The first thing you notice about the 1970s disaster cycle is the quality of the cast – Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin in Airport (1970), Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in Towering Inferno (1973) – and Krakatoa, East of Java, which could fairly claim to have set up the disaster movie template, might be the reason. The stars aren’t big enough here to command attention for the duration and the thrills can’t compensate.
The narrative hook is decent enough. A disparate bunch of salvagers searching for a sunken ship containing a fortune in pearls sail too close to the titular volcano. Finding deep-sea divers among the manifest seems appropriate but the Oriental scantily-clad female pearl divers look like titillation and balloonists, ostensibly airborne wreck-spotters, serve the secondary purpose of providing close-ups of the fiery volcano.
But emotional involvement is sadly lacking, Laura (Diane Baker), mistress of Captain Hanson (Maximilian Schell), seeking a son she abandoned, saloon girl Charley (Barbara Werle) sticking by drug-addict diver Connerly (Brian Keith) on his last legs. There’s a claustrophobic bathyscope operator Rigby (John Leyton) and a human powderkeg in the shape of a cargo of prisoners led by the cunning Danzig (J.D. Cannon).
Like any horror picture, you have to line up your ducks and drip-feed the potential terror. Strange incident piled on strange incident raises tension on board. Luckily, Rigby is on hand to explain the increased heat, the fog, the dead fish in the water, and the high-pitched hissing. I’m not sure the science is so accurate, apparently the way to escape a tsunami is to find deep water.
Oddly enough, the movie opens with a striking throwback to the original three-screen Cinerama and a nod to the current split-screen techniques used by the likes of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and the travelog scenario. Where roadshow pictures began with a musical overture running over the credits here is a visual equivalent, snippets from future scenes. Unfortunately, the split-screen is limited to the opening.
But this being Cinerama, director Bernard L.Kowalski has to find room for that format’s tropes, something runaway, in this case the balloon driven through narrow mountain chasms, and something swirling round out of control, no rapids to hand so a man in a wooden crate high above the rigging has to make do.
And there’s a nod to contemporary drug-abuse, Connerly, high on laudanum, has a bad trip and attacks one of the pearl divers. But who knows what precipitated a song-and-dance striptease by Charley. Since the audience already knows the outcome, it’s a question of how many will survive and you suspect the only reason some passengers quit the ship for the shore is for an excuse to show the devastation wreaked by the volcano on islanders.
With no CGI to help and a limited budget, the special effects appear rudimentary, the volcano generally seen in the distance. The ship negotiating around the island is clearly a model but scenes on board are better done, water, fire and rocks raining down on passengers.
Maximilian Schell (Topkapi, 1964) doesn’t invest his character with much beyond staunchness, Brian Keith (Nevada Smith, 1966) seems uncomfortable with having to over-act and Rosanno Brazzi (The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, 1965) has a thankless role and you get the nagging suspicion they were chosen to appeal to different geographic demographics. Diane Baker (Marnie, 1964) can’t convey the guilt of a mother who has chosen her lover over her son nor her fear that her boy’s skeleton might lie in the wreck. Barbara Werle doesn’t quite know how to deliver a beauty of a line, in reference to boyfriend Connerly, “I wouldn’t care if he kicked old ladies in the teeth.” John Leyton isn’t a patch in the claustrophobia stakes to Charles Bronson in The Great Escape (1963).
Bernard L. Kowalski (Stiletto, 1969) keeps the incident coming, and the timing is spot-on, the ship reaching Krakatoa just before the halfway mark. There are occasional directorial touches, cutting from the smoke of the volcano to smoke belching from the funnel of the ship, and a few notes of historical authenticity. There’s a sense that the hi-tech of the time – bathyscape, balloon, powerful ship – cannot compete with nature at its most basic. But basically, he’s pinning his hopes on the fact that come the end of the movie the audience will be so overwhelmed by the eruption and the tsunami that it will have forgiven everything else that went before.
You get the impression it was spectacle first, story and character later.
It was a gamble all round. Reputations could be made or seriously dented. Male lead Don Murray had been trying to get Hollywood to pay serious attention since nabbing an Oscar nomination for Bus Stop a decade before. Female lead Inger Stevens had been a wannabe for just as long, named as a “youngster to watch” in the mid-1950s alongside the likes of Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Anthony Perkins who had all more than made the grade. Director David Lowell Rich had only one feature, Madame X (1966), a remake of the 1930s classic, to his name. Studio Universal was not so much risking its financial shirt as its prestige.
For all four were embarking on a new kind of enterprise – the made-for-television movie. That notion in itself had been born out of crisis. If exhibitors were claiming that with the mid-60s production crisis there weren’t enough movies to go round, the situation was worse for the television networks which had begun to rely heavily on movies to fill out their programs.
Television had “drained the vaults of Hollywood studios” by using up “the ready supply of motion pictures faster than a grind house.” With too few new motion pictures coming down the pipeline the networks, facing being drawn into a costly rights battle, might welcome a new source of product as easily as they could be exploited by someone savvy enough to come up with a new idea.
In theory, the mini-genre that would become known as “made-for-television” had begun a few years before with Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), but that had been considered too violent for television and released in cinemas instead. So, although in one sense it was a success it was also deemed a failure since it showed the difficulty of trying to make original movies for television. Instead, anything made-for-television would have to find a format that fitted tighter parameters. See How They Run (1964), also from Universal and starring John Forsythe (The Trouble with Harry, 1955) and rising European star Senta Berger (The Secret Ways, 1961), proved a better template.
Although considered one of the biggest studios in Hollywood at the start of the decade, what with Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Alfred Hitchcock on the payroll and willing to spend $12 million on a roadshow like Spartacus (1961), Universal had since pulled in its financial horns, balking at splashing out on bestsellers and Broadway material. But it perceived the television movie drought as a gap to be exploited, believing that a modestly-budgeted picture would make a decent profit from a network showing (and repeat showing), syndication and overseas theatrical sale.
Quality was the watchword. This would not be like the “quickly-made ersatz segments of a TV series…not going backwards in time to make cheapies.” Originally entitled “Project 120” and based in New York, the movies, “something of a stepchild” to the main film-making operation, would run 97-100 minutes allowing space within a two-hour time frame for advertisements.
While still not in the big bucks book market, which in themselves tended to require a major star to guarantee a return on heavy literary investment, Universal hired William Darrid to find less expensive works, beginning with snapping up the novel House of Cards for $70,000. That proved too expensive for television and ended up as a movie. Darrid believed it simpler and less risky to find original screenplays such as The Borgia Stick, embarking on an “intensive program to purchase…original stories for screen production.”
Universal had another aim – to develop a television segment, a movie series if you like – rather than a one-off, creating an identifiable programmer that could last a season and attract sponsors and advertisers to a recognised brand. There were nine films on the original slate and they would be sold under the generic title of “World Premiere.”
But to make a host of smaller films in a relatively short space of time, Universal needed to find talent that could be marketed to a television audience. Established movie stars were out of the question and in any case such talent would consider it below their dignity. There was no shortage of television stars but this was seen as an opportunity to showcase talent, rising stars and actors who already had some movie marquee value.
Breaking out of television into Hollywood was virtually impossible. But it had always been that way. Stars emerging from the small screen like James Garner (Maverick) or Steve McQueen (Wanted: Dead or Alive ) were few and far between. Clint Eastwood (Rawhide) had to reinvent himself in Italy. “A television star rarely makes a successful transition to pictures,” was the general observation.
Even Gene Barry, with Bat Masterson (1958-1961) and Burke’s Law (1963-1966) behind him, had to head for Europe and Maroc 7 (1967) to catch an even break, something denied him in television where the profit shares he had in both series had amounted to little once sharp practice and high production costs were taken into account.
For Inger Stevens and Barry Nelson it was a potential step up. For Don Murray a definite step down. As mentioned, Swedish-born Stevens had been a genuine ingenue, but despite nabbing the leading female billing opposite Rod Steiger in Cry Terror! (1958) and Harry Belafonte in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), her career didn’t take off and she ended up a television regular, guest star in series like The Aquanauts and Route 66. But in 1963, despite an initial flaying by critics, she was top-billed in half-hour television comedy series The Farmer’s Daughter. It ran four seasons, and 101 episodes later she was a better known quantity, enough to be able to front a documentary about her homeland.
On the face of it, she was not an obvious fit for The Borgia Stick unless you were simply looking someone whose glamor might add a sad touch to a character who was nothing more than a pawn in a sordid business. The idea of such a beautiful woman going from fashionable housewife to tawdry hooker would be enough to tug at audience heartstrings whether or not she could supply a deeper emotional pull.
Don Murray was so quickly disenchanted with Hollywood that he turned producer on The Hoodlum Priest (1961) but that gamble didn’t pay off and he was relegated to top-billing in small pictures like Escape from East Berlin (1962) and biopic One Man’s Way (1964). There was a hint of potential redemption when Universal, reviewing the footage for The Plainsman (1966) originally intended to form part of the initial “World Premiere” made-for-tv strand, gave it a cinematic release.
But that didn’t hit the ground running either and he stepped into The Borgia Stick as a makeweight while he attempted to advance his career his own way, once again back in the producer’s seat, with the independent Tale of the Cock, whose title alone caused an earthquake at the offices of the Production Code (the industry censor).
With budgets so tight, Universal often hired moonlighting Broadway actors who were generally free during the day – Barry Nelson, currently starring in Cactus Flower with Lauren Bacall, was one such, with Fritz Weaver, Marc Connelly (better known as a playwright) and Sudie Bond (making her movie debut) drawn from the stage.
In-house producer Richard Lewis, who handled The Borgia Stick, took a different approach to writers and directors. He saw them, especially the writers, as “necessary” collaborators, not as mere employees to be replaced at whim. Writers were on hand during production rather than banished from the studio floor. “It’s a lot better to have him (the writer) around if a line of dialog has to be switched than let anyone else tamper with his work which was excellent enough originally for us to do it.”
The way The Borgia Stick was acquired was typical of the operation. Lewis kept in touch with most of the literary agents, finding out what kind of work their clients were considering, almost looking for a pitch. A.J. Russell’s agent thought his client had come up with “a good story.” Lewis arranged a meeting with the author and “that’s how it (The Borgia Stick) started.” Russell was a television veteran, credits going back to 1950, so this represented a major opportunity. “I gained identity as a writer with a show such as this,” explained Russell, “which is impossible to get in a regular series. The script is wholly mine…it’s something that belongs to me.”
At a time when most directors were freelance or struck non-exclusive short-term deals with studios, David Lowell Rich was an anomaly. He was a contract director, having signed a six-year deal with Universal, replacing Norman Jewison. It was a very old-fashioned deal, harking back to the Hollywood “golden age” when actors and directors were hired for seven-year stints. They worked on whatever the studio saw fit or could be loaned out to other studios if need be. That scenario would not have suited an Otto Preminger or a John Sturges. But for a television director not in the league of Martin Ritt or John Frankenheimer, whose television work had provided Hollywood calling cards, it was a big step up. “At the time Universal offered me a pact I thought it the best thing to happen and a wonderful opportunity and I still do.”
And small wonder. He, too, was a television regular, starting out in the business in 1950, and eventually entrusted with episodes of Wagon Train, Peter Gunn, Route 66, The Twilight Zone and Dr Kildare. Earlier attempts at a movie career had disintegrated after the likes of No Time to Be Young (1957) and Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) featuring The Three Stooges stiffed at the box office.
So the prospect of regular work at Universal as the in-house director, potentially handed prestige projects if predecessor Norman Jewison’s career was anything to go by, was too big an opportunity to ignore. He was only too happy to make what he was told to make. But he was far from just a hired hand. He was considered “a New York director” with a distinctive style, revealing the Big Apple as “a surfaced, multi-layered, steely place.”
As if the made-for-television arm was a mini-studio, Universal did not, as one might expect, make one picture and wait for industry reaction before embarking on another. It started off with a complete slate, and before the nine movies in the first wave had even been televised – The Name of the Game launched the “World Premiere” format on November 26, 1966 – a second tranche, including The Borgia Stick, was already underway.
Initially, the picture was due to start shooting in New York on a five-week schedule in July 1966, but that shifted to August with production complete by early October. According to the critics The Borgia Stick exceeded expectations. Variety called it “an achievement,” and considered A.J. Russell an “exceptional story-teller” and the bold decision to shoot on location in New York working to “striking advantage.” The public tended to agree. It was ranked third among the first tranche in the ratings battle according to Nielsen.
More importantly, when up against all the Hollywood movies screened on television that year, it came in at number eight when measured by “total audience appeal” beaten only by major motion pictures making their network premieres such as The Robe (1953), Lilies of the Field (1963) with Sidney Poitier’s Oscar-winning performance, Doris Day comedy Move Over Darling (1963), The Longest Hundred Miles (another made-for-tv film), Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Marlon Brando in The Young Lions (1958) – screened over two nights it counted as two entries. Perhaps more vital, when the results were broken down by demographics, The Borgia Stick took pole position in both the 18-34 age ground and the 35-49 and was “generally considered to be the best made-for-tver to date.”
The Borgia Stick was sold to some television networks – the BBC screened it in Britain on September 9, 1969 – around the world but the Mafia theme made it a straightforward sell for cinema distribution in other areas where it went out under titles such as FBI vs Gangsters, Murder Syndicate or Gangster Syndicate.
The Borgia Stick proved to be the ace in the pack for Inger Stevens. She was snapped up immediately for the movies and over the next three years was leading lady to Clint Eastwood (Hang ‘Em High, 1968), Dean Martin (5 Card Stud, 1968), Henry Fonda (Firecreek, 1968), George Peppard (House of Cards, 1968) and Anthony Quinn (A Dream of Kings, 1969). But she had mental health issues, probably exacerbated by being forced to keep secret her marriage in 1961 to black musician Ike Jones in case it adversely affected her career, and in 1970 she committed suicide.
Don Murray’s Tale of the Cock (1966) sat on the shelf for three years before being released, minus a censor rating, as These Childish Things to neither critical acclaim nor box office interest. David Lowell Rich made three feature films on the trot – Rosie! (1967) with Rosalind Russell and Sandra Dee, Kirk Douglas/Sylva Koscina thriller A Lovely Way to Die (1968) and Eye of the Cat (1969) before subsiding back into television only emerging for an occasional movie like That Man Bolt (1974) starring Fred Williamson and The Concorde…Airport ’79 (1979). A.J. Russell also achieved breakout success, going on to write A Lovely Way to Die (1968) and Stiletto (1969).
Made-for-television movies became a regular feature of network programming and from time to time threw up a genuine success – Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) starring Robert De Niro and The Jericho Mile (1979) with Peter Strauss among the most notable. And you could argue that the genre is currently booming on streaming giants like Netflix and Apple, making movies to win audience share and expand their subscription base.
SOURCES: “Youngsters With Star Potential,” Variety, July 24, 1957, p13; “Competitive Spirit Moves MCA (& U),” Variety, May 4, 1966, p3; “Wm Darrid Is MCA’s Literary Head,” Box Office, May 23, 1966, pE6; “Gotham Draws More Film Prod,” Variety, July 6, 1966, p1; “Broadway,” Box Office, August 29, 1966, pE4; “Universal Sets 11 Features For NBC-TV,” Box Office, September 5, 1966, pE4; “Broadway,” Box Office, October 3, 1966, pE4; “U and Metro Favor Features Made-For-TV,” Variety, October 19, 1966, p4; “Gene Barry Seeks To Prove A TV Star Can Make It Theatrically,” Variety, October 19, 1966, p4; “First U’s Film Made-For-TV Due Nov 26,” Box Office, November 21, 1966, p20; “Review,” Variety, March 1, 1967, p31; “NBC’s Ersatz Pix Hottest Package,” Variety, April 26, 1967, p165; “Last Season’s Most Appealing Pix,” Variety, July 5, 1967, p18; Stuart Byron, “Economics Can Work Out Okay For House Director – D.L. Rich,” Variety, July 5, 1967, p18; “U’s Premiere Status In TV,” Variety, August 16, 1967, p33; “Survivors, U-Pix Bought by BBC,” Variety, September 10, 1969, p59; “15 New MOTW Titles Packaged for O’Seas,” Variety, August 26, 1970, p39.
No, you’re not seeing double. Jessica starring Angie Dickinson was not only the top-viewed film of last year but has also racked up the most views since the Blog began in June 2020. Even a late rush of views for Once Upon a Time in the West could not prevent it taking the prize.
Given that the number of hits for the blog has quadrupled over the previous year, you might expect to see an entirely new Top 40. But that’s not been the case. And some films have shown remarkable staying power with a few stars featuring more than once. This covers films viewed since the launch of the Blog.
The figures in brackets represent the previous year’s position and NE means New Entry.
(30) Jessica(1962). Runaway winner with Angie Dickinson as a young widow incurring the wrath of wives in a small Italian town.
(NE) Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Hot on the heels of the number one film this Sergio Leone masterpiece has been the fastest-grower of the year.
(1) The Secret Ways (1961). Alistair MacLean appears a perennial favorite in the Blog and this early adaptation sees Richard Widmark trapped in Hungary during the Cold War.
(NE) The Swinger (1966). First of two Ann-Margret movies entering the all-time chart – sex comedy that manages a sprinkling of innocence.
(NE) Fraulein Doktor (1969). Surprise entry for under-rated Suzy Kendall German spy in World War One.
(2) Oceans 11. Frank Sinatra heads the Rat Pack line-up, first of four of his movies in the chart.
(3) Pharoah (1966). A genuine find. Polish epic set in Egypt continues to accrue followers.
(6) The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
(NE) Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Self-indulgent oddity from singer Anthony Newley.
(7) Moment to Moment (1966). Unfairly forgotten twisty Jean Seberg thriller set in the South of France.
(NE) Father Stu (2022). Box office flop that was hit in the Blog.
I thought we were done with lists – all those Top 50, Top 250 and, just to ring in the changes and go post-modern, Top 28 or Top 113 or whatever. When everyone knows they are so easy to manipulate – social media polls in particular or simply by who is allowed to vote.
Maybe it felt time to challenge the authority of the recent Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade-poll especially in some bizarre fit of whatever the top movie (Jeanne Dielman… 1975) was a) one I had never heard of and b) hardly anyone had ever seen and c) was deemed better than Vertigo (1958) and The Godfather (1972) and three-quarters of the other hallowed movies on the rival Variety chart.
But, as ever, I fell into the trap. The minute a poll chimes with your own views, then of course that’s deemed worthwhile and correct.
So this is esteemed trade magazine Variety getting into the act.
And it’s not Vertigo (1958), the dethroned Sight & Sound champ, at the top of the heap but Hitchcock’s other rule-breaker, Psycho (1960).
You can always tell the movie education of critics by their choices. I doubt if the current Variety bunch have sat their way through all the movie classics of the last century the way their predecessors, including many of the older contributors to Sight & Sound; you’re talking the difference being maybe half a century of movie-watching. That’s a lot to ignore out of ignorance.
Anyway, I’m not much interested in all the other decades and there are certainly some interesting/unusual/odd/flabbergasting choices which might have other critics in an uproar or at the very least achieve the expected soundbites/soundbytes.
But the 1960s comes out pretty good, although there’s no room for Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). The elegiac gets the nod over the operatic, The Wild Bunch (1969) No 41 on the list and no place for Sergio Leone. Also out in the cold The Searchers (1956) and in its place – at No 34, the highest western on the chart – another Ford classic Stagecoach (1939).
In order, the 1960s winners are: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – at No 7 and therefore top sci fi movie of all time. Among the top foreign pictures of all time is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) – at No 18 and one spot above The Godfather Part II (1974). Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) – at No 23 – takes the comedy gong.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) wasn’t ever going to be the top gangster film not with two Godfathers and Goodfellas as the competition but still it slots in at No 27. Fellini’s 8½ (1963) grabs the 33rd spot, just below Vertigo. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – at No 38 – is beaten to the top historical epic spot by Seven Samurai (1954) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) docks at No 44; Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless (1960) at No 50; and Mia Farrow giving birth to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is named best horror picture. Best spy picture? It’s a shoo-in for “Bond, James Bond” in Goldfinger (1964).
The Sound of Music (1965) can’t beat The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) but frankly I’m astonished it made the cut – at No 87 – since for the last six decades it’s been blown many a critical raspberry. Two rungs below is Catherine Deneuve in Luis Bunuel’s sex drama Belle de Jour (1967). Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) tops the assassin stakes at No 93. Top pop music picture is A Hard Day’s Night (1964) with the incomparable Beatles at No 96. Propping up the bottom of the list is The Graduate (1967).
Not that I should be doing Variety’s work for it, but the 1960s came joint-second in terms of the highest number of films charting from a single decade.
Should you be so inclined to check out the full Variety chart, you’ll find it here.
My greatest hits, if you like. I can hardly believe that I’ve turned out so many books or that a publisher has been willing to take them. I have two publishers. McFarland in America prefers works on a Hollywood theme while the British publisher, Baroliant, is happy to print tomes which target a smaller potential audience. I should point out that McFarland publications are more expensive though they are in a bigger format.
All of my books are available on Amazon/Kindle. The ones below are all available in print editions.
If you have problems getting hold of any title let me know.
The 70mm roadshow didn’t rule for long, in reality just over a decade. Beginning with Ben-Hur in the final month of 1959, the peak came six years later with the double whammy of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago. But towards the end of the 1960s flops outweighed hits and the youthquake of Easy Rider (1969) spelled the end of audience acceptance of excessively-budgeted pictures.
But there was nothing new about roadshows. By the time the likes of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) hove into view the concept was already half a century old. Initially, the term came from the stage, from the travelling troupes taking a famous play from city to city, in essence taking a “show” on the “road.” A similar principle applied to the first big-budget pictures. Prints were limited and so one print would tour a wide area, moving on only after demand had been sated.
It was a premium-priced concept and to make it sound even grander the audience could book in advance for separate performances. For Neptune’s Daughter (1914), showing in Chicago, the adverts proclaimed “every seat reserved $0.25 and $0.50” at time when going to the movies usually cost less than a dime (10 cents). The Birth of a Nation (1915) – seats topping out at $2 on its New York debut – was the most celebrated roadshow by dint of being the most successful movie of era.
Roadshow became shorthand for a movie trying to make a big splash, Gone with the Wind (1939) the best example, but it faded in and out of fashion and by the 1950s only a handful of pictures including the Cinerama series, Oklahoma (1955),The Ten Commandments (1956), War and Peace (1956), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and South Pacific (1958) took this route. These films were being made in 35mm or its widescreen equivalent.
But when MGM’s massive gamble on the 70mm presentation of Ben-Hur paid off big style, the other studios took heed. It wasn’t just the size of the screen but the length of the picture. Audiences accustomed to watching double-bills were more than satisfied with an epic.
And where going to the movies was still for many a relatively inexpensive weekly habit, attending a roadshow was on a different level – an event – akin to a night on Broadway, with all the extra cost that entailed: pre-show cocktails, perhaps dinner, babysitter, a brochure, parking and candy or popcorn, not to mention perhaps a new dress. (Anyone who moans about the high price of going to the movies these days, just remind them it was a fraction of the cost of buying a ticket to a roadshow.)
Even accounting for an odd failure like Can-Can (1960), Cimarron (1960) and The Alamo (1960), the next few years opened up a box office gusher from the likes of Spartacus (1960), Exodus (1960), West Side Story (1961), Kings of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Longest Day (1962) and Cinerama pair How the West Was Won (1962) and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even the budget escalation on Cleopatra (1963) did not prevent the movie doing huge business, and eventually it would turn a sizeable profit.
The all-star cast – some starrier than others – became synonymous with the roadshow. Some stars with waning marquee value suddenly found their fees rising as they became an essential element of a supporting cast. And it often meant that a star-studded cast – Grand Prix (1966) springs to mind – did not require the presence of an out-and-out box office name.
Studios revelled in the double whammy of box office kudos and Oscar cachet. In six of the ten years, a roadshow took the coveted Best Picture Award, only one of these (A Man for All Seasons in 1966) not being made in 70mm. In addition, roadshows enjoyed longevity, not just remaining at one theater for six, seven, eight months, over a year in some cases, but gaining another marketing spurt when the movies went into wider release “at popular prices.”
Just as audiences appear to tire of historical epics, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Lord Jim (1965) among the more poorly-received, along came David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) to restore faith in the mini-genre while studios struck 70mm gold with musicals My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965).
Waiting and its marketing partner-in-crime, anticipation, had never been so effective. Unlike now, you could not just go and see a movie when you wanted. When virtually the global cinema system revolved around continuous performance – i.e. in favor of the audience – roadshow was separate performance which required a moviegoer to turn up at a specified time. And not necessarily a date of your choosing. Advance booking meant it might be months before you could find a free seat.
Roadshows provided ongoing advertising for such movies. Any big city cinema showing any roadshow would advertise its continued presence for as long as it ran. As a by-product that meant it was promoting said movie to a larger audience that could not afford premium pricing and would wait avidly until it turned up at a lower-priced local theater a year or two years later.
There were significant financial pros and cons. A roadshow could run for a considerable time in one prime cinema in a big city at peak prices, and while that distribution technique could result in bigger grosses, it also took longer to pay off while interest charges mounted.
And once the movies had played out their runs in roadshow and general release, they usually came back within five or six years for a wide reissue. That was usually a prelude to being sold and sold again – to television. Event pictures made for event television. The networks shifted their programming to accommodate these big movies, usually splitting them over two nights, and running them on peak evenings at peak times.
In the second half of the decade, despite huge revenues garnered by roadshows as diverse as Hawaii (1966), Grand Prix, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the revamped Gone with the Wind (1939), Funny Girl (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), bloated budgets were beginning to take their toll, and what had once been seen as the saviour of the industry increasingly spelled its financial doom.
Sharp changes in distribution and marketing saw an end to the earlier type of roadshow run. Patton (1970) was limited to a 16-week run anywhere with a general release scheduled immediately after in order to create a coordinated release pattern. The last roadshown picture of the era was Man of La Mancha in 1972. While the curtain came down on the advance-booking-separate-performance juggernaut, films like The Godfather (1972), initially given restricted release, and The Towering Inferno (1974) would easily have fitted the pattern.
Apart from movies put into production with the specific aim of being launched as roadshow, Hollywood took advantage of the added hoopla roadshow provided to release, if only briefly, other movies in that fashion. Step forward Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Blue Max (1966). Other films expressly made for U.S. roadshow release found few takers or none. Khartoum (1966) and Ice Station Zebra (1968) fitted the former category; The Comedians (1967) and Isadora the latter.
Conversely, films that failed to gain any roadshow traction in the U.S. were welcomed as 70mm separate performance attractions – blown up from 35mm if necessary – elsewhere, The Great Race (1965), Cinerama pair Custer of the West (1967) and Krakatoa – East of Java (1968), Alistair MacLean duo Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Ice Station Zebra, and even The Wild Bunch (1969) enjoying extensive runs in British and European cinemas.
Some films roadshown in their country of origin were denied such a release pattern in the United States – Zulu (1964), The Battle of Britain (1969) and Alfred the Great (1969).
Of course directors still like to shoot in 70mm but it’s not quite the same without the curtains opening and closing, the overture, intermission and entr-acte. It’s not the event it once was. Lucky for me, the Bradford Widescreen Weekend operates in the prescribed fashion and once those curtains begin to open you know you are in for a whale of a long-forgotten time.
Perhaps best described as a more sophisticated occasionally psychedelic companion piece to Orgy of the Dead (1965).
You can’t blame screen wannabes and future Hammer queens Swedish bombshell Yutte Stensgaard (Lust for the Vampire, 1970) and Valerie Leon (Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, 1971) for wanting to kick-start their careers any way they can. But you have to wonder what career nadir James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) and Dawn Addams (The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, 1960) found themselves in to have signed up.
Compared to Orgy of the Dead this has a helluva plot though it takes its sweet time getting there. Secret Agent James Word (Robin Hawdon) has the details of his previous mission (to Scotland!) dragged out of him – no torture required just strip poker followed by sex – by secretary Ann (Yutte Steensgaard).
The story, told in flashback, recounted by Word mostly in bed – perhaps this is where Game of Thrones acquired the notion of “sexposition” – concerns the efforts of spy boss Major Bourdon (James Robertson Justice) to prevent Zeta (Dawn Addams) leader of a race of women from repopulating her planet Angvia by kidnapping females from Earth, having set her eyes this time on a Soho stripper.
The Wonder Woman race of women theme – the Sumuru version a bit more aggressive – has been given a good airing in contemporary times, but where those ancient Amazons kept themselves busy with sport and battle training, the Angvian women do little more than disport themselves in the most minimal of costumes – even for contemplation and hibernation – although to be fair topless nudity is hidden from prying eyes by the use of purple nipple pasties. There’s a definite hint of bondage in costumes held together by rope and the Sapphic angle is teased out.
Bear in mind this was made before alien abduction became a huge trend but the idea of men being kidnapped for the sole purpose of impregnating beautiful women might be the real reason why so many cases of alien kidnapping later came to light.
The women are superior in every way, peaceful and with an aristocratic bearing, though with a tendency to wear trendy thigh-high boots, and willing to put up with the intrusion of an occasional male for the sake of perpetuating their community. But the men, as instanced by the Major and Word, are a pretty crude and dumb bunch. Word is only too happy to indulge every female he comes across without appearing to extract any information while the Major, clearly lacking the sex appeal to get himself into a similar situation, relies on cruder means, torture the most obvious.
If it weren’t so crass you could point to feminism, a superior world that survives mostly independent of men without their base desires and who can channel inner power when it comes to physical confrontation rather than relying on old-fashioned weaponry. At its worst it’s just a parade of naked and semi-naked women (Ann, for example, rarely seen clothed), but at its best it’s a somewhat ham-fisted sci fi spoof with it has to be said the occasional burst of humor (the names, for example, have connotations) and if nothing else should provide a cautionary tale for stars whose careers are imploding.
This was produced by Hammer’s sometime rival, Tigon, the Tony Tenser outfit that sexed up the horror field. It’s ironic that the three stars, Stensgaard, Leon and also Robin Hawdon (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, 1970) were snapped up by the competitor for later top-billing. I’m not sure we heard any more of Yutte’s original voice than we did in Lust for a Vampire where she was more famously dubbed.
The first and last film of director Michael Cort who co-wrote the screenplay with Alistair McKenzie, who never wrote another one either, possibly a separate cautionary tale.
You might enjoy it more by star-watching. Carry On favorite Charles Hawtrey pops up as Bourdon’s sidekick and you can spot the future “wifelet” of the Marquess of Bath Hungarian Anna Gael (Bridge at Remagen, 1968), German Brigitte Skay (Isabella, Duchess of the Devils, 1969), British character actor Rita Webb (The Strange Affair, 1968) and Carol Hawkins (TV series The Fenn Street Gang, 1971-1973).
I came to this having wondered about the apparent demise of Dawn Addam’s career after Where the Bullets Fly (1966). That’ll teach me to indulge my curiosity. The best you can say is she doesn’t disgrace herself, not being required to strip, and has a more commanding presence than the random James Robertson Justice who just looks suitably embarrassed.
It’s rare that I watch an older movie twice over a relatively short period of time and it virtually never occurs that after seeing a DVD-sized version I am afforded the opportunity to see the picture in all its original glory on the big screen. But, courtesy of a Victorian-era strand of this year’s Bradford Widescreen Weekend. I was able to do so, and it was well worth the experience to clarify several aspects of the movie.
On second go-round what stood out most were the characters rather than the political commentary and that the military disaster portrayed was caused by simple human error, a miscommunication, rather than the result of a bunch of buffoons being in charge.
Certainly, the approach is unusual for a war movie, a lot less of the glory, courage and glamor of war, and much more, in fact more than ever before, of the details of mounting a campaign. Even a movie as detailed as Apocalypse Now (1979), which had more than its fair share of gung-ho cavalier buffoons at the helm, drew the line at showing the organisational calamity to which every military endeavor will at some time fall victim. War movies, like westerns, tend to stick to the knitting of action rather than consequence and reprisal.
The over-simplification of reasons for Britain going to war are more obviously over-simplified on reappraisal. The effect on Turkey and the extended Middle East of an unopposed Russian invasion would have scarcely borne thinking about, never mind complaining about who or why various countries sought to withstand the aggressor. While applauding the vigor of the animated sequences, their content, and the way director Tony Richardson tries to sway audience opinion, seems dubious.
It’s worth noting that at the time the infamous charge was reported as a debacle by The Times newspaper and the idea that there was anything glorious about it only occurred because a few days later Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote the famous poem that acted as an epitaph to courage. While no attempts are made to embroider the myth of war, and it’s clear the army is mostly made up of people with no other chance of employment (which would as true at any time in the previous millennium), nonetheless the focus is on personality clashes at the highest level, as various commanders jostle for position and control. But I doubt if personal enmity actually affected decisions on this particular battlefield, although occasional incompetence is readily addressed.
As Lord Cardigan, Trevor Howard gives the greatest performance of the second half of his career when he had shifted away from the romantic hero of Brief Encounter (1945) to gruff characters with a tendency towards the choleric. His portrait of a soldier who bristles against his position in the chain of command even as he tries to impress the importance of hierarchy on his junior officers, is superb, especially as he is in turn puffed up and then torn down by public opinion, and for all he may appear an unsavory character still appears to be catnip to the ladies.
In my previous viewing I had followed the director’s line in taking as our conscience dashing cavalry officer Nolan (David Hemmings), even though he is not quite so principled that he refrains from an affair with the wife Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave) of his best friend. But although he played an integral role in the actual battle, he seems on reflection to be a sop to the film’s backers, a handsome leading man (and beautiful Redgrave) as the apparent audience focus rather than the other individuals who were altogether less attractive personalities.
Instead, what I responded to more was the depiction of the enclosed society of soldiers writ much larger on the big screen than on the small. And yes, this is class-ridden Britain (though when was it not so) at war in 1854, when military advancement was purchased rather than officers promoted for their leadership skills, and far removed from the idealized U.S. Cavalry as portrayed by John Ford when at dances the officers mixed with the ordinary soldiers.
The lower-class recruits, lured by a wage and the promise of glory, are so ill-educated they don’t know their left foot from their right, something of a problem in obeying orders in the field. Where turning raw recruits into soldiers proved manna from heaven for the likes of Robert Aldrich in The Dirty Dozen (1967) or Andrew V. McLaglen in The Devil’s Brigade (1968), here no concessions are made to the sheer brutality of the job.
Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) engages in open warfare with brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews). Cardigan is irascible to the point of apoplexy, incredibly brave, vainglorious, a vindictive sex-mad peacock, with an odd selection of principles (refuses to deal with spies, for example). Nothing can beat a quite marvellous spat between the pair over how to pitch tents. Commander-in-Chief Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) requires immense skills just to deal with the personalities under his control and comes across as more politically astute and more effectual than another officer who refuses to allow battle to take precedence over breakfast.
The effete Nolan, initially introduced as the good guy who stands up to Cardigan, is revealed as ineffectual, possibly more so than the superiors he so wantonly offends. But since his romance with Clarissa as clearly as opportunistic as Cardigan’s brief fling with the married Mrs Duberly (Jill Bennett) it clears the way for the picture to concentrate on how an army operates and goes to war, to touch upon, unlike most war or historical pictures, as much on what goes wrong as goes right. The splendor of cavalry on parade plays second fiddle to dead horses, the Crimean heat and the scourge of cholera.
The detail of what exactly went wrong on the battlefield is obscured by the fact that Nolan, who hand-delivered the famous order to attack, itself unclear, died in battle, so it’s like one of those Netflix documentaries about unsolved murders, fascinating but ultimately annoying. If incompetence is measured in casualties, apart from this one charge the British came out better than the other participants, 40,000 dead compared to three times as many among the French allies and more than ten times as many among the Russian enemy.
The acting is of a very high quality, David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1968) as good as I’ve ever seen him, Vanessa Redgrave (Blow-Up, 1966) an early Stepford Wife, Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) brilliantly outrageous while John Gielgud (Sebastian, 1968) turns occasional befuddlement into a high art.
Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, 1963) makes some bold choices, not least in what is included and what is left out, and despite his determination to show up the action as deplorable in fact he achieves the opposite effect, a sense of overwhelming sadness that one mistake can trigger terrible consequence. The action on the big screen is quite magnificent, the detail of costumes and the thundering of the horses bursts out of the screen.
Although it made box office sense to re-team David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave from Blow-Up (1966, from a narrative perspective this is not only misleading but they fail to match the sheer screen magic of the feuding Cardigan and Lucan.
While I would challenge aspects of Richardson’s approach it remains an engrossing watch.
Almost a chamber piece rather than grand guignol. Highly atmospheric and psychologically-charged rather than plot-driven and nary a bosom in sight. Even taking account that he’s dead, Dracula (Christopher Lee) with his mesmeric bloodshot eyes takes a good while to put in an appearance and this time round regular nemesis Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is nowhere to be seen although there is a version of fly-eating acolyte Renfield.
For much of the time it’s an intimate six-hander, Dracula almost a mute deus ex machina, given little to do until it’s time for murder, so we’re spared any self-pitying exposition, but like a modern MCU/DC villain appears to have supernatural powers, enough at least while dead to draw people against their will to his castle.
Victims this time are four travellers, Charles (Francis Mathews) and wife Helen (Barbara Shelley) and his younger brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) and partner Diana (Suzan Farmer), who ignore the warnings of local priest Sandor (Andrew Keir) not to visit Karlsbad, a place now so feared it has been removed from any map. With little in the way of sense, the foursome board a driverless carriage and find themselves inside a castle with a table set for dinner and their rooms made up by malevolent servant Klove (Philip Latham).
Alan is the first to die, his blood reviving the Count. Helen is next, but isn’t killed, instead becoming his blood-sucking accomplice and handy as a lure for her unsuspecting sister-in-law. Eventually, Charles and Diana escape to the abbey where the rifle-toting stake-wielding Sandor offers protection, although not enough to deter the internal traitor Ludwig (Thorley Walters), the aforementioned insect-eater. So it’s back to the castle for an unexpected climax.
Hammer upped the budget to include color. The shades of rich red add an opulence to the proceedings, and do not detract from the atmosphere, especially effective when it comes to the blood-letting. In general, the biting is masked, Dracula using his cloak so as not to offend audience sensitivities, but particularly effective in one sequence where he draws a sharp nail down his bare chest to offer a stream of blood for Helen to lick, her enslavement more like a seduction.
Females remain largely innocent here unlike the gender-twisting vampire quartet a few years later of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Countess Dracula (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971) which not only doubled down on the blood quotient but ramped up the nudity. Helen cannot resist the compelling force of Dracula’s eyes rather then willingly embracing evil.
But this remains a prime example of Hammer at its peak, the wordless Christopher Lee (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966) never more terrifying, with pounding hooves and an unusually busy action-driven score by Don Banks to heighten the dramatic effect. This was the third in the series directed by Terence Fisher (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) and together with Lee they pare down the effects and build up the suspense.
Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the supporting cast, transforming from timid soul to conniving blood-thirsty bride, at times challenging her master for first dibs at the victims. Francis Mathews (Crossplot, 1969) essays the dapper suave screen character that would be put to better use in the Paul Temple television series (1969-1971). Charles Tingwell (The Secret of Blood Island, 1965) and Suzan Farmer (Rasputin: The Mad Monk, 1966) make up the numbers. But Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) is a worthy adversary.
I was lucky enough to catch this on the big screen at the Widescreen Weekend in Bradford a couple of weeks back, slotted into the festival I guess due to timing, and was taken aback by its power, the color palette and the thundering score. But also seeing Lee at his magnificent best, towering over his victims, the close-up of the eyes, the supervillain to top all supervillains.
Sometimes completing the circle just turns the wrong way and the idea that the search for eternal youth can be viewed as a bad thing seems a tad out of touch with today’s mentality. It’s also open to question whether it was ever seen as having much of a downside in the 1960s when there must have been anti-ageing creams although not the availability of cosmetic surgery to ostensibly turn back the clock.
Trust the men from U.N.C.L.E. to uncover the only genius not intent of monetizing his discovery to the tune of gazillions but intent on using it for dire political purpose. This time out Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David MacCallum) are on apparently different missions in Britain and France which eventually coalesce. Ilya is cat-hunting in London’s Soho. Not pet-hunting which might be a harmless occupation and give us an insight into his carefully-concealed personal life, but chasing down cats which look different from what they did before, mature cats, for example, that turn into kittens. (Probably a fortune to be made from that, too, the eternal pet, putting pet cemeteries out of business).
So is Solo’s investigation of the disappearance of renowned 83-year-old biologist Benjamin Lancer which takes him into the orbit of Parisian couturier Madame de Sala (Vera Miles) where Lancer’s daughter Lorelei (Dolores Faith) is a model. Anyone with any experience of Solo would have warned Lorelei off since he seems too closely associated with danger. As it happens, Lorelei doesn’t get the chance to make his acquaintance as she is bumped off by models Olga (Monica Keating) and Do Do (Ahna Capri).
Solo and Kuryakin soon realize there are a lot of malevolent women on the loose including obstreperous nurse Joanna Sweet (Ann Elder), full-time carer to aged statesman Sir Norman Swickert (Maurice Evans), to whom de Sala is devoted.
Judging from the number of characters mentioned so far you can guess how complicated this one gets, so to cut to the chase, yes, the cats-turned-kittens are linked to attempts to rejuvenate Swickert, the power to do so eventually controlled by T.H.R.U.S.H. (you were wondering when they would turn up, weren’t you?).
As in The Spy with the Green Hat (1967), Solo spends most of the time being ineffectual, tripped or trapped, here at least in the novel situation of being crushed in a wine press, an odd item to find in England but never mind, movies always have creative latitude. Things come to a fine pass when Alexander Waverley (Leo G. Carroll), normally recumbent in New York, is parachuted in to save the day.
As usual, the actions zips along, but due to the way the original two-part episode from which this was culled has been oddly edited some of the zipping goes zap straight into a cul de sac of confusion. That said, there is a very tender scene when De Sala pours out her heart to the infirm Swickert and Ms Sweet is similarly defensive of her charge, a strict ration of emotion in the otherwise action-swirling picture. Solo manages some deft comedy outwitting the man mountain guarding a mansion.
This is a bit harder to follow than the others, and no expense has been spared in sticking to the MGM backlot in attempting to emulate British locations, Soho especially quaint as if imagined by a tidy-up campaign, and, as I mentioned, the wine press (??).
This was drawn from the second season two-parter The Bridge of Lions Affair, broadcast in February 1966, the concept of the bridge and the lions it connects too dumb to bother explaining. But one of the beauties of this series is you never quite know what you’re getting, Vaughn and MacCallum pretty much stick to the knitting of their screen personas, and it’s left to the guests stars to take advantage of the opportunity to do something different, Vera Miles (Hellfighters, 1968) in this case the opportunist.
Bit parts in spy pictures were seen as a boost for young actresses, but that wasn’t always the case. Ann Elder (Don’t Make Waves, 1967) was making her movie debut, Dolores Faith (Mutiny in Outer Space, 1965) was coming to the end of her short career, but Anha Capri (Kisses For My President, 1964) lasted another decade.
Screenwriter Howard Rodman was the pick here, going on to write Madigan (1968) and Coogan’s Bluff (1968). E. Darrell Hallenbeck didn’t received another movie director credit until as a contributor to The Green Hornet (1974) when it surfaced as a re-edited version of several episodes of the television series.
U.N.C.L.E. pictures regularly crop up on streaming services and mainstream television but if you can’t wait and fancy splurging on the entire series, check this out.