Wet Job

Angela Browne and David Woodward

 

Wet Job is a 1981 TV movie and the last outing for Edward Woodward’s Callan, the touchiest secret operative British TV ever produced.

Callan is a version of Harry Palmer of Ipcress File fame, a working class lad forced out of the army for insubordination and then picked up by the secret service because of his special set of skills. If Palmer was designed as the anti-007, Callan is another rung down on the ladder – there’s no glamour to the man, and he has absolutely no pride in his work, which is killing people. Callan is on TV rather than the big screen too.

Palmer reported to a dowdy office front; Callan’s controls use a scrap metal business as their cover. Low though the status-conscious Callan is, there is an even lower rung, and that’s occupied by Lonely, his sometime gopher and ace safebreaker, so-called because of his tendency to fart when frightened, and Callan frightens him.

The show ran from 1967 to 1972 and was originated and written by James Mitchell (who’d later create When the Boat Comes In, which couldn’t be more different). It became a movie in 1974, in that period when any British TV show with any sort of profile got a movie spinoff – US money had moved out and the empty film studios were desperate.

And then in 1981, with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People having proved there was life in the old spy dog yet, this farewell. And what a mixed bag it is. Lacking the distinctive “swinging lightbulb” of the opening credits (you can see it here on YouTube), it’s all shot on video tape and so as sharp as cotton wool. But it wastes little time in re-introducing us to Callan, now lodging with man-hungry Margaret Channing (Angela Browne), at a drinks party where we’re reminded of the USP of the series – the extraordinarily chippy David Callan.

Character re-established, the retired Callan is hauled out of his militaria shop by another of the superior officer-class controls – all called Hunter, this one played by Hugh Walters – and put on a job to assassinate a writer about to name names (Callan’s included) in a tell-all book he’s writing to get back at the establishment. Explaining Callan to an underling, Hunter opines, ”He really is frightfully good… The most efficient killer that we ever had.”

 

Callan fires a gun
Callan: the reluctant but ruthlessly efficient killer

 

In a Tinker Tailor-ish subplot, the niece of Callan’s landlady is trying to get her lover, a Czech professor, out from behind the Iron Curtain. Quite how she and the writer of the book (played by George Sewell) fall into each other’s orbits slightly evaded me (and I watched this only last night) but they do, and nor do I entirely buy the idea of all parties finding themselves suitably positioned for a big-finale shootout at a half-demolished stately home, but they do.

It barely matters, because nothing in this film really matters apart from Edward Woodward. In quite markedly delineated circles of excellence we have Woodward at the centre, every line reading a joy to watch and listen to. He has something of Michael Caine’s magnetic quality. Moving out from there we have Lonely (the excellent Russell Hunter). Angela Browne and George Sewell are superbly efficient, but here on out things go bad, with side characters (the activist associates of the niece etc) played by actors who seem under-rehearsed, all trying to compress more dialogue into scenes than there is time for. And SHOUTING.

Again, it barely matters. Watch it for the zeitgeisty scene in which a woman apologises to a man for not having had an orgasm (now he would more likely be apologising to her). Watch it for the interplay between Callan and Lonely. But most of all watch it for Woodward, who’d resurface four years later in The Equalizer (more recently inhabited by Denzel Washington), a US show with money to burn, but which lacked Callan’s sour piss tang.

 

 

Wet Job – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

The Wicker Man

The wicker man in The Wicker Man

 

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

 

 

21 December

 

 

The Southern Solstice

Today is the Southern solstice. If you are in the northern hemisphere, it marks the point at which the sun rises least above the horizon. If you are in the southern hemisphere, it is midsummer, longest day of the year. And correspondingly the shortest in the north. Towards the equator the effect is minimal, with day and night length tending to match each other the whole year through. But in London, where I am writing this, it means the sun will come up a handful of minutes after 8am and set just before 4pm. Tomorrow, the 22 December, the day will be one second longer than today. The day after, 8 seconds, the day after that, 14 seconds. By New Year’s Day there will be a whole extra minute of daylight. Though this being London doesn’t mean there’s any guarantee we’ll see it.

 

 

 

The Wicker Man (1973, dir: Robin Hardy)

So how about a film about the solstice? It stars Edward Woodward as prudish Christian police officer Sergeant Howie, arriving on a remote Scottish island to investigate a missing child. What he finds there shocks him to his core – a pagan community that has reverted to “the old ways”, a society in which women have a remarkable fondness for shedding their clothes, where festivals are celebrated by feasting, ritual, music and dance. Where death seems to be viewed more as an opportunity for rebirth rather than as the final curtain. As the copper blunders about, exploding with apoplexy every time he finds something his strict morality cannot compute, he is, unawares, being carefully groomed for an event which delivers one of the best knockout finales of any horror film ever. If you have seen The Wicker Man before and are slightly hesitant about watching it again, can I nudge you towards the most recent assemblage. Put together in 2013, it restores a lot of the material cut in order to turn the film into something more conventional, in an attempt to get a reluctant public to watch it in 1973. But which destroyed it. So there’s a lot more music and singing – and you can almost go along with director Robin Hardy’s assertion that the film is in fact a musical (almost). There is a lot more nudity and paganism. Most important of all, there are a lot more reaction shots from the locals, the cold stares that greet Sergeant Howie as he officiously goes about his business. It’s understandable why they were cut – there are so many of them – but these “fuck you” shots really add to the mood, to the sense of this man being an outsider, that the uniform means nothing if the people it’s meant to awe just aren’t awed. There is a good discussion about why this “final cut” isn’t definitive here on rogerebert.com, but for my money this is a much better film than the last go at it, about ten years ago. Now, almost back to the way Hardy intended it, the most infrequent of directors (three films in 40 years, one a sequel to The Wicker Man) gave it this seal of approval – “The film as I saw it in the editing suite the other day fulfills my vision of what it was intended to convey to the audience.” There is some wriggle room in that statement for an even more complete version, if missing footage ever shows up, but for the moment, this is it. As for Neil LaBute’s remake, starring Nicolas Cage, it’s a nice try, and the feminist angle is interesting, but it just doesn’t come close.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Passionate advocate of the film Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
  • Anthony Shaffer’s bullish on-the-nose script
  • This is the perfect role for Woodward – blinding fury a specialty
  • For “pagan” read “hippie” – the British view on the whole “letting it all hang out” thing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Wicker Man: The Final Cut – at Amazon