We take a look back at the 1970s films of Michael Caine, this time focusing on 1974’s The Black Windmill.

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’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…

Spoilers for The Black Windmill lay ahead…

the black windmill michael caine

Directed by: Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry, The Shootist)

Tagline: Seven days to a killing…the ultimate exercise in controlled terror.

Other Featured Geezers: Donald Pleasence as Cedric Harper, Delphine Seyrig as Ceil Burrows, John Vernon as McKee, Janet Suzman as Alex Tarrant, Clive Revill as Alf Chestermann, Joss Ackland as Chief Supt Wray, Catherine Schell as Lady Melissa Julyan and Joseph O’ Conor as Sir Edward Julyan.

What’s it all about, Alfie?: Based on Clive Egleton’s 1973 novel Seven Days to a Killing, The Black Windmill sees Caine as British Intelligence Officer Major John Tarrant who has to go rogue (as spies love to do, just ask James Bond) to save his young son who’s been kidnapped by a gang of arms smuggling terrorists, who use the alias Drabble, whilst he was out being a typical 1970s child (playing with his model airplane in an abandoned airbase). But how do these scoundrels know all about Major Tarrant, and about the £500,000 in uncut diamonds that Tarrant’s boss Harper (Donald Pleasence) has recently acquired for another job, could there be an insider within M16?

the black windmill michael caine

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
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth

Caine-ness:

Caine gets first billing but not the most glamorous of entrances, arriving about five minutes in looking a bit shabby in a beige coat and wiping his shoes before going into a house (it might not be a dramatic introduction, but at least we instantly know that he’s conscientious about people’s carpets).

If Caine’s previous spy character Harry Palmer was a pared-down, more realistic version of Bond, then his Major John Tarrant is pared-down even further to the extent that he’s actually just a bit bland. I’d struggle to describe his character other than “well, he’s a bit like Michael Caine” since he wears his signature Caine glasses and does his normal accent (thankfully). He does get in a spot of the usual Caine shouting acting, but otherwise is mostly quite subdued. This restrained performance is exactly what’s intended for the role, as Tarrant’s apparent calmness after his son’s kidnapping is noted by another character, and he justifies it with the assertion that it’s his job to keep his emotions under check. So, the somewhat lacklustre performance isn’t Caine being bored, he is acting exactly as required.

He livens up a bit as the film goes on; impersonating Donald Pleasence, kissing his ex-wife so hard that her hat falls off and giving cheeky winks after outwitting pursuing bad guys. We also get to hear Tarrant, on his brief sojourn to France, order “Un café au lait sil vous plait” in the least French, most Michael Caine way possible. So, it’s not an entirely joyless performance from Caine but he doesn’t add a whole lot to a mostly one-dimensional character.

Lastly, two other things we learn about Tarrant; he’s great at building model planes but terrible at choosing family photos to frame in his office, look at this one, it seems that he activated a hernia mid-push;

the black windmill michael caine

Best International Poster:

The poster that asks; what if Michael Caine was a business smurf in a hurry?

the blackwindmill poster michael caine

Caine-nections*:

Donald Pleasence gives another scene stealing turn, just like he did as the mad Scottish uncle in Kidnapped.

Music is again by Roy Budd (who most notably provided the excellent score for Get Carter, and also Kidnapped).

Tarrant meets his wife outside a cinema showing Battle of Britain which starred Caine in a supporting role.

*I’m only counting connections starting from Caine’s first leading role in Zulu, up to this movie.

the black windmill

Best Non-Caine Actor:

After quibbling that Caine was subdued, I can have no complaints of the kind about Donald Pleasence’s Cedric Harper, Tarrant’s direct superior at M16, who seems to have been given all the personality left out of Caine’s character (and then times that by ten).

He’s a bundle of tics and nervous energy, constantly twisting at the edge of his moustache or dabbing at his nose with hankies (one of which we see him put through a shredder after he’s used it in a delightfully odd character beat). He’s bumbling and socially awkward, such as when he’s waiting to meet Sir Edward Julyan and encounters Julyan’s bohemian young wife Melissa. Her response to hearing that he doesn’t drink; “don’t tell me you prefer pot?fills him with abject horror.

Also, his reaction to hearing that Tarrant’s son has been kidnapped is the very insincere; “Oh dear, I’m terribly sorry” before just moving on with what he was doing.

Pleasance was by far the highlight of the film, upstaging everyone around him, and I would gladly have watched a spin-off about his adventures.

Was the Secret Mastermind Actually Sean Connery?:

I think the film may be giving subtle clues throughout that the hidden mastermind behind the nefarious plot was actually Sir Sean Connery. Harper, during the first briefing, says that he believes that Sean Connery is a soviet agent, before correcting himself and saying that he actually meant Sean Kelly after getting shocked reactions from the others at the meeting.

But was he actually onto something all along? Because at the villain’s windmill lair there is a painting that looks suspiciously like Sir Sean. Coincidence? I think not.

the black windmill

My Bleedin’ Thoughts:

The opening threw me as, anticipating a gritty thriller from Dirty Harrys Don Siegel, I wasn’t expecting to hear children singing an upbeat song about chestnuts whilst titles made out of alphabet blocks appeared over still photos of schoolboys. I had no idea what I had just started watching, but luckily it only takes about five minutes before we see a van blow up and so I then knew that we were in safe hands.

This bewildering start does let us know what we are in for as the film never entirely seems sure what it wants to be; a gritty down to earth thriller or a more escapist spy lark. For instance, we get scenes of fairly realistic espionage (the villains taking raunchy photos in Tarrant’s bedroom to frame him) but then we get a scene where Harper meets with his very own Q (called Tonkins and dressed like Arkwright from Open All Hours) who demonstrates his briefcase gun by shooting a dummy in a very Roger Moore era Bondian fashion to Harper’s delight.

Unlike Bond, we don’t get to see Tarrant use this gadget in a cool way on one of the baddies as, rather pathetically, when he is holding McKee (John Vernon) at gun/briefcase-point he is tricked by McKee saying that his son is in a room (that very clearly doesn’t contain his son) and he ends up accidentally shooting a wine cask instead. Although this does lead to Tarrant being floored by a massive wine flood, which I haven’t seen in a film before.

the black windmill

There’s some good action stuff here such as an excellent London Underground based foot chase with Tarrant and his pursuer playing cat and mouse in different carriages. It’s also an interesting snapshot to see so much footage of a 1970’s tube station (and notice how little it’s actually been updated in the decades since).

I enjoyed the last act a lot, this seems to be where the film is really having fun. Tarrant manages to arrange to meet his ex-wife (whilst not drawing the attention of those listening in on the phone line) by calling up and doing a dodgy Austrian accent and saying he’s Mr Von Trapp looking for Maria whilst a pub pianist plays the theme from The Sound of Music in the background. This is because it’s a film that they watched together and so she knows to meet him outside the cinema. This is a fun little quirky detail that actually helped elevate the film and give it a bit more character.

A windmill is also a very unique location to stage a climatic shootout, and this must be one of the very few thrillers where the heroes have to employ the help of The National Trust during the climax to save the day by locating some historic listed windmills. Also, in very typical 1970’s man fashion, Tarrant just goes to the pub for a bit whilst his wife does this admin.

Then, to bring things full circle, the film ends with children singing enthusiastically about chestnuts again over the end credits.

Just a quick final note about Tarrant’s son David. We see in his room that he has alphabet blocks (which he is surely too old for) and he also appears to have a black and white photo of Elizabeth Taylor on his wall (which he is surely too young for). What an odd boy. The kidnapping probably did him good, it at least got him out of the house.

the black windmill

Trivia: Very slim pickings from IMDB for this one, but here you go;

“In one scene, Cedric Harper (Donald Pleasence) declines the offer of an alcoholic drink, saying he doesn’t enjoy it. In real life, Donald Pleasence was consuming more than his fair share of alcohol, according to his stepdaughter.” This is a bit catty, did his aggrieved stepdaughter contribute this piece of trivia to IMDB personally?

And one for big windmill fans (I’m sure there are a lot of you out there) ; “The windmills seen in the film are The Clayton Windmills. They comprise a post mill and a tower mill, and the roundhouse of a former post mill. All three are Grade II listed buildings”.

the black windmill michael caine

Overall Thoughts: This is a solid, though unremarkable, little 70’s thriller. I had a good enough time whilst I was watching it but can’t see it lingering in the memory for too long. Caine is fine but doesn’t get a particularly interesting character to work with and can’t compete with Pleasence’s quirky showboating. A good snoozy Sunday afternoon Dad film but not much more.

Rating: 3/5 Chestnuts

three chestnuts

Where You Can Watch This: This isn’t currently streaming anywhere but is available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray.

Up Next: Caine teams up with James Mason and Anthony Quinn in The Marseille Contract, and I’m really hoping this means that we get to hear him order a café au lait again.

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