Bryan Forbes is a director whose name doesn’t naturally leap resoundingly to mind when one makes a list of the great English filmmakers of yesteryear, but in actual fact his filmography contains its fair share of memorable moments if not mini-classics, from “Whistle Down the Wind” in 1961, to 1964’s “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” and the paranoid feminist Sci-Fi of “The Stepford Wives” in 1975 -- all of which reveal a knack for quietly measured suspense and the subtle rhythms of psychological drama. “Deadfall” is an often overlooked slice of late-sixties potboiler drama, adapted from a long-forgotten novel of the period that now seems hopelessly dated by a louche attempt to incorporate over the top, taboo-breaking relationship dynamics in amongst a rude mix of suspense and standard-for-the-era crime caper material.
Starring Michael Caine during a period in the sixties (which lasted for some time, if truth be told) when he would apparently accept virtually any role proffered him, “Deadfall” is a well-made, stylishly rendered film, with some glorious sixties colour photography and stunning Spanish locations; but it seems to exist only for the extended fifteen minutes of (literally) orchestrated suspense that come in the middle, while mostly seeming to fall away into sterile lethargy during the hour or so of talky, unevenly paced melodrama sprawling on either side of the star set-piece.
The real star of the proceedings though, is perhaps John Barry’s unmistakable score. The opening theme qualifies almost as self-pastiche, so derivative is it of the composer’s well-known swaggering Bond theme melodies, even going so far as to employ the strident dramatic range of Shirley Bassey in the title song ‘My Love Has Two Faces’, and thereby setting up an -- as it turns out, incorrect -- expectation that the film is intent on delivering a similar recipe of globe-trotting romance, entertainingly overcooked action sequences, and attractive locations as that enduringly popular franchise. Perhaps its failure to live up to such populist expectations explains the film’s massive belly flop at the box office and relative obscurity since, although it is all delivered in the style of an appropriately slick showcase of lovingly photographed, jet-set, period consumerist values.
The thinly paced action begins promisingly and obliquely enough with a body being fished from the ocean by some inscrutable detectives on the Spanish coast, and Michael Caine apparently relaxing in a serenely picturesque sanatorium for recovering alcoholics while attempting to befriend a millionaire playboy called Salinas (David Buck), also drying out there in the Spanish sun. Expectations of Ian Fleming-style espionage intrigue and Bondian glamour are further facilitated by the appearance of Fé Moreau (Italian actress Giovanna Ralli): a mysterious but beautiful visitor, who asks to see Mr Henry Clarke (Caine) in order to make him a cryptically worded offer of collaboration between herself and her much older husband Richard (Eric Portman), in the sanatorium’s prettily landscaped grounds.
It turns out that Caine is a top cat burglar, merely posing as a recovering alcoholic in order to get close to his next mark – the debonair Salinas. The dead body in the water was that of the last man to attempt a robbery in one of Salinas’s heavily guarded and apparently booby-trapped properties. The Moreaus are themselves a husband-and-wife team of jewel thieves, but are in need of Henry’s particular form of expertise for their next job, which requires the scaling of the top floor of a remote Spanish villa in order to get to a secured safe containing half-a-million’s worth of diamonds. After making his own checks on the couple, during which time he finds out that both Richard and his wife’s father were prominent members of the Gestapo during the war, he takes the job anyway – primarily because he is by this stage hugely attracted to Fé, and his investigations have also revealed that Richard is a homosexual who openly dallies with foreign-speaking gigolos in front of his younger wife.
Circumstance dictates that the working partnership between Richard and Henry develops into a long-term one, and it becomes inevitable that Henry and Fé will embark on a passionate affair. They do so, and lust becomes love on both sides after Henry moves in to one of the Moreau’s post-robbery retreats and Fé splashes out on a sleek silver sports car for her lover, while Richard looks on impassively.
Henry becomes desperate for Fé to leave Richard so he can have her all to himself, yet she continually refuses. By this stage Richard has also moved his latest Spanish-speaking boyfriend (Carlos Pierre) in to join the three of them, resulting in an uneasy couples’ standoff while the quartet wait for it to become safe to exchange their stolen hoard for cash abroad. Henry starts casing out the party-going Salinas once again, but after a shocking revelation about Richard’s relationship with his wife (and the couple’s strange marriage) is forced out of him by Henry making him an ultimatum while she is away -- that he divorce Fé, or Henry will make public crimes from Richard’s Nazi past – the distraught cat burglar makes a reckless and ill-planned attempt on the Salinas property.
This movie bears all the hallmarks of being Bryan Forbes’ attempt to mould the perfunctory material into his tribute Hitchcock film. Caine’s stock was at its youthful, handsome height; character actor Eric Portman steals the show as the urbane and calculating amoral philosopher-thief Richard Moreau; and the screen is crammed with audience-pleasing, ‘60s-tinged conspicuous consumption in the style already made popular by Bond and his ilk -- with glamorous women, exotic locations and shiny sports cars galore soaking-up the romance of Barry’s sweeping genre music cues. Yet it is only in the central sequence -- in which the Hitchcock-isms get to be indulged with abandon -- that the film comes briefly to life. Forbes intercuts showing the owner of the villa whose contents are to be divested of its diamonds, attending a classical music concert while Caine and Portman carry out their immaculately timed, precisely engineered raid. The obvious Hitchcock parallel the material brings to mind is with “To Catch a Thief” but both versions of Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” surely provide the main influence: a concert sequence is key to the central action of the plot in both films; here, the colour remake with James Stewart and Doris Day, in which composer Bernard Hermann is seen conducting the orchestra during the film’s most memorable sequence, even induces Barry to rehearse exactly the same cameo role-playing gimmick.
Arguably, the fifteen minute sequence, coming roughly half-way through the film after a somewhat laboured build-up, plays an even more important role here than it does in the Hitchcock films. As well as constant cutting between the two scenes of action (one musical, the other physical), Barry’s ‘Romance For Guitar & Orchestra’ – a piece led by a Cavatina-style Spanish guitar melody line that anticipates Stanley Myers’ piece for “The Deer Hunter”, performed by John Williams, by some ten years – forms a soundtrack that simultaneously choreographs and maps out the emotional highs and lows of Caine and Portman’s robbery with its underscore, starting with the fluent professionalism of the opening guitar runs while the duo diligently carry out the initial stages of their plan, and transforming into a dramatic orchestral sweep when they realise with despair that the safe they’ve so minutely planned the operation for has, in fact, been replaced by a newer, tougher model that leaves them no way of opening it in the allotted time. The music swells and becomes accordingly more frantic as a distraught and almost unbalanced Caine sends Portman to join his wife in the getaway car while he attempts to pick-axe the safe out of its brick cubby hole, heave it improbably out of the window and lug it across the expansive courtyard of the villa. Forbes’ evident skill in choreographing and underscoring the action with the music and intercutting between the two scenes as the villa’s owner makes his way home (these days it would probably be done with Brian De Palma-styled split screen effects as well) almost papers over the fact that Caine seems to be endowed with almost superhuman powers of strength during the scene.
Unfortunately, the picture never manages to build on the beautifully sustained suspense of this central sequence, and soon sinks back into the meandering one-note drama of domestic turmoil embodied in the Moreaus' weird marital relationship and Henry Clarke’s jealous love for the glamorous Fé. An all too brief one scene appearance by the brilliant Leonard Rossiter as a private eye employed by Clarke to do his checking-up on the Moreaus, and a overtly foregrounded appearance by Forbes’ wife Nanette Newman, that turns out to be of no significance to the plot whatsoever, despite being signposted early on as though it were, bring little of value to the material with only Eric Portman (perhaps most remembered today for being one of the many Number Twos that tormented Patrick McGoohan during his time as “The Prisoner”) impressing with his droll, chilled urbanity as the former Nazi who turns out to have a most improper marriage. The key revelation, which is supposed to be a shock twist that drives the film to its conclusive set-piece robbery scene, in fact comes across with all the force of a limp lettuce leaf striking a rhinoceros. Similar themes would be dealt with a great deal more powerfully and effectively by Roman Polanski six years later, in “Chinatown”.
“Deadfall” gets a rather colourful and good-looking transfer on Optimum’s catalogue DVD release. The mono audio does the job adequately, as well. Beware of the disc’s only extra though -- a faded, full-screen trailer, culled from a video source that, though memorable for its ridiculously overwrought voice-over tag-lines, is not to be viewed before watching the film since, astonishingly, it gives away the outcome of Caine’s climactic one-man heist at the end!