Some Girls Do (1969) ****

Enjoyed this sequel to Deadlier Than the Male (1967) far more than I expected because it sits in its own little world at some point removed from the espionage shenanigans that dominated the decade. Hugh (nee Bulldog) Drummond is neither secret agent nor involved in espionage high jinks, instead employed in the more down-to-earth domain of insurance investigator, albeit where millions are at stake. Although his overall adversary is male, the smooth-talking Carl Petersen (James Villiers), adopting a series of disguises for most of this picture, the real threat comes from a pair of villainesses in the shape of Helga (Daliah Lavi) and Pandora (Beba Loncar – the latter, yes, having her own deadly Box. If anything, this pair are a shade more sadistic than Irma and Penelope from the previous outing.

The sequel doubles up – or doubles down – on the female villainy quotient, Petersen having created a race of lethal female robots who spend their time dispatching scientists working on the world’s first supersonic airliner. Global domination is only partly Petersen’s aim since he also stands to gain £8 million ($134 million today) if the plane doesn’t launch on schedule. Livening up proceedings are Flicky (Sydne Rome), a somewhat kooky Drummond fan who has her own agenda, Peregrine “Butch” Carruthers (Ronnie Stevens), a mild-mannered embassy official assigned bodyguard duties, and chef-cum-informant Miss Mary (Robert Morley).

Villiers has found a way of turning an ultrasound device intended originally to aid cheating in a boat race into something far more dangerous. But, of course, for Helga seduction is the main weapon in her armoury, and Drummond’s first sighting of her – a superb cinematic moment – is sitting on the branch of a tree wielding a shotgun. Equally inviting are the squadron of gun-toting mini-skirted lasses guarding Petersen’s rocky fortress.

The movie switches between Helga, Pandora and the robots raining down destruction and Drummond trying to prevent it. Dispensing with the boardroom activities that held up the action in Deadlier than the Male, this is a faster-moving adventure, with Drummond occasionally outwitted by Helga and calling on his own repertoire of tricks. Dialogue is often sharp with Drummond imparting swift repartee.

The action – on land, sea and air – is a vast improvement on the original. The pick is a motorboat duel, followed closely by Drummond in a glider coming up against a venomous aeroplane and saddled with a defective parachute. And there are the requisite fisticuffs. Various malfunctioning robots supply snippets of humour.

Richard Johnson (A Twist of Sand, 1968) truly found his metier in this character and it was a shame this proved to be the last of the series. Although Daliah Lavi never found a dramatic role to equal her turns in The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) and had graced many an indifferent spy picture as well as The Silencers (1966), she is given better opportunity here to show off her talent. Beba Loncar (Cover Girl, 1968) is her make-up obsessed bitchy buddy. Sydne Rome (What?, 1972) makes an alluring her debut. James Villiers (The Touchables, 1968) is the only weak link, lacking the inherent menace of predecessor Nigel Green.

There’s a great supporting cast. Apart from Robert Morley (Genghis Khan, 1965) look out for Maurice Denham  (Danger Route, 1967), Adrienne Posta (To Sir, with Love, 1967) and in her first movie in over a decade Florence Desmond (Three Came Home, 1950). The robotic contingent includes Yutte Stensgaard (Lust for a Vampire, 1971), Virginia North (Deadlier Than the Male), Marga Roche (Man in a Suitcase, 1968), Shakira Caine (wife of Sir Michael), Joanna Lumley (television series Absolutely Fabulous), Maria Aitken also making her debut, twins Dora and Doris Graham and Olga Linden (The Love Factor, 1969).  Peer closely and you might spot Coronation Street veteran Johnny Briggs.

The whole package is put together with some style by British veteran Ralph Thomas (Deadlier than the Male).

CATCH-UP: Chart through the Blog how  Richard Johnson’s career went from supporting player to star via The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Operation Crossbow (1965), Khartoum (1965) Deadlier than the Male (1967), Danger Route (1967) and A Twist of Sand (1968). Conversely, see how Daliah Lavi went from European star of The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) to Hollywood supporting player in Lord Jim (1965).

Network has this on DVD currently at a bargain price in a double bill with Deadlier Than the Male.

And you can also catch Some Girls Do on YouTube.

Hot Enough for June / Agent 8 3/4 (1964) ***

Thanks to his language skills unemployed wannabe writer Nicholas (Dirk Bogarde) is recruited as a trainee executive on a too-good-to-be-true job visiting a Czech glass factory  only to discover that while engaged on what appears a harmless piece of industrial espionage is in fact considerably more serious.  Complications arise when he falls in love with his chauffeur Vlasta (Sylva Koscina) whose father, Simenova (Leo McKern), is head of the Czech secret police.

Eventually, it dawns on Nicholas that he is in the employ of the British secret service headed by Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley). Soon he is on the run. Adopting a variety of disguises including waiter, Bavarian villager and milkman he evades capture and makes a pact with Vlasta that neither of them will participate in espionage activities.

The slinky clothing and the image of Bogarde with a gun played up to the James Bond persona,
which is of course completely lacking in the film. While Sylva Koscina is seductive
at the correct moment she is not overtly so.

A chunk of the comedy arises from misunderstandings, Iron curtain paranoia, the destruction of indestructible glass, password complications, Nicholas’s contact turning out to be a washroom attendant, and from the essentially indolent Nicholas being forced into uncharacteristic action. Soon he is adopting the kind of ruses a secret agent would invent to outwit the opposition, including burning the hand of a man with his cigarette and stealing a milk cart.

The romance is believable enough and Vlasta has the cunning to shake off the secret agent shadowing her, although the ending is unbelievable and might have been stolen from a completely different soppy picture. Although Nicholas is clearly in harm’s way several times that is somewhat undercut by the espionage at a higher level being presented as a gentleman’s game.

There are unnecessary nods to 007 and the kind of gadgets essential to Bond films, although none come Nicholas’s way. But these attempts to modernise what is otherwise an old-fashioned romantic comedy largely fail. Taking a middle ground in comedy rarely works. You have to go for laughs rather than plod around hoping they will miraculously appear. And in fact the comedy is redundant in a plot – innocent caught up in nefarious world – that has sufficient story and interesting enough characters to work.

As well as James Bond, the movie tagline referenced “The Spy Who Came in
from the Cold” (1965). The American version of “Hot Enough for June”
appeared with a new title a year after the British release and was
able to take advantage of the film adaptation of the John Le Carre novel.

That the movie is in any way a success owes everything to the casting. Dirk Bogarde, though well into his 40s, still can carry off a character more than a decade younger. He can turn on the diffidence with the flicker of an eyelash. And yet can call on inner strength if required. He is the ideal foil for light comedy, having made his bones in Doctor in the House (1954), reprising the character for Doctor in Distress (1963), while dipping in and out of serious drama such as Victim (1961) and the acclaimed The Servant (1964), released just before this.

In some respects it seems as if two different pictures are passing each other in the night. The Bogarde section, excepting some comedy of misfortune, is played for real while in the background is a bit of a spoof on the espionage drama.

Sylva Koscina (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968) is excellent as the beauty who betrays her country for love. Robert Morley (Topkapi, 1964) and Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), although in on the joke, are nonetheless convincing as the secret service bosses.  Look out for a host of lesser names in bit parts including Roger Delgado (The Running Man, 1963), Noel Harrison (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. 1966-1967), Richard Pasco (The Gorgon, 1964) and stars of long-running British television comedies John Le Mesurier, Derek Fowlds and Derek Nimmo.  

This was the eighth partnership between director Ralph Thomas and Dirk Bogarde, four in the Doctor series but also three serious dramas in Campbell’s Kingdom (1957), A Tale of Two Cities (1958) and The Wind Cannot Read (1958). In themselves the comedies and the dramas were successful, but mixing the two, as here, less so. Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) wrote the screenplay based on the Lionel Davidson bestseller.

American distributors were less keen on this picture and it was heavily cut for U.S. release and retitled Agent 8¾ presumably in an effort to cash in on the James Bond phenomenon. I’ve no idea what was lost – or perhaps what was gained – by the editing.

The end result of the original version is a pleasant enough diversion but not enough of the one and not enough of the other to really stick in the mind.

The Moon-Spinners (1964) ***

Every new Hayley Mills film was an exercise in transition. Would audiences allow the successful child star – the first for a generation – to grow up? Or would they turn against her as they had Shirley Temple? And would her paymasters Disney in the penultimate film in her contract assist her by offering more mature roles or insist she remained the cute kid? She had already ventured into more adult territory with the British-made The Chalk Garden (1964).

Set on the island of Crete, what starts out as typical Disney travelog – traditional Greek wedding and annual festival parade – soon morphs into darker sub-Hitchcockian territory. Nikki (Hayley Mills) on holiday with her aunt (Joan Greenwood), a collector of folk songs, becomes mixed up with skin diver Mark (Peter McEnery) who appears for reasons unknown to be on the trail of a local man Stratos (Eli Wallach). Young love looks set to blossom except for the villainy afoot. The picture holds on to its various mysteries for too long so exposition comes in a flood in the second act while the third act introduces a new set of characters including British consul (John Le Mesurier) and wealthy yacht owner Madame Habib (legendary silent star Pola Negri).

Along the way some excellent scenes feature: a nerve-tingling high-wire stunt on a revolving windmill, a punch-up on a speeding boat, the drunken wife (Sheila Hancock) of the consul, feral cats in an ancient monument, an old woman thinking she is going crazy when a bottle moves seemingly of its own volition, a hearse doubling as an ambulance, a cowardly leopard and a belter of a slap meted out by Nikki. Mark, physically inhibited by a gunshot wound, has to cede investigation into the nefarious activities to Nikki who in any case has already played the independence card.

Getting all the necessary information to the audience and ensuring various characters are properly introduced without the whole enterprise turning into a turgid mess is a tricky proposition but director James Neilson is equally at home with complicated plot and multi-character scenario from his experience on Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963) and with Mills from Summer Magic (1963). And he lets mystery and action take precedence over budding romance, the kiss when it comes hardly going to make an audience swoon, and uses the traditional Greek elements to build up atmosphere.

All in all entertaining enough, especially if viewed as Saturday matinee material, but it’s clear that the leading roles would have worked better if played by older characters as was the case with the source novel by Mary Stewart. Hayley Mills (Pollyanna, 1960) makes a game stab at putting forward a more grown-up persona but relies far too much on the acting tricks that got her into the child-star business in the first place. Even so, once she exerts her independence, she becomes more believable although the idea of a teenager solving a crime creates more problems than it solves in attracting an adult audience.

In his first leading role Peter McEnery (Beat Girl, 1960) impresses. Villainy is a stock in trade for Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) but here he dials down the brutality. Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) plays his sister and were it not for her husky voice Joan Greenwood  (Tom Jones) would have been a dead ringer for a dotty aunt. It’s a treat to see a famed silent star Pola Negri (Shadows of Paris, 1924) putting in an appearance. Character actors John Le Mesurier (The Liquidator, 1965), Andre Morrell (The Vengeance of She, 1968) and Sheila Hancock (Night Must Fall, 1964) complete the British contingent.   For British television writer Michael Dyne this proved his sole screenplay.

Catch Up: you can follow Hayley Mills’ unfolding career on the Blog through reviews of Pollyanna, The Truth about Spring (1965), Sky, West and Crooked / The Gypsy Girl (1966)  and her adult breakthrough The Family Way (1966). Eli Wallach films reviewed are: The Magnificent Seven, Lord Jim (1965), Genghis Khan (1965) and A Lovely Way to Die (1968).   

Sebastian (1968) ***

Decoding the emotional life of mathematics professor Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) lies at the heart of a spy thriller mainlining on loyalty and trust. The presence of a flotilla of potential Bond girls has opened this picture up to charges of being a spoof, but I saw the mini-skirted incredibly-bright lasses as being a reversal of the standard secretarial pool. And a supposed  representation of the “Swinging Sixties” would hold true if shot in the environs of Carnaby St  rather than the bulk of locations being arid high-rise buildings. 

In roundabout fashion, intrigued after literally bumping into him in Oxford, Rebecca (Susannah York) is recruited into an espionage decoding department staffed entirely by gorgeous (but brainy) women. Among the older employees is chain-smoking left-winger Elsa (Lili Palmer) whom security chief General Phillips (Nigel Davenport) suspects of passing on secrets. When romance ensues with Rebecca, Sebastian dumps dumb pop singer girlfriend Carol (Janet Munro) who is already having an affair and spying on Sebastian.

Sebastian and girlfriend.

Although there is no actual beat-the-clock codes to be unraveled, tensions remains surprisingly high as in the best Alan Turing/Bletchley manner, breakthroughs are slow. There’s an undercurrent of electronic surveillance, eavesdropping on recruits, bugs planted in the houses of even the apparently most trusted personnel, seeds of distrust easily sowed, codes shifting from numbers to sounds.  The occasional nod to the contemporary, a disco, pop songs, Rebecca doing a fashion shoot in the middle of traffic, is background rather than center stage.

Sebastian, though worshipped by is female staff, is “more whimsical than predatory.” Nonetheless, introspective and often morose, unable to deal with emotions, it falls to Rebecca to take on the task of sorting him out which naturally leads to complications.

Most reviewers at the time complained it was a victory of style over substance, but somehow they managed to overlook the essential questions about trust the picture asked. That said, it does follow an odd structure, the third act dependent on directorial sleight-of-hand.

Rather unique meet-cute: Sebastian, all set to attend a function at Oxford University,
gives Rebecca a word-game test.

Dirk Bogarde (Accident, 1966) is always highly watchable and Susannah York (The Killing of Sister George, 1968) Rebecca catches the eye with an  impulsive, slightly kooky character who turns out to be down-to-earth. Nigel Davenport (The Third Secret, 1964) bring his usual cynical malevolence to the party but with the twist of not knowing whose side he is really on. John Gielgud (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) is a delight. There’s a brief appearance by a pipe-smoking Donald Sutherland (The Dirty Dozen, 1967). Janet Munro (Bitter Harvest, 1963) decidedly rids herself of her Disney persona. Miss World Ann Sidney is one of “Sebastian Girls”

In his second picture after The Shuttered Room (1967) David Greene’s direction is mostly competent but the opening aerial tracking shots set the precedence for occasional bursts of style.  Jerry Fielding supplied the score.

Another freebie on Youtube.

Dr Who and The Daleks (1965) ***

The maiden voyage of the time-travelling Tardis is triggered by some unexpected pratfall comedy. On board are the venerable doctor (Peter Cushing), his intrepid great-granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey) and a fearful pair, granddaughter Barbara (Jennie Linden) and accident-prone Ian (Roy Castle). They land on a petrified planet ruled by robotic Daleks with menacing electronic voices.

The malfunctioning Tardis forces them to investigate an abandoned city but they are quickly imprisoned, the steel robots determined to discover why the earthlings should be immune to the radiation that has consumed the planet after nuclear war. Meanwhile, the planet’s remaining inhabitants, the Thals, are planning an uprising.

Studio One was one of the smallest cinemas in London’s West End and often used as the launch pad for Disney pictures. Limited capacity ensured that a hit film would run for months and the crowds queueing outside would attract the attention of other passersby.

Budget restrictions ensure that menace is limited, even as the characters endure a heap of traditional obstacles such as swamp and rocky outcrop. Adults who did not grow up in the 1960s when the BBC television series took Britain by storm and apt to come at this without the benefit of nostalgia will certainly look askance at the sets and costumes. And it doesn’t possess the so-bad-it’s-good quality of some 1950s sci-fi pictures. But since it was primarily made for children, then perhaps it’s better to watch it with a younger person and gauge their response – of course, that may be equally harsh from someone brought up on the modern version of the series or already immersed in superheroes.

On the plus side, it does move along at a clip. Roberta Tovey (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) charms rather than annoys as the plucky grand-daughter even if her grandfather has mutated from the sterner figure of the television series into an eccentric inventor. Peter Cushing (She, 1965) is only required to ground the production which he does adequately. The innate comic timing of Roy Castle, in his leading man debut, brings a light touch to proceedings as the bumbling boyfriend and generates some decent laughs. Jennie Linden (Women in Love, 1969) has little to do except look scared.

With no built-in audience, the U.S. distributors marketed it in typical fashion – “half men half-machine” – and possibly roped in a bigger adult audience unaware of its origins in children’s television.

Oddly enough, it was American Milton Subotsky who, in opportunistic fashion, brought the project to the big screen, although the BBC had a track record of providing product that might make such a leap, The Quatermass Experiment in the 1950s the leading example. He wrote the screenplay and acted as producer and had previously worked with Cushing on Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and was about to embark on horror masterpiece The Skull the same year. He has approached the material with some reverence and the fact that the budget allowed for hordes of daleks rather than being seen one or two at a time as on the television probably made some child’s day.

Scottish director Gordon Flemyng (The Split, 1968) would make the leap to Hollywood on the back of this picture and its sequel the following year and you can see what made studios have faith in his ability – he deals with multiple characters, works quickly on a low budget and delivers an attractive picture that was a box office hit.

I suspect that audiences will divide into those who watch the film with nostalgia-colored spectacles, those who think it only as good as a bad episode of Star Trek and those who adore any low-budget sci-fi movie.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

The Plank (1967) ****

Hilarious credit sequence – I dare you not to laugh at the banana gag – sets the standard for this virtually silent slapstick vehicle featuring the cream of British television comedians. Hapless construction workers Eric Sykes (The Liquidator, 1965) and Tommy Cooper (The Cool Mikado, 1963) meet their match in the shape of a piece of wooden flooring. Running gags involve a car, a policeman with a bigger eye for a pretty girl than his duty, a car that is soon denuded of all its working parts, paint, rubbish and a pub.

But mostly this is driven by the antics of the bewildered pair, masters of the double-take and pained expression. Even when you think you can see the joke coming a mile off, some other piece of clever invention will take the idea in a completely different direction. Not reliant on clever dialogue, it’s one brilliantly imagined sequence after another. The plot, such as it is, is nothing but a succession of funny incidents.

British audiences were enjoying a small run of semi-silent comedies from A Home of Your Own (1965) through to Futtock’s End (1970), the hand of Bob Kellett behind this series of unlinked movies, but the difference between these and a gem like The Plank is that the latter was written and directed by a comedian (Eric Sykes) who understood timing and above all comic possibility. Clearly silent comedy classics provided much of the inspiration and Sykes has the sense not to spoof that genre but to create twists on originals.

The all-star comedy cast includes Jimmy Edwards (Bottoms Up, 1960), Carry On alumni Hattie Jacques and Jim Dale, Roy Castle (Dr Who and the Daleks, 1965), Sunday Night at the London Palladium television host Jimmy Tarbuck making his movie debut, Graham Stark (The Wrong Box, 1966) and the only straight actor among them Stratford Johns (BBC’s crime drama Z Cars, 1962-1965).

Too short at 45 minutes to qualify as a feature, it played for several years as a support to different movies and was often far more entertaining than the films it supported.

Vendetta for The Saint (1969) ***

This big-screen version of small-screen hero is as pleasant a diversion as you can get. Nostalgia pretty much gives it a free pass and in any case the action, which punctuates the drama at regular intervals, was always going to be budget-restricted. Despite being in almost constant danger the insouciance of gentleman thief Simon Templar dictates that the pace is no more than languid.

As the title suggests, we’re in Mafia country, Templar (Roger Moore) drawn into a Cosa Nostra succession scenario as the result of a casual encounter with former bank clerk Houston (Fulton Mackay) later found dead. Houston has cast doubts on the real identity of  Mafia Don Destiamo (Ian Hendry) one of several contenders to become the next Mafia overlord. Templar sneaks into Destiamo’s world by pursuing his niece Gina (Rosemary Dexter). Although outwardly respectable, Destiamo a bit too fond of using his cigar as a weapon of disfigurement, threatening his blonde English moll Lily (Aimi McDonald) in this fashion.

Part of Templar’s attraction is that although he has a nefarious side he is happy to walk those mean streets and has a strict moral code. And he moves in such elevated circles that he has a nodding acquaintance with dying Mafia chieftain Don Pasquale (Finlay Currie) who has yet to pick his successor.

The other part of his attraction is that he’s played with such suaveness by Roger Moore. For a good chunk of the time someone is trying to knife him, shoot him, blow him up, capture him, jab him with a truth serum, and generally trying to stop him. In fending off such attacks, or out-smarting the villains, there’s rarely a hair out of place. It’s not so much devil-may-care as devil-is-wasting-his-time with such an imperturbable fellow.

Although the action is pretty straightforward, Templar is not above a clever ruse – jamming a bus in a gateway preventing his pursuers continuing the chase – nor an old one such as tying sheets together to climb out of a window. While Malta stands in for Italy, the locations still look authentic enough, ancient stone buildings, the occasional horse pulling a cart. When the action/drama eases up, there’s always pleasant scenery.

Following MGM’s success in stitching together into a movie two episodes of The Man From U.N.C/L.E. television series (an idea of course the studio had pinched from Walt Disney’s cinematic re-presentation of Davy Crockett episodes) it was no surprise that ATV, then under the control of future movie mogul Sir Lew Grade (Raise the Titanic, 1980), decided to adopt the same idea. Although The Saint had been showing on British television since 1962, by the end of its run in 1969 it had stepped up to bigger budgets, 35mm and color. Given each episode lasted around 50 minutes, it was relatively simple to devise a two-part program shown over consecutive weeks on ITV in Britain and then release it throughout the rest of the world as a feature film. The first such project was The Fiction Makers (1968) followed by Vendetta for the Saint.

Roger Moore’s movie career had been in limbo since Romulus and the Sabines (1961) and there’s no doubt that his performance as Simon Templar and later in another glossier British television series The Persuaders (1971-1972) made him a candidate for James Bond. While his interpretation of Templar, especially the wry delivery, does bear some similarities to his incarnation as 007, that only holds true as long as you set aside the year’s supply of Brylcreem dumped on his hair, the shoulder-padded shoulders and the fact that he had not yet perfected his trademark move, the raising of the single eyebrow.

While no match for the quips prevalent in James Bond, Canadian screenwriter Harry W. Junkin – best known for his television work, his only other movies being a similar melding of television episodes of The Persuaders – and John Kruse (Hell Drivers, 1957) – had some neat one-liners. Despite the obvious limitations, director Jim O’Connelly (Berserk, 1967) does a decent enough job.

But Moore carries the show. Ian Hendry (The Hill, 1965) makes a passable villain but not a passable Italian. In general, not surprisingly since most characters were played by British actors, the accents are all over the place though Moore, courtesy of squiring Luisa Mattioli (later his wife) managed to deliver his Italian lines in an acceptable accent. Otherwise the only one who comes close is Rosemary Dexter (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and that’s because she was Italian. Worth checking out in the supporting cast are Finlay Currie (Ben Hur, 1959) and Fulton Mackay (BBC series Porridge, 1974-1977).

You can find a lot wrong with this without looking very hard but if you switch off your over-critical faculties you will be pleasantly surprised.

Book Into Film – “The Devil Rides Out”/ “The Devil’s Bride” (1968)

Dennis Wheatley was a prolific bestseller producing three or four titles a year, famous for a historical series set around Napoleonic times, another at the start of the Second World War and a third featuring the “four modern musketeers” that spanned a couple of decades. In addition, he had gained notoriety for books about black magic, which often involved series characters, as well as sundry tales like The Lost Continent.  Although largely out of fashion these days, Wheatley set the tone for brisk thrillers, stories that took place over a short period of time and in which the heroes tumbled from one peril to another. In other words, he created the template for thriller writers like Alistair MacLean and Lee Child.

The Devil Rides Out, his fourth novel, published in 1934, featured the “musketeers” involved in his phenomenally successful debut The Forbidden Territory (1933), and introduced readers to his interest in the occult. Although of differing temperaments and backgrounds his quartet – the Russian-born Duke De Richleau (Christopher Lee in the film), American aviator Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) and wealthy Englishmen Richard Eaton (Paul Eddington) and Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) – are intrepid. And while screenwriter Richard Matheson stuck pretty much to the core of the Wheatley story, the film was hampered by the actors. The laid-back Paul Eddington hardly connects with the Wheatley characterization and Patrick Mower is too young for Aron.

Original British hardback cover.

As with the book, the story moves swiftly. Worried that   Aron is dabbling in the black arts, De Richleau and Van Ryn go haring down to his country house where they meet black magic high priest Mocata (Charles Gray) and discover tools for satanic worship.  And soon they are embroiled in a duel of wits against Mocata, climaxing in creating a pentagram as a means of warding off evil.

In order not to lose the audience by blinding them with mumbo-jumbo the script takes only the bare bones of the tale, bringing in the occult only when pivotal to the story, and that’s something of a shame. A modern audience, which has grown up on enormously  complicated worlds such as those created for Game of Thrones and the MCU, would probably have welcomed a deeper insight into the occult. While out-and-out thrillers, Wheatley’s novels often contained copious historical information that he was able to dole out even when his heroes were in harm’s way. The Devil Rides Out is not a massive tome so it’s a measure of the author’s skill that he manages to include not just a condensed history of the occult but its inner workings. Every time in the film De Richleau goes off to the British Library for some vital information, his departure generally leaves a hole, since what he returns with does not always seem important enough to justify his absence.

Author Dennis Wheatley.

But then the screenwriter was under far more pressure than a novelist. In some respects, this book like few others demonstrates the difference between writing for the screen and writing for a reader. With just 95 minutes at his disposal, Matheson had no time to spare while Wheatley had all the time in the world. Wheatley could happily leave the reader dangling with a hero in peril while dispatching De Richleau on a fact-finding mission, the action held up until his return. It’s interesting that Matheson chose to follow Wheatley’s characterization of De Richleau, who didn’t know everything but knew where to look. Matheson could easily have chosen to make De Richleau all-knowing and thus able to spout a ton of information without ever going off-screen.

But here’s where the book scores over the film. The reader would happily grant Wheatley his apparent self-indulgence because in the book what he imparted on his return, given the leeway to do so, was so fascinating. There are lengthy sections in the book which are history lessons where De Richleau supplies readers with the inside track on the satanic. In the opening section, once De Richleau and Van Ryn have rescued Aron, the author devotes a full seven pages to a brief introduction to the occult that leaves the reader more likely to want more of that than to find out how the story will evolve.   He has hit on a magic formula that few authors ever approach. To have your background every bit as interesting as the main story is incredibly rare and it allowed Wheatley the opportunity to break off from the narrative to tell the reader more about the occult, which in turn, raised the stakes for the characters involved.

Effectively, there was too much material for a screenwriter to inflict upon an audience ignorant of the occult. Some decisions were clearly made to limit the need for lengthy exposition. But these often work against the film. For example, Mocata wants the Talisman of Set because it bestows unlimited power with which he can start a world war, but in order to accomplish that he needs to find people with the correct astrological births, namely Simon and Tanith. But this element is eliminated from the story, making Mocata’s motivation merely revenge.  Matheson also removed much of the historical and political background, replaced the swastika as a religious symbol with the more acceptable Christian cross, and deleted references to Marie’s Russian background. Her daughter Fleur becomes Peggy. Matheson also treats some of the esoteric light-heartedly on the assumption that seriousness might be too off-putting.

Overall, the adaptation works, you can hardly argue with the movie’s stature as a Hammer classic, but the more you delve into the book the more you wish there had been a way for much of the material to find its way onscreen and to inform the picture in much the same way as the depth of history and character backstory adds to Game of Thrones.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Devil-Rides-Out/dp/B00B1U3FPK/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=devil+rides+out&qid=1637411453&qsid=257-2054786-9327728&s=books&sr=1-1&sres=1448213002%2CB00I628KRY%2CB002SQ7XSG%2C0553824635%2CB00I60ZHNG%2CB09KH2QQVL%2CB00CJB9CVQ%2CB0018H7LPG%2CB07VQ8RZBJ%2CB003Z0IJKA%2C912409160X%2CB07N94V4ZM%2C0241476178%2C1734704144%2C0571311458%2CB092RHPZ93&srpt=DOWNLOADABLE_MOVIE

The Devil Rides Out / The Devil’s Bride (1968) ****

Strong contender for Hammer’s film of the decade, a tight adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic classic with some brilliant set pieces as Nicholas de Richleau (Christopher Lee) battles to prevent his friend Simon (Patrick Mower) falling into the hands of satanist Mocata (Charles Gray).

Initially constructed like a thriller with Simon rescued, then kidnapped, then rescued again, plus a car chase, it then turns into a siege as Richleau and friends, huddled inside a pentagram, attempt to withstand the forces of evil. Sensibly, the script eschews too much mumbo-jumbo – although modern audiences accustomed to arcane exposition through MCU should find no problem accommodating ideas like the Clavicle of Solomon, Talisman of Set and Ipsissimus – in favour of confrontation.  

The title was changed for American audiences.

Unlike most demonic pictures, de Richleau has an array of mystical weaponry and a fund of knowledge to defend his charges so the storyline develops along more interesting lines than the usual notion of innocents drawn into a dark world. In some senses Mocata is a template for the Marvel super-villains with powers beyond human understanding and the same contempt for his victims. And surely this is where Marvel’s creative backroom alighted when it wanted to turn back time. Though with different aims, De Richleau and Mocata are cut from the same cloth, belonging to a world where rites and incantations hold sway.  

While special effects play their part from giant menacing tarantulas and the Angel of Death, the most effective scenes rely on a lot less – Simon strangled by a crucifix, Mocata hypnotizing a woman, a bound girl struggling against possession. Had the film been made a few years later, when Hammer with The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971) increased the nudity quotient, and after The Exorcist (1973) had led the way in big bucks special effects, the black mass sequence would have been considerably improved.

The main flaw is the need to stick with the author’s quartet of “modern musketeers” which means the story stretches too far in the wrong directions often at the cost of minimizing the input of De Richleau. In the Wheatley original, the four men are all intrepid, but in the film only two – De Richleau and American aviator Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) – share those characteristics. At critical points in the narrative, De Richleau just disappears, off to complete his studies into black magic. Where The Exorcist, for example, found in scholarship a cinematic correlative, this does not try.

In Britain it was double-billed on the ABC circuit with Slave Girls.

Christopher Lee (She, 1965), pomp reined in, is outstanding as De Richleau, exuding wisdom while fearful of the consequences of dabbling in black magic, both commanding and chilling. Charles Gray (Masquerade, 1965) is in his element, the calm eloquent charming menace he brings to the role providing him with a template for future villains.  The three other “musketeers” are less effective, Patrick Mower in his movie debut does not quite deliver while Leon Greene (A Challenge for Robin Hood, 1967) and Paul Eddington (BBC television’s Yes, Minister 1980-1984) are miscast. Nike Arrighi, also making her debut as love interest Tanith, is an unusual Hammer damsel-in-distress.

Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher (The Gorgon, 1964) creates a finely-nuanced production, incorporating the grand guignol and the psychological.  Richard Matheson (The Raven, 1963) retains the Wheatley essence while keeping the plot moving.

Catch-Up: far from ubiquitous and with a wide range of roles Christopher Lee has appeared several times in the Blog – for Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), The Whip and the Body (1963), The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), The Gorgon (1964), She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967), The Curse of the Crimson Altar / The Crimson Cult (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969).

Film into Book – “Hostile Witness” (1968) Movie Tie-In

As you will be aware I have been running a little series of how books were adapted into films and I thought it would be interesting to see what happened when the process was the other way round. I have in general about the lucrative business of novelisations of screenplays as movie tie-ins but never examined any single one in particular. But I came across this book in a secondhand bookshop on holiday and gave it a read.

British writer Jack Roffey had turned his play – a hit in London West End and Australia though less so on Broadway – into a screenplay and was inveigled into making a quick buck by churning out the movie tie-in book, published straight into paperback in Britain by Arrow. It turned out to be an interesting exercise because the play was no longer in circulation and the film failed to get a proper release so the book had to survive on its own without the help of movie publicity or posters outside the chain cinemas.

The book is about 60,000 words long while the play/screenplay probably comprised fewer than 5,000 words so that was a lot of padding-out to do, if that was all the author could manage. Interestingly, Roffey proved himself an adept novelist, taking the opportunity to both clarify the proceedings and mystify the reader even more, accentuating the ambiguities of the initial work. Where the movie glosses over main protagonist Simon Crawford’s (Ray Milland in the film) mental difficulties until brought into question during the court case itself, in the book Roffey lays the groundwork more straightforwardly, recounting the period spent in hospital and, more importantly, his rapid decline after returning to work so that by the time he is arrested his mental health is very poor.

Sheila Larkin’s (Sylvia Syms) unspoken feelings for her boss remain just that, but there is a physical closeness – she catches him when he collapses, briefly nursing him, and she is presented as a woman more aware of her own sexuality. And the door is opened later in the book for a relationship – “intimacy umbrellaed them in soft folds, inviting positive expression.” Equally, when given the opportunity to take on the case, her first reaction is fear: “She couldn’t possibly accept it…it would be a terrifying responsibility for a junior of her standing” and she expects the episode to end in abject humiliation until she catches sight of her boss and registers the fear in his eyes. Thus, Roffey is able to get inside all the major characters rather than have the camera – and the shortage of screen time – dictate the point of view. Other characters, some incidental, are also more fully drawn.

While the play’s dialogue would not have sufficed to carry a book of this length, Roffey has to add considerably to his original material, and in most cases extended conversations are made to count. Perhaps most interesting of all since he is in charge, Roffey can dispense with the need to constantly cut back to the accused during the trial to register his facial reactions and that allows the personality of Sheila Larkins to flower and take true centre stage rather than be constantly undercut by continually focusing on Crawford. Roffey was also an expert on court procedure and the opportunity to delve into that gives the book greater authority.

The book is certainly enjoyable and well-written with some sharply observed characterisations. “Mr Justice Gregory came in, diffidently at first, like a small boy at the edge of a pond, who wonders if the ice will hold.”  Simon Crawford is introduced in court in the opening page thus: “There was an affected boredom is the half closed grey eyes – a calculated indifference to the heat and the coming verdict.” While Sheila Larkins is the opposite – “properly wrung out.”

There’s style in the descriptions. “Gordon Mews is one of those peaceful backwaters that an earlier and more gracious London put aside for a rainy day, and promptly forgot about.” And the book moves along briskly, a crime thriller with the unlucky caught in a web that is closing in fast. Roffey is able to touch on more specifically Crawford’s disintegration and his shock at being tabbed a criminal. Like the film, it was more than passably entertaining.

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