Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ralph and Betty Thomas were a British director-producer team responsible for a series
of 'Doctor' comedies that made a star of Dirk Bogarde. They branched out into other kinds of films,
taking on a remake of the classic Alfred Hitchcock The 39 Steps. In the late 60s they tried
a Bond knockoff by updating Bulldrog Drummond
in the films Deadlier than the Male and Some Girls Do. This thriller takes a
more serious look at international intrigue and has a lot going for it, but is still less than
satisfying. The main appeal of The High Commissioner is its high caliber cast and
fancy London location filming.
Bush Detective Sgt. Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) is sent to Sydney to
do special duty for Flannery (Leo McKern) a high government official clearly taking political
revenge: He's to go to London to fetch Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) to stand trial for
the murder of his first wife sixteen years before. The hitch is that Quentin is on
the verge of success with an international Peace conference. Malone gives the Commissioner a few
days to wind things up before the official arrest, and then volunteers to help with
another problem - someone is trying to stop the Peace process by assassinating Quentin.
Almost as if he were being set up as the two-fisted hero of a TV series, Rod Taylor decks a troublemaker
on a sheep farm and then takes the unenviable assignment of arresting a great statesman
for an old murder. Even the secretary who sends him off admits that the whole affair is the
idea of a jealous political rival, but Malone jets to London to do the dirty deed anyway.
Wilfrid Greatorex's complicated script sets up an impressive series of meetings, parties, desperate
characters and back-alley fistfights, but doesn't clarify what exactly is going on. Worse,
the plot never really addresses the nature of Plummer's previous crime, or allows him to sort out his
differences with his rival back in Sydney, the one who issued the warrant for his arrest.
Malone's dealings with the Commissioner's wife and staff do generate interest, but what happens is
not well managed. Secretary Lisa Pretorius (Camilla Sparv) is teasing but suspicious when neither
Quentin nor Malone say what's going on. Valet Joseph (Clive Revill) seems to be keeping secrets.
Suffering wife Sheila Quentin (Lilli Palmer of previous spy escapades
Cloak and Dagger and
The Counterfeit Traitor) knows about
the accusations against her husband and works herself into a state of agitation. An assassination
attempt motivates Malone to overstep his assignment and investigate some of Quentin's less savory party
guests, including sneaky seductress Maria Cholon (Daliah Lavi), the mysterious Jamaica (Calvin
Lockhart) and Pham Chimh (Burt Kwouk), and newspaperman-thug Pallain (Derren Nesbitt).
This allows Malone to visit a fancy casino, flirt with Lavi and tangle with various killers while
being chided by the British Secret Service, all okay adventures handled fairly well by director
But the reason behind all the intrigue is clumsy at best. Sir James Quentin's masterful secret of
diplomacy, the one that may heal all the world's problems seems to be simple tea meetings where all
the parties get together for a casual chat. The Cold War is never mentioned. Quentin is
targeted for assassination because the 'international vice trade,' whatever that is, wants to
preserve the chaos of war and instability for their business to proceed unmolested. That's the most
wishy-washy evasion of real-world problems I've ever heard - even James Bond's unlimited supply of
demonized mad villains is preferable.
The High Commissioner spools out in a fairly classy way. Actual scenes and dialogue play on a
more sophisticated level until the movie has to wind itself
to a finish. It delivers action, a body count and one romantic sacrifice, but the big questions are
never answered. I guess we just have to assume that there's no mystery, that Quentin was always
guilty and that's that.
Rod Taylor is appropriately hard-edged. He would make a great Travis McGee in Darker than Amber a
couple of years later. Christopher Plummer takes his role seriously and comes off okay. Lilli Palmer is
excellent as always, Camilla Sparv is less convincing and Dahlia Lavi's exotic, femme-fatale appearance
is so extreme, she
makes us wonder if she's a man in drag. Everyone else plays types, with veterans Lionel Murton,
Leo McKern and Gerald Sim in for uncredited bits. Franchot Tone has one scene as a US Ambassador
named Townsend, perhaps a nod to North by NorthWest. In a strange wig and made-up eyes,
Darren Nesbitt looks more like a Thunderbirds wooden puppet than ever.
Even though Rod Taylor's tough hero saves Quentin's life two times, he always seems outside the
story, as if this were a script expanded from a proposed television episode. The production
company name Rodlor would appear to indicate that he produced behind the scenes. From that angle
it's a lavish show with lots of beautifully-shot footage on London streets. Only an Australia
concocted from stock shots and a fake set strikes an odd note.
MGM's DVD of The High Commissioner looks fine in enhanced widescreen and is transferred from
a close-to-perfect element. George Delerue's subdued score adds to the class value and sounds great
on the mono track. There are no extras. The fine print on the box doesn't say this title is part of
the ABC distribution deal but other Selmur pictures were. The liner text tells us that "Quentin
is routing out his new enemy" ... I know an enemy can be "routed" or "rooted out," but "routed out"
sounds like Taylor is using woodworking tools in his fight scenes. Or maybe I'm the ignorant party
and don't know how to read a dictionary correctly. Is "routed out" the way the English write "rooted out?"
Any expert opinions?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The High Commissioner rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson