Behind the Scenes with a Behind the Scenes Operator: Reel Life

From attending to director Michael Winner’s parking meter and falling foul of the British film censor to interviewing David Lean at the National Film Theatre in London, Tony Sloman’s autobiography casts a fascinating light on the British film industry.  A marvellous string of anecdotes relating to Othello (1965), One Million Years B.C. (1966), Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968), Wonderwall (1968), De Sade (1969) and cult television series The Prisoner (1968) are augmented by insights into the less well-known aspects of how movies are made. 

Most commonly associated with the sound and editing departments, he also directed two British sex films Sweet and Sexy (1971) and Not Tonight, Darling (1971). In addition, he is also a walking encyclopaedia on film – he later lectured on the subject – and a riveting part of the book involves how he fell in love with the movies. I’ve read countless biographies of actors and directors who made it big in pictures and rarely, if ever, do their stories focus on their love of the medium, of the films they saw when growing up and the experiences that entailed. So the first part of this book plays off to the soundtrack of inveterate filmgoing in the 1950s at his local cinema in London and then up to the West End, one expedition to view a revival of Gone with the Wind ending up instead with the saucier Femmes de Paris (1953).

Getting into the business was very difficult for a tailor’s son from Streatham and, having determined to become a film editor, even attending evening film classes failed to open any doors until he responded to a newspaper advert and became a dispatch boy and soon after an editor for a small suite of cutting rooms in Soho in the same building as Private Eye magazine, thus beginning a long apprenticeship in this particular discipline, working in all the  British studios from biggies like Shepperton, Elstree and Pinewood to smaller outfits such as Merton Park.

Except for this book I would be unaware of the how menial are some of the tasks essential for a film to be made. One of his earliest jobs was to attend the screening of rushes and “tick the selected takes in the rushes notebook…and then after numbering them break them out in script order for the editor to assemble the next day in the cutting copy.” He learned not to count frames or measure length when dictating a particular cut but to put himself in the position of the character and the audience, how much of what they see needs to be shown to register.  

One of the refreshing elements of this biography is that the author is happy to own up to professional and personal mistakes. As he didn’t drive he was unable to synchronise car engine sounds in the correct manner. He got into trouble for labelling cans containing film in pen and not stencil. As a result of personal mishap, he learned the hard way never to film anything without a continuity person present.

His second directorial effort “Not Tonight Darling” was renamed “Frustrated Wives.”

And he has a fan’s delight at meeting stars in the flesh, walking down the street with a David Niven determined to be swamped by fans, recounting that Maximilian Schell is shorter than expected, James Mason taller. He reveals that Dana Andrews’ favorite of his own films is not a Hollywood classic like Laura (1944) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) but the lesser known Three Hours to Kill (1954) because when the producer ran out of cash he paid the actor in Mexican artefacts that came to be worth a quarter of a million dollars. Former silent film star Bessie Love tried to convert him to Christian Science when the author would have rather she reminisced about her days in early Hollywood. Eating in a restaurant in Cannes he watched at another table Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti share a bowl of bouillabaisse and later bumped (literally) into Graham Greene and encountered in the hills working as barman a former camera operator for Jean Renoir.

He met the entire Dirty Dozen at lunch in the studio canteen, heard Maggie Smith swear and enjoyed an up-close-and-personal encounter with Raquel Welch over the moviola “pressing closer to me in that tiniest of bikinis.” Working with  Ray Harryhausen on One Million Years B.C. (1966) “my main function with him was to be his own personal soundstage at Elstree with the moviola…to see where his newly-shot material would go into the sequence as cut…Ray needed to see them over and over and do frame counts before shooting his effects.” On the same film he was responsible for writing “dialogue” – in other words” a series of grunts and sounds that would match up with the actor’s mouth movement.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. He played an unsung part in the success of The Prisoner, coming up with the ideal piece for the beginning of the Arrival episode – the “Radetzky March.” He had an unusual job title, too, “Film Librarian,” which consisted of getting all the back projections which had already been filmed ready for the actual set. Supplying library material as and when, shooting inserts, and matching new film to location work.  “The secret of finding music for mute material was not merely finding music that was appropriate but to find music that would positively enhance the image to which it would be matched.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. Donald Sutherland was revoiced in his role in Oedipus the King (1968) but after the success of Mash (1970) his original voice was put back in. The first screening of Wonderwall (1968) was for the Beatles because George Harrison had expressed an interest in writing the score. In the course of this when his Indian-style slippers were ruined  by rain someone on the set whipped up for him a “customized pair of cardboard shoes made from Technicolor delivery boxes.” Composer John Barry was set to co-finance a film called The Jam but the screenplay was shown to Jean-Luc Godard who promptly went out an made Weekend (1967).

Sweet and Sexy” was renamed “Foursome” for the U.S. market, even though no such activity takes place. At one point Scottish actress Quinn O’Hara had been engaged to U.S. pop star Fabian.

He shared a flat with Michael Billington (Alfred the Great, 1968) – who holds the record for most auditions for the role of James Bond. Billington was a lover of Liza Minelli, Barbara Broccoli and Quinn O’Hara and was slated to direct Sloman’s first film but when he was offered a starring role in the UFO series (1970-1971), Sloman took over the directorial reins and recruited as leading man Billington’s UFO stand-in Robert Case. Quinn O’Hara (Cry of the Banshee, 1970), Billington’s girlfriend, had the female lead. It began life with the relatively harmless title of City Suite.

But when it was funded by Miracle Films, the title changed to City, Sweet and Sexy and finally plain old Sweet and Sexy (though it goes by the name of Foursome on imdb). What the Americans called “sexploitation.” The initial budget only ran to £15,000 but was increased to  £20,000. But when submitted to the British Board of Films Censors in October 1970, it was refused a certificate unless 40 minutes were cut. After nearly 18 months of wrangling it was finally granted an X-certificate – minus 21 offensive minutes – and the 69-minute picture finally opened at the Cameo Royal in London in March 1972.

Sloman had better luck with his second feature, Not Tonight Darling (1971) – also known as Frustrated Wives. Luan Peters (Lust for a Vampire, 1971) came on board as star and Sloman had the good luck to snare pop band Thunderclap Newman, who had enjoyed a big hit with “Something in the Air”, for the score. There were also appearances by Jason Twelvetrees, who had also been in Sweet and Sexy, Fiona Richmond (Let’s Get Laid, 1978) and James Hayter  (A Challenge for Robin Hood, 1967).

The book ends in the early 1970s and I can only hope Tony Sloman is hard at work on a second volume as his memoirs are a welcome antidote to the raft of books about big stars which are often far less entertaining. An excellent read, especially if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of movie making.

EXTRA: This is not in the book but I did a bit of digging on my own account to see if any of his movies were ever screened in the U.S. I found out, as noted in the article above, that “Sweet and Sexy” was released in the U.S. as “Foursome”. Despite the concerns of the British film censor, it was not that out of line otherwise it would not have received an “R” rating when it could easily have been rated “X.” I couldn’t find any sign of a review, either in “Variety” or “Box Office,” the two main trade magazines. But I did find some evidence that it had been screened in some big cities.

It was distributed by AIP in the U.S, and C-P in Canada. “Variety” and “Box Office” had different methods of measuring revenue. The former simply listed the gross. But the latter employed a different approach. It related the receipts for each film according to the average weekly take of a particular cinema. This was in some senses a better idea. Strong figures might not necessarily mean a good result if that cinema was used to movies knocking up big numbers.

In January 1972 “Foursome”, playing solo, had a “sexy” opening week, according to “Variety,” at the 1,200-seat Midtown in Philadelphia (tickets priced at $1.50-$3.00) with $14,000 (equivalent to $96,000 today) followed by s second week of $9,500. The same month, supported by “Freedom to Love” (1969), a documentary about sexual behavior, “Foursome” ran for three weeks at the 609-seat World (tickets $1.25) in Chicago. The first and third weeks both accounted for $3,800 but the second week was tops with $4,000. In April there was a “lusty” (presumably intended ironically) $3,100 at the 2,809-seat Loews Downtown (tickets $2.00-$2.50) in Dayton where it played solo.

In August at the 676-seat Suburban World (tickets $2.25) in Minneapolis it scored a “fair” $4,000, again the only film on the program. In December it turned up at the 250-seat Playhouse (tickets $2.50) in Washington, as the supporting feature this time to “Together” (1971) starring Marilyn Chambers and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, later responsible for the first “Friday the 13th ” (1980). The outcome was a “sharp” $4,500. By comparing seating capacity and ticket prices you can get a better idea of the film performed.

Box Office magazine marked performance on a percentage basis against a basic mark of 100, which represented an average week. According to this magazine, the movie was also to be found in Hartford where it scored 175 (i.e. almost double the average week’s takings), New Haven (175), Boston (150) and Buffalo (100). The takings in Minneapolis were no great shakes according to this method of analyzing results, reaching only 100 on the magazine’s measuring system.

Box Office also noted a couple of outings in Canada, where it played as the supporting feature to “Love Me Like I Do” (1970) starring Dyanne Thorne, later immortalised as “Ilsa”. However, Canada appeared not to subscribe to the percentage system. Instead, in Winnipeg at the Downtown in March 1972 it was judged “very good” while in Toronto at the Coronet in November 1972 it was judged “fair.”

SOURCES: “Variety” – January 12, 1972, p8; January 26, 1972, p10; April 5, 1972, p14; August 30, 1970, p14; December 6, 1972; p14. “Box Office” – September 11, 1972, pB4; “Box Office Barometer,” September 18, 1972 pB4; November 6, 1972, p16; November 13, 1972, pK2; March 5, 1973, pK3.

The Devil’s Brigade (1968) ***

I couldn’t get my head around the idea of the U.S. Army recruiting a bunch of undisciplined misfits, many with jail time, in order to link them up with a crack Canadian outfit. Turns out this part of the film was fictional, the Americans in reality responding to advertisements at Army posts which prioritized men previously employed as forest rangers, game wardens, lumberjacks and the like which made sense since the original mission was mountainous Norway.  I should also point out the red beret the soldiers wear is also fictional and while depicted on the poster sporting a moustache commanding officer Lt. Col. Frederick (William Holden) is minus facial hair in the film.

But, basically, it follows a similar formula to The Dirty Dozen (1967), training and internal conflict followed by a dangerous mission. The conflict comes from a clash of cultures between spit-and-polish Canucks and disorderly/juvenile Yanks though, as with the Robert Aldrich epic, the leader taking some of the brunt of the discontent.  Collapsible bunk beds, snakes under the sheets and a tendency to fisticuffs are the extent of the antipathy between the units, which is all resolved, as with The Dirty Dozen, when they have to take on people they jointly hate, in this case local bar-room brawlers in Utah.

The movie picks up once they are sent to Italy. Initially employed on reconnaissance, Frederick challenges Major-General Hunter (Carroll O’Connor) who wants to do things by the book and sets out to take an Italian position by trekking two miles up a riverbed, creeping into town by stealth and capturing the location without firing a shot. 

Next up is the impregnable Monte la Difensa. Taking a leaf out of the Lawrence of Arabia playbook, in a brilliant tactical move, the Americans attack the mountainous stronghold from the rear by way of a mile-high cliff.  But that’s the easy part. The rest is trench-by-trench, pillbox-by-pillbox, brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

The battle scenes are excellent and the training section would be perfectly acceptable except for the high bar set by The Dirty Dozen. That said, there is enough going on with the various shenanigans to keep up the interest, but we don’t get to know the characters as intimately as in The Dirty Dozen and there is certainly nobody in the supporting cast to match the likes of Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and John Cassavetes. That also said, the men do bond sufficiently for some emotional moments during the final battle.

At this point William Holden’s career was in disarray, just one leading role (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) and a cameo (Casino Royale, 1967) in four years, and although his screen persona was more charming maverick than disciplined leader he carries off the role well, especially solid when confronting superiors, exhibiting the world-weariness that would a year later in The Wild Bunch put him back on top. Ironically, Cliff Robertson was coming to a peak and would follow his role as the strict disciplinarian Major Crown, the Canadian chief, with an Oscar-winning turn as Charly (1968). Vince Edwards (Hammerhead, 1968) as cigar-chomping hustler Major Bricker makes an ill-advised attempt to steal scenes.

This was the kind of film where the supporting cast were jockeying for a breakout role that would rocket them up the Hollywood food chain – as it did with The Dirty Dozen. Jack Watson (Tobruk, 1967) is the pick among the supporting cast, but he has plenty of competition from Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), Claude Akins (Waterhole 3, 1967), Jeremy Slate (The Born Losers, 1967), Andrew Prine (Texas Across the River, 1966), Tom Stern (Angels from Hell, 1968) and Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke, 1967). Veterans in tow include Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965) and Michael Rennie (Hotel, 1966).

William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) adapted the bestselling book by Robert H. Ableman and George Walton. Director Andrew V. McLaglen (Shenandoah, 1965) was more at home with the western and although there are some fine sequences and the battle scenes are well done this lacks the instinctive touch of some of his other films.

Book into Film – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Not unexpectedly, director John Sturges shifted the action of the Alistair MacLean Doomsday-scenario thriller from Britain to the United States and the locale of the secret chemical facility from lush English countryside to desert and from above ground to underground. Not unusually, either, wholesale changes were made to the names of all the characters. The MacLean chief investigator was called Pierre Cavell, but Sturges altered that to Lee Barrett (George Maharis), chief scientist Dr Gregori becomes Dr Hoffman (Richard Basehart), General Cliveden turns into General Williams (Dana Andrews), his daughter Mary becomes Ann (Anne Francis). MacLean’s Cavell was far from the handsome Hollywood hero, walking with a limp and face scarred. Mary is his wife and not, as in the Sturges version, an ex-flame.

More surprisingly, Sturges inserted a 15-minute prologue. The initial scenes taking place at the research facility are pure invention on the part of screenwriters James Clavell (633 Squadron, 1964) and double Oscar-winner Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964), although drawing on material dealt with as backstory in the original novel. In typical Alistair MacLean fashion, the novel went straight into the action with the attempt to recruit Cavell/Barrett for nefarious purposes, allowing the reader/viewer the chance to learn about his past.  

There are other considerable differences between book and film. In the first place Sturges widened out the action, so that the idea of mankind in complete peril is more obviously cinematically achieved. (In the book a small village is wiped out after a nerve gas attack with London the main objective for the Satan Bug).  In addition, the General plays a greater on-screen role and in some respects controls the manhunt.

But the narrative thrust of film and book go their separate ways. Barrett,a Korean war veteran, operates in standard espionage territory while Cavell is more of an old-fashioned detective, interviewing suspects. While Barrett, with the help of the General, closes in on the suspect responsible for the panic, Cavell had to investigate myriad possibilities before fixing on the culprit.

Perhaps the most important differences are that MacLean’s hero solves the mystery primarily through his own skill while Barrett is less self-reliant. Cavell often informs his mystified superiors that he knows exactly what is going on.  A further departure from the film is that Cavell spots the real reason for the theft of the Satan Bug, realizing it is merely a front for a bigger plot. With the author’s usual audacity this supposes that the villain’s blackmail scheme is simply a method of clearing out central London in order to carry out a series of heists on bank vaults while the city is deserted of all personnel and police.  

However, the heist to end all heists had already being adequately covered in terms of grand larceny in Goldfinger the previous year and Sturges could clearly see the cinematic benefits of an audience fearing the impact of wholesale slaughter rather than worrying whether a James Bond-type hero would survive. Sturges correctly calculated that audiences would respond more to the paranoia pervasive at the time than individual derring-do. In some respects, Sturges created a template for future bug movies that threatened to leave swathes of the population dead such as The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Black Sunday (1977) and Outbreak (1985). Silent destruction – rather than the devastating fire rained down by invading aliens – also touched on implicit human fears of unknown powers at work and of course is now decidedly contemporary.

The screenwriters did lift complete sections from the book – the initial interrogation of Cavell/Barrett, how the dogs were silenced at the facility, the nerve gas attack on the imprisoned pursuers (in an abandoned gas station in the film, a farm in the book), and Barrett’s insistence that the bad guys take away Ann immediately prior to this attack.

But most of the Sturges film veers so far from the Alistair Maclean blueprint that it relies heavily on the invention of the screenwriters. But it would be interesting to know why they deprived Barrett – perhaps determined to establish him as a loner – of more personal ties for in the novel it is the wife who is endangered not an old girlfriend and the investigator’s best friend is among the casualties at the facility.

The book itself is highly recommended, not just tautly- but well-written. The author’s later books were often a parody of his earlier excellence but this novel, published in 1962, is one of his best and well worth a read.

The Satan Bug (1965) ***

Director John Sturges blows apart all the conventions of the genre and boy does he enjoy playing with the audience in this Alistair Maclean pandemic thriller. Hero Barrett (George Maharis) takes fifteen minutes to arrive and the second main character General Williamson (Dana Andrews) another thirty minutes. We shift from docu-drama to pure detection to a manhunt that is way ahead of its time. General Williamson marshals an air-sea-land operation that pulls a dragnet so tight it seems the villains cannot escape – but that is just another device to throw the audience off track.

Most spy/thrillers take place in glorious color or in noir night, but here we are either in broad desert daylight, with vistas so wide and dirty brown nothing can escape the camera, or in murky twilight where anyone could get away, so that when we reach Los Angeles civilization is like a lush new world.  In the arid desert water is like an oasis of blue.

Barrett is a pretty good investigator so it’s quite wordy in places but discovery drives forward the narrative. By now quite a lot of the bad guys in this kind of thriller (e.g. James Bond) were narcissists, delighted to step into the spotlight and take on the good guys, but once again Sturges lets us nibble on this juicy bone before yanking it away.  The bad guy may be well known but has left no trace on the public records of the day.

There are a few standout scenes: Barrett entering the bug vault in full Hazchem outfit with every squeak of his accompanying hamster setting the viewer on edge; newsreel footage of roads littered with corpses; a roadblock played for laughs. And some neat twists – a phone ringing inside a locked house is easily answered because everyone also has a phone beside the pool, and in the noir tradition ex-flame Ann turns up too often for coincidence. That kind of playing on expectation goes, too, for Ed Asner (The Venetian Affair, 1966) who tones down his usual belligerence to a whispers.

Barrett is always behind the eight ball, never getting the drop on the opposition, and unlike James Bond, who always makes time for a dalliance of two, he’s a more down-to-earth hero and you can see why Sturges steered clear of the more obvious likes of Steve McQueen who would have demanded more action scenes to preserve his screen persona.

There’s a bit overmuch exposition at the start and especially once the picture picks up pace but that said the tension remains taut.

Maharis is excellent as the smart detective but former Hollywood superstar Dana Andrews (Laura, 1944) steals the show as the tight-lipped general. Anne Francis (Girl of the Night, 1960) proves a spunky girlfriend while Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series, 1964-1968) has a plum as the chief scientist.

James Clavell (The Great Escape, 1963) and Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) devised the screenplay from the Alistair Maclean thriller – written under his pseudonym Ian Stuart.

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