Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
HENNESSY is a mostly pretty interesting terrorism thriller from the director of THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (which had a big impact on me on TV as a kid) to the 1979 THE 38 STEPS (which I saw at the cinema a few years later) to the legend that is PSYCHOMANIA. Don Sharp was an Australian working in England, and he brought a rugged professionalism to everything he did — his films aren’t all good but they’re unapologetic.
In this one, Rod Steiger plays an ex-IRA man who sets off on a suicide mission after his family are (accidentally) wiped out by British soldiers during a riot. Traveling to London, he embarks on an elaborate plan to get access to the opening of Parliament, disguised as a cranky politician, and blow the Houses of Parliament, the Royal Family, the government and the opposition and himself to united kingdom come.
As you can see, the movie sparked some controversy (although possibly AIP are hyping it up for their promotional purposes). Back in 1975, any attempt to make entertainment out of the Troubles was regarded not only with suspicion (which would be natural and reasonable) but with hysteria — as Mike Hodges found out later when his A PRAYER FOR THE DYING likewise sparked a media shitstorm for daring to portray an IRA man who’s tired of violence in a sympathetic manner. While Carol Reed’s ODD MAN OUT was something of a beloved masterpiece, any attempt to treat similar ground provoked unreasoning fury from the tabloids. The subject WAS rather a grim one, and the horror WAS an ongoing scenario rather than safely in the past, but the frenzied denunciations rarely seemed to have anything to do with the subject under discussion. HENNESSY certainly isn’t an abhorrent film.
In fact, the premise was the brainchild of co-star Richard “Who You Fucking?” Johnson, who plays a brutal cockney cop in the film, hot on Rod’s trail and sporting a Captain Haddock beard. He’s quite convincing as a thug, continuing the “violence to the shins” theme he originated in his Bulldog Drummond movies. And meanwhile, not only is Rod Steiger sporting a very convincing Irish accent, but so is Lee Remick, and both of them are really good.
Although the opening, which requires Rod to kneel and agonize by his slain wife and child (Patsy Kensitt, precociously attempting to justify the shoot to kill policy by her very presence NO! I don’t mean that I’m sure she’s very nice really), which is a red rag to a bull to a man with Rod’s histrionic tendencies, actually he’s 90% muted and restrained and underplaying and all that. Which is remarkable when you consider that this film was shot around the time of WC FIELDS AND ME, where he’s fairly flamboyant, and after the excesses of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, THE SERGEANT and WATERLOO, movies where the word “outsized” could fairly be deployed.
Only when Rod straps on the gelignite does an explanation suggest itself: clearly, Sharp stopped his star hamming by having him wired to explode should his acting exceed thirty Oliviers per hour. This clamps a lid on the tempestuous player: you can see him approaching conflagration point, but pulling it all in and down, broiling inwardly with the agony of not being a big show-off, radiating all that intensity through the eyes…
So that’s all going on. And then, at the climax, his ridiculous plan nearing fruition, Rod enters a studio mock-up of the Houses of Parliament, and Sharp pulls his cheekiest move: actual guest appearances by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher… at the appearance of Mrs T, not yet elected to PM, I confess I did start to hope that Rod would heroically blow up and save us 11 years of right wing Tory rule…
Sharp is intercutting documentary footage of the real event, which an opening title shamefacedly admits was not shot especially for this film (but I bet it was, under false pretenses), with Rod and Richard in the Twickenham studios mock-up. To add further to the delirium, Sharp cuts to Steiger’s sweaty fingers connecting the wires within his clothing. Yes, this is doubtless the true reason the movie was banned: for daring to intercut images of our sovereign with images taken inside Rod Steiger’s clothing. These are, I think, the only photographic images recorded inside Rod Steiger’s clothing ever presented to the public. Some brief shots of his nipples chaffing against his shirt in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT were deleted for pacing reasons, and although David Lean did consider shooting Steiger’s drunk scene in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO from under his furry hat, he decided against it (a decision he regretted to his dying day).