The Vulture (1966) **

The notion that the presence of Oscar-winning Broderick Crawford or that a bunch of expository scenes will divert audiences away from the lack of decent special effects, or story for that matter, comes sadly unstuck. There’s so much exposition that at times it feels like an audio book rather than a piece of cinema. The one great image – a skeleton in  laboratory – is treated with disdain. Not only has it “cult” written all over it but it must be a contender for the all-time “So Bad It Hasn’t A Hope Of Being Good” Award,

Which is a shame because on paper at least this might have sounded passable what with atomic transmutation, hidden treasure, grave-robbing, remote location, strange noises in the night, an incident in the 15th century, man buried alive, eerie tapping on windows, a creepy Church sexton, and a  mythological beast originating from the Incas or Aztecs or even Easter Island.  

But it pivots on the kind of family curse, mysterious past, strange occurrences, that Sherlock Holmes might have been called in to resolve, especially as there seemed an awful lot of explaining to do and it’s easier to hang on to every word of the world’s most famous detective rather than a scientist banging on about the inexplicable. The first two-thirds is taken up with solving the mystery, it’s only in the last section when horror takes over that a genuine sense of tension emerges.

A woman taking a shortcut through a graveyard (as one does) spies a gravestone wobbling, earth erupting in front of her and has visions (enough to make her hair go white) of a huge bird with a man’s head. Visiting nuclear scientist Eric (Robert Hutton) takes an interest. His wife Trudy’s (Diane Clare) uncle Brian (Broderick Crawford) explains the legend of a Spaniard buried alive because he turned himself into a vulture and kidnapped a small child. His buddy, German professor Koniglich (Akim Tamiroff), expands on the story.

Gold coins are found scattered close to the grave. Boys find the bloody leg of a sheep on a beach and there’s a likely unreachable hiding place of a cave in the cliffs. Uncle Brian is of the obstinate variety and refuses to the toe the line and keep his windows firmly closed so he’s next to disappear. But there’s a hungry beast to feed so Brian’s brother Edward (Gordon Sterne) is the next victim. Trudy is despatched out of harm’s way to London but lured back by a mysterious telegram.

Meanwhile, hot on the trail, Eric finds Koniglich’s lair, a laboratory inhabited only by a skeleton, but with his own understanding of the possibilities of atomic science Eric works out the German must have employed nuclear power to fuse man and vulture and set out to wreak revenge.

It was obviously a toss-up between spending the tiny budget on a fading Hollywood star and supporting bad guy actor of some repute rather than on special effects. Quite how, at that time, anyone would have managed a convincing half-man-half-vulture is anybody’s guess and the prospect of making such a creature credibly fly would have been beyond comprehension so sensibly director Lawrence Huntingdon settles for the prospect, showing talons from time to time and letting audience imagination do the rest, and I am sure if you saw this as a child you would be bolting doors and windows.

Robert Hutton (They Came from Beyond Space, 1967) doesn’t have a chance of imposing himself on the picture since he is lumbered by buckets of exposition and supposition. Though he could take a lesson from Broderick Crawford (A House Is Not a Home, 1964) in how to milk a small role. Crawford is something of a clever red herring. Given his screen persona I had expected him to be the bad guy, at the point of his appearance in the picture notions of scientific dexterity not being a prerequisite. Akim Tamiroff (The Liquidator, 1965) plays down his villainous qualities so until we are introduced to his lab, he’s not the obvious bad guy either.

It might have worked better if the audience was filled in on more of the mystery than the investigator, perhaps witnessing Koniglich at least toying with his equipment, maybe making the screen glow the way dodgy scientists were inclined to do.

This was the final film in the 30-year career of director Lawrence Huntingdon (Drums Along the River, 1963) and if he couldn’t manage a swansong of the kind Clark Gable delivered with The Misfits (1960) then I guess the next best thing was a movie for cultists to savor.

The Liquidator (1965) ****

Brilliant premise, brilliant execution, brilliant acting. The best send-ups are driven by their own internal logic and this is no exception: spy boss, known simply as The Chief (Wilfred Hyde White), determines in most un-British fashion to get rid off a mole in the operation by eliminating all potential suspects. Bristling Colonel Mostyn (Trevor Howard) recruits Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) for the job, believing Oakes showed particular gallantry during World War Two, unaware this was pure accident. Oakes is given all the perks of a super spy – fast cars, fashionable apartment – and attracts women in a way that suggest this is also a perk and once realizing that being a killer is outside his comfort zone delegates the dirty work to another hit man Griffen (Eric Sykes).

The sweet life begins to unravel when Oakes takes a weekend abroad with Mostyn’s secretary Iris MacIntosh (Jill St John) and is kidnapped. Forced to battle for survival, another Oakes emerges, a proper killer.  Cue the final section which involves trapping the mole.

Where films featuring Matt Helm and Derek Flint imitated the grand-scale espionage they aimed to spoof, the laughs here come from small-scale observation and attacks on bureaucracy. According to regulations, Oakes’ liaison with MacIntosh is illicit. There is endless paperwork. Apart from an aversion to needless killing, Oakes has terrible fear of flying. Nobody can remember code names or passwords. Oakes’ automobile numberplate is BO 1 (the letters in those days being a standard acronym for “body odor”). It is all logical lunacy. And even when the story gets serious, it follows logic, a ruse, a dupe, a climax pitting resolve against human weakness.

Best of all, the parts appear custom-made for the players. Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963), in his first venture into comedy, displays a knack for the genre without resorting to the slapstick and double takes requisite in the Doris Day pictures to follow. And he is a definite screen charmer.

By this point in his career the screen persona of Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) had been shorn of subtlety. He was generally one choleric snort away from a heart attack. Here, while the narrative pricks his pomposity, he remains otherwise ramrod certain. The audience is in on the joke, but nonetheless his genuine ability as a spy master is not in question. On the other hand Jill St John (Who’s Minding the Store, 1963) is allowed considerable leeway in the subtlety department, as a demure English rose rather than the sexier roles into which she was later typecast.  In some respects British television comedian Eric Sykes is miscast. It is a particular English joke to present him as a killer since on television (in shows unlikely to be shown in America) he was hapless.

And it is worth mentioning Akim Tamiroff whose villainous stock-in-trade is allowed greater depth. David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins, 1964) and Gabriella Licudi (You Must Be Joking!, 1965), have small parts. Aso watch out for future British television stars Derek Nimmo (Oh, Brother, 1968-1970) and John Le Mesurier (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977) as well as Jennifer Jayne (Hysteria,1965) and Betty McDowall (First Men in the Moon, 1964).

Director Jack Cardiff had tried his hand at comedy before with My Geisha (1962) starring Shirley Maclaine but was better known for Oscar-nominated drama Sons and Lovers (1960) and action picture The Long Ships (1964).  John Gardner, who wrote seven books in the Boysie Oakes series, later penned James Bond novels.

It is well worth considering whether The Liquidator would have punctured the success of both Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) and sent spy spoofery in a different direction. It had premiered in the U.K. prior to both but litigation held up its American launch  until long after that pair had gone on to hit box office heights.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog are Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships, Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and Hotel (1967) and Trevor Howard in Operation Crossbow (1965) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

Ocean’s 11 (1960) ***

Heist pictures break down into planning, execution and reprisal. Here the planning stage moves at a leisurely pace, a bit of recruitment, and setting up bitebacks that will cripple the military-precision plan by ex-army buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos of millions of dollars on New Year’s Eve. There’s a bit of reversal, Mr Big (Akim Tamiroff) is a collection of nervous tics, Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) a rich guy seeking financial independence from a possessive mother, Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) having second thoughts about the operation, and Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) trying to win back estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson) who surmises he prefers danger to intimacy. Mostly, it’s repartee between Harmon and Ocean while Foster makes a chump out of his mother’s next potential husband Duke Santos (Cesar Romero).

There’s not much hi-tech about the audacious plan, knocking out the electricity supply to the casinos, the switch to auxiliary power allowing the gang access to the inner sanctum where the cash is held, finding their way in and out of the darkness by nothing more sophisticated than luminous spray paint, and with a clever ruse to get the money out once all hell breaks loose.

The fun starts when one of the team (Richard Conte) drops dead post-raid and it transpires Santos is a big-shot underworld figure who investigates the robbery on behalf of the casinos and starts tracking the gang down, leading to a pay-off you don’t see coming.

Given the comedy element, there’s no great tension but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and Sinatra and Martin display an easy camaraderie that lights up the screen. It could have been funded by the Las Vegas Tourist Bureau so much attention is given to the wonder of the casinos, at a time when gambling was still only otherwise legal on racetracks, and with snippets of floorshows and the deluxe atmosphere. Add in a couple of numbers delivered a couple of times by Dean Martin (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”), legitimately since he is a cocktail bar singer, and Sammy Davis Jr. (“Eee-O-11”), somewhat shoehorned-in given he is a truck driver.

There’s a couple of neat reversals: Ocean’s dumped girlfriend Adele (Patrice Wymore) gets short shrift from Beatrice when she reveals the affair; casino bosses offered a double-or-quits gamble refuse to consider such a dangerous notion. Red Skelton and George Raft have credited cameos, Shirley MacLaine does not. As well as Richard Conte, Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) has a small part as does Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

Although there are on occasion outdated sexist attitudes, there is also a strong anti-racist statement in the hiring of Sammy Davis Jr., showcasing his talents in a big-budget picture, and clearly making the point that he has been welcomed by stars as big as Sinatra and Martin.  

And it’s worth also considering the picture in terms of early-onset brand management.  The “Rat Pack” was a loose group of entertainers which not only became a well-known stand-alone entity in its own right that celebrated what was considered “hip” at the time (assuming you excluded Elvis and his ilk), but as individuals supported each other on television and in live performance. They would make another two pictures as a team and another dozen or so where two or more of the players appeared. The principals were all major attractions at the nascent Las Vegas so they were also promoting their home patch. During the day they made the movie, at night they wove in and out of each others’ acts, creating an entertainment sensation. On top of that, Sinatra had his own record label Reprise – among the early acts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. So, in a sense, all this cross-promotion was money in their pockets.

Also of note are the opening and closing, the former for the credits devised by Saul Bass, the latter for the famous shot later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Ironically, Lewis Milestone, who devised the original shot, and long before that won two Best Director Oscars, is less well regarded these days than Tarantino.

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