Behind the Scenes: “For a Few Dollars More” (1965)

The prospective casting was tantalizing. How about Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, a pairing for the ages, two of the toughest guys in screen history? Failing that, Eastwood and Charles Bronson, The Man With No Name vs The Monosyllabic Man? The role of Colonel Mortimer could also have gone to Henry Fonda or Robert Ryan before in one of the movie business’s oddest tales it ended up with Lee Van Cleef.

In due course Bronson and Fonda would work with Sergio Leone in the director’s best film,  Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Fonda’s agent had already dodged Leone’s entreaties once, having rejected A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Marvin was, in fact, all set, an oral agreement in place until a few days before shooting began on For a Few Dollars More he suddenly opted instead for Cat Ballou (1965), a decision that won him an Oscar and turned him into an unlikely star.

When none of his first choices proved available or interested, Leone turned to Van Cleef. Or, more correctly, a photo of the actor pulled from an old casting catalog. Although a western buff like Leone remembered Van Cleef from his debut in High Noon (1952) plus Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Tin Star (1957) and a dozen other bit parts and supporting roles in westerns, Van Cleef had not been credited in a movie since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

He proved virtually impossible to track down. No small surprise there because he earned a living mostly as a painter now, a car accident having left him with a limp. He couldn’t run, much less ride anything but a docile horse. He required a stepladder to get mounted. Leone flew to Los Angeles and his first sight of  Van Cleef, older than his photograph, proved his instincts correct, Van Cleef’s face “so strong, so powerful.” The salary on offer, for a down-on-his-luck actor scarcely able to pay a phone bill, was a fat purse of $10,000. (Eastwood’s salary was $50,000 plus a profit share compared to just $15,000 for the first film).

Leone put him to work right away, the day he arrived in Italy filming reaction shots. It was just as well his input that day was so simple because, as Clint Eastwood had discovered, the language barrier was a problem. Equally disconcerting was that Van Cleef had no idea why he had been chosen, and since A Fistful of Dollars had not been released in the U.S., no inkling of the kind of western the director had in mind. At Eastwood’s urging, he nipped out to a local cinema and returned with the understanding that the script was “definitely second to style.” Van Cleef was easy to work with, and although he could put away a fair amount of liquid refreshment it never interfered with his work. He came ready for direction.

Leone had not wanted to make a sequel. His original plan was a caper picture called Grand Slam or a remake of Fritz Lang’s classic M to star Klaus Kinski or an autobiographical drama – Viale Glorioso – set in the 1930s. Jolly, the producers of A Fistful of Dollars, offered him a 30 per cent profit share on that film if he made a sequel, as they felt he was legally obliged to do. Instead, furious with his treatment at their hands,  the director hit upon the title of a sequel For a Few Dollars More, the actual storyline only coming to fruition when he came across a treatment called The Bounty Killer by Enzo dell’Aquilla and Fernando Di Leo, who in exchange for a large sum, surrendered their screen credits. Luciano Vincenzoni completed the screenplay in nine days, leavening it with humor, after the director and his brother-in-law Fulvio Morsella had produced a revised treatment, Leone also involved in the final screenplay.

Jolly Films, the makers of “A Fistful of Dollars” already had experience of selling its films abroad. But as with Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” they were usually sold outright with no share of the box office and in turn sold as a supporting feature for a fixed price to an exhibitor.

Leone found a new backer in Alberto Grimaldi, an Italian entertainment lawyer who worked for Columbia and Twentieth Century Fox and had produced seven Spanish westerns. He promised to triple the first film’s budget to $600,000, with the director on a salary and 50 per cent profit share.

Success bred artistic confidence. A Fistful of Dollars had broken all box office records in Italy, grossing $4.6 million, and so Leone sought to improve on his initial offering and develop an “authorial voice.”

Thematically, with two principals, initially rivals who end up as “argumentative children,” it took inspiration from westerns like The Bravados (1958) –  the photo and the chiming watch – and Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz which pitched Burt Lancaster against Gary Cooper. While bounty hunters had cropped up in Hollywood, they were not ruthless killers, actions always justified, rather than merely professionals doing their job. So in some sense Leone was drawing upon, and upending, films like Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) and The Tin Star, Andre De Toth’s The Bounty Hunter (1954) and Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959). Just as Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter underwent change, gradually the character played by Gian Maria Volonte evolved from a straightforward outlaw called Tombstone to a stoned, sadistic bandit named El Indio. 

With artistic pretension came attention to detail. Leone required historical exactitude not just relating to weapons used, but their ballistics and range. Lee Van Cleef’s arsenal included a Buntline Special with removable shoulder stock, Colt Lightning pump action shotgun, Winchester ’94 rifle, and a double-barreled Lefaucheux. Carlo Simi’s town, constructed near Almeria, contained a two-storey saloon, undertaker’s parlor, barbershop, telegraph office, jail, hotel and an adobe First City Bank. And there was nothing pretty about it. The saloon was dirty and overcrowded, machines belching so much smoke it “looked as if a man could choke in there.”  Filming took place between mid-April and the end of June 1965.

Perhaps the biggest area for improvement was the music. Ennio Morricone had scored another nine films since A Fistful of Dollars. Both director and composer had ambitious ideas about how to use the music. The score was not recorded in advance, nor was Morricone given a screenplay, instead listening while Leone told him the story and asked for individual themes for characters. Morricone would play short pieces for Leone and if met with his approval compose longer themes. Each character had their own leitmotif, sometimes the same instrument at different registers, the flute brief and high-pitched for Monco (Eastwood) but in a low register for Mortimer, church bells and a guitar representing El Indio. In a very real sense, they were experimenting with form. Bernardo Bertolucci regarded Morricone’s music as “almost a visible element in the film.” Musical ideas regarding El Indio’s watch, however, were developed at the rough cut stage, its repetitive melody becoming “sound effect, musical introduction and concrete element in the story.”

As well as creating music for audiences, Leone’s films are punctured with music that holds particular meaning for characters, here the watch and in Once Upon a Time in the West the harmonica, in both films flashback used to assist understanding.

The myth of why it took so long for either film to reach the United States was based on two misconceptions, firstly that Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo (1961) A Fistful of Dollars closely resembled, had blocked its progress, secondly that it relied on screenwriter Vincenzoni to make the breakthrough via a contact working for United Artists.

In fact, there were more obvious reasons for resistance from American distributors. In the first place, you could not discount snobbery.  The notion that the country that had invented the western should now be reliant on importing them from Italy seemed a shade abhorrent. Although For a Few Dollars More was sold to 26 countries in a day at the annual Sorrento trade fair in 1965 – at the same fair a year earlier there had not been a single taker for A Fistful of Dollars – the United States was not among the buyers, distributors perhaps even more daunted by the prospect of introducing so much violence to American audiences reared on the traditional western.

Foreign movies that made the successful transition to the United States arrived weighted down with critical approval and/or awards or garlanded with a sexy actress – Brigitte Bardot, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren among the favored – and risqué scenes that Hollywood dare not include for fear of offending the all-mighty Production Code.

But sex was a far easier sell in the U.S. than violence. And an actor with no movie marquee such as Clint Eastwood did not fill exhibitors with delight and even the notion that A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) failed to stir the critics (as with The Magnificent Seven being a remake of Seven Samurai, most viewing the notion as repellent). So both the first and second pictures in the “Dollars” trilogy were stuck in distribution limbo for three and two years, respectively, before being screened in America.

And, initially, it had appeared that Italian audiences shared the same distaste for a cultural intruder such as A Fistful of Dollars. One cinema chain owner refused to book the film on the grounds that there were not enough female characters. A Fistful of Dollars was released in Italy in August, a dead period, since the month is so hot and everyone has abandoned the city for the beach. It opened – only in Florence and with neither publicity nor advertising – on August 27th  1964, a Friday, and did poor business that day and the next. But by Monday, it was a different story, takings had doubled and over the following two days customers were being turned away. New films typically played first-run for 7-10 days in Florence, A Fistful of Dollars ran for three months, triggering a box office story of Cinderella proportions.  

But my research indicated there had been ample opportunity for an American distributor to snap up the rights to A Fistful of Dollars in 1965, two years before it was finally released there. In the first place, the music rights had already been purchased by New York firm South Mountain Music in March 1965 in expectation the film would acquire release that year. In December 1965 Arrigo Colombo, partner in Jolly, flew to the United States for the specific purpose of lining up a major distributor for A Fistful of Dollars. The company had previously secured U.S. distribution for horror product like Castle of Blood (1964) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) but those were outright sales.

With the movie already sold to Spain, West Germany, France and Japan, Colombo aimed to conclude a deal for the English-speaking market, “purposely holding back” from releasing the picture in those countries as he sought an all-encompassing contract. At that point, Kurosawa no longer stood in the way, that issue “now cleared up” settled in the normal fashion by financial inducement, in an “amicable settlement” Toho snagging the Japanese and Korean rights, the deal sweetened with a minimum $100,000 against a share of global profits. But Colombo went home empty-handed, unable to secure any deal and his temerity  ridiculed by trade magazine Variety

Although Sergio Leone had one other legal obstacle to surmount that would not have got in the way of a U.S. distribution deal, the worst that could happen being that a contract might be struck with a different company.  Italian companies Jolly Films/Unidis, which had backed the original, took umbrage at Leone going ahead with the sequel without their financial involvement, cutting them off from the profit pipeline. So in April 1966 they took Leone to court in Rome arguing that For A Few Dollars More “represented a steal as well as unlawful competition for its own Fistful.” Four months later the judge denied the claim on the grounds  that “the character played by Clint Eastwood in each film is not characterized to such a degree that a likeness exists” (even though to all intents and purposes it was the same character, cigar, poncho, gun, bounty hunting!). Ironically, Italian laxity in such matters counted against Eastwood when he failed to prevent the distribution of a film based on two segments of Rawhide stitched together.

It would also be highly unusual if United Artists was not aware of both A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More since, in keeping tabs on the foreign performance of both Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) the studio could scarcely fail to notice the Italian westerns close on their box office tail, the second western outpointing Thunderball in daily averages in Rome.

But the story still, erroneously, goes that it was the intervention of writer Vincenzoni which proved decisive. He had contacts in U.S, namely Ilya Lopert of United Artists. Grimaldi was, meanwhile, trying to sell U.S. and Canada rights relating to the second picture. Vincenzoni arranged for UA’s representatives to view A Fistful of Dollars in Rome and cut himself in for a slice of the profits when the distributor surprisingly purchased the entire series.

Since A Fistful of Dollars had already been sold to most major territories, UA could only acquire the North American rights – for a reported $900,000 –  but for the other two films  gained a considerably larger share of global distribution

United Artists was an unusual company among the Hollywood hierarchy, and not primarily due to recurrent Oscar success, but because it had, completely unexpectedly, hit box office gold with James Bond. There was nothing particularly odd about a series, as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes etc (still flourishing in the 1960s) testified. What was distinctive about the Bonds was that each picture – the four so far had earned close to $150 million worldwide, not counting merchandising  – had done better than the last, which went against the standard rule of sequels of diminishing returns and higher costs. Given the opportunity to buy into a ready-made series (two films in the can, the third in production) UA made an “attempt to calculatedly duplicate the (Bond) phenomenon” and in so doing “create a trend.” Assuming the movies would follow the Bond formula of increased grosses with each successive picture, the studio was prepared to spend “many hundreds of thousands” of dollars to establish the  first picture.   

United Artists embarked on an unusual sales campaign to the trade. Instead of marketing the pictures one at a time, they started to promote the series with the tagline “A Fistful of Dollars is the first motion picture of its kind, it won’t be the last.” The advertising campaign was unusual in that it was based entirely around introducing the character rather than the story (much in the same way as James Bond had been), three separate slivers of the poster devoted to visual aspects, the cigar, gun and poncho, each carrying mention of “The Man With No Name,” such anonymity one of the talking points of the movies.

Cinema managers were briefed on release dates, A Fistful of Dollars in January 1967, the sequel for April and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for Xmas that year. Like the Bonds, it was expected that box office would progressively, if not explosively, increase. The studio unveiled a “hard-hitting campaign” designed to “intrigue the western or action fan.”

However, the North American premiere was held not in the United States but Canada, at the Odeon-Carlton in Toronto. Having committed to a four-week engagement, a risky prospect for an unknown quantity, the cinema started advertising a teaser campaign three weeks in advance. During the first week, posters were not just focused on the “man with no name” but also “the film with no name” and the “cinema with no name,” all those elements removed from the artwork until the second week of the campaign. UA allocated $20,000 in marketing, up to four times the usual amount spent on a launch there, and was rewarded with strong results – “bullish but not Bondish” Variety’s verdict.

However, the UA gamble did not pay off, especially when taking into account the high cost of buying the rights allied to huge marketing costs. Initial commercial projections proved unrealistic. Despite apparently hitting the box office mark in first-run dates in key cities, the film was pulled up short by its New York experience. Shunted straight into a showcase (wide) release rather than a first-run launch, it brought in a pitiful $153,000 from 75 theaters – even The Quiller Memorandum (1966) in its second week did better ($150,000 from 25). As a consequence when For a Few Dollars More was released in April/May, UA held off boking it into New York until “a suitable arrangement” could be made, which translated into hand-picking a dozen houses famed for appealing to action fans plus 600-seat arthouse the Trans-Lux West.

United Artists predicted $3.5 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios after cinemas take their cut of the gross) for A Fistful of Dollars and $4.5 million with For a Few Dollars More. Neither came close, the latter the marginally better performer with $2.2 million in rentals (enough for a lowly 41st on the annual chart) with the first film earning $2.1 million in rentals (46th) way behind more traditional performers like Hombre ($6.5 million for tenth spot), El Dorado ($5.9 million in 13th) and The War Wagon ($5.5 million in 15th).

The vaunted Bond-style box office explosion never materialized and it might have helped if UA had kept closer watch on the actual revenues posted in Italy for the series. While For a Few Dollars More increased by $2 million the takings of A Fistful of Dollars, the final film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly produced lower grosses than even the first.

However, it did look as if The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would come good. UA opened it in two first-run cinemas in New York where each house retained it for six weeks. But although the final tally of $4.5 million (24th spot in the annual rankings) was the best of the series, it did not herald returns that made it anywhere near comparable to the Bonds.

It’s possible the movies did better in terms of admissions than the box office figures show. Distributors pushing foreign product into arthouses were generally able to achieve a high share of the rental – 50 per cent the going rate – because they were able to set rival arthouses against each other and movies with a sexy theme/star had inbuilt box office appeal, La Dolce Vita (1960) and And God Created Women (1956) the classic examples. But that would not be possible when trying to interest ordinary cinemas with a film lacking in sex.

When I researched the early Bonds for a previous Blog, I found that United Artists had only managed to achieve bookings for Dr No (1962) by lowering its rental demand. Exhibitors paid the studio just 30 per cent of the gross. And I wondered if perhaps the same occurred with A Fistful of Dollars given the star, like Sean Connery, was completely unknown. Of course, it would not explain why the series did not grow as expected.

Of course, there was a surprising winner and an unexpected loser in the whole ‘Dollars’ saga. Clint Eastwood emerged as the natural successor to John Wayne with a solid box office – and later critical – reputation for American westerns starting off with Hang ‘Em High (1968) which beat The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the box office, while Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) proved a huge flop in the U.S.

Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, Something To Do With Death (Faber & Faber, 2000), p160-162, p165-200; “Italo’s Own Oater Leads Box Office,” Variety, December 2, 1964, p16; “South Mountain Buys Dollar Score,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p58; “Jolly’s Colombo Discovers N.Y.C. Busy at Xmas,” Variety, December 22, 1965, p3; “Tight Race for Box Office Honours in Italy Looms as Thunder Leads Dollars,” Variety, January 65, 1966, p15; “Dollars World Distribution for UA,” Variety, March 22, 1966, p22; “Clint Eastwood Italo Features Face Litigation,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p29; “UA Cautious on Links to Italo Fistful; Faces Slap from Kurosawa,” Variety, July 13, 1966, p7; “Rome Court Rejects Plea for Seizure of Few Dollars Made By Fistful Film,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p28; “Clint Eastwood vs Jolly on 2 Segs of Rawhide ‘Billed’ New Italo Pic,” Variety, September 7, 1966, p15; “Italy Making More Westerns, Spy Films Than Star Vehicles,” Box Office, October 31, 1966, p13; “Hemstitched Feature,” Variety, November 23, 1966, p22; “UA Division Holds Screenings of Westerns,” Box Office, December 12, 1966, pE2; Advertisement, Variety, December 21, 1966, p12-13; “UA Gambles Dollars As Good As Bonds,” Variety, December 28, 1966, p7; “Fred Goldberg Shows Ads on UA ‘Dollar’ Films,” Box Office, January 2, 1967, pE4; “Review,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, pA11; “Fistful of Dollars: Male (and Italo) B.O.,” Variety, January 18, 1967, p7; “Fistful of Dollars: The Glad Reaper,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p5;  “This Week’s N.Y. Showcases,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p9; “Fistful’s Weaker N.Y. B.O. Clench,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p7; “Methodical Campaign Kicks Off Ideal Fistful Ballyhoo in Toronto,” Box Office, May 1, 1967, pA1; “Few Dollars More Runs 30% Ahead of First Dubbed Italo-Made Western, So Bond Analogy Makes Out,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4; “N.Y. Slow to Fall Into Line,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4;   “B’way Still Boffo,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p9; “Carefully Picked,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p4; “B’way Biz Still Big,” Variety, July 19, 1967, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1967,” Variety, January 3, 1968, p25; “B’way B.O. Up,” Variety, January 31, 1968, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1968,” Variety, January 8, 1969, p15.

Behind the Scenes: “Battle of the Bulge” (1965)

It was Hollywood’s worst nightmare. Two major studios – Columbia and Warner Brothers –  were competing to make films about the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most famous episodes of the Second World War. Rival movies on similar or the same subject  – classic examples You Only Live Twice (1967) vs Casino Royale (1967) or Deep Impact (1998) vs.  Armageddon (1998) – risked cannibalizing each other, each entry eating into the prospective audience of the opposition.

At first it seemed like the Columbia entry had the upper hand. Writer-producer Anthony Lazzarino had spent four years preparing The 16th of December: The Story of the Battle of the Bulge (the date referring to the start of the battle). Lazzarino’s project was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Defense which offered exclusive cooperation. Advisors were of the top rank – General Omar Bradley,  General Hasso E. von Manteufel who had commanded the Panzers during the battle, British generals Sir Francis de Guingard and Robert Hasbrouck and Colonel John Eisenhower (son of Ike) plus the cooperation of the legendary Eisenhower himself and Field Marshal Montgomery.

With a budget in the $6 million – $8.4 million range, and shooting set to start in winter 1965, William Holden was lined up to play General Eisenhower and Kirk Douglas for  General Hasso. Although initially intending to film in the Ardennes and Canada, ultimately the producers settled for the cheaper option of  Camp Drum, one of the largest military installations in the U.S, a remote area in upper New York where the buildings could stand in for Bastogne, around which much of the real battle revolved, production there feasible because the Camp closed for winter. .

But that meant it would already be behind the eight-ball since Battle of the Bulge intended opening at Xmas 1965. Richard Fleischer (The Boston Strangler, 1968) was signed to direct. But he had become embroiled in a lawsuit with producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) whose production outfit had gone bust, killing off a deal for Fleischer to make The Night Runners of Bengal. The director was seeking $910,000 in compensation.

Warner Brothers had enlisted Cinerama as co-producer, the studio’s first involvement in the stunning widescreen process and the first time war was considered a subject. The process had been utilised in other Hollywood pictures most notably MGM How the West Was Won (1962), but that had been as a supplier of the equipment, and taking a small share of the profits. But now Cinerama planned to enter the production business and had contracted with WB to shoot the film in the single-lens process instead of the more complicated three-camera approach which had led to vertical lines on the giant screen.

Neither company was in great shape. Cinerama had posted a $17.9 million loss in 1964, WB $3.8 million. But whereas WB had My Fair Lady on the horizon, Cinerama was less reasons for optimism. Its income stream relied on sales of its equipment, either for filming or projection, and a levy from every cinema using the process. Expansion was seen as key to renewal. With only 67 cinemas equipped to show Cinerama in the U.S. and only 59 overseas, a major program was underway to reach 230 by 1967. Setting up a production division would ensure there were enough films to feed into Cinerama houses, and since such films were intended as roadshows, they would keep the cinemas product-secure for months on end.

Cinerama planned to spend $30 million on five films – John Sturges  western The Hallelujah Trail (1965) budgeted at $5 million, Battle of the Bulge ($5.75 million) while $6.5 million had been allocated to an adaptation of James Michener bestseller Caravans, $6 million for Beyond the Stars which became 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and $7 million for Grand Prix (1966). Added to the list was epic William the Conqueror, due to film in England in early 1966 with Robert Shaw taking top billing.

The WB-Cinerama project, which had taken a year to negotiate, was to be filmed in Spain under the aegis of producer Philip Yordan, one time associate of Bronston who had built a mini-Hollywood there. Yordan, Bronston’s chief scriptwriter, had written the screenplay along with his co-producer Milton Sperling. Instead of seeking official support or reproduce the battle in documentary detail, Yordan and Sperling aimed for a fictional account that took in the main incidents. The cast would include “ten important stars.”

Barbara Werle seizes her moment – as a courtesan attempting to seduce Robert Shaw.

Just what constituted an “all-star cast,” one of the key ingredients of the roadshow phenomenon of the 1960s, was open to question. While The Longest Day (1962) boasted stars of the pedigree of John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton and Sean Connery, it was also liberally sprinkled with actors of little or no marquee value. David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had loaded his film with the likes of Oscar winners Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Jose Ferrer to offset unknowns Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif as the leads. While The Great Race (1965) could boast Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) only had Spencer Tracy amid a host of television comedians.

But none of the stars of the hit Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1964) had successfully opened a major picture. Of the Battle of the Bulge contingent only Henry Fonda could truly be called a current star, although his box office star had considerable dimmed since the days of The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Fort Apache (1948). Former stars Robert Ryan and Dana Andrews were now supporting actors, Ty Hardin best known for television, Charles Bronson (The Great Escape, 1963) not achieved top billing and while James MacArthur had done so that was in youth-oriented movies. Initially, Italian prospect Pier Angeli (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) was announced as “the only principal female role” – playing a Frenchwoman – for a touching scene showing the effect of war on innocent women caught up in the conflict.

Just before filming was about to start, Fleischer pulled out, citing differences of opinion with the producers. Yordan turned to British director Ken Annakin, who had helmed the British sequences in The Longest Day and all of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. There was soon a double whammy from the rival picture. Realizing he was losing ground, and hoping to sabotage the opposition’s progress, Larrazino sued WB for $1 million, claiming that “another film, less accurate, would be confused with his picture.” Just as filming of the Battle of the Bulge got underway in January 1965, it was hit by a temporary restraining order. While failing to shut down the production, it imposed a marketing blockade. WB was prevented from publicizing its picture, a potentially major blow given how dependent big budget roadshows were on advance bookings which could only be generated by advance publicity.

Annakin’s immediate response to the directorial opportunity was delight. He commented that he had a “lot of toys to play with.” He found inspiration for his approach from an unusual source, the Daleks (“an apparently irrevocable onslaught of metal monsters”) from the BBC television series Dr Who. He decided he would use Cinerama as “a kind of 3D, shooting in such a way that the tanks would loom up as monsters against humans whom I would make small and puny.”

Although he had no influence over the casting, Annakin was already familiar with some of the actors, James MacArthur from Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and Werner Peters and Hans Christian Blech from The Longest Day. He did not receive such a warm welcome from Robert Shaw whom he had rejected for a role in The Informers (1963).

He found Fonda “a remarkable professional…always on time, patient, eager to get to work, and always knew his lines.” Fonda confessed to being a reluctant movie actor, preferring the stage, and had not been a big office draw since his work with John Ford in the 1930s and 1940s. Even critical successes like Twelve Angry Men (1957) had lost money, some of it the actor’s own, and prestige movies like The Best Man (1964) and Fail Safe (1964) failed to attract sufficient audiences. “In the theatre,” he said, “the actor achieves fulfilment from beginning to end. But on a picture you create a minute here and a minute there over a twelve-week period. When it’s finished there’s no recollection of what you did…Films are a director’s medium.” Battle of the Bulge was his 59th picture, after completing a supporting role in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965) and taking second billing to Glenn Ford in modern western The Rounders (1965).  

There was a stand-off with Bronson on his first day after the actor kept the crew waiting while fiddling too long with his costume. Ty Hardin (television’s Bronco, 1958-1962) was accident-prone, tumbling into a frozen river in full kit, and whacking the director’s wife in the face with his helmet. Dana Andrews had a drink problem so that in some scenes Fonda and Ryan would be surreptitiously holding him up.

Andrews was enjoying career resurgence. His movie career had been at a standstill, a long way from a peak like Laura (1944), his last significant top-billed parts over a decade past. “I was starting to get nothing for a while but offers came swarming in when I told my agent to go ahead and try for Walter Huston parts.” After only television roles in the four years since Madison Avenue (1961), Battle of the Bulge would mark his eighth role in 1965, including The Satan Bug and In Harm’s Way.

Winter in Spain was cold which meant it provided the ideal backdrop for the WB version. The chosen location, 4,500ft high in the mountains of Segovia, provided identical conditions to the actual battle. Spain had provided 80 tanks including Tigers mounted with 90mm guns and Shermans. Half of the 20-week shoot would be spent in Segovia with interiors filmed at studios in Seville and the Roma facility in Madrid.

The WB adviser was General Meinrad von Lauchert, a divisional tank commander during the battle. He hoped the picture would show the German soldier “as he was, brave and good” rather than clichéd presentation and not give the “impression that the American Army had nothing to do but walk into Germany.” He wanted the film to reflect the truth that the “Americans had to pay a high price for every yard.”

Extras were drawn from the Spanish village of El Molar, with a population of just 2,400, which specialised in that supply. Locals could earn 200 pesetas a day. A pair of tavern owners had established this lucrative side-line, demand so high at this point that “they can play Russian World War One deserters for Doctor Zhivago (1965) one day and shipped to World War Two the next for Battle of the Bulge.” Whenever Annakin found himself in trouble with the script he turned to the senior actors, Fonda, Ryan and Andrews who could improvise their way round scenes and “give me hints and lead me into changes.”

For the first scene, a week’s worth of white marble dust, representing snow, had been spread over the ground before 40 tanks emerged from a pine forest. But just as the cameras begun to turn, unexpectedly, against all weather forecasts, it began to snow. While initially a boon, when it continued to fall for five weeks the snow turned into a liability. Nobody was prepared for snow, not to the extent of snowploughs or even salt and it was a three-mile hike uphill to reach the tank location until army vehicles could be used to transport the crew. The tanks churned up so much mud that three or four cameras were required to catch the action.

“It was a director’s feast,” recalled Annakin, salivating about the prospect of a “vast panoramic” employing the entire array of tanks. To speed production, he had two units one hundred yards apart and jumped from one to the other, thus achieving 30-40 set-ups a day while the effects team exploded tubes and burned rubber tyres to create a fog of black battle smoke. A small town, already wrecked and shelled from the Spanish Civil War, added an air of realism when standing in for Bastogne.

Midway through shooting the producers realised the movie lacked a theme and from then on Annakin was faced with daily rewrites as new scenes were added to bring out the humanity implicit in war. Then Cinerama boss William Foreman arrived and demanded the insertion of the type of shot he believed his audiences were expecting, the equivalent of the runaway train and the ride through the rapids in How the West Was Won. He angled for a jeep racing downhill or a plane spinning and diving and happy to stump up any extra costs.

Such a request was more easily accommodated than his insistence that a role be found for his girlfriend Barbara Werle, a bit part actress Tickle Me (1965). While Yordan, wearing his producer’s hat, was willing to keep one of his main funders happy, the director and Robert Shaw were not. Shaw refused to do the scene until Foreman pleaded with both, explaining that in a vulnerable period of his personal life – when, in fact, he had been imprisoned – Werle had helped him out and he owed her a favour.

In Annakin’s opinion Werle was “willing but completely dumb…as though you had picked a girl straight from the cash desk of a supermarket.” Her one scene, as a courtesan offered to Robert Shaw by a grateful superior, was used to mark out the German commander as a man of honor when he rejected such temptation out of hand.

To overcome problems of matching earlier Panzer footage with the climactic battle to be shot on the rolling hills of Campo – in the earlier shots the ground was covered in snow, but now it was summer and the ground was scorched by the sun – Annakin relied on aerial shots, shooting downwards, “keeping as close as possible so as not to reveal what the terrain actually looked like” while on the ground two units shot close-ups of the action. This was augmented by 30 model shots with miniature explosions.

When shooting was completed, there was a race to get the movie ready for its scheduled launch, on December 16, 1965, the 21st anniversary of the start of the battle. There were ten weeks left to do post-production. Four editors had already been working on the material but Yordan asked Annakin, who had not been near a moviola for two decades, to personally edit the climactic battle scene. The director found the experience exhilarating: “matching my location footage with miniature shots; a four-foot helicopter (i.e. aerial) shot cut with a couple of feet of a U.S tank rounding rocks to face a Panzer; a shot of Telly Savalas at his gun site yelling ‘Fire’ intercut with a miniature tank blowing up.” But all his intricate work never made it into the final cut. Another editor fiddled around with the material and since no one had thought to make a dupe of Annakin’s original it was lost.

Although the challenge from Lazzarino had died away, the Pentagon was unhappy with the amount of time allocated to the German perspective. Yordan had the perfect riposte, pointing  the finger at Annakin and saying “see what happens when you get a limey director.”  

Werle had the last laugh. She was billed sixth in the credits (Angeli came fifth) but in the same typeface as Fonda, Shaw, Ryan and Andrews, and above the likes of Bronson, MacArthur and Hardin who not only all had substantially greater screen experience but had a bigger impact in the movie.

With the smallest part of all the listed stars, nonetheless she managed to turn the experience to her advantage, introduced to the press as part of the marketing campaign and attending the world premiere at the Pacific Cinerama on December 16, 1965 in Los Angeles and the New York premiere the following day, brought forward four days, at the Warner Cinerama. In Los Angeles she arrived in style at the head of a marching brigade of 100 service men.

SOURCES: Ken Annakin, So You Wanna Be A Director (Tomahawk, 2001) p167-181; “Du Pont, Bronston, Co-Defendants,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p4; “Schenck-Rhodes Roll Battle of Bulge at Camp Drum in U.S.” Variety, July 22, 1964, p42; “German Military Sensitivity,” Variety, September 23, 1964, p32;  “Columbia Will Distribute Battle of Bulge Film,” Box Office, September 28, 1964, p18; “Plan Battle of Bulge As Cinerama Film,” Box Office, November 23, 1964, p4; “Tony Lazzarino To Produce The 16th of December,” Box Office, December 16, 1964, p4; “Rival Battles of Bulge; Bill Holden Up for Ike in Lazzarino Version,” Variety, December 16, 1964, p5; “Warner Reports Loss of £3,861,00,” Variety, December 23, 1964, p5; “L.A. Court Has Its Battle of Bulge Hearing, 27th,” Box Office, January 25, 1965, pW-2; “Dana Andrews Strategy: Regain Momentum,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p3; “Battle of Bulge Now Being Lensed in Spain,” Box Office, March 15, 1965, pNE2; “Winter in Spain Cold But Correct for Bulge Pic,” Variety, March 17, 1965, p10; “Cinerama Plans Five Films to Cost $30 Mil,” Box Office, April 19, 1965, p13; “For Actor, Satisfying Legit Still Beats Pix, Reports Henry Fonda,” Variety, May 3, 1965, p2; “London Report,” Box Office, May 3, 1965, p8; “One Girl in WB Bulge,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p20; “Battle of Bulge Pic May Roll Next Winter,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p29; “El Molar, Spain’s Village of Extras,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p126; “Cinerama Report Loss,” Variety, May 13, 1965, p15; Advert, Box Office, July 12, 1965, p22; “WB To Film Cinerama Epic in England,” Box Office, October 11, 1965, p11; “Introduce Barbara Werle,” Box Office, October 18, 1965, pE3; “Battle of Bulge Opens N.Y. Now Dec 21,” Box Office, October 18, 1965, p10; “Actress To Attend Bows of Bulge in L.A., N.Y.,” Box Office, December 6, 1965, pW4.

Behind the Scenes: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969)

“Tedium in tumbleweed,” was the verdict of Time’s magazine’s critic. That was hardly the intention of Sergio Leone, Dario Argento (then just a critic) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution, 1964) after they met just before Xmas 1966 in a projection booth for a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and decided to try and write the quintessential western. This was a strange notion given that a) Leone had already revolutionized the western and b) on the completion of the last of the “Dollars” trilogy, had avowed to give up westerns and in consequence turned down Hang ‘Em High (1968).

When their six-month collaboration only produced 80 pages of script, Leone turned to Sergio Donati who finished it off in 25 days, adding such essential elements as the fly tormenting Jack Elam at the railway station, turning Morton into a cripple and giving him the motif of the ocean, and many others. Donati claimed, “The best thing I did was give a meaning to the story…This railroad which unites one ocean to the other is the end of the frontier, the end of adventure.” The completed screenplay drew on such influences as Johnny Guitar (1954), John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), George Stevens’ Shane (1953) and a dozen pictures besides.

With a budget of $5 million, equally shared between Euro-International – flush from being the Italian distributor of German sex education film and box office smash Helga (1967) –  and Paramount at the height of its European investment cycle, it would be the most expensive movie made in Italy since Dino de Laurentiis greenlit The Bible (1966). Twelve times as expensive as Leone’s debut western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – the set of Flagstone alone cost more than that film’s entire budget –  it would be shot at Cinecitta in Rome as well as on location in Almeria, Spain, and the iconic Monument Valley.

“Creative geography” had been utilized to find a connection between the famed Western landmark and the new town of Sweetwater. Prior to filming, Leone had undertaken a guided tour of Monument Valley and returned able to pinpoint exactly where Ford had made use of the location in the ten westerns he had shot there. Leone was the highest-remunerated, picking up $750,000 and 10 per cent of the profits with Claudia Cardinale on $500,000, but the others nowhere near such salaries.

It was Bertolucci who had persuaded the director to give Jill (Claudia Cardinale) the pivotal role. In Leone’s previous films, women were side-lined. But now Jill would run the gamut of all the roles typically allocated to different women in westerns from the reformed whore, submissive woman, object of lust and chattel to the spitfire and woman who took charge. More, she represented, “the promise of the West.” She was central to the plot and sole survivor at the end after Harmonica (Charles Bronson) departed with Frank (Henry Fonda), Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) all dead.

When Leone wooed her for the role, he acted out the entire film in her presence, using the music to give her an insight into her character. “While I listened,” she recalled, “I understood every moment of the film shot by shot.” During filming of her scenes, Leone replayed her theme music. “This helped me concentrate, remove myself from the world.”

Although Leone and Clint Eastwood had fallen out during the shooting of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the actor agreed to meet to discuss the role of Harmonica, but in the end Eastwood rejected the part, perhaps because the monosyllabic character was too close to The Man With No Name. Other names in the frame were James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven), Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963), Rock Hudson and Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966). The last actor Paramount was interested in was Charles Bronson who was regarded as nothing more than a steady supporting actor. Leone’s insistence was because the actor had a “face made of marble.” He would not be required to act much, just represent an immoveable object, capable of expressing the sadder side of his character through his harmonica.  

Henry Fonda was Leone’s first choice for the “ignoble assassin” but the actor prove hard to recruit, the director thwarted first of all by the star’s agent, then put off by the original script and only persuaded by old friend Eli Wallach that this might represent opportunity. However, when the actor came prepared he came prepared for the wrong picture, sporting the moustache traditionally worn by the villain, and, worse, concealing the baby blue eyes which the director coveted with dark lenses.

Although accepting the exceptional stage talents of Jason Robards whose only foray into the genre at that point had been box office flop A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Donati believed he had the kind of presence that did not “translate to the big screen,” especially lacking the kind of eyes the director required for close-up. Leone disagreed, believing he was tailor-made for the role of Cheyenne. The first interview was not a success, the alcoholic actor arriving drunk. Only warnings of financial consequence ensured the star remained sober during filming.

Shooting was scheduled for April-June 1968. The first scene on the agenda was the love scene between Cardinale and Robards, which accounted for two days shooting. Paramount’s eager marketing team promoted these as the first sex scenes the director had filmed, ignoring the fact that sequences showing Eastwood in bed with a woman had been shot for For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, although they had not made it into the final cut. It took four days to film the shoot-out at Cattle Corner, three hours alone devoted to capturing the drip of water onto Woody Strode’s head and hat. Composer Ennio Morricone had already written a theme to cover the period of the gunmen waiting, but instead opted for the exaggerated sounds such as chalk scraping on a blackboard and the insistent fly. A jar of flies were kept for this purpose but in the end only one sufficed.

Although length became an issue outside of Italy and Parisian fist-run cinemas, Paramount was already planning for a 150-minute picture. In the end the 168-minute Italian cut was shaved by 24 minutes for the U.S. release, outside of a roadshow the longest western sent into general release, and therefore a risky prospect. The idea that Paramount got cold feet over the American release does not stand up. It was part of a major promotion on a huge sign above Times Square that promoted four of the studio’s upcoming offerings – the others being Goodbye, Columbus, True Grit and Those Dangerous Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies.  It was launched in New York on Memorial Day (not as big a box office day then as now but still a major U.S. holiday) in first run cinemas two weeks ahead of the rest of the country.  

In fact, its first week’s box office there ranked it the western of the year so far, beating The Stalking Moon, 100 Rifles and Support Your Local Sheriff. The New York figures were actually the best results for a western for the entire year with the exception Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit, outgrossing the likes of the more critically-successful The Wild Bunch and more marketing-friendly Mackenna’s Gold. However, its initial New York audience appreciation was rarely not matched elsewhere, Boston being one exception.  Some cinemas found it difficult to market, the Berlin Drive-In in Hartford, for example, tying-in with country-and-western music on a local radio station. While some smaller cinemas called for another 30 minutes in cuts, others proclaimed “this is what the public wants.” Once upon a Time in the West  finished tenth for the year among westerns and a disappointing 47th overall in Variety’s annual rentals chart.

While it also flopped in Britain and, given the budget, proved a disappointment in Italy, not on a par with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it posted 14.8 million admissions in France, making it the seventh-best performing picture of all time. By 1984 it ranked eleventh on the all-time German rental champs list, above Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. In Switzerland in 1987 it came eighth on the all-time chart, easily the oldest title on the list. It was a video “blockbuster” in German homevideo setting a new sales record in 1984.

However, for such a commercial and critical failure, reassessment in the U.S. was not long in coming. In 1973, the Beverly Canon in Los Angeles launched its new “Classics At Midnight” programme with Once Upon a Time in the West, Harold and Maude and Repulsion. The prospect of the first showing in the U.S. of the full-length version captured all the headlines at the 1980 New York Film Festival. There were occasional revivals: in Toronto at Easter 1973 and Washington and New York among others in 1984, and Washington in 1985.  

It was named the best western ever made by British newspaper The Guardian newspaper and film magazine Empire. In the Sight and Sound once-in-a-decade Critics Poll in 2012 it placed third in the western category behind The Searchers and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). With the results of a new poll out this year I wonder if it will ascend to the top spot.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Gunslingers of ’69: Western Movies’ Greatest Year (McFarland, 2019); Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (Faber and Faber, 2000); Christopher Frayling: Once Upon a Time in Italy (Thames & Hudson, 2005); Christopher Frayling, Once upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece (Reel Art Press, 2019); “Huge Sign on Times Square Plugs Paramount Product,” Box Office, May 5, 1969, pA2; “West Tie Up With WEXT,” Box Office, June 16, 1969, pNE2;  “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pA4; “The Big Rental Films of 1969,” Variety, January 7, 1970, p15; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, July 6, 1970, pA3; “Beverly Canon To Offer Midnight Classics,” Box Office, April 13, 1973, pW1; “Scorsese Speaks on Saving Prints,” Variety, October 8, 1980, p6;  “CIC Video Preps Low-Ticket Bow for Raiders,” Variety, March 21, 1984, p47; “All-Time German Rental Champs,” Variety, March 7, 1984, p336; “With Plenty of Film Buffs, NYC Is Reissue Heaven,” Variety, December 12, 1984, p74; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, October 1, 1985, p43-44; “All-Time Swiss Top Ten,” Variety, October 21, 1987, p498.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

A masterpiece to savor. The greatest western ever made. Sergio Leone’s movie out-Fords John Ford in thematic energy, imagery and believable characters and although it takes in the iconic Monument Valley it dispenses with marauding Native Americans and the wrecking of saloons. That the backdrop is the New West of civilisation and enterprise is somewhat surprising for a movie that appears to concentrate on the violence implicit in the Old West. But that is only the surface. Dreams, fresh starts are the driving force. It made a star out of Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend, 1968), turned the Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent, 1961) persona on its head and provided Claudia Cardinale (Blindfold, 1965) with the role of a lifetime. And there was another star – composer Ennio Morricone (The Sicilian Clan, 1969)

New Orleans courtesan Jill (Claudia Cardinale) heads west to fulfil a dream of living in the country and bringing up a family. Gunslinger Frank (Henry Fonda), like Michael in The Godfather, has visions of going straight, turning legitimate through railroad ownership. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has been dreaming of the freedom that will come through achieving revenge, the crippled crooked railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) dreams of seeing the ocean and even Cheyenne (Jason Robards) would prefer a spell out of captivity.

The beginnings of the railroad triggers a sea-change in the West, displacing the sometimes lawless pioneers, creating a mythic tale about the ending of a myth, a formidable fable about the twilight and resurgence of the American West. In essence, Leone exploits five stereotypes – the lone avenger (Harmonica), the outlaw Frank who wants to go straight, the idealistic outlaw in Cheyenne, Jill the whore and outwardly respectable businessman Morton whose only aim is monopoly. All these characters converge on new town Flagstone where their narratives intersect.

That Leone takes such stereotypes and fashions them into a movie of the highest order is down to style. This is slow in the way opera is slow. Enormous thought has gone into each sequence to extract the maximum in each sequence. In so doing creating the most stylish western ever made. The build-up to violence is gradual, the violence itself over in the blink of an eye.

Unusually for a western – except oddities like Five Card Stud (1968) – the driving force is mystery. Generally, the western is the most direct of genres, characters establishing from the outset who they are and what they want by action and dialogue. But Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne are, on initial appearances, mysterious. Leone takes the conventions of the western and turns them upside down, not just in the reversals and plot twists but in the slow unfolding tale where motivation and action constantly change, alliances formed among the most unlikely allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank, and where a mooted  alliance, in the romantic sense, between Jill and Harmonica fails to take root.

There’s no doubt another director would have made shorter work of the opening sequence in Cattle Corner, all creaky scratchy noise, in a decrepit railroad station that represents the Old West, but that would be like asking David Lean to cut back Omar Sharif emerging from the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock to trim the hypnotic scenes of James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Instead, Leone sets out his stall. This movie is going to be made his way, a nod to the operatic an imperative. But the movie turns full circle. If we begin with the kind of lawless ambush prevalent in the older days, we end with a shootout at the Sweetwater ranch that is almost a sideshow to progress as the railroad sweeps ever onward.

No character performs more against audience expectation than Jill. Women in westerns rarely take center stage, unless they exhibit a masculine skill with the gun. There has rarely been a more fully-rounded character in the movies never mind this genre. When we are introduced to her, she is the innocent, first time out west, eyes full of wonder, heart full of romance. Then we realize she is a tad more mercenary and that her previous occupation belies her presentation. Then she succumbs to Frank. Then she wants to give up. Then she doesn’t. Not just to stay but to become the earth mother for all the men working on the railroad.

Another director would have given her a ton of dialogue to express her feelings. Instead, Leone does it with the eyes. The look of awe as she arrives in Flagstone, the despair as she approaches the corpses, the surrender to the voracious Frank, the understanding of the role she must now play. And when it comes to close-ups don’t forget our first glimpse of Frank, those baby blue eyes, and the shock registering on his face in the final shoot-out, one of the most incredible pieces of acting I have ever seen.

And you can’t ignore the contribution of the music. Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West has made a greater cultural impact than even the venerated John Williams’ themes for Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) with rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica among those spreading the word to successive generations and I wonder in fact how people were drawn to this big-screen showing by the opportunity to hear the score in six-track Dolby sound. There’s an argument to be made that the original soundtrack sold more copies than the film sold tickets.

The other element with the music which was driven home to me is how loud it was here compared to, for example, Thunderball (1965), which as it happens I also saw on the big screen on the same day. Although I’ve listened to certain tracks from the Bond film on a CD where the context is only the listener and not the rest of the picture, I was surprised how muted the music was for Thunderball especially in the action sequences. Today’s soundtracks are often loud to the point of being obstreperous, but rarely add anything to character or image.

One final point, Once Upon a Time in the West was reissued not as some kind of retrospective for the director but in memory of the composer.  

Book Review – Dreams of Flight: “The Great Escape” in American Film and Culture

In the history of rousing action cinema few movies are as revered or have produced such a collective cinematic response as John Sturges’ World War 2 POW picture The Great Escape (1963) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough and a host of upcoming stars including The Magnificent Seven alumni James Coburn and Charles Bronson,  

Dana Polan’s rich assessment of the film’s making coupled with a superb analysis of the film itself, script, style, themes and directorial bravura is filled with informative nuggets. Eschewing the standard star bio approach, Polan goes much deeper to detail how earlier adaptations for American television and Australian radio (made by novelist Morris West’s company and with Rod Taylor as a German guard) affected the film, how it fitted into the British POW tradition (The Colditz Story etc) and the influence of an American offshoot like Stalag 17.

You might already be familiar with the work of Dana Polan since he has written books on Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos and Jane Campion and another half-dozen books besides. This is an excellent addition to his impressive portfolio.

Paul Brickhill, author of The Great Escape (and other war classics The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky) had been an inmate at Stalag Luft III so drew on personal experience – including that of tunnel digger – and sketches made at the time of the tunnels to turn out, as co-writer, a precursor Escape to Danger. It was either interviews relating to this or a magazine article or condensation that alerted neophyte director Sturges in 1945/1946 to a potential film. The book, published in 1950, sold a million copies in paperback in the UK alone and was a huge global success. And for independent producers Mirisch, for whom Sturges later made The Magnificent Seven, buying the rights was integral to the director’s pact with that company in 1957 and indeed The Great Escape was mooted as his debut picture for them. When finally greenlit, it was intended to be shot in the U.S. with only 10 per cent taking place in Europe. That it went the other way was due to an unusual set of circumstances.

In his analysis of the picture, Polan makes other interesting connections, first of all to the caper picture where each character has a specific task to contribute to the overall effort. Unusually for a heroic film, he points out that courage is continually undercut, each uplifting moment leading to defeat, the film itself having an essentially downbeat ending, the only true victory found in defiance. And in some respects The Great Escape created a bridge between the gung-ho war films of the 1950s and the more cynical approach to war envisioned in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

Being British, it had never occurred to me how important the baseball glove was to American culture, the glove representing for many a “certain brand of American problem-solving in the face of adversity” although far more universally accepted would be the premise of the motorcycle escape representing the triumph of the spirit even as it results in a more down to earth resolution.

Tracing Sturges’ stylistic development back to post-WW2 B-movies made for Columbia explains the importance of the trademark parabolic shot in driving action forward. Yet for all his stylistic bravura, Sturges was very grounded when it came to the work required to make pictures, for example here adopting coloured index cards to shuffle around pieces of action to best effect.

The script went through various hands – William Roberts and Walter Newman, both integral to The Magnificent Seven, but was finally credited to crime writer W.R. Burnett (who had worked with Sturges on Sergeants 3, 1962) and James Clavell (who adapted The Satan Bug, 1965), himself a POW in a Japanese camp with British writer Ivan Moffat (Giant, 1956) coming in at the last minute as script doctor. A breakdown of the various scripts attributes the Hilts’ cooler baseball bouncing to Moffat who also wrote the scene that changed Hilts from loner to participant.

In a terrific appendix you can discover exactly the problems facing the real escapees and who came up with the book title (clue – not the author) four years after the idea originally surfaced. There’s a fascinating coda about the film’s impact on Hollywood and general culture and Polan takes time out to reflect on the experience of various fans on their virgin encounter with the picture. The movie was a big hit and so well received that when critic Bosley Crowther wrote a negative review the “New York Times” postbag was filled with complaints. Written with tremendous authority and great style, this is one book you would want to find in your Xmas stocking.

Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape in American Film and Culture by Dana Polan is published by University of California Press at $24.95 / £20 in both paperback & ebook.  ISBN 9780520379305. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520379305/dreams-of-flight

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.

Bronson Unwanted

That Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) was a smash hit in France did nothing for Charles Bronson’s Hollywood career. Hollywood had form in disregarding U.S.-born stars that Europe had taken to its box office bosom. Example number one of course was Clint Eastwood, ignored by the big American studios until four years after his movies had cut a commercial swathe through foreign territories. Charles Bronson took about the same length of time for his box office grosses abroad to make an impact back home.

While we tend to look upon The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a career-making vehicle for many of the supporting stars, that wasn’t actually the case. Jim Brown was quickest out of the blocks, a full-blown top-billed star a year later in The Split (1968). Otherwise, John Cassavetes had the biggest crack at stardom after landing the male lead in box office smash Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But the rest of the gang – Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckal et al – remained at least for the time being strictly supporting players.

For Charles Bronson, the year of The Dirty Dozen produced nothing more than television guest spots in Dundee and the Culhane, The Fugitive and The Virginian. Beyond that he had a berth in two flop westerns Villa Rides (1968) and Guns for San Sebstian (1968) and no guarantee his career was moving in an upward direction. But the latter picture was primarily a French-Mexican co-production, the Gallic end set up by top French producer Jacques Bar under the aegis of Cipra which had previously been responsible for Alain Delon vehicles Any Number Can Win (1963), Joy House (1964) and Once a Thief (1965).

There was another, as vital, French connection. Henri Verneuil directed both Any Number Can Win and Guns for San Sebastian so could attest to Bronson’s screen presence. And another legendary French producer, the Polish-born Serge Silberman, best known for Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), had taken note of Bronson, whose screen persona was similar to that of French stars Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Silberman’s Greenwich Films production shingle was in the process of setting up Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami.

Like The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), Farewell Friend was part of a new trend to make French productions in English as well as French, in this case the English version viewed as “the working one.” But that ploy failed to convince U.S. distributors to take a chance and the film sat on the shelf for five years. And little that Bronson did in the meantime increased his chances of a serious stab at the Hollywood big time.

Although Paramount had piled cash into the Italian-made Once upon a Time in the West (1968) it was counting on Henry Fonda – undergoing a career renaissance after Madigan (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) – to provide the box office momentum. Bronson was billed fourth after Claudia Cardinale, Fonda and Jason Robards, so still in Hollywood’s eyes a supporting player.

And while the Sergio Leone picture flopped Stateside, the success of Farewell, Friend in France turned Bronson into a star and was instrumental in the western breaking box office records in Paris (where it ran for a year) and throughout the country.

Fortunately for Bronson, European producers recognized his potential. His next picture should have been an Italian-French-German co-production of Michael Strogoff, for which he was announced as the top billed star (Advert, Variety, May 8, 1968, p136-137).  When that fell through, Italian company Euro International, bidding to become the top foreign studio outside Hollywood, gave him top-billing in Richard Donner drama Twinky (aka Lola, aka London Affair, 1970) and Serge Silberman tapped him for Rene Clement thriller Rider on the Rain (1970), another French hit.

British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) was responsible for recruiting him for You Can’t Win ‘Em All (aka The Dubious Patriots, 1970), but with Tony Curtis taking top billing. Again, though funded by an American studio, this time Columbia, it was another big flop, mostly because the studio did not know how to market the picture, Curtis in a box office slump and Bronson considered to have little appeal.

But still the Europeans kept the faith. Another French-Italian co-production Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) gave him top billing over exiles Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. That was also the case with Cold Sweat (1970), helmed by British director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962).  He had another French-made hit with Someone Behind the Door (1971) and Terence Young hired him again, along with Farewell, Friend co-star Alain Delon, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Dr No alumni Ursula Andress for international co-production Red Sun. While this western sent box office tills whirring all over the world, it only made a fair impression in the U.S., ranking 53rd in the annual box office chase.

Riding on the back of The Godfather phenomenon, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Bronson for Mafia thriller The Valachi Papers (1972), again directed by Terence Young, which produced something of a box office breakthrough in the U.S., ending the year just outside the Top 20. But it took another British director, Michael Winner, to help solidify the Bronson screen persona and boost his global appeal. Four – and all of the hits – out of the star’s next six pictures were directed by Winner.  These were the western Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1975). The Mechanic was such a big hit Stateside it did better in its second year of release than the first and Columbia redeemed itself by giving prison escape thriller Breakout (1975) the widest release – up to that point – of all time.

That America had little interest in developing Bronson as a breakout star could be judged by the distribution treatment of his pictures. As mentioned above, Farewell, Friend had to wait until 1973 for its U.S. debut and then renamed Honor among Thieves. Twinky was denied a cinema release in the U.S. and went straight to television in 1972. Violent City had to wait until 1973 for a distribution deal, Cold Sweat until 1974 and even Red Sun took nine months before it hit American shores.  Until The Valachi Papers did the business, Bronson was not considered the kind of star who could open a picture in the U.S.

By then, of course, Bronson had reversed the normal box office rules. Usually, for films starring American actors, foreign revenues were the icing on the cake. For Bronson it was the other way round. Along with Clint Eastwood he was the first of the global superstars, whose name resonated around the world, and whose pictures made huge amounts of money regardless of American acceptance or interest. But had it been left to Hollywood, Bronson would never have made the grade.

Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) ****

This heist picture made Charles Bronson a star, though, like Clint Eastwood a few years previously, he had to go to Europe, in this case France, to find an audience appreciable of his particular skill set. This was such a box office smash in France that it was the reason that Once upon a Time in the West (1968), a major flop virtually everywhere else, turned into a huge hit in Paris. After a decade as a supporting actor, albeit in some quality offerings like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson developed a big following, if only initially in Europe.

Farewell, Friend could also lay fair claim to stealing the title of  “first buddy movie” from the following year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) because, apart from the heist that is central to the story, it is essentially about the forging of a friendship. But it wasn’t released in the U.S. for another five years, in the wake of Bronson’s Hollywood breakthrough in The Valachi Papers (1972), and then under a different title, Honor Among Thieves.

And you can see why it was such a star-making vehicle. Bronson goes toe-to-toe with France’s number one male star Alain Delon (The Sicilian Clan, 1969). He had the walk and the stance and the look and he was given acres of screen time to allow audiences to fully appreciate for the first time what he had to offer. Like Butch Cassidy, the duo share a lot of screen time, and after initial dislike, they slowly turn, through circumstance and the same code of honor, into friends.

Dino Barran (Alain Delon) is the principled one, after a final stint as a doctor in the French Foreign Legion originally turning down overtures from Franz Propp (Charles Bronson) to become involved in a separate major robbery. Propp is an unsavory customer, making his living as a small-time thief who uses a stripper to dupe wealthy marks. Barran plans to rob a corporation’s safe during the three-day Xmas holiday of two million dollars as a favor to the slinky widow Isabelle (Olga Georges-Picot) of a former colleague, for whose death he retains guilt. Propp more or less barges his way into the caper.

It’s a clever heist. Isabelle gets Barran a job as a company doctor whose office is next door to the giant vault. But there’s a twist. Surveillance reveals only three of the seven numbers required to open the combination to the vault. But Barran reckons three days is sufficient to try out the 10,000 possible permurations.

Barran and Propp despise each other and pass the time playing juvenile tricks, locking each other into a room, stealing all the food from the one dispensing machine, winding each other up, while they take turns trying different combinations. But it opens after only 3,400 attempts and they face a shock. The vault is empty. They have been set up to take the fall for a previous robbery that must have been completed before the building closed for Xmas.  

And there’s no way out. They are in lockdown, deep in a basement. The elevators can only be opened by a small squadron of guards upstairs. Food long gone, they are going to run out of water. If they use a lighter to see in the dark, or build a fire to get warm, the flames will eat up the oxygen they need to survive in the enclosed space. So the heist turns into a battle for survival and brute force attempts to escape before the building re-opens and they are discovered, exhausted and clearly guilty.

But that’s only the second act. There is a better one to follow, as their friendship is defined in an unusual manner. And there are any number of twists to maintain the suspense and tension. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were close friends when that western began. Here, we see the evolution of a friendship between two forceful characters who express their feelings with their fists.

Delon was a known quantity, but Bronson really comes to the fore, more than holding his own against a top star who oozed charisma. This is Bronson in chrysalis, the emergence of the tough guy leading man screen persona that would turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world. Surprisingly, given his later penchant for the monosyllabic, here he does a lot of talking, perhaps more actual acting than he ever did later when his roles tended to fall into a stereotype.

He has the two best scenes, both character-defining, but in different ways. He has a little scam, getting people to gamble on how many coins it would take for an already full-to-the-brim glass to overflow when a certain number of coins were dropped in. While this is a cute trick, it’s that of a small-time con artist, but watching it play out, as it does at critical moments, is surprisingly suspenseful. The second is the strip scene which shows him, as a potential leading man, in a very poor light, and although thievery is the ultimate aim, it is not far short of pimping, with Bronson standing back while the woman (Marianna Falk) is routinely humiliated. It’s the kind of scene that would be given to a supporting actor, for whom later redemption was not on the cards. It says something for Bronson’s command of the screen and the development of his character that by the end of the picture the audience has long forgotten that he could stoop so low.

It is a film of such twists I would not want to say much more for fear of giving away too much, suffice to say that Olga Georges-Picot (Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, 1968) and her friend, mousy nurse Dominique (Brigitte Fossey, in her grown-up debut), are also stand-outs, and not just in the sense of their allure.

Director Jean Herman, in his sophomore outing, takes the bold step of dispensing with music virtually throughout, which means that during the critical heist sequence the audience is deprived of the usual musical beats that might indicate threat or suspense or change of mood, but which has the benefit of keeping the camera squarely on the two leading characters without favoring either. Most pictures focusing on character rely on slow-burn drama. In the bulk of heist pictures, characters appear fully-formed. Here, unusually, and almost uniquely in the movie canon, character development takes place during an action film.

Top French thriller writer Sebastian Japrisot (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) was responsible along with Herman for the screenplay. Japrisot was a key figure in the French movie thriller scene, churning out, either as original novels or original screenplays, A Trap for Cinderella (1965), Rider on the Rain (1970) and The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun (1970).

Even without Bronson, this would have been a terrific heist picture. With him, it takes on a new dimension.

4 for Texas (1963) ****

To my mind the best of the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin collaborations, outside of the more straightforwardly dramatic Some Came Running (1958), and for the simple reason that they are rivals rather than buddies. The banter of previous “Rat Pack” outings is given a harder edge and it is shorn of extraneous songs.

I came at this picture with some trepidation, since it did not receive kind reviews, “stinks to high heaven” being a sample. But I thought it worked tremendously well, a delightful surprise, the ongoing intrigue intercut with occasional outright dramatic moments and a few good laughs.

It’s unfair to term it a comedy western since for a contemporary audience that invariably means a spoof of some kind, rather than a movie that dips into a variety of genres. In some respects it defies pigeonholing. For example, it begins with a dramatic shoot-out, stagecoach passengers Zack Thomson (Frank Sinatra), a crack shot with a rifle, and pistolero Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin) out-shooting an outlaw gang headed by Matson (Charles Bronson). When director Robert Aldrich (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) has the cojones to kill off legendary villain Jack Elam in the opening section you know you are in for something different.

After out-foxing Matson, Jarrett attempts to steal the $100,000 the stagecoach has been carrying from its owner Thomas. Jarrett looks to be getting away with it until he realizes he is still in range of Thomas’s rifle. Then Thomas looks to have secured the money until Jarrett produces a pistol from his hat. And that sets the template for the movie, Thomas trying to outsmart Jarrett, the thief always one step ahead, and the pair of them locking horns with corrupt banker Harvey Burden (Victor Buono), in whose employ is Matson.

The movie is full of clever twists, cunning ruses, scams, double-crosses, reversals and sparkling dialog. Whenever Jarrett and Thomas are heading for a showdown, something or someone (such as Matson) gets in the way. While Thomas has the perfect domestic life, fawned over by buxom maids and girlfriend Elya (Anita Ekberg), Jarrett encounters much tougher widow Maxine (Ursula Andress) who greets his attempts to invest in her riverboat casino by shooting at him.  

Take away the comedic elements and you would have a plot worthy of Wall Street and ruthless financiers. The story is occasionally complicated without being complex and the characters, as illustrated by their devious intent, are all perfectly believable.

It’s a great mix of action and comedy – with some extra spice added by The Three Stooges in a laugh-out-loud sequence – and it’s a quintessential example of the Sinatra-Martin schtick, one of the great screen partnerships, illuminated by sharp exchanges neither lazily scripted nor delivered. Even the blatant sexism is played for laughs.

Sinatra and Martin, especially, are at the top of their game. Forget all you’ve read about Aldrich and Sinatra not getting on. Sinatra never got on with any director. But an actor and director not getting on does not spell a poor picture. Sinatra brings enough to the table to make it work, especially as he is playing against type, essentially a dodgy businessman who is taken to the cleaners by both Martin and Buono.

The only flaw is that Ursula Andress (Dr No, 1962) does not turn up sooner. She has a great role, mixing seductiveness and maternal instinct with a stiff shot of ruthlessness, not someone to be fooled with at all, qualities that would resonate more in the career-making She (1965).  Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960) on the other hand is all bosom and not much else. Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) demonstrates a surprising grasp of the essentials of comedy for someone so often categorized as the tough guy’s tough guy.

The biggest bonus for the picture overall is the absence of the other clan members – Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – who appeared in previous Rat Pack endeavors Oceans 11 (1960) and Sergeants 3 (1963). Without having to laboriously fit all these other characters in, this film seems to fly along much better. As I mentioned, the fact that Sinatra and Martin play deadly enemies provides greater dramatic intensity.

Robert Aldrich was a versatile director, by this point having turned out westerns (Vera Cruz, 1954), thrillers (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955), war pictures (The Angry Hills, 1959), Biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and horror picture Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). But 4 for Texas called for even greater versatility, combining action with quickfire dialog, a bit of slapstick and romance and shepherding the whole thing with some visual flair.

If you are a fan of Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3 you will probably like this. If you are not, it’s worth giving this a go since it takes on such a different dynamic to those two pictures.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog: Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3; Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967); and Ursula Andress in The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.