Classic Film Review: Nicol Williamson is Irish, Out of Control and headed for “The Reckoning” (1969)

Long before Nicol Williamson broke character and fight choreography the sacred vows of the theater and went after a co-star, mid-performance, in “I Hate Hamlet,” he had a reputation. Scary. Dangerous. Volatile. Did not give a f—.

I remember interviewing that co-star, Evan Handler, when Handler’s memoir “It’s Only Temporary” came out some years later. Handler quit the Broadway production on the spot, even though some corners of the press (the Brits) played down the incident with a prop sword as a “swat on the bottom.” Pressing him on the matter, Handler set me straight and gave one an appreciation of what terror it was, being on stage with a deranged and armed co-star in front of an unsuspecting audience.

Williamson, one of the most acclaimed British stage actors of his generation, was difficult on sets, theatrical and cinematic. He could be a bit of a loose cannon after hours. But he rarely got across that scary, psychotic, anger-mismanagement quality on screen.

Stumbling into the 1969 tour de force The Reckoning,” there it all is. He’s downright alarming in this blunt instrument of a thriller. Williamson lets us see a man of violence who represses that violence as best he can, until that moment when his past demands that he “do something” when one of his own is wronged.

Williamson plays Michael “Mick” Marler, a raging, on-edge mid-level manager at an adding machine manufacturer that was too late getting into the computer game. He toxic testosterones his secretary and bullies subordinates, but saves his most intense “management” for his reserved, timid boss (Paul Rogers), whose path to the top Michael defends as if his own manhood is threatened.

“I couldn’t give a pennyworth of COLD TEA what you ‘feel,’ Mr. Berham!”

At home, he’s a drunken brute of a “paddywhacker,” a trait barely tolerated by his “English bitch” of a wife (Ann Bell). But the upper class minx lets lust be her guide when considering her mate’s rougher qualities.

Then Michael gets the phone call that makes him “Mick” again. His father up in Liverpool is on his deathbed. And no amount of reckless Jaguar driving will get him there on time. But he notices bruises under the old man’s ribs. No matter what the go-along-to-get-along Irish doctor (Godfrey Quigley) says, Mick can guess what’s happened.

Meeting with one of Da’s mates (J.G. Devlin) confirms it. And as old Cocky tells of that night at The Bricklayer’s Arms, of Mick’s dad singing mournful Irish ballads only to get beaten up by “Teddy Boys,” it’s plain that there’ll be no calling “the English PO-lice,” “the bogeys.” Something will have to be done, and it’ll be businessman/suburban estate gentleman Mick who’ll have to do it.

Director Jack Gold made a handful of films with the sort of nearly-unhinged nervous energy “The Reckoning” lets us see. His “Aces High” is a marvelously cynical, well-cast and acted World War I aviators tale. He did the Peter O’Toole/Richard Roundtree take on “Robinson Crusoe” (“Man Friday”), which, like a lot of his work, was filmed for British TV and merited at least a limited release in the States.

He later gave Williamson free reign for a filmed “Macbeth” in the early ’80s. Here, he, his star and screenwriter John McGrath dance along the sexist and even racist edge of post “Swinging ’60s” Britain.

It’s a gloomy, overcast film that takes us into the homey inns, pubs and community dance halls of Liverpool, where even the seniors (OAPs) are treated to Mersey Beat pop before a night of bingo or no-holds-barred pro wrestling.

There’s a great time capsule nature to any films of this era, especially the pre-Thatcher British ones. The slice of life scenes are brief but vivid depictions of working class leisure time.

“Dear God, it’s a sorry sight to see the English in their pleasures.”

“The Reckoning” compares to the similarly-set “Get Carter” of a year or so later, both gloomy, downcast tales of a great wrong that someone is going to have to right himself. Unlike Michael Caine’s Carter, a made man of the British mob, Mick Marler figures he left his violence behind after his military service. He may scare his work colleagues, but that’s all for show.

“Taking care” of his Da’s killer will require craft and skills he hasn’t acquired. But there’s something to be said for ruthlessness and native cunning.

Williamson is absolutely riveting in this, convincing as a brutish drunk, brutish colleague and Brit-hating Irish man of violence.

“They taught you spite in London, didn’t they?”

“I just say I haven’t forgotten it!”

Among the supporting cast, Rachel Roberts stands out as a Liverpudlian on the make, a married woman who senses the danger in the man and who could use a little of that on the side. Film fans might best recall her from “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or as the villainess in charge of the plot to kill the pope in “Foul Play.”

Gold gives us a film of ugliness, drunken “company man” cliches and grace notes, such as Mick walking from his father’s row house to fetch the doctor as a wake singer regales us with “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.”

“The Reckoning” is worth tracking down to get an idea of what a “real” dangerous leading man used to be like and only know Williamson from his career-defining turn as the most charismatic Merlin ever in John Boorman’s “Excalibur.” He drinks, he beats, he seduces and he sings Irish revolutionary ballads like the mercurial, unstable soul he often seemed to be.

But as Evan Handler might remind you, just be glad you never had to work with him.

Rating: R, violence, sex

Cast: Nicol Williamson, Ann Bell, Paul Rogers, J.G. Devlin, Godfrey Quigley and Rachel Roberts

Credits: Directed by Jack Gold, scripted by John McGrath, based on a novel by Patrick Hall. A Columbia release on Tubi, Amazon et al

Running time: 1:50

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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