Film: Kings and Desperate Men (1981)

May 2, 2016 | By

KingsDesperateMen_poster_sFilm: Weak

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

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Released:  n/a

Genre:  Suspense / Drama

Synopsis: An arogant talk show host is forced by a terrorist to use listeners of his call-in show as jurors for a convicted cop killer.

Special Features:  n/a




Starring Patrick McGoohan as a highly unsympathetic radio gossip host who becomes enmeshed in a deadly hostage taking on Christmas Eve, the making of this $1.5 million Montreal-shot thriller is far more interesting than the final product that was filmed in 1977, had its Canadian release in 1981, American release in 1983, and U.K. release in 1984, after which it was dumped to videotape by Magnum using a poster campaign that featured a stock image of a much younger McGoohan.  Following its ignoble VHS debut, the film vanished, save for the odd TV airing.

As co-writer/ director Alexis Kanner recounted in a live 1984 interview at Britain’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Theatre, Edmund Ward’s original story and script needed a bit of goosing, transforming it from a TV-level hostage drama to something with greater feature film scope, but an assortment of challenges ultimately hindered the story’s potential, as well as its final form which is by and large, a massive cock-up.

Kanner’s rewriting didn’t form a full shooting script, but the existing scenario and lead radio host character were sufficiently interesting to snag the attention of McGoohan, with whom Kanner had acted in the last 3 episodes of The Prisoner (1967). After further rewrites, the film was put into production, but the day before filming was to start, McGoohan’s American co-star was prevented from entering Canada due to ‘legal issues,’ hence Kanner’s reluctant decision to take on the role of former professor-turned-activist-and-terrorist Lucas Miller.

Kanner also functioned as cinematographer (under the pseudonym “Henry Lucas”), filming the docu-drama styled exterior footage of street scenes, skaters at the Big O Olympic Stadium, a lot of church steeples and crosses. He also seems to have shot footage of the police teams that gather and surround the two locales where the hostage takers hunker down, and the ATF teams who helicopter to rooftops, slowly making their way into each building, while co-cinematographer Peter Van der Linden handled the formally billed “hostage interiors.”

The core story has the terrorists snatching the judge (Budd Knapp) who sentenced their comrade to an ‘excessive’ 15 year prison term for mowing down a beat cop with a car; Kingsley’s wife (Margaret Trudeau in her acting debut) and son as insurance material; and Kingsley himself, with Miller and his lover (pretty Andrea Marcovicci) forcing him to transform the next day’s broadcast into a live trial in which the jailed comrade’s case is further detailed with ‘new’ evidence before listeners are urged to can call in as ‘impartial jurors.’

The key problem with Kings and Desperate Men is that Kanner’s rewrite makes no bloody sense: Miller’s relationship to the jailed killer, as with the other terrorists, isn’t clarified; how the ‘live trial’ is supposed to force a new trial is completely preposterous, especially since Miller becomes a nervous wreck on air, and is ill-prepared in presenting his arguments to Kingsley’s audience; and the film’s visual and sound editing is a complete disaster.

Kanner reportedly spent two years managing the editing of his second directorial effort, trying to construct a narrative that not only flowed with momentum and continuity, but addressed what he regarded as complex sound editing, as dialogue often flips between characters in various interior and exterior locations, as well as Kingsley’s show that’s heard in his studio, from portable and car radios, and external speaker systems.

Treating the audio to match locations was deemed too messy, so Kanner opted for what he felt offered more continuity – re-recording – but his efforts sounds like bad overdubs of a few English voice actors reading lines in a canned style for a foreign film. In many cases, the voices sound too similar, and their layering in the final sound mix may have been constructed to impart a sense of stream-of-consciousness dialogue, but tends to collide and obliterate other line readings.

It also doesn’t help that Kanner’s mediocre cinematography shoots several actors from odd angles to avoid revealing their faces – perhaps to create a sense of mystery, or maybe make the dubbing easier, with no lips to match.

When the terrorists drive past the locations of their targets, the editing gives an impression of softy voiced telekinesis rather than scheming terrorists. There’s also a moment in which the ATF men, listening with mic taps in a fire stairway, hear Miller and Kingsley exchanging Christmas carol lyrics on air, and as they ‘join in,’ the overdubs unfurl like soundalike library music.

As lead cinematographer, Kanner’s angles of cars, passengers, streets, crowds, and police are clumsy, and resemble footage akin to a stop-film-and-run style than a slick studio thriller. Worse are the interior angles which undoubtedly created a mess of continuity challenges, since Van der Linden / Kanner didn’t bother / want a variation of angles or camera movements. Their alternate angles are often a few feet to the left or right, making differences in performances and gestures between takes glaring. The ATF assaults are similarly clumsy, as we’re never sure until the end whether there’s one group in one of the buildings, or two teams poised to break into the radio station tower and Kingley’s own apartment, where his family is being kept still due to the elevators being wired with explosives.

Kanner’s rooftop footage also doesn’t always match the weather patterns that make up the real-time action of the film’s finale, with snow storms above mismatched with clear skies below. There’s no explanation given for the banks of giant fixed and mobile speakers blaring the radio show around town at all hours; the impression is of Montreal as a Communist totalitarian state where state broadcasts run 24-7.

Kanner must have realized his film was plagued by some serious technical troubles, hence the adoption of the “Henry Lucas” pseudonym for lead cinematographer, main editor, and sound editor. In the 1984 interview, an audience member asks him ‘Who is Henry Lucas?” and Kanner pauses, then replies ‘He’s a very good editor who’s returned to his home in Australia’; either Kanner didn’t want to take on blame for the film’s messy assembly, or he felt the chief components worth boasting were script, direction, and performance.

The opening montage features a great medieval-styled rendition of a seasonal carol, and composers Pierre F. Brault and Michel Robidoux contributed formal Christmas tunes, some variations, and a sensitive main theme, but their efforts come off as a collage of archaic and electronic elements that appear tracked over unintended scenes and sequences. The radio ads, callers, and carols also sound like they were recorded in an afternoon with three people and a few musicians knocking out Muzak tunes no radio station would be proud to blare live across the city.

Perhaps the most interesting name buried in the credits is Bo Harwood, functioning as “audio consultant.” John Cassavetes’ occasional composer (A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night) also scored the slasher / CanCon classique Happy Birthday to Me (1981) before engaging in a prolific career as a sound mixer.

Shot in 1.85:1, Kings has never received a proper DVD releases, and it’s a classic orphan film made during the CanCon tax shelter era, with former Montrealer Kanner trying to create a local thriller without naming names. It’s a shame Montreal isn’t declared as the de facto local, because Kanner clearly went out of his way to snatch as many glimpses and informal moment to show a living, breathing, super-cooled city, but the footage – at least when framed in the flat 1.33:1 home video ratio – just isn’t very good.

Neither are the performances, which vary from bland to somnambulistic. It’s clear Miller and Kingsley engage in various power struggle volleys, as the seasoned radio host begins his forcibly revised show by criticizing his captor on air for poor delivery; and as the show progresses into its final hour, it’s Kingsley who becomes more influential that Miller, keeping the station boss (August Shellenberg) and police at bay for two minutes with a deafening phone tone while someone is shot.

The final reveal isn’t a surprise, and McGoohan delivers one of the best closing lines of any thriller, but Kanner’s audio extension of the girlfriend’s reaction to her dead lover is hugely overwrought: a long, guttural scream with waves of distortion that plays over oft-repeated shots of shivering street listeners and lots of scared birds breaking for the sky. The whole arty montage is a strange decision, considering Kanner designed the preceding 50-odd minutes to unfold in real time.

Maggie Trudeau is fine as the trophy wife – she looks pretty and says little, making it an easy screen debut – but it’s no surprise she stepped away from film after one more cinematic dabbling, Jacques Fournier’s comedy The Guardian Angel / L’ange gardien (1978), in which she co-starred.

Producer-director and documentarian Robin Spry (Suzanne, Obsessed, and Action: The October Crisis of 1970) has a small role as the munitions terrorist, and Frederic Smith is creepy as the trigger-happy, usual drunk killer who tells Kingsley’s wife how he’d like to drop her son from the roof, head-downward.

Perhaps the strangest footnote to Kings is a report of Kanner suing the producers of Die Hard (1988) for stealing his story; both films have terrorists, ATF men descending rooftops from helicopters, and futile negotiations between police and the lead terrorist on Christmas Eve… but that’s it. Given Die Hard was based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever using a central character already present in the 1968 film version of The Detective, the presiding judge must have tossed out Kanner’s claim of intellectual theft within hours.

For all the effort that went into Kings, in terms of its production, its lengthy editing stage, and the severely staggered release dates in key markets, one would expect a political thriller ripe with paranoia and dueling egos and Patrick McGoohan would’ve found its place on DVD, but as often seems to be the case with CanCon productions, it exists on old VHS tapes, and on YouTube, which are poor substitutes for Kanner’s Herculean feat.

It’s not a good movie in any way, but there’s no reason it doesn’t deserve a new life on DVD and / or Blu-ray. The lengthy ICA Q&A (also archived on YouTube) provides a fascinating production breakdown and details of McGoohan during its making and Prisoner lore that fans should listen in its entirety.

Kanner also co-directed, co-wrote, and co-starred in the rarely-seen drama Mahoney’s Last Stand / Mahoney’s Estate (1972). After Kings, Kanner appeared in Paul Mayersberg’s Nightfall (1988), and passed away in 2003.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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