“Penelope” (1966) ***

Comedic twist on the heist movie with Natalie Wood (This Property Is Condemned, 1966) as a kleptomaniac. Given its origins in a tight little thriller by E.V. Cunningham, pseudonym of Howard Fast (Mirage, 1965), it’s an awful loose construction that seems to run around with little idea of where it wants to go. Wood, of course, is a delightfully kooky heroine who takes revenge on anyone who has ignored or slighted her by stealing their possessions.

The picture begins with her boldest coup. Cleverly disguised as an old woman, she robs the newest Park Avenue bank owned by overbearing husband James (Ian Bannen). This prompts the best comedy in the movie, a man with a violin case (Lewis Charles) being apprehended by police, the doors automatically locking after a clerk falls on the alarm button, James trapped in the revolving doors losing his trousers in the process.

In flashback, we learn that she turned to thievery after a rape attempt by Professor Klobb (Jonathan Winter), her college tutor, and while half-naked managed to make off with his watch fob. She stole a set of earrings from Mildred (Norma Crane) after suspecting she is having an affair with James. “Stealing makes me cheerful,” she tells her psychiatrist, Dr Mannix (Dick Shawn) and while admitting to dishonesty denies being a compulsive thief. After the bank robbery she even manages to relieve investigating officer Lt Bixby (Peter Falk) of his wallet.

Nobody suspects her, certainly not her husband who could not conceive of his wife having the brains to carry out such an audacious plan. Bixby is a bit more on the ball, but not much. Clues that would have snared her in seconds if seen by any half-decent cop are missed by this bunch. And generally that is the problem, the outcome is so weighted in Penelope’s favor. The plot then goes all around the houses to include as many oddballs as possible – boutique owners Sadaba (Lila Kedrova) and Ducky (Lou Jacobi), Major Higgins (Arthur Malet) and suspect Honeysuckle Rose (Arlene Golonka). Naturally, when she does confess – to save the innocent Honeysuckle – nobody believes her in part because everyone has fallen in love with her. Bixby, just as smitten, nonetheless makes a decent stab at the investigation.

Howard Fast under the pseudonym of E.V. Cunningham wrote a series of thrillers with a woman’s name as the title. He was on a roll in the 1960s providing the source material for Spartacus (1960), The Man in the Middle (1964), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Sylvia (1965), Mirage (1965) and Jigsaw (1968).

Taken as pure confection it has its attractions. It’s certainly frothy at the edges and there are a number of funny lines especially with her psychiatrist and the slapstick approach does hit the target every now and then. The icing on the cake is top class while the cake itself has little of substance. It strikes a satirical note on occasion especially with the Greenwich Village cellar sequence. It doesn’t go anywhere near what might be driving this woman towards such potential calamity – that she gets away with it is only down to her charm. There has probably never been such a pair of rose-tinted spectacles as worn by Penelope, even though her every action is driven by revenge.

Without Natalie Wood it would have sunk without trace but her vivacious screen persona is imminently watchable and the constant wardrobe changes (courtesy of Edith Head) and glossy treatment gets it over the finishing line. It’s one of those star-driven vehicles at which Golden Age Hollywood was once so adept but which fails to translate so well to a later era. Ian Bannen (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is in his element as a grumpy husband, though you would wonder what initially she saw in him, and Peter Falk (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1965) delivers another memorable performance.  Dick Shawn (A Very Special Favor, 1965) is the pick of the supporting cast though screen personalities like Lila Kedrova (Torn Curtain, 1966), Jonathan Winters (The Loved One, 1965) and Lou Jacobi (Irma la Douce, 1963) are not easily ignored.  Johnny Williams a.k.a John Williams wrote the score.

Arthur Hiller (Tobruk, 1967) delivers as much of the goods as are possible within the zany framework. Veteran Oscar-winner George Wells (Three Bites of the Apple, 1967) wrote the screenplay and it’s a far cry from the far more interesting source material and I would have to wonder what kind of sensibility – even at that time – could invent a comedy rape (not in the book, I hasten to add).

Tobruk (1967) ****

Occasionally ingenious action-packed men-on-a-mission picture that teams reluctant hero Major Craig (Rock Hudson) with Captain Bergman (George Peppard) who heads up a team of Jewish German commandos (i.e good guys). You might think the idea of German-born Jewish commandoes was a dramatic flight of fancy. But, in fact, these guys existed. They were called X-Troop although whether they actually took part in something close to this fictional operation is of course open to question.

Arthur Hiller (Promise Her Anything, 1966) directs with some skill and to increase tension often utilizes silence in Hitchcockian fashion. He meshes innate antagonism between the two principals and stiff-upper-lip British Colonel Harker (Nigel Green), two subplots that have a bearing on the final outcome, and explosive battle scenes. In addition, in supporting roles is a Sgt Major (Jack Watson) unusually solicitous of his troops and a grunt (Norman Rossington) with a fund of one-liners.

Craig is liberated by frogmen from a prison ship and flown into the Sahara on the eve of the Battle of El Alamein to guide a strike force 800 miles across the desert to blow up Rommel’s underground fuel tanks in Tobruk, Bergman’s outfit providing the perfect cover as Germans escorting British prisoners. “It’s suicide,” protests Craig. “It’s orders,” retorts Harker.

Most action pictures get by on action and personality clashes against authority but this is distinguished as well by clever ruses. First off, hemmed in by an Italian tank squadron on one side and the Germans on the other, Harker’s unit fires mortars into each, convincing them to open fire on one another. Craig, on whose topographical skills the unit depends, goes the desert version of off-piste, leading the group through a minefield, personally acting as sweeper with a bayonet as his rudimentary tool, his understanding of how the enemy lays its mines allowing him to virtually explode them all at once. But, ironically, their cover is so complete that they are strafed by a British plane, and equally ironically, have to shoot down one of their own.

Along the way they pick up a stranded father-and-daughter Henry (Liam Redmond) and Heidy Hunt (Cheryl Portman) who are on another mission entirely, to help create a Moslem uprising against the British in Egypt. Their arrival reveals the presence of a traitor in the camp. Naturally, this isn’t the only complication and problems mount as they approach Tobruk and, finding it vastly more populated with German troops than expected, they now, in addition to tackling the virtually impenetrable fuel dumps, have to knock out the city’s radio mast and neutralize the German big guns protecting the beaches.

So it’s basically one dicey situation after another, ingenuity solving problems where sheer force is not enough, and twists all the way to the end.

All the battles are particularly well done, pretty ferocious stuff, flamethrowers especially prominent, but the team are also adept at hijacking tanks, and in another brilliant ruse capturing one without blowing it up. The screenplay by Leo Gordon (The Tower of London, 1962) supplies all the main characters with considerable depth. While Craig isn’t exactly a coward, he is not interested in laying down his life for a cause. Although Harker seems a typical officious British officer, he, too, has surprising depths. But it is Bergman who is given the weightiest part, not just a German seeking revenge against his own countrymen for the treatment of Jews but a man looking to a future when Jews will fight for their own homeland in Israel.  

Hudson had begun his career in action films, mostly of the western variety, before being seduced by the likes of Doris Day and Gina Lollobrigida in romantic comedies and this is a welcome return to tough guy form. George Peppard made it two Germans in a row after The Blue Max (1966) but this is a far more nuanced performance. There are star turns from Nigel Green, Guy Stockwell (Beau Geste, 1966) as Peppard’s sidekick and the aforementioned Jack Watson (The Hill, 1965) and Norman Rossington.

This was pretty much dismissed on initial release as a straightforward gung-ho actioner and one that tipped Rock Hudson’s career in a downward spiral, but I found it both thoughtful and inventive and had much more of an on-the-ground feeling to it, with nothing going according to plan and alternatives quickly need to be found. Under-rated and well worth a look.

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