A languid, hallucinatory gem, and the only film to have been directed by one of this website’s heroes, Mr. Roddy McDowall, Tam Lin (a.k.a. The Devil’s Widow) had a troubled production history, received a belated and brief late-1970s release, and has since disappeared without trace. A great shame, for this updating of Robert Burns’ ‘The Ballad Of Tam Lin’ to the age of Aquarius deserves to be seen, for a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of young Brit starlets, endless bon mots and waspish dialogue, and a thrilling horror/chase climax every bit the equal of the flight of the children in Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter.
Anglicised to ‘Tom Lynn’, the male lead here is a pre-Lovejoy Ian McShane, in the days when he was something of a hot property and burgeoning star - Tom forms part of the entourage of sophisticated Michaela Cazaret (Ava Gardner), a middle-aged land owner who surrounds herself with a collection of bright young things, seemingly to ensure she remains similarly youthful and contemporary herself. The scene is slowly but carefully set, as life at Mrs. Cazaret’s Scottish retreat appears to be a permanent round of relaxation, wine-drinking, and party games, interspersed with cutting comments from the acid tongue of Joanna Lumley or the world-weary viewpoint of Michaela’s camp male secretary Elroy (a magnificent Richard Wattis in the role he was born to play). The delicious Maddy Smith is even heard to squeal “I’ll swallow anything as long as it’s illegal”, summing up the decadent atmosphere in a single phrase while simultaneously managing to thrill every red-blooded male in the audience!
Tom makes the potentially fatal error of falling in love with the daughter of the local vicar (she’s played by Stephanie Beacham, so why not?); Elroy delivers a coded warning that such romantic behaviour will not be tolerated by their mutual benefactress, and that previous stray members of the household have wound up as victims of terrible road accidents (“you wouldn’t believe…that a face could spread so wide”, slimes Elroy, while displaying an horrific photo of one such calamity!), but Tom is smitten. Any doubt in his mind is settled when Tom discovers that his pregnant lover has travelled to Edinburgh for an abortion; but meanwhile, Mrs. Cazaret has callously replaced her set of young swingers with an equally obnoxious bunch of new hangers-on, and the deadliest party game of all is about to commence, a chilling pursuit through daunting pitch-black woodland, with Tom, now drugged and experiencing a series of wild visions, as the prey…
Tam Lin may seem sluggish and uneventful on first acquaintance, but is a movie which gets better as it progresses and improves immeasurably on repeat viewings, giving the opportunity to savour the ambience (mellow with a hint of bile) and the genteel savagery of this bitter and twisted group of frightful individuals. If Gimme Shelter signified the ‘end of the 60s’ in movie terms, this film perhaps offers the first hint that hippies turn into cabinet ministers when they grow up, and, as early as 1971, predicts the worst excesses of the ‘greed is good’ 80s. As for that alternate title The Devil’s Widow, such billing is fully justified by Gardner’s grasping, evil performance, especially during a sly coda which repays careful attention.