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Retro Review: THE BLACK WINDMILL (1974)

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THE BLACK WINDMILL
(US - 1974)

Directed by Don Siegel. Written by Leigh Vance. Cast: Michael Caine, Donald Pleasence, Delphine Seyrig, Clive Revill, Janet Suzman, John Vernon, Joss Ackland, Catherine Schell, Joseph O'Conor, Denis Quilley, Derek Newark, Edward Hardwicke, Maureen Pryor, Molly Urquhart, Hermione Baddeley, Paul Moss, John Rhys-Davies. (PG, 106 mins)

"If there are things about me that you hate, Alex...be grateful for them now." 

After setting up shop at Universal in the early 1970s, the producing team of Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown immediately knocked it out of the park by shepherding the Oscar-winning 1973 hit THE STING. The same year, they also produced the cult horror film SSSSSSS, and in 1974, gave the green light to Steven Spielberg's big-screen directing debut THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Impressed with the young director, they also produced his next film, JAWS, which set new standards for nationwide release strategies and defined the concept of the "summer blockbuster." In the midst of all this massive success for the Zanuck/Brown duo was 1974's THE BLACK WINDMILL, a kidnapping thriller that completely bombed with critics and audiences. Directed by the great Don Siegel (best known for the original 1956 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and 1971's DIRTY HARRY), THE BLACK WINDMILL was based on Clive Egleton's 1973 novel Seven Days to a Killing, and was adapted by Leigh Vance, a veteran TV writer and producer whose credits included THE SAINT, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, MANNIX, CANNON, BARETTA, FANTASY ISLAND, and HART TO HART.






An American production shot in the UK and France, THE BLACK WINDMILL stars Michael Caine in GET CARTER mode as John Tarrant, a British intelligence agent working undercover to nail a crew of arms smugglers selling weapons to the IRA. Led by McKee (John Vernon) and Ceil (Delphine Seyrig), the smugglers seem to be on to Tarrant, since they kidnap his young son David (Paul Moss) and hold him for a specific ransom of $500,000 in uncut diamonds, which just happens to be the exact amount procured by Tarrant's boss Cedric Harper (Donald Pleasence) to fund a different covert mercenary operation. Suspicious about the timing and the ransom amount, Harper orders around-the-clock surveillance on Tarrant, who's having some financial problems in the wake of a pending divorce from his estranged wife Alex (Janet Suzman), even having Scotland Yard inspector Alf Chestermann (Clive Revill) bug his apartment at the request of MI-6 head Sir Edward Julyan (Joseph O'Conor). Harper, convinced Tarrant is secretly working with the arms smugglers and staged his son's kidnapping, refuses to authorize the ransom, while Tarrant can clearly see someone among his colleagues is setting him up to take a fall for their own purposes. Of course, this can only mean one thing: Tarrant disobeys his bosses and goes rogue, stealing Harper's stash of diamonds and chasing McKee and Ceil to France in an effort find his son.


Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), the fairly obscure THE BLACK WINDMILL sets up the pieces for a crackerjack thriller that would seem upon a cursory glance to be a 1970s TAKEN (there's also a really good action sequence with a foot chase through the London Underground), and while it moves fairly briskly and has a fine cast in support of a quietly enraged Caine, it never quite comes together like it should. Perhaps Siegel is just out of his element with an international thriller (though he did find with 1977's TELEFON), but he can't seem to settle on a tone. Indeed, not all of the actors appear to be on the same page when it comes to exactly what kind of movie they're in. Caine is all steely gravitas, as one might expect (except in one inspired bit where he does an amazing impression of Pleasence that has to be seen to be believed), and while he loves his son, Tarrant displays a detached, matter-of-fact coldness with Alex over the very real possibility that David is already dead, which serves as a reminder about why she hates his job and how it's driven them apart. Likewise, Vernon plays it straight as the chief villain, but Pleasence seems to be acting like he's in a spy spoof, breaking out every nervous tic in his repertoire to play a clueless oaf of a boss who has no business overseeing secret government operations and heading something called "The Department of Subversive Warfare," which itself sounds like something out of DR. STRANGELOVE. Pleasence is an undeniable hoot throughout--whether his Harper is getting mocked by his superiors for mistakenly referring to an agent named "Sean Kelly" as "Sean Connery," dismissing Tarrant's story about his kidnapped son when he's giddily distracted by a Q-like gadget man demonstrating an exploding duffel bag, refusing to put a phone all the way up to his ear, or constantly tugging on his mustache--but he seems to have wandered in from a completely different movie.


I suppose it's feasible that Siegel is using Pleasence's character to make some kind of commentary on inept and unqualified idiots falling upwards in life (a common refrain in DIRTY HARRY and its sequels, where Clint Eastwood is constantly disgusted with his incompetent superiors and bureaucratic pencil-pushers), but Pleasence is playing it far too broadly. Revill, too, seems to think he's in something more comedic with the way he works a simmering slow burn as events unfold. There's a terrific ensemble here and they're all good, but their clashing approaches and wildly divergent acting styles, and the erratic tone in the context of the film make THE BLACK WINDMILL seem like a quirky JANUARY MAN of its day, and "quirky" is not a word you'd imagine using to describe an ostensibly gritty early 1970s kidnapping thriller directed by Don Siegel and starring Michael Caine. It's not difficult to see why it tanked and is largely forgotten today, and while it's a minor footnote in the storied careers of Siegel, Caine, and Zanuck/Brown, it has its moments and is worth seeing for completists. And if you're a Donald Pleasence fan, well, you've definitely been deprived of something special with his work here.


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