Wives and Lovers (1963) ***

Key name here is Jay Presson Allen. You may remember her for giving theatrical and then cinematic shape to Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The clarity she brought to both stage and movie productions resulting in critical kudos and box office. She would do the same with Cabaret (1972). And, undeniably, in Wives and Lovers she was also prophetic. Had it been filmed under the title of the play from which it was adapted, Allen’s The First Wife, we would not have been acknowledging the insight so much of The First Wives Club nearly three decades later.  

By shape of course we mean structure and there’s not much you can do when the source is a Broadway hit other than expanding it out away from the inherent staginess. And here nobody makes the mistake of trying. This belongs to the tag end of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy when innocents are not too badly punished for their errant ways and generally see the light at the end.

Here, struggling writer Bill (Van Johnson), financially supported by dental hygienist wife Bertie (Janet Leigh), hits the jackpot when his novel is published, becomes a Book-of-the-Month-Club (extra loot), is purchased by Hollywood (more loot) and is turned into a play (even more loot) by the author. As if he has swallowed a lorryload of steroids, the quiet spoken somewhat child-pecked Bill ups sticks to more fashionable Connecticut and charges headfirst into temptation. this appears in the form of cocktail parties, Hollywood stars, sexy agent Lucinda (Martha Hyer) and every excuse to spend endless nights on the town rather than cuddling up at home with Bertie and working out how to make the new-fangled stereo work.

There’s not much to this other than your standard three-act play: initial enjoyment of success, the aforementioned temptation, and coming to the kind of understanding that couples in the early 1960s were still permitted before divorce appeared the more convenient and adult option.

On hand to warn against that option is disillusioned divorced first wife neighbot Fran (Shelley Winters) whose “companion” (his position is left comfortably vague) Wylie (Ray Walston) spends most of his time belittling their interior décor. Also on hand to show how difficult it is to fit into the upmarket set is snippy housemaid (Lee Patrick). With neighbors and maid on hand to put her in her place, and husband rarely around to help her explore their newfound status, it’s hardly surprising that Bertie, assuming Bill’s late nights include some illicit romance, tries to find solace with predatory Hollywood star Gar (Jeremy Slate), neatly fitting into this jigsaw as the proposed leading man of the stage adaptation and as Fran’s ex-.

So, basically, it’s the usual comedy of errors, though for a time Bill does seem hellbent on making the most of a mid-life crisis. While it’s strewn with good and often funny lines, the timing of the actors often fails to accommodate them, so it’s kind of helter-skelter at some points. It’s pretty easy to move in high-falutin’ circles because everyone you meet goes by the moniker of “Sweetie.” On reaching a marital crisis, the couple resolve the situation in a clever, humorous manner.  

Certainly, it’s the gentlest of comedies, but no worse for that and although former MGM matinee idol Van Johnson (Divorce American Style, 1967) takes a sledgehammer to his role, not least from trying to stop Jeremy Slate (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) from stealing the picture, in fact it’s the more subtle performance of Janet Leigh (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962) that keeps the movie ticking over, assisted by, in less combustible form than usual, Shelley Winters (A House Is Not a Home, 1965). The most worldly-wise character on show is daughter Julie (Claire Wilcox).

In one of those bizarre Hollywood anomalies, since Allen at this time was not a screenwriter figure of any importance, the more experienced Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) was handed the job, but with already such a cleverly contrived structure it’s hard to see what he brought to the party. Television director John Rich (The New Interns, 1964) doesn’t bring much more than the innate skill of knowing when to leave well alone.

Likeable enough, especially to see Janet Leigh in one of her rare starring roles in the decade. No intellectual exertion required.

The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) ****

A sheer delight, a twisty thriller with a standout sexy burglar. It might put you immediately in mind of To Catch a Thief (1955) but this takes the Hitchcock embryo and molds it in something effortlessly stylish and not just to keep the audience on the hop. A second viewing has raised it in my estimation.

Unless you were a fan of the more permissive pictures at the end of the 1960s or kept a close eye on the gossip columns – or for that matter Playboy magazine – you were unlikely to have come across slinky blonde Daniele Gaubert. A former teen model and supporting actress in a number of French and Italian films at the start of the 1960s, she had a brief brush with Hollywood as Yul Brynner’s girlfriend in United Artists’ Flight from Ashiya (1964) but then married Rhadames Trujillo, son of the Dominican Republic dictator.

The year after The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl she starred in Radley Metzger’s provocative Camille 2000 which set pulses racing especially at the censor’s office. Then marriage beckoned again, this time to French Olympic triple gold medallist skier Jean-Claude Killy with whom she made her last picture The Snow Job (1972) also known, depending on where you lived, as The Ski Raiders and The Great Ski Caper.

She only made eighteen movies but The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl is by far the standout. A taut thriller with plenty of twists and stylish action scenes, the French-Italian co-production  was the only film of documentary film maker Edouard Logerau and that background helps shape the movie with many of the most thrilling sequences lacking musical accompaniment.

Female empowerment is not normally associated with crime, given that organized crime is generally organized by men. But burglary is a different matter, lending itself to non-gender-specific individual enterprise. Though there are safes to break, there’s no glass ceiling in this brand of thievery.

Gaubert plays a cat burglar ironically known as “the lone wolf” (as in the original title) who is forced to trade her freedom by stealing a cache of drugs for the police in order to apprehend a criminal mastermind (Sacha Pitoeff). (Maybe this notion inspired Luc Besson’s Nikita.)  Her sidekick is Michael Duchaussoy, seconded from his usual job as an embassy press attache, on the grounds that he can lip-read (which proves more than a gimmick as the plot unfolds).

Given that this was all shot “in camera” – Christopher Nolan’s favourite phrase – without the benefit of CGI or, so it would appear, much in the way of bluescreen, the burglary scenes are pretty impressive. For a kick-off, Gaubert is a sexy as you can get in a skin-tight cat-suit. Furthermore, her character calls on skills from her previous occupation as a trapeze artist. While the director doesn’t match Hitchcock’s in the tension-racking stakes, the sheer verve of the burglary takes the breath away.

The first burglary – before she is caught – takes place at a fancy chateau where a party is in full swing (owners in residence less likely to take extra precautions to hide their valuables), Gaubert nips over a wall, slips up a tree,  uses a line thrower (a type of harpoon) to connect tree to building, and then proceeds to walk along the tightrope. Mission accomplished, she zooms off in a sports car, only stopping to remove false tyre treads and strip out of her costume before hiding her ill-gotten gains in a secret compartment at the back of the fridge.

The police burglary is in an office block. She and the lip-reader are holed up in an apartment opposite watching via a telescope. Although they pass the time in gentle flirtation, especially as she favours revealing outfits, she is not quite as imprisoned as it might seem and is already hatching her own plans to outwit her captors. This burglary is even more dangerous, in the pouring rain for a start, across Parisian rooftops, and involving a trapeze and ropes.

Thereafter, plot twists come thick and fast after this. She escapes to Switzerland, pursued by lip-reader (to whom she has clearly formed an attachment), cops and furious drug runners. Eventually re-captured she agree to another official burglary as a way of finally trapping Mr Big.

The tone is lightened by repartee and some interesting characterization. The lone wolf turns out to have very strong principles that prevent her just running off. Mr Big is a stamp aficionado. A lava lamp is turned into a weapon. Instead of counting to five before killing someone, a bad guy does the countdown according to the number of people diving into a swimming pool. Gaubert fools her captors into thinking they have a flat tyre by dangling her handbag over the edge of the door until it bumps into the tyre and makes the thwock-thwock of a burst tyre. “Survivors give me goose flesh,” quips a thug.

The closest comparison is not Hitchcock but Danger: Diabolik (1968) featuring John Philip Law which has a definite comic book riff. And you might also point to Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) or even, for a self-contained independent woman, to Raquel Welch’s Fathom (1967. But this lone wolf is ice-cold. Blonde is not enough. She is one step ahead of the law and the criminals. There are hints of a tragic past – a trapeze artists requires a partner, for example.

The last shot has Genault triumphant on a Paris rooftop. There is a nod to Hitchcock (think Rear Window) in the use of a telescopic framing device for many scenes, giving them a voyeuristic aspect. Sure, a bigger budget and a better supporting cast – and perhaps a more obvious romance – might have lifted the picture but Genault’s presence ensures that the film does not lack style. Gaubert dominates so much you could imagine she harldy needed direction but it is the cleverness of Edourd Logerau (Paris Secret, 1965) that makes it appear seamless.

Definitely deserves a more appreciative audience.

Grenfell (2023) ****

The single take has been the Holy Grail of directors ever since Alfred Hitchcock just about managed to use it for the entirety of Rope (1948). A quarter of a century on critics were raving about the complete one-take circle Michelangelo Antonioni achieved in The Passenger (1975) and half a century later for Sam Mendes’s  1917 (2019).  Every now and then an audacious director tries to earn kudos by employing the single take for long periods or editing a film in such a way as to get the same effect.

Oscar-winning British director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, 2013) has jumped to the top of that particular technical tree by shooting all of Grenfell in one single mostly silent aerial take. I happen to be a big fan of the single take, much as I thoroughly enjoy reading long sentences in books. And for the same reason: the result is often hypnotic.  

The movie opens in the sky a good distance from London to which the camera moves in stately progression. Below is traditional English countryside cut up by long avenues of trees. As we approach the city of London, all that divides the close-packed houses are other houses, although, it being England, there are still swathes of green.

This is what Grenfell looked like in 2009. Now it’s windowless and blackened.
Photocredit: Robin Sones, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59911338

We take a right as we fly over Wembley Station, the soccer fan’s Holy Grail, home of the F.A. Cup Final, international football matches and countless rock concerts including the legendary Live Aid (most recently replicated in Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018).  Gradually, in the distance appears something untoward. We are not close enough to the ground to see when buildings have lost their sheen, but high enough so that they still seem solid. But up ahead, coming slowly into view, is a jarring spectacle.

A charred skyscraper. Grenfell Tower. The remains of a devastating fire that in June 2017 killed 72 inhabitants. Some of the lower floors are white, which makes the upper floors stand out in sharper contrast. What work is going on is hard to determine – there’s a crane and men working on scaffolding. Maybe they are just adding more white panels to cover up the ruin, some kind of PR exercise to rid the city of the monstrosity and the memory of what happens when money talks and warnings are ignored.

The building is a rarity for such a devastating fire. After blazes with such a high death toll, there’s not much left of a structure, usually an empty shell, or as with the 9/11 Twin Towers nothing at all. This was a different kind of fire. Faulty easily-combustible plastic “cladding” – “siding” to use the American term as in the ubiquitous “aluminum siding” that Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito sold in Tin Men (1987) – caused the catastrophe, allowing flames to race up the sides, emanating toxic smoke, too quickly for those inside to escape.

The camera takes a few turns around the building and you can glimpse the dead interior and imagine the lives once lived.

It’s not a long film. Only 24 minutes, and a chunk of that taken up with just getting there. Now it stands as a monument to injustice. Though the building lies within a prosperous London borough, only the poor lived here, and possibly might have only done so until they could be kicked out and the building demolished by a more normal means so that upmarket apartments could be sold to richer people.

As the camera rotates round the building, coming at it from slightly different angles, and without music to infuse it with deceptive grandeur, the result is less hypnotic than disorientating and your mind has to work hard to snatch at the images being shown, taking a while to realize that there’s going to be no coup de theatre, no grandstand finish, no sigh of relief – none of the “oh, that’s what it’s all about” that accompanies some opaque arthouse picture.

It ends as it begins with a blank screen, no credits.

It’s something of a cult film. There’s only one print and it’s only showing in one cinema, and not the kind you find in a multiplex, just a space within the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park in London. Admission is free and there are several showings at day. It was self-funded by McQueen, who had links to the Grenfell community, went to art school nearby and ran a stall at a market not far away. But it’s not intended for commercial purpose. There might not even be a DVD or end up on a streaming channel as I guess part of the experience is to see it with a group of people and all come out shell-shocked to the foyer and stare at the list of the names of the victims.

It’s running in London till May 10 so maybe if you’re over for the Coronation of King Charles you might just happen upon it. I was in London on Sunday past visiting my son and he had arranged the tickets. He’s pretty good at this sort of thing, one other time I saw him he had got tickets to see that eternally-long film about clocks (whose name I forget) at the Tate.  I doubt if anyone’s going to fly thousands of miles just to see it, but my guess is it will eventually go on tour and be shown in one museum after another.

Unlike the Twin Towers, there’s no one group to blame, but like the worst of ordinary disasters it’s a combination of various corporations and community officials whose watchword is greed or disinterest rather than common humanity.

Fathom (1966) ***

If audiences rallied to the sight of Raquel Welch wearing nothing more than a fur bikini for the entirety of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and a skin-tight suit in Fantastic Voyage (1966)  Twentieth Century Fox must have reasoned they would surely return in droves were the star to spend most of Fathom in a succession of brightly-colored bikinis.

Given such a premise who would care that a sky-diving expert was named after a nautical measurement? Or that Fathom (Raquel Welch) came nowhere near the height indicated by her name? Or that  the character as described in the source material (a novel by Scottish screenwriter Larry Forester) had a distinctly harder edge; murder, sex and drugs among her proclivities.

With Our Man Flint (1966), the studio had successfully gatecrashed the burgeoning spy genre and spotted a gap in the market for a female of the species, hoping to turn Modesty Blaise (1966) starring Monica Vitti and Fathom into money-spinning series. The Fathom project was handed to Batman, The Movie (1966) co-conspirators, director Leslie H. Martinson and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon, 1980).

Female independence was hard-won in the 1960s and there were few jobs where a woman was automatically at the top of the tree. Burglary was one option for the independent entrepreneur (see The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl) and sport was another.

Welch plays an innocent bystander recruited for her top-notch sky-diving skills (her aptitude demonstrated in the opening sequences) to help Colonel Campbell (Ronald Fraser) of British intelligence recover the “Fire Dragon,” a trigger that could explode a nuclear bomb. Her sky-diving skills are required to land in the courtyard of playboy Peter Merriwether (Anthony Franciosa).

That turns out to be baloney, of course, a MacGuffin to point her in the direction of a valuable Chinese heirloom. And then it’s case of double-cross, triple-cross and whatever cross comes next.   

There’s an intriguing mystery at the heart of this picture and a couple of top-class hair-raising moments. In one she is trapped in a bull ring and stunt double Donna Garrett had a few very definite close calls trying to avoid the maddened beast. In another she is stalked at sea by a circling motor boat while being peppered with harpoons. There is also an airplane duel and a ton of great aerial work. A couple of comic sequences are well wrung – Campbell pins his business card to one of the prongs of a pitchfork being brandished with menace by Fathom  while Peter delivers a classic line: “The only game I ever lost was spin the bottle and that was on purpose.”

The biggest problem is that the film veers too far away from the source material which posited the heroine as a much tougher character, one who can despatch bad guys with aplomb. Instead, Fathom is presented almost as an innocent, bundled from one situation to another, never taking charge until the very end. Minus karate kicks or a decent left hook, she is left to evade her predators by less dramatic means. She has a decent line in repartee and by no means lets the show down. However, the idea, no matter how satisfactory to fans of the actress, that Fathom has to swap bikinis every few minutes or failing that don some other curve-clinging item, gets in the way of the story – and her character. Into the eccentric mix also come a millionaire (Clive Revill) and a bartender (Tom Adams).

There’s no doubt Welch had single-handedly revived the relatively harmless pin-up business (not for her overt nudity of the Playboy/Penthouse variety) and had a massive following in Europe where she often plied her trade (the Italian-made Shoot Loud, Louder…I Don’t Understand in 1966 and the British Bedazzled in 1967) but she was clearly desperate for more meaty roles. Those finally came her way with Bandolero (1966) and 100 Rifles (1969) and Fathom feels like a lost opportunity to provide her with that harder edge. 

She’s not helped by the odd tone. As I mentioned she gets into plenty of scrapes and proves her mettle with her diving skills. In the hands of a better director and with a few tweaks here and there it could have been a whole lot better and perhaps launched a spy series instead of languishing at the foot of the studio’s box office charts for that year.  

Anthony Franciosa (Rio Conchos, 1964), still a rising star after a decade in the business, who receives top billing, doesn’t appear for the first twenty minutes. And then he behaves like a walking advert for dentistry, as though his teeth can challenge Welch’s curves. But some of the supporting cast look like they’ve signed up for a completely different movie. Richard Briers (A Home of Your Own, 1965) – Ronald Fraser’s intelligence sidekick – looks like a goggle-eyed fan next to Ms Welch and Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) thinks it’s a joke to play a Russian as a joke. Ronald Fraser (Sebastian, 1968) provides decent support.

But it is certainly entertaining enough and you are unlikely to get bored.

“The Swinger” Dethrones “Jessica”

Ann-Margret’s The Swinger has staved off tough competition from the fast-rising Sergio Leone to take over the top spot in our All-Time Chart from Angie Dickinson in Jessica. It’s generally a mystery to me why some films attract more attention than others, but even I have been surprised at Ann-Margret’s popularity ahead of, for example, more popular female stars of the 1960s such as Raquel Welch. The last time I did an all-time chart it was back in September 2022 when The Swinger placed fifth. For reasons that escape me, I only filled you on the Top Ten places rather than the Top 30, so now I’m amending that.

1 (5) The Swinger (1966). She sings, she dances, she shakes her booty. Who care about the storyline?

2 (2) Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Awesome music, stunning opening and operatic finale and now regarded as the best western ever made.

3 (1) Jessica (1962). Widow ruffles female feathers in small Italian town.

4(6) Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall as German World War One spy leading Kenneth More a merry dance.

5 (3) The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in polished Alistair MacLean spy thriller set in Hungary. Early appearance by Senta Berger.

6 (4) Oceans 11 (1960). The Rat Pack slides into action, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin organising a heist in Las Vegas.

7 (8) The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.

8 (7) Pharoah/Pharon (1966). Polish epic about love and religion in ancient Egypt.

9 (-) Can Heiroymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Anthony Newley’s Fellini-esque musical ode to hiumself.

10 (-) Vendetta for the Saint (1968). Roger Moore as Simon Templar.

11 (10) Moment to Moment (1966). French-set Hitchcockian thriller starring Jean Seberg and Honor Blackman.

12 (-) Sisters (1969).Intense French drama starring Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg.

13 (-) Subterfuge (1968). Gene Barry uncovers a mole in British Intelligence with the help of Joan Collins.

14 (-) Stagecoach (1966). Ann-Margret again in remake of the classic John Ford western.

15 (-) Lady in Cement (1969). Frank Sinatra in his second outing as private eye Tony Rome coming to grips with gangster’s moll Raquel Welch.

16 (-) A House Is Not a Home (1965). Shelley Winters gives both barrels, acting-wise, as the madam of a notorious brothel.

17 (-) Fade In (1968). The drama Burt Reynolds preferred you didn’t see. A romance set around the filming of Blue (1968).

18 (-) Supercar (1961-1962) in color. Episodes of the much-loved Gerry and Sylvia Anderson British television series with added color.

19 (9) Father Stu (2022). Impressive performance by Mark Wahlberg as a priest,

20 (-) Baby Love (1969). Orphaned Linda Hayden is taken advantage of by a wealthy London couple and their son. 

21 (-) Blonde (2022). Ana de Armas in potent reimagining of Marilyn Monroe’s life.

22 (-) Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier tries to understand racist Bobby Darin.

23 (-) Beat Girl/Wild for Kicks (1960). Teenager Gillian Hills mixes with the wrong crowd  in London-based drama best known for a supporting cast including Christopher Lee, Adam Faith and Shirley Anne Field.

24 (-) Sodom and Gomorrah. (1962). Robert Aldrich Biblical epic.

25 (-) The Girl on the Motorcycle (1968). Singer Marianne Faithful heats up the screen in leathers and often a lot less.

26 (-) A Place for Lovers (1968). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in doomed romance.

27 (-) Deadlier than the Male. Richard Drummond reinvents Bulldog Drummond as he battles sadistic pair Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina.

28 (-) The Venetian Affair. Robert Vaughn as disgraced CIA agent caught up in nuclear threat.

29 (-) 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Charles Bronson, Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg. A cast to die for in this Robert Aldrich western.

30 (-) For a Few Dollars More (1965/1967). Clint Eastwood in the second of the Sergio Leone western trilogy. The Man with No Name meets The Man in Black.

The Magus (1968) ***

Mind-games and unreliable narrators give this considerable contemporary appeal. Throw in Anthony Quinn back in Zorba the Greek (1964) territory and Michael Caine as a lothario in the Alfie (1965) mold plus Candice Bergen (Soldier Blue, 1970) in preppy mode and you have nothing short of ideal casting.

Nicholas (Michael Caine), escaping a failed romance with Anne (Anna Karina) by teaching English at the Lord Byron School on a Greek island, becomes entangled with millionaire Conchis (Anthony Quinn). The action primarily takes place on Conchis’s fabulous villa stuffed full of art treasures.  Conchis initially presents himself as a psychic who can summon up the past, namely in the shape of Lily (Candice Bergen) who talks and dresses like the young girl Conchis previously loved.

But every time Nicholas rumbles a ruse he is presented with a different version of Conchis’s self. These include a psychiatrist, conjurerer-up of the mythic past and Second World War  collaborator. All of these identities carry sufficient personal truth for Nicholas to doubt his doubts.

Is he the victim of some elaborate game, one which caused the mysterious death of his predecessor? Is he smart enough to expose the millionaire as a dangerous fantasist? Is Lily genuinely falling in love with him and will this be yet another romance which makes him feel trapped? Is he actually put on trial in front of the entire village or is that all a dream? Is Conchis intent on stripping him of his core identity? And if so, why?

It should have been a cracking film but somehow misses the target. In theory, this is because Michael Caine is miscast. Caine is usually in charge and here is anything but. But actually, flipping over an actor’s screen persona, especially this cocky one, works. You might keep on wishing the real Michael Caine would stand up, and the fact that he doesn’t gives the film its strength.

Anthony Quinn initially overdoes the flamboyance to the point of being hammy – what magician is not – but you can see the point of that when he turns into the sober mayor forced to deal with invading Germans during World War Two and faced with making life-or-death decisions. The general consensus is Candice Bergen is the weak link, but I’d challenge that too since she is playing a role, that of an easily-duped actress.

The main problem is the picture is loaded down with flashbacks. And all to do with the various reinventions of Conchis’s life. In keeping with the film’s style you are never sure how much of this is true. Caine’s character has little to do except ask questions. (A modern film would have him chasing after physical clues to uncover a riddle.) So it becomes very stagey, with Conchis like a frustrated teacher with an aberrant pupil.

Of all the misleading ads! This lost a fortune for Fox.

John Fowles adapted his 300,000-word cult novel, removing the bulk of the philosophizing, but not realizing that what works in a book, especially in the hands of a gifted narrator, is not so easily translated onto the screen. For the adaptation of his previous bestseller The Collector (1965), director William Wyler brought in screenwriters to make the book work as a film.

Either screenwriters balked at the problems of dealing with a masterpiece or Fowles insisted on writing the screen version or director Guy Green (Pretty Polly/A Matter of Innocence, 1967) believed him the best person to reconstitute his work. Quinn, rather than Caine, has the movie’s pivotal sequence, forced into an action on a par with Sophie’s Choice (1982) and it might have helped if that element had been brought in sooner.

As it is, the movie is no more than interesting when it should have been fascinating.

The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) ***

Everyone loves a legend and here we are treated (twice) to the creation of one. Surprising echoes of Vertigo (1958) with none of that film’s virtuosity and proving that New Hollywood is much the same as Old Hollywood.

No wonder Kim Novak (The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, 1965)  came out of semi-retirement – three years off-screen following a brief marriage to Richard Johnson. It’s the role of a lifetime, an actor’s dream, the chance to delight Oscar voters. She plays two parts – the deceased Lylah Clare, a Jean Harlow type, and Elsa Brinkmann (name changed to Campbell), the ingenue hired to play her in a film about the star’s life.

Basically, history repeats itself. Director Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch) who turned Lylah into a star and married her, repeats the process with Elsa, seduction not leading to marriage, but the same jealousy plays out and the same tragic ending. Black-and-white flashbacks fill us in on Lylah, but most of the picture is Elsa’s transformation from mousy, bespectacled brunette  full-blown blonde movie star.

Initially, Zarken is not smitten, but when Elsa manages an uncanny emulation of Lylah’s voice and it transpires she has the exact same measurements, he changes his tune and embarks on his own comeback. Elsa takes to stardom pretty fast, humiliating gossip queen Molly Luther (Coral Brown), and, for no apparent reason, takes to striding around the garden topless except for bra.

As Zarken grows more attached to Elsa it’s soon apparent he believes the woman he’s directing is Lylah re-born. There’s some mystery about Lylah’s death but no mystery about how this new relationship will work out, other than that Zarken will be tormented by jealousy as before.

As you might expect, Zarken duels with studio boss Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine), and there’s some interesting insight into negotiation techniques. The scenes showing how a movie is made are among the best, especially how a director finds alternatives when sequences  don’t work. There’s temptation everywhere, drugs, alcohol and sexual experimentation if that’s your bag, a lesbian acting coach (Rossella Falk) coming on strong.  

Of course, Elsa soon suspects it’s the character she’s playing – as in Vertigo – that everyone is falling in love with not the person she is.

But while Elsa can impersonate the great actress’s features and voice she lacks her acting talent, making her even more vulnerable to her own insecurity. “You’re an illusion, without me you don’t exist,” barks Zarken after Elsa makes the mistake of assuming he has real feelings for her instead of just bedding her as he would any powerless woman. And the idea that she would forsake a promising career for motherhood infuriates him, though, of course she could be making that up as a means of holding him to ransom.

For the most part, Novak, very under-rated as an actress and seen too often as just glamorous, is excellent, but she is hindered by too speedy a transition, from shy young woman to someone giving full throttle to her emotions, and, at one point, required to throw her head back in a maniacal laugh. Peter Finch (The Red Tent, 1969) is spot-on, exuding control, but very capable of the spiteful exhibition of power.

The real problem is that there’s little mystery as to how this will unfold. Most of what we see in Hollywood is what we expect, and although it’s not as camp as Valley of the Dolls (1968) at times comes perilously close. It’s often very stagey. Director Robert Aldrich (Flight of the Phoenix) had previously taken a pop at Hollywood in the The Big Knife   (1955) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) but it’s such a difficult subject matter that virtually every avenue explored appears cliché.

Take it as camp and you’ll be satisfied, but don’t go looking for anything deeper.

No idea what’s going on with this “we’re sorry” business below.

A Time for Killing / The Long Ride Home (1967) ****

The American Civil War is often slotted into the wrong genre. It is not a western. It is a war, with all the inherent wrongheadedness, viciousness and atrocity. We begin with senseless execution and end on a note of humiliating barbarity. Along the way we witness easily the greatest performances in the careers of George Hamilton (The Power, 1968) – a wonder after this how he was ever associated with playboy characters – and Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968).

At the tail end of the war in a Confederate POW camp, the disciplinarian commander orders raw recruits to execute an escapee. When they fail to find to the target Major Wolcott (Glenn Ford), witnessed by appalled missionary fiancée Emily (Inger Stevens), steps in to finish the job. In the wake of this Wolcott sends Emily away under escort.

POW leader Captain Bentley (George Hamilton), fully aware the war might end in days, but determined to escape to Mexico and continue the fight, organises a breakout. Instead of sneaking out quietly, in revenge he turns the Union cannons on his captors. And despite being better informed how close the war is to an end, the dutiful Wolcott sets off in pursuit.

Bentley ambushes Emily’s escort, killing the soldiers and stealing their mounts, but promising Emily that as befits a Southern gentleman he will respect her honor. She’s not so innocent of war, anyway, begging Bentley to kill a fatally wounded Union soldier rather than leaving him to the buzzards or, one assumes, marauding Apaches.

Unfortunately, his comrades don’t share that sentiment and when Emily makes the mistake of unloosing her blouse to wet her neck at a stream it inflames their lust. Equally, unfortunately, Emily doesn’t keep to her part of the deal and in attempting to escape hits Bentley a humiliating blow with his own saber.

While unfamiliar with the territory, Wolcott is a pretty good soldier, taking a shortcut over the mountains to cut off their retreat. “How come he knew what we were gonna do before we done it,” wails a Confederate soldier. “Before you even thought it,” snaps the over-confident Emily.

A few miles from the border, the Confederates hole up in a bordello where Bennett finds a despatch announcing the war is over. Ignoring the fact that for the ordinary soldier you couldn’t find a better place to celebrate peace than in a whorehouse, and determined to continue the war, Bennett conceals the information.

In revenge for losing face in front of his soldiers, he (luckily off camera) rapes the half-stripped and bloodied Emily. In the manner of every savage taking advantage of wartime conditions, Bennett tells her, “You think nothing like this can ever happen to you. But you’re lucky because your humiliation will be over soon. You and your major are going to know I won.”

Rape, as currently in the Ukraine and as in many previous conflicts, used as a weapon.

When Wolcott arrives, it’s obvious what has happened and while holding a lid on his own emotions (a Glenn Ford hallmark), once he has proof the war is over, he refuses to give chase. Brutally, he tells her,  “I can see (witness) men die for their country but I can’t see them die for your honor.” It’s Bennett who, oddly, comes to her rescue, opening fire on the Union soldiers, compelling Wolcott, in breach of the rules of war, to cross the border into Mexico in pursuit.

This isn’t a typical Glenn Ford (The Pistolero of Red River/The Last Challenge, 1967) picture where he plays the central character and is scarcely off screen. Here, he disappears for long stretches as the camera focuses on George Hamilton, his squabbling gang and the growing tension between him and Inger Stevens. If you’ve only seen Hamilton in his screen playboy persona, this is a revelation as honor and misguided duty turn into repulsive action.

And this is by far the best performance by Inger Stevens. What she achieved here launched her career, although admittedly as a female lead rather than top-billed star. The emotion her face portrays without the benefit of dialog is quite astonishing. Expecting to be an innocent bystander, unexpectedly thrown into the tumult, physically abused, and then, contrary to her Christian beliefs, she goes from stalwart to victim to, against her Christian principles, showing no sign of turning the other cheek but in full Old Testament mode urging revenge.

The scene when Emily enters a room full of soldiers, attempting to retain some dignity in the face of torn clothes and bloodied face, while acknowledging her humiliation, is stunning. The only scene that comes close to matching its power is at the end, the sequence shot from above, light streaming into a darkened cellar, when, having killed Bennett, Wolcott abandons his potential bride.  

Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961), a stand-in for original director Roger Corman, does an excellent job of focusing on the brutalities of war, not just the rape and violence, but the recruits, as dumb as they come on both sides, who fail to cope with the pressures. You would have to be fast to spot Harrison Ford (billed as Harrison J. Ford) making his screen debut, but Harry Dean Stanton (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) has a bigger role. Halstead Welles (The Hell with Heroes, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the novel The Southern Blade by Nelson and Shirley Wolford.

A couple of later westerns might have raided this picture for ideas: continuing the fight in Mexico was the focus of The Undefeated (1969); a constantly carping pair who delight in slaughter evidenced in The Wild Bunch (1969); relentless pursuit a constant theme of 1969 westerns as diverse as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, Mackenna’s Gold and Once Upon a Time in the West.

Regard this as a western and you will be disappointed. Take it more seriously as a war picture and it offers far more. I’m probably being a tad generous in giving it four stars but I was knocked out by the performances of Hamilton and Stevens and a number of excellent scenes, the two in particular mentioned above for example, and the dialogue.

Selling Maureen O’Hara Dripping Wet – The Pressbook for “The Deadly Companions / Trigger Happy” (1961)

Pathe America didn’t have much idea how to sell The Deadly Companions. So they went for the obvious. Maureen O’Hara bathing.

And that was basically it. Out of the eight pages in the A3-sized Pressbook all but two were devoted to a picture of Maureen O’Hara in a desert pool. There were 29 advertisements in varying sizes in the Pressbook and all focused on that central image, even the smallest advert featured O’Hara in the water.

Even more extraordinary, given that  O’Hara (regardless of her current marquee status) was a star of some magnitude, over two decades in the business, female lead to some of the biggest actors in Hollywood like John Wayne and Tyrone Power, occasionally top-billed in her own right, working with directors of the magnitude of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, was how little space was devoted to her for a movie of which she was the denoted star.

Foreign distributors avoided the bathing image in favor of straightforward action.

Out of the two pages – A3-size remember – set aside for material that might attract the attention of showbiz editors on regional newspapers, a grand total of 28 lines was devoted to the star. Stuntman Chuck Hayward was allocated more space – two articles were written about him, not just one. Details about the props received more space. The extras received more space. Information about a cave received more space. The famous Arizona cacti received more space. The musical instruments used in the score received more space.

Even so, Maureen O’Hara with all her experience, would surely have plenty stories to tale, some juicy nuggets to snag the interest of the entertainment journos. A reflection, perhaps, on time spent in the company of Wayne (three movies), Errol Flynn (Against All Flags, 1952), Oscar-winning Alec Guinness (Our Man in Havana, 1959), Power (The Black Swan, 1942), and Charles Laughton (Jamaica Inn and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both 1939).

Nope. You guessed it, every line of space given over to Maureen O’Hara concerned the bathing scene. It was her first ever, as if that was some kind of rite of passage. We discovered the water was “scarcely above freezing. It had come down to the Arizona lake from the melting January snow.” And there was no body double for the brave O’Hara. “She insisted on doing the scene herself, so the audience is not cheated.” For the river scene, in which she was accompanied by Steve Cochran, the water was no warmer and was completed on the first take, indication perhaps of Peckinpah’s lowly status. Later in his career he would have demanded retakes.

The main image of O’Hara in the water is overlaid with threat. Her three “deadly” companions surround her, even though such a scene did not occur in the picture. The tagline spells it out: “An Unholy Alliance! Three hell-driven men stalk a beautiful, tempting woman alone in an untamed land!…Savage action and explosive emotions erupt on the screen.” Accompanying that are three other images of the companions: “See – the deadliest gundown of them all!” / “See – the vicious crunch of fish against flesh!” / “See – the terror of Apache cruelty.”

There were some tagline variations on the theme: “Men without women in an untamed land…they forced their way into her life!” / “Trapped…by her past and the sins of the men who pursued her through a savage land!” / “Alone – in an untamed land – with three men who forced their way into her life.”

Change of marketing approach came too late.

O’Hara’s character’s profession, not spelled out in the movie where she is passed off as a “dance hall hostess,” is more clear-cut in one ad. “Trapped…Money gave men the right to her lips!” Some identifiers provide an insight into the companions – Brian Keith described as “Deadly…Hate and revenge were all he lived for.” Steve Cochran was portrayed as “Deadly…Nothing stood between him and what he wanted.” While for Chill Wills it was “Deadly…Half-crazed with greed and dreams of grandeur.”

However, some exhibitors, who were after all funding this enterprise, believed the Pressbook came up short, resulting in Pathe America creating a one-page supplement which presented O’Hara in a different light. Now she moved closer to her fiery screen persona, lashing out with a whip rather than languishing as a victim. The bathing image was retained but reduced in size, the emphasis now on action, on gun and fists. The tagline became: “Pages torn from the diary of a frontier dance girl…The greatest adventure love story in years.” Switching the focus to the O’Hara-Keith relationship was a bit of a stretch, but it was better than the original idea of O’Hara as a male plaything

The distributors stressed action even more when the movie was reissued the following year with a new title Trigger Happy. This time the tagline read: “They fought with guns worn low…Lust and revenge…romance and hate. A motion picture of great impact.”

Oddly enough, though the book by scriptwriter AS Fleischmann was promoted in the Pressbook, there was no mention of O’Hara singing the theme song, or cutting a single, a well-known promotional device for targeting radio stations. Otherwise, promotional ideas were in short supply.

Exhibitors were encouraged to hire three horsemen to ride through the town with signs “I am one of The Deadly Companions” or to set up headless cut-outs in the lobby and let children fire water pistols at them.

Even allowing for the relative inexperience on the production-distribution side, this was a particularly poor collection of marketing notions. Almost as if the producers believed that, considering the movie was made by exhibitors for exhibitors, it would get a free pass as regards the marketing aspects.

Shoot Loud…Louder, I Don’t Understand (1966) ***

The Raquel Welch picture nobody’s seen. Which is a shame because she demonstrates considerable comedic flair. And there’s a freshness and naturalness – almost a youthful gaucheness – about her that’s lacking in other movies where she was developing her more iconic acting style.

Tania (Raquel Welch) literally bumps into sculptor Alberto (Marcello Mastroianni) when his latest acquisition, an iron gate (locked naturally), blocks a footpath. Intrigued, she enters his Aladdin’s cave of artefacts and is frightened by his mad uncle who communicates via fireworks. With a start like that, you’re either headed for gentle romance between sensible young woman and less sensible artist, the usual on-off on-off scenario, or, this being quirky Italy and the director the even quirkier Eduardo Di Filippo (better known as a playwright – Saturday, Sunday, Monday) it’s going to follow a different route.

While Raquel Welch is for the most part costumed in alluring dresses she does not wear a bikini as in the poster at the top.

And so it does. Alberto thinks he has witnessed the murder of neighbor Amitrano (Paolo Ricci) – blood-soaked glove one clue – but when he confesses it might have been a delusion, something to which he is prone, he is arrested because the dead man was a gangster.  That sets a surreal tone – chairs raining from the sky, anyone?, a coffin full of potatoes, fortune tellers – and for some reason Alberto (who has received a bang on the head) begins to think Tania is also a figment of his imagination.

You can see where that idea came from, the delectable Tania in cleavage-resplendant form wearing dresses with clasps that appear unwilling to do their job. But on the other hand, he is handsome enough, with an artistic beard, and I doubt it would be the first time he had attracted a beautiful woman.

Tania is certainly a character, driving around in a sports car (with pink drapes) that appears to float rather than drive, containing another receptacle for a blood-soaked glove and with hot food in the glove compartment. In fact, she carries around a goodly supply of this local delicacy in case she might feel hungry in a police station or what have you.

Raquel Welch wasn’t girl of the year when this was made but by the time it was released in the USA in 1968 she had made a name for herself, in particular being named Star of the Year by one of the industry’s exhibiting organisations.

There’s certainly a bunch of dream-like sequences. After he finds a bloody knife and bloodied clothes Alberto gets punched on the head by a turbaned man, only to wake momentarily and fan his face with a fan, the kind of imagery Fellini could have dreamed up in his sleep. But this is set against a realistic backdrop, neighbors screaming at each other in the traditional Italian manner.  

So, what we are left with is a perfectly acceptable comedy where Alberto is accused of a crime he didn’t commit but the film might be too Italian for most tastes. This was made before La Welch achieved screen notoriety through the donning of a fur bikini and critics tended to look on Mastroianni (A Place for Lovers, 1968) as a serious actor rather than someone mixed up in this kind of gentle tomfoolery. I thought he was excellent in the role. But that was par for the course here, everyone dismissed.

De Filippo (Ghosts – Italian Style, 1967) didn’t have the kind of critical following ascribed to the likes Fellini and Antonioni so if this fitted into his normal style nobody was aware of it. But I’ve a feeling that this quirkiness was one of his hallmarks.

If you accept it on face value without looking to insert some kind of meaning then it makes perfect sense. As I mentioned, although her voice is dubbed, Raquel Welch (Bandolero, 1968) comes across very well, especially as, despite the enticing attire, she is not required to be all sexed-up or carry the dramatic weight of the tale, unlike the westerns where she is generally an object of lust and continually attempting to assert independence.

Having said that, this is particularly hard to track down, so you might not think it’s worth the bother. But, of course, if you are a Welch completist, nothing will be too much trouble. However, you’ll need to scour the second-hand markets to find a DVD.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.