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The High Commissioner

The High Commissioner
MGM Home Entertainment
1968 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 101 min. / Nobody Runs Forever / Street Date November 2, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Rod Taylor, Christopher Plummer, Lilli Palmer, Camilla Sparv, Daliah Lavi, Clive Revill, Calvin Lockhart, Derren Nesbitt, Burt Kwouk, Franchot Tone
Cinematography Ernest Steward
Production Designer Anthony Woollard
Film Editor Ernest Hosler
Original Music Georges Delerue
Written by Wilfred Greatorex from a novel by Jon Cleary
Produced by Betty E. Box, Selig J. Seligman
Directed by Ralph Thomas

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 Thomas.

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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