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Case Number 06272: Small Claims Court

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The High Commissioner

MGM // 1968 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Maurice Cobbs (Retired) // February 24th, 2005

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All Rise...

Judge Maurice Cobbs would like to assure you that even though this movie is set in London in the sixties, the Commissioner is not, in fact, under the influence of drugs.

The Charge

He is a man of peace. He is a murderer.

The Case

Rod Taylor (The Time Machine) is Sgt. Scobie Malone, a two-fisted Australian detective who is ordered by his superior to go to England and arrest Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer, Murder By Decree) for the murder of his wife 25 years earlier. Although Malone suspects that the charges are little more than political maneuvering, he agrees to take on the case. However, the situation is more delicate than Malone realizes: Sir James is the key mediator in sensitive cold war trade negotiations and cannot be taken away. Malone agrees to give Sir James the time he needs to complete his negotiations, even though someone has been leaking information about the secret meetings, but finds that the real challenge will be keeping the Australian diplomat alive—because Sir James has been targeted for assassination by shadowy parties who desperately want his negotiations to fail.

Chief agent for those shadowy parties—revealed early on to be Commies—is the alluring but duplicitous Madame Cholon (Daliah Lavi, Casino Royale). The slinky exotic wastes no time getting the hapless Sgt. Malone into bed, and I suppose I can't blame him, except that I personally could never envision myself amorously entangled with a woman in a beehive hairdo, regardless of how otherwise well-proportioned she may be. After they experience what the French call the "little death," Madame Cholon tries to see to it that Malone experiences the full-sized one. But her cheap Commie stooges are no match for the clever tough guy Malone, who manages to escape with little more than a few bruises due to some quick thinking. By this time, incidentally, the astute viewer will have recognized Madame Cholon's chief lieutenant as Burt Kwouk, otherwise known as Inspector Clouseau's fanatical manservant Cato, of the Pink Panther series. He also had a bit part in Casino Royale. Coincidence? Eh, probably.

Actually, it's pretty funny that Malone is always getting his butt handed to him by the bad guys in this movie; Rod Taylor (an ex-prizefighter) always seems more than capable of taking care of himself. At the same time, it's almost refreshing to see a hero who can't effortlessly fight off legions of thugs; remember, this was the heyday of the Bond Thriller. In fact, Malone is a great, charismatic tough guy, just hard enough for the guys and just charming enough for the ladies.

The High Commissioner is essentially what happens when great actors happen to a mediocre script. The story isn't that thrilling, despite a wonderful premise and some slam-bang fight scenes; one particularly neat assassination scene recalls Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, as a killer plans to use a rigged television camera to dispatch Sir James. But for all that, the plot is largely disposable, with its vague trade negotiations between unnamed countries represented by anonymous dignitaries. For all we know, Sir James could be working for peace and economic cooperation between Mauritania and the Federated States of Micronesia, which makes the dramatic impact of his crusade rather underwhelming and keeps you mystified as to why somebody thinks the talks are serious enough to kill someone over. Not even Sir James himself seems sure why he's going to all the bother, or what he specifically hopes to accomplish, except for some vague boilerplate about freeing the world from hunger and violence and making sure that kids and puppies can play in the streets or something (all of which are problems that can be solved, it seems, by holding swank little cocktail parties and afternoon get-togethers for tea). What could be so bad about that? It casts the bad guys in the light of being bad for badness' sake, rather than giving them some sort of reasoning, however twisted, for wanting to stop Sir James cold. Of course, these are Communists were dealing with; they don't really need a reason to bump off a good guy. After all, to a political system that killed over a hundred million people just for kicks, what's one more Aussie peacemaker? Fortunately, the talks are being held in secret, which means that the scriptwriter is never forced to ante up and deliver a suitably serious situation to back up all the intrigue.

Much more interesting is the intrigue surrounding the alleged murder of Sir James's wife, another plot element that is never explained, but to much greater effect. We know practically from the start that Malone believes that Sir James is innocent of the charges, but can we be sure of that? Christopher Plummer is marvelous as the dreamy and idealistic diplomat who may—or may not—be a murderer. Although he's very elegant, there is pure, tempered steel behind Sir James's clear blue eyes, and it makes you wonder…and that wondering helps inject an extra degree of tension into the story. Could the assassination attempts have something to do with the murder, instead of the diplomatic conference? If Sir James is innocent, then who's guilty? Well, I'm not going to tell you—you'll just have to see the movie and find out.

One possible suspect is Sir James's current wife, the beautiful, sensitive Lady Shelia Quentin (Lilli Palmer, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders). Lady Quentin loves her husband unconditionally, and Malone's sudden appearance makes her very nervous. Does she have it in her to commit a murder? Again, I'm not telling—but the question of what she is and isn't capable of doing on behalf of her husband comes up more than once, and in fact drives the movie toward its explosive conclusion. Equally devoted to Sir James is his protective and witty secretary, Lisa Pretorius (Swedish quasi-bombshell Camilla Sparv, of Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round; if you haven't seen it, go right now and find a copy!), and Clive Revill is in fine form as butler Joseph. In fact, the stuffy Revill's dry wit contrasted with the working-class Malone offers some of the movie's best moments. (Side note to Clive Revill: Don't worry. No amount of editing or fancy computer graphics can make me forget that you were the Emperor first.)

The disc's audiovisual quality is very fine: The picture is nice and crisp, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio mix especially deserves mention for sounding bold enough to pass for stereo. I actually double- and triple-checked to confirm that it was, in fact, mono—it's that good. There are, however, no extras.

The High Commissioner is quite enjoyable, but it's the performances that really shine here and that make this a movie worth watching, despite the sometimes weak and uneven script. After deliberation, and taking into account the fine acting, this court grants the High Commissioner a pardon.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: MGM
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Action
• Classic
• Drama
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• None

Accomplices

• IMDb








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