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The Man of Steal

[whitespace] The General
Pat Redmond

Crime Pays: Brendan Gleeson (left) and Jon Voight.

'The General' thrills with the story of an Irish master criminal

By Richard von Busack

THE DUBLIN POLICE rejoiced when Martin Cahill turned up dead, shot in the head. The slippery master criminal had made their lives a nightmare. His numerous robberies included the heist of a fortune in liturgical gold meant for the altars of Ireland. Cahill's great score--and his undoing--was the theft of the only privately owned Vermeer in Europe. Cahill was nicknamed the General for the loyalty and size of his organization. Truly, "General" Cahill had the proverbial balls of a burglar. At one point, he interrupted his own trial to ask the judge, "Your honor, can I leave here early? I need to draw my dole [welfare check]."

Appropriating--well, stealing--the title of one of the best-loved movies in history is an act of theft worthy of Cahill, but there's Buster Keaton's ingenuity in The General. In wide-screen black-and-white, director John Boorman (Point Blank, Zardoz) tells the nigh-unbelievable true story of Cahill. Filming it was a magnanimous gesture on the director's part, since Boorman was one of the many who, in real life, was ripped off by the bandit. Beguilingly, Cahill (Brendan Gleeson of I Went Down) is the exact opposite of the traditional Fantomas-style archcriminal. As played by Gleeson, he turns out to be a family man: amiable and sloppy; not fat, just "coodly," says his sister-in-law (and lover).

The young Cahill is played by Eamon Owens, the same actor who played Francie the Bad Bastard in The Butcher Boy. When we first see Owens' Cahill, he's a spud thief, swiping potatoes to feed his family. I remember comparing Owens to the young Jimmy Cagney. Gleeson, as the older Cahill, also has Cagney's brashness, concealed by a sleepy, polite demeanor. In the role Pat O'Brien used to play opposite Cagney in the old Warner Bros. urban melodramas, Jon Voigt plays a police captain from Cahill's old neighborhood who never gives up trying to rehabilitate the great rogue.

How accurate is this film? Cahill kept his secrets. There's a rival version of the master thief's tale due out later this year. Another version of the story might emphasize the man's grittiness and viciousness, instead his humor and guile. Cahill was capable of violence, as we see in one scene in The General in which he punishes a henchman by nailing him to a pool table. In a standard version of this tale, society would be to blame for creating a criminal like Cahill. Boorman's slant on the material is much more invigorating, certainly much more radical. He celebrates Cahill's illegal victories against society, admiring their boldness and lack of violence. No doubt Boorman will be upbraided for glamorizing Cahill's life. Still, the movie is rich with classic elements. The General is a story of an oppressed land and a crafty antihero who is both Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. The General should carry a warning: Boorman makes Cahill's life look like such fun, you're tempted to quit your job and become a thief.

The General (R; 129 min.), directed and written by John Boorman, based on the novel by Paul Williams, photographed by Seamus Deasy and starring Brendan Gleeson and Adrian Dunbar.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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