Where It’s At (1969) ****

There is probably no more stunning definition of Las Vegas than the brief shot in this otherwise widely-ignored film of a woman playing the slot machines with a baby at her naked breast.

I doubt if anybody has watched this all the way through in the fifty-odd years since its release. And I can see why. I nearly gave up on what I thought was a lame generation gap comedy. But some distinguished directors at the time clearly perceived its value, the flash cuts and overlapping dialogue initiated here turning up, respectively, in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) and Mash (1970). And as I gamely persevered, I realized it was a different movie entirely, a cross between Succession and The Godfather.

Though saddled with a trendy catchphrase of the period for a title – though making more sense if applied in ironic fashion –  the original title of Spitting Image was much more appropriate to the material. As both veteran and new Hollywood directors struggled with understanding the burgeoning counter-culture, youth-oriented efforts of the Tammy and Gidget and beach pictures variety fast fading from view, and Easy Rider (1969) yet to appear, a generational mismatch between Hollywood veterans and younger audiences was in evidence.

And you would hardly turn to Garson Kanin to capture the zeitgeist. Although acclaimed as a screenwriter, with wife Ruth Gordon responsible for a string of Tracy-Hepburn movies like Adam’s Rib (1949), he had not directed since 1941. The story he wanted to put over – he wrote the script as well – was not an easy sell. So he’s disguised it as a coming-of-age tale exploring the generation gap and as a lurid expose of Las Vegas with behind-the-scenes footage of the reality underpinning the glamour.

It’s pretty clear early on it’s not about some middle-aged parent getting jealous over the amount of sex his child has, for widowed casino owner A.C. (David Janssen) can have as much as he wants courtesy of fiancée Diana (Rosemary Forsyth) – and a wide range of available and eager-to-please showgirls – and certainly far more than the majority of his male customers whose biggest thrill is gawping at topless women on stage. Las Vegas was the epitome of Sin City, at the beginnings of its sacred position in American popular culture where what you got up to remained secret.  The representation of the “showgirl” world is less brutal than in Showgirls, but even so an audition includes removing your bra.

A.C. wants to introduce son Andy (Robert Drivas) into the business not realizing he is laying out a welcome mat for a viper. At first Andy is happy to learn the ropes by working in menial positions and wise enough to resist obvious lures like showgirl Phyllis (Edy Williams), whose interaction with him is recorded. However, when like Michael Corleone, he is required to make his business bones – “pay your dues and stop your whining” – by transporting cash skimmed from the business and banked in Zurich back home, where if caught he will have to take the rap, a more calculating and dangerous individual emerges. A.C. has been working a Producers-type scheme where by massaging profits downwards he hopes to panic his investors into offloading their stock cheaply to him.

The ploy works but it turns out his partners have sold their stock to Andy, who hijacked the Zurich cash to pay for it. Rather than chew out Andy, A.C. is delighted at the ruthlessness of the coup, until his son, now holding the majority of shares, takes complete control, easing him out – “If I need you, I’ll send for you.” Andy’s prize could easily include, had Andy showed willing, the duplicitous Diana. However, that’s not the way the picture ends and I won’t spoil the rest of the twists for you.

This is one of the few genuine attempts to show the pressure under which businessmen operate. No wonder A.C. is so glum, barking at everyone in sight, little sense of humor, when the stakes are so high and as with any game of chance you might lose everything. Employing indulgence to insulate himself against emotion, he is surrounded by what he deduces is the best life can offer, driven by mistaken values. Optimism is the automatic prerogative of youth, pessimism the corrosion that accompanies age.

The second half of the picture has some brilliant brittle dialogue. Assuming the young man has principles, when his acceptance of the Las Vegas dream is challenged Andy replies, “Who am I to police the party?” In a series of visual snippets and verbal cameos, the film captures the essence of Las Vegas, from the aforementioned woman breast-feeding while playing the slot machines to the telephone call pleading for more money, waitresses hustling drinks, a machine in A.C.’s office rigged to give high-rollers an automatic big payout and leave them begging for more, customers not even able to enjoy meal without a model sashaying up to the table to sell the latest in swimwear, never mind the more obvious tawdry elements.

There’s a superb scene involving a cheating croupier (Don Rickles). Of course, when Martin Scorsese got into the Vegas act, violence was always the answer. A.C. takes a different route, allowing the man to pay off his debt by working 177 weeks as a dishwasher. There’s a neat twist on this when Andy, guessing which way Diana is going to jump, warns “watch out you don’t end up washing dishes.”

David Janssen (The Warning Shot, 1967) gives another underrated performance, gnarly and repressed all the way through until he can legitimately feel pride in his son. Robert Drivas (The Illustrated Man, 1968) is deceptively good, at first coming over as a stereotypical entitled youngster (or the Hollywood version of it) before seguing into a more devious character. Rosemary Forsyth (Texas Across the River, 1966) is excellent, initially loving until casually moving in on the young man when he appears a better prospect than the older one. Brenda Vaccaro (Midnight Cowboy, 1969), in her debut, plays a kooky secretary who has some of the best lines. “Two heads are better than one,” avers Andy. Her response (though Douglas Adams may beg to differ): “Not if on the same person.”

Garson Kanin takes the difficult subject of ruthless businessman and provides audiences with an acceptable entry point before going on to pepper them with vivid observations. This is not a picture that divided audiences – not enough critics or moviegoers saw it to create divergence – but it’s certainly worth another look especially in the light of the shenanigans audiences have welcomed in Succession. And if you remember the pride Brian Cox took when shafted by his son, check out this picture and you will see where the idea came from.

And it’s worth remembering that the defining youth-culture movie of 1969, Easy Rider, was actually about two young businessmen. The fact that their product was drugs didn’t make them any less businessmen. The idea that what a young buck “digs” the most is making money rather than peace and love seemed anathema to critics as far as Where It’s At went but not Easy Rider.

To be sure, none of the characters are likeable. Maybe likability was an essential ingredient of 1960s movies, but we’re more grown-up now. Compared to the the horrific characters populating The Godfather and today’s Succession, these appear soft touches. One critic even pointed out that The Godfather did it better without seeming to notice that Where’s It’s At did it first.  And there’s certainly a correlation between Andy turning his nose up at his father’s business and Michael Corleone showing similar disdain until the chips are down and the old cojones kick in.

Critics who complained this had little in common with the Tracy-Hepburn pictures missed the point. The Tracy-Hepburn films were always about power, in the sexual or marital sense. Kanin has merely shifted from a male-female duel to that of father-son.

Not currently available on DVD or on streaming, but easy to get hold of on Ebay and YouTube has a print.

Warning Shot (1967) ****

So underrated it doesn’t even feature on Wikipedia’s chart of 1960s crime pictures, this tight little gem, with an early reflection on police brutality, a dream cast, violence in slow motion  (prior to The Wild Bunch, 1969, mind you) and a stunning score from Jerry Goldsmith, is definitely in need of resurrection. Astonishing to realize that cop pictures had fallen so out of fashion, that this was the first Hollywood cop film of the decade – outside of a drama like The Chase (1966) – the entire previous output focusing on gangsters with a rare private eye (Harper, 1966) thrown in. With none of the vicious snarl of Madigan (1968) or the brutality of Coogan’s Bluff (1968), this was more in keeping with the later In the Heat of the Night (1967) in terms of the mental and physical barrage endured by the cop.

In thick fog on a stakeout for a serial killer at an apartment block Sgt Tom Valens (David Janssen) kills a potential suspect, wealthy Dr Ruston. Valens claims the suspect was reaching for his gun. Only problem – nobody can find the gun. Up on a potential manslaughter charge, Valens is pressured by boss (Ed Begley), lawyer (Walter Pidgeon) and wife (Joan Collins) to take the rap and plead guilty.  The public and media rage about police brutality. Putting Valens’ testimony in doubt is a recent shooting incident, which left Valens with a stomach wound, and which may have clouded his judgement.

Although suspended, Valens has no alternative but to investigate, interviewing elderly patient Alice (Lillian Gish) whom the doctor was visiting, patient’s neighbour playboy pilot Walt (George Grizzard), doctor’s assistant Liz (Stefanie Powers), doctor’s wife   Doris (Eleanor Parker) and doctor’s stockbroker (George Sanders) without nothing to show for his efforts but a savage beating, filmed in slow motion, inflicted by the doctor’s son and pals, and a further attempt on his life. He gets into more trouble for attempting to smear the doctor as an abortionist (a crime at the time).

The missing gun remains elusive though the direction at times suggests its existence is fiction. The detection is superb, red herrings aplenty, as Valens, the odds against him cheating conviction lengthening by the day, a trial deadline to beat, everyone turning against him, openly castigated as the killer cop, struggles to uncover the truth. And it’s clear he questions reality himself. He has none of the brittle snap of the standard cop and it’s almost as if he expects to be found guilty, that he has stepped over the line.

Along the way is some brilliant dialogue – the seductive drunk wife, “mourning with martinis” suggesting they “rub two losers together” and complaining she has to “lead him by the hand like every other man.”  Cinematography and music combine for a brilliant mournful scene of worn-down cop struggling home with a couple of pints of milk. The after-effects of the stomach injury present him as physically wounded, neither the tough physical specimen of later cop pictures not the grizzled veteran of previous ones.

David Janssen (King of the Roaring 20s, 1960) had not made a picture in four years, his time consumed by the ultra-successful television show The Fugitive, but his quiet, brooding, internalized style and soft spoken manner is ideal for the tormented cop. This also Joan Collins (Esther and the King, 1960) first Hollywood outing in half a decade.

Pick of the supporting cast is former Hollywood top star Eleanor Parker (Detective Story, 1951) more recently exposed to the wider public as the Baroness in The Sound of Music (1965) whose slinky demeanor almost turns the cop’s head. Loading the cast with such sterling actors means that even the bit parts come fully loaded.

In the veteran department are aforementioned famed silent star Lillian Gish (The Birth of a Nation, 1915), Brit  George Sanders (The Falcon series in the 1940s), Walter Pidgeon (Mrs Miniver, 1942) also in his first film in four years, Ed Begley in only his second picture since Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and Keenan Wynn (Stagecoach, 1966). Noted up-and-coming players include Stefanie Powers (also Stagecoach), Sam Wanamaker (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965), George Grizzard (Advise and Consent, 1962) and  Carroll O’Connor (A Fever in the Blood, 1961). American television star Steve Allen (College Confidential, 1960) plays a hypocritical pundit.

A sophomore movie for noted television director Buzz Kulik (Villa Rides, 1968), this is easily his best picture, concentrating on character with a great eye for mood. Screenwriter Mann Rubin (Brainstorm, 1965) adapted the Whit Masterson novel 711  – Officer Needs Help. The score is one of the best from Jerry Goldsmith (Seconds, 1966).

Has this emanated from France it would have been covered in critical glory, from the overall unfussy direction, from the presentation of the main character and so many memorable performances and from, to bring it up once again, the awesome music.

Worth catching on Amazon Prime.

Selling Crime – “King of the Roaring 20s” (1961)

Gambling dominates the 12-page A3-sized Pressbook with the legend of the sinister yet charming Arnold taking pride of place in the editorial section rather than, as would be usual, the actors. So we are given the inside story of the famous betting coup with Sidereal at a New York race track, but fleshing out the man shown on screen, exhibitors also learned that Rothstein was known as the “banker of the underworld,” how he won $600,000 in a poker game and a masterpiece painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Not touched upon in the picture, but included here, was that he owned an art gallery, chartered ocean liners to transport liquor from Europe, ran protection rackets in the garment industry, and was instrumental in creating what became known as “The Syndicate.” In short, the Pressbook set out to built Rothstein up as even more fabulous figure than shown in the film.

As with Jessica, and as pointed out in my report on that Pressbook, the producers took the unusual step of sticking with the one dominant image in the poster of David Janssen (as Rothstein) leaning over a poker table with fistfuls of cash in his hand and Dianne Foster (Rothstein’s wife) at his back– although it’s possible in this instance the single-image approach was to reduce costs since this was in fact a glorified B-picture. The rest of the poster is an amalgamation of various scenes – racehorses, showgirls, people dancing the Charleston, a drive-by shooting. In the absence of one big star billed above the title, a total of 10 actors have their names below or their faces running down the side, almost giving the impression that it is an all-star ensemble picture.

After paying his dues in television with four years as Richard Diamond, Detective (1957-1960), David Janssen was a relative newcomer to a leading role although his performance in a second-billed role in war film Hell to Eternity (1960) had caused him to be touted as the new Clark Gable / Cary Grant. He was lucky that he had already been signed up for King of the Roaring 20s for his next picture after Here to Eternity was critical stinker and box office bomb Dondi (1961).

Other journalistic nuggets included that an Arab sheik once offered 100 camels for British star Diana Dors, Mickey Shaughnessey revealed as a Golden Gloves boxer, Dianne Foster previously taught modelling, and Keenan Wynn had a plate in his jaw. David Janssen’s sister Teri made her debut and their mother Berniece was an extra while Timmy Rooney, son of Mickey, was drafted in to play Johnny Burke as a youngster.

Not surprisingly several promotional ideas aimed at exhibitors revolved around gambling. One suggestion was to place a gambling wheel in the lobby with anyone landing on the numbers 7 or 11 winning a pair of guest tickets. Exhibitors were urged to get in touch with the local vice squad to see if they would donate confiscated gambling equipment for lobby display. Giving away cards that provided information on betting odds was another notion.

To get audiences into the mood of the era, cinema managers could run Charleston contests or a tie-in with a fashion store marketing clothes from the period or attire models as “flappers” to parade around town, especially in an open-top car from the era. More straightforward was a new movie tie-in paperback edition of The Big Bankroll, the book that inspired the picture, published by Cardinal.

King of the Roaring 20s (1961) ***

Occasionally stylish B-picture purporting to tell the story of American Prohibition-era gangster Arnold Rothstein. It’s more of drama with various nefarious figures trying to outwit each other rather than a shoot ‘em up in the style of Al Capone (1959). David Janssen (Hell to Eternity, 1960) is ideal casting as the thoughtful, cold, calculating and possibly gambling genius Rothstein, the opposite of an intemperate crook like Capone.

The story is told essentially in two parts, Rothstein’s rise to power in partnership with childhood pal Johnny Burke (Mickey Rooney), initially running dice games in the street and  pulling the odd con before graduating to fly-by-night horse racing operations. When the opportunity arises to move into mainstream illegal gambling, he dumps Burke. Corrupt cop Phil Butler (Dan O’Herlihy) is a constant thorn in his side and showgirl fiancée Carolyn Green (Dianne Foster) views marriage as risky – “he’s the gambler but I’m the one that’s going to be doing the gambling.”

For whatever reason, the movie dodges what was believed to be Rothstein’s biggest coup, the fixing of the baseball World Series, but one long section is devoted to how he wins $850,000 (equivalent to $13 million today) on his horse Sidereal at odds of 30 to 1 at the New York Aqueduct track on July 4, 1921, through insider information and strategic betting. Inevitably, his gambling puts the kibosh on his marriage but by far the most interesting part of the picture is the chicanery as he shakes off one partner, battles another, and without compunction sets up Burke as patsy to settle his score with Butler.

In some respects Rothstein is a template for Vito Corleone (The Godfather, 1972) in terms of his business brain and ability to out-think and out-fox opponents and certainly his facial expressions and innate coldness bear comparison with what Al Pacino brought to his characterization of Michael Corleone. Except that he didn’t trust banks, and carried around wads of cash (hence the title of the biography on which this is based – The Big Bankroll), it’s hard to get a sense of the wealth the gangster generated or, given the minimal violence,  the world of imminent peril he inhabited. 

Period detail is cursory, limited to dancing the Charleston and pouring champagne into teacups. A better idea of the flavor of the times is the wholesale corruption endemic in police departments, untrustworthy lawyers and hypocrisy run wild.  It’s not really Janssen’s fault that it’s hard to warm to such a cold-blooded character, although you could point to The Godfather and The Brotherhood (1968) for that matter as examples of hoods who do elicit audience empathy.

With occasional bravura moments involving long tracking shots and overhead shots, and a terrific image of champagne bubbles seen through a pair of binoculars, director Joseph M. Newman (This Island Earth, 1955) shows stylistic flourishes that eschew his B-movie roots. Given Janssen is called upon to show as little emotion as possible, he does very well. Dianne Foster (The Last Hurrah, 1958), though initially demure, provides the fireworks. Jack Carson (The Bramble Bush, 1960) as kingpin Tim O’Brien matches Janssen in the cool stakes and proves a worthy adversary. Oscar nominee Rooney overacts but another Oscar nominee Dan O’Herlihy (The Night Fighters, 1960) relishes his dirty cop role.

In a rare Hollywood outing British sexpot Diana Dors (Hammerhead, 1968) puts in an unexpected and brief appearance as Carolyn’s cynical flatmate. The tremendous supporting cast includes Keenan Wynn (Point Blank, 1967), Mickey Shaughnessey (North to Alaska, 1960), Regis Toomey (The Last Sunset, 1961), Oscar-winner Joseph Schildkraut (The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959) and veteran character actor William Demerest.

Jo Swerling (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946) delivers a pointed screenplay focusing on gangster conflict with some excellent observation of the deterioration of the Rothstein marriage and the nervousness of the usually ice-cold Rothstein when confronted by his father. This is one of those pictures that you think deserves a Netflix series, a dozen or so episodes to explore the myriad characters involved and especially to examine Rothstein in forensic detail. The movie gives a hint of that potential and on a tight budget does it well.

Hard to find unless you fancy paying $90 for a DVD or $24 for a VHS video, but you will find copies on the secondhand market.

Selling Religion – “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968)

The Pressbook for The Shoes of the Fisherman is almost reverential in approach. For a start there is a complete lack of the madcap schemes designed by marketing men to promote the picture to the exhibitor. Nor is there any mention of the tie-ins that did exist – the book had sold seven million copies and the soundtrack by Alex North was already being acclaimed – it would be nominated for an Oscar. And there are very few of the titbits that might appeal to a local journalist.

There is only one piece of artwork, although a truncated version provides a secondary opportunity for advertising and combined with a scene from the film material for a third ad. Taglines are equally scarce. “A distinguished international cast ignites all the dramatic power…all the magnificent spectacle of Morris L. West’s best-selling novel” is all there is apart from a puff from Look magazine puff that espouses “The Shoes of the Fisherman restores faith in films.”

The better tagline, in the sense that it sold an actual story rather than promoted the ingredients, was: “A modern-day story that reaches from the shadows of the Kremlin to the splendor of the Vatican.” One further tagline gave away more of the plot: “In a last desperate attempt to prevent World War III, a secret meeting is arranged. One man is called upon to succeed where all the world leaders have failed. That man was once a prisoner in a Russian labour camp. He is now the Pope.”

So what’s left, you might ask. Well, as promised in the tagline, the “distinguished international cast” and “magnificent spectacle.” The cast was awash with Oscars. The stars included four-time Oscar winner Vittoria De Sica, two-time Oscar winner Anthony Quinn, Oscar winner Laurence Olivier and Oscar nominated Oskar Werner.

The sets were of the no-expense-spared variety. Barred from using the Vatican itself, the producers used a mixture of real locations and sets at Italian studio Cinecitta to create the necessary backdrops. The Sistine Chapel set measured 133 feet by 45 feet and the paintings that dominate the altar including “The Last Supper” were copied in Hollywood and transported piece by piece. This set actually functioned and was accurate down to the tiniest detail. The only major touch omitted from the sets was the steps leading to the altar, since that would have necessitated cumbersome ramps to track the movement of the cardinals as they cast their votes.   

Oher buildings were appropriated for modern scenes – the Palazzo dello Sport for the secret peace conference. Cardinals arriving to vote were filmed at Fiumicino airport and Stazione Termini railroad station. Other locations included the Palazzo Farnese at Capranola used for scenes of the breaking of the old Pope’s seals, the Church of San Andrea della Valle for the interior of St Peter’s for the papal coronation, and Castello San Angleo, Biblioteca Vallicelliani and Palazzo Barberini.

Incidental information, the kind that journalists could use to augment their material, was scant. Author Morris L. West had once been a monk; bit part actor Clive Revill had been knifed in his previous film by Burt Kwouk; stage actress Barbara Jefford was appearing in only her third film and her role as a cerebral wife was in stark contract to her debut as the sensual Molly Bloom in Ulysses (1967); small-screen star David Janssen of The Fugitive played a small-screen reporter; and Oskar Werner had turned down over a 100 screen roles if they interfered with his commitment to the stage.

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) ****

Thought-provoking drama with a surprisingly contemporary slant set against the grandeur of the Vatican amid geo-political turmoil. At a time of global crisis, dissident Russian archbishop Lakotov (Anthony Quinn) is unexpectedly freed from a labour camp by the Russian premier (Laurence Olivier). Arriving at the Vatican, he is promoted to cardinal by the dying Pope (John Gielgud) before becoming an unexpected contender for Papal office.

The spectacular wealth of the Catholic Church is contrasted with the spectacular poverty of China, on the brink of starvation due to trade sanctions by the United States, nuclear war a potential outcome. The political ideology of Marxism is compared to the equally strict Christian doctrine, of which Lakotov’s friend Father Telemond (Oskar Werner) has fallen foul. There is a sub-plot so mild it scarcely justifies the term concerning television reporter George Faber (David Janssen) torn between wife Ruth (Barbara Jefford) and younger lover Chiara (Rosemary Dexter).

Lakotov is drawn into the Russian-Chinese-American conflict and the battle for the philosophical heart of the Christian faith while bringing personal succour to the lovelorn and performing the only modern miracle easily within his power, which could place the Church in jeopardy, while condemned to the solitariness of his position.

The political and philosophical problems addressed by the picture, which was set 20 years in the future, are just as relevant now. The film’s premise, of course, while intriguing, defies logic and although the climax has a touch of the Hollywood about it nonetheless it follows an argument which has split the Church from time immemorial.

You would not have considered this an obvious candidate for the big-budget 70mm widescreen roadshow treatment, but MGM, after the Church not surprisingly refused access to the Vatican, spent millions of dollars on fabulous sets, including the Sistine Chapel. The roadshow version of the picture, complete with introductory musical overture and an entr’acte at the intermission, is leisurely and absorbing, held together by a stunning – and vastly under-rated – performance by Anthony Quinn (The Lost Command, 1966) who has abandoned his usual bombastic screen persona in pursuit of genuine humility and yet faces his moments when he questions his own faith.

Ruth has a pivotal role in bringing Lakotov down to earth but George has the thankless task, setting aside the quandaries of his love life, of talking the audience through the sacred ceremonies unfolding sumptuously on screen as the cardinals bury one Pope and elect another.

You wouldn’t think, either, that Hollywood could find room in such a big-budget picture for philosophical discussion but questions not only of the existence of God but whether he has abandoned Earth are given considerable scope, as are discussions about Marxism and practical solutions to eternal problems. None of these arguments are particularly new but are given a fair hearing. There is a hint of the Inquisition about the “trial” Telemond faces. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) carries off a difficult role.

David Janssen (Warning Shot, 1967) is mere window dressing and Rosemary Dexter (House of Cards, 1968) mostly decorative but Barbara Jefford (Ulysses, 1967) is good as the wounded wife. Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) is the pick of the sterling supporting cast which included John Gielgud (Becket, 1964), Burt Kwouk (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966), Vittorio de Sica (It Happened in Naples, 1960), Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), Frank Finlay (A Study in Terror, 1965), Niall McGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967). In a small role was Isa Miranda, the “Italian Marlene Dietrich,” who had made her name in Max Ophuls Everybody’s Woman (1934) and enjoyed Hollywood success in films like Hotel Imperial (1939) opposite Ray Milland.

Michael Anderson (Operation Crossbow, 1965) directed with some panache from a script by veteran John Patrick (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960) and Scottish novelist James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960) based on the Morris West bestseller.

I found the whole enterprise totally engrossing, partly because I did not know what to expect, partly through Anderson’s faultless direction, partly it has to be said by the glorious backdrop of the Vatican and the intricacy of the various rites, but mostly from the revelatory Quinn performance. And even if the plot is hardly taut, not in the James Bond clock-ticking class, it still all holds together very well. From the fact that it was a big flop at the time both with the public and the critics, I had expected a stinker and was very pleasantly surprised.

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