The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Pick any assassination attempt -- successful or not -- in history, and you've got a problem when it comes to turning that attempt into a movie.  If the person being gunned for is even somewhat well known, you know the end of the movie before it starts.  Your average Joe Blow doesn't mean much so a hit attempt can leave you guessing, but what's the point?  Political figures on the other hand are pretty obvious if they're going to survive or not. So goes a major problem with 1975's Hennessy.

Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, all major, universally well-known names that have been assassinated over the last 150 years.  Not on that list? Queen Elizabeth of England.  She's the target in this British-made movie detailing the true story of one man's suicidal mission to take out the Queen and as much of Parliament as he can.  Now I'm no genius, but some 30 years later, Queen Elizabeth is still kicking so the attempt must fail at some point.  That's not a sure thing for movie failure, but it's got to be handled the right way, keep you guessing as to HOW he'll fail, but that sense of urgency is missing here, and that ends up derailing the story.

An Irishman with some past IRA connections, Nile Hennessy (Rod Steiger), turns down an offer to join the IRA in a mission, wanting to live his life.  Soon after though, his wife and daughter are accidentally gunned down by British troops, and something inside him snaps.  Nile decides to go on a suicide mission with hopes of killing the Queen and the member of Parliament.  Two groups are working against him.  The police (including Trevor Howard and Richard Johnson) follow the clues, trying to catch up with him, while the IRA -- wary of the political backlash from a possible connection to Hennessy and an assassination attempt -- puts a hit out on him.  The odds are against Hennessy, but with nothing to lose, not much is going to slow him down.

The movie I consistently found myself thinking of while watching Hennessy was the overall much better Day of the Jackal, the story of a possibly true hit attempt on Charles De Gaulle.  You know going in that De Gaulle survives, but it's getting there that makes the movie a classic.  Tension, worry, near panic dominate the movie as it appears that maybe -- just maybe -- the Jackal actually pulls off the job.  In Hennessy, that same fear and worry just isn't there.  Steiger's Hennessy is an easy semi-bad guy to root for, but the character is pretty vanilla after his motivations are presented.  When the attempt does come, it's dullsville.  The chase after the attempt is equally weak and caps off a movie with a workable idea that never quite clicks.

Where some actors play themselves over and over again, Steiger is an actor who always played himself but in a wide variety of ways if that makes any sense.  His characters were always these ultra-intense dudes who looked seconds away from just blowing up at all times.  Hennessy is a man with nothing to lose on a mission that he HOPES and WANTS to end with him dying.  His wife and daughter were callously shot down, and he can only think of one thing; revenge on the biggest scale possible.  He doesn't have political inclinations and he doesn't hope to deliver a message.  He is pissed at the world, and he intends to make the world suffer just as much as he is.  Once Nile gets involved with the assassination, there's no more development late so the pacing can be a little off.

While Steiger is an interesting choice to play a burned Irishman -- the accent isn't as bad as you'd think -- his female co-star is interesting but not in a good way.  Lee Remick plays Kate Brooke, the widowed wife of an old friend of Nile's.  After years without seeing him, she invites him into her house while he copes with the loss of his family.  She knows something is going on but seems to choose not to push the issue.  Bad attempt at an Irish/English accent aside, Remick is given little to do in a pointless supporting part.  She's dispatched when the story requires it with one of the more unceremonious deaths I've seen in awhile. 

As for the police pursuing Hennessy, Johnson joins Steiger as the main reason to catch this movie.  He's a cop who's worked undercover in Ireland and has paid the consequences, both physically and emotionally.  He is a shell of the man he used to be, and like his counterpart, is motivated by a mix of anger and persereverance that won't let him quit, knowing if he fails the repercussions will be epic.  Howard's part is more of a cameo, but it's always cool to see him no matter the size of the part.  The acting is the lone reason to check this one out because otherwise it just doesn't have much going for it.

Hennessy <--- TCM clips (1975): **/****

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