Classic Film Review: A Canadian Gem from Kershner and Robert Shaw, “The Luck of Ginger Coffey” (1964)

Images that stick in the mind in “The Luck of Ginger Coffey,” an Irish immigrant’s tale set and shot in a wintry Montreal, often involve the snow, the icy streets.

Robert Shaw was not yet a big star. He’d played a blond Bond heavy in “From Russia With Love,” and worked in supporting roles in film and slightly bigger parts on British TV — often playing roles in large cast Shakespeare adaptations. “A Man for All Seasons,” “Battle of the Bulge,” “Battle of Britain” and “Jaws” were in the future.

And here was director Irvin Kershner, a TV and small feature film veteran years away from “The Eyes of Laura Mars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” working on an indie dramedy north of the border and sending his British stage-trained star dashing in front of cars and in one scene, a city bus he plans to catch on slushy, icy streets which could easily have gotten Shaw killed.

Even with union drivers behind the wheel of assorted vehicles, virtually nothing on the road in 1964 would have stopped on ice in time to prevent Spielberg from having to find somebody else to embody Captain Quint ten years later.

“The Luck of Ginger Coffey” is a lighthearted, monochromatic tragedy with an Irish-Canadian lilt. It’s about a ne’er do well immigrant, an Irish Army veteran with no college degree, little command of French in the bi-lingual city and a grossly inflated idea of what he should be doing for a living.

“Public relations,” he figures. “Newspaper reporter,” maybe “sales.”

“A man of my type, you’ve got to have the right class of job.”

He’s out there looking, and dropping by the “YM” for a run, an exercise class and a swim. But what his wife Vera (Mary Ure) thinks he’s doing is buying tickets for a passage home. She and daughter Paulie (Libbie McLintock) have even started packing. Well, Vera is. Paulie kind of likes it here, snow and all.

Redheaded “Ginger” — his real name is so pedestrian he only uses the initials “J.K.” — is a hale fellow, well-met type, already with several friends in Montreal, an endless supply of leads for jobs and a ready reason for quitting every single one of them. He wants something with prestige and the promise of promotion.

“With a man my age, there’s no future to that” he tells the ever-patient employment counselor. He’s 39, and it seems the only actual career he has is lying to Vera, exaggerating his prospects, dodging the French-speaking landlord and taking every “might be something here” as a promise of employment.

When he finally tells Vera he didn’t buy the tickets because he’s tapped-out, her look is the picture of deflated despair, too crushed to be enraged. She’s ready to give up on Canada, and maybe ready to give up on Ginger. Their prospects, as immigrants and a couple, are dire.

But he and his mate Joe (Tom Harvey) bluff him into a gig with the Montreal Tribune, whose blustery editor (Liam Redmond, a hoot) admires the man’s “cheek” and puts him on the proofreading team. The only lies he can tell Vera about this good fortune are the nature of the job, and its pay.

At least he doesn’t have to accept the pitch from another pal, who figures Ginger’s “too stuck-up to get into a uniform and get a little dirt between your fingers” delivering diapers, and picking up bags of dirty ones. But we’ll see about that.

Irish-Canadian novelist Brian Moore adapted his own novel for this script, usually a bad move. But it makes for a spry and whimsical dash through the life of a rascal with the gift of the gab and a real talent for lying.

Kershner & Co. wanted Richard Harris for the title role, but when Harris took Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” instead, they lucked into landing real-life husband and wife Shaw and Ure. They’d only been married a year or so when they made this, and they give their scenes a lovely, lived-in and earthy romance.

Vera is slow to figure out she’s being fooled and that doesn’t augur well for how fast she’ll forgive. The marriage is on the rocks before Ginger can conjure up convincing fibs or hype to put her off a tad longer.

A proofreading job — “But they’ll be promoting me to reporter!” — pays a pittance, not enough to keep them housed and fed in Montreal.

Shaw’s Ginger never lets us see desperation, but he is the picture of short-attention-span impatience, a guy whose “luck” seems to be making the worst decisions, thoughtlessly gambling on this or that “break” coming through, struggling to talk his way past a manager who wants a “JUNIOR” sales associate, not a fast-talking 39 year-old fantasist.

Kershner gives us a lovely portrait of early ’60s Montreal in his many establishing shots, and documents the world of two endangered industries — newspapering, and diaper services — in this intimate slice of life dramedy. But he takes care to keep the focus on his stars in big close-ups (a trademark) and immaculate compositions.

Little did anybody know how these various worlds were about to change back then. There’s a lot to love here, much of it unintentionally nostalgic as this “bad luck” story’s present day would soon be the cute and quaint Montreal of the past. Cinematographer Manny Winn was coming off her Eastmancolor epic “Tom Jones,” and paints her gritty Quebecois tableaux in shades of grade here.

Moore’s script and the casting of supporting roles — an Irish editor at the paper, French Canadian landlords and cops, beery “ink-stained wretches” on the almost all-male newspaper staff where everyone calls the boss “Hitler” behind his back — takes a delight in capturing that world.

“Ginger” and his grinning, blarney-accented bluster give us a little of the same hope Vera clings to whenever things start going Coffey’s way. And like her, we cringe a bit as we wait to see how Coffey will screw things up.

But not as much as we cringe every time we see nimble Robert Shaw just miss this taxi, that impatient Canadian motorist, truck or bus on footing that is never less than slippery, never more than an on-set accident waiting to happen, which thankfully it never had.

Rating: unrated, mild violence, alcohol abuse, public urination gag

Cast: Robert Shaw, Mary Ure, Liam Redmond, Tom Harvey, Leo Leydon and Libbie McLinktock.

Credits: Directed by Irvin Kershner, scripted by Brian Moore, based on his novel. A Continental Release streaming on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time:

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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