Note: this review was originally written for www.jabootu.net's Video Cheese feature, and has been presented here by the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.
ROSEBUD (1975 - color)
ROSEBUD (1975 - color)
"A British agent must locate the daughters of wealthy industrialists, who have been kidnapped by terrorists."
To, I must admit, my shame as a devoted student of the 60's spy craze, I have yet (as of this writing) to see the famous Harry Palmer movies starring Michael Caine. My understanding is that Palmer was intended to be the more realistic answer to James Bond's surreal adventures.
007's films were noted for their exotic and beautiful locals populated with exotic and beautiful women, the fantastic gadgets, and the glamorous play-to-win lifestyle of the tuxedo-clad secret agent who only visited the most expensive and luxurious places (not to say Bond couldn't do his job in the trenches -he obviously could, and did many times- but the 007 aesthetic could best be summed up by the scene in Goldfinger where Bond removes his commando uniform and underneath is a perfectly tailored and wrinkle-free white tux). Bond's adventures were comic book escapism (to quote from the book The Incredible World of 007, only in a Bond film would India be shown as a paradise), getting wilder and wilder as their popularity grew.
Not that there was anything wrong with that, since the films gave their audiences exactly what they were after. (They remained somewhat grounded in reality, though, and managed to survive well beyond the craze that gave rise to pop adventure movies about Matt Helm and Derek Flint. In fact, prior to the making of Rosebud, 007 had encountered his only real flop, The Man With The Golden Gun. His producers spent the next couple years reshaping the franchise before releasing what remains one of the most successful Bond pictures, The Spy Who Loved Me. Financial failure has not stalked 007 since, and the character has managed to survive the changing times better than any other pop culture figure -some would argue to his detriment, though.)
Harry Palmer, on the other hand, was more like a department cop. There was nothing glamorous about his world. Everything was very low-tech, dirty, and true-to-life. ROSEBUD seems to be inspired by the Harry Palmer aesthetic, as what we see unfold is a fairly low-key take on the sort of spy adventure big in the previous decade. (Although, as one can see from the poster art above, it was advertised as a bit more in line with the exciting 007 adventures, promising much more action than we're actually served.)
The events we see here could easily have been the subject of a film featuring James Bond or Napoleon Solo: Palestinian terrorists board a yacht and make off with the daughters of industrialists who do business with Israel, then ransom the girls back in exchange for the humiliation and damaged business concerns of their fathers. Larry Martin, a British agent experienced with the Palestinians, helps the authorities track down and liberate the girls and capture the terrorist leader behind the plot. But this isn't the romantic world of Helm or Flint. All this is anchored very firmly in the real world, and terrorism doesn't stop just because you take down one sect of a perverted cult.
The title reflects the name of the yacht the girls were taken from, the Rosebud. Early on, they settle things for us by noting the boat was named after an element in "some film" and then they move on (odd, though, that the character would know this but not the title of what has to be the most famous movie ever made). Once the girls are abducted from the boat and taken to a secret vault under a country farmhouse, the authorities find the boat drifting. The Rosebud has no further significance and leaves the picture. I guess the title was picked to fit into the more serious tone of the story (based on a best-selling novel of the same name), as opposed to something more grabbing like "The Rosebud Conspiracy" or "Girls For Ransom" or "Operation Israel."
Peter O'Toole plays Larry Martin, a role intended for Robert Mitchum before he and director Otto Priminger (!) didn't see things eye to eye. Martin is cool and slow to have his feathers ruffled, yet follows his assignment with the kind of dedication it takes to get the job done. When called in to a meeting with a prominent business man, Martin knows his host can afford things so he doesn't refuse when the butler asks out of habit if he can get anything for his guest. Martin asks for a sandwich and a glass of milk, while he was obviously expected to wave his hand and say 'no thank you.'
He's a bit of a jerk at first, but he quickly snaps in line to do anything he can to help this man get his daughter back alive. There follows a hunt for clues to lead him and his Israeli agent friend (sort his own personal Felix Lieter) back to the girls. He's like Bond in a sense, yet his digging doesn't bring periodic assassination attempts, car chases, or fist fights. Martin is too good at his job to let the opposition know he's onto them.
Where Scaramanga or Largo might have set a death trap, knowing Bond was due to storm their secret lair, these baddies have no reason to expect Martin to come so close to them. Also, rather than a big sequence ending with the explosive destruction of the enemy compound, this movie plays it straight. As you might see in a real commando raid, the action is simple and straight forward. The objective is obtained with little muss or fuss.
The most colorful element that could have been cartoonish if done in a more traditional 'spy' fashion is that one of the killers has developed a special weapon to use in the field. Essentially, it's a spike on a handle that he can hold in his hand and punch effortlessly into his victims. He's been tinkering with the design for a while, and now has a perfect tool for murder. When we see it used, it slides right into the skull of it's victim (the captain of the Rosebud, who is in on the snatch) providing a clean and painless kill. In another movie, this would have been 'color.' Here, it's 'character.' The guy is fighting for a cause, part of a family that's trying to make ends meet while they're waiting for Israel to fall, not some hulking henchman with a scar and metal eyeball.
Being a big 'serious' film, we take our time getting through the plot. Being a big 'good' film, though, the trip doesn't feel like a waste of time. We are rather leisurely introduced to various characters and slowly learn how they all fit together. Ultimately, everything pulls together and the whole picture is pretty nicely crafted. Frustratingly, this copy is cropped, so there are multiple scenes where you hear two people talking but all you see is a lamp or something in the middle of the frame.
Preminger is noted for tackling controversial themes, and here he finds something timely and terrifying to latch onto -how Palestinian radicals wish the destruction of Israel and what monsters populate Islamist regimes (not that we didn't already know this). What's most unsettling here is that the problem hasn't been solved in the 40+ years since this picture came out.
There's even a scene here that champions capitalism over over the communist dream of a salivating leftist teacher. Given that 'Red' Hollywood has, since the late 60's, no love for (other people using) capitalism, or Israel, one can understand why the film got ripped to shreds by the critics. Priminger himself fled Nazi Germany, so it stands to reason he'd know evil when he sees it (word has it that for the scenes here he shot in Germany, he did so from inside his car, because the locations were so close to where he had earlier evaded the Nazis!).
Interestingly, however, Priminger keeps everything in perspective. The radical teacher, despite backing the Palestinians, isn't a bad guy, and the industrialist who offended him (by noting how capitalism makes men free) has no objections to he being the choice of his daughter for a mate, and even regrets that the guy left early and they didn't have a chance to have a longer, more civil, chat. This certainly isn't the stark the-way-I-think-is-best world of Tom Laughlin. There is good and evil and everything in between. Priminger has set his spy story in the real world.
The bad guys here all have motivation for their evil deeds. Only the leader of the sect, Sloat (the one really odd casting choice, Richard Attenborough, who is typically marvelous but never suggests the Arab blood he's supposed to have) is portrayed as an out-and-out madman (though his followers are blinded by their faith in him as well as their prophet).
Again, though, they don't pretend here that evil dies because one man is taken down. We're left knowing Islamist terrorism is a very real thing and many more people are going to die before the problem is solved (I do doubt, however, that they expected the problem to stay with us so long).
Rosebud, I felt, was pretty good. It has its weak spots, as some of the lesser actors aren't all that good. The girls (one a young Kim Catrall) are pretty bland, talent-wise, for example. Also, there are times when you wish they'd embraced the 'spy' formula a bit more strongly. The lack of an explosive finish (in the traditional sense, at least) leaves the affair feeling sort of flat. Even later 70's films which tried to realistically portray espionage capers (like, say, BLACK SUNDAY) usually did so with more tension and action in their final reels.
All in all, though, not bad for the spy fan who's looking for a more realistic story to contrast with the brassy, thrill-a-minute structure of the James Bond (and majority of other spy) movies.