Jungle Cruise (2021) **** – Seen At The Cinema

Can’t believe this romp is getting such sniffy reviews. But the reason is simple enough. Critics don’t watch it with an audience (except possibly of other critics) – on Rotten Tomatoes critics scored this at 63% while audiences rated it 93%. I saw it as part of my Monday Night Cinema Double Bill – along with Suicide Squad which critics adored. But while I thought Suicide Squad was a blast and very original, I laughed more at Jungle Cruise and I was much more involved. The difference – Suicide Squad is slick and cynical with hardly a single empathetic character, which is an easier target these days, but Jungle Cruise goes for something more difficult to achieve, a genuine warm-hearted movie that doesn’t disappear into romantic slush.

Sure, Jungle Cruise recycles not just Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – which itself recycled just about everything – but Ghost (1990), Highlander (1986), The African Queen (1951), Romancing the Stone (1984) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), but I don’t think that took away from its originality. The story made sense and the clues involved in the treasure hunt aspect of the picture were well worked out, delivering quite a few surprises. But mostly, there was terrific charisma between Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.

Roguish Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), with a line in lame jokes (which, by the way, had the audience roaring), operates an Amazon river cruise before the First World War where most of what the passengers see is manufactured. Explorer and accomplished burglar Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) mistakes him for riverboat magnate Nilo (Paul Giametti) but after Frank saves her from a tiger (his tame beast, it turns out) she hires him to find a fabled treasure. Also in the hunt are ruthless German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and Spaniard Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez).

Both Wolff and Houghton are given great opening scenes, he proving what a con man he is, she more than capable in a man’s world, where such is the antipathy to female archaeologists that her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) has to deliver her lecture for her. There’s action by the bucketload, quite a few Indiana Jones-type escapes, shooting the rapids, encounters with dangerous animals – snakes, piranha fish etc – and natives. Prince Joachim has one hell of a river vessel and quite a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s not just that the pace never lets up, but it is generally delivered with verve.  

Interestingly, there is a nod towards diversity in that MacGregor is gay, a fact accepted by Wolff. Equally interesting, MacGregor has a pivotal transitional moment as his character starts out in one mode and ends in another.  And Lily gives the finger to the male-dominated academic world.

Paul Giamatti (TV’s Billions, 2016-2021) only has a small part but it’s a delight to see him make any big screen appearance at all and Jesse Plemons (Judas and the Black Messiah, 2021) takes on the rather unusual role of the German bad guy. Even though Edgar Ramirez (Yes Day, 2021) spends most of the movie in disguise one way or another, his intensity still shines through.

Jaume Collet-Sera made his name directing Liam Neeson thrillers like Unknown (2011) – one of my favorite pictures – and Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) and The Commuter (2018) but this is a big step up not just in terms of budget and the occasionally complex story line but also in the romance and comedy elements and in my eyes he more than delivers. Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, 2017), Glen Ficarra (Focus, 2013) and John Requa (The Bad News Bears, 2005) all had a hand in the screenplay and James Newton Howard (News of the World, 2020) has written a great score.  

I’ve no idea whether Jungle Cruise has anything in common with the ride at the Disney theme park and I didn’t care. This is not just great family viewing but for audiences of all ages who just want to be – wait for it – entertained. But Disney may well have shot itself in the foot by streaming this at the same time as opening it in cinemas for I bet you this will get terrific word-of-mouth and they should have let it sit in cinemas for months to gather the benefits. An ideal summer movie of the old-fashioned kind.

Fashion Parade in “A House Is Not A Home” (1964)

Although Oscar voters dismissed the film’s acting, directing and writing, they made an exception for Edith Head, nominated in the category of Best Costume Design.

The movie paraded famous fashions of the period in more ways than one. Head’s idea was to have the girls sporting lingerie that had been seen in movies from the 1920s to the 1950s when worn by famous female stars.

Whether the clothes were the actual pieces worn in previous films, and adjusted to suit, or the designs were based on the previous movies is unclear. An article in Variety asserted that Head had not actually designed costumes for the film but that the producer had simply raided the Paramount costume department, where Head had worked since 1924, for outfits she had designed.

The “nightgown museum” was drawn from films made between 1925 and 1953. The earliest nightgown, worn by Gloria Swanson in The Duchess and the Waiter (1925), was assigned to Gigi Galligan. Meri Wells worn an item previously made famous by Clara Bow in It (1927), Leona Gage used a number from famed clothes-horse Kay Francis in Behind the Make Up (1930), Amede Charbot was adorned with the eye-popping flimsy piece that Carole Lombard paraded in Bolero (1933).

Patricia Thomas was given Nancy Carroll’s trousseau from Abie’s Irish Rose (1928) and Lisa Seagram was the second wearer of Grace Kelly’s powder blue chiffon in To Catch a Thief (1955).

However, there were more costumes worn than merely those which had acquired a classic status, all the male outfits for a start plus clothes reflecting the period worn by Shelley Winters and the other stars so it is likely that Head adapted her own previous outfits and augmented those with new costumes for the other players. Head had, of course, been working for Paramount during the 1920s and 1930s so she had firsthand experience of the types of clothes that would be worn.

Edith Head won eight Oscars from a total of 35 nominations. She won each year in 1950, 1951 (twice), 1952, 1954 and 1955 and again in 1961 and 1978 (for The Sting). Even where a film was not a commercial or critical success, there was every chance Edith Head would snag a nomination. Such was the case during the 1960s, up to A House Is Not A Home. In that half-decade she was nominated eleven times. In those days designers were nominated in two categories, films made in color and those made in black-and-white, thus accounting for the double award in 1951.

She won for Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy The Facts of Life (1960) and was nominated for John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In the same year as A House Is Not A Home, she was also nominated for the star-studded What A Way To Go! and the previous year three of her films were up for Oscar honors – A New Kind of Love starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Wives and Lovers with Janet Leigh and Natalie Wood-Steve McQueen drama Love with the Proper Stranger.  

SOURCES: Pressbook for A House Is Not A Home, p3; “Shelley Winters on Polly Adler: Bad & Ends Sad,” Variety, April 8, 1964, p5.

Book into Film – “A House Is Not A Home” (1964)

Hollywood biopics tended to follow one of two routes – overcoming circumstances or falling victim to circumstances. Polly Adler’s autobiography A House Is Not A Home fitted into neither category. It was more of a survivor’s guide and if there was any element of triumph it was within an unsavory profession and one that sailed too close to the nether worlds of the Prohibition gangster.

The film stuck to a shorter time frame than the book, kaleidoscoping certain events and characters, highlighting an inevitably impossible romance and adding a gangster subplot, while acting as an expose of civic corruption, cops especially rubbing their noses in the financial trough.

Dramatic license is taken throughout the film, for example Adler (Shelley Winters in the film) was not rescued in the book by future lover Casey Booth (Ralph Taeger), who was in any case a pseudonym, but first met him when he drank himself unconscious in her brothel. Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) makes only a brief appearance in the book. Both film and book skip present Adler as businesswoman first and victim second.

Adler’s unflinching attitude to the business is core to both book and film but inevitably a movie made in Hollywood in the mid-1960s enjoyed less freedom in matters relating to sex than a book published a decade before. In some respects it’s a shame that the film was shot  in such prohibitive times. Had it been made today either as a movie or mini-series it would have had a more decent chance of telling a better story and bypassing the pressing issues of morality, as was the case with Molly’s Game (2017), another true story, about a woman heading up a multi-million-dollar illegal gambling racket.

The book tells a fascinating story and casts a light on troubled times. Adler came to the U.S. as an immigrant at the age of 13, was raped by her workplace supervisor, thrown out of her home and went into the pimping business by accident before setting up her own brothel. But she did quit and operated instead as a lingerie retailer before being duped out of her savings. Thereafter, back in the sex worker business, she made a point of hiring only the most beautiful girls and her career path  demonstrated a fascinating understanding of business, especially her grasp of marketing, as she moved from the gangster world into high society.

There were busts along the way and she went out of business for over a year when implicated in the Seabury vice investigations of 1930-1931 and for a time afterwards was bankrolled by gangster Dutch Schultz. And although Adler worked her way up to notable personality and enjoyed the attention of artists and members of high society who used her premises almost as a salon, she did not run shy of spelling out the worst aspects of the life.

Loneliness was a key factor. It was impossible to retain a relationship except a destructive one with a pimp or gangster. Poverty, lack of education, poor home environment, lack of love and early exploitation were the reasons women became sex workers. Suicide – loss of hope – was common as was drug use. A high-class brothel was a long way from the type of operation where women were expected to service 25 men a day – a record of their activity kept by a “lace curtain” of holes punched into a sheet – but yet, inevitably, that was the final destination for the high-class girls once age or drugs or alcohol took its toll.

 “To outsiders it seems hypocritical and hair-splitting for a madam to make a distinction between herself and a pimp,” said Adler who maintained she did not fall into the latter category because her girls kept more of the money they earned and she did not take on inexperienced girls whereas a pimp seduced girls into the life and kept them there often by hooking them on drugs. 

Much like Don Corleone in The Godfather, morality did not enter the equation. “If I was to make a living as a madam, I could not be concerned either with the rightness or wrongness of prostitution considered either from a moral or criminological standpoint.”

Unlike the bulk of women employed as sex workers, the Adler story had a happy ending. After being busted in 1943 and undergoing a public humiliation on vacation, she retired from the business, went to university and wrote her biography which turned into a bestseller. She died in 1962, two years before the film appeared.

Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) ****

Setting aside the Biblical angle and the need to inject as much sin as the censor at that time would permit, this works very well as a historical drama filled with political intrigue, pivoting on the morality/sin axis, and with a terrific battle scene. The set up is superb. Bera (Anouk Aimee), Queen of the titular twin cities, allows Hebrew leader Lot (Stewart Granger) to settle his wandering tribe along the River Jordan in order to provide a buffer between her kingdom and the marauding Elamite tribe. Meanwhile, her treacherous brother Astaroth (Stanley Baker) intends using the Elamites to dethrone his sister.

Stunning image from the Pressbook.

The Sodom-Hebrew arrangement is ugly from the start. Sodom owes its wealth to salt. And it relies for its salt mining and processing to thousands of slaves, literally worked to death, corpses piled high on wagons and dumped in the desert. The Hebrews abhor slavery. But having been homeless for so many years, Lot is in no position to argue and assumes that his people can live peacefully enough alongside the heathens, even accommodating Sodom to the point of returning fleeing slaves.

Another superb illustration from the Pressbook.

In fact, in agreeing to live in such close proximity to Sodom, Lot is already in the throes of seduction. In what appears a gesture to seal the deal, Bera presents Lot with her chief female slave Ildith (Pier Angeli). In reality this is a cunning move designed to undermine Hebrew culture. Naturally, Lot grants Ildith her freedom but her presence creates disharmony, Melchior (Rik Battaglia) leading the dissenters. Astaroth seduces both of Lot’s daughters Shuah (Rosanna Podesta) and Maleb (Claudia Mori).

Eventually, of course, the Hebrews succumb to many of the pleasures of Sodom, especially after discovering their own salt deposits which instantly make them wealthy, while Astaroth continues to stir up trouble. Lot the politician is more to the forefront than Lot the good and faithful servant, ignoring the slavery for the sake of peace. However, politics remain a sticky maneuver and, in the end, of course, it is God who intervenes, smiting the wicked.

There are surprising depths to the story. Ildrith initially rejects Lot’s overtures of marriage on the grounds that it will diminish his goodness. In trying to improve living conditions for the Hebrews, Lot does the opposite, jeopardizing their beliefs, his actions rendering virtually invisible the distinctions between the opposing cultures, especially when he is up close to the dancing female slaves and men being burned alive on a wheel. Queen Bera is a political genius, skilled at keeping her enemies closer, not just taking advantage of Lot’s weakness but ensuring that Astaroth never catches her cold.

It’s a very absorbing mix of power, politics, human weakness, the dangers of collaboration, sex and action. Although Lot takes center stage, it is only to watch his decline from man of principle to weak-willed politician, through the astute workings of Queen Bera, a far better manipulator of human emotions than her opposing number.

Images showing the capture of slave Tamar (Scilla Gabel)

Stewart Granger (The Secret Partner, 1961) is surprisingly good as the Hebrew leader. He might lack the physical presence of the likes of Charlton Heston but he proves himself no mean adversary in the various action scenes, two fights with Astaroth for example, the battle itself and in quickly dealing with dissent in the ranks. It would never have occurred to me that a shepherd’s crook was much of a weapon, but in Granger’s hands it proves very effective. He knows he is being seduced, first by Ildith, and then by Sodom, but, as a human being rather than figure of spirituality, is powerless to stop it.  Stanley Baker (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) as the queen’s treacherous brother, on the other hand, just looks shifty and mean throughout.

Anouk Aimee (La Dolce Vita, 1960) is excellent as the politically astute monarch, and save for God’s intervention, would have got the better of everyone around her.  Pier Angeli (The Angry Silence, 1960) is touching, initially angry at being cast out of Sodom, gradually warming to Lot, but only too aware that in succumbing to her charms he might spoil his own innate goodness, like a femme fatale only too wary of her own powers.  Rosanna Podesta (Seven Golden Men, 1965) is good in a supporting role as is Rik Battaglia (Esther and the King, 1960) while Scilla Gabel (Colossus of the Arena, 1962) has a smaller part as the slave Tamar who meets a horrible death. Look out, too, for Gabrielle Tinti (Esther and the King, 1960), later best known for his marriage to Laura Gemser of the Black Emmanuelle series, and future spaghetti western anti-hero Anthony Steffen (Django the Bastard, 1969).

Novelisation of the screenplay with a cover placing the focus strictly on sin.

Robert Aldrich (4 for Texas, 1963) creates an excellent addition to the genre, the pace of the drama, with various storylines, never slacking. As a historical picture this aims higher than mere pulp where sexiness and torture are the audience hooks. His battle sequence is outstanding, unusual in that the balance of power shifts throughout, in part through treachery, between the participants. Although Aldrich often disparaged this picture, he has done a really good job of working up the ingredients into a heady brew, notwithstanding the “deus ex machina” ending that met audience expectation. Ken Adam (Dr No, 1962) headed up the production design and Wally Veevers (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) among the half dozen experts contributing to the special effects. Mention also to Maurice Binder for the credit sequence and Miklos Rosza (Ben-Hur, 1959) for a nuanced score.

Catch-Up: Reviewed previously in the Blog are Robert Aldrich’s 4 for Texas (1963) and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Stewart Granger in The Secret Partner (1961) and The Secret Invasion (1964), and Stanley Baker in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Girl with a Pistol (1968).

Selling Sex – The Pressbook for “A House Is Not a Home” (1964)

Selling sin had never been difficult in Hollywood, dating back to the Cecil B. DeMille silent epics and more recently when a series of films challenged the Production Code, the studio’s self-governing censorship system. In most films, however, sex had been a by-product of passion, a couple in love, or a glimpse of nudity. Nobody had ever attempted to foist onto the American public a picture about transactional sex, one that examined the basest elements of male desire.

If anyone could be relied upon to sell the unusual it was producer Joseph E. Levine, the master marketeer, who had spent millions to make millions with Hercules (1958) and more recently The Carpetbaggers (1964).  Only Levine had the audacity to market the picture as a “typical American success story” and present the Polly Adler, the New York madam at the center of the movie as “not a stereotype of a procurer” but as confidante of politicians and artists.

That at least was the upfront story, the version presented in the various articles peppering the Pressbook whose sole purpose was to win over the exhibitor. When it came to the public, the approach was a mixture of the imminently direct and the subtle.

In the straightforward department were a whole string of teasers under the headlines “She’s One of Polly’s Girls” featuring glamorous women in sexy outfits to soften up the potential moviegoer in advance. The women featured in virtually every advertisement to follow as “luscious playmates,” either taking center stage or in the background.

A graphic with an illustrated sexy women in little more than bra and panties sitting atop a house also appeared in several adverts. There were several ads along these lines and several different taglines.

“The story of a House of Pleasure…The woman who ran it…The beautiful girls who lived in it…The famous and the infamous who knocked lovingly on its door” set the tone.  Taking a similar approach was the tagline: “A motion picture for those who think they’ve seen everything and those who know they haven’t”  / “the body-and-soul shocker” / “Take a tour of New York’s most famous house! Meet the madam who ran it…the beautiful dolls who lived in it…the Johnnies whose ‘jack’ built it.” (“Jack” in this case meaning “money” in case your imagination runs to more lascivious ideas.)

Going down a more playful route, certainly subtle in comparison to the rest of the advertising, was a series of small ads that focused on aspects of an ordinary home – “the welcome mat is always out” / “the door is always open” – simple illustrations without sight of a sexy inmate.

Often promotional writers struggled to find enough interesting information to fill out a Pressbook but this was littered with fascinating snippets. Shelley Winters lived up to her reputation as a colorful actress by having thrown off the set a noted columnist, a photographer, a magazine writer and the film’s press officer – all in the one afternoon. Cesar Romero who plays gangster Lucky Luciano was born close to the gangster’s birthplace and had been gifted the underworld kingpin’s watch. Polly Adler, whose story the film tells, started writing her bestseller A House Is Not A Home as a thesis as part of a degree at UCLA and later took up painting.

Meri Welles, who essays suicide Lorraine, was actually in the property business, renting homes to movie stars like Rex Harrison. Broderick Crawford had previously won an Oscar as a crooked politician, similar to his role here, in All the King’s Men. Over 1,600 young hopefuls were auditioned over 18 days for the bit parts of Polly’s girls.

Leading the tie-ins was a new edition of the bestseller which had sold over 3 million copies. Brook Benton, then a top-selling pop star, had recorded the title theme by Burt Bacharach and Hal David which managed to avoid any mention of the type of house involved and there was always sheet music to add “promotional punch.” However, based on the notion of an ordinary house, exhibitors were encouraged to get in touch with household suppliers in order to run adverts along the lines of “a house is not a home without refrigerators” linked to the name of a local company.

However, the marketing team struggled somewhat to deliver the usual roster of gimmicks that could be applied by exhibitors, falling back on contests to complete a crossword and devise a limerick. Quite who dreamed up the idea of dressing up a promotional model in cap’n’gown and have her hand out diplomas inviting people to “meet the girls at Polly-Tech” was anybody’s guess and exhibitors might find it difficult to hire someone to parade the streets as a “walking book.”

A House Is Not a Home (1964) ***

Best remembered these days as the debut film for Raquel Welch (One Million Years BC, 1966), the rest of the film is well worth a look.

Hypocrisy had its heyday in The Roaring 20s when prohibition made bootleggers millionaires, helped bankroll other criminal activities like prostitution and encouraged cops and politicians to seek their share of the loot. No surprise then that the biopic of real-life madam Polly Adler (Shelley Winters) is knee-deep in corruption.  

Thrown out of her own home after being raped, Adler finds a knight in shining armor in the shape of bootlegger Frank Costigan (Robert Taylor) and is soon, at first apparently innocently, pimping out her friends. The reality of what becomes her profession is not ignored, the word “whore” bandied around, one girl, Madge (Lisa Seagram), turning junkie as a result while Lorraine (Meri Welles) commits suicide. As in Go Naked in the World (1961) Polly realizes that true love has no place in her world, a relationship with musician Casey (Ralph Taeger) unsustainable.

Adler, in her many voice-overs, explains why vulnerable women become sex workers – poverty, lack of family and lack of hope is her take on it – and she professes to view it as a business and preferable to working in a factory for pitiful wages, but the movie is at its best in linking the nether worlds of infamy and showing that the woman is always the loser.  Morality got in the way of portraying Adler as a winner, a successful businesswoman who brought a certain amount of style to the oldest profession. Women profiting from illegal activity would not be deemed heroic (to use the word loosely) until Molly’s Game (2017) and like Jessica Chastain in that film Adler’s love life is in tatters because, like her male counterparts, she devotes so much time to her business.

While any attempt to properly portray the period is hampered by lack of budget, it does provide an array of interesting and occasionally real-life characters, Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) for example. A brothel proves an ideal meeting place for crooks and politicians, the latter easily bought by contributions to their campaign funds. Cops are not shy about asking for donations to their Xmas funds or using the facility.

The Adler operation puts a glossy shine on the shady business since all her girls are glamorous. But still the movie pulls no punches except in the case of the madam herself, presented too often as an innocent and who saw nothing wrong in taking as much advantage of the vulnerable girls in her employ as the  clients who paid for them. Nonetheless, while Adler attempts to justify her life the film’s moralistic tone undercuts this.

 

Oscar-winner Shelley Winters (The Chapman Report, 1962), more often a supporting player at this point in the 1960s than the star, grabs the role with both hands and although unconvincing as the younger girl delivers a rounded performance minus the blowsy affectations that marred much of later work. One-time MGM golden boy Robert Taylor, pretty much in the 1960s reduced to television (The Detectives, 1959-1962) and low-budget pictures, shows a glimpse of old form as the smooth bootlegger.

Cesar Romero (Oceans 11, 1960) and Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford (All the Kings Men, 1949) head up a checklist of old-timers filling out the supporting cast. Future director Lisa Seagram (Paradise Pictures, 1997) as the junkie hooker makes the biggest impact among the girls.

From the flotilla of wannabes playing Polly’s girls, apart from Raquel Welch the only one to break into the big time was Edy Williams (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970). In the main they comprised beauty queens – Amede Chabot (Miss America), Danica d’Hondt (Miss Canada) and Leona Gage (Miss Universe) who had a small part in Tales of Terror (1962). Otherwise Sandra Grant became the most famous – for marrying singer Tony Bennett. Patricia Manning had the most screen experience, second-billed in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958), bit parts in television shows, and fourth-billed in The Grass Eater (1961). Inga Nielsen would later turn up as bikini fodder in The Silencers (1966), In Like Flint (1967) and The Ambushers (1967).

Director Russell Rouse (The Fastest Gun Alive, 1956) was better known for the screenplay of D.O.A. (1949) and had a story credit for Pillow Talk (1959). In fairness, although the film has no great depth, Rouse keeps it ticking along via multiple story strands, although occasional lapses into comedy fail to work. Lovers of curiosities might like to note that Rouse was the producer on an abortive American attempt to remake the classic British television comedy Steptoe and Son for U.S. audiences with Lee Tracy in the role of Albert and Aldo Ray as his son Harold.

This is hard to get hold of. Ebay will be your best bet. Youtube has a print but it’s not in great condition.

Black Widow (2021) ****

Like Skyfall, that rarity, an action film with a solid emotional core. Take away the action and you would still have an absorbing story of a loss, family tension, bickering siblings and an ego-driven pompous father. The action brings family together, initially the two girls, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) rescuing papa Alexei (David Horsburgh) from a Russian maximum-security prison then with the addition of brainy mum Melina (Rachel Weisz) tackling criminal mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone) in an exceptionally clever secret location.

If you’ve come looking for simple action, this is the wrong movie for you. Family complication, on a par perhaps with the criminal clan of The Godfather and imbued with the darker hues of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, adds far more depth than normal for a superhero picture. And even for Dreykov, the issue is family. He is the repairer-in-chief, on the one hand putting back together as well as he can his own familial loss, and on the other giving a home for countless orphans worldwide, albeit to suit his own plans.

Natasha has run the gamut of raw emotion. Orphaned twice, forcibly ejected from the one place she called home, i.e. The Avengers family, her feelings about being reunited with  adoptive Romanoff parents are noticeably negative.  Yelena is more willing to embrace the errant parents. Never mind that this is the one superhero picture in The Avengers catalogue where the superhero, as fit and agile as Natasha is, has no demonstrable superhero powers. And even those powers are mocked by Yelena who makes fun of the pose we have so often seen Natasha adopt. Nearly stealing the show is the self-pitying Alexei, the over-ripe overweight over-emotional father who would always be embarrassing you, inflated with his own self-importance, as bereft now as his daughters, having been stripped of his own superhero status as the Red Guardian. Whenever any of his family are in danger you can be sure his ego will get in the way.

The story is simple enough. By accident, Yelena, a member of the Dreykov army of female orphans, accidentally discovers she is enslaved, teams up, but only after a knock-down scrap Jason Bourne would have been proud of, with on-the-run Natasha, and eventually her parents. The action is terrific, especially the jailbreak, which has time to steal the central riff from Force Majeure (2014) just to ramp up the tension. And there are plenty surprises along the way, especially apt reward for Natasha’s ruthlessness as a do-gooder.

This is an entire family up for redemption, forced to confront their pasts, and for once it is not action that provides the solution. In some respects it is the family that clings together that stays together. The Avengers aspect is mostly redundant here, so what’s left is a more solid action-fueled thriller with superb characters, each, including villain, with their own emotional story arc. And it’s not always dark either, the family scenario studded with comedy nuggets.   

Visually stunning, as you might expect, this is a welcome big-budget showcase for Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, 2017) who brings emotional intelligence to bear on a genre in which that is often in short supply. Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) was the wordsmith.

Johansson (Marriage Story, 2019) has rarely been better and it says a lot for the performance of Florence Pugh (Little Women, 2019) that in their scenes together she is rarely overshadowed. Hopefully, this is the breakout picture for David Harbour (No Sudden Move, 2021), and maybe even the MCU team might recognize the comedic opportunities in a stand-alone based on his character, so effortlessly has it been constructed. And it’s a welcome return for Rachel Weisz, absent from the big screen since The Favourite (2018).  William Hurt (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) makes an expected appearance and Olga Kurylenko (The Courier, 2019) a surprise one and The Handmaid’s Tale’s O-T Fagbenie provides an interesting cameo.

This is definitely not going to work as well on the small-screen so if you’ve got the chance to see it in the cinema – where I saw it on my weekly Monday night outing – grab it while you can.

Istanbul Express (1968) ***

Calling this a by-the-numbers spy thriller does this movie no disservice since numbers are crucial to the complicated plot. On the one hand it’s quite a simple set up. Suave high-living art-dealer-cum-spy Michael London (Gene Barry) travels from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express to bid for secret papers in a secret auction. The complication: he must pick up the auction money from a bank in Istanbul using a code given to him along the way, each number by a different unknown person. On his side are train security chief Cheval (John Saxon), investigative journalist Leland McCord (Tom Simcox) and colleague Peggy (Mary Ann Mobley). Out to get him are Mila Darvos (Senta Berger) and Dr Lenz (Werner Peters).

The numbers business is an interesting addition to the usual spy picture formula of scenic location – Venice and the Eastern bloc as well as the other famous cities – violence and beautiful, sometimes deadly, women. You spend a good time guessing just how the numbers will be passed on and let me warn you it is sometime by inanimate means while the numbers themselves come with a twist. There’s also a truth serum, bomb threat, a traitor and every obstacle possible put in London’s way to prevent him completing his mission. London is about the world’s worst passenger, always missing the train as it sets off on the next leg of its journey, and requiring alternative modes of transport to catch up. But it’s as much about quick thinking as action and ends with a couple of unexpected twists. And it’s darned clever at times where the numbers are concerned.

Admittedly, the plot is a tad over-complicated but it’s fun to see London wriggle his way out of situations and for Cheval and McCord to turn up unexpectedly to provide assistance.

Gene Barry (Maroc 7, 1967) is little more than his television alter ego from Burke’s Law but he has an easy screen presence, never flustered, tough but charming and a winning way with the ladies. John Saxon (The Appaloosa, 1966) is the surprise turn, on the side of the angels rather than a villain, and equally commanding on screen, and certainly in one of his better roles. Austrian Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) is not given as much screen time as you would like – a long way from being set up as the normal espionage femme fatale – but is certainly a convincing adversary.

This was only a movie if you saw it outside of the United States. There it was shown on television. But it had high production values for a television movie and director Richard Irving, who directed the television feature that introduced Columbo (Prescription Murder, 1968), keeps it moving at a healthy clip.  The numbers idea was probably a television device, allowing the opportunity for timed breaks in the action. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link were a class television act, creating Columbo, and prior to that the Jericho (1966-1967) and Mannix (1967-1975) television series.  

Interestingly, Senta Berger, John Saxon, Gene Barry, Levinson/Link and Richard Irving were all at various points involved in the groundbreaking U.S. television series The Name of the Game (1968-1971).

I had not realized Istanbul Express was a made-for-TV picture until I had finished watching it and in that case found it a superior piece of television and a decent-enough riff on the spy movie. You can catch it on Amazon Prime.

CATCH-UP: Senta Berger has featured in the Blog in The Secret Ways (1961), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Necklace (1962), Major Dundee (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966).

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) **

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be turning in his grave. Workmanlike at best, awful at its worst, or a “so-bad-it’s-good” candidate? Christopher Lee goes through the motions, there’s an oddly inserted heist, the continuity goes haywire, and the deduction would not have troubled a child. Even the great sleuth having to match nemesis Moriarty in cunning fails to lift this turgid tale. Despite being made in Germany, all the actors, save Senta Berger, appear injected with a fatal dose of stiff upper lip.

A corpse in the water alerts Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Lee) to the presence of Moriarty (Hans Sohnker) who is hunting Peter Blackburn (Wolfgang Lukschy) who has appropriated Cleopatra’s necklace from an archaeological dig. This takes them to Hampshire where corpses abound but the necklace is gone. Holmes burgles Moriarty’s apartment and steals back the necklace which is sent, in heavily protected police van, to an auction house. Holmes outwits Moriarty by infiltrating the heist the villain has planned.

The best scene comes at the beginning when boys throw stones at something floating in the Thames only to discover it’s a corpse. After that, you can choose from any number of bad scenes. Where do you start? The disguises? Holmes is first seen wearing a false nose to pass himself off as dock worker. An eyepatch is enough to convince Moriarty’s henchmen that Holmes in one of their kind. Bare-handed, Holmes kills an obviously plastic snake. To find out what Moriarty is up to, they listen down a chimney!

The deduction is so awful Dr Watson (Thorley Walters) could have done it. A dying man who manages to whisper one word is unable to whisper two and instead still has the strength to flap his hands in a way that any child in the audience familiar with shadow play would have known signaled a bird. Holmes follows bloody footsteps over grass in the darkness. The hands of a corpse are too calloused to be a high-class gentleman. And that’s as much of the detective’s genius as is on show. Moriarty, who is meant to be ever so bright, offers Holmes £6,000 a year to enter into a criminal partnership with him.

Did I mention the continuity? Holmes, in docker’s disguise, turns up outside his apartment lying on the pavement calling for help. Wounded, perhaps? A bit of a joke? We never find out. Once inside, he just turns back into Sherlock Holmes. In the middle of the Hampshire countryside,  Scotland Yard’s Inspector Cooper (Hans Neilsen) turns up in a trice.

The film has also been dubbed so the performances are all flat except that of Ellen Blackburn (Senta Berger), the only character who injects emotion into the picture. Everybody else is wooden. Christopher Lee bases his entire interpretation of Holmes on his costume, deerstalker prominent and always puffing on his pipe. Austrian Senta Berger at least shows promise and manages to project some personality into her small part.

Made in a Berlin studio, with some location work in Ireland, this German-made movie has a screenplay by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, 1941), purportedly based on the Conan Doyle tale The Valley of Fear. British director Terence Fisher (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) is generally assumed to have helmed this project but the actual credits on the picture have him sharing duties with Frank Winterstein, so perhaps Fisher can be absolved of the complete blame.  

The so-bad-it’s-good category had obviously not been invented in the early 1960s so this picture was shelved in Britain for six years, although shown in Germany and France before then.

CATCH-UP: If you’ve been tracking the often subtle performances – for a glamour queen – of Senta Berger through the Blog, you can also check out my reviews of The Secret Ways (1961), Major Dundee (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), and Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966). If you’re a Berger fan or fast becoming one to can see one of her later performances in Istanbul Express (1968) which, by coincidence, is reviewed tomorrow.

Selling Sherlock Holmes – The Pressbook for “A Study in Terror” (1965)

This is one of my favorite pressbooks because the marketing concept is so wacky and clearly an ill-advised attempt to cash in on the crime-busting efforts of television’s latest sensation Batman which had aired on the small screen in January 1966 and on the big screen in July of that year, a month before A Study in Terror found its way into U.S. theaters.

Rather than merely adapting the British exhibitors manual – the film had been released in Britain in October 1965 – Columbia, clearly deciding the movie was too old hat for American audiences, aimed to hijack some of the ideas currently being used for the Twentieth Century Fox television series/movie.

So potential moviegoers were treated to bizarre taglines such as “here comes the original camp-counsellor-in-a-cape” and “Flyaway Batman!” complete with the “Bam!” “Biff” and “Crunch” opticals that had become synonymous with the Batman television series. Not  content with that, the advertising team invoked Superman as well with a spoof tagline: “faster than a speeding computer…able to leap tall tales in a single stroke of genius.” A third  famous character was drawn into proceedings – “He’s James Bond in a cape.”

Also referenced was a famous movie campaign from two decades before. “Sherlock Holmes is Back and Jack the Ripper’s Got ‘Im” echoed the legendary tagline that welcomed Clark Gable back to the movies after his war stint “Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him.”

Interestingly, although exhibitors were supplied with a choice of several taglines, the core advertising image – a pistol-packing Holmes above a busty screaming victim – remained the same, contrary to the normal practice of devising a number of advertisements that allowed the exhibitor to choose the one most relevant to their customer base.

Outside of the spoof Batman ads, the campaign focused on the clash between the master sleuth and the villain. Other taglines spelled it out: “Sherlock Holmes takes on Jack the Ripper” / “Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper in a mad, mad thriller” / “Sherlock Holmes strikes back at the foulest fiend of them all, Jack the Ripper” and “The sleuth versus the slayer.”

Supplementary taglines were occasionally included: “girl after girl, he gives a new twist to the world’s oldest profession” / “the most savage killer of the century and the screen screams with suspense” / “the battle of wits is as terror sharp as the murder weapon.”

With copyline writers doing overtime, the Pressbook clocked up over 15 separate adverts. Pictorially, the emphasis appeared to be on cleavage and brutal murders of women.

With a virtual cast of unknowns, the Pressbook writers had to work hard to summon up interest in the principals. John Neville for example had been originally approached for a musical Baker Street and he fitted in shooting the film with his work in the theatre. Adrian Conan Doyle, son of the famed author, proclaimed that Donald Houston was “completely, utterly. right for the part.” The role of a disfigured girl was considered a “professional risk” for Adrienne Corri and Barbara Windsor announced she was going to turn brunette and concentrate on drama rather than comedy.

Another famous writing team was called into the promotional whirl, bestselling authors Ellery Queen writing the novelization of the screenplay.

On the basis that the detective was well-known, the marketeers felt safe enough exhorting exhibitors to persuade local libraries to hold a Sherlock Holmes Week and approaching bookstores to feature the other books in the series as well as the novelization. Another suggestion was a competition to name all ten stars who played the character. Sherlock Holmes fans were known as Baker Street Boys and “there may be a member or two in your community…who may prove tremendously helpful in radio/newspaper/television promotion.”

Another promotion focused on deerstalker hats and the hero’s interest in the violin and pipe-smoking lent themselves to tie-ups with retailers of such products.