The Chairman (1969)

AKA: The Most Dangerous Man In The World
Country: United Kingdom / United States
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, Anne Heywood, Arthur Hill, Alan Dobie, Francisca Tu, Ori Levy, Zienia Merton, Conrad Yama, Keye Luke, Burt Kwouk, Eric Young
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Based on the novel by Jay Richard Kennedy

Gregory Peck and director, J. Lee Thompson had worked together on a few very successful projects. Firstly was The Guns Of Navarone which was a critical and commercial success. Then there was the original Cape Fear (with Robert Mitchum). After that came MacKenna’s Gold which was quite successful in it’s day — however I think it’s a jumbled mess. But they had the runs on the board so I guess it’s no surprise that they’d team up again. The vehicle they chose was an overly plotted spy thriller called The Chairman.

The film begins with a jet whizzing through the sky on route to Hong Kong. On board is Dr. John Hathaway (Gregory Peck). A stewardess takes away his empty glass and out of sight, wraps it gently in a serviette and tucks it into her carry on luggage. Coincidentally, the actress playing the stewardess is Mai Ling, who you may remember as Mei-Lei, the stewardess in Goldfinger (just before Bond is introduced to Pussy Galore). Mai Ling also had an uncredited part in You Only Live Twice as one of the ‘bath girls’. The film then cuts away to a top secret US research facility and two men from opposing sides of the cold war. They are Russian General Alexander Shertov (Ori Levy) and American General Shelby (Arthur Hill). They are jointly overseeing and operation codenamed Minotaur. The operation has in fact already started and the agent involved is Hathaway. Implanted into his head (ouch), Hathaway has a tiny transmitter, and during a break in the aircraft’s bathroom he relays his report.

The film then flashes back to some time earlier – we are never really given a time frame. Hathaway is a science professor in London who receives a letter from an old colleague, Professor Soong Li, who has been stationed in China for the last ten years. The letter says that Hathaway will not be able to visit him anymore. Since Hathaway had never visited his colleague, and didn’t have plans to do so in the near future, the communiqué seemed rather suspicious. Hathaway relays his suspicions to the authorities.

But once upon a time, before he was a Nobel Prize winning science professor, Hathaway was an OSS agent, and his message to the authorities has him called in front of General Shelby. Shelby is an old school hard-ass, and to prove it, he is missing an eye – and he has a scar to go with it which indicates he lost it in combat. Now he wears glasses with one darkened lens covering the missing eye. I guess it’s a modern take on the eye patch. Anyway, Shelby’s hard and doesn’t like Hathaway, but he has his orders from higher up, so he shows Hathaway some top secret footage. The first scenes show a wheat field in a hot humid jungle location in China. Next is footage shot in Tibet of a pineapple plantation on a cold icy mountain. It is surmised that the Chinese have genetically modified the crops so that climate has little or no effect on what is grown and where. Now this may not seem like your average threat from the Red Chinese, but once the third world countries hear about this miracle ‘enzyme’, they will gladly kow-tow to the Chinese leaving America and the USSR discarded in their wake. Hathaway’s mission is to go to China a retrieve a sample of the enzyme.

Now this is year the film gets a little bit convoluted. Naturally, back in 1969, an American could not just go to China. China was very much closed off to the rest of the world. It was very hard for a westerner to get a visa. But Hathaway can go to Hong Kong, which is under British rule. Once there he receives a phone call in his hotel room. He is to meet the mysterious caller — Mr Yin (Eric Young) — at a nightclub, which is half brothel, half casino. At this point it is worth noting if you are watching the US 20th Century Fox DVD version (and at this time it’s not available in too many other formats) then you will have the opportunity to watch alternative – or international versions of some of the scenes in Hong Kong. The US version seems to be heavily censored, whereas the international version features more nudity. Now I feel this is important — not because I am a randy old pervert — but because it presents an interesting contrast against the strict and possibly oppressive regime in China at that time, with Hong Kong which, although is a Chinese community, is under western (British) control. So the West is depicted as being rather decadent.

But back to the story. Hathaway meets a Chinese official named Yin who grants Hathaway a visa to China. Now you’re probably thinking, why would the Chinese grant Hathaway a visa. He is no doubt a spy — Why? But as previously mentioned Hathaway is also a Nobel Prize winning scientist and the Chinese haven’t worked all the bugs out of their enzyme project. So they want Hathaway in China for his knowledge. So the Chinese want Hathaway in China — the Americans and the Russians want Hathaway in China. It appears that everybody wants Hathaway in China except Hathaway.

Needless to say Hathaway goes to China and is greeted as almost a celebrity. Hundreds of people (possibly thousands) greet him at the airport — all of them waving red flags, or placards with images of Mao, or even little red books. Soon after, Hathaway is spirited off to meet Mao himself where — over a game of Ping pong — they discuss their differing opinions on humanity and the global implications and distribution of the enzyme.

The Chairman can be looked at in three ways. The first is as a travelogue and snapshot of the times (although much of the Asian footage was shot in Taiwan). On this level the film is first rate. As a time capsule and a throwback to the late sixties this film is quite an eye opener. Added to that, most spy films at the time featured the Russians as the enemy. It is quite unusual to see the Red Chinese as a villain (villain may not be the right word in this instant – but you know what I mean!).

Next if you are a spy film nut (like yours truly), then The Chairman serves up a great smorgasbord of spy talent. Starting with Gregory Peck — let’s face it, Peck was pretty good whatever genre he tackled, but he put in a few good performances in spy films. I particularly like Arabesque. I have already mentioned Mai Ling, but then there is Keye Luke as Professor Soong Li. Luke had a very long career, coming to prominence as Number One son in early Charlie Chan adventures, but his espionage credentials are solid appearing in I Spy, The FBI, Hawaii Five-O, and The Amsterdam Kill. Someone with even more strings to his bow, as far as espionage shows go is Burt Kwouk — who to me will always be Cato from Peter Sellers Pink panther films, but her appeared in The Saint, the Avengers, Jason King, Callan and the list goes on. Another character actor appearing as Yin is Eric Young — now if you saw Young you may not recognise him, but you would recognise his voice. He too, was a jobbing actor also appearing in The Saint, Jason King, Strange Report and a few Fu Manchu films.

The third way you can look at The Chairman is solely as a spy thriller, and this is where the film really lets itself down. As a positive it has an interesting and possibly even modern approach to surveillance — some aspects of this film are almost like Patriot Games and Peacemaker, with the immediate access to intel and the department heads are able to make their decisions based on that information. But the truth be told this film is very discerningly paced (a polite way of saying slow, with very little action) for the first three quarters of its running time. The last twenty minutes though, is really quite good, and manages to build up some tension and excitement, but I fear most viewers will have either turned off or have lost interest in the story by this stage.

But as you may have gathered, I didn’t think this film was too bad, but then I’m the type who thrives on this sort of thing. If you aren’t a spy film junky, then you may find this film clunky.

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The Chairman (1969)

Arabesque (1965)

Directed by Stanley Donen
Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel, John Merivale, Kieron Moore
Music by Henry Mancini
Based on the novel, The Cypher by Gordon Cotler

Arabesque is one of my favourite spy films from the sixties. It is flawed, but still a great thrill ride from go to whoa. Director Stanley Donen had just scored a box office hit with Charade and followed it up with this, another glossy thriller in the same vein. In fact, the role of Professor David Pollack was written for Cary Grant. Somehow the deal must have fallen through. Instead we get Gregory Peck as Pollack, an American Professor of languages at Oxford University in London. Peck is very good in the role, but the dialogue was clearly written for Grant.

After one of his colleagues is killed, Pollack is approached by the malevolent Major Sylvester Pennington Sloane (John Merivale), a henchman for the villainous Nagim Beshraavi (Alan Badel). They want Pollack to use his knowledge of ancient languages to decode a tiny piece of paper with an ancient inscription on it. Pollack refuses and walks off, but is soon plucked off the street by a speeding Rolls Royce. Inside is the President of Egypt, Hussan Jena (Carl Duering), who asks Pollack to reconsider the offer, as it is a matter of great international importance to find out what Beshraavi is up to.

Jena is a respected man, so Pollack accepts the ‘mission’ and ends up at the mansion where Beshraavi is staying. For his trouble, Pollack is locked in a room and forced to try and decode the inscription, which proves difficult. The mansion happens to belong to Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), who is as much a captive in her own home as Pollack is.

After a comedic interlude, where Pollack hides in Yasmin’s shower, she warns him that Beshraavi killed his colleague and will kill him too, once he has deciphered the transcription. Pollack hides the code in a chocolate wrapper and escapes, using Yasmin as a willing hostage. One of Beshraavi’s henchmen follows and captures Pollack and Yasmin in an aquarium. The henchman ends up being overpowered at the last minute by a man claiming to be a Police officer, but in fact works for Yussef Kasim (Kieron Moore) the original owner of the coded transcription.

Things turn from bad to worse when it turns out Yasmin is also working for Yussef Kasim. They drug Pollack with a hallucinogen hoping he’ll reveal the whereabouts of the code he has hidden. In a way he does, but due to the drugs, no-one understands his gibberish. Pollack somehow manages to escape, and despite being ‘out of his brain’, manages to cycle to freedom.

As I mentioned at the top, Peck is fine as Pollack, and Sophia Loren is excellent as the Femme Fatale, playing all the sides and all the men off against each other. Although sex is only hinted at, it is clear she has slept with all three main protagonists. It is only at the end, that where her real loyalties lay is revealed. She also gets to showcase a very flashy wardrobe.

Alan Badel is very good as the villain Beshraavi, with a cool line in understated menace. In contrast to your modern day psychopathic villain, Badel doesn’t have to rant and rave to be feared. He is calm, and his words have weight, and he is all the more menacing because of it.

Arabesque has all the right elements for a successful swingin’ sixties spy film. At the top there’s Maurice Binder’s multicoloured, swirling title credits, coupled with another great score by Henry Mancini. The visual style too, is impressive. It’s a quasi psychedelic trip, shots framed in the reflections of a grille of a Rolls Royce, or through a chandelier, or even fish tanks at an aquarium. The distorted opening at an optometrists lets you know the type of ride you are in for, and it doesn’t let up. Special mention should go to the humorous drug induced bike ride that Pollack makes to escape from his captors. This is one swinging slice of psychedelic film-making, but one that, thankfully, still keeps the story intact.

This review is based on the Universal Pictures UK DVD.

Arabesque (1965)