Book Into Film – The Venetian Affair

Sometimes I wonder if studio executives ever read a book before they purchase the rights or whether they just rely on the assumption that a bestseller must have a storyline worth adapting for the movies. I always had the impression that in many instances producers were simply buying up what they saw as a ready-made audience, that if a novel sold a few million copies enough of those satisfied readers would turn up to see the adaptation which would more than pay for what the book cost to buy (not counting the automatic marketing bounty that came from bookstore displays). These days we are used to films rigidly following the storylines of bestselling novels, even expanding the movie version into two parts to accommodate it.

But that was far from the case in the 1960s. As shown previously in this Blog, some films – Fathom (1967) a classic example – bore little resemblance to the source material while others such as The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) were more faithful renderings and others (example: The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) built on what the author had originally created. I often wondered at the reaction of a screenwriter handed an adaptation of a bestseller. Is he/she instructed to junk the whole thing and start again, retaining only the title, or asked to see what they can make of it, making other stuff up as they go along?

Sales of Helen MacInnes books increased as the 1960s wore on with The Double Image in 1966 and The Salzburg Connection in 1968 both making the annual Top Ten list, the latter the last of her books to be filmed.

In this case, producer E. Jack Neuman hired himself as the writer so I’m guessing he already knew that, beyond a simplified version of the storyline and some of the characters, he was going to dump virtually every aspect of the Helen MacInnes novel.

There were two explanations for this. The first was Neuman’s record as a creative force and it occurred to me he saw his version of the MacInnes leading man as a potential movie series character. This was his movie screenwriting debut but he had been churning out episodes of television series – including Wagon Train, The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone – for over a decade. More importantly, he was showrunner of three series – two dramas Sam Benedict (1962-1963) and Mr Novak (1963-1965) and a western A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-1966) which between them clocked up over 100 episodes – so he knew how to keep a good character going.

The second issue was the difficulty in adapting the work of MacInnes. The Scottish writer had been turning out bestselling espionage novels long before Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and John le Carre picked up a pen, but only two had ever been turned into pictures. And the reason was simple. The plots were anything but simple. Not so much twist after twist but complication after complication. The Venetian Affair is dense and in particular, consists, in many scenes, of exposition with characters explaining to other characters what the hell is going on.

In fact, the plot for The Venetian Affair is so obtuse – although strangely enough, quite contemporary – that it would never have worked on film. The C.I.A. are trying to get hold of a fake letter that will implicate the U.S. and Britain in a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle (fake news in today’s parlance). So that was never going to work in a movie. Preventing an assassination, yes, but, of course, what a preposterous idea to think anyone could kill de Gaulle without having a time machine that could flash forward to Day of the Jackal. In any case, the C.I.A. only find out about the letter’s existence because someone picks up the wrong overcoat – so that’s not going to play either.

However, what the book does have is a good title. Venice is an excellent locale for a spy movie. The only problem is only half the novel is set there. The first half takes place in Paris. What else the book has from a screenwriter’s perspective is that the ex-wife, Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer), of the central character Bill Fenner (Robert Vaughn) is a Communist defector who is considering defecting back and to achieve that requires the presence of her former husband.

So that formed the emotional heart of the film, potential reunion or further betrayal, that Fane is just going to dupe him a second time. And that’s about as much as Neuman takes from the book. The rest of the plot – the bombing, Fane disguised as a nun, virtually all the action, the bad guy, the brainwashing, the mouse sequence – is the invention of Neuman.

In the book Fenner is not an alcoholic but it’s more dramatic in the film if he is. Some of the characters from the book such as hard ass CIA boss Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) appear on screen much as described. Others have characters enhanced – Vaugiround (Boris Karloff) here a global kingpin is a mere moral philosopher in the book. The character of Claire Connor (Felicia Farr) is hardest done by. In the book, she is a central figure, the widow of an agent, teamed up with Fenner in a pretend romance that turns real. But in the film, she has become the mistress of a diplomat.  

I had already enjoyed the movie but my appreciation of the creative endeavor that went into its making increased by reading the original material screenwriter Neuman had to work with.  

The Venetian Affair (1966) ****

Robert Vaughn gives a terrific performance as a numbed alcoholic ex-C.I.A. journalist drafted into Venice to investigate a plot involving ex-wife and Communist defector Elke Sommer. He’s the spy who lost it rather than a flashy contemporary of James Bond. This occasionally very stylish number kicks off with an excellent credit sequence that concludes with a suicide bomber blowing up a nuclear disarmament conference. Unshaven and with a Columbo cast-off overcoat, Vaughn discovers Sommer was key to the atrocity, the bomber an otherwise distinguished diplomat with no known proclivities in the area of mass murder.

Although sold as an action picture, nobody is ripping through the canals as in a Bond film, and it is altogether a more somber, reflective, intelligent  movie. Vaughn’s feelings for his ex-wife are shown when, in her apartment, he tenderly touches her clothes and smells her perfume. Far from being party to the plot, it appears Sommer has had a change of heart and wants to defect back, leaving Vaughn in a perilous dilemma. Does he believe her or is she just using him? It is beginning to sound like a modern-day film noir, except he is already being used by the C.I.A., his presence in Venice a device to draw Sommer out, C.I.A chief Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) every bit as ruthless as the villains.

His investigations lead him to Dr Pierre Vaugiraud (Boris Karloff) and power broker Robert Wahl (Karl Boehm) who possesses a mind-altering drug that can make a man terrified of a mouse, send him into a trance and on his way to deliver savage retribution. There is death aplenty, fisticuffs and chases and Sommer, in hiding disguised as a nun, is worth waiting for.

Based on the bestseller by Scottish novelist Helen MacInnes, who outsold Alistair Maclean in her day, the project was at one point to be directed by Guy Hamilton. Coincidentally, David McCallum, Vaughn’s co-star in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series, was in Venice at the same time shooting Three Bites of the Apple.

Vaughn is superb in a downbeat role – shaking off his Napoleon Solo television persona- never sure if he is being duped, on the rack from falling back in love, and emerging from an alcoholic haze with a few decent ruses up his sleeve. It’s often forgotten that this is an Oscar-nominated (for The Young Philadelphians, 1959) star and that the subtlety of his performance in The Magnificent Seven (1960) is generally overlooked.

Television stalwart Jerry Thorpe making his debut contributes some interesting moments. Interpreters listening in to the conference hear the magnified ticking of the bomb moments before explosion. A sequence on a train is well done and the activity surrounding the mouse is first class. There’s a solid cast, Asner menacing even as a good guy, Karl Boehm a charismatic villain, Karloff memorable in his last performance in a non-horror picture, and interesting appearances by Felicia Farr as a C.I.A agent masquerading as the murderous diplomat’s unsuspecting mistress and Luciana Paluzzi as the girlfriend of an agent. Lalo Schifrin produces an outstanding score.

It was a flop first time round because audiences, partly duped by the title (all Uncle episodes incorporated the word “Affair” although the book, in fairness, was written long before the television series was envisioned) expected to pay to see Napoleon Solo, or something quite like him, on the big screen, with all the pizzazz and gimmickry of the small-screen show. Unfairly under-rated, this is a really satisfying thriller set against a murky Cold War background with Vaughn, trapped between love and redemption, the only character with a streak of morality.

Stiletto (1969) ***

Tough talking Patrick O’Neal (Castle Keep, 1969) whose “hello” is usually accompanied with a fist enlivens this adaptation of a slim bestseller by Harold Robbins as cop George Baker on the trail of Mafia hitman Count Cesari Cardinali (Alex Cord ). Unusually, Cord was the go-to star for producers of Mafia pictures, his previous movie being The Brotherhood (1968). Equally unusual, Cardinali is a part-time assassin, spending the rest of his time as a fun-loving playboy with a string of women, fast cars and racehorses. Only problem is he wants to retire – and not in normal fashion, weighted down by a block of cement. Unfortunately, his dilemma is hardly one to solicit sympathy from an audience much less Mafia boss Emilio Matteo (Joseph Wiseman) and Cord isn’t enough of an actor in any case to tug at the heartstrings.

Cord made a brief splash as an action hero in the monosyllabic Clint Eastwood/Charles Bronson mold after debuting in the John Wayne role of the Ringo Kid in the remake of Stagecoach (1966) and Italian-made A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die (1967). But didn’t have more than half a dozen stabs at making his name on the big screen before disappearing into the television hinterlands. So he’s something of an acquired taste, maybe the small output enough to qualify him for cult status. Here, he’s a decent fit for the violence but saddled with a role that makes little sense and sure enough he soon discovers that Wiseman doesn’t consider him a candidate for a pension while O’Neal bullies witnesses into providing the legal ammunition to bring the gangster down.

One such person is illegal Polish immigrant Illeana (Britt Ekland), Cardinale’s girlfriend when he is not chasing Ahn Dessie (Barbara McNair). This is another thankless role for Ekland (Machine Gun McCain, 1969), there to add glamour, but, surprisingly, she manages to bring pathos to the part. McNair, who is always worth watching and had made an auspicious debut the year before in If He Hollers, Let Him Go, hardly gets any screen time.  But it’s O’Neal (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) as the ruthless cop who holds it all together.

Director Bernard L. Kowalski (Krakatoa, East of Java, 1968) proves better at the action than the characterization, though, luckily nobody needs to be anything other than tough. Three scenes, in particular, are well handled – the opening murder in a casino, a shoot-out at a penthouse and the climax on a deserted island which has more than a hint of a spaghetti western. Wiseman (Dr No, 1962) rustles up another interesting performance and Roy Scheider (Jaws,1975) also appears.

This old-style tough-guy thriller would have been better off had the Cord vs. O’Neal set-up taken center stage, with the assassin on murderous overkill hunted down by the zealous cop. As it is, it’s a missed opportunity for Cord to develop an Eastwood/Bronson persona and enter the action star hall of fame. This was the seventh adaptation of the books of bestseller writer Harold Robbins after Never Love a Stranger (1958), A Stone for Danny Fisher (filmed as King Creole in 1958), The Carpetbaggers (1964) – which also resulted in Nevada Smith (1966) – and Where Love Has Gone (1966).

This isn’t easy to get hold of but you are more likely to find it will find it on Ebay (new) than Amazon.

The Prize (1963) ****

Thoroughly involving potboiler with alcoholic novelist Paul Newman turning unlikely detective to uncover murky double-dealings at the annual Nobel Prize ceremony. Based on the Irving Wallace bestseller set in Stockholm, director Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express,1965) strings together a number of different stories that coalesce in a gripping climax. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest,1959) brings alive what could have been a very soggy adaptation of a beefy bestseller with witty and literate dialog and a plot that hovers just the right side of hokum.

Elke Sommer, delegated to look after Newman, starts out as stuffed shirt not sexpot, allowing Newman’s attention to drift towards Emily Stratman (Diane Baker) – daughter of another winner Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) – while he is also dragged into romantic entanglement with neglected wife Dr Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle). Mostly, Newman just wants his next drink and his almost continual inebriation sparks some good comedy and he is gifted good lines to extricate himself from embarrassment. Simmering in the  background are warring winners – the Marceau husband-and-wife team and Dr John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy) convinced that Dr Carlo Farelli (Gerard Oury), with whom he is sharing a prize, has stolen his research.  

 There are sufficient character clashes and plots to be getting along with if you were just intent on taking a Valley of the Dolls approach to the material, that is, cutting between various dramatic story arcs, but, without invalidating the other subsidiary tales, the movie takes quite a different turn, providing the potboiler with considerable edge.  

Turns out that Newman is so impoverished that he has been writing detective novels under a pseudonym and suspecting that Dr Stratman is an imposter he starts investigating. So in some respects it’s a private eye procedural played out against the glamorous backdrop of the awards. But the clues are inventive enough and there is a femme fatale and once Sommer comes along for the ride and with Newman a target the picture picks up an invigorating pace. Echoing the humorous auction scene in North by Northwest is a sequence set in a nudist colony where Newman seeks refuge to avoid villains while another terrific scene plays out in the docks.

Newman looks as if he is having a ball. In most of his pictures he was saddled with seriousness as if every part was chosen with an eye on the Oscars. Here, he lets rip with a lighter persona, and even if he mugs to the camera once too often, the result is a screen departure that lifts the picture. Inebriation has clearly never been so enjoyable. Sommer is a delight, showing great dramatic promise. Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves,1960), more renowned for his gangster roles, convinces as a scientist. Diane Baker (The 300 Spartans, 1962), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers,1956) and Leo G. Carroll (North by Northwest) provide sterling support.

Robson directs with dexterity, mostly with an eye on pace, but it is Lehman’s script with occasional nods to Hitchcock that steals the show.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and Cool Hand Luke; Diane Baker in Marnie and The 300 Spartans; Elke Sommer in The Corrupt Ones and Mark Robson picture The Lost Command.