The Mind Benders (1963) ****

As far as Hollywood was concerned brainwashing was ascribed to foreigners intent on disrupting democracy as with The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Such inherent hypocrisy will come as no surprise since scientists at McGill University in Canada had been carrying out C.I.A.-funded sensory deprivation experiments in the 1950s. Where the John Frankenheimer paranoia thriller went straight down the political route, The Mind Benders, based on the McGill tests, is more interested in the personal cost, although ruthless politicians and unscrupulous scientists still abound.

The suicide of renowned scientist Professor Sharpey (Harold Goldblatt), possibly selling secrets to the Russians, sends MI5 agent Major Hall (John Clements) to Oxford to investigate sensory perception tests. The guinea pigs have all been volunteers, keen to expand knowledge of human mental endurance. The latest volunteer, Dr Longman (Dirk Bogarde), is on leave recovering from his participation. To avoid branding Sharpey a traitor it is proposed that he was actually brainwashed by long immersion in a water tank and subsequent sensory deprivation.

In order to prove the point, Longman, a driving force behind the research having shifted the focus from sub-zero temperatures to water, is the unknowing guinea pig, a jealous colleague Dr Danny Tate (Michael Bryant) who fancies his wife Oonagh (Mary Ure) suggesting that the experiment would be deemed a success if Longman was turned against his wife. It transpires that sensory deprivation has already had an effect on Longman, his wife complaining his lovemaking has grown rough.

The callousness with which this stage of research is undertaken, the disregard not so much for human life but emotion and love, in a country that prides itself on honor and fair play, sets up a different register to the Frankenheimer film where at issue is the assassination of the most important person in the United States. Longman, fed lies about his wife’s infidelity, becomes a different character, distrustful, aggressive, embarking on an affair of his own, putting in jeopardy the happiness he has constructed.

Ahead of its time in analyzing the importance of the hidden persuaders (as television advertising would later be termed) and lacking a thriller element to drive the narrative, nor devised as a self-indulgent experiment like the later Altered States (1980), nonetheless this achieves tremendous power through the deliberate dislocation of individual life, personalizing in a way that others in the paranoia thriller genre do not the dangers of tampering with the unknown.

And perhaps because it is so British, with the Longman family living in a big rambling house, the children involved in myriad games, the scientist a loving husband, that the outcome is so horrible. Brainwashing was seen as a form of torture, with subjects susceptible to ideas they may have once opposed, almost forming a new identity.

The structure here sucks in the audience. It’s ostensibly initially about spies, outing a traitor, a notion that every British citizen would go along with, the film especially relevant in the wake of the Kim Philby affair the year of the film’s release, when the idea of “spies among us” took root. Then we move on to a scientific account of the deprivation experiment, the first one taking place in the Arctic Circle, footage of a volunteer emerging in a fugue state. When Longman does another experiment, himself the guinea pig, to show what is involved, the various changes the body and mind undergo, it still seems far removed, captivating and intriguing though it may be, from any human horror.

James Kennaway wrote the movie tie-in paperback based on his original screenplay.

But when Longman becomes the unknowing victim, the audience becomes privy to the worst aspects of the brainwashing. The personal price paid would put every member of the audience off endorsing its use.

This is a very measured film, cunning in its construction, that puts the viewer at the heart of the story. Without spelling out the psychological terror, the implications are nonetheless clear, a nightmare from which there is no escape, no guarantee the process could be reversed, men turned into different personalities at the behest of government for who knows what end.

Dork Bogarde (Hot Enough for June, 1964) does this kind of role so well, the well-meaning person whose life is thrown into disarray. Mary Ure (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) is superb as the fun-loving wife, fighting for her husband, Michael Bryant excels as the sly friend, determined to win his wife by illicit means. Michael John Clemens only made two films this decade and his portrayal of the MI5 agent, as dispassionate as any scientist, putting country above individual, is almost as frightening as the experiment he provokes.

The idea came from an original screenplay by Scottish novelist James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960) who had come across the Canadian research. He was adept at placing stories within institutions in some respect with their own sacrosanct traditions and while the army barracks of Tunes of Glory could not be further removed from Oxford academe both reek of unchallenged hierarchy, of sacrifice to a cause.

Basil Dearden (Woman of Straw, 1964) directs this brilliantly, the attractive countryside location in contrast with the gloom of the experimental rooms, the warmth of a happy marriage evaporating in the face of insidious threat. He returned to the theme of identity in The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970).

This is one of these films that lives on in the mind long after the viewing has ceased and will  strike a contemporary note where identity, and its shifting values, is such an issue.

We Need To Talk About Sir Sean – Racism in “Woman of Straw” (1964)

Of course racism was endemic in Britain and the remainder of the British colonies in the 1960s where people of whatever color were treated as inferiors, underlings and at times with a brutality that bordered on slavery. So I’m not intending to say anything new here. But I was incredibly shocked by one scene of racism in Woman of Straw (1964) that I reviewed yesterday, a thriller in the Hitchcock mould starring Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida with Ralph Richardson as the wealthy man the subject of a murder plot.

Richardson’s character, Charles, is completely heinous, treating everyone badly, and they being in his thrall cannot bite back, unlike his dogs.

This is a still from the picture showing the offensive incident and would have been
used to promote the movie. As good an indication as any of the prevalent
racism is that clearly nobody believed this to be in bad taste.

For reasons best known to himself, Charles wants his dogs to be able to jump over each other. And when they fail to obey his commands, he instructs his two black servants, played by Johnny Sekka and Danny Daniels, to show them how it is done. One has to kneel on the grass like a dog and the other to jump over him. In due course, the dogs get the hang of it, leaping over the humiliated man on the ground.

There are enough other instances in the film to ensure the audience gets the right idea about Charles without this.

But I was shocked to the core. I have seen many instances of black people treated much worse in films, but in 1964 I guess such treatment would not have been permitted by the censor and this was the closest they could get to the abject degradation required. I can’t have been the only person shocked by it. But nobody was in 1964 otherwise it would not have got past the British censor – eliminating the scene would not have affected the plot – not a murmur from a critic, and certainly no sign of audiences leaving in droves.

But why should it be left to post-production? Did Sean Connery really think there was nothing untoward in the script? If it had been a Scotsman being used in this fashion might he have complained? Did Gina Lollobrigida think nothing of the scene? Similarly, had it been an Italian servant might she have objected? Connery and Lollobrigida either individually or collectively had far more box office cachet than the director – in fact this was Dearden’s move into the big time – so could easily have asked for the scene to be eliminated.

And what of Sir Ralph Richardson, at the time considered one of the great theatrical triumvirate (Olivier and Gielgud the others) who played the character? A forthright person in many other ways, but not here. Perhaps the most surprising person to be blind to the offensiveness of the scene was director Basil Dearden, especially since a previous film Victim (1961) was sympathetic to gay men. I would like to know if the scene was in the source novel by Catherine Arlay.

Whatever, one of the reasons that racism remained so endemic in the 1960s and far beyond was because people failed to see it when it was right in front of their eyes. I’ve no idea who owns the rights to this otherwise good thriller but it might be a good idea for them to take a look and excise this scene or at least give warning that it exists.

The British Board of Film Censors gave this a “12” rating when it came out on DVD. I contacted the BBFC to see if anybody had ever re-watched the film to come to the ratings conclusion. Naturally, I am still waiting to hear back.

You can check out what I’m referring to on YouTube which has a reasonable print. This incident occurs at the 16-17 minute mark. 

The Secret Partner (1961) ****

Curious about what happened to Haya Harareet, Charlton Heston’s leading lady in Ben Hur (1959), filmed in 70mm glorious color, I happened across this neat twisty British thriller filmed in standard ratio and black-and-white. Turned out to be put together by the Basil Dearden/ Michael Relph combo and starring Stewart Granger, one-time star of MGM extravaganzas like King Solomon’s Mines (1951) and clearly now atoning for failing to hit the box office mark often enough for Hollywood’s liking.

Driven by a brilliant plot, whose resolution I defy you to guess, it climaxes with three stunning twists, the first story-driven but the others landing a no less effective emotional and human punch. I should warn you right away that Harareet is not in the picture as much as you would expect given that she took second billing. That’s no surprise, really, since on her first entrance, as wife Nicole, she walks out on husband John Brent (Granger) citing his illicit romantic liaisons.  

Though driving a swanky car and living in a big London house, Brent , a top-level shipping executive, is one harassed individual. He is being blackmailed by alcoholic dentist Ralph Beldon (Norman Bird).  When the shipping company’s safe is robbed of £130,000 (equivalent to £3 million today), suspicion falls on Brent, one of only two employees with both keys and the combination. Enter about-to-retire chain-smoking Detective Superintendent Hanbury (Bernard Lee, shortly to achieve global fame as “M” in the Bond series).

Constantly wreathed in a cloud of smoke, Hanbury’s investigation leads to various suspects – the other keyholder Charles Standish (Hugh Burden) whose job is at risk, interior designer Clive Lang (John Lee) who is too familiar with Nicole and friend Alan Richford (Conrad Philips) who is secretly in love with her. All have good reason to be responsible for the theft, not least Nicole because of Brent’s habit of talking in his sleep and in trying to memorize ever-changing safe combinations constantly running them through his head, conscious or unconscious.

To add to the complications, Brent has a mysterious past. In addition, a masked gunman pops up from time to time. So, although Brent remains the prime suspect, Hanbury, with an investigator’s vigilance and attention to detail that Hercule Poirot would be proud of, uncovers clues that point elsewhere. Pretty soon, Brent is on the run, first to France, where he is arrested, and then, after escaping custody, through the murky streets of Soho trying to locate a girl to whom he might have given the combination while asleep. He, too, discovers some unpleasant truths far closer to home.

Dearden does a brilliant job of setting up the mystery, a dab hand, too, at serving up multiple red herrings, as well as a spot of sleight of hand, not least when the music intrudes too loudly in old-fashioned manner as if to point the finger, and the audience’s attention, in a misleading direction. Sure, it’s a low-budget affair by Hollywood standards and indeed by Dearden/Relph standards (big-budget roadshow Khartoum, for example), and the black-and-white photography is for financial rather than artistic reasons, but it is superbly done and keeps you guessing to the end. Granger is at his suave best. Harareet, all fur coat and steely resolve, gives a good performance. Bernard Lee is an excellent British copper, hoping to end his career on a high note, patiently probing suspects, and there is a good turn from Norman Bird as the dodgy dentist and a fleeting appearance by Willoughby Goddard as an equally dodgy hotel manager.

Except there’s no extraneous violence, it could be a latter-day film noir.

Catch-Up: Other Dearden/Relph films reviewed in the Blog are: Masquerade (1965), Khartoum (1966), Only When I Larf (1968) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). Stewart Granger was also reviewed in The Secret Invasion (1964).

Only When I Larf (1968) ***

Terrific, elongated, 20-minute pre-credit sequence sets up this brisk con-man thriller as the trio of Richard Attenborough, his younger lover Alexandra Stewart and apprentice David Hemmings fleece a couple of greedy businessmen in New York.  The action moves with military precision, the trio so appealing, the scam so well-worked, you want them to escape.

But when their next sting fails to come off, roles are reversed and it is floppy-haired Hemmings who takes charge, organizing the scheme, and making moves on Stewart. Meanwhile, Attenborough is planning to double-cross them. The first and last schemes work a treat but the middle one sags, even allowing for cracks to appear in the relationships.

Attenborough is the pick of the bunch, switching accents and personalities, one minute a suave businessman, the next a nervous Lebanon banker, while at other times his stiff upper lip contends with his sergeant-major attitude. Hemmings’ accents are less convincing, all over the place at times, but the switch from junior partner to operation controller is convincing especially as he clearly enjoys putting Attenborough in his place, forcing him to shave off his moustache and giving him the name Longbottom. And Stewart is never quite what she seems, willing to indulge either man to suit her purpose. Scottish actress Melissa Stribling, wife of director Basil Dearden, is a late addition to the crew and colder-eyed.

This was a departure for author Len Deighton, better known for The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

This was Attenborough’s first starring role since Guns at Batasi (1964) – Best Actor at the Bafta Awards – and although he had featured roles in Hollywood productions The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) – his screen person was quite confined in those pictures. Here, it feels like he has been let free. Hemmings was coming off three heavy roles in Camelot (1967), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and The Long Day’s Dying (1968) so it felt like he, too, had a spring in his step. This was a distinct mainstream jump for Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart, although she had small roles in Maroc 7 (19670 and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968),

Basil Dearden slipped this one in between the more lavish Khartoum (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). There is a slapstick chase reminiscent of the latter but, basically, he keeps to the story and allows character to develop. This being a British film, you might find some outdated British attitudes. This was bestselling author Len Deighton’s first stab at production.

The Flight of the Phoenix, Khartoum and The Assassination Bureau have previously been reviewed in this blog.

Catch this on Amazon Prime.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) ***

A couple of decades before the “high concept” was invented came this high concept picture – a killer is hired to kill himself. Oliver Reed is the assassin in question and Diana Rigg the journalist doing the hiring. So Reed challenges the other members of his murderous outfit to kill him before he despatches them. The odds are about ten to one. Initially involved in shadowing Reed, Rigg becomes drawn to his aid when it transpires there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.

Set just before World War One, the action cuts a swathe through Europe’s glamour cities – London, Paris, Vienna, Venice – while stopping off for a bit of slapstick, some decent sight gags and a nod now and then to James Bond (gadgets) and the Pink Panther (exploding sausages). Odd a mixture as it is, mostly it works, thanks to the intuitive partnership of director Basil Dearden and producer (and sometime writer and designer) Michael Relph, previously responsible this decade for League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), Masquerade (1965) and Khartoum (1966).

The American advertisement for the film set out its stall in a different way to the British advertisement with Diana Rigg taking pride of place.

Moustached media magnate Telly Savalas has a decent chomp at an upper-class British accent. It’s easy to forget was one of the things that marked him out was his clear diction and he always had an air about him, so this was possibly less of a stretch. Ramping up the fun is a multi-cultural melange in supporting roles: Frenchman Phillipe Noiret (Night of the Generals, 1967), everyone’s favourite German Curt Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964) playing another general, Italian Annabella Contrera (The Ambushers, 1967) and Greek George Coulouris (Arabesque, 1966) plus British stalwarts Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George, 1969) as a brothel madam, television’s Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Kenneth Griffith and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967).

The action flits between sudden danger and elaborate set pieces. When Reed announces his proposal to his board he promptly fells a colleague with a gavel just as that man throws a knife. Apart from folderols in a Parisian brothel, we are treated to a Viennese waltz and malarkey in Venice. There are disguises aplenty, donned by our hero and his enemies. Lighters are turned into flame throwers. And there is a lovely sly sense of humour, an Italian countess, wanting rid of her husband, does so under the pretext of Reed gone rogue. Reed and Rigg (in her best Julie Andrews impression) are in excellent form and strike sparks off each other. The second-last film from Dearden suggested he wanted to go out in style.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

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