My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Countdown to the Top Films of the Year

This is by way of a trailer. By the end of the month – i.e. tomorrow – this Blog will have been running for an entire year. One of the interesting aspects of the Blog for me has been reader response to particular pictures. Some pictures I though would be stone-cold faves such as Easy Rider (1969), “Rat Pack” vehicle Sergeants 3 (1962), Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967) and the unfairly neglected historical epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) have turned out to be less popular – in terms of views – than I might have imagined.

And, on the contrary, some films have generated an enormous number of views, far more in many cases than I had believed they would, far more than I had any reason to suppose any of my postings would.

So tomorrow (June 30) I am going to list the films I enjoyed most throughout the year – movies that qualified for my own five-star rating.

I am going to follow that up on Thursday (July 1) by publishing the list of the Top 25 most popular movie posts as judged by my readers.

But I thought it might be interesting as a little competition for people to guess what the most popular film has been. There’s no prize so there’s nothing to be gained by seeing what other people have suggested. It would certainly be interesting. So if you fancy doing this, then just put your suggestion in the Comments section.

I have posted over 200 reviews, the bulk of them on films themselves, though regular readers will know I also write about the makings of films, about how books are adapted into films and a few other movie-related subjects that catch my eye. But this tally will just refer to films rather than anything else.

Given this is my first year, I had no real expectations of what to expect, least of all that I would attract a regular following and that, overall, the Blog has exceeded my wildest expectations. I have attracted readers in over 70 countries, so it’s fascinating to observe how this particular decade has proved so interesting to such a wide audience.

Make sure you check out my post on July 1 to find out which were the most popular films of the first year of the blog.

Bronson Unwanted

That Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) was a smash hit in France did nothing for Charles Bronson’s Hollywood career. Hollywood had form in disregarding U.S.-born stars that Europe had taken to its box office bosom. Example number one of course was Clint Eastwood, ignored by the big American studios until four years after his movies had cut a commercial swathe through foreign territories. Charles Bronson took about the same length of time for his box office grosses abroad to make an impact back home.

While we tend to look upon The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a career-making vehicle for many of the supporting stars, that wasn’t actually the case. Jim Brown was quickest out of the blocks, a full-blown top-billed star a year later in The Split (1968). Otherwise, John Cassavetes had the biggest crack at stardom after landing the male lead in box office smash Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But the rest of the gang – Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckal et al – remained at least for the time being strictly supporting players.

For Charles Bronson, the year of The Dirty Dozen produced nothing more than television guest spots in Dundee and the Culhane, The Fugitive and The Virginian. Beyond that he had a berth in two flop westerns Villa Rides (1968) and Guns for San Sebstian (1968) and no guarantee his career was moving in an upward direction. But the latter picture was primarily a French-Mexican co-production, the Gallic end set up by top French producer Jacques Bar under the aegis of Cipra which had previously been responsible for Alain Delon vehicles Any Number Can Win (1963), Joy House (1964) and Once a Thief (1965).

There was another, as vital, French connection. Henri Verneuil directed both Any Number Can Win and Guns for San Sebastian so could attest to Bronson’s screen presence. And another legendary French producer, the Polish-born Serge Silberman, best known for Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), had taken note of Bronson, whose screen persona was similar to that of French stars Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Silberman’s Greenwich Films production shingle was in the process of setting up Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami.

Like The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), Farewell Friend was part of a new trend to make French productions in English as well as French, in this case the English version viewed as “the working one.” But that ploy failed to convince U.S. distributors to take a chance and the film sat on the shelf for five years. And little that Bronson did in the meantime increased his chances of a serious stab at the Hollywood big time.

Although Paramount had piled cash into the Italian-made Once upon a Time in the West (1968) it was counting on Henry Fonda – undergoing a career renaissance after Madigan (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) – to provide the box office momentum. Bronson was billed fourth after Claudia Cardinale, Fonda and Jason Robards, so still in Hollywood’s eyes a supporting player.

And while the Sergio Leone picture flopped Stateside, the success of Farewell, Friend in France turned Bronson into a star and was instrumental in the western breaking box office records in Paris (where it ran for a year) and throughout the country.

Fortunately for Bronson, European producers recognized his potential. His next picture should have been an Italian-French-German co-production of Michael Strogoff, for which he was announced as the top billed star (Advert, Variety, May 8, 1968, p136-137).  When that fell through, Italian company Euro International, bidding to become the top foreign studio outside Hollywood, gave him top-billing in Richard Donner drama Twinky (aka Lola, aka London Affair, 1970) and Serge Silberman tapped him for Rene Clement thriller Rider on the Rain (1970), another French hit.

British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) was responsible for recruiting him for You Can’t Win ‘Em All (aka The Dubious Patriots, 1970), but with Tony Curtis taking top billing. Again, though funded by an American studio, this time Columbia, it was another big flop, mostly because the studio did not know how to market the picture, Curtis in a box office slump and Bronson considered to have little appeal.

But still the Europeans kept the faith. Another French-Italian co-production Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) gave him top billing over exiles Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. That was also the case with Cold Sweat (1970), helmed by British director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962).  He had another French-made hit with Someone Behind the Door (1971) and Terence Young hired him again, along with Farewell, Friend co-star Alain Delon, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Dr No alumni Ursula Andress for international co-production Red Sun. While this western sent box office tills whirring all over the world, it only made a fair impression in the U.S., ranking 53rd in the annual box office chase.

Riding on the back of The Godfather phenomenon, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Bronson for Mafia thriller The Valachi Papers (1972), again directed by Terence Young, which produced something of a box office breakthrough in the U.S., ending the year just outside the Top 20. But it took another British director, Michael Winner, to help solidify the Bronson screen persona and boost his global appeal. Four – and all of the hits – out of the star’s next six pictures were directed by Winner.  These were the western Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1975). The Mechanic was such a big hit Stateside it did better in its second year of release than the first and Columbia redeemed itself by giving prison escape thriller Breakout (1975) the widest release – up to that point – of all time.

That America had little interest in developing Bronson as a breakout star could be judged by the distribution treatment of his pictures. As mentioned above, Farewell, Friend had to wait until 1973 for its U.S. debut and then renamed Honor among Thieves. Twinky was denied a cinema release in the U.S. and went straight to television in 1972. Violent City had to wait until 1973 for a distribution deal, Cold Sweat until 1974 and even Red Sun took nine months before it hit American shores.  Until The Valachi Papers did the business, Bronson was not considered the kind of star who could open a picture in the U.S.

By then, of course, Bronson had reversed the normal box office rules. Usually, for films starring American actors, foreign revenues were the icing on the cake. For Bronson it was the other way round. Along with Clint Eastwood he was the first of the global superstars, whose name resonated around the world, and whose pictures made huge amounts of money regardless of American acceptance or interest. But had it been left to Hollywood, Bronson would never have made the grade.

Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) ****

This heist picture made Charles Bronson a star, though, like Clint Eastwood a few years previously, he had to go to Europe, in this case France, to find an audience appreciable of his particular skill set. This was such a box office smash in France that it was the reason that Once upon a Time in the West (1968), a major flop virtually everywhere else, turned into a huge hit in Paris. After a decade as a supporting actor, albeit in some quality offerings like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson developed a big following, if only initially in Europe.

Farewell, Friend could also lay fair claim to stealing the title of  “first buddy movie” from the following year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) because, apart from the heist that is central to the story, it is essentially about the forging of a friendship. But it wasn’t released in the U.S. for another five years, in the wake of Bronson’s Hollywood breakthrough in The Valachi Papers (1972), and then under a different title, Honor Among Thieves.

And you can see why it was such a star-making vehicle. Bronson goes toe-to-toe with France’s number one male star Alain Delon (The Sicilian Clan, 1969). He had the walk and the stance and the look and he was given acres of screen time to allow audiences to fully appreciate for the first time what he had to offer. Like Butch Cassidy, the duo share a lot of screen time, and after initial dislike, they slowly turn, through circumstance and the same code of honor, into friends.

Dino Barran (Alain Delon) is the principled one, after a final stint as a doctor in the French Foreign Legion originally turning down overtures from Franz Propp (Charles Bronson) to become involved in a separate major robbery. Propp is an unsavory customer, making his living as a small-time thief who uses a stripper to dupe wealthy marks. Barran plans to rob a corporation’s safe during the three-day Xmas holiday of two million dollars as a favor to the slinky widow Isabelle (Olga Georges-Picot) of a former colleague, for whose death he retains guilt. Propp more or less barges his way into the caper.

It’s a clever heist. Isabelle gets Barran a job as a company doctor whose office is next door to the giant vault. But there’s a twist. Surveillance reveals only three of the seven numbers required to open the combination to the vault. But Barran reckons three days is sufficient to try out the 10,000 possible permurations.

Barran and Propp despise each other and pass the time playing juvenile tricks, locking each other into a room, stealing all the food from the one dispensing machine, winding each other up, while they take turns trying different combinations. But it opens after only 3,400 attempts and they face a shock. The vault is empty. They have been set up to take the fall for a previous robbery that must have been completed before the building closed for Xmas.  

And there’s no way out. They are in lockdown, deep in a basement. The elevators can only be opened by a small squadron of guards upstairs. Food long gone, they are going to run out of water. If they use a lighter to see in the dark, or build a fire to get warm, the flames will eat up the oxygen they need to survive in the enclosed space. So the heist turns into a battle for survival and brute force attempts to escape before the building re-opens and they are discovered, exhausted and clearly guilty.

But that’s only the second act. There is a better one to follow, as their friendship is defined in an unusual manner. And there are any number of twists to maintain the suspense and tension. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were close friends when that western began. Here, we see the evolution of a friendship between two forceful characters who express their feelings with their fists.

Delon was a known quantity, but Bronson really comes to the fore, more than holding his own against a top star who oozed charisma. This is Bronson in chrysalis, the emergence of the tough guy leading man screen persona that would turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world. Surprisingly, given his later penchant for the monosyllabic, here he does a lot of talking, perhaps more actual acting than he ever did later when his roles tended to fall into a stereotype.

He has the two best scenes, both character-defining, but in different ways. He has a little scam, getting people to gamble on how many coins it would take for an already full-to-the-brim glass to overflow when a certain number of coins were dropped in. While this is a cute trick, it’s that of a small-time con artist, but watching it play out, as it does at critical moments, is surprisingly suspenseful. The second is the strip scene which shows him, as a potential leading man, in a very poor light, and although thievery is the ultimate aim, it is not far short of pimping, with Bronson standing back while the woman (Marianna Falk) is routinely humiliated. It’s the kind of scene that would be given to a supporting actor, for whom later redemption was not on the cards. It says something for Bronson’s command of the screen and the development of his character that by the end of the picture the audience has long forgotten that he could stoop so low.

It is a film of such twists I would not want to say much more for fear of giving away too much, suffice to say that Olga Georges-Picot (Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, 1968) and her friend, mousy nurse Dominique (Brigitte Fossey, in her grown-up debut), are also stand-outs, and not just in the sense of their allure.

Director Jean Herman, in his sophomore outing, takes the bold step of dispensing with music virtually throughout, which means that during the critical heist sequence the audience is deprived of the usual musical beats that might indicate threat or suspense or change of mood, but which has the benefit of keeping the camera squarely on the two leading characters without favoring either. Most pictures focusing on character rely on slow-burn drama. In the bulk of heist pictures, characters appear fully-formed. Here, unusually, and almost uniquely in the movie canon, character development takes place during an action film.

Top French thriller writer Sebastian Japrisot (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) was responsible along with Herman for the screenplay. Japrisot was a key figure in the French movie thriller scene, churning out, either as original novels or original screenplays, A Trap for Cinderella (1965), Rider on the Rain (1970) and The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun (1970).

Even without Bronson, this would have been a terrific heist picture. With him, it takes on a new dimension.

Stark Fear (1962) ***

Unless you were unfortunate enough to get mixed up in an international conspiracy, or your wealth induced a husband into planning your murder – or a la Gaslight your insanity –  or you had taken a shower in strange motel, a wife in American movies was unlikely to live in fear of a sadistic spouse. Wife-beating (a.k.a. wife-battering) had never been high on the Hollywood agenda as an appropriate subject matter so this picture not only stands out for the period but also strikes a contemporary spark. While many marital dramas of the 1960s have quickly become outdated, this has not.

Opening with an audacious cut from a woman’s eyes seen in a car’s rear-view mirror to her face in a photograph being pelted with alcohol, Ellen (Beverly Garland) has committed the grievous sin not just of going out to work but of taking up the post of secretary to oil executive Cliff Kane (Kenneth Tobey), a previous rival of husband Gerry (Skip Homeier). But Gerry’s income had unexpectedly tumbled and the couple, married just three years, need her money. He pours a drink over the terrified woman’s head, demands a divorce and promptly disappears.

Her search for him takes her to Quehada, pop. 976, a rundown town she had never heard of and whose existence her husband made no mention despite the fact it was where he grew up. Her husband’s sleazy friend Harvey takes her to the grave of Gerry’s mother (also called Ellen) where he rapes and beats her while, unbeknownst to her, her husband watches.   

Back at the office, she begins to fall for Cliff, but Gerry, even though he no longer wants her, sets out to destroy the budding romance.

Following the classic pattern of course Ellen blames herself for making Gerry unhappy and for getting raped. Her guilt fuels her husband’s sadistic streak. She is unsure whether the threat of divorce is just the most cruel taunt her husband can imagine or is for real, which would be just as bad, given her low-self-esteem. Once she realizes Gerry had an unhappy childhood and is mother-fixated, it makes it even harder for her to abandon him, regardless of the mental and physical torment he inflicts and despite the entreaties of social worker friend Ruth (Hannah Stone). Ruth, too, however, represents an alternative equally fearful future, the now-single woman who regrets separating too quickly from her husband and has no man  in her life or none who come up to scratch.

This is not a picture where men come out well. Gerry is a fiend in a suit. On Ellen’s way to Quehada she is groped by other men who clearly feel it is their right. Harvey has a history of just taking what he wants. Even the relatively gentle Cliff appears to have an underlying reason for taking an interest in her.

In a world and a time where marriage meant not just financial security, but a safe haven from all the other men who would like as not press themselves upon the opposite sex at any opportunity, and not necessarily with any delicacy, director Ned Hockman presents life as a succession of traps for women. And we know now that not much has changed, and that for many women fear is a constant.

Hockman directs with some singularity. He uses black-and-white not quite in the film noir manner of shadows and shafts of light, but sets the subject of any night scene in a pool of light with darkness all around, which makes for some striking images. A couple of unusual backdrops including Commanche tribal dancing and a chase in a jukebox museum help place this a couple of notches above the usual B-picture..

Beverly Garland was a 1950s B-picture sci-fi and horror scream queen in movies such as  It Conquered the World (1956), Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) and Not of This Earth (1957) so fear was something of a default. Here, she adds something else, desolation at the position she finds herself in, confusion that her marriage is in tatters, hunting for a solution that never emerges, and unable to summon up the anger that might free herself. Hannah Stone has an intriguing role, encouraging her friend to leave her husband, knowing that being single again is not all it is cracked up to be. Unusually for a minor character in this kind of picture, primarily there to shore up the star, she enjoys a spot of lifestyle reversal. Skip Homeier (Commanche Station, 1960) and Kenneth Tobey (X-15, 1961) are outshone by the women. Unusually, and surprisingly, this was the one shot at a movie career afforded both Stone and director Hockman.

This may have been intended as a quick B-picture rip-off to cash in on the expected success of Cape Fear (1962) which appeared eight months prior but it turned out to be a more superior effort than anyone could imagine. And since Cape Fear was far from as successful as most people believe, it possibly had to make its way on its own merits in several markets.

Catch this on Amazon Prime.

Monster Hunter (2020) ****

They’re back – with a bang! Writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, 2002) and wife Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, 1997) hit the ground running in a pedal-to-the-metal all-action sci-fi rock’n’rolla. Coming up for nearly a quarter-of-a-century as the reigning action queen, Jovovich delivers in style.

The platoon of U.S. Army Ranger Lt. Artemis (Jovovoich) is inexplicably transported to an alien planet to fight, what else, aliens. The platoon doesn’t last long and in a tidy riff on John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968) – and its futuristic remake Enemy Mine (1985) – she has to battle then buddy-up with a guy known only as Hunter (Tony Jaa).

The title is a bit of misnomer. The monsters are the hunters not the hunted. Dune-like, and of uber-dinosaur proportions, they emerge from the sand, or scuttle out from the rocks in daylight, or pump forth from the tops of cones of stone, or range down from the sky with weaponry that can turn sand into glass. When not trying to knock six bells out of each other, the pair spend their time escaping or trying to outwit the monsters and then to reach a distant lighthouse around which all types of ancient vessels have run aground.

I should point out the terrain is all-desert, sand not water, so quite what purpose the lighthouse plays is a bit of a mystery. That neither Artemis nor the Hunter can speak the others’ language gets in the way of bonding, that and the fact they are still intent, in the way of sworn enemies forced to work together, in acts of one-upmanship. But that doesn’t prevent small touching moments.

I didn’t know this was based on a video game and for once it appears not to be so reliant on holding true to its antecedents. I had no trouble understanding it. What do you need to understand, for heaven’s sake? We are used to people ending up in strange dimensions with hostile populations. Although later on the story develops a bit more, the bonding and the battling is enough to get on with. Simplistic, by the way, tends to be the hallmark of a good action picture.

By the time you get to the end you realise it’s actually more of an origin story especially when other characters – namely The Admiral (Ron Perlman) and a piratical scene-stealing cat – enter the frame. In fact, what’s most clearly signposted is a sequel.  

Jovovich is back to her running, jumping and fighting best. I’ve no idea why Hollywood has not invested decent money in her. She is a far better fit for the action genre than many of the actresses the studios have invested bigger bucks in. Put her in a Die Hard – with requisite budget – scenario and see where she takes you would be my advice. Like Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson, her actions speak louder than words.

I can’t believe that Paul W.S. Anderson hasn’t been on the big screen since Resident Evil: Final Chapter (2016) and had to make do with DTV sequels to Death Race (2012). He has enough visual style you would have thought to stand a chance of landing something in the MCU or DC universe. Could be that he’s not all that keen on conforming to other peoples’ visions.

Whatever the reason, he’s certainly got panache where it matters most – on the screen. As the writer, too, he’s allowed his characters more time to breathe, and in Tony Jaa (Ong Bak, The Thai Warrior, 2003) recruited a more-than-estimable co-star. That Jaa does his own stunts brings a different dimension to the screen battles.

It’s worth pointing out that both stars are in their mid-40s, Jovovich the older by a year, but both look fitter than actors two decades younger. They share terrific screen charisma and might well turn into one of the best screen action pairings.

I was going to say it’s good to see Ron Perlman (Hellboy, 2004) back in action but it turns out he’s rarely been off our screens – he’s got nearly 200 movies and television shows and animated games to his credit and already another 14 movies in the pipeline. This is barely more than a cameo, however,  looking like it’s setting him up for the sequel. Also making brief appearances are Meagan Good (The Intruder, 2019) and composer Tip T.I. Harris (Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018).

Welcome back, Paul and Milla and bring on the sequel.

For sure, these action-packed sci-fi numbers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but they certainly float my boat.

I saw this on the big screen, by the way, as part of this week’s Monday triple bill at my local cinema, the others being In the Heights and In the Earth. It’s not out on DVD yet, but there’s no doubt it will have a bigger impact on the big screen so if you get a chance catch it.

Bedtime Story (1964) ***

Con men at opposite ends of the grifter divide face off in a duel over territoriality in the French Riviera. Freddy Benson (Marlon Brando) is a low-level scam artist who is happy to scrounge a meal or talk his way into an innocent damsel’s bed. Lawrence Jameson (David Niven) is his polar opposite, posing as an impoverished aristocrat to relieve gullible women of their wealth, seduction an added extra.

Initially, Jameson gets the better of their encounters until Benson realizes just what a killing the Englishman is making. Initially, too, Benson is happy to pair up with Jameson, although that involves demeaning himself as a supposed mad brother kept in a dungeon, until the Englishman dupes him out of his share. Eventually, they agree a winner-take-all battle. Whoever can swindle heiress Janet Walker (Shirley Jones) out of $25,000 shall inherit the shyster kingdom.

An example of the older style of British movie distribution. The prints started off in one section of London the first week and switched to another sector the following week. Even if the film was a big hit, it could not be retained since the prints were already promised elsewhere. Only after it had played London, would general release follow in the provinces. There was no point watching West End release dates for an idea of when a new movie would play in your local city, it would not be anywhere near you until it had completed the North and South London runs.

Benson takes the sympathy route to the woman’s heart, turning up in a wheelchair, while James adopts a psychological approach, persuading Ms Walker that Benson’s illness is psychosomatic for which he has the cure for the small consideration of $25,000. And then it’s one devious twist after another as the pair attempt to out-maneuver, out-think and generally embarrass the other. Both have a despicable attitude towards women, whom they view as dupes, but it is a woman who proves their undoing.

Most comedies rely on familiar tropes and you can usually see the twists coming, but this is in a different imaginative league and once the pair are in their stride I defy you to work out what they will come up with next. It is full of clever quips and a small dash of slapstick and because neither actor chases the laughs but plays their roles straight proves a very effective and entertaining morsel.

Director Ralph Levy in his movie debut knows more than where to just point a camera since he had decades of experience extracting laughs in television with top comedians like Jack Benny and Bob Newhart. Brando (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962), free of the shackles of the angst he normally incorporated into his dramatic performances, looks as if he is having a ball and while teetering occasionally on the edge of mugging never quite overplays his hand. This was a conscious effort by Brando, whose company Pennebaker was involved on the production side, to shift his screen persona.

David Niven (The Pink Panther, 1963) was born with a stiff upper lip in his mouth and while this kind of aristocratic character is a doddle for an actor of his stature the portrayal here is much more like the sharpest tool in the box. While oozing charm, Niven exhibits deadly spite. Screenwriters Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning had previously collaborated on Lover Come Back (1961) and Shapiro particularly made his bones on the Doris Day-Cary Grant-Rock Hudson axis so it is interesting to see him shift away from the romantic comedy cocoon into something with considerably more edge.

Enjoyable and original with excellent performances from the two principals and great support from Shirley Jones (The Music Man, 1962) as the mark and Egyptian Aram Stephan (55 Days at Peking, 1963) as an only too congenial French policeman.

Originally, it was lined up with a quite a different cast – Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis and Tippi Hedren. It was remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) with Steve Martin and Michael Caine.

CATCH-UP: The Blog has previously featured Brando in more dramatic vein in The Chase (1966) and The Appaloosa (1966) and also the dramatic side of David Niven in The Guns of Navarone (1961), Guns of Darkness (1962) and 55 Days at Peking (1963).

Ammonite (2020) ****

I came at this picture with some trepidation and in truth only watched it at the cinema because I had seen everything else worth a look in the few weeks since the picture houses have reopened. Although initially attracting Oscar buzz, that failed to materialize when it mattered and it was left out of the Oscar loop. While kate Winslet was a proven commercial box office draw, this appeared to have arthouse sensibilities and the few reviews I had read promised a turgid evening.

The reality was something different and as a result of what I can only describe as the magic of the big screen. Watching a film in a cinema is automatically more involving than on the small screen: there are fewer distractions, the dominating size of the screen is unavoidable and it is dark. Had I watched it at home I could well have switched it off after fifteen minutes in reaction to the slow pace. But in a cinema, slowness did not matter, and until it widened out in the final few scenes it was like an absorbing chamber piece, featuring a handful of characters.  In approach it was closest to a film about an artist, Pollock (2000) and Mr Turner (2014) come to mind, where obsession is the driving force, narrative and plot merely subservient. We are exposed to considerable detail about the character’s archaeological work, which is often filthy and undertaken outside in all sorts of weather, requiring the constitution of a miner or farmer rather than a painter, as well as the patience of a saint to brush, wash or poke clean her discoveries.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was not an attractive personality, downright truculent and rude for the most part, given that she depended for her living on selling the archaeological items she had found in the Lyme Regis area to tourists and collectors. That her major archaeological discoveries resided in the British Museum brought no personal satisfaction because thanks to the male archaeological hierarchy they were presented there under the names of the purchasers rather than the finder. What she earned for major pieces could keep herself and her ageing and infirm mother (Gemma Jones) for a year. By and large, they lived in poverty, existing on soup mostly, the mother at least as obsessive as the daughter with her collection of knick-knacks, one for each of her eight children who had died prematurely, which she washed and polished every day. Mary spurned any male overtures and indeed appeared to resent any friendship, the hint of some kind of betrayal in brief scenes with Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a local worthy.

Mary is hired by wannabe archaeologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) to look after his insipid, annoying, depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Gradually a friendship forms, leading to desire. Nothing is more illustrative of the Victorian attitude to sex than that the idea of a lesbian relationship ran counter to all imagination. Perhaps one of the more refreshing aspects of the picture is that while Victorian women clearly resented having sex with their husbands that was largely down to the fact the men had no idea how to satisfy a woman. That is not the case here and though the sex scenes have been criticised in places as “too strong” I thought it was essential just to be sure that the women did know what they were doing and clearly derived enormous satisfaction from the sexual act if properly performed. A chaste kiss and cuddle would hardly do justice to the passion suddenly erupted.

While Mary experiences jealousy when Charlotte is entranced by Elizabeth, romance does not produce complete fulfilment and when Charlotte, as if she were a man, appoints herself Mary’s protector that independence for which the archaeologist had fought so hard is imperilled. Love miraculously changes Charlotte’s outward demeanour, the same is not true of Mary.

This isn’t the picture-postcard version of a Victorian seaside town, rather its harsher cousin. Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country, 2017) refuses to soften the rude edges of life and the best a true romanticist can expect is that the storms occasionally abate and the surf does not pound so heavily.

Powerful roles have been in short supply of late for Kate Winslet (Blackbird, 2019) and she is superb as the stoic woman in a male-dominated world, unable to express passion except in whittling away at pieces of ammonite. Saoirse Ronan (Little Woman, 2019) moves from bitter and confused child-woman to finding joy and from then to taking charge. Veteran British character actors Gemma Jones (Rocketman, 2019) and Fiona Shaw (My Left Foot, 1989) are impressive while James McArdle (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) and Alec Secareanu  (Amulet, 2020) offer different interpretations of the entitled male.

To be sure there is no conclusive proof that Mary Anning was this way sexually inclined but in these days of Hollywood reinvention or reimagining for little more than comic-book glory it would be hard not to allow the director some leeway in providing his love story with an interesting backdrop and a fascinating character. At times it is a painful watch, but a rewarding one.

Book Into Film – “Blindfold” (1965)

In the book by Lucille Fletcher the leading male character (played in the film by Rock Hudson) doesn’t own a horse so he doesn’t go riding in Central Park. The leading female character (Claudia Cardinale in the film) doesn’t own a bicycle and so doesn’t collide with Rock Hudson in Central Park.  The man isn’t a playboy, he’s not dubbed “Bluebeard” by the media and he doesn’t have a commitment phobia. The woman isn’t the secreted-away patient’s sister – she’s his wife and she doesn’t work in burlesque.  

About the only places where the screenplay by Philip Dunne and W.H. Menger touches base with the Fletcher novel is in the basic premise of psychiatrist recruited to treat an atomic scientist who may be in danger of kidnapping and in the business of the hero working out the secret location through auditory clues.

Names have been changed wholesale. The book’s Dr Richard Fenton turns into the film’s Dr. Benjamin Snow (Hudson); likewise the book’s Angela Mallory becomes the film’s Vicky Vincenti (Cardinale). The General in the book is anonymous but, for the sake of a mild pun, is called General Prat (Jack Warden) in the film.

So basically pretty much everything in the film is the invention of the screenwriters. In the book, Fenton carries out all the investigation on his own until assisted late in the day by Mrs Mallory and there is a brief hint of potential romance at the end because by this time the scientist is dead and they were a mismatched couple anyway.  

Two of the cleverest and most intriguing elements of the film were nothing to do with the book. The first was how the psychiatrist (Hudson) was able to analyze many of the characters with whom he came in contact, both good guys and bad guys. The second element was how it was impossible, given government penchant for secrecy, for Hudson to determine if any of the people who claimed they were from the National Security Council, the FBI or the CIA, actually belonged to those organisations.

While we’re at it, there was no Detective Harrigan (Brad Dexter) in the book either. Nor did the heroine, for lack of a better word, have an endearing family. Hudson’s secretary Smitty (Anne Seymour in the film) is an amalgam of his housekeeper Louisa and his secretary Edna in the book, neither of whom possesses Smitty’s dry wit. Even the dubious Fitzpatrick (Guy Stockwell) underwent a name change, if only partially, in the book called Fitzgerald.  And I’m sorry to disappoint you but the book did not boast a mule called Henry.

Lucille Fletcher, as it happened, was a very distinctive personage in the creative world. She had originated Sorry, Wrong Number, one of the most famous and enduring crime tales ever written. Sorry, Wrong Number first appeared a 22-minute radio play, a monologue by Agnes Moorhead with sound effects, on CBS in May 1943, so successful it was broadcast seven times in five years. The author wrote the screenplay for the 1948 film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. Three times it was turned into a television drama – in 1946, 1954 and 1958.  Prior to Blindfold, she had only written three novels, a novelization of Sorry, Wrong Number with Allan Ullman, Night Man also with Ullman, and The Daughters of Jasper Clay.

The Oscar nominations for the best adapted screenplay in the Blindfold year were for Doctor Zhivago (the winner), Ship of Fools, The Collector, and A Thousand Clowns. The first two certainly required considerable condensation and the others must have endured surgery of some kind, but I doubt very much if they had to discard virtually the entire source material and begin all over again, bringing a different tone, plot and character to the proceedings.

Philip Dunne was a double Oscar nominee in the screenplay department but for films – How Green Was My Valley (1941) and David and Bathsheba (1951) – that could not have been further from this one and he had written pictures as diverse as The Rains Came (1939), The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), Pinky (1949), The Robe (1953) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) but nothing hit as sweet a spot as Blindfold with its mix of romantic thriller and comedy.

The screenplay comes with another mystery. Who is W.H. Menger the co-writer? I can find nothing relating to this person beyond that he/she co-wrote Blindfold.

Anyway, kind of the point of writing these non-film reviews of the screenwriting process of various films is to examine a largely unexamined aspect of turning books into films. Original screenplays tend to get greater coverage. Adaptations, unless sourced from difficult subject matter, tend to pass under the radar. This, along with Fathom and The Venetian Affair (1967) are, in my opinion, classic examples of adaptations of novels which have some intrinsic cinematic interest but lack the story/character values necessary to turn them into watchable films and therefore require full-on assistance from a screenwriter.  

Blindfold (1965) *****

Hugely enjoyable superior addition to the romantic thriller genre with charismatic stars and a touch of screwball comedy. Dr Stone (Rock Hudson), a psychiatrist with such commitment issues he is dubbed “Bluebeard” by the media, is recruited by General Prat (Jack Warden) of the National Security Council to prevent former patient Arthur Vincenti (Alejandro Rey) falling victim to an international scientist-kidnapping ring. Getting to the patient, a plane and car ride away, requires the titular blindfold so Stone has no idea where he is. When Vincenti attacks Stone as a traitor, Prat explains the scientist has been brainwashed.

Ballet dancer Vicky (Claudia Cardinale) engineers an accidentally-on-purpose meet-cute in Central Park by running her bicycle into Stone’s horse but when, to nurse her injury, he carries her into his office she steals the scientist’s file. Turns out her artistic skills are somewhat lower than ballet, she is a go-go dancer, but she is the scientist’s brother whom she claims has been kidnapped. Stone is arrested and to get out of another sticky situation announces he is engaged to Vicky.

Complications are added when the C.I.A and F.B.I. enter the equation as well as a very suspicious cop Harrigan (Brad Dexter) with an inferiority complex, a couple of shady homburg-wearing hoods and new patient Fitzpatrick (Guy Stockwell), who, all, in one way or another, hound Stone and Vicky. The couple’s relationship is one of those on-again off-again romances which come with the territory. Soon, of course, Stone doesn’t know who to believe.

Bearing in mind we still have to get to the geese, the alligators and a mule called Henry, the witty, inventive script delivers on all fronts. Both Stone and Vicky are believable characters, and Stone’s psychiatric skills are not just window dressing – the kind of tony job associated with innocents thrust into peril. He uses his proficiency to get out of scrapes and eventually solve the mystery. Despite her glamor-girl persona, Vicky is the opposite of the sleek high-living characters often shoehorned into this kind of picture, a down-to-earth lass living in a brownstone with her mama and papa. Both leads turn out to be handy with their fists and in Vicky’s case her high-kicking feet.

And the comedy, rather than getting in the way or looking ridiculously out of place, aids and abets the storyline. It falls into three distinct camps. There is repartee not just between Stone and Vicky but Stone’s secretary (Anne Seymour) operates a sideline in dry quips. Slapstick comes mainly in the form of a fire extinguisher employed as a weapon and Stone nearly losing his trousers scaling a fence. Bureaucratic brick walls that hint of paranoia come close to classic black comedy. Not to mention some visual gags – “undie dummies” anyone – and some neat reversals.

This is Hudson at his very best and while often confused is never flustered, and without recourse to the double-takes that appeared so essential in any previous film with a comedic element. His character is assured, self-aware, thoughtful (he has to be to think things out), and very human. Cardinale is more than a match, a nice girl in the wrong line of work, passionate, determined and very warm. Director Philip Dunne find dramatic reasons to reveal her famous assets in body stocking, leotard and underwear, but in reality it is her smile that is the killer.

Dunne (Lisa, 1962) keeps up a cracking pace. He had a hand in the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Lucille Fletcher (Sorry, Wrong Number, 1948), one-time wife of composer Bernard Herrmann. Here, incidentally, the music is by Lalo Schifrin. Among the decade’s romantic thrillers this is out-ranked only by Charade (1963).