture and violence against those who don’t share his views. In lesser hands it could easily turn into a one-note uninteresting villain, but Oscarsson manages to give him more depth and he shares the film’s best scene with Caine. Nigel Davenport who we last saw in this blog starring in Play Dirty gives a typically good performance and there is an all too brief role for Brian Blessed before he becomes the Captain’s first victim. Not all the cast are quite as successful and Arthur O’Connell in particular feels like a piece of casting that doesn’t quite work, but crucially Sharif and Caine are spot on throughout and hold everything together.

I hadn’t been sure what to expect with The Last Valley. What I got was a dark, but interesting film with a magnificent lead performance from Caine that once again shows his ever developing skill and depth as an actor. It isn’t a light watch and it is far from perfect, but there is plenty to be impressed by in a film I will definitely revisit in the future.

Too Late The Hero (1970)

“If you want to start playing bloody heroes you’ve got another problem…I’m not bloody coming with you” Tosh Hearne

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Too Late The Hero sees Caine once again in World War Two this time as part of a small regiment charged with destroying a Japanese radio on an island in the Philippines. Cliff Robertson stars as the American Lieutenant Sam Lawson who despite his reluctance is assigned to the mission to destroy the radio thanks to his ability to speak Japanese. He joins a fairly rag-bag crew of British soldiers including Caine as the medical orderly Private Tosh Hearne.

The film was written and directed by Robert Aldrich who had achieved a big hit three years earlier with The Dirty Dozen and Too Late The Hero is very much cut from the same cloth. As a result it also has a lot of similarities to a film looked at previously in this blog, which also borrowed its structure from The Dirty Dozen, Play Dirty. As in Play Dirty we see an outsider officer parachuted into a less than conventional regiment and sent on a dangerous mission, which first requires an arduous journey. In the 1969 film that saw Caine as the officer traversing the desert where as in Too Late The Hero he is back in the ranks as they make their way through the thick jungle environment. Both films play with the moral ambiguity of their cast of characters and focus in on their difficult and often violent relationships and retain a substantial cynicism to the idea of heroism.

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While Too Late The Hero shares many of the same themes as Play Dirty it doesn’t quite use them as effectively. There are numerous moments that are designed to shock or jolt the audience that don’t really work as well as they should. Often this is down to the direction, which fails to make the most of them. An example of this is when Denholm Elliott’s Captain Hornsby makes the decision to execute two wounded Japanese soldiers in cold blood. It’s an early example of how there is no clear good or bad side in war and could have been a genuinely chilling moment. Instead it doesn’t quite have as strong an effect as it should as Aldrich chooses to include everything in shot, but with obviously fake bright red blood it’s a case of a scene being let down by showing a little too much on the screen rather than using more subtle techniques for greater effectiveness. Far more effective is the way this scene sets up a later twist as two Brit soldiers are captured by the Japanese and their treatment does an interesting job of again challenging the traditional idea of the goodies and the baddies.

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In addition to some directing difficulties there are a few early issues with the script too. Much of the early dialogue once we meet Caine and the other Brits doesn’t feel particularly natural and they all have an odd habit of bursting into laughter at the comments of the other soldiers even though there hasn’t been anything even remotely funny said. Fortunately as we get further into the action the dialogue starts to feel more natural and in more intimate scenes between individuals it is significantly better. That is most obviously showcased in the beginning and end scenes of the film, which Robertson shares with first Henry Fonda and then with Caine in its later stages. In fact the film gradually improves and is at its best during the last third as Caine comes more to the forefront and Aldrich shows some more interesting touches not least in the way its final scenes are shot to leave a significant period of doubt as to who has survived and who hasn’t.

Once the dialogue settles down there is no doubt that it is Caine who is the stand-out performer in the cast. Hearne is an interesting character as he shows equal reluctance as Lawson to his mission, struggles with authority and on more than one occasion suggests they all just give up and go home. At the same time he shows some significant bravery in treating his colleagues, comes up with a daring plan at the end and shows some genuine affection towards some, if not all his fellow soldiers. Caine has some fun playing with these elements and particularly in the later scenes as only he and Lawson remain he makes for a compelling presence. His speech to Lawson to try and persuade him to give up on the idea of getting back to camp and just hide out instead is the highlight of the film and is performed to perfection. Too Late The Hero isn’t a brilliant film, but it shows again how Caine has the ability to make something significantly better than it might have been through his own strength of character and performance.

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The quality of Caine’s portrayal is perhaps even more impressive as much of the rest of the cast are a little more erratic in their performances. Robertson is solid enough as Lawson without ever really dominating the action. With a more substantial actor in that role it’s likely that would have been considered the lead role, but despite the film really being about him it is definitely Caine who feels like the star. Henry Fonda’s appearance is brief, but notable and he is unsurprisingly excellent throughout, bringing a touch of class and gravitas to the proceedings. The same can be said of Harry Andrews who I have seen a lot of since I started this blog having also appeared in A Hill in Korea, Play Dirty and Battle of Britain and here he looks very much at home in the role of the British CO Colonel Thompson. The same can’t always be said of Denholm Elliott who I am generally an enormous fan of, but suffers slightly due to the nature of the script. Whereas the moral ambiguity present in Caine’s character Tosh is a qualified success with some others including Elliott’s Hornsby it doesn’t feel like it’s explored in quite the same depth and as a result the character and therefore the performance feel somewhat inconsistent.

Too Late The Hero is a solid addition to the ever growing list of War films already covered in this blog. At times it falls victim to trying to tick the boxes of a previously successful formula, but it improves as the film goes on and Caine often steals the show. Play Dirty is a better film that tackles similar subject matter, but Too Late The Hero makes for a watchable enough alternative.