Saturday, January 27, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #52: The Whistle Blower

Cast: Michael Caine (Frank), James Fox (Lord), Nigel Havers (Bob), John Gielgud (Sir Adrian Chapple), Felicity Dean (Cynthia), Barry Foster (Greig), Gordon Jackson (Bruce), Kenneth Colley (Pickett), David Langton (Government Minister), Dinah Stabb (Rose), James Simmons (Mark), Katherine Reeve (Tiffany), Bill Wallis (Dodgson).

Crew: Simon Langton (director), Geoffrey Reeve (producer), Julian Bond (writer), John Scott (music), Fred Tammes (cinematography), Robert Morgan (editor), Morley Smith (production design).

Synopsis: A staff member at GCHQ Cheltenham, the surveillance centre for Britain’s intelligence forces, is discovered to be a traitor. One of his friends is killed, the death made to look accidental. Frank Jones visits Cheltenham for his son Bob’s birthday. Bob lives in a building with a roof terrace. Frank is dismayed his son is seeing Cynthia, a married woman with a daughter. Cynthia’s husband apparently commits suicide after learning of her affair, but Bob thinks this was faked. Frank meets an old friend, Charles Greig. The intelligence services discover Sir Adrian Chapple is a traitor. Bob falls to his death from a roof terrace.

Frank begins to believe his son was murdered. He is approached by Bill Pickett, a journalist investigating similar deaths. Pickett dies in a car crash, made to look accidental. Frank learns Bob met with Greig, who works for the intelligence services. Frank gets his old friend drunk. Greig says American agents killed Bob, but the real traitor is Chapple. A government minister warns Frank against speaking out. Frank visits Chapple and forces him to sign a confession. Chapple dies while trying to shoot Frank. Frank realises the confession could be seen as a suicide note. Perhaps the truth will emerge…


John Hale’s novel The Whistle Blower was first published in 1984. Producer Geoffrey Reeve acquired film rights to the tense thriller and hired screenwriter Julian Bond to adapt the conspiracy tale. The picture gave TV director Simon Langton his cinema feature, having proved himself adept at handling similar material in the 1982 mini-series Smiley’s People. Caine accepted the lead role of grieving father Frank Jones, having recently starred in another Reeve production, Half Moon Street (1986). The actor initially turned down the script, thinking he had been offered the role of 28-year-old Bob.

Caine told Women’s Own magazine his participation helped get The Whistle Blower made. ‘I took short money on it and invested my time. I’m extremely proud of the result, especially as it’s also a first film for the director. Every now and again I do a first film, and I must say I pick winners. I did Ken Russell’s first, Billion Dollar Brain, and I did Oliver Stone’s first, The Hand. I think The Whistle Blower is another winner.’ [In fact Russell and Stone had both previously directed a film.] In a 1987 interview with the Sunday Express Caine said his big money role in Jaws the Revenge (1987) subsidised getting no fee for The Whistle Blower. He only received a percentage of the latter film’s box office profits.

The low budget production was shot on location at the beginning of 1986 in and around Cheltenham and London. Staff at the real GCHQ were forbidden from appearing as extras in the film. The picture reunited Caine with Gordon Jackson, with whom he had co-starred in The Ipcress File (1965) and Kidnapped (1971). It also gave him a chance to play opposite one of Britain’s greatest theatrical actors, Sir John Gielgud.

In 1987 Caine told the New York Times that The Whistle Blower was timely. ‘As soon as that picture was finished, we had Irangate [a scandal about the US covertly selling arms to recent enemies]. It always struck me that governments – not only yours – are doing a lot of stuff we didn’t know about. It was Kafka-esque. How much are we being manipulated by the government … and how much do we know?’

The Whistle Blower was rated PG by the BBFC in October 1986 but did not reach British cinemas for another seven months. Caine was praised by many critics, but the film did not fare so well. The picture reached the US in August 1987, rated PG, grossing just over $1 million. It arrived amidst a glut of Caine movies, including The Fourth Protocol, Jaws the Revenge and Surrender (all 1987). The Whistle Blower was released on video later that year and make its DVD debut as a budget price release in 2001.

Reviews: ‘Michael Caine … does manage to lift things off the ground – the rest of the film is muted and rather dull.’ – The Guardian
‘Caine does everything right … but he’s stuck in a sluggish script, full of undramatised research; a vast and terrifying subject trapped in a small film.’ – London Daily News

Verdict: The Whistle Blower is a worthy but dull film about the dubious methods the intelligence community uses to protect its own secrets. The problems stem from a script that takes far too long to get going, with nearly an hour elapsing before the central character faces any significant problem. Only after the death of Nigel Havers’ character does the plot finally start to thicken. By then you will probably be too bored to care. Worse still, the ending is badly fumbled, with Caine’s character left wandering around the empty streets of London. This sort of conspiracy thriller was tackled more convincingly in Defence of the Realm (1985). Despite these problems, Caine gives a powerful and subtle performance as the grieving father. He is easily the best thing in this mediocre effort.

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