The Magnificent 60s – The Book

My formative years in terms of movies coincided with the rise of the critic and the auteur theory, promoted by Andrew Sarris, which valued directors far higher than actors, dramatically changing the existing status quo. Critics like Sarris developed their own pantheon of artists who could be considered great and routinely ridiculed those actors or directors who did not come up to the mark or whose works occasionally fell short of the lofty standards thus set.

Critics liked nothing better than to hail a new unknown talent – and be the first to do so – and regularly found fault with films that had big budgets. In short, they set out to pulverize popularity. In a separate endeavor academics found a new way of looking at films, deciphering in movies particular previously unforeseen aspects, epitomized by Peter Wollen’s seminal Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969). If ever a small picture turned into a big hit it was always, it was claimed, down to the efforts of critics who championed the movie. More importantly, critics were a law unto themselves.  Movies the public loved were often the very ones that critics and academics disdained. As a consequence, the universal question on critical lips was how could the public be so foolish and why were they so gullible?

That meant I was often a puzzle to myself. How could I enjoy a picture that apparently lacked critical merit? Or had no redeemable features according to those who knew best? It was a paradox that I have enjoyed to this day. I am not talking here of films “so bad they are good,” a category invented to accommodate a particular guilty pleasure such as the Ed Wood portfolio, or of films deemed “camp classics” like Valley of the Dolls (1968).

In fact, Valley of the Dolls is a good place to start in the critic vs. public divide. Here was a film based on a novel the literary critics of the period derided (although more recently its merits have been reassessed from a feminist perspective) and turned into a big-budget film with an Oscar-nominated director that the film critics of the period also vilified. The book was a bestseller and movie a huge hit. Public and critics were at an impasse. Were the public misconceived or, worse, duped, into devouring book and movie? 

When I wrote my book on the making of The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) I discovered that that movie had not been generally well received either by the critics or the public but that it had turned into the most popular western of all time, courtesy of endless repeats on television and a considerable number of reissues, where other movies in the genre termed classics fell far short of such universal appeal and adoration – except as far as critics and academics were concerned.   

So when I came to look at the best films of the 1960s – a period of which I am inordinately fond – I decided I would in a sense ask the public. After all, box office is nothing more than a public thumbs up or thumbs down. My concept would mean cutting out the middle man.

I would go going straight to the public vote, determining popularity from box office receipts. We are not talking here about people who watched a movie for free on television years after it first came out and saw a version reduced in size, scale and sound and which in some cases had been trimmed for censorship reasons or to fit in with the advertisements. Instead, I am referring to this decade’s moviegoers willing to slap down their hard-earned bucks, take time out of their schedule, their effort maybe involving hiring babysitters or shelling out for transportation and parking and whatever.

In a sense there is something supremely egalitarian in that approach in that the people who pay to see movies are the ones whose box office dollar ends up funding new pictures and without whom there would be neither popular not unpopular films. So this assessment of the Top 100 Movies of the 1960s is based purely on the public’s response to a given film through the simple act of paying to go and see it. That act turns into the movie’s box office and that underpins this book.

This was the decade of legend. It spawned many of the greatest films ever made. Studios made more money than ever before, movie budgets ballooned and stars received record sums. As the auteur theory grew in influence, directors were feted. Businesswise, it bridged the old studio system where high numbers of movies were cranked out every year and the new approach where production was reduced in the expectation of creating the equivalent of today’s “tentpoles.”

Films made on a scope not conceived since Gone with the Wind (1939) became routine, arriving in theaters nearly every month, some so spectacularly successful they set the template for the future blockbuster. New genres such as the spy picture, driven by the James Bond phenomenon, came out of nowhere. Other moribund genres, previously restricted to low-budget or B-picture status, such as horror and sci-fi, reached new heights thanks to bigger budgets and top-name directors.

While every genre thrived, the decade will be remembered particularly for musicals like The Sound of Music (1965) and historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and an explosion of British movies.  It was also the era of “the little films that could,” low-budget pictures such as Lilies of the Field (1963) and Charly (1968) whose success far exceeded expectation. This epoch of dramatic change saw the industry embrace different attitudes to sexuality, violence and racism, adopt alternative release strategies and reassess movies’ ancillary value.

A new generation of stars emerged. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole, Natalie Wood, Faye Dunaway, Peter Sellers, Clint Eastwood, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Michael Caine, Raquel Welch, Omar Sharif and Lee Marvin formed the new elite. But that was not at the expense of existing stars. The post-war and 1950s generation retained – and in some instances expanded – their appeal.

Into that category fell Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston and Frank Sinatra. And although Gary Cooper and Clark Gable died early in the decade, studios still counted on the box office prowess of pre-war contemporaries like John Wayne, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn and until his retirement in 1966 Cary Grant.  

However, the “star system” had vanished and studios no longer invested millions annually on training new talent. Although in the 1950s Yul Brynner, Audrey Hepburn, Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson had graduated from smaller-scale new talent programs, by the 1960s they were largely defunct although occasional attempts were made to revive the concept. Occasionally, television might throw up a new prospect – a Steve McQueen or James Garner – but most new stars, as far as the public was concerned, came from nowhere. One minute you had never heard of them, the next they were everywhere, Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood in particular falling into this category. Where the previous system had relied on steady grooming, now stars were born in an instant. One picture was all it took. 

Behind the camera was a parallel situation. The old-stagers like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, David Lean and Carol Reed were joined by post-war debutants such as Robert Aldrich, Robert Wise, Stanley Kramer and Stanley Kubrick.

The newer crop graduating from television included John Frankenheimer, Robert Mulligan, Sam Peckinpah, George Roy Hill, Franklin J. Schaffner, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Norman Jewison and Sydney Pollack. They were augmented by the British New Wave of Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson and by later additions like Peter Yates.

European directors welcomed into the Hollywood mainstream included Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow Up, 1966) and Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968) while foreign-made pictures like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969) made massive inroads into the box office and helped create a different artistic sensibility. While French New Wave films were mostly confined to arthouses, many of their techniques in storytelling and especially editing were embraced by Hollywood directors.

Studios began the decade in financial turmoil, MGM and Twentieth Century Fox on the verge of bankruptcy, production decimated and attendances in terminal decline. As had occurred at the start of the 1950s, studios gambled on a bigger throw of the dice, this time with 70mm big-budget roadshow, movies that paid little heed to budget strictures. The roadshow aimed to woo audiences away from the encroaching maw of television, to give big-screen lovers something that small-screen producers could not match, and at the same time reinvigorate the moviegoing experience.

First run big city theaters already generated far greater revenues than cinemas further down the food chain and now studios intended increasing the box office take further by hiking prices. Big city center cinemas would offer an experience unparalleled in the modern cinemagoing age. Roadshows were shown in the separate program format so you could not just slip in and out to suit yourself. And the movie started with a fanfare, an overture that could last up to ten minutes, giving you time to take your seat, and there was an intermission to let you stretch your legs, use the facilities or refuel.

The whole experience, what with souvenir programs on sale and babysitters to be hired, and maybe cocktails or dinner beforehand, was an event. And movies had never been events of any regularity. The prior moviegoing ethos was that it was a habitual part of your life. You popped into your neighborhood theater as you might go bowling or visit a bar. There was nothing fancy about it. It was just what everybody did. Or had done – until television became the way you spent your evenings, staring at a tiny box in the corner which lacked widescreen or color or 3D or any of the other gimmicks that for a time in the 1950s stopped the decline in theater attendance.

This book defines this decade in an entirely new way, not with reference to the critics, but as viewed by the public. Although you may find many critical faves here, you will find as many films that defined the public/critical divide.

Behind the Scenes: “The Blood Beast Terror” (1968)

Sherlock Holmes vs Sherlock Holmes was the initial tantalizing casting prospect. Basil Rathbone, the most venerated actor to don the distinctive deerstalker, and Peter Cushing, just signed up by the BBC for a new 16-episode series, the former signed to play the villain, the latter his nemesis in a film that started out with the title of The Death’s-head Vampire, the first film by a new production shingle Tigon Films.

While Tigon was new, with a distinctive logo, its driving force was well-known British producer Tony Tenser who with partner Mike Klinger had initially specialized in exploitation pictures with titles such as Naked as God Intended (1961) and London in the Raw (1964). The pair split after the artistic and commercial success of Roman Polanski’s Cul de Sac, Tenser initially setting up under his own name for Mini-Weekend/Tomcat (1966), mining the exploitation vein as before, and The Sorcerers (1967) a new venture into the horror market. Expanding the business with fresh capital and new partners, Tigon was born.

Supporting feature to “Witchfinder General” on ABC circuit release in Britain.

Explaining the new departure, Tenser said, “Films needs to be inexpensive. They need to sell, they need to appeal to an international audience, and one subject that always finds a market is horror.” Horror budgets were low, the genre did not require big stars, and the films had a surprisingly long shelf life.

First movie on the new company’s agenda was not The Death’s-head Vampire. Instead, Tenser had hooked Raquel Welch for a ghost story The Devil’s Discord to be produced by her husband Patrick Curtis, who had performed a similar task on The Sorcerers, and star Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965). When that fell through, he held onto Cushing for a proposed Horror of Frankenstein and when that also bit the dust turned to him for The Death’s-head Vampire on a budget of just £40,000 (about $100,000). Offered the choice of playing villain Dr. Mallinger or Detective Inspector Quennell, the actor plumped for the “goodie,” Basil Rathbone lined up for the other role. The concept of older man/younger woman with action concentrated on an isolated house and the surrounding countryside was a horror trope.

Vernon Sewell (Strictly for the Birds, 1964), entering his third decade as a director, had worked with Cushing on Some May Live (1965) and was primarily known for low-budget and B-movies, and more importantly from Tenser’s perspective, sticking to a budget without any artistic pretensions or improvisation. He didn’t waste time on anything that would not be captured by the lens. He was calm on set, “nothing fazed him.” Cushing was a kindred spirit, never complaining, except famously, on this picture, when he told Sewell it was the “worst picture” he had ever made. The pair, however, had a very good working relationship to the extent that Sewell never offered Cushing any advice on the role –“he didn’t need my input.”

The Sherlock Holmes connection is promoted in this poster.

Just over two weeks before the August 1967 start date, Basil Rathbone died of a heart attack. Robert Flemyng, the last-minute replacement, was Cushing’s opposite, complaining all the time. The cast was rounded out by 32-year-old Doctor Who star Wanda Ventham (mother of actor Benedict Cumberbatch) and 18-year-old Vanessa Howard whose career highpoint thus far had been a duet with Cliff Richard for a television presentation of Aladdin (1967).

Interiors were shot at Goldhawk Studios, a converted three-story building in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, with exteriors at Grims Dyke, the former home of W.S. Gilbert, in north-west London. The 19th century manor house had lain empty since 1963.

Roger Dickens, who had cut his teeth on Thunderbirds Are Go! (1966) and worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and would be later lionized for the mini-beast bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1979) was responsible for creating the monster. The model for the giant larvae was a much simpler task than creating a believable female giant insect. He took a mold of Ventham’s face, giving the features a repellant slant,  using costume jewelry for the eyes, adding a furry cap and two-foot long antennae, a representation  that would only really work if you scarcely saw the creature. For art designer Wilfred Woods his woods set turned into a disaster when the trees wilted and lost their leaves.

Opinions differ as to whether Tenser interfered with production. He saw his role during the film process to ensure that the project followed the script. “Sometimes you can put something in a film which will hinder the selling, sometimes you need to put something in which will help the selling.”

Comedian Roy Hudd, playing the morgue attendant, thought the script so awful he was delighted to work with Cushing on improvements. 

When John Ford’s boast that he never shot an extra foot of film in order to prevent a producer turning in a different film has resulted in many a masterpiece, the same did not hold true for Sewell. Sticking so close to the script, not filming anything that was not absolutely necessary meant that the movie was too short. Editor Howard Lanning commented: “I put in everything that was available. Even with expanding the lecture scene and the amateur dramatics as long as possible, to the detriment of pace, the picture clocked in at just 81 minutes, not the length expected of a main feature.

To ensure the movie came in at the required length, Tenser added the African sequence at the beginning (an extra five minutes) and re-shot the morgue material (two more minutes), encouraging Cushing and Hudd to improvise. The final product was over-budget and a week late. The version shown to the censor was 87 minutes though the official running time was a minute longer.

Tenser now deemed the working title as insufficient, preferring “something catchy and something that told people what you were selling.” His first stab at a new title was Blood Beasts from Hell. But in the final analysis it was altered to The Blood Beast Terror. Hoping to sell it to a circuit as a main feature it was originally shown in a double bill with Castle of the Living Dead, but despite the supposedly attractive title, audiences were not interested. To cut his losses, the film was repackaged as the support to another Tigon production Witchfinder General (1967) which meant Tenser would not have to share receipts with another distributor.

The Blood Beast Terror did not prove so sellable overseas either. It was shelved in France until 1971, although, sold for a flat fee, it did well in South America. A.I.P. who had U.S. distribution rights to Witchfinder General – title altered to The Conqueror Worm – had no interest in The Blood Beast Terror but it was picked up by Pacemaker Pictures who were also in title-changing mood and released it in summer 1969 as Vampire Beast Craves Blood on a double bill with Curse of the Blood Ghouls (1964).

Tenser’s predictions of long shelf life were correct. In Britain, the movie was reissued on a late night double bill with The Secret of Blood Island (1961), and then was revived with The Devil’s Hand (1961) before being re-teamed with Witchfinder General on a Sunday’s-only screening. Although none of these would be circuit releases in the sense of a nationwide day-and-date opening, they were nonetheless likely to get reasonable bookings to fit specific engagement profiles. In the States where there was endless demand for horror triple- and quadruple bills and all-nighters, The Blood Beast Terror received ongoing bookings.

SOURCES: John Hamilton, “The Making of the The Blood Beast Terror,” Little Shoppe of Horror, Issue No 43, p67-91; John Hamilton, “Regretting Nothing: John Sewell, Little Shoppe of Horror, Issue No 43, p92-98.

The Blood Beast Terror (1968) ***

As the title suggests there’s a vampiric element, and there’s not a great deal unusual in that, Hammer having successfully revived interest in bloodsuckers. What is unusual, however, and a couple of years before that studio’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) is the idea of female empowerment. Previously, the sole purpose of a damsel in a horror picture was to lay bare a convenient bosom for a passing thirsty creature, or, have their clothing disarrayed and let out a scream when a monster pounced.

The twist here is that the vampire is a woman, Clare (Wanda Ventham), and men who are the victims except on the occasions when her father Dr Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) hypnotizes young women in order to give the creature a blood transplant. The beast exists as a creature and then morphs into Clare. For a time it looks as if Clare is merely possessed, but in reality appears much more as if she is enjoying being the beast, abandoning the enforced respectability of the times, luring men into the forest to have her rapacious way with them, the men naturally thinking they are in for a romantic tryst rather than being targeted by a predator.

Continuing the theme of misleading the audience, this poster cleverly suggests that it’s a man who is the beast and the woman who are the victims.

There’s a wonderful scene that gives an insight into her mindset. Her friends put on a little play. Her role is the monster, a part she seizes with relish.

It’s one of those films you have to work out backward. In standard horror fashion it leaves the twist till close to the end and it would have been far more interesting if we had discovered at the outset that Clare was the beast, leading the men for the most part a merry dance, outwitting Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) and her adoring father Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng).  

The inspector, faced with a growing pile of corpses drained of blood, is baffled throughout, no Sherlock Holmes clever deductions here, and it naturally would not occur to any of the males, beyond Dr Mallinger who is in on the secret, to imagine a woman capable of not just committing such crimes but of exerting such power over a man. The story glosses over the genetics, it’s a version of Frankenstein obviously, but the background to it is missing, and I can see why. There has to be some mystery.

Hitchcock could not have done a better job of misleading the audience. For a start the story is told entirely through the male perspective. And it’s set up as a murder mystery, Quennell our lead as he dances from one corpse to the other, helped along in his information accumulation by lugubrious mortuary attendant  (Roy Hudd), who is, ironically, as hungry as the beast, but for normal food rather than blood, always seen devouring something. Mallinger is not a mad professor either, but a distinguished one, celebrated in his field, giving lectures and attracting proteges like Britewell (William Wilde).

Initial British release double bill cleverly bringing together Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee –
though in separate pictures.

Although his daughter acts as laboratory assistant, Mallinger is hardly aware that his daughter is sizing up every male visitor as a potential victim.

The posters give away that the creature is a giant moth, and by and large the special effects (no CGI available of course) pull this off, the creature usually just glimpsed or seen from the distance, and the possibility that Mallinger is aware of what he is harbouring apparent when he enters a cellar wearing a leather hood and carrying a whip.

Tony Tenser’s production company Tygon has acquired cult status, in part for having the temerity to take on British horror giant Hammer at the height of its powers in the 1960s, and in part from the distinction of its output, making such films as The Sorcerers (1967) with Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing as Witchfinder General (1968) and Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele in The Crimson Cult/ The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). Tenser ploughed a different furrow to Hammer at a time when that studio was also expanding into bigger-budgeted movies such as One Million Years B.C. (1966).

Capably not to say cleverly director by veteran Vernon Sewell (The Crimson Cult) it is miles ahead of its time and generally delivers the goods. Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965) is excellent as usual, Robert Flemyng (The Deadly Affair, 1967) proves a more interesting scientist than usual, steering clear of any craziness.

Wanda Ventham in her first leading role provides a fascinating character study, but you have to work backwards as I said, to realize just how good she is, the way she has, for Victorian times, her father under her thumb, and the seductive glances she casts at men, not to mention the ease with which she assists her father in his diabolical experiments without him realizing why she is so enamored. Female monsters had evolved from creatures before – in Cat People (1942), Snake Woman (1961) and Hammer’s The Reptile (1966) – but this was a more rapacious example of the species. Vanessa Howard (Some Girls Do, 1969) has a small role and you can spot Scottish character actor Glynn Edwards (Zulu, 1963) and television comedian Roy Hudd in his movie debut.

Screenwriter Peter Bryan (The Brides of Dracula, 1960), something of an expert in the horror field, turns the whole genre on its head with the gender politics examined here.

Lady in Cement (1969) ****

Frank Sinatra in cruise control reprises his Tony Rome (1967) private eye in a hugely enjoyable and vastly under-rated murder mystery with man mountain Dan Blocker of Bonanza fame and femme fatale Raquel Welch of pin-up fame. One of the actor’s greatest characterizations, albeit with little in it for the Oscar mob, this is one of the coolest gumshoes to hit the screen. Exhibiting none of the self-consciousness of latter-day Philip Marlowes or Sam Spades, Sinatra embellishes the character with more “business” than ever before, larding his dialogue with quips while he talks his way out of sticky situations and, as a big star, happy to be picked up by Blocker and dumped on a work surface. Can’t see Newman, Redford, McQueen, and Eastwood et al putting up with that kind of treatment.

Tony Rome is almost as much of a bum as he is a detective, betting on anything possible, wasting his time on fruitless quests for sunken treasure, lazing around in his yacht until in one of his deep sea forays comes across the naked titular damsel. Reporting the murder sees Rome co-opted by cop Lt. Santini (Richard Conte) to ID the woman. Sent to the apartment shared by Sandra Lomax and Maria Bareto in search for a potential client, Rome encounters Waldo (Dan Blocker) who hires him to find Lomax.

The British release paired an action picture with a sex comedy, the idea being to catch different types of audiences rather than putting two action films or two comedies together which would
later become the prevailing exhibition wisdom. Although the two films had in common a star in bikini.
Note that the double bill went on general release at the same time as the two pictures
were, separately, playing at London’s West End.

That takes Rome to Jilly’s go-go club where his conversation with dancer Maria (Lainie Kazan) is rudely interrupted by owner Danny Yale (Frank Raiter). Next stop is a swimming pool and who should emerge in a wet bikini than millionairess Kit Forrest (Raquel Welch) whose party Sandra attended. But a) she’s an alcoholic with memory issues and b) objects to snoopers so calls in neighbor and former hood Al Mungar (Martin Gabel) who sends Rome packing. When Maria is bumped off, Waldo is the prime suspect.

So we are enveloped in an interesting plot that soon involves blackmail and robbery and a suspect list that extends to Mungar and son Paul (Steve Peck) who has the hots for Kit, Yale and muscular boyfriend Seymour, and of course Waldo (whose reason for finding Sandra is revenge) and Kit. Despite the seeming light touch, inheritance is a theme, and the tale is character-driven, relationships complex, locales somewhat off-beat, a crap game in a mortuary, a nude painter’s studio, strip clubs, massage parlors and go-go dancing establishments abound, but with none of the moralizing that came with the territory. A racetrack is almost prosaic by comparison.

For most of the picture Santini and Rome have an antagonistic relationship until we find out, in a lovely scene, that Rome was the cop’s ex-partner, that the grumpy cop has a loving home life and that Rome is greeted with delight as “Uncle Tony” by Santini’s son. Rome is also very well acquainted with film noir and knows that a woman who appears too good to be true is in fact too good to be true so he’s sensible enough to steer clear of seduction (the bane of any film noir character’s life) unless he’s just pretending in order to glean information.

Raquel Welch is more sedate in this poster.

It’s a classic detective story, one lead following another, naturally a few contretemps along the way, some deception, and the laid-back Rome proves not as relaxed as you might expect, possessing a handy right hook and a neat uppercut. Interesting subsidiary characters include Al’s neglected wife, a bumptious beach attendant and a whining nude model.

Director Gordon Douglas – who handled Sinatra in Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), Tony Rome and The Detective (1968) – brings out the best in the actor, keeps the action zipping along despite multiple complications and prefers a quip to a momentous speech.

Sinatra is just so at ease he oozes screen charisma. His shamus is no slick unraveller of truth, but a steady digger, accumulating information. You might think any tentative relationship with Kit stretches the age angle a tad but bear in mind at this stage Sinatra was married to Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior. Raquel Welch (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968) is surprisingly good as a vulnerable mixed-up wealthy alcoholic and, except in her opening scene, manages to steer clear of a bikini for most of the picture.

Richard Conte (Hotel, 1966) is as dependable as ever but Martin Gabel (Divorce American Style, 1967) steals the supporting show as an apoplectic racketeer trying to go straight. You might like to know Lainie Kazan (Dayton’s Devils, 1968) is still working, The Amityville Murders (2018) and Tango Shalom (2021) among her recent output. It’s a shame Dan Blocker did not live long enough (he died in 1972) to build on his idiosyncratic performance.

The lively screenplay was written by Marvin H. Albert (A Twist of Sand, 1968) and Jack Guss (Daniel Boone: Frontier Trail Rider, 1966) based on Albert’s novel. Mention, too, for the jaunty theme tune by Hugo Montenegro (The Undefeated, 1969). You’ll find yourself humming it for days on end, it pops up often enough.

Into the catchphrase hall of fame must go Blocker’s exhortation “Stay loose” just before he unleashes mayhem. And while we’re about it, what is it about the quality of actor or status of a star that permits hoodlum Al’s peeved “I tried to go clean and you dragged me down” to be ignored while a couple of decades later a similar line from The Godfather Part III (1990) uttered by Al Pacino is hailed as a classic. You know the one I mean: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” Steven Spielberg is another who should have watched this picture for tips on how to deal with marauding sharks – Rome’s solution: kick them on the snout. By the way did Blocker fall out with imdb? Despite third billing, he’s not listed at all in the main credits and when you scroll down to the extended credits, he’s at the very bottom. Jeez!


Behind the Scenes: “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965)

Shooting might have been less stressful and cheaper if director Martin Ritt had stuck to his initial schedule but when the shoot start-date was pushed back from late fall 1964 to January 1965  he lost original star Burt Lancaster (planning to play the original Englishman as a Canadian). At relatively short notice, Richard Burton stepped in, but for an eye-watering fee of $750,000, at that time the biggest salary paid in Hollywood. (Due to Ritt’s involvement there had been rumors Paul Newman would star.) And although Burton pushed for his wife Elizabeth Taylor for the small role of Nan, he was overruled on the issue of cost, and that audience expectations would be unfairly raised.

It didn’t matter, though, if Ritt refused to cast Elizabeth Taylor. He got her anyway, and her vast entourage, generally happy to remain out of the way but occasionally arriving on location in the middle of Dublin in her white Rolls-Royce sending fans into convulsions. There were two schools of thought as to which woman caused more disruption: the jealous wife exerting 24-hour surveillance on a husband with a wandering eye or one of his previous lovers, Claire Bloom, who was playing Nan. (The name changed from Liz in the book.)

“It was not a happy picture and the central reason fort that was: Claire Bloom,” averred Burton’s biographer Melvyn Bragg. “The real problem was not from Bloom but from Elizabeth Taylor’s jealousy,” claimed Sam Kastner. That Burton incurred Bloom’s wrath was not without doubt. But it wasn’t the first time. Prior to Taylor, but while he was married to Sybil, Burton and Bloom had been lovers.

Burton was “not prepared for Bloom and found it very difficult to handle.” The pair had met on a touring production of The Lady’s Not for Burning in the 1940s but their romance remained unconsummated. A few years later in the early 1950s the affair began in earnest and continued on and off for five years. When both were cast in Look Back in Anger (1959), Bloom expected them to pick up where they had left off. But that notion was dashed when Burton appeared, still married, on the arm of Susan Strasberg (Sisters, 1969).

The other elephant in the room was, of course, Burton’s alcohol intake. A very heavy drinker, verging on the alcoholic, his hand had begun to tremor until he received liquid sustenance. If Burton had an equally boisterous co-star as in Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) or a very indulgent director as with John Huston in The Sandpiper (1965), his drinking would not attract comment. But “Martin Ritt did not approve of Burton’s heavy drinking and Burton resented that.”

Never mind Burton’s issues with ex-lover and wife, he was having difficulty delivering the performance Ritt demanded. The director wanted a stripped-down character, minus the oratory which had made the actor famous, the acting so flattened as to “make him anonymous.” Author John le Carre would have preferred James Mason or Trevor Howard for the “embattled” personas they presented, and which would have fit more into the director’s perception of the character. “For Burton this time there would be no strong sex, no oratory, no action, no charm.” The director wanted that Burton intensity, but coiled, not sprung. As the production wore on, director and star were barely speaking. “Ritt had come to despise Burton whom he saw as a spoiled and self-indulgent actor who had dissipated his talent.”

The initial screenwriter Guy Trosper made changes that seemed out of kilter with the book, for instance sending Leamas to psychiatric hospital rather than jail for punching the grocer. When he became ill he was replaced by Paul Dehn who did not veer so far from the book. Le Carre was brought in at the last minute at Burton’s insistence to do rewrites. But that merely added to the existing aggravation. While waiting for nightfall to shoot the escape sequence, Le Carre was obliged to keep the  actor company, trying to consume most the available whisky so that Burton did not go on set drunk. While little of Le Carre’s rewrites found their way into the finished product, he did provide a new scene for Fiedler (Oskar Werner).

Ritt had a revolutionary picture in mind, not just filming in black-and-white to downplay the glamor of the espionage business as evidenced by James Bond, but to employ “a point of view that’s never been found before.” He was not a believer in the end justifying the means nor of depicting the enemy as rabid. “Most of the time,” he explained, “you have actors playing Communists as if they’d just switched over from playing Nazis in World War Two pictures…the Communists in this picture are people and one of them at least …is an honest, ethical man.”

While the decision to film in black-and-white was a creative decision, intended to give the film a realistic edge, he knew it would not necessarily go down so well with the end user, the exhibitor. “The needs of creative people and the needs of exhibitors are completely different. Exhibitors want pictures and creators want to express themselves and those two factors don’t always satisfy each other.” Although the movie was Oscar-nominated and critically well-received and did well in key city first-run, it was condemned by exhibitors in small towns, one of whom discouraged others from booking it and complained that the black-and-white aspect made the film impossible to view on old projectors.

Author John le Carre was an unknown, two previous books published to no great sales. But The Spy Who Came in from the Cold proved a phenomenon.  Debuting in the number spot in February 1964, the book spent 35 weeks topping the hardback bestseller chart. It ended up the hardback number one title in the U.S. during 1964, a quarter of a million copies sold, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Mystery, initial paperback order topping two million copies, five million books in print by the time the film appeared. So it seemed all the more astonishing that the movie rights had been snapped up for a mere $21,000 (with escalating clauses based on sales that took it up to $38,000). Martin Ritt claimed glory for that astute purchase, making a bid to a hard-up author when the book was in galley form. “When I bought it nobody else was running to buy it,” claimed Ritt. But it turned out the real star was Kay Selby, a Paramount story editor, who had dug it out of a pile of novels submitted.  Le Carre did not make the same mistake again, movie rights for his next book The Looking Glass War were sold for $400,000 and the paperback rights for the same

When the film had still been a relatively low-budget production, Paramount planned to film exteriors in London and interiors in Hollywood. But Ritt wanted “to capture the full brunt of the winter atmosphere for dramatic emphasis” and there was very little Hollywood could bring to the party to recreate an actual bleak British weather.

The bulk of the film was shot in Ireland at the defunct Ardmore studios in Bray – Ritt rented them from the Official Receiver, the first production there since November 1963 – and on location in Dublin, the historic Cornmarket standing in for Checkpoint Charlie while with the  addition of breezeblock, barbed wire and an iron ladder, Dublin Square was transformed into the Berlin Wall, though some scenes set in East Berlin were shot in the London Docklands.

However, shooting kicked off in London, at Shepperton studios on January 9, 1965, before switching for two months to Ardmore, wrapping up there a week early, heading for location filming in Amsterdam (briefly) and 9-10 days in Garmisch (Germany) before returning to Shepperton in April. Ritt brought the picture in under budget.

Paramount launched a teaser campaign in November 1965 New York – the idea stolen by United Artists for A Fistful of Dollars the following year – with a 1,000-strong two-sheet poster campaign in the city’s subway, promoting the film but missing out the opening date and the cinemas it would play, that information supplied closer to the launch which took place over the lucrative Xmas period in 1965, coincidentally just in time to qualify for Oscar consideration.

And also in time to face a spy box office tsunami called Thunderball and the roadshow epic Doctor Zhivago among the 20-plus movies launched for the festive season. In fact, the Bond films had triggered a resurgence of spy pictures. As the Ritt picture got underway, others on the starting grid include “The Matt Helm Project,” The Ipcress File, James Garner in Welcome Mr. Beddoes (A Man Could Get Killed) and Masquerade starring Cliff Robertson. In addition the potential line-up also included female spy Christy O’Hare, Aaron Rosenberg’s Smashmaster and Strangers on a Bridge; the first two were never made, the last one taking over half a century to hit the screen as Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.   

Burton was Oscar-nominated, but in the year when Thunderball (1965), Torn Curtain (1966), The Silencers (1966) and Our Man Flint (1966) all featured in the top ten films of 1966, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold did not prove a counter-programming smash, sitting at 32nd in the annual chart with $3.1 million in rentals. Although the movie was critically well-received and did well in key city first-run, it was a bust in smaller towns. Don Stott of the Calvert Drive-In in Prince Frederick, Md, complained “it was one of the lousiest pictures I’ve ever had my displeasure to exhibit and lose my shirt on…the print was so dark…it was barely visible.” Added Arthur K. Dame of the Scenic Theater in Pittsfield, N.H., “it comfirms the fact that we are not going to do well with spy films.”

SOURCES: Adam Sisman, John Le Carre, The Biography (Bloomsbury, 2013) p258, 266, 273, 277-280; The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012), p79-80; Melvyn Bragg, Rich: The Life of Richard Burton, (Hodder and Stoughton, 2012) p200-203; Sam Kashner, Furious Love (Harper Perennial, 2019) p120-131;  “Burt Lancaster Plans More Pix Of His Own,” Variety, January 1, 1964, p27; “Bestseller at $20,000,” Variety, March 25, 1964, p15; “Broadway,” Box Office, April 20, 1964, pE5; “Director Martin Ritt: Big Dig Is Scripts You Can Sell to Producers,” Variety, May 13, 1964, p13; “Six for Paramount in Alien Locales,” Variety, July 15, 1964, p18’“Richard Burton Receives Role in Spy by Martin Ritt,” Box Office, August 24, 1964, pW1; “Voices in the Diplomatic Pouch,” Variety, December, 9, 1964, p7; “Ritt Starts Spy Who Came in from the Cold in London,” Box Office, January 18, 1965, pE5; “Spy Success Sires Speedy Sequel, Le Carre Learning Loot Lesson,” Variety, February 17, 1965, p3; “Martin Ritt May Wind Berlin Wall Episodes on Spy This Month,” Variety, February 24, 1965, p28; “Paperbacks Up their Covers and Advance $,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p1; “Burton Winds Irish Shooting Spy Film,” Variety, April 14, 1965, p20;  Maxwell Sweeney, “Harassed Irish Studio Revives,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p54; “Kay Selby’s Coup,” Variety, August 11, 1965, p3; “Subway Posters First Step in Promoting The Spy,” Box Office, November 29, 1965, pA2; “Review,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, 1965, pA11;  “Three Paramount Pix To Open in N.Y. Dec 23,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, pE16; “Martin Ritt Is Promoting His Spy for Paramount,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, pE12; “Espionage Shown in Its Dirty Clothes,” Variety, December 22, 1965, p4; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, June 13, 1966, pA4 and October 10, 1966, pB4; Big Rentals of 1966,” Variety, January 4, 1967, p8.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) ****

The perfect riposte to the James Bond phenomenon. By comparison, a kitchen sink spy drama that challenges the glamorous version of espionage promoted by 007. Had the film been made as soon as the source novel by John Le Carre hit the bestseller charts in 1963 it might have stopped the Bond bandwagon, which didn’t really kick off until Goldfinger (1964), in its tracks. Realistic to the point of cynicism, the innocent are sacrificed in a ruthless chess battle for espionage supremacy.

Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) infiltrates the East German counter-espionage system after purportedly becoming a defector. His intention, however, is to stitch up Mundt (Peter van Eyck), the head of the East German unit, so that he is overthrown. Mundt has been causing too much grief to the British spy network in East Germany, the film opening with Leamas at the Berlin Wall watching an escaping agent being shot trying to pass through Checkpoint Charlie. At  the behest of Control (Cyril Cusack), the head of the British spy organization, Leamas pretends to quit the outfit, and playing the embittered card, ends up in prison for assault, on release being surreptitiously recruited by the East Germans as a potential defector.

Initially, the British appear almost too gentlemanly for the vicious spy game, Control almost apologizing (over endless cups of tea) about having to take such ruthless steps. Leamas has a tale he hopes will incriminate Mundt largely through the envy of his subordinate Fiedler (Oskar Werner). But once Leamas falls into the enemy’s hands, the game does not go according to plan. After initial gentle interrogation by Fiedler, the arrival of Mundt causes Leamas to be arrested and then tried for treason. Along the way, Leamas’s naïve girlfriend Nancy (Claire Bloom) is implicated and Leamas realizes he is a patsy, forced into quite a different role, that tests his beliefs.

The British, portrayed in Bond films and every other spy film up till then, as being on the side of the angels, are revealed as being just as heinous as the enemy. All through his defection Leamas is able to snigger at the abominable way the Communist superiors treat their underlings, simple demonstrations of power intended to humiliate at every opportunity, but it is soon apparent that the British are every bit as heartless. There is a very telling scene when Leamas realizes he may well be walking into a trap when his face appears on the front pages of a British newspaper. The look in Leamas’s eyes suggests he knows he has been betrayed.

If you remember Le Carre’s most famous creation George Smiley (Rupert Davies) as a humble man from the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) television series, you will be surprised to discover what depths the man will sink to here.

Oscar-nominated American director Martin Ritt (Hud, 1963) filmed this in black-and-white – even the advertising material was in mono – to remove all sense of glamour. There are no gadgets or girls in bikinis. This is the down-and-dirty version of espionage. And while the British top brass clearly regarded any staff lost as collateral damage, Leamas had a more human, more emotional, response.

Richard Burton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) is superb, received a well-deserved Oscar nomination (his fourth), as a character destroyed by “minor human error” in a world where humanity is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) presents his character is such a way that he comes across as anything but a villain, even his costume has a little bit of the beatnik about it, and he treats his captive with courtesy. Peter van Eyck (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is a more standard German villain, complete with blond hair. Claire Bloom (Three into Two Won’t Go, 1969) has a small but pivotal role as a sweet librarian.

And there’s strength in depth in the supporting cast beginning with Cyril Cusack (Fahrenheit 451, 1966) in a deftly underplayed part. Sam Wanamaker (Warning Shot, 1967) and Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966) are among those routinely humiliated by their paymasters. Also watch out for Rupert Davies (television’s Maigret), Bernard Lee, moonlighting from James Bond duties, Beatrix Lehmann (Psyche ’59) and Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great and Small series 1978-1990).

Also taking time off from Bond duties was screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, 1964) who adapted the novel with the help of Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962).

Paramount boldly opened around the same time as Thunderball in December 1965 and although the fourth Bond proved a box office tsunami, the Martin Ritt picture survived the onslaught and did pretty well.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the number U.S. hardback bestseller of 1964, according to the Publishers Weekly annual chart. That year You Only live Twice by Ian Fleming came eighth, the first time a Bond had appeared in the annual top ten. The following year Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War took the number four spot while The Man with the Golden Gun was seventh. It was the beginning of a mini-boom in spy novels among hardback buyers, and although neither Le Carre nor Fleming featured again during the decade Helen MacInnes placed fifth in 1966 with The Double Image and third with The Salzburg Connection in 1968 while Leon Uris’ Topaz was fourth in 1967.

Alvarez Kelly (1966) ***

True stories do not always make good films. It says a lot about stardom that Oscar-winner William Holden virtually single-handedly redeems Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western. And this was at a time when the actor’s career was in freefall, not having had a hit since The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Although his good looks personified him as a matinee idol, many of his best performances came when he was playing against type, as a shady character, such as in this instance

The essential narrative is that Holden has driven a couple thousand head of cattle from Mexico to deliver to Union troops. Holden plays an “Irish senor” (as defined in the title song) whose Mexican origins provide an excuse to consider the United States an enemy, positioning him as a neutral in the conflict, allowing him to justify his profiteering. Confederate colonel Richard Widmark plans to steal the herd.  Had Holden been a patriot the story would have knuckled down to him trying to thwart such plans, but since he’s a free agent with no allegiance except to himself the film has to take another route. So this involves Holden being captured by Widmark in a bid to turn the Confederate soldiers into cowboys capable of driving the stolen herd.

That would set the film down a fairly standard narrative route of training raw recruits such as Holden would follow in The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But this film evades such a simple format. All we ever learn about the intricacies of handling cattle is that you need a hat and have to be able to sing. Instead, this is a more thoughtful picture about honor versus self-interest, about the human casualties of war. Unlike most westerns it’s not about shoot-outs and fairly obvious good guys and bad guys. In the main it’s a drama about conflicting interests and often how good guys will do bad things in the name their beliefs.

The film doesn’t take sides. Do we root for the Union soldiers fighting to free slaves or the romantic version of the Confederacy? Do we root for the immoral selfish Holden because he’s had a finger shot off as a way of bringing him to heel or do our sympathies lie with the upstanding one-eyed Widmark who has given so much for his cause? 

Dmytryk whose career encompassed The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958) was on an opposite career trajectory to Holden after box office hits The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965). Between them, Holden and Dmytryk just about save what was a misconceived project, an original screenplay by Franklin Coen (The Train, 1964). That it was based on a true story did not make it any better an idea.

Holden is excellent, easing into the world-weary character he would project more fully in The Wild Bunch (1969). And I like his delivery, the pauses between words as if they are occurring to him for the first time rather than rattling them off as is the way of so many stars. Janice Rule (The Chase, 1966) is good as the errant girlfriend who feels let down by Widmark’s honor – and who is open to seduction by Holden – and has her own ideas about what she deserves from the war.  Although it’s tempting to say we’ve seen this craggy Widmark (The Secret Ways, 1961) characterization too many times before, here he adds a further emotional layer as a man who eventually faces up to the personal sacrifices he has been forced to make.    

A man convinced he is doing the right thing versus a guy who couldn’t care less about principle turns out to be an interesting concept though perhaps weighed in favor of the latter by the casting.

Had Widmark played the profiteer I doubt if we would have had such a balanced notion of right and wrong. Holden has the screen charm to get away with playing complicated characters, sometimes (The Counterfeit Traitor, for example) eventually tuning heroic. The idea that, in westerns, it’s not all black-and-white, and that bad guys could provide a moral core would be central to the genre a few years later when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969) made heroes of outlaws and the lawman in True Grit (1969) sailed close to the wind.  

Action fans will be amply rewarded by the ending as Holden attempts to outwit Widmark.

CATCH-UP: William Holden films reviewed so far are The Counterfeit Traitor (1962), The 7th Dawn (1964) and The Devil’s Brigade (1968); Richard Widmark films featured so far are The Secret Ways (1961) – the Blog’s top-ranked film according to our readers – The Long Ships (1964), Flight from Ashiya (1964) and The Way West (1967).

Blood and Black Lace (1964) ****

Director Mario Bava channels his inner Douglas Sirk in a rich color palette for this early version of giallo. About as surprisingly rich is the camerawork, which, for a low-budget picture is exceptionally accomplished, tracking, drifting, bobbing between characters. This early in the 1960s, nudity was not so prevalent but setting a movie in a fashion house – ensuring the beauty quotient is remarkably high – provided sufficient opportunity for ladies to be seen (within a work context naturally) in a certain amount of undress and you can be sure the killer leaves them half-naked. And it’s not the usual giallo sex maniac at work either but, despite the volume of murders, a killer driven by a desire to conceal shame.

Blackmail, theft, abortion, cocaine addiction, pregnancy, impotence and illicit affairs are among the secrets the protagonists wish to keep hidden, all risking exposure by a diary kept by the first victim Isabella (Francesco Ungaro). So rather than a whodunit, it’s a whydunit. The killer is particularly creepy, face concealed behind white gauze like an Egyptian mummy. As the Italian title explains, six women are intended for the chop, so that kind of rules out a great deal of tension as you spend your time counting. Are we nearly there yet? And as we run out of obvious potential victims, who the heck is there left to kill? Of course, by that time, we are into twist territory and that element is certainly neatly done.

The main candidates for the murderer are: Franco (Dante DiPaolo), Riccardo (Franco Ressel), Cesare (Luciano Piggozi). Massimo (Cameron Mitchell)  and Marco (Massimo Righi). These are the official ones, rounded up by Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner). But that still leaves housekeeper Clarice (Harriet Medin) in her black leather coat. And a fashion house being a festering wound of jealousy, sex, status and privilege you wouldn’t discount any of the models either nor an owner Cristiana (Eva Bartok) who is such a slave-driver she denies her seamstresses time to mourn.

Emotions would be running high in this establishment never mind with a killer on the loose. Relationships are so fraught that even when this is the worst possible time to be alone in a house, certain of the models refuse to offer sanctuary to others and one, Tao-Li (Claude Dantes), just plans to head for the hills (Paris, in other words) and abandon the others. Add to that a high degree of stupidity. When Greta (Lea Lander) discovers the disfigured corpse of Nicole (Arianna Gorini) in the trunk of her car, rather than calling the police, she drags the body into the house and hides it under the stairs while her butler is about to serve tea. Except it’s not out of folly, it’s because Greta, like all the women here, wishes to protect a male, passion reigning supreme to the extent that the thought of losing a lover even if he is a murderer is too much to bear.

The inspector’s task would be made easy if the killer had a distinctive modus operandi. Death occurs through strangulation, suffocation, drowning (though with cut wrists to make it look like suicide), falling from a great height and Nicole’s face thrust into a stove. If victims take a long time to die, it’s not from the killer’s sadism but his/her incompetence. Virtually none are speedily dispatched, murder not as easy as you might imagine, an idea that Hitchcock purloined in Torn Curtain (1966)

For most of the time the way the camera moves you would wouldn’t think you were watching a film about a serial killer (in those days as rare in reality as in fiction) but a dense emotional tale as spun by the likes of Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, 1963) amidst a backdrop of wealth and beauty. Setting aside the murders, there is a feast of intrigue, and a rich seam of characters, though the central theme seems to be (not surprising for the era) that money and beauty are not as fulfilling as love, something that women will commit various crimes (though stopping short of murder) to achieve.   

I would imagine it was just such intricate camerawork that put audiences off the picture on initial release, a big flop in Italy and, if screened anywhere else (as in Britain) the lower part of a double bill. Not quite as intense as Bava’s previous The Whip and the Body (1963) nor so stylistically driven as Danger : Diabolik (1968) and some way short of horror masterpieces like Black Sabbath (1963), this is still an interesting watch, something of a template for future giallo and from a pure directorial perspective glorious to watch.

The number of characters featured and the time spent on the various deaths limit the opportunities for any one star to dominate but Hungarian Eva Bartok (Operation Amsterdam, 1960) leads the line on the female side while American transplant Cameron Mitchell (Minnesota Clay, 1964) and Dante DiPaulo (Sweet Charity, 1969) vie for male acting honors. The screenplay was a joint effort by Marcello Fondato, Giuseppe Barilla and Bava.

YouTube has this for free though be warned it comes with ads and for the sumptuous photography alone you may want in any case to splash out.

The Sweet Ride (1968) ***

Unusual drama mainlining on Californian surf, sex, bikers, a mystery of Blow-Up (1966) dimensions and the best entrance since Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962). Displays a 1960s vibe with a 1950s pay-off as the “hitchhiker” of responsibility rears its ugly head.

A woman thrown out of a car narrowly escapes being run over. The cops jack in the investigation after television actress Vickie (Jacqueline Bisset) refuses to explain why she’s been badly beaten up.  And so we enter flashback mode to supposedly find out. She makes a glorious entrance, emerging from the sea, minus bikini top, into the lives of surfer Denny (Michael Sarrazin), jazz pianist Choo-Choo (Bob Denver) and ageing beach bum and tennis hustler Collie (Tony Franciosca). From the off, she’s enigmatic, gives a false address, won’t explain bruises on her arm, has something clandestine going on with television producer Caswell (Warren Stevens) and like Blow-Up we are only privy to snippets of information.

She’s half-in half-out of a relationship with Dennis, with Collie hovering on the periphery hoping to pick up the pieces to his sexual advantage. Contemporary issues clog the background, Choo-Choo tries a camp number complete with pink dog to avoid the draft, a neighbor threatens to shoot Parker for wandering around in shorts and habitually stealing his newspaper, epithets like “degenerates” are tossed around, Choo Choo’s girlfriend Thumper, while appearing in movies with titles like Suburban Lust Queen acts den mother, there’s not much actual exciting surfing, and a biker called Mr. Clean is somehow involved.

The romance plays out well, Vicky unsure, Denny convinced but without a livelihood to offer and unable to get a straight answer out of her. Choo-Choo gets the gig of his dreams in Las Vegas and there’s an rape scene, more unsettling because it’s committed by Denny with the bizarre justification of getting “just for once something on my terms.”  And there’s the equally disquieting sense that the only explanation for Vickie’s behavior is to tab her a nymphomaniac, walking out of an argument with a mysterious man in a beach house to drop her clothes for a bout of sex with Mr Clean.

I must have seen a different picture from everyone else. A good few critics at the time and reviewers since appear to think Vickie was also victim of a gangbang by the bikers, but I can’t see why. When he sees Vickie coming down from the beach house, Mr. Clean shouts “everybody split” and his buddies clear the beach. However, Mr. Clean, ironically, gives the best indication of her state of mind, explaining that Vickie “kept staring back at the house and moaning about how she wanted to die” while he enjoyed the best night of his life sex-wise.

Denny and Collie prove not to be the pussycats they appear, bearding the bikers in their den and beating up Mr. Clean while Denny goes on to deliver a hiding to Caswell. But what this film turns out to be is an examination of vulnerability, how easily those with a new sense of freedom are trapped. An examination of contemporary mores, perhaps, but in not resolving the mystery of Vickie ultimately fails to deliver, especially as it does not, from the outset, carry the kind of artistic credentials of Antonioni in Blow-Up.

Perhaps the mystery needs no resolution, it’s just same old-same old dressed up in the novelty of sexual freedom. There’s no idea of why Vickie was beaten up, and essentially abandoned on the road to become accident fodder, and no hint really of why she fell foul of someone so badly she needed disposed of, no notion that she was a threat to anyone. (Or, for that matter, no explanation of what happened to her bikini top and why, if she was so apparently free with her charms, she was so shy about being seen half-naked.) On the other hand, victim may well have been Vicky’s destiny from the get-go, that kind of innocence only waiting to be defiled.

In any 1960s contemporary picture there’s always the temptation to accept as truthful or reject as phony the lives shown. The idea that sexual freedom bestows actual freedom is usually the issue until consequence (i.e. old-fashioned Hollywood morality) comes into play. This is less heavy-handed than, for example, Easy Rider (1969) or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). The characters make decisions to grow up or to stay locked in a world of easy sex, dope and money. There’s no grand finale, just a more realistic drifting apart, and it’s only Vickie who comes apart, although that process had begun long before she met the drifters.  

Jacqueline Bisset (The Detective, 1968), in her divinely posh British accent, comes over well as an attractive screen presence and complex character. In fact, she has a bigger part here than in Bullitt (1968) or The Detective (1968). If you wanted anyone to portray a soulful hippie you need look no further than tousle-haired Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) and normally if you required someone on the sly, despicable side, Tony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) might well be your first port of call, but Franciosca proves the surprise here, classic wind-up merchant and predator who exhibits considerable vulnerability when he realizes he is losing the worship of the idealistic young.

Former British matinee idol Michael Wilding (A Girl Named Tamiko, 1962) and Norma Crane (Penelope, 1966) appear as Vickie’s parents.  Bob Denver (Who’s Minding the Mint, 1967) and Michele Carey (The Spy with My Face, 1965) are solid support. Director Harvey Hart (Fortune and Men’s Eyes, 1970) tries to cover too much ground and could have done with narrowing the focus. Future Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph L.) made his screenwriting debut adapting the book by William Murray.

The DVD is a bit on the pricey side, but if you just want to check it out, YouTube has a print.

Men (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Bizarre movie seeks cult audience! You might as well have stuck that on the poster. When I tell you the film climaxes like a Monty Python sketch with four successive men giving birth – from a variety of orifices – the first three to emerge different versions of the same character, the last the dead husband James (Paapa Essiedu) of Harper (Jessie Buckley). And that men also appear fully naked, in the form of some kind of vegetation, and can survive despite having an arm spliced from elbow to fingers. And that James desperately wants her to feel guilty about his suicide, triggered by her demanding a divorce.

Of course, all this could be taking place in her tormented mind except that she steadfastly refuses to admit to torment over the suicide even though she does scream her head off in church. If any of this is remotely realistic it points to someone with a severe downer on men, since there is not a single likeable one in sight. Men, in fact, are just four-letter words (choose your own) whose sole purpose is to accuse women of not loving them enough. And women – cue symbolism – are all born of Eve and inclined to eat a forbidden apple.

None of this would be so bad if in attempting a psychological thriller and/or horror film (I am assuming horror because of the births and arms sliced in two) there was actually a shock or two or even a general sense of creepiness. On the plus side, should this ever achieve cult status – “makes Titane look like Paddington” (1 or 2, you choose) – then I am sure director Alex Garland will only be too happy to turn up for a tenth anniversary Q&A and explain his intentions and/or symbolism and if he’s very lucky find an audience composed of students who have written a thesis on the film.

So the story – or did you think there wasn’t one – sees Harper repair to a village in the country to a fantastic country house with all the trimmings including an Aga and a baby grand for two weeks holiday to recover from the suicide, her mind still so muddled that she’s not thought to change her married name. It’s the kind of village where there appears a considerable amount of inbreeding. The letting agent (Rory Kinnear) looks suspiciously like the long-haired vicar (Rory Kinnear) and the rude schoolboy (Rory Kinnear) and the policeman (Rory Kinnear) and the bollocks-naked stalker (Rory Kinnear).

Harper gets lost in the unfamiliar countryside and happens across a tunnel where the echo effects could have been created by Robert Fripp and is then chased by a man (Rory Kinnear anyone?) and then catches sight of the naked man who later appears in her garden looking like an rewilded exhibit from the Chelsea Flower Show. The various versions of the man appear at different points and even when the letting agent appears good (and brave) actually he is just as bad.

I felt sorry for the Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter, 2021) for having to put up with this script. I also felt sorry for Rory Kinnear (No Time to Die, 2021) with a movie career so far consisting of supporting roles who must have been convinced that the chance to channel his inner Alec Guinness/Peter Sellers and play multiple characters would have been his breakthrough.

I did not in the slightest feel any sympathy towards Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 2014) for dreaming up this pile of tosh. This is one those films that strides the critic/moviegoer divide. Around 70 per cent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a positive review but moviegoers disagreed and, as surveyed by Cinemascore, gave it a D score (on a rank from A to F).

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