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The Black Windmill

12 Dec

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When a film gets panned by critics there can be a number of reasons why; it may just be a bad movie, or it may simply be a step down from the director’s/actor’s previous work. I’d say the latter is certainly the case with The Black Windmill (1974). Don Siegel had just come off a run of high quality films and this slow burning espionage thriller didn’t quite match up. In truth it’s not a bad film, it has moments of real style, but there is a flatness about it that’s hard to explain.

John Tarrant (Michael Caine) is a former army officer who’s now in the employ of MI6, and is shown to be involved in setting up a sting operation to net some international arms dealers. It’s clear that something else is taking shape in the background though – the opening sequence has just shown the kidnapping of two schoolboys by those allegedly involved in the gun running. One of these boys turns out to be the son of Tarrant, and it quickly becomes apparent that the abduction is being used as leverage to extort money from British Intelligence. It’s also clear that those behind the abduction have the kind of inside knowledge (the nature of the ransom demanded) that suggests the presence of a mole. Tarrant’s superior, Harper (Donald Pleasence), suspects that he may even have orchestrated the whole thing himself, while his estranged wife (Janet Suzman) blames him and his job. Thus Tarrant finds himself in the unenviable position of having to cope with both the suspicions of his bosses and the recriminations of his wife as he struggles to retain the composure and coolness needed to effect the release of his son. When it dawns on him that Harper has no intention of meeting the kidnappers’ demands Tarrant chooses the only option that remains open to him – going “rogue” and risking the wrath of his own people.

Fading into the shadows - Michael Caine and Janet Suzman.  

Don Siegel made a lot of different kinds of movies but the espionage thriller wasn’t really his strong suit and he struggled to leave his mark on The Black Windmill. A couple of years later he would return to the genre with greater success in the more action driven Telefon, which remains more consistently entertaining. It’s really in the latter half of this movie that you actually become aware of the fact that you’re watching a Siegel picture. The chase through the London Underground and the escape sequence in Paris are well filmed and add a much needed sense of urgency as events build towards the violent climax at the titular windmill. In contrast, the first half unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace as characters are introduced and the groundwork is laid. There’s also a tongue in cheek aspect to these earlier scenes; one inspired moment during an MI6 briefing has a room of stunned bigwigs informed that one of the enemy agents is Sean Connery! There’s another nod to Bond in a scene where Tarrant and Harper watch a demonstration of an exploding briefcase carried out by a Q clone. Much of the film’s humour derives from the performance of Donald Pleasence as the fussy and prissy head of MI6. Michael Caine, on the other hand, plays it straight all the way through and is good enough as the agent who has to keep his emotions under tight control. When he finally gives vent to his frustration at the bureaucratic caution that might lead to his son’s death it comes across as more powerful given the detached facade he’s been presenting up to that point. Janet Suzman is limited to bouts of anxiety and bitterness at the beginning but gets to show off her resourcefulness as the story progresses. The two main villains of the piece are John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig – they’re both suitably ruthless but their characters are ultimately one dimensional.

Universal’s UK DVD presents the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is very clean and smooth. This is another fairly basic disc, no extras offered at all, but the the image is pleasing enough and anyway it’s not one of Siegel’s or Caine’s better known movies. All told, The Black Windmill is a middling film; it’s not the best of the director, star or even the genre but it’s still reasonably entertaining. If you make it through the slightly plodding beginning it does pick up the pace and gets better as it goes along. I’d give it a cautious recommendation if you’re into spy thrillers, but those expecting a typical Don Siegel movie would likely be disappointed.

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9 Comments

Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1970s, Don Siegel, Michael Caine, Mystery/Thriller

 

9 responses to “The Black Windmill

  1. Cavershamragu

    October 21, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Spot-on review Colin. I have only ever watched this one panned and scanned on TV and have just ordered the DVD – I love that still you grabbed of the dissolve between Caine and Suzman – really, really lovely. Siegel really was having an amazing run of films at that point, what with MADIGAN, his first (and least) Eastwood collaboration, COOGAN’S BLUFF, THE BEGUILED, DIRTY HARRY and best of all CHARLEY VARRICK – I think BLACK WINDMILL, maybe for its European setting too, may not have really suited Siegel as well.

     
    • Colin

      October 21, 2012 at 1:12 pm

      Thanks. The setting may indeed be part of the reason the movie feels a bit less than the best Siegel was capable of. He really did hit a purple patch between the late 60s and mid-70s – so many memorable movies in there.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        October 21, 2012 at 1:17 pm

        I also agree that TELEFON is a cracking little spy movie that is often unfairly overlooked. Never been able to read Robert Frost the same way again in fact …

         
        • Colin

          October 21, 2012 at 1:28 pm

          Telefon is the kind of movie that actually ought to be poor and ends up being quite the opposite. I love that climactic scene in the bar involving a phone booth, a rattlesnake in a glass case and the accompaniment of a tinny piano in the background.
          The movie is also probably one of the last good ones that Bronson made before taking the money and running with Cannon. His casting seems an odd decision but it works out pretty well.
          Speaking of Bronson, I picked up a cheap copy of Sony’s UK release of The Stone Killer this week. I know it’s a Michael Winner movie but it does come from a time when he was still making some reasonable stuff – fingers crossed anyway.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            October 21, 2012 at 1:34 pm

            I remember Halliwell commenting that it felt a bit like an homage to the gangster movies of the 30s and actually I think he’s right (for once – I appreciate Halliwell more for his pithiness than for his actual opinions). I’m going to see about doing a review of TELEFON on the site shortly as I am getting inspired by you as usual – thanks chum (again). The Bronson / Remick pairing is very odd but basically works – I’ve had a lifelong crush on Remick so expect me to be absurdly effusive …

             
            • Colin

              October 21, 2012 at 1:38 pm

              In that case you should be happy to hear that Ms Remick is likely to feature on this site at some point in the next few weeks.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                October 21, 2012 at 1:40 pm

                Excellent … on the clear understanding that my critical faculties, such as they are, will undoubtedly go utterly and completely on hold!

                 
                • Colin

                  October 21, 2012 at 1:45 pm

                  Such lapses are entirely permissible given the circumstances. :)
                  Watch this space!

                   

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