Thoroughly enjoyable but also thoroughly silly, the spy thriller When Eight Bells Toll sprang from the pen of adventure-story specialist Alistair MacLean, who never allowed logic get in the way of a good yarn. (Previous MacLean adaptations include 1961’s The Guns of Navarone and 1968’s Where Eagles Dare.) Anthony Hopkins stars as Philip Calvert, an operative of the British Treasury who specializes in underwater work. After several ships carrying gold shipments are hijacked, Calvert receives orders from government muckety-muck Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones (Robert Morley) to investigate. Calvert places a tracking device on the next ship carrying gold, and then he slips aboard the vessel once it’s hijacked. The criminals are more heavily armed than expected, so even though Calvert kills a couple of them, he barely escapes. Nonetheless, he identifies the rough geographic region where the hijackers are most likely based—the rugged coast off the Scottish highlands—so Calvert travels to the area incognito, accompanied by intelligence specialist Hunslett (Corin Redgrave). Then Calvert makes like James Bond while investigating suspects. Naturally, one of those suspects is a beautiful young woman, Charlotte (Nathalie Delon), who makes passes at Calvert even though he’s sure she’s an enemy agent. There’s also a subplot about a group of Scottish shark fishermen who may or may not be on the wrong side of the law. Along the way, the picture includes a brawl in a graveyard, a knife fight, an underwater duel involving a blowtorch, a mountain-climbing sequence, and a massive shootout in a cave.
Deciphering the plot of When Eight Bells Toll isn’t worth the trouble—as is true for most pictures derived from MacLean’s loopy narratives—but the movie is fun to watch. In addition to employing his superlative dramatic skills, the icy Hopkins is cast well because his character is a derisive prick—it’s easy to believe that Calvert could survive in a line of work fraught with danger. Better still, director Étienne Périer and cinematographer Arthur Ibbertson make fine use of the film’s Scottish locations. The sky is heavily overcast in nearly every scene, and the ground looks dirty and wet throughout, so it feels like Calvert’s facing opposition from the climate as well as from criminals. A foreboding castle is a principal location, and the movie’s most exciting sequence features a helicopter crash on a high cliff, followed by a harrowing bit of Calvert trying to survive underwater in the wrecked chopper while killers prowl the ocean surface. Reprising a trope common to the spy genre, the behavior of the villains in When Eight Bells Toll makes no sense whatsoever, and the hero’s resourcefulness reaches godlike proportions. This is pure male fantasy, complete with a rousing, 007-influenced music score by Walter Scott—who, incidentally, later had a sex change and continued her career under the name Angela Morley.
When Eight Bells Toll: FUNKY