In the News Sixty Years Ago: April 1961

HOLLYWOOD CASHING IN ON EICHMANN TRIAL  

With the upcoming trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann dominating the media for weeks, and publishers enjoying a boom with titles on Eichmann and Hitler, and with Life magazine’s biggest issue so far in the year being one with Hitler on the cover, movie studios had at last wakened up to the opportunities. A Swiss documentary Mein Kampf was due to open as was Operation Eichmann and Stanley Kramer’s big-budget Judgement at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster heading an all-star cast. Also in the offing were a Hitler biopic from Allied Artists, Hitler’s Women, a movie based on John Hersey novel The Wall and French director Roger Vadim with an idea to update De Sade as a Nazi.

BRITISH STARS MAKE ‘EM LAUGH

At a time when the Steve Reeves musclemen pictures had dominated the foreign film market, nine British comedies had taken the U.S. by storm. While their box office figures were not colossal by U.S. standards, they were extremely hot compared to the numbers normally racked up at the American ticket wickets by British films. For the 1960 season the British beat all other foreign film contenders. A total of 135 British movies released generating $22.9 million in rentals, well ahead of the nearest rival Italy whose 116 pictures took in $12.2 million (rentals being what the studios received from the overall box office gross). Carry On Nurse was one of the hottest British comedies as well as The Mouse That Roared and I’m Alright, Jack both starring Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana, and Ted Ray in Please Turn Over. Brigitte Bardot was single-handedly the biggest foreign attraction with eight movies on show.

KING AND I REISSUE FLOPS

Twentieth Century Fox had brought back The King and I (1956) in 70mm in its Grandeur format as a two-a-day roadshow at the upscale Rivoli in New York on March 23 only to discover that audiences would not bite and a week later it was shifted to “grind” (continuous performance). Meanwhile, Columbia was backing a revival of Picnic (1955) starring William Holden and Kim Novak, promising a new campaign and artwork.

FIRST PURPOSE-BUILT CINERAMA THEATER OPENS

Although the Cinerama phenomenon had been all the rage for nearly a decade, the movies had always been shown in specially-converted cinemas. Now the first purpose-built theater had opened, the Cooper, in Denver, Colorado, at a cost of $1 million with seating for 814.

TRIPLE NAME CHANGE FOR THE HUSTLER

The Robert Rossen movie featuring Paul Newman as a poolroom shark had already started filming in New York when it changed its title first to Stroke of Luck and then quickly to Sin of Angels and under that title – to confuse potential moviegoers – had snagged considerable coverage in Time, the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune before reverting back to the original title.

BARDOT BIOPIC

Although the French sex symbol had barely been a star for half a dozen years, she was already lining up a biopic to be directed by one of the leading New Wave exponents 28-year-old Louis Malle. Co-starring Marcello Mastroianni, it appeared as A Very Private Affair in 1962.

WB SHELLS OUT FOR CAMELOT

Six years before the Lerner and Loewe musical finally hit the screens, Jack Warner paid $1.5 million for the screen rights plus 25% of the net profits.

Sources: “New Nazi Beast Film Cycle” (Variety, April 5, 1961, p1); “British Humor Scores in the U.S.” (Variety, April 26, 1961, 1); “Hard Ducat Not For Reissue?” (Variety, April 5, 1961, p3); “Advert, Picnic” (Box Office, April 3, 1961, 10); “World’s First Theater Built Specially for Cinerama Opens in Denver” (Box Office, April 3, 1961, p28);  “Brave Young Director Faces Bardot Playing Herself in Her Own Biopic” (Variety, April 12, 1961, p1); “WB’s Camelot Buy” (Variety, April 12, 1961, p1).

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

Stylish cat-and-mouse thriller that fits into the relatively small sub-genre of intelligent spy pictures. George Segal was a difficult actor to cast. He had a kind of shiftiness that lent credibility to a movie like King Rat (1965), a cockiness that found a good home in The Southern Star and an earnestness ideal for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). But Quiller fit his screen persona like a glove. The part called for charm to the point of smarminess and courage to the point of callousness. A lone wolf for whom relationships were a means to an end, he adopted identities – journalist, swimming coach etc– as the occasion suited.

Quiller’s undercover mission is to expose a neo-Nazi organisation. But just as he sought to discover the location of this secret enterprise, so his quarry was attempting to find out where his operation was based. 

Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters, 1955) had just finished his first spy effort, Operation Crossbow (1966) and that film’s documentary-style approach was carried on here but with a great deal more style. There is consistent use of the tracking shot, often from the point-of-view of one of the protagonists, that gives the film added tension, since you never know where a tracking shot will end. Although the film boasts one of John Barry’s best themes, Wednesday’s Child, there was a remarkable lack of music throughout. Many chase scenes begin in silence, with just natural sounds as a background, then spill out into music, and then back into silence.

But much of the heavy lifting was done by playwright Harold Pinter (The Servant, 1963) in adapting Adam Hall’s prize-winning novel. Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by Trevor Dudley-Smith who wrote The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) under the name Elleston Trevor. The Quiller Memorandum involved wholesale change, from the title (the book was called The Berlin Memorandum) onwards. The book is set against the background of war crime trials; Quiller a British wartime rescuer of Jews now tracking down war criminals; the main female character (played in the film by Senta Berger) had, as a child, been in Hitler’s bunker; and there is a subplot concerning  a bubonic plague; there was a preponderance of obscure (though interesting for a reader) tradecraft; plus the Nazi organisation was named “Phoenix.”

Book jacket for film tie-in for what was originally entitled “The Berlin Memorandum.”

While retaining the harsh realities of the spy business, Pinter junks most of this in favour of a more contemporary approach. Instead of meeting his superior (Alec Guinness) in a theatre, this takes place in the Olympiad stadium. Guinness’s upper crust bosses, played by George Sanders and Robert Flemyng, are more interested in one-upmanship. Berlin still showed the after-effects of the war and Pinter exploited these locales. Senta Berger is an apparently innocent teacher in a school where a known war criminal had worked. And, of course, Segal is an American, not British, drafted in from the Middle East.

But the core remains the same, Segal prodding for weaknesses in the Nazi organisation, the Nazis hoping to reel him in and force a confession from him, Segal planning on roping them in by getting close to them. Despite receiving second-billing Alec Guinness has a minor role, but Max von Sydow as Segal’s adversary more than makes up.

There is still a lot of tradecraft: “do you smoke this brand” (of cigarettes) is the way spies identify themselves; Segal being followed on foot turning the tables on his quarry; Segal poisoned after being prodded by a suitcase; and the use of word associations Segal employs to avoid giving real information. Having flushed out his adversaries, Segal is now dangerously exposed. But that’s his job. He’s just a pawn to both sides. He’s virtually never on top unlike the fantasy espionage worlds inhabited by James Bond, Matt Helm and Derek Flint.

The structure is brilliant. Segal spends most of the picture in dogged bafflement. Guinness at his most supercilious flits in and out. Segal is stalked and stalks in return. There are exciting car chases but the foot chases (if they can be called that) are far more tense. But the core is a bold thirteen-minute interrogation scene where Segal is confronted by von Sydow, head of the shadowy neo-Nazis. And as an antidote to the thuggery and danger to which he is exposed, Segal becomes involved with Senta Berger.

Berger is hugely under-rated as an actress. She was in the second tier of the European sex bombs who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, the top league dominated by Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. On screen she is not as lively as those three, but the quiet intensity of her luminous beauty draws the camera in. Here, she is utterly believable as the innocent women who, in falling for Segal, is dragged into his dangerous world.  She was criminally under-used by Hollywood, often in over-glamourous roles such as The Ambushers (1967) or as the kind of leading lady whose role is often superfluous.

Segal is a revelation, grown vastly more mature as an actor after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) for which he was Oscar-nominated, confident enough to abandon the showy carapace of previous pictures. This is a picture where he sheds layers, from the opening brashness to the sense of defeat in surviving the interrogation ordeal, knowing the only reason he is still alive is to lead the enemy to his own headquarters, buoyed only by inner grit. He hangs on to his identity by his fingertips.

A must-see for collectors of the spy genre.

Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) ****

There could not be a more contemporary picture. As an examination of the problems of assimilating different cultures it is hard to beat. As an assessment of the difficulties of the transition of power it is faultless.

In Gladiator Ridley Scott, taking a few liberties with the known facts, re-imagined the circumstances discussed here of the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the ascension to power of his son Commodus. Along the way, Scott stole a few of Anthony Mann’s visual ideas, snow falling on the battlefield, for example, and at the end the phalanx of guards, shields up, blocking in Commodus and the dethroned military chieftain (Stephen Boyd here, Russell Crowe in Gladiator) for their gladiatorial climax.

British advertisement for the film about to go on general release after a spell in the more expensive West End. The “normal prices” slogan was very commonly found on movies as they headed towards the more normal kind of cinema. in addition, by the time it was rest go into wider release the critics had delivered their verdicts and these could be tagged onto any advertising.

The title does not refer to an invasion of Rome by vast armies of barbarians but the internal corruption which signals the end of the empire. Audiences, taught Latin and Roman history as a matter of course at school around the time the film was released, would be more familiar with the subject matter, but hardly prepared for the spectacle.

Every extra in the known world must have been employed for several scenes, cities bursting with inhabitants, armies sprawling over vast tracts of land. One standout is the extraordinary chariot clash between the two protagonists, not in the confines of an amphitheatre a la Ben Hur, but on wild terrain, along narrow cliff roads, wheels tipping over the edge, down ravines and forest. The other is the soundless gladiatorial fight, not a whisper of music until there is a victor.

And there should be mention of the torture of James Mason, very well done. There is political intrigue, quite a clever way of poisoning an enemy, and plenty argument over the issue of accommodating different cultures, traditional punishment versus the novel notion of extending the hand of friendship and granting automatic citizenship.

The relatively short-lived “Show Time” fan magazine was launched in Britain as Odeon’s answer to the highly successful “ABC Film Review.” Both magazines were only sold inside cinemas but it was common for cinemagoers to purchase copies without necessarily going into to see a picture. This magazine ceased publication by the end of the decade. This was the launch issue in Janaury 1964.

Loyalty is also tested – is treason a form of loyalty? And how much does loyalty depend solely on payment? Proof is given of how integrating cultures can work, an idea that seems alien to Romans accustomed to beating subjects into submission. In some respects the drama takes second place to the discussion.

Christopher Plummer is the deranged Commodus who embraces and disdains in turn his friend Livius (Stephen Boyd). Sophia Loren, as Commodus’ sister (no incestuous suggestions here), is in love with Boyd and though married off to Armenian king Omar Sharif she manages to spend little time with her husband.

If approached as a political film rather than a traditional epic it has a lot to offer. If you want just battles and thwarted romance then a lot less. The mixture of both strikes a good balance. While there are arguments that it is too long, it could actually do with another twenty minutes or so to iron out narrative inconsistencies.