A Time for Killing / The Long Ride Home (1967) ****

The American Civil War is often slotted into the wrong genre. It is not a western. It is a war, with all the inherent wrongheadedness, viciousness and atrocity. We begin with senseless execution and end on a note of humiliating barbarity. Along the way we witness easily the greatest performances in the careers of George Hamilton (The Power, 1968) – a wonder after this how he was ever associated with playboy characters – and Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968).

At the tail end of the war in a Confederate POW camp, the disciplinarian commander orders raw recruits to execute an escapee. When they fail to find to the target Major Wolcott (Glenn Ford), witnessed by appalled missionary fiancée Emily (Inger Stevens), steps in to finish the job. In the wake of this Wolcott sends Emily away under escort.

POW leader Captain Bentley (George Hamilton), fully aware the war might end in days, but determined to escape to Mexico and continue the fight, organises a breakout. Instead of sneaking out quietly, in revenge he turns the Union cannons on his captors. And despite being better informed how close the war is to an end, the dutiful Wolcott sets off in pursuit.

Bentley ambushes Emily’s escort, killing the soldiers and stealing their mounts, but promising Emily that as befits a Southern gentleman he will respect her honor. She’s not so innocent of war, anyway, begging Bentley to kill a fatally wounded Union soldier rather than leaving him to the buzzards or, one assumes, marauding Apaches.

Unfortunately, his comrades don’t share that sentiment and when Emily makes the mistake of unloosing her blouse to wet her neck at a stream it inflames their lust. Equally, unfortunately, Emily doesn’t keep to her part of the deal and in attempting to escape hits Bentley a humiliating blow with his own saber.

While unfamiliar with the territory, Wolcott is a pretty good soldier, taking a shortcut over the mountains to cut off their retreat. “How come he knew what we were gonna do before we done it,” wails a Confederate soldier. “Before you even thought it,” snaps the over-confident Emily.

A few miles from the border, the Confederates hole up in a bordello where Bennett finds a despatch announcing the war is over. Ignoring the fact that for the ordinary soldier you couldn’t find a better place to celebrate peace than in a whorehouse, and determined to continue the war, Bennett conceals the information.

In revenge for losing face in front of his soldiers, he (luckily off camera) rapes the half-stripped and bloodied Emily. In the manner of every savage taking advantage of wartime conditions, Bennett tells her, “You think nothing like this can ever happen to you. But you’re lucky because your humiliation will be over soon. You and your major are going to know I won.”

Rape, as currently in the Ukraine and as in many previous conflicts, used as a weapon.

When Wolcott arrives, it’s obvious what has happened and while holding a lid on his own emotions (a Glenn Ford hallmark), once he has proof the war is over, he refuses to give chase. Brutally, he tells her,  “I can see (witness) men die for their country but I can’t see them die for your honor.” It’s Bennett who, oddly, comes to her rescue, opening fire on the Union soldiers, compelling Wolcott, in breach of the rules of war, to cross the border into Mexico in pursuit.

This isn’t a typical Glenn Ford (The Pistolero of Red River/The Last Challenge, 1967) picture where he plays the central character and is scarcely off screen. Here, he disappears for long stretches as the camera focuses on George Hamilton, his squabbling gang and the growing tension between him and Inger Stevens. If you’ve only seen Hamilton in his screen playboy persona, this is a revelation as honor and misguided duty turn into repulsive action.

And this is by far the best performance by Inger Stevens. What she achieved here launched her career, although admittedly as a female lead rather than top-billed star. The emotion her face portrays without the benefit of dialog is quite astonishing. Expecting to be an innocent bystander, unexpectedly thrown into the tumult, physically abused, and then, contrary to her Christian beliefs, she goes from stalwart to victim to, against her Christian principles, showing no sign of turning the other cheek but in full Old Testament mode urging revenge.

The scene when Emily enters a room full of soldiers, attempting to retain some dignity in the face of torn clothes and bloodied face, while acknowledging her humiliation, is stunning. The only scene that comes close to matching its power is at the end, the sequence shot from above, light streaming into a darkened cellar, when, having killed Bennett, Wolcott abandons his potential bride.  

Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961), a stand-in for original director Roger Corman, does an excellent job of focusing on the brutalities of war, not just the rape and violence, but the recruits, as dumb as they come on both sides, who fail to cope with the pressures. You would have to be fast to spot Harrison Ford (billed as Harrison J. Ford) making his screen debut, but Harry Dean Stanton (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) has a bigger role. Halstead Welles (The Hell with Heroes, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the novel The Southern Blade by Nelson and Shirley Wolford.

A couple of later westerns might have raided this picture for ideas: continuing the fight in Mexico was the focus of The Undefeated (1969); a constantly carping pair who delight in slaughter evidenced in The Wild Bunch (1969); relentless pursuit a constant theme of 1969 westerns as diverse as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, Mackenna’s Gold and Once Upon a Time in the West.

Regard this as a western and you will be disappointed. Take it more seriously as a war picture and it offers far more. I’m probably being a tad generous in giving it four stars but I was knocked out by the performances of Hamilton and Stevens and a number of excellent scenes, the two in particular mentioned above for example, and the dialogue.

Synanon (1965) ***

Pre-dating Hollywood’s love affair with drugs, before sub-culture transformed into counter culture, before smoking a joint marked a generational divide, before marijuana symbolized freedom and was, well, the epitome of cool, before all that heroin was still seen as a scourge.

Addiction had rarely been viewed as persuasive audience fodder with the odd exception of The Man with the Golden Arm (1953) or the less-starry Monkey on My Back (1957). And this was also before Synanon became a byword for cult excess and was eventually closed down for committing the cardinal sin of employing tax exemption to get stinking rich.

At the time it was a byword for something else – rehabilitation. Its methods might have been controversial given leader Chuck (Edmond O’Brien) had no psychiatric training and was simply an ex-addict looking to find a way back. The main weapon in the community’s arsenal was confrontation. What became known as attack therapy. Rather than being permitted to stew in self-pity, inmates, all voluntary, had their weaknesses spelled out by others until they were ready to acknowledge them for themselves. The key to recovery was talking. Anyone not talking was hiding from their problems. (I’m not so well up on addiction therapy to know whether Synanon invented that kind of counselling of talking out problems in groups that then became the norm.)  If patients took to the scheme they were soon addicted to smoking and coffee; sex being considered too dangerous to contemplate.

Anyways, heroin addict Zankie (Alex Cord) is a newcomer helped along an entrant’s path by Joaney (Stella Stevens), a single mum so out of kilter with responsibility she kidnaps her son, and confronted by hardass Ben (Chuck Connors), so consumed with guilt over the death of his dope-fiend wife that he spurns all women. There’s a sub-plot of sorts. Chuck is being charged with various minor violations, including permitting convicted criminals out on parole to enter the establishment. But Chuck’s main job is to be sarcastic, challenging anyone’s notions that they could be cured, but occasionally analytically correct. “You put yourself in a position where you could lose control,” he tells Ben.

It’s a hothouse of emotions for sure. Zankie and Ben come to blows over Joaney. Zankie sees little wrong in knocking back some cough medicine. Eventually, Zankie skips out, pursued by Joaney, who goes back to turning tricks to fund her habit. There’s a surprising scene – for the time (likely excised from the British version and possibly the original) – of Chuck going through the whole candle, spoon, injection routine.

Set up as a sanitised public relations package promoting Synanon ideals with overmuch detail on the establishment’s background and conflict with authority, nonetheless it touches far better than most addiction movies on the lack of self-awareness that afflicts users, their creation of fantasy worlds where whatever they do is deemed right. The tension that comes from an entire house of jumpy characters, their dependence on a higher power (Chuck in this case) is well-drawn. Even the incessant smoking and the constant reliance on coffee suggests those with an addictive personality are only too likely to switch to something else.

You might question the casting. Alex Cord (Stagecoach, 1966), Stella Stevens (Rage, 1966) and Chuck Connors (Move Over Darling, 1963) are far too well-groomed to pass for skanky addicts even if on the road to recovery. And Edmond O’Brien (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) and his sidekick (Richard Conte, Lady in Cement, 1968)) come across like tougher versions of the tough priests tackling delinquency that used to be played by the likes of Spencer Tracy.

But Cord and Stevens do suggest the vulnerability of the delusional addict, Stevens little-girl-lost persona at odds with her glamor, actions devoid of the concept of consequence. Although boasting a six-pack, Cord’s portrayal of a man destroyed by weakness did not suggest he would segue from this screen debut into tough-guy leading roles. Better actors might have suggested a greater degree of internal conflict but externally, in the looks department, might have looked like this was always going to be their destination. So the casting works both ways, more surface, less depth, but a warning that even the prom king and queen are not immune from addiction.

Soberly directed by Richard Quine (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) from a screenplay by Ian Bernard, in his debut, but feels it owes too much from input by the original Chuck Dederich.

The Damned / These Are The Damned (1963) ****

Nihilism was at a peak in the 1960s. The threat of nuclear war and/or the fallout from radiation was as genuine a fear as the leak of a man-made disease is today. This was a precursor, though initially ignored, of the spate of nuke movies like Fail Safe (1964), Dr Strangelove (1964) and The Bedford Incident (1965) which made the argument not to leave nuclear accessibility in the hands of trigger-happy politicians, scientists and the military.  

The idea that scientists for experimental reasons might welcome radiation was not a notion easily embraced. The Damned (not to be confused with the earlier Village of the Damned, 1960,  and later Children of the Damned, 1964, or, for that matter, Luchino Visconti’s The Damned in 1969) presents a more ruthless scientific approach than audiences might expect.

Three tales eventually dovetail. In a very contemporary nod to English society, tearaways known as “teddy boys” terrorise a seaside town. Led by the snappily-dressed umbrella-wielding King (Oliver Reed) when not causing general mayhem they take pleasure in beating up any male who happens to be enticed by his glamorous sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field). One such unfortunate is Simon (MacDonald Carey), an American tired of the rat race. Joan decides she has had enough of being used as sexual bait and boards Simon’s yacht to apologise, at which point unlikely romance ensues. Not that romantic initially, as Simon assumes she is easy pickings, and comes on a shade too strong. Her thwarted brother sends his gang to spy on the couple.

Scientist Bernard (Alexander Knox) welcomes the arrival of his sculptor girlfriend Freya (Viveca Lindfors) who has a studio in a cottage on the cliffs. Underneath the cliffs is a secret project involving a group of obedient 11-year-old children who appear to have lived there from birth, with whom Bernard communicates via closed circuit television.

Joan and Simon enjoy an evening idyll in the empty cottage until chased out by the gang. Escape leads them down the cliffside where the children offer them a hiding place. The kids think Joan and Simon are their parents coming to the rescue. They believe they are on a spaceship headed to planets unknown. They are as baffled that the incomers have warm skin as the escapees that they have cold skin. Eventually, they are joined by King, rescued from drowning by one of the children.

Eventually, too, all are trapped by Bernard and his men. King, with his violent skills honed, is able to take on the guards and fashion an escape. Bernard allows the couple to leave on Simon’s yacht, knowing they will die of radiation poisoning before too long, a helicopter hovering overhead should they decide to land anywhere.

When Freya discovers the truth, Bernard kills her. The children lived through a radiation leak and are being groomed by Bernard to survive the inevitable future nuclear war in the hope, presumably, that they might breed and create a generation invulnerable to radiation. All that upsets the scientist of this incident is that the children now know they are prisoners.

Small wonder Hammer didn’t know what to do with such downbeat fare. Ruthless scientists like Bernard were usually put in their place by intrepid civilians like Simon and Joan or outsiders like King. The imprisoned always escaped. Humans, never mind children, were not treated as lab rats. A more cynical contemporary audience would not be remotely surprised at the conspiracies of scientists and governments.

If you think The Wicker Man (1973) took an age to achieve cultdom, this took forever, in part because of the later artistic recognition of director Joseph Losey, this scarcely fitting into an oeuvre that contained The Servant (1964) and The Go-Between (1971). Recognition was negated by poor initial distribution, the American version heavily edited, and it wasn’t really until this century that its worth was vindicated.

It’s a brilliantly bold construct, especially as, in retrospect, other characters are imprisoned one way or another. King scarcely lets Joan out of his sight, and while forcing her to strut her stuff to entice men that he can mug is revulsed at the notion of her embracing another man. Freya, too, although she doesn’t realise it, can only enjoy a relationship with Bernard in which he has complete control. The teddy boys, who think they can wreak havoc, are easy pickings for the might of the military.

Some scenes are just superb. Joan picking up Simon. King’s relish of violence. Bernard in avuncular tones addressing the children, who could all be in the running for cute Disney roles. Joan’s shock at the coldness of the children. The children’s innate obedience turning to rebellion at their betrayal. A camera tracking a room to the sound of heavy footsteps, those revealed to belong to a man in a Hazchem outfit. Bernard’s cold-blooded elimination of his lover. Finally, the cries of the children too distant to be heard by tourists on a beach.

Oliver Reed (Hannibal Brooks, 1968), working hard on his steely stare and his breathless tones, is the pick here, but Alexander Knox (Accident, 1967)  runs him close. Sultry-eyed Shirley Anne Field (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) does better than B-film regular MacDonald Carey who appears out of his acting depth.  

Genuine cult material.

Nurse on Wheels (1963) ***

A rude interloper had come trampling over the more sedate world of the “Doctor” franchise, a gentle comedy now in its fifth iteration and even surviving a brief interlude minus original star Dirk Bogarde. Carry On Nurse (1959), the second in that series, had been a massive box office hit and a jolt to the cultural senses.

Who knew that the upright Brits would condescend to a film that depended on smutty jokes, leering male characters and inuendo? But it did open up the mini-genre of films about nurses where they could be presented as ordinary people rather than being heroic in some global famine-stricken or war-torn trouble spot. And make the nurse the top-billed character rather than a doctor’s sidekick whose main characteristic was to whimper at the star in the hope he might take a fancy to her.

The marketing team clearly decided the slim Juliet Mills needed suspenders
and a bigger bosom to pull in the audiences.

But where the eponymous character in the Doctor series started out as hapless, lovelorn and bullied, here District Nurse Jones (Juliet Mills) has taken a leaf out of the robust book of Hattie Jacques, the bossy, no-nonsense, unperturbed Matron in Carry On Nurse. Not quite as over-the-top as that Matron, she more than holds her own, in perky fashion, in a patriarchal society, answering back a holier-than-thou vicar and dealing with a lecherous patient.

Nurse Jones has shifted from the city to the bland sleepy backwater village of Blandley in part to help her scatterbrain mother (Emma Cannon) cope better with, well, everything. Naturally, romance beckons, between Nurse Jones and local farmer Henry Edwards (Ronald Lewis), although any chance of love blossoming is imperilled by her lack of driving skills (106 lessons to pass her test).

Competent and confident and with a light riposte for every domineering male, it’s a shame that at the first sign of love she turns into a whimpering wreck. But there you go, confident women were acceptable in those days but everyone knew emotion would soon get the better of them. There’s not much in the way of plot, overcoming initial suspicions of patients coming to terms with a younger nurse, the various oddities of her charges, romantic rivalry between Nurse Jones and vicar’s daughter Deborah (Joan Sims).

But it is charming in an old-fashioned English way and certainly the camera adores Juliet Mills (Twice Round the Daffodils, 1962) though she’s neither given much drama to play with nor little opportunity, beyond the ripostes, to develop as a comedienne. Made in black-and-white on a leaky budget I had expected this to be a B-feature, propping up a double bill, but in fact it was given a circuit release on the ABC chain as the main (and sole) feature.

Will keep you entertained on a rainy Saturday afternoon, sufficient witty lines to raise a chuckle along with the batty mum’s battles with telephones, cupboards and rubber plungers. Not sure audiences wouldn’t have preferred smut and inuendo or the more polished presence of the Doctor cast.

But standing out as one of the few movies – comedies or dramas (and pre-dating the mid-60s cultural shift) – where a woman was in control of her own life not subservient or submissive to any passing male, feminism before that word took real root.

Supporting cast includes Joan Hickson (television’s Miss Marple), Carry On alumni Jim Dale and the aforementioned Joan Sims (who would have taken the lead role apparently had she not put on weight), Derek Guyler (Please Sir! television series) and Noel Purcell (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962).

Director Gerald Thomas could churn out these light-hearted vehicles with his eyes closed and given he helmed the Carry On series shows remarkable restraint.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968) **

Breaking the fourth wall has become a common conceit these days, especially in television, so you might be surprised to learn it was the key artistic element of this otherwise straightforward British coming of age drama.

Our teenage guide Jamie (Barry Evans), a delivery boy, spends most of his time lusting after any women he meets. Like a junior version of 10 (1979) women are rated according to their physical attributes. Most, of course, are well out of his league, especially as he lacks for what counts as the smooth patter which his cocky pal Spike (Christopher Timothy) has in abundance.

Essentially a series of episodes with the opposite sex as Jamie tries to lose his virginity. But mostly, it’s just Jamie yakking on about how he’s not lost his virginity and what’s up with all those women that they can’t see what a great catch he is. He’s so determined to have sex he will even go out with the dumbest of dumb blondes, Linda (Adrienne Posta).

Naturally, since reality is too cruel, he succumbs to fantasy with a number of scenarios that seem, inexplicably, torn from silent movies, and nothing approaching the imagination of Hieronymus Merkin. For no particular reason, he strikes lucky with the adventurous Mary (Judy Geeson), whose boyfriends usually run to sports cars, but that liaison is nearly interrupted by a wet dog and Jamie’s inexperience.

Apart from the lusting, there’s little else going on, a couple of women in a fish-and-chip shop complain they are fed up with chicken and beef, his younger brother shows more spark, and his home life is pitifully dull. You can’t really blame the movie for lacking the rebelliousness that was potent at the time, there’s no political awareness and no sign Jamie is going to grow up into one of the Angry Young Man so familiar at the beginning of the decade. It’s a quaint version of American Pie.(1999).

But it’s just boring. While Barry Evans (Alfred the Great, 1969) is personable enough he doesn’t have enough in the wit department to keep you hooked for the duration, most of the humor teetering on the side of inuendo..

Unable to recognise the inherent weakness of the script, and assuming that breaking artistic boundaries with the fourth wall is enough, director Clive Donner (Alfred the Great) spends most of his time trying to visually brush everything up, with little success.

That this was a big British hit at the time might have been more to do with the soundtrack – performed and written by Steve Winwood and Traffic – and the fleeting sight of Judy Geeson (Two into Three Won’t Go, 1969) in the buff. The British censor didn’t take too kindly to the actress revealing all, so in fact audiences were treated to very little, but for teenagers at the time very little was more than usually came their way unless willing to sit through a turgid arthouse picture.

About the only thing to commend it is Geeson’s class, she stands head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of screen charisma, and that there’s a roll call of rising British stars. As well as Christopher Timothy who would achieve fame on television in the original All Creatures Great and Small, the supporting cast includes Vanessa Howard (Corruption, 1968), Angela Scoular (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969), Diane Keen (The Sex Thief, 1973) and Adrienne Posta (Some Girls Do, 1969) and, to show them all how to do it, Denholm Elliot (Maroc 7, 1967) briefly pops up.

Clive Donner (Alfred the Great) directs. Hunter Davies, making his screen debut, wrote the screenplay based on his bestseller. Generally, any film that scores two stars does so out of incompetence. This is well-enough made but never seems to shift into gear.

Banning (1967) ***

Robert Wagner’s bid for stardom is scuppered by a limp plot set in the overheated world of the country club set where a posse of sexually predatory women operate. It doesn’t help that the main narrative thrust finds trouble just hanging in there.

Ex-professional golfer Banning (Robert Wagner), a “moral diabetic” on the run from a loan shark, pitches up at an upmarket country club where he finds work as the assistant golf pro to Jonathan (Guy Stockwell). His most arduous task appears to be picking his way between the toned bikini-ed bodies lounging around the pool and avoiding the advances of Angela (Jill St John) and Jonathan’s wife Cynthia (Susan Clark) while coming on strong to overpaid secretary Carol (Anjanette Comer).

There’s an element of Life at the Top (1965) here, with Jonathan married to the boss’s daughter, resenting their close relationship while not making the executive advances he would like. Every now and then bits of what sound like a complicated past implicating Jonathan and the alcoholic Tommy Del Gaddo (Gene Hackman) pop up and around the halfway mark a subplot kicks in, involving something called a “Calcutta,” a golf tourney which looks like it’s being rigged.

Given that it’s organised by a club boss (Howard St John) who claims every gimme going and feigns drunkenness to skin members at poker, it’s almost a given that Banning is going to come out worst. I have to tell you you probably couldn’t care less, since most of the action, and all of the fun, is off course, and not so much in the bedroom stakes as the war between women for available men.

“I bought you,” purrs Angela in her  most seductive attire after she has made it possible for Banning to find a way to pay off his debts. “I want you,” snaps single mother Carol, making a forthright play after spending most of the picture fending off his advances. Standing on the side-lines, watching Angela making her moves, Cynthia observes, “I’d say Angela’s had at least a dozen husbands,” pause for the punchline, “including mine for all I know.”

Predatory moves are not all one way. Turns out the price Carol pays for a salary five times the going rate and a nice house and private schooling for her daughter is setting aside Thursday afternoons for Jonathan. But in the pragmatic manner that appears inbred in the country club, she states, “No apologies, no excuses.”

And before Carol works out just how attractive Banning actually is she had to cut him dead a couple of times and, in a scene guaranteed to put off the modern audience, prevent him drunkenly raping her. It was almost a throwback to the 1940s and 1950s when, it appeared, a woman just needed a good smack on the chops before she could submit and start billing and cooing.

Robert Wagner (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968), tanned within an inch of his life, doesn’t so much miss the target as not being given a target worth hitting. There’s very little sense danger, of a man on the run from the mob or whichever gangster has picked up the tab for his debt, and he’s not a lounge lizard. Acting-wise, he relies on a raised eyebrow, an eye swivel and that scene-stealing trick, copyright Robert Vaughn, of raising his lowered head to open his closed eyes, a neat device for a supporting star but hardly required when you are top-billed.

Anjanette Comer (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) doesn’t snatch the brass ring either, relying on a tremulous lower lip to evoke emotion. In fact, it’s a toss-up between the classier Jill St John (The King’s Pirate, 1967) and Susan Clark (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) as to who steals the most scenes, both winging it with striking dialog, emanating power, regarding men as weak and playthings.

Gene Hackman (Lilith, 1964), generally a prime contender for scene stealing, especially with trademark chuckle now in full swing, unfortunately does himself no favors by over-acting.  You might also spot James Farentino (Rosie, 1967) and Sean Garrison (Moment to Moment, 1966).

Ron Winston (Ambush Bay, 1966) directed from a screenplay by James Lee (Counterpoint, 1967). It would have worked better to concentrate more on the bitchy women than the sub-plots.

I’m sorry to say you’ll have a hard job finding this since I purchased my DVD on the second-hand market. Worth the hunt if you’re a fan of St John and Clark or to discover why Wagner’s promising screen career never took off.

Crack in the World (1965) ***

There’s only one thing better than a crackpot sci-fi notion. And that’s two crackpot notions. The first one might have contemporary appeal – the need to find a cheaper source of sustainable energy. Come to think of it, the second one is even more contemporary – saving the world. Although this is achieved not by cutting back on nuclear power but by doubling down on it.

With so much resting on the special effects it’s a shame producer Philip Yordan lacked as  indulgent an employer as Samuel Bronston for whom he was the go-to-guy on a string of epics like El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Had Bronston been involved  this would have had world-shattering special effects. Even so, Yordan was way too smart to fall into the trap that awaited many producers of disaster movies, that the special effects would save a movie weighted down with a clunky script.

Here at least Yordan shows his pedigree. Dr Sorensen (Dana Andrews) isn’t so much the mad scientist as a guy overwhelmed by his own cleverness, his insanity of possibly a worse kind, driven by ambition and arrogance. And he’s a heck of a manipulator. When pitching the notion to Sir Charles Eggerton (Alexander Knox) and sundry political and military types he ensures his doubter Dr Rampion (Kieron Moore) isn’t around to spike his theory.

He’s got history in getting Rampion out of the way, ensuring he was in a lofty position thousands of miles away, making the coast clear for Sorensen to woo his rival’s lover Maggie (Janette Scott) to whom he is now married. Sorensen isn’t just a flawed human being, he’s a dying specimen, gradually taking on the appearance of a mummy he’s so clad in bandage one way or another as the story progresses.

Of course, it all goes wrong. Who could have foreseen there would be a pocket of hydrogen down there in the earth’s crust to knock for six Sorensen’s carefully calculated calculations. A ring of fire begins to spread around the globe, threatening to split the world in two. Of course if you drop a nuke down a volcano, as one might expect, that could possibly reverse the process.

Sorensen’s way too ill by now to take on such a physical endeavor so it falls to Rampion, naturally immune inside his Hazchem suit to the heat inside a volcano. But this proves an emotional miscalculation because it throws Maggie and Rampion together and you only need to see the look on her face when he enters the danger zone to realize that their love has only been temporarily buried not extinguished.

Oddly enough, it’s the flaws of character that hold this picture together. Sorensen determined to win his second Nobel Prize at any cost, the politicians pure suckers to anyone who can promise a new source of energy, Maggie deceiving her dying husband, Rampion principled enough to challenge Sorensen but betraying his trust to win back his former lover.

And it’s all delivered with enough believable scientific jargon snapped out in a staccato of confidence that you hardly question the concept. And Sorensen is pure scientist to the end and at least given to accepting he was wrong.

A modern audience might laugh at some of the special effects. The volcano looks like a toy and the inevitable train heading towards destruction, as though Yordan had boarded a Cinerama vehicle (which he would later do), also looks like something you’d buy in a shop. But you need to cut it some slack. This was before anyone (Fox with Fantastic Voyage, 1966, MGM on 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) was happy to back imagination to the tune of millions of dollars in sfx. The pressure cooker is kept on tight with the flawed characters, a traitorous romance, the fire circling the globe, Sorensen at first denying his experiment was causing earthquakes, and a simplifying of the scientific.

There’s a great scene at the start when Sorensen demonstrates the pros and cons of his scheme with the use of two panes of glass. And various maps are all we need to keep up to speed on the disaster spiralling out of control.

But if you ever want to humanize a barmy scientist call on Dana Andrews, clipped delivery, handsome, carefully coiffed silver hair, correct in every calculation until now, even emotional ones, realizing that in the September of his life he deserves romance. Astonishingly, this was his first picture in four years and he still dominates the screen.

Kieron Moore is clever casting, too, for he falls into the jutting-jaw category of handsome actor, not the bespectacled, wizened boffin, tough enough to take on Sorensen, handsome enough to challenge him romantically. Janette Scott and Moore played a couple in Day of the Triffids (1963) and she does well enough as the romantic prize. Director Andrew Marton (Texas: Africa Style, 1967) holds it all together.

The Pistolero of Red River / The Last Challenge (1967) ****

A little gem. Mature, thoughtful, cleverly structured. Plays with expectations. Another assured performance from Glenn Ford (Rage, 1966) with Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) permitted a character of considerably more complexity than normal.

Quite an unusual set-up. Marshal Blaine (Glenn Ford) is an ex-convict, his paramour Lisa (Angie Dickinson) is the local madam. Both are pretty much accepted in this small western town. Some hypocrisy comes Lisa’s way – her money acceptable to a storekeeper who out of earshot refers to her as white trash – but generally the townspeople are happy with an ex-gunslinger as lawman.

But he’s not your standard lawman. He’s very easy-going, not spending all is time upholding the law or out hunting varmints, and she’s not your typical madam either, mothers her employees, keeps unwanted men at a distance, and has made enough money for a fine rig and fancy clothes.

Blaine is sensible but ruthless, taking tough action to prevent a young kid getting into trouble with a dangerous gunman, but having no compunction about shooting the gunslinger. He’s not out for an easy life, but my he does enjoy it, though on a slack day finds fishing more fun than rolling in the hay with Lisa. She knows she has made a good catch, her friend still getting knocked about by her husband, and although Blaine doesn’t seem the marrying kind she has notions of having a baby.

But out fishing Blaine frees a villain Ernest (Jack Elam) who has upset the local Indians. Since they shared a cell way back, Ernest sees Blaine as an easy touch and when told where to go on that score fingers to blackmail Lisa. Meanwhile, this turns out to be an eventful fishing trip. Blaine buddies up with a stranger, Lot (Chad Everett), they fish, cook and drink whisky together until the newcomer reveals he’s on a mission to kill the lawman and take his title of fastest gunman in the southwest.

So you can see where this is headed. Except it doesn’t take that route. Because Lisa, worried that the youngster might well be faster on the draw, hires Ernest to kill him. And when that backfires, it’s only a matter of time before Blaine finds out and you wonder what that’s going to do to their relationship.

There’s some standard stuff, a poker cheat for example, but there’s a lot more going on. Blaine’s young deputy, mostly left to do the chores, tries to throw his weight around with the gunman only to end up with egg on his face. There’s an Native American in jail who we never see and a subplot involving his colleagues that looks like it’s headed in the direction of standard western confrontation until that notion is cleverly nipped away from under the audience’s feet.

Given credence by the worried Lisa is the idea that Blaine is coming to the end of the trail and it’s a testament to the direction that the tension lasts as long as it does. The promotional material gives out that the youngster is a tearaway threatening to shoot up the town, but that’s far from the truth, Blaine trying to talk him out of such rashness while at the same time seeing the boy as a reflection of his younger self.

There’s some brilliant dialog. “Of all the people ain’t worth saving,” Blaine tells Ernest, “you’re the first that comes to mind.” At their first meeting, Lot asks Blaine, “Where’s your tin star?” Retorts Blaine, “You better never see it on me.” As they part, Lot says, “We’ll be meeting again.” Replies Blaine, without aggression, “If that’s the way you want it.”

But there’s quite a lot that’s missed out. There’s no scene of Lisa hiring Ernest, just that he ambushes Lot. The jailed Native American is, as I mentioned, off-camera. There’s none of the usual massive build-up towards a showdown. And even as the shootout approaches, Lisa still doesn’t trust in Blaine’s skill and plans to shoot Lot herself.

That betrayal comes as a helluva shock. When has any lawman’s moll lacked such faith? As for Lot, gunslinging is all that he lives for, the measure of himself, and there’s a purity about him as he rejects countless offers of whisky and women even as he knows he’s making a terrible bed to lie in.

This was very much ahead of its time, especially in thwarting audience expectation not just in the representation of character but in the narrative. It proved a fine last hurrah for veteran Hollywood director Richard Thorpe (The Truth about Spring, 1965). Robert Emmett Gina (Before Winter Comes, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the John Sherry novel.

As it happened, I watched this back-to-back with Rage so ended with an even better appreciation of Glenn Ford’s talent but was also very taken with Angie Dickinson for the way her character twisted and turned as she attempted to create the outcome she desired. Definitely worth a watch.

Selling Maureen O’Hara Dripping Wet – The Pressbook for “The Deadly Companions / Trigger Happy” (1961)

Pathe America didn’t have much idea how to sell The Deadly Companions. So they went for the obvious. Maureen O’Hara bathing.

And that was basically it. Out of the eight pages in the A3-sized Pressbook all but two were devoted to a picture of Maureen O’Hara in a desert pool. There were 29 advertisements in varying sizes in the Pressbook and all focused on that central image, even the smallest advert featured O’Hara in the water.

Even more extraordinary, given that  O’Hara (regardless of her current marquee status) was a star of some magnitude, over two decades in the business, female lead to some of the biggest actors in Hollywood like John Wayne and Tyrone Power, occasionally top-billed in her own right, working with directors of the magnitude of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, was how little space was devoted to her for a movie of which she was the denoted star.

Foreign distributors avoided the bathing image in favor of straightforward action.

Out of the two pages – A3-size remember – set aside for material that might attract the attention of showbiz editors on regional newspapers, a grand total of 28 lines was devoted to the star. Stuntman Chuck Hayward was allocated more space – two articles were written about him, not just one. Details about the props received more space. The extras received more space. Information about a cave received more space. The famous Arizona cacti received more space. The musical instruments used in the score received more space.

Even so, Maureen O’Hara with all her experience, would surely have plenty stories to tale, some juicy nuggets to snag the interest of the entertainment journos. A reflection, perhaps, on time spent in the company of Wayne (three movies), Errol Flynn (Against All Flags, 1952), Oscar-winning Alec Guinness (Our Man in Havana, 1959), Power (The Black Swan, 1942), and Charles Laughton (Jamaica Inn and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both 1939).

Nope. You guessed it, every line of space given over to Maureen O’Hara concerned the bathing scene. It was her first ever, as if that was some kind of rite of passage. We discovered the water was “scarcely above freezing. It had come down to the Arizona lake from the melting January snow.” And there was no body double for the brave O’Hara. “She insisted on doing the scene herself, so the audience is not cheated.” For the river scene, in which she was accompanied by Steve Cochran, the water was no warmer and was completed on the first take, indication perhaps of Peckinpah’s lowly status. Later in his career he would have demanded retakes.

The main image of O’Hara in the water is overlaid with threat. Her three “deadly” companions surround her, even though such a scene did not occur in the picture. The tagline spells it out: “An Unholy Alliance! Three hell-driven men stalk a beautiful, tempting woman alone in an untamed land!…Savage action and explosive emotions erupt on the screen.” Accompanying that are three other images of the companions: “See – the deadliest gundown of them all!” / “See – the vicious crunch of fish against flesh!” / “See – the terror of Apache cruelty.”

There were some tagline variations on the theme: “Men without women in an untamed land…they forced their way into her life!” / “Trapped…by her past and the sins of the men who pursued her through a savage land!” / “Alone – in an untamed land – with three men who forced their way into her life.”

Change of marketing approach came too late.

O’Hara’s character’s profession, not spelled out in the movie where she is passed off as a “dance hall hostess,” is more clear-cut in one ad. “Trapped…Money gave men the right to her lips!” Some identifiers provide an insight into the companions – Brian Keith described as “Deadly…Hate and revenge were all he lived for.” Steve Cochran was portrayed as “Deadly…Nothing stood between him and what he wanted.” While for Chill Wills it was “Deadly…Half-crazed with greed and dreams of grandeur.”

However, some exhibitors, who were after all funding this enterprise, believed the Pressbook came up short, resulting in Pathe America creating a one-page supplement which presented O’Hara in a different light. Now she moved closer to her fiery screen persona, lashing out with a whip rather than languishing as a victim. The bathing image was retained but reduced in size, the emphasis now on action, on gun and fists. The tagline became: “Pages torn from the diary of a frontier dance girl…The greatest adventure love story in years.” Switching the focus to the O’Hara-Keith relationship was a bit of a stretch, but it was better than the original idea of O’Hara as a male plaything

The distributors stressed action even more when the movie was reissued the following year with a new title Trigger Happy. This time the tagline read: “They fought with guns worn low…Lust and revenge…romance and hate. A motion picture of great impact.”

Oddly enough, though the book by scriptwriter AS Fleischmann was promoted in the Pressbook, there was no mention of O’Hara singing the theme song, or cutting a single, a well-known promotional device for targeting radio stations. Otherwise, promotional ideas were in short supply.

Exhibitors were encouraged to hire three horsemen to ride through the town with signs “I am one of The Deadly Companions” or to set up headless cut-outs in the lobby and let children fire water pistols at them.

Even allowing for the relative inexperience on the production-distribution side, this was a particularly poor collection of marketing notions. Almost as if the producers believed that, considering the movie was made by exhibitors for exhibitors, it would get a free pass as regards the marketing aspects.

Behind the Scenes: “The Deadly Companions / Trigger Happy” (1961)

There was enough controversy surrounding the launch of this picture without even invoking the behavior of director Sam Peckinpah. For a start its production heralded a revolution in exhibition. Cinema owners were intent on breaking the industry’s one sacrosanct law.

Since 1948 and the Paramount Decree which forced studios to shed their cinemas, it had been forbidden for a studio to operate as an exibitor and vice-versa. But the financial tsumani that hit the business at the end of the 1950s resulted in a shortfall of new releases and left exhibitors scratching around for product.

Taking the view that the situation was so dire that studios could not resolve it and imagining that the government would not look unkindly on the idea, exhibitors set up a company called Motion Pictures Investment Inc. Initially, the outfit was not so confrontational. The plan was simply to repackage old movies and send them out as reissues. There was no law against that since the exhibitors were not acting as production companies.

It was ambitious scheme, calling in 1958 for $25 million to be raised to fund a whole stream of old movies, sending them into reissue achieving the double aim of filling release gaps and preventing them from falling into the maw of television – Twentieth Century Fox in the process of selling 50 pictures dating from 1950-1955 to television for $10 million. 

The Actors’ Strike of  1960 halved production, making a dire situation intolerable. MPI bought the rights to Gary Cooper western Friendly Persuasion (1957) and put together a hefty marketing campaign to get that picture back on the market. Recognising that studios were likely to prevent their gems from being reissued when they could be sold so easily to television, MPI bit the bullet and moved into production. Pathe-America was the vehicle, “a production-distribution-exhibition project predicated on the theory that exhibitors can sense better than anybody what the pubic want on the screens.”

First film on the agenda – The Deadly Companions.

The driving force behind that picture was a female star intent on a bit of revolution of her own – Maureen O’Hara. The flame-haired actress – a star for over two decades, as comfortable in westerns like Rio Grande (1950) as dramas (The Quiet Man, 1952) and swashbucklers (The Spanish Main, 1945) had  decided her career was in need of a rejig. Demand for her services was slowing down – only four movies in the second half of the 1950s compared to 14 in the first half. 

In reality, her career was sinking fast and it felt like panic to imagine she could reconfigure herself at this late stage as a singer, signing a contract for an album first with RCA Victor in 1958 and then CBS in 1960 and starring in the Broadway musical Christine in 1960, a flop despite her “good singing voice and assured stage presence.”

But a bigger measure of her fall was that she ended up in television, spurred on initially by her brother, Charles B. Fitzsimons, who thought he could help better manage her career. Initially an actor, he had segued into production via independent producer Edward L. Alperson but without particular distinction.

They set up Tarafilm in 1958 with the aim of co-producing a series Women In the Case with CBS, profits to be evenly split. But that never surfaced and instead she was an actress for hire and at modest fees at that for, even for bigger stars, the small screen did not pay fees comparable with the movies. For the first time in her career a year passed without a single movie. In 1960 only television beckoned – Open Window, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mrs Miniver and the DuPont Show of the Month. And there was something plaintive when O’Hara, who had espoused the freelance approach to her career, advised young stars to take a studio contracts if offered.

But Fitzsimons was feverishly working behind the scenes, trying to raise money for their Carousel movie production shingle, even going so far as applying to the U.S. Government’s Small Business Loan scheme. Without exhibitors determined to break the law, it’s doubtful they would have sourced the funding for The Deadly Companions. MPI put up nearly half the $390,000 budget for The Deadly Companions after Fitzsimons had commissioned a screenplay from novelist A.S. Fleischman.

Brian Keith was available because the television series The Westerner (1960) that had made him temporarily a star was cancelled after not even lasting a season.  He came cheap – a steal even for a low-budget picture – at $30,000. Sam Peckinpah, who had originated The Westerner, was primarily a television writer and director thirsting for an opportunity to make his mark on the big screen. So, also out of work after The Westerner was canned, he came cheap too, earning half Keith’s salary.

Peckinpah later complained about script problems, but that was par for the course with the director; if a movie failed it was someone else’s fault. O’Hara, who had worked with the best including Hitchcock and Ford, and like most top stars knew a fair bit about how and where to point a camera, later complained that Peckinpah was out of his depth. But that, too, was par for the course. Her autobiography Tis Herself was almost a litany of complaints.

The problem for O’Hara was more financial. While Peckinpah was guaranteed payment, she was not. As producer, she would be working for a fraction of her normal fee of $150,000, expecting to make that back – and more – when the movie went into profit. There was no reason to assume it would not make a decent sum, low-budget westerns having a habit of making money.

The movie was filmed on location in Arizona. The picture’s Gila City, where the bank robbery took place, was based on the Tucson of a hundred years before. Seeking authenticity, the set was constructed following artist drawings culled from the early 1860s. Props were also authentic – the doctor’s chair was from the period, the surgical instruments remnants from the era and even the apothecary jars had come from an early pharmacist shop.

Extras were genuine cowboys or Native Americans. Apaches and Papagos were hired as Native Americans. At a casting call at the Ramada Inn, producer Fitzsimons found the genuine cowboy article in the in the lobby “their Stetsons stained by sweat and faded by the sun and most of them wore working jeans and multi-colored shirts that had been washed but not ironed…leathery-faced men…speaking in low voices of how bum the cattle business was from all this drought and how fine it was a man could pick up a few dollars riding with the movie company.” Even the cactus was authentic, the director favoring scenes which featured the giant Sauaro species.

The cave for one scene was also genuine, not a stage set,  the result of an earthquake fault, 50-foot high and 40-foot across at the opening, spiralling hundreds of feet into the mountain. The roof, made up of boulders, was particularly precarious as any rumble could send it tumbling to the ground. Only essential crew were permitted for the scene which saw O’Hara firing a shotgun at an Apache. Fearing the sound of detonation might affect the roof, flash powder was used instead of cartridges.

Stunts involved included overturning a stagecoach and falling 35-feet. Stuntman Chuck Hayward nearly died during rehearsal when the horse bolted and the stagecoach struck a tree. He was married to Ellen Hayward, daughter of Joan Blondell and Dick Powell.

Perhaps the most immediately unusual aspect of the movie was the score. Among instruments used by composer Marlin Skiles were a toy trumpet, xylophone, vibraphone, kettle drum and cracked belt.

To help promote the picture the screenplay was novelized and went on to sell half a million copies, though it went out under the title Yellowleg and was not noticeably a movie tie-in.

The movie received good reviews. Box Office, which might be expected to back any exhibitor initiative, deemed it a “well above average western” with “superb performances” and “exacting direction.” Variety, which sided more with studios than exhibitors, nonetheless was mostly positive, except for “lapses and weaknesses” finding it “fairly engrossing” with O’Hara’s performance “one of her best for some time.”

As you might expect, exhibitors, too, got behind the picture. There was double “Gala World Premiere” in Tucson and Phoenix, on June 6 for the former the following night for the latter, attended by the stars. Surprisingly, given it was a target for saturation (i.e. multiple release region-by-region) and a low-budget number, it was shown in some major houses, in Detroit the 5,000-seater Fox, in Pittsburgh the 3,700-seater Stanley, a 3,600-seater in St Louis, in Buffalo the 3,000-eater Lafayette, in Cleveland the 2,739-seater Palace and in Seattle the 2,200-seater Music Hall. But bookings were scattered between June and September 1961.

But giving a  movie a helping hand would not necessarily translate into decent box office. Takings were poor – the best result a “good” $15,000 in Detroit. Cleveland produced a “fair” $9,000, St Louis a “fair” $10,000, Pittsburgh a “drab” $8,500, Buffalo a “thin” $5,000 and there was but $2,500 in Seattle. No major first run theaters signed up in Los Angeles or Kansas City, in each location going out in small multiple release, edging a “dim” $8,5000 from three cinemas in the former and a “moderate” $15,000 from three in Kansas City. Nor did first run line up to host it in New York and by the time it reached Portland it was playing on the lower half of a double bill.

In an attempt to recover some of its $60,000 loss, MPI changed the title in 1962 to Trigger Happy, altered the poster to focus on action rather than sex, and programmed it in a double bill with its second production The Checkered Flag. That proved a failure and MPI was wound up.

Buoyed by the unexpected success of The Parent Trap (1961), O’Hara’s career recovered and she was paired with James Stewart in Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and reunited with John Wayne for McLintock (1963). Brian Keith never became a major star but still had a very decent career toplining smaller-budgeted films and in supporting roles. Charles B. Fitzsimons made a success of production, though mainly in television. We all know what happened to Sam Peckinpah.  

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016) p117-120;  Pressbook, The Deadly Companions; “Maureen O’Hara As Disker,” Variety, May 7, 1958, p59; “Maureen O’Hara Bagged for Series,” Variety, August 27, 1958, p27; “Christine Gives Columbia 3 On Showtime Shelf,” Variety, March 23, 1960, p45; Review, Christine, Variety, May 4, 1960, p56; “Longplay Shorts,” Variety, September 28, 1960, p58; “Family Classics,” Variety, November 2, 1960, p27; “MP Investment Trust Puts Coin into Pathe America Release,” Variety, January 25, 1961, p5; “Pathe America’s First Star: Maureen O’Hara,” Variety, November 9, 1960, p4; “Pathe Companions into Saturation Playoff,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p5; Review, Variety, June 10, 1961, p10; Review, Box Office, Jun 12, 1961, pA11; “Gala World Premiere for Deadly Companions,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, p10; “Don’t Do As I Do,” Variety, August 2, 1961, p4; “Fitzsimons Switches Pitch,” Variety, August 29, 1962, p16; “Motion Pic Investors Draws Criticism for Faltering Achievement,” Variety, December 12, 1962, p3; “Missouri-Made Feature in Second Round,” Variety, June 5, 1963, p18. Box office results: “Picture Grosses,” Variety – June 14 and 28, July 19, August 16 and 23, September 6, 13 and 20.

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