The Ballad of Tam Lin

UK | 1970 | Directed by Roddy McDowell

Logline: An ageing seductress uses her wealth and supernatural wiles to control a brood of young folk, while her favourite, becomes enamoured with a local village girl, and thus becomes the subject of her jealousy. 

"And ance it fell upon a day/A cauld day and a snell/When we were frae the hunting come/That frae my horse I fell/The Queen o Fairies she caught me/In yon green hill to dwell.”

Loosely based on an ancient Scottish ballad, “Tam-Lin”, by Robert Burns, it was the last screenplay of William Squires who wrote for American television. Roddy McDowell turned down the returning role of Cornelius in Beneath the Planet of the Apes to direct his only movie, and after it’s belated US release it vanished, only to surface sporadically on television in a re-cut, re-titled version disowned by McDowell. It wasn’t until 1998 that McDowell’s intended cut of the movie (complete with lengthy intro from Roddy himself) surfaced on VHS, and in recent years this director's cut has been given a restored Blu-ray release.

In this version of the celtic legend a glamorous and mysterious woman, Michaela Cazaret, known affectionately by her entourage as Micky, brings her swinging London set out to her enormous country manor where she indulges them in her games and toys. She has one regular bedfellow, Tom Lynn (Ian McShane), but I’m sure the inference is that she is lovers with them all. She is like a strange, beautiful Mother Hen, and Tom is her strutting peacock. 

Into the picture wanders young Janet (Stephanie Beacham), the daughter of the local vicar, and she takes Tom’s fancy. Now Tom’s heart is aflutter, but his mind is under the lock and key of Ms. Cazaret. No matter how much cognac he swills, he can’t get Janet out his head. Meanwhile Elroy (Richard Wattis), Micky’s aide-de-camp (pun intended), has his eye on the wayward stud. Reporting back any tomfoolery to the mistress of the manor, or, as the US re-cut version refers to her, The Devil’s Widow

"And pleasant is the fairy land/But, an eerie tale to tell/Ay at the end of seven years/We pay a tiend to hell/I am sae fair and fu' o fles/I'm feared it be mysel.”

Ian McShane is brilliant in the role of the handsome, hapless Tom Lynn (see the play on the title?). HIs Tom portrays the necessary confidence, and quiet arrogance, superbly. In counterpoint Micky’s vulnerability, her emotional fragility (how much of it is feigned?), works into his groove, then buckles his strut. Whilst the deer-in-the-headlights, butter-wouldn’t-melt innocence of Janet is the river running between them. Tom plunges in, Micky throws in piranha, can Janet save Tom? 

For the trainspotters there are several young faces in the support cast - Micky’s harem - that will bring a smile. Keep a look out for Joanna Lumley, Sinéad Cusack (several years before she married Jeremy Irons), Hammer girl Jenny Hanley, and Bruce Robinson (yes, the director of Withnail and I!) Also of note is the score by Stanley Myers, and several folk songs performed by Pentangle. Oh, and a couple of fabulous cars to boot! 

Very much influenced by, and a fractured, satirical reflection of the swinging London of the late 60s, coupled with a dark, insidious Wicker Man edge, this tale of greed, jealousy, cruel manipulation and the power of true love, is a nightmare dressed in the threads of a fairy tale. Apparently a tribute, a gesture of love, to legendary star Ava Gardner, who was in her late 40s when she made this. A curious gesture, indeed. 

"But the night is Halloween, lady/The morn is Hallowday/Then win me, win me, an ye will/For weel I wat ye may.”

During the movie’s first half the elements of a traditional horror movie are barely apparent, with the scent of its romantic interludes seemingly overpowering any foul stench, but following Janet’s declaration and bombshell to Micky, and it’s all on for young and old. During the second half, and especially in the movie’s last twenty minutes or so, Roddy pulls out all the stops, showing great technique, and the movie becomes as intense a nightmare as Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers

It’s a shame McDowell never directed any further movies, as he showed a distinctive style (I loved his use of stills during the courtship of Tom and Janet by the stream), and great understanding of the poetic, both light and dark, power of cinema narrative. Indeed, Tam Lin is a very atmospheric film! I believe the interfering by the studio and executive producers brought McDowell such frustration and despair that he vowed never to direct again. So we are left with just one curious, peculiar, rare gem, that must be savoured like a fine lilac wine. 

“Out then spak the Queen o Fairies/And an angry woman was she/Shame betide her ill-far'd face/And an ill death may she die/For she's taen awa the bonniest knigh/In a' my companie."