Thursday, January 02, 2020

Call Him Mr Shatter (1974)

I previously covered Call Him Mr Shatter (aka They Call Him Mr Shatter or, more commonly, just Shatter) in brief as a 'Random Movie Trailer',  but, having seen the film in full again, felt it was worth looking at again in a bit more detail.  Te second of Hammer's two 1974 co-productions with Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong, Shatter has never enjoyed the cult status of its stablemate, the bizarre vampire/Kung Fu hybrid Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.  It is, nonetheless, also a genre crossover film, trying to meld the elements of a US or European crime/spy movie with those of a Chinese martial arts picture.  It isn't a happy combination, with the finished film not offering enough of either genre to satisfy fans of either.  To be entirely fair, the film's unevenness isn't entirely down to the script's inability to successfully fuse the two different genres.  By all accounts, it had a troubled shoot, getting through two directors and three cinematographers, as well as having the original musical score (provided by Shaw Brothers) replaced at Hammer's behest.  Hammer owner Michael Carreras took over the director's reins from Monte Hellman part way through the production, after the latter was fired because the rushes he provided were considered incomprehensible and he was running behind schedule.  Carreras reportedly hated the footage already shot, feeling that it slow and unexciting.

While Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires had the virtue not only of having a single director, but also of a degree of originality and novelty in its scenario, in form Shatter harks back to the kind of B-movies Hammer was turning out in its early days.  These would often feature a second-ranked US actor in the lead, usually playing a hard-bitten private eye, cop or reporter carrying out their investigation against the backdrop of an unfamiliar (to them) UK.  Shatter, likewise, has a lower ranked US leading man - Stuart Whitman - in the title role of a hard-bitten assassin for hire, trying to unravel a life-threatening mystery against the exotic backdrop of Hong Kong.  Indeed, the plot settles down into the sort of cross and double cross format familiar from those fifties B-movies, with Shatter, in Hong Kong to collect the pay off for his latest job - the assassination of an African leader - only for his supposed employer (Anton Diffring) to deny that he had commissioned the job and refuse payment of the fee.  The rest of the film sees Shatter pursued by various factions, (including Peter Cushing's shady British government representative whose help is contingent on Shatter recovering some documents),  as he attempts to prove he wasn't acting independently and retrieve his fee.  Wherein lies the film's main problem: the whole King Fu aspect seems tacked on as an afterthought: part way through the narrative Shatter enlists the aid of Ti Lung and his martial arts skills.

Whitman's presence in the lead doesn't help: middle aged and out of shape, he makes for an unconvincing action hero.  Never the most charismatic of actors, Whitman only ever seemed to get leads in international co-productions unable to afford a top line US star.  (He is, for instance, the nominal lead of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, but is overshadowed by the likes of Terry-Thomas, Eric Sykes, Gert Frobe, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Tony Hancock, likewise, he stars in the little seen Iranian-US action film The Invincible Six, in both cases, presumably, to satisfy US investors).  Ti Lung, one of Shaw's top stars of the perion, (along with David Chiang, who co-starred with Cushing in Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires), is forced to play second fiddle to Whitman, his screen time consequently restricted, despite the fact that he is both more charismatic and a more convincing action hero.  Indeed, his martial arts sequences are generally reasonably well done, but unfortunately, there just aren't enough of them.  Ultimately, Shatter feels completely off the pace, as uncertain and lethargic as Whitman appears in the lead.

The film ends, after a half-decent action finale, with Cushing telling Shatter that the British government can only protect him within the confines of Hong Kong and suggests that he opens a business, like a bar.  Which he is left planning to do with Ti Lung.  Now, if this makes Shatter sound like a pilot for a TV series, providing a set up for a weekly series where Whitman and Ti Lung get involved in various plots brought to their bar by the guest star of the week, then it is because it very nearly is a pilot.  Hammer had hopes of spinning the film off into a TV series, but these plans fell through when it failed to secure a US distribution deal, (it was eventually picked up by Avco-Embassy for a 1976 US release).  In many ways Shatter is symbolic of the problems faced by the UK film industry in the seventies.  As US finance and distribution deals dried up, film makers faced a stark choice: either focus of small scale productions aimed primarily at the contracting UK market (ie sexploitation movies and comedies), or try to secure international funding for hybrid projects with international appeal.  The latter course meant attempting to jump on whichever cinematic band wagon which was currently popular.  (It wasn't just smaller producers doing this - the early Roger Moore James Bond films tried to broaden their appeal by encompassing Blaxploitation (Live and Let Die) and King Fu (Man With the Golden Gun) with varying degrees of success).

Hammer tried both approaches - the two Shaw Brothers co-productions were followed by a German co-production, To The Devil a Daughter, (a Dennis Wheatley adaptation scuppered by a confused script and obviously disinterested and miscast Hollywood lead in Richard Widmark). Prior to these, Hammer had gone back to its roots with a number of adaptations of popular TV series.The most successful of these were the On The Buses films, (the first of which outgrossed Diamonds Are Forever at the UK box office in 1971).  Other TV adaptations, such as the drama Man at the Top and comedies like That's Your Funeral, Love Thy Neighbour and Nearest and Dearest were less successful.  The problem was that none of these, neither the TV spin offs nor the co-productions were particularly innovative.  Hammer's success had been built upon its trail-blazing Gothic horrors in the fifties and early sixties, but by the seventies these too seemed old hat: despite injections of sex and nudity, the were increasingly out of step with audiences.  In that, Hammer represented a microcosm of the entire British film industry of the era.  Perhaps if Shatter had been a success, it might have helped push Hammer into TV production, where its culture of turning out decent looking products on tight schedules and low budgets would have given it an advantage. But it wasn't to be and Shatter, instead, represents a last gasp by Hammer, as they desperately gambled on trying something different and came up short.



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