Year-End Round-Up: Top 30 Films Chosen by You

Top 30

This isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a c chart of the films viewed the most times over the full calendar year of January 2021 – December 2021.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960). Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack embark on an audacious Las Vegas robbery.  
  3. Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt.
  4. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie  starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. Moment to Moment (1966). Jean Seberg is caught up in a Hitchcockian murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary.
  9. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  10. Once a Thief (1965). Trying to go straight ex-con Alain Delon is coerced into a robbery. Ann-Margret is a revelation as his wife. Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey add up to a great supporting cast.  
  11. Stiletto (1969). Alex Cord as a Mafia hitman wanting to retire is pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland heads a supporting cast which includes Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  12. Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry is called to London to uncover a mole in M.I.5. Joan Collins provides the romance. Richard Todd, Tom Adams, Suzanna Leigh and Michael Rennie lend a touch of class.
  13. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster delivers a superlative performance as a man whose life is falling apart.
  14. The Rock (1996). Blistering thriller starring Sean Connery as an ex-inmate of Alcatraz helping Nicolas Cage infiltrate the island to prevent mad general Ed Harris destroying San Francisco. Michael Bay directs.
  15. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Alain Delon joins forces with Jean Gabin to pull off an daring jewel heist with tenacious cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil.
  16. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  17. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  20. A Twist of Sand (1968). Beleaguered smuggler Richard Johnson spars with Jeremy Kemp in thriller about hidden diamonds in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  21. Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Ray Harryhausen special effects dominate this legendary tale of the hunt for the Golden Fleece.  
  22. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). Disney movie that was turned into a mini-series in the U.S. starring Patrick McGoohan as the eponymous Robin Hood-type character who assists smugglers.
  23. The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021). Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson reunite for wild sequel also featuring Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.
  24. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). Rod Taylor leads a private army into the war-torn Congo to rescue a cache of uncut diamonds. Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller.
  25. The Guns of Navarone (1961). Classic war mission picture with an all-star cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas and Gia Scala. Adapted from the Alistair McLean bestseller.
  26. Maroc 7 (1967). Gene Barry infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves in Morocco operating under the cover of a fashion shoot. Dazzling female cast includes Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  27. The Satan Bug (1965). John Sturges adaptation of Alistair MacLean pandemic thriller stars George Maharis, Richard Basehart and Dana Andrews.
  28. Five Golden Dragons (1967). Cult thriller with Robert Cummings as the playboy caught up in an international crime syndicate. Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee head an exceptional supporting cast that also includes Margaret Lee, Brian Donlevy, George Raft, Dan Duryea and Maria Rohm.
  29. Claudelle Inglish (1961). Diane McBain as the poor farmer’s daughter who wants to get rich quick.
  30. Jessica (1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge.

Castle Keep (1969) ****

A bit more directorial bombast and this could have matched Apocalypse Now (1979) in the surrealist war stakes. Never mind the odd incidents surrounding a small unit of G.I.s  taking over a magnificent Belgian castle towards the end of World War II prior to what turned out to be the Battle of the Bulge, this has on occasion such a dreamlike quality you wonder if it is all a figment of the imagination of one of the characters, wannabe writer Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.). Throw in a stunning image, for the beleaguered soldiers at the start, of a horsewoman charging by in a yellow cloak, so out of place that it carries as much visual impact as the unicorn in Blade Runner (1982), and we are in definite cult territory.

One of the unusual elements is that, in this unexpected respite from battle, the soldiers are defined by character traits rather than dialogue or bravery as would be the norm. This ranges from baker Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk) taking over the village boulangerie and bedding the baker’s wife (Olga Bisera), mechanic Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) diving into a lake to rescue a Volkswagen he has adopted and the troops receiving a lecture on art history from Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal).

Commander Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster) is not only brilliant in the art of war, but calmly  mentors Beckman through a firefight with an enemy airplane, teaches local sex workers how to make Molotov cocktails and, evoking ancient aristocratic tradition, enjoys conjugal relations with the conquered countess (Astrid Heeren), whose impotent husband (Jean-Pierre Aumont) encourages the relationship since the castle needs an heir.   

There is wistful revelation, Beckman clearly hankering after his turn with the countess, a trainee minister who wishes he had the courage to join the boys in the brothel, the young soldiers there being treated as children rather than customers. And there are juvenile pranks – moustaches are painted on statues, wine bottles used for ten-pin bowling practice.

But the surreal moments keep mounting up. The Volkwagen, though riddled with bullets, refuses to sink in the lake, a hidden German reveals himself by playing the same tune on a flute as one of the enemy, the countess often appearing as an ethereal vision.

Through it all is rank realism. Falconer knows a German previously shared the countess’s bed. The count will do anything to safeguard his castle and maintain the family line, even to the extent of incest, since his wife is actually his niece. But above all, while his troops believe the war is at an end and enjoy the pleasures at hand, Major Falconer prepares for rearguard action by the Germans, filling the moat with gasoline, planning to pull up the drawbridge and control the high ground. The battle, when it comes, is vivid and brutal, the initial skirmish hand-to-hand in the village before the Germans advance to the castle.

Burt Lancaster (The Swimmer, 1968) is superb, far removed from his normal aggressive or athletic persona, slipping with pragmatic ease from the countess’s bed to battle stations. War films in the 1960s were full of great individual conflicts often won on a twist of ingenious strategy but seldom have we encountered a soldier like Falconer who knows every detail of war, from where and how the enemy will approach, to the details of the range of weaponry, and knows that shooting dead four soldiers from a German scouting mission still leaves one man unaccounted for.

Patrick O’Neal (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) also leaves behind his usual steely-eyed screen persona, here essaying a somewhat timid and thoughtful character. Peter Falk’s (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) baker is a beauty, a man who abandons war, if only temporarily, for a second “home,” baking bread, adopting a wife and child. In a rare major Hollywood outing French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont (Five Miles to Midnight, 1962) carries off a difficult role as a count willing to accept the humiliation of being cuckolded if it improves his chances of an heir. In one of only four screen appearances German actress Astrid Heeren (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) makes the transition from a woman going to bed with whoever offers the greatest chance of saving the beloved castle to one gently falling in love.

There is an excellent supporting cast. Bruce Dern (Support Your Local Sheriff, 1969) makes the most of a standout role as a conscientious objector.  You will also find Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, 1967), Al Freeman Jr. (The Detective, 1968), future director Tony Bill (Ice Station Zebra, 1968) and Michael Conrad (Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang, 1968).

Two top-name writers converted William Eastlake’s novel into a screenplay – Oscar-winning Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, 1966) and newcomer David Rayfiel who would work with Lancaster again on Valdez Is Coming (1971) and with Pollack on Three Days of the Condor (1973) and Havana (1990)

Sydney Pollack (This Property Is Condemned, 1966), who had teamed up with Lancaster on western The Scalphunters, 1968), does a terrific job of marshalling the material, casting an hypnotic spell in pulling this tantalising picture together, giving characters space and producing some wonderful images, but more especially for having the courage to leave it all hanging between fantasy and reality.

Expressions like  “we have been here before,” “once upon a time,” “the supernatural” and “a thousand years old” take solid root as the narrative develops and will likely keep spinning in your mind as you try to work out what it’s all about.

Readers’ Top 30

I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
  3. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
  4. Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
  7. Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
  8. The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
  9. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
  10. The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
  11. Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
  12. Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
  13. The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
  14. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
  15. The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
  16. The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
  17. 4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
  18. Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
  19. Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
  20. Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
  21. Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
  22. Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
  23. Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
  24. A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
  25. The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
  26. In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
  27. Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
  28. The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
  29. Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
  30. Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Seven Days in May (1964) ****

Donald Trump and the recent insurrection bring this picture bang up to date. Democracy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the people. Can they be trusted to make the correct decision? That’s in part the thematic thrust of this high-octane political thriller that pits two of the greatest actors of their generation in a battle to decide the fate of the world. This was the era of the nuke picture – Dr Strangelove (1962), Fail Safe (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) – all primed by the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing threat of the Cold War. But since that threat has never gone away – if anything it has worsened – the movie is as relevant today.

Promoting a male-oriented film about politics was always going to be a hard sell despite the distinguished cast. One route Paramount marketeers went down was a massive tie-in with publisher Bantam’s bestseller paperback . Over 1.5 million copies of the book had been rolled out and Bantam had arranged cross-over publicity in supermarkets, five-and-dime stores, booksellers and wholesalers stocking the book. “Look” magazine ran a six-page article by one of the book’s authors Fletcher Knebel.

Just as the President (Fredric March) is about to sign a nuclear treaty with the USSR, much to the fury of the majority of Americans judging by opinion polls, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) uncovers signs of a military coup headed by hawk General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster).

The movie divides into the classic three acts. In the first, Douglas investigates the existence of a secret army unit in El Paso comprising 3,600 men trained to overthrow the government and needs to persuade the President the country is in danger. The second act sees the President hunting for proof of the imminent coup and identifying the conspirators. The third act witnesses showdowns between March and Lancaster and Lancaster and Douglas.

About $65 million out of the U.S. national budget of $90 million was allocated to the military, according to director John Frankenheimer writing in the above magazine. Frankenheimer combined with Kirk Douglas’s company to purchase the book and hire writer Rod Serling. The original script was too long so, without losing a scene, the director went through it cutting phrases and sentences here and there till it was down to the required two-hour length. Paramount put up extra money to get Ava Gardner join the cast.

At the heart of the story is betrayal – Lancaster of his country’s constitution, Douglas of his friend when he takes on the “thankless job of informer.” Douglas proves rather too ruthless, willing to seduce and then betray Ava Gardner, Lancaster’s one-time mistress. Both Gardner and March prove to have higher principles than Douglas. For both Douglas and Lancaster who operate at a high threshold of intensity and could easily have turned in high-octane performances the tension is even better maintained by their apparently initial low-key confrontations. Douglas has a trick here of standing ramrod straight and then turning his head but not his body towards the camera.   

As a pure thriller, it works a treat, investigation to prove there is a conspiracy followed by the the vital element to conspiracy theory – the deaths and disappearances of vital people – and finally the need to resolve the crisis without creating public outcry. The only flaw in the movie’s structure is that Douglas cannot carry out all the investigations and when presidential sidekicks Martin Balsam and Edmond O’Brien are dispatched, respectively, to Gibralter and El Paso the movie loses some of its intensity. But the third act is a stunner as March refuses to take the easy way out by blackmailing Lancaster over his previous relationship with Gardner.   

Of course, there is a ton of political infighting and philosophizing in equal measure and speeches about democracy (“ask for a mandate at the ballot box, don’t steal it”), the American Constitution and the impact of nuclear weapons on humanity. But these verbal volleys are far from long-winded and pack a surefire punch. The coup has been set up with military precision and must be dismantled by political precision.

A hint of the future: one unusual aspect of the picture was the use of closed-circuit television which was seen as being used as method of general communication between politicians and the Pentagon.

The film is awash with Oscar talent – Burt Lancaster, Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (1960) and, at that point, twice nominated; thrice-nominated Kirk Douglas; Fredric March, twice Best Actor for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) plus  three other nominations besides; Ava Gardner nominated for Best Actress (Mogambo, 1953); and Edmond O’Brien named Best Supporting Actor for The Barefoot Contessa (1954).

None disappoint. March is especially impressive as a weak President tumbling in the polls who has to reach deep to fight a heavyweight adversary. Lancaster and Douglas both bristle with authority. Although Lancaster’s delusional self-belief appears to give him the edge in the acting stakes, Douglas’s ruthless manipulation of a vulnerable Ava Gardner provides him with the better material. Edmond O’Brien as an old soak whose alcoholism marks him out as an easy target is also memorable and Ava Gardner in recognizing her frailties delivers a sympathetic performance.

Fashion might have seemed to offer limited marketing opportunities for such a picture but that did not stop Paramount’s publicists. On the back of one of the subsidiary characters being seen combing her hair with an Ajax comb the manufacturer was inveigled into a nationwide campaign. Director John Frankenheimer was pictured wearing a custom-made Cardinal suit in an advert in “Gentlemen’s Quarterly” and designer Mollie Parnis created a suit for women which could be simply altered every day to provide enough outfits for seven days.

Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) does a terrific job of distilling a door-stopper of a book by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.  But the greatest kudos must go to director John Frankenheimer – acquainted with political opportunism through The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and with Burt Lancaster through The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – for keeping tension to the forefront and resisting the temptation to slide into political ideology.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Swimmer (1968) *****

Ever since Broadway had produced an elegy to a man broken on the rack of the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hollywood had been searching for an equivalent, but had only managed to come up with tales of men self-destructing through drugs (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955) and alcohol (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962). The Swimmer, with its physical and mental dereliction, filled that void. It was the bravest choice of Burt Lancaster’s career – William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott turned it down –  the athletic prowess that had carried him through a host of films from The Flame and the Arrow (1950) to The Professionals (1966) now virtually redundant.

The final scene when, in the pouring rain, clad only in swimming trunks, he crouches, broken, on the steps of his abandoned house, as if seeking sanctuary in a church, was a stunning image. But it was more than that. Few actors of his generation would have been willing to stoop so low. Yes, the likes of Marlon Brando were often beaten to the point of humiliation (The Chase, 1966), but that was in the course of duty, not in pursuit of the American Dream. That Lancaster, a touchstone to Hollywood virility, the man-god with the dazzling style, was the one to come apart made the drama even more powerful.

The under-rated Frank Perry had struggled to find a footing in Hollywood even after the (minor) success of David and Lisa (1962), but he was one of the few directors willing to tackle the uncommercial subject matter. It was such a troubled production that producer Sam Spiegel, never one to shy away from publicity, did not put his name on it and Sydney Pollack who had directed Lancaster in The Scalphunters (1966) was called in to re-edit the rough cut. Eleanor Perry, the director’s wife, fashioned the script from one of the most acclaimed short stories of all time, by John Cheever.

The story is a simple one. Lancaster plans to swim across the county via the swimming pools of his upmarket neighbors to reach home. At the start he is vigorous, powerful, with a terrific dive and swimming stroke. He names the journey “the Lucinda river” after his wife. But he is like Ebenezer Scrooge, meeting ghosts from his past, facing up to the present, and left with only a desolate future. With each successive visit to a swimming pool, another part of his life unfolds. From the outset we can tell something is wrong – couples exchange odd looks and occasionally he is met with sympathy or hostility, neither of which he comprehends, and persists with a rose-tinted version of his life. And gradually, his physique deserts him and he limps, can’t pull himself effortlessly out of a swimming pool and instead of being warmed by the sun begins to shiver.

Stylistically, the movie begins with the idyllic, a camera tracking through the countryside from Lancaster’s point-of-view, his footsteps on the soundtrack, deer, a rabbit and an owl popping into view. As a counterpoint to long tracking shots of Lancaster trotting down a sunlit avenue of trees, Perry employs the zoom camera (an innovative technique at the time) to go so deeply into his eyes it must pierce his camouflaged soul. Harsher music and slower movement by Lancaster prefigure the onset of dangerous reality. And it is not the end of summer as Lancaster imagines (making reference to flowers or trees) but the beginning of autumn as the drifting leaves show.

By focusing so much on the actor’s physicality – he is never out of swimming trunks – we see at once his strength and his eventual weakness. There is one glorious sequence where he races a horse. In another, he leaps a five-barred fence. This is as the character perceives himself, a triumphant physical specimen.

But what we see, as he is pitifully stripped of dignity, is something else. Scenes that start brightly end ominously. For part of his adventure he is accompanied by former babysitter Julie (Janet Landgard). Initially, this is a picture of lost innocence, a three-minute sequence of Lancaster and Landgard mostly in longshot walking in dappled sunshine through the trees, as if they belong in a fairytale, with their voices detached from the images. But when she professes an adolescent crush (stealing one of his shirts, for example) and he begins to act in overprotective paternal fashion she takes it the wrong way and although nothing untoward occurs it clearly creeps the girl out and makes us realise that Lancaster is living in the past.

The present he could – and should have – enjoyed is tantalizingly all around. Every pool he visits belongs to the rich. There is alcohol aplenty. The houses are fabulous. As well as swimming pools, people own horses. Middle-aged neighbors sit out, ignoring the attractions of the pool, enjoying what their wealth has brought.

It is not a descent into madness for he must already have been unhinged to embark on his excursion but a nightmare that never ends. There is no safety harness for the American Dream. Once you fall, there is nothing to stop the plummet. Nothing left but, to mix the metaphors, swimming on empty.

The Swimmer is on Amazon Prime. Incidentally, there is an excellent documentary, directed by Chris Innis, The Story of the Swimmer (2014)  which you can find on YouTube.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.

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