Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971)

Genres - Crime, Drama, Mystery  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Thriller  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom   |   MPAA Rating - PG
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Review by Nathan Southern

This offbeat and overlooked thriller bowed in the U.S. in June of 1971 but opened and closed nearly overnight, thanks in part to a devastating review by Roger Greenspun in the New York Times. Greenspun's attacks, however, were off-base and unmerited. Working from Giles Cooper's 1958 radio play, director John Mackenzie and scribe Simon Raven set up an arresting premise that pulls us in and hooks us from its onscreen inception: an innocent and well meaning secondary school instructor gets held emotionally hostage by a sociopathic gang of hooligan boys who declare their willingness to murder him if he disciplines too harshly. Oftentimes the most enjoyable nailbiters are those that take a seemingly absurd situation and make it all too real. Unman rides that very line perched midway between the credible and the ridiculous - we can dismiss it all by arguing that this scenario could never actually transpire, but the more we reflect on it, the more evident it becomes that Mackenzie and Raven have ingeniously covered every loophole. This is especially true of the story's one obvious "out" --the possibility that the protagonist might take news of his predecessor's homicide to the headmaster or the police. (He doesn't do this, because, as the students sardonically remind him, who on earth would believe such an absurd story?) The narrative itself doesn't really build once Raven and Mackenzie have hammered out the conceit - the movie could use many more clever twists and turns than it possesses. But the film nevertheless delivers. It grows unbearably tense and even nasty in a climactic, Straw Dogs-like scene involving the students' planned gang rape of the headmaster's wife, and then unexpectedly philosophical and profound in its closing sequence, with some smart ruminations on the nature of demagogues and mob violence. In fact, Unman has reportedly been used in England to educate viewers on the ills of blind acquiescence in the face of evil. It would make a wonderful double bill with Frank Perry's equally overlooked Last Summer (1969), which shares some of its themes.