Books by Brian Hannan – “Paisley at the Pictures, The Sequel, 1951”

A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about cinemagoing in 1950 in my local town of Paisley in Scotland which at that time had eight cinemas screening over 1200 movies a year to the 93,000 inhabitants. Six of the theaters were first run and two second-run. A standard program consisted of main feature, supporting feature, newsreel and cartoon and in two cinemas a serial.

Jane Wyman in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright.

I got so engrossed in my research for this book that I went back to the source a second time and examined what happened in pictures houses for the following year. This treasure trove of cinematic memories turned into a bigger book with double the number of illustrations and also included a section on reminiscences and a look back to when the two biggest cinemas in the town had opened in the 1930s.

Anyone who was born outside the capital cities of their countries and a few other major cities besides will know that way into the 1970s there was a food chain in operation for movie distribution. Although the reference books and Imdb will show movies as having been made, for example, in 1951, most cinemas would not get to screen them that year. In Paisley, for example, only 11.5 per cent of the movies made in 1951 appeared in the town during the same year. More people went to the movies in those days than now – two or three times a week was not uncommon.

The biggest films of 1951 in Paisley included musical Annie Get Your Gun, marital comedy Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger in MGM blockbuster King Solomon’s Mines, Gregory Peck as Captain Horatio Hornblower, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford western Rio Grande and Greer Garson in sequel The Miniver Story.

Also topping the popularity league were Mario Lanza in biopic The Great Caruso, British war film Odette starring Anna Neagle, Alfred Hitchcock thriller Stage Fright with Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich, Anglophile Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in thriller State Secret, David Niven musical Happy-Go-Lovely (filmed in Edinburgh), Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic Samson and Delilah, John Garfield in The Breaking Point – a surprisingly speedy remake of To Have and Have Not – and comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in At War with the Army.

The beginnings of the sci-fi boom.

The year’s number one star in Paisley was Jane Wyman – judged on how many days her pictures played in the town. In second spot came John Wayne. Joan Bennett was third. Glenn Ford and Virginia Mayo rounded out the top five. Cowboy star Gene Autry topped the B-movie brigade.

Among the serials show were Batman and Robin, The Purple Monster Strikes, Atom Man vs. Superman, King of the Rocket Men, The Adventures of Sir Galahad, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, The Monster and the Ape, Pirates of the High Seas and The Daughter of Don Q.

The Secret Ways (1961) ***

This gritty realistic thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s The Last Frontier, has much in common with The Quiller Memorandum (1965) with spies stalked through dark cobbled streets. To pay off his gambling debts, Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark), posing as a journalist, agrees to smuggle out of Hungary resistance leader Jansci (Walter Rilla) on the Soviet hit list after the failed 1956 uprising.  Assisting him is Jansci’s daughter Julia (German star Sophie Ziemann) and, making her debut, Senta Berger as Elsa.

This is a city of staircases and tunnels and echoing footsteps and authorities keeping close tabs on visitors. The first time Widmark escapes their notice he is beaten up and it takes considerable skill, dodging through cinemas, creeping along window ledges, to make any headway in his assignment. Various complications ensue, not least that Julia despises Reynolds and that Jansci does not want to flee his country. Reynolds, who starts out as anything but your standard good guy, ends up less mercenary.

Mostly it is atmospheric cat-and-mouse with ruthless opposition partial to the odd spot of torture. Once it gets going, it a chase that the escapees are unlikley to evade. That Reynolds is distrusted by those he is trying to help and that he doesn’t want to be here at all, forced into adventure by adverse personal circumstance, stokes up the tension.

Widmark doesn’t quite abandon his snarling persona but manages some deft dry-wit comedy when trying to play a journalist accommodating his hosts. Senta Berger makes a striking debut. Sophie Ziemann is less impressive but veteran character actor Walter Rilla has the brooding and charismatic presence of a leader. Vienna, generally not considered a soulless city, does a great job standing in for Budapest.

This was one of many Widmark bids to gain greater control of his career and provide himself with more interesting leading roles than the standard villains or tough guys that Hollywood marked him down for. He was the producer and at one point took over direction from Phil Karlson after artistic differences of opinion. Jean Hazlewood, Widmark’s wife, wrote the screenplay. While there’s less out-and-out action than Maclean devotees brought up on Where Eagles Dare and Fear Is the Key might expect, there are still considerable rewards from an intelligent screenplay and the crackle of pursuit. Seen as a late entrant to the Hollywood cloak-and-dagger genre than a precursor of the 1960s Bond-style adventure, this has a great deal going for it.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, and The Quiller Memorandum; Richard Widmark in The Bedford Incident, The Long Ships, Flight from Ashiya and Alvarez Kelly.

Red Line 7000 (1965) *

Quentin Tarantino is probably alone in preferring this movie mishap to John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966) – or I have somehow missed a “cult” picture. There was no doubt director Howard Hawks could handle speed. Check out the action in Hatari! (1962) as jeeps battle across tougher terrain than NASCAR racing circuits. But for some reason, he thought he would get away with interspersing footage of races and spectacular crashes with shots of actors behind the wheel. Any time something exciting is about to happen we’re alerted by the commentator saying “oh oh” or “wait a minute” or “hold it.” There’s none of the feverish excitement or authenticity of Grand Prix.

Hawks hired a no-name cast in a bid a) to become a star-maker, b) to prove he did not require the marquee wattage of the likes of John Wayne and c) to show he could make a movie cheaply. He failed on all three counts. He probably didn’t think he was taking any kind of gamble at all, as a male approaching 70, in trying to depict the lives of people around 50 years younger. James Caan, in his sophomore outing, comes out best, but that’s not saying much since he has very little to do except growl and look broody. Marianna Hill (El Condor, 1971) is also believable.

While the racing footage has dated in a way that Grand Prix has not, the main problem is just a jumble of characters getting lost in a jumble of stories. No sooner has one character been introduced than we are onto another. There’s none of the cohesive story-telling that marked out The Big Sleep (1946) or Rio Bravo (1959) and, frankly, none of the characters are particularly interesting. And what possessed him to stick in a song sung by a character (Holly, played by Gail Hire) who cannot sing – she talks the lyrics – with a backing group made up of waitresses, I can’t begin to guess.

The most fun to be had is spotting in bit parts people famous for other reasons. Carol Connors, for example, who co-wrote the lyrics to “Gonna Fly Now” (Rocky, 1976) appears as a waitress. As does Cissy Wellman, daughter of veteran director William Wellman. Comedian Jerry Lewis has a cameo. It says much for Hawk’s star-spotting abilities that of two female leads, Laura Devon only made five pictures and Gail Hire just two. Of the main supporting males, this was the beginning and end of John Robert Crawford’s movie career while Skip Hire made a bigger splash as a producer of television series The Dukes of Hazzard.

However, the French had a word for it – “genius.” Despite being dismissed as a rare misstep by the bulk of critics worldwide, Cahiers du Cinema decided it was one of the year’s Top Ten pictures. So what do I know? Make up your own mind – catch it on Amazoon Prime.

Selling Paul Newman – The Pressbook for “The Prize”

You’ve got a new Paul Newman picture to sell to the exhibitors responsible for booking the picture into theaters – or not. So, do you mention the fact that he has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar three times in the last five years? Nope, that gets discounted because that was serious Paul Newman, heavy dramas, weighty themes. This is new-look Newman – a thriller in the vein of North by Northwest. The movie is set against the background of the Nobel Prize, the most important award scheme in the world, so surely promotion could focus on that. Well, no, actually that’s kind of weighty as well.

Nope, your best bet, according to the marketing team putting together the Pressbook (Exhibitor’s Campaign Manual) for The Prize is – wait for it – nudity and food. The first promotional page of the manual hits you with a couple of great ideas based on the fact that in the movie Paul Newman ends up in a nudist colony with only a towel to protect his dignity. “Announce that the first fifty women at your theater opening day will receive a costume just like the one worn by Paul Newman in the film” – in other words a towel. And if that doesn’t work “install a peek-a-boo box in which theater patrons can see the famous nude scene.” After all, continues the manual in confident tone, you are sitting on “the controversy of the century.”

Next big idea – “pre-sell The Prize with gourmet foods from Sweden.” Apparently, a heavy focus on food promotion had worked wonders for previous MGM pictures The VIPs (1963) and The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and neither of these pictures could call upon the actual menu served at the actual Nobel Banquet for 800 people at the Stockholm City Hall. The Pressbook gives menu ideas for exhibitors to pass on to local newspapers including such delicacies as “Supreme de Poulet Farci a la Royal” which is basically chicken stuffed with goose liver, cognac and madeira.  Alternatively, housewives could be tempted into making “Charlotte a la Royal” which consists of pineapple sorbet, curacao parfait, almond pastries filled with Grand Marnier, almond meringue and candied grapes.

Luckily, there were more mundane marketing ideas more likely to appeal to the theater manager who believed the name of Paul Newman should be all he or she needed to sell the picture. MGM had cut a single of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for the picture – four singles actually by four different artists – and that was guaranteed airplay in over 500 radio stations, the tune was also included in a composite album of movie themes.

And link-ups were also possible with your local book store, newsagent and drug stores for the movie tie-in paperback of the bestselling Irving Wallace novel with the stars on the cover.

It was only the last two pages of the 16-page glossy A3 Pressbook that carried any information on the film itself and the stars. German Elke Sommer making her Hollywood debut was given as big a push as Newman himself. She had taken the alternative route into acting of winning a dancing contest (according to MGM’s press office – a beauty contest according to Imdb) that led to a small part in an Italian picture.

The pressbook erroneously stated her second picture was directed by Vittorio De Sica, whereas he was merely the star and Sommer merely a supporting actress. By the time she came to make The Prize, she was a veteran with 25 pictures in the can. Sommer’s wardrobe as worn in the picture might also generate tie-ups with sweater shops, beauty salons and lingerie retailers. An idea for a lobby stunt was to stick an enlarged photo of Sommer on the wall and give a prize for the best sketch by a local artist.

Needless to say, neither director Mark Robson nor screenwriter Ernest Lehman merited a mention in the Pressbook.

The Prize (1963) ****

Thoroughly involving potboiler with alcoholic novelist Paul Newman turning unlikely detective to uncover murky double-dealings at the annual Nobel Prize ceremony. Based on the Irving Wallace bestseller set in Stockholm, director Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express,1965) strings together a number of different stories that coalesce in a gripping climax. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest,1959) brings alive what could have been a very soggy adaptation of a beefy bestseller with witty and literate dialog and a plot that hovers just the right side of hokum.

Elke Sommer, delegated to look after Newman, starts out as stuffed shirt not sexpot, allowing Newman’s attention to drift towards Emily Stratman (Diane Baker) – daughter of another winner Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) – while he is also dragged into romantic entanglement with neglected wife Dr Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle). Mostly, Newman just wants his next drink and his almost continual inebriation sparks some good comedy and he is gifted good lines to extricate himself from embarrassment. Simmering in the  background are warring winners – the Marceau husband-and-wife team and Dr John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy) convinced that Dr Carlo Farelli (Gerard Oury), with whom he is sharing a prize, has stolen his research.  

 There are sufficient character clashes and plots to be getting along with if you were just intent on taking a Valley of the Dolls approach to the material, that is, cutting between various dramatic story arcs, but, without invalidating the other subsidiary tales, the movie takes quite a different turn, providing the potboiler with considerable edge.  

Turns out that Newman is so impoverished that he has been writing detective novels under a pseudonym and suspecting that Dr Stratman is an imposter he starts investigating. So in some respects it’s a private eye procedural played out against the glamorous backdrop of the awards. But the clues are inventive enough and there is a femme fatale and once Sommer comes along for the ride and with Newman a target the picture picks up an invigorating pace. Echoing the humorous auction scene in North by Northwest is a sequence set in a nudist colony where Newman seeks refuge to avoid villains while another terrific scene plays out in the docks.

Newman looks as if he is having a ball. In most of his pictures he was saddled with seriousness as if every part was chosen with an eye on the Oscars. Here, he lets rip with a lighter persona, and even if he mugs to the camera once too often, the result is a screen departure that lifts the picture. Inebriation has clearly never been so enjoyable. Sommer is a delight, showing great dramatic promise. Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves,1960), more renowned for his gangster roles, convinces as a scientist. Diane Baker (The 300 Spartans, 1962), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers,1956) and Leo G. Carroll (North by Northwest) provide sterling support.

Robson directs with dexterity, mostly with an eye on pace, but it is Lehman’s script with occasional nods to Hitchcock that steals the show.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and Cool Hand Luke; Diane Baker in Marnie and The 300 Spartans; Elke Sommer in The Corrupt Ones and Mark Robson picture The Lost Command.  

 

Murder Ahoy! (1964) ***

Agatha Christie tales were in a mostly B-movie limbo in the 1960s, despite Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and would have to wait another decade before glorious all-star resurrection in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974). In the meantime, audiences made do with Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple in an MGM quartet – all directed by George Pollock – that ended with Murder Ahoy! Rutherford did not enjoy the national treasure status of the likes of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench these days but she had been elevated to late-career fame by winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The VIPs (1963). But she never quite made the cinematic impact anticipated after Blithe Spirit (1945) and she was mostly seen in roles that called for eccentricity or determination, characteristics associated with Christie’s second most famous sleuth.

The title had led me to expect a picture set on a liner or a cruise ship. Instead, this being a cheaply-made British black-and-white feature, we are limited to a sojourn on a sail training ship which remains moored at all times. Nonetheless, Rutherford is resplendent in naval attire and disports herself as if she were the captain. Her excuse to get on board is the sudden death of a member of the committee overseeing said ship just before he makes an announcement. Miss Marple relies on a good deal more than Hercule Poirot on little grey cells and through laboratory experiment determines the man died from strychnine poisoning. Among her other hidden talents are signaling mastery and dexterity with a sword and she drops popcorn on corridor floors to warn of imminent arrivals when she invades cabins. The suspects include Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon) at his pompous best, Derek Nimmo (BBC’s Oh, Brother), and William Mervyn while Nicholas Parsons (ITV game show Sale of the Century) makes an appearance as a doctor, described in double entendre fashion as “brisk.”   

The Marple films usually ended up on the bottom half of a double bill in the UK.

Naturally, there is more murder, and the subplots include burglary, secret romance (Joan Benham) and thwarted romance (Norma Foster). However, nothing can deter Miss Marple and she soon puts the world to rights. It’s an engrossing enough little film, the resolution a surprise, and Rutherford has skill and charm enough to almost trademark the role. At one time in the 1960s in the USA the Marple pictures were revived as double bills but generally in Britain treated with less regard. Although you could argue that MGM could have bolstered the standards of production, much of the merit derives from the quaintness and the quintessential English lives portrayed. As a bonus there are moments of well-observed comedy and a very inventive score from Ron Goodwin whose 633 Squadron appeared the same year.   

The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960) ***

A more misleading title would be hard to find – and that goes for the posters too. This is a misfit movie – a bunch of raw recruits knocked into shape by an unwilling captain tasked with sailing a ship into a South Pacific war zone in WWII. Admittedly, Jack Lemmon is in exasperated double-take default in the opening section, but it quickly shifts from comedy to drama as Lemmon shepherds his inexperienced crew into a more compact team. Screenwriter Frank Murphy has an exceptionally good portfolio – Panic in the Streets (1950), The Desert Rats (1953), Broken Lance (1954) and Compulsion (1959) – but brings less to the table as a director, this only his second – and final – outing in that capacity. But given he is directing from his own screenplay, he must take the blame for the incongruous hybrid. Add in an unnecessary tune from Ricky Nelson and the briefest of brief romances and no wonder it’s hard to make head or tail of the movie until it does eventually head out to sea.

Once Lemmon is given more to do than shake or scratch his head the picture movies into more satisfactory territory. Instead of dismissing the crew as idiots, he takes command and shows dramatic chops that are a hint of things to come (Days of Wine and Roses just two pictures away) when he sloughed off comedy for more serious undertakings. Reason for Lemmon being assigned this motorised sailing ship rather than something more obviously U.S. Navy is that he is in the last chance saloon. Once under sail, setting aside some dodgy process work, and it becomes clear they are heading into harm’s way rather than simply delivering the boat to General MacArthur in more harmless waters, the story switches into perilous wartime perilous adventure with decent battle, a couple of twists and some dramatic confrontation.

Lemmon is always watchable and I always thought he could have done with more self-belief when it came to tackling more dramatic parts. When he goes ramrod-stiff and starts barking out orders and has to out-maneuver superiors and enemy, he is entirely convincing, as, too,  safeguarding or rescuing or leading his men in battle. Setting aside the need for Ricky Nelson to register his credentials as a singer, he is not bad either, as an ensign making his way, an ingenue role that suits this ingenue. Veteran John Lund (My Friend Irma) appears as a crusty admiral and Chips Rafferty, the only Australian actor anybody had ever heard of at that point outside of Rod Taylor, has a cameo. Irishwoman Patricia O’Driscoll manages a passable Aussie accent as the brief romance, her role mostly confined to looks of longing while Lemmon is at sea. Raspy-voiced Mike Kellin as an out-of-his-depth chief mate turned up in the television series based on the picture. If ever there was a film of two halves (well, one-third and two-thirds) it’s this, but the second section passes muster.

Strange Bedfellows (1963) ****

I had my first belly-laugh within seconds, a wonderful sight gag, and was chortling all the way through this London-set battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Rock Hudson is a high-flying businessman who needs to win back long-estranged wife Gina Lollobrigida in order to gain promotion in a family-conscious oil company. Initially, Hudson re-discovers the reasons he had first fallen in love with her but then, of course, only too bitterly, why they split. Hudson and La Lollo had previously teamed up for Come September (1963) and Hudson had spent most of the early 1960s in romantic mishap with Doris Day so he could call on an extensive range of baffled and enraged expressions. Lollobrigida is an artist-cum-political-firebrand which sets up hilarious consequence. Gig Young is on hand to act as referee.

There’s some marvelous comic invention,  a conversation between the two principals relayed through taxi controllers turns into a masterpiece of the misheard and misunderstood. Complications arise from Lollobrigida’s fiance Edward Judd (First Men on the Moon, 1964), also an activist, but on the pompous side, and an Italian lothario. Taking advantage of the less than congenial London weather, there are jokes aplenty about umbrellas and in a nod to farce occasions for Hudson to lose his trousers and share a bed with the fiance. Smoldering sexual tension also kindles many laughs. By the time the film enters its stride it’s one comedic situation after another. It being England, naturally enough Lady Godiva is involved.

Hudson in suave mode trying to cope with the feisty Lollobrigida is an ideal comedy match. Costume designer Jean Louis has swathed the actress in a stunning array of outfits, some of which leave little to the imagination. When Doris Day got angry you tended to laugh, not quite believing this was anything more than a moderate hissy fit, but if you crossed Lollobrigida you were apt to get both barrels and it never looked like acting, she was a very convincing when she switched on the fury engine, plus, of course, whatever she threw added both to the comedy and her character’s conviction.   Both have terrific comic timing.

Writer-director Melvin Frank was something of a comedy specialist, a dab hand at suiting comedy to screen persona having previously set up Road to Hong Kong (1962) and Mr.  Blandings Builds a Dream House (1948). Terry-Thomas makes an appearance as a comic mortician and there are parts for English comedian Arthur Haynes and Dave King. Hudson and Lollobrigida exude screen charisma and while not in the class of Come September this delivers enough laughs to make you wonder why they don’t make them like that anymore.

You should find this in Amazon Prime.

Secret Invasion (1964) ***

Dirty Half-Dozen – cashiered British major, five hardened criminals with particular sets of skills – on a mission to rescue an Italian general and start a second front in the north of Italy just as the Americans are invading the south. Throw in a grand theft of ideas from The Guns of Navarone (shoot-out with German gunboat, scaling a cliff) and The Great Escape (tunneling, although in not out) and the usual bickering and rebellion and a top-class B-list cast bringing their A-game and you have the basis of a very solid actioner.

The classy Raf Vallone (Sidney Lumet’s A View from the Bridge, 1962) is the standout here, not least because he chooses crime, pitting his wits against the authorities, rather than exploiting his university degree in philosophy. But he’s ably supported by Mickey Rooney as an unlikely IRA terrorist and various inmates from Leavenworth and Alcatraz including Henry Silva (Johnny Cool, 1963) of the fashion model cheekbones, Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip), William Campbell (Dementia 13, 1963), and top-billed Stewart Granger (North to Alaska, 1960). That any appeared in this Corman brothers (Gene directing, Roger producing) spread suggested careers on the slide. Still, that’s to the movie’s gain. Forget the occasional dodgy process shots and enjoy the Dubrovnik location complete with ancient fortress, cobbled streets, and tiled roofs, each of which is put to violent use, with shoot-outs in each area, not to mention a cemetery where tombs provide the perfect cover for digging into the citadel. At times, the script is snappy enough that some one-liners stick in the memory and when the characters aren’t acting up they’re doing a lot of brooding, especially Silva, the hired assassin.

This doesn’t go quite the way you would expect, especially the double twist at the end, and a couple of places where the plot gets bogged down, but there’s enough invention, interesting characters and story to see us through and one genuinely heartbreaking moment that could have been the starting point or revelatory denouement of a film all on its own.  Granger lacks Lee Marvin’s icy demeanor but delivers enough leadership in typically British style when it matters. Silva’s own icy demeanor softens enough to allow romance to peek through with local girl Spela Rozia (who you will, of course, remember from Hercules the Invincible, 1964). While trying to steal every scene, Rooney, nonetheless adds a couple of imaginative bits of business to his character. Edd Byrnes is nobody’s idea of a forger, nor would his notions, nor equipment, pass muster with the experts of The Great Escape. Vallone is terrific as the imperturbable mastermind.

This is a more hard-edged, realistic endeavor than The Dirty Dozen. In that picture every scheme goes according to plan. Here nothing does and the crew are constantly thrown back on their wits, finding what they require from the most improbable resources, and carrying out a scheme timed to the second, finger-snapping to the beat in the absence of watches. The labored and overlong interrogation sequence slows the plot down until you think it will never get back on its feet – but that complaint aside, it is full of action and the ruses pulled fit comfortably into the genre.