A Prayer for the Dying (1987)

A Prayer for the Dying banner.
Jack Higgins novel cover.

Since early December I have been reading my way through Jack Higgins’s novels.  He had first used the character Martin Fallon in 1960 (Cry of the Hunter), reprising him in 1973 for the novel A Prayer for the Dying.

It’s a mournful story of an IRA soldier, haunted by the innocents he’s killed, trying to get out of that business, but finding it hard to quarantine his particular skills from the bargains he must strike to escape his past and stay alive.

In 1986 the story was turned to film by Mike Hodges, starring Mickey Rourke (Martin Fallon), Bob Hoskins (Father Da Costa), Sammi Davis (Anna Da Costa) Alan Bates (Jack Meehan), Liam Neeson (Liam Docherty), and Alison Doody (Siobhan Donovan).

Higgins was not a sophisticated author.  He could spin a yarn and avoid the most obvious clichés, but he was repetitive and formulaic.  Many of his novels featured a character who had spent time in Chinese captivity during the Korean War (Father Da Costa in this one).  Many of his characters were Irish, because Higgins was raised in Ireland.  His novels often recycled elements almost verbatim, and were often re-published in revised form years later.  Build-up was the first two thirds of every novel, followed by a severe setback for the protagonist, and eventual success against the odds.

Mickey Rourke as Martin Fallon and Bob Hoskins as Father Da Costa.
Mickey Rourke as Martin Fallon and Bob Hoskins as Father Da Costa.

By the time Higgins came to write A Prayer for the Dying, he was really quite proficient in making his formula work to entertain his audience and deliver what they were looking for.  As an aside, he had already written A Game for Heroes (1970), elements of which became The Eagle Has Landed (1975), probably his best-known novel for the eponymous film in 1976, starring Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland.

A Prayer for the Dying was a novel about a much more immediate problem for the British: the IRA, and the endless conflict in Northern Ireland.  It shared with Eagle and other Higgins novels a sympathy for former and contemporary enemies of Britain.

Fallon is portrayed as a killer, but also as a tortured soul deserving understanding, and maybe even love.  Ironically the love of a blind woman is what’s on offer.  Blind to the ugliness of the killer, but receptive to his ability to play a church organ like a virtuoso—the way a German paratrooper plays the organ in The Eagle Has Landed.  A bit twee to suggest musical ability is a character-redeeming factor.  But neat in its own way, tying him back to the church, the way the IRA itself was.

Alison Doody as Siobhan Donovan and Liam Neeson as Liam Docherty.
Alison Doody as Siobhan Donovan and Liam Neeson as Liam Docherty.

Somehow Higgins managed to balance and juggle a larger ensemble of characters than was usual for him: the protagonist Fallon; the priest Da Costa and his blind niece; two police inspectors; the baleful Jack Meehan, his psychotic brother, and assorted henchmen; the good-hearted prostitute; and some others.

The film tried to keep up with this menagerie.  And failed miserably, by diluting the story, reducing dramatic tension and pace in a way that a tighter script with fewer characters could have achieved handsomely.

Mickey Rourke as Fallon came across as forced and vapid.  I don’t think Rourke understood the motivation of the IRA, and certainly didn’t sympathize with it.

Hoskins as Da Costa seemed out of place, and overstated in critical scenes.  It seemed at times like he was lampooning himself.

Only Alan Bates as the psychotic Meehan seemed to be in his element, playing the gangster-cum-undertaker with a spirited gleefulness.

Liam Neeson and Alison Doody as an IRA assassination team coming for Fallon were just thrown away—there seemed to be no real reason for their characters to be in the film at all; they had no impact on the outcome.

Video cover.

I recall seeing the movie when it was initially released.  I was young enough to look only for Mickey Rourke’s performance.  I was enthralled by Rumble Fish (1983), Year of the Dragon (1985), Angel Heart (1987), and Barfly (1987).  At the time I was nonplussed by Rourke’s Fallon.  I couldn’t understand the apparent indifference he showed for the character.

Today I think it he took on too much work in 1986–87, resulting in one of his worst performances at the same time as winning deserved praise for Angel Heart and Barfly.

Then, as now, Bob Hoskins looked like he might have been on drugs to gave him a permanent bug-eyed, manic appearance.

If I hadn’t been immersed in the novel, I wouldn’t have made an effort to find and watch this film again at all.  As things stand, I can’t find many complimentary things to say, except, perhaps, that it is part of my past, and populated with faces I associate with better films since that time.


A Prayer for the Dying: The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 107 minutes.

Directed by Mike Hodges, produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr, Bruce Rubenstein, written by Jack Higgins, Edmund Ward, Martin Lynch, cinematography by Michael Garfath, edited by Peter Boyle, music by Bill Conti.

With Mickey Rourke as Martin Fallon, Bob Hoskins as Father Da Costa, Alan Bates as Jack Meehan, Sammi Davis as Anna, Christopher Fulford as Billy Meehan, Liam Neeson as Liam Docherty, Alison Doody as Siobhan Donovan.

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