Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Leigh Vance (based on a novel by Clive Egleton)
Starring: Michael Caine, Donald Pleasence, Janet Suzman, John Vernon
Duration: 106 min
BBFC Certification: 12
I remember watching the Oscars way back in 2000 (that was the year some young British wunderkind called Sam Medes cleaned up with a movie called American Beauty) and a line from Billy Crystal’s opening medley has always stayed in my mind:
How many movies can one actor make…he’ll make one in the next station break…
He was of course talking about Michael Caine (who won best supporting actor that year for The Cider House Rules). Many a true word has been spoken in jest, as the saying goes, and there is no doubt that Michale Caine has made a lot of movies. At the time of writing, the total stands at around 177 – that’s more than double two of his longest-living contemporaries, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris. With a credit list that long, there are surely going to be some drastic misfires alongside the classics (Jaws 4, according to Crystal) but that means that there should also be some long lost gems ripe for rediscovery lurking among the filmography of the man formerly known as Maurice Micklewhite.
With that in mind, 101 Films brings The Black Windmill, a relatively unknown Caine film, to Blu-ray this March. A spy thriller based on the novel Seven Days to a Killing by Clive Egleton and directed by Don Siegel, right in the middle of an early 70s creative peak (his previous two films had been Dirty Harry and Charley Varrick) the film was a critical and commercial failure upon its release in 1974 and has been hard to track down since. So does this new release shine a light on a long lost classic or does it deserve to be mocked by Crystal alongside Caine’s aquatic misfires at some future Oscar ceremony?
The Black Windmill was marketed as a brutal thriller (the ultimate exercise in controlled terror, the trailer on the disc ominously informs us) and the opening credits of bucolic shots of children playing, accompanied by the unsettling soundtrack of other children singing a hymn, strike a tone more reminiscent of a horror film than a spy thriller. Indeed, for the first twenty minutes or so of The Black Windmill, the tone lurches all over the place and it takes some time before it settles into a darker, more serious tone.
Things begin excitingly enough. After a brief establishing sequence that feels a little like a Bond opening, we swiftly learn that British spy John Tarrant’s son has been kidnapped by the very people he was about to infiltrate. Despite the seriousness of this early subject matter, the film doesn’t shed its lightweight Bondish tone. During a briefing scene set at what looks like the Kingsman mansion, Tarrant’s superior, Cedric Harper (played by Donald Pleasence) accidentally calls a suspect Sean Connery, a bizarre but still funny breaking of the fourth wall (Pleasence played Blofeld opposite Connery in You Only Live Twice several years earlier). Later, Tarrant informs Harper about his son’s disappearance in the middle of what looks like a carbon copy of Q’s laboratory, complete with gun ranges and a technical demonstration of a rocket launcher concealed in a briefcase. This feels very far from the ultimate exercise in controlled terror; and certainly a million miles away from the cloak and dagger paranoia of Caine’s earlier, iconic spy thriller The Ipcress File.
Yet thankfully it doesn’t take long for the comedic aspects to dissipate and the tone to stabilise as the plot kicks into gear. Tarrent, thanks to some underhand play by the kidnappers, soon becomes a suspect in his own son’s abduction. Seemingly trapped on all sides, he is forced to risk his life by hunting down his son by himself. From here on in, The Black Windmill swiftly morphs from Bond pastiche into a highly entertaining suspense thriller.
Don Siegel directs in his typically brilliant, non-fussy style. Never a director to swamp his films in visual pyrotechnics, he continues to work in the mode of The Line-Up, Dirty Harry and Charley Varrick by combining slowly wrought tension with sudden, gripping action sequences. Constructed with his trademark efficiency, foot and car chases across the London Underground and through the streets of Paris are particular highlights, both serving as a reminder that Siegel should continue to be seen as one the best orchestrators of cinematic action alongside Peckinpah, Cameron or Greengrass (to name but a few).
The action is continually grounded through frequently fantastic location work, offering fascinating glimpses of 70s London, from Maida Vale to Shepherd’s Bush and Tottenham Court Road. In fact, there seems to have been an adherence throughout the film to shoot in real locations wherever possible, including on trains, buses (even hovercrafts!) which adds a wonderful sense of gritty realism to the proceedings.
Caine, much like his director, delivers an effortlessly great performance. Harry Palmer’s smug charm is nowhere to be seen here, with Caine instead channeling a similar vein of cold brutality that made Jack Carter such a compelling character. He receives great support from a neurotically uptight Donald Pleasence as his boss and an convincingly anguished Janet Suzman as his wife. Suzman, playing a spouse in a 70s spy film, actually takes a slightly more proactive role than would be expected, which is refreshing. John Vernon, playing the sinister kidnapper McKee, doesn’t make much of a lasting impression but works well as a cold blooded antagonist who matches Caine’s controlled, professional violence beat for beat.
There are times when the film is perhaps too efficient for its own good. Characters manage to cross country borders at the click of a finger (which takes the audience a few moments to reacquaint themselves with where they are!) and one death feels particularly rushed and anti-climatic, almost as if a scene has been cut. But these don’t do much to detract what from what is ultimately a rollicking good ride.
The Black Windmill, then, is ripe for rediscovery. While it may not scale the heights of Caine or Siegel’s best work, or do anything startlingly original, it is nevertheless a gripping, tautly directed thriller that deserves, after all this time, to not only finally find an appreciative audience but to take its rightful place as a worthy entry in the filmographies of both its director and its star.
The Black Windmill is released on Blu Ray via 101 Films. The picture quality is generally great, with lots of fine detail during daylight scenes and pleasing film grain throughout. Nighttime scenes suffer a little with a few instances of fluctuation, but these are rare. Outside of a full restoration, I doubt The Black Windmill will look much better than this. The mono PCM soundtrack is clear and punchy in all the right places.
There are only a few extras on the disc:
- Interview with actor Joss Ackland
- Interview with cinematographer Ousama Rawi
Interview with Joss Ackland: Character actor Joss Ackland recalls his time on the film in a brief 10 minute interview, focusing on working with Don Siegel and Michael Caine. There are a few nice anecdotes here, including one about Ackland and Caine getting the giggles on set.
Interview with cinematographer Ousama Rawi: In a lengthier 20 minute interview, The Black Windmill’s cinematographer gives an entertaining account of his time working on the film, from having initial interviews with Siegel (apparently Caine put in a good word that helped him get the job!) to interesting on-set information, including a nasty tale about a stuntman taking a bad fall and a sad tale about Donald Pleasence.