The Box Office Equalizer

Variety’s experiment in extending its box office coverage beyond main city roadshow and first run showed its first results when analysis of a full year of statistics for 1968 produced data for over 700 pictures rather than the hundred or so that qualified for its annual rentals  chart.

The drawback with the existing annual chart was limitation – films had to earn more than $1 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios from the overall gross) to qualify. The tabulation process simply ignored how hundreds of other films performed and therefore as far as Variety was concerned failed to offer the information exhibitors required to run their businesses in more complicated times when increased product shortage was exacerbated by long runs of either roadshow pictures or movies held over for months on end in first run in the big cities.

The business still primarily operated on a stepped released basis. Movies that opened in roadshow or first run remained in their initial theaters until demand was exhausted and only then moved into second-run or multiple run (Showcase) or the drive-ins, leaving those cinemas further down the food chain crying out for fresh product. What companies were meeting that demand and how their films performed at the box office was generally a mystery.

The expanded chart for 1968 covered grosses rather than rentals (the former the overall take, the latter the part of that that went back to the studios). A sample of up to 800 cinemas nationwide first of all cast light on a whole section of mainstream underachievers. To come to an accurate assessment of how these grosses reflected overall a film’s overall annual performance, Variety suggested tripling the numbers. To reach a rental figure, the measurement of profit, you would need to halve that. (More straightforwardly, add 50% to the figures below to work out the annual amount returned to studios in rentals in 1968 and multiply by eight – for inflation – to put these figures into perspective from today’s point of view.)

Among the films mentioned were Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer which was now shown to have grossed $1.314 million, Burton-Taylor fiasco Boom ($557,000), Albert Finney as Charlie Bubbles ($526,000) and films reviewed in the Blog such as The Shoes of the Fisherman ($611,000), P.J./New Face in Hell($415,000), The Lost Continent ($338,000), Sol Madrid ($268,000), Hammerhead ($233,000), Sebastian ($162,000) and The Girl on a Motorcycle ($104,000).

Others worth mentioning were Duffy ($709,000), Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum in Secret Ceremony ($671,00), Michael Caine in Deadfall ($614,000), Lee Marvin in Sgt Ryker ($417,000), How I Won the War ($321,000), Night of the Living Dead (318,000). When we casually refer to movies as flops, we often have no idea just how big a failure they were – these figures redress that balance.

Reissues pulling in decent business included Thunderball ($867,000), The Carpetbaggers/Nevada Smith ($244,000) and on the back of Sidney Poitier’s elevation to box office peaks the seven-year-old A Raisin in the Sun ($159,000)

Much further down the line came Danger: Diabolik on $24,000 and Subterfuge with just $8,500. At rock bottom, ranked 729th, was Tony Richardson’s The Sailor from Gibralter with $1,000 in the kitty.

The survey also served to highlight the impact of the growing number of foreign imports. While sophisticated fare like Therese and Isabelle ($2.19 million), Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black ($511,000), Claude Lelouch’s Live for Life ($495,000) and Scandinavian medieval drama The Red Mantle ($396,000) had broken out into the mainstream from their arthouse launchpads, the various strands of the spaghetti western genre would have headed straight for the drive-in or Showcase led by A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die ($865,000) and Any Gun Can Play ($230,000).

In part what Variety sought to show by covering such a wider stream of releases was to assess the growing dominance of the sexploitation picture. Around one-third of the movies featured fell into this category. The Female ($492,00), The Filthy Five ($322,000), Inga ($267,000) and Aroused ($168,000) boasted impressive numbers, especially given the limitations of the survey. The fact that many others – Alley Tramp, Touch of Her Flesh, I, A Woman, Hot Spur, Professor Lust and Brand of Shame – even made an appearance on the extended chart showed inherent demand for this kind of product. That most of these achieved only low grosses in the Variety chart was an indication more of the types of cinemas surveyed. It would be a rare first run house that would book a sexploitationer and even the Showcases steered clear. But that they were mentioned at all was indication of a sea change.

Sources: Syd Silverman, “Computerized Tally of 729 films,” Variety, May 7, 1969, pages 34, 36, 198, 213.

Behind the Scenes – “Hour of the Gun” (1967)

Blame Robert Wise for falling behind on The Sand Pebbles (1966), otherwise John Sturges  would have pressed ahead with Steve McQueen pet project Day of the Champion (later resurrected as Le Mans, 1970, though minus Sturges). Needing another hit after the consecutive box office failures of The Satan Bug (1965) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Sturges fell back on an equally favoured project, The Law and Tombstone, a revisionist and darker look at the Wyatt Earp legend, with “a few liberties taken so it doesn’t become a documentary.” Despite the failings of the last two films, Mirisch had just re-signed Sturges, expanding his current deal from two to four pictures.

“It seemed like a first-rate idea,” recalled producer Walter Mirisch, who had worked with Sturges on The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). In his memoir he said, “If there was still a market for Western pictures, John Sturges was certainly the ideal director to test it.” (Mirisch’s memory is a bit hazy here regarding the commercial prospects for westerns – 1966 had seen box office success for El Dorado, Nevada Smith, The Professionals and The Rare Breed while 1967 would usher in The War Wagon and Hombre among others). The initial idea was to re-team Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, to which this was a sequel, but Paramount, which had made the original picture, nixed the notion.

The image for the Japanese poster was taken from the initial shootout at the O.K. Corral that opened the picture.

James Garner came on board in the main because he still owed Mirisch, marking a decade in the business, a picture. He had originally worked for Mirisch in The Children’s Hour (1961). He was hired for “not much,” a straight salary, but credited Mirisch with kick-starting his career after his battle with Warner Brothers. Mirisch had also funded By Love Possessed (1962) in which Sturges had directed Jason Robards, “a brilliant actor though one with problems” (something of an understatement).

There was some surprise in Hollywood when Sturges returned to Mexico after the difficulties – censorship, threats to boycott the film, union issues – he had encountered shooting The Magnificent Seven there. Having vowed “never to make another picture” in that country, “one of the reasons we’re back here is because they’ve eased up on regulations.” Having expected to import most of the cast from Hollywood, the producers were delighted that “six of the ten other featured parts” went to Mexicans, as a result of extensive auditions. Although Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch, 1969) remained director of cinematography, a Mexican camera crew was hired with Jorge Stahl in charge.

James Garner takes the stand in court defending himself against allegations of murder.

Shooting began on November 9, 1966, at Torreon, “a quiet little agricultural town with a single hotel and bar,” where a fake town had been built at a cost of $100,000. Filming shifted to Churusbusco Studios in Mexico City on December 20 and four weeks later production wrapped after exteriors at a hacienda near San Miguel de Allende for the face-off with Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan in the film).

James Garner (The Great Escape, 1963) was keen to be reunited with Sturges. “I was happy to play the character,” reminisced Garner, “because John always knew what he was doing. He would take five, six, seven factions in a story and bring them together.” Garner saw Earp as “a guy taken with his own power, who nobody could defy.” 

Jason Robards, as Doc Holliday, with a well-known wild side, was difficult to manage. Assistant directors were dispatched every morning to find out where, bar or brothel,  the actor had ended up the night before. Sturges rounded on him when Robards turned up at lunch for a scheduled 8am start. He was perfect after that. Unusually, Sturges would invite the cast to watch the dailies. Producers Mirisch were not happy with the title which was eventually changed to Hour of the Gun.

“My mistake,” rued Sturges, “was that I thought people would be fascinated by the real story about the quarrel between the Earps and the Clantons. You didn’t just shoot people, there were trials, lawyers, citizens’ committees…I got preview cards that said of all the stories told about Earp and Holliday this was the dullest. They (the audience) considered them fictional characters. They couldn’t have cared less that that’s the way it really was.”

As Variety pointed out in its review: “Probing too deeply into the character of folk heroes reveals them to be fallible human beings – which they are of course – but to mass audiences …such exposition is unsettling.”

Edward Anhalt’s screenplay was based on this book published in the late 1950s.

There were clearly reservations about the project. Mirisch announced it was “ready for release” at the end of March 1967 but it did not see the light of day for another seven  months. Although the film was budgeted at just over $3 million – $1 million more than In the Heat of the Night (1967), another Mirisch project – and received tremendous support from the industry-wide “Fall Film Fair” promotional campaign (“commended…for excellence in entertainment”) it was a huge flop in the U.S. bringing in a miserable $900,000 in rentals (the amount studios receive once the cinemas have taken their share of the gross). It did better abroad with $1.5 million but the total was nowhere near enough to recoup the costs.

“Also playing a large role in the reaction to the picture was the continued loss of interest by audiences in Western pictures,” said Mirisch. “I was again guilty of thinking that this trend would reverse and that Westerns, led by a hit picture, would return to favour stronger than ever. I was wrong. As a new generation arose, their interest in westers had been satiated, probably by television, and they now embraced the so-called Easy Rider era of movie-making.”

This is another piece of faulty memory. The year after the release of Hour of the Gun   commercial success was enjoyed by Bandolero!, Hang ‘Em High and The Scalphunters to name a few and Will Penny and The Stalking Moon, both revisionist westerns, won critical favour. And, apologies for harping on about it, but, as I showed in my book The Gunslingers of ’69, that year proved a box office bonanza for westerns despite Easy Rider.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p257-262; Walter Mirisch, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), p259-260; United Artists Archive, Appendix II, University of Wisconsin; “Mirisch, Sturges Revamp Pact for Two More Films,” Box Office, July 25, 1966, W-1; “James Garner Moves from Actor To Future Producer Status,” Variety,  October 5, 1966, 5; “Director John E. Sturges Returns to Mexico for Law and Tombstone,” Box Office, November 7, 1966, pW-2; “Mirisch Schedules Five Major Films,” Box Office, March 13, 1967, p10; “Film Title Changes,” Box Office, April 24, 1967, p18; Advert, Box Office, Aug 28, 1967, p4-5; Review, Variety, October 4, 1967, p16.

Hour of the Gun (1967) ****

Destroy a legend at your peril. Mythic western hero Wyatt Earp (James Garner) goes down’n’dirty after the death of his brother, spurning law and order to turn bounty hunter, which is legitimate, and then vigilante, which is not, in pursuit of Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan). A revisionist western, then, with director John Sturges substantially reimagining the image of Earp he had been instrumental in creating through Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), a box office smash starring Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as sidekick Doc Holliday.

The first change is to keep Clanton alive, having been a casualty in the previous picture. The opening sequence sets the record straight. But corruption and the law acting in conjunction pull Earp and Holliday (Jason Robards) up on criminal charges though they are found innocent. When corrupt law fails to work, Clanton resorts to ambush, killing Earp’s brother. Clanton organises a posse of twenty men to kill Earp while the lawman sets up his own, smaller, team of bounty hunters.

It soon transpires Earp’s warrants are little more than “hunting licenses” and although marginally he errs on the side fairness the odds, courtesy of his superior gunplay, remain substantially stacked in his favour and he picks off the villains one by one, pursuing Clanton into Mexico.

This is the story of Wyatt Earp in transition, shifting into lawlessness, at a time – 1881 – when the West itself was undergoing dramatic change, big business from the East forcing greater acceptance of the law (and using it for their own purposes), the growth of the cattle barons and the gradual elimination of the gunslinger, gunfighter and criminal gangs. There’s no room for romance as there was in O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven (1960) just pitiless determination to revenge. But there’s little of the all-male camaraderie that informed The Great Escape (1963). Earp and Holliday remain tight but the others in their gang have been somewhat forcefully enlisted.

The poster is very misleading, giving the impression of an all-action
gun-toting movie rather than one of somber reflection.

The best scenes are the result of Earp conniving, revealing a streak Machiavelli would have envied, even duping Holliday, until it’s clear the Earp of legend has been vanquished. Sturges congratulates himself on telling the “truth.” But that’s the problem. The truth involves a lot of background that slows the picture down. And presenting Earp as transitioning is pretty much a blatant lie. Earp was clearly as ruthless killer at the O.K. Corral as he is now and no amount of pointing to corrupt law can eliminate the fact that the lawman prefers to kill villains rather than see them face justice. So there’s really no transition. Earp is a more civilized version of The Man With No Name. But at least he accepts it. There’s no hypocrisy involved.

The two principals are superb, shucking off the mannerisms that previously defined their screen personas. Gone is the trademark James Garner cheeky chap, the grin and even the slicked-back hairstyle. He is your father in a continually bad mood now rather than your favorite uncle full of japes. How much Sturges pinned back Robards’ capacity for over-acting can be seen by comparing this with the actor’s performance in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

Full marks for Sturges in trying to tell a complex, morally ambivalent, story, and he avoids the more grandiose approach to changes in the West as instanced in Once Upon a Time in the West. The early courtoom scenes slow down the narrative when a couple of lines of dialogue could have done the same job. But it is exceptionally true in its depiction of Earp. There is not a bone of redemption in his body. He is going on a killing spree and he doesn’t care who knows it or how it damages his reputation, still high enough before the final episode of the revenge hunt for him to be touted as a future lawman-in-chief for Arizona.

Nor does Doc Holliday offer anything in the way of consolation. This isn’t like The Wild Bunch where a ruthless band of robbers convince themselves they have a code of honor and provide rough camaraderie as a way of filling in the emotional gaps in their lives. Holliday mistakenly sees Earp as man who could not exist outside the law without destroying himself, but that would only concern an Earp who was still interested in rules. Holliday, a self-confessed killer, over 20 deaths to his name, seeks redemption by saving Earp from himself. But in keeping with the raw truth, he is wasting his time. “I’m through with the law,” proclaims Earp, somewhat redundantly, once he dispatches his final victim.

It was a different kind of western at a time when in mainstream Hollywood there was no such thing. Although elegiac in tone, it cuts to the mean. And it was the forerunner of other, more critically acclaimed, westerns like Will Penny (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and in a sense it was precursor to Dirty Harry (1971) where in order to obtain justice Harry Callahan has to throw away his badge.

Many reasons have been advanced for the film’s commercial failure, most erroneously assuming that the genre had fallen into disrepair and was not revived until the glory year of 1969, but as I point out in my book The Gunslingers of ’69, that was far from the case. The same year as Hour of the Gun, John Wayne had ridden high on the box office hog with The War Wagon to follow the previous year’s El Dorado and Paul Newman as Hombre had been a big hit. The first two spaghetti westerns, only released in the U.S. in 1967, were also given as instrumental in the failure of Hour of the Gun, but neither was a massive box office hit. Revisionism had not quite hit the target with the public either as witness Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The most likely reason was the fact that Sturges set out to dispel a myth that the public were happy with, that the movie was slow moving, and the characters essentially unlikeable. John Ford averred that when the legend became fact you printed the legend, but the opposite was patently not true here.  Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965) wrote the screenplay based on a straight-shooting biography by Tombstone’s Epitaph by Douglas D. Martin. who had previously written about the Earps.

It might be cold, and at times meandering, but it offers up a fascinating character study and although Earp’s transition could be construed as tragedy, the destruction of a good man, Sturges takes no refuge in such an idea. This is Sturges boldest, most courageous, picture and he does nothing to soften the killing. Where The Magnificent Seven, another bunch of killers, ride into Mexico on the back of a bombastic theme tune, this is a much leaner effort, and all the richer for it.

Some Girls Do (1969) ****

Enjoyed this sequel to Deadlier Than the Male (1967) far more than I expected because it sits in its own little world at some point removed from the espionage shenanigans that dominated the decade. Hugh (nee Bulldog) Drummond is neither secret agent nor involved in espionage high jinks, instead employed in the more down-to-earth domain of insurance investigator, albeit where millions are at stake. Although his overall adversary is male, the smooth-talking Carl Petersen (James Villiers), adopting a series of disguises for most of this picture, the real threat comes from a pair of villainesses in the shape of Helga (Daliah Lavi) and Pandora (Beba Loncar – the latter, yes, having her own deadly Box. If anything, this pair are a shade more sadistic than Irma and Penelope from the previous outing.

The sequel doubles up – or doubles down – on the female villainy quotient, Petersen having created a race of lethal female robots who spend their time dispatching scientists working on the world’s first supersonic airliner. Global domination is only partly Petersen’s aim since he also stands to gain £8 million ($134 million today) if the plane doesn’t launch on schedule. Livening up proceedings are Flicky (Sydne Rome), a somewhat kooky Drummond fan who has her own agenda, Peregrine “Butch” Carruthers (Ronnie Stevens), a mild-mannered embassy official assigned bodyguard duties, and chef-cum-informant Miss Mary (Robert Morley).

Villiers has found a way of turning an ultrasound device intended originally to aid cheating in a boat race into something far more dangerous. But, of course, for Helga seduction is the main weapon in her armoury, and Drummond’s first sighting of her – a superb cinematic moment – is sitting on the branch of a tree wielding a shotgun. Equally inviting are the squadron of gun-toting mini-skirted lasses guarding Petersen’s rocky fortress.

The movie switches between Helga, Pandora and the robots raining down destruction and Drummond trying to prevent it. Dispensing with the boardroom activities that held up the action in Deadlier than the Male, this is a faster-moving adventure, with Drummond occasionally outwitted by Helga and calling on his own repertoire of tricks. Dialogue is often sharp with Drummond imparting swift repartee.

The action – on land, sea and air – is a vast improvement on the original. The pick is a motorboat duel, followed closely by Drummond in a glider coming up against a venomous aeroplane and saddled with a defective parachute. And there are the requisite fisticuffs. Various malfunctioning robots supply snippets of humour.

Richard Johnson (A Twist of Sand, 1968) truly found his metier in this character and it was a shame this proved to be the last of the series. Although Daliah Lavi never found a dramatic role to equal her turns in The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) and had graced many an indifferent spy picture as well as The Silencers (1966), she is given better opportunity here to show off her talent. Beba Loncar (Cover Girl, 1968) is her make-up obsessed bitchy buddy. Sydne Rome (What?, 1972) makes an alluring her debut. James Villiers (The Touchables, 1968) is the only weak link, lacking the inherent menace of predecessor Nigel Green.

There’s a great supporting cast. Apart from Robert Morley (Genghis Khan, 1965) look out for Maurice Denham  (Danger Route, 1967), Adrienne Posta (To Sir, with Love, 1967) and in her first movie in over a decade Florence Desmond (Three Came Home, 1950). The robotic contingent includes Yutte Stensgaard (Lust for a Vampire, 1971), Virginia North (Deadlier Than the Male), Marga Roche (Man in a Suitcase, 1968), Shakira Caine (wife of Sir Michael), Joanna Lumley (television series Absolutely Fabulous), Maria Aitken also making her debut, twins Dora and Doris Graham and Olga Linden (The Love Factor, 1969).  Peer closely and you might spot Coronation Street veteran Johnny Briggs.

The whole package is put together with some style by British veteran Ralph Thomas (Deadlier than the Male).

CATCH-UP: Chart through the Blog how  Richard Johnson’s career went from supporting player to star via The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Operation Crossbow (1965), Khartoum (1965) Deadlier than the Male (1967), Danger Route (1967) and A Twist of Sand (1968). Conversely, see how Daliah Lavi went from European star of The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) to Hollywood supporting player in Lord Jim (1965).

Network has this on DVD currently at a bargain price in a double bill with Deadlier Than the Male.

And you can also catch Some Girls Do on YouTube.

Behind the Scenes – “The Picasso Summer” (1969) Crisis

The making of The Picasso Summer was an odyssey in itself but what happened to the picture on completion generated a crisis in Hollywood.

Pablo Picasso in the early 1960s had apparently given “an enthusiastic endorsement” to American layout artist Wes Herchendson to animate some of his paintings. Some time afterwards, Hershendson came across sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s short story In a Season of Calm Weather about an American tourist meeting Picasso on a beach. Developing the scenario with the author, the pair turned the idea into an American couple attempting to meet the artist in the south of France.

Originally, the project was modest. It would run only an hour and be shown on television, sponsored by an airline company to promote foreign travel. But once the idea attracted the likes of British star Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963) , who had recently filmed Two for the Road (1967) in France, and Yvette Mimieux (The Time Machine, 1960), who had a percentage of the picture, it became bigger. It was the first film for a fledgling production company part-owned by Bill Cosby and when Warner Brothers-Seven Arts stumped up $1.6 million – a reasonable budget since a WB picture three years averaged just $1.75 million – it turned into a full-length feature intended for theatrical release. Filming began in November 1967 in San Francisco and France without a finished screenplay, working in almost improvisational style to a sketchy 20-page treatment.

Herchendson took care of the animated sequences with  the “live-action” section in the hands of Oscar-winning French director Serge Bourguignon. Although making his name with the French arthouse-oriented Sundays and Cybele (1962) he had also made mainstream western The Reward (1965) starring Mimieux and Max von Sydow and romantic drama Two Weeks in September (1967) with Brigitte Bardot, so his credentials appeared strong enough.

But something went very badly wrong. “The resulting footage was completely unsatisfactory,” went one report. Another claimed it was “incomprehensible.” So WB-7 Arts scrapped the first version and, because the movie, often filmed outdoors, had taken  advantage of the seasons, the film was pushed back a year to ensure footage matched. WB hired a new director Robert Sallin to salvage the picture with the principals returning for reshoots.

Initially, that appeared to have done the trick. WB announced it was considering launching the film as part of a big junket aimed at journalists in February 1969, and then screening it “in whole or in part” at a major conference in June with a view to a late 1969 release. A launch date was pencilled in for December 1969 – the original “X”-certificate issued in the same week as Easy Rider by that time had been amended to an “M” – with the intention of “finally getting it on the market.” And there was the signs of some promotional tie-ins with Barbra Streisand recording the theme tune “Summer Me, Winter Me.” But it didn’t appear. Officially, it was on the shelf.

The shelf, at that time, was not necessarily a bad place to be. Many pictures had been held back for a more convenient release spot during the 1960s, even more had been forcibly delayed when successful movies ate up preferential first run movie theatre space. It was nothing, for example, for The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) to wait eight months to be released.

But there was waiting and there was waiting. It soon became apparent that The Picasso Summer was not going to find a release date any time soon and that it was, officially, in limbo. Which was an astonishing state of affairs at the end of one troubled decade and the beginning of another. The hundreds of millions lost in big budget roadshows had seen a dramatic cutback in production. Cinemas were crying out for product, anything with a star, rather than being forced to make do with a flood of imports, spaghetti westerns of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety and sexploitation vehicles featuring unknowns.

Hollywood had been known for routinely throwing stinkers into the marketplace and while exhibitors might complain about poor quality generally they had little option but to screen what was available because there was nothing else. But the harsh financial climate facing studios meant that every dollar spent had to be weighed up. Releasing a bad movie cost as much as releasing a good one with no guarantee that further expenditure in advertising, promotion and prints would generate profit. No point throwing good money after bad.

So Warner Brothers did the unthinkable. Even as Albert Finney recovered his box office status after Scrooge (1970) and Yvette Mimieux starred in hit sex comedy Three in the Attic (1969) and The Delta Factor (1970) the studio kept The Picasso Summer in the vaults. Even throwing it out in a wide release with no premiere or a trial run in an arthouse was considered too risky.

The number of movies that were completely unrelease-able, as opposed to being withdrawn after failing to attract an audience or turning into big flops during their run, was actually very small – Fade In (1967) coming closest to achieving that notoriety even though it had been occasionally shown in cinemas, and it was also low-budget.

But, suddenly, at the end of the 1960s that number started growing. MGM’s The Appointment (1969) was also shelved. And that had more apparent box office cachet with  Oscar-nominated director Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) and featuring Oscar-nominated Omar Sharif (Doctor Zhivago,1965), an even bigger star than Albert Finney, and Anouk Aimee (Justine, 1969) also Oscar-nominated with greater box office clout than Yvette Mimieux. After it was booed at Cannes, MGM cancelled the American release after one U.S. test date .

But the trickle of shelved movies was becoming a flood. Into that category fell John Frankenheimer’s The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) starring Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) and Oscar-winner David Niven fresh from hit comedy The Impossible Years (1968). Courtroom drama Hostile Witness (1969) starring another Oscar-winner Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder, 1954) was denied a release as was comedy western A Talent for Loving (1969) with Richard Widmark, on a career high after Madigan (1968), and Adam’s Woman (1970) with Beau Bridges, who would strike a box office mother lode with Gaily, Gaily (1969) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1967). Swelling out the list was Crooks and Coronets / Sophie’s Place (1969) starring Telly Savalas (The Heroin Gang, 1968) and Hammer sci-fi Moon Zero Two (1969).

At a 1970 press conference, questioned about the shelving of The Picasso Summer, a Warner Brothers executive admitted: “We don’t know what to do with it, but not in the sense marketing is a problem; completion into a releasable form would seem to be the nub.”

By 1971, The Picasso Summer was not alone in failing to meet expectations. Some 80 movies funded by the majors had either still to be screened or had already been yanked off screens after poor test showings or minor playoffs failed to garner an audience. A year later Warner Brothers alone had ten completed movies on its books that would never see the light of theatrical day.

There had been one get-out clause for under-performing movies – television. A sale to the networks could bring in a substantial amount, sometimes enough to balance the books. But television was beginning to look askance at product that, in subject matter and in relation to violence and nudity, did not suit the Big Three channels. It was soon obvious that the networks had “lost their omnivorous feature film appetite.”

But there a light on the horizon. One network was interested in more unconventional fare and pictures that it could present as U.S. “premieres.” The CBS  “Late Night Movie” slot airing on a Thursday aimed to attract an adult audience seeking more adult material. The conventions of television would still minimize nudity but the films themselves would have an adult theme. Thus, in 1972 The Picasso Summer, The Appointment, The Extraordinary Seaman and Adam’s Woman were shown on CBS.   

The version of The Picasso Summer shown on American television was not the completed version. Herchendson complained to CBS about the “massacre of my film.” The network had deleted the entire bullfight sequence, the entire animated Eroica sequence and “chopped up the War and Peace” section. In fact it was well known in advance that one of the four animated sequences, the one considered “more sensual than erotic,” would go.

But there was one big plus for Warner Brothers. CBS paid $1.6 million for the movie, making it, according to one wag, the most expensive made-for-television movie. That turned a potential loss into break-even.

SOURCES: Quentin Falk, Albert Finney in Character, (Robson Books, 1992) p122-124; “WB Pacts Cosby Company,” Variety, January 17, 1968, p7; “Yvette Mimieux: Many-Phased Career,” Variety, February 5, 1969, p24; “W-7 Bahamas Junket,” Variety, February 26, 1969, p3. “WB-7 Arts First Global Sales Conference in LA June 8-14,” Box Office, April7, 1969, pW1; “Not Just Passing, WB Bets,” Variety, November 5, 1969, p7; “No “X” for Xmas,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p7; “Press Peek at Calley,” Variety, April 22, 1970, p7; “Unsalvageable Cupboard Item Lucky for WB,” Variety, August 19, 1970, p[3; “Pix in the Shortage Era,” Variety, December 22, 1971, p21; “TV-Bearish WB Cupboard,” Variety, March 29, 1972, p3; “Cannes Jeered Pic Recut By MGM,” Variety, July 19, 1972, p7; “Picasso Summer Twice Shelved  Will Be Seen AT Last, CBS Aug 4,” Variety, August 2, 1972, p22.

The Picasso Summer (1969) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book into Film – “Hot Enough for June”/ “Agent 8 3/4” (1964)

Timing is everything in the movie business. Had British film studio Rank shifted into top gear to adapt the best-selling thriller The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson soon after its publication in 1960 it would probably have been a completely different film to Hot Enough for June which took four years to reach the screen. Davidson had produced a ground-breaking espionage thriller that had critics reaching for the superlatives and putting him in the same bracket as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. A film appearing, for example, in 1961 would not have been lost in the box office tsunami, in Britain at least, that greeted Dr No on its movie debut in 1962.

But by the time Hot Enough for June was released a second Bond – From Russia with Love (1963)- had changed public attitudes to spy films and in addition readers were reeling from two blockbuster spy novels, Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File (published in 1962) and John Le Carre’s monumental bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (published 1963). In preproduction in May 1963, minus any cast, the projected film was still being known as The Night of Wenceslas. Star Dirk Bogarde dithered so much about his involvement that at one point he was replaced by the considerably younger Tom Courtenay (Billy Liar, 1963).

U.S. cover of the Davidson novel.

As was often the case in adaptations of best sellers, the screenwriter, in this instance Lukas Heller (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, 1962) both added to and subtracted from the original material. For example, the Nicholas of the Lionel Davidson novel was not a particularly attractive character, truculent, snippy, with a bad case of self-entitlement, a bit of a ne’er-do-well, scrounging to pay bills, with expensive tastes and far from charming in his relationship with his girlfriend. He is also employed, rather than unemployed and with hankerings to be a writer as in the film, and comes into the orbit of Cunliffe (Robert Morley in the film) who dupes him into thinking an uncle has left him an inheritance.

Sensibly, Lukas Heller dispenses with Nicholas’s back story which posits him as a Czechoslovakian exile, albeit leaving his native land at the age of six, and various other complications concerning that country. He is sent to collect a formula for unbreakable glass. The “hot enough for June” password is a Heller construct and feels as if belongs to an earlier era of spy pictures. In the book all Nicholas has to do is leave his guide book lying around in the factory for the contact to write there the formula. However, rather than discovering he is working for the British Secret Service, the novelist employs a different twist, that the young man is, unknowingly, in the pay of foreigners plotting against Britain.

Davidson envisaged a different kind of Czech girl, more of a Valkyrie, statuesque (“her breasts stood out like bombs”) rather than the slimmer Sylva Koscina. It is Heller who adds the complication of her father heading up the secret police. In the book, her father is merely a musician and conveniently absent for most of the time, freeing up his house for romantic interludes. And the book has none of the James Bondesque features since the first of the series had not been written when The Night of Wenceslas was published.

However, the film having established the alternative world of rival secret agencies, of the girl being under suspicion and of her father being a senior official in the espionage business, the screenwriter then follows the bulk of the novel’s romance and the thrilling episodes involving Nicholas on the run. The swimming pool, cigarette burn, the parade and the milkman can all be found in the book.

There is one element that had to be changed. In the book, Nicholas makes two trips to Prague. But it is a golden rule of screenwriting that a character visits a location only once. Davidson ends his book with a touch of irony: Nicholas is swapped for Cunliffe.

At whose behest, it was decided to insert the comedy is anybody’s guess. Possibly the feeling that the book as written would be too unsophisticated for audiences accustomed to the rattling action and glamour of a James Bond. The Bond-style connections at the beginning of the film are clunky and the later references to espionage at the highest level also seemed to have been slotted in with no regard to retaining the essence of the book.

Hot Enough for June / Agent 8 3/4 (1964) ***

Thanks to his language skills unemployed wannabe writer Nicholas (Dirk Bogarde) is recruited as a trainee executive on a too-good-to-be-true job visiting a Czech glass factory  only to discover that while engaged on what appears a harmless piece of industrial espionage is in fact considerably more serious.  Complications arise when he falls in love with his chauffeur Vlasta (Sylva Koscina) whose father, Simenova (Leo McKern), is head of the Czech secret police.

Eventually, it dawns on Nicholas that he is in the employ of the British secret service headed by Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley). Soon he is on the run. Adopting a variety of disguises including waiter, Bavarian villager and milkman he evades capture and makes a pact with Vlasta that neither of them will participate in espionage activities.

The slinky clothing and the image of Bogarde with a gun played up to the James Bond persona,
which is of course completely lacking in the film. While Sylva Koscina is seductive
at the correct moment she is not overtly so.

A chunk of the comedy arises from misunderstandings, Iron curtain paranoia, the destruction of indestructible glass, password complications, Nicholas’s contact turning out to be a washroom attendant, and from the essentially indolent Nicholas being forced into uncharacteristic action. Soon he is adopting the kind of ruses a secret agent would invent to outwit the opposition, including burning the hand of a man with his cigarette and stealing a milk cart.

The romance is believable enough and Vlasta has the cunning to shake off the secret agent shadowing her, although the ending is unbelievable and might have been stolen from a completely different soppy picture. Although Nicholas is clearly in harm’s way several times that is somewhat undercut by the espionage at a higher level being presented as a gentleman’s game.

There are unnecessary nods to 007 and the kind of gadgets essential to Bond films, although none come Nicholas’s way. But these attempts to modernise what is otherwise an old-fashioned romantic comedy largely fail. Taking a middle ground in comedy rarely works. You have to go for laughs rather than plod around hoping they will miraculously appear. And in fact the comedy is redundant in a plot – innocent caught up in nefarious world – that has sufficient story and interesting enough characters to work.

As well as James Bond, the movie tagline referenced “The Spy Who Came in
from the Cold” (1965). The American version of “Hot Enough for June”
appeared with a new title a year after the British release and was
able to take advantage of the film adaptation of the John Le Carre novel.

That the movie is in any way a success owes everything to the casting. Dirk Bogarde, though well into his 40s, still can carry off a character more than a decade younger. He can turn on the diffidence with the flicker of an eyelash. And yet can call on inner strength if required. He is the ideal foil for light comedy, having made his bones in Doctor in the House (1954), reprising the character for Doctor in Distress (1963), while dipping in and out of serious drama such as Victim (1961) and the acclaimed The Servant (1964), released just before this.

In some respects it seems as if two different pictures are passing each other in the night. The Bogarde section, excepting some comedy of misfortune, is played for real while in the background is a bit of a spoof on the espionage drama.

Sylva Koscina (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968) is excellent as the beauty who betrays her country for love. Robert Morley (Topkapi, 1964) and Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), although in on the joke, are nonetheless convincing as the secret service bosses.  Look out for a host of lesser names in bit parts including Roger Delgado (The Running Man, 1963), Noel Harrison (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. 1966-1967), Richard Pasco (The Gorgon, 1964) and stars of long-running British television comedies John Le Mesurier, Derek Fowlds and Derek Nimmo.  

This was the eighth partnership between director Ralph Thomas and Dirk Bogarde, four in the Doctor series but also three serious dramas in Campbell’s Kingdom (1957), A Tale of Two Cities (1958) and The Wind Cannot Read (1958). In themselves the comedies and the dramas were successful, but mixing the two, as here, less so. Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) wrote the screenplay based on the Lionel Davidson bestseller.

American distributors were less keen on this picture and it was heavily cut for U.S. release and retitled Agent 8¾ presumably in an effort to cash in on the James Bond phenomenon. I’ve no idea what was lost – or perhaps what was gained – by the editing.

The end result of the original version is a pleasant enough diversion but not enough of the one and not enough of the other to really stick in the mind.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965) ****

One of the few romantic dramas of the 1960s to resonate today. Neglected wife Moira (Maureen O’Hara) abandons her two children to fly to the eponymous villa on Lake Garda in Italy to take up with composer Lorenzo (Rossano Brazzi).  While husband Darrell (Richard Todd) accepts the fait accompli, kids Michael (Martin Stephens) and Debby (Elizabeth Dear) set out to bring her back. Although Disney had created a hit on a similar theme with The Parent Trap (1961) – also starring O’Hara – The Battle of the Villa Fiorita failed to find an audience at the time primarily because it sailed too close to comfort regarding the reality of the effect of separation and impending divorce on children.

Nor are these kids Disney cute. While Debby occasionally calls upon her internal winsome to tug at heartstrings, both she and Michael are made of sterner stuff. Unwilling to use comedy as a means of bringing the errant adults to heel, the movie gets deeper and deeper into darker territory, as the kids embark on a war of attrition, disrupting the cushy love-nest and forcing their mother to accept her maternal responsibilities. And the ending is far from what you would term happy.

Moira injects some nascent feminism into her role, determining that she is entitled to happiness rather than merely fulfilling the part of a good mother, running a household,  looking after her offspring and enjoying the life of a well-to-do matron married by a husband too often away on business and the too-familiar company of boring respectable friends. A Disney picture would have seen the kids relying on the kindness of strangers or harmless subterfuge to make the trip from Britain by boat and train to Italy. Here, they fund the journey by selling Debby’s horse. The trek is not only dull but on their miserable budget they spend most of the time famished, unable to afford food on the train, resigned to watching adults in their compartment stuff their faces (Disney would have had the grown-ups share  out the tasty fare).

Arriving at the palatial villa, where Moira is waited on hand and foot, spoiled by presents and ardently wooed, the children are under no illusion about the uphill battle they face especially when Moira is not immediately stricken enough by conscience to give in to their entreaties. Lorenzo’s initial solution is to fly the children home. Adult fortitude begins to waver when the English pair join forces with Lorenzo’s estranged daughter Donna (Olivia Hussey) on a hunger strike. Lorenzo shows a sharper side to his temperament, Moira a weaker. The children’s solidarity is also, however, sorely tested by their own differences.

That there is no easy solution – the kids perhaps joining their mother full-time in Italy or some kind of child-sharing scheme – is what gives this movie its power. The classical idea of a repressed woman finding redemption in the arms of an Italian lover (as with Summertime, 1955, also starring Brazzi) is turned on its head as reality intervenes. It’s as well the kids don’t kill us with cuteness, but instead present a realistic example of what it’s like for adoring children to be abandoned. As the film progresses, and the children turn the screw, they soon face adult realization that, even if they win, the mother they will bring back will not be the mother they knew.

After turns with James Stewart (Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation, 1962) and John Wayne (McLintock!, 1963), Maureen O’Hara had regained her marquee appeal, and although feisty enough in those outings, this was a different, and more courageous,  performance than her fans might have expected. Her conflict is mostly internalized and especially when her children fail to see her point of view, that feistiness vanishes from sight replaced by a more somber, thoughtful individual. Brazzi is excellent as the lover whose paternal responsibilities he takes lightly compromised by a woman forced to come to terms with motherhood. Martin Stephens (The Innocents, 1961), Elizabeth Dear (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) and, making her debut, Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet, 1968) make convincing, conniving, children still dealing with their own hormonal and emotional growth.   

Adapting the bestseller by Rumer Godden (Black Narcissus, 1947), this proved to be the final movie for veteran director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, 1957).

Topkapi (1964) *****

The mother of all heists directed by the father of all heist pictures.

Films as diverse as The Italian Job (1969), Mission Impossible (1996) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001) owe director Jules Dassin a massive debt since he pretty much invented this genre with the French-made Rififi (1955). But that involved professional criminals. Outside of masterminds Elizabeth (Melina Mercouri) and Walter (Maximilian Schell), this crew are amateurs, deliberately chosen for their lack of criminal records and with a mind to the specific tasks required. So we have acrobat Giulio (Gilles Segal), upper-class English gadget inventor Cedric (Robert Morley), strongman Hans (Jess Fisher) and driver Arthur (Peter Ustinov).

The target is the impenetrable, complete with sound-sensitive floor, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where they plan to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger. The plan is ingenious. Arthur is initially only hired to smuggle the weapons essential to the audacious heist across the border. But when he is caught and forced to cooperate with the Turkish secret police, he is enlisted as a replacement for Hans. Minus the rifles and grenades which at first appeared indispensable to the plan, the thieves come up with an even more inspired alternative involving among other things scampering across rooftops, abseiling, a parrot and slowing down the revolutions of a lighthouse.

Originally intending to betray his colleagues as soon as possible, Arthur falls under the seductive spell of Elizabeth and finds himself recruited as the replacement muscles. Elizabeth exudes such sexuality she has the entire gang in her thrall and makes the cowardly, weak, acrophobic Arthur believe he can overcome all his fears. Like current television sensation Money Heist, Walter engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the police, always one step ahead, with a bagful of red herrings at his disposal, eventually giving the pursuers the slip during a wresting competition held in a massive outdoor arena.

Interestingly, too, this doesn’t have the trope of gangsters at each other’s throats, planning to double-cross one another or bearing old grudges. Nor is this the last robbery for anyone prior to retirement. Equally, nobody challenges the leader. In fact, the entire crew could not be more docile, content to sit at the feet of Elizabeth and Walter, lapping up the former’s flirtation, wondering at the latter’s skill, as if they are all honored to have been chosen.

The climactic heist, carried out minus music, and lasting over 30 minutes is absolutely superb, setting a very high bar for future imitators, and there is a twist ending. Dassin mixes light comedy and high tension with the sultry attractions of Elizabeth to produce an at times breathtaking picture. As well as the heist itself, the wrestling sequence is stunning and the transition of Arthur forms the acting highlight (he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar).

But all four main stars are superb. Audiences accustomed to a more uptight Maximilian Schell (The Condemned of Altona (1962) will have been surprised by his charming performance. Melina Mercouri (Oscar-nominated for Never on Sunday, 1960) is the archetypal blonde bombshell, liberal with her favours but careful not to favour just one. Although Walter devises the plan, she is actually the criminal supremo, selecting the targets, and then delegating to ensure the tasks are carried out. Robert Morley is having the time of his life. Akim Tamiroff (Lord Jim, 1965) has a cameo as a chef.

A film noir star after Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) Dassin’s Hollywood career collapsed in the wake of the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings and he was blacklisted. Rififi opened few doors but even the success of Never on Sunday (1960) brought negligible offers. Despite returning to the mainstream with such elan through the conduit of Topkapi, albeit with a European cast, he remained on the Hollywood periphery and although the American-set Uptight (1968) – previously reviewed in the Blog – involved another heist that was primarily the wrapping for social documentary.

More at home with comedies screenwriter Monja Danischewsky (The Battle of the Sexes, 1960) draws out more humour than the source material, Light of Day by noted thriller writer Eric Ambler, would ostensibly suggest.

A delight from start to finish, the crème de la crème of the heist genre, this is unmissable. Dassin can lay claim to being the John Ford of the crime picture.

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