4 for Texas (1963) ****

To my mind the best of the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin collaborations, outside of the more straightforwardly dramatic Some Came Running (1958), and for the simple reason that they are rivals rather than buddies. The banter of previous “Rat Pack” outings is given a harder edge and it is shorn of extraneous songs.

I came at this picture with some trepidation, since it did not receive kind reviews, “stinks to high heaven” being a sample. But I thought it worked tremendously well, a delightful surprise, the ongoing intrigue intercut with occasional outright dramatic moments and a few good laughs.

It’s unfair to term it a comedy western since for a contemporary audience that invariably means a spoof of some kind, rather than a movie that dips into a variety of genres. In some respects it defies pigeonholing. For example, it begins with a dramatic shoot-out, stagecoach passengers Zack Thomson (Frank Sinatra), a crack shot with a rifle, and pistolero Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin) out-shooting an outlaw gang headed by Matson (Charles Bronson). When director Robert Aldrich (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) has the cojones to kill off legendary villain Jack Elam in the opening section you know you are in for something different.

After out-foxing Matson, Jarrett attempts to steal the $100,000 the stagecoach has been carrying from its owner Thomas. Jarrett looks to be getting away with it until he realizes he is still in range of Thomas’s rifle. Then Thomas looks to have secured the money until Jarrett produces a pistol from his hat. And that sets the template for the movie, Thomas trying to outsmart Jarrett, the thief always one step ahead, and the pair of them locking horns with corrupt banker Harvey Burden (Victor Buono), in whose employ is Matson.

The movie is full of clever twists, cunning ruses, scams, double-crosses, reversals and sparkling dialog. Whenever Jarrett and Thomas are heading for a showdown, something or someone (such as Matson) gets in the way. While Thomas has the perfect domestic life, fawned over by buxom maids and girlfriend Elya (Anita Ekberg), Jarrett encounters much tougher widow Maxine (Ursula Andress) who greets his attempts to invest in her riverboat casino by shooting at him.  

Take away the comedic elements and you would have a plot worthy of Wall Street and ruthless financiers. The story is occasionally complicated without being complex and the characters, as illustrated by their devious intent, are all perfectly believable.

It’s a great mix of action and comedy – with some extra spice added by The Three Stooges in a laugh-out-loud sequence – and it’s a quintessential example of the Sinatra-Martin schtick, one of the great screen partnerships, illuminated by sharp exchanges neither lazily scripted nor delivered. Even the blatant sexism is played for laughs.

Sinatra and Martin, especially, are at the top of their game. Forget all you’ve read about Aldrich and Sinatra not getting on. Sinatra never got on with any director. But an actor and director not getting on does not spell a poor picture. Sinatra brings enough to the table to make it work, especially as he is playing against type, essentially a dodgy businessman who is taken to the cleaners by both Martin and Buono.

The only flaw is that Ursula Andress (Dr No, 1962) does not turn up sooner. She has a great role, mixing seductiveness and maternal instinct with a stiff shot of ruthlessness, not someone to be fooled with at all, qualities that would resonate more in the career-making She (1965).  Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960) on the other hand is all bosom and not much else. Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) demonstrates a surprising grasp of the essentials of comedy for someone so often categorized as the tough guy’s tough guy.

The biggest bonus for the picture overall is the absence of the other clan members – Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – who appeared in previous Rat Pack endeavors Oceans 11 (1960) and Sergeants 3 (1963). Without having to laboriously fit all these other characters in, this film seems to fly along much better. As I mentioned, the fact that Sinatra and Martin play deadly enemies provides greater dramatic intensity.

Robert Aldrich was a versatile director, by this point having turned out westerns (Vera Cruz, 1954), thrillers (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955), war pictures (The Angry Hills, 1959), Biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and horror picture Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). But 4 for Texas called for even greater versatility, combining action with quickfire dialog, a bit of slapstick and romance and shepherding the whole thing with some visual flair.

If you are a fan of Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3 you will probably like this. If you are not, it’s worth giving this a go since it takes on such a different dynamic to those two pictures.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog: Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3; Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967); and Ursula Andress in The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

Book into Film – “A Cold Wind in August”

Burton Wohl turned his bestseller into the screenplay – John Hayes not to be confused with John Michael Hayes is  credited with the screen treatment – and it’s an object lesson in making the transition. For a start, Wohl had to tone down his racy book. Given that what movies could show on screen was governed by a self-imposed censorship system called the Production Code, I was surprised to discover there was no such automatic limitations laid down on fiction. There had been a boom in paperback originals with sexy covers that might be sold in a local drugstore rather than mainstream book outlet and A Cold Wind in August was a surprise success since most of the books in that line were formula numbers churned out in endless supply.

Much to my surprise, given my assumptions about the period, much of the book is given over to appreciation of the physical attributes of the main character Iris (Lola Albright). This is not achieved in a salacious manner. Iris is proud of having kept her figure in good shape, vital as it is to her career, and she likes admiring it, if only to herself. So a lot of what could be written on the page could not be shown on screen, but Wohl managed to retain the essence of the story and keep intact whole chunks of dialog and sequences like Iris pressing down with her foot on the hand of Vito (Scott Marlowe) or teaching him how to drink.

The film was so well-structured I thought the screenwriter’s main problem would be what to leave out. But setting aside the obvious, it was the opposite. Wohl felt obliged to add. Iris’s ex-husband, whose presence at the beginning of the picture creates the plot device that will imperil her affair with Vito, does not appear at all in the book, the plot element delivered by telephone. There’s a section in the film that’s also new when the couple go out to the park like normal sweethearts. And Wohl also shows how young the man is, when he still gets a kick from horsing around with fire. In the book her act is titled “Mystery Girl from Outer Space” but in the film she is more cat-like.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that in the book Iris is English. Sure, her father is a blunt Yorkshireman with a blunt Yorkshireman’s rough accent, but she has taken the raw ingredients and turned them into something more polished, something she calls “class.”

It’s a short novel, just over two hundred pages, and mostly reflection of one kind or another, rather than action-packed and plot- or plot-twist driven, so by concentrating primarily on key scenes, Wohl manages to translate into film the essence of his book.

Wohl had an unsual Hollywood career. Although credited with story and screenplay for Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) along with the director’s regular collaborator Leigh Brackett, and screenplay for The Third Day (1965) starring George Peppard, and Ballad in Blue (1965), mostly he was responsible for novelizations of existing screenplays such as The China Syndrome (1979), Rollercoaster (1977) and Mahogany (1975).

A Cold Wind in August (1961) ***

Touching low-budget B-movie shot in black-and-white of a young man receiving his sexual education from an older woman. Motherless Vito (Scott Maxwell), the son of an apartment block super, is seduced by the older Iris (Lola Albright), a three-time divorcee looking for a son to mother.  

This is not the transactional sex of The Graduate, and seduction is too strong a description for the yearning Iris whose advances are sensual and romantic, stroking Vito’s head, trapping his hand with her foot, and there is nothing clandestine about their affair either, no false names on a hotel register. They dally in the park, eat hot dogs, he buys her flowers.  

But as he experiences love for the first time, he also experiences more difficult emotions like jealousy and finds it difficult not just to cope with what seems like another man in her life, the wholesaler Juley (Herschel Bernardi), but the fact that she treats Juley with such contempt. Spoiler alert – well, not really, because you know from the off this is not going to turn out well – the affair ends when he discovers she is a stripper. And while she is left bereft, he now appears more attractive to girls his own age.

In contrast to the powerful emotions stoked up when the pair are together, director Alexander Singer (Pysche ‘59, 1964) fills us in on the rest of Vito’s humdrum life, working for his father during the school holidays, goofing off with his pals, and generally failing to make headway with girls his own age.  But Iris’s life is not humdrum. Although she has a rule not to work in her own geographical area, she breaks that to accommodate her estranged husband, whom she seems to tolerate, while at the same time drinking herself into oblivion to avoid any moves from Juley. Nor is she ashamed of her profession. It is an act, a job like any other, and provides her with a nice apartment. Small wonder she treats men with contempt. Perhaps what she falls in love with is untainted innocence. In some senses she is adrift, at other times in full command. And her love for Vito is convincing.

It is full of incidentals. He gulps down ice-cream, she teaches him to drink one sip at a time, without being patronizing the father (Joe De Santis) tries to educate him to honor his inner feelings.

Lola Albright (Peter Gunn television series) carries off a difficult role very well indeed. Without laughs to help him out as it did Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate Scott Maxwell is believable both as the youth growing into adulthood and the youth wanting to remain a youth with no adult responsibilities. The low-key performance of Joe De Santis is worth a mention.

While the picture no doubt attracted attention for the risqué material, which would have certainly given the Hays Code pause for thoughts, it provided a more rounded picture than was normal at the time of a woman working in the sex industry, even if only in the stripping department. Iris did not fall into any of the cliches. She is presented as a woman first and foremost rather than a stripper.

 

Behind the Scenes: “The Girl on a Motorcycle” / “Naked under Leather” (1968)

Although multi-country co-productions were very common in the 1960s, British-French co-productions were particularly thin on the ground, as if the cultural identities were so far apart there was nowhere they could ever meet. This was only the third such co-production in three years. British Lion, a long-established operation, had recently been overhauled with a new boss in John Boulting, a renowned filmmaker of Boulting Brothers (The Family Way, 1966) fame.

The film was based on a prestigious prize-winning French novel by Andre Pieyre de Manidargues. The budget was set at a modest $1.5 million with location shoots in Geneva, Heidelberg and Strasbourg with interiors shot at Shepperton. Director Jack Cardiff (Dark of the Sun, 1967) had originally hired a German actress, a Playboy centerfold,  for the leading role of the young girl who marries a timid young man while obsessed with a less conventional ex-lover. But the actress suffered a drug overdose and dropped out. Ironically, Marianne Faithful, her replacement, was also a drug addict and famed as a singer and as girlfriend of Mick Jagger.

Although her acting  experience was limited to television film Anna (1967) and a small part in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname (1967), Cardiff was captivated by her sensuality which was ideal for her character. Bear in mind that Cardiff knew what a camera captured. He had made his name as a cinematographer and worked with great beauties like Ava Gardner (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Sophia Loren (Legend of the Lost, 1957) and Marilyn Monroe (The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957) so if he thought Faithfull fitted that category then there was no reason to doubt his assessment. He commented: “Never since I saw Marilyn Monroe through the camera lens have I seen such irresistible beauty. To focus on her is to focus the camera on your innermost heart.”  

Cardiff took advantage of a new trend to film movies in both English and French to open up distribution channels. Claude Chabrol’s The Road to Corinth (1967) was shot in this manner as was Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) with Charles Bronson and Alain Delon.   

Faithfull could not ride a motorbike so a stunt double was utilised for long shots. But instead of resorting to back projection, for medium shots and close-ups the actress was towed on a trailer behind a camera car. Not having to worry about the controls also meant that Faithfull could look dreamlike while driving and with Cardiff not having to think about the actress he could turn the camera in a 360-degree pan while she rode along.

Since Faithfull was going to be seen on a motorbike for long sections of the movie, Cardiff came up with a method of creating variety. One of the techniques employed was “solarization.” This was, in effect, a half-positive half-negative exposure, but it had only been used in the past in very small doses, nothing like what Cardiff had in mind. BBC boffin Laurie Atkin had invented a computer system that allowed solarization to be used more extensively. Footage shot during the day was taken immediately to the BBC lab at night where Cardiff could tinker about with creating his effects.   

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this technique were the sex scenes. Without the solarization which hid naked bodies under a psychedelic whirl the sex scenes would never have got past the censor.  There was an unfortunate downside, however. The Girl on a Motorcycle had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Critical approval there would have given the picture artistic momentum. Unfortunately, delays caused by the laboratory work meant the film missed its scheduled screening slot. Even so, French critics gave it the thumbs-up. British critics, on the other hand, gave it the thumbs-down. Lack of critical estimation did not appear to matter to British audiences who came out in their droves.

But it was a different story in the United States.

No wonder that to some extent this is one of the great lost pictures because Warner Brothers could not find a way to sell it in the U.S. Having paid a record $1.5 million advance, the studio (known at that time as Warner-Seven Arts) was hit by a double whammy. The picture was the first to receive an X-rating from the newly-established MPAA censorship system which replaced the previous Production Code. The new system was supposed to allow filmmakers greater latitude in terms of sex, violence and language.

Theoretically, that should have been a marketing bonus and the film should have ridden the “sex-art” wave and turned into an arthouse hit with the mainstream, captivated by solid grosses, to follow.  In reality, many exhibitors refused to touch it, regarding the X-rating as a separate category catering for the worst of the adults-only smut market. Newspapers refused to carry advertising for films so rated. Critics hated it, all the New York critics giving negative reviews.

Warners slotted it into a handful of arthouse houses before pulling all prints out of circulation in May 1970 and sending to back for re-editing with the intention of re-submitting it, shorn of some of the nudity, to the MPAA in a bid to win a more acceptable R-rating. In other words, to “re-gear the picture for the general market rather than the adult sex-art trade originally in mind.”  

To ensure that its reputation was not “soiled” the picture was re-titled Naked under Leather – if the content was tamer, the title was certainly not. Initially, that appeared to do the trick when it was re-released a full year later. It pulled in a “boff” $125,000 (worth around $864,000 now – a whopping $36,000 per-screen average) in 24 houses in wide release in Los Angeles, was “hot” in Denver and “tidy” in Chicago and found a few bookings elsewhere. But then it stalled and could not find the extra gear. In reality it did not do much better than on initial release. In the 1969 annual box office chart it featured at No 231 and for the corresponding 1970 chart it placed at number 253.

Sources: Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour, Faber and Faber, 1996, p242-243; “New British Lion Mgt. Gets Motorcyle Rights in UK,” Variety, October 18, 1967, 23; “Stylistic Dash Marks Cannes Films,” Variety, May 22, 1968, 26“British Lion Wraps Up Distribution Deal with W-7 for U.S., Towa for Japan,” Variety, August 28, 1968, 29, “Features Passing Through MPAA,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 20; “All Imports; N.Y. Critics All Bad,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 7; “Recall and Re-Edits W-7’s Motorcycle; X-Rating Now R,” Variety, January 29, 1969, 7; “Computer Tally of 729, 1968,” Variety,  May 7, 1969, 36; “Naked under Leather,” Variety, April 22, 1970, 4; “L.A. First Run Healthy,” Variety, May 13, 1970, 9; “Top 330 Pix in U.S. for 1970,” Variety, May 12, 1971, 37.

The Girl on a Motorcycle / Naked under Leather (1968) ***

An erotic charge deftly switched this picture from the Hell’s Angels default of violent biker pictures spun out cheaply by American International.  Where Easy Rider (1969) was powered by drugs, this gets its highs from sex. Rebecca (Marianne Faithful), gifted a Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorbike by lover Daniel (Alain Delon) two months before marriage to staid teacher Raymond (Roger Mutton), takes to the highways to find herself.

This ode to speed (of the mechanical kind) allows her to shake off her preconceptions and fully express her personality, beginning with the one-piece black leather outfit, whose zip, in one famous scene, Daniel pulls down with his teeth. The bike is masculine. “There he is,” she intones and there is a none-too-subtle succession of images where she clearly treats it as a male appendage.

She is both self-aware and lost. In some respects Raymond is an ideal partner since he respects her wild nature and gives her space, and she views marriage to him as a method of avoiding “becoming a tart.” In other words he represents respectability, just like her father (Marius Goring) who owns the bookshop where she works. But he is just too reasonable for her and, in reality, as she would inevitably discover that is just a cover for his weakness. The only scene in which she does not appear is given over to Raymond being tormented by young pupils who have him chasing round the class hunting for a transistor radio.

But Daniel is not quite up to scratch either. He believes in “free love”, i.e. sex without commitment and he is not inclined to romantic gestures and she knows she could just become another in a long line of discarded conquests should they continue. Raymond is a “protection against” Daniel and her ending up as an adulteress teenage bride and potential nymphomaniac. She seeks abandon not reality.

As well as sexy interludes with Daniel, her head is filled with sexual images, not to mention dabbling with masochism, in a dream her leather outfit being stripped off piece by piece by a whip-wielding Daniel, in a bar imagining taking off her clothes in front of the aged drinkers.

Jack Cardiff’s film is certainly an interesting meditation on freedom and sexual liberation at a time when such notions were beginning to take hold, but it suffers from over-reliance on internal monologue and Marianne Faithful’s lack of acting experience. Cardiff went straight into this from violent actioner Dark of the Sun (1968) and audiences remembering him from The Liquidator (1965) and The Long Ships (1964) would need reminded that he braced romance before in the touching and Oscar-nominated Sons and Lovers (1960). In that film he elicited an Oscar-nominated performance from Mary Ure, something that was unlikely here.

Pipe-smoking was generally the preserve of the old, or detectives, unless you were a young intellectual as Delon is here, but it does seem an odd conceit to force the actor into such a contrivance. Delon is accustomed to playing amoral characters, so this part is no great stretch, but, minus the pipe, he is, of course, one of the great male stars of the era and his charisma sees him through.

It was also interesting to compare Cardiff’s soundtrack to that of Easy Rider. Here, the music by Les Reed – making his movie debut but better known as a songwriter of classic singles like “Delilah” sung by Tom Jones – is strictly in the romantic vein rather than an energetic paeon to freedom such as “Born to Be Wild.” 

Cardiff’s skill as an acclaimed cinematographer (Oscar-winner for Black Narcissus, 1947) helps the picture along and clever use of the psychedelic helped some of the sexual scenes escape the British censor’s wrath, though not so in the U.S. where it was deemed an “X”. 

Behind the Scenes: “The Guns of Navarone” (1961)

It’s time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Guns of Navarone – world premiere on April 27, 1961, in London and New York opening on June 22, 1961. Although the picture set a new benchmark in high-octane entertainment, a fast-moving war thriller packed with twists and a genuine all-star cast, it was far – very far – from the sure thing it appears in retrospect.

Box office smash in Britain.

For a start, U.S producer Carl Foreman, a victim of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s, was unable to assemble any of the talent he had set his heart on. He lost his preferred male cast of William Holden and Cary Grant and original scriptwriter Eric Ambler, the thriller writer famed for The Mask of Dimitrios and other novels.

He had a registered a major publicity coup by engineering the screen debut of opera diva Maria Callas, one of the most famous people in the world, but she also dropped out as did his other initial choice for leading lady. On top of that, once filming began he lost his director, Alexander Mackendrick, who had not only achieved a critical and commercial success with the British Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1951) but also crossed the Atlantic to make the acclaimed The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, to prove he could handle big Hollywood stars.

On top of that David Niven nearly lost his life during production and by the time the picture appeared Gregory Peck had suffered so many box office flops that he was a potential liability. And Foreman’s own marriage was in trouble.

Building the massive guns set.

It was a wonder it was made at all for Foreman was nobody’s idea of a sure thing. Although he had made his name as a screenwriter with three Oscar nominations for Champion (1949), The Men (1950) and High Noon (1952), his career was in ruins after being slung out of America for his supposed communist sympathies. He set up in London where he wrote screenplays under pseudonyms. But in 1956 won a four-picture production deal with Columbia at a time when that studio was investing heavily in making films in Britain to take advantage of the government’s Eady Levy (effectively, a tax rebate) and cheaper costs. But his first film, The Key (1958) with William Holden and Sophia Loren flopped in the U.S. Columbia persevered, seeing Foreman as the man to tackle its biggest-ever European production.

The Guns of Navarone almost fell at the first hurdle. Foreman’s first choice of location was Cyprus which was threatening to erupt into a civil war. At the last minute, he changed his mind and shifted production to Rhodes. Foreman, who also acted as screenwriter, made considerable changes to the book by British bestselling thriller writer Alistair Maclean, not least of which was introducing female characters to a story that had been resolutely all-male.

Original hardback book cover.

There was tension on set – four-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck was annoyed at sharing the screen with two winners David Niven (Best Actor for Separate Tables, 1958) and Anthony Quinn (twice Best Supporting Actor for Viva Zapata, 1952, and Lust for Life, 1956). Replacement director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958) managed to sink a ship on loan from the Greek navy.  The Actor’s Strike in Hollywood nearly forced the departure of the two younger stars.

The set for the titular guns was the largest ever built, costing £100,000, and even though that proved a design miracle, that, too, was not exempt from disaster, having to be rebuilt after a thunderstorm destroyed part of the set. The injury to David Niven was so severe he nearly died, putting the production in jeopardy. Even when the film approached completion there were other obstacles in the way, composer Dmitri Tiomkin (The Alamo, 1960), for example, demanding a record fee and Foreman locking horns with Columbia over his insistence on launching the picture as a roadshow, request which was ultimately denied, and one of the reasons for the film’ release delay,

I’ve written a book about The Making of The Guns of Navarone. Originally published in 2013, it has been revised with over 30 illustrations added for a new edition to tie in with the 60th anniversary – available both in print and Kindle versions. Needless to say, it would also make an ideal present for Father’s Day.

If you’re interested in this kind of book, you might like to know that I’ve also written The Making of The Magnificent Seven.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) *****

Stone-cold action classic that blazed a trail for the big-budget men-on-a-mission war picture like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Brilliantly structured, written and directed,  and featuring a sea battle, storm, shipwreck, mountaineering, chase, interrogation scenes, infiltration of an impregnable fortress, a pair of romances, two traitors, and an awe-inspiring climax make this a candidate for one of the greatest war pictures ever made.

The set-up is simple. Knock out the gigantic guns at Navarone or two thousand men will perish. It’s mission impossible and the clock is ticking. You don’t know who to trust and the enemy is ruthless.

In the early days of the all-star-cast, producer Carl Foreman rounded up an astonishing line-up, bulking out the bestseller by Scottish thriller maestro Alistair Maclean (The Secret Ways, 1961) with three top stars in five-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), double Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn (Heller in Pink Tights, 1960) and Oscar-winner David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960). Add in British household names Anthony Quayle (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Stanley Baker (The Concrete Jungle, 1960) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Love, 1960), a sprinkling of rising stars in James Darren (Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960), Gia Scala (I Aim at the Stars, 1960) and Richard Harris (The Night Fighters, 1960) and renowned Greek actress Irene Papas (Antigone, 1961).

Each man is a specialist. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck) the mountaineer whose climbing skills are essential to completing the fist part of the mission, explosives expert Corporal Miller (David Niven), mechanic ‘Butcher’ Brown (Stanley Baker), Greek patriot Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) and the ruthless killer Pappadimos (James Darren) who has the contact with the Greek resistance. The stakes are ramped up when we learn both Mallory and Stavrou have bounties on their heads, not to mention the fact they are sworn enemies, and that before the mission even gets under way, spies are discovered in the camp. The ostensible leader of the group Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) is wounded early on, turning him into a liability and making Mallory the de facto leader.

The stakes are ramped up further – this time through relationships. Their Greek contact turns out to be a woman, Maria (Irene Papas), brother of Pappadimos. She brings with her a mute girl Anna (Gia Scala) for whom Mallory develops romantic feelings while Stavrou has eyes for Maria. Mallory is also torn about Franklin, his best friend.

And from there it pitches into one disaster after another. They are too easily hunted by the Germans. They are shelled with mortars and attacked by dive bombers as they race across open mountains and through caves to reach their destination. They have to shoot their way out of traps and finagle their way into the fortress. There are twists and turns all the way, the clock ticking in almost James-Bond-style as the deadline for the destruction of the troops approaches.

And although this is clearly a war picture it is also as obviously an anti-war one, no end to the killing in sight, people dying pointlessly.

Although the acting was ignored come Oscar time, each of the stars delivers and it is a communal tour de force. Director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex) ensures that in visual terms none of the stars dominates, each given equal screen time while the strong supporting cast each has their own narrative arc. With over two-and-half-hours’ running time, Thompson has both the bonus of time to allow each element to be fully played out and the problem of keeping the picture taut and he succeeds brilliantly in both aims. It is a masterpiece of suspense. And it looked fabulous, the guns themselves, by which the picture might succeed or fail, were awesome.

Thompson was Oscar-nominated as was producer Carl Foreman for both Best Picture and the screenplay, Dmitri Tiomkin for the score (one of the longest-ever), John Cox for sound, Alan Osbiston for editing. Bill Warrington who did the visual special effects and Chris Greenham who did the sound effects were the only winners on the night.

It was a commercial smash, top picture of the year in the U.S., the biggest  picture of all time at the British box office and breaking records all over the world.

Selling Dick Van Dyke – The Pressbook for “Divorce American Style”

There was a curious dichotomy at the heart of promotional efforts for this picture. On the one hand, theater managers were encouraged to make contact with those affected by divorce, on the other to make a great play of weddings and marriage.

So theater managers were told to contact groups such as Parents without Partners, Children of Divorce, Divorce Reform Groups, Alimony Payers and Family Counsellors. Divorce Parties and Divorce Breakfasts were suggested as other sources of publicity. Free screenings were aimed at couples who could prove they were divorced – presumably, that is, if they could still stand the sight of each other.

“Wedding rings can make a very positive contribution” to a promotional campaign was the other side of efforts to sell the movie. That meant possibly offering a wedding ring as a prize in a competition for divorced couples planning to re-marry…”re-marriage might take place at your theater…but it is not mandatory.” Free tickets could be given to jewelers to hand out to anyone buying an engagement or wedding ring. Another idea was a newspaper article on what divorced women did with their wedding rings after they had split from their partner.

Dick Van Dyke had been named “Screen Father of the Year” by the National Father’s Day committee and he had made a national tour in support of the picture meeting the media in New York, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans. Oklahoma City, Rochester, Washington, Syracuse, Boston and Philadelphia so journalists in those localities were already primed to support the efforts of cinemas. In Dallas, he was met by 1,000 people and later presented with a plaque from the Domestic Relations Court because “the ideals of the film serve as a deterrent to divorce.”

Unusually, the fashion boost this time focused on the male. Jason Robards had turned himself into a male model for Ratner California Clothes with advertisements appearing in Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Equally unusual was a suggestion to tie up with a local hypnotist – a scene in the picture involves Pat Collins’ nightclub act.

Van Johnson played a used car dealer in the film so they were also targeted for joint promotions or car parades. Bowling alleys, too, since that form of leisure activity featured in the film. On a more straightforward note Popular Library had produced a novelization and United Artists the original soundtrack album by Dave Grusin.

Divorce American Style (1967) ***

Not so much a comedy about a failing marriage as a guide to the American divorce laws,  a cynical hard-boiled and frightening shape of things to come in a world where the everyman is represented not by the likes of James Stewart or at a stretch Glenn Ford but Dick Van Dyke. It’s possibly only the fact that Van Dyke lacks dramatic chops without the innate vitriol of a Rod Steiger or Lee Marvin that keeps the movie from drifting into devastating black comedy. That, or the filmmakers’ determination to find a happy ending.

When the ever-squabbling Harmons, Richard (Dick Van Dyke) and Barbara (Debbie Reynolds), break up after 17 years and two kids, the chips seem to fall heavily against the husband, the wife walking off with all assets, the husband landed with all the bills and little more than 80 bucks a week to get by on. Such is the supposed injustice of the American divorce laws at a time when most wives did not go out to work and so relied on their husband, married or otherwise, for support.

The only way out of this unhappy financial state for Richard is for his wife to get married again, so a second husband can pick up the tab for her upkeep.  Another divorced couple, the Downes, Nelson (Jason Robards) and Nancy (Jean Simmons), are in the same pickle so Nelson spends his time acting as some kind of pimp for his ex-wife, serving up potential suitors, such as Richard, on a platter. But since Richard is impoverished a helping hand is needed to even things up, so Nelson arranges for Barbara to fall into the arms of rich and single used car dealer Al Yearling (Van Johnson).

There is a big male-female divide, for the most part the guys concentrating on material things like money and what money can buy, the gals leaning more towards emotion, conversation, genuine intimacy.  Richard has given his wife everything she wants, so why can’t he have a few things his own way. Or as Barbara succinctly puts it, it’s a case of supply and demand, the women are in good supply while the men demand. Even after separation, while from the Richard and Nelson perspective the wives are living in the lap of luxury and the men understanding the meaning of penury, female thoughts turn to questions of loneliness, commitment and (not again!) emotion.

While there are moments of observational comedy – an excellent montage of Richard and Barbara opening and closing all sorts of doors while preparing for bed, cleaning out bank accounts before the other can get to them, the problems of accommodating the blended/hybrid family that divorce or multiple divorce can entail – there are not many laugh-out-loud moments.

And probably just as well because without the drama-lite presences of Van Dyke (who still can’t shake off those double takes and involuntary limb functions) and Reynolds, it would have been a much tougher watch. Reynolds is capable of expressing her feelings verbally because, as a female, she is used to expressing feelings verbally, so we know that Al Yearling does not quite hit the spot. But Van Dyke, without resort to the verbal, has his best scenes of emotional loss when he takes his kids to the ball game only to discover that his wife’s new suitor has more treats to offer.

Van Dyke (Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.) and Reynolds (The Singing Nun, 1966) do a decent job without plumbing any dramatic depths, but Robards (Any Wednesday, 1966) and Simmons (Spartacus, 1960) have more to offer as the conspiring couple, while one-time MGM golden boy Van Johnson (Battleground, 1949) proves that his four-year absence from pictures was premature Hollywood retirement. More a cautionary tale than an outright laffer, this Norman Lear (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) screenplay without missing many targets provides a more palatable dissection of modern marriage than something as full-blooded and expletive-ridden as the previous year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Director Bud Yorkin (Come Blow Your Horn, also) shows a nice grasp of building up situations until they go out of  control.

While, certainly, many of the attitudes are out of date you can be sure that male self-pity is not one of them.

Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow (1963) ****

The mysterious masked Scarecrow was the creepiest character thus far put on celluloid by Disney. A lot of the action takes place at dusk so it is soaked in crepuscular atmosphere. Filmed against the sky, every horse seems to thunder past. Gallows swing ominously. Coupled with a strong storyline and clever ruses by alter ago the mild-mannered clergyman Dr Syn (Patrick McGoohan), this is one for the Under-Rated Hall of Fame.  

While the character has antecedents in folk-hero Robin Hood, the Scarecrow is more rooted in the brutal reality of Britain in the mid-1700s when to fund a host of foreign wars King George taxed already-impoverished peasants to the hilt, making smuggling essential to survival. The Scarecrow is not just the underworld kingpin but has operational skills a spy would be proud of, coded messages, secret rendezvous et al.  

Ruthless General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen), sent to rid the countryside of this menace, makes no bones about putting the squeeze on the wives of villagers to force them into providing the information he requires. Outwitted from the off by Dr Syn, the infuriated general begins torching houses. Helped unwittingly by local squire and judge Thomas Banks (Michael Hordern), the general acquires an informer Joseph Ransley (Patrick Wymark).

This is not the bucolic England of Robin Hood or other historical yarns of Hollywood invention featuring glorious scenery and ample female cleavage. Here, a barmaid is likely to use a meat cleaver to defend herself. This was also the era of press gangs, where government-appointed hoodlums would raid a village and carry off young men as unwilling recruits for the Royal Navy. It was a time of imminent insurrection, the King’s subjects in the North American colonies on the point of sedition. And when money – or its lack – infected every area of society.       

Although like any super-hero the Scarecrow occasionally comes to the rescue, the movie is distinguished by the fact that is more often Dr Syn who subverts the General through cunning subterfuge. Victory through force of arms is impossible since violence visited on the king’s troops would result in a multiplication of their numbers. So it is more a battle of wits. In addition, the Scarecrow faces a dilemma – how to punish a traitor with such severity his authority is never questioned again while at the same time upholding the principles of Dr Syn. Just how these issues and others are resolved make for a very involving picture.

Minor subplots – a romance between the squire’s daughter and an officer, a deserter from the Navy and the presence of an American (Tony Britton) – serve the main story. So the narrative remains taut. And, interestingly, that hangs upon what characters have to lose rather than gain. It is not about greed but survival.

For a Disney picture there is considerable directorial vigor, not just the depiction of the smuggling and pounding hooves accompanying peril or escape, but two terrific trial scenes, a masterly escape conducted in the complete absence of on-screen music and, of course, the terrifying vision of the Scarecrow himself.

The acting has a sterling quality. While Michael Hordern was a stage star, the film primarily called upon actors who later achieved fame on British television programs. Patrick McGoohan headlined The Prisoner (1967-1968), George Cole was in Minder (1979-1994), Patrick Wymark and Alan Dobie in The Plane Makers (1963-1965) Geoffrey Keen in Mogul (1965-1972), and Tony Britton in Robin’s Nest (1977-1981). McGoohan had a previous television incarnation as Danger Man  (1960-1961) and Cole had been a con man in the St Trinian’s films. You can also spot in small roles Kay Walsh, a former British leading lady, and a young Richard O’Sullivan, later star of Man About the House (1973-1976).

Director James Neilson was a Disney favorite, having helmed Moon Pilot (1962), Bon Voyage! (1962) and Summer Magic (1963). But these were all lightweight features and it is to his credit he met the challenge of turning Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow into a dramatic actioner. British writer Robert Westerby (The Square Ring, 1953), who also created the source material for Kali-Yug, Goddess of Vengeance (1963),  fashioned the screenplay from the books of William Buchanan and Russell Thorndike

Although Disney had cannibalized the Davy Crockett television series in the 1950s, stitching together episodes for feature films, this was something of a reversal. As part of its The Magical Wonderful World of Disney U.S. television program the studio had shown The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh as a three-part mini-series while Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow was released as a movie in Britain.  

You will need to go onto ebay or other secondhand sources to find the movie. The television mini-series can be found below.