Helicopter Spies (1968) ***

Takes a little while to come to the boil what with disreputable women, a crew of platinum-white-haired thugs, a religious cult, some very dry dialog, a high priestess with her own chorus line of psychedelic dancers, four identical brothers, and a female lead parading a prize shaggy dog story. Our intrepid heroes appear more capable this time round, the previously inept Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) not beaten up quite so often, though he does end up being drowned in sand (water too precious to spare, apparently).

This time round, too, the good guys are taken for a ride by mad scientist Luther Sebastian (Bradford Dillman) who hoodwinks the U.N.C.L.E. organisation into stealing a “thermal prism” from the fortress of another mad scientist Dr Kharmusi (John Dehner). To put his own grand plan into operation Sebastian just has to hijack a rocket. And you should be aware going into this that there’s not the amount of helicoptering you might expect given the title.

This time round, too, there’s hardly a good gal in sight. Azalea (Lola Albright),  aforementioned high priestess of cult The Third Way, has betrayed the good doctor in favor of Sebastian. Sebastian’s wife Laurie (Julie London) pretends to a) be out of contact with him for years and b) maintain a virtuous existence. And that’s before we come to the plainly bonkers, but still traitorous, Annie (Carol Lynley) who will make up any story in a bid to free an imprisoned unseen husband.

Sebastian has some neat touches as a leader, rewarding his team of thugs with booze and women as a prelude to killing them all off. He’s got an ejection seat in his car for getting rid of troublesome passengers. He prefers efficiency, to the point of iciness, to sexiness in his paramour and female underlings. And he has a very dry manner, which elicits a good few laughs.

But some of his thugs just ain’t that bright, the one instructed to follow Solo has just allowed him access to Laurie’s house. Laurie ain’t that bright, either, falling for an old trick by Solo who, as usual, is less bright that Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).  

Some of the set pieces are excellent. Sebastian’s followers meet in an abandoned movie theater where Azalea gives the lowdown on the grand plan assisted by her bevy of dancers. Infiltrating the organisation by the simple device of dying his hair, Solo ‘s disguise is uncovered after being sprayed with champagne.

There are a surprising number of human touches. Head henchman Carl (Roy Jenson) vowing to take “Mom” away from her dingy life running her eponymous diner finds she enjoys too much her dingy life. Carl, appreciative of the disguised Solo’s efforts, apologises for making him ride in the baggage train. Annie can stretch innocence to breaking point, to an extent where nobody cares about her problems.

But where The Karate Killers had a straightforward storyline – find the five daughters of a dead scientist – this gets a tad lost in the first section introducing the thermal prism, the cult, doubling down on mad scientists, and giving Annie all the importance of a red herring.

I thought for a moment that this was the end of the line in my appreciation of the U.N.C.L.E. franchise, the one where it all fell flat on its face and we could see the joins, but after the shaky start it picked up and became quite enjoyable in the series’ inimitable barmy fashion. I suppose I should applaud the initial narrative boldness, audience pretty much fooled from the off, the fortress assault not much more than an extended MacGuffin, with neither Sebastian nor Azalea what they seemed.

I could quibble about the guest stars but in fact this is a superb deadpan performance from Bradford Dillman (Sanctuary, 1961) and quite a departure for the Carol Lynley of Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). And you could say the same for Lola Albright, previously seen essaying a different kind of character in The Way West (1967).

Boris Sagal (The Omega Man, 1971) directed from a screenplay by Dean Hargrove (One Spy Too Many, 1966).

I’ve only got a couple to go to wrap up the entire series and for your sake I will persevere. If you’ve not already done so, it’s back to the box set.

The Bridge at Remagen (1969) ****

Superior war film, somewhat underrated. Not just realistic battle scenes, but realistically weary soldiers and taking an even-handed approach to war in the manner of Battle of the Bulge (1965). The Americans want to destroy the bridge to trap 75,000 German soldiers on the wrong side of the Rhine, the German Major Krueger (Robert Vaughn) overrides his orders to also destroy the bridge and prevent the Allies with a direct route to Berlin. Instead with depleted forces – think Zulu (1963) – and hugely outnumbered he attempts to keep the bridge open so the cornered Germans can escape.

Unlike most war films there’s no time for comedy to lighten the spirits, it’s gruelling non-stop action. Even when the advance company, headed by grizzled Lt. Hartman (George Segal) find an abandoned village where the exhausted squad could rest up for a bit, they are ordered to keep going until they find more enemy to engage. Unlike the humane Krueger, the Allied high command are merciless, gung-ho Major Barnes (Bradford Dillman) and glory-hunter Brigadier Shinner (E.G. Marshall) drive their troops on, the latter not bothered how many of his men die in an attempt to blow up the bridge – “it’s a crap shoot” is the closest he gets to apology, claiming his actions will shorten the war.

When Allied attempts to blow the bridge fail and with the enemy so close Krueger has to proceed with detonating the explosives littering the bridge and that plan is also scuppered, it’s a battle to the death to secure the crossing. And the story itself is accentuated by nods to the grisly cost of war – on both sides. Heartless Sgt Gazzaro (Ben Gazzaro), whose freebooting Hartman despises, is brought up short when he kills a youth commandeered into action by Krueger in a bid to bolster his meagre outfit – barely 200 men when he expected a force of around 1600.  Krueger is sickened to see a German firing squad executing deserters, but has little sympathy for an innkeeper who has lost a son to the fighting when four million Germans are already dead.

While reining in the worst excesses of Angelo, preventing him taking advantage of a captured woman (Anna Gael) and refusing himself to accept her offer of sex, Hartman does not rail (like Patton, 1970) against those of his men who succumb to pressure. Finding one soldier collapsed, he sympathizes, “sometimes it hits you like that,” and he refuses to put his men in unnecessary line of fire, prompting Barnes into almost killing him. Unlike Battle of the Bulge, however, there is no arrogant German commander (like Robert Shaw) nor complacent Americans.

The action is not only non-stop but hectic and the film begins brilliantly with tracking cameras scarcely able to keep up with American tanks barrelling along the road and aerial shots showing the destruction of another bridge over the Rhine. American tanks and German artillery exchange fire over the river. Buildings are blown out or majestically collapse (turns out these were real buildings, not mock-ups). Bridge stanchions fall in slow motion into the water. Refugees are collateral damage, the camera hardly registering a crying child or an abandoned doll.

As in the best war pictures, strategy and tactics are laid out for the audience, the American blunderbuss approach compares poorly to Krueger’s desperate attempts to utilise every advantage to the point of arming a barge in the river. Hartman and Krueger are well-matched in courage, the former thrown endlessly into action by cynical superiors, the latter, having discharged himself from hospital to fight on, landed with the task of rallying defeatist troops, and leading them into harm’s way in a manner that the American’s immediate superior, Barnes, point-blank refuses to do. Pride drives on the German, the war is almost lost, but surrender would be tantamount to humiliation. All Hartman has to fall back on is an inner core and the chain of command, soldiers obey orders.

Both George Segal (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) and Robert Vaughn (The Venetian Affair, 1966) are well outside their acting comfort zone. Two stars whose hallmarks are cocky characters and suave charm turn into determined men who barely crack a smile. Segal has done cynical before but not to this degree and what catches the eye more is his sheer physical exhaustion. This is an early career highlight for Vaughn, rarely offered such juicy roles.

Although associated in the general audience mind for playing creepy, not to mention sleazy, characters, Ben Gazzara (Capone, 1975) had not made much impact on 1960s moviegoers, and beyond a handful of supporting roles best known to Americans for a starring role in television series Arrest and Trial (1963-1964). The general untrustworthy screen persona he would come to inhabit is given a good work-out here except for two scenes where his character takes unselfish action. Bradford Dillman, also best known for television (Court Martial, 1965-1966), portrays a largely one-dimension character lifted out of the ordinary in a couple of scenes.

E.G. Marshall (The Defenders, 1961-1965) and Peter Van Eyck (Station Six Sahara, 1963) are the opposing commanders. You can also spot Hans Christian Blech (Battle of the Bulge), Anna Gael (Therese and Isabelle, 1968), Sonja Zieman (The Secret Ways, 1961) and Bo Hopkins (The Wild Bunch, 1969).

John Guillermin (The Blue Max, 1966) directs with aplomb from a screenplay by William Roberts (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) and novelist Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road, 2008) in his only work for the screen.

Sanctuary (1961) ***

This overheated melodrama stands as a classic example of Hollywood’s offensive attitudes to women. Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner could hardly blame the movies for sensationalising his misogynistic source material since if anything the movie took a softer line.  Told primarily in flashback as headstrong southern belle Temple Drake (Lee Remick) attempts to mitigate the death sentence passed on her maid Nancy (Odetta). Given that such appeals are directed at Drake’s Governor father (Howard St John), and that the maid has been condemned for murdering Drake’s infant child, that’s a whole lot of story to swallow.

Worse is to follow. Drake takes up with Prohibition bootlegger Candy Man (Yves Montand) after being raped by him and thereafter appears happy to live with him in a New Orleans brothel – the “sanctuary,” no irony intended, of the title – despite him slapping her around. The film steers clear of turning her into the prostitute of the original book, but pretty much sets up the notion that high class women will fall for a low-class tough guy whose virility is demonstrated by his brutality. In other words a “real man” rather than the dilettantes she has previously rejected.

After the Candy Man dies, Drake returns home and marries wealthy suitor Gowan Stevens (Bradford Dillman) who blames himself, rightly, for Drake falling into the clutches of the gangster in the first place. But a past threatening to engulf her precipitates the infanticide.

Faulkner was a Hollywood insider, adapting Sanctuary for The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and earning high praise for  his work on Bogart vehicles To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). The success of The Tarnished Angels (1957) starring Rock Hudson, The Long, Hot Summer (1958) with Paul Newman and The Sound and the Fury (1959) headlined by Yul Brynner had sent his cachet rocketing. But all three were directed by Americans – Douglas Sirk and Martin Ritt – who had a distinctive visual style and an ear for what made melodrama work.

Sanctuary had been handed to British director Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger, 1959) and he didn’t quite understand how to make the best of the difficult project. So while Lee Remick manages to suggest both strength and fragility, and makes her character’s wanton despair believable, Yves Montand is miscast and Bradford Dillman fails to convince even though portraying a weak character. Too many of the smaller roles appear as cliches. And it’s hard to believe the maid’s motivation in turning murderer. Watch out for Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967).

What was acceptable steamy melodrama in the 1930s fails to click three decades on. Faulkner’s thesis that high-falutin’ women want a man to master them and furthermore will fall in love with their rapist seems to lack any understanding of the female mind and will not appeal any more to the modern sensibility than it did on release. Lee Remick is what holds the picture together, in part because she plays so well the role of a woman embracing degradation, and refusing – no matter how insane the idea appears – to let go of the man she believes is the love of her life. It’s not Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s not that far off that kind of fantasy figure, and given the success of that book, it’s entirely possible there is a market for what Faulkner has to peddle.

Not easy to find. This is actually on YouTube if you go onto that channel and search. Strangely enough, if I post a link, it says it is no longer playing there – but just as strangely if you go looking you will find it.

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