Our look through Michael Caine’s back catalogue finds one of his toughest roles: we take a look at 1972’s Zee And Co.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’m taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for Zee & Co lie ahead…
Also Known as: X Y & Zee and Zee And Company
Directed by: Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes, High Road To China)
Tagline: Zee and her friends…they’re an absolute ball
Other Featured Geezers: Elizabeth Taylor as Zee Blakely, Susannah York as Stella, Margaret Leighton as Gladys, John Standing as Gordon, Mary Larkin as Rita, Michael Cashman as Gavin.
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
What’s it all about, Alfie?:
From a screenplay by the celebrated Irish author Edna O’Brien, Zee And Co follows the complicated love triangle of a toxic middle class married couple, Robert (Michael Caine) and Zee Blakely (Elizabeth Taylor), and the innocent young widow, Stella (Susannah York), who becomes unwittingly entangled in their sexual psychodrama after they meet her at a party. What follows are cringingly awkward dinners where Zee gives detailed descriptions of Parma Violets, unexpected lesbian seductions and lots and lots of shouting.
This is the first time that I’ve found a character that Caine has played completely unsympathetic. That is quite something considering that he played cold blooded murderers in The Last Valley and Get Carter.
We see Caine’s Robert Blakely psychologically and physical abuse his wife Zee, berate his poor secretary (telling her; “get your glasses repaired…get a pair on the bloody national health”) before seducing her just for the hell of it and we also see him shout. A lot. This is by far Caine’s shoutiest performance to date (which, again, is saying something as Caine does love a good old shout).
Robert Blakely, with his rampant yet joyless philandering, is perhaps a glimpse at what Caine’s Alfie Elkins could have become in middle age, stuck in an unsatisfying marriage and with the responsibilities of a 9 to 5 office job, having finally lost his youthful lust for life. Blakely’s flirting comes across as much sleazier and creepier than Alfie’s as Blakely appears completely dead inside behind his superficial charm.
Caine also isn’t particularly flattered by the choice of dressing gowns the costumers decided to stick him in.
None of this is a criticism of Caine’s performance, he plays the character as written, unfortunately he’s written as an emotionally detached and completely detestable cad. It is quite interesting to see him be so thoroughly unlikeable for once though. One positive of the film is that, for the first time in his career, Caine does get to show off his mad ping pong skills.
Caine’s Best Monologue: “I hated school. All the boys at school used to call me Muggins. So, I went out and I bought a hamster, a vicious hamster, with vicious teeth and I took it into school and I showed it to all the other boys and none of them ever called me Muggins again.”
Caine delivers this haunting gem, during a meal with Stella and her sons, with all the sinister gangster menace of Jack Carter. It’s the hamster equivalent of Quint’s shark monologue in Jaws.
Caine plays an architect in this movie and was a draughtsman in his segment, Cornelius, of the 1969 TV movie Male of the Species.
Susannah York was also in Battle of Britain with Caine.
*I am only counting connections from Caine’s first feature film starring role in Zulu
Most Underwhelming Santa Clause Impression:
Best Non-Caine Actor:
There are only three characters of note in this film; Robert, Zee and Stella. The rest of the cast are only the smallest of bit parts.
More so than Caine, this film is a showcase for Elizabeth Taylor, who gives her all to the performance and is evidently not scared to look unflattering (but she is shown as being better at ping pong than Caine).
There are not many reasons to watch this movie, which I’ll get to, but Taylor is one shining light and gives a genuinely compelling and scene stealing turn. She runs the gamut from scary to vulnerable, childish to authoritative, bitchy to compassionate and is the closest that the film gets to a sympathetic character. She also gets to do a reasonably good Michael Caine expression at one point.
Susannah York is unfortunately burdened with a very passive character and so is never allowed a chance to shine. Her role mostly consists of her just looking a bit a sad whilst Caine and Taylor wreak chaos around her. It’s not her fault but the script doesn’t give her much to work with and so I can’t say that her performance left much of an impression.
My Bleedin’ Thoughts:
Going into this I had no idea what to expect, having never even heard of this movie before (which isn’t usually a good sign if it features such big-name stars), but my hopes were instantly raised by the genuinely unusual and arresting first shot which opens on an extreme close up of a white sphere.
It’s initially unclear what we are even looking at. Is it an alien planet in a 50’s sci-fi? A snowball? An eyeball? No, it’s a ping pong ball and the opening titles play over slow motion footage of Caine and Taylor enjoying a heated ping pong match accompanied by some easy listening muzak on the soundtrack.
This certainly wasn’t what I was expecting and it immediately piqued my interest.
Also, there’s an opening credit that promises that a song titled “Granny’s Got a Painted Leg” is apparently going to feature. Okay, Zee And Co, now I’m totally on board.
However, what then follows fails to live up to this early promise and, apart from a couple of isolated sequences, is never particularly as visually or artistically creative again.
Casting Elizabeth Taylor as the wife in a darkly comic psychological relationship drama is obviously going to draw comparisons with Mike Nichols’ fantastic Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf that she starred in, to great acclaim and Oscar winning success, five years earlier in 1966 and this falls way short of that high watermark.
I never understood what this film was trying to say. The characters, and their relationships to each other, don’t make any real human sense. There’s no clarity as to what Robert and Zee’s relationship even is. Did they ever love each other? How long has Zee been aware of Robert’s affairs? Why does Robert go from encouraging Zee to also have an affair to then being violently antagonist against this idea within the same scene? Sometimes it seems like they are just playing a perverse game that they are both in on, but then at other times it seems that they do genuinely just hate each other. However, this isn’t psychologically intriguing, it’s just confusing and it makes it hard to care about them as characters.
There’s also something very off about Susannah York’s Stella too. Other than a montage showing her having a lovely day at the beach with Robert, there never seems to be any justification for why she’s putting up with being a part of this destructive love triangle. There is no logical reason for her to stick around. As a viewer I just want her to come to her senses and do a runner.
The bickering older married couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf are admittedly also very strange, and their motives frequently cryptic, but in that movie we also get a relatable normal couple who are brought into their world and who are able to act as an audience surrogate. Stella in Zee and Co should be this surrogate too but is too much of a cypher to function as it. Also, in that movie they understandably only stay for one long drunken evening whereas Stella inexplicably stays part of the Blakely’s lives for weeks if not months.
The dialogue is also frequently quite odd such as Robert saying to Stella “Do you want me to take you to dinner. Or do you want to cook me an egg?” and his aforementioned hamster monologue. It often feels like it has been written and directed by aliens.
I assume the film makers felt that the last act reveal of Stella’s apparent bisexuality was edgy. Such a detail doesn’t have any shock impact nowadays but even at the time, for an adult relationship drama in the early 70s, I don’t think it’s a particularly scandalous plot point and isn’t in any way impactful emotionally or narratively. It felt like they wanted to push boundaries but hadn’t read the room and realised that society had already moved well past that point.
Perhaps the material wasn’t right for the director, Brian G. Hutton, as this stands out as an unusual blip in his filmography following as it does two fun war movie romps (Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes). A gritty relationship drama is certainly a change of tone and pace from those, much more successful, films and so likely this wasn’t best suited to his particular skillset.
Lastly, the film finishes unintentionally amusingly when it freeze frames on Caine with his mouth slightly open, zooms in and the song “Going in Circles” starts playing and it’s like he’s a ventriloquist dummy miming to it (for reference). After a very odd and alienating film, it was an appropriately creatively bizarre note to end things on.
Trivia: Rocky Horror’s Richard O’ Brien cameos as a man sitting next to the band at a swinging 70s party and seeming to have a nice time (and is of no relation to screenwriter Edna O’ Brien, in case you wondered).
Because of their foot difference in height, Taylor had to stand on a box in many of her scenes with Caine. Even so, her character is still venomously described by Robert as a “dwarf” at one point.
Julie Christie and Peter O’Toole were the first choices for the leads. I don’t think that they could have improved on this though, as the main issues seem to be with the script and the direction and not with Caine and Taylor.
Edna O’Brien was unhappy with the finished film, feeling that the director, Hutton, had butchered her work by arbitrarily cutting and adding scenes and dialogue. This could explain why so frequently character motivations and decisions are confusing and bizarre.
Overall Thoughts: This was a real oddity. It’s not so bad or weird that it’s worth watching out of morbid curiosity, and I definitely don’t think that it succeeds in any way at what it’s trying to achieve. However, if you are a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor then it’s a compelling enough performance from her that it’s perhaps worth watching just for that. Also, the early 70’s British cinema vibes of the film could be appealing for those who like that era of filmmaking. So, it’s definitely not a recommendation for the wider public, but there are still those who could get a little something out of this. It’s not without merits, but those merits are few and far between.
Rating: 2/5 Vicious Hamsters with Vicious Teeth
Where You Can Watch This: This is not currently streaming anywhere but is available to purchase on DVD.
Up Next: Caine reteams with Get Carter’s Mike Hodges for a film that gave its name to the Britpop band. It’s 1972’s Pulp.
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