Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef