Anzio / The Battle for Anzio (1968) ***

Seems you couldn’t make a moive about defeat in the 1960s, you had to find something in the story that sounded victorious. Although the Allied landings at Anzio in January 1944 eventually led to the liberation of Rome, the whole operation was a mess. So instead of concentrating on outnumbered American and British troops being pounded to pieces on the beaches, director Edward Dmytryk (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) opts for the men-on-a-mission angle.   

Somewhat bizarre is the insertion of war correspondent Ennis (Robert Mitchum) into the story. Sure, because he’s not going to get busted for insubordination, he can challenge and/or lambast fictional commanding officers General Carson (Robert Ryan) and Major General Lasky (Arthur Kennedy) but it seems odd that he goes around spreading anti-war sentiment when the people escorting him are in serious danger of ebing killed. On the plus side are three sequences depicting the brutal reality of war in a way that no other picture of the period dared.

After landing unopposed Laskey decides not to risk moving forward, leaving his troops open to being trapped by advancing Germans even though Ennis, after commandeering a jeep, managed to reach Rome with encountering any opposition.

A Ranger battalion is sent to scout the surrounding countryside and the movie chooses to concentrate on a small platoon unit within that, headed by Sgt Stimmler (Earl Holliman) and including the fun-loving Corporal Rabinoff (Peter Falk), the kind of guy who spends the night before the landing entertaining three sex workers in the back of stolen ambulance who are of course desperate to learn the words to “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”

After the Rangers are cut to pieces at the Battle of Cisterna, the unit escapes through a minefield, discovers a massive German construction site, holes up in house with three Italian women, is pinned down by snipers in a field of shell-holes and finally makes it back.

American tropps being slaughtered at Cisterna is a helluva note as the movie switches tack from exposing leadership folly to just getting the platoon out of this mess. Pursued by a flame-throwing Panzer, they pick their way through a minefield using the quite clever device of lobbing onto it large chunks of stone and then walking across on the stones as if crossing a dangerous river.

Wanting to find out more about the mysterious construction work results in Ennis causing the death of one of the gang. When they hide out in the Italian house, eventually killing off investigating Germans, the naïve Ennis wants to take the women with them.

Bit of marketing sleight-of-hand. Slinging a whole bunch of faces at the bottom of a poster was shorthand for all-star cast, which this picture definitely lacked.

Trapped by snipers in open country, they are being picked off one by one with only clever tricks and sacrifice offering a way out. One of the notions is to throw a fake grenade the snipers’ way. The instant reaction to any soldier to an incoming grenade is to get the hell out of the way, turning themselves into a turkey shoot. But the only other way to entice the snipers to reveal themselves is for the soldiers to take turns in presenting themselves as targets.

One of the ongoing themes of the picture is Ennis refusing to bear arms, and although the trailer shows him blasting away with a machine gun that only occurs at this climax when he seizes the weapon from a dead German. Ennis is an odd character for a war picture. None of the soldiers can believe anyone would not just volunteer to participate in a bloody war but carry nothing to defend themselves with. It’s a bit tiresome to hear him being reminded that he doesn’t have to be here, and to turn down the offer or a rifle or a grenade.

And for a non-combatant he’s not exactly uninvolved in strategic matters. A couple of times, as if he’s the most entitled grunt you ever came across, he virtually assumes command, barking orders that the others obey. Admittedly, it’s his cleverness that gets them through the minefield, but it’s his stupidity that gets others killed and to have him pontificating at the end that men go to war “because they like it” is incredibly facile, although in keeping with the anti-Vietnam sentiments of the time (1968, that is, not 1944).

Rabinoff, the only other character about whom we learn anything, is unfortunately on the preposterous side.

While the movie is far from dire, and as I said, very realistic when in portraying war actuality, it’s not the picture I guess audiences expected. While the scene-stealing of Peter Falk (Penelope, 1966) gets in the way, Robert Mitchum (5 Card Stud, 1968) proves an interesting character, although he is also laden down by having to spout a bunch of dumb lines. Arthur Kennedy (Fantastic Voyage, 1966) is the pick, especially at the end facing up to the ignominy of being relieved of command.

This kind of movie is potentially a breakout for the supporting cast. But here, with the exception of Falk, the script lets them down, nobody given the kind of distinctive characterisation that elevated The Dirty Dozen (1967), for example, above the norm. Apart from Earl Holliman (The Power, 1968) and Italian Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) this was not a career-making movie. You can spot Mark Damon (Dead Men Don’t Count, 1968), Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange, 1971), Anthony Steel (The Story of O, 1975), Rene Santoni (Guns of the Magnificent Seven, 1969), Wolfgang Preiss (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965)  and Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge, 1965).

Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965) does a reasonable job with the materials to hand, and the minefield and sniper scenes are first class. Italian veteran Duilio Coletti (Under Ten Flags, 1960) directed the Italian version though I’ve no idea what that was, or if it differed in any way from the Dmytryk cut. Coletti also had a hand in fashioning the screenplay along with H.A.L. Craig (Fraulein Doktor, 1969), Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose, 1977) and Giuseppe Mangione (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968).

Alvarez Kelly (1966) ***

True stories do not always make good films. It says a lot about stardom that Oscar-winner William Holden virtually single-handedly redeems Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western. And this was at a time when the actor’s career was in freefall, not having had a hit since The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Although his good looks personified him as a matinee idol, many of his best performances came when he was playing against type, as a shady character, such as in this instance

The essential narrative is that Holden has driven a couple thousand head of cattle from Mexico to deliver to Union troops. Holden plays an “Irish senor” (as defined in the title song) whose Mexican origins provide an excuse to consider the United States an enemy, positioning him as a neutral in the conflict, allowing him to justify his profiteering. Confederate colonel Richard Widmark plans to steal the herd.  Had Holden been a patriot the story would have knuckled down to him trying to thwart such plans, but since he’s a free agent with no allegiance except to himself the film has to take another route. So this involves Holden being captured by Widmark in a bid to turn the Confederate soldiers into cowboys capable of driving the stolen herd.

That would set the film down a fairly standard narrative route of training raw recruits such as Holden would follow in The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But this film evades such a simple format. All we ever learn about the intricacies of handling cattle is that you need a hat and have to be able to sing. Instead, this is a more thoughtful picture about honor versus self-interest, about the human casualties of war. Unlike most westerns it’s not about shoot-outs and fairly obvious good guys and bad guys. In the main it’s a drama about conflicting interests and often how good guys will do bad things in the name their beliefs.

The film doesn’t take sides. Do we root for the Union soldiers fighting to free slaves or the romantic version of the Confederacy? Do we root for the immoral selfish Holden because he’s had a finger shot off as a way of bringing him to heel or do our sympathies lie with the upstanding one-eyed Widmark who has given so much for his cause? 

Dmytryk whose career encompassed The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958) was on an opposite career trajectory to Holden after box office hits The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965). Between them, Holden and Dmytryk just about save what was a misconceived project, an original screenplay by Franklin Coen (The Train, 1964). That it was based on a true story did not make it any better an idea.

Holden is excellent, easing into the world-weary character he would project more fully in The Wild Bunch (1969). And I like his delivery, the pauses between words as if they are occurring to him for the first time rather than rattling them off as is the way of so many stars. Janice Rule (The Chase, 1966) is good as the errant girlfriend who feels let down by Widmark’s honor – and who is open to seduction by Holden – and has her own ideas about what she deserves from the war.  Although it’s tempting to say we’ve seen this craggy Widmark (The Secret Ways, 1961) characterization too many times before, here he adds a further emotional layer as a man who eventually faces up to the personal sacrifices he has been forced to make.    

A man convinced he is doing the right thing versus a guy who couldn’t care less about principle turns out to be an interesting concept though perhaps weighed in favor of the latter by the casting.

Had Widmark played the profiteer I doubt if we would have had such a balanced notion of right and wrong. Holden has the screen charm to get away with playing complicated characters, sometimes (The Counterfeit Traitor, for example) eventually tuning heroic. The idea that, in westerns, it’s not all black-and-white, and that bad guys could provide a moral core would be central to the genre a few years later when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969) made heroes of outlaws and the lawman in True Grit (1969) sailed close to the wind.  

Action fans will be amply rewarded by the ending as Holden attempts to outwit Widmark.

CATCH-UP: William Holden films reviewed so far are The Counterfeit Traitor (1962), The 7th Dawn (1964) and The Devil’s Brigade (1968); Richard Widmark films featured so far are The Secret Ways (1961) – the Blog’s top-ranked film according to our readers – The Long Ships (1964), Flight from Ashiya (1964) and The Way West (1967).

Mirage (1965) ****

“I owe you some pain,” barks the heavy to hero in one of the memorable lines in this classy thriller with surprisingly contemporary overtones. Underlying this tale of amnesiac David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) recovering his memory are themes of personal commitment, commitment to cause (“if you’re not committed to anything you’re just taking up space”), of individuals taking a stand against powerful forces seeking to thwart democracy, and of malevolent pandemic, the oldest of them all, greed, that infects even the most philanthropic enterprises.

The structure is brilliant. To every question David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) asks in trying to establish his identity, the answers are mystifying. He doubts his sanity and is plunged into a  life-threatening conspiracy.   

The film opens superbly. The camera pans across a New York skyline at night, every skyscraper lit up. Suddenly, one of the buildings goes dark. Cut to confusion inside as workers deal with the electricity cut-out. Among them Stillwell who is surprised to meet a woman on the stairs, Shela (Diane Baker), who not only recognizes him but seems to know a lot about him that is unfamiliar to him. They end up in the fourth level of the basement and on leaving discover that Charles Colvin (Walter Abel), a name that’s only vaguely familiar to Stilwell, has committed suicide by jumping from the building.

When he gets home to his apartment he is accosted by gunman Lester (Jack Weston) who tells him “The Major” wants to see him. Stillwell escapes but on reporting the incident to the police can’t remember his date of birth. After his amnesia being rejected by a psychiatrist he turns to private eye Ted Caselle (Walter Matthau) who takes up the case. But in Stillwell’s apartment a fridge he recalls as being empty is now full, the same with a dispatch case, the opposite with a closet, and in the building where he thinks he works there is now a wall where his office should be.

Stillwell believes he was employed as a cost accountant without a notion what that job entails. The basement has no fourth level. Another gunman Willard (George Kennedy) is also in pursuit. Corpses pop up with increasing regularity. To add to the mystery, nobody actually wants him dead. He is too valuable alive. He has a secret only he doesn’t know what. The police connect him to the suicide.

And so the movie plays out brilliantly, with the audience only knowing what Stillwell knows, as confused as he, until piece by piece the jigsaw comes together although at times with cunning sleight-of-hand the pieces are the wrong shape or, worse, don’t fit the jigsaw in hand. There’s an emotional jigsaw to be put back together too, one that requires proper commitment, Shela’s “togetherness is not enough” could have been a mantra for today’s generation.

All the time Shela bobs in and out, hard to tell whether she is a victim or conspirator, whether to be trusted or merit suspicion, and she has an interesting philosophy of her own in terms of the trapped and caged.

As in the best thrillers we have been given the clues all the time, just not realized them for what they were, and in a series of brilliant scenes you cannot help but applaud the entire mystery is carefully stitched together. You will never in a million years guess the cause of Colvin’s mysterious death.

The ending is satisfying on a variety of levels. Yes, mystery solved, the secret Stillwell holds a good one, but the climax involves characters taking sides, displaying commitment, challenging their consciences, circumstances reflecting very much the world in which we find ourselves now.

One of the beauties of the movie is how it plays with our expectations. Peck has done amnesia before in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) but since then his screen persona has been men of upstanding character, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) the personification, confusion not a trait readily identified with him. Equally, the heavies look anything but,  Jack Weston small and rotund, George Kennedy bespectacled and slim.

Diane Baker, enigmatic throughout, far from the glamorous thriller female lead (think Audrey Hepburn in Charade or Sophia Loren who partnered Peck on Arabesque or Claudia Cardinale in Blindfold), describes herself as a “lonely woman with a low opinion of herself due to many mistakes.” In the middle of the high tension, with Stillwell being pursued by cops, there is a wonderful scene where a little girl lets him hide in her apartment and on making him coffee it turns out to be the pretend coffee little girls make.

Gregory Peck (Arabesque, 1966) is superb, his face absorbing shock at his condition, at once welcoming unravelling mystery at the same time as doubting its source, wending his way through a past he cannot believe is true, a personality that occasionally appears abhorrent, and having to make the same decisions that he feared making in the past. Diane Baker (Marnie, 1964) has a difficult role, introspective where most heroines in this kind of film are more voluble, and frightened of her own vulnerability.

You can see from here how much George Kennedy bulked up for his breakthrough movie Cool Hand Luke (1967). Walter Matthau, too, was a stage away from interesting supporting roles to full-blown star in The Fortune Cookie (1966). Jack Weston might have been rehearsing his role as the stalker in Wait until Dark (1967). I am not going to mention the other sterling supporting players since that will give the game away.

Diane Baker makes the cover of Films in Review magazine.

Veteran director Edward Dymytryk (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) is on song, stringing the audience along beautifully, extracting wonderful performances, not frightened to give the film deeper meaning. The theme of commitment, of standing up to malevolent forces, seems an odd one for a straightforward thriller but it reflected Dmytryk’s experience as a victim of the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s.  

On the debit side, I can’t see any reason why this was made in black-and-white and it certainly served to put off the public, the film’s box office poor, but I dispute the criticism of what appeared too-frequent flashbacks. Rather than re-emphasizing plot points for the audience, I saw this instead as Stillwell holding up a mirror to a memory he doubted he could trust.  

Top-notch screenplay by Peter Stone who knows his way around this genre, having previously written Charade and with Arabesque round the corner, from the novel called Fallen Angel by ,surprisingly, given he is best known for Spartacus, Howard Fast under the pseudonym Walter Ericson. At least a dozen quotable lines included this cracker relating greed to a pandemic: “You’re a carrier, you infected him and he died from it.”

All told, an excellent thriller with modern resonance.

Oddly enough, Mirage was remade a couple of years later as Jigsaw (1968), directed by James Goldstone and starring Harry Guardino.

P.S. I see you that the “I owe you” line was adapted for use by Willow in the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer TV series. There’s even a link to that scene on YouTube. Glad to see it has found some kind of immortality. It’s the kind of line that should be a gimme for t-shirt manufacturers.  

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