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NME, 12 January 1985

image: J Houghton

text: Richard Cook

Alexis Kanner, NME

Alexis Kanner’s come a long way from the hippie in the final episode of The Prisoner to this first film as director, Kings And Desperate Men. Richard Cook finds out why a 60s enfant stays terrible. Pic J Houghton.

From flower-child to terrorist: reflections of a misspent youth

“You don’t, you don’t, you give up,” interrupts Alexis Kanner despairingly. “People come to the cutting room and stay and learn what they want and leave – and then a new bunch comes in … it’s attrition.”

He’s talking about keeping a perspective on the film he made, Kings And Desperate Men, over something like three years. Like the picture itself, the film-making he describes sounds like a mass of improvisation, endless re-takes and recuts, profound concentration and sudden impulse. He even took on his own leading part – as the scholarly terrorist who kidnaps a renowned radio host to stage a retrial of a manslaughter case in live broadcast – to simply fill a gap.

“My character, Miller – he became known as one-take Miller because I never gave the part any attention, everything is one take – and one day I heard one of the assistants laughing about him. She wanted to know why he wasn’t negotiating for a flight to Cuba. It had never occurred to me.”

Alexis Kanner manages to combine intense rumination and volubility when he talks. A topic will spiral off into politics, literature, ethics … his pitted face and hooded eyes, relics of some recent rough nights, try to keep up with the flow.

His film twists and creaks around this strange tabloid affair.

Once the broadcast begins, playing to an audience of serried-rank sharpshooters and bemused Xmas shoppers, talkshow wizard John Kingsley (Patrick McGoohan) starts to outplay the hapless Miller and his confederates. Kanner splices itchily between the besieged studio, the police, the family and everybody else outside until the film is spinning. It’s a cold, fantastical work that is exciting extremes: masterpiece, or preposterous shambles.

“I stayed out of the politics of the thing. Miller’s whole idea is an ill-thought disaster, as these things mostly are. The way they’re random, that’s what gave me the idea to do it. Random” He intones the word as if pronouncing a death sentence.


Inevitably, British audiences are eager to see KADM if only to watch Patrick McGoohan working again. As the radio genius who plays a barbarous English demeanour off his audience, McGoohan is pretty gripping – a compendium of the darting glares and clipped growls of his Drake/Number Six persona, shaped to another ironic, unfathomably bitter role. It would be a masterpiece of casting if Kanner hadn’t already written the part with McGoohan in mind.

“The role needs a contribution of a higher order, something volatile. McGoohan brings danger. If he hadn’t agreed I’d’ve either made Kingsley an Italian and asked Mastroianni to do it; or do him as a broken-down American comic, and got Johnny Carson. Carson actually agreed to do it on the day that Patrick said yes. Luckily I didn’t have to rewrite the whole thing!”

There is a kind of warped nostalgia going on between McGoohan and Kanner, the latter a protegé eccentric in the last hours of The Prisoner. Sometimes KADM pivots on their relationship in a way that suggests Kanner would really have wished to make the film a two-hander.

“I told him he was hell to work with, and he said – you’ve forgotten what you were like. But he was wonderful. He has such imagination. Somehow you’re navigating a razor edge towards the outcome. Handling him is …” Kanner exhales with a smile. “If you want that quality of work you have to put up with that quality of problem too.”

A model of difficulty, McGoohan has – after much deliberation – declined to visit here to promote the film thus scuppering a media beano that might have devoured him. Perhaps he’s wise. Meanwhile, the film garners its own notoriety.

“A few months ago, four guys escaped from a prison in the south-west, took a radio station, went on the air and tried to re-try themselves. People rang me and said, did I feel responsible?”

Kanner looks disgusted. What are his own views on the efficacy of terrorism?

“Do you mean its successfulness or usefulness? I’m very torn about it. It used to be that various kinds of terrorism were the only way civilisation progressed. This coin” – he produces a battered-looking medallion from inside his shirt – “was the last one minted before the contemporary shekel, 2,000 years ago. If the sense of revolution had died out of those people we might not have Western civilisation as we know it.

“On the other hand, there’s the mercenary activity which the media picks up today as if it were genuine. I guess it’s more dramatic to play up the PLO than tell the people that 98% of them are paid”.


Kanner draws in the Middle East, the world even, and stirs it around in his coffee. In Canada, where the film was made, activists trying to save the French side of their culture have turned to terrorism themselves. Of Irish roots, born in France, a Canadian resident, Kanner is himself an awkward fit.

“I would’ve applauded Miller’s action,” he muses. “That he never asks for money or anything for themselves.”

It might be the ineptness of the bungled assault that makes the film ludicrous for some. Kanner, still a young veteran, seems to thrive on the perversity. He typifies the invisible man who nevertheless built an in-business reputation over a long period: 60s TV star became occasional Hollywood player, scriptwriter, even producer/director. His talent for Shakespeare has left him with a steadfast stage reputation.

Yet, like McGoohan, who reputedly turned down an envelope containing a million dollars just to talk about playing James Bond, he’s been a little short on visibility. Kanner smiles an admission when I suggest that if you turn down everything people eventually stop asking. As it is, with KADM finally showing, he now has a staggering eight directing projects on the blocks.

“Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End is a film Kubrick wanted to do but couldn’t get the rights. Abraham Polonsky controlled the rights with Universal and he called me to say he’d relinquish it if I’d like to do it. I held the receiver away from my ear … it turned out to be not a joke.

Ball And Chain is an original, an action comedy, somewhere between the Marx Brothers and Bridge On The River KwaiPicture Yourself is one I wrote with Jack Nicholson in mind, about a mid-life sexual crisis in an average American household which one doesn’t normally witness, and Nicholson wants to play it …

Proffit is a bit like a modern Middle East CasablancaStealth, which McGoohan wants to play the head of the CIA in, is a caper … Blanks is a more serious matter, concerned with the power to prophesy, with what happens when someone leaves out certain parts …”

And then there’s … whew. I wonder if Kanner is giving me some of his hereditary blarney. After a lot of discussion his eyes have brightened into the sparkle of the mischievous mad genius.

“I’m a depressed optimist. A cynic full of wonder. I prefer to wake up believing in absolutely everything and proceed to have the shit kicked out of me all day – rather than be defenced and ready to have nothing happen to me.”

Amen to that.

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