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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
Director Alexis Kanner met the film's co-writer Edmund Ward on the set of Goodbye Gemini (1970) (a.k.a. Twinsanity), with which both were involved. When Kanner was planning to seriously progress with pre-production, he remembered Ward and called him into to collaborate on the script. See more »
The reflection of two crew members are briefly seen just before Margaret Trudeau enters an elevator towards the beginning of the film. See more »
Womanizing, boozing talk radio show host John Kingsley (Patrick McGoohan) has a large and rapidly expanding audience for his program on Montreal-based station JXYL. His condescending, bloody-minded persona irritates but also captivates listeners. Depending on the issue or the guest or the caller and each respective listener's views Kingsley can become the hero or the villain during his discussions which can often be dismissed as rants. He routinely humiliates callers and guests in debates. He can put them on air and cut them off as he pleases.
In his forum he is a towering presence and authority figure. It gives him the status of celebrity in public which he has used to marry into money and curry favor with the local elite. A Britisher, he never quite found his niche until he emigrated to Canada. The very unremarkable way this seemingly remarkable man conducts himself personally is galling for many. The most coherently Canadian aspect of the narrative is how alienated everyday Montrealers felt from the wealthy and powerful dwelling in the high-end Westmount area of the city.
At the end of his Christmas eve show during which his friend Judge McManus (Budd Knapp) appeared as guest, the two of them then attend the JXYL gala Christmas party. Suddenly a series of benign-seeming events serve to situate different people in the grasp of those with malevolent intent. Lured in a drunken state back to the studio where he broadcasts his show by a seductive woman (Andrea Marcovicci), he finds a shotgun pointed at him and it is made clear that her terrorist associates also have abducted Judge McManus and are holding Kingley's Westmount socialite wife (Margaret Trudeau) and child (Jean-Pierre Brown) in a separate location where they have a bomb. They demand air-time on his next show.
Kingsley is, at first, understandably quite blindsided by the group of people who forcibly disrupt his life and that of those he loves. But his reaction to the situation at various times during the hours that follow verges on the bizarre. He can't help but prod his captors in the time leading up to the show and very much during it. Pushing people's buttons is what he does and he is extremely effective at it whether the situation calls for it or not. That dialectic which should be explosive lingers a little too gently through the night at the studio until the show begins the next morning.
Lucas Miller (Alexis Kanner), a university lecturer who somehow (Never adequately explained and far from evident) decided to become the leader of a terrorist group has a bone to pick with the justice system and a court case that he wants to use Kingsley's show to retry. Once the broadcast begins it becomes less than clear at times whether Miller is using Kingsley as effectively as Kingsley is using him.
It becomes even less clear why people (At least six of them from what we see and hear) would follow Miller in terrorist acts so highly illegal that their lives as they knew them would certainly be over at the conclusion. The more we know about the court case the terrorists say they are so motivated by, the less it seems like anything.
The on-screen chemistry between longtime friends McGoohan and Kanner used to such great effect on episodes of The Prisoner (1967-68) is scarcely evident in their scenes together in this production. Whilst Kanner adapted the screenplay he never got a handle on portraying terrorist ring-leader Miller. Most of his performance appears to convey disconcerted bewilderment at how things unfold and in a way which deflates much of the tension needed for it to be effective. It might have been better if it had been a stage play particularly since Kanner's performance is one which looks more like it belongs on a stage.
As a film it doesn't quite work even though there are some entertaining moments. Director/producer/cinematographer Alexis Kanner (Purportedly on large doses of pills and Scotch during filming) took on far too much himself. The eccentric or perhaps even self-indulgent manner in which this film was shot and cut (Kanner was in the editing room with it in post-production for a couple of years - Shot in 1977, it wasn't released until 1981) goes along with the eccentric or perhaps even self-indulgent manner in which it was written and acted.
McGoohan is effective throughout as is Marcovicci as are veteran Canadian actors August Schellenberg and Frank Moore. Margaret Trudeau, the wife of Pierre Elliott Trudeau - then Prime Minister of Canada, somehow found herself cast in this much to the dismay of McGoohan who loathed her and her attempts at a performance (which most would agree came up lacking). This was around the time Mrs. Trudeau was hanging out with the Rolling Stones, prowling Studio 54 and doing various other things to embarrass the much older man she had married who was still trying to run the country.
Perhaps more puzzling casting is Robin Spry portraying a terrorist bomber. Spry is known for doing almost everything BUT acting in Canada's film industry.
Whilst it bears superficial similarities to the 1988 film Talk Radio for some bizarre reason Kanner felt that the 1988 film Die Hard was far more similar to the point where he unsuccessfully sought legal damages for copyright infringement. Of course neither Die Hard nor Talk Radio are taken from from Kings and Desperate Men in any obvious, and certainly not any actionable way.
It remains one of a scant few contributions Alexis Kanner was able to make to Canada's domestic film industry. His gifts were not writing or directing or cinematography. He couldn't happy just being an actor who triumphed in character roles and as anti-heroes in counterculture productions. There was a so much more he could have done if he had made better choices.
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