The Sweet Ride (1968) ***

Unusual drama mainlining on Californian surf, sex, bikers, a mystery of Blow-Up (1966) dimensions and the best entrance since Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962). Displays a 1960s vibe with a 1950s pay-off as the “hitchhiker” of responsibility rears its ugly head.

A woman thrown out of a car narrowly escapes being run over. The cops jack in the investigation after television actress Vickie (Jacqueline Bisset) refuses to explain why she’s been badly beaten up.  And so we enter flashback mode to supposedly find out. She makes a glorious entrance, emerging from the sea, minus bikini top, into the lives of surfer Denny (Michael Sarrazin), jazz pianist Choo-Choo (Bob Denver) and ageing beach bum and tennis hustler Collie (Tony Franciosca). From the off, she’s enigmatic, gives a false address, won’t explain bruises on her arm, has something clandestine going on with television producer Caswell (Warren Stevens) and like Blow-Up we are only privy to snippets of information.

She’s half-in half-out of a relationship with Dennis, with Collie hovering on the periphery hoping to pick up the pieces to his sexual advantage. Contemporary issues clog the background, Choo-Choo tries a camp number complete with pink dog to avoid the draft, a neighbor threatens to shoot Parker for wandering around in shorts and habitually stealing his newspaper, epithets like “degenerates” are tossed around, Choo Choo’s girlfriend Thumper, while appearing in movies with titles like Suburban Lust Queen acts den mother, there’s not much actual exciting surfing, and a biker called Mr. Clean is somehow involved.

The romance plays out well, Vicky unsure, Denny convinced but without a livelihood to offer and unable to get a straight answer out of her. Choo-Choo gets the gig of his dreams in Las Vegas and there’s an rape scene, more unsettling because it’s committed by Denny with the bizarre justification of getting “just for once something on my terms.”  And there’s the equally disquieting sense that the only explanation for Vickie’s behavior is to tab her a nymphomaniac, walking out of an argument with a mysterious man in a beach house to drop her clothes for a bout of sex with Mr Clean.

I must have seen a different picture from everyone else. A good few critics at the time and reviewers since appear to think Vickie was also victim of a gangbang by the bikers, but I can’t see why. When he sees Vickie coming down from the beach house, Mr. Clean shouts “everybody split” and his buddies clear the beach. However, Mr. Clean, ironically, gives the best indication of her state of mind, explaining that Vickie “kept staring back at the house and moaning about how she wanted to die” while he enjoyed the best night of his life sex-wise.

Denny and Collie prove not to be the pussycats they appear, bearding the bikers in their den and beating up Mr. Clean while Denny goes on to deliver a hiding to Caswell. But what this film turns out to be is an examination of vulnerability, how easily those with a new sense of freedom are trapped. An examination of contemporary mores, perhaps, but in not resolving the mystery of Vickie ultimately fails to deliver, especially as it does not, from the outset, carry the kind of artistic credentials of Antonioni in Blow-Up.

Perhaps the mystery needs no resolution, it’s just same old-same old dressed up in the novelty of sexual freedom. There’s no idea of why Vickie was beaten up, and essentially abandoned on the road to become accident fodder, and no hint really of why she fell foul of someone so badly she needed disposed of, no notion that she was a threat to anyone. (Or, for that matter, no explanation of what happened to her bikini top and why, if she was so apparently free with her charms, she was so shy about being seen half-naked.) On the other hand, victim may well have been Vicky’s destiny from the get-go, that kind of innocence only waiting to be defiled.

In any 1960s contemporary picture there’s always the temptation to accept as truthful or reject as phony the lives shown. The idea that sexual freedom bestows actual freedom is usually the issue until consequence (i.e. old-fashioned Hollywood morality) comes into play. This is less heavy-handed than, for example, Easy Rider (1969) or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). The characters make decisions to grow up or to stay locked in a world of easy sex, dope and money. There’s no grand finale, just a more realistic drifting apart, and it’s only Vickie who comes apart, although that process had begun long before she met the drifters.  

Jacqueline Bisset (The Detective, 1968), in her divinely posh British accent, comes over well as an attractive screen presence and complex character. In fact, she has a bigger part here than in Bullitt (1968) or The Detective (1968). If you wanted anyone to portray a soulful hippie you need look no further than tousle-haired Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) and normally if you required someone on the sly, despicable side, Tony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) might well be your first port of call, but Franciosca proves the surprise here, classic wind-up merchant and predator who exhibits considerable vulnerability when he realizes he is losing the worship of the idealistic young.

Former British matinee idol Michael Wilding (A Girl Named Tamiko, 1962) and Norma Crane (Penelope, 1966) appear as Vickie’s parents.  Bob Denver (Who’s Minding the Mint, 1967) and Michele Carey (The Spy with My Face, 1965) are solid support. Director Harvey Hart (Fortune and Men’s Eyes, 1970) tries to cover too much ground and could have done with narrowing the focus. Future Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph L.) made his screenwriting debut adapting the book by William Murray.

The DVD is a bit on the pricey side, but if you just want to check it out, YouTube has a print.

A Man Could Get Killed (1966) ****

An unexpected delight. More farce than spoof and more Hitchcockian thriller than espionage adventure, but bursting with laughs. Spinning on the premise of mistaken identity, a New York banker becomes mixed up with diamond smugglers while being pursued by a posse of Europe’s shadiest characters and a very determined femme fatale. All the more enjoyable because identity confusion is very difficult to pull off unless you have a top class cast like Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959).

Landing in Lisbon, New York banker William Beddoes (James Garner) is mistaken for the emergency replacement for a recently-deceased British spy. It’s not just embassy officials like Hatton Jones (Robert Coote) who are afflicted by this notion, the villains are so determined to get rid of their man two bombs are planted in his car. Attending his supposed predecessor’s funeral brings Beddoes into contact with glamorous Aurora (Melina Mercouri). Smuggler Steve (Anthony Franciosca) offers his service to Beddoes to help recover $5 million in stolen industrial diamonds. To complicate matters, identity is also an issue for Steve, who while working under an assumed name is outed by Amy (Sandra Dee) who recognizes him as her family’s former gardener.

Unable to convince anyone he is not who he says he is, Beddoes is swept into the conspiracy, his every move under surveillance by rival villains, including Florian (Gregoire Aslan) and Milo the Murderer (Arnold Diamond), while Aurora attempts seduction to bring him to heel.  Eventually, while never ruling out double-cross, Beddoes, Aurora, Steve, Amy and embassy officials work together to decipher a series of clues revolving around rice, azaleas, a red pig and a man who sneezes, none of which align with obvious meanings and naturally are interpreted as something to do Red China or the Iron Curtain.

A picture based on a simple premise is better than a spoof that labors to create a plot and so it’s true here. Everything springs from the mistaken identity and the diamond hunt, and as one twist effortlessly follows another characters with conflicting agendas collide. Beddoes spends all his time trying to escape from kidnap, assassination or seduction. It’s helter-skelter stuff, so no surprise that chases, of the Buster Keaton variety, produce laughs. I found myself laughing out loud at the scene where Steve can’t find anywhere to sit in a café that is not next to a villain, Beddoes getting attacked by drapes, an ambassador (Cecil Parker) more concerned with knotty chess problems than espionage, and a great visual gag where Beddoes  wallops a cop. Escaping pursers, Steve takes a short cut that leads him straight back into danger.

Naturally, the whole enterprise is loaded with confusion, not least because making the wrong decision, taking the wrong turn and making the wrong assumption sets up the next gag. Throw in ambulance theft, Beddoes sitting in a row of hookers in jail, a tape recording turning up in a bread roll and you get the idea.

The cast could have been hand-picked for this kind of picture. James Garner (The Hour of the Gun, 1967) is the  natural successor to Cary Grant in the double-take department. This role is a play on previous ones where he was the trickster and not the patsy. He’s more stiff-upper-lip than the Brits. Comedy skills honed on this one that were put to terrific use in Support Your Local Sherriff (1969). And while Melina Mercouri (Topkapi, 1964) is more than a little over-the-top, the dominant woman from whom ordinarily Beddoes would run a mile, but also possessing the cunning survival instincts lacking in an innocent like him. One scene that depicts their contrasting characters so well is when she runs around half-naked to create a diversion and he chases after trying to cover her up, clearly no idea that distraction is necessary.

Tony Franciosca (The Swinger, 1966) leads with his teeth, his smarminess undercut by Sandra Dee reminding him he is a glorified gardener. Dee (Tammy and the Doctor, 1964), however, never manages to stray from her ingénue roots. An excellent supporting cast includes Robert Coote (The Swinger), Gregoire Aslan (Moment to Monet, 1966), Cecil Parker (A Study in Terror, 1965). This was British actress Dulcie Gray’s final film.

The movie had a fractured genesis. Original director Cliff Owen (The Vengeance of She, 1968) fell out with the stars and was shunted aside in favor of Ronald Neame (Gambit, 1966), more adept at male-female chicanery. The screenplay originated from comedic masters – Richard Breen (Do Not Disturb, 1965) and T.E.B. Clarke (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951)  – based on the book Diamonds for Danger by David E. Walker. And there are many delightful lines. “I’m my own bait,” spouts Aurora. Trying to placate Amy, Steve explains “It’s unusual to find this many dead spies in one day.”

The movie failed to register with the public which was astonishing. At a time when theme songs helped turn other films like Alfie (1965) into successes, the movie contained the tune that would give Frank Sinatra his first number one single in over a decade, “Strangers in the Night.” Unfortunately, the movie did not carry Sinatra’s imprimatur. The music in the film was an instrumental. Had Sinatra’s voice been heard in the movie it might have turned it into a hit.

For a long time, this under-rated delightful comedy was hard to find. There still is not a Region 1 DVD, but you can find it on Region 2 and YouTube has kindly provided a free copy.

The Pleasure Seekers (1964) ***

Unlike Paris, London and Rome, in the early 1960s Madrid lacked an array of easily-recognized iconic buildings so it fell to one of the three main characters to keep audiences informed of why and at what they should marvel. Director Jean Negulesco freshened up his remake of Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) by adding songs, not enough to turn it into a full-blown musical, but enough to define Fran (Ann-Margret) as a singer.

She shares a flat with Maggie (Carol Lynley) and newcomer Susie (Pamela Tiffin) and pretty much all they have in common is trying to get married. The major changes to the previous picture is that the girls are younger, and therefore marriage not so critical, and that nobody has a terminal illness, so it never falls into the three-hanky romantic category. Maggie is in love with her married boss Paul (Brian Keith) and reporter Pete (Gardner McKay) is in love with her. Susie is wooed by millionaire playboy Emilio (Anthony Franciosca) and Maggie falls for humble doctor Andres (Andre Lawrence).

The meet-cutes are well done. Emilio attempts to comfort Susie in a museum believing her tears are caused by being overcome by a painting when instead she is just homesick. The doctor attracts Fran’s attention when he accidentally runs her over (a reversal of the situation in her next film Bus Riley’s Back in Town, 1964, when her character runs into the car of the eponymous Bus). And there are some interesting twists. Susie, believing Emilio, is a good-for-nothing impoverished man, moves her handbag away from him when they dine in a restaurant. Maggie finds that Paul’s stern wife Jane (Gene Tierney) brings her up to speed on her errant husband. Fran is astonished to discover Emilio has principles. And there is a running gag with an apparently voyeuristic neighbor who turns out to have a bride the equal of any of the girls.

Sometimes it just seems like an excuse for the women to adopt endless poses in their lingerie, or for Maggie to belt out a few numbers, or for a tourist round-up of the city’s most interesting places. But it’s effortlessly done, wrapped up in patina of innocence, as though the events were taking place a decade before in glorious color, in the kind of film where once in a while the action could stop for a song.

Pamela Tiffin and Anthony Franciosca get acquainted.

None of the songs, by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen, are anywhere as good as their theme tune for Three Coins in the Fountain, but Maggie is less of the hip-swinging song-belter of Viva Las Vegas (1964) and more a torch singer, although the choreography, as in the matador number, is occasionally stunning. It’s hard to see why she merits four songs when one would have sufficed to fix her character as a cabaret singer. And Madrid ain’t Rome. And, excepting Ann-Margret, the film has no stars.

In some respects this was a backward step for Ann-Margret who had just started taking on more dramatic roles with Kitten with a Whip and with the exception of her singing has the least interesting role. Pamela Tiffin (The Lively Set, 1964) portrays the most interesting character, not just suspicious of male motives but able to protect herself again them. Carol Lynley (Danger Route, 1967) was another one on the cusp of stardom. Anthony Franciosca, who would star again with Ann-Margret in The Swinger (1966) and opposite Raquel Welch in Fathom (1967) was constantly being tipped as the next big star. This was the final film of Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven, 1945).

Jean Negulesco (Jessica, 1962) would not make a picture for another six years and you can see how easily his brand of romantic drama was already beginning to lose its appeal. No matter how much the marketeers dressed up his movies, Jessica another example, as sexy, they remained endearingly innocent at a time when audiences wanted to move on from virtue.

This might have worked better had it revolved around one character rather than three and the stopping for indifferent songs undercuts what little drama the film possesses. Edith Sommer (Jessica, 1962) cracked out the screenplay based on the previous film.

The Swinger (1966) ***

Pure confection. There was a sub-genre of romantic comedy pictures that spun on a simple plot device to throw together actors with terrific screen charisma. Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Cary Grant did little more than meet a potential new partner, fall out with them and then resolve their differences. The importance of actors of this calibre was the difference between a high class piece of froth and mere entertainment. This falls into the latter category, neither Ann-Margret nor Anthony Franciosca reaching the high standards of the likes of That Touch of Mink or Pillow Talk.

That said, this was clearly custom-made for Ann-Margret and her growing fan-base. Despite displaying unexpectedly serious acting chops in Once a Thief (1965) this plays more obviously to her strengths. She gets to sing, dance and generally throw herself around. The face, hair, smile and body combine in a sensational package.

Kelly Olsson (Ann-Margret) plays a budding writer so naïve she tries to sell her stories to Girl-Lure, a Playboy-type magazine, owned by high-class Brit Sir Hubert Charles (Robert Coote) and run by Ric Colby (Anthony Franciosca). When her work is rejected, Olsson writes an imitation sex-novel, The Swinger, purportedly based on her own life. Sir Hubert buys the idea and Ric sets up a series of accompanying photo-shoots using Kelly as the model until he discovers her book is pure fiction.

The setting is an excuse to show an avalanche of young women in bikinis. The slight story is justification enough for Ann-Margret to strut her stuff as a singer and dancer. Since her stage show depended more on energy than singing, this effectively showcases her act.

So two-dimensional are the principals, you are not going to mistake any of these characters for actual characters. The film lacks such depth you would not be surprised if the likes of Elvis Presley or Cliff Richard popped up. The comedy is very lite, an initial attempt at satire soon dropped, the few bursts of slapstick seeming to catch the stars unawares.  

But that’s not to say it’s not enjoyable, Ann-Margret is a gloriously old-fashioned sex symbol and certainly knows how to shake her booty. The standout (for lack of a better word) scene revolves around body painting. She even gets the chance to ride a motorcycle, one of  her trademarks. Anthony Franciosca (Go Naked in the World, 1961) has little to do except smile. Yvonne Romain (The Frightened City, 1961) has a thankless role as Ric’s girlfriend.

Director George Sidney teams up with Ann-Margret for the third time after Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and Viva Las Vegas (1964). This was his penultimate outing in a 20-year Hollywood career whose highlights included Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Three Musketeers (1948), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Showboat (1951) and Pal Joey (1957). So he certainly had the musical pedigree to ensure the songs had some pizzazz but clearly less impact on the script which was reputedly scrambled together at short notice by Lawrence Roman (McQ, 1974) to fulfil a studio commitment to the star.

The film is available on Youtube.

CATCH-UP: Previous Ann-Margret films reviewed in the Blog are The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Once a Thief (1965).

Go Naked in the World (1961) ***

Under-rated at the time and ever since, and overshadowed at the box office by MGM’s other venture into the world of the good-time-girl Butterfield 8 (1960), this raw slice of emotion delivers on every front and may be even more pertinent today in its unashamed depiction of paternal love.

Spoiled brat Nick Stratton (Anthony Franciosca), trying to escape controlling millionaire Greek father Pete (Ernest Borgnine), falls in love with widow Julie (Gina Lollobridgida), unaware that she is a high-class hooker, among whose clients number Pete.

Three tales run in parallel – the main love story, Pete’s attempts to drag his son into the family construction business, and the father’s undying love for his son. Julie is only too aware that her profession prohibits the development of true love, her world consisting of putting on a happy face for grey-haired men, while avoiding commitment. Where Butterfield 8 evaded the reality of prostitution, that is not the case here, Julie tormented by the prospect of bumping into former clients or her lover unable to accept her past. Overwhelmed by guilt, she believes she is beyond forgiveness. Nick wants none of the commitment of a rich man’s son but all the entitlement. 

Never mind the story, which was always going to tumble into tragedy, it’s the performers who steal the picture. Lollobrigida (Strange Bedfellows, 1965) gives a terrific performance, carrying the emotional baggage of the love story, devastation only inches away, self-destruction possibly the only path open, constantly aware that taking the easy path to riches and independence now stands in the way of happiness. The scenes where her self-loathing breaks through the patina of sexy gloss are tremendous as is her touching belief that somehow she can escape destiny.

While this might appear to be nothing but an over-the-top performance from Borgnine (The Split, 1968), it is anything but, and any man in an early 1960s picture who can demand a kiss from his grown-up son and constantly tells him how much he loves him is a pretty unusual character for the period. Of course, this overt show of emotion is explained by his nationality, but it’s clearly more than that. While attempting to control all around him, with hypocrisy in full spate, as heavy on religion as playing away from home, this is actually a superb piece of characterization, of a powerful man rendered impotent by the loss of love. He has the two best scenes, almost having a heart attack as he watches his son walk across a sky-high girder and later begging Julie’s forgiveness for attempting to wreck the romance.

Anthony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) is the weak link. For all that he is saddled with a spineless character, moping and running away his default, he never quite seems worthy of romance with Julie nor for that matter of equality with his father. Former child star Luana Patten (Song of the South, 1946) makes an impact as the rebellious daughter while Nancy R. Pollock (The Pawnbroker,1964) brings dignity to her role as the doormat wife.

This was the fourth outing as a hyphenate for writer-director Ranald McDougall (The World, the Flesh and the Devil, 1959) but he was better known for screenplays such as Mildred Pierce (1945), The Naked Jungle (1954) and, later, Cleopatra (1963) and you can see he is accustomed to creating great roles for independent women and filling his picture with sharp dialogue and lines that sound like epithets. There’s more than enough going on to keep the various plots spinning and emotions teetering over a cliff edge.

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