Diary of a Madman (1963) ***

Contemporary perspectives occasionally raise a film in the estimation. Here, our knowledge of the psychology behind serial killers sheds quite a different light. The idea that a killer can blame outside forces over which he has no control was one of the original tenets when the ordinary mind could not take in that some folks just enjoyed the act of murder so much they were inclined to do it over and over again.

Where I come there there’s a saying – “a big boy did it and ran away” – a device used by small boys in big trouble. And that’s pretty much the idea here. The innocent can be taken over by an evil entity, rather than admitting to surrendering to their most heinous desires.

A prisoner condemned to death in 19th century France confides in magistrate Simon Cordier (Vincent Price) that his murdeorus acts were the result of direction by the mysterious and, unhelpfully, invisible “Horla.” Naturally, Cordier dismisses the notion until, in self-defence, he kills the prisoner. Disturbed by his action, he seeks counsel and is advised by a psychiatrist (an “alienist” as such a person was known at the time) to spend more time on his hobby, sculpting.

Although Cordier appears to be a model citizen, there lurks in his past a suicidal wife who killed their child, and the notion that somehow he was responsible. Into his world comes woman-on-the-make Odette (Nancy Kovack) who earns more money as an artist’s model than her husband Paul (Chris Warley) does for his paintings. Unaware  that she is already committed, Simon proposes marriage. It doesn’t take long for him to suspect she is not what she seems and he does away with her only for Paul to become the main suspect and be condemned to death.

Cordier, discovering by accident that the Horla, is frightened of fire, lures the entity into his deserted house (servants sent away) and plans to destroy the entity but in the process the fire melts the door handles and Cordier can’t escape, dying in the process.

Price and Kovack.

A modern reading of course would set it up a different way, putting greater emphasis on the past, trying to uncover what drove Cordier’s wife to suicide. That he gives in to overwhelming urges might well be followed by periods of guilt until he realises that the only way out is his own suicide.

But the 1960s moviegoer – possibly still recovering from the murderous goings-on at the Bates Hotel, and grateful that it was fiction, and The Boston Strangler only just getting into his stride – was not quite ready to put any faith in a landscape filled with predators and victims, so it would make more sense for outside forces, voices or the like, to be controlling the ordinary person.

An eerie glowing light comes over the eyes of Cordier (and the earlier convict) any time the urge to kill dominates. But if you were going to set this up as a picture of innocence driven to dark deed you would not populate it with Vincent Price (Witchfinder General, 1968), who had form for dastardly deeds. Nor is Price quite able to pull it off, those sepulchral tones always seeming to indicate something lurking, and he’s hardly in the debonair category so at the very least he belongs to the caste of entitled rich taking advantage of a poor woman to press his case for marriage.

Nancy Kovack (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) is more convincing as the manipulative object of his desire. I half-expected her to turn into a murderer in order to rid herself of her the husband getting in the way of her chance at a new, wealthier, life. Chris Warfield (Dangerous Charter, 1962) is the talentless dupe, whichever way you cut it, and you have to admire his wife for sticking with him for so long.

Given that director Reginald Le Borg’s career dated back to the 1940s and he had been lumbered with the Joe Palooka series and any number of B-movies, it was perhaps surprising that horror, although still strictly on B-movie budgets, became a forte – The Black Sheep (1956) and Voodoo Island (1957). While this one was clearly filmed on a studio backlot, he does a good job of bringing a bit of lushness to the proceedings.

Perhaps the most interesting element is that the idea originated in the mind of famed French short story writer Guy de Maupassant – you might be surprised to learned that nearly 300 movies and television adaptations have been made from his works, a dozen alone in 1963 including Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. Worth comparing with Maniac out in the same year where the idea of the mad killer is exploited for a different end.

Very old-school, but with passable sfx.

Maniac / The Maniac (1963) ****

Such an ingenious thriller you just have to applaud. Opening with a close-up of a predatory eye, this scarcely draws breath as it dashes through a latter-day film noir maze, spawning out auditory and visual cues, beautiful woman luring dupe, twisting the expected narrative round her little finger.

Artist Jeff (Kerwin Mathews) setting up his easel in the Camargue, hardly one of the most tourist-friendly spots in France, eyes up Annette (Liliane Brousse), the daughter of a hotelier Eve (Nadia Gray), but, in extremely opportunistic style, settles for the mother. In true noir fashion she is using him, seducing him into a scheme to free her husband George (Donald Houston), incarcerated in a mental asylum for torturing and killing with a blowtorch the aforementioned predator who raped Annette four years before.

Eve convinces Jeff that in return for his freedom the madman will effectively give his blessing to their affair. It’s a deal only a besotted dupe would fall for. George has an ally inside the asylum, assisting his escape, but when George turns up, and Jeff drives him to Marseilles, he leaves behind the corpse of his criminal associate in the boot. Jeff dumps the body in the river.

Cue the start of a series of strange events. A fired-up blowtorch is discovered in the garage where Georges committed his initial crime. Annette, jealous of her mother’s relationship with Jeff, plans to leave and go with her father.  

And I’m sorry to say that in order to explain the attraction of this neat little picture I’m going to delve into SPOILER ALERT territory.  

All the while of course you are wondering whether George will keep to his side of the bargain, especially as Eve starts to get antsy with Jeff, and the investigating police inspector seems overly suspicious. And it being this kind of picture you expect a twist.

But not one this clever.

George, blowtorch at the ready, traps Jeff in the garage. He has fished the corpse out of the river. He plans to burn the garage to the ground, leaving behind two dead bodies, assuming the police will imagine that in a further bout of psychotic behavior the murderer gave in to his desires and killed again, but in the process accidentally killed himself.

But that’s not the final twist.

One of the victims survives. But which one? He is so badly mutilated as to be rendered unrecognisable and lies in a hospital bed covered head to foot in bandages. Has Eve’s plan backfired? Has she accidentally killed her lover?

But that’s not the final twist.

Eve knows who the man in the bed is. It’s not her lover. Because Jeff is just the dupe. The body dumped in the river was George. All the time Eve was visiting her husband in the mental asylum she was carrying on an affair with one of the guards. The guard killed George after the escape, retrieved the body from the river, left it in the garage and planned to kill off his competition at the same time.  If you’re going to be tabbed a maniac, you better behave like one.

It’s a shame you can’t see the shock on the face of poor Jeff because he is encased in bandages. And this isn’t just the clever villain unable to stop herself boasting about how clever she has been. This is Eve getting into the murder racket. She switches off his oxygen.

But that’s not the final twist.

Jeff ain’t dead. He wasn’t even on a life-support machine. He was just trussed up to tempt Eve in revealing herself. He had escaped the garage inferno and told the police what was going on. So you can guess the rest, but even then there’s one other ironic twist. Just like Jeff, the imposter George is as taken with the daughter as the mother.

The twists are so well done, the narrative so compelling, that would be enough to make a convincing case for entry into the category of cult. What makes an undeniable case is the directorial style. Sights and sounds drive the story as much as anything. The eerie bright light in the garage, the sound of blood dripping on the floor, the bold close-up of the eye, the advancing blow torch, setting it in a bleak rather than scenic area of France, are cinematic notions belonging to classic movies, not to a tawdry B-picture.

Although The Devil Rides Out (1968) is generally considered the top Hammer picture of the decade, I would argue this runs it a close second, and possibly even tops it.  Taking time off from his studio job Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968), later Hammer’s managing director, delivers a little masterpiece working to an effortlessly clever original screenplay by future director Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein, 1970).

It’s enough that Kerwin Mathews (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, 1960) is playing against his screen persona as upright hero. The biggest advantage in casting Nadia Gray  (The Naked Runner, 1967) was that she was unknown and didn’t have the kind of onscreen presence that might have you doubting her motives from the start.  Liliane Brousse (Paranoic, 1963), in her penultimate movie, is initially too much all-arched-eyebrow and pout, only coming into her own when she becomes dutiful daughter rather than wannabe seducer. The pretend George, real name Henri, Donald Houston (A Study in Terror, 1965), hidden beneath dark glasses most of the time, is a dab hand at a pretend psychopath.

Surprisingly effective little gem.

The Collector (1965) *****

William Wyler’s paean to Incels strike such a contemporary note it’s hard to believe it was made over 60 years ago. An insightful study of male entitlement, female submission and    novice serial killer that showcased two emerging British stars, this is as much about the psychological make-up of the victim as the captor.

Following a lottery win (see Note), lonely bank clerk Freddie (Terence Stamp) kidnaps the woman of his dreams, flame-haired art student Miranda (Samantha Eggar) in the hope that once she gets to know him she will fall in love. He has found a large cellar beside the secluded mansion he bought with his winnings. But this is no dank dungeon with a prisoner chained to the walls, but a comfortable abode with lighting, heating, clothing, food, and art materials. However, it is locked.

In turn angry, puzzled and submissive, Miranda tries to work out what she needs to do to achieve her liberty without realising that no matter what she does she will never fulfil his dreams. Despite his shyness, it wouldn’t be hard in other circumstances to fall for a guy as good-looking as this, if only for an affair. She is sexually experienced, but has just been rejected by an older man (Kenneth More), and love on the rebound is hardly uncommon.  

Unfortunately, Freddie lives such a soulless, empty, existence, no interests beyond an obsession with butterflies, of which he has amassed a collection large enough to supply a complete museum, that the chances of finding common ground are remote and the circumstances of their meeting pretty much douse the potential for any spark.

At first, once she has expended her anger at her incarceration, she is grateful not to be murdered or raped – even pleads that if he is going to take her by force sexually not to drug her – and soon her mind turns to ways of escape, especially once he invites her into the big house, allows her to bathe, cooks her a meal and shows the world she could enjoy as his willing partner.

With every step, Freddie dares to dream more, that his insane idea will come to fruition, that a beautiful princess will love the lowly commoner. And as much as this focuses on male domination, it is also an examination of female independence, Miranda being in the foreground of that generation to espouse personal freedom, not viewing marriage as an ultimate destination, but seeking a fulfilling career with love almost a perk on the side.

Even without going to extent of kidnapping a woman, males of the period still expected a female to cater to their every whim, wife-beating hardly considered a crime, and, ironically, it would be a rare woman who would not enjoy the worship a more ordinary Freddie planned to bestow on his beloved.

It being set in the England of a particular period, Freddie blames the gulf between them on “class,” that where or to whom you are born creating an unattainable barrier between young men and young women, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. But, of course, to the thwarted, there is always someone to blame.

You will be very familiar with the cinematic tale of the imprisoned female attempting to escape by wiles and ingenuity, but even so, this will take you by surprise, in part because the idea of being forcibly detained was a rare event back then, so Miranda does not spend her time trying to chisel through loose cement using a stolen fork or other ideas along the same lines. That she has even managed to negotiate the length of her prison term makes her initial custody tolerable, especially as, in terms of material things, she wants for nothing.

Unfortunately, although Freddie is immune to normal feelings, he is alert to the slightest nuance, and would feel it an insult to his intelligence should she just play along and pretend to fall in love with as a means of engineering her escape. That the audience is probably more aware of this than Miranda makes the tension virtually unbearable.

This is a duel of the highest caliber between captor and detainee. At several moments it looks as if the tide will turn. A terrific scene with overflowing bath water fails to make a nosy neighbor suspicious. She even at one point manages to whack her assailant over the head with a shovel and attempt a genuine escape. You are left to wonder if making a sexual sacrifice, even taking the initiative with a virgin, will make the necessary difference. But one look into those implacable eyes would have told you exactly where you stood without having to wait until you were dragged by the hair across the lawn in a rainstorm.  

Audiences more familiar with the director through late-career roadshows like Ben-Hur (1959) and Funny Girl (1967) or the earlier rom-com Roman Holiday (1953) would be forgiven for forgetting how adept Wyler was at racking up the tension from his early thrillers or dealing with unattainable love (Wuthering Heights, 1939) or entitlement (Jezebel, 1938). He evokes such a claustrophobic atmosphere, ingrained with pure Englishness, and plays with ironies of character beauty – Freddie’s eyes and cheekbones, that should have attracted women by the score, instead lending him devilish menace while Miranda’s sensational looks that would have most men begging for just a minute of her company prove insufficient to enslave this particular creature.

That there is genuine sexual tension, not just whether he will end up raping her, but whether she might see his more attractive version of himself and come to give him what he wants without being repulsed, brings a surprising sexual tension. You wouldn’t say there was chemistry between the characters in the normal sense, but the situation is electrifying.

This was a career high for Terence Stamp (Term of Trial, 1962), minus many of the acting foibles and vocal tics that peppered his later work, and the same went for Samantha Eggar (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966). But the performances are of such a high quality, especially when you think she has breached his defences sufficiently, that at times it is an unbearable watch. John Kohn (Caprice, 1967) and Stanley Mann (The Naked Runner, 1967) based their screenplay on the bestselling – and highly praised – novel by John Fowles, author of later cult work The Magus.

This would have stood the test of time anyway as a pure thriller but since it digs into what has now become a counter-culture it carries even greater significance today.

NOTE: He didn’t win the lottery. That didn’t exist then. Instead he won on the “Football Pools,” but that concept – it began in 1923 –  is so hard to explain to non-British people that I took the easy way out. However, the “pools” was a gambling phenomenon of the times, the entry fee so low, at its peak played by 14 million people in the UK every week in the hope of winning a jackpot akin to lottery cash. In essence, you had to guess out of all the soccer games being played on a Saturday (all games in those days kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday) how many would end in draws.

The Ceremony (1963) ***

Actors taking the hyphenated route were quite a fad in the 1960s. Mostly, primarily for tax purposes, they turned themselves into actor-producers. But some went all-out for artistic glory, saddling themselves with the task of directing the movies in which they starred, by this point in the decade John Wayne (The Alamo, 1960) and Marlon Brando (One-Eyed Jacks, 1961) the most celebrated examples. Despite lacking that pair’s box office pulling power, Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) threw his hat into the ring with this often compelling, atmospheric, but occasionally pretentious, offering.

Irishman Sean McKenna (Laurence Harvey) is in prison in Tangiers – “a city of money” – for one crime he did commit (bank robbery) and one he did not (shooting a guard dead during the robbery). Although facing an imminent death penalty for the murder, he refuses to name the killer. Local prosecutor Le Coq (Ross Martin)  is intent on making him an example while the prison warden (John Ireland) pleads for clemency, especially as it is suspected the inmate is innocent.

Astonishing to imagine now but this went out on general release in Britain
as the lead film in a double bill with “Lilies of the Field.”

Meanwhile, McKenna’s girlfriend Catherine (Sarah Miles) and his brother Dominic (Robert Walker Jr) plan an audacious escape. The brother is not altogether altruistic. His price is half the hidden loot and Catherine, that part of the deal sealed when she submits to sex with him.

Dominic gains entry to the prison disguised as a priest, swapping clothes with his brother, so that when sirens sound to announce potential intrusion by Dominic’s sidekick Nicky (Lee Patterson), Sean can simply walk out unharmed. However, when Seans learns of the price to be paid he doesn’t thank Catherine for her noble sacrifice but turns against both. Dominic, now on the run and chased by the police, is virtually burned alive when his car explodes.

My apologies but in order to properly discuss this picture I’m going to have to take you through to the end. So SPOILER ALERT.

Dominic is so badly burnt in fact that he is unrecognizable and the police (decades before DNA would disprove such an assumption) believe he is actually his brother. Dominic is faced with  “the ceremony” – an ironic tittle if ever there was one – in which he is strapped to a wooden throne and shot by firing squad. Despite his brother’s betrayal, and the fact that his death would set Sean free, Sean decides it would better to “prevent the unjust killing of an innocent man” and gives himself up, too late, as it happens, to spare Dominic, but allowing Sean, in a Pieta-style gesture, to carry the corpse into the prison courtyard and announce “my brother died for me.”

Not quite the ending you would expect, not least because religious allegory has been distinctly missing from the proceedings unless you count the somewhat dotty Father O’Brian (Jack MacGowran) who spends most of his time delivering soliloquies unless you count cars, cows and mules as potential conversationalists.

You get the impression the ending was what attracted the director to the tale, and though it is quite a stunning climax, cinematically as well as thematically, Harvey has, like so many debutants, determined to make a big point. “There’s a little bit of God in everyone,” pronounces Fr O’Brian with a saintly air, which would beg the question of when the Good Lord channelled his inner bank-robber.

For all the film’s flaws there are several pluses. The atmosphere “of chilly hell” (to steal a quote about another book) is well done, footsteps echo off stone floors and cobbles, nobody in this black-and-white feature is seen without a dose of noir lighting, resulting in long shadows and aerial shots of tiny figures swarming. While everyone else over-acts for no apparent reason except directorial inexperience, when Sarah Miles (Term of Trial, 1962) overacts, lips constantly a-quiver, words delivered in gasps, she has every right to, since her character has succumbed to the most evil kind of temptation for the best sort of reason.

The only other interesting character, beyond the stock ones populating the prison, is lonely landlord Ramades (Carlos Casaravilla) who has outlived his four lives and whose rooms abut the prison and where Catherine takes refuge while the escape is going on. He senses her tension, but mistakes the cause, assuming she is here to wait for the shots announcing her husband’s death as a means of “sharing his punishment,” quite a piece of psychological insight for an ordinary guy. And there’s also a creepiness about the whole scene, a sense that she might have to give herself to him as well in order to prevent him wandering too far from the bedroom where he might discover Dominic putting into action a crucial part of the escape plan.

Among the flaws: no real tension, especially in terms of the escape, not enough directorial understanding that much more could be gained from greater focus on Catherine’s dilemma, the obvious lack of a body in the burning car, the fact that the Irishman shows no signs of an Irish accent, the priest’s scenes which provoke hilarity more than reverence, and as much as it is a strength the ending appears out of nowhere.

Robert Walker Jr (The Happening, 1967) is too much of a lightweight for this role, but John Ireland (55 Days at Peking, 1963) and Ross Martin (Experiment in Terror, 1962) excel. Look out for Fernando Rey (The French Connection, 1970).

Valiant effort by Harvey who only directed one other time, on his last film Welcome to Arrow Beach / Yellow-Head Summer (1973), plus a stint filling in for Anthony Mann who died during the filming of A Dandy in Aspic (1968). For The Ceremony Harvey was a quadruple hyphenate –  actor-producer-writer-director – for he also contributed enough dialogue to claim a screen credit along with Ben Barzman (The Blue Max, 1966) who adapted the novel by Frederic Grendel.

Deadfall (1968) **

“The Big Reveal” comes too late to save this heist-cum-melodrama. It can’t make up its mind whether it wants to join the canon of superlative 1960s caper pictures – in which case it needed to make a greater effort on the cat burglary front – or whether it’s an odd addition to the menage a trois category, in which case it needed characters you could actually believe. Worst of all, it contains one of the great artistic follies, a robbery carried out in time with an  orchestra playing one of the great John Barry compositions, “Romance for a Guitar and Orchestra.”

The only problem, there’s no dramatic reason for this. Since the concert is miles away from the robbery, it’s not as if the music drowns out the shenanigans. Director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) shoots himself in the foot. It’s too clever a device by half, even if the music is intended as a counterpoint to the  robbery’s more dramatic themes or the silence which had become a trope.

Cat burglar Henry (Michael Caine) forms a business partnership with elderly safecracker Moreau (Eric Portman) and falls for his wife Fe (Giovanna Ralli). The husband-wife relationship is off to begin with, he preferring males, and the wife admitting she doesn’t always find men attractive, though quite what she is hinting at is never made clear. The target is millionaire Salinas (David Buck), whom Henry is investigating to the point of pretending to be an alcoholic so he can get to know Salinas in a sanatorium.

Any other movie would get straight to the point – draw up plans and get on with it. But here, for no real reason except delay, Moreau wants them to do a trial run,  a safecracking job on the mansion of the kind of couple who drive off in a posh car to attend a concert. The effort put into the planning isn’t really up to scratch, not when compared to the likes of Topkapi (1964) – to which every heist film of the era was measured – or Gambit (1966) or even the less well-known The Happy Thieves (1960) or Seven Thieves (1960).

Apart from some cat burglary skills the whole episode is perfunctory, guard dogs knocked out by drugs. The background music, the aforementioned John Barry opus, just about kills off any prospect of tension. It only sparks into life when Moreau admits the safe is beyond him and Henry has to prise it out of the wall and cart it to the waiting car.

The second heist would have been far more interesting had we known from the start that Salinas welcomes burglary attempts, seeing it as some kind of duel of wits with malfeasants.

In between the two robberies there is time enough – too much time in fact – for Henry and Fe to get it together, for Fe to run off and then return only to learn in The Big Reveal the kind of despicable man her husband is. The movie can’t even deal with the incestuous sub-plot and just lets it hang there. But by that stage you couldn’t care less. Fe isn’t the type of femme fatale to bother crossing the road for, the romance seems too prescribed and the downbeat ending makes no sense.

I’m only giving this any points at all really because it stars Michael Caine (Hurry Sundown, 1967) and features a lengthy slice of John Barry music. Caine has been in enough duds for sure, but this doesn’t have the ring of one of his doing-it-for-the-money numbers or a stab at the Hollywood big-budget scene. Caine is good enough and Eric Portman (The Bedford Incident, 1965) is an interesting study. But it just doesn’t gel, not just let down by Giovanna Ralli (The Caper of the Golden Bulls, 1967) but by the pretentious direction and dramatic miscalculation of Bryan Forbes.

Forbes’ wife Nanette Newman (The Wrong Box, 1966) makes a puzzling appearance in a small role with no dramatic credibility. Leonard Rossiter (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) provides another cameo. For many the high spot will be to see John Barry in the flesh, conducting the orchestra playing his composition.

Hide and Seek (1964) ***

Too many peculiarities for a small British B-picture that just about makes it over the line after “The Big Reveal.” You can start with the fact that, ostensibly, this was director Cy Endfield’s follow-up to his blockbusting Zulu (1964). In fact, it had been made long before, but sat on a shelf for a year, and only released to cash in on Zulu. And you can see why studio British Lion didn’t know what to do with it.

Diving down a 39 Steps thriller-sized rabbit hole, baffled professor saddled with adventurous female go on the run searching for answers to, wait for it, a crime which hasn’t actually been committed. There’s action on a train, some comedy as the worlds of academia and the sophisticated fast set collide, romance on a barge,  Cold War skullduggery,  too much chess, a bit of welcome role reversal, a cliff-top fight, and some dry wit that might have fitted better into a straightforward romantic comedy. And it ends with a twist of such audacity that it would either come as a relief to a bewildered audience or send them home frustrated at such a denouement.   

Rocket scientist David Garrett (Ian Carmichael) becomes embroiled in not even really a plot when he attempts to return a box, containing an inordinate amount of loot, to its owner,  chess grandmaster Dr Melnicker (George Pravda). Luckily, a clue in the form of a chess move takes him to a posh London house in fashionable Chelsea where he encounters the slinky Maggie (Janet Munro) and after hiding in a sandpit in a children’s playground to evade pursuers he ends up on a train with her heading north to a place called Flamboro.

But, wait, his pursuers are also on the train, so naturally the couple have to jump off, fall into a river and hitch a lift on a passing barge whose owner Wilkins (Hugh Griffith) proves most obliging. Indeed, Maggie is even more obliging, taking the lead in bedding the shy professor.  Things get interesting when Maggie, at a road sign, takes David in the completely opposite direction to Flamboro. That works for about ten seconds until a henchman Paul (Kieron Moore) captures them at gunpoint.

Rather than just shooting David dead he decides it would be cleaner to chuck him over a cliff. Luckily, David is a shade pluckier than you might expect. After winning this cliff-top tussle and shocked at having chucked a man over a cliff he is even more astonished to discover he is stranded, Maggie having made off in the car. Luckily, a passing policeman on a bicycle ensures David makes it safe to Flamboro, which turns out to be a huge mansion perched on a cliff.

My guess is by now you are so hooked by this story that you’ll want me to reveal The Big Reveal. Well, the whole thing turns out to be a trap. Melnicker, the pursuing thugs, Paul (who,  you’ll not be too astonished to learn, ain’t dead) and even Maggie have all been plotting to bring David here so that he can be kidnapped and handed over to a submarine arriving the following day. You see, David has been so outspoken (has he?) against his masters that everyone will put his disappearance down to defection. It’s all been a cleverly worked-out chess move as chief baddie Hubert (Curd Jurgens) takes pains to point out.

But our David isn’t exceptionally brainy for nothing and finds a way to outwit the bad guys with Maggie, by now repenting of her bad ways and fallen in love, along for the ride.

So what’s gone wrong? The casting, unfortunately, for one thing. Star Ian Carmichael (School for Scoundrels, 1960), better known for comedy, doesn’t quite make the switch to more straightforward thriller. And Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), whom you might expect to add some gloss, doesn’t appear till the end.

Worse, the film doesn’t find the right tone, too much comedic British observation, and not enough of the hero being in genuine jeopardy. Only a clueless professor would run from the thugs. If the big twist had occurred halfway through and the audience had time to wonder whose side Maggie was on and feel David was in in genuine danger it might have hit the bullseye because, oddly enough, the romance is believable in a Hot Enough for June (1964) kind of way, where innocent male is scooped up by a more worldly female way above his league.

But the role reversal is fun. She’s the one who goes to his rescue when he falls in the river, she’s the seductress, and gets to tell him he looks better “when he’s cross” (a line more typically with slight variations falling to the male) and delivers the movie’s one cracker: “Being a man you have no respect for a mink coat.” She would be an ideal candidate for femme fatale if only the director had let us in on the story quicker, but she’s certainly an astute lure.

Because I wasn’t expecting much, I have probably been a shade less critical than if I was viewing it as a follow-up to Zulu. In the end, it’s passable enough, especially if you are willing to see how clever it’s been.  

As I mentioned Ian Carmichael (Lucky Jim, 1957) is the weak link but former Disney protégé Janet Munro (Swiss Family Robinson, 1960), now blossomed in sexy fashion, steals the show and on this performance you might be surprised she  did not have a more illustrious career but she had a heart condition and died prematurely at the age of 38. Curd Jurgens was at the early stages of inventing his villainous persona. The other characters are merely pawns in the plot so end up as stock villains. Cy Endfield’s genuine follow-up to Zulu was worth seeing – Sands of the Kalahari (1965).

You can catch this on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3zj_VcTdBM

Orphan First Kill (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Evil meets its match” would have been a good tagline for this neat B-picture, a slow burn that starts off as horror before swerving into a more straightforward thriller. A prequel to surprise hit Orphan (2009) and a perverse take on the origin theme so beloved of the MCU/DC movies, this begins in Estonia where Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) is an inmate at a psychiatric institute.

At first it looks like the tale is heading in the direction of Leena’s relationship with new art therapist Anna (Gwendolyn Collins). But that is quickly stymied when Leena, having orchestrated an escape through her manipulative and seductive powers, knocks off Anna as well, pausing only long enough to harness the woman’s computer to find a lookalike missing girl, the American Esther Albright, she could pretend to be. The wealthy Albrights, mum Tricia (Julia Stiles), devastated artist husband Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and spoiled brat son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) live in a huge mansion in Connecticut.

And at first again, we go down another rabbit hole, this time the question of whether Esther can maintain her disguise, coming up shy at times in the old memory department. A psychiatrist is initially a bit suspicious and there’s a cop, Inspector Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa) lingering in the background. But Esther bonds with Allen over their shared interest in painting and the husband believes he has unearthed a new shining talent.

We also go down a rat-hole, so to speak, when Esther befriends a rat (an unlikely inhabitant in such a deluxe property, but there you go) whose only purpose you guess right away is to die, poisoned in one way or another. You imagine the poisoner is going to be Esther just wanting to maintain her killing skills.

Not so. The poor old rat is killed by mistake by Tricia who is, it turns out, trying to rid herself of this imposter, a lass she knows only too well cannot be her missing daughter for one very unsavoury reason which I won’t divulge but certainly took me by surprise.

So then the film switches onto a completely different tack, and one that is far more satisfying than just a deranged maniac, as in most horror pictures, going round slaughtering everyone in sight.  Donnan has re-entered the frame by this point, continuing his investigations to the point of sneakily snatching Esther’s fingerprints so he can try and do a match.

So now it’s game on and Esther is out- numbered, up against a pretty dangerous mother-and-son combo, with only the dim husband as ally. And no matter what clever stunts Esther dreams up to rid herself of this infernal duo and live happily ever after with the doting father, the equally tough Julia is quietly setting her own snares.

We were already expecting trouble the moment we set eyes on Esther, who, with her baby-faced features and size, that was a given, if ever there was a monster-in-disguise it was her. But beautiful socialite Tricia is a different story and so if there’s a “secret” this time round it’s to do with Tricia’s family, the pair involved maintaining an ongoing masquerade with the unwitting father.

Esther’s survival depends not so much on killing her way out of here but on winning over the father sufficiently should that, inevitably, if her plans work out, bereft of wife and son he will turn to her for consolation.

Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan) is even better than she was before. Then she was a young actress playing a young maniac. Now she’s over a decade older and having to act more than a decade younger and that certainly takes some doing. But Julia Stiles (Hustlers, 2019) is the revelation, the cold-as-ice beauty, barely holding her family together after the previous tragedy, on the one hand welcoming Esther because it revitalizes her almost-dormant husband, on the other needing to exert considerable control otherwise their carefully constructed lives are going to explode. Although the surname is not new to me, the actor is, and Rossif Sutherland (The Middle Man, 2021) gives a touching performance as the grieving, brooding father finding himself, especially good in his scenes in his studio with Esther. In only his second picture Mathew Finlan (My Fake Boyfriend, 2022) isn’t given much scope as a spoilt brat son nor is Hiro Kanagawa, best known for the Star Trek: Discovery TV series.

Director William Brent Bell (The Boy, 2016) does a decent job, especially given he has to stradde the twin genres or horror and thriller with a nod in the direction of film noir. The scenes between Esther and Julia, where they realise they are adversaries, are especially well done. There are enough twists to keep the plot spiralling along and clever use of doubles to make you believe Fuhrman is a little girl.

Far from a great picture, but enough to be getting along with in the absence of a blockbuster. The hardier of the moviegoer species, people like me who pop along to their local cinema every week regardless and find something to watch, will be less picky about this kind of fare than those who get in for nothing or are sent a streamer due to their status as critics. Exhibitors have complained for over a century now that the best movies are never spread out over the year, but clustered into various time zones. Their livelihood, after all, depends on a constant string of winners. It’s a different story for cinemagoers. We just want to sit in the dark and see a film and as long as it’s reasonable enough we’re not going to complain.

In what should have been an indifferent week for moviegoing – given I had already seen Bullet Train, Nope, Top Gun: Maverick etc – I managed quite a nice triple bill on my weekly outing. This was the sandwich between the charmingly tolerable Fishermen’s Friends: One for All and documentary Girls Can’t Surf.    

Fathom (1967) ***

If audiences rallied to the sight of Raquel Welch wearing nothing more than a fur bikini for the entirety of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and a skin-tight suit in Fantastic Voyage (1966)  Twentieth Century Fox must have reasoned they would surely return in droves were the star to spend most of Fathom in a succession of brightly-colored bikinis.

Given such a premise who would care that a sky-diving expert was named after a nautical measurement? Or that Fathom (Raquel Welch) came nowhere near the height indicated by her name? Or that  the character as described in the source material (a novel by Scottish screenwriter Larry Forester) had a distinctly harder edge; murder, sex and drugs among her proclivities.

With Our Man Flint (1966), the studio had successfully gatecrashed the burgeoning spy genre and spotted a gap in the market for a female of the species, hoping to turn Modesty Blaise (1966) starring Monica Vitti and Fathom into money-spinning series. The Fathom project was handed to Batman, The Movie (1966) co-conspirators, director Leslie H. Martinson and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon, 1980).

Female independence was hard-won in the 1960s and there were few jobs where a woman was automatically at the top of the tree. Burglary was one option for the independent entrepreneur (see The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl) and sport was another.

Welch plays an innocent bystander recruited for her top-notch sky-diving skills (her aptitude demonstrated in the opening sequences) to help Colonel Campbell (Ronald Fraser) of British intelligence recover the “Fire Dragon,” a trigger that could explode a nuclear bomb. Her sky-diving skills are required to land in the courtyard of playboy Peter Merriwether (Anthony Franciosa).

That turns out to be baloney, of course, a MacGuffin to point her in the direction of a valuable Chinese heirloom. And then it’s case of double-cross, triple-cross and whatever cross comes next.   

There’s an intriguing mystery at the heart of this picture and a couple of top-class hair-raising moments. In one she is trapped in a bull ring and stunt double Donna Garrett had a few very definite close calls trying to avoid the maddened beast. In another she is stalked at sea by a circling motor boat while being peppered with harpoons. There is also an airplane duel and a ton of great aerial work. A couple of comic sequences are well wrung – Campbell pins his business card to one of the prongs of a pitchfork being brandished with menace by Fathom  while Peter delivers a classic line: “The only game I ever lost was spin the bottle and that was on purpose.”

You could probably determine something about national character from the color of costume different countries chose to show Raquel Welch in.

The biggest problem is that the film veers too far away from the source material which posited the heroine as a much tougher character, one who can despatch bad guys with aplomb. Instead, Fathom is presented almost as an innocent, bundled from one situation to another, never taking charge until the very end. Minus karate kicks or a decent left hook, she is left to evade her predators by less dramatic means. She has a decent line in repartee and by no means lets the show down. However, the idea, no matter how satisfactory to fans of the actress, that Fathom has to swap bikinis every few minutes or failing that don some other curve-clinging item, gets in the way of the story – and her character. Into the eccentric mix also come a millionaire (Clive Revill) and a bartender (Tom Adams).

There’s no doubt Welch had single-handedly revived the relatively harmless pin-up business (not for her overt nudity of the Playboy/Penthouse variety) and had a massive following in Europe where she often plied her trade (the Italian-made Shoot Loud, Louder…I Don’t Understand in 1966 and the British Bedazzled in 1967) but she was clearly desperate for more meaty roles. Those finally came her way with Bandolero (1966) and 100 Rifles (1969) and Fathom feels like a lost opportunity to provide her with that harder edge. 

She’s not helped by the odd tone. As I mentioned she gets into plenty of scrapes and proves her mettle with her diving skills. In the hands of a better director and with a few tweaks here and there it could have been a whole lot better and perhaps launched a spy series instead of languishing at the foot of the studio’s box office charts for that year.  

Anthony Franciosa (Rio Conchos, 1964) , still a rising star after a decade in the business, who receives top billing, doesn’t appear for the first twenty minutes. And then he behaves like a walking advert for dentistry, as though his teeth can challenge Welch’s curves. And some of the supporting cast look like they’ve signed up for a completely different movie. Richard Briers (A Home of Your Own, 1965) – Ronald Fraser’s intelligence sidekick – looks like a goggle-eyed fan next to Ms Welch while Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) thinks it’s a joke to play a Russian as a joke. Ronald Fraser (Sebastian, 1968) provides decent support.

But it is certainly entertaining enough and you are unlikely to get bored.

Book into Film: A Girl Called Fathom by Larry Forrester (1967)

The blurb gives the game away. The British paperback published by Pan went: “She was blonde. She was beautiful, she was six foot tall. She’d killed the man who had dragged her to the lowest depths of addiction and lust.” The American Fawcett Gold Medal paperback was more succinct: “lady by birth, tramp by occupation and murderess by design.”

If any of that rings a bell, it was not from the film Fathom (1967) starring Raquel Welch which chose to ignore her background and her venomous skillset. The novel opens with the heroine killing a man in cold blood. He had promised her a film career but turned her into a call girl and heroin addict. Her father, now dead, was in the British secret service.  Once she has committed her first murder, she is immediately kidnapped by a secret organization (C.E.L.T.S. – Counter Espionage Long-Term Security) and trained to become an even more ruthless government-sanctioned killing machine.

Larry Forrester was a Scottish television scriptwriter who had worked on a stack of British series such as Whirligig (1953), Ivanhoe (1958) and No Hiding Place (1960-1964) before publishing his first novel A Girl Called Fathom. His sole screenplay was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) after which he concentrated on U.S. television including episodes of Fantasy Island (1980-1983) and Hart to Hart (1983-1984).   

A Girl Called Fathom is split into two. Comprising roughly two-fifths of the book, the first section concentrates on her brutal training and on getting her off drugs. There’s a fair amount of sexual intrigue not to mention sex. But also a lover’s betrayal.  For the final part of her training she is abandoned in the middle of nowhere in scorching heat and barely makes it home. “She had passed over a great divide. She was empty, hard – dehumanized. Alone. She would always be alone.” And then she is forced to kill again.

As was common with this kind of book in the 1960s, it was fast-moving and globe-trotting with plenty of realistic detail to offset the preposterous plot. For the remainder of the book, which shifts location to Europe, Fathom is up against an organization called W.A.R. (World of Asian Revolution) which aims to destabilize the existing world order. Her arch enemy is an American-born Soviet agent (and whip and knife expert) Jo Soon (who turns up in the film Fathom in slightly different form as Jo-May). Fathom’s team must protect French elder statesman Paul-Auguste Valmier whose playboy son Damon (who fantasizes about burning people alive), a friend from her past, is her main contact.

The book is peopled by interesting and occasionally outrageous characters – for example Tin (shades of Iron Man), who has hardly a human bone left in his body; the far-from-harmless Aunt Elspeth; and a sadistic colleague who loves her but dare not let his emotions out lest he loose on her his love of pain. The central plot is driven by a mass of twists and turns, heroine endangerment, fights with knife and gun and fist, traitors (naturally) and the clever idea of killing off the leaders of the free world with a bomb hidden in the coffin of a man worthy of a state funeral being held in Paris.

At the end she is counting the human cost of victory and sees herself as one of the walking wounded, a reject, driven from the herd. The film was apparently based on an unpublished sequel so it’s conceivable that the plot concerning the Chinese heirloom was pulled from that in its entirety. But even so the film’s heroine was neutered, not a patch on the ruthless killer with a sordid past outlined in A Girl Called Fathom.

She Died With Her Boots On / Whirlpool / Perversion Flash (1969) ***

Sexual adventuress takes trip to the country with disastrous results. Best described as an early British venture in the giallo mold it lacks some of the style of that genre but is notable for the debut of Spanish cult director Jose Ramon Larraz (Vampyres, 1974). Perhaps as interesting is that it details a nascent killer warming to his task and climaxes in a nihilistic ending. Scoring so high on the sex/nudity quotient in the U.S., it was considered an out-and-out exploitationer.

Wealthy older woman Sarah (Pia Andersson) brings home model Tulia (Vivian Neves) for her protégé Theo (Karl Lanchbury), a budding photographer.  Sarah’s proclivities are apparent from the start, preferring young women though young men will also suffice, a switch in the normal power play of the era (and now for that matter) of rich old men chasing younger women.

Tulia is no innocent, lured or straying into the big dark house, and she’s game for anything, happily participating in a game of strip poker that ends in sex with Theo. However (and striking a contemporary note), he is unable to perform – for reasons that might be similar linked to young people today who suffer from the same condition due to over-exposure to porn – and in Theo’s case because he prefers watching.

Quite how far he is willing to go to achieve his kicks is shown in a scene where he drives Tulia to the woods where she is almost raped by his friend Tom so that Theo can photograph the act. Quite how far Tulia is willing to go is indicated by the fact that, while upset at this incident, she doesn’t run a mile and instead continues to enjoy games of seduction, this time with Sarah, with Theo at first limiting his participating to recording the action but later taking part in a menage a trois.

Meanwhile, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector (Barry Craine) interrogates businessman Mr. Field (Edwin Brown), sugar daddy to missing Irishwoman Rhonda (Johanna Heger), and Field takes it upon himself to pay Theo a visit. Quite how he knows of Theo’s involvement with Rhonda is unclear but he doesn’t accept the explanation that the girl has gone home and hangs around to do a bit of spying. Not such a good idea, because he pays the penalty.

Although it’s a pleasant detached cottage and far from an old dark house, Tulia takes it upon herself to take a look at Theo’s studio where she finds various items of female clothing and photos of an unsavoury nature. A flashback reveals the death of Rhonda, seduced by Tom, then, following the arrival of Theo and his trusty camera, raped by a tramp. But it’s not Theo who kills her. It’s Tom, and largely by accident.

So what’s being set up really is how far beyond his normal games Theo will go, with Tulia providing the test case.

A chunk of the tension comes from having no idea what’s going on beyond Sarah indulging Theo. She appears ignorant of the depth of his perversion. And with Tulia being so complicit initially in the sex it appears to be going down a different route to the slasher pictures like Scream and more in keeping with the giallo which had yet to get into its stride. Tulia is a modern girl for the times, certainly not sexually repressed, which was refreshing, and being a model comfortable with her body. But she would not have been expecting something like this.

Karl Lanchbury (What’s Good for the Goose, 1969) looked like he was perfecting the creepy persona that would carry him through a few more Larraz pictures. Vivian Neves was a model, famous two years later for featuring in the first nude advertisement in The Times, but also a glamour model with pictorials in Penthouse and The Sun, and known as “The Body” a quarter of a century before that title was appropriated by Elle Macpherson, and later set up her own modelling agency. Pia Andersson only made this one picture.

Given he was dealing with so much inexperience and was himself a debutant, Larraz does a pretty good job. He would go on to make another 25 films mostly in the exploitation vein.  

I came across this on YouTube while looking for the Otto Preminger film noir Whirlpool (1950). The version I saw is taken from a very ropey VHS with time codes but there’s a better print on the channel under the title of Perversion Flash.

Seven Thieves (1960) ****

You wouldn’t figure director Henry Hathaway for a caper movie. He seemed more at home with action, whether that be war (The Desert Fox, 1951), adventure (Legend of the Lost, 1957) or western (Nevada Smith, 1966) although he was a dab hand at film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947). And before the big-budget all-star Oceans 11 entered the equation in the same year as Seven Thieves – and stole much of its thunder – the heist movie ran mostly on B-movie steam such as Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).

And probably judged against other glossy efforts of the 1960s like Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1967) Seven Thieves would appear on the surface to come up a bit short. No doubt accounting for it being so under-rated. But while this is in itself a neat little thriller the kick comes in the emotional entanglements and a succession of twists at the end that sends it in my book into a higher category.

And it’s so outrageously clever that the mystery of why French-based criminal mastermind Theo Wilkins  (Edward G. Robinson) would reach out across the Atlantic Ocean to recruit former jailbird Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) to spearhead the heist of a cool four million dollars from a Monte Carlo casino is not resolved until the end, and in spectacular fashion.

Technically, there are actually only six thieves, the other is an inside man, Raymond (Alexander Scourby), who has fallen for the seductive charms of nightclub dancer Melanie (Joan Collins). Making up the rest of the septet are safe cracker Louis (Michael Dante) and muscle-cum-driver Hugo (Berry Kroeger) with Poncho (Eli Wallach) playing the key role of the pretend crippled, arrogant, irascible millionaire – and contrary to the claims of one poster he is the decoy not Melanie.

Distrust of his team makes Theo bring in Paul, who ruthlessly knocks them into shape, putting into seamless action the plan devised by Theo. Simply put, Poncho is going to act as a distraction by having a heart attack at the gambling table while Paul and Louis climb out a window along a ledge to the casino director’s flat which provides, by means of an elevator, direct access to the underground vaults. Once they’ve stolen the cash, they clamber back along the ledge and hide in the flat where, by this time, Theo, playing the role of Poncho’s personal physician, has taken him. The money will be hidden in Poncho’s wheelchair and removed to a waiting ambulance.

But Paul is a rather suspicious character and wants to know what he’s letting himself in for so in turn works out the weaknesses of his team. Melanie hides behind a façade of high birth, Pancho is too reckless, “measuring danger only in terms of profit,” Hugo prone to unnecessary violence, while Louis has omitted to mention he is terrified of heights, the ledge on which the operation depends standing on a 100ft high cliff.   

In some posters, this was promoted as Al Capone (Steiger)
vs Little Caesar (Robinson).

The plan relies on Poncho actually appearing to be dead, so dead that the casino director (Sebastian Cabot) will not hesitate, at Theo’s insistence, to shift him out of sight of the rest of the gamblers into his flat. But Complication No 1 is that Poncho doesn’t want to be dead, even if it is a ruse, skeptical of Theo’s plan to convincingly knock him out by means of a carefully measured dose of cyanide. Complication No 2 is that a night club client recognizes Melanie and casts doubt on her credentials as a lady of quality. Complication No 3 is that English physician Dr Halsey (Alan Caillou) questions whether Poncho is as dead as he seems.

But such complications are nothing compared an extraordinary range of twists that raise tension sky-high at the movie’s denouement. I challenge you to guess what these three superbly-conceived twists would be, all of them one by one turning the project on its head, and it rapidly shifts from one direction to another, ending with an unbelievable – and yet so in keeping with the premise – climax.

Attention to character detail lifts this out of the rut, whether it be Theo’s penchant for collecting seashells, Paul resplendent in a white suit, Melanie resisting the blandishments of becoming a kept woman, Raymond trying to climb out the murky depths into which the lure of Melanie has taken him, and a series of subtle relationships, some developing through the robbery, others which began long before the heist working themselves out.

The heist itself is well done, tension kept constant mostly through the failings of the crew and the suspicions of the dupes. All in all an excellent picture.

This was a critical film in the careers of most of the cast. Edward G. Robinson (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) was handed his first top-billed role in four years. It was a deliberate change of pace for Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker, 1964). For Eli Wallach, best known at the time for stage work, it was the first of three films that year that would launch him into the higher ranks of top supporting stars; it was followed by The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits. After being leading lady to the likes of Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, this spelled the end of Twentieth Century Fox’s belief in Joan Collins’ star qualities while for Michael Dante (The Naked Kiss, 1964) it was a step up.

Wallach and Dante could be accused of over-acting but Robinson, Steiger and Collins all act against type with considerable effect. Hathaway does a superb job working from a script by Sydney Boehm (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) based on the Max Catto bestseller.

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