You were asking for trouble to pair heavy drinkers Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard. But Man in the Middle was a fraught production long before the actors came on board. The picture was intended to kick off Twentieth Century Fox’s revamped 20-picture slate that signaled a studio back from the dead after near-bankruptcy. The success of The Longest Day (1962) triggered a cycle of World War Two pictures, Man in the Middle launching this cluster, which accounted for more than third of the studio’s projected output.
But before fox arrived on the scene, Man in the Middle was intended as a key element in the launchpad or an indie powerhouse, the grandly-named Entertainment Corporation of America (ECA), set up by Max Youngstein, one of the founders of the post-war version of United Artists. Youngstein had an 11-picture tab budgeted at $3 million including Honeybear, I Think I Love You starring Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Cold War thriller Fail Safe, The Winston Affair (as Man in the Middle was originally tabbed) and The Third Secret.
But concerns about legal action against Fail Safe torpedoed the venture within a few months of opening for business in November 1962 after theatre chain Ace Films pulled the plug on its $1.3 million investment and distributor Allied Artists followed suit. Columbia took over Fail Safe (1964) and Twentieth Century Fox The Winston Affair in a co-production with Marlon Brando’s Pennebaker shingle and Talbot which was Robert Mitchum’s outfit.
With Fox’s recent financial vicissitudes keeping the studio in the media spotlight, budget control was essential. The movie’s $1.35 million budget was trimmed by clever scheduling, no actor, outside of the star, on set for more than three weeks, ensuring that overtime vanished. The title, however, appeared forever in flux. Original title The Winston Affair, the name of the Howard Fast book on which the film was based, changed to The Man in the Middle, then back to The Winston Affair, reverting again to The Man in the Middle before ending up with a contracted version of that – Man in the Middle. The confusion played havoc with a movie called Light of Day that snapped up Man in the Middle when the Fox title became vacant but was released as Topkapi (1964) when Fox took the title back.
Producer Walter Seltzer (Number One, 1969) pushed for more African American representation on the picture. Three roles, not written as African Americans in the novel or in the Waterhouse and Hall screenplay, were given to African Americans, the “best men for the job,” according to the producer. The trio were: Errol John, the N.C.O of the prison cell where the murder suspect is held, Frank Killibrew who doubled as the jeep driver and confidante to attorney Adams (Robert Mitchum) and Oscar James as a court reporter.
Mitchum didn’t just have drink problems. He was in the middle of an affair with Two for the Seesaw (1962) co-star Shirley MacLaine which result in public rows with long-suffering wife Dorothy. Mitchum had enjoyed a long business relationship with Max Youngstein and when the producer came upon The Winston Affair the actor agreed to star in it, only to find the rights had already been snapped up by Pennebaker. However, Pennebaker was in no position to fund a movie and without a commitment from Brando as star unlikely to get it off the ground. Since the production company nonetheless required, for tax purposes, to show a movie on its books Brando had agreed to throw in his lot with Youngstein’s ECA. And when Fox took over, Brando and Talbot retained their production credits.
When Seltzer flew to London to meet Mitchum who was finishing off his cameo for The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) the star lived up to his hell-raising billing, walking drunk from his room along the hallway and down the elevator at the plush Savoy Hotel. He was buck naked.
The bulk of the filming took place in Elstree Studios in London with just a couple of weeks set aside for location work in India. The ongoing romance with MacLaine meant production could grind to a halt in the middle of a scene while Mitchum took a call from the actress in New York although conversation was inhibited with Selzer at his elbow looking at his watch.
“He was a professional in every respect,” recalled Selzer. “He was on time, knew his lines and didn’t make any trouble…very good with France Nuyen (A Girl Called Tamiko, 1962), who was a little unsure of herself, and he did a lot to help her performance and boost her confidence.”
Trevor Howard was a different kettle of fish. Mitchum and Howard had become friends in the 1950s while working in Mexico, and Mitchum was a great admirer of the Englishman’s talent. However, Howard had “been all but blackballed of late due to his drinking.” Oscar-nominated for Sons and Lovers (1960), Howard had only made two films since. And even the role here was more of an extended cameo than a main supporting role. To win the part, Howard invited director and producer to visit him at his home where he put on a very good act of restraint, limiting himself to tea while the others consumed alcohol.
Restraint proved an illusion. While Mitchum could drink and still turn up for work, Howard would go to pieces with a few drinks in his system. On his second day of shooting, Howard turned up on set wearing mismatched socks and threw a drunken fit when asked to change.
Director Guy Hamilton had worked with big Hollywood personalities Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster on The Devil’s Disciple (1959) but compared to them Mitchum was a pussycat.
“He understood the importance of listening,” said Hamilton, “which is very, very rare for American stars…If all else failed in a scene, you knew you could always fall back on Mitchum’s reaction shots, which could say more than the dialogue.”
Mitchum was blessed with a photographic memory. Even when confronted with pages of new script he would have no trouble remembering his lines. In fact, if anyone fluffed their lines they could rely on Mitchum helping them out. When the movie decanted to India, he had an encounter with a maharajah’s daughter, which ended up in the bedroom. Once the movie was finished, Mitchum resorted to type, getting stoned on raw marijuana on the 16-hour flight home from India, a zip bag full of the stuff, and sailing through the Nothing To Declare section at Customs at the airport.
Most reports have this down as a big flop. But I’m not so sure. It cost comparatively little and earned $1 million in rentals in the U.S. Mitchum was a big enough star for it to be released around the world and I’d be surprised if it didn’t manage the extra $300,000 required to break even.
SOURCES: Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby, I Don’t Care (Faber and Faber, 2001) p457, 462-467; “Marlon Brando To Film Winston Affair,” Box Office, April 9, 1962, p16, “Youngstein As Exec Producer,” Variety, January 16, 1963, p4; “Entertainment Corp Sets Mitchum Film Overseas,” Variety, January 16, 1963, p4; “Four Months To The Day For Man,” Variety, January 26, 1963, p5; “From Surefire to Fail Safe,” Variety, April 10, 1963, p3; “Winston Affair Set To Start 20th-Fox British Production Program,” Variety, April 24, 1963, p22; “Fascination With Own Era,” Variety, May 22, 1963, p3.“Use Negro Skills in Seltzer’s Film,” Variety, October 2, 1963, p4; “No Principal On Role Longer Than 3 Weeks, Key Budget Control,” Variety, November 27, 1963, p3.
4 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes – “Man in the Middle”/”The Winston Affair” (1964)”
Brian, interesting info as always. I regret to advise that I do not remember this exists!
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I’m not sure it got much of a release.
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Can I have one for The Sky Above, The Mud Below please?
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Need to put that on my list.