Skip to main content

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers
6.16. Legacy of Death

There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death, accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.


Zoltan: I hope, sir, the dagger will bring you all the things my master wished for you.

Where to start with an episode that barely wastes a moment? I suppose a brief nod to the plot would be in order. Nation riffing on Dashiell Hammett is referenced overtly during the final scene with Sidney (Stratford Johns, 1.15: The Frighteners) and Humbert (Ronald Lacey, 5.15: The Joker), themselves doing impressions of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon as they set off on the trail of a statuette, “Maltese, I think”. 


Here, they’re after an ornate dagger (“The dagger of a thousand deaths”), in the possession of allegedly deceased Henley Farrer (Richard Hurndall, The Five Doctors, Assassin) – he appears to cark it during the teaser – of which: “Legend has it, the dagger will show where the treasure is hidden”. It’s a very recently-sourced legend, requiring as it does insertion of the dagger into the floor of Farrer’s mansion, Indiana Jones-style, to locate the real treasure, a monstrous pearl that ends up dissolved in a goblet of wine (“Would you care to join me, in the world’s most expensive drink?” asks Steed).


Steed: Zoltan the Terrible. Four hundred fights. Lost them all.
Tara: No wonder he’s called the Terrible.

Farrer, faking his death, has sent the dagger to his old enemy Steed, on the basis that he knew when he got possession of the pearl there’d never be any rest until he was killed for it, so he decided to use Steed to lure the many would-be claimants, so they could be killed (by John Hollis’ butler Zoltan – Zoltan ROCKS!) or kill each other in the process. It’s this process that provides many of the episode’s best laughs, although Nation seems happy to throw in the kitchen sink for a gag if it might work. 


Humbert: She must have been a very wonderful woman, Sydney.
Sidney: Who?
Humbert: Your aunt.

He particularly relishes Sidney and Humbert, the latter all gregarious loquacity – think Iain Cuthbertson in The Ribos Operation – and the former all hunchbacked weirdness (Lacey would draw on the general ghoulish demeanour again for Raiders of the Lost Ark), refusing a drink from Steed because he may have to operate later, and asking Sydney, in respect of their softly-softly approach to the Avenger, “When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?” By the time they arrive, bodies are mirthfully stacking up in Steed’s apartment, barely concealed under a rug (“Slattery, Oppenheimer, Gorky. We may have underestimated Steed. He could be dangerous”) with Steed cheerfully unconcerned at their reaction (“Excuse the mess. It’s been a busy evening. Can I get you a drink?”)


Sidney: Clutching the dagger in his hand, he–
Steed: He stabbed her.
Sidney: He puts it on her bedside table.

Sidney’s over-elaborate tale of how he came into possession of the dagger as a child is particularly amusing, designed to tug on Steed’s heartstrings and reveal its location; its sentimental value is intrinsically linked to his dear aunt, for whom he claims he bought it, but Steed rather reads murderous intent into the story.


Tara: Where are we going?
Steed: Where indeed. Philosophers have asked that question for a thousand years. Quo vadis? Whither goest thou? Man’s eternal search for his destiny. You may very well ask, “Where are we going?”
Tara: Where are we going?
Steed: Turn left, next lights.

My guess is that Macnee must have loved filming this one, as he’s provided so many great lines and interactions. The above is entirely apropos nothing, and a familiar misunderstanding in need of a joke proper, but it memorably fills otherwise rote scene mechanics. 


Gorky: It is, er, poisoned?
Steed: Poisoned? Certainly not. Poison would destroy the bouquet.
Gorky: (smashes four filled glasses in turn) Old Gorky’s enjoying your hospitality.
Steed: I am glad.

The succession of visitors to his flat provide great comic fodder, most notably perhaps Old Gorky (Tutte Lemkow of Marco Polo, The Crusade, The Myth Makers, and like Lacey, Raiders of the Lost Ark), whose habit of smashing every glass of fizz Steed provides, once he has drained it, doesn’t prevent his host from showing the manners to continue offering. Lemkow has a great face for insults (Gorky: Old Gorky makes an ugly enemy; Steed: Frankly, Old Gorky would make an equally ugly friend!) and the back and forth is going so swimmingly, you’re rather disappointed when he’s shot from a crane truck outside. 


Oppenheimer: What symptoms did he exhibit before he collapsed?
Steed: Don’t the bullet holes in his coat give you the teensiest clue?
Oppenheimer: Never mind, we can work wonders today. Soon have him up and about.
Steed: This man is dead, Doctor.
Oppenheimer: He will not be alone. Don’t move, I’ve got you covered.

Oppenheimer (Peter Swanwick, most famously the Supervisor in The Prisoner, of course) is next up, posing as Dr Winter but quickly dispatched when he and Slattery (Vic Wise, 1.3: Square Root of Evil), singularly unable to catch any of the peanuts he throws into the air in his mouth, get in each other’s crossfire as Steed opens the front door to the latter at just the right moment. 


Further proof Nation is firing on all cylinders is Steed’s parting advice to the real Dr Winter (Michael Bilton, The Massacre, Pyramids of Mars, The Deadly Assassin), who was hit on the head by Oppenheimer: “Now, you get home and see a doctor, doctor”.


Steed: The inferior type of assassin.
Tara: They just don’t make them like they used to.
Steed: The age of the amateur.
Tara: No pride in their craft.

Also of note, attacking Steed on leaving his apartment by the back way with Tara, Cosher Klaus Cussler (Alf Joint) manages to leap off a roof above them and splat himself on the ground below, much to their and later Sidney’s disapproval (“A barbarian, the kind of man who brings the art of murder into disrepute. It’s criminal”).


Ho Lung: It brought death to all who have owned it.
Tara: Then why would anyone want it?
Ho Lung: I have talked enough.

Tara calls on Ho Lung (Leon Thau), who we assume, this being the ‘60s, is an egregious case of yellow face, except that it turns out to be a comment on the same when Lung gets on the phone to Baron Von Orlak (Ferdy Mayne) and drops the pidgin English. 


Tara’s later chat with Von Orlak (before she receives a dose of Chinese Water Torture) also has Nation – who knows a thing or two about daft plotting – point out the essential ridiculousness of the quest, as Von Orlak changes the subject when Tara asks why anyone would want an object that brings death to anyone who has owned it.


Tara: Found something?
Steed: Only that he seems to know a dickens of a lot of people called Dickens.

Another highlight is Steed, attempting to discover who bequeathed him the dagger visiting Dickens, Dickens, Dickens and Dickens, during which he introduces himself with “Good afternoon. I should like to see Mr Dickens” and is told “Mr Dickens passed away some fifty years ago”. After establishing the two intermediate Dickens are also no longer in the land of the living, he puts in the request “In that case, I should like to have a word with… Mr Dickens” and receives the response “At your service” from Dickens (Kynaston Reeves, 4.23: What the Butler Saw); alas, Zoltan puts paid to Steed getting a straight answer, and he has to go through the books.


Sidney: We, the interested parties, have formed a consortium. Unity is strength, sir.

The climax doesn’t disappoint either, with Steed and Tara set to work to retrieve the treasure by Sidney and his new associates before events devolve into a full-blown shoot-out that leaves only the Avengers and Sidney and Humbert standing (Steed shoots Farrer).


Steed: I thought you didn’t like parties?
Tara: I don’t, really. That’s why I’m trying to get them all in on one evening.

This is more Steed’s episode than Tara’s perhaps, but she still has her moments, including a very tidy fancy-dress costume and turning the tables on Sidney, extracting information by tickling him. Did Nation have problems buying birthday presents for young relatives around this time? In Noon-Doomsday it was an assassin fretting over what to buy his niece, while here Steed’s flying a toy plane that should have gone to his nephew three years ago. He’s still at it in the coda, until it flies out of the window and Tara offers him a consolation glass of guess what instead. Legacy of Death is a blinder – you’d never have known Nation had it in him, based on his science fiction output – and one of the highlights of the season, and the series.













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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

Never lose any sleep over accusations. Unless they can be proved, of course.

Strangers on a Train (1951) (SPOILERS) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

You’re easily the best policeman in Moscow.

Gorky Park (1983) (SPOILERS) Michael Apted and workmanlike go hand in hand when it comes to thriller fare (his Bond outing barely registered a pulse). This adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel – by Dennis Potter, no less – is duly serviceable but resolutely unremarkable. William Hurt’s militsiya officer Renko investigates three faceless bodies found in the titular park. It was that grisly element that gave Gorky Park a certain cachet when I first saw it as an impressionable youngster. Which was actually not unfair, as it’s by far its most memorable aspect.

I don’t like fighting at all. I try not to do too much of it.

Cuba (1979) (SPOILERS) Cuba -based movies don’t have a great track record at the box office, unless Bad Boys II counts. I guess The Godfather Part II does qualify. Steven Soderbergh , who could later speak to box office bombs revolving around Castro’s revolution, called Richard Lester’s Cuba fascinating but flawed. Which is generous of him.