Interview: Albert Finney

Albert Finney notoriously gave very few interviews. This one dates back to November 1973 when, as a student at Glasgow University, I was the joint editor of Moving Review, a revamped monthly version of the university’s more traditional arts magazine.  At the time, Finney was appearing in David Storey’s play Cromwell directed by Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court in London.

By the early 1970s a more powerful British artistic triumvirate than Finney-Anderson-Storey would be hard to find.  Lindsay Anderson had directed This Sporting Life (1963) starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts (both of whom were Oscar-nominated) from a novel by Storey as well as the Cannes award-winner If…(1968) and the more recent O Lucky Man! (1973), both starring Malcolm McDowell. Storey had moved from award-winning novelist and screenwriter to award-winning playwright. Home (1970) starring theatrical giants Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud and directed by Anderson had taken Tony Awards for writing, acting and directing. Anderson had also directed the plays  In Celebration (1969) and The Changing Room (1971).  

Born in 1936, the son of a Salford bookmaker, Finney had rocketed to prominence on the back of Karel Reisz’s rebellious Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Tony Richardson’s ebullient Oscar-winning romp Tom Jones (1963) for which Finney, in the first of five Oscar nods,  lost out on the Best Actor statuette to Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field). Finney had turned down the title role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) because he did not wish to be tied to a long-term contract with Sam Spiegel. Freedom was a consideration which Finney appeared to value above all else including the financial security that would have come from cashing in on his fame and box office cachet post-Tom Jones. He turned down Hawaii (1966) and the opportunity of working with Brigitte Bardot in Don’t Go Away I Might Fall (never made).

In the decade after Tom Jones, he only made seven films, and not always good choices. After a small part in Carl Foreman’s directorial debut The Victors (1963) – a flop – and the leading role in Karel Reisz’s remake of Night Must Fall (1964) – another flop – he took a three-year sabbatical from the movies, returning in Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road co-starring Audrey Hepburn which made a $2 million loss on its $5 million budget.  The Picasso Summer (1969) was shelved and went straight to television in America, and if Ronald Neame’s musical Scrooge (1970) was an ill-advised choice, and no big box-office earner either, Finney did collect a Golden Globe for his performance.

That those years were not a career write-off, (“of the films I’ve made,” he told me, “ I’ve not made enough good ones, ones that are pertinent”) despite the financial failures of virtually all these picture, was primarily due to a pair of iconic performances – the title roles of Charlie Bubbles (1968), which he also directed, and the affectionate homage to the private eye picture Gumshoe (1971) which marked the directorial debut of Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, 1985; The Queen, 2006). Both pictures had been produced by Memorial Enterprises, in which Finney was a partner, at a time when the British film industry was in freefall.  

But far from being on the edge of oblivion as far as the movies were concerned, Finney was on the cusp of a major comeback. At that point in 1973, his next projects were intended to be the film adaptation of the Peter Nichols play Chez Nous and The Girl in Melanie Klein based on the 1969 novel by Ronnie Harwood (who later wrote The Dresser in which Finney starred). Instead, he transformed his career by essaying Hercule Poirot and headlining an all-star cast in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

(Here follows the original article, based on the  interview in 1973)

Albert Finney has class, maturity, as they say, when the wrinkles begin to show. He is not a superstar of the Sean Connery/Clint Eastwood mould, but he has certainly amassed a following in both the cinema and the theater. Not one to pursue the eternal round of chat-shows and interviews, Finney seems more at home in the comparatively intimate atmosphere of the Royal Court Theatre in London where I met him on the last night of his most recent performance in David Storey’s Cromwell. We arranged to meet again at the theatre during the day where we found an empty office. He is immediately relaxed, leaning back in a chair, making friendly chat while I fix up the tape recorder. His voice is mellow, not harsh, and he makes words work for him, rolling them in his mouth before letting them go.

I asked him first about the film which had established him with cinema audiences, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), based on Alan Sillitoe’s novel published earlier that year, in which he played factory worker Arthur Seaton. Along with Look Back in Anger (1959) and Room at the Top (1959), it helped established the British New Wave. Although many people regarded the film as a significant breakthrough in terms of British cinematic realism, Finney is not so sure, citing a north-south class divide that took different views of the film.

 “The book was a big success first,” he said. “It just so happened at that time that British Lion were able to do it. They had energy, especially with Tony Richardson and John Osborne having done Look Back and The Entertainer (1959). Saturday Night was Woodfall’s third film and it was made by that kind of new wave. The success of the book helped to get finance. The budget was something like £240,000 which is still a lot of money even now (1973). I kind of feel, though we shot in the spring of 1960, that the hero is a fifties boy.

“There are still boys with the frustration of Arthur Seaton. I mean the way he’s looked at, the way he’s shown to you, is in the fifties style of rebellion and inarticulacy, in the time before someone in that position was able to mention causes like Vietnam. There was no tradition of looking at the working-class boy seriously. The so-called New Wave actors were always of our class. There were guys like these before, but they were never able to play leading parts. I saw the film in the North (of England) and they seemed to view Arthur Seaton very differently from what they did in the South – many people in the south could directly associate with Arthur in a factory, stuck there for forty years and getting a gold watch at the end of it.

“But Arthur, by and large – this is a generalisation – seemed more dangerous to a southern audience. In the north they thought he was a smashing character, they didn’t find him as dangerous as the more socially-conscious people in the Arts. They thought he was a bit of a lad, gets away with murder, you know, and rather enviable in that way. So I’m a bit sceptical about whether this revolutionary thing was actually revolutionary. In Manchester they still see it in film fantasy terms.”

This element of fantasy, taken up by Finney in theatre (he had the title role in the original stage production of Billy Liar in 1960 – Tom Courtenay who won the film role was his understudy) and cinema (Gumshoe) dates back to a Hollywood-influenced childhood in Salford during the period of futility after the Second World War.

“I would probably argue that Gumshoe, the Bogart fantasy,” he said, “is connected with the same part of me as the Billy Liar fantasies. I was very much a daydreamer as an adolescent. The movies encouraged us to fantasise to an extent and to think beyond and outside our own environment. When I read Billy Liar (the play was co-written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, based on Waterhouse’s novel) I identified clearly and strongly with the hopelessness of this dreamer.

“The reason I think Neville Smith wrote the screenplay for Gumshoe is that he wanted to tip his hat, as it were, to those movies of the forties which I suppose he saw as a young kid and which used to take him out of his reality living in Liverpool.”

The films of Hollywood in the forties influenced Finney because they seemed to taking place in an American society where money was obviously important but not your method of speech whereas British films of the period reminded him that he did not speak properly. New York seemed an exuberant placed to be when sailors disembarking could walk down Broadway singing as in Stanley Donen’s On the Town (1949) starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, a film that had such a resonance with the young Finney that he jumped at the chance to be in the director’s Two for the Road

Gumshoe is a thriller in its own right as well as being a Bogart fantasy.  Nightclub bingo caller Eddie Ginley plays out his private eye fantasy after putting an advert in the local paper. In due course he comes into contact with a fat man, drugs and weapon smuggling. Soon he finds being a private eye is more dangerous than acting as one. If, with a brilliant script, the film suffered from any flaw it was the attempts at Liverpudlian accents. Finney explained that attempting to appeal to an American audience limited verisimilitude in the accent department.

“I didn’t talk like dat, really down the nose and hair like dat, but he’s got a sort of Northern Lancashire sound with just occasionally a little extra hardness.”  Although he responded to the script and the opportunity to play a fantasy role, Finney felt Gumshoe was not a complete success since it fell between the two stools of being a homage and a thriller.

His most commercial project in decade following Tom Jones was the musical Scrooge. “I hadn’t done anything for a while. I was kind of fluffing about at home. The producer Bob Solo rented an office in the Memorial Enterprises premises and he was at the early stage of producing Scrooge. Richard Harris (Camelot, 1967) was going to do it. Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, 1964) was going to do it. But one day Bob walked into my office and talked to me about it. I said I’d meet the director Ronnie Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) and I thought well why not, I’ll have a go. I knew it would turn out a kind of pantomime and that was all right. I saw it very much in those terms. I don’t think of it as my finest success.” 

In direct contrast to bigger-budgeted pictures like Scrooge, Two for the Road (1967) and The Victors, the average Finney vehicle had less financial backing, Night Must Fall (1964), a classic example.

“We were going to do a film about Ned Kelly for which David Storey had written a screenplay and then it fell through. So Karel Reisz and I were in a sort of vacuum. I went off to Glasgow to act in Pirandello’s Henry IV and planned to direct. While I was there Karel phoned and said what about the idea of a remake of the thriller Night Must Fall.” The original, based on the Emlyn Williams play, had been turned into a Hollywood film in 1937 starring an Oscar-nominated Robert Montgomery. but the new version did not gel on screen and failed to find an audience.

Outside of Gumshoe, Finney’s biggest artistic success was Charlie Bubbles. Produced by Memorial (also responsible for If…, O Lucky Man! and Mike Leigh’s 1971 debut Bleak Moments) with a screenplay by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), it charted the disillusionment of a successful writer who wants to get closer to his son and wife, from whom he is separated. He fails but finds momentary uplift by taking a balloon flight at the end.

“I was told by a mutual friend that she was writing an outline for a film. She sent it over to me and I rather liked the feeling of it. We talked about it and began to work on it. I was just starting with the National Theatre in London where I spent about fifteen months then I planned to do Two for the Road which would take another four months.

“So we were working on it spending afternoons every week, with Shelagh going away and doing stuff on her own, and coming back with more stuff in a month and the same process would go on. When you make a film from an idea, not a book, you’re digging into yourself. It’s an emotional progression, rather than a narrative one. You start out with a feeling and it’s very difficult in the discussions to sort out what you really want. In order to end up with all the things that are right, you have to go through an awful lot of things that are wrong. It was a long, very enjoyable, but laborious job.

“It was possible to direct and act in that film because the movie is showing you the world from Charlie’s point of view. Charlie didn’t have to develop his personality, didn’t have any great dialogue. I usually had to fit in with a certain mood that went along with how the camera saw it. We got an actor, who was playing a minor role, to be my stand-in while I fixed up the camera shots with the director of photography. He was quite happy to do this because it meant he got a lot of experience in a relatively short period of time.

“Watching rushes was very peculiar. When I came on screen, it wasn’t me, it was just this man playing this part. I was totally objective about myself as an actor. If I’m just an actor in a film I watch rushes to see if what I’ve been trying to get over worked.”

In retrospect, the movie stands up very well, (and Finney repeated the experience of directing for the TV movie The Biko Inquest in 1984), but for the casual moviegoer it holds significance in that it heralded the debut of Liza Minnelli, Oscar-nominated the following year for The Sterile Cuckoo and Oscar-winner in 1972 for Cabaret.

“Stephen Frears, my assistant who later directed Gumshoe, met Liza in Paris and thought she was extraordinary. Originally, the part (of Eliza) was going to be English but we changed it to an American girl because we thought an English girl from the south would provoke class comment and what I wanted was romance and naivety rather than somebody snobby. We saw all the Canadian and American Equity members and none seemed quite right. I went over to Los Angeles for a day to hold auditions. But Liza was the best and that’s how she got the part. She was naturally very eccentric, very bright and a bit…coming from a funny angle without any effort.”

Finney had a different perspective on the movies than many other actors in the business.

“When I was a young actor, people said the theatre was where you worked seriously and the cinema was where you made money and it was always viewed very much in those terms. But the cinema has always seemed to me to be an opportunity for serious work.” 

Under the banner of Memorial Enterprises, which he formed with actor Michael Medwin, Finney made his contribution to serious cinema.

“We wanted to have the freedom to do what we liked. A production company like ours has six possibilities a year which boils down to one because in two of them the writer goes out of his mind and you go off the other three.” 

The company was involved in Peter Watkins pop star drama Privilege (1967) with Manfred Mann vocalist Paul Jones and model Jean Shrimpton, If…, Spring and Port Wine (1970), the Tom Stoppard-scripted The Engagement (1970), and gave directorial debuts to Tony Scott (Top Gun) and Mike Leigh. The Engagement, starring David Warner, was made for American television but actually made its money back because it also went out as a supporting feature.

Scott was backed to make the drama Loving Memory (1971) and Leigh’s initial foray was Bleak Moments (1971). Memorial put up £14,000 rising to £18,000 for Bleak Moments.

“I’ve always felt that when we’re in a position to finance a young film-maker, we should do so. At that time we happened to have some profits so we put some money into it and the British Film Institute put up some. You know with a film like that you’re going to get your money back unless it’s a freak.” The low-budget picture soon honed its artistic credentials with first prize at the Locarno Film Festival and made the rounds of the arthouses.

Despite working cinematically with two of the main driving forces behind the British New Wave in Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, somehow Finney had avoided onscreen work with Lindsay Anderson, though they had crossed swords in the theatre. He first met Anderson when he left Birmingham Rep after playing Macbeth there (“at the age of 21 – I only say that to excuse the performance,” said Finney, somewhat self-deprecatingly since the performance drew tremendous acclaim) to work in London in John Arden’s play The Party directed by Charles Laughton.

“During the run of this, Lindsay was asked to do The Long, The Short and the Tall by Willis Hall. I’d known Willis as a radio playwright and I’d done one or two of his works with the Rep on Birmingham radio. I met Lindsay and was ready to do the part and I rehearsed it but then my appendix burst and Peter O’Toole took over – the rest is history.

“So I had the experience of working with Lindsay because I was involved in the auditioning of the other actors and we got on very well. At that time I found him interesting, for he seemed to be always trying to find the honest answer, rather than the convenient one, and had a kind of directness about his approach. And the following year I did a play with him again, after I’d been to Stratford, a  musical called The Lily White Boys by Christopher Logue, which I’d kept being told was Brechtian and I didn’t quite know what that meant.

“Lindsay and I didn’t get on. I found him very, very charming and fascist. And we kind of rubbed each other up the wrong way a bit, but just as animals. I thought he’s too sort of tart for me. You know, the work’s difficult enough without these sorts of neuroses getting in the way. And then I didn’t work with him again until Billy Liar (in the theatre in 1960) which was eight months later.

“I liked the play very much so Lindsay and I had a long meeting to see if we would get on all right. Course we did do it, and it was quite right that we should, and we got on rather well. But he’s a very – I’ve not worked with him for a long time – demanding. He was in those days and I’m sure he still is very good to work with but demanding. But you’ve always felt there was good reason for it. He had a good sense of what’s going on under the text, interested in digging and not going for what may hit you on the page, turning it over and over. The proportion of directors who do that is very small.” 

Although technically he was directed once by Anderson for the screen, it was the small screen, in 1960, for the BBC series Theatre Night which consisted of 45-minute excerpts of current plays running in London, of which Billy Liar was one.

Even at this stage in his career, as the run of Cromwell came to a close in 1973, there was a wistfulness about Finney.

“In the last ten years I feel very much that I’ve meandered a lot and my work’s revealed this in the restless and lack of direction. When I was 27, I’d just finished a run of Luther by John Osborne in New York, which I did just after Tom Jones. When I left New York I travelled by myself for eleven months around the world. Since I’d left drama school, I’d had a degree of success, but I’d never been introspective, always been busy, and I wanted to get away. I still very much feel that it’s one’s life that it’s about and one’s got a lifetime to do it.”

Postscript 2019: When Albert Finney’s life came to an end, aged 82, in February 2019, he had carved out for himself a career of some distinction. He had been nominated for five Oscars, four for Leading Actor, in Tom Jones followed by Murder on the Orient Express, The Dresser (1983) and Under the Volcano (1984) plus a Supporting Actor nod for Erin Brockovich (2000). He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in TV movie The Gathering Storm (2002). Apart from an Academy Fellowship in 2001, the top prize in the leading acting categories at the Baftas also eluded him despite being nominated six times. Even as he lost his box office cachet as a star who could pull in the audiences, he still delivered dynamic performances in supporting roles in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and in his final part as Kincade in Skyfall (2012).

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) ***

Minus an understanding of the context and setting aside the compelling charm of Albert Finney in his debut, it would be hard to find any sympathy for as unlikeable character as Arthur Seaton.

He belonged to what was called the “Angry Young Men” who sprang up as figments of the collective imagination of a new group of writers like Alan Sillitoe, who wrote this novel, David Storey (This Sporting Life), Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger).  They were angry at circumstance, at growing up in a time when the working classes knew their place, and were consistently reminded of it, and work was generally a hard, monotonous grind.

It is hard to see what Seaton is angry about. He has sex on tap with an older married woman, a girl his own age on the side, enough money to spend on his own pleasures which mostly consist of drinking and sex, gets his dinner put on the table the minute he comes through the door and even though the teapot is sitting next to his hand still will call on his mother to pour it out. He is an inveterate liar, a bully, injures one woman and frightens the life out of another, and refuses to face up to his responsibilities. He does not want promotion, despises those who do, and equally holds in contempt fellow workers organised into a union.

What he does actually want is never made clear. He just doesn’t want the life on which he is set.

One of the curiosities of the movies made out of these books and plays was that the writers came from that working-class background they described so well while the directors belonged to the privileged classes. Writers and directors alike subscribed to the notion that the working man was exploited by the bosses and that everyone who used their own money to invest in a company and provide employment was a rotter. This was a Britain on the verge of a cultural revolution that would explode a few years later in fashion, music and politics. 

That said, the film is an excellent portrayal of the period, the first time a proper working factory was depicted on screen, where employees were paid by piecemeal, i.e. remunerated for what they individually produced rather than whether they produced anything or not, rewarded for their own endeavors rather than as a collective. The bicycle was the chief means of locomotion and life consisted of meals in cramped kitchens, living with your parents, trying (mostly vainly) to get sex and drinking so hard you were apt to fall down the stairs.

In a star-making turn, Finney is superb, charisma oozing from the screen, a manly, brawny fellow, unlike the bulk of British actors, and speaking with his own accent, unlike the bulk of British actors.   Likewise, Rachel Roberts as his mistress, is equally good and Shirley Anne Field makes a strong impression as his girlfriend. The women are all particularly good in a world where no matter how forward-thinking they might be their role will inevitably be long-suffering to the males who inevitably get away with murder. It’s an assured debut from Czech director Karel Reisz.

A rare interview with Albert Finney will appear on July 19, 2020.

Behind the Scenes: Genghis Khan (1965)

Genghis Khan began life in the early 1960s as the main plank of a reboot for American International, the low-budget production company best known for churning out B-features in the horror, motorcycle and generally exploitation vein.

Greenlit in 1962 with a $4.5 million budget it was intended to be a Xmas 1963 release. American International planned to partner with British company Anglo-Amalgamated. As late as 1964 it was still seen as a launchpad for the mini-major’s leap into the bigger leagues with a starring role for company protégé Susan Hart (Ride the Wild Surf, 1964) but when production stumbled it was picked up by independent American producer Irving Allen who used Britain as a production base.

Allen had set up Warwick Films in conjunction with Albert Broccoli making films like Hell Below Zero (1954) with Alan Ladd and Fire Down Below (1957) with Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum. When Broccoli moved into the James Bond business, Allen ventured out on his own with Viking adventure The Long Ships (1964) starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. Although European co-productions had been all the rage for some time, this was an unusual venture in that a large chunk of the funding came from Yugoslavian operation Avala.

For Genghis Khan, Allen drew on Avala again, plus $1.5 million from German company CCC and $2.5 million from Columbia Pictures. Avala was a mainstream coproduction outfit with a couple of dozen projects in the works including The Fabulous Adventures of Marco Polo with Horst Buchholz and Omar Sharif, western Buffalo Bill – Hero of the West with Gordon Scott and Uncle Tom’s Cabin headlining Herbert Lom after James Mason pulled out. The final budget topped out at $5 million, small potatoes for an ambitious historical epic, less than half the sums allocated  El Cid (1961) or Spartacus (1961) for example.

Yul  Brynner had been approached for the leading role but his $400,000 fee ruled him out given the total spend on the principals was around that sum. Reportedly, Stephen Boyd earned $250,000, but Sharif was on a pittance. Exteriors were shot in Yugoslavia and interiors in Berlin. It was made in Panavision on the 2.35:1 widescreen format and although lensed with 35mm cameras was blown up to 70mm for roadshow release in Germany and Australia. The world premiere was scheduled, unusually, for Germany, for the new Royal Palast in Berlin but when that was not ready in time shifted to  the Cinerama Grindel cinema in Hamburg at the end of April, 1965.

It opened in simultaneous roadshow in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich and Stuttgart. It proved a strong draw in Germany, pulling in $1 million in rentals, a quarter of the total European business, and one-sixth of the global total. After a dual premiere in Dallas and Houston in June, it rolled out in general release in America.

There was some controversial publicity after Playboy magazine ran a photographic spread of Telly Savalas in a bath with some topless women, a scene edited out of the picture. A couple of five-minute featurettes – Instant People focusing on actors being made up for their roles and The Director Is a General featuring Henry Levin marshalling the battle scenes – went out on local television.

It opened in Los Angeles the same week as newcomers What’s New, Pussycat, roadshow The Great Race, war picture Operation Crossbow and comedy The Art of Love starring James Garner. Response was muted, and total rentals hardly exceeded $2.25 million, leaving it in 60th position in the annual U.S. box office race. The extent of Columbia’s disappointment could be measured by the speed with which it was sold to television, appearing on CBS the year after launch.  

Sources: “Genghis Khan Invasion of Big Budget Market by American International,” Variety, Jul 18, 1962, 4; “American Int’n’l Setting 3-Film Deal with Anglo-Amalg.,” Variety, Aug 1, 1962, 13; “10 Years Ago Nicholson and Arkoff…,” Variety, Jul 22, 1964, 7; “American International’s Susan Hart, Bobbi Shaw First on Exclusive,” Variety, Aug 5, 1964, 24; “Genghis at $4,250,000 a New German High,” Variety, Oct 14, 1964, 3; “Upcoming Product of American Int’n’l,” Variety, Oct 14, 1964, 6; “World Preem for Khan in Berlin,” Variety, Apr 28, 1965, 24; “Khan May Launch New Berlin House,” Variety, May 17, 1965, 31; “Yugoslavia’s Stake in Yank Films, Avala Owns 51% of Genghis Khan,” Variety, Jun 16, 1965,3 ; “Playboy: Code’s Last Stand,” Variety, Oct 27, 1965, 7; “Big Rental Pictures of 1965,” Variety, Jan 5, 1966, 6.

The Fox (1967) ****

Based on a novella by D.H. Lawrence, The Fox, relocated to contemporary Canada, marked the debut of director Mark Rydell. Originally, Alan Bates (Georgy Girl, 1966), Patricia Neal (Hud, 1963) and Vivien Merchant (Alfie, 1966) were in the frame for the three roles.

Instead, the trio were Sandy Dennis, Keir Dullea and Anne Heywood. Dullea’s career was at a dead end after flops The Thin Red Line (1964) and Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). Former beauty queen Heywood had been a Rank starlet which resulted in small roles of no distinction until marriage to the film’s producer Raymond Stross improved her prospects. The main marquee attraction was Sandy Dennis who had won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and starred in drama Up the Down Staircase (1967).

Despite the film-makers attempts to treat the subject matter with subtlety, this did not prevent film reviewers and the most sensational newspapers by pumping up the sex angle.

But it was a low-budget enterprise all the way. Dennis and Heywood play spinsters running a chicken farm in rural Canada, home-body Dennis the more introspective and content, task-oriented Heywood self-sufficient but sexually frustrated. Dullea is a merchant seamen who visits the farm in search of his grandfather, now deceased. Allowed to remain, his presence threatens their lifestyle and forces them to confront the intensity of their suppressed feelings towards each other.

Although a real fox is causing trouble, Dullea is the symbolic fox in the symbolic hencoop. Rydell displays considerable confidence in his material. It is very atmospheric, the natural backdrop, early morning sunsets and wintry chill in the air adding a certain tone, with the isolation providing a thematic template. The tiny cast creates a sense of intimacy as well as tension and the acting is uniformly good.

It was quite a feat for a small budget picture to achieve a circuit release in Britain – in this case on the ABC chain. No doubt in part due to the sensational images used in the poster.

There is no sense of lust, just a gradual emergence of submerged emotion. Tackling such a bold theme would have brought the movie some attention anyway, but nudity, masturbation and sex brought much more. That such scenes were filmed in good taste and impressed critics was hardly going to deter the salacious. The nervy, whiny Dennis has the showiest role but Heywood’s subdued performance, trapped by her conflicting sexual needs, is the central figure.

George Roy Hill might well have purloined his freeze-frame ending in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from an idea Rydell employs here, one of only two effective stylistic devices in an otherwise highly-controlled piece. The only directorial downsides are a couple of instances of unnecessary melodramatic music when otherwise Lalo Schifrin’s gentle theme is perfectly in keeping with the picture’s mood.

Made on a budget of buttons and reliant entirely on acting skill, this is one of the decade’s low-budget triumphs, not least for its sensitive treatment of its subject matter.

What If: When Harry Met Frank

Apologies for venturing outside my self-appointed remit of the 1960s but this is too good to ignore and the artwork above extremely rare.

It’s pretty hard to get out of our minds the vision of Clint Eastwood as the tough cop of Dirty Harry (1971) especially brandishing his .357 magnum and snarling lines like “Do ya feel lucky, punk?” It was such a high point of Eastwood’s career that it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.

But, in fact, Warner Brothers did. Long before Eastwood entered the equation the studio had Frank Sinatra lined up. If your notion of Sinatra comes from musicals like High Society (1956) or easy-on-the-eye Rat Pack ventures like Sergeants 3 (1963) or his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953), you would be forgetting his harder-hitting roles in the later 1960s as a tough cop in The Detective (1968) and as private eye Tony Rome (1967) and sequel Lady in Cement (1968).

Nor was Don Siegel a shoo-in for the director’s chair. Warner had already assigned that task to Irving Kershner. The Sinatra-Kershner version got far enough up the production ladder for the studio to produce a piece of artwork with the actor in the title role – see above. This went out an advertisement that appeared in Variety on November 9, 1970, under the headline “Now In Production Or In The Can (And In Theaters Soon)” suggesting the movie with Sinatra in the title role was pretty much a lock. Though what exactly was in the briefcase was anyone’s guess.

Other films advertised in the same spread were Rabbit Run with James Caan (also seen in this section of the ad) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (though under a different title). However, the photo of Sinatra with a briefcase was hardly inspirational and a far cry from the eventual Eastwood image that went with the picture. Whether Sinatra’s interpretation of the character was intended to be quite as tough and mean as that of Eastwood, we shall never know.

The Blue Max (1965) ****

Quite how working-class George Peppard makes the transition from grunt in the trenches to Germany’s elite flying corps is never made clear in John Guillermin’s glorious World War One aerial adventure.

But he certainly brings with him an arsenal of attitude, clashing  immediately with upper-class colleagues who retain fanciful notions of chivalry in a conflict notorious for mass slaughter. He climbs the society ladder on the back of a publicity campaign designed by James Mason intent on creating a new public hero.

On the way to ruthlessly gaining the medal of the title, awarded for downing twenty enemy aircraft, he beds Mason’s playful – although ultimately treacherous – mistress Ursula Andress, for once given the chance to act. Mason’s aristocratic German somewhat redeems the actor after his appalling turn the same year as a Chinaman in Genghis Khan.

While the human element is skillfully drawn, it is the aerial element that captures the attention. The planes are both balletic and deadly. Because biplanes fly so much more slowly than World War Two fighters, the aerial scenes are far more intense than, say, The Battle of Britain (1969) and the dogfights, where you can see your opposite number’s face, just riveting. Recognition of the peril involved in taking to the sky in planes that seem to be held together with straw is on a par with Midway.

I was astonishing to discover not only was this a flop – in part due to an attempt to sell it as a roadshow (blown up to 70mm for its New York premiere) – but critically disdained since it is an astonishing piece of work.

Guillermin makes the shift from small British films (The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, 1960; Guns at Batasi, 1964) to a full-blown Hollywood epic with ease. His camera tracks and pans and zooms to capture emotion and other times is perfectly still. (Films and Filming magazine complained he moved the camera too much!).

The action sequences are brilliantly constructed, far better than, for example 1917, and one battle involving planes and the military is a masterpiece of cinematic orchestration, contrasting raw hand-to-hand combat on the ground with aerial skirmish. Guillermin takes a classical approach to widescreen with action often taking place in long shot with the compositional clarity of a John Ford western. Equally, he uses faces to express emotional response to imminent or ongoing action.

Peppard is both the best thing and the worst thing about the picture. He certainly hits the bull’s eye as a man whose chip on one shoulder is neatly balanced by arrogance on the other. But it is too much of a one-note performance and the stiff chin and blazing eyes are not tempered enough with other emotion. It would have been a five-star picture had he brought a bit more savvy to the screen, but otherwise it is at the top of the four-star brigade. Mason is at his suave best, Jeremy Kemp surprisingly good as the equally ruthless but distinctly more humane superior officer and, as previously noted, Andress does more than just swan around.

One scene in particular showed Guillermin had complete command over his material. Peppard has been invited to dinner with Andress. We start off with a close up of Pepperd, cut to a close up of Andress, suggesting an intimate meeting, but the next shot reveals the reality, Peppard seated at the opposite end of a long table miles away from his host.

The best scene, packing an action and emotional wallop, will knock your socks off. Having eliminated any threat from an enemy plane, rather than shoot down the pilot, Peppard escorts it back to base, but just as he arrives the tail-gunner suddenly rouses himself and Peppard finishes the plane off  over the home airfield, the awe his maneuver originally inspired from his watching colleagues turning to disgust.  

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blue-Max-DVD-George-Peppard/dp/B007JV72ZO/ref=tmm_dvd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1592640176&sr=8-2

Pressbook: Sing, Jimmy, Sing – Shenandoah (1965)

Pressbooks (also known as Campaign Manuals) were notorious for coming up with all sorts of insane and inane devices in an attempt to entice the moviegoer. The extremely handsome 20-page A3 pressbook for Andrew V. McLaglen’s Civil War western Shenandoah (1965) was no different in that respect – “racetrack in your area – hold a Shenandoah handicap.”  Or how about this classic: “In Shenandoah the war stops for a cow that wanders between the fighting…a local dairy might be interested: Everything Stops While The Public Drinks Our Milk etc.”

Luckily, the marketeers had some better ideas, mostly based on the traditional folk song of the title which has a hymnal quality. So star James Stewart was roped in to cut a record, released on the Decca label, with special lyrics of that famous song.  For a start the idea of Stewart singing was a clever stunt in itself, but the main aim was not to garner some newspaper coverage but to attract the attention of radio stations and use the record’s cover as a means of encouraging music stores to set up window displays.

And never mind Stewart’s contribution to the canon of singers of the song, the marketing team identified more than 30 other versions of the song by the likes of Harry Belafonte (four versions), Jimmie Rodgers (three) and Guy Lombardo and instrumentals by British jazzman Acker Bilk of “Strangers on the Shore” fame and guitarist Duane Eddy. Decca was putting further promotional push behind an album entitled “The Blue and the Grey, Songs of the American Civil War.”

Theater managers were urged to suggest to radio stations they group some of these tunes together “for an interesting period of broadcast listening, perhaps in a musical segment of Civil War songs or a radio contest to identify the vocalist.”

In addition, the marketing team sought coverage in the television pages of newspapers since many of the supporting cast were small screen regulars – Doug McClure star of The Virginian, Glenn Corbett star of Route 66 and James McMullen a regular on Ben Casey – and newcomer Katharine Ross had been featured in a few shows. “You should take advantage of this away-from-the-amusement-section opportunity to pick up extra publicity space directed to the TV page reader!”  

Of course, the main purpose of a Pressbook was to provide the theater owner with the actual advertisements for the movie. He or she would cut these out and drop them off at the local newspaper which would use them to make up the ads that ran in the newspaper. These came in a variety of sizes from small single column black-and-white efforts to larger five-column full-color ads.

And they also came with an avalanche of taglines (note the varying use of capital letters) and images. The key tagline was “Two Mighty Armies Trampled Its Valley…A Fighting Family Challenged Them Both.”

Or you might have come across these alternatives –“Like giants they stood in the path of two might armies…and with their fighting spirit challenged them both” or “James Stewart, A Giant Of A Man Who Fought For Shenandoah” and “When History Called for Men and Women Larger than Life…Charlie Anderson and his proud family answered the challenge – with courage mightier than guns – and with love that no cannot could ever shatter.”

And there were more: “They reached for their rifles in the name of love…not hate…to challenge two mighty armies” down to the simpler “Shakes The Screen Like Cannon Thunder” and “Where A Mighty Adventure Was Born.”  You might be led to believe from this fusillade of taglines that the marketing department could not make up its minds about which tagline was best and just chucked them all at the theater manager, leaving them to choose.

But that was not the case. The reason behind the disparate taglines was precisely to provide choice, to allow the theater manager to decide how best to market the picture to suit the audience he or she knew best.

Khartoum (1966) ****

You don’t have to look far for contemporary parallels in this absorbing drama.

A charismatic and clever military strategist the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) inspires a holy war in the Middle East. Ruling global power Britain wants to avoid  “policing the world” and instead of sending in the army despatches in an unofficial capacity its hero of the day, the equally charismatic “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston).

He is the do-gooder as man-of-action having quelled an uprising in China and destroyed the slave trade in Sudan, of which Khartoum is the capital. Offered £6,000 by local interests to become Governor of Sudan, he takes £2,000, “that’s all I need.”

But where a similar kind of hero, Lawrence of Arabia, was politically naive, Gordon is politically adept and much of the joy of this picture is seeing him out-maneuver British prime minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson – compare this performance to his bumbling bore in The Wrong Box out the same year). Gordon’s ostensible task is to evacuate Egyptians from Khartoum. If he succeeds, Britain saves face, if he fails he takes the rap. Directed by British stalwart Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp, 1950; Victim, 1961), the pictures cleaves closer to drama than spectacle.

I remember being quite bored by all the talk when I saw this as a twelve-year-old, but this time round found it completely absorbing, a battle of wits between Gordon and the Mahdi on the one hand and between Gordon and Gladstone on the othor. The action, when it comes, is riveting without the aplomb of Lawrence of Arabia, but audience interest is focused on the main characters.

Richard Johnson, removed from his Bulldog Drummond persona (Some Girls Do), is excellent as Gordon’s aide or, as he acknowledges, “Gladstone’s spy.”

This is a Cinerama picture (cue spectacular widescreen scenery) without the distracting Cinerama effects (a race downhill, a runaway train), a bold political drama poorly received at a time when Cinerama meant spectacular effects and much more action. Definitely worth a second – or first – look.    

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Khartoum-DVD-Charlton-Heston/dp/B000089AUD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2WXSB64ZF7PIT&dchild=1&keywords=khartoum+dvd&qid=1592640053&sprefix=khartoum%2Caps%2C147&sr=8-1

Coming Soon: 60 Years Ago

NEW YORK JULY 1960: Although summer six decades ago did not have the same hype as summers now it was still a prime time to launch new movies. The big cinemas also were more attractive than smaller ones because they tended to have air conditioning so if it was hot outside audiences did not swelter inside.

But Disney did not yet have a stranglehold on the summer – although the studio had given note of its intentions by launching Pollyanna at the gigantic Radio City Music Hall – so the range on offer was wide. Psycho had just taken New York by storm so newcomers had their work cut out.

The expected big hitters were Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons in a murky tale of evangelism and the under-rated Richard Quine’s steamy drama Strangers When We Meet with Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. (Douglas and Simmons would be seen later in the year in Spartacus).

Paul Newman was hoping for a commercial breakthrough with From the Terrace, based on the John O’Hara bestseller, co-starring his wife Joanne Woodward and directed by Mark Robson. At this point Newman’s career had yet to spark, the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) in which he was relegated to leading man status behind undoubted star Elizabeth Taylor had been followed by misfires Rally Round the Flag, Boys (1958) and The Young Philadelphians (1959). Plus, Robson with two Oscar nominations and Woodward a winner for The Three Faces of Eve (1957) were more highly-regarded than the star who had but one nomination.

Also hoping for a career uplift was Richard Burton in Ice Palace, adapted from the Edna Ferber bestseller set in Alaska, co-starring Robert Ryan and Martha Hyer and directed by Austrian veteran Vincent Sherman. Targeting a different market entirely were Murder Inc, The Lost World and Battle in Outer Space.

Although Stuart Whitman was the star of the low-budget Murder Inc. set against the background of 1930s gangster Lepke, Peter Falk stole the show with an Oscar-nominated turn. The Lost World had British actor Michael Rennie and Jill St. John in the cast and was more notable for  being one of the few directorial outings of Irwin Allen, later the inventor of the 1970s disaster mini-genre. Sci-fi Battle in Outer Space was a dubbed import from Japan.

Three arthouse pictures also made their debuts. The pick of these should have been The Trials of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch as the eponymous playwright  but some of its potential had been sapped by the release a short time before of Oscar Wilde starring Robert Morley. The other two were British comedy School for Scoundrels starring Ian Carmichael and Terry Thomas and the Russian adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Sources: Variety – Jul 6, July 13, Jul 20, Jul 27, 1960.

The Giants of Thessaly (1960) ***

Spoiler alert – this film contains no giants unless you count the one-eyed Cyclops. It’s the Jason and the Argonauts story with a lot of political shenanigans thrown in.

Even lacking the Ray Harryhausen special effects of the film covering the same ground a few years later and without the kind of budget dropped into the lap of a Stanley Kubrick it’s not a bad stab at retelling the myth. And Carlo Rambaldi (later the creator of E.T.) does a decent job of the Cyclops at a time when special effects were primitive.

This belongs to the Italian-made “peplum” genre, out of which came Hercules (1958). What struck me most was the director’s use of the camera, very often tracking a character in scenes that would otherwise have been static. There are virtually no close-ups and hardly any medium close-ups.

It’s quite strange to see. On the one hand a moving camera is an expense and on the other hand lack of close-ups saves money, so it’s possible the money spent on one technique was the result of saving money from another. Alternatively, much of the director’s work has gone into arranging characters in group scenes in such a way that dramatic impact is sustained while not moving the camera.

There’s enough political chicanery going on to keep two different plots going. Back in Jason’s homeland, where he is a king, an usurper not only seeks his throne but wants his wife and tries to deceive the population into thinking Jason is dead. Meanwhile, Jason faces mutiny on board the Argo and then the temptations of the Siren, battle with the Cyclops, and then a final bold act to reclaim the Golden Fleece.

Possibly the best scene is kept for the end, when the Argo arrives home with its own brand of deception. The film is topped off with a clever trick. Sometimes what we would now view as a B-film, ideal Saturday matinee material, sticks in the mind because it has been the proving ground for a future director or star but writer-director Riccardo Freda had already turned out Spartacus the Gladiator (1953) and Theodora, Slave Empress (1954).

Star Roland Carey was unusual in this field because he was actually a trained actor rather than hired for his torso, but this did not exactly stoke his career – his appearance in Fall of the Roman Empire (1962) was uncredited. Female lead Ziva Rodann was unusual, too, in that she was Israeli rather than Italian, had appeared in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) and second- billed in exploitationer Macumba Love (1960) and would later play Nefertiti in the Batman television series.

If you go in not expecting much, you might get a surprise, though, be warned the acting is wooden and other special effects, such as the storm, not quite in the Rambaldi class.   

 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Giants-Thessaly-DVD-Regions-NTSC/dp/B0006IUE20/ref=sr_1_2?crid=J9IQ33P0SVDW&dchild=1&keywords=the+giants+of+thessaly&qid=1593760959&s=dvd&sprefix=the+Giants+of+%2Caps%2C145&sr=1-2