Behind the Scenes with a Behind the Scenes Operator: Reel Life

From attending to director Michael Winner’s parking meter and falling foul of the British film censor to interviewing David Lean at the National Film Theatre in London, Tony Sloman’s autobiography casts a fascinating light on the British film industry.  A marvellous string of anecdotes relating to Othello (1965), One Million Years B.C. (1966), Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968), Wonderwall (1968), De Sade (1969) and cult television series The Prisoner (1968) are augmented by insights into the less well-known aspects of how movies are made. 

Most commonly associated with the sound and editing departments, he also directed two British sex films Sweet and Sexy (1971) and Not Tonight, Darling (1971). In addition, he is also a walking encyclopaedia on film – he later lectured on the subject – and a riveting part of the book involves how he fell in love with the movies. I’ve read countless biographies of actors and directors who made it big in pictures and rarely, if ever, do their stories focus on their love of the medium, of the films they saw when growing up and the experiences that entailed. So the first part of this book plays off to the soundtrack of inveterate filmgoing in the 1950s at his local cinema in London and then up to the West End, one expedition to view a revival of Gone with the Wind ending up instead with the saucier Femmes de Paris (1953).

Getting into the business was very difficult for a tailor’s son from Streatham and, having determined to become a film editor, even attending evening film classes failed to open any doors until he responded to a newspaper advert and became a dispatch boy and soon after an editor for a small suite of cutting rooms in Soho in the same building as Private Eye magazine, thus beginning a long apprenticeship in this particular discipline, working in all the  British studios from biggies like Shepperton, Elstree and Pinewood to smaller outfits such as Merton Park.

Except for this book I would be unaware of the how menial are some of the tasks essential for a film to be made. One of his earliest jobs was to attend the screening of rushes and “tick the selected takes in the rushes notebook…and then after numbering them break them out in script order for the editor to assemble the next day in the cutting copy.” He learned not to count frames or measure length when dictating a particular cut but to put himself in the position of the character and the audience, how much of what they see needs to be shown to register.  

One of the refreshing elements of this biography is that the author is happy to own up to professional and personal mistakes. As he didn’t drive he was unable to synchronise car engine sounds in the correct manner. He got into trouble for labelling cans containing film in pen and not stencil. As a result of personal mishap, he learned the hard way never to film anything without a continuity person present.

His second directorial effort “Not Tonight Darling” was renamed “Frustrated Wives.”

And he has a fan’s delight at meeting stars in the flesh, walking down the street with a David Niven determined to be swamped by fans, recounting that Maximilian Schell is shorter than expected, James Mason taller. He reveals that Dana Andrews’ favorite of his own films is not a Hollywood classic like Laura (1944) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) but the lesser known Three Hours to Kill (1954) because when the producer ran out of cash he paid the actor in Mexican artefacts that came to be worth a quarter of a million dollars. Former silent film star Bessie Love tried to convert him to Christian Science when the author would have rather she reminisced about her days in early Hollywood. Eating in a restaurant in Cannes he watched at another table Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti share a bowl of bouillabaisse and later bumped (literally) into Graham Greene and encountered in the hills working as barman a former camera operator for Jean Renoir.

He met the entire Dirty Dozen at lunch in the studio canteen, heard Maggie Smith swear and enjoyed an up-close-and-personal encounter with Raquel Welch over the moviola “pressing closer to me in that tiniest of bikinis.” Working with  Ray Harryhausen on One Million Years B.C. (1966) “my main function with him was to be his own personal soundstage at Elstree with the moviola…to see where his newly-shot material would go into the sequence as cut…Ray needed to see them over and over and do frame counts before shooting his effects.” On the same film he was responsible for writing “dialogue” – in other words” a series of grunts and sounds that would match up with the actor’s mouth movement.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. He played an unsung part in the success of The Prisoner, coming up with the ideal piece for the beginning of the Arrival episode – the “Radetzky March.” He had an unusual job title, too, “Film Librarian,” which consisted of getting all the back projections which had already been filmed ready for the actual set. Supplying library material as and when, shooting inserts, and matching new film to location work.  “The secret of finding music for mute material was not merely finding music that was appropriate but to find music that would positively enhance the image to which it would be matched.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. Donald Sutherland was revoiced in his role in Oedipus the King (1968) but after the success of Mash (1970) his original voice was put back in. The first screening of Wonderwall (1968) was for the Beatles because George Harrison had expressed an interest in writing the score. In the course of this when his Indian-style slippers were ruined  by rain someone on the set whipped up for him a “customized pair of cardboard shoes made from Technicolor delivery boxes.” Composer John Barry was set to co-finance a film called The Jam but the screenplay was shown to Jean-Luc Godard who promptly went out an made Weekend (1967).

Sweet and Sexy” was renamed “Foursome” for the U.S. market, even though no such activity takes place. At one point Scottish actress Quinn O’Hara had been engaged to U.S. pop star Fabian.

He shared a flat with Michael Billington (Alfred the Great, 1968) – who holds the record for most auditions for the role of James Bond. Billington was a lover of Liza Minelli, Barbara Broccoli and Quinn O’Hara and was slated to direct Sloman’s first film but when he was offered a starring role in the UFO series (1970-1971), Sloman took over the directorial reins and recruited as leading man Billington’s UFO stand-in Robert Case. Quinn O’Hara (Cry of the Banshee, 1970), Billington’s girlfriend, had the female lead. It began life with the relatively harmless title of City Suite.

But when it was funded by Miracle Films, the title changed to City, Sweet and Sexy and finally plain old Sweet and Sexy (though it goes by the name of Foursome on imdb). What the Americans called “sexploitation.” The initial budget only ran to £15,000 but was increased to  £20,000. But when submitted to the British Board of Films Censors in October 1970, it was refused a certificate unless 40 minutes were cut. After nearly 18 months of wrangling it was finally granted an X-certificate – minus 21 offensive minutes – and the 69-minute picture finally opened at the Cameo Royal in London in March 1972.

Sloman had better luck with his second feature, Not Tonight Darling (1971) – also known as Frustrated Wives. Luan Peters (Lust for a Vampire, 1971) came on board as star and Sloman had the good luck to snare pop band Thunderclap Newman, who had enjoyed a big hit with “Something in the Air”, for the score. There were also appearances by Jason Twelvetrees, who had also been in Sweet and Sexy, Fiona Richmond (Let’s Get Laid, 1978) and James Hayter  (A Challenge for Robin Hood, 1967).

The book ends in the early 1970s and I can only hope Tony Sloman is hard at work on a second volume as his memoirs are a welcome antidote to the raft of books about big stars which are often far less entertaining. An excellent read, especially if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of movie making.

EXTRA: This is not in the book but I did a bit of digging on my own account to see if any of his movies were ever screened in the U.S. I found out, as noted in the article above, that “Sweet and Sexy” was released in the U.S. as “Foursome”. Despite the concerns of the British film censor, it was not that out of line otherwise it would not have received an “R” rating when it could easily have been rated “X.” I couldn’t find any sign of a review, either in “Variety” or “Box Office,” the two main trade magazines. But I did find some evidence that it had been screened in some big cities.

It was distributed by AIP in the U.S, and C-P in Canada. “Variety” and “Box Office” had different methods of measuring revenue. The former simply listed the gross. But the latter employed a different approach. It related the receipts for each film according to the average weekly take of a particular cinema. This was in some senses a better idea. Strong figures might not necessarily mean a good result if that cinema was used to movies knocking up big numbers.

In January 1972 “Foursome”, playing solo, had a “sexy” opening week, according to “Variety,” at the 1,200-seat Midtown in Philadelphia (tickets priced at $1.50-$3.00) with $14,000 (equivalent to $96,000 today) followed by s second week of $9,500. The same month, supported by “Freedom to Love” (1969), a documentary about sexual behavior, “Foursome” ran for three weeks at the 609-seat World (tickets $1.25) in Chicago. The first and third weeks both accounted for $3,800 but the second week was tops with $4,000. In April there was a “lusty” (presumably intended ironically) $3,100 at the 2,809-seat Loews Downtown (tickets $2.00-$2.50) in Dayton where it played solo.

In August at the 676-seat Suburban World (tickets $2.25) in Minneapolis it scored a “fair” $4,000, again the only film on the program. In December it turned up at the 250-seat Playhouse (tickets $2.50) in Washington, as the supporting feature this time to “Together” (1971) starring Marilyn Chambers and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, later responsible for the first “Friday the 13th ” (1980). The outcome was a “sharp” $4,500. By comparing seating capacity and ticket prices you can get a better idea of the film performed.

Box Office magazine marked performance on a percentage basis against a basic mark of 100, which represented an average week. According to this magazine, the movie was also to be found in Hartford where it scored 175 (i.e. almost double the average week’s takings), New Haven (175), Boston (150) and Buffalo (100). The takings in Minneapolis were no great shakes according to this method of analyzing results, reaching only 100 on the magazine’s measuring system.

Box Office also noted a couple of outings in Canada, where it played as the supporting feature to “Love Me Like I Do” (1970) starring Dyanne Thorne, later immortalised as “Ilsa”. However, Canada appeared not to subscribe to the percentage system. Instead, in Winnipeg at the Downtown in March 1972 it was judged “very good” while in Toronto at the Coronet in November 1972 it was judged “fair.”

SOURCES: “Variety” – January 12, 1972, p8; January 26, 1972, p10; April 5, 1972, p14; August 30, 1970, p14; December 6, 1972; p14. “Box Office” – September 11, 1972, pB4; “Box Office Barometer,” September 18, 1972 pB4; November 6, 1972, p16; November 13, 1972, pK2; March 5, 1973, pK3.

Behind the Scenes: “Waterloo” (1970)

As dramatic a box office flop as this movie scarcely deserves a book as superb.

In quite extraordinary detail, author Simon Lewis discusses every aspect of the making of the film, from initial set-up to release, by way of analysis of dozens of separate scenes through to rarely discussed elements like the editing and mixing, and even the myth of the missing longer version and the importance of wooden boxes (as illustrated by the front cover).  It might have helped the movie’s commercial chances, and not put too much of a dent in the ultimately massive budget of $26.1 million, if producer Dino De Laurentiis has snagged original dream team of Richard Burton (Napoleon) and Peter O’Toole (Wellington), both of whom carried much greater box office marquee than Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer.

Burton was never really a possibility but by 1968 O’Toole was “practically set” although turning it down because he thought it would flop. John Huston, who had just completed The Bible (1966) for De Laurentiis, was original choice for director and got so far as being involved in the screenplay being written by H.A.L Craig (Anzio, 1968). When he dropped out, Gilles Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, 1966) was briefly in the frame. However, a six-hour version of War and Peace (1965) put Sergei Bondarchuk in pole position.  

Requiring thousands of properly trained and preferably “celluloid-seasoned” troops to carry out disciplined manoeuvres rather than extras, De Laurentiis was in negotiation with Turkey, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria before plumping for Russia, whose production arm Mosfilm pumped in $8 million (later rising in line with budget increases). Paramount and Columbia contributed a combined $7 million with worldwide rights selling for a total of $25 million. Once filming began, Paramount chiefs Charles Bludhorn and Robert Evans, watching elements of shooting, were so taken with what they saw they wished they had invested more. Evans was reportedly “enthralled by hours of film material.” Craig’s screenplay was augmented by the director and Vittorio Bonicelli as well as uncredited contributions by Jean Anouilh (Becket, 1964), Samuel Marx and Edward O. Marsh, not to mention additions by the two main actors. Steiger pocketed $385,000, Plummer $300,000, Craig $121,000 but Anouilh only $21,000. Gordon Highlanders pipers and drummers picked up £7 a day.

Lewis is at his best when forensically examining particular scenes, for example, the Duchess of Richmond Ball which used 4,000 candles inserted into candelabras, the slightest draught causing these to melt and drip wax on performers, a carpet used to get camera shots from a very low level.

Steiger played Napoleon almost as a dead man walking, having got hold of a copy of the French Emperor’s autopsy which revealed advanced cirrhosis and gonorrhoea. Steiger and Bondarchuk met the night before to iron out ideas for the following day but Steiger was not above forcing the director’s hand by in one instance the actor removing his trousers to ensure he could only be shot in close-up. Orson Welles matched Steiger in trickery. Only hired for two days, Welles extended his employment by insisting on doing his own make-up which of course was never up to scratch and required amendment. And in terms of movie trickery, Steiger was required to sit on a wooden box on his horse to ensure he could be kept in focus. Jack Hawkins dispensed with the horse altogether – he was either atop a box or on top of stilts, as he was unsteady on an animal.

In the absence of CGI of the kind Ridley Scott could employ for his battle scenes, the real soldiers were occasionally augmented by mannequins. Five thousand were made, two real soldiers at either end of a row held eight mannequins in place by the use of a single wooden plank which “allowed all regiments to march forward.” Among the many wonderful candid pictures in this lavishly illustrated tome – 200 photographs, many never seen before – is one of three girls staring at the mannequins as well as photos of Steiger and Hawkins on their boxes.

The Waterloo battlefield had one of the biggest sets ever built. A total of 17,000 soldiers, mostly from Siberia and  including 2,000 cavalry, lived in a tented city a mile away. Steiger noted: “It would have taken assistant directors three days to put untrained men, mere extras, into position. When they broke for lunch it would be another three days to arrange them again. These guys are superb.” Real soldiers working with their actual commanders was the difference between waste and superb. Having a general in charge of the troops often created issues. Bondarchuk would select the horses he wanted based on the effect he wished to achieve with the light, demands often obstructed by the commander if it meant the chosen horses had not been properly fed. “I will order soldiers – but how do I order animals?” was the dry comment from the army chief. .

Although the battlefield was primarily authentic  – mud for one scene created by pumping two days’ worth of water into the soil before cavalry churned up the area – there were occasions when filming conformed to the Hollywood norm. “The use of fiery explosions had been cinematic shorthand for battle scenes long before Waterloo” when in reality these would be minimal. “Most ammunition that was fired comprised large iron balls and so low was its speed it was possible to watch their progress.”

 The famous charge of the Scots Greys was described thus in the script: “they came straight into camera – like centaurs in their magnificence.” The sight of 350 Arabian mounts travelling at breakneck speed was captured by use of a specially constructed railway powered by a diesel locomotive. Five cameras were sited in different positions on the train. The famous slow-motion effect – possibly the most exhilarating moment in the picture – was achieved by over-cranking the camera at 100 frames per second which slowed down what you saw by a factor of four.

Perhaps the best reveal regarding movie trickery was the moon above Wellington as he rode past the carnage. It comprised “special silver paper for front projection – 3M – like shark skin. You put one light on it and it reflects ten times brighter.” The moon was shown as one quarter less than full since the effect of a full moon would be harder to carry off. “Blue ink made some spots as moon craters.” The fake moon was suspended with one wire on top and two left and right to prevent it from moving, then one light was projected onto it.

Back cover of the book.

Lewis rebuts the myth of the missing longer version. He reckons this probably came about because over 300,000 feet of film – 55 hours – was shot and the first rough cut was five hours long. The final cut was 133 minutes – not much longer than if you had worked out the length by counting the pages of the screenplay – and release cuts varied because, for example, the British censors cut out 28 seconds of horse falls and the ending includes 50 seconds of music over the credits. It was never shown with the intermission which was de rigeur at the time for longer roadshows and would have, artificially, inflated the running time.  There was some confusion over the final print because a novelisation by Frederick E. Smith included some scenes that didn’t make it into the final print, and Smith’s book, written of necessity before the film appeared, would have used as its main reference tool the screenplay. But Lewis spends a whole chapter explaining why a longer cut never existed.

The world premiere was held on 26 October 1970 in London where the movie released as a roadshow (i.e. separate performances) was a huge success. It ran for a few weeks short of an entire year in the London West End, breaking box office records at the Odeon Leicester Square and the Metropole where it opened on December 3rd, 1970, before shifting to the Columbia on June 17, 1971, and then a final week at the Odeon Kensington from September 30 1971. But audience appeal in the United States was at the other end of the spectrum. It went from a strong opening week of $25,436 at the Criterion in New York to just $1,775 in its fourth week, and nationwide racked up only $1.4 million in rentals (the studio share of the box office). It was derided in France in part because the film was about the defeat of a legend and the French could not come to terms with the idea that it was directed by a Russian.

Where most “making of” books concentrate on the stars and the director, Lewis goes into fantastic detail about all aspects of the production, the chapter on editing and mixing an education in itself. There’s a chapter on how historically accurate the film actually was. The author was helped by the discovery of a diary kept during production by actor Richard Heffer who played the small part Mercer. But Lewis also managed to make contact with Dino De Laurentiis’s daughters, Raffaella and Veronica, and around two dozen people connected with the film in some way, and clearly examined every scrap of information available on the picture. The Notes are another mine of information.

Even if the film is not at the top of your must-watch list, this book should go to the top of your must-read list.

Waterloo, The Making of An Epic, The Spectacular Behind-the-Scenes Story of a Movie Colossus  by Simon Lewis is published by Bear Manor Media, 534 pages, illustrated (B&W), Hardback, Paperback & Ebook, ISBN  978-1-62933-832-3 .

The Making of “The Godfather” (1972)

With the 50th anniversary imminent it’s no surprise to see a further addition to the already weighty library of works on The Godfather. What is surprising is just how good it is, wrapping up all previous research as well as adding copious new information about the making of the Mafia saga, in particular relationships between the filmmakers and the Cosa Nostra itself. A battle of egos as much as anything else with a budget that lay in tatters, quite how such a masterpiece emerged could have been a film in itself. Journalist Robert Seal has delivered a riveting book, replete with fascinating anecdotes, and with an insider’s knowledge of how a movie gets put together.

Some of the drama is certainly overplayed, the financial threats to Paramount at the end of the 1960s, the presence on the set of an auditor (hardly unusual with a director who had never handled such a big budget before), and the conflict with legendary producer Robert Evans who, after the event, claimed a greater share of the glory than he was entitled to. Evans at least had a track record – Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969) and Love Story (1970) among his successes during his tenure at the studio – compared to official producer Albert Ruddy with three flops to his name including Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) and best known for television hit Hogan’s Heroes. But Ruddy was known as a producer who could bring a project in under budget. As an indication of the kind of penny pinching that Evans expected, he made Ruddy buy his own copy of the novel.

Australian distributors took a different approach to advertising the movie.

Paramount had little interest in Mafia movies after the under-rated The Brotherhood (1968) – reviewed in the Blog – had flopped at the box office and Burt Lancaster was waiting in the wings ready to take the project off the studio’s hands. Compulsive gambler and impoverished author Mario Puzo had no screenwriting credits when brought in to work on the picture. And no idea how to write a screenplay. So he mostly played tennis. His biggest contribution when he was sitting in meetings with little to show for his efforts was to suggest Marlon Brando as star. A suggestion that met with complete silence because Brando was box office poison.

Francis Coppola – himself the creator of three flops and as impoverished as Puzo had once been – was hired as director in part because Paramount got the notion that the reason The Brotherhood had failed was lack of cultural assimilation, director Martin Ritt having no Italian heritage. Coppola was pushed as having an insider’s knowledge of Italians even though as Paramount executive Peter Bart pointed out that he “may have had pasta now and then but I don’t think their family is any more Italian than my family.”

Paramount took out an eight-page ad in “Variety” (March 29, 1972) to publicize the colossal initial gross and listed the receipts from every cinema where it had been playing for mostly three or five days.

As the makers of Succession have realised, there is a classic story to be told about business inheritance. Coppola wanted to make a movie that was about “more than guns and goons and sex and spaghetti.” He envisaged a “classic succession concerning a great king who had three sons, each of whom had a single element of what made the king great.” Prior to Coppola making his presentation to the studio, Ruddy told him to play up the low budget. Instead, the director gave “one of the great sales jobs of all time” convincing executives to at least give him a shot at doing it his way. He was hired for $175,000 and six per cent of the profits. “I had two kids, a pregnant wife, and no money. I was terrified,” said Coppola.

As well he should have been. Not only did he have mobsters knocking on his door complaining on the one hand about how the film could adversely present Italian Americans and on the other hand determined to land a role in the picture to the extent of paying for their own screen tests. So many talent schools charged $100 to shoot screen tests for any gullible schmuck that Paramount had to take out restraining orders. But made man Gianni Russo did land the role of Carlo Rizzi. Al Lettieri’s brother was involved in the business. Ex-wrestler Lenny Montana with no acting experience was picked out of a crowd watching the shooting to play hitman Luca Brasi.

Not the ideal balladeer to sing about the Mafia.

Although Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Laurence Olivier and Rod Steiger were among the stars pitched for the Brando role, Puzo had sent a handwritten letter to Brando imploring him to consider the role. The Brando test, with the star improvising his own make-up, was electric. But the greatest actor of his generation had to accept a pitiful deal – $50,000 for six weeks’ work – though, thankfully, a percentage had been tagged on.

Robert Evans wanted Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty or Ryan O’Neal for Michael. “One of the reasons I got the job,” said Coppola, “was because they thought they could push me around.” He stuck to his guns, holding out for his dream team of James Caan, Al Pacino, Robert  Duvall and Diane Keaton, “eccentric and kind of weird in a way…to enliven the straight boring character” of Kay Adams.

But the casting was just the beginning of a momentous battle to keep Coppola’s vision intact. He came close to getting fired several times (“I was getting fired every other week,” recalled Coppola), especially as the budget, initially figured at $2 million, headed towards $6 million. The story of the shoot is told here in forensic detail. Come post-production, Evans wanted Henry Mancini to do the score so Coppola threatened to take his name off the picture unless the Nino Rota music was kept. 

Finally, when the film was ready it was met with – deafening silence. Paris premiere – silence. New York premiere – silence. When Albert Ruddy and Al Pacino watched it in an ordinary cinema with an ordinary audience the result was the same – silence. But the lines around the block indicated something else – a phenomenon.

The only area where author Seal gets it wrong is in his understanding of release strategy. “Its distribution was a revolution,” claimed Mark Seal. Only it wasn’t. I know because I wrote a book on the subject (In Theaters Everywhere if you’re interested) and there was nothing at all novel in releasing a movie in New York in 26 cinemas all at once.

But apart from that glitch, Seal has produced a brilliant, incredibly readable book, that covers the saga of the making of the film in as much detail as an aficionado would want. Drawing on the dozen other books written previously about the film and adding his own fulsome research, Seal has created a book that will be as much a monument to this film as the film is to Hollywood cinema in the 1970s.

For some reason the guy who created the best movie of the year wasn’t good enough to be named Best Director at the Oscars- that went to Bob Fosse for “Cabaret.”

In 1972, there was no such thing as a global wide release. Although it was shown in the U.S. in March that year, in Glasgow, Scotland, where I lived, The Godfather did not get its first showing until the end of August. It opened at the ABC 1 in Sauchiehall St in the city centre as well as over the River Clyde at the ABC Coliseum. It was competing with two roadshows, Young Winston and Mary, Queen of Scots at the Odeon 1 and Odeon 3, respectively, Robert Redford in heist picture How to Steal a Diamond at the Odeon 2 and What’s Up Doc? at the ABC 2. Western The Hired Hand was playing the arthouse Cosmo and the arty Made for Each Other at the gigantic Green’s Playhouse. The La Scala had the double bill of Dr No/Thunderball and the Regent was in the second week of Dirty Harry, somewhat unusual in that this was a second run house where pictures were rarely retained.

There were three performances a day for The Godfather but no advance booking – as would have been the case if it had gone into roadshow – so the queues outside both cinemas were huge. It had such an impact on me I saw it twice in the same day. When I moved to London I used to take regular advantage of the double bill The Godfather / The Godfather Part II when it used to play a cinema in Regent St on occasional Sundays, so I have no idea how many times I have seen both. Never enough, I would guess.

Where were you when you first saw The Godfather?

And where will I be on February 26 when The Godfather will be reissued in cinemas all over Britain (and possibly worldwide for all I know)? I leave it to you to guess.

To cash in on the 50th anniversary, cinemas all around the world are planning to screen all three parts of the trilogy. So watch out for them.

The “Succession” Man – Brian Cox

If you find that most movie star biographies concentrate on gossip at the expense of genuine insight to the craft of acting, then this one is for you. For the bulk of his film career, Cox, outside of such films as Manhunter (1986), L.I.E (2001) and Churchill (2017), has been in the main a supporting player and not even the kind of supporting actor regularly commended by Oscar voters, rather the type of artist whose face you recognize and welcome in small but important parts. Probably you will be unaware that he was more of a titan on stage, winning two Olivier awards – the British equivalent of the Tonys – and nominated another twice as well as wins and nominations for theatrical productions in America.

So he makes no distinction between the various mediums – film, television, stage – in detailing the development of his craft.  His first seminal moment came from the David Storey play In Celebration when director Lindsay Anderson having spent 90 minutes trying to slow the actor down for one segment eventually in frustration explained to the actor the reason for takings things slowly: his character returning home for the first time in years would spend time reacquainting himself with the house, taking in what had changed and what was familiar. In other words, “I learned to be a character rather than describing or acting it.”

When he moved into films, he had enough self-awareness to realize he was never going to be the leading man (even in the cult Manhunter, he was billed third or fourth in the credits) and determined he was “going to earn my wage as a character actor and that what I really wanted to do was create characters similar to those I loved from the old films… (where) characters just zing at you, no matter how small the part.”

He also appreciates his co-stars, especially the superstars. Of Keanu Reeves, he pointed out: “Despite choosing interesting work and being an interesting guy, he still had a reputation as a bit wooden…He took himself off to a small theatre in Canada and played Hamlet. He stuck at it and he’s actually become quite good over the years. He’s become rather good because he’s learned his job.” He has similar praise for Brad Pitt. “Like Keanu the initial appeal is all about the heartthrob looks, so he’s had to learn on the job; he’s had to dedicate himself to his craft…I love that ambition, that dedication, not to be better looking or more famous or have a sexier partner, but to be a better actor.”

When an actor has 234 credits in film and television you can tell instantly he’s a character actor. While occasionally Cox has appeared in high profile ventures – Braveheart (1995), X2 (2003), Troy (2004), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – more often you would find him turning in bit parts in smaller pictures that you have possibly never heard of like The Water Horse (2007), Citizen Gangster (2011) and Morgan (2016).  Sometimes he pulled out a television plum, Nuremberg (2000) for which he won an Emmy or British comedy Bob Servant Independent (2013).   

With such a variety of movies, he has a wealth of anecdotes. He took over the role intended for Dustin Hoffman in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and replaced Tommy Lee Jones in Chain Reaction (1996). He has stories to tell about Sir Laurence Olivier, Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Weinstein, Steven Seagal. Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Farrow, John Schlesinger and a dozen others.  

But he doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino or the acting of Sir Ian McKellen. “I really don’t have much time for Quentin Tarantino. I find his work meretricious. It’s all surface. Plot mechanics in place of depth. Style where there should be substance. I walked out of Pulp Fiction.’ Of McKellen he observes: “He is a master of what I’d call front-foot acting. It’s very effective…but it doesn’t quite fulfil what I believe is one of the key functions of acting.”

He was paid $10,000 for Manhunter while Anthony Hopkins walked away with a million for Silence of the Lambs (1991). He turned down Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Game of Thrones. Terrorists nearly boarded his plane during 9/11. His  mother suffered from mental illness. His father died when he was young.

After a half century of as many downs as ups and little likelihood that publishers would be knocking on his door for his autobiography, he suddenly became a massive star thanks to Succession. Supreme acting skills that had been ignored by the Hollywood cognoscenti were crucial to Logan Roy becoming one of television’s most popular – and hated – characters. His great talent is stillness, to be able to convey myriad emotion without speaking a word.  

But publishing an autobiography is not the true mark of success. Being in demand is. As well as future series of Succcession, he already has in the can the following films – The Jesuit, Skelly, Prisoner’s Daughter and Mending the Line and is currently shooting The Independent, in all of which he is either top-billed or second-billed, a far cry from sixth or seventh billing in supporting roles.

Spy Girls

If you’ve not already come across Cinema Retro magazine – now celebrating 18 years of publication –  or its various Special Issues you are in for a treat. Spy Girls fell under its “Foto Files Special Edition” portfolio and includes over 200 illustrations of the actresses who dominated the wave of espionage pictures in the 1960s and to a lesser extent the 1970s.

As well as focusing on the leading female stars in every series film – James Bond, Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Bulldog Drummond, The Man from Uncle and Harry Palmer – the magazine also pay tribute to the wide variety of starlets who appeared in bit parts such as Zena Marshall (Dr No, 1962), Aliza Gur (From Russia with Love, 1963), Shirley Eaton and Margaret Nolan (Goldfinger, 1964) Molly Peters (Thunderball, 1965) and Gila Golan (Our Man Flint, 1966).

However, in the main the concentration is on the flood of European actresses who set Hollywood agog following multiple appearances in spy pictures. Beginning with original Swiss-born Bond girl Ursula Andress (Dr No and Casino Royale, 1967, the magazine features every actress who had a starring role in the mainstream spy films. Some, of course, seemed very comfortable in the genre with roles in several pictures.

Leading that particular parade were Italian Daniela Bianchi who, after her spy debut in From Russia with Love, was seen in Slalom (1965), Operation Gold (1966), Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966), Requiem for a Secret Agent (1966) and Operation Kid Brother (1967). Matching her was Austrian Senta Berger, caught in The Secret Ways (1961), The Spy with My Face (1965), Our Man in Marrakesh (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), The Ambushers (1967) and Istanbul Express (1968).

Not far behind came Israeli Daliah Lavi who lit up the screen in The Silencers (1966), The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Nobody Runs Forever (1968) and Some Girls Do (1969). German Elke Sommer was another regular, headlining The Venetian Affair (1967), The Corrupt Ones (1967), Deadlier than the Male (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1968.) Also a regular in the genre was Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina with Hot Enough for June/Agent 8¾ (1964), That Man in Istanbul (1965), Agent X-77 Orders to Kill (1966) and Deadlier than the Male (1967)

Canadian Beverly Adams featured three times in the Matt Helm series, in The Silencers, Murderers Row (1966) and The Ambushers (1967). Czechoslovakian Barbara Bouchet turned up in Agent for H.A.R.M (1966), Casino Royale and Danger Route (1967) and Austrian Marisa Mell had top roles in Masquerade (1965), Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966) and Danger:Diabolik (1968). Another three-peater was Rome-born Luciana Paluzzi – To Trap a Spy (1964), Thunderball (1965) and The Venetian Affair (1967) – not forgetting Swede Camilla Sparv in Murderers Row (1966), Assignment K (1968) and Nobody Runs Forever (1968).

No study on the girls involved in espionage over these two decades would be complete without mention of Raquel Welch for Fathom (1967), Monica Vitti in Modesty Blaise (1966), Honor Blackman in Goldfinger and Britt Ekland in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). The occasional American leavened the pot – Jill St John appearing in The Liquidator (1966) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Lana Wood also in the latter. 

The extensive illustrations include stills, and photographs of the stars relaxing on set or setting up a shot, as well as a veritable archive of posters from virtually every country in the world, often with substantially different artwork to the originals. In addition, articles on the main actresses are included as well as snippets of information on the lesser stars.

Priced at just £6.95 / $11.99 this might make a nice Xmas filler.

http://www.cinemaretro.com/index.php?/archives/8048-COMING-FROM-CINEMA-RETRO-SPY-GIRLS-FOTO-FILES-ISSUE-1.html

A Shameless Plug for My Books – Ideal Xmas Presents

With Xmas exactly a month away, now seems the right time to convince you that you should bombard your relatives/partners/friends with information about the books I have written so that as a movie lover you will receive a gift (or two) of a book about the movies. Some of my books cost just £6-£10 in print with less to pay generally for the Kindle version. I have priced the books below in English currency but they are available worldwide through Amazon/Kindle and in all major bookstores.

The Making of Lawrence of Arabia. Did you know John Wayne was in line to play the role when it was planned as Cinerama’s first drama in the early 1950s? There were about 20 different attempts over 40 years to get the film off the ground including when T.E. Lawrence himself marched into a producer’s office to sell the rights to his life story. Even though David Lean’s epic proved a commercial and critical triumph, right up to the movie’s launch it appeared that it was going to be a huge flop, with massive budget overruns. This book traces the origins of the Lean movie, analyses the picture and explains what happened afterwards when the director decided he hadn’t got it right first time and instituted the “Director’s Cut.” Oddly enough, secondhand copies sell on the Internet for up to £40 but you can get a genuine new copy for £8.99 and if you want the book signed ask the seller at the time. ISBN – 9781873586532

The Making of The Guns of Navarone (Revised Edition with over 30 Illustrations). William Holden, Cary  Grant and opera star Maria Callas in a film directed by Alexander Mackendrick (The Laveender Hill Mob, 1951)? That was one of the original ideas. Producer Carl Foreman, on the run from McCarthyism in America, shepherded the movie through crisis after crisis, stars rushed to hospital, directorial problems, huge sets collapsing, and the threat of being engulfed in a civil war. Analysis of film, screenplay and stars. This costs £10.89. Somebody in the States is selling this for $63 on the internet but you can get a brand new copy – signed by the author if you want – for the price mentioned above. ISBN – 9781909773028.

The Making of The Magnificent Seven (1960 obviously) is my all-time bestseller. The John Sturges western faced an actor’s strike, a writer’s strike, battles with Mexican censors, and went through half a dozen screenwriters. The first book-length study of the classic film. This is currently just £27.08 (reduced from £41) with the Kindle version just £9.39. ISBN – 978078696952

The Gunslingers of ’69 – Western’ Movies Greatest Year – examines the 40-plus westerns released that year including The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West, 100 Rifles, True Grit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stalking Moon and Support Your Local Sheriff and analyses the trend towards violence and female equality. This costs £34.50. ISBN  – 9781476679358

Away from my 1960s series I have written two books on aspects of Hollywood’s business history. Coming Back to a Theater Near You – A History of the Hollywood Reissue 1914-2104 is not just my biggest book – it weighs in at around 250,000 words including notes – but a massive bargain currently priced at a mere £13.04 – down from £45.  ISBN – 9780786498130.  In Theaters Everywhere – A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017 costs £47.03.  ISBN – 9781476674148.

On a completely different note you might be interested in When Women Ruled Hollywood: How Actresses Took on the Hollywood Hierarchy and Won (1910-1948) in which I discovered that female stars were often paid far more than the males. This costs £9.97 for a printed copy and about half that for Kindle. ISBN – 9781909773165.

You might also be interested in The Glen Cinema Disaster, Paisley 1929, in which over 70 children died. At that time film itself was highly flammable and the book explains why Hollywood rejected new non-flammable types of film stock in favour of a product which cost thousands of lives across the world in a series of disasters. This costs £10. ISBN 9781909773035.

Please note all prices are indicative. Some books may be on special offer and when they are gone they’re gone. Prices don’t include postage. If you have problems getting hold of books or want a signed copy just contact me through the blog.

Book Review – Dreams of Flight: “The Great Escape” in American Film and Culture

In the history of rousing action cinema few movies are as revered or have produced such a collective cinematic response as John Sturges’ World War 2 POW picture The Great Escape (1963) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough and a host of upcoming stars including The Magnificent Seven alumni James Coburn and Charles Bronson,  

Dana Polan’s rich assessment of the film’s making coupled with a superb analysis of the film itself, script, style, themes and directorial bravura is filled with informative nuggets. Eschewing the standard star bio approach, Polan goes much deeper to detail how earlier adaptations for American television and Australian radio (made by novelist Morris West’s company and with Rod Taylor as a German guard) affected the film, how it fitted into the British POW tradition (The Colditz Story etc) and the influence of an American offshoot like Stalag 17.

You might already be familiar with the work of Dana Polan since he has written books on Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos and Jane Campion and another half-dozen books besides. This is an excellent addition to his impressive portfolio.

Paul Brickhill, author of The Great Escape (and other war classics The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky) had been an inmate at Stalag Luft III so drew on personal experience – including that of tunnel digger – and sketches made at the time of the tunnels to turn out, as co-writer, a precursor Escape to Danger. It was either interviews relating to this or a magazine article or condensation that alerted neophyte director Sturges in 1945/1946 to a potential film. The book, published in 1950, sold a million copies in paperback in the UK alone and was a huge global success. And for independent producers Mirisch, for whom Sturges later made The Magnificent Seven, buying the rights was integral to the director’s pact with that company in 1957 and indeed The Great Escape was mooted as his debut picture for them. When finally greenlit, it was intended to be shot in the U.S. with only 10 per cent taking place in Europe. That it went the other way was due to an unusual set of circumstances.

In his analysis of the picture, Polan makes other interesting connections, first of all to the caper picture where each character has a specific task to contribute to the overall effort. Unusually for a heroic film, he points out that courage is continually undercut, each uplifting moment leading to defeat, the film itself having an essentially downbeat ending, the only true victory found in defiance. And in some respects The Great Escape created a bridge between the gung-ho war films of the 1950s and the more cynical approach to war envisioned in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

Being British, it had never occurred to me how important the baseball glove was to American culture, the glove representing for many a “certain brand of American problem-solving in the face of adversity” although far more universally accepted would be the premise of the motorcycle escape representing the triumph of the spirit even as it results in a more down to earth resolution.

Tracing Sturges’ stylistic development back to post-WW2 B-movies made for Columbia explains the importance of the trademark parabolic shot in driving action forward. Yet for all his stylistic bravura, Sturges was very grounded when it came to the work required to make pictures, for example here adopting coloured index cards to shuffle around pieces of action to best effect.

The script went through various hands – William Roberts and Walter Newman, both integral to The Magnificent Seven, but was finally credited to crime writer W.R. Burnett (who had worked with Sturges on Sergeants 3, 1962) and James Clavell (who adapted The Satan Bug, 1965), himself a POW in a Japanese camp with British writer Ivan Moffat (Giant, 1956) coming in at the last minute as script doctor. A breakdown of the various scripts attributes the Hilts’ cooler baseball bouncing to Moffat who also wrote the scene that changed Hilts from loner to participant.

In a terrific appendix you can discover exactly the problems facing the real escapees and who came up with the book title (clue – not the author) four years after the idea originally surfaced. There’s a fascinating coda about the film’s impact on Hollywood and general culture and Polan takes time out to reflect on the experience of various fans on their virgin encounter with the picture. The movie was a big hit and so well received that when critic Bosley Crowther wrote a negative review the “New York Times” postbag was filled with complaints. Written with tremendous authority and great style, this is one book you would want to find in your Xmas stocking.

Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape in American Film and Culture by Dana Polan is published by University of California Press at $24.95 / £20 in both paperback & ebook.  ISBN 9780520379305. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520379305/dreams-of-flight

Coming Soon – Book – Making of The Great Escape

Couldn’t be more excited and thought I would share my excitement with you as the idea that someone has finally written a book on The Great Escape – one of the quintessential movies of the 1960s – has filled me with delight. The book isn’t out till November 7 but I thought I’d give you all a bit of advance notice in case you wanted to buy it yourself or alert someone to the prospect of a Xmas present.

This was the film where Steve McQueen really took on the trappings of Mr Cool. The fantastic motorbike escape will forever be an action highlight. Many of the supporting cast went on to movie or television stardom including Charles Bronson (Death Wish), James Coburn (Our Man Flint), David McCallum (The Man from Uncle) and Gordon Jackson (the butler Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs). Director John Sturges marshalled the various story strands with dexterity and delivered an iconic picture high on tension. And of course there was the fabulous theme tune by Elmer Bernstein.

Can’t wait to read what author Dana Polan makes of it all. His name might be unknown to you but he has published books on The Sopranos, Pulp Fiction and director Jane Campion.

It’s decently priced, too – University of California Press has this at £20/$24.95 as an ebook and £20/$24.95 for the paperback but I see that Amazon is offering it for less.   

When Alistair MacLean Quit – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Scrolling down the credits for The Satan Bug (1965) you might have been surprised to discover that the film was based not on a book by Alistair MacLean but by one Ian Stuart. Yes, this turned out to be a pseudonym but you might be asking yourself why on earth did a world-famous thriller writer need to employ a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms were generally used for two reasons, and most often in genre fiction. Firstly, they were utilized by authors who were far from world-famous and needed to churn out four or five books a year to make a living. In those days only the likes of Agatha Christie or Simenon could get away with producing three or four books annually without the public getting fed up with their output. Long before the likes of the prolific Danielle Steel or James Patterson showed publishers that the public would devour anything they produced, it was considered ruinous to your career to be seen to be turning out more than one book a year.

Salvatore Lombino wrote under the pseudonyms of Ed McBain (the 87th Precinct series), Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle etc), Richard Marsten, and Hunt Collins. Most famous under his own name, British author John Creasey (The Toff series) had 27 pseudonyms including J.J. Marric (the Gideon books) and Anthony Morton (The Baron series) as well as a number of different names for his westerns and romances.  A famous author wanting to dip a toe into a new genre was the other common reason a pseudonym came into play, the outstanding recent example being J.K. Rowling who turned to crime under the name of Robert Galbraith.

Alistair MacLean fell into neither of these categories. An unexpected success, the Scottish schoolteacher hit the jackpot with his debut HMS Ulysses in 1955, a straightforward war novel, and two years later bestseller The Guns of Navarone which was turned into a movie. He followed up with another four thrillers in four years under his own name, the last being Fear Is the Key (1961).

The reissued 1969 hardback while retaining the Ian Stuart name on the cover
links the book to Alistair Maclean in the inside flap.

By this point, MacLean, a somewhat touchy individual, had become exceedingly annoyed at the treatment his manuscripts received at the hands of his publisher Collins. In particular, he was often taken to task by editors for making simple errors like confusing “of” with “off.” But more importantly, editors treated his books as if they should be met with a rejection slip – in fact it was strongly suggested that the author set aside his third book South by Java Head in favor of something else – rather than slung out to an adoring public. As his biographer Jack Webster put it, he felt “very much like a pupil under severe pressure from a master.” It would have been humiliating for an English teacher to be told off for his use of English. The editors also complained there were too many incidents which made the books hard to read rather than enrapturing the reader.

While no doubt every author gets picked up for momentary lapses or for elements of the story that need reconsideration, it was clear to MacLean that his publishers were taking a very snobbish attitude to his output rather than falling over themselves to have in their possession such a cash cow. MacLean also felt that his books only sold so well because his name was attached. Every book was “by the author of HMS Ulysses” or, after the fantastic success of the movie, “by the author of The Guns of Navarone.” He was beginning to feel more of a unwelcome commodity than a cherished asset. And he had already made so much money from his millions of books sales and additional revenues from film studios -£30,000 for HMS Ulysses for example – that he did not need to listen to his publishers.

In fact, matters had come to a head with Fear Is the Key (1961), his least successful book. Clearly this provided his enemies in the publishing house with the opportunity to gloat and to attempt to force him to listen to their superior wisdom and toe their line But for MacLean Fear Is the Key was an experiment, a deliberate change of writing style. “What I’m trying to do is develop a technique of completely impersonal story-telling in the first person”  – in essence the reader would see action unfold as if through the eye of a camera. His publishers, who appeared to view sales as the only measure of a book’s success, felt otherwise. After one too many clashes with the Collins hierarchy, he took himself off to renowned agent Curtis Brown who welcomed him with open arms and none of the niggling that marked his dealings with the publishers. While Collins would remain his British publisher, Curtis Brown took on the task of invigorating foreign rights.

Having snared what they expected was a golden goose, you can imagine Curtis Brown’s astonishment on being told that the first book they were to sell under this new deal would not bear the name of Alistair MacLean. It would be by an unknown author – Ian Stuart. The Dark Crusader (retitled The Black Shrike for U.S. readers) was set in Australia and concerned a hunt for missing scientists. Never mind previous antipathy between author and publisher, Collins hated this book, complaining about over-complicated plot, boring characters, and improbable action. It was “a thoroughly bad book.” MacLean was incensed: “If the book is as bad as you say and you obviously lack faith in it, can you genuinely imagine that I believe you will honestly and sincerely get behind it in promotion, publishing and selling?”

Desperate to retain the author and hoping that this experiment would be short-lived, especially if sales showed a marked downturn from the MacLean books, Collins agreed to publish it. Naturally, the only way to ensure that it reached any kind of sales peak rather than vanish into the chasms of oblivion that faced most new authors, Collins gave the book “by a new author” a heavy publicity campaign. The poorer sales did not dampen MacLean’s ardour for his pseudonym and he went to produce The Satan Bug by Ian Stuart, his faith in his decision justified when a Hollywood director of the caliber of John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960), clearly seeing far greater potential in the novel than the publishers, snapped it up for production.

The rule breaker – the back cover of the 1962 U.S. paperback gives the game away and clearly, judging by the quote from King Features, the true author’s identity must have been in the public domain.

Myth has it that both The Dark Crusader and The Satan Bug played by the rules laid down by the author. But that did not turn out to be the case. The paperback edition of The Satan Bug published by Popular Library in 1962 on the back cover reveals the true author. In any case in due course the book was reissued under the MacLean moniker and is a far better example of the cinematic style the author was attempting to achieve than The Dark Crusader and became the template for his later books.

But, as it turned out, this was not the first time that Alistair MacLean would go on strike.

Catch Up: movies made from Alistair MacLean novels featuring in the Blog are The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Secret Ways (1961) and The Satan Bug (1965).

SOURCESAlistair MacLean by Jack Webster (Chapmans Publishing, 1962, paperback edition), pages 73, 89-90, 94-96, 112-117.  

Behind the Scenes: “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968)

Why films are flops is sometimes more interesting than why they become hits. That’s assuming no one’s memory plays them tricks. Originally, according to Tony Curtis, he was going to produce The Night They Raided Minsky’s and at that point it was more focused on the strippers working there. “Each stripper thought she was going to end up being a star like Gypsy Rose Lee” he wrote in his autobiography. However, in the star’s memory this film was going to be made after the completion of You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970) and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970) when he was a dead duck Hollywood-wise – he did not appear in another picture until Lepke in 1975. The fact that The Night They Raided Minsky’s was made in 1968, two years before You Can’t Win ‘Em All, appears to have escaped his attention or that of the book’s editors and publishers and, strangely enough, also of Michael Munn whose later biography of the actor Nobody’s Perfect equally oddly attributed his involvement in Minsky’s to after You Can’t Win ‘Em All.

Director William Friedkin has a better recollection, but, also strangely enough, nothing like as detailed as that for the film that made his name The French Connection (1971). He had met Bud Yorkin at a private screening at the house of producer David L. Wolper (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968). Yorkin and partner Norman Lear had a two-picture deal at United Artists. (In his autobiography Friedkin called United Artists “newly-formed” which was a hell of a miscalculation since that studio had been on the go since 1919 and even the modernized UA had come into being in 1951 – he was probably referring to the takeover of the studio in 1967 by Transamerica). Even though at that point Friedkin’s only picture had been the Sonny and Cher flop Good Times (1967) he was offered $100,000 to direct on the grounds that he could “bring something original and contemporary to an older subject.” He was honest enough to admit the fee probably swayed him since he found the script “thin, superficial, not funny.”

Friedkin makes no mention of Tony Curtis potentially being involved on the production side. The first actor to be approached, Curtis agreed to do the film if the script was rewritten. According to Friedkin, Curtis was “at the peak of his popularity.”  That was wishful thinking. According to Variety, Curtis was one of the least successful stars in the business, his last four pictures averaging a lamentable $1.77 million in U.S. rentals. Curtis did not like the rewrite. He complained that between the two drafts, his role had “shriveled” and quit the production “due to differences in the concept of the male star role.” Or it could have been that he dropped out in favor of The Boston Strangler (1968).  

For a while it seemed his departure might benefit the planned production. Two rising Broadway stars – Alan Alda and Joel Grey – showed interest. Alda was in The Apple Tree directed by wunderkind Mike Nichols and Grey was attracting fabulous notices for his performance in the stage version of Cabaret. “It was a real coup to land those guys,” purred Friedkin. But it was a coup too soon – they could not get out of their stage contracts. “Unbelievably,” commented producer Norman Lear, whose job presumably it was to read the fine print, “nobody read the fine print.”

All roads then led to Jason Robards (“my first choice anyway” according to Lear) third-billed in Yorkin and Lear’s Divorce American Style (1967). Although Norman Wisdom had primarily a British moviegoing following, he had just finished a run in the Broadway comedy Walking Happy, so he was not entirely unknown. Bert Lahr fell ill a third of the way through production and died within a week so the pivotal role he was to play, “as a kind of tour guide to burlesque…left a hole in the film’s emotional center.” To try and minimize his loss, the producers “included every frame of Lahr including test footage.”

Worse, according to the director, Robards and female lead Britt Ekland proved a mismatch and had “no chemistry as lovers.” Danny Daniels took over the staging of the burlesque routines and Friedkin came close to being fired.

At least Friedkin was honest about the film’s failings. The biggest problem, he admitted, “was my own ineptitude…I was in over my head….Each time I set up a shot or talked to an actor about a scene I was filled with uncertainty….much as I’d like to absolve myself of blame for the film, I see my handiwork all over it, especially in the documentary approach to many of the scenes.” He didn’t help matters by almost sabotaging the release when he told a late-night talk show host that the picture was “terrible” and advised viewers not to “bother to see it.”

But for all Friedkin’s later downplaying of the picture, at the time he was giving it big licks, anticipating some kind of artistic breakthrough in part through innovative use of the hand-held camera. He aimed to achieve a “Brechtian flavor of casual seediness.” It was the biggest production ever filmed in New York with a budget in the $3 million-$4 million region. Friedkin had rejected the New York streets available on Hollywood studio lots in favor of the real thing. The producers found a block on the Lower East Side scheduled for demolition that fitted exactly the art director’s exterior design and successfully campaigned Mayor Lindsay to postpone demolition until shooting was completed. Friedkin confidently boasted to Variety that the Lower East Side so closely resembled what it was like half a century before that “all you have to do is rip out the parking meters and conceal the air conditioning” and line the streets with vintage cars.  

Cameraman Andrew Laszlo had developed a special camera that permitted much steadier handheld photography than before which would facilitate “Friedkin’s improvisational directorial style.”  Friedkin called it “the most expensive movie ever made with a hand-held camera.”

The picture finished shooting at the end of 1967 but that it did not appear in theaters until the tail end of the following year indicated the problems facing the producers. You might think Xmas an odd time to launch a movie about what was effectively a tawdry subject no matter how affectionately filmed. In a bid to shine a light on the more successful aspects of burlesque, United Artists publicists gave a major push to Dexter Maitland, a 40-year veteran of the business who had a small part in the picture.

SOURCES: Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock, American Prince: My Autobiography (Virgin Books – paperback, 2009) p279 ; Michael Munn, Tony Curtis, Nobody’s Perfect (JR Books, 2011) p214; William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection, A Memoir (Harper Perennial, 2014) p115-120; Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1; “Tony Curtis, Britt Ekland To Co-Star in Minsky’s,” Box Office, June 26, 1967, p12; “A Minsky Burlecue Theme Needs N.Y.,” Variety, August 2, 1967, 18; “Tony Curtis Withdraws from Minsky’s Pic,” Box Office, August 7, 1967, pW-2; “Wreckers Refrain,” Variety, September 27, 1967, p28; Lee Beaupre, “Costliest Ever on Hand Held Camera; UA’s Calculated Risks As To Minsky’s,” Variety, December 6, 1967, 3; “Norman Lear Digs ABC,” Variety, December 4, 1968, p22); “Dexter Maitland Is Alive and Real,” Variety, December 11, 1968, 4.

William Friedkin’s autobiography pictured below is immensely informative of the director’s somewhat controversial career.

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