Blue Blood (1973)

Oliver Reed often comes across as an uncontrollable force on film – a big, beautiful man who would take on all comers and (usually) win. He’s the undoubted star of Oliver!, despite being one of the few cast members not called on to sing (“Bullsoi! C’mere boy!”). There’s absolutely no way Alan Bates is going to win that fight in Women In Love, whether clothed or not. And I’m not convinced Reed even needs that elephant to pull down the German sentry post at the end of Hannibal Brooks, it seems clear he could do it with his own bare hands. His British horror film credentials are many and unvaried – he’s a bully in These Are The Damned, he’s a bully in The Shuttered Room. He’s a bully in Paranoiac, and he does a fair amount of ecclesiastical bullying in The Devils. But let’s face it, he was unlikely to ever be cast as a mincing antique shop owner, and even when playing real lowlifes, he lights up the screen every time he walks on. It seemed that basically, all a director had to do was put him into a scene, prise the glass out of his hands and say “go on, Olly – do your stuff”. But that explosive, force-of-nature attitude could have downside, too – witness him dropping his trousers to anyone interested on any number of 90s talk shows, or conducting the Senseless Things in a dreadful version of Wild Thing on The Word.

And if someone had had the balls to say “Ollie, I think you’ve had enough” on that fateful night in Malta, he might have at least made it to the end of Gladiator and spared us that dreadful bit of “you’re not fooling anyone” computer trickery which effectively spoils the whole film.

Some directors could obviously control him – Ken Russell coaxes an astonishing performance from Reed in The Devils, and there are innumerable other bravura examples where his OTT personality is kept, ever so slightly, reined in. But Blue Blood is not one of them. As “Lord Tom” the butler, Reed makes the film his own – but this is not necessarily a good thing, as he effectively drowns it in a welter of silly voices and outrageous behaviour.

Blue Blood is a real oddity – a mixture of class war, trippy visuals and vague nods towards horror which has a cast better than it deserves – not only does it have Reed, but a very young Derek Jacobi is in attendance, too. The whole thing was filmed on location in Lord Bath’s stately pile of Longleat, and at times it has the feel of “We’ve got the cast, we’ve got the location… now, what else do we need? Oh yes, a script…”

The film begins by showing us that contrary to popular belief, life isn’t all that different whether you’re above or below stairs. His Lordship Gregory (Jacobi) and his posh mates are enjoying a party upstairs, and in the kitchen head butler Tom (Reed) is conducting a little crockery-smashing, pot-smoking get-together of his own with the other servants, punctuated with the occasional red-hued glimpse of Tom dressed in ceremonial robes (for some reason).

Gregory and his wife are living the cloistered life of the filthy rich – they are basically children who have never had to grow up. This becomes apparent when bruises are found on the body of their children, and then both are badly injured – the parents blame and dismiss the nanny, but soon realise that they can’t cope and decide to keep her on for a bit, seemingly thinking that a bit of child abuse is preferable to them actually having to look after their own kids. Dark hints have been dropped by the rest of the staff that they might be looking in the wrong direction anyway (“He makes us do what he wants. You and I and everybody. If you love your son… let Tom go!”), but these have been ignored.

Tom exerts a powerful influence on everyone who comes into his orbit, and the Lord and Lady soon begin to realise that they are losing the power struggle. Confronting her impudent servant, Milady is told: “You own this house, but do you possess it? Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

“It’s hard to take you seriously with that voice!”

Throughout the film, Reed’s voice has wavered between his usual posh growl, a cockney brogue and something which resembles comedian Joe Pasquale doing Parker from Thunderbirds, with a touch of South African thrown in. It seems that this strange hybrid accent is some kind of unintentionally funny 70s film thing, until her ladyship retorts: “It’s hard to take you seriously with that voice!”

Whether she’s taking him seriously or not, it’s about time somebody did, as things in the mansion are going from disturbing to downright nasty – Tom rapes the poor, put-upon nanny, who then finds herself the subject of a pretend sacrifice (she’s less than amused). Gregory overdoses on acid, falls from the roof of the building, and when he regains consciousness, finds that the balance of power has finally shifted, irrevocably, away from him…

Reed makes and breaks the film. As usual, he’s absolutely fucking terrifying, and gives the viewer the impression that he is capable of anything. Blue Blood, seemingly only available these days in an extremely truncated 60 minute version, is a strange little oddity which is for Reed completists only.

Updated: February 17, 2010

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