Postcard from a Barren Land


Up from The Cape: 30 Apr 2017

One of the paradoxes of films and television is the more of it we’re offered, the less of it is watchable. There’s never going to be enough art to fill all 360 degrees of a landscape, especially when that landscape is parched and barren. While the choice of films and television has soared, what’s worth looking at hasn’t, at least not proportionately. It’s unreasonable to expect otherwise. People who are good at anything are never numerous. There’s no better illustration of that than the example that follows.

It’s an unwritten law that if a film hasn’t had much airtime over the past forty seven years, there will be a reason. I should have remembered that when I watched a 1970 “thriller” titled “Puppet on a Chain.” It was a vehicle for, among others, Patrick Allen and Vladek Sheybal – two old experienced hands from British film and TV. I couldn’t work out why I’d never seen this film before. Now I can.

Patrick Allen

Patrick Allen was a versatile actor of genuine presence in his day. There was a sense of effortless confidence about his performances. He was the seasoned professional. His distinctive, arresting voice, worked very well for narration in commercials. To my mind only Valantine Dyall’s voice was more distinctive, but he sounded like a demon running a Travel Agency.

Allen’s performances were never a shortcoming. Sometimes the productions that demanded them were. He could appear in something well made one week, and then turn up in the most appalling trash (in the worst Tony Tenser sense) later.  Patrick Allen was the ultimate safe pair of hands – though in appearance, hardly the stuff of conventional matinee idols. It didn’t matter.

Vladek Sheybal

Vladek Sheybal was a niche actor. Casting directors phoned him whenever they needed someone quietly threatening in an Iron Curtain sort of way. Physically, he looked like a patient but hungry bird of prey watching from a rooftop for its next meal. His clinical hooded eyes and sharp intellect missed nothing. He’s the sort of man I have nightmares about. In them, I’m always strapped to a table as he leans over from above wearing a surgeon’s mask and gown. He says something so softly terrifying I’d scream if it weren’t for the gag in my mouth.

Vladek Sheybal must have been capable of chillingly sinister performances even as a child in his native Poland. I imagine him explaining quietly to his crying classmates what appalling fate awaited if they didn’t give him their sweets.

Puppet on a Chain’s production values were utilitarian and basic. It must have had a pocket-money budget, because so little appeared to have been available to spend on more than a handful of proper actors. Perhaps because of this, the producers chose the “Dr Who” casting model (old school Dr Who that is); pay for a few pros, then use what remains on anyone desperate enough to work for peanuts. Allen and Sheybal were likely just affordable as proper actors. That left something in the tank for a couple more. I’d guess the cash ran out when – with an eye on the American market – the producers managed to tempt in the experienced Hollywood actress Barbara Parkins.

The lead – Sven-Bertil Taube – was an actor who, if I’m right, was big in Sweden, but less well known anywhere else. The final “pro” was an argument looking for an opportunity to have one by the name of Alexander Knox. Beyond this “elite” group, the producers had to make do and mend with whatever car-boot sale actors remained. Generally they were actors who had no business appearing in anything but a Nativity play. That said, I was thrilled by the inclusion of a woman called Henny Orri. She had the presence of someone still living the dream of the “Strength Through Joy” movement of the Third Reich. She probably kept a locket picture of “der Fuhrer”.

Barbara Parkins – Sven-Bertil Taube – Alexander Knox – Henny Orri
Puppet on a Chain was a trip to Cliché World. It’s a world where women scream uncontrollably whenever they see a dead body. Indestructible men punch each-other for minutes on end to the dubbed accompaniment of sound effects from a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Rigidly choreographed fights take place simply for the purpose of smashing things up in a room. Make-up people smear improbably bright red paint on actors’ faces. Frenzied bursts of activity are separated by featureless plains of desolate boredom. At those times, all a viewer can do is sit quietly, play cards, and wait. It’s the basic principle of life during a war; hurry up and wait.

Cliché World’s attractions peaked with a contrived speedboat chase through Amsterdam’s waterways. Just prior to it, Vladek Sheybal’s character did what most villains from that era did once they had their adversaries tied up. Instead of just finishing them off efficiently, they devise the most convoluted means of execution imaginable. The scheme Sheybal hit upon involved making the hero listen to clock chimes through headphones that were turned up very loud….obviously. I say “obviously” because if the chimes hadn’t been deafeningly loud, the only effect they would have had on Sven-Bertil Taube would have been to keep him awake – not a problem I had, by the way.

Rather than linger to see if this unlikely execution form achieved any tragic success, Sheybal’s character just ran off, leaving the victim alone “to his fate”. Villains only develop such groundless optimism if the script demands it. When the hero needs ample opportunity to free himself in time for the end titles, he’s left to get on with it. The only viable means of achieving that goal is to spin out the execution.

Sheybal was punished during the speed-boat chase for not eliminating his adversary decisively. The script made him steer his boat into some lock gates where, unaccountably, it went up like a landmine. Predictably, there was a story concluding “twist” I won’t burden anyone with. Some Bontempi organ music swelled to cover the end titles, and, thankfully, it was over.

Ultimately, Puppet on a Chain was a spaghetti western, fused with a porn video, and an episode of “The Saint”. With so many (and so varied) pedigrees to draw upon, it’s disappointing to find all it achieved was to strip away the engaging elements of all three. The dull grit that remained at the bottom of the cup was cheap, artless, and predictable. I’ll remember that the next time I feel any nostalgia for 1970s “budget” thrillers.