He Who Rides a Tiger

He Who Rides a Tiger ★★★

An under-appreciated and unusual movie from Britain in 1966. It is part film-noir, part British New Wave, directed by the Ealing veteran Charles Crichton.

He Who Rides a Tiger is a filmic elaboration of the Indian proverb, “He who rides a tiger can never dismount.” It tells the story of a jewel thief who is released from prison but returns to his old ways.

The movie belongs on my Hudsucker Proxy List of Decent Movies with Terrible Titles. Admittedly, though, this movie is a little hard to describe. It is a heist movie, a romance, a character study and a moralistic tale, mixed uneasily into one, so no name could pin it down very well.

It is interesting, though, one of those odd underseen movies I like to find.

It’s not a great movie, but there are plenty of reasons to see it, beginning with the lead actors–Tom Bell and Judi Dench.

We know her now as the incomparable Dame Judi, but this movie is from a different chapter in Dench’s career. She was primarily a theater actress in the 1960s, working with both the National Theater Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Television and film projects were less frequent. However, in 1964-65, after her RSC commitment, she appeared in four feature films–The Third Secret (also with Crichton), Four in the Morning, A Study in Terror and He Who Rides a Tiger.

In 1966, she won her first BAFTA, as the Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles, for Four in the Morning. However, Dench made very few feature films again until the mid-1990s, when she was cast as M in Golden Eye. She focused on the stage and television, including the original West End production of Cabaret in 1968.

Her co-star here was Tom Bell, who was a rising actor in New Wave films like The L-Shaped Room directed by Bryan Forbes. He would go on to be a character actor, mostly in British television, including a memorable turn as one of Helen Mirren’s sexist colleagues in Prime Suspect, his last role before his death in 2007.

In this movie, Bell plays Peter Rayston, a jewel thief who has been in and out of prison several times. At the start of the movie, he is being released again, unrepentant and ready to resume his old life. He is surveying Surrey for a new job when he meets a young woman and gives her a ride: Joanne (Dench) is an art teacher and single mother who works at an orphanage. The two soon fall into and out of love with each other. The story sets up the loving Joanne and her adorable son Dan as the path to virtue and redemption for Peter, while mentor-thief “Peepers” Woodley (Peter Madden) and his troubled wife (Kay Walsh) are the tiger. Police Superintendent Taylor (Paul Rogers) already has his eye on Peter, but Peter is not worried. He wants to keep doing what he is doing.

He doesn’t need the money, though he does like to show off his wealth. He is just a thrill-seeker, drawn to the risk more than the reward. The movie asks if he is capable of changing–or once a criminal always a criminal. Peter is capable of kindness and generosity, but he is also extremely self-focused and often violent. The movie, with its mix of noir scenes and romantic ones, dwells on the divided nature of the characters, ending with its own answer to that question, in a strong final image.

The screenplay, written by Trevor Peacock, who was best known for his role on the Britcom Vicar of Dibley, is not the strongest, but the movie is watchable and interesting. Tom Bell was perfect for anti-hero roles like this: He makes Peter’s mix of menace and charm feel hard-wired into the character. Peter is not an easy character to like but a hard one to ignore. It seems Bell could have gone further in movies, except Richard Harris, Alan Bates and Albert Finney were getting the best roles ahead of him.

Judi Dench has less to do in a cliche saving-grace girlfriend role, but she gets more out of it than just about anyone could. She makes Joanne strong and vital but not saintly. She is not unaware of the kind of man Peter is and she is no fool.

I really enjoyed seeing a film from this earlier stage of her career. This is certainly worth seeing for the actors and the unusual mix of themes and influences. It is an odd and interesting find.

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