High Spirits 1988 ***


The supernatural comedy was something of a mother lode in the 1980’s, with Ghostbusters showing that an aimiable ramshackle vehicle with decent effects could produce a huge box-office hit. But a varied series of disappointments also befell the genre, from Transylvania 6500 to The Witches of Eastwick, and Neil Jordan’s High Spirits was as prominent as any of them. Jordan reportedly has his own full cut of the movie in a cobwebbed vault, and it would be worth an airing for sure; High Sprits is a bit of a shambles, but it’s worth a watch.

The concept is familiar but timeless; an ancient Irish hotel fakes ghostly activity in the hope of attracting lucrative American tourists, but the guests (namely Police Academy and Cocoon star Steve Guttenberg plus National Lampoon’s Beverley D’Angelo) end up falling for a couple of genuine ghosts, played by Daryl Hannah and Liam Neeson. Overseeing this whole strange melange is Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole), and this distinguished thespian has the difficult job of adding gravity to a series of pratfalls with people falling out of windows, into moats and various other indignities.

Even the B-Cast here (Connie Booth, Ray McAnally, Liz Smith, Peter Gallagher, Donal McCann, Jennifer Tilly) is better than most A-casts, so maybe Jordan’s extended cut may have something more to offer. George Fenton’s score can’t repress the desire to leap into Irish-jig mode, and it’s never quite clear is the film is parodying or celebrating the Irish talent for myth making. And yet a cast like this is never boring, with the romance working better than the broad comic highlights.

High Spirits is more like the ruin of a castle than a castle itself; attempting to revive the screwball appeal of The Ghost Goes West or I Married A Witch was a nice idea which didn’t catch on. Jordan’s hot streak (Angel, Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves) ended unceremoniously here, but maybe there could be life after death for this star-heavy whimsy after all.

Becket 1964 ***


Taking inspiration from Jean Anouihl’s play, Peter Glenville’s 1964 drama derives its story from one of the key clashes between church and state. Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has a great friendship with Thomas Becket (Richard Burton); they enjoy a drink, and carousing with women, even though Thomas has leanings towards the church. Henry imagines that making his friend Archbishop will allow him to have his own behaviors rubber-stamped by the clergy, but he reckons without Thomas Becket’s strong beliefs, and the schism between the two men threatens to tear the roles of state and church apart. Becket as a film clearly plays fast and loose with historical detail, but the heavyweight performances, as well as a brief but impressive appearance from Sir John Gielgud, make for compelling viewing.


Venus 2006 ***


Peter O’Toole enjoyed something of a late career renaissance; his brief appearance in films like Troy added a touch of class. With Roger Michell directing from a script by Hanif Kureishi, O’Toole did some of his best work with Leslie Finlay as Maurice and Ian, two aging actors who find their fading zest for life re-invigorated when Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) comes to stay in London; Maurice has a strong interest in the girl, not least because of her nude modelling, but their friendship transcends the sexual; Venus is a superb film about how culture can be a transformative force in the role of young and old alike, and O’Toole and Whittaker rise to the challenge in tandem, despite being at the opposite ends of their respective careers.

Night of the Generals 1966 ***


Antole Litvak’s 1966 thriller has a brilliant idea as it’s core; in the middle of the chaos of Warsaw in 1942, a Polish prostitute is found murdered, and Major Grau (Omar Sharrif) suspects one of three Nazi generals is responsible. Played by Peter O’Toole, Charles Gray and Donald Pleasance, each man has his motives, and Grau has to balance his interrogations against the feeling that the tide of the war is turning against them; what is the point of justice in a world gone mad. The script, with Paul Dehn contributing, doesn’t quite get to the core of the drama, but it’s still and unusual who-dunnit with compelling scenes, including a tense sub-plot involving Tom Courtney. Litvak’s cold, sometimes distant film would make a good double bill with Valkerie (2008)

Dean Spanley 2008 ****


Adapted from Lord Dunsany’s book, Dean Spanley is a wordy fable that feels like a story told by a fireplace on a winter’s night. Neither outright comedy,fantasy or horror, it’s a quaint little drama about whether it would be possible for dogs and people to be reincarnated as each other. Sam Neill is Dean Spanley, who way well have been a dog, and Jeremy Northam and Peter O’Toole are the estranged Fisk family, who visit Spanley and try to understand his bizarre story. Toa Fraser directs from a script by Alan Sharp (Don’t Look Now), and there’s a light brio about the way Fraser guides his mature cast through an ingenious set of narrative pirouettes. Dean Spanley is a minor delight, a friendly ghost story from Edwardian England that offers a wealth of minor pleasures.

Murphy’s War 1971 ***


Peter Yates will probably be best remembered for directing Steve McQueen in Bullit, but he mages a good job with a handsome and exotic production in this heroic war film. Murphy (Peter O’Toole) is the sole survivor of a German U Boat attack in the Amazon, and attempts to fight back with the help of oil company executive Brezon (Phillipe Noiret). Murphy’s plan involved an ancient seaplane, and it’s the detail of the plane’s resurrection, Flight of the Phoenix style, as well as O’Toole’s gritty performance, that makes Murphy’s War so compelling. One of the few action films that could be considered realistic, it’s one of the best of O’Toole’s varied career.


The Stunt Man 1980 ***

Stunt Man

When is a film not a film? When director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) is at the helm. When fugitive Cameron (Steve Railsbeck) stumbles onto a movie set, the maverick director attempts to build a film around him, in a cruel experiment that leaves both the drifter and the audience trying to figure out which scenes are real and which are not. The marrying of Hal Needham-style stunt-work and a highbrow paranoid thriller didn’t click with audiences at the time, but The Stunt Man still has a gripping sense of showmanship and conspiratorial edge; O’Toole got an Oscar nomination for his trouble, but not the recognition he deserved.


Rosebud 1975 ***


Director Otto Preminger’s star was on the wane by the mid-seventies, with debacles like Hurry Sundown and Skidoo following on from classics like Laura and Exodus. But 1975 thriller Rosebud has an unusual premise, as terrorists board a yacht and kidnap a group of teenage girls who fathers are rich industrialists. Rosebod has an even more unusual hero in a milk-drinking reporter (Peter O’Toole) who is engaged to track the terrorists down, with the clues pointing to British Muslim (Sir Richard Attenborough). Preminger’s film takes its time to meander through some local colour, but the final raid sequence is ingeniously thought out, and the geo-political landscape of 1975 will seem familiar to modern audiences. Early roles for Isabelle Huppert, Kim Cattrall and Dr Who companion Lalla Ward complete the garnish for this neglected film.

The Ruling Class 1971 *****


Another Oscar nomination for Peter O’Toole didn’t go far in cementing the reputation of Peter Medak’s 1972 version of Peter Barnes’ play, adapted by the author. O’Toole plays Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, who in the first half of The Ruling Class believes he’s Jesus Christ, complete with a crucifix that he rests on, and then afterwards he’s Jack the Ripper. There’s musical scenes in the style of a student musical, comic support from Alastair Sim and Arthur Lowe, and a general feeling of anything goes that makes for an unheralded classic of anti-establishment comedy as only the British can make. The sight of O’Toole arriving in the bedroom for his wedding night on a tricycle is worth savouring for connoisseurs of cinematic wildness.