Sunday 12 December 2021

Movie Review: When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

An action adventure, When Eight Bells Toll is a limp collection of characters, ideas, and locations in search of a purpose.

Several ships carrying gold bullion for the UK government go missing. Navy special agent Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) and his field partner Roy Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) are recruited by security department head Sir Arthur Arnford Jones (Robert Morley) to investigate. They identify the waters off the rugged coast of Scotland as the likely source of criminal activity.

Calvert pokes around among the local villagers and vessels in the area, and is invited onto the luxury boat of respected businessman Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins) and his younger wife Charlotte (Natalie Delon). Calvert also conducts a helicopter reconnaissance mission, uncovering a group of shark hunters and a hilltop castle. He is soon the target of several assassination attempts, and Sir Arthur joins him in the field as the body count mounts and they close in on the evil masterminds.

An adaptation of the Alistair MacLean novel (with MacLean writing the script), When Eight Bells Toll is a low-budget James Bond imitation. With a miscast Anthony Hopkins never finding a groove in the central role of Calvert, the plot lacks fundamental logic and all the characters are poorly defined. Director √Čtienne P√©rier finds a few interesting visual angles, but is otherwise satisfied with capturing craggy scenery enveloped by grey weather and leaving the actors to flounder against the windswept narrative.

The gold theft conspiracy is essentially unexplained, the villains barely get any scenes to make an impression, and late in the day a group of kidnap victims shows up from nowhere and disappears just as quickly. Further hindrances are found in the choppy pacing and haphazard momentum: after investing the opening act to establish the premise, the middle half just sags under the weight of scenic sojourns and faceless assassins.

On the more positive side, the music by Walter Stott (later Angela Morley) is a reasonably muscular riff on John Barry. The initially stodgy Robert Morley surprisingly enlivens the action towards the climax, and Calvert's interaction with the pouty and slippery Charlotte is the one dynamic that does click. Some of the underwater cinematography is impressive, and the final firefight delivers decent venom. When Eight Bells Toll does not lack ambition, just the competency to deliver a clear clang.

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