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McMillan & Wife: Till Death Do Us Part
Episode 6, Season 1

Better than average
This episode was conceived as a bit of a 'bottle show' but turned out to be one of the best-remembered episodes of the entire McMillan and Wife series.

It does have flaws - the regular cutaways to Sergeant Enright's romantic weekend, although intended to create suspense (will he turn up in time to save the Commissioner and Sally?) are just annoying. And for a Police Commissioner, McMillan is remarkably foolish about security at times - such as not keeping the front door locked! Nevertheless, it's a fun episode with a slightly darker hue than normal, generating a fair measure of suspense as the 'Asylum Killer' unfolds a sinister and apparently foolproof plot to make the Commissioner and Sally his latest victims - right down to supplying the Death March as musical accompaniment.

McMillan & Wife: Once Upon a Dead Man
Episode 0, Season 1

Worth seeing for standout chase
This pilot movie for a popular 70s series is pleasant, undemanding viewing for the most part. It is, however, worth watching for one standout sequence, a chase down the famous hills of San Francisco. Of course, we've seen plenty of Frisco car chases in films over the years. This one, however, takes place on BICYCLES - something I've never seen before in a movie or TV show.

Amusingly, the sequence uses several tropes normally associated with car chases in the cinema - so we see the villain shooting at McMillan whilst on his bike and the cyclists, at one point, veer onto the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians in their wake.

Most importantly, the chase is extremely well filmed and staged and looks genuinely dangerous at times, especially when the cyclists narrowly avoid hitting cars or travel down steep hills at alarmingly high speeds. One hopes that the stunt performers were well paid.

March or Die

Downbeat view of life in the Legion
Following his success with "Farewell My Lovely", ITC invited Dick Richards to pay homage to another quintessentially 30s genre, the Foreign Legion movie.

Unfortunately, he seems to have followed his instructions rather too literally. One imagines that ITC executives were horrified by the finished product, a gloomy, downbeat affair that went over-budget (according to Lew Grade) and which focuses on brutality and despair, rather than on heroism and adventure. Some choppy editing betrays signs of studio intervention to try to make the film more acceptable to modern audiences. Nevertheless, it's a long haul to the admittedly splendid battle which concludes the film.

"March or Die" is not without its merits, however. There's a superb cast and beautifully-lit, painting-like images from the great cinematographer, John Alcott. At its best the film catches a haunting mood of futility and sadness and it treats all sides - the Legion, their opponents, the archaeologists led by Max Von Sydow - with surprising even-handedness. Maurice Jarre's evocative love theme is also worthy of note.

The films' biggest flaw, however, is its uneven treatment of the Foreign Legion itself. It wavers uncertainly between 30s-style adulation and 70s-era condemnation. The climax asks us to salute the enduring courage and martial traditions of the Legion, yet this contrasts oddly with the sadism and brutality we witnessed earlier. Do we really wish to admire an institution which encourages its men to abandon colleagues and let them die in the desert?

Endless Night

Would-be Hitchcock
The last film made by the illustrious Launder & Gilliat team is a psycho-thriller that desperately wants to be praised as "Hitchcockian" and even recruits Bernard Herrmann, Hitch's favourite composer, to write the score. Perhaps the Hitchcock film it most resembles, however, is "Frenzy" – both seem to be the work of ageing filmmakers trying to get "with it".

"Endless Night" is extremely faithful to Agatha Christie's source novel (it may be the closest-ever filming of one of her novels) but neither of the two protagonists seem to come across with the same conviction that they do in the book. Hayley Mills struggles with a difficult part (Ellie is a fairly insipid character) while Hywel Bennett somehow never convinces as the enigmatic Michael.

There's lots of fun spotting familiar faces in the supporting cast, including an uncredited Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier from "Doctor Who") as the auctioneer. Per Oscarsson is good as the insightful architect Santonix, who guesses something of what is going on, although our admiration for him is lessened by the hideously vulgar house he builds (which all the characters acclaim as a masterpiece!) I can't help wondering what Dame Agatha's loyal fans made of this film; the setting in an idyllic corner of rural England is traditional enough but the atmosphere is a great deal darker than usual. The novel, written in 1967, represented quite a bold departure for the writer (and a successful one) but the film at times descends into banality. Having said that, the twee nature of Ellie and Michael's romance gives the conclusion much more impact and the final images are startling.

Russian Roulette

Slow starter but a strong finish
The failure of this stylish thriller, financed by Lew Grade's ITC, effectively ended the directorial career of former Altman editor Lou Lombardo. It's true that "Russian Roulette" takes a while to get going and has an unnecessarily complex plot. However, Lombardo has a nice eye for detail, uses locations well (it is set in wintry Vancouver) and gets the best out of an eclectic cast.

"Russian Roulette" may start slowly but it builds to a cracking climax that is a tour de force of slick editing and exciting music (from the underrated Michael J Lewis). George Segal is well-cast and looks genuinely scared in the vertiginous rooftop shootout. Worth seeing.

Hell Below Zero

Fighting the cold
This British-made adventure represents an early teaming for two of the men who helped create the James Bond series, producer Albert Broccoli and writer Richard Maibaum. Apart from character names and the Arctic setting, the story doesn't really have much to do with the Hammond Innes novel on which it is (allegedly) based; the film actually ends more or less where the novel begins.

Nevertheless, this is gutsy, vital stuff with some vigorous action scenes and excellent location work. A young Stanley Baker makes a smooth, dangerous villain and the always-excellent Niall MacGinnis is on hand as a drunken doctor who comes to the aid of Alan Ladd's stoical, if slightly dull, hero.

Sweeney 2

The times they are a-changin'
When British cinema of the 70s is discussed, "Sweeney 2" rarely gets a mention. Yet it illustrates the changing times as vividly as many better-known films. The blazing action of "Sweeney!" is replaced by a thoughtful film that, although more low-key, is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the television series.

Regan and Carter are on the trail of a gang of bank-robbers who, from their idyllic base on Malta, occasionally return to Britain (a country they believe to be "finished") to carry out violent and well-planned raids. The men lead a luxurious communal lifestyle with their wives and children yet it is one financed by thrusting sawn-off shotguns into the faces of terrified bank cashiers and taking hostages (one of whom, a young woman, is killed in the raid that opens the film). They seem to symbolise the souring of the 60s dream.

Other details are equally telling. A young schoolteacher tells George Carter that she "doesn't like policemen". No longer does the force command widespread public respect. Regan's boss (the excellent Denholm Elliott) is facing imprisonment on corruption charges, reflecting the corruption trials that so stained the image of the Metropolitan Police in the 70s.

On their abortive trip to Malta to try to interview the men, Regan and Carter are plainly jealous and angry when they witness the lifestyle of their targets - a far cry from their grimy world of bacon sandwiches from burger vans and knees-ups down the local. But by the end of "Sweeney 2" and a year before Margaret Thatcher won power in Britain, it is the defiantly working-class coppers who have the last laugh, joined by their girlfriends for a boozy celebration - while the wives of the bank robbers prove less reliable.

Euston Films had a track record of producing high-quality television and (in this case) film. "Sweeney 2" fully confirms this. There are good supporting performances from Nigel Hawthorne, Lewis Fiander and Derrick O'Connor plus an exciting score by Tony Hatch. The action scenes, although lesser in number than in the first film, are superbly handled by one of the TV show's action specialists, director Tom Clegg.


Double X: The Name of the Game

"Long Good Friday" it ain't
"Iggy fronted the organisation but the brains behind it was a man called Edward Ross - cold, calculating and totally ruthless."

At times, "Double X" is so inept and clumsy that it looks like a 10-year-old's concept of a gangster thriller. In "The Long Good Friday", you believed in the organisation headed by Bob Hoskins' superbly frightening Harold Shand - by contrast, Simon Ward's bunch look like a set of kids playing at being criminals. The idea that a man whose criminal empire seems to encompass a dozen people and a small nightclub is planning to build new cities across the world is as ludicrous and overblown as the film's pretensions.

On the credit side, "Double X" manages a neat twist two-thirds of the way through as well as a couple of good performances - Chloë Annett as Sarah takes the film more seriously than it deserves whilst Bernard Hill has lots of fun as the limping and sardonic Iggy. But the photography is strangely drab despite some nice locations and the soundtrack is awful. The makers should check out Ian David Diaz's excellent "The Killing Zone" for an example of how to make this type of film.

Finally, watch out for the scene where Norman Wisdom slaps his double-crossing lover Gemma Craven. This has to be the wimpiest, most laughable "slap" in motion picture history! The fact that the director didn't ask for a retake sums up the problems with "Double X".

The Black Rider

"There's something fishy going on at Brocken Castle"
This sturdy British B-picture features a plot right out of Enid Blyton or Scooby-Doo. A gang of crooks, bent on smuggling "atomic sabotage equipment" into the country (crumbs!), are using the legend of the Black Rider to scare people away from crumbling Brocken Castle, where they have a secret headquarters in the dungeons. Gosh!

The film is best enjoyed for its view of the vanished innocence of 50s Britain. This is a place where smiling librarians select handpicked novels for little old ladies, where the teapot is always full, where the harmless village drunk (Kenneth Connor) is plied with booze by indulgent locals and where the local youths are too busy fixing their motorbikes to bother with vandalising the bus shelter. No Hells Angels these - they are all clean-cut and impeccably polite, trundling along the leafy lanes at a sedate 25 mph or participating in motorised egg-and-spoon races at the village fete.

Jimmy Hanley and Rona Anderson make a charming hero and heroine, Lionel Jeffries is good as the urbane villain and there' s a jolly, infuriatingly catchy theme tune. Nobody gets killed and even Hanley's irascible employer and future father-in-law turns out to be a decent cove at the end, even buying his own motorcycle and sidecar combination for some exhilarating spins with the missus. Somehow I doubt if Quentin Tarantino will be doing a remake.

Man from Tangier

Exotic title for humdrum thrills
It's hard to believe that films like this once made it onto the big screen, even as B-pictures. Actually, to call "The Man from Tangier" a B-picture is probably too kind, C-picture or D-picture might be more accurate.

The title was presumably intended to lure filmgoers with the promise of exotic thrills but only the first few minutes are set in Tangier (courtesy of some stock footage) and for the rest of the time we're back in grimy old London, more familiar Butchers Film territory. He-man hero Robert Hutton, via a ridiculous chain of coincidences, gets mixed up with foreign femme fatale Lisa Gastoni and her shady associates, whilst stoical Scotland Yard 'tec Ballard Berkeley mulls over the clues.

Lance Comfort made some interesting films during the immediate post-war boom in British cinema but the big break never materialised, leaving him becalmed in second-feature land. The anti-climactic ending to this effort (there's not even time for hero and heroine to say "I love you") suggests that, like the audience, he had lost all interest in the turgid tale of the Man from Tangier.

The Mirror Crack'd

No mystery what went wrong
After their success with "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile", EMI and the Brabourne-Goodwin production team came a cropper with "The Mirror Crack'd".

By comparison with her other works, Agatha Christie's original novel had a relatively simple plot (albeit based around a clever idea). The result is a film that looks handsome but is desperately slow-moving. In addition, the script lacks the waspish bite of Anthony Shaffer's work on "Death on the Nile" and "Evil Under the Sun", whilst Elizabeth Taylor seems miscast as the tragic,Judy Garland-type heroine.

On the credit side, Angela Lansbury is good (the producers of "Murder, She Wrote" obviously agreed!) and the film-within-a-film at the start, a creaky British B & W B-picture from the 50s, is a delight, filled with veteran stars.

The Battle of the Sexes

Sellers sublime
This well-cast adaptation of a classic James Thurber story relocates the action to Edinburgh and offers Peter Sellers one of his best roles as a timid bureaucrat who turns into a man of action when the crusty family firm he works for is threatened by an "efficiency expert" (and a female one at that!). His bumbling attempts to resolve the situation at the climax are a delight whilst co-star Robert Morley is perfect in the sort of role that he was born to play.

There's some fine location work, beautifully shot in black-and-white by Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis and a late screen appearance by "Doctor Praetorius" himself, the sepulchral Ernest Thesiger.

The Innocent Sleep

Enjoyable dramatisation of a real-life murder mystery
This enjoyable little thriller has an old-fashioned feel and is none the worse for that. Rupert Graves is surprisingly good as a Scouse drifter, sleeping rough near Tower Bridge, who witnesses a murder. Attempts to report the crime to the police go awry when he realises that the detective investigating the case is one of the killers.

The story is a lightly-fictionalised account of the P2 masonic lodge scandal that led to the fall of the Italian government in May 1981 after revelations of infiltration by members of the illegal masonic lodge. (P2 stands for Propaganda Due). Licio Gelli, the Master of the lodge, was a former fascist and CIA officer working in league with Roberto Calvi, the President of Banco Ambrosiano of Milan, who was already in prison accused of illicit export of capital.

One of Gelli's protégés was Michele Sindona, a banker connected with the Mafia, who had previously managed the funds of the Vatican and embezzled several billion lira. Sindona escaped to the US where he was apprehended and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for fraudulent bankruptcy. (An inspector who had been making inquiries about him was mysteriously killed.)

As for Calvi, he was found dangling from a noose beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London, his pockets and waistband stuffed with bricks. Ever since, questions have persisted about how he died. At first, a London coroner concluded it was suicide. However, his son and widow, who live in Montreal, have doggedly tried to prove that Roberto Calvi was killed.

As chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, he was an influential financier who was nicknamed "God's banker" because of his close ties to the Vatican. In June, 1982, a year after being convicted of massive currency violations in Italy and with his bank teetering on collapse, he vanished. A week later, he was found hanging from scaffolding beneath Blackfriars Bridge, over the Thames. Banco Ambrosiano subsequently collapsed with enormous debts in a $1.3-billion (U.S.) bankruptcy.

This suspected murder forms the premise of Scott Michell's film. It is atmospherically photographed, largely at night (watch it with the lights out, or you won't be able to make out a thing) and benefits greatly from an excellent music score by the young British composer Mark Ayres, which recalls the work of John Barry at some points.

Pit of Darkness

A better butcher
Thanks to a reasonably interesting story and strong cast, this is one of the better films from ultra low budget Butcher's Films. The paucity of resources does show up a little however in the rushed climax - presumably there wasn't enough money to stage a big action scene.

Casting cognoscenti will appreciate the fact that two of the villains are played by "The Good Old Days" impresario Leonard Sachs and the Prime Minister's father-in-law, Tony Booth!


It's cinema, but not as we know it
Calling "Gaolbreak", and the other output of its producers Butchers Films, a 'B' picture would be unduly flattering. More like a 'C' picture, or even a 'D' picture. A cast of unknowns, with the exception of Carol White (future star of "Cathy Come Home"), take part in a thrill-less "thriller", in which the eponymous "gaolbreak" (why the American spelling?) appears so simple that one wonders if anyone is left inside the prison.

Despite the plodding story, the film has a certain old-world charm; made in the year of my birth, it presents us with a vanished world in which policemen were avuncular but benign and crooks used no language stronger than "you nit!" Leading man Peter Reynolds bears a startling resemblance to Roger Moore ; by a curious coincidence, co-star Ivor Dean would later play dimwitted Chief Inspector Teal opposite Moore in "The Saint".


Jim can't fix it for the bad guys
Although Tanya Roberts is a terrible actress, "Sheena" isn't unenjoyable. The photography is beautiful, there's a nice score by Richard Hartley and you can get a laugh at the scene where a helicopter is downed by some very obviously fake birds. British viewers will be intrigued by actor John Forgeham (who plays the evil Colonel Jorgensen) - he's a dead ringer for ageing DJ Jimmy Saville (of "Jim'll Fix It" fame).

Rather amusingly, critic Pauline Kael, ruthless scourge of many films better than this, actually liked "Sheena"!

No. 1 of the Secret Service

Amusing, if you're in the right mood
Thanks to a larger than usual budget and Nicky Henson's amusing performance in the lead role, No 1 of the Secret Service is about the best of Lindsay Shonteff's cut-price James Bond spoofs. It even achieved a national cinema release in the UK, on a double-bill with the Roger Moore-Stacy Keach actioner, "Sicilian Cross" - ironic really, considering Henson is parodying Moore as the suave No 1!

Those new to the Shonteff style will be bemused by the impenetrable plot, the bizarre sense of humour and the ludicrous comic-strip violence, while Aimi MacDonald is nobody's idea of a James Bond girl - she recites her lines as if she's presenting "Play School"! Nevertheless, it's fun to watch Henson and Keen play at being Bond and 'M', the fight choreography is better than "Big Zapper"s ludicrous Kung Fu battles and the theme music is catchy.

The Golden Lady

Cheap n' cheerful
Upon its (short-lived) UK release, the makers of this film boasted that it introduced a "female James Bond". Not likely, on a budget of £1m - on most Bond movies, that's probably the catering bill!

Still, the film does throw everything into the pot. There's sex, gory murders, some fairly tame action sequences and a "blink and you'll miss it" walk-on for Desmond Llewellyn, presumably to tie in with the Bond theme. Oh, and the theme music is catchy.

Ground Zero

Spectacularly bad
I watched portions of this bizarre film with my jaw hanging open in disbelief. For a start, the premise is that a criminal ,trying to get two of his associates released from jail, threatens to detonate an atomic bomb in San Francisco. Yes, that's right, an atomic bomb. Isn't he over-reacting a little? Where did he get hold of it?

But don't worry, a member of the President's security team is investigating. In real life, I doubt if they would let this nutball within 100 miles of the President. Sporting a strange mullet haircut, carrying a cane and wearing a poloneck white sweater, Ron Casteel is the most conspicuous undercover agent I've seen. In moments of tension, he is prone to make philosophical speeches ("From the moment I was born, I started dying" one begins) and recite poetry.

He and a colleague investigate VERY SLOWLY. Even though the film has an extremely short running time, it seems very long, mainly because every scene is extended to at least twice its natural life, accompanied by irritating and often completely inappropriate music (no less than five composers worked on the film!)

There is some impressive location work on the Golden Gate Bridge at the film's climax and I guess that is where most of the money went. Absurdly, even though our heroes have discovered the location of the bomb, apparently they don't inform anybody else. San Francisco is about to be nuked and yet there aren't squads of police, atomic scientists and bomb disposal experts milling around, just our two heroes shooting it out with the baddy as the countdown continues.

This lunatic farrago comes to a climax that is - well, let's just say it's highly unusual and very much in keeping with the rest of the film!

Killer's Moon

No shocks, not even crude ones
A staggeringly dull and inept horror film, which amazingly enjoyed a national UK cinema release during 1978. Standards must have been lower then.

The inane premise has a busload of schoolgirls meandering bafflingly through the wilds of the Lake District en route to Scotland (why aren't they going up the motorway?) They and their teachers are terrorised by four psychopaths who escaped while being given experimental drug therapy at a cottage hospital (!). You would expect the fells to be knee-deep in police searching for such obviously dangerous characters, but not one is seen until the end, when a patrol car trundles into view.

Even allowing for such illogicalities, the potential is there for crude shocks but director Birkinshaw blows it entirely. Potentially suspenseful scenes are completely bungled and little dramatic use is made of the Lake District setting. The clumsy dialogue and sub-Clockwork Orange posturings of the psychopaths make parts of the film more laughable than terrifying. However, the "National Health Service psychiatrist line" is hilarious and few other horror films feature a moving eulogy to a three-legged dog!

Bloody New Year

Take a ride on Norman's ghost train
If "Terror" was Norman J Warren's take on "Suspiria", then "Bloody New Year" is surely his version of "The Beyond". After a slow start, it changes from a British teens at the seaside affair, all big dippers and frustrated love triangles, to a delirious zombie movie - "Quadrophenia" crossed with Lucio Fulci.

Considering the extremely low-budget, this is a creditable piece of filmmaking, with Warren achieving some neat shock effects. The young and unknown cast acquit themselves reasonably and there is some groovy organ music to spice up the final reel mayhem. The unexpected arrival of the fairground yobs adds to the fun.

I do have two questions though! Norman is such a nice man so why does he go in for ultra-downbeat endings? And is there really a time-warp island,complete with drooling zombies, living lifts and ambulatory fishing nets,within sailing distance of Barry Island Funfair? Has the local Tourist Information Centre been informed? (Wait a minute, that's three questions).

What a Whopper

Memento from a bygone age
"There's something funny going on", mutters Terry Scott's policeman to his colleague Gordon Rollings. Well, I'm not sure about that, but "What a Whopper!" is at least mildly diverting, mainly for the pleasure of spotting the stars in the extraordinary cast. It is also noteworthy for the screenplay by future "Daleks" scribe Terry Nation, music by Laurie "Avengers" Johnson and for Adam Faith's quite dreadful theme song, which is arranged by none other than John Barry!

The film itself is innocent seaside postcard humour, full of comic misunderstandings. Charles Hawtrey plays a beatnik artist (!), Spike Milligan is a befuddled fisherman and Sid James a Scottish publican, although he wisely makes no attempt at a Scots accent. There is also a rare big screen outing for Freddie Frinton's famous sozzled aristocrat performance. This film is truly a souvenir from a bygone age, when the idea of an inebriated man driving from London to Scotland was funny and when outrageous sexism was tolerated. The treatment of women in this film makes the "Carry On" series positively 'PC' by comparison!

Don't Open Till Christmas

Jaw-droppingly bad
I knew from previous reviews that "Don't Open Till Christmas" would be bad, but I didn't realise just HOW bad! But perhaps that's just as well. The 'story' is so sleazy and mean-spirited that the film would be deeply nasty if it were well-made. As it is, it is just laughable.

Even on the most basic levels, "Don't Open Till Christmas" fails to work. The various murders, though gory, are suspenseless. We know nothing of the victims, we know when the killer's about to strike (so there is no surprise) and the direction is hamfisted. The giallo elements fall flat because neither we nor the police are given any clues and indeed the police investigation never really comes to a conclusion.

Parts of the film simply don't make any sense. The timeframe is all to hell, for one thing. Early on, a newspaper headline reads "Only three killing days left to Christmas", but then four or five days pass and we're only at Christmas Eve! Lines like "Is there a pattern here?", after 3 Santas have been gorily dispatched, beggar belief. It also seems unlikely that people would still be happily wandering around London in Santa costumes if a psychopathic Claus-slayer WERE on the loose!

The direction is inept, the dialogue ludicrous and the acting desperately flat. And why does Mark Jones, as one of the police investigators, dress like a Twenties matinee idol? Perhaps his flamboyant costumes are an effort by the makers to disguise attention from the threadbare sets!

Nevertheless, "Don't Open Till Christmas" does have a certain historical interest as the very last gasp of the low-budget British horror film. The involvement of Derek Ford gives it a tenuous link to the gory glory days of Compton and Tigon. And it's amazing to think that it was made in 1984, the time when Goldcrest were at their height. What a contrast between such genteel efforts as "Chariots of Fire" and "The Dresser" and this sadistic little affair!

Heavenly Bodies

For jigglevision fans only
This extremely predictable romance tries to exploit the early-80s aerobics craze with an inane story about a plucky little aerobics studio from (literally) the wrong side of the tracks taking on the big, bad gym. Quite why an aerobics club which only seems to have about three staff and no exercise equipment whatsoever is regarded as a serious challenge by a well-equipped gym, I do not know. Attempts to put the club out of business result in an aerobics marathon, which is televised live, although several hours of non-stop aerobics hardly sounds like a ratings winner!

The simplistic plot comes across like a slightly racier version of a Walt Disney story and is mainly an excuse for endless scenes of attractive women jiggling up and down in tight leotards, accompanied by awful rock songs. Cynthia Rhodes is fit and attractive but a really terrible actress, with flat dialogue delivery. Her club must be doing all right though, since she can afford to buy an apparently limitless number of leotards.

The Scarlet Blade

Poor man's Robin Hood
This Hammer swashbuckler is one of the few films to be set during the English Civil War. Unfortunately, its treatment of the conflict is fairly simplistic ; the Roundheads are the baddies, intent on killing the king, and the Cavaliers are the romantic good guys, led by Jack Hedley, looking slightly too old to play the Robin Hood like hero.

The film suffers from the fact that the "villains" (Lionel Jeffries, Oliver Reed) are much more charismatic than the "heroes" (Hedley and an insipid June Laverick). The downbeat ending is also a surprise. Nevertheless, like most Hammer films, it is well-mounted and richly-photographed by Jack Asher. Watch out for the sequence in which the outlaws, disguised as bushes (!), creep ever-closer to the Roundhead guards. It looks like a scene from Monty Python!

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