In Search of Gregory (1969) ****

Off-beat examination of the fantasy vs. reality conundrum with an ever-watchable Julie Christie as the woman on the titular hunt. One of the great lost pictures – the only film of acclaimed British theater director Peter Wood is a more whimsical cousin to the more deliberately obscure works of Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) and Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up, 1966) which pivoted upon the question of whether events presented actually occur or exist only in the head of the leading character.    

Catherine (Julie Christie) is enticed to Geneva by her father (Adolfo Celi) for his latest wedding on the basis that she will meet the impossibly handsome Gregory (Michael Sarrazin). On arrival she discovers the agoraphobia of younger brother Daniel (John Hurt) has been temporarily lifted by Gregory. Catherine appears set to meet Gregory on a number of occasions, but either he does not turn up (the wedding) or somehow they miss each other, even at one point occupying adjoining phone booths. And it would have been a pretty dull picture if that was all that was going on. But whether the result of reality or Catherine’s imagination, the Gregory we see is a vivid screen presence. The world the character inhabits is unusual to say the least, so unique that it is either obviously real or fake, but virtually impossible to determine which.

The best Gregory sequence, of which Steve McQueen would be proud, involves the character moving by means of the windscreen from one side to the other of a car driven at high speed. In another scene Gregory plays the equally perilous game of Autoball, a kind of polo with stock cars. As convincing is Gregory’s avant-garde orchestra consisting of two guitars, bottles, a bicycle wheel, a waste bin and coins in a glass. 

The detail is so extraordinary that it must be real. The brother seems real enough, too real if anything, close to enjoying (or pining for – the poster promises more than the picture delivers) an incestuous relationship with his sister. But for every moment that appears questionable – did she really witness Gregory making love to her future mother-in-law – there are others where doubts are immediately quelled (an address which appears non-existent is not). And long before anybody came up with the idea of selling bottled water, Gregory is apparently in the business of selling tinned Alpine air. Other moments she does not witness – Daniel riding a Lambretta/Vespa with feet on the handlebars – add to the prospect of genuine reality.

Catherine might even have met Gregory except that in going to bed with the man who looks very much like what we believe Gregory to look like she determines that he shall remain anonymous. So it’s anybody’s guess whether Gregory is a figment or phantom of her imagination. And why, of course, should such invention be necessary? Does it mean that her father and brother do not exist either? These days the unreliable narrator is a common literary device but that was not the case at the tail end of the 1960s, so in some senses this was way ahead of its time.

It’s interesting, of course, to attach logic to the idea that it all takes place in Catherine’s imagination. You can kind of understand that maybe she thinks her father’s latest bride is going to betray him at the slightest opportunity. But it’s some imagination that sends Gregory into devilry in the car with Daniel. And it begs the question if none of it is real why does she keep on missing Gregory all the time? Does that relate to an even deeper psychological feeling that she is always going to miss out?

It’s an entertaining mystery. There’s no great angst. Antonioni had the sense or cunning to ensure that consequence mattered in Blow-Up – a murderer escaping justice. But there’s no such tension here. While Catherine is tabbed a nympho by her brother (who never questions her father’s predilection for multiple marriages), the suggestion that she’d fly from Rome (where she lives with her boyfriend) to Geneva is the hope of a hook-up seems too far-fetched. Despite the presence of Julie Christie – who can certainly carry even as slight a picture as this – and a quixotic turn from John Hurt (Sinful Davy, 1969) it’s neither obscure enough to be arthouse nor sufficiently plot-driven to be mainstream and remains an oddity.

If you are going to be irritated beyond belief that will occur in the first fifteen minutes or so, but if you stay the course, you will find it a highly rewarding watch rather than a cinematic car crash.

Your best bet to catch this film is Ebay or other secondhand routes.

Move Over, Darling (1963) ***

Doris Day never quite replaced Cary Grant or Rock Hudson in her romantic comedy ventures. This is her second outing with James Garner – The Thrill of It All had appeared earlier the same year. Ironically, it’s based on a Cary Grant film, My Favorite Wife (1940) with Irene Dunne. Having been lost at sea for the requisite five years, this version kicks off with Day being pronounced legally dead in court to pave the way for Garner to marry Polly Bergen (Cape Fear, 1962). Naturally, she turns up on the day of their wedding and the first part of the movie is Garner trying to keep the women apart. Cue comic pratfalls, double takes, diving in an out of bedrooms, but Day and Bergen seem to be trying to out-screech each other. The idea of bigamy, scandalous at the time, has lost its power to shock.

While Day spent much of the picture in hysterics, I didn’t, and wished they had moved quicker to the complication which was that she had shared her desert island with a hunk (Chuck Connors). The pace picks up a bit after that as Day has to pretend that it was nerd (Don Knotts) with whom she was stranded while Garner knows the truth. There is some good reversal, her kids, who naturally don’t recognize her, complaining about her singing. A number of set pieces save the day – two court scenes with an exasperated judge (Edgar Buchanan), Day disguised as a Swedish masseuse giving Bergen a savage work-over and Day trapped in car wash.

Michael Gordon had helmed Pillow Talk (1959) but missed the mark here. Don Knotts, prior to his incarnation as The Incredible Mr Limpet (1964) show his potential as the shoe salesman recruited by Day to impersonate Connors. Accomplished comedienne Thelma Ritter holds back on the comedy instead playing a straight role as the meddling mother-in-law. Fred Clark as the alternately bemused and suspicious hotel manager gets the best of the double takes. Garner, unfortunately, has little opportunity to exhibit his sly sense of humor or the laid-style that worked a treat in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969).

Hal Kanter, who worked on the George Gobel and Milton Berle television shows and scripted Blue Hawaii (1961) fashioned the screenplay along with the more versatile and sometime director Jack Sher (Paris Blues, 1961).

When it was known as Something’s Got to Give, George Cukor was set to direct a cast that included Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Cyd Charisse, Tom Tryon and Phil Silvers from a script by Nunnally Johnson and Walter Bernstein. Monroe had nixed working with Garner and Knotts. When Monroe was fired, Kim Novak and Shirley Maclaine refused offers to replace her. Dean Martin refused to continue without Monroe and although re-hired she died before production recommenced.

Selling “Doctor Zhivago”

Yesterday was the 55th anniversary of the launch of the European premiere of Doctor Zhivago (1965) in London and would you believe it the English weather came to the promotional aid of the David Lean epic with an unseasonal snow shower as fur-clad models took to the streets on a sleigh. As was common in the 1960s, there was no such thing as a global release date. The film had been launched in the U.S. in December 1965 but only a couple of countries since then, the main drawback being the lack of available prestigious cinemas for a big budget roadshow. The delay was also caused by hope of major success at the Oscars – given Lean’s two previous films had won Best Picture – held in March.

Doctor Zhivago launched at the 1,330-seat Empire, Leicester Square, in the heart of the capital’s West End in the presence of Princess Margaret and with the director and five stars in attendance.  The first public demonstration of colour television in Europe was a feature of the launch, a large screen set up in the theater foyer to relay the arrival of royalty and celebrities to the audience already seated in the cinema.

Typical advert with booking form.

MGM had pulled out all the publicity stops, the massive advertising campaign beginning on February 1, twelve weeks prior to the opening, with the switching-on of a 40ft by 20ft electric sign in Piccadilly Circus. That triggered an advertising campaign in the press about two weeks later announcing the premiere. That served only to stoke up interest, another two weeks elapsing before tickets went on sale. Advertisements ran virtually non-stop in national daily newspapers and London evening papers as well as entertainment and film magazines.

Roadshows benefitted from press advertising more than normal pictures. The bulk of the adverts for Doctor Zhivago carried a booking form so money started rolling in to the cinema long before the first screening. Selling tickets in this way was also a bulwark against sudden changes in weather – torrential rain or glorious sunshine as equally likely to deter moviegoers – whereas if you had already booked your ticket well in advance it did not matter whether you turned up or not, and most people would attend even in sweltering heat rather than forego their ticket.

MGM also undertook the biggest advertising campaign in its history in Britain. Unlike today, when there is one universal advertisement, in those days a film might have half a dozen different pieces of artwork. Doctor Zhivago boasted fifteen. Four weeks ahead of the opening 8,000 double-crown posters were plastered over the city. One-third of the entire London bus fleet carrying such artwork, while 50 Underground stations had 48-sheets (three times the size of the normal posters) on train platforms. In addition, closer to the launch, double quads were posted in a thousand locations. A special mobile box office toured the city advertising the film and selling tickets.

A special “Background to Doctor Zhivago Exhibition” was set up in the Garringes department store opposite Victoria Station, one of the capital’s biggest travel hubs, by the Historical Research Unit and including many costumes from the production. Tie-ins were far more numerous than for the New York launch. Mansfield Fashion launched a range of popular-priced clothing based on the film promoted by a sleigh-ride through London with a bevy of models against the unexpected background of snow on April 14. A more upmarket manufacturer Sidney Massin was promoting a more expensive fur coat.

Among the other fashion tie-ins were: a white coat of Kalgan lamb with a Mongolian lamb collar from Swears and Wells, long black wool coat with white fox fur hood and collar from Femina Furs, fur hats for men and women from Edmund Mann, evening dresses from Berkertex and fur-lined fabrics from Clarewood Fashions. Hardy Amies designed male fur coats for Hepworths department stores and range of gloves for either sex for Dent Allcroft. Worldwide the Zhivago look had been reflected in collections designed by St Laurent, Dior, Cardin, Chanel and Rabanne.

Unseasonal snow in London in mid-April helped the fashion launch.

Outside of fashion, there was a tie-up with Cossack Vodka. There was also a Cossack hair cream while Waddingtons produced a jigsaw puzzle. As well as hardback and paperback editions of the famous Boris Pasternak novel, there was also a hardback of the Robert Bolt Oscar-winning screenplay.  The music also provided promotional crossover, the theme tune and original soundtrack already big hits. BBC2 aired a documentary on the filming of the movie and the stars and director appeared on numerous television and radio talk shows.

BBC News, Pathe newsreel cameras and CBS America all covered the premiere. Stars in attendance were Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson and Rita Tushingham as well as Lean, Bolt and producer Carlo Ponti.

Although the movie failed to win any of the main Oscars, it still took home six: screenplay (Robert Bolt), color cinematography (Freddie Young), color art direction (John Box, Terence Marsh and Dario Simoni), set decoration (also Box, Marsh and Simoni), color costume design (Phyllis Dalton) and music score (Maurice Jarre). MGM promoted these accomplishments in its advertising and revamped its pressbook. And the studio was also able to take advantage of the fact that Julie Christie had been named Best Actress at that year’s Oscars for Darling (1965). Noted the new-look Pressbook: “probably no other motion picture actress has achieved the meteoric success and worldwide fame accorded Julie Christie.”

The Pressbook mainlined on awards of one kind or another. As well as Oscars, the Russian epic had picked up five Golden Globes included Best Dramatic Picture, Best Director and Best Dramatic Actor (Omar Sharif). It was named best film by the New York Daily News and was named one of the year’s top ten by the National Board of Review, and received awards from magazines as diverse as Seventeen, Parents and Scholastic.

Also contained in the Pressbook were snippets that might appeal to local journalists such as: six tons of nails were used in constructing the ten-acre set, Phyllis Dalton created 5,000 costumes and John Box 117 settings, rats in one scene were tested for infections, rumors of Omar Sharif shaving off his normal curly hair were false, movie livestock was donated to a local church at the end of filming.

Separately, a 32-page “Fact Booklet” was compiled for  journalists.

As ever, exhibitors were bombarded with promotional ideas by MGM publicists via the Pressbook. One idea was to ask female members of the audience whether they preferred Omar Sharif clean shaven or with a moustache with the intention of interesting the local women’s editor in the results of the informal survey. Cinema owners were encouraged to send bottles of vodka to entertainment editors with a message in Russian. Empty shop windows were often available “for the asking” from rental specialists and could be used for advertising. Since Zhivago has a son in the film, one aspect encouraged was a “father and son” competition and of course it was a no-brainer to dress doormen and ushers as Cossacks.

MGM had also made special efforts to promote the movie to younger audiences and combined that with marketing the music. More than million copies of the soundtrack album had been sold and “Somewhere My Love,” a single by Teddy Randazzo incorporating lyrics to “Lara’s Theme,” had also caught fire. The combination of records and sheet music plus general publicity material could encourage record store window displays.

One of the taglines I most remember is “one man…two women…and a nation ablaze.” But it was certainly not one of the initial official taglines when the movie was originally launched. Many of the British posters had no tagline at all beyond perhaps “the entertainment event of the year.” The post-Oscar Pressbook went with either “A love caught in the fire of revolution…Turbulent were the times and fiery was the love story of Zhivago, his wife…and the passionate, tender Lara”  or “The story of Zhivago – a man torn between his love for his wife and the passionate and tender Lara…told against the flaming background of revolution.”

SOURCES: Supplement to Kine Weekly, May 5, 1966; MGM Pressbook.

Duel at Diablo (1966) ****

Action-packed and plot-jammed revisionist western with fresh performances from James Garner and Sidney Poitier caught up in an Apache uprising. Tough-as-teak ex-cavalry scout Garner has dispensed with his glib smart-aleck persona in favor of world-weariness and Poitier is a revelation as a cocky cigar-smoking ex-cavalry sergeant horse-dealer. Racism here concerns hostility towards Indian squaw Bibi Andersson (Persona, 1966), Garner, who had married a Commanche (now dead) the only one to treat her with any decency.

Returned to “civilization,” Andersson wants nothing more than to escape, back to her baby it transpires. Her crime is staying alive after Apache capture when she should have done the “decent thing” and killed herself rather than living as a squaw. But prejudice is leavened by husband Dennis Weaver (minus trademark moustache) who retains tender feelings towards her and, eventually, her baby. Apache chief John Hoyt is equally redeemed by his care towards the baby.  

Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, 1963) handles the action with aplomb but it is the Apaches who prove the masters of battlefield strategy, deftly maneuvering the cavalry into an ambush and cutting them to shreds. His biggest problem is delivering logical reasons for all the principals – Weaver is an arms dealer, Garner and Poitier no longer in the army – to join up with Bill Travers’ (Born Free, 1966) cavalry troop. However, rather than slowing the story down, the various complications add further tension.  

Nelson never reins in reality. The cavalry are raw recruits, hardly able to control their mounts. Garner and Poitier don’t buddy-up, there is no camaraderie, and Andersson is an outcast in both worlds. And the good guys are constantly out-smarted by the Apaches, Poitier’s mistake leading to initial ambush, the Apaches targeting water supplies to derail the enemy and resorting to bow-and-arrow in case a stray bullet ignites the ammunition wagons. But it is still a duel, Poitier, Garner and Travers each in turn coming up with brilliant ideas to retrieve what looks like a desperate position trapped in a box canyon.     

We might be more sympathetic towards the plight of the Apaches, shoved into a “hell-hole of a reservation,” had Nelson concentrated less on their brutality, the picture opening with the corpse of a mutilated man, the cavalry under siege at Diablo tortured by the screams in the night of a man being tortured, Andersson told that she will be buried alive. But when any Commanche woman can be killed and scalped just because she married a white man and Andersson viewed as fair game for rapists because she lived with Apaches, you can see how little regard the Native Americans have for their oppressors.

Garner and Poitier are superb and top marks for a rounded performance from John Hoyt, savage one minute, gentle the next. Scotsman Travers and Swede Andersson should have added to the authenticity since immigrants such as these provided the mass of settlers, but Travers seems quite out of place and Andersson never quite delivers the angst required of her situation.  William Redfield (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) can be spotted. Nelson has a cameo and if you look closely you will see a fleeting glimpse of Richard Farnsworth. Western specialist Marvin H. Albert (The Law and Jake Wade, 1958) co-wrote the screenplay from his novel.

You might be able to catch this for free on Sony Action Movies, but otherwise here’s a DVD link. You might get it on Amazon Prime but last time I posted a link for that, it didn’t work.

Ocean’s 11 (1960) ***

Heist pictures break down into planning, execution and reprisal. Here the planning stage moves at a leisurely pace, a bit of recruitment, and setting up bitebacks that will cripple the military-precision plan by ex-army buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos of millions of dollars on New Year’s Eve. There’s a bit of reversal, Mr Big (Akim Tamiroff) is a collection of nervous tics, Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) a rich guy seeking financial independence from a possessive mother, Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) having second thoughts about the operation, and Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) trying to win back estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson) who surmises he prefers danger to intimacy. Mostly, it’s repartee between Harmon and Ocean while Foster makes a chump out of his mother’s next potential husband Duke Santos (Cesar Romero).

There’s not much hi-tech about the audacious plan, knocking out the electricity supply to the casinos, the switch to auxiliary power allowing the gang access to the inner sanctum where the cash is held, finding their way in and out of the darkness by nothing more sophisticated than luminous spray paint, and with a clever ruse to get the money out once all hell breaks loose.

The fun starts when one of the team (Richard Conte) drops dead post-raid and it transpires Santos is a big-shot underworld figure who investigates the robbery on behalf of the casinos and starts tracking the gang down, leading to a pay-off you don’t see coming.

Given the comedy element, there’s no great tension but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and Sinatra and Martin display an easy camaraderie that lights up the screen. It could have been funded by the Las Vegas Tourist Bureau so much attention is given to the wonder of the casinos, at a time when gambling was still only otherwise legal on racetracks, and with snippets of floorshows and the deluxe atmosphere. Add in a couple of numbers delivered a couple of times by Dean Martin (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”), legitimately since he is a cocktail bar singer, and Sammy Davis Jr. (“Eee-O-11”), somewhat shoehorned-in given he is a truck driver.

There’s a couple of neat reversals: Ocean’s dumped girlfriend Adele (Patrice Wymore) gets short shrift from Beatrice when she reveals the affair; casino bosses offered a double-or-quits gamble refuse to consider such a dangerous notion. Red Skelton and George Raft have credited cameos, Shirley MacLaine does not. As well as Richard Conte, Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) has a small part as does Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

Although there are on occasion outdated sexist attitudes, there is also a strong anti-racist statement in the hiring of Sammy Davis Jr., showcasing his talents in a big-budget picture, and clearly making the point that he has been welcomed by stars as big as Sinatra and Martin.  

And it’s worth also considering the picture in terms of early-onset brand management.  The “Rat Pack” was a loose group of entertainers which not only became a well-known stand-alone entity in its own right that celebrated what was considered “hip” at the time (assuming you excluded Elvis and his ilk), but as individuals supported each other on television and in live performance. They would make another two pictures as a team and another dozen or so where two or more of the players appeared. The principals were all major attractions at the nascent Las Vegas so they were also promoting their home patch. During the day they made the movie, at night they wove in and out of each others’ acts, creating an entertainment sensation. On top of that, Sinatra had his own record label Reprise – among the early acts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. So, in a sense, all this cross-promotion was money in their pockets.

Also of note are the opening and closing, the former for the credits devised by Saul Bass, the latter for the famous shot later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Ironically, Lewis Milestone, who devised the original shot, and long before that won two Best Director Oscars, is less well regarded these days than Tarantino.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1969) ***

Everyone wants to be a star-maker. Director Mark Robson thought he had some form in this area after Valley of the Dolls (1968) showcased Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate. There’s no doubt British actress Carol White reveling in critical kudos for Poor Cow (1967) had promise. But not necessarily good professional advice otherwise how to account for a supporting role in Prehistoric Women/Slave Girls (1967) her first picture after success in three BBC television productions. The female lead in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whatisname (1967) was followed by a small role in the more prestigious John Frankenheimer drama The Fixer (1968). But none of these films did anything at the box office. Enter Mark Robson.

This thriller might have made her a star had it not been so darned complicated. It veers from paranoia to stalkersville to Vertigo via Gaslight without stopping for breath and some elements are so obviously signposted at the start you are just waiting for them to turn up. Plus, if ever a film has dated, it’s this one, going back to the days when abortion carried automatic stigma and fathers could get away with lines like “you murdered my baby.”

So, one of the few times in history San Francisco got snow (it averages zero inches annually according to Google) the meet-cute is sketch artist Cathy (Carol White) being hit by a snowball thrown by wannabe Kenneth (Scott Hylands, making his debut). But when she realizes how much he enjoys watching cats stalking canaries decides she doesn’t want his baby and aborts it.  A few years later she marries congressional candidate Jack (Paul Burke from Valley of the Dolls) and when pregnant crosses paths with Kenneth who manages to insinuate himself into her family via her husband. Twist follows twist until we are on the Top of the Mark (a famous city landmark) for a gripping climax.

White does well as she shifts through the emotional gears but she is barely given respite from being overwrought so at times her acting appears one-dimensional rather than varied. In fairness to her, the movie’s plot gives her no chance to deliver a settled performance. Hyland looks as if he’s auditioning for a role as a serial killer, but the depth of his cunning and his twisted perceptions kept this viewer on edge -what it would take for Cathy to make amends will chill you to the bone.

Robson has some nice directorial touches, a scene reflected in the eye of a cat, a clever jump-cut from marriage proposal to marriage ceremony and some flies in milk.  Mala Powers makes a welcome big screen appearance after nearly a decade in television. That this whole concoction emanated from the fertile imaginations of screenwriters Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, 1974) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Fathom, 1967) might give you an idea of what to expect.

Catch-Up: Mark Robson films previously reviewed in this Blog are: The Prize (1963) and  Lost Command (1966).  

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Behind the Scenes: “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968)

Why films are flops is sometimes more interesting than why they become hits. That’s assuming no one’s memory plays them tricks. Originally, according to Tony Curtis, he was going to produce The Night They Raided Minsky’s and at that point it was more focused on the strippers working there. “Each stripper thought she was going to end up being a star like Gypsy Rose Lee” he wrote in his autobiography. However, in the star’s memory this film was going to be made after the completion of You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970) and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970) when he was a dead duck Hollywood-wise – he did not appear in another picture until Lepke in 1975. The fact that The Night They Raided Minsky’s was made in 1968, two years before You Can’t Win ‘Em All, appears to have escaped his attention or that of the book’s editors and publishers and, strangely enough, also of Michael Munn whose later biography of the actor Nobody’s Perfect equally oddly attributed his involvement in Minsky’s to after You Can’t Win ‘Em All.

Director William Friedkin has a better recollection, but, also strangely enough, nothing like as detailed as that for the film that made his name The French Connection (1971). He had met Bud Yorkin at a private screening at the house of producer David L. Wolper (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968). Yorkin and partner Norman Lear had a two-picture deal at United Artists. (In his autobiography Friedkin called United Artists “newly-formed” which was a hell of a miscalculation since that studio had been on the go since 1919 and even the modernized UA had come into being in 1951 – he was probably referring to the takeover of the studio in 1967 by Transamerica). Even though at that point Friedkin’s only picture had been the Sonny and Cher flop Good Times (1967) he was offered $100,000 to direct on the grounds that he could “bring something original and contemporary to an older subject.” He was honest enough to admit the fee probably swayed him since he found the script “thin, superficial, not funny.”

Friedkin makes no mention of Tony Curtis potentially being involved on the production side. The first actor to be approached, Curtis agreed to do the film if the script was rewritten. According to Friedkin, Curtis was “at the peak of his popularity.”  That was wishful thinking. According to Variety, Curtis was one of the least successful stars in the business, his last four pictures averaging a lamentable $1.77 million in U.S. rentals. Curtis did not like the rewrite. He complained that between the two drafts, his role had “shriveled” and quit the production “due to differences in the concept of the male star role.” Or it could have been that he dropped out in favor of The Boston Strangler (1968).  

For a while it seemed his departure might benefit the planned production. Two rising Broadway stars – Alan Alda and Joel Grey – showed interest. Alda was in The Apple Tree directed by wunderkind Mike Nichols and Grey was attracting fabulous notices for his performance in the stage version of Cabaret. “It was a real coup to land those guys,” purred Friedkin. But it was a coup too soon – they could not get out of their stage contracts. “Unbelievably,” commented producer Norman Lear, whose job presumably it was to read the fine print, “nobody read the fine print.”

All roads then led to Jason Robards (“my first choice anyway” according to Lear) third-billed in Yorkin and Lear’s Divorce American Style (1967). Although Norman Wisdom had primarily a British moviegoing following, he had just finished a run in the Broadway comedy Walking Happy, so he was not entirely unknown. Bert Lahr fell ill a third of the way through production and died within a week so the pivotal role he was to play, “as a kind of tour guide to burlesque…left a hole in the film’s emotional center.” To try and minimize his loss, the producers “included every frame of Lahr including test footage.”

Worse, according to the director, Robards and female lead Britt Ekland proved a mismatch and had “no chemistry as lovers.” Danny Daniels took over the staging of the burlesque routines and Friedkin came close to being fired.

At least Friedkin was honest about the film’s failings. The biggest problem, he admitted, “was my own ineptitude…I was in over my head….Each time I set up a shot or talked to an actor about a scene I was filled with uncertainty….much as I’d like to absolve myself of blame for the film, I see my handiwork all over it, especially in the documentary approach to many of the scenes.” He didn’t help matters by almost sabotaging the release when he told a late-night talk show host that the picture was “terrible” and advised viewers not to “bother to see it.”

But for all Friedkin’s later downplaying of the picture, at the time he was giving it big licks, anticipating some kind of artistic breakthrough in part through innovative use of the hand-held camera. He aimed to achieve a “Brechtian flavor of casual seediness.” It was the biggest production ever filmed in New York with a budget in the $3 million-$4 million region. Friedkin had rejected the New York streets available on Hollywood studio lots in favor of the real thing. The producers found a block on the Lower East Side scheduled for demolition that fitted exactly the art director’s exterior design and successfully campaigned Mayor Lindsay to postpone demolition until shooting was completed. Friedkin confidently boasted to Variety that the Lower East Side so closely resembled what it was like half a century before that “all you have to do is rip out the parking meters and conceal the air conditioning” and line the streets with vintage cars.  

Cameraman Andrew Laszlo had developed a special camera that permitted much steadier handheld photography than before which would facilitate “Friedkin’s improvisational directorial style.”  Friedkin called it “the most expensive movie ever made with a hand-held camera.”

The picture finished shooting at the end of 1967 but that it did not appear in theaters until the tail end of the following year indicated the problems facing the producers. You might think Xmas an odd time to launch a movie about what was effectively a tawdry subject no matter how affectionately filmed. In a bid to shine a light on the more successful aspects of burlesque, United Artists publicists gave a major push to Dexter Maitland, a 40-year veteran of the business who had a small part in the picture.

SOURCES: Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock, American Prince: My Autobiography (Virgin Books – paperback, 2009) p279 ; Michael Munn, Tony Curtis, Nobody’s Perfect (JR Books, 2011) p214; William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection, A Memoir (Harper Perennial, 2014) p115-120; Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1; “Tony Curtis, Britt Ekland To Co-Star in Minsky’s,” Box Office, June 26, 1967, p12; “A Minsky Burlecue Theme Needs N.Y.,” Variety, August 2, 1967, 18; “Tony Curtis Withdraws from Minsky’s Pic,” Box Office, August 7, 1967, pW-2; “Wreckers Refrain,” Variety, September 27, 1967, p28; Lee Beaupre, “Costliest Ever on Hand Held Camera; UA’s Calculated Risks As To Minsky’s,” Variety, December 6, 1967, 3; “Norman Lear Digs ABC,” Variety, December 4, 1968, p22); “Dexter Maitland Is Alive and Real,” Variety, December 11, 1968, 4.

William Friedkin’s autobiography pictured below is immensely informative of the director’s somewhat controversial career.

The Secret Partner (1961) ****

Curious about what happened to Haya Harareet, Charlton Heston’s leading lady in Ben Hur (1959), filmed in 70mm glorious color, I happened across this neat twisty British thriller filmed in standard ratio and black-and-white. Turned out to be put together by the Basil Dearden/ Michael Relph combo and starring Stewart Granger, one-time star of MGM extravaganzas like King Solomon’s Mines (1951) and clearly now atoning for failing to hit the box office mark often enough for Hollywood’s liking.

Driven by a brilliant plot, whose resolution I defy you to guess, it climaxes with three stunning twists, the first story-driven but the others landing a no less effective emotional and human punch. I should warn you right away that Harareet is not in the picture as much as you would expect given that she took second billing. That’s no surprise, really, since on her first entrance, as wife Nicole, she walks out on husband John Brent (Granger) citing his illicit romantic liaisons.  

Though driving a swanky car and living in a big London house, Brent , a top-level shipping executive, is one harassed individual. He is being blackmailed by alcoholic dentist Ralph Beldon (Norman Bird).  When the shipping company’s safe is robbed of £130,000 (equivalent to £3 million today), suspicion falls on Brent, one of only two employees with both keys and the combination. Enter about-to-retire chain-smoking Detective Superintendent Hanbury (Bernard Lee, shortly to achieve global fame as “M” in the Bond series).

Constantly wreathed in a cloud of smoke, Hanbury’s investigation leads to various suspects – the other keyholder Charles Standish (Hugh Burden) whose job is at risk, interior designer Clive Lang (John Lee) who is too familiar with Nicole and friend Alan Richford (Conrad Philips) who is secretly in love with her. All have good reason to be responsible for the theft, not least Nicole because of Brent’s habit of talking in his sleep and in trying to memorize ever-changing safe combinations constantly running them through his head, conscious or unconscious.

To add to the complications, Brent has a mysterious past. In addition, a masked gunman pops up from time to time. So, although Brent remains the prime suspect, Hanbury, with an investigator’s vigilance and attention to detail that Hercule Poirot would be proud of, uncovers clues that point elsewhere. Pretty soon, Brent is on the run, first to France, where he is arrested, and then, after escaping custody, through the murky streets of Soho trying to locate a girl to whom he might have given the combination while asleep. He, too, discovers some unpleasant truths far closer to home.

Dearden does a brilliant job of setting up the mystery, a dab hand, too, at serving up multiple red herrings, as well as a spot of sleight of hand, not least when the music intrudes too loudly in old-fashioned manner as if to point the finger, and the audience’s attention, in a misleading direction. Sure, it’s a low-budget affair by Hollywood standards and indeed by Dearden/Relph standards (big-budget roadshow Khartoum, for example), and the black-and-white photography is for financial rather than artistic reasons, but it is superbly done and keeps you guessing to the end. Granger is at his suave best. Harareet, all fur coat and steely resolve, gives a good performance. Bernard Lee is an excellent British copper, hoping to end his career on a high note, patiently probing suspects, and there is a good turn from Norman Bird as the dodgy dentist and a fleeting appearance by Willoughby Goddard as an equally dodgy hotel manager.

Except there’s no extraneous violence, it could be a latter-day film noir.

Catch-Up: Other Dearden/Relph films reviewed in the Blog are: Masquerade (1965), Khartoum (1966), Only When I Larf (1968) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). Stewart Granger was also reviewed in The Secret Invasion (1964).

The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) **

This affectionate homage to 1920s vaudeville goes awfully astray under the heavy-handed direction of William Friedkin. Never mind the sexist approach, there’s an epidemic of over-acting apart from a delightful turn from Britt Ekland as the innocent star-struck Amish who accidentally invents striptease and former British music hall star Norman Wisdom who knows what he’s doing on the stage. The plot is minimal – burlesque theater manager (Elliott Gould) needs to save theater from going bust in a few days’ time. That’s it – honest!

The rest of the story looks tacked on – the overbearing leering other half (Jason Robards) of the Norman Wisdom double act tries to bed anything that moves, Amish father (Harry Andrews) in pursuit of his daughter, vice squad official (Denholm Elliott) determined to shut the theater down.

The saving grace of this debacle is Ekland’s performance which carries off a difficult part. Could anyone really be so dumb? She is endearing in a murky world but still capable of interpreting the Bible to her own ends (there is dance in the Good Book, for example) and she has confidence that the Lord will give her the go-ahead to have sex. Her innocence appears to transcend reality and since she doesn’t know a showbiz shark when she sees one she carries on as if life is just wonderful. Somehow this should never work but Ekland is so convincing that it does.

What might have been another saving grace is the documentary feel of much of the background, black-and-white pictures of the epoch transmuting into color, but too often the movie simply cuts to that without any real purpose. Equally, the various song-and-dance acts, chorus lines and comic turns provide an insight into burlesque reality but, again, all too often, that goes nowhere. There are plenty of people trying to be funny without much in the way of decent laughs. There’s altogether too much of everything else and not enough of the ingredients you might have considered essential.

This scarcely sounds like William Friedkin material given that although this preceded The French Connection and The Exorcist, by this point he had already made his mark with an adaptation of Harold Pinter play The Birthday Party (1968). In fact, his original cut was re-edited once he had departed the picture. Might it have worked better with Tony Curtis in the Jason Robards role as originally planned – he certainly had more charm than the jaundiced Robards. Regardless of who was cast what it needed most was a better story and less in the way of stock characters. And since in American theater folklore Minsky’s is synonymous with the invention of the striptease it meant that quite a few of the audience were there just to see how much skin would be revealed – which is not really the basis for a good mainstream picture.

The Pumpkin Eater (1964) ***

The reference point for Anne Bancroft in the 1960s is usually her cynical Mrs Robinson in The Graduate (1967) but she was Oscar-nominated here for a less ostentatious role as a woman who finds pregnancy – she has five kids by two husbands – almost a state of grace. Denied that role as a birth mother – husband number three (Peter Finch) wants an abortion – sees her tumble into depression.

This is more a character study than anything else and despite a whole bunch of marital confrontation, clever dialog from screenwriter Harold Pinter and some artistic black-and-white cinematography, it would have benefitted greatly from Bancroft actually explaining what ails her rather than everyone around her putting the words in her mouth. Hitchcock used to employ a subsidiary character to spell out the dangers of consequences for the leading actor, but that worked well in a thriller, and less so in a drama where you are desperate to get inside the mind of a woman who shows every signs of being neurotic.

While the unstated worked exceptionally well in director Jack Clayton’s previous picture The Innocents (1961), we really here need much more clarity. It is certainly richly atmospheric in places and the sequence prior to her nervous breakdown in Harrods where without dialog the camera shows her wandering around is very well done. But spending too much time on a self-obsessed person is less appealing.

Story has Finch (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1960) destroying her confidence by his philandering (although she dumped her previous husband for Finch) – but it is left to the woman (Yootha Joyce) setting next to her in the hairdresser to express the feeling that a woman needs to be desired by her husband and for a psychiatrist (Eric Porter) to suggest that for her “sex is sanctified by incessant reproduction.” To neither assessment does she respond. She clearly has a happy boisterous family, one to which Finch fits in, children lining up to wave him goodbye and rushing to greet his return.

Finch is on top form as the arrogant, competitive husband with Maggie Smith, delightfully kookie, among the notches on his bedpost. James Mason has a small role as a cuckold and Richard Johnson as a discarded husband. Adapting from a novel by film critic Penelope Mortimer, Pinter provides some distinctive Pinteresque moments, and, beyond the marital disputes, while most of the story is played out at a distance, there are excellent moments of spite, not least Mason choosing to read to Bancroft a love letter from his wife to Finch. In some respects it is a raw look at marriage, but in many ways it ducks out of proper examination of the principals, his character revealed by action, hers rarely explicated.

One particular aspect of the story is glossed over, with no reaction from Bancroft, which seems implausible given her previous attitude. Abortion was still illegal in the 1960s but permission could be granted were pregnancy to jeopardize a patient’s mental health. But to endorse such a sanction also involved sterilization to prevent future occurrence. Since Bancroft offers no insight one way or the other you are left with the impression she welcomes this which would run entirely against the character we have known.

I’ve no idea why the picture did not start at a point where Bancroft initiated action, when she dumped husband number two for Finch. At that point she was responsible for making a decision and clearly some kind of illicit affair had been taking place first. Unlike, for example, The Pawnbroker in which the main character has the same defeated attitude we are given access to his tortured past and he is forced into confrontation with the present. But here passivity is an obstacle to understanding.

Setting aside all my reservations which I guess are primarily structural, it is an absorbing film and Bancroft certainly deserved the Oscar recognition. Finch and Mason are also on top form and it’s worth a look if only to see what Maggie Smith could do with a part before people (perhaps herself) decided her career should go in a different direction.