Two schoolboys are wandering the countryside looking for a place to fly their model Spitfire, and settle upon an area which according to the signs around it is private M.o.D. property. They are oblivious to this until a jeep draws up and some military types emerge, telling the boys that they are trespassing and ordering them into the back of the vehicle. They are then escorted to a hangar to be told off, but one of the boys notices that the leader is wearing some decidedly non-regulation shoes - their scam blown, the soldiers who are not soldiers knock out the children and set their plan in motion. First, call one of the boy's fathers and set up the ransom demand...
When Don Siegel came to Britain having made some of the most successful movies of his career, there were high hopes resting on him, but when The Black Windmill was released, it was mostly to disappointment. People reportedly found it confusing, unengaging and uninspiring, with the opening, which is reluctant to reveal too much too soon, probably the point where it lost the audience. Not the best beginning for the story, but this was a thriller with its heart in the espionage genre that British moviemakers were so keen on sticking with even after its heyday in the previous decade, and quite often those films relied on their mystery elements.
And in truth, once you went with the flow of Leigh Vance's script, based on a Clive Egleton novel, it was fairly easy to allow yourself to be carried along by the accumulation of events and action sequences without the exeprience proving too much of a headache. There were even hints that there was a slightly kidding nature to the work, not a spoof exactly, but sending up the stuffy Brits who do their best to keep their composure when everything appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. Michael Caine remains resolutely impassive throughout, embodying the tenor of the entire movie as ruthlessly efficient, verging towards a self-parody of his conventional style of performing.
Caine plays Major John Tarrant who is a cog in the machine of the British secret service, but not sent from pillar to post like his Harry Palmer tended to be, as we're in no doubt that he is in control - which makes those scenes where he loses his command over the situation more effective, although we are in little doubt he will regain his authority. It is Tarrant's son who is kidnapped, with the bad guys, led by John Vernon with Delphine Seyrig as his right hand woman, letting the other boy go (except he's been dosed with LSD to ensure he can't say anything too useful). They say they want diamonds in return for the son, but the British government refuses to negotiate so Tarrant has to go all Charles Bronson and strike out on his own.
Once the plot wakes up from its initial torpor of staid meetings and hush-hush discussions, you can see that Siegel was striving to emulate Alfred Hitchcock with his man on the run conventions. That said, there are some amusing bits in that first half, with Tarrant's boss (Donald Pleasence) telling a group of officials that the enemy spy they are looking for is Sean Connery before correcting himself, as if to acknowledge the James Bond series while attempting to distance their efforts from that. Not that they really succeed, as while Bond may have not been a family man he still exhibited the capability under pressure that Caine's character does here: perhaps The Black Windmill was the missing link between Bond and Palmer after all. With a scheme that doesn't entirely make sense when you examine it after the film is over, you're better to sit back and allow this film to carry on its own twisting path; for what it is, it's not bad. Music by Roy Budd.