Tag Archives: Billie Whitelaw

Murder Elite (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sisters feud over estate.

The story centers on Diane (Ali MacGraw) who moves in with her sister Margaret (Billie Whitelaw) at the family’s estate in England. Diane has frittered away her inheritance while living in America and now comes to Margaret in a near penniless state. Margaret expects Diane to ‘earn-her-keep’, but Diane resists doing any farm work and instead schemes at how to take control of the family’s fortune while having a fling with one of the farmhands named Ron (Ray Lonnen). She realizes that if Margaret dies then the estate will go to her, so she convinces Ron to kill Margaret when she goes out for one of her late night walks and then blame the death on a mysterious lady killer who has been terrorizing the countryside. However, things don’t go as planned as Diane and Ron soon find themselves being the ones in danger.

The film works as a weird hybrid between a slasher flick and an old-fashioned Agatha Christie-like mystery. The only interesting element is MacGraw’s presence who seems completely out-of-place in the English setting. This could easily be described as her career swan song as she never starred in another theatrical film after this one. In fact she only did four more movies, two of them being TV ones, and no film appearances at all since 1997. Usually when someone’s acting career has nosedived they turn to overseas projects, which is exactly what this was as she hadn’t had a hit movie in 13 years and was well over 40, so in many ways she had no choice, but to take it.

It might’ve worked had she had genuine acting talent, but it becomes painfully clear in her scenes with Whitelaw that she’s being seriously upstaged by a far more superior actress. Casting MacGraw as antagonist doesn’t gel as she’s unable to convey the necessary evilness. As sisters the two look nothing alike and Whitelaw is supposed to be ‘way older’ than MacGraw, but in reality they look practically the same age. During the early ‘70s Ali had long hair that came down to her waist and it looked great, by the later part of the decade she had cut it real short and it was okay, but her she wears it shoulder-length, which isn’t sexy at all.

The plot is only mildly intriguing and all the action takes place on the drab estate, which quickly becomes dull visually. There are a few twists to keep it watchable, but the one that comes at the end, which reveals who the true killer is, is full of loopholes making this little known mystery excursion come-off as flat and pointless.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 13, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Claude Whatham

Studio: Tyburn Entertainment

Available: VHS 

Shadey (1985)

shadey

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: His thoughts onto film.

Oliver Sher (Anthony Sher) finds out that he has an amazing ability. Not only can read other people’s minds, but he can also transfer those thoughts onto film. He tells his secret to Cyril (Patrick Macnee) a wealthy businessman hoping he can use his unique ability for some purpose and thus pay him enough money for a sex change operation, which is his ultimate goal. His only condition is that his ability not be used for military purposes. Unfortunately Cyril disregards this and strikes a deal with Doctor Cloud (Billie Whitelaw) who does experiments for the military and sees Oliver as her next guinea pig. Soon Oliver finds himself and his ability being exploited, but gets his revenge by taking advantage of Cyril’s emotionally fragile wife Constance (Katherine Helmond) in a weird and interesting way.

This film is quite original and manages to hold up all the way through. Some of the caricatures are a bit predictable mainly in the way it portrays the older brass businessman and military, but otherwise it defies all genres. It has a nice cerebral quality to it as it moves between being sad and dehumanizing to sharp and satirical sometimes in the very same scene. The humor is laced with drool, dry British wit that makes it engaging and fun.

The old British pros really help here. Macnee with his perpetually stern expression and terse delivery is fantastic. Whitelaw is also good as always as she plays her cold business-like character perfectly.

The best performance though goes to Helmond. She is best known for play Jessica Tate on the 70’s sitcom ‘Soap’ as well as co-starring in the 80’s TV-show ‘Who’s the Boss?’ yet her appearance here may be her career highlight. She has always had a wonderful ability at conveying child-like qualities in adult characters and here that comes to great use. Her facial expressions are both touching, unnerving as well as humorous and the scene where she eats coal from a fireplace while crouching on the ground is unforgettable.

The script could have gone further with its intriguing premise, but manages to be provocative nonetheless. The points it makes are good as it shows how those that are exploited will eventually do the same to others and how you never really know or understand someone no matter how much you think you get inside their head as well as examining how the image can sometimes take on more importance than the reality. The interesting chase that takes place at the end where Shadey continuously rides an elevator from the top of a building to the bottom while the bad guys busily run up and down the stairs to catch him is just one of the many unique scenes in this movie that makes it worth catching for those with an offbeat frame of mind.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 18, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Philip Saville

Studio: Skouras Pictures

Available: VHS

Charlie Bubbles (1968)

charlie bubbles 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s detached from life.

Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney) is a successful English writer who finds that he is no longer connected to the world around him. He sits in his office and views life from the television monitors around him. He has an affair with his secretary Eliza (Liza Minnelli in her film debut), but it means little. He travels to the countryside to visit his estranged wife Lottie (Billie Whitelaw) and his son Jack (Timothy Garland), but finds the effects of his detachment have worn off on them. No matter how hard he tries he cannot get his son to emotionally connect with him, which he finds troubling.

This is to date Finney’s only cinematic foray behind the camera and on a visual level it proves interesting. Most actors who turn to directing lack the needed cinematic eye, but Finney is just the opposite. The scene, which gets protracted, showing all the action inside Charlie’s sprawling home from within the television monitors that he has set-up is really cool. It’s like in the film Network where you see several monitors on top of each other and two per row. Each monitor shows a different room in the mansion as well as the garage. As the action moves from each room it also moves to a different monitor, which becomes fascinating to follow. The scene inside a hotel hallway with milk bottles and newspapers lined up at each door has an interesting design to it and the part where Charlie and Eliza come upon a lonely marching band in a desolate rundown part of the city has a unique visceral appeal. The massive food fight between Finney and actor Colin Blakely near the beginning of the film deserves a few points as well.

The downside to the direction is that the film is slow and almost as aloof as the character. The scenes become too extended and the dialogue has little to say. The segment inside a roadside diner has the sound of cars passing by it during the character’s conversation, which becomes distracting and unnecessary.

The Charlie character seems almost like he is sleepwalking and barely responds to anything. I realize this is to show his detachment, but it goes overboard. It’s like viewing a corpse who has no screen presence or energy and absolutely no connection with the viewer nor any ability to wrap them in to his quandary.

Minnelli makes for an odd choice to represent the film’s sexual tensions. She was never considered attractive and her constant and incessant chattering while the two ride in a car would be enough to make most men want to throw her out let alone make love to her. The sex scene itself is about as mechanical as you can get and lacks eroticism. It also becomes like a throwaway scene that doesn’t end up having that much to do with the story as a whole.

The viewer needs more of a background to this character in order to make him real and interesting. Simply showing someone who is detached doesn’t mean much unless we know why and if he was at any time any way else. The ponderous ending leaves a lot to be desired and watching this movie is similar to viewing a program on C-Span as it comes-off like a nonevent.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 11, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 29Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Albert Finney

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.

Night Watch (1973)

night watch 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Murder in the window.

Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor) is an emotionally unstable woman recovering from a nervous breakdown. Her first husband died in a car crash along with his young lady lover. Now her second husband John (Laurence Harvey) is fooling around with Ellen’s best friend Sara (Billie Whitelaw). One night Ellen witnesses a murder at the abandoned house next door, but because of Ellen’s past mental state no one believes her. Even the police doubt her story, which starts to send her over-the-edge.

I saw this play about a year ago with a group of friends at a local church. It was written by Lucille Fletcher best known for having done Sorry Wrong Number, which was later turned into a classic film starring Barbra Stanwyck. Although the play started out slowly the twist ending was impressive and something no one in the audience had predicted, but what I liked even better was that when you went back and thought about it, it made perfect sense. I thought at the time that it would make a great movie and was interested in seeing what this film did with it. I felt that there was no way they could screw up such a great story, but somehow they managed to do it.

Director Brian G. Hutton adds a lot of elements to make it more cinematic that should have helped it, but it really doesn’t. I liked the flashback sequences showing the car crash of the first husband as well as Ellen visiting the hospital and identifying the bodies. These segments have a good nightmarish visual quality to them, but Hutton goes back to it too often and eventually wears it out. I also liked that the film shows the police inspecting the inside of the abandoned home, which in the play you never see, but I felt they could have done a lot more to make the place seem more distinct and creepy. There is also a skirmish between two people inside the place at the end that you can hear, but not see because it is too dark and shadowy, which was annoying. The music is effectively creepy, but it also has a ringing quality that quickly becomes irritating and gets way over-played.

This was just one of the many misfires that Taylor did during the 70’s that helped extinguish her otherwise illustrious career long before it should’ve. This one fares slightly better than the others, but not by much. Her affected British accent could seem annoying to some and sounds kind of like the put-on one that Madonna sometimes does although for the record Taylor’s is better than hers. Liz’s emotionalism is a bit too theatrical and may come off as unintentionally funny to certain viewers although seeing her go completely nutty is impressive and fun.

Harvey is all wrong as the husband. His cold, detached presence can work in certain roles, but definitely not in this one. In the play that I saw the actor cast in this part looked more middle-aged with a spare tire stomach, balding head, and graying sideburns, which is what I felt the role called for. This is a character that is overburdened with a stressful job and unstable wife and yet Harvey shows none of this. His slick black hair and turtleneck shirts, which were fashionable at the time, make him look like someone still going out to the trendy nightclubs to pick up young chicks… or guys.

Whitelaw is one of the best British character actresses of all-time, but her talents are wasted with a part that doesn’t allow her to show any range. Her blonde hairdo is nice, but Taylor’s histrionics dominate the proceedings and unceremoniously push Whitelaw into the background.

The play had a lot of humor especially with the Mr. Appleby character played here by actor Robert Lange. Unfortunately the movie turns it into a serious drama making it seem more like a soap opera instead of a mystery. I came away from this feeling that the live production that I had seen was far more entertaining and intriguing. I would suggest to viewers to skip this film and wait for a chance to see it done as a play as the movie does not do the story justice.

night watch 1

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 9, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Instant Video