by RICHARD WINTERS
Joseph Reardon (Paul Newman) is a spy recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate a secret spy ring in order to expose a traitor from a high-ranking government office. In order to do so he must assume the identity of an Australian criminal and allow himself to be caught and imprisoned. He is able to escape using the help of an inside organization that arranges the escapes for high profile prisoners. He is taken to an isolated mansion at an unknown location and trained to be a part of the criminal spy ring, but he unwittingly gives out his true identity, which forces him to make a daring escape and go on the run in the middle of nowhere.
As much as I like Paul Newman I felt he seemed out of place here and really didn’t completely fit the role. For one thing he is an American, but it is never explained why a foreigner is chosen for the operation instead of a British spy. There is also the fact that his alias is that he is from Sydney, Australia, but his Aussie accent does not sound convincing and tends to go in and out.
There is also the issue of allowing himself to be put into prison. Normally a viewer has to relate to the protagonist’s circumstances in order to be wrapped up in their plight, but intentionally getting thrown in the slammer seems a bit hard to fathom. This was the maximum security type of jail with extremely small cells and prisoners asking him if he would “like to dance”. I realize this was part of the spy operation and spies are expected to take risks, but this seemed too reckless to me. What is going to guarantee that he is ever going to get out? This is after all a top secret organization, so how is he going to be able to hold them accountable if he gets stuck there. To me it is like asking someone to jump off a cliff and telling them there is a safety net to catch them even though they can’t see one.
The script, by the prolific Walter Hill, does have a few exciting scenes although it takes a while to get going. The best ones come when Reardon is stuck at the isolated mansion. I enjoyed how he singlehandedly overpowers them and is able to escape while setting the place on fire in the process. The shot showing the mansion on fire from a distance with the black cloud of flames rising into the grey sky had an artsy flair to it and is the movie’s best moment.
I also thought the barren landscape that he runs through, that doesn’t even have any trees, was cool. It reminded me a lot of the classic TV series The Prisoner. This part also includes a vicious guard dog running after him, which is reminiscent of another memorable Newman role from the film Cool Hand Luke. Here though he is able to exact his revenge on the mutt when he submerges it under water and drowns it, which might prove upsetting to animal lovers as it looks realistic and the hound appears to struggle.
The car chase is excellent and nicely captured. Most chases seem to take place on city streets in the majority of films, so it was nice to see one done on curving, gravel roads in the countryside, with Reardon in nothing more than a rusty, rickety old pick-up. I loved how the camera shows in a longshot the car going over a cliff and falling several feet before landing with a loud thud. No intrusive computer effects here, nor flashy explosions. Everything was authentic with no cuts, which ends up making a much stronger impact.
A shout out must also go to James Mason as the villainous Sir George Wheeler. This guy is so effective at playing bad guys, and he does it with such ease, that it is almost scary. His ability to go from refined and dignified to vindictive is what makes him so good. Newman and Mason would team up again nine years later to play adversaries in the film The Verdict (which I will be reviewing for next week).
What hurts the film is a wretched music score that sounds like Russian dance music that has no place in a thriller. It is loud and blaring and does not build the mood or tension in any way. It gets so bad that it almost ends up ruining the whole movie. The climatic sequence is a letdown as well. It features no real action and it ends abruptly with a whimper.
It was a great idea to pair Newman with legendary director John Huston, but this product is not one of either man’s best efforts. It is entertaining enough to be passable, but culminates in being just your average spy thriller.
My Rating: 6 out of 10 stars