Puppet on a Chain 1971 ****

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There’s a whole lot of puppets and a whole lot of chains in Puppet on a Chain, a tight little thriller based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. MacLean was the kind of writer who, like Ian Fleming, wrote about what he knew, and when that ran out, just about managed to write about more fanciful worlds he was less familiar with. Thus, MacLean became something of a magnet for zeitgeist, and this 1971 thriller has a whiff of The French Connection and other, more reactionary drug-fuelled dramas of the time.

Puppet on a Chain’s reputation is largely based on an extended chase sequence in which speedboats navigate the canals of Amsterdam in a deadly cat and mouse game; functioning much like the car chase in Friedkin’s film, it’s a late-in-the-game show-down between the hero Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertril Taube) and his quarry Meegeren (Vladek Sheybal, from From Russia With Love and The Apple). With his pure white suit and cowboy hat, Meegeren is anything but a low-key dealer, and it’s easy to see why large crowds of gawping spectators are visible as the action unfolds. This hugely impressive stunt-show led directly to the boat chase in Live and Let Die, and a general vogue for extended action that infused both Bond and 70’s cinema.

The always impressive Dan Sharp contributed the sequence to Geoffrey Reeve’s film, and while it’s a stand-out, the location work, atmosphere and generally attitude of Puppet on a Chain are all to be commended. The view of drugs in Amsterdam is somewhat alarmist, but backed up by a rather squalid plotline, complete with children’s dolls used to smuggle heroin, and the same dolls being symbolically hung with chains as a threat.

Sure, the leads are rather anonymous, although Patrick Allen does a nice supporting turn, but that anonymity works for the film; Puppet on a Chain feels both generic and authentic, written while MacLean still had a knack for story and theme, but hadn’t yet diluted his own experience with silly and extravagant plots. Even if you’re only there for the action, Puppet on A Chain delivers genuine thrills when it comes to the big aquatic showdown.

The Hostage Tower 1980 ***

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Once Upon a Time, Brits used to mock American television; absolute laugh-fests like The Hostage Tower typify everything wrong with the US tv model circa 1980. A silly idea, originally from Alistair MacLean, gets the small-screen treatment for this CBS product which feels more like a broken pilot than a feature film, and forty years later, it’s the complete randomness of the casting that makes it a must-see on streaming for slumming cineastes.

Let’s kick off with Billy Dee Williams, currently riding high as Lando in the latest Star Wars film. He was a hot name in 1980, and ideal as CW/ Clarence Whitlock, a US agent who infiltrates a terrorist organisation planning to blow up the Eifel Tower. Exciting, right? Well, yes, and perhaps ahead of it’s time in this respect, although risible bad-guy Mr Smith (2001’s Kier Dullea) has a much more preposterous Plan B scheme up his sleeve, kidnapping the president’s mother (Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson) and holding her for ransom. Fortunately another US agent Mike Graham (step forward next guest Peter Fonda) has also infiltrated Mr Smith’s group, and his hell-bent on stopping him. This involves ground forces in the unlikely form of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Rachel Roberts causing a distraction to that Billy Dee Williams can abseil down the Eifel Tower with Celia Johnson on his back, while a series of robot-controlled lazers attempt to pick them off. Did we mention Bond girls Maud Adams and Britt Ekland are thrown into the mix, or that the film is shot largely in Paris around the tower itself?

The Hostage Tower was directed by Claudio Guzman, whose main credits were the I Dream of Jeannie tv show, but he fails to bring the same intensity or vision to Hostage Tower. What he does do is capture the strangest cast of actors gathered together in Paris to look upwards; pretty much everyone is on the skids here. There’s an unusual emphasis on how terrorists train, although these sequences don’t match the actual tower assault, which features Williams dressed as a cartoon chef pushing a massive soup-tureen past idiotic security guards.

The Hostage Tower has never been issued on DVD, and there’s a reason for that. But having admitted that this is no-one’s finest hour, this is the ideal film to watch when you want to keep investment levels low and snark high. With roller-skating bank robbers, lazers blowing up footballs and all kinds of ridiculous heroism, it’s an open invitation to gawp at the crudity of cheap entertainment. As Noel Coward put it, Kier Dullea, Gone Tomorrow…and that just about sums up the disposable quality of this fascinating relic of tv’s past.

Black Sea 2014 ***

black-sea-3After enduring an age of pretty-boy vehicles (Alfie), Jude Law has gained in intensity what he’s lost in looks. Law plays Robinson, a submarine expert in Kevin Macdonald’s serviceable action film, pulling together a mercenary crew in a search of hidden gold on an abandoned Nazi submarine. Something in the vein of Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra, right down to Scott McNairy in the Patrick McGoohan role of US interloper, Macdonald maintains a decent tension through a few tricky hairpins, which Michael Friend typically oily in support. Law’s accent is flawless, and if the action doesn’t have a big-budget for spectacle, the close-quarters action makes for a grown-up slice of derring-do.

John Wick 2014 *****

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Always a good mover, Keanu Reeves’s combination of Zen-blankness and physical mobility made him a perfect action lead in Speed, The Matrix; Chad Stahelski and David Leitch‘s thriller gives him plenty of opportunity to show his skills. Taking a lead from the writings of Alistair MacLean, we’re talking about tough ex-agents rather than genetically modified soldiers. John Wick is a man on a mission, to revenge the death of his dog, which was given to him by his dying wife. Wick rips through hotels, nightclubs, and a kill-a-minute as he rages through a rigorous, glorious HR cull of various crime organisations, with nice work in support from Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Ian McShane and Michael Nyquist.

Bear Island 1979 ***

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Don Sharp’s 1979 thriller marked the closing of the cycle of films based on Alistair Maclean novels; Bear Island sold over eight million copies, and Sharp’s film is a big-budget Canadian production. Donald Sutherland, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Christopher Lee are amongst the party stationed on Bear Island, which was a base for Nazi U-boats during the war. Various espionage elements are engaged in a search for Nazi gold, and there’s a notable snowmobile chase in the style of a James Bond movie. Public tastes had drifted away from this kind of stoic action by this point, but Bear Island is a decent who-dunnit that keeps the audience in doubt as to the motivations of the well-wrapped-up characters. A coda, noting that Goodbye California by Maclean was in the pipeline, proved to be misguided.

 

Fear Is The Key 1972 ***

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Barry Newman made a perfect Kowalski in Vanishing Point, one of the classic car-chase movies, but there’s actually more action, in the form of a whopping twenty minute stunt scene, in this 1972 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s novel. Newman plays John Talbot, who infiltrates a criminal organisation in order to revenge his family, who died in an air-crash. Early roles for Ray McInally and Ben Kingsley, plus a villainous turn from John Vernon, are plus points, but it’s Michael Tuchner’s staging of the chase, with Newman’s brand-new Ford Gran Torino escaping the cops, that gives Fear Is The Key a place in cult-movie history. Roy Budd provides a jazzy score.

When Eight Bells Toll 1970 ***

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With Chris McQuarrie apparently considering an Ice Station Zebra reboot, it would be nice to imagine a renaissance of interest in the work of Scottish writer Alistair Maclean, with When Eight Bells Toll a good example of the kind of terse derring-do that made his work internationally knows.  Coming out post Where Eagles Dare and in the same years as the speedboat-chase-tastic Puppet on a Chain, it attempted to set up an alternate Bond franchise, with two more films planned but never to materialize. Sporting a healthy head of lustrous hair, Anthony Hopkins plays Philip Calvert, sent by Robert Morley to deepest darkest Scotland to investigate a missing ship, and uncovering espionage ring. Calvert is a professional and shoots first, giving When Eight Bells Toll a gritty heart that most action movies lack. Directed by Etienne Perier.