Midnight Lace (1960) ****

Works for the very reason that it shouldn’t – Doris Day’s off-the-scale hysteria. The actress junks her usual screen persona of spunky occasionally lovelorn heroine and channels her abundant physical energy into an exceptionally good portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

And, unlikely as it sounds, this a companion piece to David Miller’s later Lonely Are the Brave (1962),which equally presents a discordant character at odds with their surroundings whose inability to settle into the norm precipitates downfall.

Heiress Kit (Doris Day) is being hounded mainly over the telephone by a creepy stalker with a high-pitched voice, threatening to kill her. Before you can say Gaslight, you are casting a suspicious eye on millionaire businessman husband Anthony (Rex Harrison). But that only lasts for as long as it takes for a whole bunch of other suspects to hove into view.

The sinister man in black hat and coat appears too obvious a contender. Others have something off about them or appear at the wrong time and wrong place. Unemployed ne’er-do-well Malcolm (Roddy McDowell) who sponges off his mother, attempts unsuccessfully to tap Kit for funds and makes it plain he won’t be doffing his cap to her. Builder Brian (John Gavin) is over-friendly and, we overhear, makes a lot of phone calls.

And you wouldn’t count out gambler Charles (Herbert Marshall), an executive in Anthony’s firm, which, by the way, has uncovered a bit of fraud. Nor happily-married Peggy (Natasha Perry), Kit’s friend, who turns up in a bus queue the very moment Kit nearly ends up under the wheels of a London bus. And then there’s Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) who’s arrived from America and seems determined not to take Kit’s side.

Naturally, nobody can allay Kit’s suspicions. The police are the first to suggest she’s going off her head, seeking attention because neglected by her husband.

But this is so well done, Kit jumping at the slightest noise, that you are pretty much convinced it’s going to be one of those films where every incident is imagined, especially since that would be a helluva coup to have an actress of the lightweight caliber of Doris Day to play her.

Whenever anyone else answers the phone it’s to an innocent caller. And when Kit persuades Peggy to pretend she heard the voice, discovery of that ruse appears to seal her doom.

When we’re not stuck in Kit’s head, there are sufficient tense moments to keep the plot ticking along, trapped in an elevator, shadows on a ceiling, faces glimpsed in windows, voices appearing out the fog, whispers behind her back, friends turning against her, every  police ploy a dead end.

Quite why she’s such a giddy character to begin with is never explained, except of course being a millionairess, three months married, with nothing better to do with her time than waltz around in one stunning fashionable outfit after another, life a succession of expensive treats, and whisked off her feet, when he can spare the time, by adoring hubby.

So maybe it’s something as simple as a loved-up wealthy woman finding cracks appearing in her perfect life and in trying to ascertain the cause whirling round faster and faster. There’s certainly no sense of a solid character who could sit down and give herself a good talking-to or transform herself into an amateur sleuth. When the façade breaks, it’s a dam burst.

If at the beginning Doris Day seems already too-wound-up it doesn’t really matter, her lust for life turns very quickly into abject fear as the terrorization becomes only too real. This is a fantastic performance from the actress, woefully under-rated, and the scene where she collapses on the stairs is only too believable.

Rex Harrison (The Happy Thieves, 1962) is excellent in a custom-made role, handsome adoring husband, but every time he clasps her in a sympathetic embrace, the camera lingers on his eyes showing growing fear at her condition. The roster of supporting stars each brings something distinctive to their role, from the wheedling Roddy McDowell (Five Card Stud, 1968), in only his second movie role after eight years of solid television,  the too-good-to-be-true John Gavin (Back St, 1961) and old-timers Myrna Loy (The Thin Man, 1934) as the doubting aunt and Herbert Marshall (The Letter, 1940) as the impecunious gambler.

Director David Miller (Captain Newman, M.D., 1963) moves the camera in disconcerting fashion. You think you’re settled in for a stage-style scene when suddenly the camera whirls away and focuses on one character. The scene in the elevator is exceptionally well-done as is the finale, but possibly his biggest attribute is encouraging Doris Day to just go for it rather than reining in her character the way Hitchcock did for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (Portrait in Black, 1960) put together the screenplay from the hit Broadway play Matilda Shouted Fire by Janet Green.

I came at this with low expectations, not imagining Doris Day could pull off such a difficult role, and I came away wondering why she had not in consequence been given other opportunities to show off her dramatic skills.

Lonely Are the Brave (1962) ***

Wannabe blood brother to The Misfits (1961) but more like a distant cousin, cowboy out-of-time yarn too pre-emptive for its own good.  Freedom-loving, don’t-fence-me-in Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) falls foul of the law by escaping prison and is pursued into the hills by competent and sympathetic Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) who is saddled with an incompetent law enforcement team out of their depth up against a true man of the west. You can see the end coming a mile off, a truck that interrupts the narrative for no particular reason.

The only problem for me are certain inconsistencies.  A man who refused to be tamed tames a wild horse, his freedom coming at the expense of a captive animal, hobbled overnight to prevent escape. And instead of leading a frightened beast across a busy highway rides him in clear danger.

And I don’t get this voluntary incarceration malarkey, highly principled though it appears, breaking into jail in order to break out a friend Paul (Michael Kane) who just wants to serve out his relatively short sentence instead of being faced with a longer one as an escapee.

Jack won a Purple Heart in Korea but although he was 22 when World War Two broke out there’s no mention of that war record. And it seems a bit of an unlikely cliché that you can still break out of prison in the 1960s with just small hacksaw.

David (Hammerhead, 1968) Miller’s film tries too hard to make a very obvious point, forgetting that it was cowboys like Jack who turned the West into the antithesis of freedom. There are some unexpected touches. Jack, wanting to start a brawl as a means of being arrested, finds himself with a tougher customer than he envisaged, a World War Two veteran who doesn’t take prisoners. There’s a nod towards immigrants swarming into America. Paul, knowing he has crossed a line in the contemporary world, just wants to pay his debt and move on, rather than trying to disappear into a fantasy life. Cops, with all the modern accoutrements, find themselves undone by a man with old world skills.

R.F.D. stands for Rank Film Distributors, patting itself on the head for getting
the picture off to a good start in the London West End.

Once the movie heads into the hills, which is what all this lengthy preamble is for, it becomes more interesting, if only because in what is intended to be a game of cat-and-mouse, the cop cats are revealed as the mice.

But Kirk Douglas, having lit a fire for freedom in Spartacus (1961), seems more intent on going down a similar route than creating a proper character. And, as usual, given he is top-billed, reveals acting insecurity, or arrogance, trying to steal every scene, tipping back his hat just one of his many bits of business to ensure the audience eye follows him.  

On the plus side is some notable playing by Walter Matthau (Mirage, 1965), encumbered with a bunch of lazy cops who spend more time eating and sleeping than doing their job and easily outgunned in the wilderness by a cowboy for whom it spells home.  Gena Rowlands (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) is impressive as Paul’s worn-down wife with a soft spot for Jack though she finds it hard to stand by a dumb man. George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) makes a mean sadistic cop. And there’s an early role for Carroll O’Connor (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968). If you’re talent-spotting Bill Bixby (television’s The Incredible Hulk, 1977-1982) is a helicopter pilot.

Kirk Douglas and business partner Edward Lewis were the producers and hired the former blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) to script Edward Abbey’s novel Brave Cowboy.

I thought the title was a bit of misnomer: Lonely Are the Foolhardy might be more accurate.

Captain Newman M.D. (1963) ****

Somewhat lost in the rush to acclaim star Gregory Peck for his Oscar-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), this bold attempt to tackle mental illness among the armed forces deserves reassessment.

Set towards the end of World War Two, psychiatrist Captain Newman (Gregory Peck) heads up a unit addressing the previously ignored mental health issues of U.S. airmen. One of the first to identify post- traumatic stress disorder, Newman employs a whole raft of unusual techniques such as allowing his clients to tend sheep. And he’s not above using romantic sleight-of-hand to woo Lt. Corum (Angie Dickinson), a nurse in a non-psychiatric department, to join his team. Orderly Corporal Leibowitz (Tony Curtis), more of a con artist than a medical professional, is the other key member of the team.

As you might expect, Newman has to battle superiors to allow him to even attempt to cure any of the men under his care since in standard armed forces opinion they are really just cowards trying to duck out of their duty. Given there’s no prescribed treatment for his clientele, Newman basically improvises on a case-by-case basis to get to the heart of what caused mental collapse.

While the movie motors along nicely on the interplay between these three characters – the potential for real romance between Newman and Corum and Newman’s acceptance of Leibowitz’s alternative, more down-to-earth and decidedly un-medical approach – it focuses on three critical cases. Col Bliss (Eddie Albert) suffers from split personality, Capt Winston (Robert Duvall) is catatonic and Corporal Tompkins (Bobby Darin) too bubbly by far.

In dealing with each, Newman adopts a different persona, occasionally entering into the make-believe world of his clients to expose how much of a fiction they are. Stern with some, he is gentle with others and when he appears to go over the score explains he is not shouting at a person but at his symptoms.   

And while at time it feels like a mental equivalent of episodes of a hospital soap, the underlying drive, the knowledge that men are hiding from the horrors of war or endure guilt over action they may have taken or are unable to face the consequence of orders they carried out takes this into a different level. Almost all suffer from the standard conviction that they must be cowards. Newman’s task is to make all face up to their fears.

Presumably to overcome fears of audience resistance to the downbeat subject matter, the U.S. poster plain misled the public – “love, laughter and tears” were not much in evidence.

And it’s Corum’s self-appointed job to get under Newman’s skin and in so doing get to the heart of the terrible irony of his role. If he fails and men are discharged without being cured they will be returned to their units while mentally unstable and make decisions that could endanger thousands of men. If he succeeds, he sends men back to face potential death.

Luckily, it’s far from dour. Instead of taking the audience down a medical jargon rabbit-hole, the movie sensibly concentrates of character and humanity. It is filled with brilliant dialogue and whenever Newman appears overwhelmed up pops Leibowitz like the self-appointed class clown to bring events to a cheerier conclusion. Up till the end – a Xmas show by inmates and the arrival of a bunch of Italian POWs – the movie steers well clear of sentimentality and delivers a lucid exploration of the effects of war on the human psyche.

Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is outstanding, not just from the way he adapts his character to suit the situation, but because quite a lot of his role is just to react to what is being said. Most stars would run a mile from being on the receiving end of chunks of dialog and insist on altering the script to make them appear more dynamic. Unlike Atticus Finch who is convinced he can find a solution, Newman knows his detection skills are very basic.

Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler, 1968) might appear as if inhabiting a custom-made role suited to his natural effervescence and charm, but this is a deeper character than initially  seems the case and rather than ride along and enjoy himself he has spells of challenging Newman’s authority. It’s a more subdued role for Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962), too, but she also brings a level of seriousness to the part and is integral to the picture’s success.

Bobby Darin (Pressure Point, 1962) was Oscar-nominated but I found his acting over-the-top. Eddie Albert (Green Acres television series 1965-1971) and Robert Duvall (To Kill a Mockingbird), in particular, were more assured. Look out for James Gregory (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968) and former child star Jane Withers.

David Miller (Hammerhead, 1968) strikes the correct tone, leavening the seriousness with humor, but not avoiding the deeper issues. In their final screenplay assignment Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Carousel, 1956), parents of Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, 1989), teamed with Richard L. Breen (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) for an intelligent screenplay based on the bestseller by Leo Rosten.

Hotel (1967) ***

The cardinal rule of the grand hotel picture was that it featured major stars. That is not so much the case here although the portmanteau of stories is up to scratch. Traditional hotel manager Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor) and boss Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas) battle ruthless financiers, aristocrats Geoffrey (Michael Rennie) and Caroline (Merle Oberon) are involved in a fatal car accident, hypocritical God-fearing businessman Curtis O’Keefe (Kevin McCarthy) has a mistress Jeanne Rochefot (Catherine Spaak) on the side. Added into the mix are hotel thief Keycase Milne (Karl Malden) and hotel detective Dupere (Richard Conte). Not forgetting a dodgy elevator (you know where that’s headed!).

None of the stars mentioned comes up to the marquee standard set by the original in the subgenre – Grand Hotel (1932) boasted Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery – while an offshoot of the same idea The VIPs (1963) had Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton Orson Welles and the later Airport (1970) would rustle up top attractions Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin and Jean Seberg.

Top British film critic Alexander Walker espoused the movie.

It’s a fair bet that Warner Brothers felt audiences would be satisfied that the storylines were augmented by the behind-the-scenes insider information promised by the Arthur Hailey bestseller on which the film was based, such as how B-girls stole hotel keys, the tricks employed by a hotel thief and the various corrupt opportunities open to hotel staff. But it’s a major miscalculation to assume an audience cares that much who owns a particular hotel. And in the year in which In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dealt with racism head-on, it was odd to see desegregation parlayed as a device to lower the asking price for the business or introduced out of economic necessity rather than high-minded principle.

Such gripes aside, this is movie comfort food, a picture that moves at a leisurely pace among its interwoven tales. Kevin McCarthy’s ruthless arrogant businessman steals the show, closely followed by Merle Oberon’s scheming duchess. To use a soccer analogy Rod Taylor is more like an old-fashioned center half rather than a midfield maestro, holding the picture together rather than setting it alight and his romance with McCarthy’s mistress (half his age) is an unlikely diversion, although the soft-spoken French actress, confronted by conscience, is particularly good. Melvyn Douglas as the aging owner mixes curmudgeon with affection and it’s hard not to feel sorry for Conte, outwitted by an older woman, and especially for Malden as the thief finding out how much the credit card has cut into the larceny business.

This was the last big-budget production for director Richard Quine whose career had been on the slide since box office highs The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Sex and the Single Girl (1964). But he may have been somewhat restrained by having screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) as his producer. While well-crafted affair and glossy it lacks the inherent tension of an Airport.

Hammerhead (1968) ***

Zest and Zero might be a more appropriate title for this late “so-bad-it’s-good” addition to the 1960s spy cycle. Judy Geeson (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1967) is the firecracker to Vince Edwards’ (television’s Ben Casey) fizzle. It’s colorful vs. colorless. Edwards, as art connoisseur Charles Hood (from the James Mayo book series), is meant to be a cut above the normal spy when in fact he hardly makes the cut. Hood is on the trail of the evil Hammerhead (a white-gloved Peter Vaughan). Sue Trenton’s (Geeson) lust for life takes her from participation in uninhibited art spectacle to classier cabaret, at various points leaping headfirst into the story, sorely disappointed to discover that Hood is not the international jewel thief of her imagination but a mere spy.

A far cry from the audacity of James Bond or the spoofery of Matt Helm or Derek Flint, nonetheless you can’t imagine this was ever taken seriously. But Geeson’s light touch is trampled all over by the ponderous Edwards. Quite how director David Miller went from Back Street (1961), Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and Captain Newman M.D. (1963) straight into this is anyone’s guess. He ran out of ideas pretty quick, the wardrobe budget minimal, Geeson much of the time restricted to a towel or bra and panties, an entire scene of Ivory (Beverley Adams) gyrating in a bikini, other sequences set against a backdrop of scantily-clad females.

The plot is non-existent. Hood doesn’t even know what he’s chasing – a “secret report” of some kind. Halfway between camp and incompetent, the picture scores in unintentional ways. Hammerhead makes a grand entrance – lowered in a cradle from a helicopter! The big chase involves a hearse. Trenton, who can’t sing, gets to sing. Occasionally the comedy is intentional, a taxi driven onto the shore a few scenes later is stranded by the incoming tide. Needing somewhere to screen some stolen footage, Hood invades a blue movie club. Avoiding a villain in a post office, Trenton plays a version of pass-the-parcel. The monosyllabic steal the picture – in reply to Hood’s pestering, a manservant’s inevitable reply is “it depends” and that of the dancing Ivory “louder.” But the biggest opportunity for Bond-style gags, Hood and Trenton trapped in a coffin, is wasted, although there is a nod to Thunderball in the harpoonery department.

Perhaps what best passes the time is the opportunity for star-spotting. British sexpot Diana Dors, complete with lipstick transmitter, puts in an appearance. There is a flock of British television actors in Patrick Cargill (Father, Dear Father), Michael Bates and Windsor Davies (both It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum), William Mervyn (All Gas and Gaiters), Tracy Reed (Doctor Finlay’s Casebook) and Kenneth Cope (Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased). Dave Prowse (Star Wars) makes his movie debut and former top British star Kathleen Byron (Black Narcissus, 1947) has a small role. Beverly Adams is almost a spy film mascot, with The Silencers (1966), Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966), Murderer’s Row (1966) and The Ambushers (1967) in her locker. The gaggle of gals includes future Hammer star Veronica Carlsen (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968), Maggie Wright (Sex and the Other Woman, 1972) and former Slaygirl and 2001: A Space Odyssey stewardess Penny Brahms (The Games Lovers Play, 1971).

You half expect Judy Geeson to turn out to be a femme fatale or at least a decoy or there to provide a plot twist. But, no, she is just an adventuress, at times inventive and resourceful. Just a shame that an outing with the dull Edwards would put anyone off adventure for life.

A romp of the wrong kind for sure.

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