Sir Carol Reed takes on a movie about insurance fraud in sunny Spain — with a great trio of actors for 1963. Laurence Harvey scams an insurance company and looks forward to continuing to beat the system in a happy life of chicanery; Lee Remick finds her affections turning to Alan Bates, an insurance man who might also be on vacation, or might have come to uncover Harvey’s crime. How does Harvey hide out while waiting for the big payoff in Málaga? He buys a huge white convertible too big to fit through the streets!
The Running Man
1963 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date June 18, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Laurence Harvey, Lee Remick, Alan Bates, Felix Aylmer, Allan Cuthbertson, Noel Purcell, Ramsay Ames, Fernando Rey, Eddie Byrne, John Meillon, Roger Delgado.
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Film Editor: Bert Bates
Original Music: William Alwyn
Continuity: Angela Allen
Written by John Mortimer from the novel by Shelley Smith
Produced and Directed by Carol Reed
The Running Man appears to have been a bounce-back film for the honored Carol Reed, who was made miserable on the set of the ’62 Mutiny on the Bounty by Marlon Brando, and fired by MGM in a ‘who’s in charge here?’ squeeze play. Although not up to the same quality level as Reed’s long run of impressive, personal productions, the performances and direction in this Columbia picture are fine. It’s the screenplay by John Mortimer (Bunny Lake is Missing) that tries too hard to be clever. How obscure was this show become, before the DVD age? When an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie came out with the same title in 1987, nobody even remembered that it had been used before.
The tale begins in Croyden and soon shifts to sunny Spain. Rex (Laurence Harvey) owns a small air transport company, but loses everything in a crash not covered by insurance, and vow to have the last laugh. With the help of his wife Stella (Lee Remick), Rex fakes his own death in a glider accident. He sneaks off to Málaga, where she joins him a while later with the insurance payout. His hair dyed and a new mustache, Rex affects an Australian accent to match that of one Jim Jerome, whose passport he has stolen. Stella has accepted this ruse so far, but she finds Rex a changed man — boastful and arrogant, full of himself for having fooled the insurance company that ‘cheated him’ before. But his plans stall when Stephen (Alan Bates), the insurance investigator that interviewed Stella on the day of Rex’s funeral, shows up. He just happens to be here in Spain on holiday and looking for company. Rex insists on befriending the lonely intruder, to determine if he’s telling the truth, or is really there to expose Rex’s fraud. Rex urges Stella to get closer to Stephen too, to see if they’re being investigated.
With this stellar cast one might expect something remarkable, but The Running Man is a diverting, clever thriller that relies a bit too much on some tricky plotting. One doesn’t need to be Edward G. Robinson at Pacific All-Risk to see through Rex’s slick trick. With no body recovered the insurers would certainly be following the money, with people who could recognize him even if he had plastic surgery. Rex succumbs to megalomania right off, becoming convinced that he’s too smart to be caught. He makes big plans to collect more life insurance on an identity he’s assumed through a stolen passport. Does he expect Stella to play the widow again? They don’t say, I think, what identity he used to fly to Paris — did he risk using his own own?
Laurence Harvey tried to carve out a stellar career by playing handsome but unlikeable characters, and in this show he succeeds in creating a crook we just don’t like very much. Harvey’s disguise, especially the blond hair, isn’t attractive either. Everybody mentions it — like people don’t seem to like Robert Stack’s dyed blonde hair in The Bullfighter and the Lady. It at least helps us accept the fact that Stella isn’t sleeping with her own husband on this ‘vacation.’
The tale of a wrongdoer outsmarting himself has some nice turns. Lee Remick is excellent as the wife who can’t handle the changes she sees in her crook husband. Besides the hair, Rex is morphing into a really despicable guy. Stella’s upset by that, saying she just wants things to get back to normal. But, should we assume she’s a nice woman that just can’t picture how much trouble she’s in, and how this nice guy Stephen may be there to help send her to prison?
The Running Man is always fun, but it doesn’t fully satisfy. I think the storytelling outsmarts itself too. Once Alan Bates’ Stephen attaches himself to the couple, the insurance scam practically becomes an open secret. Stephen definitely behaves as if he’s snooping for evidence, and the trend becomes obvious when he tries to photograph Rex. Stephen’s teasing games never let up. His every dialogue exchange begins with a passive-aggressive joke about wrongdoing, ‘getting away with it,’ secret identities, etc.. Rex and Stella are supposed to be unsure about Stephen’s motives, when his interminable questions should erase all doubt. It’s quite believable that Stella’s affections turn from one man to the other, an event that’s a surprise to her as well. Both that, and Stephen’s true motivation for sticking with Rex and Stella, are developments too good to spoil.
After a lazy middle section sightseeing under sunny skies, the show winds up with a fairly good, logical extended chase scene. Clichés are mostly avoided, and Carol Reed’s direction retains at least a few of the criss-crossing ironies that probably tickled readers of Shelley Smith’s source book.
Planes figure three times in the story, but only in a mechanical way. Making Rex a pilot of transport aircraft and gliders is what I call an ‘upside-down logic’ mystery plot element, in that the writers need him to follow that profession to make the DIY get-rich scheme work. My idea of a murder thriller that’s entirely upside-down is Hammer’s The Snorkel — the killer’s too-clever modus operandi is the only real inspiration, and the rest of the story is an afterthought.
The Panavision film’s travelogue aspects are handled fairly well; Carol Reed takes no breaks just to look at scenery, as in Ray Milland’s Lisbon. It seems crazy for Rex to buy an ostentatious white convertible Lincoln Continental — Stella should have known he was off the deep end right away. The Spaniards must have felt the same way. What’s Rex going to do when that oversized car doesn’t fit through narrow Spanish streets? Cinematographer Robert Krasker makes the undeveloped coastline look great, and displays Lee Remick at her most beautiful. But nobody can do much with Laurence Harvey’s odd Australian accent and sharklike grin.
We’re happy to see familiar faces Roger Delgado and Eddie Byrne, along with a beard-less Fernando Rey. Rey must have had a ‘go to the front of the line’ pass, for casting in English language pictures. The same goes for actor John Meillon, who always seemed to be tapped whenever an Australian was needed in an English film — he was the Australian Bert Kwouk! The oddest bit of casting is a very brief appearance by Ramsay Ames, who was once a Universal starlet, tapped for a featured role in The Mummy’s Ghost.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of The Running Man is an attractive encoding of this overlooked entry in the filmography of Carol Reed. As remastered by Sony, the source material isn’t in perfect shape — it has a few dings here in there, but overall it looks splendid. The show begins with flashy, very 007- inflected main titles by Maurice Binder. In my favorite shot, two ancient, tiny Spanish women dance by a doorway when Rex is on the phone.
Arrow puts extra effort into the added features. The full background and production story is handled in an audio commentary by author Peter William Evans. Lee Remick is heard in one of those comprehensive National Film Theater audio interviews. A new video piece presents the memories of four crew members, most notably the legendary continuity girl Angela Allen. Assistant Director Kits Browning laughs out loud when asked about Laurence Harvey’s awful Australian accent. The actor is remembered as a prima donna; and he and Lee Remick reportedly did not get along at all.
Why is this lesser Carol Reed? Reed’s films normally thrive on intense moral problems, even the pictures not written by Graham Greene. Rex is an uninflected villain, and a fairly superficial one at that, and the resolution lets the survivors walk away without having to Face the Music. Nobody expects another masterpiece like The Third Man, but The Running Man is too easily forgotten. I find his earlier, similarly-titled The Man Between much more engaging.
I don’t think this is a spoiler — for those that have seen the picture . . . Did he know? . . . To me, the only way the show makes sense is if he did.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Running Man
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated music and effects track; Audio commentary by Peter William Evans, author of British Film-Makers: Carol Reed; featurette On The Trail Of The Running Man, with crew members Angela Allen and AD Kits Browning; Lee Remick audio interview at the National Film Theatre, 1970; image gallery. Illustrated booklet with a essay by Barry Forshaw.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 8, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson