The Ugly American (1963) ***

Terrific performance from Marlon Brando saves this prescient but preachy meditation on Vietnam. Harrison MacWhite (Marlon Brando) is the new ambassador, whose political credentials are questioned by many,  parachuted into the fictional South-East Asia country of Sarkhan, knee-deep in civil war, communist north versus westernized south. The battleground is the American construction of a “Freedom Road” north to China which dissenters fear will be a conduit for the military. MacWhite owes his appointment to his friendship with Deong (Eeji Okada), a charismatic leader.

On arrival, the ambassadorial car is engulfed in a riot, car rocked, windscreens smashed. MacWhite shakes up a complacent embassy and though articulate and scholarly believes he holds the solution to the tricky situation while unwilling to accept that national self-determination does not necessarily mean complete hatred of the Americans. There is duplicity on both sides, rebels blaming U.S. truck drivers for deaths they caused, the Americans so used to getting their way they don’t stop to think if it is the right way.

Anxious not to be seen as a lapdog for Communism, MacWhite’s actions inflame the situation, while Deong falls victim to internal forces. Construction boss Homer Atkins (Pat Hingle) promotes the clever use of building hospitals along the road, thus encouraging locals to back it, but nobody falls for such honest skull-duggery masquerading as well-meaning intent.

Friends turning into enemies is a decent premise for any movie but this is over-burdened with debate that while interesting and providing a reflection of the times is basically a mixture of virtue-signalling and apportioning blame and, most heinous of failings, doesn’t really advance the story.

First-time director George Englund handles the action sequences well and captures the essence of a country about to explode against a background of growing tension and political machination. Use of Thailand as a location added authenticity.

The movie was based on a controversial novel by political scientist Eugene Burdick (who also wrote a more straightforward cold War thriller Fail Safe) and William Lederer, navy veteran and CIA officer, so it carried the stamp of authority in terms of putting forth the arguments for both sides. However, while the film bore only a “passing resemblance” to the book, according to co-author Burdick, he deemed it a superior achievement on the basis of its more dramatic treatment. Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) was the screenwriter who received blame and praise in equal measure.

Marlon Brando (Bedtime Story, 1964) exudes authority, broad shoulders packed into a suit, and brilliantly captures the anguish of a man led into disaster by arrogance. Coming off back-to-back flops One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), this was a considerable change of pace for the actor, the first of several excursions into political territory. Eeji Okada (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, 1958) proves a worth opponent. Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968), Arthur Hill (Moment to Moment, 1965) and Jocelyn Brando (The Chase, 1966) provide sterling support.

The movie did not just predict what would happen if the U.S. lost the battle for hearts and minds but a similar situation confronting the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia in 1965 whose appointment was unwelcome in that country.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

Moment to Moment (1966) ***

Screenwriter Alec Coppel, responsible for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) – now considered the best film ever made, supplanting Citizen Kane in the Sight & Sound poll – follows pretty much the same structural idea as in the James Stewart-Kim Novak thriller. The second half here is in many respects a repeat of the first, with a man trying to recapture previous experience in a bid to reawaken memory.

But in this case the man is French police inspector DeFargo (Gregoire Aslan) trying to trap glamorous Kay Stanton (Jean Seberg) suspected of killing young sailor and architect-wannabe Mark (Sean Garrison) with whom she has engaged in a brief affair. DeFargo is cunning in the extreme, almost stalking Stanton, turning up unexpectedly, employing all sorts of ruses, including recruiting Stanton’s unsuspecting husband Neil (Arthur Hill), an internationally renowned psychiatrist.

The picture is set on the French Riviera so it’s the height of fashion. Kay wears a series of stunning top-of-the-range clothes (designed in fact by Yves St Laurent), as does high-living  neighbor and suspected accomplice Daphne (Honor Blackman). Kay drives a red sports car and frequents swanky restaurants and chic bars.

A number of cleverly-wrought images in the first half – white doves that turn golden at sunset, dancing to a tune called “Moment to Moment,” the wind causing shutters to bang, a statue in a village square, some sketches, the clacking together of the hard balls used to play the French traditional game of boules, a boardgame called “Blockhead” – prove pivotal in the second half. They form clues from which the inspector has to determine meaning.  

But if ever there was a film of two halves, this is it, and they are not a great fit. The first section involves Kay, lonely due to her husband’s continual absence, embarking on an affair. That she initially resists, in order to prove she is at heart really a good woman, gets in the way of the picture, since that makes the romance more drawn-out than necessary and leaves the viewer wishing the director would get a move on. Even though the time is spent in planting all the clues necessary for the second half to work, had Kay been more keen on a piece of action, driven for example (as is the case) by her husband staying away far longer than promised, it would have speeded things up to get to the more interesting part of the story.

Part of the problem is that the affair is totally unconvincing. Mark is handsome enough and dashing in the way most sailors are in uniform with an artistic streak, first viewed  making sketches, but Sean Garrison is so wooden the romance never sparks. That leaves Seberg to do the heavy lifting and, in fairness, once she is targeted by the wily inspector she comes up to the mark.

I’m not the first to think, after watching this picture, what would Hitchcock have done? That was exactly the same conclusion reached by the New York Times critic on original release. For this picture has a great deal going for it, but not a sufficient quota of suspense, and, as I mentioned, takes too long to get to the core of the story.

However, the second half works exceptionally well, as Seberg is put under pressure by the wily inspector and her husband unexpectedly enters the equation. An abundance of  twists culminate with a number in the final few minutes that serve to confound audience expectation.

Seberg’s career up to now had been somewhat disjointed, a sense of unfulfilled potential. An Otto Preminger protégé via Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), she was widely believed, despite the artistic coup of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), to have thrown her career away by decamping to France where she made no further films of particular note. Her previous Hollywood offering Lilith (1964) had not commercially delivered. So this high-budget Universal number was considered something of a comeback. But the perfectly-coiffed fashion-model look seems a poor imitation of Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief, 1955) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds, 1963). At times, with the romance scarcely touching the lower rungs of passion, the movie falls back on haute couture.

Second half Seberg is better than the first as she is given far more material to work with and a decent opponent in Gregoire Aslan. Honor Blackman, as a flirtatious divorcee, reinvents her  screen persona, far removed from her memorable incarnations as Catherine Gale in British television series The Avengers (1962-1964) and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger  (1964). Sean Harrison made only one more movie, and his career mainly consisted of television. Arthur Hill (Harper, 1966) is excellent as the over-enthusiastic husband, unwittingly hammering nails in his wife’s coffin and Gregoire Aslan (Lost Command, 1966) almost steals the show as Seberg’s accomplished adversary.

Veteran Mervyn LeRoy (The Devil at 4 O’Clock, 1964) had a distinguished and versatile career including an Oscar nomination for Random Harvest (1942) and recipient of an Oscar in the form of the Irving G. Thalberg Award for lifetime contribution to the business. But this isn’t quite up to the mark of innovative gangster picture Little Caesar (1931), drama Little Women (1949), Biblical epic Quo Vadis (1951) or cultish The Bad Seed (1958).  

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