The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Casper Wrede 1974

Not to be confused with the Mel Gibson vehicle of the same title, Ransom is a modest thriller released by British Lion, the company which a year before had made The Wicker Man. I first saw it at a fairly young age, and for a long time it stuck in my mind, along with Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix, as that rare prize among films, the kind in which the story is not interrupted for purposes of time-wasting osculation. (The first film I ever saw in which the osculation seemed at all relevant was Hitchcock's Notorious; but that was some years later.) In fact, the only female character in The Flight of the Phoenix is a mirage, a belly-dancer nostalgically hallucinated by Ronald Fraser's rubber-faced army sergeant. The sole female character in Ransom does have the privilege of being contextually solid, but fortunately she is the wife of a British ambassador and, in any case, the situation leaves very little time for love.

The situation is that the British ambassador to Scandinavia and two of his household staff are being held hostage by one Martin Shepherd (John Quentin) and his colleagues, who appear to be a sort of British equivalent of the Baader-Meinhof gang. The authorities agree to Shepherd's demands for the release of imprisoned comrades and the placing at his disposal of a military aircraft; but before Shepherd can leave with his hostages he is contacted by Ray Petrie (Ian McShane), a trusted lieutenant who tells him that the planned landing site is known to the police. Petrie and his three men have hijacked an airliner to take Shepherd to safety, but the captain (Norman Bristow) deliberately blew the tyres on landing, forcing a wait of several hours on the runway. This wait, and the efforts of the Scandinavian security chief, Nils Tahlvik (Sean Connery) to discover who Petrie is and how to thwart him, take up most of the film's running time.

Petrie is a bit of an anomaly. He is known to the British police, but travels under his own name and has somehow been able to smuggle aboard the aircraft pistols for himself and his men and enough explosives to blow the plane up. Tahlvik's task is further complicated by the politicians, whose wish to get the terrorists quickly flown out of the country conflicts with his sense of the law's authority; by his orders, which specify that he should make every effort to stop the hijackers without endangering a single civilian; and by the Ambassador's wife, who angrily contrasts her husband, who fought with Tito's partisans and lost his health as a result, with "armchair warriors" who risk other people's lives without risking their own.

Today such a story would undoubtedly be artificially inflated, by the same post-cultural logic which would ensure that, in a remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the character played by Walter Matthau would be twenty years younger and would probably end up pursuing the hijacked underground train through the tunnels while hanging off the outside of a helicopter. Mere professional concerns would be quite inadequate to motivate the Tahlvik character, whose wife, daughter or mother (perhaps all three) would almost certainly be placed aboard the airliner. The rather fine aircraft chase, when one of Tahlvik's men pursues an accomplice of Petrie's through the fjords, would certainly have to end a good deal more spectacularly than with the man's arrest and the noting of his plane's registration number. The fact that no shots are fired while the passengers are aboard the airliner, despite its importance as a clue, would unquestionably have to go; as would the scarcely less appalling fact that during the shootout in the airliner after the passengers' release, Tahlvik himself doesn't kill anyone - not directly, at any rate.

Ransom, which displays an interestingly unsympathetic attitude towards the British establishment, was directed by Casper Wrede, a Finn who had made a handful of previous films and TV plays, including versions of Twelfth Night and Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Although he was only in his mid-forties, Ransom seems to have been his swan song. The screenplay is by Paul Wheeler, who later worked on television series such as Minder, Tenko and Bergerac. The cinematography is by the distinguished Sven Nykvist.


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