Tuesday, 17 June 2014

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

When Eight Bells Toll was scripted by Alistair MacLean from his own novel. While it failed to achieve the same success as earlier MacLean blockbusters like The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare it’s still an exciting and rather underrated action thriller.

Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is a Royal Navy officer called in to help on an investigation into missing ships. Since each of the missing ships was carrying a fortune in gold bullion the British government is more than a little concerned. The investigation is put into the hands of the department run by Sir Arthur Artford Jones (Robert Morley). His department is obviously some branch of the intelligence services although we’re never told exactly which one. We’re also never told exactly what Calvert’s background is although given his proficiency at diving we can assume he was a Royal Marine Commando or something similar.

Sir Arthur, universally known as Uncle Arthur, doesn’t altogether approve of Calvert. In fact he doesn’t approve of him at all. His disapproval becomes even more marked when Calvert dares to suggest that Sir Anthony Skouras might be involved in the bullion snatches. A ridiculous idea. Sir Anthony is not merely a member of the same club as Uncle Arthur, he’s on the Wine Committee. No gentleman could possibly suggest that such a man might be involved in criminal activities, and Uncle Arthur very much fears that however competent Calvert might be at cloak-and-dagger work he is most certainly no gentleman.

Calvert and an intelligence officer named Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) are despatched to the  islands off the west coast of Scotland, the area in which the bullion ships have vanished. They quickly find evidence that dirty work is most assuredly going on at a remote and apparently peaceful fishing village, a village that soon turn out to be far from peaceful. All sorts of skullduggery seem to be afoot. Both people and small boats have been disappearing and the locals are far from friendly and appear to have something to hide. More disturbingly to Calvert and Hunslett it becomes evident that no-one has been taken in by their story that they are inoffensive marine biologists.

Their attention is drawn to the Shangri-La, a yacht owned by Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins). The behaviour of Sir Anthony and his beautiful but very much younger wife Charlotte (Nathalie Delon) doesn’t quite ring true.

Much more disturbing still to the two agents is the fact that people with guns have started shooting at them.

This movie doesn’t boast the spectacular action set-pieces of a Bond movie (although the scenes in the hidden boat-house are fairly impressive). Neither does it boast grandiose sets or larger-than-life villains. It does however deliver a great deal of action, both under the water and above it. And while the villains are not megalomaniacal criminal masterminds they are quite nasty enough and sinister enough to satisfy most viewers. 

The bleak Scottish locations are used to good effect and add to the film’s grittiness.

The intention seems to have been to provide the thrills and action of a Bond movie but in a more realistic and more gritty style. On the whole it succeeds in achieving that aim.

Belgian director Etienne Périer isn’t well-known in the English-speaking world although he was responsible for the underrated Zeppelin. He keeps things moving at a satisfying pace and handles the action sequences very competently. Alistair MacLean always claimed to be a writer who wrote in a very cinematic way and in general his books work even better as movies than they do as novels.

Anthony Hopkins might not be the first actor whose name springs to mind as an action hero but he’s actually pretty convincing. He has always been an actor with the ability to be intense without having to be overly demonstrative about it. He plays Calvert as a thorough professional with a very tough streak hidden beneath a rather self-effacing exterior. He doesn’t bother trading one-liners with the bad guys, believing that it’s far more efficient just to shoot them and be done with it.

While Philip Calvert is not given to the macho posturings so popular with some film secret agents, in his own quiet way he’s possibly the most ruthless of all movie action heroes. One of the perennial dilemmas faced by an action hero/secret agent type is what do you do with the bad guys you manage to capture or overpower? If you knock them over the head there’s always the danger they’ll recover consciousness at the most inopportune time and if you tie them up they’re always liable to escape. Philip Calvert has a very simple solution to this problem. He simply kills them. Quickly and efficiently. If they happen to have fallen overboard and be floundering helplessly in the water that just makes them easier to shoot. As a result of this very prudent, economical and far-sighted policy not once during the course of this movie is Philip Calvert troubled by the inconvenient attentions of bad guys he has already had to deal with once.

Robert Morley has a great deal of fun in this movie. Uncle Arthur is not the kind of spy chief who is content just to sit behind his desk and let others do the dangerous work. He flies out to Scotland to join in the action and even brandishes a gun at one point. Morley is of course there to provide some comic relief, which he does very effectively. 

ITV Home Entertainment’s Region 2 DVD includes no extras apart from a trailer but it offers a very satisfactory 16x9 enhanced transfer.

When Eight Bells Toll suffered at the box-office because it was both too similar to, and too different from, the Bond movies. It was clearly aimed at the same action movie market but it lacks the glamour and the style of the Bond movies. On the other hand, judged on its own terms as a much grittier and more realistic action thriller with a less glamorous and far more ruthless hero it actually works extremely well. Highly recommended.

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