The Pleasure Seekers (1964) ***

Unlike Paris, London and Rome, in the early 1960s Madrid lacked an array of easily-recognized iconic buildings so it fell to one of the three main characters to keep audiences informed of why and at what they should marvel. Director Jean Negulesco freshened up his remake of Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) by adding songs, not enough to turn it into a full-blown musical, but enough to define Fran (Ann-Margret) as a singer.

She shares a flat with Maggie (Carol Lynley) and newcomer Susie (Pamela Tiffin) and pretty much all they have in common is trying to get married. The major changes to the previous picture is that the girls are younger, and therefore marriage not so critical, and that nobody has a terminal illness, so it never falls into the three-hanky romantic category. Maggie is in love with her married boss Paul (Brian Keith) and reporter Pete (Gardner McKay) is in love with her. Susie is wooed by millionaire playboy Emilio (Anthony Franciosca) and Maggie falls for humble doctor Andres (Andre Lawrence).

The meet-cutes are well done. Emilio attempts to comfort Susie in a museum believing her tears are caused by being overcome by a painting when instead she is just homesick. The doctor attracts Fran’s attention when he accidentally runs her over (a reversal of the situation in her next film Bus Riley’s Back in Town, 1964, when her character runs into the car of the eponymous Bus). And there are some interesting twists. Susie, believing Emilio, is a good-for-nothing impoverished man, moves her handbag away from him when they dine in a restaurant. Maggie finds that Paul’s stern wife Jane (Gene Tierney) brings her up to speed on her errant husband. Fran is astonished to discover Emilio has principles. And there is a running gag with an apparently voyeuristic neighbor who turns out to have a bride the equal of any of the girls.

Sometimes it just seems like an excuse for the women to adopt endless poses in their lingerie, or for Maggie to belt out a few numbers, or for a tourist round-up of the city’s most interesting places. But it’s effortlessly done, wrapped up in patina of innocence, as though the events were taking place a decade before in glorious color, in the kind of film where once in a while the action could stop for a song.

Pamela Tiffin and Anthony Franciosca get acquainted.

None of the songs, by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen, are anywhere as good as their theme tune for Three Coins in the Fountain, but Maggie is less of the hip-swinging song-belter of Viva Las Vegas (1964) and more a torch singer, although the choreography, as in the matador number, is occasionally stunning. It’s hard to see why she merits four songs when one would have sufficed to fix her character as a cabaret singer. And Madrid ain’t Rome. And, excepting Ann-Margret, the film has no stars.

In some respects this was a backward step for Ann-Margret who had just started taking on more dramatic roles with Kitten with a Whip and with the exception of her singing has the least interesting role. Pamela Tiffin (The Lively Set, 1964) portrays the most interesting character, not just suspicious of male motives but able to protect herself again them. Carol Lynley (Danger Route, 1967) was another one on the cusp of stardom. Anthony Franciosca, who would star again with Ann-Margret in The Swinger (1966) and opposite Raquel Welch in Fathom (1967) was constantly being tipped as the next big star. This was the final film of Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven, 1945).

Jean Negulesco (Jessica, 1962) would not make a picture for another six years and you can see how easily his brand of romantic drama was already beginning to lose its appeal. No matter how much the marketeers dressed up his movies, Jessica another example, as sexy, they remained endearingly innocent at a time when audiences wanted to move on from virtue.

This might have worked better had it revolved around one character rather than three and the stopping for indifferent songs undercuts what little drama the film possesses. Edith Sommer (Jessica, 1962) cracked out the screenplay based on the previous film.

A Place for Lovers (1968) ***

Not quite the Hollywood romance, too much bellyaching from the male for a start, and a couple of years before Love Story (1971) gave terminal illness a box office shot in the arm, but nonetheless very much an adult love affair and far from deserving a place in the top 50 worst films of all time.

For a start director Vittorio De Sica plays around with audience expectations. This always has the feel of a romance that could end at any time, of characters not quite sure of the other person’s feelings, real love or just sex, the sense of not knowing where this could go, and of where, emotionally, they find themselves. And it begins with confusion, a blaring horn in the background, a close-up of Julia (Faye Dunaway), and then she jiggles around with some bricks in a wall before retrieving a key and finding her way inside a grand though modern Italian pallazo. You’ve no idea why she is here and I guess neither does she.

There’s been no meet-cute and there’s no real intimation of how the attraction began except, judging from a brief flashback, they must have bumped into each other at an airport. That’s my conclusion anyway because the details of the actual meeting are never clarified, like a lot of what subsequently goes on. She hides information from him, he does the same, so for a time feelings are not spelled out. It’s clandestine in all the wrong ways. There’s a separation, a distance, characters often seen in very long shot. Sometimes there are physical barriers between them, a high fence in one instance, as if true intimacy is impossible.

Still no sign of the man she has come to visit. She rescues a stray dog from the town dog collector. It’s an exceptionally grand house, classically designed, marble floors, paintings and artistic artefacts all over the place, but no clutter. When Valerio (Marcello Mastroianni) arrives – it’s his house – he checks the labels on her luggage, presumably finding out her full name, possibly her address, possibly accustomed to lovers providing false information on both counts. We learn he’s a safety-conscious racing driver, a man who requires barriers.

They are on a deadline already. She is only in Italy for a further two days. This is a lie. She has 10 days at her disposal but wants to set the pace, heat up the sexual atmosphere. They make love beside a lake. He takes her to dinner with friends where the entertainment is a lecture on sexual positions shown in art. But after someone suggests a game of what we would these days term speed-dating, he calls an end to the affair, jealous that she would consider spending any time in close proximity to another man.

So that’s it. Grand love affair dead and buried after just one day. Except she turns up next day at a practice at a racing circuit. After they reconcile, she watches in a car mirror as he makes a call in a phone box – speaking to his wife or another lover, we never find out, except her reaction explains it must be either.

There’s little of the sparkling dialog found in Hollywood romances, especially for audiences who grew up on the Tracy-Hepburn pictures, but she tells him that “if you put all the houses I have lived in you would make a good little town” and not just that she had lived a peripatetic lifestyle but that she also had six grandfathers so a rather fluid upbringing. She confesses now she has more time to spare, she just wanted him to ask for it, being stricken by her potential absence an indication in her eyes of true love.

So this is a fragile individual, her smile is always hesitant, external confidence hiding vulnerability. Her face is never flush with passion. When he asks why she never revealed her terminal illness, she replies, “I can’t take any more sad eyes.” There’s an ironic ending.

It is of course set against glorious backdrops but instead of letting the audience wallow in the love affair, as would be the Hollywood temptation, De Sica finds some way of undercutting it. Valerio is never quite sure of her and she is never quite sure of him. Their pasts remain hidden. Their lovemaking beside the lake is interrupted by a hunter bagging game. She coos over a baby only to discover it has an ugly father. She drives too fast even with a racing driver in the passenger seat and she clearly has suicidal tendencies, the love affair almost a salve for her despair.

We could have been presented with the suave charming Marcello Mastroianni (La Dolce Vita, 1960) cliché from a dozen Italian films, but instead he is often jealous, annoyed, real. Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) plays a character who never knows where she stands with her emotions, accepting her fate one moment, determined to end her life the next, and yet still time to dally in a love affair that of course can have no future.

Vittorio De Sica (Two Women, 1960) has fashioned a picture that is neither uplifting nor downhearted, a love affair that lives just for the moment, but with implied complications that could at any moment wreck it, a romance always teetering on the edge.

I’ve no idea what compelled Harry Medved to include this in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, published in 1978, but you might easily question his judgement on discovering that his list includes Sergei Eisenstein epic Ivan the Terrible, Alain Resnais’s hypnotic Last Year at Marienbad, Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn and even such passable entertainments as The Omen.

Maybe you’ve been put off giving this a whirl thanks to the Medved seal of disapproval. A Place for Lovers is not the greatest film ever made, but it’s certainly far from the worst, two striking actors and a director who could never make a terrible picture make sure of that.

No DVD available so you will need to check out Ebay or streaming.

Jessica (1962) ***

Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins in a Fountain (1956) had set a high bar for Hollywood romances set in Italy. Since Jean Negulesco had directed the latter he was expected to sprinkle box office magic on this slight tale of young American midwife Jessica Brown Visconti (Angie Dickinson) adrift in a rustic village in Sicily.

She’s the kind of beauty who’s going to raise male temperatures except Jessica, having been widowed on her wedding day, is not romantically inclined. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the entire male population becoming so entranced that their wives become so enraged that led by Maria (Agnes Moorehead) they embark on a sex strike, assuming that without any pregnancies (contraception being frowned upon in a Catholic domain) to deal with Jessica will become redundant and go away.

And that so annoys Jessica, who is doing a good job as a midwife, that she turns on the flirting to get back at her female tormentors. Luckily, there’s a reclusive landowner (Gabriele Ferzetti) who happens to be a widower, although romance takes a while to stir. There’s also a priest (Maurice Chevalier), in part acting as narrator, who turns to song every now and then.

So it’s a surprise that this unlikely concoction works at all. It’s charming in the obvious ways, the lush scenery, a traditional wedding, gentle comedy. But it’s a decade too late in taking an innocent view of sex. There’s no crudeness, of course; it doesn’t fall victim to the 1960s’  need to sexualise in an obvious manner. And not every husband is continuously ogling Jessica so Nunzia (Sylva Koscina) and young bride Nicolina (Danielle De Metz) are in the awkward situation of potentially betraying the sisterhood.

But in resolving the central issue the story develops too many subplots and introduces too many characters, often leaving Jessica rather redundant in terms of the plot, with not much to do, especially when her prospective suitor is absent for a long period going fishing.

Angie Dickinson is delightful as the Vespa-riding innocent turned mischievous. However, in some way though this seemed a backward step for Dickinson, a rising star in the Lana Turner/Elizabeth Taylor mold after being John Wayne’s squeeze in Rio Bravo (1959) and Frank Sinatra’s estranged wife in Ocean’s 11 (1960) and following a meaty supporting role in A Fever in the Blood (1961) elevated to top billing in The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961). It seemed like Hollywood could not make up its mind whether it wanted her to be like Gidget or be given free rein to express her sexuality.

Ferzetti and Dickinson

A charmer like Maurice Chevalier was ideal for what was in effect a whimsical part. The singing probably met audience expectation. Perhaps like Sean Connery’s perennial Scottish accent, nobody ever asked Chevalier to drop his pronounced French accent even to play an Italian. But the picture is whimsical enough without him.

There’s a surprisingly strong supporting cast in four-time Oscar nominee Agnes Moorehead (Pollyanna, 1960), Gabriele Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969) and French actor (and sometime writer-director) Noel-Noel. Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina (Deadlier Than the Male, 1967), Frenchwoman Kerima (Outcast of the Islands, 1951) and Danielle De Metz (The Scorpio Letters, 1967) all make a splash.

You can catch it for free on YouTube.

Mayerling (1968) ****

Sumptuous historical romantic drama set in a fading European empire awash with political intrigue and incipient revolution. Archduke Rudolf (Omar Sharif), married heir to the throne and constantly at odds with rigid father Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), sympathizes so strongly with Hungarian dissidents that he threatens to tear apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, when he falls in love with Maria (Catherine Deneuve) and wants to marry her instead that, too, threatens to throw the empire into disarray.

Although dissolute, a mistress (or two) on the side, and addicted to morphine, that is not the way Rudolf is introduced to the audience. Instead, he is one of a string of bloodied men arrested after a demonstration giving his name to an officer in a police station who, once he is recognized, orders all other prisoners be released. He is the poster boy for good royalty. The Hungarians, agitating for independence, want him to become their king.

Beautifully mounted with lavish sets and enough in the way of balls, ballet, processions,  horse riding and sleighs to keep up a steady parade of visually interesting distractions, the films steadily builds up an undercurrent of tension, both between father and son and between rebels and ruler. The emperor is a political genius, not just spying on his son, but full of devious devices to hold together whatever threatens to break up the empire.

The romance develops slowly and with true historical perspective, the first kiss they share is not on the lips, Rudolf kisses both her cheeks, she kisses his palm. Yet, there is a real sense that, no matter his power, they can still both be trapped in roles they despise, separated at the whim of parents. Rudolf, as he understands true love for the first time, finds the self-belief to challenge political certainties.

The regal aspects are well done, arguments about the rule of monarchy come over as heated conversation rather than boring debate, the political realities unavoidable. Rudolf, desperate to avoid a future where someone has to die before he has a reason to live. Escape is not an option.

There is a wonderful bitchy atmosphere in the court, where ladies-in-waiting disparage each other behind their backs, one dress described as “wallpaper,” and are forever seeking advancement. Countess Larish (Genevieve Page) is a self-appointed procurer-in-chief for Rudolf, not caring what chaos she causes.

I should add, if you are as ignorant of your European history as myself, that Mayerling is a place not a person. I tell you this so that you don’t make my mistake of waiting for a Mayerling character to appear. The film pointedly avoids a history lesson but it could have spared a minute to explain that the events depicted take place just 20 years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest land-mass in Europe, and among the top two or three nations. That would have helped clarify why Franz-Josef was in such a constant state,  worried about forces that could break up the empire, and as concerned that his son, living such a debauched life, lacked the personal skills to hold it together after his father’s death.

It is ironic that Rudolf does prove his worth as a result of being briefly separated from Maria, taking the army to task for its incompetent officers and poor maintenance of everything from weaponry to horses.

To his credit director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962) does not rely on Omar Sharif’s soulful brown eyes and instead allows action to convey character and looks and touch the meaning of his love. This is probably Omar Sharif’s best role, one where he clearly made all the acting decisions rather than being over-directed by David Lean as in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Catherine Deneuve is equally impressive as a far-from-docile innocent, especially given the wide range of more sexually aware characters she has created for Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1967).

James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is superb as the conniving emperor, so rigid he will not approve a change of buttons for the army, so cunning that an apparent rapprochement with his son has unseen strings attached. Ava Gardner (55 Days at Peking, 1963) sweeps in briefly as an empress protective of her son and making the best of life in a gilded cage. Also impressive are Genevieve Page (Grand Prix, 1966) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) as the high-living British heir nonetheless under the thumb of his mother Queen Victoria.

Terence Young also wrote the literate, often amusing script, although Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Joseph Kessel (Night of the Generals, 1967) are credited with additional dialogue. While Francis Lai (The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl, 1968) wrote the score he relies heavily on classical music from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus.

If you come at this not expecting a David Lean style affair full of striking compositions, but an old-fashioned drama advancing at leisurely pace, you will not be disappointed.

The Last Letter from Your Lover (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Oddly enough, this is also straddles 1965 and the present time and falls victim to the same problems of following two storylines. In fact, this is a tad complicated in that not only is present-day journalist Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones) investigating a romantic mystery from the past but the subject of her inquiry Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) is also investigating her own romance. Confused, you bet. Jennifer is suffering from that old Hollywood romantic standby – amnesia – and is alerted to her own mysterious past by the discovery of the letters that turn up half a century later in the hands of Ellie.

So really, there’s three storylines to keep up with: the contemporary exploration of the past, Stirling’s journey of self-discovery and in a series of flashbacks in the same period her forbidden romance – given she is already married – with charmer Andrew (Callum Turner). This 1960s is full-throttle glamour, playing out in the classy French Riviera, both Stirling and Andrew looking like they’ve just walked off a catwalk.

That it works surprisingly well is due to the three stories never getting mixed up (as in Last Night in Soho) and that in each period it is driven by detective work. People often forget there is nothing more satisfactory to solve than a romantic mystery rather than tracking down an ubiquitous serial killer. Three of the characters – Andrew, Ellie and her co-opted  investigative partner Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan), an archivist, are absolutely terrific, the actors delivering star turns. Andrew comes over as attractive but deep, a committed financial journalist. On the other hand Jennifer is pretty much a spoiled brat, and in the hands of Shailene Woodley over made-up and looking ill-at-ease in her glad rags. Amnesia has the unfortunate effect of making her wooden.

The 1960s romance follows pretty much the standard Hollywood template that is somehow going to hit an iceberg. By comparison the contemporary slow-burning romance between Ellie and Rory is a joy. She is outgoing, spunky, sexually confident – in a neat reversal she can’t remember the name of the boy she wakes up in bed with – while Rory is an old-fashioned stuck-in-the-mud whom she manages to warm up.

Felicity Jones has been through the Hollywood wringer – earnest roles such as The Theory of Everything (2014) and On the Basis of Sex (2018) mixed in with blockbusters of the Inferno (2016) and Rogue One (2016) variety – but here she is just delightful, playing a very rounded character. Nabhaan Rizwan (The Accident tv series, 2019) is wonderfully endearing. They play exceptionally well off each other, a sort of latter-day Andie McDowell-Hugh Grant.

It would have been a very quiet cinemagoing week for me to end up watching this and I wasn’t going to review it at all except for being reminded of dual-time settings by Last Night in Soho. I have to say I was happily surprised, the various mysteries enough of a hook, the Jones-Rizwan tag team exhibiting true charisma. Hats off to director Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin’ Back, 2018) for recognizing their potential and for keeping the whole enterprise chugging along. It’s one of the few Netflix productions to deliver.

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