The Caper of the Golden Bulls / Carnival of Thieves (1967) ***

Just to be clear. Nobody is stealing a golden bull, though the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona in Spain is a plot element. No, this gang, led by former bank-robber Churchman (Stephen Boyd) is only going to break into an impregnable bank (par for the course) and steal priceless royal jewels.

There’s an audacious, certainly unorthodox, plan, tension throughout between Churchman’s  sexy former lover Angela (Giovanna Ralli) and current more demure squeeze Grace (Yvette Mimieux), a couple of unexpected comedy sequences, a silent heist and a superb final twist.

Just to be clear – there’s no bikini blonde with a pistol.

Churchman is not your ordinary robber. He only hit banks to make reparation for, while a World War Two pilot, mistakenly dropping bombs on a French cathedral, donating the loot to the reconstruction. Angela, with no such ideals, has spent her share of the dosh and intent on a financial top-up  blackmails Churchman, now a respected businessman, into the one-final-caper scenario.  

Key to getting the jewels out is becoming involved in the annual fiesta, of which the bull-running is a minor part. The bull-running, too, shifts the dynamic of the job, and what appears an irrelevant sub-plot of former resistance fighters hunting a traitor provides an essential pay-off.

When moral Grace uncovers the plot she is inveigled to participate, ensuring some spicy bitchy dialog between herself and the more obviously immoral Angela.  Unwittingly helping out is Spanish cop (Walter Slezak) and with Churchman committed the only person Angela needs use her wiles on is a giant, friendlier by the minute as he responds to her seductive smiles.

While this lacks the panache, guile or gloss of a Topkapi (1964) or Gambit (1966), it’s certainly well-done enough. It’s one of those films you appreciate more after you’ve watched it than during, the structure of the screenplay most of all, as all the little pieces of a finely-tuned jigsaw lock into place.

There’s a couple of excellent reversals, an ambush where firecrackers pass for bullets, imminent discovery of explosives thwarted by a quick-thinking Grace, and some split-second timing.  Explosives, timed to match the firing of a cannon, allow a bystander cop to remark, “that cannon gets louder every time.” At first the fiesta appears standard time-filling tourist-fodder but both the parade and the bull-running are allocated genuine spots in the narrative.

The sensuous, devious Giovanna Ralli (Deadfall, 1968) is the pick, a femme fatale straight out of film noir, with a knowing twist in her main seduction scene. Fans of Stephen Boyd (Assignment K, 1968) will enjoy seeing him dally with conscience rather than rely on a straight down the line hardman, albeit with more than an ounce of charm. What Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968) ultimately brings to the occasion is hidden until the end so her character has more depth than initially surmised.

There was a sense here, though, of three stars still trying to make their mark on Hollywood, establishing their marquee credentials. Although Boyd had enjoyed box office success in Fantastic Voyage (1966) and The Bible (1966) he was not seen as the main element in those film’s hitting the target. Other films relying on his star potential to pull in an audience had flopped.

Outside possibly of Disney confection Monkeys, Go Home! (1967) and The Time Machine (1960) Yvette Mimieux had yet to enjoy a proper hit. Giovanna Ralli was the latest in a string of European imports, a low-level gamble since they were cheaper than Hollywood alternatives even though most never made the grade or did so only fleetingly.

You wouldn’t pick this picture to put either of the trio back on the very top since for the sake of later twists the screenplay plays around with motivation and the very lack of gloss limits the movie’s potential. But although we’ve seen much of this before, it’s still suspenseful enough.

Russell Rouse (A House Is Not A Home, 1964) directs from a screenplay by David Moessinger (Number One, 1969) and Ed Waters, who had form in this area with Man-Trap (1961).

An engrossing enough matinee.

Author: Brian Hannan

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

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