The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die/Catacombs (1965) ***

Gordon Hessler (The Oblong Box, 1969) makes his directorial debut with this neat horror thriller. It starts with a twist exceptional for the times.  Ellen (Georgina Cookson) is the shrewd and shrewish millionaire businesswoman, her husband Raymond (Gary Merrill), from whom she demands frequent sex, the eye candy, a kept man. “I married a lover, not a businessman,” she retorts when, bored out of his mind, he asks for the opportunity to play a  role in her business. In a further twist on the norm of the damsels decorating 1960s movies by displaying cleavage or disporting themselves in bikinis, Raymond is often seen with his chest bared in all its hirsuteness. In a further gender twist her secretary is also male, Dick  (Neil MacCallum), a former, unknown to her, jailbird.

Tall, beautiful, dominant and domineering Ellen appears to have occult power, able to read minds, which keeps the larcenous-minded Dick in check, and has command of her own physical frailty – she walks with a stick – and can put herself in a trance to overcome occasional pain from her injured hip.

Conspiracy of fear: Raymond (Gary Merrill) and Alice (Jane Merrow).

But when Raymond falls for Ellen’s niece Alice (Jane Merrow), an artist returned from a year in Paris, he puts into action a plan that had clearly only been a pipe-dream, blackmailing Dick into participating. It’s quite clever as murderous plans go. He hires an actress to impersonate Ellen, known to go off to Italy on her own for spa treatments and with a knack for reckless driving, various driving charges over the years. Meanwhile, he strangles Ellen, allows Alice at a distance from an airport viewing terrace, to see her aunt, complete with walking stick, climbing up the steps of a plane. Faked cables and postcards arrive from Italy purportedly showing Ellen enjoying herself, even visiting the famous catacombs. In Italy Dick fakes a car accident to kill the actress.

However, twist number one comes at the reading of the will. Raymond and Alice split the million-pound bounty but while the latter is given custody of the big house the former is condemned to live for life, on pain of forfeiting the inheritance, in the cottage, in whose potting shed Ellen’s body lies. Further twists naturally follow. The maid (Rachel Thomas) doesn’t quite so much smell a rat but adds to the killer’s incipient discomfort by proclaiming that with her hip problem and claustrophobia that Ellen would never descend into the catacombs.

Entitled “Catacombs” in the U.K. after the novel by Jay Bennett on which it was based, it was retitled
“The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die” for the U.S. market.

And Raymond might have lived happily ever after with Alice except for his guilt. Several creepy incidents, knocking, tapping, door handles turning, shadows, a depression the shape of a body in a bed, cigarettes smoking in ashtrays, lights going on and off indicate to the already nervous Raymond and the visibly frightened Alice that Ellen may not be dead after all. Virtually the entire third act is the pair of them reacting to real or imagined fears. Alice has a good line in looking scared witless. But Raymond, while trying to contain his inner demons, is equally rattled.

As you might expect there are further excellent twists to come. In fact, they are soon piling up and even at the very end the screen freezes on a final twist.

Georgina Cookson (The Picasso Summer, 1969) steals the show as the imperious businesswoman, with everyone cowering under her glare and not above stating the obvious, “I bought you body and soul,” she reminds Raymond. I’m not sure Gary Merill (The Power, 1968) is quite as good in the second half as he is in the first. Initially, he exudes charm, physical prowess, and, while under his wife’s thumb, still emotes a certain measure of confidence. He doesn’t appear to me to quite frightened enough in the second half as his plans go awry. Jane Merrow (The Lion in Winter, 1968) is excellent as the young woman caught in a mental trap and Neil MacCallum (The Lost Continent, 1968) is surprisingly effective.

But this is a low-budget B-picture that was destined for the lower half of a double bill so there was no particular reason why it should be as good as it is. Except for the Italian sequence, the action takes place on just two sets and for most of the time it’s a three-hander. But Hessler has a keen eye for composition and in a number of critical scenes makes bold choices. For Ellen’s murder, he concentrates on Raymond’s face rather than the victim’s, only showing her feet. There’s one super-shocker with a mirror. But mostly he is content to built up the tension, either by the various noises or by the reactions of Raymond and Alice. An old-fashioned gem of a picture.

Available on DVD from Network.

Selling Natalie Wood – Pressbook for “Penelope” (1966)

Marketeers quickly got a fix on how to sell Penelope: have star Natalie Wood holding up a bag of cash in each hand. The fact that in the most prominent of the three advertisements (a rather modest amount for movies in this decade) she was clutching the moneybags to her chest and dressed in only a bikini in what was undeniably a sexual pose could have been pure coincidence I suppose. In the second advertisement she was fully dressed and more stylishly posed in front of an open safe. The third less widely-used advertisement dispensed with the body, a head shot of her waving a wad of cash in one hand and a gun in the other.

The bikini advert features the other main characters in a variety of weird poses in comic fashion. “She’s Public Entertainment #1” ran the main tagline. Below that came: “That’s Penelope – the slick stick-up chick …and she’s leading the merriest men the hottest chase from safe to sofa” which in fact pretty much captured the storyline. A variation on the bikini ad was simply headlined: “She’s the world’s most beautiful bank-robber” – and you couldn’t argue with that either. Those two subsidiary taglines appear on an alternative bikini ad which shows four scenes from the film with a different catchline: “Attention! Put your hands in your pockets. If you find anything missing…Penelope probably took it.” The fully-dressed advertisement uses exactly the same sets of taglines.

Established stars were the hardest to find anything new to write about, hence the editorial on Natalie Wood only appearing on page four of the 16-page A3 Pressbook. For the picture she received one of the “most lucrative contracts ever given a young actress” plus fringe benefits like four dressing rooms. It was unusual for a big Hollywood star to harbor so many unfulfilled ambitions. “There are still so many doors to be opened,” she revealed. “I have only started. I want to try everything, perhaps appear in a foreign film or two. And I hope some day to make a stab at the Broadway stage.” Ironically, her aspirations resulted in her not working in Hollywood for another three years.

For some reason the marketeers felt it necessary to butter up New York’s Mayor Lindsay,  pointing out that the unit on location spent $15,000-$20,000 a day in the city, cast and crew housed in six floors of the Plaza Hotel, the basic cost swollen by the crew’s “thirsty eagerness for New York theater, ballet, museums, restaurants, night clubs.”  Two hundred extras a day were employed. Some playing policemen got into trouble for giving the cops a bad image by smoking while waiting to be called into a scene, passers-by mistaking them for the real thing. Locations included a sculpture garden in the Museum of Modern Art and a “beatnik joint” in Greenwich Village.

Fact-checking was rarely a priority for Pressbook compilers who here managed to geographically reposition Ian Bannen’s home from the Isle of Wight on England’s south coast to Wales. “This was my first venture into slapstick,” said the actor, better known for dramatic fare like The Hill (1965) and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).  

Inadvertently, the Pressbook revealed secrets about Hollywood release schedules. Prior to making Penelope, director Arthur Hiller had been previously working on World War Two picture Tobruk. Yet Penelope hit theaters first – in November 1966 while Tobruk was delayed until February 1967. Hiller had fun with “weird” camera effects. “There are scenes in which we seem to have out-Dalied Dali.”

Oscar-winning designer Edith Head came up with what she termed a “schizophrenic wardrobe” for Natalie Wood, representing the two sides of her character, the stylish wife of a wealthy man and the larcenous opportunist. In one wardrobe were clothes representing “high style, comprising beautiful furs, discreet suits, svelte cocktail dresses and sophisticated evening gowns, all expressing financial worth.”  The other wardrobe, designated “way out,” suggesting the freedom from inhibition which Penelope strives so valiantly to achieve, comprised, among other items, “a wisp of a shortie nightgown in 14-carat gold and a negligee of golden coins,” a French lace number worn over “a nothing of a mini-bikini” and a red lace nightgown.

Peter Falk, playing a cop soft on Penelope, would not have been in the picture except that his television show The Trials of O’Brien was cancelled. Forty-eight hours later he was hired for Penelope, a week later signed for a television special of Brigadoon (1966) and shortly after won a big role in Luv (1967), taking second billing to Jack Lemmon.

The $250,000 spent on Natalie Wood’s wardrobe provided ample scope for marketing tie-ins with fashion stores, hair stylists and shoe departments. Given the nature of the movie, it was inevitable that the marketeers suggest that exhibitors make up “Wanted” posters and plaster them around town especially at post offices, banks and police stations. Reflecting the  psychiatry element, one other marketing route was for exhibitors to tie up with a furniture retailer to promote the kind of couch a patient might lie on. Among other ideas touted to exhibitors were a limerick contest, a senior citizen competition and a tie-in with a local bank.

While the Pressbook promoted a soundtrack album that included Natalie Wood singing “The Sun Is Gray,” there was, unusually, no mention of the paperback of the book by E.V. Cunningham on which the movie was based.

“Penelope” (1966) ***

Comedic twist on the heist movie with Natalie Wood (This Property Is Condemned, 1966) as a kleptomaniac. Given its origins in a tight little thriller by E.V. Cunningham, pseudonym of Howard Fast (Mirage, 1965), it’s an awful loose construction that seems to run around with little idea of where it wants to go. Wood, of course, is a delightfully kooky heroine who takes revenge on anyone who has ignored or slighted her by stealing their possessions.

The picture begins with her boldest coup. Cleverly disguised as an old woman, she robs the newest Park Avenue bank owned by overbearing husband James (Ian Bannen). This prompts the best comedy in the movie, a man with a violin case (Lewis Charles) being apprehended by police, the doors automatically locking after a clerk falls on the alarm button, James trapped in the revolving doors losing his trousers in the process.

In flashback, we learn that she turned to thievery after a rape attempt by Professor Klobb (Jonathan Winter), her college tutor, and while half-naked managed to make off with his watch fob. She stole a set of earrings from Mildred (Norma Crane) after suspecting she is having an affair with James. “Stealing makes me cheerful,” she tells her psychiatrist, Dr Mannix (Dick Shawn) and while admitting to dishonesty denies being a compulsive thief. After the bank robbery she even manages to relieve investigating officer Lt Bixby (Peter Falk) of his wallet.

Nobody suspects her, certainly not her husband who could not conceive of his wife having the brains to carry out such an audacious plan. Bixby is a bit more on the ball, but not much. Clues that would have snared her in seconds if seen by any half-decent cop are missed by this bunch. And generally that is the problem, the outcome is so weighted in Penelope’s favor. The plot then goes all around the houses to include as many oddballs as possible – boutique owners Sadaba (Lila Kedrova) and Ducky (Lou Jacobi), Major Higgins (Arthur Malet) and suspect Honeysuckle Rose (Arlene Golonka). Naturally, when she does confess – to save the innocent Honeysuckle – nobody believes her in part because everyone has fallen in love with her. Bixby, just as smitten, nonetheless makes a decent stab at the investigation.

Howard Fast under the pseudonym of E.V. Cunningham wrote a series of thrillers with a woman’s name as the title. He was on a roll in the 1960s providing the source material for Spartacus (1960), The Man in the Middle (1964), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Sylvia (1965), Mirage (1965) and Jigsaw (1968).

Taken as pure confection it has its attractions. It’s certainly frothy at the edges and there are a number of funny lines especially with her psychiatrist and the slapstick approach does hit the target every now and then. The icing on the cake is top class while the cake itself has little of substance. It strikes a satirical note on occasion especially with the Greenwich Village cellar sequence. It doesn’t go anywhere near what might be driving this woman towards such potential calamity – that she gets away with it is only down to her charm. There has probably never been such a pair of rose-tinted spectacles as worn by Penelope, even though her every action is driven by revenge.

Without Natalie Wood it would have sunk without trace but her vivacious screen persona is imminently watchable and the constant wardrobe changes (courtesy of Edith Head) and glossy treatment gets it over the finishing line. It’s one of those star-driven vehicles at which Golden Age Hollywood was once so adept but which fails to translate so well to a later era. Ian Bannen (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is in his element as a grumpy husband, though you would wonder what initially she saw in him, and Peter Falk (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1965) delivers another memorable performance.  Dick Shawn (A Very Special Favor, 1965) is the pick of the supporting cast though screen personalities like Lila Kedrova (Torn Curtain, 1966), Jonathan Winters (The Loved One, 1965) and Lou Jacobi (Irma la Douce, 1963) are not easily ignored.  Johnny Williams a.k.a John Williams wrote the score.

Arthur Hiller (Tobruk, 1967) delivers as much of the goods as are possible within the zany framework. Veteran Oscar-winner George Wells (Three Bites of the Apple, 1967) wrote the screenplay and it’s a far cry from the far more interesting source material and I would have to wonder what kind of sensibility – even at that time – could invent a comedy rape (not in the book, I hasten to add).

Five Card Stud (1968) ****

Another western in sore need of re-evaluation. Largely dismissed as a routine oater trading on the gimmick of a whodunit and packed with old stagers, this is in fact about a serial killer, a treatise on law and order, and almost acts as a conduit between the decade’s previous westerns when the good guys and the bad guys are easily defined to the end of the decade when such distinctions were muddied after The Wild Bunch (1969) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) invited audiences to root for the bad guys. In this rather well-structured picture, full of action and romance, we don’t know who the bad guy is.

The whodunit, however, is really a MacGuffin. The movie is more concerned with investigating the changing mores and hypocrisies of the West and predicting the inherent dangers in the proliferation of weaponry. It’s worth remembering that the movie came out at time when mass murderers such as Charles Whitman (the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, 1968) who went on a killing spree in 1966 were becoming the norm.

A card sharp is lynched for cheating at poker in the quiet town of Rinchon where late-night gambling is the height of entertainment. One of the players, professional gambler Van (Dean Martin), attempts to stop the hanging but is beaten up for his troubles. No surprise then, that he ambles off to Denver. Sometime later the hangmen begin dying off and Van returns not just to solve the mystery but to ensure that his name isn’t on the list. “If someone is out to kill you, you don’t sit around and let him pick the time,” he concludes. With the number of killings, not to mention brawls and shoot-outs, it’s almost continuous action.

On his return, Van discovers, with a gold strike nearby, the incipient boom town has attracted unsavory elements, not just the high murder quotient but a whorehouse and loud music in the saloon. Acting as counterbalance is gun-toting preacher Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) who announces his presence by spraying bullets in the saloon floor, emerging as the self-proclaimed “conscience” of the town.

For a sometime protector of law and order, Van is rather lax in the morals department, unwilling to commit to main squeeze rancher’s daughter Nora (Katharine Justice) when the likes of Lily (Inger Stevens), the unlikely proprietor of a barbershop-cum-whorehouse, are on hand. Van is an interesting study. Once he becomes aware that the only people likely to end up in an early grave are the six men who played poker with the lynched individual, it doesn’t occur to him to fess up to Marshal Dana (John Anderson) which would ease the fears of the ordinary public. Awareness the only corpses belonged to the guilty would have prevented further outbursts of violence among a disaffected population. Interestingly, too, Dana makes no attempt to investigate the lynching.

At the core of this picture are a couple of amazing scenes as paranoia takes hold. One miner, without the slightest sense of irony, complains that in the old days a gunfight took place face to face, not by a murderer slinking round in the dark. Rudd adds some prophetic advice: “wear a gun and use it fast, wear a gun and use it slow – I say don’t wear a gun and you won’t use it at all.”

Van likes to think he has the measure of women, when in fact they have the measure of him. The story avoids the obvious lure of a love triangle, of jealous women competing for Van’s affections. Both the young Nora and the more mature Lily are pretty well grounded. “One wore-out no-account kiss” is Nora’s dismissive description of Van’s attempts at romance while Lily lets Van know she has taken a shine to him as a matter of convenience, he’s just a man and she hasn’t had one in three years. Expecting to be treated as a pariah, Lily, expressing the notion that “women don’t usually like women who like men,” strikes up a friendship with Nora.

Marshal Dana finds it increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of peace since as the death count mounts, paranoia grows rife, exacerbated by the kind of greed gold fever brings, resulting in citizens determined to challenge authority and take matters into their own hands.

The most antsy character is Nick (Roddy McDowall), Nora’s brother and the leader of the lynch mob. Nick seems to stir up bad feelings, provoking the ire of both his father and Van. The guilty are despatched in original ways, one man “drowns” in a barrel of flour, another strangled by barbed wire, a third wakes the town at night when the church bell to which his neck is attached starts ringing out. It’s not too hard in the end to work out who the killer is, but as I said, that is not the point of the picture, although the ending is satisfactory.

There a mass of small detail of the kind that director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969) tends to work into his pictures. Van is a cut above. He travels to Denver and back by stagecoach not on horseback. Citizens can purchase Pocahontas Remedies and beer from the Denver Brewery. Shaves and haircuts at the Tonsorial Parlor are reasonably priced but “miscellaneous” comes in at $20. After the preacher shoots up her floor, saloon owner Mama (Ruth Springford) smooths out the holes.

And there is some distinctive direction. Rudd’s sermon that lasts nearly 90 seconds is delivered in virtually one take, a fistfight is conducted in silence except for a soundtrack punctuated by grunts and punches hitting their target, a dying man tries to leave a physical clue about the identity of the mysterious killer. And there is a superb main street gunfight with Van trying to rescue the marshal and Rudd striding down the street in old-fashioned gunslinger mode.  

Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) and Robert Mitchum (The Way West, 1969), both with apparently easy-going but magisterial screen personas, come off well together. Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968)  always a great screen presence, an ethereal beauty, is vulnerable and strong at the same time. Katherine Justice (The Way West, 1967) is sassy and independent-minded and has a terrific facial response to coming across the first murder.  John Anderson (The Satan Bug, 1965) leads a fine supporting cast including Yaphet Kotto (Live and Let Die, 1973), Denver Pyle (Shenandoah, 1965) and Whit Bissell (Seven Days in May, 1964).

Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, adapting the novel by Ray Gaulden, contributes some classic lines. “If that is a Bible, read it,” Van instructs Rudd, assuming the preacher has a gun planted in the Holy Book, “If it ain’t a Bible, drop it.” There’s a nod to a James Coburn scene in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Congratulated on his marksmanship in hitting the spinning wheels of a windmill six times out of six, Rudd protests his shooting was a failure since he was aiming for the spaces in between. It was ironic that her next assignment concerned a lawman who took much the same no-holds-approach to the criminal fraternity (True Grit, 1969) as the killer in this picture.

I was so intrigued by this picture, realizing it had much more to offer than a whodunit, that I watched it again within a few days and was pleasantly surprised by its depths.

A Tale of Two Duds – The Northman (2022) ** / Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Hamlet goes Viking is basically as much of a story as “visionary director” Robert Eggers (The Witch, 2015) can be bothered with. Yes, there some Viking lore and for all I know this has been exceptionally well-researched but what it amounts to is the same kind of gobbledy-gook that makes no more sense than your average horror picture, with a ton of underdeveloped occult elements. Once our hero is freed from being hung from the rafters by crows beckoned, I presume, by some unexplained mystical power, pecking at the rope – and with a sword handily discarded in the vicinity – I was even more convinced this was a load of old cobblers.

So, basically a revenge saga. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) – pronounced Amlet for punters too stupid to get it – manages to escape when his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murders his brother King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Vowing revenge, he is next seen “years later” as part of a raiding party slaughtering a village. He discovers that his uncle has been dethroned by a bigger king and sent into exile in Iceland. So he hauls himself off there, pretending to be part of a chain gang. He has every opportunity in the world to kill his uncle – and save his mother (Nicole Kidman) who has been carried off – but there is always a really dumb reason why he can’t.

Revenge delay seems a pretty odd way of stringing out a movie. Of course, when he gets round to saving his mother it turns out she doesn’t want to be saved and – a la Hamlet – was in on the plan to kill her husband. He falls in love with fellow prisoner Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who spouts a lot of witch-type stuff that is no less convincing than any of the other spiritual malarkey.

There’s a lot of bloody violence, but the sexual violence is kept to a minimum on screen though Olga has clearly been abused by Fjolnir. And there’s a game that seems close to the Irish game of hurling and whole bunch of oddities thrown in there wholesale as if such a joblot will add depth to the movie. A misconceived art picture that looks more like a top-of-the-range direct-to-DVD movie that might have cost around $40 million rather than the $90 million quoted.  

There’s a smorgasbord of dodgy accents and everybody speaks in stilted English, not far short of the “thee” and “thou” dialogue that critics used to make fun of. Alexander Skarsgard (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) and Claes Bang (Locked Down, 2021) look rugged enough but neither has the screen presence of Schwarzenegger or even Stallone and it ends up Conan-lite. Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho, 2021) looks as if she wondered how she managed to get talked into this. Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos, 2021) who has a plum scene towards the end offers the only acting of any distinction.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore

I kid you not, this is about an election. Yep, someone’s greenlit a $200 million fantasy picture about an election. Whatever delightful element the original entry to this series possessed has been destroyed not just by a preposterous storyline – this is for kids, remember – but a very somber tone. Everyone talks in a low voice, it is very darkly lit and there are those awful meaningful pauses.

The story they pretend is about to occur never happens. Something about “counter-sight” if I got that bit correct and how our heroes had to act together to “confuse” the bad guy because he could see into the future. There’s never any sign of him seeing in the future and most of the confusion arises because there are just way many characters.  With a piece of Hollywood wizardry Grindelwald has completely changed his appearance, no longer Johnny Depp but Mads Mikkelson. You will be aware of the reason for this but Mads has taken on an impossible task. There already was an over-large contingent of players – Newt Scamanger (Eddie Redmayne) and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and his brother Abeforth (Richard Coyle), Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and assorted characters who have a romantic interest in the principals.

But basically – hold your breath – Grindelwald is trying to crash an election party. Two candidates are already in contention to be, I presume, Chief Wizard. He kidnaps something that might be called a “chillin” – a mythical creature that looks like a gryphon – which like the wands in Harry Potter has a way of choosing the best person for the job. There’s very little CGI for a fantasy picture. One monster, a bunch of dancing lobsters (maybe scorpions, I couldn’t work it out) and the usual contents of Newt’s suitcase is just about it. The wands are now used more like light sabers or pistols. You won’t be surprised to learn there’s not much in the secrets department either.

There’s not enough Newt and he’s not as delightful as he once was and there’s far too much of boring electioneering, huge crowds gathered for rallies in favor of their candidates. This one cost $200 million and I have no idea what that was spent on. Certainly not the script. A franchise-killer if ever I saw one.

The Penthouse (1967) ****

Visceral home invasion thriller that ignited the genre and triggered later more controversial offerings like The Straw Dogs (1971) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Made virtually on one set for the indescribably minute sum of £100,000, it is charged with Pinteresque dialogue and aberrant philosophy. The genre splits into those pictures where the occupants have more than a good chance of avoiding their fate, the focus on the invaded pitting their wits against the invaders – classic examples being The Straw Dogs or more recently Panic Room (2002) – and those where the victims are mercilessly tormented, such as, in grueling detail, here.

As one of the perks of his job cocky married real estate agent Bruce (Terence Morgan) takes advantage of an expensive unoccupied apartment on his company’s books – “in the happy position to take advantage of my clients’ generosity in their absence” as he puts it – to enjoy an illicit tryst with mistress Barbara (Suzy Kendall). But when she answers to the door to two men coming to read the gas meter, their lives are turned upside down.

Tom (Tony Beckley) and Dick (Norman Rodway) are, of course, bogus and armed with a knife quickly take control, trying up Bruce and pouring alcohol down Barbara’s throat. As part of the overall creepiness, there is a sense that this is no casual visit, but that it has been planned, as if someone somewhere is familiar with the set-up, and there a debt, if only a moralistic one, to pay as a deterrent to the era’s permissiveness. Minus the knife, they would have passed as harmless. But never was their such difference between word and action, except for what they are capable of you could easily be persuaded that are in fact camp and bitchy.

The bound Bruce’s is spun round in a chair and can only watch as the men begin to strip Barbara. His only defence is verbal, trying to set the two men against each other, suggesting that Tom treats Dick as his assistant. But the relationship between the two criminals constantly shifts as if they were in passive-aggressive relationship. You don’t learn much about them until the end, so basically you have to rely on what they say about themselves, which is very little. They are prone to philosophic observation or interrogate Bruce about his possessions or extract from Barbara an unexpected ambition to be a painter.

One of the oddest pieces of promotional material ever produced. Studios were keen on this kind of jokey cartoon in the hope that it would be picked up by newspaper editors who might be less inclined to run a still from the picture. But it is completely out of touch with the tone of the movie.

The men take it in turns to torment Bruce while the other is in the bedroom with Barbara. Where Bruce resists verbally, Barbara gives in almost right away, but there is never the sense that this is in any way consensual, just that she is too drunk to defend herself – the first drink is a full glass of whisky forced down her throat – and the men have a knife. The invaders make constant reference to a character called Harry. That person’s eventual appearance provides a whole new range of twists.

It’s a film full of menace. Sexual tension, mind games, claustrophobia and the threat of physical violence never dissipate. Because it is rationed out, the brutality is all the more shocking.  But it is brilliantly directed. In his debut British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) uses the camera to suggest we are in anything but an enclosed space. In one long sequence the camera does not move, in another scene it turns 360 degrees, and at other times it twists and turns as if turning the characters inside out, suggesting some of the dizziness, the dramatic speed of change of feelings, that the stunned victims are enduring. At times it feels like an arthouse movie. At other times like a deranged B-picture.

The cast are all excellent. Tony Beckley (The Lost Continent, 1968) makes the best of a role of a lifetime, Norman Rodway (Four in the Morning, 1965) the more quietly psychotic sidekick. Terence Morgan (The Sea Pirate, 1966) has less to do but Suzy Kendall (Fraulein Doktor, 1969) is superb as the enigmatic girlfriend. Look out for Martine Beswick (Prehistoric Women, 1967) in a small part. Collinson wrote the screenplay based on a play The Meter Men by Scott Forbes.

Cultural note: “Tom, Dick and Harry” are considered such quintessentially British names that anyone familiar with this would understand immediately that they were a) pseudonyms and b) intended as a twisted kind of joke.

No sign of this being available on Amazon. Ebay is probably your best bet. There’s a copy on YouTube but it ain’t a good print.

Three Days of the Condor (1975) *****

Outstanding thriller in the paranoia vein with Robert Redford delivering one of his best performances. Never mind the terrific score by Dave Grusin (Tell them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969), the soundtrack to this tale of political chicanery involving the C.I.A. is the chattering of computer printers.

Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is an amiable geek – beanie hat, unfashionable Solex moped – working in an obscure department of the C.I.A. (although one where the receptionist has a gun in her desk drawer) looking for codes in novels. He doesn’t quite conform to type, irritating his rules-conscious colleagues, late for work, illicitly using the back door instead of the front. On returning from collecting lunch, he finds the entire department massacred. His  Washington boss Higgins (Cliff Robertson) promises to bring him in but instead arranges an ambush.

On the run, unable to return to his own apartment, his girlfriend Janice (Tina Chen) among those murdered, he kidnaps photographer Kathy (Faye Dunawaye) at first content to find somewhere to hole up but then using her to help him resolve the issues. It’s soon apparent  that Turner, in his desk job, has stumbled upon a secret organisation deep within the C.I.A. In a touch of the Hitchcocks, director Sydney Pollack (The Scalphunters, 1968) lets the audience know what Turner does not, that Higgins and his bosses Wabash (John Houseman) and Atwood (Addison Powell) are out for his blood, assassin Joubert (Max von Sydow) the triggerman.  

But as Joubert points out, Turner is an amateur and that makes him unpredictable. The killers believe Turner will easily be dealt with. But he’s not as stupid or unresourceful as they might expect. The opening section reveals just how handy he is: fixing a computer, knowledgeable about plants and for some reason the weather, working out an insoluble murder in a book, and most important of all has learned to trust nobody especially his bosses. It turns out he’s got a few of his own tricks up his sleeve, not least how to work a telephone exchange to his advantage and how to flush out his adversaries.

There’s a terrific game of cat-and-mouse and in possibly the only picture in the early cycle of conspiracy pictures the first character capable of harnessing technology.

You often read about character-driven movies but that’s only usually in the sense of dramatic flaws or preferring exploring personality to action. This is character-driven in an entirely different way. Turner’s life depends on him being able to read character, to notice what’s wrong or false in a given situation, to assess the qualities of those around him. For much of the dialogue, Turner is observing as much as listening, watching for behavioural clues.

Even without the presence of Kathy, this would have been a highly satisfactory thriller. But the tentative romance takes it to another level. Unusually, she is a loner, whose photographic metier is loneliness. That they bond at all is surprising, that they do so with such touching emotion brings unexpected intimacy.

There’s a very contemporary feel to the politics, not just American authorities doing what they want but the idea that liberal values will vanish the moment there is genuine threat to loss of the high living standards citizens enjoy or, worse, oil or gas rationing or famine. “Do we have plans to invade the Middle East?” Turner demands of Higgins. And at one point Turner uses unsuspecting people as a human shield.

For such a fast-moving picture, time is taken out to understand the characters involved, Higgins not quite as far up the espionage tree as he should be, Joubert’s hobby the meticulous painting of model soldiers. A peck on the cheek is all the information we are given that Tina, a work colleague, is Turner’s girlfriend.  

As Kathy moves from indignant captive to welcome participant, you can see that she represents the desire of many liberals to give the authorities a bloody nose. There is one brilliant moment at the end where Turner’s fears overcome his feelings and the devastation of what she perceives as emotional betrayal is seen on her face.

But this is Robert Redford’s picture. He was on an almighty box office roll – Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Sting (1973), The Way We Were (1973), The Great Gatsby (1974), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) and on the horizon All the President’s Men (1976). Every minute of the movie his face or body are working hard, eyes constantly involved in the character observation I mentioned. He goes from being light-hearted and handsome at the start to serious and deadly at the end. And there are some superb bits of business. When the rain stops, for example, he checks his watch to see it has ended when he predicted. When he returns after lunch, he peers down over the steps to see that his moped that earlier some kids had tried to steal was still there.

This is probably the quietest you’ll ever see Faye Dunaway (A Place for Lovers, 1968). She is an enigma, the puzzle only uncovered in her photographs. But as a photographer, she is also an observer, and she soon likes what she sees in Turner. The strong supporting cast includes Cliff Robertson (Masquerade, 1965), Max von Sydow (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966), John Houseman (Seven Days in May, 1964), Tina Chen (Alice’s Restaurant, 1969) and Addison Powell (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968).

Sydney Pollack does an exceptional job, cutting between the pursuers and the pursued. The opening sequence itself is quite superb as the director sets up the massacre which is carried out in silence, machine guns fitted with suppressors, while providing insight into Turner. Based on the bestseller Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, the intelligent screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr.(Fathom, 1967, and The Parallax View, 1974) and David Rayfiel (Castle Keep, 1969) keeps everyone on their toes.

More straightforwardly enjoyable than Coppola’s self-conscious The Conversation (1974) and Pakula’s occasionally opaque The Parallax View (1974) with computer surveillance, giving this another contemporary edge, a key factor in the way the tale that switches between pursued and pursuer

You can catch this on Netflix.  

The Lost City (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

I was wondering when Brad Pitt would show up. Judging from the trailer it would be close to the end when he leaps, long hair blowing wild, to save the day. I didn’t expect him to show up almost right from the start. Nor, I have to say, that before the halfway mark – SPOILER ALERT – his brains would be splattered all over Channing Taum’s face. For me, in that one scene, the film never recovered, despite a bizarre post-credit sequence where it transpired that Pitt had in fact survived having his brains blown out all over Tatum’s face.

But let’s recap. Grieving widow romantic novelist Loretta (Sandra Bullock) whose fans prefer muscular cover model Alan Chaning Tatum) is kidnapped by over-the-top nutjob Abigail (yep!) Fairfax (Daniel Ratcliffe) to recover lost treasure from an island in the middle of nowhere. Alan, assuming that he must act like her fictional hero Dash, enlists Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt) to rescue her. Pitt, having lost none of the athleticism he displayed in Troy (2004), does just that but in the course of the escape – SPOILER ALERT AGAIN – he gets his brains splattered out.

Neither Loretta and Alan are really cut out for escapist adventure and spend most of the time making a hash of it, which is a nice twist on the genre. There’s not really enough chemistry between Bullock and Tatum, both playing personas we’ve seen before. There’s some cute stuff, snuggling up in a hammock, Alan discovering some survival skills and eventually she stops her endless whining and springs into proper heroine mode and the climax includes a romantic surprise when she finally decodes the meaning of the archaeological mystery. But the idea of him being allergic to water seems extreme and it makes even less sense – except as an excuse to show his bum and make a lame joke about the size of his manhood – for him to be only one covered in leeches.

But we hardly need a volcano simmering in the background especially as those special effects are poor. The idea of a deadline for this lackadaisical pair is a joke and reeks of writers struggling for a third act. Without the impending explosion Pitt could just have suffered a broken leg and been left behind; if he miraculously appeared for the coda in crutches that would have been perfectly acceptable, his superhuman skills already demonstrated. And there’s only so much humor you can stretch out of stretching a flimsy dress. And especially idiotic is that they require pushy agent Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to come to the rescue – the ending is singularly poorly worked-out unlike Uncharted where it all made logical sense. The problem is that everyone in his picture is just dumb without enough of the dumb and dumber-ness to make it an effective comedy.

The surprising part is that with all these misfiring elements and setting aside the brain-splatter the movie works well enough. There’s none of the personality clash – both irritate the other rather than hate them – that marked out Romancing the Stone (1984) and there’s not really enough derring-do but generally it jigs along and both Tatum and Bullock have strong enough fan bases. There’s a determinedly feel-good factor at play.

In particular it’s a welcome return to the big screen for Sandra Bullock (The Heat, 2013) who has somewhat ill-advisedly become the Netflix Queen. A movie star for nearly 30 years she has been very adept at choosing roles and switching her screen persona and her brand of awkward/prickly geek still works. Channing Tatum (Dog, 2022) always plays against his physique, strong but vulnerable and here he adds caring to the formula. Daniel Ratcliffe (Escape from Pretoria, 2020) doesn’t do much more than rant and look manic – Harry Potter in a hissy fit.

Could easily be renamed Search for a Lost Genre as the rom-com struggles to provide partnerships to match Richard Gere-Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan and no one has come close to repeating the legendary Tracy-Hepburn dynamic. And while we’re at it, I’m not sure by what authority Loretta concludes that (beyond a swipe at Indiana Jones) snakes have no logical place in ancient tombs.

Despite my nitpicking, they do make a good team and it’s enjoyable enough.

Assignment K (1968) ****

A good notch above the routine spy thriller, this deserves another look. By the mid-1960s the screen was awash with spies so other than trying to invent a new hero in the Matt Helm/Derek Flint vein or revamping older characters such as Bulldog Drummond  or sending up the entire genre in the style of Casino Royale (1967), it was difficult to find a fresh angle.

Assignment K does in some measure succeed, in part by going down the grimy  route of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), in part by stuffing the picture full of glorious scenery – the Austrian Alps – and in part by turning Stephen Boyd into the kind of spy who has begun to question the entire business. For reasons unspecified, former racing driver turned toy salesman Boyd (The Big Gamble, 1961) is running his own spy operation loosely linked into British intelligence but when the network is compromised his life and that of new love interest Camilla Sparv (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968) endangered. Things get trickier when she is kidnapped and he has to save her while not compromising his own agents.

There is enough mystery to keep the plot, uncoiling like Russian dolls, ticking along and the entire effort is underwritten by some decent tradecraft, dead letter drops, microfilm hidden inside cigarette filters and so on. Tension is surprisingly high. And Boyd is surprisingly human, falling properly in love for one thing, not just treating women in the James Bond/Matt Helm fashion as notches on a bedpost, not ice-cool under pressure either, face knotting in fury on occasion, and not so accomplished in the old fisticuffs department. There is less reliance on just sticking out his chin and looking handsome and this is a more assured performance than in The Big Gamble.

Michael Redgrave (The Hill, 1965), Leo McKern (Nobody Runs Forever) and a pre-Please, Sir John Alderton provide decent support though Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) is somewhat subdued. But Boyd is a revelation. Here, his screen charm and charisma are at their best and while he was never going to attract the attention of the Oscar fraternity is entirely believable as a spy coming to wonder at decisions taken.

Sparv, too, is much better than I have ever seen her. Unlike her turn in Murderers Row (1966), her role is not merely decorative and the unfolding romance would work perfectly well just as a love story never mind tucked away in the guise of a spy thriller. There is a lovely demonstration of her acting skill, although an odd one to describe, as she pulls on a bathrobe and shimmies out of the towel underneath; I can’t believe that was ever scripted, but if you watch it you will see what I mean.  Swedish Sparv was often viewed just as another of the decade’s ubiquitous European starlets but in fact she shows genuine acting ability.  

Director Val Guest was usually labelled a “journeyman” despite a repertoire that included The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its sequel, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and sci-fi The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and he had previous form in this genre with Where the Spies Are (1966) which played more to the comedy gallery and did some work on Casino Royale to boot. Guest was also involved in the screenplay along with two first-timers Bill Strutton and Maurice Foster, the former primarily a television writer, the latter a producer. Guest’s work here falls into the efficient category, but it does zip along at the same time as allowing Boyd and Sparv to develop their characters and make their relationship believable. All in all quite enjoyable.

CATCH-UP: The Blog has reviewed Camilla Sparv in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner (1968) and Downhill Racer (1969). Stephen Boyd pictures reviewed so far are The Big Gamble (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and The Third Secret (1964).

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) ***

Despite the title and Hammer’s penchant for the unholy, there is nothing satanical about this picture. Christopher Lee (The Whip and the Body, 1963)  less cadaverous than in his better-known incarnation as Dracula, plays the captain of ship called Diablo, part of the defeated Spanish Armada, who lands in 1588 on British shores and by convincing the locals that the British have been defeated  imposes an occupation.

Writer (and later director) Jimmy Sangster’s clever premise works, the lord of the manor (Ernest Clark) immediately surrendering and befriending the invaders, most of the villagers succumbing, a few more doughty lads (Andrew Keir and son John Cairney to the fore) rebelling. 

Running alongside its regular horror output, Hammer had a sideline in swashbucklers, the Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1963) – aka The Crimson Blade – preceding this, and all, interestingly, aimed at the general rather than adult market. Australian director Don Sharp, in the first of several teamings with Lee, does extraordinary well with a limited budget. Although the village square was a leftover from The Scarlet Blade, there is a full-size galleon, swamps, fog, floggings, a hanging, fire, chases, a massive explosion, and a number of better-than-average fencing scenes.

In other hands, more time could have been spent exploring the psychology of occupation, but despite that there is enough of a story to keep interest taut. Lee has a high-principled lieutenant who secretly subverts his master’s wishes. Tension is maintained by Lee’s ruthlessness, the efforts of captured women to escape, and attempts to seek outside help. While the intended audience meant toning down actual violence, Sharp creates a menacing atmosphere. The final scenes involving sabotage are tremendously well done.

A rare outing for Lee outside of the horror genre, he truly commands the screen, an excellent actor all too often under-rated who holds the picture together. Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Ernest Clark (Masquerade, 1965) provide sterling support. Suzan Farmer (The Crimson Blade, 1963) plays the requisite damsel in distress.  Director Don Sharp (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) was another horror regular responsible for, among others, Curse of the Fly (1965) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), the latter reuniting him with Lee.

I should acknowledge a vested interest as John Cairney was a distant relative and I do remember as a child being taken to see his previous outing Jason and the Argonauts (1963) but, strangely enough, this one was given a miss by my parents. I wonder if the title put them off.

CATCH-UP: Christopher Lee was so prolific I have only so far reviewed a fraction of his 1960s output: Beat Girl/Wild for Kicks (1960), Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), The Whip and the Body (1963), The Gorgon (1964), She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967). The Devil Rides Out (1968),  The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969).  Quite enough to be getting on with if want an idea of this fine actor’s range and ability.

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