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The Black Windmill

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

 

Gambit

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I’m not sure if the caper movie could be referred to as a genre in itself. It’s basically an offshoot of the heist movie, which in turn has its origins in the world of thrillers. To me a caper should be a humorous take on a criminal enterprise and it should have a certain gloss or stylishness about it. As such, the 1960s were arguably the ideal period for these films, and I’m of the opinion that the best examples are to be found in that decade. Gambit (1966) checks all the boxes as far as I’m concerned: it’s got a couple of glamorous stars in the lead roles, a slightly convoluted plot that never takes itself too seriously, pretty locations, and an abundance of charm and style.

The structure of the film is one of its major assets, with the first half hour showing Harry Dean (Michael Caine) meticulously setting up the perfect crime before everything falls to pieces. Our hero has his sights on a priceless sculpture owned by a reclusive billionaire, Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), and has planned what he thinks is a foolproof method of snatching it. For the final pieces of his scheme to fall into place he needs a woman to play the part of his wife. Of course it can’t be just any woman, he needs someone who closely resembles Shahbandar’s late wife. Enter Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), an exotic dancer of Eurasian stock who just happens to be a ringer for the former Mrs Shahbandar. This is the leverage Harry hopes to use to get near enough to both the billionaire and his precious artifact. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen this, so I’ll stick to saying that the humour and suspense come not only from watching how the best laid plans come unstuck but how they can be pasted back together again.

Shirley MacLaine & Michael Caine 

Michael Caine had just done Alfie and The Ipcress File before this movie and had pretty much cornered the market for mouthy cockneys. It’s a lot of fun watching his Harry Dean go from the assured, smooth operator of the opening to the increasingly flustered and shouty blunderer of the rest of the film. Shirley MacLaine is probably even better as the would-be pawn who ends up bailing Harry out of a succession of uncomfortable situations. When one remembers that the actress doesn’t even open her mouth for the first half hour or so it just proves what a classy performer she is. Herbert Lom was another piece of great casting and always gave a memorable performance in every thing I’ve seen him in. He more or less plays two roles in this film and does so with the greatest of ease. Ronald Neame directed fluidly and kept the pace tight throughout. He also handled the combination of humour and suspense with a deft touch, maintaining a nice balance all the way. It’s also worth mentioning that this gentleman celebrated his 98th birthday last year since he’s one of the few remaining links to the golden age of cinema – here’s hoping he gets to celebrate many more.

Gambit is on DVD in the UK via Second Sight and they’ve done an excellent job on the presentation. The anamorphic scope transfer looks fantastic with strong, bright colours and a clean, sharp image. The disc has the added bonus of carrying a commentary track with the director, something I always appreciate on the rare occasion it’s available for older movies. This film is also now available in the US via Universal’s burn on demand programme – currently exclusive to Amazon. I have no idea how the editions stack up against each other but I will say that I managed to pick up my R2 on sale before Christmas for an absolute pittance. It remains to be seen whether the R1 counterpart will drop significantly in price. All told, I enjoyed the film enormously. It’s a delightful and fun piece right from the start, and I can’t say it disappoints on any level. The perfect tonic for those bleak evenings in the depths of winter – highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1960s, Michael Caine, Ronald Neame, Shirley MacLaine

 
 
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