Escape from Zahrain (1962) ***

After being attacked by armored cars and strafed by airplanes, stranded in the desert, and overcome various tensions within the small group of escapees, there is still considerable life left in this picture at the end as Jack Warden, making his departure, comes up with a classic last line: “We must do this again sometime.”

In truth, the picture has far more going for it than a mere outline would suggest. In rescuing rebel leader Yul Brynner from a lorry bound for jail, the escapees led by Sal Mineo (Exodus, 1960) in a stolen ambulance also scoop up three convicts including American fraudster and loudmouth Jack Warden (That Kind of Woman, 1959) and all-purpose thug Anthony Caruso (a television regular) plus a nurse Madhlyn Rhue (A Majority of One, 1961) as a hostage. Like most desert films, the storyline is on who will survive and how.

Action is one constant. The threat of failure is another. Supplies are rationed and, of course, someone steals more than their fair share. The members regularly switch allegiance. At various points someone is about to give up Yul Brynner. Their gas tank is punctured so, thanks to Warden’s engineering skills, they just make it to a remote pumping station where James Mason pops up in a cameo as a maintenance man. Their numbers diminish and despite his recalcitrance Warden’s engineering skills save them again when they reach an oasis.

This was originally intended as a starring vehicle for Clark Gable with Edward Dmytryk in the director’s chair.

What makes the film different is that the characters all change. In a country where “half the wealth is stolen by Europeans and half by corruption,” Brynner is the altruistic leader whose ideals are shattered. Rhue, a Muslim, drinks alcohol and questions the number of deaths necessary for a revolution but declines to leave when the opportunity arises. Mineo who thinks “women should be as free as men” reacts badly when Rhue enjoys such freedom. Warden, who has embezzled $200,000, and has loyalty to no one stands by the shambolic crew.

I had always believed Brynner had enjoyed a rare case of beginner’s luck when he won the Oscar for his debut in The King and I (1956) and that once Hollywood became wise to his acting schtick he would never be nominated again – as proved the case. But after watching Brynner in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and its sequel and Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964) and Flight to Ashiya (1964) I have become convinced he is under-rated as an actor. He acts with his eyes and his delivery is far more varied than I had supposed. Here, clothed in Arab costume, there is no bald pate to distract.  

British director Ronald Neame (Tunes of Glory, 1960) holds the enterprise together, keeping to a tidy pace but allowing tension and character to emerge.

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. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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.

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment / Morgan! (1966) ***

While Hollywood was capable of dealing with mental illness head-on in pictures like Frank Perry’s David and Lisa (1962), Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), the British were more inclined to take an alternative approach. The titular characters of Billy Liar (1963) and this film dealt with awkward reality by creating a fantasy world.   

Morgan, played by David Warner in his first starring role, is a failed artist and virulent Communist who cannot come to terms with being divorced by rich Vanessa Redgrave who is planning to marry businessman Robert Stephens. Warner forces his way back into his wife’s house and attempts to win her back with nothing stronger than whimsicality and when that fails resorts to kidnap. And it is clear that she shares his fancy for furry animals, responding to his chest-pounding gorilla impression with tiny pats of her own chest. For a slim guy, Warner makes a believable stab at a gorilla, shoulders hunched up under his jacket, chest stuck out. And he has an animal’s sense of smell – detecting his rival’s hair oil.  

But Vanessa Redgrave, in her second film and her first starring role, steals the picture, winning her first Oscar nomination (in the same year as sister Lynn for Georgy Girl). She is made of gossamer. Still attracted to a man she knows will only bring her pain, she is far from your normal leading lady. There is a touch of the Audrey Hepburn in her ethereality but she portrays a completely genuine soul, not a manufactured screen personality.

The tone of the film is surreal. Had David Attenborough been a big name then you could have cited him as one of director Karel Reisz’s influences, such was his predilection for inserting wildlife into the proceedings, not just primates but giraffes, a hippo, a peacock and a variety of other creatures. Some are comments on Morgan’s state of mind but after a while it becomes monotonous. The film is clearly intentionally all over the place, the class struggle also taking central stage, but it’s hard work for the viewer.

Having said that, towards the end of the picture there is an extraordinary image – possibly stolen from the opening of La Dolce Vita – of Warner in a straitjacket hanging from a crane. Had that been the film’s starting point, it might have dealt more demonstrably with the subject matter.  The whimsy is all very well and Redgrave is delightful and while Warner is clearly on a mental descent the focus on external animals does little to illuminate his internal struggle. Also, having said that, Warner is imminently watchable. He has an intensity that is hard to ignore and usually is cast with that in mind but here his vulnerability, his inability to grasp that he is living in a different reality, is very touching. Even when his imagination is at its most vivid – such as when Redgrave appears at the end supposedly bearing his child – you are partly convinced that this may actually be true. I would have preferred less of the animal imagery and more of Warner’s true reaction to the world around him. It’s a case of performances spoiled by over-direction.

Setting aside the director’s indulgence, the film is remarkable in one other way. It was almost revolutionary to find a British picture that, despite Warner’s working-class agitation, is effectively about joie de vivre as opposed to the more traditional British stiff upper lip, that inbred stoicism afflicting the entire nation regardless of class status. While Lawrence of Arabia (1962) represented an exhibition of flamboyance, again not a British trait, and the truculent Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was determined to enjoy life to excess, Warner’s character epitomizes a desire to be free of normal cares in order to live life to the full.

Given the Warner would later be more famous buttoned-down roles – and that, in contrast, Redgrave would later portray another famous flamboyant in Isadora (1968) – it is surprising that this fun aspect of Warner’s screen persona was not called upon more often.

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 Pawnbroker (1964) *****

Director Sidney Lumet (Fail Safe, 1964) could have made an excellent film just about the customers of a pawn shop, the haunted individuals haggling for more bucks than they will ever be paid, the sad sacks, junkies, lost souls and general losers whose stories are told in the items they pawn or redeem – candlesticks, lamps, radios, musical instruments, occasionally themselves. You don’t need to be a pawnbroker to know that three hoodlums turning up with a pricey lawnmower are dealing in stolen property. And it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the pawnbroker is involved in some kind of money-laundering scam for a local gangster. Clearly shot on location on a bustling low-rent area, north of 116th St in East Harlem, New York, there’s enough going on in the streets – the markets, the tenements, poolrooms, the bustle, the eternal noise – to keep you hooked.

But you might think twice about positing as your hero an “absolute bastard” as Lumet himself described shop owner Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). He is more haunted than any of his clientele, a Holocaust survivor, plagued by flashbacks to the concentration camp where he witnessed his son die and his wife raped. He is devoid of life, completely shutdown to any emotion, rejecting overtures of friendship, and his life is played out in tiny elliptical shreds. He does not even derive any enjoyment out of his affair with a widow and although he claims to worship money – according to him the only “absolute” outside of the speed of light – that brings no fulfillment either. It is surprising he has lasted so long without imploding. After his war experience, you would have to wonder at a man who spends his life behind the bars of the grille in his shop and just in case he considers escaping from his predicament designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, 1973) incorporates other visual aspects of imprisonment into the production.

This startling image taken from the Pressbook encapsulates one of the striking moment of the film. As seen on the advert at the top of the blog, although not technically a roadshow in the normal sense (i.e. in the grandeur of 70mm) it played separate performances. This was a technique to drive up demand by limiting access. Originally, to take advantage of a British tax break known as the Eady Levy, the film was due to be made in London. Lumet pulled out when MGM insisted on a London shoot and only returned after that idea was abandoned and second-choice director Arthur Hiller bowed out.

Steiger gives a very restrained performance, especially for an actor known for his volubility and over-acting. He seems to sink into the role. He is accused of being among “the walking dead.” Around him are a set of very lively characters, his ambitious assistant (Jaime Sanchez, The Wild Bunch, 1969) trying to go straight and his girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a very smooth and wealthy and gay gangster (Brock Peters), and a trio of small-time hoods with whom the assistant is friendly. But also the deranged and the lonely. A widowed social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who suffers from the “malady of loneliness” offers him friendship but is rejected.

There is little plot to speak but it is just enough to teeter him on the brink of self-destruction. So it is primarily a character study. Unusually, Lumet observes without any sentimentality those around Steiger. “Sol has buried himself in this area,” Lumet wrote (“Keep them on the hook,” Films and Filming, October 1964, p17-20) “because he needs to be with people that he can despise….This is a man who is in such agony that he must feel nothing or he will go to pieces.” There is no redemption and he lacks the courage to commit suicide. It’s a stunning, bold picture, as raw as you can get without turning into a bloodsucker.

Fans of “The Godfather” might recognise this image – of a puppet on the strings -used to symbolise the power of the Mafia don. Eight years before Coppola’s gangster saga, this rarely seen but similar image in the Pressbook for “The Pawnbroker” evoked the opposite – a broken man.

The film had a few firsts. It was the only mainstream American picture to deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor (although films like Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, has shown camp victims). It broke mainstream conventions on nudity, bare breasts being seen for the first time. Lumet experimented with incredibly short cuts – just one-frame and two-frames in places (a technique he had first used in television)- when the standard assumption was that audiences required three frames to register an image. Brock Peters played not just the first openly gay person in a mainstream picture, but the first gay African-American (although The Long Ships the same year had a bit of comedy about a eunuch chasing Vikings).

Quincy Jones made his debut as a movie composer. If you listen closely you might detect a piece of music later made famous by the Austin Powers pictures and if you look closely you might spot a debut sighting of Morgan Freeman. And if want another anomaly, try and work out why Rod Steiger lost out to that year in the Best Actor Oscar stakes to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965).

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.

Age of Consent (1969) ***

Reputations were made and broken on this tale of a jaded artist returning to his homeland to rediscover his mojo. Director Michael Powell had, in tandem with partner Emeric Pressburger, created some of the most acclaimed films of the 1940s – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) just remade by the BBC and The Red Shoes (1948) – but the partnership had ended the next decade. Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960) was greeted with a revulsion from which his career never recovered. Age of Consent was his penultimate picture but the extensive nudity and the age gap between the principals left critics shaking their heads.

For Helen Mirren, on the other hand, it was a triumphant start to a career that has now spanned half a century, one Oscar and three Oscar nominations. She was a burgeoning theatrical talent at the Royal Shakespeare Company when she made her movie debut as the muse of the artist played by James Mason. It should also be pointed out that when it came to scene-stealing she had a rival in the pooch Godfrey.

You would rightly be concerned that there could be some grooming going on. Although 24 at the time of the film’s release, Mirren played an under-age nymph who spent a great deal of time sporting naked in the sea off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But there are a couple of provisos. In the first place, Mirren’s character was not swimming for pleasure, she was diving for seafood to augment her impoverished lifestyle. In the second place, she was so poor she would hardly have afforded a swimsuit and was the kind of free spirit anyway who might have shucked one off. Thirdly, and more importantly, Mason wasn’t interested. He wasn’t the kind of artist who needed to perve on young girls. An early scene showed him in bed with a girlfriend and it was clear that he was an object of lust elsewhere. Mason was an artist, fit and tanned, as obsessed any other artist about his talent, and was in this remote stretch not to hunt for young naked girls but to find inspiration. As well as eventually painting Mirren, he also transforms the shack he rents into something of beauty.

Mason is as vital to Mirren’s self-development. The money he pays her for modelling goes towards her escape fund. Her mother being a useless thieving alcoholic, she has little in the way of role model. And the world of seafood supply was competitive. She is lost in paradise and the scene of her buying a tacky handbag demonstrates the extent of her initial ambition. Although her physical attributes attract male attention, it is only on forming a relationship with the painter that Mirren begins to believe in herself. There’s not much more to the central story than the artist rediscovering his creative spark and helping Mirren’s personal development along the way.

And if Powell had wanted to make an erotically-charged movie, he need look no further than his own Black Narcissus, in which two nuns are brought to the brink of lustful temptation in a convent in the Himalayas. Powell, himself, had form in the erotic department, having previously been the illicit lover of the film’s star Deborah Kerr and at the time of making the movie had switched, in similar illicit fashion, to her co-star Kathleen Byron. There is no question that the young Mirren in a beauty, but it is not lust that guides Mason.

Female career longevity has always been an issue in Hollywood, the assumption being that women had shorter careers than men. But when I was writing “When Women Ruled Hollywood,” I discovered this was not true. Until Sophia Loren’s late foray this year, Jane Fonda had led the roll of honor – male or female – with a career lasting 58 years. Next came Shirley Maclaine with 56 years, then Clint Eastwood (54), Katharine Hepburn (52) and Helen Mirren (51) and Robert Redford (51). Loren’s latest – The Life Ahead – gave her a career as a recognised star turn of 66 years.

Mason is a believable character. He is not an impoverished artist. Far from being self-deluded, he is a questing individual, turning his back on easy money and the temptations of big city life in order to reinvent himself. He isn’t going to starve and he has no problems with women. And he is perfectly capable of looking after himself.  A more rounded artist would be hard to find. Precisely because there is no sexual relationship with Mirren, the movie, as a film about character development, is ideally balanced.

The movie is gorgeously filmed, with many aerial shots of the reef and underwater photography by Ron and Valerie Taylor.  

What does let the show down is a proliferation of cliched characters who over-act. Jack McGowran as a sponging friend, ruthless seducer and thief heads that list closely followed by Neva Carr-Glynn as Mirren’s grandmother who looks like a reject from a Dickens novel. There’s also a dumb and dumber cop and a neighbor so bent on sex that she falls for McGowran. It’s not the first time comedy has got in the way of art, but it’s a shame it had to interrupt so often what is otherwise a touching film.

At its heart is a portrait of the artist as an older man and his sensitive relationship with a young girl. In later years, Powell married film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and after his death she oversaw the restoration of Age of Consent, with eight minutes added and the Stanley Myers score replaced by the original by Peter Sculthorpe.

Pharaoh/Faraon (1966) ****

I had been familiar with Polish film Pharoah (1966) from a striking cover of British movie magazine Films and Filming and surprised at coming across the film while browsing YouTube I began watching without realizing there were no subtitles. I was so mesmerized by the visuals and the stunning camerawork that I could not stop watching.

There are as many versions of the Jerzy Kawalerowicz picture as director’s cuts of Blade Runner. The original clocked in at three hours. The version given limited showings in European countries was hacked down to under two hours. The DVD released in 2000 is limited to two hours, although the most recent DVD is 25 minutes longer. I suspect it was the latter that had ended up on YouTube since that version runs two hours and twenty-four minutes.  

Advert in Variety (May 4, 1966). Although little seen outside Poland it did well in Rome where it was a “smash” at the box office on the strength of a “sex-baiting campaign promising filmgoers a full dish of screen nudity approved exceptionally by the censors in the name of art” (“Shrew Paces Rome Box Office,” Variety, April 19, 1967, p64).

The story is relatively straightforward. The theme is power. Egypt is in decline when a fictional Rameses XIII (in reality only eleven bore that name) in ascending to power clashes with priests who seek to usurp his rule. That religion dominates Egypt is seen in the opening sequence where, rather than disturb two holy scarabs rolling a ball of clay, the priests take the army en route to battle out of their way. That leads to the destruction of a newly-built and much-needed canal, and the suicide of one of the loin-cloth-clad laborers working on the channel.

But that opening image and the director’s stunning use of the camera as well as the brilliance of the actors in depicting emotion through their eyes and facial expressions makes the film more than accessible despite the lack of sub-titles. This is a different Egypt to that conjured up by Hollywood and such desert-worshippers as David Lean. There is no beauty in a desert. Viewed as a waste, but one in which people have to live, through which foot soldiers have to trudge (rather than gloriously charge on camels), it is a lived-in reality, a great emptiness, devoid of mystery or splendor. The desert is a dead weight. Water is such a visual delight that in a brief scene on the river, the screen is at once bright and wonderful.

Barbara Brylska as the priestess-dancer who seduces Rameses. It is she who appears on the cover of “Films and Filming.”

Glory – temples, pyramids, jewellery – is man-made. But the whole enterprise is naturalistic. Men are bare chested, many clad only in loin cloths, priests are bald while the wealthy are attired in in heavy wigs.   What is not lacking is genuine historical detail. Hollywood had a habit of cherry-picking history for the items that would show up best on camera, but that is not the case here.  

What elevates the film is visual mastery and cinematic flair. Just opening an epic film with two dung beetles having a scrap on an arid plain and holding that image for the best part of a minute suggests a director of considerable talent. He follows this with over a minute of a reverse tracking shot following a soldier running who reveals a waiting army. There are a host of terrific visual scenes – a wild horse is impaled with spears as if in a Spanish bullring, the corpse of the suicidal laborer swings from a noose, cumbersome battles see soldiers surmount arduous dunes, golden doors open one after the other in the palace. 

Even in simple emotional scenes, Kawalerowicz knows where to place the camera and how to use it. The camera follows a woman as she enters a scene. She crouches down to the prostate Rameses. The camera remains on her as she retreats and he comes up to stop her and he remains out of shot as she moves away to the wall where, with her back to him, she begins to wail and then kneels down, hands raised in supplication. Another scene is shot in darkness except for Rameses in a white tunic and a seductress in a transparent dress.

The acting is uniformly good and even though the style is somewhat stilted Jerzy Zelnik as Rameses and the two women in his life, who bear the film’s emotional brunt, Krystyna Mikolajewska as his Jewish mistress and Barbara Brylska as a seductive priestess, are excellent.  Kawalerowicz was best known for Mother Joan of the Angels (1961). Pharaoh was the official Polish entry for the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, up against the far more commercially viable A Man and a Woman from Claude Lelouche (the winner), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde.

Treat the Youtube version as a sampler and if you are impressed you will find below a link to the DVD with Polish voices dubbed into English.

Flight from Ashiya (1964) ***

A post-WW2 operation to save a handful of Japanese adrift at sea in a storm is endangered when three members of the U.S. Air Force Air Rescue Service confront conflicts from their past. Despite tense rescue action, this is basically a three-hander about guilt and how men deal – or fail to deal – with emotions. Extended flashbacks illuminate the tangled relationships between Yul Brynner, Richard Widmark and George Chakiris.

So really it’s like one of those portmanteau films that were occasionally popular – like Trio (1950) made up of Somerset Maugham short stories or the more recent The VIPs (1963) or The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964). Each of the episodes stands up in its own right, actions taken in the past having a direct bearing on the present situation. Chakiris is haunted by causing an avalanche after flying his helicopter too close to a mountain and by having to leave behind many of the victims, due to restricted capacity on board, and now he is terrified of flying solo. 

As a consequence, Widmark has no faith in abilities as a pilot. Widmark has an ongoing hatred of the Japanese – colleague Brynner of Japanese ancestry also bears his wrath – because his ill wife (Shirley Knight) and child died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where medical supplies were reserved for the Japanese. Faced with rescuing Japanese, he is enraged.  For his part, Brynner, as a paratrooper during the war, inadvertently caused  the death of his Algerian girlfriend.

It’s not so much an examination of tough guys under pressure as about their inability to deal with the consequences of action. There’s certainly a sense that the only way men like these have of dealing with trauma is to throw themselves further into harm’s way. Unusually, at a time when product was in short supply and for a film boasting a strong cast, the picture was shelved for two years after completion. Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, 1956) directed.

The title’s a bit of a misnomer, suggesting someone is trying to escape from Ashiya when, in fact, that is just the name of the air base where the rescue team are located. Critics complained it was neither one thing nor the other, but in fact I found it a perfectly satisfactory combination of action and drama, especially as it dealt with rarely-recognised male emotions.

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 Swimmer (1968) *****

Ever since Broadway had produced an elegy to a man broken on the rack of the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hollywood had been searching for an equivalent, but had only managed to come up with tales of men self-destructing through drugs (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955) and alcohol (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962). The Swimmer, with its physical and mental dereliction, filled that void. It was the bravest choice of Burt Lancaster’s career – William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott turned it down –  the athletic prowess that had carried him through a host of films from The Flame and the Arrow (1950) to The Professionals (1966) now virtually redundant.

The final scene when, in the pouring rain, clad only in swimming trunks, he crouches, broken, on the steps of his abandoned house, as if seeking sanctuary in a church, was a stunning image. But it was more than that. Few actors of his generation would have been willing to stoop so low. Yes, the likes of Marlon Brando were often beaten to the point of humiliation (The Chase, 1966), but that was in the course of duty, not in pursuit of the American Dream. That Lancaster, a touchstone to Hollywood virility, the man-god with the dazzling style, was the one to come apart made the drama even more powerful.

The under-rated Frank Perry had struggled to find a footing in Hollywood even after the (minor) success of David and Lisa (1962), but he was one of the few directors willing to tackle the uncommercial subject matter. It was such a troubled production that producer Sam Spiegel, never one to shy away from publicity, did not put his name on it and Sydney Pollack who had directed Lancaster in The Scalphunters (1966) was called in to re-edit the rough cut. Eleanor Perry, the director’s wife, fashioned the script from one of the most acclaimed short stories of all time, by John Cheever.

The story is a simple one. Lancaster plans to swim across the county via the swimming pools of his upmarket neighbors to reach home. At the start he is vigorous, powerful, with a terrific dive and swimming stroke. He names the journey “the Lucinda river” after his wife. But he is like Ebenezer Scrooge, meeting ghosts from his past, facing up to the present, and left with only a desolate future. With each successive visit to a swimming pool, another part of his life unfolds. From the outset we can tell something is wrong – couples exchange odd looks and occasionally he is met with sympathy or hostility, neither of which he comprehends, and persists with a rose-tinted version of his life. And gradually, his physique deserts him and he limps, can’t pull himself effortlessly out of a swimming pool and instead of being warmed by the sun begins to shiver.

Stylistically, the movie begins with the idyllic, a camera tracking through the countryside from Lancaster’s point-of-view, his footsteps on the soundtrack, deer, a rabbit and an owl popping into view. As a counterpoint to long tracking shots of Lancaster trotting down a sunlit avenue of trees, Perry employs the zoom camera (an innovative technique at the time) to go so deeply into his eyes it must pierce his camouflaged soul. Harsher music and slower movement by Lancaster prefigure the onset of dangerous reality. And it is not the end of summer as Lancaster imagines (making reference to flowers or trees) but the beginning of autumn as the drifting leaves show.

By focusing so much on the actor’s physicality – he is never out of swimming trunks – we see at once his strength and his eventual weakness. There is one glorious sequence where he races a horse. In another, he leaps a five-barred fence. This is as the character perceives himself, a triumphant physical specimen.

But what we see, as he is pitifully stripped of dignity, is something else. Scenes that start brightly end ominously. For part of his adventure he is accompanied by former babysitter Julie (Janet Landgard). Initially, this is a picture of lost innocence, a three-minute sequence of Lancaster and Landgard mostly in longshot walking in dappled sunshine through the trees, as if they belong in a fairytale, with their voices detached from the images. But when she professes an adolescent crush (stealing one of his shirts, for example) and he begins to act in overprotective paternal fashion she takes it the wrong way and although nothing untoward occurs it clearly creeps the girl out and makes us realise that Lancaster is living in the past.

The present he could – and should have – enjoyed is tantalizingly all around. Every pool he visits belongs to the rich. There is alcohol aplenty. The houses are fabulous. As well as swimming pools, people own horses. Middle-aged neighbors sit out, ignoring the attractions of the pool, enjoying what their wealth has brought.

It is not a descent into madness for he must already have been unhinged to embark on his excursion but a nightmare that never ends. There is no safety harness for the American Dream. Once you fall, there is nothing to stop the plummet. Nothing left but, to mix the metaphors, swimming on empty.

The Swimmer is on Amazon Prime. Incidentally, there is an excellent documentary, directed by Chris Innis, The Story of the Swimmer (2014)  which you can find on YouTube.

Downhill Racer (1969) ***

Idealising heroes is endemic. Most films which portray sport stars with feet of clay generally start off with an attractive personality who presses the self-destruct button through alcohol, sex or drugs (or all three) such as Number One (1969) with Charlton Heston. The general consensus is that this approach to the sports movie was not rescinded until the brutal boxer exposed in Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980). But it turns out Scorsese was not the first.

Downhill Racer is a character study of a loner who cares for no-one but himself. Alienated from his father, his girlfriend at home treated as little more than a sex object, a constant source of friction for his national team manager (a pre-chuckle Gene Hackman) and not above the kind of dirty tricks as typified in Slap Shot (1977) he sees nothing wrong with making no bones about the fact that he is in the game for fame. He has no illusions, he’s a farm boy and few steps up from being illiterate.

That Paramount had little faith in the project was shown by the Pressbook. It was a mere eight pages long when 16-plus pages were devoted to other pictures. There was no mention of the startling success of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” released a few months before. Its limited appeal was shown by the fact there were only two adverts, both very artistic, whereas most movies had at least half a dozen different variations to help cinemas market the movie to their specific audiences. And there was but a single tag-line “how far must a man go to get from where he’s at.” Studio marketeers had managed to drum up just two promotions, both fashion-led, a six-page section in “Glamour” magazine and five pages in “Ski” magazine. A better bet was the accompanying two-page advertising supplement showing the movie had scored excellent reviews from “Time”, “Life”, “Newsweek” and the “New York Times.”

His only attractive feature is that he is played by Robert Redford, and the film plays upon the conceit that as handsome a man as this will at some point turn into a good guy.  There’s an interesting debate – and one that would last decades – about whether Redford’s looks got in the way of the characters he portrayed. Imagine Robert Duvall in the part, for instance, and relentless determination would not be called into question. This leaves the film with only pity as a way to give the character any sympathy, which duly occurs when his hopes of genuine romance with a top-notch blonde (Camilla Sparv) are dashed. 

Michael Ritchie, making his directing debut, opts for a documentary-style approach, so minimalist it’s almost perfunctory. This is a decent option given there’s very little going on beyond lonely hotel rooms, and an endless round of competitions and an occasional outburst from Hackman. Less welcome is his decision to fall back on television commentators to fill us in on exactly where we are geographically and specifically regarding individual competitions.

The film’s biggest drawback is that the skiing scenes, sensational at the time, offer little on the small screen. But at least they were competently done. Ritchie drew on a number of experts in that department: German racer Heini Schuler, Swiss team members Peter Rohr and Arnold Alpigger and ski instructors Marco Valli and Rudi Gertsch. Former U.S. Olympic team member Rip McManus turns up as an on-camera commentator. Although it gained good reviews, audiences failed to respond although Redford was on a career high after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). But it was a brave choice for the actor.

And it was the start of his producing career. The film had been a stop-start project at Paramount and when the studio continued to dither Redford set up Wildwood with Richard Gregson, husband of Natalie Wood with whom Redford had appeared in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966).

The Lost Continent (1968) ***

Hammer had struck gold revisiting ancient civilizations in One Million Years B.C. (1966) and with its adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (1967). The Lost Continent was another Wheatley number (source novel Uncharted Seas) mixing dangerous voyage, hints of the legendary Atlantis, and monsters. While the first half could have been marketed as The Wages of Fear At Sea the second half would come under the heading  “The Greatest Oddball Film Ever Made.”

It boasts one of the most intriguing setting-the-scene openings not just of a Hammer picture but of any film – a camera pans along a steamship on whose deck are: people dressed in furs, others in modern clothing and – Conquistadors. Attention is focused on a coffin.  How and why they got there is told in flashback. A first half of taut drama, mutiny, sharks, a ferocious octopus, and lost-at-sea a thousand miles from land segues into sci-fi with carnivorous weeds, monsters, and a weird, weird world.

It’s hard to know what’s worse, ship’s captain Eric Porter (straight from television mega-hit The Forsyte Saga) with a cargo of toxic chemicals made combustible when touched by water or the equally combustible passengers all with murky pasts, so determined to escape their previous lives that they refuse to turn back in the face of a hurricane. Heading the Dodgy Half-Dozen is dictator’s mistress Hildegarde Knef  (Catherine of Russia, 1963) with two million dollars in stolen securities and bonds. Nigel Stock (television’s Dr Watson in the 1960s Sherlock Holmes series), a back-street abortionist, is at odds with daughter Suzanna Leigh, who has cornered the market in backless dresses. Tony Beckley (The Penthouse, 1967) plays a conman while Ben Carruthers is trying to recover the pilfered bonds.

But the arrival of cleavage queen Dana Gillespie from the weird world signals a shift to Planet Oddball. The only way to navigate the weeds trapping the ship is with a primitive version of snowshoes with (naturally) balloons attached to the shoulders. Soon they are trapped in the past, not as prehistoric as One Million Years BC, just a few centuries back to the Spanish Conquistador era. The film steals the idea from the Raquel Welch picture of giant creatures locked in battle but without going to the necessity of hiring Ray Harryhausen.

On board ship, director Michael Carreras, fresh from Prehistoric Women (1967), does well, the characters are all solidly presented with decent back stories, the tension mounting as the passengers encounter nautical turbulence, but once he enters weird world budget deficiencies sabotage the picture. Even so, it’s worth a look just to see what you’re missing. If you’re looking for a genuine freak show, this ticks the boxes.

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.