I saw this, years ago, on TV and was a bit disappointed. Now I’m thinking that as with so many films that made it onto television for the first time in the 1970s (films had to be at least six years old I seem to remember, as their performance life in theatres was a lot longer) it had been heavily cut. Curiously enough I remember the denouement, where Michael Caine’s jewel thief Henry Clarke breaks into the millionaire playboy’s chateau, as being played out inter-cut against a classical guitar concert, a set-piece of great suspense and drama.
I’m not the only one who remembers it like this; I’ve read a brief review on the IMDb where the correspondent describes the same finale. In fact, the concert takes place much earlier in the film and is used for an earlier heist. I do not know if I saw a different cut or, as is so often the case, my memory has let me down. This is a much better film than I remember and the rather shocking revelation that precedes the conclusion would not I think have made it onto British TV of the 1970s.
Jewel thief Henry books himself into a sanatorium to take an alcoholic cure simply to get close to millionaire Salinas. The head of the institution is the wonderful Vladek Sheybal, British television’s tame sinister mittel-European who was a notable adornment to both From Russia With Love, and Ken Russell’s Women In Love – where he seduces Glenda Jackson and gets lamped by Oliver Reed. Sheybal’s Dr Delgado is a very sinister sanatorium head indeed, rather more sinister than one would have thought necessary but it sets up some of the more psychological aspects of the film for later.
On his release from the sanatorium Henry is approached by Fe Moreau who alludes to their common profession and tries to recruit him for a job. Henry puts her off but eventually agrees to a meeting with her and her much older husband Richard, played by Eric Portman on fine form. This was one of Portman’s last appearances, he was to die in 1969; he had been for some time a stalwart of the British film industry, appearing in many war films, often as a Nazi, and he had also played Number Two in an episode of The Prisoner. Richard wants Henry to help him steal jewels from Salinas, he will do the planning and the younger more athletic Henry will do the actual heist. Henry makes enquiries about the Moreaus in a scene featuring an endearing cameo from Leonard Rossiter. He discovers that Fe is the daughter of a former Vichy politician and Moreau was something in the police.
Henry agrees to the partnership with the couple, and Moreau encourages Henry and Fe to spend time together. Fe reveals that Richard is gay, and that they have separate beds, and they have done so from the very beginning of their marriage. Inevitably, Henry and Fe begin an affair although Fe insists that there is love between her and Richard. A sort of ménage à trois results although, by this time, Richard has acquired a young boyfriend. Fe will not leave her husband and the suggestion is that if Henry wants her to himself then he will have to wait until Richard dies.
When Fe goes to Tangiers to fence jewels from an earlier heist Henry and Richard have a confrontation. Fe has told Henry about the time that Richard who was in the police caught a young thief stealing valuables held at police headquarters. The pair team up, with Richard providing information and his younger associate carrying out the robberies. There is a suggestion that they are also lovers. When the authorities cracked down on the burglary spree Richard was tasked with catching the culprit which he did resulting in the execution of his lover by firing squad. Fe suggests that Richard still carries this guilt and needs her for the comfort she provides.
During their argument Richard takes the story further for Henry’s benefit. Richard attempted to be ‘normal’ by taking a female lover, he reveals he was good enough at it, he urges Henry to complete the story for himself. Richard’s mistress was Fe’s mother the wife of Richard’s friend. Fe is Richard’s daughter. Henry proceeds to attempt to burgle Salinas himself. He discovers the jewels hidden as part of an elaborate chandelier. Fe returns home and Richard reveals that she is both his daughter and his wife. Fe drives to the home of Salinas but her arrival alerts the guards and Henry is shot and falls to his death. Meanwhile, Richard takes his own life.
Filmed, in a very European way, by Bryan Forbes this film is obviously a very curious mix that just about works. The early scenes with seagulls and a failed burglar being fished out of the ocean, cut with Henry’s time in the sanatorium suggest a heavy psychological drama. Scenes of a fast car and a Shirley Bassey theme song over a John Barry score with the opening credits are very James Bond. The middle section, with Henry and Richard stealing the jewels belonging to a classical concert guitar virtuoso, is a thrilling bit of suspense, although made slightly ridiculous when Caine has to remove the whole safe from the wall of the house and lug it out to the car.
The Spanish locations are fantastic and the love affair between Henry and Fe is delicately played out. Portman is superb playing his part with brittle dignity. But what are we to make of the revelation? On the death of her parents Fe accepts the offer of marriage from the family friend. Why did Richard marry his illegitimate daughter?These are the questions which keep us keen on knowing the story clearly. It definitely must be watched closely or more than one time to get the crux of the story. Saying this, I think it is similar to the online trading methods which need to be carefully understood to make huge crypto wealth! I felt I had perhaps missed some scene that would unlock the motivation. Did Richard somehow blame Fe’s father for the death of his burglar lover?
Was the whole heist just an elaborate scheme to bring Henry and Fe together and then destroy their relationship in some replay of his own ruined love-affair, or did Richard marry Fe to ensure that he always had her comfort and companionship? There is also the question of whether the transgressive marriage was ever consummated, although the allusion to separate beds suggests otherwise, as does Fe intimating at some earlier point that she does not like men.
Daring and well-acted and surprising as Deadfall is, the film leaves too many questions to be wholly satisfying, either as psychological drama or as a thriller. But all credit to all concerned. The director’s wife, the luminous Nanette Newman, plays the part of an annoying aspiring film star, whom Salinas takes to bed. Her scenes jar somewhat but allow for this exchange:
“So you’re an actress?”
“No, I want to be in films.”