I’m unsure how to categorise a film like Hustle (1975). Should I refer to it as neo-noir, post-noir, or use some other unwieldy title? Let’s just put it this way, if the movie had been made twenty years earlier it would have been classed as film noir. It has all the ingredients of classic era noir but it’s just not of the right vintage. As a result we’re left with a stylish 70s critique of a corrupt system and a world that’s lost its way. Incidentally, it’s also a damned fine film.

Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds) is a homicide cop with a long list of things wrong in his life. At first glance everything might seem just dandy since we first see him reclining in bed and being pampered by his beautiful French girlfriend. However, his situation is far from ideal. The girlfriend, Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), works as an upmarket call girl and Gaines is just about dealing with this. The two of them plan and dream of hopping a jet and seeing out their days in Rome but neither one really has the ability to break away from their lifestyles. Nicole’s excuse is the need to earn a living and Gaines keeps putting it on the long finger, preferring to gaze at the fading photographic calender tacked on his office wall whilst indulging in idle fantasy. In addition, his job is increasingly getting on top of him and shows no signs of improving as his next case looms. The body of a young girl is found washed up on the beach and triggers an investigation that will eventually expose corruption in high places and drive Gaines to finally become more than a mere spectator. The girl in question was a hooker/dancer, a runaway whose life descended into seediness instead of the glamour she sought. Everyone appears inclined to write the whole thing off as another pathetic suicide, everyone except the girl’s father that is. Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson) is a Korean War vet with an axe to grind and an obsessive streak. It’s his unwillingness to let the matter lie that pushes Gaines to dig ever deeper until the truth is exposed. By the end of the movie that truth is laid bare but, as in life, it doesn’t necessarily help anyone. The ending itself is a real choker and unapologetically noir in tone.


Robert Aldrich generally invested his films with a brutal honesty and cynicism, and Hustle isn’t any exception in that regard. He never shies away from the unsavoury and paints a bleak picture of 1970s America, a place where average people are simply nobodies and the wealthy are hopelessly corrupt – in Phil Gaines words, “Guatemala with colour TV.” That rank degeneracy is best exemplified by the villain of the piece, a marvellously sleazy turn by Eddie Albert. In the lead, Burt Reynolds does very well and shows that, when the director and material were right, he was more than capable as an actor. He’s made an excessive number of fairly ropey films but, here and there, the odd gem turns up. He has some excellent moments in this movie, especially when his simmering jealously is dangerously near the surface as he tortures himself listening to Nicole take dirty phone calls from her faceless clients. Catherine Deneuve displayed the right kind of cool detachment that was necessary for her part, and she’s certainly very easy on the eyes. There’s plenty of great support from Paul Winfield, Eileen Brennan and Ernest Borgnine but Ben Johnson rises above them all. He turns in an absolute blinder as the emotionally scarred veteran who feels his country owes him something, and has allowed that massive chip on his shoulder to tear his family apart. The way he forces himself to confront the lifestyle his daughter adopted is as painful for the viewer to watch as it is for him to experience. A real class act was Mr Johnson.

Paramount’s R2 DVD of Hustle offers an excellent image, as was usually the case with that company. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and sharp throughout, and I can see no reason to criticise it. However, there’s absolutely nothing in the way of extra content and that is a little disappointing. Overall, I’d rate Hustle as a very fine example of modern noir from a highly accomplished director and a cast that’s uniformly good.

Charley Varrick


The term “underrated movie” is one that tends to get thrown around with abandon these days and its overuse is in danger of rendering it meaningless. However, there are times when that label is most certainly appropriate, and Charley Varrick (1973) is a prime example. I’ve no real explanation for this, but I do have a hunch that it frequently comes down to other work by the people involved dominating the thoughts of film fans. For most people (if they’ve heard the names at all) Don Siegel is identified with Dirty Harry, and Walter Matthau with comedic roles alongside Jack Lemmon. Without wishing to disparage any of those films, it is a shame that such thinking has lead to what is arguably the best work by both of these men being virtually forgotten.

Charley Varrick (Matthau) calls himself The Last of the Independents, something that’s true on two levels – his crop dusting operation is in terminal decline due to the rise of the conglomerates, and the small-time criminal activities he’s turned to are overshadowed by organised crime. When the botched robbery of a tiny New Mexico bank yields a huge payday Charley realises that something is very badly wrong. His sole surviving partner, Harman (Andy Robinson), can’t believe their luck but Charley’s been around long enough to recognise the stench of mob money and the consequences of stealing it. When an apparently unstoppable hitman (Joe Don Baker) goes to work the chase is on, and Charley has to figure out a way of staying one step ahead of both the law and the mob. What follows is a violent and dangerous game of criminal chess played out amid the hick towns and trailer parks of the southwest. Charley Varrick starts out as a man who shouldn’t be expected to engage our sympathy (after all he is the leader of a gang of murderous thieves), but by the end of the film we’re rooting for him – when the odds are stacked so heavily against a man it’s hard not to find yourself taking his part. Added to this Charley is, almost perversely, the only figure who displays any real honour or integrity – this petty hood is the only honest one in a world of crooked bankers, sadistic killers, lowlife chiselers and sharp suited mafia front men.

Sheree North & Walter Matthau - Charley Varrick

Although Walter Matthau’s sourpuss features seem destined to remain forever associated with his comic roles he made a trio of tough crime pictures in the early seventies; The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Charley Varrick. The fact that he was able to switch genres so effortlessly and credibly says much for the talent and versatility of the man. While he plays Charley Varrick as a cool and efficient veteran crook he still manages to fit in a few examples of his trademark deadpan humour. I’d have no hesitation in saying that this is the best I’ve seen of Matthau, and his career was by no means characterised by poor performances. The other standout member of the cast was Joe Don Baker as the smiling, heartless contract killer. Having said that, there is no particularly weak playing and John Vernon, Andy Robinson and Sheree North all give good solid support. Don Siegel rarely gets mentioned when top directors are discussed, but the fact remains that he regularly churned out tight intelligent films that eschewed pretension and made everything look deceptively simple. This and The Shootist are his two best films in my opinion, and I’d hate to have to choose between them. And last but not least, there’s a fine score from Lalo Schifrin that’s just about the ideal accompaniment for both the period and the mood.

As for the DVD, Charley Varrick is available in R2 in the UK from Fremantle in a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer (I think the R1 is an open-matte affair). It may not be pristine and it’s an almost barebones disc but there’s no major problems and the price is definitely right. All in all, Charley Varrick is a high class crime movie that really ought to be better known.

Hard Times


There’s something marvellously reassuring about sitting down to watch a Charles Bronson movie. You pretty much know what you’re going to get, and during his early-mid 70s peak that usually translated into an uncomplicated and entertaining film. Most of his work falls into the action category but the best of it managed to be a cut above the standard thick ear fare. Hard Times (1975) has long been a favourite of mine due to the simple yet engrossing story, the powerful fight scenes, the star pairing of Bronson and Coburn, and the presence of Walter Hill behind the camera. This is very much a man’s film, something that we rarely see nowadays – it’s tough, gritty and violent without ever becoming gratuitous or allowing the characters to lose touch with their humanity.

The story takes place in 1930s New Orleans and perfectly captures the spirit of the depression era. Chaney (Bronson) is a professional bare-knuckle streetfighter who roams the US, moving from one drab city to another making his living the hard way. Speed (James Coburn) is a chiseling promoter with a big mouth and a gambling habit, always on the make and always on the lookout for a likely prospect. There’s no backstory provided for these men, no clue offered as to how they arrived at this place in life – they just are. When Speed first sees Chaney in action, felling a much younger opponent with one devastating punch, he knows he’s found the fighter he’s been looking for. The taciturn hitter and the garrulous wide boy form a partnership and set about making some real money. However, to make money you have to have money so Speed borrows enough from a local loan shark to set up the first of a series of fights. The first half of the movie deals with the development of the releationship between Chaney and Speed as they seek out the funds necessary to permit a showdown with a local champ and his shady boss. There’s also the diversion of a romance for Chaney with a woman (Jill Ireland) he picks up in a low rent diner. One might imagine the aforementioned showdown would form the climax of the story, but it doesn’t. When Speed squanders the winnings, and thus places his life in danger with the mobsters he borrowed from, Chaney has to decide if he will risk all he has fought for to save the skin of a man who doesn’t deserve it.

Charles Bronson - would you want to argue with this man?

Bronson was in his mid 50s when he made Hard Times but, aside from his weathered facial features, you’d never guess it. He moves through the brutal fights with a kind of graceful, measured confidence. Unlike many more modern films where the hero appears to be an unbreakable superman, Bronson looks like a man who can and has been physically hurt. Those weary, hard-bitten features and his economy with words are perfect for the role – I’d say this may well be his finest hour. In contrast, Coburn’s Speed is a boastful, grinning wastrel who thinks nothing of using everyone around him. His performance here is a broad one and can grate a little at times. He’s an actor that I have a lot of time for and who I’ve admired in many roles, but he did have a tendency to overcook it on occasion and I think he does so here. Strother Martin is great, as always, in a supporting role as the medic with an opium habit. The only really false note comes from Jill Ireland, an actress who never fails to disappoint. Mercifully, her part is not a major one so her wooden performance doesn’t detract from an otherwise excellent film. Hard Times was Walter Hill’s debut as a director and it’s a classy start to a career. He has a real feel for the period and the characters and creates a very believable sense of time and place. He chose to shoot much of the film in old warehouses and dingy nightspots which positively drip atmosphere. The staging of the fights is especially noteworthy and I’d rank them among the most realistic and exciting examples ever put on film.

The transfer on the R2 DVD is a fine one from Sony. The image is anamorphic scope and is strong and true, good colours and sharpness with no noticeable damage. Extras consist of a trailer and brief text biographies for Bronson, Coburn and Hill. Hard Times is a great film with a great cast and a director who’s one of my personal favourites. It’s a movie that tells a simple, straightforward story without resort to sentimentality or sensationalism. Highly recommended.

The McKenzie Break


Anyone who’s a fan of war movies will be familiar with the WWII POW/escape variety. One characteristic of such movies is that they rely (by necessity) far less on action than they do on character. The other aspect of note is that they are almost always told from the perspective of the American or British prisoners. I say almost because there are at least two exceptions that I can think of, The McKenzie Break (1970) being one of them. Having German POWs makes for an interesting approach to making a film since this premise automatically challenges the viewers sympathies. Normally, in any kind of prison movie, it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for those who are locked up – but this film turns everything on its head by portraying the leader of the inmates as an unrepentant, amoral and ruthless Nazi.

McKenzie is a POW camp situated in a desolate, sparsely populated area of Scotland. Its purpose is to hold captured German officers, principally submariners and flyers. However, right from the opening moments, it’s clear that all is not well. There is a war of wills going on between the camp commander, Major Perry (Ian Hendry), and the prisoners’ leader Schleutter (Helmut Griem). It’s suspected that there’s a reason for the organised disobedience, which goes beyond plain contrariness. In an effort to get to the bottom of it all,  Intelligence dispatches one Captain Connor (Brian Keith) with a brief to establish the cause of the ongoing trouble. Connor is a soft spoken maverick with a penchant for taking risks, and it’s no surprise  that the film soon develops into a duel between him and the charismatic Schleutter. Connor knows full well that Schleutter is planning an escape, he even has a fair idea how it’ll be done, but he hopes to bag bigger game and gambles on giving him enough rope to hang himself. Bar a few action scenes, the film plays out mostly as an espionage/detective story, with Connor doing the hunting and tracking and Schleutter, for the most part, managing to stay one step ahead. It’s  also worth pointing out the tension and rivalry within the camp, both on the German and British sides. Generally, POW flicks tend to portray the inmates as a united group of disparate characters banding together for the common good. Obviously there are  movies, such as Stalag 17, that feature a rotten apple, but off the top of my head I can’t think of another that presents a house so clearly divided. While there’s a mild abrasiveness and a degree of mistrust between Perry and Connor, it’s nothing compared to the sadistic hatred Schleutter displays towards his fellow prisoners from the Luftwaffe.

Brian Keith

Brian Keith was one of those amiable actors who always seemed to make things look very easy. Although he’s getting on a bit, and lays the Oirish accent on a bit thick at times, he still manages to put in a good and believable performance. The best parts of the movie for me were those where Connor and Schleutter faced off and traded blows verbally. There’s an especially good scene that takes place in the hospital in the aftermath of the murder of one of the German prisoners. In a grotesque parody of a wake, the two leads share a whiskey over the body of the dead man while each probes for weak spots in the armour of the other. Helmut Griem had the difficult task of playing a morally repugnant character while at the same time trying to imbue him with enough humanity and charisma to make him believable as someone capable of commanding the respect of all those under him. That he manages to do this and pull off the even neater trick of doing reprehensible things but still retaining a modicum of sympathy from the viewer is a credit to him. The McKenzie Break was directed by Lamont Johnson and it’s his one of his few forays outside of TV work. He handles the material competently but with no great style – the Irish locations, standing in for Scotland, are nicely used in the latter half of the film but the acting and storyline are what carry the film more than visuals.

MGM’s R2 DVD offers a pleasing enough image. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer has no damage to speak of and good detail. The colours are on the subdued side but that’s how they’re supposed to look as far as I can tell. The only extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer, but that’s par for the course for MGM catalogue titles. Overall, The McKenzie Break is a well-made suspenseful war movie that offers a different spin on the traditional POW tale.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

About a year ago I wrote a short series on the depiction of Jesse James in the movies. At the time, I skipped over The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) for the simple reason that I hadn’t seen the movie in years and didn’t have a copy to hand. Well I eventually got around to watching this a few days ago and thought I’d post my thoughts on it for the sake of completeness. I had recalled the film as being pretty good, but after my recent viewing I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bad – it has too many interesting things going for it – but it did leave me feeling disappointed. The performances, and some of the ideas, save it but the direction is the weak point for me. I suppose I really should come clean here and say that Philip Kaufman isn’t one of my favorite directors, so that may have affected my opinion somewhat.

The whole film takes place within a fairly short space of time, concentrating on the lead up to, execution and aftermath of the bank robbery of the title. Mainly it’s a character study of Jesse James (Robert Duvall) and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson), with the latter getting more screen time and coming across the more sympathetic of the two. With the possibility of an amnesty for their past crimes being granted by the Missouri state legislature, Cole Younger (recuperating after a run in with Pinkerton agents) rides for Northfield with the aim of heading off Jesse before he can raid the bank. Along the way, he learns that the amnesty he was hoping for won’t be forthcoming, so a change of plan is in order. The scenes in Northfield, which make up the central part of the story, represent both the best and worst aspects of the picture. It’s here that the yokel outlaws get their first glimpse of the new technology and customs that will soon change their world forever. Some of these scenes work very well, such as the shock of being confronted by an early motorized vehicle. On the other hand, the almost interminable baseball game, replete with Keystone Kops style pratfalls, comes across as needlessly self-indulgent and slows the whole film down. The idea of including it was sound enough but Kaufman drags it out to the point where it becomes distracting. It’s worth comparing this sequence to the camel race at the start of Ride the High Country as they’re essentially making the same point; the difference, however, is that Peckinpah knew where to draw the line.

Robertson is excellent as the thoughtful and charismatic Cole. He plays him as a man of the world and a realist, a guy who sees change coming and who is smart enough to see that dwelling on the past does no good. Duvall’s Jesse is the complete opposite – an unbalanced psychotic who cannot let go of the past and who treats all who stand in his way with a ruthless contempt. He talks in grandiose terms of having visions and excuses his excesses by referring to the guerrilla action he’s involved in. Both men give strong, believable performances that help ground the film. The supporting cast is also noteworthy with R G Armstrong playing the ill-fated Clell Miller, and old-timers Elisha Cook Jr and Royal Dano getting small but important roles. One other point I’d like to make relates to the way Frank James was portrayed; in every other movie I’ve seen, this character was shown to be a tough, smart but very human figure. In this movie, however, John Pearce plays him as a vaguely simple-minded soul who lives only to carry out his brother’s wishes. I’ve no idea if this closer to reality or not, but it’s a marked contrast to all other portrayals. I said earlier that I wasn’t all that impressed by Kaufman’s direction and, apart from the aforementioned baseball sequence, he also handles the actual robbery poorly. The scenes in the bank are fine, but as soon as the action takes to the streets it falls down. It’s difficult not to compare this to Walter Hill’s superlative filming of the same events in The Long Riders, where I found myself riveted. Kaufman has the camera swooping all over the place, yet there’s none of the intensity or power of Hill’s version. There are some nice shots of landscape and forest but the whole thing has a slightly cheap look, which is odd since he almost perversely manages to evoke an authentic sense of time and place. I don’t know, I think if he could just have changed the emphasis here and there we could have had one of the best cinema versions of these events. As it stands, the movie seems like it’s trying too hard to be an art house representation of what is really a fairly straightforward story.

The R1 DVD from Universal is barebones, save for the inclusion of the trailer, but the picture quality is excellent. I certainly didn’t notice any significant damage and the colours, while subdued, are true. There’s a nice, tight 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and the disc is available very cheaply. In general this movie has some good ideas and fine performances, but I feel it could have been so much better. Like all other versions it’s littered with inaccuracies (for example, Jim Younger’s facial wound was sustained in Northfield, and not earlier as the film states) but that’s no big deal for me. I’m still of the opinion that The Long Riders remains the best telling of the story of the James/Younger gang, and that Kaufman’s movie is an interesting but flawed addition to the mythology surrounding these men.



Some movies just can’t seem to decide what they want to be, and that’s pretty much the case with Breakout (1975). Charles Bronson made a string of pretty good and entertaining movies through the 70s, none of which were ever going to draw too much critical acclaim. Breakout boasts an embarrassment of talent both in front of and behind the camera, but never manages to make the best use of it. The main problem lies with the script, which lurches from near farcical comedy, to drama, then on to action, and back again without ever really succeeding at any of them. In the end, the movie tries to be too many things and just loses its way.

Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is a wealthy American who finds himself kidnapped in Chile, hauled off to Mexico to face trumped up charges in a rigged trial, and sentenced to 28 years in a prison run by Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache of The Wild Bunch). It’s never made clear exactly why Wagner needs to be subjected to this treatment; all we know is that both his powerful grandfather (John Huston) and a rogue CIA agent wish to see him safely out of the way. Only Wagner’s wife Ann (Jill Ireland) seems intent on proving his innocence or, failing that, breaking him out of jail. It is to this end that she comes to hire Nick Colton (Bronson), a less than successful charter pilot. As Wagner begins to decay physically and psychologically, a number of attempts are hatched to spring him from his incarceration. A combination of poor planning and betrayal ensures that they fail, until Colton decides to take the bull by the horns and do what no-one expects. This is another problem with the film; after the total incompetence of the first couple of botched jailbreaks, we are suddenly presented with an operation that’s planned and executed with military precision.

Charles Bronson - clearly not happy with the choice of curtains in this scene

Bronson is about the best thing in the film and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in some lighter moments. However, those moments of clowning around with Randy Quaid and Sheree North sit a little uncomfortably with the sombre tone of the prison scenes where Duvall is slowly disintegrating. Director Tom Gries and the writers didn’t seem to know whether they wanted to make a serious prison movie or a spoof caper, and ended up falling between two stools. Thus we get the startling sight of Quaid dragged up as a Mexican whore juxtaposed with scenes of Duvall breaking down and assaulting his own wife. I don’t think I’ve seen Duvall give too many bad performances and I couldn’t fault his playing here. He’s pretty convincing as a man who goes from being strong and self-confident to a character whose health and will are gradually broken. As for Jill Ireland, the less said the better. She was a fairly limited actress whose blank countenance was ill-suited to playing the kind of emotional role this film called for. John Huston has a small cameo role that’s really wasted as it goes nowhere. In fact, his character simply disappears about half way into the story and is never mentioned again. Emilio Fernandez is similarly underused, and doesn’t have much more to do than leer sadistically in his bogeyman part.

Breakout has been given a nice anamorphic transfer to DVD by Columbia. The disc in R2 is a barebones affair, but it can be picked up for next to nothing. When you get a movie with a cast like this, a score by Jerry Goldsmith and cinematography by Lucien Ballard, it’s not unreasonable to expect something more satisfying. On top of all the other issues there are some exceedingly poor effects shots; notably a man falling to his death through a tiled roof that looks suspiciously like it’s made of canvas, and the appalling demise of another guy who’s supposed to get minced by a plane propeller. I wouldn’t call Breakout a total failure, it does have a few entertaining turns and Bronson is always watchable, but it could have been a whole lot better. This one’s pretty much for Bronson completists – I guess I’m guilty on that score.

The Wild Geese


As a boy I used to positively devour westerns and war movies. My friends were pretty much the same, and I can still see us, in the schoolyard or on the way home, re-enacting the action scenes from whatever movie we had seen on the telly the night before; this was back when there were only three channels (actually four in Northern Ireland) so what one had seen, all had seen. Every once in a while you got lucky and you had the chance to go to the cinema and see a big new movie. That afforded you a certain kudos as you were then in the enviable position of being able to relate all the gory details to your mates. What we all yearned for were movies with plenty of guns, explosions, daring escapes and as little mushy romantic nonsense as possible. Such was the case with The Wild Geese (1978), a film that seemed just perfect when I first saw it on release. Looking back on it now, I no longer think it’s perfect but it still retains the power to charm me, and the passing of time hasn’t made it any less fun to watch.

The story has Colonel Faulkner (Richard Burton), an ageing mercenary soldier, arriving in London for a clandestine meeting with millionaire businessman Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger). The purpose of the meeting is to arrange a raid into a fictitious African nation to free from prison a deposed leader who is facing imminent death. This will require the recruitment of the necessary personnel and the formulation of a viable plan for a rapid extraction. Too much focus on the behind-the-scenes stuff can easily scupper this kind of movie, but the finding and hiring of the officers (Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger) and men is carried off in an entertaining way and never slows down the pace. Soon the action has moved to the training camp in Africa, where the RSM (Jack Watson) gets to deliver some marvellously insulting language to the biggest names in 1970s cinema as he kicks, bullies and cajoles his out-of-condition squad into shape. The mission itself starts off well and everything looks like it may run according to schedule, but some devious machinations back in London ensures that the mercenaries will be abandoned to the tender mercies of a ruthless dictator and his Simba battalion. With their rescue flight aborted, and facing certain death, they have no choice but to trek across hostile country with the vague idea of maybe stirring up civil unrest on the way. Under constant attack, Faulkner leads his ever diminishing force south to an abandoned airfield where their last chance for salvation appears in the form of an old, beat-up, twin-engine Dakota. The climax is pure blood and thunder stuff, with Faulkner’s men making their desperate dash for freedom as the air is filled with lead and the ancient plane chugs and sputters in the background.

Andrew McLaglen was arguably at his best when directing this kind of Boy’s Own adventure, and he managed some quite effective scenes here. The action set pieces are all well handled, the stand outs being the scene where a jet strafes and bombs the mercenary column while it’s stalled on an exposed bridge, the parachute jump sequence, and the bloody but exciting climax. The movie runs well over two hours but McLaglen controlled the pace so well that it seems a lot less. The stars of The Wild Geese were all getting a bit long in the tooth for this kind of exertion but the four leads give amiable enough performances and seem very comfortable around each other. While Burton definitely looks the worse for wear, that weary quality kind of fits the role he’s playing. The old-time soldier of fortune looking for a last big score in a world that’s changing around him plays like an amalgam of Burton’s own character and that of Mike Hoare, who served as technical adviser on the film. Neither Harris nor Moore really have to stretch themselves in the acting department but both at least give the impression they were having a hell of a lot of fun. Hardy Kruger gets a bit more to do as the crossbow wielding Afrikaaner who has his preconceptions challenged and finds himself rethinking his position and prejudices. Stewart Granger has only a small part yet he brings an oily condescension to the part of the duplicitous Matherson that makes for a great screen villain.

The Wild Geese has been out on DVD for a while now, and the R2 disc from Mosaic presents the film pretty well. The transfer is anamorphic and quite clean. There’s an entertaining commentary track featuring Roger Moore and producer Euan Lloyd, and a documentary on Lloyd’s career. All told, it’s not a bad package and provides good value. There is a new edition slated for release in March but I doubt if it will add anything new, we’ll see. This isn’t a very deep or serious movie, but it is entertaining, and if you want something that will recall memories of far-off schooldays and more innocent times The Wild Geese is just the ticket.


Murder By Decree


I’ve always been a fan of Sherlock Holmes films. However, strange though it may seem, the stories and novels which inspired them never grabbed me in the same way. This may be due in part to the fact that I was first exposed to the screen Holmes rather than the literary Holmes, or it may be that my subsequent reading of Doyle’s stories left me a little underwhelmed. My earliest memories of the great detective and Dr. Watson were the films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Over the years I’ve seen many more actors take on the role, from Peter Cushing and Andre Morell through to Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. However, Rathbone and Bruce have remained the definitive screen incarnations – seems to bear out the old saying about first impressions. Murder By Decree (1978) offers Christopher Plummer in the role of Holmes and James Mason as Watson. I found them to be probably my second favorite pairing although the Cushing/Morell combination would run them pretty close.

This film has nothing to do with the Doyle stories (not always a bad thing) but simply takes his characters and transplants them into the Jack the Ripper mystery. This wasn’t the first time Holmes had been called upon to attempt to crack the famous unsolved murders on screen; that distinction belongs to A Study in Terror, made a decade before. While the earlier film was made on a more modest budget, Murder By Decree was an expensive production filled with big names. The plot has Holmes called into the case in its latter stages as a result of an anonymous tip-off. He is met with open hostility from the authorities in the form of Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle). The mysterious informants later turn out to be members of a citizens’ committee (in reality anarchist agitators) who have taken a special interest in the murders. Holmes investigation takes him through the seedy and foggy backstreets of Victorian Whitechapel, where his and Watson’s conversations with the friends of the murdered women draw him closer to an unpalatable conclusion. When he finally visits an asylum to meet an inmate called Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold), the talk he has not only confirms his suspicion but also leads that monument to logical reasoning to break down and weep. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but I will say that it will scarcely come as a surprise as it involves a fanciful theory that has been frequently expounded.

James Mason & Christopher Plummer - The game's afoot!

Christopher Plummer gives a performance as Holmes which brings out the humanity of the man better than anyone else I’ve seen. I’m not going to claim that this is Holmes as Doyle wrote him; by all accounts, Jeremy Brett managed to nail that one. Instead of the aloof character of literature we get a more rounded man and it is genuinely affecting to see him display honest emotion in the scene with Genevieve Bujold. He also gives a fine speech at the end when rails against Lord Salisbury (John Gielgud) and the hypocrisy of the powers that be. James Mason’s Watson is closer to the spirit of Doyle and not the bumbling, yet engaging, buffoon that Nigel Bruce made famous. Having said that, he does have his moments – the “You squashed my pea!” business never fails to raise a smile with me. The film is a very starry one with many good character turns: Anthony Quayle gives a wonderfully distasteful portrait of upper-class arrogance, David Hemmings is a policeman with his own private agenda, Donald Sutherland’s frightened psychic haunted by his own visions, and no Holmes film would be complete without Lestrade (Frank Finlay).

Murder By Decree is out on DVD in both R1 and R2. I have the R2 from Momentum and it has a pretty good anamorphic transfer and includes the theatrical trailer. I’m not sure if the R1 from Anchor Bay tops it but I’m happy enough with what I have. All in all, I think this is a very entertaining Holmes film which positively drips atmosphere. It features some great photography and excellent acting, and successfully blends the characters into a set of real historical circumstances. The resolution doesn’t particularly convince but, given the nature of the events, that’s always going to be the case. Unless you’re expecting a movie that sticks rigidly to Doyle’s characters you shouldn’t be disappointed.

The Revengers


The Revengers (1972) is a movie that I picked up some time ago and then just left it sitting on the shelf. I can remember seeing it offered for a bargain price and thinking that anything which had Bill Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Woody Strode in it must be worth at least a look. How very wrong I was. Having just had the misfortune of sitting through this turkey, my dearest wish is that I had let it alone on the shelf or, better yet, had never parted with cash for it in the first place. I think I’m usually fairly generous in my assessment of movies and can find something positive to take away from most of them. With The Revengers, I really tried to find something – anything – of worth, but ultimately, struck out.

I had a bad feeling right from the off, when the credits appeared to the accompaniment of the kind of theme music that screams “made-for-television” movie. However, one can’t judge a film on the basis of its title sequence and I just wrote this off as a particularly pungent slice of early 70s cheese. For a time (about a half hour or so), I thought this might turn out to be a moderately entertaining little flick – something I’m happy to settle for any day. The plot didn’t promise anything original – the family of Civil War hero John Benedict (Holden) are massacred by a bunch of comancheros during a raid on his ranch and he sets off in search of revenge – but I was okay with that. In order to assist in the pursuit of the killers he recruits a band of six ne’er-do-wells (Borgnine and Strode among them) from a Mexican prison. The fact that there are seven gunmen on a mission south of the border, and the casting, automatically evokes thoughts of both The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch. But there’s nothing remotely magnificent about the events that follow. The main problem is that the comanchero camp gets attacked too early and leaves the movie thrashing around in need of direction and drive. None of the characters behave in a rational manner and their motivations are weak in the extreme. There’s an interlude in the plot where the wounded Benedict rests up in the home of an Irish nurse (Susan Hayward) that, while kind of sweet, serves only as padding. I suppose I could go into the script’s twists and turns in more detail but I honestly can’t be bothered; it’s just too dispiriting. As for the ending, the less said about that the better.

William Holden, probably wondering how he got talked into doing this movie.

I would count myself a fan of Bill Holden and I’ve enjoyed about every performance I’ve seen him give. He could usually be depended on to provide some grit and world-weary realism but in The Revengers he just looks old and tired, although not as old and tired as I felt at the end of it. You might have thought that The Wild Bunch would have resulted in his landing more plum roles but it wasn’t to be – at least not until Network came along a few years later. Ernest Borgnine basically just chews up the scenery and Woody Strode shows his customary quiet dignity in what is a bit of a non-role. Susan Hayward’s part is a small one and, as I already mentioned, doesn’t add a hell of a lot to the story; if it weren’t for the fact that this was her last cinematic appearance it would hardly be worth noting. Whatever talents director Daniel Mann possessed, they didn’t lie in the western genre and it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that this was the only one he made. 

The Revengers is available on DVD in R2 in continental Europe but not in the UK. The transfer of this Paramount release is merely passable, and is presented in its correct scope ratio but without anamorphic enhancement. I believe the movie can be obtained in R4 on an anamorphic disc, however, I wouldn’t advise anyone to seek it out as the enhanced picture isn’t going to make an essentially lousy film any more pleasurable. Not recommended.

Red Sun


Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune take on a gang of desperadoes led by Alain Delon. Add the decorative charms of Ursula Andress and Capucine to the mix, stir it all up under the watchful eye of original Bond director Terence Young, and the result is the 1971 samurai western Red Sun. How can you not love such a movie? While you can find a number of films, from The Magnificent Seven on, that took their cue from and remade Japanese stories, the mixing of genres is not so common (I could mention a recent movie that borrows the basic premise but I don’t want to dirty up this piece by referencing it).

The  plot  goes like  this: the Japanese ambassador to the USA is travelling cross country to Washington when the train he’s using is held up by an outlaw gang. The robbery is masterminded by Link (Bronson) and Gauche (Delon), and their objective is a safe full of money. It’s just bad luck that the Asian diplomat happens to have chosen this train and gets himself robbed too. Having already murdered a few innocent people, Gauche shows just how ruthless he really is by knocking off one of the ambassador’s samurai guards, stealing a priceless sword, double-crossing Link, and leaving him for dead. So our two heroes, Mifune and Bronson, must set out in pursuit of the duplicitous Frenchman; one seeking to recover the sword and uphold his honour, and the other just seeking the stolen money that has been stolen from him. For Mifune there is the added complication that he has been given just seven days to accomplish his mission; should he fail to do so he will be forced to take his own life.

Red Sun came along towards the end of Spaghetti/Euro western cycle and it manages to add a new twist to it with the inclusion of the samurai angle. Now if someone were to offer you a meal consisting of a Spanish omelet, sushi and good old bacon & beans all mixed up together you’d probably feel a little queasy at the prospect. However, from a cinematic point of view, it doesn’t turn out so bad – in fact it manages to remain quite appetising. This is not a film that is trying to make any serious points and, as long as you keep that in mind, it provides some marvellous entertainment. Nevertheless it is nice to see the relationship between Bronson and Mifune’s characters blossom as each comes to acquire a respect for the other. Mifune is fine as the taciturn, honour bound warrior and Bronson (on the verge of international action stardom) is very likable as the wisecracking bandit. Alain Delon is a very one-dimensional villain, but the movie isn’t about character studies anyway. Capucine and Ursula Andress were really just along as eye candy, and that was alright by me. So, the film has copious amounts of gun and swordplay, the Cavalry, Mexican bandits, a marauding Comanche raiding party, and a catchy score by Maurice Jarre. It’s hard to imagine what else the producers could have thrown in.

Red Sun comes on DVD in R2 from Cinema Club in a fairly decent print, except it’s not OAR. The film should be shown 1.85:1 but the R2 is full frame. It looks like an open matte transfer, rather than pan & scan, since there is far too much headroom on view. I believe there is a widescreen version available somewhere, but I can’t recall where – Japan maybe? All in all, I found the movie undemanding and fun. Bon Appetit!