When Eight Bells Toll

cast: Anthony Hopkins, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Nathalie Delon, and Ferdy Mayne

director: Etienne Périer

90 minutes (15) 1971 widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Carlton DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden

A naval officer with a difficult reputation is given the duty of working undercover, solving a series of sea robberies off the coast of Scotland.
In 1971 Diamonds Are Forever was released, marking the end of Connery in the role of the world’s favourite secret agent. A two-year hiatus would ensure before Roger Moore assumed the mantle, and to a mixed response from fans. In the meantime When Eight Bells Toll was released, scripted by Alistair MacLean from his own novel, and gave audiences a chance to see a different actor in a similarly adventurous role. Whether or not it was intended as an action ‘calling card’ for the young star (whose fourth film it was) Eight Bells certainly owes a lot of its inspiration to the 007 series, not least in that its hero Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is tough, naval officer, a “professional bastard,” used to killing in the course of duty, working undercover against some widespread criminal combine. “Under conditions of extreme pressure” we are told, the surly Calvert is ‘unique’. His adventures however, are less so.

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From Russia With Love (1963) is one visual influence: the helicopter which brings Calvert to his initial briefing drops him off before a building with a distinctive white façade that echoes a similar landing bearing Rosa Klebb to inspect assassin Robert Shaw, while both films feature the shooting down of one of the same vehicles with a rifle. Elsewhere Calvert’s white boat recalls that of Emilio Largo in Thunderball (1965), while the presence of large quantities of bullion at risk brings to mind the acquisitive obsession of Auric Goldfinger. Eight Bells even has its very own ‘M’ in the form of Robert Morley, whose crusty ‘Uncle Arthur’ is a cross between the part famously personified by Bernard Lee and rotund ‘Mother’ from British TV’s The Avengers. The present film also features a memorable sub-Barry score by John Stott, who also worked on Peeping Tom (1960) as well as TV’s Dallas and Dynasty. Stott’s swaggering larger-than-life theme perfectly suits the matter in hand, and is one of the most striking elements in the opening sequence, the dramatic position of which reminds one of those standalone openings which head up so many Bond movies.
That’s not to say that When Eight Bells Toll is so derivative as to be un-enjoyable. Director Etienne Périer made this film, then Zeppelin (1971), in quick succession before disappearing back to France where he is still active, mainly in TV. This is the better of his two British productions: a brisk, no nonsense affair that benefits greatly from a strong cast and some excellent location work. It differs too in that, unlike most of the Bond series, its hero has no gimmicks to fall back on to save his skin. As Calvert punches and struggles against a range of adversaries, he does so without the benefit of the ejector seats and rocket belts which larger budgeted agents found so essential. Bond is a public schoolboy, who is by profession a lucky, sexually rapacious thug. Calvert has no such privileged background, and is viewed by his superior with some disdain as a “bloody fellow… north of England grammar school, working his way through life…” Of course the central irony of the film is that the main villain of the piece is exactly the sort of person that Uncle Arthur welcomes onto the wine committee of his club with open arms, while the insubordinate and independent Calvert proves an essential part of the operation’s success.
Calvert’s closest friend – and the only genuine relationship he maintains during the film, is Hunslett (Corin Redgrave), a bespectacled intelligence man whose faces a somewhat predictable demise. There’s an interesting tone to his early scenes with the hero and friend of over 10 years, as they share onboard accommodation. Codenamed ‘Caroline’ by London control, Hunslett and Calvert are almost like a married couple, making each other drinks or dressing wounds – a warmth of companionship in contrast to the suspiciously hostile relationship exhibited by Sir Anthony Skouras and his young wife Charlotte. The discovery of Hunslett’s body, unexpectedly pulled up with the boat’s anchor, provides one of the film’s most striking moments, and his disappearance from the scene allows the comfortable display of Calvert’s sexuality as he peremptorily beds Charlotte.
Eight Bells hardly wastes a scene and apparently reflects the dramatic efficiency of the original book. The frequently adapted MacLean was on a roll at this time, having seen his work made into such successful projects as the early Guns Of Navarone (1961), then Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare (both 1968). The year before had come a near disaster with the problem-beset Puppet On A Chain (1970), but the present film makes a return to a standard of excitement that admirers of the novelist had come to expect. The film shows some sign of tightening up: once or twice Morley’s scenes start rather abruptly as if dialogue has been excised, and some of the villainous minor characters are strangely silent throughout (it is odd, for instance, that such a fine supporting actor such as Peter Arne should appear without speaking). Jack Hawkins, struggling with the throat cancer that eventual killed him three years later, makes for a rather pasty-faced Greek millionaire, and Charles Grey may well have dubbed his lines. The only element of glamour in the film comes in the form of Nathalie Delon, who does a game enough job in a role that at one point requires her to take a dip in the freezing waters off Torbay. Her scenes with Hopkins are adequate, but this is a film that has little time for the sexual shenanigans of Bond, (in fact she has to directly proposition the hero while there is no bedroom scene) saving Charlotte’s best scene for that at the very end of the film. The sexiest images in the film are stuck on the walls in the shark fisherman’s hut, balefully eyed by Calvert, and even the eventual appearance of Charlotte in long white socks and shirt does little to raise the temperature.
With some fine airborne photography as Calvert searches the Scottish coastline for ships as well as some effective settings in and around Torbay harbour, Eight Bells is a film which manages to be very atmospheric on what must have been a modest budget. The cold realism such an approach brings to the story helps it immensely. Hopkins turns in a fine performance as the single-minded Calvert, made even more resonant when one remembers the notoriously hard living the actor was famous for at the time. Those who have only seen Hopkins in later years as the most famous celluloid serial killer will be in interested in this unmannered early role.
Among other highlights is Morley’s fussily upper-crusted Uncle Arthur, whose eventual, grudging acceptance of his wayward officer is convincing – and he even makes a fair pass at waving a gun and defending the boat with a timely use of an open hatch. Seen today, the film remains very entertaining while the lack of self-parody and cynicism, common to contemporary action cinema is refreshing.
The DVD includes only scene access and trailer.