About as classy as a film can get, Fred Zinnermann’s 1966 film of Robert Bolt’s play exudes intelligence, telling in broad strokes the story of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) and his battle to reconcile his religious beliefs with his position of Lord Chancellor. When Henry VIIII (Robert Shaw) plans to marry again, More is not prepared to bow to his will and annul his previous marriage. More refuses to crumble in the face of the king’s persuasion and pressure, and his spirited legal defence of his position is a key text in understanding the nature of personal faith. Scofield and Shaw give magnetic performances, and support from Orson Welles and a very young John Hurt make this a historical epic that’s firmly grounded in the personal, and has a sensitivity for language that makes More’s arguments endlessly quotable.
John Godey’s novel was captured in all its squalling societal anxiousness in Joseph Sargent’s wonderfully terse 1974 thriller, with Robert Shaw as Mr Blue, the leader of a group of men who hijack a NYC subway train and hope to escape with a healthy ransom. Walter Matthau is the cop who stands in their way, and the cat-and-mouse game that ensues borrows as much from the 1950’s police procedural style of Naked City as from the on-location verities of The French Connection. Godey’s novel was a carefully researched piece, and the detail of the subway system and both the police work and the heist plan make sense in a way that the remake’s revisions didn’t. Shaw is a muscular villain, cold-hearted and cold-blooded, while Matthau piles on the charm as the wise-cracking negotiator. Sargent throws in some impressive on-location car action, and the mixture of tension and laughs runs right through to the final, flu-affected twist.
Stiff-upper lip British drama was rarely stiffer than in the late Alan Bridges’ adaptation of LP Hartley’s novel, a romance between a lady and her chauffeur that’s so repressed that when he finally lurches into self-destructive fury, it’s something of a surprise. Lady Franklin (Sarah Miles) mopes about her countryside pile, distraught over the death of her husband in WWI. Her driver, Steven Ledbetter (Robert Shaw) senses her desolation, and finds a potential soul-mate who he hopes will understand his own depression. Bridges was something of a specialist in country-house ennui, following up with The Return of the Soldier and The Shooting Party, and The Hireling offers extreme sensitivity to issues of class. A Grand Prix winner at Cannes, this neglected film is worth exhuming in the era of Downtown Abbey; it’s careful focus on the broken people behind austere facades comes vibrantly to life when a drunken Ledbetter smashes his car through her ladyship’s front-door.
Adapting a Peter Benchley novel in the aftermath of Jaws was always going be a difficult prospect; the lack of a killer shark stopped The Deep from reaching such iconic status, although Peter Yates’s film is a good-looking thriller with personable leads. Gail and David (Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte) are holidaying in Bermuda when they meet up with adventurer Romer Treese (Robert Shaw) who is on the trail of sunken treasure. There’s plenty of danger, from a Haitian drug cartel to a deadly Moray eel that guards the treasure, and Shaw is always good value as a similar grizzled sea-soak to the one he played in Jaws. The Deep is likably old-school in its traditional adventure plotting, but Yates brings excellent production values to the fore, with impressive underwater photography that catches his photogenic leads at their youthful best.
An exploding golliwog is only part of the unfolding drama of Lance Comfort’s tense 1965 thriller, filmed in black and white and featuring an unusual twist. Disgruntled employee Marlowe (Robert Shaw) masterminds the kidnapping of a well-heeled family’s child, and demands a ransom in return for information about where the boy is hidden. Marlowe has concealed an explosive device inside the boy’s golliwog, but his scheme unravels when Inspector Parnell (John Gregson)’s investigation gets out of hand. Small roles for Kenneth Cope and William Hartnell add to the intrigue, but good location work helps Comfort’s film dodge genre conventions to make its mark as an original thriller.
Peter Schaffer’s popular plays is adapted for a surprisingly cinematic epic by Irving Lerner, following the adventures of gold-hunting explorer Pizarro (Robert Shaw) and his confrontation with the Inca people, and specifically a battle of wills with their many-feathered leader Atahualpa (Christopher Plummer). Whether Atahualpa is a god or a man is a matter of some debate, and although a deal is struck that allows Pizarro to remove the Inca gold, the friendship between the two men means that the explorer has a heavy price to pay. Disposing of some of the more symbolic production elements of the stage-play, Lerner’s film is both intellectually rigorous and visually splendid, with two very different but equally impressive performances by Shaw and Plummer, the latter throwing himself in at the deep end to create an extraordinary, memorable character.
Undiminished by the big-budget remake, Joseph Sargent’s 1974 police drama pitches Robert Shaw’s ruthless criminal Mr Blue against world-weary policeman Zachery Garber (Walter Matthau). The conflict arises when Blue and his gang hijack a NYC subway car, threatening to shoot the passengers if their demands are not met. Sargent manages well with both long periods of tension and sharp, location-based action, while coaxing memorable performances from Shaw and Matthau. John Godey’s terse novel gets the film version it deserves, with David Shire contributing a notable score to accompany the sweaty heroics.