The Interns (1962) ***

Patients are a nuisance to be tolerated on the route to wealth in this superior soap opera that sees young doctors wrestling with ambition and ethics. Although also concluding that impending lofty status will snare them an attractive bride, they find women less biddable than expected, romance proving the trickiest of all procedures.

The main cast of four men and one women are played by a roster of hotly-tipped newcomers, including future Oscars winners and nominees and the elusive Haya Harareet (The Secret Partner, 1961). Director David Swift, accustomed to handling multiple characters in the likes of Pollyanna (1961), keeps the pot boiling and although some storylines lead to obvious conclusions the screenwriters bring sufficient imagination to the various strands.

The story unfolds over the one year the doctors spend in a general hospital, where the patients are liable to be drunk and obstreperous, before taking up residencies elsewhere. As you might expect, the main characters divide into the good and the arrogant. Heading the latter are Alec Considine (Michael Callan) who cheats on girlfriend Mildred (Anne Helm) with older nurse Vicky (Katharine Baird) in order to gain through her connections a residency at a highly prestigious hospital. Matching him in the cocky stakes is John Paul Otis (Cliff Robertson), charming to old ladies but willing to risk his career to bed movie actress Lisa (Suzy Parker). The good guys are Lew Worship (James MacArthur) who is seduced into the supposed backwaters of obstetrics and Sid Lackland (Nick Adams), an all-round good egg who falls for patient Loara (Ellen Davalos).

The most interesting of the young doctors, however, is single mother Madolyn Bruckner  (Haya Harareet) who takes on surgeon Dominic Riccio (Telly Savalas) at every turn. Riccio spends his time berating his charges and in particular has a downer on female doctors. At every encounter, despite his vicious tongue, she refuses to back down.

But it is the patients, in particular Arnold Auer (Peter Brocco) and Loara, who blow a hole in the myth of hospitals. In the best scene in the film, Auer, suffering from a degenerative illness that will turn him into a vegetable, takes over from the doctor in giving his own awful diagnosis. His pleas for clemency from his ordeal, in essence assisted suicide, create an ethical dilemma for the young doctors who did not realize that modern medicine would prolong rather than curtail patient suffering. Auer’s anguished wife Emma (Angela Clarke) flits in and out of the picture as she buttonholes any doctor willing to listen to a new cure she has discovered. While the more hard-hearted doctors can inure themselves to his agony, a savage turn of events finds them all caught up in a situation that could jeopardize their future careers.

Racy image of Olga (Carroll Harrison) adorns the cover of the soundtrack album with music by triple-Oscar-nominee Leith Stevens (“The Five Pennies,” 1959).

Although Loara has an incurable disease and has more or less given up, Lackland’s effervescent good humor and determination that surgery can resolve all health issues brings her hope. If you were in her condition possibly the last thing you would want would be a cheerleading doctor on your side, but in this instance it brings succor and in the doctor’s case forces him to rethink his priorities.

Probably the last thing the doctors – and the audience – expected was to come up against such stubborn free-thinking women. While Bruckner appears to fly the flag for female independence, she has solid support from Lisa who spends most of the picture rejecting Otis’s advances on the grounds that even when he becomes rich he will be too poor for her liking. Eventually, Vicky forces Considine to choose. Shy nurse Gloria (Stefanie Powers) shocks Worship by putting global travel ahead of marriage. But she’s not as shocking as the bespectacled inhibited Olga (Carroll Harrison) who makes a spectacle of herself by losing her inhibitions in flamboyant style at a wild New Year’s Eve party, her disheveled state a key element of promotional artwork.

Although, theoretically, a film about young doctors having a romp, in reality it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking picture, tackling issues that would have been taboo at the time and removing the submissive tag that daunted most movie female characters in the movies.

Those who succeeded in later winning Oscar favor were Cliff Robertson, Best Actor for Charly (1968), and Nick Adams and Telly Savalas, both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the former in Twilight of Honor (1963) and the latter in The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Robertson was the pick of the bunch, a star in his own right graduating from 633 Squadron (1964) and Masquerade (1965) to J.W. Coop (1971) which he also directed. But largely, the stars did not fulfil initial promise. The peak of Michael Callan’s movie career was reprising his role in The New Interns (1964), star in British director Michael Winner’s You Must Be Joking! (1965) and second male lead in Cat Ballou (1965). James MacArthur had a steady movie career before an epic run in television series Hawaii Five-O (1968-1979). Nick Adams switched between film and television before his premature death in 1968.  Haya Harareet made only one more film, The Last Charge (1962).

Although primarily in television, the less-heralded stars enjoyed greater ongoing success. Mainly a strong supporting actor, Telly Savalas had only one stab at a starring role (Land Raiders, 1970) before achieving worldwide fame as Kojak (1973-1978).  Stefanie Powers was television’s The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-1967) and later Hart to Hart (1979-1984). Buddy Ebsen (who plays the older Dr Sidney Wohl) went straight into a nine-year run of The Beverley Hillbillies

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) *****

Steve McQueen had little trouble identifying with this role. He was the Hollywood contender, trying to knock current kingpin Paul Newman off his perch, and in Norman Jewison’s tense, often heart-stopping, drama he has the ideal vehicle. For the most part this is a winner-take-all face-off, as much a showdown as any western shootout, in darkened rooms under the harsh light of a New Orleans poker table between a rising star always referred to as The Kid (Steve McQueen) and the unofficial world champion, the urbane cigar-smoking Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson).

Broadened out in the initial stages to include scenic diversions – the Mississippi at dawn, a cockfight, some jazz – plus romance and intrigue, this is essentially pure sport, a game of stares, where bluff holds the ace and women exist on the perimeter only to fill in the time before the next hyped-up encounter. There’s no trophy to be won, not even glory, just the right to call yourself “The Man.” The Kid feels the pressure of punching above his weight, Lancey of getting old.

Farmer’s daughter and arty-wannabe Christian (Tuesday Weld) is the Kid’s main squeeze until she gets between him and his game. When she takes off, he makes do with Melba (Ann-Margret), girlfriend of dealer Shooter (Karl Malden) who was somewhat preoccupied with giving the Kid more than a helping hand to satisfy the vengeful Slade (Rip Torn), a rich businessman.

Although it finally comes down to a confrontation between the Kid and Lancey, subordinate characters like sweating poker player Pig (Jack Weston) and stand-in dealer Ladyfingers (Joan Blondell) help dissipate the tension. But in fact anything that occurs only seems to increase the tension as it comes down to the one big final hand. 

This is McQueen (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) in transition, from the loner in The Great Escape (1963) to an actor exuding charisma and on top of his acting game. While on the face of it little more than a sporting lug, the Kid is an appealing character, engaging with a little shoeshine boy, winning over Christian’s truculent parents with what appears a card trick but is actually a demonstration of the phenomenal memory necessary to excel in his chosen field. There’s a winsome child in there among the macho persona. The poker face that McQueen developed would become one of his acting traits over the years.

Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves, 1960) gives a rounded performance as the reigning poker champ accepting emotional loss as the price for all his financial gains. Tuesday Weld is an appealing waif. Karl Malden (Pollyanna, 1960) essays another tormented soul and Rip Torn (Judas in King of Kings, 1961) a sleazy one. Also look out for a host of great character actors including Jack Weston (Mirage, 1965), Oscar nominee Joan Blondell (Advance to the Rear, 1964) and Jeff Corey (Once a Thief, 1965) plus composer and bandleader Cab Calloway.

Ann-Margret, all eye-shadow and cleavage, is in her best man-eater form. But, thankfully, there is more to her character than that. It is unclear whether she simply latches on to a potential winner or is pimped out by Shooter, but just hooking up with that older man (i.e. Shooter) makes her interesting, since looks are far from his attraction. Her ruthlessness is spelled out in simple fashion. She is determined to win, cheating at solitaire and she slams the wrong pieces into a jigsaw just for the satisfaction of making it look complete. You can sense a depth in this character which the film does not have time to fully explore.

Although often compared to The Hustler (1962), and in many eyes considered both its inferior and a crude rip-off, this is in some respects a greater achievement. At least in The Hustler, there actually was action, players moving around a pool table, clacking balls racing across the surface.  Poker is all about stillness. Any gesture could give away your thoughts. Unlike any other sport, poker requires silence. There is no roaring crowd, just people dotted round the room, some with vested interest if only through a wager, some wanting to say they were there when a champion was toppled.

So the ability to maintain audience interest with two guys just staring at each other, interspersed with minimal dialog, takes some skill. Building that to a crescendo of sheer tension is incredible.

The first four pictures of Canadian director Norman Jewison (Send Me No Flowers, 1964) did not hint at the dramatic chops, confidence, composure and understanding of pacing required, especially as he was a last-minute replacement for Sam Peckinpah, to pull this off. That he does so with style demonstrated a keen and versatile talent that would come to the boil in his next three films: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).  

The former blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. (Tracy-Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, 1942) was credited with his first screenplay since The Forbidden Street in 1949 and he shared the chore with another iconic figure, Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964), basing their work on the original novel by Richard Jessup. Not sure who contributed the classic line: “Read ’em and weep.” Mention should be made of a terrific score by Lao Schifrin.

Two for the Road (1967) ***

This film had everything. The cast was pure A-list: Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) and Oscar nominee Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963). The direction was in the capable hands of Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966), working with Hepburn again after the huge success of thriller Charade (1963). The witty sophisticated script about the marriage between ambitious architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and teacher wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) unravelling over a period of a dozen years had been written by Frederic Raphael, who had won the Oscar for his previous picture, Darling (1965). Composer Henry Mancini was not only responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – for which he collected a brace of Oscars – but also Charade and Arabesque. And the setting was France at its most fabulous.

So what went wrong? You could start with the flashbacks. The movie zips in and out of about half a dozen different time periods and it’s hard to keep up. We go from the meet-cute to a road trip on their own and another with some irritating American friends to Finney being unfaithful on his own and then Hepburn caught out in a clandestine relationship and finally the couple making a stab at resolving their relationship. I may have got mixed up with what happened when, it was that kind of picture.

A linear narrative might have helped, but not much, because their relationship jars from the start. Mark is such a boor you wonder what the attraction is. His idea of turning on the charm is a Humphrey Bogart imitation. There are some decent lines and some awful ones, but the dialogue too often comes across as epigrammatic instead of the words just flowing. It might have worked as a drama delineating the breakdown of a marriage and it might have worked as a comedy treating marriage as an absurdity but the comedy-drama mix fails to gel.

It’s certainly odd to see a sophisticated writer relying for laughs on runaway cars that catch fire and burn out a building or the annoying whiny daughter of American couple Howard (William Daniels) and Cathy (Eleanor Bron) and a running joke about Mark always losing his passport.

And that’s shame because it starts out on the right foot. The meet-cute is well-done and for a while it looks as though Joanna’s friend Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) will hook Mark until chicken pox intervenes. But the non-linear flashbacks ensure that beyond Mark overworking we are never sure what caused the marriage breakdown. The result is almost a highlights or lowlights reel. And the section involving Howard and Cathy is overlong. I kept on waiting for the film to settle down but it never did, just whizzed backwards or forwards as if another glimpse of their life would do the trick, and somehow make the whole coalesce. And compared to the full-throttle marital collapse of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) this was lightweight stuff, skirting round too many fundamental issues.

It’s worth remembering that in movie terms Finney was inexperienced, just three starring roles and two cameos to his name, so the emotional burden falls to Hepburn. Finney is dour throughout while Hepburn captures far more of the changes their life involves. Where he seems at times only too happy to be shot of his wife, she feels more deeply the loss of what they once had as the lightness she displays early on gives way to brooding.

Hepburn as fashion icon gets in the way of the picture and while some of the outfits she wears, not to mention the sunglasses, would not have been carried off by anyone else they are almost a sideshow and add little to the thrust of the film.

If you pay attention you can catch a glimpse, not just of Jacqueline Bissett (Bullitt, 1969) but Romanian star Nadia Gray (The Naked Runner, 1967), Judy Cornwell (The Wild Racers, 1968) in her debut and Olga Georges-Picot (Farewell, Friend, 1968). In more substantial parts are William Daniels (The Graduate, 1968), English comedienne Eleanor Bron (Help!, 1965) woefully miscast as an American, and Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, 1966).

Hepburn’s million-dollar fee helped put the picture’s budget over $5 million, but it only brought in $3 million in U.S. rentals, although the Hepburn name may have nudged it towards the break-even point worldwide.

Beat Girl / Wild for Kicks (1960) **

More social document than drama, but that aspect somewhat diluted by the moviemakers’ attempts at exposing rebellious youth while taking for granted more sordid adult behavior. Sold under the exploitation banner – “this could be your teenage daughter” – narrative flow is interrupted now and then to showcase Adam Faith’s singing and to accommodate a few striptease acts. Probably more interesting is the array of new talent on show.

Spoiled teenager Jennifer (Gillian Hills) heads for the wild side of town to experience the beatnik lifestyle in Soho coffee shops and cellars. That there’s no drugs involved and that alcohol is considered “square” – as for that matter is violence – may come as a surprise to students of the period. Apart from one episode of road-racing and playing “chicken” along a railway track, most of the time the gang listen to music or go dancing until Jennifer gets it into her head that joining a striptease show might give her life the thrill it is missing.

VHS cover.

This is prompted by the discovery that her new too-young stepmother Nichole (Noelle Adams) has been a stripper and most likely a sex worker in Paris before marrying wealthy architect Paul (David Farrar), cueing a round-robin of confrontations. Strangely enough, from the narrative perspective, none of the young bucks appear romantically interested in the provocatively-dressed Jennifer and so it is left to creepy club owner Kenny (Christopher Lee) to make a move.

The gaping hole left by lack of narrative drive is not offset by immersion in the beatnik or striptease scene. Back in the day the British censors took the editing scissors to the striptease  but although restored versions available now contain nudity you are left wishing that there was some lost element to the beatnik sections that would have given the picture the energy it required.

Gillian Hills (Les Liaisions Dangereuses, 1959), comes over as a cross between Brigitte Bardot and Diana Dors without having an ounce of the sex appeal of either. All pout and flounce, she is unable to inject any heart into her two-dimensional character, although given her youth and inexperience this was hardly surprising. Former British star David Farrar (Black Narcissus, 1947) was coming to the end of his career and in a thankless role as a frustrated father could do little to rescue the project.

Father and headache of a daughter – David Farrar and Gillian Hills.

French actress Noelle Gordon (Sergeant X of the Foreign Legion, 1960) could have been Jennifer’s mother given her own tendencies towards wiggle and pout but at least she makes a stab at trying to overcome her step-daughter’s hostility.

In the main, the picture’s delight is bringing to the fore a whole chorus of new faces. Pick of the supporting cast is Shirley Anne Field (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) who doesn’t just have a knowing look but looks as if she knows what’s she doing acting-wise. Making his movie debut was teen pop idol Adam Faith, who had made his name playing in coffee bars. He had already notched up a couple of number one singles, but doesn’t quite set the screen on fire. Peter McEnery (The Fighting Prince of Donegal, 1966) plays his inebriated pal. You can also spot Oliver Reed (Women in Love, 1969), Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago, 1965), Claire Gordon (Cool It, Carol, 1970) and Nigel Green (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963).

Perhaps the most important debut belonged to composer John Barry. He had already been working with Adam Faith. Barry’s music for the film was the first British soundtrack album ever released, reaching number eleven on the charts, and opening the doors for future soundtrack albums, not least of which was the rich vein of theme tunes produced by Barry in the next few years. 

French director Edmond T. Greville, who brought little panache to the subject matter, would redeem himself with his next picture The Hands of Orlac (1960). 

This doesn’t fall into the “so-bad-it’s-good” category, nor has it been unfairly overlooked, and probably is better known as an example of the kind of exploitation B-picture that the Americans do so much better and a reminder that, except on rare occasions such as The Wild One (1953), older moviemakers seem incapable of capturing the essence of youth.

Number One (1969) ****

Quite possibly Charlton Heston’s best performance – as an ageing pro footballer refusing to bow down to the inevitable. Ron Catland (Heston) has much in common with Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) in The Swimmer (1968) as characters who believe they have been let down by the American Dream. And like that picture, plot is in short supply, it’s mostly a character study with sideswipes at the realities and inanities of American football.

An injury puts star quarterback Catland’s career in doubt. The media write him off, younger quarterback Kelly (Richard Elkins) is waiting in line, while former colleague Ritchie Fowler (Bruce Dern) offers him a job in his car leasing business, or he could opt for a second career in computers, but Catland wants the only life he has ever known to go on forever.

There’s nothing inherently likeable about Catland. In fact, he’s downright mean most of the time, in part because of the falsity of his profession, management buttering you up when it’s contract time, then on your back once you have re-signed. He’s got a hero’s arrogance, has ignored from the outset the coach’s instructions, at odds with independent fashion-designer wife Julie (Jessica Walter), no children to shore up their marriage. Hardly surprising he drifts into another affair, “an occupational hazard” his wife calls it, this time with the fey Ann (Diana Muldaur) who owns a tennis shop.

VHS cover

You are probably familiar with the kind of football picture which climaxes with a last-minute touchdown or the more realistic movies like North Dallas Forty (1979) or the superlative Any Given Sunday (1999) where nonetheless the focus is on winning and characters are ramped up for dramatic effect. Or you might imagine Hollywood had been routinely churning out football movies like Knute Rockne All-American (1940) and Jim Thorpe All American (1951) for decades. But strangely enough the movie industry had not focused on this particular sport for well over a decade until the NFL documentary They Call It Pro Football (1967) and comedy Paper Lion (1968).

Number One sets out to set the record straight on the reality of being a football hero. And it’s by far the most realistic of the species. For every good-looking gal wanting to pass him a note on a napkin in a restaurant there are plenty fans turning on him for refusing to sign an autograph. For every sports reporter writing a puff piece, there are others tearing him to pieces in print.

The documentary-style approach by director Tom Gries (100 Rifles, 1969) serves the film well. This is a different kind of football team to the later fictional depictions. It’s a lonely life for a start. The players are rivals, not comrades.  There’s little camaraderie. The dressing room is like a morgue. No practical jokes and tomfoolery. No over-the-top team talk by the coach and thank goodness no padre who pretends to walk every aching mile in their shoes. Any exhortation is almost a plea. Injury is mostly ignored. Legs are constantly strapped up. And when your career is over you might be reduced to bumming a loan from a current star. The politics are brutal.

New Orleans Saints cooperated with the production so the game scenes come across well though not obviously with the razzamatazz of Any Given Sunday and Heston has the physique for a sportsman. Primarily a television writer, David Moessinger (The Caper of the Golden Bulls, 1967) only crafted two films and this, the second and last, was an unusual effort, as the character twists and turns trying on the one hand to escape the cage of his career and on the other determined to squeeze the last drop out of his golden imprisonment.

Catlan still sees himself (at the age of 40, no less – but younger than today’s legendary Tom Brady) as the best quarterback in the business and simmers with anger that his body is letting him down and that he has nothing in place to fill the gap that abandoning the game will create. Underneath the volatility is a hole of pain. There’s no sense either that he has enjoyed his time at the top, just that it has always one way or another been a struggle.

Heston and Gries took a different approach to the western Will Penny (1968) and here they do the same to the sports picture. Although the movie was marketed with Heston as an aggressive individual, in fact it calls for a far wider range of emotions from Heston, and for this part he delivers in spades. Jessica Walter (Grand Prix, 1966) gives as good as she gets, Bruce Dern (Hang ‘Em High, 1968) as the fast-talking salesman who got out of the game in good time and Diana Muldaur (The Swimmer, 1968) are excellent. But this is Heston’s film. But it’s more of a reflective piece, none of the dramatic highs and lows of other football pictures, instead it is true to the cynicism and human exploitation of the game.

She (1965) ****

Ursula Andress certainly knows how to make an entrance. Emerging out of the sea in a bikini in Dr No (1962) proved a Hollywood calling-card but failed to put her center stage. She fixed that with She and dominates this superior adventure hokum. Studio Hammer lucked into a solid piece of storytelling, a classic, and all it had to do – with the help of a bit more finance than was usual for their productions courtesy of MGM – was not muck it up.

Three soldiers are celebrating the end of the First World War in a Palestinian night club and while archaeologist Holly (Peter Cushing) and his bowler-hatted valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are tripping the light fantastic with belly-dancers, blond-haired Leo (John Richardson) is seduced away by Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) because he bears a stunning resemblance to an ancient medallion. Encountering a vision of Ayesha (Andress) he is urged to embark on a dangerous journey to the lost city of Kuma where she awaits.  

Despite the theft of their camels and loss of water, the trio trek exhausted across desert and mountains, Leo sustained by his vision, by the fact that he seems to know the way and with the assistance of Ustane. But a savage tribe reckon Leo would make an ideal sacrifice to the gods. Just as the tribe are driving themselves into ritualistic frenzy, high priest Billali (Christopher Lee) comes to the rescue, escorting the explorers into Kuma.

The regal Ayesha is as beautiful in the flesh as in the vision, but more ruthless, condemning slaves to a terrible death for disobedience and, noting the attraction between Leo and Ustune, planning also to rid herself of her rival. Leo’s arrival will fulfil an ancient prophecy with the Englishman attaining immortality, and he seems to be able to “float through the sea of time” and remember events from two thousand years ago. However, Ayesha has a dubious past, providing one of several unexpected twists.

Most films of this sub-genre rely on improbable mumbo-jumbo and are loaded down with wearying amounts of exposition. But here is nothing but clarity, the ancient backstory tale told with minimum visuals and verbals and the intellectual sparring between Holly and Ayesha on the one hand and the archaeologist and the high priest on the other are intelligently-put, presenting opposing options for the development of civilisation, absolute monarchy vs. democracy and immutability vs. change.

But that takes place within a highly-charged drama, the enfolding romance between Ayesha and her chosen man both touching and perilous, while the battle for the life of Ustane is brilliantly presented. Lack of reliance on special effects and art direction  utilizing the MGM millions – the mountain-sized statue outside Kuma (prefiguring perhaps Game of Thrones) and the set for Ayesha’s room especially magnificent, as is her golden crown – prevents the picture falling into the camp camp. Instead, it emerges as an adventure classic.

Ursula Andress (4 for Texas, 1963) is stunning, every inch a goddess and yet believably mortal. Her looks tended to mask her abilities and while she rarely received credit for her acting she holds her own in some redoubtable company. John Richardson (Black Sunday, 1960) doesn’t quite step up and remains more a creature of adoration. But the supporting cast more than compensates. Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965) has had a persona transplant, replacing his normal grim demeanor with fun and enthusiasm, not lacking courage where required, and delivering a very fine performance. Bernard Cribbins (Crooks in Cloisters, 1964) provides the humor. And we still have Christopher Lee (The Gorgon, 1964), filled to bursting with self-entitlement, in malevolent form, Andre Morell (The Vengeance of She, 1968) and Rosenda Monteros, scandalously under-used in films since The Magnificent Seven (1960). It’s interesting to see Cushing and Lee, who dealt with immortality in the Dracula series, engage in conflict without coming to blows.

Director Robert Day (Tarzan’s Three Challenges, 1963) keeps up a brisk pace at the same time as focusing on character and provides Hammer with a marvelous adventure template for the future.  Five features and two shorts had already been adapted from the H. Rider Haggard classic, but the last was in 1935, starring future U.S. House of Representatives member Helen Gahagan. This version presents the best shot at visual interpretation of the classic.

Catch-Up: Ursula Andress was reviewed in the Blog for 4 for Texas (1963), The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969). Christopher Lee pictures already reviewed are: The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), The Gorgon (1964), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967) and The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968).

Pendulum (1969) ****

It’s better to come at this as a drama rather than the thriller it was marketed as. That the name of George Schaefer, the last to make a movie of the directors who shot to fame in television in the 1950s, is attached should be indication that this is character- and issue- rather than action-driven. It’s more about people being sucked into the system, about the vulnerable members of society, who, whether cop or criminal, have no recourse to some kind of higher power to sort their lives out. As such, it’s a satisfying drama.

A-list male stars playing emotionally vulnerable characters was a growing trend in the late 60s. Think of Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer (1968) and Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement (1969) – all reviewed in the Blog, incidentally. Here top Washington detective Frank Matthews (George Peppard) goes through the personal and professional wringer, suspecting wife Adele (Jean Seberg) of an affair then becoming a suspect himself in a murder case. Underlying these plot-driven aspects is an exploration of the political issue of civil liberties, in particular the constitutional rights of criminals, setting this up as one of the earliest law’n’order movies, a trope that would take center stage in films like Dirty Harry (1971).  

At a peak of professional success, having been awarded a medal and promoted to consultant on a subcommittee on Law and Order headed by Senator Augustus Cole (Paul McGrath), Matthews’ ethics come under scrutiny when alleged murder/rapist Paul Sanderson (Robert F. Lyons), whom Matthews had arrested, is freed on a technicality thanks to the efforts of civil liberties attorney Woodrow Wilson King (Richard Kiley).

Matthews appears distracted much of the time trying to keep track of his wife’s whereabouts.  After delivering a speech in Baltimore, he walks the streets in a fug of depression. Meanwhile, King is disturbed by the fact that a man he clearly believes guilty refuses to seek psychiatric help. The question in the audience’s mind is where he will strike next. There’s an excellent scene in King’s office where his secretary Liz (Marj Dusay), delighted at the lawyer’s success in overturning Sanderson’s case, instinctively pulls away from the freed man.

When Adele and lover are murdered in Matthews’ bed, he finds himself on the opposite side of the law, undergoing the kind of treatment he has meted out to so many criminals, quickly aware that circumstantial evidence could find him guilty. Front-page news himself now, suspended from his job by a quick-to-judge senator, emotionally isolated and a laughing stock, he retreats further inside himself. Naturally, he evades subsequent arrest, setting out to track down the killer himself, that leads him into the murkier depths of society from which emotionally-abused villains easily spring. 

Other issues are explored in passing, the independent woman for a start, whether it is wanting to have her own career and not play the stay-at-home wife or considering it fair game – as with Gwen (Faye Dunaway) in The Arrangement – to upturn accepted morality and take a lover.

But the focus remains squarely on Matthews struggling to cope with life running away from  him, falling deeper into despair and into the maw of the criminal justice system which has the knack of bending its own rules. He has never been the saintly cop and there are moments where violence seems the best option, although not the vicious kind later espoused by Inspector Harry Callaghan. It’s ironic that the only solid detection the cop does in the first part of the film is tracking down his wife’s whereabouts.

George Peppard (Tobruk, 1967), generally a much-maligned actor, excels in a part where he can neither charm his way into an audience’s heart, nor confide in someone else about his marital problems, nor resort to action to define his character. That his pain is all internalised shows the acting skills he brings to bear. Oddly enough Jean Seberg (Moment to Moment, 1966), a specialist in emotional pain, takes a different path, coming across as a devious minx, keeping Matthews on the hook while enjoying relations with an ex-lover, whose career, as it happens, has panned out a lot better than her husband.

I only knew Richard Kiley, an American theatrical giant and primarily in the 1960s a television performer, through that mention in Jurassic Park (1993), but he is solid as the attorney who has qualms about releasing a prisoner he knows is guilty. Robert F. Lyons, making his movie debut, brings jittery danger to the unbalanced criminal. Look out also for Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin, 1952) as the cop determined to take Matthews down and Frank Marth (Madigan, 1968) as the subordinate who gives the suspect too much leeway – to his cost. Madeleine Sherwood (Hurry Sundown, 1967) is excellent as the disturbed, needy mother.

George Schaefer, at this point a four-time Emmy award-winner, specialized in thought-provoking drama such as Inherit the Wind (TV, 1965) and Elizabeth the Queen (TV, 1968).  This fits easily into that pattern. The title is a giveaway, too, referring to the pendulum swinging, “perhaps too far,” from all-powerful police to the rights of the accused taking prominence.

This was the only screenplay from Stanley Niss, who died shortly after the film’s release. He was also the producer. And better known as the writer-producer of television series like Jericho (1966-1967) and Hawaiian Eye (1959-1961).

Catch-Up: George Peppard pictures reviewed in the Blog are Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Operation Crossbow (1965), The Blue Max (1966), Tobruk (1967), and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968).

Pendulum is best sourced on Ebay.

The Last Bus (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

As we saw with Stillwater, great performances can rescue films. And there are two stunning performances on show in this alternative road trip, one from star Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, 2014) and another in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene from supporting actress Grace Calder. The story here is pretty slim, Tom, aged over 90, sets out on 800-mile pilgrimage by bus from John O’Groats at the very top of Scotland to Land’s End at the very south of England. The trip’s purpose is concealed until the climax but hardy cinemagoers will easily guess it. He has various encounters along the way. That’s it, pretty much.

Most films about the old have redeeming features, a charming character and if grouchy with a last chance at redemption, and if played by a star generally bring with their performance a whole parcel of screen memories that have an audience rooting for them. Tom ain’t like that. He’s old the way really old people are old. He’s not an attractive sight. His bottom lip sticks out most of the time like an aged trout. He shuffles along, in battered old clothes clutching a battered old suitcase. Most of the time he’s out of his depth, occasionally rescued by passersby, occasionally not.  

The most you can say about him is he has grit, standing up to a drunk abusing a Muslim, fixing a broken-down bus, offering a shoulder to cry on to a weeping teenager. In another time, in another place, such characteristics would have propelled a story. Here, they are mere makeweights. He’s so self-effacing he’s easy to ignore.  

Scottish director Gillies Mackinnon (Whisky Galore, 2016) takes the bold decision not to make him overly sympathetic. Scenes that would have been played for all they were worth in any other film almost pass without comment, just minor ingredients in a larger tapestry. The most Tom achieves is retaining dignity at a time when body and mind are starting to betray him.

That this is just the smallest of small pictures is amply demonstrated when, trapped between a bunch of rowdy boys enjoying rowdy banter with a hen party, he starts singing “Amazing Grace.” Tom doesn’t have an amazing voice. He doesn’t even seem to recognise that he gradually attracts an audience. He is in a world of his own. And the director lets him stay there.

I was so convinced by Timothy Spall’s performance that I hoped they had used a stunt double to film a scene when he has to gingerly negotiate a path down rugged rocks. I had not realised that Spall is only 64 and not close to the aged specimen I had been watching. Spall has that quiet genius of the great actors even though rarely given a leading role and if you recognise him at all, unless you are an arthouse devotee, it will be from The Last Samurai (2003) or Vanilla Sky (1999).  

What of Grace Calder? Occasionally I deliver lectures on film and in one of these I use the final scene of Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) to demonstrate the power of female close-ups, how women far more than men are capable of a greater range expression, showing a shifting series of emotions through their eyes. And I saw that same astonishing quality in Grace Calder (Love Sarah, 2020). She appears as the lover of an arrogant male who taunts Tom in a B&B. As she reins her lover in, her eyes rapidly change in a matter of seconds to conveying a depth of different emotions.  None of the other actors, who are all fleeting two-dimensional cameos, come anywhere close in a part that was not a part until she made it so memorable.

Most critics have been pretty sniffy about The Last Bus and you can see why. Television writer Joe Ainsworth making his movie debut tries too hard for diversity, the social media trope sticks out like a sore thumb, affords overmuch footage of glorious Scottish landscape to recompense Creative Scotland for its financial input, and never quite resolves the question of how a 90-year-old guy who can hardly manage a bus pass manages to work out a convoluted route in at least a dozen local buses to retrace a route he took 70 years before.

But it is all held together by a stunning performance by Spall.  

Fade In (1968) ***

A genuine curiosity, disowned by all concerned, removed from star Burt Reynolds’ Wikipedia page, the first picture to be directed by nobody, tarred with the infamous Alan Smithee director credit. Equally infamous as one of those “we can make two films at the same time” numbers.

Hard to see what got everyone so angry since, though on the lightweight side, and with an over-fondness for montage, it is a small town romance played out on a very mundane, not glossy, Hollywood location shoot, and of immense interest for demonstrating what Burt Reynolds could do before he fell down the “good ol’ boy” rabbit hole.

Story is simple enough and, of course, from the romantic perspective, age-old. Boy meets girl, then what? Rob (Burt Reynolds) is an unglamorous sheep rancher in a little place called Moab who takes a temporary job as a driver when the producers of a real-life Hollywood picture called Blue (1968) – itself an infamous western starring Brit Terence Stamp and Joanna Pettet – descend on the area for a location shoot. Jean (Barbara Loden) is pretty, but equally unglamorous, with a behind-the-scenes role in the picture as an editor. Rob is a notorious local womanizer so initially Jean is seen as just another notch on his belt. But then things get serious  and in a surprise twist it becomes clear that it is he who is the notch on the belt, a casual pick-up for an out-of-town girl.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here for the movie buff. The boring reality of how films get made, for a start, all shown in passing, fake horses, guys knee deep in a river pushing the mounted camera along, set decoration, the ever-present megaphone, watching the dailies. And there’s a few nuggets, a couple of quick lessons in the art of editing.

As if auditioning for a beefcake picture, Reynolds takes every opportunity to reveal his muscular torso, naked in a river (twice), out in the fields, but in reality showing quite a different side to the later tough guy persona, quite sweet, really, in many ways, with moments where the actor summons up deep feelings. He’s charismatic but in a gentle fashion. In the way of small towns, the romance is played out over coffee cups, pinball machines, ten-pin bowling alleys and rodeo with little in the way of sparkling dialog although hardly a sunset goes by without being pointedly utilized.  

There’s a wonderful romantic score by Ken Lauber (Heart of the West, 1975) which I must mention because there’s hardly a foot of film without any music. But that’s not to this film’s detriment. It’s unashamedly an old-fashioned love story (not the one where someone dies, though). There’s some lush cinematography from Willam A. Fraker (The Fox, 1967)  Some directorial technical aspects are worth mentioning, too, a credit sequence that cleverly uses a rearview mirror, a five-minute montage central to the romance and a one-minute montage composed of still shots a full year before George Roy Hill adopted the same idea for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and in a nod to John Ford the final shot echoes the opening.    

Director Jud Taylor worked his entire career in television (episodes of Dr Kildare and the original Star Trek among his 68 credits) and no doubt saw this as his bid for the big-time. But studio Paramount didn’t like his original version of the movie and he didn’t like what happened when it was re-edited, so he took his name off it. The rules of the Directors Guild of America prevented a movie being released minus a directorial credit so a compromise was reached whereby the name of “Alan Smithee” was employed.   

The movie was stuck in the vault and shown on television in 1973 – in the wake of Deliverance (1972) – which accounts for that being taken as the official release date by imdb. (It’s also down as a western by imdb so you can discount that as well, unless Reynolds watching irrigation counts.)

Burt Reynolds had mixed feelings about the movie. At the time he was a potential rising star and not much more with only the little-seen Operation C.I.A. (1965) and Navajo Joe (1966) in the locker but 100 Rifles (1969) on the horizon. At various times he was reported as wanting to buy it to prevent it being shown and other times clearly regarding it as a little gem. Perhaps it was experience of a film going off the rails that inspired Barbara Loden to make sure she had complete control over her next picture – she was writer-producer-director of Wanda (1970).

In retrospect, it’s hard to see what the furore was about. It’s hardly god-awful. This is a nice wee film with interesting performances by both Reynolds and Loden and of course the opportunity to see Reynolds in a chrysalis, the macho man held at bay, allowing the sensitive performer to emerge.

Hard to find as you can see from the attempt at a link way below but it does crop up on ebay and here and there on television – in Britain you might be able to catch it on the Talking Pictures channel – and here’s an 80-second snippet from it.

The Courier (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A brilliant example of how to control your material, this low-budget old school espionage picture, virtually a two-hander, based on a true story and set against the 1960s cold War paranoia, delivers thrills against the background of a murky business. Smarmy businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is inveigled into picking up rolls of film from Russian intelligence office Oleg (Merab Ninidze), giving away his country’s secrets in a bid to prevent nuclear war.

An anti-James Bond scenario sees Wynn employing little bits of tradecraft and spending almost every minute fearing capture while he develops a friendship with his foreign counterpart. On the domestic front, the pressure tells on Wynn, already a nervy character and relying too much on alcohol to sustain his own possibly failing business. Wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) suspects he is engaging in another extra marital affair. Doting father Oleg wilts under the burden of betrayal, hoping that his assistance in the Western cause will lead to a successful defection, aware of the impact on his family if caught.

In the background Wynne’s ruthless handlers, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) representing MI6 and CIA operative Emily (Rachel Brosnahan), are like circling sharks. While tense enough, this is all straightforward Tinker, Tailor… territory but in the second act the stakes suddenly rise and the movie shoots into quite different, far more realistic territory, that takes its toll on both protagonists.

It’s a very lean film and in concentrating on character rather than extraneous thrills in the manner of other recent offerings like Stillwater, The Night House or Censor, comes up triumphant in terms of plot. And without attempting to impose background through artistry as with Censor perfectly captures the mood of the times. The background characters are all well developed but the unexpected friendship that develops between the two spies and leads to the climax is exceptionally well done.

Oscar nominated Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 2014) drops all his mannerisms to bring alive a fascinating character who has, in any case, in his business life, had to develop an alien persona.  Merab Ninidze (Jupiter’s Moon, 2017) is every bit his equal, living a lie, trying to keep one step ahead of his own suspicious compatriots. Rachel Brosnahan (Change in the Air, 2018) is excellent as the one backroom character with an ounce of empathy and a pithy line in dealing with stuffy Brits and Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, 2018), adding another decent accent to her collection, adds some pathos.

Director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach, 2017) does an excellent job of marshalling his material and his concentration on character pays off in spades. Versatility could find no better expression than through writer Tom O’Connor who went down a completely different route in his previous movie The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017).

I do have one slight niggle. When the British were outraged at Burgess, Philby and MacLean and the Americans Klaus Fuchs et al, the arguments given by these various traitors was that, in giving away state secrets, they were merely realigning the nuclear status quo. These characters were all roundly vilified, but not Oleg here. And although the film concentrates on a few exchanges between Oleg and his courier, in reality more than 5,000 military secrets went from Russia to Britain in this fashion.