Stylish take on the espionage genre when it was still in its infancy and could accommodate stylish directors like Sidney J. Furie (The Appaloosa, 1966). Eschewing the bombastic effects and villains of the James Bond series, relying more on intrigue and the elements of betrayal that other practitioners of the dark arts such as John Le Carre espoused, this is as much a character study and presents in some cases a fairer picture of the class struggle in Britain than most kitchen-sink dramas. So it’s either going to put you off entirely or make you appreciate the film more when I tell you that my favorite scene is the fistfight between Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) and shaven-headed thug Housemartin (Oliver MacGreevy) outside the Royal Albert Hall in London that is shot entirely through the windows of a traditional red telephone box. You can’t say bolder than that.
The credit sequence, more famously ripped off by William Goldman for private eye saga Harper/The Moving Target (1966), is equally inspired. An alarm clock wakes Palmer, he reaches out for the girl who shared his bed last night to discover she is gone and then punctiliously and as if time-shifted to the twenty-first century when it would be the norm proceeds to grind fresh coffee beans, fill a cafetiere with only as much liquid as would constitute a small espresso, dresses and last but not least searches among the disturbed bedclothes for his gun.
Palmer is transferred from dull surveillance duties to a team hunting for missing scientists. Given both his insolent and insubordinate manner, he is not expected to fit in to a service riddled with the upper-classes. His new superior Dalby (Nigel Green), a “passed-over major,” owes his present situation to Palmer’s former boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) and both sport three-piece suits, bowler hats and umbrellas and speak in those clipped tones that invariably carry undertones of menace. Where James Bond’s front, the import-export business, is rather more upmarket, here the background is considerably downmarket, Dalby masquerading as the owner of an employment agency and distributor of fireworks. It is insatiably bureaucratic, reams of forms to be filled in. What Palmer has in common with James Bond, beyond fisticuffs, is the ability to think outside the box and in this case picks the brains of a policeman friend to track down the wanted villain, code-named Bluejay (Frank Gatliff)
As in the best post-Bond espionage, there are traitors everywhere, and the departments employing spies tend to employ other spies to spy upon them, though in this case Palmer has the luck to draw the sexy Jean (Sue Lloyd). When Palmer picks up the trail of Ipcress, the plot thickens. There is no shortage of action, a gun battle, fisticuffs, but it presents a different approach to modern espionage, with a properly rounded hero – one who can cook (as did author Len Deighton who wrote a cookery column) for a start – while the ladies, with whom he shares a roving eye with Bond, are not required to turn up in bikinis.
There is deft employment of that favorite British cultural emblem – irony – and one wonderful scene takes place in a park where Dalby taps his cane in appreciation of a brass band. Throw in a bit of brainwashing and it’s a completely different proposition to Bond who could escape such a dilemma in a trice. There is a clever ending.
Michael Caine (Hurry Sundown, 1967), complete with spectacles, is superb as Palmer, making enough of an impression that the series ran for another four episodes. The stiff-upper-lip brigade have a field day in Nigel Green (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) and Guy Doleman (Thunderball, 1965), the latter shading it with his purported sense of humor. Sue Lyon (Corruption, 1968) is excellent as the seemingly unattainable gal who falls within Palmer’s purvey but not entirely due to his charm. The villains, too, are not from the James Bond school of cut-outs, but come across as equally human, and the chief rascal you could argue has the most finely developed sense of humor of the lot. Throw in Gordon Jackson (Danger Route, 1967) and Freda Bamford (Three Bites of the Apple, 1967) as the bureaucratic attack-dog Alice and you have a very well cast movie.
Sidney J. Furie divided critics. Some believed he was ahead of his time, others that he was in thrall to arty French directors, and a reasonable number who didn’t give a stuff as long as he delivered the goods. But his predilection for odd angles here proves a strength, his compositional excellence also spot-on, one scene in particular where in a library Palmer looks down on the villain with Housemartin on a landing between. And he takes great delight in emphasizing the class distinctions, both bosses have huge offices with a small desk in the corner, and when Ross places briefcase, umbrella and bowler hat on the desk of Dalby it could not be a more clear invasion.
And you can’t forget the score by espionage doyen John Barry (Goldfinger, 1964). W.H. Canaway (A Boy Ten Feet Tall, 1963) and James Doran, making his movie debut, adapted Len Deighton’s classy bestseller but a fair amount of polish was added by thriller writer Lionel Davidson (Hot Enough for June, 1964), Johanna Harwood (Dr No, 1962), Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Ken Hughes (Arrivederci, Baby, 1966).
A belated entry into the Cold War thriller genre that appeared to have peaked with Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Bedford Incident, filmed in black-and-white with a less-than-stellar cast nonetheless holds its own as an examination of men under pressure, a cat-and-mouse actioner, as well as a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear war. Perhaps you could not find a more contemporary theme,
Capt Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a maverick U.S. Navy destroyer commander hunting down Russian submarines should they stray into territorial waters. He has been passed over for promotion, despite having previously successfully forced a Russian sub to the surface. Into his meticulously-run ship are dropped photo journalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) – re-teamed with Widmark after The Long Ships – and Lt. Commander Chester Potter (Martin Balsam), a ship’s doctor. In effect, their presence is a simple device to put Widmark under the spotlight, in some respects to challenge his operational methods, and, as a narrative device, to provide an excuse to tell the audience everything they need to know. Among the ship’s crew are young ensign Ralston (James MacArthur) and former German former U-boat commander Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman) who acts as an advisor.
The newcomers are afforded insight into how this ship is run and into its hunting methods, for example, dredging up waste from the sea in order to examine it for evidence of a Russian presence. There is a bundle of interesting technical data – a submarine has to surface for air, as another example – and the soundtrack mostly consists of endless sonar. Apart from the German, who appears to subsist on Schnapps, the crew is unusually top-quality, the sick bay deserted, the enterprise run under wartime conditions, every person on board dedicated to fulfilling the captain’s every wish.
The tension is in triplicate. First of all, there is the obsessive captain who could at any time just explode; secondly, there is the hunt for the submarine replete with tactical maneuvers and hunches; and finally, always in the background, there is the nuclear element and the fear that untoward action could trigger a holocaust. And there’s also time to take down a peg or two the holier-than-thou visitors, Dr Potter revealed as a civilian medic returning to the service as a refuge, Munceford as a rather spoiled individual who complains when dangerous maneuvers interrupt his shower. Schrepke has the unenviable task of trying to rein in his boss, Ralston one of the few on board finding the pressure hard to handle.
But Widmark steals the show. His over-acting often stole the show when he had a supporting role, but this is a finely nuanced performance. An admirable, instinctive commander, he is loved by his men (such adoration not easily won) with a gift for battle and outfoxing an opponent, often barely containing his own tension. It would have been easy to ramp up the pressures he felt in the way of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954) but there’s a big difference between a man about to crack and one who loves battle and is desperate to score victory.
Sidney Poitier (Duel at Diablo, 1966) is excellent in a more relaxed role, combative only in matters of intelligence, and probably benefitting from not having to carry the picture. James MacArthur (The Truth about Spring, 1964) shows acting maturity is moving away from the easier Disney roles in which he came to prominence. Character actor Martin Balsam (Harlow, 1965) excels as always in this kind of role, a man with hidden weakness. Eric Portman (The Man Who Finally Died, 1963), somewhat typecast as a German officer, is given a deeper role where villainy is not his only ace. If you keep your eyes peeled you might spot a fleeting glimpse of The Dirty Dozen (1967) alumni Donald Sutherland, as part of the medical crew, and Colin Maitland as a seaman.
The top-billed Richard Widmark turned producer on this one, as he had done for The Secret Ways (1961), not so much as to greenlight a pet project but to keep a place at Hollywood’s high table just when that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp after the commercially disastrous John Ford roadshow Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In truth, Widmark’s position as an outright star appeared questionable. He seemed to transition all too easily between top billing (Warlock, 1959, The Long Ships, 1964) and second billing (Two Rode Together, 1961, Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, and Flight from Ashiya 1964).
But the billing oddity from today’s perspective if to find Sidney Poitier – coming off an Oscar win for Lilies of the Field (1963) and later a box office smash in his annus mirabilis of To Sir, With Love (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) – subordinate to Widmark in the credits department. The Long Ships featured the same billing arrangement.
Also putting his neck on the line was James B. Harris who was making the jump to director from producer of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962). Screenplay honors go to James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) who adapted the bestseller by Mark Rascovich.
Harris makes a sound debut, the decision to film in black-and-white paying off, and enough going on through personality clash and the sub hunt to keep the pace taut. Authenticity was added by filming aboard naval vessels (although British in this case) and what little model work there is does not look out of place. A bigger budget would have made better use of the actual hunt (as The Hunt for Red October, 1990, later proved) but sound effects rather than visual effects suffice. I had not at all expected the shock ending. Another point in this film’s favor is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has not gone away and the fact remains that the world as we know could disappear at the touch of a button.
British espionage team embarking on a scheme to fool Adolf Hitler during the Second World War find they are susceptible to deceit and deception in their own lives. What could have been a plodding step-by-step documentary-style picture is given a huge fillip by examination of the lives of those involved. The twists and turns of this extraordinary tale, both in the professional and personal sense, make for a very enjoyable picture. It is no less thrilling for, like The Day of the Jackal (1973), being aware of the outcome.
Planning to invade Sicily in 1943, the Allies are determined to convince Hitler that they are instead more likely to attack Greece. The British come up with “Operation Mincemeat,” a variation on the Trojan horse with the “gift” this time being secret papers referring to the Greek assault that are contained in a briefcase attached to a corpse which washes up on the shores of Cadiz in Spain. The assumption is that the German high command is predisposed to being hoodwinked after having ignored the papers on a genuine corpse that came their way prior to the invasion of north Africa.
Tasked with devising the operation are the accomplished Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and the gawky Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) into whose orbit comes Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) whose persona is used to provide a romantic background for the corpse. Although the project has been given the green light from the highest authority i.e Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) not everyone is in favour and the team face obstacles, since technically the plan comes under the remit of the Royal Navy, from Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs).
The romantic intrigue that ensues creates sufficient resentment for one member of the team to spy on the other at the behest of the admiral, thus ensuring that those charged with deceiving Hitler through moral means are entering into immoral personal activity.
But what drives this picture is the detail. Finding the correct type of corpse, ensuring it is preserved and has sufficient water in the lungs to make a convincing drowned man at the same time as creating a suitable legend for the character. Films dependent on the inner workings of espionage science, for want of a better word, do not always work. Enigma (2001), a riveting book, did not translate well onto the screen while The Imitation Game (2014), covering similar territory, did. Here, the minutiae of minutiae are presented in such detail it is an education, down to the importance of an eyelash, how to extract a letter without breaking the seal on an envelope, and, critically how to judge whether the Germans have examined the material closely enough to ensure they have taken the bait.
And that’s before other twists and turns. The corpse was a down-and-out, abandoned, so it appeared, by all and sundry, until out of the blue his sister arrives to claim the body. The coroner on duty in Cadiz turns out, against all expectations, to be an expert in drowning. The British Attache in Spain must seduce both genders to ensure smooth passage of the secret documents. On the more human side, widows abound, husbands lost in combat. A spy on the British side must be unmasked or rendered harmless. A host of other smaller stories unfold within the larger narrative. Above all lies the tension of the necessity for the operation’s success, failure would mean the deaths of thousands of men on the Sicily beachheads and possibly a thwarted invasion.
Matthew Macfadyen (Succession, 2018-2021) steals the show as the over-sensitive individual with the sense of entitlement that comes from having too big a brain, Oscar-winner Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2014) the imperturbable figure who finds emotion wreaks havoc, Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin, 2017) the secretary drawn deeper into a world where genuine emotion has little place.
The cream of British character actors providing sturdy support include Johnny Flynn (Emma, 2020) as spy writer Ian Fleming, Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey: A New Era, 2022), Mark Gatiss (The Father, 2020), Alex Jennings (Munich: The Edge of War, 2021), Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin, 2017) and Mark Bonnar (Guilt, 2019-2021). ,
Oscar-nominated John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, 19980 directs with something approaching verve, never letting the pace drop, zipping from scene to scene, from the war effort into more intimate moments, without any sign of the tension flagging. In her movie debut Michelle Ashford (The Masters of Sex, 2014-2016) does an excellent job of distilling Ben McIntyre’s bestselling book.
Sure, this is one of those British pictures in a long line of movies that show the country at its best, generally in the thick of war, but the story is so involving that it merits viewing. It is still showing at the time of writing in British cinemas but in the United States and Latin America it will air on Netflix on May 11.
Unusually for an Otto Preminger project, this took an unconscionably long time to get off the ground, given he had purchased rights to the bestseller by Evelyn Piper which had been published in 1957. The first problem was that no one could lick the screenplay. Getting first bite was Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, 1967), followed by “wholesale doctoring” by Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, 1960) who delivered a “polished script.” But that failed to satisfy the director either and triggered further attempts by Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) and Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mummy’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, 1967). But nobody seemed able to come up with a satisfactory job. The book had been set in New York as had the various subsequent screenplays. The solution appeared to be to shift the location some 3,000 miles to London. Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote a draft but ended up having a fight with Preminger and withdrew and the project was completed by her husband John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969).
The Levin screenplay was dismissed as being too faithful to the book, the kidnapper in this instance turning out to be a former teacher who was childless and afflicted with “menopausal psychosis,” a character Preminger found weak and uninteresting. Trumbo changed the villain into a wealthy woman, not just childless but judged unfit to adopt, an approach the director deemed “very theatrical and wrong.” The Kopit and Eastman versions offered no better solution. “I almost gave up Bunny Lake,” admitted Preminger, “because while working in the script I realized that women would not like the film…because they are afraid of all situations in which a child is in danger.” After considering transplanting the story to Paris, Preminger finally settled on London, and hired the Mortimers whose villain brought the picture a 2new dimension.”
Until now, and in keeping with the original novel, Newhouse, while assisting in the investigation, had been a psychiatrist. In the hands of the Mortimers he now morphed into a police inspector. Wilson who had been Newhouse’s quite respectable friend turned into a drunken reprobate. At this point the heroine’s name remained Blanche as in the book. There was one other significant element that changed between the initial Mortimer script and the final shooting script: at the start of the film the Ann and Steven were shown reacting as if the child was there, whereas when the movie went before camera the question of the child’s existence remained in doubt. Penelope Mortimer dropped out when, summoned with her husband to Honolulu where Preminger was filming In Harm’s Way, she was roundly ignored.
Filming was originally scheduled to slip in between Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960) with a budget set at $2 million. But something always seemed to get in the way. Occasionally it was a bigger project. After Columbia announced filming was scheduled for 1961, Bunny Lake was pushed back to spring 1962 to permit the filming of Advise and Consent (1961). Then The Cardinal (1962) took precedence but only to the extent of shifting the Bunny project till later that year. Then it was set to be completed by fall 1963. Further cause of delay was the decision to accommodate the pregnancy of that Lee Remick who had signed for the leading female role. But when she was ready to go, Preminger was not and she fell out of the equation.
At one point, fearful of his schedule becoming too crowded – filled with expensive projects like The Cardinal and In Harm’s Way (1965) – Preminger had tried to wriggle out of the directorial commitment, planning to limit his involvement to producing only, but studio Columbia would not accept this. Preminger was in considerable demand, like a major movie star contracted to deals with rival studios, in 1961 for three pictures with United Artists and four for Columbia and by 1965 adding into the mix a seven-picture deal with Paramount, and most of these big pictures, leaving little time for a relatively low-budget – by his standards – picture.
Finally, Bunny Lake received the green light with filming beginning in London on April 9, 1965. Unusually, the movie was shot entirely on location, the director expressing a “yen for realistic on the spot” filming in a dozen places including a pub, the Cunard office and Scotland Yard. A school in Hampstead doubled for the nursery, the mews flat was found just behind Trafalgar Square. He was quick to point this was not a matter of economy. “What you save in studio (time) you spend in other ways. But I think it leads to more urgent film-making.” Somewhat surprisingly, he aimed to shoot in black-and-white, colour now being predominant except for low-budget movies and those wishing to take advantage of black-and-white world War Two newsreel footage as was the case with his previous picture In Harm’s Way.
Carolyn Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) was given the lead with Keir Dullea (David and Lisa, 1962) in the pivotal role of her brother. Neither could be considered a big star although Lynley had the second female lead in The Cardinal and moved up the credit rankings to female lead in the low-budget Shock Treatment (1964). But she was such a hot prospect Preminger in 1965 signed her to a four-picture deal although this was not exclusive as she also had contracts with Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia. Dullea was potentially a better prospect, picking up some acting kudos for David and Lisa, the designated star of that picture and The Thin Red Line (1964) but only second lead for Mail Order Bride (1963) and the Italian-made The Naked Hours (1963).
Although some decades away from his Hollywood box office prime, the casting of Oscar-winner and five-time nominee Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, 1960) was something of a coup, although he was only hired because another actor proved too expensive. Other parts were filled by actors experienced in the Preminger school of film-making, Martita Hunt from The Fan (1949)- and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Victor Maddern (Saint Joan, 1958) and David Oxley (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse).
The first day’s shooting was in a television studio to capture the newsreader and pop group The Zombies which the content of the show shown in the pub on television. Contrary to depictions of Preminger as a martinet on set, he was keen in rehearsals to “put everyone at ease” although he emphasised the need for “slow, thoughtful diction.” The famous Preminger wrath came down heavily on personnel failing to carry out their job correctly. But he accepted Olivier’s decision to omit a particular phrase. He was specific about the look he wished to achieve, required high contrast black-and-white cinematography while nothing was to be done “to enhance Carol Lynley’s beauty: instead…to deepen her features, bring out her emotions.”
And he was determined to get what he wanted, 18 takes required to complete a lengthy tracking shot that flows Inspector Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) as they negotiate a passage through a group of noisy children in a classroom and then across a hall. Accepting Lynley’s difficulty in expressing the pain of losing a child, he instructed her to forget about subtext and play the moment. However, 14 takes of a scene between Lynley and Olivier was too much for the actress but she was comforted when Preminger told her the famous actor was the problem not her. But on another occasion, Preminger ended up giving her an almost line for line reading of how he wanted the scene played. The only way he got what he wanted was to reduce her to “sobbing uncontrollably” and then start the camera rolling.
Without question, Keir Dullea came off first. “He would humiliate you, he would scream at you…his dripping sarcasm was the worst of it,” recalled Dullea. “I was always very prepared in terms of knowing my lines…but the stress, there was some action where I was supposed to put a glass down or pick up a glass” that Dullea kept getting wrong. In face of what he deemed incompetence, Preminger accused him of being “an actor who can’t even remember a line and if heremembers a line he can’t remember an action…what, you can’t do these two things at the same time.” In the end Dullea faked a nervous breakdown and after than “he never screamed at me again.”
Olivier would occasionally coming to rescue, persuading the director to ease off and “stop screaming at the children.” Olivier found Preminger such a bully that it “almost put me off his Carmen Jones, which I found an inspired piece of work…It’s a miracle it came from such a heavy-handed egotist.” On the other hand Noel coward, who played the landlord Wilson, believed Preminger an excellent director.
Preminger spun his marketing on a similar gimmick to that utilised by Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho (1960) in preventing the public from entering once the movie had started. To make this more dramatic, he had clocks installed in the lobbies of theaters that counted down the length of the performance and a sign that stated “nobody admitted while the clock is ticking.” Preminger was credited with coming up with a longer tagline for the advertisements: “Not even Alfred Hitchcock will be admitted after the film has started.”
The only problem was Return from the Ashes, released at the same time, had adopted a similar marketing ruse, nobody admitted “after Fabi enters the bath.” Despite this, Preminger went hell-for-leather for this marketing trick, to the extent of adding a rider to exhibitor standard contracts to that effect, not a problem in more sophisticated cities where by now patrons had become accustomed to turning up for a picture’s announced start time but a problem in smaller towns and cities where the whole point of continuous programme (i.e. no break between one film and another) was that moviegoers could walk in whenever they liked.
The whole tone of the marketing did not meet the approval of two important segments of the greater movie community. The National Association of Theater Owners opined that the marketing campaign was weak and were astonished to learn that there was nothing Columbia could so about it – Preminger had advertising-publicity approval. Allowing that some of the advertising images for Preminger pictures, courtesy of designer Saul Bass – The Man with the Golden Arm (1953), Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus etc – were among the most famous in Hollywood history, it would appear Preminger knew what he was doing. But, in fact, although the Saul Bass credit sequence showing pieces of newspaper being torn away made sense in the framework of the picture, the idea was not so effective taken out of that context.
Not intentionally, perhaps, Preminger also riled the critics, deciding that to “preserve the secrecy of the surprise ending,” the movie would open without the normal advance screenings for reviewers. Such action was more likely to set alarm bells ringing, it being a standard assumption among critics that the only films that went down this route were stinkers. From a practical point-of-view it also ensured that marketing was undercut since the lack of timed reviews denied the picture an essential promotional tool.
Finally, the movie ended up in a war with the censors. Many states in the U.S. had their own censors. Columbia objected to having to wait on the say-so of a local censor – in this case Kansas – before being able to release a movie. And for any release to be delayed if there was any nit-picking by the censor, especially as this movie had an undercurrent of incest. So Columbia refused to conform and failed to submit Bunny Lake Is Missing to the Kansas censors. After being promptly banned for such arrogance, Columbia objected again and the case went to the Kansas State Supreme Court which judged that the censor was unconstitutional. That resulted in the censors losing their jobs when the board was abandoned and the movie entering release a good while after its initial opening dates.
Although it made no impact at the Oscars, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris picked it as one the year’s ten best and it was nominated for cinematography and art direction at the Baftas. The film was a flop, failing to return even $1 million in rentals at the U.S. box office. In fact it probably made more when it was sold to ABC TV for around $800,000.
SOURCES: Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, p330-342; (Faber and Faber, 2008) “Trends,” Variety, January 14, 1959, p30; “Ira Levin Pacted by Preminger for Bunny,” Variety, September 2, 1959, p2; “Col Primed To Start ½ Dozen Prods,” Variety, April 5, 1961, p3; “Otto Preminger Views Film Festivals As Important Marketplaces,” Box Office, May 1, 1961, p11; “Trumbo May Script for UA,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p5; “Bunny Lake Delayed,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p18; “Preminger Postpones One,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, p13; “Otto Preminger to Film Cardinal for Col,” Box Office, August 7, 1961, -10; “Otto Preminger Is Guest of Soviet Film Makers,” Box Office , May 14, 1962, pE-4; “Two Writers Signed,” Box Office, August 6, 1962, pSW-3; “Preminger,” Variety, September 12, 1962, p15; “Preminger’s New Rap at Costly U.S. Distribution,” Variety, October 10, 1962, p7; “Preminger Gets Rights to Hurry Sundown,” Box Office, November 23, 1964, p9; “Prem’s Next in London,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p18; “Preminger Signs Actress for Four More Pictures,” Box Office, February 8, 1965, pW-3; “Advertisement,” Variety, April 7, 1965, p1; “Preminger-Paramount Pact Calls for 7 Films,” Box Office, April 26, 1965, p7; “100% Location for Bunny,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p29; “Not Even Hitch,” Variety, September 1, 1965, p4; “Preminger’s Nix on Pre-Opening Critics,” Variety, September 22, 1965, p16; “2 Pix Enforce Entrance Time on Ticket Buyers,” Variety, September 29, 1965, p5; “Time Rules Are Set for Bunny Shows,” Box Office, October 4, 1965, p13; “Preminger’s Promotional Prerogative,” Variety, October 27, 1965, p13; “Clock for Bunny Lake,” Box Office, November 8, 1965, p2; “Village Voice Vocal on Bests,” Variety, January 26, 1966, p4; “Col Kayos Kansas Censoring,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p5.
Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown, 1967) returns to his film noir roots (Laura, 1944; Whirlpool, 1950) for this crisply-told tale, mixing police procedural with psycho-drama, of a missing child who may the figment of her mother’s imagination. It’s beautifully filmed and for anyone brought up on modern cinema of short takes and the camera bouncing from one close-up to the next, it will be a revelation, as Preminger favors classic Hollywood style, long takes, in a single shot the camera often following a person in and out of several rooms, and equally classical composition, scenes containing three or four characters where everyone acts within the frame.
Single-mother Ann (Carol Lynley) turns up to collect her four-year-old daughter Bunny from her first day at a London nursery only to discover not just the child gone but nobody has any recollection of the child being there in the first place. That is, apart from the school cook (Lucie Mannheim), who promised to look out for the child but who has subsequently disappeared. Ann is anxious anyway because she is moving house and in her new apartment has an encounter with her creepy landlord Horacio (Noel Coward), a master of the innuendo and the casual stroke of the arm.
It’s a very English school with stiff-upper-lip not to mention snippy teachers. “We mustn’t get emotional,” school administrator Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) warns the distraught mother. Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea), a journalist, kicks up more of a stink, arguing with staff, and with a very threatening manner. Things get creepier still. Upstairs, they hear voices but it’s just the school’s founder Ada (Martita Hunt) who records children talking about nightmares. Steven seems over-protective towards his sister, which is understandable, and somewhat over-affectionate, which is not.
Detective Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and sidekick Sgt Andrews (Clive Revill) investigate. He is an unusual cop. A university graduate but not of the excitable Inspector Morse persuasion for one thing, and reasonable to an irritating degree in that he keeps all his options open. But the cops are thorough, descriptions of the missing child issued, search of the premises and surrounding area undertaken. But it turns out there is no record of Bunny in the school ledger, no sign of her existence in the flat, and it transpires that as a child herself Ann had an imaginary companion called Bunny.
As Steven becomes more obstreperous and the intense Ann verges on the hysterical, not helped by the unwanted attentions of the landlord, a BBC performer with a melodious voice he believes irresistible to women and more than a passing interest in sadism, the case appears to be heading in the direction of a quick visit to a psychiatry ward. The usual anchor in these situations, the policeman, is not as definite as normal, Newhouse not pushing the investigation in a direction the audience will find acceptable, but largely standing back, as if yet to make up his mind, which adds to the sense of mystery.
Preminger isn’t in the business of piling twist upon twist, but as these arrive in due course, the options they offer are even more psychologically damaging. And from setting off at a steady pace with everything apparently settled down by the steady superintendent, the minute he departs the scene, the story takes on a different dimension and there are three superb chilling scenes, one in hospital, another in a doll’s hospital and the last in a garden as the question of just who is unhinged becomes more apparent. There is certainly madness in the movie but it comes when you least expect it and from a direction you may not have considered. On another level, the world of children is entirely alien to the adult and the reconciliation between the two worlds impossible to bridge.
Preminger extracts a performance from Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) that cuts the character to the bone, eliminating many of the actor’s tropes and tics, but at the same time making him perfectly human, unable to resist, for example, a traditional school pudding, and finding ways to curb Steven’s excesses while comforting Ann. By controlling the actor who always exerts screen presence, Preminger makes him come across with even greater authority. It’s an achievement in itself to ensure that Olivier never raises his voice.
Carol Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) is excellent as the distraught mother, one step away from losing her mind and Keir Dullea (The Fox, 1967) constantly raises the stakes. Noel Coward (The Italian Job, 1969) possibly does the best job of the lot, his normal high levels of sophistication eschewed in favour of the downright creepy. In supporting roles look out for Clive Revill (Kaleidoscope, 1966), Finlay Currie (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969), Anna Massey (De Sade, 1969) and Adrienne Corri (The Viking Queen, 1967). Pop group The Zombies featuring Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone put in an appearance.
Husband-and-wife team John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969) and Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote the screenplay from the besteller by Evelyn Piper. But it is most assuredly an Otto Preminger production. He has a surprisingly good grasp of British custom and character, shot all the movie on location, but in black-and-white so it is not dominated by the tourist London of red buses or red pillar boxes, and his probing camera and long takes are a marvel for any cinematic scholar.
Another western in sore need of re-evaluation. Largely dismissed as a routine oater trading on the gimmick of a whodunit and packed with old stagers, this is in fact about a serial killer, a treatise on law and order, and almost acts as a conduit between the decade’s previous westerns when the good guys and the bad guys are easily defined to the end of the decade when such distinctions were muddied after The Wild Bunch (1969) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) invited audiences to root for the bad guys. In this rather well-structured picture, full of action and romance, we don’t know who the bad guy is.
The whodunit, however, is really a MacGuffin. The movie is more concerned with investigating the changing mores and hypocrisies of the West and predicting the inherent dangers in the proliferation of weaponry. It’s worth remembering that the movie came out at time when mass murderers such as Charles Whitman (the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, 1968) who went on a killing spree in 1966 were becoming the norm.
A card sharp is lynched for cheating at poker in the quiet town of Rinchon where late-night gambling is the height of entertainment. One of the players, professional gambler Van (Dean Martin), attempts to stop the hanging but is beaten up for his troubles. No surprise then, that he ambles off to Denver. Sometime later the hangmen begin dying off and Van returns not just to solve the mystery but to ensure that his name isn’t on the list. “If someone is out to kill you, you don’t sit around and let him pick the time,” he concludes. With the number of killings, not to mention brawls and shoot-outs, it’s almost continuous action.
On his return, Van discovers, with a gold strike nearby, the incipient boom town has attracted unsavory elements, not just the high murder quotient but a whorehouse and loud music in the saloon. Acting as counterbalance is gun-toting preacher Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) who announces his presence by spraying bullets in the saloon floor, emerging as the self-proclaimed “conscience” of the town.
For a sometime protector of law and order, Van is rather lax in the morals department, unwilling to commit to main squeeze rancher’s daughter Nora (Katharine Justice) when the likes of Lily (Inger Stevens), the unlikely proprietor of a barbershop-cum-whorehouse, are on hand. Van is an interesting study. Once he becomes aware that the only people likely to end up in an early grave are the six men who played poker with the lynched individual, it doesn’t occur to him to fess up to Marshal Dana (John Anderson) which would ease the fears of the ordinary public. Awareness the only corpses belonged to the guilty would have prevented further outbursts of violence among a disaffected population. Interestingly, too, Dana makes no attempt to investigate the lynching.
At the core of this picture are a couple of amazing scenes as paranoia takes hold. One miner, without the slightest sense of irony, complains that in the old days a gunfight took place face to face, not by a murderer slinking round in the dark. Rudd adds some prophetic advice: “wear a gun and use it fast, wear a gun and use it slow – I say don’t wear a gun and you won’t use it at all.”
Van likes to think he has the measure of women, when in fact they have the measure of him. The story avoids the obvious lure of a love triangle, of jealous women competing for Van’s affections. Both the young Nora and the more mature Lily are pretty well grounded. “One wore-out no-account kiss” is Nora’s dismissive description of Van’s attempts at romance while Lily lets Van know she has taken a shine to him as a matter of convenience, he’s just a man and she hasn’t had one in three years. Expecting to be treated as a pariah, Lily, expressing the notion that “women don’t usually like women who like men,” strikes up a friendship with Nora.
Marshal Dana finds it increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of peace since as the death count mounts, paranoia grows rife, exacerbated by the kind of greed gold fever brings, resulting in citizens determined to challenge authority and take matters into their own hands.
The most antsy character is Nick (Roddy McDowall), Nora’s brother and the leader of the lynch mob. Nick seems to stir up bad feelings, provoking the ire of both his father and Van. The guilty are despatched in original ways, one man “drowns” in a barrel of flour, another strangled by barbed wire, a third wakes the town at night when the church bell to which his neck is attached starts ringing out. It’s not too hard in the end to work out who the killer is, but as I said, that is not the point of the picture, although the ending is satisfactory.
There a mass of small detail of the kind that director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969) tends to work into his pictures. Van is a cut above. He travels to Denver and back by stagecoach not on horseback. Citizens can purchase Pocahontas Remedies and beer from the Denver Brewery. Shaves and haircuts at the Tonsorial Parlor are reasonably priced but “miscellaneous” comes in at $20. After the preacher shoots up her floor, saloon owner Mama (Ruth Springford) smooths out the holes.
And there is some distinctive direction. Rudd’s sermon that lasts nearly 90 seconds is delivered in virtually one take, a fistfight is conducted in silence except for a soundtrack punctuated by grunts and punches hitting their target, a dying man tries to leave a physical clue about the identity of the mysterious killer. And there is a superb main street gunfight with Van trying to rescue the marshal and Rudd striding down the street in old-fashioned gunslinger mode.
Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) and Robert Mitchum (The Way West, 1969), both with apparently easy-going but magisterial screen personas, come off well together. Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968) always a great screen presence, an ethereal beauty, is vulnerable and strong at the same time. Katherine Justice (The Way West, 1967) is sassy and independent-minded and has a terrific facial response to coming across the first murder. John Anderson (The Satan Bug, 1965) leads a fine supporting cast including Yaphet Kotto (Live and Let Die, 1973), Denver Pyle (Shenandoah, 1965) and Whit Bissell (Seven Days in May, 1964).
Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, adapting the novel by Ray Gaulden, contributes some classic lines. “If that is a Bible, read it,” Van instructs Rudd, assuming the preacher has a gun planted in the Holy Book, “If it ain’t a Bible, drop it.” There’s a nod to a James Coburn scene in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Congratulated on his marksmanship in hitting the spinning wheels of a windmill six times out of six, Rudd protests his shooting was a failure since he was aiming for the spaces in between. It was ironic that her next assignment concerned a lawman who took much the same no-holds-approach to the criminal fraternity (True Grit, 1969) as the killer in this picture.
I was so intrigued by this picture, realizing it had much more to offer than a whodunit, that I watched it again within a few days and was pleasantly surprised by its depths.
Character-driven intelligent thriller ripe for re-evaluation. And not just because it stands out from the decade’s genre limitations, neither hero threatened by mysterious forces in the vein of Charade (1963) or Mirage (1965) nor, although espionage elements are involved, fitting into the ubiquitous spy category. Instead, it loads mystery upon mystery and leaves you guessing right to the end.
And a deluge of mystery would not work – even with the London high-life gloss of cocktail parties, casinos and the Royal Box at Wimbledon – were it not for the believable characters. Rough Aussie Outback cop Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) is despatched to London at the behest of New South Wales prime minister (Leo McKern) to bring home Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) to face a charge of murder.
Unlike most cop pictures, Malone is not sent to investigate a case, he is merely muscle. While he may have his doubts about the evidence against Quentin, suspected of murdering his first wife, he resists all attempts to re-open the case. Arriving in the middle of a peace conference hosted by the principled Quentin, he agrees to investigate security leaks from Australia House and along the way turns into an impromptu bodyguard when Quentin’s life is endangered. But Quentin’s wife Sheila (Lilli Palmer) and secretary Lisa (Camilla Sparv) are not taken in by the deception and so Malone himself forms part of the mystery.
With a preference for cold beer to expensive champagne, you might expect Malone to be a bull in a china shop. Instead, dressed for the part by the solicitous Quentin, Malone fits easily into high society, taking time out from his duties for a dalliance with the elegant Madame Chalon (Daliah Lavi). The background is not the gloss but the passion the Quentins still feel for each other, she willing to do anything (literally) to save her husband, he losing the thread of an important speech when worried about his wife.
While there is no shortage of suspects for all nefarious activities, red herrings abound and cleverly you are left to make up your own mind, rather than fingers being ostentatiously pointed. There is some delicious comedy between Malone and Quentin’s uptight butler (Clive Revill), enough punch-ups, chases and clever tricks to keep the movie more than ticking along but at its core are the relationships. Malone’s growing respect for Quentin does not overrule duty, Lisa’s evident love for Quentin cannot be taken the obvious further step, Sheila’s overwhelming need to safeguard her husband sends her into duplicitous action.
The politics are surprisingly contemporary, attempts to alleviate hunger and prevent war, and while there was much demonstration during the decade in favor of world peace, this is the only picture I can think of where a politician’s main aim is not self-aggrandisement, greed or corruption. There are some twists on audience expectation – the dinner-jacketed Malone in the casino does not strike a James Bond pose and start to play, he is seduced rather than seducer, and remains a working man throughout.
Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) and Christopher Plummer (Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) are terrific sparring partners, red-blooded male versus ice-cool character, their jousts verbal rather than physical. The rugged Taylor turns on the charm when necessary, a throwback to his character in Fate Is the Hunter (1964). Thoughts of his wife soften Plummer’s instinctive icy edge. Lilli Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor) is superb as yet another vulnerable woman, on the surface in total control, but underneath quivering with the fear of loss. Two graduates of the Matt Helm school are given meatier roles, Daliah Lavi (The Silencers, 1966), as seductress-in-chief is a far cry from her stunning roles in The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) – and it still feels a shame to me that she was so ill-served in the way of roles by Hollywood. Camilla Sparv (Murderers Row, 1966) has a more low-key role.
Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) has another scene-stealing part and look out for Calvin Lockhart (Dark of the Sun), Burt Kwouk (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and, shorn of his blond locks, an unrecognizable Derren Nesbit (The Naked Runner, 1967) and in his final role Hollywood legend Franchot Tone (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935).
Ralph Thomas (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) directs with minimum fuss, always focused on character, although there is a sly plug for Deadlier than the Male in terms of a cinema poster. (Speaking of posters, I couldn’t help notice this interesting advert at an airport for a VC10 promoted as “10derness.”) Wilfred Greatorex (The Battle of Britain, 1969) made his screenplay debut, adapting the bestseller by Jon (The Sundowners) Cleary. This may not be quite a true four-star picture but it is a grade above three-star.
CATCH-UP: Rod Taylor films reviewed in the blog so far are Seven Seas to Calais (1962), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967) and Dark of the Sun (1968).
Originally intended to pair Audrey Hepburn with William Holden and entitled variously Wherever Loves Takes Me, Ten Days to Penang, The Durian Tree (title of the source novel), Year of the Dragon, The Third Road, and Ten Days to Kuala Lampur, the picture eventually released as The 7th Dawn marked the entrance of British director Lewis Gilbert (HMS Defiant/Damn the Defiant, 1962) into the Hollywood big-time courtesy of producer Charles K. Feldman (Casino Royale, 1967). Gilbert had already been assured of a step-up from the budgetary confines of Britain to something more substantial after being signed in 1962 to direct Susan Hayward in Summer Flight, but that had fallen through.
William Holden was always interested in making movies outside the United States, in part down to a sense of adventure, in part to avoid paying taxes. He hadn’t worked in the States since 1958. “I’ve got a reputation for going to various part of the world to take advantage of background. There’s always new stories,” he said, adding, “I have to do things that satisfy me.” Actually, he could afford not to work. He had pocketed by far the biggest-ever Hollywood payout – over $3 million from his share of the profits from Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and his current fee was in excess of $750,000.
Gilbert agreed to take the assignment on the basis of a script by Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, 1959) who had adapted the novel by Michael Keon. But what appeared relatively straightforward was soon anything but as the British director became enmeshed in clashes over production, the script and the casting. While Gilbert was tussling with the problems of working on location, where he was expecting the imminent arrival of a film crew, he was summoned to Hollywood and told that two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (Circus World, 1964) had rewritten the script.
Feldman was known for playing fast and loose with scripts, much to the surprise of director Edward Dmytryk and the frustration of star Laurence Harvey when new writers were brought in for Walk on the Wild side (1962), earning the producer a reputation for interference. On reading the new script Gilbert recalled, “The basic plot was similar, but apart from that it wasn’t like the old script at all. Bill Holden’s part kept shrinking while the part of the mixed race girl kept getting bigger.” This may have been a ruse to attract Audrey Hepburn. Although Holden and Hepburn were due to be paired in June 1962 on Paris When It Sizzles in a part more in keeping with her screen persona, that film was delayed (not released till 1964) leaving both free for the Malaysian picture. Despite Feldman’s assurances, Gilbert later questioned whether Hepburn had ever been committed.
Gilbert hated the new script so much that he threatened to quit, only placated when Feldman promised he could work with Hecht on a revised version of the new script. But Hecht insisted on working closer to his home near New York. Their flight from Los Angeles to New York was delayed because of engine trouble, but by the time passengers were instructed to leave the plane, Hecht, who was addicted to sleeping pills, was fast asleep and could only be removed by ambulance. Facing a three-day deadline, Gilbert discovered that Hecht refused to work in the New York hotel assigned them by Feldman so they were decanted to the writer’s home in upstate New York. That scarcely improved the script, described by Gilbert as a “cockamamie affair.” However, that would not have unduly worried the producer who was of the opinion that performers with box office clout “can make successes of weak properties.”
The script in whatever version offered a key role for a Eurasian woman. Initially Gilbert and director of photography Freddie Young planned to scour the Shaw Brothers portfolio of budding stars to fill the role, and if not finding what they wanted in Malaysia aimed to head for Hong Kong and “seek her among the actresses there” according to Holden. However, once the compromise script was approved, Feldman proposed his real-life mistress Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) for the part.
That was the first difference of opinion between director and producer, not to mention star and producer, and an education for Gilbert on just how little power he wielded when it came to confronting Feldman. William Holden objected strenuously to the involvement of Capucine, his opposition based on his experience of working with her on flop The Lion (1962). It may have counted against the actress that the duo had engaged in an affair on the African set. Holden may have wanted to treat the affair as one of those things that happened on location – and ended once the film is completed. “Whatever you do, Lewis,” Holden advised the director, “you must resist having her in the picture. I’ve just made a movie with her…and she was not very good. I think, really, the picture suffered for it and so if I make my next movie with her I’m going to look pretty stupid.”
Expecting Holden to back him up, Gilbert was surprised when the actor shied away from any confrontation with the producer, only learning later that Holden was somewhat in awe of Feldman, who had given him his big break in Golden Boy (1939) and, in his capacity as agent – the first to demand a $750,000 fee plus hefty percentage for his client – helped oversee his career. Although her three-year contract with Columbia had begun in 1961, Capucine had only made one film for the studio, Walk on the Wild Side (1962), more likely to turn up in pictures for Twentieth Century Fox, United Artists or independents. Feldman claimed Capucine was “in greater demand for roles after being starred in Walk on the Wild Side.” His position as star-maker-supreme was strengthened when he merged his agency with Ashley-Steiner and bought the rights to Mary McCarthy bestseller The Group, which boasted great parts for four women. Probably Gilbert did not quite realize what he was taking on when he raised his and Holden’s objections to Capucine. Feldman responded, “We’re not making the film for Bill, we’re making it for the world.”
Gilbert was also having problems with Karl Tunberg who was also functioning as a co-producer “and therefore my producer,” according to the director. “As I’ve often done the job myself I haven’t worked with many producers but I can safely say this one was hopeless.” As a result of Tunberg’s “inertia” the production manager Bill Kirkby resigned, and Gilbert ended taking on the role of producer as well.
Holden’s career, while not yet in the box office trough that would envelop him later in the decade, was enjoying an unexpected movie hiatus, his planned starring role in The Americanization of Emily, to be directed by William Wyler, having fallen through. Paris When It Sizzles was on the shelf for an interminably long time given the supposed box office pulling power of the stars. Made in 1962, it was not released until 1964, by which time Hepburn was back on top thanks to Charade (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964). By the time The 7th Dawn hit theaters, Holden had four box office flops on the trot.
Jack Hawkins was originally intended to play the Governor and for the role of his daughter Candace, who makes a play for Holden, Gilbert suggested Susannah York who had worked on his Loss of Innocence (1961), and who was beginning to attract attention in Hollywood. By the time the crew got to Malaya, where the film was to be shot, there was one notable absentee – the wardrobe mistress. Gilbert’s wife Hylda supplied York with a beautiful sarong purchased from a girl she spotted passing on a bike. Shooting was delayed due to a strike by Asian extras on the first day. They claimed discrimination because white extras were being paid more. Around 1,000 extras were required to play peasants and the security forces.
Although it was known Holden had an alcohol problem, prior to filming he had undergone aversion therapy in Switzerland and consequently remained dry throughout the filming. Gilbert admired the actor’s approach: “Bill Holden was a delight. He was an old time star.” If you asked him to crawl across a room, and climb up onto a chair, he would do it. “Whatever the director says, you do it. That’s how film actors were trained in his day and that was certainly his training.”
Capucine was the opposite. “Because she was untrained and didn’t understand what you were saying anyway, there was little you could do with her.” When the actress complained to her lover that she was being ignored on set, Gilbert had to take the producer aside and explain her deficiencies. “She doesn’t know about working with other actors. When I’m doing a scene where Susannah’s talking to her, I’m not just working with Susannah. I’m working with her too because I will be filming her reactions, how she listens to Susannah, that sort of thing. When I get back to the cutting room I can put all that together and even improve her performance.” (That said, I felt Capucine gave the best performance of her career.)
Unlike many top productions of the era, the film was not given an exclusive run at a New York city center cinema, but went straight into a Showcase (wide) release in 300 theaters simultaneously with its opening at the Astor and Trans-Lux East arthouses in the Big Apple.
William Holden, unable to stay off the wagon, succumbed to his affliction, hitting his head while on a bender alone in a cabin and dying at the age of 63 from his injury. Capucine was 62 when she committed suicide in 1990.
SOURCES: Lewis Gilbert, All My Flashbacks, (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010) p213-231, p234-235; Matthew Field, “Gilbert Goes to War,” Cinema Retro, Vol 6, issue 18, p46; “Capucine Option Renewed,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, NC2; “Mary Magdalene to Star Capucine,” Box Office, January 29, 1962, p13; “Feldman Sees Wild Side as New Break-Through,” Box Office, February 5, 1961, p14; “Actor Harvey no Fan of Feldman,” Variety, May 9, 1962, p5; “Ransohoff Signs William Holden,” Box Office, May 28, 1962, p15; “Lewis Gilbert to Direct Summer Flight for UA,” Box Office, June 11, 1962, pE8; “William Holden Plans Continue Produce Pix in Overseas Spots,” Variety, November 20, 1963, p2; “Bill Holden Party Primes Malaya Pic,” Variety, December 19, 1962, 4; “Chatter,” Variety, April 10, 1963, p69; “West Side in Malaya,” Variety, April 17, 1963, p21; “Liz’s Cleo 10% Mebbe Soon; But Holden Coin Tops,” Variety, May 15, 1963, p1; “Holden Follows Wyler Leaving Emily,” Box Office, October 7, 1963, pW2; “Feldman Acquires Rights to Mary McCarthy Novel,” Box Office, December 16, 1963, pE11; “New UA Title,” Variety, December 23, 1963, p6; Advertisement, Variety, January 8, 1964, p51; “300 July Dates for Dawn,” Box Office, June 1, 1964, p8; Advertisement, “UA’s Blockbuster for Summer Release,” Variety, June 17, 1964, p12-13; “UA Opens 7th Dawn as Showcase Presentation,” Box Office, August 31, 1964, pE2.
Director Gordon Parks made a big noise a couple of years later with Shaft (1971), Richard Roundtree shooting to fame as a slick and sexy private eye, memorable score by Quincy Jones. But The Learning Tree had possibly a bigger impact on the Hollywood consciousness, the first movie released by a major studio (Warner Brothers) that was directed by an African American. Although actors like Sidney Poitier and Jim Brown had smashed the Hollywood glass ceiling, directors lagged far behind. And this would have been an interesting tale in its own right of adolescence in 1920s Kansas had the leading character Newt (Kyle Johnson) and buddy Marcus (Alex Clarke) not faced such blatant racism.
Told today, the story would take a different route, concentrating on the dilemma of Newt in coming forward with the evidence that could convict Marcus’s father Booker (Richard Ward) of murdering a white man, not just the guilt at sending another African American to the electric chair but fear of the killing spree that must follow from enraged whites. Instead, that aspect comes at the tail end of a story that sees Newt and Marcus react in different ways to white supremacy. It’s not that Newt is spineless, toeing the line, but that Marcus, filled with venom, sees violence as the only way to establish any kind of equality.
When Newt, a reasonable enough scholar, though hardly in the genius class, is marked down by his teacher on the grounds that it’s a waste of time going to college when he will still end up a cook or a porter, the young man responds, “You hate us colored kids, well, we hate you, every one of you.” Marcus has a similar mantra, “this town don’t want me and I don’t want this town.” That underlying endemic racism contrasts with the more overt vicious bullying of local cop Kirky (Dana Elcar) who casually shoots any African American who sensibly runs away at his approach and who ends every sentence with the word “boy.”
What makes this so powerful is that for long stretches there’s just the ordinary coming-of-age tale of Newt falling in love with Arcella (Mira Waters), sneaking a kiss, finding their own special place among the daffodils, buying each other Xmas presents, the romance conducted among summer picnics, winter snow, rowing on the river, the young man showing his beloved every respect even given that he is not a virgin, having unexpectedly lost his cherry while sheltering from a tornado. He has a conscience, too, going to work voluntarily for a farmer whose apples he stole.
It’s not just Newt’s equable temperament that’s prevents him from reacting like Marcus to the unfairness of the white-dominated world. He has the ability to get the best out of situations. A born negotiator he manages to triple the reward offered by Kirky for helping bring up a dead man from a river, and, having been taught to box, earns good money in a match. Marcus goes to jail for beating up a white man who attacked him with a whip and this not being a sanitised version of the African American world on release ends up working in a whorehouse while his father steals a supply of hooch.
Even so this is a hierarchy even a prominent white person cannot overturn. When a judge’s son invites Marcus and Arcella into a drug store, the other two must take their drinks outside.
A staff photographer for Life magazine, director Gordon Parks, adapting his autobiographical novel, avoids the temptation to pack the movie with brilliant images, instead concentrating on core coming-of-age aspects to drive forward the narrative. He doesn’t have to do much to point up the injustice. That’s inherent in the material.
It probably helped that the three young principals were inexperienced, although at the time of course roles for African Americans, except in cliché supporting parts, were hardly abundant. Kyle Johnson (Pretty Maids All in a Row, 1971) was 16 when playing the 14-year-old, Alex Clarke (Halls of Anger, 1970) pushing 20 and making his debut as was Mira Waters (The Greatest, 1977). There’s no straining for dramatic acting effect. Everyone plays it straight.
Others involved are Estelle Evans (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962), Dana Elcar (Pendulum, 1968), Richard Ward (Black Like Me, 1964) and Russell Thorson (The Stalking Moon, 1968). Not only did Parks write, produce and direct but he supplied the music too.
It’s an absorbing, if at times difficult, watch. It’s an accomplished picture for a beginner. And you can’t help but wondering how four decades after this story takes place little had changed for ordinary African Americans and another five decades after the film’s release the battle for equality has not been resolved.
Belongs to the “serious spy” genre that exposed the nitty-gritty espionage business, often more concerned with the impact of the job on the spy than on the mission on which they have been sent. The biggest successes came early on – The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1965), The Ipcress File (1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966). A Dandy in Aspic is one of the latest in the series of sad spies and like The Defector (1966) it’s more of a character study than an action picture. The tone is set with the credits, a puppet dangling to the point of being tormented, on a string.
The character in question is Eberlin (Laurence Harvey), a spy who wants to quit and go home. He knows only too well what happens to the burnt-out case, one of his colleagues is a drug addict. Only in this case home is Russia. But the feedback he receives is that nobody back home wants him to quit. His British bosses send him to go to Berlin to assassinate a dangerous Russian spy called Krasnevin. The only problem is, Eberlin is Krasnevin and so begins a game of bluff and double bluff while he fails to uncover the supposed foreign assassin his ruthless British unwanted colleague Gatiss (Tom Courtenay) is helping him locate.
Thrown into the mix is a girl, Caroline (Mia Farrow) a casual pick-up, a photographer he met in London who turned up in Berlin. Happenstance? Perhaps. But there is no such thing for a suspicious spy and to tell the truth even the moviegoer will treat her as just too good to be true even though she is a delightful personality and beautiful to boot. The fact that Eberlin has a girlfriend Miss Vogler (Barbara Murray) doesn’t seem to bother him, spies, as you will know by now, discarding women like old shoes.
If a noose is closing in, it’s a strange one, and feels more like it’s coming from the East rather than the West. He is blocked from taking a trip to East Berlin. Cops are tipped off when he makes contact with someone who could get him over/through the Wall. His Eastern masters seem willing to pay good money to find out the identity of Krasnevin.
It’s all twisted and complex and all sorts of strange characters come out of the woodwork. For no reason at all one sequence is set at a Grand Prix race, one of the drivers paid to cause a distraction to allow someone to be shot. Like The Defector, this is a movie that unravels backwards. Once you get to the end it makes a lot more sense. If you were asked to choose, on the basis of the characters presented, whether the Russians or British had more principles you would be hard put to decide.
Laurence Harvey (The Running Man, 1963) is one of the few actors with the vicious fragility to carry this off. He is coming apart at the seams. He can hold onto his good looks far longer than his mental stability. His rare acts of violence seem petulance. And since we are never allowed inside his head, since he cannot confess his feelings to Caroline, he cannot explain what it’s like to be abandoned by your native country, cast aside like an old lover. It’s left to the audience to work this out for themselves, that a true patriot risking his life for his country is refused sanctuary.
He’s doomed and soon he knows it, nowhere left to run, the sense that the trap is closing and perhaps the few hours spent with Caroline are like a condemned man’s final wishes.
Filmed in bleak London and Berlin, the setting reflects the character’s mindset. There’s a bit too much fancy cinematography and sound effects, but otherwise it’s solid entry into the “more real than reality” subgenre. Director Anthony Mann (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) died during the making of the film, Laurence Harvey taking the helm for the last two weeks of shooting and post-production so it’s possible this is not quite the film Mann had in mind.
You can see here elements of the documentary style Mann developed in The Heroes of Telemark and it’s possible that when it came to the editing director Harvey accorded himself more prominence than Mann might have, leaving a complex tale more difficult to follow than necessary.
Harvey is very good in the role of the ruthless narcissist, Mia Farrow – she followed this with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – with a creditable English accent is excellent as the lover though Tom Courtenay (Operation Crossbow, 1965) seems miscast. Excellent support is provided by Lionel Stander (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Harry Andrews (Danger Route, 1967) and Per Oscarsson (Who Saw Him Die?. 1968). Look out for comedian Peter Cook (Bedazzled, 1967) as an unlikely lothario, Barbara Murray (television series The Power Game, 1965-1969) and Calvin Lockhart (Dark of the Sun, 1968).