Guns of Darkness (1962) ***

You might think David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had cornered the market in startling transitions involving light (from Peter O’Toole’s match to the rising sun) and gut-wrenching scenes involving quicksand but nearly six months prior Anthony Asquith (The Millionairess, 1960) in the less-heralded Guns of Darkness had adopted similar techniques. He cuts from a nightclub singer blowing out a candle to a man lighting a candle in a church and since his film is in black-and-white it cannot hope to match Lean’s fabulous color transition. However, the quicksand scene in the Asquith, I would argue, lacking color or not, is far superior to that of the desert epic.

Thanks to Pygmalion (1938) and The Winslow Boy (1948) Asquith was one of a handful of British directors – Lean, Powell/Pressburger and Carol Reed the others – with an international reputation. Stars David Niven and Leslie Caron had topsy-turvy careers. Niven’s box office cachet had almost disappeared in the mid-1950s before an unexpected Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and a starring role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). Although Caron had An American in Paris (1951), Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958) on her dance-card she was not an automatic big-name star. It reflects their respective positions that Caron has star billing.

Niven and Caron are an unhappily married couple caught up in a revolution in a fictional South American country. His boyish charm has long worn thin, his employment record is spotty and he is inclined, when drunk, to insult bumptious boss (James Robertson Justice). On New Year’s Eve while an enclave of pampered Brits is counting down to the bells, rebels  are preparing to storm the presidential palace and seize power. Niven seems the last person to give shelter to a fugitive from the revolution, especially when the runaway turns out to be the ex-president Rivero (David Opatoshu, Exodus, 1960). Caron, who has been planning to leave Niven the next day, finds herself involved in the escape.

The couple are both quickly disabused of notions of the saintliness of presidents and peasants, Rivera nearly strangling a child who discovers his hiding place, Caron stoned by villagers, pacifist Niven forced into a horrific act of violence.  

If you ever wondered what screenwriters do to earn their money, this film is a good place to start. It was based on a book “Act of Mercy” by British thriller writer Francis Clifford, who also wrote “The Naked Runner,” also later filmed. The screenwriters changed the David Niven character from the happily married committed businessman of the book to the dissatisfied dilettante of the film. As a happy couple, there are none of the marital tensions in the film. The revolution in the book has already started but in the film it is moved to New Year’s Eve and about to begin. The quicksand scene is a screenwriter’s invention as is the incident with the boy and the massacre in the village.

The pace is brisk from the outset, Asquith cross-cutting between revolutionaries and the Brits and as the manhunt steps up a gear the three escapees face a succession of perilous incidents. Not least is a river that has turned to quicksand. This six-minute scene is a standout, the mud closing in on their heads, Niven having to crawl back to rescue Rivera. As you would expect with this kind of picture there is a fair bit of philosophizing, moralizing and sheer brutality. As the couple flounder towards reconciliation, the script spends some time trying to ascertain Niven’s motives. Had the film stuck to the source book’s title, Act of Mercy, that would not have been necessary.

A taut film with, once the revolution has begun, the British put in their place rather than acting as imperialist overlords. There are a couple of unexpected twists at the end and Asquith finished with a technical flourish of his own, the camera tracking back from people walking forward. Both Niven and Caron are excellent, James Robertson Justice at once cuddly and ruthless, and the picture comes out as a tidy character-driven thriller.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

My Movie Books of the Year

Rather than write about the best films I have seen this year, I thought I would look at the four best books about films that I have read over the last twelve months. However, I’m beginning with an older book. I was so taken with Kirsten Stewart’s portrayal of actress Jean Seberg in the biopic Seberg (2019) that I sought out Garry McGee’s Jean Seberg – Breathless, Her True Story first published in 2007 and reprinted in 2018 in time for the movie.

The film concentrates on Seberg’s mental disintegration as she discovers she is on J. Edgar Hoover’s hit list. But the biography has a far wider remit.

This is a startling and ultimately a very sad book of the star as an American tragedy who shot to the heights in her first film and spent the rest of her life with a couple of exceptions falling earthwards. She took her own life, aged 40, in 1979. She was seen as both calculating and a victim, a woman of great strength and immense vulnerability, who used her popularity to espouse unpopular causes.

Her career followed no pattern anyone could understand, least of all Hollywood. Thrust into the limelight as a teenager when hand-picked as Saint Joan (1957) by director Otto Preminger – an experience that scarred her physically and mentally – she quickly shifted to France where she was enshrined in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave masterpiece Breathless (1960), but remained in France too long appearing in less prestigious productions. She was a vivid Lilith (1964) in Robert Rossen’s dissection of mental illness, but disappeared off the Hollywood map again until reappearing at the end of the decade in roadshow musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) – in which she stole the show from Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. After blockbuster Airport (1970) and western Macho Callahan (1970) she departed Hollywood for good, her final films being made in Europe.

Why her career was so apparently topsy-turvy is explored in this excellent biography, the final departure from America propelled by the discovery that she was under investigation by the FBI.

Chinatown (1973) is one of the greatest noir thrillers ever made but with its director Roman Polanski now persona non grata in Hollywood, it remains to be seen whether the film will retain its high status. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood leaves any discussion of the director’s sexual mores until the last chapters when the shock of the allegations against him threaten to overwhelm the entire book. That said, up till then, it is a riveting book, not just the convoluted process of making this particular movie, but especially fascinating when discussing the screenplay, the working methods of writer Robert Towne, and the tangled dealings with agents.

After The Godfather (1972), Paramount was on a high and studio boss and wunderkind Robert Evans was apparently untouchable – the studio had given him his own production company – but his wife Ali McGraw had run off with Steve McQueen and he was at war with studio president Frank Yablans. Jack Nicholson, however, was approaching a box office peak. Polanski was hot and if his touch was anywhere as good as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) it would be a slam dunk. But as the movie approached its premiere, it was looking more like a stinker. Preview audiences hated it. The original score was dumped, Jerry Goldsmith brought in to make the music more evocative of the period.

The author takes a wider view than the normal “making of” book and his portrayal of Hollywood at a time of massive change and the corrosive and often self-destructive nature of many of the personalities involved gives the subject material greater bite. A film of this book is being greenlit with Ben Affleck’s involvement.

According to Stephen Rebello, Valley of the Dolls (1968) is in a class of its own. It was top of the class in Bad Movies We Love, the book he co-wrote with Edward Margulies. Rebello has now accorded to his “making of” one of the longest book titles in history – Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!, Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, The Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time. Rebello, of course, is famous for his opus on Psycho. Valley of the Dolls was based on the bitchy bestseller by Jacqueline Susann and the movie itself fell into a similar category. Director Mark Robson had been twice Oscar-nominated, once for his adaptation of Peyton Place, a novel occupying the same trashy ground as Valley of the Dolls. Although Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Bette Davis and Kim Novak were at various times in the running, the book was such a huge bestseller that Twentieth Century Fox thought it would get away with a less-than-stellar cast. The best known of the stars Judy Garland was fired over her alcoholism. Rebello has an irreverent style, but a forensic eye for detail and has produced a highly-readable book of a film now termed a camp classic.

If Valley of the Dolls was in a class of its own, then so too was Ryan’s Daughter (1970), filmed on location in Ireland. In the David Lean canon, none of his pictures have been so maligned. While not approaching the sensational box office of Doctor Zhivago (1965) it was still a massive audience favorite. In Glasgow, where I lived, it ran as a 70mm roadshow presentation at the first-run ABC2 for an entire year. But it was mauled by the critics who felt it was clearly within their rights to dole out to Lean a public humiliation after inviting him to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics where Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel in particular tore his film to shreds.

Quite why the book has taken so long to be published is another mystery given the author says he did the bulk of the research in 1999-2003. Maybe the publishers were counting on a 50th anniversary revival. Certainly, he has no shortage of material from the drunken and pot-smoking shenanigans of star Robert Mitchum to the miscasting of Christopher Jones and the director’s own haphazard personal life. MGM, which was going through a financial tsunami, backed the director to the hilt even as the budget continued to soar -it ran 135 days over schedule. Because of the overages Jones took home more than this £200,000 contracted salary and John Mills nearly double his original $200,000. Lean’s legendary perfection endangered the lives of the crew and actors during the storm sequence while the sex scene between Jones and Sarah Miles caused particular problems. The author alleges that Jones’ food was spiked. For some reason the author has dubbed this “one of the great movie follies” and while I would not agree with that estimation it remains an interesting read.

Station Six Sahara (1963) ***

David Lean spent months in Jordan capturing his vision of the desert for Lawrence of Arabia. Seth Holt was granted no such luxury, a few weeks at Shepperton Studios in England to make this British-German co-production.  

It is a surprisingly tight and effective drama made on a low budget excepting whatever fee induced Hollywood star Carroll Baker to join. Five men trapped on an oil pipeline maintenance unit drive each other to distraction. Loud Scot Ian Bannen constantly needles stiff upper-class Denholm Elliott while overbearing German boss Peter Van Eyck cheats at poker. The arrival of steely-eyed German Hansjorg Felmy alters the status quo as he refuses in his own quiet way to knuckle down to authority.

There is a wonderful psychological battle going on between Bannen and Elliott. Extremely envious of the number of letters Elliott receives, Bannen offers a month’s pay for just one. When the offer is accepted, Elliott cannot stop fretting about what he might have given away and what secrets it revealed about himself.

The arrival of Carroll Baker upsets the equilibrium further as the men attempt to win her affections. While apparently promiscuous, she is steelier than the lot of them, and tensions climb high when she begins to spread around her favors. Interestingly, she does no wooing but waits for men to come to her.

Given the budget restraints, or possibly because of them, it is surprisingly well directed. Two scenes stand out in directorial terms. In one featuring Bannen and Elliott, the Scot is only partly visible behind a piece of furniture but his dialogue continues even when out of sight. In the other, one of Baker’s suitors finds her door locked and as she is about to reply a hand appears (not in aggressive fashion) to cover her mouth, indicating she already has chosen her bedmate. Naturally, this can only lead to a grim end.

The cast of male unknowns are uniformly good but Baker steals the show as you would expect. Given the times, there was no nudity, but the overt sexuality certainly skirted the bounds of what passed as decency and Baker is alluring however little or much she wears. But her sexuality takes second place to her individuality. Her independence will not be surrendered to a man. Despite the budget restrictions it stands up very well.  

it’s available on Blu-Ray on the first link and – for the moment at least – on Amazon Prime on the second link.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Station-Sahara-Blu-ray-Carroll-Baker/dp/B082BWZJBS/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1LW9ORGYKB9FT&dchild=1&keywords=station+six+sahara+blu-ray&qid=1594809012&s=dvd&sprefix=station+six+sahara%2Cdvd%2C153&sr=1-1