Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Reckoning (1971)

          An interesting character study about an ambitious businessman who releases his inner animal after being dragged back to his working-class roots, The Reckoning boasts an intense leading performance by Shakespearean actor Nicol Williamson, the fiery Scotsman perhaps best known to American audiences for his spellbinding turn as Merlin the Magician in Excalibur (1981). In The Reckoning, he plays Michael Marler, a fast-rising executive at a London business-machine company.
          Arrogant and merciless, Michael cuts a swath through local ladies, even though he’s married to the long-suffering Rosemary (Ann Bell), and he’s brutally competitive with coworkers. However, he acknowledges the limits of propriety, if not necessarily those of morality. Michael’s world is rocked when he’s called back to his hometown of Liverpool for a deathbed visit with his hardscrabble Irishman father. It turns out Michael’s “da” was fatally injured in a bar fight with local motorcycle thugs, so Michael reasonably expects the police to investigate. The British Bobbies show little interest in examining the death of an Irishman, so Liverpool locals pressure Michael to exact street-level justice. “For Christ’s sake,” Michael wails, “it’s way past the middle of the twentieth century, and here I am, expected to kill some yob I don’t even know!”
          Whether he goes through with the deed is best discovered in the context of the movie, but suffice to say that contemplating the most violent aspects of his nature releases Michael from any self-imposed obligations to honor legality. This epiphany emboldens him to act out even more boorishly than before, which manifests as brazen boozing and debauchery, and it liberates him to sabotage his immediate workplace superior. Watching Williamson chart Michael’s slide down into an amoral abyss is fascinating, since the actor’s craft is beyond reproach, so it ultimately doesn’t matter too much that the script by John McGrath (from a novel by Patrick Hall) meanders. Williamson is in virtually every scene, and he’s compelling even when the story loses focus.
          Adding considerable interest is crisp photography by the great British cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth, who eschews his signature ’70s style; instead of the dense haze filters he used for other projects, Unsworth opts for long lenses and smoked sets in order to create depth. Jack Gold, the journeyman British director behind a long string of respectable projects for film and television, opts for a few cheap tricks, like smash cuts and sudden zooms, but, for the most part, he wisely lets Williamson’s acting occupy center stage. Veteran composer Malcolm Arnold contributes a subtly Hitchcockian score that ups the tension level, and the movie benefits from solid location photography and a sturdy if unremarkable supporting cast. The ending is a bit dodgy, with a way-too-obvious final scene that would have been more effective if placed elsewhere in the film, but, even with its flaws, The Reckoning is a potent little dose of nastiness. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via

The Reckoning: GROOVY

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