Once a Thief (1965) ****

Latter-day film noir gem with terrific cast filmed in black-and-white and often at night that crams into a taut storyline  different slants of the themes of the con-going-straight, the vendetta and the double-cross. While Hollywood at this point had imported platoons of foreign beauties in the Sophia Loren-Elke Sommer vein, there had been less interest in the male of the species with the exception of a small British contingent and possibly Omar Sharif, on whom the jury was still out. 

MGM was gambling on Frenchman Alain Delon (The Leopard, 1963) to alter industry perceptions at the same time as pushing new contract star Ann-Margret (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) along more dramatic lines away from the glossy puffery that had made her name and which relied more upon her physical assets than acting potential. Had she continued in this vein, her career would certainly have taken a different turn. 

Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon), former minor hood turned San Francisco truck driver, is happily married to Kristine (Ann-Margret) with a young daughter they both adore. But tough cop Mike Vido (Van Heflin), with a reputation for brutality, is determined to pin a murder on him in revenge for purportedly being shot by him early in Eddie’s previous career. Eddie manages for a time to resist the overtures of brother Walter (Jack Palance) to participate in a million-dollar diamond. But when he loses his job, that changes.

While the robbery naturally takes center stage, that’s not actually the dramatic highlight. Instead, it is the Eddie-Kristine relationship. Instead of Eddie being the usual down-on-his-luck ex-con, he has clearly turned his life around, so much so he can afford a $500 down payment on a small boat. A loving father, he accepts without rancor when his daughter interrupts a night-time lovemaking session. And he’s stylish, too, wearing an iconic sheepskin jacket and driving a snazzy 1931 Ford Model A roadster. Kristine just wants a normal home life, desiring domesticity above all else, but swallowing her pride when she needs to go out to work in a night club to make ends meet, for a time rendering the unemployed Eddie a house husband.

But Eddie is not all he initially seems. His tough streak has not been smothered by the good life. In a brilliant Catch-22 situation he gets violent when an employment benefits clerk refuses to accept that Eddie was fired from his job, instead believing his employer’s claim that he resigned – the former triggering relief payment, the latter zilch. But that’s nothing to the beating he inflicts on Kristine when, pride injured that he is not the breadwinner, he discovers the skimpy costume she wears for her job.

Adding to the unusual mix are Vido and Walter, the former’s brooding presence somewhat undercut by the fact that in middle age he still lives with his mother, the latter while a big-time gangster letting nothing get in the way of strong fraternal feeling for Eddie. You won’t be surprised to learn that double cross is in the air, not when Walter employs a creepy sunglass-wearing henchman Sargantanas (John Davis Chandler) who appears to have more than a passing interest in little girls. The climax, which contains both emotional and dramatic twist, involves redemption and sacrifice.

Delon has played the cold-eyed ruthless but romantic character before, but here adds depth from his paternal commitment and as a man turned inside out by the system.

Ann-Margret is the revelation, truly believable as mother first, sexy wife second, and her anguish in the later parts of the picture showcase a different level of acting skill to anything she previously essayed. This role immediately preceded her man-eater in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) which attracted far more attention and considerably bigger box office and it would have been interesting to see how her career might have panned out had Once a Thief been the critical and commercial triumph. She probably did not attain such acting heights again until Carnal Knowledge (1971). And I did wonder, as with Daliah Lavi (The Demon, 1963) before her whether her acting skills were too often overshadowed in the Hollywood mindset by her physical attributes.  

Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963) is excellent as the cop tormented by the idea that a villain is walking free, Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966) is good as always and character actor Jeff Corey (The Cincinnati Kid) puts in an appearance as Vido’s whip-cracking boss. This marks the debut of Tony Musante (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970). Watch for a cameo by screenwriter Zekial Marko, who wrote the original book.

This represented another change of pace for director Ralph Nelson, Oscar-nominated for the Lilies of the Field (1963) and also known for box office comedy hit Father Goose (1964). His  use of an experimental extremely light-sensitive camera eliminated the bulky lighting commensurate with filming at night, bringing freshness and greater freedom to those scenes. His natural gift for drama ensured that the emotional was given as much prominence as the action. Racial awareness was demonstrated by the opening scene in a jazz club where African Americans were clearly welcome, hardly the norm at that time.

The picture was shot on location in San Francisco including Nob Hill, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. To add authenticity, Nelson employed as extras or in bit parts people famed for different reasons in the area. There was Armenian Al Nalbandian who owned the Cable Car flower store on Union Square. William ‘Tiny’ Baskin was a highly successful diamond cutter, owner of the city’s biggest diamond collection – because of his size he was ideal to play a night club bouncer. The North Beach night club provided cameos for Big Al and resident jazz drummer Russell Lee, who both play themselves. Local singer Toy Yat Mar plays the woman murdered at the start of the film. Also appearing were piano player Jimmy Diamond, bus driver Wed Trindle and belly dancer Shereef.

Mention again of a terrific score by Lalo Schifrin, especially the bold drum solo that played out over the credit sequence. Schifrin’s work on the film was showcased in a featurette aimed at schools and colleges. Russell Lee’s drumming so impressed Ralph Nelson that the opening credits were rewritten around his drum solo.

Catch-Up: Alain Delon has featured in the Blog in reviews for Lost Command (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and Farewell, Friend (1968); check out also Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) and Ann-Margret in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).

House of Cards (1968) ***

American boxer Reno Davis (George Peppard) stumbles on an international conspiracy when hired by rich widow Anne de Villemont (Inger Stevens) in Paris to look after her eight-year-old son Paul (Barnaby Shaw). All roads eventually lead to Rome and a showdown with arch-conspirator Leschenahut (Orson Welles) in this thriller which throws in a couple of measures of Gaslight (1944) and, more obviously, North by Northwest (1959) to the extent of Anne being an icy blonde of the Eva Marie Saint persuasion and the couple, on the run, sharing a compartment on a train.

The boy’s previous tutor has been murdered. After months in a sanatorium, Anne, paranoid about her son being kidnapped, is in virtual house arrest in the family mansion, watched over by arrogant psychiatrist Dr Morillon (Keith Michell) who has diagnosed her as unstable, neurotic and a danger to the boy.

After an assassin on a bridge on the River Seine takes potshots at Reno and Paul, Reno is framed for murder but escaping from the police returns to the mansion to find it empty, the furniture covered in dust sheets. I half-expected Reno to be told that the job was all in his imagination and that Anne did not exist, but instead finds out that mother and son have been taken to a castle in Dijon, in reality a fortress with a platoon of armed guards. Only Paul has been already been transported to Italy. So it’s attempted rescue, imprisonment, escape, fistfights, chase, clever moves and countermoves, twists and double twists as Reno and the still icy Anne head for Rome.

In among the mayhem are a few humorous moments, a play on the Trevi fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, a monk mistaken for a killer, a bored girl only too happy to be taken hostage, an over-familiar American who gives away valuable secrets because he mistakes Reno for a co-conspirator, Dr Morillon making the error of treating Reno as a servant. And characters involved in assisting escape extract a high price, one seeking financial reward, another that her husband be killed in the process. There is also a flirtatious but spiky maid Jeanne-Marie (Perette Pradier) and a couple of excellent reversals.

Reno is somewhat innovative in the weaponry department, the hook of a fishing rod, for example, while the son is rather handy with a pistol. But given the opposition are armed with machine guns, knives and swords that seems only fair.

George Peppard continues the excellent run of acting form that started in Tobruk (1967) and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968), developing his own niche, dropping the innate arrogance of The Blue Max (1965) and Operation Crossbow (1965), no chip on the shoulder. Here he is a good bit more attractive as a screen presence, a nice line with the ladies, more than able to take care of himself, a sprinkling of wit, completely at ease. Inger Stevens comes off well though her psychological problems and concerns for her son get in the way of any burgeoning romance with Peppard. But she has quite a range of emotions to get through, from wondering if she is mad, to dealing with the controlling family, and letting go of her son enough to allow the boy to bond with Reno, and despite her vast wealth down-to-earth enough to see a toothbrush as an essential when on the run.

Orson Welles (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), as ever, looms large over everything, with dialogue so good you always have the impression he improvised on the spot. Keith Michell, a couple of years away from international fame in BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), does a very good turn as the psychiatrist.

John Guillermin, who directed Peppard in The Blue Max and P.J., has a lot to do to keep the various balls in the air, especially keeping track of a multiplicity of characters. The screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Hud, 1963) pulled this one together from the novel by Stanley Ellin. Francis Lai’s memorable score is worth a mention, with distinctive themes for various parts of the story.

Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) was originally down for the part of Anne and Italian actress Rosemary Dexter (Romeo and Juliet, 1964) has a small part.

Catch-up: The Blog previously reviewed George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961),The Blue Max (1965), Operation Crossbow (1966), Tobruk (1967), P.J (1968) and Pendulum (1969); John Guillermin directed The Blue Max (1965) and P.J; Orson Welles was seen in Is Paris Burning? (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

Pendulum (1969) ****

It’s better to come at this as a drama rather than the thriller it was marketed as. That the name of George Schaefer, the last to make a movie of the directors who shot to fame in television in the 1950s, is attached should be indication that this is character- and issue- rather than action-driven. It’s more about people being sucked into the system, about the vulnerable members of society, who, whether cop or criminal, have no recourse to some kind of higher power to sort their lives out. As such, it’s a satisfying drama.

A-list male stars playing emotionally vulnerable characters was a growing trend in the late 60s. Think of Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer (1968) and Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement (1969) – all reviewed in the Blog, incidentally. Here top Washington detective Frank Matthews (George Peppard) goes through the personal and professional wringer, suspecting wife Adele (Jean Seberg) of an affair then becoming a suspect himself in a murder case. Underlying these plot-driven aspects is an exploration of the political issue of civil liberties, in particular the constitutional rights of criminals, setting this up as one of the earliest law’n’order movies, a trope that would take center stage in films like Dirty Harry (1971).  

At a peak of professional success, having been awarded a medal and promoted to consultant on a subcommittee on Law and Order headed by Senator Augustus Cole (Paul McGrath), Matthews’ ethics come under scrutiny when alleged murder/rapist Paul Sanderson (Robert F. Lyons), whom Matthews had arrested, is freed on a technicality thanks to the efforts of civil liberties attorney Woodrow Wilson King (Richard Kiley).

Matthews appears distracted much of the time trying to keep track of his wife’s whereabouts.  After delivering a speech in Baltimore, he walks the streets in a fug of depression. Meanwhile, King is disturbed by the fact that a man he clearly believes guilty refuses to seek psychiatric help. The question in the audience’s mind is where he will strike next. There’s an excellent scene in King’s office where his secretary Liz (Marj Dusay), delighted at the lawyer’s success in overturning Sanderson’s case, instinctively pulls away from the freed man.

When Adele and lover are murdered in Matthews’ bed, he finds himself on the opposite side of the law, undergoing the kind of treatment he has meted out to so many criminals, quickly aware that circumstantial evidence could find him guilty. Front-page news himself now, suspended from his job by a quick-to-judge senator, emotionally isolated and a laughing stock, he retreats further inside himself. Naturally, he evades subsequent arrest, setting out to track down the killer himself, that leads him into the murkier depths of society from which emotionally-abused villains easily spring. 

Other issues are explored in passing, the independent woman for a start, whether it is wanting to have her own career and not play the stay-at-home wife or considering it fair game – as with Gwen (Faye Dunaway) in The Arrangement – to upturn accepted morality and take a lover.

But the focus remains squarely on Matthews struggling to cope with life running away from  him, falling deeper into despair and into the maw of the criminal justice system which has the knack of bending its own rules. He has never been the saintly cop and there are moments where violence seems the best option, although not the vicious kind later espoused by Inspector Harry Callaghan. It’s ironic that the only solid detection the cop does in the first part of the film is tracking down his wife’s whereabouts.

George Peppard (Tobruk, 1967), generally a much-maligned actor, excels in a part where he can neither charm his way into an audience’s heart, nor confide in someone else about his marital problems, nor resort to action to define his character. That his pain is all internalised shows the acting skills he brings to bear. Oddly enough Jean Seberg (Moment to Moment, 1966), a specialist in emotional pain, takes a different path, coming across as a devious minx, keeping Matthews on the hook while enjoying relations with an ex-lover, whose career, as it happens, has panned out a lot better than her husband.

I only knew Richard Kiley, an American theatrical giant and primarily in the 1960s a television performer, through that mention in Jurassic Park (1993), but he is solid as the attorney who has qualms about releasing a prisoner he knows is guilty. Robert F. Lyons, making his movie debut, brings jittery danger to the unbalanced criminal. Look out also for Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin, 1952) as the cop determined to take Matthews down and Frank Marth (Madigan, 1968) as the subordinate who gives the suspect too much leeway – to his cost. Madeleine Sherwood (Hurry Sundown, 1967) is excellent as the disturbed, needy mother.

George Schaefer, at this point a four-time Emmy award-winner, specialized in thought-provoking drama such as Inherit the Wind (TV, 1965) and Elizabeth the Queen (TV, 1968).  This fits easily into that pattern. The title is a giveaway, too, referring to the pendulum swinging, “perhaps too far,” from all-powerful police to the rights of the accused taking prominence.

This was the only screenplay from Stanley Niss, who died shortly after the film’s release. He was also the producer. And better known as the writer-producer of television series like Jericho (1966-1967) and Hawaiian Eye (1959-1961).

Catch-Up: George Peppard pictures reviewed in the Blog are Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Operation Crossbow (1965), The Blue Max (1966), Tobruk (1967), and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968).

Pendulum is best sourced on Ebay.

P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) ****

Exceptional down-and-dirty thriller and throwback film noir woefully underrated on release but with a brilliant mystery (or two), a touch of satire, red herrings, some great lines, and believable characters. Private eye P.J. Detweiler (George Peppard) is so down on his luck he is willing to play the lover so an errant wife can be photographed in a motel room. What little he earns goes on paying is debts. So he can hardly reject the chance of serious money as bodyguard to Maureen (Gayle Hunnicutt), mistress of rich businessman William Orbison (Raymond Burr), never mind that she initially treats him as a servant.

Orbison has a legendary mean streak – to save on paper secretaries have to type closer to the edge of the sheet, he forces wife Betty (Colette Gray) to account for every dime of her allowance to the point of almost making her beg. Sadism is another character trait. He enjoys watching animals die. The childless millionaire adds his mistress to his will for the sole purpose of upsetting every other potential heir. In front of guests at a prestigious party he forces Betty to acknowledge Maureen’s existence.

The title was changed for British audiences and came from a line in the film.

This apparently wealthy world is riddled with seedy inhabitants, whose only motivation is  greed, all desperate to retain status or inheritance and enjoying Orbison’s largesse, which, despite his miserly nature, he nonetheless flaunts. As well as Betty enduring ritual humiliation to enjoy a gilded lifestyle, his executive assistant Jason (Jason Evers) accepts being treated as a gofer in order to keep his position and the perks that go with it, and Maureen makes no bones about prostituting herself for temporary and future gain. Everyone has to kowtow, even the occupants of a West Indian island dependent on Orbison for investment, not only a kids choir welcoming Orbison on arrival, but a calypso performer singing a song in his praise.

As various threats, including narrowly missing a bullet, are made against Maureen, making a classical entrance in a red dress and alternating between helpless victim and femme fatale, with her creepy manservant Quell (Severn Darden) reporting her every move, inevitably Detweiler grows closer to his client, unaware that Orbison is planning to have someone killed.

That someone turns out to be Jason, whom Orbison suspects of clandestine activity with his wife, and whom Detweiler innocently kills. As this takes place on the island, where the death is hushed up, Detweiler begins to wonder if he’s a patsy and, paid off by Orbison, undertakes his own investigation, quickly entering more dangerous waters, viciously beaten up at Quell’s behest in a gay bar, narrowly avoiding death in the subway and literally finding himself in the firing line.

Detweiler’s character undergoes transition, too. From begging for scraps and turning the other way so as not to jeopardize easy income, he rediscovers his suit of shining armor, walking down some pretty mean streets, a diligent private eye who can no longer be bought off, determined to get to the bottom of what turns out to be a complicated mystery. Detweiler is no Marlowe or even Tony Rome, but rather despicable at the outset, employing all sorts of dodges, his interest in Maureen not slackening even after he knows she indulges in a quickie with Orbison. He takes too much at face value.

The unfolding mystery is superbly handled, involving proper clues and investigation, shoot-outs and fisticuffs, the outcome not what you might initially imagine. Although primarily an old school private eye picture, it’s great fun, with some wonderful comedy involving a dog, gentle satire on the West Indian island where political whitewash is the order of the day, and some touching romantic foreplay.

Peppard (Tobruk, 1967) is outstanding as the dupe who rediscovers his moral compass and his Detweiler is an excellent addition to the ranks of the private eye.  Raymond Burr, a far cry from his Perry Mason (1957-1966) television persona,  is easily one of the worst screen millionaires in his contempt for humanity and with his silver hair and bulk and scheming proves a slick adversary. Gayle Hunnicutt (Eye of the Cat, 1969) is allure on legs, brilliantly playing every man in sight, eyes never diverted from the prize.

Brock Peters (The Pawnbroker, 1964) has a standout cameo as the island’s cynical police chief. Susan Saint James (The Name of the Game, 1968-1971) makes her movie debut as Orbison’s slinky sex-mad niece.  Also putting in an appearance are Wilfrid Hyde-white (The Liquidator, 1965) as the island’s sycophantic governor, Colleen Gray (Red River, 1948) as the humiliated wife, Severn Darden (The President’s Analyst, 1967) as the odious Quell and John Ford regular John Qualen (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962).

This was the second of director John Guillermin’s George Peppard trilogy following The Blue Max (1966) and prior to House of Cards (1968). Generally dismissed as a journeyman, Guillermin brings a sly eye to this picture, the send-up of British colonialism, the master-servant aspects, an over-the-shoulder shot of an unknown assassin, the scenes in a bar which doubles as Detweiler’s office, the brutal beating in the gay bar, and a brilliant subway sequence adding layers to the movie. He is bold in his use of close-ups with Hunnicutt, some compositions almost a homage to the Bogart-Bacall chemistry, and brings out a world-weary performance from the usually cocky Peppard.

Philip Reisman Jr. (All the Way Home, 1963) fashioned the screenplay, delivering one of cinema’s most memorable final lines.

Reminiscence (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Hollywood has been running shy of genuine film noir for some time now so it makes little sense to give it a waterlogged futuristic setting despite the impressive track record, albeit not in the movies, of writer-director Lisa Joy best known as co-creator of television hit Westworld (2016-2021). Ecologic disaster dominates this future, floods reducing cities to rivers, skyscrapers and buildings existing as islands in a wet landscape. Dystopia is also rampant with the masses close to riot and big business, as you might expect, nonetheless able to exploit the situation.

Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a private eye of sorts, but concentrating his practice on infiltrating the mind, operating some kind of giant bathtub immersion which, plus a  headset that looks borrowed from a Marvel supervillain, allows him to penetrate secrets. Enter statuesque femme fatale Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) who has – wait for it – lost her keys! Yep, that’s the set-up. Some amazing technological gizmo that can be turned into a key-hunting device.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. To fill out the film noir aspect, Mae is some kind of nightclub singer, rehashing the Rodgers & Hart standard “Where or When,” singing into a  1940s mike. And there’s a voice-over reminiscent of the awful voice-over that besmirched the original release of Blade Runner, with some lines so bad that the director sees fit to run them twice.

Soon Bannister is plunged (pardon the pun) into a mystery that takes in businessman Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen) and family and there’s other bad guys like Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) and a shoal of red herrings lying in wait. Instead of Bannister being the alcoholic as is usually the private eye trope, it’s his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton).

Left alone, this might have made a decent mystery, and there is enough intrigue to be going along with, family secrets to expose, but the setting destroys any possibility that the picture might actually take off.  The city is in some cases flooded to probably the first ren or twenty storeys of a skyscraper but in other sequences Bannister skips through what look like little more than a few inches of water. There is an absolutely peculiar scene where Bannister escapes his enemy by trapping him in a grand piano and sending him into a watery grave only to change his mind and try to rescue him.

There’s some interesting material about how to capture memory and keep it on permanent rewind but it’s kind of lost in the general flotsam and jetsam and there’s a sweet line about finishing a story at the good part before it turns into a sad ending. But there’s really no justification for the futuristic setting even if Bannister had invented a gizmo that opened up the mind, more of an electronic psychiatrist than a gumshoe.

Hugh Jackman (The Front Runner, 2018) does his best but the risible voice-over, striving too hard for memorable lines, does for him. Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Fallout, 2018) is satisfactory without being electrifying but Thandiwe Newton (Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2018) is wasted.

Danger: Diabolik (1968) ****

Super-fun slick cult thriller as uber-villain Diabolik (John Philip Law) and sidekick Eva (Marisa Mell) outwit cops – and robbers – in a series of cunning heists. When not thieving they’re making love or pranking officialdom. Diabolik, hiding out in an underground cavern, out-Bonds James Bond in the fast-car and gadget department while Eva, smarter than the average Bond girl, leads the world in fashion or lack of it, her opening outfit looking as if it has either been cut to ribbons or made up of ribbons. Diabolik’s mask is cool and Eva is dressed to kill. Crime was never so fun, stylish, sexy – or lucrative.

Heist number one is the biggest shipment of dollars – $10 million – ever transported through Italy with a  massive convoy of outriders and an official plan to outwit the master thief. Already one step ahead, Diabolik, a master of the magnetic, whisks away the money in plain sight. Heist number two, an emerald necklace worn by the British ambassador’s wife high in an impregnable castle, involves Spiderman-type maneuvers. Heist number three: a 22-ton gold ingot.

A crackdown on criminal activity so endangers the Mafia that top cop Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) finds a surprise recruit in the hunt to capture Diabolik – Mafia boss Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi). The criminal network proves more potent than the cops and Valmont hatches a plan to snare Diabolik and exact revenge. And so ensues an elaborate chess game as criminals chase criminals with cops hoping to pick up the pieces.

John Philip Law (Hurry Sundown, 1967) was the coolest villain by a mile until challenged by Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair the same year. His classic good looks are matched by a fabulous brain as he cooks up brilliant scheme after brilliant scheme. Marisa Mell (Masquerade, 1965) is sexy as hell and a worthy companion in the thieving stakes. Adolfo Celi (Thunderball, 1965) and Michel Piccoli (Belle du Jour, 1967) are clumps in comparison, even though they do their ingenious best and Celi has his own harem.

Although Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, 1963) was better known for horror, this is a cult tour-de-force that employs the outlandish to set the tone, from go-go dancers and face-painted nightclubbers to the psychelic, the uber-fashionable, gadgets decades ahead of their time and the outrageous heists. The whole picture, coated in a sheen of glamour, is irresistible. The couple make love on a bed of dollars, airplanes have trap doors, there is a parachute jump twist, suspended animation, psychedelia, radioactive tracking devices, high-speed chases and a fiendish statuesque climax. And where not bedecked in fabulous fashion or one-piece cat-suits, the pair scamper about naked or as close as.

Bava captures the spirit and the look of the comic books by Angela and Luciana Giussani that provided the film’s inspiration. But that eight names including Britain’s Tudor Gates (creator of television’s Vendetta, 1966-1968) were involved in the screenplay shows the work this required. Ennio Morricone created a superb score. All-time cult classic.

Moment to Moment (1966) ***

Screenwriter Alec Coppel, responsible for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) – now considered the best film ever made, supplanting Citizen Kane in the Sight & Sound poll – follows pretty much the same structural idea as in the James Stewart-Kim Novak thriller. The second half here is in many respects a repeat of the first, with a man trying to recapture previous experience in a bid to reawaken memory.

But in this case the man is French police inspector DeFargo (Gregoire Aslan) trying to trap glamorous Kay Stanton (Jean Seberg) suspected of killing young sailor and architect-wannabe Mark (Sean Garrison) with whom she has engaged in a brief affair. DeFargo is cunning in the extreme, almost stalking Stanton, turning up unexpectedly, employing all sorts of ruses, including recruiting Stanton’s unsuspecting husband Neil (Arthur Hill), an internationally renowned psychiatrist.

The picture is set on the French Riviera so it’s the height of fashion. Kay wears a series of stunning top-of-the-range clothes (designed in fact by Yves St Laurent), as does high-living  neighbor and suspected accomplice Daphne (Honor Blackman). Kay drives a red sports car and frequents swanky restaurants and chic bars.

A number of cleverly-wrought images in the first half – white doves that turn golden at sunset, dancing to a tune called “Moment to Moment,” the wind causing shutters to bang, a statue in a village square, some sketches, the clacking together of the hard balls used to play the French traditional game of boules, a boardgame called “Blockhead” – prove pivotal in the second half. They form clues from which the inspector has to determine meaning.  

But if ever there was a film of two halves, this is it, and they are not a great fit. The first section involves Kay, lonely due to her husband’s continual absence, embarking on an affair. That she initially resists, in order to prove she is at heart really a good woman, gets in the way of the picture, since that makes the romance more drawn-out than necessary and leaves the viewer wishing the director would get a move on. Even though the time is spent in planting all the clues necessary for the second half to work, had Kay been more keen on a piece of action, driven for example (as is the case) by her husband staying away far longer than promised, it would have speeded things up to get to the more interesting part of the story.

Part of the problem is that the affair is totally unconvincing. Mark is handsome enough and dashing in the way most sailors are in uniform with an artistic streak, first viewed  making sketches, but Sean Garrison is so wooden the romance never sparks. That leaves Seberg to do the heavy lifting and, in fairness, once she is targeted by the wily inspector she comes up to the mark.

I’m not the first to think, after watching this picture, what would Hitchcock have done? That was exactly the same conclusion reached by the New York Times critic on original release. For this picture has a great deal going for it, but not a sufficient quota of suspense, and, as I mentioned, takes too long to get to the core of the story.

However, the second half works exceptionally well, as Seberg is put under pressure by the wily inspector and her husband unexpectedly enters the equation. An abundance of  twists culminate with a number in the final few minutes that serve to confound audience expectation.

Seberg’s career up to now had been somewhat disjointed, a sense of unfulfilled potential. An Otto Preminger protégé via Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), she was widely believed, despite the artistic coup of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), to have thrown her career away by decamping to France where she made no further films of particular note. Her previous Hollywood offering Lilith (1964) had not commercially delivered. So this high-budget Universal number was considered something of a comeback. But the perfectly-coiffed fashion-model look seems a poor imitation of Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief, 1955) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds, 1963). At times, with the romance scarcely touching the lower rungs of passion, the movie falls back on haute couture.

Second half Seberg is better than the first as she is given far more material to work with and a decent opponent in Gregoire Aslan. Honor Blackman, as a flirtatious divorcee, reinvents her  screen persona, far removed from her memorable incarnations as Catherine Gale in British television series The Avengers (1962-1964) and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger  (1964). Sean Harrison made only one more movie, and his career mainly consisted of television. Arthur Hill (Harper, 1966) is excellent as the over-enthusiastic husband, unwittingly hammering nails in his wife’s coffin and Gregoire Aslan (Lost Command, 1966) almost steals the show as Seberg’s accomplished adversary.

Veteran Mervyn LeRoy (The Devil at 4 O’Clock, 1964) had a distinguished and versatile career including an Oscar nomination for Random Harvest (1942) and recipient of an Oscar in the form of the Irving G. Thalberg Award for lifetime contribution to the business. But this isn’t quite up to the mark of innovative gangster picture Little Caesar (1931), drama Little Women (1949), Biblical epic Quo Vadis (1951) or cultish The Bad Seed (1958).  

Black Widow (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Like Skyfall, that rarity, an action film with a solid emotional core. Take away the action and you would still have an absorbing story of a loss, family tension, bickering siblings and an ego-driven pompous father. The action brings family together, initially the two girls, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) rescuing papa Alexei (David Horsburgh) from a Russian maximum-security prison then with the addition of brainy mum Melina (Rachel Weisz) tackling criminal mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone) in an exceptionally clever secret location.

If you’ve come looking for simple action, this is the wrong movie for you. Family complication, on a par perhaps with the criminal clan of The Godfather and imbued with the darker hues of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, adds far more depth than normal for a superhero picture. And even for Dreykov, the issue is family. He is the repairer-in-chief, on the one hand putting back together as well as he can his own familial loss, and on the other giving a home for countless orphans worldwide, albeit to suit his own plans.

Natasha has run the gamut of raw emotion. Orphaned twice, forcibly ejected from the one place she called home, i.e. The Avengers family, her feelings about being reunited with  adoptive Romanoff parents are noticeably negative.  Yelena is more willing to embrace the errant parents. Never mind that this is the one superhero picture in The Avengers catalogue where the superhero, as fit and agile as Natasha is, has no demonstrable superhero powers. And even those powers are mocked by Yelena who makes fun of the pose we have so often seen Natasha adopt. Nearly stealing the show is the self-pitying Alexei, the over-ripe overweight over-emotional father who would always be embarrassing you, inflated with his own self-importance, as bereft now as his daughters, having been stripped of his own superhero status as the Red Guardian. Whenever any of his family are in danger you can be sure his ego will get in the way.

The story is simple enough. By accident, Yelena, a member of the Dreykov army of female orphans, accidentally discovers she is enslaved, teams up, but only after a knock-down scrap Jason Bourne would have been proud of, with on-the-run Natasha, and eventually her parents. The action is terrific, especially the jailbreak, which has time to steal the central riff from Force Majeure (2014) just to ramp up the tension. And there are plenty surprises along the way, especially apt reward for Natasha’s ruthlessness as a do-gooder.

This is an entire family up for redemption, forced to confront their pasts, and for once it is not action that provides the solution. In some respects it is the family that clings together that stays together. The Avengers aspect is mostly redundant here, so what’s left is a more solid action-fueled thriller with superb characters, each, including villain, with their own emotional story arc. And it’s not always dark either, the family scenario studded with comedy nuggets.   

Visually stunning, as you might expect, this is a welcome big-budget showcase for Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, 2017) who brings emotional intelligence to bear on a genre in which that is often in short supply. Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) was the wordsmith.

Johansson (Marriage Story, 2019) has rarely been better and it says a lot for the performance of Florence Pugh (Little Women, 2019) that in their scenes together she is rarely overshadowed. Hopefully, this is the breakout picture for David Harbour (No Sudden Move, 2021), and maybe even the MCU team might recognize the comedic opportunities in a stand-alone based on his character, so effortlessly has it been constructed. And it’s a welcome return for Rachel Weisz, absent from the big screen since The Favourite (2018).  William Hurt (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) makes an expected appearance and Olga Kurylenko (The Courier, 2019) a surprise one and The Handmaid’s Tale’s O-T Fagbenie provides an interesting cameo.

This is definitely not going to work as well on the small-screen so if you’ve got the chance to see it in the cinema – where I saw it on my weekly Monday night outing – grab it while you can.

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) **

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be turning in his grave. Workmanlike at best, awful at its worst, or a “so-bad-it’s-good” candidate? Christopher Lee goes through the motions, there’s an oddly inserted heist, the continuity goes haywire, and the deduction would not have troubled a child. Even the great sleuth having to match nemesis Moriarty in cunning fails to lift this turgid tale. Despite being made in Germany, all the actors, save Senta Berger, appear injected with a fatal dose of stiff upper lip.

A corpse in the water alerts Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Lee) to the presence of Moriarty (Hans Sohnker) who is hunting Peter Blackburn (Wolfgang Lukschy) who has appropriated Cleopatra’s necklace from an archaeological dig. This takes them to Hampshire where corpses abound but the necklace is gone. Holmes burgles Moriarty’s apartment and steals back the necklace which is sent, in heavily protected police van, to an auction house. Holmes outwits Moriarty by infiltrating the heist the villain has planned.

The best scene comes at the beginning when boys throw stones at something floating in the Thames only to discover it’s a corpse. After that, you can choose from any number of bad scenes. Where do you start? The disguises? Holmes is first seen wearing a false nose to pass himself off as dock worker. An eyepatch is enough to convince Moriarty’s henchmen that Holmes in one of their kind. Bare-handed, Holmes kills an obviously plastic snake. To find out what Moriarty is up to, they listen down a chimney!

The deduction is so awful Dr Watson (Thorley Walters) could have done it. A dying man who manages to whisper one word is unable to whisper two and instead still has the strength to flap his hands in a way that any child in the audience familiar with shadow play would have known signaled a bird. Holmes follows bloody footsteps over grass in the darkness. The hands of a corpse are too calloused to be a high-class gentleman. And that’s as much of the detective’s genius as is on show. Moriarty, who is meant to be ever so bright, offers Holmes £6,000 a year to enter into a criminal partnership with him.

Did I mention the continuity? Holmes, in docker’s disguise, turns up outside his apartment lying on the pavement calling for help. Wounded, perhaps? A bit of a joke? We never find out. Once inside, he just turns back into Sherlock Holmes. In the middle of the Hampshire countryside,  Scotland Yard’s Inspector Cooper (Hans Neilsen) turns up in a trice.

The film has also been dubbed so the performances are all flat except that of Ellen Blackburn (Senta Berger), the only character who injects emotion into the picture. Everybody else is wooden. Christopher Lee bases his entire interpretation of Holmes on his costume, deerstalker prominent and always puffing on his pipe. Austrian Senta Berger at least shows promise and manages to project some personality into her small part.

Made in a Berlin studio, with some location work in Ireland, this German-made movie has a screenplay by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, 1941), purportedly based on the Conan Doyle tale The Valley of Fear. British director Terence Fisher (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) is generally assumed to have helmed this project but the actual credits on the picture have him sharing duties with Frank Winterstein, so perhaps Fisher can be absolved of the complete blame.  

The so-bad-it’s-good category had obviously not been invented in the early 1960s so this picture was shelved in Britain for six years, although shown in Germany and France before then.

CATCH-UP: If you’ve been tracking the often subtle performances – for a glamour queen – of Senta Berger through the Blog, you can also check out my reviews of The Secret Ways (1961), Major Dundee (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), and Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966). If you’re a Berger fan or fast becoming one to can see one of her later performances in Istanbul Express (1968) which, by coincidence, is reviewed tomorrow.

A Study in Terror (1965) ****

Excepting Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) the world’s most famous fictional detective had been absent from the big screen for over two decades so it seemed an inspired decision to set him on the trail of the world’s most infamous serial killer – Jack the Ripper. The result is high-class comfort food – the first of the series made in color – classic deduction coupled with barbaric murders in a fog-bound London replete with cobbled streets, Dickensian urchins and sex workers apop with cleavage and corset. Throw in sensitivity towards the abject poverty of the period, female exploitation and a nod towards an upper-class cover-up and you have a movie with a surprisingly contemporary outlook.

This is a tougher Holmes, handy with his fists, sporting a spring-loaded knife in his walking stick. The investigation draws in the Prime Minister (Cecil Parker) and the Home Secretary (Dudley Foster) as well as Sherlock’s pompous brother Myron (Robert Morley) and the ubiquitous Inspector LeStrade (Frank Finlay).

Pretty quickly it is Suspects Assemble. Due to a scalpel being the murderer’s instrument of choice, doctors are immediately implicated, the most likely candidate the philanthropic Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle) who operates a soup kitchen. Publican Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), with a sideline in blackmail, is another possibility. And there is the mysterious disinherited son of a lord, Michael Osborne who has married sex worker Angela (Adrienne Corri).

The Italian ad campaign combined a more conservative Sherlock Holmes
with exploitative illustrative detail.

As ever, the plot is complicated by red herrings and sleights of cinematic hand. But the highlight of a Holmes picture is the sleuth’s mastery of deduction based on clues missed by the ordinary mortal and every now and then the story comes to a halt to allow time for the detective to demonstrate genius. Occasionally he dons a disguise. And thoroughly enjoyable these scenes are before he gets down to the main business of uncovering the killer.

A Study in Terror introduces social depth to the Holmes saga. When the crimes focus the media spotlight on Whitechapel, Dr. Murray draws attention to the constant “murder by poverty” ignored by the state. Female exploitation is of course the norm in the sex worker business and small wonder that such women are easy targets for the Ripper and although that is an overdone trope in this case a different angle comes into play. 

Shakespearian actor John Neville (Oscar Wilde, 1960) handles the main character with considerable aplomb with Donald Houston (The Blue Lagoon, 1949) as his often baffled sidekick Watson. Robert Morley (Genghis Khan, 1965) is a splendid Mycroft although Anthony Quayle (East of Sudan, 1964) fails to nail down his Scottish accent.

The considerable supporting cast includes Judi Dench making her second film appearance, Barbara Windsor of Carry On fame, John Fraser (Operation Crossbow, 1965), John Cairney (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), Peter Carsten (Dark of the Sun, 1968),  singer Georgia Brown (Nancy in the original stage production of Oliver!), Edina Ronay (The Black Torment, 1964), Corin Redgrave (The Girl with the Pistol,1968), former British leading lady Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist, 1948) and future television comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?, 1972-1985).

The picture was unusual in that it was not drawn from the existing Holmes canon but as an original devised by Derek and Donald Ford (The Black Torment), the former going onto a more extensive career as a director of British sexploitation pictures such as Suburban Wives (1972). Production company Sir Nigel Films had been set up as an official vehicle to exploit the Holmes legacy.

Director James Hill (The Kitchen, 1961) had won an Oscar for the short Giuseppina (1960) and was a year away from his breakthrough Born Free. Given the low-budget this is a highly watchable picture.

Flick Vault has this for free on Youtube or if you want to own it forever there’s a DVD.