The Parallax View (1974) ****

The shocking ending ensures the need to re-evaluate everything you have seen. The middle film in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy – after Klute (1971) with All the President’s Men (1976) to come – is a dark (in more ways than one) reflection in essence on the John F. Kennedy assassination. The superbly stylish, on occasion over-stylised, cinematography carries an undercurrent of fear.  

Ambitious reporter Joe (Warren Beatty) investigates the notion that too many witnesses, including ex-girlfriend Lee (Paula Prentiss), to a senatorial assassination have been dying. Joe’s boss Bill (Hume Cronyn), while turning up acceptable reasons for each death, reluctantly backs him. Other witnesses such as Tucker (William Daniels) have run for cover. But, as Joe soon discovers, nobody can hide forever.  

Joe’s initial foray leads him to a small-time small-town Sheriff Wicker (Kelly Thorsden) with an unexpectedly large bank balance and murderous intent. Finding a link to a mysterious company the Parallax Corporation, Joe takes a written psychometric test to become a potential recruit for a company that is seeking, apparently, to find the hidden talents of under-achievers. After preventing one attempt on the life of another senator (Charles Carroll), Joe realises Parallax will stop at nothing.

Effectively, it’s a straightforward private eye number, Joe moving from character to character, building up a case. But the way Pakula frames the film, peppered with unusual scenes, turns it into an exercise in tension. One of Joe’s contacts works in a lab that is trying to train chimpanzees to play video ping-pong. Another scene takes place, disconcertedly, on a miniature train. At times we can hear every word delivered, even with the camera far away from the speakers, other times we hear nothing. Ominous music appears sparingly. Every step Joe takes in solving the mystery pushes him further into a corporate heart of darkness.

Beatty in the bar he’s about to wreck after ordering a drink of milk.

Joe believes Parallax are recruiting assassins but in point of fact their aim is considerably more devious. And here I don’t see how I can avoid a SPOILER ALERT. Parallax already have their assassins on board. What they are looking for are dupes, a patsy to take the blame once the killing has been done.

So when you look back from the ending what you find is that the cocky reporter is in fact exactly the kind of under-achiever the Parallax web attracts. There’s no proof of Joe’s editorial pedigree. Bill can point to any number of stories where Joe got hold of the wrong end of the stick. And the audience can see for themselves that he’s not exactly a super-brain. Sure, he can easily, with the help of a psychiatrist, pass the psychometric test, but how is he going to fare when he is linked up to some kind of machine that measures his response to visual imagery?

And you have to wonder what kind of idiot gets on a plane he suspects has a bomb on board  instead of staying off the aircraft and making a phone call. Or how he managed, after surviving an explosion at sea, to swim several miles to shore and land on a beach without drawing attention to himself so that he can masquerade as a dead man.

There’s also a curious section where Joe triggers a fist fight that ends in a John Ford-style saloon-wrecking. After killing the suspicious sheriff and hijacking his car, Joe then, in true French Connection style, sparks a car chase, managing to evade his pursuers by (natch) jumping onto the back of a passing truck.

But for all these flaws, there is something hypnotic about the picture. A camera that moves with snail-like precision from extreme long shot to medium shot or close-up, a reining in of flamboyance in favor of discipline, and shadow given its biggest outing since the film noir golden era. Pakula was trying to make an obvious point about the shady authorities that exercise behind-the-scenes power. The government is either powerless or complicit, various hearings into assassinations discovering zilch. Paranoia is no less prevalent now, of course, but what makes the biggest impact is journalistic entitlement, the reporter who can change things because he is willing to go down those dark streets like an avenging angel, not realizing he is always going to one step behind.

Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966) has lost all the acting tics, the mumbling and stuttering he used to inflict on a weaker director, and instead delivers a great performance. Which is just as well because it’s a one-man show. Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1964) barely appears before she’s bumped off. William Daniels (Two for the Road, 1967) eschews his normal harassed husband for a well-judged turn.     

David Giler (Aliens, 1986) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Three Days of the Condor, 1975) fashioned the screenplay form the novel by Loren Singer. Also worth a mention is the eerie score by Michael Small (Klute, 1971) who for a time was the go-to composer for paranoia pictures.

Eye of the Cat (1969) ***

If I hadn’t watched The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (1965) I wouldn’t have been so well up on the intrigue of the modern film noir so I guessed where this was going pretty quickly but that did not detract from the enjoyment of watching it reach its stylish denouement. A perfect antidote to the cute cats as personified by Disney in The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963) and That Darn Cat! (1965). 

Realizing that wealthy client Danny (Eleanor Parker), suffering from emphysema, might only need a nudge or two to hasten her death, hairdresser Kassia (Gayle Hunnicutt) enrolls the sick woman’s wayward nephew Wylie (Michael Sarrazin) in a plot to kill her off and inherit her money. There are two obstacles, possibly three.  Danny has a houseful of cats, close to a hundred at the last count, and Wylie, after a childhood feline encounter, is terrified of the four-legged creatures. Upset at his previous behavior, Wylie has been cut out of the old lady’s will and needs reinstated pronto. The last element is that Wylie has a younger brother, Luke (Tim Henry) who acts as Danny’s gofer, who may take exception to the scheme.

Needless to say, the otherwise imperious Danny is so delighted at the return of the prodigal nephew that she demands her lawyer Bendetto (Linden Chiles) amend the will immediately. She sleeps in an oxygen tent and simply switching off her supply will be enough. But, of course, it would be foolhardy to murder her before the will is signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately, Wylie is a high-spirited selfish young man and comes close to offing her unintentionally.

While Wylie takes up residence in Danny’s vast house, Kassia is kept in the cellar and there is a suspicion that he will blackmail her into having sex with him since she sees their relationship as strictly business. Wylie has a whole string of abandoned girlfriends and seems to have capacity for preying on the most vulnerable if “Poor Dear” (Jennifer Leak), the nickname he assigns one is anything to go by.

Meanwhile, Wylie’s childhood fears return. He doesn’t need to see a cat, or even smell it, just sensing its presence is enough. His terrified reaction makes him want to abandon the scheme, despite the amount he might inherit. Desperate to prevent him from leaving, Danny agrees to get rid of her army of cats. Unfortunately, Luke is not as assiduous as he ought to be and a couple escape the round-up.

As the deadline for her demise nears, the tension is ratched up, seeds of suspicion sown among the conspirators, complications with the will and of course the cats hidden from Wylie’s view – but not ours. A fabulous scene with a runaway wheelchair nearly puts paid to the entire endeavor.

The under-rated Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969), given a more complex character than before, switches through the gears of terror, charm and predation. Gayle Hunnicutt  (P.J./New Face in Hell, 1968) is a less obvious femme fatale, relying far more on brain than obvious physical attributes. And what a delight to see 1950s box office queen Eleanor Parker (Warning Shot, 1967) handling a much larger role than was normal at this point in her career. Tim Henry made his movie debut. You might also spot Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) and one of Judy Garland’s husbands Mark Herron (Girl in Gold Boots, 1968).

From the atmospheric credit sequence featuring silhouettes of cats through a rash of twists and turns director David Lowell Rich (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) guides this unusual thriller with considerable expertise, knowing just when to add another layer to the suspense, and drawing excellent performances from the two principals. The original screenplay is by a master of the macabre Joseph Stefano of Psycho (1960) fame. Unlike me, who had a head start, this chiller will keep you guessing.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) ****

Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown, 1967) returns to his film noir roots (Laura, 1944; Whirlpool, 1950) for this crisply-told tale, mixing police procedural with psycho-drama,  of a missing child who may the figment of her mother’s imagination. It’s beautifully filmed and for anyone brought up on modern cinema of short takes and the camera bouncing from one close-up to the next, it will be a revelation, as Preminger favors classic Hollywood style,  long takes, in a single shot the camera often following a person in and out of several rooms, and equally classical composition, scenes containing three or four characters where everyone acts within the frame.

Single-mother Ann (Carol Lynley) turns up to collect her four-year-old daughter Bunny from her first day at a London nursery only to discover not just the child gone but nobody has any recollection of the child being there in the first place. That is, apart from the school cook (Lucie Mannheim), who promised to look out for the child but who has subsequently disappeared. Ann is anxious anyway because she is moving house and in her new apartment has an encounter with her creepy landlord Horacio (Noel Coward), a master of the innuendo and the casual stroke of the arm.  

It’s a very English school with stiff-upper-lip not to mention snippy teachers. “We mustn’t get emotional,” school administrator Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) warns the distraught mother. Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea), a journalist, kicks up more of a stink, arguing with staff, and with a very threatening manner. Things get creepier still. Upstairs, they hear voices but it’s just the school’s founder Ada (Martita Hunt) who records children talking about nightmares. Steven seems over-protective towards his sister, which is understandable, and somewhat over-affectionate, which is not.

Detective Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and sidekick Sgt Andrews (Clive Revill) investigate. He is an unusual cop. A university graduate but not of the excitable Inspector Morse persuasion for one thing, and reasonable to an irritating degree in that he keeps all his options open. But the cops are thorough, descriptions of the missing child issued, search of the premises and surrounding area undertaken. But it turns out there is no record of Bunny in the school ledger, no sign of her existence in the flat, and it transpires that as a child herself Ann had an imaginary companion called Bunny.  

As Steven becomes more obstreperous and the intense Ann verges on the hysterical, not helped by the unwanted attentions of the landlord, a BBC performer with a melodious voice he believes irresistible to women and more than a passing interest in sadism, the case appears to be heading in the direction of a quick visit to a psychiatry ward. The usual anchor in these situations, the policeman, is not as definite as normal, Newhouse not pushing the investigation in a direction the audience will find acceptable, but largely standing back, as if yet to make up his mind, which adds to the sense of mystery.

Carol Lynley with the potential landlord from hell Noel Coward.

Preminger isn’t in the business of piling twist upon twist, but as these arrive in due course, the options they offer are even more psychologically damaging. And from setting off at a steady pace with everything apparently settled down by the steady superintendent, the minute he departs the scene, the story takes on a different dimension and there are three superb chilling scenes, one in hospital, another in a doll’s hospital and the last in a garden as the question of just who is unhinged becomes more apparent. There is certainly madness in the movie but it comes when you least expect it and from a direction you may not have considered. On another level, the world of children is entirely alien to the adult and the reconciliation between the two worlds impossible to bridge.

Preminger extracts a performance from Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) that cuts the character to the bone, eliminating many of the actor’s tropes and tics, but at the same time making him perfectly human, unable to resist, for example, a traditional school pudding, and finding ways to curb Steven’s excesses while comforting Ann.  By controlling the actor who always exerts screen presence, Preminger makes him come across with even greater authority. It’s an achievement in itself to ensure that Olivier never raises his voice.

Carol Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) is excellent as the distraught mother, one step away from losing her mind and Keir Dullea (The Fox, 1967) constantly raises the stakes. Noel Coward (The Italian Job, 1969) possibly does the best job of the lot, his normal high levels of sophistication eschewed in favour of the downright creepy.  In supporting roles look out for Clive Revill (Kaleidoscope, 1966), Finlay Currie (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969), Anna Massey (De Sade, 1969) and Adrienne Corri (The Viking Queen, 1967). Pop group The Zombies featuring Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone put in an appearance.  

Husband-and-wife team John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969) and Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote the screenplay from the besteller by Evelyn Piper. But it is most assuredly an Otto Preminger production. He has a surprisingly good grasp of British custom and character, shot all the movie on location, but in black-and-white so it is not dominated by the tourist London of red buses or red pillar boxes, and his probing camera and long takes are a marvel for any cinematic scholar.

The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die/Catacombs (1965) ***

Gordon Hessler (The Oblong Box, 1969) makes his directorial debut with this neat horror thriller. It starts with a twist exceptional for the times.  Ellen (Georgina Cookson) is the shrewd and shrewish millionaire businesswoman, her husband Raymond (Gary Merrill), from whom she demands frequent sex, the eye candy, a kept man. “I married a lover, not a businessman,” she retorts when, bored out of his mind, he asks for the opportunity to play a  role in her business. In a further twist on the norm of the damsels decorating 1960s movies by displaying cleavage or disporting themselves in bikinis, Raymond is often seen with his chest bared in all its hirsuteness. In a further gender twist her secretary is also male, Dick  (Neil MacCallum), a former, unknown to her, jailbird.

Tall, beautiful, dominant and domineering Ellen appears to have occult power, able to read minds, which keeps the larcenous-minded Dick in check, and has command of her own physical frailty – she walks with a stick – and can put herself in a trance to overcome occasional pain from her injured hip.

Conspiracy of fear: Raymond (Gary Merrill) and Alice (Jane Merrow).

But when Raymond falls for Ellen’s niece Alice (Jane Merrow), an artist returned from a year in Paris, he puts into action a plan that had clearly only been a pipe-dream, blackmailing Dick into participating. It’s quite clever as murderous plans go. He hires an actress to impersonate Ellen, known to go off to Italy on her own for spa treatments and with a knack for reckless driving, various driving charges over the years. Meanwhile, he strangles Ellen, allows Alice at a distance from an airport viewing terrace, to see her aunt, complete with walking stick, climbing up the steps of a plane. Faked cables and postcards arrive from Italy purportedly showing Ellen enjoying herself, even visiting the famous catacombs. In Italy Dick fakes a car accident to kill the actress.

However, twist number one comes at the reading of the will. Raymond and Alice split the million-pound bounty but while the latter is given custody of the big house the former is condemned to live for life, on pain of forfeiting the inheritance, in the cottage, in whose potting shed Ellen’s body lies. Further twists naturally follow. The maid (Rachel Thomas) doesn’t quite so much smell a rat but adds to the killer’s incipient discomfort by proclaiming that with her hip problem and claustrophobia that Ellen would never descend into the catacombs.

Entitled “Catacombs” in the U.K. after the novel by Jay Bennett on which it was based, it was retitled
“The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die” for the U.S. market.

And Raymond might have lived happily ever after with Alice except for his guilt. Several creepy incidents, knocking, tapping, door handles turning, shadows, a depression the shape of a body in a bed, cigarettes smoking in ashtrays, lights going on and off indicate to the already nervous Raymond and the visibly frightened Alice that Ellen may not be dead after all. Virtually the entire third act is the pair of them reacting to real or imagined fears. Alice has a good line in looking scared witless. But Raymond, while trying to contain his inner demons, is equally rattled.

As you might expect there are further excellent twists to come. In fact, they are soon piling up and even at the very end the screen freezes on a final twist.

Georgina Cookson (The Picasso Summer, 1969) steals the show as the imperious businesswoman, with everyone cowering under her glare and not above stating the obvious, “I bought you body and soul,” she reminds Raymond. I’m not sure Gary Merill (The Power, 1968) is quite as good in the second half as he is in the first. Initially, he exudes charm, physical prowess, and, while under his wife’s thumb, still emotes a certain measure of confidence. He doesn’t appear to me to quite frightened enough in the second half as his plans go awry. Jane Merrow (The Lion in Winter, 1968) is excellent as the young woman caught in a mental trap and Neil MacCallum (The Lost Continent, 1968) is surprisingly effective.

But this is a low-budget B-picture that was destined for the lower half of a double bill so there was no particular reason why it should be as good as it is. Except for the Italian sequence, the action takes place on just two sets and for most of the time it’s a three-hander. But Hessler has a keen eye for composition and in a number of critical scenes makes bold choices. For Ellen’s murder, he concentrates on Raymond’s face rather than the victim’s, only showing her feet. There’s one super-shocker with a mirror. But mostly he is content to built up the tension, either by the various noises or by the reactions of Raymond and Alice. An old-fashioned gem of a picture.

Available on DVD from Network.

The Penthouse (1967) ****

Visceral home invasion thriller that ignited the genre and triggered later more controversial offerings like The Straw Dogs (1971) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Made virtually on one set for the indescribably minute sum of £100,000, it is charged with Pinteresque dialogue and aberrant philosophy. The genre splits into those pictures where the occupants have more than a good chance of avoiding their fate, the focus on the invaded pitting their wits against the invaders – classic examples being The Straw Dogs or more recently Panic Room (2002) – and those where the victims are mercilessly tormented, such as, in grueling detail, here.

As one of the perks of his job cocky married real estate agent Bruce (Terence Morgan) takes advantage of an expensive unoccupied apartment on his company’s books – “in the happy position to take advantage of my clients’ generosity in their absence” as he puts it – to enjoy an illicit tryst with mistress Barbara (Suzy Kendall). But when she answers to the door to two men coming to read the gas meter, their lives are turned upside down.

Tom (Tony Beckley) and Dick (Norman Rodway) are, of course, bogus and armed with a knife quickly take control, trying up Bruce and pouring alcohol down Barbara’s throat. As part of the overall creepiness, there is a sense that this is no casual visit, but that it has been planned, as if someone somewhere is familiar with the set-up, and there a debt, if only a moralistic one, to pay as a deterrent to the era’s permissiveness. Minus the knife, they would have passed as harmless. But never was their such difference between word and action, except for what they are capable of you could easily be persuaded that are in fact camp and bitchy.

The bound Bruce’s is spun round in a chair and can only watch as the men begin to strip Barbara. His only defence is verbal, trying to set the two men against each other, suggesting that Tom treats Dick as his assistant. But the relationship between the two criminals constantly shifts as if they were in passive-aggressive relationship. You don’t learn much about them until the end, so basically you have to rely on what they say about themselves, which is very little. They are prone to philosophic observation or interrogate Bruce about his possessions or extract from Barbara an unexpected ambition to be a painter.

One of the oddest pieces of promotional material ever produced. Studios were keen on this kind of jokey cartoon in the hope that it would be picked up by newspaper editors who might be less inclined to run a still from the picture. But it is completely out of touch with the tone of the movie.

The men take it in turns to torment Bruce while the other is in the bedroom with Barbara. Where Bruce resists verbally, Barbara gives in almost right away, but there is never the sense that this is in any way consensual, just that she is too drunk to defend herself – the first drink is a full glass of whisky forced down her throat – and the men have a knife. The invaders make constant reference to a character called Harry. That person’s eventual appearance provides a whole new range of twists.

It’s a film full of menace. Sexual tension, mind games, claustrophobia and the threat of physical violence never dissipate. Because it is rationed out, the brutality is all the more shocking.  But it is brilliantly directed. In his debut British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) uses the camera to suggest we are in anything but an enclosed space. In one long sequence the camera does not move, in another scene it turns 360 degrees, and at other times it twists and turns as if turning the characters inside out, suggesting some of the dizziness, the dramatic speed of change of feelings, that the stunned victims are enduring. At times it feels like an arthouse movie. At other times like a deranged B-picture.

The cast are all excellent. Tony Beckley (The Lost Continent, 1968) makes the best of a role of a lifetime, Norman Rodway (Four in the Morning, 1965) the more quietly psychotic sidekick. Terence Morgan (The Sea Pirate, 1966) has less to do but Suzy Kendall (Fraulein Doktor, 1969) is superb as the enigmatic girlfriend. Look out for Martine Beswick (Prehistoric Women, 1967) in a small part. Collinson wrote the screenplay based on a play The Meter Men by Scott Forbes.

Cultural note: “Tom, Dick and Harry” are considered such quintessentially British names that anyone familiar with this would understand immediately that they were a) pseudonyms and b) intended as a twisted kind of joke.

No sign of this being available on Amazon. Ebay is probably your best bet. There’s a copy on YouTube but it ain’t a good print.

Three Days of the Condor (1975) *****

Outstanding thriller in the paranoia vein with Robert Redford delivering one of his best performances. Never mind the terrific score by Dave Grusin (Tell them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969), the soundtrack to this tale of political chicanery involving the C.I.A. is the chattering of computer printers.

Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is an amiable geek – beanie hat, unfashionable Solex moped – working in an obscure department of the C.I.A. (although one where the receptionist has a gun in her desk drawer) looking for codes in novels. He doesn’t quite conform to type, irritating his rules-conscious colleagues, late for work, illicitly using the back door instead of the front. On returning from collecting lunch, he finds the entire department massacred. His  Washington boss Higgins (Cliff Robertson) promises to bring him in but instead arranges an ambush.

On the run, unable to return to his own apartment, his girlfriend Janice (Tina Chen) among those murdered, he kidnaps photographer Kathy (Faye Dunawaye) at first content to find somewhere to hole up but then using her to help him resolve the issues. It’s soon apparent  that Turner, in his desk job, has stumbled upon a secret organisation deep within the C.I.A. In a touch of the Hitchcocks, director Sydney Pollack (The Scalphunters, 1968) lets the audience know what Turner does not, that Higgins and his bosses Wabash (John Houseman) and Atwood (Addison Powell) are out for his blood, assassin Joubert (Max von Sydow) the triggerman.  

But as Joubert points out, Turner is an amateur and that makes him unpredictable. The killers believe Turner will easily be dealt with. But he’s not as stupid or unresourceful as they might expect. The opening section reveals just how handy he is: fixing a computer, knowledgeable about plants and for some reason the weather, working out an insoluble murder in a book, and most important of all has learned to trust nobody especially his bosses. It turns out he’s got a few of his own tricks up his sleeve, not least how to work a telephone exchange to his advantage and how to flush out his adversaries.

There’s a terrific game of cat-and-mouse and in possibly the only picture in the early cycle of conspiracy pictures the first character capable of harnessing technology.

You often read about character-driven movies but that’s only usually in the sense of dramatic flaws or preferring exploring personality to action. This is character-driven in an entirely different way. Turner’s life depends on him being able to read character, to notice what’s wrong or false in a given situation, to assess the qualities of those around him. For much of the dialogue, Turner is observing as much as listening, watching for behavioural clues.

Even without the presence of Kathy, this would have been a highly satisfactory thriller. But the tentative romance takes it to another level. Unusually, she is a loner, whose photographic metier is loneliness. That they bond at all is surprising, that they do so with such touching emotion brings unexpected intimacy.

There’s a very contemporary feel to the politics, not just American authorities doing what they want but the idea that liberal values will vanish the moment there is genuine threat to loss of the high living standards citizens enjoy or, worse, oil or gas rationing or famine. “Do we have plans to invade the Middle East?” Turner demands of Higgins. And at one point Turner uses unsuspecting people as a human shield.

For such a fast-moving picture, time is taken out to understand the characters involved, Higgins not quite as far up the espionage tree as he should be, Joubert’s hobby the meticulous painting of model soldiers. A peck on the cheek is all the information we are given that Tina, a work colleague, is Turner’s girlfriend.  

As Kathy moves from indignant captive to welcome participant, you can see that she represents the desire of many liberals to give the authorities a bloody nose. There is one brilliant moment at the end where Turner’s fears overcome his feelings and the devastation of what she perceives as emotional betrayal is seen on her face.

But this is Robert Redford’s picture. He was on an almighty box office roll – Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Sting (1973), The Way We Were (1973), The Great Gatsby (1974), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) and on the horizon All the President’s Men (1976). Every minute of the movie his face or body are working hard, eyes constantly involved in the character observation I mentioned. He goes from being light-hearted and handsome at the start to serious and deadly at the end. And there are some superb bits of business. When the rain stops, for example, he checks his watch to see it has ended when he predicted. When he returns after lunch, he peers down over the steps to see that his moped that earlier some kids had tried to steal was still there.

This is probably the quietest you’ll ever see Faye Dunaway (A Place for Lovers, 1968). She is an enigma, the puzzle only uncovered in her photographs. But as a photographer, she is also an observer, and she soon likes what she sees in Turner. The strong supporting cast includes Cliff Robertson (Masquerade, 1965), Max von Sydow (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966), John Houseman (Seven Days in May, 1964), Tina Chen (Alice’s Restaurant, 1969) and Addison Powell (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968).

Sydney Pollack does an exceptional job, cutting between the pursuers and the pursued. The opening sequence itself is quite superb as the director sets up the massacre which is carried out in silence, machine guns fitted with suppressors, while providing insight into Turner. Based on the bestseller Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, the intelligent screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr.(Fathom, 1967, and The Parallax View, 1974) and David Rayfiel (Castle Keep, 1969) keeps everyone on their toes.

More straightforwardly enjoyable than Coppola’s self-conscious The Conversation (1974) and Pakula’s occasionally opaque The Parallax View (1974) with computer surveillance, giving this another contemporary edge, a key factor in the way the tale that switches between pursued and pursuer

You can catch this on Netflix.  

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (1970) ***

Fashion photographer Danielle (Samantha Eggar) sets off on road trip from Paris to the south of France only to discover everywhere she goes a doppelganger has been there first. She’s on edge anyway because she’s “borrowed” the car of employer Michael (Oliver Reed) and once police start recognizing her she gets jumpier still. The discovery of a body in the boot and the titular gun (a Winchester rifle) don’t help her frame of mind. But instead of reporting the corpse to the police – she’s a car thief after all – she tries to work it out herself. Amnesia maybe, madness because she keeps having flashes of memory – a spooky surgical procedure – or something worse?

She’s got a battered hand she doesn’t know how. Michael’s wife Anita (Stephane Audran) says she’s not seen Danielle in a month though she is convinced she stayed with the couple the previous night. A drifter Philippe (John McEnery) starts helping her out. Eventually she ends up in Marseilles none the wiser.

It’s a tricksy film and like Mirage (1965), recently reviewed, being limited to her point of view means the audience can only work out everything from her perspective. The string of clues sometimes lead back to the original mystery, other times appear to provide a possible solution. The explanation comes in something of a rush at the end.

This was the first top-billed role for Samantha Eggar (Walk Don’t Run) and she would not scale that particular credit mountain again until The Demonoid (1981) but she is good in the role of a mixed-up woman struggling with identity. But since it’s based on a novel by Sebastian Japrisot (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) there’s a sneaky feeling a French actress might have been a better fit. Oliver Reed (Women in Love, 1969) is not quite what he seems, a difficult part sometimes to pull off, but he succeeds admirably.

Stephane Audran (Les Biches, 1969), jealous of Danielle, a friend whom she views as a rival for her husband’s affections, has the most intense part, using Danielle as an unwitting cover for betraying Michael. John McEnery (Romeo and Juliet, 1968) could almost be a London spiv, blonde hair, impecunious, clearly using women wherever he goes. Watch out for French stalwarts Marcel Bozzuffi (The French Connection, 1971) and Bernard Fresson (The French Connection II, 1975).

There’s certainly a film noir groove to the whole piece, the innocent caught up in a shifting world, and that’s hardly surprising since director Anatole Litvak began his career with dark pictures like Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) while previous effort Night of the Generals (1967)  also involved murder.

Being released in 1970, this film falls outside the parameters I had set for myself but I had become so intrigued by the prospect of Eggar taking top billing and screen adaptations of Japrisot’s work – add Adieu L’Ami/Farewell Friend (1968) to The Sleeping Car Murder – that I expected a project laced with more atmosphere and a host of original characters. In truth, this is less atmospheric than the other two, the interplay between the characters not so tightly woven, nor the climax so well-spun but it was enjoyable enough.

YouTube has this.

Nobody Runs Forever (1968) / The High Commissioner ****

Character-driven intelligent thriller ripe for re-evaluation. And not just because it stands out from the decade’s genre limitations, neither hero threatened by mysterious forces in the vein of Charade (1963) or Mirage (1965) nor, although espionage elements are involved, fitting into the ubiquitous spy category. Instead, it loads mystery upon mystery and leaves you guessing right to the end.

And a deluge of mystery would not work – even with the London high-life gloss of cocktail parties, casinos and the Royal Box at Wimbledon – were it not for the believable characters. Rough Aussie Outback cop Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) is despatched to London at the behest of New South Wales prime minister (Leo McKern) to bring home Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) to face a charge of murder.

Probably a better title than either “Nobody Runs Forever”
or “The High Commissioner.”

Unlike most cop pictures, Malone is not sent to investigate a case, he is merely muscle. While he may have his doubts about the evidence against Quentin, suspected of murdering his first wife, he resists all attempts to re-open the case. Arriving in the middle of a peace conference hosted by the principled Quentin, he agrees to investigate security leaks from Australia House and along the way turns into an impromptu bodyguard when Quentin’s life is endangered. But Quentin’s wife Sheila (Lilli Palmer) and secretary Lisa (Camilla Sparv) are not taken in by the deception and so Malone himself forms part of the mystery.

With a preference for cold beer to expensive champagne, you might expect Malone to be a bull in a china shop. Instead, dressed for the part by the solicitous Quentin, Malone fits easily into high society, taking time out from his duties for a dalliance with the elegant Madame Chalon (Daliah Lavi). The background is not the gloss but the passion the Quentins still feel for each other, she willing to do anything (literally) to save her husband, he losing the thread of an important speech when worried about his wife.

While there is no shortage of suspects for all nefarious activities, red herrings abound and cleverly you are left to make up your own mind, rather than fingers being ostentatiously pointed. There is some delicious comedy between Malone and Quentin’s uptight butler (Clive Revill), enough punch-ups, chases and clever tricks to keep the movie more than ticking along but at its core are the relationships. Malone’s growing respect for Quentin does not overrule duty, Lisa’s evident love for Quentin cannot be taken the obvious further step, Sheila’s overwhelming need to safeguard her husband sends her into duplicitous action.

The politics are surprisingly contemporary, attempts to alleviate hunger and prevent war, and while there was much demonstration during the decade in favor of world peace, this is the only picture I can think of where a politician’s main aim is not self-aggrandisement, greed or corruption. There are some twists on audience expectation – the dinner-jacketed Malone in the casino does not strike a James Bond pose and start to play, he is seduced rather than seducer, and remains a working man throughout.

Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) and Christopher Plummer (Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) are terrific sparring partners, red-blooded male versus ice-cool character, their jousts verbal rather than physical. The rugged Taylor turns on the charm when necessary, a throwback to his character in Fate Is the Hunter (1964). Thoughts of his wife soften Plummer’s instinctive icy edge. Lilli Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor) is superb as yet another vulnerable woman, on the surface in total control, but underneath quivering with the fear of loss. Two graduates of the Matt Helm school are given meatier roles, Daliah Lavi (The Silencers, 1966), as seductress-in-chief is a far cry from her stunning roles in The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) – and it still feels a shame to me that she was so ill-served in the way of roles by Hollywood. Camilla Sparv (Murderers Row, 1966) has a more low-key role.

Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) has another scene-stealing part and look out for Calvin Lockhart (Dark of the Sun), Burt Kwouk (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and, shorn of his blond locks, an unrecognizable Derren Nesbit (The Naked Runner, 1967) and in his final role Hollywood legend Franchot Tone (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935).

Ralph Thomas (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) directs with minimum fuss, always focused on character, although there is a sly plug for Deadlier than the Male in terms of a cinema poster. (Speaking of posters, I couldn’t help notice this interesting advert at an airport for a VC10 promoted as “10derness.”) Wilfred Greatorex (The Battle of Britain, 1969) made his screenplay debut, adapting the bestseller by Jon (The Sundowners) Cleary. This may not be quite a true four-star picture but it is a grade above three-star.

CATCH-UP: Rod Taylor films reviewed in the blog so far are Seven Seas to Calais (1962), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967) and Dark of the Sun (1968).

Ambulance (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

High-octane non-stop adrenalin rush that crams in a heist, car chase, street shoot-outs, high-risk surgical procedures, some neat characterisations, helicopters (of course) and slam-bang technical wizardry. Director Michael Bay (The Rock, 1996) is back on form with this pulverising pedal-to-the-metal thriller through the streets – and river – of Los Angeles and even finds time for a couple of sly jokes, including a reference to one of his own pictures, a paint job and a dog that (literally) stops the astonishing action.

Bank robber Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) organising the heist of a lifetime – $32 million – ropes in brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) sorely in need of a mere $300,000 for a life-saving operation. Not only does lovesick cop Zack (Jackson White) jeopardise the operation but an elite cop division headed by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt) is lying in wait. Cue shoot-out carnage forcing the siblings to hijack an ambulance containing paramedic Cam (Eiza Gonzalez). Her passenger, a wounded cop, ensures the pursuing flotilla of cop vehicles and fleet of helicopters remains at bay.

But only for a time because Monroe is a master of drawing his victims into a trap. But that will only work with lesser villains because Sharp has not one, but two, plans up his sleeve. To rack up the tension, FBI Agent Clark (Keir O’Donnell) joins the hunt while in the ambulance, tearing along at top speed, causing more carnage during rush hour, Cam is called upon to dig out a bullet in her patient’s spleen and Will realizes he needs to be a good bad-guy.

While the action is buckled up and buckled down, there is excellent savvy background as we learn just how top cops go about snaring their victims and for all that Monroe is pumped up with arrogance Clark is there to take him down by filling us in on just what a rapacious opponent he is dealing with. Despite the film’s pace, without slowing the picture down, Bay manages to seed the characters well. Sharp’s iconic gangster – cousin to Heat’s Neil Macauley in the ruthless stakes – still takes family seriously. Will brings his military training to bear to assist Cam, a closed-off loner who blew a promising medical career on drug addiction and is easily one of the toughest females recently seen on screen.

Characters are established in a few lines – the gay Clark in couples therapy, the tougher-than-tough Monroe still a sap unwilling to sacrifice his dog, Danny not quite as psychotic as his father. And there are some great supporting characters, sassy helicopter pilot Dzazhig (Olivia Stambouliah), a stressed-out gangster and another thug who wears the wrong shoes to a robbery.

Although it’s virtually all a set-piece, the action hardly straying from the ambulance, there are still some awesome sequences, the automated attack on the cops for a start, two surgeons whisked off the golf course to guide Cam through a tricky op. The camera races around with abandon, up and down skyscrapers like a hyperactive drone.

A remake of a Danish thriller of the same name, Bay has pumped up the action, brought believable characters to the fore, and hopefully given audiences something to whoop for outside of the comic book hero. In his movie debut Chris Fedak, best known for television work like Prodigal Son (2019-2021), sticks in the occasional zingy one-liner and treats the characters as human beings.

Only Jake Gyllenhaal’s second starring role in three years, his first action film in nearly a decade should thrust him back on top of the box office after a series of more arty pictures. He’s been creepy before, most notably in Nightcrawler (2014), but Danny is more a straight line gangster. Eiza Gonzalez (Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021) is the pick of the actors, in a difficult role confined for the most part to the ambulance. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Candyman, 2021) does well in what in other hands could have been a thankless role. Garret Dillahunt (Army of the Dead, 2021) and Keir O’Donnell (The Dry, 2020) are names you might hear more of in the future.

24 Hours To Kill (1965) **

When engine problems force a plane headed for Athens to land in Beirut, the past catches up with purser Norman Jones (Mickey Rooney). He manages to convince captain Jamie Faulkner (Lex Barker) and the crew that claims by ruthless gangster Malouf (Walter Szelak) claiming he has stolen his money is a mistake. But once the kidnappings begin, the doubts set in.

Producer Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967), though he remained wedded to the exotic locale, would soon learn to prioritize action over romantic entanglement and this suffers from too much romance – married Faulkner trying to resolve his relationship with stewardess girlfriend Louise (Helga Summerfeld),  co-pilot Tommy (Michael Medwin) ignoring another stewardess Franzi (France Anglade) in favour of local girl Mimi listed in his little black book of previous conquests.

After a failed attempt to kidnap Jones, the gangsters turn their attentions to female members of the crew. Slim built Tommy proves handy with his fists and soon the crew are either running from trouble or running into trouble even as they attempt to enjoy the city high life. The title has a double meaning – the crew take it to mean that they have time on their hands to pass in as pleasant manner as possible only later realizing that their accidental landing provides the gangsters with a complete day to apprehend/kill Jones before the plane’s rescheduled take-off.

Although a good sight more attractive in the 1960s than when  war destroyed the city, Beirut still had comparatively little to offer a visitor beyond a historic site claimed to the Garden of Eden, posh hotels, swimming pools and the kind of belly dancers that you could get anywhere in the Middle East. Still, the movie does its best to convince the audience they are in for an exotic treat. Unfortunately, locale and girls in bikinis do not make up for poor plotting and lack of action.

In terms of casting Towers had hit upon a decent formula in the international coproduction line, Hollywood stars who didn’t cost too much but still retained marquee value and up-and-comers who might be sold as the next best thing to their respective countries, thus bringing in global revenue.  Former MGM child star Mickey Rooney (Secret Invasion, 1964) is the requisite Hollywood star, his credentials buffed up by the hit It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and continually newsworthy for his love life – he was currently on marriage number five.

All-purpose action hero Lex Barker was the surprise box office package. A former Tarzan he was enjoying a new lease of life as a huge star in Germany thanks to the Old Shatterhand series of westerns. Veteran Walter Slezak (Come September, 1961) completed the small group of actors who audiences might automatically recognize.

Heading the newcomers was Englishman Michael Medwin (Crooks Anonymous, 1962) who would later turn producer of If…(1968) ably supported by a stewardess trio played by German Helga Sommerfeld (The Phantom of Soho, 1964), French starlet France Anglade  (The Oldest Profession, 1967) and Austrian Helga Lehner (Games of Desire, 1964). Likely more memorable for purveyors of the European scene would be a brief appearance by another Austrian, Maria Rohm (Five Golden Dragons), wife of the producer. You might also spot Wolfgang Lukschy (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964).

British director Peter Bezencenet (Bomb in the High Street, 1963) was better known for his editing skills but didn’t cover himself in glory in either department here. Australian Peter Yeldham (The Liquidator, 1965) wrote the screenplay along with Towers. While not a great film, you can see the Towers style in embryo, this being only the fourth of the around 100 films that would go out under his banner.

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