Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Chairman (1969)

I really dig the poster for this film...



Unfortunately the film itself is a load of old bin juice.

The Chairman (also known, here in the UK at least, as The Most Dangerous Man In The World - for fear cinemagoers would presume a film titled The Chairman would be about big business and not the leader of Red China, Chairman Mao Tse-tung) is a ludicrous 1969 spy thriller from director J. Lee Thompson and adapted from a novel by Jay Richard Kennedy. It stars Gregory Peck as a Nobel-prize winning, London based scientist Dr John Hathaway, a man who has, in his time, done a spot of espionage on the side. When American intelligence learn of a new agricultural enzyme being developed in Communist China that allows crops to grow in previously inhospitable regions, they naturally want to steal it for themselves and so they turn to Hathaway to undertake the mission. Unfortunately, since the death of his wife in a car crash three years previously, Hathaway has learnt that life is sacred and must be cherished and therefore is reluctant to undertake any mission that may involve violence, preferring instead the quiet academic life. However, after one quick phone call from the President his reservations are immediately forgotten and off he goes behind enemy lines, via Hong Kong. There's just the small matter of the tracking device Hathaway needs to take along so as to allow the military in England (Arthur Hill's eyepatch wearing sceptic representing the US, Alan Dobie flying the flag for Great Britain, and Ori Levy completing the uneasy alliance as a representative of Russia) to keep a check on his progress...

A tracking device that has been implanted in Hathaway's skull.

Yup, you've read that right. The device works as a one way radio transmitter which allows them to hear all of Hathaway's conversations as well as allow him the opportunity to provide a running commentary on the mission. It's also capable of providing an up to the minute progress report on Hathaway's pulse, heartbeat, blood pressure and overall peace of mind! But wait, here's the best bit...

The device is also packed with explosive just in case the mission fails and Hathaway needs to be terminated!



I mean c'mon, not even Ian Fleming came up with anything that fantastically dumb! Unfortunately The Chairman seems to be determined to completely ignore how stupid it is and instead delivers its silly story not with its tongue in its cheek but with a po-faced sincerity that makes the film a real, plodding chore. Poor old Gregory Peck (continuing that tradition of aging Hollywood leading men fronting British shot spy productions around this time) may have the ability to appear completely earnest whilst talking to himself... ahem, I mean talking to his superiors back at base...but it fails to acknowledge that its audience may find these scenes rather laughable. After an arduous slog that is at least enlivened by the location shooting in Hong Kong, the film manages to ratchet up some much needed tension in the traditional down-to-the-wire climax which sees Peck's Hathaway struggle across China's barbed wire border with Russia whilst the Red Army give chase and his superiors consider detonating the device. Though quite why he elects to crawl under this electrified fence rather than shoot through it with his gun was frankly beyond me. These scenes were actually filmed not in China, but in the rugged Welsh mountains of Snowdonia.


Ultimately, The Chairman's caught on a cusp; in 1969 it was far too late for the Bond-influenced, colourful gadget-strewn spy boom of the swinging sixties, but also too early for the more complex, dour and cynical plots of conspiracy and political intrigue that New Hollywood so enjoyed in the 1970s. The film wants to be in the latter's camp with its serious intent and its message of cold war piracy in Hathaway's discomfort at stealing China's scientific advancements for the West, but is chained to the former with its central conceit. J. Lee Thompson made some really good films in his time, but this isn't one of them and, it's easy to see this as being on the cusp of his own career too; the good stuff was perhaps behind him and what was mostly left from here on in were the many, many Charles Bronson action flicks he chose to helm. 


But hey, you do get to see some bloke purporting to be Chairman Mao playing table tennis whilst discussing political theory with Peck and admittedly that's not something you see everyday.

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