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When child star Roddy McDowall graduated into a busy adult career as a character actor, he also became an accomplished photographer specializing in intimate and candid shots of the movie stars he knew and admired. Late in the 1960s he was quick to seize a long-desired opportunity to direct a film of his own. For subject matter McDowall chose a fantastic tale derived from a border country ballad by Robert Burns, about Tam Lin, a legendary Scot trapped by the Queen of the Fairies, and the woman whose love redeems him. Shifted to the present day, the legend seemed perfect for 1970, when the cultural spotlight on the British Isles had begun to fade. The Beatles had broken up, and the fantasy of Carnaby Street and Swinging London could no longer sustain itself.
McDowall used his sterling professional connections to arrange a classy production for this horror fable, to be filmed on location in Scotland. He signed rising star Ian McShane as the Tam Lin character, and lobbied Hollywood legend Ava Gardner for months to take the lead role. The 47 year-old preferred to work as little as possible, and was perhaps wary of the "hag horror" roles recently being filled by older actresses -- Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead. Ms. Gardner was also concerned about doing sex scenes, especially with an actor twenty years younger than she. But McDowall was convinced that Ava was the perfect choice to play his imperious woman of mystery, and she wanted to help him become a director.
Writer William Spier's original screenplay lacks dramatic conflict. Fabulously wealthy, the beautiful but aging Michaela "Micky" Cazalet (Ava Gardner) lives life as a never-ending party. For amusement she keeps a crowd of young people around her, smartly dressed hangers-on that are allowed to partake of her generosity even as she treats them with contempt. Driving a flotilla of luxury sports cars, they relocate from the lady's urban town house to the luxurious Carter Hall in Scotland. Michaela's present lover-consort is Tom Lynn (Ian McShane), a photographer who has been her willing playmate for several months of endless ease and vacationing. Tom slowly becomes aware that he's living in a gilded cage. Michaela's personal secretary Elroy (Richard Wattis) runs all of her personal business, including the task of eliminating lovers that she tires of, or who displease her. Michaela's fierce pride puts Tom in jeopardy when he falls in love with Janet Ainsley (the popular Stephanie Beacham), a local vicar's daughter. Micky immediately senses his disloyalty, as do Elroy and Oliver (David Whitman), a hanger-on who would like to take Tom's place. When Tom takes off with Janet for a few days, Michaela has Elroy prepare a terrible punishment.
A lot of terrible things can happen to unlucky movies, and most of them seem to have happened to The Ballad of Tam Lin. It never received a real release. There were no problems during filming, but Commonwealth United couldn't decide on a title: as Tam Lin sounded Chinese they initially went with Games and Toys. Distribution was eventually arranged through American-International Pictures, which was having success with an English remake of Wuthering Heights. Despite going on official record with a U.K. release date of 1970, trade notices reported that The Ballad of Tam Lin was sold to American-International in an incomplete state, and that Roddy McDowall was obliged to volunteer to make revisions, without pay. Trimmed by six minutes, it saw a very brief release in 1972. The reviews were not kind. McDowall's direction was criticized as mannered and fussy; it was also noted that the Mod fashions on view were already painfully out of style. American-International re-titled the picture The Devil's Widow and offered it to theaters with early-'70s exploitation fare such as Blacula and The Thing with Two Heads.
An instant 'lost picture', The Ballad of Tam Lin was considered enough of a rarity to be later showcased on Los Angeles' legendary "Z" Channel cable station, in a pitiful pan-scanned video transfer. Until now it has remained something of a mystery. Roddy McDowall referred to it as an allegory for the end of the swinging '60s.
Tam Lin is a true oddity in that one can enjoy its component elements even as a compelling story fails to emerge. The screenplay lacks forward momentum -- sidebar characters and issues pop up, but fail to amount to anything. Stephanie Beacham's Janet is likeable enough, but several scenes with her father (Cyril Cusack) go nowhere, as does Janet's inquiry into an abortion. Some horror authorities praise the film's dreamlike qualities. The movie is shapeless: nothing that happens seems to be of consequence. The story unfolds as if the audience were already familiar with the original Tam Lin legend.
Micky's crowd of attractive freeloaders mostly fail to distinguish themselves -- besides David Whitman's schemer, only the baby-doll whining of Madeline Smith (The Vampire Lovers, Taste the Blood of Dracula) makes an impression. The group plays dull parlor games, eats and lounges about. No debauchery or drugs is depicted. When she's angry Michaela throws tantrums, calling "her children" moochers and scum. At one point she has Elroy dismiss them all and get in a different crowd. The new crop dresses severely and seems more willing to indulge in cruelties, but we learn nothing about them. Does Elroy have teams of party people stashed in local hotels, waiting for his call?
Most of the story barely connects with the traditional legend. An early scene is filmed through an ornate etched glass representation of the source story, and at one point Michaela wears a glittering, colorful tribal mask. The folk rock group The Pentangle provides two good songs, Tam Lin and The Best Part of You, with vocals that also evoke the traditional source tale. But the brief voiceover explanation of the ballad is soon forgotten as the movie unspools. The unfortunate advertising reference to the 'Devil's Widow' prompts viewers to expect Michaela Cazalet to be revealed as a demonic entity. Her concern with aging also makes us think that the legend might be similar to vintage pulp tales about savage queens in lost worlds that stay young by draining the life force from their male lovers. But Micky is not a supernatural force and her decadent hangers-on are not a coven.
Ian McShane's personal charm is sorely taxed, for there's little in his character to inspire us. Tom Lynn is pretty stupid not to pick up on the abundant clues of danger, and he remains careless even after it becomes clear that his life is on the line. He and Janet walk on the foggy shore in yet another beautiful scene that neutralizes any sense of apprehension. After an endless middle section, the movie finally puts Tom in a situation similar to the classic thriller The Most Dangerous Game. Given an LSD-like drug, he's beaten severely and then set loose to flee for his life in a sleek white sports car. Elroy and Micky expect him to crash and burn, but he instead finds himself stumbling through a swamp, hallucinating horrible monsters. The reason for this could have been made clear - in the original legend, Tam Lin transforms into several monstrous forms, and is only saved because his true love Janet refuses to leave his side.
Ava Gardner brings a sense of credibility to the selfishly amorous Micky. A bedroom scene sees her getting Tom drunk, and laughing herself silly when he collapses naked on the floor. Ava has a wrinkle or two around the eyes but can still turn on the glamour. She looks properly intimidating in impressive fashions by Balmain of Paris. As a woman scorned Gardner can muster 57 varieties of displeasure: biting sarcasm, resentful pleading, promises of happiness, and finally a simmering hatred that cannot be cooled. Gardner is also able to infer without words that Michaela holds some kind of secret power over her secretary Elroy. Actor Richard Wattis spent a lifetime playing bored valets and stuffy authority figures. His jaded stare in this film is so sinister that we wish the character were better explained.
So much is unexplained in The Ballad of Tam Lin that it eventually becomes a frustrating experience. The lush visuals and Roddy McDowall's careful direction are compensations, but even they falter when the film tries to visualize Tom Lynn's nightmare in the swamp. At one point Tom thinks he's on fire, which cues a blast of impressive animated flames. But audiences invariably laugh when Tom literally transforms into a bear. The cinematography looks good but McShane is all too obviously wearing an unconvincing bear costume.
The film's younger cast members held a reunion a few years back to celebrate when they went to Scotland to play Gents and Dolly Birds. Among the beautiful people in Michaela's coterie are Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous, Jenny Hanley (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) and Bruce Robinson, who would later write The Killing Fields and write and direct the admired Withnail & I.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Ballad of Tam Lin is a beautiful widescreen (Panavision) encoding of the longest (106 minutes) version of Roddy McDowall's ill-fated film. The on-screen title is The Ballad of Tam Lin. Billy Williams' glowing cinematography can at last be appreciated, as can the director's carefully planned shots. A few scenes make extensive use of a zoom lens, but always with a plan in mind. Tam Lin is an ambitious film idea that simply needed to be told in a more cohesive manner.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Ballad of Tam Lin Blu-ray rates:
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