In 1971 it looked as though a franchise for a new screen hero was up for grabs. Sean Connery had returned as James Bond for Diamonds are Forever, but this time it was definitely “never again” ('never' being 1983, as it turned out). With the Bond series on the verge of apparently fizzling out, it was time to bring a new character to audiences. [Please note now, this review has whopping spoilers.]
Enter Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins), a Royal Navy diving expert with a huge working-class chip on his shoulder, useless at desk work but unequalled in the field. In this case the 'field' is the Inner Seas off the West Coast of Scotland, where ships carrying gold bullion have been hijacked and disappeared without trace. Calvert is recommended to investigate by an old friend, Roy Hunslet (Corin Redgrave). Hunslet is excellent at desk work but useless in the field, so they make a good team (some have seen a homosexual subtext in their relationship, maybe because Hunslet makes good cocoa and nurses Calvert's injuries). Overseeing the investigation is Sir Anthony Arnford-Jones (Robert Morley at his most petulant) who sees Calvert as a: “terrible fellow... from a Northern grammar school”.
Calvert's plan is to plant two friendly agents in the crew of the next bullion ship, the 'Nantesville', to report anything untoward to Calvert and Hunslet, who will shadow the ship disguised as marine biologists. When they aren't heard from, Calvert slips aboard the ship and finds both men dead. He unravels the mystery by bucking authority, overcoming the shifty, mumbling locals, disobeying orders and generally raising hell, leading to an action climax in the villains' hideaway.
If the producers did hope for a Calvert series, they were disappointed. The film did poor box-office, and James Bond returned in the form of Roger Moore. When Eight Bells Toll stands as a single story and, on the whole, it's a very good effort. It offers plenty of action and a solid story (Alistair MacLean scripted, based on his own novel). Its downsides were a rather dour hero (“I don't have any friends,” Anthony Hopkins says at one point. I knew I'd heard that line from Quantum of Solace somewhere before) and a lack of 'glamour' expected from spy flicks.
Instead of sipping martinis in the Bahamas, Calvert is swimming in the frigid waters around the Hebrides under grey skies in a gale. The locations for the film are one of its great strengths and are very well used. There is some excellent aerial photography of swirling seas and rugged coastline by Arthur Ibbetson. This brings a gritty, physical reality to the film which is more involving for the audience than the glossy locations of the Bond series.
The supporting cast is good and generally provide distinctive characters. Corin Redgrave is a solid sidekick and acts as the film's 'sacrificial lamb'. The image of his body being winched out of the sea attached to an anchor chain is one of the film's strongest moments. Hopkins and Morley spark well off each other, one a rampant snob, the other disdainful of the 'upper' classes. They reach a grudging mutual respect as the action unfolds, which is handled well by both actors. Jack Hawkins plays the red herring villain as well as he can after losing his larynx to cancer a few years before (Charles Gray speaks his lines).
The female villainess/sex interest comes off worst. Is she a good-girl-gone-bad, or just a mercenary bitch? We are never really told, and all Nathalie Delon can do with her part is be insouciante and moue in that familiar French manner. (The secondary female character played by Wendy Allnut gets a chance to show British girls can be sexy in their own way, and does it very well.)
When discussing his films, Alfred Hitchcock used to talk about 'the plausibles' – those slightly outrageous twists an audience will accept because it is willing to be entertained. This film has its share. When boarding the Nantesville, Calvert is faced by a man holding a pistol, he freezes for a few seconds, tension builds, but... the guy is dead, stabbed in the back while sitting with his back to a wall. Presumably the villains propped him in a chair with a gun just in case someone came snooping round in the night, but it makes for a few moments of genuine tension. Why do the villains shoot Calvert's helicopter out of the sky? He had found nothing, and even if they killed him it would only lead to more enquiries. Well, it is followed by an excellent sequence of Calvert fighting for his life underwater. As for a thug's death looking like an accident? Only if he stood for a minute cutting his own airline, but it capped a great fight scene.
The film is very good entertainment and a welcome change from the glossy, Teflon Bonds of the same era. Calvert makes a very human hero, not invulnerable but very resourceful and not to be diverted from completing his mission. The final freeze-frame of his silhouette against the skyline emphasises he is a man alone. It is somehow fitting that his film incarnation is itself a one-off.