The Frightened City (1961) ***

Sean Connery in an early role as a gangster is not the only reason for watching this brisk British thriller about a London protection racket. Primarily told from the point-of-view of the bad guys, this explores how a ruthless Mr Big (Herbert Lom) builds up a criminal empire. Lom, a bent accountant, brings together the six major gangs involved in extorting money from pubs and stores into a democratically-run syndicate.  Lom then moves on to demanding bigger sums from bigger enterprises such as construction businesses. However, when the gangsters fall out they go to war.  

This film is way ahead of the game in presenting gangsters as displaying any intelligence. Generally, they were depicted as brutes who ruled by force. But criminality at the top level demanded as much organization as in a legitimate business. Personalities had to be harnessed to work together rather than shoot each other on sight. Such skills had to exist in order for gangsters to operate on any scale. This picture examines how this was done.

The cops led by John Gregson are almost a sub-plot and the story would have adequately run its course without their involvement. Gregson sails close to the wind hoping to “tilt the scale of justice in our direction for a change.” Connery doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes as a karate-expert cat-burglar turned enforcer. Connery’s involvement with the syndicate ends when his code of honor is breached and he turns on his employers. His code is not so sacrosanct that it prevents him cheating on his girlfriend. But he does display the virility to fill James Bond’s shoes.

There’s far more violence that would be expected in a British crime picture. Night clubs, shops and pubs are wrecked and there’s plenty of fisticuffs and when the gangsters go head-to-head they upgrade to grenades. There’s a bit more plot than the running time can deal with so director (and producer and co-writer) John Lemont occasionally resorts to cliché devices like newspaper headlines. Canadian Lemont – most famous for writing the first serial hon on ITV, Sixpenny Corner – was an auteur of the old-fashioned (and unheralded) kind, and previously writer-director of The Shakedown (1960).  Triple-hyphenates, while rare in the movie business, were generally of a high calibre such as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so Lemont was in good company, and clearly, in consequence, the movie that appeared reflected his own vision.

Top billing was a step up for Lom and he made the most of it, delivering a suave villain among the thugs. Gregson (The Captain’s Table, 1959) was a solid British star and ideal cop material (he was later British television’s Gideon). Yvonne Romaine, as Connery’s new squeeze, a nightclub singer exploited by Lom more for her looks than her voice, was known to audiences after Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In only her second film Scottish television actress Olive McFarland was Connery’s dumped girlfriend. Unusually, for a British picture at this time, the theme tune written by Norrie Paramour was covered by The Shadows and turned into a hit.

At this point in his career, Connery had already had two bites of the cherry without much success – romancing Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place (1958) and Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). This was three films before his breakthrough with Dr No (1962) but the Pressbook showed signs that he was headed for the heights.  Co-star Yvonne Romaine (and her distinctive body measurements) were accorded three separate stories in the Pressbook, compared to one each for Lom and Alfred Marks, at that point better known as a comedian, but none of Connery. But Connery (and Romaine) outshone their co-stars when it came to the advertising campaign.  

Producers were contractually bound in relation to the size of credits that appeared on any advertising. But there were no such regulations regarding the visuals of an advert. Although top-billed, Lom is  not shown on any of the adverts. Given greatest prominence was Yvonne Romaine. There were thirteen different ads and she appeared in them all. Although Connery was third-billed and she was two rungs below in the credit stakes, he was the junior partner when it came to the artwork. While, Connery appeared in eleven in only one did he overshadow Romaine and in another they were visually-speaking accorded roughly the same status. But otherwise, she hogged the adverts.  

The Pressbook was small by American standards, consisting of six A3 pages, the bulk of which was given over to adverts. But what it lacked in pages it made up for in taglines – of which there were six main types. Of course, Connery would become an “Untouchable” in the later Brian dePalma film.

The picture was not seen much in the United States, sent out in first run as the lower half of a double bill in only a handful of big cities, so there’s a fair chance it’s completely unknown except to Connery completists. But it’s certainly worth a look.

The Wrong Box (1966)***

Somewhere between SBIG (So Bad It’s Good) and WAL (Worth a Look), The Wrong Box is a black comedy in the wrong directorial hands.

Better known for thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and POW drama King Rat (1965) Bryan Forbes struggles to bring enough comedy into the proceedings or to wring sufficient laughs out of what he has. Neither the wit nor the slapstick is sharp enough. But it does exhibit a certain charm.

Essentially an inheritance story, it pivots on the notion that the two potential inheritors are on their last legs and putting one (Ralph Richardson) out of action will benefit the dastardly nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) of the sole survivor (John Mills). It turns out Richardson is not dead. That does not cue as much hilarity as it should.

Surprisingly, the film relies on affecting performances from Michael Caine, playing against type as a gentle soul, and Nanette Newman as a young woman terrified of being murdered, who enjoy a very innocent romance. Hitherto, I had been rather sniffy about Ms Newman, but here she is delightful. Ralph Richardson steals the movie as a dotty pedant, weighted down with erudition and a knack, equally, for boring the pants off anyone within earshot and for escaping from the jaws of death including a massive train pile-up and several murderous attempts by Mills.

Cook and Moore let the show down by being so obviously just themselves but there is a nice cameo from Peter Sellers as an inebriated doctor.

Michael Caine got it spot-on when pointing out in his autobiography that it was a “gentle success in most places except Britain” precisely because to foreigners it represented an acceptably stereotypical view of a country full of eccentrics while to Brits it was all too stereotypical. So if you’re from America or other points global you might like it and if you are British you might not. On the other hand, the score by John Barry is one of his best with a wonderful theme tune.

POSTCRIPT. Just to back up Caine’s assertion, I pulled out the Pressbook from my stack and it goes heavy on critical praise. Newsweek said: “As funny and sunny a movie as any audience could ask for.” From the New York Times came: “so fantastic and explosive it virtually pops right out of the screen! A crazy, merry tale that tumbles somewhere between black humor and elegant, uninhibited camp.” The New York Post thought it was “a beautifully designed elaborate spoof,” while as far as the New York Daily Post was concerned it was “a laugh a minute.”