Plummer and Plummer

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

© Carolco Pictures / EMC Film Corporation

 

One of the least pleasant consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the argument, advanced mainly by right-wingers, that it’d be better for society to steam on without lockdown and its attendant economic damage because most people killed by the virus are elderly and will die soon anyway.  Old folks, in other words, are expendable.  I’m thinking of failed Australian ex-prime minister Tony Abbot, who opined that families should be allowed “to make elderly relatives as comfortable as possible while nature takes its course”; or Daily Telegraph columnist Jeremy Warner, who reflected that “Covid-19 might even provide mildly beneficial in the long run by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”.

 

However, the notion that elderly people are merely past-their-sell-by-date sacks of meat, helplessly sitting around with nothing to do but wait for death, in viral or other forms, to arrive at their doors, was surely refuted by the example of the great Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.

 

Plummer, who sadly bowed out last week at the age of 91, had been acting since the 1950s and had been on my movie radar since I was a kid in the 1970s.  But it wasn’t until well after he’d qualified for his free bus pass that he got the roles that earned him official recognition as acting royalty.  He received his first Oscar nomination when he was 80 years old, for a supporting role in Michael Hoffman’s 2009 film The Last Station.  Though he didn’t win that award, two years later at the Oscars he netted Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Mike Mills’ Beginners (2010).  And a half-dozen years afterwards, to prove he wasn’t yet over the hill, Plummer got another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017).

 

Indeed, just last year, I was delighted to see him play a tough but kind-hearted patriarch in Rian Johnson’s entertaining murder mystery Knives Out (2019).  In this, Plummer effortlessly held his own not only among a starry ensemble cast that included Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Chris Evans, but also against Daniel Craig’s scenery-shredding Southern accent.

 

So the acclaim heaped on the octogenarian Plummer, and his seeming ubiquity on the screen in the last decade, negate the idea that human beings are fit only for the scrapheap when they reach their allotted three-score-and-ten.  With hindsight, at the age of 70, Plummer’s best years were arguably still ahead of him.

 

That said, it’s for two films he made as a younger man, in the late 1970s, that I’ll particularly remember him.

 

© Carolco Pictures / EMC Film Corporation

 

Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner (1978) is an excellent thriller, though one that’s strangely underrated.  I suspect mainstream critics neglected it because they felt uncomfortable with a couple of scenes of nasty violence in the film, which were included to show what a psychotic, misogynistic scumbag its villain is.  That villain is the criminal Harry Reikle, played by Plummer.  Reikle becomes a formidable opponent for – and, as the film progresses, the title’s sinister ‘silent partner’ to – the film’s hero, Miles Cullen, played by Elliot Gould, a mild-mannered teller working in the bank that Reikle has decided to rob.

 

Despite his violent disposition, Reikle is a criminal with an imagination.  He carries out one crime dressed in drag and another disguised as a shopping-mall Santa Claus.  However, he meets his match in Cullen, who uses Reikle’s botched robbing of his bank as an opportunity to fill his own pockets with supposedly ‘stolen’ money.  Reikle is unsurprisingly displeased at this and a game of cat-and-mouse ensues between them.

 

Besides being a bit nasty, The Silent Partner is suspenseful, twisty, ingenious and, thanks to its droll observations of the inanities, pettiness and officiousness its hero has to endure while working in the bank, very amusing.  You fully understand why the frustrated, put-upon Cullen wants to cheat his workplace out of a fortune and escape from it forever.  Plummer and Gould give the film its yin and yang, its enjoyable balance of tension and humour, shocks and laughs.  (On the laughter side, it’s also helped by the presence in a supporting role of a young John Candy, sporting an alarming 1970s side-parted hairdo.)

 

My other favourite Christopher Plummer performance came the following year when he donned the deerstalker for Bob Clark’s 1979 Sherlock Holmes epic Murder by Decree.  (Plummer had already played Holmes in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze).  Inspiring the film, which has Holmes investigating the real-life murder spree of Jack the Ripper, is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family.  The same theory informs Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.

 

Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes.  Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson.  Despite the disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a delightful double-act.  They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly loving married couple.  Incidentally, playing Inspector Lestrade in Murder by Decree is actor Frank Finlay, who had already played the same role in another movie where Sherlock Holmes encounters Jack the Ripper, 1965’s A Study in Terror.

 

© Dimension Films / New Art & Logic / Miramax Films

 

Plummer also appeared in a number of bad movies, of course, but like all great actors, he could feature in a godawful piece of guff and make it entertaining nonetheless.  He was, for example, very credible as the vampire hunter Van Helsing in Patrick Lussier’s Dracula 2000 (2000).  The fact that this particular movie has Gerard Butler playing Dracula tells you all you need to know about its quality.

 

Meanwhile, if you look between The Silent Partner and Murder by Decree in Plummer’s filmography, you’ll discover that he was in the less impressive Starcrash (1978).  This was an Italian Star Wars (1977) rip-off, of which the kindest thing that can be said is that the gap between what director-writer Luigi Cozzi imagined would be happening on the screen when he wrote the script, and what he could actually afford to put on the screen with his budget, is painfully obvious.  In Starcrash, Plummer plays the Emperor of the Universe and at one point he sagely tells his son (David Hasselhoff): “You know, my son, I wouldn’t be Emperor of the Universe if I didn’t have some powers at my disposal.”  Plummer later justified his participation in the film by saying it gave him a chance to be in Rome: “Give me Rome any day.  I’ll do porno in Rome, as long as I can get to Rome.”

 

13 years after Starcrash, Plummer had a rather better science-fictional experience playing the Klingon warlord Chang in the 1991 Star Trek movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  Plummer gives a deliciously no-holds-barred performance as Chang, who’s so badass that the eyepatch he wears isn’t tied around his head on a piece of string or elastic but is rivetted into his face.  In the final scenes, Chang bellows lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar while he and his forces launch an attack on the Starship Enterprise: “Cry ‘Havoc!’  And let slip the dog of war!”  (Earlier, the Klingons had informed Captain Kirk that “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”)  I suspect the presence in the film of Plummer’s long-term friend and one-time understudy William Shatner, an actor not known for his subtlety, inspired Plummer to play Chang with his brakes off.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Plummer’s turns in Star Trek VI and The Silent Partner show his excellence as a screen villain.  Further proof of this is found in Taylor Hackford’s 1995 thriller Dolores Claiborne, perhaps the most underrated of all film adaptations of books by Stephen King.  Plummer plays the vindictive Detective John Mackey, who failed to pin a murder rap on the titular heroine (Kathy Bates) after the death of her abusive, alcoholic husband (David Strathairn) in the 1970s.  Two decades later, he believes he can finally nail her when her employer (Judy Parfitt) dies amid much circumstantial evidence suggesting Dolores has killed her.

 

I also associated Plummer with playing famous historical figures.  These included Rommel in Anatole Litvak’s Night of the Generals (1968), the Duke of Wellington in Sergei Bondarchuk’s  Waterloo (1970) – the epic Dino De Laurentiis production that proved such a financial flop that it helped scupper Stanley Kubrick’s plans to make a film about the life of Napoleon – and Rudyard Kipling in John Houston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a film that poignantly lost another of its stars, Sean Connery, just a few months ago.

 

He had a profitable relationship too with director Terry Gilliam.  In 1995 he played Brad Pitt’s dad in Gilliam’s masterful 12 Monkeys, while 14 years later he played the title character in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  Typical of Gilliam’s 21st century film-work, Parnassus is all over the place and sadly indicates that the director has passed his prime – though it didn’t help that the movie’s star Heath Ledger died during filming and his character also had to be played, through a series of unconvincing phantasmagorical transformations, by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law.  But the scenes with Plummer and his endearingly ramshackle travelling theatre, the ‘imaginarium’ of the title, are good and recall the director’s glory days.

 

One other movie featuring Plummer that I admire is Terrence Malick’s gorgeous and beguiling 2005 epic The New World.  He plays Captain Newport, leader of an expedition to establish an English colony in Virginia in 1607.  Newport’s party includes Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), destined to fall in love with Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of the chief of the local Native Americans.  However, Plummer was not enamoured with Malick’s unstructured and improvisational approach to filmmaking.  He was particularly galled when he saw the final cut of The New World and discovered that an important, emotional speech his character had given was now background noise in a scene with a different dramatic focus: “I could hear myself saying it, this long, wonderful, moving speech that I thought I was so fantastic in… way, miles in the distance while something else is going on in the foreground…”  Plummer subsequently voiced his displeasure to Malick in a letter.  “I gave him shit.  I’ll never work with him again, of course.”

 

Plummer’s willingness to speak his mind and slag off any film in his CV he didn’t enjoy making or watching was, of course, demonstrated by his attitude towards his most famous role, that of Captain von Trapp in Robert Wise’s saccharine The Sound of Music (1965).  Marvellously, he dubbed it ‘The Sound of Mucus’.  As well as just not liking the film, he found acting in it hard work: “To do a lousy part like von Trapp, you have to use every trick you know to fill the empty carcass of the role.”

 

No wonder that in a Facebook tribute to Christopher Plummer the other day, Terry Gilliam finished by writing: “I already miss him terribly and I hope to God they don’t play Edelweiss at his funeral.  It would kill him.”

 

© First Foot Films / Sarah Green Film / New Line Cinema

Cinematic heroes 1: Jon Finch

 

© Goodtimes Enterprises / Anglo-EMI Film Distributors

 

The film and TV actor Jon Finch died seven-and-a-half years ago.  At the time of his passing, late on in 2012, he hadn’t worked for several years and had lived quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death had apparently gone undiscovered for some time.  Word of his funeral wasn’t announced until January 2013.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media were intermittent and patchy.  I decided to pen a few words of tribute on this blog and the resulting post seemed to rank high on Google searches about Finch – as I’d said, obituaries for him were intermittent and patchy.  Gratifyingly, a number of people who’d known Finch over the years came across my post and left comments on it.  In fact it was one of this blog’s most commented-on entries.  (And I’m kicking myself that, because this blog had to recently get a post-hacking reboot, those comments from Finch’s friends have now been lost.)

 

Anyway, I thought I’d revisit, rewrite and update what I originally wrote about Finch in 2013 and repost it.  Annoyingly, though, I still haven’t managed to see 1973’s The Final Programme

 

Jon Finch began his career in television, went into films and ended up back in television.  For a couple of years in the early 1970s, while he was doing film-work, he had the opportunity to become massive, but that didn’t happen.  Finch, who valued his privacy and had a low opinion of the celebrity circus, may well have preferred it that way.

 

He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth, released in 1971, and suddenly Finch’s career trajectory had become exponentially steep.

 

Polanski’s take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play was bloody, dark and bleak – everything that a good production of Macbeth should be, in my opinion.  In this film, what works in favour of Finch as Macbeth, and of his co-star Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, is the fact that they’re both so young.  The audience therefore feels they have little power over their destiny.  Rather, they’re swept to their tragic ends by dark forces both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth got an unsympathetic appraisal from many critics, who couldn’t see beyond the film’s high level of violence and who linked it with what Polanski had gone through in August 1969 – when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered at his house in Beverly Hills by acolytes of hippie-cult nutcase Charles Manson.  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had orchestrated.  In fact, the film’s screenwriter, celebrated theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, is reputed to have challenged Polanski about the amount of blood displayed in this scene, to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Family Plot (1976).  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is gruelling too.

 

Playing an innocent man accused of and hunted down for Foster’s murders, Finch bravely refrains from making his character sympathetic.  Indeed, he’s something of a shit and has a violent streak, and for a period at the start of the film we think he really is the strangler.   By the time it becomes clear that Foster is actually the culprit, Hitchcock – a master manipulator of his audience’s emotions – has presented him as a chirpy, likeable chap.  Thus, we find ourselves siding more with him than we do with Finch.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for international fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) which, tantalisingly, would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.

 

In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany when he heard of his passing: “I was very fond of Jon and was sorry we lost touch…  He was genuinely modest.”

 

Towards the end of the 1970s, Ridley Scott lined Finch up to appear in his ground-breaking sci-fi horror film Alien.  Finch was supposed to play Kane, a character who doesn’t last long in the movie’s script but is certainly pivotal to it.  He’s the unfortunate crewmember who goes exploring the mysterious crashed spaceship and ends up with an alien egg inside his chest.  Two days into filming, however, Finch became too ill to work – either from bronchitis or from complications caused by his recently-diagnosed diabetes, depending on which story you believe – and was replaced by John Hurt.  Thus, he missed appearing in the infamous ‘canteen’ scene where Kane expires and the alien makes its first appearance, one of the most (literally) explosive scenes in horror-movie history.

 

From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series of adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for their staginess and the generally conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II (1978), Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two (1979), with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)

 

Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals (1978-81).  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror, in which he played a modern-day composer haunted by a witch who’s popped forward through time from the 17th century (a role performed with memorable relish by Patricia Quinn).  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, New Tricks and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

 

Frustratingly, Finch’s role in a 1994 episode of Sherlock Holmes, a combined adaptation of two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone and The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, didn’t see him appear alongside Jeremy Brett, the actor widely regarded as the screen’s best-ever Holmes – Brett had to be written out of most of the episode due to health problems.  However, as a villain, Finch did get to face up to the almost-as-good Charles Gray, playing Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.

 

Finch’s final appearance was a film one, in Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, so at least he got to work with that director nearly three decades after his gig in Alien fell through.  Thereafter, he kept a low profile in Hastings, in declining health but seen now and again in some of the local public bars.  I wonder if the regulars in those Hastings pubs were aware that old ‘Finchy’, as he was known, had once headlined films directed by Hitchcock and Polanski and had come within a whisker of being 007.

 

© Playboy Productions / Columbia Productions