“The Big Reveal” comes too late to save this heist-cum-melodrama. It can’t make up its mind whether it wants to join the canon of superlative 1960s caper pictures – in which case it needed to make a greater effort on the cat burglary front – or whether it’s an odd addition to the menage a trois category, in which case it needed characters you could actually believe. Worst of all, it contains one of the great artistic follies, a robbery carried out in time with an orchestra playing one of the great John Barry compositions, “Romance for a Guitar and Orchestra.”
The only problem, there’s no dramatic reason for this. Since the concert is miles away from the robbery, it’s not as if the music drowns out the shenanigans. Director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) shoots himself in the foot. It’s too clever a device by half, even if the music is intended as a counterpoint to the robbery’s more dramatic themes or the silence which had become a trope.
Cat burglar Henry (Michael Caine) forms a business partnership with elderly safecracker Moreau (Eric Portman) and falls for his wife Fe (Giovanna Ralli). The husband-wife relationship is off to begin with, he preferring males, and the wife admitting she doesn’t always find men attractive, though quite what she is hinting at is never made clear. The target is millionaire Salinas (David Buck), whom Henry is investigating to the point of pretending to be an alcoholic so he can get to know Salinas in a sanatorium.
Any other movie would get straight to the point – draw up plans and get on with it. But here, for no real reason except delay, Moreau wants them to do a trial run, a safecracking job on the mansion of the kind of couple who drive off in a posh car to attend a concert. The effort put into the planning isn’t really up to scratch, not when compared to the likes of Topkapi (1964) – to which every heist film of the era was measured – or Gambit (1966) or even the less well-known The Happy Thieves (1960) or Seven Thieves (1960).
Apart from some cat burglary skills the whole episode is perfunctory, guard dogs knocked out by drugs. The background music, the aforementioned John Barry opus, just about kills off any prospect of tension. It only sparks into life when Moreau admits the safe is beyond him and Henry has to prise it out of the wall and cart it to the waiting car.
The second heist would have been far more interesting had we known from the start that Salinas welcomes burglary attempts, seeing it as some kind of duel of wits with malfeasants.
In between the two robberies there is time enough – too much time in fact – for Henry and Fe to get it together, for Fe to run off and then return only to learn in The Big Reveal the kind of despicable man her husband is. The movie can’t even deal with the incestuous sub-plot and just lets it hang there. But by that stage you couldn’t care less. Fe isn’t the type of femme fatale to bother crossing the road for, the romance seems too prescribed and the downbeat ending makes no sense.
I’m only giving this any points at all really because it stars Michael Caine (Hurry Sundown, 1967) and features a lengthy slice of John Barry music. Caine has been in enough duds for sure, but this doesn’t have the ring of one of his doing-it-for-the-money numbers or a stab at the Hollywood big-budget scene. Caine is good enough and Eric Portman (The Bedford Incident, 1965) is an interesting study. But it just doesn’t gel, not just let down by Giovanna Ralli (The Caper of the Golden Bulls, 1967) but by the pretentious direction and dramatic miscalculation of Bryan Forbes.
Forbes’ wife Nanette Newman (The Wrong Box, 1966) makes a puzzling appearance in a small role with no dramatic credibility. Leonard Rossiter (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) provides another cameo. For many the high spot will be to see John Barry in the flesh, conducting the orchestra playing his composition.
Too many peculiarities for a small British B-picture that just about makes it over the line after “The Big Reveal.” You can start with the fact that, ostensibly, this was director Cy Endfield’s follow-up to his blockbusting Zulu (1964). In fact, it had been made long before, but sat on a shelf for a year, and only released to cash in on Zulu. And you can see why studio British Lion didn’t know what to do with it.
Diving down a 39 Steps thriller-sized rabbit hole, baffled professor saddled with adventurous female go on the run searching for answers to, wait for it, a crime which hasn’t actually been committed. There’s action on a train, some comedy as the worlds of academia and the sophisticated fast set collide, romance on a barge, Cold War skullduggery, too much chess, a bit of welcome role reversal, a cliff-top fight, and some dry wit that might have fitted better into a straightforward romantic comedy. And it ends with a twist of such audacity that it would either come as a relief to a bewildered audience or send them home frustrated at such a denouement.
Rocket scientist David Garrett (Ian Carmichael) becomes embroiled in not even really a plot when he attempts to return a box, containing an inordinate amount of loot, to its owner, chess grandmaster Dr Melnicker (George Pravda). Luckily, a clue in the form of a chess move takes him to a posh London house in fashionable Chelsea where he encounters the slinky Maggie (Janet Munro) and after hiding in a sandpit in a children’s playground to evade pursuers he ends up on a train with her heading north to a place called Flamboro.
But, wait, his pursuers are also on the train, so naturally the couple have to jump off, fall into a river and hitch a lift on a passing barge whose owner Wilkins (Hugh Griffith) proves most obliging. Indeed, Maggie is even more obliging, taking the lead in bedding the shy professor. Things get interesting when Maggie, at a road sign, takes David in the completely opposite direction to Flamboro. That works for about ten seconds until a henchman Paul (Kieron Moore) captures them at gunpoint.
Rather than just shooting David dead he decides it would be cleaner to chuck him over a cliff. Luckily, David is a shade pluckier than you might expect. After winning this cliff-top tussle and shocked at having chucked a man over a cliff he is even more astonished to discover he is stranded, Maggie having made off in the car. Luckily, a passing policeman on a bicycle ensures David makes it safe to Flamboro, which turns out to be a huge mansion perched on a cliff.
My guess is by now you are so hooked by this story that you’ll want me to reveal The Big Reveal. Well, the whole thing turns out to be a trap. Melnicker, the pursuing thugs, Paul (who, you’ll not be too astonished to learn, ain’t dead) and even Maggie have all been plotting to bring David here so that he can be kidnapped and handed over to a submarine arriving the following day. You see, David has been so outspoken (has he?) against his masters that everyone will put his disappearance down to defection. It’s all been a cleverly worked-out chess move as chief baddie Hubert (Curd Jurgens) takes pains to point out.
But our David isn’t exceptionally brainy for nothing and finds a way to outwit the bad guys with Maggie, by now repenting of her bad ways and fallen in love, along for the ride.
So what’s gone wrong? The casting, unfortunately, for one thing. Star Ian Carmichael (School for Scoundrels, 1960), better known for comedy, doesn’t quite make the switch to more straightforward thriller. And Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), whom you might expect to add some gloss, doesn’t appear till the end.
Worse, the film doesn’t find the right tone, too much comedic British observation, and not enough of the hero being in genuine jeopardy. Only a clueless professor would run from the thugs. If the big twist had occurred halfway through and the audience had time to wonder whose side Maggie was on and feel David was in in genuine danger it might have hit the bullseye because, oddly enough, the romance is believable in a Hot Enough for June (1964) kind of way, where innocent male is scooped up by a more worldly female way above his league.
But the role reversal is fun. She’s the one who goes to his rescue when he falls in the river, she’s the seductress, and gets to tell him he looks better “when he’s cross” (a line more typically with slight variations falling to the male) and delivers the movie’s one cracker: “Being a man you have no respect for a mink coat.” She would be an ideal candidate for femme fatale if only the director had let us in on the story quicker, but she’s certainly an astute lure.
Because I wasn’t expecting much, I have probably been a shade less critical than if I was viewing it as a follow-up to Zulu. In the end, it’s passable enough, especially if you are willing to see how clever it’s been.
As I mentioned Ian Carmichael (Lucky Jim, 1957) is the weak link but former Disney protégé Janet Munro (Swiss Family Robinson, 1960), now blossomed in sexy fashion, steals the show and on this performance you might be surprised she did not have a more illustrious career but she had a heart condition and died prematurely at the age of 38. Curd Jurgens was at the early stages of inventing his villainous persona. The other characters are merely pawns in the plot so end up as stock villains. Cy Endfield’s genuine follow-up to Zulu was worth seeing – Sands of the Kalahari (1965).
Breezy western debut that created five legends: announced the arrival of a new directorial force in Sergio Leone; bestowed screen stardom on Clint Eastwood; instantly created a new mini-genre in the Spaghetti western; provided a platform for the distinctive music of Ennio Morricone; and best of all from the producers’ perspective made a mountain at the box office. You could add in a cavalier attitude to corpses and adding a notch to the development of that 1960s standby, the anti-hero. From now on the good guy could be a bad guy or so morally ambiguous as not to make a difference.
Look no further than the opening scene to note the alternative Leone approach to the western. An anonymous stranger (Clint Eastwood) arriving in town, observes, while drinking water from a well, a gang torment a small boy by firing bullets at his feet. Indifference to the taboo subject of violence to children became a Leone trademark, most evident when children are slaughtered in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Most astonishing of all here, the stranger, ostensibly our hero, does not intervene despite, as we shall soon discover, being a ferocious shot.
Instead he learns that the child is being kept from his imprisoned mother Marisol (Marianne Koch), who has been taken from her husband Julio (Daniel Martin) by Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte). Rather than directly intervene a a good hero should, the stranger decides to profit from the situation. Realizing there are two opposition factions in town, the Rojos and the Baxters, he decides to play them off against each other, taking money in turn from each, demonstrating his credentials by shooting four men. That the Baxter clan includes the town sheriff (Wolfgang Lukschy) shows how powerful the Rojos have become.
In fact the stranger doesn’t orchestrate a straightforward shoot-em-up as you might expect but cleverly gets them to kill each other first of all by arranging for both families to confront each other in a makeshift cemetery where the stranger has deposited the bodies of two men, the supposed survivors of a massacre of Mexican soldiers escorting a gold shipment. The Rojos win this round.
After appearing as nothing but a ruthless opportunist, the stranger now turns into a hero, freeing Marisol, reuniting her with husband and son, and giving them money to go away. This kind act does not go unnoticed, the stranger captured and tortured, the Baxters massacred on the assumption he was acting on their behalf. The stranger escapes in a coffin, fashions himself some chest armour in a tin mine, and confronts the remaining Rojos in an old-fashioned, though with a typical Leone twist, gunfight.
Setting aside the body count, which enraged traditionalists, including the vast majority of critics who would later endorse the even more violent blood-letting of The Wild Bunch (1969), the trio of Leone, Eastwood and Morricone put their innovative stamp on the western.
Stylistically, it was in a class of its own (until, at last, Leone outdid himself with the further adventures of The Man with No Name and Once Upon a Time in the West). The operatic elements which feature so strongly in his later work, are here confined to the plethora of close-ups, more like portraits and extremely well-lit, the circular camera movement for the climax (again, more evident in Once Upon a Time in the West), and the stillness before the shoot-out, the way tension builds through nothing happening for a considerable amount of time, not through characters shifting to more advantageous position, but simply while the camera sits and broods.
Leone cut out exposition, generally a large part of the beginning of any western, the stranger having no emotional involvement in the situation. A normal western would focus on the forcibly estranged husband attempting to free the imprisoned wife, perhaps as in The Magnificent Seven (1960) hiring someone to do it for him. The stranger, in effect, sets out to profit from misery.
And he doesn’t say much. A character this monosyllabic would be a supporting actor in a traditional western, perhaps fulfilling a comic role or given some elaborate emotional back story for why words were so precious he wouldn’t spend them.
And he’s definitely iconic. In a later scene, Leone has Eastwood materializing out of the swirling dust in a scene that would easily have fitted the traditional western. But for the most part, he relies on audience reaction to a character who dresses in far from traditional fashion, most notably with his poncho and cigars. The western hero didn’t squint either. He walked not situations with his eyes open, indicative of his boldness and ability to face any situation.
Leone avoids classic western confrontation, the one-on-one scenes that usually occur close to the start where the hero either exhibits prowess or is humiliated. In what might be called “the Chicago Way” not only does nobody come to a gunfight with a knife, the bad guys come mob-handed.
Sure, that means the hero is shown to be even more deadly with a pistol, but it also permits Leone to extend the action by focusing not just on two opposing characters but a number of different faces. There are some other motifs at play in Leone’s debut – women are not all as submissive as Marisol, Consuelo, the Baxter matriarch, on hiring the stranger, says “I’m rich enough to appreciate the men my money can buy,” her power and wealth finding later echo in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Last but not least, is the Morricone sound. There had been great western themes before, plaintive as in High Noon (1952) and The Alamo (1960) or stirring like The Big Country (1958) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), but this appeared to arrive from a different orchestral planet.
If ever a movie could claim ownership of the title “a star is born” it’s this one. Perhaps it has remained so special because the triumvirate of Leone, Eastwood and Morricone had such illustrious careers, this merely a starting point rather than, as if often the case when Hollywood anoints a new star, the highlight.
Fans of Succession will appreciate this power struggle in a Scottish army regiment set in 1948. In a reverse of The Godfather (1972) where the Corleones complain about needing a “wartime consigliore,” here the powers-that-be have decided this unnamed distinctly Highlander company requires a commanding officer with skills more appropriate to peace time.
Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) has been in charge of the battalion since the North Africa campaign in World War Two when the original commander was killed. But he has never been promoted to full Lt. Col. Naturally, having been in charge for six years, he feels the job should be his. At a time when the currency of command was wartime experience he’s less than pleased when he loses out to Col. Barrow (John Mills) who spent most of the war as a Japanese POW.
It doesn’t help that they are complete opposites. Sinclair is a tough, hard-drinking, attention-seeking Scotsman who enlisted as an ordinary soldier and rose through the ranks winning two medals for courage during the conflict. Barrow is Oxford-educated English upper-class, a lecturer at Sandhurst Military Academy, and recalls his war experience with terror rather than the braggadocio of Sinclair. Worse, he doesn’t drink.
It doesn’t take long for the pair to clash. Sinclair, who has ruled as much by preying on weakness as force of personality, is quick to start to look for flaws in his opponent’s make-up. Barrow feels discipline has been slipping and enforces tougher measures. That might make him unpopular but an army is built on discipline so soldiers can hardly complain.
But Barrow slips up by misreading the men. He chooses the worst of all issues to make a stand. For the first post-war official barracks party, Barrow insists the soldiers embark on traditional Highland dancing in regulation fashion rather than in their normal exuberant, not to say rowdy, manner. The soldiers are infuriated when Barrow insists they take lessons.
He has just lit the fuse. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. Barrow is humiliated, Sinclair triumphant. But victory does not turn out the way Sinclair expected.
The main thrust of the narrative, as you might expect, is the stand-off between Sinclair and Barrow and the tensions felt all round, as would be the case in any business (Succession, now, of course the classic example) when a new boss takes control. While everyone might expect, and perhaps fear, change, in the military (as in the navy) there is always the danger, should the new broom try to sweep too clean, of mutiny.
This might not amount to a raising of arms. But there are other effective methods of mounting opposition – laxity, questioning or outright refusal to obey orders – or giving the new chief the cold shoulder. Here, in the background, are other simmering tensions. Not everyone is comfortable with Sinclair’s very laddish approach to command, the back-stabbing and double-dealing Major Charles Scott (Dennis Price) ready to pounce at any opportunity.
Sinclair is also having to deal with his daughter Morag (Susannah York) asserting her independence, having the temerity not just to take a boyfriend, Corporal Fraser (John Fraser), but one from the ranks rather than the officer class. And he feels the harsh tongue of his own paramour Mary (Kay Walsh).
Emotional isolation is rarely commented upon in matters of the armed forces and yet it is so much a driving force. If not adequately compensated by camaraderie, a man at the top can be very lonely indeed, and prone to the most vicious self-torment.
Director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) superbly invokes an army atmosphere away from the more usual battleground backdrop. The picture is anchored by brilliant performances all round and a roll-call of strong supporting characters. An unflinching look at power, especially leadership and the personal toll it takes. And it was astonishing that the movie could hit the target so well without relying on the usual round of sex, violence or that old stand-by the comic subordinate. It also probes the issues of what happens – in any industry – when the wrong person is put in charge. No less an authority than Alfred Hitchcock called it “one of the best films ever made.”
The sparring between Oscar-winning Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1966), who won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival for this role, is of the highest quality. Dennis Price (The Comedy Man, 1964) is the pick of the support while Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) makes an auspicious debut.
Few films could boast a better supporting cast: former British leading lady Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965), Gordon Jackson (The Ipcress File, 1965), Duncan Macrae (Best of Enemies, 1961), John Fraser (Tamahine, 1963), Gerard Harper (Adam Adamant Lives!, 1966-1967, TV series) and Peter McEnery (The Moon-Spinners, 1964).
James Kennaway (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.
For a film that staggered around trying to find a plot to justify its tale of moral ambiguity during World War Two the final third is surprisingly potent. Featuring two good Germans and a bunch of bad Yanks ostensibly it’s a straightforward story of a saboteur trying to prevent a German cargo ship captain from scuttling his ship should it come under attack from the British determined to lay their hands on its vital supplies of rubber.
Supposed German pacifist Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) – actually a coward – hiding out in India is blackmailed by British Col Statter (Trevor Howard) into posing as a high-ranking SS officer on the German ship in order to prevent it being sunk by Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner). After his last command ended in drunken disgrace, Mueller assumes Crain has been sent to keep an eye on him. So Crain spends an almighty time down in the engine room and various below-decks spots defusing the wiring that would cause the ship to blow up at the touch of a button by the captain.
Mueller’s second-in-command Kruse (Martin Benrath) is suspicious of the cosmopolitan art-loving Crain but it’s a renegade band of criminals, led by Donkeyman (Hans Christian Blech) forced into armed service, who rumble Crain. But he talks them into mutiny. The ship avoids detection by disguising itself as a neutral Swedish freighter. Mueller’s attitude to Crain changes when the latter prevents him hitting the self-destruct button as a British destroyer seems poised to attack, changing its mind at the last minute.
Meanwhile, a group of American prisoners, from a ship sunk by a Japanese U-boat, come on board, including Jewess Esther (Janet Margolin). Surprisingly, Mueller steps up to the plate, protecting her from his crew, providing her with a private berth and permitting her to eat in the officer’s mess. On board the submarine are Admiral Wendel (Oscar Beregi), who commissioned Mueller, and a German counter-intelligence officer and, surprised to find Crain on the cargo ship, challenge him. Crain calls their bluff, but when the Admiral leaves he plans to radio Berlin to check Crain’s credentials, information passed on to Crain, who now has a very short deadline to organise mutiny, take over the ship and sail it to safety.
To do that, the mutineers require the support of the prisoners, a task detailed to Esther, who can only achieve that mission by surrendering her body to the prisoners, in much the same way as she has done previously to the Gestapo.
Mueller goes to pieces on hearing that his beloved son, also a ship’s captain, has been given a medal for sinking his fifth enemy vessel – only this time it is a hospital ship. After Mueller drinks himself unconscious, and Kruse assumes command, Crain fails to enlist Mueller to the mutiny which then begins. The surprise ending is both brutal and poetic.
But despite almost capsizing under the weight of an unwieldy cargo of plot and double-plot, the picture finally makes its points, that in war, ambiguity reigns. Mueller, who hates the Nazis but stoutly defends his Fatherland, proves to have the highest moral standards, agreeing to help Esther when they reach their destination, and preventing further molestation of her while aboard. Crain, purportedly the good German, has no compunction about sending Esther to do his dirty work, knowing the risks a sole woman faces in a hold of desperate sex-starved men. The good Yanks turn into rapists at the slightest opportunity, every bit as heinous in their depredations as their enemy.
That the movie stays afloat for so long is largely down to the excellence of Marlon Brando (The Chase, 1966) and Yul Brynner (The Double Man, 1967). Brynner’s magisterial presence, chest out, legs apart, serves him well, and the ongoing duel with Brando is an acting treat, though Brynner has the best scene, the look of anguish on his face when he realises what his son has done. Brando, reprising the silky German accent of The Young Lions (1958), is very convincing as the dilettante pressed into service, negotiating his way round the recalcitrant Brynner, and living on his wits when faced with the criminals and then the Admiral. And while Janet Margolin (Nevada Smith, 1966) is little more than a symbol, she invests the role with terrifying humanity, a woman reduced to being a sex object, utter submission her only way to achieve temporary reprieve. Most of her best acting is just with the look on her face.
In his Hollywood debut Martin Benrath appears just a standard German until his mask slips and we realise how much he covets the captain’s uniform. Wally Cox (The Bedford Incident, 1965) is another compromised by immoral behaviour, the doctor who steals the ship’s supply of morphine. Hans Christian Blech (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) excellent as a vengeful mutineer. You might also spot William Redfield (Fantastic Voyage, 1966). Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express) is only there at the outset.
Austrian director Bernhard Wicki (The Visit, 1964) does his best with a plot bursting at the seams, but the scenes of sabotage are well done, and he does recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of a ship, and the final sequence is worth waiting for. Daniel Taradash (Castle Keep, 1969) wrote the screenplay.
Evil meets its match” would have been a good tagline for this neat B-picture, a slow burn that starts off as horror before swerving into a more straightforward thriller. A prequel to surprise hit Orphan (2009) and a perverse take on the origin theme so beloved of the MCU/DC movies, this begins in Estonia where Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) is an inmate at a psychiatric institute.
At first it looks like the tale is heading in the direction of Leena’s relationship with new art therapist Anna (Gwendolyn Collins). But that is quickly stymied when Leena, having orchestrated an escape through her manipulative and seductive powers, knocks off Anna as well, pausing only long enough to harness the woman’s computer to find a lookalike missing girl, the American Esther Albright, she could pretend to be. The wealthy Albrights, mum Tricia (Julia Stiles), devastated artist husband Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and spoiled brat son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) live in a huge mansion in Connecticut.
And at first again, we go down another rabbit hole, this time the question of whether Esther can maintain her disguise, coming up shy at times in the old memory department. A psychiatrist is initially a bit suspicious and there’s a cop, Inspector Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa) lingering in the background. But Esther bonds with Allen over their shared interest in painting and the husband believes he has unearthed a new shining talent.
We also go down a rat-hole, so to speak, when Esther befriends a rat (an unlikely inhabitant in such a deluxe property, but there you go) whose only purpose you guess right away is to die, poisoned in one way or another. You imagine the poisoner is going to be Esther just wanting to maintain her killing skills.
Not so. The poor old rat is killed by mistake by Tricia who is, it turns out, trying to rid herself of this imposter, a lass she knows only too well cannot be her missing daughter for one very unsavoury reason which I won’t divulge but certainly took me by surprise.
So then the film switches onto a completely different tack, and one that is far more satisfying than just a deranged maniac, as in most horror pictures, going round slaughtering everyone in sight. Donnan has re-entered the frame by this point, continuing his investigations to the point of sneakily snatching Esther’s fingerprints so he can try and do a match.
So now it’s game on and Esther is out- numbered, up against a pretty dangerous mother-and-son combo, with only the dim husband as ally. And no matter what clever stunts Esther dreams up to rid herself of this infernal duo and live happily ever after with the doting father, the equally tough Julia is quietly setting her own snares.
We were already expecting trouble the moment we set eyes on Esther, who, with her baby-faced features and size, that was a given, if ever there was a monster-in-disguise it was her. But beautiful socialite Tricia is a different story and so if there’s a “secret” this time round it’s to do with Tricia’s family, the pair involved maintaining an ongoing masquerade with the unwitting father.
Esther’s survival depends not so much on killing her way out of here but on winning over the father sufficiently should that, inevitably, if her plans work out, bereft of wife and son he will turn to her for consolation.
Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan) is even better than she was before. Then she was a young actress playing a young maniac. Now she’s over a decade older and having to act more than a decade younger and that certainly takes some doing. But Julia Stiles (Hustlers, 2019) is the revelation, the cold-as-ice beauty, barely holding her family together after the previous tragedy, on the one hand welcoming Esther because it revitalizes her almost-dormant husband, on the other needing to exert considerable control otherwise their carefully constructed lives are going to explode. Although the surname is not new to me, the actor is, and Rossif Sutherland (The Middle Man, 2021) gives a touching performance as the grieving, brooding father finding himself, especially good in his scenes in his studio with Esther. In only his second picture Mathew Finlan (My Fake Boyfriend, 2022) isn’t given much scope as a spoilt brat son nor is Hiro Kanagawa, best known for the Star Trek: Discovery TV series.
Director William Brent Bell (The Boy, 2016) does a decent job, especially given he has to stradde the twin genres or horror and thriller with a nod in the direction of film noir. The scenes between Esther and Julia, where they realise they are adversaries, are especially well done. There are enough twists to keep the plot spiralling along and clever use of doubles to make you believe Fuhrman is a little girl.
Far from a great picture, but enough to be getting along with in the absence of a blockbuster. The hardier of the moviegoer species, people like me who pop along to their local cinema every week regardless and find something to watch, will be less picky about this kind of fare than those who get in for nothing or are sent a streamer due to their status as critics. Exhibitors have complained for over a century now that the best movies are never spread out over the year, but clustered into various time zones. Their livelihood, after all, depends on a constant string of winners. It’s a different story for cinemagoers. We just want to sit in the dark and see a film and as long as it’s reasonable enough we’re not going to complain.
In what should have been an indifferent week for moviegoing – given I had already seen Bullet Train, Nope, Top Gun: Maverick etc – I managed quite a nice triple bill on my weekly outing. This was the sandwich between the charmingly tolerable Fishermen’s Friends: One for All and documentary Girls Can’t Surf.
I’m sticking my neck out on this one – under-rated would be an understatement – and primarily because it’s the Duke’s most intriguing film of the decade and possibly ever. For a start we have John Wayne The Quitter (the hell you say!). Then he ducks out of the picture for a full quarter of an hour (he does what?). Fast forward a couple of years and this would have led the disaster cycle pack – a little tinkering with the structure and you would have all four principals fighting fires in South America in the middle of a revolution (beat that, The Towering Inferno.) But most enthralling of all this is a family drama masquerading as an action picture.
And it led me to thinking if True Grit (1969) had not landed on Wayne’s doorstep whether he would have continued down the dramatic rather than the action road for the tail end of his career. He had just collected his first million-dollar fee so in box office terms he was untouchable. And just for the record, the action scenes, especially given the absence of CGI, are terrific. Sure, the oil’s a little bit too thin to pass for real oil, but it does gets sloshed over all concerned, including the Duke, by the bucketload.
And it might be a shade on the episodic side, Chance Buckman (John Wayne) and compadres racing from one hellish event to another, but it’s wrapped around a tight dramatic core, Chance vs independent daughter Tish (Katharine Ross), Chance vs one-time sidekick and now Tish’s husband Greg (Jim Hutton), Chance vs. Tish’s mother Madelyn (Vera Miles) and Chance vs. all the dimwits on the board of the company he quit his own operation to join.
Chance is based on the real-life Red Adair, an oilman who had invented the extremely scientific but extremely dangerous method of putting out oil-well fires. When a gazillion gallons of oil spurting unchecked out of the ground catch fire you’ve got a helluva problem on your hands. A gazillion gallons of water ain’t going to cut it. The only solution is to cut off the oxygen supply long enough to cap the well. Red Adair’s technique: blast the oxygen out of the way. He’d attach drums filled with massive amounts of nitro-glycerine, roll them into the blaze on the end of cranes, hide behind nothing more resilient than hazard suits and shields made of corrugated iron, and detonate them. The resulting explosion did the trick.
The picture opens with this stunt, although after being accidentally injured, Chance is hospitalized, bringing estranged daughter and ex-wife into the dramatic frame. After a pretty frosty meet-cute, Tish and Greg hit it off and get married, forcing Tish to confront the fear that drove Chance and Madelyn apart, that, like the wife of a Formula One driver, she never knows if her husband will come back. This bothers the feisty Tish a lot less than the weary Madelyn. And she even ignores all protocol and rushes to her husband’s side, regardless of the danger.
Meanwhile, Chance decides not only has he had enough of dicing with danger but he can leave his company in the safe hands of Greg. His life now on a more mundane keel, Madelyn is attracted back. But of course it wouldn’t do for Chance to live out retirement with nothing more testy than board meetings so he comes back into the fray during a rebellion in Venezula and both women have to confront their true feelings.
The action, considering the lack of CGI, or the kind of budget available to The Towering Inferno, is first-class. This is the ideal movie reversal. Instead of running away from a fire, these characters race towards it. There are some hair-raising moments. At one blowout, gas is leaking from the ground, poisoning everyone in sight, Greg is trapped underwater. And should complacency sneak in, fire, being on the unpredictable side, is prone to sudden explosion.
John Wayne (The Undefeated, 1969) has always excelled at restrained emotion and here he gets both barrels. Having got rid of the over-protective wife he’s now saddled with a daughter he’s desperate to protect from the hell he put his wife through. He’s faultless here, given considerably more acting scope than normal and not, as in McLintock (1963), just able to tan a woman’s backside, presenting a more contemporary male, perhaps as puzzled by female behavior as any of his cowboys, but taking a more modern approach to resolving his feelings.
Katharine Ross (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) has her best role, not a mere appendage as in her other films of this period, but driving forward the action through her independence. Jim Hutton (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966) is growing on me. I’ve reversed my view of him as a lightweight. Vera Miles (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) does a pretty good job of playing older – she was not yet 40 – and essays a complicated character, more rounded than was often the case with the female lead in Wayne pictures. Veterans Jay C. Flippen (Firecreek, 1968) and Bruce Cabot (The Undefeated) head the support.
The perennially underrated Andrew V McLaglen (The Undefeated) does a pretty good job with the action, as you might expect, but is also savvy enough to let the dramatic scenes flow. Clair Huffaker (Rio Conchos, 1964) penned the screenplay.
Guilty pleasure personified, you might say, but I’d retort that this is a damn fine picture erroneously ignored – rating only two paragraphs in Scott Eyman’s 650-page biography of John Wayne for example – possibly because it appeared in between the critically-reviled The Green Berets (1968) and the critically-acclaimed True Grit.
No one would have invited journalist John Gregory Dunne to observe the inner workings of Twentieth Century Fox in 1967 had they know how badly the project was going to backfire. The studio was enjoying a commercial peak, The Sound of Music (1965) continuing to set records, the public turning out in droves for the critically-lambasted Valley of the Dolls (1967). Fattening up studio coffers were Von Ryan’s Express (1965), The Blue Max (1966) and spy franchise Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). By the time Dunne’s book, The Studio, was published however, in 1969, the studio was in financial meltdown.
On a hubris high was studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, who a few years before had saved Fox from bankruptcy. Dunne (later a screenwriter, most notably of A Star Is Born, 1976) had carte blanche to sit in on all sorts of meetings. The studio was going for broke with big-budget musicals, $18 million on Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, 1964) , $12 million for Star! with Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music), both actors considered bankers for their previous work in musicals. There was even $4.5 million allocated to The Boston Strangler which lacked any star commitment.
There were actually two Zanucks. Father Darryl and whizz-kid son Richard who was in charge of production and with whom Dunne had most of his dealings. Dunne observed first-hand how the younger Zanuck whittled down director Martin Ritt’s salary from $350,000 to $200,000 by threat of legal action.
Script problems had pushed back production on The Boston Strangler, a first attempt by English playwright Terence Rattigan (The VIPs, 1963) rejected and the project now in the hands of Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964). And it lacked a star.
Robert Shaw was one possibility. He was being paid $300,000 for a picture that would never be made, The Nine Tiger Man, to be directed by George Cukor, deemed too expensive at $7.2 million. Zanuck could save money if Shaw accepted The Boston Strangler as an alternative. He didn’t. Or another, cheaper, project A Severed Head. He didn’t. Instead, Zanuck dumped A Severed Head (released by Columbia in 1971).
Christopher Plummer also walked away without doing any work. When Rex Harrison quit Doctor Dolittle, Plummer (The Sound of Music) signed up as his replacement for $300,000, Harrison said he hadn’t meant to quit. That wasn’t the only issue Harrison caused. He refused to pre-record his numbers and then mouth the lyrics to a playback. The Harrison, more expensive, method was to be recorded live. As if producer Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet of the Apes, 1968) hadn’t already been through the mill. Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady) was contracted to do the music. But after 15 months: nada. Jacobs turned to Leslie Bricusse. The budget had risen by 50 per cent, from $12 million to $18 million.
It was hoped the 50-plus companies involving in licensing and contributing $12 million in overall marketing spend would bring in the public. Over 300 items would be sold on the back of the picture, resulting in 45,000 displays in retail stores. This was a picture you couldn’t miss. Expecting a soundtrack bonanza, the initial print run was set at half a million copies – bigger than that for The Sound of Music. Jacobs was perturbed to learn he would have to pay for window space – retailers paid with free copies.
Legendary producer Joe Pasternak was making his 100th movie The Sweet Ride. One of his concerns was that Jacqueline Bisset’s bikini didn’t look tight enough. “It looked baggy in the rushes,” complained Pasternak. Bisset countered, “It fits when it’s dry. It just got a terrible pounding when I was in the water.” She mentions the scene where it got such a pounding in fact that the sea whipped the top off. She reckons that crossing her arms to protect her modesty prevented her tugging the pants on tighter. Once that picture was finished so was Pasternak – he never made another picture.
Another legendary producer Pandro S. Berman was trying to interest English directors John Schlesinger or Lindsay Anderson in Justine (directed by George Cukor in 1969) and on that basis wanted to hire a writer Laurence Marcus (Petulia, 1968) to rewrite the existing Ivan Moffat script in order to entice them. Zanuck’s take: he expected a director to make script changes but couldn’t see the point of altering a script to suit a director you didn’t know would be interested. Nonetheless, Marcus got signed.
All the time agents and directors were pitching movies. Agent Phil Gersh pushed a comedy version of Candy – screenplay by English writing duo Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (it ends up minus the Englishmen at Cinerama Releasing). Veteran director Henry Koster’s idea for a musical was nixed. As was the original trailer for Tony Rome, Zanuck hating the voice-over.
On Deadfall (1968), the Michael Caine heist movie directed by Bryan Forbes, actress Giovanni Ralli was having trouble with her English and her contract prevented her being dubbed. It would mean the actress having to lip-synch in post-production. The solution – “tell her she’s got 500 loops and when she hears that maybe she’ll get discouraged and let someone else dub her.” The studio had come up with 14 alternative titles to The Magus (1968) including Seduced by Fate and The Goddess and the Demon.
Fred Zinnemann was priming a $10 million western about Custer. He thought he might save $3 million by shooting in Mexico. The picture was to have no big stars. The only actor who could pull it off was John Wayne and he hated Custer. So Zinnemann planned to go with big names in cameo roles and Toshiro Mifune as Crazy Horse. That picture, too, would be dumped.
Also in the wings, Hello, Dolly! which would get made and Tom Swift, which would be canned despite advance work on building his aeroship, which would not. Nor would another Berman project John Brown’s Body.
Apart from insights into the way movies are made, marketed and released, Dunne’s book captures the extraordinary Hollywood mix – cynicism and greed coupled with fervor and bone-headed optimism.
Not to take anything away from this fascinating documentary about the battle for gender parity in the surfing world, but it occurred to me how few movies exist that features female athletes, compared to the plethora focusing on males. The occasional Million Dollar Baby (2004) and I, Tonya (2017) are in stark contrast to the plethora of Rocky (and now Creed)movies, or all the American football and baseball pictures while Kevin Costner alone has managed a dozen varied sports movies and even the recent King Richard (2021), ostensibly about the Williams sisters, actually centered on the father.
And the reason I ask is that the lives of any of the champion surfers showcased here would have made a worthy biopic, their stories mostly about overcoming adversity, battling male prejudice and finally, though only in the last few years, winning equal pay with men. Just as King Richard was as much about brand management, so is Girls Can’t Surf, although it was only by accident that big business understood the commercial impact women surfers had on sales of board clothing.
And the other reason I ask is that compared even to the long ago likes of Big Wednesday (1978) and Endless Summer (1965) the actual surfing footage here is meagre and it got me to thinking how much better it would have been with a proper budget for filming the surfing action.
Anyway, back to the movie I actually saw rather than the one I can only imagine, this covers the growth of female surfing from being regarded as a mere appendage to the male version to the billion-dollar industry it has become, tracing the largely sexist obstacles thrown in the way of women. The biggest issue initially wasn’t prize money, but that the men hogged the best waves and the best beaches, women often allocated times where the waves would be dismal, and therefore could not show off their skills.
This isn’t a sport like tennis or soccer where muscle power gives men the edge. Here, everyone is battling the same ocean. It’s not as if women get to surf with smaller, easier waves – that’s the last thing they want. The ocean doesn’t take it any easier on the women. But the women, barely tolerated, found themselves not just squeezed out of a decent share of the prize money but, being ignored in terms of publicity and deemed unworthy of articles in the surfing magazines, lost out in the battle to raise the sponsorship required just to make a living.
Whenever recession hit the sport, the answer was always to reduce female prize money, cancel female events or attempt to drive them out of the sport altogether. There’s an entire roll-call of generation after generation of top surfers not just battling each other to become world champion (there’s a program of global events as in Formula One racing) but battling personal circumstances – Pauline Menczer was crippled by arthritis, Pam Burridge suffered from anorexia – and each other as well as endemic sexism and inappropriate male advances.
The men were the glamour pusses, and they preferred it if the women stayed in their cars and read Mills & Boon novels and watched them surf, or if they wanted to parade about it should be in bikinis for the beauty contests that appeared a constituent part of any event.
The story is told in large part by the participants, names that were unfamiliar to me, like Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Lisa Anderson, Wendy Botha, Layne Beachley and Stephanie Gilmore. But the terms they use are the same as competitive athletes the world over, the determination to win, sometimes win at all costs, and even with a world championship trophy to your name unable to attract sponsorship.
The film could easily be interpreted as all about the battle for parity. At the start female prize money was barely a tenth of the million-dollar prize fund allocated the men. But even when manufacturers recognised that females were selling product, female earnings were usually half that of men. Eventually, the women took action, effectively going on strike when offered the poorer time slots in competitions, and at some point, it’s not exactly clear when, forcing the organisers to create a more even playing field, taking competitions to places where there was no shortage of giant waves for both sexes. The men, encountering exactly the same waves as their female counterparts, were forced to admit that in some instances the women were actually better. A social media outcry spelled the end of unequal pay, although noticeably there was no back payment for the years of inequality.
So, a terrific film directed by Christopher Nelius (Storm Surfers: New Zealand, 2010) – and co-written with Julie-Anne Du Ruvo – with no shortage of potential candidates for an awesome biopic, the supposed glamor of the surfing world exposed as tawdry for the most part, a bunch of larger-than-life personalities, a dose of humor, and women riding waves you would be scared to cross in a boat never mind with just a board for company.
In some programming quirk I caught this at the cinema but apparently it’s available on DVD and it must be streaming somewhere. The small screen will no doubt diminish the action but won’t take away form the basic story.
Arthur Miller, author of arguably the greatest play of the 20th century, Death of a Salesman, had gone to Reno to get a divorce so he could marry Marilyn Monroe. While there, he befriended some cowboys who took him with them while they caught horses. He turned the experience into a short story The Mustangs, published in Esquire (October 1957 issue). It provided the basis for the screenplay The Misfits. While the character of Roslyn, played by Monroe, was based on another woman, Miller explained, “I had written it to make Marilyn feel good.”
In July 1958 he sent it off to director John Huston, not just on account of a body of work that included The Big Sleep (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but because he had nursed Monroe through her debut on The Asphalt Jungle (1952) calming her nerves by telling her “if you’re not nervous you might as well give up.” Miller felt Huston would “present Marilyn with the bracing challenge, her fighting her problems through to a fine performance.”
Huston was enthusiastic – he saw the story as representative of a “dog-eat-horse-society” – and called the writer over to his house in Ireland where they spent two weeks putting the finishing touches to the screenplay, except for the last 15 minutes. Originally, it was a lengthy piece, almost an epic, production executives timing it at two hours 47 minutes, too unwieldy for a standard drama, so inevitably compromise would be required.
For tax reasons, Huston wanted to film in Mexico but relented and agreed to shooting it in Nevada. Talent agency MCA, which represented Huston, effectively put the film together as a package. Although Robert Mitchum was initial first choice, when he didn’t respond the screenplay went to Clark Gable, another MCA client, who accepted immediately. Eli Wallach was next on board. At this point, with only six films under his belt and better known for his work on Broadway, Wallach would not have expected to see his name above the title. But he was told that his name would be second to appear on the credits, after Gable.
But as the weeks went by and first Monroe then Montgomery Clift – both MCA clients – signed up his name slipped further down the credits. He consoled himself that his name would be “first position under the title” as that billing position was technically known. That proved an illusion. Thelma Ritter, apparently, boasted greater box office wattage so in the final credit rankings he placed fifth.
Although Monroe was viewed as the most mentally fragile, Clift and Gable also had issues to overcome. Due to the injuries suffered in a car crash and his well-known dependency on drugs, nobody would insure Clift but eventually an agreement was reached. Gable failed the medical, having gained 35lb while filming It Happened in Naples (1960) in Italy, ballooning his weight to 230lb. But two weeks later he was cleared.
The producer for such a heavyweight production was an industry lightweight. Frank E. Taylor’s main claim to fame was that he had been Miller’s publisher before he achieved fame as a playwright, working for the small company that published the author’s non-fiction work Situation Normal (1944) and the novel Focus (1945). Taylor had some Hollywood experience, but after four years employed there managed only one credit, John Sturges’ film noir Mystery Street (1950).
The original plan to start filming in September 1959 was scuppered by the incompletion of It Happened in Naples so it was shelved until the next spring. The next start date – March 3, 1960 – was an unexpected casualty of the Actors Strike which had delaying shooting on Monroe-starrer Let’s Make Love by five weeks. So when that film finished on July 1, there was little of a break for Monroe what with costume and wig fittings and test photographs before reporting on July 18, 1960, for what was expected to be a 50-day shoot, for The Misfits.
The budget was set at $3.5 million – a substantial amount for a black-and-white picture – with $1.6 million going to the principals. Clark Gable was down for $750,000, Marilyn Monroe and John Huston $300,000 apiece – although a generous profit participation scheme could see the actress earn as much as Gable – and Arthur Miller on $225,000. It was shot mainly on location in Nevada at Reno, Dayton and Pyramid Lake (a misnomer because it was all dried out) with a couple of weeks’ studio work at the end. Unusually, it was being filmed in chronological order to assist Monroe achieve her characterization.
Taylor had achieved a publicity coup by convincing famed photographic cooperative Magnum to cover the shoot in depth. Photographers of the calibre of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath and Eve Arnold worked in teams of two, each for a 15-day stint. Bresson would say of Monroe’s ethereal beauty: “I was struck as by an apparition in a fairy tale.”
Before a foot of film was exposed, the movie was in crisis. The script had been refused approval by the Production Code, the self-censorship system to which all studios subscribed. Code head honcho Geoffrey Shurlock complained that “the illicit relationship involving Roslyn and Gay seems to lack effective compensating moral values…(with the) difficulty that your story readily accepts illicit sex rather than condemning it.”
While there was publicity value to be gained from a tussle with the Production Code, it would not sit well with the distributors. The lack of a rating would inhibit many cinemas from risking a booking, despite the box office appeal of the cast.
Everyone had known going into production that getting Monroe on the set at all never mind in a condition to work would be a considerable achievement. Aware of her inability to rise early, Huston had shifted the daily start time by an hour to 10am. Sometimes shooting was restricted to only a couple of hours per day and since she was in most scenes there was a limit to how much the director could shoot around her.
Among the cast nobody knew her better than Eli Wallach. He had met the actress several years before when she had popped backstage after his performance in Teahouse of the August Moon on Broadway. He recalled: “She looked nothing like the movie star I’d seen onscreen; she wore a simple dress and had short blond hair. She was pale, shy, and wore no lipstick.” They became friends and would go out dancing. He introduced her, gradually, to The Actors Studio where she met Lee Strasberg, husband to Paula who became her acting coach.
“By the time we began to work on The Misfits in 1960,” said Wallach, “she seemed to have become a different Marilyn than the one I had known in New York, and the action that happened off-screen during the making of the film seemed to rival what was happening onscreen.”
Even so, the early part of the shoot went well. Commented Wallach, “Her mood waned and she began to lose her self-confidence.” For one scene where she was to do nothing more difficult than cross the road, she kept stopping halfway through. She had forgotten her motivation. Huston advised, “Your motivation comes from your need to cross the street without getting hit by any of the cars.” The next take was perfect.
But the signs of trouble were there from the outset. The evening before her first scene a nervous Monroe nearly took an overdose of Nembutal. Her unpredictability meant that on some days she only managed an hour or two, other days nothing at all. On August 27 she collapsed and was sent to Westside Hospital in Los Angeles for treatment, where she could be weaned off her addiction to barbiturates under the care of her analyst, not returning until September 6. On September 12, 13 and 19, she was indisposed and didn’t turn up for work.
If this was a case of life imitating art – her marriage to Miller was falling apart – she seemed to react to some lines as if the words were intended for Marilyn and not the character she was playing. In one scene Gable says, “You’re the saddest girl I ever met. What makes you so sad?” Monroe burst into tears. Wallach surmised, “Marilyn seemed to feel that the camera could detect her innermost thoughts.” In another scene, where Monroe and Wallach dance she “seemed upset and unhappy.”
Apart from casting her in The Asphalt Jungle, Huston had “saved her from the casting couch” by prior to that film setting up a proper screen test for her opposite John Garfield, providing her with a calling card that would reduce the requirement for her to jump into bed with a producer to get a part. But even on The Asphalt Jungle, she seemed dependent on her acting coach, at this point Natasha Lytess. “At the end of a take,” recalled Huston, “Marilyn would look to her for approval. The coach would nod her head.”
Monroe was taking pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up in the morning. The doctor on location eventually refused to give her any more, but of course she found them elsewhere. After visiting her in hospital, Huston was convinced the worst was over. But her renewed effervescence didn’t last.
“Marilyn returned to her old ways as though she’d never had a break,” recollected Huston. “One Sunday afternoon I visited her in her suite to get an idea of what to expect in the week ahead. She greeted me euphorically – then went into a kind of trance. She was the worst I’d ever seen her. Her hair was a tangle; her hands and feet were grubby; she was wearing only a short nightgown which wasn’t any cleaner than the rest of her.”
Despite her personal problems, Monroe was an extremely skilled actress. Observed Huston, “She could be marvelously effective. She wasn’t acting – I mean she was not pretending to an emotion. It was the real thing. She would go deep down within herself and find it and bring it up into consciousness.”
Huston, not necessarily known for accommodating actors, turned on the charm, always agreeing to another take if Monroe or Paula Strasberg (paid $3,000 a week) asked for it. Although most people disparaged Paula’s presence on the set or, more correctly, Monroe’s dependence on her, Huston acknowledged that without her his job would have been more difficult and he called a halt to crewmen nicknaming her Black Bart after her choice of clothing, habitually a black sack dress and black hat. So integral was Strasberg to Monroe’s life that the actress later moved from a hotel room shared with her husband to Strasberg’s apartment.
When even Strasberg failed to control her client, her husband Lee, the inventor of the Method School of acting which had revolutionised American drama, was flown in from New York. He had a different take on the situation. The problem wasn’t with Monroe but Huston. The director’s – refusing to deal directly with Paula. Raged Lee: “I will not tolerate this treatment of her, she is an artist,” threatening remove his wife from the picture.
Miller saw it differently: “Coach (Strasberg) was a little crazy, she was an opportunist I thought and not competent to help.” However, there was a very real issue to be addressed. Monroe had never come to terms with her fame and could not cope with the pressure of being the screen character with whom the world was infatuated.
Monroe’s technique was very individual. “I don’t want to discuss the Method. I don’t believe I have the experience. I try to use Method to the best of my ability. It makes working more possible…The writer has done the words then it’s up to the actor…I can’t work unprepared, I’d shoot myself. I can’t memorize words by themselves. I have to memorize the feeling.”
Clark Gable was on a career high, at least in terms of remuneration, earning $750,000 a picture, on a par with John Wayne and William Holden, the highest-earning stars at the time. Gable had the privilege of being paired with some of the top female stars – But Not For Me (1959) with Carroll Baker, Doris Day in Teacher’s Pet (1958) and Sophia Loren on It Happened in Naples, the title a twist on his star-making picture It Happened One Night (1934), and more than holding his own against Burt Lancaster in war picture Run Silent, Run Deep (1958).
Despite his commercial appeal he held to a particular ethos when choosing a role. “If I hadn’t liked this story I wouldn’t have done it no matter how much money they offered me,” he said. “I have to like the story or I won’t do it…I never select a part for the part itself. I always look at the overall story first.” Of his character, Gable observed: “He’s the same man but the world has changed. Then he was noble. Now he is ignoble.”
The press was salivating over the prospect of The King falling for The Blonde Bombshell. But regardless of her physical attractions, Gable was put off the actress by her untidiness and her lack of personal hygiene. But he was not perturbed by her behavior. “I’m just unhappy about her problems, her fears, her personal life, but if I were to chastise or criticize her it would only deepen her despair,” he said. When, largely thanks to Monroe’s hospitalization, shooting continued past the original completion date he was compensated to the tune of an extra $48,000.
With the male actors, Gable had a tendency to get off on the wrong foot. Initially annoyed with Montgomery Clift for fluffing lines, they became good friends after trading insults. But it took John Huston to end an unexpected rift between Gable and Eli Wallach.
Prior to their first day working together, Eli Wallach was surprised to answer a knock on his hotel room door to find Gable’s assistant Bama Davis who asked him to read to the visitor the scene they would perform the next day. Somewhat puzzled by this behavior and worried this approach was indicative of the actor, Wallach did not speak to Gable when they first met. It fell to Huston to break the ice by handing both actors a shot of Jack Daniels.
Gable was more sensitive to his own performance than you might imagine. He asked Huston to reshoot the scene where he wakens up Monroe because he “didn’t think he showed the love that was necessary.” He refused a stunt double for the scene where Gable, Wallach and Clift try to throw the mustang. In the film the mare dragged Gable and Wallach around the lake floor. In reality, in long shot it was stunt double Tom Palen being dragged by an actual horse. For close-ups of Gable while there were no horses in sight, the star was still dragged at 35mph for 400ft behind a truck. It took 28 cuts of Gable for the stallion fight to be matched with second unit footage.
Gable was angry at the way the second unit treated Tom Palen. After the stuntman had already endured two injuries Gable drew the line on hearing that he was called upon to be smashed on the face by hooves.
Gable was immensely proud of his work. “I have two things to be proud of in my career – Gone with the Wind and this one.” He later amended that to, “This is the best thing I did in my life.”
John Huston and Reno, where the film crew were housed, were a match made in heaven. The director was an inveterate gambler. He lost $25,000 one night but won it back the next and some. Overall, he left with less than when he arrived.
But he had an artist’s instinct when it came to film. He was not one for giving much direction. Huston expected “actors to be themselves, he didn’t interfere very much with their interpretation.” He prided himself on telling an actor as little as possible. “When I have to step in, I feel defeated.”
But he knew what he wanted and how, technically, to get the best out of an actor. At first Wallach played his drunk scene with rage until Huston pointed out that drunks always try to pretend they’re sober. And Huston knew what he didn’t want. Which was unwanted advice from an actor. For one scene with Monroe, Wallach expected a close up and committed the cardinal error of pointing this out to the director. “Never,” growled Huston, “never tell a director where to set up the camera.”
For Montgomery Clift’s first scene where he is seen talking to his mother in a callbox, Huston wrapped it after the first take, ignoring Clift’s pleas for another shot. ‘You’ll never do it better,’ said Huston, ensuring he did not fall prey to Clift’s lack of self-confidence either.
Monroe seemed to instinctively understand – and approve of – Huston’s technique. “He watches for the reality of a situation and he leaves it alone and he waits until he needs more or less before he comes in.”
Monroe wasn’t the only one whose illness shut down the set. Shooting on October 3 was cancelled because Huston came down with a recurrence of bronchitis due to the alkali dust on the dry lake. He was missing again the following day.
But if the actors in general appreciated Huston’s technique, Arthur Miller did not. It was unusual for a screenwriter to be present during the entirety of a shoot. For all that he brought certain extra intensity to scenes he re-wrote and his improvisation resulted in at least one great scene – Monroe’s paddle-boarding was not originally in the script but incorporated after watching her play with the toy between takes – Miller was generally a pain in the butt.
With no experience of moviemaking he clearly regarded himself as something of an authority and failed to recognise the distinction between the production of a play – where the writer was top dog – and a movie, where he was not.
Miller complained to Huston and Taylor about the lack of atmosphere, calling for more long shots “to constantly remind us how isolated these people are.” He had the temerity to criticize Gable’s performance. For one scene he observed that the actor had not “shown sufficient expression in his eyes.” Gable patiently explained that actions had to be minimized because they would be magnified a hundred times on the screen. “He turned out to be right,” conceded Miller, “he had simply intensified an affectionate look that was undetectable a few feet away.”
“I learnt from John,” said Miller, “ that he would pack the lens with material and let the camera choose…he put a lot of elements in front of the camera and let it find its way. So there’s not a lot of cutting from one face to the other ion conversation.” (In fact, this was old-school filmmaking where characters were grouped together rather than filmed apart). But he complained vociferously about the director’s positioning of Monroe fifty yards from the camera for her “Murderers! Murderers!” scene.
Miller thought such distance would ensure she wouldn’t be heard. But when Miller saw the rushes he realised the director was right. Huston wanted to portray Monroe at this point “as if she were a voice lost in the wilderness.”
Miller also wanted one scene which fades to darkness. Huston had to explain the practicalities. “You can only have one light in any given scene. In plays you can dim the light through a scene but not in a motion picture. You’re asking for values that aren’t there.”
His presence certainly wasn’t doing his wife any good. It might have been better if he had been absent, since the marriage appeared to disintegrate under their noses. He was being prophetic when he said of her first scene: “I couldn’t help feeling her disappointment not only in her character’s marriage but in her own…I had sensed something withdrawn in her, not merely in the character she was playing.”
He was prone to rewriting, in part with what he believed were better ideas, but also to emphasize developments he perceived in the characters as their screen personalities unfolded. By October 6 Gable had enough of the constant script changes and refused to film anything that had been written after September 20. Luckily, he relented and agreed to shoot the much-revised final scene. But even Miller received his come-uppance on a personal level. One day on location miles into the desert, Huston came upon a stranded Miller, abandoned by Monroe and her entourage.
Four-time Oscar nominee Montgomery Clift had an extraordinary success rate in pictures. Up till now he had appeared in only thirteen pictures but at least half were gems – Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), I Confess (1953), From Here to Eternity (1953), Raintree County (1957), The Young Lions (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). But a bad car accident in 1956 exacerbated his drug and sexuality issues and he was considered an unexploded grenade. “He’s the only person I know who’s in worse shape than me,” said Monroe.
In fact, perhaps encumbered with helping nurse Monroe, he was able to put his own problems to one side. Apart from the early tiff with Gable, his most difficult point was when he received rope burns during his part in the mustang chase. He had forgotten to put on gloves at the start of the scene and he couldn’t suddenly appear with them on when he had to haul on the rope.
The longest scene lasting all of five minutes. The longest Huston had ever shot and one of the longest ever committed to camera was shot “day for night,” the effect achieved by a red lens opening and using red and green filters. The shooting area was covered by a black tarpaulin to kill the direct rays of the sun. Big 10k lights were hauled in to give the effect of moonlight on Monroe and Clift. Second unit director Tom Shaw was on standby with insect spray to keep insects off the actors.
But the long stretches of dialog defeated the actors and finally to save film on wasted takes Huston sent them off to rehearse by themselves. After several takes they completed the scene without missing a line. But there had been a problem with Clift’s bandage so the scene required reshooting. First Clift fluffed a line, then Monroe, then Huston interrupted, objecting to the camera position, “that’s a most unflattering angle.” After Clift fluffed a line once again, it was done.
For another scene at the lake also shot “day for night,” the cowboys did not actually build a camp fire, that was artificial, lit underground using gas, while trees and bushes were planted for the occasion.
If you ever wondered how movie crews get the bashes in bashed cars, the answer is they put them there. Monroe’s new Cadillac was battered by sledgehammers to represent a vehicle dented by admirers wanting to attract Monroe’s character’s attention by bumping into her.
It wasn’t just Monroe who caused problems. Two forest fires on August 20 saw Reno covered in black smoke with 200 firemen attending the blazes. Within a day the fire had consumed 35,000 acres and caused $200 million in damages and cut the power lines to Reno. However, the crew reacted by bringing a lighting truck and generator from Dayton.
On October 24, the crew was shipped back to Hollywood for scenes and footage requiring back projection. Landscape scenes of Pyramid Lake, for example, were screened behind the aeroplane and for scenes taking place in cars. Huston had commissioned 360-degree stereopticon shots of the lake so that single head shots could be used with rear projection.
Among the reshoots was the dance sequence at the Stix house “to show more joy and abandon” and the scene on the truck bed between Gable and Monroe in which Miller had complained “there was a lack of interaction between the two players.”
The scene where Gable was trampled by the horse was reshot with artificial hooves. Buckets of actual alkali from the lake were spread on a wooden platform, the artificial legs in the end manipulated by Huston. The last scene shot was a retake of Gable and Monroe in the station wagon. “For the first and last time on the picture,” observed journalist James Goode, “Huston didn’t ask for another take.”
Final scene was shot on November 4 – 40 days behind schedule and $500,00 over budget. One week later, Miller and Monroe announced their separation. Twelve days after shooting ended Clark Gable was dead.
Although the general impression given was that Taylor was a competent producer, in fact he saw his role in a different light. “I have this absurd Machiavellian function…the screenplay here has been a vindictive instrument which Arthur and John are using to attack each other.” He noted: “All the energy is going downhill when it should be going up,” adding, “the writer is blaming the director and the director is blaming the writer.”
Taylor was enthusiastic about the completed film. He told his Max Youngstein of United Artists, “It’s like an express train. It has a pace, a speed you don’t see in the screenplay itself. The script will get an Academy Award and Clark…this is a major-size hero we have on our hands.” But Youngstein was disappointed, concerned it lacked the Huston touch.
In post-production the Production Code situation was exacerbated by the fact that the completed film could, conceivably, contain a scene where Marilyn Monroe showed her right breast. This appeared to have come about by accident.
Nudity was certainly not in the script as no mainstream studio at that time would greenlight a film showing naked breasts. For the bedroom scene on September 21, as Monroe rises from the bed to put on her bathrobe, nine takes in all were filmed. In Take 7 she revealed her right breast. That was the one originally printed.
There were arguments that the nude scene should be included at least for the overseas market where censorship was seen to be less onerous. But Frank Taylor argued that Take 7 should be included for the domestic market. Since the movie was on course anyway to be denied the Seal of Approval from the Production Code there seemed little to lose by including the nudity.
Although Arthur Miller was undecided, Marilyn Monroe was happy enough. “Gradually, they’ll let down censorship” and she suggested that nudity was one way of pulling viewers away from television. Max Youngstein of United Artists was enthusiastic. It was Huston who nixed it, commenting, dryly, “I have always known girls have breasts.” And finally Taylor gave ground after realising that the film would be forever remembered as the one where Monroe revealed a breast rather than for its artistic merit.
The distribution approach was risky. Usually, at that time, big films went out slowly, launched in one or two cinemas in the major cities, and held over there for weeks at a time until ready to slip down the food chain. Instead, UA planned to make available 1,000 prints simultaneously, a distribution technique known then as “saturation” – what today we would term “wide release.” But that was traditionally reserved for low-budget offerings of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety where the movie had vanished before bad word of mouth could spread. UA had precedent for taking this route. It had used saturation for The Magnificent Seven (1960). But that had been a flop. In the end The Misfits did decent enough business, though not at the level you would have expected from the cast.
In writing this article I delved deeply into the James Goode book, which I can highly recommend, on the making of the film, especially as he goes in for the kind of detail normally excluded from “making-of” books.
For example, he provides a complete breakdown of costs. Apart from the $1.6 million already mentioned, other costs include $200,000 for production, $85,000 for sets, $45,000 for lighting, $39,000 for sound, $150,000 for transportation, $32,000 for negative film (200,000 feet at 0.454 cents a foot), and $25,000 for positive prints. There was $750 per week to rent the generator, $225 per week for the small camera dolly, $400 per week for the motorized camera crane, $200 per week for folding chairs and $200 per month for Monroe’s trailer.
Hiring Boots the stunt horse cost $150 a week against a 10-week guarantee. There was a $10,000 bill to build the rodeo ground, $500 to rent the saloon, $15,000 went on renting the Stix house and $1,000 for use of the lake. The production paid for 17,570 lunches at $2.75 a head. There was $6,000 for hotel accommodation and $2,000 for the Dodge truck used in the lake scenes.
As many as 1,500 extras were called up and paid immediately. Stunt doubles, whether on contract or salary, were paid a base sum plus a bonus according to how much work they did on a given day. Sometimes the media was given a daily meal allowance, but other times not, the same being true for accommodation.
The final cost of the picture was $3.995 million. I found that a fascinating figure. Sure, it was nearly $500,000 over budget. But the film shot for 90 days instead of 50. In other words, shooting the extra 40 days cost proportionately little. Yes, Clark Gable accounted for another $48,000 in overtime but did this really mean that contracts were so tight that it effectively ensured that everyone, once signed up, could not leave until the movie was finished and not receive compensation on a pro-rate basis?
SOURCES: James Goode, The Story of The Misfits (Bobbs Merrill, 1963); Arthur Miller, Timebends, A Life (Grove Press, 1987); Eli Wallach, The Good, the Bad and Me (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005); David Bret, Clark Gable, Tormented Star (JR Books, 2010); Arthur Miller, Serge Toubiana, The Misfits (Phaidon, 1963); John Huston, An Open Book (Macmillan, 1981); Arthur Miller, “Monroe Miller Magnificent Misfits,” Washington Post, December 13, 1987.