Guns of Darkness (1962) ***

You might think David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had cornered the market in startling transitions involving light (from Peter O’Toole’s match to the rising sun) and gut-wrenching scenes involving quicksand but nearly six months prior Anthony Asquith (The Millionairess, 1960) in the less-heralded Guns of Darkness had adopted similar techniques. He cuts from a nightclub singer blowing out a candle to a man lighting a candle in a church and since his film is in black-and-white it cannot hope to match Lean’s fabulous color transition. However, the quicksand scene in the Asquith, I would argue, lacking color or not, is far superior to that of the desert epic.

Thanks to Pygmalion (1938) and The Winslow Boy (1948) Asquith was one of a handful of British directors – Lean, Powell/Pressburger and Carol Reed the others – with an international reputation. Stars David Niven and Leslie Caron had topsy-turvy careers. Niven’s box office cachet had almost disappeared in the mid-1950s before an unexpected Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and a starring role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). Although Caron had An American in Paris (1951), Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958) on her dance-card she was not an automatic big-name star. It reflects their respective positions that Caron has star billing.

Niven and Caron are an unhappily married couple caught up in a revolution in a fictional South American country. His boyish charm has long worn thin, his employment record is spotty and he is inclined, when drunk, to insult bumptious boss (James Robertson Justice). On New Year’s Eve while an enclave of pampered Brits is counting down to the bells, rebels  are preparing to storm the presidential palace and seize power. Niven seems the last person to give shelter to a fugitive from the revolution, especially when the runaway turns out to be the ex-president Rivero (David Opatoshu, Exodus, 1960). Caron, who has been planning to leave Niven the next day, finds herself involved in the escape.

The couple are both quickly disabused of notions of the saintliness of presidents and peasants, Rivera nearly strangling a child who discovers his hiding place, Caron stoned by villagers, pacifist Niven forced into a horrific act of violence.  

If you ever wondered what screenwriters do to earn their money, this film is a good place to start. It was based on a book “Act of Mercy” by British thriller writer Francis Clifford, who also wrote “The Naked Runner,” also later filmed. The screenwriters changed the David Niven character from the happily married committed businessman of the book to the dissatisfied dilettante of the film. As a happy couple, there are none of the marital tensions in the film. The revolution in the book has already started but in the film it is moved to New Year’s Eve and about to begin. The quicksand scene is a screenwriter’s invention as is the incident with the boy and the massacre in the village.

The pace is brisk from the outset, Asquith cross-cutting between revolutionaries and the Brits and as the manhunt steps up a gear the three escapees face a succession of perilous incidents. Not least is a river that has turned to quicksand. This six-minute scene is a standout, the mud closing in on their heads, Niven having to crawl back to rescue Rivera. As you would expect with this kind of picture there is a fair bit of philosophizing, moralizing and sheer brutality. As the couple flounder towards reconciliation, the script spends some time trying to ascertain Niven’s motives. Had the film stuck to the source book’s title, Act of Mercy, that would not have been necessary.

A taut film with, once the revolution has begun, the British put in their place rather than acting as imperialist overlords. There are a couple of unexpected twists at the end and Asquith finished with a technical flourish of his own, the camera tracking back from people walking forward. Both Niven and Caron are excellent, James Robertson Justice at once cuddly and ruthless, and the picture comes out as a tidy character-driven thriller.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Running Man (1963) ****

Twisty Carol Reed thriller pivoting on emotional entanglement that keeps you guessing right up to the end. In revenge for losing his business after an insurance company failed to cough up for his crashed plane, entrepreneur Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) fakes his own death and flees to Malaga in Spain.

But when girlfriend Lee Remick (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962) joins him she finds he has assumed the identity of an Australian millionaire whose passport he has purloined and completed the transformation by changing his black hair to blond. Harvey has a mind to repeat the experiment by killing off himself (under the new identity) and claiming the insurance. Remick, complicit in the original scam, not only balks at this idea but finds disconcerting his change of personality and clear attraction to the opposite sex.

Tensions mount when mild-mannered insurance investigator Alan Bates (A Kind of Loving, 1962) appears on the scene. Anyone watching the film now has to accept that in the days before social media every face was not instantly tracked and accept that Bates is unaware of what Harvey looks like.

The couple cannot run because they are awaiting a bank draft. Bates immediately sets the tone for suspicion when he pronounces that their vehicle  “looks like a getaway car.”  Forced to follow “The Godfather” dictum of keeping your enemies closer, the pair befriend Bates with the intention of finding out what he knows and what are his intentions. Harvey and Remick have to pretend they have only just met, and have separate bedrooms, leaving the door open for Bates to gently woo Remick, an action endorsed by Harvey. They are caught out in small lies. Harvey’s Australian accent falters. Bates keeps on making notations in a notebook. Harvey foils Bates’ attempts to photograph him.

The ensuing game of cat-and-mouse is complicated by Bates pursuit of Remick. Is this as genuine as it appears? Or is he trying to get her on her own to admit complicity? Both Harvey and Remick are, effectively, forced to adopt the new identities they have forged to dupe Bates with unforeseen results. There are red herrings aplenty, a race along mountainous roads, and some marvelous twists as the couple find the tale they have woven is turning too tight for comfort until murder appears the only solution.  

As with his international breakthrough The Third Man (1949), Reed grounds the whole Hitchcockian enterprise in local culture – this being unspoiled Malaga prior to the tourist deluge – Spanish churches, a wedding, a fiesta, the running of the bulls, with an occasional ironic twist – “gypsy” musicians watching ballroom dancing on television. Reed resists taking the material down a darker route –  Hitchcock would undoubtedly have twisted the scenario in another direction until Remick came under threat from Harvey – but instead allows it to play out as a menage-a-trois underwritten by menace.

The acting is sublime. Harvey wallows in his part, Remick quietly anxious scarcely coming to believe that she had played a part in the original crime, Bates with a pleasant inquisitive demeanor the ideal foil to Harvey. Unusually, they all undergo change, Harvey uncovers a more ruthless side to his character, Remick responds to the gentler nature of Bates, while Bates shrugs off his schoolmasterly aspects to become an attractive companion. It all leads towards a thrilling conclusion.

A couple of footnotes – special mention to Maurice Binder for the opening credits and this was the final score of British composer William Alwyn (The Fallen Idol, 1948).

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) ***

All hail Senta Berger! Another from the Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) portfolio, this is a spy-thriller mash-up with a bagful of mysteries and a clutch of corpses. At last given a decent leading role, and although you wouldn’t guess it from either poster, Senta Berger steals the show from the top-billed Tony Randall (as miscast as Robert Cummings in Five Golden Dragons) and a smorgasbord of European  talent including Herbert Lom (The Frightened City, 1961), Terry-Thomas, Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons), John Le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White (Carry On Nurse, 1959). In this company, the glamorous Margaret Lee (Five Golden Dragons), as Lom’s cynical lover (“you are never wrong, cherie, you told me so yourself,” she tells him) is an amuse-bouche.

A more comedic approach to the movie when it was re-titled for U.S. release. At least here it did not try to sell itself as a Bond-type picture.

Six travellers – including oilman Randall, travel agent Le Mesurier, salesman Hyde-White and tourist Berger, meeting her fiancé – board a bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh. One is carrying $2 million as a bribe to ease through a vote in the United Nations, but bad guy Lom doesn’t know which one it is. When Berger’s fiance’s corpse tumbles out of Randall’s cupboard, the pair become entangled. Berger is a marvellous femme fatale, trumping Randall at every turn. 

With no shortage of complications, the tale zips along, directed on occasion with considerable verve by Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964). There are some inventive double-plays – with a body in the boot Berger and Randall are stopped by a cop who tells them their boot is open. An excellent rooftop chase is matched by a car chase. And there’s a terrific shootout. Kinski is at his sinister best and Terry-Thomas a standout in an unusual role as a Berber.

The film was shot on location including the city’s souks, the ruined El Badi Palace and La Mamounia hotel (featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). But Berger seamlessly holds the whole box of tricks together, at once glamorous and sinuous, practical and tough and exuding sympathy, and it’s a joy to see her for a large part of the picture leading Randall by the nose. Quite why this did not lead to bigger Hollywood roles than The Ambushers (1967) remains a mystery.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) ***

A couple of decades before the “high concept” was invented came this high concept picture – a killer is hired to kill himself. Oliver Reed is the assassin in question and Diana Rigg the journalist doing the hiring. So Reed challenges the other members of his murderous outfit to kill him before he despatches them. The odds are about ten to one. Initially involved in shadowing Reed, Rigg becomes drawn to his aid when it transpires there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.

Set just before World War One, the action cuts a swathe through Europe’s glamour cities – London, Paris, Vienna, Venice – while stopping off for a bit of slapstick, some decent sight gags and a nod now and then to James Bond (gadgets) and the Pink Panther (exploding sausages). Odd a mixture as it is, mostly it works, thanks to the intuitive partnership of director Basil Dearden and producer (and sometime writer and designer) Michael Relph, previously responsible this decade for League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), Masquerade (1965) and Khartoum (1966).

The American advertisement for the film set out its stall in a different way to the British advertisement with Diana Rigg taking pride of place.

Moustached media magnate Telly Savalas has a decent chomp at an upper-class British accent. It’s easy to forget was one of the things that marked him out was his clear diction and he always had an air about him, so this was possibly less of a stretch. Ramping up the fun is a multi-cultural melange in supporting roles: Frenchman Phillipe Noiret (Night of the Generals, 1967), everyone’s favourite German Curt Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964) playing another general, Italian Annabella Contrera (The Ambushers, 1967) and Greek George Coulouris (Arabesque, 1966) plus British stalwarts Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George, 1969) as a brothel madam, television’s Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Kenneth Griffith and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967).

The action flits between sudden danger and elaborate set pieces. When Reed announces his proposal to his board he promptly fells a colleague with a gavel just as that man throws a knife. Apart from folderols in a Parisian brothel, we are treated to a Viennese waltz and malarkey in Venice. There are disguises aplenty, donned by our hero and his enemies. Lighters are turned into flame throwers. And there is a lovely sly sense of humour, an Italian countess, wanting rid of her husband, does so under the pretext of Reed gone rogue. Reed and Rigg (in her best Julie Andrews impression) are in excellent form and strike sparks off each other. The second-last film from Dearden suggested he wanted to go out in style.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

The Frightened City (1961) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gambit (1966) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gunn (1967) *

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

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

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

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

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

Arabesque (1966) ****

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

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

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

The Leicester Square Theatre in the heart of London’s West End was one of the four most prestigious first run houses in the capital. As in the United States, studios were prone to sticking advertisements in the trade press – in this case Kine Weekly – should any of their products achieve decent, never mind as in this case spectacular, box office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Golden Dragons (1967) ***

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

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

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

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

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

Petla (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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