Skip to main content

What will you do? Arrange another accident?


The Whistle Blower
(1987)

The appearance of Michael Caine’s name in a film’s billing has never been an indication of quality. He’s always been known for somewhat arbitrary tastes, and it’s only really since his second Oscar that there has been an upswing from the 50/50 chance that he’d appear in something decent. Much of that is down to Christopher Nolan, who positions him in each new film as a lucky charm. Appreciation of the actor was probably at a low point for much of the ‘80s. He received (justified) plaudits for Educating Rita and Hannah and Her Sisters (and his first Oscar for the latter), but the perception was that he didn’t really care about material; just cash the cheque. This reached its nadir with Jaws IV: The Revenge, which Caine’s much-quoted anecdotalisation that it paid for a house. 

Like most such perceptions, there’s a fair amount of exaggeration involved in this. Maybe I’m a sucker for Caine, but I’ve never regarded him as phoning it in; even in some of his worst choices. I’m more dubious about an Oscar winning performance led by a distractingly ropey accent (The Cider House Rules) than much of the work that is generally regarded as forgettable. When it comes to mangling regionalities, he can’t quite carry off the blithe indifference to be found in his pal Sean Connery.

And the worst damage he did to his stock came in the late ‘70s, rather than the ‘80s, with the likes of The Swarm (a mesmerising performance, if only because there’s nothing else to focus on), Ashanti and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure suggesting a perverse pleasure in making awful movies. But the next decade was the period when he had absconded from the UK for tax reasons (ironically, since the incoming Tories would have made the situation much more appealing to him), and it went to reinforce the view that Caine was only about cash-grab cynicism.  If most of his films from this decade are far from great, their general lack of profile also makes them ripe for rediscovery and reevaluation. It seemed at this time that his films were expected to be bad and reviews might include a few qualifiers at best concerning Caine giving an acceptable performacce.

He kicked off the decade with a horror-tinged triptych of Dressed to Kill, The Island and The Hand, and received the dubious honour of dual Golden Razzie nominations in the same year for the first two. But The Hand is the stinker of the three, The Island a not-without-merit curiousity and Dressed to Kill something of a minor classic (even if it Caine’s role is one of the most bizarre of his career). That, and several good choices highlighting his comic chops in the last half of the decade, aside we find a preponderance of espionage/conspiracy movies that tend to merge into one (they certainly did in my mind). Since his signature role as Harry Palmer during the ‘60s he had rarely set foot in the genre, but now we had The Honorary Consul, The Jigsaw Man, The Holcroft Covenant, Half Moon Street, The Fourth Protocol and, right at the end of this five-year cycle, The Whistle Blower. None of them even come close to the besmirching of Palmer’s good memory, when Caine donned the NHS spectacles for a couple of crappy reruns of his iconic ‘60s role (this is the point where Caine claims he quit acting until Jack Nicholson came-a-calling; certainly his roles in the late ‘90s are uncharacteristically sparse). And, a few of them are actually quite good.

As something of a self-styled class warrior, it’s possible that Caine identified with his character here more than most; a working class ex-serviceman, struggling to make ends meet, who uncovers the corruption of the privileged peers he trusted without question.

The Whistle Blower’s failings are not ones of premise. Julian Bond adapted John Hale’s novel about a father (Frank Jones, played by Caine) investigating the death of his son (Robert, Nigel Havers), a translator working for British Intelligence. The lead in to this sees Robert voice increasing concerns over the behaviour of the agency following the apprehension of a Russian mole. It appears the CIA is increasingly unconvinced that Britain has any grip on their secrets and may cut off the flow of information. A flustered British Intelligence is encouraging an atmosphere of distrust and reporting on colleagues. After Robert is found dead, apparently having fallen from his roof, Frank learns that he was due to talk to a journalist about his concerns.

 Revisiting a number of ‘80s productions recently, its very noticeable how strongly the British/US relationship of the period inspired negative commentary. The much mooted latter day conspiracy relating to Tony Blair and WMD (at the behest of his “special relationship” with Bush) seems to have provoked barely a ripple of creative discourse, such is the apathy of the age. The ‘80s was defined by protest and, in retrospect, it is interesting how cynicism towards the actions of the powers that be feeds into even the least antagonistic material (come on, it’s just a cheap spy movie with Michael Caine?) But, for superior British conspiracy fare, check out Defence of the Realm, A Very British Coup and Edge of Darkness, all of which have not very nice things to say about the relationship with our American cousins.

The depiction of the spy craft here is nothing if not prosaic, lacking even the nostalgic melancholy of George Smiley’s television outings. To an extent, the sight of the unvarnished, banal world in which Robert works is refreshing, and as a result believable (how often do you hear GCHQ referred to in movies?) But director Simon Langton, a television veteran making his first feature, seems tonally uncertain. One might think his work on Smiley’s People made him an ideal choice for further spy fare, but the leap from slow burn atmospherics to more standard dramatics leaves him at a loss. His grey, depressing England is authentic enough, but he has no feel for the material and how to present it; the film flounder’s under a TV director’s approach to pacing, and is further dampened down by unengaging visual palate. The latter is no impediment in itself, but you need a strong guiding presence to make the results cinematic; David Drury’s Defence of the Realm is a resolute success in this regard even though, if you strip away the mystery and paranoia, it has a much less compelling plot.

During the first half, until Caine takes centre stage, the various plot threads lack definition; Bond and Langton fail to interweave them coherently. Compare the surveillance scenes here to the spooky spying on Gabriel Byrne in Defence of the Realm. An elaborate ploy to extract information from the mole is rendered matter-of-factly, such that when the reveal comes it has the air of Mission: Impossible silliness.

Some have defended The Whistle Blower by suggesting it has been mislabelled as a thriller, but it is definitely of that genre. Langton just hasn’t balanced the elements, such that Caine’s affecting grief makes the father’s response the only dramatically engaging element.  When scenes are strong, it is invariably down to two veteran thesps sparring with each other (conversely, some of the less experienced actors don’t fare very well).  One can only assume Langton had a dissatisfying experience making the film, as he returned to TV and has not worked in cinema since (on the upside, his BBC Pride and Prejudice has a claim to being the definitive adaptation of the book).

While the latter stages are dramatically superior, they are the more problematic in terms of verisimilitude. Frank’s meeting with a high-level Russian spy (John Gielgud) provides an opportunity for some familiar exposition concerning the motivation for the upper classes (of the Anthony Blunt type) to betray their country. Caine and Gielgud are fine, but the scene doesn’t work; the dialogue is clumsy and the need for fireworks is shoehorned in. And that’s not mentioning the ease with which Frank accesses this man’s house.

In contrast, the matter-of-fact manner with which Frank is informed that any attempts to expose the actions of British Intelligence will be effortlessly quashed (including having him sectioned) is extremely effective. James Fox, in particular, makes an impression as a towering shit. But the Cold War hyperbole (nuclear Armageddon is inevitable; it’s just a matter of when, which is why it is essential to keep the US on side) is out-of-place in a film that is so low-key elsewhere. In the masterful Edge of Darkness, a couple of years earlier, it did seem inevitable. But you need to imbed that fear into the core of the piece, and into the tone of its production, to make it believable.

Bond’s script frequently over-indulges in expository dialogue and undermines his characters with stodgy or florid verbiage (“Their secret world, has put out the light of the ordinary world”, protests Robert; even given his dreamer credentials, it’s a bit much). It’s never too clear how much the mixed results are down to the book (which I’ve not read) surviving Bond’s best efforts to hobble it or the director’s ineffectiveness in translating it to screen. Probably a bit of both.

John Scott’s score is poor, even at odds with the drama. He does little to convince that anyone involved thinks they are making something special, ineffectually hitting only the most formulaic notes.

Of the cast, Caine convincingly  runs the gamut from clipped disappointment with his son's choices, to weary grief and then spitting rage. Havers is reasonably convincing as a naïve intellectual with his head in the clouds. But you never once buy that he’s Michael Caine’s son. Havers was an ‘80s TV fixture (The Charmer, anyone?), attempting to branch out into a movie career at the time, something that never really took. Gielgud and Fox are dependably professional, as are Kenneth Colley and Caine’s The Ipcress File co-star Gordon Jackson, in his final film role.

The supporting player laurels go to Barry Foster as Charles Greig, the MI6 friend Frank served with in Korea. Foster had appeared in Langton’s Smiley’s People, but his most memorable role is probably the serial killer in Hitchock’s Frenzy. Whenever he and Caine share a scene, The Whistle Blower is at its most effective, Caine gamely acting the straight man to Foster’s slightly effete familiarity. The scene where Frank extracts the truth from Charles by getting him drunk is easily the highlight of the film.

Unfortunately, it’s a full 45 minutes before Caine starts snarling. Once he’s in gimlet-eyed, raging mode there’s a level at which it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy. But it’s a shame to recognise there was potential for this to be much more memorable.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty (2016)
(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.