This is a second contribution to the John Huston blogathon currently running at Adam Zanzie’s Icebox Movies site.
From the title of this John Huston movie, The Mackintosh Man, I was half-expecting to see star Paul Newman – oddly cast as a British secret agent – dressed in a Bogart-style raincoat and wandering through grey, damp streets. However, as soon as I saw the film’s glorious Technicolor sunshine, I realised the title had nothing to do with raincoats.
In fact the film’s title is drawn from the name of Newman’s boss in the film, played by Harry Andrews – and the film itself is a lavishly-produced 1970s thriller moving from London to Ireland to Malta. (For a fan of The Maltese Falcon, it’s nice to know that Huston actually made a film in Malta!) I’ve seen some reviews suggest that this movie is Huston’s homage to Hitchcock, and I can see that there are some similarities, with the puzzling plot and the casting of Dominique Sanda as the enigmatic “ice blonde” heroine, “Mrs Smith” – but for me the tension never really builds up to Hitchcock levels.
I’ll admit that for me the movie came as something of a disappointment after other Huston films I’ve seen – it all looks beautiful, but there is little depth to the characterisation and the plot never really goes anywhere. The main interest is probably in seeing Newman playing such a non-glamorous role, slopping out his prison cell and being beaten up by thugs. As a Newman fan I enjoyed all this, but I suppose I was expecting more from a film directed by Huston, with a script by Walter Hill and starring James Mason as well as Newman.
The most striking thing about the film is probably its blend of colourful scenery with Maurice Jarre’s music, running throughout and building the atmosphere. In some scenes there is little or no dialogue, but just the characters moving while the music plays insistently, so that, oddly for a 1970s movie made in such vivid colour, I was reminded at times of a silent film.
Newman’s character is a mysterious agent called Joseph Rearden, though we learn early on that this isn’t his real name. I found the plot, based on a novel by Desmond Bagley, a little hard to follow and won’t go through all its twists and turns, which would just ruin it for anyone watching anyway. But the gist of it is that he has to go into deep cover by posing as an Australian criminal and being sent to jail, in order to infiltrate a mysterious spy ring. Newman’s Aussie accent isn’t perfect but pretty good – however his “real” voice in the film is his normal one despite the character supposedly being a British agent.
I thought the scenes set in the fictional Chelmsford Prison, actually filmed at Liverpool Prison, were among the best in the film, with a washed-out graininess that contrasts with the vivid colour in the Irish and Maltese scenes. Six years after Cool Hand Luke, there must have been an instant frisson to moviegoers seeing Newman in jail – there still is now, especially when he briefly handles an egg, recalling one of that movie’s most famous scenes. However, the prison scenes here are much more understated and slightly reminiscent of the 1970s British TV comedy-drama Porridge, especially as great character actor Peter Vaughan, who was one of that series’ stars, crops up here too.
After being broken out of jail, Newman finds himself in another prison, this time a supposed “safe house” in Ireland – but the people keeping him safe don’t want to let him go. Once he escapes from them he lands up in the Irish countryside, with scenes which were filmed near Huston’s home at the time, and then he and Sanda go on to Malta, where the film’s most glamorous scenes come with James Mason, as sinister politician Sir George Wheeler, hosting parties aboard his yacht – this part of the film reminded me a bit of James Bond movies.
Mason is as great as you’d expect whenever he turns up – he has a fine scene at the beginning making a crowd-pleasing speech in Parliament – but doesn’t really have all that much screen time. As for the suggestion of romance between Newman and Sanda’s characters in the movie posters, that is all there is, a suggestion – and the motivation of Sanda’s character, Mrs Smith, is even more of a mystery than that of Rearden. I really admire Huston’s 1949 film We Were Strangers, the other one I’ve reviewed in this blogathon, which has a great role for a woman, Jennifer Jones, and had hoped that Sanda might have a similarly powerful role in this movie, but there is only a very brief late glimpse of any emotion in her character.
All in all, I found this reasonably enjoyable to watch – it came as one of the DVDs in a Paul Newman box set – but it isn’t a film I’m likely to return to in future and I think it is definitely minor Huston. There is no commentary track on the DVD, but there is a featurette, misleadingly entitled John Huston: The Man, The Myth, the Moviemaker. In fact this is a behind-the-scenes/making-of featurette about The Mackintosh Man rather than a career retrospective, and doesn’t actually include any interviews with Huston or the cast.