I’d seen fragments of
Jack Gold’s Jack Smight’s KALEIDOSCOPE on TV as a kid, but the impression that stuck with me was a lot of tedious card-playing (card-playing always seemed boring to me in films — still does, to a large extent — maybe it’s the 60s-70s equivalent of shots of people learning things on the internet — both poker games and computer activity are a lot less fun to watch than to DO, and movie-makers routinely portray both in a fatuously unrealistic manner calculated to offend anybody with a genuine interest). In fact, the movie has a lot more going for it, but it’s mostly buried in the narrative side-shows.
Not that there’s any problem with the central casting — Warren Beatty and Susannah York make a lovely couple. He’s his usual handsome, slightly abstracted self, and she maintains that air of wry intelligence that serves as a defence when acting in junk. The plot is derailed by a central structural blunder — instead of spending act one on Beatty’s ingenuous criminal scheme (marking the playing cards at source, at the Kaleidoscope Playing Card Factory), the movie distends this for the whole first half of the film, so that when Scotland Yard grabs him and forces him to go up against gangster and blackguard Eric Porter, the whole enterprise has just about run out of steam. The new dramatic tension does give it a kick, though, seeing it through to a reasonably enjoyable finish.
Apart from the belated appearance of suspense and drama, the scenes at Scotland Yard introduce a charming 60s quirkiness that I found irresistible. The place is first presented as a glossy marble corridor that looks more like a city hall than a police station, and it’s populated by smartly-dressed extras all doing eccentric “power walks”. It’s almost like Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Then we get top cop Clive Revill’s office, a split level museum of steam engines, which is naturally what I hope the head of the Metropolitan Police’s office is like, but alas I have my doubts.
This is all part of British cinema’s burst of self-confidence in the ’60s, where we suddenly learned that realism was something we could take or leave, as required. And the palpable joy of having an audience other than ourselves! “The Americans are watching! We don’t have to show them a realistic police station, they’ll believe anything we tell them!”
Revill’s top man is a sharpshooter called Aimes, played by the preternaturally camp Murray Melvin, to whom Warren takes an instant dislike, so we know that Warren is All Man. What’s nice about the movie is that (1) Murray Melvin kicks ass, blowing holes in bad guys with sociopathic serenity, and (2) Warren is shown to be less effective at action movie stuff than the slender, wispy-haired poof. In its way, KALEIDOSCOPE is one of the most progressive films of its time, because it casts a gay actor when it doesn’t need to, allows the audience to read him as gay, makes no comment about this, and has him do things which are markedly counter-stereotype — ultimately saving the hero and heroine from certain death.