The Viking Queen (1967) ***

Politics, conspiracy, thwarted romance and historical inaccuracy take center stage in this Hammer romp that attempted to create another sex symbol to follow in the footsteps of Ursula Andress (She, 1965) and Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C., 1966) in the shape of Finnish model Carita. Let’s put the dodgy historical elements to one side given Hollywood trampled over history all the time, but the title is a misnomer, the story owing more to British folk heroine Boadicea than anyone who came from longship land.

On his deathbed British tribal king (Wilfred Lawson), against the wishes of powerful Druid chieftain Maelgan (Donald Houston), signs a peace treaty with Roman governor general Justinius (Don Murray) against the wishes of his lieutenant Octavian (Andrew Keir). In different ways, the Druid and Octavian conspire to end the peace. Had new queen Salina (Carita), after falling in love with Justinius, been permitted to marry him that would have created a peaceful bond, but that is also prevented.

There’s a lot more sex and violence than you would have expected for the period, plenty scantily-clad slaves administering to the rich and the Romans, an extended brutal flogging sequence involving Salina, an offscreen rape, a cageful of Roman prisoners dropped into a burning pit, and when the British strap scythes onto the wheels of their chariots it’s a bloodbath. (Quite why the Romans never thought of importing their own chariots, given their popularity in the Colosseum, is never explained.) The chariots, whether in a race or battle, are the best thing about the picture, adding tremendous energy.

It takes quite a while for Salina to take up arms but when she does the film catches fire. She leads from the front, tearing through the Roman legions, and handy too with a sword. Ambushes appear the order of the day so any marching column or peaceful village soon ends up in a spot of bother.

There’s some of “what did the Romans ever do for us” with a snatch of Robin Hood thrown in – Justinius takes from the rich to give to the poor – plus religious fanaticism to stir the pot into a heady brew.  But mostly it’s hokum, if rather plot-heavy. Quite how the Oscar-nominated Don Murray (Advise and Consent, 1962) was talked into this is anybody’s guess. Carita, of course, would have believed she was on a surefire route to stardom but in fact this was her last picture. They two stars don’t really have that much to do and do it well enough. In supporting roles you will spot Patrick Troughton (a BBC Dr Who), Nicola Pagett making her movie debut and Adrienne Corri (Africa – Texas Style, 1967). Director Don Caffey (One Million Years B.C., 1966) is better at action than drama.

Hammerhead (1968) ***

Zest and Zero might be a more appropriate title for this late “so-bad-it’s-good” addition to the 1960s spy cycle. Judy Geeson (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1967) is the firecracker to Vince Edwards’ (television’s Ben Casey) fizzle. It’s colorful vs. colorless. Edwards, as art connoisseur Charles Hood (from the James Mayo book series), is meant to be a cut above the normal spy when in fact he hardly makes the cut. Hood is on the trail of the evil Hammerhead (a white-gloved Peter Vaughan). Sue Trenton’s (Geeson) lust for life takes her from participation in uninhibited art spectacle to classier cabaret, at various points leaping headfirst into the story, sorely disappointed to discover that Hood is not the international jewel thief of her imagination but a mere spy.

A far cry from the audacity of James Bond or the spoofery of Matt Helm or Derek Flint, nonetheless you can’t imagine this was ever taken seriously. But Geeson’s light touch is trampled all over by the ponderous Edwards. Quite how director David Miller went from Back Street (1961), Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and Captain Newman M.D. (1963) straight into this is anyone’s guess. He ran out of ideas pretty quick, the wardrobe budget minimal, Geeson much of the time restricted to a towel or bra and panties, an entire scene of Ivory (Beverley Adams) gyrating in a bikini, other sequences set against a backdrop of scantily-clad females.

The plot is non-existent. Hood doesn’t even know what he’s chasing – a “secret report” of some kind. Halfway between camp and incompetent, the picture scores in unintentional ways. Hammerhead makes a grand entrance – lowered in a cradle from a helicopter! The big chase involves a hearse. Trenton, who can’t sing, gets to sing. Occasionally the comedy is intentional, a taxi driven onto the shore a few scenes later is stranded by the incoming tide. Needing somewhere to screen some stolen footage, Hood invades a blue movie club. Avoiding a villain in a post office, Trenton plays a version of pass-the-parcel. The monosyllabic steal the picture – in reply to Hood’s pestering, a manservant’s inevitable reply is “it depends” and that of the dancing Ivory “louder.” But the biggest opportunity for Bond-style gags, Hood and Trenton trapped in a coffin, is wasted, although there is a nod to Thunderball in the harpoonery department.

Perhaps what best passes the time is the opportunity for star-spotting. British sexpot Diana Dors, complete with lipstick transmitter, puts in an appearance. There is a flock of British television actors in Patrick Cargill (Father, Dear Father), Michael Bates and Windsor Davies (both It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum), William Mervyn (All Gas and Gaiters), Tracy Reed (Doctor Finlay’s Casebook) and Kenneth Cope (Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased). Dave Prowse (Star Wars) makes his movie debut and former top British star Kathleen Byron (Black Narcissus, 1947) has a small role. Beverly Adams is almost a spy film mascot, with The Silencers (1966), Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966), Murderer’s Row (1966) and The Ambushers (1967) in her locker. The gaggle of gals includes future Hammer star Veronica Carlsen (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968), Maggie Wright (Sex and the Other Woman, 1972) and former Slaygirl and 2001: A Space Odyssey stewardess Penny Brahms (The Games Lovers Play, 1971).

You half expect Judy Geeson to turn out to be a femme fatale or at least a decoy or there to provide a plot twist. But, no, she is just an adventuress, at times inventive and resourceful. Just a shame that an outing with the dull Edwards would put anyone off adventure for life.

A romp of the wrong kind for sure.

Box Office Poison 1960s Style

The success in 1968 of such disparate movies as The Graduate (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with no discernible stars got Hollywood thinking whether they needed stars anymore. Stars were viewed as insurance. Their names were attached to pictures in the hope that they would bring a sizeable audience.

But for some time that had proved not to be the case. Certainly actors with the box office clout of Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Elizabeth Taylor, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Richard Burton and Elvis Presley justified their extravagant salaries. But exhibitors had begun to complain that studios were forcing them to carry the cost of stars who did not deliver, the salaries inflating “the terms that theatres must pay for films.”

Big names viewed as box office poison in 1968 included Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, William Holden and Natalie Wood. An investigation by trade magazine Variety uncovered the fact that in each case the last four pictures of each star – who earned $250,000 or more per movie – had flopped. Average movie budgets by now had climbed to $3-$4 million not counting marketing costs so most movies had to bring in over $10 million at the global box office to break even

The star with the worst track record was Anthony Quinn. Average rental for his past four pictures – $800,000. While Zorba the Greek (1964) had been an unexpected hit, what followed was anything but. Discounting a cameo in Marco the Magnificent (1965), the box office duds comprised adventure A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Lost Command (1965), war film The 25th Hour and misconceived hippie comedy The Happening (1967).

Not far behind was Glenn Ford, a star from the days of Gilda (1946), The Blackboard Jungle  (1955) and The Sheepman (1958). He had begun the current decade badly with big-budget losers Cimarron (1960) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) and his career never recovered. His last eight pictures brought in an average of less than $1 million apiece in rentals. The sad bunch were: comedy western Advance to the Rear, Dear Heart and aerial drama Fate Is the Hunter (all 1964) followed by western The Rounders and thriller The Money Trap (both 1965) as well big budget war epic Is Paris Burning? (1966), rabies drama Rage (1966) and western The Long Ride Home (1967).

Scarcely any better was William Holden, star of David Lean Oscar-winner Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), John Ford western The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). His last four efforts – The Lion (1962), romantic comedy Paris When It Sizzles (1964), war drama The 7th Dawn (1964) and Civil War western Alvarez Kelly (1966) – returned an average of $1.05 million in rentals. Variety reckoned he was struggling with the problem of how to “gracefully mature his screen image.”

James Garner, once seen as the natural successor to Clark Gable, had failed to capitalize on the success of John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). Five of his last seven films had dredged up a mere $1.3 million average. Making up the awful quintet were thriller 36 Hours (1964), comedy thriller A Man Could Get Killed (1966), western pair Duel at Diablo (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967) plus drama Mister Buddwing (1966). Quite why comedy The Art of Love (1965) had done better – $3.5 million in rentals – nobody could ascertain and even though roadshow Grand Prix (1966) was a hit Garner, who was billed below the title, was not considered a reason for it, with some insiders claiming his name had held it back and it would have done much better with someone else in his role.

Morituri (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966), western sequel Return of the Seven (1966), Triple Cross (1966) and The Long Duel (1967) had mustered an average of $1.4 million leaving observers to the conclusion that Yul Brynner’s “brand of sex appeal” no longer attracted audiences in America.

Marlon Brando had generated just $8.4 million in total rentals – an average of $1.6 million – for his previous six films. No matter what he did, regardless of genre, he had lost his box office spark whether it was comedies like Bedtime Story (1964) and The Countess from Hong Kong (1966), dramas like The Chase (1966) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), western The Appaloosa (1966) or thriller Morituri (1965). From the industry perspective he was by far the worst performer since his movies cost so much in directors (Charlie Chaplin, John Huston), co-stars (Elizabeth Taylor. Sophia Loren) and sets.

A string of comedies had sounded the box office death knell for Tony Curtis. Boeing, Boeing (1964), Not with My Wife You Don’t (1966), Arrivederci, Baby! (1966) and Don’t Make Waves (1967) delivered a lamentable $1.77 million on average.

Rock Hudson had fallen far from the pedestal of being the country’s top male star in the early 1960s. Two romantic comedies Strange Bedfellows (1965) and A Very Special Favor (1965), a brace of thrillers Blindfold (1966) and Seconds (1965) plus war film Tobruk (1967) did nothing to restore his standing with just $1.86 million in average rental.

Added to the list of dubious stars was Natalie Wood whose career was considered to be in such jeopardy that she had not made picture in two years. Small wonder after dramas Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966) and crime caper Penelope (1966) which averaged $2.2 million.

Whether anybody’s career could be resuscitated after these disasters was anybody’s guess.

Strangely enough, some did regain at least a measure of their former glory, Marlon Brando the obvious example after The Godfather (1972). James Garner had his biggest-ever hit with Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). Tony Curtis revived his fanbase with The Boston Strangler (1968). William Holden returned to favor after the double whammy of The Devil’s Brigade (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Natalie Wood hit the spot in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969) and Yul Brynner as a robotic gunslinger turned his career around in Westworld (1973).

But Glenn Ford’s career was coming to an end and Anthony Quinn followed up this bunch of flops with two more of the same ilk in the Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and The Magus (1968) although he would still be offered starring roles for more than a decade.

Of course, luckily, decades on, we are not so much guided by the box office various films had and many pictures that were once dubbed flops are now being re-evaluated by a new generation of film fans.

SOURCE: Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1

The Sicilian Clan (1969) *****

Absolutely cracking, brilliantly structured, gangster thriller featuring two fabulous heists and three legendary French stars in Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura. Roger Sartet (Delon) is a trigger-happy robber whose prison escape is organized for a hefty fee by French-based Mafia chieftain Vittorio Manalese (Gabin). Le Goff (Ventura) is the rugged cop hunting down the escapee which brings him into the orbit of Manalese, about whose existence he is completely unaware, the gangster having kept an extremely low profile, never engaging in violence, hiding behind the legitimate front of a pinball machine business.  Veteran French director Henri Verneuil (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) dukes between the twin storylines with ease.

Jean Gabin was easily the most famous French actor of the time with a career spanning four decades from Pepe Le Moko (1937) and La Grande Illusion (1937) to Holy Year (1976) . To many he was the best Inspector Maigret (1958). Generally ignored by the French New Wave directors, this picture showed what they were missing.

Sartet brings Manalese the opportunity to pull off the most audacious jewel robbery in history, even though the older man despises Sartet’s penchant for violence and sex. We often see Manalese at family gatherings, head of the dinner table, the family watching television together, frowning at one son’s liking for alcohol, playing with his grandson. He is not just a calm and clever businessman, but very quick-thinking, his sharp mind in a couple of instances preventing disaster. Sartet, on the other hand, will happily endanger his life and freedom by consorting with prostitutes and breaking an unspoken code of honor in an affair with Manalese’s daughter-in-law (Irina Demick).

The result combines dogged detective work by Le Goff and the inspired planning and execution of the jewel robbery until the two worlds collide. The investigation alone would have made this an outstanding picture. Le Goff, always seen with an unlit cigarette in his mouth although he is trying to give up smoking, concentrating initially on Sartet, sets up surveillance on the thief’s innocent sister and begins an involved – and engrossing – process of tracking down every potential lead and when at last he has Sartet in his sights it brings him up close to Manalese.

Le Goff’s professionalism is matched by that of Manalese and the picture develops into an absorbing battle of wits and the latter’s family values and moral compass puts him at odds with loner Sartet. There is some brilliant invention, the sacrificial watch, for example, and the unexpected appearance of a faithful British wife, although you do guess just how long Le Goff will go before lighting his ever-tempting cigarette.  

The ultra-cool Delon excels in this kind of amoral part, but Gabin and Ventura as old-style gangster and cop, respectively, steal the show. Demick thrives as the bored wife of a dull gangster who is attracted by the violent Delon, at one point deliberately putting herself in the line of his potential fire for the thrill. Actually, it’s the jewel heist that steals the show. Unlike other heist pictures where you have fair idea in advance of the details of the theft, here the audience is kept completely in the dark. Just as important in any heist is that the thieves get away with their plunder and the plan in this instance is breath-taking.

Catch it on Amazon Prime.