The Karate Killers (1967) ****

What a hoot! A sheer blast! The most brilliant yet of the madman dominating the world schemes, autogyros to out-Bond Bond, a fabulous cast and of course the most incompetent spies this side of Get Smart.

You can’t get better than a scientist inventing a way of turning water into gold. Takes chutzpah to even think of that as a plot. No having to batter your way into Fort Knox as poor Bond did in Goldfinger (1964), you just turn on the tap. But, wait, the formula is lost and our intrepid heroes have to – heaven forbid! – track down five gorgeous women to find it. Was there ever a more onerous proposal?

I never saw any of these films when they came out. At the time I guess they would have been viewed as small screen rivals to James Bond. But although 007 in every picture would eventually be trapped in the madman’s lair, he spent most of the film beating the sh*t out of the bad guys. In sharp contrast, The Men from U.N.C.L.E. seem always to be on the wrong side of a beating, number one hero Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) more hapless than number two Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).

With hindsight, it looks like this was never meant to be taken seriously and without going into over-spoof plays exceptionally well as a light-hearted romp. Solo seems to be constantly outwitted with Kuryakin invariably coming to the rescue, the former too often duped by beauty, the latter a bit more discerning. There’s a lovely moment here in their reactions to the instruction by boss Mr Waverley (Leo G. Carroll) to hunt down a dead scientist’s quintet of daughters/step-daughters; Solo gives a knowing smirk, Kuryakin shows disdain.

Must be the best cast yet assembled: legendary Joan Crawford, suddenly hot again after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1965), Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968), Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Kim Darby (True Grit, 1969), Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965)  and Jill Ireland (Mrs Charles Bronson) as you’ve never seen her before.    

The U.N.C.L.E. duo are in a race against T.H.R.U.S.H. operative Randolph (Herbert Lom) to track down the missing formula. Randolph has a head start. He has been having an affair with the scientist’s wife Amanda (Joan Crawford) who is shocked to discover his charming exterior conceals a ruthless interior.

Solo and Kuryakin track down the scientist’s daughter Sandy (Kim Darby), a good bit brighter than your average eye-candy spy girl, who points the way to the step-daughters and to the possibility that each has one part of the missing formula. Was there ever an easier justification for introducing such a random set of characters?

First up is stark naked Countess (Diane McBain) locked away by jealous impoverished husband (Telly Savalas) in a castle in Rome. Then we’re onto Imogen (Jill Ireland), a flamboyant lass shaking her booty at any opportunity, arrested by a constable (Terry-Thomas) for indecent exposure, and involved in a punch-up in a London night-club where Solo is nearly drowned (yup!) and Randolph instructs the band to keep playing since the ruckus is nothing to do with them.

Then we’re off to Switzerland and Yvonne (Danielle De Metz) and a machine-gun ski chase down a mountainside (beat that, Mr Bond). And so on until all the clues, contained in photographs of the dead father, have been found and, wait for it, the puzzle remains incomplete. Eventually it’s unravelled and the final showdown is on.

But what a way to go. Never mind the ski chase, the picture opens with the duo being attacked by a fleet of autogyros (one-man mini helicopters, the “Little Nellie” of the later You Only Live Twice, 1967 ), and as usual someone, this time Kuryakin, is trapped on a low-tech machine, this time on a ice-block travelator where blocks of ice are smashed to bits by nasty spikes.

Randolph is the most droll villain alive. “Don’t be so melodramatic, my dear,” he informs Amanda when she uncovers his villainy and is about to be murdered. The whole jigsaw is exceptionally appealing, the global whizzing about, Japan also included not to mention one of the poles where T.H.R.U.S.H. has established its HQ.  

The action is a good bit more thrilling, the aerial and ski sequences very well done on a budget a fraction of the Bonds, and there’s more than enough going on to keep interest levels high, not just where to go next, and who to encounter, but the gathering of the clues,  and working out of the final mystery, which offers a nice emotional touch.

Kim Darby is more of a typical ingenue here, sparkier than you might expect but not offering the originality of character expressed in True Grit, while Jill Ireland is a good bit more sassy than she ever appeared thereafter. Barry Shear (Wild in the Streets, 1968) directed.

This is the best so far that I have seen on the series. My interest had begun to flag but, thus fortified, I will continue with my endeavors to watch them all. on your behalf, of course.

Psyche 59 (1964) ****

This is a low-budget gem, an exploration of the psychological consequences of grooming. You can probably guess from the outset where it is headed but simmering tension has rarely been handled so stylistically.

With the exception of Patricia Neal, an unexpected Best Actress Oscar-winner for her previous film Hud (1963), there were no stars in the cast. Curd Jurgens was only beginning to play characters for whom a German accent was not essential, Samantha Eggar one movie shy of her breakout picture The Collector (1965), Ian Bannen, essentially a character actor, building on his success in Station Six Sahara (1963).

Blinded after an unexplained psychological trauma, Allison (Patricia Neal) welcomes back, over the objections of husband Eric (Curd Jurgens), her much younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) to the family home. Family friend Paul (Ian Bannen) cares (possibly overmuch) for Allison while hankering after Robin. The screenplay by veteran Julian Zimet (Saigon, 1947, with Alan Ladd) is taut as a drum, every line a threat, suppressed emotion or piece of exposition that could bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

The blindness is exceptionally well handled, Allison’s need for physical contact with her husband sensual in its expression. Though she can a ride a horse, her vulnerability is implicit; as she is led across a beach you wonder what would happen were she to be abandoned. What she cannot see becomes central to the movie. That Robin – vivacious but damaged – clearly has some hold over Eric is demonstrated in a tete-a-tete between them but as tensions mount such scenes cannot be kept secret. When Eric grabs Robin’s hair and she retaliates by jabbing him with scissors, neither party emits a sound, leaving Allison oblivious to it all.

Robin takes delight in exposing what has lain on the surface for too long. When Paul begins to fall for Robin, the younger woman astutely remarks to her sister: “Am I taking him away from you?”  Allison, however, is self-aware, convinced she could see if she wanted to, if she was prepared to lift the psychological barrier that keeps the past safely hidden. “I’m afraid to see,” says Allison, “there’s something I’m scared to look at.”

Given the period when it was made there was a lot that could not said – or shown – and even so the film was censored prior to release, but it is the direction by Alexander Singer (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) that lifts the picture up. An acolyte of Stanley Kubrick, the movie teems with imagination, close-ups and extreme close-ups are balanced by long two-shots, a conversation in a car between Eric and Paul mostly direct to camera a prime example.

Emotion is captured at every turn and Singer avoids the cardinal sin of treating Allison like an invalid or focusing on her reaction to what she cannot possibly see, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses for much of the time. Levity is provided by Mrs Crawford (Beatrix Lehmann), Eric’s sci-fi-reading horoscope-obsessed mother and by a couple of excitable children.

The grooming is in the past but the after-effects are very real. In a film like this it is tempting to consider that certain attitudes are dated, but it is clear from this film that nothing has changed, that men believe they can take what they want regardless of the impact on their victims.

Hide and Seek (1964) ***

Too many peculiarities for a small British B-picture that just about makes it over the line after “The Big Reveal.” You can start with the fact that, ostensibly, this was director Cy Endfield’s follow-up to his blockbusting Zulu (1964). In fact, it had been made long before, but sat on a shelf for a year, and only released to cash in on Zulu. And you can see why studio British Lion didn’t know what to do with it.

Diving down a 39 Steps thriller-sized rabbit hole, baffled professor saddled with adventurous female go on the run searching for answers to, wait for it, a crime which hasn’t actually been committed. There’s action on a train, some comedy as the worlds of academia and the sophisticated fast set collide, romance on a barge,  Cold War skullduggery,  too much chess, a bit of welcome role reversal, a cliff-top fight, and some dry wit that might have fitted better into a straightforward romantic comedy. And it ends with a twist of such audacity that it would either come as a relief to a bewildered audience or send them home frustrated at such a denouement.   

Rocket scientist David Garrett (Ian Carmichael) becomes embroiled in not even really a plot when he attempts to return a box, containing an inordinate amount of loot, to its owner,  chess grandmaster Dr Melnicker (George Pravda). Luckily, a clue in the form of a chess move takes him to a posh London house in fashionable Chelsea where he encounters the slinky Maggie (Janet Munro) and after hiding in a sandpit in a children’s playground to evade pursuers he ends up on a train with her heading north to a place called Flamboro.

But, wait, his pursuers are also on the train, so naturally the couple have to jump off, fall into a river and hitch a lift on a passing barge whose owner Wilkins (Hugh Griffith) proves most obliging. Indeed, Maggie is even more obliging, taking the lead in bedding the shy professor.  Things get interesting when Maggie, at a road sign, takes David in the completely opposite direction to Flamboro. That works for about ten seconds until a henchman Paul (Kieron Moore) captures them at gunpoint.

Rather than just shooting David dead he decides it would be cleaner to chuck him over a cliff. Luckily, David is a shade pluckier than you might expect. After winning this cliff-top tussle and shocked at having chucked a man over a cliff he is even more astonished to discover he is stranded, Maggie having made off in the car. Luckily, a passing policeman on a bicycle ensures David makes it safe to Flamboro, which turns out to be a huge mansion perched on a cliff.

My guess is by now you are so hooked by this story that you’ll want me to reveal The Big Reveal. Well, the whole thing turns out to be a trap. Melnicker, the pursuing thugs, Paul (who,  you’ll not be too astonished to learn, ain’t dead) and even Maggie have all been plotting to bring David here so that he can be kidnapped and handed over to a submarine arriving the following day. You see, David has been so outspoken (has he?) against his masters that everyone will put his disappearance down to defection. It’s all been a cleverly worked-out chess move as chief baddie Hubert (Curd Jurgens) takes pains to point out.

But our David isn’t exceptionally brainy for nothing and finds a way to outwit the bad guys with Maggie, by now repenting of her bad ways and fallen in love, along for the ride.

So what’s gone wrong? The casting, unfortunately, for one thing. Star Ian Carmichael (School for Scoundrels, 1960), better known for comedy, doesn’t quite make the switch to more straightforward thriller. And Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), whom you might expect to add some gloss, doesn’t appear till the end.

Worse, the film doesn’t find the right tone, too much comedic British observation, and not enough of the hero being in genuine jeopardy. Only a clueless professor would run from the thugs. If the big twist had occurred halfway through and the audience had time to wonder whose side Maggie was on and feel David was in in genuine danger it might have hit the bullseye because, oddly enough, the romance is believable in a Hot Enough for June (1964) kind of way, where innocent male is scooped up by a more worldly female way above his league.

But the role reversal is fun. She’s the one who goes to his rescue when he falls in the river, she’s the seductress, and gets to tell him he looks better “when he’s cross” (a line more typically with slight variations falling to the male) and delivers the movie’s one cracker: “Being a man you have no respect for a mink coat.” She would be an ideal candidate for femme fatale if only the director had let us in on the story quicker, but she’s certainly an astute lure.

Because I wasn’t expecting much, I have probably been a shade less critical than if I was viewing it as a follow-up to Zulu. In the end, it’s passable enough, especially if you are willing to see how clever it’s been.  

As I mentioned Ian Carmichael (Lucky Jim, 1957) is the weak link but former Disney protégé Janet Munro (Swiss Family Robinson, 1960), now blossomed in sexy fashion, steals the show and on this performance you might be surprised she  did not have a more illustrious career but she had a heart condition and died prematurely at the age of 38. Curd Jurgens was at the early stages of inventing his villainous persona. The other characters are merely pawns in the plot so end up as stock villains. Cy Endfield’s genuine follow-up to Zulu was worth seeing – Sands of the Kalahari (1965).

You can catch this on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3zj_VcTdBM

Lord Jim (1965) ***

What if redemption isn’t enough? When shame is buried so deep inside the psyche it can trigger no release? That’s the central theme of Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel.

The title character’s shame comes from, as a young officer, abandoning a ship he believed was sinking only to later discover it had been rescued with a cargo of pilgrims who point the finger of blame. He is branded a coward and kicked out of the East India Trading Company, plying his trade among the debris of humanity.

You might think he later redeemed himself by foiling a terrorist plot at great risk to his own life. But that cannot erase his shame. Nor can helping revolutionaries overthrow a despotic warlord (Eli Wallach), enduring torture and again at great risk. What other sacrifice must he make to rid himself of the millstone round his neck?

Writer-director Brooks had a solid pedigree in the adaptation stakes – The Brothers Karamazov (1958), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) – but sometimes you felt the writer got in the way of the director. That’s the case here. There was enough here to satisfy the original intended roadshow customers, great location work, grand sets, length, a big star in Peter O’Toole, but there is no majestic camerawork. There are good scenes but no great sweep and the result is a slightly ponderous film relieved by stunning action, some moments of high tension, the occasional twist to confound the audience and ingenious ways to mount a battle.

Hired killer Gentleman Brown (James Mason) has many of the best lines – “heroism is a form of mental disease induced by vanity” and “the self-righteous stench of a converted sinner” – all in reference to Jim. Everybody has great lines except Lord Jim, as introverted as  Lawrence of Arabia, face torn up by self-torture, fear of repeating his original sin of cowardice and convinced he will be cast out again should people discover he had abandoned hundreds of pilgrims.

Apart from the storm at the outset, the central section in the beleaguered village is the best part as Jim finds sanctuary, love and purpose, and conjures up the possibility of burying the past.

Part of the problem of the film is the director’s need to remain faithful to the source work which has an odd construction and you will be surprised at the parts played by the big-name supporting cast of James Mason, Jack Hawkins and Curt Jurgens. Many of the films made in the 1960s were concerned with honor of one kind or another and, despite my reservations about the film as a whole, as a study of guilt this is probably the best in that category, in that this character’s conscience refuses to allow him an easy way out.  

Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) is chock-full of anguish but finds it difficult to create a character of similar heroic dimensions to the David Lean picture. James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is surprisingly good in an unusual role. Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) as The General plays a variation of a character he has essayed before.  

This may have been a step up the Hollywood ladder but it was backward move in acting terms given Daliah Lavi’s performance in The Demon (1963) – reviewed here some time ago. Her talent is somewhat wasted in an underwritten part. Also in the supporting cast: Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Akim Tamiroff (The Liquidator, 1965), Andrew Keir (Quatermass and the Pit, 1967) and Jack MacGowran (Age of Consent).  

Director Richard Brooks was also on screenwriting duties.

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