by Dean Brandum
Where did it all go wrong for Oliver Reed? The 1960s had promised so much for the actor and the audience and his early turns in such Hammer fare as Brigand of Kandahar (1965), Curse of the Werewolf (1965) and Paranoiac (1963) had delivered a glimpse of a most assured screen presence. Perhaps brutish but undoubtedly handsome, his smouldering and slightly swarthy good looks kept in check the emotional anguish ready to explode from deep within his barrel-like burl. Among the cardboard contrivances of the Hammer romps, Reed, even in silly costume, provided a vitality to the material of an actor definitely a product of the present. Without the stage affectations of his peers and (at least in persona) neither a chinless chap nor a victim of early 60s kitchen-sink miserablism, Reed carried the swagger and cynicism of a young man who knew the game, who was on the up, who had the flash motor and the smashing birds. And yet, rather than revelling in his success, the Reed characters of the period find themselves poisoned by materialism, the artifice and emptiness of 1960s Britain. In only a matter of years Reed shuffled between the low rent of Hammer, the zeitgeist grabbing likes of Michael Winner and the restrained phase of Ken Russell when the director’s period adaptations and biopics were actually praised by the critical establishment.
Generally, it is regarded that Reed’s best film of the 1960s is Russell’s Women in Love (1969) an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel in which the actor played the homosexual Gerald Critch. At his brooding, subdued best, Reed is a match for his highly trained co-stars, Alan Bates and Glenda Jackson (the latter winning an Academy Award for her performance). Arty it may have been but, along with a pair of earlier Russell TV projects, it was apparent that the actor could move effortlessly between the commercial and the marginal, although ironically Women in Love proved to be his most commercially successful endeavour of the period. The Winner period, on the whole, established his box-office clout, at least at home. The System (1964), I’ll Never Forget What’s-isname (1967) and The Jokers (1967) were all popular performers that exposed uglier side of swinging London. The Winner film’s also allowed Reed to show his flair for subtle comedy; the actor well aware that his physical appearance only required the mildest cheeky contrast to break any tonal tension. However domestic success would no longer ensure a long career for a British film star. With British film finances so intrinsically linked to American backing and stateside release, the British star of the 1960s needed to find appeal abroad or else suffocate at home.
The American studios had a long-established presence in Britain, their most important foreign market. Yet as popular as Hollywood product was in the UK, the return flow was far from equal. In fact it was barely a trickle. If British films were screened at all in the United States during the heady days of 1930s-1950s they either filled the B-slots on double features or took root in art houses with occasional, but marginal, success. It took until the 1960s for genuine cross-over appeal to occur. In quick succession the Bonds, Tom Jones, the Beatles, Alfie and Georgy Girl were all breakout hits and it didn’t take long for the Hollywood executives to realise that these modestly produced, vibrant efforts had hit a chord with the American public. At this same time other national cinemas were making their presence felt in the American market as French, Italian and Swedish features captured critical acclaim and a widening box-office interest. Was it the quality of the these imports that accounted for their popularity or the fact that Hollywood productions looked decidedly tired and old-fashioned in comparison? Not to mention their escalating costs were seldom being recuperated at an indifferent box-office.
As a consequence, Hollywood upped its investment in foreign production, with an emphasis on British film. Of all the studios, MGM, by their very nature, were the most conservative in their production slate. Cheap but popular Miss Marples and dull but expensive Anthony Asquith-directed middlebrow nonsense. After an early presence at Denham studios in the late 1930s, MGM took over the lease of Borehamwood Studios in 1948 and a number of British-set films followed, generally of the costume variety. By the mid – 1960s when contemporary British productions were in vogue, MGM gave us The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964). Hardly edgy stuff there. Thankfully, Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) was a superb film but barely scraped together an audience. Where Eagles Dare (1968) did, something also managed by a pair of productions too unusual to be associated with the studio – Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But any revenue returned from those investments was quickly wiped with an ill-advised musical remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). With the parent company in near-financial ruin the doors to Borehamwood were shut and MGM quickly formed an alliance with EMI, subsidising the company with co-productions and distribution deals. The success rate was, to be kind, quite mixed.
As MGM were finding the going tough at Borehamwood, Oliver Reed had his first blockbuster hit with a supporting role in his Uncle Carol’s adaptation of the stage musical Oliver! (1968). Providing Reed with international exposure, the film was a roadshow smash and managed to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Yet in the year of Rosemary’s Baby, 2001, Faces, Bullitt, Rachel, Rachel, If…, Charge of the Light Brigade, The Boston Strangler and Poor Cow among the English language films eligible for nomination (let’s not even bother with listing the splendid foreign flicks on offer), that the rank throw-back to an earlier era should be voted by the establishment as the worthiest film of the year should have made Oliver Reed’s management extremely nervous. For an actor so of his present it seemed as if the Academy were hell-bent on turning back the clock. Indeed, one may think that Oliver! was an MGM production, with its determination to avoid any reference to concerns of the present, but the fact it was popular should dispel that notion. Oliver! was released by Columbia a company with thrifty origins that had survived the difficulties of the early 1950s and had thrived into the next decade. Of all the Hollywood studios it was probably Columbia that best utilised the foray into Britain. By tendering out its productions to independent producers they may have had less share of profits, but also negated much of the risk (not to mention the costly overheads). A number of expensive ‘prestige’ productions were made in this manner, including Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and A Man for All Seasons (1966) which were financial and critical triumphs. They also had a timeless, classical quality unlike some of Columbia’s attempts to embrace all things swinging in London – Casino Royale (1967), anyone? On the other hand, Columbia were responsible for two of the most audience-pleasing swinging London films, Georgy Girl and To Sir With Love (both 1966). Recent viewings of both films only confirm that for all their happening affectations, they were as artistically conservative as the company’s period pieces. Less celebrated but far more interesting to this viewer were several of Columbia’s smaller British productions, such as The Reckoning (1969) and Ten Rillington Place (1969), which stripped away any veneer of overt parochial identity to focus on character development and narrative tension. Nicol Williamson stars in The Reckoning as a ruthless executive forced to return to his dreary hometown of Liverpool when told his father has been bashed to death outside of a pub. Reconciling his past, reconnecting with his family and willed into the role of avenger, his regeneration does not lead to him forgoing his high-flying lifestyle. For he was well aware of its nihilistic nature to begin with. Instead, he returns to London rejuvenated. He committed a killing and now he was going to make a killing in business. It is the pragmatic, clear-headed cousin to I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname that is devoid of Winner’s trendiness and patronising redemption.
In 1969 Oliver Reed should have been starring in something akin to The Reckoning to break from his swinging London ghetto and to prove he was capable of carrying a feature that had neither Winner nor Russell behind the camera. The story is apparently true that when Reed was later leaving to make a film in America, Richard Harris sent him a pair of crutches – on one was inscribed “Ken Russell” and on the other, “Glenda Jackson”. The accompanying note said “You are going to need these”. 1969 of course was the year of Women in Love but for strictly commercial purposes Reed was dicking about on the mildly amusing but inconsequential romp, The Assassination Bureau, a period comedy which may have been a better film than that year’s The Best House in London, but to those that have seen the David Hemmings bordello farce, such praise is thin indeed.
By 1971 Hollywood had all but pulled out of Britain and with them went the foundations on which the British film industry had relied for the best part of a decade. Reed had two choices – firstly he could depart for America and reinvent himself as a Hollywood leading man. This would require skill, determination and good behaviour and sadly, Reed only possessed the first of those qualities. But what hope would he have had anyway? The British stars who had decamped over the previous decade were hardly faring well. Caine had endured almost nothing but flops since the last Harry Palmer thriller; Connery was struggling without a martini; Burton (and Taylor for that matter) were in box-office freefall; Harris was more notable for being a pain in the arse than for his actual work on screen and O’Toole’s career had obviously peaked with his first starring role. Britain was no longer flavour of the month and its performers were sliding off the A-list as a result. Indeed, after a decade in which its homegrown product appeared inert, old-fashioned and inordinately costly, American cinema was revitalised in the late 60s by a group of new filmmakers, the abolition of the Production Code and a generation of young stars. Hoffman, Beatty, Dunaway, Redford and a little later, Hackman, Pacino and De Niro pushed out those foreigners that had filled the void when the post WW2 stars’ appeal began to wane with audiences.
To my mind, there was no place for Reed in the United States in 1970, his opportunity missed by about five years. His other choice was to stay in Britain and enjoy being the biggest fish in an ever-evaporating pond. And this was what he did, even proclaiming that “I am the British film industry”. To a degree this was true, as he was the only major star still based in his homeland, but he had to suffer increasing competition from the flood of expats returning home in search of a good script and the career boost that would go with it. O’Toole was home for Under Milkwood and was gearing up for The Ruling Class (1972) and Connery would soon cross the Atlantic for The Offence (1972). Yet it was the stripped-down British arm of MGM that managed to lure back two of the brightest names back from Hollywood for a most remarkable pair of films. In 1971 the company released Villain and Get Carter starring, respectively, Richard Burton and Michael Caine. Two of the finest crime films to ever be produced in Britain, it took a number of years for Get Carter to receive due acclaim and to find a well-deserved following. Popularity at the time of its release was never a problem for Villain which was a sizeable hit in Britain (although it did not capture an audience in the US). Unfortunately, as Get Carter’s classic status has been assured, Villian has drifted into a near obscurity in recent years, a critical oversight that really should be rectified.
With all this last-gasp activity in a British film industry that would soon be swamped with horror, sex-comedies and TV spinoffs, Oliver Reed was treading water – a couple of European-shot features (The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun and the western The Hunting Party) aroused little interest and the public only seemed to take notice when Russell came calling, casting him the notorious The Devils (1971). Yes, Russell again. Winner was off Bronsoning in Hollywood by this time and one can only conclude that Reed was floundering; his career only resuscitated by Ken Russell’s casting largesse.
In 1965 Reed made a film titled The Party’s Over, a prophetic title for the star’s career fortunes by the end of such a promising decade. Interestingly, many years later it was revealed that Reed was shortlisted to replace Sean Connery when he first quit as Bond but due to financial considerations they decided upon George Lazenby. I’m far from being a Bond aficionado so I’ll leave the ponderings on his suitability for the role to others, but suffice to say it would have brought the actor international exposure and may have provided the stability and he so desperately lacked in his professional life.
Instead of acting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the on-screen Reed found himself serving at her Majesty’s pleasure. MGM’s success with their crime films of 1971 led the company to greenlight a script by Alexander Jacobs who had written Point Blank for the screen in 1967. Sitting Target (1972) told of a violent career criminal imprisoned for the killing of a security guard during a botched robbery. Facing many years alone, his long-suffering wife tells him their marriage is over and reveals she is pregnant to another man. Enraged, her husband escapes from prison, intent on killing her and her lover. It all sounds promising enough, but do not be fooled. John Boorman has said that when he and Lee Marvin were preparing to film Point Blank, the actor only agreed to make the film after throwing the script out of the hotel window. Boorman then brought in Jacobs and together they worked on the rewrite of what would become a modern classic. One can only presume that Boorman’s contribution was considerable, given the by-the-numbers formula of Sitting Target. Had Marvin been involved I would think this screenplay would have been hurled across the English Channel.
Naturally, Reed plays Harry, with Jill St. John (on a last feature stop before spending the rest of the decade in TV movie purgatory) as Pat. Ian McShane is along for the ride as the younger inmate who makes the break with Reed and Edward Woodward is rather thanklessly and pointlessly cast as Milton, the cop on the case. Frank Finlay, Freddie Jones, Tony Beckley and Robert Beatty round out the support cast as various neer-do-wells.
The performers in the film all do what is asked of them and rise to level of mere adequacy that the project requests. Similarly, the production values also meet such requirements and the director Douglas Hickox gets from the MGM logo to the closing credits without doing himself any disfavour…by hardly making his presence felt at all. It is hard to reconcile that this was the filmmaker responsible for the élan of Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, the black wit of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and the hilarious, high campery of Theatre of Blood. But when handed straight drama, Hickox was a barely a competent journeyman (see Brannigan and Zulu Dawn) and one could only wish that some of the vitality and deft lightness that the director was capable of employing could have been rationed Sitting Target’s way just to enliven the stodge of it all.
But as much as the viewer begs for some shade to the characters, some zest to the narrative and some purposeful visual aesthetic, Sitting Target refuses to deliver. It does not want to, it does not need to. For this is a film made purely to boil pots to. A slate filler, an identifiable, paid up genre member, a one-dimensional programmer for a one-dimensional demographic; unwilling to offer the slightest variation to a tired and worn generic staple, its only compensation for the market is to ensure a requisite number of breasts and moments of quite nasty violence. So calculated and so cynical, Sitting Target’s grim determination to adhere strictly to formula and to employ actors to function as little more than props that are moved about, shaken around and dismissed as the conventions of that formula dictate, causes Sitting Target to be seen today as one of the most depressing examples of British cinema of the 1970s. This is especially so when one considers how the film uses Oliver Reed.
How does it use its star? As a marketing tool. I have nothing against actors playing to type – careers and genres have been built on the backs of such casting and career management. But in those cases it has been a gradual accumulation of an on-screen persona with the baggage past built into the roles and the audiences’ expectations. But in Sitting Target Reed is cast as a one-dimensional thug who is allowed but the briefest moments in which to show any emotion other than rage, a colour-by-numbers characterisation in which any alteration to the single dimension only exists to explain an action about to occur in the most literal definition of narrative cause and effect. If any past baggage was a requirement, the producers of Sitting Target have gone back to the Reed of The Angry Silence and The Bulldog Breed (both 1960) – his early bit parts as stock thugs in which he would menace and brawl.
What happened to the years in-between? Winner, Russell and Bill Sykes all forgotten. It was as if London had ever swung. Hell, even Hammer offered a greater range than what was on offer in Sitting Target. Where is the insouciance, the wry, knowing cynicsm and the voice that delivered even the most inconsequential line with a near-Burton like resonance? All those qualities that had made Reed a star and that carried the essence of a certain strain of British cinema ignored in the effort to cast a barrel-chested hulk driven by the basest of instinct to kill without remorse and consequence. Perhaps his character (and the actor’s screen persona) could be compensated by at least having him feared by his enemies but instead the only fear is of his brutality, otherwise he is played for a fool.
What a worthless role for a fine and talented actor, but even more tragic is the damage done to his professional standing. Having not been asked to carry a British film for several years, Sitting Target, made on the cusp of an industry collapse, needed to be a renewed calling card for the actor to let the industry know that he could cross into the new decade and redefine his persona for a less auspicious period while remaining relevant and commercial. Instead he is reduced to his lowest common denominator – 190lbs of sneer, shooting guns, smashing cars and punching heads. He is lucky he ws male, otherwise it would have been ‘tits out for the lads’ time.
In spite of unanimously poor reviews, Sitting Target did manage a successful four week run at the ABC 1 cinema in Shaftsbury Avenue when released in London on May 5th 1972. Oddly, when it reached here – Melbourne, Australia – on June 8th its title had been changed and only those when the keenest eyes could scan through the credits to find Reed mentioned at all.
Playing at the Metro Collins Street, a once grand palace whose fall from favour mirrored that of the studio whose product it (at the time) played exclusively, Screaming Target lastd one desulutory week.
One June 20th it made it to New York where it was shunted to the bottom of the bill on a double feature with One is a Lonely Number, a story of a divorcee trying to get her life back together. The mix of testosterone and estrogen proved disastrous and the combo was yanked from its showcase run after a dismal week.
Mild success at home and failure abroad. Playing almost concurrently as Sitting Target in Britain was Z.P.G. a futuristic tale in which Reed and Geraldine Chaplin play a couple who defy the state’s ban on children and decide to have one of their own, risking all their lives in the process. At least here Reed gets the chance to attempt a performance, but some shoddy effects work and an overbearing glumness compelled audiences to stay away.
Four of Reed’s next five films were barely (if at all) released in Britain, with the exception being the popular Three Musketeers (1973) which finally gave the actor a chance to unleash some charisma and dash. It is not co-incidental that the swashbuckler’s director was Richard Lester who had made is mark in swinging London features. Similar, showy character roles were provided by Russell (again!) with Tommy (1975) and Lester (again!) with Royal Flash (1975). But in terms of leading man material the decent parts were over. Other actors could return to the stage or take on television but for Reed who had no experience of the former and no temperament for the latter, th international co-production ghetto was his only route and by the end of the 1970s his star cache was spent.
I have no doubt that the booze and general unruliness also played their parts in derailing Reed’s career, but frankly I am sick of reading such stories which turn a formidible talent into a lad’s mag laughing stock. The waste of Reed’s talent is one of cinema’s minor tragedies and although we cannot blame the likes of Sitting Target, its total disregard for the actor’s capabilities leaves a sour taste in my mouth every time I stumble across it on television.