Tuesday, July 29, 2014

BRANNIGAN: Blu-ray (UA 1975) Twilight Time

John Wayne brings his own rugged brand of American justice to the U.K. in Douglas Hickox’s Brannigan (1975); a crime/thriller with the 6ft. 4 inch Wayne as the proverbial fish out of water, and towering over his diminutive costars, Judy Geeson and Richard Attenborough. Part of Brannigan’s charm is its retro clash of ethnicities. The screenplay is a mangled morass of deftly executed action sequences and some very bad puns written by Christopher Trumbo, Michael Butler, William P. McGivern and William W. Norton, who seem to revel in their interminable references to our protagonist hailing from Chicago; a proverbial hotbed for vigilantism. Indeed, Chicago had received such a bad rap on the popular TV series, M Squad, that mayor Richard Daley basically imposed a citywide moratorium on any production shooting within its borders – Brannigan being the exception to that rule.
However, Lieutenant Jim Brannigan doesn’t play by the rules. Arguably, he doesn’t even know what they are – and frankly, doesn’t care. Such myopic pursuit of the criminal element is, on the one hand, highly commendable. For Brannigan is like the proverbial pit bull who just won’t let up once he’s managed to sink his determination and his heels into an investigation. On the other hand, he does tend to register like the elephant in the room – a glaring social outcast who typifies what’s wrong with ‘the Yanks’: as Judy Geeson’s Det. Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher playfully puts it, “oversexed, overpaid and over here!”
The other half of Brannigan’s charm derives from its breathtaking usage of locations – some barely recognizable today. Except for a few brief inserts shot at Shepperton Studios – and a prologue taking place in and around Chicago’s old Terminal 1 at O’Hare airport – Brannigan is a joyous romp around London – looking luminously lush and uncluttered - with some spectacular action sequences lensed in Piccadilly, Battersea and Wandsworth; the best, probably Brannigan’s hot pursuit of Charlie-the-Handle (James Booth) in a canary yellow Ford Capri that jumps the half-raised Tower Bridge before getting lodged atop a construction pylon on the other side; just a little too James Bond for my tastes – and no surprise given stunt coordinator, Peter Brayham also worked on two of the superspy’s most memorable outings: Goldfinger (1964) and Live and Let Die (1973). The difficulty herein is Wayne’s elder statesman is no James Bond, nor is he as agile to pull off a reasonable facsimile; Wayne’s ‘man of action from the American west’ having considerably slowed after his bout and temporary recovery from the cancer soon to claim his life. Indeed, John Wayne had only a pair of pictures left in him after Brannigan.
However, no movie with John Wayne in it is ever entirely a waste of time, and Brannigan certainly has its moments. That these fail to come together as anything more substantial than a highly disposable action/adventure yarn (one that, quite frankly, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at times) is something of a disappointment; ditto for Dominic Frontiere’s heavy-handed underscore; a bizarre blend of atypical seventies ‘twinkle-twinkle/get down’ and bombastic traditionalism; its orchestral themes meant to foreshadow danger and daring do but, on the whole, grotesquely overpowering the gritty combat. About the action: it’s typically destructive. Nothing impresses more than bombs going off inside toilets, sports cars bursting into impossibly hellish fireballs and exchanges of gunfire photographed in slow-mo.  There’s even a barroom brawl – in spirit and execution, wholly excised from any one of Wayne’s vintage Hollywood westerns, but probably having its closest counterpart to the comical free-wheeling exchange Wayne shared with costar Stewart Granger in 1960’s North to Alaska; an infinitely superior film.   
Homage is one thing. Struggling for a moment of purpose – quite another. Finding instances of originality – again, something more. Too often, Brannigan seems to be desperately searching for purpose and originality, falling back on moments customarily earmarked as vintage John Wayne-esque. Alas, John Wayne is not a ‘plug n’ play’ kind of actor but an ensconced figure in cinema mythology. He requires the perfect setting to click, and Brannigan isn’t it. Yet, despite the miscasting – and some badly scripted dialogue (Jim Brannigan’s calling card is a dumb “Knock. Knock” joke) – Wayne’s inimitable charm, his sparse acting style and his laid back presence – all conspire to make Lieutenant Jim Brannigan quite an engaging fellow; sort of like an American patriot cut and pasted into a Victorian novel.
In some ways, Brannigan seems a natural extension of Wayne’s inborn gifts as a man of integrity and accomplishment; the western superman trading in his chaps and horse – though not his holster – for a V-6 and plaid sports jacket – also a pair of unlikely compatriots: Det. Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher and crotchety Scotland Yard Commander Sir Charles Swann Bart (Richard Attenborough); Wayne’s ancient law man ever so slightly morphing into the tough cop of today, still walking tall and carrying a very big stick. Brannigan actually beats Chicago counterfeiter, Julian (Barry Denan) over the head with a two by four at the start of the picture – a very big stick, indeed. Wayne had resisted this change of venue for some time, turning down director, Don Siegel for Dirty Harry (1971). In the wake of Dirty Harry’s trail-blazing popularity and overwhelming box office success, Wayne – slightly chagrined, and perhaps, wary of the fact he had suddenly become a dinosaur – took a leap of faith with John Struges’ McQ (1974). While McQ was decidedly a dower and downbeat excursion into the heart of abject cynicism, Brannigan returns Wayne to more light-hearted film fare.
Given the stature of Wayne’s costar, Richard Attenborough, concessions were made to film a brief scene inside the usually restricted Garrick Club dining room. Attenborough, a member of the actor’s club in good standing, worked out these details: also the bit where Brannigan is forced by the club to borrow a tie in order to get past the front door. The tie becomes a sight gag that pays off later on, when Swann informs Brannigan he wants him to surrender his firearms – referring to Brannigan’s weapon only as ‘that item’, Wayne casually tossing Swann the necktie instead. The point made: Brannigan isn’t about to hand over the one prop that makes him uniquely American. But he’ll gladly put on – then give up – the monkey suit of ‘old school’ traditions. Despite the casting of Attenborough, and another heavy hitter, Mel Ferrer – also John Vernon (something of a seventies film fave for playing the baddie), Brannigan is Wayne’s show all the way; a vitrine for his star power whose magnitude we just don’t see anymore.
Our story begins in Chicago with the aforementioned bad ‘knock-knock’ joke, as Irish-American Lieutenant Jim Brannigan kicks down a door to expose small-time hood, Julian’s counterfeiting operation. In short order, Brannigan beats Julian over the head with a loose two by four and binds his hands behind his back. Actually, Brannigan’s after a bigger fish: Ben Larkin (Vernon) whom he quickly discovers has fled his jurisdiction and, in fact, the country. Taking a plane to London, Brannigan is soon introduced to Det. Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher, who spends most of her time fending off Brannigan’s male chauvinism. Wayne’s ‘you sure are a fine looking gal, Jenny’ is a page ripped straight out of his own playbook as the macho western hero. It doesn’t really make for flirtation though; what, with the vast discrepancies in their respective ages, and, pretty soon, Brannigan adopts a more avuncular approach to their burgeoning friendship.
In the meantime Larkin meets with his attorney, Mel Fields (Ferrer), ordering him to do something about Brannigan. Larkin would like nothing better than to see his arch nemesis sporting a toe tag. So, he tells Fields to hire a hit man to take care of Brannigan; the New Orleans’ assassin – Gorman (Daniel Pilon) – arriving on the same plane as Brannigan and thereafter cropping up in the most unlikely places – waiting for just the right opportunity to strike. Larkin realizing his time is short; Scotland Yard only too willing to hand over a known felon to the ‘proper authorities’ state’s side. Alas, it is not to be; Larkin, chloroformed and smuggled in a portable steam bath by a pair of goons; Charlie-the-Handle (James Booth) and Angell (Arthur Batanides). Chagrined, Scotland Yard’s Commander Sir Charles Swann Bart is forced into a joint investigation with Brannigan.
The pair start off on a fairly adversarial note; Sir Charles ordering Brannigan to surrender his firearms because he is in violation of Britain’s gun laws. Brannigan, of course, refuses, putting Swann in an impossible situation. To arrest Brannigan is to pointlessly delay the search for Larkin and stale Swann ridding himself of two men he would rather see aboard a British Airways flight bound for the U.S. So, Swann makes Brannigan promise he won’t use his gun while in England. Oh yeah, like that’ll work!
Brannigan has more success befriending Jenny, who confides some personal details about her life. It all makes for some cozy buddy-buddy bonding, meant as filler between the disjointed action sequences. But what of Larkin? Where is he and who kidnapped him? Alas, the screenplay momentarily leaves everyone in the dark; the plot meandering as Larkin’s ring finger is snapped off and mailed to Sir Charles by the kidnappers as an obvious threat. Just in case, Swann has the digit fingerprinted. It is Larkin’s. Enter Mel Fields under the auspices of wanting to pay the ransom before any more pieces of his former employer get Fed-Exed to the police. A money drop is arranged at Piccadilly Square; Brannigan, Jenny, Swann and Inspector Traven (John Stride) all quietly observing as Fields drives his Rolls-Royce up to a Royal Post mail box and dumps several large envelopes, presumably densely packed with ransom money, into the slot. Still, nothing happens.
The mail is picked up and taken to a nearby post office, a courier on motorcycle (Tony Robinson) retrieving the parcels and driving to the docks, pursued by Brannigan and the rest. When the courier tosses the parcels into the Thames, Brannigan asks if he can swim before pitching the courier into the water to fetch the loot. However, upon inspecting the contents, Brannigan discovers the envelopes are stuffed with strips of newspaper – not money.  Returning to the mail receptacle at Piccadilly Square, Brannigan deduces it has a false bottom – the money stolen right from under their noses and exported via the sewage tunnels beneath the city.
Later, at his rented apartment, Brannigan suspects his front door has been booby-trapped; setting off the rigged double-barrel shotgun behind it. The blast brings Jenny racing up his front steps. A few moments later, Brannigan deliberately triggers another bomb, this one hidden in his loo; the blast, so powerful, it takes out an entire wall to reveal a stunning view of the Albert Memorial. Jenny offers to put Brannigan up in her flat. Discovering from Jimmy the Bet (Brian Glover) a man named Drexel (Del Henney) is Charlie-the-Handle’s contact, Brannigan and Swann set up a good cop/bad cop sting operation inside a local pub; the scene devolving into a free-for-all when Brannigan triggers a fight on the pretext of being Drexel’s drinking buddy.
If Brannigan – the movie – has a weak spot, it is this saloon-styled kerfuffle; sort of an homage or kooky send-up to the western milieu with John Wayne and Richard Attenborough throwing some very theatrical punches that quite obviously fail to connect with their intended victims. Director Hickox doesn’t get close enough to the action to make it work, relying on a terribly disengaged overview instead. While Swann has Inspector Traven run in the whole lot of drunkards, he deliberately allows Brannigan and Drexel their escape relatively unscathed. Drexel takes Brannigan back to his flat where Brannigan pretends to follow Drexel’s lead by getting properly pissed. Unbeknownst to Brannigan, they have been tailed by Charlie-the-Handle, who wastes no time putting a bullet in Drexel’s back with a silencer while Brannigan isn’t looking. Brannigan then commandeers a nearby car and makes chase after Charlie across London. Alas, it ends badly for Brannigan at the Tower Bridge; his car narrowly making the jump across its raised drawbridge before becoming lodged atop a construction pylon on the other side.
That evening, Brannigan is looking over his case files in Jenny’s apartment, remembering he left a particularly important folder in his car. Jenny offers to retrieve it, unaware Gorman is patiently waiting outside to riddle the car with bullets. In the pouring rain, Gorman mistakes Jenny for Brannigan (more on this ridiculous case of mistaken identity in a moment). Realizing Jenny’s life is in great danger, Brannigan breaks the upstairs window and blindly fires at Gorman’s advancing sports car; the exchange of gunfire narrowly missing Jenny, who at least has the presence of mind to duck in the backseat. The part of Jennifer Thatcher had originally been intended for Vanessa Redgrave who was, in fact, almost John Wayne’s height. Hence, in a trench coat and fedora, seen from a distance on a poorly lit street at night – and, through dense foliage and a heavy downpour – one might forgive Gorman his inability to discern one from the other. But at five foot two inches, not even Helen Keller could mistake Judy Geeson for the six foot four Wayne.
Brannigan and Swann deduce Mel Field is behind everything, including the kidnapping – bluffing their way through a second money drop in the hopes of gaining a confession from him. But Field is slick and not about to incriminate himself, although he momentarily becomes ruffled when Swann suggests Scotland Yard is very close to apprehending Charlie-the-Handle, who will undoubtedly break under pressure and expose the whole lot. A second ransom drop is planned, Field wise to the tracking device hidden in his car and managing to affix it to a nearby van heading in the opposite direction.  Arriving at the docks, Field is immensely pleased with himself; addressing the kidnappers by their Christian names – Charlie-the-Handle and Geef (Don Henderson) - causing Larkin to momentarily believe Field might be in on their plan to do away with him. Instead, Field assassinates Charlie and Geef, hurrying to free Larkin from his restraints. Alas, their victory is short-lived, the pair discovering too late a second homing device hidden in the ransom money.
Brannigan and Swann burst in and apprehend Field and Larkin without a struggle. As the police take the pair into custody, Gorman shows up in his sports car, determined to finish off Brannigan. It’s a moot showdown at best, with Jennifer needlessly placing herself in harm’s way; spared being run over by Brannigan, who shoots Gorman through the windshield and in the eye, causing him to lose control and drive his car off the edge of the docks; the impact from his overturned vehicle striking shallow water, inexplicably causing it to burst into flames. In the final moments, Jenny bids Brannigan a fond farewell at the Tower Hotel; her sweet peck on the cheek curiously tinged with a faint whiff of romance as Brannigan departs for the airport.
Despite its engrossing and colorful vistas of London, lensed by Gerry Fisher, Brannigan is a fairly unexceptional crime thriller. It sacrifices good solid actors to a mediocre story, buffeted by Dominic Frontiere’s utterly painful underscore. Listening to Frontiere’s musical claptrap is to be instantly teleported into a 70’s sitcom time warp, complete with generic cues and a central theme rarely complimenting the story or the action. Honestly, this sounds like it was scored for a light romantic comedy or worse – an episode of The Love Boat: not a seventies’ thriller.
It’s fairly obvious John Wayne is still recovering from his own smite at having turned down Dirty Harry. Wayne gives us Jim Brannigan as a very cool customer; also, something of a joke. Indeed, there are moments throughout where Wayne can barely contain his own amusement, perhaps in a sort of ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this…aw, what the hell?’ attitude that retains its ability to be ever-so-slightly coy and occupying for the rest of us. As a star of the first magnitude, John Wayne can, in fact, get by on his good – if aged – looks; also his charisma riding gunshot; a lopsided grin or raised brow able to insinuate with volumes of subtext. We don’t need John Wayne to be anything more or better than himself even if the material is fairly pedestrian.
Wayne has excellent rapport with Richard Attenborough and Judy Geeson; but the friendships cultivated in the Trumbo/Butler/McGivern/Norton screenplay are rudimentary at best. Worse – the film’s dialogue is missing the necessary bon mots to make us care what happens to Brannigan – or anyone else, for that matter.  The lighter moments (and there are many) are joyless and flat; the action sequences, hacked together with the most elementary understanding of how to incrementally build a chase or shootout to its satisfactory conclusion. It’s difficult to discount Brannigan as an out and out failure. It does, after all, have John Wayne to recommend it. And costars Geeson, Attenborough, Mel Ferrer and John Vernon are giving this their all. Ultimately, the movie falls apart because of its’ uncomfortable obviousness and fairly preposterous succession of overly stylized and unnecessarily complicated vignettes. Brannigan is a film for die hard John Wayne fans – period. The rest need not risk this opportunity to see the Duke fumbling around for something more eloquent to say or more meaningful to do.
The Fox/MGM Blu-ray via Twilight Time has its issues. On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this hi-def transfer. Alas, nothing to distinguish it either. Gerry Fisher’s cinematography looks clean and crisp in certain scenes, and softly focused – even occasionally blurry – in others, suffering from some noticeable color/space fluctuations. Flesh tones veer dangerously close to piggy pink, and several interior sequences adopt a curiously rosy and/or yellowish tint. Exteriors are vibrantly executed; night scenes, duller by comparison. But fine detail, contrast and film grain levels, while hardly stellar, are nevertheless consistent. The source for this 1080p transfer must have been in exceptional condition because there are no age-related anomalies; no digital manipulations either.
For a DTS 1.0 mono, Brannigan’s audio is remarkably robust. Dialogue is crisp and sound effects roar to life; Dominic Frontiere’s swingin’ score sounding just fine. Twilight Time provides us with two noteworthy extras: their usual isolate score – in 5.1 and lots of fun to listen to without the visuals – and a fairly entertaining audio commentary hosted by TT’s Nick Redman and featuring Brannigan co-star, Judy Geeson; a real class act. We also get Geeson’s home movies on the making of the film. Finally, there’s the original trailer to appreciate, plus Julie Kirgo’s essay. Bottom line: Brannigan isn’t a dog, but it isn’t a winner either; it’s middling effort marginally elevated by John Wayne’s presence.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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