Skip to main content

Look, if you’re going to open that, you’d better be quick. I’m going to be shot in half an hour.

The Avengers
3.24: Esprit de Corps

If the final Cathy Gale outing doesn’t make for the most indelible departing shot, this penultimate instalment is one to be proud of. Although, while Cathy has a decent role (as the next in line to the Stuart throne, no less), it’s Steed who wins the best plot line, paired with the wonderful Roy Kinnear and presented to a firing squad.


Kinnear would show up three more times, including in the series finale, a sign that they were fond of a certain kind of comic turn that underlined the show’s inimitability (see also John Laurie). Here he’s the wayward Private Jessop, member of a Highland Guards regiment led by Brigadier General Sir Ian Stuart-Bollinger (Duncan Macrae, the Doctor/Napoleon in The Prisoner’s Dance of the Dead). The Brigadier General, in soon-to-be-classic Avengers nutter style, is planning to put a Stuart on the British throne by way of an armed insurrection. Unfortunately, his son, whom he has calculated is the rightful heir, has no interest in the job, content with life as a bookmaker in Halifax (“We never should have sent him to Eton”).


In what looks dire convenience but is revealed ultimately to be Cathy cooking the records, it turns out that Mrs Gale is runner-up for the throne (which rather begs the question, what of the coup plans if she hadn’t showed up?) and will be crowned Queen Anne the Second. Naturally, she also knows everything there is to know about the history of World War I. She must be really boring at parties.


Her best scenes find her playing against John Thaw’s Captain Trench (Thaw, a mere slip of a 23-year-old, could easily have passed for 10 years older even then). This is an episode of memorable performances, but Thaw, oozing menace and barely suppressed rage (“ruthless, ambitious, and completely untrustworthy”), walks off with the honours.


There’s a fair crackle of energy in his scenes with Blackman, and it makes you wish, at this late stage, she’d had more opponents with such presence and physicality that you’d wonder if she’d best them; as it is, there’s a memorable scene where they spar in the gym, and Trench begins to actually strangle her. While she disengages him (“Now that’s what I call the true Highland spirit, lass” applauds the Brigadier General), it’s a moment filled with real tension. Of which, in the climactic fight, it looks as if the squaddie who goes for her nearly takes her out as he tumbles on the staircase.


Thaw’s effective in a different kind of way against Macnee, his pugilistic fervour bouncing off Steed’s unflappable gentility. He’s questioning Steed’s cover from the off, on to his making things up about wartime exploits (“Were you there, young man?” Steed dismisses airily), and takes particularly relish in rumbling him, upon which he is summarily tried and sentenced. Albeit, the Brigadier General is more disposed towards Steed’s arguments than Trench’s during the trial, and Steed casually throws in mockery of Trench’s accent (“Now hold on, it hasn’t been proved that I did raise the ala-rum”) before the incriminating spy camera is presented.


Steed: When the bugle sounds, duty calls and there I am.
Cathy: Oh well, if you feel that way, you might as well reenlist.
Steed: No, I’m waiting for a national emergency for that.

Macnee’s having a grand old time, making a labour of hanging out at the launderette but then switching from charm offensive to steely when he confronts proprietor Mrs Craig (Pearl Catlin), whose husband was shot in the first scene; the further twist, in which she reveals she knows all about her hubby’s demise (“He was a traitor”) is also effective.


Steed: Look, if you’re going to open that, you’d better be quick. I’m going to be shot in half an hour.

The best interaction is with Kinnear’s Private Jessop, however, from sympathetically rolling his eyes during Steed’s trial, to apologising over the sorry menu for the prisoner’s last meal (“What sort of officer’s mess is this?” Steed complains, observing that the poor-quality champagne will ruin the pheasant), to Steed’s continued attempts at bribery (Jessop offers to merely wing Steed rather than execute him; the latter replies, ‘That’s very thoughtful of you’). Noting Steed is considering an escape attempt, Jessop comments “If you’re thinking of going through that window, sir. I’m fifteen stone. It’s electrified”.


That there’s no last-minute rescue is also an effective twist, although writer Eric Paice, in his last and best teleplay for the series, wisely doesn’t labour how Steed survived (he bribed all of them to miss; Jessop received his best diamond tiepin for his pains). There’s a further neat development as the Brigadier-General apparently gives up Trench, professing to have been working to expose a plot; this is itself a ruse to ensure the whole regiment is armed, with the full backing of the War Office.


Cathy: Those lineage charts were fake, general.
Steed: Thank goodness for that.

It appears that Steed wasn’t aware of Cathy’s ploy with the lineage, which makes a change since it tends to be him not apprising her; this also yields a number of amusing quips on his part (“Could have applied to you for a royal pardon” he suggests, having gone through the ordeal of a firing squad). One of the best of the third season.








Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

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’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

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 …

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

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.