The Mackintosh Man (1973)

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.

Paul Newman in a tense scene

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.

James Mason and Dominique Sanda

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.

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10 thoughts on “The Mackintosh Man (1973)

  1. I’ll see if I can seek this movie out; regrettably, I was unable to see either of Huston’s Newman pictures in time for the blogathon (I was perhaps more disappointed in not getting to see The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, which from the looks of it is probably so much more of a superior film). I didn’t know Mackintosh Man was available in a box set, though. Hopefully Blockbuster Online carries that box set somewhere.

    This movie doesn’t sound like like major Huston but I’m hoping I’ll be able to enjoy it–Newman’s work with both Huston and Robert Altman was never received well, but I ended up loving the late 1970’s sci-fi epic he and Altman made together (Quintet), which makes me wonder if perhaps his movies with Huston and Altman were ahead of their time.

    Your description of the scenes filmed in Liverpool Prison have me intrigued, as does the cast–not just James Mason but also Harry Andrews, who had worked with Huston two decades earlier on Moby Dick. Once I get to finally see the film I’ll be sure to stop by here again for a more detailed response to the movie itself.

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    • Many thanks, Adam. I’d like to see ‘The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean’ too – from the clips I’ve seen it looks as if it is likely to be more interesting than ‘The Mackintosh Man’, as you say. Thanks for mentioning that Huston also worked with Harry Andrews in ‘Moby Dick’ – I’d forgotten that link.

      I haven’t seen ‘Quintet’, but your description of that sounds intriguing so I will hope to look it out. Will also look forward to hearing more from you when you have seen ‘The Mackintosh Man’ – and thanks again for organising the blogathon and all your hard work!

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  2. I have not seen this one Judy but I do have the Newman box set. Believe it is the only film in the set I have yet to watch. Kind of got buried and forgotten about. I did watch the short feature on the making of the film way back because I was under the impression this was a career spanning doc. on Huston instead of the “making of featurette” it turned out to be. I was under this assumption because back in the early 90’s I rented a VHS tape of a 2 hour doc. on Huston called “John Huston: The Man, The Movies, the Maverick.” As you can see the titles are fairly close. Of course thinking about it why would they put a two hour film on Huston on a Newman box set. Probably wishful thinking on my part as this is a hard film to find. Do not believe it was ever released on DVD.

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    • Hi John, must say I also thought this would be a career retrospective on Huston from the title of it – if it had been entitled “Behind the Scenes of The Mackintosh Man’, I would have had a better idea what to expect! The DVDs in that Newman set are different in the US and UK collections for some reason – sadly my set doesn’t include one or two intriguing titles such as ‘The Young Philadelphians’. Anyway the only ones I still have to watch are the two Harper films, ‘Harper’ and ‘The Drowning Pool’. Thanks, as always!

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    • Hey John, you’re in luck: The “Maverick” documentary is available on the 2-Disc Treasure of the Sierra Madre DVD! Actually, that is a must DVD for all classic film collectors–especially for Huston fans.

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  3. Well, Judy, this is one Huston that I have seen, and as I mentioned at another site I agree with Judy’s middling summary judgement.

    Your opening paragraph about ‘raincoats’ is dazzling and a real hook to read further. James Mason is (for me) an actor much like James Cagney – a longtime favorite of this site’s effervescent proprietor and readers – in that you want to see every film he’s made, and he is his usual self here in the limited screen time he has. I concur that it doesn’t at any point come close to it’s purported ‘homage’ and that as you politely admit, it’s pleasures all all of the ‘surface,’ ‘tinsel dressing’ variety. But of course, even Hitchcock has a few films that were fourth-tier, so we must concede here the same is true for Huston. You dedication to exploring Huston, front, right and backwards, even to consider the clunkers is wonderful, as all followers of the blogothon are able to get a much more thorough view than just the celebrated masterworks.

    There’s little question that the prison scenes were the highlight of this film, as you well delineate here. Another excellent piece.

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    • Thank you very much, Sam – it sounds as if our views on this little-known Huston film are pretty similar. I suppose I was hoping for another overlooked masterpiece, as with ‘We Were Strangers’, but we can’t have everything!

      I’ve also enjoyed the way the blogathon has cast light on many different aspects of Huston, though there are a lot of pieces I still need to read – and a lot of his movies I still need to see in the future.

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  4. Pingback: Mostly Mozart Festival, Ozu, Yoshida, 3D Festival and ‘Kiss Me Kate’ at Monday Morning Diary (August 16) « Wonders in the Dark

  5. Have just watched The Mackintosh Man and thought it a reasonably entertaining movie. The Car chase sequence across the Irish moors was very impressive. I’d watch any movie that starred James Mason! And the finale was a welcome change from what could have been a stereotyped conclusion. Would recommend this movie.

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    • John, must admit I don’t really remember this film very well now, but I definitely agree that I’d watch anything with Mason too, and also with Newman. Thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the film.

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