Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Callan (1974)

The television series Callan was a sensation when it first started screening in Britain in 1967. The public loved it and the critics loved it just as much. It is still widely regarded as the finest television spy drama series ever made. Callan ran until the early 70s and in 1974 a feature film followed.

Despite its popularity this was a series that was going to be tricky to do as a movie. Much of the success of the series was due to its brooding claustrophobic atmosphere. Obviously it had to be opened up a bit for a movie release and it was going to need a bit more action. In fact the movie works quite well. Even though it has a car chase (something quite unthinkable in the TV version) it still retains much of the necessary stifling atmosphere.

The other big problem was casting. Fortunately Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter were available and they were the two actors who would have utterly irreplaceable. On the other hand the key roles of Hunter and Meres had to be recast, with mixed success.

The movie is an expanded version of the original pilot episode, A Magnum for Schneider,  screened as part of Thames TV’s Armchair Theatre in 1967.

David Callan (Edward Woodward) was the top agent for a branch of the British security services known only as The Section. He has been more or less pensioned off. This is partly due to his drinking but mostly because as a counter-spy he has one very serious flaw - he has a conscience. That’s a problem because of the specialised nature of The Section’s activities. Their job is to get rid of people who are considered to be so dangerous that extreme measures are justified. These measures can include blackmail or intimidation but they can also involve assassination. Callan was The Section’s top assassin. An assassin with a conscience is however more a liability than an asset.

Now the head of The Section, Hunter (Eric Porter), has decided he wants Callan back. He needs him for a particularly tricky assignment. But can Callan be trusted? And can Callan trust Hunter?

Adding to the tenseness of the situation is that Callan again finds himself working with The Section’s number two agent, Toby Meres (Peter Egan). There are a whole series of reasons why Callan and Meres should dislike working together. Callan has a conscience, something that Meres conspicuously lacks. Meres is ambitious and wants Callan’s job as the top agent. Callan is working class, Meres is distinctly upper class. Meres also happens to be a cold-blooded sadist.

Callan will also need the assistance of his disreputable friend Lonely. Lonely is an outcast and he smells bad but he does possess certain talents - he is a skilled burglar and there is nobody better at tailing people without being seen than Lonely.

Callan’s target is Schneider, a successful German-born businessman in the export-import trade. Callan has no idea why Hunter wants Schneider dead and although it is strictly against orders he is determined to find out. What exactly is it that Schneider imports and exports?

Schneider shares Callan’s passion for wargaming and that proves to be a very useful way of making contact. It’s also a way for the two men to test each other out.

Edward Woodward is superb as always as Callan. Russell Hunter is equally good as Lonely. Carl Möhner as Schneider and Catherine Schell as his wife are both fine. Eric Porter makes a good Hunter, charming but ruthless. The problem is Peter Egan as Meres. Actually the real problem is that Anthony Valentine was so superb in this role in the TV series that nobody else was likely to match his performance. Valentine added so many nuances to the part and he had a gift for sardonic humour that made the character both more human and more inhuman. Peter Egan just isn’t in the same class and as a result his  Toby Meres is a mere sadistic thug. This is a pity since the interplay between Callan and Meres had been one of the highlights of the TV series.

Don Sharp was a very competent action thriller director. The TV series had been intensely character-driven with action and violence used sparingly but effectively. The movie had to have more action but Sharp still retains the essential feel of the series and its focus on character.

Umbrella Entertainment’s Region 4 DVD release offers a reasonably decent if not brilliant transfer and it includes a rather good interview with star Woodward.

This movie version is more successful than might have been anticipated. It’s not quite as strong as the Callan TV series but it’s still a fine spy thriller very much in the gritty realist mode, with plenty of cynicism and moral ambiguity. Highly recommended.

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