Seven Days in May (1964) ****

Donald Trump and the recent insurrection bring this picture bang up to date. Democracy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the people. Can they be trusted to make the correct decision? That’s in part the thematic thrust of this high-octane political thriller that pits two of the greatest actors of their generation in a battle to decide the fate of the world. This was the era of the nuke picture – Dr Strangelove (1962), Fail Safe (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) – all primed by the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing threat of the Cold War. But since that threat has never gone away – if anything it has worsened – the movie is as relevant today.

Promoting a male-oriented film about politics was always going to be a hard sell despite the distinguished cast. One route Paramount marketeers went down was a massive tie-in with publisher Bantam’s bestseller paperback . Over 1.5 million copies of the book had been rolled out and Bantam had arranged cross-over publicity in supermarkets, five-and-dime stores, booksellers and wholesalers stocking the book. “Look” magazine ran a six-page article by one of the book’s authors Fletcher Knebel.

Just as the President (Fredric March) is about to sign a nuclear treaty with the USSR, much to the fury of the majority of Americans judging by opinion polls, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) uncovers signs of a military coup headed by hawk General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster).

The movie divides into the classic three acts. In the first, Douglas investigates the existence of a secret army unit in El Paso comprising 3,600 men trained to overthrow the government and needs to persuade the President the country is in danger. The second act sees the President hunting for proof of the imminent coup and identifying the conspirators. The third act witnesses showdowns between March and Lancaster and Lancaster and Douglas.

About $65 million out of the U.S. national budget of $90 million was allocated to the military, according to director John Frankenheimer writing in the above magazine. Frankenheimer combined with Kirk Douglas’s company to purchase the book and hire writer Rod Serling. The original script was too long so, without losing a scene, the director went through it cutting phrases and sentences here and there till it was down to the required two-hour length. Paramount put up extra money to get Ava Gardner join the cast.

At the heart of the story is betrayal – Lancaster of his country’s constitution, Douglas of his friend when he takes on the “thankless job of informer.” Douglas proves rather too ruthless, willing to seduce and then betray Ava Gardner, Lancaster’s one-time mistress. Both Gardner and March prove to have higher principles than Douglas. For both Douglas and Lancaster who operate at a high threshold of intensity and could easily have turned in high-octane performances the tension is even better maintained by their apparently initial low-key confrontations. Douglas has a trick here of standing ramrod straight and then turning his head but not his body towards the camera.   

As a pure thriller, it works a treat, investigation to prove there is a conspiracy followed by the the vital element to conspiracy theory – the deaths and disappearances of vital people – and finally the need to resolve the crisis without creating public outcry. The only flaw in the movie’s structure is that Douglas cannot carry out all the investigations and when presidential sidekicks Martin Balsam and Edmond O’Brien are dispatched, respectively, to Gibralter and El Paso the movie loses some of its intensity. But the third act is a stunner as March refuses to take the easy way out by blackmailing Lancaster over his previous relationship with Gardner.   

Of course, there is a ton of political infighting and philosophizing in equal measure and speeches about democracy (“ask for a mandate at the ballot box, don’t steal it”), the American Constitution and the impact of nuclear weapons on humanity. But these verbal volleys are far from long-winded and pack a surefire punch. The coup has been set up with military precision and must be dismantled by political precision.

A hint of the future: one unusual aspect of the picture was the use of closed-circuit television which was seen as being used as method of general communication between politicians and the Pentagon.

The film is awash with Oscar talent – Burt Lancaster, Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (1960) and, at that point, twice nominated; thrice-nominated Kirk Douglas; Fredric March, twice Best Actor for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) plus  three other nominations besides; Ava Gardner nominated for Best Actress (Mogambo, 1953); and Edmond O’Brien named Best Supporting Actor for The Barefoot Contessa (1954).

None disappoint. March is especially impressive as a weak President tumbling in the polls who has to reach deep to fight a heavyweight adversary. Lancaster and Douglas both bristle with authority. Although Lancaster’s delusional self-belief appears to give him the edge in the acting stakes, Douglas’s ruthless manipulation of a vulnerable Ava Gardner provides him with the better material. Edmond O’Brien as an old soak whose alcoholism marks him out as an easy target is also memorable and Ava Gardner in recognizing her frailties delivers a sympathetic performance.

Fashion might have seemed to offer limited marketing opportunities for such a picture but that did not stop Paramount’s publicists. On the back of one of the subsidiary characters being seen combing her hair with an Ajax comb the manufacturer was inveigled into a nationwide campaign. Director John Frankenheimer was pictured wearing a custom-made Cardinal suit in an advert in “Gentlemen’s Quarterly” and designer Mollie Parnis created a suit for women which could be simply altered every day to provide enough outfits for seven days.

Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) does a terrific job of distilling a door-stopper of a book by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.  But the greatest kudos must go to director John Frankenheimer – acquainted with political opportunism through The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and with Burt Lancaster through The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – for keeping tension to the forefront and resisting the temptation to slide into political ideology.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

55 Days at Peking (1963) ***

Imperialism is hard to stomach these days but at the start of the twentieth century it was rampant and as shown in this picture not just restricted to the main culprit, the British. China was Imperialism Central, round about a dozen nations including the USA and Russia claiming control of sections of the country or its produce. So they had all set up diplomatic shop in Peking. And the film begins with an early morning roll call of national anthems before this domination by outside interests in shattered by rebellion.

Just as hard to stomach, of course, was the movie mainstream notion in those days that all rebellions must perforce be put down regardless of how put-upon the peasant classes were. Audiences had to rally round people in other circumstances they would naturally hate. So one of the problems of 55 Days at Peking is to cast the rebels (known as Boxers) and the complicit Chinese government in a bad light while ensuring that those under siege are not seen as cast-iron saints. There’s no getting round the fact that the rebels are shown as prone to butchery and slaughter while the Chinese rulers are considered ineffective and traitorous.

Producer Samuel Bronston built his Peking set on a 250-acre site at a ranch 16 miles from Madrid, Spain, near the foot of the Sierra Guadarrama mountains. To ensure authenticity, a canal was enlarged to supply 15,000 gallons of water a day from a specially-prepared reservoir holding half a million gallons. Over 1.3 million feet of tubular steel – all the scaffolding available in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia – was used in the set construction.

So it’s left to the likes of Charlton Heston as the leader of U.S. Marines stationed in the city to bring some balance to proceedings. “Don’t get the idea you’re better than these people because they can’t speak English,” he expounds. David Niven plays the British Consul trying to keep this particular league of nations onside while negotiating with one hand tied behind his back – “we must play this game by Chinese rules” – with the Chinese Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) while knowingly endangering his wife (Scottish actress Elizabeth Sellars, a one-time big British star) and two children. Ava Gardner is an unscrupulous Russian baroness with little loyalty to her home country.

To ensure journalists provided authentic coverage of the siege, press materials included a copy of the detailed map printed in the Saturday October 13, 1900, edition of British daily newspaper “The Times” and its account of the action. Producer Samuel Bronston claimed that some of the costumes worn by Flora Robson in her role as the Dowager Empress were actual ones worn by the empress and purchased from an Italian family who had connections in the Italian embassy during the siege.

The picture is one-part action, one-part politics and one-part domesticity, if you include in the last section Heston’s romance with Gardner, Niven’s guilt when his son is wounded in an attack and Heston’s conflict over a young native girl (Lynne Sue Moon) fathered by one of his own men who is then killed. Two of the best scenes are these men coping with parental obligation, Niven coping with a wounded son, Heston finding it impossible to offer succour to the child.

The action is extremely well-handled. The siege goes on longer than expected when the expected troops fail to arrive, tension rising as casualties mount and supplies fall low. As with the best battle pictures, clever maneuvers save the day. Two sections are outstanding. The first has Heston marshalling artillery to prevent the Chinese gaining the high ground. The second is a daring raid – Niven’s idea, actually – through the city’s sewers on the enemy’s ammunition dump. Personal heroism is limited – Heston volunteers to go 70 miles through enemy territory to get help but has to turn back when his men are wounded or killed.

The film was not released in 70mm roadshow in the United States as originally planned but like “El Cid” went straight into general release in a 35mm version. but it was seen in 70mm in Europe. Among suggested promotional activities were a “guess-the-flag” competition since 11 nations were involved. The tie-ins included a Corgi paperback, the original soundtrack by Dmitri Tiomkin and four singles – Andy Williams singing the theme song “So Little Time,” The Brothers Four with “55 Days at Peking” (also recorded by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen) and Tommy Riley with “Peking Theme.”

There’s a fair bit of stiff upper lip but while Heston, in familiar chest-baring mode, has Gardner to distract him, Niven is both clever, constantly having to outwit the opposition and hold the other diplomats together, and humane, drawn into desperation at the prospect of his comatose son dying without ever having visited England.  Gardner moves from seducer to sly traitorous devil to angel of mercy, shifting out of her beautiful outfits and glamorous hats to don a nurse’s uniform, at the same time as shifting her outlook from selfish to unselfish. All three stars acquit themselves well as does Flora Robson in a thankless role.

This was the third of maverick producer Samuel Bronston’s big-budget epics after King of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961) with a script as usual from Philip Yordan and directed by Nicholas Ray.

All in all it is a decent film and does not get bogged down in politics and the characters do come alive but at the back of your mind you can’t help thinking this is the wrong mindset, in retrospect, for the basis of a picture.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. This one I noticed is available on YouTube at the point where I was reviewing it. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Long Ships (1964) ***

Decent hokum sees Vikings ally with Moors to seek a mythical giant bell made of gold, “the mother of voices.” There are stunning set-pieces: a majestic long ship coming into port, superior battles, the Mare of Steel, the discovery of the bell itself, while a clever ruse triggers the climactic fight. There’s even a “Spartacus” moment – when the Vikings declare themselves willing to die should their leader be executed.

Richard Widmark as a wily Viking, second cousin to a con man, makes the most of an expansive role. Instead of seething with discontent or intent on harm as seemed to be his lot in most pictures, he heads for swashbuckler central, with a side helping of Valentino, gaily leaping from high windows and  engaging in swordfights although he does appear to spend an inordinate amount of time swept up ashore after shipwreck. Sidney Poitier, laden down with pomp and circumstance rather than immersed in poverty as would he his norm, is less comfortable as the Islamic ruler. Fresh from winning the Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963) it surely must have the chance of a big payday that lured him into this role. (Widmark and Poitier re-teamed in The Bedford Incident, 1965, previously reviewed in the blog.) The diminutive Russ Tamblyn, as Widmark’s sidekick, is easily the most athletic of the trio.

British production company Warwick could hardy believe their luck in landing an Oscar-winner. They had gone down the swashbuckling route before with The Black Knight (1954) and had made films with big Hollywood names like Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth in Fire Down Below (1957). This was a trade advertisement in “Box Office” magazine (April 27, 1964) – in the same issue was an advert for Poitier’s triumph in Lilies of the Field.

Although handy with a sword, both are equally adept as employing seduction, Poitier making eyes at Viking princess Beba Loncar (in her Hollywood debut) while Widmark targets Poitier’s neglected wife Rosanna Schiafffino (The Victors, 1963). The story is occasionally put on hold to permit the Viking horde to pursue their two favorite pastimes – sex and violence – and they make the most of the opportunity to frolic with a harem.

One of the marks of the better historical films is the intelligence of the battle scenes. Here, faced with Muslim cavalry, the Vikings steal a trick from The 300 Spartans by lying down to let the horses pass over them then rising up to slaughter their riders. But there is also an unusual piece of intelligent thinking. Realising, as the battle wears on, that they are substantially outnumbered and have their backs to the sea, Widmark takes the sensible option of surrendering.

Director Jack Cardiff, Oscar-nominated for Sons and Lovers (1960), brings to bear his experience of working on The Vikings (1958) for which he was cinematographer. He is clearly at home with the action and equally there is some fine composition. However, the story in places is over-complicated, he fails to rein in the mugging of one of the industry’s great muggers Oscar Homolka and there is a complete disregard for accent discipline.  Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961), Scotsman Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape, 1963) and Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970) have supporting roles. 

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

A Lovely Way To Die/A Lovely Way To Go (1968) ****

Woefully neglected detective thriller with a sparkling script and sexy leading stars exuding screen charisma. Like the celebrated William Goldman-scripted opening to Paul Newman private eye picture Harper (1966), the credit sequence here is at least as innovative in that it appears to be little short of a trailer, a highlights reel showing the audience what lies in store.

Kirk Douglas is a womanizing cop too handy with his fists, half his arrests making an unexpected detour to hospital. Sylva Koscina is the bored young wife of an older millionaire whose idea of fun is to chuck an expensive scarf out of a speeding car forcing her husband to pull up and go back and fetch. When her husband is shot, suspicion falls on Koscina – inclined  to dress in revealing outfits for the media – and her playboy boyfriend.

At the behest of attorney Eli Wallach with a rich Southern accent and a knack for speaking in parables, Douglas, having resigned from the force one step ahead of being fired, is sent in to provide security and find out whether her alibi stacks up. He soon finds out it doesn’t but by this time he has fallen under her spell. Witnesses disappear, intruders are dealt with, attempts are made on the detective’s life, and the twists come thick and fast. Koscina is the arch femme fatale who is a past master in the twisting department – twisting every male within a 50-mile radius round her little finger.

Harper was a throwback to The Maltese Falcon/The Big Sleep but A Lovely Way To Die knocks that shamus tradition on the head. For a start, Douglas is a high-living high-rolling  character who doesn’t take prisoners. The second time we meet him he has dumped the girl he took to the races for someone he has met while picking up his winnings.  Seducing gorgeous women and dumping them is second nature. This is Douglas as glorious charmer, a part of his screen persona lost after a glut of more serious pictures like Seven Days in May (1964) and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). Yugoslavian actress Koscina, often little more than eye candy for most of the decade, had vaulted into the higher echelons after a turn as Paul Newman’s squeeze in The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968).

Typical of the cheesecake type of photo used in movie fan magzines in the 1960s – this one of star Koscina appeared in the Yugoslavian magazine “Filmski Svet.”

An inherent part of the attraction of this picture is how deftly she keeps Douglas at bay. Scriptwriter A. J. Russell and director David Lowell Rich (Madame X, 1966) deliver the goods in maintaining the tension in their relationship. There is a wonderful scene where the expectant Douglas follows her up the stairs of her fabulous mansion and three times he ignores the import of her unmistakable “Goodnight,” his uber-confidence taking him to her door – which she shuts in his face.  

Sure, in some ways it is slick, but it is also taut and realistic, Douglas does not win all his fights and he eats with the rest of the help at the mansion. And he does some terrific detection so it doesn’t fall short in that department. He is definitely helped by some choice lines – “police methods are sometimes difficult for an amateur to understand” he tells Koscina after brutally despatching an intruder. Koscina is in her element as the sexy, wealthy suspect, and especially in her banter with Douglas, in which her main aim to disarm his cockiness.

Eli Wallach is also superb, given just enough ham to hang himself, but matching Douglas in arrogance and outgunning the D.A. with his courtroom gymnastics. A couple of the subsidiary characters are well-drawn, a housekeeper who plays the markets for example.   

For some reason this sank like a stone on its initial outing, audiences perhaps being more attuned to the Bogartian sleuth, but I found it highly enjoyable and this could be seen as a  taster for anyone familiar with the antics of the star’s son Michael Douglas who found himself in similar territory in Basic Instinct (1992).

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service   

Escape from Zahrain (1962) ***

After being attacked by armored cars and strafed by airplanes, stranded in the desert, and overcome various tensions within the small group of escapees, there is still considerable life left in this picture at the end as Jack Warden, making his departure, comes up with a classic last line: “We must do this again sometime.”

In truth, the picture has far more going for it than a mere outline would suggest. In rescuing rebel leader Yul Brynner from a lorry bound for jail, the escapees led by Sal Mineo (Exodus, 1960) in a stolen ambulance also scoop up three convicts including American fraudster and loudmouth Jack Warden (That Kind of Woman, 1959) and all-purpose thug Anthony Caruso (a television regular) plus a nurse Madhlyn Rhue (A Majority of One, 1961) as a hostage. Like most desert films, the storyline is on who will survive and how.

Action is one constant. The threat of failure is another. Supplies are rationed and, of course, someone steals more than their fair share. The members regularly switch allegiance. At various points someone is about to give up Yul Brynner. Their gas tank is punctured so, thanks to Warden’s engineering skills, they just make it to a remote pumping station where James Mason pops up in a cameo as a maintenance man. Their numbers diminish and despite his recalcitrance Warden’s engineering skills save them again when they reach an oasis.

This was originally intended as a starring vehicle for Clark Gable with Edward Dmytryk in the director’s chair.

What makes the film different is that the characters all change. In a country where “half the wealth is stolen by Europeans and half by corruption,” Brynner is the altruistic leader whose ideals are shattered. Rhue, a Muslim, drinks alcohol and questions the number of deaths necessary for a revolution but declines to leave when the opportunity arises. Mineo who thinks “women should be as free as men” reacts badly when Rhue enjoys such freedom. Warden, who has embezzled $200,000, and has loyalty to no one stands by the shambolic crew.

I had always believed Brynner had enjoyed a rare case of beginner’s luck when he won the Oscar for his debut in The King and I (1956) and that once Hollywood became wise to his acting schtick he would never be nominated again – as proved the case. But after watching Brynner in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and its sequel and Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964) and Flight to Ashiya (1964) I have become convinced he is under-rated as an actor. He acts with his eyes and his delivery is far more varied than I had supposed. Here, clothed in Arab costume, there is no bald pate to distract.  

British director Ronald Neame (Tunes of Glory, 1960) holds the enterprise together, keeping to a tidy pace but allowing tension and character to emerge.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Gorgon (1964) ****

This impressive Hammer conspiracy-of-silence slow-burner, more thriller than horror, features the triumvirate of Christopher Lee (The Devil Ship Pirates, 1964), Peter Cushing (The Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, 1960) in untypical roles. Lee and Cushing, of course, had locked horns before, namely in Hammer’s reimagining of the classic Dracula, with the former the charismatic fiend and the latter his nemesis.

Here Cushing is a  doctor in a an unnamed European turn-of-the-twentieth-century police state who knows more than he is letting on about seven inexplicable deaths in five years and the possibility of a 2,000-year-old myth coming to life and taking on a human form. And with quite a human side, jealous when his assistant Steele falls for a younger man. Lee is a professor coming late in the day to investigate. Steele, a gentle beauty, initially introduced as merely the love interest, becomes central to the story but without sucking up all the available horror oxygen by over-acting.   

Director Terence Fisher, who had shepherded the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Dr Jekyll franchises through the starting gate, builds up the atmosphere with full moons, haunting voices, fog, sudden sounds, drifting leaves and an abandoned castle forever in shadow. The camera is often a weapon of stealth. Shock is kept to a minimum, fleeting ghostly apparitions and a finger falling off a corpse. Given the limitations of special effects in this era, that was a smart move. Far better to concentrate on fear of impending doom, a man knowing he is turning to stone, a woman living in terror of being taken over by the phantom. The title gives away the story somewhat – even if you didn’t know the Gorgon was a mythical monster with a headful of snakes and the ability to turn people to stone, that is soon explained. 

Death remains the trigger for action, the suicide of an artist after he has apparently murdered his pregnant girlfriend bringing his father onto the scene and then his brother accompanied by Lee. But all investigation hits a wall of silence after police chief (Patrick Troughton) refuses to instigate detection. At the heart of all the relationships is betrayal. The artist leading his girlfriend on, Cushing willing to endanger Steele, whom he professes to love, rather than revealing the truth. Even Steele spies on the brother, with whom she is falling in love, in order to gather information for Cushing. 

Forgive the pun, but Steele steals the picture. An amnesiac, a victim and finally the lure, she remains enigmatic, a whisper of a woman. It is a haunting portrayal far removed from Hammer’s traditional cleavage queens. This is a very human character who nonetheless must stand guard over herself. Cushing embroiders his character with little touches, smoking a cigarette in a holder, for example, but Steele’s character, her distrust of herself, shows in every move she makes.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Corrupt Ones / The Peking Medallion (1967) ****

Non-stop action as spy Robert Stack (The Untouchables tv series) battles a variety of crooks in Macao on the Chinese border as they seek the legendary Peking medallion. Stack hails from the James Bond school of espionage, duty bound to kiss every girl he meets. He might wonder at their compliance until he realizes they are only after his knowledge of the missing medallion.

The violence is criminally brutal – punch-ups, gunfights, samurai swordfights, murder, torture by blowtorch and acid and being dragged behind a motorboat. The string of sexy women is matched by handsome men (Christian Marquand and Maurizio Arena in addition to Stack). The thriller pitches helter-skelter through nightclubs, casinos, caves, temples and palatial mansions, the pace only slowing down for, naturally, a scene in a stately rickshaw.

As well as Stack who briefly – and unknowingly – has the medallion in his possession, others in the hunt include Elke Sommer, wife of the man (Arena) who passed it to Stack before being killed. Sommer is on the wrong side of the femme fatale equation. Once Stack is wise to her seductive charms he quips, “Maybe you’re telling the truth but I can’t trust you.”

The original title of the picture was “Hell in Macao” and that was used in Germany for example. It was called “The Peking Medallion” in the UK, Italy and Mexico and “The Corrupt Ones” in the US, France and Spain.

Also in hot pursuit are gangster Brandon (Marquand) and a Chinese mob headed by Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960). That’s on top of a corrupt cop (“I have never feared death only poverty” is his mantra) who doesn’t care who wins the prize as long as he gets his share. Double cross is the order of the day, alliances forged then broken. The action never stops long enough for one of those tension-building scenes of which Alfred Hitchcock or imitators like Stanley Donen (Charade, 1963, and Arabesque, 1966) were so fond.

Stack faces danger with a quip, a kiss or gritted teeth, an old-fashioned tough guy without the James Bond self-awareness. He carries out his manly duties until his brain kicks in and he realizes this isn’t a spy picture after all but a genuine treasure hunt with clues that have to be deciphered. As this causes the movie to sidetrack down another route, it looks like the picture has lost the plot. But then all hell breaks loose and we are back on the safe ground of fistfights, double-crossing and shooting.

The script by Brian Clemens deftly mixes a variety of genres. What might have been a definite change of pace for British director James Hill given his previous effort was Born Free (1966) was anything but since he was responsible for the most recent Sherlock Holmes thriller A Study in Terror (1965).

Fans of improbable storylines, exotic settings, action, interesting bad guys and twists and turns will love this. How can you fail to love a movie with a fight featuring a samurai sword versus a camera tripod?

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Guns of Darkness (1962) ***

You might think David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had cornered the market in startling transitions involving light (from Peter O’Toole’s match to the rising sun) and gut-wrenching scenes involving quicksand but nearly six months prior Anthony Asquith (The Millionairess, 1960) in the less-heralded Guns of Darkness had adopted similar techniques. He cuts from a nightclub singer blowing out a candle to a man lighting a candle in a church and since his film is in black-and-white it cannot hope to match Lean’s fabulous color transition. However, the quicksand scene in the Asquith, I would argue, lacking color or not, is far superior to that of the desert epic.

Thanks to Pygmalion (1938) and The Winslow Boy (1948) Asquith was one of a handful of British directors – Lean, Powell/Pressburger and Carol Reed the others – with an international reputation. Stars David Niven and Leslie Caron had topsy-turvy careers. Niven’s box office cachet had almost disappeared in the mid-1950s before an unexpected Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and a starring role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). Although Caron had An American in Paris (1951), Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958) on her dance-card she was not an automatic big-name star. It reflects their respective positions that Caron has star billing.

Niven and Caron are an unhappily married couple caught up in a revolution in a fictional South American country. His boyish charm has long worn thin, his employment record is spotty and he is inclined, when drunk, to insult bumptious boss (James Robertson Justice). On New Year’s Eve while an enclave of pampered Brits is counting down to the bells, rebels  are preparing to storm the presidential palace and seize power. Niven seems the last person to give shelter to a fugitive from the revolution, especially when the runaway turns out to be the ex-president Rivero (David Opatoshu, Exodus, 1960). Caron, who has been planning to leave Niven the next day, finds herself involved in the escape.

The couple are both quickly disabused of notions of the saintliness of presidents and peasants, Rivera nearly strangling a child who discovers his hiding place, Caron stoned by villagers, pacifist Niven forced into a horrific act of violence.  

If you ever wondered what screenwriters do to earn their money, this film is a good place to start. It was based on a book “Act of Mercy” by British thriller writer Francis Clifford, who also wrote “The Naked Runner,” also later filmed. The screenwriters changed the David Niven character from the happily married committed businessman of the book to the dissatisfied dilettante of the film. As a happy couple, there are none of the marital tensions in the film. The revolution in the book has already started but in the film it is moved to New Year’s Eve and about to begin. The quicksand scene is a screenwriter’s invention as is the incident with the boy and the massacre in the village.

The pace is brisk from the outset, Asquith cross-cutting between revolutionaries and the Brits and as the manhunt steps up a gear the three escapees face a succession of perilous incidents. Not least is a river that has turned to quicksand. This six-minute scene is a standout, the mud closing in on their heads, Niven having to crawl back to rescue Rivera. As you would expect with this kind of picture there is a fair bit of philosophizing, moralizing and sheer brutality. As the couple flounder towards reconciliation, the script spends some time trying to ascertain Niven’s motives. Had the film stuck to the source book’s title, Act of Mercy, that would not have been necessary.

A taut film with, once the revolution has begun, the British put in their place rather than acting as imperialist overlords. There are a couple of unexpected twists at the end and Asquith finished with a technical flourish of his own, the camera tracking back from people walking forward. Both Niven and Caron are excellent, James Robertson Justice at once cuddly and ruthless, and the picture comes out as a tidy character-driven thriller.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment / Morgan! (1966) ***

While Hollywood was capable of dealing with mental illness head-on in pictures like Frank Perry’s David and Lisa (1962), Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), the British were more inclined to take an alternative approach. The titular characters of Billy Liar (1963) and this film dealt with awkward reality by creating a fantasy world.   

Morgan, played by David Warner in his first starring role, is a failed artist and virulent Communist who cannot come to terms with being divorced by rich Vanessa Redgrave who is planning to marry businessman Robert Stephens. Warner forces his way back into his wife’s house and attempts to win her back with nothing stronger than whimsicality and when that fails resorts to kidnap. And it is clear that she shares his fancy for furry animals, responding to his chest-pounding gorilla impression with tiny pats of her own chest. For a slim guy, Warner makes a believable stab at a gorilla, shoulders hunched up under his jacket, chest stuck out. And he has an animal’s sense of smell – detecting his rival’s hair oil.  

But Vanessa Redgrave, in her second film and her first starring role, steals the picture, winning her first Oscar nomination (in the same year as sister Lynn for Georgy Girl). She is made of gossamer. Still attracted to a man she knows will only bring her pain, she is far from your normal leading lady. There is a touch of the Audrey Hepburn in her ethereality but she portrays a completely genuine soul, not a manufactured screen personality.

The tone of the film is surreal. Had David Attenborough been a big name then you could have cited him as one of director Karel Reisz’s influences, such was his predilection for inserting wildlife into the proceedings, not just primates but giraffes, a hippo, a peacock and a variety of other creatures. Some are comments on Morgan’s state of mind but after a while it becomes monotonous. The film is clearly intentionally all over the place, the class struggle also taking central stage, but it’s hard work for the viewer.

Having said that, towards the end of the picture there is an extraordinary image – possibly stolen from the opening of La Dolce Vita – of Warner in a straitjacket hanging from a crane. Had that been the film’s starting point, it might have dealt more demonstrably with the subject matter.  The whimsy is all very well and Redgrave is delightful and while Warner is clearly on a mental descent the focus on external animals does little to illuminate his internal struggle. Also, having said that, Warner is imminently watchable. He has an intensity that is hard to ignore and usually is cast with that in mind but here his vulnerability, his inability to grasp that he is living in a different reality, is very touching. Even when his imagination is at its most vivid – such as when Redgrave appears at the end supposedly bearing his child – you are partly convinced that this may actually be true. I would have preferred less of the animal imagery and more of Warner’s true reaction to the world around him. It’s a case of performances spoiled by over-direction.

Setting aside the director’s indulgence, the film is remarkable in one other way. It was almost revolutionary to find a British picture that, despite Warner’s working-class agitation, is effectively about joie de vivre as opposed to the more traditional British stiff upper lip, that inbred stoicism afflicting the entire nation regardless of class status. While Lawrence of Arabia (1962) represented an exhibition of flamboyance, again not a British trait, and the truculent Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was determined to enjoy life to excess, Warner’s character epitomizes a desire to be free of normal cares in order to live life to the full.

Given the Warner would later be more famous buttoned-down roles – and that, in contrast, Redgrave would later portray another famous flamboyant in Isadora (1968) – it is surprising that this fun aspect of Warner’s screen persona was not called upon more often.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Pawnbroker (1964) *****

Director Sidney Lumet (Fail Safe, 1964) could have made an excellent film just about the customers of a pawn shop, the haunted individuals haggling for more bucks than they will ever be paid, the sad sacks, junkies, lost souls and general losers whose stories are told in the items they pawn or redeem – candlesticks, lamps, radios, musical instruments, occasionally themselves. You don’t need to be a pawnbroker to know that three hoodlums turning up with a pricey lawnmower are dealing in stolen property. And it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the pawnbroker is involved in some kind of money-laundering scam for a local gangster. Clearly shot on location on a bustling low-rent area, north of 116th St in East Harlem, New York, there’s enough going on in the streets – the markets, the tenements, poolrooms, the bustle, the eternal noise – to keep you hooked.

But you might think twice about positing as your hero an “absolute bastard” as Lumet himself described shop owner Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). He is more haunted than any of his clientele, a Holocaust survivor, plagued by flashbacks to the concentration camp where he witnessed his son die and his wife raped. He is devoid of life, completely shutdown to any emotion, rejecting overtures of friendship, and his life is played out in tiny elliptical shreds. He does not even derive any enjoyment out of his affair with a widow and although he claims to worship money – according to him the only “absolute” outside of the speed of light – that brings no fulfillment either. It is surprising he has lasted so long without imploding. After his war experience, you would have to wonder at a man who spends his life behind the bars of the grille in his shop and just in case he considers escaping from his predicament designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, 1973) incorporates other visual aspects of imprisonment into the production.

This startling image taken from the Pressbook encapsulates one of the striking moment of the film. As seen on the advert at the top of the blog, although not technically a roadshow in the normal sense (i.e. in the grandeur of 70mm) it played separate performances. This was a technique to drive up demand by limiting access. Originally, to take advantage of a British tax break known as the Eady Levy, the film was due to be made in London. Lumet pulled out when MGM insisted on a London shoot and only returned after that idea was abandoned and second-choice director Arthur Hiller bowed out.

Steiger gives a very restrained performance, especially for an actor known for his volubility and over-acting. He seems to sink into the role. He is accused of being among “the walking dead.” Around him are a set of very lively characters, his ambitious assistant (Jaime Sanchez, The Wild Bunch, 1969) trying to go straight and his girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a very smooth and wealthy and gay gangster (Brock Peters), and a trio of small-time hoods with whom the assistant is friendly. But also the deranged and the lonely. A widowed social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who suffers from the “malady of loneliness” offers him friendship but is rejected.

There is little plot to speak but it is just enough to teeter him on the brink of self-destruction. So it is primarily a character study. Unusually, Lumet observes without any sentimentality those around Steiger. “Sol has buried himself in this area,” Lumet wrote (“Keep them on the hook,” Films and Filming, October 1964, p17-20) “because he needs to be with people that he can despise….This is a man who is in such agony that he must feel nothing or he will go to pieces.” There is no redemption and he lacks the courage to commit suicide. It’s a stunning, bold picture, as raw as you can get without turning into a bloodsucker.

Fans of “The Godfather” might recognise this image – of a puppet on the strings -used to symbolise the power of the Mafia don. Eight years before Coppola’s gangster saga, this rarely seen but similar image in the Pressbook for “The Pawnbroker” evoked the opposite – a broken man.

The film had a few firsts. It was the only mainstream American picture to deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor (although films like Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, has shown camp victims). It broke mainstream conventions on nudity, bare breasts being seen for the first time. Lumet experimented with incredibly short cuts – just one-frame and two-frames in places (a technique he had first used in television)- when the standard assumption was that audiences required three frames to register an image. Brock Peters played not just the first openly gay person in a mainstream picture, but the first gay African-American (although The Long Ships the same year had a bit of comedy about a eunuch chasing Vikings).

Quincy Jones made his debut as a movie composer. If you listen closely you might detect a piece of music later made famous by the Austin Powers pictures and if you look closely you might spot a debut sighting of Morgan Freeman. And if want another anomaly, try and work out why Rod Steiger lost out to that year in the Best Actor Oscar stakes to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965).

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.