The General

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

12 February

Art thieves steal Munch’s The Scream, 1994

On this day in 1994, thieves broke into the National Gallery, Oslo, and stole the Edvard Munch painting The Scream. It is actually one of a number of so-named works of art, there being four different Screams in a variety of media, plus a number of lithographic prints struck by Munch himself. The one stolen on the night in question was in tempera on cardboard and was in a less secure part of the gallery – it had been moved as part of celebrations held to mark the opening of the winter Olympics in Lillehammer, which had been taking place on the second floor. The thieves left a note: “thanks for the poor security” and later followed up with a ransom demand of $1 million. The painting was recovered in May after a joint operation by Norwegian Police, the British police’s SO10 unit and the Getty Museum.

The General (1998, dir: John Boorman)

Cinema loves a gentleman rogue, and in the shape of charmer Martin Cahill that’s exactly what we have here. Add to that basic formula the fact that the career criminal is a loquacious Irishman, played here by Brendan Gleeson, and the combination is doubly potent.

Shooting in black and white for reasons of cost but also because there’s enough colour in the character to fill the frame, director and writer John Boorman tells the story of the professional thief who operated in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, tantalising the police, irritating the IRA, beguiling with one hand while he pilfered with the other. Boorman had himself been burgled by Cahill, and includes the heist here (it’s the one where Cahill steals a gold record off a wall – the one Boorman had won for the soundtrack of Deliverance). And it can’t escape notice that Boorman, like so many, seems enthralled by a man who could be brutal, but was so intelligent, devious and had such a sense of personal integrity that he stirred up protective feelings even in those he’d harmed. Enter Jon Voight, as copper Ned Kenny, the sheriff of Nottingham to Cahill’s Robin Hood, a hard-bitten professional cop who’s seen it all, but not the way Cahill does it (one alibi includes Cahill actually being in the company of the cop when he was meant to have been pulling a bank job). Enter also the two sisters (Maria Doyle and Angeline Ball) Cahill shares his house with, married to one, sleeping with the other. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to pull that off, as does the theft of an Old Master which Boorman shows us in full detail. Cahill eventually ran foul of the IRA, who couldn’t abide that he operated outside their jurisdiction, and it is that ugly denouement that brings Boorman’s film to an end.

The General won Boorman a best director award at Cannes, but this vastly entertaining film remains oddly overlooked, doubtless because some people are resistant to films in black and white. If that sounds like you and you must have colour, check out Ordinary Decent Criminal, a film from 2000 about Cahill’s escapades which stars Kevin Spacey as another, slightly more fictionalised, version of the man himself. Just don’t expect it to be as funny or as fleet of foot.

Why Watch?

  • Boorman won best director at Cannes
  • Boorman’s immersive screenplay makes you work out things for yourself
  • A mighty Brendan Gleeson performance
  • DP Seamus Deasy’s rich monochrome cinematography

The General – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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