The Picasso Summer (1969) ***

Must-see for collectors of cinematic curios. A reflection on entitlement, bullfighting, Picasso, the impact of celebrity on everyday lives and the hermaphroditic qualities of snails? Or an innovative piece of moviemaking utilizing jigsaw split-screen, an audacious reimagining of the painter’s work via documentary and animation? Or just plain bonkers and despite the involvement of top talent like Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963), Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968), composer Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) and writer Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, 1966), rightly consigned to the vault and never given a cinema release?  

George (Albert Finney), a disenchanted San Francisco architect who designs warehouses, and wife Alice (Yvette Mimieux) take a holiday in France to rekindle his love of Picasso and set out to find and – in in a severe case of early onset entitlement – talk to the legendary artist. So they fly to Paris, take the train to Cannes and cycle around.  Romance, it has to be said, in that idyllic countryside is the last thing on his mind, although George does pluck a guitar and sing a love song on a riverbank and they do dally in the sea. And he is far from a stuffed shirt, in one scene stealing a boy’s balloon to prevent the kid hogging a telescope.

There are barely ten lines of meaningful dialogue, though Alice’s frustration at her husband’s obsession is soon obvious. Reimagining Picasso via animation works well. Picasso broke down the world, so we are told, and represented it as his own so by this token it seems pretty fair to do the same to the artist’s work. In the best scene George turns toreador (not sure the budget ran to stuntmen) facing up to a real bull. But there is plenty Picasso to make up, including a candlelit walk along the “Dream Tunnel” displaying the artist’s War and Peace murals, a lecture on the painter’s ceramics and his self-identification with death in the bull ring.

And there is a twist at the end, as the couple on a beach do not loiter long enough to see a man resembling the artist make Picasso-like drawings on the sand. But mostly it’s a story about American entitlement, that a painter should not shut himself off from the world in order to prevent the world stopping him getting on with painting. When George, denied entrance or even acknowledgement, stands at the gate to the Picasso villa, it is almost as he is the one imprisoned by his need for celebrity. Half a century on, the need for ordinary lives to be validated by contact with celebrities has become an insane part of life. The fact that the impossible mission ends in defeat (“everything is still the same”) lends a tone of irony.

Finney’s box office status at this point in his career allowed him to retain his thick Lancashire accent – Sean Connery managed that trick for his entire career. As in Two for the Road (1967) he does a trademark Bogart impression and eats with his mouth open. And he is game enough to stand in a bull ring with a raging bull. Yvette Mimieux is scandalously underused, insights into her thoughts conveyed by lonely walks through night-time streets, although she is the only one to fully appreciate art when she comes across a blind painter (Peter Madden). The best part goes to Luis Miguel Dominguin playing himself, a bullfighter and renowned friend of Picasso. In the incongruity stakes little can match Graham Stark (The Plank, 1967) as a French postman.

As you might have guessed this had a somewhat complicated production. Three directors were involved: Robert Sallin, Serge Bourguignon and Wes Herchendsohn. It was the only directorial chore for Sallin, better known as the producer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It brought a temporary halt to the career of Oscar-nominated director Bourguignon (Sundays and Cybele, 1962) whose previous film was Two Weeks in September starring Brigitte Bardot. Herchendsohn was primarily an animation layout artist/supervisor later credited with episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974).  

There is some stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, 1972) and a superb score by Michel Legrand.  This was the beginning and end of the movie career of Edwin Boyd who shared the screenwriting credit with Bradbury. And it was the beginning and the end of the movie as a viable film for general release, Warner Brothers promptly shelving it, a decision that made headlines in the trade press, especially given the movie’s budget and the box office status of the stars.

In the hands of a French, Italian or Spanish arthouse moviemaker, with a tale of protagonists going nowhere, this might have gained critical traction. It’s hardly going to fall into the highly-commended category, but in fact from the present-day perspective says a lot about celebrity obsession and entitlement. Despite the oddities – perhaps because of them – I was never bored.

You might be surprised to hear that a film initially disowned by the studio is actually available on DVD.

Gimme Slapstick

The spate of slapstick-led comedies like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965) and British featurettes such as The Plank (1967) did not suddenly appear out of nowhere as was often the case with a moribund genre. The slapstick revival came by way of television. In the 1950s U.S. networks were screening silent shorts featuring Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and some of the Hal Roach and Mack Sennett output.

The driving force behind the big screen resurgence of interest in silent comedy was Robert Youngson who spent $100,000 in 1957 on what purported to be a new documentary The Golden Age of Comedy. In fact it was a good excuse for a compilation of old movie clips featuring Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon and actresses known for their comic ability such as Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. But while the television audience was weighted towards the young, Youngson’s picture reached a more appreciative adult audience in the arthouses, which would prove to be the bedrock for the ambitious revitalizing of the careers of other greats from the Hollywood peak years.

The Golden Age of Comedy was hugely successful, taking $500,000 in rentals. Since arthouses notoriously shared of lot less of their box office with studios there was a fair chance that the gross was in the region of $1.5 million, a tremendous return on investment, and opening the door for further sequels.

Silent comedy also crossed national boundaries. Modern dialogue-driven Hollywood comedies often found it hard to gain a foothold overseas. But The Golden Age of Comedy film was Twentieth Century Fox’s top grosser in India and huge in Italy.

Follow-up When Comedy Was King (1960) smashed box office records in New York at the 370-seat arthouse the 68th St Playhouse and at prices ranging from 90c to $1.65 playing to an estimated 10,000 moviegoers and running for another eight weeks. That gave Fox the greenlight to stick it out on the more commercial circuits as a supporting feature. But that was just the tip of the compilation iceberg, especially when other studios got into the act.

Hardly a year went by without another compilation – from the Youngson camp emerged Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) and 30 Years of Fun (1963). MGM put marketing muscle behind the producer’s The Big Parade of Comedy (1964) to the extent that it collected rave reviews from Newsweek and the New York Times and the studio held seminars for exhibitors on “sight comedy.” The inevitable double bill When Comedy Was King/Days of Thrills and Laughter appeared in 1965.

Harold Lloyd owned the copyright to all his films so his work was not chopped up piecemeal to satisfy the demands of a compilation. Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962) showed the comedian at the peak of his game. It combined eight scenes from silent and sound films Safety Last (1923), Why Worry (1923), Girl Shy (1924), Hot Water (1924), The Freshman (1925), Feet First (1930), Movie Crazy (1932) and Professor Beware (1938). His trademark spectacles were incorporated into the advertising. Follow-up Funny Side of Life (1963) included a complete version of The Freshman.

Mining a different silent tradition and with less emphasis on comedy was The Great Chase (1962) – including a shortened version of The General (1926) – which featured stunts by Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, William S. Hart and Pearl White.

The Buster Keaton revival had been initiated in less commercial fashion by Raymond Rohauer who had begun staging festival sof his films in arthouses. He tracked down prints of long-lost films in France, Denmark and Czechoslovakia but his compilations Buster Keaton Rides Again (1965) and The Great Stone Face (1966) were more successful abroad than at home.

Blake Edwards’ The Great Race was dedicated to Laurel and Hardy who had become more prominent on both small-screen and big-screen thanks in part to the initial Youngson compilations. MGM were first out the traps with Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20s (1965). Then came producer Jay Ward’s The Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy (1966) and The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy (1967) followed by a collection of colorized shorts The Best of Laurel and Hardy while Hanna-Barbera launched a cartoon series on television in 1966 and Pillsbury sold Laurel and Hardy donuts.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of the Hollywood Reissue 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), pages 200-205; “Youngson Anthologies of Silents Continue Showing Coin Potential,” Variety, October 19, 1960, p13; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, March 9, 1960, p8; Advertisement, “Sleeper of the Year,” Box Office, October 5, 1964, p7; “MGM Sets Fun Campaign for Laurel and Hardy,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, p112;  “Comedy Seminar Helps MGM Film Promotion,” Box Office, December 13, 1965, p94; “Pillsbury Acquires Rights for Laurel and Hardy Donuts,” Box Office, October 23, 1966, p27; “Archivist Raymond Rohauer,” Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1987.

Fraulein Doktor (1969) ****

Surprisingly good World War One spy yarn full to bursting with clever ruses and pieces of deception and ending with a stunning depiction of carnage on the Western Front.  Loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmuller, it fell foul on release to British and American hostility over the Germans actually winning anything.

The film breaks down into three sections: the unnamed Doktor landing at the British naval base in Scapa Flow in Orkney to plan the death of Lord Kitchener; a flashback to France where she steals a new kind of poison gas; and finally on the Western Front where, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, she masterminds an attempt to steal vital war plans. She is hampered by her emotions, romance never helpful for an espionage agent, and her addiction to morphine.

Duelling spymasters the British Colonel Foreman (Kenneth More) and the German Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green) both display callousness in exploiting human life. The films is so full of twists and turns and, as I mention, brilliant pieces of duplicity that I hesitate to tell you any more for fear of introducing plot spoilers, suffice to say that both men excel at the outwitting game.

I will limit myself to a couple of examples just to get you in the mood. Foreman has apprehended two German spies who have landed by submarine on Scapa Flow. He knows another one has escaped. The imprisoned Meyer (James Booth) watches his colleague shot by a firing squad. Foreman, convinced Meyer’s courage will fail at the last minute, instructs the riflemen to load up blanks. Before a shot is fired, Meyer gives up and spills the beans on the Doktor only to discover that Foreman faked the death of his colleague.

And there is a terrific scene where the Fraulein, choosing the four men who will accompany her on her final mission, asks those willing to die to step forward. She chooses the ones not willing to die. When asking one of these soldiers why he stayed back he replied that she wouldn’t want to know if he could speak Flemish if he was so expendable.

The Fraulein is always one step ahead of her pursuers, changing clothes and hair color to make redundant any description of her, and knowing a double bluff when she sees one. In France as a maid she turns seductress to win the trust of scientist Dr Saforet (Capucine) who has developed a new, deadlier, strain of poison gas. It’s unclear whether, appalled at the potential loss of life to her fellow Germans, this is her motivation to turn spy or whether at this point she is already an accomplished agent. In the final section she takes command of the entire operation.

What distinguishes this from the run-of-the-mill spy adventure is, for a start, not just the female spy, how easily she dupes her male counterparts, and that the British are apt just to be as expedient as the Germans, but the savage reality of the war played out against a British and German upper class sensibility. When a train full of Red Cross nurses arrives at the front, the wounded men have to be beaten back; Foreman thinks it unsporting to use a firing squad; a German general refuses to award the Fraulein a medal because Kitchener was a friend of his; and the Doktor’s masquerade as a Red Cross nurse goes unchallenged because she adopts the persona of a countess.

Far from being an evil genius, the Doktor is depicted as a woman alarmed at the prospect of thousands of her countrymen being killed and Germany losing the war. In order to cram in all the episodes, her later romance is somewhat condensed but the emotional response it triggers is given full vent. And there is tenderness in her affair with Dr Saforet, hair combing a prelude to exploring feelings for each other.

Apart from King and Country (1964), The Blue Max (1966) and Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), depictions of the First World War were rare in the 1960s, and the full-scale battle at the film’s climax is exceptionally well done with long tracking shots of poison gas, against which masks prove little deterrent, as it infiltrates the British lines. The horror of war becomes true horror as faces blister and, in one chilling shot, skin separates from bone and sticks to the barrel of a rifle.

If I have any quibbles, it’s a sense that there was a brilliant film to be made here had only the budget been bigger and veteran director Alberto Lattuada (Matchless, 1967) had made more of the suspense. Suzy Kendall (The Penthouse, 1967) easily carries the film, adopting a variety of disguises, accents and characters, yet still showing enough of her own true feelings. Kenneth More (Dark of the Sun, 1968), in more ruthless mode than previous screen incarnations, is excellent as is counterpart Nigel Green (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) but James Booth (Zulu, 1963) has little to do other than look shifty. Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) has an interesting cameo.

Ennio Morricone (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969) has created a masterly score, a superb romantic theme at odds with the discordant sounds he composes for the battles scenes. Collectors of trivia might like to know that Dita Parlo had starred in a more romantic British version of the story Under Secret Orders (1937) with a German version, using the same actress, filmed at the same time by G.W. Pabst as Street of Shadows (1937), both revolving around this infamous secret agent.

This is far from your normal spy drama. Each of the main sequences turned out differently to what I expected and with the German point-of-view taking precedence makes for an unusual war picture. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

Another freebie on YouTube. I could not find a DVD so you might need to check out secondhand dealers on Ebay.

Book into Film – “Jessica” (1962)

Sometimes you just have to scratch your head. Hollywood had a habit of buying a bestseller first without working out whether it would translate to the screen or not (Blindfold a classic example). Jessica was one of its most idiotic purchases.

It was based on The Midwife of Pont Clery by British novelist Flora Sandstrom published in 1954. As the title gives away, it was set in France not Italy. The heroine rides a bicycle not a Vespa. Nor is she an American, transplanted into Italy by ill-fated romance. She is French, originating from Brittany, not far from the village in Normandy where she now plies her trade as a midwife. Her name is Suzette Quimpernay not Jessica. Yes, as with the film, her husband did die on their wedding day, but not in a car accident but rather falling from a boat while alcoholically impaired and drowning.

But like the book, she is introduced by the way she attracts the unwanted attention of the local male population, farmers for the most part, who rhapsodize about her shapely ankles, “moist lips and the sheen on her eyelashes…small chin made to be cupped by a hand,” and curly brown hair. “Everything about her was innocent,” wrote Sandstrom, “and yet she drew the eye and the heart and made the pulses tingle…she was rounded, even a little plump, but she seemed to walk on air.”

Back cover of the paperback.

Reading the book, I was waiting with bated breath for the singing guitar-strumming cleric to make an entrance knowing this was unlikely, and that Father Boneval in the book was made to sing in the film simply because was being played by crooner Maurice Chevalier.

The other changes are obvious. Bride-to-be Nicolette in the book is transformed into Nicolina (Danielle De Metz) for the film. The book’s interfering busybody Marie easily becomes Maria (Agnes Moorehead). While the film’s count (Gabriele Ferzetti) owns a fishing fleet and the book’s count is a scholar, they have in common fighting for the resistance in the war.  

Although in the film it’s obvious that Jessica is too easily distracting the men leaving the women resentful, the idea of taking any action against the midwife takes some time to formulate. However, in the book only six pages elapse before Marie is thinking of ways of getting rid of the midwife. Her first notion is to act as matchmaker, hitching her to the 44-year-old widow Boniface. But Boniface’s sister Virginie, his long-time housekeeper, fears being cast out and resists the idea. Then Marie gets village women to agree on the sex ban –  without sex there would be no babies and therefore no midwife – the central theme of the movie.

In the opening section of the book, also, the midwife is seen only through the eyes of the other characters who make all sorts of excuses to go out of their way to spend time with her. It is nearly 30 pages until the reader enters the innocent head of Suzette. She sees the good in everyone and everything and is complimented on her midwifery skills.

In the film, Suzette gets to know the count (who gives a false name) at the wedding feast but in the book she is not invited to that celebration and only meets the count in the course of attending other general nursing duties. Of course if the film had followed the book, that would have eliminated one highlight, the wedding singing and dancing.

The book follows a different line. When Suzette complains about a shopkeeper’s cheeses she is banned from the village shop. The sex ban quickly whittles down her presence in the village and she considers buying a piece of land from the count. Their romance is conducted off-page, his feelings for her revealed in a letter to his mother and his marriage proposal is welcomed, unlike the book.

It is only when Nicolette and Madame Tuffe (Tuffi in the film, played by Sylva Koscina) become pregnant that they go begging to the midwife. But in a final twist she cannot attend as she is being married.

So, basically, the book lacks the movie’s second act when Jessica takes revenge on the village women by flirting outrageously with the men. It’s difficult in any case to make this idea work. Although Jessica (Angie Dickinson in the film) dresses in a more provocative manner – tight sweater and jeans – than in the book, there’s nothing particularly brazen about her. In the book, though puzzled, she accepts her exile. She is too innocent to suspect underlying motives. The film does not quite work because a character presented as a flower of innocence cannot suddenly turn into a minx.

Nor is there really any place in a movie for a singing priest, no matter how charming. In the book, the priest’s role is minimal. But because he is played by Maurice Chevalier the character and storyline shift to make him more important. The movie romance is overplayed, too, with drama when none is required.

The film was originally titled “Apple Pie Bed.”

It was likely that the involvement of Romanian director Jean Negulesco ensured this French-set piece came to be relocated to Italy following the success of Three Coins in a Fountain (1954) set in Rome. But this was not a given. He had remained true to the Paris locale of  Francoise Sagan’s novel A Certain Smile (1958), although importing Italian Rossano Brazzi and American Joan Fontaine for his co-star, and to Boy on a Dolphin (1957) set in Greece, albeit with an Italian female lead in Sophia Loren. Possibly it came about when Jean Negulesco set up his own company and announced Apple Pie Bed with Maurice Chevalier – advertised in 1960 as part of the United Artists release schedule (see above) – as his first picture, based on the Sandstrom novel.

The screenplay was announced as being written by H. Hugh Herbert, then Sandstrom then John Dighton before Edith Sommer, with whom Negulesco had worked on The Best of Everything (1959), took over. The success of Gigi (1958) might well have inspired the director to give Chevalier a singing part. This was Negulesco’s first film since The Best of Everything having left The World of Suzie Wong in 1960. The importance of Chevalier was such that the film’s release was held up until the singer’s version of the title song penetrated the charts.

SOURCES: “Negulesco: Zest of Crews Favors Europe’s Studios,” Variety, April 3, 1957, 12; “Flora Sandstrom,” Variety, January 21, 1959, 9; “Negulesco’s Own Firm,” Variety, October 14, 1959, 3; advert, Variety, January 6, 1969, 24; “Negulesco UA Picture Awaits Song Penetration, “ Box Office, January 29, 1962, E1.

A-Z of Behind the Scenes, Pressbooks, Book into Film, Interviews and Other Stuff

The response to my A-Z of movies reviewed so far was suprisingly strong so I have added an A-Z an added of all the non-movie-review that i have written since I started.

 PRESSBOOKS
A HOUSE IS  NOT A HOME
A STUDY IN TERROR
ALVAREZ KELLY
CHASE, THE
CLAUDELLE INGLISH
DARK OF THE SUN
DEVIL’S BRIGADE
DIVORCE AMERICAN STYLE
DOCTOR ZHIVAGO
IT STARTED IN NAPLES
MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE
NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S, THE
ONCE A THIEF
PRIZE, THE
SHENANDOAH
SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN, THE
SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST
THIEF OF BAGHDAD
BEHIND THE SCENES
ADVISE AND CONSENT
CAST A GIANT SHADOW
CINCINNATI KID, THE
DR NO
GENGHIS KHAN
GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE, THE
NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKYS, THE
SATAN BUG, THE
THIS SPORTING LIFE
TOPAZ
BOOK INTO FILM
A COLD WIND IN AUGUST
A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME
ADVISE AND CONSENT
BLINDFOLD
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S
CINCINNATI KID, THE
DETECTIVE, THE
DR NO
FATHOM
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX
SATAN BUG, THE
SHE
SPLIT, THE
VENETIAN AFFAIR, THE
OTHER STUFF
ARTICLE – BRONSON UNWANTED
ARTICLE – HOLLYWOOD BESTSELLERS
ARTICLE – HOLLYWOOD DEAL-MAKING
ARTICLE – HOLLYWOOD FASHION
ARTICLE – HOLLYWOOD VS GOVERNMENT
ARTICLE – HOLLYWOOD WHAT IF
ARTICLE – MIRISCH BROTHERS
ARTICLE – MOVIE NOVELISATIONS
ARTICLE – MOVIE TIE-INS
ARTICLE – NUNS IN THE MOVIES
ARTICLE – SUCCESS OF CARRY ON NURSE
ARTICLE – THE PSYCHO REVOLUTION
ARTICLE – WHEN ALISTAIR MACLEAN QUIT
BLOGGER’S CHOICE YEAR ONE
BOOK REVIEW: MAKING OF THE GREAT ESCAPE
BOOK REVIEW: MAKING OF THE GUNS OF NAVARONE
BOOK REVIEW: MAKING OF THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
BOOK REVIEW: MANNY FARBER
BOOK REVIEW: THE GLADIATORS VS SPARTACUS VOL 1
BOOK REVIEW: THE GLADIATORS VS SPARTACUS VOL 2
COMING SOON – AUGUST 1960
COMING SOON – JULY 1960
EXHIBITOR BEN MARCUS
EXHIBITOR COMMENT – AUGUST 1960
EXHIBITOR COMMENT – MARCH 1964
INTERVIEW WITH ALBERT FINNEY
INTERVIEW WITH LINDSAY ANDERSON
MARKETING – BLACK STAMPS
NEWS – APRIL 1961
READER’S CHOICE YEAR ONE
WRITING ABOUT THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

The Devil’s Brigade (1968) ***

I couldn’t get my head around the idea of the U.S. Army recruiting a bunch of undisciplined misfits, many with jail time, in order to link them up with a crack Canadian outfit. Turns out this part of the film was fictional, the Americans in reality responding to advertisements at Army posts which prioritized men previously employed as forest rangers, game wardens, lumberjacks and the like which made sense since the original mission was mountainous Norway.  I should also point out the red beret the soldiers wear is also fictional and while depicted on the poster sporting a moustache commanding officer Lt. Col. Frederick (William Holden) is minus facial hair in the film.

But, basically, it follows a similar formula to The Dirty Dozen (1967), training and internal conflict followed by a dangerous mission. The conflict comes from a clash of cultures between spit-and-polish Canucks and disorderly/juvenile Yanks though, as with the Robert Aldrich epic, the leader taking some of the brunt of the discontent.  Collapsible bunk beds, snakes under the sheets and a tendency to fisticuffs are the extent of the antipathy between the units, which is all resolved, as with The Dirty Dozen, when they have to take on people they jointly hate, in this case local bar-room brawlers in Utah.

The movie picks up once they are sent to Italy. Initially employed on reconnaissance, Frederick challenges Major-General Hunter (Carroll O’Connor) who wants to do things by the book and sets out to take an Italian position by trekking two miles up a riverbed, creeping into town by stealth and capturing the location without firing a shot. 

Next up is the impregnable Monte la Difensa. Taking a leaf out of the Lawrence of Arabia playbook, in a brilliant tactical move, the Americans attack the mountainous stronghold from the rear by way of a mile-high cliff.  But that’s the easy part. The rest is trench-by-trench, pillbox-by-pillbox, brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

The battle scenes are excellent and the training section would be perfectly acceptable except for the high bar set by The Dirty Dozen. That said, there is enough going on with the various shenanigans to keep up the interest, but we don’t get to know the characters as intimately as in The Dirty Dozen and there is certainly nobody in the supporting cast to match the likes of Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and John Cassavetes. That also said, the men do bond sufficiently for some emotional moments during the final battle.

At this point William Holden’s career was in disarray, just one leading role (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) and a cameo (Casino Royale, 1967) in four years, and although his screen persona was more charming maverick than disciplined leader he carries off the role well, especially solid when confronting superiors, exhibiting the world-weariness that would a year later in The Wild Bunch put him back on top. Ironically, Cliff Robertson was coming to a peak and would follow his role as the strict disciplinarian Major Crown, the Canadian chief, with an Oscar-winning turn as Charly (1968). Vince Edwards (Hammerhead, 1968) as cigar-chomping hustler Major Bricker makes an ill-advised attempt to steal scenes.

This was the kind of film where the supporting cast were jockeying for a breakout role that would rocket them up the Hollywood food chain – as it did with The Dirty Dozen. Jack Watson (Tobruk, 1967) is the pick among the supporting cast, but he has plenty of competition from Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), Claude Akins (Waterhole 3, 1967), Jeremy Slate (The Born Losers, 1967), Andrew Prine (Texas Across the River, 1966), Tom Stern (Angels from Hell, 1968) and Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke, 1967). Veterans in tow include Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965) and Michael Rennie (Hotel, 1966).

William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) adapted the bestselling book by Robert H. Ableman and George Walton. Director Andrew V. McLaglen (Shenandoah, 1965) was more at home with the western and although there are some fine sequences and the battle scenes are well done this lacks the instinctive touch of some of his other films.

Last Chance to Enter – Win a Signed Copy of “The Making of The Guns of Navarone”

What were the most popular films of last month on the Blog in terms of views? Was it Julie Christie hunting for a lover in In Search of Gregory, Doris Day comedy Move Over, Darling, James Garner and Sidney Poitier is all-action western Duel at Diablo, British newcomer Carol White under threat in Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting or twisty thriller The Secret Partner with Stewart Granger?

Or was it none of these? Would you pick instead Britt Ekland as an unlikely Amish stripper in The Night They Raided Minskys or a depressed Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater or Robert Vaughn in spy thriller The Venetian Affair?

Or would your choice be Mafia thriller Stiletto with Alex Cord or Claude Chabrol’s French love triangle Les Biches or Richard Widmark in The Secret Ways, an adaptation of the Alistair Maclean bestseller?

Guess which were the top five films last month in terms of views in ascending order and you could win a signed copy of my book The Making of The Guns of Navarone. This is the revised edition with for the first time over 30 illustrations.

Email your answers to bhkhannan@aol.com

Closing date is today at midnight.

The Hill (1965) ****

Set in a British Army prison camp in North Africa during World War Two ruled by sadistic Sergeant Wilson (Harry Andrews) who believes himself above the regulations he forces others to follow, The Hill is a parable about the hypocrisy of totalitarian rule. And much of what is shown would be offensive to modern sensibilities. Although the commandant (Norman Bird) and medical officer (Michael Redgrave) are his superior officers, Wilson runs the unit by force of personality. He believes his ruthless treatment of the prisoners turns them into proper soldiers. Into his fiefdom come five new prisoners including coward Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), African American Jacko King (Ossie Davis), another Scot Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and weakest link George Stevens (Alfred Lynch).

Most films about prisons emphasize imprisonment, most scenes taking place in cells or other places of confinement. Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) directs this film as though it is a paeon to freedom with incredible shots of the vista within which the men are contained. He uses some of the most bravura camerawork you will ever see outside of David Lean. The film opens with a two-minute crane shot credit sequence that begins with a prisoner collapsing on the titular hill and pulls back to reveal the entire encampment and follows with a one-minute reverse tracking shot of Andrews striding through his domain. And while the camera controls what we see, our ears are constantly assailed by the constant drumbeat of other marching prisoners.  

Climbing the hill in full pack would break any man and those who collapse are roused by pails of water. The first to crack is Stevens who is constantly tormented by homophobic jibes. Continuous racist abuse is heaped on Jacko King until driven to the point of madness he begins to behave like a gorilla which frightens the life out of his superiors. Obeying orders, says Joe Roberts, is “like a dog picking up a bone.”  RSM Wilson is out of control, the commandant spending his nights with a prostitute, the medical officer clearly sent here as punishment for some previous misdemeanor. Of the senior staff only Harris (Ian Bannen) comes away with any dignity, constantly trying to thwart the worst bullying.

When Stevens dies suddenly, the film changes tack and becomes a battle for survival among those who could be blamed for causing his death and those who dare to point the finger.  Wilson has no problem stitching up his colleagues and blackmailing the medical officer while Roberts is beaten up for his effrontery in standing up to authority. But the astonishing presence and self-confidence and, it has to be said, courage of Wilson lords it over everyone, and there is an extraordinary scene where he forces the entire battalion of prisoners to back down when they are on the brink of open rebellion.

Connery as Roberts is superb in what is his first dramatic role in a bread-and-butter dramatic production rather than the glossier Marnie (1964) and Woman of Straw (1964) and while he has his moment of defiance he gives enough glimpses of vulnerability and fear to ensure we do not mistake him for his alter ego James Bond. Ian Bannen delivers a touching assured performance far removed from the nasty sarcastic personalities he portrayed in his other desert pictures, Station Six Sahara (1963) and the Flight of the Phoenix (1965).  Ossie Davies, as defiant as Connery, is brilliant as the man who works out a way to beat the enemy by confusing them; the scene in the commandant’s office where he treats the officer as his inferior is a tour de force.   

Although the Army is meant to run according to established regulation, where obedience to a superior is paramount, it is equally apparent that it can also become a jungle if those who are the fittest assume control. Sgt Wilson demands unquestioned discipline even as he is breaking all the rules in the book. But he retains his authority not just by bullying, but by intelligence, exploiting weakness, coolness under pressure and by welcoming confrontation, his personality as dangerous as any serial killer.   

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