The Appaloosa (1966) ****

High expectation can kill a picture. Low expectation can have the opposite result. I came at The Appaloosa with the latter attitude in mind. I knew the picture had been a big flop and that critics had carped – as they had done through most of the 1960s – about the performance of Marlon Brando.

Neither was director Sidney J. Furie’s style to everyone’s taste. And it seemed an odd subject – Texan takes on Mexican warlord to recover a stolen horse.

It is surely a slow burn, but it certainly worked well beyond my anticipation. First of all, Brando’s performance came across as natural, not mannered. Secondly, this was a real character. He was not a John Wayne striding into action to protect the underdog or a woman or out of some goddam principle.

At first it did seem odd that he placed so much importance on the horse given that said warlord (John Saxon) had offered him a more than fair price for it. But in one brilliant two-minute scene, expertly directed and with virtually no close-ups – the actor caught mostly with his back to the camera or in silhouette – we discover why. Brando has been such a disappointment to his father that bringing home such an animal was proof that he had made something of himself. 

The second aspect of this intriguing picture was that the warlord placed so much importance on this particular horse when he could easily buy any horse he wanted. But he was faced with losing face. His wife Anjanette Comer had tried to escape from him on the horse and the only remedy was to persuade the watching federales that Brando had previously sold him the horse.

When Brando refuses, Saxon takes the horse by force. Brando, in retaliation, and to save his own sense of pride, tries to take it back. He is not represented as a superhuman John Wayne  or savage Clint Eastwood, but an ordinary guy who soon finds himself out of his depth. The first time he fires his rifle he misses by a mile.

Nor is he burdened with an over-enlarged empathy gland. He not only refuses to help Comer, but steadfastly refuses to take her with him, not even as far as the border, until in another of the film’s lengthy scenes she explains the reasons for her escape attempt.

Few films have exceeded it for atmosphere. This Mexico is grim, pitiless. Hostility and suspicion are endemic. Women are abused and discarded. The standout scene is Saxon and Brando arm-wrestling over scorpions, played out against a soundtrack of scraping chairs and the poisonous insects scrabbling on the table. 

This is a brooding western played out by the actor with the best eye for brooding in the business. Furie is gifted – or afflicted depending on your point of view – with an eye for the unusual camera angle. Here I think the gift not the affliction is on show.

It was just happenstance that I watched this and The Chase (1966) back-to-back and I can’t for the life of me see what on earth got the critics so rattled about Brando’s mid-decade performances. This is realistic acting at his best. Where John Wayne or Clint Eastwood present a superhuman screen persona, even if for part of a picture they are downtrodden, Brando was happy to play very human characters. In both pictures he is just an ordinary joe – forced into action by circumstance.

This sometimes turns up on TCM. Otherwise there’s a very decent DVD.

Lord Jim (1965) ***

What if redemption isn’t enough? When shame is buried so deep inside the psyche it can trigger no release? That’s the central theme of Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel.

The title character’s shame comes from, as a young officer, abandoning a ship he believed was sinking only to later discover it had been rescued with a cargo of pilgrims to point the finger of blame. He is branded a coward and kicked out of the East India Trading Company, plying his trade among the debris of humanity.

You might think he later redeemed himself by foiling a terrorist plot at great risk to his own life. But that cannot erase his shame. Nor can helping revolutionaries overthrow a despotic warlord (Eli Wallach), enduring torture and again at great risk. What other sacrifice must he make to rid himself of the millstone round his neck?

Writer-director Brooks had a solid pedigree in the adaptation stakes – The Brothers Karamazov (1958), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) – but sometimes you felt the writer got in the way of the director. That’s the case here. There was enough here to satisfy the original intended roadshow customers, great location work, grand sets, length, a big star in Peter O’Toole, but there is no majestic camerawork.

There are good scenes but no great sweep and the result is a slightly ponderous film relieved by stunning action, some moments of high tension, the occasional twist to confound the audience and ingenious ways to mount a battle.

James Mason as a hired killer has many of the best lines – “heroism is a form of mental disease induced by vanity” and “the self-righteous stench of a converted sinner” – all in reference to Jim. Everybody has great lines except O’Toole, he is very much the introverted persona of Lawrence of Arabia, a part he can play with distinction, face torn up by self-torture, fear of repeating his original sin of cowardice and convinced he will be cast out again should people discover he had abandoned hundreds of pilgrims.

Apart from the storm at the outset, the central section in the beleaguered village is the best part as Jim finds sanctuary, love and purpose, and conjures up the possibility of burying the past.

Part of the problem of the film is the director’s need to remain faithful to the source work which has an odd construction and you will be surprised at the parts played by the big-name supporting cast of James Mason, Jack Hawkins and Curt Jurgens.

Many of the films made in the 1960s were concerned with honor of one kind or another and, despite my reservations about the film as a whole, as a study of guilt this is probably the best in that category, in that this character’s conscience refuses to allow him an easy way out.  

Brooks had been toying with making this picture for nearly a decade, having purchased the rights in 1957 for $25,000 from Paramount which had made made a silent version in 1925. but, like MGM, which also passed on the project, Paramount considered a remake too great a commercial risk. Columbia, which had just signed the director on a multi-picture deal, took the gamble and handed Brooks a $9 million budget. Albert Finney was briefly considered for the title role. Given the movie was being shot in Super Panavision 70, one of the widest of the widescreen formats, Brooks hired Lawrence of Arabia alumni for the technical department – cinematographer Freddie Fields and prop master and set designer Geoffrey Drake.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

Petla (2020) ****

Ambitious young cop succumbs to corruption in a battle royal in Polish pimpland.

Director Patryk Vega is the bad boy of Polish filmmaking, a far cry from the austere heights of the arthouse-acclaimed Andrej Wadja (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958) or Krzysztof Kielowski (The Three Colours trilogy, 1993-1994). However, what’s often forgotten in our consumption of foreign films is that what we see are films that have been commercial hits in their own country – Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), for example, was the biggest film of the year in its native Italy. But, somehow, with the advent of the arthouse circuit that approach to distribution seems to have passed us by. Although huge hits in Poland, Vega’s films are not only hard to find on the big screen but rarely reviewed.

Petla follows second generation cop Danila (Antoni Krolikowski) from innocence to depravity to redemption in a high-octane thriller. Even Scorsese and Tarantino would wince at some of the violence shown here but then Vega is dealing with a more vicious type of gangster than even the worst of the American Mafia or run-of-the-mill nuthead and, equally, has little truck with the pretentiousness that often mars the work of these two. Vega wants to tell a story and he does John Wick-style it with verve and pace.

Danila wants to be elevated to the prestigious detective division without putting in a decade of plodding. So he recruits twin minor Russian gangsters, wiping clean their slate in return for inside information on bigger criminals, in this case terrorists. At this point he is an upstanding, courageous cop, dealing with ineffectual superiors and often idiotic colleagues. Married, his wife expecting their first child, he resists temptation of the sexual variety.

Initial success leads him into the Subcarpathian netherworld of sex for sale and he comes up with the bright idea of taking control of a brothel where he can spy on the rich and powerful clientele with the idea of exposing the ministers, businessmen, priests and government officials who use the premises. Soon high ideals turn into individual enterprise and, funded by the Russian GRU, he sets up a high class brothel, the Imperium, to film the goings-on and blackmail the clients. He begins a slide into excess that leads to paranoia and loss.

Getting to this stage involves a fair deal of elimination of the opposition, including an extremely violent Englishman, Ukrainian thugs and a prominent boxer. Sometimes pure violence is the optimum method but occasionally it is psychology, seducing, for example, the abused wife of the boxer in order to parade the romance, a technique that results in the mental disintegration of the seemingly invincible prizefighter.

But Danila has enemies. In true Vega style, these usually start out the film as friends or sexual partners. In this instance a female prosecutor Alicja (Katarzyna Warnke from Botoks) is on his case in revenge for being cast aside.  

One of the hallmarks of a Vega film is that women often come out on top, previous examples being Botoks (2017) and Mafia Women (2018). While there is certainly a lot of misogyny and in Petla, in particular, the whores are treated abominably, he has put the spotlight on a whole tribe of strong women who show as little remorse as their male counterparts and are as equally likely to endorse or participate in brutal acts of violence. Here, to get Danila’s wife to rat him out, the prosecutor arranges for the wife to be seduced by a handsome stranger.

Both genders are treated with compassion, another Vega hallmark. When Danila descends into paranoia, Vega cleverly switches the audience away from delight at this retribution into sympathy for his predicament once he begins to seek redemption. In truth, he has earlier been portrayed as a rounded individual, his delight at becoming a father very evident. Men are never so good at emotion as women and it is the shots of the distraught Alicja that put us firmly on her side even though she is originally portrayed as ruthless in matters of the heart, demanding that Danila cast his wife aside (“I don’t like competition”) before enjoying her sexual favors.  

And it would not be Vega without swipes at official incompetence and limelight-seeking bosses. Danila’s boss ignores his first anti-criminal triumphs because they were not media-friendly and at one point the entrapment and capture of a terrorist by said boss has to be done again because the cameras did not work first time round.  

Black humor is never far away, either. As a beginner cop, Danila is told never to look into the eyes of a dead person. So he is relieved to find that the first corpse he encounters has his head blown off. Farmers threaten to stab him with a pitchfork unless he gives the kiss of life to a dying man – blowing air into the man’s mouth only results in blood flowing faster from his wound. Cops routinely make stupid errors. Invading a thug’s house stun grenades missing the target deafen the cops instead.

And the film has a sting in the tail, the enterprise turning out not in the way it was surmised. Petla is based on a true story, although Vega has clearly taken liberties with the reality. Even if wholly fictional, it would be believable, Vega having the ability to invest the maddest of schemes with authenticity because the characters in his pictures are invariably so human and believable. the title, by the way, is translated as Noose.

There are a couple of anomalies in the film’s marketing. The poster is pretty explicit “sex is power” but the trailer focuses instead on Danila and his wife with sex and violence very muted.

Polish films are hard to come by on the big screen. Sometimes they only play a couple of days in a particular cinema. I saw this as the second part of my Monday night double bill this week – the other film being Bill and Ted Face the Music – but whereas I caught the first at the Odeon I had to high tail it to a Cineworld to catch the Polish film.

If you want to sample Vega’s wares before committing to a big screen outing you can see his debut Pitbull (2005) on Youtube.

This Property Is Condemned (1966) ***

Hollywood hadn’t seen this much hair in a decade, not since Elvis burst onto the screen in Love Me Tender (1956), but Robert Redford’s blond barnet would be his calling card for the next half century. This was his fifth picture and his second with Natalie Wood after the previous year’s Inside Daisy Clover.

This Property Is Condemned doesn’t go much further in cinematic terms than the one-act play by Tennessee Williams  on which it is based. Wood is a small-town girl living a life of fantasy in the Depression to cover up the reality of her situation, almost pimped out by her mother who owns a down-at-heel boardinghouse, Redford the latest in a long line mostly unsuitable suitors to whom she clings for escape.

There’s an unnecessary prologue and epilogue, the former’s existence justified only by necessity for the latter to round off the film in a rather abrupt manner, and a bit of a cheat in Redford’s screen introduction whereby the audience is set up to imagine him as a drifter rather than a railroad official coming down the line to lay off workers.

Charles Bronson, a revelation as the predatory older man making play for the mother in order to gain access to the daughter, shows how mean a guy can be when he doesn’t have a pistol to hand. He foregoes the brooding laconic persona of later movies to deliver a rounded performance. Kate Reid is the kind of mother you would never forget but wished you could.

Director Sydney Pollock in his sophomore venture after The Slender Thread (1965) does his best with the over-dramatic material and there are several nice touches, the opening with a young girl in red balancing on railroad tracks, a scene that fades in a bedroom until only light from a window remains, and lovers meeting by reflection across a pond.

But it’s an uneven picture, the grim first half in Mississippi at odds with the almost fairy tale second section in New Orleans as the lovers develop a badinage that did not previously exist and you just wait for the explosive revelation that must come.

Wood is as good as the material permits, a woman prone to exuberant spirits is always a whisper away from hysterics, and it is only when she invests the situation with her own steely-eyed reality that the character comes alive. At this point Redford was an actor with potential rather a star and his personality does not bounce off the screen the way it would with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Paul Newman provided an able foil.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

The Oblong Box (1969) ***

Vincent Price and Christopher Lee – two scions of 1960s horror – together! Yet anyone expecting a clash of the giants would be sorely disappointed as they only share one short scene. This is a typical American International Pictures venture, based even more typically on an Edgar Allan Poe story, with some stylistic direction – the extreme close-up never more effectively utilized – from Gordon Hessler in his third feature.

Given that German-born Hessler was a last-minute substitute for English director Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968), he made an exceptionally good job of a complicated plot. The production was even more complicated than that since it was originally intended as a Spanish co-production to be shot in Spain. And at one point writer Lawrence Huntingdon was reportedly also carrying out producer-director duties.

What seems like a mishmash of different stories – African sorcery, grave-robbing, disfigurement, forgery, blackmail, lifetime imprisonment, medical experiment, buried alive, a monster in a scarlet mask – soon comes together in a tense tale of retribution and revenge.

Vincent Price plays an English aristocrat in nineteenth century England who has withdrawn to his country manor, for unknown reasons distancing himself from his fiancée (Hilary Dwyer) , but in reality to conceal from the world the fact that he has locked up his own brother. When the brother, a disfigured monster, escapes he embarks on a murder spree.

The various storylines keep the narrative sufficiently entangled to sustain tension. Despite what may appear to a modern audience as primitive special effects, several scenes are bone-chilling largely through directorial manipulation. The Gothic look – graveyards, castles, the village – adds to the atmosphere. The violence was trimmed in America to avoid an “R” rating, but led to the film being banned in Australia.

There is more overt sexuality than normal, a scheming whore (Uta Levka – a sensation in Radley Metzger’s Carmen, Baby, 1967) tempting a man with her bare breasts, and Sally Geeson as a maid entranced by the monster.

The various plot strands appeared to confuse critics at the time and  even now the film receives comments that it is “vague” but at a time when Hammer’s output usually comprised a straightforward – and somewhat limited narrative – I found AIP’s approach to this picture a welcome development. The slowly emerging story set the film up as much as a thriller as a horror.

You might be able to catch it for free on Sony Movies Classic. Otherwise, check out the DVD.

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020) ***

Confession time! I never saw either of Bill and Ted’s previous outings nor the animated series for that matter and in truth had there been the usual choice of new movies to see – other than a slim pandemic ration – I might well have skipped this one. The good news is that I come with no preconceptions. I’m not overloaded with sequelitis, I’m not in a position to compare new with old.

So I was surprised how much I enjoyed this very amiable comedy. It makes no bones about the unintelligibility of the sci-fi side of things, no mind-bending required to find out how it is all meant to work. Shades of the BBC’s Dr Who series, the boys just hop into a telephone buy and dial up the future. you know from the outset that the scientific mumbo-jumbo is just that and there’s a running gag when someone tries to explain it, which goes over the heads of our heroes.

The plot, if you’re unfamiliar with it, has the pair dashing back and forth time-wise, meeting their future selves, in a bid to pull together the one tune that will save the universe while their daughters nip back in time in an effort to put together the best band of all time – Mozart, Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong – are dragged into the combo. Bill and Ted – or Dim and Dimmer if you want to be more accurate – do little more than look stunned by developments. But I take my hat off to still under-rated Keanu Reeves for reprising his comedic character after nearly two decades of building up a meaty portfolio of action (Speed, John Wick) and more substantial sci-fi (Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix) roles as well as a string of romantic (A Walk in the Clouds, Sweet November) and dramatic (The Replacements, Hardball) parts. Alex Winter’s career hardly matches that of Reeves, but they are a good pairing.

Perhaps gender-conscious sensibilities conspired to the pairs sons from the previous movie turning into the goofy daughters they are currently saddled with. A good twist, I thought, for the kids to take after their dads rather than their more sensible mothers. I found myself laughing out loud at several sections even when they had already been highlights of the trailer, such as the couple counselling and Death (William Sadler) cheating at hopscotch. I liked the guilt-ridden killer robot. There is even some character development, though nothing that would trouble the likes of Shakespeare.

I saw this last night on the big screen at my local Odeon. It’s streaming in the United States.

Psyche ’59 (1964) ****

This is a low-budget gem, an exploration of the psychological consequences of grooming. You can probably guess from the outset where it is headed but simmering tension has rarely been handled so stylistically.

With the exception of Patricia Neal, an unexpected Best Actress Oscar-winner for her previous film Hud (1963), there were no stars in the cast. Curd Jurgens was only beginning to play characters for whom a German accent was not essential, Samantha Eggar one movie shy of her breakout picture The Collector (1965), Ian Bannen, essentially a character actor, building on his success in Station Six Sahara (1963).

Blinded after an unexplained psychological trauma, Neal welcomes back, over husband Jurgens’ objections, her much younger sister Eggar to the family home. Bannen is the family friend, caring (possibly overmuch) for Neal, hankering after Eggar. The screenplay by veteran Julian Zimet (Saigon, 1947, with Alan Ladd) is taut as a drum, every line a threat, suppressed emotion or piece of exposition that could bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

The blindness is exceptionally well handled, Neal’s need for physical contact with her husband sensual in its expression. Though she can a ride a horse, her vulnerability is implicit; as she is led across a beach you wonder what would happen were she to be abandoned. What she cannot see becomes central to the movie. That Eggar – vivacious but damaged – clearly has some hold over Jurgens is demonstrated in a tete-a-tete between them but as tensions mount such scenes cannot be kept secret and when Jurgens grabs Eggar’s hair and she retaliates by jabbing him with scissors, neither party emitting a sound, Neal is oblivious to it all.

Eggar takes delight in exposing what has lain on the surface for too long – when Bannen begins to fall for Eggar, the younger woman astutely remarks to her sister: “Am I taking him away from you?”  Neal, however, is self-aware, convinced she could see if she wanted to, if she was prepared to lift the psychological barrier that keeps the past safely hidden. “I’m afraid to see,” says Neal, “there’s something I’m scared to look at.”

Given the period when it was made there was a lot that could not said – or shown – and even so the film was censored prior to release, but it is the direction by Alexander Singer (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) that lifts the picture up. An acolyte of Stanley Kubrick, the movie teems with imagination. Close-ups and extreme close-ups are balanced by long two-shots, a conversation in a car between Jurgens and Bannen mostly direct to camera a prime example.

Emotion is captured at every turn and Singer avoids the cardinal sin of treating Neal like an invalid or focusing on her reaction to what she cannot possibly see, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses for much of the time. Levity is provided by Beatrix Lehmann as Jurgen’s sci-fi-reading horoscope-obsessed mother and by a couple of excitable children.

The grooming is in the past but the after-effects very real. In a film like this it is tempting to consider that certain attitudes are dated, but it is clear from this film that nothing has changed, that men believe they can take what they want regardless of the impact on their victims.

Harlow (1965) ****

In the light of the MeToo movement, this is a salutary tale of tawdry Hollywood. Such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse was as true now as it is then. However, although presented as a biopic it is more pertinently viewed as a “reimagining” of the life of sex goddess Jean Harlow. While taking a few liberties with the truth where the main character is concerned, the rest of it could easily be realistic since we are now only to familiar with the excesses men in any kind of power in Hollywood believed they were entitled.

Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true).

But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s and early 1930s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.

The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.

No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before being rescued by agent Red Buttons. After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she gets a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here, she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.

However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for a studio chief (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/ blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.

But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City

Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script.

In the title role Carroll Baker has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Vallone is the stand-out among a supporting cast that also includes Peter Lawford, Leslie Nielsen and Mike Connors.

Despite the fact that virtually none of the movie is true, I have given it four stars for its realistic portrayal of Hollywood.

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) ***

Despite the title and Hammer’s penchant for the unholy, there is nothing satanical about this picture. Christopher Lee, less cadaverous than in his better-known incarnation as Dracula, plays the captain of ship called Diablo, part of the defeated Spanish Armada, who lands in 1588 on British shores and by convincing the locals that the British have been defeated  imposes an occupation.

Writer (and later director) Jimmy Sangster’s clever premise works, the lord of the manor (Ernest Clark) immediately surrendering and befriending the invaders, most of the villagers succumbing, a few more doughty lads (Andrew Keir and son John Cairney to the fore) rebelling. 

Running alongside its regular horror output, Hammer had a sideline in swashbucklers, the Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1963) – aka The Crimson Blade – preceding this, and all, interestingly, aimed at the general rather than adult market. Australian director Don Sharp, in the first of several teamings with Lee, does extraordinary well with a limited budget. Although the village square was a leftover from The Scarlet Blade, there is a full-size galleon, swamps, fog, floggings, a hanging, fire, chases, a massive explosion, and a number of better-than-average fencing scenes.

In other hands, more time could have been spent exploring the psychology of occupation, but despite that there is enough of a story to keep interest taut. Lee has a high-principled lieutenant who secretly subverts his master’s wishes. Tension is maintained by Lee’s ruthlessness, the efforts of captured women to escape, and attempts to seek outside help. While the intended marketplace meant toning down actual violence, Sharp creates a menacing atmosphere. The final scenes involving sabotage are tremendously well done.

I should acknowledge a vested interest as John Cairney was a distant relative and I do remember as a child being taken to see his previous outing Jason and the Argonauts (19630 but, strangely enough, this one was given a miss by my parents. I wonder if the title put them off.

You can find this for free on the Talking Pictures television channel or on DVD.

Masquerade (1965) ***

Made just before director Basil Dearden embarked on Khartoum (1965), this is probably best-known these days for being screenwriter – and ace self-publicist – William Goldman’s first credit. It’s based on Castle Minerva by Victor Canning whose previous filmed books included The Golden Salamander (1950) with Trevor Howard, The Venetian Bird (1952)  with Richard Todd, and The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) with Robert Taylor.

I’d like to say this is a self-aware thriller with spy and comedic elements but it veers awful close to either a cult film or a mess. Basic story has Cliff Robertson hired by former wartime commander and now British intelligence agent Jack Hawkins to look after an Arab princeling who has been kidnapped by the British (so much for Brits always being on the side of the angels) to help seal an oil concession in the Gulf.

Theoretically, the kidnapping is for the teenager’s own good, to prevent him being assassinated before he ascends to the throne…see it’s getting awfully complicated already. Anyway, it turns out he actually has been kidnapped by Hawkins who has turned rogue in order to fund his retirement. The boy is held in some kind of fortress/castle in Spain and then another more sinister one.

Robertson, who looks half the time as if wondering how the hell he got into this, meantime falls for the seductive charms of Marisa Mell who he thinks is a smuggler intent on stealing his boat but a) is part of the kidnap gang and b) in love with him enough to help him escape when he in turn is captured.

Did I mention the film also included a circus, a clown act, a gunfight on a dam, characters left dangling on a rope bridge, a lady in red, a balancing act along a perilous ledge, entrapment in a wine tanker (huh?) and an animal cage (double huh?), a vulture, men in bowler hats…

It is enlivened by visual gags – ultra-large footprints (from somebody wearing flippers). The dialogue sparkles as when the prince, with an overactive entitlement gland, says, “I am practically divine,” to which Hawkins deadpans “Your Highness, you are irresistible.” Add to that various cliché-twisting scenes – the double-dealing Marisa Mell now overcome by love, says to Robertson: “Ask me anything you want and I will tell you the truth,” but every question he asks solicits the response, “I don’t know.” Then, imprisoned in a cage, after protracted cobbling together of lengths of bamboo to steal keys they turn out to be the wrong keys.

Throw in British propriety  – Robertson’s substantial fee for risking his life is reduced to a miserable sum once tax has been deducted. And a superb Arab charge on horseback with tracking cameras, either a rehearsal for Khartoum or the scene that got Dearden the gig.

Actually, the more I write about it the more fun it sounds and I wish it were, but it does not quite gel. Robertson and Mell don’t convince – Robertson talks through gritted teeth without suggesting he has much inner grit – although Hawkins and other British stalwarts like Charles Gray and Bill Fraser and Frenchman Michel Piccoli deliver the goods. It should have been a straightforward three-star job or – if qualifying as a cult – in the five-star class. It is definitely not an outright stinker. Perhaps best filed under “curiosity.”