Midnight Lace (1960) ****

Works for the very reason that it shouldn’t – Doris Day’s off-the-scale hysteria. The actress junks her usual screen persona of spunky occasionally lovelorn heroine and channels her abundant physical energy into an exceptionally good portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

And, unlikely as it sounds, this a companion piece to David Miller’s later Lonely Are the Brave (1962),which equally presents a discordant character at odds with their surroundings whose inability to settle into the norm precipitates downfall.

Heiress Kit (Doris Day) is being hounded mainly over the telephone by a creepy stalker with a high-pitched voice, threatening to kill her. Before you can say Gaslight, you are casting a suspicious eye on millionaire businessman husband Anthony (Rex Harrison). But that only lasts for as long as it takes for a whole bunch of other suspects to hove into view.

The sinister man in black hat and coat appears too obvious a contender. Others have something off about them or appear at the wrong time and wrong place. Unemployed ne’er-do-well Malcolm (Roddy McDowell) who sponges off his mother, attempts unsuccessfully to tap Kit for funds and makes it plain he won’t be doffing his cap to her. Builder Brian (John Gavin) is over-friendly and, we overhear, makes a lot of phone calls.

And you wouldn’t count out gambler Charles (Herbert Marshall), an executive in Anthony’s firm, which, by the way, has uncovered a bit of fraud. Nor happily-married Peggy (Natasha Perry), Kit’s friend, who turns up in a bus queue the very moment Kit nearly ends up under the wheels of a London bus. And then there’s Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) who’s arrived from America and seems determined not to take Kit’s side.

Naturally, nobody can allay Kit’s suspicions. The police are the first to suggest she’s going off her head, seeking attention because neglected by her husband.

But this is so well done, Kit jumping at the slightest noise, that you are pretty much convinced it’s going to be one of those films where every incident is imagined, especially since that would be a helluva coup to have an actress of the lightweight caliber of Doris Day to play her.

Whenever anyone else answers the phone it’s to an innocent caller. And when Kit persuades Peggy to pretend she heard the voice, discovery of that ruse appears to seal her doom.

When we’re not stuck in Kit’s head, there are sufficient tense moments to keep the plot ticking along, trapped in an elevator, shadows on a ceiling, faces glimpsed in windows, voices appearing out the fog, whispers behind her back, friends turning against her, every  police ploy a dead end.

Quite why she’s such a giddy character to begin with is never explained, except of course being a millionairess, three months married, with nothing better to do with her time than waltz around in one stunning fashionable outfit after another, life a succession of expensive treats, and whisked off her feet, when he can spare the time, by adoring hubby.

So maybe it’s something as simple as a loved-up wealthy woman finding cracks appearing in her perfect life and in trying to ascertain the cause whirling round faster and faster. There’s certainly no sense of a solid character who could sit down and give herself a good talking-to or transform herself into an amateur sleuth. When the façade breaks, it’s a dam burst.

If at the beginning Doris Day seems already too-wound-up it doesn’t really matter, her lust for life turns very quickly into abject fear as the terrorization becomes only too real. This is a fantastic performance from the actress, woefully under-rated, and the scene where she collapses on the stairs is only too believable.

Rex Harrison (The Happy Thieves, 1962) is excellent in a custom-made role, handsome adoring husband, but every time he clasps her in a sympathetic embrace, the camera lingers on his eyes showing growing fear at her condition. The roster of supporting stars each brings something distinctive to their role, from the wheedling Roddy McDowell (Five Card Stud, 1968), in only his second movie role after eight years of solid television,  the too-good-to-be-true John Gavin (Back St, 1961) and old-timers Myrna Loy (The Thin Man, 1934) as the doubting aunt and Herbert Marshall (The Letter, 1940) as the impecunious gambler.

Director David Miller (Captain Newman, M.D., 1963) moves the camera in disconcerting fashion. You think you’re settled in for a stage-style scene when suddenly the camera whirls away and focuses on one character. The scene in the elevator is exceptionally well-done as is the finale, but possibly his biggest attribute is encouraging Doris Day to just go for it rather than reining in her character the way Hitchcock did for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (Portrait in Black, 1960) put together the screenplay from the hit Broadway play Matilda Shouted Fire by Janet Green.

I came at this with low expectations, not imagining Doris Day could pull off such a difficult role, and I came away wondering why she had not in consequence been given other opportunities to show off her dramatic skills.

The Millionairess (1960) ***

The movies lost a brilliant comedienne when Sophia Loren was lured (by a million-dollar fee no less) into historical drama. Having previously demonstrated her flair for comedy in Houseboat (1958), turning Cary Grant’s life upside down, she repeated the formula here. Cultural appropriation by Peter Sellers is the main issue getting in the way of full appreciation, not just the actor essaying an Indian, but the fact that this is a very cliched  attempt.

The narrative runs along two parallel twists and coming from the politically-aware mind of George Bernard Shaw contains a streak of social commentary. Beautiful millionairess Epifania (Sophia Loren) can only marry a man able to demonstrate business acumen. Dr Kabir (Peter Sellers), who caters to an impoverished clientele, must marry a woman capable of existing in poverty, eking out an existence for 90 days on the daily equivalent of less than a couple of pounds sterling.  

At the foot of the poster note the advance warning of the initial stab at “Cleopatra” that was to star Feter Finch and Stephen Boyd rather than Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.

Epifania, presented in that generation as somewhat imperious but to today’s generation would be viewed as the epitome of the independent woman resisting the notion that she choose a mate based on someone else’s criteria, is not above a bit of jiggery-pokery to win the man of her dreams. Technically, all said lover has to do is turn £500 into £15,000 and since no detailed information needed accompany those transactions, Epifania feels justified in simply handing over the dosh to her lover to fulfil the requirements.

She falls into Dr Kabir’s orbit after attempting suicide by drowning following the discovery of her feckless lover Alistair’s (Gary Raymond) affair with Polly (Virginia Vernon). Kabir, mind on other more important matters, fails to rescue her. But when she ends up in the water again, this times as rescuer, he is more responsive especially when she manages a physical connection.

However, he is not going to be bribed into love, not even when she modernises his dilapidated surgery. Naturally, she is viewed as headstrong and controlling rather than a philanthropist and so they enter into the double bargain.

This splits the narrative, as Epifania returns to Italy to work in a sweatshop. And although she reveals not just newfound humanity, defending her exploited fellow workers, and demonstrates the business skills to reverse the factory’s declining productivity, this still isn’t enough for Kabir who, with no head for money and no inclination to go through any rigmarole to please Epifania, manages to insult her, thus triggering the normal romantic comedy breakup.

In the meantime, wily attorney Julius Sagamore (Alistair Sim) and opportunistic psychiatrist Dr Adrian Bland (Dennis Price) muddy the waters.

Mostly, the film gets by on old-fashioned charm – and while, as noted, Sellers’ performance is outmoded in his impersonation of an Indian he is quite believable as an honorable man unlikely to fall for the first beautiful woman to come his way.

Sophia Loren (Arabesque, 1966) carries the picture with her exquisite comedy timing and even when the posters emphasized her various states of undress there is much more to her ability, as audiences were already aware, than taking off her clothes. She is an absolute delight, both as the demanding haughty heiress and the spurned lover and in any other movie her romantic enterprise would be applauded and just as with Houseboat she drives the narrative, the object of her affection not quite putty in her hands, and with the bonus of a song, a duet this time (“Goodness Gracious Me”) rather than the two solos of the previous picture.

Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther, 1963) was still in search of his screen persona and to some extent is blown off the screen by Loren who seems much more comfortable with the material, extracting humor without needing to rely on funny voices. Sellers changed the character of the doctor in the original play from an Egyptian to an Indian for no particular reason and in fact the nationality of the doctor would have made little difference to the story, it was a character, disinterested in woman and contemptuous of wealth, that provided the narrative impetus. Oddly enough, although at the time the deceased George Bernard Shaw was considered one of the world’s greatest playwrights the 1936 play on which this is based had never been a big success, reception so lukewarm on its out-of-town opening that it did not reach the West End,  Broadway run delayed till 1949 and then only lasting 13 performances (i.e less than two weeks).  

Director Anthony Asquith had made a huge success out of the author’s Pygmalion (1938) (the source material for musical My Fair Lady) and specialised in bringing stage plays to the cinema – The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) – so was acquainted with handling big stars and opening up plays for cinema audiences. He shows a sure grip on the action and allows Loren to build up a beguiling character so that audience sympathy for her dilemma never runs dry. Wolf Mankowitz (The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, 1960) and the debuting Riccardo Arragno wrote the screenplay.

The material would have more suited the colder, sharper tongue of a Katharine Hepburn (who did at one time play the character on stage) but Loren’s portrayal avoids the temptation of adopting a more spinsterish approach.

Watch it for Loren and the clever Alistair Sim and try not to cringe at Peter Sellers.

Zeta One / The Love Factor (1969) **

Perhaps best described as a more sophisticated occasionally psychedelic companion piece to Orgy of the Dead (1965).

You can’t blame screen wannabes and future Hammer queens Swedish bombshell Yutte Stensgaard (Lust for the Vampire, 1970) and Valerie Leon (Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, 1971) for wanting to kick-start their careers any way they can. But you have to wonder what career nadir James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) and  Dawn Addams (The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, 1960) found themselves in to have signed up.

Credits depended on where you saw the film. Here, Anna Gael takes top billing courtesy of box office success “Therese and Isabelle.” The poster does Dawn Addams a favor –
in the film she is way down the credits as a guest star.

Compared to Orgy of the Dead this has a helluva plot though it takes its sweet time getting there. Secret Agent James Word (Robin Hawdon) has the details of his previous mission (to Scotland!) dragged out of him – no torture required just strip poker followed by sex – by secretary Ann (Yutte Steensgaard).

The story, told in flashback, recounted by Word mostly in bed – perhaps this is where Game of Thrones acquired the notion of “sexposition” – concerns the efforts of spy boss Major Bourdon (James Robertson Justice) to prevent Zeta (Dawn Addams) leader of a race of women from repopulating her planet Angvia by kidnapping females from Earth, having set her eyes this time on a Soho stripper.

The Wonder Woman race of women theme – the Sumuru version a bit more aggressive – has been given a good airing in contemporary times, but where those ancient Amazons kept themselves busy with sport and battle training, the Angvian women do little more than disport themselves in the most minimal of costumes – even for contemplation and hibernation – although to be fair topless nudity is hidden from prying eyes by the use of purple nipple pasties. There’s a definite hint of bondage in costumes held together by rope and the Sapphic angle is teased out.

Bear in mind this was made before alien abduction became a huge trend but the idea of men being kidnapped for the sole purpose of impregnating beautiful women might be the real reason why so many cases of alien kidnapping later came to light.

Perhaps in keeping with the theme of female domination no males get a mention
on this poster where Brigitte Skay takes second top billing.

The women are superior in every way, peaceful and with an aristocratic bearing, though with a tendency to wear trendy thigh-high boots, and willing to put up with the intrusion of an occasional male for the sake of perpetuating their community. But the men, as instanced by the Major and Word, are a pretty crude and dumb bunch. Word is only too happy to indulge every female he comes across without appearing to extract any information while the Major, clearly lacking the sex appeal to get himself into a similar situation, relies on cruder means, torture the most obvious.

If it weren’t so crass you could point to feminism, a superior world that survives mostly independent of men without their base desires and who can channel inner power when it comes to physical confrontation rather than relying on old-fashioned weaponry. At its worst it’s just a parade of naked and semi-naked women (Ann, for example, rarely seen clothed), but at its best it’s a somewhat ham-fisted sci fi spoof with it has to be said the occasional burst of humor (the names, for example, have connotations) and if nothing else should provide a cautionary tale for stars whose careers are imploding.

This was produced by Hammer’s sometime rival, Tigon, the Tony Tenser outfit that sexed up the horror field. It’s ironic that the three stars, Stensgaard, Leon and also Robin Hawdon (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, 1970) were snapped up by the competitor for later top-billing.   I’m not sure we heard any more of Yutte’s original voice than we did in Lust for a Vampire where she was more famously dubbed.

The first and last film of director Michael Cort who co-wrote the screenplay with Alistair McKenzie, who never wrote another one either, possibly a separate cautionary tale.

You might enjoy it more by star-watching. Carry On favorite Charles Hawtrey pops up as Bourdon’s sidekick and you can spot the future “wifelet” of the Marquess of Bath  Hungarian Anna Gael (Bridge at Remagen, 1968), German Brigitte Skay (Isabella, Duchess of the Devils, 1969), British character actor Rita Webb (The Strange Affair, 1968) and Carol Hawkins (TV series The Fenn Street Gang, 1971-1973).

I came to this having wondered about the apparent demise of Dawn Addam’s career after Where the Bullets Fly (1966). That’ll teach me to indulge my curiosity. The best you can say is she doesn’t disgrace herself, not being required to strip, and has a more commanding presence than the random James Robertson Justice who just looks suitably embarrassed.

The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll / Jekyll’s Inferno / House of Fright (1960) ****

One of the most shocking films of its day with its unusual focus on sex and violence, this takes the famed Robert Louis Stevenson tale down a different direction in that Dr Jekyll enjoys the base animal instincts he has unleashed with his experiments rather than expressing remorse or guilt. Evil has never been more demonstrably enjoyed.

Dr Jekyll (Paul Massie) is a shy cuckolded scientist when he takes the magic elixir that diverts his dull personality towards a more dynamic, if ultimately perverted, destination. From being fearful of life, he begins to sample its more exotic pleasures under the guidance of louche best friend Paul (Christopher Lee) who is carrying on an affair with the good doctor’s wife Kitty (Dawn Addams).

Not only does the reincarnation of Jekyll as the lusty Hyde consort with prostitutes and manage to snare exotic dancer Maria (Norma Marla), a beautiful woman who would normally be way out of his league,  he develops a fetish for violence, almost beating to death a hooligan (Oliver Reed) in a dodgy club, only prevented from committing his first murder by the intervention of his friend.

Sure, there’s some philosophising about the nature of good and evil and whether violence is inborn or nurtured and there are moments when guilt rears its ugly head, but these are pretty fleeting to be honest, and most of the time he can hardly wait for another draught of his poison in order to shake off his insipid persona and revel in the new creation.

But magic will only take you so far. Believing he is now irresistible to women he fancies his chances with Paul’s amour, who is of course none other than his wife, but she will have none of it, finding him a poor alternative to the charming Paul. In one of the most controversial scenes of the day, and perhaps only ironically acceptable at the time, Hyde proceeds to rape the resisting Kitty. This skirts so close to the edge of taste, not just the worst type of domestic abuse (though husband assaulting wife would be no less unusual in Victorian times than it is now), but almost the neanderthal man taking what he wants, that it makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially as it is presented as a come-uppance for the adulterous hoity-toity Kitty.

Perhaps more interesting is that having won over the cold Maria, a trophy lover on a par with the higher-born Kitty, that’s not enough for Hyde.

Also, for the time, is an extremely risqué scene involving Maria and her snake, especially when having completed the usual survey of her curves, the reptile ends up down her throat. That the Victorians were masters of the art of hypocrisy comes as little surprise, but the extent of it takes the viewer aback.  

There’s another twist. When it becomes apparent that his crimes are about to catch up with him the cunning Jekyll attempts to blame Hyde.   

Sumptuously mounted by Terence Fisher (Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966) and with nary an attractive character in sight – none of the innocent victims of the vampire sagas, for example – to leaven the sight of such unmitigated wickedness, the director offers an unique vision of how easy human beings will degenerate given the chance. At the outset Paul appears the most obvious villain, leeching on his friend to pay his gambling debts, while at the same time making hay with his wife. But initial audience sympathy for a wife, presented as a beautiful woman who for the sake of security has made a bad marriage and who needs an outlet for passion, soon dissipates as her true character is revealed.

The refusal to temper the ongoing degeneracy with one good character is a bold choice. Budgetary restrictions eliminated the usual transformation scene but that was probably for the best, since Hyde merges as though from a chrysalis into a stronger personality rather than undergoing some body-wracking physical change. It’s almost as if the director is determined to show how easy, given opportunity, a good but essentially weak man will embrace the dark side.

Accusations that Fisher has failed to bring sufficient suspense to the film I find unfair. Certainly, there’s not the tension of the will-he-be-found-out vein, but since the story is so well-known that appears a redundant course sensibly avoided. The director replaces that with ongoing friction between Jekyll and his friend on the one hand and his wife on the other, both of whom are unaware that the man they know as Jekyll is aware of just what a fool has been made of his alter-ego.

The emphasis instead falls on how and when the cuckold will take his revenge. And although the rape scene is unwelcome, there’s a certain ironic sadness for Jekyll to discover that his new persona is no more attractive to his wife than his old one.

Paul Massie (Call Me Genius, 1961) is of course far removed from an actor like Spencer Tracy (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1941) and he relies overmuch on rolling the eyes but even so this is a decent performance. Christopher Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness) is the revelation, creating a very believable insidiously charming man who never quite approaches outright villainy. Dawn Addams is excellent as the spoiled entitled wife.

One of the unusual aspects of the picture is that where Hammer had been and would remain a breeding ground for new stars – Christopher Lee a most obvious example – everyone else featured here came to, in cinematic terms only I assure you, an untimely end.

This turned out to be Paul Massie’s only starring role – he only made another three films during the entire decade – and was soon relegated to television. Dawn Addams only managed another nine and, apart from House of Sin/The Liars (1961), spy flick Where the Bullets Fly (1966) might be counted the peak.

David Kossof only made another four, and none beyond 1964. And this was the final film in an extremely brief two-picture career for Norma Marla. Only the uncredited Oliver Reed (Women in Love, 1969) and of course Christopher Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966) went on to bigger and better things.

As did Terence Fisher who helmed most of the best Hammer pictures of the decade. Wolf Mankowitz (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961) wrote the script.

Generally dismissed at the time, this has for good reasons acquired a substantial following and is well worth a look.

Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It’s rare that I watch an older movie twice over a relatively short period of time and it virtually never occurs that after seeing a DVD-sized version I am afforded the opportunity to see the picture in all its original glory on the big screen. But, courtesy of a Victorian-era strand of this year’s Bradford Widescreen Weekend. I was able to do so, and it was well worth the experience to clarify several aspects of the movie.

On second go-round what stood out most were the characters rather than the political commentary and that the military disaster portrayed was caused by simple human error, a miscommunication, rather than the result of a bunch of buffoons being in charge.

Certainly, the approach is unusual for a war movie, a lot less of the glory, courage and glamor of war, and much more, in fact more than ever before, of the details of mounting a campaign. Even a movie as detailed as Apocalypse Now (1979), which had more than its fair share of gung-ho cavalier buffoons at the helm, drew the line at showing the organisational calamity to which every military endeavor will at some time fall victim. War movies, like westerns, tend to stick to the knitting of action rather than consequence and reprisal.

The over-simplification of reasons for Britain going to war are more obviously over-simplified on reappraisal. The effect on Turkey and the extended Middle East of an unopposed Russian invasion would have scarcely borne thinking about, never mind complaining about who or why various countries sought to withstand the aggressor. While applauding the vigor of the animated sequences, their content, and the way director Tony Richardson tries to sway audience opinion, seems dubious.

It’s worth noting that at the time the infamous charge was reported as a debacle by The Times newspaper and the idea that there was anything glorious about it only occurred because a few days later Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote the famous poem that acted as an epitaph to courage. While no attempts are made to embroider the myth of war, and it’s clear the army is mostly made up of people with no other chance of employment (which would as true at any time in the previous millennium), nonetheless the  focus is on personality clashes at the highest level, as various commanders jostle for position and control. But I doubt if personal enmity actually affected decisions on this particular battlefield, although occasional incompetence is readily addressed.

As Lord Cardigan, Trevor Howard gives the greatest performance of the second half of his career when he had shifted away from the romantic hero of Brief Encounter (1945) to gruff characters with a tendency towards the choleric. His portrait of a soldier who bristles against his position in the chain of command even as he tries to impress the importance of hierarchy on his junior officers, is superb, especially as he is in turn puffed up and then torn down by public opinion, and for all he may appear an unsavory character still appears to be catnip to the ladies.

In my previous viewing I had followed the director’s line in taking as our conscience dashing cavalry officer Nolan (David Hemmings), even though he is not quite so principled that he refrains from an affair with the wife Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave) of his best friend. But although he played an integral role in the actual battle, he seems on reflection to be a sop to the film’s backers, a handsome leading man (and beautiful Redgrave) as the apparent audience focus rather than the other individuals who were altogether less attractive personalities.

Instead, what I responded to more was the depiction of the enclosed society of soldiers writ much larger on the big screen than on the small. And yes, this is class-ridden Britain (though when was it not so) at war in 1854, when military advancement was purchased rather than officers promoted for their leadership skills, and far removed from the idealized U.S. Cavalry as portrayed by John Ford when at dances  the officers mixed with the ordinary soldiers.

Errol Flynn in the previous version for which Balaclava was the code to an adventure that took place for the most part in India.

The lower-class recruits, lured by a wage and the promise of glory, are so ill-educated they don’t know their left foot from their right, something of a problem in obeying orders in the field. Where turning raw recruits into soldiers proved manna from heaven for the likes of Robert Aldrich in The Dirty Dozen (1967) or Andrew V. McLaglen in The Devil’s Brigade (1968), here no concessions are made to the sheer brutality of the job.

Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) engages in open warfare with brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews). Cardigan is irascible to the point of apoplexy, incredibly brave, vainglorious, a vindictive sex-mad peacock, with an odd selection of principles (refuses to deal with spies, for example). Nothing can beat a quite marvellous spat between the pair over how to pitch tents. Commander-in-Chief Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) requires immense skills just to deal with the personalities under his control and comes across as more politically astute and more effectual than another officer who refuses to allow battle to take precedence over breakfast.

The effete Nolan, initially introduced as the good guy who stands up to Cardigan, is revealed as ineffectual, possibly more so than the superiors he so wantonly offends. But since his romance with Clarissa as clearly as opportunistic as Cardigan’s brief fling with the married Mrs Duberly (Jill Bennett) it clears the way for the picture to concentrate on how an army operates and goes to war, to touch upon, unlike most war or historical pictures, as much on what goes wrong as goes right. The splendor of cavalry on parade plays second fiddle to  dead horses, the Crimean heat and the scourge of cholera.

The detail of what exactly went wrong on the battlefield is obscured by the fact that Nolan, who hand-delivered the famous order to attack, itself unclear, died in battle, so it’s like one of those Netflix documentaries about unsolved murders, fascinating but ultimately annoying. If incompetence is measured in casualties, apart from this one charge the British came out better than the other participants, 40,000 dead compared to three times as many among the French allies and more than ten times as many among the Russian enemy.

The acting is of a very high quality, David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1968) as good as I’ve ever seen him, Vanessa Redgrave (Blow-Up, 1966) an early Stepford Wife, Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) brilliantly outrageous while John Gielgud (Sebastian, 1968) turns occasional befuddlement into a high art.

Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, 1963) makes some bold choices, not least in what is included and what is left out, and despite his determination to show up the action as deplorable in fact he achieves the opposite effect, a sense of overwhelming sadness that one mistake can trigger terrible consequence. The action on the big screen is quite magnificent, the detail of costumes and the thundering of the horses bursts out of the screen.

Although it made box office sense to re-team David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave from Blow-Up (1966, from a narrative perspective this is not only misleading but they fail to match the sheer screen magic of the feuding Cardigan and Lucan.

While I would challenge aspects of Richardson’s approach it remains an engrossing watch.

Black Butterflies / Les Papillons Noirs (2022) **** – Netflix

Not since Basic Instinct (1992) has there been such an obvious connection between sex and murder. Slow-burn French film noir throwback, every twist, unusually, is matched by emotional resonance. Over six episodes this turns into an absolute cracker with several shocking scenes and, for once, a post-credits scene in the final episode worth waiting for.

You do however need to give this time. The first episode is mostly confusing as it sets up the three main strands. But episode two contains such a revelatory twist thereafter you’re on a rollercoaster.

In the present day ex-con acclaimed but impoverished novelist Adrien (Nicholas Duvauchelle) takes up a not particularly well-paid ghost-writing job listening to grizzled old fella Albert (Niels Arestrup) recount his memoirs. Adrien, on the jealous side, has a tangled relationship with partner Nora (Alice Belaidi). Also in the present day a couple of cops, Carrell (Sami Bouajila) and Mathilde (Marie Denarnaud),  are working on a cold case, the death of renowned photographer Steven Powell.

Running parallel with these two tales we go delving into the romantic past of Albert and in particular his relationship with Solange (Alyzee Costez) back in the 1970s when the entire world was on a massive experimental binge. A couple of other elements pop up from time to time,  a small boy and his mother, Adrien and his stepfather, and an artist/tattoo artist Catherine (Lola Creton).

Eventually, it all comes together and when it does it packs an incredible punch, a real emotional wallop, as the lives of all concerned are turned upside down.

And while there is most definitely twist upon twist upon twist, what raises this above most movies/programs that rely just on twists, is the emotional impact of such changes, and above all, characters seeking identity, trying to work not just who they are but whether they like or are repelled by the characters they have become.

Chock-full of atmosphere, this will have you hooked from the incredible second episode which tumbles full-tilt boogie into a dazzling mysterious past. Mostly, it takes place in France but just for the hell of it we race to Brussels and Genoa, and timewise, there’s an important element that takes place at the conclusion of the Second World War.

Everyone is damaged one way or the other and as the series progresses you realize just how damaged. And one of the best parts of the series is that lives that should collapse under the weight of such heavy emotions find themselves taking an alternative route that occasionally provides solace and occasionally dodges the issues enough to keep them steady. But, of course, nobody can escape the past.  

While this is definitely on the raunchy side, it does set out to show the part sex plays in the lives of the characters, whether emotional crutch, expressing the full joy of falling in love, or desperate measure.

The characters are well-drawn, and as new personality details emerge, they take the story in different directions. In some respects it’s grounded by Albert, the kind of old guy who really knows how to smoke, slipping the cigarette into his mouth old-style, sucking the life out of it, and for all his obvious dodginess a genuine human being seeking respite and redemption.

What Adrien discovers relates only too well to what he suspects about his own instincts and so he is as much disgusted as revelling in each new discovery. An ex-kick boxer, one of the running motifs is not so much being up for the fight, or in true private eye mode being able to hold your own in the fisticuffs department, but willing to accept physical punishment. That is matched by an understanding of the toll emotions can take on your life, especially if you lack the mental capacity to defend yourself against such intrusions.

And at the heart of the story is the mysterious, seductive, beautiful Solange, a different kind of femme fatale, perched atop beguiling innocence, at times unaware of the passions she unleashes, and yet, trying to find a way out of her own spiralling emotions, internal conflict typified by undergoing various abortions while so desperately wanting a child that she plays interminably with a doll’s house, her own reaction to the sexual act buried deep in her past.

I’ll admit the first episode is at timse heavy-going as writer-directors Olivier Abbou (Get In, 2019) and Bruno Merle (The Lost Prince, 2020) set out their complex stall, but the second episode is such a humdinger it more than makes up for it. The contrast between the free-wheeling free-spirited 1970s and the grungy contemporary look where responsibility brings an edge to everything is very well done. But while the violence would do Tarantino proud, contemplation of the creative process is as considered.

It probably helps that I’m unfamiliar with any of the actors because for me they carry no screen baggage. Nicholas Duvauchelle (Lost Bullet, 2020) carries off his first top-billed role superbly, making a terrific transition from a character almost playing a part to one who wishes he had done a better job of remaining an ordinary guy. On the basis of this, Hollywood should come calling for veteran Niels Arestrup (A Prophet, 2009) any time they’re looking for a crusty supporting actor.

Alyzee Costee, in her biggest role to date, certainly announces her presence, presenting the most complicated character of the lot, daughter, lover, mother, possibly the most intriguing female character of all time, beauty matched with fragility matched with toughness matched with an agility to switch persona at dizzying speed. This is what Netflix is best at, investing in foreign television programs, or just sticking their name on them, to bring them to global attention. This is definitely worth a wider audience

From Cinerama to Imax

Quiz question: what connects King Kong (1933) to Cinerama? Follow-up quiz question: what connects Lawrence of Arabia (the man not the film) to Cinerama? Final question (and the subject of this article): what connects Cinerama, which had its heyday in the 1960s, to the current Imax.

Merian Cooper, the producer behind King Kong, and Lowell Thomas, the broadcaster whose fame was built on the dramatic footage he took of Lawrence of Arabia during World War One, were both vital to the development of the new screen sensation Cinerama, which made its debut two years before Twentieth Century Fox unveiled Cinemascope.

Both Cinerama and Imax began as vehicles for documentaries, the cameras they utilised each initially considered too cumbersome for Hollywood directors. Initially, also, both formats were presented in cinemas specifically designed for showing films made in the process.

But, effectively, both Cinerama and Imax followed the same business model, one that Hollywood only too readily appreciated. They were premium priced products. Whereas most items you buy are the same price wherever you make the purchase, movies followed an extended version of the way publishers sold books. Readers had to pay extra to be first in the queue for a favorite author’s latest work, the hardback version of a novel appearing about a year in advance of the cheaper hardback.

In the silent era, Paramount instituted a food chain for movie presentation. Pictures opened first in the big city center theaters at top dollar prices ($2 – the equivalent to $35 now – not unusual in the 1920s) before working their way down a dozen different pricing levels before they reached the cheapest cinemas. As the business developed, although the U.S. cinema capacity grew to around 20,000 outlets, Hollywood reckoned that 70 per cent of a movie’s income came from a fraction of those houses, primarily from the more expensive first- or second-run.

Treatment of audiences is more democratic now. All tickets cost the same and the food chain is long gone, but in the 1950s and 1960s when Hollywood was battling the beast of television it appeared that audiences could be wooed back to the movies by giving them something bigger and better – and they were happy to pay the price.

Cinerama was not just the ultimate in widescreen but it offered visceral thrills. Given camera point-of-view audiences raced down a rollercoaster in This Is Cinerama (1952) and were astonished to see different global vistas presented in their full glory rather than as being mere backdrops to actors. And while audience response was astonishing even by industry standards, and receipts tumbled in hand over fist, the concept soon lost popularity as audiences moved on to the more dramatically-accessible Cinemascope and its imitators and by the 1960s the format was more or less dependent on the company spinning out its back catalog in endless reissues.

Hence, the move towards dramatic storylines as instanced by How the West Was Won (1962) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), both initially presented in the premium-priced roadshow, separate performance, format. In quick fashion, too, Cinerama dispensed with the cumbersome three-lens camera and invented a single-lens alternative which made it much easier for directors.

During the 1960s Cinerama presented another eleven big Hollywood pictures ranging from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963) and Grand Prix (1966) to Ice Station Zebra (1968) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969). But as the industry hit the financial buffers at the end of the decade, the writing was on the wall, and although Cinerama invested in 35mm movies like Straw Dogs  (1971) the game was over for the format by 1972.

Imax was pretty soon positioned as its natural successor, unveiled in 1970 in Japan with Tiger Child, the first purpose-built cinema opening in Toronto in 1971 with North of Superior. The screen was much bigger than anything Cinerama or 70mm had offered. It was over three times the size of what Cinerama had to offer. But it was of different dimensions; where Cinerama went wider, Imax went taller.

But again, the camera was an obstacle for Hollywood use. And like Cinerama, the format’s attraction was sheer spectacle. All the initial output was documentary-based, often with an educational purpose, though soon progressing to what was termed “entertainment” (Everest, 1998) and the movies were short by Hollywood standards, often less than an hour, which permitted Imax theaters operators to present a greater number of daily screenings than an ordinary cinema.

Initially, they were not specifically premium-priced, but potentially more profitable because of the number of daily showings. Theaters typically kept 80 per cent of the box office which limited entrepreneurial interest since budgets for these movies were in the $6 million-$12 million range, not low enough to easily turn a profit. The movies could run for months, but there was the same problem as before, with shortage of new product.

By 1990 Imax had largely pulled out of exhibition, ownership limited to nine theaters, and out of production.

Oddly enough, it was reissue that revived Imax. Disney planned a reworked version of its classic Fantasia (1940) as a method of generating more money from a picture that had already grossed $184 million on video. Traditionally, Fantasia got its best results from limited release, its previous revival outing shown in a maximum of 500 houses. Nor did Disney agree to the usual financial terms, demanding a 50 per cent share of the box office, rather than the normal 20 per cent.

Fantasia 2000 (2000) was released in 54 cinemas willing to commit to an 18-week run. While every Imax record was smashed, the picture, at a cost of $90 million, didn’t break even. But it did usher in Imax as a reissue vehicle. Disney used Imax for the 10th anniversary relaunch of Beauty and the Beast (1992), bringing in an extra $25 million in rentals. Two years later The Lion King (1994) in Imax brought in $15.6 million and Apollo 13 (1995) $1.7 million.   

Naturally enough, Disney recognized the potential for Imax for new films and made Treasure Planet (2002) in an Imax version. But the big boost came with The Matrix sequels. Both The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were digitally remastered for Imax, the latter the first to be shown simultaneously with the ordinary print.

Nowadays, Imax is part of the release mix, bringing a hefty chunk of premium-priced box office to the overall gross.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues (McFarland, 2016) p5, 10, 12, 295, 297-298; Kim R. Holston, Movie Roadshows (McFarland, 2013) p112-113; James B. Stewart, Disneywar (Simon and Schuster, 2008), p346-347; “A Decade of Limited Release,” Variety, February 18, 1998, p23; “Eric J. Olson, “Fantasia Signs Up Increase,” Variety, May 24, 1999, p32; Joseph Horowitz, “A Fantasia for the MTV Generation,” New York Times, January 2, 2000; “Fantasia Hits Imax Record,” Variety, January 4, 2000, p7; “Top 125 Worldwide,” Variety, January 15, 2001, p24; “The Top 250 Worldwide,” Variety, January 6, 2003, p26.

Homicidal (1961) ****

William Castle (The Tingler, 1959) was always a cult director but 60 years later this hits a contemporary bullseye with uncanny accuracy. It couldn’t be more Hitchcockian, down to the director making an appearance at the start and adopting the same lugubrious tones as Alfred Hitchcock did for his television series.

Bookended by two brilliant scenes, one of mystery, the other revelation, it’s only when you go back and unravel the way this has been put together you realise how fiendishly clever – and heartrendingly awful – it had been. Gender identity, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a central theme.

Castle wasn’t known for concentrating on any emotion beyond fear but this goes back to the most basic of all emotions. Who am I? How do I figure myself out? And even the acting – almost as black-and-white as the picture with one over-the-top character and one so weak he almost drains the picture of any life – makes more sense in retrospect.

Stunning blonde Miriam Webster (Jean Arless) checks into a hotel and offers bellhop Jim (Richard Rust) $2,000 to marry her that night on the understanding the marriage will immediately be annulled. Puzzled, and of course fancying his chances of sex as a tip, he drives her to local Justice of the Peace Alfred S. Adrims (James Westerfield) who demands an increased fee for getting dragged out of bed. In short order, Miriam murders him and his wife and escapes.

Turns out she’s not Miriam Webster. That’s the name of a florist in the town where Emily, her real name, looks after mute invalid Helga (Eugenie Leontovich). The real Miriam (Patricia Breslin) is half-sister to businessman Warren (George Marshall), returning home after a lengthy absence to claim his inheritance. At the age of 21, in a couple of days’ time, he falls heir to a $10 million fortune. Helga was his Danish nanny whom he resolved to provide care for after a heart attack.

But it’s soon clear that Emily hates her charge who can only communicate, and only to draw attention, by using a clacker to batter against her wheelchair. When Miriam visits Helga, Emily skips out, promising to return shortly, only to tell Miriam’s boyfriend Karl (Glenn Corbett) that she’s been detained and won’t be free to join him for a picnic.

Then she proceeds to smash up Miriam’s flower shop, in particular destroying anything that points to a wedding, and tearing up a photograph of Miriam’s half-brother. When Carl pops in, she knocks him out.

So what’s with all the wedding malarkey? You won’t be surprised to learn it’s something of a red herring, especially as Emily is already married to Warren, news that comes as a shock to Miriam.

Warren has the constitution of a weakling and looks the kind of boy who would have been trampled over as a child. Except, it turns out, he was bullied by his father, a driven businessman, and whipped by Helga to turn him into someone a lot sturdier, able to stand on his own two feet, and not get knocked around. If anything, he was inclined to be the bully.

Emily should have murdered the bellboy when she had the chance because of course he goes and rats on her and now there’s an illustration of her in the newspaper and the cops are on her trail having tracked down a Miriam Webster living in her town.

Naturally, Warren rejects the notion, but Miriam isn’t so sure. There was an incident in her bedroom and she had lied to Miriam about nipping out for a few minutes and something had been dropped among the debris in the florist shop that linked its destruction to Emily.

So if Emily’s married to a man who’s about to become a multi-millionaire and by far the richest guy in town and with who knows what influence that could buy…You see where this is going? Or if the deeply-in-love Warren could tolerate a wife with homicidal tendencies? Or if she would inherit should Warren have a nasty accident? You see where else this could be heading?

Well, it goes to none of those places. And I’m not going to spoil the climax by telling you exactly where it goes, but it’s a shocker for sure and just superbly done.

And once that revelation’s out in the open everything else makes sense – and doesn’t. For what is at its heart is something so jarring real and troubling, an emotion with consequence, that it neatly fits into one of the most compelling controversies of today.

Otherwise, it’s a perfectly good straight-up thriller, owing much to Psycho (1960), especially the knife-wielding killer, but with some thrilling moments and, in another contemporary salute, busting open the fourth wall with the “Fright Break” gimmick where at the height of proceedings the director literally stops the clock and gives the audience 45 seconds to get out of the theater if they can’t take any more.

If you think William Castle has managed some sleight-of-hand I’m going to have to fess up and say I’ve done the same but you’ll only understand what if you watch the film. Anyone who guesses it can let me know.

There’s a prize. A copy of my latest book, shipped to anywhere in the world, 1960s Movies Redux, Volume 1 – printed copy available now, e-book shortly.

The Karate Killers (1967) ****

What a hoot! A sheer blast! The most brilliant yet of the madman dominating the world schemes, autogyros to out-Bond Bond, a fabulous cast and of course the most incompetent spies this side of Get Smart.

You can’t get better than a scientist inventing a way of turning water into gold. Takes chutzpah to even think of that as a plot. No having to batter your way into Fort Knox as poor Bond did in Goldfinger (1964), you just turn on the tap. But, wait, the formula is lost and our intrepid heroes have to – heaven forbid! – track down five gorgeous women to find it. Was there ever a more onerous proposal?

I never saw any of these films when they came out. At the time I guess they would have been viewed as small screen rivals to James Bond. But although 007 in every picture would eventually be trapped in the madman’s lair, he spent most of the film beating the sh*t out of the bad guys. In sharp contrast, The Men from U.N.C.L.E. seem always to be on the wrong side of a beating, number one hero Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) more hapless than number two Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).

With hindsight, it looks like this was never meant to be taken seriously and without going into over-spoof plays exceptionally well as a light-hearted romp. Solo seems to be constantly outwitted with Kuryakin invariably coming to the rescue, the former too often duped by beauty, the latter a bit more discerning. There’s a lovely moment here in their reactions to the instruction by boss Mr Waverley (Leo G. Carroll) to hunt down a dead scientist’s quintet of daughters/step-daughters; Solo gives a knowing smirk, Kuryakin shows disdain.

Must be the best cast yet assembled: legendary Joan Crawford, suddenly hot again after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1965), Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968), Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Kim Darby (True Grit, 1969), Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965)  and Jill Ireland (Mrs Charles Bronson) as you’ve never seen her before.    

The U.N.C.L.E. duo are in a race against T.H.R.U.S.H. operative Randolph (Herbert Lom) to track down the missing formula. Randolph has a head start. He has been having an affair with the scientist’s wife Amanda (Joan Crawford) who is shocked to discover his charming exterior conceals a ruthless interior.

Solo and Kuryakin track down the scientist’s daughter Sandy (Kim Darby), a good bit brighter than your average eye-candy spy girl, who points the way to the step-daughters and to the possibility that each has one part of the missing formula. Was there ever an easier justification for introducing such a random set of characters?

First up is stark naked Countess (Diane McBain) locked away by jealous impoverished husband (Telly Savalas) in a castle in Rome. Then we’re onto Imogen (Jill Ireland), a flamboyant lass shaking her booty at any opportunity, arrested by a constable (Terry-Thomas) for indecent exposure, and involved in a punch-up in a London night-club where Solo is nearly drowned (yup!) and Randolph instructs the band to keep playing since the ruckus is nothing to do with them.

Then we’re off to Switzerland and Yvonne (Danielle De Metz) and a machine-gun ski chase down a mountainside (beat that, Mr Bond). And so on until all the clues, contained in photographs of the dead father, have been found and, wait for it, the puzzle remains incomplete. Eventually it’s unravelled and the final showdown is on.

But what a way to go. Never mind the ski chase, the picture opens with the duo being attacked by a fleet of autogyros (one-man mini helicopters, the “Little Nellie” of the later You Only Live Twice, 1967 ), and as usual someone, this time Kuryakin, is trapped on a low-tech machine, this time on a ice-block travelator where blocks of ice are smashed to bits by nasty spikes.

Randolph is the most droll villain alive. “Don’t be so melodramatic, my dear,” he informs Amanda when she uncovers his villainy and is about to be murdered. The whole jigsaw is exceptionally appealing, the global whizzing about, Japan also included not to mention one of the poles where T.H.R.U.S.H. has established its HQ.  

The action is a good bit more thrilling, the aerial and ski sequences very well done on a budget a fraction of the Bonds, and there’s more than enough going on to keep interest levels high, not just where to go next, and who to encounter, but the gathering of the clues,  and working out of the final mystery, which offers a nice emotional touch.

Kim Darby is more of a typical ingenue here, sparkier than you might expect but not offering the originality of character expressed in True Grit, while Jill Ireland is a good bit more sassy than she ever appeared thereafter. Barry Shear (Wild in the Streets, 1968) directed.

This is the best so far that I have seen on the series. My interest had begun to flag but, thus fortified, I will continue with my endeavors to watch them all. on your behalf, of course.

Behind the Scenes: “How The West Was Won” (1962)

These days fact-based magazine articles commonly spark movies – The Fast and the Furious (2001) was inspired by a piece in Vibe, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) started life in Esquire – but it was rare in the 1960s (see Note below).

However, a series of seven lengthy historical articles in the multi-million-selling Life magazine in 1959 about the Wild West, extensively illustrated with material from the time, captured the attention of the nation. Bing Crosby acquired the rights, not as a potential movie, but for a double album recorded in July 1959 on a new label Project Records set up specifically for the purpose – two months after the series ended – and a proposed television special.

When the latter proved too expensive, the rights were sold to MGM which then linked up in a four-film pact with Cinerama to create the first dramatic picture in that format, the three-screen concept that had taken the public by storm in 1952 with This Is Cinerama. Since then, Cinerama had focused exclusively on travelogs and coined $115 million in grosses from just 47 theaters, including $9 million in seven years at the Hollywood theater in Los Angeles. Eight years in its sole London location had yielded $9.4 million gross from a quartet of pictures, Cinerama Holiday (1955) leading the way with (including reissue) a 120-week run, followed by 101 weeks of Seven Wonders of the World (1956), 86 for This Is Cinerama and 80 weeks for South Seas Adventure  (1958).

Box office was supplemented with rentals of the projection equipment. But the novelty had worn off, lack of product denting consumer and industry interest, many of the theaters set up for  the project returning the equipment, so that by the time of this venture there were only 15 U.S. theaters still showing Cinerama. The company went from surviving primarily on equipment royalties to becoming a producer-distributor-exhibitor. Ambitiously, the company believed it could generate $5,000 a week profit for each theater, and, assuming growth to 60 houses, that could bring in $15 million a year.

Crosby initially remained involved – crooning songs to connect various episodes – but that idea was soon abandoned. Director Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, 1960), claimed he came up with the movie’s structure. “The original concept was mine,” he said, “The first step in the winning of the West was the opening of the canal, then came the covered wagon, next the Civil War which opened up Missouri and the mid-West then the railroads, and finally the West was won when the Law conquered it instead of the outlaw gangs; which was the theme I worked out for the picture.

“So I conceived the whole idea and then got writers to work on the five episodes. Each episode was about a song originally. Then I travelled all over the country to find locations.”

For once this was a genuine all-star cast headed up by actors with more than a passing acquaintance with the western: John Wayne (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962), Oscar-winner Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), James Stewart (Winchester ’73, 1950), Richard Widmark (The Alamo, 1960) and Henry Fonda (Fort Apache, 1948) with Spencer Tracy (Broken Lance, 1954) as narrator plus George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) in his first western.

The two strongest female roles were given to actresses playing against type, Carroll Baker (Baby Doll, 1956), who normally essayed sexpots, as a homely pioneer and Debbie Reynolds (The Tender Trap, 1955), more at home in musicals and comedies, as her tough sister. The impressive supporting cast included Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Walter Brennan, Robert Preston, Carolyn Jones and Karl Malden.

Glenn Ford and Burt Lancaster were unavailable.  Frank Sinatra entered initial negotiations but ultimately turned it down. Gary Cooper, also initially considered, died before the film got underway.

Initially under the title of The Winning of the West screenwriter James R. Webb (The Big Country, 1958) was entrusted with knocking the unwieldy non-fiction story into a coherent fictional narrative. In effect, it was an original screenplay at a time when Hollywood was turning its back on bestsellers, “the pre-sold theory less compelling.” His first draft accommodated various montages covering the journey from the Pilgrim Fathers to the building of the Erie Canal and the Civil War and it was only in subsequent drafts that the tale of Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) emerged with surprising focus on female pioneers.

Webb’s initial ending had involved a father-son conflict, presumably a fall-out between the Rawlings played by James Stewart and George Peppard, but that was rejected in order not to finish on a “note of bitterness” out of keeping with the spirit of the movie. Although he did not receive a credit, John Gay (The Happy Thieves, 1961) also contributed to the screenplay.

Given the film’s episodic structure it is amazing how well the various sequences fit together and the narrative thrust maintained. The story covers a 50-year stretch beginning in 1839 with the river sequence bringing together James Stewart and Carroll Baker. After Stewart is bushwhacked by river pirates, he marries Baker and they set up a homestead. The next section pairs singer Debbie Reynolds with gambler Gregory Peck whose wagon train is attacked by Indians on the way to San Francisco. Later, Stewart and son George Peppard enlist in the Civil War (featuring John Wayne as an unkempt General Sherman).

Stewart dies at the Battle of Shiloh. Peppard joins the cavalry and later as a marshal in Arizona meets Reynolds and prevents a robbery that results in a spectacular train wreck. It took a superb piece of screenwriting to pull the elements together, ensure the characters had just cause to meet and to create solid pace with a high drama and action quotient.

The undertaking was too much for one director. Initially, it was expected five would be required but this was truncated to three – John Ford (The Searchers, 1956), Henry Hathaway  and George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) although Hathaway carried the biggest share of the burden and Richard Thorpe (Ivanhoe, 1952) handled some transitional historical sequences. 

The directors broke new ground, technically. The Cinerama camera was actually three cameras in one, each set at a 48 degree to the next and when projected provided a 146-degree angle view. Each panel had its own vanishing point so the camera could, uniquely, see down both sides of a building.

But there were drawbacks. The cumbersome cameras required peculiar skills to achieve common shots. Directors lay on top of the camera to judge what a close-up looked like. Sets were built to take account of the way dimensions appeared through the lens, camera remaining static to prevent distortion. When projected, the picture was twice the size of 65mm and before the invention of the single-camera lens led to vertical lines running down the screen. Trees were built into compositions to hide these lines.

“You couldn’t move the camera much,” recalled Hathaway, “or the picture would distort. You have to shove everything right up to the camera. Actors worked two- and three-feet away from the camera. The opening dolly down the street to the wharf was the first time it had ever been done.

He added, “Over 50 per cent of the stuff on the train was made on the stage (i.e. a studio set) and 60 per cent of the stuff coming down the rapids. I never took a principal up north to the river, the principals never worked off the stage. We never photographed the scenes with transparencies in three cameras with Cinerama – we photographed them with one camera in 70mm and then split the negative.

“I wouldn’t shoot close-ups in Cinerama – I shot the close-ups in 70(mm) and then separated the negative because in Cinerama it distorted their arms. When (George) Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told he used only 70mm and split it all. So from then on they never used the three cameras again. Now they’re actually shooting it in 35(mm).”

Rui Nogueira, “Henry Hathaway Interview,” Focus on Film, No 7, 1971, p19.

After a year spent in pre-production, an eight-month schedule due to start on May 28, 1961, and a completion date of  Xmas 1961, MGM anticipated a 1962 launch, Independence Day pencilled in for the world premiere. The original $7 million budget mushroomed to $12 million and then to £14.4 million, $1 million of that ascribed to adverse weather conditions, hardly surprising given the extent of the location work. A total of $2.2 million went on the 10 stars and 13 co-stars, virtually talent on the cheap given the salaries many could command, transport cost $1 million and the same again in props including an 1840 vintage Erie canal boat.

Rain and overcast skies added $145,000 to the cost of shooting the rapids sequence in Oregon and another $218,000 was required when early snowfall scuppered one location and required traveling 1,000 miles distant. Nearly 13,000 extras were involved as well as 875 horses, 1,200 buffalo, 50 oxen and 160 mules. Thousands of period props were dispersed among the 77 sets. Over 2,000 pairs of period shoes and 1500 pairs of moccasins were fashioned as well as 107 wagons, many designed to break on cue.

Virtually 90 per cent  of the picture was shot on location to satisfy Cinerama customers accustomed to seeing new vistas and to bring alive the illustrations from the original Life magazine articles. Backdrops included Ohio River Valley, Monument Valley, Cave-in-Rock State Park, Colorado Rockies, Black Hills of Dakota, Custer State Park and Mackenzie River in Oregon.

The picture, including narration, took over a year to make. Cinerama sensation was achieved by shooting the rapids, runaway locomotive, buffalo stampede, Indian attack, Civil War battle and cattle drive. Motion was central to Cinerama so journeys were undertaken by raft, wagon, pony express, railroad and boat, anything that could get up a head of steam.

Initially, too, the production team had been adamant – “rigid plans for running time will be met” – that the movie would clock in at 150-155 minutes (final running time was 165 minutes) and there was some doubt, at least initially, on the value of going down the roadshow route in the United States. Roadshow was definitely set for Europe, a 15-minute intermission being included in those prints, for a continent where both roadshow and westerns were more popular than in the States.

Big screen westerns in particular in Europe had not been affected by the advent of the small-screen variety. Some films received substantial boosts abroad. “The Magnificent Seven and Cimarron (both 1960) took giants steps forward once they made the transatlantic crossing.” British distributors also reported “striking” success with The Last Sunset (1961) and One-Eyed Jacks (1962) which had toiled to make a similar impression in the U.S.

In the end the decision was made to hold back the release in the U.S. in favor of another Cinerama project The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, which had begun shooting later and ultimately cost $6 million, double its original budget. Rather than bunch up the release of both pictures, MGM opted to kick off its Cinerama U.S. launch with Grimm in 1962 and shifted How the West Was Won to the following year. MGM adopted the anticipation approach, holding the world premiere in London on November 1, 1962, and unleashing the picture in roadshow in Europe.

A record advance of $500,000 was banked for the London showing at the 1,155-seat Casino Cinerama (prices $1.20-$2.15) on roadshow separate performance release. Before the advertising campaign even began in October, a full month prior to the world premiere, over 62,000 reservations had been made via group bookings. Critics were enamored and audiences riveted. The cinema made “unusually large profits” and after two years had grossed $2.25 million from 1722 showings.

Dmitri Tiomkin (The Alamo, 1960) was hired to compose the music, but an eye condition prevented his participation though he later sued for $2.63 million after claiming he was fired before the assignment began. Alfred Newman (Nevada Smith, 1966) wrote the thundering score but uniquely for the time MGM shared the publishing rights with Bing Crosby. In the U.S. Bantam printed half a million copies of a paperback tie-in, sales of the soundtrack were huge and there was a massive rush to become involved by retailers and museums with educational establishments an easy target. 

Audience response was overwhelming, a million customers in the first month, two million by the first 10 weeks at just 36 houses, some of which had only been showing it for half that time. But it failed to hit ambitious targets – predictions that it would regularly run for three years in some situations “based on the star roster and the fact the pic offers more natural U.S. vistas than anything yet done on the screen” proving wildly over-optimistic. Still, it had enjoyed 80 roadshow engagements including eight months at the Cinerama in New York and grossed $2.3 million in 92 weeks in L.A, $1.14 million after 88 weeks in Minneapolis and $1.5 million after one week fewer in Denver.

By 1965, as it began a general release 35mm roll-out with 3,000 bookings already taken, it had already passed the $9 million mark in rentals including a limited number of showcase breaks the previous year.

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it won for screenplay, sound and editing. The movie became MGM’s biggest hit after Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur. In my recent book The Magnificent ‘60s, The 100 Most Popular Films of a Revolutionary Decade I placed it twelfth on the chart of the decade’s top box office films.

It provided a popularity fillip for most of the big stars involved, none more so than James Stewart who, prior to shooting, had been on the verge of retirement. Box office appeal diminishing, work on his next picture Take Her, She’s Mine postponed by the Actor’s Strike, after the death of his father he had “quietly begun to make plans to get out of his Fox contract, retire, and move his family out of Beverly Hills.” He had spent $500,000 on a 1,100-acre ranch and was already well set to quit acting having accumulated a large real estate portfolio in addition to oil well investments.

NOTE: Robert J. Landry (“Magazines a Prime Screen Source,” Variety, May 30, 1962, 11) pointed to Cosmopolitan as the original publication vehicle for To Catch a Thief (1955) by David Dodge in 1951 and Fannie Hurst’s Back Street (1932), serialized over six months from September 1930.  Frank Rooney’s The Cyclist’s Raid – later filmed as The Wild One (1953) – first appeared in Harpers magazine. Movies as varied as Edna Ferber’s Ice Palace (1960) and The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, later filmed as Cape Fear (1962), were initially published in Ladies Home Journal. The Saturday Evening Post published Alan Le May’s The Avenging Texan, renamed The Searchers (1956), and Donald Hamilton’s Ambush at Blanco Canyon, renamed The Big Country (1958) as well as Christopher Landon’s Escape in the Desert which was picturized under the more imaginative Ice Cold in Alex (1958). 

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Magnificent ‘60s, The 100 Most Popular Films of a Revolutionary Decade (McFarland, 2022) p168-170; Marc Eliot, James Stewart A Biography (Aurum Press, paperback, 2007) p350-351; Rui Nogueira, “Henry Hathaway Interview,” Focus on Film, No 7, 1971, p19; Sir Christopher Frayling, How the West Was Won, Cinema Retro, Vol 8, Issue 22, p25-29; Greg Kimble, “How the West Was Won – in Cinerama,” in70mm.com, October 1983;  “Reisini Envisions Cinerama Leaving Travelog for Fiction Pix,” Variety, December 14, 1960, p17; “Metro in 4-Film Deal with Cinerama,” Variety, March 1, 1961, p22; “Cinerama Action Awaits Plot Tales,” Variety, March 8, 1961, p10; “Fat Bankroll for How West Was Won,” Variety, May 24, 1961, p3; “Return to Original Scripts,” Variety, June 28, 1961, p5;“MGM-Cinerama Set 3-Hour Limit For West Was Won,Variety, August 23, 1961, p7; “Hoss Operas in O’Seas Gallop,” Variety, August 23, 1961, p7; “Coin Potential As To Cinerama,” Variety, September 20, 1961, p15; “Changing Economics on Cinerama,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p13; “Bantam’s 22 Paperback Tie-Ups in Hollywood,” Variety, October 25, 1961, p22; “How West Was Won for July 4 Premiere,” Box Office, December 11, 1961, p14; “Crosby Enterprises Holds West Cinerama Songs,” Variety, January 24, 1962, p1; “Grimm First in U.S. for Cinerama but Abroad West Gets Priority,” Variety, April 4, 1962, p13; “Cinerama Fiscalities,” Variety, April 11, 1962, p3; “Cinerama Story Pair Burst Budgets,” Variety, May 16, 1962, p3; “Tiomkin’s $2,630,000 Suit Vs MGM et al,” Variety, June 27, 1962, p39; “Hathaway a Pioneer,” Variety, July 25, 1962, p12; “Bernard Smith Clarifies Fiscal Facts,” Variety, August 8, 1962, p3; Review, Variety, November 7, 1962, p6; “London Critics Rave Over West,” Variety, November 7, 1962, p19; “Brilliant World Premiere in London for West,” Box Office, November 12, 1962, p12; “West in Cinerama the Big Ace,” Variety, November 14, 1962, p16; Feature Reviews, Box Office, November 26, 1962; Bosley Crowther, “Western Cliches; How West Was Won Opens in New York,” New York Times, March 28, 1963; “Big Book Aid for West,Box Office, April 1, 1963, pA3; “West Was Won Seen By 2,000,000 in 10 Weeks,” Box Office, June 3, 1963, p15;  “How West Was Won for 19 Showcase Theaters,” Box Office, June 15, 1964, pE1; “West End,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p27; “How West Was Won Ends Roadshowing,” December 9, 1964, p16; “3,000 Bookings Expected for How the West Was Won,” Box Office, May 3, 1965.

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