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The Mackintosh Man

Wednesday May, 29 2019 at 10:15 PM

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Twists, turns and skullduggery abound in director John Huston's stylish 1973 thriller The MacKintosh Man starring Paul Newman, Dominique Sanda and James Mason. Based on the 1971 novel The Freedom Trap by Desmond Bagley, Paul Newman plays Joseph Rearden, a British Intelligence officer who is recruited by a Mr. MacKintosh (Harry Andrews) for a risky assignment to infiltrate a sophisticated prison escape organization. All is not what it seems, however, as the Cold War intrigue leads Rearden to investigate Sir George Wheeler (James Mason), a distinguished member of Britain's Parliament with some shadowy political ties. Meanwhile, romance blossoms between Rearden and MacKintosh's beautiful daughter, Mrs. Smith (Sanda) as she accompanies him on the dangerous mission which takes them across England, Ireland and Malta.

The MacKintosh Man screenwriter Walter Hill wrote the film begrudgingly in order to settle a lawsuit between him and Warner Bros. Studios. Warner Bros. was suing him at the time because Hill was under contract to the studio and owed them a screenplay - any screenplay - as part of his deal.

Hill's failure to meet his obligation to the studio was quite deliberate. He was angry that Warner Bros. had sold another screenplay of his, Hickey & Boggs, to United Artists instead of making the film themselves and without adequately compensating him. "That was not a happy experience," said Hill. "...I decided to forget about the script I owed them on general principle."

When Warner Bros. sued him, however, Hill's agent encouraged him to settle the lawsuit quickly. "My agent said, '[The studio is] sending you a box of books. Pick one out, write a script, get it over with,'" recalled Hill. "That's exactly what happened." Hill chose Desmond Bagley's novel The Freedom Trap from the box that Warner Bros. sent over, pounded out a screenplay and handed it in, never expecting to hear about it again. "Much to my shock and surprise," said Hill, "I had taken a trip to Northern California, and my agent tracked me down...He said, 'You better get back here. Paul Newman is doing your film. I think John Huston is directing it.' I thought, 'Jesus Christ.'"

Paul Newman, one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time, became interested in The MacKintosh Man when Warner Bros. approached him with the project. Newman, who was under contract to Warners at the time, brought the film to the attention of producer John Foreman and director John Huston. Newman, Foreman and Huston had just finished working together on the 1972 western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and despite the film's lukewarm performance at the box office, the three enjoyed working together and had become friends. "We were each offered good round sums to participate," said John Huston in his 1980 memoir An Open Book. "Foreman, I gathered, needed the money, and I certainly did. Besides that, the three of us had had a fine time on Roy Bean and were reluctant to go our separate ways. So we accepted and did the best we could with it."

Huston was thrilled to work again with Paul Newman, on whom he lavished generous praise. He called Newman "one of the most gifted actors I've ever known...Newman will always be the Golden Lad. His political and artistic opinions are invariably correct (they coincide with my own), and his insights are rare indeed. Acting on intuition, he'll come to instant decisions that stand all the tests of logic afterwards. As a performer, he's capable of those quick transformations of personality that amount to the change of a mask."

The admiration was mutual. Newman, in turn, called Huston "a man of genius."

Although actress Candice Bergen was seriously considered to play Newman's love interest Mrs. Smith, it was French actress Dominique Sanda who ultimately landed the role. The MacKintosh Man marked the American film debut for Sanda, who had established herself in earlier international productions such as The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) and The Conformist (1970).

The MacKintosh Man filmed on location throughout London, Ireland and Malta. However, despite being surrounded by beautiful scenery and immense talent, the production was plagued with script problems from the beginning. Huston brought screenwriter Walter Hill on location to help strengthen the script while they were shooting. "The worst part," according to Huston, "was that the story lacked an ending. All the time we were filming we were casting about frantically for an effective way to bring the picture to a close."

After Hill spent several weeks on location working with John Huston to improve the screenplay, he was eventually sent home while Huston brought in several other writers to help find a solution. "Finally, during the very last week of shooting," said Huston, "an idea for an ending came to us. It was far and away the best thing in the movie, and I suspect that if we had been able to start shooting with it in mind, The MacKintosh Man would have been a really good film. But we weren't."

Walter Hill ended up with the sole screenwriting credit on the film, but as he said in a later interview, "...screen credit is misleading very often. I wrote 90% of the first half, various people wrote the rest." Hill would go on to both write and direct a number of popular films in the coming years, including the cult favorite The Warriors (1979) and the Eddie Murphy breakout comedy 48 Hrs. (1982).

The MacKintosh Man opened in theaters during the summer of 1973, but the film's immense concentration of talent was not enough to generate much interest at the box office. Critical reception was mixed, though many were quick to single out James Mason's supporting performance as the cunning Sir George Wheeler as particularly effective. "Mason...gives the role a presence that carries over into the scenes in which he doesn't appear," said the New York Times. "We remember him, we wonder what makes him tick...and we are always aware that there is a mind at work."

Despite the challenges the film faced during production, The MacKintosh Man is fascinating to watch. From its intricate Cold War espionage plot to the legendary talent of its stars and director, the film is filled with excitement. It exudes a tense sense of intrigue mixed with atmospheric location settings and features impressive action sequences, including riveting chases by car and on foot. Three time Oscar-winning composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia [1962], Doctor Zhivago [1965], A Passage to India [1984]) also provides a memorable musical score.

By Andrea Passafiume

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