Blu-ray Review: Rogue Male
Germany, 1939. Sir Robert Hunter (Peter O'Toole) takes aim...and the man in his sights is Adolf Hitler. However, his assassination attempt fails, and Hunter is captured, tortured and left for dead. However, he manages to escape back to England, to find that the Nazis, led by Quive-Smith (John Standing), are still in pursuit...
With a script by Frederic Raphael, Rogue Male is based on Geoffrey Household’s novel of the same name. The novel was published in 1939. It is told in first person, and both the protagonist and the dictator he tries to assassinate are unnamed, though it wasn’t hard to work out who the latter was meant to be. The novel had been written before war had broken out, so some discretion was in order, though Household later said that you could have imagined the dictator to be Hitler or Stalin if you wished. Rogue Male was a bestseller, and was filmed in 1941 as Man Hunt, directed by Fritz Lang. By then, the world was at war, and the makers had no qualms about naming Hitler as the hunter’s prey.
And by 1976, the story had a further impact, in that we then knew quite what Hitler and his regime had been capable of. Before the present version, the BBC Home Service had adapted the novel for radio in 1948, with André Morell as “Lord X”, as the Radio Times listing had it.
The idea to make a new version of Rogue Male came from script editor Richard Broke. The story conceived as one of a series of six examining the changing face of the British hero over the years. Producer Mark Shivas came on board. He had just produced The Glittering Prizes, written by Frederic Raphael, and Raphael was commissioned to adapt the novel, which he did in six days. Peter O’Toole liked the script and took the lead role, apparently as a present to his wife, Siân Phillips, as the novel was one of her favourites.
Filming took place over twenty-five days. The director was Clive Donner, who had been working in the film industry since the age of thirteen and had worked his way up to becoming an editor and then, in 1957, a director. He had made television episodes in the early 1960s but had mostly worked in the cinema, with such films as The Caretaker (from the play by Harold Pinter, who has an acting role in Rogue Male) and Nothing But the Best (with a Raphael screenplay) and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. He had worked with O’Toole on What’s New Pussycat?, which had been an experience so disastrous that the film’s writer Woody Allen had vowed that he would no longer allow anyone other than himself to direct his own work. Rogue Male was Donner’s first work for television for fourteen years.
Much television drama, especially in the days when it was broadcast live, was more aligned to the stage rather than the cinema. There’s certainly something theatrical about the great television writers of the 1960s and 1970s, a golden era for the television single play in Britain. That’s true of the works of Dennis Potter, David Mercer and indeed Harold Pinter, and the last two had prominent theatre careers as well.
Yet prefilmed drama had existed since at least the 1950s, and also making their presence known were directors who were aspiring to make works for the small screen with many of the qualities of the larger one, often shooting on film (16mm but sometimes even 35mm). Many of these did indeed go on to cinema careers, such as Kens Loach and Russell, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh. While Clive Donner wasn’t really part of this generation – he was a little older, and his television work had mostly been on ITV rather than the BBC – you can sense that he was keen to make something cinematic, even if working on a tight BBC budget. The 16mm camerawork is by Brian Tufano, someone else who would later move on to a big-screen career.
Raphael’s script ignored the 1941 film and went back to the novel. As television (and film) is really a third-person medium, the story’s protagonist couldn’t easily remain unnamed. He had been Captain Alan Thorndike in 1941, and here he gets the significant name of Hunter – Sir Robert Hunter, in short. There’s more than a little class-consciousness in this version, with Sir Robert clearly at ease amongst the establishment, not least with his uncle, an Earl (a two-scene part for Alastair Sim, his final screen role). He’s equally at ease with his solicitor, Saul Abrahams (Pinter). Raphael’s script gives Saul a with-hindsight consciousness of his precarious position if war does break out, if it wasn’t so already, given that he is Jewish. This is something given an extra frisson in that these are lines written by a Jewish screenwriter and delivered by a Jewish actor.
O’Toole manages the central role with aplomb (though his hair is a little long for the 1930s), and there’s a strong supporting cast. John Standing is suitably icy as the main villain, and in smaller roles you can see Mark McManus, Nicholas Ball and Maureen Lipman. Michael Sheard, with no lines, makes this one of several times he played Hitler, and the sequence draws upon the then-recently-discovered colour home movies of the man, shot by Eva Braun. Cyd Hayman, as Hunter's executed love, doesn't have much to do, appearing only in brief flashbacks, given that her character's fate motives Hunter's actions in the first place. Rogue Male is a beautifully written, impeccably made and acted drama, and edge-of-seat stuff, with some standout setpieces: not just the unsuccessful assassination attempt but also a chase and fight on the London Underground and a climax with our hero literally gone to earth.
The BBC certainly realised they had something special on their hands. The first broadcast, on BBC2 on a Wednesday night, 21 September 1976 at 9pm, was heralded by the cover of that week’s Radio Times, and inside was an interview with Household. BBC2 gave Rogue Male a quick repeat on 31 December 1976. The BBC wanted to release Rogue Male in cinemas, but ran into objections from the technician’s union, as this had after all been a television production with the crew paid television rates. So those plans came to nothing. The usual television contract allowed for a repeat showing within two years, and in fact Rogue Male had a second repeat, this time on the main BBC1 channel, on 8 June 1977. It has not been shown since on the BBC. In 1982, Household published a sequel novel, Rogue Justice. He died in 1988 at the age of eighty-seven.
Rogue Male is a dual-format release from the BFI. A Blu-ray checkdisc and a copy of the booklet was supplied for review. This was post-watershed viewing on the BBC, and this release carries a 15 certificate. That’s for “strong injury detail”, but there is also a racist epithet uttered by the villain.
The film was shot in 16mm in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the latter as you would expect for television of this era. The Blu-ray transfer, from the original negatives, is fine, with strong blacks and naturalistic grain. Given that this was intended to be shown on standard-definition television sets far smaller and less forgiving than today’s, it’s a statement of the obvious that this is the best that Rogue Male has ever looked.
One question, though – the transfer is at twenty-four frames per second, which is odd for a production intended to be shown on PAL television. (Twenty-five fps, which the DVD – not seen – is transferred in, would be more usual, and in fact previous BFI Blu-rays of filmed television work have been 25 fps.) As I don’t have absolute pitch, I can’t tell if the soundtrack and especially the music is correct or raised by a half-semitone, so I leave this as a question. That soundtrack is in the original mono (rendered as LPCM 2.0) and, that question apart, I have no issues with it. It’s a professional job of work by a BBC sound team, clear and well-balanced. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available.
The extras begin with a Guardian Lecture with Frederic Raphael (70:40), which plays as a second audio track over the feature. This was recorded in 1982 at London's National Film Theatre (now the BFI Southbank) and followed a screening of Rogue Male. This is a career overview rather than specific to Rogue Male, though that is discussed as well. Raphael began as a novelist but soon became a writer for film and television. He describes his working with John Schlesinger on Darling (for which Raphael won an Oscar) and Far from the Madding Crowd, Stanley Donen on Two for the Road and Peter Bogdanovich on the ill-fated Daisy Miller, then The Glittering Prizes before Rogue Male. As usual, questions follow from the audience and no doubt extracts from the films or television works were shown but have been edited out of this recording, which ends rather abruptly.
Raphael appears again in an extract from a 2014 interview (4:46). He talks about Rogue Male, and his experiences of working with Pinter. At the readthrough, Pinter suggested changing one of his lines, but Raphael was clearly not intimidated by the distinguished writer in the cast, but agreed...only for Pinter to read the line as written when the film was shot.
Clive Donner died in 2010, but he is represented here by an interview with Roy Fowler conducted in 2000 for the British Entertainment History Project (14:16). Donner was no fan of the 1941 film, calling it a travesty of the novel, so he welcomed the chance to make this version, which he rated very highly among his own work.
As mentioned above, the opening scenes of Rogue Male drew on Eva Braun’s home movies from the 1930s, of Hitler and their friends, which had been discovered in 1972. Braun had done some work as an assistant in the German film industry before meeting Hitler and becoming his lover. Acquiring a 16mm cine camera, she starting making films, though these were kept secret as the Nazi Party had firm control over the propagation of the Führer's image. Shot in colour, they are presented mute on this disc and run 6:55.
Two other items on the disc are of thematic relevance to Rogue Male. The first is newsreel rushes of the march by the British Union of Fascists on 3 October 1937 (9:41) and the second is an extract from a 1921 Topical Budget item from 1921 of the opening of the Cattistock (Devon) fox hunt (0:49). Both of these items are presented with music scores.
The BFI's booklet runs to thirty-two pages plus covers. The opening essay, “The Deadliest Game” by Paul Fairclough, begins with a spoiler warning, but there isn't much spoiled in it, an overview of the film's inception and making, and some observations on its class-conscious subtexts. This does overlap somewhat with the next essay, “Thrill of the Chase” by Sarah Wood. A more specific look at the production is “Rogue Male: A Sartorial Perspective” by Gustav Temple, but that's to be expected given how much of a dandy Hunter is – as indeed O'Toole was.
Finally, there's an appreciation by David Morrell of the novel, from 2010. However, Household and Morrell had different approaches to the depiction of violence in their novels: Household declined to supply a publicity quote to Morrell's novel First Blood (which became the basis of the first Rambo film) finding it far too bloody. The booklet also includes credits for Rogue Male, notes and credits on the extras, and stills.