The Frightened City (1961) ***

Sean Connery in an early role as a gangster is not the only reason for watching this brisk British thriller about a London protection racket. Primarily told from the point-of-view of the bad guys, this explores how a ruthless Mr Big (Herbert Lom) builds up a criminal empire. Lom, a bent accountant, brings together the six major gangs involved in extorting money from pubs and stores into a democratically-run syndicate.  Lom then moves on to demanding bigger sums from bigger enterprises such as construction businesses. However, when the gangsters fall out they go to war.  

This film is way ahead of the game in presenting gangsters as displaying any intelligence. Generally, they were depicted as brutes who ruled by force. But criminality at the top level demanded as much organization as in a legitimate business. Personalities had to be harnessed to work together rather than shoot each other on sight. Such skills had to exist in order for gangsters to operate on any scale. This picture examines how this was done.

The cops led by John Gregson are almost a sub-plot and the story would have adequately run its course without their involvement. Gregson sails close to the wind hoping to “tilt the scale of justice in our direction for a change.” Connery doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes as a karate-expert cat-burglar turned enforcer. Connery’s involvement with the syndicate ends when his code of honor is breached and he turns on his employers. His code is not so sacrosanct that it prevents him cheating on his girlfriend. But he does display the virility to fill James Bond’s shoes.

There’s far more violence that would be expected in a British crime picture. Night clubs, shops and pubs are wrecked and there’s plenty of fisticuffs and when the gangsters go head-to-head they upgrade to grenades. There’s a bit more plot than the running time can deal with so director (and producer and co-writer) John Lemont occasionally resorts to cliché devices like newspaper headlines. Canadian Lemont – most famous for writing the first serial hon on ITV, Sixpenny Corner – was an auteur of the old-fashioned (and unheralded) kind, and previously writer-director of The Shakedown (1960).  Triple-hyphenates, while rare in the movie business, were generally of a high calibre such as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so Lemont was in good company, and clearly, in consequence, the movie that appeared reflected his own vision.

Top billing was a step up for Lom and he made the most of it, delivering a suave villain among the thugs. Gregson (The Captain’s Table, 1959) was a solid British star and ideal cop material (he was later British television’s Gideon). Yvonne Romaine, as Connery’s new squeeze, a nightclub singer exploited by Lom more for her looks than her voice, was known to audiences after Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In only her second film Scottish television actress Olive McFarland was Connery’s dumped girlfriend. Unusually, for a British picture at this time, the theme tune written by Norrie Paramour was covered by The Shadows and turned into a hit.

At this point in his career, Connery had already had two bites of the cherry without much success – romancing Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place (1958) and Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). This was three films before his breakthrough with Dr No (1962) but the Pressbook showed signs that he was headed for the heights.  Co-star Yvonne Romaine (and her distinctive body measurements) were accorded three separate stories in the Pressbook, compared to one each for Lom and Alfred Marks, at that point better known as a comedian, but none of Connery. But Connery (and Romaine) outshone their co-stars when it came to the advertising campaign.  

Producers were contractually bound in relation to the size of credits that appeared on any advertising. But there were no such regulations regarding the visuals of an advert. Although top-billed, Lom is  not shown on any of the adverts. Given greatest prominence was Yvonne Romaine. There were thirteen different ads and she appeared in them all. Although Connery was third-billed and she was two rungs below in the credit stakes, he was the junior partner when it came to the artwork. While, Connery appeared in eleven in only one did he overshadow Romaine and in another they were visually-speaking accorded roughly the same status. But otherwise, she hogged the adverts.  

The Pressbook was small by American standards, consisting of six A3 pages, the bulk of which was given over to adverts. But what it lacked in pages it made up for in taglines – of which there were six main types. Of course, Connery would become an “Untouchable” in the later Brian dePalma film.

The picture was not seen much in the United States, sent out in first run as the lower half of a double bill in only a handful of big cities, so there’s a fair chance it’s completely unknown except to Connery completists. But it’s certainly worth a look.

Gambit (1966) ****

The heist movie – as epitomised by The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1958) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1954) – had tended to be a relatively low-budget affair. Top-ranking stars steered clear because complicated plot often got in the way of character development  In the highly polished and entertaining Gambit British director Ronald Neame’s riff on the genre involved a narrative shift worthy of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and, of course, Akira Kurosawa who had with Rashomon (1950) single-handedly invented the complex point-of-view.

Neame brought another couple of other aces out of the deck. First of all, there was the fun of watching over-confident thief Michael Caine’s apparently foolproof plans come unstuck. Secondly, in a romantic dynamic in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934) the less accomplished female (Shirley MacLaine) proves more accomplished than the male.

Gambit was also a clear demonstration of the power of the female star not just in the plot complications but from the fact that Caine owed his big Hollywood break to MacLaine, the actress having the power of veto over the male lead and, equally, contractual right to choose her co-star. The movie went through an interesting development phase. The original script by director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) had Cary Grant in the central (i.e MacLaine) role. Rewritten by Jack Davies (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965) and in his movie debut Alvin Sargent (The Stalking Moon, 1968) the main character underwent a gender shift.

After Psycho (1960) audiences had become used to being messed around. Stars could be killed off halfway through or not appear (Operation Crossbow a classic example) until well into the movie. Neame was not quite so bold but what audiences made of the usually garrulous MacLaine being rendered mute during the early part of the picture was anybody’s guess, perhaps the dumb show was a joke in itself. But lack of dialogue did not prevent MacLaine from stealing the show and proving what an adept comedienne she was, a barrage of submissive looks enough to send an audience into hysterics.

In essence, Caine plays two characters. In the opening segment he is the brash, cocky  English gentleman-thief at the top of his game, bossing MacLaine around, gulling his mark (Herbert Lom) with an audacious plan to steal an expensive sculpture. In his version of events his plan goes off without a hitch. But when we switch to the MacLaine perspective, in which nothing goes according to plan, his cool demeanour is sorely tested and he turns into a frustrated idiot. Watching the movie now, you can almost imagine that the MacLaine character, with a host of useless facts at her fingertips, was making fun of Caine’s well-known love of trivia, but that predated the actor’s acknowledgement of this aspect of his real-life character.

What makes the movie so much fun is that both parts of the film work and for the same reasons: believable characters, exciting heists and plenty of twists. The initial premise is that Caine recruits Hong Kong dancer MacLaine due to her startling resemblance to the late wife of Arab billionaire Herbert Lom as part of a ploy to relieve him of a priceless artefact. While Lom is falling for MacLaine, Caine moves in for the kill with an ingenious heist. Mission accomplished he pays her off. But in the real version of the story, as seen through her eyes, Lom does not fall for the ridiculous scam, Caine’s plan fails to work until MacLaine comes to the rescue. Meanwhile, MacLaine has fallen for Caine, but does not want to be in love with a criminal. Although Caine initially resists his own emotions, he, too, takes the romantic plunge except that to win her he may have to lose what he prizes more.

As I mentioned it is awash with twists and the heists themselves are exceptionally well done but the screen chemistry between the two leads is terrific. Caine, who had otherwise been in control in his previous starring roles as the upper-class officer in Zulu (1963), spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and the womanising Alfie (1966) – The Wrong Box (1966) was an ensemble item – was taking a chance in playing a character who would effectively play second fiddle to the star and in terms of the thief often appears out-of-control. MacLaine was more obviously in her safety zone. Hollywood spent a lot of time investing in screen partnerships, mostly failing, but this pairing certainly succeeded.

Gunn (1967) *

Director Blake Edwards was so confident that he could repeat on the big screen the small screen success of Peter Gunn (1958-1961) that the movie was promoted as the first in a series. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Although the private eye genre had been given a fillip by Paul Newman’s shamus Harper (1966) the bulk of screen investigation has been subsumed wholesale by spies. And the amount of time that had passed between the demise of the original television series and the movie revival – only six years – was hardly enough for nostalgia to kick in. Nor did star Craig Stevens have any box office appeal – this was his first picture in nearly a decade.  

A James-Bond-rip off credit sequence with girls dancing to a psychedelic background sets up a more contemporary picture than the one unveiled which is as old-fashioned as they come and, except for an increased budget, betrays its television origins. A few characters, Gunn’s girlfriend Edie  (Helen Traubel), a nightclub singer, Mother (Laura Devon) the owner of the eponymous nightclub, and Lt Jacoby  are reprised from the series although played by different actors. 

The dialogue is sometimes slick – “Call me Samantha” – “Samantha” – “You called” and sometimes corny as when prior to an explosion that knocks the hero sideways is the line “may God strike me down.”

Gunn is hired by a nightclub owner Mother to find out who killed a gangster who had once saved the detective’s life. Fingers point at another gangster but it soon becomes clear that the obvious may not be correct. Making the biggest impression is Sherry Jackson as the aforementioned Samantha who turns up unannounced in Gunn’s flat. Plus there’s the Henry Mancini score. The only element that makes it contemporary is some gender-confusion but otherwise it’s a fairly flat story and relies far too much on its television origins.

I caught this on British channel Talking Pictures. There is a DVD available. You might find the original series more to your taste.

Arabesque (1966) ****

Hitchcock had set the standard for the glossy thriller. But the bar was set so high few others reached it. Stanley Donen fitted that category with Charade (1963) with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and now he was back for a second crack but minus either star. And the replacement male lead was less of a star and more of a liability.

By this point in the 1960s, Gregory Peck’s career was pretty much at a standstill. Prestige had not saved Behold a Pale Horse (1964) from commercial disaster, thriller Mirage (1965) went the same way, other projects – The Martian ChroniclesIce Station Zebra – failed to get off the ground or like The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-Ling-a-Ling were abandoned once filming began.  So he was the main beneficiary of Cary Grant’s decision to retire.

In some ways Peck was an adequate replacement but lacked the older actor’s gift for comedy and failed to master the art of the double-take. Arabesque was almost a counterpoint to Charade. In the earlier movie Audrey Hepburn is continually suspicious of Cary Grant. The new movie sees a gender reversal, Peck constantly puzzled as to where Sophia Loren’s loyalties lie.

The story itself is quite simple. A code has been put inside a hieroglyphic and a variety of people are trying to get hold of it either to decipher the secret within or to stop someone else finding out what it contains. When the scientist who has the code is killed, the man who ordered the killing, the sinister Beshraavi (Alan Badel), approaches Peck to unravel the code, but is turned down. Professor Peck is then kidnapped by an Arab prime minster (Carl Duering), whom he admires, to ask him to take up the job. Beshraavi’s provocatively-dressed wife Sophia Loren, flirting outrageously with Peck, is also after the code. 

There follows more twists and double-crosses than you could shake a stick at, leaving the amenable Peck mightily confused.  “What is it about you,” he asks Loren at one point, “that makes you so hard to believe?” It looks like director Donen is playing a variation of the famous Raymond Chandler maxim, that when a plot begins to flag, “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” Sometimes there is actually a weapon, but mostly it’s just another twist. If Peck doesn’t know what the hell is going on, then the audience is in the same boat.

But it is stylish, set in appealing parts of Britain (antique university, Ascot), Loren decked out in glamorous Dior outfits and even Peck gets to wear a morning suit. Drop in a couple of action sequences, Hitchcock-style chases in a zoo and pursuit by a combine harvester, Peck nearly run over by horses in a race, and the pair of them having strayed into a builder’s yard facing demolition by the British equivalent of a wrecking ball. But the standout scene is when Loren hides Peck in her shower (curtain drawn) while being interrogated by her suspicious husband and then steps in naked and then they play footsie with dropped soap. And she proceeds to expound, “If I was standing stark naked in front of Mr Pollock (Peck), he’d probably yawn.”

Beshraavi’s jealousy over his wife’s flirtation with Peck adds another element of tension. Badel is a very sinuous, sensuous bad guy, who can turn a harmless massage into a matter of life and death. He also has a pet falcon with a habit of ripping people’s cheeks. But even in the face of obvious threats, Peck holds his own. In one scene as Badel attempts to retrieve what he believes is the code from Peck’s dinner plate, where it has fallen from the hiding place in the professor’s clothing, Peck taps the man’s invading fingers with the sharp tines of his fork.

And there is some accomplished dialogue. When Peck offers the falcon a date and is brusquely told the bird of prey only eats meat, he responds, “I thought he looked at it rather wistfully.” Badel retorts, sharply, “It must have been your fingers.”

Donen had not made a film in the three years since Charade, so there was some critical feeling that he was a bit rusty and used experimentation – big close-ups, odd camera angles – to cover this up. He was living in London by this point, and had been for nearly a decade. But there was very little that fazed him in any genre, and he had switched from musicals like Singing in’ the Rain (1952) to romantic drama (Indiscreet, 1958) and comedy (The Grass Is Greener, 1960). And though there is no question the film would have been better with Cary Grant, Peck proves a reasonable substitute. The movie’s main drawback is the lack of romance since falling in love with someone you believe to be a traitor or a compulsive liar is a hard trick to pull off. But if you like the idea of pitting your wits against the screenwriters, then this is one for you.

Five Golden Dragons (1967) ***

Producer Harry Alan Towers, himself something of a legend, had put together a quite superb cast – rising Eurostar Klaus Kinski (A Bullet for the General, 1967), Hollywood veterans Robert Cummings (Dial M for Murder, 1954), George Raft (Scarface, 1932), Dan Duryea (Black Bart, 1948) and Brian Donlevy (The Great McGinty, 1940) plus British horrormeister Christopher Lee and Rupert Davies (television’s Maigret). Throw in Margaret Lee (Secret Agent, Super Dragon, 1966) and Austrians Maria Perschy (Kiss, Kiss, Kill, Kill, 1966) and  Maria Rohm (Venus in Furs, 1969).

And all in aid of an enjoyable thriller set in Hong Kong that dances between genuine danger and spoof. I mean, what can you make of a chase involving rickshaws? Or a race over bobbing houseboats parked in a harbor? There’s a Shakespeare-quoting cop (Davies) whose sidekick often out-quotes him. And there’s British-born Margaret Lee, a cult figure in Italian circles, belting out the title song and just for the hell of it Japanese actress Yukari Ito in a cameo as a nightclub singer.

A newly arrived businessman is chucked off the top of a building by an associate of Kinski  but not before leaving a note that falls into the hands of the police. The note says, “Five Golden Dragons” and is addressed to Cummings’ character. No reason is ever given for Cummings involvement. No matter. He is soon involved via another route after falling for two beautiful sisters, one of whom (Perschy) turns up dead but also not before springing a bit more of the plot which is that the titular dragons are the heads of an evil syndicate that is meeting for the first time in Hong Kong.

In a nod at the spy genre, there are secret chambers opened by secret levers. There are double-crosses, chases, confrontations, and lots of sunglass removal. Apart from breaks here and there for a song or two, director Jeremy Summers (Ferry Across the Mersey, 1964) keeps the whole enterprise zipping along, even if he is stuck with Cummings. In truth, Cummings is a bit of a liability, acting-wise. While the rest of the cast takes the film seriously, he acts as if he’s a Bob Hope throwback, cracking wisecracks when confronted with danger or beautiful women, or, in fact, most of the time, which would be fine if he wasn’t a couple of decades too old (he was 57) to carry off the part of a playboy and if the jokes were funny. 

Towers (under the pseudonym Peter Welbeck responsible for the screenplay, loosely based on an Edgar Wallace story) was a maverick but prolific British producer who would graduate to the likes of Call of the Wild (1972) with Charlton Heston but at this point was churning out exotic thrillers (The Face of Fu Manchu, 1965) and mysteries (Ten Little Indians, 1965) and had a good eye for what made a movie tick. This one ticks along quite nicely never mind the bonus of a sinister George Raft and the likes of Margaret Lee and Maria Rohm (Towers’ wife).

Petla (2020) ****

Ambitious young cop succumbs to corruption in a battle royal in Polish pimpland.

Director Patryk Vega is the bad boy of Polish filmmaking, a far cry from the austere heights of the arthouse-acclaimed Andrej Wadja (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958) or Krzysztof Kielowski (The Three Colours trilogy, 1993-1994). However, what’s often forgotten in our consumption of foreign films is that what we see are films that have been commercial hits in their own country – Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), for example, was the biggest film of the year in its native Italy. But, somehow, with the advent of the arthouse circuit that approach to distribution seems to have passed us by. Although huge hits in Poland, Vega’s films are not only hard to find on the big screen but rarely reviewed.

Petla follows second generation cop Danila (Antoni Krolikowski) from innocence to depravity to redemption in a high-octane thriller. Even Scorsese and Tarantino would wince at some of the violence shown here but then Vega is dealing with a more vicious type of gangster than even the worst of the American Mafia or run-of-the-mill nuthead and, equally, has little truck with the pretentiousness that often mars the work of these two. Vega wants to tell a story and he does John Wick-style it with verve and pace.

Danila wants to be elevated to the prestigious detective division without putting in a decade of plodding. So he recruits twin minor Russian gangsters, wiping clean their slate in return for inside information on bigger criminals, in this case terrorists. At this point he is an upstanding, courageous cop, dealing with ineffectual superiors and often idiotic colleagues. Married, his wife expecting their first child, he resists temptation of the sexual variety.

Initial success leads him into the Subcarpathian netherworld of sex for sale and he comes up with the bright idea of taking control of a brothel where he can spy on the rich and powerful clientele with the idea of exposing the ministers, businessmen, priests and government officials who use the premises. Soon high ideals turn into individual enterprise and, funded by the Russian GRU, he sets up a high class brothel, the Imperium, to film the goings-on and blackmail the clients. He begins a slide into excess that leads to paranoia and loss.

Getting to this stage involves a fair deal of elimination of the opposition, including an extremely violent Englishman, Ukrainian thugs and a prominent boxer. Sometimes pure violence is the optimum method but occasionally it is psychology, seducing, for example, the abused wife of the boxer in order to parade the romance, a technique that results in the mental disintegration of the seemingly invincible prizefighter.

But Danila has enemies. In true Vega style, these usually start out the film as friends or sexual partners. In this instance a female prosecutor Alicja (Katarzyna Warnke from Botoks) is on his case in revenge for being cast aside.  

One of the hallmarks of a Vega film is that women often come out on top, previous examples being Botoks (2017) and Mafia Women (2018). While there is certainly a lot of misogyny and in Petla, in particular, the whores are treated abominably, he has put the spotlight on a whole tribe of strong women who show as little remorse as their male counterparts and are as equally likely to endorse or participate in brutal acts of violence. Here, to get Danila’s wife to rat him out, the prosecutor arranges for the wife to be seduced by a handsome stranger.

Both genders are treated with compassion, another Vega hallmark. When Danila descends into paranoia, Vega cleverly switches the audience away from delight at this retribution into sympathy for his predicament once he begins to seek redemption. In truth, he has earlier been portrayed as a rounded individual, his delight at becoming a father very evident. Men are never so good at emotion as women and it is the shots of the distraught Alicja that put us firmly on her side even though she is originally portrayed as ruthless in matters of the heart, demanding that Danila cast his wife aside (“I don’t like competition”) before enjoying her sexual favors.  

And it would not be Vega without swipes at official incompetence and limelight-seeking bosses. Danila’s boss ignores his first anti-criminal triumphs because they were not media-friendly and at one point the entrapment and capture of a terrorist by said boss has to be done again because the cameras did not work first time round.  

Black humor is never far away, either. As a beginner cop, Danila is told never to look into the eyes of a dead person. So he is relieved to find that the first corpse he encounters has his head blown off. Farmers threaten to stab him with a pitchfork unless he gives the kiss of life to a dying man – blowing air into the man’s mouth only results in blood flowing faster from his wound. Cops routinely make stupid errors. Invading a thug’s house stun grenades missing the target deafen the cops instead.

And the film has a sting in the tail, the enterprise turning out not in the way it was surmised. Petla is based on a true story, although Vega has clearly taken liberties with the reality. Even if wholly fictional, it would be believable, Vega having the ability to invest the maddest of schemes with authenticity because the characters in his pictures are invariably so human and believable. the title, by the way, is translated as Noose.

There are a couple of anomalies in the film’s marketing. The poster is pretty explicit “sex is power” but the trailer focuses instead on Danila and his wife with sex and violence very muted.

Polish films are hard to come by on the big screen. Sometimes they only play a couple of days in a particular cinema. I saw this as the second part of my Monday night double bill this week – the other film being Bill and Ted Face the Music – but whereas I caught the first at the Odeon I had to high tail it to a Cineworld to catch the Polish film.

If you want to sample Vega’s wares before committing to a big screen outing you can see his debut Pitbull (2005) on Youtube.

Masquerade (1965) ***

Made just before director Basil Dearden embarked on Khartoum (1965), this is probably best-known these days for being screenwriter – and ace self-publicist – William Goldman’s first credit. It’s based on Castle Minerva by Victor Canning whose previous filmed books included The Golden Salamander (1950) with Trevor Howard, The Venetian Bird (1952)  with Richard Todd, and The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) with Robert Taylor.

I’d like to say this is a self-aware thriller with spy and comedic elements but it veers awful close to either a cult film or a mess. Basic story has Cliff Robertson hired by former wartime commander and now British intelligence agent Jack Hawkins to look after an Arab princeling who has been kidnapped by the British (so much for Brits always being on the side of the angels) to help seal an oil concession in the Gulf.

Theoretically, the kidnapping is for the teenager’s own good, to prevent him being assassinated before he ascends to the throne…see it’s getting awfully complicated already. Anyway, it turns out he actually has been kidnapped by Hawkins who has turned rogue in order to fund his retirement. The boy is held in some kind of fortress/castle in Spain and then another more sinister one.

Robertson, who looks half the time as if wondering how the hell he got into this, meantime falls for the seductive charms of Marisa Mell who he thinks is a smuggler intent on stealing his boat but a) is part of the kidnap gang and b) in love with him enough to help him escape when he in turn is captured.

Did I mention the film also included a circus, a clown act, a gunfight on a dam, characters left dangling on a rope bridge, a lady in red, a balancing act along a perilous ledge, entrapment in a wine tanker (huh?) and an animal cage (double huh?), a vulture, men in bowler hats…

It is enlivened by visual gags – ultra-large footprints (from somebody wearing flippers). The dialogue sparkles as when the prince, with an overactive entitlement gland, says, “I am practically divine,” to which Hawkins deadpans “Your Highness, you are irresistible.” Add to that various cliché-twisting scenes – the double-dealing Marisa Mell now overcome by love, says to Robertson: “Ask me anything you want and I will tell you the truth,” but every question he asks solicits the response, “I don’t know.” Then, imprisoned in a cage, after protracted cobbling together of lengths of bamboo to steal keys they turn out to be the wrong keys.

Throw in British propriety  – Robertson’s substantial fee for risking his life is reduced to a miserable sum once tax has been deducted. And a superb Arab charge on horseback with tracking cameras, either a rehearsal for Khartoum or the scene that got Dearden the gig.

Actually, the more I write about it the more fun it sounds and I wish it were, but it does not quite gel. Robertson and Mell don’t convince – Robertson talks through gritted teeth without suggesting he has much inner grit – although Hawkins and other British stalwarts like Charles Gray and Bill Fraser and Frenchman Michel Piccoli deliver the goods. It should have been a straightforward three-star job or – if qualifying as a cult – in the five-star class. It is definitely not an outright stinker. Perhaps best filed under “curiosity.”

The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) ***

Unless you were a fan of the more permissive pictures at the end of the 1960s or kept a close eye on the gossip columns – or for that matter Playboy magazine – you were unlikely to have come across slinky blonde Daniele Gaubert. A former teen model and supporting actress in a number of French and Italian films at the start of the 1960s, she had a brief brush with Hollywood as Yul Brynner’s girlfriend in United Artists’ Flight from Ashiya (1964) but then married Rhadames Trujillo, son of the Dominican Republic dictator. The year after The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl she starred in Radley Metzger’s provocative Camille 2000 which set pulses racing especially at the censor’s office. Then marriage beckoned again, this time to French Olympic triple gold medallist skier Jean-Claude Killy with whom she made her last picture The Snow Job (1972) also known, depending on where you lived, as The Ski Raiders and The Great Ski Caper.

She only made eighteen movies but The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl is by far the standout. A taut thriller with plenty of twists and stylish action scenes, the French-Italian co-production  was the only film of documentary film maker Edouard Logerau and that background helps shape the movie with many of the most thrilling sequences lacking musical accompaniment.

Female empowerment is not normally associated with crime, given that organized crime is generally organized by men. But burglary is a different matter, lending itself to non-gender-specific individual enterprise. Though there are safes to break, there’s no glass ceiling in this brand of thievery.

Gaubert plays a cat burglar ironically known as “the lone wolf” (as in the original title) who is forced to trade her freedom by stealing a cache of drugs for the police in order to apprehend a criminal mastermind (Sacha Pitoeff). (Maybe this notion inspired Luc Besson’s Nikita.)  Her sidekick is Michael Duchaussoy, seconded from his usual job as an embassy press attache, on the grounds that he can lip-read (which proves more than a gimmick as the plot unfolds).

Given that this was all shot “in camera” – Christopher Nolan’s favourite phrase – without the benefit of CGI or, so it would appear, much in the way of bluescreen, the burglary scenes are pretty impressive. For a kick-off, Gaubert is a sexy as you can get in a skin-tight cat-suit. Furthermore, her character calls on skills from her previous occupation as a trapeze artist. While the director doesn’t match Hitchcock’s in the tension-racking stakes, the sheer verve of the burglary takes the breath away. The first burglary – before she is caught – takes place at a fancy chateau where a party is in full swing (owners in residence less likely to take extra precautions to hide their valuables), Gaubert nips over a wall, slips up a tree,  uses a line thrower (a type of harpoon) to connect tree to building, and then proceeds to walk along the tightrope. Mission accomplished, she zooms off in a sports car, only stopping to remove false tyre treads and strip out of her costume before hiding her ill-gotten gains in a secret compartment at the back of the fridge.

High-wire act for the first burglary.

The police burglary is in an office block. She and the lip-reader are holed up in an apartment opposite watching via a telescope. Although they pass the time in gentle flirtation, especially as she favours revealing outfits, she is not quite as imprisoned as it might seem and is already hatching her own plans to outwit her captors. This burglary is even more dangerous, in the pouring rain for a start, across Parisian rooftops, and involving a trapeze and ropes.

Thereafter, plot twists come thick and fast after this. She escapes to Switzerland, pursued by lip-reader (to whom she has clearly formed an attachment), cops and furious drug runners. Eventually re-captured she agree to another official burglary as a way of finally trapping Mr Big.

The tone is lightened by repartee and some interesting characterization. The lone wolf turns out to have very strong principles that prevent her just running off. Mr Big is a stamp aficionado. A lava lamp is turned into a weapon. Instead of counting to five before killing someone, a bad guy does the countdown according to the number of people diving into a swimming pool. Gaubert fools her captors into thinking they have a flat tyre by dangling her handbag over the edge of the door until it bumps into the tyre and makes the thwock-thwock of a burst tyre. “Survivors give me goose flesh,” quips a thug.

The closest comparison is not Hitchcock but Danger: Diabolik (1968) featuring John Philip Law which has a definite comic book riff. And you might also point to Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) or even, for a self-contained independent woman, to Raquel Welch’s Fathom (1967. But this lone wolf is ice-cold. Blonde is not enough. She is one step ahead of the law and the criminals. There are hints of a tragic past – a trapeze artists requires a partner, for example.

Chase across the rooftops of Paris for the breathless finale.

The last shot has Genault triumphant on a Paris rooftop. There is a nod to Hitchcock (think Rear Window) in the use of a telescopic framing device for many scenes, giving them a voyeuristic aspect. Sure, a bigger budget and a better supporting cast – and perhaps a more obvious romance – might have lifted the picture but Genault’s presence ensures that the film does not lack style. Definitely deserves a more appreciative audience.

Point Blank (1967)****

The Man With Half A Name doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Man With No Name. Lee Marvin’s professional thief Walker (first name absent) is a close cousin of the spaghetti western’s amoral gunslinger. But where Leone is disinclined to fill in the emotional blanks in his anti-hero’s story, British director John Boorman, making his Hollywood debut, feels obliged to look for redemptive features in keeping with American tradition.

Along with several unnecessary arty elements, that gets in the way of a brilliant character portrait. The movie also suffers from critical assessment, not in the manner of bad reviews, but from an irrelevant and misleading insistence on discovering  the film’s “true meaning.”

However, where Boorman gets it right, the movie is a cracker. The bursts of brutal explosive violence still shock, Walker a force as unstoppable as The Terminator, while representing the Mafia as a faceless corporation is a stunning concept. Walker refuses to recognize the dictum that there is no honor among thieves and expects repaid the money stolen from him by a Mafia henchman. In his mind payment will come either in cash or retribution. There is double-crossing aplenty, but Walker is ready for it.

Boorman’s palette is fascinating, the grey bleakness of early scenes giving way to yellow (even the pillar in a parking garage is painted yellow) and other colors. And he has learned from Hitchcock how to apply silence and use natural sound effects like footsteps.

But there are some changes to Richard Stark’s original novel that the movie can do without. The introduction of the abandoned Alcatraz, for a start, is an illogical nonsense, cinematically stylistic though it is. Walker, as shown in the original novel is far too clever to allow himself to be led to a place so open to ambush. Nor would he allow himself to be emotionally blackmailed into doing the job that caused the trouble; he would have walked away from someone as unstable as the double-crossing Mal Reese (John Vernon).

The ambiguous ending, where Walker appears to fade away, issues unresolved, also attracted odd critical theories when, having spent ninety minutes demonstrating the gangster’s destructive capacity, it seems more likely to me that the two Mafia gents left alone with him on Alcatraz would be in the greater peril.

That said, the rest of the picture has an inbuilt dynamic and Marvin’s laconic menacing performance is mesmeric. By comparison Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen was garrulous. The original novel was called The Hunter and Walker ruthlessly stalks his prey even though they are some of the most dangerous men alive. Angie Dickinson is dropped in to provide some emotional core and a scene of him as a younger man courting his wife is along the same lines. Ignore the arthouse elements and run a mile from critical theories and you are in for one hell of a ride.