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Ink-stained Wenches

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2009 by dcairns

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Coincidentally I downloaded and watched THE HARD WAY (not that one) with Patrick McGoohan and Lee Van Cleef, and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (not that one) with George Lazenby. What makes this coincidental is not so much that both films need to have the words “(not that one)” appended after them, since a gang of notorious Title Thieves has made off with both films’ names and appended them to further pieces of “product”, but the fact that both films feature female authors in acting roles. How odd.

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THE HARD WAY is an Irish thriller which lured Patrick McGoohan back to the land of his forefathers, to play an aging top hitman who, breaking with type, refuses to take on one last job. His big bad bald boss Lee Van Cleef dispatches various heavies to try and “persuade” the Irish assassin that now is not the time for retirement.

Fellow filmmaker Paul Duane recommended this one, and it has a lot going for it. The stars are on form, with McGoohan restrained (he hardly ever smiles on one side of his face in this one, and never twitches once), and LVC is authoritative and gravelly as you’d expect. His voice actually comes up through the floor via speaking tube, its origins somewhere in the bowels of the earth, perhaps the lost kingdom of Pelucidar. If Lee VC occasionally falls silent, it’s because the subterranean man who does his voice is fending off attacks from the winged, telepathic Mahars who rule that stygian region.

The intent is obviously to make an Irish version of a Jean-Pierre Melville movie, full of cold-blooded professionals who are good at their jobs and follow their own code of honour, regardless of what side of the law they stand on. To this end, the makers procured the services of Melville’s regular cinematographer, Henri Decae. Adding to the ambient gloom, the score alternates traditional Irish drones with a rather John Carpenter-like electronic suspense theme culled from Brian Eno’s Music for Films album. Taking the man at his word, I see.

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The production was beset by difficulties, with MacGoohan in his usual truculent condition, resulting in the firing of the original director and his replacement by, I believe, the producer. I don’t know what exec John Boorman’s role was in all this, but this movie did not have the success of his other most famous production, ANGEL, which launched the career of Neil Jordan. There’s also “additional cinematography”, which I assume to be the awful stuff that doesn’t match. My copy was a pan-and-scanned VHS rip, so it’s hard to judge the visual quality, but it seems to have achieved some of the slick, monochromatic chill that characterises so much late-period Melville.

The climax, where Van Cleef and McGoohan face off in a deserted country house, with LVC triggering the lights by messing with the fusebox, giving the place a haunted quality and leading Pat from one trap to another, is pretty exciting, although a bloody-minded censor seems to have removed vital plot developments.

But the real excitement here is the presence of author Edna O’Brien as mcGoohan’s estranged wife. I sort of knew her name, since her paperbacks populated the second-hand shops of my youth (always featuring grim girls in dark surroundings on the jackets). But I had very little idea what the books actually contained, although Paul Duane hinted that they were “controversial”. I turned to Wikipedia:

Edna O’Brien (born 15 December 1930) is an Irish novelist and short story writer whose works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men and to society as a whole.

Blimey, that does sound awful. No wonder they burned the things in churchyards.

(NO. I’m being cheeky. I strongly approve of anybody who can write anything incendiary enough to bring the book-burners out of hiding.)

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O’Brien’s role here avoids giving her any actual acting to do, as such. Instead, she gets a bit of walking about, and also a series of scenes in which, against a dark, abstract background like a woman from one of her books, she intones what comes to sound increasingly like an elegy, which in fact it is. These scenes at first resemble an open-mic poetry reading, and O’Brien’s beautiful voice delivers everything with a kind of serene solemnity that’s slightly confusing at first, since we might assume this is a conversation rather than a bit of public speaking. All in all, her presence adds a welcome strangeness to a film that’s not quite stylish enough to attain Melville’s mastery, and is in danger of wandering into a claustrophobic cul-de-sac.

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Far, far worse, is UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, the last film of Cy Endfield (must get around to blogging about his under-seen Lloyd Bridges diptych), a George Lazenby vehicle (for some reason this phrase causes me to picture a clown car festooned with excrement) which shows the blacklisted maestro foundering and floundering in a sea of fashionable mud. We begin with the Glamour and Excitement of Heathrow Airport, where soldier-of-fortune George Lazenby arrives, his muscular orange buttock of a face groaning under the weight of every sideburn in London.

Yes, the line between failed Bond George Lazenby and alcoholic ’70s football star George Best, tenuous to begin with, has been altogether erased in this film. What follows is a shapeless, meandering non-narrative in which mumbling mercenary George drops out of a proposed African coup he’s supposed to be delivering (when a sponsor warns that he doesn’t want a lot of raping and looting, George grins back “When you hire men to kill, you can’t complain about how they spend their spare time,” the nearest thing to a James Bond quip in the film) and starts to listen to hippies and intellectuals.

Lazenby himself, bedecked with hair-shapes and built like the proverbial ceramic latrine, has perfected his Sean Connery impersonation, just stopping short of the accent, although there’s no trace of his native Australia (Greer herself sounds less Antipodean in this than she does today). I always felt bad for him getting ejected from Bondhood and never really finding a George-shaped niche afterwards. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is probably the best Bond (Rigg! Savalas!) and if George struggled to fill the shoes of his predecessor (“This never happened to the other fellow!”), his orange face surmounted by a cap of burnished wooden hair, his voice dubbed in several scenes, he still did a decent job of the tragic ending.

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Endfield, centre.

Chief among the counter-culture characters (who also include Rolling Stones muse Chrissie Shrimpton) are Endfield himself, doing better as actor than director, and Germaine Greer. Yes, that one. The prospect of the author of The Female Eunuch reinventing herself as a sort of Bond Girl is an enticing one, and however bleak the career prospects of that particular branch of showbiz (Lois Chiles, where are you?), anything would be preferable to the post of professional contrarian which Greer now holds. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d say that turning up on television or in the newspaper columns and simply saying the opposite of what somebody else has said, no matter what that is, makes you a kind of dreadful mind-whore. And casts retrospective doubt on whether Greer ever in fact believed a word she was saying.

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Germaine enjoys a cuppa.

Alas, Greer and Endfield, the liveliest people in the film, whose accompanying baggage only makes them more interesting, get very little to do, which leaves us with George being followed about by a restless camera. The aimless script is credited to six different people, including Endfield and, terrifyingly, Lazenby himself. Since much of the talk seems loose and improvisatory (read: shapeless and incoherent), it’s possible GL picked up a writing cred simply for refusing to speak the words written down for him. I prefer that thought to the image of him and five other blokes randomly jabbing at the keys of a single blameless Remington.

Lesson: if you put six chimps in a room with a typewriter, they will eventually write UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. And probably sooner than you’d like.

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