Book Into Film – “Blindfold” (1965)

In the book by Lucille Fletcher the leading male character (played in the film by Rock Hudson) doesn’t own a horse so he doesn’t go riding in Central Park. The leading female character (Claudia Cardinale in the film) doesn’t own a bicycle and so doesn’t collide with Rock Hudson in Central Park.  The man isn’t a playboy, he’s not dubbed “Bluebeard” by the media and he doesn’t have a commitment phobia. The woman isn’t the secreted-away patient’s sister – she’s his wife and she doesn’t work in burlesque.  

About the only places where the screenplay by Philip Dunne and W.H. Menger touches base with the Fletcher novel is in the basic premise of psychiatrist recruited to treat an atomic scientist who may be in danger of kidnapping and in the business of the hero working out the secret location through auditory clues.

Names have been changed wholesale. The book’s Dr Richard Fenton turns into the film’s Dr. Benjamin Snow (Hudson); likewise the book’s Angela Mallory becomes the film’s Vicky Vincenti (Cardinale). The General in the book is anonymous but, for the sake of a mild pun, is called General Prat (Jack Warden) in the film.

So basically pretty much everything in the film is the invention of the screenwriters. In the book, Fenton carries out all the investigation on his own until assisted late in the day by Mrs Mallory and there is a brief hint of potential romance at the end because by this time the scientist is dead and they were a mismatched couple anyway.  

Two of the cleverest and most intriguing elements of the film were nothing to do with the book. The first was how the psychiatrist (Hudson) was able to analyze many of the characters with whom he came in contact, both good guys and bad guys. The second element was how it was impossible, given government penchant for secrecy, for Hudson to determine if any of the people who claimed they were from the National Security Council, the FBI or the CIA, actually belonged to those organisations.

While we’re at it, there was no Detective Harrigan (Brad Dexter) in the book either. Nor did the heroine, for lack of a better word, have an endearing family. Hudson’s secretary Smitty (Anne Seymour in the film) is an amalgam of his housekeeper Louisa and his secretary Edna in the book, neither of whom possesses Smitty’s dry wit. Even the dubious Fitzpatrick (Guy Stockwell) underwent a name change, if only partially, in the book called Fitzgerald.  And I’m sorry to disappoint you but the book did not boast a mule called Henry.

Lucille Fletcher, as it happened, was a very distinctive personage in the creative world. She had originated Sorry, Wrong Number, one of the most famous and enduring crime tales ever written. Sorry, Wrong Number first appeared a 22-minute radio play, a monologue by Agnes Moorhead with sound effects, on CBS in May 1943, so successful it was broadcast seven times in five years. The author wrote the screenplay for the 1948 film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. Three times it was turned into a television drama – in 1946, 1954 and 1958.  Prior to Blindfold, she had only written three novels, a novelization of Sorry, Wrong Number with Allan Ullman, Night Man also with Ullman, and The Daughters of Jasper Clay.

The Oscar nominations for the best adapted screenplay in the Blindfold year were for Doctor Zhivago (the winner), Ship of Fools, The Collector, and A Thousand Clowns. The first two certainly required considerable condensation and the others must have endured surgery of some kind, but I doubt very much if they had to discard virtually the entire source material and begin all over again, bringing a different tone, plot and character to the proceedings.

Philip Dunne was a double Oscar nominee in the screenplay department but for films – How Green Was My Valley (1941) and David and Bathsheba (1951) – that could not have been further from this one and he had written pictures as diverse as The Rains Came (1939), The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), Pinky (1949), The Robe (1953) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) but nothing hit as sweet a spot as Blindfold with its mix of romantic thriller and comedy.

The screenplay comes with another mystery. Who is W.H. Menger the co-writer? I can find nothing relating to this person beyond that he/she co-wrote Blindfold.

Anyway, kind of the point of writing these non-film reviews of the screenwriting process of various films is to examine a largely unexamined aspect of turning books into films. Original screenplays tend to get greater coverage. Adaptations, unless sourced from difficult subject matter, tend to pass under the radar. This, along with Fathom and The Venetian Affair (1967) are, in my opinion, classic examples of adaptations of novels which have some intrinsic cinematic interest but lack the story/character values necessary to turn them into watchable films and therefore require full-on assistance from a screenwriter.  

Book into Film – “A Cold Wind in August”

Burton Wohl turned his bestseller into the screenplay – John Hayes not to be confused with John Michael Hayes is  credited with the screen treatment – and it’s an object lesson in making the transition. For a start, Wohl had to tone down his racy book. Given that what movies could show on screen was governed by a self-imposed censorship system called the Production Code, I was surprised to discover there was no such automatic limitations laid down on fiction. There had been a boom in paperback originals with sexy covers that might be sold in a local drugstore rather than mainstream book outlet and A Cold Wind in August was a surprise success since most of the books in that line were formula numbers churned out in endless supply.

Much to my surprise, given my assumptions about the period, much of the book is given over to appreciation of the physical attributes of the main character Iris (Lola Albright). This is not achieved in a salacious manner. Iris is proud of having kept her figure in good shape, vital as it is to her career, and she likes admiring it, if only to herself. So a lot of what could be written on the page could not be shown on screen, but Wohl managed to retain the essence of the story and keep intact whole chunks of dialog and sequences like Iris pressing down with her foot on the hand of Vito (Scott Marlowe) or teaching him how to drink.

The film was so well-structured I thought the screenwriter’s main problem would be what to leave out. But setting aside the obvious, it was the opposite. Wohl felt obliged to add. Iris’s ex-husband, whose presence at the beginning of the picture creates the plot device that will imperil her affair with Vito, does not appear at all in the book, the plot element delivered by telephone. There’s a section in the film that’s also new when the couple go out to the park like normal sweethearts. And Wohl also shows how young the man is, when he still gets a kick from horsing around with fire. In the book her act is titled “Mystery Girl from Outer Space” but in the film she is more cat-like.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that in the book Iris is English. Sure, her father is a blunt Yorkshireman with a blunt Yorkshireman’s rough accent, but she has taken the raw ingredients and turned them into something more polished, something she calls “class.”

It’s a short novel, just over two hundred pages, and mostly reflection of one kind or another, rather than action-packed and plot- or plot-twist driven, so by concentrating primarily on key scenes, Wohl manages to translate into film the essence of his book.

Wohl had an unsual Hollywood career. Although credited with story and screenplay for Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) along with the director’s regular collaborator Leigh Brackett, and screenplay for The Third Day (1965) starring George Peppard, and Ballad in Blue (1965), mostly he was responsible for novelizations of existing screenplays such as The China Syndrome (1979), Rollercoaster (1977) and Mahogany (1975).

A Cold Wind in August (1961) ***

Touching low-budget B-movie shot in black-and-white of a young man receiving his sexual education from an older woman. Motherless Vito (Scott Maxwell), the son of an apartment block super, is seduced by the older Iris (Lola Albright), a three-time divorcee looking for a son to mother.  

This is not the transactional sex of The Graduate, and seduction is too strong a description for the yearning Iris whose advances are sensual and romantic, stroking Vito’s head, trapping his hand with her foot, and there is nothing clandestine about their affair either, no false names on a hotel register. They dally in the park, eat hot dogs, he buys her flowers.  

But as he experiences love for the first time, he also experiences more difficult emotions like jealousy and finds it difficult not just to cope with what seems like another man in her life, the wholesaler Juley (Herschel Bernardi), but the fact that she treats Juley with such contempt. Spoiler alert – well, not really, because you know from the off this is not going to turn out well – the affair ends when he discovers she is a stripper. And while she is left bereft, he now appears more attractive to girls his own age.

In contrast to the powerful emotions stoked up when the pair are together, director Alexander Singer (Pysche ‘59, 1964) fills us in on the rest of Vito’s humdrum life, working for his father during the school holidays, goofing off with his pals, and generally failing to make headway with girls his own age.  But Iris’s life is not humdrum. Although she has a rule not to work in her own geographical area, she breaks that to accommodate her estranged husband, whom she seems to tolerate, while at the same time drinking herself into oblivion to avoid any moves from Juley. Nor is she ashamed of her profession. It is an act, a job like any other, and provides her with a nice apartment. Small wonder she treats men with contempt. Perhaps what she falls in love with is untainted innocence. In some senses she is adrift, at other times in full command. And her love for Vito is convincing.

It is full of incidentals. He gulps down ice-cream, she teaches him to drink one sip at a time, without being patronizing the father (Joe De Santis) tries to educate him to honor his inner feelings.

Lola Albright (Peter Gunn television series) carries off a difficult role very well indeed. Without laughs to help him out as it did Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate Scott Maxwell is believable both as the youth growing into adulthood and the youth wanting to remain a youth with no adult responsibilities. The low-key performance of Joe De Santis is worth a mention.

While the picture no doubt attracted attention for the risqué material, which would have certainly given the Hays Code pause for thoughts, it provided a more rounded picture than was normal at the time of a woman working in the sex industry, even if only in the stripping department. Iris did not fall into any of the cliches. She is presented as a woman first and foremost rather than a stripper.

 

The Girl on a Motorcycle / Naked under Leather (1968) ***

An erotic charge deftly switched this picture from the Hell’s Angels default of violent biker pictures spun out cheaply by American International.  Where Easy Rider (1969) was powered by drugs, this gets its highs from sex. Rebecca (Marianne Faithful), gifted a Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorbike by lover Daniel (Alain Delon) two months before marriage to staid teacher Raymond (Roger Mutton), takes to the highways to find herself.

This ode to speed (of the mechanical kind) allows her to shake off her preconceptions and fully express her personality, beginning with the one-piece black leather outfit, whose zip, in one famous scene, Daniel pulls down with his teeth. The bike is masculine. “There he is,” she intones and there is a none-too-subtle succession of images where she clearly treats it as a male appendage.

She is both self-aware and lost. In some respects Raymond is an ideal partner since he respects her wild nature and gives her space, and she views marriage to him as a method of avoiding “becoming a tart.” In other words he represents respectability, just like her father (Marius Goring) who owns the bookshop where she works. But he is just too reasonable for her and, in reality, as she would inevitably discover that is just a cover for his weakness. The only scene in which she does not appear is given over to Raymond being tormented by young pupils who have him chasing round the class hunting for a transistor radio.

But Daniel is not quite up to scratch either. He believes in “free love”, i.e. sex without commitment and he is not inclined to romantic gestures and she knows she could just become another in a long line of discarded conquests should they continue. Raymond is a “protection against” Daniel and her ending up as an adulteress teenage bride and potential nymphomaniac. She seeks abandon not reality.

As well as sexy interludes with Daniel, her head is filled with sexual images, not to mention dabbling with masochism, in a dream her leather outfit being stripped off piece by piece by a whip-wielding Daniel, in a bar imagining taking off her clothes in front of the aged drinkers.

Jack Cardiff’s film is certainly an interesting meditation on freedom and sexual liberation at a time when such notions were beginning to take hold, but it suffers from over-reliance on internal monologue and Marianne Faithful’s lack of acting experience. Cardiff went straight into this from violent actioner Dark of the Sun (1968) and audiences remembering him from The Liquidator (1965) and The Long Ships (1964) would need reminded that he braced romance before in the touching and Oscar-nominated Sons and Lovers (1960). In that film he elicited an Oscar-nominated performance from Mary Ure, something that was unlikely here.

Pipe-smoking was generally the preserve of the old, or detectives, unless you were a young intellectual as Delon is here, but it does seem an odd conceit to force the actor into such a contrivance. Delon is accustomed to playing amoral characters, so this part is no great stretch, but, minus the pipe, he is, of course, one of the great male stars of the era and his charisma sees him through.

It was also interesting to compare Cardiff’s soundtrack to that of Easy Rider. Here, the music by Les Reed – making his movie debut but better known as a songwriter of classic singles like “Delilah” sung by Tom Jones – is strictly in the romantic vein rather than an energetic paeon to freedom such as “Born to Be Wild.” 

Cardiff’s skill as an acclaimed cinematographer (Oscar-winner for Black Narcissus, 1947) helps the picture along and clever use of the psychedelic helped some of the sexual scenes escape the British censor’s wrath, though not so in the U.S. where it was deemed an “X”. 

The Guns of Navarone (1961) *****

Stone-cold action classic that blazed a trail for the big-budget men-on-a-mission war picture like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Brilliantly structured, written and directed,  and featuring a sea battle, storm, shipwreck, mountaineering, chase, interrogation scenes, infiltration of an impregnable fortress, a pair of romances, two traitors, and an awe-inspiring climax make this a candidate for one of the greatest war pictures ever made.

The set-up is simple. Knock out the gigantic guns at Navarone or two thousand men will perish. It’s mission impossible and the clock is ticking. You don’t know who to trust and the enemy is ruthless.

In the early days of the all-star-cast, producer Carl Foreman rounded up an astonishing line-up, bulking out the bestseller by Scottish thriller maestro Alistair Maclean (The Secret Ways, 1961) with three top stars in five-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), double Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn (Heller in Pink Tights, 1960) and Oscar-winner David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960). Add in British household names Anthony Quayle (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Stanley Baker (The Concrete Jungle, 1960) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Love, 1960), a sprinkling of rising stars in James Darren (Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960), Gia Scala (I Aim at the Stars, 1960) and Richard Harris (The Night Fighters, 1960) and renowned Greek actress Irene Papas (Antigone, 1961).

Each man is a specialist. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck) the mountaineer whose climbing skills are essential to completing the fist part of the mission, explosives expert Corporal Miller (David Niven), mechanic ‘Butcher’ Brown (Stanley Baker), Greek patriot Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) and the ruthless killer Pappadimos (James Darren) who has the contact with the Greek resistance. The stakes are ramped up when we learn both Mallory and Stavrou have bounties on their heads, not to mention the fact they are sworn enemies, and that before the mission even gets under way, spies are discovered in the camp. The ostensible leader of the group Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) is wounded early on, turning him into a liability and making Mallory the de facto leader.

The stakes are ramped up further – this time through relationships. Their Greek contact turns out to be a woman, Maria (Irene Papas), brother of Pappadimos. She brings with her a mute girl Anna (Gia Scala) for whom Mallory develops romantic feelings while Stavrou has eyes for Maria. Mallory is also torn about Franklin, his best friend.

And from there it pitches into one disaster after another. They are too easily hunted by the Germans. They are shelled with mortars and attacked by dive bombers as they race across open mountains and through caves to reach their destination. They have to shoot their way out of traps and finagle their way into the fortress. There are twists and turns all the way, the clock ticking in almost James-Bond-style as the deadline for the destruction of the troops approaches.

And although this is clearly a war picture it is also as obviously an anti-war one, no end to the killing in sight, people dying pointlessly.

Although the acting was ignored come Oscar time, each of the stars delivers and it is a communal tour de force. Director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex) ensures that in visual terms none of the stars dominates, each given equal screen time while the strong supporting cast each has their own narrative arc. With over two-and-half-hours’ running time, Thompson has both the bonus of time to allow each element to be fully played out and the problem of keeping the picture taut and he succeeds brilliantly in both aims. It is a masterpiece of suspense. And it looked fabulous, the guns themselves, by which the picture might succeed or fail, were awesome.

Thompson was Oscar-nominated as was producer Carl Foreman for both Best Picture and the screenplay, Dmitri Tiomkin for the score (one of the longest-ever), John Cox for sound, Alan Osbiston for editing. Bill Warrington who did the visual special effects and Chris Greenham who did the sound effects were the only winners on the night.

It was a commercial smash, top picture of the year in the U.S., the biggest  picture of all time at the British box office and breaking records all over the world.

Book Into Film – The Venetian Affair

Sometimes I wonder if studio executives ever read a book before they purchase the rights or whether they just rely on the assumption that a bestseller must have a storyline worth adapting for the movies. I always had the impression that in many instances producers were simply buying up what they saw as a ready-made audience, that if a novel sold a few million copies enough of those satisfied readers would turn up to see the adaptation which would more than pay for what the book cost to buy (not counting the automatic marketing bounty that came from bookstore displays). These days we are used to films rigidly following the storylines of bestselling novels, even expanding the movie version into two parts to accommodate it.

But that was far from the case in the 1960s. As shown previously in this Blog, some films – Fathom (1967) a classic example – bore little resemblance to the source material while others such as The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) were more faithful renderings and others (example: The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) built on what the author had originally created. I often wondered at the reaction of a screenwriter handed an adaptation of a bestseller. Is he/she instructed to junk the whole thing and start again, retaining only the title, or asked to see what they can make of it, making other stuff up as they go along?

Sales of Helen MacInnes books increased as the 1960s wore on with The Double Image in 1966 and The Salzburg Connection in 1968 both making the annual Top Ten list, the latter the last of her books to be filmed.

In this case, producer E. Jack Neuman hired himself as the writer so I’m guessing he already knew that, beyond a simplified version of the storyline and some of the characters, he was going to dump virtually every aspect of the Helen MacInnes novel.

There were two explanations for this. The first was Neuman’s record as a creative force and it occurred to me he saw his version of the MacInnes leading man as a potential movie series character. This was his movie screenwriting debut but he had been churning out episodes of television series – including Wagon Train, The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone – for over a decade. More importantly, he was showrunner of three series – two dramas Sam Benedict (1962-1963) and Mr Novak (1963-1965) and a western A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-1966) which between them clocked up over 100 episodes – so he knew how to keep a good character going.

The second issue was the difficulty in adapting the work of MacInnes. The Scottish writer had been turning out bestselling espionage novels long before Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and John le Carre picked up a pen, but only two had ever been turned into pictures. And the reason was simple. The plots were anything but simple. Not so much twist after twist but complication after complication. The Venetian Affair is dense and in particular, consists, in many scenes, of exposition with characters explaining to other characters what the hell is going on.

In fact, the plot for The Venetian Affair is so obtuse – although strangely enough, quite contemporary – that it would never have worked on film. The C.I.A. are trying to get hold of a fake letter that will implicate the U.S. and Britain in a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle (fake news in today’s parlance). So that was never going to work in a movie. Preventing an assassination, yes, but, of course, what a preposterous idea to think anyone could kill de Gaulle without having a time machine that could flash forward to Day of the Jackal. In any case, the C.I.A. only find out about the letter’s existence because someone picks up the wrong overcoat – so that’s not going to play either.

However, what the book does have is a good title. Venice is an excellent locale for a spy movie. The only problem is only half the novel is set there. The first half takes place in Paris. What else the book has from a screenwriter’s perspective is that the ex-wife, Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer), of the central character Bill Fenner (Robert Vaughn) is a Communist defector who is considering defecting back and to achieve that requires the presence of her former husband.

So that formed the emotional heart of the film, potential reunion or further betrayal, that Fane is just going to dupe him a second time. And that’s about as much as Neuman takes from the book. The rest of the plot – the bombing, Fane disguised as a nun, virtually all the action, the bad guy, the brainwashing, the mouse sequence – is the invention of Neuman.

In the book Fenner is not an alcoholic but it’s more dramatic in the film if he is. Some of the characters from the book such as hard ass CIA boss Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) appear on screen much as described. Others have characters enhanced – Vaugiround (Boris Karloff) here a global kingpin is a mere moral philosopher in the book. The character of Claire Connor (Felicia Farr) is hardest done by. In the book, she is a central figure, the widow of an agent, teamed up with Fenner in a pretend romance that turns real. But in the film, she has become the mistress of a diplomat.  

I had already enjoyed the movie but my appreciation of the creative endeavor that went into its making increased by reading the original material screenwriter Neuman had to work with.