Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video 18th December 2017
Director Mike Hodges has a pretty eclectic body of work. He’s someone who’s told dark stories about crime and death… but also worked on music videos with Freddy Mercury. You don’t have to be a major cinephile to have noticed the differences between the oppressive, bleak underworld of Get Carter and the garish, eye searing vistas of Flash Gordon. These are household names with distinct tones and noticeable variations in style. But what of his less well known projects? What happens when a sinister detective story is handled with a lighter touch? Despite this being another picture from Michael Caine’s heyday and a release that was regarded by author J.G. Ballard as something special, it’s certainly a movie that is less talked about in the decades since. Is this is forgotten classic or does the distance between comedy and thriller just feel too vast?
As the title suggests, Mickey King (Caine) makes his living writing cheap paperback thrillers about gangsters and sadists. They’re full of trashy sex and violence, the kind of thing that gets his publisher hot under the collar and makes the girls in the typing pool blush. The opening scene sets up the sense of humour that the story is going for, as King’s own dry dictation comes through their earphones. He wants to sell this sort of thing, but has no time to sit at a typewriter himself. He’s a man of leisure, and is enjoying life in a nondescript Mediterranean country (Malta, named only in a closing credit) having quit his job as a funeral director and left his worries, and his family, behind him. Odd details and half truths begin to appear early on.
His writing style is noted by the titles of the stories and the various pseudonyms he employs. Books like ‘My Gun is Long’ and ‘Kill Me Gently’ written under aliases like ‘Guy Strange’ and ‘S. Ódomi’… it’s not a particularly classy venture to say the least. The silly sense of humour and the voice over narration continue as the story progresses, sometimes it’s crass and at other times it’s rather dry and likeable. ‘I got out of bed… that was my first mistake’ King remarks, as he becomes entangled in a mystery involving a reclusive figure who wants him to ghost-write a biography. Why all the secrecy, and what has this all to do with the tense local elections and the obvious people keeping tabs on him?
Outside blending the sight gags and wry comments with a plot about assassins and political figureheads, the most appealing parts of the tale are those which play up the themes of life versus fiction. King is frequently involved with oddball characters straight out of his own writing, and he later meets other personalities living outside the real world in their own fantasies. He also narrates in a way which is sometimes at odds with the visuals being presented. If anything this surreal aspect should have been pushed further to the increase unreal comic atmosphere. In this regard the best supporting role is a mysterious Englishman (Dennis Price) who occasionally drops in to insult rude tourists and quote Lewis Carroll. But his Mad-Hatter-esque appearance in the second act is far to brief and lacks real connections to the main narrative, which is a shame.
The likes of suspicious bus passenger Miller (Al Lettieri) and brusque middle-man Dinuccio (Lionel Stander) fill out the familiar faces in the cast, although there are many other eccentric inclusions. Caine himself is a bit restrained as the sceptical author, who always has shady characters on his tail or odd people coincidentally bumping into him. As a protagonist he’s a product of his time, someone who beds beautiful women after meeting them seconds earlier, scoffs without sympathy at transvestites, and sports a terrible pair of gigantic sunglasses in most scenes. It’s not the most likeable combination. The voice over often feels a little too laid back when things become rather perilous, and as a result it sometimes contributes to the humour, but sometimes feels out of place.
Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney) produces a similar effect on his arrival, offering some laughs while feeling rather grating in certain scenes. He’s an isolated ex-movie star who wants to be an attention grabbing comedian, but loves to feel like a figure with gangster connections that go beyond his screen roles. The bad hair, the outfits and the attitude all portray a rather sad and pathetic individual that plays into the idea of people living in dream worlds, but the sequences at his island retreat are some of the most lethargic. The lines drawn between actors and characters, authors and fiction, and thrillers and comedy are frequently blurred. Things work best when they involve spies and murder attempts, and less when they introduce weirdly dubbed clairvoyants and elderly mothers with hearing problems.
Visually the film is constructed with far more precision, offering a variety of European city scenes and wealthy estates. The local detail and the shot composition is often striking with family get togethers, poolside meetings and political unrest offering plenty of chances for great framing. Foul language is accidentally displayed by parade attendants carrying letters, and huge bedroom mirrors conceal… more mirrors. Killers dressed as priests stand in police line ups, and corpses bob in crimson bathwater. The overall sense of style is always present, and it’s accentuated by a lot of ’70s fashion and a few good synthesized beats from score composer George Martin.
Overall there are a lot of ideas presented that contrast with each other, some with better results than others. For Michael Caine aficionados it’s an essential, but on its original release just one year after Get Carter it must have been a let down. There’s a line between twisted black comedy and the stark coldness of a conspiracy storyline that it often steps over. In some instances it’s juvenile, and in others it’s enjoyably glib. For me the final reveals are all a bit too bleak to keep the sense of levity going during the last few scenes. Fans of irreverent detective stories will find plenty to enjoy, but at times it becomes rather patchy and doesn’t quite hang together after a stronger first hour. It could do with less odd tangents and more focus. But even so there is a lot of wit, subtext and overt style to get your teeth into — so it lives up to the title at least.
ARROW VIDEO SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
• Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements, supervised and approved by director of photography Ousama Rawi, produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release
• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
• Original 1.0 mono sound
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Brand-new interview with writer-director Mike Hodges
• Brand-new interview with director of photography Ousama Rawi
• Brand-new interview with assistant director John Glen
• Brand-new interview with Tony Klinger, son of producer Michael Klinger
• Original theatrical trailer
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet containing new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas