30 August 2003 | gleywong
More than what it seems
Hitchcock appears to be the ghost that is haunting John Huston in this flick. Or should we say that it is Huston's homage to Hitchcock that we have here, and which seems to either spice up, or overburden the film, depending on who the viewer is. The cinematography, lowkey brown color palette and restrained performances -- allowing the vivid "action" to move the plot-- all have shades of the later Hitchcock movies like "Topaz" or the one with Newman himself in it, "Torn Curtain." In fact Hitchcock made only one more film after the 1973 date of "Mackintosh Man," so we are witnessing something which could be interpreted as an effort on Huston's part to continue that legacy. Some specific parallels are, for example, Newman's struggle in the river to strangle the killer-dog set on him during his escape echoing the struggle in the farmhouse to kill the Russian agent ("Torn Curtain"). Or the mad car chase over rocky Irish roads by Newman and Sanda, mimicking the inevitable car chases patented by Hitch in various of his early b/w films, such as "The Man who Knew too Much (w/ Donat)" or "Young and Innocent".
Another parallel can be seen in the casting. Besides Newman himself, there is Huston's selection of the mysterious Dominique Sanda, one of Europe's most sensuous stars, whose appeal mirrors Hitchcock's obsession with the cool blonde beauty of Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint or Tippi Hedren.
Then, too, we have the eloquent James Mason in a late role commanding the opening of the film in the House of Lords by holding forth in the grand manner. But we should guess that he is here a Hitchcockian anti-hero, one in the mold of Phillip Vandamm from Hitch's monumental "North by Northwest." More parallels could be drawn, but for the mise-en-scene, Huston does one up on Hitch by actually filming in Ireland and Malta.
As for the plot it appears to have the tempting multilayered complexity of a typical English thriller, such as those in which Michael Caine appeared before he was swallowed up by Hollywood. If there are plot densities, we are after all, dealing with agents and double-agents, and things can get knotted up. In what other country than England could upperclass spies -- traitors-- be celebrated in literature and movies like the agents Philby or Blunt? Newman's adversaries are gentlemen, but not what they seem to be. We even get an idea of what an English prison is like and the quantities of laundry that they do. Last of all, who is Mrs. Smith? A name deliberately chosen for its opaqueness. Is she convincing as Mackintosh's daughter, or is she merely an agent, and not even a double agent? Yes, there are holes in the plot, but overall, the performances and Newman's Great Escape make up for the plot weaknesses.
Of four ****, three and a half. Still a must for fans of the director Huston, or the stars Newman, Mason or Sanda, and the many supporting stalwarts of British b/w postwar movies and Masterpiece Theatre productions.