Let’s kill Hitler

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(c) BBC
(c) Penguin Books

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For a novel whose plot hinges around an attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, there’s remarkably little about Hitler in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.  In fact, the genocidal German dictator isn’t mentioned once.  Presumably this is because although Rogue Male first appeared in print in late 1939, after war had broken out between Britain and Germany, it was written before the outbreak of war when Household evidently felt it would be diplomatic not to name names. 

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Thus, the book’s hero goes boar-hunting in Poland, crosses the border into a neighbouring country that isn’t identified, and one day ends up with the brutish leader of that country, also not identified, in the sights of his hunting rifle.  Is he actually in Germany and on the point of bagging Hitler?  Or could he be somewhere else, Russia say, where he’s targeting Joseph Stalin?  But although Household keeps it ambiguous, given historical events soon after the story’s late-1930s setting, it’s impossible to read Rogue Male now and not visualise in those sights a bloke with a square-shaped scrap of a moustache, an oily side-parting and a swastika armband.

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Incidentally, when Rogue Male was brought to the screen afterwards, the filmmakers didn’t follow Household’s ambiguity.  A 1941 Hollywood adaptation called Manhunt, directed by Fritz Lang – who’d bailed out of Germany in 1933 after Joseph Goebbels started taking an interest in him – depicted the target as Hitler and, viewed today, the film feels like an unabashed wartime propaganda piece.  (It was, however, made just before the USA entered the war and its anti-German stance caused the studio some nervousness.)  Meanwhile, a 1976 adaptation by the BBC, directed by Clive Donner, was also unequivocal that its hero was going after Hitler.  There’s a still from the BBC version at the top of this entry and the actor playing Hitler is none other than Michael Sheard, fondly remembered by kids of my generation for playing Mr Bronson, the hard-nut deputy headmaster on the BBC’s much-loved school drama / soap opera Grange Hill (1978-2008).

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Just as the book’s target is anonymous, so is its hero, even though he tells the story in the first person.  (Again, the film versions differ from the book in giving him an identity.  In 1941’s Manhunt, he’s called Captain Thorndyke and is played by Walter Pidgeon.  In 1976’s Rogue Male, he’s called Sir Robert Hunter and is played by the late, great Peter O’Toole.)  There’s even vagueness about whether or not he ever intended to pull the trigger in the first place.  Perhaps, it’s suggested, he only wanted to have the Führer in his sights for a moment to satisfy his instincts as a hunter. 

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Whatever his intentions, he’s apprehended by a guard and subjected to a brutal interrogation, before his captors decide that the easiest way to deal with him is to bump him off and make his death look like an unfortunate hunting accident.  The ensuing story can be divided into two parts, with each part having a similar, funnelling structure where the action begins in an expansive setting but ends in a cramped, claustrophobic one.  First, Rogue Male’s hero manages to escape from his captors and is pursued by them across the countryside of whatever foreign nation he’s in – okay, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say his captors are the Gestapo and the nation is Germany.  His pursuers close in but he manages to elude them by stowing away on a London-bound ship, hiding on board inside an empty water tank. 

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Then begins the second, longer part of the narrative.  Back in Blighty, he discovers that Hitler’s agents are still on his trail.  They don’t just want to eliminate him but also want to make him sign a document saying that he carried out his attempted assassination with the blessing of the British government.  Again, the pursuit begins against a broad vista, this time the streets of London and landscapes of southern England.  But again, his options narrow and eventually he goes to ground – literally to ground, because he digs himself a little cubbyhole under an unruly and remote hedgerow marking the boundary between two farms in Dorset and hides there.

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(c) BBC

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One thing that surely inspired Rogue Male was Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game (1924) about a big-game hunter who gets hunted as game by another, even bigger-game hunter.   However, while Household borrows this ironic scenario of a hunter becoming the hunted, he explores it in surprising depth.  His hero obviously grew up in a rural aristocratic culture of shooting and foxhunting but he’s strangely empathetic with the creatures on the receiving end of the bullets and bloodhounds.  He mentions once or twice that he got sick of hunting rabbits because of their defencelessness and, holed up in his Dorset burrow, he becomes rabbit-like himself. 

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He also bonds with a cat living wild in the hedgerow above him, whom he names ‘Asmodeus’ (presumably after the ‘worst of demons’ described in the Book of Tobit).  At one point he speculates of Asmodeus, “there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us…  back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action.  I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.” 

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Later, he comments, “I had begun to think as an animal; I was afraid but a little proud of it.  Instinct, saving instinct, had preserved me time and again…  Gone was my disgust with my burrow; gone my determination to take to open country whatever the difficulties of food and shelter.  I didn’t think, didn’t reason.  I was no longer the man who had challenged and nearly beaten all the cunning and loyalty of a first-class power.  Living as a beast, I had become a beast, unable to question emotional stress, unable to distinguish danger in general from a particular source of danger.”

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While Rogue Male’s central character becomes unhealthily animal-like, his main adversary is a sinister caricature of a gentleman hunter.  A German agent masquerading as a tweedy English major called Quive-Smith appears on the scene, displaying impeccable upper-class charm towards the civilians he encounters whilst pursuing his quarry with extreme ruthlessness.  Quive-Smith books a room in one of the farms adjacent to the hedgerow and burrow, pretending that he wants to spend a few weeks in the area doing some shooting.  Spying on him from afar, Household’s narrator notes uneasily that “the major carried one of those awkward German weapons with a rifled barrel below the two gun barrels… the three barrels were admirably adapted to his purpose of ostensibly shooting rabbits while actually expecting bigger game.”

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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In addition to The Most Dangerous Game, Household was probably influenced by a novel about another manhunt, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915).  But while there’s more to Buchan’s story than its conventional action-adventure reputation would suggest (due to its recurrent themes of disguise and imposture), I think Rogue Male is superior in terms of characterisation and psychological tension.  Buchan’s Richard Hannay is an outsider in that he’s a veteran of the African colonies who finds life back in the ‘Old Country’ stuffy, pretentious and tedious; but the hero of Rogue Male is an outsider in more complex ways.  He comes from a world of wealth and entitlement but treats that world indifferently and it’s noticeable that when he’s back in London he has a lack of friends in high places to call upon for help.  Indeed, he’s such a loner that at times you wonder if he wants to resign from the human race itself. This is even without the mental and physical stresses of being hunted making him feel more like an animal than a man.  Household provides a few clues about a past tragedy that may explain his misanthropy but wisely doesn’t get bogged down in too much backstory.

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And though Richard Hannay is no shrinking violet, it’s doubtful if he could put up with living for long in the burrow that the narrator digs for himself in Dorset and where he spends a good part of 90 pages – first hiding in it from Quive-Smith and his men, and then besieged in it by them.  Household doesn’t excessively describe the dirt, muck and claustrophobic darkness of this hideaway but he still manages to imply its squalor.  His hero gets accustomed to it while he’s inside it but realises how horrible it is when he leaves and then comes back: “The stench was appalling.  I had been out only half an hour, but that was enough for me to notice, as if it had been created by another person, the atmosphere in which I had been living.”  Then again, like many men of his generation, he’s already undergone something traumatic that puts this experience in perspective: “…my God, I remembered that there were men at Ypres in 1915 whose dugouts were smaller and damper than mine!”

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I’ve known the story of Rogue Male for a long time thanks to seeing the two film adaptations.  I didn’t much like the 1941 Hollywood version, which downplays the rawness of the novel and turns it into a typical espionage thriller, reducing the amount of time Walter Pidgeon spends in the burrow and padding things out with extra characters and plot twists elsewhere.  (When Pidgeon gets off the ship, he’s promptly greeted by a parade of Cockney Pearly Kings and Queens waltzing and singing down a foggy street – the filmmakers’ way of assuring American audiences that, yes, he is back in London.) 

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But I enjoyed the 1976 BBC version.  Its scriptwriter, Frederic Raphael, streamlines parts of Household’s narrative and embellishes others – most notably, adding a new character, a pompous and unhelpful representative of the British government sublimely played by Alastair Sim – but it’s gritty and, for the time, brutal, even if Peter O’Toole never quite becomes the desperate, filthy, animalistic figure that his counterpart in the book becomes.  It also has a great cast (John Standing, Harold Pinter, Michael Byrne and Mark McManus as well as O’Toole and Sim) and it even slips in a cheeky visual reference to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wartime classic, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943).  

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However, I only read the novel a few days ago after discovering a battered old Penguin edition of it in Priorsford Books, a charming second-hand bookshop that opened recently in my hometown of Peebles.  And coincidentally, it looks like Rogue Male could soon be back in vogue for a while back it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch plans to produce, and presumably star in, a new version of it.  Let’s hope the Cumberbatch version, if it appears, is closer to the sombre tone of the 1976 adaptation than the anodyne, crowd-pleasing tone of the 1941 one.  Or, better still, it makes a real effort to capture the fascinatingly introspective, misanthropic and grimy mood of the novel that inspired those versions in the first place.

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(c) BBC

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Great unappreciated films: The Ruling Class

 

(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures

 

It’s fair to say that the British film industry hasn’t produced anything else quite like The Ruling Class, the satirical 1972 movie starring flamboyant Anglo-Irish actor Peter O’Toole, directed by émigré Hungarian filmmaker Peter Medak and scripted by English playwright Peter Barnes, who adapted for the screen his 1968 play of the same name.  (For one thing, has any other British film starred and been directed and written by three different people who are all called ‘Peter’?)

 

Okay, The Ruling Class’s surreal but relentless lampooning of Britain’s social, religious and political establishments gives it some similarities to the famous film trilogy directed by Lindsay Anderson, If (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).  Indeed, the similarities feel still more pronounced due to the presence in The Ruling Class of Arthur Lowe and Graham Crowden, two actors who made regular appearances in Anderson’s work.

 

Also, the casting of Lowe, Coral Browne and Harry Andrews in The Ruling Class calls to mind Douglas Hickox’s stylised and deliciously-black comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood (1973).  Lowe, Browne and Andrews appear in the Hickox film too, playing vitriolic drama-critics who are murdered by an embittered and deranged Shakespearean actor played by Vincent Price.  The Ruling Class shares with Theatre of Blood a mad but compelling antihero and a general dose of the macabre.

 

But for acting gusto, for directorial flair, for a story that blends a bewildering range of genres, and for mocking humour that veers between the delightfully subtle and the bruisingly un-subtle, The Ruling Class is in, well, a class of its own.

 

O’Toole plays Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, who inherits his title after the 13th Earl – a short but barnstorming performance by Andrews – accidentally perishes during a disturbing sex-game involving a noose and a ballerina’s skirt.  To the relief of the late earl’s brother, a Church of England bishop played by the incomparable Alistair Sim, he didn’t commit suicide, which would of course have been sinful.

 

The Gurney family is dismayed to learn that young Jack is out-and-out, barkingly insane.  He believes he is Jesus Christ and sports an appropriately Christ-like beard and mane of hair.  He also wishes to bring peace and love to the earth and sleeps upright on a giant wooden cross.  Before long, the most unscrupulous of his relatives, his Uncle Charles (William Mervyn) and Aunt Claire (Browne), are plotting to get rid of him.

 

Charles decides to ensnare Jack using his young opera-singing mistress Grace (Carolyn Seymour).  He introduces them, calculating – correctly – that Jack will fall in love with her and marry her.  When the marriage is consummated and an heir produced, Charles can then have Jack committed.  Charles’s plans go astray, however.  Grace falls in love with the crazy but unsettlingly charming Jack and, later, Jack seems to be cured of his madness by his psychiatrist Dr Herder.  Herder is played by Michael Bryant, who for some reason does an uncannily accurate impersonation of the great Czech character actor Herbert Lom.  Indeed, so much is Bryant like Herbert Lom that during the film I assumed I was watching Lom.  I only realised it was Bryant in the role when I saw his name in the closing credits.

 

(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures

 

Herder bases his cure on the reasoning that there can only be one Jesus Christ, and if Jack can be convinced that somebody else is Christ then he’ll be cured of his delusions.  There follows a sequence in which Herder introduces Jack to a psychiatric patient called McKyle, played by Nigel Green, who believes himself to be a very different sort of Messiah: a wrathful, blood-and-thunder, take-no-prisoners, Old Testament-style one with a booming Scottish accent.  Green’s performance here is electrifying – literally electrifying, because the panic-stricken Jack sees bolts of energy shooting out of his hands.  Actually, it’s disconcerting to watch Nigel Green in a role like this if, like me, you mainly remember him for playing Colour-Sergeant Bourne in Zulu (1964), who was surely the calmest, most unflappable and most down-to-earth character in the history of the British film industry.

 

And Charles’s scheme to have his troublesome nephew banged away in the loony-bin ultimately fails when the court psychiatrist (Crowden) discovers to his joy that Jack is a fellow old Etonian — the film’s dig at the public-school-powered ‘old-boy network’ that’s dominated Britain and its institutions for centuries — whom he’s definitely not going to incarcerate.  The pair of them then burst into a jolly rendition of The Eton Boating Song.  Incidentally, the film is peppered with musical interludes like this one.  None of them last long enough for it to quite qualify as a musical, but they add yet another colour to its crowded palette.

 

Of course, as the movie audience has immediately guessed, Jack isn’t really cured of his insanity.  “I’m Jack!” he affirms a little too keenly, “I’m Jack!”  He no longer believes that he’s Jesus Christ, but he soon develops a worrying interest in Victoriana and we realise that the Jack he thinks he is now isn’t Jack Gurney.  It’s a different Jack, one who gained notoriety in the back-streets of Whitechapel in the late 1880s.  In a phantasmagorical scene, splendidly orchestrated by director Medak, we see Jack step through the wall of his mansion’s living room and into a Victorian back-street, accompanied by one of the film’s female characters – who, predictably, is soon spitted on a long sharp blade.

 

However, in the film’s final irony, Jack Gurney’s confusion with Jack the Ripper does him no harm whatsoever.  His Ripper-style murder is blamed on someone else – on the film’s sole working-class character, the Gurneys’ butler Tucker (Lowe).  Then, near the movie’s end, Jack takes his seat in the House of Lords and there delivers a debut speech that is a demented, psychotic hang-’em / flog-’em rant.  The speech, needless to say, is wildly popular among the House’s venerable members.  (Medak shows the assembled lords through Jack’s mind’s-eye as a horde of rotting, cobwebbed but somehow animate corpses.)  His infant son, meanwhile, is also gurgling, “I’m Jack!  I’m Jack!” which suggests that the insanity of this particular branch of the ruling class will continue for another generation at least.

 

With all this going on, the success or failure of The Ruling Class obviously depends on the ability of the actor in the lead role and Peter O’Toole is glorious.  He’s at the height of powers – still surfing the waves he made in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1964’s Beckett and 1968’s The Lion in Winter; and before alcohol abuse and bad movie choices, like 1979’s Caligula and 1984’s Supergirl, took their toll on his reputation.  For the entire film his character is as mad as a hatter and yet you have no difficulty believing that Carolyn Seymour’s Grace – and indeed, later, Coral Brown’s Aunt Claire – could fall for this wild-eyed, loquacious and charismatic lunatic.

 

But O’Toole is helped by his supporting cast.  Arthur Lowe is wonderful as the beleaguered and cantankerous butler, Tucker.  While Lowe’s career was full of delightful moments, I think the most delightful moment of all comes in The Ruling Class when he learns that the late 13th Earl of Gurney has left him 30,000 pounds in his will and he does a wee dance to celebrate.  Coral Browne, meanwhile, who was pushing 60 at the time she made the film, gives a memorable performance as a mature lady who remains sexually charged, slinky and alluring.  There’s nothing inelegant about the scene towards the end of the movie where she tries to seduce O’Toole, who’s some 20 years her junior.  (Actually, I can understand why in real life Vincent Price married Browne shortly after he’d killed her onscreen in Theatre of Blood.)

 

The film also showcases the talents of several actors whose careers were never quite as successful as they should have been.  Carolyn Seymour is delightful – and gorgeous – as Grace and it’s a shame that most of her subsequent work was on TV: Survivors, Space 1999, Hart to Hart, Cagney and Lacy, Magnum PI, Remington Steele, The Twilight Zone, Quantum Leap, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5 and ER.  William Mervyn, who was typecast playing upper-class gentlemen in the likes of The Railway Children (1970) and various Carry On films, is excellent as the main villain, Uncle Charles, and it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t given some similarly meaty roles before his death in 1976.  Also in the movie is James Villiers, playing Jack’s dim-witted but amiable cousin Dinsdale.  I was used to seeing Villiers in villainous or officious roles, like in Seth Holt’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1972) or the 12th Bond movie For Your Eyes Only (1982) and it was a pleasure watching him play a very different character in this.

 

Another talent connected with The Ruling Class that never got to blossom as much as it should have is that of Peter Medak.  In 1980, he directed The Changeling – a brave attempt at staging a subtle, old-fashioned ghost story during a period when most scary movies involved screaming teenagers, masked knife-wielding maniacs and buckets of gore – and in the early 1990s he made a couple of decent British films like The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991); but by 1998 he was directing old rubbish like Species II.  More recently, though, I’ve seen Medak credited as director of episodes of quality US TV shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Hannibal – so I hope he’s getting at least some professional satisfaction from his American tele-work.

 

I should add that Barnes’s original play has just been revived on the London stage with that ubiquitous Scotsman, James McAvoy, in the role of Jack.  I like McAvoy a lot and I think he’ll acquit himself admirably in the role, even if he isn’t quite in the same league as Peter O’Toole (who passed away, alas, just over a year ago).  But then again, who is?

 

So let’s hope that this McAvoy-helmed stage production of The Ruling Class will lead critics and audiences to rediscover the joys of the play’s cinematic version in 1972.

 

(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures

 

Au revoir, O’Toole

 

From theredlist.fr

 

Peter O’Toole’s death on December 14th didn’t get a great deal of attention in the British media, perhaps because after the massive coverage given to the passing of Nelson Mandela the media felt funeral-ed and obituary-ed out.  But I got the impression too that many people were surprised to hear that O’Toole hadn’t been dead for years already.  In the acting world he seemed to belong to a bygone era.  He really was the last of a thespian tribe of Mohicans.

 

Though he projected an aristocratic languor, O’Toole was a rare thing by today’s standards, a successful actor from a working-class background.  His father was an Irish bookie and metal-plate worker, his mother a Scottish nurse.  From his Dad, whose lackadaisical approach to his horse-betting business sometimes meant he didn’t have the cash to pay his winning customers, he inherited a relaxed approach to life that led later to some hair-raising exploits involving epic drinking sessions and sprinting into theatres moments before he was due onstage.  It’s uncertain whether he was born in Galway or Yorkshire, although he was brought up in Hunslet, an industrial district of Leeds.  But even if he was Yorkshire-born, O’Toole considered himself properly Irish – setting a trend among English actors of a certain disposition, like John Hurt and Daniel Day Lewis, to disown their Englishness and embrace their inner Irishman.

 

O’Toole once said that his generation of actors had been trained by having a mantra drummed into their heads, “Theatre, theatre, theatre”; and between the 1950s and 1990s he often seemed happier performing before live audiences than before film or TV cameras.  He did numerous Shakespeares, including Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew and Troilus and Cressida.  In 1980, he directed and played the lead in the notorious production of Macbeth at the Old Vic that earned him the worst reviews of his career (“Macdeath!”, “Macflop!”).  Despite the reviews, or maybe because of them, it played to sold-out houses every night.  Also, he never seemed to go long without appearing in a play written by a fellow Irishman, such as Beckett, O’Casey and Shaw.

 

In 1989, O’Toole won acclaim playing the lead role in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, Keith Waterhouse’s stage drama based on the life of the spectacularly dissolute journalist who wrote for the Sporting Life, Spectator and Daily Mirror.  (“Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” was the excuse printed in the Spectator whenever Bernard got so plastered in the pubs of Soho that he was unable to hand in the copy for his weekly column.)  Inevitably, O’Toole was friends with Bernard in real life and according to my well-thumbed copy of Robert Sellars’ book, An A-Z of Hellraisers, which has entries on both men, “Most nights of the run Bernard would visit O’Toole in his dressing room, drink his vodka and then totter off to his seat in the stalls where he’d fall asleep before the end of the first act.  In the intermission he’d struggle over to the theatre bar where he gladly accepted free drinks from delighted audience members, something more heartening than his royalty cheques, which were taken by the Inland Revenue in lieu of unpaid taxes.”

 

O’Toole was the last of a breed of British actors legendary for their prodigious consumption of alcohol – a trait you rarely get these days among actors, working in a different world where all-powerful insurance companies can veto any project where bad behaviour by the performers might be a liability.  Michael Caine, who was O’Toole’s understudy during a 1959 production of The Long and the Short and the Tall at London’s Royal Court Theatre, learned the dangers of drinking with O’Toole when, at the end of a working week, he accompanied him to a restaurant and then suffered a two-day-long blackout that ended with the pair of them coming around in a flat full of strange women.  Later Caine discovered that they’d both been banned for life from the restaurant, for some mysterious misdemeanor he had no memory of.  “It’s better not to know,” O’Toole told him cryptically.

 

By the 1960s, O’Toole was boozing merrily with the likes of Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Finch.  “I was silly and young and drunken and making a complete clown of myself,” O’Toole later reminisced.  “But I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a pint at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica.”  Tales about O’Toole and Finch’s antics are legion: for example, when they went to the extreme of producing a chequebook and buying a Dublin pub on the spot so that they could get one more drink in it after closing time; or when they turned up at a friend’s funeral, ‘tired and emotional’, only to discover after much wailing and gnashing of teeth that they were actually attending the wrong funeral.

 

In the mid-1980s, Spitting Image broadcast its famous ‘Peter No-Toole’ sketch – O’Toole wakes up one morning and discovers he’s had a sex change operation, which he can’t remember anything about; so to find out what happened he phones Oliver Reed, with whom when he’s spent the previous night drinking.  However, by then, the image of O’Toole as a hellraiser was already a decade out of date.  In 1975, following severe abdominal pain, he’d had several yards of digestive tract surgically removed.  What remained of his body’s plumbing, doctors warned him, was unable to process alcohol and even small amounts of the stuff could kill him.  (In later life O’Toole did resume drinking, but he was much more cautious about the habit than in his youth.)

 

 

It sounds sacrilegious, but I’ve never had much time for Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 epic directed by David Lean that turned O’Toole into an international film star.  Maybe that’s because I’ve only ever seen it on commercial television, peppered with lengthy advertisement breaks, which made it seem very long and tedious indeed.  If I saw it on a cinema screen and was able to enjoy the full, spectacular effect of Lean’s visuals – those vast desert landscapes, Omar Sharif’s camels, etc. – I might think differently.  I’m also unimpressed by his 1965 hit-movie What’s New, Pussycat?, which was scripted by Woody Allen.  It’s an example of a film sub-genre that to me has always seemed the cinematic equivalent of cold vomit: the smug, zany and irritatingly unfunny swinging 1960s comedy.  (In 1968 O’Toole had a cameo in another swinging 1960s comedy, made too with Woody Allen’s involvement, that was even worse, the truly awful Casino Royale.)

 

Far, far better among his 1960s output were the two films where he played King Henry II, 1964’s Beckett and 1968’s The Lion in Winter, which earned him his second and third Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  The Lion in Winter was also notable for a production mishap whereby O’Toole tore off the top of his finger when it got caught between two boats.  Trooper that he was, he disinfected the fingertip by dunking it in brandy, bandaged it back on and continued filming.

 

(c) Hemdale

 

But my favourite O’Toole performances came during the following decade.  He was very good in Peter Medak’s bizarre satire The Ruling Class (1972); in a 1976 adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s adventure Rogue Male; in Zulu Dawn, the 1979 prequel to the famous 1963 epic Zulu, which had made a star of his old understudy Michael Caine; and in The Stunt Man (1980).  And I particularly like his turn in 1970’s Murphy’s War, playing a singularly bloody-minded Irish sailor who’s the sole survivor of a U-Boat attack on his ship in the last days of World War II – he determines to hunt down and destroy the U-Boat and isn’t put off his mission when word comes through that the war has ended.  (When O’Toole is steaming towards the sub with a commandeered barge, crane and a salvaged, unexploded torpedo, the German skipper does himself no favours by trying to reason with him through a megaphone and calling him ‘English’.)

 

In 1979 he made an ill-advised appearance as the Emperor Tiberius in the disastrous, Penthouse Magazine-funded production of Caligula, which was followed by the debacle of Macbeth at the Old Vic.  Happily, O’Toole regained his credibility with his performance in 1982’s My Favourite Year, playing a reprobate ageing actor who’d made his name starring in old Hollywood swashbucklers.  The character was supposedly based on Errol Flynn; any resemblance to O’Toole himself was, presumably, unintentional.

 

Thereafter, O’Toole seemed to disappear off the radar – although it’s surprising, when you look at his filmography, just how much film and TV work he did during the last thirty years of his life.  That work ranged from the dreadful (1984’s Supergirl) to the prestigious (1987’s The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and garlanded with Oscars); and even in the noughties he was still appearing in high profile productions, including Troy (2004), Stardust and Ratatouille (both 2007).  But O’Toole himself seemed content to keep a low profile.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

My two last sightings of him were in the TV serial Casanova, scripted by Russell T. Davies and starring David Tenant – because Tenant played the young Casanova and O’Toole played the old one, Tenant had to wear contact lenses to match the brilliant blueness of O’Toole’s eyes, which had once gazed strikingly from cinema screens during Lawrence of Arabia – and in an interview he gave to the now-defunct Word magazine.  When asked in the Word interview what he did for exercise these days, O’Toole said he kept fit by walking behind the hearses of friends who’d died of heart attacks whilst doing exercise.  Proof that several decades of hard living hadn’t diminished Peter O’Toole’s capacity for wit.

 

PS…

From courtsandhackett.com

 

I’ve just been writing about hellraisers, and it’s December 18th, 2013, which is the seventieth birthday of a certain Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.  So I will take this opportunity to say: “Happy Birthday, Keef.”