Hennessy


1h 44m 1975

Brief Synopsis

When his family is killed, an Irishman with IRA ties plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Thriller
Political
Release Date
1975
Production Company
Twickenham Film Studios
Distribution Company
American International Pictures; HBO Home Video

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 44m
Color
Color

Synopsis

Set in the Seventies, Hennessy is a Irishman who believes in peace, but who has had connections to the IRA. Hennessy's family is killed by a bomb, and he plots revenge, setting out to assassinate Queen Elizabeth of England.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Thriller
Political
Release Date
1975
Production Company
Twickenham Film Studios
Distribution Company
American International Pictures; HBO Home Video

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 44m
Color
Color

Articles

Hennessy


First things first: the sight of the AIP logo superimposed over footage of Belfast riots and IRA bombings is jarring. The studio built by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff knew perhaps better than anyone else how to make movies for teenagers. From the mid-fifties throughout the 1960s, AIP led the charge into teensploitation with films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). Somehow this company had wandered far afield, and here they were making a serious thriller about the IRA. Since 1969, a violent resistance movement in Northern Ireland was using terrorism in the hopes of driving the British out of the country and seceding from the United Kingdom. Cycles of violence and retribution had settled over places like Belfast, where each side tallied the aggressions of their opponent and plotted vengeance. "An eye for an eye" hadn't left Northern Ireland blind yet, but they were on their way. AIP's Hennessy (1975) is a rare duck. It is a somber treatment of the controversial subject that steers clear of exploitation tactics, yet it is, as befits an AIP title, a genuine exploitation movie. How, you ask?

The trick is in how director Don Sharp, working from a story by Richard Johnson, makes a complicated play for audience sympathies. The story pits three opposing forces against one another, but in this tale of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, there is nothing you could comfortably identify as "good." The film takes no one's side, and thus gets to play with a hot button topic without making any obvious offense.

The Australian-born Sharp was a thriller director with a flair for action. He made his name on genre pictures like The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). He helmed England's first significant rock'n'roll picture, The Golden Disc (1958). He proved himself reliable at working magic on tight budgets and appealing to audiences with exploitation fare. In 1974 he directed a spy thriller, Callan, whose subject matter and cast overlapped somewhat with Hennessy. On the strength of this CV, he was chosen to navigate AIP through the choppy waters of domestic terrorism.

The story begins in Belfast, with a squad of British troops facing down a mob of angry protestors. The Brits have machine guns and tear gas bombs, the Irish youths have stones and home-made fireballs. Both sides are itching for a fight. That their standoff turns ugly fast is inevitable, but neither side is innocent in the bloodshed that follows. In the melee, shots are fired-and two bystanders are killed. They were killed for no other reason than that they were there, and for that, someone must pay.

The victims were Irish-a woman and her daughter. The killer was a British soldier. The grieving widower is a decorated veteran and explosives expert with friends in the IRA. That counts as an "oops."

But if you think Niall Hennessy (Rod Steiger) is just going to join up the IRA in order to extract his revenge, you're not thinking big enough. Hennessy has bigger plans-like blowing up the Houses of Parliament on Opening Day and thereby assassinating the entire Royal Family along with most of the English government. "Make no small plans," as the saying goes...

Hennessy's IRA buddy Tobin (Eric Porter) is horrified by this scheme. Although Hennessy shares his motivations and goals, this crazy plan is so out of proportion it will bring down an even worse round of retaliation from the British. To preserve the cause of Irish independence, Hennessy must be stopped. This means the ambitions of Tobin and the IRA are in a brief alliance with Scotland Yard, where Inspector Hollis (Richard Johnson) is tracking down leads in hopes of finding this rogue assassin before all hell breaks loose. The audience is not invited to fully identify with Hennessy-he may be the titular hero, but nobody watching this can be expected to be rooting for him to commit mass slaughter in cold blood. But if we're not cheering Hennessy on, neither do we want Tobin to prevail-he's a vicious terrorist. And Hollis is a seething cauldron of hatred at least as caustic as Tobin. You get the feeling even Dirty Harry would have found the brutal Inspector Hollis to be a piece of work.

The premise cleverly sidesteps the touchiest politics without dishonoring the issues underneath. By accepting all of the participants as guilty, the filmmakers refuse to choose sides. The audience watches with increasing alarm, realizing that none of the possible outcomes of the story is in any way desirable. However this is going to end, it's going to be bad.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that this is an exploitation picture despite all that. AIP had their sights on cashing in on the success of The Day of the Jackal (1973) and constructed this as an obvious knock-off. The Irish conflict provides an exotic wrapper for what is really just a revenge fantasy, one of AIP's stock-in-trade. It's the Righteous Avenger vs. Everyone Else, a form AIP had been cranking out for years.

The chameleonic Rod Steiger is too old and unglamorous to give revenge-movie queen Pam Grier much of a run for her money, but his performance is a fine one nonetheless. Steiger was developing an unfortunate reputation for overacting, and his subtle work here helped break that perception. While some of the credit should go to Don Sharp for teasing out Steiger's quieter side, a nod must also go to Claude Chabrol, for showing him what not to do. Steiger had come to Hennessy fresh from working for Chabrol on the psychological thriller Innocents with Dirty Hands (1975). Chabrol's aloof directorial style put no brakes on Steiger's worst instincts, and he descended into hamminess. Steiger emerged chastened by the experience and keen to show more restraint on his next project.

Steiger's top-billed co-star is Lee Remick, a talented woman stuck in a thankless role. Her character provides little to the film other than a female presence, and the Boston-born actress struggled with her unconvincing Irish brogue. Remick was living in London at the time, and gamely telling the press that she was content to withdraw from the limelight to be a wife and mother. But behind that PR façade she looked for work where she could, accepting television gigs and hungrily jumping at the offer to appear in Hennessy, no matter how flimsy the part.

The flimsiness of her role can be blamed on Richard Johnson, the author of the story. Johnson handed the actual screenwriting chores to John Gay, but not before conceiving of the plum villain role of Hollis for himself. Johnson is an eclectic talent and former protégé of John Gielgud. He was Terence Young's first choice to play James Bond in Dr. No (1962), and has stayed active, appearing in modern-day spy thrillers like TV's MI-5 (2002 -). Aside from writing Hennessy he didn't pursue a writing career, but did start producing films in the 1980s.

Patrick Stewart made his screen debut, fleetingly, in Hennessy, before finding more enduring popular success as Star Trek's Captain Picard. Stewart's career arc has an analogy in that of Eric Porter, here playing Tobin. Like Stewart, Porter was an accomplished Shakespearean actor whose work on stage was overshadowed by his roles on TV and in genre films. Porter could play Macbeth and King Lear, but posterity remembers him for his part on TV's The Forsyte Saga (1967) and for roles in Hammer horrors such as Hands of the Ripper (1971) and The Lost Continent (1968). He had previously worked with Sharp on Callan and had the distinction of having been one of the multitudinous cast members of The Day of the Jackal in 1973, the direct forerunner of Hennessy's methodical style.

The most notorious cast member of Hennessy, whose appearance created a controversy that hobbled its release and consumed nearly all of the attention paid to this little movie, was Queen Elizabeth II. Director Sharp had come up with an ingenious solution to filming the climactic sequence, in which Steiger's character smuggles his bombs into Parliament as the Queen delivers her annual address to the legislators. Rather than hire look-alikes and extras to restage the event for the cameras, Sharp realized that the Queen's address was something that is already filmed. He approached the right officials at Buckingham Palace to ask for permission to use the footage, and paid a license fee to acquire what he needed. This was then carefully edited with Sharp's own footage of Steiger cavorting through sets, until a convincing illusion was created that the Queen was genuinely interacting with the fictional events.

When Hennessy was released, Buckingham Palace balked. They had not fully understood what Sharp had intended, and did not intend to consent to having images of the real Queen incorporated so fully into a fictional setting. That the film dealt with IRA terrorism did not help matters. Arguments went back and forth, and ultimately the Royal officials conceded they had agreed to a valid license and could not renege, but they also wanted their displeasure made clear. AIP issued a public disclaimer in the British press:

"Before the film was made the company asked Buckingham Palace for permission to use parts of the relevant news film, and that permission was granted. It is now accepted, however, that when that permission was given there was, through no fault of the company, a misunderstanding on the part of the Palace as to the way in which the news film was to be used. The Palace has none the less confirmed its consent in this instance." Another disclaimer was appended to the opening titles of the prints shown in America. But for all the bonus publicity generated by the controversy, no amount of backpedaling and apologies could solve the problem. The major theater chains in England, those owned by Rank and EMI, flatly refused to screen the film, in deference to their Queen. Locked out of the top theaters in the UK, Hennessy's box office prospects were cut off at the knees. No censorial issues were raised in the United States, but the film was a fairly somber and downbeat kind of action thriller, aimed at a more adult audience than AIP knew how to court.

Hennessy slipped into obscurity, a footnote for nearly everyone involved and remembered more for its attendant controversy than for any inherent attributes. Seen today, though, it holds up surprisingly well. Sharp's sense of pacing works wonders with the low budget, and the story avoids cheap targets. With nothing to gain and everything to lose, the explosive finale holds the viewer to the last frame. Terrorism has changed its face over the years but remains with us still, and thus keeps this material more timely than its makers likely anticipated.

Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Peter Snell
Director: Don Sharp
Screenplay: John Gay (screenplay); Richard Johnson (story)
Cinematography: Ernest Steward
Music: John Scott
Film Editing: Eric Boyd-Perkins
Cast: Rod Steiger (Niall Hennessy), Lee Remick (Kate Brooke), Richard Johnson (Insp. Hollis), Trevor Howard (Cmdr. Rice), Peter Egan (Williams), Eric Porter (Tobin), Ian Hogg (Gerry), Stanley Lebor (Hawk), John Hallam (Boyle), Patrick Stewart (Tilney).
C-103m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Tom Hutchinson, Rod Steiger: Memoirs of a Friendship
Michael Munn, Trevor Howard: The Man and His Films
Barry Rivadue, Lee Remick: A Bio-Bibliography
Hennessy

Hennessy

First things first: the sight of the AIP logo superimposed over footage of Belfast riots and IRA bombings is jarring. The studio built by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff knew perhaps better than anyone else how to make movies for teenagers. From the mid-fifties throughout the 1960s, AIP led the charge into teensploitation with films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). Somehow this company had wandered far afield, and here they were making a serious thriller about the IRA. Since 1969, a violent resistance movement in Northern Ireland was using terrorism in the hopes of driving the British out of the country and seceding from the United Kingdom. Cycles of violence and retribution had settled over places like Belfast, where each side tallied the aggressions of their opponent and plotted vengeance. "An eye for an eye" hadn't left Northern Ireland blind yet, but they were on their way. AIP's Hennessy (1975) is a rare duck. It is a somber treatment of the controversial subject that steers clear of exploitation tactics, yet it is, as befits an AIP title, a genuine exploitation movie. How, you ask? The trick is in how director Don Sharp, working from a story by Richard Johnson, makes a complicated play for audience sympathies. The story pits three opposing forces against one another, but in this tale of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, there is nothing you could comfortably identify as "good." The film takes no one's side, and thus gets to play with a hot button topic without making any obvious offense. The Australian-born Sharp was a thriller director with a flair for action. He made his name on genre pictures like The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). He helmed England's first significant rock'n'roll picture, The Golden Disc (1958). He proved himself reliable at working magic on tight budgets and appealing to audiences with exploitation fare. In 1974 he directed a spy thriller, Callan, whose subject matter and cast overlapped somewhat with Hennessy. On the strength of this CV, he was chosen to navigate AIP through the choppy waters of domestic terrorism. The story begins in Belfast, with a squad of British troops facing down a mob of angry protestors. The Brits have machine guns and tear gas bombs, the Irish youths have stones and home-made fireballs. Both sides are itching for a fight. That their standoff turns ugly fast is inevitable, but neither side is innocent in the bloodshed that follows. In the melee, shots are fired-and two bystanders are killed. They were killed for no other reason than that they were there, and for that, someone must pay. The victims were Irish-a woman and her daughter. The killer was a British soldier. The grieving widower is a decorated veteran and explosives expert with friends in the IRA. That counts as an "oops." But if you think Niall Hennessy (Rod Steiger) is just going to join up the IRA in order to extract his revenge, you're not thinking big enough. Hennessy has bigger plans-like blowing up the Houses of Parliament on Opening Day and thereby assassinating the entire Royal Family along with most of the English government. "Make no small plans," as the saying goes... Hennessy's IRA buddy Tobin (Eric Porter) is horrified by this scheme. Although Hennessy shares his motivations and goals, this crazy plan is so out of proportion it will bring down an even worse round of retaliation from the British. To preserve the cause of Irish independence, Hennessy must be stopped. This means the ambitions of Tobin and the IRA are in a brief alliance with Scotland Yard, where Inspector Hollis (Richard Johnson) is tracking down leads in hopes of finding this rogue assassin before all hell breaks loose. The audience is not invited to fully identify with Hennessy-he may be the titular hero, but nobody watching this can be expected to be rooting for him to commit mass slaughter in cold blood. But if we're not cheering Hennessy on, neither do we want Tobin to prevail-he's a vicious terrorist. And Hollis is a seething cauldron of hatred at least as caustic as Tobin. You get the feeling even Dirty Harry would have found the brutal Inspector Hollis to be a piece of work. The premise cleverly sidesteps the touchiest politics without dishonoring the issues underneath. By accepting all of the participants as guilty, the filmmakers refuse to choose sides. The audience watches with increasing alarm, realizing that none of the possible outcomes of the story is in any way desirable. However this is going to end, it's going to be bad. Let us not lose sight of the fact that this is an exploitation picture despite all that. AIP had their sights on cashing in on the success of The Day of the Jackal (1973) and constructed this as an obvious knock-off. The Irish conflict provides an exotic wrapper for what is really just a revenge fantasy, one of AIP's stock-in-trade. It's the Righteous Avenger vs. Everyone Else, a form AIP had been cranking out for years. The chameleonic Rod Steiger is too old and unglamorous to give revenge-movie queen Pam Grier much of a run for her money, but his performance is a fine one nonetheless. Steiger was developing an unfortunate reputation for overacting, and his subtle work here helped break that perception. While some of the credit should go to Don Sharp for teasing out Steiger's quieter side, a nod must also go to Claude Chabrol, for showing him what not to do. Steiger had come to Hennessy fresh from working for Chabrol on the psychological thriller Innocents with Dirty Hands (1975). Chabrol's aloof directorial style put no brakes on Steiger's worst instincts, and he descended into hamminess. Steiger emerged chastened by the experience and keen to show more restraint on his next project. Steiger's top-billed co-star is Lee Remick, a talented woman stuck in a thankless role. Her character provides little to the film other than a female presence, and the Boston-born actress struggled with her unconvincing Irish brogue. Remick was living in London at the time, and gamely telling the press that she was content to withdraw from the limelight to be a wife and mother. But behind that PR façade she looked for work where she could, accepting television gigs and hungrily jumping at the offer to appear in Hennessy, no matter how flimsy the part. The flimsiness of her role can be blamed on Richard Johnson, the author of the story. Johnson handed the actual screenwriting chores to John Gay, but not before conceiving of the plum villain role of Hollis for himself. Johnson is an eclectic talent and former protégé of John Gielgud. He was Terence Young's first choice to play James Bond in Dr. No (1962), and has stayed active, appearing in modern-day spy thrillers like TV's MI-5 (2002 -). Aside from writing Hennessy he didn't pursue a writing career, but did start producing films in the 1980s. Patrick Stewart made his screen debut, fleetingly, in Hennessy, before finding more enduring popular success as Star Trek's Captain Picard. Stewart's career arc has an analogy in that of Eric Porter, here playing Tobin. Like Stewart, Porter was an accomplished Shakespearean actor whose work on stage was overshadowed by his roles on TV and in genre films. Porter could play Macbeth and King Lear, but posterity remembers him for his part on TV's The Forsyte Saga (1967) and for roles in Hammer horrors such as Hands of the Ripper (1971) and The Lost Continent (1968). He had previously worked with Sharp on Callan and had the distinction of having been one of the multitudinous cast members of The Day of the Jackal in 1973, the direct forerunner of Hennessy's methodical style. The most notorious cast member of Hennessy, whose appearance created a controversy that hobbled its release and consumed nearly all of the attention paid to this little movie, was Queen Elizabeth II. Director Sharp had come up with an ingenious solution to filming the climactic sequence, in which Steiger's character smuggles his bombs into Parliament as the Queen delivers her annual address to the legislators. Rather than hire look-alikes and extras to restage the event for the cameras, Sharp realized that the Queen's address was something that is already filmed. He approached the right officials at Buckingham Palace to ask for permission to use the footage, and paid a license fee to acquire what he needed. This was then carefully edited with Sharp's own footage of Steiger cavorting through sets, until a convincing illusion was created that the Queen was genuinely interacting with the fictional events. When Hennessy was released, Buckingham Palace balked. They had not fully understood what Sharp had intended, and did not intend to consent to having images of the real Queen incorporated so fully into a fictional setting. That the film dealt with IRA terrorism did not help matters. Arguments went back and forth, and ultimately the Royal officials conceded they had agreed to a valid license and could not renege, but they also wanted their displeasure made clear. AIP issued a public disclaimer in the British press: "Before the film was made the company asked Buckingham Palace for permission to use parts of the relevant news film, and that permission was granted. It is now accepted, however, that when that permission was given there was, through no fault of the company, a misunderstanding on the part of the Palace as to the way in which the news film was to be used. The Palace has none the less confirmed its consent in this instance." Another disclaimer was appended to the opening titles of the prints shown in America. But for all the bonus publicity generated by the controversy, no amount of backpedaling and apologies could solve the problem. The major theater chains in England, those owned by Rank and EMI, flatly refused to screen the film, in deference to their Queen. Locked out of the top theaters in the UK, Hennessy's box office prospects were cut off at the knees. No censorial issues were raised in the United States, but the film was a fairly somber and downbeat kind of action thriller, aimed at a more adult audience than AIP knew how to court. Hennessy slipped into obscurity, a footnote for nearly everyone involved and remembered more for its attendant controversy than for any inherent attributes. Seen today, though, it holds up surprisingly well. Sharp's sense of pacing works wonders with the low budget, and the story avoids cheap targets. With nothing to gain and everything to lose, the explosive finale holds the viewer to the last frame. Terrorism has changed its face over the years but remains with us still, and thus keeps this material more timely than its makers likely anticipated. Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Peter Snell Director: Don Sharp Screenplay: John Gay (screenplay); Richard Johnson (story) Cinematography: Ernest Steward Music: John Scott Film Editing: Eric Boyd-Perkins Cast: Rod Steiger (Niall Hennessy), Lee Remick (Kate Brooke), Richard Johnson (Insp. Hollis), Trevor Howard (Cmdr. Rice), Peter Egan (Williams), Eric Porter (Tobin), Ian Hogg (Gerry), Stanley Lebor (Hawk), John Hallam (Boyle), Patrick Stewart (Tilney). C-103m. by David Kalat Sources: Tom Hutchinson, Rod Steiger: Memoirs of a Friendship Michael Munn, Trevor Howard: The Man and His Films Barry Rivadue, Lee Remick: A Bio-Bibliography

Quotes

Trivia

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States on Video June 1988

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1975

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1975

Released in United States on Video June 1988