When Eight Bells Toll (1970)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: Etienne Perier
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Nathalie Delon, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Derek Bond
Music: Angela Morley (as Walter Stott)
Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean

Hannibal Lektor as a secret agent! I’m sorry but Anthony Hopkins performance as ‘Hannibal The Cannibal’ was so successful, and much imitated, that it has now moved beyond a mere performance in a movie, to being a part of popular culture. No matter what Hopkins did in the past or may do in the future, now he will always be compared to, or judged as Lektor. But long before The Silence Of The Lambs, Hopkins portrayed a cold, ruthless secret agent in this adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s novel, When Eight Bells Toll. Back in 1970, Hopkins was in reasonable shape and it didn’t seem like such a stretch for him to play a two-fisted, highly skilled secret agent. This is not the case in the recent film Bad Company, where he seemed completely out of place.

The film opens at sea, with secret service agent, Philip Calvert (Hopkins) in scuba gear. He surfaces near a large freighter at anchor, and proceeds to haul himself up the anchor chain and onto the deck. He makes his way to the radio room and opens the door, only to be looking down the barrel of a gun. The man holding the gun has a steely gaze and doesn’t waiver a muscle. Calvert begins to realise something is not right. This bloke doesn’t speak or move at all. Calvert moves closer and takes the pistol from the man’s hand. The movement causes the radio operator to topple over revealing a knife in the centre of his back. He is dead – just propped up to seem life like. This is someone’s idea of a joke. As Calvert searches more, he finds another dead body. Who are these two men? I am glad you asked, but to find out we have to flash back to a few days previously.

A helicopter lands in the gardens of a giant white mansion. This building is in fact Secret Service Headquarters. Calvert alights from the helicopter and is met by Hunslett (Corin Redgrave). Hunslett, although an agent, specialises in intelligence gathering and does very little field work. He outlines there current problem to Calvert. It appears that several bullion ships have been hijacked at sea. In the film it is never adequately explained why gold bullion would need to be transferred by ship – but let’s just take it as a given that it is important. These ships are hijacked and the crews are taken to Ireland where they are released a few days later. By this time the ships have vanished. Calvert and Hunslett have to come up with a plan to stop the theft and round up the people responsible.

The plan they come up with involves hiding two men to act as radio operators on board the next bullion ship. If it is hijacked, the men will transmit the ships location at designated times, and Calvert will follow behind in another boat. It will come as no surprise that the two men chosen for the mission are the two men that Calvert found dead in the opening sequence of the movie. Calvert and Hunslett don’t have free reign though. They are answerable to Sir Arthur Arnford Jones (Robert Morley). Jones is a stuffy bureaucrat who doesn’t like Calvert’s brash and arrogant manner. But against his better judgement, Jones allows the plan to be put into action.

It’s another eccentric performance from Robert Morley, not too dissimilar to his role in Hot Enough For June – but whereas Hot Enough For June was a gentle comedy, this film is a straight laced action adventure. Thankfully, half way through the movie, Morley gets with the program and pulls it in, and the film is all the better for it.

Every good spy film has a villain, and in When Eight Bells Toll it is shipping magnate, Sir Anthony Skouras. Playing the part is seasoned character actor Jack Hawkins. Hawkins looks quite ill in this movie, and his dialogue has been looped by Charles Gray.

When Eight Bells Toll is actually a pretty good little movie. It may not have the globe trotting excesses of a James Bond film, but it has some fine set pieces, and drips with atmosphere. The cinematography around the Scottish coast is as breathtaking as it is inhospitable. At times, you can actually feel cold and a little sea-sick when watching this film.

There’s one action scene that I think warrants a special mention, which involves a helicopter that Calvert is travelling in, being shot out of the sky and crashing into the sea. The scene is tense and well staged. All in all, this is a good one and worth looking out for.

When Eight Bells Toll (1970)

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Directed by Brian G. Hutton
Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure, Ingrid Pitt, Derren Nesbitt, Patrick Wymark, Michael Hordern, Anton Differing, Robert Beatty, Donald Houston, Peter Barkworth, William Squire, Neil McCarthy, Brook Williams
Music by Ron Goodwin
Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean

It is often a fine line between some war films and some spy films, but generally the nature of the mission helps to separate the films into their correct categories. There is no mistaking that Saving Private Ryan is a war film. Whereas Where Eagles Dare, I believe is a spy film. At no time are the characters referred to as ‘soldiers’ – they are always referred to as ‘agents’. Also they are dressed in enemy uniform which makes them spies. So Where Eagles Dare is one of the great spy films. It is also one of the great ‘Boys Own Adventures’.

Sure, if you analyse the story carefully, you’ll realise that it is biggest load of nonsense ever contrived. But it was never meant to be art. It was meant to provide thrill-a-minute action, and a plot full of twists and turns. And on that level, Where Eagles Dare succeeds admirably.

The film opens with a German warplane flying over the Austrian Alps. Although it looks German, it is English and it is transporting seven men on a dangerous mission. As the plane moves towards it’s destination, the film flashes back to the mission briefing. They are told that an American General, Carnaby (Robert Beatty), who was travelling by plane to meet his opposite number in Russia, has been shot down. He has been captured and taken to a Nazi fortress called the Schloss Adler in Bavaria. Carnaby holds the key to the Allieds next major offensive and time is of the essence. They must rescue him, before the German’s get any information out of him. The mission is to parachute in, infiltrate the Nazi fortress, rescue the General and get out. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Some of the men on the mission are Major Smith (Richard Burton). He is the leader of the group. Next on board is Lieutenant Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). Schaffer is a walking arsenal. Then there’s Capt. James Christiansen (Donald Houston), Edward Berkeley (Peter Barkworth), Capt. Philip Thomas (William Squire), Sgt. Harrod (Brook Williams), and Sgt. Jock MacPherson (Neil McCarthy), who are all M.I.5 operatives.

After the briefing the film cuts back to the mission at hand, and the men parachute out of the plane and into the snow. There’s no point outlining too much of the plot as it would take as long as Alistair MacLean’s novel, on which the film is based. But there are double crosses, triple crosses, and convoluted twists and turns throughout, that will keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat..

You cannot talk about Where Eagles Dare without mentioning the cable car sequence. Two German spies are trying to make their escape down the mountain in a cable car when Smith attempts to stop them by leaping onto the roof of the car as it starts down. On the roof top, he attempts to plant a bomb, but the two spies inside the car, crawl out the windows and onto the roof. It’s a staggeringly suspenseful and well staged action scene, and one that was almost replicated in the James Bond film Moonraker, made eleven years later.

Hardly any of the characters in Where Eagles Dare are who or what they seem and certainly cannot be trusted – with the exception of good old Lt. Schaffer. Eastwood as Schaffer is pretty wooden, but it doesn’t really detract from the film. Eastwood’s acting is really limited to blowing things up or shooting people. It doesn’t require much emoting.

The real star of the movie is Richard Burton as Major Smith, the mission leader. Smith is the only character who really knows what the hell is going on. Even though it’s an action film, Burton still gives a commanding performance. His voice is so authorative, and in places threatening, it’s easy to believe the contrivances the script forces upon his character.

The film also feature’s a couple of beauties. After all this film was made in the sixties, and even a war film still has to adhere to the swinging sixties ethos. Mary Ure stars as Mary Elison, another spy who is working with Smith. And Ingrid Pitt has a small role as the buxom bar wench, Heidi.

Also worth mentioning is Derren Nesbitt as Major Von Harpen. He is the Gestapo Officer at Schloss Adler, and although Nesbitt’s role is fairly small, his presence and threatening persona dominate the middle of the film.

The music by Ron Goodwin is exceptional. It is deliberately melodramatic, and follows the plot twists well. It also makes great use of staccato – almost machine gun style – military drums.

Where Eagles Dare is one of the best films of it’s kind, and despite it’s age, it holds up incredibly well today. Highly recommended.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Detonator II: Night Watch (1995)

AKA: Night Watch, Alistair MacLean’s Night Watch
Directed by David S. Jackson
Pierce Brosnan, Alexandra Paul, William Devane
Music by John Scott

Night Watch is director David S. Jackson’s follow up to Detonator: Death Train. Once again it is based on an Alistair MacNeill novel, from outlines left by Alistair MacLean at his death. While the team from the first film is back, Pierce Brosnan returns as Mike Graham, and Alexandra Paul reprises her role as Sabrina Carver, many of the better elements of the first movie have disappeared.

• Firstly, Patrick Stewart has gone as head of United Nations Anti-Crime Organization (UNACO) and is replaced by William Devane.

• Next, ‘UNACO’ the organisation Graham and Carver work for is hardly mentioned at all. In fact it only appears written on the side of a 4WD that drops Graham off at headquarters. In contrast there are quite a few mentions of the CIA, Graham and Carver are even partnered by the CIA’s agent in Hong Kong. It would appear that ‘UNACO’ is a part of the CIA, not a global agency sanctioned by the United Nations.

• And finally there is Brosnan’s appearance. Maybe all the rumours and comparisons with James Bond had taken their toll on Brosnan. In the first film, Death Train, Graham was clean cut with short hair. In this sequel, Brosnan has gone for the Mexican bandit look. His hair is long and unkempt, and he has grown a Zapata moustache. This change of appearance serves no purpose, and as far as continuity between the two pictures is concerned…well, it’s like Darth Vader in a red suit. Sure the character is the same, but somehow it just doesn’t seem right.

So, despite the same team in front and behind the camera, this film is a very different bird to it’s predecessor.

The film opens with a violent beach rescue. Brosnan’s partner is shot and dies in a sea of blood. This is so badly staged it almost seems humorous. But the mission has taken it’s toll on Graham. So he is given a ‘cushy’ mission. Something that should be a walk in the park. It appears that Rembrandt’s painting, the ‘Night Watch’ which had been touring all around the world, has returned home as a fake. Somewhere along the way, the original must have been exchanged for this elaborate forgery.

Graham and Carver are teamed up once again and shipped off to Holland to discover how the painting was switched, and more importantly, where the original is?
In Amsterdam, it doesn’t take long for Graham to get into a fight with a muscle bound hoodlum on a boat. Unfortunately for Graham, he doesn’t have a search warrant and it’s the hood who presses charges. Meanwhile Carver is engaged in another of the film’s many silly action set pieces. In this one, agent Carver cycles (as in bicycle) after a boat travelling down one of Amsterdam’s canals. She overtakes it and races forward to the next bridge, where he dismounts and then leaps onto the boat as it passes under the bridge. As you can imagine, this boat is not powering along. After a fight on board, the boat collides with another boat. This second boat is carrying a drum of petrol. As the boats touch, both vessels explode in giant orange balls of flame. Sure the collision may have resulted in an explosion, but this was totally out of proportion to the lead up. This was a slow moving boat – not a speedboat moving at pace. And don’t worry about Agent Carver – she slipped over the side into the water, just before the explosion.

The trail then leads to Hong Kong. In every city that exhibited the Night Watch painting, the museum that showed the piece, footed the bill. Not Hong Kong. There a wealthy art connoisseur, Martin Schraeder (Michael Shannon) picked up the tab. Posing as newly weds, Graham and Carver move their investigation to Hong Kong, where they team up with CIA Agent Myra Tang (Irene Ng).

As Schraeder is the logical suspect, Graham and Co. focus their attention on him. This leads them to a Casino in Macao, which Schraeder owns. In a casino setting, the film moves into Bond wannabe territory. Naturally there is a high stakes card game, where Graham faces off against Schraeder. And added to this, Graham choice of drink is a ‘vodka martini, straight up with a twist’. Hardly shaken not stirred, but close enough to seem familiar. Of course, Schraeder is the bad guy, and this is where the usual espionage hi-jinks begin.

Towards the end, this production reaches new depths in low budget Bondian action. Graham has to stop a North Korean freighter from launching a rocket in the middle of Hong Kong Harbour. As with all the action scenes in this movie, it is sloppy and far-fetched. Detonator II: Night Watch is a very poor film. Even die hard Brosnan fans will find this tough going. Bottom of the barrel.

Detonator II: Night Watch (1995)

Breakheart Pass (1975)

AKA: Alistair Maclean’s Breakheart Pass
Directed by Tom Gries
Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Ed Lauter, Charles Durning, David Huddleston
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Based on the novel by Alistair Maclean

Breakheart Pass is a weird hybrid, partly Western, partly ‘whodunnit’, and finally spy thriller. But mostly it is pure old fashioned seventies entertainment. But not quite like you’d expect.

By the mid seventies the spy film had become quite jaded. Bond-mania, which had driven the genre along during the sixties had died down, and even the serious anti-Bond films, like Scorpio, or Permission To Kill, had worn out their welcome. Writer Alistair Maclean, a veteran of the genre, decided to move into different territory, whilst still keeping all the espionage elements that had become his trademark in place. He moved towards the ‘western’. At the time, even the western film was suffering. The Spaghetti Westerns from Italy had breathed fresh life into the tired old genre, but even they had run their course. So in Breakheart Pass, in which Alistair Maclean wrote the screenplay, based on his novel, we have two tired genres rolled into one.

I am pleased to say that the idea really works. Maybe the traditionalists may be up in arms, saying that it is not really a spy film, but I beg to differ. I could explain why, but to detail the plot would give away a few of the surprises this movie has in store, but in simplified terms it is the story of a few characters in the old west who are on a steam train, as it winds through the Rocky Mountains to Fort Humboldt The cavalry fort is in the middle of a dipheria plague. The train contains medical supplies and troops who will replace the sick and dying men, as well as Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) who is leading the ragtag band to the fort. Along for the ride is Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), the cavalry officer in charge of the replacement troops, John Deakin (Charles Bronson), a gambler and a murderer, and Ben Johnson as Nathan Pearce, the US Marshall who is escorting him to trial.

Breakheart Pass features another great score by Jerry Goldsmith. For each Goldsmith soundtrack I come across, I am constantly astounded at the high quality and diversity of his work. This score may not be Goldsmith’s most subtle work, but essentially we have a movie about a train, and in keeping, he gives us a powerful, brassy, driving theme and motifs throughout the movie. It’s a good one.

I am going to go out on a limb here. Bronson made many great films as a part in an ensemble cast; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Once Upon A Time In The West to name but a few. But in films where he solely carried the story, the success rate is considerably lower. I think of Bronson’s solo efforts, Breakheart Pass is his best film. It’s a big call, but if you stack up the Death Wish movies, Mr. Majestyk, The Evil That Men Do and it’s ilk, for pure enjoyment, and a great performance, Breakheart Pass is the one!

This review is based on the MGM Home Entertainment USA DVD

Breakheart Pass (1975)

Detonator: Death Train (1993)

AKA: Death Train, Alistair MacLean’s Death Train
Directed by David S. Jackson
Pierce Brosnan, Patrick Stewart, Christopher Lee, Alexandra Paul, Ted Levine
Music by Trevor Jones

This film is often referred to as Alistair MacLean’s Death Train. Writer Alistair MacLean has a solid track record when it comes to espionage movies with successful versions of Guns Of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra and Puppet On A Chain based on his novels (to name a few). But be wary of Alistair MacLean’s Death Train. In fact it is Alistair MacNeill’s Death Train. Alistair MacNeill was the author who wrote a series on novels based on outlines left by MacLean at his death. So to begin with, we have a counterfeit MacLean story which the producers have chosen to base their film on.

As the film opens we witness a nuclear bomb being constructed. While this is happening, we hear the resonant tones of Patrick Stewart announce:
’Plutonium…the key ingredient in nuclear bombs.

This plutonium was stolen, gram by deadly gram, from a German power plant.

My organization, the United Nations Anti-Crime Organization, responds to nuclear terrorism.

So when Karl Leitzig used this stolen plutonium to construct two nuclear bombs, his creations became U.N.A.C.O.’s nightmare.’

Patrick Stewart plays Malcolm Philpott, head of U.N.A.C.O, and when a Russian General, Benin (Christopher Lee), oversees the creation of these weapons, Philpott has a crisis on his hands. The bombs are forcibly loaded onto a train in Bremen, Germany, by a group of mercenaries headed by Alex Tierney (Ted Levine). As well as the hijacked train, Tierney also has twelve hostages, and as the authorities try to interfere, he has no hesitation in killing them. Tierney orders the train to be re-routed across the Swiss border, and then to Belsano in Italy.

Once the train is on the move, U.N.A.C.O. prepares for action. Philpott prepares a crack team of operatives to resolve the crisis. Amongst the team members are Mike Graham (Pierce Brosnan), and Sabrina Carver (Alexandra Paul) who are the stars of the show. Other members of the team include a Russian Major, Gennadi Rodenko (Nic D’Avirro); a US/Kenyan, C.W. Whitlock (Clarke Peters), who happens to a nuclear physicist; and another Russian, Sergei Kolchinsky (Andreas Sportelli), a pilot. With such an eclectic group of team members, it will come as no surprise that one of them is not quite what they appear to be.

Philpott has his team assemble in Munich. On the flight over, he taps into the trains communications. Tierney justifies his actions this way:
’We define ourselves by who we hate!
And the USSR was a worthy adversary.
This New World Order thing, we can’t use that!
No, once you know who you hate, everything works!’

The first attempt to stop the train, features Carver firing a gas canister into the Locomotive’s cabin, while Graham, attempts some acrobatics hanging from the bottom of a helicopter. Tierney and his mercenaries were prepared for such an assault, and don gas masks and defend themselves with machine guns. Graham is forced to retreat with his tail between his legs. Naturally enough the team regroup and find another way to assault the train

Despite a cast that includes Pierce Brosnan, Patrick Stewart and Christopher Lee this movie is pedestrian in every aspect. And the ending is so bad, it will have you throwing things at your television set. The film may not be quite as bad as I have made out, but it is far from great. It is however, light-years ahead of it’s sequel, which is one of the dreariest spy films ever made. For those of you, keen for more torture, I will attempt to get a review of Detonator II up in the next few weeks.

Detonator: Death Train (1993)

The Satan Bug (1965)

Directed by John Sturges
George Maharis,
John Andersen, Martin Blaine, Henry Beckman, Richard Basehart, Dana Andrews, Anne Francis
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Based on the novel by Ian Stewart (a pseudonym for Alistair MacLean)

Film director John Sturges has an amazing track record. Particularly during the sixties when he made some of his most famous films, like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Ice Station Zebra. The Satan Bug is one of his films that tends to slip under the radar. Which possibly says more about how good his other films are, rather than a reflection on the quality of The Satan Bug. In fact, The Satan Bug is a really good thriller in the Hitchcock tradition. What probably stopped it from being a massive success is the lack of a big name star in the cast.

The film opens at a top-secret chemical warfare compound called Station 3. It’s late on a Friday afternoon and a green delivery truck drops off two crates of new laboratory equipment. The crates are shunted into one of the underground labs.

Meanwhile a helicopter lands at the facility, and out hops Reagan (John Andersen). Reagan is the chief of security at the centre and he performs a sweep of the area. Unbeknownst to him, hiding in the crates are two terrorists, who are after the chemical weapons that are stored at Station 3. The assailants kill Reagan and make off with an amount of deadly toxin.

Enjoying himself at a swinging jazz club is Lee Barrett (George Maharis). During the show he receives a phone call, and he heads back to his home, which happens to be on a boat moored in a marina. Waiting for him is Mr. Martin (Martin Blaine). Martin says he works for the Council for World Peace, and he has acquired a flask of vaccine for Bochalitus (a deadly virus). Martin wants Barrett to take the flask to Europe. If both sides have the vaccine, then the weapon will be useless. Barrett is offered $20,000 to do the job.

But before we go any further, why Barrett? It appears that Barrett used to be a top flight intelligence officer, but his outspoken views on world peace have got him into a lot of trouble. Along with his insubordinate nature. Outwardly It would appear that Barrett is just the man for the job. But not so. Barrett maybe outspoken about war, but he is not a traitor to his country. Which is good, because Martin is a fake, and the whole scene on the boat has been a test of Barrett’s loyalty. And he has passed with flying colours. But the theft from Station 3 is quite real, and Barrett’s skills are required in tracking down the perpetrators and retrieve the chemical weapons.

And to the title of the film. What is the Satan Bug? It is a new toxin that when it is released into the atmosphere will kill all living things on the planet. And from Station 3, the two flasks of the deadly virus in existence have been stolen.

Soon after the virus is stolen a telegram arrives with an ominous message:
“Mankind must abolish war.
Or war will abolish mankind.
I have what you are looking for.
Order your citadel of the Anti-Christ destroyed.
The President will immediately announce compliance.
To prove that I am to be obeyed, there will be an incident.”

The incident takes place in Florida, and a large portion of the community is wiped out. Dead bodies litter the streets. The terrorists ring once more. This time, they threaten to release the virus in Los Angeles. From then on it is a deadly race against time to track down the terrorist and find where they have hidden the flask of deadly toxin.

As I mentioned earlier, the film does not feature any big name stars, but the ensemble of character actors do a top rate job. Apart from George Maharis as Barrett, the film features Anne Francis as Ann, Edward Asner as Veretti, Richard Basehart as Hoffman, Dana Andrews as General Williams, and Richard Bull as Cavanaugh.

The music for The Satan Bug is by Jerry Goldsmith, and it will come as no surprise that it is really very good. It is tense and atmospheric. Not quite as jazzy and melodic as some of his scores (like Our Man Flint), but none-the-less it works very well and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The Satan Bug is an excellent spy thriller. It is such a pity that it is not more readily available or widely known.

As far as I am aware, The Satan Bug is not available on DVD. However VHS copies are still available from various sources on the internet.

The Satan Bug (1965)