Banned, Ignored, Shelved

If anybody in Britain told you they saw Wild Angels (1966) when it came out that year you could safely accuse them of being liberal with the truth for that was one of the many films banned by the censors there. Global censorship remained a major issue for studios during the 1960s, every country imposing its own system, and very rarely did they conform with each other. At the beginning of the decade, the biggest issue was sex, by the end it was joined by violence and drugs.

Films were rarely banned in the United States since scripts for movies liable to violate the agreed guidelines tended to be submitted in advance and a compromise reached prior to production. However, local U.S. censorship bodies acting independently prevented some films being shown, This Rebel Breed (1960) in Memphis, Room at the Top (1959) in Atlanta. Movies banned in different countries included: Operation Eichmann (1961) in Israel and Germany, Queen Bee (1963) in Italy, The Collector (1965) in New Zealand, Wild Angels (1966) in Denmark, Lady in a Cage (1964) in Sweden and Geneva, Ulysses (1967) in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Easy Rider (1969),  despite winning a prize at Cannes, in France. Doctor Zhivago (1965) was banned in Thailand for being pro-communistic and in India for the opposite reason. Ireland banned 56 movies in 1960, Finland 12 in 1962, Sweden 10 in 1963 and West Germany 19 that same year. In South Korea in 1962 you still could not see any Japanese movies.

Being banned of course became a promotional tool. It was a regular joke in America that a low-budget picture had no chance of box office success unless it was banned in Boston. In France, Les Teenagers (1968), Young Wolves (1968), The Nun (1966) and Paris Secret (1965) all benefitted from being released after tussles with the censor and the controversy over Ulysses saw it break box office records in Dundee in Scotland.

The British censor prevented screening of films deemed too violent including The Couch (1962) about a serial killer, Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), Violent Midnight (1963), The Thrill Killers (1963), Shock Treatment (1963) – despite a cast that included Lauren Bacall and Stuart Whitman – Fuller’s The Naked Kiss and Weekend of Fear (1966). Among horror films denied a showing were Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and, initially, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) which was later reprieved and shown as Revenge of the Vampire.

Juvenile delinquency, often straddling the biker world, was another subject to fall foul of the British Board of Film Censors. Among them The Choppers (1961), Jacktown (1962), The Cool World (1964), Kitten with a Whip (1964) starring Hollywood sensation Ann-Margret,  the aforementioned Wild Angels (1966), Rat Fink (1966), Hot Rods to Hell (1966) with Dana Andrews and Mickey Rooney, Riot on the Sunset Strip (1967), Born Losers (1967), Devil’s Angels (1967) and virtually anything that mentioned Hell’s Angels.

Drug taking was also forbidden to be seen, thus accounting for the absence on British screens of The Trip (1967), Hallucination Generation (1967), Mary Jane (1967), LSD Flesh of the Devil (1967) with Guy Madison and Revelation – The Flowering of the Hippies (1967). Easy Rider (1969) was passed for “being actively concerned with human beings and the effect of drug taking.” Films considered too morally dubious or too sexually open to let loose on British audiences included Sinderella and the Golden Bra (1964), 3 Nuts In Search of a Bolt (1964) starring Mamie Van Doren, 90 Degrees in the Shade (1965) with Anne Heywood, Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho (1965), Good Morning…And Goodbye (1967) and Lee Frost’s The Animal (1968). Explicit language was the objection to Warrendale (1967) and Ulysses (1967), homosexuality the problem for Deathwatch (1965) starring Leonard Nimoy and Shirley Clarke’s documentary Portrait of Jason (1967).  

In Britain, to get round the censor’s strictures, the “cinema club” was invented in 1960 by Gala Film Theatres, an offshoot of a distributor specializing in racy fare, and within a month had 7,500 members, the operation launching with a showing of The Wild One (1953).  Local authorities could also take exception to the national censor’s findings and grant a reprieve for various films, Wild Angels and The Trip eventually achieving exposure in this fashion. Most cinema clubs would eventually segue into becoming outlets for soft porn but some stuck with the original concept of showing arty movies considered too risqué by the censor. The New Cinema Club in London, for example, in August 1969 programmed Wild Angels and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963)

But the censor was not the only reason why films were not shown and ended up either ignored by the distributors or stuck on the shelf and we’ll come to those in another article.

David McGillivray, “The Crowded Shelf,” Films & Filming, September 1969, 14-15; “High Cost of Censor Fights vs. Principles,” Variety, March 2, 1960, 1;“If Banned in Britain, All Is Not Lost,” Variety, April 20, 1960, p48; “Theatre, Not Censors, Banned Breed,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p24; “Room at the Top Ban,” Variety, July 27, 1960, 4; “Operation Eichmann Banned in Germany, ” Variety, May 3, 1961, 1; “211 Pix Scissored, 56 Banned in Ireland,” Variety, May 3, 1961, p15; “Operation Eichmann Banned by Israeli,” Variety, November 1, 1961, p2; “12 Pix Banned by Finland Censors,” Variety, March 28, 1962, 17; “Singapore Censor Gets Tough with U.S. Pix; Satan, Suzie Banned,” Variety, August 8, 1962, 21; “Japanese Pix Still Banned by S. Korea,” Variety, December 12, 1962, p16; “Bee Banned by Italian Censor,” Variety, January 23, 1963, p18; “W. Germany Claims Only 19 Pix Banned, “ Variety, December 4, 1963, p11; “Swedish Censors Banned 10 in ’63,” Variety, February 5, 1964, p2;  “The Group Banned,” Variety, April 8, 1964, p84; “Lady in Cage Banned by Sweden Censors,” Variety, July 15, 1964, 2; “New Zealand Censors Turn Down Collector,” Variety, November 3, 1965, 11; “Cage Banned By Geneva Censors,” Variety, January 19, 1966, 16; “Can’t Second Guess Global Censors,” Variety, November 30, 1966, 20;  “Banned in Australia,” Variety, May 24, 1967, 26; “Scot Exhib, Whose Town Disapproves Censorship, Cleans Up with Ulysses,” Variety, May 1, 1968, 27; “Film Censors in France Spark B.O.,” Variety, May 8, 1968, 131; “Dracula Sole Film Banned in Israel Last Year,” Variety, May 28, 1969, 39;  “Britain gives ‘X’ Tag to Fonda’s Rider Pic,” Variety, June 18, 1969, 30; “Eire Banned 35  Films in ’68,” Variety, August 20, 1969, 32.

Easy Rider (1969) *****

Just goes to show what a little bit of reimagining can do. A companion piece to The Wild Angels (1966) but which takes the viewer in the opposite direction, turning the characters from perpetrators of violence to its victims, adding in a stonking soundtrack and a bit more philosophy, though holding on to the long tracking shots of motorbikes that defined the Roger Corman approach. From the bare bones of the Corman movie emerged a cinematic – and box office – miracle.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda, developing a character trait he revealed in The Wild Angels, senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil. As revelatory is the performance of Jack Nicholson, here effectively making a bid for stardom in a part that would snare an Oscar nomination.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now. 

 

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) ****

The one with the wife-swapping. Like Easy Rider released earlier the same year, a hymn to freedom, only this time of the sexual kind. Responsible thirtysomethings, well-to-do, married with children, jealous of the younger generation’s counter culture, seek guilt-free irresponsibility. They feel they’ve missed out, despite knocking back cocktails in their heyday, probably remained virgins until marriage. Like the recently-reviewed The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965), the problems incurred in marriage appear eternal, and decades later this holds up superbly, not just for taking a measure of its times, but for a screenplay setting up a bold series of reversals, character reaction you would never expect, that will have you in stitches even as it dissects universal truths.

Documentary film-maker Bob (Robert Culp) and housewife Carol (Natalie Wood) “find” themselves at a weekend retreat espousing naked yoga, primal screams, group therapy and emotional intimacy. Carol admits she finds her husband controlling. They return in evangelistic mode, desperate to pass on their new-found knowledge to their stuffier friends, Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon).

The advertising campaign focused on the tease of wife-swapping.

The film unfolds in a series of long sequences, each sparked by external incident. Bob confesses to his wife that while away on business he had an affair. To his astonishment she forgives him. Expecting this to be a prelude to some new way of tormenting an unfaithful husband, Bob remains skeptical until Carol convinces him that her world-view has changed following the retreat.

But Ted and Alice find it harder to accept. In a brilliant scene that exposes basic gender differences, he sees the problem as his revelation, she as the act of infidelity itself. High after meeting the other couple, Ted wants sex, but Alice, shocked by what she has heard, cannot contemplate it. He exerts so much pressure that she, deeply insecure, is almost on the verge of giving in. The dialogue not just marvelously encapsulates their marriage but sets out opposing views that, I am sorry to say, would probably be as prevalent today.

But the best scene, a superb reversal, occurs when Bob, spurning another night of illicit passion, returns home from a trip early to find his wife in bed with the tennis coach. Gender equality et al. The sequence turns completely on its head when, according to the couple’s new philosophy, Bob should not only accept and forgive, but help the tennis coach out of his predicament, calming his fears of facing an angry husband, in effect consoling his bedroom rival.

Bob and Carol and the Tennis Coach.

What appears to have been just a Ted fantasy, hooking up with a woman he met on an airplane, turns out to be true, creating a crisis in that marriage and when Alice is pacified, acknowledging a new truth, it is she who calls for an orgy. Now this is a revolution for Alice is by far the most repressed, although attractive almost matronly, and still using a childish word to describe her private parts. Her confessions to a psychiatrist reveal a tormented individual.

It’s a stunning debut from Paul Mazursky (An Unmarried Woman, 1978) who also had a hand in the screenplay with Larry Tucker (I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, 1968). He takes a story of endorsed immorality and stamps it as a morality tale. A movie that depended so much on dialogue concludes with a fabulous series of shots where the look on the faces of the characters tells you all you need to know.

Elliott Gould (The Night They Raided Minsky’s, 1968) and Dyan Cannon (The Murder Game, 1965) are the pick of the actors, both stepping up to the plate after less than stand-out performances previously. Both were Oscar-nominated but more importantly here created  screen personas that would define their futures. Natalie Wood (This Property Is Condemned, 1966), in her first picture in three years, revitalized her career after a string of flops. Robert Culp, in a step-up from the I Spy television series (1965-1968), initially takes center stage but cedes ground to the superior acting of the others.  

Where a whole bundle of films by new directors flopped that year and the next by targeting the younger generation, this was a success by painting a wry picture of a slightly older generation, not yet tipping into middle age, but terrified they might be missing out on something.

Witness (1985) *****

The Casablanca of the crime thriller, a stone cold classic in which impossible love takes precedence over unusual situation. In the Bogart-Bergman picture it is expatriates in war-torn North Africa, here a cop protecting an innocent boy hides out among the Amish. Like The Rock, this is so good the director makes the audience wait for a first sighting of the star while exploring the other main characters and the unique backdrop, in this case the customs and dress code of a religious cult that shuns the modern.

Adding to the paranoia rampant in American cinema in the 1970s/1980s is a further element – the hunted man or, in this case, boy. There’s no mystery in this thriller, 20 minutes in we know the culprit, involved in a criminal conspiracy so powerful it cannot be fought. And unlike the bulk of cop movies it’s not set in a city but in the country.

Just-widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and eight-year-old son Jacob (Lukas Haas) set out by train to Philadelphia where the boy witnesses a brutal murder. Questioned by  Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), we discover by accident the killer is cop Lt McFee (Danny Glover). Reaching out to trusted mentor Police Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) only to discover he is implicated, Book flees back to Amish country, where a gunshot wound prolongs his stay.  

Distrusted as an uncouth “English,” liable to violence the Amish abhor, Book, with a range of carpentry skills, soon finds himself at home. Drawn to Rachel, passions simmer, but in this collision of cultures she cannot leave and he cannot stay. Without the cop background this would be a beautifully rendered love story, but the daily danger of the hidden being located  heightens already tense emotions.

The examination of the Amish lifestyle is faultless. Transport is horse and cart, though sometimes that is with almost balletic assurance, there is no electricity, the community works together but threatens exclusion for disobeying strict rules. In compliance, Book dons the typical Amish outfit of plain black jacket and straw hat, buttons forbidden. And it is only when he breaks out of such strictures that his charges are threatened.

While the violence is powerful and when the time comes Book has a ruse or two up his sleeve, the most memorable scenes are as far removed from the crime thriller genre as  possible. First is when Rachel enjoys a tentative forbidden dance with Book. Then there is the love scene where he watches her wash her naked torso, desire written over each face. Finally is building the barn where in quiet but obvious ways Rachel reveals her growing feelings for Book while with hammer and saw he helps put together the structure to the soaring strains of Maurice Jarre’s most magnificent composition.

Director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, 1989) excels in observation, a scene between Rachel and wooing farmer (Alexander Gudonov) takes place in silence, women whispering declaim attitudes to Rachel, her father Eli (Jan Rubes) waking Book before dawn, and several scenes of meals. Since restraint is the watchword, Weir draws exceptional performances from both principles, Harrison Ford (Blade Runner, 1982) receiving his only Oscar nomination, McGillis (Top Gun, 1986) nominated for a Bafta, likewise her only recognition at this rarified strata. Josef Sommer (Silkwood, 1983) is good as the ruthless but tormented corrupt cop, and both ballet dancer Alexander Gudonov and Viggo Mortensen (Green Book, 2018) make Hollywood debuts. Lukas Haas is as wide-eyed as they come.

Although nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Music, it only picked up two, for editing and for an outstanding screenplay by William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, both known almost exclusively as television writers.

An authentic, heartbreaking, multi-layered, adult picture like this is very hard to come by.

Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang (1968) ***

Was it David McCallum’s floppy-haired blondness that prevented him making the jump to movie action hero because, with the ruthlessness of a Dirty Harry, he certainly makes a good stab at it in this slightly convoluted drugs thriller. Never mind being saddled with an odd moniker, the name devised surely only in the hope it would linger in the memory, Sol Madrid (McCallum) is an undercover cop on the trail of the equally blonde, though somewhat more statuesque, Stacey Woodward (Stella Stevens) and Harry Mitchell (Pat Hingle) who have scarpered with a half a million Mafia dollars. Hingle is the Mafia “human computer” who knows everything about the Cosa Nostra’s dealings, Woodward the girlfriend of Mafia don Villanova (Rip Torn).

Sol tracks down Stella easy enough and embarks on the audacious plan of using her share of the loot, a cool quarter of a million, to fund a heroin deal in Mexico with the intention of bringing down both Mexican kingpin Emil Dietrich (Telly Savalas) and, using the on-the-run pair as bait, Villanova. A couple of neat action sequences light this picture up. When Sol and Stella are set upon by two knife-wielding hoods in a car park, he employs a car aerial as a weapon while she taking refuge in a car watches in terror as an assailant batters down the window. Sol has hit on a neat method of transferring the heroin from Tijuana to San Diego and that is filled with genuine tension as is the hand-over where Sol with an unexpected whipcrack slap puts his opposite number in his place.

Meanwhile, Villanova has sent a hitman to Mexico and when that fails turns up himself, kidnapping Stella and planning a degrading revenge. Most of the movie is Sol duelling with Dietrich, suspicion of the other’s motives getting in the way of the trust required to seal a deal, with Mitchell, hiding out in Dietrich’s fortified lair, soon being deemed surplus to requirements. Various complications heighten the tension in their flimsy relationship.

Madrid is Dirty Harry in embryo, determined to bring down the gangsters by whatever means even if that involves going outside the law he is supposed to uphold, incipient romance with Woodward merely a means to an end. McCallum certainly holds his own in the tough guy stakes, whether trading punches or coolly gunning down or ruthlessly drowning enemies he is meant to just capture, and trading  steely-eyed looks with his nemesis.

It’s a decent enough effort from director Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), but is let down by the film’s structure, the expected confrontation with Villanova taking far too long, too much time spent on his revenge with Woodward, for whom audience sympathy is slight. Just at the time when Hollywood was exploring the fun side of drug taking – Easy Rider just a year away – this was a more realistic portrayal of the evil of narcotics.

It is also quite prescient, foreshadowing both The Godfather Part II (1974) in the way Villanova has modernised the Mafia, achieving respectability through money laundering, and this century’s television obsession with South American drug cartels with all-out police battles with the Narcos. And there is a bullet-through-the-glasses composition that will be very familiar to fans of The Godfather (1972), and you will also notice a similarity between the feared Luca Brasi and the Mafia hitman Scarpi (Michael Conrad) here. And why we’re at it, Woodward’s predicament is close to Gene Hackman’s in French Connction II (1975).

The action sequences are excellent and fresh. Think Madeleine cowering in terror as the car window is battered in No Time to Die (2021) and you get an idea of the power Hutton brings to the scene of a terrified Woodward hiding in the car. Incidentally, you might think McCallum was more of a secret agent than a cop with the cold-blooded ruthlessness with which he dispatches his enemies.

Stella Stevens (The Silencers, 1966) is the weak link, too shrill and not willing to sully her make-up or hair when her role requires degradation. Her part is better written (“I never met a man who didn’t want to use me”) than Stevens can act and she gets a clincher of the film’s final line. Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) with his playful villain, though the trademark laugh is in occasional evidence, is in sharp contrast to Rip Torn who is all snarling bad guy. Ricardo Montalban (Madame X, 1966) is Sol’s Mexican sidekick and Paul Lukas, a star of the Hollywood “golden age”, puts in a fleeting appearance.

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