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|Archibald Hall/Roy Fontaine||Malcolm McDowell|
Directed by ?
Written by Peter Bellwood
From the book by Norman Lucas
What the butler did
Jim Gilchrist | Scotsman 8/31/05
January 1978 was a bitterly cold one, made all the chillier by the fact that bodies kept cropping up in lonely locations across Scotland. As temperatures dropped below zero, grim-faced policemen attacked the iron-hard ground with pick-axes and shovels, and deployed tracker dogs trained to detect putrefying flesh.
As the sweat froze on their brows, the searchers uncovered four bodies, in various states of decomposition - one at Kirtleton House Manor, Dumfriesshire, another in nearby Middlebie, one in a bleak Inverness-shire wood, and another near Braco, Perthshire. A fifth was discovered, quite accidentally, by police, curled up in the boot of a car in North Berwick. The five murders, which made national headlines, were the work of the stylish thief, con-man, jail-breaker and, ultimately, serial murderer Archibald Hall, who became known as "the killer butler".
A debonair, audacious and plausible villain who regarded himself as "a top-class thief" and preferred to call himself Roy Fontaine, Hall's psychopathic tendencies erupted in 1977 after his shooting of a former cellmate and lover precipitated a cold-blooded killing spree. Now the story of a working-class Glasgow boy, who reinvented himself through service with the aristocracy and through a series of daring burglaries and confidence tricks, could well be made into a film starring Malcolm McDowell, an actor with quite a "criminal history" of his own.
McDowell, who has portrayed blue-eyed psychopaths as diverse as Caligula and gang-leader Alex in A Clockwork Orange, has long nurtured an interest in Hall's extraordinary story, and last year commissioned Hollywood writer Peter Bellwood (who scripted Highlander) to come up with a screenplay. McDowell, who would produce the film, is now looking for a director, as well as the necessary £3-4 million funding.
The actor told The Scotsman earlier this month that he had been interested in the story, which he will shoot largely in Scotland, ever since the late director, Lindsay Anderson, told him about it a dozen years ago. He described Hall as "a wonderful character in many ways. He's a great conman, a fabulous part for an actor".
"We're on our way to getting funding," reports Bellwood from his home in California. "At the moment we have a number of director possibilities, but we want the right person - so much in this story depends on the tone: it's about a serial killer but it's also about one of the world's great conmen.
"Fontaine was the most extraordinary kind of psychopath. Nothing was ever his fault, and, when you embark upon a biopic of someone like this, there are certain dramatic imperatives which have to be accommodated. You're not writing a book with all the interior stuff you can get into a book. There's a certain Greek tragedy aspect to it, too: leaving aside his psychopathology, there is something touching in a way about Hall's personality."
The working title for the project, The Monster Butler, may conjure images of Lurch from The Addams Family but, although Bellwood's script has more than its fair share of black humor, there was nothing very funny about Archibald Hall, who died three years ago in Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, aged 78, while serving multiple life sentences for four murders (the fifth case remains open).
"There's no doubt that I'm addicted to stealing. It's something I show a rare a talent for," Hall wrote in 1999, in his now out-of-print autobiography, A Perfect Gentlemen. If he had stuck to thieving and high society conmanship, he might have remained in criminal folklore as the archetypal amiable rogue, but, as he also admitted, there was "a side of me, when aroused, that is cold and completely heartless". Not for nothing did he and his co-author, Trevor Anthony Holt, subtitle the book, The True Confessions of a Cold-Blooded Killer.
Born in 1924 in Glasgow, Hall started stealing at the age of 15 - the same age at which he was initiated into sex, and into a more sophisticated world, by a divorced neighbor in her thirties. It wasn't long before he discovered his bisexuality, although, as he recounts in the book, just holding jewels was enough to arouse him. "I didn't really make a decision, I just became a thief," he wrote, and among early victims of his often fastidiously conducted burglaries were the Shorts, the Glasgow showbiz couple and parents of Jimmy Logan.
Moving to London on the strength of his ill-gotten gains, Hall's good looks, ambivalent and exploitative sexuality and aspirations to the good life soon found him circulating on the city's celebrity gay scene, conducting, or so he claimed, affairs with Lord Boothby and playwright Terence Rattigan. He also served his first prison stretch, having been arrested in London passing jewelery he'd burgled in Perth, establishing an alternating pattern of porridge and Champagne as, between sojourns at Her Majesty's pleasure, he brushed up on his aristocratic manners and connections by working as a butler, or feigned upper-crust credentials himself - at one point attending a garden party at Holyrood House on an invitation filched from his employer's mail. At least twice he entered into serious relationships with women, one of whom he married and later divorced, but claimed in his memoirs that the great love of his life was David Barnard, a fellow con he met in Hull Prison, and whose death in a car crash in 1974 was a blow from which Hall never recovered.
Three years later, Hall, while working as butler to Lady Margaret Hudson at Kirtleton House, Dumfriesshire, killed for the first time. The victim was David Wright, another prison lover, who joined Hall to work at the manor, threatened to blackmail him about his past and, Hall claimed, tried to shoot him while drunk. He shot Wright while rabbit-hunting, and buried him under boulders in a stream on the estate. Killing Wright, he claimed, really let the genie out of the bottle: "I had released all that was worst in me." And worse was yet to come. Hall became butler to Walter Scott-Elliot, an elderly and wealthy former Labor MP and his much younger wife, Dorothy. True to form, he was planning to drain the couple's bank accounts before going into retirement abroad. "It was a shame I had to kill them," he later wrote, blithely.
But kill them he did, although he blamed his partner-in-crime, a small-time villain by the name of Michael Kitto, for the spiral of brutal violence which ensued. He was showing Kitto round the couple's house in London's Richmond Court one night when they were confronted by Dorothy, whom Hall thought was away. Before she could cry for help, Hall recounted, Kitto gagged her with his hand and the ailing woman slumped to the floor, dead.
The pair then sedated the old man with whisky and sleeping tablets, then, with the help of Mary Coggles, a waitress and prostitute they knew, drove him up to Scotland, his wife's body riding in the boot. This bizarre assembly - with Coggles wearing the late Mrs Scott-Elliot's clothes and wig - made overnight stops before burying the dead woman near Braco, Perthshire, then throttling and beating the old man to death with a spade in a lonely wood near Tomich, Invernesshire. "The old man was a proper gentleman right up to the time he died," Kitto would later assure the High Court.
Coggles's propensity for parading about in her newly acquired fur coat and jewelery made her a liability, so Hall and Kitto decided to do away with her - though not before they both had sex with her. Her body ended up, like Wright's, in a Dumfriesshire burn, where a shepherd found her body on Christmas day.
What finished the pair, though, was their murder of Hall's half-brother, Donald, who, not long out of prison himself, was becoming an embarrassment. After subduing him with chloroform, Hall drowned him in the bath at his holiday cottage in Newton Arlosh, Cumbria. Murder had become second nature to him.
So, in January 1978, for the third time within a few weeks, the pair found themselves driving north with a body in the boot of their car. As snowy conditions worsened, not wanting to be involved in an accident, they halted at a hotel in North Berwick, whose suspicious manager, worried about his bill, phoned the police, who took them to the local station for a routine check, whereupon a detective sergeant opened the car boot. Escaping out of a toilet window, Hall got as far as Haddington before being caught at a police road-block. Following a botched suicide attempt, on 18 January 1978, he ended up conducting the police through those bitter Highland woods to the makeshift grave of Walter Scott-Elliot. During the ensuing trial in Edinburgh in May 1978, Hall was described as a psychopath - an oft-abused term, agrees Tom Wood, chairman of Edinburgh City Council's action team on alcohol and drugs and a former deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police - "but Hall fitted the bill".
In January 1978, Wood was a detective sergeant working on the periphery of the case, and met Hall briefly. "He was very likeable and affable to meet - he used to send Christmas cards to one or two of the cops," recalls Wood. "And that's what made him even more dangerous, frankly. Policemen found him an extremely charismatic and plausible character, but utterly cold-blooded."
Reporting the trial, The Scotsman recorded the advocate-depute, Colin McEachran, commenting that Hall had twice been certified as insane in 1944 (something the murderer conveniently skips in his memoirs).
Hall remained incarcerated until his death in 2002. In California, Peter Bellwood recounts a strange coincidence: "Three years ago, on the morning I finished the script, the BBC were filming at my house for a documentary on Peter Cook, who had been a great friend. The sound man saw this script titled Monster Butler on the table and said, 'Is that about Roy Fontaine? He died yesterday in Portsmouth jail.' The weird coincidence is that I must have written 'fade out' on the script at approximately the same moment that Roy Fontaine died." If McDowell and Bellwood find their backers, however, the killer butler will live again, on our screens, yet another bogeyman for our times, but one with impeccable manners.
This was a film to which Malcolm bought the rights for. David Sherwin adapted a screenplay from the book by Norman Lucas way back in 1991. The first draft of the script in done in 1993 with Lindsay Anderson. On June 11, 1993 Malcolm planned on buying the script for $200,000 - the salary from his next film and having Lindsay and Sherwin come out to his house in CA to finish it up, like on OLM! The deal fell through when Malcolm's movie got cancelled. The next year Malcolm asked Gary Oldman to star with him and he agreed. They tried to shop the film and even with them starring and Lindsay directing, no studio was interested. Because of Sherwin's battle with alcoholism, the script was never completed and with the death of Lindsay in 1994 this project has been put on the back burner with Malcolm looking for a director.
Let me entertain you with tale of a Scots killer
Tim Cornwell | The Scotsman
He's played a psychopath from Roman times and one from the future. Now actor Malcolm McDowell has revealed his plans to play the Scottish serial killer Archibald Hall in a new film.
McDowell, most famous for playing sinister leads in films from Caligula to A Clockwork Orange, has told The Scotsman that the shocking story of the "Monster Butler" could be the British answer to the bloody gangster film Goodfellas.
Glasgow-born Hall brutally murdered five people in a string of bizarre killings that ranged from Dumfriesshire to London and back to Scotland. The conman plied his trade as a butler before he turned killer in his 50s, and counted a former Labour cabinet minister among his victims. He died in Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, in 2002, after serving 23 years in jail.
McDowell, who would also act as the film's producer, hired the award-winning scriptwriter of Highlander, Peter Bellwood, to write the screenplay last year. He is now trying to find a director who is right for the project and put together £3-4 million in funding.
"It's very important that we shoot it in Scotland, as a lot of it takes place there. We would shoot it in Glasgow, and in the Lowlands. All these country houses ... it's perfect, and that's where it took place," he said.
He learned of Hall's story at least 12 years ago when the late director Lindsay Anderson suggested he play the killer. McDowell, 62, is a veteran of more than 100 films. He is currently working on the hit US television series Entourage.
He bought the rights to a book telling Hall's story but, disappointed by an early script, he turned to Mr. Bellwood, an Emmy-award-winning British writer. He said of the killer: "He is a wonderful character in many ways. He's a great conman, he's a fabulous part for an actor, and that's why I've stayed with it so long. "I want to play him, as an older man, of course. We will get the money if the will is there, by doggedness and belief. We will make it as modestly as we can."
A spokesman for Scottish Screen said: "Films about Jack the Ripper have been popular for years, and this sounds like the home-grown Scottish thing. We look forward to seeing the script."
The script for Monster Butler opens with the true-life encounter of two North Berwick policemen called by a landlord worried that Hall and his accomplice Michael Kitto won't pay a bill. They stumble on a body in the boot of his car. Archibald Hall preferred to go by the name Roy Fontaine - inspired by Joan Fontaine's performance in the classic film Rebecca.
The screenplay charts his youth in pre-war Glasgow as an emerging conman and jewel thief with aristocratic airs, weaving a life of crime with attempts to "go straight" as a butler to the gentry. In one true-life episode, he impersonated an Arab sheikh, booking the presidential suite in the Dorchester Hotel in London.
His killing spree began in 1975 when he murdered the former lover from prison who threatened to expose him as butler to an aristocratic dowager in Dumfries. He killed his next employer, the politician Walter Scott-Elliott, and his wife. Other victims were a prostitute and his own brother, Donald, whom he loathed as passionately as he loved his sister, Violet.
Mr. Bellwood said: "I tried to create a story where we went from comedy to horror. Fontaine was a pathetic creature in many ways. He loved entertaining people, but he could also explode."
McDowell said other British criminals such as the Krays had made it to the screen. Even the comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets was about a serial killer. "He was one of the world's great conmen who in his 50s killed five people in as many months. It would be a very stylized film, in that I want to entertain the audience, to make them laugh. It's sort of like Pulp Fiction, where you laugh out loud after they've done a killing and are talking about eating hamburgers in Paris. It's the mundaneness of it that appeals."
Was to be directed by Lindsay Anderson
Screenplay was originally written by David Sherwin
Gary Oldman was to play Hall's boyfriend.
Malcolm McDowell from my interview with him 8/11/07
Q: Is it ever going to happen?
A: I don't know.
Q: You have the rights to it now?
A: I have the rights, but I don't have a script. I don't know whether I'll ever do it.
Q: Didn't David Sherwin write something for it?
A: No. He's a good guy, but he didn't write a script, he wrote a treatment early on when Lindsay was alive.
"I'm sure it would make an absolutely horrible and quite successful movie." - Lindsay Anderson 1993
"Typecasting, you might say. I like the charm of confidence tricksters and acting is really a con trick anyway. I remember being with a heavyweight boxer in a film and he said, 'I like this acting stuff. All you do is stand up and lie.' ' No,' I replied. 'It's standing up there and telling the truth.' But, whatever it is, I always try to have fun." - Malcolm in Radio Times 2/96
This is the extraordinary true story of Roy Fontaine, a brilliant con-man, who becomes butler to the rich and even lunches with the Queen Mother. As well as charming all his employers, he murdered his boyfriend, his brother, and the last couple he worked for, an elderly member of Parliament and his wife. Finally arrested and tried, he was declared insane. He was locked up in Broadmoor and died in 2002.
This format © 2001-08 Alex D. Thrawn for www.MalcolmMcDowell.net