Assignment K (1968) ****

By the mid-1960s the screen was awash with spies so other than trying to invent a new hero in the Matt Helm/Derek Flint vein or revamping older characters such as Bulldog Drummond  or sending up the entire genre in the style of Casino Royale (1967), it was difficult to find a fresh angle.

Assignment K does in some measure succeed, in part by going down the grimy  route of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), in part by stuffing the picture full of glorious scenery – the Austrian Alps – and in part by turning Stephen Boyd into the kind of spy who has begun to question the entire business. For reasons unspecified, former racing driver turned toy salesman Boyd is running his own spy operation loosely linked into British intelligence but when the network is compromised his life and that of new love interest Camilla Sparv is endangered. Things get trickier when she is kidnapped and HE has to save her while not compromising his own agents.

There is enough mystery to keep the plot, uncoiling like Russian dolls, ticking along and the entire effort is underwritten by some decent tradecraft, dead letter drops, microfilm hidden inside cigarette filters and so on. tension is surprisingly high. And Boyd is surprisingly human, falling properly in love for one thing, not just treating women in the James Bond/Matt Helm fashion as notches on a bedpost, not ice-cool under pressure either, face knotting in fury on occasion, and not so accomplished in the old fisticuffs department.

Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern and a pre-Please, Sir John Alderton provide decent support though Jeremy Kemp is somewhat subdued. But Boyd is a revelation, given a lot more to do than stick out his chin and growl. Here, his screen charm and charisma is at its best and while he was never going to attract the attention of the Oscar fraternity is entirely believable as a spy coming to wonder at decisions taken.

Sparv, too, is much better than I have ever seen her. Unlike her turn in Murderers Row (1966), her role is not merely decorative and the unfolding romance would work perfectly well just as a love story never mind tucked away in the guise of a spy thriller. There is a lovely demonstration of her acting skill, although an odd one to describe, as she pulls on a bathrobe and shimmies out of the towel underneath; I can’t believe that was ever scripted, but if you watch it you will see what I mean.  

Director Val Guest was usually labelled a “journeyman” despite a repertoire that included The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its sequel, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and sci-fi The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and he had previous form in this genre with Where the Spies Are (1966) which played more to the comedy gallery and did some work on Casino Royale to boot. His work here falls into the efficient category, but it does zip along at the same time as allowing Boyd and Sparv to develop their characters and make their relationship believable. All in all quite enjoyable.

Manny Farber, Critic’s Critic

Gunning for You – Manny Farber

You wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Manny Farber, generally considered along with Andrew Sarris, the godfather of serious film criticism. “Visceral” was the word most commonly associated with his writings.

He came to movies from an unusual perspective. He was a painter, one of the most celebrated still life artists of his generation. He never worked for a big paper like the New York Times or a stylish magazine like the New Yorker. Instead, his work appeared in Film Culture, Artforum, The Nation and men’s magazine Cavalier.

An early advocate of the work of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh, he was also inclined towards lean B-films over more profligate big-budget pictures.

Chances are you will disagree with everything he said, especially when he was slicing-and-dicing one of your favorites, but it is equally guaranteed that you will marvel at his prose. His work had punch and clarity and it might just make you laugh.

Here are some of his musings on the 1960s movie scene:

Easy Rider (1969): “Dennis Hopper’s lyrical, quirky film is better than good in its handling of death…The death scenes, much more heartbreaking, much less programmed than Peckinpah’s (The Wild Bunch), come out of nowhere…The finality and present-tense quality of the killings are remarkable: the beauty issues from the quiet, the damp green countryside and a spectacular last shot zooming up from a curving road and a burning cycle.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): “The most troublesome aspect of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is that the story moves faster and further than the actor who is not unlike the Tin Woodsman of Oz (O’Toole starts with a springing outward movement, to walk over the world, then turns into a pair of stilts walking in quick, short strides.)”

On Albert Finney: “The Big Eat is a growing factor in films, in effect probably invented by Finney in his Saturday Night. In his case, it was a combination effect, involving a big chomp, heavy breathing, slashes of braggadocio, a side swivel, and baring of teeth. This emphasized eating has been fined and slowed down in his latest work, but within the timespan of four Finneyfilms it has taken hold, cementing a new convention for giving an underside, the animalistic traits, to character.”

The Ipcress File (1965): “This is a Chandleresque thriller that has no thrills, with an antihero who is more like a sugary flavor than an actor doing a Philip Marlowe…the only suspense is how slowly a knight (non-played ‘superbly’ by Michael Caine) can put dimes in a parking meter, crack eggs in a skillet or flatfoot his way through a library.”

The Rounders (1965): “Fonda’s entry into a scene is of a man walking backward, slating himself away from the public eye. Once in a scene, the heavy jaw freezes, becomes like a concrete abutment, and he affects a clothes-hanger stance, no motion in either arm.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966): “The most famous scene is an erotic nondancer, which is neither erotic nor dancelike, in which Elizabeth Taylor suggests a gyrating milk-bottling mechanism.”

The New York Film Festival 1968: “In the category called Bloody Bores, the Festival offered Capricious Summer, Hugo and Josefin and Twenty Four Hours in a Woman’s LifeHugo and Josefin is life as seen through the eyes of a Kodak camera ad.”

On Rita Tushingham: “An even worse example of megalomaniac star who can make the simplest action have as many syllables as her name. The myth that a director makes or breaks a film is regularly disproved by this actress who…carries on a war of nerves against the other actors.”

The Graduate (1968): “Benjy…leads a split life on screen; half the time he’s hung up between Mrs. and Miss Robinson; the other half he’s at half mast; a flattened silhouette…Dustin Hoffman is laid out like an improbably menu. People are always darting into his periphery to point him out as a boy wonder…Benjamin, as it turns out, is Bill Bradley crossed with Denny Dimwit.”

It is unlikely you’ll get hold of this book Movies at a decent price since it is long out-of-print and a collector’s item but you can easily find Farber on Film, a whopping 800-page tome which covers his compete writings.

Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) has none of the truculence of the ordinary rebel, consequence not part of his vocabulary, “it seemed a good idea at the time” his unfailing mantra.

Outside of Butch Cassidy, a more amiable criminal you would struggle to find. He defies authority with a smirk, indiscriminate in opposing the system, whether devised by guards or prisoners and they are indiscriminate in return, swiftly punishing anyone who steps out of line.

First-time director Stuart Rosenberg’s meditation on martyrdom remains an iconic curiosity and one of a handful of great performances that showcase Paul Newman’s immense acting skills. It is about ten minutes too long, unremitting sequences of lorries travelling to and from work detail, in the morning or at night, and the work itself, way too repetitive, suggests a director who did not quite trust his audience to get it.

In a prison movie, the main narrative is always escape, but Luke is as much trying to escape from himself as his circumstances. There is a self-pitying aspect in him blaming God for making him the way he is. But beyond these gripes it remains an astonishing and involving work.

This is a world reduced to a single common denominator – brutality. For a man who loathes rules, this is hell.

While no other character apart from Dragline (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role) and the Warden (Strother Martin in one of his best mean roles) is given much to do, nonetheless the rest of the cast do not merge into the background, facial expressions and tiny actions revealing character.  

There are a number of terrific scenes – Newman refusing to give in when beaten to a pulp in a boxing match, the egg-eating contest, the digging-the-hole method of destroying a man’s spirit, the guard bewailing the death of his dog. But the movie also examines the universal need for hero worship, Dragline’s bewilderment when Luke eventually fails to live up to expectation is affecting.

Two other aspects stand out. With every prisoner in the same uniform and the countryside bleak and undistinguished, Conrad Hall’s cinematography is miraculous while Lalo Schifrin’s score, with the wonderfully evocative simple theme, is continuously inventive. As definitive an examination of the outsider as the later Easy Rider.

Marketing: Black Stamps

You might be tempted to fork out for the range of James Bond Commemorative Stamps being brought out to celebrate No Time to Die when it eventually sees the light of day on movie screens.

But stamps either as collector’s items or for trading purposes have been around since the silent era.  A line of movie commemorative stamps issued in America in 1944 sold 1.1 million first day covers, the second highest-ever at the time, and in the late 1950s Movie Stamps Inc set up a business that worked in the same way as the Green Stamps given away in supermarkets and gas stations. In this system, if you collected enough you won a gift, usually, in regards to the movie business, a couple of free tickets.

So Columbia Pictures looking for a way to sell its Hammer double bill The Gorgon (1964) with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) starring the lesser-known Terence Morgan revived the idea.

Horror specialist Hammer was one of the British film studios going through a production boom – over 100 movies were being made in that country in that year – with The Secret of Blood Island (1965) in the works for Universal and She for MGM. But horror was still a difficult sell and Hammer had ignored the advice of Variety that The Gorgon would work best if teamed with “a lively comedy.”

American International had expanded the horror market away from the Frankenstein/Dracula axis by exploiting the Edgar Allan Poe back catalog and William Castle had achieved some success in modern tales of terror such as Dementia 13 (1963) and The Night Stalker (1964). But Castle could call upon the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, players with substantial marquee status despite their lately diminished careers, for radio and television interviews.

For Hammer the obvious exploitation options were limited to a spread in the quarterly Castle of Frankenstein magazine which could be purchased for 35 cents at newsstands.

So the marketing honchos dusted off the old movie stamps idea. In some advertisements, the studio offered free stamps to the first 10,000 ticket-buyers but in the advertisement shown above they appeared to be given away free to everyone. The faces of the various monsters and characters featured in both films were imprinted on the stamps. However, on the debit side, there was no sign of any redemption for the collected cards. You couldn’t, should you be so inclined, collect ten and get a guest ticket in return. You could probably trade them and build up a collection. I’m not sure they did much for the movie judging by the box office accounts that exist but if anyone remembers seeing them or collecting them let me know.

Sources: “Film Industry New 3c Stamps Sets Record,” Variety, Nov 15, 1944, 1; “Tease-In Kids with Movie Star Stamps,” Variety, Aug 21, 1957, 20; “Premium Stamp Set Up,” Variety, Aug 20, 1958, 7; Review of The Gorgon, Variety, Aug 26, 1964, 6;  advert, Box Office, Nov 16, 1964, 2; “Film Plugs and Pluggers,” Variety, December 30, 1964, 21; Mark Thomas McGee, Beyond Ballyhoo: Motion Picture Promotion and Gimmicks, p125-131.

Easy Rider (1969) *****

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now.   

Of course, the Easy Rider soundtrack itself summons up memories of the era and it is worth listening to just by itself and you might even want to go all the way and listen to it in the original vinyl.

Below is a link for the DVD.

   https://www.amazon.co.uk/Easy-Rider-DVD-Peter-Fonda/dp/B00LTK2Z44/ref=sr_1_1?crid=YSG6SCL8QQF9&dchild=1&keywords=easy+rider+dvd&qid=1596660339&s=dvd&sprefix=easy+rider%2Caps%2C153&sr=1-1

Selling Films Joe Levine Style

After the monumental success of Hercules, exhibitor-turned-distributor Joseph E. Levine pretty much thought he could sell pictures to theater owners on the basis of his name alone. Which explains the absence of any mention of star Steve Reeves (of Hercules fame, ironically enough) from the first seven pages of the Pressbook for Thief of Baghdad (1961).

The Pressbook itself was guaranteed to garner attention from its unusual shape and size. Most Pressbooks are standard A4 – roughly 8 inches wide and 12 inches high – but this easily exceeded the norm. The front page was 22 inches wide by 17 inches with a flap that extended the height to 29 inches. Turn the next page and it became bigger again – 33 inches wide by 22 inches high – and remained that size for another ten pages.

What the first seven pages sold was the Levine name and how he was going to promote the picture to moviegoers. He promised national television and radio advertising saturation. In addition, he supplied free of charge two trailers for television and four for radio which theater owners could use for supplementary local use.

Twenty thousand toy stores were lined up to sell merchandising – “an elaborate array of novelty items, hobby kits, puzzles and games.” Window displays were a key tool in marketing films to local moviegoers.

In addition, Dell had published two tie-ins – a full-color comic book for children and a novelization paperback for adults. In those days books such as these were sold on news stands and revolving racks in drug stores and five-and-dime outlets as well as bookshops. For only $25 (including delivery cost) movie theaters could buy a “double-flasher” eight-foot-high standee to promote the movie in advance.

Unusually, at a time when movies came with up to seven or eight different taglines intended to appeal to different types of audiences (the exhibitor would know which one held the most appeal), Thief of Baghdad limited itself to only four. The main tagline was: “The fantastic deeds…the incredible daring of the thief who defied an empire.”

There were two main alternatives:  either “Opening wide a new world of screen wonders” or “the amazing becomes the incredible the fantastic becomes the real.” All three taglines were quantified with the addition of a number of “screen thrills” such as flying horses, faceless fighters, man-devouring trees, a one-faced army, the giant killer of the sea and a “harem of mystery.”  Finally, there was the option of “he was a score of lovers…a hundred fighters…a thousand thieves…a man in a million.”  

Costuming ushers in “typical Baghdad wear” and calling upon local muscle men to don similar garb was suggested as another marketing ploy.  

Otherwise – which seemed the least of Levine’s concerns – there was actually quite a lot to write home about. It was filmed in Tunisia in the Mosque of the Barber – featuring 600 columns transported from Carthage – and the Mosque of the Sabre in the oasis city of Kairwan. The filmmakers had to devise their own ancient marketplaces since the ones in existence were too modernized. Local extras were used to add further authenticity. An ancient reservoir dating back to 700AD was drained and transformed into a prison.

The special effects by Thomas Howard included a winged horse and a forest of man-eating trees. To create the effect of a brigade of horsemen all in the image of the titular thief, Edwards achieved the illusion by having the men wear masks of Reeves’ face.  

Italian female lead Georgia Moll made her Hollywood debut in The Quiet American (1958) while model Edy Vessel, who refused to give out her vital statistics for publicity purposes, was cast as a seductive temptress.

Reeves, famed for sticking to a particular diet, brought with him 24 jars of honey and 40 pounds of nuts and made yoghurt from camel’s milk.  

This was the sixth version of the film, the first starring Douglas Fairbanks in 1924 followed sixteen years later by the British-made Alexander Korda iteration. Further versions from a variety of sources appeared in 1949, 1952 and 1960.

Walk, Don’t Run (1966) ***

Stars rarely get to choose when they want to retire. Usually, the phone stops ringing, or they slide down the credits until no one can remember who they once were, or they end up in terrible international co-productions, or like Tyrone Power (Solomon and Sheba) they die on the job or, like Spencer Tracy, because of it.

Cary Grant, on the other hand, went out at the top, or near enough, after a string of box office winners, including this one, throughout the Sixties. If you are more generally familiar with Grant through Hitchcock thrillers or Charade, you might have forgotten his comedy expertise. He was a master of the double take and the startled expression – and he needs that here in what is sometimes a pretty funny farce.

The set-up is peculiar. Grant is a businessman landing in Tokyo two days before the 1964 Olympic Games with nowhere to stay and ends up sleeping on the couch of Samantha Eggar and later sharing his room with Jim Hutton, an athlete equally lacking in the forward planning department. (Excluding the Olympics, of course, the film has a similar concept to The More the Merrier, 1943).

There’s no great plot and no great need for one. Grant’s main purpose is to play Cupid to Hutton and Eggar and steer her stuffy fiancé out of their way. But it says a lot for Grant’s talent that not much plot is required. He is just so deft, whether he is playing top dog or being beaten at his own game by a rather resilient Hutton.

Eggar is Doris Day-lite, but Hutton is a revelation, not the dour dog of later The Hellfighters (1968) and The Green Berets (1968), but showing true comedic talent, especially in quick-fire verbal duels with Grant. There is only a wee bit of stereotype, overmuch bowing mainly and a Russian shot-putter, but some other Japanese customs are more interesting, yellow flags to cross the road, for example.

There are a couple of brilliant visual gags, one involving trousers, another with Grant getting locked out of the apartment, and a terrific payoff in a Japanese restaurant. Except for thrillers, Grant did not need great directors, he knew comedy inside out and here the accomplished Charles Walters (High Society, 1956) has the sense to let him get on with it.

Grant was 62 when the film appeared so quite rightly delegates romance to Hutton, which is a shame because his (non-romantic) interaction with the pernickety Eggar (she and fiance equally matched in this department) carries all the Grant romantic hallmarks. Instead, he ensures that romance between Hutton and Eggar runs its true course, which while that is satisfying enough, is a bit like removing John Wayne from the final shootout in a western. Oh, and there is a reason for the Olympic Games setting.

Coming Soon – August 1960

Four smaller pictures took Broadway by surprise, each recording record-breaking openings.  

The most obviously commercial was crime drama Portrait in Black starring Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn. Turner’s box office throughout the 1950s had been inconsistent but audiences had responded to the previous year’s weepie Imitation of Life. However, co-star Anthony Quinn, despite two Best Supporting Actor Oscars, was still generally classified as a leading male rather than outright star. The movie had premiered in Chicago to startling results and emulated that in Cleveland. So the industry was not entirely surprised when the movie broke the opening day record at the 1,642-seat Palace and the weekly record at the 550-seat arthouse the Trans-Lux 85th Street.  

Nature’s Paradise could not have provided a more polar opposite. The British-made nudie went down the old-fashioned “grind” route – first showing at 8.45am, final showing at 2am –  to break the record at the 390-seat World arthouse. And at equally opposite ends of the spectrum was Disney’s real-life documentary Jungle Cat which took apart the record at the 592-seat Normandie, also an arthouse.

Of the four openers, the one for whom an arthouse was the most likely home was another British feature, Jack Cardiff’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers starring Trevor Howard and Wendy Hiller. This broke the one-day record three days in a row at the 590-seat Beekman, despite a tepid review by Bosley Crowther, regarded as the nation’s premier critic. However, the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case meant that to some extent the film was critic-proof. Its unexpected publicity boost brought in the audiences.

There was also surprising audience support for British star Dirk Bogarde’s Hollywood debut Song without End, a biopic of composer Franz Liszt, which opened in New York’s biggest cinema, the 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall. (Although MGM had part-financed the actor’s previous endeavor The Angel Wore Red, that was an Italian picture.) Director Charles Vidor died during shooting and George Cukor took over. French actress Capucine also made her Hollywood debut.

The month’s other openers were All the Young Men starring Alan Ladd and Sidney Poitier; Frank Sinatra and the “Rat Pack” in crime caper Ocean’s 11; and sci-fi The Time Machine with Rod Taylor.

Horror maestro William Castle used the “Illusion-O” gimmick to plug 13 Ghosts. Moviegoers required a device similar to 3D glasses to spot the ghosts.

Julien Duvivier’s Marie Octobre was the only foreign film hitting New York during the month. Danielle Darrieux starred in a drama about former resistance members uncovering a traitor in their midst.

SOURCES: Variety 1960 – Aug 3, Aug 10, Aug 17, Aug 24, Aug 31.