The Viking Sea Lord takes on the Big Screen: Tom Selleck IS Lassiter!

By James Kenney

Tom Selleck IS Lassiter, a romantic rogue with a taste for easy living and precious gems!

However, a fortune in uncut diamond is being funneled through the German Embassy by a nasty, Teutonic Countess, Lauren Hutton, who likes to occasionally murder sexual partners while she orgasms, to finance Hitler’s European and South American espionage network. The FBI and Scotland Yard lean on poor Lassiter; if he refuses to “intercept” the diamonds using his dishonorable skillset, they’ll frame him for an armed robbery he didn’t commit.

If he gets caught, those cynical Brit and American authorities will deny knowing him – and he’ll be executed as a spy!

Oh, and the relentlessly beautiful Jane Seymour (born Joyce Penelope Frankenberg in Middlesex, by the way) is hanging around, a nightclub hoofer/romantic interest who is also one of those cinematic scolds, trying to reform our Lassiter (it might be nice, liberating if nothing else, if the beautiful woman actually cheered on the bad behavior of the protagonist once in a while in these things).

Seymour’s beauty is supreme and I’d probably listen to her if I was Lassiter, but I must disclose I could be drawn to the kinky malevolent countess Hutton if it meant avoiding the persistent lectures about flying right. 

Nightclub Comedians and Steeplejacks: The Sturdy Supporting Cast of Lassiter

Good character actors abound in “Lassiter,” including the permanently reliable Ed Lauter (who despite all his tough guy parts started out as a stand-up comedian working Greenwich Village nightclubs), Bob Hoskins (who we’re told in the press materials worked as a road digger, porter and steeplejack in his youth before his time in the Royal Shakespeare Company), and Joe Regalbuto (most memorable to me as the smarmy D.A. who is told by Arnold Schwarzenneger “to resign or be prosecuted” at the end of John Irvin’s Raw Deal).

I can’t say “Lassiter” is all that great.  There are two types of period pieces, the ones that wholly convince you of their historical authenticity, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” and Peter Bogdanovich’s “Nickelodeon” for example, and then the ones that don’t, that feel like dress-up.  Christian Slater’s “Mobsters” and, alas, “Lassiter” fall securely into this latter category.

“Lassiter” is handsomely appointed, and a lot of impressively accredited people were involved in its production, but it never really rings true; it feels like a likeable yet trying-too-hard vehicle for the massively agreeable and yet somewhat unpersuasive Tom Selleck, still smarting from not being able to do “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for Spielberg.

Nvertheless, the reason he didn’t, the hugely successful TV series “Magnum PI,” is the reason he was able to mount a second charge up the hill of film stardom with initially Brian G. Hutton’s “High Road to China” and then “Lassiter.” Both were produced with Hong Kong money from Golden Harvest, long known on these shores mostly for its production of Kung-Fu films.

Selleck, on this evidence, wasn’t really up to it at this point, frankly, or at least novice film director Roger Young lets him down here.  Selleck is excellent at light comedy, whether in his note-perfect early appearances as Lance White in “the Rockford Files” (seek these out if you haven’t seen them), “Three Men and a Baby,” and “In & Out.”  He’s agreeable as a “sensitive” hero in Michael Crichton’s daft but charming “Runaway,” where for much of the film the joke is on him. He keeps jumping on and being chased around by runaway futuristic electronic devices imperiling his life, and his good looks (borrowed from Burt Reynolds and due back the next day, he joked at the time) and his concern for his younger partner and romantic interest Cynthia Rhodes make us root for him.

But I’ve generally found even in those heady days he had a problem similar to what Edward Burns and Treat Williams have always had; there’s a lightweight, sometimes high-pitched characteristic to his voice that Selleck has trouble overcoming when he tries to play dead serious, whether in Peter Yates’ later, glum “An Innocent Man” or here in “Lassiter,” where he’s a “charming thief in the Cary Grant” mode scampering across rooftops in search of diamonds, only the film has much darker beats than anything Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” offered up. While we always like Selleck, we’re not always convinced by him, and when he, well, whines to Seymour how the authorities are setting him up, he’s not seen to his strongest effect.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m writing about it now because “Lassiter,” like everything in the rearview mirror compared to contemporary Hollywood product, looks interesting, and in fact “Lassiter” is interesting, a “humpback success.” 

Seeing Selleck attempt (at the time ineffectively) to move beyond his iconic status as Magnum is involving.  Although I do feel there was a certain weightlessness that perhaps kept him from owning the parameters of anything larger than a TV screen at the time, I have no doubt Spielberg would have directed him to a fine performance in “Raiders.” Selleck had/has sufficient ability and the ability to make light of himself.  But when left with a weak director or malnourished script, I don’t find Selleck able to absorb the project’s blows and still command the screen the way Grant, Harrison Ford or even, I dunno, Jason Statham can. 

Selleck was and is amazingly handsome but still in danger of evaporating on screen, the same way other hunks such as Treat Williams, all dramatic gifts aside, were never able to quite maintain full movie star status. If you are the president of the Selleck or Williams fan club, I apologize, but I figure someone has to posit why they never quite broke through outside of television despite having so much going for them. The voice!

Albert S. Ruddy produced “Lassiter,” with Golden Harvest bigwig Raymond Chow and Andre Morgan listed as executive producers.  According to the film’s press materials, Selleck first read “Lassiter” and brought it to the attention of Golden Harvest, who as mentioned were apparently in the ongoing Selleck-movie business, having produced his first major film as a lead, “High Road to China.”  Ruddy is the kind of guy who would produce both “the Godfather” and “the Cannonball Run,” so why not “Lassiter,” which safely falls halfway between elegant period-piece and star vanity flick.

Producer Morgan certainly talked up Selleck at the time: “There are very few actors who could have played Lassiter. The industry is suffering, at present, from an acute shortage of leading men – who have both romantic appeal and a sense of humor.” A sense of humor is what “Lassiter” the film could use a bit more of; Hutton’s coital executions, some of the violence, and the overall predicament Selleck is in all play a little too dour for my tastes.

Tom Selleck: The Viking Sea Lord

Selleck, as always, had an attractive personality – I think all were rooting for him to have box-office success at the time, but all his early 80s efforts to break free of his television persona flopped.  The “Lassiter” press materials compare Selleck to Clark Gable, Paul Newman, and Burt Reynolds, and remind the reader that magazines like People and the Ladies Home Journal termed Selleck a “Viking sea lord” (!).

Selleck himself tried to temper such expectations: “It’s flattering, but for fourteen years before “Magnum” nobody compared me with anything but a hardworking actor – when I could find work.  There isn’t going to be another Newman or Reynolds. Their talent is unique. And if you buy that stuff about yourself, you’ve got a long way to fall when it changes…I don’t —and won’t—live up to some image of stardom that has nothing to do with me. On the other hand, I’m grateful to get a crack at colorful characters like Nick Lassiter, which wouldn’t have come my way before.”

“A Touch of Arrogance”

Selleck certainly was a hardworking actor and in describing Lassiter seems to understand the character well, pointing out what makes him less likeable than Magnum and also why he wasn’t a perfect fit for Selleck, whose amiability was his trump card: “As a character, Lassiter is a departure from most of what I’ve done before, including Magnum. He’s rougher around the edges and a compulsive winner. When he enters a room, there’s a touch of arrogance and gall.”

Selleck dutifully put in his research time, talking it up with a few retired “villains”: “I wanted to pick their brains about things like picking locks and breaking and entering. It wasn’t the technical side I was after, that’s easy. What concerned me was what goes through a man’s mind when…let’s say…he’s cracking a safe.”

However, like a good 1980s Reagan Republican, Selleck was only willing to go so far playing a scoundrel, pointing out that he gets caught up in Embassy mission because “deep down, it taps his sense of patriotism, though he’d sooner go to jail than admit it.”

Jane Seymour, in need of liniment

This oddly patriotic expatriate criminal is not above eschewing American women to instead bed down the luscious London chorus girl Seymour, who in the press materials curiously defined her character’s ambitions simply to “get off her feet” – “on the surface, her…job seems sexy and exciting, but dancing is harder on the legs than playing soccer. She comes home black and blue, decorated with sticking plaster. Fortunately, Lassiter is a skilled masseur with a large supply of the same liniment they use to treat the top horses at Ascot.”

It’s interesting, the stories actors come up with to help explicate their characters’ behaviors and choices, and good for them, yet I don’t recall much discussion of Lassiter’s choice of liniments in “Lassiter” – it does seem odd that such a skilled jewel thief couldn’t save up enough to keep his adored Seymour from coming home “black and blue, decorated with sticking plaster.” What’s the point in being a jewel thief if you’re not going to help your gal “get off her feet”???

One interesting thing I didn’t know was that Seymour, who had just finished a run on Broadway in “Amadeus,” was once an exceptional dancer, a teenage ballerina under the tutelage of famed choreographer Eleanor Fazan, who appeared with the London Festival Ballet and the Kirkov Ballet.  At 16, she had to bow out due to a knee injury, but Fazan choreographed her tap routine for “Lassiter,” which Seymour found “a lovely reunion.”

The Teutonic Black Widow Spider

A bit more fascinating of a character is Hutton’s Countess Kari von Fursten, who, as the press materials described, “is a devotee of the Marquis de Sade, by way of the Medicis, who takes exquisite pleasure in inflicting pain.”

Hutton saw the countess as “a black widow spider…or perhaps a coral snake,” with the press materials adding she was “an amateur naturalist” in case we were wondering where her metaphors came from. “Her colors are red and black, the colors of poison. There’s even a red and black butterfly in the jungle, which has a deadly sting. Any time you see those colors in nature, it’s a warning.”

Hutton found the countess a refreshing change from the “good little rich girls” she had recently played, and in one scene she tells Lassiter that what attracted her to Lassiter was “his scars.”  Hutton made sure her character, a predator was “always wear[ing] something dead – egret feathers, monkey fur or a bird of paradise.” 

Her character’s outré perversion is heightened by her superb bone structure and smiling eyes; she and gorgeous contemporary Barbara Carrera, equally adept at playing alluring malevolence, would have done well to team up as villainesses in some kind of project. “You get a good inkling of her character when she goes to the fights with Lassiter,” said Hutton. “It’s a very vicious bout and the ringsiders are splattered with blood. Even Lassiter cringes. But Kari merely licks her lips.

From Lou Grant to Lassiter: Roger Young

“Lassiter” is not bad, but I insist it’s not as good as I’m making it sound in this write-up (Hutton’s character is more fun in the mind than she is in the movie), and the fault mostly lies with Young, the director, who had only directed television to this point, principally “Lou Grant” and “Magnum PI” episodes, though he also directed several well-received television features.

He went back to television after “Lassiter” (did he jump or was he pushed?), and from the evidence it was a wise move, as “Lassiter” could’ve proven much stronger had a steady veteran hand had guided it. But, perhaps chosen by Selleck because of his “Magnum” work (Young directed the pilot), he didn’t work hard enough to get Selleck to do anything truly disturbing to his image or that would sell him as a theatrical leading man, and didn’t demonstrate a sense of how to pace or stage a theatrical feature.

It’s pretty good, but it’s never truly stimulating, and all the efforts to make this 40s noir an 80s movie, with the cursing, nudity and violence, just make it all the more dress-up than drama.

A Bloody Fanatic Copper!

Leave it to Hoskins to come up with some lively Brit-sounding quotes to describe his Inspector Becker, a cynical cop happy to use Lassiter and feel no guilt if Lassiter is caught and killed: he described “playing a copper, even a bloody fanatic like this one” as quite a turnaround from his star-making performance in John Mackenzie’s masterpiece “The Long Good Friday.”

By this point, Hoskins had still worked exclusively in England with British actors in projects such as the original “Pennies from Heaven,” in the role played by Steve Martin in the American film version. He touched upon what it was like working with Selleck and Hutton: “I enjoy working with American actors. The difference in technique is remarkable. Take a fight scene. A British actor will work himself slowly, gradually into a frenzy…But Americans plunge right in…WHAM….and you’d better be ready.”

He was impressed by what he called the “smoothness” of Selleck’s performance. “I’ve always envied that kind of nerveless charm. I one scene hen I corner Lassiter on the Orient Express to blackmail him into completing the embassy job, he’s as cool and witty as if we were old high school chums. If I tried to do that bit, I’d trip on the stairs or smoke the wrong end of the cigarette and burn my lips. Fortunately, there’s not much call for someone like me….5’6” and built like the back of the bus…to play suave, sophisticated types.”

The Orient Express Back in Action

The press materials credit American Railway buff James Sherwood for the filming on the actual Orient Express, as Sherwood restored the legendary train at a cost of $17 ½ million after it had initially been scrapped in 1977. The train by 1984, the year of the film’s release, was currently back in service between London and Venice (Iron Curtain restrictions at the time ruled out its original terminus in Bucharest).

In selling “Lassiter,” director Young discussed the many fictional thrillers by the likes of Graham Greene and Agatha Christie that utilized the Express as a backdrop, but for some reason also discussed how it had been the “speeding backdrop” for several “real mysteries,” such as the disappearance of a French prime minister who either jumped, fell, or was pushed from his private carriage.  (In case you were wondering, some quick internet research reveals the prime minister was Paul Deschanel, and he wasn’t killed by the fall from his window, and almost certainly wasn’t pushed, which makes it a little less mysterious by my count)

For “Lassiter,” Young took over one of the train’s most opulent coaches, dubbed “Minerva” (all the cars on the Orient Express had individual names).  Among the high spots in Minerva’s history was “serving as a section of the Royal Train during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation gala.”

So, remember that when you watch Hoskins try to strongarm Selleck during the Lassiter “Minerva” sequence, and also perhaps visualize how the scene would play if the roles were reversed and Hoskins put the wrong end of the cigarette in his mouth.

To sum up, a less exotic location featured in “Lassiter” was an embankment on the Thames River, from which Selleck and Regalbuto tumble into the murky waters to escape a fiery death. The actors were required to take tetanus (!) and typhoid (!!) shots “just in case….” As usual, Selleck showed good humor about it

“I’ve gone months filming in Hawaii without going near the water. But the I’m sent on location to downtown London…and take a swim.”

Was “Lassiter” worth the tetanus shot?  Not exactly, but on the whole we’re all soft touches for international WW II intrigue, train rides fraught with danger, beautiful femme fatales and girl Fridays, and Selleck himself (not to mention Bob Hoskins). I can’t say “Lassiter” works, but I can say if you think it’s up you’re alley, it’s probably up your alley. Selleck is a most likeable, self-effacing Viking Sea Lord, after all.


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