Behind the Scenes – “The Picasso Summer” (1969) Crisis

The making of The Picasso Summer was an odyssey in itself but what happened to the picture on completion generated a crisis in Hollywood.

Pablo Picasso in the early 1960s had apparently given “an enthusiastic endorsement” to American layout artist Wes Herchendson to animate some of his paintings. Some time afterwards, Hershendson came across sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s short story In a Season of Calm Weather about an American tourist meeting Picasso on a beach. Developing the scenario with the author, the pair turned the idea into an American couple attempting to meet the artist in the south of France.

Originally, the project was modest. It would run only an hour and be shown on television, sponsored by an airline company to promote foreign travel. But once the idea attracted the likes of British star Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963) , who had recently filmed Two for the Road (1967) in France, and Yvette Mimieux (The Time Machine, 1960), who had a percentage of the picture, it became bigger. It was the first film for a fledgling production company part-owned by Bill Cosby and when Warner Brothers-Seven Arts stumped up $1.6 million – a reasonable budget since a WB picture three years averaged just $1.75 million – it turned into a full-length feature intended for theatrical release. Filming began in November 1967 in San Francisco and France without a finished screenplay, working in almost improvisational style to a sketchy 20-page treatment.

Herchendson took care of the animated sequences with  the “live-action” section in the hands of Oscar-winning French director Serge Bourguignon. Although making his name with the French arthouse-oriented Sundays and Cybele (1962) he had also made mainstream western The Reward (1965) starring Mimieux and Max von Sydow and romantic drama Two Weeks in September (1967) with Brigitte Bardot, so his credentials appeared strong enough.

But something went very badly wrong. “The resulting footage was completely unsatisfactory,” went one report. Another claimed it was “incomprehensible.” So WB-7 Arts scrapped the first version and, because the movie, often filmed outdoors, had taken  advantage of the seasons, the film was pushed back a year to ensure footage matched. WB hired a new director Robert Sallin to salvage the picture with the principals returning for reshoots.

Initially, that appeared to have done the trick. WB announced it was considering launching the film as part of a big junket aimed at journalists in February 1969, and then screening it “in whole or in part” at a major conference in June with a view to a late 1969 release. A launch date was pencilled in for December 1969 – the original “X”-certificate issued in the same week as Easy Rider by that time had been amended to an “M” – with the intention of “finally getting it on the market.” And there was the signs of some promotional tie-ins with Barbra Streisand recording the theme tune “Summer Me, Winter Me.” But it didn’t appear. Officially, it was on the shelf.

The shelf, at that time, was not necessarily a bad place to be. Many pictures had been held back for a more convenient release spot during the 1960s, even more had been forcibly delayed when successful movies ate up preferential first run movie theatre space. It was nothing, for example, for The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) to wait eight months to be released.

But there was waiting and there was waiting. It soon became apparent that The Picasso Summer was not going to find a release date any time soon and that it was, officially, in limbo. Which was an astonishing state of affairs at the end of one troubled decade and the beginning of another. The hundreds of millions lost in big budget roadshows had seen a dramatic cutback in production. Cinemas were crying out for product, anything with a star, rather than being forced to make do with a flood of imports, spaghetti westerns of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety and sexploitation vehicles featuring unknowns.

Hollywood had been known for routinely throwing stinkers into the marketplace and while exhibitors might complain about poor quality generally they had little option but to screen what was available because there was nothing else. But the harsh financial climate facing studios meant that every dollar spent had to be weighed up. Releasing a bad movie cost as much as releasing a good one with no guarantee that further expenditure in advertising, promotion and prints would generate profit. No point throwing good money after bad.

So Warner Brothers did the unthinkable. Even as Albert Finney recovered his box office status after Scrooge (1970) and Yvette Mimieux starred in hit sex comedy Three in the Attic (1969) and The Delta Factor (1970) the studio kept The Picasso Summer in the vaults. Even throwing it out in a wide release with no premiere or a trial run in an arthouse was considered too risky.

The number of movies that were completely unrelease-able, as opposed to being withdrawn after failing to attract an audience or turning into big flops during their run, was actually very small – Fade In (1967) coming closest to achieving that notoriety even though it had been occasionally shown in cinemas, and it was also low-budget.

But, suddenly, at the end of the 1960s that number started growing. MGM’s The Appointment (1969) was also shelved. And that had more apparent box office cachet with  Oscar-nominated director Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) and featuring Oscar-nominated Omar Sharif (Doctor Zhivago,1965), an even bigger star than Albert Finney, and Anouk Aimee (Justine, 1969) also Oscar-nominated with greater box office clout than Yvette Mimieux. After it was booed at Cannes, MGM cancelled the American release after one U.S. test date .

But the trickle of shelved movies was becoming a flood. Into that category fell John Frankenheimer’s The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) starring Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) and Oscar-winner David Niven fresh from hit comedy The Impossible Years (1968). Courtroom drama Hostile Witness (1969) starring another Oscar-winner Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder, 1954) was denied a release as was comedy western A Talent for Loving (1969) with Richard Widmark, on a career high after Madigan (1968), and Adam’s Woman (1970) with Beau Bridges, who would strike a box office mother lode with Gaily, Gaily (1969) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1967). Swelling out the list was Crooks and Coronets / Sophie’s Place (1969) starring Telly Savalas (The Heroin Gang, 1968) and Hammer sci-fi Moon Zero Two (1969).

At a 1970 press conference, questioned about the shelving of The Picasso Summer, a Warner Brothers executive admitted: “We don’t know what to do with it, but not in the sense marketing is a problem; completion into a releasable form would seem to be the nub.”

By 1971, The Picasso Summer was not alone in failing to meet expectations. Some 80 movies funded by the majors had either still to be screened or had already been yanked off screens after poor test showings or minor playoffs failed to garner an audience. A year later Warner Brothers alone had ten completed movies on its books that would never see the light of theatrical day.

There had been one get-out clause for under-performing movies – television. A sale to the networks could bring in a substantial amount, sometimes enough to balance the books. But television was beginning to look askance at product that, in subject matter and in relation to violence and nudity, did not suit the Big Three channels. It was soon obvious that the networks had “lost their omnivorous feature film appetite.”

But there a light on the horizon. One network was interested in more unconventional fare and pictures that it could present as U.S. “premieres.” The CBS  “Late Night Movie” slot airing on a Thursday aimed to attract an adult audience seeking more adult material. The conventions of television would still minimize nudity but the films themselves would have an adult theme. Thus, in 1972 The Picasso Summer, The Appointment, The Extraordinary Seaman and Adam’s Woman were shown on CBS.   

The version of The Picasso Summer shown on American television was not the completed version. Herchendson complained to CBS about the “massacre of my film.” The network had deleted the entire bullfight sequence, the entire animated Eroica sequence and “chopped up the War and Peace” section. In fact it was well known in advance that one of the four animated sequences, the one considered “more sensual than erotic,” would go.

But there was one big plus for Warner Brothers. CBS paid $1.6 million for the movie, making it, according to one wag, the most expensive made-for-television movie. That turned a potential loss into break-even.

SOURCES: Quentin Falk, Albert Finney in Character, (Robson Books, 1992) p122-124; “WB Pacts Cosby Company,” Variety, January 17, 1968, p7; “Yvette Mimieux: Many-Phased Career,” Variety, February 5, 1969, p24; “W-7 Bahamas Junket,” Variety, February 26, 1969, p3. “WB-7 Arts First Global Sales Conference in LA June 8-14,” Box Office, April7, 1969, pW1; “Not Just Passing, WB Bets,” Variety, November 5, 1969, p7; “No “X” for Xmas,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p7; “Press Peek at Calley,” Variety, April 22, 1970, p7; “Unsalvageable Cupboard Item Lucky for WB,” Variety, August 19, 1970, p[3; “Pix in the Shortage Era,” Variety, December 22, 1971, p21; “TV-Bearish WB Cupboard,” Variety, March 29, 1972, p3; “Cannes Jeered Pic Recut By MGM,” Variety, July 19, 1972, p7; “Picasso Summer Twice Shelved  Will Be Seen AT Last, CBS Aug 4,” Variety, August 2, 1972, p22.

The Picasso Summer (1969) ***

Must-see for collectors of cinematic curios. A reflection on entitlement, bullfighting, Picasso, the impact of celebrity on everyday lives and the hermaphroditic qualities of snails? Or an innovative piece of moviemaking utilizing jigsaw split-screen, an audacious reimagining of the painter’s work via documentary and animation? Or just plain bonkers and despite the involvement of top talent like Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963), Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968), composer Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) and writer Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, 1966), rightly consigned to the vault and never given a cinema release?  

George (Albert Finney), a disenchanted San Francisco architect who designs warehouses, and wife Alice (Yvette Mimieux) take a holiday in France to rekindle his love of Picasso and set out to find and – in in a severe case of early onset entitlement – talk to the legendary artist. So they fly to Paris, take the train to Cannes and cycle around.  Romance, it has to be said, in that idyllic countryside is the last thing on his mind, although George does pluck a guitar and sing a love song on a riverbank and they do dally in the sea. And he is far from a stuffed shirt, in one scene stealing a boy’s balloon to prevent the kid hogging a telescope.

There are barely ten lines of meaningful dialogue, though Alice’s frustration at her husband’s obsession is soon obvious. Reimagining Picasso via animation works well. Picasso broke down the world, so we are told, and represented it as his own so by this token it seems pretty fair to do the same to the artist’s work. In the best scene George turns toreador (not sure the budget ran to stuntmen) facing up to a real bull. But there is plenty Picasso to make up, including a candlelit walk along the “Dream Tunnel” displaying the artist’s War and Peace murals, a lecture on the painter’s ceramics and his self-identification with death in the bull ring.

And there is a twist at the end, as the couple on a beach do not loiter long enough to see a man resembling the artist make Picasso-like drawings on the sand. But mostly it’s a story about American entitlement, that a painter should not shut himself off from the world in order to prevent the world stopping him getting on with painting. When George, denied entrance or even acknowledgement, stands at the gate to the Picasso villa, it is almost as he is the one imprisoned by his need for celebrity. Half a century on, the need for ordinary lives to be validated by contact with celebrities has become an insane part of life. The fact that the impossible mission ends in defeat (“everything is still the same”) lends a tone of irony.

Finney’s box office status at this point in his career allowed him to retain his thick Lancashire accent – Sean Connery managed that trick for his entire career. As in Two for the Road (1967) he does a trademark Bogart impression and eats with his mouth open. And he is game enough to stand in a bull ring with a raging bull. Yvette Mimieux is scandalously underused, insights into her thoughts conveyed by lonely walks through night-time streets, although she is the only one to fully appreciate art when she comes across a blind painter (Peter Madden). The best part goes to Luis Miguel Dominguin playing himself, a bullfighter and renowned friend of Picasso. In the incongruity stakes little can match Graham Stark (The Plank, 1967) as a French postman.

As you might have guessed this had a somewhat complicated production. Three directors were involved: Robert Sallin, Serge Bourguignon and Wes Herchendsohn. It was the only directorial chore for Sallin, better known as the producer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It brought a temporary halt to the career of Oscar-nominated director Bourguignon (Sundays and Cybele, 1962) whose previous film was Two Weeks in September starring Brigitte Bardot. Herchendsohn was primarily an animation layout artist/supervisor later credited with episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974).  

There is some stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, 1972) and a superb score by Michel Legrand.  This was the beginning and end of the movie career of Edwin Boyd who shared the screenwriting credit with Bradbury. And it was the beginning and the end of the movie as a viable film for general release, Warner Brothers promptly shelving it, a decision that made headlines in the trade press, especially given the movie’s budget and the box office status of the stars.

In the hands of a French, Italian or Spanish arthouse moviemaker, with a tale of protagonists going nowhere, this might have gained critical traction. It’s hardly going to fall into the highly-commended category, but in fact from the present-day perspective says a lot about celebrity obsession and entitlement. Despite the oddities – perhaps because of them – I was never bored.

You might be surprised to hear that a film initially disowned by the studio is actually available on DVD.

Book into Film – “Hot Enough for June”/ “Agent 8 3/4” (1964)

Timing is everything in the movie business. Had British film studio Rank shifted into top gear to adapt the best-selling thriller The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson soon after its publication in 1960 it would probably have been a completely different film to Hot Enough for June which took four years to reach the screen. Davidson had produced a ground-breaking espionage thriller that had critics reaching for the superlatives and putting him in the same bracket as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. A film appearing, for example, in 1961 would not have been lost in the box office tsunami, in Britain at least, that greeted Dr No on its movie debut in 1962.

But by the time Hot Enough for June was released a second Bond – From Russia with Love (1963)- had changed public attitudes to spy films and in addition readers were reeling from two blockbuster spy novels, Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File (published in 1962) and John Le Carre’s monumental bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (published 1963). In preproduction in May 1963, minus any cast, the projected film was still being known as The Night of Wenceslas. Star Dirk Bogarde dithered so much about his involvement that at one point he was replaced by the considerably younger Tom Courtenay (Billy Liar, 1963).

U.S. cover of the Davidson novel.

As was often the case in adaptations of best sellers, the screenwriter, in this instance Lukas Heller (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, 1962) both added to and subtracted from the original material. For example, the Nicholas of the Lionel Davidson novel was not a particularly attractive character, truculent, snippy, with a bad case of self-entitlement, a bit of a ne’er-do-well, scrounging to pay bills, with expensive tastes and far from charming in his relationship with his girlfriend. He is also employed, rather than unemployed and with hankerings to be a writer as in the film, and comes into the orbit of Cunliffe (Robert Morley in the film) who dupes him into thinking an uncle has left him an inheritance.

Sensibly, Lukas Heller dispenses with Nicholas’s back story which posits him as a Czechoslovakian exile, albeit leaving his native land at the age of six, and various other complications concerning that country. He is sent to collect a formula for unbreakable glass. The “hot enough for June” password is a Heller construct and feels as if belongs to an earlier era of spy pictures. In the book all Nicholas has to do is leave his guide book lying around in the factory for the contact to write there the formula. However, rather than discovering he is working for the British Secret Service, the novelist employs a different twist, that the young man is, unknowingly, in the pay of foreigners plotting against Britain.

Davidson envisaged a different kind of Czech girl, more of a Valkyrie, statuesque (“her breasts stood out like bombs”) rather than the slimmer Sylva Koscina. It is Heller who adds the complication of her father heading up the secret police. In the book, her father is merely a musician and conveniently absent for most of the time, freeing up his house for romantic interludes. And the book has none of the James Bondesque features since the first of the series had not been written when The Night of Wenceslas was published.

However, the film having established the alternative world of rival secret agencies, of the girl being under suspicion and of her father being a senior official in the espionage business, the screenwriter then follows the bulk of the novel’s romance and the thrilling episodes involving Nicholas on the run. The swimming pool, cigarette burn, the parade and the milkman can all be found in the book.

There is one element that had to be changed. In the book, Nicholas makes two trips to Prague. But it is a golden rule of screenwriting that a character visits a location only once. Davidson ends his book with a touch of irony: Nicholas is swapped for Cunliffe.

At whose behest, it was decided to insert the comedy is anybody’s guess. Possibly the feeling that the book as written would be too unsophisticated for audiences accustomed to the rattling action and glamour of a James Bond. The Bond-style connections at the beginning of the film are clunky and the later references to espionage at the highest level also seemed to have been slotted in with no regard to retaining the essence of the book.

Hot Enough for June / Agent 8 3/4 (1964) ***

Thanks to his language skills unemployed wannabe writer Nicholas (Dirk Bogarde) is recruited as a trainee executive on a too-good-to-be-true job visiting a Czech glass factory  only to discover that while engaged on what appears a harmless piece of industrial espionage is in fact considerably more serious.  Complications arise when he falls in love with his chauffeur Vlasta (Sylva Koscina) whose father, Simenova (Leo McKern), is head of the Czech secret police.

Eventually, it dawns on Nicholas that he is in the employ of the British secret service headed by Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley). Soon he is on the run. Adopting a variety of disguises including waiter, Bavarian villager and milkman he evades capture and makes a pact with Vlasta that neither of them will participate in espionage activities.

The slinky clothing and the image of Bogarde with a gun played up to the James Bond persona,
which is of course completely lacking in the film. While Sylva Koscina is seductive
at the correct moment she is not overtly so.

A chunk of the comedy arises from misunderstandings, Iron curtain paranoia, the destruction of indestructible glass, password complications, Nicholas’s contact turning out to be a washroom attendant, and from the essentially indolent Nicholas being forced into uncharacteristic action. Soon he is adopting the kind of ruses a secret agent would invent to outwit the opposition, including burning the hand of a man with his cigarette and stealing a milk cart.

The romance is believable enough and Vlasta has the cunning to shake off the secret agent shadowing her, although the ending is unbelievable and might have been stolen from a completely different soppy picture. Although Nicholas is clearly in harm’s way several times that is somewhat undercut by the espionage at a higher level being presented as a gentleman’s game.

There are unnecessary nods to 007 and the kind of gadgets essential to Bond films, although none come Nicholas’s way. But these attempts to modernise what is otherwise an old-fashioned romantic comedy largely fail. Taking a middle ground in comedy rarely works. You have to go for laughs rather than plod around hoping they will miraculously appear. And in fact the comedy is redundant in a plot – innocent caught up in nefarious world – that has sufficient story and interesting enough characters to work.

As well as James Bond, the movie tagline referenced “The Spy Who Came in
from the Cold” (1965). The American version of “Hot Enough for June”
appeared with a new title a year after the British release and was
able to take advantage of the film adaptation of the John Le Carre novel.

That the movie is in any way a success owes everything to the casting. Dirk Bogarde, though well into his 40s, still can carry off a character more than a decade younger. He can turn on the diffidence with the flicker of an eyelash. And yet can call on inner strength if required. He is the ideal foil for light comedy, having made his bones in Doctor in the House (1954), reprising the character for Doctor in Distress (1963), while dipping in and out of serious drama such as Victim (1961) and the acclaimed The Servant (1964), released just before this.

In some respects it seems as if two different pictures are passing each other in the night. The Bogarde section, excepting some comedy of misfortune, is played for real while in the background is a bit of a spoof on the espionage drama.

Sylva Koscina (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968) is excellent as the beauty who betrays her country for love. Robert Morley (Topkapi, 1964) and Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), although in on the joke, are nonetheless convincing as the secret service bosses.  Look out for a host of lesser names in bit parts including Roger Delgado (The Running Man, 1963), Noel Harrison (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. 1966-1967), Richard Pasco (The Gorgon, 1964) and stars of long-running British television comedies John Le Mesurier, Derek Fowlds and Derek Nimmo.  

This was the eighth partnership between director Ralph Thomas and Dirk Bogarde, four in the Doctor series but also three serious dramas in Campbell’s Kingdom (1957), A Tale of Two Cities (1958) and The Wind Cannot Read (1958). In themselves the comedies and the dramas were successful, but mixing the two, as here, less so. Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) wrote the screenplay based on the Lionel Davidson bestseller.

American distributors were less keen on this picture and it was heavily cut for U.S. release and retitled Agent 8¾ presumably in an effort to cash in on the James Bond phenomenon. I’ve no idea what was lost – or perhaps what was gained – by the editing.

The end result of the original version is a pleasant enough diversion but not enough of the one and not enough of the other to really stick in the mind.

The “Succession” Man – Brian Cox

If you find that most movie star biographies concentrate on gossip at the expense of genuine insight to the craft of acting, then this one is for you. For the bulk of his film career, Cox, outside of such films as Manhunter (1986), L.I.E (2001) and Churchill (2017), has been in the main a supporting player and not even the kind of supporting actor regularly commended by Oscar voters, rather the type of artist whose face you recognize and welcome in small but important parts. Probably you will be unaware that he was more of a titan on stage, winning two Olivier awards – the British equivalent of the Tonys – and nominated another twice as well as wins and nominations for theatrical productions in America.

So he makes no distinction between the various mediums – film, television, stage – in detailing the development of his craft.  His first seminal moment came from the David Storey play In Celebration when director Lindsay Anderson having spent 90 minutes trying to slow the actor down for one segment eventually in frustration explained to the actor the reason for takings things slowly: his character returning home for the first time in years would spend time reacquainting himself with the house, taking in what had changed and what was familiar. In other words, “I learned to be a character rather than describing or acting it.”

When he moved into films, he had enough self-awareness to realize he was never going to be the leading man (even in the cult Manhunter, he was billed third or fourth in the credits) and determined he was “going to earn my wage as a character actor and that what I really wanted to do was create characters similar to those I loved from the old films… (where) characters just zing at you, no matter how small the part.”

He also appreciates his co-stars, especially the superstars. Of Keanu Reeves, he pointed out: “Despite choosing interesting work and being an interesting guy, he still had a reputation as a bit wooden…He took himself off to a small theatre in Canada and played Hamlet. He stuck at it and he’s actually become quite good over the years. He’s become rather good because he’s learned his job.” He has similar praise for Brad Pitt. “Like Keanu the initial appeal is all about the heartthrob looks, so he’s had to learn on the job; he’s had to dedicate himself to his craft…I love that ambition, that dedication, not to be better looking or more famous or have a sexier partner, but to be a better actor.”

When an actor has 234 credits in film and television you can tell instantly he’s a character actor. While occasionally Cox has appeared in high profile ventures – Braveheart (1995), X2 (2003), Troy (2004), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – more often you would find him turning in bit parts in smaller pictures that you have possibly never heard of like The Water Horse (2007), Citizen Gangster (2011) and Morgan (2016).  Sometimes he pulled out a television plum, Nuremberg (2000) for which he won an Emmy or British comedy Bob Servant Independent (2013).   

With such a variety of movies, he has a wealth of anecdotes. He took over the role intended for Dustin Hoffman in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and replaced Tommy Lee Jones in Chain Reaction (1996). He has stories to tell about Sir Laurence Olivier, Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Weinstein, Steven Seagal. Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Farrow, John Schlesinger and a dozen others.  

But he doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino or the acting of Sir Ian McKellen. “I really don’t have much time for Quentin Tarantino. I find his work meretricious. It’s all surface. Plot mechanics in place of depth. Style where there should be substance. I walked out of Pulp Fiction.’ Of McKellen he observes: “He is a master of what I’d call front-foot acting. It’s very effective…but it doesn’t quite fulfil what I believe is one of the key functions of acting.”

He was paid $10,000 for Manhunter while Anthony Hopkins walked away with a million for Silence of the Lambs (1991). He turned down Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Game of Thrones. Terrorists nearly boarded his plane during 9/11. His  mother suffered from mental illness. His father died when he was young.

After a half century of as many downs as ups and little likelihood that publishers would be knocking on his door for his autobiography, he suddenly became a massive star thanks to Succession. Supreme acting skills that had been ignored by the Hollywood cognoscenti were crucial to Logan Roy becoming one of television’s most popular – and hated – characters. His great talent is stillness, to be able to convey myriad emotion without speaking a word.  

But publishing an autobiography is not the true mark of success. Being in demand is. As well as future series of Succcession, he already has in the can the following films – The Jesuit, Skelly, Prisoner’s Daughter and Mending the Line and is currently shooting The Independent, in all of which he is either top-billed or second-billed, a far cry from sixth or seventh billing in supporting roles.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965) ****

One of the few romantic dramas of the 1960s to resonate today. Neglected wife Moira (Maureen O’Hara) abandons her two children to fly to the eponymous villa on Lake Garda in Italy to take up with composer Lorenzo (Rossano Brazzi).  While husband Darrell (Richard Todd) accepts the fait accompli, kids Michael (Martin Stephens) and Debby (Elizabeth Dear) set out to bring her back. Although Disney had created a hit on a similar theme with The Parent Trap (1961) – also starring O’Hara – The Battle of the Villa Fiorita failed to find an audience at the time primarily because it sailed too close to comfort regarding the reality of the effect of separation and impending divorce on children.

Nor are these kids Disney cute. While Debby occasionally calls upon her internal winsome to tug at heartstrings, both she and Michael are made of sterner stuff. Unwilling to use comedy as a means of bringing the errant adults to heel, the movie gets deeper and deeper into darker territory, as the kids embark on a war of attrition, disrupting the cushy love-nest and forcing their mother to accept her maternal responsibilities. And the ending is far from what you would term happy.

Moira injects some nascent feminism into her role, determining that she is entitled to happiness rather than merely fulfilling the part of a good mother, running a household,  looking after her offspring and enjoying the life of a well-to-do matron married by a husband too often away on business and the too-familiar company of boring respectable friends. A Disney picture would have seen the kids relying on the kindness of strangers or harmless subterfuge to make the trip from Britain by boat and train to Italy. Here, they fund the journey by selling Debby’s horse. The trek is not only dull but on their miserable budget they spend most of the time famished, unable to afford food on the train, resigned to watching adults in their compartment stuff their faces (Disney would have had the grown-ups share  out the tasty fare).

Arriving at the palatial villa, where Moira is waited on hand and foot, spoiled by presents and ardently wooed, the children are under no illusion about the uphill battle they face especially when Moira is not immediately stricken enough by conscience to give in to their entreaties. Lorenzo’s initial solution is to fly the children home. Adult fortitude begins to waver when the English pair join forces with Lorenzo’s estranged daughter Donna (Olivia Hussey) on a hunger strike. Lorenzo shows a sharper side to his temperament, Moira a weaker. The children’s solidarity is also, however, sorely tested by their own differences.

That there is no easy solution – the kids perhaps joining their mother full-time in Italy or some kind of child-sharing scheme – is what gives this movie its power. The classical idea of a repressed woman finding redemption in the arms of an Italian lover (as with Summertime, 1955, also starring Brazzi) is turned on its head as reality intervenes. It’s as well the kids don’t kill us with cuteness, but instead present a realistic example of what it’s like for adoring children to be abandoned. As the film progresses, and the children turn the screw, they soon face adult realization that, even if they win, the mother they will bring back will not be the mother they knew.

After turns with James Stewart (Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation, 1962) and John Wayne (McLintock!, 1963), Maureen O’Hara had regained her marquee appeal, and although feisty enough in those outings, this was a different, and more courageous,  performance than her fans might have expected. Her conflict is mostly internalized and especially when her children fail to see her point of view, that feistiness vanishes from sight replaced by a more somber, thoughtful individual. Brazzi is excellent as the lover whose paternal responsibilities he takes lightly compromised by a woman forced to come to terms with motherhood. Martin Stephens (The Innocents, 1961), Elizabeth Dear (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) and, making her debut, Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet, 1968) make convincing, conniving, children still dealing with their own hormonal and emotional growth.   

Adapting the bestseller by Rumer Godden (Black Narcissus, 1947), this proved to be the final movie for veteran director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, 1957).

Topkapi (1964) *****

The mother of all heists directed by the father of all heist pictures.

Films as diverse as The Italian Job (1969), Mission Impossible (1996) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001) owe director Jules Dassin a massive debt since he pretty much invented this genre with the French-made Rififi (1955). But that involved professional criminals. Outside of masterminds Elizabeth (Melina Mercouri) and Walter (Maximilian Schell), this crew are amateurs, deliberately chosen for their lack of criminal records and with a mind to the specific tasks required. So we have acrobat Giulio (Gilles Segal), upper-class English gadget inventor Cedric (Robert Morley), strongman Hans (Jess Fisher) and driver Arthur (Peter Ustinov).

The target is the impenetrable, complete with sound-sensitive floor, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where they plan to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger. The plan is ingenious. Arthur is initially only hired to smuggle the weapons essential to the audacious heist across the border. But when he is caught and forced to cooperate with the Turkish secret police, he is enlisted as a replacement for Hans. Minus the rifles and grenades which at first appeared indispensable to the plan, the thieves come up with an even more inspired alternative involving among other things scampering across rooftops, abseiling, a parrot and slowing down the revolutions of a lighthouse.

Originally intending to betray his colleagues as soon as possible, Arthur falls under the seductive spell of Elizabeth and finds himself recruited as the replacement muscles. Elizabeth exudes such sexuality she has the entire gang in her thrall and makes the cowardly, weak, acrophobic Arthur believe he can overcome all his fears. Like current television sensation Money Heist, Walter engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the police, always one step ahead, with a bagful of red herrings at his disposal, eventually giving the pursuers the slip during a wresting competition held in a massive outdoor arena.

Interestingly, too, this doesn’t have the trope of gangsters at each other’s throats, planning to double-cross one another or bearing old grudges. Nor is this the last robbery for anyone prior to retirement. Equally, nobody challenges the leader. In fact, the entire crew could not be more docile, content to sit at the feet of Elizabeth and Walter, lapping up the former’s flirtation, wondering at the latter’s skill, as if they are all honored to have been chosen.

The climactic heist, carried out minus music, and lasting over 30 minutes is absolutely superb, setting a very high bar for future imitators, and there is a twist ending. Dassin mixes light comedy and high tension with the sultry attractions of Elizabeth to produce an at times breathtaking picture. As well as the heist itself, the wrestling sequence is stunning and the transition of Arthur forms the acting highlight (he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar).

But all four main stars are superb. Audiences accustomed to a more uptight Maximilian Schell (The Condemned of Altona (1962) will have been surprised by his charming performance. Melina Mercouri (Oscar-nominated for Never on Sunday, 1960) is the archetypal blonde bombshell, liberal with her favours but careful not to favour just one. Although Walter devises the plan, she is actually the criminal supremo, selecting the targets, and then delegating to ensure the tasks are carried out. Robert Morley is having the time of his life. Akim Tamiroff (Lord Jim, 1965) has a cameo as a chef.

A film noir star after Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) Dassin’s Hollywood career collapsed in the wake of the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings and he was blacklisted. Rififi opened few doors but even the success of Never on Sunday (1960) brought negligible offers. Despite returning to the mainstream with such elan through the conduit of Topkapi, albeit with a European cast, he remained on the Hollywood periphery and although the American-set Uptight (1968) – previously reviewed in the Blog – involved another heist that was primarily the wrapping for social documentary.

More at home with comedies screenwriter Monja Danischewsky (The Battle of the Sexes, 1960) draws out more humour than the source material, Light of Day by noted thriller writer Eric Ambler, would ostensibly suggest.

A delight from start to finish, the crème de la crème of the heist genre, this is unmissable. Dassin can lay claim to being the John Ford of the crime picture.

Warning Shot (1967) ****

So underrated it doesn’t even feature on Wikipedia’s chart of 1960s crime pictures, this tight little gem, with an early reflection on police brutality, a dream cast, violence in slow motion  (prior to The Wild Bunch, 1969, mind you) and a stunning score from Jerry Goldsmith, is definitely in need of resurrection. Astonishing to realize that cop pictures had fallen so out of fashion, that this was the first Hollywood cop film of the decade – outside of a drama like The Chase (1966) – the entire previous output focusing on gangsters with a rare private eye (Harper, 1966) thrown in. With none of the vicious snarl of Madigan (1968) or the brutality of Coogan’s Bluff (1968), this was more in keeping with the later In the Heat of the Night (1967) in terms of the mental and physical barrage endured by the cop.

In thick fog on a stakeout for a serial killer at an apartment block Sgt Tom Valens (David Janssen) kills a potential suspect, wealthy Dr Ruston. Valens claims the suspect was reaching for his gun. Only problem – nobody can find the gun. Up on a potential manslaughter charge, Valens is pressured by boss (Ed Begley), lawyer (Walter Pidgeon) and wife (Joan Collins) to take the rap and plead guilty.  The public and media rage about police brutality. Putting Valens’ testimony in doubt is a recent shooting incident, which left Valens with a stomach wound, and which may have clouded his judgement.

Although suspended, Valens has no alternative but to investigate, interviewing elderly patient Alice (Lillian Gish) whom the doctor was visiting, patient’s neighbour playboy pilot Walt (George Grizzard), doctor’s assistant Liz (Stefanie Powers), doctor’s wife   Doris (Eleanor Parker) and doctor’s stockbroker (George Sanders) without nothing to show for his efforts but a savage beating, filmed in slow motion, inflicted by the doctor’s son and pals, and a further attempt on his life. He gets into more trouble for attempting to smear the doctor as an abortionist (a crime at the time).

The missing gun remains elusive though the direction at times suggests its existence is fiction. The detection is superb, red herrings aplenty, as Valens, the odds against him cheating conviction lengthening by the day, a trial deadline to beat, everyone turning against him, openly castigated as the killer cop, struggles to uncover the truth. And it’s clear he questions reality himself. He has none of the brittle snap of the standard cop and it’s almost as if he expects to be found guilty, that he has stepped over the line.

Along the way is some brilliant dialogue – the seductive drunk wife, “mourning with martinis” suggesting they “rub two losers together” and complaining she has to “lead him by the hand like every other man.”  Cinematography and music combine for a brilliant mournful scene of worn-down cop struggling home with a couple of pints of milk. The after-effects of the stomach injury present him as physically wounded, neither the tough physical specimen of later cop pictures not the grizzled veteran of previous ones.

David Janssen (King of the Roaring 20s, 1960) had not made a picture in four years, his time consumed by the ultra-successful television show The Fugitive, but his quiet, brooding, internalized style and soft spoken manner is ideal for the tormented cop. This also Joan Collins (Esther and the King, 1960) first Hollywood outing in half a decade.

Pick of the supporting cast is former Hollywood top star Eleanor Parker (Detective Story, 1951) more recently exposed to the wider public as the Baroness in The Sound of Music (1965) whose slinky demeanor almost turns the cop’s head. Loading the cast with such sterling actors means that even the bit parts come fully loaded.

In the veteran department are aforementioned famed silent star Lillian Gish (The Birth of a Nation, 1915), Brit  George Sanders (The Falcon series in the 1940s), Walter Pidgeon (Mrs Miniver, 1942) also in his first film in four years, Ed Begley in only his second picture since Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and Keenan Wynn (Stagecoach, 1966). Noted up-and-coming players include Stefanie Powers (also Stagecoach), Sam Wanamaker (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965), George Grizzard (Advise and Consent, 1962) and  Carroll O’Connor (A Fever in the Blood, 1961). American television star Steve Allen (College Confidential, 1960) plays a hypocritical pundit.

A sophomore movie for noted television director Buzz Kulik (Villa Rides, 1968), this is easily his best picture, concentrating on character with a great eye for mood. Screenwriter Mann Rubin (Brainstorm, 1965) adapted the Whit Masterson novel 711  – Officer Needs Help. The score is one of the best from Jerry Goldsmith (Seconds, 1966).

Has this emanated from France it would have been covered in critical glory, from the overall unfussy direction, from the presentation of the main character and so many memorable performances and from, to bring it up once again, the awesome music.

Worth catching on Amazon Prime.

The 355 (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Serviceable actioner but proof that if you don’t have a star big enough to front  a shoot-‘em-up then sticking in another three – or four – actresses of equal, middling, or up-and-coming, status won’t do the trick, not if the characters lack the originality of a Bourne or Bryan Mills (Taken, 2008). There’s plenty of bang for your buck, but the story hangs on the old trope of an electronic device that can blackout the world.

I am not sure why Jessica Chastain has never become a bigger box office star. She certainly has the kudos – two Oscar nominationss – and is not shy of taking on difficult subjects (Miss Sloane, 2016) and she’s certainly enjoyed the occasionally leg-up from a series (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, 2015; It Chapter Two, 2019) to boost her box office credentials. But her last venture into the action arena (Ava, 2020) was a box office flop, though possibly you could put the blame on the pandemic. By my count she has been the top-billed star (excluding her X-Men appearance) in her last eight pictures and none have been a hit.

Her presence in the credits would encourage me to stump up my money at the box office but apparently I am in the minority. I could say the same about Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers, 2021), the second biggest star here, and while she certainly retains top-billed status in her native Spain, otherwise she is occasionally a female lead but more likely a supporting player.

If I had been putting my money on anyone to take the action box office by storm it would be Diane Kruger who has the meanest stare this side of Lee Van Cleef. But she’s gone down this route to no commercial response before in The Operative (2019) and The Infiltrator (2016), neither fulfilling the promise she showed in Liam Neeson crackerjack Unknown (2011). Bingbing Fan, (Cell Phone 2, 2019) another X-Men alumni, has only recently achieved box office success, but in limited markets. Mexican Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o – here billed fourth and sporting a British accent – may well have the biggest fan base of the lot having clocked up appearances in three Star Wars pictures, taken top billing in Us (209) and third billing in Black Panther (2018).

But back to our story. On the run from the C.I.A. Mace (Jessica Chastain) teams up with Marie (Diane Kruger), a loner working for the German secret service, and Khadjiah (Lupito Nyong-o), a digital wizard formerly of the British secret service. Bing, who turns up later, represents the Chinese good guys. Graciela (Penelope Cruz) is the rank outsider, a therapist just caught up in the shenanigans. The action rattles through Paris en route to Marrakesh before a final stop in Shanghai. As you might expect, traitors lurk in various corners.

There are plenty shootouts and opportunities for the team to show off their hand-to-hand skills, but the action is slowed down by soap opera, having to spell out all the backstories of the principals, only one of whom, Marie, has anything worth listening to. Far be it for me to complain about too much emotion, but it took us over a dozen movies to learn anything significant about James Bond’s past, Bourne had no idea who he was, and at the other end of the scale Bryan Mills was so emotionally driven from the outset it formed the film’s core. Here, emotional quandary pops up when convenient. A bit of mystery would have helped more and cut a good 15 minutes off an overlong playing time.

As to the title, that is the only thing that is kept hidden to the end and when the revelation is made you realize it won’t mean a damn thing to the vast majority of the audience. As an origin story, I doubt the current box office receipts are sufficient to spawn future episodes. Which is a shame because having dumped all the emotional baggage in this picture, the characters could have focused more straightforwardly on action and story in the next.

When Box Office Stats Were Born – 1969

On January 1, 1968, U.S. trade newspaper Variety began working on a project that would change forever the way Hollywood operated and the way the public perceived motion pictures. It single-handedly invented box office statistics, the weekly tabulation that is life and death for industry professionals and a terrific game for outsiders, trying to guess how any film will perform in its opening week/weekend.

Although there had been published information on box office, in the 1960s it was not something that generally speaking was of interest to the moviegoer. All the trade papers carried box office details in one way or another. Variety reported the weekly takings in about 300 first-run cinemas in around 20 cities. The rival Box Office magazine considered it more important that figures should relate to a cinema’s average weekly takings and so while not publishing figures produced data on a percentage basis so that managers were not simply blinded by income when they should be concentrating on profit. But while Variety posted a weekly Top 12 chart, it was largely irrelevant because openings were not coordinated as they are now. Variety also produced year-end results but these were based on rentals (i.e. what the studio takes after the cinema share has been parcelled out) rather than gross box office.  

Variety proposed a revolution. Instead of this haphazard manner of gathering statistics, it would turn the whole issue into a cohesive, substantive whole. Investing in an IBM 360 computer, Variety sampled around 650-800 cinemas each week for an entire year in 22-24 of the largest markets plus smaller cities in the country. Given that there were about 14,000 theatres in total in the U.S. this might seem a ridiculously low sample, but in fact about 80% of a movie’s revenues came from a disproportionately small number of cinemas. Cinemas in big cities might have upwards of 1,000 seats with patrons paying top dollar while cinemas in small towns might only have a couple of hundred seats, only play movies for a couple of days, and charge their customers a fraction of big city prices.

Comparisons were made with the Nielsen system used to estimate U.S. television viewing figures which based its reports on a sample of less than 10,000 for an overall audience of 200 million. After running the pilot for a year and comparing it to overall box office, the magazine reckoned that its figures could be multiplied by three to give an accurate measure of how any picture was performing on a nationwide basis.   

The pilot year of 1968 covered  729 titles – far more than might appear in any of the weekly reports – with a total of 35,510 playing weeks and was able to collect figures relating to the number of weeks a movie featured in the chart – i.e. whether a film had “legs” – as well as overall gross. Variety’s previous annual summation involved less than 100 movies because the annual box office chart only covered films which had taken in $1 million or more in rentals. This meant a gross in the region of $2 million.

But low-budget films found it harder to take a big percentage of the box office gross. Where a big picture from a major studio could command at least a 50% share, the smaller pictures often had to do with 30-40% (as I previously reported, Dr No only got bookings in the U.S. by agreeing to take a 30% share of the gross). So for a smaller picture to reach the $1 million rental threshold often meant it had to take in more at the box office than a bigger-budgeted film, perhaps as much as $3 million. Inevitably, such films were not well represented on the annual  chart. In other words, profit outweighed popularity.

But by looking only at gross, and setting down no minimum qualification, the pilot study was able to include far more titles and to bring to wider attention how well, comparatively speaking, some of the less highly-regarded titles performed. By and large box office reporters concentrated on the top films, the roadshows and other big-budget pictures, but “of greater interest,” according to Variety, “is the listing of so many exploitation and sexploitation films about which little is said apart from notorious examples. Reissues, too, are well represented and some are surprisingly high on the list.” 

Variety set out to produce a Weekly Top 50 Chart, based on grosses, to act as “a good barometer of films in current exhibition and their relative positions in regard to each other. The fact that most of the films play through most of the markets results in statistical standardization or any errors in reports and doesn’t change the essential relationship of a film to its competitors.” Receipts for each entry in the Top 50 would show the number of cities and theaters – broken down into Roadshow, First Run and Showcase (ie multiple run) – in which the movie was playing.

The weekly Top 50 made its bow on the April 23, 1969, edition, reporting figures for the week ending April 16. Topping the chart was Disney’s The Love Bug (1968) with $551,000 – equivalent to $4.1 million today – from 15 theaters, mostly First Run with two Showcase bookings. Runner-up Where Eagles Dare (1968) hoisted $396,000 from 22 First Run and 6 Showcases. Third came They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968) on $311,000 from 44 cinemas, 42 of which were Showcase. Fourth and fifth were long-running musical Roadshows, Oliver! on $308,000 from 16 theaters and Funny Girl on $307,000 from 21. The presence of heist picture They Came to Rob Las Vegas with no major stars taking such a prominent position justified the chart’s existence. Exhibitors risking a booking would see at once that it was best played in a Showcase release and could generate a decent average.

Further down the chart the $116,000 from just three outlets for I Am Curious Yellow (1967), in 22nd spot, indicated its box office potential. That was hardly the case for crime drama The Devil’s Eight (1969) with just $67,000 in its opening week from 15 Showcase engagements. Showing initial promise were Hall Bartlett’s college drama Changes (1969) – $25,000 from three – and British shocker Baby Love with $19,000 from two.

The following week (for week ending April 23) the Top Five were comedy western Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) which cornered $572,000 from 58 theaters – 43 Showcase and 15 First Run – in twelve cities, The Love Bug, Where Eagles Dare, Funny Girl and Oliver!   

SOURCES: Syd Silverman, “Computerized B.O. Chart Due,” Variety, April 16, 1969, page 3; “Computerized Tally of 729 films,” Variety, May 7, 1969, pages 34, 36, 198, 213; “Top 50 Weekly Grosses,” Variety, April 23, 1969, 11; “Top 50 Weekly Grosses,” Variety, April 30, 1969, 13.

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