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

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.

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.

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.

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…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

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.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…