A Study in Terror (1965) ****

Excepting Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) the world’s most famous fictional detective had been absent from the big screen for over two decades so it seemed an inspired decision to set him on the trail of the world’s most infamous serial killer – Jack the Ripper. The result is high-class comfort food – the first of the series made in color – classic deduction coupled with barbaric murders in a fog-bound London replete with cobbled streets, Dickensian urchins and sex workers apop with cleavage and corset. Throw in sensitivity towards the abject poverty of the period, female exploitation and a nod towards an upper-class cover-up and you have a movie with a surprisingly contemporary outlook.

This is a tougher Holmes, handy with his fists, sporting a spring-loaded knife in his walking stick. The investigation draws in the Prime Minister (Cecil Parker) and the Home Secretary (Dudley Foster) as well as Sherlock’s pompous brother Myron (Robert Morley) and the ubiquitous Inspector LeStrade (Frank Finlay).

Pretty quickly it is Suspects Assemble. Due to a scalpel being the murderer’s instrument of choice, doctors are immediately implicated, the most likely candidate the philanthropic Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle) who operates a soup kitchen. Publican Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), with a sideline in blackmail, is another possibility. And there is the mysterious disinherited son of a lord, Michael Osborne who has married sex worker Angela (Adrienne Corri).

The Italian ad campaign combined a more conservative Sherlock Holmes
with exploitative illustrative detail.

As ever, the plot is complicated by red herrings and sleights of cinematic hand. But the highlight of a Holmes picture is the sleuth’s mastery of deduction based on clues missed by the ordinary mortal and every now and then the story comes to a halt to allow time for the detective to demonstrate genius. Occasionally he dons a disguise. And thoroughly enjoyable these scenes are before he gets down to the main business of uncovering the killer.

A Study in Terror introduces social depth to the Holmes saga. When the crimes focus the media spotlight on Whitechapel, Dr. Murray draws attention to the constant “murder by poverty” ignored by the state. Female exploitation is of course the norm in the sex worker business and small wonder that such women are easy targets for the Ripper and although that is an overdone trope in this case a different angle comes into play. 

Shakespearian actor John Neville (Oscar Wilde, 1960) handles the main character with considerable aplomb with Donald Houston (The Blue Lagoon, 1949) as his often baffled sidekick Watson. Robert Morley (Genghis Khan, 1965) is a splendid Mycroft although Anthony Quayle (East of Sudan, 1964) fails to nail down his Scottish accent.

The considerable supporting cast includes Judi Dench making her second film appearance, Barbara Windsor of Carry On fame, John Fraser (Operation Crossbow, 1965), John Cairney (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), Peter Carsten (Dark of the Sun, 1968),  singer Georgia Brown (Nancy in the original stage production of Oliver!), Edina Ronay (The Black Torment, 1964), Corin Redgrave (The Girl with the Pistol,1968), former British leading lady Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist, 1948) and future television comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?, 1972-1985).

The picture was unusual in that it was not drawn from the existing Holmes canon but as an original devised by Derek and Donald Ford (The Black Torment), the former going onto a more extensive career as a director of British sexploitation pictures such as Suburban Wives (1972). Production company Sir Nigel Films had been set up as an official vehicle to exploit the Holmes legacy.

Director James Hill (The Kitchen, 1961) had won an Oscar for the short Giuseppina (1960) and was a year away from his breakthrough Born Free. Given the low-budget this is a highly watchable picture.

Flick Vault has this for free on Youtube or if you want to own it forever there’s a DVD.

Bestseller Hollywood, Part Two – Movie Tie Ins

The movie tie-in was such an obvious synergy you had to wonder why it was not employed in more significant fashion prior to the 1960s. The reason was that movie-making and publishing were generally viewed as completely separate entities, only crossing over when books were sold to Hollywood. And up to the mid-1950s, Hollywood had a ton of other, better, more effective marketing tools at its behest. It was reckoned that by 1955 the industry was taking advantage of promotional plugs worth about $350 million a year (equivalent to $3.5 billion today).

In 1948, for example, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House had amassed an estimated $5 million merchandising pot (worth around $56 million today), so much so the booklet listing all the participants ran to a massive 72-pages. Anything that could be sold on the back of a picture – furnishing, clothes, vehicles – provided a mountain of free advertising by the simple device of enrolling manufacturers, suppliers and retailers in a marketing campaign. But by 1960, as television advertising more straightforwardly pitched such goods towards the general public, that well of merchandising dried up.

Film publicists casting about for new exploitation outlets latched onto paperbacks. At the start of the decade, the paperback industry was booming, shifting over 280 million copies a year. Dell, in particular, had come to realise the “remarkable sales impact of books which have tie-ins with a motion picture” and noted that “in most instances (paperback) book sales prior to the picture will be equaled following the release of the picture.” Publishing executive William C. Engel, pointing to the movie tie-in for Psycho, reprinted three times in two months, reckoned that a “big spectacular picture will stimulate sales of a paperback.” At that time Bantam was equally buoyant, with 32 books in the tie-in business on the basis that films increased sales by 50 per cent.

Many moviegoers will fondly remember the 1960s as the glory days of the movie tie in. Sometimes the first time a film fan would get a glimpse of a movie’s advertising campaign was when they picked up the book tie-in. In those days hardcover books were often very plain, little on offer but title and author. But paperback specialists like Dell, Avon, Pocket Books, New American Library, Bantam, Fawcett and Ballantine in the U.S. and Pan, Fontana and New English Library in Britain seemed to revel in glorious colorful titles and were positioned to take advantage of movie advertising campaigns.

While waiting to make the movie, Columbia kept the novel in the bestseller lists by pumping funding into an advertising campaign for the book.

Some studios like Columbia had begun to spend money promoting the books it had bought in order to keep the titles in the bestseller lists until it was time for the movie to appear – a technique later adopted by Paramount to turn Love Story (1970) into a bestseller in the first place.

At the start of the decade, virtually every Twentieth Century Fox release was linked with a paperback. United Artists, in 1961, could count on paperbacks to support ten of its releases – Judgement at Nuremberg, The Young Doctors, Paris Blues, Sergeants 3, Something Wild, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Miracle Worker, The Happy Thieves, What a Wonderful Life and Jessica.

It was an odd relationship in many respects. Studios paid publishers for the rights to film their novels then when the properties they had purchased were turned into films they then helped publishers achieve a bigger bounty, assisting them sell more books by furnishing movie artwork and stills for the covers. Yet there was benefit. Every copy printed was one more piece of advertising for the film, often in places where a studio would not normally advertise and serving as advance buzz.

It soon became apparent that publishers could target potential moviegoers in ways that were too difficult or too expensive for studios. Publishing designers did not need to employ their skills to come up with original covers, they simply took the movie advertising artwork and stills for front and back cover. Occasionally, they would run a photo spread inside. They might even run movie credits alongside the title page. If the sight of a movie advert on the cover of a paperback encouraged the public to consider going to the movie, then the reverse was equally true, movie advertising resulted in increased book sales. Studios used a diverse range of paperback publishers, going where they were likely to get the best promotional deal.

By the mid-1960s every studio was knee-deep in movie tie-ins.

In 1965 Dell had 47 titles sold to studios either for imminent or future production. The Collector, Genghis Khan and Lord Jim were slated for Columbia, there was Harlow for Embassy and The Sound of  Music (based on the Von Trapp Family book) for Twentieth Century Fox. How to Murder Your Wife and The Knack were being filmed by United Artists, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders by Paramount, Assault on a Queen and The Bride Wore Black set for Seven Arts, and The Cincinnati Kid and The Loved One lined up for MGM.

That same year MGM promoted ten movie tie-ins. Operation Crossbow, The Yellow Rolls Royce, The Sandpiper, She, Joy in the Morning, Once a Thief, Lady L and Doctor Zhivago were placed with publishers other than Dell who handled, as noted above, The Loved One and The Cincinnati Kid. In 1966 Paramount had nine deals with different paperback houses to promote Is Paris Burning?, Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Seconds, Hurry Sundown, Funeral in Berlin, The Swinger, Alfie, El Dorado and Warning Shot. Disney, which had long been the master of merchandising, contracted with Scholastic Publishing to target schools and libraries.

Studios occasionally ran their own bookstore promotions. This one, in 1968, simply announced that Universal had acquired “Airport,” “Topaz”, “Red Sky at Morning” – all later filmed – and “Vanished” which was not. Most interesting of all, these books were hardcover not paperback,
so this fell very much into the long-range marketing department.

By the end of the decade publishers were desperate to jump on the movie tie-in bandwagon. In 1968 Twentieth Century Fox had pacts with a dozen different publishers covering 19 pictures including Bandolero!, Star!, The Devil’s Bride, Planet of the Apes, The Boston Strangler and The Sweet Ride.  Dr Dolittle came out in 26 different editions through various publishers. The following year MGM pitched in with a half a dozen movie tie-ins including The Appointment and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, already having taken advantage of readership interest in Alistair Maclean hits Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra, the reissued Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur, and The Shoes of the Fisherman and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 1969, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) tied in with National Library Week. Under the cross-promotional tagline “Read These Important Books – See These Important Films,” libraries across the country promoted a variety of current pictures sourced from novels including True Grit, Belle de Jour,  Goodbye, Columbus, John and Mary and Topaz. In return NATO distributed posters advertising the library involvement via 5,000 theaters.

The same year Bantam Books ran a trailer in 100 cinemas for its own “film festival tie-in” of eight books – Goodbye, Mr. Chips, John and Mary, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Hail, Hero!, Marooned, Topaz, A Dream of Kings and Women in Love.

Although it is often considered that the movie tie-in business began in the 1970s when books spawned mega-hits like Love Story, The Godfather and Jaws, these pictures were in reality only benefitting from the heavy lifting put in during the previous decade.

SOURCES: “Paperback-Film Tandems Zowie,” Variety, February 3, 1960, p5; “Columbia’s Book Bally Budget,” Variety, September 21, 1960, p24; William C. Engel, “Big Stake in Publishing’s 280,000,000 Annual Sale,” Variety, January 4, 1961, p25; “To Issue Paperback Books on 10 United Artists Films,” Box Office, August 28, 1961, p9; “Big Hike in Film Tie-Ins Noted by Bantam Books,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, pA3; “Commercial Tie-Ups Back After Slump,” Variety, December 27, 1961, p7;  “Dell Paperback Tie-Ins,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p22; “Ten Books in Paperback Promote MGM Releases,” Box Office, May 31, 1965, pE-4; “Paperback Books Arranged for 9 Paramount Films,” Box Office, August 15, 1966, pE5; “Scholastic To Publish Disney Properties,” Box Office, May 2, 1966, pA1;  “12 Publishers Print Books on 20th-Fox Productions,” Box Office, February 26, 1968, pA1; “Paperback Book Tie-Ups for 12 MGM Pictures,” Box Office, March 31, 1969, pA1; “Tenth Year for Tie-Up with Library Week,” Box Office, May 5, 1969, p6; “Bantam Books Plans Film Fest Tie-In,” Box Office, November 10, 1969, p10.

Go Naked in the World (1961) ***

Under-rated at the time and ever since, and overshadowed at the box office by MGM’s other venture into the world of the good-time-girl Butterfield 8 (1960), this raw slice of emotion delivers on every front and may be even more pertinent today in its unashamed depiction of paternal love.

Spoiled brat Nick Stratton (Anthony Franciosca), trying to escape controlling millionaire Greek father Pete (Ernest Borgnine), falls in love with widow Julie (Gina Lollobridgida), unaware that she is a high-class hooker, among whose clients number Pete.

Three tales run in parallel – the main love story, Pete’s attempts to drag his son into the family construction business, and the father’s undying love for his son. Julie is only too aware that her profession prohibits the development of true love, her world consisting of putting on a happy face for grey-haired men, while avoiding commitment. Where Butterfield 8 evaded the reality of prostitution, that is not the case here, Julie tormented by the prospect of bumping into former clients or her lover unable to accept her past. Overwhelmed by guilt, she believes she is beyond forgiveness. Nick wants none of the commitment of a rich man’s son but all the entitlement. 

Never mind the story, which was always going to tumble into tragedy, it’s the performers who steal the picture. Lollobrigida (Strange Bedfellows, 1965) gives a terrific performance, carrying the emotional baggage of the love story, devastation only inches away, self-destruction possibly the only path open, constantly aware that taking the easy path to riches and independence now stands in the way of happiness. The scenes where her self-loathing breaks through the patina of sexy gloss are tremendous as is her touching belief that somehow she can escape destiny.

While this might appear to be nothing but an over-the-top performance from Borgnine (The Split, 1968), it is anything but, and any man in an early 1960s picture who can demand a kiss from his grown-up son and constantly tells him how much he loves him is a pretty unusual character for the period. Of course, this overt show of emotion is explained by his nationality, but it’s clearly more than that. While attempting to control all around him, with hypocrisy in full spate, as heavy on religion as playing away from home, this is actually a superb piece of characterization, of a powerful man rendered impotent by the loss of love. He has the two best scenes, almost having a heart attack as he watches his son walk across a sky-high girder and later begging Julie’s forgiveness for attempting to wreck the romance.

Anthony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) is the weak link. For all that he is saddled with a spineless character, moping and running away his default, he never quite seems worthy of romance with Julie nor for that matter of equality with his father. Former child star Luana Patten (Song of the South, 1946) makes an impact as the rebellious daughter while Nancy R. Pollock (The Pawnbroker,1964) brings dignity to her role as the doormat wife.

This was the fourth outing as a hyphenate for writer-director Ranald McDougall (The World, the Flesh and the Devil, 1959) but he was better known for screenplays such as Mildred Pierce (1945), The Naked Jungle (1954) and, later, Cleopatra (1963) and you can see he is accustomed to creating great roles for independent women and filling his picture with sharp dialogue and lines that sound like epithets. There’s more than enough going on to keep the various plots spinning and emotions teetering over a cliff edge.

Behind the Scenes – “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966)

If recruiting John Wayne is essential to getting your new picture off the ground, it would help not to have fallen out with him big-style previously. After every studio in Hollywood had turned down Cast a Giant Shadow, writer-producer-director Melville Shavelson turned to the Duke. The only problem was the pair had hit trouble on football picture Trouble All the Way (1953) should take.  

In his capacity as producer of Trouble All the Way, Shavelson, also co-writing the screenplay, had given Wayne one version of the script while behind his back instructing director Michael Curtiz to shoot a different version with subsidiary characters that would change the film’s plotline. When Wayne found out, Shavelson was the loser. When you make an enemy of John Wayne, it takes a lot to win him back as a friend.

After that debacle, Shavelson had gone on to win some kudos and occasional commercial success as a triple hyphenate on pictures like Houseboat (1958), It Started in Naples (1960) and A New Kind of Love (1963) with top-ranked performers in the vein of Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable and Paul Newman. When Shavelson pitched to Wayne the story of Cast a Giant Shadow, about the birth of Israel and based on the bestselling biography of Mickey Marcus by Ted Berkmann, the star’s response was: “That’s the most American story I ever heard.” Wayne was hooked on the idea that America had helped Israel achieve its independence and that top American soldier Colonel Mickey Marcus had died in the process.

Senta Berger as the gun-toting Magda.

Wayne’s potential involvement came with a proviso – he had script approval. And while Shavelson owned the rights to the book, he didn’t have a screenplay. Nor, with his background as a writer being primarily concerned with comedy, did he consider himself best suited to the job.

He had, however, written a treatment. In his eyes, a treatment was not just about encapsulating the story, but about selling it to a studio. So his first few paragraphs included references to box office behemoths Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone and Bridge on the River Kwai – planting in the minds of potential backers the notion that this film was headed down the same route of substantial profit – and a reference to an “American of heroic proportions…with  the ability to love,” the latter being code for sex.

But in the end he wrote the screenplay as well. Wayne put his imprimatur on the picture in more ways than one. Part of the deal was that his production outfit Batjac become involved, with son Michael in line for a co-producer credit. Shavelson managed to snag Kirk Douglas for the starring role only by giving up part of his own salary to meet the star’s fee. Douglas and Wayne, with the credit ranking reversed, had starred together in In Harm’s Way (1965).

It was Douglas who insisted his character’s role be change from passive to active. Shavelson invented an American general for John Wayne and a female Israeli soldier (Senta Berger) for Douglas – in reality his character was a married man – to have an affair with. “I’m introducing a fictitious romance into the film with the full consent of Marcus’s widow,” Shavelson told Variety, though it’s doubtful that real-life wife Emma Marcus went along so merrily with this notion.

It wasn’t only Wayne who demanded script approval.  The Israeli government, with whom cooperation was essential to guarantee the use of troops and equipment, had made the same condition. The Israelis worried that the film would fall into the usual Hollywood trap and to that extent the government insisted that the picture not end up as a “an Errol Flynn Burma stunt” – a reference to Objective Burma (1945), originally banned in London for Americanizing the film.  The government spelled it out: “Col Marcus didn’t win our war, he just helped.” But the production was offered “further facilities than normal.” Two sound stages – the first in the country – were being built in Tel Aviv.

Shavelson was shown military locations that no other civilian had ever seen. When the Israelis did “approve” the script it was with the proviso that 31 changes were made including the deletion of the “sex-starved woman” (Senta Berger), although in reality Shavelson got away with his vision intact.

When the film went ahead it had a crew of 125 plus 800 Israeli soldiers, 1,000 extras and 34 featured players including Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, and Angie Dickson. Only some of the film was made in Israel. The interiors for the Macy’s department store were built in Rome, along with the concentration camp sequence, one of the battles, and scenes set in Coney Island that were edited out from the final picture.  

The biggest problem was the supply of soldiers and equipment at a price the production could afford. Shavelson was being charged twice as much for the soldiers as the producers of Judith (1966). It took the intervention of the Israeli Prime Minister for sensible negotiation to get under way and for prices to drop to a tolerable level. Neither was it possible to film on the original battle sites in Israel since they were basically in a no man’s land, covered in barbed wire and littered with mines.

Principal photography began on May 18, 1965, in 115 degree heat – so hot the film buckled in the cameras – at the fortress of Iraq Suidan to recreate the Battle of Latrun. Shavelson had been denied permission to access the Latrun fortress itself which stood across the Jordanian border even though the engagement had been an Arab victory. To keep the sun off his face, Kirk Douglas decided to wear an Australian Army forage cap, and it did the job so successfully he kept it on for the entire movie.

On another location – this time when the temperature reached 126 degrees – a $40,000 Panavision camera exploded filming too close to a tank-muzzle firing, the jeeps got vapor lock, three soldiers were wounded by dummy bullets and the charging tanks vanished after the first take when their commander received new instructions from his army superiors.

Shavelson had met Sinatra some years before when he and scripting partner Jack Rose had helped write the Inaugural Gala organized by the singer in honor of President John F. Kennedy. Using that connection and the fact they shared the same agent, Sinatra, who had a pilot’s license, agreed to play a two-day role as a Piper Cub aviator dropping seltzer bottles on tanks. When filming began Shavelson discovered that what he had imagined was his own inspired invention turned out to be close to the actual truth.  To write the score, Elmer Bernstein visited Israel to conduct his own research.

He also discovered the real reason for Sinatra’s eagerness to be involved. His salary had been donated to set up the Frank Sinatra Arab-Israeli Youth Centre in Nazareth. Actually, there was another less noble reason for Sinatra signing up. He had begun an aviation business, Cal-Jet Airways, supplying planes to Hollywood, and clearly thought appearing as a pilot in a picture would help promote the new company.

However, when filming of his scenes began Sinatra proved unintelligible. He had taken the script at face value and thought he was playing a Texan and delivered his lines with a Texan accent. Eventually, Sinatra was persuaded to play it with his own normal voice. But Sinatra could only be filmed in the plane on the ground since his insurance didn’t cover him being in the air unless accompanied by a co-pilot.

By the time they came to film the immigrants’ landing scene the picture was already half a million dollars over budget. With the country enjoying full employment and nobody inclined to take time off to work in the blazing sun as an extra, the 800 extras were in reality all newly arrived immigrants – and therefore unemployed – from Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia.

The only item that was lacking to complete the landing scene was a ship offshore, but the owners were asking too much money. Instead, the director came up with the idea of a “glass shot.”  An artist had painted in smoke billowing from the funnels, but it was blowing in the wrong direction from the wind. The solution – a double-exposure job in the lab – cost as much as hiring the ship.  

Once the production headed home, Shavelson discovered that virtually all the sound recordings made in Israel were unusable. Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas re-recorded their dialog in Hollywood, Yul Brynner and Senta Berger in London and dozens of Israeli students attending Los Angeles universities were called upon to replicate background Hebrew voices.  

For prestige purposes, the movie was launched at the end of March 1966 as a restricted roadshow, just three cinemas in New York – the DeMille in the Broadway area, the Fantasy Theater in Long Island and Cinema 46 in New Jersey. Douglas employed a helicopter to fly from venue to venue. The first wave of first run houses followed in Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami.

Most of the promotional activity centered on the true story of Mickey Marcus but in London, where the character was unknown, United Artists took the gimmick route, placing an advert in The Times newspaper calling for “giant men” standing over six foot seven inches tall. Expecting to find 25 such giants, they ended up with 100 attending the British premiere, the tallest seven foot three inches. In keeping with this gimmicky approach, tickets for the first performance were also a king-sized  twelve inches by nine inches.  

SOURCES:  Melville Shavelson, How To Make a Jewish Movie, W.H. Allen, 1971; “Wayne To Co-Produce, Star in Israeli War Pic,” Variety, May 27, 1964, 2; “We’ll Lift Part of Local Expenses, Israeli Offer to UA,” Variety, July 1, 1964, p3; “Kirk Douglas Set to Star in Cast a Giant Shadow,” Box Office, March 8, 1965 pW-2; “Batjac Productions Moves to Paramount Lot,” Box Office, March 29, 1965, pW-2; “Shavelson Aim on Mickey Marcus Film: Realism,” Variety, March 31, 1965, p25; “WB-Sinatra Film in October; Sinatra’s Aviation Firm,” Box Office, August 23, 1965, 6; “Elmer Bernstein to Israel for Film Music Research,” Box Office, October 18, 1965, pW-3; “Cast a Giant Shadow Set for 3 N.Y. Roadshow Dates,” Box Office, December 6, 1965, pE3; “Kirk Douglas To Helicopter to All 3 Shadow Openings,” Box Office, March 28, 1966, pE-7; “Cast a Giant Shadow set in 14 Key Centers, April 6-8,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, p6; “Small Ad Brings 100 Giant Men to London Opening of United Artists’ Cast a Giant Shadow,” Box Office, October 3, 1966, pA3.   

Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) ***

In some respects a sequel to the film Exodus (1960) as Israel, on the eve of independence in 1948, prepares to repel invasion from neighboring Arabs. Colonel Mickey Marcus (Kirk Douglas) is recruited to help organise the Jewish forces even though he has little actual combat experience, having sat out the Second World War behind a desk until D-Day, and having already resumed his legal career.  

To facilitate entry to Palestine, he is met at the airport by Magda (Senta Berger), herself a soldier, pretending to be his sister. The journey from the airport in armored bus reveals the perilous reality of the situation, the vehicle strafed as they pass through towns. He finds a rabble of a fighting force, lacking in weaponry, disorganised, and made up of various groups at each other’s throats, and focused on defense rather than attack. Initially, Marcus is strictly an advisor, writing training manuals until he encourages a commando raid and is eventually, at the behest of Asher (Yul Brynner) put in complete command of all the units, effectively the country’s first general.

In the background, General Mike Randolph (John Wayne) is helping organise support in the United States to recognise Israel’s independence. Marcus organises a campaign to lift the siege of Jerusalem, first through direct attack, but then through an incredible foray into impassable mountains, building the “Burma Road,” equivalent in the tactical sense to Lawrence of Arabia’s trek through the desert to attack Aqaba.

A fair bit of the early part of the picture is flashback to establish Marcus’s military credentials, which are scant, in sum total no more than a week of active combat, and it would have been better to concentrate on why he was recruited in the first place, because of the name the real-life Colonel had made for himself in organizing the war crimes trials in Germany.

Apart from the action and military politics, the drama concerns Marcus abandoning wife Emma (Angie Dickinson) in New York, embarking on a romance with Magda and establishing a sense of identity with his adopted country. The action is particularly good, audacity the Israeli’s major weapon.

It is mostly through Magda that we view the Jewish experience. She married Andre (Michael Shillo) in order to save his life, although she did not love him. A veteran of many skirmishes, she suffers a breakdown when trapped in her vehicle during one particularly vicious battle. In what is possibly the most imaginative scene in the film, when Marcus encourages her to keep driving her stalled truck with cries of “Come on, Magda,” in cruel torment the surrounding Arabs take up the cry until it echoes round the hills. Once she falls for Marcus, of course, she never knows if he will return safe from battle.

Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) leads mostly with his chin, never letting subtlety get in the way of his performance, but given the character assigned he has little option and is nonetheless effective as a leader and believable as a man torn between wife and lover. Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) has never been better (or not so far in the films thus reviewed) with a meaty role that shows soldiering from a female perspective in a country where sacrifice is a given.

John Wayne (The Undefeated, 1969) has a small role as a grumpy general and Frank Sinatra (The Naked Runner,1967) a cameo as a commercial pilot who finds himself dragged into the war. Angie Dickinson (Fever in the Blood, 1961) is the long-suffering wife and singer Topol (Sallah, 1964) has a small role. The smattering of Brits includes Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966), Gordon Jackson (Danger Route, 1967), Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963).

Melville Shavelson wouldn’t be your first choice for an action picture given he made his name with comedies like It Started in Naples (1960), but does a fair job of directing, especially the action, the “Come on, Magda” scene and the confrontation with the British when immigrants land. He wrote the screenplay based on the biography by Ted Berkman.

Bestseller Hollywood, Part One – How Hollywood Cannibalized Hit Fiction

A 1960s novelist lucky enough to hit the bestselling jackpot could generally count upon another financial bounty when Hollywood came calling. Bestsellers came with the double bonus of a ready-made story and a ready-made audience. From the outset the industry had recognised the benefit of making pictures out of properties that had already gained a wide readership, hence the continual adaptation of Shakespeare and Dickens from the silent era onwards.

The combined hardback and paperback sales in the U.S. could amount to a couple of million copies, with double that number or more overseas, and of course some books hit the stratosphere – Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls, for example. Publishers had learned to slap one of two taglines – either “Now a major motion picture” or “Soon to be a major motion picture” – on new paperbacks which appeared to give a book greater status among the reading public while at the same time acting as advance buzz for a movie, paving the way for an onslaught of movie tie-ins.

Alfred Hitchcock became the main selling point for “Marnie” once his name
was attached to the film of the book.

In the 1960s, there were not only many more bookstores than there are now, but paperbacks were also widely available in department stores, newsagents, corner shops and kiosks. In fact, it was estimated there were as many as 125,000 outlets for books. Much as they had done with fan magazines Hollywood latched on to anything that would act as free marketing, book covers in shop windows provided a free promotional boost, in effect the publishers doing the studios’ job for them. As the cost of marketing continued to rise, movies made from bestsellers, with their significant public awareness, were seen as a very effective investment.

For a studio, books were often a cheaper investment than an original screenplays. Although some books were sold for substantial sums a good number were purchased for relatively small fees prior to publication with the author receiving further sums dependent on book sales and/or audience figures – Valley of the Dolls was sold in this fashion much to author Jacqueline Susann’s later chagrin.

From the Annual Top Ten Bestsellers, every year except 1965 the number one bestseller was turned into a movie. About four books a year on average from the top ten were made into pictures. The best year for books into films was 1962 when nearly three-quarters of the books achieving an annual top ten ranking ended up on the big screen. These were Ship of Fools (film released in 1965), Youngblood Hawke (1964), Fail Safe (1964), Seven Days in May (1964), The Prize (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and The Reivers (1969).

Bestsellers clearly created their own momentum and studios snatching up the movie rights tended to strike while the iron was hot, all except one of these 1962 bestsellers being filmed within three years of publication.

Sales of the third best-selling novel of 1961 were boosted the following year by the addition of Gregory Peck’s photo on the front cover. The gap between initial hardover publication, first paperback publication and the movie tie-in edition suited publishers who felt they would get a third bite of the cherry with the movie edition. The movie edition would usually be published several weeks prior to a film’s
release serving as a teaser for the picture.

Six films were adapted in 1965 and five in 1963. Most went into speedy production. Of the 1963 contingent – The Shoes of the Fisherman (released in 1968), The Group (1966), Caravans (1978), The Sand Pebbles (1966) and The Battle of the Villa Florita (1965) – three fell into the three-year bracket while one took five years to hit the screen and Caravans, although taking more than a decade to reach the screen, was actually on MGM’s production list for most of the 1960s.

Half those from the 1965 Top Ten list were as promptly made into pictures – Up the Down Staircase (1967), The Green Berets (1968) and Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (1966). Taking a slower route were John Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War (1970), Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Morris West’s The Ambassador (1984). 

Of course, there was no guarantee that moviegoers would respond to a film of a bestselling book or in the quantities required to turn a profit. Even being the year’s number one bestseller could not shield a property from the vagaries of the movie business. Advise and Consent (filmed in 1962), The Agony and the Ecstasy and The Shoes of the Fisherman – all the top-selling books of their particular year – failed to make much of an impact at the box office. On the other hand, Valley of the Dolls (1968) and Airport (1970) most certainly did.

It is also worth noting that with the sole exception of Cleopatra (1963), none of the number one films at the box during the 1960s was an original screenplay. They all originated in another medium, either publishing or Broadway.

The movie tie-in was a different aspect of the publishing business and will be covered in a future Blog. And so might be novelizations.

Behind the Scenes – “Topaz” (1969)

Hitchcock wanted to follow Torn Curtain (1966) with Frenzy – initially with an American setting – and spent $75,000 on a screenplay but his paymasters Universal nixed the idea. Stuck for another project and hating idleness, Hitchcock rummaged through the studio’s outstanding list of properties and came up with Topaz because it was “better than nothing” and “he was getting to the point where he would consider anything, pretty well, just to continue exercising his craft.” The Donald Spoto version has it that Hitchcock’s wife Alma “approached Lew Wasserman, begging him to find a project to get her husband back to work.”

Nonetheless this hardly had “desperate” written all over it, as some have argued, not with Universal willing to stump up $4 million, his biggest budget to date. With a political backdrop similar to Torn Curtain, the director aimed for “espionage with an emotional relationship” like Notorious (1946).

Hitchcock hired Topaz author Leon Uris (Exodus) to write the screenplay. Uris had some experience in this field have written the screenplays for Gufight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and adapted his own Battle Cry. Uris was far more high-powered writing partner than Hitchcock had been used to, considering himself as much a master of his own genre as the director was of his. He had such a high opinion of himself that he wrote the lyrics to a song “Topaz” to go out as a sales gimmick for the publication of the book. And was formidable in other ways. He had been the first author to deny the hardback publisher a share, as was traditional, of both paperback and movie rights.

Incidentally, Universal only picked up the project on second go-round. Uris had originally sold the movie rights for $500,000 to British businessmen Shel Talmy and Sir William Piggott. But the Bank of England refused to sanction the deal because Britain had just devalued the pound sterling and it did not wish such a large sum of money to leave the country.  

It was unlikely that Hitchcock and Uris would hit it off. The relationship got off to a difficult start when Hitchcock tried to install the author “in a little office in his cottage” while Uris held out for his own private domain in the studio’s executive building. Uris “made a fight” out of other little things in order to exert his own authority. Perhaps to get his own back, Hitchcock forced Uris to undergo a crash-course in Hitchcock films, watching the director’s output with the director providing a personal commentary. Uris called it “a drill in self-aggrandizement.” The partnership failed to gel and Uris was off the project.

But Hitchcock recognized that Uris had been correct in some of his assessments of the director’s approach and realizing he was out of touch with modern espionage arranged to receive briefings from top intelligence operators including George Horkan, former deputy inspector general of the CIA.

Next up for screenwriting duties was Samuel Taylor (Vertigo, 1958). Hitchcock dropped Uris’s flashbacks to World War Two and insisted on building up the Cuban section, altering the Uris plotline and making Rico Parra (John Vernon) “a sympathetic, almost tragic figure.”

The most memorable scene in the picture – the death of Juanita – was never properly scripted and instead relied on the genius of Hitchcock’s cinematic inspiration. “Although it was a death scene,” said Hitchcock, “I wanted it to look very beautiful.” It was also a piece of technical (of the old-fashioned kind) wizardry. The director had attached five pieces of thread to her gown. The threads were held by five men positioned off-camera. As Juanita fell, “the men pulled the threads and her robe splayed out like a flower that was opening up.”

Hitichcock’s biographers continued to insist that the director was caught short by the production process. The picture’s main problem, according to Taylor, was that “Hitch was trying to make something as if he had Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in it.” To accommodate a major Hollywood star would have meant changing the entire plot to accommodate the desire of a big star to be included in more of the action. Bankable international stars like Yves Montand (Z, 1969) and Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour, 1967) were passed over in favor of relative unknown Frederick Stafford (OSS 117, Mission for a Killer, 1965), a late starter in the movie business, but bringing a certain elan to any part, and old dependables like John Forysthe (The Trouble with Harry, 1955). 

But Hitchcock had already decided to ditch big stars and would not have been looking for a Bergman/Grant equivalent while working through the screenplay. Prior to production he announced he would “cast unknowns to give the film more authenticity.” And he already planned to take a less-than-heroic look at the spy game. He had been disappointed at the ending of Torn Curtain. “I would personally preferred to have the hero suffer qualms about behaving like a professional spy and I would have ended the film with his disgust at his own position.”

Biographers also asserted that the opposition of the French government came as something of shock. Not true either. It was obvious to all that the film would annoy the French. Asked about this issue in a press conference, Hitchcock joked, “I shall disguise myself as thin man.”  The French government, clearly not sharing the Cahiers du Cinema blind faith in the director, complained the script was anti-French and refused permission to shoot in France and although the issue was finally resolved after top-level discussions shooting was delayed.

Coupled with an almost documentary-style approach and the fact that some of his most acclaimed films – Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Trouble with Harry and Psycho (1960) – had been made without big stars, he seemed to be taking no great risk.

Roberto Contreros as the Cuban police chief Vernon was also a last-minute replacement, called in for Aram Katcher, who had shot all his scenes and didn’t realise this had occurred until, having been lined up for television talk shows, he discovered he had ended up on the cutting room floor.

The key role of Juanita was not cast until a few days before her scenes were to be shot. Hitchcock had turned up his nose up at various suggestions and found fault with every actress interviewed. “She will show up,” said Hitchcock. And at the last minute she did. The German-born Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1965) had Latin features and fluent English.

Huge sets were built on the Universal lot for the Harlem hotel, a mansion in Virginia, a Cuban street and La Guardia airport, but for a Cuban hacienda Hitchcock had to look no further than director Clarence Brown (National Velvet, 1944) who made available his home.

Hitchcock had planned that Topaz would include his first modern love scene, that is with the actors fully topless. That notion was scuppered when Hitchcock was informed that both principals had significant surgical scars on their torsos.

The climax was not in the book either – an old-fashioned duel in a soccer stadium. But Hitchcock did not shoot it. His wife Alma had suddenly fallen ill and Hitchcock left the filming of the scene to Herbert Coleman. Test audiences rejected the ending. Interestingly, the main reason the original ending was changed was due to adverse reaction at the San Francisco preview. There had been an unholy scramble for tickets, primarily from youngsters, among whom Hitchcock’s stock was riding high – and far higher than any other director among the older generation. So it may have been that he was brought down to earth by the very audiences that were otherwise praising him to the stars.   

Under pressure from Universal, Hitchcock shot another more cynical ending, Devereux (Frederick Stafford) and the French traitor Granville (Michel Piccoli) waving each other off as they boarded planes for Washington and Moscow, respectively. To pacify the French, who might object to a traitor getting off scot-free, Hitchcock devised a third ending, utilised from existing footage, which suggested Granville committed suicide.

There was enormous debate at the studio over which ending to use. The result was, inevitably, compromise. Different versions were shown. So what ending you saw depended on where and when you viewed the film. Between a 142-minute preview screening in London – it was released in Britain prior to America – and a 126-minute release a week later the ending changed to the suicide. Biographers claimed British distributor Rank lopped 20 minutes off the picture, but since the 142-minute version was a rough cut the editing was not quite as brutal as it sounds.  The suicide was seen in France and America. The duel version can be seen on a DVD. 

The one I saw, in case you are interested, had the pair waving each other off at the airport which I thought an excellent and wholly believable ending, given that most famous British traitors did escape. 

Nor was there outright condemnation of the finished picture. The New York critics, the most influential in the country, were split. Vincent Canby, the most highly-regarded mainstream critic of the time, gave it a rave review in the New York Times. (Canby placed it number seven on his year’s top ten). Two others – the New York News and the New York Post – gave it favorable reports. The three magazines who gave it gave it the thumbs-down – Newsday, New York and Cue – had significantly smaller circulations than the newspapers. Universal had no concerns about its potential, releasing it during the busy Xmas period.

However, it didn’t help that the film came out just as the lionization of Hitchcock had begun. The Truffaut book had begun to win admirers, Hitchcock was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1968 and elected to the French Order of Letters in 1969. Critics, except in France naturally, felt it was vastly inferior to his previous work. As a consequence, when his career began to be reassessed, biographers began to look for reasons why this film did not meet with their approval, forgetting that they had been mauling him for most of the decade.

He must have been ill, was one assumption. According to biographer Patrick McGilligan: “Photographs taken during the filming of Marnie show an almost trim and dapper man; in contrast…in 1968 (he) was again far overweight, pink-cheeked from drinking and transparently depressed with the realization that time, always his cruelest enemy, was closing in.” It would take quite a photographer to make Hitchcock look trim and dapper but the almost purple prose employed here by McGilligan serves his purpose of explaining why Topaz fell below, in his view, the director’s normal high standards.    

John Russell Taylor, Hitchcock’s official biographer, commented: “He (Hitchcock) has declined to discuss the film beyond making it clear that he regards it as a complete disaster, whatever some of his wilder admirers may say in its favor.”

But this would not the be the first good – not to say excellent – movie produced in difficult or traumatic circumstances. Since Hitchcock was the most fastidious of directors and liked the movie he made to be a mere reflection of the movie that had already unspooled in his head a long time before, his antipathy towards the picture clearly comes from his unhappiness at his loss of control, rather than, I would guess, any genuine horror that he had made an atrocity.  As a Hollywood veteran, and especially one who had worked with David O. Selznick, he would be more than familiar with the need to re-edit pictures after previews. Perhaps he felt he was beyond all that.

Whatever the case, don’t let the inevitable inanities of Hollywood production and post-production, or the carping of critics, put you off an enjoyable film.

SOURCES: Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock, A Life in Darkness and Light, (Harper Collins, 2003), p682-695; John Russell Taylor, Hitch, The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock, the Authorised Biography (Faber and Faber, 1978), p279-281; Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, (De Capo Press, 1983), p498-503; “Leon Uris Forces Publishing Yield Better Terms to Successful Writers,” Variety, November 23, 1966, p28; “Cuffo Disk to Promote Uris Upcoming Topaz,” Variety, September 20, 1967, p49;  “Bank of England Asks Pic Savvy,” Variety, December 13, 1967, p8; “Hitchcock-Uris Reveal Topaz as De-Politicized,” Variety, May 8, 1968, p32; “Hitchcock To Produce Topaz for Universal,” Box Office, May 13, 1968, p17; “Says Actor: U’s Kindness Hurts,” Variety, April 30, 1969, p7; “Hitchcock London Bow Exudes More Mystery Than Pic Itself,” Variety, November 12, 1969, p30;  “NY Critics Dec 24-31,” Variety, December 24, 1969, p4; “Time for Year’s 10 Best Lists,” Variety, December 31, 1969, p7.  

Topaz (1969) ****

Authentic, atypical, engrossing, this grittier Hitchcock mixes the realism of Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964) with the nihilism of The Birds (1963), a major departure for a canon that previously mostly spun on innocents or the falsely accused encountering peril. The hunt for a Russian spy ring by way of the Cuban missile crisis forms the story core but the director is more interested in personal consequence and even the villain suffers heart-rending loss. Betrayal is the other key theme – defection and infidelity go hand in hand.

The tradecraft of espionage is detailed – dead letter drops, film hidden in typewriting spools, an accidental collision that is actually a sweet handover. In a transcontinental tale that shifts from Copenhagen to New York to Cuba to Paris, there is still room for classic sequences of suspense – the theft of secret documents in a hotel the pick – and Hitchcock at times simply keeps the audience at bay by employing dumbshow at key moments.    

In some respects the director was at the mercy of his material. In the documentary-style Leon Uris bestseller (almost a procedural spy novel), the main character is neither the trigger for the plot nor often its chief participant and is foreign to boot. So you could see the sense of employing a cast of relative unknowns, otherwise an audience would soon grow restless at long absences from the screen of a Hollywood star of the caliber of a Cary Grant or Paul Newman. It is a florist (Roscoe Lee Browne) who carries out the hotel theft, a small resistance cell the spying on Russian missiles in Cuba, a French journalist who beards one of the main suspects, not the ostensible main character, French agent Andre Devereux (Frederick Stafford), not his U.S. counterpart C.I.A. operative Michael Nordstrum (John Forsythe) nor Cuban villain Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Unusual, too, is the uber-realism. The main characters are fully aware of the dangers they face and of its impact on domestic life and accept such consequence as collateral damage. It is ironic that the Russian defector is far more interested in safeguarding his family than Devereux. Devereux’s wife (Dany Robin), Cuban lover Juanita (Karin Dor) and son-in-law (Michel Subor) all suffer as a result of his commitment to his country. And that Juanita (Karin Dor), leader of the Cuban resistance cell, is more of a patriot than the Russian, refusing to defect when offered the opportunity. Hitchcock even acknowledges genuine politics: the reason a Frenchman is involved is because following the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 American diplomats were not welcome in Cuba.

In terms of bravura Hitchcock, the pick of the scenes are the hotel theft and the death of one of the principals, filmed from above.

I have steered clear of this film for over half a century. I saw it on initial release long before the name Hitchcock meant anything to me. But once it did I soon realized this film did not easily fit into the classic Hitchcock and the critics on whom I relied had always represented it as shoddy goods. So I came to it with some trepidation and was surprised to find it so engrossing.  

Frederick Stafford (O.S.S. 117: Mission for a Killer, 1965) was excellent with an insouciance reminiscent of Cary Grant and a raised eyebrow to match that star’s wryness. John Vernon, who I mostly knew as an over-the-top villain in pictures such as Fear Is the Key (1972), was surprisingly touching as the Cuban bad-guy who realizes his lover is a traitor. And there is a host of top French talent in Michel Piccoli (Belle de Jour, 1967), Philippe Noiret (Justine, 1969) Dany Robin (The Best House in London, 1969) and Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1967).

As you are possibly aware, three endings were shot for this picture and I can’t tell you which I saw without spoiling the plot. If you want to know, read tomorrow’s Blog.

In any case, this is worth seeing more than just to complete a trawl through the entire Hitchcock oeuvre, a very mature and interesting work.

Book Into Film – “The Split” (1968)

The Golden Age of American mystery writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett was well served by Hollywood in pictures like The Thin Man (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946). But the next generation was not. Apart from Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer – renamed for Hollywood purposes – in Harper (1966) and to a lesser extent The Drowning Pool, a whole generation of fictional detectives came unstuck in the movies, among them John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee (Darker Than Amber, 1970) and Ed McBain’s Steve Carella (Fuzz, 1972) while Robert B. Parker’s Spenser only got as far as television. Richard Stark did better than most, but only courtesy of Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin – renamed Walker – as series character Parker.

Parker was an unusual character for a long-running crime series in that he was a hard-boiled thief rather than a private eye or cop. He was exceptionally ruthless and women only featured in his life once the job was done so a difficult character around whom to spin a tale. And he was not a man who needed to show how tough he was, reputation and physique already did that, so Jim Brown having to throw his weight around in the film to intimidate this fellow criminals was not necessary and not in the book and was only added to the movie to explain Brown’s leadership credentials.

The book was originally known as “The Seventh.”

The book was called The Seventh – Parker’s share of the split, everyone getting an equal share which was always the tradition in Parker’s world. Since the author refused to sign away the rights of his character when he sold his books to Hollywood, the movies always featured a lead called something other than Parker. In The Split Jim Brown played a guy called McClain. The books often followed a chronology so McClain being broke at the start of The Split was a consequence of the previous book in the series Jugger.

The film has a completely different structure to the book. The Split follows the usual heist dynamic – planning, robbery, consequence. The book starts at the opposite end and begins with the robbery proceeds already stolen and Parker having to investigate his partners to find out who did it or alternatively how and why the deed was accomplished. In the book his girlfriend Ellie (Diahann Carroll in the film) is a temporary hook-up and since she is dead at the outset, there’s no element of romance. But since a movie needs more than that, Ellie is given a different backstory, the much stronger one of his estranged wife.

The minute a book was sold to Hollywood, the publishers slapped a “soon to be a major motion picture” strapline across the cover and printed a new edition. So studios were already benefitting from free advance publicity.

There are wholesale name changes from book to film. The book’s Harry Kifka is changed to Dan Kifka (Jack Klugman), Bert Clinger becomes Abe Clinger (Ernest Borgnine), Bob Negli is transformed into Dave Negli (Donald Sutherland). Arnie Feccio becomes Marty Gough (Warren Oates). The cop is Dougherty not Brill (Gene Hackman). There are other changes. Clinger doesn’t own a gym; he did own a movie theatre but ended up in jail for trying to burn it down for the insurance. You couldn’t get a greater difference between the Negli in the book and Donald Sutherland, the original character being under five-feet tall, over a foot shorter than Sutherland, and he’s the one – not Gladys (Julie Harris) – who came up with the idea of robbing the football stadium and although cocky he’s not a cold-blooded assassin.

The book basically follows Parker tracking down his fellow criminals one by one at the same time as keeping one step ahead of the investigating detective which is effectively the third act of the movie. The heist is told in flashback, but with less specialization required from the personalities involved. In some respects book and film arrive at the same conclusion but by different means. The movie has to flesh out characters but in devoting so much time to the planning and execution of the robbery, not sufficient time is left for the subsequent hunt for the man who has stolen their loot which goes some way to explain why the ending appears so rushed.

Several of Richard Stark’s “Parker” books have been filmed beginning with Point Blank (1967) based on The Hunter and remade as Payback (1999) with Mel Gibson. Others are: French Mise a Sac (1967) based on The Score, The Outfit (1973) with Robert Duvall, Slayground (1983) starring Peter Coyote and Parker (2013) from the novel Flashfire and starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez. Richard Stark was the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake whose other filmed novels included The Hot Rock (1972) with Robert Redford and George Segal, The Bank Shot (1974) starring George C. Scott and What’s the Worst That Could Happen (2001) with Martin Lawrence.

I can highly recommend the Parker series. The stories are taut and the quality of writing on a par with Chandler and Hammett. Stark expends much detail on weaponry and the details of planning the heists. Sometimes Parker gets away with the robbery, sometimes he does not, and there are always unexpected developments.

The Seventh is very hard to get hold of. Most of the copies available even on ebay are expensive so your best bet, if you are interested, is this omnibus edition of five books.

The Split (1968) ***

You could not have a more explosive start. In the wake of the seismic slap Sidney Poitier delivered to an arrogant white man in In the Heat of the Night (1967) heist mastermind McClain (Jim Brown) bursts out of the traps by: picking a down-and-dirty knuckle-duster of a fight with hardman Bert (Ernest Borgnine); ramming a limo driven by Harry (Jack Klugman); locking technical wizard Marty (Warren Oates) in an electronic cell; and bracing marksman Dave (Donald Sutherland). It turns out these are all auditions for a $500,000 robbery from the Los Angeles Coliseum during a football match. Nonetheless, the point is made. Despite explanation for the ferocity it scarcely masks the fact that here was a hero unwilling to take any crap from anybody.

The Split follows the classic three acts of such a major crime: recruitment, theft, fall-out. Gladys (Julie Harris) sets up the daring snatch, entrusting a down-on-his-luck McClain –   attempting reconciliation with divorced wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll) – with pulling together a gang with particular sets of skills. The clever heist goes smoothly, the cache smuggled out in a gurney into a stolen ambulance, itself hidden in a truck, and spirited away to Ellie’s apartment until the ruckus dies down.

But someone else has a different plan. The stolen money is stolen again. McClain, responsible for its safekeeping, is blamed for its loss, while he suspects all the others. Adding to the complications is a corrupt cop (Gene Hackman). So it’s cat-and-mouse from here on in, McClain dodging bullets as he attempts to clear up the mess, find the loot and evade the cops.  

British release in a double bill with “Woman without a Face
originally released in the U.S. as “Mister Buddwing.”

The title refers to the way the way the money is intended to be shared out but it could as easily point to a film of two halves – recruitment/robbery and fall-out. The first section has several stand-out moments – a split-screen credit sequence, Marty’s desperate strip inside the cell to prevent the electronic door closing, an asthma attack mid-robbery, the beat-the-clock element of the heist, Dave’s targeting of tires to create the massive gridlock that facilitates escape. Thereafter, the tension grows more taut, as the thieves fall out with murderous intent.

One of the joys of the picture is watching a bunch of actors on the cusp. Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) was in the throes of achieving a stardom that would soon follow for Hackman (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Sutherland (also The Dirty Dozen) and Oates (Return of the Seven, 1966). Brown is tough and cynical in the Bogart mold, a loner with lashings of violence in his locker. Of the supporting cast, Sutherland’s funny maniac, complete with mordant wit, is the pick and he has the movie’s best line (“The last man I killed for $5,000. For $85,000 I’d kill you seventeen times.”) Hackman reveals an intensity that would be better showcased in The French Connection (1971) and Borgnine, Oscar-winner for Marty (1955) reverts to his tough guy persona. Having said that, you only get glimpses of what they are capable of.

Making the biggest step-up is Scottish director Gordon Flemyng whose last two pictures were Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth A.D. 2150 (1966). He helms the picture with polish and confidence, allowing the young bucks their screen moments while wasting little time in getting to the action and pulling off a mean car chase.

Crime writer Richard Stark’s (pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) was careful to sell the rights to his books one-by-one so that no single studio could acquire his iconic thief Parker. That accounted for him being renamed Walker in Point Blank (1967), Edgar in Pillaged (1967) and McClain in The Split, which was based on Stark’s The Seventh (that fraction being the character’s share of the loot).