Man in the Middle / The Winston Affair (1964) ***

Scratch a war picture and you often find something more interesting underneath. This creditable courtroom drama makes a pitch for justice for all in the Compulsion (1959) vein while exploring the fragile and occasionally fractious relationship between the Allies during  World War Two. In front of several witnesses American officer Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) kills  in cold blood an ordinary British soldier in a remote depot in India.

It’s an open-and-shut case requiring a defence attorney of no great distinction. In fact so little legal ability is required that it’s assigned to Lt. Col Adams (Robert Mitchum), recovering from a war wound, who  hasn’t practised law in 14 years. It doesn’t help that Winston is a racist and psychopath, convinced left-wing conspirators are planning to take over the world. While dutiful, Adams displays no great enthusiasm for the task, taking time out to embark on romance with nurse Kate (France Nuyen), who is a good deal more fired-up about injustice than him. Adam’s superior officers just want Winston found guilty and hanged in double-quick-time to placate the British.

As if the odds aren’t already stacked against Adams, his boss General Kempton (Barry Sullivan) has brought in top prosecutor Major Smith (Paul Maxwell) while saddling Adams with two useless assistants. However, when Adams finally gets going, he discovers that Winston was assessed as mentally ill by psychiatrist Dr Kaufman (Sam Wanamaker) who has, unfortunately, been transferred and his report has vanished. Col Burton (Alexander Knox), who has taken over the case, refuses to accept Kaufman’s diagnosis. And Adams gets around to thinking there’s something fishy going on, the bottom line being that if the Winston is declared insane, then he won’t be hanged, the case neither open nor shut, fears rising of repercussions at a time when Allied unity is under threat.

So then we’re into classic courtroom territory. Kate has a carbon copy of the Kaufman report but as any lawman knows that in itself is inadmissible.  They can call back Kaufman to testify but there’s no allowing for the state of the roads and a driver in a hurry is liable not to make it. Major Kensington (Trevor Howard) might prove a trump card – or he may not. It’s a given that any defence lawyer’s life is filled with obstacles and this is no different. The out-of-practice Adams is in a hell of a pickle, and that’s how it should be.

On top of that, or underlying it, is the fight for justice for all. It’s easy to fight for the innocent but harder to battle for the sick and the mentally ill, however repellent their prejudices. You might despise the Winstons of this world, as Kate puts it, but you wouldn’t want to be his executioner.

And in the background are wartime considerations. What is one man’s life when judged against the uproar that would ensue and disrupt war planning should the self-proclaimed murderer be set free. Also, normally the mentally ill at this stage of Hollywood history are generally appealing characters, not hateful, but it’s only when Adams digs away at the experience of Winston that he realises the reasons for the murder, the hell that the insecure undergo when cleverer minds decide on torment.

Robert Mitchum (Secret Ceremony, 1968) is on excellent form as the attorney initially just going through the motions who determines to fight his superiors rather than toe the party line, even at the cost of losing his much-delayed promotion. France Nuyen (A Girl Named Tamiko, 1962) is somewhat spunkier than Hollywood nurses of this period and refuses to let romance get in the way of truth. Keenan Wynn (Warning Shot, 1967), a stubborn nutcase, is the worst kind of client, constantly shooting himself in the foot.

Trevor Howard (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) has toned down the normal irascible persona and makes a respectable showing. Barry Sullivan (Light in the Piazza, 1962) is as ruthless as he is charming. The solid supporting cast includes Sam Wanamaker (Danger Route, 1967), Alexander Knox (In the Cool of the Day, 1963) and Errol John (The Sins of Rachel Cade, 1961).

This was director Guy Hamilton’s last film before he shot to international fame on the back of Goldfinger (1964). The screenplay by British pair Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (A Matter of Innocence/Pretty Polly, 1967) was adapted from the novel by Howard Fast (Mirage, 1965).

Courtroom with depth, giving a glimpse of the politics prevalent among High Command in wartime, almost a companion piece of The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Cinema Archives has a much pricier edition but I reckon this cheaper version will do the job.

Woman of Straw (1964) ***

In a plot worthy of Hitchcock without that director’s sly malice, rich playboy Tony (Sean Connery) conspires with not-so-innocent nurse Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) to rid himself of  heinous upper-class racist misogynistic bully Charles (Ralph Richardson), his uncle. Beyond  a savage case of entitlement, Tony has good reason to hate the wheelchair-bound multi-millionaire, blaming him for his father’s suicide and for seducing his widowed mother, now dead. Tony’s ploy, in part by opposing the very idea, is to get Maria to marry Charles, inherit his fortune and provide himself a £1 million finder’s fee when the seriously ill old man dies.

Maria’s refusal to kowtow to the old man and her initial resistance to Tony make her all the more desirable to both. When Maria saves the old man from a potential heart attack, he is moved enough to marry her and draw up exactly the will the pair want. But when he suddenly dies, Maria surprises herself by the depth of emotion she feels.

But that soon changes when she comes under suspicion. A bundle of complications swiftly change the expected outcome. A police inspector (Alexander Knox) doubts cause and place of death.

The first half is the set-up, the various figures being moved into place, not quite as easily as might have been anticipated, which adds another element of tension. Charles is such a hideous person nobody could lament his passing, but still his vulnerability, not just his wheelchair confinement but his love of music, his better qualities coming to the fore as the result of Maria’s presence, accord him greater sympathy than you would imagine.

That the otherwise gallant Tony’s entitled life depends entirely on his uncle’s good wishes lends him an appealing frailty. The nurse’s principles safeguard her against being taken in by riches alone, but there is a sense that she has used her physical attraction in the past to her advantage.

After the first two James Bond pictures, this was Sean Connery’s first attempt to move away from the secret agent stereotype and in large part he is successful. As amoral as Bond, he could as easily be a Bond villain, smooth and charming and larger than life and superbly gifted in the art of manipulation, the kind of putting all the pieces in place that Bond villains excelled in.

It will come as a surprise to contemporary viewers that he is merely the leading man, not the star. Gina Lollobrigida (Go Naked in the World, 1961) receives top-billing because she carries the emotional weight, initially perhaps as cold as Tony, but her attitude to Charles changing after marriage, meeting a need that Tony would not consider his to fulfill, and beginning to regret going along with any devious plan. That she then discovers she may merely be a pawn rather than a partner creates the dilemma on which the final section of the film depends for tension.

Both actors are excellent, exuding star wattage, the screen charisma between them evident, and audiences craving the pairing of Connery with an European female superstar will be well satisfied. Lollobrigida has the better role, requiring greater depth, but it is romance as duel most of the way. Ralph Richardson (Khartoum,1966) has never been better as one of the worst human beings ever to grace a screen. Johnny Sekka (The Southern Star, 1969) brings dignity to the maligned servant and Alexander Knox (Khartoum) is a crusty cop. 

A slick offering from Basil Dearden (The Mind Benders, 1963), with one proviso which I will touch on tomorrow, but could have done with expending less time on the set-up and getting to the meat of the thriller quicker.

CATCH-UP: Sean Connery pictures reviewed in the Blog so far are: The Frightened City (1961), Dr No (1962), Marnie (1964), The Hill (1965) and The Red Tent (1969). I have been pretty thorough in examining the work of Basil Dearden, reviewing the following: The Secret Partner (1961), Masquerade (1965), Khartoum (1966), Only When I Larf (1968) and The Assassination Bureau (1969).

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