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.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) *****

A mighty cast headed by John Wayne (True Grit, 1969), James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Vera Miles (Pyscho, 1960) with support from Edmond O’Brien (Seven Days in May, 1964), Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) and Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1967) do justice to John Ford’s tightly-structured hymn to liberty and equality and reflection on the end of the Wild West. So tight is the picture that despite a love triangle there are no love scenes and no verbal protestations of love.

The thematic depth is astonishing: civilization’s erosion of lawlessness, big business vs. ordinary people, political chicanery, and a democracy where “people are the boss.” Throw in a villain with a penchant for whipping and a lack of the standard brawls that often marred the director’s work and you have a western that snaps at the heels of Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956).

The story is told in flashback after Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and wife Hallie (Vera Miles) turn up unexpectedly in the town of Shinbone for the funeral of a nobody Tom Donovan (John Wayne), so poor the undertaker has filched his boots and gunbelt to pay for the pay for the barest of bare coffins. Intrigued by his arrival, newspapermen descend and Stoddard explains why he has returned.

The backstory unfolds. Arriving on stagecoach, novice lawyer Ransom is attacked, beaten and whipped by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He is found by horse-trader Donovan (John Wayne) and taken to a local boarding house-cum-restaurant where Hallie (Vera Miles) tends his wounds. With a young man’s full quotient of principle, Stoddard is astonished to discover that local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) has ducked out of responsibility for apprehending Valance on the dubious grounds that it is outside his jurisdiction and that Valance has so mean a reputation he has the town scared witless. When Valance turns up he humiliates Stoddard and only Donovan stands up to him, rescuing an ungrateful Ransom, who detests violence and any threat of it.

Stoddard soon turns principle into action, setting up his shingle in the local newspaper office run by Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) and on learning that Hallie is illiterate establishing  a school for all ages. In the background is politics, but the push for statehood is inhibited by big ranchers who employ Valance to intimidate. Despite his aversion to violence and insistence that due legal process will eliminate the law of the gun, Stoddard practices shooting. When Donovan gives him a lesson and, to point out his unsuitability to confront such a mean character as Valance, covers him in paint, Stoddard floors him with a punch.  

That principle I mentioned has something in common with Rio Bravo (1959) – Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon (1952) – in that Stoddard, determined to fight his own battles, refuses to ask for help when targeted by Valance. The inevitable showdown is extraordinary, not least because it takes place at night and Ford, a la Rashomon (1951) tells it twice from different points of view.   

Precisely because it retains focus throughout with no extraneous scenes as was occasionally John Ford’s wont, the direction is superb. As in The Searchers, to suggest emotional state-of-mind, the director uses imagery relating to doors. This time the humor is not so broad and limited primarily to one incident. Both main male characters suffer reversals, in the case of Stoddard it is physical but in the instance of Donovan it is emotional. Either way, action is character. In the romantic stakes, they are equals, dancing around their true feelings.

Upfront there is one storyline, the upholding of law and order whether against an individual such as Valance or against the attempts of big business to thwart democracy. But underneath is a subtly-told romance. Donovan and Stoddard are allies but in terms of Hallie they are rivals. Neither have an ounce of sense when it comes to women. Neither actually protests their love for Hallie. Although Donovan brings her cactus roses and is, unknown to her, building an extension to his house to accommodate what he hopes is his future bride, his idea of romance is to mutter, in patronizing manner, the old saw of “you look pretty when you’re angry.”  He would have been wiser to have taken note of her spunk, because she can be more than direct if need be.

Stoddard isn’t much better. Despite her growing feelings towards him being obvious to the audience, he assumes she prefers Donovan. Action drives the love element, the need to save or destroy.

All three principals are superb. This may seem a typical Wayne performance, a dominant figure, comfortable with a gun and his abilities, but awkward in matters of the heart. But he shows as great depth as in The Searchers and the despair etched on his face at the possibility of losing Hallie eats into his soul. Stewart combines the man-of-the-people he essayed for Frank Capra with some of the toughness he showed in the Anthony Mann series of westerns. Vera Miles tempers genuine anger with tenderness and practicality. Unlike many Ford heroines she is not a trophy wife, but a worker, mostly seen running a kitchen. Lee Marvin cuts a sadistic figure, with an arrogance that sets him above the law, his tongue as sharp as his whip.

As well as Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Edmond O’Brien and Lee Van Cleef, you will spot various members of the John Ford stock company including Andy Devine (Two Rode Together, 1961) as the cowardly gluttonous marshal, John Carradine (Stagecoach), John Qualen (The Searchers) as the restaurant owner and Jeanette Nolan (Two Rode Together) as his wife.

The boldest part of the picture, however, comes at the end, when the director dismantles the myth built up around Stoddard and which the politician has used to create a career that spanned two terms as a Senator, three terms as a Governor and been the American Ambassador to Britain. So be warned, if you ain’t seen the picture, this is spoiler alert. In some respects, Ford was way ahead of his time. The twist at the end where the good guy is revealed as the villain of the piece is more of a contemporary trope. There were plenty of pictures where the villain appeared to have gotten away with it only to be caught out at the very last minute. This is not that kind of movie. Stoddard gets away with it for the simple reason that he fits the heroic mold.

“Print the legend” is very much the standard American attitude to myth. Dig deeper and what you find is hypocrisy. Man-of-the-people Stoddard’s life is based on bare-faced fraud. He took the glory for an action he did not commit. Of course this was in the days before newspapers found that bringing down politicians sold more papers than building them up and these days I doubt if such a scoop would be ignored.

Nor for all his upstanding image does Stoddart show the slightest sign of remorse – until now when he must know his confession will never see the light of day. (Maybe, if he had gone to the New York Times but not the Shinbone paper). He built his entire career on this violent action, the antithesis of his supposed stance on process of law.  He takes all the plaudits and fails to acknowledge Donovan, except when it’s too late, and Donovan has died a pauper, his rootless life perhaps engendered as a result of losing Hallie. Hallie’s character, too, is besmirched. She chose Stoddart precisely because he was a man of principle who risked his life to tackle – and apparently kill – Donovan. Those two elements are indistinguishable. Had she know Stoddart had failed and was only saved by the action of Donovan it is questionable whether she would have chosen the lawyer.

There are a couple of other quibbles, not so much about the picture itself, but about other quibblers, commonly known as critics.  Alfred Hitchcock famously came under fire for the use of back projection, not just in Marnie (1964) but other later films. That spotlight never appeared to be turned on the at-the-time more famous John Ford. The train sequence at the end of the film uses back projection and the ambush at the beginning is so obviously a set.

Don’t let these put you off, however, this is one very fine western indeed and fully justifies its growing critical status.

CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: By the way, if you live in Italy you can catch this on the big screen in Bologna where it is showing at Il Cinema Ritrovato – Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna on July 20-27, 2021.

Readers’ Top 30

I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
  3. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
  4. Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
  7. Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
  8. The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
  9. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
  10. The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
  11. Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
  12. Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
  13. The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
  14. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
  15. The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
  16. The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
  17. 4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
  18. Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
  19. Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
  20. Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
  21. Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
  22. Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
  23. Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
  24. A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
  25. The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
  26. In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
  27. Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
  28. The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
  29. Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
  30. Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Blindfold (1965) *****

Hugely enjoyable superior addition to the romantic thriller genre with charismatic stars and a touch of screwball comedy. Dr Stone (Rock Hudson), a psychiatrist with such commitment issues he is dubbed “Bluebeard” by the media, is recruited by General Prat (Jack Warden) of the National Security Council to prevent former patient Arthur Vincenti (Alejandro Rey) falling victim to an international scientist-kidnapping ring. Getting to the patient, a plane and car ride away, requires the titular blindfold so Stone has no idea where he is. When Vincenti attacks Stone as a traitor, Prat explains the scientist has been brainwashed.

Ballet dancer Vicky (Claudia Cardinale) engineers an accidentally-on-purpose meet-cute in Central Park by running her bicycle into Stone’s horse but when, to nurse her injury, he carries her into his office she steals the scientist’s file. Turns out her artistic skills are somewhat lower than ballet, she is a go-go dancer, but she is the scientist’s brother whom she claims has been kidnapped. Stone is arrested and to get out of another sticky situation announces he is engaged to Vicky.

Complications are added when the C.I.A and F.B.I. enter the equation as well as a very suspicious cop Harrigan (Brad Dexter) with an inferiority complex, a couple of shady homburg-wearing hoods and new patient Fitzpatrick (Guy Stockwell), who, all, in one way or another, hound Stone and Vicky. The couple’s relationship is one of those on-again off-again romances which come with the territory. Soon, of course, Stone doesn’t know who to believe.

Bearing in mind we still have to get to the geese, the alligators and a mule called Henry, the witty, inventive script delivers on all fronts. Both Stone and Vicky are believable characters, and Stone’s psychiatric skills are not just window dressing – the kind of tony job associated with innocents thrust into peril. He uses his proficiency to get out of scrapes and eventually solve the mystery. Despite her glamor-girl persona, Vicky is the opposite of the sleek high-living characters often shoehorned into this kind of picture, a down-to-earth lass living in a brownstone with her mama and papa. Both leads turn out to be handy with their fists and in Vicky’s case her high-kicking feet.

And the comedy, rather than getting in the way or looking ridiculously out of place, aids and abets the storyline. It falls into three distinct camps. There is repartee not just between Stone and Vicky but Stone’s secretary (Anne Seymour) operates a sideline in dry quips. Slapstick comes mainly in the form of a fire extinguisher employed as a weapon and Stone nearly losing his trousers scaling a fence. Bureaucratic brick walls that hint of paranoia come close to classic black comedy. Not to mention some visual gags – “undie dummies” anyone – and some neat reversals.

This is Hudson at his very best and while often confused is never flustered, and without recourse to the double-takes that appeared so essential in any previous film with a comedic element. His character is assured, self-aware, thoughtful (he has to be to think things out), and very human. Cardinale is more than a match, a nice girl in the wrong line of work, passionate, determined and very warm. Director Philip Dunne find dramatic reasons to reveal her famous assets in body stocking, leotard and underwear, but in reality it is her smile that is the killer.

Dunne (Lisa, 1962) keeps up a cracking pace. He had a hand in the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Lucille Fletcher (Sorry, Wrong Number, 1948), one-time wife of composer Bernard Herrmann. Here, incidentally, the music is by Lalo Schifrin. Among the decade’s romantic thrillers this is out-ranked only by Charade (1963).

Gladiator (2000) *****

As well as being first in the queue to see The Gladiator on original release over two decades ago and enjoying countless viewings since on DVD and television, the chance to see a big-screen revival (as part of this week’s cinematic triple bill) was not to be missed. There’s always some worry in going back to see a movie you adored that time will have caught up with it or that the big screen will magnify flaws. Instead, this was a pure blast, one of the greatest epics of all time and definitely one of the most brilliant scores.

I always feel kind of sorry for people who’ve only see this kind of picture on a small screen – no matter how big your television it comes nowhere near the cinematic experience. I’m not even sure why it was showing on the big screen – the 20th anniversary has passed so maybe the draw was the upcoming British Father’s Day.

If you’re quick, you will be able to see it until June 17 at the Showcase cinema chain in the U.K. This is a new 4K print. It may run longer if it picks up sufficient demand.

Director Ridley Scott was in something of a career lull after the highs of Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) and his previous historical adventures – The Duellists (1977) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – had been box office duds, so this was a considerable big-budget gamble for Dreamworks and Universal.

Few historical epics begin with action. Directors tended to want to build up the various characters before any battle got under way. But apart from a few seconds of an idyllic pastoral setting establishing how much Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) wants to get back to his Spanish farm, we are immediately, with foot-tapping music by Hans Zimmer, into one of the best battles ever filmed, not just for the tactical detail, and the sense of danger – an emissary is returned missing his head – but the ferocity of the action.

Backgrounding this is politics. Dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) distrusts his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and want to make Maximus the power in Rome. The reaction of Commodus is to smother his father and murder his rival. Maximus escapes but ends up a slave in a gladiator camp in North Africa and eventually returns to Rome plotting revenge.

Into the mix comes Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) who had romantic yearnings for Maximus in the distant past and various senators plotting to remove Commodus from office. The story basically shifts from dramatic action in the arena to outside intrigue with Maximus being seen as a man who could potentially unseat the emperor.

But Ridley Scott has such a fine eye for everything, genuine locations mix in brilliantly with CGI, the action sequences are astonishing, and emotions are kept at a peak. Even when the main narrative pauses here and there to allow philosophic and patriotic speeches they are so deftly written they often amount to the best pieces of dialogue in the picture.

Few movies have as many memorable lines. Sample: “what we do in life echoes in eternity;” “death smiles at us all, all we can do is smile back;” “people should know when they are conquered;” “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, I will have my vengeance in this life or the next;” the “little bee” sequence;  and the lines that ended up as taglines on the advertising posters” a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an emperor.”

While he could easily have let the action speak for itself and who would not have welcomed more battles with Roman foes or more combat in the arena – and many other movies with a character in a similar predicament have succumbed to that temptation – Scott ensures that the tensions between the characters are never lost. So Commodus is driven both by wishing to please his father and desiring an incestuous relationship with his sister. Lucilla is torn between protecting her son (Spencer Treat Clark), her growing attraction to Maximus and trying to keep her brother at bay while plotting against him. Maximus, who has no head for politics, finds himself involved in intrigue as a way of gaining revenge on Commodus.   

Nor does Scott get bogged down with too much exposition or the intricacies of character as has often been the downfall of epics. The story has been whittled down to essential conflict.

It’s hard to pick a winner from the various action scenes – the opening clash in the forests of Germania with snow beginning to fall; the first gladiatorial combat where Maximus takes control; a small band of gladiators fighting what seems a losing battle against chariots; Maximus being unexpectedly attacked by tigers in the arena; or his climactic fight with Commodus.

And there are substantial cameos for British stars – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings – who have lost their box office luster but not their acting ability. Connie Nielsen was a revelation.

Russell Crowe became instant superstar with his majestic portrayal. His name had already been on the lips of Oscar voters, having been nominated the previous year for The Insider (1999), but he took the Best Actor Oscar here. Although the film was named Best Picture Ridley Scott lost out – unfairly I felt – in the Best Director category to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. (How do the two films compare now, I wonder). Joaquin Phoenix and Hans Zimmer were also nominated and the movie also picked up nominations for cinematography and screenplay (David Franzoni, William Nicolson and John Logan.) All told it won five Oscars and seven nominations.

This was the climax to my cinematic triple bill this week and since it also included Nobody and The Father, it could well turn out to be one of the best days I have ever spent at the cinema.

CATCH-UP: I reviewed The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) a while back and if you compare both pictures you can clearly see how much Ridley Scott owes a debt to the previous film.  

There’s a company called Park Circus – http://www.parkcircus.com – which has the rights to show on the big screen virtually all the old movies made by Hollywood studios and it’s worth checking out whether this might be coming your way soon.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) *****

Stone-cold action classic that blazed a trail for the big-budget men-on-a-mission war picture like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Brilliantly structured, written and directed,  and featuring a sea battle, storm, shipwreck, mountaineering, chase, interrogation scenes, infiltration of an impregnable fortress, a pair of romances, two traitors, and an awe-inspiring climax make this a candidate for one of the greatest war pictures ever made.

The set-up is simple. Knock out the gigantic guns at Navarone or two thousand men will perish. It’s mission impossible and the clock is ticking. You don’t know who to trust and the enemy is ruthless.

In the early days of the all-star-cast, producer Carl Foreman rounded up an astonishing line-up, bulking out the bestseller by Scottish thriller maestro Alistair Maclean (The Secret Ways, 1961) with three top stars in five-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), double Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn (Heller in Pink Tights, 1960) and Oscar-winner David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960). Add in British household names Anthony Quayle (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Stanley Baker (The Concrete Jungle, 1960) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Love, 1960), a sprinkling of rising stars in James Darren (Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960), Gia Scala (I Aim at the Stars, 1960) and Richard Harris (The Night Fighters, 1960) and renowned Greek actress Irene Papas (Antigone, 1961).

Each man is a specialist. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck) the mountaineer whose climbing skills are essential to completing the fist part of the mission, explosives expert Corporal Miller (David Niven), mechanic ‘Butcher’ Brown (Stanley Baker), Greek patriot Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) and the ruthless killer Pappadimos (James Darren) who has the contact with the Greek resistance. The stakes are ramped up when we learn both Mallory and Stavrou have bounties on their heads, not to mention the fact they are sworn enemies, and that before the mission even gets under way, spies are discovered in the camp. The ostensible leader of the group Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) is wounded early on, turning him into a liability and making Mallory the de facto leader.

The stakes are ramped up further – this time through relationships. Their Greek contact turns out to be a woman, Maria (Irene Papas), brother of Pappadimos. She brings with her a mute girl Anna (Gia Scala) for whom Mallory develops romantic feelings while Stavrou has eyes for Maria. Mallory is also torn about Franklin, his best friend.

And from there it pitches into one disaster after another. They are too easily hunted by the Germans. They are shelled with mortars and attacked by dive bombers as they race across open mountains and through caves to reach their destination. They have to shoot their way out of traps and finagle their way into the fortress. There are twists and turns all the way, the clock ticking in almost James-Bond-style as the deadline for the destruction of the troops approaches.

And although this is clearly a war picture it is also as obviously an anti-war one, no end to the killing in sight, people dying pointlessly.

Although the acting was ignored come Oscar time, each of the stars delivers and it is a communal tour de force. Director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex) ensures that in visual terms none of the stars dominates, each given equal screen time while the strong supporting cast each has their own narrative arc. With over two-and-half-hours’ running time, Thompson has both the bonus of time to allow each element to be fully played out and the problem of keeping the picture taut and he succeeds brilliantly in both aims. It is a masterpiece of suspense. And it looked fabulous, the guns themselves, by which the picture might succeed or fail, were awesome.

Thompson was Oscar-nominated as was producer Carl Foreman for both Best Picture and the screenplay, Dmitri Tiomkin for the score (one of the longest-ever), John Cox for sound, Alan Osbiston for editing. Bill Warrington who did the visual special effects and Chris Greenham who did the sound effects were the only winners on the night.

It was a commercial smash, top picture of the year in the U.S., the biggest  picture of all time at the British box office and breaking records all over the world.

The Demon (1963) *****

I was riveted. Never mind the spider-walk, this is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Highly under-rated and largely dismissed for not conforming to audience expectation that horror pictures should involve full moons, castles, darkness, fog, costumes, nubile female victims, graveyards, a male leading character, shocks to make a viewer gasp, and the current trend for full-on gore. So if that’s what you’re looking for, give this a miss. Even arthouse critics, spoiled by striking pictures by the Italian triumvirate of Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni, were equally scornful. For the most part this takes place in broad daylight and is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains where primitive farmers till the soil with horse and plough and water is collected in buckets from the river.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is that it creates its own unique universe. The townspeople are both highly religious and deeply superstitious, every traditional Catholic ceremony matched by age-old ritual. Even some of the formal traditions seem steeped in ancient belief, sinners marching up a steep hill with people being scourged or carrying a heavy rock, in a convent the tree of a suicide covered in barbed wire. At a wedding in a church, how low the candles flicker is deemed to indicate the length of the marriage. A wedding night rite involves shoving a scythe under the bed to cut short Death’s legs with the bedspread covered in grapes – to soak up evil and discord – arranged in the form of a cross to act as bait for bad thoughts and poison them before they can cause the couple harm. When the people run through the town brandishing torches it is not, as would be genre tradition, to set fire to a castle but to vanquish evil from the air.

French poster.

It is filmed in austere black-and-white. In the Hollywood Golden Era of black-and-white movies, lighting and make-up transformed heroines, rich costumes enhanced background. Here, if the heroine is wearing make-up it’s not obvious and the only clothes worth mentioning are a priest’s robes or a plain wedding dress. Otherwise the most arresting feature is the stark brightness against which the black-dressed figure of the heroine Puri (Daliah Lavi) scuttles about.

And although there are no jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, there are moments that will linger on in your mind, not least the heroine enduring a vicious extended beating from her father, an exorcism that turns into rape and (Exorcist-fans take note) a spider-walk, the young woman’s torso thrust up high on elongated arms and legs. Virtually the entire success of the picture relies on atmosphere and in places it is exquisitely subtle, the audience only realizing she is being raped by the look on her face.

The picture opens with a dialogue-free scene of stunning audacity, foreshadowing the idea from the start that image is everything. Puri pierces her chest with a needle, cuts off a chunk of her hair to mop up the blood, throws the hair into the oven and rams the crisp remains into a loaf of bread. Not to be consumed, as you might imagine, but as a tool of transport. Shortly after, having failed to seduce Antonio (Frank Wolff), she tricks him into drinking wine infused with the ashes of her bloodied hair, bewitching him, so she believes, to abandoning his betrothed. In an echo of a Catholic sacrament she shouts, “You have drunk my blood and now you will love me, whether you want to or not.”  

The next morning when collecting water at the river she has a conversation with a boy Salvatore, only to discover he has just died. His death is blamed on her because his last words were a request for water, which she is judged to have denied him. She is beaten by women. She is feared by everyone in the village, her family tainted with the same brush, wooden crosses nailed to their door. She is not a ghostly figure, flitting in and out of the townspeople’s lives, an apparition tending towards the invisible, but fully formed, highly visible in her black dress and anguished expression, doomed by her often vengeful actions and forceful words.

Much of the film involves Puri being beaten or chased or captured, at one point trussed up like a hog. Attempts to exorcise her, whether pagan or Catholic, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Guiseppe involves blowing on a mirror before taking on sexual aspects which culminate in rape. The Catholic version in a church in front of her family is primarily, as it would be in The Exorcist, a duel between the priest and whatever possesses her.

Movie producers who took one look at the beauty of Palestinian-born Daliah Lavi (Blazing Sand, 1960) thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure. So they stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969). they should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her astonishing acting ability. And much as I have enjoyed such films, I doubt if I could watch them again without thinking what a waste of a glorious talent. This is without doubt an acting tour de force, as she alternatively resists possession and adores the being who has taken hold of her mind. She dominates the screen.

The rest of the mostly male cast are dimmed in comparison, as if overawed by the power of her personality. Future spaghetti western veteran Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Felllini. He made few films, none matching this in scope or imagination, perhaps as a result of the picture not receiving the praise it deserved. Even now it does not have a single critical review on Rotten Tomatoes.

One other point: you may have noticed that in general the proclivities of male horror characters are never in need of psychological explanation. Nobody considers that the Wolfman must have suffered from childhood trauma or that a vampire drinks blood because he was a rejected suitor. Strangely enough, as would be the case in The Exorcist and other instances of female possession, psychiatry is usually the first port of call and here all reviews I have read implicitly see Puri’s actions as based on sexual inhibition and rejection by Antonio.  

I saw this on an old DVD but you can catch it for free on Youtube.

Possessor (2020) *****

This Brandon Cronenberg (son of you-know-who) rumination on identity is heavily disguised as a gory and occasionally sexy dystopian thriller. What appears at first glance a homage to giallo – toplining on shock, flesh and blood – soon reveals deeper layers of something more insistently disturbing. Focusing on an identity thief whose victim turns the tables into a who-owns-who, the films asks questions about the nature of identity and the effect of memory loss or memory accrual on individual personality. An early scene, part-debrief/part-interrogation, sees identity mind-robber Andrea Riseborough interviewed by boss Jennifer Jason Leigh to determine her own memory status, picking her way through a box of items carrying emotional connection, but it later becomes clear that Leigh has more sinister concerns: is the Riseborough returned from her latest adventure the same one as was sent out or has she been infiltrated by another?

Riseborough borrows identities in order to perpetrate a series of assassinations for an unseen corporation. Such murders are gorier than her employers would expect, invariably involving sharp implements, and setting the viewer to wonder whether the source for such brutality comes from a deeper part of the woman’s psyche. How much she is who she says she is is also questionable; before turning up on her ex’s doorstep, she rehearses what she wants to say. So there is mental and emotional dislocation at play, though whether that is the result of the experiments she appears to willingly undertake or whether from an existing characteristic is hard to say. So Cronenberg always has us at a disadvantage, and he keeps us that way, one step removed from what is going on, and may have occurred in the past, and only the determined assurance that nothing is going to turn out as it should.

One of the elements that places this picture in the top-notch category is that Cronenberg’s future does not fully work, components appear constantly out of place, as if a gear is always slipping. When Riseborough impersonates a man it is clear she has not quite grasped his full personality. When she possesses the identity of Christopher Abbott, a lowly drone partnering boss’s daughter Tuppence Middleton, he/she appears to be sleepwalking, parts of his personality eluding her, the disconnect so obvious that Middleton continues to ask what’s wrong and Abbott seems to forget that he is having an affair or has a friend at work. Again, it’s not clear whether this is Riseborough’s skillset drifting, or an extreme example of the dangers of identity theft. Instead of this whole concept being a scientific marvel, he/she is always one step behind. (Nothing to do with the plot but the previous butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth English actress Middleton has also gone through a screen persona transformation, searching out her inner raunch for hot action with Abbott).

When Abbott begins to imagine inhabiting Riseborough’s face, the ghastly apparition seen on the poster, and in one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, the story takes a different turn, as if a Terminator is now on her tail.

The world depicted is an invasive one. Riseborough can infect the brain and take over the body, while Abbott’s day-job appears voyeuristic, as if the internet eye had become all-encompassing. To complete the dystopian feel, streets are always deserted and although that may be the result of budget restriction it fits the overall tone, this concrete jungle in sharp contract with murder in marble halls (a cameo by Sean Bean).

Riseborough is at her haunted best, Leigh steely as her boss, Abbott a revelation as the disturbed stolen property. Nod to Jim Williams for a brilliant score. While Cronenberg tags Blade Runner, Brazil, Blue Thunder and Terminator, the movie is an original. With enough drive and mystery to keep the thriller aspects at full tilt and while following in father David Cronenberg’s footsteps in his thirst for gore, the thrust of the picture is quite different, the concept so good it could have gone any number of different ways: the burglar trapped between two identities: the identities at war: or the personalities trying to make up what has been removed. You are left wondering what else could be going on in the world of Cronenberg’s imagination and not so much begging for a sequel but another parallel adventure in this particular universe. When a movie is still preying on your mind several days later, that’s when you know you have uncovered something special.

Marnie (1964) *****

Arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most difficult film and with some attitudes that will not sit well with today’s audiences nonetheless this is an assured work and the completion of an unofficial trilogy that tries to explain the unexplainable. The director had not been making what might be termed traditional Hitchcock pictures for well over half a decade if you take North by Northwest (1959) as the anomaly in a sequence that began with the obsessive Vertigo (1958). You could argue that Hitchcock had turned a bit “north by northwest” himself, the “hero” of Psycho (1960) a mother-obsessed serial killer, the “bad guys” in The Birds (1963) the titular rapacious creatures who besiege the leading characters and set the world on an apocalyptical course.  

Attempts are made in both Psycho and The Birds to explain the actions of the predators, but such explanations are external, remote, and with Marnie Hitchcock takes the bold step of attempting to explain what makes such a devious, compulsive, frigid liar tick. Hitchcock called the movie a “sex mystery” but it was unclear whether he was just once again trying to tantalize his audience or whether he believed it was film about the mystery of sex, what causes attraction between two people and what sets others up to steadfastly reject the concept.  To embellish his thesis he chose one of the world’s most beautiful actresses (Tippi Hedren) and the actor (Sean Connery) who could easily lay claim to being the world’s sexiest man (as he was later anointed in various polls).

It seemed almost an indecent proposal to deny the bed-hopper-par-excellence – as viewed from the James Bond perspective. And it certainly took all the charm Connery could muster to prevent audiences baulking at the almost perverse scientific aspects of his character, an amateur zoologist who welcomed a known criminal into his world for the chance to examine her at close quarters.  The audience is constantly kept at one remove. In the first section we watch enthralled as Hedren carries out her bold thefts, as if she is capable of wrapping the entire male population around her little finger by the simple device of adjusting her skirt.

But in the middle section, it is Connery who is in control and the trapped Hedren who is twisting and turning searching for an escape route. In the final section, when it is clear that it is the lover, not the scientist, in Connery that tries to find a way round the problem, the tension is at its height because we have no idea whether she will run true to form and manage to steal and lie her way out or whether Connery’s patience will snap and he will throw her to the wolves who are certainly by this point circling.

The central device on which Hitchcock hooked an audience was the moviegoer demand for a happy ending. He duped cinemagoers in Psycho, slaughtering the heroine halfway through. In The Birds Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren underwent a harrowing physical assault and while clearly romantically involved by the end Hedren was a wreck. Here, the assaults are mental. There is none of the romantic banter that defines the greatest of his traditional works. Hedren and Connery are together because he has forced the issue and loving though his blackmail is it is still an unequal relationship and one from which she will seek to escape at every opportunity. Hedren’s compulsive character is a mystery that appears insoluble as she resists every attempt to break down the wall she has erected to protect herself from her past.

Cover of the Winston Graham source novel. In the book, Marnie is being pursued by two men but in the film this is turned to Connery being the one with two women in tow.

The story is straightforward with few of the twists of other pictures. We meet Hedren as she escapes with nearly $10,000 stolen from her employers. We learn quickly that she is a master of disguise, has several social security cards up her sleeve, can turn from brunette to blonde, and is so practiced in her deception that she can convince an employer to take her on without references. As that particular duped employer is spelling out his predicament to the police, an amused Sean Connery, a customer of her employer,  appears. Hedren runs off to a bolthole, an upmarket hotel, close to the stables where she keeps a horse, Forio.

Shifting back to Hedren we find her visiting her mother in a tawdry street near the docks. The artifice of confidence is shredded away. She is jealous of the attention her mother gives a little girl whom she looks after. She wants love that her mother is unable to give. When she lays her head on her mother’s lap waiting for the soothing stroke of a hand all she receives is rebuke for leaning too heavily on her mother’s sore leg. The mother in North by Northwest was played for comedy, in Psycho an occasion for murder, and here a means of control. Here, too, we witness the color red sparking an inexplicable and frightening experience.

When Hedren applies for a new job it is at Connery’s firm, where he is the coming man. He watches amused as she is interviewed, intervenes to ensure she is hired. They have in common that they are widowed. Hedren is already planning her next big score, discovering that the combination to the safe is kept in a drawer to which her employer’s secretary has the key.

But he is ready for her and it seems almost perverse that he does not let her know he is aware of her true identity. Instead, under the guise of asking her to work overtime, he gives her an academic paper to type. The subject is predators, “the criminals of the animal world” in which females feature. His gentle pressure is almost sadistic and she is saved by a sudden storm which triggers another bad subconscious reaction.  

Her theft of money from the office is a classic Hitchcock scene. It begins in complete silence. The screen is divided in two, the office and the corridor. Seeing a cleaner appear, Hedren removes her shoes to make her getaway. Almost as she reaches the safety of the stairs, a shoe falls out of her pocket and clatters on the floor. The cleaner does not look up. She is very hard of hearing.

But Connery is again prepared and when she disappears tracks her to her bolthole, confronts her, questioning her again and again until he thinks he is close to the truth. He can’t turn her in because he has fallen in love. Her choice is stark – him or the police. Soon they are married. But the honeymoon, despite his patience, is a disaster, she cannot “bear to be handled” and they return home further apart than ever.

Meanwhile, figures from her past begin to appear. Lil (Diane Baker) who lusts after Connery brings peril to their door. Connery persists with trying to get Hedren to open up.

Eventually, there is a break in her compulsive syndrome, brought on by love, and we head back to her mother’s to get to the root of the problem. Even when the problem is solved her mother remains distant, still won’t stroke her hair. If there is a happy ending it is like that of The Birds, an immediate problem solved but who knows when or if the crows will return, and there is a similar resolution here, Hedren learns the source of her nightmares but it would be a very blind person who did not see terrible ramifications for the future.

There are certainly a few jarring moments, Hitchcock’s insistence on back projection for a start, but then you didn’t really think in North by Northwest that the director was allowed to film in front of the United Nations, did you? Rather than a technical flaw, the back projection seems to fit another purpose, a device to make the audience stop and examine what is going on, for much of it occurs when Hedren is in her fantasy world. And you would have to take exception to Connery’s actions in the bedroom on honeymoon, no matter how gentle his caresses at other times. And certainly, the psychological assumptions ring hollow given our current knowledge of such conditions, but despite that make for tense viewing.

But the meat of the movie is self-deception. Hedren is convinced she can get away with a series of thefts. Connery is convinced her can cure her. His constant interrogation is what passes for lovers’ banter. In aligning himself as her moral guardian and perhaps her savior, “dying to play doctor,” Connery has entered a nightmare of his own making. Only an arrogant man would believe all women would fall at his feet and Hitchcock clearly makes a connection with Connery’s ongoing incarnation as James Bond where that is exactly the case. Connery is every bit as flawed, as obsessive, as Scottie in Vertigo, determined to shape a woman into perfect form, and, yes, expecting to eradicate the imperfect past.

Connery emanated such ease, such amazing grace, on the screen that it backfired. Critics often didn’t believe he was putting much into his acting when in reality he was acting his socks off. This is a tremendously difficult part, walking the tightrope between looking a deluded fool and retaining audience empathy and coming across badly when he pushes a vulnerable woman too hard. This is a very rounded character, a gentle adoring lover in the main, but not one to be crossed. His interrogations are intense and yet still you can see that it will kill him if he is double-crossed. The casual amusement with which he greeted her appearance at his office is replaced by fear at her sudden departure.

Hedren, too, whose acting ability was often called into question, carries on where she left off in The Birds. By the end of that picture her nerves had been shredded. Here, her emotions, which she cannot as easily control as the rest of her life, too often fly off into a high pitch. Half the time she is the cool collected customer of The Birds, the rest of the time she is demented.  Except in The Birds she was self-confident around men. Any self-assurance she has now is skin deep. There was always a fragility about Hedren, hidden behind the glossy exterior and fashionable outfits, and here it is exposed. The touching scenes with her mother, the mouth tightened in jealousy over the little girl, are perfectly played. A little girl lost in wolf’s clothing. And trapped, she is almost snarling at her captor, the submissive dialogue concealing the mind hard at work looking for an exit.

The interrogative scenes between Connery and Hedren are extremely difficult to pull off. It would have been easier if Connery was not in love with her, and to some extent pulled his punches. It would be easier for her if he was an out-and-out predator who could be paid in kind to shut up and go away. Instead, they both have to walk a verbal tightrope and only actors of some excellence can pull off that trick without losing the audience.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. There is a particularly awful pan-and-scan version of this film on YouTube. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.