The Big Gamble (1961) ***

If only there had been some serious money put behind this picture it would have been an absolute cracker, custom-made for the likes of Cinerama which didn’t go down the dramatic route until a few years later. It’s a bit “Hell Drivers or Wages of Fear Goes to Africa” but with some really quite stunning sequences.

Whatever French chanteuse Juliette Greco (Crack in the Mirror, 1960) had to offer on stage and in a personal capacity – lovers included Miles Davis and this film’s producer Darryl F. Zanuck – never seemed to translate to the screen in this particular role and the most we get is a kind of tomboyish perkiness. It’s a medium-grade cast, the lead taken by Northern Irishman Stephen Boyd (here playing a Dubliner). David Wayne (The Three Faces of Eve, 1957) is the sad sack brother who joins the other two in a bold plan to set up a haulage business on the Ivory Coast in Africa.

The opening sequence demonstrates the dreary Irish life Boyd is trying to escape with a sparkling cameo from Sybil Thorndike (Shake Hands with the Devil, 1959) as the family matriarch before the African sequences kick in. Apart from scenes shot at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Ireland, the rest is clearly filmed on pretty dangerous locations if the unloading of a lorry onto what looks like little more than a large canoe is anything to go by. After an unpromising start, the intrepid trio (well, two are bold, Wayne is not) set off into the wilderness.

There are two edge-of-the-cliff sequences that would have The Italian Job fans frothing at the mouth, a runaway lorry in the best Cinerama tradition and an astonishing section crossing a swollen river where clearly the actors did their own stunts (and Boyd was in reality saved from drowning by his co-star). In between we have snippets of genuine Africa, especially canoeists braving the surf and an African funeral party. Emotionally, beyond Boyd sticking out his chin as much as possible, the main drama focuses on fraternal rivalry with Wayne trying to pull himself together in the face of a mission he believes doomed to failure.  Their plans are further hit by sabotage by the German Kaltenberg (Gregory Ratoff in his final role).

While some of the posters highlight the river crossing, others focus on the cliff-top sequences.

This was Boyd’s bid for stardom. Five years into a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox, he had worked his way up the ranks at that studio to become male lead to top-billed females like Susan Hayward (A Woman Obsessed, 1959) and Hope Lange (The Best of Everything, 1959) before his career received a massive boost after a loan-out deal to MGM for Ben-Hur (1959). He might have been hotter yet had Fox not abandoned its first Rouben Mamoulian-directed version of Cleopatra in which he played Mark Anthony, a role that later brought Richard Burton worldwide fame and a new wife. Boyd would be hot at various times during his short-lived career (he died at 45) while equally never making the transition to major star.

One of the great Hollywood what-ifs – how would Boyd’s career have developed
if he had followed up “Ben-Hur” with “Cleopatra.”

Directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, best known for 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Compulsion (1959), Crack in the Mirror (1960) and later The Boston Strangler (1968) and here with some help for the African sequences from Elmo Williams (The Longest Day, 1962) – the nerve-wracking clifftop sequences and river crossing were actually shot in France – it has a decent enough script from novelist Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions).

All-in-all this tight little film more than does justice to its miserable budget with some genuinely exciting sequences.  Filmed in CinemaScope, this is one of the films of the era which does justice to the widescreen. As a wee bonus, if you listen hard to Maurice Jarre’s score you will hear strains of some themes that turned up in Lawrence of Arabia.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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