Istanbul Express (1968) ***

Calling this a by-the-numbers spy thriller does this movie no disservice since numbers are crucial to the complicated plot. On the one hand it’s quite a simple set up. Suave high-living art-dealer-cum-spy Michael London (Gene Barry) travels from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express to bid for secret papers in a secret auction. The complication: he must pick up the auction money from a bank in Istanbul using a code given to him along the way, each number by a different unknown person. On his side are train security chief Cheval (John Saxon), investigative journalist Leland McCord (Tom Simcox) and colleague Peggy (Mary Ann Mobley). Out to get him are Mila Darvos (Senta Berger) and Dr Lenz (Werner Peters).

The numbers business is an interesting addition to the usual spy picture formula of scenic location – Venice and the Eastern bloc as well as the other famous cities – violence and beautiful, sometimes deadly, women. You spend a good time guessing just how the numbers will be passed on and let me warn you it is sometime by inanimate means while the numbers themselves come with a twist. There’s also a truth serum, bomb threat, a traitor and every obstacle possible put in London’s way to prevent him completing his mission. London is about the world’s worst passenger, always missing the train as it sets off on the next leg of its journey, and requiring alternative modes of transport to catch up. But it’s as much about quick thinking as action and ends with a couple of unexpected twists. And it’s darned clever at times where the numbers are concerned.

Admittedly, the plot is a tad over-complicated but it’s fun to see London wriggle his way out of situations and for Cheval and McCord to turn up unexpectedly to provide assistance.

Gene Barry (Maroc 7, 1967) is little more than his television alter ego from Burke’s Law but he has an easy screen presence, never flustered, tough but charming and a winning way with the ladies. John Saxon (The Appaloosa, 1966) is the surprise turn, on the side of the angels rather than a villain, and equally commanding on screen, and certainly in one of his better roles. Austrian Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) is not given as much screen time as you would like – a long way from being set up as the normal espionage femme fatale – but is certainly a convincing adversary.

This was only a movie if you saw it outside of the United States. There it was shown on television. But it had high production values for a television movie and director Richard Irving, who directed the television feature that introduced Columbo (Prescription Murder, 1968), keeps it moving at a healthy clip.  The numbers idea was probably a television device, allowing the opportunity for timed breaks in the action. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link were a class television act, creating Columbo, and prior to that the Jericho (1966-1967) and Mannix (1967-1975) television series.  

Interestingly, Senta Berger, John Saxon, Gene Barry, Levinson/Link and Richard Irving were all at various points involved in the groundbreaking U.S. television series The Name of the Game (1968-1971).

I had not realized Istanbul Express was a made-for-TV picture until I had finished watching it and in that case found it a superior piece of television and a decent-enough riff on the spy movie. You can catch it on Amazon Prime.

CATCH-UP: Senta Berger has featured in the Blog in The Secret Ways (1961), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Necklace (1962), Major Dundee (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966).

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) **

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be turning in his grave. Workmanlike at best, awful at its worst, or a “so-bad-it’s-good” candidate? Christopher Lee goes through the motions, there’s an oddly inserted heist, the continuity goes haywire, and the deduction would not have troubled a child. Even the great sleuth having to match nemesis Moriarty in cunning fails to lift this turgid tale. Despite being made in Germany, all the actors, save Senta Berger, appear injected with a fatal dose of stiff upper lip.

A corpse in the water alerts Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Lee) to the presence of Moriarty (Hans Sohnker) who is hunting Peter Blackburn (Wolfgang Lukschy) who has appropriated Cleopatra’s necklace from an archaeological dig. This takes them to Hampshire where corpses abound but the necklace is gone. Holmes burgles Moriarty’s apartment and steals back the necklace which is sent, in heavily protected police van, to an auction house. Holmes outwits Moriarty by infiltrating the heist the villain has planned.

The best scene comes at the beginning when boys throw stones at something floating in the Thames only to discover it’s a corpse. After that, you can choose from any number of bad scenes. Where do you start? The disguises? Holmes is first seen wearing a false nose to pass himself off as dock worker. An eyepatch is enough to convince Moriarty’s henchmen that Holmes in one of their kind. Bare-handed, Holmes kills an obviously plastic snake. To find out what Moriarty is up to, they listen down a chimney!

The deduction is so awful Dr Watson (Thorley Walters) could have done it. A dying man who manages to whisper one word is unable to whisper two and instead still has the strength to flap his hands in a way that any child in the audience familiar with shadow play would have known signaled a bird. Holmes follows bloody footsteps over grass in the darkness. The hands of a corpse are too calloused to be a high-class gentleman. And that’s as much of the detective’s genius as is on show. Moriarty, who is meant to be ever so bright, offers Holmes £6,000 a year to enter into a criminal partnership with him.

Did I mention the continuity? Holmes, in docker’s disguise, turns up outside his apartment lying on the pavement calling for help. Wounded, perhaps? A bit of a joke? We never find out. Once inside, he just turns back into Sherlock Holmes. In the middle of the Hampshire countryside,  Scotland Yard’s Inspector Cooper (Hans Neilsen) turns up in a trice.

The film has also been dubbed so the performances are all flat except that of Ellen Blackburn (Senta Berger), the only character who injects emotion into the picture. Everybody else is wooden. Christopher Lee bases his entire interpretation of Holmes on his costume, deerstalker prominent and always puffing on his pipe. Austrian Senta Berger at least shows promise and manages to project some personality into her small part.

Made in a Berlin studio, with some location work in Ireland, this German-made movie has a screenplay by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, 1941), purportedly based on the Conan Doyle tale The Valley of Fear. British director Terence Fisher (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) is generally assumed to have helmed this project but the actual credits on the picture have him sharing duties with Frank Winterstein, so perhaps Fisher can be absolved of the complete blame.  

The so-bad-it’s-good category had obviously not been invented in the early 1960s so this picture was shelved in Britain for six years, although shown in Germany and France before then.

CATCH-UP: If you’ve been tracking the often subtle performances – for a glamour queen – of Senta Berger through the Blog, you can also check out my reviews of The Secret Ways (1961), Major Dundee (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), and Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966). If you’re a Berger fan or fast becoming one to can see one of her later performances in Istanbul Express (1968) which, by coincidence, is reviewed tomorrow.

Advance Buzz – The Phenomenon Created in the 1960s

In 1964, Twentieth Century Fox created a new way of selling pictures by inventing the advance buzz.

Of course, movies had always had some kind of pre-launch push but mostly on a small-scale via gossip columnists, who, while they had some influence, did not actually receive much space in a newspaper. Fox set out to change all that and put movies on the front pages and gain big feature spreads inside, an event that only usually occurred through  unwanted scandal (Cleopatra, for example), death  or a photo of a big female star.

Fox revamped the press junket – at that time primarily used as a vehicle to announce a movie premiere – and turned it into a method of creating advance publicity and expanding awareness on new pictures long before they reached the screen. And did so with enormous style, transporting over 100 American journalists to Europe to watch the production of three major big-budget roadshows.

Cecil B. DeMille of all people had invented the movie press junket – for the world premiere of his swashbuckler The Buccaneer in 1938. At a time when world premieres were confined to New York and Los Angeles, Hollywood had begun experimenting on a small scale with different locales for a first showing – whaling picture I Conquer the Sea (1936) was unveiled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, The Petrified Forest (1936) in St Louis and Sutter’s Gold (1936) in Sacramento. But these were all local affairs, the selected city putting on a big show for local dignitaries but the media were drawn only from the immediate surrounding area with stories syndicated to bigger newspapers.

When he selected New Orleans for his world premiere, DeMille, as skilled in marketing as he was in direction, hired a deluxe train to bring journalists from the top newspapers and magazines down from New York and Chicago. The train had a special compartment kitted out with typewriters, telephones, radio, Dictaphones and even stenographers to “relay hot news as it happens.”

All expenses – accommodation, meals, alcohol and various other sundries – for an entire week were picked up by Paramount. Three radio stations made daily broadcasts and the journalists filed news stories and features about the stars and the city, and, most important of all, reviews of the film they were privileged to be the first to see. The city went to extraordinary trouble, proclaiming a local holiday, organizing parades, enlisting the help of local organizations to ensure there was some event worth reporting every day. Local retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs made a fortune as hundreds of thousands of people piled in to see the stars and witness the festivities.

The press junket was born.

In the following years, world premieres were held all over America either in locations where the movie was filmed or places linked with a star or character. These varied from major metropolises like Detroit (Disputed Passage, 1939), Houston (Man of Conquest, 1939), Memphis (Dr Erlich’s Magic Bullet, 1940) and Philadelphia (Intermezzo, 1939) to smaller locales like Littleton, New Hampshire (The Great Lie, 1941) and South Bend, Indiana (Knute Rockne, All American, 1940).

But by the 1960s, the world premiere idea had been done to death. There was scarcely a town, city or venue that had not been the subject of premiere marketing.

So in 1964 with an unprecedented three roadshow pictures in production Twentieth Century Fox upped the press junket ante by flying a fleet of 110 journalists on a specially chartered Boeing 707 to Europe to watch filming on actual locations in Britain, Austria and Italy.

Over 40 cities were represented by reporters and included representatives of the New York Post, Los Angeles Times, UPI, Detroit Free Press, Kansas City Star, Boston Globe and the Seattle Times as well as The Mike Wallace Show (television) and NBC Radio and magazines as diverse as McCalls, Cue and Newsweek.

At the reconstructed Booker Airport in Britain, journalists watched stunts for Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and interviewed stars like Sarah Miles, Terry-Thomas and Robert Morley. Each journalist had a photograph taken as a personal souvenir alongside a replica of a 1910 Antoinette airplane specially built for the film, but undoubtedly many such photographs found their way into the newspapers and magazines.

When the media cavalcade shifted to Austria they were treated to a massive banquet at Schloss Klessheim in Salzburg where The Sound of Music (1965) was being filmed. Julie Andrews was interviewed with her feet on a table and the reporters watched choreographer Marc Breaux rehearsing the “I Have Confidence” number (the music had been recorded in Hollywood and then played back synchronized to the action). Andrews and co-star Christopher Plummer were interviewed at Frohnburg Castle.

Italy – where The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) was being shot – was the final destination. The visitors were conveyed up the perilous Carrera Mountains to the 4,700 ft Monte Altimissino to watch a scene being filmed in a quarry usually closed to visitors of a 200-ton block of marble being cut. Director Carol Reed, producer Darryl F. Zanuck and star Charlton Heston were on hand to welcome them. Rex Harrison (playing the Pope) was interviewed outside a restaurant in Rome that bore the Pontiff’s name 

Even before the journalists returned from the seven-day trip, they were sending stories back – over $8,000 (worth about $70,000 today) was spent on cable fees and nearly one million words had been written. Many of the journalists had never been to Europe before and took full advantage of the opportunity. Newspaper and magazines would not permit journalists to spend such a length of time away from the office without expecting a substantial bounty in the shape of news stories – the trip itself received extensive coverage.

Feature editors were deluged with stories and interviews that ran in the main sections of the newspaper and in weekend supplements, shifting the coverage of movies away from the  entertainment sections. In addition, to justify their time away, stories ran in the food, travel and fashion sections.

It was an unprecedented publicity bonanza for films that were still a full year away from release, creating a tsunami of public interest. For the first time a studio had created movie awareness on its own terms. While movies filmed in Europe had often received coverage based on reports by journalists living in that continent, this was rather cursory, had always appeared piecemeal in American newspapers, largely depended on an editor’s decision about reader interest in a particular star, and, more importantly, such stories usually coincided with the film’s launch rather than well in advance.

This huge media onslaught whetted public appetites well in advance. In addition, there were enough articles left over to be used up when the movies actually did open.

The trade press also widely reported on the event and Box Office magazine ran a 12-page feature one month later. In its evaluation of the junket, the studio concluded that it was the “most advanced type of industrial marketing.”

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere: A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017, p32-36 (McFarland Publishing, 2019); “That Was the Week That Was…Fantastic,” Box Office, Jul 6, 1964, p10-21.