Review: The Black Windmill

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Drabble would, after all, have been a better title than The Black Windmill. The structure thus designated is not even mentioned till the film is two-thirds finished, whereas the fictional master criminal “Drabble” hovers over the picture almost as decisively as “Juggernaut” in the new Lester movie. Drabble catches the muzzy Englishness that is the film’s most strategic appeal, which comes through via such in-passing pleasantries as Scotland Yard man Clive Revill’s weary exasperation with his partner as they search and bug Michael Caine’s room, MI.5 stick-in-the-mud Donald Pleasence’s loss of sour face as he inadvertently says “Sean Connery” instead of “Sean Kelly” during a top-level security conference, or Pleasence’s desperate endeavor to maintain a blank look as his senescent superior fondles and is fondled by his murderously loving wife (Felicia Farr—of Charley Varrick fame—in an unbilled cameo, if I’m not mistaken). One may safely suppose that the opportunity for such moments had its fond appeal for Siegel, who spent his youth in England. Such suppositions are the only way to find, or posit, traces of the director in the film; for after a decade’s worth of consistently personal cinema, Siegel has simply taken on an average thriller property and given it, overall, little more than slightly above-average treatment.

The core of the film is supposed to be the reconstitution of Caine’s and Janet Suzman’s all-but-lapsed marriage when their son is kidnapped by a gang who want secret agent Caine to bring them 517,057 pounds’ worth of diamonds his boss (Pleasence) has on hand for murky espionage reasons. The fact is that Walter Matthau’s and Jacqueline Scott’s brief moments together at the beginning of Charley Varrick established a sense of life-partnership infinitely more compelling than the whole of the Caine-Suzman liaison; the potential for Hitchcockian double suspense on the levels of action and romance is thoroughly botched. As a matter of fact, the last third of the picture, with Caine hunted by the law as he himself hunts for his child and the kidnappers, dimly recalls the quaint charm of Hitchcock’s Richard Hannay period—and in a general way the film’s plot is that of John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, a book Hitchcock has wanted to film for years. But for the most part the movie feels perfunctory: an exercise, not an experience. Still, I continue to be grateful to Siegel for including that fascinating Canadian actor John Vernon in his casts whenever possible. His presence alone is sufficient to assure us that, however the plot or narrative may falter, there will be moments of riveting behavioral ambiguity beyond the obligations of the genre.

RTJ

THE BLACK WINDMILL
Direction: Don Siegel. Screenplay: Leigh Vance, after the novel Seven Days to a Killing by Clive Egleton. Cinematography: Ousama Rawi. Art direction: Peter Murton. Editing: Anthony Gibbs. Music: Roy Budd. Production: Siegel; Executive Production: Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown.
The Players: Michael Caine, John Vernon, Delphine Seyrig, Janet Suzman, Donald Pleasence, Joseph O’Conor, Joss Ackland, Clive Revill.

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson