Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Almost a chamber piece rather than grand guignol. Highly atmospheric and psychologically-charged rather than plot-driven and nary a bosom in sight. Even taking account that he’s dead, Dracula (Christopher Lee) with his mesmeric bloodshot eyes takes a good while to put in an appearance and this time round regular nemesis Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is nowhere to be seen although there is a version of fly-eating acolyte Renfield.

For much of the time it’s an intimate six-hander, Dracula almost a mute deus ex machina, given little to do until it’s time for murder, so we’re spared any self-pitying exposition, but like a modern MCU/DC villain appears to have supernatural powers, enough at least while dead to draw people against their will to his castle.

British double bill – as a marketing ploy they handed out plastic fangs to men
and plastic eyeballs to women.

Victims this time are four travellers, Charles (Francis Mathews) and wife Helen (Barbara Shelley) and his younger brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) and partner Diana (Suzan Farmer), who ignore the warnings of local priest Sandor (Andrew Keir) not to visit Karlsbad, a place now so feared it has been removed from any map. With little in the way of sense, the foursome board a driverless carriage and find themselves inside a castle with a table set for dinner and their rooms made up by malevolent servant Klove (Philip Latham).

Alan is the first to die, his blood reviving the Count. Helen is next, but isn’t killed, instead becoming his blood-sucking accomplice and handy as a lure for her unsuspecting sister-in-law. Eventually, Charles and Diana escape to the abbey where the rifle-toting stake-wielding Sandor offers protection, although not enough to deter the internal traitor Ludwig (Thorley Walters), the aforementioned insect-eater. So it’s back to the castle for an unexpected climax.

Hammer upped the budget to include color. The shades of rich red add an opulence to the proceedings, and do not detract from the atmosphere, especially effective when it comes to the blood-letting. In general, the biting is masked, Dracula using his cloak so as not to offend audience sensitivities, but particularly effective in one sequence where he draws a sharp nail down his bare chest to offer a stream of blood for Helen to lick, her enslavement more like a seduction.

Females remain largely innocent here unlike the gender-twisting vampire quartet a few years later of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Countess Dracula (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971) which not only doubled down on the blood quotient but ramped up the nudity. Helen cannot resist the compelling force of Dracula’s eyes rather then willingly embracing evil.

But this remains a prime example of Hammer at its peak, the wordless Christopher Lee (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966) never more terrifying, with pounding hooves and an unusually busy action-driven score by Don Banks to heighten the dramatic effect. This was the third in the series directed by Terence Fisher (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) and together with Lee they pare down the effects and build up the suspense.

Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the supporting cast, transforming from timid soul to conniving blood-thirsty bride, at times challenging her master for first dibs at the victims. Francis Mathews (Crossplot, 1969) essays the dapper suave screen character that would be put to better use in the Paul Temple television series (1969-1971). Charles Tingwell (The Secret of Blood Island, 1965) and Suzan Farmer (Rasputin: The Mad Monk, 1966) make up the numbers. But Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) is a worthy adversary.

I was lucky enough to catch this on the big screen at the Widescreen Weekend in Bradford a couple of weeks back, slotted into the festival I guess due to timing, and was taken aback by its power, the color palette and the thundering score. But also seeing Lee at his magnificent best, towering over his victims, the close-up of the eyes, the supervillain to top all supervillains.

Madigan (1968) ****

Reignited the careers of director Don Siegel (no Hollywood traction since Hell Is For Heroes in 1962), Richard Widmark (reduced to supporting roles) and Henry Fonda (no longer first name on the team sheet for the biggest pictures) and reinvented the cop thriller as a gritty urban affair. The plot – chasing down a suspect – is a MacGuffin to explore tough police methods, corruption, and the harm the job does to the domestic lives of the police.

Detective Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark) and partner Rocco Bonero (Harry Guardino) come woefully and embarrassingly unstuck when hood Benesch (Steve Ihnat) evades capture and steals their guns. They have 72 hours to bring him back or be suspended. So, basically, they spend most of the time following a bunch of leads, intimidating anyone who gets in their way, including a helpless secretary. And while Bonero is happily domesticated, Madigan’s lonely wife Julia (Inger Stevens) is fed up with late nights and broken promises to the extent of considering a one-night stand when hubby stands her up once too often.  

Commissioner Russell (Henry Fonda) has his hands full dealing with the errant detectives  without the ramifications of corruption involving his best friend, long-time cop Chief Inspector Kane (James Whitmore). The widowed Russell would be a poster-boy for the principled cop except he’s having an affair with married woman Tricia (Susan Clark).

While Madigan is kicking and snarling his way through the underworld, Russell is trying to work out how to save his friendship and his affair. And while they might appear opposites, the classy top officer and the street cop, the uptight Russell envies Madigan’s way with people. Madigan is comped drinks and even a suite at the Sherry-Netherland hotel not merely because he’s a cop but because his charm goes a long way.

And while Russell dithers over helping out a friend, Madigan has no qualms about being taking for a ride by an old pal down on his luck and in need of an excuse to be bought a drink. When it comes down to it, Madigan is the better advert for humanity.

The soap opera elements don’t intrude too much on the thriller. Madigan and Bonero go in with fists blazing and work their way through a menagerie of skunks including Castiglione (Michael Dunn) and stool pigeon Hughie (Don Stroud). Benesch is a piece of work, not just clever enough to use his lover’s nudity to distract the attention of cops, but sufficiently hard-boiled to shoot a cop dead in the street and have little hesitation in opening fire on anyone who comes too close.

There’s some fascinating internal cop politics as Kane locks horns with Chief of Detectives Lynch (Bert Freed) over the latter’s insistence on suspending Madigan. And Russell has to finagle his way through the problems a well-heeled son is causing a rich doctor (Raymond Jacques).

Every time the pace slackens, the movie falls back on the old Chandler routine, have someone come through the door with a gun (a fist would suffice). Madigan is a driven cop, struggling to hold onto his marriage, Julia too often the sacrificial lamb. And for all his outward bravado, there’s a superb scene when unexpectedly encountering Russell he turns into a stammering ball of nerves, like a schoolkid anticipating a roasting from a headmaster.

Richard Widmark (The Bedford Incident, 1964) has a hell of a part, tough guy, check, but with a side helping of kindness, and pretty assured on the loving front, investing what could have been a fairly cliched character with a good deal of complexity. Henry Fonda (Firecreek, 1968) does a lot of pacing as his self-esteem implodes; how can he be a good guy if he’s running around with another man’s wife and how can he stick to his principles if he’s going to let a pal away with corruption?

Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968) is impressive as the disappointed wife trying to keep disappointment at bay. Harry Guardino (Hell Is For Heroes) always makes a good sidekick, but James Whitmore (The Split, 1968) digs into a sack of guilt as he attempts to avoid the oncoming storm. Don Stroud was almost auditioning for Don Siegel – he would turn up again in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Joe Kidd (1973); Susan Clark, too, Eastwood’s squeeze in Coogan’s Bluff. In smaller parts are Sheree North (Lawman, 1971) and Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968).

But the show belongs to Don Seigel. There can be few directors so out-of-favor that they are able on their return to kick start a new cop cycle that culminated in Dirty Harry (1971). While this pulls no punches on the action front, it’s the quieter behind-the-scenes domesticity that almost as much catches the eye, the way he gives the characters time to breathe, opens them up to reveal more intricate inner workings.

It also spelled rebirth for blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) in his first credit under his own name for 17 years. He didn’t do it all himself, though, Howard Rodman (Coogan’s Bluff) sharing the chores, the pair working from the novel The Commissioner by Richard Dougherty.

Doctor in Distress (1963) ***

Bait-and-switch as the romantic complications of the grumpy Dr Spratt (James Robertson Justice) take precedence over the by-now pretty competent Dr Sparrow (Dirk Bogarde). Just about getting by on Bogarde’s charm in his fourth and final outing in a role that had made him a British box office star and possibly more notable as his final film as an out-and-out matinee idol before he shifted into the arthouse arena.

Dr Sparrow has come a hell of a long way since being a shy junior doctor, mercilessly bullied by Spratt and a love life that was filled with tangle. Here, he not only stands up to Spratt, but is something of a lothario, happily ditching new love Delia (Samantha Eggar), a model, albeit temporarily, in favor of French masseuse Sonia (Mylene Demongeot).

There is very little of the traditional rom-com-love-on-the-rocks in Bogarde’s relationship with Delia, who arrives as a patient with a sprained ankle at the hospital and is whisked home by Sparrow for a spot of practised seduction. Spratt, on the other hand, has fallen for physiotherapist Iris (Barbara Murray) and in trying to win her hand undergoes weight loss treatment at a health clinic, endures the indignity of wearing a corset, hires a private detective to get the lowdown on her, and finally, donning a disguise of dark glasses and hiding his bulky frame behind an umbrella, proceeds to attempt to discover who is his rival for her affections.

Sparrow is left to occasionally swat out of the way the interfering Spratt and alternatively offer him advice or a shoulder to cry on while trying to prevent Delia pursuing a movie career. So it’s just a series of situations, none of which are particularly funny, apart from the idea of Spratt getting his come-uppance.

It’s worth noting that for a British sex comedy, the females are in charge. Iris knocks back her various suitors, Delia refuses to let romance interfere with her career, jetting off to Rome over Sparrow’s objections, and the diminutive and muscular Sonia is more than a match for any man and just as predatory.

What’s most surprising is that a genial comedy like this can get away with so much permissiveness. This was opposite of the in-your-face snigger-snigger Carry On series so for Sparrow to be successfully spreading his wild oats seemed somewhat out of character. But you can see most of the jokes a mile off though probably in a packed cinema these would provoke more laughter than watching it at home on the small screen.

It’s probably worth it to see Leo McKern (Hot Enough for June, 1964) as a movie producer who envisages Sparrow as his new star and Frank Finlay as a corset salesman, a completely different role to his part in Robbery (1967). Fenella Fielding (Lock Up Your Daughters, 1969) has a cameo as a neurotic passenger on a train and Dennis Price (Tunes of Glory, 1960) as a sadistic health clinic manager while Donald Houston (A Study in Terror, 1965) has a larger part as another of Iris’s suitors.  

Dirk Bogarde (Justine, 1969) can essay this kind of character in his sleep but there is no doubting his screen charisma or charm. But I doubt if James Robertson Justice (Mayerling, 1968) varied his character much from picture to picture, perhaps louder and more bumptious here but unlikely to attract audience sympathy. Samantha Eggar (The Collector, 1965) doesn’t get enough to do and has her thunder stolen by the late arrival of Mylene Demongeot (Fantomas, 1964).

Director Ralph Thomas had made more than a half-a-dozen films with Bogarde including more dramatic ventures like Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) and The Wind Cannot Read (1958) and makes the most of this undemanding feature. You would have thought this was the end of the line for the series but with Leslie Phillips (Maroc 7, 1967) as Bogarde’s replacement it soldiered on for another couple of episodes.

Proof that a true star can always help a film rise above its material.

Robbery (1967) ****

The explosive gut-wrenching high octane car chase that kicked off this thriller – and provided British director Peter Yates (Bullitt, 1968) with a Hollywood calling card – is somewhat out of place in this intriguing documentary-style fictionalised account of the British heist of the century, the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Setting aside that the chase would have been better employed as the climax, it does provide the cops with enough leads to keep tabs on some of the criminals, ensuring the authorities become aware of the gigantic theft planned.

But Yates’ unusual approach takes us away from the usual crime picture. You can say goodbye to the cliched villain for a start. Mastermind Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker) dresses like a suave businessman. Wife Kate (Joanna Pettet) rails against him for betrayal, not sexual infidelity, but for pretending he had given up the life of crime. And there is any amount of nuance. We don’t discover that Clifton lives in a huge mansion with a massive drive until the very end, we don’t know who else the police are tailing until they are picked up, we are not let in on the secret of Clifton’s escape until suddenly he is taking off in a light airplane. And there is the unexpected. A suspect is identified in a line-up by a witness slapping his face, a message sent to Kate from Paul via a dog.

Cop James Booth questions gangster’s moll Joanna Pettet.

Nor, beyond the basics, are we let in on the details of the plan, more time spent on recruitment, and not the usual suspects either, Robinson (Frank Finlay) – broken out of prison for this specific job – brought unwillingly on board because, as a former bank employee, he can check the stolen notes. I should point out, which may not be obvious to a contemporary audience, that banks shifted money over the weekend via the London-Glasgow night train that carried the mail. Given the £3 million being transported, the train is staffed not by a regiment of security guards but by postal workers sorting letters.

There’s nothing desperately clever about the plan anyway beyond its audacity. Signals are changed to make the train stop at the allotted point, the robbery takes place in military fashion, timed to the minute, some sacks left behind when time is up.

What’s cleverest is the hideout, an abandoned airfield, with underground passages. The gang doesn’t intend to run while the heat is at its hottest but some time later, the cash divvied up, Clifton’s share sent as cargo overseas. Clifton knows the consequences will involve road blocks, house searches, cars impounded, arrests but “without the money they can’t prove anything.” A junkyard owner is paid – too handsomely as it transpires – to clean the vehicles used of fingerprints and other potential giveaways (not much else in the days before DNA). And no matter Clifton ruling with a rod of iron, there is always the idiot who doesn’t quite stick to the plan.   

Most of the picture is detail, not just the meticulous planning but the equally meticulous hounding by the cops, interrogating getaway driver Jack (Clinton Greyn), identity parades, telephones tapped (or a crude version of it), with only the occasional hunch to keep the police, led by the dogged Inspector Langdon (James Booth),  on the right track. A few years before cops in movies were uniformly identified as either corrupt or useless, sometimes both, this bunch are shown to be relatively efficient, though still prone to underhand means.

Dominating proceedings is the moustached figure of Stanley Baker (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) whose brusque no-nonsense manner sets the tone. He’s a cut above the normal criminal not just in ambition but ingenuity and while he rules the roost in the gang he’s less at home at home where Kate gives him a hard time. James Booth (Fraulein Doktor, 1969) is impressive as the pursuer, well-versed in gangland lore, inclined to look beyond the obvious. With only  a few scenes Joanna Pettet (The Best House in London, 1969) makes a mark.

In supporting parts you will spot Barry Foster (The Family Way, 1966), who seems to have the knack of catching the camera’s attention with a look or the turn of his head, and Frank Finlay (A Study in Terror, 1965), and a host of British character actors like George Sewell (The Vengeance of She, 1968) and Glynn Edwards (The Blood Beast Terror, 1968).

But the honors go to Peter Yates (Summer Holiday, 1963), not just for the stunning car chase which Hollywood would forever emulate, but the constant tension, the cutting back and forth between cops and robbers, and between the overtly dramatic and the subtle. He also had a hand in the screenplay along with George Markstein (The Odessa File, 1974) and in his only movie Edward Boyd (The View from Daniel Pike, 1971-1973).

Sweet Charity (1969) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Never mind Bob Fosse’s debut, this was unusual for a number of reasons: a hilarious meet-cute, a raft of one-liners and being based on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). So it could easily have been remembered mostly as a quiz question. But with Fosse at the helm it was a lot more than the sum of those particular parts and introduced a new-style director whose verve, choreography, stylistic flourishes and adult subject matter had wowed Broadway audiences.

Star Shirley MacLaine (Gambit, 1966) adds another layer to her trademark portfolio of losers in love. Hope Valentine Charity (MacLaine) is overly optimistic given her circumstances, robbed of her savings by her fiancé, nearly drowning in the process, the prospects of her switching from a career as a dance hall hostess severely limited by her lack of formal education and basic office skills.

So it’s just as well that she lands millionaire Vittorio (Ricardo Montalban) and might have enjoyed an indulgent romantic interlude had their evening not been interrupted by his wife Ursula (Barbara Bouchet), Charity condemned to spend a humiliating night hiding in the closet.

A chance meeting with the claustrophobic Oscar (John McMartin), doom-laden and intensely shy, appears to lead to unlikely redemption. Her presence cures him of a bunch of neuroses and marriage is on the cards until reality raises its ugly head, and the movie ends on a surprisingly negative note for a musical.

A dance hall hostess – taxi dancer in the parlance because she is hired by the half hour – is equivalent to the modern laptop dancer except that there is no nudity involved. On the other hand, there is none of the hands-off policy exercised in such contemporary operations, and  men buying her time believe that she should accommodate their straying hands. So it’s somewhat unexpected that her colleagues remain so good-tempered and backstage is presented as a bitching-free zone, some accepting their reality, others, like Charity, inclined to the fantasy that a Prince Charming will rescue them.

In terms of song quality it’s not in The Sound of Music (1965) league, boasting only two numbers – “Hey Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” – that you were likely leave the cinema humming. And it certainly suffers by MacLaine not having the voice of a Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand, or the dance skills of Gwen Verdon who originated the part on Broadway, but otherwise she invests the character with enough believability and exudes charm by the bucketload. She has to be applauded for taking on such a gritty role in the first place.

Of course, the movie belongs to the director, the embryonic Fosse, who brings a new look to the movie musical, from the bored dancers draped in unexpected physical shapes during “Hey Big Spender” to the finger-snapping, angled choreography and the celebration of the seedy, the opposite of the glossier Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loew vehicles. A few years later, further acceptance of permissiveness would allow him to explore such worlds in more realistic depth, check out Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979).

There’s a great turn from Sammy Davis Jr (Ocean’s Eleven, 1960) as a snake-hipped hippie preacher, his appearance somewhat out of place though offering contemporary comment, Oscar taking Charity to this literally underground service because he belongs to a Church-of-the-Month Club.

There’s a goodly number of laughs courtesy of the original Neil Simon book for the musical and the meet-cute of the couple trapped in an elevator is very funny.

John McMartin, in a rare movie leading role, is good as the hapless romantic, Ricardo Montalban (Sol Madrid, 1968) as his opposite, and there’s sterling support from Stubby Kaye (Cat Ballou, 1965), Barbara Bouchet (In Harm’s Way, 1965) and Chita Rivera in her debut.

It was probably too much to ask that this hit the ground running, what with Hollywood in financial meltdown in part as a result of budgetary excesses like this (it cost $10 million), a movie that never quite extended a grip on the roadshow audiences necessary to turn it into a hit, a star lacking an exceptional voice, and a storyline that appeared to alienate musical lovers. Most people who viewed it on initial general release saw a heavily truncated version.

It stands up much better today, mostly thanks to Fosse’s direction, but also due to the sleazy background, and it has to be said, setting aside any vocal deficiencies, this is one of Shirley MacLaine’s best performances.

Of course, I saw it at its best, on the big screen at the Widescreen Weekend in Bradford, so I might be slightly biased, but it does have genuine vigor and a refreshing originality.

My Policeman (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Understated love triangle set in the 1950s with perfectly-pitched performances and punctured by reticence, repression and regret. Not that I check reviews before I venture into a cinema but I gather this has been poorly-received, perhaps because it’s funded by Amazon, which has no great record in making movies, and partly, I guess, because it’s headed by pop star-turned-actor Harry Styles, credited with giving Don’t Worry Darling (2022) an unexpected, and for some, unfai, box office push.

But I found this to be solid stuff and despite the tragic outcome no overtly dramatic acting (unlike Emily for example), the whole enterprise pared down, soulful more than anything, and all the better for it. Mostly, it takes place in flashback.

In the 1990s, a stroke-ridden Patrick (Rupert Everett) is given accommodation in the household of married but childless Tom (Linus Roache) and Marion (Gina McKee). Tom resents the intrusion although they were all best pals back in the day. Gradually, we find out why, but the movie begins in low-key fashion, the young Tom (Harry Styles), a policeman, and Marion (Emma Corrin), a teacher, hooking up with all the innocence of that era at the beach. Tom teaches her to swim, she introduces him to art.

Turns out Tom has an arty buddy, Patrick (David Dawson), the slightly older museum curator. Soon they are a threesome, attending concerts and eating out, and while Marion appreciates Patrick’s appreciation of the finer things in life, she’s more at home with the more ordinary Tom. While he’s a bit hesitant about making advances towards her, eventually he plucks up the courage to ask her to marry him.

The movie flips between the 1990s featuring the older trio and the 1950s with young bucks in love. And part of the movie’s attraction is the innocence, it takes a while to work out what’s going on, or more correctly for the audience to be told what’s going on, which is that Tom has fallen in love with Patrick. But he is also in love with Marion and wants children and a proper family, so the suggestion that in marrying her he is seeking the perfect disguise for his sexuality is never pointedly made. Mostly, we get his confusion. Remember this is the 1950s when homosexuality in Britain was a crime that could result in a stiff jail sentence.

Gradually, Marion begins to suspect Tom has leanings and there’s a wonderful scene where she confesses this discovery to her best friend only to be told the friend is a discreet lesbian. Does this suddenly make the friend a completely different person, Marion is asked.

Of course, it’s only going to end in tragedy, and even then it’s an ongoing one, the older Tom unable to admit his preferences, married to the stoic Marion, and clearly agonising over the life he could have led had he been bolder earlier on.

I thought this was very delicately done. The scene where Tom shows his true feelings by his finger almost absent-mindedly stroking Patrick’s neck and his subsequent awkwardness at what then transpires as he comes to terms with his own suppressed emotions is subtly done.

I’m surprised Harry Styles has had such a rough ride over his performance. Perhaps I was out of the loop in the brouhaha of expectation. I thought he captured very well the character’s uncertainty regarding his sexuality, the knowledge that career (bachelors found it hard to get promotion in the police) and marriage could be jeopardized by an illicit action too many. This could not be a more different performance than the alpha male of Don’t Worry Darling. From his initial behavior I half-expected a rom-com where shyness is gradually overcome, but the implicit danger ensures we steer clear of such territory.

Emma Corrin (Netflix’s The Crown) comes across very well as the equally shy young woman of her time, anxious to appear not too forward, unaware of what to expect from the sexual side of marriage, remaining innocent until her wrath takes hold, and clearly willing to make do for the sake, in that very English manner, of appearances. David Dawson, in his first starring movie role, is excellent, rarely letting anguish get the better of him but far from the camp cliché.

Rupert Everett (The Happy Prince, 2018)  is the surprise turn, the virtually mute stroke victim, enduring the torture of living in the same house as his former lover who consistently ignores him. Gina McKee (Lies We Tell, 2017) and Linus Roache (A Call To Spy, 2019) are good as the mismatched couple, though I’m not sure I believed in her final action, a shade too romantic a gesture for a wife who one way or another has kept her husband in thrall for 40 years.

Michael Grandage (Genius, 2016) should be applauded for his sensitivity, for coaxing superb performances from his younger actors, and for falling into the trap of overloading the picture either with a sense of doom or of overplaying the dangers of the lifestyle. Ron Nyswaner (Philadephia, 1993) adapted the book by Bethan Roberts.

Well worth seeing and at last Prime might have something decent to watch.

Fear No More (1961) ****

Had Alain Resnais taken the paranoia/gaslighting B-movie route for the esoteric Last Year in Marienbad he might well have ended up with a twisty concoction like this. Whereas Marienbad struggles to get anywhere near a third act, Bernard Wiesen’s unheralded under-rated debut thriller has a stonker of one. It’s the last 15 minutes when the unravelling from an unexpected source takes place that makes this well worth watching. So, I’m sorry to say, spoiler alert, as I take you through why this is so good.

It’s a twist to top all the previous twists, of which there have been many. Movies like this generally rely on story much more than character, but here we see the two main characters substantially alter, almost, psychologiclly-speaking, changing places.

Secretary Sharon (Mala Powers) on an overnight business trip by train discovers a male killer and a female corpse in her cabin. Knocked out, she regains consciousness to find herself accused of murder by cop Joe Brady (Robert Karnes). Managing to escape, she is almost run down by handsome divorced Frenchman Paul (Jacques Bergerac), delivering his son back to wife Denise (Anna Lee Carroll), who gives her a lift to Los Angeles.

Paul, an erstwhile alcoholic it later transpires, pursues her with romantic notions in mind, but she gives him the brush-off. Back in her apartment she finds sozzled ex-lover Keith (John Baer). Paul, not the kind to be so easily brushed off, persuades her to go for a coffee but when she returns to her apartment Keith is dead. Chased by the killer, she is rescued by Paul.

Gradually, she reveals that she once had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental institution. But when she goes to see her employer Milo (John Seymour) to explain she has lost the package with which she was entrusted, quite a different scenario awaits.

Brady is there and denies all knowledge of ever having met her. Milo denies sending her on a trip. Worse, Keith is not dead and the package she was carrying contains $3,000 stolen from Milo’s safe, to which she has access.

No wonder the most likely reason for all this confusion is that she is losing grip of her mental faculties. But, if nothing else, Sharon is quick-witted and concludes that too many pieces of this jigsaw are missing and in the absence of Milo’s wife and chauffeur Steve (Peter Brocco) that he has murdered his wealthy partner and is setting up her up to take the rap. That idea only lasts as long as it takes for wife (Helena Nash) and chauffeur to turn up.

Worse, Sharon was committed for killing the woman in her care. She pleaded self-defence and got away with it but her mind crumbled with guilt.

So just when we’re going along with the notion that this is one crazy woman and that “recollections may vary” not as much as she would like and that she is not inhabiting a parallel universe, the Frenchman does a bit of investigating on his own and finds Keith’s corpse.

In more prosperous times in her career, Powers was the female lead here.

Now here’s when it turns very tricky indeed. Although by this point Sharon should be dead in the water, mentally at least, she sparks into life, continues along the line of Milo killing his wife (the body on the train), and begins to point to all the flaws in his plan, beginning with his bungling associates. Milo, who had initially appeared in complete control, now begins to lose his temper and snap at his employees.

Milo and his associates take her to a cabin in the woods. The stronger she grows, the weaker Milo becomes, as she continues her barrage of accusation, picking more holes in his grand plan, until he realises that the police are not going to do his job for him, in condemning Sharon for his wife’s murder. The supposed wife turns out to be Milo’s sister and she, too, begins to crumble with the fear of being found out and her beloved brother going down.

So it’s heading for a complete turn-around, the supposed maniac having been gaslighted, the supposed upright employer turning shadier by the minute and unable to deal with the consequences of an action that has gone so badly wrong. Milo ends up the gibbering idiot with Sharon regaining the faculties she thought she had lost.

The Frenchman comes to the physical rescue and even though at one point the doting sister has the drop on him, she falls to pieces at the thought of what she would have to do to safeguard her deluded brother.

Quite a third act.

But there are a couple of other interesting sequences. When Paul rams on the brakes to prevent his car running over Sharon, that sends his son sitting in the front seat, in the days before seat belts, straight into the dashboard, a rather overly realistic event as regards kids in those days. Picking up Sharon and pacifying his son means Paul is late bringing the boy home to his mother and she lets rip, refusing him any future access. But, unexpectedly, later she turns up in his apartment, asking forgiveness, realising her son was so excited spending time with his father that it would not be right to deny him that.

And with all great B-films this is short and snappy, barely 80-minutes long, and hardly one of those minutes going by without a twist. Sharon is a very interesting character from a psychiatric perspective. Although cleared of killing the woman in her charge, she clearly feels enormous guilt that she allowed it to happen, and once you start falling into a mental trap of your own making it’s pretty hard to get out.

You can always pick holes in movies like this, but the two main characters, Sharon and Milo, seem to me very believable, lost in their own fantasies, especially Milo, who saw his perfect plan falling to pieces.

Unfairly, this was pretty much a dead end for all concerned. Mala Powers (Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, 1969), the object of Cyrano de Bergerac’s affection in Cyrano (1950) and star of Rose of Cimarron (1952), had lost her way in Hollywood and not been in a movie for three years since The Colossus of New York (1958). Despite giving an excellent performance, Fear No More didn’t prove the answer to her Hollywood prayers and she only had three further movie roles in the 1960s.

Jacques Bergerac – better known for marriage to Ginger Rogers – made his final picture in 1966 but didn’t rise much above the likes of Taffy and the Jungle Hunter (1965). Prior to this director Bernard Wiesen was a producer-director on television and after it that’s what he went back to.

Catch it on YouTube.

Behind the Scenes: “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961)

The late British Queen Elizabeth II put it succinctly, “Recollections may vary.” Or as director Alain Resnais, in reference to his masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad, explained, “It is quite possible that all the characters are speaking the truth…what is presented as the present or the past is simply a reality that exists while the character is speaking.”

However, Resnais was keen to dismiss other theories. “As far as I am concerned Marienbad contains no symbols or allegories.” He suggested that anyone looking for such meanings “will arrive at a correct interpretation 60% or 80% of the time but your interpretations will never hold good for the film as a whole.” Nonetheless, even Resnais was susceptible to such possibilities, for example, there is a Breton legend of Death coming to fetch his victim but allowing him a year’s respite.   

It was unusual for a director to admit he has no clue what his film was actually about. Resnais confesses that “the game (Nim) is the only point about which I am unable to tell you anything…Robbe-Grillet (the screenwriter) invented a variation without knowing it (the game) existed. My personal impression is that Albertazzi (the would-be lover) loses it consciously and deliberately.”

Offering an alternative view to the film’s meaning, Resnais added, “The whole thing is possibly a part of the woman’s stream of consciousness, as, on the point of deciding what to do, she recalls all the various factors in a few seconds.”

The last pages of the script had barely been written before shooting began. And while that was scarcely unusual, nor for pages to be rewritten during filming, what was singular in this approach was that when the editing could offer dozens of ways of putting it back together, “we always fell back on our original ideas.”

“We wanted the film to work quite differently from a conventional entertainment: by a sort of contemplation, of meditation, a series of advances and retreats from the subject. We wanted to feel ourselves in the presence of a sculpture which one studies first from one angle, then from another, from near or farther away.”

In one sense the movie, as Resnais accepted, can be seen as the man playing the role of a psychiatrist forcing his patient to accept events she has deliberately suppressed. Resnais also introduced other psychoanalytic themes: “the ostentatiously large rooms indicating a tendency to narcissism.”

Resnais added, “It is also attractive to conceive of her (Delphine Seyrig) as an invalid. First of all, the hotel has a special air. And I have always been intrigued by (potential husband) Sacha Pitoeff’s words to the woman as she lies on the bed, ‘You must rest, remember that is why we came here.’ Perhaps the hotel is really a clinic.”

Resnais’s directorial method included making sketches to elucidate his thoughts. “It helps in my relationships with the actors and the cameramen. They save the actor from getting panicky eight or ten days before the shoot. If he has read the shooting script and has a clear idea of it and then while shooting I place him in a position or composition which hasn’t been foreseen he is apt to worry.

“And as I like everyone to be relaxed as possible on the set, I prefer arguments to be over before shooting. I’m all in favor of rehearsing the entire film before shooting begins.

“For Marienbad we drew up a complete chronology on squared paper. And before beginning any scene with the actors, we said, ‘in the editing this scene follows such and such a scene, but in actual chronology it follows another scene which will appear later in the film.’ I frequently recorded a fragment of the preceding scene so as to work from the continuity rather than from the cue.”

He hesitated to adapt his ideas to suit the cinematographer. “I would be reluctant to transform a setting, even in small details, to suit the camera. It is up to the camera to present the décor in the right way, it’s not for the setting to conform to the camera. The same holds good for the actor. I have an immense respect for an actor’s work. (But) how rarely we alter the shooting to suit an actor’s feelings, whereas we are constantly changing it on account of the weather.”

SOURCE: Alain Resnais, “Trying To Understand My Own Film,” Films and Filming, February 1962. P9-10, 41; translated from Cahiers du Cinema by Raymond Durgnat.

Last Year in Marienbad / L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad (1961) *****

Six decades later this miraculously emerges as a compendium of contemporary themes. Starting off with “my truth,” and segueing through unreliable narrator, false memory, parallel universe, stream of consciousness, dream vs. reality, repetitive voice-over, and still the most tantalising – or infuriating – movie ever made. A cinematic jigsaw with every piece of the puzzle highly stylized.

People have shadows but not the trees, the interpretation of a statue is disputed, characters in backgrounds are as frozen as mannequins, there’s a game you cannot win, no one has a name, and every now and then a row of men as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley wivel in turn and shoot at targets. Set in a huge baroque chateau with fabulous meticulous grounds, this fantasy building proves the ideal locale for an endless discussion of reality. And whatever happened last year in Marienbad could have occurred instead  in a number of other locations.

The trees have no shadows. These days CGI would rid trees of shadows but in those days it was the other way round and the shadows of the characters
were painted on the ground.

Two men, a prospective lover (Giorgio Abertazzi) and potentially a husband (Sacha Pitoeff), buzz around a woman (Delphine Seyrig). The would-be lover conjures up a tremendous amount of detail about when he met the woman, only for her to deny all knowledge of the incident, to the extent of failing to recall the reason they are meeting again, one year on. According to him, she had refused to enter into an affair the previous year but vowed to consider his ardent proclamations of love a year later. He has come to claim his reward.

That plot, slim as it is, is all you’re going to get. The movie goes all around the houses trying to establish not only was such an agreement actually struck but also whether she has ever met him at all and where exactly this supposed event might have taken place.

And were it not for the hypnotic tone, the mastery of camerawork, the cleverness of the situation, and the long tracking shots – for me an enormous plus – you might have given up the moment the man repeats, with mild differences, sentences he has already uttered. It’s the equivalent of the crime novel’s closed room mystery, except there is no solution.

So you either dismiss it as a typical French New Wave farrago, fall out with your friends over its meaning, or just sit back and enjoy it, as I did.

For a start, it’s one of the best films ever made in black-and-white, the contrast between the two so striking, the white glowing, the black occasionally ethereal, the lack of dialog almost insisting this is in reality a silent film. There are all sorts of pieces of experimental cinema, flash cuts in conflict with the languorous stately progress of the tracking camera, the aforementioned shadows and mannequins, greater emphasis given to the ceilings and corridors than to the people.

Time and place are distorted, different versions of events presented, the initial story given substance by the husband attempting to put the lover in his place by continuously beating him at an obscure game of cards (the Japanese Nim). And much to my astonishment, just as I was well settled in to letting the director take me where he wanted and expecting no conclusion, there is a climax of sorts that may point the audience in the direction of the correct reality.

By that point, did we even care, the whole essence of the movie being the inability to detect truth, the slipperiness of meaning, the elusiveness of intent and the certainty that what was clear one year is not the next. Cinema is built on conflict, and the most obvious one is difference of opinion. What one person regards as fact, the other dismisses as supposition. This could have been played out in dialog, endless discussion about meaning and veracity, we see it all the time in crime pictures and romance, what exists in one mind not having the same resonance in another, but instead we are treated to one long glorious cinematic essay.  

Director Alain Resnais had already set cinema alight with Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and there can have been few artists who hit the arthouse ground running in such style. That the script had been written by eternal bad-boy and future director Alain Robbe-Grillet (Trans-Europ Express, 1966) ensured that it was always going to be controversial. Unusually, Resnais, apparently, stuck very close to the script, so in that sense it was a collaboration rather than the usual loose interpretation of a screenplay.

The stars all took different subsequent routes. Delphine Seyrig, in her debut, would go on to become an arthouse darling in Accident (1966), Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968) and Jacques Demy’s La Peau Deuce/Donkey Skin (1970). Italian Giorgio Albertazzi did not become an arthouse darling, more likely to turn up in bit parts in a historical drama like Caroline Cherie (1968) or in a supporting role in giallo Five Women for the Killer (1974). You might remember Sacha Pitoeff from The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968) and he, too, headed down the support/bit part route.

You might end up resistant to what you see, but everyone with an interest in cinema should see Last Year at Marienbad at least once.

Widescreen Weekend 2022

We are so conditioned to watching old movies on tiny screens it comes as something of a primal shock to see them in all their original glory. Most festivals lean towards the arthouse end of the cinema business so it’s all the more delightful to find an event that without apology concentrates on the mainstream. Widescreen Weekend takes place at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England, and mostly in its Pictureville Cinema, the only venue in the country equipped to show Cinerama pictures in the original three-strip version which requires three projectors.

Wagons race to escape attack in “How the West Was Won.”

And while most other film festivals attract general movie lovers, this one appears to appeal in large part to those who have had something to do with the movie-making business or its technical side. Speakers might include, for example, Cinerama restoration specialist Dave Strohmaier or Kevin Brownlow, editor turned director, and among the audience you might find people like Keith Stevens from Australia, a former operations executive with Village Roadshow there, but who started out as a projectionist and regaled me with tales of projecting The Sound of Music (1965) in its original roadshow run.

There’s a limited number of movies that were made, mostly in the 1960s, either in Cinerama or 70mm, so the event has expanded to take in the earlier Cinemascope and the other versions of widescreen technology on which Hollywood depended as the marketing hook to bring back audiences from the all-encompassing maw of television in the 1950s. Later films whose directors understood the cinematic impact of 70mm are also added to the mix.

You are transported back to a time when screens were just enormous – this one is 51ft wide – and were curtained, and those curtains would not open (to the sides) until in typical roadshow fashion, a lengthy musical Overture, highlighting aspects of the movie’s music, had run its course. There is something quite sumptuous about sitting in a movie theatre staring at huge red curtains and waiting for the house lights to dim and the music to begin.

Christopher Frayling and Kevin Brownlow getting ready to introduce “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Roughly half-way through the movie itself, the curtains would close for an intermission, and before the picture restarted there would be more music, what was termed the Entr’Acte. Some DVDS of roadshows contain both Overture and Entr’Acte but there is a lightyear of difference between hearing them in your lounge and being exposed to them in a picture house built to bring out their best sound.

This is a homage not just to old movies but the old way of seeing a movie.

In previous years the programs have included Ice Station Zebra (1968), West Side Story (1961), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the David Lean trilogy of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970),a pair from William Wyler that could not have been more diverse – Ben-Hur (1959) and Funny Girl (1968) – This Is Cinerama (1952), Carol Reed’s  The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), John Frankenheimer’s split-screen Formula One epic Grand Prix (1966) and of course the mother of all roadshows The Sound of Music (1965). Throw in a healthy helping of 1950s Cinemascope features and more contemporary pictures which embraced 70mm and you have the makings of an always satisfying weekend.

A thoughtful John Wayne next to Claudia Cardinale in “Circus World.”

So one of the highlights is to see old favorites. This year we were treated to the three-strip version of How the West Was Won (1962), your feet tapping immediately at the sound of the driving Alfred Newman score, and a restored The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), the first two movies made in the Cinerama process that had dramatic purpose and were not mere travelogs.

But there was also an opportunity to watch old movies that have never been screened in their original version since their initial release, such as Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1964) shown in Super Technirama 70. Also on the program was Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968), Bob Fosse debut Sweet Charity (1969), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), Natalie Wood’s last picture and one that experiments with screen size. Extending the program into non-70mm widescreen there was a screening of Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) and A Star Is Born (1954). Every screening was introduced by an expert and there were occasional surprise guests like Kevin Brownlow, the editor of The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The event takes place in October every year and I’m already looking forward to the next. Kathryn Penny, who has organized the event these past few years, is moving onto a post in academia, and she will be sorely missed.  

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