If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1968) ***

The combined tourist boards of Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy must have funded this film. Although Belgium and Switzerland may have been justified in asking for their money back since all we glimpse of either country is cheese. Nor does it particularly show the American tourist in a good light. In fact, the occupants of the tour bus seem drawn from the worst clichés of the American personality – characters who demand hamburgers wherever they go, think there sex available everywhere, steal everything in sight, and demand more than their money’s worth. These are characters who are not difficult to send up. And ever the democrat, director Mel Stuart pokes fun at every country.

So it’s something of a surprise to find the movie is perfectly palatable, a smorgasbord of  conflicting attitudes, on an 18-day bus tour of Europe rattling through a host of comedic situations, held together by burgeoning romance between playboy tour guide Charlie (Ian McShane) and soon-to-be-married Samantha (Suzanne Pleshette) by way of running gags revolving around Harve (Norman Fell) chasing wife Irma (Reva Rose) who jumped on a rival tour bus, kleptomaniac Harry (Aubrey Morris), and more guest stars in blink-and-you-miss-it roles than were cast in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Like films nowadays (Marry Me, 2022, for one) that seem to think an audience needs to kept constantly apprised of social media, this goes overboard on technology, in this case, the camera, in one instance legitimately comedic, but the rest of the time just to cram in much of what would more sensibly be left alone.

Luckily, the two central romances work. Charlie, initially rebuffed at every turn by Samantha, who has a nice line in one-liners (“I am about to turn into an Ugly American before your very eyes”), eventually believes it is time to part company with his playboy ways and settle down, while Samantha, about to settle down back home, discovers she has not yet sown enough wild oats. The ever-amorous Shelley (Hilarie Thompson), taken on holiday to prevent her giving in to lust at home, conducts a country-by-country romance with a young swain on a motorbike ending up – serve ‘em right – in a cellar listening to a dirge by pop star Donovan.

Some of the jokes hit an interesting target. German and American tourist at a shrine to the Battle of the Bulge, in the same loud, hectoring tones, deliver a story of victory, the kleptomaniac even steals a lifebelt, an Italian fed up with patronizing tourists reports one to the cops, Harve embarking on a daddy dance in a glamorous nightclub, an authentic shoemaker (Vittorio De Sica) sells a tourist an authentic shoe that he buys out of a catalogue, the mismatch of languages sets up endless permutations. However, it’s a bit of a stretch in the late 1960s to find a bidet in a London hotel.

Still, if you fed up trying to keep up with the countless plotlines or are trying to work out which country is which, you can always keep yourself entertained spotting the cameos. It’s some list: Senta Berger (Istanbul Express, 1968), Yutte Stensgaard (Some Girls Do, 1969), Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960), Catherine Spaak (Hotel, 1965), Carol Cleveland (Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series), Joan Collins (Subterfuge, 1968), Elsa Martinelli (Maroc 7, 1967), Virna Lisi (The Secret of Santa Vittoria, 1969) and Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances television series) And that’s just the women. There are also glimpses of Robert Vaughn (The Venetian Affair, 1966), Ben Gazzara (Bridge at Remagen, 1969) and John Cassavettes (Machine Gun McCain, 1969).

While all eyes are likely to focus on Ian McShane wondering how this fresh-faced lad turned into the gravel-voiced spittoon-soaked stylish icon of John Wick (2014), it is worth taking a look at the performance of Suzanne Pleshette (The Power, 1968) who was rarely given the opportunity to essay such a rounded character. Supporting players include Murray Hamilton (Jaws, 1965), Mildred Natwick (The Maltese Bippy, 1969) and the generally choleric Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967) turning positively volcanic.

A documentary film-maker up to this point, Mel Stuart (I Love My Wife, 1970) generally keeps the audience on-side with a non-stop barrage of ideas. David Shaw (A Foreign Affair, 1948) devised the screenplay.

The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) ***

In her first top-billed role Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) delivers a strong performance as an American nurse/missionary in the Belgian Congo at the start of the Second World War. The usual Hollywood trope of “heathens” needing to be educated by imperialists – from The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) through to The Nun’s Story (1959) – was to some extent turned on its head here.

Just as Rachel Cade (Angie Dickinson) arrives at a hospital in a small village, resident Dr Bikel  (Douglas Spencer) dies. Not only does the hospital have no patients, the local Belgian commissioner Col Derod (Peter Finch) wants her to leave, believing her presence will act as provocation to the local high priest Kalanumu (Juano Hernandez) and witch doctor Muwango (Woody Strode). After standing up to all three, Rachel embarks on refurbishment of the hospital aided by assistant Kulu (Errol John).

Patients remain non-existent until she cures a small boy of appendicitis, as a result of which Muwango places a curse on her that she will lose her Protestant faith and promises the local god will take his revenge on anyone who supports her. Of course, her skills are not infinite and not only is there another boy who dies in her care but she cannot cure – and does not attempt to cure – the infertile third wife of the local chief.

While she warms to her patients and they to her, she cannot come to terms with their acceptance of incest (if a husband is called away, his brother must make love to his wife), polygamy, vaginal mutilation, the sexuality of their dancing and the fact that sin does not exist in their culture. Meanwhile, she distrusts the visions seen by the most convinced of her converts, Kulu.    

When the sexually repressed Rachel rejects Derod’s advances in favour of the  dashing but money-oriented Dr Paul Winton (Roger Moore), thus violating her own teachings, she becomes enmeshed by the principles she holds so dearly and which the Africans refute. A twist in the tale pivots the picture on whom she will marry, the sensible Derod, the cavalier Winton, or retain her own independence in defiance of the standards of the time.  

A battle of the hierarchies – the female nurse and her supporters versus male supremacy – maintains the tension but underneath is a philosophical struggle between the two faiths. The Christian religion which boasts of forgiveness is in the end unforgiving of those who break its moral code, while the African religion does not force onto its believers such ludicrous rules. On top of that is Rachel’s acceptance of her own passion, the realization that love cannot be restrained by commandment, and that men are more likely to betray her.

The reality of imperialist rule is not underplayed but since this predates the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s that precipitated widespread rebellion and Derod can call on soldiers for protection in the Belgian colony and is in fact a generally tolerant (though at times patronising) overseer, political issues remain in the background.

Angie Dickinson gets the movie star build-up in this British trade advertisement.

Director Gordon Douglas (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) keeps the focus on the transition of the naïve American while not ignoring nor appearing to ridicule the rituals and beliefs of the tribe – although a cynic might consider that the sexuality of the dancing, while repellant to Rachel, might be included more with an eye to attracting an audience. Overall, it appears an honest even-sided presentation, with the high priest getting the better of Rachel in arguments over the frailties of Christianity. Angie Dickinson brings conviction to a role that sees her start out a shade saintly until brought back down to earth by human weakness. Peter Finch, by coincidence the leading man to Audrey Hepburn role in The Nun’s Story, fills out his normal stoic screen personality with touches of grief. Roger Moore (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969) had not yet mastered the art of the raised eyebrow and so brought a more rounded performance to his role and is entirely believable as the lover with the mercenary streak.

The pick of the supporting parts is Mary Wickes (Sister Act, 1992) as Derod’s wisecracking housekeeper. Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Scatman Crothers (The Shining, 1980),  Juano Hernandez (The Pawnbroker, 1964) and Errol John (The Nun’s Story)  provide stiff opposition for the incomers.  Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965) based his screenplay on the bestseller by Charles Mercer.

CATCH-UP: Featured in the Blog so far are the following Angie Dickinson pictures: Ocean’s 11 (1960), A Fever in the Blood (1961), Jessica (1962), The Chase (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and Point Blank (1967).

Fraulein Doktor (1969) ****

Surprisingly good World War One spy yarn full to bursting with clever ruses and pieces of deception and ending with a stunning depiction of carnage on the Western Front.  Loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmuller, it fell foul on release to British and American hostility over the Germans actually winning anything.

The film breaks down into three sections: the unnamed Doktor landing at the British naval base in Scapa Flow in Orkney to plan the death of Lord Kitchener; a flashback to France where she steals a new kind of poison gas; and finally on the Western Front where, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, she masterminds an attempt to steal vital war plans. She is hampered by her emotions, romance never helpful for an espionage agent, and her addiction to morphine.

Duelling spymasters the British Colonel Foreman (Kenneth More) and the German Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green) both display callousness in exploiting human life. The films is so full of twists and turns and, as I mention, brilliant pieces of duplicity that I hesitate to tell you any more for fear of introducing plot spoilers, suffice to say that both men excel at the outwitting game.

I will limit myself to a couple of examples just to get you in the mood. Foreman has apprehended two German spies who have landed by submarine on Scapa Flow. He knows another one has escaped. The imprisoned Meyer (James Booth) watches his colleague shot by a firing squad. Foreman, convinced Meyer’s courage will fail at the last minute, instructs the riflemen to load up blanks. Before a shot is fired, Meyer gives up and spills the beans on the Doktor only to discover that Foreman faked the death of his colleague.

And there is a terrific scene where the Fraulein, choosing the four men who will accompany her on her final mission, asks those willing to die to step forward. She chooses the ones not willing to die. When asking one of these soldiers why he stayed back he replied that she wouldn’t want to know if he could speak Flemish if he was so expendable.

The Fraulein is always one step ahead of her pursuers, changing clothes and hair color to make redundant any description of her, and knowing a double bluff when she sees one. In France as a maid she turns seductress to win the trust of scientist Dr Saforet (Capucine) who has developed a new, deadlier, strain of poison gas. It’s unclear whether, appalled at the potential loss of life to her fellow Germans, this is her motivation to turn spy or whether at this point she is already an accomplished agent. In the final section she takes command of the entire operation.

What distinguishes this from the run-of-the-mill spy adventure is, for a start, not just the female spy, how easily she dupes her male counterparts, and that the British are apt just to be as expedient as the Germans, but the savage reality of the war played out against a British and German upper class sensibility. When a train full of Red Cross nurses arrives at the front, the wounded men have to be beaten back; Foreman thinks it unsporting to use a firing squad; a German general refuses to award the Fraulein a medal because Kitchener was a friend of his; and the Doktor’s masquerade as a Red Cross nurse goes unchallenged because she adopts the persona of a countess.

Far from being an evil genius, the Doktor is depicted as a woman alarmed at the prospect of thousands of her countrymen being killed and Germany losing the war. In order to cram in all the episodes, her later romance is somewhat condensed but the emotional response it triggers is given full vent. And there is tenderness in her affair with Dr Saforet, hair combing a prelude to exploring feelings for each other.

Apart from King and Country (1964), The Blue Max (1966) and Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), depictions of the First World War were rare in the 1960s, and the full-scale battle at the film’s climax is exceptionally well done with long tracking shots of poison gas, against which masks prove little deterrent, as it infiltrates the British lines. The horror of war becomes true horror as faces blister and, in one chilling shot, skin separates from bone and sticks to the barrel of a rifle.

If I have any quibbles, it’s a sense that there was a brilliant film to be made here had only the budget been bigger and veteran director Alberto Lattuada (Matchless, 1967) had made more of the suspense. Suzy Kendall (The Penthouse, 1967) easily carries the film, adopting a variety of disguises, accents and characters, yet still showing enough of her own true feelings. Kenneth More (Dark of the Sun, 1968), in more ruthless mode than previous screen incarnations, is excellent as is counterpart Nigel Green (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) but James Booth (Zulu, 1963) has little to do other than look shifty. Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) has an interesting cameo.

Ennio Morricone (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969) has created a masterly score, a superb romantic theme at odds with the discordant sounds he composes for the battles scenes. Collectors of trivia might like to know that Dita Parlo had starred in a more romantic British version of the story Under Secret Orders (1937) with a German version, using the same actress, filmed at the same time by G.W. Pabst as Street of Shadows (1937), both revolving around this infamous secret agent.

This is far from your normal spy drama. Each of the main sequences turned out differently to what I expected and with the German point-of-view taking precedence makes for an unusual war picture. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

Another freebie on YouTube. I could not find a DVD so you might need to check out secondhand dealers on Ebay.

Hard Contract (1969) ***

A hitman movie that verges on the existential is always going to be intriguing. Stone cold killer John Cunningham (James Coburn) manages to keep the world at a distance until he runs into the vibrant Sheila (Lee Remick) in Spain. The film is a curiosity of an admittedly small genre dominated by such disparate offerings as The Killers (1946 and 1964), Yojimbo (1961), Le Samourai (1967) and Stiletto (1969). Here, although Cunningham does bump people off, you never see the violence. We’ve come to expect hitmen to be introspective, but there’s never been anyone as closed-off as Cunningham. No romance in his life, only hookers, no apparent depth, in fact we learn very little about him.

He only runs into Sheila because for a laugh she pretends to be a sex worker. In reality she’s a wealthy divorced socialite running with a fast set that include Adrianne (Lili Palmer) and ex-Nazi Alexi (Patrick Magee) whom she loves to taunt but whose contacts allow Cunningham to be effectively stalked. And as unsavory that might be from today’s perspective, it sheds light both on her power and whimsicality.

There’s an unusual background. Amid the extensive jet-setting in Torremolinos, Madrid and Tangiers, there are reality counterpoints, reflecting the issues of the decade – violent demonstrations with police using water cannon to control the crowds, the American elections and discussions about God, world hunger, the Holocaust, terrorism and population growth.

No doubt the script is wordy, but there’s hardly a word that doesn’t challenge convention. It’s steeped in amorality – a touchstone of the decade – good only occurs “when evil takes a rest” and the world is “immune to murder.” And you certainly get the impression that the rich can confront anything because, not having to live in the ordinary world, they can get away with it. Conversely, this is also one of those films where you wonder who did the wardrobe (Gladys de Segonzac, since you ask, who ran fashion house Schiaparelli in the 1950s) because not only does Sheila sport clothes that would have delighted Audrey Hepburn but Cunningham gets away with wearing a white jacket.

And if Korean vet Cunningham is enigmatic, the insomniac Sheila is cut from a similar cloth, and while a potential source for redemption is as likely to have sex with a casual pickup in a filthy alley. The story does not go quite the way you would expect – Cunningham’s growing dissatisfaction with his profession revealed when he can’t perform in a Brussels brothel. And his mindset allows him to consider mass murder as a solution to an emotional problem he cannot solve.

At core, of course, is whether once Cunningham’s emotional defenses are breached he can continue as a hitman, and  whether Sheila can accept his profession. The stakes rise when it transpires that (like Stiletto made the same year) retirement is not an option.

And for all the seriousness on show, there are some imaginative moments of hilarity – Cunningham’s idea of a love song is “To the Shores of Tripoli” and Adrianne proves determinedly indiscreet. In keeping with the paranoia cycle that was about to explode, you never find out why people are being murdered, or even who they are, far less the group which his boss Ramsay (Burgess Meredith) is fronting.

Far removed from the Derek Flint persona that had turned him into a star, James Coburn delved deeper into the amoral territory he had previously explored in Waterhole 3 (1967). Lee Remick (The Detective, 1968) is sheer madcap delight even when espousing her odd takes on philosophy. Lili Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962), who by this point in her career was usually the wife or girlfriend, creates a very original character. Veteran Sterling Hayden had only made one film (Dr Strangelove, 1962) in a decade and is excellent as a contemplative retired hitman. Patrick Magee (The Skull) gives another of his tight-lipped performances. Karen Black (Easy Rider, 1969) has a small role as does Sabine Sun (The Sicilian Clan, 1969).

This marked both the debut and the demise of the directorial career of S. Lee Pogostin, best known at this point as the screenwriter of Pressure Point (1962) and Synanon (1965). In terms of argument over issues it stands comparison with Pressure Point but without that film’s intensity.

I remember being baffled by the picture when it came out and I was a teenager because the action I believed I had been promised never materialized but otherwise I could remember little about it so now it appears as an interesting antidote to the mindless action pictures.  

This is another freebie available on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=hard+contract+1969

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