Bedtime Story (1964) ***

Con men at opposite ends of the grifter divide face off in a duel over territoriality in the French Riviera. Freddy Benson (Marlon Brando) is a low-level scam artist who is happy to scrounge a meal or talk his way into an innocent damsel’s bed. Lawrence Jameson (David Niven) is his polar opposite, posing as an impoverished aristocrat to relieve gullible women of their wealth, seduction an added extra.

Initially, Jameson gets the better of their encounters until Benson realizes just what a killing the Englishman is making. Initially, too, Benson is happy to pair up with Jameson, although that involves demeaning himself as a supposed mad brother kept in a dungeon, until the Englishman dupes him out of his share. Eventually, they agree a winner-take-all battle. Whoever can swindle heiress Janet Walker (Shirley Jones) out of $25,000 shall inherit the shyster kingdom.

An example of the older style of British movie distribution. The prints started off in one section of London the first week and switched to another sector the following week. Even if the film was a big hit, it could not be retained since the prints were already promised elsewhere. Only after it had played London, would general release follow in the provinces. There was no point watching West End release dates for an idea of when a new movie would play in your local city, it would not be anywhere near you until it had completed the North and South London runs.

Benson takes the sympathy route to the woman’s heart, turning up in a wheelchair, while James adopts a psychological approach, persuading Ms Walker that Benson’s illness is psychosomatic for which he has the cure for the small consideration of $25,000. And then it’s one devious twist after another as the pair attempt to out-maneuver, out-think and generally embarrass the other. Both have a despicable attitude towards women, whom they view as dupes, but it is a woman who proves their undoing.

Most comedies rely on familiar tropes and you can usually see the twists coming, but this is in a different imaginative league and once the pair are in their stride I defy you to work out what they will come up with next. It is full of clever quips and a small dash of slapstick and because neither actor chases the laughs but plays their roles straight proves a very effective and entertaining morsel.

Director Ralph Levy in his movie debut knows more than where to just point a camera since he had decades of experience extracting laughs in television with top comedians like Jack Benny and Bob Newhart. Brando (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962), free of the shackles of the angst he normally incorporated into his dramatic performances, looks as if he is having a ball and while teetering occasionally on the edge of mugging never quite overplays his hand. This was a conscious effort by Brando, whose company Pennebaker was involved on the production side, to shift his screen persona.

David Niven (The Pink Panther, 1963) was born with a stiff upper lip in his mouth and while this kind of aristocratic character is a doddle for an actor of his stature the portrayal here is much more like the sharpest tool in the box. While oozing charm, Niven exhibits deadly spite. Screenwriters Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning had previously collaborated on Lover Come Back (1961) and Shapiro particularly made his bones on the Doris Day-Cary Grant-Rock Hudson axis so it is interesting to see him shift away from the romantic comedy cocoon into something with considerably more edge.

Enjoyable and original with excellent performances from the two principals and great support from Shirley Jones (The Music Man, 1962) as the mark and Egyptian Aram Stephan (55 Days at Peking, 1963) as an only too congenial French policeman.

Originally, it was lined up with a quite a different cast – Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis and Tippi Hedren. It was remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) with Steve Martin and Michael Caine.

CATCH-UP: The Blog has previously featured Brando in more dramatic vein in The Chase (1966) and The Appaloosa (1966) and also the dramatic side of David Niven in The Guns of Navarone (1961), Guns of Darkness (1962) and 55 Days at Peking (1963).

Behind the Scenes: “The Guns of Navarone” (1961)

It’s time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Guns of Navarone – world premiere on April 27, 1961, in London and New York opening on June 22, 1961. Although the picture set a new benchmark in high-octane entertainment, a fast-moving war thriller packed with twists and a genuine all-star cast, it was far – very far – from the sure thing it appears in retrospect.

Box office smash in Britain.

For a start, U.S producer Carl Foreman, a victim of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s, was unable to assemble any of the talent he had set his heart on. He lost his preferred male cast of William Holden and Cary Grant and original scriptwriter Eric Ambler, the thriller writer famed for The Mask of Dimitrios and other novels.

He had a registered a major publicity coup by engineering the screen debut of opera diva Maria Callas, one of the most famous people in the world, but she also dropped out as did his other initial choice for leading lady. On top of that, once filming began he lost his director, Alexander Mackendrick, who had not only achieved a critical and commercial success with the British Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1951) but also crossed the Atlantic to make the acclaimed The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, to prove he could handle big Hollywood stars.

On top of that David Niven nearly lost his life during production and by the time the picture appeared Gregory Peck had suffered so many box office flops that he was a potential liability. And Foreman’s own marriage was in trouble.

Building the massive guns set.

It was a wonder it was made at all for Foreman was nobody’s idea of a sure thing. Although he had made his name as a screenwriter with three Oscar nominations for Champion (1949), The Men (1950) and High Noon (1952), his career was in ruins after being slung out of America for his supposed communist sympathies. He set up in London where he wrote screenplays under pseudonyms. But in 1956 won a four-picture production deal with Columbia at a time when that studio was investing heavily in making films in Britain to take advantage of the government’s Eady Levy (effectively, a tax rebate) and cheaper costs. But his first film, The Key (1958) with William Holden and Sophia Loren flopped in the U.S. Columbia persevered, seeing Foreman as the man to tackle its biggest-ever European production.

The Guns of Navarone almost fell at the first hurdle. Foreman’s first choice of location was Cyprus which was threatening to erupt into a civil war. At the last minute, he changed his mind and shifted production to Rhodes. Foreman, who also acted as screenwriter, made considerable changes to the book by British bestselling thriller writer Alistair Maclean, not least of which was introducing female characters to a story that had been resolutely all-male.

Original hardback book cover.

There was tension on set – four-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck was annoyed at sharing the screen with two winners David Niven (Best Actor for Separate Tables, 1958) and Anthony Quinn (twice Best Supporting Actor for Viva Zapata, 1952, and Lust for Life, 1956). Replacement director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958) managed to sink a ship on loan from the Greek navy.  The Actor’s Strike in Hollywood nearly forced the departure of the two younger stars.

The set for the titular guns was the largest ever built, costing £100,000, and even though that proved a design miracle, that, too, was not exempt from disaster, having to be rebuilt after a thunderstorm destroyed part of the set. The injury to David Niven was so severe he nearly died, putting the production in jeopardy. Even when the film approached completion there were other obstacles in the way, composer Dmitri Tiomkin (The Alamo, 1960), for example, demanding a record fee and Foreman locking horns with Columbia over his insistence on launching the picture as a roadshow, request which was ultimately denied, and one of the reasons for the film’ release delay,

I’ve written a book about The Making of The Guns of Navarone. Originally published in 2013, it has been revised with over 30 illustrations added for a new edition to tie in with the 60th anniversary – available both in print and Kindle versions. Needless to say, it would also make an ideal present for Father’s Day.

If you’re interested in this kind of book, you might like to know that I’ve also written The Making of The Magnificent Seven.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) *****

Stone-cold action classic that blazed a trail for the big-budget men-on-a-mission war picture like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Brilliantly structured, written and directed,  and featuring a sea battle, storm, shipwreck, mountaineering, chase, interrogation scenes, infiltration of an impregnable fortress, a pair of romances, two traitors, and an awe-inspiring climax make this a candidate for one of the greatest war pictures ever made.

The set-up is simple. Knock out the gigantic guns at Navarone or two thousand men will perish. It’s mission impossible and the clock is ticking. You don’t know who to trust and the enemy is ruthless.

In the early days of the all-star-cast, producer Carl Foreman rounded up an astonishing line-up, bulking out the bestseller by Scottish thriller maestro Alistair Maclean (The Secret Ways, 1961) with three top stars in five-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), double Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn (Heller in Pink Tights, 1960) and Oscar-winner David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960). Add in British household names Anthony Quayle (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Stanley Baker (The Concrete Jungle, 1960) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Love, 1960), a sprinkling of rising stars in James Darren (Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960), Gia Scala (I Aim at the Stars, 1960) and Richard Harris (The Night Fighters, 1960) and renowned Greek actress Irene Papas (Antigone, 1961).

Each man is a specialist. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck) the mountaineer whose climbing skills are essential to completing the fist part of the mission, explosives expert Corporal Miller (David Niven), mechanic ‘Butcher’ Brown (Stanley Baker), Greek patriot Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) and the ruthless killer Pappadimos (James Darren) who has the contact with the Greek resistance. The stakes are ramped up when we learn both Mallory and Stavrou have bounties on their heads, not to mention the fact they are sworn enemies, and that before the mission even gets under way, spies are discovered in the camp. The ostensible leader of the group Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) is wounded early on, turning him into a liability and making Mallory the de facto leader.

The stakes are ramped up further – this time through relationships. Their Greek contact turns out to be a woman, Maria (Irene Papas), brother of Pappadimos. She brings with her a mute girl Anna (Gia Scala) for whom Mallory develops romantic feelings while Stavrou has eyes for Maria. Mallory is also torn about Franklin, his best friend.

And from there it pitches into one disaster after another. They are too easily hunted by the Germans. They are shelled with mortars and attacked by dive bombers as they race across open mountains and through caves to reach their destination. They have to shoot their way out of traps and finagle their way into the fortress. There are twists and turns all the way, the clock ticking in almost James-Bond-style as the deadline for the destruction of the troops approaches.

And although this is clearly a war picture it is also as obviously an anti-war one, no end to the killing in sight, people dying pointlessly.

Although the acting was ignored come Oscar time, each of the stars delivers and it is a communal tour de force. Director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex) ensures that in visual terms none of the stars dominates, each given equal screen time while the strong supporting cast each has their own narrative arc. With over two-and-half-hours’ running time, Thompson has both the bonus of time to allow each element to be fully played out and the problem of keeping the picture taut and he succeeds brilliantly in both aims. It is a masterpiece of suspense. And it looked fabulous, the guns themselves, by which the picture might succeed or fail, were awesome.

Thompson was Oscar-nominated as was producer Carl Foreman for both Best Picture and the screenplay, Dmitri Tiomkin for the score (one of the longest-ever), John Cox for sound, Alan Osbiston for editing. Bill Warrington who did the visual special effects and Chris Greenham who did the sound effects were the only winners on the night.

It was a commercial smash, top picture of the year in the U.S., the biggest  picture of all time at the British box office and breaking records all over the world.

COMPETITION: Win a Signed Copy of “The Making of The Guns of Navarone”

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the opening of The Guns of Navarone I am offering a copy of my book “The Making of The Guns of Navarone.” This is a revised and enlarged edition – the first time with illustrations (over 30 of them) – of the original version which was published in 2013.

The Royal World Premiere of the film took place at the Odeon Leicester Square, London, on April 27, 1961. But it was not released in the U.S. until June, opening at the Criterion and Murray Hill cinemas in New York. At all three cinemas it broke the box office record.

All you have to do to enter is guess from all the films reviewed in the Blog in April which five proved the most popular (judged from the number of views).

Put the five you have chosen in ascending order.

Email your answers to me at bhkhannan@aol.com

The person who gets the most right in the proper order will be declared the winner.

The book will be posted free of charge anywhere in the world and, being the author, I can arrange for it to be signed. The closing date is Monday, May 17.

Feel free to let your friends know.

Good luck.

55 Days at Peking (1963) ***

Imperialism is hard to stomach these days but at the start of the twentieth century it was rampant and as shown in this picture not just restricted to the main culprit, the British. China was Imperialism Central, round about a dozen nations including the USA and Russia claiming control of sections of the country or its produce. So they had all set up diplomatic shop in Peking. And the film begins with an early morning roll call of national anthems before this domination by outside interests in shattered by rebellion.

Just as hard to stomach, of course, was the movie mainstream notion in those days that all rebellions must perforce be put down regardless of how put-upon the peasant classes were. Audiences had to rally round people in other circumstances they would naturally hate. So one of the problems of 55 Days at Peking is to cast the rebels (known as Boxers) and the complicit Chinese government in a bad light while ensuring that those under siege are not seen as cast-iron saints. There’s no getting round the fact that the rebels are shown as prone to butchery and slaughter while the Chinese rulers are considered ineffective and traitorous.

Producer Samuel Bronston built his Peking set on a 250-acre site at a ranch 16 miles from Madrid, Spain, near the foot of the Sierra Guadarrama mountains. To ensure authenticity, a canal was enlarged to supply 15,000 gallons of water a day from a specially-prepared reservoir holding half a million gallons. Over 1.3 million feet of tubular steel – all the scaffolding available in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia – was used in the set construction.

So it’s left to the likes of Charlton Heston as the leader of U.S. Marines stationed in the city to bring some balance to proceedings. “Don’t get the idea you’re better than these people because they can’t speak English,” he expounds. David Niven plays the British Consul trying to keep this particular league of nations onside while negotiating with one hand tied behind his back – “we must play this game by Chinese rules” – with the Chinese Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) while knowingly endangering his wife (Scottish actress Elizabeth Sellars, a one-time big British star) and two children. Ava Gardner is an unscrupulous Russian baroness with little loyalty to her home country.

To ensure journalists provided authentic coverage of the siege, press materials included a copy of the detailed map printed in the Saturday October 13, 1900, edition of British daily newspaper “The Times” and its account of the action. Producer Samuel Bronston claimed that some of the costumes worn by Flora Robson in her role as the Dowager Empress were actual ones worn by the empress and purchased from an Italian family who had connections in the Italian embassy during the siege.

The picture is one-part action, one-part politics and one-part domesticity, if you include in the last section Heston’s romance with Gardner, Niven’s guilt when his son is wounded in an attack and Heston’s conflict over a young native girl (Lynne Sue Moon) fathered by one of his own men who is then killed. Two of the best scenes are these men coping with parental obligation, Niven coping with a wounded son, Heston finding it impossible to offer succour to the child.

The action is extremely well-handled. The siege goes on longer than expected when the expected troops fail to arrive, tension rising as casualties mount and supplies fall low. As with the best battle pictures, clever maneuvers save the day. Two sections are outstanding. The first has Heston marshalling artillery to prevent the Chinese gaining the high ground. The second is a daring raid – Niven’s idea, actually – through the city’s sewers on the enemy’s ammunition dump. Personal heroism is limited – Heston volunteers to go 70 miles through enemy territory to get help but has to turn back when his men are wounded or killed.

The film was not released in 70mm roadshow in the United States as originally planned but like “El Cid” went straight into general release in a 35mm version. but it was seen in 70mm in Europe. Among suggested promotional activities were a “guess-the-flag” competition since 11 nations were involved. The tie-ins included a Corgi paperback, the original soundtrack by Dmitri Tiomkin and four singles – Andy Williams singing the theme song “So Little Time,” The Brothers Four with “55 Days at Peking” (also recorded by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen) and Tommy Riley with “Peking Theme.”

There’s a fair bit of stiff upper lip but while Heston, in familiar chest-baring mode, has Gardner to distract him, Niven is both clever, constantly having to outwit the opposition and hold the other diplomats together, and humane, drawn into desperation at the prospect of his comatose son dying without ever having visited England.  Gardner moves from seducer to sly traitorous devil to angel of mercy, shifting out of her beautiful outfits and glamorous hats to don a nurse’s uniform, at the same time as shifting her outlook from selfish to unselfish. All three stars acquit themselves well as does Flora Robson in a thankless role.

This was the third of maverick producer Samuel Bronston’s big-budget epics after King of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961) with a script as usual from Philip Yordan and directed by Nicholas Ray.

All in all it is a decent film and does not get bogged down in politics and the characters do come alive but at the back of your mind you can’t help thinking this is the wrong mindset, in retrospect, for the basis of a picture.

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. This one I noticed is available on YouTube at the point where I was reviewing it. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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.