Skip to main content

She really got her hooks into me.

Sitting Target
(1972)

Oliver Reed, still relatively youthful (his early 30s, so early 50s in liver years), before the booze pickled his brains, is a powerhouse of simmering rage in this stylised thriller from skilled journeyman Douglas Hickox. Oli’s an ‘orribly unsavoury animal, busting out of prison just so he can knock off his old lady. It’s matter of honour, or pride, or something. Oli’s steaming pissed and it’s going to get messy.


This thriller has been compared to Get Carter, but Alexander Jacobs’ screenplay (from Laurence Henderson’s novel) lacks the same cool precision. Jacobs contributed to a number of decent scripts, two for John Boorman among them, but this is his only solo credit; maybe that’s suggestive. Reed’s Harry Lomart is in the nick, imprisoned in part for killing a man; he didn’t mean to do it, you understand. When Pat (Jill St John)  - what has she done to Harry, Pat – visits, she announces that’s that and she’s got another fella. Harry promptly loses it something rotten. He decides to get out and get her. He’s has no qualms about strangling the missus, even on the understanding she’s pregnant (after all, it’s not his); she’s got it coming, the cow. During the first 10 minutes Harry announces that prison (a wretched hive of surveillance cameras and mental degradation) “makes you feel like… some animal in a cage” and goes on to prove himself a beast unleashed for the next 80.


Helping him out is Ian McShane’s Birdy Williams (I kept mishearing his name as Bertie, but this would be the last place you’d find Wodehouse’s protagonist), back when McShane was unbelievably young – he looked older than his years by the time he got round to making Lovejoy, which most of a certain generation know him best for – and pretty. Besides Hickox’s direction, and an impressive array of too-brief supporting turns (all of which might have sent the plot off on a considerably more interesting trajectory than the one it settles for) the best thing Sitting Target has going for it is the rapport between Reed and McShane. these two have a salty informality, they’re naturally as thick as thieves, partners in crime, uber-dodgy dealers. Both bring a lived-in immediacy to their roles, with Reed grimacing like a pregnant bullfrog while McShane relishes the relatively smoother customer; Birdy’s shrewder, wittier and with a smarter mouth on him.


The first 30 minutes, depicting the prison break (filming took place at Irish penitentiaries) that follows Harry’s confrontation with the trouble and strife, are outstanding. Along for the ride is the marvellous Freddie Jones (recognisable for a multitude of parts, but notables include Children of the Stones and The Elephant Man), playing posh on this occasion. It’s a taut slow-burn sequence, taking in obstacles including barbed wire fences, guard dogs (you wouldn’t want to be a guard dog that night), and obligatory ropes across sheer drops. Perhaps it’s because this sequence is so good that, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, the rest of the picture fails to match it. But I suspect it’s also because the premise is so slight and askance.


There’s an unpleasantly misogynistic streak running throughout Sitting Target. I was ready to give it the benefit of the doubt; that these characters are unsympathetic brutalisers, and the makers are in no way condoning such behaviour. Certainly, Oli’s initial freak out in the prison meeting room, thrusting his hand through the glass partition and attempting to strangle Pat, is shocking and intense; the fury of a maniac. The problem is, there’s an implication in the through-line that St John’s character has it coming, and every other female character we meet is a tart just waiting for a good seeing to (apart from a young June Brown, that is).


No sooner are the convicts in the back of a van bound for freedom than a bit of crumpet is on tap. Hickox stages a curiously arresting tableau, with antic-eyed Oli, Freddie Jones and no less than Camp Freddie himself (Tony Beckley) in the foreground while McShane ruts away behind them (“She’s all yours now”). Arresting as this is, the filmmaker’s eye doesn’t get behind the story with the intelligence of say, Carter, and without that distance it becomes a little to entranced by the mischief and worse these bad boys get up to. A closer comparison to Target’s visuals would be the excesses of The Ipcress File (a glorious movie, but with mental camerawork). There’s an indifference to what happens to these lovelies. You can tell there’s thought behind some of what we see (Harry keeps himself pure so as not to sully the revenge on his treacherous bitch, and he tests out his newly acquired weapon on pornographic images adorning the gun dealer’s walls) but it sinks, or amps up, into undiscerning overkill. Even the poster instructs us that Harry is an animal (in case we thought we were supposed to like the guy?) but Hickox revels in Lomart’s unstoppable carnage.


That said, much of what Hickox comes up with is magnificent. If I were awarding points for style alone, this picture would get full marks. I was going to say Hickox brings the sensibility of a horror veteran to his action scenes, but then I remembered it’s his son Anthony who directs all the horror movies. Douglas made Theatre of Blood the following year, rightly his most celebrated picture, but he also directed John Wayne in London atrocity Brannigan and the ill-advised Zulu Dawn (also, Ian Richardson as Sherlock Holmes in a quite good mid ‘80s Hound of the Baskervilles). His approach lends scenes a heightened, disturbing, sometimes ghoulish frisson. It isn’t only the action; Hickox inordinately fond of low angled shots, overhead shots, and he’ll stage an innocuous moment with Dutch angles, lending his South London milieu an off kilter, skewy quality that underpins the general seaminess. It’s a strange and fascinating mixture of ‘70s urban decay and filmmaking finesse.


The locations are creatively used at all times. Edward Woodward, a year off from The Wicker Man, turns up as a copper attempting to protect Pat from Harry’s horrendous hands (except that Harry has purchased a Mauzer – well beaten up the dealer and taken it – so as to kill her from a distance) and engages in a brutal bout of fisticuffs with him on the vertiginous balcony of her flat. But then Eewawoowa pretty much exits the picture. In the striking sequence that follows Harry, pursued by motorcycle rozzers, stands amid a maze of hanging washing as they encircle him. Hickox keeps his camera in tight, and the effect is both hallucinatory and coherent (perhaps this is down to the least imaginative of Bond movie directors – and that’s saying something – John Glen, handling the editing).


Soon after we’re treated to another cameo – Frank Finlay as former accomplice Marty Gold (who exhibits yet another bit of totty to be passed around the men; “Any friend of Marty’s…”) – and another bravura sequence involving a mirrored staircase (the height of gaudy excess). The grand climax involving a prolonged car chase is effectively constructed but less engaging. Because I didn’t see the twist in the tale coming doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. It’s rather clumsy and strains credulity; such a convoluted scheme that could have gone wrong at any moment? However, full marks to Hickox for visual hyperbole as Harry lets loose a hail of bullets against a rising sun.


Stanley Myers, whose career extends from the first season of Doctor Who to The Deer Hunter and a run of Nic Roeg films, provides a wonderful score; like so much here, the craftsmanship exceeds the quality of the founding material. Sitting Target is extremely well directed, with some indelible performances and a fine soundtrack, but the picture itself doesn’t really leave the mark it should. It’s difficult enough to get behind a picture about a leering brute. Compounding this, Harry’s plan is so unhinged Hickox has no option but to become enmired by its B movie trappings.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …