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I can always tell the buttered side from the dry.

The Molly Maguires

(SPOILERS) The undercover cop is a dramatic evergreen, but it typically finds him infiltrating a mob organisation (Donnie Brasco, The Departed). Which means that, whatever rumblings of snitch-iness, concomitant paranoia and feelings of betrayal there may be, the lines are nevertheless drawn quite clearly on the criminality front. The Molly Maguires at least ostensibly finds its protagonist infiltrating an Irish secret society out to bring justice for the workers. However, where violence is concerned, there’s rarely room for moral high ground. It’s an interesting picture, but one ultimately more enraptured by soaking in its grey-area stew than driven storytelling.

That may come as little surprise, given Martin Ritt is at the helm. A director known for wearing his social conscience on his sleeve, meaning his career became increasingly characterised by respectful nods towards his intentions while stifling yawns at the content. There’s a gulf between the still-engaging The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the celebrated snooze of Norma Rae, and appropriately – since it arrived half a decade after the first and nearly a whole one before the last – The Molly Maguires falls somewhere in between the two. Where The Molly Maguires commands attention is in its choice of leads, and particularly in the performance of Richard Harris.

On the face of it, there’s noble cause in rebelling against exploitation, or “to correct transgressions against traditional moral and social codes” (you know, the sort of transgressions organised society thrives upon). Walter Bernstein’s screenplay, in which coal miners fight for their rights in 1876 Pennsylvania, is based on incidents of the period depicted in Arthur H Lewis’ novel. The Maguires are an Irish secret society, but not like the Skull and Bones; this lot were righteous, or thought they were… Although, maybe the Skull and Bones convince themselves they are too... Nah. The Maguires, it seems, are a group within another group, that of The Ancient Order of Hibernians. They’re a “peaceful fraternal society”, an Irish-Catholic version of the freemasons (the Pope didn’t go for freemasons; “The church condemns all secret societies” says Philip Bourneuf’s Father O’Connor). Their actions frequently result in violence, both on property and people (including murder), leading to the hiring of Pinkerton’s by mine owner Franklin B Gowen. Of course, it’s also claimed in some quarters that the Maguires didn’t really exist, and were in fact a conspiracy by coal operators to break unionism (Ritt, for whatever reason, possibly romantic, doesn’t explore this).

Richard Harris is James McParlan/McKenna, the detective who goes undercover to bring down the Maguires (he’s based on the actual McParland). It’s a subtle, layered performance, one that reminds you what a great actor Harris was. McParlan finds himself sympathising with the cause and those he is paid to consort with and ultimately betray, while romancing landlady Samantha Eggar (the latter plotline is on the ho-hum side. Well observed for what it is, but inessential and drawing attention to Ritt’s capacity for wallowing in this world and in so dragging his heels).

It’s a pleasure too to see Harris acting opposite Sean Connery, then recently ex of Bond – this was shot in 1968 – and taking very much the supporting role. Indeed, if there’s a flaw in this aspect, it’s that Sean’s Maguires leader “Black Jack” Kehoe isn’t the rounded character McParlan is. Connery plays into that, emphasising the bull-headed stubbornness of a man who can see only one way forward (his inevitable destruction), but it serves to emphasise the loss that the pair never reunited on screen (they became good friends on the shoot). There’s solid support elsewhere too from Frank Finlay’s Welsh police captain and Anthony Zerbe as another of the Maguires, but this is mainly about its two stars.

Neither of whom were able to muster a hit. Indeed, the film was a notorious flop, one that sent Connery scurrying back to Bond one last… well, not so quite… It would also precipitate the realisation that, despite starring in a few hits (notably A Man Called Horse the same year), Harris wasn’t much in the way of box office. Neither would have a very good ’70s, and for Harris, it wouldn’t be in demand again until the ’90s, now as a reliable go-to supporting player. Pauline Kael maligned the “Judas routine” at the end, when McParlan visits the imprisoned Kehoe; as familiar as the trope is, I found the scene electric, as the considered philosophising turns nasty (“Punishment. That’s what you want”).

Kehoe voices a simple truth in terms of his motivation and drive (“There’s them on top and them below. Push up or push down. Who’s got more push, that’s what counts”). His fight may be futile, but unlike McParlan, surviving isn’t the be all and end all (“I’m going to live forever” announces the Pinkerton’s man at one point). Indeed, both Mary (Eggar) and Kehoe offer McParlan similarly damning verdicts, the first warning him of his consorting with the Maguires (“There’s no future in what you joined except hell”) and the second of who he was really consorting with (“There’s no punishment this side of hell can free you for what you did”).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle utilised McParland’s story as the basis for The Valley of Fear, but Ritt has no such condemnatory lines in mind. He simply wants to discover his characters through their discontent. Kael tried to come up with an explanation for the picture’s dissatisfying “intellectual short circuit”, that it’s analogous “with contemporary black violence, and it all seems like a screenwriter’s fancy” (of whom, Berenstein died at the beginning of this year aged 101). But on the face of it, with hindsight, this looks more like a flirtation with, and casting a sympathetic eye towards, ancestry. You know, the stuff that produced vaguely apologetic IRA movies (A Fistful of Dynamite, A Prayer for the Dying, The Devil’s Own).

I certainly agree that The Molly Maguires lacks something, but many times, it’s enough just to have Harris and Connery there. Ritt certainly creates a flavour, in combination with Mancini going all Oirish (I did warm to the theme eventually, but it’s still too much) and cinematographer James Wong Howe waxing pastoral. And yet, this is a movie that takes fifteen minutes before anyone says anything (and it’s far from a Leone), and another fifteen before Connery is sighted. There’s a barn attack at one point that is so limply staged, you half wonder if Ritt was simply being perversely dismissive towards any chance the movie might have of attracting decent audiences.

One thing about Connery between Bond and his ’80s comeback; his choices may not have been hits, but they were often much more interesting than the more mainstream fare either side. Harris may have been about to teeter into terrible choices, in contrast, but seeing them together here, before they entered the box office wilderness, is a treat, even if it isn’t the classic Connery and Caine, say, would deliver together a few years later.

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