Censor (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

From video nasty to video laughty in one easy move. I was laughing out loud when the picture started to get nasty and I doubt this was the intention of director Prano Bailey Bond, making her movie debut. The movie is set in the uber-drab 1980s, where color was apparently in short supply, and all the characters inhabited offices or houses that appeared to belong to the black-and-white era.  The notion that iconic characters like Boy George, Madonna and Princess Diana might have been around at the same time is largely ignored in the bid to make every character flat and conformist.

In fairness, working in the British film censorship department was hardly likely to provide a bundle of laughs. As well as being as being as buttoned-down as they come, Enid (Niamh Algar) is also riddled with guilt since she was in charge of her younger sister when she went missing two decades previously. A chunk of the film is almost a spoof of The Office, with characters hidebound by officialdom.

And there are a few excellent set pieces. As with The Night House, the scenes that deal with grief, Enid’s parents finally coming to terms with their daughter’s disappearance, are very well done. The dialogue among the various censors, judging whether to reject movies or heavily edit them, rings very true and there is a terrific scene involving film-making where the director is kept off-camera while an actress is literally standing in the spotlight.

Tight-lipped Enid becomes obsessed with the idea that her sister is not only alive but actually an actress in a video nasty.  To that end, she tracks down smarmy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley). As I said, it may have been the director’s intention that Smart is killed by ironically managing to have an award statuette rammed down his throat, but I’m not so sure and at that point I began to lose faith in the picture. It goes on to a perfectly bonkers climax which had me in stitches, again not entirely a recommendation.

The Night House (2020) ** – Seen at the Cinema

An overloaded atmosphere cannot make up for the lack of directorial killer instinct, resulting in a ghost story that leans more towards the preposterous than horror.  Beth (Rebecca Hall), dealing with the suicide of her husband, begins to imagine a ghostly  presence in her remote house on a lake. Left a very odd suicide note, she pieces together stranger aspects of his life, involving the occult and a photo on his phone of a Beth lookalike.

The picture divides very neatly into the entirely believable grief of schoolteacher Beth – she nips at a moaning parent, knocks back the brandy, makes inappropriate comments to her workmates and displays sufficient off-the-wall tendencies to alarm pal Claire (Sarah Goldberg) – and the various tropes that need to be knitted together to take the story into the ghost/horror realm, few of which work. Mysterious footsteps, sometime muddy, sometimes bloody, appear, harmless neighbour Mel (Vondie Hall Curtis) is presented as potentially malevolent, and music suddenly blares out in the middle of the night.

Had the story remained entrenched in Beth’s imagination, where she almost willed her husband either to be still alive or enough of a presence (as in Ghost, 1990) that she could touch or be comforted by, and gradually either became subsumed by grief or came out of it, it might have worked very well. But the minute it started to delve into the area of the unbelievable it became largely unbelievable. Even when it is obvious her husband is not at all what he once seemed, the picture just ignores the obvious.

And that is a shame. Even more so than Stillwater, reviewed last week, this is a thespian tour-de-force. Beth is scarcely off the screen and her ever-changing mood displays terrific acting skills. But just like Stillwater, it loses its way, going for plot instead of character, and the film cannot make up its mind whether she is going mad, or just mad with grief, or whether she is victim to unseen predator. There was only one genuine jump-out-of-your-seat shock and the introduction late on of elements of her backstory served to confuse rather than elucidate.

Rebecca Hall (Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021) can certainly hold the screen and hopefully this will lead to better roles in bigger films. None of the other actors are particularly noteworthy. Director David Bruckner (Netflix’s The Ritual, 2017) seems to be focusing on horror – Hellraiser is next – but whether he needs a bigger budget or a better script to scare the pants off an audience remains to be seen. Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Stephanie, 2017) also appear to be specialising in this genre.

P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) ****

Exceptional down-and-dirty thriller and throwback film noir woefully underrated on release but with a brilliant mystery (or two), a touch of satire, red herrings, some great lines, and believable characters. Private eye P.J. Detweiler (George Peppard) is so down on his luck he is willing to play the lover so an errant wife can be photographed in a motel room. What little he earns goes on paying is debts. So he can hardly reject the chance of serious money as bodyguard to Maureen (Gayle Hunnicutt), mistress of rich businessman William Orbison (Raymond Burr), never mind that she initially treats him as a servant.

Orbison has a legendary mean streak – to save on paper secretaries have to type closer to the edge of the sheet, he forces wife Betty (Colette Gray) to account for every dime of her allowance to the point of almost making her beg. Sadism is another character trait. He enjoys watching animals die. The childless millionaire adds his mistress to his will for the sole purpose of upsetting every other potential heir. In front of guests at a prestigious party he forces Betty to acknowledge Maureen’s existence.

The title was changed for British audiences and came from a line in the film.

This apparently wealthy world is riddled with seedy inhabitants, whose only motivation is  greed, all desperate to retain status or inheritance and enjoying Orbison’s largesse, which, despite his miserly nature, he nonetheless flaunts. As well as Betty enduring ritual humiliation to enjoy a gilded lifestyle, his executive assistant Jason (Jason Evers) accepts being treated as a gofer in order to keep his position and the perks that go with it, and Maureen makes no bones about prostituting herself for temporary and future gain. Everyone has to kowtow, even the occupants of a West Indian island dependent on Orbison for investment, not only a kids choir welcoming Orbison on arrival, but a calypso performer singing a song in his praise.

As various threats, including narrowly missing a bullet, are made against Maureen, making a classical entrance in a red dress and alternating between helpless victim and femme fatale, with her creepy manservant Quell (Severn Darden) reporting her every move, inevitably Detweiler grows closer to his client, unaware that Orbison is planning to have someone killed.

That someone turns out to be Jason, whom Orbison suspects of clandestine activity with his wife, and whom Detweiler innocently kills. As this takes place on the island, where the death is hushed up, Detweiler begins to wonder if he’s a patsy and, paid off by Orbison, undertakes his own investigation, quickly entering more dangerous waters, viciously beaten up at Quell’s behest in a gay bar, narrowly avoiding death in the subway and literally finding himself in the firing line.

Detweiler’s character undergoes transition, too. From begging for scraps and turning the other way so as not to jeopardize easy income, he rediscovers his suit of shining armor, walking down some pretty mean streets, a diligent private eye who can no longer be bought off, determined to get to the bottom of what turns out to be a complicated mystery. Detweiler is no Marlowe or even Tony Rome, but rather despicable at the outset, employing all sorts of dodges, his interest in Maureen not slackening even after he knows she indulges in a quickie with Orbison. He takes too much at face value.

The unfolding mystery is superbly handled, involving proper clues and investigation, shoot-outs and fisticuffs, the outcome not what you might initially imagine. Although primarily an old school private eye picture, it’s great fun, with some wonderful comedy involving a dog, gentle satire on the West Indian island where political whitewash is the order of the day, and some touching romantic foreplay.

Peppard (Tobruk, 1967) is outstanding as the dupe who rediscovers his moral compass and his Detweiler is an excellent addition to the ranks of the private eye.  Raymond Burr, a far cry from his Perry Mason (1957-1966) television persona,  is easily one of the worst screen millionaires in his contempt for humanity and with his silver hair and bulk and scheming proves a slick adversary. Gayle Hunnicutt (Eye of the Cat, 1969) is allure on legs, brilliantly playing every man in sight, eyes never diverted from the prize.

Brock Peters (The Pawnbroker, 1964) has a standout cameo as the island’s cynical police chief. Susan Saint James (The Name of the Game, 1968-1971) makes her movie debut as Orbison’s slinky sex-mad niece.  Also putting in an appearance are Wilfrid Hyde-white (The Liquidator, 1965) as the island’s sycophantic governor, Colleen Gray (Red River, 1948) as the humiliated wife, Severn Darden (The President’s Analyst, 1967) as the odious Quell and John Ford regular John Qualen (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962).

This was the second of director John Guillermin’s George Peppard trilogy following The Blue Max (1966) and prior to House of Cards (1968). Generally dismissed as a journeyman, Guillermin brings a sly eye to this picture, the send-up of British colonialism, the master-servant aspects, an over-the-shoulder shot of an unknown assassin, the scenes in a bar which doubles as Detweiler’s office, the brutal beating in the gay bar, and a brilliant subway sequence adding layers to the movie. He is bold in his use of close-ups with Hunnicutt, some compositions almost a homage to the Bogart-Bacall chemistry, and brings out a world-weary performance from the usually cocky Peppard.

Philip Reisman Jr. (All the Way Home, 1963) fashioned the screenplay, delivering one of cinema’s most memorable final lines.

The Courier (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A brilliant example of how to control your material, this low-budget old school espionage picture, virtually a two-hander, based on a true story and set against the 1960s cold War paranoia, delivers thrills against the background of a murky business. Smarmy businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is inveigled into picking up rolls of film from Russian intelligence office Oleg (Merab Ninidze), giving away his country’s secrets in a bid to prevent nuclear war.

An anti-James Bond scenario sees Wynn employing little bits of tradecraft and spending almost every minute fearing capture while he develops a friendship with his foreign counterpart. On the domestic front, the pressure tells on Wynn, already a nervy character and relying too much on alcohol to sustain his own possibly failing business. Wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) suspects he is engaging in another extra marital affair. Doting father Oleg wilts under the burden of betrayal, hoping that his assistance in the Western cause will lead to a successful defection, aware of the impact on his family if caught.

In the background Wynne’s ruthless handlers, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) representing MI6 and CIA operative Emily (Rachel Brosnahan), are like circling sharks. While tense enough, this is all straightforward Tinker, Tailor… territory but in the second act the stakes suddenly rise and the movie shoots into quite different, far more realistic territory, that takes its toll on both protagonists.

It’s a very lean film and in concentrating on character rather than extraneous thrills in the manner of other recent offerings like Stillwater, The Night House or Censor, comes up triumphant in terms of plot. And without attempting to impose background through artistry as with Censor perfectly captures the mood of the times. The background characters are all well developed but the unexpected friendship that develops between the two spies and leads to the climax is exceptionally well done.

Oscar nominated Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 2014) drops all his mannerisms to bring alive a fascinating character who has, in any case, in his business life, had to develop an alien persona.  Merab Ninidze (Jupiter’s Moon, 2017) is every bit his equal, living a lie, trying to keep one step ahead of his own suspicious compatriots. Rachel Brosnahan (Change in the Air, 2018) is excellent as the one backroom character with an ounce of empathy and a pithy line in dealing with stuffy Brits and Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, 2018), adding another decent accent to her collection, adds some pathos.

Director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach, 2017) does an excellent job of marshalling his material and his concentration on character pays off in spades. Versatility could find no better expression than through writer Tom O’Connor who went down a completely different route in his previous movie The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017).

I do have one slight niggle. When the British were outraged at Burgess, Philby and MacLean and the Americans Klaus Fuchs et al, the arguments given by these various traitors was that, in giving away state secrets, they were merely realigning the nuclear status quo. These characters were all roundly vilified, but not Oleg here. And although the film concentrates on a few exchanges between Oleg and his courier, in reality more than 5,000 military secrets went from Russia to Britain in this fashion.

Behold a Pale Horse (1964) ***

Old causes never die but they do go out of fashion and interest from movie audiences in the issues surrounding the Spanish Civil War had fallen from the peak when they attracted artists of the caliber of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. But passions surrounding the conflict remained high even 20 years after its conclusion as indicated in this Fred Zinnemann (The Sundowners, 1960) drama.

Manuel Artiguez (Gregory Peck) plays a disillusioned guerilla living in exile in France who has ceased raiding the Spanish border town under the thrall of the corrupt Captain Vinolas (Anthony Quinn). Artiguez has two compelling reasons to return home – a young boy Paco asks him to revenge the death of his father at the hands of Vinolas and his mother is dying. But Artiguez is disinclined to do either. Heroism has lost its luster. He has grown more fearful and prefers to live out his life drinking wine and casting lustful glances at young women.

In France he enjoys a freedom he would be denied in Spain. He is not hidden. Ask anybody in the street where he lives and they will tell you. This is a crusty old soldier, unshaven, long past finding refuge in memories, but not destroyed either by regret. There is a fair bit of plot, some of it stretching incredulity. The action sequence at the end, conducted in complete silence, is very well done, but mostly, while a shade on the earnest side, this is a character piece.

This is not the upstanding Gregory Peck of his Oscar-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). He is a considerably less attractive character, burnt-out, shabby, grizzled, lazy, easily duped, unwilling to risk his life to see his mother. We have seen aspects of the Anthony Quinn character before but he brings a certain humanity to his villain, bombastic to hide his own failings, coarse but occasionally charming, suitably embarrassed when caught by his wife visiting his mistress and praying earnestly to God to deliver Artiquez into his hands. Omar Sharif is the most conflicted character, forced by conscience to help an enemy of the Church.

Movie tie-in paperback edition.
The more esoteric cover for the original hardback edition.

However, two elements in the picture don’t make much sense. Paco tears up a letter (critical to the plot) to Artiquez which I just cannot see a young boy doing, not in an era when children respected and feared their elders. And I am also wondering what was it about Spain that stopped directors filming it in color. This is the third Spain-set picture I have reviewed in this Blog after The Happy Thieves and The Angel Is Red. For the first two I can see perhaps budget restrictions being the cause, but given the stars involved – Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth in the first and Ava Gardner and Dirk Bogarde in the second – hardly facing the production dilemmas of a genuine B-picture. But Behold a Pale Horse was a big-budget effort from Columbia and while black-and-white camerawork may achieve an artistic  darkness of tone it feels artificial. This was never going to be the colorful Spain of fiestas and tourist vistas but it would have perhaps been more inviting to audiences had it taken more advantage of ordinary scenery.

J.P. Miller (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962) adapted the film from the novel by Emeric Pressburger who in tandem with Michael Powell had made films like Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). The film caused calamity for Columbia in Spain, the depiction of Vinolas with a mistress and taking bribes so upset the authorities that all the studio’s movies were banned.   Peck and Quinn had worked together in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Quinn and Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Selling Sophia Loren – The Pressbook for “It Happened in Naples”

Unusually for a movie of this era, Paramount took one image of Clark Gable and Sophia Loren up close and personal and stuck to it. It was more normal for an marketing campaign to include half a dozen different adverts each with a separate strapline. Here, while the copy occasionally changed the central image remained the same.

Unusually, too, Paramount made a big play of getting critics on board prior to the film’s release. So it came garlanded with the imprimatur of the likes of television host Ed Sullivan, famed critic Louella Parsons and syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. Plus the studio had embarked on a major promotional campaign in the Sunday supplements of the biggest circulation newspapers in the U.S.

Overall, there was a broad sell. While Clark Gable and Sophia Loren – “two prime examples of cinematic sex appeal” – were of course key, the marketeers also promoted “sensational young Italian boy Marietto” (playing the orphaned Nando) and Carlino, the Neapolitan answer to Elvis Presley who was Loren’s guitar-playing accompanist. In appealing to “those who like poignant drama” it also set out to hook “those who like musicals” as well as moviegoers who “like being magic-carpeted away to far-away places.”  In other words, something for everyone.

Cartoon of Clark Gable and director Melville Shavelson consulting on set. Cartoons like this were occasionally part of a promotional push, giving newspapers something different to use, and they were seen as a classier promotional device than just stills or adverts.

But the write-ups and photography favor Loren, who displays her legs in a revealing costume, as well as her cleavage and a separate article extols her singing and dancing, the latter described as “her secret career passion.” Audiences were promised an “all-out rock-and-roller.” Loren, of course, had come into her own as a singer in Houseboat (1958), where she performed two songs, but declined offers of a recording career.

The Pressbook is somewhat short on the nuggets that usually accompany this kind of promotional material because the two stars were already so well known. About all potential moviegoers learned about Gable was that he was now such a devoted father he brought his family on location.

There’s certainly a curious piece called “It Hurt Gable More Than Sophia” which, on reading the text, turned out to be untrue. When Gable was called upon to throw Loren out of bed in one scene, he “put too much Gablesque gusto” into it, flipping her out onto the marble floor.  Loren was the one who suffered bruises on legs, hips and shoulders. And in true Hollywood fashion producer Jack Rose “rushed to her aid” but only after ensuring that her startled expression had been captured on camera.

Tie-ups were travel agencies. Italian restaurants and department stores featuring Italian imports were suggested to exhibitors as cost-free ways of encouraging local support. A soundtrack album featuring Loren’s voice was released as well as a paperback novelization targeted at book stores, drug stores, supermarkets and newsstands.

Taglines employed included “you, too, will say it’s wonderful;”  “you’ll loosen up and pleasure up on the isle of Capri;” and “you’ll want to be there when the fun starts.”

It Started in Naples (1960) ***

By this point in her career Sophia Loren was adopted by Hollywood primarily as a means of rejuvenating the romantic screen careers of much older male stars. John Wayne was over two decades her senior in Legend of the Lost (1957), Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck nearly two decades older in The Pride and the Passion (1957, and Cary Grant a full three decades in Houseboat (1958). But where Grant was sprightly enough and with superb comic timing and Loren had the charm to make Houseboat work, the May-December notion lost much of its appeal when translated to her Italian homeland and an aging Clark Gable.

While engaging enough, the tale mostly relies on a stereotypical stuffy American’s encounters with a stereotypical down-to-earth Italian although Loren adds considerable zap with her singing-and-dancing numbers. Lawyer Michael Hamilton (Clark Gable), in Italy to settle his deceased brother’s affairs, discovers the dead man has left behind eight-year-old boy Nando (Marietto) being looked after in haphazard fashion and in impoverished circumstances in Capri by his aunt Lucia (Sophia Loren), a nightclub singer.  Determined to give the boy a proper American education, Hamilton engages in a tug-of-war with Lucia.

In truth, Lucia lacks maternal instincts, allowing the boy to stay up till one o’clock in the morning handing out nightclub flyers and not even knowing where the local school is. Hamilton is in turns appalled and attracted to Lucia, in some part pretending romantic interest to come to an out-of-court settlement. To complicate matters, Hamilton is due to get married back home.

At times it is more travelog than romantic comedy, with streets packed for fiestas and cafes full well into the night, a speedboat ride round the glorious bay, another expedition under the majestic caves, a cable car trip up the cliffs to view spectacular scenery, and the local population enjoying their version of la dolce vita. But the piece de resistance is Lucia’s performance in the nightclub, ravishing figure accompanied by more than passable voice as she knocks out “Tu vuo fa L’Americano” (which you might remember from the jazz club scene in The Talented Mr Ripley, 1999). She has a zest that her suitor cannot match but which is of course immensely appealing.

Lucia is torn between giving the boy a better start in life, already insisting for example that he speak English, and holding on to him while street urchin Nando is intent on acting as matchmaker.  Most of the humor is somewhat heavy-handed except for a few exceptional lines – complaining that he cannot sleep for the noise outside, Hamilton asks a waiter how these people ever sleep only to receive the immortal reply: “together.”

Gable lacks the double-take that served Cary Grant so well and instead of looking perplexed and captivated mostly looks grumpy. But this is still Gable and the camera still loves him even if he has added a few pounds. He was by now a bigger global star than in the Hollywood Golden Era thanks in part to regular reissues of Gone with the Wind (1939) but mostly to a wider range of roles and he was earning far more than at MGM, in the John Wayne/William Holden league of remuneration. Loren was the leading Italian female star, well ahead in Hollywood eyes of competitors Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida, and had the skill, despite whatever age difference was foisted upon her, of making believable any unlikely romance. Here, zest and cunning see her through. Vittorio De Sica (The Angel Wore Red, 1960) has a scene-stealing role as an Italian lawyer with an eye for the ladies.

Director Melville Shavelson (Cast a Giant Shadow,1966)  thought he had cracked the problems of the older man-younger girl romance having shepherded Houseboat to box office glory . While this picture doesn’t come unstuck it is nowhere near Houseboat. This turned out to be Gable’s penultimate film, not quite the fitting reminder of a glorious career, and he died shortly after its release. While Loren trod water with this picture she was closing in on a career breakthrough with her Oscar-winning Two Women (1960).

Reminiscence (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Hollywood has been running shy of genuine film noir for some time now so it makes little sense to give it a waterlogged futuristic setting despite the impressive track record, albeit not in the movies, of writer-director Lisa Joy best known as co-creator of television hit Westworld (2016-2021). Ecologic disaster dominates this future, floods reducing cities to rivers, skyscrapers and buildings existing as islands in a wet landscape. Dystopia is also rampant with the masses close to riot and big business, as you might expect, nonetheless able to exploit the situation.

Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a private eye of sorts, but concentrating his practice on infiltrating the mind, operating some kind of giant bathtub immersion which, plus a  headset that looks borrowed from a Marvel supervillain, allows him to penetrate secrets. Enter statuesque femme fatale Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) who has – wait for it – lost her keys! Yep, that’s the set-up. Some amazing technological gizmo that can be turned into a key-hunting device.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. To fill out the film noir aspect, Mae is some kind of nightclub singer, rehashing the Rodgers & Hart standard “Where or When,” singing into a  1940s mike. And there’s a voice-over reminiscent of the awful voice-over that besmirched the original release of Blade Runner, with some lines so bad that the director sees fit to run them twice.

Soon Bannister is plunged (pardon the pun) into a mystery that takes in businessman Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen) and family and there’s other bad guys like Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) and a shoal of red herrings lying in wait. Instead of Bannister being the alcoholic as is usually the private eye trope, it’s his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton).

Left alone, this might have made a decent mystery, and there is enough intrigue to be going along with, family secrets to expose, but the setting destroys any possibility that the picture might actually take off.  The city is in some cases flooded to probably the first ren or twenty storeys of a skyscraper but in other sequences Bannister skips through what look like little more than a few inches of water. There is an absolutely peculiar scene where Bannister escapes his enemy by trapping him in a grand piano and sending him into a watery grave only to change his mind and try to rescue him.

There’s some interesting material about how to capture memory and keep it on permanent rewind but it’s kind of lost in the general flotsam and jetsam and there’s a sweet line about finishing a story at the good part before it turns into a sad ending. But there’s really no justification for the futuristic setting even if Bannister had invented a gizmo that opened up the mind, more of an electronic psychiatrist than a gumshoe.

Hugh Jackman (The Front Runner, 2018) does his best but the risible voice-over, striving too hard for memorable lines, does for him. Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Fallout, 2018) is satisfactory without being electrifying but Thandiwe Newton (Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2018) is wasted.

Danger: Diabolik (1968) ****

Super-fun slick cult thriller as uber-villain Diabolik (John Philip Law) and sidekick Eva (Marisa Mell) outwit cops – and robbers – in a series of cunning heists. When not thieving they’re making love or pranking officialdom. Diabolik, hiding out in an underground cavern, out-Bonds James Bond in the fast-car and gadget department while Eva, smarter than the average Bond girl, leads the world in fashion or lack of it, her opening outfit looking as if it has either been cut to ribbons or made up of ribbons. Diabolik’s mask is cool and Eva is dressed to kill. Crime was never so fun, stylish, sexy – or lucrative.

Heist number one is the biggest shipment of dollars – $10 million – ever transported through Italy with a  massive convoy of outriders and an official plan to outwit the master thief. Already one step ahead, Diabolik, a master of the magnetic, whisks away the money in plain sight. Heist number two, an emerald necklace worn by the British ambassador’s wife high in an impregnable castle, involves Spiderman-type maneuvers. Heist number three: a 22-ton gold ingot.

A crackdown on criminal activity so endangers the Mafia that top cop Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) finds a surprise recruit in the hunt to capture Diabolik – Mafia boss Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi). The criminal network proves more potent than the cops and Valmont hatches a plan to snare Diabolik and exact revenge. And so ensues an elaborate chess game as criminals chase criminals with cops hoping to pick up the pieces.

John Philip Law (Hurry Sundown, 1967) was the coolest villain by a mile until challenged by Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair the same year. His classic good looks are matched by a fabulous brain as he cooks up brilliant scheme after brilliant scheme. Marisa Mell (Masquerade, 1965) is sexy as hell and a worthy companion in the thieving stakes. Adolfo Celi (Thunderball, 1965) and Michel Piccoli (Belle du Jour, 1967) are clumps in comparison, even though they do their ingenious best and Celi has his own harem.

Although Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, 1963) was better known for horror, this is a cult tour-de-force that employs the outlandish to set the tone, from go-go dancers and face-painted nightclubbers to the psychelic, the uber-fashionable, gadgets decades ahead of their time and the outrageous heists. The whole picture, coated in a sheen of glamour, is irresistible. The couple make love on a bed of dollars, airplanes have trap doors, there is a parachute jump twist, suspended animation, psychedelia, radioactive tracking devices, high-speed chases and a fiendish statuesque climax. And where not bedecked in fabulous fashion or one-piece cat-suits, the pair scamper about naked or as close as.

Bava captures the spirit and the look of the comic books by Angela and Luciana Giussani that provided the film’s inspiration. But that eight names including Britain’s Tudor Gates (creator of television’s Vendetta, 1966-1968) were involved in the screenplay shows the work this required. Ennio Morricone created a superb score. All-time cult classic.

Three into Two Won’t Go (1969) ***

Unhappily married and childless salesman Steve (Rod Steiger) begins an affair with kooky promiscuous hitchhiker Ella (Judy Geeson). A free spirit in control of her life – no VD and on the Pill – and happy to drift from mundane job to mundane job, Ella ranks her many lovers on their sexual performance. Steve has just moved into a new house in a dreary new estate, perhaps in the hope of revitalizing his staid marriage to Frances (Claire Bloom).

While Steve is away on business, Ella turns up at his home where, revealing – without implicating Steve – that she is pregnant and convinces Frances to let her stay the night. Naturally, it is Steve’s baby but Ella plans an abortion. Steve wants the baby and so, too, still unaware of the father, does Frances, seeing adoption as the solution to their marital woes. And so a love triangle, or more correctly a baby triangle, plays out, with a few unexpected twists.

Like most of the marital dramas of the 1960s, especially in the wake of the no-holds-barred Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), this is riddled with outspoken protagonists who have no idea how to find real happiness. Based on the book by Andrea Newman and adapted by Edna O’Brien, who both have previously marked out this kind of territory, the picture shifts sympathy from one character to the next. While no one is entirely culpable, none are blameless either. Yet there is an innocence about Steve and Frances in the way they fling themselves at unlikely salvation. They are not the first couple to find themselves in a marital cul de sac, nor the first to do nothing about it, hoping that somehow through a new house or job promotion things will right themselves.

Audiences, accustomed to seeing Steiger (In the Heat of the Night, 1967) in morose roles, might have been shocked to see him happy and he manages to present a more rounded character than in some previous screen incarnations. In burying herself in domesticity, Claire Bloom (Charly, 1968) essays a far from fragile character, whose resilience and pragmatism will always find a way forward. Geeson is the surprise package, at once knowing and in charge, and at other times completely out of her depth, and to some extent enjoying the chaos she sparks. The exuberant screen personality she presents here is almost a grown-up more calculating version of the character she portrays in Hammerhead (1968).

Director Peter Hall (Work is a Four-Letter Word, 1968) ensures more universal appeal by not grounding the movie in the swinging sixties so that it would not quickly become  outdated. The snatching at last-minute fantasy to avert marital disharmony will still strike a note. The performances are all excellent, including a turn by Peggy Ashcroft (Secret Ceremony, 1968) and bit parts from British character actors Paul Rogers (Stolen Hours, 1963) and Elizabeth Spriggs in her second movie.

Make sure you catch the correct version of this picture if you hunt it down. Against the director’s wishes. Universal edited it then added new characters for the version shown on American television.