Hard Contract (1969) ***

A hitman movie that verges on the existential is always going to be intriguing. Stone cold killer John Cunningham (James Coburn) manages to keep the world at a distance until he runs into the vibrant Sheila (Lee Remick) in Spain. The film is a curiosity of an admittedly small genre dominated by such disparate offerings as The Killers (1946 and 1964), Yojimbo (1961), Le Samourai (1967) and Stiletto (1969). Here, although Cunningham does bump people off, you never see the violence. We’ve come to expect hitmen to be introspective, but there’s never been anyone as closed-off as Cunningham. No romance in his life, only hookers, no apparent depth, in fact we learn very little about him.

He only runs into Sheila because for a laugh she pretends to be a sex worker. In reality she’s a wealthy divorced socialite running with a fast set that include Adrianne (Lili Palmer) and ex-Nazi Alexi (Patrick Magee) whom she loves to taunt but whose contacts allow Cunningham to be effectively stalked. And as unsavory that might be from today’s perspective, it sheds light both on her power and whimsicality.

There’s an unusual background. Amid the extensive jet-setting in Torremolinos, Madrid and Tangiers, there are reality counterpoints, reflecting the issues of the decade – violent demonstrations with police using water cannon to control the crowds, the American elections and discussions about God, world hunger, the Holocaust, terrorism and population growth.

No doubt the script is wordy, but there’s hardly a word that doesn’t challenge convention. It’s steeped in amorality – a touchstone of the decade – good only occurs “when evil takes a rest” and the world is “immune to murder.” And you certainly get the impression that the rich can confront anything because, not having to live in the ordinary world, they can get away with it. Conversely, this is also one of those films where you wonder who did the wardrobe (Gladys de Segonzac, since you ask, who ran fashion house Schiaparelli in the 1950s) because not only does Sheila sport clothes that would have delighted Audrey Hepburn but Cunningham gets away with wearing a white jacket.

And if Korean vet Cunningham is enigmatic, the insomniac Sheila is cut from a similar cloth, and while a potential source for redemption is as likely to have sex with a casual pickup in a filthy alley. The story does not go quite the way you would expect – Cunningham’s growing dissatisfaction with his profession revealed when he can’t perform in a Brussels brothel. And his mindset allows him to consider mass murder as a solution to an emotional problem he cannot solve.

At core, of course, is whether once Cunningham’s emotional defenses are breached he can continue as a hitman, and  whether Sheila can accept his profession. The stakes rise when it transpires that (like Stiletto made the same year) retirement is not an option.

And for all the seriousness on show, there are some imaginative moments of hilarity – Cunningham’s idea of a love song is “To the Shores of Tripoli” and Adrianne proves determinedly indiscreet. In keeping with the paranoia cycle that was about to explode, you never find out why people are being murdered, or even who they are, far less the group which his boss Ramsay (Burgess Meredith) is fronting.

Far removed from the Derek Flint persona that had turned him into a star, James Coburn delved deeper into the amoral territory he had previously explored in Waterhole 3 (1967). Lee Remick (The Detective, 1968) is sheer madcap delight even when espousing her odd takes on philosophy. Lili Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962), who by this point in her career was usually the wife or girlfriend, creates a very original character. Veteran Sterling Hayden had only made one film (Dr Strangelove, 1962) in a decade and is excellent as a contemplative retired hitman. Patrick Magee (The Skull) gives another of his tight-lipped performances. Karen Black (Easy Rider, 1969) has a small role as does Sabine Sun (The Sicilian Clan, 1969).

This marked both the debut and the demise of the directorial career of S. Lee Pogostin, best known at this point as the screenwriter of Pressure Point (1962) and Synanon (1965). In terms of argument over issues it stands comparison with Pressure Point but without that film’s intensity.

I remember being baffled by the picture when it came out and I was a teenager because the action I believed I had been promised never materialized but otherwise I could remember little about it so now it appears as an interesting antidote to the mindless action pictures.  

This is another freebie available on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=hard+contract+1969

Vendetta for The Saint (1969) ***

This big-screen version of small-screen hero is as pleasant a diversion as you can get. Nostalgia pretty much gives it a free pass and in any case the action, which punctuates the drama at regular intervals, was always going to be budget-restricted. Despite being in almost constant danger the insouciance of gentleman thief Simon Templar dictates that the pace is no more than languid.

As the title suggests, we’re in Mafia country, Templar (Roger Moore) drawn into a Cosa Nostra succession scenario as the result of a casual encounter with former bank clerk Houston (Fulton Mackay) later found dead. Houston has cast doubts on the real identity of  Mafia Don Destiamo (Ian Hendry) one of several contenders to become the next Mafia overlord. Templar sneaks into Destiamo’s world by pursuing his niece Gina (Rosemary Dexter). Although outwardly respectable, Destiamo a bit too fond of using his cigar as a weapon of disfigurement, threatening his blonde English moll Lily (Aimi McDonald) in this fashion.

Part of Templar’s attraction is that although he has a nefarious side he is happy to walk those mean streets and has a strict moral code. And he moves in such elevated circles that he has a nodding acquaintance with dying Mafia chieftain Don Pasquale (Finlay Currie) who has yet to pick his successor.

The other part of his attraction is that he’s played with such suaveness by Roger Moore. For a good chunk of the time someone is trying to knife him, shoot him, blow him up, capture him, jab him with a truth serum, and generally trying to stop him. In fending off such attacks, or out-smarting the villains, there’s rarely a hair out of place. It’s not so much devil-may-care as devil-is-wasting-his-time with such an imperturbable fellow.

Although the action is pretty straightforward, Templar is not above a clever ruse – jamming a bus in a gateway preventing his pursuers continuing the chase – nor an old one such as tying sheets together to climb out of a window. While Malta stands in for Italy, the locations still look authentic enough, ancient stone buildings, the occasional horse pulling a cart. When the action/drama eases up, there’s always pleasant scenery.

Following MGM’s success in stitching together into a movie two episodes of The Man From U.N.C/L.E. television series (an idea of course the studio had pinched from Walt Disney’s cinematic re-presentation of Davy Crockett episodes) it was no surprise that ATV, then under the control of future movie mogul Sir Lew Grade (Raise the Titanic, 1980), decided to adopt the same idea. Although The Saint had been showing on British television since 1962, by the end of its run in 1969 it had stepped up to bigger budgets, 35mm and color. Given each episode lasted around 50 minutes, it was relatively simple to devise a two-part program shown over consecutive weeks on ITV in Britain and then release it throughout the rest of the world as a feature film. The first such project was The Fiction Makers (1968) followed by Vendetta for the Saint.

Roger Moore’s movie career had been in limbo since Romulus and the Sabines (1961) and there’s no doubt that his performance as Simon Templar and later in another glossier British television series The Persuaders (1971-1972) made him a candidate for James Bond. While his interpretation of Templar, especially the wry delivery, does bear some similarities to his incarnation as 007, that only holds true as long as you set aside the year’s supply of Brylcreem dumped on his hair, the shoulder-padded shoulders and the fact that he had not yet perfected his trademark move, the raising of the single eyebrow.

While no match for the quips prevalent in James Bond, Canadian screenwriter Harry W. Junkin – best known for his television work, his only other movies being a similar melding of television episodes of The Persuaders – and John Kruse (Hell Drivers, 1957) – had some neat one-liners. Despite the obvious limitations, director Jim O’Connelly (Berserk, 1967) does a decent enough job.

But Moore carries the show. Ian Hendry (The Hill, 1965) makes a passable villain but not a passable Italian. In general, not surprisingly since most characters were played by British actors, the accents are all over the place though Moore, courtesy of squiring Luisa Mattioli (later his wife) managed to deliver his Italian lines in an acceptable accent. Otherwise the only one who comes close is Rosemary Dexter (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and that’s because she was Italian. Worth checking out in the supporting cast are Finlay Currie (Ben Hur, 1959) and Fulton Mackay (BBC series Porridge, 1974-1977).

You can find a lot wrong with this without looking very hard but if you switch off your over-critical faculties you will be pleasantly surprised.

The Brotherhood (1968) ****

Minimal violence and no sex was the wrong recipe for this Mafia picture – as proven at the box office – but this is an absorbing, underrated drama nonetheless.

It bears a surprising number of parallels to The Godfather (1972). Pure coincidence, extraordinary though that may appear, because The Brotherhood premiered in December 1968 while the Mario Puzo novel was printed in March 1969 (and delivered to the printers long before), so no opportunity at all for plagiarism.

The two films could be opposite sides of the same coin. For a start, both begin with a wedding. Vince Ginetta (Alex Cord), brother of Mafia kingpin Frank (Kirk Douglas), is marrying Emma (Susan Strasberg), daughter of another Mafia chief Dominick (Luther Adler). Like Michael (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Vince is just out of the army, well-educated and primed for a life outside the business. And like Michael is called upon to commit an act of supreme violence. There’s even a hint of Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in the relationship between the brothers, Frank having brought up the much younger Vince after his father’s premature death.

And just as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) refuses to join the other Mafia families in a new business venture (in that case, drugs) so Frank bows out of an incredibly high risk (but amazingly prescient) scheme to invest in electronic firms involved in military work for the government, a deal that not only promises huge profits but a potential hold over the powers-that-be.

Frank’s wife Ida (Irene Papas) is like Don Corleone’s wife, not wanting to know anything about the business, but both Emma and Frank’s daughter Carmela (Connie Scott) are thematic cousins to Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) as initial implicit trust is wiped away. When Frank dances with Carmela at the wedding, that is reflected in Don Corleone dancing with his daughter at her wedding. Like The Godfather our first sight of the other Mafia chieftains – including Jim Hagen (Murray Hamilton) and Don Peppino (Eduardo Cianelli) – is at the feast where they are viewed with suspicion by Frank’s clan. And the scene where Frank uses a banana to tease his nephew will remind you of Don Corleone spooking his grandson with an orange.

However, the twist, if you like, is that, unlike Michael, Vince is desperate to join the Family and is instrumental in developing legitimate enterprises, which is echoed by Michael Corleone’s strategic shift to Las Vegas. In some respects, Frank is more like Sonny (James Caan), happy to assume personal command of murders which the other Mafia chiefs now scrupulously delegate to “mechanics” in Los Angeles. He is more old-school whereas the others act as respectable businessmen.

And then it becomes a question of loyalty. Which side the ambitious Vinnie will take is crucial to the story. Frank is under pressure on all sides, from the other Mafia leaders, a government investigation, Vinnie, and the need to exact revenge on the man who caused his father’s death.

There is authentic detail here as well – religious procession in Sicily, Frank playing boccia (the Italian version of the French boules) with his old pals, family dinner, canary stuffed in the mouth of a stool pigeon, but it is less spaghetti-drenched than The Godfather. Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Fox, 1967), also listed as technical adviser, claimed to be drawing on his intimate knowledge of organized crime.

There are only three moments of violence – four if you count a shocking moment of someone spitting on a corpse at a wake – a pair of straightforward murders that bookend the film, plus a scene of Godfather-style brutality in which a man slowly strangles himself to death after being hogtied. Everyone is happily married, Ida very old-school to the extent of removing her husband’s clothes (and shoes) when he returns home drunk, Vince in a good relationship.

Kirk Douglas (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) is excellent in a difficult role that presents a fully rounded character, playful with his daughter, loyal to his wife, holding his own against the other mob bosses, enjoying the company of the old-timers who resemble his father, and the changing nature of his relationship with brother Vince. Alex Cord, whose work I initially dismissed (Stiletto, 1969), I have come to more fully appreciate, especially here, where, in a masterpiece of restraint, he makes the transition from adoring brother to threat.

The supporting cast is terrific, a rare Hollywood sojourn for Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), Luther Adler  (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) as one of the hoodlums exasperated by Frank’s recalcitrance,  Murray Hamilton (The Graduate, 1967) but, except at the start, Susan Strasberg (The Trip, 1967) is underused.

While director Martin Ritt (Hombre, 1967) is at times guilty of melodrama, his rendering of family life is much more nuanced than Coppola’s. There are very tender moments between Frank and his wife and Frank and his daughter, as well as moments where Ida plays a more maternal role.

For nearly half a century, The Brotherhood has lain in the shadow of The Godfather simply because they both deal with the Mafia. But this is an excellent movie in its own right.

Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang (1968) ***

Was it David McCallum’s floppy-haired blondness that prevented him making the jump to movie action hero because, with the ruthlessness of a Dirty Harry, he certainly makes a good stab at it in this slightly convoluted drugs thriller. Never mind being saddled with an odd moniker, the name devised surely only in the hope it would linger in the memory, Sol Madrid (McCallum) is an undercover cop on the trail of the equally blonde, though somewhat more statuesque, Stacey Woodward (Stella Stevens) and Harry Mitchell (Pat Hingle) who have scarpered with a half a million Mafia dollars. Hingle is the Mafia “human computer” who knows everything about the Cosa Nostra’s dealings, Woodward the girlfriend of Mafia don Villanova (Rip Torn).

Sol tracks down Stella easy enough and embarks on the audacious plan of using her share of the loot, a cool quarter of a million, to fund a heroin deal in Mexico with the intention of bringing down both Mexican kingpin Emil Dietrich (Telly Savalas) and, using the on-the-run pair as bait, Villanova. A couple of neat action sequences light this picture up. When Sol and Stella are set upon by two knife-wielding hoods in a car park, he employs a car aerial as a weapon while she taking refuge in a car watches in terror as an assailant batters down the window. Sol has hit on a neat method of transferring the heroin from Tijuana to San Diego and that is filled with genuine tension as is the hand-over where Sol with an unexpected whipcrack slap puts his opposite number in his place.

Meanwhile, Villanova has sent a hitman to Mexico and when that fails turns up himself, kidnapping Stella and planning a degrading revenge. Most of the movie is Sol duelling with Dietrich, suspicion of the other’s motives getting in the way of the trust required to seal a deal, with Mitchell, hiding out in Dietrich’s fortified lair, soon being deemed surplus to requirements. Various complications heighten the tension in their flimsy relationship.

Madrid is Dirty Harry in embryo, determined to bring down the gangsters by whatever means even if that involves going outside the law he is supposed to uphold, incipient romance with Woodward merely a means to an end. McCallum certainly holds his own in the tough guy stakes, whether trading punches or coolly gunning down or ruthlessly drowning enemies he is meant to just capture, and trading  steely-eyed looks with his nemesis.

It’s a decent enough effort from director Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), but is let down by the film’s structure, the expected confrontation with Villanova taking far too long, too much time spent on his revenge with Woodward, for whom audience sympathy is slight. Just at the time when Hollywood was exploring the fun side of drug taking – Easy Rider just a year away – this was a more realistic portrayal of the evil of narcotics.

It is also quite prescient, foreshadowing both The Godfather Part II (1974) in the way Villanova has modernised the Mafia, achieving respectability through money laundering, and this century’s television obsession with South American drug cartels with all-out police battles with the Narcos. And there is a bullet-through-the-glasses composition that will be very familiar to fans of The Godfather (1972), and you will also notice a similarity between the feared Luca Brasi and the Mafia hitman Scarpi (Michael Conrad) here. And why we’re at it, Woodward’s predicament is close to Gene Hackman’s in French Connction II (1975).

The action sequences are excellent and fresh. Think Madeleine cowering in terror as the car window is battered in No Time to Die (2021) and you get an idea of the power Hutton brings to the scene of a terrified Woodward hiding in the car. Incidentally, you might think McCallum was more of a secret agent than a cop with the cold-blooded ruthlessness with which he dispatches his enemies.

Stella Stevens (The Silencers, 1966) is the weak link, too shrill and not willing to sully her make-up or hair when her role requires degradation. Her part is better written (“I never met a man who didn’t want to use me”) than Stevens can act and she gets a clincher of the film’s final line. Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) with his playful villain, though the trademark laugh is in occasional evidence, is in sharp contrast to Rip Torn who is all snarling bad guy. Ricardo Montalban (Madame X, 1966) is Sol’s Mexican sidekick and Paul Lukas, a star of the Hollywood “golden age”, puts in a fleeting appearance.

No Way To Treat a Lady (1968) ****

Sly cunning highly original drama hugely enjoyable for a number of reasons, top among which would be Rod Steiger’s serial killer. As the wealthy and cultured Christopher Gill, the actor employs disguise to enter the homes of the unsuspecting. Disguises range from Irish priest,  German maintenance man, wig salesman, a woman and even a policeman knocking on doors to advise people not to admit strangers.

Clearly Steiger has a ball with these cameos, but, more importantly, his character pre-empts the celebrity status accorded the modern-day mass murderer. This is a killer who wants everyone to know just how good he is at his self-appointed task, who desperately wants to be on the front pages, who revels in a cat-and-mouse taunting of the police. To be sure, an element of this is played as comedy, but from our perspective, half a century on, it is a terrific characterization of the narcissistic personality, and far more interesting than the psychological impulse that causes him to kill in the first place.

The hapless detective (George Segal) on the receiving end of Gill’s brilliance is named Morris Brummel which means that he is met with laughter anytime he introduces himself since he that is invariably shortened to Mo Brummel, close to Beau Brummel, the famous historical dandy, from whom the cop could not be further removed. And Brummel is not your standard cop, the kind we have seen often who is stewed in alcohol with marital problems, feuding with his bosses and close to burn-out. Brummel would love marital problems if only to get out from under his nagging mother (Eileen Eckhart) , with whom he lives.

He is dogged, but respects authority and takes his demotion like a man. Not coincidentally, killer and cop are linked by mother issues. Although Gill is angry when ignored he does not taunt Brummel the way his mother does. She is ashamed he is a cop and not wealthy like his brother.

Even less standard is the meet-cute. Kate Palmer (Lee Remick) is a useless witness. She can’t remember anything about the priest she passed on the stairs. When the cop arrives, she is hungover and just wants to get back to sleep, and without being aware that Brummel is in fact Jewish praises his nose. Gill is a bit ham-fisted in the seduction department and it is Palmer who makes the running. But although appearing glamorous when first we see her, in reality she is a mundane tour guide. Their romance is conducted on buses and a police river launch, hardly the classic love story.

Although the trio of principals boasted one Oscar and two nominations between them, their careers were at a tricky stage. Winning the Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967) did not trigger huge demand for Steiger’s services and he had to skip over to Italy for his next big role. Both Remick and Segal, in freefall after a series of flops, had been working in television. Whether this picture quite rejuvenated their careers is a moot point for the picture was reviled in certain quarters for bringing levity to a serious subject and it was certainly overshadowed in critical terms by The Boston Strangler (1968) a few months later. But all three give excellent performances, especially Steiger and Segal who subjugated screen mannerisms to create more human characters.

While Jack Smight had directed Paul Newman in private eye yarn Harper (1966) the bulk of his movies, regardless of genre, were tinged with comedy. While he allows Steiger full vent for his impersonations, he keeps the actor buttoned-down for most of the time, allowing a more nuanced performance. Violence, too, is almost non-existent, no threshing of limbs of terrified victims. John Gay wrote the screenplay from a novel by William Goldman (who had written the screenplay for Harper) so short it almost constituted a movie treatment.  

In reality, the comedy is slight and if you overlook a sequence poking fun at the vertically-challenged, what remains is an examination of propulsion towards fulfilment through notoriety and the irony that the murders elevate into significance the mundane life of the investigating officer.   

Catch-Up: George Segal films previously reviewed in the Blog are Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), Lost Command (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and The Southern Star (1969). I also covered Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker (1964).

A Twist of Sand (1968) ***

Initially promising, ultimately disappointing thriller that proves you should not go to sea  without a big budget. Because he is the only skipper to have successfully negotiated the Skeleton Coast off Namibia in South Africa, smuggler Geoffrey Peace (Richard Johnson) gets roped into a scheme by Harry Riker (Jeremy Kemp) and Julie Chambois (Honor Blackman) to collect stolen diamonds.

Peace knows his way around this area thanks to World War Two submarine exploits and that particular expedition is recalled in flashback while its repercussions form part of a plot. Also on board the boat are the goggle-eyed knife-wielding Johann (Peter Vaughn) and Peace’s shipmate David (Roy Dotrice).

Peace has to navigate the treacherous waters of the Skeleton Coast before the team embark on a trek through the desert to find the diamonds, hidden in the unlikely location of a shipwreck, itself in imminent danger of being buried in an avalanche of sand that could be triggered by (shades of Dune) sudden movement or sound.

On paper – and it has been adapted from the bestseller by Geoffrey Jenkins – it has all the ingredients of a top-class thriller but it doesn’t quite gel. For a start, the flashback, where Peace has to hunt down a new class of German submarine and not only sink it but make sure there are no survivors, gets in the way of the action.

The sexual tension you might expect to simmer between Peace and Julie does not appear to exist, the bulk of the threat coming from the villainous-looking pair, Riker and Johann, the former already known to be untrustworthy, the latter too fond of producing a knife at odd occasions. The trek into the desert takes way too long and rather than increase tensions slackens it off and there is no real explanation as to why the ship was lost so far into the desert without entering Clive Cussler archaeological territory.

Extracting the diamonds is certainly a taut scene, with the sand dunes threatening to collapse any moment but the climax you saw coming a long way off and although there is an ironic twist it is not enough to save the picture.

On the plus side, Richard Johnson (Deadlier Than The Male, 1967) shucks off the suave gentleman-spy persona of Bulldog Drummond to emerge as a snarly, believable smuggler. But Honor Blackman (Moment to Moment, 1966) is wasted and this is one of the least effective bad guy portraits from the Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) catalogue. Roy Dotrice (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) is better value while Peter Vaughn (Hammerhead, 1968), menacing enough just standing still, overplays the villain.

Set up as a thriller very much in the Alistair MacLean vein, this shows just how good MacLean’s material was, how great a command he had of structure and not just of action but twists along the way. A Twist of Sand wobbles once too often in its structure and never quite manages to build up the necessary tension between characters. Although the Skeleton Coast sea-scene falls apart due to defective special effects, the other two sequences at sea are well done, the opening section where Peace is being chased by Royal Navy vessels, and the underwater attack on the German submarine where murky water manages to obscure the effects sufficiently they appear effective enough.

Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) does his best with material that’s not quite up to standard. Marvin H. Albert (Tony Rome, 1967) doesn’t do as good a job of adapting other people’s work as he does his own.  

Catch-Up: Richard Johnson films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Khartoum (1966), Deadlier than the Male (1967), and Danger Route (1967).

Hostile Witness (1968) ***

Shoddy initial release means this is unlikely to have been on your radar, but this entertaining courtroom drama plays on madness, involves minimal sleight-of-hand, employs some notable reversals as a defence strategy sinks under the weight of its own misplaced ambition.  Courtroom dramas were a scarce commodity in the 1960s, the sub-genre almost killed off by U.S. television hits like Perry Mason (1957-1966) and The Defenders (2961-1965).  Although, technically, Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird were of the same ilk, they did not rely on last-minute intervention or the normal twists and turns of legal dramas as evidenced by Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Hostile Witness only saw the light of day because Oscar-winner Ray Milland had starred in the Broadway version of the British play, author Jack Roffey experienced in the mechanics of this kind of fare after British television series Boyd Q.C. (1956-1964).

Daughter dead in a tragic car accident, top-notch Q.C. Simon Crawford (Ray Milland) is accused of killing the man he believed deliberately responsible. Unable to defend himself, he relies on his junior Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms). Circumstantial evidence links him to the crime. Questions surround his mental health, which disintegrated following his daughter’s death, especially after he cannot prove claims that would exonerate him. Casting around for the potential killer leads to a cul de sac, each clue that could absolve him rapidly dissolves and as he is soon fighting for his life. And as tension mounts, the defence team is soon in disarray, Sims quitting on a point of principle. Like all the best court cases the proof is in front of his eyes if only he could see it, and the traditional last-minute witness and twist does not disappoint. 

The courtroom aspect is very well done, great banter between the lawyers and swift and witty put-downs by the presiding judge (Felix Aylmer). While the story demands that Crawford remains off centre-stage at times, his presence, as a tense observer of proceedings that could spell his fate, calls on Milland to display probably the widest set of non-verbal reactions you will ever encounter. Syms (East of Sudan, 1964) is excellent in a role that offers greater scope than her usual female lead and while carrying a torch for Crawford she is more than capable to standing up to him and is ruthless in cross-examination. Geoffrey Lumsden (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968) tickles as a befuddled major and Raymond Huntley (later a success in Upstairs, Downstairs) sparkles as the grumpy prosecutor. To some extent, the picture plays on the film noir ethos that good guys often turn out to be anything but and Milland has the undoubted gift of looking both villain and hero dependent on the time of day.

By this point Welsh-born Milland was an odd refugee from Hollywood’s Golden Age, fallen far below the box office peaks of Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend (1948) and noir turns like The Big Clock (1948). Apart from Dial M for Murder (1954) he was mostly became a television stalwart – the eponymous Ray Milland Show (1953-1955) and Markham (1959-1960) – and turned his hand to occasional direction. An unexpected dip into horror – The Premature Burial (1962), Panic in the Year Zero (1962) and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) failed to revive his mainstream career and prior to Hostile Witness had only appeared in one other movie.

For a time Hostile Witness did look as if he would put him back on top after taking up an offer to make his Broadway debut in the play. Although not a stand-out hit, it ran for a decent 157 performances, then went on tour in the U.S. and later Australia, leaving Milland with the impression that, with himself directing to cut costs and running to a tight 24-day shooting schedule in Britain, it might just be the correct vehicle. Unfortunately, it was probably the staid direction that put paid to any prospect of box office success. A director like Billy Wilder or Hitchcock would have concentrated far more on character ambiguity and  made more of the unreciprocated romance and either tightened or opened up the original play to add more tension. Even so, it is pleasant enough viewing, not a dud by any means.

Uptight (1968) ****

While a misplaced attempt to relocate John Ford’s Oscar-winning The Informer (1935) to Cleveland, Ohio, after the funeral of Martin Luther King, director Jules Dassin more than makes up for it with his exploration of black militancy and racial conflict. The basic story of unemployed alcoholic Tank (Julian Mayfield) trying to regain the favor of local activist committee led by B.G. (Raymond St Jacques) is less interesting than the revolutionary backdrop.

Dassin was suited to uncovering the seamy side of life having helmed film noirs Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) and while in the 1960s concentrating on dramas he remained best-known for heist pictures Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964) so it was almost a given that this movie would feature a robbery.  Tank was supposed to be part of a team, led by Johnny Wells (Max Julien), hijacking guns, but he’s too drunk to help, and during the robbery after a guard is killed the finger points at Johnny. 

Above: American poster. Below: the French version.

Assailed for his lack of maintenance by Laurie (Ruby Dee), mother of his kids, who subsists on welfare and prostitution, Tank considers informing on Johnny and picking up the $1,000 reward. So the story becomes a question of whether he will succumb to temptation.

But that’s really just a MacGuffin for an insight into the problems facing the poverty-stricken black population and the armed response many feel is the only way to resolve such issues. Several outstanding scenes depict the raw emotions of people trapped in this lifestyle. The opening scene, showing the funeral of Martin Luther King, became a clarion call for violence. Laurie is humiliated by a welfare officer. Police attempting to arrest Johnny are met with a fusillade of bottles.

The case for armed insurrection is made abundantly clear. The black population is continually oppressed, not just by police violence, but being told they lack the skills for a rewarding job. “When you’re born black, you’re born dead.” B.G. rejects the offer of assistance of white civil rights activists. Not all the locals are underdogs. Clarence (Roscoe Lee Brown), with an apartment lined with bookshelves and wearing fine clothes, does very well out of his arrangements with the police and the black welfare officer clearly gets a kick out of his power to possibly disbar Laurie from receiving financial assistance. While it might have proved more incendiary at the time, it’s impossible to miss the injustice portrayed. It was almost a wake-up call for the ruling authorities that there existed a growing underground force determined to achieve equality through violence if necessary. The idea of an organised group, rather than a shambolic mob, is the other clear message.

Any actor would baulk at the prospect of matching the Oscar-winning performance of Victor McLaglen in the Ford original and surely no director would entrust the task to an inexperienced actor like Julian Mayfield whose only previous screen credit was a decade before in Virgin Island (1958). Mayfield finds it impossible to conjure up the pathos required and mostly appears as a bumbling fool.

This is despite the movie going out of its way to make Tank appear more sympathetic. He could easily claim he was blackmailed into informing by wealthy stool pigeon Clarence who holds compromising photographs. But, equally, the brotherhood, should it become aware of Clarence’s activities, would surely come down on him hard. Johnny absolves Tank of responsibility for not participating in the robbery, recognizing that while the man’s bulk was useful in the past, he lacks the mind-set for robbery. And he must stay away from Laurie otherwise she will lose her welfare.

But the rest of the cast is outstanding. Raymond St Jacques (If He Hollers, Let Him Go, 1968) stands supreme as an imposing Malcolm X figure. Roscoe Lee Brown (Topaz, 1969) is persuasive as a confident gay informer. Activist Ruby Dee (The Incident, 1967) is good, too. And there is strong support from Frank Silvera (Guns of The Magnificent Seven, 1969), Max Julien, best known later for The Mack (1973), and in her movie debut Janet MacLachlan giving a hint of the acting skills that would win her an Oscar nomination for Maurie (1973)

Perhaps the most important element of the picture was the screenplay, a collaboration between Julian Mayfield, Ruby Dee and Jules Dassin, the involvement of the first two ensuring that the main targets were well and truly hit. Dassin ensures that the movie never loses its way, tension kept high by the hunt for Johnny, the personal dilemma of Tank and the various confrontations with B.G. Great contemporary score by Booker T.

This is a movie that still stands up, not just because of its fearless delineating of the times, but from the suspicion that not enough has changed in the abject poverty to which so many are condemned.

There’s a very decent print available on Youtube.

Last night in Soho (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Genre mish-mash – sci-fi time travel time (sort of) and horror – just doesn’t come off and Anya Taylor-Joy blows the acting kudos she acquired for the Queen’s Gambit Netflix series. Honestly, we don’t care how people are transported to the past or the future but the journey has to be somehow worthwhile. If there is a such a thing for a fashion student, Eloise (Tomasin McKenzie) is somewhat on the nerdy side and when she ends up in an attic flat near London’s Soho she begins to inhabit the body of wannabe singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose ambitions over half a century previously took her no further than the seediest pockets of seedy crime. Eloise’s visions of recreating 1960s glamour disintegrate and she’s soon slap-bang in the middle of a horror story with leering men bursting out of the walls.

It’s always difficult to keep focus on two storylines, even when they appear to converge, but when they are over half a century apart the constant jumping back and forth is just irritating. The seediness is realistic enough, punter response to learning Sandie’s real or fake name is invariably “that’s a nice name.”  There’s a dodgy boyfriend (Matt Smith), mean girl (Synnove Karlsen) and an odd landlady (Diana Rigg) and that’s about as far as this stretches in terms of characterization. And if your bag is to spot the old-timer, then you will get glimpses of Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) and Rita Tushingham (The Knack, 1965) not to mention The Avengers (BBC, 1965-1968) television series reincarnation Rigg.

It’s not scary enough, fashionable enough, seedy enough, or 1960s enough – only a token nod to the period with a soundtrack from the decade and a few scenes with characters in the correct clobber or cars. It might just have worked if it had been the one actress playing both female parts because that at least might have been interesting to observe. Thomasin McKenzie (Old, 2021) is passable as the naïve young thing called upon to mostly look petrified. Anya Taylor-Joy (The New Mutants, 2020) brings nothing to a role that is just a cliché. Point the finger at Edgar Wright, whose Baby Driver (2017) I thought was a sign of him having turned a corner from previous misfires.

Deadlier than the Male (1967) ****

Now revealed as the first film seen by Quentin Tarantino – at the age of five.

For a movie intended to set up a series character in the vein of James Bond, it was ironic that it was the women who stole the show, not just from their tendency to turn up in bikinis but for their outrageous villainy. Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina) are the seductive assassins in the hire of Carl Petersen (Nigel Green) who has designs on an Arab oil empire. On her own Irma dispatches mogul Henry Keller (Dervis Ward) then the pair – emerging from the sea like a pair of latter-day Ursula Andresses – harpoon his colleague Wyngarde (John Stone).   

Soon Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), investigating the death of Wyngarde, becomes a target  and that sets him off, with nephew Robert (Steve Carlson) in tow,  to the Mediterranean and the yacht of oil-rich King Fedra (Zia Mohyeddin) where, of course, the girls lie in wait.

Dispensing with the gadgets – except for one item employed by the villainesses – and gimmicks of Bond, but retaining the quips, this is a fun ride with a more down-to-earth leading man – like the early Bonds – smarter girls, a more old-fashioned mystery, a hefty thug Chang (Milton Reid)  in the Oddjob mold, a castle doubling as the villain’s lair, a suave master criminal, some detective work, and a super scene involving giant robotic chess men.

The bickering between Irma and Penelope, who is not just a tad sadistic but a kleptomaniac especially as far as her partner is concerned, coupled with their overweening confidence, makes them much more human than any Bond Girl and the character traits explored have a pay-off at the climax. Equally interesting are the mind games, Drummond vs. Peterson but also Drummond vs. Irma. And that the female baddies see it as points on their scoreboard to seduce Drummond rather than the other way round.

Drummond is every bit as capable a seducer as Bond and equally ruthless, stripping a suspect naked. Petersen is also a clever character, faking his own death and running a very smooth operation, and certainly his recruitment techniques are second to none.

Some ideas were certainly ahead of their time, the chess men are the equivalent of a modern computer game while the human bomb has, unfortunately, entered the modern lexicon and there are enough female serial killers around to prevent anyone believing they are always (to use an outmoded sexist phrase) the gentle sex. However, in the middle 1960s, the concept that women would be partial to murder and torture not to mention repeatedly seducing males went so much against the grain of the male authority figures that the British censor slapped an X-certificate on the movie.

Shakespearian actor Richard Johnson was a one time MGM contract player, but his only previous top-billed outing was the Italian-made The Witch (1966). He certainly made a splash with this character, investing it with a great deal more gravitas than Flint or Helm. The Teutonic Elke Sommer (The Venetian Affair, 1966) is brilliant as one half of the assassin tag-team with a batch of one-liners for every occasion. Sylva Koscina (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), nose always put out of joint, almost steals the show.  Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), while his usual sardonic self, has the playfulness of the rich and powerful.

Steve Carlsen, in his movie debut, doesn’t make much of an impact in a largely lame role. Zia Mohyeddin has a more interesting part as the oil kingpin wanting to help his people. As you can expect in a spy picture there are a host of beautiful women – Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) a defector, Virginia North, also making her debut, Justine Lord (Night after Night after Night, 1969), and Didi Sydow in her only screen appearance.

The light comedy experience of director Ralph Thomas (Doctor in Distress, 1963) comes is very handy, as his sense of comic timing is excellent, but, perhaps learning from his previous brush with espionage in Agent 8¾ / Hot Enough for June (1964) brings a bigger punch to the action scenes. And it’s a bold ploy to start with an action sequence revolving around Irma and Penelope rather than our star man.

The screenplay was a team effort – Jimmy Sangster (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964), taking a break from Hammer duties, David D. Osborn (Maroc 7, 1967) and Liz Charles-Williams, making her screen debut  – all involved.  This was familiar territory for composer Malcolm Lockyer (Five Golden Men, 1967). British pop act The Walker Brothers had a hit with the theme tune.

This is more fun than camp, not a send-up of the genre like Derek Flint and Matt Helm, but a spy picture with a believable leading men and excellent villains. But the plot is more centred on filthy lucre rather than global control and there is a genuine understanding of how businesses work – takeovers, mergers, dirty dealings – though small wonder Petersen would like to be shot of pedantic boardroom nuisances like Bridgenorth (Leonard Rossiter) – wouldn’t we all?

Bulldog Drummond was an international crime-buster invented by “Sapper,” the pen-name of H.C. McNeile. Bulldog Drummond had been a Hollywood mainstay for over four decades, the twenty-plus pictures attracting stars like Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond, 1929, and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, 1934), Ray Milland (Bulldog Drummond Escapes, 1937), Walter Pidgeon (Calling Bulldog Drummond, 1951) and a young Ralph Richardson (The Return of Bulldog Drummond, 1934). But the notion, in the Swinging Sixties, of tagging any leading man by the moniker of ‘Bulldog’ did not seem like a good idea, so the character underwent wholesale reinvention and his nickname is never mentioned.  

The title comes from a line in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, The Female of the Species. That was the original title of the film and also of a Sapper book.

You can get his on a double bill with the sequel Some Girls Do from Network at a very reasonable price. Will be reviewing Some Girls Do next.

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