Director: Ralph Thomas
Starring: Rod Taylor, Christopher Plummer, Lilli Palmer, Carmilla Sparv, Leo McKern, Daliah Lavi, Derren Nesbitt, Clive Revill, Bud Tingwell, Burt Kwouk
Music: Georges Delerue
Based on the Novel By Jon Cleary
The book, The High Commissioner, by Jon Cleary, and the film The High Commissioner are two very different beasts. Cleary’s book is more of a police story than a spy story. Central to both versions, however, is a peace conference. In the film, the conference is for a generic ‘world peace’. In the book, the conference is struggling to end the war in Vietnam, and the characters reflect this. Madame Cholon, played in the movie by Daliah Lavi, is supposed to be Vietnamese. Although Miss Lavi is an exotic beauty, she is hardly Asian. Another strange bit of casting is Derren Nesbitt in the role of Pallain. In the book Pallain is of French / Mexican extraction. Nesbitt whose career is peppered with many Teutonic characters is definitely not the right actor for this role, but you have to give the film-makers credit for trying. They dyed Nesbitt’s hair black, darkened his face with makeup, and gave him a silly moustache. Despite their best efforts the transformation does not work.
The other casting choices for the film are pretty good though. Rugged Rod Taylor is almost perfect as Scobie Malone. I would have loved to have seen him play the role again. Taylor’s career in the late 60’s and early 70’s is interesting in that he played a few characters from successful literary series. It is almost as if he was searching for a nice little film franchise that he could settle into and just churn out film after film, year after year. Unfortunately for Taylor none of the films were hits. Apart from Scobie Malone, Taylor had a crack a Boysie Oakes in The Liquidator, from the series by John Gardner; and in Darker Than Amber he played Travis McGee from the books by John D. MacDonald.
Also well cast is Christopher Plummer as Sir James Quentin. As he is the ambassador, I can forgive that he doesn’t have an Australian accent.
Onto the story…Scobie Malone is a hard working Sergeant in the New South Wales Police force. One morning he receives a summons from the NSW Premier, Flannery (Leo McKern). Flannery has never liked the Australian High Commissioner in London, Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer), and has had men checking Quentin’s background searching for dirt. In his quest, Flannery has discovered a disturbing piece of information – Quentin is wanted on an ages old murder charge. Flannery wants Malone to fly to London and arrest the High Commissioner on suspicion of murder.
Malone catches a flight to London and finds that Quentin is quite willing to go back and faces the charges – but not right away. You see, at this moment he is engaged in some important peace talks, and if he were to leave in the middle of proceedings, the fragile peace discussions may collapse.
Malone is not happy about the delay. He is a simple guy, not someone used to black-tie balls and diplomatic soirées. Adding to Malone’s problems, is that someone is trying to kill Quentin. So Malone is seconded into a role as a security advisor and bodyguard for the High Commissioner.
During Malone’s extended stay he gets drawn into the Quentin household. Apart from Sir James, this includes Lady Sheila Quentin (Lilli Palmer) , Joseph – the butler (Clive Revill), and Sir James’ secretary, Lisa Pretorius (Carmilla Sparv). Lisa is a constant thorn in Malone’s side as he tries to carry out his duties. Incidentally, in Jon Cleary’s book series, Malone would later marry Lisa. The script of this film doesn’t really hint at a budding romance, in fact it’s hard to see Malone and Lisa’s relationship growing at all. Let’s just say, that opposites attract.
The High Commissioner is a difficult film for me to review, because I had read a couple of Cleary’s books before I was able to track down the movie…and while I enjoy the movie enormously, it grates on me that it is so dumbed down compared to the book. It’s the old cliché – ‘the book is so much better’ – but here I am reviewing the film, not the book, so ignoring the book, I’d say the film is a fun slice of sixties spy cinema with an engaging cast. I guess that’s not a bad thing.