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On the eve of Christmas, an urbane, loutish and acidly cynical Montreal radio talk-show host is taken hostage in his own studio by a band of crusading terrorists who want a new on-the-air trial of a comrade they feel was wrongly convicted. For collateral, the terrorists have also taken hostage his rich wife and mentally retarded son in their own home. The listening audience shall act as the jury and phone in their verdicts. As the trial progresses, disembodied voices, Christmas hymns, religious imagery, one of the terrorists relating the story of "The Wind in the Willows," the voice of a child singing "Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin reflect the psyche of the characters in moments of truth. All the while, the talk-show host must sustain the role of grand showman and project his wit and cavalierness to the listening audience, despite the tense situation. Captor and captive engage in a furious battle of wits. Written by
Prisoner-fans take note, if you haven't already. This film reunites Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan with frequent Prisoner player Alexis Kanner. This undoubtedly started as one of those "concept movie projects". Get a load of this story: Charismatic, histrionic ex-actor turned Montreal radio talk-show host John Kingsley (Patrick McGoohan) is held hostage in his own private luxury radio-studio by a group of crusaders who want an on-the-air retrial of a man they feel was wrongly convicted and oversentenced at that, kidnapping the original judge who tried the first trial and detaining him elsewhere, then designating the listening audience as the phone-in jury. When I first read this description on the back of the video cover at a Pittsburgh flea-market circa 2001, I put down my two dollars because I was instantly hooked and intrigued. McGoohan's involvement certainly didn't hurt the prospect of my purchase...and, hey hey hey, it was obscure! Just my cup of tea! Ha ha! So, I popped the tape into the VCR and the movie underwent the customary Hidden-Gem Test (the GHTs...funner than the SATs and GREs, and more efficient!). It passed in flying colors, but not in the way I would have ever predicted. Its execution was almost...otherworldly. The camera placement is sometimes highly unorthodox, the sound design highly experimental, the acting decidedly stylized, the editing complexly fragmentary and elliptical, the politics offbeat even in the left-wing sense of the word, the narrative progression delightfully perplexing. What an interesting, strange creature this film was to me...and still is! This is one of those movies that, as a cinephile, I became obsessed with for years after first seeing, and it was a mighty quest to learn as much as I could about it inception, conception and reception. It plays out like an experimental film in some stretches, and renders its hook/reel-in of a plot summary a curiously distinctive thriller with a nearly inimitable sense of voice. By voice, I mean camera voice, montage voice, narrative voice and even soundscape voice. That's a lot of voices there, and a lot of films do not even have one type of those uniquenesses. This is a motion picture that is difficult to describe to the fullest using just words. Kings and Desperate Men is definitively a thriller, without question. It uses the conventions and the narrative traditions of genre (e.g. the unstable captor, periodic showdowns between captor and captive, etc) but uses a flamboyant, barbed cinema language and a twisting dialogic verbiage, courtesy mostly of McGoohan's purposefully melodramatic portrayal of the lead, and elaborate use of the film-making's "plastic" elements to deliver to its audience something completely in opposition to other offerings of its genre.
The film had a scattered release. It was shot in the winter of late 1977, was screened once in Montreal in late 1978, was widely released in its native Canada three years later in 1981 after its struggle to find additional completion funds, was later re-released only in Canada in 1983, premiered at the London Film Festival in 1985 and then finally hit the United States over a full decade later in 1989. That is quite a history. The film was met with accolades at the London Film Festival, but only The Los Angeles Times gave the film good reviews in the U.S. In point of fact, The Los Angeles Times gave it glowing reviews. Most critics obtusely complained of McGoohan's overacting, and every major U.S. review I read was facile, fast and artless. It definitely says something when a critic's dismissals are coy and mirthless. Vis a vis McGoohan's so-called "overacting," that's the point, folks! It's not hard to get! The story itself unfolds by sheer virtue of his character's history as an ex-actor and the writer-director's statement is made via McGoohan's character's titanic "emceeing" of the events at hand. Look at the art direction. Theater posters from the character's past are prominently on display. The film, when all is said and done, has a bold and (believe it or not) original message about media treatment of exploitable circumstance. I mean, the subject has been done before, but never like this. Again, all more I can really say is do your best to see it. It is only on VHS, but if you still have your VCR (if you are a real film fan and ditched yours, you are doing yourself no favors), I recommend tracking it down. In a post scriptum, I gave my copy to a friend to borrow. He definitely joined the film's micro-cult after seeing it. Rise to the occasion and join us!
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