Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

          If you, dear reader, want an example of the sort of film whose limited charms can win me over, then I present to you The Wilby Conspiracy, a contrived thriller unique only in the most inconsequential of ways. Set in apartheid-era South Africa, this potboiler concerns a black-power activist (Sidney Poitier), recently released from a brutal incarceration as a political prisoner. Thanks to a series of convenient plot twists, he ends up on the run with a shady Brit played by Michael Caine, and the two pursue a hidden treasure (literally) that can save them both. In other words, never mind the story. The fun, at least for me, is in the moment-to-moment details. Poitier finds an effective channel for his over-the-top intensity; Caine is entertainingly bitchy; Niccol Williamson slays as the heartless, quick-witted Afrikaner cop hot on the duo’s trail; and composer Stanley Myers contributes a muscular score performed on assorted ethnic instruments.
          Under the smooth guidance of TV-trained director Ralph Nelson, Caine and Poitier make a dynamic combination, because each plays for the cheap seats in a way that’s compatible with the other’s exclamation-point style. Their Defiant Ones-style bickering, right down to the sequence in which they’re chained together, is a fun blast of macho, sweaty, and vaguely homoerotic adventure. The plot moves along at a terrific clip, zooming from one vibrant location to another, with highlights including a run-in at a crowded movie theater and a tense showdown outside a digging site.
          Featuring many passages of sharp dialogue—usually in the form of Williamson’s withering sarcasm—The Wilby Conspiracy is an exciting ride even if the destination is of no particular interest. Oh, and for extra-special ’70s flava, watch for Persis Khambatta, later to achieve sci-fi stardom as chrome-domed Lt. Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Wearing a full head of hair, she plays a medical professional sympathetic to Poitier’s cause, and they hook up in a weirdly overwrought sex scene. The Wilby Conspiracy is the kind of zesty escapism for which Saturday afternoons are made, and it’s just adult and smart enough to savor without feeling guilty afterwards.

The Wilby Conspiracy: FUNKY

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