Captain Newman M.D. (1963) ****

Somewhat lost in the rush to acclaim star Gregory Peck for his Oscar-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), this bold attempt to tackle mental illness among the armed forces deserves reassessment.

Set towards the end of World War Two, psychiatrist Captain Newman (Gregory Peck) heads up a unit addressing the previously ignored mental health issues of U.S. airmen. One of the first to identify post- traumatic stress disorder, Newman employs a whole raft of unusual techniques such as allowing his clients to tend sheep. And he’s not above using romantic sleight-of-hand to woo Lt. Corum (Angie Dickinson), a nurse in a non-psychiatric department, to join his team. Orderly Corporal Leibowitz (Tony Curtis), more of a con artist than a medical professional, is the other key member of the team.

As you might expect, Newman has to battle superiors to allow him to even attempt to cure any of the men under his care since in standard armed forces opinion they are really just cowards trying to duck out of their duty. Given there’s no prescribed treatment for his clientele, Newman basically improvises on a case-by-case basis to get to the heart of what caused mental collapse.

While the movie motors along nicely on the interplay between these three characters – the potential for real romance between Newman and Corum and Newman’s acceptance of Leibowitz’s alternative, more down-to-earth and decidedly un-medical approach – it focuses on three critical cases. Col Bliss (Eddie Albert) suffers from split personality, Capt Winston (Robert Duvall) is catatonic and Corporal Tompkins (Bobby Darin) too bubbly by far.

In dealing with each, Newman adopts a different persona, occasionally entering into the make-believe world of his clients to expose how much of a fiction they are. Stern with some, he is gentle with others and when he appears to go over the score explains he is not shouting at a person but at his symptoms.   

And while at time it feels like a mental equivalent of episodes of a hospital soap, the underlying drive, the knowledge that men are hiding from the horrors of war or endure guilt over action they may have taken or are unable to face the consequence of orders they carried out takes this into a different level. Almost all suffer from the standard conviction that they must be cowards. Newman’s task is to make all face up to their fears.

Presumably to overcome fears of audience resistance to the downbeat subject matter, the U.S. poster plain misled the public – “love, laughter and tears” were not much in evidence.

And it’s Corum’s self-appointed job to get under Newman’s skin and in so doing get to the heart of the terrible irony of his role. If he fails and men are discharged without being cured they will be returned to their units while mentally unstable and make decisions that could endanger thousands of men. If he succeeds, he sends men back to face potential death.

Luckily, it’s far from dour. Instead of taking the audience down a medical jargon rabbit-hole, the movie sensibly concentrates of character and humanity. It is filled with brilliant dialogue and whenever Newman appears overwhelmed up pops Leibowitz like the self-appointed class clown to bring events to a cheerier conclusion. Up till the end – a Xmas show by inmates and the arrival of a bunch of Italian POWs – the movie steers well clear of sentimentality and delivers a lucid exploration of the effects of war on the human psyche.

Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is outstanding, not just from the way he adapts his character to suit the situation, but because quite a lot of his role is just to react to what is being said. Most stars would run a mile from being on the receiving end of chunks of dialog and insist on altering the script to make them appear more dynamic. Unlike Atticus Finch who is convinced he can find a solution, Newman knows his detection skills are very basic.

Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler, 1968) might appear as if inhabiting a custom-made role suited to his natural effervescence and charm, but this is a deeper character than initially  seems the case and rather than ride along and enjoy himself he has spells of challenging Newman’s authority. It’s a more subdued role for Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962), too, but she also brings a level of seriousness to the part and is integral to the picture’s success.

Bobby Darin (Pressure Point, 1962) was Oscar-nominated but I found his acting over-the-top. Eddie Albert (Green Acres television series 1965-1971) and Robert Duvall (To Kill a Mockingbird), in particular, were more assured. Look out for James Gregory (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968) and former child star Jane Withers.

David Miller (Hammerhead, 1968) strikes the correct tone, leavening the seriousness with humor, but not avoiding the deeper issues. In their final screenplay assignment Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Carousel, 1956), parents of Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, 1989), teamed with Richard L. Breen (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) for an intelligent screenplay based on the bestseller by Leo Rosten.

Book into Film: “The Bramble Bush” (1960)

Few novels have been as abruptly shorn as Charles Mergendahl’s massive bestseller – seven million copies sold – The Bramble Bush. The last quarter of the original story was just dumped. For screenwriters seeking to heighten every emotion this was a very strange decision for it is in the last section that the book delivers huge dramatic punch.

The film – SPOILER ALERT – ends with Guy (played in the film by Richard Burton) judged not guilty of the murder of dying best friend Larry. Guy’s one-night stand with Larry’s wife Margaret (Barbara Rush) has made her pregnant but now widowed she leaves him on the grounds that he will be unable to live with what he has done. It’s a sad enough ending but it’s nothing compared to the book.

The trial section takes place three-quarters of the way through the novel. In the film, it is placed much closer to the end so there are only five minutes or so to tidy up in a rather ho-hum manner, nothing highly dramatic, no floods of tears, just Margaret leaving him behind.  

Following the trial in the book, however, Margaret’s departure is much more sudden. There is no goodbye. She just vanishes. While judged innocent of murder, Guy has lost his license to practice so in the absence of professional commitments is free to spend months hunting for her. And find her he does.

The dramatic point you would have thought would be simply whether she can ever accept as a lover the man who has injected her husband with a fatal dose of morphine regardless of whether this was done with the best of intentions and could be construed as a mercy killing. But the author isn’t finished with these characters yet. Yes, they are reconciled and in fact get married.

But it’s too late. Margaret has tuberculosis – a considerably more dangerous condition in those days than now, and in some cases as untreatable as the incurable Hodgkin’s Disease that afflicted her husband. That puts both her life and that of her unborn child in danger. Guy faces another dilemma, just as he did with her husband. If he has to choose, whose life would he want to save.

The baby is born, and both survive. But only for the time being. Margaret’s TB has not abated. Since Guy’s license has by now been restored, they return to the town. But he’s in for a shock. The town is outraged. The public which had stoutly defended him and the jury which had set him free now turn against both, aware through the arrival of the child that they must have had an affair while the husband was still alive, which therefore clouds the issue of exactly why Guy committed euthanasia.

But before Guy can decide to move elsewhere and nurse his sickly wife and care for his newborn child – called Larry after the dead husband – Margaret dies.

That turns the book into a three-handkerchief tragedy that the film never was. Except for running time, you wonder why the screenwriters elected to miss all this out. Maybe the movie would have run over the two-hour mark, perhaps two hours fifteen minutes, but that would hardly make it so undesirable to exhibitors nor so offensive to the public given the ending was so much more dramatic.

Even then, the author isn’t finished. He provides an ironic ending The rejected Fran – dumped also by this point by Bert, Guy’s lawyer– determines that she will look after the child, allowing Guy to recover from his ordeal. And there is the hope – although she would not press her love for Guy on him – that in due course he will come to appreciate her and reciprocate her love.

Quite a different ending indeed from that foisted on moviegoers. Hard to say whether readers were disappointed, but when a novel is such a huge success it is generally because the public likes the story the author has devised. So to rob them of that seems extremely odd.

The novel had raced to the screen. The book was published in September 1958 and the film opened in February 1960, barely seventeen months later. When the gap between novel and movie is so short, it generates feverish public anticipation. And it seems almost perverse to deny the waiting audience the movie they expected.

Naturally, in the transition from book to screen there are other eliminations – and additions. And there is also the usual welter of changes made for no particular reason, for example the town of East Dereham becomes East Norton in the film.

Certainly, the aim of a movie being to heighten drama and combine disparate elements into a more cohesive whole, you can see why in the film it raises the stakes for the lawyer Bert Mosley (Jack Carson) to already be campaigning for district attorney rather than, as in the novel, only dreaming about it. Although both his parents are dead, Guy came from far more prosperous stock in the film than the book, the hospital named after his father in the film but not the novel.

Some of the changes must have seemed to create more drama, but I’m not so sure. What difference did it make whether it was Guy or the dying Larry (Tom Drake) to be the one returning home? In the film it’s Guy, in the book Larry. In the book Guy is kind to the town drunk Stew (James Dunn) but it’s the opposite in the book, hostile and physical abusive to him from the outset. In the book we learn why – Stew was Guy’s mother’s lover and their affair triggered the suicide of his father – from an internal monologue, but in the film this plays out in more dramatic fashion when Margaret confronts Guy about what she sees as his unfair treatment of the older man.

There’s an elimination that’s so shocking you can’t understand why it was left out by the screenwriters. In the book we discover that Stew is in fact Guy’s father, a fact ignored in the film. And in the last section of the book when Guy is tracking down Margaret in different towns he takes Stew’s surname as his own. And one core element of the film – Larry pushing Guy and Margaret together – is the screenwriters’ invention. (Perhaps audiences would view Guy in a lesser light if he simply took advantage of his friend’s illness to sleep with his wife). And to tie things up more neatly, it’s Guy in the film who prescribes sedatives for Margaret whereas in the book that’s not part of his role.

On the other hand Larry’s father Sam is hostile to Guy for reasons that are kept from us in the film – but in the book we find out it’s because Sam blames Guy’s father (also a doctor) for his wife dying in childbirth, an incident that caused him to lapse into the insanity mentioned in the trial scene in the film.

You can see why some elements of the book are not included. The creepy newspaperman Welk (Henry Jones) who blackmails Fran (Angie Dickinson) into posing nude for him later dupes his assistant into doing the same. Bert falls for a tough Boston reporter Sylvia for whom he quits town and dumps Fran.  On discovering she is pregnant by Guy, Margaret’s initial reaction is to seek an abortion. And there’s a section where hospital chief Dr Kelsey and Fran discuss the various ethical ways doctors have of letting exceptionally ill babies die.  The judge suggests to the jury that Guy could be acquitted due to temporary insanity. And there is a bunch of peripheral characters whose main purpose is to highlight the jealousies inherent in small-towns.

But there are two character turnarounds the screenwriters choose to ignore. The first is that the drink-sodden Stew becomes a recovering alcoholic after discovering he is a grandfather. The second is more touching. After Fran was rejected early on by Guy and later dumped by Bert she had resigned herself to a life of “doing terribly immoral things.” But the book ends with, as mentioned above, her taking a huge emotional leap by giving herself the task of nursing both motherless child and widowed father.

It’s always fascinating to see how screenwriters tee up a book for the big screen treatment, deciding what to leave in and what to take out, occasionally (as in Mirage, for example) using little more than the title and the original idea and jettisoning the rest. Of course, limitations may be imposed on the screenwriters of which we are unaware, star demands or budget impositions and other factors. Here, I felt that screenwriters Milton Sperling (also the producer) and Philip Yordan did not get the best out of the book.

The Bramble Bush (1960) ***

The secrecy business was working overtime in small-town America according to the Peyton Place template. And that wouldn’t be so bad here except returning big city doctor Guy (Richard Burton) has a few of his own in the locker but more importantly the unfolding of so many secrets detracts from the time available for the main dramatic premise which is an absolute corker.

We might as well account straight-off with the secret Guy drags around behind him like a two-ton weight thus explaining his general surliness, tight-lipped demeanor and occasional flashes of temper. As a twelve-year-old he told his father he had caught his mother in bed lover with Stew (James Dunn) which prompted his dad to chuck himself off a cliff.

The other big secret, dealt with fairly promptly, is that local nurse Fran (Angie Dickinson), who held a torch for Guy, now makes do with district attorney Bert (Jack Carson), that clandestine affair coming to light not so much in flagrante but in full beam when the illicit couple require treatment following a fire in a hotel bedroom.

The unravelling of both secrets impacts on Guy’s emotional state. The fire leads to Fran admitting her feelings to Guy, happy to have him use her for sex if love is not possible, “I love you so much I have no shame,” she proclaims, to no avail, but the hotel business also makes her fall prey to blackmail by local newshound Parker (Henry Jones), a budding amateur photographer of the unsavoury kind. Recounting his personal tragedy results in a Guy having a one-night stand with the married wannabe artist Margaret McFie (Barbara Rush).

But here’s the brilliant twist. Margaret’s husband Larry (Tom Drake) wants her to end up with Guy – but after his death. Larry, Guy’s best friend from childhood, is dying, the doctor scuttling back to a town that harbours too many bad memories in order to act as his personal physician. Larry’s never going to recover, he has the incurable illness Hodgkin’s Disease. His dying wish is that Guy marry Margaret.

Margaret is revolted by the idea, “I don’t want to be beautiful for anyone but Larry,” but unable to cope with his with illness is living on a cocktail of drink and drugs. And although Guy, who distrusts any woman, is similarly ill-inclined, Margaret becomes dependent on his medical ability, treating both husband and wife. Larry turns out to have another crazy idea – he wants Guy to kill him, medically speaking of course, some extra, illegal, doses of morphine would do the trick.

This incredible bucket list provides Guy with a huge dilemma, never mind what to do with Fran throwing herself at him and having to put up with the hypocritical Bert, and Stew, now the town drunk, begging for forgiveness, and Larry’s father Sam (Carl Benton Reid), who, for reasons unspecified, hates the doctor.  

There’s more twists to come, just in case you thought you had everything worked out. But you can see the problem over-complication creates. The euthanasia-please-have-sex-with-my-beautiful wife combination would have set the movie up nicely from the get-go. Guy wouldn’t need to have a deep secret to find himself in very deep waters. How he would react to either or both outcomes, how Margaret would equally react to the possibility of ending her husband’s suffering in a quick and painless manner, would be more than enough to provide the dynamic the picture required. The movie then pivots on Guy being charged with murder.

It’s certainly interesting enough but Guy is too buttoned-down to incur sympathy and his revelation, devastating though it is, doesn’t suddenly make him an instantly more attractive screen character. In fact, it’s Fran who elicits the greater sympathy, the woman bedding someone who views her only  as a sex object, yet willing to become a sex object for someone she does love if that’s all she can have. Eventually, the two key issues are put in the spotlight, which certainly puts a spark in the picture. But the poster promises a passion that just doesn’t exist.

Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965) plays this character in a lower register than his screen persona, the sonorous voice toned down, and although the look of someone who doesn’t want to be back rings true the performance lacks variety and there are only occasional glimpses of the fiery actor. Barbara Rush (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964) has her own legitimate reasons for being dispassionate and the vibrant character her husband married never really gets an airing. Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) comes across as a more human character with, in emotional terms, a greater flaw, and a more tragic figure, even though there is nothing life-or-death about her circumstances. Two veterans are showcased: Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce, 1945) and James Dunn (Bad Girl, 1931).

Television director Daniel Petrie (A Raisin in the Sun, 1961) was making his movie debut. The screenwriting team of Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) drew on the bestselling novel by Charles Mergendahl.

Hard to find DVD so Ebay is the best source.

All-Time Top 40

I started this Blog two years ago this month and to my astonished delight it is now read in over 120 countries. I am now well past over 500 reviews. So I thought you might be interested to know which of these reviews has attracted the most attention. This isn’t my choice of the top films in the Blog, but yours, my loyal readers. The chart covers the films viewed the most times since the Blog began, from June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2022.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark exudes menace in this adaptation of an early Alistair MacLean spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War. Senta Berger  has a small role.
  2. Jessica (1962). Innocently gorgeous widow Angie Dickinson finds her looks turn so many male heads in a small Italian town that the female population seeks revenge.
  3. Ocean’s 11 (1960). The Rat Pack makes its debut – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. et al plan an audacious Las Vegas robbery. 
  4. Pharoah (1966). Priests battle kings in Polish epic set in ancient Egypt. Fabulous to look at and thoughtful.
  5. Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall in the best role of her career as a sexy German spy in World War One.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. The Swinger (1966). Ann-Margret struts her stuff as a magazine journalist trying to persuade Tony Franciosca she is as sexy as the character she has written about.
  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. A Place for Lovers (1969). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in doomed love affair directed by Vittorio De Sica.
  10. 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.
  11. Moment to Moment (1966). Hitchcockian-style thriller with Jean Seberg caught up in  murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  12. 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.
  13. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  14. The Double Man (1967). Yul Brynner chases his doppelganger in the Swiss Alps with Britt Ekland adding a touch of glamour.
  15.  Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry hunts an M.I.5 mole in London. Intrigue all round with Joan Collins supplying the romance and a scene-stealing Suzanna Leigh as a villain.
  16. 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.
  17. Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Off-the-wall musical directed by star Anthony Newley that has to be seen to be believed. Joan Collins pops up. 
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Deadlier than the Male (1967). Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond is led a merry dance by spear-gun-toting Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina in outlandish thriller.
  20. Valley of Gwangi (1969). Special effects genius Ray Harryhausen the star here as James Franciscus and Gila Golen encounter prehistoric monsters in a forbidden valley.
  21. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  22. Orgy of the Dead (1965). Bearing the Ed Wood imprint, mad monster mash-up with the naked dead.
  23. Once a Thief (1965). Ann-Margret is a revelation in crime drama with ex-con Alain Delon coerced into a robbery despite trying to go straight. Supporting cast boasts Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey. 
  24. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Stunning caper with thief Alain Delon and Mafia chief Jean Gabin teaming up for audacious jewel heist with cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil. Great score by Ennio Morricone.
  25. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). More diamonds at stake as Rod Taylor leads a gang of mercenaries into war-torn Congo.  Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller
  26. Stiletto (1969). Mafia hitman Alex Cord pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland as the treacherous girlfriend heads a supporting cast including Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  27. Maroc 7 (1967). Yet more jewel skullduggery with Gene Barry infiltrating a gang of thieves in Morocco who use the cover of a fashion shoot. Top female cast comprises Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  28. The Rock (1996). Former inmate Sean Connery breaks into Alcatraz with Nicolas Cage to prevent mad general Ed Harris blowing up San Francisco. Michael Bay over-the-top thriller with blistering pace.
  29. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster’s life falls apart as he swims pool-by-pool across the county. Superlative performance. 
  30. Hour of the Gun (1967). James Garner as a ruthless Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in John Sturges’ realistic re-telling of events after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
  31. Fade In (1968). Long-lost modern western with Burt Reynolds serenading low-level movie executive Barbara Loden whose company is actually filming Terence Stamp picture Blue.
  32. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). The British movie version of Disney American television mini-series sees Patrick McGoohan as a Robin Hood-type character assisting local smugglers.
  33. P.J./New Face in Hell (1968). Private eye George Peppard is duped by shady millionaire Raymond Burr and mistress Gayle Hunnicutt in murder mystery.
  34. Sol Madrid/The Heroin Gang (1968). In his second top-billed role David MacCallum drags hooker Stella Stevens to Mexico to capture drugs kingpin Telly Savalas.
  35. A Twist of Sand (1968). Diamonds again. Smugglers Richard Johnson and Jeremy Kemp hunt long-lost jewels in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  36. 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.
  37. Interlude (1968). Bittersweet romance between famed conductor Oskar Wener and young reporter Barbara Ferris.
  38. Woman of Straw (1964). Sean Connery tangles with Gina Lollobrigida in lurid tale of murder and inheritance.
  39. Bedtime Story (1964). Marlon Brando and David Niven are rival seducers on the Riviera targeting wealthy women.
  40. Sisters (1969). Intrigue, adultery and incest haunt Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg as they try to recapture the innocence of the past.

The Unfinished Task / I’ll Give My Life (1960) ***

Complete your Angie Dickinson collection with his long-lost number. Almost unrecognizable as a brunette, she carries much of the emotional weight of this tale about an outsider rejecting a chosen career. Hollywood pictures about creative outsiders such as artists and writers relied on charismatic actors – Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956), Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) – to bring the project to life. Similarly, you might think, in movies about another type of outsider, of the religious variety, having the likes of Gregory Peck (The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944) or Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) goes a long way to giving such ventures audience-appeal.

Here, Jim (John Bryant), the son of a successful construction tycoon, having completed a degree goes against the wishes of father John (Ray Collins) by becoming a minister instead. In due course he is sent overseas to a mission in New Guinea, and like Father Stu (2022) contracts a deadly disease. Jim is far from charismatic, just a plodding ordinary guy who has found “something more important than building skyscrapers.”

The story is instead told through the eyes of John, resentful of his son’s decision, and his girlfriend/fiancée/wife Alice (Angie Dickinson) who, expecting marriage to a wealthy engineer, instead has to set aside her own ambitions and go along with her husband’s wishes, this being post-WWII America, and independence hardly a prerequisite in a wife, never mind a woman.

This poster does not do the film justice. It’s nothing like as “heavenly” as that. Howco was an exhibition company that entered distribution in order to provide enough product for its cinemas.

But if this is a story of a conversion – as was the case in Father Stu – it’s about the conversion of the father and Alice and the bulk of the story hinges upon their reactions to the path taken by Jim rather than him taking center stage. So it’s cleverly done, and whether this is due to budgetary pressure, or creative decision, it proves the right choice. John is the kind of self-made man who would dominate any stage, forever making plans, spinning the world as he would like it to be. In Alice’s eyes we see nothing but her weighing up Jim’s choices, sometimes accompanied by shock, occasionally elation, but mostly resignation and infrequent resentment as she, too, is parted from family to follow her husband into an unknown in which she had considerably less faith.

Unlike Father Stu, conversion does not come easily. Jim is long dead, two-thirds of the way through the picture as it happens, before John comes to realize that his son’s demise should not be in vain and that he left behind “an unfinished task” for his father to complete, namely raising awareness of the power of missionaries to improve the lot of the miserable and poor in foreign parts. Bear in mind the era in which this was made, so there are some attitudes that will make you wince, but generally it is well done, not weighted down with platitudes and, in concentrating on the doubter, brings alive a difficult subject.

And although this was before questions were asked about the sexual corruption of priests and ministers, men who followed religion were still not as easily accommodated in the general community, seen as overly pious and, to the businessman, existing in a vacuum. The idea that the Church, of various kinds, had not done enough to ease global suffering, is continually raised and nobody here is giving themselves a pat on the back.

Alice is actually given more screen time than Jim, his father using her as a sounding board, and, while Jim is off in New Guinea, enjoying herself with the firm’s resident beau, Bob (Jon Sheppod), and finally taking on motherhood and coping with the premature death of her husband and still fighting to open the father’s eyes to the good being done.

Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) gives a very good account of herself, especially as the narrative restricts her to the kind of wifely 1950s role rather than the frisky sexuality she exhibited in the 1960s. Her acting skill saved her from being lumbered with portentous dialogue since she could portray her feelings more easily with her eyes.

Ray Collins (famed for a running role in the Perry Mason series) is excellent as the father confused by his son’s decision, fighting him every inch of the way. John Bryant (The Bat, 1959), it has to be said, does not light up the screen, lacking the magnetism of a Peck or a Crosby but in some regard this kind of straight playing suits the film, since the character is not meant to be out of the ordinary.

William F. Claxton (Desire in the Dust, 1960) directed from a script by Herbert Moulton, better known as a producer of shorts. Although this film was released in 1960, it appears to have been made before that, some suggest as early as 1955. Given it was funded by the Lutheran Church, the script does not make heavy weather of the religious elements and John’s resistance to his son’s vocation reflected that of any father to a son embarking on as shaky a career as painting or writing.

You can catch this on YouTube, though it’s not a great print. And, yes, that is Angie Dickinson sitting demurely at a desk.

The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) ***

In her first top-billed role Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) delivers a strong performance as an American nurse/missionary in the Belgian Congo at the start of the Second World War. The usual Hollywood trope of “heathens” needing to be educated by imperialists – from The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) through to The Nun’s Story (1959) – was to some extent turned on its head here.

Just as Rachel Cade (Angie Dickinson) arrives at a hospital in a small village, resident Dr Bikel  (Douglas Spencer) dies. Not only does the hospital have no patients, the local Belgian commissioner Col Derod (Peter Finch) wants her to leave, believing her presence will act as provocation to the local high priest Kalanumu (Juano Hernandez) and witch doctor Muwango (Woody Strode). After standing up to all three, Rachel embarks on refurbishment of the hospital aided by assistant Kulu (Errol John).

Patients remain non-existent until she cures a small boy of appendicitis, as a result of which Muwango places a curse on her that she will lose her Protestant faith and promises the local god will take his revenge on anyone who supports her. Of course, her skills are not infinite and not only is there another boy who dies in her care but she cannot cure – and does not attempt to cure – the infertile third wife of the local chief.

While she warms to her patients and they to her, she cannot come to terms with their acceptance of incest (if a husband is called away, his brother must make love to his wife), polygamy, vaginal mutilation, the sexuality of their dancing and the fact that sin does not exist in their culture. Meanwhile, she distrusts the visions seen by the most convinced of her converts, Kulu.    

When the sexually repressed Rachel rejects Derod’s advances in favour of the  dashing but money-oriented Dr Paul Winton (Roger Moore), thus violating her own teachings, she becomes enmeshed by the principles she holds so dearly and which the Africans refute. A twist in the tale pivots the picture on whom she will marry, the sensible Derod, the cavalier Winton, or retain her own independence in defiance of the standards of the time.  

A battle of the hierarchies – the female nurse and her supporters versus male supremacy – maintains the tension but underneath is a philosophical struggle between the two faiths. The Christian religion which boasts of forgiveness is in the end unforgiving of those who break its moral code, while the African religion does not force onto its believers such ludicrous rules. On top of that is Rachel’s acceptance of her own passion, the realization that love cannot be restrained by commandment, and that men are more likely to betray her.

The reality of imperialist rule is not underplayed but since this predates the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s that precipitated widespread rebellion and Derod can call on soldiers for protection in the Belgian colony and is in fact a generally tolerant (though at times patronising) overseer, political issues remain in the background.

Angie Dickinson gets the movie star build-up in this British trade advertisement.

Director Gordon Douglas (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) keeps the focus on the transition of the naïve American while not ignoring nor appearing to ridicule the rituals and beliefs of the tribe – although a cynic might consider that the sexuality of the dancing, while repellant to Rachel, might be included more with an eye to attracting an audience. Overall, it appears an honest even-sided presentation, with the high priest getting the better of Rachel in arguments over the frailties of Christianity. Angie Dickinson brings conviction to a role that sees her start out a shade saintly until brought back down to earth by human weakness. Peter Finch, by coincidence the leading man to Audrey Hepburn role in The Nun’s Story, fills out his normal stoic screen personality with touches of grief. Roger Moore (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969) had not yet mastered the art of the raised eyebrow and so brought a more rounded performance to his role and is entirely believable as the lover with the mercenary streak.

The pick of the supporting parts is Mary Wickes (Sister Act, 1992) as Derod’s wisecracking housekeeper. Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Scatman Crothers (The Shining, 1980),  Juano Hernandez (The Pawnbroker, 1964) and Errol John (The Nun’s Story)  provide stiff opposition for the incomers.  Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965) based his screenplay on the bestseller by Charles Mercer.

CATCH-UP: Featured in the Blog so far are the following Angie Dickinson pictures: Ocean’s 11 (1960), A Fever in the Blood (1961), Jessica (1962), The Chase (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and Point Blank (1967).

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 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.

Selling Angie Dickinson – “Jessica” (1962)

There was an age-old rule of thumb in Hollywood marketing. You can ignore iron-clad contracts as regards credits and billing if you have a sexy girl to promote. The top-billed Maurice Chevalier had been a major Hollywood star for nearly three decade from the likes of The Merry Widow (1934) to Gigi (1958) and twice Oscar-nominated. But you can scarcely see his face in any of the posters. He was passed over in favor of the glorious image of Angie Dickinson astride a Vespa scooter. And, unusually, for an industry that sold females in terms of facial features and bosom, Dickinson’s posterior was given as much prominence as the rest of her figure.

Bearing in mind the Vespa trick had already been used in more fashionable fashion by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, this was probably a more sensible approach. While there’s no doubt Dickinson was stylish nobody would ever beat Hepburn when it came to haute couture so there was no point trying, although it has to be said the sweater look was something of a throwback to the 1940s.

However, there were two other pieces of more stylish artwork as back-up for an exhibitor looking askance at the obvious and with more discerning patrons. While Mitchell Hooks was responsible for the main poster, also turning their hand to  promotional material were director Jean Negulesco (whose effort is pictured at the top) and artist Bernard Buffet who both concentrated on face to the exclusion of figure. Negulesco had begun his career as an expressionist artist in the 1920s and the Pressbook marketeers took this idea further by claiming that “every frame of the film was composed with such care that the picture…can be said to be painted with a camera.” 

Negulesco was a noted art collector and paintings by Bernard Buffet, also a French expressionist, adorned his walls. In 1955 Buffet was named the top post-war artist and his first retrospective at the age of just 30 was held three years later.

As readers of these occasional articles on Pressbooks will know, marketing a movie around one image was rare but the image of Jessica (Angie Dickinson) mounting a scooter was used exclusively in all posters even though the background and taglines might change. The background showed the locale, some subsidiary characters and dancing. You have to look close to catch a glimpse of top star Maurice Chevalier – he’s the guy in black toting a guitar.

The taglines centered on the mischievous Jessica causing marital mishap in sun-filled Italy. “Here comes trouble. The most delightful, delicious siren who ever scooted into town and put marriages on the skids!” was the main tagline. The rest were along similar lines. “She’s the most luscious forbidden fruit that ever dropped into the screen’s lap.” / “She lives it up saucily in Italy.” / “Meet the gal who took Italy by storm with a scooter, sweater and a smile.”   

The more artistic posters by Negulesco and Buffet had different taglines: “Not in a month of Never on Sundays have you heard such wonderful songs” and “Jean Negulesco, who put Rome on the map with Three Coins in the Fountain, now works wonders on the shores of the blue Mediterranean in Jessica, a most mischievous girl.” The marketeers of course were taking some artistic license since Roman Holiday preceded Three Coins in the Fountain.

The Pressbook offered a couple of pages of nuggets for hungry newspaper editors with Chevalier at last getting some attention – the “crooning cleric” was described as “the perennially youthful Frenchman (who) had sung, danced and acted his way across the stages of the world enjoying the adulation of several different generations.”  Chevalier was given tips on his guitar by a local singing cleric, apparently.

But there was little chance, even in print, of Chevalier stealing Dickinson’s thunder especially when particular reference was made to her nude swimming scene, for which she wore a skin-colored bikini to the disappointment of the hundreds of locals who climbed up a steep slope to the waterfall location.

Jean wasn’t the only artistic member of the Negulesco clan. His wife Dusty, also a painter,  designed the wardrobe, wrote lyrics for the film’s songs and taught Dickinson how to ride a scooter. The movie was filmed on location in the village of Forza d’Agro on a clifftop 1,000 feet high. The shoot lasted 55 days with 2,600 people from the surrounding area employed as support staff or in bit parts and extras. The production spent about $113,000 (over $1 million at today’s prices) on accommodation and meals and purchased 8,300 gallons of fuel. Traditional Sicilian music was incorporated into the film.

Given Chevalier was singing it was inevitable and promotionally essential to put out a single, this was “Jessica” backed by “The Vespa Song.” There was also an original soundtrack album. Both were ideal material for local radio stations to play during the film’s launch.

A key element of the promotion was a tie-up with Vescony inc which distributed Vespa scooters in the U.S. There was a national competition and franchisees were ready to lend scooters to theaters for openings and special screenings or just to sit in the lobby attracting attention. A subplot involving gardening inspired marketeers to suggest exhibitors give away orchids to women named Jessica and had tied up with supplier Orchids of Hawaii. Other ideas included targeting local midwives – both male and female – and a “Jessica Jump” reflecting the film’s wedding scene. There was book tie-in based on the source novel The Midwife of Pont Clery by Flora Sandstrom published by Pocket books.

Bernard Buffet’s involvement was something of a coup and promised an opportunity to create a promotion appealing to art lovers. “Not since Toulouse-Lautrec made advertisements for nightclubs has an artist of this stature contributed to ads for popular entertainment.”  

Jessica (1962) ***

Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins in a Fountain (1956) had set a high bar for Hollywood romances set in Italy. Since Jean Negulesco had directed the latter he was expected to sprinkle box office magic on this slight tale of young American midwife Jessica Brown Visconti (Angie Dickinson) adrift in a rustic village in Sicily.

She’s the kind of beauty who’s going to raise male temperatures except Jessica, having been widowed on her wedding day, is not romantically inclined. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the entire male population becoming so entranced that their wives become so enraged that led by Maria (Agnes Moorehead) they embark on a sex strike, assuming that without any pregnancies (contraception being frowned upon in a Catholic domain) to deal with Jessica will become redundant and go away.

And that so annoys Jessica, who is doing a good job as a midwife, that she turns on the flirting to get back at her female tormentors. Luckily, there’s a reclusive landowner (Gabriele Ferzetti) who happens to be a widower, although romance takes a while to stir. There’s also a priest (Maurice Chevalier), in part acting as narrator, who turns to song every now and then.

So it’s a surprise that this unlikely concoction works at all. It’s charming in the obvious ways, the lush scenery, a traditional wedding, gentle comedy. But it’s a decade too late in taking an innocent view of sex. There’s no crudeness, of course; it doesn’t fall victim to the 1960s’  need to sexualise in an obvious manner. And not every husband is continuously ogling Jessica so Nunzia (Sylva Koscina) and young bride Nicolina (Danielle De Metz) are in the awkward situation of potentially betraying the sisterhood.

But in resolving the central issue the story develops too many subplots and introduces too many characters, often leaving Jessica rather redundant in terms of the plot, with not much to do, especially when her prospective suitor is absent for a long period going fishing.

Angie Dickinson is delightful as the Vespa-riding innocent turned mischievous. However, in some way though this seemed a backward step for Dickinson, a rising star in the Lana Turner/Elizabeth Taylor mold after being John Wayne’s squeeze in Rio Bravo (1959) and Frank Sinatra’s estranged wife in Ocean’s 11 (1960) and following a meaty supporting role in A Fever in the Blood (1961) elevated to top billing in The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961). It seemed like Hollywood could not make up its mind whether it wanted her to be like Gidget or be given free rein to express her sexuality.

Ferzetti and Dickinson

A charmer like Maurice Chevalier was ideal for what was in effect a whimsical part. The singing probably met audience expectation. Perhaps like Sean Connery’s perennial Scottish accent, nobody ever asked Chevalier to drop his pronounced French accent even to play an Italian. But the picture is whimsical enough without him.

There’s a surprisingly strong supporting cast in four-time Oscar nominee Agnes Moorehead (Pollyanna, 1960), Gabriele Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969) and French actor (and sometime writer-director) Noel-Noel. Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina (Deadlier Than the Male, 1967), Frenchwoman Kerima (Outcast of the Islands, 1951) and Danielle De Metz (The Scorpio Letters, 1967) all make a splash.

You can catch it for free on YouTube.

A Fever in the Blood (1961) ****

Blistering B-film from writer Roy Huggins (TV’s The Fugitive) that marries political chicanery to legal jiggery-pokery in a movie that races from one twist to another. In his role as producer Huggins calls upon actors he made stars from the television series he created – Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (77 Sunset Strip), Jack Kelly (Maverick) – and gives Angie Dickinson (Oceans 11) the female lead. Huggins’ brilliant premise is to ignore the dilemma of the man, Walter Thornwall (Rhodes Reason), nephew of a former Governor, wrongly accused of the murder of his wife. Instead the film concentrates on accuser District Attorney Dan Callahan (Kelly) and Judge Lee Hoffman (Zimbalist Jr), both of whom, running for the vacant Governor post, stand to make massive political capital from the publicity surrounding a sensational trial.

Former buddies, Callahan and Hoffman are now bitter rivals after the former had reneged on a promise to support the latter’s bid for the political post. Also throwing his hat into the ring is Senator Alex Simon (Don Ameche) whose wife Cathy (Dickinson) once had romantic yearnings for Hoffman. The only one of the trio who had anything approaching a conscience is Hoffman and that is immediately tested when the Senator offers him a bribe to stand down from the race, which the Judge, after an appeal from Cathy, does not report to the authorities. There is another ploy open to Hoffman. Should he find reason to declare a mistrial, that would sabotage Callahan’s bid since he would not be riding high in the media after convicting a celebrity killer.

The picture jumps from intense politics, the wheeling-dealing and the wrapping up of votes, to a  trial in a packed courtroom very much in the Perry Mason vein with surprise witnesses, shocks, objections sustained or overruled, clever arguments, dueling attorneys, and last-minute evidence. A witness has Thornwall running away from the scene of the crime and when his wife is painted as a nymphomaniac that provides ample motive.  Further evidence pushes the defendant into a worse corner. But all the while over the trial hangs the stink of political machination.

There are another half-dozen brilliant twists not least of which is Judge Hoffman letting conscience go hang and embarking on a couple of dodgy endeavors himself including what amounts to sheer blackmail. The District Attorney, one of the sharpest tools in the box, reacts to every setback with a cunning that would have been criminal had it not been legal. Also hanging there is potential adultery between Cathy and the widowed Hoffman.

The writer in Huggins is a past master at shifting the cards in the deck and this has so many twists and turns it feels like a whole series of The Fugitive crammed into one episode. There is as much self-awareness of the underbelly of politics as in Advise and Consent (1962), as much deceit and corruption, as much principle disguised as honor. But the plot here is so tight, the characters dealing with twists and turns that the movie has no requirement for the depth of characterization that would have been brought to the picture by a Henry Fonda or Charles Laughton. Huggins proves you can have just as much fun without the big boys. None of the stars with the exception of Angie Dickinson made a dent on the Hollywood A-list but they are all perfectly acceptable, and once Huggins tightens the screws plot-wise the last thing on your mind is wishing for a better cast.   

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