Oscar Wilde (1960) ****

You might be surprised to learn there were two Oscar Wildes. Not the famed writer and a doppelganger of course but two films on the same subject that were released in the same month. This is the low-rent version, costing a fraction of the rival The Trials of Oscar Wilde directed by Ken Hughes. It’s easy to be disdainful of the cheaper effort, with little cash available for scenery and costumes, but somehow it rises above budget limitations. Structurally, both movies focus on the trial – or in the case of The Trials of Oscar Wilde the three trials he endured – but the glossier pictures it has to be said glosses over a great deal.

While I enjoyed it at the time, I now find that in trying to make a modern martyr out of Oscar Wilde, the Ken Hughes picture built him up so much that it was difficult to find any flaw in his character. We never find out what was the actual slur the Marquis of Queensbury made on Wilde, resulting the playwright taking him to court for libel. And that version begins with Wilde and Alfred Lord Douglas (“Bosie”), son of the Marquis, already deep into their affair.

On the other hand, Oscar Wilde, the final film of Hollywood veteran director Gregory Ratoff (Intermezzo, 1939), starts at the beginning of their relationship with greater emphasis on Wilde’s practicality rather than his wit and Bosie’s (John Neville) tortured relationship with  his hypocritical father (Edward Chapman) who, while taking the moral high ground, keeps a mistress. On Wilde (Robert Morley) being described as a sodomite by the Marquis, Bosie’s desire to see his father humiliated in court verges on revenge. “You weren’t looking for a friend,” Wilde astutely tells his lover, “You were looking for a weapon.” Bosie is big on humiliation – he is the one to break the news of Wilde’s duplicity to the author’s wife (Phyllis Calvert). So determined is he on the court case that he fails to tell Wilde that his father has private detectives scouring London to find evidence.

While in court Wilde can keep the jury in stitches with his epigrams, he soon comes up against the Marquis’s formidable lawyer Sir Edward Carson (a quite stunning performance by Ralph Richardson). From Carson we learn a great deal more of Wilde’s practices, some of which nowadays would be termed grooming. Essentially, Carson paints a portrait of a predator, an older man (Wilde was 41) whose uses his wealth and wit to court many lovers, mostly aged around 20, but some as young as 16, barely the age of consent.. And when he felt his secret life was in danger of being exposed, he went so far as to pay for the passage to America of one of his lovers, Alfred Woods, to get him out of the way.

No matter that Wilde at the start can gloss over his promiscuity, complaining that Carson is misinterpreting innocent gestures of friendship, the cunning attorney soon has the author tied in knots as he wheels out one by one information regarding the various lovers.

It’s quite odd to realise that The Trials of Oscar Wilde in presenting the more accurate truth – that the author underwent three trials – fails to provide little more than a surface treatment of  the man’s real-life affairs. Oscar Wilde perhaps delves too deeply for audiences brought up to consider the author a martyr who deserves the free pass allocated all writers of genius. I found Oscar Wilde the more riveting watch because, of course, I already knew the outcome, but the sight of the famed writer, encouraged by the vengeful Bosie,  hung out to dry by his own hubris, and for a man of such wit to be outwitted in the courtroom by Carson was an exceptional watch.

Of course, the imprisonment of Wilde for the crime of being a homosexual is detestable. Even at the point this film was made homosexuality was a crime. So it’s fascinating to see how much The Trials of Oscar Wilde skirts round issues that Oscar Wilde had little problem in spelling out.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Robert Morley’s performance. I may be wrong, but I think this was the only time he was accorded leading man status. Mostly, he was a supporting actor (The African Queen, 1951, say, or Genghis Khan, 1965) and often just playing a version of his self. Of course, he is outshone by a simply brilliant Ralph Richardson (Khartoum, 1966). John Neville (A Study in Terror, 1965) presents a more in-depth performance than in the rival picture. One-time British box office star Phyllis Calvert (The Golden Madonna, 1949) does well in a small but pivotal role. You might also spot Dennis Price (Tunes of Glory, 1960) and Alexander Knox (Mister Moses, 1965).

Lacking a budget to do much more, Gregory Ratoff sticks to the detail and draws out two superb performances, aided by a tight script by Jo Eisinger (Gilda, 1946; Cold Sweat, 1970) based on the play by Leslie and Sewell Stokes and the work of Frank Harris. As swansongs go, this is hard to beat.

Vastly underrated.

Catch it on YouTube.

NOTE: Oscar Wilde appeared in first run in Glasgow at the La Scala cinema in June 1960 one week ahead of The Trials of Oscar Wilde at the first run ABC Regal and ABC Coliseum.

Interlude (1966) ****

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.

Strangers When We Meet (1960) ****

Something of a gamble for Kirk Douglas. Unlike son Michael – sexually voracious on screen (and in real life, apparently) in hits like Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992) – Douglas Snr had spent the Fifties primarily as an action star. Should romance feature, it was generally incidental. In several of his most successful movies – 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and Paths of Glory (1957), there’s either nary a female in sight or, Lust for Life (1956),  he’s useless with the opposite sex.   

In pictures where passion was core, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and The Secret Affair (1957), he was the leading man – to Lana Turner in the former and Susan Hayward in the latter – as opposed to the top-billed star. So he had a good deal of catching up to do. It’s generally forgotten, also, that Burt Lancaster took top billing in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and The Devil’s Disciple (1959) and that Douglas had received top billing more recently usually when his company was helping foot the bill, as in Paths of Glory and The Vikings (1958).

Kim Novak, on the other hand, was the sex symbol du jour, second only to Marilyn Monroe in the provocative stakes, molten on screen, leading astray the likes of William Holden (Picnic, 1954), Frank Sinatra (Pal Joey,1957) and James Stewart (Vertigo, 1958).  

That Douglas and Novak strike sparks off each other in this classy well-written tale of illicit love is largely because as much as Douglas emotes passion Novak plays down her inherent sexiness. But it’s unusual for a number of reasons. Female equality, for one, creativity, artistic fulfilment, for another.   

Architect Larry (Kirk Douglas) feels trapped in building routine houses until he persuades unhappy novelist Roger (Ernie Kovacs), imprisoned in the restricted world of bestsellers and lacking critical approval, to invest in an avant-garde house. You couldn’t say Larry is in an unhappy marriage but hard-headed wife Eve (Barbara Rush) tends to trample on his dreams in her pursuit of money. Eve believes their marriage is a partnership in every sense, demanding an equality unusual for the era, a situation hammered home by Roger’s misogynistic treatment of his girlfriend.

Maggie’s (Kim Novak) marriage is arid, husband Ken (John Bryant) lacking passion. Although beautiful, Maggie is insecure and shy. Cold, too, according to her mother Mrs Wagner (Virginia Bruce),  who has been condemned for having an affair. But there’s an early hint that Maggie has taken a similar route, being pestered on the phone.

Larry does all the running after catching Eve’s eye on the school run. Larry, who works from home, can use the excuse of meeting potential clients to slip out at night. Ken is so uninvolved in his wife’s life he doesn’t care if she pops out of an evening, disinterested when she dons revealing nightwear, unable to countenance that she might be meeting another man. Both Larry and Maggie are liberated by their affair, especially as she gives more credence to his artistic abilities than his wife.

We’re pretty much in Douglas Sirk territory, the wealthy suburbs and a simplified color palette with every housewife capable of turning into a hostess at the drop of an invitation to cocktails. You can imagine how this is going to end, but it doesn’t go that route, not even when the affair is rumbled by unlikely lothario Felix (Walter Matthau). There’s Larry’s ambition to take into account, and whether the prospect of building an entire town can match up to the excitement of an affair.

Director Richard Quine (who was Novak’s lover at the time) was on a roll – Bell, Book and Candle (1958), also with Novak, It Happened to Jane (1959) starring Doris Day and The World of Suzie Wong (1960) on the horizon. His direction is mostly spot-on, especially in keeping Novak’s overt sexiness under wraps, and a couple of times scenes really spark.

Felix’s failed seduction of Eve – male arrogance leading him to believe she will enter into adultery to square things up – ends in a stunning composition, the man standing dominant over the female as if rape is the next thing. The crisis scene between husband and wife is played by Eve walking away from the camera.

Solid melodrama with excellent performances all round. Judging from the box office, audiences agreed that Douglas and Novak clicked. Evan Hunter (The Birds, 1963) wrote the screenplay based on his bestseller.

Worth a look for the complexity brought to a standard tale.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) ****

Currently occupying the top spot on Rotten Tomatoes, having replaced Paddington 2 (2017), this isn’t quite the five-star job that ranking suggests, and reflecting the era in which it was made as much as the eponymous character’s tribulations at the end of the nineteenth century, it is certainly a very fine movie. “The love that dare not speak its name” is as far as anyone goes in defining what exactly was famed writer Oscar Wilde’s crime, the word “homosexual” not permitted mention in 1960 any more than in the 1890s.

I had always been intrigued by the title, assuming it referred to a lifetime of trials, of the homosexual tortured by desire, the need to keep his preferences under wraps and to maintain an outward front of husband and father. But, in fact, it refers to the three trials which brought down Wilde. In the first he is not actually the one in the dock.

Where the British poster accentuated the shock value, foreign marketing was more discreet. It was known as “The Green Carnation” because Wilde was famed for wearing one in his lapel.

Pride of place there goes to the Marquis of Queensberry (Lionel Jeffries) – yes, the guy who invented the rules of boxing – who is defending himself against charges of slander. But when he wins that case, it is Wilde’s turn to face prison. But when the jury can’t make up his mind, the judge orders a re-trial which goes the way an outraged establishment wishes.

The problem for Oscar Wilde (Peter Finch) is that he doesn’t hide his desires under a bushel any more than he does his talent. And it’s this parading of lover Bosie, aka Lord Alfred Douglas (John Fraser), that is his undoing. And his hubris. Confronted by an enraged marquis, instead of backing down and ignoring the tittle-tattle, Wilde, at the height of his fame – novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and theatrical masterpieces like The Importance of Being Earnest triggers his downfall by accusing the nobleman of slander.

The beloved Oscar Wilde, full of clever retorts and trademark epigrammatic wit, holds sway in the first half, the derided version, somewhat baffled at the turn of events, takes over in the second half. Apart from his good looks, Bosie is not the kind of tragic and charismatic character you would expect to be the cause of such a titanic fall from grace. He is spoiled, extravagant, weak.

The initial angst is all in the mind of Wilde’s wife Constance (Yvonne Mitchell), left to dine alone while her husband is out on the town or in another man’s bed. Another woman, she explains, she could deal with, but not a man. Apart from his infidelity, theirs appears a strong enough relationship, he has fathered two children after all, is affectionate with his wife and adoring of his children, spending enough time with them to come up with one of his famous tales, The Happy Prince.

The movies were full of captivating males who had been led astray by another woman, so, to some extent, we are conditioned to accept the same behavior from a homosexual. But that is now. In 1960 this would have been as dangerous a project as you could imagine, so it’s to director Ken Hughes’ (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968) merit that he shies away from very little, pronouncing the tainted word the one exception.

It’s a marvellous evocation of the period, replete with hansom cabs and high society having the time of its life, and where everyone, even the marquis is the presence of a superior royal, knows his place. Wilde’s real crime was not knowing his place, hoping to skate past the growing whispers on talent alone, as if his crime could be regarded as one of the sparkling fictions he created. And he would probably have got away with it, writing a different chapter in the history of the suppressed homosexual, had he not taken the marquis to court.

Peter Finch (The Legend of Lylah Clare, 1968) – who won a Bafta for his performance – is exceptionally impressive as a man brought to his knees by compulsion. From the talk of the town to what in these parts we’d call the “talk of the steamie,” he maintains a supreme dignity, only surrendering to inner pain when drunk.

Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon, 1964), whose forte was usually the absent-minded professor, is the surprising pick of the rest of the cast as the vindictive, apoplectic marquis. Yvonne Mitchell (Genghis Khan, 1965), scarcely permitted to show grief at the changes in her fortune, is convincing as the loving wife. But the other characters are provided with less material. James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) has a cameo.

Ken Hughes holds back any sense of outrage – leaving that to the discerning audience – and presents a historical drama with the emphasis on reality. You won’t be able to watch this without almost screaming at the screen at the vainglorious characters who seek to deny sexuality.  

Mister Moses (1965) ***

The “lost” Robert Mitchum picture, never seen on VHS or DVD, but now turning up on YouTube.

Elephants have little proven appeal for audiences. From Dumbo (1941), Hannibal (1960), Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) and Hannibal Brooks (1968) through to Dumbo (2017) and Babylon (2022), the story is one of negative impact on box office. Baby elephants are maybe a different story – see Hatari! (1962)  – but there’s very little that’s cuddly about the adult version and their main purpose appears to be to annoy a major stars initially and then go on a rampage that either hinders or helps said star. If you’re acquainted with elephants, you’ll notice this is of the tameable Asian variety rather than the untamed African.

The unnamed beast here would fall into the former category except the eponymous Mister Moses (Robert Mitchum) – real name Joe – can talk to the animal in a language it understands and persuade it to show off its parlor tricks, enhancing Moses’s status among a small  community in Kenya. Moses is a con-man-cum-diamond smuggler, rescued from a river, specifically the reeds growing there that offer a Biblical connection to the natives.

The Bible plays a significant role here, though the natives don’t fall for the Noah story as explained by missionary (Alexander Knox). They are, like Native Americans, being driven off their land by the arrival of a dam which will flood their traditional grounds. Their cattle have not been included in the grand plan to airlift the entire community. So they refuse government help, hence the need to embark on a 300-mile trek.

Moses, a dodgy character with “an allergy to badges of authority”, is blackmailed by the missionary’s daughter Julie (Carroll Baker) and ends up doing the job of her fiancé, district commissioner Robert (Ian Bannen), to shift the natives off their land. He’s got some parlor tricks up his sleeve, too, including a flame-thrower which, again the old Biblical touch, he can employ to burn a bush, thus endearing himself as a leader.  

Naturally, enough, though staid, Julie finds herself attracted to Moses, a somewhat laid-back character with quite a line in hip patter. But it’s quite a stretch for Julie to be seduced by his knowledge of classical literature, namely the Andromeda-Perseus tale. Not everyone takes to Moses’ leadership, saboteurs steal the map and the compass.  And it’s no surprise when someone finds another purpose for the flame-thrower. There’s a bad witch doctor Ubi (Raymond St Jacques) to be put in his place, and Joe rises out of his lethargy long enough to dispose of a couple of villains.

With the emphasis on the Biblical, Joe is called upon to “part the waters” Exodus-style. Disappointingly, this is a bit of a parlor trick. It had me wondering how the heck he was going to do that,  with just a flame thrower and an elephant at his disposal, and also given that the sole purpose of rivers in African movie vernacular is so that the leading lady can bathe in one. Since the aforementioned river is nothing more than the outcome of another dam, Moses is clever enough to simply persuade the dam superintendent to – miracle of miracles – to turn off the water.

There’s enough going on to maintain interest and the will-she-won’t-she element is well-handled and there’s a good final line, “What’ll I do for laughs?”

Robert Mitchum has been here before (Rampage, 1963) but this time is on the side of the animals. Of course, the main interest is not how well he gets on with the elephant but whether he strikes sparks with a Carroll Baker (Harlow, 1965) eschewing her normal sexy persona. A cross between Hayley Mills and Deborah Kerr, Baker doesn’t quite suggest bottled-up sexual energy fizzing to get out, but then that wouldn’t be in character. It’s not in The African Queen league in terms of screen partnerships but it’s certainly workable enough.

Ian Bannen (The Flight of the Phoenix, 1965) is at his scowling best although Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968) gives him a run for his money. Director Ronald Neame (Gambit, 1966) proved as adept at handling the big-name stars as the animals without it being acclaimed as a famous “lost” work of Mitchum. The screenplay by Charles Beaumont (Night of the Eagle/Burn, With, Burn, 1962) and Monja Danischewsky (Topkapi, 1964) was based on the novel by Max Catto (Seven Thieves, 1960).

A pleasant enough diversion.

She-Man (1967) ***

If you were astonished that musical Les Bicyclettes des Belsize (1968) was the debut of action director Douglas Hickox (Sitting Target, 1973, Brannigan, 1975) you might be knocked sideways to discover Bob Clark of Porky’s (1981) fame cut his teeth on this tale of cross-dressing. Perhaps even more astounding is that what appeared little more than a cheesy sexploitation number has now come into its own as a plea for understanding for those taking a different sexual path in life.

Bookended by one of those tropes popularized by Alfred Hitchcock via Psycho (1960) of a psychiatrist making sense of the characters for an audience unfamiliar with their predilections,  the narrative itself while on the preposterous side does highlight how vulnerable anybody back in the day for displaying what was then known as “perversion” – punishable by law – was to blackmail.

And in keeping with Hickox, Bob Clark’s tale shows considerable artistry. It might be the only film of the decade to pay homage to Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965), in particular the scene where Warren Beatty on stage is dazzled by a spotlight that also serves to hide his interrogator. Clark takes this notion one stage further. In one sequence the screen is completely black with the face of Lt Albert Rose (Leslie Marlow), the victim, a small white blob.

I should also mention a quite astonishing cabaret act which sees performers dressed in outsized top hat and tails, the hat perched so high that there’s room to draw a face on the upper torso. The credits scene is worth noticing as well, a woman in silhouette stripping, except that the punchline is she’s a man.

The story is crude, but I guess for the times the only way to show that people wishing to express a part of their character that would be alien to others had to pretend that they were giving in to outside forces rather than sexuality being their own choice. And it takes the view that any male, given the opportunity to explore their feminine side, might be grateful.

Anyway, the plot begins with macho soldier Rose who surrounds himself with beautiful women being blackmailed by Dominique (Dorian Wayne) for deserting in the line of fire in Indo-China in 1951. In return for keeping quiet, Dominque extracts payment of $20,000 and an agreement that Rose spend a year as her maid. The lieutenant has been chosen for a more sinister purpose, to blackmail his senator father and his commanding officer.

Initially resistant, when Rose starts taking estrogen and underghoes “transformation” – eyebrows plucked, all body hair shaved, make-up applied, and wearing a typical male fantasy maid’s outfit – he begins to become comfortable with his feminine side. The point is pointedly made – and repeated in the coda – that cross-dressing does not turn him into a homosexual for he falls in love with Dominique’s assistant Ruth (Wendy Roberts). This doesn’t quite ring true since Ruth is a professed lesbian, and blackmailed for being so, and it seems a stretch to imagine that if she’s forbidden to enjoy true sapphic love she would make do with a feminine-type male.

I should also point out that Dominique is indiscriminate in her determination to transform. Women are turned into men as well as men turned into women. Which also poses a plot hole, or perhaps makes a more subtle point in suggesting Ruth is actually a man who convinces himself he’s really a lesbian. Either way, it’s not particularly clear.

I was hoping that Louise C Pessalano, head of “Psycho Research,” the aforementioned bookender was a genuine psychiatrist or expert in sexual mores but it turns out he’s an actor, best known for The Farmer (1977). Even so, the points he makes remain valid half a century later and possibly even more vital in these times when issues of sexuality are more prominent. He asks the audience to sympathize with people who are perhaps haunted by “unexplainable drives and anxieties that constantly haunt them.” The case study, “File 743,” shows that Rose, though a cross-dresser, has a “normal” male sex drive while Dominique “show an unnatural desire for power.”

Examining this film from a modern perspective, you would at least feel sympathy for characters trapped into living their life in the shadows, terrified of their own desires, aware of the damage revelation could inflict on life, marriage and career. It’s certainly not terrible and given the obvious budget restrictions Clark uses lighting as if making a silent movie.

Worth a look on Youtube.

Wonderwall (1968) **

While psychedelic forays were all the rage in the late 1960s it’s hard to see how that excuses a movie that appears to exalt a peeping tom. Or at the very least appear to give him a free pass because he’s a barmy scentist and, more likely, because he saves the object of his spying from suicide. And you have to wonder what prompted George Harrison (at the time still a Beatle) to volunteer to provide the soundtrack.

Of course, the title has been popularised by the catchy Oasis song and star Jane Birkin achieved notoriety also on the musical front when her single “Je T’Aime” was banned by the BBC the following year (censorship having the opposite effect and sending it to the top of the charts, as any good marketing analyst could have predicted).

But there’s not much going on here that purports to be narrative and the psychedelics and fantasy sequences fail to remove discomfort over the context.

Professor Collins ( a wild-haired Jack MacGowran) spends his days glued to a microscope studying amoebas and perhaps in a nod to other less than savoury literary characters (Lolita, 1962 and The Collector, 1965, in case you haven’t guessed) collects butterflies and spends the evening in a chaotic apartment stacked high with old magazines (their content, given his later behavior, not what you might expect).

Disturbed by the noise of a party upstairs, he throws something at the wall, knocks something loose and finds a hole-sized light streaming into the darkness of his apartment. With nothing else to keep himself occupied, he peers through and is entranced by the long legs of model Penny Lane (Jane Birkin). Soon, he is checking out a photo shoot, a party, Penny making love to boyfriend (Iain Quarrier), the model rejecting her lover’s suggestions of a threesome with another equally lithe model (Anita Pallenberg), and later discovering she is pregnant.

In between, Collins has various fantasies about challenging the boyfriend to a duel. Initially, this is in the formal manner, with duelling pistols or rapiers, but soon takes the form of giant fountain pens or giant cigarettes. Occasionally, there’s a butterfly motif. Once, he imagines Penny as a mermaid swimming among the amoebas. His dead mother appears in a puff of smoke to tell him off.

And he didn’t get to being a professor without showing some initiative. So when he realises that a tiny hole limits his viewing pleasure, he starts to knock the wall down and watch the woman in widescreen, though somehow the wall is made of glass, thus preventing him intruding, and equally somehow the neighbors never seem to notice.

Of course, you could take it all as fantasy, that a lonely old man just wants to befriend a young woman, as if there was anything less creepy about that.

Naturally, if you’re inclined to ignore the creepiness, you might be tempted to start to praise the psychedelic, but I’m not sure that’s a very good starting point. If you’re into sitar music or George Harrison you will probably enjoy the score.

Jack MacGowran (Age of Consent, 1969) didn’t seem to feel he needed to do any more with the character than dress him as an eccentric. There’s certainly no sense of shame. If anything, thanks to the ending, he is afforded redemption. Jane Birkin (Blow-Up, 1966) isn’t called upon to do anything except appear soulful, and, of course, from time to time, nude. British character actors like Irene Handl and Richard Wattis appear in stock roles.

Joe Massot (The Song Remains the Same, 1976) directed and Gerard Brach (Repulsion, 1965) and Guillermo Cain (Vanishing Point, 1971) wrote the screenplay. But while Massot was a debutant, Brach’s involvement would have indicated something perhaps creepier still but with a more relevant outcome. A case study on how this got the green light in the first place would be most appreciated.

Four in the Morning (1965) ****

Directors learned this early that you only had to point the camera at Judi Dench (Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love, 1998, but here in her first starring role) and even without the benefit of dialog she will always be compelling. And that’s just as well because this is one of those elliptical movies that were in fashion in the wake of Last Year in Marienbad (1960).

Less twisty and self-conscious for sure two apparently unconnected tales are conjoined by a mysterious drowning in the Thames. And this isn’t tourist London, either, but the working version, a city waking up, famed fruit and flower markets coming to life, ferryboat teaming with passengers, the skyline dominated by tiny dots setting off for the office.

In fact, the picture draws its power from three women, the aforementioned Dench as a young woman smothered by motherhood, marriage disintegrating, Ann Lynn (The System/The Girl-Getters, 1965) who breaks out of the supporting role cage where her character is generally fixed from the start to take advantage of a name-above-the-title role as a reticent lover to explore a gamut of emotions. Last of the trio is the drowned woman, whose callous treatment dominates the action.

If you ever wanted to find out what happens to a drownee here’s your chance. Unceremoniously dragged from the shore, transported to a mortuary in a coffin, head laid on a block of wood, clothes cut off, naked body sluiced with water, fingerprints taken, stored in a refrigerator, indignity run riot, it’s a harrowing sight.

As if to compound the movie’s arthouse sensibilities – and it won big at various film festivals – the characters remain anonymous. The wife (Judi Dench), stuck at home with a mewling teething infant, is disconcerted to find husband (Norman Rodway) has returned from a night on the town with  buddy (Joe Melia) in tow. They want to continue partying, waking up wife and baby, resulting in non-stop argument.

Divorced manager of an upmarket bar (Ann Lynn) tries to put off a boyfriend (Brian Phelan) pestering her for a date. Eventually, she relents and they embark on an initially unsatisfying date before she finally comes alive when he steals a speedboat and they power upriver. Even when passion takes over she remains wary of commitment.

I chose this purely on the strength of the score. I first heard the theme on this album when I was in my teens. Fearing that my parents might veto the purchase because of the nudity on the cover – and since the record player was in the lounge – I showed suprising nous for a teenager, and stuck sticky tape over the offending bits. Of course, I then had to come up with a reason why there would be brown sticky tape on the album cover.

Beyond the to-and-fro of each couple’s situation, there’s little in the way of story, but the dialog is refreshing as it winds back and forth through a variety of emotions, including playfulness, a genuine sense that this is not about scoring points but exploring characters, each development the consequence of action however minimal. The mood is often bleak but always ruminative, a sense that emotions could tip at the touch of a switch, nothing quite defined, except that angst one way or another is going to hold sway.

Most British kitchen sink dramas of the period took place up north, not in the country’s capital, and the wife is too young to expect to be so hemmed in by motherhood, unable to grasp, what with the changing times, that she has still contracted, through marriage, to carry the burden of child-rearing.

The sting in the tale is that since the drowned woman is never identified that she turns out to be one or other of the women, my bet being on the wife, who seems at the end of her tether. This might have been more easily tagged as a couple of one-act plays except for the concentration on the drowning and the focus on girlfriend and suitor exploring various parts of the capital at its least tourist-y. But it’s almost a ghostly city, hardly the location for romance.

Judi Dench is superb – she won the Bafta that year as the Most Promising Newcomer – as she captures a character twisting and turning in a situation she never expected to be so depressing. But Ann Lynn, whose career did not have as much upward mobility, is equally expressive as she changes from morose to excited until heightened romance is sufficient to kill off any expectation of fulfilment. Norman Rodway (The Penthouse, 1967), Joe Melia (Modesty Blaise, 1966) and Brian Phelan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) has less room for  development, tending to be more focused on pleasure than emotion.

This didn’t open too many doors for writer-director Anthony Simmons (Your Money or Your Wife, 1960) and he didn’t get behind a camera for another eight years and only made four films in total. Quite why he was so ignored remains a mystery because this is a haunting piece of work, with an excellent script. John Barry (The Lion in Winter, 1968) wrote evocative score.  

Worth seeing for Dench’s performance alone.

The System / The Girl-Getters (1964) ***

Surprisingly subtle performance from Oliver Reed (Hannibal Brooks, 1968), eschewing the trademark quick inhalation of breath and steely glare, as leader of a gang seducing impressionable young girls during the summer season in an English seaside town.  Surprisingly artistic touches – swipes, montage, a meet-cute involved blowing bubbles – from the more usually heavy-handed director Michael Winner (Hannibal Brooks). Surprising amount of rising talent including cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, 1971).

And unlike the previous The Damned / Those Are the Damned (1963), the impromptu gang headed by Tinker (Oliver Reed) is not hell-bent on violence and destruction, and the various seducers, thankfully, could hardly be described as sexual predators. Young girls away on their own for the first time, disappointed not to find the love of their lives,  are still happy to settle for a holiday affair.

The American title is more appropriate and only an overbearing parent would dream of marketing it – effectively from the male perspective – as girls entering perilous territory rather than with the lightness of tourist romance a la The Pleasure Seekers out the same year. The “system,” a misnomer if ever there was one, involves the guys finding various ways of getting tourists’ addresses – Tinker as a beach photographer has the advantage here – in order to seduce them.

Sometimes the plan goes wrong and a girl gets pregnant leaving Nidge (John Alderton) not only abandoning the frolics but doing the decent thing by proposing. Oddly, there’s no sense of the guys competing with each other for the biggest tally of notches on a bed-post; in fact they’re a democratic bunch, dividing up the potential prospects equally.  Equally oddly, I guess, none of the women come across as virgins, no first-timer angst.

Tinker, who spends most of his time avoiding telling compliant girls what they are desperate to hear, i.e that he is in love with them and that the holiday affair might turn into something more permanent, falls for posh model Nicola (Jane Merrow).

There is some, for the time, risqué material, a view in very long shot of a nude woman, a girl in bra and panties (getting dressed after sex, so perhaps where Roeg got the idea from for the famed montage in Don’t Look Now), a brutal fight between rival photographers, camera smashing on the stairs. But there’s also Tinker’s humiliation by the jet set as he tries to fit in, thumped at tennis, and dumped by the married lover he ignores during the season. There’s surprising inventiveness, a demonic parade where effigies of bride and groom are burned on a pyre, a soulful scene of a bubble salesman blowing bubbles on a deserted beach at night.

The twist is of course that some girls come to the seaside town to find boys from whom they want no commitment, instead just the enjoyment of a casual fling. Should a man like Tinker happy to fall in love, more fool he.

Naturally, with a film aimed at the young crowd, there are snatches of pop performers – the Rockin’ Berries the most prominent – and a rock arrangement of Khachaturyan’s Sabre Dance that would four years later become, for someone else, a hit single.

Oliver Reed proves very engaging, especially when in playful mode, benefitting from lengthy screen time rather than being forced into a supporting actor’s scene-stealing. Jane Merrow (The Lion in Winter, 1968), excellent as the self-aware boy-getter, heads a raft of rising talent that includes David Hemmings (Blow-Up, 1966), almost unrecognisable with a side parting rather than the trademark mop of hair, and really a bystander here. John Alderton (Hannibal Brooks) is also permitted more artistic leeway, and takes it, rather than the comedic gurning of later years.

Look out for Julia Foster (Half a Sixpence, 1967), Barbara Ferris (Interlude, 1968), and Ann Lynn (Baby Love, 1969). Even Harry Andrews (The Hill, 1965) tones down his usual screen persona.

Considerably more thoughtful and visually interesting – and occasionally playful, for goodness sake – than anything else Winner produced during the decade. A good script by Peter Draper on his screen debut makes its points without either being too clever or too forceful.   

Life at the Top (1965) ***

Succession as seen from the perspective of someone like the inadequate Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), who has married his way into big business and has an elevated idea of entitlement.

Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) was a genuine working-class hero of Room at the Top (1958) who connived his way into the marriage bed of businessman Abe Brown’s (Donald Wolfit) daughter Susan (Jean Simmons) and set himself up as the heir apparent. Several years on, it’s not quite worked out the way he planned, stuck in a loveless marriage, out of his depth among the Yorkshire elite, passed over for promotion, pinning hopes of personal happiness on an affair with television personality Norah (Honor Blackman).

The only problem is that screen-wise he’s a b*****d without an ounce of the dominating personality of Brian Cox, the ultimate b*****d’s b*****d. This plays out more The Tale of Two Spoiled Brats. So if you’re looking to see Lampton get his come-uppance on several fronts, you’ve come to the right place. Unfortunately, that means there’s isn’t a single likeable character in sight. It might be the way of the world among the high-rollers but it makes for rather dispirited watching.

On the other hand, Lampton was always such a louse it is enjoyable to see him not only being put in his place but ending up a few rungs further down the ladder than where he started. This might have scored some points for social commentary but it’s such a scattershot approach – racing pigeons, local government corruption (by Tories, who else), strip club, ballroom dancing (the original Come Dancing before that usurper Strictly Come Dancing came along), drinking a yard of ale, swimming in the canal, ruthless entrepreneurs, luvvies  – it does little justice to any.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the independence of the women. Susan has a lover Mark (Michael Craig) and emasculates Joe by going behind his back to get whatever she wants, financially, from her father. Ambitious Norah refuses to give up her career for Joe and is likely to withdraw her favors should his ambition fails to match hers.

Even the cuckolded get in on the act, taunting those who had fallen for their partners’ adulterous ways. George Aisgill (Allan Cuthbertson) mocks Joe for falling (in the previous film) for his wife when she went after anything in trousers. Similarly, Mark’s wife ridicules Susan for just being the latest notch on Mark’s bed.

Naturally, Joe hasn’t the wit to see what a good deal he has and spends all his time in self-pitying mode. Poor Joe – he is stuck with driving a white Jag while Abe swans around in a Rolls-Royce. Poor Joe – his wife isn’t going to make do with hotel bedrooms for illicit assignations, but makes full use of the house. Poor Joe – his son doesn’t like him. Poor Joe – he trots out all his childhood deprivations at the slightest opportunity as if auditioning for a Monty Python sketch.

Poor Joe – he’s not even that good a businessman, so naïve that he doesn’t realise that many deals require sweeteners, backhanders, bribes, though smart enough enough to add on a little extra, when extracting such sums from the more worldly Abe, for himself. Poor Joe – he believes business blandishments. Poor Joe – Abe has no interest in the “Report” he’s slaved his guts over. Poor Joe – when he applies for another job, his lack of education marks him down.

The big problem is it’s impossible to feel any sympathy foe Joe. Your heart is more likely to go out to those he wounds with his atrocious behavior. The more he blames everyone else for his predicament, the more an idiot he looks, duped and a biter bit.

And Laurence Harvey (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968) whose screen person is one part arrogance, one part snarky, and one part well-groomed male is not capable of making you feel for his character. Jean Simmons (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) reveals greater depths, vulnerable, passionate, seductive, practical. Honor Blackman (A Twist of Sand, 1968) gives a good account of herself as an ambitious woman with a conscience.  

Few of the other characters are more than ciphers but there’s a decent supporting cast in Donald Wolfit (Becket, 1964), Michael Craig (Stolen Hours, 1963), Robert Morley (Deadlier than the Male, 1967), Allan Cuthbertson (The 7th Dawn, 1964) and Nigel Davenport (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965).

Canadian Ted Kotcheff (Tiara Tahiti, 1962) directed from a screenplay by fellow country man Mordecai Richler (Young and Willing, 1962) based on the John Braine bestseller.  And it seems a bit mean to film it in black-and-white, presumably to emphasize the social aspects when in fact most of its takes place in glamorous settings.  

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