Fascinating but flawed, this adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel was made for the BBC and never properly released in the U.S. Nonetheless, the picture tells such an interesting story, and features such a masterful performance by leading man Peter O’Toole, that it’s well worth seeking out for fans of offbeat thrillers. The film begins, literally, with a bang. Absent any explanation for how and why the circumstances emerged, the first scene features Sir Robert Hunter (O’Toole) pointing a powerful rifle at Adolf Hitler, who is enjoying an outdoor lunch near a country estate. Alas, Hunter’s shot misses the mark. Then the would-be assassin is captured by Hitler’s guards and tortured for an explanation of why he tried to kill Der Fürher. Incredibly, Hunter escapes and makes his way back to England—through a combination of endurance, luck, and wit—but that doesn’t end his troubles. Dogged German agents track Hunter down, forcing the Englishman to go into hiding even as global politics change perceptions of what he did.
Set in the 1930s, before Germany and the UK became enemies, the film plays a clever game of withholding the truth about Hunter’s motivation. His planned killing wouldn’t have been an act of war, per se, but the revelation of why he put Hitler in the crosshairs is too cryptic to be entirely satisfying. Further, director Clive Donner and screenwriter Frederic Raphael employ a few awkward literary devices, such as having Robert explain his feelings during soliloquies and having various characters provide narration at random moments. Yet these are essentially minor issues, considering that most of Rogue Male is compelling and surprising. The first act, filled with bravado and danger and violence, is mesmerizing. The middle of the picture, which alternates between Hunter’s secret-agent type operations in London and his guerilla tactics in the countryside, twists in unexpected ways. And the finale, an extended showdown between Robert and his chief pursuer, bursts with intelligence in the form of debate and strategy.
Raphael’s script works equally well during wordless moments, such as a long chase scene set in the London subway, and during lengthy dialogue exchanges. Similarly, O’Toole thrives in both extremes. His graceful physicality makes his silent scenes magnetic, and few actors convey the British idiom more entertainingly than O’Toole. (After being tortured and pushed off a cliff, Hunter dryly remarks, “I’ve had a bit of a bother.”) Also benefiting from Raphael’s best lines are costars John Standing, who plays an Englishman collaborating with the Nazis, and movie veteran Alistair Sim, who plays Hunter’s politically connected uncle. In fact, the flair of the movie’s dialogue is neatly encapsulated by one of Sim’s lines: “Shooting heads of state is never in season—they’re protected, like osprey.” Ultimately, however, it’s the sleek melding of urbane language and visceral visuals that keeps Rogue Male interesting. Despite significant hiccups in its storytelling, Rogue Male covers unique terrain in a unique fashion.
Rogue Male: GROOVY