The Pink Panther (1964) ***

You would have to be a fan of farce and slapstick to appreciate much of the debut of the celebrated Pink Panther franchise. I enjoy slapstick, though this is limited here to mishaps with items of furniture, but farce tends to pass me by (although I laughed myself silly at One Man, Two Guv’nors on stage). And you should be aware that this is really a dry run for the Clouseau character later hilariously perfected by Peter Sellers.

The premise is clever. Bumbling detective Clouseau (Peters Sellers, minus the pronounced French accent that appeared later) is on the trail of ace cat burglar The Phantom (David Niven), unaware that his wife Simone (Capucine) is not only in cahoots with the jewel thief but his lover. The trail leads to Switzerland where the robber plans to steal the titular diamond owned by The Princess (Claudia Cardinale). The Phantom, aka Sir Charles Lytton, attempts to get to know her better by stealing and then rescuing her dog.

Danny Kaye or Peter Sellers?

Meanwhile, to add to the confusion, Lytton’s conman nephew George (Robert Wagner) has arrived in town, and soon attempts to purloin his uncle’s mistress and on realising Lytton’s true identity stals his equipment with the intention of turning thief himself.

Lytton has the tendency to take a suite adjoining the Clouseau bedroom complete with linking doors to make it easier to make hay with Simone while the complaisant detective is lured elsewhere.

Cue a series of bedroom farces of the kind where Lytton attempting to make love to a drunken Princess in the lounge of his suite does not realise his nephew is in the bedroom and Simone expecting the uncle and finding the junior. And the classic of Simone, pursued by both men in her own room, having to hide them, on her husband’s return, in bed, cupboard, shower and bath.  

There’s a fancy dress party where competing gorillas target the famed jewel and Clouseau, clunking around in armour, knocks into or knocks down anything in sight. And finding one of his men, dressed as a zebra, drinking on duty, harangues him with the threat of having his stripes (best joke by far).

But the bulk of the laugh out loud comedy originates from the inspector’s tussles with inanimate objects, doors, even approached cautiously, appearing to be capable of springing surprises.

The original cast – Ava Gardner in the Capucine role and Peter Ustinov as Clouseau.

Unfortunately, the first Pink Panther outing was not designed with Sellers expressly in mind and so the plot, necessitating accommodating the other stars via romantic interlude, does not play to his strengths. You get the impression of Sellers improvising his way into stealing every scene he is in with his brilliant physical comedy as there’s only limited value in his role as the duped husband.

After the sequel A Shot in the Dark (1964) where Sellers took center stage Blake Edwards would go all-out slapstick in his next venture The Great Race (1965) but here there’s neither sufficient Keatonesque or Chaplinesque buffoonery or Laurel and Hardy antics to maintain the comedic momentum.

David Niven (Bedtime Story, 1964) is perfectly serviceable as the master criminal especially as it calls mostly for his legendary charm, though he brings his double take quickly up to speed. Claudia Cardinale (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) is surprisingly good in a light-hearted role while Robert Wagner (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968), a rising star at this point, comes over as slippery ingenue. Capucine (The 7th Dawn, 1964) has the most difficult part since she is in effect playing two roles, faithful wife and wanton lover.

Despite priceless roles in Ealing comedies and various attempts to embrace the Hollywood dynamic, this was the picture that turned Peter Sellers (Heavens Above!, 1963) into a bona fide star. It says a lot for the director that, having found a comedy genius on his hands, he did his best to accommodate him without allowing him to over-dominate what was in effect a carefully-orchestrated piece.

In small roles you will find John Le Mesurier (The Liquidator, 1965) and Brenda de Banzie (A Matter of Innocence, 1967) and the chanteuse in the ski chalet you might be interested to know was Fran Jeffries (Sex and the Single Girl, 1964).  And of course the memorable theme tune, as celebrated as the movie itself, was composed by Henry Mancini (Hatari!, 1962).  The film also spawned the famous cartoon series. Edwards wrote the screenplay with Maurice Richlin (Pillow Talk, 1959).

You could do worse than splurge on a five-disc box set.

The Honey Pot (1967) ***

Shave 20-30 minutes from this and you would have had a taut thriller. You could start with the number of clever dicks who happen to notice that what’s going on bears a close resemblance to a play Volpone by Shakespeare contemporary Ben Johnson, even down to the anglicizing of the names of those fictional characters. And prune the number of detectives, three is two too many especially when there’s an actual genuine detective in the mix. And the shock ending is just…well…mince.

Otherwise, quite fun in a way. Wealthy Cecil Fox (Rex Harrison) hires sometime actor, sometime factotum, law graduate Marty McFly – oops William McFly – to help him pull off an elaborate joke, “people-baiting”, a modern version of “bear-beating” apparently. Fox pretends to be dying in order to bring three former lovers, all he presumes desperate to be named in his will, to his bedside in a grand palazzo in Venice. Upfront reason, some kind of revenge. Hidden reason, something darker obviously.

The trio are Texan Mrs Sheridan (Susan Hayward), movie star Merle (Edie Adams) and Princess Dominique (Capucine). Sheridan is accompanied by a nurse Sarah (Maggie Smith), the “voice of morality.” They all certainly seem to have a sense of humor. Two presenting Fox with gifts of clocks, the princess with an hour-glass filled with gold dust instead of sand, presumably with the notion that he can watch his life ticking away. Needless to say, this is like an reality TV show, Fox not having named an heir in his will, so they are all battling to be the heir, and as he points out, even the rich will succumb because there is no such thing as “enough money.”

Things do not go according to plan when Sheridan unexpectedly dies. Enter Inspector Rizzo (Adolfo Celi). Sarah suspects McFly because he used her as an alibi but disappeared for a time when she (for unexplained reasons) fell asleep in a posh restaurant (and nobody tried to wake her). Turning detective herself, she comes up with “proof positive.” Turns out the two remaining suspects had conspired to also give themselves an alibi, easily demolished by the kindly inspector. McFly, too, has been doing some digging.

But then comes another twist and everything you thought you knew flies out the window. Cue more investigation, more alibis and finally an Agatha Christie pay-off when the two amateur detectives and the real one confront everyone in the drawing room. By which time the twists are coming thick and fast.

Best thing about this is the playing. Although decidedly stagey, very little in the way of visual audacity, that works to the movie’s benefit, and not a bad choice to rely so heavily on the acting given the cast. With the exception of Edie Adams, Capucine and Celi, all were Oscar anointed. Two winners – Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady (1964) and Susan Hayward for I Want to Live (1958) – and between them another five nominations – and two future winners in Cliff Robertson for Charly (1968) and Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The others were not out of their depth, Edie Adams (Made in Paris, 1966) clocking up Emmy nominations. Adolfo Celi (In Search of Gregory, 1969) a deuce of nominations from the Cannes Film Festival while even Capucine (The 7th Dawn, 1964) had been nominated for a Golden Globe.  

So director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, 1964) makes the right decision to let his actors get on with. Rex Harrison is at his suave best, but with a malevolent undercurrent, and has most of the best – and zestiest – lines. Robertson, usually the hero, is sly and duplicitous. Susan Hayward was in her comfort zone, forthright and taking no prisoners, Capucine at her cold and haughty best. Smith and Celi were the revelations, the former losing the trademark drawl and the nurse’s mousiness as to some extent she exerts control, and Celi departing from the bombast and delivering a lower-keyed performance.

Doing double duty, Mankiewicz worked up the script from three sources: the original Volpone,  the play Mr Fox of Venice by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder) and a novel The Evil of the Day by Thomas Sterling. Next time the director went to the stage for inspiration he chose a better source for a mystery – Sleuth (1972).

Behind the Scenes: “The 7th Dawn” (1964)

Originally intended to pair Audrey Hepburn with William Holden and entitled variously Wherever Loves Takes Me, Ten Days to Penang, The Durian Tree (title of the source novel), Year of the Dragon, The Third Road, and Ten Days to Kuala Lampur, the picture eventually released as The 7th Dawn marked the entrance of British director Lewis Gilbert (HMS Defiant/Damn the Defiant, 1962) into the Hollywood big-time courtesy of producer Charles K. Feldman (Casino Royale, 1967). Gilbert had already been assured of a step-up from the budgetary confines of Britain to something more substantial after being signed in 1962 to direct Susan Hayward in Summer Flight, but that had fallen through.

William Holden was always interested in making movies outside the United States, in part down to a sense of adventure, in part to avoid paying taxes. He hadn’t worked in the States since 1958. “I’ve got a reputation for going to various part of the world to take advantage of background. There’s always new stories,” he said, adding, “I have to do things that satisfy me.” Actually, he could afford not to work. He had pocketed by far the biggest-ever Hollywood payout – over $3 million from his share of the profits from Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and his current fee was in excess of $750,000.

Gilbert agreed to take the assignment on the basis of a script by Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, 1959) who had adapted the novel by Michael Keon. But what appeared relatively straightforward was soon anything but as the British director became enmeshed in clashes over production, the script and the casting. While Gilbert was tussling with the problems of working on location, where he was expecting the imminent arrival of a film crew, he was summoned to Hollywood and told that two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (Circus World, 1964) had rewritten the script.

Feldman was known for playing fast and loose with scripts, much to the surprise of director Edward Dmytryk and the frustration of star Laurence Harvey when new writers were  brought in for Walk on the Wild side (1962), earning the producer a reputation for interference.  On reading the new script Gilbert recalled, “The basic plot was similar, but apart from that it wasn’t like the old script at all. Bill Holden’s part kept shrinking while the part of the mixed race girl kept getting bigger.” This may have been a ruse to attract Audrey Hepburn. Although Holden and Hepburn were due to be paired in June 1962 on Paris When It Sizzles in a part more in keeping with her screen persona, that film was delayed (not released till 1964) leaving both free for the Malaysian picture. Despite Feldman’s assurances,  Gilbert later questioned whether Hepburn had ever been committed.

Gilbert hated the new script so much that he threatened to quit, only placated when Feldman promised he could work with Hecht on a revised version of the new script. But Hecht insisted on working closer to his home near New York. Their flight from Los Angeles to New York was delayed because of engine trouble, but by the time passengers were instructed to leave the plane, Hecht, who was addicted to sleeping pills, was fast asleep and could only be removed by ambulance. Facing a three-day deadline, Gilbert discovered that Hecht refused to work in the New York hotel assigned them by Feldman so they were decanted to the writer’s home in upstate New York. That scarcely improved the script, described by Gilbert as a “cockamamie affair.” However, that would not have unduly worried the producer who was of the opinion that performers with box office clout “can make successes of weak properties.”

Six months before release “The 7th Dawn2 was still being promoted as “Ten Days to Penang.” Incidentally, “The Dubious Patriots” was released as “Secret Invasion” (1964),
although its original title did not go to waste, used as an alternative to the
Charles Bronson-Tony Curtis “You Can’t Win ‘Em All” (1970).

The script in whatever version offered a key role for a Eurasian woman. Initially Gilbert and director of photography Freddie Young planned to scour the Shaw Brothers portfolio of budding stars to fill the role, and if not finding what they wanted in Malaysia aimed to head for Hong Kong and “seek her among the actresses there” according to Holden. However, once the compromise script was approved, Feldman proposed his real-life mistress Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) for the part.

That was the first difference of opinion between director and producer, not to mention star and producer, and an education for Gilbert on just how little power he wielded when it came to confronting Feldman. William Holden objected strenuously to the involvement of Capucine, his opposition based on his experience of working with her on flop The Lion (1962). It may have counted against the actress that the duo had engaged in an affair on the African set. Holden may have wanted to treat the affair as one of those things that happened on location – and ended once the film is completed. “Whatever you do, Lewis,” Holden advised the director, “you must resist having her in the picture. I’ve just made a movie with her…and she was not very good. I think, really, the picture suffered for it and so if I make my next movie with her I’m going to look pretty stupid.”

Expecting Holden to back him up, Gilbert was surprised when the actor shied away from any confrontation with the producer, only learning later that Holden was somewhat in awe of Feldman, who had given him his big break in Golden Boy (1939) and, in his capacity as agent – the first to demand a $750,000 fee plus hefty percentage for his client – helped oversee his career. Although her three-year contract with Columbia had begun in 1961, Capucine had only made one film for the studio, Walk on the Wild Side (1962), more likely to turn up in pictures for Twentieth Century Fox, United Artists or independents. Feldman claimed Capucine was “in greater demand for roles after being starred in Walk on the Wild Side.” His position as star-maker-supreme was strengthened when he merged his agency with Ashley-Steiner and bought the rights to Mary McCarthy bestseller The Group, which boasted great parts for four women. Probably Gilbert did not quite realize what he was taking on when he raised his and Holden’s objections to  Capucine. Feldman responded, “We’re not making the film for Bill, we’re making it for the world.”

Gilbert was also having problems with Karl Tunberg who was also functioning as a co-producer “and therefore my producer,” according to the director. “As I’ve often done the job myself I haven’t worked with many producers but I can safely say this one was hopeless.” As a result of Tunberg’s “inertia” the production manager Bill Kirkby resigned, and Gilbert ended taking on the role of producer as well.    

Holden’s career, while not yet in the box office trough that would envelop him later in the decade, was enjoying an unexpected movie hiatus, his planned starring role in The Americanization of Emily, to be directed by William Wyler, having fallen through. Paris When It Sizzles was on the shelf for an interminably long time given the supposed box office pulling power of the stars. Made in 1962, it was not released until 1964, by which time Hepburn was back on top thanks to Charade (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964). By the time The 7th Dawn hit theaters, Holden had four box office flops on the trot.

Jack Hawkins was originally intended to play the Governor and for the role of his daughter Candace, who makes a play for Holden, Gilbert suggested Susannah York who had worked on his Loss of Innocence (1961), and who was beginning to attract attention in Hollywood. By the time the crew got to Malaya, where the film was to be shot, there was one notable absentee – the wardrobe mistress. Gilbert’s wife Hylda supplied York with a beautiful sarong purchased from a girl she spotted passing on a bike. Shooting was delayed due to a strike by Asian extras on the first day. They claimed discrimination because white extras were being paid more. Around 1,000 extras were required to play peasants and the security forces.

Although it was known Holden had an alcohol problem, prior to filming he had undergone aversion therapy in Switzerland and consequently remained dry throughout the filming. Gilbert admired the actor’s approach: “Bill Holden was a delight. He was an old time star.” If you asked him to crawl across a room, and climb up onto a chair, he would do it. “Whatever the director says, you do it. That’s how film actors were trained in his day and that was certainly his training.”

Capucine was the opposite. “Because she was untrained and didn’t understand what you were saying anyway, there was little you could do with her.” When the actress complained to her lover that she was being ignored on set, Gilbert had to take the producer aside and explain her deficiencies. “She doesn’t know about working with other actors. When I’m doing a scene where Susannah’s talking to her, I’m not just working with Susannah. I’m working with her too because I will be filming her reactions, how she listens to Susannah, that sort of thing. When I get back to the cutting room I can put all that together and even improve her performance.” (That said, I felt Capucine gave the best performance of her career.)

Unlike many top productions of the era, the film was not given an exclusive run at a New York city center cinema, but went straight into a Showcase (wide) release in 300 theaters simultaneously with its opening at the Astor and Trans-Lux East arthouses in the Big Apple.

William Holden, unable to stay off the wagon, succumbed to his affliction, hitting his head while on a bender alone in a cabin and dying at the age of 63 from his injury. Capucine was 62 when she committed suicide in 1990.

SOURCES: Lewis Gilbert, All My Flashbacks, (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010) p213-231, p234-235; Matthew Field, “Gilbert Goes to War,” Cinema Retro, Vol 6, issue 18, p46; “Capucine Option Renewed,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, NC2; “Mary Magdalene to Star Capucine,” Box Office, January 29, 1962, p13;  “Feldman Sees Wild Side as New Break-Through,” Box Office, February 5, 1961, p14; “Actor Harvey no Fan of Feldman,” Variety, May 9, 1962, p5; “Ransohoff Signs William Holden,” Box Office, May 28, 1962, p15; “Lewis Gilbert to Direct Summer Flight for UA,” Box Office, June 11, 1962, pE8; “William Holden Plans Continue Produce Pix in Overseas Spots,” Variety, November 20, 1963, p2; “Bill Holden Party Primes Malaya Pic,” Variety, December 19, 1962, 4; “Chatter,” Variety, April 10, 1963, p69; “West Side in Malaya,” Variety, April 17, 1963, p21; “Liz’s Cleo 10% Mebbe Soon; But Holden Coin Tops,” Variety, May 15, 1963, p1; “Holden Follows Wyler Leaving Emily,” Box Office, October 7, 1963, pW2;  “Feldman Acquires Rights to Mary McCarthy Novel,” Box Office, December 16, 1963, pE11;  “New UA Title,” Variety, December 23, 1963, p6; Advertisement, Variety, January 8, 1964, p51; “300 July Dates for Dawn,” Box Office, June 1, 1964, p8; Advertisement, “UA’s Blockbuster for Summer Release,” Variety, June 17, 1964, p12-13; “UA Opens 7th Dawn as Showcase Presentation,” Box Office, August 31, 1964, pE2.

Fraulein Doktor (1969) ****

Surprisingly good World War One spy yarn full to bursting with clever ruses and pieces of deception and ending with a stunning depiction of carnage on the Western Front.  Loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmuller, it fell foul on release to British and American hostility over the Germans actually winning anything.

The film breaks down into three sections: the unnamed Doktor landing at the British naval base in Scapa Flow in Orkney to plan the death of Lord Kitchener; a flashback to France where she steals a new kind of poison gas; and finally on the Western Front where, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, she masterminds an attempt to steal vital war plans. She is hampered by her emotions, romance never helpful for an espionage agent, and her addiction to morphine.

Duelling spymasters the British Colonel Foreman (Kenneth More) and the German Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green) both display callousness in exploiting human life. The films is so full of twists and turns and, as I mention, brilliant pieces of duplicity that I hesitate to tell you any more for fear of introducing plot spoilers, suffice to say that both men excel at the outwitting game.

I will limit myself to a couple of examples just to get you in the mood. Foreman has apprehended two German spies who have landed by submarine on Scapa Flow. He knows another one has escaped. The imprisoned Meyer (James Booth) watches his colleague shot by a firing squad. Foreman, convinced Meyer’s courage will fail at the last minute, instructs the riflemen to load up blanks. Before a shot is fired, Meyer gives up and spills the beans on the Doktor only to discover that Foreman faked the death of his colleague.

And there is a terrific scene where the Fraulein, choosing the four men who will accompany her on her final mission, asks those willing to die to step forward. She chooses the ones not willing to die. When asking one of these soldiers why he stayed back he replied that she wouldn’t want to know if he could speak Flemish if he was so expendable.

The Fraulein is always one step ahead of her pursuers, changing clothes and hair color to make redundant any description of her, and knowing a double bluff when she sees one. In France as a maid she turns seductress to win the trust of scientist Dr Saforet (Capucine) who has developed a new, deadlier, strain of poison gas. It’s unclear whether, appalled at the potential loss of life to her fellow Germans, this is her motivation to turn spy or whether at this point she is already an accomplished agent. In the final section she takes command of the entire operation.

What distinguishes this from the run-of-the-mill spy adventure is, for a start, not just the female spy, how easily she dupes her male counterparts, and that the British are apt just to be as expedient as the Germans, but the savage reality of the war played out against a British and German upper class sensibility. When a train full of Red Cross nurses arrives at the front, the wounded men have to be beaten back; Foreman thinks it unsporting to use a firing squad; a German general refuses to award the Fraulein a medal because Kitchener was a friend of his; and the Doktor’s masquerade as a Red Cross nurse goes unchallenged because she adopts the persona of a countess.

Far from being an evil genius, the Doktor is depicted as a woman alarmed at the prospect of thousands of her countrymen being killed and Germany losing the war. In order to cram in all the episodes, her later romance is somewhat condensed but the emotional response it triggers is given full vent. And there is tenderness in her affair with Dr Saforet, hair combing a prelude to exploring feelings for each other.

Apart from King and Country (1964), The Blue Max (1966) and Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), depictions of the First World War were rare in the 1960s, and the full-scale battle at the film’s climax is exceptionally well done with long tracking shots of poison gas, against which masks prove little deterrent, as it infiltrates the British lines. The horror of war becomes true horror as faces blister and, in one chilling shot, skin separates from bone and sticks to the barrel of a rifle.

If I have any quibbles, it’s a sense that there was a brilliant film to be made here had only the budget been bigger and veteran director Alberto Lattuada (Matchless, 1967) had made more of the suspense. Suzy Kendall (The Penthouse, 1967) easily carries the film, adopting a variety of disguises, accents and characters, yet still showing enough of her own true feelings. Kenneth More (Dark of the Sun, 1968), in more ruthless mode than previous screen incarnations, is excellent as is counterpart Nigel Green (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) but James Booth (Zulu, 1963) has little to do other than look shifty. Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) has an interesting cameo.

Ennio Morricone (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969) has created a masterly score, a superb romantic theme at odds with the discordant sounds he composes for the battles scenes. Collectors of trivia might like to know that Dita Parlo had starred in a more romantic British version of the story Under Secret Orders (1937) with a German version, using the same actress, filmed at the same time by G.W. Pabst as Street of Shadows (1937), both revolving around this infamous secret agent.

This is far from your normal spy drama. Each of the main sequences turned out differently to what I expected and with the German point-of-view taking precedence makes for an unusual war picture. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

Another freebie on YouTube. I could not find a DVD so you might need to check out secondhand dealers on Ebay.

Coming Soon – August 1960

Four smaller pictures took Broadway by surprise, each recording record-breaking openings.  

The most obviously commercial was crime drama Portrait in Black starring Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn. Turner’s box office throughout the 1950s had been inconsistent but audiences had responded to the previous year’s weepie Imitation of Life. However, co-star Anthony Quinn, despite two Best Supporting Actor Oscars, was still generally classified as a leading male rather than outright star. The movie had premiered in Chicago to startling results and emulated that in Cleveland. So the industry was not entirely surprised when the movie broke the opening day record at the 1,642-seat Palace and the weekly record at the 550-seat arthouse the Trans-Lux 85th Street.  

Nature’s Paradise could not have provided a more polar opposite. The British-made nudie went down the old-fashioned “grind” route – first showing at 8.45am, final showing at 2am –  to break the record at the 390-seat World arthouse. And at equally opposite ends of the spectrum was Disney’s real-life documentary Jungle Cat which took apart the record at the 592-seat Normandie, also an arthouse.

Of the four openers, the one for whom an arthouse was the most likely home was another British feature, Jack Cardiff’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers starring Trevor Howard and Wendy Hiller. This broke the one-day record three days in a row at the 590-seat Beekman, despite a tepid review by Bosley Crowther, regarded as the nation’s premier critic. However, the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case meant that to some extent the film was critic-proof. Its unexpected publicity boost brought in the audiences.

There was also surprising audience support for British star Dirk Bogarde’s Hollywood debut Song without End, a biopic of composer Franz Liszt, which opened in New York’s biggest cinema, the 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall. (Although MGM had part-financed the actor’s previous endeavor The Angel Wore Red, that was an Italian picture.) Director Charles Vidor died during shooting and George Cukor took over. French actress Capucine also made her Hollywood debut.

The month’s other openers were All the Young Men starring Alan Ladd and Sidney Poitier; Frank Sinatra and the “Rat Pack” in crime caper Ocean’s 11; and sci-fi The Time Machine with Rod Taylor.

Horror maestro William Castle used the “Illusion-O” gimmick to plug 13 Ghosts. Moviegoers required a device similar to 3D glasses to spot the ghosts.

Julien Duvivier’s Marie Octobre was the only foreign film hitting New York during the month. Danielle Darrieux starred in a drama about former resistance members uncovering a traitor in their midst.

SOURCES: Variety 1960 – Aug 3, Aug 10, Aug 17, Aug 24, Aug 31.

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