Thursday, November 30, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #22: The Black Windmill

Cast: Michael Caine (Major John Tarrant), Donald Pleasence (Cedric Harper), Delphine Seyrig (Ceil Burrows), Clive Revill (Alf Chestermann), John Vernon (McKee), Joss Ackland (Chief Superintendent Wray), Janet Suzman (Alex Tarrant), Catherine Schell (Lady Julyan), Joseph O’Conor (Sir Edward Julyan), Dennis Quilley (Bateson).

Crew: Don Siegel (director and producer), Leigh Vance (writer), Roy Budd (music), Ousama Rawi (cinematography), Antony Gibbs (editor), Peter Murton (art direction).

Synopsis: Major John Tarrant is an MI6 operative trying to infiltrate a ring of saboteurs run by Ceil Burrows and a man called McKee. They kidnap Tarrant’s young son David and demand a ransom of £517,057 in uncut diamonds. That is exactly the amount previously purchased earlier by Tarrant’s boss, Harper. The only people with knowledge of the diamonds are Tarrant, Harper and the General Purposes Committee, headed by Sir Edward Julyan. Burrows and McKee plant evidence to frame Tarrant. The government refuses to pay the ransom so Tarrant steals the diamonds and takes them to a rendezvous in Paris. The major is knocked out and drugged, losing the diamonds. Tarrant is found by French police, lying unconscious beside Burrows’ corpse. He is charged with her murder. McKee helps Tarrant escape custody and tries to have him killed. Tarrant returns to London and traces his son to a black windmill in Sussex. Realising one of the committee members must be involved, Tarrant calls all of them with a message that will lure the traitor to Sussex. Sir Julyan takes the bait. Tarrant storms the windmill, kills McKee and rescues his son…


The Black Windmill began life as Seven Days to a Killing, a 1973 novel by Clive Egleton. Leigh Vance adapted it into a screenplay for American director/producer Don Siegel. He came to England in 1973 to make The Black Windmill after 30 years helming high calibre action films, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971). he director a film that explored the archetype again. In the movie’s press book, Siegel stated his first and only choice for the part of Tarrant was Caine. ‘There are actors who are tougher, more handsome, more emotive, but there was only one with a centre solid enough to convey the very complex undertones of this role.’

Caine took the film for the opportunity to work with Siegel. ‘I grew up with his films,’ the actor said in the press book interview. ‘The Black Windmill is a dramatic, suspense plus love story.’ The 11-week shoot began in August 1973, using the working title Drabble. Filming was predominantly location-based at sites in England and France, with some studio work at Twickenham. The picture reunited Caine and Donald Pleasance, who had worked together on Kidnapped (1971).

The Black Windmill was released in 1974, rated A in the UK and PG in the US. Critics considered it one of Siegel’s lesser works. Emma Andrews’ 1978 book The Films of Michael Caine quotes the actor on why the picture did not live up to its promise: ‘I think the gentility of England rubbed off on Don Siegel… It became too sentimental and convoluted.’ The film has never been available on VHS or DVD in Britain, but an American video was released in 1986. [Update: a REgion 2 DVD was released in 2005.]

Reviews: ‘Don Siegel’s filmmaking takes a dip in The Black Windmill … the production fizzles in its final half hour.’ - Variety
‘Slick, craftsmanlike but general undistinguished thriller … Siegel has done better.’ – Maltin’s

Verdict: The Black Windmill is a routine espionage thriller that never surprises. Siegel’s direction is efficient and workmanlike, while Caine gives a taut, controlled performance as Tarrant. But the film’s attempts to create suspense and misdirect the viewer’s suspicions never grip or convince. The Roy Budd music reeks of the 1970s and strongly evokes a later British TV espionage series, The Professionals. Bodie and Doyle would not have looked out of place in The Black Windmill and might well have enlivened the film. This is a minor work in the careers of almost everyone involved.

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