Year-End Round-Up: Top 30 Films Chosen by You

Top 30

This isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a c chart of the films viewed the most times over the full calendar year of January 2021 – December 2021.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960). Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack embark on an audacious Las Vegas robbery.  
  3. Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt.
  4. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie  starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. Moment to Moment (1966). Jean Seberg is caught up in a Hitchcockian murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary.
  9. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  10. Once a Thief (1965). Trying to go straight ex-con Alain Delon is coerced into a robbery. Ann-Margret is a revelation as his wife. Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey add up to a great supporting cast.  
  11. Stiletto (1969). Alex Cord as a Mafia hitman wanting to retire is pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland heads a supporting cast which includes Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  12. Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry is called to London to uncover a mole in M.I.5. Joan Collins provides the romance. Richard Todd, Tom Adams, Suzanna Leigh and Michael Rennie lend a touch of class.
  13. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster delivers a superlative performance as a man whose life is falling apart.
  14. The Rock (1996). Blistering thriller starring Sean Connery as an ex-inmate of Alcatraz helping Nicolas Cage infiltrate the island to prevent mad general Ed Harris destroying San Francisco. Michael Bay directs.
  15. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Alain Delon joins forces with Jean Gabin to pull off an daring jewel heist with tenacious cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil.
  16. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  17. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  20. A Twist of Sand (1968). Beleaguered smuggler Richard Johnson spars with Jeremy Kemp in thriller about hidden diamonds in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  21. Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Ray Harryhausen special effects dominate this legendary tale of the hunt for the Golden Fleece.  
  22. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). Disney movie that was turned into a mini-series in the U.S. starring Patrick McGoohan as the eponymous Robin Hood-type character who assists smugglers.
  23. The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021). Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson reunite for wild sequel also featuring Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.
  24. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). Rod Taylor leads a private army into the war-torn Congo to rescue a cache of uncut diamonds. Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller.
  25. The Guns of Navarone (1961). Classic war mission picture with an all-star cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas and Gia Scala. Adapted from the Alistair McLean bestseller.
  26. Maroc 7 (1967). Gene Barry infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves in Morocco operating under the cover of a fashion shoot. Dazzling female cast includes Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  27. The Satan Bug (1965). John Sturges adaptation of Alistair MacLean pandemic thriller stars George Maharis, Richard Basehart and Dana Andrews.
  28. Five Golden Dragons (1967). Cult thriller with Robert Cummings as the playboy caught up in an international crime syndicate. Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee head an exceptional supporting cast that also includes Margaret Lee, Brian Donlevy, George Raft, Dan Duryea and Maria Rohm.
  29. Claudelle Inglish (1961). Diane McBain as the poor farmer’s daughter who wants to get rich quick.
  30. Jessica (1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge.

Texas Across the River (1966) ****

Excellent comedy western mixing dry wit and occasional slapstick to joyous effect. The wedding between Spanish duke Don Aldrea (Alain Delon) and Louisiana belle Phoebe (Rosemary Forsyth) is interrupted by her previous suitor Yancy (Stuart Cottle) who is killed in the resulting melee. Escaping to Texas, Don Aldrea’s marksmanship leads settler Sam (Dean Martin) to recruit him to help fight raiding Commanches. Romantic entanglement ensues when the Don rescues Native American Lonetta (Tina Marquand) and Sam has more than a passing interest in Phoebe.

It is so tightly structured that nothing occurs that doesn’t have a pay-off further down the line. Bursting with terrific lines – including a stinger of a final quip – and set pieces, it pokes fun at every western cliché from the gunfight, the cavalry in hot pursuit, and fearsome Native Americans to the snake bite and the naked bathing scene. Incompetence is the order of the day – cavalry captain Stimpson (Peter Graves) issues incomprehensible orders, chief’s son Yellow Knife (Linden Chiles) cannot obey any.

The Don, with his obsession with honor and his tendency to kiss men on the cheeks, is a comedy gift. Despite his terrific head of hair, he is stuck with the moniker “Baldy” and every time he is about to save the day he manages to ruin it. Sam is the kind of guy who thinks he is showing class by removing his spurs in bed while retaining his boots. His sidekick Kronk (Joey Bishop), a mickey-take on Tonto, mostly is just that, a guy who stands at the side doing nothing but delivering dry observations.

Lonetta is full of Native American lore and has enough sass to keep the Don in his place. “What is life with honor,” he cries to which she delivers the perfect riposte, “What is honor without life?” Phoebe is a hot ticket with not much in the way of loyalty.

Two sequences stand out – the slapping scene (whaat?) and a piece of exquisite comedy timing when Sam, Phoebe and the Don try an iron out a complicated situation.

Good as Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) is the picture belongs to Alain Delon (Once a Thief, 1965) and I would argue it is possibly his best performance. Never has an actor so played against type or exploded his screen persona. Delon was known for moody, sullen roles, cameras fixated on his eyes. But here he is a delight, totally immersed in a role, not of an idiot, but a man of high ideals suddenly caught up in a country that is less impressed with ideals. If he had played the part with a knowing wink it would never have worked.

Martin exudes such screen charm you are almost convinced he’s not acting at all, but when you compare this to Rough Night in Jericho it’s easy to see why he was so under-rated. Joey Bishop (Ocean’s 11) is a prize turn, with some of the best quips. Rosemary Forsyth (Shenandoah, 1965) is surprisingly good, having made her bones in more dramatic roles, and Tina Marquand (Modesty Blaise, 1966) more than holds her own. Michael Ansara (Sol Madrid, 1968) played Cochise in the Broken Arrow (1956-1958) television series. Under all the Medicine Man get-up you might spot Richard Farnsworth. Peter Graves of Mission Impossible fame is the hapless cavalry leader.

Director Michael Gordon (Move Over, Darling, 1964) hits the mother lode, the story zipping along, every time it seems to be taking a side-step actually nudging the narrative forward. He draws splendid performances from the entire cast, knowing when to play it straight, when to lob in a piece of slapstick, and when to cut away for a humorous reaction, and especially keeping in check the self-indulgence which marred many Rat Pack pictures – two of the gang are here, Martin and Bishop. There’s even a sly nod to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns when the electric guitar strikes up any time Native Americans appear. Frank De Vol (Cat Ballou, 1965) did the score.

Once a Thief (1965) ****

Latter-day film noir gem with terrific cast filmed in black-and-white and often at night that crams into a taut storyline  different slants of the themes of the con-going-straight, the vendetta and the double-cross. While Hollywood at this point had imported platoons of foreign beauties in the Sophia Loren-Elke Sommer vein, there had been less interest in the male of the species with the exception of a small British contingent and possibly Omar Sharif, on whom the jury was still out. 

MGM was gambling on Frenchman Alain Delon (The Leopard, 1963) to alter industry perceptions at the same time as pushing new contract star Ann-Margret (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) along more dramatic lines away from the glossy puffery that had made her name and which relied more upon her physical assets than acting potential. Had she continued in this vein, her career would certainly have taken a different turn. 

Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon), former minor hood turned San Francisco truck driver, is happily married to Kristine (Ann-Margret) with a young daughter they both adore. But tough cop Mike Vido (Van Heflin), with a reputation for brutality, is determined to pin a murder on him in revenge for purportedly being shot by him early in Eddie’s previous career. Eddie manages for a time to resist the overtures of brother Walter (Jack Palance) to participate in a million-dollar diamond. But when he loses his job, that changes.

While the robbery naturally takes center stage, that’s not actually the dramatic highlight. Instead, it is the Eddie-Kristine relationship. Instead of Eddie being the usual down-on-his-luck ex-con, he has clearly turned his life around, so much so he can afford a $500 down payment on a small boat. A loving father, he accepts without rancor when his daughter interrupts a night-time lovemaking session. And he’s stylish, too, wearing an iconic sheepskin jacket and driving a snazzy 1931 Ford Model A roadster. Kristine just wants a normal home life, desiring domesticity above all else, but swallowing her pride when she needs to go out to work in a night club to make ends meet, for a time rendering the unemployed Eddie a house husband.

But Eddie is not all he initially seems. His tough streak has not been smothered by the good life. In a brilliant Catch-22 situation he gets violent when an employment benefits clerk refuses to accept that Eddie was fired from his job, instead believing his employer’s claim that he resigned – the former triggering relief payment, the latter zilch. But that’s nothing to the beating he inflicts on Kristine when, pride injured that he is not the breadwinner, he discovers the skimpy costume she wears for her job.

Adding to the unusual mix are Vido and Walter, the former’s brooding presence somewhat undercut by the fact that in middle age he still lives with his mother, the latter while a big-time gangster letting nothing get in the way of strong fraternal feeling for Eddie. You won’t be surprised to learn that double cross is in the air, not when Walter employs a creepy sunglass-wearing henchman Sargantanas (John Davis Chandler) who appears to have more than a passing interest in little girls. The climax, which contains both emotional and dramatic twist, involves redemption and sacrifice.

Delon has played the cold-eyed ruthless but romantic character before, but here adds depth from his paternal commitment and as a man turned inside out by the system.

Ann-Margret is the revelation, truly believable as mother first, sexy wife second, and her anguish in the later parts of the picture showcase a different level of acting skill to anything she previously essayed. This role immediately preceded her man-eater in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) which attracted far more attention and considerably bigger box office and it would have been interesting to see how her career might have panned out had Once a Thief been the critical and commercial triumph. She probably did not attain such acting heights again until Carnal Knowledge (1971). And I did wonder, as with Daliah Lavi (The Demon, 1963) before her whether her acting skills were too often overshadowed in the Hollywood mindset by her physical attributes.  

Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963) is excellent as the cop tormented by the idea that a villain is walking free, Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966) is good as always and character actor Jeff Corey (The Cincinnati Kid) puts in an appearance as Vido’s whip-cracking boss. This marks the debut of Tony Musante (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970). Watch for a cameo by screenwriter Zekial Marko, who wrote the original book.

This represented another change of pace for director Ralph Nelson, Oscar-nominated for the Lilies of the Field (1963) and also known for box office comedy hit Father Goose (1964). His  use of an experimental extremely light-sensitive camera eliminated the bulky lighting commensurate with filming at night, bringing freshness and greater freedom to those scenes. His natural gift for drama ensured that the emotional was given as much prominence as the action. Racial awareness was demonstrated by the opening scene in a jazz club where African Americans were clearly welcome, hardly the norm at that time.

The picture was shot on location in San Francisco including Nob Hill, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. To add authenticity, Nelson employed as extras or in bit parts people famed for different reasons in the area. There was Armenian Al Nalbandian who owned the Cable Car flower store on Union Square. William ‘Tiny’ Baskin was a highly successful diamond cutter, owner of the city’s biggest diamond collection – because of his size he was ideal to play a night club bouncer. The North Beach night club provided cameos for Big Al and resident jazz drummer Russell Lee, who both play themselves. Local singer Toy Yat Mar plays the woman murdered at the start of the film. Also appearing were piano player Jimmy Diamond, bus driver Wed Trindle and belly dancer Shereef.

Mention again of a terrific score by Lalo Schifrin, especially the bold drum solo that played out over the credit sequence. Schifrin’s work on the film was showcased in a featurette aimed at schools and colleges. Russell Lee’s drumming so impressed Ralph Nelson that the opening credits were rewritten around his drum solo.

Catch-Up: Alain Delon has featured in the Blog in reviews for Lost Command (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and Farewell, Friend (1968); check out also Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) and Ann-Margret in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).

Readers’ Top 30

I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
  3. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
  4. Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
  7. Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
  8. The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
  9. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
  10. The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
  11. Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
  12. Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
  13. The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
  14. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
  15. The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
  16. The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
  17. 4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
  18. Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
  19. Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
  20. Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
  21. Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
  22. Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
  23. Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
  24. A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
  25. The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
  26. In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
  27. Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
  28. The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
  29. Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
  30. Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Bronson Unwanted

That Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) was a smash hit in France did nothing for Charles Bronson’s Hollywood career. Hollywood had form in disregarding U.S.-born stars that Europe had taken to its box office bosom. Example number one of course was Clint Eastwood, ignored by the big American studios until four years after his movies had cut a commercial swathe through foreign territories. Charles Bronson took about the same length of time for his box office grosses abroad to make an impact back home.

While we tend to look upon The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a career-making vehicle for many of the supporting stars, that wasn’t actually the case. Jim Brown was quickest out of the blocks, a full-blown top-billed star a year later in The Split (1968). Otherwise, John Cassavetes had the biggest crack at stardom after landing the male lead in box office smash Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But the rest of the gang – Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckal et al – remained at least for the time being strictly supporting players.

For Charles Bronson, the year of The Dirty Dozen produced nothing more than television guest spots in Dundee and the Culhane, The Fugitive and The Virginian. Beyond that he had a berth in two flop westerns Villa Rides (1968) and Guns for San Sebstian (1968) and no guarantee his career was moving in an upward direction. But the latter picture was primarily a French-Mexican co-production, the Gallic end set up by top French producer Jacques Bar under the aegis of Cipra which had previously been responsible for Alain Delon vehicles Any Number Can Win (1963), Joy House (1964) and Once a Thief (1965).

There was another, as vital, French connection. Henri Verneuil directed both Any Number Can Win and Guns for San Sebastian so could attest to Bronson’s screen presence. And another legendary French producer, the Polish-born Serge Silberman, best known for Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), had taken note of Bronson, whose screen persona was similar to that of French stars Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Silberman’s Greenwich Films production shingle was in the process of setting up Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami.

Like The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), Farewell Friend was part of a new trend to make French productions in English as well as French, in this case the English version viewed as “the working one.” But that ploy failed to convince U.S. distributors to take a chance and the film sat on the shelf for five years. And little that Bronson did in the meantime increased his chances of a serious stab at the Hollywood big time.

Although Paramount had piled cash into the Italian-made Once upon a Time in the West (1968) it was counting on Henry Fonda – undergoing a career renaissance after Madigan (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) – to provide the box office momentum. Bronson was billed fourth after Claudia Cardinale, Fonda and Jason Robards, so still in Hollywood’s eyes a supporting player.

And while the Sergio Leone picture flopped Stateside, the success of Farewell, Friend in France turned Bronson into a star and was instrumental in the western breaking box office records in Paris (where it ran for a year) and throughout the country.

Fortunately for Bronson, European producers recognized his potential. His next picture should have been an Italian-French-German co-production of Michael Strogoff, for which he was announced as the top billed star (Advert, Variety, May 8, 1968, p136-137).  When that fell through, Italian company Euro International, bidding to become the top foreign studio outside Hollywood, gave him top-billing in Richard Donner drama Twinky (aka Lola, aka London Affair, 1970) and Serge Silberman tapped him for Rene Clement thriller Rider on the Rain (1970), another French hit.

British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) was responsible for recruiting him for You Can’t Win ‘Em All (aka The Dubious Patriots, 1970), but with Tony Curtis taking top billing. Again, though funded by an American studio, this time Columbia, it was another big flop, mostly because the studio did not know how to market the picture, Curtis in a box office slump and Bronson considered to have little appeal.

But still the Europeans kept the faith. Another French-Italian co-production Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) gave him top billing over exiles Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. That was also the case with Cold Sweat (1970), helmed by British director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962).  He had another French-made hit with Someone Behind the Door (1971) and Terence Young hired him again, along with Farewell, Friend co-star Alain Delon, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Dr No alumni Ursula Andress for international co-production Red Sun. While this western sent box office tills whirring all over the world, it only made a fair impression in the U.S., ranking 53rd in the annual box office chase.

Riding on the back of The Godfather phenomenon, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Bronson for Mafia thriller The Valachi Papers (1972), again directed by Terence Young, which produced something of a box office breakthrough in the U.S., ending the year just outside the Top 20. But it took another British director, Michael Winner, to help solidify the Bronson screen persona and boost his global appeal. Four – and all of the hits – out of the star’s next six pictures were directed by Winner.  These were the western Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1975). The Mechanic was such a big hit Stateside it did better in its second year of release than the first and Columbia redeemed itself by giving prison escape thriller Breakout (1975) the widest release – up to that point – of all time.

That America had little interest in developing Bronson as a breakout star could be judged by the distribution treatment of his pictures. As mentioned above, Farewell, Friend had to wait until 1973 for its U.S. debut and then renamed Honor among Thieves. Twinky was denied a cinema release in the U.S. and went straight to television in 1972. Violent City had to wait until 1973 for a distribution deal, Cold Sweat until 1974 and even Red Sun took nine months before it hit American shores.  Until The Valachi Papers did the business, Bronson was not considered the kind of star who could open a picture in the U.S.

By then, of course, Bronson had reversed the normal box office rules. Usually, for films starring American actors, foreign revenues were the icing on the cake. For Bronson it was the other way round. Along with Clint Eastwood he was the first of the global superstars, whose name resonated around the world, and whose pictures made huge amounts of money regardless of American acceptance or interest. But had it been left to Hollywood, Bronson would never have made the grade.

Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) ****

This heist picture made Charles Bronson a star, though, like Clint Eastwood a few years previously, he had to go to Europe, in this case France, to find an audience appreciable of his particular skill set. This was such a box office smash in France that it was the reason that Once upon a Time in the West (1968), a major flop virtually everywhere else, turned into a huge hit in Paris. After a decade as a supporting actor, albeit in some quality offerings like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson developed a big following, if only initially in Europe.

Farewell, Friend could also lay fair claim to stealing the title of  “first buddy movie” from the following year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) because, apart from the heist that is central to the story, it is essentially about the forging of a friendship. But it wasn’t released in the U.S. for another five years, in the wake of Bronson’s Hollywood breakthrough in The Valachi Papers (1972), and then under a different title, Honor Among Thieves.

And you can see why it was such a star-making vehicle. Bronson goes toe-to-toe with France’s number one male star Alain Delon (The Sicilian Clan, 1969). He had the walk and the stance and the look and he was given acres of screen time to allow audiences to fully appreciate for the first time what he had to offer. Like Butch Cassidy, the duo share a lot of screen time, and after initial dislike, they slowly turn, through circumstance and the same code of honor, into friends.

Dino Barran (Alain Delon) is the principled one, after a final stint as a doctor in the French Foreign Legion originally turning down overtures from Franz Propp (Charles Bronson) to become involved in a separate major robbery. Propp is an unsavory customer, making his living as a small-time thief who uses a stripper to dupe wealthy marks. Barran plans to rob a corporation’s safe during the three-day Xmas holiday of two million dollars as a favor to the slinky widow Isabelle (Olga Georges-Picot) of a former colleague, for whose death he retains guilt. Propp more or less barges his way into the caper.

It’s a clever heist. Isabelle gets Barran a job as a company doctor whose office is next door to the giant vault. But there’s a twist. Surveillance reveals only three of the seven numbers required to open the combination to the vault. But Barran reckons three days is sufficient to try out the 10,000 possible permurations.

Barran and Propp despise each other and pass the time playing juvenile tricks, locking each other into a room, stealing all the food from the one dispensing machine, winding each other up, while they take turns trying different combinations. But it opens after only 3,400 attempts and they face a shock. The vault is empty. They have been set up to take the fall for a previous robbery that must have been completed before the building closed for Xmas.  

And there’s no way out. They are in lockdown, deep in a basement. The elevators can only be opened by a small squadron of guards upstairs. Food long gone, they are going to run out of water. If they use a lighter to see in the dark, or build a fire to get warm, the flames will eat up the oxygen they need to survive in the enclosed space. So the heist turns into a battle for survival and brute force attempts to escape before the building re-opens and they are discovered, exhausted and clearly guilty.

But that’s only the second act. There is a better one to follow, as their friendship is defined in an unusual manner. And there are any number of twists to maintain the suspense and tension. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were close friends when that western began. Here, we see the evolution of a friendship between two forceful characters who express their feelings with their fists.

Delon was a known quantity, but Bronson really comes to the fore, more than holding his own against a top star who oozed charisma. This is Bronson in chrysalis, the emergence of the tough guy leading man screen persona that would turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world. Surprisingly, given his later penchant for the monosyllabic, here he does a lot of talking, perhaps more actual acting than he ever did later when his roles tended to fall into a stereotype.

He has the two best scenes, both character-defining, but in different ways. He has a little scam, getting people to gamble on how many coins it would take for an already full-to-the-brim glass to overflow when a certain number of coins were dropped in. While this is a cute trick, it’s that of a small-time con artist, but watching it play out, as it does at critical moments, is surprisingly suspenseful. The second is the strip scene which shows him, as a potential leading man, in a very poor light, and although thievery is the ultimate aim, it is not far short of pimping, with Bronson standing back while the woman (Marianna Falk) is routinely humiliated. It’s the kind of scene that would be given to a supporting actor, for whom later redemption was not on the cards. It says something for Bronson’s command of the screen and the development of his character that by the end of the picture the audience has long forgotten that he could stoop so low.

It is a film of such twists I would not want to say much more for fear of giving away too much, suffice to say that Olga Georges-Picot (Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, 1968) and her friend, mousy nurse Dominique (Brigitte Fossey, in her grown-up debut), are also stand-outs, and not just in the sense of their allure.

Director Jean Herman, in his sophomore outing, takes the bold step of dispensing with music virtually throughout, which means that during the critical heist sequence the audience is deprived of the usual musical beats that might indicate threat or suspense or change of mood, but which has the benefit of keeping the camera squarely on the two leading characters without favoring either. Most pictures focusing on character rely on slow-burn drama. In the bulk of heist pictures, characters appear fully-formed. Here, unusually, and almost uniquely in the movie canon, character development takes place during an action film.

Top French thriller writer Sebastian Japrisot (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) was responsible along with Herman for the screenplay. Japrisot was a key figure in the French movie thriller scene, churning out, either as original novels or original screenplays, A Trap for Cinderella (1965), Rider on the Rain (1970) and The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun (1970).

Even without Bronson, this would have been a terrific heist picture. With him, it takes on a new dimension.

Behind the Scenes: “The Girl on a Motorcycle” / “Naked under Leather” (1968)

Although multi-country co-productions were very common in the 1960s, British-French co-productions were particularly thin on the ground, as if the cultural identities were so far apart there was nowhere they could ever meet. This was only the third such co-production in three years. British Lion, a long-established operation, had recently been overhauled with a new boss in John Boulting, a renowned filmmaker of Boulting Brothers (The Family Way, 1966) fame.

The film was based on a prestigious prize-winning French novel by Andre Pieyre de Manidargues. The budget was set at a modest $1.5 million with location shoots in Geneva, Heidelberg and Strasbourg with interiors shot at Shepperton. Director Jack Cardiff (Dark of the Sun, 1967) had originally hired a German actress, a Playboy centerfold,  for the leading role of the young girl who marries a timid young man while obsessed with a less conventional ex-lover. But the actress suffered a drug overdose and dropped out. Ironically, Marianne Faithful, her replacement, was also a drug addict and famed as a singer and as girlfriend of Mick Jagger.

Although her acting  experience was limited to television film Anna (1967) and a small part in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname (1967), Cardiff was captivated by her sensuality which was ideal for her character. Bear in mind that Cardiff knew what a camera captured. He had made his name as a cinematographer and worked with great beauties like Ava Gardner (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Sophia Loren (Legend of the Lost, 1957) and Marilyn Monroe (The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957) so if he thought Faithfull fitted that category then there was no reason to doubt his assessment. He commented: “Never since I saw Marilyn Monroe through the camera lens have I seen such irresistible beauty. To focus on her is to focus the camera on your innermost heart.”  

Cardiff took advantage of a new trend to film movies in both English and French to open up distribution channels. Claude Chabrol’s The Road to Corinth (1967) was shot in this manner as was Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) with Charles Bronson and Alain Delon.   

Faithfull could not ride a motorbike so a stunt double was utilised for long shots. But instead of resorting to back projection, for medium shots and close-ups the actress was towed on a trailer behind a camera car. Not having to worry about the controls also meant that Faithfull could look dreamlike while driving and with Cardiff not having to think about the actress he could turn the camera in a 360-degree pan while she rode along.

Since Faithfull was going to be seen on a motorbike for long sections of the movie, Cardiff came up with a method of creating variety. One of the techniques employed was “solarization.” This was, in effect, a half-positive half-negative exposure, but it had only been used in the past in very small doses, nothing like what Cardiff had in mind. BBC boffin Laurie Atkin had invented a computer system that allowed solarization to be used more extensively. Footage shot during the day was taken immediately to the BBC lab at night where Cardiff could tinker about with creating his effects.   

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this technique were the sex scenes. Without the solarization which hid naked bodies under a psychedelic whirl the sex scenes would never have got past the censor.  There was an unfortunate downside, however. The Girl on a Motorcycle had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Critical approval there would have given the picture artistic momentum. Unfortunately, delays caused by the laboratory work meant the film missed its scheduled screening slot. Even so, French critics gave it the thumbs-up. British critics, on the other hand, gave it the thumbs-down. Lack of critical estimation did not appear to matter to British audiences who came out in their droves.

But it was a different story in the United States.

No wonder that to some extent this is one of the great lost pictures because Warner Brothers could not find a way to sell it in the U.S. Having paid a record $1.5 million advance, the studio (known at that time as Warner-Seven Arts) was hit by a double whammy. The picture was the first to receive an X-rating from the newly-established MPAA censorship system which replaced the previous Production Code. The new system was supposed to allow filmmakers greater latitude in terms of sex, violence and language.

Theoretically, that should have been a marketing bonus and the film should have ridden the “sex-art” wave and turned into an arthouse hit with the mainstream, captivated by solid grosses, to follow.  In reality, many exhibitors refused to touch it, regarding the X-rating as a separate category catering for the worst of the adults-only smut market. Newspapers refused to carry advertising for films so rated. Critics hated it, all the New York critics giving negative reviews.

Warners slotted it into a handful of arthouse houses before pulling all prints out of circulation in May 1970 and sending to back for re-editing with the intention of re-submitting it, shorn of some of the nudity, to the MPAA in a bid to win a more acceptable R-rating. In other words, to “re-gear the picture for the general market rather than the adult sex-art trade originally in mind.”  

To ensure that its reputation was not “soiled” the picture was re-titled Naked under Leather – if the content was tamer, the title was certainly not. Initially, that appeared to do the trick when it was re-released a full year later. It pulled in a “boff” $125,000 (worth around $864,000 now – a whopping $36,000 per-screen average) in 24 houses in wide release in Los Angeles, was “hot” in Denver and “tidy” in Chicago and found a few bookings elsewhere. But then it stalled and could not find the extra gear. In reality it did not do much better than on initial release. In the 1969 annual box office chart it featured at No 231 and for the corresponding 1970 chart it placed at number 253.

Sources: Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour, Faber and Faber, 1996, p242-243; “New British Lion Mgt. Gets Motorcyle Rights in UK,” Variety, October 18, 1967, 23; “Stylistic Dash Marks Cannes Films,” Variety, May 22, 1968, 26“British Lion Wraps Up Distribution Deal with W-7 for U.S., Towa for Japan,” Variety, August 28, 1968, 29, “Features Passing Through MPAA,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 20; “All Imports; N.Y. Critics All Bad,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 7; “Recall and Re-Edits W-7’s Motorcycle; X-Rating Now R,” Variety, January 29, 1969, 7; “Computer Tally of 729, 1968,” Variety,  May 7, 1969, 36; “Naked under Leather,” Variety, April 22, 1970, 4; “L.A. First Run Healthy,” Variety, May 13, 1970, 9; “Top 330 Pix in U.S. for 1970,” Variety, May 12, 1971, 37.

The Girl on a Motorcycle / Naked under Leather (1968) ***

An erotic charge deftly switched this picture from the Hell’s Angels default of violent biker pictures spun out cheaply by American International.  Where Easy Rider (1969) was powered by drugs, this gets its highs from sex. Rebecca (Marianne Faithful), gifted a Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorbike by lover Daniel (Alain Delon) two months before marriage to staid teacher Raymond (Roger Mutton), takes to the highways to find herself.

This ode to speed (of the mechanical kind) allows her to shake off her preconceptions and fully express her personality, beginning with the one-piece black leather outfit, whose zip, in one famous scene, Daniel pulls down with his teeth. The bike is masculine. “There he is,” she intones and there is a none-too-subtle succession of images where she clearly treats it as a male appendage.

She is both self-aware and lost. In some respects Raymond is an ideal partner since he respects her wild nature and gives her space, and she views marriage to him as a method of avoiding “becoming a tart.” In other words he represents respectability, just like her father (Marius Goring) who owns the bookshop where she works. But he is just too reasonable for her and, in reality, as she would inevitably discover that is just a cover for his weakness. The only scene in which she does not appear is given over to Raymond being tormented by young pupils who have him chasing round the class hunting for a transistor radio.

But Daniel is not quite up to scratch either. He believes in “free love”, i.e. sex without commitment and he is not inclined to romantic gestures and she knows she could just become another in a long line of discarded conquests should they continue. Raymond is a “protection against” Daniel and her ending up as an adulteress teenage bride and potential nymphomaniac. She seeks abandon not reality.

As well as sexy interludes with Daniel, her head is filled with sexual images, not to mention dabbling with masochism, in a dream her leather outfit being stripped off piece by piece by a whip-wielding Daniel, in a bar imagining taking off her clothes in front of the aged drinkers.

Jack Cardiff’s film is certainly an interesting meditation on freedom and sexual liberation at a time when such notions were beginning to take hold, but it suffers from over-reliance on internal monologue and Marianne Faithful’s lack of acting experience. Cardiff went straight into this from violent actioner Dark of the Sun (1968) and audiences remembering him from The Liquidator (1965) and The Long Ships (1964) would need reminded that he braced romance before in the touching and Oscar-nominated Sons and Lovers (1960). In that film he elicited an Oscar-nominated performance from Mary Ure, something that was unlikely here.

Pipe-smoking was generally the preserve of the old, or detectives, unless you were a young intellectual as Delon is here, but it does seem an odd conceit to force the actor into such a contrivance. Delon is accustomed to playing amoral characters, so this part is no great stretch, but, minus the pipe, he is, of course, one of the great male stars of the era and his charisma sees him through.

It was also interesting to compare Cardiff’s soundtrack to that of Easy Rider. Here, the music by Les Reed – making his movie debut but better known as a songwriter of classic singles like “Delilah” sung by Tom Jones – is strictly in the romantic vein rather than an energetic paeon to freedom such as “Born to Be Wild.” 

Cardiff’s skill as an acclaimed cinematographer (Oscar-winner for Black Narcissus, 1947) helps the picture along and clever use of the psychedelic helped some of the sexual scenes escape the British censor’s wrath, though not so in the U.S. where it was deemed an “X”. 

The Sicilian Clan (1969) *****

Absolutely cracking, brilliantly structured, gangster thriller featuring two fabulous heists and three legendary French stars in Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura. Roger Sartet (Delon) is a trigger-happy robber whose prison escape is organized for a hefty fee by French-based Mafia chieftain Vittorio Manalese (Gabin). Le Goff (Ventura) is the rugged cop hunting down the escapee which brings him into the orbit of Manalese, about whose existence he is completely unaware, the gangster having kept an extremely low profile, never engaging in violence, hiding behind the legitimate front of a pinball machine business.  Veteran French director Henri Verneuil (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) dukes between the twin storylines with ease.

Jean Gabin was easily the most famous French actor of the time with a career spanning four decades from Pepe Le Moko (1937) and La Grande Illusion (1937) to Holy Year (1976) . To many he was the best Inspector Maigret (1958). Generally ignored by the French New Wave directors, this picture showed what they were missing.

Sartet brings Manalese the opportunity to pull off the most audacious jewel robbery in history, even though the older man despises Sartet’s penchant for violence and sex. We often see Manalese at family gatherings, head of the dinner table, the family watching television together, frowning at one son’s liking for alcohol, playing with his grandson. He is not just a calm and clever businessman, but very quick-thinking, his sharp mind in a couple of instances preventing disaster. Sartet, on the other hand, will happily endanger his life and freedom by consorting with prostitutes and breaking an unspoken code of honor in an affair with Manalese’s daughter-in-law (Irina Demick).

The result combines dogged detective work by Le Goff and the inspired planning and execution of the jewel robbery until the two worlds collide. The investigation alone would have made this an outstanding picture. Le Goff, always seen with an unlit cigarette in his mouth although he is trying to give up smoking, concentrating initially on Sartet, sets up surveillance on the thief’s innocent sister and begins an involved – and engrossing – process of tracking down every potential lead and when at last he has Sartet in his sights it brings him up close to Manalese.

Le Goff’s professionalism is matched by that of Manalese and the picture develops into an absorbing battle of wits and the latter’s family values and moral compass puts him at odds with loner Sartet. There is some brilliant invention, the sacrificial watch, for example, and the unexpected appearance of a faithful British wife, although you do guess just how long Le Goff will go before lighting his ever-tempting cigarette.  

The ultra-cool Delon excels in this kind of amoral part, but Gabin and Ventura as old-style gangster and cop, respectively, steal the show. Demick thrives as the bored wife of a dull gangster who is attracted by the violent Delon, at one point deliberately putting herself in the line of his potential fire for the thrill. Actually, it’s the jewel heist that steals the show. Unlike other heist pictures where you have fair idea in advance of the details of the theft, here the audience is kept completely in the dark. Just as important in any heist is that the thieves get away with their plunder and the plan in this instance is breath-taking.

Catch it on Amazon Prime.

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