The Black Windmill is a straightforward thriller distinguished by the onscreen participation of Michael Caine and the behind-the-camera participation of director Don Siegel. Caine grounds the picture in his understated performance brimming with just-below-the-surface intensity, and Siegel makes sure the movie stays laser-focused on the task of generating tension. So, even though the plot is quite ordinary and the ending is a bit on the abrupt side, it’s hard to argue with results, and The Black Windmill is consistently compelling, exciting, and nerve-jangling. It may not be what the poster promises (“The ultimate experience in controlled terror”), but it’s a solid potboiler.
Caine plays Major John Tarrant, a British covert operative under the supervision of unctuous spymaster Cedric Harper (Donald Pleasence). Violent crooks led by a mysterious Irishman (John Vernon) kidnap Tarrant’s son, then use their hostage for leverage to pressure Harper into handing over a cache of diamonds his agency is holding. (Rest assured this seems a lot less convoluted when it unfolds onscreen.) The story twists in interesting ways as Tarrant realizes his superiors value their financial assets more highly than the life of his son, so Tarrant steals the diamonds and attempts to outsmart the crooks. While still leaving room for a touch of nuance here and there, the picture builds steadily from one nasty situation to the next while Tarrant drifts further into illegality.
As always, Caine excels at illustrating on-the-fly calculations; watching him assess situations and change strategy is pure pleasure, because subtle fluctuations dart across his expressive features like lightning sparking in the night sky. Pleasence is terrific as well, playing a heartless survivor whose mousy demeanor hides lethal ambition, and Vernon delivers another of his enjoyably florid turns as a cold-blooded monster. Joss Acklaland, Clive Revill, and chilly European starlet Delphine Seyrig also appear, and Nicholas and Alexandra Oscar nominee Janet Suzman gives an emotional performance as Tarrant’s estranged wife, who finds herself drawn back to Tarrant because of their family’s harrowing circumstances. Thanks to all of these virtues, it doesn’t matter that The Black Windmill isn’t really about anything, because the movie does exactly what it’s supposed to do and nothing more.
The Black Windmill: GROOVY