A bit more action and this could have been a John Wick-style winner because C.I.A. agent Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) is a big-time bad ass, all steely stare and resolve, and no time for anyone who gets in his way as he investigates the unexpected death of his son in the Austrian Alps.
It’s probably not this picture’s fault that any time a cable car hovers into view I expect to see Clint Eastwood or Richard Burton clambering atop all set to cause chaos, or any time a skier takes off down the slopes anticipate some James Bond malarkey. Luckily, director Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) avoids inviting comparison in those areas but rather too much reliance on the tourist elements of the ski world puffs out what would otherwise be a tighter storyline. And he also sets too much store by loud music to warn the audience of impending danger.
Slater is out of the ruthless espionage mold and, convinced on paltry evidence that his son has been murdered, determines to track down the perpetrators. There is a reversal of the usual plot in that those he asks for help are unwilling to give it, retired agent Frank Wheatly (Clive Revill) and chalet girl deluxe Gina (Britt Ekland) who initially views him as an older man to be fended off but turns out to have the vital information he seeks.
There’s a lot of tension but not much action and today’s modern vigilante would have beaten the information out of anybody who crossed his path rather than taking Slater’s path. Despite this, the relentless tone set by Slater ensures violent explosion is imminent. To be sure, you will probably guess early on, from the appearance at the outset of some Russians, that Slater is heading into a trap, but the reasons are kept hidden long enough.
There are some excellent touches. Slater’s boss (Lloyd Nolan) has a nice line in keeping his office underlings in check, chalet hostess (Moira Lister) is all style and snip, the Russian Col. Berthold (Anton Diffring) clipped and menacing. And the skiing sequences that relate to the picture are well done while the others are decently scenic.
It’s a shame that Brynner is in brusque form for it gives Britt Ekland in a switch from her comedy breakthroughs not enough to do. Revill is excellent as the former agent who has had his fill of espionage and dreads being pulled back into this murky world. Producer Hal E. Chester clearly spent more on this than on The Comedy Man (1964) but with varying results, top-notch aerial photography but dodgy rear projection. And there are some screenwriting irregularities, such as why conduct the son’s funeral before the father is present.
Catch-Up: Yul Brynner performances previously reviewed in the Blog are The Magnificent Seven (1960), Escape from Zahrain (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964), Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), Return of the Seven (1966) and Villa Rides (1968). Britt Ekland movies already covered are: The Happy Thieves (1961), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Machine Gun McCain (1969) and Stiletto (1969).
Thievery was never so popular – at least from a marketing perspective. Exhibitors were urged to turn their patrons into safecrackers by installing a small safe in the lobby and encouraging moviegoers to try and guess the combination. Another angle was crime deterrence. Cinemagoers could guess what might cause a burglar alarm, also sited in the lobby, to ring. Ways of involving private detectives or security guards or plain cops were also promoted to cinema managers. Or you could always fall back on the old “wanted” poster idea as a teaser campaign, placed in spots around town where they would attract attention.
Alternatively, the stars themselves provided some pretty neat marketing hooks. Although Ann-Margret does not ride a motorcycle in the picture, she was a big fan of the Honda models, driving around in a white number, and had done photo tie-ins with the company, so that led to the idea of sticking a Honda motorbike out front, in the assumption, I am assuming, that customers would know it referred to the actress.
By contrast, Alain Delon did look particularly fetching in a sheepskin coat which he wore in the picture and that was fast becoming a fashion icon.
Not surprisingly advertising material focused on previous hit heist pictures like Topkapi and Rififi. In addition, publicists played up a central theme – of Delon being on the run from both sides of the law. Although Ann-Margret had taken on a role that put motherhood before sexuality, that did not stop the Pressbook from carrying sexy photographs of the star, especially in the revealing outfit she wore as a cocktail waitress.
Ann-Margret epitomized the Hollywood rising star with movie contracts coming out of her ears, recently voted “Top Actress of the Year” by the Theater Owners of America, recipient of the “Most Popular Actress of the Year Award” from fan magazine Photoplay and featuring in a front-page interview in the Wall St Journal as the “Dream-Come-True-Girl.” That this was a serious drama was a challenge for the marketeers since she had won a devoted public through a string of lightweight movies.
But she was an easy sell compared to the unknown Frenchman Alain Delon so the marketing men set out to promote him as a “killer” – of men and women. He had spent five years in the marines, serving in Indo-China, catapulted into the movies through chance and by developing a “killer quality” with actresses, his name coupled, on-screen and off-screen, with the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Jane Fonda, Gina Lollobrigida, and Shirley MacLaine. He had the daredevil flair of Steve McQueen, with a fondness for speed.
Delon recognized the difficulties of breaking into the American mainstream. He explained, “No matter how popular an actor is in Europe, the distribution of European films which are shown primarily in art houses limits his growth. To be really successful one must also work in Hollywood.” His next picture, entitled Ready for the Tiger, was to be directed by Sam Peckinpah (that was never made, in fact).
The “go-go” score by Lalo Schifrin was also heavily plugged in the Pressbook which dedicated a full half-page enlightening exhibitors on how to take advantage of various tie-ins. The book by Zekial Marko, originally called Scratch a Thief, had been reissued in a paperback movie tie-in in a Fawcett Gold Medal edition.
Latter-day film noir gem with terrific cast filmed in black-and-white and often at night that crams into a taut storyline different slants of the themes of the con-going-straight, the vendetta and the double-cross. While Hollywood at this point had imported platoons of foreign beauties in the Sophia Loren-Elke Sommer vein, there had been less interest in the male of the species with the exception of a small British contingent and possibly Omar Sharif, on whom the jury was still out.
MGM was gambling on Frenchman Alain Delon (The Leopard, 1963) to alter industry perceptions at the same time as pushing new contract star Ann-Margret (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) along more dramatic lines away from the glossy puffery that had made her name and which relied more upon her physical assets than acting potential. Had she continued in this vein, her career would certainly have taken a different turn.
Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon), former minor hood turned San Francisco truck driver, is happily married to Kristine (Ann-Margret) with a young daughter they both adore. But tough cop Mike Vido (Van Heflin), with a reputation for brutality, is determined to pin a murder on him in revenge for purportedly being shot by him early in Eddie’s previous career. Eddie manages for a time to resist the overtures of brother Walter (Jack Palance) to participate in a million-dollar diamond. But when he loses his job, that changes.
While the robbery naturally takes center stage, that’s not actually the dramatic highlight. Instead, it is the Eddie-Kristine relationship. Instead of Eddie being the usual down-on-his-luck ex-con, he has clearly turned his life around, so much so he can afford a $500 down payment on a small boat. A loving father, he accepts without rancor when his daughter interrupts a night-time lovemaking session. And he’s stylish, too, wearing an iconic sheepskin jacket and driving a snazzy 1931 Ford Model A roadster. Kristine just wants a normal home life, desiring domesticity above all else, but swallowing her pride when she needs to go out to work in a night club to make ends meet, for a time rendering the unemployed Eddie a house husband.
But Eddie is not all he initially seems. His tough streak has not been smothered by the good life. In a brilliant Catch-22 situation he gets violent when an employment benefits clerk refuses to accept that Eddie was fired from his job, instead believing his employer’s claim that he resigned – the former triggering relief payment, the latter zilch. But that’s nothing to the beating he inflicts on Kristine when, pride injured that he is not the breadwinner, he discovers the skimpy costume she wears for her job.
Adding to the unusual mix are Vido and Walter, the former’s brooding presence somewhat undercut by the fact that in middle age he still lives with his mother, the latter while a big-time gangster letting nothing get in the way of strong fraternal feeling for Eddie. You won’t be surprised to learn that double cross is in the air, not when Walter employs a creepy sunglass-wearing henchman Sargantanas (John Davis Chandler) who appears to have more than a passing interest in little girls. The climax, which contains both emotional and dramatic twist, involves redemption and sacrifice.
Delon has played the cold-eyed ruthless but romantic character before, but here adds depth from his paternal commitment and as a man turned inside out by the system.
Ann-Margret is the revelation, truly believable as mother first, sexy wife second, and her anguish in the later parts of the picture showcase a different level of acting skill to anything she previously essayed. This role immediately preceded her man-eater in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) which attracted far more attention and considerably bigger box office and it would have been interesting to see how her career might have panned out had Once a Thief been the critical and commercial triumph. She probably did not attain such acting heights again until Carnal Knowledge (1971). And I did wonder, as with Daliah Lavi (The Demon, 1963) before her whether her acting skills were too often overshadowed in the Hollywood mindset by her physical attributes.
Van Heflin (Cry ofBattle, 1963) is excellent as the cop tormented by the idea that a villain is walking free, Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966) is good as always and character actor Jeff Corey (The Cincinnati Kid) puts in an appearance as Vido’s whip-cracking boss. This marks the debut of Tony Musante (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970). Watch for a cameo by screenwriter Zekial Marko, who wrote the original book.
This represented another change of pace for director Ralph Nelson, Oscar-nominated for the Lilies of the Field (1963) and also known for box office comedy hit Father Goose (1964). His use of an experimental extremely light-sensitive camera eliminated the bulky lighting commensurate with filming at night, bringing freshness and greater freedom to those scenes. His natural gift for drama ensured that the emotional was given as much prominence as the action. Racial awareness was demonstrated by the opening scene in a jazz club where African Americans were clearly welcome, hardly the norm at that time.
The picture was shot on location in San Francisco including Nob Hill, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. To add authenticity, Nelson employed as extras or in bit parts people famed for different reasons in the area. There was Armenian Al Nalbandian who owned the Cable Car flower store on Union Square. William ‘Tiny’ Baskin was a highly successful diamond cutter, owner of the city’s biggest diamond collection – because of his size he was ideal to play a night club bouncer. The North Beach night club provided cameos for Big Al and resident jazz drummer Russell Lee, who both play themselves. Local singer Toy Yat Mar plays the woman murdered at the start of the film. Also appearing were piano player Jimmy Diamond, bus driver Wed Trindle and belly dancer Shereef.
Mention again of a terrific score by Lalo Schifrin, especially the bold drum solo that played out over the credit sequence. Schifrin’s work on the film was showcased in a featurette aimed at schools and colleges. Russell Lee’s drumming so impressed Ralph Nelson that the opening credits were rewritten around his drum solo.
Catch-Up: Alain Delon has featured in the Blog in reviews for Lost Command (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and Farewell, Friend (1968); check out also Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) and Ann-Margret in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).
American boxer Reno Davis (George Peppard) stumbles on an international conspiracy when hired by rich widow Anne de Villemont (Inger Stevens) in Paris to look after her eight-year-old son Paul (Barnaby Shaw). All roads eventually lead to Rome and a showdown with arch-conspirator Leschenahut (Orson Welles) in this thriller which throws in a couple of measures of Gaslight (1944) and, more obviously, North by Northwest (1959) to the extent of Anne being an icy blonde of the Eva Marie Saint persuasion and the couple, on the run, sharing a compartment on a train.
The boy’s previous tutor has been murdered. After months in a sanatorium, Anne, paranoid about her son being kidnapped, is in virtual house arrest in the family mansion, watched over by arrogant psychiatrist Dr Morillon (Keith Michell) who has diagnosed her as unstable, neurotic and a danger to the boy.
After an assassin on a bridge on the River Seine takes potshots at Reno and Paul, Reno is framed for murder but escaping from the police returns to the mansion to find it empty, the furniture covered in dust sheets. I half-expected Reno to be told that the job was all in his imagination and that Anne did not exist, but instead finds out that mother and son have been taken to a castle in Dijon, in reality a fortress with a platoon of armed guards. Only Paul has been already been transported to Italy. So it’s attempted rescue, imprisonment, escape, fistfights, chase, clever moves and countermoves, twists and double twists as Reno and the still icy Anne head for Rome.
In among the mayhem are a few humorous moments, a play on the Trevi fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, a monk mistaken for a killer, a bored girl only too happy to be taken hostage, an over-familiar American who gives away valuable secrets because he mistakes Reno for a co-conspirator, Dr Morillon making the error of treating Reno as a servant. And characters involved in assisting escape extract a high price, one seeking financial reward, another that her husband be killed in the process. There is also a flirtatious but spiky maid Jeanne-Marie (Perette Pradier) and a couple of excellent reversals.
Reno is somewhat innovative in the weaponry department, the hook of a fishing rod, for example, while the son is rather handy with a pistol. But given the opposition are armed with machine guns, knives and swords that seems only fair.
George Peppard continues the excellent run of acting form that started in Tobruk (1967) and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968), developing his own niche, dropping the innate arrogance of The Blue Max (1965) and Operation Crossbow (1965), no chip on the shoulder. Here he is a good bit more attractive as a screen presence, a nice line with the ladies, more than able to take care of himself, a sprinkling of wit, completely at ease. Inger Stevens comes off well though her psychological problems and concerns for her son get in the way of any burgeoning romance with Peppard. But she has quite a range of emotions to get through, from wondering if she is mad, to dealing with the controlling family, and letting go of her son enough to allow the boy to bond with Reno, and despite her vast wealth down-to-earth enough to see a toothbrush as an essential when on the run.
Orson Welles (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), as ever, looms large over everything, with dialogue so good you always have the impression he improvised on the spot. Keith Michell, a couple of years away from international fame in BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), does a very good turn as the psychiatrist.
John Guillermin, who directed Peppard in The Blue Max and P.J., has a lot to do to keep the various balls in the air, especially keeping track of a multiplicity of characters. The screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Hud, 1963) pulled this one together from the novel by Stanley Ellin. Francis Lai’s memorable score is worth a mention, with distinctive themes for various parts of the story.
Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) was originally down for the part of Anne and Italian actress Rosemary Dexter (Romeo and Juliet, 1964) has a small part.
Catch-up: The Blog previously reviewed George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961),The Blue Max (1965), Operation Crossbow (1966), Tobruk (1967), P.J (1968) and Pendulum (1969); John Guillermin directed The Blue Max (1965) and P.J; Orson Welles was seen in Is Paris Burning? (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).
Patients are a nuisance to be tolerated on the route to wealth in this superior soap opera that sees young doctors wrestling with ambition and ethics. Although also concluding that impending lofty status will snare them an attractive bride, they find women less biddable than expected, romance proving the trickiest of all procedures.
The main cast of four men and one women are played by a roster of hotly-tipped newcomers, including future Oscars winners and nominees and the elusive Haya Harareet (The Secret Partner, 1961). Director David Swift, accustomed to handling multiple characters in the likes of Pollyanna (1961), keeps the pot boiling and although some storylines lead to obvious conclusions the screenwriters bring sufficient imagination to the various strands.
The story unfolds over the one year the doctors spend in a general hospital, where the patients are liable to be drunk and obstreperous, before taking up residencies elsewhere. As you might expect, the main characters divide into the good and the arrogant. Heading the latter are Alec Considine (Michael Callan) who cheats on girlfriend Mildred (Anne Helm) with older nurse Vicky (Katharine Baird) in order to gain through her connections a residency at a highly prestigious hospital. Matching him in the cocky stakes is John Paul Otis (Cliff Robertson), charming to old ladies but willing to risk his career to bed movie actress Lisa (Suzy Parker). The good guys are Lew Worship (James MacArthur) who is seduced into the supposed backwaters of obstetrics and Sid Lackland (Nick Adams), an all-round good egg who falls for patient Loara (Ellen Davalos).
The most interesting of the young doctors, however, is single mother Madolyn Bruckner (Haya Harareet) who takes on surgeon Dominic Riccio (Telly Savalas) at every turn. Riccio spends his time berating his charges and in particular has a downer on female doctors. At every encounter, despite his vicious tongue, she refuses to back down.
But it is the patients, in particular Arnold Auer (Peter Brocco) and Loara, who blow a hole in the myth of hospitals. In the best scene in the film, Auer, suffering from a degenerative illness that will turn him into a vegetable, takes over from the doctor in giving his own awful diagnosis. His pleas for clemency from his ordeal, in essence assisted suicide, create an ethical dilemma for the young doctors who did not realize that modern medicine would prolong rather than curtail patient suffering. Auer’s anguished wife Emma (Angela Clarke) flits in and out of the picture as she buttonholes any doctor willing to listen to a new cure she has discovered. While the more hard-hearted doctors can inure themselves to his agony, a savage turn of events finds them all caught up in a situation that could jeopardize their future careers.
Although Loara has an incurable disease and has more or less given up, Lackland’s effervescent good humor and determination that surgery can resolve all health issues brings her hope. If you were in her condition possibly the last thing you would want would be a cheerleading doctor on your side, but in this instance it brings succor and in the doctor’s case forces him to rethink his priorities.
Probably the last thing the doctors – and the audience – expected was to come up against such stubborn free-thinking women. While Bruckner appears to fly the flag for female independence, she has solid support from Lisa who spends most of the picture rejecting Otis’s advances on the grounds that even when he becomes rich he will be too poor for her liking. Eventually, Vicky forces Considine to choose. Shy nurse Gloria (Stefanie Powers) shocks Worship by putting global travel ahead of marriage. But she’s not as shocking as the bespectacled inhibited Olga (Carroll Harrison) who makes a spectacle of herself by losing her inhibitions in flamboyant style at a wild New Year’s Eve party, her disheveled state a key element of promotional artwork.
Although, theoretically, a film about young doctors having a romp, in reality it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking picture, tackling issues that would have been taboo at the time and removing the submissive tag that daunted most movie female characters in the movies.
Those who succeeded in later winning Oscar favor were Cliff Robertson, Best Actor for Charly (1968), and Nick Adams and Telly Savalas, both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the former in Twilight of Honor (1963) and the latter in The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Robertson was the pick of the bunch, a star in his own right graduating from 633 Squadron (1964) and Masquerade (1965) to J.W. Coop (1971) which he also directed. But largely, the stars did not fulfil initial promise. The peak of Michael Callan’s movie career was reprising his role in The New Interns (1964), star in British director Michael Winner’s You Must Be Joking! (1965) and second male lead in Cat Ballou (1965). James MacArthur had a steady movie career before an epic run in television series Hawaii Five-O (1968-1979). Nick Adams switched between film and television before his premature death in 1968. Haya Harareet made only one more film, The Last Charge (1962).
Although primarily in television, the less-heralded stars enjoyed greater ongoing success. Mainly a strong supporting actor, Telly Savalas had only one stab at a starring role (Land Raiders, 1970) before achieving worldwide fame as Kojak (1973-1978). Stefanie Powers was television’s The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-1967) and later Hart to Hart (1979-1984). Buddy Ebsen (who plays the older Dr Sidney Wohl) went straight into a nine-year run of The Beverley Hillbillies.
Richard Jessup’s brilliant 1963 novel was so short – barely 150 pages – it was almost custom-made for the movies. While it built up the tension to the confrontation between young stud poker contender The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen in the film) and the reigning world champ Lancey Hodges (Edward G. Robinson) and covered the on-off relationship between the Kid and Christian (Tuesday Weld), a large chunk of the novel was in effect an insider’s guide to the world of poker and its unwritten rules.
As appeared always to be the case in translating novels to films, there were some incidental changes. The Kid was 26 in the book, but clearly in his 30s in the film. Lancey’s surname became Howard. In the book he was thin, in the film well-upholstered. Melba (Ann-Margret), the girlfriend of Shooter (Karl Malden) is not given a name in the book. The book is set in St Louis, the film in New Orleans.
But the book lacks sub-plots. It’s a straightforward narrative. The Kid decides to take on Lancey and while waiting for the game to be fixed up, having effectively broken up with Christian, he takes a 20-hour bus journey out to see her at her farm, returns on his own and for the rest of the book is involved in the poker duel with Lancey. Incidental characters make an appearance, Shooter as the dealer, some others including Pig (Jack Weston) making up the poker table.
The book doesn’t open with the Kid hustling, playing in a run-down part of town against inferior players, being accused of cheating, getting involved in a punch-up and being chased across a railroad yard. That’s all the invention of the scriptwriters Terry Southern (Barbarella, 1968) and Ring Lardner Jr. (Mash, 1970). The young shoeshine boy who interacts with the Kid several times throughout the movie doesn’t appear in the book either. And there was no cockfight in the book, that was also added by the screenwriters.
These were small devices to develop screen character. The punch-up showed that the Kid could take care of himself. The scenes with the shoeshine boy suggested that the Kid had begun early as a compulsive gambler, always measuring himself against an older player. And those scenes also demonstrated that gambling was not a sport for the kind-hearted. An actor with less confidence in his screen persona than McQueen might have insisted that he did not take the boy’s losing bet. (Such considerations are not rare – Robert Redford, for example, refused to play lawyer Frank Galvin in The Verdict unless the character was changed from being an alcoholic). The cockfight revealed that the characters mostly lived in an illegal world – the cops might turn a blind eye to a poker game in a private room in a hotel but would frown upon a bloody and brutal sport like cockfighting.
Sometimes, the screenwriters had to embellish certain scenes to bring them alive. The sequence where the Kid won over Christian’s parents with his card tricks is nothing more than a sentence in the book and characters like Pig are fleshed out.
But the most significant alterations to the book were the additions of two sub-plots. The first had Shooter, while acting as dealer, risk his reputation by agreeing to flip the Kid an occasional good card. This comes from being blackmailed by wealthy businessman Slade (Rip Torn) who threatens to call in Shooter’s marker, his gambling debt. Not only is this idea a screenwriter creation, but the character of Slade does not exist in the book. In fact, the whole idea runs against the unwritten code of honor among big-time poker players. And it would be extremely unlikely that Shooter would stoop so low. Even if broke, he would be able to eventually win back a stake. But if caught facilitating cheating his name would be mud and he would never play poker again in his life.
The second sub-plot concerns Melba (Ann-Margret). She exists on the periphery in the book. But she is something of a character, a genuine class act among the women who follow the game or are in relationships with the players. In the book, she was believed to have had a college education because “she read thick books and she dressed New York” and she attended arthouse cinemas. She was also admired for sticking with Shooter when his luck turned bad.
That’s not the character in the film. While not a gambler per se, she has a competitive streak and cheats at ordinary games – solitaire, jigsaw puzzles – where it makes no sense to cheat. In the book she is merely “beautiful;” in the film she turns into a man-eater, seducing the Kid, an action that went against her character in the book.
You would harldy argue that these sub-plots impaired enjoyment of the film. Perhaps those who read the book first might object. But, as ever, in examining what happens to books once they are bought up for the movies, each film examined is an example of the difference between a book and a film and how screenwriters compensate for perceived flaws. Some books, Blindfold, for example, required wholesale changes. Here, while the key storyline works like a charm, what was missing were the extra beats to ramp up the tension, otherwise there would be too long a wait in hanging around for the poker game to start. As a result of the sub-plots, what is put in jeopardy is the Kid’s relationship with Christian and his purity of involvement in the game itself, not just that any hint of cheating would bar him from the game, but that he wanted to beat Lancey fair and square so that, should he achieve that ambition, he would never have cause to doubt how he managed it.
As you can see from the advertisement above, this was originally intended to be quite a different film, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Spencer Tracy in the role of ageing poker champ Lancey. The director had just come off one troubled shoot, Major Dundee (1965), and was seeking Hollywood redemption. Two-time Oscar winner Tracy was also hoping to revive his career. Except for what amounted to little more than a extended cameo on It’s A Mad, Mad,, Mad, Mad World (1963) he had not worked since Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). Also initially on board in a small role was Sharon Tate (Valley of the Dolls, 1967)
This was also a big gamble for industry outsider Martin Ransohoff who had moved to the forefront of independent production after The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews and James Garner and The Sandpiper (1965) starring current top-billed royalty Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He had wheeled and dealed with top studios – MGM, Columbia and United Artists – desperate for quality product. He was planning the biggest movie of his career having purchased the rights to the Alistair MacLean bestseller Ice Station Zebra. Ransohoff was a marketing innovator and long before Robert Evans pumped tens of thousands of Paramount dollars into advertising the book of Love Story (1970) to ensure it rode high on the bestseller charts and thus increased public awareness, Ransohoff had pulled off the same trick for Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid.
Tracy was first to quit, infuriated that he was denied script approval. Essentially, he wanted his role beefed up. But Ransohoff “would not expand his role in any way” and angered at the prospect of playing second fiddle to McQueen the actor walked out, to be replaced by a star with considerably less marquee appeal, Edward G. Robinson.
At least Tracy was able to depart with head held high. Peckinpah was ignominiously fired after shooting had begun. The intemperate director had already locked horns with the producer over a story which had now taken the efforts of four screenwriters – Oscar-winner Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily), Oscar-winner Ring Lardner Jr. (Woman of the Year, 1943), Oscar nominee Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964) and newcomer Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) – to knock the book into a workable screenplay without the extra bother of Peckinpah adding his own scenes.
Trade newspaper Variety reported: “Peckinpah’s problems stemmed from his filming of a nude scene that wasn’t in the script but which the director wrote on his own. Last Friday (November 4, 1964) he reportedly excused the featured cast and began to lense the nudie scene using an extra from the cast.” Whether this was indeed Sharon Tate, of whom Peckinpah was reported to have filmed in a flimsy shirt without a bra so that her nipples were showing, is unclear. And although there is an undertone of sex in the actual picture, as delivered by Ann-Margret, it was considerably more discreet.
Strangely enough, Ransohoff was no stranger to the benefits of nudity in his pictures and had fought a losing battle with the all-powerful MPAA, the industry ruling body in matters of censorship, to have nude scenes included in The Americanization of Emily. The nude statue of Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper was permitted, however, and Ransohoff sent hundreds of miniature statues out to influencers as a gift.
Peckinpah did not have final cut so Ransohoff could easily have excised any nude scenes from the finished movie. What was considerably more alarming was that Peckinpah was shooting in black-and-white. Later, Ransohoff would contend that he was outraged by this notion but he surely must have signed off on it at the outset. Whatever the reasons, and some believed fisticuffs were involved, Peckinpah was sacked, leaving a $750,000 hole in the budget.
Production closed for over a month while Ransohoff scrambled for a new director. McQueen was pay-or-play, so if the film was cancelled, the actor was due his entire fee. McQueen had signed on for a fee of $200,000 – or $350,000 depending on who you believe – and $30,000 a week in overtime plus 25 per cent of the profit and a host of extras. McQueen had been initially lined up for a Ranoshoff remake of Boys Town to co-star James Garner, but that proved little more than a publicity flyer.
Replacement Norman Jewison had no reputation for hard-line drama – more at home with light comedy such as Send Me No Flowers (1964) – but was available and more likely to toe the Ransohoff line. However, initially he demurred. It was against the rules of the Directors Guild to step in in such a manner and Jewison required reassurance that Peckinpah was indeed out of the picture, and the film had been shut down, before accepting the job. Theoretically, Jewison received more control of the final cut than Peckinpah. His contract called for him to be in sole charge of the completed picture until after the third public preview. If it wasn’t working by that point, Ransohoff had the right to take over. Jewison exerted control in other ways, denying actors a chance to look at the rushes
Theoretically, McQueen had conceded top billing to Spencer Tracy, but that was not reflected in the artwork MGM put out – the illustration at the top of the Blog appeared in the trade press prior to production. To keep McQueen sweet during the layoff, Ransohoff handed him $25,000 to play the tables in Vegas. Edward G. Robinson had the same worries as Spencer Tracy, fearing his part would be cut to build up the star. In reality, McQueen welcomed going head-to-head with an older star, a situation he had not experienced since The Magnificent Seven (1960) with Yul Brynner.
But if the male stars, under the confident direction of Jewison, gave no trouble, that was not the case with the female contingent. Tuesday Weld came with a heap of personal issues related to becoming, as a child model, the family breadwinner at an early age – nervous breakdown at nine, alcoholic at ten, suicide attempt at twelve. She had never quite achieved stardom, in part as a result of turning down roles like Lolita (1962)
Ann-Margret was the opposite. She could earn nearly as much as McQueen – her fee at some studios was $250,000. However, Twentieth Century Fox was holding her to an earlier four-picture deal which paid a miserly $25,000 per movie, forcing her to lose out on a $150,000 payday in Europe for The 10th Victim (1965) with Marcello Mastroianni – known at the time as The Seventh Victim, Ursula Andress her replacement – in order to take up a contracted role in the remake of Stagecoach (1966). Her over-sexed screen persona had caused playwright William Inge to remove his name from Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965).
One of the hottest young stars in the business, she intended to stay that way, and her portrayal of Melba in The Cincinnati Kid pretty much fitted in with audience expectation. She was in such demand that she was under contract to make a total of 17 pictures for five separate studios plus Frank Sinatra’s independent production company. Her deals were with Universal (six pictures), Fox (four), MGM (three), Columbia (three) and United Artists (one). But after dropping out of Marriage on the Rocks (1965) with Sinatra her output for the rest of the decade comprised one movie apiece for Paramount, MGM, Fox and Columbia and four independent pictures in Italy.
MGM spent big bucks promoting the picture and, in particular, the Ann-Margret connection. The studio had put a marker down on Thanksgiving 1965 for the launch date, but was marketing the movie more than six months ahead, the kind of exposure that was normally only allotted to roadshow features.
SOURCES: Christopher Sandford, McQueen: The Biography, Harper Collins paperback (2002) pages 165, 170-176; Penina Spiegel, Steve McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood, Collins, 1986, p162, 169-173; “Ransohoff To Start Five Films in 6-Month Period,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, p27; “Marty Ransohoff To Seek Code Changes,” Box Office, November 25, 1963, p6; “Ann-Margret Into The Cash Splash,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p5; advert, Box Office, October 9, 1964, p9; “More Cincinnati Kid Books,” Box Office, October 24, 1964, pW-5; “Refuse Spencer Tracy Xincy Kid Script Okay So Actor Takes Powder,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p24; “Jewison Replacement for Sam Peckinpah,” Variety, December 9, 1964, p24; Advert, Variety, March 10, 1965, p80; “Fear Ann-Margret Going Wrongo In Her Screen Image,” Variety, March 24, 1965, p5; “Fox Holds Ann-Margret To Stagecoach, Denying Her For Mastroianni,” Variety, April 14, 1965, 4; Advert, Variety, May 19, 1965, p20.
Steve McQueen had little trouble identifying with this role. He was the Hollywood contender, trying to knock current kingpin Paul Newman off his perch, and in Norman Jewison’s tense, often heart-stopping, drama he has the ideal vehicle. For the most part this is a winner-take-all face-off, as much a showdown as any western shootout, in darkened rooms under the harsh light of a New Orleans poker table between a rising star always referred to as The Kid (Steve McQueen) and the unofficial world champion, the urbane cigar-smoking Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson).
Broadened out in the initial stages to include scenic diversions – the Mississippi at dawn, a cockfight, some jazz – plus romance and intrigue, this is essentially pure sport, a game of stares, where bluff holds the ace and women exist on the perimeter only to fill in the time before the next hyped-up encounter. There’s no trophy to be won, not even glory, just the right to call yourself “The Man.” The Kid feels the pressure of punching above his weight, Lancey of getting old.
Farmer’s daughter and arty-wannabe Christian (Tuesday Weld) is the Kid’s main squeeze until she gets between him and his game. When she takes off, he makes do with Melba (Ann-Margret), girlfriend of dealer Shooter (Karl Malden) who was somewhat preoccupied with giving the Kid more than a helping hand to satisfy the vengeful Slade (Rip Torn), a rich businessman.
Although it finally comes down to a confrontation between the Kid and Lancey, subordinate characters like sweating poker player Pig (Jack Weston) and stand-in dealer Ladyfingers (Joan Blondell) help dissipate the tension. But in fact anything that occurs only seems to increase the tension as it comes down to the one big final hand.
This is McQueen (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) in transition, from the loner in The Great Escape (1963) to an actor exuding charisma and on top of his acting game. While on the face of it little more than a sporting lug, the Kid is an appealing character, engaging with a little shoeshine boy, winning over Christian’s truculent parents with what appears a card trick but is actually a demonstration of the phenomenal memory necessary to excel in his chosen field. There’s a winsome child in there among the macho persona. The poker face that McQueen developed would become one of his acting traits over the years.
Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves, 1960) gives a rounded performance as the reigning poker champ accepting emotional loss as the price for all his financial gains. Tuesday Weld is an appealing waif. Karl Malden (Pollyanna, 1960) essays another tormented soul and Rip Torn (Judas in King of Kings, 1961) a sleazy one. Also look out for a host of great character actors including Jack Weston (Mirage, 1965), Oscar nominee Joan Blondell (Advance to the Rear, 1964) and Jeff Corey (Once a Thief, 1965) plus composer and bandleader Cab Calloway.
Ann-Margret, all eye-shadow and cleavage, is in her best man-eater form. But, thankfully, there is more to her character than that. It is unclear whether she simply latches on to a potential winner or is pimped out by Shooter, but just hooking up with that older man (i.e. Shooter) makes her interesting, since looks are far from his attraction. Her ruthlessness is spelled out in simple fashion. She is determined to win, cheating at solitaire and she slams the wrong pieces into a jigsaw just for the satisfaction of making it look complete. You can sense a depth in this character which the film does not have time to fully explore.
Although often compared to The Hustler (1962), and in many eyes considered both its inferior and a crude rip-off, this is in some respects a greater achievement. At least in The Hustler, there actually was action, players moving around a pool table, clacking balls racing across the surface. Poker is all about stillness. Any gesture could give away your thoughts. Unlike any other sport, poker requires silence. There is no roaring crowd, just people dotted round the room, some with vested interest if only through a wager, some wanting to say they were there when a champion was toppled.
So the ability to maintain audience interest with two guys just staring at each other, interspersed with minimal dialog, takes some skill. Building that to a crescendo of sheer tension is incredible.
The first four pictures of Canadian director Norman Jewison (Send Me No Flowers, 1964) did not hint at the dramatic chops, confidence, composure and understanding of pacing required, especially as he was a last-minute replacement for Sam Peckinpah, to pull this off. That he does so with style demonstrated a keen and versatile talent that would come to the boil in his next three films: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
The former blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. (Tracy-Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, 1942) was credited with his first screenplay since The Forbidden Street in 1949 and he shared the chore with another iconic figure, Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964), basing their work on the original novel by Richard Jessup. Not sure who contributed the classic line: “Read ’em and weep.” Mention should be made of a terrific score by Lao Schifrin.
This film had everything. The cast was pure A-list: Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) and Oscar nominee Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963). The direction was in the capable hands of Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966), working with Hepburn again after the huge success of thriller Charade (1963). The witty sophisticated script about the marriage between ambitious architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and teacher wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) unravelling over a period of a dozen years had been written by Frederic Raphael, who had won the Oscar for his previous picture, Darling (1965). Composer Henry Mancini was not only responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – for which he collected a brace of Oscars – but also Charade and Arabesque. And the setting was France at its most fabulous.
So what went wrong? You could start with the flashbacks. The movie zips in and out of about half a dozen different time periods and it’s hard to keep up. We go from the meet-cute to a road trip on their own and another with some irritating American friends to Finney being unfaithful on his own and then Hepburn caught out in a clandestine relationship and finally the couple making a stab at resolving their relationship. I may have got mixed up with what happened when, it was that kind of picture.
A linear narrative might have helped, but not much, because their relationship jars from the start. Mark is such a boor you wonder what the attraction is. His idea of turning on the charm is a Humphrey Bogart imitation. There are some decent lines and some awful ones, but the dialogue too often comes across as epigrammatic instead of the words just flowing. It might have worked as a drama delineating the breakdown of a marriage and it might have worked as a comedy treating marriage as an absurdity but the comedy-drama mix fails to gel.
It’s certainly odd to see a sophisticated writer relying for laughs on runaway cars that catch fire and burn out a building or the annoying whiny daughter of American couple Howard (William Daniels) and Cathy (Eleanor Bron) and a running joke about Mark always losing his passport.
And that’s shame because it starts out on the right foot. The meet-cute is well-done and for a while it looks as though Joanna’s friend Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) will hook Mark until chicken pox intervenes. But the non-linear flashbacks ensure that beyond Mark overworking we are never sure what caused the marriage breakdown. The result is almost a highlights or lowlights reel. And the section involving Howard and Cathy is overlong. I kept on waiting for the film to settle down but it never did, just whizzed backwards or forwards as if another glimpse of their life would do the trick, and somehow make the whole coalesce. And compared to the full-throttle marital collapse of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) this was lightweight stuff, skirting round too many fundamental issues.
It’s worth remembering that in movie terms Finney was inexperienced, just three starring roles and two cameos to his name, so the emotional burden falls to Hepburn. Finney is dour throughout while Hepburn captures far more of the changes their life involves. Where he seems at times only too happy to be shot of his wife, she feels more deeply the loss of what they once had as the lightness she displays early on gives way to brooding.
Hepburn as fashion icon gets in the way of the picture and while some of the outfits she wears, not to mention the sunglasses, would not have been carried off by anyone else they are almost a sideshow and add little to the thrust of the film.
If you pay attention you can catch a glimpse, not just of Jacqueline Bissett (Bullitt, 1969) but Romanian star Nadia Gray (The Naked Runner, 1967), Judy Cornwell (The Wild Racers, 1968) in her debut and Olga Georges-Picot (Farewell, Friend, 1968). In more substantial parts are William Daniels (The Graduate, 1968), English comedienne Eleanor Bron (Help!, 1965) woefully miscast as an American, and Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, 1966).
Hepburn’s million-dollar fee helped put the picture’s budget over $5 million, but it only brought in $3 million in U.S. rentals, although the Hepburn name may have nudged it towards the break-even point worldwide.
More social document than drama, but that aspect somewhat diluted by the moviemakers’ attempts at exposing rebellious youth while taking for granted more sordid adult behavior. Sold under the exploitation banner – “this could be your teenage daughter” – narrative flow is interrupted now and then to showcase Adam Faith’s singing and to accommodate a few striptease acts. Probably more interesting is the array of new talent on show.
Spoiled teenager Jennifer (Gillian Hills) heads for the wild side of town to experience the beatnik lifestyle in Soho coffee shops and cellars. That there’s no drugs involved and that alcohol is considered “square” – as for that matter is violence – may come as a surprise to students of the period. Apart from one episode of road-racing and playing “chicken” along a railway track, most of the time the gang listen to music or go dancing until Jennifer gets it into her head that joining a striptease show might give her life the thrill it is missing.
This is prompted by the discovery that her new too-young stepmother Nichole (Noelle Adams) has been a stripper and most likely a sex worker in Paris before marrying wealthy architect Paul (David Farrar), cueing a round-robin of confrontations. Strangely enough, from the narrative perspective, none of the young bucks appear romantically interested in the provocatively-dressed Jennifer and so it is left to creepy club owner Kenny (Christopher Lee) to make a move.
The gaping hole left by lack of narrative drive is not offset by immersion in the beatnik or striptease scene. Back in the day the British censors took the editing scissors to the striptease but although restored versions available now contain nudity you are left wishing that there was some lost element to the beatnik sections that would have given the picture the energy it required.
Gillian Hills (Les Liaisions Dangereuses, 1959), comes over as a cross between Brigitte Bardot and Diana Dors without having an ounce of the sex appeal of either. All pout and flounce, she is unable to inject any heart into her two-dimensional character, although given her youth and inexperience this was hardly surprising. Former British star David Farrar (Black Narcissus, 1947) was coming to the end of his career and in a thankless role as a frustrated father could do little to rescue the project.
French actress Noelle Gordon (Sergeant X of the Foreign Legion, 1960) could have been Jennifer’s mother given her own tendencies towards wiggle and pout but at least she makes a stab at trying to overcome her step-daughter’s hostility.
In the main, the picture’s delight is bringing to the fore a whole chorus of new faces. Pick of the supporting cast is Shirley Anne Field (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) who doesn’t just have a knowing look but looks as if she knows what’s she doing acting-wise. Making his movie debut was teen pop idol Adam Faith, who had made his name playing in coffee bars. He had already notched up a couple of number one singles, but doesn’t quite set the screen on fire. Peter McEnery (The Fighting Prince of Donegal, 1966) plays his inebriated pal. You can also spot Oliver Reed (Women in Love, 1969), Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago, 1965), Claire Gordon (Cool It, Carol, 1970) and Nigel Green (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963).
Perhaps the most important debut belonged to composer John Barry. He had already been working with Adam Faith. Barry’s music for the film was the first British soundtrack album ever released, reaching number eleven on the charts, and opening the doors for future soundtrack albums, not least of which was the rich vein of theme tunes produced by Barry in the next few years.
French director Edmond T. Greville, who brought little panache to the subject matter, would redeem himself with his next picture The Hands of Orlac (1960).
This doesn’t fall into the “so-bad-it’s-good” category, nor has it been unfairly overlooked, and probably is better known as an example of the kind of exploitation B-picture that the Americans do so much better and a reminder that, except on rare occasions such as The Wild One (1953), older moviemakers seem incapable of capturing the essence of youth.