I love red wine and have loved it for the better part of my life. I can hardly imagine a day without a glass of the stuff. I do have periods of my life without alcohol but the red has always been a constant and I prefer it to beer and spirits. So it should be poetic that I should love the movie Year of the Comet (1992).
“Owning a great bottle of wine…,” says one of the millionaire characters of the film, “…is like owning a piece of history. The way I see it, you can’t own too much history.”
The same goes for film fanatics and owning a copy of your favourite movie!
I can’t afford a vintage wine collection and don’t have a cellar anyway… I’d rather put on a copy of Year of the Comet and doubly enjoy it with a reasonably priced red.
“Wine is really the hero of the film,” said the director of the film, Peter Yates (1929-2011) at the time of production. “I hope that we prove in the film that wine is better for you than computers because the villain, whom Louis Jourdan (1921-2015) is playing is trying to discover the secret of eternal youth.”
As I will reveal further, red wine is the centre of Year of the Comet.
It follows a repressed workaholic redhead in her late 20s, played by Penelope Ann Miller (1964-), the daughter of a wine broker and expert. She knows more about wine than her conniving half brother could learn in a lifetime and her neglect in the business by her father leads to her resignation.
After some canny and rather witty dialogue, she meets the hero played by Tim Daly (1956-) at a wine tasting, who has no idea about wine and asks for a beer. But this is fleeting as her father refuses her resignation and sends her off to the Scottish Isle of Skye to appraise a wine cellar for a deceased estate at some remote castle. Staying there are some rather desperate characters.
Among the collection in the wine cellar, which appears to be of the 7-Eleven variety at first, she finds a bottle of Napoleonic 1811 Chateau Lafite – Year of the Comet no less – considered the best year for red wine ever.
Meanwhile upstairs is the hideout for a villain who tortures a scientist for “the formula” – the secret to eternal youth as mentioned earlier. It is 1940s and 50s actor Louis Jourdan in his last role as the villain.
“One visitor in five months isn’t exactly a traffic jam,” says Jourdan’s rotund offsider, Ian McNiece, (1950-) when Penelope turns up to inspect the wine cellar in the beginning.
After reporting her discovery of the wine to her father – Ian Richardson (1934-2007 heart attack in sleep) – she returns with Daly, a trouble-shooter for the millionaire who wants to buy the wine, to the cellar only to stumble on the body of the tortured scientist.
Little does Jourdan realise that the late scientist has written what appears to be the formula for the youth serum on the crate containing the expensive wine bottle. Jourdan spies it as they remove the bottle… and the chase is on!
There’s multiple baddies in this film, including a rival millionaire wine collector and a mother and son who run the local bed and breakfast and who learn of the million dollar bottle of wine by listening in on the local phone line.
This is screenwriter William Goldman’s (1931-2018 colon cancer) first original screenplay after his Oscar winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He worked over half a decade on the Sundance screenplay studying the history of the characters. Other screenplays he wrote were mainly adaptations of other people’s work.
Goldman’s Year of the Comet screenplay, despite he being fond of it, lay unproduced for years. Yet, like Radioland Murders, it is one of those movies you can’t imagine to have been made at any other time with any other cast members involved.
What appears to be a lacklustre cast in a charmless production, according to the majority of critics, is in fact an often wry and frequently charming film.
Goldman said about a major preview of the film: “In the first five minutes, 50 people left the theatre. They hated it so much they preferred going back to their drab real lives than watch what I had made up.”
Timothy Daly is the swashbuckling hero from the wine tasting at the beginning. If you can stand a leading man with a porn star or Errol Flynn moustache and blow-dried hair, then you can watch this movie.
Actually, Daly with his character’s bad back and apparent arrogance is quite engaging. Critics called him Tom Selleck-lite, but he’s much better than that.
“Oh, great, I’ve got Errol Flynn with a slipped disc,” says Penelope, who seems immune to the charms of Daly, as they carry the extremely large bottle from the castle to the car. But still waters run deep as they say.
This “merry chase” across Britain and Europe begins with Daly’s trouble-shooter able to fly a helicopter.
“My instructor thinks I’m very promising,” says Daly about his flying ability as he fires it up and the chase is on from the air after they are robbed of the bottle by the bed and breakfast people.
Cue Scottish music by Hummie Mann (1955-) whose score replaced one written by John Barry (1933-2011 heart attack) which was deemed either unsuitable or unworthy. Mann’s score is apt and adds energy to the film.
Daly ditches the chopper onto farmland and the pair survive as they chase the bottle and actor Nick Brimble (1944-), a very suitable and well built mother’s boy of a villain, across a fog-laden loch.
Director Peter Yates made such classics as Robbery (1967) based on the Great Train Robbery of the early 1960s and American films Bullitt (1968), The Deep (1977), Breaking Away (1979) as well as The Dresser (1983). Fantasy classic Krull (1983) is in there somewhere.
As for screenwriter Goldman, he is famous for saying “nobody knows anything” when it comes to the screen trade or film industry. The Chicago-born writer was an avid red wine connoisseur who more or less kicked off his career with the script to actor Cliff Robertson’s Oscar winning turn in Charly (1968). He was also the original author of the novel No Way to Treat a Lady, which was adapted to film in 1968 by someone else and won many plaudits for its performances.
It was then Goldman used the pseudonym Harry Longabaugh, the real name of the Sundance Kid, for his screenplay of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
For it, he received the then high watermark of $400,000 for his original screenplay and won an Oscar. He repeated the Oscar feat again for All the President’s Men in 1976. Other Goldman scripts include Marathon Man (1976), the flop A Bridge too Far (1977) and cultish items The Princess Bride (1987) from his own novel and an adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (1990). There was a long spell where none of his scripts were made into film because he was contracted to the failing fortunes of producer Joseph E. Levine who couldn’t get any of his productions filmed. Year of the Comet was one of the films he wrote for Levine.
“I can’t believe we’re doing all this for a beverage,” quips Daly about all the murder, motorcycle riding and cliff climbing that goes on in the movie. And the obligatory romance! There is an easy-going sense of fun to this movie as Penelope is seduced by Daly’s charms after original resistance. Of course he throws his back out and she is kidnapped just to add to this, at times, dry red.
Goldman was a prolific writer and said: “The easiest thing to do on Earth is not write.” He had 23 produced screenplays, 16 novels and three memoirs during his lengthy career. And while Year of the Comet is not his best movie by far…
“Do you know what that is Miss Harwood?,” asks Jourdan. “The death of death.” Jourdan has gained the formula and he points this out as it gels on his computer screen confirming the potion could well be a reality.
Jourdan is a man who has gone through male menopause and wants to regain his sex drive. But anyone at that age who drinks red wine knows, there are better things in life – if you can’t afford that added extra.
When Goldman wrote the script he thought Glenda Jackson (1936-) perfect for the role. She would have been far too old and hard featured and I think the use of Penelope Ann Miller was a perfect choice in the end with her fresh face and lower wattage than your usual star who might have outshone the material. Penelope also graced a couple of other cult items The Shadow (1994) and The Relic (1997).
“I am hopelessly and totally in love with you… and that’s all you’re going to get for now,” says Daly during a cliffhanger moment as he climbs perilously to save the kidnapped Penelope. It’s lines like these that help make the film.
As it turns out, Daly is a millionaire a hundred times over whose trouble-shooting job is just a sideline. The bottle is taken back to London after Jourdan injects himself with the useless formula only to end up with a hangover. Should have stuck to red wine – in moderation of course.
When Daly goes to open the bottle at an auction where he paid five million dollars for it, everyone is in shock.
“Napoleon would have, he just didn’t live long enough,” says Daly.
Penelope says it might just be vinegar, which is part of the madness of wine collecting in the first place. Just drink the stuff!
“Then we’ll either have a wonderful glass of wine or a really expensive salad!, “ he says and offers Penelope a glass as an “oddball” engagement present. And the rest of it is offered at $10,000 a glass with the proceeds to go to charity.
Year of the Comet is like wine and, to an extent, other movies. If you bottle shit, ten or twenty years later it is still going to be shit. I lifted that quote off someone but not quite so sure who. But Year of the Comet is an elusive wine, not to everyone’s taste and it’s romantic like a Cary Grant movie from the 1950s and 60s. I could go on how fruity and nutty it is with a hint of blueberries… but all I want is to sit back and relax and watch something with a glass of red in my hand – especially something about a glass of red. It’s the dead romantic in me and it’s bliss for those who appreciate it!! Was I talking about the movie or the wine?
A post-script and the wine in Year of the Comet was bottled in 1811. That wasn’t the year of Halley’s Comet. That comet appears every 75 years or so and appeared in 1758 and 1835. There was, however, the Great Comet of 1811 which has formally been designated C/1811 F1 by astronomers.
Described as Napoleon’s Comet as it was still visible around the time of his invasion of Russia, it rates a mention in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Even with its nucleus thought to be 40km wide… it missed us by a long shot! No need to call Bruce Willis and his team! And it’s not due again for another 2500 years!!