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).
You can catch this on YouTube.