The Frightened City (1961) ***

Sean Connery in an early role as a gangster is not the only reason for watching this brisk British thriller about a London protection racket. Primarily told from the point-of-view of the bad guys, this explores how a ruthless Mr Big (Herbert Lom) builds up a criminal empire. Lom, a bent accountant, brings together the six major gangs involved in extorting money from pubs and stores into a democratically-run syndicate.  Lom then moves on to demanding bigger sums from bigger enterprises such as construction businesses. However, when the gangsters fall out they go to war.  

This film is way ahead of the game in presenting gangsters as displaying any intelligence. Generally, they were depicted as brutes who ruled by force. But criminality at the top level demanded as much organization as in a legitimate business. Personalities had to be harnessed to work together rather than shoot each other on sight. Such skills had to exist in order for gangsters to operate on any scale. This picture examines how this was done.

The cops led by John Gregson are almost a sub-plot and the story would have adequately run its course without their involvement. Gregson sails close to the wind hoping to “tilt the scale of justice in our direction for a change.” Connery doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes as a karate-expert cat-burglar turned enforcer. Connery’s involvement with the syndicate ends when his code of honor is breached and he turns on his employers. His code is not so sacrosanct that it prevents him cheating on his girlfriend. But he does display the virility to fill James Bond’s shoes.

There’s far more violence that would be expected in a British crime picture. Night clubs, shops and pubs are wrecked and there’s plenty of fisticuffs and when the gangsters go head-to-head they upgrade to grenades. There’s a bit more plot than the running time can deal with so director (and producer and co-writer) John Lemont occasionally resorts to cliché devices like newspaper headlines. Canadian Lemont – most famous for writing the first serial hon on ITV, Sixpenny Corner – was an auteur of the old-fashioned (and unheralded) kind, and previously writer-director of The Shakedown (1960).  Triple-hyphenates, while rare in the movie business, were generally of a high calibre such as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so Lemont was in good company, and clearly, in consequence, the movie that appeared reflected his own vision.

Top billing was a step up for Lom and he made the most of it, delivering a suave villain among the thugs. Gregson (The Captain’s Table, 1959) was a solid British star and ideal cop material (he was later British television’s Gideon). Yvonne Romaine, as Connery’s new squeeze, a nightclub singer exploited by Lom more for her looks than her voice, was known to audiences after Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In only her second film Scottish television actress Olive McFarland was Connery’s dumped girlfriend. Unusually, for a British picture at this time, the theme tune written by Norrie Paramour was covered by The Shadows and turned into a hit.

At this point in his career, Connery had already had two bites of the cherry without much success – romancing Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place (1958) and Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). This was three films before his breakthrough with Dr No (1962) but the Pressbook showed signs that he was headed for the heights.  Co-star Yvonne Romaine (and her distinctive body measurements) were accorded three separate stories in the Pressbook, compared to one each for Lom and Alfred Marks, at that point better known as a comedian, but none of Connery. But Connery (and Romaine) outshone their co-stars when it came to the advertising campaign.  

Producers were contractually bound in relation to the size of credits that appeared on any advertising. But there were no such regulations regarding the visuals of an advert. Although top-billed, Lom is  not shown on any of the adverts. Given greatest prominence was Yvonne Romaine. There were thirteen different ads and she appeared in them all. Although Connery was third-billed and she was two rungs below in the credit stakes, he was the junior partner when it came to the artwork. While, Connery appeared in eleven in only one did he overshadow Romaine and in another they were visually-speaking accorded roughly the same status. But otherwise, she hogged the adverts.  

The Pressbook was small by American standards, consisting of six A3 pages, the bulk of which was given over to adverts. But what it lacked in pages it made up for in taglines – of which there were six main types. Of course, Connery would become an “Untouchable” in the later Brian dePalma film.

The picture was not seen much in the United States, sent out in first run as the lower half of a double bill in only a handful of big cities, so there’s a fair chance it’s completely unknown except to Connery completists. But it’s certainly worth a look.

Gambit (1966) ****

The heist movie – as epitomised by The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1958) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1954) – had tended to be a relatively low-budget affair. Top-ranking stars steered clear because complicated plot often got in the way of character development  In the highly polished and entertaining Gambit British director Ronald Neame’s riff on the genre involved a narrative shift worthy of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and, of course, Akira Kurosawa who had with Rashomon (1950) single-handedly invented the complex point-of-view.

Neame brought another couple of other aces out of the deck. First of all, there was the fun of watching over-confident thief Michael Caine’s apparently foolproof plans come unstuck. Secondly, in a romantic dynamic in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934) the less accomplished female (Shirley MacLaine) proves more accomplished than the male.

Gambit was also a clear demonstration of the power of the female star not just in the plot complications but from the fact that Caine owed his big Hollywood break to MacLaine, the actress having the power of veto over the male lead and, equally, contractual right to choose her co-star. The movie went through an interesting development phase. The original script by director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) had Cary Grant in the central (i.e MacLaine) role. Rewritten by Jack Davies (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965) and in his movie debut Alvin Sargent (The Stalking Moon, 1968) the main character underwent a gender shift.

After Psycho (1960) audiences had become used to being messed around. Stars could be killed off halfway through or not appear (Operation Crossbow a classic example) until well into the movie. Neame was not quite so bold but what audiences made of the usually garrulous MacLaine being rendered mute during the early part of the picture was anybody’s guess, perhaps the dumb show was a joke in itself. But lack of dialogue did not prevent MacLaine from stealing the show and proving what an adept comedienne she was, a barrage of submissive looks enough to send an audience into hysterics.

In essence, Caine plays two characters. In the opening segment he is the brash, cocky  English gentleman-thief at the top of his game, bossing MacLaine around, gulling his mark (Herbert Lom) with an audacious plan to steal an expensive sculpture. In his version of events his plan goes off without a hitch. But when we switch to the MacLaine perspective, in which nothing goes according to plan, his cool demeanour is sorely tested and he turns into a frustrated idiot. Watching the movie now, you can almost imagine that the MacLaine character, with a host of useless facts at her fingertips, was making fun of Caine’s well-known love of trivia, but that predated the actor’s acknowledgement of this aspect of his real-life character.

What makes the movie so much fun is that both parts of the film work and for the same reasons: believable characters, exciting heists and plenty of twists. The initial premise is that Caine recruits Hong Kong dancer MacLaine due to her startling resemblance to the late wife of Arab billionaire Herbert Lom as part of a ploy to relieve him of a priceless artefact. While Lom is falling for MacLaine, Caine moves in for the kill with an ingenious heist. Mission accomplished he pays her off. But in the real version of the story, as seen through her eyes, Lom does not fall for the ridiculous scam, Caine’s plan fails to work until MacLaine comes to the rescue. Meanwhile, MacLaine has fallen for Caine, but does not want to be in love with a criminal. Although Caine initially resists his own emotions, he, too, takes the romantic plunge except that to win her he may have to lose what he prizes more.

As I mentioned it is awash with twists and the heists themselves are exceptionally well done but the screen chemistry between the two leads is terrific. Caine, who had otherwise been in control in his previous starring roles as the upper-class officer in Zulu (1963), spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and the womanising Alfie (1966) – The Wrong Box (1966) was an ensemble item – was taking a chance in playing a character who would effectively play second fiddle to the star and in terms of the thief often appears out-of-control. MacLaine was more obviously in her safety zone. Hollywood spent a lot of time investing in screen partnerships, mostly failing, but this pairing certainly succeeded.

Gunn (1967) *

Director Blake Edwards was so confident that he could repeat on the big screen the small screen success of Peter Gunn (1958-1961) that the movie was promoted as the first in a series. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Although the private eye genre had been given a fillip by Paul Newman’s shamus Harper (1966) the bulk of screen investigation has been subsumed wholesale by spies. And the amount of time that had passed between the demise of the original television series and the movie revival – only six years – was hardly enough for nostalgia to kick in. Nor did star Craig Stevens have any box office appeal – this was his first picture in nearly a decade.  

A James-Bond-rip off credit sequence with girls dancing to a psychedelic background sets up a more contemporary picture than the one unveiled which is as old-fashioned as they come and, except for an increased budget, betrays its television origins. A few characters, Gunn’s girlfriend Edie  (Helen Traubel), a nightclub singer, Mother (Laura Devon) the owner of the eponymous nightclub, and Lt Jacoby  are reprised from the series although played by different actors. 

The dialogue is sometimes slick – “Call me Samantha” – “Samantha” – “You called” and sometimes corny as when prior to an explosion that knocks the hero sideways is the line “may God strike me down.”

Gunn is hired by a nightclub owner Mother to find out who killed a gangster who had once saved the detective’s life. Fingers point at another gangster but it soon becomes clear that the obvious may not be correct. Making the biggest impression is Sherry Jackson as the aforementioned Samantha who turns up unannounced in Gunn’s flat. Plus there’s the Henry Mancini score. The only element that makes it contemporary is some gender-confusion but otherwise it’s a fairly flat story and relies far too much on its television origins.

I caught this on British channel Talking Pictures. There is a DVD available. You might find the original series more to your taste.

Operation Crossbow (1965) ****

A clever mixture of detail and derring-do, World War Two picture Operation Crossbow (1965) – based on the true story of Allied infiltration of a German rocket factory – was a surprising hit at the British box office. The picture took a risk in keeping star George Peppard hidden from view for the first 28 minutes (top-billed Sophia Loren took nearly another 20 minutes to show up). Prior to their appearances the opening sequences were loaded up with a roll-call of British stars familiar with the genre in the vein of John Mills (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Trevor Howard (Cockleshell Heroes, 1955) and Richard Todd (The Dam Busters, 1955). Anthony Quayle, who puts in a later appearance, was also a war movie veteran after turns in Battle of the River Plate (1956), Ice Cold in Alex and The Guns of Navarone (1961).

Most war films relating to destroying a vital enemy base involved bombing  (The Dam Busters633 Squadron, 1964), sinking (Sink the Bismarck!, 1962) or blowing things up  (The Guns of Navarone, 1961). Operation Crossbow falls into the last-named category. The story breaks down into four sections: the discovery towards the end of the war by the British that the Germans are forging ahead with building V1 and V2 rockets; the recruitment and training of spies to parachute into Occupied France; a tense sequence abroad where complications arise; and, finally, attempts to obliterate the rocket plant.  

Producer Carlo Ponti’s wife Sophia Loren took top billing even though her role amounted to an extended cameo.

Director Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters) switches through the genres from docu-drama to spy film to action adventure, further authenticity added by bold use (for a mainstream picture) of subtitles, all characters speaking in their native tongues. Various real-life characters are portrayed, among them photo reconnaissance expert Constance Babington Smith (Sylvia Sims), German aviatrix Hannah Reitsch (Barbara Rutting) and Duncan Sandys (Richard Johnson) who was on the British War Cabinet Committee.

Trevor Howard, at his irascible best, is the scientist pouring scorn on the idea of rockets – until they start raining down on London. Volunteers – Peppard, Tom Courtenay (Billy Liar, 1963) and Jeremy Kemp (who appeared with Peppard the same year in The Blue Max) – trained to spike the new weapon are recruited primarily on their language skills. Character is sketchy, Peppard designated a womaniser because he arrives in a taxi with two women.

But the operation has been assembled in such haste that not enough attention has been paid to the identities assumed by the agents. Courtenay’s character turns out to be wanted for murder. Peppard is accosted by his character’s divorced wife (Loren). So the mission faces immediate exposure. Although Loren’s role in terms of screen time amounts to little more than a cameo, she delivers a powerful emotional performance to a picture that could as easily have got by on tension alone. The harsh realities of war are shown in abundance. Twists come thick and fast in the second half, not least that Peppard’s face has become known, before the movie reaches a thrilling denouement.

Arabesque (1966) ****

Hitchcock had set the standard for the glossy thriller. But the bar was set so high few others reached it. Stanley Donen fitted that category with Charade (1963) with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and now he was back for a second crack but minus either star. And the replacement male lead was less of a star and more of a liability.

By this point in the 1960s, Gregory Peck’s career was pretty much at a standstill. Prestige had not saved Behold a Pale Horse (1964) from commercial disaster, thriller Mirage (1965) went the same way, other projects – The Martian ChroniclesIce Station Zebra – failed to get off the ground or like The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-Ling-a-Ling were abandoned once filming began.  So he was the main beneficiary of Cary Grant’s decision to retire.

In some ways Peck was an adequate replacement but lacked the older actor’s gift for comedy and failed to master the art of the double-take. Arabesque was almost a counterpoint to Charade. In the earlier movie Audrey Hepburn is continually suspicious of Cary Grant. The new movie sees a gender reversal, Peck constantly puzzled as to where Sophia Loren’s loyalties lie.

The story itself is quite simple. A code has been put inside a hieroglyphic and a variety of people are trying to get hold of it either to decipher the secret within or to stop someone else finding out what it contains. When the scientist who has the code is killed, the man who ordered the killing, the sinister Beshraavi (Alan Badel), approaches Peck to unravel the code, but is turned down. Professor Peck is then kidnapped by an Arab prime minster (Carl Duering), whom he admires, to ask him to take up the job. Beshraavi’s provocatively-dressed wife Sophia Loren, flirting outrageously with Peck, is also after the code. 

There follows more twists and double-crosses than you could shake a stick at, leaving the amenable Peck mightily confused.  “What is it about you,” he asks Loren at one point, “that makes you so hard to believe?” It looks like director Donen is playing a variation of the famous Raymond Chandler maxim, that when a plot begins to flag, “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” Sometimes there is actually a weapon, but mostly it’s just another twist. If Peck doesn’t know what the hell is going on, then the audience is in the same boat.

But it is stylish, set in appealing parts of Britain (antique university, Ascot), Loren decked out in glamorous Dior outfits and even Peck gets to wear a morning suit. Drop in a couple of action sequences, Hitchcock-style chases in a zoo and pursuit by a combine harvester, Peck nearly run over by horses in a race, and the pair of them having strayed into a builder’s yard facing demolition by the British equivalent of a wrecking ball. But the standout scene is when Loren hides Peck in her shower (curtain drawn) while being interrogated by her suspicious husband and then steps in naked and then they play footsie with dropped soap. And she proceeds to expound, “If I was standing stark naked in front of Mr Pollock (Peck), he’d probably yawn.”

Beshraavi’s jealousy over his wife’s flirtation with Peck adds another element of tension. Badel is a very sinuous, sensuous bad guy, who can turn a harmless massage into a matter of life and death. He also has a pet falcon with a habit of ripping people’s cheeks. But even in the face of obvious threats, Peck holds his own. In one scene as Badel attempts to retrieve what he believes is the code from Peck’s dinner plate, where it has fallen from the hiding place in the professor’s clothing, Peck taps the man’s invading fingers with the sharp tines of his fork.

And there is some accomplished dialogue. When Peck offers the falcon a date and is brusquely told the bird of prey only eats meat, he responds, “I thought he looked at it rather wistfully.” Badel retorts, sharply, “It must have been your fingers.”

Donen had not made a film in the three years since Charade, so there was some critical feeling that he was a bit rusty and used experimentation – big close-ups, odd camera angles – to cover this up. He was living in London by this point, and had been for nearly a decade. But there was very little that fazed him in any genre, and he had switched from musicals like Singing in’ the Rain (1952) to romantic drama (Indiscreet, 1958) and comedy (The Grass Is Greener, 1960). And though there is no question the film would have been better with Cary Grant, Peck proves a reasonable substitute. The movie’s main drawback is the lack of romance since falling in love with someone you believe to be a traitor or a compulsive liar is a hard trick to pull off. But if you like the idea of pitting your wits against the screenwriters, then this is one for you.

The Bedford Incident (1965) ****

A belated entry into the Cold War thriller genre that appeared to have peaked with Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Bedford Incident, filmed in black-and-white with a less-than-stellar cast nonetheless holds its own as an examination of men under pressure, a cat-and-mouse actioner, as well as a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear war.

The top-billed Richard Widmark turned producer on this one, as he had done for The Secret Ways (1961), not so much to greenlight a pet project as to hold onto a spot at Hollywood’s high table just when that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp after the commercially disastrous John Ford roadshow Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In truth, Widmark’s position as an outright star appeared questionable. He seemed to transition all too easily between top billing (Warlock, 1959, The Long Ships, 1964) and second billing (Two Rode Together, 1961,  Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, and Flight from Ashiya 1964).    

Also putting his neck on the line was James B. Harris who was making the jump to director from producer of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962).

Widmark is a maverick U.S. Navy destroyer captain hunting down Russian submarines should they stray into territorial waters. He has been passed over for promotion, despite having previously successfully forced a Russian sub to the surface. Into his meticulously-run ship are dropped photo journalist Sidney Poitier (re-teamed with Widmark after The Long Ships) and doctor Martin Balsam and, in effect, their presence is a simple device to put Widmark under the spotlight, in some respects challenge his operational methods, and to provide an excuse to tell the audience everything they need to know. 

Among the ship’s crew and with privotal roles are James MacArthur as a young ensign and Eric Porter an a German former U-boat commander who acts as an advisor and if you keep your eyes peeled you might spot a fleeting glimpse of Donald Sutherland as part of the medical crew.

The newcomers are afforded insight into how this ship is run and into its hunting methods, for example, dredging up waste from the sea in order to examine it for evidence of a Russian presence. There is a bundle of interesting technical data – a submarine has to surface for air, as another example – and the soundtrack mostly consists of endless sonar. Apart from the German, who appears to subsist on Schnapps, the crew is unusually top-quality, the sick bay deserted, the enterprise run under wartime conditions, every person on board dedicated to fulfilling the captain’s every wish.

The tension is in triplicate. First of all, there is the obsessive captain who could just explode from tension; secondly, there is the hunt for the submarine replete with tactical maneuvers and hunches; and finally, always in the background, there is the nuclear element and the fear that untoward action could trigger a holocaust. And there’s also time to take down a peg or two the holier-than-thou visitors, Balsam revealed as a civilian doctor returning to the service as a refuge, Poitier as a rather spoiled individual who complains when dangerous maneuvers interrupt his shower. Eric Porter is excellent as a hunter who has the unenviable task of trying to rein in his boss. James MacArthur (a graduate from the Disney school) shows maturity as a young officer cracking under pressure. Poitier is excellent in a more relaxed role.

But Widmark steals the show. His over-acting often stole the show when he had a supporting role, but this is a finely nuanced performance. An admirable, instinctive commander, he is loved by his men (such adoration not easily won) with a gift for battle and outfoxing an opponent, often barely containing his own tension. It would have been easy to ramp up the pressures he felt in the way of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954) but there’s a big difference between a man about to crack and one who loves battle and is desperate to score victory. 

Harris makes a sound debut, the decision to film in black-and-white paying off, and enough going on through personality clash and the sub hunt to keep the pace taut. Authenticity was added by filming aboard naval vessels (although British in this case) and what little model work there is does not look out of place. A bigger budget would have made better use of the actual hunt (as The Hunt for Red October, 1990, later proved) but sound effects rather than visual effects suffice. I had not at all expected the shock ending. Another point in this film’s favor is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has not gone away and the fact remains that the world as we know could disappear at the touch of a button.

First Men in the Moon (1964) ***

Christopher Nolan take note – sci-fi works best if the premise (no matter how preposterous) is simple to understand. In this endearing adventure, set in Victorian times, Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) has invented a paste that defies gravity. Thus liberated, a spaceship covered in the stuff, for example, would fly to the Moon.

The story begins in present times with a worldwide space mission landing on the moon where the astronauts discover the British have been there first. Investigation on Earth leads to Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961), the last surviving member of the original endeavour’s three-person crew.

Space pioneers are usually stalwarts, but Bedford is a bit of a con man, an impoverished wannabe playwright, convincing his American fiancé Kate Callender (Martha Hyer) that he owns the cottage he is renting. Continuing with this ploy, he sells the cottage to the madcap inventor before realising the fortune that could be made from investing in Cavorite (the anti-gravity paste) and signing up for the voyage to the Moon.

Jeffries is a delight as the manic inventor, a far cry from the stuffy seriousness of modern movie scientists, and in a very British way sets up some wonderful comedy, obsessed with keeping out the draught, which would affect the temperature of his experiments. He thinks the mission will survive on a diet of sardines. The romance is not quite as old-fashioned as it first appears. Where Hyer is madly in love, Judd is madly in love with making money. Eventually, she goes off in a huff only to return with supplies for the journey – chickens (to provide further comedy), a shotgun and alcohol. Inevitably, accidentally, she joins the mission.

Then we are straight to Ray-Harryhausen-Land. The title offers a clue to proceedings – “in the Moon” rather than “on the Moon” – as the explorers discover intelligent life in the shape of a race of insectoids under the surface of the Moon. The science, based on genuine scientific principles, continues to be simple – the  aliens employ solar power; they live underground because they lacked irises to protect their eyes from the sun; and they hibernate in pods. Maybe the giant centipede has no truth in scientific possibility, but who knows? But the aliens are smart enough to try to replicate the paste and they attempt to communicate. A stand-off naturally ensues though where Jeffries sees the potential for scientific partnership the other pair see danger.

Screenwriter Nigel Kneale (the creator of Quatermass) added Kate Callender to the original  H.G. Wells tale. Director Nathan Juran was an old hand at sci-fi, being responsible for The Deadly Mantis (1957) and Attack of the 50ft Woman (1958). Producer Charles H. Schneer had previously teamed with Harryhausen on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

If you’re desperate for time-travel nonsense and gigantic gunfights and want sci-fi to be a mystery nobody can unravel, give this one a miss. If, on the other hand, you fancy a well-crafted story and accept the limitation budgets place on sets and alien creatures, then sit back and watch.

How I Came To Write “The Making of The Magnificent Seven”

To round off my week of celebration of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve made a 10-minute video for Youtube (link below). A number of people contacted me to ask why I wrote the book in the first place. As that was quite unusual in itself, I thought i would explain myself.

A decade ago as a treat to myself I purchased an annual subscription at considerable expense to the archive of daily trade magazine Variety. This allowed me to look back at over 100 years of this legendary publication. I used to just pop around the archive wherever fancy took me. At the time I was – and still am – a box office hound. Every week Variety published upwards of three pages of box office stats, listing how movies performed in all the major cities in America. I was poking around the stats for Butterfield 8 (1960) which delivered sensational figures wherever it opened. Every now and then I would come across a listing for The Magnificent Seven and since that was one of my favorite pictures I back-tracked a few months to see how well it had opened in New York.

I must have spent well over a week going over again and again three months of box office figures. Again and again because I couldn’t find any mention of how well the movie had done in New York. I went through the pages with a fine tooth comb, thinking I must just have missed it. But once I had done that, I came to the conclusion that the movie had not opened in New York at all. In those days, every big picture opened at one of the top theaters in or around Broadway. And The Magnificent Seven counted as a big picture. When I got to the year-end results – Variety published an annual chart – I realized the movie had not done well at all. It was, in fact, a flop.

So I began to wonder why a movie that I had always considered a big hit had been the reverse. I judged it a hit because it was reissued several times. It popped up every time there was a sequel, sometimes in a double bill with another from the series, sometimes dualed with a separate picture. For about 15 years after its release it made regular appearances on the reissue circuit – and this was even after being shown on television in the United States as early as 1963.

It didn’t make any sense. Who would reissue a flop? Why would a flop inspire sequels?

So I dug around a bit more and eventually found out all about the tortuous release history of The Magnificent Seven and my research revealed more of its dramatic history. I became fascinated by the flop that became a hit. It took me more than three years to find out as much as I could about the film from a variety of sources – including the United Artists and Mirisch archives held at the University of Wisconsin, and other trade publications like Box Office, Motion Picture Daily and Motion Picture Herald – and conversations with the screenwriter Walter Bernstein and anybody else I could find who had anything to do with the film. And then it took another year to write the book.

The story behind the making of The Magnificent Seven could have been a thriller itself. Filming was delayed for two years and on the eve of the shoot nearly halted by an actor’s strike, a writer’s strike, interference by the Mexican government and two million-dollar lawsuits. Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and even Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson (then world heavyweight champion) were all considered for roles. Anthony Quinn was fired.

The book also reveals how Brynner became the biggest independent producer in Hollywood, why United Artists hated it and denied it a prestigious premiere in New York and why it subsequently flopped at the box office. Also revealed is the truth behind the Brynner-McQueen feud and the scene-stealing battle among the actors. The landmark study also forensically examines the screenplay and shows for the first time who – out of the seven screenwriters involved – wrote what, as well as providing a critical examination of the direction.

Youtube Link below.

Guns of The Magnificent Seven (1969) ***

Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the release of the original The Magnificent Seven, and this marks the end of my week-long tribute to the picture and its impact on the American western.

Timing was the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the second sequel. This was the year of masterpieces such as The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West, True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as 100 Rifles, Support Your Local Sheriff, The Undefeated and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. I reckoned – as I explained in my book The Gunslingers of ’69 – that it was the best-ever year for westerns. But in the face of such competition there was little room for a retread of a retread.

The budget had been reduced even further from the first sequel, now down to a paltry $1.36 million. Director Paul Wendkos had only made two movies in the previous five years, low-budget programmers Johnny Tiger (1966) and Attack on the Iron Coast (1968), and was best known for the innocuous Gidget (1959). Yul Brynner ruled himself out and his place was taken by George Kennedy, making the step up from supporting actor to star, who had gained acclaim – and an Oscar – for Cool Hand Luke (1967).

As before, being cast in the film presented opportunity. James Whitmore (Chuka, 1967), who had the second lead, was the best known but that wasn’t saying much. Apart from Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall, 1973) and Bernie Casey (Hit Man, 1972), none made a subsequent impact. Monte Markham and female lead Wende Wagner were both drawn from television, the former from The Second Hundred Years (1967-1968), the latter The Green Hornet (1966-1967). Making up the numbers were bit part players Reni Santoni (Anzio, 1968) and Scott Thomas (The Thousand Plane Raid, 1969).

The script by Herman Hoffman follows the same lines as previously. This time around imprisoned Mexican revolutionary Fernando Rey (who had played a priest in Return of the Seven) funds the recruitment of the mercenaries. As before, each recruit is afforded an introductory scene. There’s an expert in hand-to-hand combat (Markham), a former slave who is a dynamite expert (Casey), a one-armed gunslinger (Baker), a knife-thrower and a chronically-ill wrangler (Thomas). On arriving at their destination, the mercenaries become less mercenary. A village boy is adopted. The villagers can’t make up their minds whether to welcome or oppose the mercenaries. Wagner provides the love interest as a peasant girl.

Instead of defending the village, the gunmen and trained villagers storm the citadel where Rey is imprisoned. This is well-executed with the help of a Gatling gun and explosives. However, Kennedy was miscast as an ice-cool killer. The picture also suffered from a dumbing-down of the violence. With a better cast and a stronger director, the material might have produced better results. However, as with its immediate predecessor, what’s mostly wrong about the second sequel is its inferiority to the original. Take away those comparisons and like Return of the Seven it remains a very watchable oater.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) ****

Oscars voters will be sharpening their pencils for Aaron Sorkin’s political powerhouse. Comic Sacha Baron Cohen is a revelation as yippie Abbie Hoffman while Yahya Abdul-Matten II as Bobby Seale, Mark Rylance as the defense attorney and Frank Langella as the  judge will surely be in contention. Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden (Jane Fonda’s squeeze and later a Congressman) might also be favored. I guess Sorkin’s name will be in the hat but once again his writing and directorial skills clash.

The trial was a repercussion of the riots in Chicago surrounding the Democratic Convention in 1968. At the outset I was baffled and confused by the plethora of personalities and coming to grips with the American legal system but once the courtroom drama got underway I was hooked. The battle between a judge and defendants who refuse to recognize his authority plays out like Perry Mason at warp speed (though with the regulatory old-school last-minute intervention).   

But I would urge you to see this on the big screen because at any one time so many characters litter the frame they will be too compressed on television and in part because the two most stunning scenes have far greater impact when the action is blown up.

As the various civil rights groups descended on Chicago to stage a protest, the police and National Guard expected a riot – and proceeded to start one. A few years later, the government produced trumped-up charges against the various leaders, including Black Panther Bobby Seale who just happened to be in the vicinity. We are well used, unfortunately, to police brutality and here it is no less brutal. The police have also infiltrated the various groups so can provide doctored evidence of intent. But what is most shocking is the way political will subverts the law. Even grizzled legal eagles are astonished by the judge’s antics especially when Bobby Seale is chained and gagged in the courtroom after one too many outbursts. On the other hand, the banter between the accused and the judge, while breaking  protocol, is hilarious; Hoffman and sidekick Jerry Rubin often beating the judge to the punch which a cry of “overruled.”

As a young student at the time I was aghast at television images of the Vietnam War, had seen the Black Panther salute at the 1972 Olympics, and read some Eldridge Cleaver and James Baldwin, but was only vaguely familiar with the personalities behind opposition to the Vietnam War. Here, these personalities are presented mostly in confrontation with the exception of Jerry Rubin, who romances what turns out to be a cop. Wit of both the humorous and intelligent kind are given ample display, sometimes both together. It could have degenerated into a battle between Clever and Cleverer (Hoffman and Hayden, take your pick as to which was which), but that is only part of the wider picture.

While Sorkin’s brilliant script captures the quirks of both the personalities and the legal system, Sorkin the director gets in the way, insisting on incorporating black-and-white newsreel footage and inserting a stand-up comedy routine by Abbie Hoffman. And he definitely pulls his punches regarding Hayden ‘s contribution to the riots.

The best scene is the duel between Redmayne and Rylance in a dummy run for the former taking the witness stand. But the cinematic standout is the ending. Although echoing “Captain, My Captain” in Dead Poets Society (1989) it carries a far deeper meaning, setting on collision course two tenets of American culture, respect  for the court and regard for those who have fallen on field of battle.

My only real carp is why this was a film at all when there is clearly ample material for a television series, a four- or six-parter along the lines of Mrs America (2020). I’ll probably watch this again when it reaches television but I will be surprised if it has the same impact as seeing it at my local cinema, where, by the way, I paid for admission. Either way, don’t miss it. It starts on Netflix Oct 16.