Les Biches (1968) *****

Innocence and experience alike are corrupted by the destructive power of love in this elegant and compelling early masterpiece from French director Claude Chabrol. Although he owed much of his later fame to slow-burning thrillers, this is more of a three-hander drama with a twist and it says much for his skill that we sympathize in turn with each of these amoral characters.

Wealthy stylish Frederique (Stephane Audran), in an iconic hat, picks up younger pavement artist, the artistically named Why (Jacqueline Sassard) in Paris. They decamp to St Tropez where Audran keeps a rather discordant house, indulging the antics of two avant-garde house-guests. Sassard loses her virginity to architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who soon abandons her in favor of Frederique. Each is guilty of betrayal and although a menage a trois might have been one solution instead the lovers dance from one to another with Frederique apparently in control, in one scene stroking Why’s hair with her hand and caressing Paul’s face with her foot. In an attempt to win the man back, Why dresses like her rival down to hairstyle, make-up and even the older woman’s beauty spot.    

At no point is there angry confrontation, nor does Frederique simply dismiss Why from the household, but the story works out in more subtle insinuation, Frderique clearly expecting either that Why makes herself scarce or, alternatively, make herself available for whenever the bisexual Frederique tires of male companionship. The movie’s focus is the baffled Why. When the older pair disappear to Paris, the camera follows Why through off-season St Tropez, chilly weather replacing glorious sunshine. Frederique and Paul are the sophisticates who expect Why to know how to play the game. The younger woman has wiles enough to see off the avant-garde irritants.

It looks for a while as if it might be a coming-of-age tale or of young love thwarted but every time Frederique enters the picture her dominance is such that proceedings, no matter how deftly controlled, have an edge and so it becomes a study of something else entirely. At one point, each has power over the other. What appears on the surface, how each character is initially represented, disguises their interior lives. If Why has learned anything it is restraint, so the movie never descends to tempestuous passion. She also learns, in a sense, to submit, since the impoverished can never compete with the rich. In the end her revolt takes the only other option available, against which even the wealthy have no defense.

Not that it makes much difference unless you were going to analyse the picture to the extreme but clearly the names have significance. Frederique is a feminization of a male name, Paul Thomas is two male names (perhaps indicating alpha male) while Why is obviously not a real name, and either meant to represent anonymity or intrigue. Luckily, the acting is of such a high standard we are not left only in thrall to the intricacies of naming characters.

Jean-Louise Trintignant was the best known of the stars following the international success of A Man and a Woman (1966). Stephane Audran, wife of the director, had been in movies for a decade, this her best part to date. Jacqueline Sassard had broken through with Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967). Claude Chabrol, a driving force behind the French New Wave, had enjoyed conspicuously less success than compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut until finding his metier in crime thrillers The Champagne Murders (1967) and The Road to Corinth (1967) but it was Les Biches that marked him out as a sensational talent.

The Secret Ways (1961) ***

This gritty realistic thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s The Last Frontier, has much in common with The Quiller Memorandum (1965) with spies stalked through dark cobbled streets. To pay off his gambling debts, Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark), posing as a journalist, agrees to smuggle out of Hungary resistance leader Jansci (Walter Rilla) on the Soviet hit list after the failed 1956 uprising.  Assisting him is Jansci’s daughter Julia (German star Sophie Ziemann) and, making her debut, Senta Berger as Elsa.

This is a city of staircases and tunnels and echoing footsteps and authorities keeping close tabs on visitors. The first time Widmark escapes their notice he is beaten up and it takes considerable skill, dodging through cinemas, creeping along window ledges, to make any headway in his assignment. Various complications ensue, not least that Julia despises Reynolds and that Jansci does not want to flee his country. Reynolds, who starts out as anything but your standard good guy, ends up less mercenary.

Mostly it is atmospheric cat-and-mouse with ruthless opposition partial to the odd spot of torture. Once it gets going, it a chase that the escapees are unlikley to evade. That Reynolds is distrusted by those he is trying to help and that he doesn’t want to be here at all, forced into adventure by adverse personal circumstance, stokes up the tension.

Widmark doesn’t quite abandon his snarling persona but manages some deft dry-wit comedy when trying to play a journalist accommodating his hosts. Senta Berger makes a striking debut. Sophie Ziemann is less impressive but veteran character actor Walter Rilla has the brooding and charismatic presence of a leader. Vienna, generally not considered a soulless city, does a great job standing in for Budapest.

This was one of many Widmark bids to gain greater control of his career and provide himself with more interesting leading roles than the standard villains or tough guys that Hollywood marked him down for. He was the producer and at one point took over direction from Phil Karlson after artistic differences of opinion. Jean Hazlewood, Widmark’s wife, wrote the screenplay. While there’s less out-and-out action than Maclean devotees brought up on Where Eagles Dare and Fear Is the Key might expect, there are still considerable rewards from an intelligent screenplay and the crackle of pursuit. Seen as a late entrant to the Hollywood cloak-and-dagger genre than a precursor of the 1960s Bond-style adventure, this has a great deal going for it.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, and The Quiller Memorandum; Richard Widmark in The Bedford Incident, The Long Ships, Flight from Ashiya and Alvarez Kelly.

The Prize (1963) ****

Thoroughly involving potboiler with alcoholic novelist Paul Newman turning unlikely detective to uncover murky double-dealings at the annual Nobel Prize ceremony. Based on the Irving Wallace bestseller set in Stockholm, director Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express,1965) strings together a number of different stories that coalesce in a gripping climax. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest,1959) brings alive what could have been a very soggy adaptation of a beefy bestseller with witty and literate dialog and a plot that hovers just the right side of hokum.

Elke Sommer, delegated to look after Newman, starts out as stuffed shirt not sexpot, allowing Newman’s attention to drift towards Emily Stratman (Diane Baker) – daughter of another winner Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) – while he is also dragged into romantic entanglement with neglected wife Dr Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle). Mostly, Newman just wants his next drink and his almost continual inebriation sparks some good comedy and he is gifted good lines to extricate himself from embarrassment. Simmering in the  background are warring winners – the Marceau husband-and-wife team and Dr John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy) convinced that Dr Carlo Farelli (Gerard Oury), with whom he is sharing a prize, has stolen his research.  

 There are sufficient character clashes and plots to be getting along with if you were just intent on taking a Valley of the Dolls approach to the material, that is, cutting between various dramatic story arcs, but, without invalidating the other subsidiary tales, the movie takes quite a different turn, providing the potboiler with considerable edge.  

Turns out that Newman is so impoverished that he has been writing detective novels under a pseudonym and suspecting that Dr Stratman is an imposter he starts investigating. So in some respects it’s a private eye procedural played out against the glamorous backdrop of the awards. But the clues are inventive enough and there is a femme fatale and once Sommer comes along for the ride and with Newman a target the picture picks up an invigorating pace. Echoing the humorous auction scene in North by Northwest is a sequence set in a nudist colony where Newman seeks refuge to avoid villains while another terrific scene plays out in the docks.

Newman looks as if he is having a ball. In most of his pictures he was saddled with seriousness as if every part was chosen with an eye on the Oscars. Here, he lets rip with a lighter persona, and even if he mugs to the camera once too often, the result is a screen departure that lifts the picture. Inebriation has clearly never been so enjoyable. Sommer is a delight, showing great dramatic promise. Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves,1960), more renowned for his gangster roles, convinces as a scientist. Diane Baker (The 300 Spartans, 1962), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers,1956) and Leo G. Carroll (North by Northwest) provide sterling support.

Robson directs with dexterity, mostly with an eye on pace, but it is Lehman’s script with occasional nods to Hitchcock that steals the show.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and Cool Hand Luke; Diane Baker in Marnie and The 300 Spartans; Elke Sommer in The Corrupt Ones and Mark Robson picture The Lost Command.  

 

Murder Ahoy! (1964) ***

Agatha Christie tales were in a mostly B-movie limbo in the 1960s, despite Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and would have to wait another decade before glorious all-star resurrection in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974). In the meantime, audiences made do with Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple in an MGM quartet – all directed by George Pollock – that ended with Murder Ahoy! Rutherford did not enjoy the national treasure status of the likes of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench these days but she had been elevated to late-career fame by winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The VIPs (1963). But she never quite made the cinematic impact anticipated after Blithe Spirit (1945) and she was mostly seen in roles that called for eccentricity or determination, characteristics associated with Christie’s second most famous sleuth.

The title had led me to expect a picture set on a liner or a cruise ship. Instead, this being a cheaply-made British black-and-white feature, we are limited to a sojourn on a sail training ship which remains moored at all times. Nonetheless, Rutherford is resplendent in naval attire and disports herself as if she were the captain. Her excuse to get on board is the sudden death of a member of the committee overseeing said ship just before he makes an announcement. Miss Marple relies on a good deal more than Hercule Poirot on little grey cells and through laboratory experiment determines the man died from strychnine poisoning. Among her other hidden talents are signaling mastery and dexterity with a sword and she drops popcorn on corridor floors to warn of imminent arrivals when she invades cabins. The suspects include Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon) at his pompous best, Derek Nimmo (BBC’s Oh, Brother), and William Mervyn while Nicholas Parsons (ITV game show Sale of the Century) makes an appearance as a doctor, described in double entendre fashion as “brisk.”   

The Marple films usually ended up on the bottom half of a double bill in the UK.

Naturally, there is more murder, and the subplots include burglary, secret romance (Joan Benham) and thwarted romance (Norma Foster). However, nothing can deter Miss Marple and she soon puts the world to rights. It’s an engrossing enough little film, the resolution a surprise, and Rutherford has skill and charm enough to almost trademark the role. At one time in the 1960s in the USA the Marple pictures were revived as double bills but generally in Britain treated with less regard. Although you could argue that MGM could have bolstered the standards of production, much of the merit derives from the quaintness and the quintessential English lives portrayed. As a bonus there are moments of well-observed comedy and a very inventive score from Ron Goodwin whose 633 Squadron appeared the same year.   

The Happy Thieves (1962) ****

A triumvirate of art thieves are blackmailed into stealing a famous Goya painting from the Prada museum in Madrid. Jimmy Bourne (Rex Harrison) is the actual thief, Eve Lewis (Rita Hayworth) smuggles the artworks out of the country and Jean-Marie (Joseph Wiseman, soon to be more famous as Dr No, 1962) creates the forgeries that replace the stolen masterpieces. Hayworth is the least reliable of the trio, her drinking (she had a problem in real life) jeopardizes their slick operation. Not only has the painting they have stolen slipped through her hands but the thief Dr Victor Munoz (Gregoire Aslan) has filmed the original theft and is not above a bit of murder on the side.

Harrison and Hayworth are a delightful pairing. Hayworth has abandoned the sultry in favor of the winsome, Harrison shifted from sarcasm to dry wit. He is always one-step-ahead but  never overbearing, and the thefts are carried out with military precision. Even when let down by colleagues, who are inclined to scarper when threatened, he takes it all in his stride, the calm center of any potential storm. And there is genuine chemistry between Harrison and Hayworth though his matter-of-fact attitude tends to undercut the kind of passionate romance that moviegoers came to expect from top-class players thus paired. His proposal, for example, comes by way of dictation, “the new Mrs Bourne.” It would have been tempting for Hayworth to act as the ditzy blonde (brunette, actually) but instead she plays it straight, which is more effecting.

Bourne is the archetypal gentleman thief (“there is a touch of larceny in all successful men”) and Eve does her earnest best to keep up (“I want so much to be a first-class crook for you, I’m trying to be dishonest, honestly I am.”) There is never the remotest chance of them being confused with real gangsters. “I thought that stealing was the only honest way Jimmy could live with himself,” says Eve.  In truth, their characters set the template for better-known later heist pictures like How to Steal a Million (1966), Gambit (1966) and A Fine Pair (1968) – all reviewed on this blog – which couple one determined thief with one less so.   

Of course, heist pictures rely for much of their success on the actual heist. And Bourne’s plan for the Prada is brilliantly simple and carried out, as mentioned, with military precision. The get-out clause, which, of course, is how such films reach their conclusion, is more realistic and human than the other movies I have mentioned.

What’s more, there are number of excellent sight gags and great throwaway lines while Jean-Marie and Dr Munoz are well-written, the villain’s motivation particularly good. Other incidentals lend weight – their apartment is opposite a prison, the security guards at the Prada are caring rather than the idiots of How to Steal a Million, and a sub-plot involving a bullfighter (Virgilio Teixeira, Return of the Seven, 1966) also sheds light on Bourne.  There is a jaunty whistling theme tune by Mario Nascimbene (One Million Years B.C., 1966) which maintains levity throughout.

The movie does tilt from the gentleman thievery of the initial section into something much darker, but, so too, do the two principals and, unusually, rather than in the usual contrived fashion, Bourne and Eve undergo personal transition by the end.

I found the whole exercise highly enjoyable. It’s very under-rated. My only quibbles are that it is shot in black-and-white, which seems bizarre when Spain, the location, is such a colorful country. The title, too, is an oddity. This was the only picture produced by Hayworth in partnership with husband James Hill. They split up before the picture was released which might explain its poor initial box office.  Hill was an experienced producer, part of Hill-Hecht-Lancaster (The Unforgiven, 1960), but this proved his final film.

Hayworth, too, had previously worn the producer’s hat for The Loves of Carmen (1948), Affair in Trinidad (1952) and Salome (1953). Hayworth was still a marquee attraction at this point, taking top billing here, and second billing to John Wayne in Circus World/The Magnificent Showman (1963). But this is quite a different performance to her all-out-passionate persona or the slinky deviousness of Gilda (1946). Alida Valli (The Third Man, 1949) puts in an appearance and trivia trackers might take note of the debut of Britt Ekland (credited as Britta Ekman).

Director George Marshall was a Hollywood veteran with over a quarter of a century directorial experience including film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946), Jerry Lewis comedy The Sad Sack (1957) and western The Sheepman (1958) with Glenn Ford. In fact, five of his previous six pictures had starred Glenn Ford and his next shift would be on How the West Was Won (1962).

The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) ****

The 1960s was awash with movie megalomaniacs, most courtesy of the spy vogue. You could also count on secret agents for trailing in their wake bevies of beauties. So no surprise then that criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) has his own gang, his “brides,” although they are hardly volunteers, being the kidnapped daughters of top scientists. His plan for global domination this time consists of transmitting energy as sound waves, using miniaturization, a sonic death ray, with enough power to destroy a city.

The result is good hokum, a thriller set in the 1920s with a cracking pace, plenty of action, explosions, burgeoning romance, and  plot that gets more complicated by the minute as a tribe of worthies try out to outwit the evil genius. There is a terrific lair – where the disobedient end up in a snake pit – a passable laboratory, chases, truth serums (“the dust that loosens tongues”), hypnotism, bait-and-switch tricks and decent special effects.  Three stories race along in a parallel pell-mell: Manchu needs one more kidnapping to complete his complement of daughters; the good guys headed by Fu Manchu’s old adversary Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer) are trying to locate the bad guy’s secret location while at the same time attempting to find out where he will strike next. 

While Fu Manchu is indestructible – supposed dead after the previous film – his henchmen (and henchwomen) are all too human. It takes three attempts to kidnap Manchu’s next victim. They are easily identifiable by their giveaway cummerbunds and bandannas and their method of assault is not kung fu but brawling so a good solid British punch of the old-school soon sorts them out. Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) is a chip off the old block, delighted at any opportunity to torment the brides.  

The brides wear diaphanous gowns that might have been a job-lot from the set of She, but are far from compliant, even rebelling at one point, and employing vicious fight tactics. Fans of director Don Sharp will find him every bit as inventive as in The Devil-Ship Pirates and Bang, Bang, You’re Dead. It’s another Harry Alan Towers (written under his pseudonym Peter Welbeck) production so that means an international cast. Two television cops, British Rupert Davies (BBC’s Maigret) and German Heinz Drache (cop in a Francis Durbridge series), plus Francois Mitterand’s brother-in-law Roger Hanin, provide solid support. Not forgetting Burt Kwouk as a henchman. Brides of the Year include French Marie Versini (German western Winnetou, 1963) and Rhodesian Carole Gray (Curse of the Fly, 1965). The film did not prove much of a jumping-off point for other brides such as Ulla Berglin, Danielle Defrere and Anje Langstraat, for whom this debut was as far as their careers went.

Christopher Lee, despite the dodgy moustache, is resplendent, exuding evil, and with a gift for rising again (just like Dracula) as he would do for another three films in the series.

Note: The Devil-Ship Pirates and Bang, Bang, You’re Dead are reviewed on this blog.

Only When I Larf (1968) ***

Terrific, elongated, 20-minute pre-credit sequence sets up this brisk con-man thriller as the trio of Richard Attenborough, his younger lover Alexandra Stewart and apprentice David Hemmings fleece a couple of greedy businessmen in New York.  The action moves with military precision, the trio so appealing, the scam so well-worked, you want them to escape.

But when their next sting fails to come off, roles are reversed and it is floppy-haired Hemmings who takes charge, organizing the scheme, and making moves on Stewart. Meanwhile, Attenborough is planning to double-cross them. The first and last schemes work a treat but the middle one sags, even allowing for cracks to appear in the relationships.

Attenborough is the pick of the bunch, switching accents and personalities, one minute a suave businessman, the next a nervous Lebanon banker, while at other times his stiff upper lip contends with his sergeant-major attitude. Hemmings’ accents are less convincing, all over the place at times, but the switch from junior partner to operation controller is convincing especially as he clearly enjoys putting Attenborough in his place, forcing him to shave off his moustache and giving him the name Longbottom. And Stewart is never quite what she seems, willing to indulge either man to suit her purpose. Scottish actress Melissa Stribling, wife of director Basil Dearden, is a late addition to the crew and colder-eyed.

This was a departure for author Len Deighton, better known for The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

This was Attenborough’s first starring role since Guns at Batasi (1964) – Best Actor at the Bafta Awards – and although he had featured roles in Hollywood productions The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) – his screen person was quite confined in those pictures. Here, it feels like he has been let free. Hemmings was coming off three heavy roles in Camelot (1967), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and The Long Day’s Dying (1968) so it felt like he, too, had a spring in his step. This was a distinct mainstream jump for Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart, although she had small roles in Maroc 7 (19670 and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968),

Basil Dearden slipped this one in between the more lavish Khartoum (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). There is a slapstick chase reminiscent of the latter but, basically, he keeps to the story and allows character to develop. This being a British film, you might find some outdated British attitudes. This was bestselling author Len Deighton’s first stab at production.

The Flight of the Phoenix, Khartoum and The Assassination Bureau have previously been reviewed in this blog.

Catch this on Amazon Prime.

Possessor (2020) *****

This Brandon Cronenberg (son of you-know-who) rumination on identity is heavily disguised as a gory and occasionally sexy dystopian thriller. What appears at first glance a homage to giallo – toplining on shock, flesh and blood – soon reveals deeper layers of something more insistently disturbing. Focusing on an identity thief whose victim turns the tables into a who-owns-who, the films asks questions about the nature of identity and the effect of memory loss or memory accrual on individual personality. An early scene, part-debrief/part-interrogation, sees identity mind-robber Andrea Riseborough interviewed by boss Jennifer Jason Leigh to determine her own memory status, picking her way through a box of items carrying emotional connection, but it later becomes clear that Leigh has more sinister concerns: is the Riseborough returned from her latest adventure the same one as was sent out or has she been infiltrated by another?

Riseborough borrows identities in order to perpetrate a series of assassinations for an unseen corporation. Such murders are gorier than her employers would expect, invariably involving sharp implements, and setting the viewer to wonder whether the source for such brutality comes from a deeper part of the woman’s psyche. How much she is who she says she is is also questionable; before turning up on her ex’s doorstep, she rehearses what she wants to say. So there is mental and emotional dislocation at play, though whether that is the result of the experiments she appears to willingly undertake or whether from an existing characteristic is hard to say. So Cronenberg always has us at a disadvantage, and he keeps us that way, one step removed from what is going on, and may have occurred in the past, and only the determined assurance that nothing is going to turn out as it should.

One of the elements that places this picture in the top-notch category is that Cronenberg’s future does not fully work, components appear constantly out of place, as if a gear is always slipping. When Riseborough impersonates a man it is clear she has not quite grasped his full personality. When she possesses the identity of Christopher Abbott, a lowly drone partnering boss’s daughter Tuppence Middleton, he/she appears to be sleepwalking, parts of his personality eluding her, the disconnect so obvious that Middleton continues to ask what’s wrong and Abbott seems to forget that he is having an affair or has a friend at work. Again, it’s not clear whether this is Riseborough’s skillset drifting, or an extreme example of the dangers of identity theft. Instead of this whole concept being a scientific marvel, he/she is always one step behind. (Nothing to do with the plot but the previous butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth English actress Middleton has also gone through a screen persona transformation, searching out her inner raunch for hot action with Abbott).

When Abbott begins to imagine inhabiting Riseborough’s face, the ghastly apparition seen on the poster, and in one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, the story takes a different turn, as if a Terminator is now on her tail.

The world depicted is an invasive one. Riseborough can infect the brain and take over the body, while Abbott’s day-job appears voyeuristic, as if the internet eye had become all-encompassing. To complete the dystopian feel, streets are always deserted and although that may be the result of budget restriction it fits the overall tone, this concrete jungle in sharp contract with murder in marble halls (a cameo by Sean Bean).

Riseborough is at her haunted best, Leigh steely as her boss, Abbott a revelation as the disturbed stolen property. Nod to Jim Williams for a brilliant score. While Cronenberg tags Blade Runner, Brazil, Blue Thunder and Terminator, the movie is an original. With enough drive and mystery to keep the thriller aspects at full tilt and while following in father David Cronenberg’s footsteps in his thirst for gore, the thrust of the picture is quite different, the concept so good it could have gone any number of different ways: the burglar trapped between two identities: the identities at war: or the personalities trying to make up what has been removed. You are left wondering what else could be going on in the world of Cronenberg’s imagination and not so much begging for a sequel but another parallel adventure in this particular universe. When a movie is still preying on your mind several days later, that’s when you know you have uncovered something special.

Machine Gun McCain (1969) ***

Armed robbers lack the finesse of a jewel thief or burglar when it comes to pulling off a major heist. Rather than resorting to the weaponry of the title, they are more inclined, as John Cassavetes does here, to plant bombs, both as a diversionary tactic and within the target building, in this case a Las Vegas casino.

Although boasting Hollywood leads in Cassavetes and Peter Falk and rising Swedish leading lady Britt Ekland (The Double Man, 1967) and wife of star Peter Sellers, this was an Italian-made gangster thriller with the usual abundance of location work. Minus the romantic complications of A Fine Pair (1968), it concentrates on the machinations of the central characters. And it is a pretty lean machine. The robbery takes place against the background of warring Mafia chieftains, West coast boss Falk trying to muscle in on a Vegas casino without being aware it is controlled by the New York hierarchy. Cassavetes does not realize the robbery has been set up by his naïve son on behalf of Falk. Ekland is on board as a kind of mostly mute magician’s assistant, helping Cassavetes.

Little dialogue comes Cassavetes’ way, either, which plays to his strength, that glowering intense unpredictable weasel-face, whose reactions are less likely to be emotional than violent. Falk gets the dialogue and little help it does him, his goose is cooked when he has the temerity to shout at the New York kingpin. 

Yet this slimmed-down documentary-style hard-nosed picture in the vein of Point Blank (1967) manages several touching moments, even more effective for completely lacking sentimentality. When Cassavetes’ son is knifed in the back, the gangster finishes him off with a burst from the titular machine gun rather than see him suffer. His old flame Gene Rowlands, making too brief an appearance, has a wall covered in newspaper headlines of herself with Cassavetes when she was his moll and she accepts without enmity the new woman in his life and she proves the toughest moll of all when confronted with Mafia gunslingers.  

The planning of the heist is well done, no explanatory dialogue, just action on screen; there’s a car chase; and the gangster dragnet is unexpectedly powerful. Gabriele Ferzetti (the railroad baron in Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) is excellent as the calm authoritative New York boss, Falk a bit too excitable, and Florinda Balkan (The Last Valley, 1971), in her third screen role, has a small part as a traitorous moll. Ekland is surprisingly good with not much to play with, a couple of lines here and there but still emoting with her face.

Cassavetes, who always claimed he was only acting to fill in the time between directing  (Faces, 1968), and as a means of financing them, was at a career peak, Oscar-nominated for The Dirty Dozen (1967) and male lead in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). He had just appeared in another Italian gangster movie Bandits in Rome (1968). Cassavetes and Falk would go on to have a fruitful partnership over another five films. Falk and Ekland had played opposite each other in Too Many Thieves (1967). Falk also had an Oscar nod behind him for Murder Inc. (1961) but his career was about to go in a different direction after the TV movie Presciption: Murder (1968) that introduced Columbo.

Trivia trackers might also note a score by Ennio Morricone. Though not one of his best, a few years later he would deliver one of his most memorable themes for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) for the same director Giuliano Montaldo.

A Fine Pair (1968) ***

Essentially an Italian take on the slick glossy American thriller in the vein of Charade (1963), Arabesque (1966) and of course Blindfold (1966) which previously brought together Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale. Produced by Cardinale’s husband Franco Cristaldi, directed and co-written by Francesco Maselli (Time of Indifference, 1966), it is a cute variation on the heist picture.

Fans accustomed to seeing the more sultry side of the Italian actress (as in The Professionals, 1966) might appreciate how effective she is in more playful mood apart from one scene where she strips down to bra and pants. The other major difference is that in her American-made films, Cardinale is usually the female lead, that is, not the one driving the story, but here she provides the narrative thrust virtually right up until the end.

The American marketing campaign focused on the romantic element.
The British marketing campaign (top) took a different slant, not surprising since the film flopped in America. Even in Britain, however, it went out on the lower part of a double bill.

The twist here (as in Pirates of the Caribbean nearly four decades later) is that the bad guy (in this case bad girl) wants to return stolen treasure.  Cardinale arrives in New York to seek help from old family friend Rock Hudson, a stuffy married American cop, so rigid he even uses a timer to regulate cigarette consumption. She has come into jewels stolen by an internationally-famous thief and wishes to return them to a villa in the Alps before the vacationing owners discover the theft. The bait for Hudson is to try and apprehend said thief.

The audience will have guessed the twist, that she is not breaking in to return jewels, but once Hudson, though his police connections has been shown the alarm systems, to deposit fakes and steal the real thing. So Hudson has to work out an ingenious method of beating three alarm systems, one of which is heat-sensitive, the whole place is “one big safe.”

Most of the fun comes from the banter between the principals and the is-she-telling-truth element essential to these pictures. “I lied – and that’s the truth,” spouts Cardinale at one point. I disagree with a common complaint of a lack of chemistry between Hudson and Cardinale. What the film lacks is not enough going wrong to lighten up such a hidebound male character such as occurred in Man’s Favorite Sport (1962), which makes the audience warm to the otherwise upright Hudson, or as seen in Gambit (1966) where Michael Caine played a similar stand-offish character. Cardinale is terrific in a Shirley Maclaine-type role, as the playful foil to the uptight cop, and who, like Maclaine in Gambit, knows far more than she is letting on.

What does let the film down is that it is at cross-cultural cross-purposes. As mentioned, this is an Italian film with Italian production values. The color is murky, way too many important scenes take place outside. Italians filmmakers of this generation never bothered with sound engineers for exteriors, simply dubbing and lip-synching back in the studio. More importantly, the actual heist lacks sufficient detail, and post-heist, although there are few more twists, the film takes too long to reach a conclusion. But for the first two-thirds it is a perfectly acceptable addition to the heist canon, the script has some very funny lines, Cardinale is light, charming and sexy.

The American title of this film was Steal from Your Neighbor, which is weak. A Fine Pair while colloquial enough in America has, however, an unfortunate meaning of the double-entendre kind in Britain.

Lack of films being released – these days due to the pandemic – is not new. “A Fine Pair” was made during a time of chronic low production. But there was a sickening irony to the story of this film’s production. It was financed by the short-lived Cinema Center owned by the American television network CBS. When television was in its infancy, American studios had been barred by the Government from becoming involved in the new media. CBS got into movie production after studios had suffered from another governmental policy reversal. In 1948 the Paramount Decree prohibited studios from owning cinemas, a move which led to the end of the studio system and decimated production. The most sacrosanct rule of American film regulations was that studios could not own movie houses. Everyone assumed that applied the other way until in the early 1960s cinema chain National General challenged the ruling. By this point, production was so low that exhibitors were crying out for new product so the Government relented, much to the fury of the studios. That opened the door for television networks like CBS and later ABC (“Charly,” 1968) to enter movie production. I found all this out while writing my book “In Theaters Everywhere: A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017.” And now, of course, studios have re-entered the exhibition market as have, once again, television companies.