The House of the Seven Hawks


The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) has a potentially interesting premise. There’s an American charter boat skipper with a laid-back approach to the law operating out of a foreign port, which straight away recalls Harry Morgan in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. There’s a trio of shadowy figures – a fat man, an effete and prissy assistant, and a none too smart bodyguard – plotting on the periphery, so it’s hard not to be reminded of Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Naturally, we also have a brace of females whose motives and loyalties are difficult to pin down. Such a setup promises much, but the movie itself delivers only sporadically.

John Nordley is scratching out a living on the English coast, hiring out his boat for charter. Despite not having clearance to leave British waters, his latest client – an elderly Dutchman going by the name of Anselme (Gerard Heinz) – promises a fat reward if Nordley will run him as far as the Netherlands. Bearing in mind the money involved, Nordley reckons it’s worth the risk and agrees. Unfortunately, just as the vessel is in sight of its destination, Nordley finds that his passenger has passed away in his cabin. A quick search reveals that Anselme had a kind of crude map overlay taped to his body. Sensing it could be important, Nordley appropriates the document, and his suspicions are borne out when a young woman in a motor launch (Linda Christian) turns up purporting to be the deceased’s daughter. Not finding the document, she quickly takes off, and events move pretty fast at this point. It turns out that the dead man was in reality a member of the Dutch police traveling incognito and the document is sought by those on both sides of the law. As such, Nordley has stumbled into a murky situation where everyone seems to know a whole lot more than he does, yet his cooperation, or at least his apparent knowledge of the whereabouts of the map key, is in great demand. What it all boils down to is a hunt for missing Nazi loot, and Nordley has his hands full trying to stay one step ahead of the police, criminals and duplicitous women.

Adapted from a Victor Canning novel, The House of the Seven Hawks flatters to deceive. As I mentioned above, all the ingredients would seem to be in place for an intriguing little thriller. And yet it never really sparks into life. Richard Thorpe’s direction is passable enough, and the location work in the Netherlands is attractive. Still, with the exception of a handful of scenes it all looks a bit nondescript. This kind of tale cries out for some moody or interesting visuals to generate or accentuate the suspense and mystery elements, but that rarely happens. However, a bigger problem is the script. I haven’t read Canning’s novel so I can’t say whether the fault lies with the source material or Jo Eisinger’s adaptation. Either way, the fact remains that the pace fades once the action moves to the Netherlands. The movie runs for around 90 minutes and I think it could have been a better piece if a bit of trimming had been done. There’s too much talk and a lot of it’s pretty dull to boot.

What kept my interest in the movie alive was mainly the presence of Robert Taylor. He’d had a great run in the movies throughout the 50s and had some first-rate work under his belt. His role here as the skipper with a fondness for bending the rules when the price was right seems like a good piece of casting. In truth, he doesn’t disappoint, although the part fails to offer the depth or complexity that played to his strengths as a performer. It’s Taylor’s sardonic and cynical delivery of some pretty banal dialogue that just about keeps the whole thing afloat though. At first, I thought that Linda Christian’s femme fatale was going to provide the movie with a much needed lift, but she’s given far too little to do and disappears far too soon. Which means that there’s more screen time for Nicole Maurey, but her character is a lot less interesting. As it happens, I recently watched Ms Maurey in Robert Hamer’s The Scapegoat, where she was handed a far better role. Eric Pohlmann and David Kossoff played the principal villains, the latter adding a touch of quirky humor, but it has to be said they don’t manage to create the necessary degree of menace; there’s never the feeling that Taylor won’t be able to handle this pair. The other supporting roles of note are filled by Donald Wolfit and Philo Hauser.

The House of the Seven Hawks is a film I’d never seen until I picked up the DVD a while back. It’s available in the US as part of the Warner Archive and as a pressed disc in Italy. I have that Italian release and I have to say it presents the film nicely. The image is 1.78:1 and generally looks fine, without any noticeable print damage and it’s pretty sharp throughout. There’s the option to watch the film in English either with or without Italian subtitles and an Italian dub is also available. Extras consist of the trailer and a gallery. So, how does the movie stack up overall? Personally, I have a soft spot for thrillers of this era and anything with Robert Taylor is always welcome. Having said that, there’s no getting away from the fact that the movie doesn’t represent the best of either. In all honesty, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done elsewhere, and done better.


41 thoughts on “The House of the Seven Hawks

  1. I watched this on Italian TV a couple of decades ago and must admit, thought of it as little more than an adequate potboiler – Thorpe and Taylor certainly did much better work in their British costume dramas -I think you more than give it its due here buddy 🙂


    • No question about it, it’s nowhere near the best work of either the director or star. I don’t feel it’s a bad film exactly, it passes the time pleasantly enough but there’s nothing there to really grab you either. I suppose you could say it has the hallmarks of one of those “going through the motions” exercises.


      • I always wonder if a lot of these films were made with MGM’s European frozen funds and come across accordingly – I mean, I know Gene Kelly worked in Europe in part because as a liberal he needed to get away from the witchhunts but that was hardly Taylor’s worry!


          • No, I don’t think so 🙂 But it was much cheaper to shoot here then (still is, actually) but there were huge limitations of moving cash in those days so with a star who was being moved into smaller budget movies for the end of their contract this would make sense – this was his last MGM film on his long-term contract, right? I think contracts would be would down like this quite often when their box office clout was on the wain.


            • Whether their star was high or low, many American stars were willing to work overseas for extended periods because the US tax laws in the 1950’s gave huge tax breaks to US citizens working overseas. Income tax rates were high then. I assume this was all to encourage post WW2 nation rebuilding, shaking loose those frozen assets, and resumption of commerce.
              (This is no longer the case today. In fact, tax rates for a US citizen or company operating overseas are very high.)
              Another example would be Gregory Peck, who made Man with a Million, The Purple Plain, and , Roman Holiday during overseas stints.
              I love to watch Donald Wolfit in just about anything. He is always intriguing.


              • Yes, I believe the tax situation at the time was another reason why a lot of US stars worked in Europe and other locations then.

                And Donald Wolfit is one of those immediately recognizable faces – he appeared in a fair few episodes of the rather good ITC show Ghost Squad.


  2. I’ve always enjoyed this film and agree entirely with your rating. I just enjoyed it for what it was – light mystery adventure. I agree Linda Christian was more interesting.
    I’ve just ordered it from the Spanish Amazon, so thanks for info.


    • Yes, that’s probably the right approach to take. It’s not the kind of movie I’d be comfortable recommending outright to anyone unfamiliar with it; there are lots of aspects that could and should have been improved on. However, it’s not without merit either.


  3. Yes, I feel very much the same as Vienna about this modest thriller. Without looking for more than it might promise I find it pretty satisfying overall. Without Taylor it would be very much less though. He was coming to the end of his long contract with MGM and, in fact, after this film moved into a fairly long-running (and, I think, very good) TV series “The Detectives”. End of an era and for me there is a sense of that with this film. It’s comfortable viewing for 90 minutes though.


    • “Comfortable viewing” is a pretty good description Jerry. You know what you’re going to get from very early on. I’ve no particular complaints on that score but I do wish the pace could have been tightened a bit.

      This was indeed the last of Taylor’s pictures for MGM. He then made The Hangman with Michael Curtiz at Paramount before moving on to his TV show.


  4. I’m a big Taylor fan too but I haven’t seen this one, so I’d be very interested as a completist and by the sounds of it wouldn’t be too disappointed. He was more interesting to me as he aged. best!


    • Definitely worth a look Kristina, but I wouldn’t go in expecting to see one of Taylor’s best.

      I quite agree that Taylor got better as he got older. Generally, he took more chances and his performances throughout the 50s in particular are quite rewarding, although even his earlier post-war work is interesting.


  5. Although Taylor was no longer the box office King he once was, I like the work he did throughout the fifties. Like many romantic era stars he matured quite nicely into a tougher image resulting in some solid efforts like The Last Hunt.


    • I think Taylor’s 50s work is very strong Mike. There’s a good blend of westerns, noirs and historicals in there. Many of the movies themselves are very good and even in the case of the few which were, let’s say, less good, Taylor wasn’t the weak link or the one who let the side down.

      The Last Hunt is a fantastic film, a pretty tough one in some ways but very rewarding too. Taylor is on top of his game in that one.


  6. Colin,
    In 1947 MGM purchased studios at Elstree Way and established “MGM-British Studios”, conscious of the fact that overseas audiences contributed considerable income to the studio.

    In late 1950, Britain introduced the “Eady Levy” – a levy imposed upon the price of film tickets, the proceeds of which were to be shared by exhibitors and qualifying British films. One of the intentions of this “subsidy” was to increase and encourage film makers to produce their product in Britain and so employ indigenous actors, technicians and film crew. To qualify as a British film, at least 85% of the film had to be shot in the UK or the Commonwealth countries and there was a restriction on non-British salaries, paid. This benefit was abandoned in 1985.

    Over the years MGM had taken advantage of the proceeds from this arrangement by complying with the specified requirements, and “The House of the Seven Hawks” was just one of the MGM films completed thereunder. Despite the fact that the Studio, (in accordance with “Hollywood Anti-Trust Ruling of 1948”), had been required to divest itself of its dedicated USA theatre chain, it still retained its overseas properties and needed “product” to keep the Studio’s investments viable.

    In 1957, Robert Taylor appeared in MGM’s adventure/thriller, “Tip On A Dead Jockey”, directed by Richard Thorpe, and based upon one of his ten stories in a book by Irwin Shaw. It is an interesting fact that Alfred Hitchcock initially “optioned” the book but eventually abandoned it. The film apparently met with MGM’s approval, and so, in 1959, Thorpe was chosen to direct Taylor once more in “The House of the Seven Hawks”. This prolific director was noted for his ability to complete an assignment “on time and budget” rather than for his artistic capabilities….and this 1959 production suffered from this.

    The title of the original story ” The House of The Seven Flies” by British Author, Victor Canning, was sensibly changed for the film. Canning was also the author of “The Rainbird Pattern” (1972), the book that Hitchcock turned into his final film, “Family Plot” (1976).

    Jo Eisinger, a former newspaperman, wrote the script. He was credited as a joint writer and adaptor of the 1946 film noir, “Gilda”. Much of his work was in that genre, having written the screenplay for “Night and the City” (1950) and “The System” (1953) as well as, both the original story and the screenplay for ” The Sleeping City” (1950); and “Crime of Passion” (1957); et al. His experience extended to both radio and television, where he wrote a number of segments for the radio series, “Adventures of Sam Spade” in addition to six episodes of the television series “Danger Man” (1960-1961).

    Despite Robert Taylor’s solid performance and the support of other members of the cast, it is a disappointment that “The House of the Seven Hawks” did not achieve the excitement/ suspense that Hitchcock may have engendered, but simply became an “interesting” entertainment that could have been better.


    • Thanks very much for filling in so much background information there Rod. It’s always great to have that kind of context available and so be able to assess a film within it. Thorpe’s direction, for example, is perfectly competent but the film could have used some “spark” to enliven the more humdrum passages. As I said in the introduction to the piece, the story and the talent involved, not to mention the attractive location work, promise a lot. Although that’s never really fulfilled, the film is still reasonably entertaining. I think the fact that it had the potential to be better is what sticks in my mind most.


    • I would like to add my thanks to Rod for this contextual insight into the background of the making of this movie and others from that time. Makes it all make sense.

      I had an aunt who went to work at MGM Elstree in 1947 as a telephone switchboard operator and she would sometimes visit with good background stories to tell. I vividly remember her telling us how sad and shocked everyone had been when Bob Taylor’s marriage to Barbara Stanwyck ended on the rocks. It seemed everyone there felt great fondness for Taylor the man.


    • Hi Chris. I enjoyed the film well enough and it’s not a bad movie at all. At the same time it’s not that great either. It’s not the kind of thing I’d urge anyone to rush out and purchase. If you’re a fan of Taylor then it’s worth seeing, but it’s not essential.


  7. I’ll have to catch up with HOUSE OF THE SEVEN HAWKS even though your review makes the film sound like a generic product. I just like watching Robert Taylor’s post-war work. He starred in some important films pre-war, but he was a more interesting actor post-war. He would have fit right in to what we Americans call “the European art film.” For instance I’ve always found FOREIGN INTRIGUE (1956) fascinating even though nothing in particular happens: it’s Robert Mitchum soaking up European locations and atmosphere, and that’s enough. Of course, to Europeans, that film is probably nothing special because it’s shot in their back yard, in addition to the fact that nothing in particular happens ….


    • Possibly. I do like these kinds of films, despite their faults, and they offer a snapshot of a Europe that’s now changed a lot. Sometimes the locations and atmosphere are worth it on their own, and you get the impression from time to time that the filmmakers were emphasizing those aspects over the plots. They offer the opportunity for an interesting compare and contrast exercise with wholly US based productions of the time if nothing else.


  8. Pingback: Venetian Bird | Riding the High Country

    • Personally, I don’t regret watching, or for that matter purchasing a copy of, the movie, Gord. But yes, it’s no great shakes and while I didn’t dislike it and will in time give it another go, I can also quite understand your finding it disappointing.


    • That’s it, you kind of hope for something better when you see Taylor’s name in the credits. It’s never going to be a classic but it may play better for you somewhere down the line if approached with adjusted expectations – that sometimes happens.


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