The Plank (1967) ****

Hilarious credit sequence – I dare you not to laugh at the banana gag – sets the standard for this virtually silent slapstick vehicle featuring the cream of British television comedians. Hapless construction workers Eric Sykes (The Liquidator, 1965) and Tommy Cooper (The Cool Mikado, 1963) meet their match in the shape of a piece of wooden flooring. Running gags involve a car, a policeman with a bigger eye for a pretty girl than his duty, a car that is soon denuded of all its working parts, paint, rubbish and a pub.

But mostly this is driven by the antics of the bewildered pair, masters of the double-take and pained expression. Even when you think you can see the joke coming a mile off, some other piece of clever invention will take the idea in a completely different direction. Not reliant on clever dialogue, it’s one brilliantly imagined sequence after another. The plot, such as it is, is nothing but a succession of funny incidents.

British audiences were enjoying a small run of semi-silent comedies from A Home of Your Own (1965) through to Futtock’s End (1970), the hand of Bob Kellett behind this series of unlinked movies, but the difference between these and a gem like The Plank is that the latter was written and directed by a comedian (Eric Sykes) who understood timing and above all comic possibility. Clearly silent comedy classics provided much of the inspiration and Sykes has the sense not to spoof that genre but to create twists on originals.

The all-star comedy cast includes Jimmy Edwards (Bottoms Up, 1960), Carry On alumni Hattie Jacques and Jim Dale, Roy Castle (Dr Who and the Daleks, 1965), Sunday Night at the London Palladium television host Jimmy Tarbuck making his movie debut, Graham Stark (The Wrong Box, 1966) and the only straight actor among them Stratford Johns (BBC’s crime drama Z Cars, 1962-1965).

Too short at 45 minutes to qualify as a feature, it played for several years as a support to different movies and was often far more entertaining than the films it supported.

Seconds (1966) *****

John Frankenheimer’s censor-baiting and game-changing paranoia drama was decades ahead of its time – it created the template for Blade Runner (1982), The Swimmer (1968), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Parallax View (1974) and The Truman Show (1998) to mention just a few –  and underneath the sci-fi surface asked deeper questions about identity, reality and depression. And it might well qualify as reaching for the impossible dream. Kafkaesque aspects intrude. It’s as much an essay on hopelessness as it is on hope, a scorching portrayal of the human condition. Unusual camera angles and depth of field make this a visual, if occasionally challenging, delight.

Disillusioned banker Arthur (John Randolph), marriage off-kilter, reacting to a call from someone he believes is dead, gets hooked into a deal which promises rebirth. After plastic surgery and a faked death, he is reborn as a much more handsome figure (Rock Hudson), pursues a new career as an artist, is sexually re-born during an orgy, but finds memories of his old life resurfacing at  inopportune moments and takes against the notion that he has to recruit friends or colleagues to go through the same process.

Although audiences had been treated to some paranoid impulses like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and films dealing with mental health such as Lilith (1964), this was the first film to touch on paranoia about big business, the unseen conglomerates controlling lives in unseen ways that directors in the 1970s pounced upon. Although a piece of breakthrough technology, the rebirth business is now just that, a business, wherein an anonymous  corporation, known here only as The Company, seeks to maximize profit from human misery.  

You could almost view the men who had more successfully undergone the experiment than Arthur as Stepford Husbands, guys who had created an ideal version of themselves. They could be body snatchers who have stolen a more convenient body. In another respect, the conventional Arthur turns into the rebel in society, refusing to accept this new creed. And he is gullible enough to believe his employers will accommodate his demands.   

On the one hand it is a self-destructive horror story. Arthur willingly gives in to his desire for a better life regardless of the emotional cost and is somewhat surprised to find that the community in which he lives is a construct, almost as fictional as any computer game.

It is an amazing mixture of sci-fi and horror. But the sci-fi has the bleakness of Blade Runner,  the hospital and offices where the future unfolds are drab, while the beach locations have an uncanny unreality. The horror is for the most part confined to two scenes – the new Arthur waking up swathed in bandages and later, strapped to a gurney, realizing too late his destiny.

But mostly what I found resonating was the examination of male psyche and its inability to deal with adversity and depression. Arthur isn’t so much desperate to wake up as a handsome hunk as to enter a new existence where he does not feel so lonely and displaced, where he can discover the humanity he has lost. It is not that he wants to be absolved of all responsibilities but wishes to be free of his current joyless life. While he becomes an improved physical specimen, he finds to his consternation that he has not shaken off the gloominess lurking in his brain.

The futuristic aspects are compounded by brilliant down-to-earth scenes. Company executive Ruby (Jeff Corey) goes into all the details of their contract while eating a chicken dinner, an old friend Charlie (Murray Hamilton) is deskbound, when Arthur arranges in his new skin to meet wife Emily (Frances Reid) he discovers his old true self had been only too apparent, cursed with unspoken longing and divorced from reality. Even romance with the outgoing Nora (Salome Jens) only offers brief reinvigoration after he partakes in an orgiastic grape-stomping event.

This is Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, and given he also directed The Manchurian Candidate, that is some accomplishment. He exercises total control in a film about total control but he is indebted to cinematographer James Wong Howe for developing new techniques to achieve a quite different, often austere, look.

It incurred the wrath of the Production Code – the U.S. censor – with scenes of full-frontal female nudity. These were all cut (though you will find them on the DVD). Whether their inclusion would have turned the film into a hit – rather than being booed at the Cannes Film Festival and a big flop at the American box office – is a moot point since, at that time, films as obscure as Blow Up (1966) had attracted big audiences due their more permissive approach. This should have been a late career transition for Rock Hudson (Strange Bedfellows, 1965) into more mature work but his excellent and brave performance was dismissed by the critics.

Hard Contract (1969) ***

A hitman movie that verges on the existential is always going to be intriguing. Stone cold killer John Cunningham (James Coburn) manages to keep the world at a distance until he runs into the vibrant Sheila (Lee Remick) in Spain. The film is a curiosity of an admittedly small genre dominated by such disparate offerings as The Killers (1946 and 1964), Yojimbo (1961), Le Samourai (1967) and Stiletto (1969). Here, although Cunningham does bump people off, you never see the violence. We’ve come to expect hitmen to be introspective, but there’s never been anyone as closed-off as Cunningham. No romance in his life, only hookers, no apparent depth, in fact we learn very little about him.

He only runs into Sheila because for a laugh she pretends to be a sex worker. In reality she’s a wealthy divorced socialite running with a fast set that include Adrianne (Lili Palmer) and ex-Nazi Alexi (Patrick Magee) whom she loves to taunt but whose contacts allow Cunningham to be effectively stalked. And as unsavory that might be from today’s perspective, it sheds light both on her power and whimsicality.

There’s an unusual background. Amid the extensive jet-setting in Torremolinos, Madrid and Tangiers, there are reality counterpoints, reflecting the issues of the decade – violent demonstrations with police using water cannon to control the crowds, the American elections and discussions about God, world hunger, the Holocaust, terrorism and population growth.

No doubt the script is wordy, but there’s hardly a word that doesn’t challenge convention. It’s steeped in amorality – a touchstone of the decade – good only occurs “when evil takes a rest” and the world is “immune to murder.” And you certainly get the impression that the rich can confront anything because, not having to live in the ordinary world, they can get away with it. Conversely, this is also one of those films where you wonder who did the wardrobe (Gladys de Segonzac, since you ask, who ran fashion house Schiaparelli in the 1950s) because not only does Sheila sport clothes that would have delighted Audrey Hepburn but Cunningham gets away with wearing a white jacket.

And if Korean vet Cunningham is enigmatic, the insomniac Sheila is cut from a similar cloth, and while a potential source for redemption is as likely to have sex with a casual pickup in a filthy alley. The story does not go quite the way you would expect – Cunningham’s growing dissatisfaction with his profession revealed when he can’t perform in a Brussels brothel. And his mindset allows him to consider mass murder as a solution to an emotional problem he cannot solve.

At core, of course, is whether once Cunningham’s emotional defenses are breached he can continue as a hitman, and  whether Sheila can accept his profession. The stakes rise when it transpires that (like Stiletto made the same year) retirement is not an option.

And for all the seriousness on show, there are some imaginative moments of hilarity – Cunningham’s idea of a love song is “To the Shores of Tripoli” and Adrianne proves determinedly indiscreet. In keeping with the paranoia cycle that was about to explode, you never find out why people are being murdered, or even who they are, far less the group which his boss Ramsay (Burgess Meredith) is fronting.

Far removed from the Derek Flint persona that had turned him into a star, James Coburn delved deeper into the amoral territory he had previously explored in Waterhole 3 (1967). Lee Remick (The Detective, 1968) is sheer madcap delight even when espousing her odd takes on philosophy. Lili Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962), who by this point in her career was usually the wife or girlfriend, creates a very original character. Veteran Sterling Hayden had only made one film (Dr Strangelove, 1962) in a decade and is excellent as a contemplative retired hitman. Patrick Magee (The Skull) gives another of his tight-lipped performances. Karen Black (Easy Rider, 1969) has a small role as does Sabine Sun (The Sicilian Clan, 1969).

This marked both the debut and the demise of the directorial career of S. Lee Pogostin, best known at this point as the screenwriter of Pressure Point (1962) and Synanon (1965). In terms of argument over issues it stands comparison with Pressure Point but without that film’s intensity.

I remember being baffled by the picture when it came out and I was a teenager because the action I believed I had been promised never materialized but otherwise I could remember little about it so now it appears as an interesting antidote to the mindless action pictures.  

This is another freebie available on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=hard+contract+1969

Book into Film – “Jessica” (1962)

Sometimes you just have to scratch your head. Hollywood had a habit of buying a bestseller first without working out whether it would translate to the screen or not (Blindfold a classic example). Jessica was one of its most idiotic purchases.

It was based on The Midwife of Pont Clery by British novelist Flora Sandstrom published in 1954. As the title gives away, it was set in France not Italy. The heroine rides a bicycle not a Vespa. Nor is she an American, transplanted into Italy by ill-fated romance. She is French, originating from Brittany, not far from the village in Normandy where she now plies her trade as a midwife. Her name is Suzette Quimpernay not Jessica. Yes, as with the film, her husband did die on their wedding day, but not in a car accident but rather falling from a boat while alcoholically impaired and drowning.

But like the book, she is introduced by the way she attracts the unwanted attention of the local male population, farmers for the most part, who rhapsodize about her shapely ankles, “moist lips and the sheen on her eyelashes…small chin made to be cupped by a hand,” and curly brown hair. “Everything about her was innocent,” wrote Sandstrom, “and yet she drew the eye and the heart and made the pulses tingle…she was rounded, even a little plump, but she seemed to walk on air.”

Back cover of the paperback.

Reading the book, I was waiting with bated breath for the singing guitar-strumming cleric to make an entrance knowing this was unlikely, and that Father Boneval in the book was made to sing in the film simply because was being played by crooner Maurice Chevalier.

The other changes are obvious. Bride-to-be Nicolette in the book is transformed into Nicolina (Danielle De Metz) for the film. The book’s interfering busybody Marie easily becomes Maria (Agnes Moorehead). While the film’s count (Gabriele Ferzetti) owns a fishing fleet and the book’s count is a scholar, they have in common fighting for the resistance in the war.  

Although in the film it’s obvious that Jessica is too easily distracting the men leaving the women resentful, the idea of taking any action against the midwife takes some time to formulate. However, in the book only six pages elapse before Marie is thinking of ways of getting rid of the midwife. Her first notion is to act as matchmaker, hitching her to the 44-year-old widow Boniface. But Boniface’s sister Virginie, his long-time housekeeper, fears being cast out and resists the idea. Then Marie gets village women to agree on the sex ban –  without sex there would be no babies and therefore no midwife – the central theme of the movie.

In the opening section of the book, also, the midwife is seen only through the eyes of the other characters who make all sorts of excuses to go out of their way to spend time with her. It is nearly 30 pages until the reader enters the innocent head of Suzette. She sees the good in everyone and everything and is complimented on her midwifery skills.

In the film, Suzette gets to know the count (who gives a false name) at the wedding feast but in the book she is not invited to that celebration and only meets the count in the course of attending other general nursing duties. Of course if the film had followed the book, that would have eliminated one highlight, the wedding singing and dancing.

The book follows a different line. When Suzette complains about a shopkeeper’s cheeses she is banned from the village shop. The sex ban quickly whittles down her presence in the village and she considers buying a piece of land from the count. Their romance is conducted off-page, his feelings for her revealed in a letter to his mother and his marriage proposal is welcomed, unlike the book.

It is only when Nicolette and Madame Tuffe (Tuffi in the film, played by Sylva Koscina) become pregnant that they go begging to the midwife. But in a final twist she cannot attend as she is being married.

So, basically, the book lacks the movie’s second act when Jessica takes revenge on the village women by flirting outrageously with the men. It’s difficult in any case to make this idea work. Although Jessica (Angie Dickinson in the film) dresses in a more provocative manner – tight sweater and jeans – than in the book, there’s nothing particularly brazen about her. In the book, though puzzled, she accepts her exile. She is too innocent to suspect underlying motives. The film does not quite work because a character presented as a flower of innocence cannot suddenly turn into a minx.

Nor is there really any place in a movie for a singing priest, no matter how charming. In the book, the priest’s role is minimal. But because he is played by Maurice Chevalier the character and storyline shift to make him more important. The movie romance is overplayed, too, with drama when none is required.

The film was originally titled “Apple Pie Bed.”

It was likely that the involvement of Romanian director Jean Negulesco ensured this French-set piece came to be relocated to Italy following the success of Three Coins in a Fountain (1954) set in Rome. But this was not a given. He had remained true to the Paris locale of  Francoise Sagan’s novel A Certain Smile (1958), although importing Italian Rossano Brazzi and American Joan Fontaine for his co-star, and to Boy on a Dolphin (1957) set in Greece, albeit with an Italian female lead in Sophia Loren. Possibly it came about when Jean Negulesco set up his own company and announced Apple Pie Bed with Maurice Chevalier – advertised in 1960 as part of the United Artists release schedule (see above) – as his first picture, based on the Sandstrom novel.

The screenplay was announced as being written by H. Hugh Herbert, then Sandstrom then John Dighton before Edith Sommer, with whom Negulesco had worked on The Best of Everything (1959), took over. The success of Gigi (1958) might well have inspired the director to give Chevalier a singing part. This was Negulesco’s first film since The Best of Everything having left The World of Suzie Wong in 1960. The importance of Chevalier was such that the film’s release was held up until the singer’s version of the title song penetrated the charts.

SOURCES: “Negulesco: Zest of Crews Favors Europe’s Studios,” Variety, April 3, 1957, 12; “Flora Sandstrom,” Variety, January 21, 1959, 9; “Negulesco’s Own Firm,” Variety, October 14, 1959, 3; advert, Variety, January 6, 1969, 24; “Negulesco UA Picture Awaits Song Penetration, “ Box Office, January 29, 1962, E1.

Selling Angie Dickinson – “Jessica” (1962)

There was an age-old rule of thumb in Hollywood marketing. You can ignore iron-clad contracts as regards credits and billing if you have a sexy girl to promote. The top-billed Maurice Chevalier had been a major Hollywood star for nearly three decade from the likes of The Merry Widow (1934) to Gigi (1958) and twice Oscar-nominated. But you can scarcely see his face in any of the posters. He was passed over in favor of the glorious image of Angie Dickinson astride a Vespa scooter. And, unusually, for an industry that sold females in terms of facial features and bosom, Dickinson’s posterior was given as much prominence as the rest of her figure.

Bearing in mind the Vespa trick had already been used in more fashionable fashion by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, this was probably a more sensible approach. While there’s no doubt Dickinson was stylish nobody would ever beat Hepburn when it came to haute couture so there was no point trying, although it has to be said the sweater look was something of a throwback to the 1940s.

However, there were two other pieces of more stylish artwork as back-up for an exhibitor looking askance at the obvious and with more discerning patrons. While Mitchell Hooks was responsible for the main poster, also turning their hand to  promotional material were director Jean Negulesco (whose effort is pictured at the top) and artist Bernard Buffet who both concentrated on face to the exclusion of figure. Negulesco had begun his career as an expressionist artist in the 1920s and the Pressbook marketeers took this idea further by claiming that “every frame of the film was composed with such care that the picture…can be said to be painted with a camera.” 

Negulesco was a noted art collector and paintings by Bernard Buffet, also a French expressionist, adorned his walls. In 1955 Buffet was named the top post-war artist and his first retrospective at the age of just 30 was held three years later.

As readers of these occasional articles on Pressbooks will know, marketing a movie around one image was rare but the image of Jessica (Angie Dickinson) mounting a scooter was used exclusively in all posters even though the background and taglines might change. The background showed the locale, some subsidiary characters and dancing. You have to look close to catch a glimpse of top star Maurice Chevalier – he’s the guy in black toting a guitar.

The taglines centered on the mischievous Jessica causing marital mishap in sun-filled Italy. “Here comes trouble. The most delightful, delicious siren who ever scooted into town and put marriages on the skids!” was the main tagline. The rest were along similar lines. “She’s the most luscious forbidden fruit that ever dropped into the screen’s lap.” / “She lives it up saucily in Italy.” / “Meet the gal who took Italy by storm with a scooter, sweater and a smile.”   

The more artistic posters by Negulesco and Buffet had different taglines: “Not in a month of Never on Sundays have you heard such wonderful songs” and “Jean Negulesco, who put Rome on the map with Three Coins in the Fountain, now works wonders on the shores of the blue Mediterranean in Jessica, a most mischievous girl.” The marketeers of course were taking some artistic license since Roman Holiday preceded Three Coins in the Fountain.

The Pressbook offered a couple of pages of nuggets for hungry newspaper editors with Chevalier at last getting some attention – the “crooning cleric” was described as “the perennially youthful Frenchman (who) had sung, danced and acted his way across the stages of the world enjoying the adulation of several different generations.”  Chevalier was given tips on his guitar by a local singing cleric, apparently.

But there was little chance, even in print, of Chevalier stealing Dickinson’s thunder especially when particular reference was made to her nude swimming scene, for which she wore a skin-colored bikini to the disappointment of the hundreds of locals who climbed up a steep slope to the waterfall location.

Jean wasn’t the only artistic member of the Negulesco clan. His wife Dusty, also a painter,  designed the wardrobe, wrote lyrics for the film’s songs and taught Dickinson how to ride a scooter. The movie was filmed on location in the village of Forza d’Agro on a clifftop 1,000 feet high. The shoot lasted 55 days with 2,600 people from the surrounding area employed as support staff or in bit parts and extras. The production spent about $113,000 (over $1 million at today’s prices) on accommodation and meals and purchased 8,300 gallons of fuel. Traditional Sicilian music was incorporated into the film.

Given Chevalier was singing it was inevitable and promotionally essential to put out a single, this was “Jessica” backed by “The Vespa Song.” There was also an original soundtrack album. Both were ideal material for local radio stations to play during the film’s launch.

A key element of the promotion was a tie-up with Vescony inc which distributed Vespa scooters in the U.S. There was a national competition and franchisees were ready to lend scooters to theaters for openings and special screenings or just to sit in the lobby attracting attention. A subplot involving gardening inspired marketeers to suggest exhibitors give away orchids to women named Jessica and had tied up with supplier Orchids of Hawaii. Other ideas included targeting local midwives – both male and female – and a “Jessica Jump” reflecting the film’s wedding scene. There was book tie-in based on the source novel The Midwife of Pont Clery by Flora Sandstrom published by Pocket books.

Bernard Buffet’s involvement was something of a coup and promised an opportunity to create a promotion appealing to art lovers. “Not since Toulouse-Lautrec made advertisements for nightclubs has an artist of this stature contributed to ads for popular entertainment.”  

Jessica (1962) ***

Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins in a Fountain (1956) had set a high bar for Hollywood romances set in Italy. Since Jean Negulesco had directed the latter he was expected to sprinkle box office magic on this slight tale of young American midwife Jessica Brown Visconti (Angie Dickinson) adrift in a rustic village in Sicily.

She’s the kind of beauty who’s going to raise male temperatures except Jessica, having been widowed on her wedding day, is not romantically inclined. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the entire male population becoming so entranced that their wives become so enraged that led by Maria (Agnes Moorehead) they embark on a sex strike, assuming that without any pregnancies (contraception being frowned upon in a Catholic domain) to deal with Jessica will become redundant and go away.

And that so annoys Jessica, who is doing a good job as a midwife, that she turns on the flirting to get back at her female tormentors. Luckily, there’s a reclusive landowner (Gabriele Ferzetti) who happens to be a widower, although romance takes a while to stir. There’s also a priest (Maurice Chevalier), in part acting as narrator, who turns to song every now and then.

So it’s a surprise that this unlikely concoction works at all. It’s charming in the obvious ways, the lush scenery, a traditional wedding, gentle comedy. But it’s a decade too late in taking an innocent view of sex. There’s no crudeness, of course; it doesn’t fall victim to the 1960s’  need to sexualise in an obvious manner. And not every husband is continuously ogling Jessica so Nunzia (Sylva Koscina) and young bride Nicolina (Danielle De Metz) are in the awkward situation of potentially betraying the sisterhood.

But in resolving the central issue the story develops too many subplots and introduces too many characters, often leaving Jessica rather redundant in terms of the plot, with not much to do, especially when her prospective suitor is absent for a long period going fishing.

Angie Dickinson is delightful as the Vespa-riding innocent turned mischievous. However, in some way though this seemed a backward step for Dickinson, a rising star in the Lana Turner/Elizabeth Taylor mold after being John Wayne’s squeeze in Rio Bravo (1959) and Frank Sinatra’s estranged wife in Ocean’s 11 (1960) and following a meaty supporting role in A Fever in the Blood (1961) elevated to top billing in The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961). It seemed like Hollywood could not make up its mind whether it wanted her to be like Gidget or be given free rein to express her sexuality.

Ferzetti and Dickinson

A charmer like Maurice Chevalier was ideal for what was in effect a whimsical part. The singing probably met audience expectation. Perhaps like Sean Connery’s perennial Scottish accent, nobody ever asked Chevalier to drop his pronounced French accent even to play an Italian. But the picture is whimsical enough without him.

There’s a surprisingly strong supporting cast in four-time Oscar nominee Agnes Moorehead (Pollyanna, 1960), Gabriele Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969) and French actor (and sometime writer-director) Noel-Noel. Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina (Deadlier Than the Male, 1967), Frenchwoman Kerima (Outcast of the Islands, 1951) and Danielle De Metz (The Scorpio Letters, 1967) all make a splash.

You can catch it for free on YouTube.

Vendetta for The Saint (1969) ***

This big-screen version of small-screen hero is as pleasant a diversion as you can get. Nostalgia pretty much gives it a free pass and in any case the action, which punctuates the drama at regular intervals, was always going to be budget-restricted. Despite being in almost constant danger the insouciance of gentleman thief Simon Templar dictates that the pace is no more than languid.

As the title suggests, we’re in Mafia country, Templar (Roger Moore) drawn into a Cosa Nostra succession scenario as the result of a casual encounter with former bank clerk Houston (Fulton Mackay) later found dead. Houston has cast doubts on the real identity of  Mafia Don Destiamo (Ian Hendry) one of several contenders to become the next Mafia overlord. Templar sneaks into Destiamo’s world by pursuing his niece Gina (Rosemary Dexter). Although outwardly respectable, Destiamo a bit too fond of using his cigar as a weapon of disfigurement, threatening his blonde English moll Lily (Aimi McDonald) in this fashion.

Part of Templar’s attraction is that although he has a nefarious side he is happy to walk those mean streets and has a strict moral code. And he moves in such elevated circles that he has a nodding acquaintance with dying Mafia chieftain Don Pasquale (Finlay Currie) who has yet to pick his successor.

The other part of his attraction is that he’s played with such suaveness by Roger Moore. For a good chunk of the time someone is trying to knife him, shoot him, blow him up, capture him, jab him with a truth serum, and generally trying to stop him. In fending off such attacks, or out-smarting the villains, there’s rarely a hair out of place. It’s not so much devil-may-care as devil-is-wasting-his-time with such an imperturbable fellow.

Although the action is pretty straightforward, Templar is not above a clever ruse – jamming a bus in a gateway preventing his pursuers continuing the chase – nor an old one such as tying sheets together to climb out of a window. While Malta stands in for Italy, the locations still look authentic enough, ancient stone buildings, the occasional horse pulling a cart. When the action/drama eases up, there’s always pleasant scenery.

Following MGM’s success in stitching together into a movie two episodes of The Man From U.N.C/L.E. television series (an idea of course the studio had pinched from Walt Disney’s cinematic re-presentation of Davy Crockett episodes) it was no surprise that ATV, then under the control of future movie mogul Sir Lew Grade (Raise the Titanic, 1980), decided to adopt the same idea. Although The Saint had been showing on British television since 1962, by the end of its run in 1969 it had stepped up to bigger budgets, 35mm and color. Given each episode lasted around 50 minutes, it was relatively simple to devise a two-part program shown over consecutive weeks on ITV in Britain and then release it throughout the rest of the world as a feature film. The first such project was The Fiction Makers (1968) followed by Vendetta for the Saint.

Roger Moore’s movie career had been in limbo since Romulus and the Sabines (1961) and there’s no doubt that his performance as Simon Templar and later in another glossier British television series The Persuaders (1971-1972) made him a candidate for James Bond. While his interpretation of Templar, especially the wry delivery, does bear some similarities to his incarnation as 007, that only holds true as long as you set aside the year’s supply of Brylcreem dumped on his hair, the shoulder-padded shoulders and the fact that he had not yet perfected his trademark move, the raising of the single eyebrow.

While no match for the quips prevalent in James Bond, Canadian screenwriter Harry W. Junkin – best known for his television work, his only other movies being a similar melding of television episodes of The Persuaders – and John Kruse (Hell Drivers, 1957) – had some neat one-liners. Despite the obvious limitations, director Jim O’Connelly (Berserk, 1967) does a decent enough job.

But Moore carries the show. Ian Hendry (The Hill, 1965) makes a passable villain but not a passable Italian. In general, not surprisingly since most characters were played by British actors, the accents are all over the place though Moore, courtesy of squiring Luisa Mattioli (later his wife) managed to deliver his Italian lines in an acceptable accent. Otherwise the only one who comes close is Rosemary Dexter (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and that’s because she was Italian. Worth checking out in the supporting cast are Finlay Currie (Ben Hur, 1959) and Fulton Mackay (BBC series Porridge, 1974-1977).

You can find a lot wrong with this without looking very hard but if you switch off your over-critical faculties you will be pleasantly surprised.

Rough Night in Jericho (1967) ****

Woefully under-rated western with three A-list stars at the top of their game in a taut drama with an explosive ending. Not surprising it was overlooked at the time with John Wayne duo El Dorado and The War Wagon, Paul Newman as Hombre and an onslaught of spaghetti westerns garnering more attention at the box office. Though a rewarding watch, be warned this is more of a slow-burn drama than a traditional western and both male leads play against type.

Former lawmen Dolen (George Peppard) and Ben Hickman (John McIntiyre) have invested in a stagecoach business owned by twice-widowed Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), just about the only business in Jericho in which Alex Flood (Dean Martin) does not have a controlling interest. Dolen’s first reaction on surmising Flood’s power is to quit, “stepping in’s a habit I outgrew.” And it’s not a bad approach given that Flood is judge, jury and executioner and apt to leave victims strung up to dissuade dissent.

Dolen and Flood have a great deal in common, moving from ill-paid law enforcement into business, Flood, having cleaned up the town, staying on the reap the profit. While Dolen avoids confrontation, Molly aims to stir up opposition, invoking ruthless reaction.

What’s unusual about this picture is it’s mostly a duel of minds, Dolen and Flood testing each other out, neither backing down even while Dolen intends quitting and when he happens to win a bundle in a poker game with Flood you have the notion that was somehow an inducement to help him on his way.  It’s a power game of sorts, too, between Dolen and Molly, she determined to give no quarter to the point of drinking him under the table.

But when violence occurs it is absolutely brutal, Flood’s knuckles bloodied raw as he batters a man foolish enough to challenge his rule of law, Dolen taking an almighty whipping from Yarbrough (Slim Pickens), Molly viciously slapped around by Flood for daring to look at Dolen. When Dolen does move into action it is with strategic skill, gradually reducing the odds before the inevitable shoot-out between respectable citizens and gangsters.

A good half century before the notion took hold, this is a movie as much about entitlement, about those doing the hard work receiving just reward, Flood, having risked his life to tame the town, deciding he should be paid more than a sheriff’s monthly salary. And the western at this point in Hollywood development had precious few female businesswomen in the vein of Molly.

Cover of the Pressbook

Both Dean Martin and George Peppard play against type. An unexpected box office big hitter through the light-hearted Matt Helm series, Martin explodes his screen persona as this vicious thug, town in his thrall, contemptuous of his victims, turning politics to his advantage, but still happy to hand out a beating when charm and chicanery fail. This is one superb, and brave, performance.

For Peppard, this picture is the bridge between the brash persona of The Blue Max (1966) and Tobruk (1967) and the thoughtful introspective characters he brought to life in P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) and Pendulum (1969). Perhaps the most telling difference is a little acting trick. His blue eyes are unseen most of the time, hidden under the shade of his wide-brimmed hat. He is not laid-back in the modern sense but definitely unwilling to plunge into action, movement both confined and defined, a man who knows his limits and, no longer paid to risk his life, unwilling to do so.

Jean Simmons (Divorce American Style) is in excellent form, neither the feisty nor submissive woman of so many westerns, but clever and determined, perhaps setting the tone for later female figures like Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles (1969).

And this is aw-shucks Slim Pickens (Major Dundee, 1965) as you’ve never seen him before. John McIntire had spent most of the decade in Wagon Train but he punches above his weight as a mentoring lawman. If you are trying to spot any other unusual figures keep an eye out for legendary Variety columnist Army Archerd  who was a walk-on part as a waitperson.

More at home in television, director Arnold Laven took to the big screen on rare occasions, only twice previously during the decade for Geronimo (1962) and The Glory Guys (1965), but here he handles story and character with immense confidence and considerable aplomb. The direction is often bold – major incidents occur off screen so he can concentrate on the reactions of the main characters. There is a fabulous drunk scene, one of the best ever – plus an equally good hangover sequence –  the violence is coruscating, all the more so because it is not delivered by gun.

The screenplay by Sidney Boehm (Shock Treatment, 1964) and Marvin H. Albert (Duel at Diablo, 1966) swings between confrontation and subliminal menace.

Sisters (1969) ****

Erotically-charged, symbolically-heavy French drama of siblings trying to re-establish the intense relationship they enjoyed as teenagers. After a nervous breakdown and on the point of divorce, blonde translator Diana (Nathalie Delon) seeks respite at the home of younger sister Martha (Susan Strasberg), a brunette happily married to the wealthy and indulgent Alex (Massimo Girotti).

Initially, the more worldly Diana, the more flamboyant dresser, appears the superior but it soon transpires she is the more fragile. The apparently timid Martha allows her husband to control her life to the point of buying all her clothes and she confesses to feeling as if she is on “a perpetual cruise.” While on the surface, it seems as if she has given up too much, in reality she disapproves of disorder and seeks perfection. She comes across as needing protection, and believes the woman’s role is to sacrifice, but in fact has managed to arrange her life to her own satisfaction.

Their competitive streaks emerge in different ways, Diana in obvious fashion, seeking to beat her sister while out horse-riding, Martha in more subtle and sensual manner, flaunting her sexual relations with her husband, almost offering her sister to her husband, and having a lover (Lars Bloch) on the side. There is a sense of each attempting to impose their world view on the other. Diana gives her sister a make-over, a new look which Alex adores, Martha hates it. There’s a sense of a chess game, males the obvious pawns.

Sensuality is never far away. Diana nuzzles her sister’s neck to smell her perfume. Alex is photographed, encouraged by Martha, in almost intimate mode with Diana. Dario (Giancarlo Giannini) is brought in to tempt Diana. And a scene where the girls experiment with colorful scarves suggests libertarianism. 

But it is clear that both sisters live empty lives devoid of true love and equally obvious as the picture progresses that both have arrived at the conclusion that they were at their most happiest when together. There are subtle hints of incest, comforting each other in bed, the sensuality electric and the film begins to examine whether this taboo can be crossed and, if so, will it provide the necessary escape.

Despite Martha’s apparent subjugation, there is more than an inkling of feminism, the girls involved in a complicated scenario in which males are either rejected or made to look fools. While not fulfilled, Martha has turned as much as possible to her own advantage and Diana seems perfectly capable of taking what she wants.

Alex provides the symbolism. He cultivates rare plants in a greenhouse that need to hide from the sun, lengthy exposure to whose atmosphere would be fatal to humans. He endlessly photographs them because they won’t last long. And in similar fashion provides a haven for the apparently vulnerable Martha.

Nathalie Delon (When Eight Bells Toll, 1970), married at this point to Alain Delon, shows a subtlety of expression that is rare for someone appearing in just her third film, and effects a gradual character transition throughout. Susan Strasberg, daughter of famed acting coach, Lee Strasberg, inventor of the Method Style of Acting, was one of the boldest actors of her generation, appearing in drug pictures The Trip (1967) and Psych Out (1968). She delivers an excellent portrait of a woman who manages to keep her true personality hidden, and for whom sexuality has few barriers.

This is the puppy-fat version of Giancarlo Giannini (Swept Away, 1974), barely recognizable as the future arthouse superstar whose physical appearance relied on gaunt, angst-riddles features.  Massimo Girotti (Theorem, 1968) is good as the husband who thinks he has everything, not realising how little he has.  

Although this was an accomplished directorial debut from Roberto Malenotti, he only made one more movie. Perhaps he made enough from directing the famous Coke commercial I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (1971).

Always intriguing, revelations continually undercutting what we think we know of the characters, but delivered in subtle European tones rather than employing Hollywood shock, each of the four main people involved changing considerably due to their interaction with the others. While certainly skirting close to the borders of what was permissible at the end of the 1960s, it does so without exploiting the actresses.

Not an easy one to find, your best bet is a secondhand copy on Ebay.

Book Into Film – “The Devil Rides Out”/ “The Devil’s Bride” (1968)

Dennis Wheatley was a prolific bestseller producing three or four titles a year, famous for a historical series set around Napoleonic times, another at the start of the Second World War and a third featuring the “four modern musketeers” that spanned a couple of decades. In addition, he had gained notoriety for books about black magic, which often involved series characters, as well as sundry tales like The Lost Continent.  Although largely out of fashion these days, Wheatley set the tone for brisk thrillers, stories that took place over a short period of time and in which the heroes tumbled from one peril to another. In other words, he created the template for thriller writers like Alistair MacLean and Lee Child.

The Devil Rides Out, his fourth novel, published in 1934, featured the “musketeers” involved in his phenomenally successful debut The Forbidden Territory (1933), and introduced readers to his interest in the occult. Although of differing temperaments and backgrounds his quartet – the Russian-born Duke De Richleau (Christopher Lee in the film), American aviator Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) and wealthy Englishmen Richard Eaton (Paul Eddington) and Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) – are intrepid. And while screenwriter Richard Matheson stuck pretty much to the core of the Wheatley story, the film was hampered by the actors. The laid-back Paul Eddington hardly connects with the Wheatley characterization and Patrick Mower is too young for Aron.

Original British hardback cover.

As with the book, the story moves swiftly. Worried that   Aron is dabbling in the black arts, De Richleau and Van Ryn go haring down to his country house where they meet black magic high priest Mocata (Charles Gray) and discover tools for satanic worship.  And soon they are embroiled in a duel of wits against Mocata, climaxing in creating a pentagram as a means of warding off evil.

In order not to lose the audience by blinding them with mumbo-jumbo the script takes only the bare bones of the tale, bringing in the occult only when pivotal to the story, and that’s something of a shame. A modern audience, which has grown up on enormously  complicated worlds such as those created for Game of Thrones and the MCU, would probably have welcomed a deeper insight into the occult. While out-and-out thrillers, Wheatley’s novels often contained copious historical information that he was able to dole out even when his heroes were in harm’s way. The Devil Rides Out is not a massive tome so it’s a measure of the author’s skill that he manages to include not just a condensed history of the occult but its inner workings. Every time in the film De Richleau goes off to the British Library for some vital information, his departure generally leaves a hole, since what he returns with does not always seem important enough to justify his absence.

Author Dennis Wheatley.

But then the screenwriter was under far more pressure than a novelist. In some respects, this book like few others demonstrates the difference between writing for the screen and writing for a reader. With just 95 minutes at his disposal, Matheson had no time to spare while Wheatley had all the time in the world. Wheatley could happily leave the reader dangling with a hero in peril while dispatching De Richleau on a fact-finding mission, the action held up until his return. It’s interesting that Matheson chose to follow Wheatley’s characterization of De Richleau, who didn’t know everything but knew where to look. Matheson could easily have chosen to make De Richleau all-knowing and thus able to spout a ton of information without ever going off-screen.

But here’s where the book scores over the film. The reader would happily grant Wheatley his apparent self-indulgence because in the book what he imparted on his return, given the leeway to do so, was so fascinating. There are lengthy sections in the book which are history lessons where De Richleau supplies readers with the inside track on the satanic. In the opening section, once De Richleau and Van Ryn have rescued Aron, the author devotes a full seven pages to a brief introduction to the occult that leaves the reader more likely to want more of that than to find out how the story will evolve.   He has hit on a magic formula that few authors ever approach. To have your background every bit as interesting as the main story is incredibly rare and it allowed Wheatley the opportunity to break off from the narrative to tell the reader more about the occult, which in turn, raised the stakes for the characters involved.

Effectively, there was too much material for a screenwriter to inflict upon an audience ignorant of the occult. Some decisions were clearly made to limit the need for lengthy exposition. But these often work against the film. For example, Mocata wants the Talisman of Set because it bestows unlimited power with which he can start a world war, but in order to accomplish that he needs to find people with the correct astrological births, namely Simon and Tanith. But this element is eliminated from the story, making Mocata’s motivation merely revenge.  Matheson also removed much of the historical and political background, replaced the swastika as a religious symbol with the more acceptable Christian cross, and deleted references to Marie’s Russian background. Her daughter Fleur becomes Peggy. Matheson also treats some of the esoteric light-heartedly on the assumption that seriousness might be too off-putting.

Overall, the adaptation works, you can hardly argue with the movie’s stature as a Hammer classic, but the more you delve into the book the more you wish there had been a way for much of the material to find its way onscreen and to inform the picture in much the same way as the depth of history and character backstory adds to Game of Thrones.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Devil-Rides-Out/dp/B00B1U3FPK/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=devil+rides+out&qid=1637411453&qsid=257-2054786-9327728&s=books&sr=1-1&sres=1448213002%2CB00I628KRY%2CB002SQ7XSG%2C0553824635%2CB00I60ZHNG%2CB09KH2QQVL%2CB00CJB9CVQ%2CB0018H7LPG%2CB07VQ8RZBJ%2CB003Z0IJKA%2C912409160X%2CB07N94V4ZM%2C0241476178%2C1734704144%2C0571311458%2CB092RHPZ93&srpt=DOWNLOADABLE_MOVIE

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