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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.