Harlow (1965) ****

In the light of the MeToo movement, this is a salutary tale of tawdry Hollywood. Such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse was as true now as it is then. However, although presented as a biopic it is more pertinently viewed as a “reimagining” of the life of sex goddess Jean Harlow. While taking a few liberties with the truth where the main character is concerned, the rest of it could easily be realistic since we are now only to familiar with the excesses men in any kind of power in Hollywood believed they were entitled.

Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true).

But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s and early 1930s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.

The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.

No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before being rescued by agent Red Buttons. After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she gets a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here, she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.

However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for a studio chief (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/ blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.

But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City

Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script.

In the title role Carroll Baker has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Vallone is the stand-out among a supporting cast that also includes Peter Lawford, Leslie Nielsen and Mike Connors.

Despite the fact that virtually none of the movie is true, I have given it four stars for its realistic portrayal of Hollywood.

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) ***

Despite the title and Hammer’s penchant for the unholy, there is nothing satanical about this picture. Christopher Lee, less cadaverous than in his better-known incarnation as Dracula, plays the captain of ship called Diablo, part of the defeated Spanish Armada, who lands in 1588 on British shores and by convincing the locals that the British have been defeated  imposes an occupation.

Writer (and later director) Jimmy Sangster’s clever premise works, the lord of the manor (Ernest Clark) immediately surrendering and befriending the invaders, most of the villagers succumbing, a few more doughty lads (Andrew Keir and son John Cairney to the fore) rebelling. 

Running alongside its regular horror output, Hammer had a sideline in swashbucklers, the Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1963) – aka The Crimson Blade – preceding this, and all, interestingly, aimed at the general rather than adult market. Australian director Don Sharp, in the first of several teamings with Lee, does extraordinary well with a limited budget. Although the village square was a leftover from The Scarlet Blade, there is a full-size galleon, swamps, fog, floggings, a hanging, fire, chases, a massive explosion, and a number of better-than-average fencing scenes.

In other hands, more time could have been spent exploring the psychology of occupation, but despite that there is enough of a story to keep interest taut. Lee has a high-principled lieutenant who secretly subverts his master’s wishes. Tension is maintained by Lee’s ruthlessness, the efforts of captured women to escape, and attempts to seek outside help. While the intended marketplace meant toning down actual violence, Sharp creates a menacing atmosphere. The final scenes involving sabotage are tremendously well done.

I should acknowledge a vested interest as John Cairney was a distant relative and I do remember as a child being taken to see his previous outing Jason and the Argonauts (19630 but, strangely enough, this one was given a miss by my parents. I wonder if the title put them off.

You can find this for free on the Talking Pictures television channel or on DVD.

Hurry Sundown (1967) *****

Otto Preminger’s drama was the first of a trio of heavyweight films in 1967 – the others being In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – that took African-American issues seriously. In post-war Georgia land-grabbing by ambitious Michael Caine pits him against World War Two vet John Philip Law and African-American farmer Robert Hooks who team up. Throw in a sextet of feisty women – Jane Fonda (Caine’s wife), Faye Dunaway (Law’s wife), schoolteacher Diahann Carroll (Hooks’ love interest), Donnie Banton (Caine’s lover), Beah Richards (Hooks’ mother) and Madeleine Sherwood (Burgess Meredith’s wife) – and you are set for a series of emotional confrontations.

Preminger had spent most of the decade making films about big subjects – Exodus (1960), the politics behind the formation of Israel, Advise and Consent (1962), just politics, and The Cardinal (1964), politics within the Roman Catholic Church

Preminger is both economic and elegant. From opening dialogue to climactic court scene, the picture races along, and continuous use of tracking shots ensures the movie never gets bogged down. While there is no lynching, racist abuse, whether direct or indirect (through patronizing attitude) is never far from the surface. Corrupt judge Burgess Meredith is by far the most vicious, his unrestrained language making you wince. But even those with more measured approaches have to play the game, Law gives a lift to Hooks but has to let him off before they reach town in case anyone spots this, Hooks forbidden, for example, to buy dynamite.

But the racists do not get it all their own way. Jane Fonda, Caine’s wife, stands up to Meredith and her standing in the community is so strong that others boycott Meredith’s daughter’s wedding leading to the judge receiving a tongue-lashing from his wife. Weak sheriff George Kennedy coming to arrest Hooks is bamboozled by his female relatives while  Diahann Carroll charms her way past the judge.

The women are uniformly strong. Fonda goes from seductive wife to distraught mother, but in between capable of defrauding Hooks’ mother, her childhood nanny, out of her inheritance. Her usual shrill delivery is tempered somewhat by the deeper emotions she is forced to bear. Hooks’ wife Dunaway resents his return after in his absence taking on a full-time job while running the farm and now resisting the idea of selling up to Caine. Hooks’ mother, beholden to white men all her life, now turns against them. Donnie Banton (Burgess’s daughter) makes no bones about the fact that she is marrying her “dull” fiancé for his money. This is no spoiler because you will have guessed some similar outcome but at the end it is Carroll who takes the initiative in her relationship with Hooks and  marches into his house with her baggage, declaring she has come to stay.

And although the ruthless Caine is the bad guy, he, too, is afforded insight, soothing himself by playing a musical instrument, a man with talent who had “distracted” himself by pursuit of money. And there is another touching moment when he takes in a runaway child. Acting-wise, Caine is a revelation. Gone is the trademark drawl and the laid- back physical characteristics. Here he talks snappily – and no quibbles with his Southern accent either – and strides quickly. That we can believe he is brutal, gentle, remorseful and ruthless is testament to his performance.

Similarly, this is a massive step forward in Jane Fonda’s career, away from the limp Hollywood comedies and sexed-up French dramas, and her internal conflict springs from being forced to choose between husband and son, between her innate sexiness that oozes out in every intimate scene and maternal longing to comfort her disturbed child. While her attempt to defraud Hooks’ mother comes from a desire to keep her husband, her eyes tell you she knows that is no excuse.

What’s perhaps most surprising of all is the tenderness. There are wonderful, gentle love scenes between Caine and Fonda and Law and Dunaway.

Children, too, also unusually, play a central role. Caine’s callousness is no better demonstrated than in his earlier treatment of his son. Law’s eldest son also resents his father’s return and, viewing Caine as a more suitable adult, betrays his father. Burgess Meredith is obliged to drop one of the worst aspects of his racism in order to appease his daughter.  

The acting throughout is uniformly good. Dunaway’s debut won her a six-picture contract with Preminger which she quickly wriggled out of. Singer Diahann Carroll’s role as a confident young woman led to a television series. Robert Hooks would also enjoy small-screen fame. The surprisingly effective John Philip Law would partner Fonda in sci-fi Barbarella (1968) and link up with Preminger again in the ill-fated Skidoo (1969).

Unfairly overlooked by Oscar votes, who preferred the other Poitier films, Hurry Sundown, despite the rawness of the language and the innate brutality meted out to African-Americans, has been vastly under-rated. It is worth another look because at its core is not just racism but big business which scarcely cares about the color of those it exploits. It is as much about the power shift in relationships and ambition.  

The DVD below plays in all regions and without subtitles.

Interlude (1968) ****

Kevin Billington’s debut benefitted from a brief fad for classical music soundtracks, Elvira Madigan kicking off the fashion the year before, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which opened at the same time as Interlude trumping everything in sight. And as luck would have it, this was not the only movie about an orchestra conductor, Counterpoint with Charlton Heston released in America a couple of months before this one opened in Britain.

What makes the movie so enjoyable is that overlaying the sumptuous love story is the angst of a mistress. It’s sweetly set in wonderful British locations, riverside inns, olde worlde hotels, trendy restaurants, a few flashes of swinging London, luxurious mansions. The solid backdrop for something as fragile as romance.

There could not be two more opposites to attract, the rich Oskar Werner (Jules and Jim, 1962) in full-on arrogant mode, all dark glasses and leather gloves with enough petulance to sink a barge, and journalist Barbara Ferris (off screens since the lamentable Catch Us If You Can three years before) who lives in a bedsit with a goldfish called Rover. He drives a Rolls-Royce convertible, she a Mini. 

There are some very good touches. We first see the characters in mirrors. He plays a “concerto for wine glass and index finger.” There is the very serious British business of whether milk goes in first to a cup of tea.

The screenplay by Lee Langley and Irish playwright Hugh Leonard is sharp and often witty.  “I want to marry you,” says Ferris, before conceding, “I just don’t want to be your wife.” There is clear realization of the nature of his personality in her remark, “Instead of being what you want, I’ll be what you’ve got.”

Even when emotion is expressed there is a feeling that a lot is still suppressed. Ferris goes from high excitement to high dudgeon and carries within the seed of fear, a character who spends as much time in terror as in love. This is exacerbated when she spots of Werner’s wife, stoically played by Virginia Maskell, at the hairdressers and “all of the sudden” the wife who has existed in her imagination “has a face.”

John Cleese and Donald Sutherland have decent cameos, the former in a bit of an in-joke as a PR man wanting to get into comedy (“satire – that’s my field”), the latter as the womanizing brother of Werner’s wife.

Oddly enough, the music – Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Dvorak, Brahms and Rachmaninov – acts in the same manner as Easy Rider the following year, as extensive interludes to the developing drama. Perhaps it is where Dennis Hopper got the idea.

It is very rounded for a romance, the acting excellent and the undernote of despair well-wrought.

I caught it for free on Talking Pictures TV, but I’m not sure how often it is being scheduled. Otherwise, here’s the DVD link.

The Chase (1966) *****

Arthur Penn’s movie came with a lot of baggage. Notwithstanding that he was in need of redemption – he was fired from The Train (1964) and Mickey One (1965) had flopped – he virtually disowned The Chase a week before it opened, denouncing Hollywood in the media, complaining that films were being made by committee. Producer Sam Spiegel was desperate to prove he could make big pictures without David Lean, who had decamped to Carlo Ponti and MGM for Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the knives were out, as always by this point, for Marlon Brando.

So it’s quite astonishing that the finished picture carries such visceral power. It’s a rich, meaty movie, part drama, part thriller, part social comment. Thematically it covers racism, power, adultery, civic apathy, injustice and integrity. At the same time it’s action-driven and the acting from a stunning cast is uniformly excellent. Theoretically, covering so much ground, it should be all over the place.

But three elements keep it grounded. The first is Lillian Hellman’s screenplay. Only using the bare bones of the source material (Horton Foote’s novel and play), she creates a fabulous intermeshed canvas wherein every character no matter how small has an integral part to play. As Coppola would do later with The Godfather she employs the device of large gatherings (two parties, in fact, one for the rich and one for the lower classes) to expose frailties. The second is Brando, in a thoughtful performance, as an ex-farmer who despises the people he represents and battles to maintain bis integrity. And third is Penn’s classical direction. Regardless of the interference he detected, nobody told him where to point the camera. It is noticeable that characters are often centered on the screen, rather than the more arty off-center compositions gaining in popularity. This creates an onscreen equality.

Basically, the narrative revolves around a small Texan town’s reaction to the return of escaped prisoner Robert Redford, now wanted for a murder he did not commit, which both brings the past to light and exposes existing tensions within the community. That Redford takes a good while to return allows those tensions to gently simmer. By the time he does the town is at fever pitch.

Redford’s wife Jane Fonda fears her affair with millionaire’s son James Fox will be discovered.  Timid banker Robert Duvall fears Redford discovering that he was initially imprisoned for a crime Duvall committed. Duvall’s sexy wife Janice Rule taunts him with her adultery. Redford’s mother Miriam Hopkins fears further humiliation.

Adding further bile to the proceedings are Bruce Cabot as Fonda’s venomous stepfather, real estate manager and gossip-monger Henry Hull who preys on adversity, and Rule’s lover Richard Bradford who drums up racial hatred against Redford’s friend African-American Joel Flueller.

The incorruptible Brando is faced with keeping the lid on a number of potential explosions.

Hellman’s script and Penn’s empathetic direction prevent it from falling to a swamp of melodrama. All of Miriam Hopkins’ maternal despair is captured in one shot of her sitting on a stool. Millionaire E.G. Marshall is building a local college so “young men do not have to leave here like my son.” The poor Fonda and rich Fox are genuinely in love but she holds it against him that he married someone else (of his own class) first while she waited “all those bad years.” When Brando imprisons Flueller for his own protection, he lets him find his own way to the cell and trusts him to lock himself up.

And there is an ample wit. A drunk confronts Brando with “the taxpayers of this town pay your salary to protect this place.” Brando’s response: “If anything happens to you, we’ll give you a refund.”

And I’ve not even mentioned Redford. While relegated to dipping in and out of the story to keep tension high, this is a memorable turn. Martha Hyer is estimable an alcoholic wife while Angie Dickinson extends her acting credentials with an untypical role as a domesticated wife.

John Barry’s score, dismissed by the Variety critic as having “no particular theme that lingers in the ear,” is in fact it is a triumphant piece of work, with a central melody that is in turn jarring and romantic.   

But it is Penn who brings home the bacon, bringing together a disparate tale in fine style, drawn tight to a stunning conclusion, and proving he had a mastery of both style and material that would stand him in good stead for his next picture Bonnie and Clyde.

I was lucky enough to catch this for free on Talking Pictures. It might come round again on this free channel. If not, or if you can’t wait, it’s well worth investing in a DVD. 

The Family Way (1966) ****

Nudity was not an option for previous child stars attempting to make the leap into adult roles. Shirley Temple in the 1930s and Margaret O’Brien in the 1940s were kids when they played kids and when they outgrew their cuteness audiences were indifferent.

Being older when playing younger characters increased the chances of career survival. Silent movie superstar Mary Pickford was 22 when she first tackled child heroine Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and 30 for the remake and she made an absolute fortune from these kinds of roles. Judy Garland was 17 when The Wizard of Oz (1939) appeared and managed another 15 years at the top before drugs and drink took their toll, still worthy of supporting roles after A Star Is Born (1954) and even star billing in her last film I Could Go On Singing (1963). But she was fired from Valley of the Dolls (1967), ironically enough given the film’s subject matter, due to alcohol and drug dependency.

Hayley Mills was 14 when her first Disney picture Pollyanna (1960) was released and for the next five years at that studio never played anyone approaching her true age. She was protected from studio abuse because this was Disney and because her father was actor John Mills, who often appeared in her movies. When the Disney contract ended, Sky, West and Crooked (1966), her father’s directorial debut, attempted to refashion her screen persona with a more challenging role.

But The Family Way forced audiences to set aside all preconceptions. Not only did she show her naked derriere, but this was a film essentially about sex. No sex is actually shown because  newly-weds Mills and Hywel Bennett have not consummated their marriage. You can thank the Carry On films for the snigger-snigger British mindset to sex. The promiscuous and often predatory characters of Darling (1965) and Alfie (1965) occupied a different world, almost a foreign country as far as the inhabitants of this solid working-class town were concerned. They would have looked askance at such permissiveness. Here, at this particular point in history, both sexes were still expected to be virgins when they married. Sex in Darling (1965) and Alfie (1966), for example, carries little emotional overtones. The Family Way is novel in treating sex as fundamental to happiness within marriage.

The subject of impotence would not be first on your list when you set out to make a warm-hearted drama. But here screenwriter Bill Naughton (Alfie) in adapting his play All in Good Time uses the theme to explore family values. But where recrimination – and subsequent confrontation – might be the first port of call for another writer, Naughton foregoes that obvious route to concentrate on the way impotence eats at a man’s self-worth. Two secrets drive the plot but the second is preserved right to the end, resulting in possibly the most moving finale you will ever watch.

The happy couple before life gets in the way.

In documenting working-class life it is superior to the earlier Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). It is life without inbuilt bitterness. Families are still crammed into small houses, a visit to the housing department an invitation to humiliation, but there is full employment and enjoyment to be found in simple pleasures.

Family dynamics are expertly explored. Bennett, with a shelf load of books and penchant for classical music, is diametrically opposed to his down-to-earth but exceptionally obtuse father John Mills, and there is a wonderful scene early on where Bennett seeing how badly his father takes defeat allows him to win an arm-wrestling competition. Mills is the standout, devoted to the memory of a long-departed childhood pal and struggling with his position as patriarch especially in the face of perennial sniping by wife Marjorie Rhodes. Mills is wonderful doing nothing, a face so expressive of longing and emotion, and it is he who has the heart-breaking final scene. The older characters are fully rounded, bluff exteriors concealing fragile emotion. Hard-faced Rhodes appears almost fey when she recalls a moment of love. Hayley Mill’s burly father (John Comer) cannot cope with her departure from his household, especially as that leaves him at the mercy of his shrewish wife (stand-up comedienne Avril Angers).

Hywel Bennett begins a successful movie career with a difficult part, an introspective role calling for him to contain his emotions – not venting his spleen like the endlessly complaining Arthur Seaton of Saturday Night – until they erupt in a spectacular fist fight that does not go at all the way you would expect.

John Mills (the star’s real-life father) and Marjorie Rhodes as the parents of Hywel Bennett.

Barry Foster (later television’s Van de Valk) has the showy part as the rough-edged  workmate and Murray Head (later part of the love triangle in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, 1971) also makes his debut in an equally showy role as Bennett’s brother who makes advances to his frustrated sister-in-law.

Even without the nudity, Hayley Mills, the denoted star, makes the transition to movie adulthood with ease. In part, all she had to do was drop the unnatural excitement that appeared essential to her Disney portfolio. Her delivery, her reading of a line, had always been good and she had clearly worked out she was going to be an actress not a sex symbol so there was no exaggerated use of her physicality.

Even the nudity worked in her favour, startled to be disturbed emerging from a bath, genuinely shy, not the mock-shy or revelling in her naked state that was de rigeur in Hollywood. She was also helped by being a light foil to the brooding, gloomy Bennett, her natural bright personality, while affected by their problem, still capable of enjoying harmless pleasures. .

This was a distinct change of pace for the fraternal producer-directing team John and Roy Boulting, stalwarts of British production since the 1940s with a host of well-regarded dramas and comedies, often with Peter Sellers, to their name.  Generally, they took turns about in the director’s chair – the former putting his name to thriller Brighton Rock (1948) and comedies Lucky Jim (1957)  and I’m Alright, Jack (1959), the latter claiming credit for drama Fame Is the Spur (1947), thriller Run for the Sun (1956) and comedy A French Mistress (1960). Occasionally, they shared the directing chore as with thriller Seven Days to Noon (1950), comedy Heavens Above (1963) and in this contemporary drama.

Their approach to The Family Way went against the grain of the gritty working-class dramas in the vein of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life (1962). Nobody here has a job they hate or comes home covered in grime. In fact, since the central thrust (pardon the pun) of the movie is about pleasure (sexual, that is), it is set against a background of enjoyment. Both principals have jobs in entertainment, Bennett an assistant projectionist in a cinema, Hayley Mills working in a record store and also seen at a disco and a motocross event. Alcohol plays a role, of course, but not to the extent of over-indulgence, not drinking yourself to oblivion like Arthur Seaton, and its main purpose is to present the father as an amiable host.

What impact the burgeoning affair between Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting (33 years her senior) had on the production is anyone’s guess but possibly it helped steady the star’s nerves when it came to the nude scene. From today’s perspective, the nudity appears gratuitous. And certainly back then it was shocking, ensuring an X-certificate (although the subject matter probably already guaranteed that).

Actually, it was social comment. While living in a decent-enough house, the family lacked one particular amenity – an indoor toilet. Washing took place at a communal sink or in the privacy of a bedroom with a bowl of water. A bath was a mobile unit, a zinc item dragged out of the scullery into the living room, filled with endless pots or kettles of hot water. But for a young woman to take a bath demanded privacy. So when Hayley Mills is interrupted in her ablutions, males and females in the audience had opposite reactions. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that males simply enjoyed the sight of the naked posterior. Women, on the other hand, would wince. Aversion to nudity may have played a part but more likely women would feel deeply the humiliation at the lack of privacy in such a household, that someone could come upon you at your most vulnerable at any time. Sure, nothing went hidden in such houses, the sounds of any activity would carry through walls, but such a deep personal activity as exposure while taking a bath said far more about the brutal congestion of family life than jokes about hearing someone urinating into a container in the next room.

Paul McCartney contributed a very hummable melody as part of his debut movie score.

American audiences did not respond so well to Hayley Mills’ emergence as an adult actor and the movie failed to click at the box office there. But by that point it was already in profit, a runaway British hit (among the top twelve films of the year) and set the female star up for an adult career, pointed Hywel Bennett in the right direction and gave John Mills one of his most memorable turns.  And very entertaining and enjoyable with terrific acting.

The Southern Star (1969) ***

There’s a surprisingly good movie here once you strip out the cliché jungle stuff and the racist elements. The diamond of the title is actually a MacGuffin, just enough to get you started on two parallel tales of revenge.

George Segal is a mining engineer-cum-adventurer and Ursula Andress, daughter of mine owner Harry Andrews, as far from the traditional jungle heroine (except in one regard) as you could get. She saves him from crocodiles, rescues him from jail and quicksand, swims across a hippo-infested river and is a better shot than him (or anybody for that matter) with a rifle. This is female empowerment with a vengeance.

Suspected of stealing the diamond, he is hunted by ranger Ian Hendry, Segal’s love rival, who intends to win Ms Andress back using the simple expedient of killing the thief. Lying in wait is all-purpose rogue Orson Welles who seeks revenge on Hendry. The second unit had a whale of time filming anything that moved –  lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, monkeys, antelopes, the aforementioned hippos and crocodiles and what looked like a cobra – and at one point everything does move in coordinated fashion if you can call a stampede coordinated.

But the main focus is an Ursula Andress who constantly confounds Segal’s sexist expectations. Docility is her disguise. Anytime she appears to be doing what she’s told you can be sure she’s planning the opposite. While Segal does have his own specific set of jungle skills, he often looks a fool. But they do make a good screen partnership and their dialogue is lively.

Hollywood spent millions of dollars trying to create screen chemistry between various stars and although it seemed to work very well in the industry’s golden age with Clark Gable and any number of MGM female stars, Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn and I guess you could chuck John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara into that particular mix, the formula seemed to have gone awry by the 1960s discounting the Doris Day/Rock Hudson combo, big budget romances like El Cid (1961) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and an occasional home run with whomever Cary Grant was romancing on screen. So it was usually hit-or-miss whether any sparks flew between the stars.

Andress had certainly been a European femme fatale par excellence as seen in Dr No (1962) and The Blue Max (1966), but it was certainly not a given that she would more than hold her own for an entire picture. Segal was nobody’s idea of a romantic leading man although the notion had been given a tryout in The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No (1968) with Virna Lisi. But here the whole enterprise works in an It Happened One Night vein with the supposedly superior male recognizing that perhaps his companion was more than a match.

Harry Andrews and Orson Welles both try to steal the picture, with polar opposite characterizations, Andrews loud and menacing, Welles soft and menacing. You can tell Scottish director Sidney Hayers (The Trap, 1966) was an editor because he cuts for impact and mostly does an efficient job of sticking to the story. Supposedly, Orson Welles directed his own scenes, but that might be to make sure he got to hog the camera. He has enough choice lines and bits of business to keep him happy and gives his venomous character a camp edge.

The casual, incipient, racism is harder to ignore. It is both verbal and physical with Johnny Sekka, Segal’s buddy, who actually has the diamond, bearing the brunt and being brutally whipped.

Despite my reservations, this is well constructed and keeps one step ahead of audience expectation with plenty twists to subvert those, although the music by Johnny Dankworth gets in the way, offering musical cues opposite to what is required.

As it is a jungle picture there is the obligatory heroine’s bathing scene – and to balance the books on that score Segal does whip off his shirt at one point. Except for the clichés, it would have gone higher in my estimation for by and large it is well done and Andress is once again (see The Blue Max) a revelation.   

Genghis Khan (1965) ****

Hollywood was never reined in by the strictures of history, much preferring fiction to fact for dramatic effect, and that’s largely the case here, although the titular hero’s real life remains shrouded in myth.

If you do catch this surprisingly good feature, make sure it’s not one of the many pan-and-scan atrocities on the market. I watched this in the proper Panavision ratio which meant it occupied only one-third of my television screen, but in that format it’s terrific. It’s a bit of an anomaly for a decade that churned out high-class historical epics like El Cid (1961) because this clocks in about a hour short of other films in the genre and there’s no star actor or director to speak of and no Yakima Canutt to handle the second unit action scenes.

Omar Sharif’s marquee value at this point was so low that if you check out any of the original posters you’ll note that his name hardly rates a mention and he also comes at the very end of the opening screen credits. Although this is post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it’s pre-Doctor Zhivago (1965), suggesting nobody had a clue how to market his talents.

Director Henry Levin was a journeyman, fifty films under his belt, best known for not a great deal except for, following this, the second and third in the Matt Helm spy series. Given this film was critically ignored on release and since, and a flop to boot, it definitely falls into the “Worth a Look” category. Although there are few stand-out scenes of the artistic variety such as pepper Lawrence of Arabia or El Cid, this is still well put together and Levin shows an aptitude for the widescreen.

The narrative breaks down into three parts – the first section describing Sharif’s enslavement by nemesis Stephen Boyd (the picture’s star according to poster and screen credits) before banding together rival tribes in revolt, the second part a long trek to China, and the third encompassing a final battle and hand-to-hand combat with Boyd. For a two-hour picture it has tremendous sweep, not just the scenery and the battle scenes, but political intrigue, romance, a rape scene and even clever comedy. Sharif is excellent as a leader who believes his glory is predestined, but who has very modern ideas about the role of women.

The best section, oddly enough, is set in China where Sharif engages in a duel of wits with Robert Morley’s distinctively contradictory emperor, but that’s not to detract from the film’s other qualities, the action brilliantly handled, especially the chaos of battle, the romance touching, and the dialogue intelligent and often epigrammatic. Unlike James Mason who makes a calamitous attempt at a Chinese accent, Morley, costume apart, looks as if he has just walked out of an English country house, but his plummy tones belie a very believable character. Telly Savalas and Woody Strode have decent parts as Sharif’s sidekicks, the former unexpectedly bearing the brunt of the film’s comedy. French actress Francoise Dorleac is effective as Sharif’s wife.

Hitchcock stole one of his most famous ideas from Genghis Khan. About the only scene in Torn Curtain (1966) to receive universal praise was a killing carried out to a soundtrack of nothing more than the grunts of assailant and victim. But, here, where the score by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic was extensively employed, the rape scene is silent and just as stunning. If the only prints widely available are of the pan-and-scan variety I’m not surprised the film has been for so long overlooked, but if you can get hold of one in the preferred format you will be in for a surprise.      

Blow-Up (1966)***

Movies can break all sorts of rules but they can’t cheat.

A film has to stick to an internal logic. For example, it can’t portray a photographer so obsessed with his calling that he even takes a camera with him to an antique shop and starts shooting off roll and after roll capturing the area’s rundown streets but then the one time he really could do with a camera – to prove there is a corpse at his feet – he is somewhat remiss. Especially when the movie turns on that plot point.

Setting aside what’s a somewhat contrived snapshot of “Swinging London” there’s a lot to admire here. The absence of music for one thing. Most of the movie runs without musical accompaniment, a bold move since so often we rely on the soundtrack to provide guidance for a scene or an overlay for the entire film. Here, Antonioni makes us falls back on our own interpretation.

David Hemmings, all mop-top and intense stare, is a high-flying high-living fashion photographer in the David Bailey mold (casual sex with wannabe models a perk) who turns investigator on being confronted in a park by Vanessa Redgrave after taking snaps she wants back. Tension is sustained by her sudden appearance at his studio, willing to pay with her body for the return of the photos, and then by Hemmings’ careful, photo-by-photo blow-up-by-blow-up analysis that slowly comes closer to the truth.

Everything in his world is judged through a lens, as if he can capture elusive truths, and he has aspirations to being more than a mere fashion adjunct, having spent time taking portraits of down-and-outs. He judges Redgrave as he would a model, she has a good stance and sitting posture. Even by the standards of the permissive society, he is a bit of sexual predator, taking advantage of two giggly model wannabes.

But the photography scenes are well done and Antonioni captures the intimacy between model and photographer that create the best images. If you can get past the cheat and the deliberate obtuseness this creates – and the tsunami of artistic interpretations it inspired about the director’s intent – then it remains intriguing.

This isn’t Hemmings’ greatest work – Fragment of Fear is much better – but it certainly provided him with a marketable movie persona. Redgrave is excellent as the nervy woman willing to do what is required and the movie might have worked better had she had been allocated more screen time and their duel had continued through other scenes. But then that would have been Hitchcock and not Antonioni.   I’d have given it a higher score except for the cheat.

Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) has none of the truculence of the ordinary rebel, consequence not part of his vocabulary, “it seemed a good idea at the time” his unfailing mantra.

Outside of Butch Cassidy, a more amiable criminal you would struggle to find. He defies authority with a smirk, indiscriminate in opposing the system, whether devised by guards or prisoners and they are indiscriminate in return, swiftly punishing anyone who steps out of line.

First-time director Stuart Rosenberg’s meditation on martyrdom remains an iconic curiosity and one of a handful of great performances that showcase Paul Newman’s immense acting skills. It is about ten minutes too long, unremitting sequences of lorries travelling to and from work detail, in the morning or at night, and the work itself, way too repetitive, suggests a director who did not quite trust his audience to get it.

In a prison movie, the main narrative is always escape, but Luke is as much trying to escape from himself as his circumstances. There is a self-pitying aspect in him blaming God for making him the way he is. But beyond these gripes it remains an astonishing and involving work.

This is a world reduced to a single common denominator – brutality. For a man who loathes rules, this is hell.

While no other character apart from Dragline (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role) and the Warden (Strother Martin in one of his best mean roles) is given much to do, nonetheless the rest of the cast do not merge into the background, facial expressions and tiny actions revealing character.  

There are a number of terrific scenes – Newman refusing to give in when beaten to a pulp in a boxing match, the egg-eating contest, the digging-the-hole method of destroying a man’s spirit, the guard bewailing the death of his dog. But the movie also examines the universal need for hero worship, Dragline’s bewilderment when Luke eventually fails to live up to expectation is affecting.

Two other aspects stand out. With every prisoner in the same uniform and the countryside bleak and undistinguished, Conrad Hall’s cinematography is miraculous while Lalo Schifrin’s score, with the wonderfully evocative simple theme, is continuously inventive. As definitive an examination of the outsider as the later Easy Rider.