Saturday, December 10, 2022

Simon Langton's The Whistler Blower: A Slow Burn Cold War Thriller with Michael Caine

(Simon Langton, 1986, UK, 103 minutes)

Michael Caine shines in Simon Langton's 1986 Cold War thriller as a British Korean War veteran who turns detective after a devastating personal loss. 

Langton (Upstairs, Downstairs, Smiley's People) begins his adaptation of John Hale's 1984 novel with a series of suspicious deaths. It isn't clear at first what they have to do with Caine's widower Frank Jones, an office equipment manager, until his son, Bob (Nigel Havers, Chariots of Fire), a Russian linguist, expresses doubts about his job at Government Communications Headquarters when superiors encourage employees to snitch on each other after they identify a Russian mole in their midst. 

The dead men, as it turns out, were chatty colleagues, and Bob's handlers fear he's about to go public, so they've been bugging his conversations, though he has no idea. He's usually the one doing the eavesdropping. 

Frank encourages his son to keep quiet, concentrate on his relationship with soon-to-be-single mother Cynthia (Felicity Dean), and count his blessings he has a job when many citizens in Thatcher's Britain don't. Frank is also a true believer who has always tried to see the best in his country and its "special relationship" with the United States. As he tells Bob, "I'm not out to change the system," but his faith will be shaken to the core when Bob dies under mysterious circumstances. Frank also notices that someone "tidied up" the unkempt Bob's flat in the aftermath, indicating that they removed anything incriminating. 

Frank meets reporter Bill Pickett (Kenneth Colley, The Empire Strikes Back) when he arrives to examine the scene of the possible crime. Bob had made arrangements to tell Bill everything he knew just before he met his untimely passing, so Frank, Cynthia, and Bill decide to work together to figure out what happened, but Cynthia's fears for her daughter's welfare cause her to step away and then Bill disappears from the scene, leaving Frank to go it alone, questioning Bob's colleagues and superiors until he reaches the man at the head of the operation, the supremely condescending Sir Adrian Chapple (John Geilgud in a brief, but chillingly quotidian turn). 

In addition to Caine's multi-faceted performance, The Whistle Blower benefits from a score that raises the temperature at key moments and low-lit, wood-paneled rooms that convey wealth and privilege as much as secrecy and subterfuge. "I want to believe in England again," Frank tells Cynthia, but the deeper he digs, the less likely that becomes. 

This is the kind of film that could have benefitted from a commentary track to provide context regarding Langton (a one-shot feature director) and Britain's history of intelligence-gathering, but viewers will have to make do without, though trailers for nine Michael Caine films are a welcome addition. 

The Whistle Blower is available on DVD and Blu-ray via Kino Lorber and streaming via Prime Video (with ScreenPix), The Roku Channel, and YouTube. Images from the IMDb (Michael Caine with Nigel Havers, Havers with Felicity Dean, and Caine with John Geilgud).  

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