The Taking of Studley Constable

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One could wish that author Jack Higgins had invented a Norfolk village with a less silly name than Studley Constable as the setting for his war adventure The Eagle Has Landed, or that Tom Mankiewicz, adapting it, had switched the location to somewhere with more dignity. Scratby, perhaps, or East Runton.

The John Sturges movie based on the book must have seemed a bit old-fashioned in 1976, but as I recall there was a certain market for that kind of thing at the time, as an alternative to the prevailing direction of Hollywood cinema — the IMDb’s list of ten “most popular” films for that year doesn’t feature a lot of romance — things tend to end as they do for Kong and Dwan, or Travis and Betsy, or Sissy Spacek and bucket guy — making Jenny Agutter and Donald Sutherland — the English rose and the ungulate Casanova — the screen’s sexiest couple of ’76. She even consented to do clothed scenes, but only because they were essential to the plot.

They genuinely are good together. Sutherland plays one of those sympathetic IRA men beloved of Hollywood (in a film crowded with sympathetic Nazis), and Agutter is twenty-five playing “almost nineteen,” a village girl smitten with the romantic newcomer. And she sells it. I don’t know if that was a difficult task — maybe she just defocussed her eyes and imagined chocolate eclairs — but she seems to be spectacularly interested in everything that dribble of a face is doing. Fiona finds Sutherland devilishly attractive, in a deeply weird way. The scene where he orders a bartender to suck his thumb had her all a-tremble.

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While Sutherland has never really mastered an accent in a film, and essays an extreme and wonky brogue here,  he does have fun in the role, grinning satanically and boozing a lot. He’s the only one with good dialogue. And he’s the best Irish Nazi since Stephen Boyd in THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS. Michael Caine (Jewish Nazi) tries to talk in a slightly clipped way suggestive of being German, and Robert Duvall (another no-hoper when it comes to accents, except for a rather good blue-collar New York which I was surprised to discover wasn’t his native idiom) lays it on thick, though not as badly as he would playing Watson in THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION the same year. I would love to see a movie where Sutherland does his FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY English, and Duvall does his Watson, but I think I should go mad watching it.

Caine has a line near the end about no longer driving events but being driven by them, and it’s very apt indeed, but it could apply to everything that happens in this movie from the start. Plot dictates every move, and people keep shifting out of character to allow the plot to get done. Jenny Agutter becomes a murderer — WHAT? Larry Hagman (very amusing) is at least set up as a knucklehead desperate for glory, but that’s an example of a character being machine-tooled and dropped into position to fulfill a narrative function. Spectacular accidents occur in order to move things along more briskly.

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The whole thing is swiped from …WENT THE DAY WELL? which is a much better movie. Higgins even began his novel in a post-war English graveyard, like Cavalcanti’s film, though fortunately the movie dispenses with this pilfered prologue. What Higgins added is the Churchill kidnap plot, which makes it high-concept, and the idea of the Germans as heroes, which is dicey at best. Proving that Caine’s character isn’t anti-semitic in an introductory scene smacks of special pleading, and the efforts to make Duvall’s Colonel likable count for nothing — he would have been just as effective as a bastard, since what the audience cares about is What Will Happen? We aren’t, after all, rooting for the Nazis to win, we are merely concerned by a scheme.

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Higgins reports (in his foreword to the book) that he did encounter resistance to the idea of Nazis as leads, but says that his dealings with German soldiers in the fifties had made it clear to him that “most of them were just like us.” That should worry you, Jack!

Studley Constable (that name!) cemetery is full of gravestones that wobble when anyone touches them.

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The real studly constable (right).

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16 Responses to “The Taking of Studley Constable”

  1. Is The Eagle Has Landed the one where a man falls into a river and gets mangled by a mill-wheel and it tears off his clothes to reveal a German uniform underneath? I became very preoccupied with the idea of spies having to go around dressed in two sets of clothes – it would surely be very very hot, and also very, very tight, plus make you look fat.

    I like Sutherland as a German spy in Eye of the Needle, where he once again ends up romancing one of the locals – Kate Nelligan.

    Best romantic German spy, of course, is Conrad Veidt in The Spy in Black.

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Evt1DRiKlTg My reaction to Donald Sutherland asking someone to suck his finger. (without the farting at the end) I could also get quite thigh rubby about Conrad Veidt.

  3. How vivid, Fiona.

    Here’ s Pet with some Sondheim for ya from The Seven Percent Solution

  4. The Germans insist they’re NOT spies, and wearing their own uniforms underneath is a way of preserving military honour (and maybe avoiding a firing squad if caught). And it would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky mill-wheel.

    Only Donald gets to avoid the sweaty layers.

  5. Caine as “Jewish Nazi”? I assume you mean the actor? But has he not stated that people have often? mistakenly ascribed his background as Jewish. Clariffication, please.

  6. I understand their logic, David, but the logistics! When they want to relieve themselves, do they have to unzip two sets of flies? Don’t all those layers of viscose trap sweat? And the outer layer has to be large enough to cover those German jackets with their high collars. So there’s this bunch of men wandering around looking strangely bulky, and having to pee in private. Can they even bend their arms?

  7. Maybe they were wearing “Stadium Pals.”

  8. There’s a movie in this! Double-bagged German soldiers wandering around looking strangely bulky AND concealing Stadium Pals about their person.

  9. chris schneider Says:

    At least, for romance, 1976 had THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and ROBIN AND MARION. Perhaps TAXI DRIVER would be un peu problematic when considered in this context …

    I can understand Fiona’s reaction to Sutherland, having responded to DON’T LOOK NOW during a tender period in my life. Though the “strangeness” factor is always there, admittedly. Found him appealing in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, too.

  10. Michael Caine not Jewish? I have been deceived. Oh well.

    I think men’s flies buttoned up in those days. For convenience, one might keep the German flies undone, relying on the Polish ones for propriety, but if one had to suddenly reveal one’s true colours it might be embarrassing. But fulmbling through two sets of buttons when caught short on the battlefield could be fatal!

    OK, Robin and Marian is tops. And Man Who Fell is a great boozy romance, though the bottle wins over love.

  11. “When they want to relieve themselves, do they have to unzip two sets of flies? ”

    No, Anne Bilson. In a film set in the the 1940s they’d have to unbutton two sets of flies.

  12. See above. That just makes it worse, of course.

    Triple agents were easily spotted in those days due to their stuffed resemblance to the Michelin Man.

  13. My delight in learning that Michael Caine is Jewish was short-lived.

    Non sequitur except for “German”:

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jul/14/nosferatu-director-head-stolen-germany-grave-fw-murnau?CMP=edit_2221

  14. 84 years in the ground and he still had a head to steal? Not unprecedented, but still pretty impressive.

  15. James S Says:

    Not a great film, not awful either. It has the same difficult job as “Went the Day Well” You’ve got characters you know are going to fail, and you don’t want them to succeed anyway, so how do you keep the audience engaged? WTDW does far more with this difficult problem

    One good thing about TEHL is that terrific, sort of, twist ending with Churchill/Roy Bubbles. Made the people I was watching it with sit up (we were all getting very comfortable).

    I think if this had been a more adventurous 70s movie, rather than standard Higgins action fare they might have ended it with Winnie getting shot and let the audience make up their own mind. Cover up? Parallel Universe? As a child I used to hate ambiguous mysterious downbeat 70s endings now I miss them terribly in mainstream films.

  16. Higgins claims his research turned up the fact that Churchill was simultaneously in Norfolk and Tehran (bilocation, bilocation) and this inspired his ending, which could have anticipated Inglourious Basterds if he’d been bolder.

    I have recently co-written a script with an ambiguous mysterious downbeat ending. We’ll see if it survives…

    Since those endings are so rare, it’s common to have situations where we’re following characters without exactly rooting for them, while knowing they’ll fail. Not just our disbelief is suspended, but our knowledge of how popular narratives work. See the race against time at the end of Strangers on a Train.

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