THE BLACK WINDMILL—–Michael Caine and/or Donald Pleasence fans, raise a pint if you’ve seen this one. Drinking three or four might make watching this 1974 tortoise less soporific as it crawls to a so-what? finish at minute 106. Directed by Don Siegel, someone who ordinarily knew his way around suspense, action and guiding performances, but the zest and finesse he usually brought to his homegrown efforts mostly went AWOL when he ventured to Britain on this assignment. In his review, Roger Ebert quoted producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown: ” We made a picture called ‘The Black Windmill,’ ” Brown sighed. “It was a total flop,” said Zanuck. “How did we go wrong?” asked Brown. “It had everything,” Zanuck said. “It was a spy movie with a kidnaping angle, and it starred Michael Caine, and we had Don Siegel as our director.” They stared into their coffee cups. “How in the world,” Brown said at last, “can you have a thriller starring Michael Caine, directed by Don Siegel, and not make money?”
The young son of a British intelligence agent (Caine) is kidnapped by parties unknown; the ransom demand is for diamonds held by Caine’s department to employ in their fight with the IRA and some terrorist group. Suspects shift, allegiances are tested: Caine decides to use his skill-set to go after the crooks on his own. Others in play include his emotionally cracking ex-wife (Janet Suzman), and his fidgety, supercilious boss (Pleasence). The chief baddies are John Vernon (miscast) and Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie). While this might not be Our Man Caine’s worst movie (among a host of stinkers), somehow whatever mix of elements—the lousy material, slack direction from Siegel, general disinterest or too much vodka—provided what just might be Caine’s most somnolent performance. His son’s kidnapped and he’s about as upset as if he lost a tie? And who doesn’t like Michael Caine?
Suzman, so effective in Nicholas And Alexandra, is all over the place here (plus the character’s behavior is poorly conceived by the script) and with her super-intense eyes and cut-to-hurt hair, both color & style, she constantly evokes Jessica Walter from Play Misty For Me, so there’s not much sympathy going down from her end. Decent work comes from ever-dependable Pleasence, who manages to keep you guessing about his manners and motives, and especially courtesy French icon Seyrig. It’s a toss-off role for her, way below her talent grade, but whipsmart and tres sexy, she nails it. Her sudden exit is so jarring and clumsily handled it throws off the pace, and the few action sequences, such as they are—boring talk dominates—are not just highly unlikely, they’re poorly handled.
It does start decently, with a nifty credits sequence, and moves along with a modicum of interest for a good while, thanks to the cast, but then the count of the logic holes piles up (they’re there from the start, you find upon reflection) and it eventually deflates. Critics were not impressed, nor was the public, who only laid out $1,600,000, windmilling it into 111th place among the releases from ’74. *
With Joseph O’Conor, Joss Ackland, Clive Revill, Hermione Baddeley.
* 1974 produced a bumper crop of crime thrillers, ranging from superb to sorry. In the positive ledger—The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, Death Wish, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, Murder On The Orient Express, Freebie And The Bean, The Longest Yard, The Parallax View. Mid-range items include The Man With The Golden Gun, The Sugarland Express, Mr.Majestyk (hey, be careful with those melons!), The Odessa File, Foxy Brown, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Truck Turner. Joining the tilt of The Black Windmill into either treading water or sinking with a “glub!” are Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (bring me the vanished grip on reality of Sam Peckinpah), McQ, Thieves Like Us (sorry, Altman disciples), The Klansman (nadir for both Richard Burton and Lee Marvin), Report To The Commissioner, Newman’s Law, The Midnight Man, The Super Cops, Crazy Joe, Golden Needles, and The Marseilles Contract (also with Mr. Caine).