Remember Big Jim McBob (Joe Flaherty) and Billy Sol Hurok (John Candy) as the hayseed hosts of “Farm Report” on the legendary SCTV comedy series? These farmer-turned-film-reviewers loved movies where people and things blew up and eventually their hog report turned into a talk show where they blew up famous celebrities every week like Meryl Streep, The Village People, Brooke Shields, singer Neil Sedaka or Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie. Well, these guys would love Rod Steiger in Hennessy (1975) because he blows up real good!
Come to think of it, Rod Steiger blows up figuratively if not literally in almost every movie he’s ever made. A volcano of emotion, he is forever blowing his top from rage, thwarted passion or primal aggression with such emotionally intense performances in The Big Knife (1955), Al Capone (1959), Doctor Zhivago (1965) or In the Heat of the Night (1967). I actually think he’s much better as an actor when he tones it down for subtler but more complex portrayals in films like On the Waterfront (1954), The Pawnbroker (1964) or The Mark (1961), where he plays a compassionate psychiatrist. Yet for sheer chew-up-the-scenery excess, you can’t beat Rod the acting dynamo in Hennessy (aka The 5th of November in the U.K.), one of the curiously forgotten films of his mid-1970s period. This was a time when he was laboring under the Oscar curse. His show-stopping Method Actor style had gone out of vogue and he wasn’t getting the prestige Hollywood roles anymore. After the box-office disaster of Waterloo (1970), in which he played Napoleon, Steiger wandered off into the wilderness of European cinema, returning to Hollywood only occasionally for the odd flop (W.C. Fields and Me, 1976) or over-the-top supporting roles (The Amityville Horror, 1979).
Hennessy has a powerfully compelling hook for a plot premise and one that was understandably controversial for the time in which it was released. The IRA and British forces during Margaret Thatcher’s reign were locked in bloody conflict for most of the decade and Bobby Sands, who would soon become the poster boy martyr for the IRA and achieve international recognition was already serving time for his first arrest in 1972; he was released in 1976 but convicted and imprisoned again in 1977 for possession of firearms. Released in the middle of this troubled time comes Hennessy, based on a story idea by actor Richard Johnson, one of the film’s stars. It was turned into a screenplay by Oscar-winning scenarist John Gay (Separate Tables, Sometimes a Great Notion) with Don Sharp directing.
The movie focuses on a former IRA member and demolitions expert, Niall Hennessy (Steiger), who gave up party politics and violence to retire to a quieter life with his wife and young daughter. When they are killed in the crossfire between rioting Belfast residents and British forces, he becomes completely unhinged. He leaves Belfast without even attending the funeral of his loved ones and holes up in the apartment of Kate Brooke (Lee Remick), the widow of an old IRA friend. Although Hennessy pressures Kate to keep his presence a secret, he doesn’t reveal to her why he is in London. He only tells her he is not involved with the IRA anymore….which is the truth. He’s on a personal revenge mission to blow up the House of Parliament on its opening day session, taking the Queen, her family and everyone else with him. The IRA are already on to his plot and alert British Inspector Hollis (Richard Johnson) in the hopes that their group, despite their acts of terrorism, will NOT be blamed for this one since Hennessy is acting alone.
In effect, Hennessy becomes a transgressor on the order of Peter Lorre’s pedophile in M (1931). He threatens the social order, no matter how chaotic it seems, by acting alone outside the channels of IRA or British government protocol. So, with both the IRA and British police on his trail, the movie becomes a chase thriller with the real fascination being the manner in which Hennessy attempts to pull off this monstrous act, something Guy Fawkes and twelve conspirators attempted to do in 1605.
Since Hennessy is not based on a real person and the movie is comparable in some ways to The Day of the Jackal (1973), in which a lone wolf assassin (Edward Fox) attempted to kill Charles de Gaulle, the President of France, there is no reason to issue a spoiler alert or lead you to think that the obsessed protagonist will succeed. That doesn’t make the film any less entertaining or suspenseful. What is more troubling, though, is that Hennessy is designed as a thriller with no pretensions toward political or social insights and comes off as merely exploiting this volatile British-Irish situation as plot fodder. In the end, Hennessy is a well-paced but highly improbably potboiler that can’t match the hot topic explosiveness of its premise. (If you want to see a powerful, thought-provoking film about this subject, try Hunger (2008), Steve McQueen’s raw, poetic diamond-hard masterpiece about Bobby Sands and the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike.)
The British press were particularly hostile to Hennessy for reasons which become glaringly obvious in the film’s climatic sequence with footage of the Queen and her royal family in the House of Parliament cleverly integrated with scenes of Hennessy in the same room with them. It’s so well done in fact – maybe it inspired Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) – that the filmmakers were forced to tack on a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie: “This motion picture incorporates extracts from a news film of the Queen at a state opening of Parliament which, when photographed, was not intended for use in a fictional context. The Directors of Hennessy Film Productions Ltd. Would therefore like to make it clear that the Royal Family took no part in the making of this film.”
Hennessy might have enjoyed some brief controversy in England which probably helped ticket sales but the movie had little impact on these shores and most of the reviews were negative. A typical example was Roger Ebert’s critique which sets up his negative response in the opening paragraph: “It’s time again to bring out of retirement our old friend the Idiot Plot. This is the movie plot, you will recall, so constructed that everyone in the movie has to be a complete idiot or the story will be resolved in 10 minutes flat. Since feature films last two hours or thereabouts, Idiot Plots have been a godsend to more than one project. Hennessy is another.” It doesn’t get any prettier after that and he sums it up at the end with, “…the movie itself is a silly enterprise, redeemed only by some fairly good performances (especially Steiger, uncharacteristically introspective) and its awareness of the infinitely complex tangle of issues called the Irish Problem!”
I wouldn’t dismiss Hennessy as silly or idiotic though it’s certainly not serious cinema either. Instead, it provides an intriguing look back at commercial filmmaking in the seventies when serious subjects could often provide the backdrop or inspiration for fiction films which were served up as genre exercises. It also has a promising open, which establishes Steiger’s demolitions expertise with a few quick shots while depicting the economically depressed milieu of working-class Belfast. Then the credits begin with the famous American International Pictures logo and “Samuel Z. Arkoff Presents” and I thought, “Uh oh!”
Still, despite the grindhouse exploitation nature of much of AIP’s releases in the 70s (Friday Foster, Walking Tall Part II, Street People), Hennessy benefits from Don Sharp’s taut direction in spite of many implausible plot turns. Most fans of British cinema are familiar with Sharp for his stylish, atmospheric genre films while working at Hammer Studios such as Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and The Face of Fu Manchu (1965).
Hennessy is also worth a look for its excellent cast which includes Trevor Howard as a conservative by-the-book police captain who tries to pull the reins in on Richard Johnson’s angry, obsessive inspector, the lone survivor of an IRA ambush. Patrick Stewart, in one of his first film roles, plays an ill-fated IRA thug and that’s little Patsy Kensit in the opening massacre as Steiger’s daughter. Kensit, of course, would go on to become the star of the popular British TV soap opera (Emmerdale Farm), an in-demand film actress (Absolute Beginners, Lethal Weapon 2), and the wife of singer Liam Gallagher of Oasis (they divorced in 2000). Lee Remick, on the other hand, is completely wasted in the small role of Steiger’s clueless confidante and her demise is treated like a gratuitous thrill kill not unlike her unhappy fate in The Omen (1976), her next feature.
All things considered, though, Hennessy is a Rod Steiger picture and, except for a handful of melodramatic outbursts, he is remarkably subdued and brooding throughout. The sequence where he breaks into the home of a Parliament member, subdues him and then disguises himself as the gentleman via makeup is particularly memorable. And then there’s that amazing climax. I tell ya, that Rod Steiger – he blowed up real good!
Hennessy was released on DVD in June 2011 as part of MGM’s Limited Edition series and does not come with any extra features. You may still be able to purchase copies at Deep Discount or other DVD sellers or stream it on Prime.
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