Dr No (1962) *****

Minus the gadgets and the more outlandish plots, the James Bond formula in embryo. With two of the greatest entrances in movie history – and a third if you count the creepy presence of Dr No himself at the beds of his captives – all the main supporting characters in place except Q, plenty of sex and action, plus the Maurice Binder credit sequence and the theme tune, this is the spy genre reinvented.

Most previous espionage pictures usually involved a character quickly out of their depth or an innocent caught up in nefarious shenanigans, not a man close to a semi-thug, totally in command, automatically suspicious, and happy to knock off anyone who gets in his way, in fact given government clearance to commit murder should the occasion arise. That this killer comes complete with charm and charisma and oozes sexuality changes all the rules and ups the stakes in the spy thriller.

 Three men disguised as beggars break into the house of British secret service agent Strangways (Tim Moxon) and kill him and his secretary and steal the file on Dr No (Joseph Wiseman). A glamorous woman in a red dress Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) catches the eye of our handsome devil “Bond, James Bond” (Sean Connery) at a casino before he is interrupted by an urgent message, potential assignation thwarted.

We are briefly introduced to Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) before Bond is briefed by M (Bernard Lee) and posted out immediately – or “almost immediately” as it transpires – to Jamaica, but not before his beloved Beretta is changed to his signature Walther PPK and mention made that he is recovering from a previous mission. But in what would also become a series signature, liberated women indulging in sexual freedom, and often making the first move, Ms Trench is lying in wait at his flat.

In another change to the espionage trope, this man does not walk into the unknown. Suspicion is his watchword. In other words, he is the consummate professional. On arrival at Jamaica airport he checks out the waiting chauffeur and later the journalist who takes his picture. The first action sequence also sets a new tone. Bond is not easily duped. Three times he outwits the chauffeur. Finally, at the stand-off, Bond fells him with karate before the man takes cyanide, undercutting the danger with the mordant quip, on delivering the corpse to Government house, “see that he doesn’t get away.” 

Initially, it’s more a detective story as Bond follows up on various clues that leads him to Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), initially appearing as an adversary, and C.I.A. agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) before the finger of suspicion points to the mysterious Dr No and the question of why rocks from his island should be radioactive. Certainly, Dr No pulls out all the stops, sending hoods, a tarantula, sexy secretary Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the traitororous Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) to waylay or kill Bond.

But it’s only when our hero lands on the island and the bikini-clad Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) emerges from the sea as the epitome of the stunning “Bond Girl” that the series formula truly kicks in: formidable sadistic opponent, shady organization Spectre, amazing  sets, space age plot, a race against time. 

It’s hard not to overstate how novel this entire picture was. For a start, it toyed with the universal perception of the British as the ultimate arbiters of fair play. Here was an anointed killer. Equally, the previous incarnation of the British spy had been the bumbling Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1959). That the British should endorse wanton killing and blatant immorality – remember this was some years before the Swinging Sixties got underway – went against the grain.

Although critics have maligned the sexism of the series, they have generally overlooked the reaction of the female audience to a male hunk, or the freedom with which women appeared to enjoy sexual trysts with no fear of moral complication. Bond is not just macho, he is playful with the opposite sex, flirting with Miss Moneypenny, and with a fine line in throwaway quips.

Director Terence Young is rarely more than a few minutes away from a spot of action or sex, exposition kept to a minimum, so the story zings along, although there is time to flesh out the characters, Bond’s vulnerability after his previous mission mentioned, his attention to detail, and Honey Rider’s backstory, her father disappearing on the island and her own ruthlessness. The insistently repetitive theme tunes- from Monty Norman and John Barry – were innovative. The special effects mostly worked, testament to the genius of production designer Ken Adam rather than the miserable budget.

Most impressive of all was the director’s command of mood and pace. For all the fast action, he certainly knew how to frame a scene, Bond initially shown from the back, Dr No introduced from the waist downwards, Honey Rider in contrast revealed in all her glory from the outset. The brutal brief interrogation of photographer Annabel Chung (Marguerite LeWars), the unexpected seduction of the enemy Miss Taro and the opulence of the interior of Dr No’s stronghold would have come as surprises.

Young was responsible for creating the prototype Bond picture, the lightness of touch in constant contrast to flurries of violence, amorality while blatant delivered with cinematic elan, not least the treatment of willing not to say predatory females, the shot through the bare legs of Ms Trench as Bond returns to his apartment soon to become par for the course.

Future episodes of course would lavish greater funds on the project, but with what was a B-film budget at best  by Hollywood standards, the producers worked wonders. Sean Connery (The Frightened City, 1961) strides into a role that was almost made-to-measure, another unknown Ursula Andress speeded up every male pulse on the planet, Joseph Wiseman (The Happy Thieves, 1961) provided an ideal template for a future string of maniacs and Bernard Lee (The Secret Partner, 1961) grounded the entire operation with a distinctly British headmaster of a boss.

The Last Bus (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

As we saw with Stillwater, great performances can rescue films. And there are two stunning performances on show in this alternative road trip, one from star Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, 2014) and another in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene from supporting actress Grace Calder. The story here is pretty slim, Tom, aged over 90, sets out on 800-mile pilgrimage by bus from John O’Groats at the very top of Scotland to Land’s End at the very south of England. The trip’s purpose is concealed until the climax but hardy cinemagoers will easily guess it. He has various encounters along the way. That’s it, pretty much.

Most films about the old have redeeming features, a charming character and if grouchy with a last chance at redemption, and if played by a star generally bring with their performance a whole parcel of screen memories that have an audience rooting for them. Tom ain’t like that. He’s old the way really old people are old. He’s not an attractive sight. His bottom lip sticks out most of the time like an aged trout. He shuffles along, in battered old clothes clutching a battered old suitcase. Most of the time he’s out of his depth, occasionally rescued by passersby, occasionally not.  

The most you can say about him is he has grit, standing up to a drunk abusing a Muslim, fixing a broken-down bus, offering a shoulder to cry on to a weeping teenager. In another time, in another place, such characteristics would have propelled a story. Here, they are mere makeweights. He’s so self-effacing he’s easy to ignore.  

Scottish director Gillies Mackinnon (Whisky Galore, 2016) takes the bold decision not to make him overly sympathetic. Scenes that would have been played for all they were worth in any other film almost pass without comment, just minor ingredients in a larger tapestry. The most Tom achieves is retaining dignity at a time when body and mind are starting to betray him.

That this is just the smallest of small pictures is amply demonstrated when, trapped between a bunch of rowdy boys enjoying rowdy banter with a hen party, he starts singing “Amazing Grace.” Tom doesn’t have an amazing voice. He doesn’t even seem to recognise that he gradually attracts an audience. He is in a world of his own. And the director lets him stay there.

I was so convinced by Timothy Spall’s performance that I hoped they had used a stunt double to film a scene when he has to gingerly negotiate a path down rugged rocks. I had not realised that Spall is only 64 and not close to the aged specimen I had been watching. Spall has that quiet genius of the great actors even though rarely given a leading role and if you recognise him at all, unless you are an arthouse devotee, it will be from The Last Samurai (2003) or Vanilla Sky (1999).  

What of Grace Calder? Occasionally I deliver lectures on film and in one of these I use the final scene of Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) to demonstrate the power of female close-ups, how women far more than men are capable of a greater range expression, showing a shifting series of emotions through their eyes. And I saw that same astonishing quality in Grace Calder (Love Sarah, 2020). She appears as the lover of an arrogant male who taunts Tom in a B&B. As she reins her lover in, her eyes rapidly change in a matter of seconds to conveying a depth of different emotions.  None of the other actors, who are all fleeting two-dimensional cameos, come anywhere close in a part that was not a part until she made it so memorable.

Most critics have been pretty sniffy about The Last Bus and you can see why. Television writer Joe Ainsworth making his movie debut tries too hard for diversity, the social media trope sticks out like a sore thumb, affords overmuch footage of glorious Scottish landscape to recompense Creative Scotland for its financial input, and never quite resolves the question of how a 90-year-old guy who can hardly manage a bus pass manages to work out a convoluted route in at least a dozen local buses to retrace a route he took 70 years before.

But it is all held together by a stunning performance by Spall.  

Three into Two Won’t Go (1969) ***

Unhappily married and childless salesman Steve (Rod Steiger) begins an affair with kooky promiscuous hitchhiker Ella (Judy Geeson). A free spirit in control of her life – no VD and on the Pill – and happy to drift from mundane job to mundane job, Ella ranks her many lovers on their sexual performance. Steve has just moved into a new house in a dreary new estate, perhaps in the hope of revitalizing his staid marriage to Frances (Claire Bloom).

While Steve is away on business, Ella turns up at his home where, revealing – without implicating Steve – that she is pregnant and convinces Frances to let her stay the night. Naturally, it is Steve’s baby but Ella plans an abortion. Steve wants the baby and so, too, still unaware of the father, does Frances, seeing adoption as the solution to their marital woes. And so a love triangle, or more correctly a baby triangle, plays out, with a few unexpected twists.

Like most of the marital dramas of the 1960s, especially in the wake of the no-holds-barred Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), this is riddled with outspoken protagonists who have no idea how to find real happiness. Based on the book by Andrea Newman and adapted by Edna O’Brien, who both have previously marked out this kind of territory, the picture shifts sympathy from one character to the next. While no one is entirely culpable, none are blameless either. Yet there is an innocence about Steve and Frances in the way they fling themselves at unlikely salvation. They are not the first couple to find themselves in a marital cul de sac, nor the first to do nothing about it, hoping that somehow through a new house or job promotion things will right themselves.

Audiences, accustomed to seeing Steiger (In the Heat of the Night, 1967) in morose roles, might have been shocked to see him happy and he manages to present a more rounded character than in some previous screen incarnations. In burying herself in domesticity, Claire Bloom (Charly, 1968) essays a far from fragile character, whose resilience and pragmatism will always find a way forward. Geeson is the surprise package, at once knowing and in charge, and at other times completely out of her depth, and to some extent enjoying the chaos she sparks. The exuberant screen personality she presents here is almost a grown-up more calculating version of the character she portrays in Hammerhead (1968).

Director Peter Hall (Work is a Four-Letter Word, 1968) ensures more universal appeal by not grounding the movie in the swinging sixties so that it would not quickly become  outdated. The snatching at last-minute fantasy to avert marital disharmony will still strike a note. The performances are all excellent, including a turn by Peggy Ashcroft (Secret Ceremony, 1968) and bit parts from British character actors Paul Rogers (Stolen Hours, 1963) and Elizabeth Spriggs in her second movie.

Make sure you catch the correct version of this picture if you hunt it down. Against the director’s wishes. Universal edited it then added new characters for the version shown on American television.

Subterfuge (1968) ***

Worth seeing just for super-slinky leather-clad uber-sadistic Donetta (Suzanna Leigh) who  delights in torturing the daylights out of any secret agent who crosses her path, in this case Michael Donovan (Gene Barry). She’s got a neat line in handbags, too, the poisonous kind. Two stories cross over in this London-set spy drama. American Donovan is under surveillance from both foreign powers and British intelligence. When his contact comes into unfortunate contact with a handbag, he finds himself on the sticky end of the attention of Shevik (Marius Goring) while at the same time employed by the British spy chief Goldsmith (Michael Rennie) to find the mole in their camp.

The three potential British suspects are top-ranking intelligence officer Col. Redmayne (Richard Todd), British spy Peter Langley (Tom Adams) and backroom underling Kitteridge (Colin Gordon). On top of this Langley’s wife Anne (Joan Collins) adds conscience to the proceedings, growing more and more concerned that the affairs of the secret state are taking too much precedence over her marriage.

The hunt-the-mole aspect is pretty well-staged. Kitteridge always looks shifty, keenly watching his boss twisting the dials on a huge office safe containing top secret secrets. Langley is introduced as a villain, turning up at Shevik’s with the drugs that are going to send the Donovan to sleep for eight hours before being transported abroad in a trunk. But he turns out to be just pretending and aids Donovan’s innovative escape. Charming but ruthless Redmayne is also under suspicion if only because he belongs to the upper-class strata of spies (Burgess, Philby and Maclean) who had already betrayed their country.

In investigating Langley, Donovan fixes on the wife, now, coincidentally, a potential romantic target since her husband is suing for divorce. She is particularly attracted to Donovan after he saves her son from a difficult situation on the water, although that appears manufactured for the very purpose of making her feel indebted. However, the couple are clearly attracted, although the top of a London bus would not generally be the chosen location, in such glamorous spy pictures, for said romance to develop.

As you will be aware, romance is a weak spot for any hard-bitten spy and Shevik’s gang take easy advantage, putting Anne, her son and Donovan in peril at the same time as the American follows all sorts of clues to pin down the traitor.

This is the final chapter in Gene Barry’s unofficial 1960s movie trilogy – following Maroc 7 (1967) and Istanbul Express (1968) – and London is a more dour and more apt climate for this more down-to-earth drama. Forget bikinis and gadgets, the best you can ask for is Joan Collins dolled up in trendy mini-skirt and furs. Barry, only too aware that London has nothing on Morocco or Istanbul in the weather department, dresses as if expecting thunderstorms, so he’s not quite the suave character of the previous two pictures. In this grittier role, he does not always come out on top. But that does not seem to dampen his ardor and the gentle romantic banter is well done.

Joan Collins, in career trough after her Twentieth Century Fox contract ended with Esther and the King (1960), has the principled role, determining that the price paid by families for those in active secret service is too high. No slouch in the spy department himself, essaying Charles Vine in three movies including Where the Bullets Fly (1966), Tom Adams plays with audience expectations in this role. It’s a marvelous cast, one of those iconic congregations of talent, with former British superstar Richard Todd (The Dam Busters, 1955), Michael Rennie, television’s The Third Man (1959-1965), Marius Goring (The Girl on a Motorcycle, 1968) and Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) trading her usual damsel-in-distress persona for a turn as terrific damsel-causing-distress.

Shorn of sunny location to augment his backgrounds, director Peter Graham Scott (Bitter Harvest, 1963) turns his camera on scenic London to take in Trafalgar Square, the zoo, Royal Festival Hall, the Underground, Regent’s Park with the usual flotilla of pigeons and ducks to fill in any blanks in the canvas.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog are Gene Barry in Maroc 7 (1967) and Istanbul Express (1968), Joan Collins in Esther and the King (1960) and Suzanna Leigh in The Lost Continent (1968).

This is hard to find so your best bet is ebay although it is available on Youtube for free but the print quality is not great.

A Home of Your Own (1964) ***

The phrase “classic silent British comedy” isn’t one that naturally trips off the tongue. Add in “of the 1960s” and you can guarantee furrowed brows. Thanks to the boom in recycling Hollywood silent classics in the early 1960s – which I may come back to in a later Blog –  there was a subsequent mini-boom in what were called “wordless” pictures, as if using the term “silent” was blasphemous. The oddity is that so many emerged from Britain, primarily in shortened format – not more than one hour long – as the second feature in a double bill.

Blame for this development lay in the hands of producer and later writer and later still director Bob Kellett, Britain’s unsung comedy king.

A Home of Your Own is beautifully structured, following the mishaps in building a block of new apartments. A credit sequence covers the stultifying bureaucracy involved so that what was a pristine site at the beginning of the endeavor turns into a waterlogged dump before the first brick is laid. Sight gags and slapstick abound with mostly everyone getting in each other’s way, or not, the traditional approach of the work-shy British builder being to provide an audience for someone else to dig up a road or a trench.

No paddle goes unsplashed, mud only exists to drench people, and in pursuit of comedy gold most of building materials end up misused. The gatekeeper’s main job is to make tea and there is naturally an union official whose chief task is to obstruct.

Pick of the gags is Ronnie Barker’s laying of cement, delivered with exquisite comedy timing, followed by Bernard Cribbin’s stonemason delicately chiselling out a plaque only to discover at the end in a laugh-out-loud moment that he has misspelled one word, and the carpenter who appropriates the closest implement with which to stir his tea. Some of the jokes grow legs – the morning tea break, a ham-fisted carpenter, the pipe-smoking architect arriving in a sports car, and a patch of ground on the road outside constantly being dug up by different contractors representing water board, gas, electricity.

Once the building is complete, the job has taken long enough for the aspiring apartment-owner, a mere fiancé at the outset, to lift his wife over the threshold accompanied by three kids. Any sense of personal accomplishment – the British thirst for owning property quenched – is undercut by problems the young couple now face thanks to the shoddy workmanship we have witnessed.  

All this is accompanied by a very inventive Ron Goodwin score which provides brilliant musical cues. As a bonus, the film features a roll-call of British television comedy superstars  including Ronnie Barker (The Two Ronnies, 1971-1987), Richard Briers (The Good Life, 1975-1978) and Bill Fraser (Bootsie and Snudge, 1960-1974).  Peter Butterworth and Bernard Cribbins were Carry On alumni. Janet Brown achieved later fame as an impressionist while Tony Tanner hit Broadway as the star of Half a Sixpence before expanding his career to choreographer-director, Tony-nominated for Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

A Home of Your Own went out as the support to the Boulting Brothers’ comedy Rotten to the Core (1964) which gave a debut to Charlotte Rampling. Despite being effectively a B-film, primarily made to take advantage of the Eady Levy (a cashback guarantee for producers), it was surprisingly successful.  “Will delight arthouse patrons” commented Box Office magazine in America (“Review,” October 4, 1965, p160) as British comedy films in those days tended to end up in the arthouses. In part, this was because it was the official British entry to the Berlin Film Festival. It was distributed in the U.S. there by Cinema V in a double bill with Rotten to the Core and launched in what was misleadingly called a “world premiere engagement” at the prestigious Cinema 1 in New York.

Jay Lewis (Live Now, Pay Later, 1962) directed and co-wrote, along with Johnny Whyte, the mini-feature. Kellett continued in this enterprising vein with the 55-minute San Ferry Ann (1965) – which he wrote – about a group of British holidaymakers going abroad and the 49-minute Futtock’s End (1970) – which he directed – featuring a bunch of guests descending on an ancient country house owned by Ronnie Barker.

Television stars showcased in these two featurettes included Wilfred Bramble (Steptoe and Son, 1962-1974), Rodney Bewes (The Likely Lads, 1964-1966), Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part, 1965-1975) and Richard O’Sullivan (Man About the House, 1973-1976). Ron Moody composed the Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968) while Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor made their names in the Carry On series and theatrical knight Sir Michael Hordern appeared in Khartoum (1965) and Where Eagles Dare (1968).

Though disdained by critics, Kellett went on to become by far the most influential British comedy director of the 1970s. His output included the Frankie Howerd trilogy Up Pompeii (1971), Up the Chastity Belt (1972) and Up the Front (1972), as well as The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). He was well ahead of his time with the transgender comedy Girl Stroke Boy (1972) and female impersonator Danny La Rue in Our Miss Fred (1972).

You can find all four films in a compilation released by Network under the title Futtock’s End and Other Short Stories.  Thanks to Dolphin PR for a copy. You can catch it on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital services.

Ammonite (2020) ****

I came at this picture with some trepidation and in truth only watched it at the cinema because I had seen everything else worth a look in the few weeks since the picture houses have reopened. Although initially attracting Oscar buzz, that failed to materialize when it mattered and it was left out of the Oscar loop. While kate Winslet was a proven commercial box office draw, this appeared to have arthouse sensibilities and the few reviews I had read promised a turgid evening.

The reality was something different and as a result of what I can only describe as the magic of the big screen. Watching a film in a cinema is automatically more involving than on the small screen: there are fewer distractions, the dominating size of the screen is unavoidable and it is dark. Had I watched it at home I could well have switched it off after fifteen minutes in reaction to the slow pace. But in a cinema, slowness did not matter, and until it widened out in the final few scenes it was like an absorbing chamber piece, featuring a handful of characters.  In approach it was closest to a film about an artist, Pollock (2000) and Mr Turner (2014) come to mind, where obsession is the driving force, narrative and plot merely subservient. We are exposed to considerable detail about the character’s archaeological work, which is often filthy and undertaken outside in all sorts of weather, requiring the constitution of a miner or farmer rather than a painter, as well as the patience of a saint to brush, wash or poke clean her discoveries.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was not an attractive personality, downright truculent and rude for the most part, given that she depended for her living on selling the archaeological items she had found in the Lyme Regis area to tourists and collectors. That her major archaeological discoveries resided in the British Museum brought no personal satisfaction because thanks to the male archaeological hierarchy they were presented there under the names of the purchasers rather than the finder. What she earned for major pieces could keep herself and her ageing and infirm mother (Gemma Jones) for a year. By and large, they lived in poverty, existing on soup mostly, the mother at least as obsessive as the daughter with her collection of knick-knacks, one for each of her eight children who had died prematurely, which she washed and polished every day. Mary spurned any male overtures and indeed appeared to resent any friendship, the hint of some kind of betrayal in brief scenes with Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a local worthy.

Mary is hired by wannabe archaeologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) to look after his insipid, annoying, depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Gradually a friendship forms, leading to desire. Nothing is more illustrative of the Victorian attitude to sex than that the idea of a lesbian relationship ran counter to all imagination. Perhaps one of the more refreshing aspects of the picture is that while Victorian women clearly resented having sex with their husbands that was largely down to the fact the men had no idea how to satisfy a woman. That is not the case here and though the sex scenes have been criticised in places as “too strong” I thought it was essential just to be sure that the women did know what they were doing and clearly derived enormous satisfaction from the sexual act if properly performed. A chaste kiss and cuddle would hardly do justice to the passion suddenly erupted.

While Mary experiences jealousy when Charlotte is entranced by Elizabeth, romance does not produce complete fulfilment and when Charlotte, as if she were a man, appoints herself Mary’s protector that independence for which the archaeologist had fought so hard is imperilled. Love miraculously changes Charlotte’s outward demeanour, the same is not true of Mary.

This isn’t the picture-postcard version of a Victorian seaside town, rather its harsher cousin. Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country, 2017) refuses to soften the rude edges of life and the best a true romanticist can expect is that the storms occasionally abate and the surf does not pound so heavily.

Powerful roles have been in short supply of late for Kate Winslet (Blackbird, 2019) and she is superb as the stoic woman in a male-dominated world, unable to express passion except in whittling away at pieces of ammonite. Saoirse Ronan (Little Woman, 2019) moves from bitter and confused child-woman to finding joy and from then to taking charge. Veteran British character actors Gemma Jones (Rocketman, 2019) and Fiona Shaw (My Left Foot, 1989) are impressive while James McArdle (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) and Alec Secareanu  (Amulet, 2020) offer different interpretations of the entitled male.

To be sure there is no conclusive proof that Mary Anning was this way sexually inclined but in these days of Hollywood reinvention or reimagining for little more than comic-book glory it would be hard not to allow the director some leeway in providing his love story with an interesting backdrop and a fascinating character. At times it is a painful watch, but a rewarding one.

The Crimson Cult/ Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) ***

Horror is a small world and at any moment you are likely to bump into stars of the caliber of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele – or in this picture all three. Investigating his missing brother Peter sends antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) to a remote country mansion where he encounters owner Morley (Christopher Lee), his seductive niece Eve (Virginia Weatherall), the wheelchair-bound authority on witchcraft Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff), deaf mute Elder (Michael Gough) and a centuries-old mystery.

Morley can legitimately deny that Peter has ever set foot on the premises since it was common for the brother to adopt an alias when seeking out significant antiques. By the time Robert amasses sufficient clues to challenge Morley on this particular issue, it appears that further ideas of more sinister goings-on may be illusory. On his first night Robert observes an annual celebration of the Black Witch but although an effigy is burned this festival appears to have more to do with the innocent consumption of alcohol and heady bouts of sex than satanism.

Thanks to career reinvigoration after Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets” (1967)
Boris Karloff gained top billing in the British release.

And after a while, Robert indulges in carnal delight with Eve. However, he is plagued by a nightmare that involves a grotesque trial by a jury wearing animal heads. Gradually, he learns that Morley, meanwhile, is such a congenial host, and his niece delightful and sybaritic company, that the finger of suspicion points at Elder, who does take a pot shot at Robert, and the professor who has a collection of instruments of torture.

Were it not for veteran director Vernon Sewell (Urge to Kill, 1960) beginning proceedings with some kind of black mass complete with floggings and female sacrificial victim, the audience might have been kept in greater suspense. As it is, the non-violent annual celebration throws us off the scent as does the seduction of Eve and the prospect that Robert’s nightmare is little more than psychedelic hallucination. The denouement is something of a surprise. The ritualistic aspects of the picture are well done and given this is a Tigon film rather than Hammer you can expect harsher treatment of the S&M element, flagellation delivered by women, especially for the period.  

In the U.S. – where it was shown both as “The Crimson Cult” and “The Crimson Altar” – Christopher Lee was accorded prime billing status.

The eerie atmosphere and well-staged witchcraft scenes are a plus, but, despite the involvement of a handful of horror gods, the movie’s reliance on lesser players to drive the narrative is a minus. Lee, Karloff and Steele (though in a more minor role) are all excellent as is the demented Michael Gough but Mark Eden (Attack on the Iron Coast, 1968) is too lightweight to carry the picture although Virginia Wetherall in her first big part suggests more promise.  More of Lee, Karloff and Steele would have definitely added to the picture but since this type of film often requires the young and the innocent to take center stage that was not to be.

Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow (1963) ****

The mysterious masked Scarecrow was the creepiest character thus far put on celluloid by Disney. A lot of the action takes place at dusk so it is soaked in crepuscular atmosphere. Filmed against the sky, every horse seems to thunder past. Gallows swing ominously. Coupled with a strong storyline and clever ruses by alter ago the mild-mannered clergyman Dr Syn (Patrick McGoohan), this is one for the Under-Rated Hall of Fame.  

While the character has antecedents in folk-hero Robin Hood, the Scarecrow is more rooted in the brutal reality of Britain in the mid-1700s when to fund a host of foreign wars King George taxed already-impoverished peasants to the hilt, making smuggling essential to survival. The Scarecrow is not just the underworld kingpin but has operational skills a spy would be proud of, coded messages, secret rendezvous et al.  

Ruthless General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen), sent to rid the countryside of this menace, makes no bones about putting the squeeze on the wives of villagers to force them into providing the information he requires. Outwitted from the off by Dr Syn, the infuriated general begins torching houses. Helped unwittingly by local squire and judge Thomas Banks (Michael Hordern), the general acquires an informer Joseph Ransley (Patrick Wymark).

This is not the bucolic England of Robin Hood or other historical yarns of Hollywood invention featuring glorious scenery and ample female cleavage. Here, a barmaid is likely to use a meat cleaver to defend herself. This was also the era of press gangs, where government-appointed hoodlums would raid a village and carry off young men as unwilling recruits for the Royal Navy. It was a time of imminent insurrection, the King’s subjects in the North American colonies on the point of sedition. And when money – or its lack – infected every area of society.       

Although like any super-hero the Scarecrow occasionally comes to the rescue, the movie is distinguished by the fact that is more often Dr Syn who subverts the General through cunning subterfuge. Victory through force of arms is impossible since violence visited on the king’s troops would result in a multiplication of their numbers. So it is more a battle of wits. In addition, the Scarecrow faces a dilemma – how to punish a traitor with such severity his authority is never questioned again while at the same time upholding the principles of Dr Syn. Just how these issues and others are resolved make for a very involving picture.

Minor subplots – a romance between the squire’s daughter and an officer, a deserter from the Navy and the presence of an American (Tony Britton) – serve the main story. So the narrative remains taut. And, interestingly, that hangs upon what characters have to lose rather than gain. It is not about greed but survival.

For a Disney picture there is considerable directorial vigor, not just the depiction of the smuggling and pounding hooves accompanying peril or escape, but two terrific trial scenes, a masterly escape conducted in the complete absence of on-screen music and, of course, the terrifying vision of the Scarecrow himself.

The acting has a sterling quality. While Michael Hordern was a stage star, the film primarily called upon actors who later achieved fame on British television programs. Patrick McGoohan headlined The Prisoner (1967-1968), George Cole was in Minder (1979-1994), Patrick Wymark and Alan Dobie in The Plane Makers (1963-1965) Geoffrey Keen in Mogul (1965-1972), and Tony Britton in Robin’s Nest (1977-1981). McGoohan had a previous television incarnation as Danger Man  (1960-1961) and Cole had been a con man in the St Trinian’s films. You can also spot in small roles Kay Walsh, a former British leading lady, and a young Richard O’Sullivan, later star of Man About the House (1973-1976).

Director James Neilson was a Disney favorite, having helmed Moon Pilot (1962), Bon Voyage! (1962) and Summer Magic (1963). But these were all lightweight features and it is to his credit he met the challenge of turning Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow into a dramatic actioner. British writer Robert Westerby (The Square Ring, 1953), who also created the source material for Kali-Yug, Goddess of Vengeance (1963),  fashioned the screenplay from the books of William Buchanan and Russell Thorndike

Although Disney had cannibalized the Davy Crockett television series in the 1950s, stitching together episodes for feature films, this was something of a reversal. As part of its The Magical Wonderful World of Disney U.S. television program the studio had shown The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh as a three-part mini-series while Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow was released as a movie in Britain.  

You will need to go onto ebay or other secondhand sources to find the movie. The television mini-series can be found below.

The Dig (2021) **

When stuck in a plot hole, crime writer Raymond Chandler used to send in a new character  with a gun. Director Simon Stone has employed the same concept, minus weaponry. People just keep turning up in The Dig, adding very little to the story, which in itself, setting aside National Trust hype, is on the slim side. A sixth-century Suffolk burial site (thought it does cast new light on the Dark Ages so we are told) is not in the same archeological class as a velociraptor or an Egyptian tomb.  Mostly, we are misled. For the first third it looks like we are heading for Lady Chatterley’s Lover territory with posh lady (Carey Mulligan) eyeing up the digger (Ralph Fiennes) until his wife turns up. Then it looks like it’s going to be a battle royal between Fiennes and the Establishment, but that is headed off.  

It’s 1939 so the Second world War is on its way. Cue the arrival of wannabe pilot (Johnny Flynn). A top archaeologist (Ken Stott) also appears but that doesn’t go anywhere either, bringing with him Ben Chaplin and Lily James fresh from their honeymoon. James gets the hots for Johnny Flynn and there’s just enough time before the credits roll for them to get at it.

This is the kind of film that has money to spend on an old WW2 aeroplane or maybe a CGI version of one but not enough for decent sound recording equipment. Most of the time conversations are over the shoulder or in long shot. It’s not just words, it’s expressions, faces that tell a story, and being denied these seems bizarre. It may be an artistic decision, some critic thought we were being made to “dig” for the story. But it’s hard enough to work up any enthusiasm without being made to work harder.

Ralph Fiennes is excellent, a son of the soil, self-taught, but no shrinking violet either. His scenes with posh lady’s son (Archie Barnes) are very touching, the young lad having invented a whole world for himself. Carey Mulligan just looks as though she’s about to burst into tears, probably wondering how she managed to be talked into playing (at age 34) a woman who was actually 56 at the time of the dig and wishing Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett (closer to that age) who were at one point attached had not left her to it.

The dig itself is interesting – but only for about five minutes. We know all we need to know about the boring sifting and brushing and digging from other films and we don’t learn more from this except how easy it is for a wall to suddenly collapse and nearly kill someone.

The most intriguing part of the film came at the end when we discovered that the burial ship dug up was buried for the duration of the war in an Underground station in London. How did they manage that, I wondered. Whereas I didn’t wonder much about anything else in this film.  

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/81167887

Follow That Nurse – What a Carry On

British critics hated the “Carry On” films until late in the decade Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) hit a satirical note. Critics felt the movies pandered to the lowest common denominator and were a poor substitute for the Ealing comedies which had given Britain an unexpected appreciation among American comedy fans.

It was a well-known fact the comedies did not always travel. Apart from Jacques Tati, the more vulgar French comedies featuring the likes of Fernandel were seen as arthouse fare. Unless they featured a sex angle or the promise of nudity, coarse Italians comedies struggled to find an international audience. The “Carry On” films were bawdy by inclination without being visually offensive

Carry On Sergeant (1958), the first in the series, had been a massive success in Britain. Distributors Anglo-Amalgamated was so convinced it would find a similar response in the U.S. that it was opened in New York at a first run arthouse. Although the comedies were hardly standard arthouse fare, this was generally the route for low-budget British films.  The picture lasted only three weeks and other exhibitors taking that as proof of its dismal prospects ignored it. 

The follow-up Carry On Nurse (1959) took an entirely different route when launched in America in 1960. This time New York would be virtually the last leg of its exhibition tour.  Instead it opened on March 10 at the 750-seat Crest in Los Angeles. Away from the New York spotlight, the little movie attracted not just good notices but decent audiences.

Instead of being whipped off screens after a few weeks, it developed legs. In Chicago it ran for 16 weeks in first run before transferring to a further 50 theaters. Within a few months of opening it had been released in 48 cities. In Minneapolis it was booked as a “filler” at the World arthouse, expected to run a week and no more. Instead, it remained for six weeks and when it shifted out to the nabes out-grossed Billy Wilder’s big-budget comedy The Apartment (1960) with a stellar cast of Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine.

In its fourth month at the 600-seat Fox Esquire in Denver where it opened in May, it set a new long-run record for a non-roadshow picture. It had been taking in a steady $4,000 a week since opening.

SOURCES: “How To Nurse a Foreign Pic That’s Neither Art nor Nudie: Skip N.Y.,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 3; “British Carry On Nurse A Sleeper in Mpls With Long Loop Run, Nabe Biz,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 18;