Year-End Round-Up Part Two: “Other Stuff” Top 20

Regular readers will know that this blog occasionally turns its attention to what comes under the generic title of “Other Stuff.” In the main and still covering movies I’ve reviewed this comprises behind the scenes looks at movies, examines pressbooks or marketing materials and analyses how books were shaped into films. I also focus from time to time on important issues that shaped Hollywood in the 1960s and write book reviews.

  1. Behind the ScenesThe Guns of Navarone (1961). The ultimate template for the men-on-a-mission war picture with an all-star cast and enough jeopardy to qualify for a movie of its own.
  2. Book ReviewThe Gladiators vs Spartacus Vol 1. Stupendous research by Henry MacAdam and Duncan Cooper explains how close Yul Brynner’s version of the Spartacus legend came to beating the Kirk Douglas movie into production.  
  3. Behind the ScenesThe Satan Bug (1965). The problems facing director John Sturges in adapting the Alistair MacLean pandemic classic for the big screen.
  4. Box Office Poison – 1960s Style. Actors and actresses who had been big box office draws at the start of the decade were floundering by its end. This examines which stars while pulling down big salaries were not pulling their weight.
  5. Behind the ScenesThe Girl on a Motorcycle (1968). Cult classic starring Marianne Faithful and Alain Delon had a rocky road to release, especially in the U.S. where the censor was not happy.
  6. The Bond They Couldn’t SellDr No (1962). Despite the movie’s later success and the colossal global box office of the series, American cinema owners were very reluctant to spend money renting what was perceived as just another British film.
  7. When Alistair MacLean Quit: Part One. Rankled by his treatment by his publishers, the bestselling author gave up his bestselling career. And not once, but twice (see When Alistair Quit: Part Two).
  8. Book ReviewDreams of Flight: The Great Escape (1963) in American Film and Culture. Dana Polan’s definitive book on the making of the POW classic starring Steve McQueen.
  9. Behind the ScenesGenghis Khan (1965). A venture into epic European filmmaking with an all-star cast led by Omar Sharif.
  10. Bronson Unwanted. By the end of the 1970s Charles Bronson was one of the biggest stars in the world, but at the end of the 1960s, although highly appreciated in France, his movies could not get a box office break elsewhere.
  11. PressbookDark of the Sun (1968). How MGM sold the action picture starring Rod Taylor and Jim Brown. Fashion anyone?
  12. Selling Doctor Zhivago (1965). MGM’s efforts to create huge audience awareness of the David Lean epic prior to its British launch.
  13. Behind the ScenesThe Night They Raided Minskys / The Night They Invented Striptease (1968). The convoluted background to the attempts by neophyte director William Friedkin to make a movie celebrating America’s vaudeville past.
  14. Advance Buzz. How Hollywood began to take on board the need for publicity long before the opening of a picture.
  15. Behind the ScenesTopaz (1969). Detailing the problems facing Alfred Hitchcock in turning the Leon Uris bestseller into an espionage classic featuring a non-star cast.
  16. Book ReviewThe Gladiators vs Spartacus Vol 2.  Abraham Polonsky’s longlost screenplay about Spartacus is brought to light.
  17. The Miracle of Mirisch. The Mirisch Bros were the top independent producers in the 1960s – the first of the mini-majors – and while releasing classics like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape were also responsible for a pile of turkeys.
  18. Book into FilmDr No (1962). How the filmmakers adapted the Ian Fleming original to create the James Bond template.
  19. Behind the ScenesCast a Giant Shadow (1965). Producer Melville Shavelson wrote a book about his experiences and this and other material relating the arduous task of bringing the Kirk Douglas-starrer to the screen are related here.
  20. Book into FilmA Cold Wind in August (1961). The novel was a lot sexier than the film, since publishing did not face the same restrictions as Hollywood, and this examines how far the movie went to retain the spirit of the book.

Year-End Round-Up: Top 30 Films Chosen by You

Top 30

This isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a c chart of the films viewed the most times over the full calendar year of January 2021 – December 2021.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960). Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack embark on an audacious Las Vegas robbery.  
  3. Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt.
  4. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie  starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. Moment to Moment (1966). Jean Seberg is caught up in a Hitchcockian murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary.
  9. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  10. Once a Thief (1965). Trying to go straight ex-con Alain Delon is coerced into a robbery. Ann-Margret is a revelation as his wife. Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey add up to a great supporting cast.  
  11. Stiletto (1969). Alex Cord as a Mafia hitman wanting to retire is pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland heads a supporting cast which includes Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  12. Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry is called to London to uncover a mole in M.I.5. Joan Collins provides the romance. Richard Todd, Tom Adams, Suzanna Leigh and Michael Rennie lend a touch of class.
  13. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster delivers a superlative performance as a man whose life is falling apart.
  14. The Rock (1996). Blistering thriller starring Sean Connery as an ex-inmate of Alcatraz helping Nicolas Cage infiltrate the island to prevent mad general Ed Harris destroying San Francisco. Michael Bay directs.
  15. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Alain Delon joins forces with Jean Gabin to pull off an daring jewel heist with tenacious cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil.
  16. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  17. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  20. A Twist of Sand (1968). Beleaguered smuggler Richard Johnson spars with Jeremy Kemp in thriller about hidden diamonds in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  21. Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Ray Harryhausen special effects dominate this legendary tale of the hunt for the Golden Fleece.  
  22. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). Disney movie that was turned into a mini-series in the U.S. starring Patrick McGoohan as the eponymous Robin Hood-type character who assists smugglers.
  23. The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021). Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson reunite for wild sequel also featuring Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.
  24. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). Rod Taylor leads a private army into the war-torn Congo to rescue a cache of uncut diamonds. Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller.
  25. The Guns of Navarone (1961). Classic war mission picture with an all-star cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas and Gia Scala. Adapted from the Alistair McLean bestseller.
  26. Maroc 7 (1967). Gene Barry infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves in Morocco operating under the cover of a fashion shoot. Dazzling female cast includes Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  27. The Satan Bug (1965). John Sturges adaptation of Alistair MacLean pandemic thriller stars George Maharis, Richard Basehart and Dana Andrews.
  28. Five Golden Dragons (1967). Cult thriller with Robert Cummings as the playboy caught up in an international crime syndicate. Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee head an exceptional supporting cast that also includes Margaret Lee, Brian Donlevy, George Raft, Dan Duryea and Maria Rohm.
  29. Claudelle Inglish (1961). Diane McBain as the poor farmer’s daughter who wants to get rich quick.
  30. Jessica (1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge.

Selling Sharif – The Pressbook for “Mayerling” (1969)

MGM didn’t know how to sell this. So they came up with three different campaigns. The first was the classical illustration of stars Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve about to kiss. This image was used for the film’s launch in the U.K. and at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The artwork could be augmented if need be by various scenes from the film. You would categorize this as the straightforward romantic sell. Sharif after all was the most famous romantic idol of the decade following the monumental success of Doctor Zhivago (1965).

But this was the more liberalized 1969 rather the restrained mid-decade so MGM offered exhibitors the opportunity to promote the picture as a more salacious number, not overdone sexually since that would defeat the purpose of achieving a rating designed to attract the widest possible adult audience, but nonetheless touching on enough of the risqué to satisfy modern cinemagoing taste.

Of the two alternatives, one was considerably more spicy than the other. Using the tagline “No one woman could satisfy him…until he fell in love” this presented Sharif as wanton playboy, wine glass in hand, cavorting with cleavage-ridden woman.  The other approach, though technically more reserved, was as provocative since it highlighted Deneuve’s role as a high-class sex worker in Belle de Jour (1967), the sensational arthouse breakout. The connection would not be lost on the more sophisticated members of the audience.

Nor did the Pressbook avoid the more intimate elements of the drama and in fact the biggest article in the promotional material concerned the “emotional incest” between Sharif as the Crown Prince and his mother played by Ava Gardner – “the abnormally close relationship between the two was noted again and again in records of the era” – and in their first scene together “looked like lovers to the silver screen born.”

Historical films lent themselves to the kind of detail that journalists loved and the Pressbook for a movie set in a magnificent Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century capitalized on this.  As you might expect, waltzes played a key role in the social life of high society. The Pressbook introduced newspaper editors to the concept of “left-waltzing,” a particularly energetic form of the dance performed on state occasions. This waltz had a “strict etiquette” in that it is “forbidden to reverse no matter how dizzy one gets,” explained director Terence Young. Auditioning for extras to participate was made simpler by eliminating anyone who collided with another dancer.

The Pressbook, unusually, also casts light on directorial technique, again in reference to a waltz. This is the one where Omar Sharif scandalizes the court by opening a ball by dancing with his mistress Catherine Deneuve. Young wanted to create the effect of the whirling couple revolving into a world of their own.  To achieve this the stars had to “dance in a perfect circle, keeping a constant distance in the center of the ballroom floor from director of photography Henri Akedan and his revolving camera.”

Initially, Young resorted to “two elaborate and – as it proved – punishing devices since the dance had to be done over and over.” The first saw camera and stars balanced at opposite ends of a rotating “see-saw.” But this moved so fast Sharif lost his balance and Deneuve suffered from dizziness. Next, they were connected by a lasso but this metal contraption struck them so often in the hips it was abandoned. Finally, they reverted to the simplest of solutions, working round a circle chalked on the floor. 

To ensure authenticity, Young was able to film at the Hapsburg Palace, the Karlschirche and the Schonbrunn Palace. However, such was the urge to preserve these antiquities, the stars were not permitted to sit on any of the chairs or even get anywhere close to them, so it was standing room only for days at a time. However, the Vienna Opera House of 1888 was reconstructed on Parisian sound stages.

The marketers were able to take advantage of the current fashion for the vintage look as pioneered by the likes of The Beatles. Under the heading “Groovy Gear,” the promotional gurus encouraged exhibitors to target the university crowd and metropolitan areas with a preponderance of young people who would appreciate the “freaky clothes” and “up-town hippy clothing” like the military garb, long topcoats, high boots and fur hats worn in the film. Even so, the Pressbook originators were remarkably unimaginative when it came to dreaming up stunts and promotional gimmicks. Their best suggestions were a Catherine Deneuve look-alike contest and a competition to list all Omar Sharif’s roles. Rather more ambitious was the idea of inviting high school pupils to write an essay on aspects of the period.

Gimme Slapstick

The spate of slapstick-led comedies like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965) and British featurettes such as The Plank (1967) did not suddenly appear out of nowhere as was often the case with a moribund genre. The slapstick revival came by way of television. In the 1950s U.S. networks were screening silent shorts featuring Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and some of the Hal Roach and Mack Sennett output.

The driving force behind the big screen resurgence of interest in silent comedy was Robert Youngson who spent $100,000 in 1957 on what purported to be a new documentary The Golden Age of Comedy. In fact it was a good excuse for a compilation of old movie clips featuring Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon and actresses known for their comic ability such as Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. But while the television audience was weighted towards the young, Youngson’s picture reached a more appreciative adult audience in the arthouses, which would prove to be the bedrock for the ambitious revitalizing of the careers of other greats from the Hollywood peak years.

The Golden Age of Comedy was hugely successful, taking $500,000 in rentals. Since arthouses notoriously shared of lot less of their box office with studios there was a fair chance that the gross was in the region of $1.5 million, a tremendous return on investment, and opening the door for further sequels.

Silent comedy also crossed national boundaries. Modern dialogue-driven Hollywood comedies often found it hard to gain a foothold overseas. But The Golden Age of Comedy film was Twentieth Century Fox’s top grosser in India and huge in Italy.

Follow-up When Comedy Was King (1960) smashed box office records in New York at the 370-seat arthouse the 68th St Playhouse and at prices ranging from 90c to $1.65 playing to an estimated 10,000 moviegoers and running for another eight weeks. That gave Fox the greenlight to stick it out on the more commercial circuits as a supporting feature. But that was just the tip of the compilation iceberg, especially when other studios got into the act.

Hardly a year went by without another compilation – from the Youngson camp emerged Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) and 30 Years of Fun (1963). MGM put marketing muscle behind the producer’s The Big Parade of Comedy (1964) to the extent that it collected rave reviews from Newsweek and the New York Times and the studio held seminars for exhibitors on “sight comedy.” The inevitable double bill When Comedy Was King/Days of Thrills and Laughter appeared in 1965.

Harold Lloyd owned the copyright to all his films so his work was not chopped up piecemeal to satisfy the demands of a compilation. Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962) showed the comedian at the peak of his game. It combined eight scenes from silent and sound films Safety Last (1923), Why Worry (1923), Girl Shy (1924), Hot Water (1924), The Freshman (1925), Feet First (1930), Movie Crazy (1932) and Professor Beware (1938). His trademark spectacles were incorporated into the advertising. Follow-up Funny Side of Life (1963) included a complete version of The Freshman.

Mining a different silent tradition and with less emphasis on comedy was The Great Chase (1962) – including a shortened version of The General (1926) – which featured stunts by Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, William S. Hart and Pearl White.

The Buster Keaton revival had been initiated in less commercial fashion by Raymond Rohauer who had begun staging festival sof his films in arthouses. He tracked down prints of long-lost films in France, Denmark and Czechoslovakia but his compilations Buster Keaton Rides Again (1965) and The Great Stone Face (1966) were more successful abroad than at home.

Blake Edwards’ The Great Race was dedicated to Laurel and Hardy who had become more prominent on both small-screen and big-screen thanks in part to the initial Youngson compilations. MGM were first out the traps with Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20s (1965). Then came producer Jay Ward’s The Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy (1966) and The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy (1967) followed by a collection of colorized shorts The Best of Laurel and Hardy while Hanna-Barbera launched a cartoon series on television in 1966 and Pillsbury sold Laurel and Hardy donuts.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of the Hollywood Reissue 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), pages 200-205; “Youngson Anthologies of Silents Continue Showing Coin Potential,” Variety, October 19, 1960, p13; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, March 9, 1960, p8; Advertisement, “Sleeper of the Year,” Box Office, October 5, 1964, p7; “MGM Sets Fun Campaign for Laurel and Hardy,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, p112;  “Comedy Seminar Helps MGM Film Promotion,” Box Office, December 13, 1965, p94; “Pillsbury Acquires Rights for Laurel and Hardy Donuts,” Box Office, October 23, 1966, p27; “Archivist Raymond Rohauer,” Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1987.

When Comedy Was King (1960) ***

The 1960s was as much devoted to old movies as to new – the production shortage sent studios and producers back to the vaults to find anything that could fill a slot on a cinema program – and one of the most surprising beneficiaries of this was the silent movie.

It’s impossible to understand the 1960s without realizing what underpinned both the revival of slapstick comedy in such movies as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965) and, just as crucially, brought to the attention of a new public other non-comedic stars from Hollywood’s “golden age,” the revival of whose movies in turn prompted a reissue boom and a decade or so further on provided the stimulus for the restoration of forgotten masterpieces.

The innovator in the silent comedy field was Robert Youngson, a two-time Oscar-winner (in the one-reel documentary category), who had set the ball rolling with The Golden Age of Comedy (1957).

When Comedy Was King sports a greater repertoire of stars and in essence presents a tribute – though not necessarily a greatest hits – to some of the best of the silent comedians The line-up includes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand and the Keystone Cops.

It was renamed “The Parade of Joy” for European markets.

None of the shorts featured are necessarily an individual artist’s greatest work – Chaplin’s contribution, for example, is drawn from a trio of 1914 pictures, The Masqurader, Kid Auto in Venice and His Trysting Place, none of which would be seen to represent the actor at his height. But they do give an idea of what silent comedy was all about.

Buster Keaton’s contribution is selected from the 18-minute Cops (1922) with well-timed gags, slapstick and car chases. Mutual self-destruction is a hallmark of Laurel and Hardy and Big Business (1929) sees the pair get into an argument with a customer, ending up demolishing everything in sight.  This is probably the pick of the compilation since the pair’s comedy relies on their relationship with each other and with anyone who gets in their way.

Appreciation of the particular talents of Fatty Arbuckle scarcely survived the scandal that ended his career while memory of Mabel Normand would also have been hazy so Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) is a good example of their comedy styles. They play a couple whose bed ends up floating on the sea.

Youngson was not above cashing in on a star’s future fame even when the example used of the person’s work could hardly be considered their best. In the case of Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard, 1950) she was unrecognizable especially as she was only 12-years-old and being billed at the time as Gloria Dawn. Her inclusion is taken from the short Jimmie the Fox (1911) later renamed Bobby’s Sweetheart. Certainly, she is displaying none of the dramatic ability which made her the highest paid actress of the 1920s.

For all the varying quality of the actual footage, it does work as a showcase for the various stars, even though they would achieve greater success in later films. As importantly, it opened up for the 1960s generation the world of silent comedy and seemed to make that decade’s audience laugh as much as it had done previously.

Youngson would go on to make another five of these compilations throughout the decade. Without his initial forays into old school comedy, big-budget 70mm roadshows like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would never have seen the light of day, nor would more modest efforts like the British-made The Plank (1967), written, directed and starring Eric Sykes.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) ****

The special effects are in the five-star range while the movie into which they fit is really worth no more than three stars so I’ve compromised, hence the four-star rating. Actually, the story and characters are interesting enough, and there are some stunning cowboy stunts,  though where is a fur-lined bikini when you need one. Although we are treated to prehistoric monsters, humans fail to have managed the transition to the hidden valley where the creatures have kept out of sight for millions of years. Instead, we are in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Mexico.

However, one specimen, a miniature horse, known as El Diablo, has been found and now resides in a rodeo, property of T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) whose showstopping turn involves leaping on horseback from a high platform through a ring of fire into a pool of water.  Ex-flame and sleek salesman Tuck (James Franciscus) and archaeologist Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) follow gypsies who aim to return the horse to the Forbidden Valley. T.J. and a band of cowboys are in pursuit.

I saw this double bill in 1969 when it was shown on the ABC circuit in Britain.

Widening a tiny gap into the unknown world also of course means it’s not big enough for the monsters to escape. The valley is ruled by Gwangi, an Allosaurus, which to most of the audience looks remarkably like a T. Rex. Various battles ensure. A Pteranadon swoops down from the sky and captures one of the cowboys but is killed by Carlos (Gustavo Rojo). Gwangi fights an Ornithomimus and a Styracosaurus. Even if your knowledge of prehistoric monsters  isn’t up to identifying each creature, no matter, the fights are very well done, and a step up in terms of special effects from similar tussles in Harryhausen’s previous venture in One Million Years B.C. (1966) especially as we are less distracted by females attired in fur bikinis.

Naturally, the intent is to capture Gwangi and put him on show a la King Kong (1933) and it’s equally obvious how this particular maneuver is going to work out. That the story follows this particular angle is down to the fact that the movie was the original idea of Willis O’Brien, the special effects genius to created King Kong. After considerable development, RKO shelved the project on the assumption the public was not interested in dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, back in the human tale, the previously principled T.J. lets greed get the better of her and begins resisting Tuck’s overtures. Even if you can guess the finale, it is pretty well done.

Ray Harryhausen only had a limited fanbase in the 1960s, otherwise this picture would not have done the rounds as the supporting feature to Robert Mitchum western The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969). You can tell it lacked the budget of One Million Years B.C. because the creatures fail to remain a consistent color. Even so, this ranks as one of the top special effects achievements and these days Harryhausen’s work is much more appreciated.

Unless you are Raquel Welch, it’s difficult for an actor to compete with prehistoric monsters. At least here, the stars had decent dialogue and the tangled romance provides entertainment as do the host of stunning stunts in the rodeo and a bull running amok. Charlton Heston look-alike James Franciscus (Youngblood Hawke, 1964) is a plausible love interest who doesn’t let romance get in the way of a fast buck. The role of Gila Golan (Our Man Flint, 1966) extends to more than eye candy and there’s not a bikini in sight or disrobing of any sort. Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954) was a sci-fi veteran and Laurence Naismith had appeared in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). British actress Freda Jackson (The Third Secret, 1964) plays a witch.

Director Jim O’Connolly (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969) keeps the human elements rolling along and once monsters join in the fun there’s scarcely time to draw breath. William Bast (Hammerhead, 1968) pulled together the human and monster elements for the screenplay.

Harryhausen fans will have a ball.

Dr Who and The Daleks (1965) ***

The maiden voyage of the time-travelling Tardis is triggered by some unexpected pratfall comedy. On board are the venerable doctor (Peter Cushing), his intrepid great-granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey) and a fearful pair, granddaughter Barbara (Jennie Linden) and accident-prone Ian (Roy Castle). They land on a petrified planet ruled by robotic Daleks with menacing electronic voices.

The malfunctioning Tardis forces them to investigate an abandoned city but they are quickly imprisoned, the steel robots determined to discover why the earthlings should be immune to the radiation that has consumed the planet after nuclear war. Meanwhile, the planet’s remaining inhabitants, the Thals, are planning an uprising.

Studio One was one of the smallest cinemas in London’s West End and often used as the launch pad for Disney pictures. Limited capacity ensured that a hit film would run for months and the crowds queueing outside would attract the attention of other passersby.

Budget restrictions ensure that menace is limited, even as the characters endure a heap of traditional obstacles such as swamp and rocky outcrop. Adults who did not grow up in the 1960s when the BBC television series took Britain by storm and apt to come at this without the benefit of nostalgia will certainly look askance at the sets and costumes. And it doesn’t possess the so-bad-it’s-good quality of some 1950s sci-fi pictures. But since it was primarily made for children, then perhaps it’s better to watch it with a younger person and gauge their response – of course, that may be equally harsh from someone brought up on the modern version of the series or already immersed in superheroes.

On the plus side, it does move along at a clip. Roberta Tovey (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) charms rather than annoys as the plucky grand-daughter even if her grandfather has mutated from the sterner figure of the television series into an eccentric inventor. Peter Cushing (She, 1965) is only required to ground the production which he does adequately. The innate comic timing of Roy Castle, in his leading man debut, brings a light touch to proceedings as the bumbling boyfriend and generates some decent laughs. Jennie Linden (Women in Love, 1969) has little to do except look scared.

With no built-in audience, the U.S. distributors marketed it in typical fashion – “half men half-machine” – and possibly roped in a bigger adult audience unaware of its origins in children’s television.

Oddly enough, it was American Milton Subotsky who, in opportunistic fashion, brought the project to the big screen, although the BBC had a track record of providing product that might make such a leap, The Quatermass Experiment in the 1950s the leading example. He wrote the screenplay and acted as producer and had previously worked with Cushing on Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and was about to embark on horror masterpiece The Skull the same year. He has approached the material with some reverence and the fact that the budget allowed for hordes of daleks rather than being seen one or two at a time as on the television probably made some child’s day.

Scottish director Gordon Flemyng (The Split, 1968) would make the leap to Hollywood on the back of this picture and its sequel the following year and you can see what made studios have faith in his ability – he deals with multiple characters, works quickly on a low budget and delivers an attractive picture that was a box office hit.

I suspect that audiences will divide into those who watch the film with nostalgia-colored spectacles, those who think it only as good as a bad episode of Star Trek and those who adore any low-budget sci-fi movie.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

The Road to Corinth (1967) ***

Top-class cast and occasional stylish direction get in the way of a thriller that can’t make up its mind whether it is in reality just a spoof. On the one hand we have a killer in a white suit complete with straw boater and a secret service boss who sells Turkish Delight, on the other hand a story not so much from James Bond but from Bond imitators.

Agent Robert Ford (Christian Marquand) is on the trail of black boxes that prevent missiles launching. When wife Shanny (Jean Seberg) is framed for his murder she determines to uncover the real killer, aided by Dex (Maurice Ronet), and find the maker of the boxes.

But that’s an over-simplification of an over-complicated plot so it’s best to concentrate on the highlights. For example, when customs officials stop a magician they find white rabbits and doves in his vehicle and, despite severe interrogation, he can, magically, release himself from his bonds enough to swallow a concealed cyanide pill. Instead of the usual cute children that proliferate in these kind of films, there’s a really annoying one. Shanny, imprisoned, has to make dolls. Greek Orthodox priests play a significant role.

Throw in kinky secret service boss Sharps (Michel Bouquet) who relishes being slapped for his inappropriate overtures to Shanny, a porn film starring Madame Phiphi, the heroine dangled from a crane and later lashed down to a dumper, and a villain willing to give up his villainy for the love of a good woman.

But mostly it’s a picture in a rush. There are chases galore and nods to Hitchcock and lush Greek scenery.

It would be easy to assume that in eye-catching outfits Jean Seberg (Moment to Moment, 1966) is mostly there to provide eye candy but she does manage to outwit her pursuers from time to time although she seems equally to have a knack for being caught. Maurice Ronet (Lost Command, 1966), Christian Marquand (The Corrupt Ones, 1967) and especially Michel Bouquet (La Femme Infidele, 1969) bring an air of quality to the proceedings.  

Apart from the occasional stunning image, this is not the Claude Chabrol (Les Biches, 1968) that lovers of his thrillers would expect.

There’s a print of this on Youtube. Amazon Prime has this for certain regions. Otherwise it will be Ebay.

Book into Film – “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

Many liberties have been taken with the work of Alistair MacLean but there is little to match the arrogance of director John Sturges in deciding that the author’s original ending just wasn’t good enough. Setting aside the achievements of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), he was known for lapses of cinematic judgement, namely in switching completely the tone of The Satan Bug (1965) and assuming audiences shared his sense of humour with The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

According to Glenn Lovell, Sturges’ biographer, the director had “cringed” when presented with the Chayefsky screenplay, claiming the book had no “finish.” Closer, in Lovell’s words, to Agatha Christie than Ian Fleming. You have to ask if Sturges, or Lovell for that matter, had ever read Alistair MacLean’s astonishing tour de force of an ending.

The MacLean version climaxes in the submarine not on shore. And it takes to the ultimate the problems of confinement. You would have thought Sturges would have had little problem with the deadly incarceration of the MacLean climactic chapter given that had been a main element of The Great Escape, especially in the scenes with the claustrophobic Charles Bronson.

What Sturges passed up was what films like Das Boot (1981) later did so well – the sheer terror of being trapped underwater. MacLean’s book envisages the survivors of the fire at Ice Station Zebra rescued and returned to the submarine with the knowledge in the mind of David Jones (Patrick McGoohan in the film) that among them is a murderer, a Russian spy who caused the fire. The vessel is then subjected to further sabotage. A fire in the engine room causes the submarine to stop. That in turn causes the temperature to plummet, leaving the men in an “ice cold tomb.” Worse, they are running out of oxygen. Carbon monoxide is poisoning the atmosphere. In a short time a hundred will be dead. And to top it all, they have lost their bearings, the compasses don’t work, they are going round and round in a circle.

Can you imagine the possibilities? Absolute chaos. Not just thick acrid smoke everywhere, men strewn unconscious, the fire still burning, panic, terror. A submarine that was slowly becoming an underwater grave with still a killer on the loose.

Sturges could not imagine the possibilities. Perhaps he had not read the book either and Chayefsky had skipped through that part of the novel to get to the “trial,” the uncovering of the traitor that had been deemed too much like Agatha Christie. But The Guns of Navarone, one of the most successful movies of all time, had enjoyed a similar scene, when a surprise traitor was unmasked.

The ending Sturges slapped on the picture had its genesis in a couple of lines from the book where the British secret agent explained that Russian airplanes had come to the Arctic in the guise of helping the rescue but in reality looking for the film from the satellite. All the stuff about the new type of camera being stolen by the Russians and of film containing sensitive information about American missile sites needing to be recovered had come from the book. In the MacLean version, the traitor would dump the film out into the sea via the sub’s garbage chute but tagged with a floating device and a yellow marker so it could be picked up by a Russian vessel.

Instead, Sturges went for some kind of direct confrontation with the Russians, a shoot-out on the ice. It seemed a mighty odd decision, given the opportunities in 70mm Cinerama for a full-scale panic on board an immobilised submarine drifting to its doom.

In order to make his version work, Sturges had to draft in a squad of marines eventually led by Capt Anders (Jim Brown). The introduction of Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) makes less sense, especially as, snooping around the submarine, he is obviously up to no good, but that might be for sound cinematic reasons since otherwise the traitor would only turn up once the movie reached Zebra and even then would need to come to the fore for some obvious reason.

Interestingly, the screenplay omits one element. Heading the Zebra Arctic operation is the older brother of the British secret agent, giving him a secondary reason for his mission, and the potential for emotional reaction on finding his sibling dead.

Sometimes screenwriters just seem to earn their keep by changing names for no apparent reason. So the book’s Commander Swanson becomes Ferraday (Rock Hudson) and British agent Dr Carpenter is renamed David Jones minus medical degree. All the initial sabotage comes from the fertile mind of the author and long before Tom Clancy, beginning with The Hunt for Red October, invented a brand-new publishing genre concentrating on military detail, MacLean reveals an extraordinary grasp of every detail of a nuclear submarine, the Arctic, the weather and what exactly might go wrong from a fire on board or should the vessel lose speed.

Neither would you recognise Rock Hudson in MacLean’s description of the submarine commander as “short, plump…(and) a pink cherubic face.” MacLean’s British agent is less arrogant and acerbic, keeps much more to himself, revealing his character at appropriate moments spaced through the book, than does the film’s David Jones. That Dr Carpenter, the narrator, knows massive amounts about everything means that he does not need to showboat like the filmic David Jones to prove he is in charge.

The book is a turbo-charged thrill ride. That the final piece of sabotage and its consequences last nearly 50 pages is proof of MacLean’s skill as a page-turner. Much as I enjoyed the film as it stands, it’s just a shame that Sturges did not follow the author into his astonishing climactic sequences.   

When Alistair MacLean Quit: Part Two

After the publication of Ice Station Zebra in 1963, Alistair MacLean’s adoring public had to wait three years for its successor – When Eight Bells Toll. As he done before, the author just quit. But unlike the previous disappearing act, when he continued to produce books under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart, this time nothing came down the prolific pipeline. The goose had laid its last golden egg.

After a five-year tax exile in Switzerland, MacLean had returned to Britain in 1962, setting up home first in Farnham, Surrey, followed by a brief hiatus in Ireland before settling down in a Georgian mansion with a two-acre estate in Haslemere, Surrey.

Film tie-in paperback of what might have been Alistair MacLean’s final book.

But as he delivered the manuscript of Ice Station Zebra to publisher Ian Chapman of Collins, he dropped a bombshell. He had made more than enough money. He was fed up with the high-and-mighty attitude of his editors. He was depressed by the sales of Fear Is The Key, which had been a writing breakthrough for him. He had written his last book. Now he was going to become a hotelier and to that end had bought the famous Jamaica Inn plus Bank House at Worcester and the Bean Bridge Hotel in Somerset.

The 400-year-old inn, immortalized by the Daphne Du Maurier book and Alfred Hitchcock film, was a solid going concern, takings from accommodation and food augmented by income from three bars and a souvenir shop. MacLean was a hands-on manager and felt immediately more at home dealing with real people than sitting in a lonely room pounding out his fiction. He had come to the conclusion that writing novels was “not a moral way of earning money.”

In dreaming the dream, he was especially particular, having inspected over 100 hotels before plumping for Jamaica Inn. He had the idea that hotel-keeping was in his blood. His younger brother Gillespie was a hotelier and since he could not afford a hotel of his own Alistair had bought him one near Fort William. Gillespie, however, was less than enthusiastic about the notion of operating three hotels far apart, and doubted his brother’s skills. Alistair showed little aptitude for running a business. He failed to understand the importance of stock-taking and before he could get to grips with the basics had already invested in a beer-making operation.

In despair he turned to his older brother Ian who was a high-flyer at Shell. Sensibly, Ian did not give up the day job but trying to keep an eye on a failing enterprise proved impossible. Alistair lacked people-management skills and was a poor judge of character. It was no surprise the hotels failed to flourish.

That Alistair MacLean returned to writing at all was the result of a leap of faith by producer Elliot Kastner who had parlayed $1,000 for the rights to Ross MacDonald novel The Moving Target and another $5,000 for a screenplay by William Goldman into a $3.3 million private eye picture Harper (1966) starring Paul Newman, along the way netting a cool half a million bucks for himself. In Britain to make Kaleidoscope (1966) with Warren Beatty, Kastner opened a production office at Pinewood. Aware that MacLean had no books to sell, his entire portfolio already snapped up and since his retirement nothing in the locker, he went down another route. He suggested MacLean write an original screenplay, offering $100,000 plus a share of the profits and the book rights.

Apart from the money they brought in, MacLean had not been too happy with Hollywood’s treatment of his novels. Richard Widmark had substantially altered The Secret Ways (1961), Carl Foreman had not only added characters to the film version of The Guns of Navarone (1961) but appeared to have appropriated the entire work and applied a possessive pronoun to the main title credits as if he had dreamed up the whole thing instead of just, as producer, putting the package together. The Satan Bug (1965), too, had been considerably changed and judging from the number of screenwriters hired for Ice Station Zebra, which had not gone before the cameras at this point, it was more than likely the producers had moved away from the Chayefsky treatment which MacLean had approved.

At least at the start, Kastner seemed trustworthy and his enthusiasm was flattering. After convincing the author that he had an ear for cinematic dialogue, and that his plots were ideal, Kastner handed MacLean some sample screenplays. Although MacLean was interested he told the producer he was too busy to commit right away. Assuming this was a reference to the hotels, Kastner was surprised to learn that, unbeknownst to Ian Chapman, MacLean had already renounced his retirement and was working on When Eight Bells Toll. A deal for Where Eagles Dare was struck on January 15, 1967. Eight weeks later MacLean delivered the screenplay.

Four years after apparently giving up writing forever, he had stumbled into a new career. And it wasn’t just Kastner queuing up to buy his work. Since “you can sell a picture just on the basis of his name,” Alistair MacLean remained a major attraction for filmmakers. By 1969 all 14 of his novels (up to Puppet on a Chain) had been bought for the movies, Ransohoff picking up the rights the previous year to The Golden Rendezvous, published in 1962, lining up MacLean for screenwriting duties.  Another seven original screenplays, with book deals pending, had also been purchased by producers including two sequels to When Eight Bells Toll, a pirate tale Swashbuckler and a western Deakin (renamed Breakheart Pass).

He never quit again.

SOURCES: Jack Webster, Alistair MacLean (Chapmans, London, 1992 paperback) p118-132; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, My 8, 1968, p30; “Film Slump No Problem for Alistair MacLean,” Variety, p35.

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