Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Mackintosh Man

The Mackintosh Man (John Huston, 1973) One of the best kept secrets (until 1974, anyway) of the second World War was Project Ultra, the British operation centered in Bletchley Park tasked with breaking the German Enigma codes that scrambled their communications so as to be undecipherable.  What the Germans did not know (because the British kept it secret) was that their dispatches were being regularly decoded and read, and their plans made known to forces in the field.  This was a great boon to the generals who took advantage of the intel—many, including General Patton, did not—but there were times when the messages were merely shelved.  The most egregious example might be the Coventry Blitz, although the facts are in dispute.  Some authors (including the man who first shed light on Ultra) have claimed that Churchill knew of the devastating November 14, 1940 raid by the Luftwaffe, but did nothing to warn the populace or take counter-measures, lest it tip off the Germans that the code had been cracked, thus nullifying an important source of information and intelligence.  If the Nazis knew their messages were being decoded, they might (probably would) make new measures to keep their transmissions secret.  And so (the story goes) Coventry burned in order to keep the secret.  War is not logical, and spycraft even less so, but there's an absurd madness there that parallels the VietNam-era quote stated "we had to destroy the village in order to save it."

That logic (or lack of it) is much in display in Huston's film of The Mackintosh Man (written by Walter Hill),* a spy thriller the director made in Britain and Malta with Paul Newman.  In it, a British Intelligence agent (Newman) is framed and sent to prison, in order to infiltrate a criminal organization.  But, unknown to him, the deceit goes much deeper, as his superior, Mackintosh (Harry Andrews), is using the mission to ferret out a leak in information in the British government.  Once the agent, named Rearden, is sprung from prison by the conspirators, overseen by an enigmatic figure named "Mr. Brown" (Michael Hordren).  Rearden and another prisoner, Blake (Ian Bannen), are spirited away to an unknown location, drugged and held until the police activity surrounding the prison break cools down.  The escape causes a row in Parliament, led by a law-and-order lord, Sir George Wheeler (James Mason), who rails against the bumbling way in which the prisons and the law are handling it, until he is persuaded to cool down the rhetoric by Mackintosh, himself.

Things get complicated when Mackintosh is run down in the street, and the operation taken over by his deputy, Mrs. Smith (Dominique Sanda), who is now charged with a double mission—Rearden's and the murder of Mackintosh.

Huston barely takes any of this seriously, even if Newman plays it straight, and Sanda—well, it's hard to tell if she plays it at all, her character being so enigmatic as to be undecipherable.  But, it's all staged well (and photographed by the legendary Oswald Morris), especially a car chase through winding Irish country roads that looks dangerous as Hell, and Huston ends on a typically ambiguous note.  But, he's made much better films about duplicity and duty (as has Hill, for that matter), and this one feels like a minor effort before tackling much more ambitious projects.  His next film would be his long-planned adaptation of The Man Who Would Be King.

* This was around the era where Huston was no longer adapting classics, but beginning to take advantage of the scripts of the new college-class of film-makers, including Hill and (for his previous film) John Milius.

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