[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
Hennessy … the name offers to hang over this movie the way “Juggernaut” and “Drabble” spiritually pervaded theirs (Drabble having been the original title of The Black Windmill). That a fellow named Hollis lays more of a claim on our attention, let alone imagination, says a lot about the present object of inquiry. That Hollis is played by the man who dreamed up the original story, Richard Johnson, could say even more. He’s the English cop, specialist in Irish affairs, who’s become an obsessive on the theme of Hibernian politics of violence, to the extent that his own humanity seems ever on the verge of immolation by the fires of his corrective passion. There’s no getting away from seeing him as the counterpart of the eponymous Irish explosives genius who, shaken out of his determined pacific by the crossfire killing of his wife and daughter, has swaddled himself in gelignite and set out to blow up the Queen and most members of both Houses at the opening of Parliament. In this role Rod Steiger does his tightlipped, violence-benumbed shtick, and hence—inadvertently, I’d say—becomes a straightman to Johnson’s overtly raging hunter.
By many of the laws of conventional expectation, Hennessy ought to compel our sympathy; in addition to his horrific bereavement, he’s a contemporary odd man out, sought not only by the English but also by the IRA boys who’d have loved to add him to their team, except that they realize that blowing up Parliament is a great way to bring the rest of the world down on their beleaguered island. So there’s Hennessy, A Man Alone, lashing back at a destructively impersonal world—and he comes off as nothing more than an extremely dangerous public nuisance. Johnson’s story idea was a good one, and his performance goes part of the ways toward suggesting what a watchable movie it might have made. But the script John Gay has developed from it misses most of the possibilities and serves up some almost parodistically predictable dialogue besides—something Don Sharp’s direction of the dialogue scenes slavishly emphasizes. The action stuff is mostly indifferent, too: around the middle of the film Sharp suggests how much climbing over back fences and lingering in hallways a lone saboteur moving from Ireland to England and then across London to his eventual target would have to engage in, but it’s too little, too late.
All right, so Sharp doesn’t develop any sympathy-of-involvement-in-processes that can win any audience, subliminally, to share the most indefensible of points-of-view (cf., notably, Barry Foster’s stickpin-retrieval in the potato truck, Frenzy). A wholly other sort of aesthetic force can be developed by leaving out the logistical connections, à la Lang or Leone, suggesting an almost supernatural capability on the part of the man with a mission. But that’s not done either; Hennessy, and for that matter the IRA men, are simply permitted to be wherever necessary in order to enable the next plot development to take place, and that’s that. Flashbacks, subjective cut-ins, anything goes. At the beginning we see the pre-atrocity Hennessy supervising the demolition of some disused factory stacks in Belfast; the establishing shot of the chimneys is a freezeframe, as is a later shot of Hennessy’s little girl in her coffin. Now, a freezeframe of a chimney or a corpse is especially peculiar in its effect; neither subject, after all, is going to, or is expected to, move. Is this a sample of the expressive mise-en-scène that gets Sharp lavish coverage in films & filming?—or didn’t they bother to take more than the demolition shot of the stacks, so that later the editor said, “Christ, Don, I need a cut of the chimneys to set the scene” and there was nothing to do but freeze the first part of the explosion take?
There are occasional spurts of directorial wit or succinctness: police commander Trevor Howard bothered by an erratic whistling sound in the control post from which the campaign against Hennessy is being directed—amid the bustle of the crowded scene, he curtly raps on the top of a malfunctioning TV set and voila! the noise stops and the picture, of the queen’s procession, comes on; during a fast-moving but unexciting montage of IRA pursuit as Hennessy flees his London hideout, one Irishman pauses to cross himself over a fallen comrade. But in the main Hennessy is a slipshod piece of work, whose title character ends up a third-rate special effect matted over a world to which he has remained curiously irrelevant.
Direction: Don Sharp. Screenplay: John Gay, after a story by Richard Johnson. Cinematography: Ernest Steward. Music: John Scott.
The Players: Rod Steiger, Richard Johnson, Eric Porter, Lee Remick, Peter Egan, Ian Hogg, Trevor Howard.
Copyright © 1975 Richard T. Jameson