Behind the Scenes: “Sink The Bismarck!” (1960)

The unexpected U.S. box office success should have propelled star Kenneth More into the Hollywood firmament. The British box office champ of the previous decade, after comedies like Genevieve (1953) and Doctor in the House (1956), war movie Reach for the Sky (1956) and drama A Night to Remember (1958), he had been rewarded by a tie-up between British studio Rank and Twentieth Century Fox. That allowed him bigger budgets and bigger co-stars, pairing him with Jayne Mansfield in comedy western The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), and Lauren Bacall for historical adventure North West Frontier (1959).

While hits in Britain, they failed to raise his profile in America. That changed with Sink the Bismarck!, his performance highly praised, the movie a genuine and very profitable hit. It should have been the stepping-stone he needed to break into the Hollywood big time. And for a short time it looked as if he would.

He was scheduled to co-star with Gregory Peck in the big budget high adventure war picture The Guns of Navarone (1961), in the part that finally went to David Niven. He lost the role  through petulance.

At a public event, he verbally tore into his boss, John Davis, head of Rank, to whom he was contracted and on whose goodwill he relied to loan him out to Columbia for this movie which would become the number one hit in the annual U.S. box office race. In revenge, Davis blocked the loan-out and in effect stymied his career. Few companies were going to invest in a star whose movies would automatically be blocked from being booked on the Odeon chain, owned by Rank, and one of the two biggest circuits in Britain. As a result of his intemperate, drunken, action, More’s career plummeted.

Oddly enough, Sink the Bismarck! also killed off the career of the German-born Dana Wynter, a rising Hollywood star, leading lady to Rock Hudson in Something of Value (1957) Robert Wagner in In Love and War (1958) and James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and denoted star of Henry Koster’s Fraulein (1958). After Sink the Bismarck!, and On the Double (1961), she lost out on big roles until the low-budget If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1968).

It seemed almost a contradiction in terms that such a big hit as Sink the Bismarck! could produce no outright winners in the career stakes. And although director Lewis Gilbert had a stab at the Hollywood big budget picture with The 7th Dawn (1964) starring William Holden, he relied on later British pictures Alfie (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967) to give his career the fillip it surely deserved.

Lewis Gilbert was virtually a veteran by the time Sink the Bismarck! appeared, 16 previous pictures including Reach for the Sky, another More-starrer Paradise Lagoon (1957) and  Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Kenneth More explaining details to Dana Wynter. In the movie they would have the most buttoned-down romance you could imagine, feelings not pronounced until the end.

Gilbert described Sink the Bismarck! as a “detective story set at sea,” and that’s the picture  he determined to make, focusing on the hunt more than the normal World War Two heroics, the usual battleground endeavours taking second place to backroom tactics that resembled a “psychological chess game” between British and Germans. It was a change of pace for star Kenneth More, his screen persona the opposite of “someone so stiff and buttoned up.” A star of More’s caliber was all the movie needed to be funded.

The bigger problem was the hardware. “If we were to film on real ships, explode old ones even,” recalled Gilbert, “we would need the cooperation of the Admiralty.” Luckily, the wife of producer John Brabourne (Romeo and Juliet, 1968) was the daughter of Earl Mountbatten, the former Governor of India, who happened to be First Sea Lord (head of the Admiralty) who could put in a good word.

“Blowing up ships, or bits of ships, turned out to be not so hard,” explained Gilbert.  Portsmouth’s naval shipyards contained many vessels whose active days were over and who were considered nothing more than scrap metal. So, prior to the commencement of shooting, Gilbert took a crew into the shipyard and began the blowing up. Because these were not models, the use of real ships “gave the film extra conviction.”

Gilbert also received permission to film on HMS Vanguard, the last British battleship of the era still on active duty although it too was due to be scrapped. That permitted filming the ship’s 15-inch guns in action. It doubled for scenes set aboard HMS Hood, Prince of Wales, King George V and the Bismarck, creating greater authenticity.  HMS Belfast stood in for the pursuing cruisers including HMS Norfolk, Suffolk, Dorsetshire and Sheffield. A Dido-class cruiser provided the set for Bismarck’s destruction.

Aircraft carrier HMS Victorious played herself as well as HMS Ark Royal but any actual flying took place aboard HMS Centaur. The destroyers participating in the night-time attacks were HMS Cavalier and HMS Hogue. The bridge of the Prince of Wales was “reproduced down to the last detail.” One of the officers wounded in that attack was Esmond Knight, an actor on the film, who had virtually lost his sight, but from memory was still able to determine that the bridge was “a perfect replica.”

Three Fairey Swordfish biplanes with torpedoes were used.  Three RAF jet pilots volunteered to the fly the biplanes in the movie for the experience of understanding the risks involved in diving at less than the top speed of 138 mph in a machine which was little more than wood and canvas to drop torpedoes on a highly-armed ship, but Gilbert had already hired specialist crews.

Top Hollywood model maker Howard Lydecker (The Underwater City, 1962) was recruited to build the 20ft model of the Bismarck, which, unfortunately, sank on launch. Raising it was not a problem. Long shots were filmed on the massive Pinewood water tank.  It helped the production that during the battle the weather had been foul, so ships could be seen emerging from fog, or rendered invisible because of it.

Gilbert used his own wartime experience to render the battle realistic. He remembered sailing past the Scharnhorst, one of Germany’s three most powerful battleships, being unable to see it because of fog but aware of its presence from the sound of its guns. “We knew it from what we heard and felt, not from what we saw.”

Post-war the sinking of the Bismarck became a cause celebre. The British were accused of a war crime for nor picking up survivors. However, the British claimed that the presence of U-boats in the area rendered this too hazardous.

SOURCES: Lewis Gilbert, All My Flashbacks (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010) p 197-203; Brian Hannan, The Making of The Guns of Navarone (Baroliant Press, 2013) p67.

Sink The Bismarck! (1960) ****

Hard to believe but outside of the Hollywood big-budget Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), this was the biggest British film at the U.S. box office in the previous decade. In fact, the British war films that did so well in the home territory, The Cruel Sea (1953) and Reach for the Sky (1956), sank like a stone when exported to in America while earnings for Ealing comedies,  limited to arthouses, hardly made a dent in the box office.

What makes this so appealing is the very lack of Britishness and the intrusion of a Yank, famed reporter Edward  R Morrow (playing himself), interrupting the action at various points to keep audiences up to speed. The fact that the sinking of the Bismarck, the biggest battleship ever built, was one of the few British actions at the start of the Second World War to be counted a success probably helped. Watching the Brits being lionized for defeat was not an attractive notion for global audiences.

But in the main it is a thrilling docu-drama, very much a departure for the genre, with every nuance of potential consequence spelled out. Dialog and models being moved across maps announce the risks inherent in the British attack: the superiority of the newly-built German battleship, the multiple options the Germans had in 1941 to escape, the difficulties in pinpointing the German vessel in the fog-bound waters of the North Sea, and the devastation the battleship could inflict on the beleaguered convoys on which Britain depended to stay afloat. In addition, even when targeted the Germans could flee to occupied France or potentially summon U-boats or air support.

So in the manner or Operation Crossbow (1965) or Day of the Jackal (1973) the audience is primed for a minute-by-minute enterprise, the battleship deemed so dangerous that the Admiralty is willing to risk its own scarce supplies of battleships, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers in a bid sink the enemy. It is so much a documentary that the beyond the thrill of the hunt there is little room left for drama and certainly little of the stirring kind that had become such a byword for the British version of the genre – and such a turn-off for foreign audiences who could hardly make out what the actors were saying never mind work out why such-and-such a mission they had never heard of was so important.

In any case emotion is forbidden in the subterranean claustrophobic Admiralty War Office where new operational commander Capt Shepherd (Kenneth More) holds sway. A martinet, “cold as a witch’s heart,” on arrival he rids staff of what he sees as the rank indiscipline of addressing colleagues by forename rather than surname, eating sandwiches at a desk to which the workforce have been chained for hours  and various minor offences against the strict code of a uniform.

It was inherent in this type of picture that the land-based unit suffer the casualties of war, husbands dead or missing in action, wives and children killed by German bombs. But the tightening of the stiff-upper-lip ensures that when such revelations become known, they appeared like emotional depth-charges on this otherwise staid ocean. And Capt Shepherd, through his choices, as would be true of many high-ranking officers, might be sending his own son to is death.

This is also one of the first instances in war pictures where the Germans are not treated as stock villains, but intelligent people, like Admiral Lutyens (Karel Stepanek) with his own vanity and a hunger for redemption, and Capt Lindemann (Carl Mohner), as valiant an opponent in the cat-and-mouse duel where outwitting the British enemy could wreak untold carnage and hasten – unusually from the German point-of-view rather than from the Allies – the end of the war.

A few months after launch the Bismarck is spotted leaving its home port, destination North Atlantic to feast on convoys travelling from America with invaluable supplies. There are four possible routes open to get round the top of Britain. To prevent the Germans reaching any of them British ships must be sacrificed, including HMS Hood – three survivors out of a crew of 1400.

It’s David vs Goliath except David is a terrier capable of inflicting tiny wounds that drain the battleship of some of its power, loss of fuel and rudder problems limiting movement. It’s a different kind of war picture, as well as the big guns blasting at each other over huge distances, the British employ biplanes loaded with torpedoes, a weapon also used in some instances by its ships.

To keep audiences more heavily involved, there are snippets of dialog involving characters on board the various ships, some in distinctly un-stiff-upper-lip mode, and montages of the various vessels getting ready for action, as well as shots of devastation should a shell find its target.

But basically it’s  brilliantly-told tactic-heavy war picture that shows the shifting battleground, how the various ships are deployed, with no shortage of telling the audience how crucial success is and how crushing defeat. There’s no reliance on individual heroism, no snappy soldier defying authority, no hunch being played out, none of the usual cliches of the genre, instead, as with The Longest Day (1962) a clear explanation of what’s going on with superb battle scenes for the action-inclined.

It’s fair to say that even on the small screen, the models look a bit iffy, but this is more than compensated by other scenes on real warships, the use of newsreel footage, and fast cutting.  That action never takes place under a clear blue sky but always in murky waters also adds to the realism.

In a role that would have been custom-made for Kenneth More (The Comedy Man, 1964), king of the stiff-upper-lip, rather than simply spouting his lines, he adds considerable emotional depth. Dana Wynter (Something of Value, 1957) is excellent as his equally buttoned-up assistant.

There’s a full crew of supporting British character actors including Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966), Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), Geoffrey Keen (Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow, 1963) and Maurice Denham (Some Girls Do, 1969) while the Czech-born Karel Stepanek (Operation Crossbow, 1965) and Carl Mohner (Assignment K, 1968) inject humanity into the Germans.

Lewis Gilbert (The 7th Dawn, 1964) does a brilliant job of bringing this all together, adding touches of emotion and humour to what could have been a too-dry concoction, drawing on a screenplay by Edmund H. North (HMS Defiant/Damn the Defiant, 1962) which was based on the book by C.S. Forester of Hornblower fame.

Chuka (1967) ****

I’m astonished this highly original western has disappeared into critical oblivion. As cruel as it is unusual, overturning every cliché, brimming with realism, more drama that action, some stunning scenes, and an ending only the bold would ever consider, this is desperately in need of reappraisal.

A refuge becomes a trap. The hero never wins. A spurned lover remains spurned. The cavalry are the dregs of society. Nobody listens to common sense. There’s no sending for help to relieve the beleaguered garrison. What chance does anyone have when the commanding officer is proud to die “by the book” rather than engineer a simple escape.

Gunslinger Chuka (Rod Taylor), arriving from the wintry north, shares some of his provisions with starving Arapaho Native Americans, comes upon a broken down stage containing two high-born Mexicans en route to California, Veronica (Luciana Paluzzi) and Helena (Victoria Vetri), his presence, thanks to that simple act of generosity, ensuring the marauding Arapahoes spare their lives. At the fort, a deserter is being whipped on the orders of martinet English commander Col Valois (John Mills). A patrol has failed to return so Valois won’t let the newcomers leave.

Chuka, sympathetic to the situation of the starving Arapahoes, suggests the colonel gives them food and sufficient weapons to allow them to hunt their own food. Veronica, now a widow, turns out to be Chuka’s long-lost love. Romance beckons but his unsavory occupation turns her stomach. Hired gun Chuka is not the only one to exploit need. Major Benson (Louis Hayward), the fort’s second-in-command, has a squaw (Herlinda Del Carmen), trading shelter for sex, stashed away.

Valois convenes a dinner party in honor of his guests – “I miss conversation and the elegance of dining in mixed company” – only to torpedo the occasion by revealing “what a uniform can conceal,” the sins of his officers: Benson a card cheat, Lt Daly (Gerald York) court-martialed for treason, the company doctor a coward. An arrow through the window ends dinner prematurely, Chuka demonstrating his skills in shooting the perpetrators.

Bit of artistic license here – Luciana Paluzzi is buttoned up all the way, no naked back,
and Rod Taylor is not quite so athletic.

Honor plays no part in Chuka’s life and he refuses to help out Valois unless paid $200, enough he thinks to start life afresh with Veronica, and only after a knockdown no-holds-barred fight with faithful Sgt Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine), the only man on the post who doesn’t despise Valois – an upper-class stranger in a  strange land – prevents Chuka leaving in any case.

On a scouting mission, Chuka finds the patrol strung up and a massive Arapaho war party on the verge of attack. He returns to a mutiny, led by Benson, quelled by a single shot by Valois, the first time, it transpires, he has killed a man.  In a very moving speech, Hahnsbach reveals that Valois saved his life, but in consequence was tortured and castrated. Benson turns out to have a very soft spot for his squaw, feelings naturally unreciprocated. Valois refuses Chuka’s entreaty to abandon the fort, leaving the supplies and guns behind, but saving the lives of everyone.

This time it’s the Native Americans who exhibit the strategic martial skill. It doesn’t end well. And here’s no stirring music to comfort the audience. Defeat here is raw, none of the manufactured heroics of The Alamo (1960) or The Wild Bunch (1969).

Sure, I expected a tad more action, but in its place was a more than satisfying drama that honed to the reality of the American West, a pitiless region exploited by the pitiless. The rule of authority doesn’t just commit commanding officers to suicidal action, it also condemns civilians like Veronica, who flees her home rather than confronting her father over another forced marriage.

The ranks of the U.S. Cavalry – beatified by the likes of John Ford for whom occasional drunkenness and a fondness for fisticuffs were the only sins – must in reality, like armies the world over, have been filled with the scum of the earth, wanted men, killers, thieves and vagabonds, using new identities to escape their past. As if the best source of recruitment was characters on a par with The Dirty Dozen. While Valois and Hahnsbach believe they have whipped the men into shape, there wouldn’t be any whipping of deserters if that were true.

Valois the martinet certainly has parallels with the commanding officer of Tunes of Glory (1960), also played by John Mills, on the verge of a nervous breakdown  as a result of his war experience. And we are led to believe that Valois is as “guilty” as the rest of the outfit when, in fact, he keeps his heroism hidden. Hahnsbach begins with an impersonation of Victor McLaglen, John Ford’s high priest of rowdiness, but he also reveals hidden depths.

This is Rod Taylor reinvented, far removed from the romantic charmer of the Doris Day comedies or the tough hero of The Mercenaries/Dark of the Sun (1968). And Taylor, himself, was very much responsible for bringing this laid-back but deadly gunslinger to the screen. He was the film’s producer, had an uncredited hand in the screenplay, redefining the role as he saw fit. And it was an audacious character to put on the screen. The gunslingers of The Magnificent Seven bemoaned their lot, lack of family, wives, emotional baggage, but they didn’t bring the Revisionist Western to life.

And although Clint Eastwood would put a different spin on the hired gun, the Leone films were not released in the U.S. until after this was made so would not have influenced the production. As well as sharing his food with the starving Arapaho, Taylor ensures his character puts their case in straightforward language.

And a sense of foreboding, courtesy of the opening scenes, hangs over the whole enterprise, and part of the skill of director Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, 1966) is to lull us into a false sense of security, that somehow the main characters will escape the foretold destiny. I have mentioned before my surprise that Douglas is treated just as a journeyman director. Sure, his western output can’t be mentioned in the same breath as Ford, Howard Hawks or Sergio Leone, but this is not far off not just for its down’n’dirty attitude to the West, but for some moments of pure cinema. Not only does the ending echo the opening but our introduction to Taylor, via an aerial shot, echoes our last image of him, in both cases eyes gazing upwards in apprehension.

The dinner party scene is quite superb, and Mills goes from hidebound martinet to sympathetic character, his wistfulness as he recalls wooing women in the past likely to stay in the memory, as does his reaction to shooting the mutineer, while Borgnine’s recollection of Mills’ heroism is beautifully done, Borgnine, too, morphing from cliché bully to proper  character. In another film, a star of Taylor’s caliber would have fought for a happy ending, but every opportunity for one, Taylor and Paluzzi scampering off into the sunset, for example, or being reconciled, is denied.

Good to see Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball, 1965) in a more interesting role and Victoria Vetri (credited here as Angela Dorian), prior to her Playboy fame, is given the chance to play a more rounded character than when she went down the Raquel Welch route in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). Richard Jessup (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) wrote the taut screenplay based on his own novel.

Couple of minor quibbles – why doesn’t the window break when an arrow comes through it but shatters when Chuka jumps out, how come the Native Americans have enough guns to launch a major attack on the fort but not enough to hunt for food? But those are very minor points.

Very worth seeing.

Behind the Scenes: “The Collector” (1965)

Director William Wyler was “saved,” to use the term preferred by his biographer Jan Herman, from what turned out to be the biggest picture of all time (up till then) The Sound of Music (1965) by a piece of door-stepping by two determined young producers who presented him with a pre-publication copy of John Fowles’ novel The Collector.

Wyler had been well down the pre-production route for The Sound of Music. It was he who hired Julie Andrews, having seen her performance on Broadway in My Fair Lady, and been granted access to the rushes of Mary Poppins (1964). While he was an odd choice to direct, being more of an opera buff and hard of hearing, he would later nurse Funny Girl (1967) to box office and critical acclaim.

While instinct told the German-born director that The Sound of Music “would be a success” he was troubled that it was set in Austria at a time just before World War Two when the country was mostly whole-heartedly welcoming the Nazis. “I can’t bear to make a picture about all those nice Nazis,” he said.

So when novice producers Jud Kinberg and John Kohn, television writers who had set up Blazer Films, brought him what would turn out to be a sensational bestseller, actor Terence Stamp already under contract and a deal in place with Columbia, turned up on Wyler’s doorstep with a completed screenplay they gave him a reason to pull out of The Sound of Music. He ignored the screenplay in favor of devouring the book.

“I couldn’t put the book down and I’m a man who can put down books very easily,” he said. While not so enamoured of the screenplay by Stanley Mann, he signed up, and although since the 1950s he had either officially or unofficially acted as producer on his own movies, he agreed to allow Kinberg and Kohn to do the job this time, as long as they did not interfere with direction and that he, of course, had final say.

Despite critical acclaim for Billy Budd (1962), a part he won ahead of the likes of Warren Beatty, Terence Stamp had not made a film since, and begun to doubt whether he was cut out for stardom. He wasn’t short of media attention – the various women he squired seemingly all the time made sure of that – but he was distinctly lacking in movie offers.

He took on the role of the deranged Freddie – even though he loathed the character – primarily because he had no other choice. “I hadn’t gotten any new work in roughly a year,” he explained. “I knew the camera loved me, so I had confidence in that. But I just thought this Freddie character was beyond me.” And once Wyler was signed, Stamp felt he would not come up to the director’s high standards. Told that Wyler had no objections to his casting, the still dubious actor asked to take part in the screen tests the director was holding for actresses hoping to win the role of Miranda, the female lead, partly to feel his way into the part and partly to give Wyler an opportunity to fire him if he wasn’t up to the mark.

Without the director being present, he tested with Sarah Miles, whom he had played opposite in Term of Trial (1962) and Samantha Eggar (Doctor in Distress, 1963). Once Wyler saw the footage, with Stamp clad in his own notion of the character’s clothing he expressed his confidence in the actor and told him, “I’m not going to make the book. I’m going to make a modern love story.”

Samantha Eggar was fired three weeks into rehearsals, undermined by just how good Stamp was, unable in her inexperience to cope with his “nasty attitude,” a deliberate decision by the actor, remaining in character during shooting, in part because they had attended drama school together where he had a crush on her and could not allow himself to feel inferior to her. Although his character worshipped her in one sense, his level of entitlement made him feel superior to her in another.

It turned out Stamp was following Wyler’s instructions. The director didn’t want Stamp and Eggar mixing off-set. The actor was to be as cold to her in real life as the character was in the film.

There had been enormous press coverage over Eggar being chosen, one of those Gone with the Wind-style star hunts of which Hollywood was so fond, so the press would leap at the news that she had departed the picture without shooting a scene. Wyler, in the meantime, pursued Natalie Wood (Splendor in the Grass, 1961), a far more accomplished actress and certainly not going to be dominated on screen, or in real life for that matter, by the likes of Stamp. Columbia production head honcho Mike Frankovich intervened on Eggar’s behalf, a script read-through was arranged, and Eggar was back in, on condition she agreed to an acting coach, Kathleen Freeman, of Wyler’s choosing.

But it wasn’t just the humiliation of working with a coach – although Marilyn Monroe famously employed a coach, she was scorned for relying on one – that Eggar had to put up with. Eggar wasn’t permitted to leave the set during the day, or eat with the rest of the cast, forcing her to remain in the daunting isolation of her character.  

“He wanted her in a constant state of terror and that’s really very difficult to act,” revealed  Stamp, who agreed to conspire with the director to drag out of her the performance of her life. It felt to Stamp that they were torturing the young actress even if that extended to no more on his part than giving her the cold shoulder.

Wyler went further. He wanted her to feel defenceless. During the rain sequence, she had a bucket of water thrown in her face so she was absolutely drenched. And while her travails were not much compared to what, for example, Kate Winslet endured on Titanic, it has been viewed as yet another example of a director bullying a young actress.

I’m not so sure about that, to be honest. The scene called for Eggar to be soaked to the skin and whatever way that occurred she would need to be absolutely drenched. Whether she believed a gentle shower of rain from a sprinkler would achieve the same effect is unknown and you might consider whether Wyler took the bucket approach because he believed her incapable of registering the required look of shock.

It transpired that Eggar hadn’t a clue, beyond checking his credits, who Wyler was. She hadn’t been allowed to visit the cinema until she was 18. And “had no knowledge…of the history of film.” Directors scarcely made the gossip pages and the flurry of biographies and critical appreciations were a few decades away. And minus VHS or DVD there was no way to easily lay your hands on a director’s back catalogue. “I was very ignorant,” she admitted, “of the position that he held as a Hollywood icon.” It’s entirely possible she never even saw Ben-Hur, for she has never mentioned doing so.    

During the love scene, she was kept nude while Stamp had his clothes on. “I kept wondering why I had to stand there with no clothes on when they were only shooting me from the waist up.” (And in keeping with the Production Code rules, no nudity was shown on screen). Eggar wondered if perhaps Wyler, who had a reputation as a ladies man and enjoying dalliances during shooting with some of his actresses, had taken a fancy to her. But he showed no signs of making any moves or even making the kind of remark that suggested he was in love with her, or ogling her body. It was just another device to keep her in character. (Thought it might have been better all round if she had been given some say in this approach.)  

On the other hand, Wyler clearly went out of his way to help her. He reversed his own decision to use her. To help her remain in character and develop her role, ridding her gradually of the confidence she exuded in her earlier scenes, Wyler shot the film in sequence, as unusual a method in Hollywood as the other techniques mentioned here. And when a photographer hid in the gantry to get a shot of Eggar in the nude, Wyler raced to her defence, ripping the camera from the intruder’s hand, destroying the film and throwing the man out.

A later decision in the editing room enhanced her performance without the actress having to express single emotion, speak an extra line or give another look. The script called for her character to remember her lover, using his image to see her through her ordeal. But Wyler completely cut out actor Kenneth More playing the lover, leaving in just one shot of the back of his head, so that instead of appearing to rely on that memory and those feelings to  combat the situation, she was presented instead as woman of great resilience. “It’s love keeping her alive,” Eggar would later say.

And there’s certainly no sense that Wyler was dissatisfied with her performance. However, like Stamp, she doubted her own skill. “At first I just felt I couldn’t do it. It took me five weeks to get on Wyler’s wavelength. When it’s over you realise you have done the best you could do. It’s very satisfying for an actress.”

Stamp saw a different side to Wyler. He recalls a director who didn’t even call “action.” He would “simply roll his hand” in order not to disturb an actor’s concentration. Unless, of course, an actor was not up to the mark: Maurice Dallimore, who played the nosy neighbor, felt the rough edge of the director’s tongue when he could not manage the necessary English accent.  

Originally, Wyler intended to shoot the film in black-and-white. But when the cinematographer did a black-and-white test of Eggar he also did a color one that captured the magnificence of her red hair and skin. Wyler had feared that color would act as a distraction and “could be phony, exaagerated.” Except for some establishing shots in Britain, the picture was shot in Hollywood. The scene with the bathwater running down the stairs was not in the book and of course Wyler took quite a different approach to the novelist. Even so, John Fowles appeared pleased with the result.

Stamp changed his views of Wyler. Initially, he told Roger Ebert, “I don’t go much for Wyler.” But, contacted by Jan Herman for the Wyler biography, he claimed Wyler and Fellini were the two best directors he had ever worked with. “It was one of the great experiences of my life. He was just wonderful in a way I’ve never come across before,” he told Brian Raven Ehrenpreis.

SOURCES: Jan Herman, William Wyler, A Talent for Trouble (Da Capo Press, 1997) p418-428; Roger Ebert,  “Interview with Terence Stamp,” New York Times, June 12, 1968; Brian Raven Ehrenpreis, “Get Your Sword!”, www.thequietus.com , August 25, 2018; “Collecting Life, An iIterview with Samantha Eggar, www.terrortrap.com ; Kathleen Carroll, “Redhead Mad for Pink,” New York Daily News, June 20, 1965.

In Harm’s Way (1965) *****

Preminger at a peak, the more I watch this picture, not just the more impressed I become but the more I want to watch it again – three times, as it happens, for this review. A tale of heroism populated by morally wounded heroes, the undertone of critique for the Naval establishment dealt with in brilliant narrative fashion, terrific pacing, one of John Wayne’s very best performances, Kirk Douglas not far behind, great action scenes, and one of the few movies to fulfil this director’s original intent.

You can, of course, argue that it’s the height of political PR. Just as the Americans managed with The Alamo and the British with Dunkirk, the aim was to turn defeat into victory, so this moves beyond the humiliation of Pearl Harbor to the victories beyond. But in some sense Pearl Harbor is just the prologue to a stiffer examination of men at war, rather than sailors taken to task over the complacency that left them so open to cataclysmic attack.

And while there’s a number of sub-plots, these are more expertly handled than I can recall in many another lengthy big-budget picture, no endless cutting between major and minor characters, but the minor characters only entering the frame when they have a dramatic part to play.

Captain “Rock” Rockwell (John Wayne) falls foul of his superiors for basically being in command of a ship sunk by a torpedo. On a technical point, he’s stripped of command, and reduced to a desk job, a casualty of the peace-time hierarchy determined to find someone to blame, only returning to active duty – and promoted to Admiral – when more war-oriented figures are put in charge.

The desk job gives him time to romance feisty nurse Lt. Maggie Haines (Patricia Haines) who has the cojones to take charge of the budding relationship. She happens to share an apartment with another nurse, the much younger Ensign Annalee Dorne (Jill Dorne) who is dating entitled Ensign Jeremiah Torrey (Brandon de Wilde), Rock’s estranged son.

Jeremiah works for slimy glory-hunter Commander Neal Owynn (Patrick O’Neal), a former U.S. Congressman using his political skills to worm his way into the office of by-the-book Vice Admiral Brodick (Dana Andrews). Rock shares his apartment with Commander Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), a thrice-married playboy, high up in Navy intelligence.

Rock’s second-in-command is Commander – junior to a captain in case you don’t understand the U.S. Navy ranking system – Paul Eddington, a hothead whose mourning for dead wife Liz (Barbara Bouchet) results in him also being reduced to a desk job and exiled to the Pacific. On the fringes of the story are Lt. Commander “Mac” MacConnell (Tom Tryon) and pregnant wife Beverley (Paula Prentiss).

How all these characters enmesh is the consequence of a quite brilliant screenplay by Wendell Hayes (Advise and Consent, 1962). Rockwell and Eddington both seek redemption, the former to prove his Naval worth and regain the affection of his son, the latter to absolve himself for his terrible actions.

You can always tell the hero in war films because they are so rarely a physical casualty of war, all the others are killed and wounded but hardly ever the hero, so it takes something for the Hollywood Hero of the Century to play a character who is wounded not once but twice, and for the early part of the picture walks around with his arm in his sling (not quite an echo of the way he holds his arm in The Searchers, but evoking the same internal conflict).

The only supposed out-and-out hero is MacConnell, but his inaction at the beginning of the movie fails to prevent the death of Eddington’s wife. And his heroism largely takes place off-screen and it’s worth noting that Rock doesn’t raise a rifle or pistol in anger (or even get into a punch-up as was the actor’s wont in other films). Being in charge he’s removed from the core action even if suffering the consequences of battle. In a marvellous touch of irony, Rockwell is the most passive hero to hit the screen. It’s an incredibly bold and self-confident director who would even think of luring audiences into an action picture starring the Hero of the Century and then denying him a single moment of screen glory.

Much has been written about the cinematic arc John Ford took in the beginning and ending of The Searchers, the symbolic opening and closing of doors, but since Preminger is long out of critical favor nobody’s has bothered to notice how much of this film concerns cinematic echo.

To take the most obvious example, the first witnesses of the airborne Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are illicit pair Liz Eddington and her paramour (Hugh O’Brian) and towards the end it’s her husband Paul, by this point guilty of horrendous behaviour, who leads the airborne fightback against the enemy.

A beach – where Liz and escort make love – is how the director initially pushes the audience towards sympathising with the drunken Eddington. A beach is where we later learn to despise him, as he brutally rapes Ensign Dorne. And it doesn’t take much to work out that his wife’s exuberant wildness explains Eddington’s initial attraction to her, not realising that psychologically it provides him with an excuse for his own darker wildness, initially restricted to self-destruction but when it truly emerges it’s to the detriment of an innocent.

And that’s before we get on to Rockwell as the messenger of death, delivering the bad news to wives, and then being on the receiving end after his son dies in battle. And finally, the political peace-time high-ups get their come-uppance in actual war.

It’s insulting – as some have suggested – that the performance of John Wayne (The Hellfighters, 1968) is the result of undiagnosed cancer when in fact this is a finely nuanced role of a high-ranking figure living out in his life in regret, at times quite shamefaced about abandoning his son at a very early age. Preminger cracked down on Wayne’s habit of splitting his lines in two, so those typical pauses we have come to expect are in large part gone, and it helps the movie’s pacing. For most of the movie the character is saddled with consequence. That passivity that the director saw as essential to the role is virtually present all the time.

Preminger wrings a different performance, too, from Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968), equally laden with regret, but not enough to prevent him lashing out and the actor is accorded two quite stunning scenes, the first as he broods in silence over his wife, but for the second, prior to raping Ensign Dorne, the stone-cold look on his face suggests a serial killer held at bay for too long and now about to explode.

Burgess Meredith (Hurry Sundown, 1967) is another brought to directorial heel, his more common scene-stealing and vowel-stretching also eliminated, but in exchange given a larger-than-life character on which to expend screen energy. The entire cast is good-to-excellent and it’s jam-packed: Patricia Neal (Hud, 1962), Tom Tryon (The Cardinal, 1964), Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1963), Brandon De Wilde (Shane, 1953), Jill Haworth (Exodus, 1960), Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965), Franchot Tone (Advise and Consent, 1962), Patrick O’Neal (Stiletto, 1969), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), Henry Fonda (Battle of the Bulge, 1965), Barbara Bouchet (Danger Route, 1967) and Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, 1964) Many of the supporting cast were also playing against type – Prentiss as the young wife falling to pieces, Andrews and O’Neal as slippery political types, Holloway  a guerrilla, and perhaps most interesting off Neal, not the typical woman left behind when the man goes off to war but, in her role as nurse, entering harm’s way herself.

And despite criticism of the miniatures used in sea scenes while that might have been obvious on the big screen you don’t notice it on the small screen. The action  scenes are very well-done for the time, and quite unusual in that by and large it’s the Americans who appear shell-shocked not the enemy.

Cramming this much narrative into the overall arch of Pearl Harbor and retaliation against the Japanese, while bringing so many different characters to the fore with clear dramatic purpose is an amazing achievement, screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Advise and Consent) doing the heavy lifting in this department.

But Preminger the director is very much to the fore, in his composition and use of the camera for long tracking shots (a particular favorite of mine) such as at the beginning. A riveting watch full of splendid acting. Shooting it in black-and-white might have at one time appeared to date the picture but instead it has rendered it ageless. Five stars without a doubt.

Tunes of Glory (1960) ****

Fans of Succession will appreciate this power struggle in a Scottish army regiment set in 1948. In a reverse of The Godfather (1972) where the Corleones complain about needing a “wartime consigliore,” here the powers-that-be have decided this unnamed distinctly Highlander company requires a commanding officer with skills more appropriate to peace time.

Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) has been in charge of the battalion since the North Africa campaign in World War Two when the original commander was killed. But he has never been promoted to full Lt. Col. Naturally, having been in charge for six years, he feels the job should be his. At a time when the currency of command was wartime experience he’s less than pleased when he loses out to Col. Barrow (John Mills) who spent most of the war as a Japanese POW.

It doesn’t help that they are complete opposites. Sinclair is a tough, hard-drinking, attention-seeking Scotsman who enlisted as an ordinary soldier and rose through the ranks winning two medals for courage during the conflict. Barrow is Oxford-educated English upper-class, a lecturer at Sandhurst Military Academy, and recalls his war experience with terror rather than the braggadocio of Sinclair. Worse, he doesn’t drink.

It doesn’t take long for the pair to clash. Sinclair, who has ruled as much by preying on weakness as force of personality, is quick to start to look for flaws in his opponent’s make-up. Barrow feels discipline has been slipping and enforces tougher measures. That might make him unpopular but an army is built on discipline so soldiers can hardly complain.

But Barrow slips up by misreading the men. He chooses the worst of all issues to make a stand. For the first post-war official barracks party, Barrow insists the soldiers embark on traditional Highland dancing in regulation fashion rather than in their normal exuberant, not to say rowdy, manner. The soldiers are infuriated when Barrow insists they take lessons.

He has just lit the fuse. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. Barrow is humiliated, Sinclair triumphant. But victory does not turn out the way Sinclair expected.

Somewhat cynical rebranding of the film in Italy as “Whisky and Glory,” possibly trying to cash in on the success of “Whisky Galore” and also misleading in suggesting actual conflict with the fighting in the background.

The main thrust of the narrative, as you might expect, is the stand-off between Sinclair and Barrow and the tensions felt all round, as would be the case in any business (Succession, now, of course the classic example) when a new boss takes control. While everyone might expect, and perhaps fear, change, in the military (as in the navy) there is always the danger, should the new broom try to sweep too clean, of mutiny.

This might not amount to a raising of arms. But there are other effective methods of mounting opposition – laxity, questioning or outright refusal to obey orders – or giving the new chief the cold shoulder. Here, in the background, are other simmering tensions. Not everyone is comfortable with Sinclair’s very laddish approach to command, the back-stabbing and double-dealing Major Charles Scott (Dennis Price) ready to pounce at any opportunity.

Sinclair is also having to deal with his daughter Morag (Susannah York) asserting her independence, having the temerity not just to take a boyfriend, Corporal Fraser (John Fraser), but one from the ranks rather than the officer class. And he feels the harsh tongue of his own paramour Mary (Kay Walsh).

Emotional isolation is rarely commented upon in matters of the armed forces and yet it is so much a driving force. If not adequately compensated by camaraderie, a man at the top can be very lonely indeed, and prone to the most vicious self-torment.

Director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) superbly invokes an army atmosphere away from the more usual battleground backdrop. The picture is anchored by brilliant performances all round and a roll-call of strong supporting characters. An unflinching look at power, especially leadership and the personal toll it takes. And it was astonishing that the movie could hit the target so well without relying on the usual round of sex, violence or that old stand-by the comic subordinate. It also probes the issues of what happens – in any industry – when the wrong person is put in charge. No less an authority than Alfred Hitchcock called it “one of the best films ever made.”

The sparring between Oscar-winning Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1966), who won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival for this role, is of the highest quality. Dennis Price (The Comedy Man, 1964) is the pick of the support while Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) makes an auspicious debut.

Few films could boast a better supporting cast: former British leading lady Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965), Gordon Jackson (The Ipcress File, 1965), Duncan Macrae (Best of Enemies, 1961), John Fraser (Tamahine, 1963), Gerard Harper (Adam Adamant Lives!, 1966-1967, TV series) and Peter McEnery (The Moon-Spinners, 1964).

James Kennaway (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.

Fathom (1967) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could probably determine something about national character from the color of costume different countries chose to show Raquel Welch in.

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

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

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

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

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

Book into Film: A Girl Called Fathom by Larry Forrester (1967)

The blurb gives the game away. The British paperback published by Pan went: “She was blonde. She was beautiful, she was six foot tall. She’d killed the man who had dragged her to the lowest depths of addiction and lust.” The American Fawcett Gold Medal paperback was more succinct: “lady by birth, tramp by occupation and murderess by design.”

If any of that rings a bell, it was not from the film Fathom (1967) starring Raquel Welch which chose to ignore her background and her venomous skillset. The novel opens with the heroine killing a man in cold blood. He had promised her a film career but turned her into a call girl and heroin addict. Her father, now dead, was in the British secret service.  Once she has committed her first murder, she is immediately kidnapped by a secret organization (C.E.L.T.S. – Counter Espionage Long-Term Security) and trained to become an even more ruthless government-sanctioned killing machine.

Larry Forrester was a Scottish television scriptwriter who had worked on a stack of British series such as Whirligig (1953), Ivanhoe (1958) and No Hiding Place (1960-1964) before publishing his first novel A Girl Called Fathom. His sole screenplay was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) after which he concentrated on U.S. television including episodes of Fantasy Island (1980-1983) and Hart to Hart (1983-1984).   

A Girl Called Fathom is split into two. Comprising roughly two-fifths of the book, the first section concentrates on her brutal training and on getting her off drugs. There’s a fair amount of sexual intrigue not to mention sex. But also a lover’s betrayal.  For the final part of her training she is abandoned in the middle of nowhere in scorching heat and barely makes it home. “She had passed over a great divide. She was empty, hard – dehumanized. Alone. She would always be alone.” And then she is forced to kill again.

As was common with this kind of book in the 1960s, it was fast-moving and globe-trotting with plenty of realistic detail to offset the preposterous plot. For the remainder of the book, which shifts location to Europe, Fathom is up against an organization called W.A.R. (World of Asian Revolution) which aims to destabilize the existing world order. Her arch enemy is an American-born Soviet agent (and whip and knife expert) Jo Soon (who turns up in the film Fathom in slightly different form as Jo-May). Fathom’s team must protect French elder statesman Paul-Auguste Valmier whose playboy son Damon (who fantasizes about burning people alive), a friend from her past, is her main contact.

The book is peopled by interesting and occasionally outrageous characters – for example Tin (shades of Iron Man), who has hardly a human bone left in his body; the far-from-harmless Aunt Elspeth; and a sadistic colleague who loves her but dare not let his emotions out lest he loose on her his love of pain. The central plot is driven by a mass of twists and turns, heroine endangerment, fights with knife and gun and fist, traitors (naturally) and the clever idea of killing off the leaders of the free world with a bomb hidden in the coffin of a man worthy of a state funeral being held in Paris.

At the end she is counting the human cost of victory and sees herself as one of the walking wounded, a reject, driven from the herd. The film was apparently based on an unpublished sequel so it’s conceivable that the plot concerning the Chinese heirloom was pulled from that in its entirety. But even so the film’s heroine was neutered, not a patch on the ruthless killer with a sordid past outlined in A Girl Called Fathom.

On the Fiddle / Operation Snafu (1961) ***

Unassuming but undeniably charming British World War Two comedy denied U.S. release until four years later when a savvy distributor jumped on the James Bond bandwagon. Primarily of interest these days for the opportunity to see a pre-Bond Sean Connery (Dr No, 1962) in action its merit chiefly lies in ploughing the same furrow, though with a great deal less pomposity and self-consciousness, as the later The Americanization of Emily (1964), of the coward backing into heroism.

Horace Pope (Alfred Lynch) is a scam merchant who only dodges prison by enlisting. Assigned to the RAF he teams up with Pedlar Pascoe (Sean Connery) and they embark on a series of schemes designed to keep them as far away from the front line as possible. It’s hardly an equal partnership, Pope dreams up the fiddles while Pascoe just falls in with them. It’s not dumb and dumber but a collaboration that goes no further back in the annals of movies than brain and brawn.

Needless to say, the movie lacks the the damsels in bikinis which were a prerequisite of the Bond pictures. Sean Connery takes top billing Stateside where he was originally behind Lynch.

It’s certainly a cynical number, reflecting the boredom experienced by many of the Armed Forces backroom staff, the administrators whose inefficiency turns them into easy dupes, and the determination of soldiers to take advantage of every opportunity to bend the rules. It takes the unusual position of presenting the ordinary soldier as smart and every officer as a numbskull, an approach that would only have been possible 15 years after the war ended and in marked contrast to the determined heroism of other British war films – such intrepid stiff-upper-lip behavior a hallmark of the British version of the genre.

First stop is to run an operation issuing leave passes – for a price – and the sheer effrontery exhibited by Pope is a joy to behold. Next up is selling stolen meat on the black market.

While Pedlar is the wide-eyed camp follower, and more likely to forever sit on the sidelines, cheerful but shy, and only a few pratfalls away from being a bumbling idiot, they do make a good team. Being sent to France is more of a heaven-sent opportunity to increase their bankrolls than a hazardous wartime mission as Pope sells rations to the French. Eventually, of course, their various scams are rumbled and they are forced into battle.

The only thing better than one pre-Bond Connery picture is two.

The movie switches a bit more deftly into serious mode than the aforementioned The Americanization of Emily mostly because these are actual soldiers trained to be soldiers rather than an officer who landed a cushy number and whose main effort is to avoid combat. War is presented as horrific rather than comedy and it must have been the same experience for an ordinary soldier at the time, after months of inactivity suddenly thrust into the cauldron.

The picture moves at a brisk pace and is continually amusing if not particularly laugh-out-loud. You’ve probably seen most of the set-ups before but they are reinvented with an appealing freshness and briskness  As a bonus there’s reams of British character actors and comedians – plus token American Alan King (who would appear in Connery starrer The Anderson Tapes, 1971) – along the way. The term “snafu” in case you’re interested, has a similar meaning to the “fubar” of Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Alfred Lynch (The Hill, 1965) doesn’t milk the Cockney patter overmuch and he’s got a greater international screen appeal than the likes of the more English Sid James (Carry On films) or Norman Wisdom. Think a shiftier Sgt Bilko, if the Phil Silvers creation could be any more untrustworthy.

Connery’s performance is well worth a watch as a prelude to what was to come once his roles were tailor-made. He is an effortless scene-stealer, gifted in expressing emotion through his eyes, and although verbally Lynch dominates it’s difficult to take your eyes off Connery.

The roll-call of character actors includes Cecil Parker (A Study in Terror, 1965), Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, 1964), John Le Mesurier (The Moon-Spinners, 1964), Graham Stark (The Wrong Box, 1966) and Victor Maddern (The Lost Continent, 1968).

Cyril Frankel (The Trygon Factor, 1966) comfortably cobbles this together from a screenplay by Harold Buchman (The Lawyer, 1970, and who had ironically enough penned the picture Snafu in 1945) based on the novel Stop at a Winner by R.F. Delderfield.

When the box office supremacy of the Bond pictures was underscored by the reissue of the Dr No/From Russia with Love double bill in 1965, distributors, as had been their wont, racked the vaults for anything featuring Connery that could be re-sold to a willing public.    

While there is a readily available DVD, this turns up on a regular basis, in Britain at least, on television.

Harlow (1965) ***

Harlow presents such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse that I was astonished to discover that it was not entirely truthful where the title character was concerned.

Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true). But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.

The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.

No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before rescued by agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons). After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she geta a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.

However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother Jean (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather Marino (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for studio chief Everett (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.

But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City

Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script based on the book by Arthur Landau and Irving Shulman.

In the title role Carroll Baker (Sylvia) has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966) excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Raf Vallone (Nevada Smith, 1966) is the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast that also includes Angela Lansbury (In the Cool of the Day, 1963), Peter Lawford (Sylvia), Leslie Nielsen (Beau Geste, 1966), Martin Balsam (Seven Days in May, 1964) and Mike Connors (Stagecoach, 1966).

Except that virtually none of the movie is true, I would have given it four stars for its portrayal of Hollywood but I have come to expect that biopics, while moving facts around for dramatic purposes, are required to be good more faithful to their subjects than this. 

Seven Thieves (1960) ****

You wouldn’t figure director Henry Hathaway for a caper movie. He seemed more at home with action, whether that be war (The Desert Fox, 1951), adventure (Legend of the Lost, 1957) or western (Nevada Smith, 1966) although he was a dab hand at film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947). And before the big-budget all-star Oceans 11 entered the equation in the same year as Seven Thieves – and stole much of its thunder – the heist movie ran mostly on B-movie steam such as Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).

And probably judged against other glossy efforts of the 1960s like Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1967) Seven Thieves would appear on the surface to come up a bit short. No doubt accounting for it being so under-rated. But while this is in itself a neat little thriller the kick comes in the emotional entanglements and a succession of twists at the end that sends it in my book into a higher category.

And it’s so outrageously clever that the mystery of why French-based criminal mastermind Theo Wilkins  (Edward G. Robinson) would reach out across the Atlantic Ocean to recruit former jailbird Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) to spearhead the heist of a cool four million dollars from a Monte Carlo casino is not resolved until the end, and in spectacular fashion.

Technically, there are actually only six thieves, the other is an inside man, Raymond (Alexander Scourby), who has fallen for the seductive charms of nightclub dancer Melanie (Joan Collins). Making up the rest of the septet are safe cracker Louis (Michael Dante) and muscle-cum-driver Hugo (Berry Kroeger) with Poncho (Eli Wallach) playing the key role of the pretend crippled, arrogant, irascible millionaire – and contrary to the claims of one poster he is the decoy not Melanie.

Distrust of his team makes Theo bring in Paul, who ruthlessly knocks them into shape, putting into seamless action the plan devised by Theo. Simply put, Poncho is going to act as a distraction by having a heart attack at the gambling table while Paul and Louis climb out a window along a ledge to the casino director’s flat which provides, by means of an elevator, direct access to the underground vaults. Once they’ve stolen the cash, they clamber back along the ledge and hide in the flat where, by this time, Theo, playing the role of Poncho’s personal physician, has taken him. The money will be hidden in Poncho’s wheelchair and removed to a waiting ambulance.

But Paul is a rather suspicious character and wants to know what he’s letting himself in for so in turn works out the weaknesses of his team. Melanie hides behind a façade of high birth, Pancho is too reckless, “measuring danger only in terms of profit,” Hugo prone to unnecessary violence, while Louis has omitted to mention he is terrified of heights, the ledge on which the operation depends standing on a 100ft high cliff.   

In some posters, this was promoted as Al Capone (Steiger)
vs Little Caesar (Robinson).

The plan relies on Poncho actually appearing to be dead, so dead that the casino director (Sebastian Cabot) will not hesitate, at Theo’s insistence, to shift him out of sight of the rest of the gamblers into his flat. But Complication No 1 is that Poncho doesn’t want to be dead, even if it is a ruse, skeptical of Theo’s plan to convincingly knock him out by means of a carefully measured dose of cyanide. Complication No 2 is that a night club client recognizes Melanie and casts doubt on her credentials as a lady of quality. Complication No 3 is that English physician Dr Halsey (Alan Caillou) questions whether Poncho is as dead as he seems.

But such complications are nothing compared an extraordinary range of twists that raise tension sky-high at the movie’s denouement. I challenge you to guess what these three superbly-conceived twists would be, all of them one by one turning the project on its head, and it rapidly shifts from one direction to another, ending with an unbelievable – and yet so in keeping with the premise – climax.

Attention to character detail lifts this out of the rut, whether it be Theo’s penchant for collecting seashells, Paul resplendent in a white suit, Melanie resisting the blandishments of becoming a kept woman, Raymond trying to climb out the murky depths into which the lure of Melanie has taken him, and a series of subtle relationships, some developing through the robbery, others which began long before the heist working themselves out.

The heist itself is well done, tension kept constant mostly through the failings of the crew and the suspicions of the dupes. All in all an excellent picture.

This was a critical film in the careers of most of the cast. Edward G. Robinson (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) was handed his first top-billed role in four years. It was a deliberate change of pace for Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker, 1964). For Eli Wallach, best known at the time for stage work, it was the first of three films that year that would launch him into the higher ranks of top supporting stars; it was followed by The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits. After being leading lady to the likes of Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, this spelled the end of Twentieth Century Fox’s belief in Joan Collins’ star qualities while for Michael Dante (The Naked Kiss, 1964) it was a step up.

Wallach and Dante could be accused of over-acting but Robinson, Steiger and Collins all act against type with considerable effect. Hathaway does a superb job working from a script by Sydney Boehm (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) based on the Max Catto bestseller.

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