Goodbye Columbus (1969) ****

Despite being made at the opposite end of the decade to Loss of Innocence – for no deliberate  reason I watched these two films back-to-back –  this has a number of similarities to the earlier picture.

In the main there is a star-making turn, this time from Ali McGraw in her debut. Though playing a slightly older and much wealthier character, she is also a woman in transition, from puppy love to true love, not entirely in control of her emotions and not willing either to accept responsibility for her actions.

Richard Benjamin, in his first starring role, plays the sometimes gauche, much poorer object of her affections. He’s only connected by religious upbringing to The Graduate’s Dustin Hoffman, far more relaxed with women and comfortable in his own persona.

The camera loved McGraw the way it did Susannah York, but in these more permissive times, and given the age difference, there was much more the screen could show of the star’s physical attributes. I was surprised by McGraw’s performance, expecting much less from a debutante and ex-model (and studio boss Robert Evans’ fiancée) but she is a delight, supremely engaging as a confident character enjoying a life of privilege and engaging in witty repartee with Benjamin.

He plays a more down-to-earth character who doesn’t know what to do with his life except not get stuck with a money-making job. He would much rather help a young kid who likes art books.

It’s not a rich girl-poor man scenario but more a lifestyle contrast and both families are exceptionally well portrayed, Jack Klugman drawing on a lifetime’s exasperation as her father and Nan Martin as the uptight mother with terrific cameos from Michael Meyers as her oddball brother and especially Lorie Shelle as the spoiled-brat younger sister.

It’s a lyrical love story well told. The zoom shot had just been invented so there’s a bit over-use of that but otherwise it zips along.

A major plot point provides a reminder of how quickly men took advantage of female emancipation, the invention of the Pill dumping responsibility for birth control into the woman’s lap, leaving the male free to indulge without the risk of consequence. In other words, it was still a man’s world. Of course, without the Pill, it would be a different kind of story, romance tinged with fear as both characters worried about unwanted pregnancy and stereotypical humor as the man purchased – or fumbled with – a prophylactic.

Acting-wise McGraw is pretty game until the final scene when her inexperience lets her down. I’m not sure I went for the pay-off which paints McGraw in unsympathetic terms and lets Benjamin off rather lightly, but all in all I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. 

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The Big Gamble (1961) ***

If only there had been some serious money put behind this picture it would have been an absolute cracker, custom-made for the likes of Cinerama which didn’t go down the dramatic route until a few years later. It’s a bit “Hell Drivers Goes to Africa” but with some really quite stunning sequences.

Whatever French chanteuse Juliette Greco had to offer on stage and in a personal capacity – lovers included Miles Davis and this film’s producer Darryl F. Zanuck – never seemed to translate to the screen and the most we get is a kind of tomboyish perkiness.

It’s a medium-grade cast, the lead taken by Northern Irishman Stephen Boyd (here playing a Dubliner) hot at that time from coming straight off a supporting role in Ben-Hur and who would be hot at various times during his short-lived career (he died at 45) while equally never making the transition to major star. David Wayne (The Three Faces of Eve, 1957) is the sad sack brother who joins the other two in a bold plan to set up a haulage business on the Ivory Coast in Africa.

The opening sequence demonstrates the dreary Irish life Boyd is trying to escape with a sparkling cameo from Sybil Thorndike as the family matriarch before the African sequences kick in. Apart from scenes shot at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Ireland, the rest is clearly filmed on pretty dangerous locations if the unloading of a lorry onto what looks like little more than a large canoe is anything to go by.

After an unpromising start, the intrepid trio (well, two are bold, Wayne is not) set off into the wilderness. There are two edge-of-the-cliff sequences that would have The Italian Job fans frothing at the mouth, a runaway lorry in the best Cinerama tradition and an astonishing section crossing a swollen river where clearly the actors did their own stunts. In between we have snippets of genuine Africa, especially canoeists braving the surf and an African funeral party.

Emotionally, beyond Boyd sticking out his chin as much as possible, the main drama focuses on fraternal rivalry with Wayne trying to pull himself together in the face of a mission he believes doomed to failure. Directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, best known for 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Compulsion (1959) and later The Boston Strangler (1968) and here with some help from Elmo Williams, it has a decent enough script from novelist Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions).

All-in-all this tight little film more than does justice to its miserable budget with some genuinely exciting sequences.   As a wee bonus, if you listen hard to Maurice Jarre’s score you will hear strains of some themes that turned up in Lawrence of Arabia.