Dir: Clive Donner | Writer: Frederick Raphael | Cast: Peter O’Toole, John Standing, Alistair Sim, Harold Pinter, Robert Lang, Cyd Hayman, Philip Jackson, Maureen Lipman | UK Drama | 103′
Peter O’Toole is perfectly cast as a seedy, tweedy, down at heel aristocrat embarking on a ‘sporting stalk’ of his deadliest enemy Adolf Hitler from frost-bitten Bavaria via London to the wind swept English countryside in 1939. Based on Geoffrey Household’s cult thriller, Rogue Male is a tense and chilly thriller whose source themes are deftly condensed into a compact and witty affair directed by Clive Donner (The Caretaker) and written by Frederick Raphael, who adds a touch of caustic humour to the dialogue.
Alastair Sim (of ‘Something Nasty in the Woodshed’ fame) is in it too (as The Earl), along with Harold Pinter (Saul). They create that sardonic sense of ennui and superciliousness of the upper classes – O’Toole particularly so as Sir Robert Hunter, recently captured by the Gestapo and left for dead after attempting to shoot Hitler at close quarters. His chase from Germany to England sees his hunting prowess and resourcefulness coming into full force in order to survive the wintry rigours of the hostile landscape.
Clive Donner and his scripter Frederick Raphael originally put the piece together on a shoe-string budget for the BBC small screen in 1976, as part of a series of films offering a historiography of British pluck. Rogue Male melds suspense with social commentary and Peter O’Toole comes across as raddled yet gritty, rigged out in his hunting gear and sporting raffishly scruffy sideboards. The film version sees him as more upmarket (a ‘minor baronet’ ) than he is on the page where he enjoys a lunch of beer and ‘a cold bird’ rather than Raphael’s classy lunch of ‘Moet and Chandon 1928 and gull’s eggs’. O’Toole’s lines are priceless. Even when facing death on the edge of a ravine, he retains his pride. When the German officer tells him about his Charterhouse education, Sir Robert calls the school: “a mousy little middle-class establishment”. “Well we can’t all go to Eton”, the Officer responds. “Thank God! is O’Toole’s retort. But who could fail to root for the foxy hero with a valiant vendetta against Europe’s most wanted man. Later on he declines to politely shake hands, claiming “my hand isn’t really up to it”. Contemporary writers and directors would probably downgrade him to a more working class hero, in tune with the zeitgeist, and maybe Mark Strong would fit the role.
The tightly plotted narrative whips along smartly as Sir Robert pursues his enemy Quive Smith (Standing). Fritz Lang had already tackled Household’s thriller in his 1941 outing Man Hunt but according to film critic Paul Fairclough, Donner describes this version (led by Walter Pidgeon) as “a travesty”.
Away from the glumness of the country setting there are contrasting scenes that take place in the dank confines of a steamy Turkish bath. And its here that Alastair Sim, swathed in white towels and bathrobe (as Sir Robert’s uncle), leisurely declines to assert his influence, declaring that despite being a man of influence, as part of Chamberlain’s post-Munich-agreement government, that ‘Bobberty’ should go into hiding to save his own skin, and his uncle’s reputation. When asked for advice by his nephew, The Earl responds presciently: “I’m a member of the Government, how should I know what people should do?” Clearly, he is not going to rock his own boat even to save his relative.
Pinter plays Sir Robert’s lawyer and friend Saul with reassuring cameraderie, offering to find funds for his time “underground”. There is a terrific chase through the London Underground and even a slim interlude where Sir Robert’s romantic psychology is fleshed out through rather awkward scenes with Cyd Hyman as Rebecca. This excellent made for TV film could easily fill the big screen along with other HBO and Netflix outings, if it had been made nowadays. It makes great use of its tight budget, feeling intimate but ambitious in scope. As Benedict Cumberbatch will pay Sir Robert in the latest big screen version of Rogue Male, with Household and Michael Lesslie (Macbeth (2015) on board as screenwriters. But no-one can replace the compact elegance of Peter O’Toole. MT
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