Tag: Cyril Cusack

Odd Man Out (1947)

James Mason is wounded and on the run in Odd Man Out

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: James Mason (Johnny McQueen), Kathleen Ryan (Kathleen Sullivan), Robert Newton (Lukey), Robert Beatty (Dennis), Cyril Cusack (Pat), FJ McCormick (Shell), William Hartnell (Fencie), Fay Compton (Rosie), Denis O’Dea (Inspector), WG Fay (Father Tom), Maureen Delaney (Theresa O’Brien), Dan O’Herlihy (Nolan), Elwyn Brook-Jones (Tober)

Is it set in Belfast, or is it set in Purgatory? We follow in the footsteps of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), a leader of “the organisation” (the IRA by another name), on the run in an Irish city with a bullet buried in him. With the police looking to bring him to book, Johnny has to find his way to safety – easier said than done when pain and blood-loss keeps you moving between consciousness and collapse. Is this Johnny’s dying fever dream? It’s a tempting interpretation of Carol Reed’s stunning Odd Man Out (the first of a hat trick of masterpieces from Reed over three years, the others being The Fallen Idol and The Third Man).

It’s a perfect marriage of styles. It opens with a sense of documentary realism that would do Rossellini proud, the camera flying over its unnamed Irish city. As we dive into the house where Johnny and his cell are hiding out, planning a robbery for much-needed funds, the film tips into a marriage of noir and classic gangster film. After the disastrous robbery, where Johnny shoots a man dead in a scuffle, the film becomes more and more an impressionistic series of vignettes as an at-times delirious Johnny stumbles from encounter to encounter, meeting a host of people who help or hinder him, many of whom want him for their own ends (from reward to bizarre artistic inspiration). All this is intermixed with his own increasingly tenuous grip on reality, some scenes floating and soaring with Johnny’s own fantasies and visions as the bullet in him slowly drains his lifeforce.

As Reed’s film increasingly moves into a world that is a few degrees less real than our own, you could argue that perhaps Johnny was dead from the start. That this is his own journey through some sort of Dante-inspired purgatory. His own odyssey, where he will encounter some who want to save him and others who want to damn him.  Reed brilliantly helps us share Johnny’s vulnerability by taking the film ever more off-balance. From Johnny’s visions of the past in the air raid shelter where he takes shelter we spiral down into a surreal bombed out house and an ending that has the sniff of Greek tragedy.

No wonder Johnny feels disconcerted, as this is a rag-tag city with its own rules. Half under construction, half well-established, where the streets are a mix of cars and horse-drawn cabs, Johnny’s journey takes him from dotty housewives to tramps to saviour priests and Dickensian artists. As his fever takes hold, so does the bizarreness of his settings, until he finds himself in an abandoned grand house leaking snow from outside, being painted by a drunken artist who wants to capture the moment of death on his canvas. It’s a million miles from the forensic reality of the robbery that the film started with. Yet it never feels out of place.

A large part of that is because of how brilliantly the film invests us in Johnny’s journey – with Reed’s inspired camera-work and story-telling pulling us into his experience. James Mason spends large chunks of the film in silence, but his performance is extraordinary. A man who seems partly aware that he’s dying, guiltily wanting to know if the man he shot died. Who even from the start seems to have lost his purpose, doubting if violence can bring the results “the organisation” wants, dazzled by sunlight after years in prison, who leads his cell through habit rather than inspiration. Mason’s brilliance here is capturing the very essence of suffering humanity, a confused and frightened man who struggles to understand what is happening around him. Buffeted by events, he’s sympathetic because he never feels in control.

Partly that’s because death feels like its always been waiting for Johnny. You can see it from the start, as he sits in his hide out wondering what its all been for. Kathleen (well played by an impressionable Kathleen Ryan) can’t get death off her mind as she talks about finding and saving Johnny or dying with him. Sympathetic priest Father Tom (a devout WG Fay) just wants to have the chance to save his soul. There is a sense of inevitability about the film – helped by Mason’s crumbling weakness – that destruction is coming and nothing can avoid it.

Reed’s film also has a brilliant sense of the compromises and shady questions of right-and-wrong. Johnny is a murderer and a terrorist – even if he also is a man plagued with doubt. Kathleen is a romantic and a fanatic. Hotel owner Theresa plays both ends against the middle. The coppers will do their duty, but they don’t seem vindictive, just determined to do what they must. There are no clear moral answers in this film, everyone has shades of grey.

It all combines together into one of the most inventive, dynamic and compelling British films of the 1940s by a director who was entering a purple patch where he could claim to be the greatest director in the world. This is a perfect fusion of styles – part realist, part impressionist – that puts you into a cold reality before tipping us into a poetic never-world where the boundary between life and death seems blurred. With a superb performance from Mason (and the rest of the cast), this is still one of the all-time greats.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

Richard Burton lands in Cold War trouble in classic Le Carre adaptation The Spy Why Came In From the Cold

Director:  Martin Ritt

Cast: Richard Burton (Alec Leamas), Claire Bloom (Nan Perry), Oskar Werner (Fiedler), Sam Wanamaker (Peters), George Voskovec (East German Defence Attorney), Rupert Davies (George Smiley), Cyril Cusack (Control), Peter van Eyck (Hans-Dieter Mundt), Michael Hordern (Ashe), Robert Hardy (Dick Carlton), Bernard Lee (Patmore)

Spy stories fall into two camps. You get the wham-bam blast of James Bond and then you also get the grimy, isn’t-this-a-damn-dirty-trade stories that John Le Carré helped to turn into a major alternative. The book that really kicked off Le Carré’s career was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a slim, brilliantly written story of spies working exclusively in shades of grey. The book was a smash, the film was inevitable, and a damn fine film it turned out to be.

Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a former head of Berlin Station for the British Secret Service, who is recruited by the services’ leader Control (Cyril Cusack) as part of an elaborate scheme to discredit the cunning and dangerous head of the Stasi office in Berlin, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck). Leamas will go through a pretence of disgraced dismissal, alcoholism, jail time and half a dozen other indecencies to attract the attention of the East German defector recruiters in the UK. But will the relationship he develops during his disgrace with librarian and idealistic communist Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) endanger the whole mission?

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is shot in a grimy, gloomy black-and-white which is completely appropriate for the morally questionable escapades its characters get up to. Like Le Carré’s novel, the ends justify any means here, and questions of morality and justice are best benched. Characters who can’t let themselves to forget justice are doomed in this film. Genuine shows of real emotion and feeling are generally signs in this film that a person is doomed.

Martin Ritt’s literate script captures the style and tone of Le Carré extremely well – this is still one of the best, truest and most faithful capturing of Le Carré on the screen – and his direction also has a wonderful mixture of shabby kitchen-sink realism and classic Hollywood film noir class that makes for a brilliantly involving package. The pace of the film holds pretty well, beautifully carrying us through a parade of agents recruiting Leamas for the East Germans (each of which are dismissed with a shocking curtness by the next one along), and the final court room trial of Mundt (with its intricate exploration of the complex plotting of the novel) is extremely involving.

The film also has the benefit of a number of terrific performances, led by Richard Burton in the lead. By this stage of his career, Burton was already felt by many to be lost to serious acting in favour of big budget, Liz Taylor-starring pictures and Hollywood entertainment. But he rouses himself here to give one of his best ever performances. Leamas is a shabby, beaten down, little man (despite being played by Burton!) whose chippiness, dissatisfaction and aggression make him perfect as a possible defector. Ritt’s camera often focuses on Burton’s unflinching stares, his eyes seem to bore into the person he’s talking to, little oceans of anger and resentment.

Burton’s Leamas is deep down sick and tired of the world of spying, its betrayals and lies, and sickened with self-disgust at his own involvement in it. Burton skilfully underplays the role throughout, largely ignoring any temptation for grandstanding or big acting moments – instead he is as compromised, grey and lost as the rest of the film, in a superb performance of cynical disaffection. Bunched up, his grand voice dialled down, his eyes flickering with resentment – a great performance.

Claire Bloom is rather affecting as Nan (hilariously, her name was changed from Liz in the book as the producers feared she would be confused with the rather more famous Liz in Burton’s life) and Oskar Werner gives the film a major burst of energy just as it is flagging from one interrogation of Leamas too many, as a chippy, eager, sharp Stasi officer, who is determined to see justice done. The rest of the cast are filled out with some classy Brit character actors, who excel from suave (Robert Hardy) to seedy (Michael Hordern), while Cyril Cusack brings “Control” to cynical life and Rupert Davies gets to the be the first actor to play George Smiley on screen (even if he is only really an extra here).

Spy is a film of atmosphere. Frequently it trusts the viewer to catch up the plot as they go. Leamas actions are not always explained until late on – and we are constantly suspecting that we are only seeing half the story. Its a film that plays its cards close to the chest. This might alienate some, but it’s a true representation of Le Carre – and fits perfectly with the weary sense Leamas has of not being in control of his own life.

But what Ritt does so well is keeping that tonal sense of there always being another shady, compromising twist around the corner. All is never what it seems, and the film ends with an especially bleak series of footnotes as we find out just how ruthless both sides are prepared to be in this soulless chess game of Cold War politics. It’s the moments like this that Spy Who Came in From the Cold really nails. For Le Carré fans the film is a must: for those less interested in the world of espionage, they may find it takes a little too much time.

1984 (1984)

John Hurt is simply perfect as Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s faithful Orwell adaptation 1984

Director: Michael Radford

Cast: John Hurt (Winston Smith), Richard Burton (O’Brien), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), Cyril Cusack (Mr Charrington), Gregor Fisher (Parsons), James Walker (Syme), Andrew Wilde (Tillotson), Phyllis Logan (Announcer)

Few novels of the 20th century have had such a far-ranging impact as George Orwell’s 1984. Its concepts and ideas have dominated the popular language around topics from politics to reality television. Orwell’s idea of a dystopia, ruled by a controlling government, has inspired virtually every other story in a similar setting since. Hell, Orwellian is now an actual word.

Michael Radford had dreamed for years of bringing a film version of Orwell’s last masterpiece to the screen. This film is the end-result, shot (as it proudly announces at the end) in the exact times and locations the original novel was set in. Radford has created a hugely faithful adaptation that strains at the leash to cover all the complex political, philosophical and personal questions Orwell’s novel explores. From the opening sequence, expertly recreating the books “Two-minute-hate”, it’s immediately clear that Radford knows (and loves) this book.

Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a party worker in Oceania (a sort of super country consisting of North America, Britain and Ireland), whose role is to edit and adjust the historical records to ensure that everything the ruling Party has ever said was always accurate and correct. Unpeople are removed from old newspaper cuttings, economic targets are edited to match the final results. In his heart he has sincere doubts about the system and yearns for freedom – but it is not until a chance meeting with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) that he finds a way to express his individuality through their love affair. But what does Inner Party member O’Brien (Richard Burton) have planned for him?

Radford’s film is a marvel of design. Its look and feel could have been ripped from the pages of Orwell. Today we’d call it almost steam-punk – every piece of technology is made of antiquated and repurposed pieces of equipment (such as phone dials or computer screens) that have a rusty, poorly maintained feeling that immediately communicates the run-down crapsack world the film is set in. Every building seems to be crumbling, collapsing, poorly made, unpleasant, dirty – every street is littered with wreckage. Who on earth would want to live anywhere like this?

The oppression of the design – all dark blues, greys, blacks and crumbling stone and rusty metal – is contrasted at key points. The (relative) opulence of O’Brien’s apartment – with actual comfortable chairs, plastered and painted walls and decent furniture – really stands out (as does Burton’s well-tailored boiler suit compared to the uncomfortable rags of the others). Roger Deakin’s photography also really mixes up the grime of London with the sweeping vistas of the countryside, the only place we see greens or brighter blues. 

Radford’s adaptation of the novel manages to hit every beat from the original. I’m not sure if it is quite accessible to someone who hasn’t read the novel: there is a lot of information only briefly communicated here, and the film makes no real effort to set up or establish the situation in Oceania. Some moments work a lot better if you know the book – the nature of Winston’s job most especially. However, Radford really captures the spirit of the original – and he really understands the contrasts in the book between its gloom and oppression and the free spirit of Julia, and what their love affair represents to Winston. 

The film contains a lot of nudity in these scenes (Suzanna Hamilton does full frontal several times –John Hurt’s bottom similarly appears a fair bit) – but it’s kind of vital. The characters are literally (and figuratively) laying themselves bare. It’s a clear visual sign of how they are rejecting the rules, systems and crushing control of the state itself. Alone they can shed the burden of being controlled and truly be themselves. It’s one of the few films where extensive nudity actually feels completely essential to the plot – and vital to communicating the character’s desire for openness.

Radford also draws some neat (inferred) visual parallels from the material of the book, most notably around Winston’s fear of rats. In the book, this visceral fear is never fully explored, but here in the film Radford has Winston plagued with dreams and flashbacks of stealing chocolate as a child from his starving mother – and returning to an empty room full of rats. Rats are linked in Winston’s mind with betrayal and inhumanity, the very qualities he most fears in the real world – and the impact of these animals psychologically on Winston seems all the more clear.

The film is further helped by the casting of John Hurt as Winston Smith. If ever an actor was born to play this role, it was John Hurt. Not only does Hunt’s gaunt face, emaciated frame and pale cragginess fit perfectly (he also looks a lot like Orwell), but Hurt’s gift as an actor was his empathy for suffering. His finest parts were people who undergo great loss and torment, so Winston Smith was perfect. He gives the role a great deal of damaged humanity, a naïve dream-like yearning, a desire for something he can barely understand. There’s a real gentleness to him, a vulnerability – and it makes Winston Smith hugely moving.

Suzanna Hamilton (in a break-out role) is a great contrast, as a confident, controlled, brave Julia – again there is something tomboyish about her that really works for the part. She’s both certain about what she is doing, but also unwise and naïve. It’s a shame her performance often gets overlooked behind Hurt and Richard Burton. This was Burton’s final film – and while he clearly looks frail, he gives O’Brien all the imposing authority of the melodious voice: you could believe Burton as both a secret rebel and as the face of the state. He’s really good here, hugely menacing and sinister.

1984 is perhaps one of the most faithful and lovingly assembled tributes to its source material you can imagine. In fact that’s the root of its two biggest flaws. Radford had an electronic score by the Eurythmics imposed upon the film (the band was unaware that Dominic Muldowney had spent almost a year working on a score rejected by the producers). This electronic, slightly popish soundtrack feels completely out of whack with the tone and style of the rest of the film. It’s very 1980s electronic tone doesn’t match the novel and it looks even worse today. That’s the danger when your passion project can only get finance from a record company!

The other problem is the film is very much an adaptation: wonderfully done, brilliantly designed and acted, but it exists best as a companion piece. In fact the full enjoyment of the film pretty much relies on having read the book – and it has virtually no appeal to someone who didn’t already know the book (even the 2-minute hate that opens the film isn’t explained). Historically I think the film is very easy to overlook as it came out at a very similar time to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Brazil doesn’t adapt the plot of Orwell’s book – but in all other senses it’s an adaptation of the heart of that novel, told with greater artistry and imagination than here. It’s a thematic adaptation that is its own beast not just a page-to-screen version. That’s what 1984 is and, however well done, it will always be in the shadow of the original.

Radford’s labour of love is still a very good film. Somehow what was pretty bleak on the page is even more traumatising on screen. A lot of this is due to Radford’s balance between oppression and freedom, and the film’s perfect adaptation of the book’s themes. But a lot of it is due to Hurt’s heartfelt, sympathetic and perfect performance in the lead role. Literally no-one else could have played this role: and from the opening shots of him at a party rally, through scenes of love, torture and traumatised aftermath, he’s simply wonderful. Read the book: but once you do enjoy (if you can!) the film.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Edward Fox takes aim as suave assassin The Jackal

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Edward Fox (The Jackal), Michel Lonsdale (Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel), Terence Alexander (Lloyd), Michael Auclair (Colonel Rolland), Alan Badel (The Minister), Tony Britton (Inspector Thomas), Denis Carey (Casson), Cyril Cusack (Gunsmith), Maurice Denham (General Colbert), Olga Georges-Picot (Denise), Barrie Ingham (St. Clair), Derek Jacobi (Caron), Jean Martin (Wolenski), Ronald Pickup (Forger), Anton Rodgers (Bernard), Delphine Seyrig (Colette de Montpellier), Donald Sinden (Mallinson), Timothy West (Commissioner Berthier)

The definition of lazy criticism is to say a story doesn’t work because we know the outcome. If that was the case, no production of Hamlet would ever work, and no adaptation of a best-selling book would ever find favour with an audience. We’d be bored by films based on history and we’d be even more indifferent to the hundreds of films made every year that follow accepted narrative structures. What makes a film compelling is often not the destination, but the journey. How do we get there? What do we learn? How does it make us feel? All of these things are keenly observed throughout Fred Zinnemann’s masterful adaptation of The Day of the Jackal.

The year is 1962 and the French President Charles de Gaulle is blamed by many for weakening France by granting independence to Algeria. The Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) hire an English professional assassin known only as The Jackal (Edward Fox) to assassinate De Gaulle. When word of the target leaks to the panicked French Government, Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is given an impossible task – identify a man of whom the government knows nothing and stop him from carrying out a plan only he knows the details of. Meanwhile, the Jackal relentlessly goes about his meticulous planning.

So anyone with passing familiarity with history will know that de Gaulle was not assassinated in the early 60s. Watching The Day of the Jackal, you know that the Jackal will fail. But that’s not the point of the film. Instead it’s a masterful, streamlined thriller that completely understands how much we can invest in watching someone go about a job with calm, cool professionalism. It’s the ingenuity and meticulousness that makes the film compelling, the way each angle of the Jackal’s plan is carefully considered and information slowly delivered to the audience. In some areas we are a couple of steps ahead of Lebel’s search. In others we are as far behind as he is: we may know the weapon and the Jackal’s secret identities, but we know as little about his final plan as Lebel does – it’s only when it’s revealed that all the pieces we’ve seen make perfect sense.

It’s a film that has been assembled with all the grace and skill of a master clockmaker. Zinnemann’s direction and Kenneth Ross’ taut screenplay make every second count. There isn’t a single piece of flab on the bones of this movie, every scene carries a piece of vital information that contributes to the overall picture. Zinnemann sprinkles the film with careful passing shots of calendars and clocks, making the sense of a countdown towards the Jackal’s strike hang intimidatingly over the whole film. The film is gripping, right from its opening reconstruction of the almost-successful OAS assassination attempt on De Gaulle in 1962. Everything feels perfectly interlinked and connected, each scene brilliantly builds on top of the ones before.

This is quite simply an unshakeably brilliant engine of a film, a relentless ride with tension and excitement dripping from every frame. It’s not afraid to be cruel or dangerous – and some of the victims are truly blameless – and it’s not afraid to show that violence and cruelty are weapons as much for the authorities as the Jackal (the cruellest act, after all, is committed by the French Army on poor loyal Wawlinski).

A large part of the success of the film rests on Edward Fox’s performance in the lead. Fox gives the Jackal an unshakeable, public-school, confidence, an attractive resolve that sees him meet every obstacle with a cool elán, resolutely unperplexed by anything that he encounters. Fox’s superb performance succeeds in making you engage with (and even root for) a man who is a cold-blooded professional killer, who commits murder (when provoked) without hesitation. How does this happen? Again it’s his efficiency, his expertise. The film totally understands how engrossing watching talented people go about their work can be.

The film makes the minutia of setting up an operation immensely compelling. In careful detail, we see exactly how the Jackal goes about getting a false passport from the authorities. How he scopes out a potential place to conduct the assassination. His careful preparation of disguises and fake identities. In one gloriously done scene, we see him practise using his specially constructed rifle on a melon at a huge range. Carefully he takes a series of shots at the melon, adjusting the sight each time to make the weapon as accurate as possible. The scene is a showcase for the Jackal’s meticulous professionalism (you can see why the producers were outraged when the scene was cut from a TV screening in the 1980s – it’s practically a highlight of the movie).

Similar investment, however, is made in the detailed footwork involved in tracing and detecting the Jackal by the French and English police. Michael Lonsdale is a perfect foil for Fox’s urbane cool, with his dour, grey, crumpled Label, a man selected somewhat unwillingly for a mission but who slowly reveals the cool head and nerves of steel that made him perfect for the job. The police-work used to try and close the net on the Jackal is as intricate as the hitman’s own work – careful plodding through files and methodical calculation and educated guesswork. It’s as far from the rush and tumble of Hollywood as you can imagine – but somehow, because it feels so real, every discovery against the odds by the authorities becomes hard-won and exciting. The sense of a net being skilfully built also serves to make the Jackal’s skilful evasion of each trap all the more compelling.

And the tense race against time lasts for the whole of the film. The film brilliantly keeps this cat-and-mouse game alive, with the police and the Jackal constantly leap-frogging each other to stay one step ahead. Each move and counter-move has all the intricacy of a chess game. There are enough twists and turns to keep every audience member gripped. The eventual assassination attempt itself is built up to beautifully – a wordless, tense but brilliantly assembled montage of liberation day celebrations keeps both the police and the audience on their toes as to where the Jackal will strike from. The finale of the film turns on a twist of fate that is simply a brilliant coup de theatre. There is even a droll little coda that deepens the mystery of the Jackal even further.

Zinnemann’s direction throughout is flawless – calm, measured and methodical, and never allowing flash or bombast to drown out events. It’s helped as well by the wonderful cast of actors – a real who’s-who of British and French character actor talent, with Alan Badel’s smooth Interior Minister, Eric Porter’s cool but fanatic OAS leader, Cyril Cusack’s quiet gunsmith and Derek Jacobi’s eager young detective particular standouts. I also have a lot of time for Olga Georges-Picot’s quietly moving performance of a woman pushed to extreme actions by grief.

The Day of the Jackal is another of those near perfect movies. Everything it sets out to do it does perfectly, and it rewards constant viewing. It’s got some terrific unflashy performances and is a perfect demonstration of why professionalism and expertise can be so engrossing. It wraps this up into a deliciously tense confection, where every scene bubbles with undercurrents of drama and danger. There is not an off-beat – instead it’s a brilliant piece of pulp cinema that transcends itself into being something truly adept and dramatic. You can’t take your eyes off it for a second. I don’t hesitate for a second in saying it’s one my favourite thrillers.