Escape from Zahrain (1962) ***

After being attacked by armored cars and strafed by airplanes, stranded in the desert, and overcome various tensions within the small group of escapees, there is still considerable life left in this picture at the end as Jack Warden, making his departure, comes up with a classic last line: “We must do this again sometime.”

In truth, the picture has far more going for it than a mere outline would suggest. In rescuing rebel leader Yul Brynner from a lorry bound for jail, the escapees led by Sal Mineo (Exodus, 1960) in a stolen ambulance also scoop up three convicts including American fraudster and loudmouth Jack Warden (That Kind of Woman, 1959) and all-purpose thug Anthony Caruso (a television regular) plus a nurse Madhlyn Rhue (A Majority of One, 1961) as a hostage. Like most desert films, the storyline is on who will survive and how.

Action is one constant. The threat of failure is another. Supplies are rationed and, of course, someone steals more than their fair share. The members regularly switch allegiance. At various points someone is about to give up Yul Brynner. Their gas tank is punctured so, thanks to Warden’s engineering skills, they just make it to a remote pumping station where James Mason pops up in a cameo as a maintenance man. Their numbers diminish and despite his recalcitrance Warden’s engineering skills save them again when they reach an oasis.

This was originally intended as a starring vehicle for Clark Gable with Edward Dmytryk in the director’s chair.

What makes the film different is that the characters all change. In a country where “half the wealth is stolen by Europeans and half by corruption,” Brynner is the altruistic leader whose ideals are shattered. Rhue, a Muslim, drinks alcohol and questions the number of deaths necessary for a revolution but declines to leave when the opportunity arises. Mineo who thinks “women should be as free as men” reacts badly when Rhue enjoys such freedom. Warden, who has embezzled $200,000, and has loyalty to no one stands by the shambolic crew.

I had always believed Brynner had enjoyed a rare case of beginner’s luck when he won the Oscar for his debut in The King and I (1956) and that once Hollywood became wise to his acting schtick he would never be nominated again – as proved the case. But after watching Brynner in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and its sequel and Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964) and Flight to Ashiya (1964) I have become convinced he is under-rated as an actor. He acts with his eyes and his delivery is far more varied than I had supposed. Here, clothed in Arab costume, there is no bald pate to distract.  

British director Ronald Neame (Tunes of Glory, 1960) holds the enterprise together, keeping to a tidy pace but allowing tension and character to emerge.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Gorgon (1964) ****

This impressive Hammer conspiracy-of-silence slow-burner, more thriller than horror, features the triumvirate of Christopher Lee (The Devil Ship Pirates, 1964), Peter Cushing (The Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, 1960) in untypical roles. Lee and Cushing, of course, had locked horns before, namely in Hammer’s reimagining of the classic Dracula, with the former the charismatic fiend and the latter his nemesis.

Here Cushing is a  doctor in a an unnamed European turn-of-the-twentieth-century police state who knows more than he is letting on about seven inexplicable deaths in five years and the possibility of a 2,000-year-old myth coming to life and taking on a human form. And with quite a human side, jealous when his assistant Steele falls for a younger man. Lee is a professor coming late in the day to investigate. Steele, a gentle beauty, initially introduced as merely the love interest, becomes central to the story but without sucking up all the available horror oxygen by over-acting.   

Director Terence Fisher, who had shepherded the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Dr Jekyll franchises through the starting gate, builds up the atmosphere with full moons, haunting voices, fog, sudden sounds, drifting leaves and an abandoned castle forever in shadow. The camera is often a weapon of stealth. Shock is kept to a minimum, fleeting ghostly apparitions and a finger falling off a corpse. Given the limitations of special effects in this era, that was a smart move. Far better to concentrate on fear of impending doom, a man knowing he is turning to stone, a woman living in terror of being taken over by the phantom. The title gives away the story somewhat – even if you didn’t know the Gorgon was a mythical monster with a headful of snakes and the ability to turn people to stone, that is soon explained. 

Death remains the trigger for action, the suicide of an artist after he has apparently murdered his pregnant girlfriend bringing his father onto the scene and then his brother accompanied by Lee. But all investigation hits a wall of silence after police chief (Patrick Troughton) refuses to instigate detection. At the heart of all the relationships is betrayal. The artist leading his girlfriend on, Cushing willing to endanger Steele, whom he professes to love, rather than revealing the truth. Even Steele spies on the brother, with whom she is falling in love, in order to gather information for Cushing. 

Forgive the pun, but Steele steals the picture. An amnesiac, a victim and finally the lure, she remains enigmatic, a whisper of a woman. It is a haunting portrayal far removed from Hammer’s traditional cleavage queens. This is a very human character who nonetheless must stand guard over herself. Cushing embroiders his character with little touches, smoking a cigarette in a holder, for example, but Steele’s character, her distrust of herself, shows in every move she makes.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Corrupt Ones / The Peking Medallion (1967) ****

Non-stop action as spy Robert Stack (The Untouchables tv series) battles a variety of crooks in Macao on the Chinese border as they seek the legendary Peking medallion. Stack hails from the James Bond school of espionage, duty bound to kiss every girl he meets. He might wonder at their compliance until he realizes they are only after his knowledge of the missing medallion.

The violence is criminally brutal – punch-ups, gunfights, samurai swordfights, murder, torture by blowtorch and acid and being dragged behind a motorboat. The string of sexy women is matched by handsome men (Christian Marquand and Maurizio Arena in addition to Stack). The thriller pitches helter-skelter through nightclubs, casinos, caves, temples and palatial mansions, the pace only slowing down for, naturally, a scene in a stately rickshaw.

As well as Stack who briefly – and unknowingly – has the medallion in his possession, others in the hunt include Elke Sommer, wife of the man (Arena) who passed it to Stack before being killed. Sommer is on the wrong side of the femme fatale equation. Once Stack is wise to her seductive charms he quips, “Maybe you’re telling the truth but I can’t trust you.”

The original title of the picture was “Hell in Macao” and that was used in Germany for example. It was called “The Peking Medallion” in the UK, Italy and Mexico and “The Corrupt Ones” in the US, France and Spain.

Also in hot pursuit are gangster Brandon (Marquand) and a Chinese mob headed by Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960). That’s on top of a corrupt cop (“I have never feared death only poverty” is his mantra) who doesn’t care who wins the prize as long as he gets his share. Double cross is the order of the day, alliances forged then broken. The action never stops long enough for one of those tension-building scenes of which Alfred Hitchcock or imitators like Stanley Donen (Charade, 1963, and Arabesque, 1966) were so fond.

Stack faces danger with a quip, a kiss or gritted teeth, an old-fashioned tough guy without the James Bond self-awareness. He carries out his manly duties until his brain kicks in and he realizes this isn’t a spy picture after all but a genuine treasure hunt with clues that have to be deciphered. As this causes the movie to sidetrack down another route, it looks like the picture has lost the plot. But then all hell breaks loose and we are back on the safe ground of fistfights, double-crossing and shooting.

The script by Brian Clemens deftly mixes a variety of genres. What might have been a definite change of pace for British director James Hill given his previous effort was Born Free (1966) was anything but since he was responsible for the most recent Sherlock Holmes thriller A Study in Terror (1965).

Fans of improbable storylines, exotic settings, action, interesting bad guys and twists and turns will love this. How can you fail to love a movie with a fight featuring a samurai sword versus a camera tripod?

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Guns of Darkness (1962) ***

You might think David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had cornered the market in startling transitions involving light (from Peter O’Toole’s match to the rising sun) and gut-wrenching scenes involving quicksand but nearly six months prior Anthony Asquith (The Millionairess, 1960) in the less-heralded Guns of Darkness had adopted similar techniques. He cuts from a nightclub singer blowing out a candle to a man lighting a candle in a church and since his film is in black-and-white it cannot hope to match Lean’s fabulous color transition. However, the quicksand scene in the Asquith, I would argue, lacking color or not, is far superior to that of the desert epic.

Thanks to Pygmalion (1938) and The Winslow Boy (1948) Asquith was one of a handful of British directors – Lean, Powell/Pressburger and Carol Reed the others – with an international reputation. Stars David Niven and Leslie Caron had topsy-turvy careers. Niven’s box office cachet had almost disappeared in the mid-1950s before an unexpected Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and a starring role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). Although Caron had An American in Paris (1951), Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958) on her dance-card she was not an automatic big-name star. It reflects their respective positions that Caron has star billing.

Niven and Caron are an unhappily married couple caught up in a revolution in a fictional South American country. His boyish charm has long worn thin, his employment record is spotty and he is inclined, when drunk, to insult bumptious boss (James Robertson Justice). On New Year’s Eve while an enclave of pampered Brits is counting down to the bells, rebels  are preparing to storm the presidential palace and seize power. Niven seems the last person to give shelter to a fugitive from the revolution, especially when the runaway turns out to be the ex-president Rivero (David Opatoshu, Exodus, 1960). Caron, who has been planning to leave Niven the next day, finds herself involved in the escape.

The couple are both quickly disabused of notions of the saintliness of presidents and peasants, Rivera nearly strangling a child who discovers his hiding place, Caron stoned by villagers, pacifist Niven forced into a horrific act of violence.  

If you ever wondered what screenwriters do to earn their money, this film is a good place to start. It was based on a book “Act of Mercy” by British thriller writer Francis Clifford, who also wrote “The Naked Runner,” also later filmed. The screenwriters changed the David Niven character from the happily married committed businessman of the book to the dissatisfied dilettante of the film. As a happy couple, there are none of the marital tensions in the film. The revolution in the book has already started but in the film it is moved to New Year’s Eve and about to begin. The quicksand scene is a screenwriter’s invention as is the incident with the boy and the massacre in the village.

The pace is brisk from the outset, Asquith cross-cutting between revolutionaries and the Brits and as the manhunt steps up a gear the three escapees face a succession of perilous incidents. Not least is a river that has turned to quicksand. This six-minute scene is a standout, the mud closing in on their heads, Niven having to crawl back to rescue Rivera. As you would expect with this kind of picture there is a fair bit of philosophizing, moralizing and sheer brutality. As the couple flounder towards reconciliation, the script spends some time trying to ascertain Niven’s motives. Had the film stuck to the source book’s title, Act of Mercy, that would not have been necessary.

A taut film with, once the revolution has begun, the British put in their place rather than acting as imperialist overlords. There are a couple of unexpected twists at the end and Asquith finished with a technical flourish of his own, the camera tracking back from people walking forward. Both Niven and Caron are excellent, James Robertson Justice at once cuddly and ruthless, and the picture comes out as a tidy character-driven thriller.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment / Morgan! (1966) ***

While Hollywood was capable of dealing with mental illness head-on in pictures like Frank Perry’s David and Lisa (1962), Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), the British were more inclined to take an alternative approach. The titular characters of Billy Liar (1963) and this film dealt with awkward reality by creating a fantasy world.   

Morgan, played by David Warner in his first starring role, is a failed artist and virulent Communist who cannot come to terms with being divorced by rich Vanessa Redgrave who is planning to marry businessman Robert Stephens. Warner forces his way back into his wife’s house and attempts to win her back with nothing stronger than whimsicality and when that fails resorts to kidnap. And it is clear that she shares his fancy for furry animals, responding to his chest-pounding gorilla impression with tiny pats of her own chest. For a slim guy, Warner makes a believable stab at a gorilla, shoulders hunched up under his jacket, chest stuck out. And he has an animal’s sense of smell – detecting his rival’s hair oil.  

But Vanessa Redgrave, in her second film and her first starring role, steals the picture, winning her first Oscar nomination (in the same year as sister Lynn for Georgy Girl). She is made of gossamer. Still attracted to a man she knows will only bring her pain, she is far from your normal leading lady. There is a touch of the Audrey Hepburn in her ethereality but she portrays a completely genuine soul, not a manufactured screen personality.

The tone of the film is surreal. Had David Attenborough been a big name then you could have cited him as one of director Karel Reisz’s influences, such was his predilection for inserting wildlife into the proceedings, not just primates but giraffes, a hippo, a peacock and a variety of other creatures. Some are comments on Morgan’s state of mind but after a while it becomes monotonous. The film is clearly intentionally all over the place, the class struggle also taking central stage, but it’s hard work for the viewer.

Having said that, towards the end of the picture there is an extraordinary image – possibly stolen from the opening of La Dolce Vita – of Warner in a straitjacket hanging from a crane. Had that been the film’s starting point, it might have dealt more demonstrably with the subject matter.  The whimsy is all very well and Redgrave is delightful and while Warner is clearly on a mental descent the focus on external animals does little to illuminate his internal struggle. Also, having said that, Warner is imminently watchable. He has an intensity that is hard to ignore and usually is cast with that in mind but here his vulnerability, his inability to grasp that he is living in a different reality, is very touching. Even when his imagination is at its most vivid – such as when Redgrave appears at the end supposedly bearing his child – you are partly convinced that this may actually be true. I would have preferred less of the animal imagery and more of Warner’s true reaction to the world around him. It’s a case of performances spoiled by over-direction.

Setting aside the director’s indulgence, the film is remarkable in one other way. It was almost revolutionary to find a British picture that, despite Warner’s working-class agitation, is effectively about joie de vivre as opposed to the more traditional British stiff upper lip, that inbred stoicism afflicting the entire nation regardless of class status. While Lawrence of Arabia (1962) represented an exhibition of flamboyance, again not a British trait, and the truculent Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was determined to enjoy life to excess, Warner’s character epitomizes a desire to be free of normal cares in order to live life to the full.

Given the Warner would later be more famous buttoned-down roles – and that, in contrast, Redgrave would later portray another famous flamboyant in Isadora (1968) – it is surprising that this fun aspect of Warner’s screen persona was not called upon more often.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Pawnbroker (1964) *****

Director Sidney Lumet (Fail Safe, 1964) could have made an excellent film just about the customers of a pawn shop, the haunted individuals haggling for more bucks than they will ever be paid, the sad sacks, junkies, lost souls and general losers whose stories are told in the items they pawn or redeem – candlesticks, lamps, radios, musical instruments, occasionally themselves. You don’t need to be a pawnbroker to know that three hoodlums turning up with a pricey lawnmower are dealing in stolen property. And it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the pawnbroker is involved in some kind of money-laundering scam for a local gangster. Clearly shot on location on a bustling low-rent area, north of 116th St in East Harlem, New York, there’s enough going on in the streets – the markets, the tenements, poolrooms, the bustle, the eternal noise – to keep you hooked.

But you might think twice about positing as your hero an “absolute bastard” as Lumet himself described shop owner Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). He is more haunted than any of his clientele, a Holocaust survivor, plagued by flashbacks to the concentration camp where he witnessed his son die and his wife raped. He is devoid of life, completely shutdown to any emotion, rejecting overtures of friendship, and his life is played out in tiny elliptical shreds. He does not even derive any enjoyment out of his affair with a widow and although he claims to worship money – according to him the only “absolute” outside of the speed of light – that brings no fulfillment either. It is surprising he has lasted so long without imploding. After his war experience, you would have to wonder at a man who spends his life behind the bars of the grille in his shop and just in case he considers escaping from his predicament designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, 1973) incorporates other visual aspects of imprisonment into the production.

This startling image taken from the Pressbook encapsulates one of the striking moment of the film. As seen on the advert at the top of the blog, although not technically a roadshow in the normal sense (i.e. in the grandeur of 70mm) it played separate performances. This was a technique to drive up demand by limiting access. Originally, to take advantage of a British tax break known as the Eady Levy, the film was due to be made in London. Lumet pulled out when MGM insisted on a London shoot and only returned after that idea was abandoned and second-choice director Arthur Hiller bowed out.

Steiger gives a very restrained performance, especially for an actor known for his volubility and over-acting. He seems to sink into the role. He is accused of being among “the walking dead.” Around him are a set of very lively characters, his ambitious assistant (Jaime Sanchez, The Wild Bunch, 1969) trying to go straight and his girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a very smooth and wealthy and gay gangster (Brock Peters), and a trio of small-time hoods with whom the assistant is friendly. But also the deranged and the lonely. A widowed social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who suffers from the “malady of loneliness” offers him friendship but is rejected.

There is little plot to speak but it is just enough to teeter him on the brink of self-destruction. So it is primarily a character study. Unusually, Lumet observes without any sentimentality those around Steiger. “Sol has buried himself in this area,” Lumet wrote (“Keep them on the hook,” Films and Filming, October 1964, p17-20) “because he needs to be with people that he can despise….This is a man who is in such agony that he must feel nothing or he will go to pieces.” There is no redemption and he lacks the courage to commit suicide. It’s a stunning, bold picture, as raw as you can get without turning into a bloodsucker.

Fans of “The Godfather” might recognise this image – of a puppet on the strings -used to symbolise the power of the Mafia don. Eight years before Coppola’s gangster saga, this rarely seen but similar image in the Pressbook for “The Pawnbroker” evoked the opposite – a broken man.

The film had a few firsts. It was the only mainstream American picture to deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor (although films like Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, has shown camp victims). It broke mainstream conventions on nudity, bare breasts being seen for the first time. Lumet experimented with incredibly short cuts – just one-frame and two-frames in places (a technique he had first used in television)- when the standard assumption was that audiences required three frames to register an image. Brock Peters played not just the first openly gay person in a mainstream picture, but the first gay African-American (although The Long Ships the same year had a bit of comedy about a eunuch chasing Vikings).

Quincy Jones made his debut as a movie composer. If you listen closely you might detect a piece of music later made famous by the Austin Powers pictures and if you look closely you might spot a debut sighting of Morgan Freeman. And if want another anomaly, try and work out why Rod Steiger lost out to that year in the Best Actor Oscar stakes to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965).

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Hollywood: A Fashion Accessory

The new documentary on Audrey Hepburn – the Queen of Chic – and my reference to the making of the Valley of the Dolls in “My Books of the Year” blog made me wonder just how important fashion had become to movie marketing in the 1960s. So I did some digging. And found that the this particular decade had indeed been a golden age for Hollywood fashion.

Although actresses had set fashion trends before  – Lana Turner’s turtleneck sweater as evening wear, for example, Marlene Dietrich in pants, Carole Lombard’s shirts and Greta Garbo’s pillbox hat while Warner Brother’s star Kay Francis was often in reviews referred to as a clothes-horse – fashion had not previously been given the hard sell. Throughout the 1960s, that was remedied.

The new attitude to fashion as a marketing tool was instigated after a piece of market research. In 1960 United States market research company Sindlinger carried out consumer investigation on behalf of Universal that came to the conclusion that women made up 58 per cent of the audience going to see seven of the top ten pictures. In consequence, the studio decided to target the female audience with a marketing approach that would specifically appeal to that gender, namely fashion. First picture to benefit from this change of direction was Doris Day vehicle Midnight Lace (1960). Universal was a step ahead of the rest but Paramount was soon leading the field thanks to the impact on female fashion made by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Jean Seberg was a designer’s delight. Yves St Laurent designed the clothes for Moment to Moment (1966).

In 1962 Paramount celebrated the fact that Edith Head was the industry’s only full-time contracted designer by hosting a fashion show on the penthouse set of the studio’s Come Blow Your Horn (1963) starring Frank Sinatra.  The event was called “Edith Head’s Penthouse Party.” Being showcased were costumes from eleven of the designer’s current or forthcoming movies. The cheapest outfit on show cost just $2.89 (worn by Patricia Neal in Hud – known at the time as Hud Bannon)  while the most expensive (for Jill St John in Come Blow Your Horn) set the studio back $3,700. In total the studio spent $420,000 on costumes for the movies.

As well as the two films mentioned above, other pictures in the Edith Head portfolio given a marketing push because of her fashion input included Elvis Presley vehicle Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) co-starring Stella Stevens, comedy Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963) with Jackie Gleason and Glynis Johns, comedy Who’s Got the Action (1962) headlining Dean Martin and Lana Turner, and France Nuyen as A Girl Called Tamiko (1962). Also involved were Jerry Lewis numbers It’s Only Money (1962) and The Nutty Professor (1963), John Wayne adventure Donovan’s Reef (1963), Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward romantic comedy Samantha (later renamed A New Kind of Love, 1963) and Debbie Reynolds in My Six Loves (1963).

The outfits were modelled by some of the film’s stars including St John, Stevens, Nuyen,  Barbara Rush and Phyllis Maguire (also from Come Blow Your Horn), Myoshi Umieti and Martha Hyer (also from A Girl Called Tamiko) and Elizabeth Allen (Donovan’s Reef). Also on hand were four Japanese models and a quartet of actresses making the transition from modelling –  Patricia Olsen who had a small part in Samantha, Pat Jones, Mary Morlas and Olavee Parsons.  John Wayne, David Janssen (My Six Loves) and Cesar Romero (Donovan’s Reef) also put in an appearance but drew the line at modeling.

However, the big commercial push for Hollywood fashions came from My Fair Lady (1964). The impact of the Hepburn look in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was accidental, rather than deliberate. But from the outset the bulk of the promotional activity for the Lerner and Loewe musical was based around the costumes designed by Cecil Beaton. Whether or not the public could afford such flamboyant outfits was not uppermost in the minds of fashion editors – what Hepburn wore was just so stunning and converted into fabulous editorial spreads, especially for the magazines and newspaper supplements which by this time were mainlining on color, that it created a tsunami of marketing material.

In 1967 costumes hit a commercial peak with a record $12 million budget in total allocated to wardrobes. A total of $8 million was spent on just 15 movies. Easily topping the list was musical Camelot (1967) at $2.25 million while Doctor Dolittle (1967) racked up $1 million, Star! (1968) $750,000 and Funny Girl (1968) $500,000. Three hundred fashion editors attended a fashion show at the Plaza Hotel in New York for a first glimpse of the clothes worn in Funny Girl.

One year earlier Universal had pushed the boat out marketing-wise for the outfits designed by Yves St Laurent for Jean Seberg in Moment to Moment (1966). That same year Warner Bros had focused on fashion for its promotion of the fashion-conscious Kaleidoscope (1966). Stars Warren Beatty and Susannah York might as well have been fashion models given the range of outfits they wore and the movie’s Pressbook claimed the clothes specially created for the picture were on the biggest selling-points for a movie in years especially as most “in” stores “know about the kicky, eye-arresting swingy ‘mod’ fashion clothes which are all the rage.”

Candice Bergen, a former model, caused a sensation in Paris – where she was shooting Vivre pour Vivre (1967) with Yves Montand – when she participated in the Dior show. Her unexpected appearance as well as the clothes she wore received huge publicity. Also in 1967, MGM took out a full-page advertisement in Variety to, among other things, proclaim the impact of Doctor Zhivago on female fashion – “the world is wearing the Zhivago look.”

Expenditure was not an issue. A red velvet cloak worn by Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) cost an eye-popping $35,000 while Samantha Eggar’s fourteen costumes in Doctor Dolittle each cost between $7,000 and $14,000. The price of Vanessa Redgrave’s wedding dress in Camelot was $12,000.  Five gowns at a total of $17,000 made for Judy Garland for Valley of the Dolls (1967) were discarded when the actress was sacked and they did not fit replacement Susan Hayward.

Bonnie and Clyde had initially flopped in the U.S. so there was no great demand for Theodora van Runkle’s outfits. The film’s fashion craze started in London where it proved an unexpected hit. There, fashion house Matita launched a Bonnie outfit which caught on. But Stateside when the Bonnie look was widely adopted it was primarily because it was cheap to copy – a mid-calf skirt, thick-seamed stockings and the white beret not hard to replicate.

But it wasn’t just female fashions that benefitted from movie spinoffs. Male fashions seen in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) were adapted for commercial retail use by Geoffrey Beane and Donald Brooks, who were so convinced (mistakenly) that the movie would be a hit straight off the bat that the clothes appeared on racks long before the movie was released and the pair had to wait until the next year before demand for the movie turned into interest in its fashion.

In fact, men had always been a part of fashion marketing for the movies. Even a film as male-oriented and action-filled as The Guns of Navarone (1961) was given a fashion slant as a means of attracting a female audience – as I discovered when writing a book on the making of the film. “Navarone Blue” – was officially adapted by the British Colour Council while “Navarone Gold” was developed for the Colour Association of the United States. Both dyes were marketed to the manufacturers of automobiles, interior design and fabrics such as bedspreads. Grecian fashion was sold in 50 department stores including Macy’s. And it was written into the contracts of all the female stars that they wear clothes of either colour at premieres.

Lee Marvin had become an unlikely fashion icon and to take advantage of this new status MGM set up “coast-to-coast” promotions for Point Blank (1967). Highlander Clothes developed a fashion line as a marketing tie-up with over 60 stores from all over the country participating. Alcatraz – where part of the movie was filmed – was the location for a fashion shoot that went out in a three-page layout to the 20 million readers of Life magazine under the heading “Well-Dressed Moll Styles in Alcatraz.”

At the end of the decade another male-oriented picture, Downhill Racer (1969), was sold via a fashion marketing campaign. Steve McQueen, the epitome of cool, became a hook for fashion marketing, especially after The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) while Eli Wallach was an unlikely male model in upmarket male magazines. Earlier, for another male-dominated story, Seven Days in May (1964), director John Frankenheimer had been pictured wearing a Cardinal custom-made suit in an ad in Gentleman’s Quarterly. More in keeping with old-fashioned publicity gimmickry, for that film Paramount had also hired designer Mollie Parnis to create a suit for women that could be worn seven different ways on seven different days.

SOURCES: “Women Biggest Picture-Goers, So U Laces Midnight Campaign with Fashions,” Variety, Sep 7, 1960, 16 ; “Fashion Omnibus On 11 Features, By Edith Head,” Variety, Oct 31, 1962, 18; “H’wood Fashions Boom Year,” Oct 4, 1967, 5 ; “Paris Fashions – 1967,” Variety, Feb 15, 1967, 2; advertisement, Doctor Zhivago, Variety, Jan 4, 1967, 37.; Pressbook, Kaleidoscope; Pressbook, Point Blank; Pressbook, Seven Days in May; Brian Hannan, The Making of the Guns of Navarone (Baroliant, 2013) p153-154; Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater near You (McFarland 2016) p186. 

Age of Consent (1969) ***

Reputations were made and broken on this tale of a jaded artist returning to his homeland to rediscover his mojo. Director Michael Powell had, in tandem with partner Emeric Pressburger, created some of the most acclaimed films of the 1940s – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) just remade by the BBC and The Red Shoes (1948) – but the partnership had ended the next decade. Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960) was greeted with a revulsion from which his career never recovered. Age of Consent was his penultimate picture but the extensive nudity and the age gap between the principals left critics shaking their heads.

For Helen Mirren, on the other hand, it was a triumphant start to a career that has now spanned half a century, one Oscar and three Oscar nominations. She was a burgeoning theatrical talent at the Royal Shakespeare Company when she made her movie debut as the muse of the artist played by James Mason. It should also be pointed out that when it came to scene-stealing she had a rival in the pooch Godfrey.

You would rightly be concerned that there could be some grooming going on. Although 24 at the time of the film’s release, Mirren played an under-age nymph who spent a great deal of time sporting naked in the sea off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But there are a couple of provisos. In the first place, Mirren’s character was not swimming for pleasure, she was diving for seafood to augment her impoverished lifestyle. In the second place, she was so poor she would hardly have afforded a swimsuit and was the kind of free spirit anyway who might have shucked one off. Thirdly, and more importantly, Mason wasn’t interested. He wasn’t the kind of artist who needed to perve on young girls. An early scene showed him in bed with a girlfriend and it was clear that he was an object of lust elsewhere. Mason was an artist, fit and tanned, as obsessed any other artist about his talent, and was in this remote stretch not to hunt for young naked girls but to find inspiration. As well as eventually painting Mirren, he also transforms the shack he rents into something of beauty.

Mason is as vital to Mirren’s self-development. The money he pays her for modelling goes towards her escape fund. Her mother being a useless thieving alcoholic, she has little in the way of role model. And the world of seafood supply was competitive. She is lost in paradise and the scene of her buying a tacky handbag demonstrates the extent of her initial ambition. Although her physical attributes attract male attention, it is only on forming a relationship with the painter that Mirren begins to believe in herself. There’s not much more to the central story than the artist rediscovering his creative spark and helping Mirren’s personal development along the way.

And if Powell had wanted to make an erotically-charged movie, he need look no further than his own Black Narcissus, in which two nuns are brought to the brink of lustful temptation in a convent in the Himalayas. Powell, himself, had form in the erotic department, having previously been the illicit lover of the film’s star Deborah Kerr and at the time of making the movie had switched, in similar illicit fashion, to her co-star Kathleen Byron. There is no question that the young Mirren in a beauty, but it is not lust that guides Mason.

Female career longevity has always been an issue in Hollywood, the assumption being that women had shorter careers than men. But when I was writing “When Women Ruled Hollywood,” I discovered this was not true. Until Sophia Loren’s late foray this year, Jane Fonda had led the roll of honor – male or female – with a career lasting 58 years. Next came Shirley Maclaine with 56 years, then Clint Eastwood (54), Katharine Hepburn (52) and Helen Mirren (51) and Robert Redford (51). Loren’s latest – The Life Ahead – gave her a career as a recognised star turn of 66 years.

Mason is a believable character. He is not an impoverished artist. Far from being self-deluded, he is a questing individual, turning his back on easy money and the temptations of big city life in order to reinvent himself. He isn’t going to starve and he has no problems with women. And he is perfectly capable of looking after himself.  A more rounded artist would be hard to find. Precisely because there is no sexual relationship with Mirren, the movie, as a film about character development, is ideally balanced.

The movie is gorgeously filmed, with many aerial shots of the reef and underwater photography by Ron and Valerie Taylor.  

What does let the show down is a proliferation of cliched characters who over-act. Jack McGowran as a sponging friend, ruthless seducer and thief heads that list closely followed by Neva Carr-Glynn as Mirren’s grandmother who looks like a reject from a Dickens novel. There’s also a dumb and dumber cop and a neighbor so bent on sex that she falls for McGowran. It’s not the first time comedy has got in the way of art, but it’s a shame it had to interrupt so often what is otherwise a touching film.

At its heart is a portrait of the artist as an older man and his sensitive relationship with a young girl. In later years, Powell married film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and after his death she oversaw the restoration of Age of Consent, with eight minutes added and the Stanley Myers score replaced by the original by Peter Sculthorpe.

Pharaoh/Faraon (1966) ****

I had been familiar with Polish film Pharoah (1966) from a striking cover of British movie magazine Films and Filming and surprised at coming across the film while browsing YouTube I began watching without realizing there were no subtitles. I was so mesmerized by the visuals and the stunning camerawork that I could not stop watching.

There are as many versions of the Jerzy Kawalerowicz picture as director’s cuts of Blade Runner. The original clocked in at three hours. The version given limited showings in European countries was hacked down to under two hours. The DVD released in 2000 is limited to two hours, although the most recent DVD is 25 minutes longer. I suspect it was the latter that had ended up on YouTube since that version runs two hours and twenty-four minutes.  

Advert in Variety (May 4, 1966). Although little seen outside Poland it did well in Rome where it was a “smash” at the box office on the strength of a “sex-baiting campaign promising filmgoers a full dish of screen nudity approved exceptionally by the censors in the name of art” (“Shrew Paces Rome Box Office,” Variety, April 19, 1967, p64).

The story is relatively straightforward. The theme is power. Egypt is in decline when a fictional Rameses XIII (in reality only eleven bore that name) in ascending to power clashes with priests who seek to usurp his rule. That religion dominates Egypt is seen in the opening sequence where, rather than disturb two holy scarabs rolling a ball of clay, the priests take the army en route to battle out of their way. That leads to the destruction of a newly-built and much-needed canal, and the suicide of one of the loin-cloth-clad laborers working on the channel.

But that opening image and the director’s stunning use of the camera as well as the brilliance of the actors in depicting emotion through their eyes and facial expressions makes the film more than accessible despite the lack of sub-titles. This is a different Egypt to that conjured up by Hollywood and such desert-worshippers as David Lean. There is no beauty in a desert. Viewed as a waste, but one in which people have to live, through which foot soldiers have to trudge (rather than gloriously charge on camels), it is a lived-in reality, a great emptiness, devoid of mystery or splendor. The desert is a dead weight. Water is such a visual delight that in a brief scene on the river, the screen is at once bright and wonderful.

Barbara Brylska as the priestess-dancer who seduces Rameses. It is she who appears on the cover of “Films and Filming.”

Glory – temples, pyramids, jewellery – is man-made. But the whole enterprise is naturalistic. Men are bare chested, many clad only in loin cloths, priests are bald while the wealthy are attired in in heavy wigs.   What is not lacking is genuine historical detail. Hollywood had a habit of cherry-picking history for the items that would show up best on camera, but that is not the case here.  

What elevates the film is visual mastery and cinematic flair. Just opening an epic film with two dung beetles having a scrap on an arid plain and holding that image for the best part of a minute suggests a director of considerable talent. He follows this with over a minute of a reverse tracking shot following a soldier running who reveals a waiting army. There are a host of terrific visual scenes – a wild horse is impaled with spears as if in a Spanish bullring, the corpse of the suicidal laborer swings from a noose, cumbersome battles see soldiers surmount arduous dunes, golden doors open one after the other in the palace. 

Even in simple emotional scenes, Kawalerowicz knows where to place the camera and how to use it. The camera follows a woman as she enters a scene. She crouches down to the prostate Rameses. The camera remains on her as she retreats and he comes up to stop her and he remains out of shot as she moves away to the wall where, with her back to him, she begins to wail and then kneels down, hands raised in supplication. Another scene is shot in darkness except for Rameses in a white tunic and a seductress in a transparent dress.

The acting is uniformly good and even though the style is somewhat stilted Jerzy Zelnik as Rameses and the two women in his life, who bear the film’s emotional brunt, Krystyna Mikolajewska as his Jewish mistress and Barbara Brylska as a seductive priestess, are excellent.  Kawalerowicz was best known for Mother Joan of the Angels (1961). Pharaoh was the official Polish entry for the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, up against the far more commercially viable A Man and a Woman from Claude Lelouche (the winner), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde.

Treat the Youtube version as a sampler and if you are impressed you will find below a link to the DVD with Polish voices dubbed into English.

Sixty Years Ago – Xmas at the Movies

Setting aside the unusual circumstances of this year, we can generally count ourselves lucky these days – taking 2019 as a more standard example – if we are able to have five or six new films opening around Xmas. Hogging the limelight in the weekend before Xmas in 2109 was Star Wars Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker – the last in the current trilogy and the final part of the saga which had begun nearly half a century before – and which took the box office crown by a considerable distance from the weekend’s only other wide release opener, misconceived musical Cats. On the weekend after Xmas the wide release top spots were held by Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women with Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson plus animated feature Spies in Disguise while in much smaller openings were Sam Mendes future Oscar-winner 1917 and crime drama Just Mercy with Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

That was far from the case sixty years ago. In 1960 three times as many movies opened during the festive season. A total of 18 movies were launched before, during and just after Xmas Day.

In that era, of course, the wide release was effectively in its infancy so most films would usually open in one cinema on Broadway (though a few combined that with a showing in a smaller first-run arthouse elsewhere in the city) in New York and single cinemas in the center of other major cities. The success of Ben-Hur (1959) had lit a fire under the roadshow and the arrival of these behemoths would begin a process that would see several cinemas out of commission as regards new pictures for several months of the year. Even so, regardless of how films were released, cinemagoers had a far wider choice at Xmas in 1960.

In the week before Xmas (starting December 21, 1960) all eyes in New York were focused on the roadshow opening of Otto Preminger’s Exodus starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. United Artists had sunk colossal amounts into the picture. But it was competing at the box office with another SEVEN new big-time openings – more than opened during the entire Xmas period in 2019.

Two Elvis Presley pictures opened on the same day in New York – Paramount’s G.I. Blues and the western Flaming Star directed by Don Siegel from Twentieth Century Fox. Disney also chose that day to launch its spectacular Swiss Family Robinson. In addition, there was Jerry Lewis in comedy Cinderfella, fantasy adventure The 3 World of Gulliver, British comedy Make Mine Mink with Terry-Thomas and Stanley Donen’s romantic comedy The Grass is Greener with a topline cast of Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons.

In addition, some big-name stars were attached to movies that opened on December 21 in the smaller arthouses. Ronald Neame’s military drama Tunes of Glory with Oscar-winning Alec Guinness feuding with John Mills broke the box office record at the Little Carnegie. Sophia Loren and Maurice Chevalier headlined A Breath of Scandal, directed by Michael Curtiz. Also setting up shop in the arties were Roy Boulting’s  British comedy A French Mistress with Cecil Parker and James Robertson Justice, French veteran Jean Gabin in Rue de Paris and another French film Sins of Youth.

To avoid being trampled in the rush MGM held off another day before unveiling comedy  Where the Boys Are starring Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss, Dolores Hart and George Hamilton.  Then, as now, Xmas Day was an important day in the release calendar, reserved for the brave (or the foolish) since it generally took a very special picture to opt for that slot. In 1960, two  very big fish made their play.  First up was MGM’s roadshow remake of the 1931 Oscar-winning western Cimarron this time round directed by Anthony Mann and starring the ever-dependable  Glenn Ford opposite French star Maria Schell. The city ‘s biggest cinema, the legendary Radio City Music Hall, was turned over to Fred Zinnemann’s Australian drama The Sundowners pairing Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.

Two days later it was the turn of the final roadshow of the year Pepe with Cantinflas and an all-star international cast including Maurice Chevalier and Bing Crosby. Rounding out the Xmas season on December 28 came Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy The Facts of Life.

Films that had opened pre-Xmas had to show exceptional box office stamina in order to be kept on in their cinemas in the face of this onslaught of new films. Heading up that list, of course, was Ben Hur, now in its second year on Broadway. Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas was entering its eleventh week, John Wayne’s The Alamo its ninth, and Elizabeth Taylor incendiary drama Butterfield 8 its sixth.

Astonishing to think of the overwhelming choice offered to moviegoers then compared with the sparse selection these days.