Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Black Windmill (1974)

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Michael Caine, and when you like Michael Caine, you're got a lot of movies to get through—especially during the 1980s, where it was apparently in his contract to appear in every single motion picture produced. But in between Caine's iconic, top work (Hannah and Her Sisters, The Italian Job, Little Voice, Alfie, The Cider House Rules) and the apparently "in it for the paycheck" movies (Jaws: The Revenge, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Island, Water), there's a solid body of Caine films that are not classics but are definitely overlooked and underappreciated. One of my top faves in this Caine-category is 1974's The Black Windmill, critically dismissed on release, but featuring an intricate plot and a sharp performance by Caine as a grim, determined antihero and a plot of double, triple, and quadruple crosses. It's a solid, if subdued, thriller ahead of its time.

In the middle of his mission to infiltrate a Northern Ireland arms deal, MI6 agent John Tarrant's young son is kidnapped. When the kidnappers' ransom is a jewelry cache already set aside for another MI6 operation, Tarrant suspects a mole within his department. Now he's got to stay one step ahead of not only the kidnapper and the arms dealer but also a rogue agent working against him within the government—and perhaps all three are the same man. This definitely is not a spy movie you can watch while doing a crossword puzzle: the plot intertwines and wraps around itself like Tarrant backtracking his steps to throw his pursuers off the trail, including his former comrades who believe he may have orchestrated the kidnapping himself. The chase is on—with a maximum of real-world grim London and English countryside scenery and a lack of ballistic pyrotechnic explosions.

(Well, except for that one.)

The Black Windmill's closest cousins are the intensely detailed and real-world-flavored espionage novels of John LeCarré and Len Deighton (upon whose books the Harry Palmer movies were based). More so than many of the spy films of its time, Windmill stands up sturdily to a viewing today. It should be considered alongside films like The Russia House, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Constant Gardener: thrillers that intelligently balances intellect and action.

Ironically, what keeps this from being one of Caine's most impressive work is Caine himself. He turns in a decent performance, impressively grim and unstoppable—at times, emotionally unreadable—he's the antecedent to Liam Neeson's unstoppable Bryan Mills in Taken. The film's at a disadvantage with this interpretation and portrayal, however: we're told to feel empathy and side with Tarrant, but he shows none of it himself, and despite the tension, there's little surprise. Director Don Siegel moves the players about competently if a bit stiffly, as if on a chessboard. His films include the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry, so Siegel's low-toned approach to Windmill combined with Tarrant's stoicism produce a film in which there's very little shock. The spare but effective soundtrack is by Roy Budd, who earlier wrote the innovative score for Michael Caine's iconic Get Carter, a more violent, driving, high-stakes movie, leaving the obvious question: would The Black Windmill have become a classic rather than just a solid film had Carter director Mike Hodges done the duties? Perhaps The Black Windmill could have benefited from a touch less cool Caine and a wee dash of hysteria about blowing the bloody doors off. Still, you can't fault Michael Caine for playing Michael Caine, and if this spy thriller lacks the wit and surprise of The Ipcress File, well, a lesser Michael Caine thriller is still a fine thrill ride. Hold on tight and mind the doors.

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