Torn Curtain (1966) ****

I never thought I’d see the day when Paul Newman was out-acted by Julie Andrews. Or spent most of the time wondering how much better it would be with James Stewart or Cary Grant instead. They can both do stillness. For all the wrong reasons you cannot keep your eyes off Newman – he is such a jittery, fidgety commotion.

Which is a shame for all that is wrong with this often wrongly-maligned Hitchcock picture is the set-up. The opening love scene is only necessary to get it out of the way (“Newman! Andrews! Together!” type set-up) though it is something of a riff on Psycho, setting up the possibility of a bad girl (i.e. goody two-shoes Andrews having sex before marriage) being punished. You could have started more economically with Andrews just turning up in Copenhagen for whatever reason (fill in the blanks) and the story pushing on from there, unintentionally Andrews becoming involved in Newman’s plan to infiltrate the East German nuclear programme.

The rest of the picture is classic Hitchcock, and as ever he uses sound brilliantly, just the clacking of feet as a bodyguard pursues Newman through an empty museum. And he riffs on North by Northwest in the tractor scene. The murder, also soundless apart from the noise of human terror, is quite brilliant. And another riff, on The 39 Steps, with the woman who knows their true identity but has her own reasons for not giving them away.

Every time we think they are going to be caught something unexpected prevents it, every time we think they are safe something unexpected prevents that. Clever twists all the way. Hitchcock has a knack of doing the same thing differently every time, he hated repeating himself, so when transport enters the picture, there are unexpected results.

Andrews is very good. Like Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, she is often the focal point of the story, getting Newman out of a spot. Two scenes in particular stand out: one in a bedroom where she is filmed side-on looking out of a window with Newman at the far back of the screen and the other when she lets a single tear leak out of her eye. Where Newman just looks out of sorts (maybe he was annoyed Andrews was being paid more), she does a nice line in barely contained rage.

Even with the annoying Newman, Torn Curtain is still up there not at the very top of the Hitchcock canon but certainly in the second rank.    

 

Hurry Sundown (1967) *****

Otto Preminger’s drama was the first of a trio of heavyweight films in 1967 – the others being In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – that took African-American issues seriously. In post-war Georgia land-grabbing by ambitious Michael Caine pits him against World War Two vet John Philip Law and African-American farmer Robert Hooks who team up. Throw in a sextet of feisty women – Jane Fonda (Caine’s wife), Faye Dunaway (Law’s wife), schoolteacher Diahann Carroll (Hooks’ love interest), Donnie Banton (Caine’s lover), Beah Richards (Hooks’ mother) and Madeleine Sherwood (Burgess Meredith’s wife) – and you are set for a series of emotional confrontations.

Preminger had spent most of the decade making films about big subjects – Exodus (1960), the politics behind the formation of Israel, Advise and Consent (1962), just politics, and The Cardinal (1964), politics within the Roman Catholic Church

Preminger is both economic and elegant. From opening dialogue to climactic court scene, the picture races along, and continuous use of tracking shots ensures the movie never gets bogged down. While there is no lynching, racist abuse, whether direct or indirect (through patronizing attitude) is never far from the surface. Corrupt judge Burgess Meredith is by far the most vicious, his unrestrained language making you wince. But even those with more measured approaches have to play the game, Law gives a lift to Hooks but has to let him off before they reach town in case anyone spots this, Hooks forbidden, for example, to buy dynamite.

But the racists do not get it all their own way. Jane Fonda, Caine’s wife, stands up to Meredith and her standing in the community is so strong that others boycott Meredith’s daughter’s wedding leading to the judge receiving a tongue-lashing from his wife. Weak sheriff George Kennedy coming to arrest Hooks is bamboozled by his female relatives while  Diahann Carroll charms her way past the judge.

The women are uniformly strong. Fonda goes from seductive wife to distraught mother, but in between capable of defrauding Hooks’ mother, her childhood nanny, out of her inheritance. Her usual shrill delivery is tempered somewhat by the deeper emotions she is forced to bear. Hooks’ wife Dunaway resents his return after in his absence taking on a full-time job while running the farm and now resisting the idea of selling up to Caine. Hooks’ mother, beholden to white men all her life, now turns against them. Donnie Banton (Burgess’s daughter) makes no bones about the fact that she is marrying her “dull” fiancé for his money. This is no spoiler because you will have guessed some similar outcome but at the end it is Carroll who takes the initiative in her relationship with Hooks and  marches into his house with her baggage, declaring she has come to stay.

And although the ruthless Caine is the bad guy, he, too, is afforded insight, soothing himself by playing a musical instrument, a man with talent who had “distracted” himself by pursuit of money. And there is another touching moment when he takes in a runaway child. Acting-wise, Caine is a revelation. Gone is the trademark drawl and the laid- back physical characteristics. Here he talks snappily – and no quibbles with his Southern accent either – and strides quickly. That we can believe he is brutal, gentle, remorseful and ruthless is testament to his performance.

Similarly, this is a massive step forward in Jane Fonda’s career, away from the limp Hollywood comedies and sexed-up French dramas, and her internal conflict springs from being forced to choose between husband and son, between her innate sexiness that oozes out in every intimate scene and maternal longing to comfort her disturbed child. While her attempt to defraud Hooks’ mother comes from a desire to keep her husband, her eyes tell you she knows that is no excuse.

What’s perhaps most surprising of all is the tenderness. There are wonderful, gentle love scenes between Caine and Fonda and Law and Dunaway.

Children, too, also unusually, play a central role. Caine’s callousness is no better demonstrated than in his earlier treatment of his son. Law’s eldest son also resents his father’s return and, viewing Caine as a more suitable adult, betrays his father. Burgess Meredith is obliged to drop one of the worst aspects of his racism in order to appease his daughter.  

The acting throughout is uniformly good. Dunaway’s debut won her a six-picture contract with Preminger which she quickly wriggled out of. Singer Diahann Carroll’s role as a confident young woman led to a television series. Robert Hooks would also enjoy small-screen fame. The surprisingly effective John Philip Law would partner Fonda in sci-fi Barbarella (1968) and link up with Preminger again in the ill-fated Skidoo (1969).

Unfairly overlooked by Oscar votes, who preferred the other Poitier films, Hurry Sundown, despite the rawness of the language and the innate brutality meted out to African-Americans, has been vastly under-rated. It is worth another look because at its core is not just racism but big business which scarcely cares about the color of those it exploits. It is as much about the power shift in relationships and ambition.  

The DVD below plays in all regions and without subtitles.

Interlude (1968) ****

Kevin Billington’s debut benefitted from a brief fad for classical music soundtracks, Elvira Madigan kicking off the fashion the year before, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which opened at the same time as Interlude trumping everything in sight. And as luck would have it, this was not the only movie about an orchestra conductor, Counterpoint with Charlton Heston released in America a couple of months before this one opened in Britain.

What makes the movie so enjoyable is that overlaying the sumptuous love story is the angst of a mistress. It’s sweetly set in wonderful British locations, riverside inns, olde worlde hotels, trendy restaurants, a few flashes of swinging London, luxurious mansions. The solid backdrop for something as fragile as romance.

There could not be two more opposites to attract, the rich Oskar Werner (Jules and Jim, 1962) in full-on arrogant mode, all dark glasses and leather gloves with enough petulance to sink a barge, and journalist Barbara Ferris (off screens since the lamentable Catch Us If You Can three years before) who lives in a bedsit with a goldfish called Rover. He drives a Rolls-Royce convertible, she a Mini. 

There are some very good touches. We first see the characters in mirrors. He plays a “concerto for wine glass and index finger.” There is the very serious British business of whether milk goes in first to a cup of tea.

The screenplay by Lee Langley and Irish playwright Hugh Leonard is sharp and often witty.  “I want to marry you,” says Ferris, before conceding, “I just don’t want to be your wife.” There is clear realization of the nature of his personality in her remark, “Instead of being what you want, I’ll be what you’ve got.”

Even when emotion is expressed there is a feeling that a lot is still suppressed. Ferris goes from high excitement to high dudgeon and carries within the seed of fear, a character who spends as much time in terror as in love. This is exacerbated when she spots of Werner’s wife, stoically played by Virginia Maskell, at the hairdressers and “all of the sudden” the wife who has existed in her imagination “has a face.”

John Cleese and Donald Sutherland have decent cameos, the former in a bit of an in-joke as a PR man wanting to get into comedy (“satire – that’s my field”), the latter as the womanizing brother of Werner’s wife.

Oddly enough, the music – Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Dvorak, Brahms and Rachmaninov – acts in the same manner as Easy Rider the following year, as extensive interludes to the developing drama. Perhaps it is where Dennis Hopper got the idea.

It is very rounded for a romance, the acting excellent and the undernote of despair well-wrought.

I caught it for free on Talking Pictures TV, but I’m not sure how often it is being scheduled. Otherwise, here’s the DVD link.

Marketing The Chase (1966)

Oscar-winning film producers like Sam Spiegel – The African Queen (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – tended to abhor gimmicky promotions and depended on more classic marketing strategies to sell their pictures.

in this case, Spiegel relied on a 16-page A3 Pressbook (plus a slightly smaller four-page supplement) which in the main concentrated on a series of advertisements. Having said that, it was quite clear that Speigel considred his own name one of the movie’s biggest selling tools since his accomplishments were splashed over many ads and he took second billing to Marlon Brando. His name was above the title whereas that of director Arthur Penn was in a typeface smaller than all the leading players. Of the 20 pages available for original pressbook and supplement, a total of 14 were given over to the advertisements.

However, efforts were made to secure promotional partners. Harper’s Bazaar blocked out an eight-page section of its January 1966 issue for a fashion merchandising spread involving four top manufacturers – Ben Zuckerman, Originals, Larry Aldrich and Patullo-Jo Copeland – and 20 major retailers including Joseph Magnin in Los Angeles, De Pinna in New York and Couture Ltd in Chicago. New York exhibitors also benefited from marketing tie-ins from Horn & Hadart Co in its 88 restaurants and and Kinney System Inc. in 96 parking lots.

There was a big push in radio stations and record stores for the soundtrack by John Barry and in bookstores for the novel by Horton Foote published by New England Library with photos from the film on front and back covers. The closest Spiegel came to a gimmick was a tie-in with Barb-Q-Matic which sponsored barbecues for press previews and special screenings. The company had 1,500 distributors lined up to provide the necessary equipment and food.

A more violent image from the Pressbook supplement which also included reviews.

Otherwise, the producer expected the movie’s various talking points to provide fuel for media discussion. The way in which a community deteriorates “from a group of average people into a mob of hatefilled manhunters” would be ideal fodder for newspaper columnists, radio discussion and screenings for law enforcement agencies.

Among the attempts to provide filler material for newspapers was the notion that those involved were global citizens – Brando flying in from Tahiti, Spiegel and Jane Fonda from France, James Fox from London, while screenwriter Llllian Hellman was living at the time in Mexico. This was also the first pairing of Brando with his sister Jocelyn and a return to the screen for 1930s star Miriam Hopkins.

A measure of the film’s scope was that it required five sound stages at Columbia studios in Hollywood. In order to achieve authenticity art director Richard Day traveled 3,000 miles to photograph southwestern towns, rice fields, junkyards and sugar mills. There was an unusually high proportion of night shooting – 50 days in total – and 500 extras were on call for some critical scenes.

Interestingly, there was no great promotional push for Robert Redford. Brando, Fonda, Janice Rule and Hellman were the first stars mentioned in the first page of the editorial section of Pressbook, followed on the next page by Angie Dickinson, E.G. Marshall and Miriam Hopkins. Redford did not appear until the final editorial page, allocated space along with Katharine Walsh and Diana Hyland.

There were ten separate adverts, some of which were altered in minor ways to create another half-dozen. One of the unusual aspects of the advertising was the thematic design of the title and the image of a running man. The main advert had Brando center stage in casual mode smoking a cigarette surrounded by a montage of characters and incidents with the tagline “The Chase Is On” and a list of the producer’s credits. The second advert was identical except for an extra tagline – “He was the right man in the right place…the day everything went wrong.” A third ad used the running man theme around Brando and split the montage which now showed some characters in different ways with a new tagline “A breathless explosive story of today” plus the Spiegel credits.

The fourth ad also split the montage but this time Brando was more aligned with the characters on one side and the Spiegel credit reduced to “the man who has brought the screen its most exciting productions.” The running man logo took pride of place on advert number six with six main characters featured at the edges each with a quote – e.g. Fonda: “I never asked for anything because I knew I wouldn’t get it.” A seventh advert used a montage in criss-cross fashion. Violence and sex were the keys to the eighth advert while the ninth featured “the women”, “the men” and “the excitement” of The Chase. The final ad was more suggestive, just the thematic typeface, the logo of the running man and the names of star and producer.

The Chase (1966) *****

Arthur Penn’s movie came with a lot of baggage. Notwithstanding that he was in need of redemption – he was fired from The Train (1964) and Mickey One (1965) had flopped – he virtually disowned The Chase a week before it opened, denouncing Hollywood in the media, complaining that films were being made by committee. Producer Sam Spiegel was desperate to prove he could make big pictures without David Lean, who had decamped to Carlo Ponti and MGM for Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the knives were out, as always by this point, for Marlon Brando.

So it’s quite astonishing that the finished picture carries such visceral power. It’s a rich, meaty movie, part drama, part thriller, part social comment. Thematically it covers racism, power, adultery, civic apathy, injustice and integrity. At the same time it’s action-driven and the acting from a stunning cast is uniformly excellent. Theoretically, covering so much ground, it should be all over the place.

But three elements keep it grounded. The first is Lillian Hellman’s screenplay. Only using the bare bones of the source material (Horton Foote’s novel and play), she creates a fabulous intermeshed canvas wherein every character no matter how small has an integral part to play. As Coppola would do later with The Godfather she employs the device of large gatherings (two parties, in fact, one for the rich and one for the lower classes) to expose frailties. The second is Brando, in a thoughtful performance, as an ex-farmer who despises the people he represents and battles to maintain bis integrity. And third is Penn’s classical direction. Regardless of the interference he detected, nobody told him where to point the camera. It is noticeable that characters are often centered on the screen, rather than the more arty off-center compositions gaining in popularity. This creates an onscreen equality.

Basically, the narrative revolves around a small Texan town’s reaction to the return of escaped prisoner Robert Redford, now wanted for a murder he did not commit, which both brings the past to light and exposes existing tensions within the community. That Redford takes a good while to return allows those tensions to gently simmer. By the time he does the town is at fever pitch.

Redford’s wife Jane Fonda fears her affair with millionaire’s son James Fox will be discovered.  Timid banker Robert Duvall fears Redford discovering that he was initially imprisoned for a crime Duvall committed. Duvall’s sexy wife Janice Rule taunts him with her adultery. Redford’s mother Miriam Hopkins fears further humiliation.

Adding further bile to the proceedings are Bruce Cabot as Fonda’s venomous stepfather, real estate manager and gossip-monger Henry Hull who preys on adversity, and Rule’s lover Richard Bradford who drums up racial hatred against Redford’s friend African-American Joel Flueller.

The incorruptible Brando is faced with keeping the lid on a number of potential explosions.

Hellman’s script and Penn’s empathetic direction prevent it from falling to a swamp of melodrama. All of Miriam Hopkins’ maternal despair is captured in one shot of her sitting on a stool. Millionaire E.G. Marshall is building a local college so “young men do not have to leave here like my son.” The poor Fonda and rich Fox are genuinely in love but she holds it against him that he married someone else (of his own class) first while she waited “all those bad years.” When Brando imprisons Flueller for his own protection, he lets him find his own way to the cell and trusts him to lock himself up.

And there is an ample wit. A drunk confronts Brando with “the taxpayers of this town pay your salary to protect this place.” Brando’s response: “If anything happens to you, we’ll give you a refund.”

And I’ve not even mentioned Redford. While relegated to dipping in and out of the story to keep tension high, this is a memorable turn. Martha Hyer is estimable an alcoholic wife while Angie Dickinson extends her acting credentials with an untypical role as a domesticated wife.

John Barry’s score, dismissed by the Variety critic as having “no particular theme that lingers in the ear,” is in fact it is a triumphant piece of work, with a central melody that is in turn jarring and romantic.   

But it is Penn who brings home the bacon, bringing together a disparate tale in fine style, drawn tight to a stunning conclusion, and proving he had a mastery of both style and material that would stand him in good stead for his next picture Bonnie and Clyde.

I was lucky enough to catch this for free on Talking Pictures. It might come round again on this free channel. If not, or if you can’t wait, it’s well worth investing in a DVD. 

Pressbook – Alvarez Kelly (1966)

Sometimes the obvious ideas are the best. A main plank of the marketing for Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western Alvarez Kelly was via the name of the tital character. The 12-page (plus two-page fold-out) A3 Pressbook – the exhibitors’ main marketing tool – urged theater cinema owners to give discounts to anyone called Kelly. Better still, get them to attend the show en masse. Another plum would be getting hold of the ancestor of anyone called Kelly (hardly a long shot) who fought in the Civil War and putting them on local radio or television, especially if they had uniforms or weapons dating back to the conflict.

Promotional tie-in from the Louisiana Tourist Commission

Although set in Virginia, the movie was shot in Louisiana, a fact that the Louisiana Tourist Commission was taken full advantage of, with a massive marketing splurge. The world premiere was held in Baton Rouge and over 30,000 posters were distributed nationwide through a tie-up with the Humble-Esso service stations. Stars and crew were put up in Baton Rouge which meant an 80/120-mile round trip to the main locations. That meant a 5.30am start and a six-day week. Filming was interrupted by a hurricane and an invasion by swarms of yellow-jacketed wasps. A 209-foot bridge was built across the Amite River in order to be blown up during the action finale. The locations were so remote the nearest telephone was 18 miles away. Details of such inconveniences were channeled as a matter of course to exhibitors in the hope that they would be picked by local newspapers looking for a story about how un-pampered movie stars were.

Fashion had always been a strong movie marketing tool and here exhibitors were urged to contact local museums for Civil War costumes and to work with local department stores to create window displays featuring Southern belles.

Given that cows were central to the movie, another element of the campaign focused on meat with tie-ins with the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association and the Hasty-Bake barbecue range. Slightly more offbeat was an idea to contact quartermasters working in the current U.S. Army to give their views on the problems of feeding the troops. And, of course, there was ample opportunity for a horseman dressed in either a Union or Confederate uniform to lead a cow or small herd through a town in order to promote the picture.

This ad brings together two taglines.

There was a paperback tie-up with Gold Medal books, a novelization of the screenplay, complete with photos and credits. Window and shelf displays in bookshops offered free promotion. The educational angle could also be exploited since schools were always interested in historical pictures and this was based on a true episode in the Civil War.

The Columbia advertising department prepared a number of different posters in a variety of shapes and sizes (exhibitors would cut out the one they considered most relevant and take it down to their local newspaper which would use it to devise the ad). Sometimes the two protagonists – William Holden and Richard Widmark – were positioned at opposite ends of the adsheets, other times they were placed centrally above or within a montage of scenes and characters.

There were four taglines. One of the chief taglines focused on the title character – “the man and story that spell gallantry from A-Z” – which somewhat misled the public about Kelly’s true nature, but then, of course, you could hardly straight-out tell the audience that screen idol William Holden was a shady character. The other main tagline outlined the story in more realistic terms – “Renegade adventurer and reckless colonel…a war made them allies…a woman made them enemies…a battle made them legend!.” The two subsidiary taglines ran: “A herd of cattle against a herd of canon…the battle-adventure that carved a legend around one man’s name” and “Carving a legend in greatness from the Blue Ridge to the Rio Grande.” As was usual in these adverts, a couple of taglines could be merged in the same ad.

A review of Alvarez Kelly (1966) is published in tandem with this article.

Alvarez Kelly (1966) ***

It says a lot about stardom that Oscar-winner William Holden virtually single-handedly redeems Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western. And this was at a time when the actor’s career was in freefall, not having had a hit since The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Although his good looks personified him as a matinee idol, many of his best performances came when he was playing against type, as a shady character, such as in this instance.

Dmytryk whose career encompassed The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958) was on an opposite career trajectory after box office hits The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965). Between them, Holden and Dmytryk just about save what was a misconceived project, an original screenplay by Franklin Coen (The Train, 1965). That it was based on a true story did not make it any better an idea.

The essential narrative is that Holden has driven a couple thousand head of cattle from Mexico to deliver to Union troops. Holden plays an “Irish senor” (as defined in the title song) whose Mexican origins provides an excuse to consider the United States an enemy, positioning him as a neutral in the conflict, allowing him to justify his profiteering. Confederate colonel Richard Widmark plans to steal the herd.  Had Holden been a patriot the story would have knuckled down to him trying to thwart such plans, but since he’s a free agent with no allegiance except to himself the film has to take another route. So this involves Holden being captured by Widmark in a bid to turn the Confederate soldiers into cowboys capable of driving the stolen herd.

That would set the film down a fairly standard narrative route of training raw recruits such as Holden would follow in The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But this film evades such a simple format. All we ever learn about the intricacies of handling cattle is that you need a hat and have to be able to sing. Instead, this is a more thoughtful picture about honor versus self-interest, about the human casualties of war. Unlike most westerns it’s not about shoot-outs and fairly obvious good guys and bad guys. In the main it’s a drama about conflicting interests and often how good guys will do bad things in the name their beliefs.

The film doesn’t take sides. Do we root for the Union soldiers fighting to free slaves or the romantic version of the Confederacy? Do we root for the immoral selfish Holden because he’s had a finger shot off as a way of bringing him to heel or do our sympathies lie with the upstanding one-eyed Widmark who has given so much for his cause?  

Holden is excellent, easing into the world-weary character he would project more fully in The Wild Bunch (1969). And I like his delivery, the pauses between words as if they are occurring to him for the first time rather than rattling them off as is the way of so many stars. Janice Rule is good as the errant girlfriend who feels let down by Widmark’s honor – and who is open to seduction by Holden – and has her own ideas about what she deserves from the war.  Although it’s tempting to say we’ve seen this craggy Widmark characterization too many times before, here he adds a further emotional layer as a man who eventually faces up to the personal sacrifices he has been forced to make.     

Action fans will be amply rewarded by the ending as Holden attempts to outwit Widmark.

You might also be interested in how this movie was marketed – see the Pressbook/Marketing section article published in tandem with this.

There’s a fair chance you can catch up with this movie for free on one of the Sony Movie channels but if you don’t want to wait or want to enjoy it at its best check out the DVD.

The Family Way (1966) ****

Nudity was not an option for previous child stars attempting to make the leap into adult roles. Shirley Temple in the 1930s and Margaret O’Brien in the 1940s were kids when they played kids and when they outgrew their cuteness audiences were indifferent.

Being older when playing younger characters increased the chances of career survival. Silent movie superstar Mary Pickford was 22 when she first tackled child heroine Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and 30 for the remake and she made an absolute fortune from these kinds of roles. Judy Garland was 17 when The Wizard of Oz (1939) appeared and managed another 15 years at the top before drugs and drink took their toll, still worthy of supporting roles after A Star Is Born (1954) and even star billing in her last film I Could Go On Singing (1963). But she was fired from Valley of the Dolls (1967), ironically enough given the film’s subject matter, due to alcohol and drug dependency.

Hayley Mills was 14 when her first Disney picture Pollyanna (1960) was released and for the next five years at that studio never played anyone approaching her true age. She was protected from studio abuse because this was Disney and because her father was actor John Mills, who often appeared in her movies. When the Disney contract ended, Sky, West and Crooked (1966), her father’s directorial debut, attempted to refashion her screen persona with a more challenging role.

But The Family Way forced audiences to set aside all preconceptions. Not only did she show her naked derriere, but this was a film essentially about sex. No sex is actually shown because  newly-weds Mills and Hywel Bennett have not consummated their marriage. You can thank the Carry On films for the snigger-snigger British mindset to sex. The promiscuous and often predatory characters of Darling (1965) and Alfie (1965) occupied a different world, almost a foreign country as far as the inhabitants of this solid working-class town were concerned. They would have looked askance at such permissiveness. Here, at this particular point in history, both sexes were still expected to be virgins when they married. Sex in Darling (1965) and Alfie (1966), for example, carries little emotional overtones. The Family Way is novel in treating sex as fundamental to happiness within marriage.

The subject of impotence would not be first on your list when you set out to make a warm-hearted drama. But here screenwriter Bill Naughton (Alfie) in adapting his play All in Good Time uses the theme to explore family values. But where recrimination – and subsequent confrontation – might be the first port of call for another writer, Naughton foregoes that obvious route to concentrate on the way impotence eats at a man’s self-worth. Two secrets drive the plot but the second is preserved right to the end, resulting in possibly the most moving finale you will ever watch.

The happy couple before life gets in the way.

In documenting working-class life it is superior to the earlier Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). It is life without inbuilt bitterness. Families are still crammed into small houses, a visit to the housing department an invitation to humiliation, but there is full employment and enjoyment to be found in simple pleasures.

Family dynamics are expertly explored. Bennett, with a shelf load of books and penchant for classical music, is diametrically opposed to his down-to-earth but exceptionally obtuse father John Mills, and there is a wonderful scene early on where Bennett seeing how badly his father takes defeat allows him to win an arm-wrestling competition. Mills is the standout, devoted to the memory of a long-departed childhood pal and struggling with his position as patriarch especially in the face of perennial sniping by wife Marjorie Rhodes. Mills is wonderful doing nothing, a face so expressive of longing and emotion, and it is he who has the heart-breaking final scene. The older characters are fully rounded, bluff exteriors concealing fragile emotion. Hard-faced Rhodes appears almost fey when she recalls a moment of love. Hayley Mill’s burly father (John Comer) cannot cope with her departure from his household, especially as that leaves him at the mercy of his shrewish wife (stand-up comedienne Avril Angers).

Hywel Bennett begins a successful movie career with a difficult part, an introspective role calling for him to contain his emotions – not venting his spleen like the endlessly complaining Arthur Seaton of Saturday Night – until they erupt in a spectacular fist fight that does not go at all the way you would expect.

John Mills (the star’s real-life father) and Marjorie Rhodes as the parents of Hywel Bennett.

Barry Foster (later television’s Van de Valk) has the showy part as the rough-edged  workmate and Murray Head (later part of the love triangle in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, 1971) also makes his debut in an equally showy role as Bennett’s brother who makes advances to his frustrated sister-in-law.

Even without the nudity, Hayley Mills, the denoted star, makes the transition to movie adulthood with ease. In part, all she had to do was drop the unnatural excitement that appeared essential to her Disney portfolio. Her delivery, her reading of a line, had always been good and she had clearly worked out she was going to be an actress not a sex symbol so there was no exaggerated use of her physicality.

Even the nudity worked in her favour, startled to be disturbed emerging from a bath, genuinely shy, not the mock-shy or revelling in her naked state that was de rigeur in Hollywood. She was also helped by being a light foil to the brooding, gloomy Bennett, her natural bright personality, while affected by their problem, still capable of enjoying harmless pleasures. .

This was a distinct change of pace for the fraternal producer-directing team John and Roy Boulting, stalwarts of British production since the 1940s with a host of well-regarded dramas and comedies, often with Peter Sellers, to their name.  Generally, they took turns about in the director’s chair – the former putting his name to thriller Brighton Rock (1948) and comedies Lucky Jim (1957)  and I’m Alright, Jack (1959), the latter claiming credit for drama Fame Is the Spur (1947), thriller Run for the Sun (1956) and comedy A French Mistress (1960). Occasionally, they shared the directing chore as with thriller Seven Days to Noon (1950), comedy Heavens Above (1963) and in this contemporary drama.

Their approach to The Family Way went against the grain of the gritty working-class dramas in the vein of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life (1962). Nobody here has a job they hate or comes home covered in grime. In fact, since the central thrust (pardon the pun) of the movie is about pleasure (sexual, that is), it is set against a background of enjoyment. Both principals have jobs in entertainment, Bennett an assistant projectionist in a cinema, Hayley Mills working in a record store and also seen at a disco and a motocross event. Alcohol plays a role, of course, but not to the extent of over-indulgence, not drinking yourself to oblivion like Arthur Seaton, and its main purpose is to present the father as an amiable host.

What impact the burgeoning affair between Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting (33 years her senior) had on the production is anyone’s guess but possibly it helped steady the star’s nerves when it came to the nude scene. From today’s perspective, the nudity appears gratuitous. And certainly back then it was shocking, ensuring an X-certificate (although the subject matter probably already guaranteed that).

Actually, it was social comment. While living in a decent-enough house, the family lacked one particular amenity – an indoor toilet. Washing took place at a communal sink or in the privacy of a bedroom with a bowl of water. A bath was a mobile unit, a zinc item dragged out of the scullery into the living room, filled with endless pots or kettles of hot water. But for a young woman to take a bath demanded privacy. So when Hayley Mills is interrupted in her ablutions, males and females in the audience had opposite reactions. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that males simply enjoyed the sight of the naked posterior. Women, on the other hand, would wince. Aversion to nudity may have played a part but more likely women would feel deeply the humiliation at the lack of privacy in such a household, that someone could come upon you at your most vulnerable at any time. Sure, nothing went hidden in such houses, the sounds of any activity would carry through walls, but such a deep personal activity as exposure while taking a bath said far more about the brutal congestion of family life than jokes about hearing someone urinating into a container in the next room.

Paul McCartney contributed a very hummable melody as part of his debut movie score.

American audiences did not respond so well to Hayley Mills’ emergence as an adult actor and the movie failed to click at the box office there. But by that point it was already in profit, a runaway British hit (among the top twelve films of the year) and set the female star up for an adult career, pointed Hywel Bennett in the right direction and gave John Mills one of his most memorable turns.  And very entertaining and enjoyable with terrific acting.

Book Into Film – A Girl Called Fathom by Larry Forrester (1967) ***

The blurb gives the game away. The British paperback published by Pan went: “She was blonde. She was beautiful, she was six foot tall. She’d killed the man who had dragged her to the lowest depths of addiction and lust.” The American Fawcett Gold Medal paperback was more succinct: “lady by birth, tramp by occupation and murderess by design.”

If any of that rings a bell, it was not from the film Fathom (1967) starring Raquel Welch which chose to ignore her background and her venomous skillset. The novel opens with the heroine killing a man in cold blood. He had promised her a film career but turned her into a call girl and heroin addict. Her father, now dead, was in the British secret service.  Once she has committed her first murder, she is immediately kidnapped by a secret organization (C.E.L.T.S. – Counter Espionage Long-Term Security) and trained to become an even more ruthless government-sanctioned killing machine.

Larry Forrester was a Scottish television scriptwriter who had worked on a stack of British series such as Whirligig (1953), Ivanhoe (1958) and No Hiding Place (1960-1964) before publishing his first novel A Girl Called Fathom. His sole screenplay was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) after which he concentrated on U.S. television including episodes of Fantasy Island (1980-1983) and Hart to Hart (1983-1984).   

A Girl Called Fathom is split into two. Comprising roughly two-fifths of the book, the first section concentrates on her brutal training and on getting her off drugs. There’s a fair amount of sexual intrigue not to mention sex. But also a lover’s betrayal.  For the final part of her training she is abandoned in the middle of nowhere in scorching heat and barely makes it home. “She had passed over a great divide. She was empty, hard – dehumanized. Alone. She would always be alone.” And then she is forced to kill again.

As was common with this kind of book in the 1960s, it was fast-moving and globe-trotting with plenty of realistic detail to offset the preposterous plot. For the remainder of the book, which shifts location to Europe, Fathom is up against an organization called W.A.R. (World of Asian Revolution) which aims to destabilise the existing world order. Her arch enemy is an American-born Soviet agent (and whip and knife expert) Jo Soon (who turns up in the film Fathom in slightly different form as Jo-May. Fathom’s team must protect French elder statesman Paul-Auguste Valmier whose playboy son Damon (who fantasizes about burning people alive), a friend for her past, is her main contact.

British paperback.

The book is peopled by interesting and occasionally outrageous characters – for example Tin, who has hardly a human bone left in his body; the far-from-harmless Aunt Elspeth; and a sadistic colleague who loves her but dare not let his emotions out lest he loose on her his love of pain. The central plot is driven by a mass of twists and turns, heroine endangerment, fights with knife and gun and fist, traitors (naturally) and the clever idea of killing off the leaders of the free world with a bomb hidden in the coffin of a man worthy of a state funeral being held in Paris.

At the end she is counting the human cost of victory and sees herself as one of the walking wounded, a reject, driven from the herd.

The film Fathom was apparently based on an unpublished sequel so it’s conceivable that the plot concerning the Chinese heirloom was pulled from that in its entirety. But even so the film’s heroine was neutered, not a patch on the ruthless killer with a sordid past outlined in A Girl Called Fathom.

A review of Fathom (1967) was published in tandem with this.

Fathom (1967) ***

If audiences rallied to the sight of Raquel Welch wearing nothing more than a fur bikini for the entirety of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and a skin-tight suit in Fantastic Voyage (1966)  Twentieth Century Fox must have reasoned they would surely return in droves were the star to spend most of Fathom in a succession of brightly-colored bikinis.

Given such a premise who would care that a sky-diving expert was named after a nautical measurement? Or that Welch came nowhere near the height indicated by her name? Or that  the character as described in the source material (a novel by Scottish screenwriter Larry Forester) had a distinctly harder edge; murder, sex and drugs among her proclivities.

With Our Man Flint (1966), the studio had successfully gatecrashed the burgeoning spy genre and spotted a gap in the market for a female of the species, hoping to turn Modesty Blaise (1966) starring Monica Vitti and Fathom into money-spinning series. The Fathom project was handed to Batman, The Movie (1966) co-conspirators, director Leslie H. Martinson and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon, 1980).

Female independence was hard-won in the 1960s and there were few jobs where a woman was automatically at the top of the tree. Burglary was one option for the independent entrepreneur (see The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl) and sport was another.

Richard Briers perhaps contemplating The Good Life.

Welch plays an innocent bystander recruited for her top-notch sky-diving skills (her aptitude demonstrated in the opening sequences) to help British intelligence recover the “Fire Dragon,” a trigger that could explode a nuclear bomb. That turns out to be baloney, of course, a MacGuffin to point her in the direction of a valuable Chinese heirloom. And then it’s case of double-cross, triple-cross and whatever cross comes next. Anthony Franciosca, still a rising star after a decade in the business, who receives top billing, doesn’t appear for the first twenty minutes. And then he behaves like a walking advert for dentistry, as though his teeth can challenge Welch’s curves.

There’s an intriguing mystery at the heart of this picture and a couple of top-class hair-raising moments. In one she is trapped in a bull ring and stunt double Donna Garrett had a few very definite close calls trying to avoid the maddened beast. In another she is stalked at sea by a circling motor boat while being peppered with harpoons. There is also an airplane duel and a ton of great aerial work. A couple of comic sequences are well wrung – Ronald Fraser as the spy chief pins his business card to one of the prongs of a pitchfork being brandished with menace by Welch while Franciosca delivers a classic line: “The only game I ever lost was spin the bottle and that was on purpose.”

Raquel Welch surviving a close encounter with a bull.

The biggest problem is that the film veers too far away from the source material which posited the heroine as a much tougher character, one who can despatch bad guys with aplomb. Instead, Welch is presented almost as an innocent, bundled from one situation to another, never taking charge until the very end. Minus karate kicks or a decent left hook, she is left to evade her predators by less dramatic means. She has a decent line in repartee and by no means lets the show down. However, the idea, no matter how satisfactory to her fans, that she has to swap bikinis every few minutes or failing that don some other curve-clinging item, gets in the way of the story – and her character.

There’s no doubt Welch had single-handedly revived the relatively harmless pin-up business (not for her overt nudity of the Playboy/Penthouse variety) and had a massive following in Europe where she often plied her trade (the Italian-made Shoot Loud, Louder…I Don’t Understand in 1966 and the British Bedazzled in 1967) but she was clearly desperate for more meaty roles. Those finally came her way with Bandolero (1966) and 100 Rifles (1969) and Fathom feels like a lost opportunity to provide her with that harder edge.  

She’s not helped by the odd tone. As I mentioned she gets into plenty of scrapes and proves her mettle with her diving skills but some of the supporting cast look like they’ve signed up for a completely different movie. Richard Briers – Ronald Fraser’s intelligence sidekick – looks like a goggle-eyed fan next to Ms Welch and Clive Revill thinks it’s a joke to play a Russian as a joke. In the hands of a better director and with a few tweaks here and there it could have been a whole lot better and perhaps launched a spy series instead of languishing at the foot of the studio’s box office charts for that year.  

But it is certainly entertaining enough and you are unlikely to get bored.

See the “Book into Film” section for a review of the source novel A Girl Called Fathom.