All In A Night’s Work (1961) ***

What wouldn’t Hollywood give now for a pair of personable players who could take as slight a piece of fluff as this and through sheer force of screen personality turn it into an enjoyable experience.  Based entirely around misconception, misunderstanding, characters at cross purposes and mild business satire this would have been hailed as a classic had it appeared in the golden age of the screwball comedy.  

Playboy Tony Ryder (Dean Martin) inherits a publishing empire from his uncle but discovers an unsavoury fact about his relative’s demise that could severely damage the business. A naked woman was seen running from his hotel room. When hotel house detective Lasker (Jack Weston) identifies her as Katie Robbins (Shirley MacLaine), a lowly employee in the company, the suspicious minds of big business surmise that she intends to blackmail them.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Ryder and Co’s attempts to avoid this, by bribing her to shut up and at the same discrediting her. Ryder is conflicted, in part because he fancies her rotten, in part because he doesn’t quite believe she could be so duplicitous, and in part because he can’t afford to risk believing her. For some reason, as a researcher, she is involved in union negotiations, giving him the opportunity to get to know her better, as part of a “sub-committee of two” established to examine union claims more thoroughly.

So it’s basically one set-piece after another. A flashback explains why Katie came to be in the uncle’s bedroom – to escape in the same hotel the lustful attentions of the elderly wealthy guest Kirby Hackett (Johnstone White) whom she saved from drowning. Her behaviour at the uncle’s funeral suggests she is stricken by his death. And unfortunately, she is the recipient from the grateful Hackett of a mink coat worth thousands of dollars which, on her meagre salary, she can’t explain.

Katie is dithering over her planned wedding to dull vet Warren Kingsley Jr. (Cliff Robertson) and, aiming to discredit her with him, Ryder plants the seed that actually she is a showgirl on the side, arranging for her to receive five star treatment at various nightclubs, inciting suspicion from her fiancé and his extremely conventional parents. In order to get to the bottom of everything, Ryder agrees to be bugged for a private meeting with Katie. You can imagine how that goes. But the outcome is never in doubt of course.

What the audience knows but the participants do not is that this couple is well-suited. Ryder is far from the playboy of his reputation, having started at the bottom of a rival publishing empire and worked his way up to the top, so he turns out to be a more astute businessman than the sycophants on the board anticipate – “you may not be much but you’re all we’ve got” typical of the welcome he receives. Far from being a good-time girl, Katie is a woman of principle, refusing to take the mink coat as a gift and determining to pay it off at the rate of $10 a week.

The humour derives almost entirely from the cross-purpose nature of the plot and the set-pieces work out well, especially when Ryder kidnaps a sheepdog as an excuse to visit the vet, and stumped for a reason comes up with the notion the animal is suffering from amnesia. “He gives me that ‘who are you’ look,” Ryder explains. As the tale unfolds Kingsley becomes more insufferable by the minute.    

There’s a romantic subplot involving Katie’s outgoing office chum Marge (Norma Crane) and the shy detective and some satirising of big business but that all plays out in relation to the main story.

If you remember Dean Martin from heavyweight dramas like The Young Lions (1958), Some Came Running (1958), Rio Bravo (1959) or the breezy Rat Pack comedies and the equally breezy Matt Helm spy pictures will probably not be aware he started his career in comedy, as one half of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis combo, a box office sensation in the early to middle 1950s. So, although he was primarily the straight man to the more obviously comedic Lewis, he was still well versed in the nuances of the genre. Nothing is ostensibly played for laughs, but he gets the laughs nonetheless.

Martin was always badly under-rated, in part because of the perma-tan, in part down to the his television show, and in part because he just wasn’t Frank Sinatra. But he was an accomplished actor, as this proves. One of the aspects of his performance I liked was that he moves with purpose. In most movies, characters cross a room or change position simply because a director calls the shots. But here, every time Martin moves it’s for a designated reason, to touch something, admire something, maneuver himself closer to someone else.

Shirley MacLaine is also refreshing, considerably less conniving or lovelorn than in her breakthrough role in The Apartment (1960), and coming to believe in her screen presence. She inhabits this character’s innocence very well, is suitably baffled on occasion, and exhibits a screen persona that simply lights up the screen. Together they are a great screen couple and in the charisma-starved Hollywood of today would be very welcome.

Cliff Robertson (The Honey Pot, 1967), almost unrecognizable without that hefty hunk of hair and the grandstanding he often effected, plays his small role to perfection. Norma Crane (Penelope, 1966) and Jack Weston (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) – minus the screen tics he later exhibited – are quietly effective. Veteran Charles Ruggles (The Parent Trap, 1961) puts in a decent shift.    

Confident direction by Joseph Antony (The Rainmaker, 1956) in just his fourth film out of a grant total of five makes you forget this was based on a hit play by Margit Veszi and Owen Elford. The screen transition was down to Maurice Richlin (The Pink Panther, 1963), Edmund Beloin (Donovan’s Reef, 1963) and future bestselling author Sidney Sheldon (Billy Rose’s Jumbo, 1962).  

The real beauty of this piece is how effortless it all looks. The characters are grounded and believable, viewed from varying perspectives the plot remains logical, and there is enough daft invention to tickle your fancy.

Five Card Stud (1968) ****

Another western in sore need of re-evaluation. Largely dismissed as a routine oater trading on the gimmick of a whodunit and packed with old stagers, this is in fact about a serial killer, a treatise on law and order, and almost acts as a conduit between the decade’s previous westerns when the good guys and the bad guys are easily defined to the end of the decade when such distinctions were muddied after The Wild Bunch (1969) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) invited audiences to root for the bad guys. In this rather well-structured picture, full of action and romance, we don’t know who the bad guy is.

The whodunit, however, is really a MacGuffin. The movie is more concerned with investigating the changing mores and hypocrisies of the West and predicting the inherent dangers in the proliferation of weaponry. It’s worth remembering that the movie came out at time when mass murderers such as Charles Whitman (the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, 1968) who went on a killing spree in 1966 were becoming the norm.

A card sharp is lynched for cheating at poker in the quiet town of Rinchon where late-night gambling is the height of entertainment. One of the players, professional gambler Van (Dean Martin), attempts to stop the hanging but is beaten up for his troubles. No surprise then, that he ambles off to Denver. Sometime later the hangmen begin dying off and Van returns not just to solve the mystery but to ensure that his name isn’t on the list. “If someone is out to kill you, you don’t sit around and let him pick the time,” he concludes. With the number of killings, not to mention brawls and shoot-outs, it’s almost continuous action.

On his return, Van discovers, with a gold strike nearby, the incipient boom town has attracted unsavory elements, not just the high murder quotient but a whorehouse and loud music in the saloon. Acting as counterbalance is gun-toting preacher Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) who announces his presence by spraying bullets in the saloon floor, emerging as the self-proclaimed “conscience” of the town.

For a sometime protector of law and order, Van is rather lax in the morals department, unwilling to commit to main squeeze rancher’s daughter Nora (Katharine Justice) when the likes of Lily (Inger Stevens), the unlikely proprietor of a barbershop-cum-whorehouse, are on hand. Van is an interesting study. Once he becomes aware that the only people likely to end up in an early grave are the six men who played poker with the lynched individual, it doesn’t occur to him to fess up to Marshal Dana (John Anderson) which would ease the fears of the ordinary public. Awareness the only corpses belonged to the guilty would have prevented further outbursts of violence among a disaffected population. Interestingly, too, Dana makes no attempt to investigate the lynching.

At the core of this picture are a couple of amazing scenes as paranoia takes hold. One miner, without the slightest sense of irony, complains that in the old days a gunfight took place face to face, not by a murderer slinking round in the dark. Rudd adds some prophetic advice: “wear a gun and use it fast, wear a gun and use it slow – I say don’t wear a gun and you won’t use it at all.”

Van likes to think he has the measure of women, when in fact they have the measure of him. The story avoids the obvious lure of a love triangle, of jealous women competing for Van’s affections. Both the young Nora and the more mature Lily are pretty well grounded. “One wore-out no-account kiss” is Nora’s dismissive description of Van’s attempts at romance while Lily lets Van know she has taken a shine to him as a matter of convenience, he’s just a man and she hasn’t had one in three years. Expecting to be treated as a pariah, Lily, expressing the notion that “women don’t usually like women who like men,” strikes up a friendship with Nora.

Marshal Dana finds it increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of peace since as the death count mounts, paranoia grows rife, exacerbated by the kind of greed gold fever brings, resulting in citizens determined to challenge authority and take matters into their own hands.

The most antsy character is Nick (Roddy McDowall), Nora’s brother and the leader of the lynch mob. Nick seems to stir up bad feelings, provoking the ire of both his father and Van. The guilty are despatched in original ways, one man “drowns” in a barrel of flour, another strangled by barbed wire, a third wakes the town at night when the church bell to which his neck is attached starts ringing out. It’s not too hard in the end to work out who the killer is, but as I said, that is not the point of the picture, although the ending is satisfactory.

There a mass of small detail of the kind that director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969) tends to work into his pictures. Van is a cut above. He travels to Denver and back by stagecoach not on horseback. Citizens can purchase Pocahontas Remedies and beer from the Denver Brewery. Shaves and haircuts at the Tonsorial Parlor are reasonably priced but “miscellaneous” comes in at $20. After the preacher shoots up her floor, saloon owner Mama (Ruth Springford) smooths out the holes.

And there is some distinctive direction. Rudd’s sermon that lasts nearly 90 seconds is delivered in virtually one take, a fistfight is conducted in silence except for a soundtrack punctuated by grunts and punches hitting their target, a dying man tries to leave a physical clue about the identity of the mysterious killer. And there is a superb main street gunfight with Van trying to rescue the marshal and Rudd striding down the street in old-fashioned gunslinger mode.  

Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) and Robert Mitchum (The Way West, 1969), both with apparently easy-going but magisterial screen personas, come off well together. Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968)  always a great screen presence, an ethereal beauty, is vulnerable and strong at the same time. Katherine Justice (The Way West, 1967) is sassy and independent-minded and has a terrific facial response to coming across the first murder.  John Anderson (The Satan Bug, 1965) leads a fine supporting cast including Yaphet Kotto (Live and Let Die, 1973), Denver Pyle (Shenandoah, 1965) and Whit Bissell (Seven Days in May, 1964).

Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, adapting the novel by Ray Gaulden, contributes some classic lines. “If that is a Bible, read it,” Van instructs Rudd, assuming the preacher has a gun planted in the Holy Book, “If it ain’t a Bible, drop it.” There’s a nod to a James Coburn scene in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Congratulated on his marksmanship in hitting the spinning wheels of a windmill six times out of six, Rudd protests his shooting was a failure since he was aiming for the spaces in between. It was ironic that her next assignment concerned a lawman who took much the same no-holds-approach to the criminal fraternity (True Grit, 1969) as the killer in this picture.

I was so intrigued by this picture, realizing it had much more to offer than a whodunit, that I watched it again within a few days and was pleasantly surprised by its depths.

Sergeants 3 (1962) ***

There’s a terrific western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) inside this Rat Pack offering, the second of four in the series. On the plus side are plenty twists on traditional scenarios, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin displaying a certain kind of easy screen charisma, and three exceptional and well-choreographed battle scenes.

Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford play the eponymous sergeants, Lawford committing the cardinal sin of wanting to quit the regiment to get married, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave, bugler (an important plot point) and horse-lover wanting to sign up, and Joey Bishop (television star and occasional movie actor) as their sergeant-major boss.

A fair bit of time is spent on the usual Rat Pack shenanigans, getting drunk, brawling, playing tricks on each other, and exploring odd comic notions such as playing poker with a blacksmith’s implements as chips. But when it gets down to proper western stuff, it fairly zings along, with a decent plot (a Native American uprising) and excellent action scenes. You could have had William Goldman writing the script for the number of reversals involved as the picture keeps one step ahead of audience expectation.

For a start, rather than flushing out outlaws from a town, the troopers have to remove Native Americans who have taken it over. Instead of the cavalry pursuing Native Americans, it is mostly the other way round. It is the soldiers rather than the Native Americans who attack a wagon. Sinatra finds himself employing a bow-and-arrow and then a tomahawk rather than being on the receiving end of such weaponry.  Instead of dynamite, the good guys make do with fireworks. Where Native Americans are usually pinned down, this time it is Sinatra’s merry band. And when it comes to resorting to serious violence, that, too is usually the remit of the Native Americans, not as here, Sinatra chucking man off a cliff.

When it sticks to action, the picture is very well done and involving. When Sinatra has to take charge instead of larking about, the movie has focus. Both Sinatra and Martin were undertaking serious roles around this time, the former in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the latter in political drama Ada (1961) so this might have appeared welcome relief.

The comedy isn’t along the laugh-out-loud lines of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) or Blazing Saddles (1973) and the action of so full-on you wonder why anybody thought this required comedy at all, although there is a pretty good punchline ending. Action aside, It’s almost the equivalent of easy listening. The Rat Pack was a particular 1960s institution, the members joining each other on stage in Las Vegas or featuring in television programs, but there’s no real modern correlative.

It was interesting to see how the Rat Pack concept developed. This movie chucked out the idea of including a few songs as with Oceans 11 (1960) while the next one in the series, 4 for Texas (1963) was more of a serious straight western. But the final picture Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) went in the opposition direction and was a full-on musical as if by the time they came to making that picture everyone had realized the film would make more sense if it played to their inestimable talents.

The series developed in other ways, too. Romance was minimal in Oceans 11, barely seen here, but was a major element of 4 for Texas – who would want to waste the talents of Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg – but just as Andress is a smooth operator in 4 for Texas when it came to the last Rat Pack picture Barbara Rush was also a significant player for whom romance was merely a means to an end. You could also argue that the disappearance of Lawford and Bishop allowed the supporting roles to be played by actors who were not in on the joke.

CATCH-UP: the entire Rat Pack quartet has now been reviewed in the Blog with Oceans 11 (1960) and 4 for Texas (1963) also to be found here. Other Frank Sinatra films reviewed are Can-Can (1960), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Naked Runner (1967) and The Detective (1968) while for Dean Martin the list, so far, comprises Texas Across the River (1966) and Rough Night in Jericho (1967).

Selling The Rat Pack: Pressbook for “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1965)

Warner Brothers pushed the boat out for Robin and the 7 Hoods with this lavish Pressbook. Apart from roadshows, most pressbooks of the era were around 16-pages A3. But this stretched to 28 pages with a tremendous range of advertisements, taglines and tie-ups plus, easier to accommodate from the exhibitor’s perspective, a healthy number of relatively straightforward marketing suggestions. On top of that, always a great incentive for cinema managers to rack their brains for good promotional ideas, the studio was offering seven cash prizes worth a total of $1,500 – about $14,000 today – for the best individual campaigns as well as a “special bonus prize” of the golf clubs used by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bing Crosby for the most original stunt.

With Pressbooks popping through a cinema manager’s door at the rate of one or two or three a week – dependent on how often a picture house changed its program – this one would certainly have made an impact, not so much from its size, but its commitment to the exhibitor. Most Pressbooks began either with information on the stars and the filming or with the advertisements and there was a sense of exhibitors being called upon to fit in with a pre-conceived campaign. Warner Brothers was not the first studio to go down the prize-giving route as a means of attracting attention, but in making the competition the first item on the promotional agenda – two of the first four pages were devoted to it – it certainly ensured it was high priority.

Following the competition came four pages of suggestions for gimmicks, stunts and tie-ins. WB had already tied-up with the The Antique Automobile Club of America and its members were being encouraged to lend out their vehicles to any movie theater planning a stunt. Exhibitors were told that car owners were “pleased to show them off.” There were over 100 chapters/branches of the Club so no shortage of eager participants. A parade of old-time cars in the town or a rally outside the cinema or even a race was guaranteed to attract publicity.

The Roaring 20s was another concept easily adopted – flapper fashions, the Charleston being performed outside the theatre or a dance competition, or girls dressed up in the outfits of the day strolling around town “carrying phonographs and camp stools; at busy intersections they can sit down and play one of the Robin tunes.”  Reward posters could be put up for famous gangsters of the speakeasy period, with photographs of the film’s characters included. A jazz parade was another possibility complete with straw hats and blazers. Setting up a gambling den was another suggestion using “actual gambling equipment captured by the police.”

And all this was before exhibitors could let fly with ideas based on the archery motif since “the words Robin Hood and archery and practically interchangeable.” Archery contests could be staged in a sports store, park, shopping mall or in front of the cinema. Robin Hood hats made of simulated felt with a feather sticking out – or bullet-riddled – were available at a low cost and ideal for giving away to children and to be worn by ushers and other staff as well as employees in other organisations participating in any promotion. Or just handed out to a local restaurant.

On top of that, since this Rat Pack picture was actually a denoted musical in which all the principals sang, there was the best tie-in of all – an original soundtrack album, an easy marketing tool for record shops. WB had also arranged for a book tie-in with Pocket Books, novelization written by Jack Pearl and stocked in 120,000 outlets.  The record, promised WB, would be “on every radio station night and day.” Even though Sinatra was no longer a top recording artist – “My Kind of Town” did not break the Cashbox Top 100 singles chart – his voice and that of his co-stars were exactly the kind of easy listening that appeared to radio addicts fed up with the British Beatle invasion.

The advertising campaign was fairly straightforward consisting of as many of the stars as could be crammed onto a poster – usually the main four plus either Barbara Rush or Peter Falk, occasionally all six. The tagline went hip: “Like we’ve taken the Robin Hood legend and changed the bows and arrows to machine guns…! Like with songs yet!…Like Wild.” The last word might be changed to “Wow.”  An alternate tagline along similar lines went: “In Merrie Olde Chicago, in the days when King Al ruled the land…” And “Gather round all ye swingers and hear this…we’re doing the Robin Hood legend in Chicago’s wildest era…with songs yet!” A final version ran: “Warner Bros right merrily presents the wild idea of doing the Robin Hood legend in Chicago’s wildest era.”

With the box office and recording firepower of Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Crosby and the range of promotional ideas, there was little need to jazz up the Pressbook with journalistic nuggets, but WB did not stint on this count. The appearance of Edward G. Robinson in the genre and studio where he made his name three decades before in the like of Little Caesar was too good an opportunity to miss – more so when the wardrobe department discovered his suit size had not changed. Other cinematic stalwarts from the early gangster picture days included Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue, now a restaurant owner and making his first WB movie in 23 years.

Elegance was a keynote for Barbara rush’s femme fatale. Designer Don Feld created a range of dinner gowns, coats and negligees which served almost as a disguise for the hard-as-nails operator. Commented Rush, “I am as tough as daddy and just as blood-thirsty. But I play it sweet throughout and never become hard or evil. The role has more substance when you realize this sweet girl has the ruthlessness of a cobra.” Pool hustler Harold ‘Red’ Baker was hired to teach Dean Martin how to perform like a champion player and also set up the shots for the game between Sinatra and Martin. Baker. But the editorial section ran for only two pages, which was a mighty small proportion of the overall Pressbook.

Robin and the 7 Hoods (1965) ****

I’m still trying to work out why I enjoyed the Rat Pack’s last hurrah so much. Sure, it’s the knockout debut of “My Kind of Town,”  the last tune Frank Sinatra performed on the big screen and one that would have epitomised Ol’ Blue Eyes had it not been supplanted a few years later by “My Way.” And Bing Crosby, also in top crooning form, would have stolen the show except for Peter Falk’s gangster and Barbara Rush weaving a seductive web around all the males.  But, actually, it’s mostly because this one time, far more than in the three preceding pictures, there’s a match between story and stars, as if at last the whole idea has come together. The gimmick of transplanting the Robin Hood legend to 1920s Prohibition Chicago works a treat, a gentle spoof rather than an awkward one.

The notion that you would bring together three of the greatest singers – Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. – of their generation and deny audiences the chance to hear their voices was anathema to audiences. As if nobody could make up their mind which way a Rat Pack vehicle was headed, Martin and Davis were accorded tunes in Oceans 11 (1960) but the next two pictures, westerns of one kind or another, appeared tuneless. Robin and the 7 Hoods is a proper musical, all the stars sing, some even get to dance, and the story carries a lot more heft than your usual musical, some decent running gags, and an affectionate nod to the old Warner Brothers gangster pictures.

Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk), having taken control of the city by rubbing out his rival, comes up against Robbo (Frank Sinatra) refusing to bow the knee. Naturally, both decide the only solution is to bust up each other’s joints. Even more naturally, this ends in stalemate. Cue the entrance of Marian (Barbara Rush), the dead mob boss’s daughter who wants her father avenged. As a by-product of her involvement, Robbo ends up donating $50,000 to the poor, a good deed turned into public relations bounty by orphanage chief Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby), reviving the legend of the outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

Complications arise when Robbo refuses to fall for Marian’s wiles and is framed for the murder of a corrupt Sheriff Glick (Robert Foulk). Marian proves far smarter than her male counterparts and when bribery, seduction and corruption fail she turns to politics.

While Sinatra’s rendition of “My Kind of Town” is the standout, tunesmiths Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen showcase some terrific numbers, in particular the gospel-style “Mr Booze” performed by Bing Crosby, “Style” involving Sinatra, Martin and Crosby, a Martin solo “Any Man Who Loves His Mother,” Sammy Davis with “Bang! Bang!”  and even Peter Falk makes a decent stab at “All for One and One for All.”  Once Sinatra, Martin or Crosby wrapped their larynxes round a particular song, they claimed ownership for life, you can’t imagine anyone else doing it better. And so it proved here.

In acting terms Sinatra, Martin and Davis are on cruise control, although Sinatra, the butt of the conspiracy, tends to have to work a little harder. The supporting cast relish the opportunities presented. Peter Falk (Penelope, 1966) makes the most of a made-to-order role as the back-stabbing mob chief, his fast-talking style little match for more superior brains, and you can see a screen persona develop in front of your eyes. Bing Crosby (Stagecoach, 1966) starts out as a joke with his outlandish language but soon comes to represent a different perspective on legitimate illegitimate moneymaking schemes. Barbara Rush (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) is quite superb as the conniving sophisticate, all long dresses and innovative ideas.

Although Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, 1966) would hardly be your go-to director for a musical, he acquits himself very well, incorporating a great deal of the style he evinced in Claudelle Inglish (1961). There are two marvellous running scenes. The first is that whenever the municipality sees fit to lay the foundation stone of some great new building you can be sure the block contains a corpse. But the second is just wonderful. Any time Marian has a man in her lounge, she goes round switching off the lamps until the room is in darkness. Each time, the scene is played in exactly the same way and of course the minute she starts switching off the lights, moving as sinuously as a spider from lamp to lamp, you know where this scene is going. I should also mention the “Mr Booze” sequence in which an illegal nightclub is transformed into a gospel meeting.

Edward G. Robinson (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968) has a cameo and also look out for Oscar-nominated Victor Buono (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, 1962).   

Texas Across the River (1966) ****

Excellent comedy western mixing dry wit and occasional slapstick to joyous effect. The wedding between Spanish duke Don Aldrea (Alain Delon) and Louisiana belle Phoebe (Rosemary Forsyth) is interrupted by her previous suitor Yancy (Stuart Cottle) who is killed in the resulting melee. Escaping to Texas, Don Aldrea’s marksmanship leads settler Sam (Dean Martin) to recruit him to help fight raiding Commanches. Romantic entanglement ensues when the Don rescues Native American Lonetta (Tina Marquand) and Sam has more than a passing interest in Phoebe.

It is so tightly structured that nothing occurs that doesn’t have a pay-off further down the line. Bursting with terrific lines – including a stinger of a final quip – and set pieces, it pokes fun at every western cliché from the gunfight, the cavalry in hot pursuit, and fearsome Native Americans to the snake bite and the naked bathing scene. Incompetence is the order of the day – cavalry captain Stimpson (Peter Graves) issues incomprehensible orders, chief’s son Yellow Knife (Linden Chiles) cannot obey any.

The Don, with his obsession with honor and his tendency to kiss men on the cheeks, is a comedy gift. Despite his terrific head of hair, he is stuck with the moniker “Baldy” and every time he is about to save the day he manages to ruin it. Sam is the kind of guy who thinks he is showing class by removing his spurs in bed while retaining his boots. His sidekick Kronk (Joey Bishop), a mickey-take on Tonto, mostly is just that, a guy who stands at the side doing nothing but delivering dry observations.

Lonetta is full of Native American lore and has enough sass to keep the Don in his place. “What is life with honor,” he cries to which she delivers the perfect riposte, “What is honor without life?” Phoebe is a hot ticket with not much in the way of loyalty.

Two sequences stand out – the slapping scene (whaat?) and a piece of exquisite comedy timing when Sam, Phoebe and the Don try an iron out a complicated situation.

Good as Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) is the picture belongs to Alain Delon (Once a Thief, 1965) and I would argue it is possibly his best performance. Never has an actor so played against type or exploded his screen persona. Delon was known for moody, sullen roles, cameras fixated on his eyes. But here he is a delight, totally immersed in a role, not of an idiot, but a man of high ideals suddenly caught up in a country that is less impressed with ideals. If he had played the part with a knowing wink it would never have worked.

Martin exudes such screen charm you are almost convinced he’s not acting at all, but when you compare this to Rough Night in Jericho it’s easy to see why he was so under-rated. Joey Bishop (Ocean’s 11) is a prize turn, with some of the best quips. Rosemary Forsyth (Shenandoah, 1965) is surprisingly good, having made her bones in more dramatic roles, and Tina Marquand (Modesty Blaise, 1966) more than holds her own. Michael Ansara (Sol Madrid, 1968) played Cochise in the Broken Arrow (1956-1958) television series. Under all the Medicine Man get-up you might spot Richard Farnsworth. Peter Graves of Mission Impossible fame is the hapless cavalry leader.

Director Michael Gordon (Move Over, Darling, 1964) hits the mother lode, the story zipping along, every time it seems to be taking a side-step actually nudging the narrative forward. He draws splendid performances from the entire cast, knowing when to play it straight, when to lob in a piece of slapstick, and when to cut away for a humorous reaction, and especially keeping in check the self-indulgence which marred many Rat Pack pictures – two of the gang are here, Martin and Bishop. There’s even a sly nod to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns when the electric guitar strikes up any time Native Americans appear. Frank De Vol (Cat Ballou, 1965) did the score.

Rough Night in Jericho (1967) ****

Woefully under-rated western with three A-list stars at the top of their game in a taut drama with an explosive ending. Not surprising it was overlooked at the time with John Wayne duo El Dorado and The War Wagon, Paul Newman as Hombre and an onslaught of spaghetti westerns garnering more attention at the box office. Though a rewarding watch, be warned this is more of a slow-burn drama than a traditional western and both male leads play against type.

Former lawmen Dolen (George Peppard) and Ben Hickman (John McIntiyre) have invested in a stagecoach business owned by twice-widowed Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), just about the only business in Jericho in which Alex Flood (Dean Martin) does not have a controlling interest. Dolen’s first reaction on surmising Flood’s power is to quit, “stepping in’s a habit I outgrew.” And it’s not a bad approach given that Flood is judge, jury and executioner and apt to leave victims strung up to dissuade dissent.

Dolen and Flood have a great deal in common, moving from ill-paid law enforcement into business, Flood, having cleaned up the town, staying on the reap the profit. While Dolen avoids confrontation, Molly aims to stir up opposition, invoking ruthless reaction.

What’s unusual about this picture is it’s mostly a duel of minds, Dolen and Flood testing each other out, neither backing down even while Dolen intends quitting and when he happens to win a bundle in a poker game with Flood you have the notion that was somehow an inducement to help him on his way.  It’s a power game of sorts, too, between Dolen and Molly, she determined to give no quarter to the point of drinking him under the table.

But when violence occurs it is absolutely brutal, Flood’s knuckles bloodied raw as he batters a man foolish enough to challenge his rule of law, Dolen taking an almighty whipping from Yarbrough (Slim Pickens), Molly viciously slapped around by Flood for daring to look at Dolen. When Dolen does move into action it is with strategic skill, gradually reducing the odds before the inevitable shoot-out between respectable citizens and gangsters.

A good half century before the notion took hold, this is a movie as much about entitlement, about those doing the hard work receiving just reward, Flood, having risked his life to tame the town, deciding he should be paid more than a sheriff’s monthly salary. And the western at this point in Hollywood development had precious few female businesswomen in the vein of Molly.

Cover of the Pressbook

Both Dean Martin and George Peppard play against type. An unexpected box office big hitter through the light-hearted Matt Helm series, Martin explodes his screen persona as this vicious thug, town in his thrall, contemptuous of his victims, turning politics to his advantage, but still happy to hand out a beating when charm and chicanery fail. This is one superb, and brave, performance.

For Peppard, this picture is the bridge between the brash persona of The Blue Max (1966) and Tobruk (1967) and the thoughtful introspective characters he brought to life in P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) and Pendulum (1969). Perhaps the most telling difference is a little acting trick. His blue eyes are unseen most of the time, hidden under the shade of his wide-brimmed hat. He is not laid-back in the modern sense but definitely unwilling to plunge into action, movement both confined and defined, a man who knows his limits and, no longer paid to risk his life, unwilling to do so.

Jean Simmons (Divorce American Style) is in excellent form, neither the feisty nor submissive woman of so many westerns, but clever and determined, perhaps setting the tone for later female figures like Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles (1969).

And this is aw-shucks Slim Pickens (Major Dundee, 1965) as you’ve never seen him before. John McIntire had spent most of the decade in Wagon Train but he punches above his weight as a mentoring lawman. If you are trying to spot any other unusual figures keep an eye out for legendary Variety columnist Army Archerd  who was a walk-on part as a waitperson.

More at home in television, director Arnold Laven took to the big screen on rare occasions, only twice previously during the decade for Geronimo (1962) and The Glory Guys (1965), but here he handles story and character with immense confidence and considerable aplomb. The direction is often bold – major incidents occur off screen so he can concentrate on the reactions of the main characters. There is a fabulous drunk scene, one of the best ever – plus an equally good hangover sequence –  the violence is coruscating, all the more so because it is not delivered by gun.

The screenplay by Sidney Boehm (Shock Treatment, 1964) and Marvin H. Albert (Duel at Diablo, 1966) swings between confrontation and subliminal menace.

4 for Texas (1963) ****

To my mind the best of the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin collaborations, outside of the more straightforwardly dramatic Some Came Running (1958), and for the simple reason that they are rivals rather than buddies. The banter of previous “Rat Pack” outings is given a harder edge and it is shorn of extraneous songs.

I came at this picture with some trepidation, since it did not receive kind reviews, “stinks to high heaven” being a sample. But I thought it worked tremendously well, a delightful surprise, the ongoing intrigue intercut with occasional outright dramatic moments and a few good laughs.

It’s unfair to term it a comedy western since for a contemporary audience that invariably means a spoof of some kind, rather than a movie that dips into a variety of genres. In some respects it defies pigeonholing. For example, it begins with a dramatic shoot-out, stagecoach passengers Zack Thomson (Frank Sinatra), a crack shot with a rifle, and pistolero Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin) out-shooting an outlaw gang headed by Matson (Charles Bronson). When director Robert Aldrich (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) has the cojones to kill off legendary villain Jack Elam in the opening section you know you are in for something different.

After out-foxing Matson, Jarrett attempts to steal the $100,000 the stagecoach has been carrying from its owner Thomas. Jarrett looks to be getting away with it until he realizes he is still in range of Thomas’s rifle. Then Thomas looks to have secured the money until Jarrett produces a pistol from his hat. And that sets the template for the movie, Thomas trying to outsmart Jarrett, the thief always one step ahead, and the pair of them locking horns with corrupt banker Harvey Burden (Victor Buono), in whose employ is Matson.

The movie is full of clever twists, cunning ruses, scams, double-crosses, reversals and sparkling dialog. Whenever Jarrett and Thomas are heading for a showdown, something or someone (such as Matson) gets in the way. While Thomas has the perfect domestic life, fawned over by buxom maids and girlfriend Elya (Anita Ekberg), Jarrett encounters much tougher widow Maxine (Ursula Andress) who greets his attempts to invest in her riverboat casino by shooting at him.  

Take away the comedic elements and you would have a plot worthy of Wall Street and ruthless financiers. The story is occasionally complicated without being complex and the characters, as illustrated by their devious intent, are all perfectly believable.

It’s a great mix of action and comedy – with some extra spice added by The Three Stooges in a laugh-out-loud sequence – and it’s a quintessential example of the Sinatra-Martin schtick, one of the great screen partnerships, illuminated by sharp exchanges neither lazily scripted nor delivered. Even the blatant sexism is played for laughs.

Sinatra and Martin, especially, are at the top of their game. Forget all you’ve read about Aldrich and Sinatra not getting on. Sinatra never got on with any director. But an actor and director not getting on does not spell a poor picture. Sinatra brings enough to the table to make it work, especially as he is playing against type, essentially a dodgy businessman who is taken to the cleaners by both Martin and Buono.

The only flaw is that Ursula Andress (Dr No, 1962) does not turn up sooner. She has a great role, mixing seductiveness and maternal instinct with a stiff shot of ruthlessness, not someone to be fooled with at all, qualities that would resonate more in the career-making She (1965).  Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960) on the other hand is all bosom and not much else. Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) demonstrates a surprising grasp of the essentials of comedy for someone so often categorized as the tough guy’s tough guy.

The biggest bonus for the picture overall is the absence of the other clan members – Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – who appeared in previous Rat Pack endeavors Oceans 11 (1960) and Sergeants 3 (1963). Without having to laboriously fit all these other characters in, this film seems to fly along much better. As I mentioned, the fact that Sinatra and Martin play deadly enemies provides greater dramatic intensity.

Robert Aldrich was a versatile director, by this point having turned out westerns (Vera Cruz, 1954), thrillers (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955), war pictures (The Angry Hills, 1959), Biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and horror picture Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). But 4 for Texas called for even greater versatility, combining action with quickfire dialog, a bit of slapstick and romance and shepherding the whole thing with some visual flair.

If you are a fan of Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3 you will probably like this. If you are not, it’s worth giving this a go since it takes on such a different dynamic to those two pictures.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog: Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3; Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967); and Ursula Andress in The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

Ocean’s 11 (1960) ***

Heist pictures break down into planning, execution and reprisal. Here the planning stage moves at a leisurely pace, a bit of recruitment, and setting up bitebacks that will cripple the military-precision plan by ex-army buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos of millions of dollars on New Year’s Eve. There’s a bit of reversal, Mr Big (Akim Tamiroff) is a collection of nervous tics, Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) a rich guy seeking financial independence from a possessive mother, Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) having second thoughts about the operation, and Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) trying to win back estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson) who surmises he prefers danger to intimacy. Mostly, it’s repartee between Harmon and Ocean while Foster makes a chump out of his mother’s next potential husband Duke Santos (Cesar Romero).

There’s not much hi-tech about the audacious plan, knocking out the electricity supply to the casinos, the switch to auxiliary power allowing the gang access to the inner sanctum where the cash is held, finding their way in and out of the darkness by nothing more sophisticated than luminous spray paint, and with a clever ruse to get the money out once all hell breaks loose.

The fun starts when one of the team (Richard Conte) drops dead post-raid and it transpires Santos is a big-shot underworld figure who investigates the robbery on behalf of the casinos and starts tracking the gang down, leading to a pay-off you don’t see coming.

Given the comedy element, there’s no great tension but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and Sinatra and Martin display an easy camaraderie that lights up the screen. It could have been funded by the Las Vegas Tourist Bureau so much attention is given to the wonder of the casinos, at a time when gambling was still only otherwise legal on racetracks, and with snippets of floorshows and the deluxe atmosphere. Add in a couple of numbers delivered a couple of times by Dean Martin (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”), legitimately since he is a cocktail bar singer, and Sammy Davis Jr. (“Eee-O-11”), somewhat shoehorned-in given he is a truck driver.

There’s a couple of neat reversals: Ocean’s dumped girlfriend Adele (Patrice Wymore) gets short shrift from Beatrice when she reveals the affair; casino bosses offered a double-or-quits gamble refuse to consider such a dangerous notion. Red Skelton and George Raft have credited cameos, Shirley MacLaine does not. As well as Richard Conte, Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) has a small part as does Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

Although there are on occasion outdated sexist attitudes, there is also a strong anti-racist statement in the hiring of Sammy Davis Jr., showcasing his talents in a big-budget picture, and clearly making the point that he has been welcomed by stars as big as Sinatra and Martin.  

And it’s worth also considering the picture in terms of early-onset brand management.  The “Rat Pack” was a loose group of entertainers which not only became a well-known stand-alone entity in its own right that celebrated what was considered “hip” at the time (assuming you excluded Elvis and his ilk), but as individuals supported each other on television and in live performance. They would make another two pictures as a team and another dozen or so where two or more of the players appeared. The principals were all major attractions at the nascent Las Vegas so they were also promoting their home patch. During the day they made the movie, at night they wove in and out of each others’ acts, creating an entertainment sensation. On top of that, Sinatra had his own record label Reprise – among the early acts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. So, in a sense, all this cross-promotion was money in their pockets.

Also of note are the opening and closing, the former for the credits devised by Saul Bass, the latter for the famous shot later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Ironically, Lewis Milestone, who devised the original shot, and long before that won two Best Director Oscars, is less well regarded these days than Tarantino.

Sergeants 3 (1962)***

There’s a terrific western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) inside this Rat Pack offering, the second of four in the series. On the plus side are plenty twists on traditional scenarios, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin displaying a certain kind of easy screen charisma, and three exceptional and well-choreographed battle scenes. Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford play the eponymous sergeants, Lawford committing the cardinal sin of wanting to quit the regiment to get married, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave, bugler (an important plot point) and horse-lover wanting to sign up, and Joey Bishop (television star and occasional movie actor) as their sergeant-major boss.

A fair bit of time is spent on the usual Rat Pack shenanigans, getting drunk, brawling, playing tricks on each other, and exploring odd comic notions such as playing poker with a blacksmith’s implements as chips. But when it gets down to proper western stuff, it fairly zings along, with a decent plot (a Native American uprising) and excellent action scenes. You could have had William Goldman writing the script for the number of reversals, where the picture keeps one step ahead of audience expectation. For a start, rather than flushing out outlaws from a town, the troopers have to remove Native Americans who have taken it over. Instead of the cavalry pursuing Native Americans, it is mostly the other way round. It is the soldiers rather than the Native Americans who attack a wagon. Sinatra finds himself employing a bow-and-arrow and then a tomahawk rather than being on the receiving end of such weaponry.  Instead of dynamite, the good guys make do with fireworks. Where Native Americans are usually pinned down, this time it is Sinatra’s merry band. And when it comes to resorting to serious violence, that, too is usually the remit of the Native Americans, not as here, Sinatra chucking man off a cliff.

When it sticks to action, the picture is very well done and involving. When Sinatra has to take charge instead of larking about, the movie has focus. Both Sinatra and Martin were undertaking serious roles around this time, the former in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the latter in political drama Ada (1961) so this might have appeared welcome relief. The comedy isn’t along the laugh-out-loud lines of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) or Blazing Saddles (1973) and when the action is so full-on you wonder why anybody thought this required comedy at all, although there is a pretty good punchline ending. Action aside, it’s almost the equivalent of easy listening. The Rat Pack was a particular 1960s institution, the members joining each other on stage in Las Vegas or featuring in television programs, but there’s no real modern correlative.

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