Behind the Scenes: “The Misfits” (1961)

Arthur Miller, author of arguably the greatest play of the 20th century,  Death of a Salesman, had gone to Reno to get a divorce so he could marry Marilyn Monroe. While there, he befriended some cowboys who took him with them while they caught horses. He turned the experience into a short story The Mustangs, published in Esquire (October 1957 issue). It provided the basis for the screenplay The Misfits. While the character of Roslyn, played by Monroe, was based on another woman, Miller explained, “I had written it to make Marilyn feel good.”

In July 1958 he sent it off to director John Huston, not just on account of a body of work that included The Big Sleep (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but because he had nursed Monroe through her debut on The Asphalt Jungle (1952) calming her nerves by telling her “if you’re not nervous you might as well give up.” Miller felt Huston would “present Marilyn with the bracing challenge, her fighting her problems through to a fine performance.”

Huston was enthusiastic – he saw the story as representative of a “dog-eat-horse-society” – and called the writer over to his house in Ireland where they spent two weeks putting the finishing touches to the screenplay, except for the last 15 minutes. Originally, it was a lengthy piece, almost an epic, production executives timing it at two hours 47 minutes, too unwieldy for a standard drama, so inevitably compromise would be required.

For tax reasons, Huston wanted to film in Mexico but relented and agreed to shooting it in Nevada. Talent agency MCA, which represented Huston, effectively put the film together as a package. Although Robert Mitchum was initial first choice, when he didn’t respond the screenplay went to Clark Gable, another MCA client, who accepted immediately. Eli Wallach was next on board. At this point, with only six films under his belt and better known for his work on Broadway, Wallach would not have expected to see his name above the title. But he was told that his name would be second to appear on the credits, after Gable.

But as the weeks went by and first Monroe then Montgomery Clift – both MCA clients – signed up his name slipped further down the credits. He consoled himself that his name would be “first position under the title” as that billing position was technically known. That proved an illusion. Thelma Ritter, apparently, boasted greater box office wattage so in the final credit rankings he placed fifth.

Although Monroe was viewed as the most mentally fragile, Clift and Gable also had issues to overcome. Due to the injuries suffered in a car crash and his well-known dependency on drugs, nobody would insure Clift but eventually an agreement was reached. Gable failed the medical, having gained 35lb while filming  It Happened in Naples (1960) in Italy, ballooning his weight to 230lb. But two weeks later he was cleared.

The producer for such a heavyweight production was an industry lightweight. Frank E. Taylor’s main claim to fame was that he had been Miller’s publisher before he achieved fame as a playwright, working for the small company that published the author’s non-fiction work Situation Normal (1944) and the novel Focus (1945). Taylor had some Hollywood experience, but after four years employed there managed only one credit, John Sturges’ film noir Mystery Street (1950).

The original plan to start filming in September 1959 was scuppered by the incompletion of It Happened in Naples so it was shelved until the next spring. The next start date – March 3, 1960 – was an unexpected casualty of the Actors Strike which had delaying shooting on Monroe-starrer Let’s Make Love by five weeks. So when that film finished on July 1, there was little of a break for Monroe what with costume and wig fittings and test photographs before reporting on July 18, 1960, for what was expected to be a 50-day shoot, for The Misfits.

The budget was set at $3.5 million – a substantial amount for a black-and-white picture – with $1.6 million going to the principals. Clark Gable was down for $750,000, Marilyn Monroe and John Huston $300,000 apiece – although a generous profit participation scheme could see the actress earn as much as Gable – and Arthur Miller on $225,000. It was shot mainly on location in Nevada at Reno, Dayton and Pyramid Lake (a misnomer because it was all dried out) with a couple of weeks’ studio work at the end. Unusually, it was being filmed  in chronological order to assist Monroe achieve her characterization.

Taylor had achieved a publicity coup by convincing famed photographic cooperative  Magnum to cover the shoot in depth. Photographers of the calibre of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath and Eve Arnold worked in teams of two, each for a 15-day stint. Bresson would say of Monroe’s ethereal beauty: “I was struck as by an apparition in a fairy tale.”

Before a foot of film was exposed, the movie was in crisis. The script had been refused approval by the Production Code, the self-censorship system to which all studios subscribed. Code head honcho Geoffrey Shurlock complained that “the illicit relationship involving Roslyn and Gay seems to lack effective compensating moral values…(with the) difficulty that your story readily accepts illicit sex rather than condemning it.”

While there was publicity value to be gained from a tussle with the Production Code, it would not sit well with the distributors. The lack of a rating would inhibit many cinemas from risking a booking, despite the box office appeal of the cast.

Everyone had known going into production that getting Monroe on the set at all never mind in a condition to work would be a considerable achievement. Aware of her inability to rise early, Huston had shifted the daily start time by an hour to 10am. Sometimes shooting was restricted to only a couple of hours per day and since she was in most scenes there was a limit to how much the director could shoot around her.

Among the cast nobody knew her better than Eli Wallach. He had met the actress several years before when she had popped backstage after his performance in Teahouse of the August Moon on Broadway. He recalled: “She looked nothing like the movie star I’d seen onscreen; she wore a simple dress and had short blond hair. She was pale, shy, and wore no lipstick.” They became friends and would go out dancing. He introduced her, gradually, to The Actors Studio where she met Lee Strasberg, husband to Paula who became her acting coach.

“By the time we began to work on The Misfits in 1960,” said Wallach, “she seemed to have become a different Marilyn than the one I had known in New York, and the action that happened off-screen during the making of the film seemed to rival what was happening onscreen.”

Even so, the early part of the shoot went well. Commented Wallach, “Her mood waned and she began to lose her self-confidence.” For one scene where she was to do nothing more difficult than cross the road, she kept stopping halfway through. She had forgotten her motivation. Huston advised, “Your motivation comes from your need to cross the street without getting hit by any of the cars.” The next take was perfect.

But the signs of trouble were there from the outset. The evening before her first scene a nervous Monroe nearly took an overdose of Nembutal. Her unpredictability meant that on some days she only managed an hour or two, other days nothing at all. On August 27 she collapsed and was sent to Westside Hospital in Los Angeles for treatment, where she could be weaned off her addiction to barbiturates under the care of her analyst, not returning until September 6. On September 12, 13 and 19, she was indisposed and didn’t turn up for work.

If this was a case of life imitating art – her marriage to Miller was falling apart – she seemed to react to some lines as if the words were intended for Marilyn and not the character she was playing. In one scene Gable says, “You’re the saddest girl I ever met. What makes you so sad?” Monroe burst into tears. Wallach surmised, “Marilyn seemed to feel that the camera could detect her innermost thoughts.” In another scene, where Monroe and Wallach dance she “seemed upset and unhappy.”

Apart from casting her in The Asphalt Jungle, Huston had “saved her from the casting couch” by prior to that film setting up a proper screen test for her opposite John Garfield, providing her with a calling card that would reduce the requirement for her to jump into bed with a producer to get a part. But even on The Asphalt Jungle, she seemed dependent on her acting coach, at this point Natasha Lytess. “At the end of a take,” recalled Huston, “Marilyn would look to her for approval. The coach would nod her head.”

Monroe was taking pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up in the morning. The doctor on location eventually refused to give her any more, but of course she found them elsewhere. After visiting her in hospital, Huston was convinced the worst was over. But her renewed effervescence didn’t last.

“Marilyn returned to her old ways as though she’d never had a break,” recollected Huston. “One Sunday afternoon I visited her in her suite to get an idea of what to expect in the week ahead. She greeted me euphorically – then went into a kind of trance. She was the worst I’d ever seen her. Her hair was a tangle; her hands and feet were grubby; she was wearing only a short nightgown which wasn’t any cleaner than the rest of her.”

Despite her personal problems, Monroe was an extremely skilled actress. Observed Huston, “She could be marvelously effective. She wasn’t acting – I mean she was not pretending to an emotion. It was the real thing. She would go deep down within herself and find it and bring it up into consciousness.”

Huston, not necessarily known for accommodating actors, turned on the charm, always agreeing to another take if Monroe or Paula Strasberg (paid $3,000 a week) asked for it. Although most people disparaged Paula’s presence on the set or, more correctly, Monroe’s dependence on her, Huston acknowledged that without her his job would have been more difficult and he called a halt to crewmen nicknaming her Black Bart after her choice of clothing, habitually a black sack dress and black hat. So integral was Strasberg to Monroe’s life that the actress later moved from a hotel room shared with her husband to Strasberg’s apartment.

When even Strasberg failed to control her client, her husband Lee, the inventor of the Method School of acting which had revolutionised American drama, was flown in from New York. He had a different take on the situation. The problem wasn’t with Monroe but Huston. The director’s – refusing to deal directly with Paula. Raged Lee:  “I will not tolerate this treatment of her, she is an artist,” threatening remove his wife from the picture.

Miller saw it differently: “Coach (Strasberg) was a little crazy, she was an opportunist I thought and not competent to help.” However, there was a very real issue to be addressed. Monroe had never come to terms with her fame and could not cope with the pressure of being the screen character with whom the world was infatuated.

Monroe’s technique was very individual. “I don’t want to discuss the Method. I don’t believe I have the experience. I try to use Method to the best of my ability. It makes working more possible…The writer has done the words then it’s up to the actor…I can’t work unprepared, I’d shoot myself. I can’t memorize words by themselves. I have to memorize the feeling.”

Clark Gable was on a career high, at least in terms of remuneration, earning $750,000 a picture, on a par with John Wayne and William Holden, the highest-earning stars at the time. Gable had the privilege of being paired with some of the top female stars – But Not For Me (1959) with Carroll Baker, Doris Day in Teacher’s Pet (1958) and Sophia Loren on It Happened in Naples, the title a twist on his star-making picture It Happened One Night (1934), and more than holding his own against Burt Lancaster in war picture Run Silent, Run Deep (1958).

Despite his commercial appeal he held to a particular ethos when choosing a role. “If I hadn’t liked this story I wouldn’t have done it no matter how much money they offered me,” he said. “I have to like the story or I won’t do it…I never select a part for the part itself. I always look at the overall story first.” Of his character, Gable observed: “He’s the same man but the world has changed. Then he was noble. Now he is ignoble.”

The press was salivating over the prospect of The King falling for The Blonde Bombshell. But regardless of her physical attractions, Gable was put off the actress by her untidiness and her lack of personal hygiene. But he was not perturbed by her behavior. “I’m just unhappy about her problems, her fears, her personal life, but if I were to chastise or criticize her it would only deepen her despair,” he said. When, largely thanks to Monroe’s hospitalization, shooting continued past the original completion date he was compensated to the tune of an extra $48,000.

With the male actors, Gable had a tendency to get off on the wrong foot. Initially annoyed with Montgomery Clift for fluffing lines, they became good friends after trading insults. But it took John Huston to end an unexpected rift between Gable and Eli Wallach.

Prior to their first day working together, Eli Wallach was surprised to answer a knock on his hotel room door to find Gable’s assistant Bama Davis who asked him to read to the visitor the scene they would perform the next day. Somewhat puzzled by this behavior and worried this approach was indicative of the actor, Wallach did not speak to Gable when they first met. It fell to Huston to break the ice by handing both actors a shot of Jack Daniels.

Gable was more sensitive to his own performance than you might imagine. He asked Huston to reshoot the scene where he wakens up Monroe because he “didn’t think he showed the love that was necessary.” He refused a stunt double for the scene where Gable, Wallach and Clift try to throw the mustang. In the film the mare dragged Gable and Wallach around the lake floor. In reality, in long shot it was stunt double Tom Palen being dragged by an actual horse. For close-ups of Gable while there were no horses in sight, the star was still dragged at 35mph for 400ft behind a truck. It took 28 cuts of Gable for the stallion fight to be matched with second unit footage.

Gable was angry at the way the second unit treated Tom Palen. After the stuntman had already endured two injuries Gable drew the line on hearing that he was called upon to be smashed on the face by hooves.

Gable was immensely proud of his work. “I have two things to be proud of in my career – Gone with the Wind and this one.”  He later amended that to, “This is the best thing I did in my life.”

John Huston and Reno, where the film crew were housed, were a match made in heaven. The director was an inveterate gambler. He lost $25,000 one night but won it back the next and some. Overall, he left with less than when he arrived.

But he had an artist’s instinct when it came to film. He was not one for giving much direction. Huston expected “actors to be themselves, he didn’t interfere very much with their interpretation.” He prided himself on telling an actor as little as possible. “When I have to step in, I feel defeated.”

But he knew what he wanted and how, technically, to get the best out of an actor. At first Wallach played his drunk scene with rage until Huston pointed out that drunks always try to pretend they’re sober. And Huston knew what he didn’t want. Which was unwanted advice from an actor. For one scene with Monroe, Wallach expected a close up and committed the cardinal error of pointing this out to the director. “Never,” growled Huston, “never tell a director where to set up the camera.”

For Montgomery Clift’s first scene where he is seen talking to his mother in a callbox, Huston wrapped it after the first take, ignoring Clift’s pleas for another shot. ‘You’ll never do it better,’ said Huston, ensuring he did not fall prey to Clift’s lack of self-confidence either.

Monroe seemed to instinctively understand – and approve of – Huston’s technique. “He watches for the reality of a situation and he leaves it alone and he waits until he needs more or less before he comes in.”

Monroe wasn’t the only one whose illness shut down the set. Shooting on October 3 was cancelled because Huston came down with a recurrence of bronchitis due to the alkali dust on the dry lake. He was missing again the following day.

But if the actors in general appreciated Huston’s technique, Arthur Miller did not. It was unusual for a screenwriter to be present during the entirety of a shoot. For all that he brought certain extra intensity to scenes he re-wrote and his improvisation resulted in at least one great scene – Monroe’s paddle-boarding was not originally in the script but incorporated after watching her play with the toy between takes – Miller was generally a pain in the butt.

With no experience of moviemaking he clearly regarded himself as something of an authority and failed to recognise the distinction between the production of a play – where the writer was top dog – and a movie, where he was not.

Miller complained to Huston and Taylor about the lack of atmosphere, calling for more long shots “to constantly remind us how isolated these people are.” He had the temerity to criticize Gable’s performance. For one scene he observed that the actor had not “shown sufficient expression in his eyes.” Gable patiently explained that actions had to be minimized because they would be magnified a hundred times on the screen. “He turned out to be right,” conceded Miller, “he had simply intensified an affectionate look that was undetectable a few feet away.”

“I learnt from John,” said Miller, “ that he would pack the lens with material and let the camera choose…he put a lot of elements in front of the camera and let it find its way. So there’s not a lot of cutting from one face to the other ion conversation.” (In fact, this was old-school filmmaking where characters were grouped together rather than filmed apart). But he complained vociferously about the director’s positioning of Monroe fifty yards from the camera for her “Murderers! Murderers!” scene.

Miller thought such distance would ensure she wouldn’t be heard. But when Miller saw the rushes he realised the director was right. Huston wanted to portray Monroe at this point “as if she were a voice lost in the wilderness.”

Miller also wanted one scene which fades to darkness. Huston had to explain the practicalities. “You can only have one light in any given scene. In plays you can dim the light through a scene but not in a motion picture. You’re asking for values that aren’t there.”

His presence certainly wasn’t doing his wife any good. It might have been better if he had been absent, since the marriage appeared to disintegrate under their noses. He was being prophetic when he said of her first scene: “I couldn’t help feeling her disappointment not only in her character’s marriage but in her own…I had sensed something withdrawn in her, not merely in the character she was playing.”

He was prone to rewriting, in part with what he believed were better ideas, but also to emphasize developments he perceived in the characters as their screen personalities unfolded. By October 6 Gable had enough of the constant script changes and refused to film anything that had been written after September 20. Luckily, he relented and agreed to shoot the much-revised final scene. But even Miller received his come-uppance on a personal level. One day on location miles into the desert, Huston came upon a stranded Miller, abandoned by Monroe and her entourage.

Four-time Oscar nominee Montgomery Clift had an extraordinary success rate in pictures. Up till now he had appeared in only thirteen pictures but at least half were gems – Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), I Confess (1953), From Here to Eternity (1953), Raintree County (1957), The Young Lions (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). But a bad car accident in 1956 exacerbated his drug and sexuality issues and he was considered an unexploded grenade. “He’s the only person I know who’s in worse shape than me,” said Monroe.

In fact, perhaps encumbered with helping nurse Monroe, he was able to put his own problems to one side. Apart from the early tiff with Gable, his most difficult point was when he received rope burns during his part in the mustang chase. He had forgotten to put on gloves at the start of the scene and he couldn’t suddenly appear with them on when he had to haul on the rope.

The longest scene lasting all of five minutes. The longest Huston  had ever shot and one of the longest ever committed to camera was shot “day for night,” the effect achieved by a red lens opening and using red and green filters. The shooting area was covered by a black tarpaulin to kill the direct rays of the sun. Big 10k lights were hauled in to give the effect of moonlight on Monroe and Clift. Second unit director Tom Shaw was on standby with insect spray to keep insects off the actors.

But the long stretches of dialog defeated the actors and finally to save film on wasted takes Huston sent them off to rehearse by themselves. After several takes they completed the scene without missing a line. But there had been a problem with Clift’s bandage so the scene required reshooting. First Clift fluffed a line, then Monroe, then Huston interrupted, objecting to the camera position, “that’s a most unflattering angle.” After Clift fluffed a line once again, it was done.

For another scene at the lake also shot “day for night,” the cowboys did not actually build a camp fire, that was artificial, lit underground using gas, while trees and bushes were planted for the occasion.

If you ever wondered how movie crews get the bashes in bashed cars, the answer is they put them there. Monroe’s new Cadillac was battered by sledgehammers to represent a vehicle dented by admirers wanting to attract Monroe’s character’s attention by bumping into her.

It wasn’t just Monroe who caused problems. Two forest fires on August 20 saw Reno covered in black smoke with 200 firemen attending the blazes. Within a day the fire had consumed 35,000 acres and caused $200 million in damages and cut the power lines to Reno.  However, the crew reacted by bringing a lighting truck and generator from Dayton.

On October 24, the crew was shipped back to Hollywood for scenes and footage requiring back projection. Landscape scenes of Pyramid Lake, for example, were screened behind the aeroplane and for scenes taking place in cars. Huston had commissioned 360-degree stereopticon shots of the lake so that single head shots could be used with rear projection.

Among the reshoots was the dance sequence at the Stix house “to show more joy and abandon” and the scene on the truck bed between Gable and Monroe in which Miller had complained “there was a lack of interaction between the two players.”

The scene where Gable was trampled by the horse was reshot with artificial hooves. Buckets of actual alkali from the lake were spread on a wooden platform, the artificial legs in the end manipulated by Huston. The last scene shot was a retake of Gable and Monroe in the station wagon. “For the first and last time on the picture,” observed journalist James Goode, “Huston didn’t ask for another take.”

Final scene was shot on November 4 – 40 days behind schedule and $500,00 over budget. One week later, Miller and Monroe announced their separation. Twelve days after shooting ended Clark Gable was dead.

Although the general impression given was that Taylor was a competent producer, in fact he saw his role in a different light. “I have this absurd Machiavellian function…the screenplay here has been a vindictive instrument which Arthur and John are using to attack each other.” He noted: “All the energy is going downhill when it should be going up,” adding,  “the writer is blaming the director and the director is blaming the writer.”

Taylor was enthusiastic about the completed film. He told his Max Youngstein of United Artists, “It’s like an express train. It has a pace, a speed you don’t see in the screenplay itself. The script will get an Academy Award and Clark…this is a major-size hero we have on our hands.” But Youngstein was disappointed, concerned it lacked the Huston touch.

In post-production the Production Code situation was exacerbated by the fact that the completed film could, conceivably, contain a scene where Marilyn Monroe showed her right breast. This appeared to have come about by accident.

Nudity was certainly not in the script as no mainstream studio at that time would greenlight a film showing naked breasts. For the bedroom scene on September 21, as Monroe rises from the bed to put on her bathrobe, nine takes in all were filmed. In Take 7 she revealed her right breast. That was the one originally printed.

There were arguments that the nude scene should be included at least for the overseas market where censorship was seen to be less onerous. But Frank Taylor argued that Take 7 should be included for the domestic market. Since the movie was on course anyway to be denied the Seal of Approval from the Production Code there seemed little to lose by including the nudity.

Although Arthur Miller was undecided, Marilyn Monroe was happy enough. “Gradually, they’ll let down censorship” and she suggested that nudity was one way of pulling viewers away from television. Max Youngstein of United Artists was enthusiastic. It was Huston who nixed it, commenting, dryly, “I have always known girls have breasts.” And finally Taylor gave ground after realising that the film would be forever remembered as the one where Monroe revealed a breast rather than for its artistic merit.

The distribution approach was risky. Usually, at that time, big films went out slowly, launched in one or two cinemas in the major cities, and held over there for weeks at a time until ready to slip down the food chain. Instead, UA planned to make available 1,000 prints simultaneously, a distribution technique known then as “saturation” – what today we would term “wide release.” But that was traditionally reserved for low-budget offerings of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety where the movie had vanished before bad word of mouth could spread. UA had precedent for taking this route. It had used saturation for The Magnificent Seven (1960). But that had been a flop. In the end The Misfits did decent enough business, though not at the level you would have expected from the cast.

In writing this article I delved deeply into the James Goode book, which I can highly recommend, on the making of the film, especially as he goes in for the kind of detail normally excluded from “making-of” books.

For example, he provides a complete breakdown of costs. Apart from the $1.6 million already mentioned, other costs include $200,000 for production, $85,000 for sets, $45,000 for lighting, $39,000 for sound, $150,000 for transportation, $32,000 for negative film (200,000 feet at 0.454 cents a foot), and $25,000 for positive prints. There was $750 per week to rent the generator, $225 per week for the small camera dolly, $400 per week for the motorized camera crane, $200 per week for folding chairs and $200 per month for Monroe’s trailer.

Hiring Boots the stunt horse cost $150 a week against a 10-week guarantee. There was a $10,000 bill to build the rodeo ground, $500 to rent the saloon, $15,000 went on renting the Stix house and $1,000 for use of the lake. The production paid for 17,570 lunches at $2.75 a head. There was $6,000 for hotel accommodation and $2,000 for the Dodge truck used in the lake scenes.

As many as 1,500 extras were called up and paid immediately. Stunt doubles, whether on contract or salary, were paid a base sum plus a bonus according to how much work they did on a given day. Sometimes the media was given a daily meal allowance, but other times not, the same being true for accommodation.

The final cost of the picture was $3.995 million. I found that a fascinating figure. Sure, it was nearly $500,000 over budget. But the film shot for 90 days instead of 50. In other words, shooting the extra 40 days cost proportionately little. Yes, Clark Gable accounted for another $48,000 in overtime but did this really mean that contracts were so tight that it effectively ensured that everyone, once signed up, could not leave until the movie was finished and not receive compensation on a pro-rate basis?

SOURCES: James Goode, The Story of The Misfits (Bobbs Merrill, 1963); Arthur Miller, Timebends,  A Life (Grove Press, 1987); Eli Wallach, The Good, the Bad and Me (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005); David Bret, Clark Gable, Tormented Star (JR Books, 2010); Arthur Miller, Serge Toubiana, The Misfits (Phaidon, 1963); John Huston, An Open Book (Macmillan, 1981); Arthur Miller, “Monroe Miller Magnificent Misfits,”  Washington Post, December 13, 1987.

The Misfits (1961) *****

A knockout. Stone cold five-star gold label classic. It’s rare for a non-western to turn into one of the greatest westerns of all time. Forget The Wild Bunch (1969) and Once Upon a time in the West (1969) and every other paean to the dying of the Old West. This is all you need. A true insight into just what is left for the cowboy once civilization and modernization have run their course.

What’s perhaps most astonishing is that three major Hollywood stars plus a top director and  one of the three greatest American playwrights of all time combined to make an indie. There’s no high drama of the kind Hollywood usually requires, no love dashed, no death or murder, nothing dramatic enough to be called narratively gripping. Made today, it would be the kind of picture that would traipse from film festival to film festival, hoping for a break at Sundance. The cast would be no-namers unless a star, fed-up with actioners, wanted to gain some artistic credibility.

This is as misleading a tag line as you could get. Admittedly, selling the movie’s core sadness
in the early 1960s would have been tough.

By some freak of Hollywood magic this was greenlit. There’s plenty good dialog but nothing that’s going to make it into the Classic Line Hall of Fame and there’s only a handful of finely wrought scenes. So beyond the astonishing mustang sequence, what reverberated was the acting, with each big star producing a scene of the highest quality, for pure emotional impact possibly unsurpassed in their entire careers.

The story itself is pretty slim. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) in Reno to get a divorce hooks up with washed-up cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) and grieving car mechanic Guido (Eli Wallach). They repair to Guido’s cabin in the country, unfinished after his pregnant wife died because he didn’t have a spare tire. They are joined by hard-drinking man-hungry Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). Roslyn shacks up here with Gay, brightening up the place with decorative ideas and planting vegetables.

At the rodeo they stake drunken Perce (Montgomery Clift), a tough guy with mother issues, self-destructing one rodeo at a time. At various times the trio nurse and console each other, but mostly they get drunk. The three men take Roslyn along to show off their cowboy skills, catching wild mustangs. This is less old-fashioned than you might imagine. It’s more like tracking down the great white shark in Jaws (1975), a primeval battle between man and beast. Man has the advantage of being able to use Guido’s biplane to drive the horses down to Gay and Guido waiting with lassoes.

And tires.

What are the tires for you might well ask? Well, they fulfil the same function as the barrels in Jaws, to weight down the animals so they are easier to track, perhaps exhausting them so much they might just topple over and die. So the odds are not exactly even.

The guys are further disadvantaged by Roslyn’s presence. When she learns of the horses’ fate – not as you might expect to become working horses on a ranch like current television series Yellowstone – she is horrified. The critters will end up as pet food. So much for the Wild West.

This is an absolutely fantastic sequence and I’m surprised it doesn’t turn up on critical lists at all as one of the great western segments of all time. It says more about the end of the West than all the violence of The Wild Bunch or operatic fervour of Once Upon a Time in the West. And it’s a companion piece to The Old Man and the Sea, man, for all his endeavors, ending up with virtually nothing.

There’s a few twists and turns to this sequence so I won’t spoil it for you except to say it is one of the very few sections in movies where character plays out in action.

And this isn’t even Gable’s greatest scene. The moment when, drunken out of his skull already, he bleats in the street about his kids carries awesome power. What he’s saying doesn’t even make a great deal of sense, which is the beauty of it, because what drunk ever makes sense, most of the time he’s effectively addressing the demons inside.

Clift has a horrifically comic scene. His brain is as washed away as his body. He wakes out of a drunken stupor and can’t remember why he has a huge bandage round his head and proceeds to unravel it, again with a monologue that reveals his inner catatonic state.

Monroe is mute in her best scene. She just stares in horror at the mustang incident unfolding. And she has another terrific scene, probably the most ordinary thing she ever did in her screen career, battering a ping-pong.

The title is actually a rodeo term apparently for, unsurprisingly, a horse that was too small or weak to work. I would have preferred something less obvious because it’s quite clear from the outset all the characters are misfits.

This is probably the closest Monroe got to playing a character who reflected her inner turmoil. Roslyn’s beauty brightens up lives but mostly she is depressed, thinking that even when you win you lose, too fragile to cope with reality, and inclined to need consoled as much as she is willing to nurse the others. Gay is a superb creation, who despises men who earn “wages,” that is have a regular job and lose their freedom. Even if freedom means no female companionship and being reduced to catching horses for the few bucks they will bring in from pet food manufacturers, he would rather do that. Perce is just so battered by life he hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. The self-serving Guido whines.

Put all these characters together and they still live in world of their own, and although they occasionally cross the border into another’s existence by and large it is without understanding.

Without John Huston’s empathetic direction it would be unbearably sad, but with virtually nothing in the way of real plot he draws us inexorably in to their small lives. Given its budget and the box office potential of the stars, it was a flop on release. Now it’s a masterpiece.    

However tragic or premature, few Hollywood stars could have gone out at the top with a picture of this quality as did Gable and Monroe. Possibly as a result of his exertions on the film, Gable died a few days after shooting completed, Monroe eighteen months later, but what a final legacy.

Seven Thieves (1960) ****

You wouldn’t figure director Henry Hathaway for a caper movie. He seemed more at home with action, whether that be war (The Desert Fox, 1951), adventure (Legend of the Lost, 1957) or western (Nevada Smith, 1966) although he was a dab hand at film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947). And before the big-budget all-star Oceans 11 entered the equation in the same year as Seven Thieves – and stole much of its thunder – the heist movie ran mostly on B-movie steam such as Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).

And probably judged against other glossy efforts of the 1960s like Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1967) Seven Thieves would appear on the surface to come up a bit short. No doubt accounting for it being so under-rated. But while this is in itself a neat little thriller the kick comes in the emotional entanglements and a succession of twists at the end that sends it in my book into a higher category.

And it’s so outrageously clever that the mystery of why French-based criminal mastermind Theo Wilkins  (Edward G. Robinson) would reach out across the Atlantic Ocean to recruit former jailbird Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) to spearhead the heist of a cool four million dollars from a Monte Carlo casino is not resolved until the end, and in spectacular fashion.

Technically, there are actually only six thieves, the other is an inside man, Raymond (Alexander Scourby), who has fallen for the seductive charms of nightclub dancer Melanie (Joan Collins). Making up the rest of the septet are safe cracker Louis (Michael Dante) and muscle-cum-driver Hugo (Berry Kroeger) with Poncho (Eli Wallach) playing the key role of the pretend crippled, arrogant, irascible millionaire – and contrary to the claims of one poster he is the decoy not Melanie.

Distrust of his team makes Theo bring in Paul, who ruthlessly knocks them into shape, putting into seamless action the plan devised by Theo. Simply put, Poncho is going to act as a distraction by having a heart attack at the gambling table while Paul and Louis climb out a window along a ledge to the casino director’s flat which provides, by means of an elevator, direct access to the underground vaults. Once they’ve stolen the cash, they clamber back along the ledge and hide in the flat where, by this time, Theo, playing the role of Poncho’s personal physician, has taken him. The money will be hidden in Poncho’s wheelchair and removed to a waiting ambulance.

But Paul is a rather suspicious character and wants to know what he’s letting himself in for so in turn works out the weaknesses of his team. Melanie hides behind a façade of high birth, Pancho is too reckless, “measuring danger only in terms of profit,” Hugo prone to unnecessary violence, while Louis has omitted to mention he is terrified of heights, the ledge on which the operation depends standing on a 100ft high cliff.   

In some posters, this was promoted as Al Capone (Steiger)
vs Little Caesar (Robinson).

The plan relies on Poncho actually appearing to be dead, so dead that the casino director (Sebastian Cabot) will not hesitate, at Theo’s insistence, to shift him out of sight of the rest of the gamblers into his flat. But Complication No 1 is that Poncho doesn’t want to be dead, even if it is a ruse, skeptical of Theo’s plan to convincingly knock him out by means of a carefully measured dose of cyanide. Complication No 2 is that a night club client recognizes Melanie and casts doubt on her credentials as a lady of quality. Complication No 3 is that English physician Dr Halsey (Alan Caillou) questions whether Poncho is as dead as he seems.

But such complications are nothing compared an extraordinary range of twists that raise tension sky-high at the movie’s denouement. I challenge you to guess what these three superbly-conceived twists would be, all of them one by one turning the project on its head, and it rapidly shifts from one direction to another, ending with an unbelievable – and yet so in keeping with the premise – climax.

Attention to character detail lifts this out of the rut, whether it be Theo’s penchant for collecting seashells, Paul resplendent in a white suit, Melanie resisting the blandishments of becoming a kept woman, Raymond trying to climb out the murky depths into which the lure of Melanie has taken him, and a series of subtle relationships, some developing through the robbery, others which began long before the heist working themselves out.

The heist itself is well done, tension kept constant mostly through the failings of the crew and the suspicions of the dupes. All in all an excellent picture.

This was a critical film in the careers of most of the cast. Edward G. Robinson (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) was handed his first top-billed role in four years. It was a deliberate change of pace for Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker, 1964). For Eli Wallach, best known at the time for stage work, it was the first of three films that year that would launch him into the higher ranks of top supporting stars; it was followed by The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits. After being leading lady to the likes of Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, this spelled the end of Twentieth Century Fox’s belief in Joan Collins’ star qualities while for Michael Dante (The Naked Kiss, 1964) it was a step up.

Wallach and Dante could be accused of over-acting but Robinson, Steiger and Collins all act against type with considerable effect. Hathaway does a superb job working from a script by Sydney Boehm (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) based on the Max Catto bestseller.

Lord Jim (1965) ***

What if redemption isn’t enough? When shame is buried so deep inside the psyche it can trigger no release? That’s the central theme of Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel.

The title character’s shame comes from, as a young officer, abandoning a ship he believed was sinking only to later discover it had been rescued with a cargo of pilgrims who point the finger of blame. He is branded a coward and kicked out of the East India Trading Company, plying his trade among the debris of humanity.

You might think he later redeemed himself by foiling a terrorist plot at great risk to his own life. But that cannot erase his shame. Nor can helping revolutionaries overthrow a despotic warlord (Eli Wallach), enduring torture and again at great risk. What other sacrifice must he make to rid himself of the millstone round his neck?

Writer-director Brooks had a solid pedigree in the adaptation stakes – The Brothers Karamazov (1958), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) – but sometimes you felt the writer got in the way of the director. That’s the case here. There was enough here to satisfy the original intended roadshow customers, great location work, grand sets, length, a big star in Peter O’Toole, but there is no majestic camerawork. There are good scenes but no great sweep and the result is a slightly ponderous film relieved by stunning action, some moments of high tension, the occasional twist to confound the audience and ingenious ways to mount a battle.

Hired killer Gentleman Brown (James Mason) has many of the best lines – “heroism is a form of mental disease induced by vanity” and “the self-righteous stench of a converted sinner” – all in reference to Jim. Everybody has great lines except Lord Jim, as introverted as  Lawrence of Arabia, face torn up by self-torture, fear of repeating his original sin of cowardice and convinced he will be cast out again should people discover he had abandoned hundreds of pilgrims.

Apart from the storm at the outset, the central section in the beleaguered village is the best part as Jim finds sanctuary, love and purpose, and conjures up the possibility of burying the past.

Part of the problem of the film is the director’s need to remain faithful to the source work which has an odd construction and you will be surprised at the parts played by the big-name supporting cast of James Mason, Jack Hawkins and Curt Jurgens. Many of the films made in the 1960s were concerned with honor of one kind or another and, despite my reservations about the film as a whole, as a study of guilt this is probably the best in that category, in that this character’s conscience refuses to allow him an easy way out.  

Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) is chock-full of anguish but finds it difficult to create a character of similar heroic dimensions to the David Lean picture. James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is surprisingly good in an unusual role. Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) as The General plays a variation of a character he has essayed before.  

This may have been a step up the Hollywood ladder but it was backward move in acting terms given Daliah Lavi’s performance in The Demon (1963) – reviewed here some time ago. Her talent is somewhat wasted in an underwritten part. Also in the supporting cast: Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Akim Tamiroff (The Liquidator, 1965), Andrew Keir (Quatermass and the Pit, 1967) and Jack MacGowran (Age of Consent).  

Director Richard Brooks was also on screenwriting duties.

The Moon-Spinners (1964) ***

Every new Hayley Mills film was an exercise in transition. Would audiences allow the successful child star – the first for a generation – to grow up? Or would they turn against her as they had Shirley Temple? And would her paymasters Disney in the penultimate film in her contract assist her by offering more mature roles or insist she remained the cute kid? She had already ventured into more adult territory with the British-made The Chalk Garden (1964).

Set on the island of Crete, what starts out as typical Disney travelog – traditional Greek wedding and annual festival parade – soon morphs into darker sub-Hitchcockian territory. Nikki (Hayley Mills) on holiday with her aunt (Joan Greenwood), a collector of folk songs, becomes mixed up with skin diver Mark (Peter McEnery) who appears for reasons unknown to be on the trail of a local man Stratos (Eli Wallach). Young love looks set to blossom except for the villainy afoot. The picture holds on to its various mysteries for too long so exposition comes in a flood in the second act while the third act introduces a new set of characters including British consul (John Le Mesurier) and wealthy yacht owner Madame Habib (legendary silent star Pola Negri).

Along the way some excellent scenes feature: a nerve-tingling high-wire stunt on a revolving windmill, a punch-up on a speeding boat, the drunken wife (Sheila Hancock) of the consul, feral cats in an ancient monument, an old woman thinking she is going crazy when a bottle moves seemingly of its own volition, a hearse doubling as an ambulance, a cowardly leopard and a belter of a slap meted out by Nikki. Mark, physically inhibited by a gunshot wound, has to cede investigation into the nefarious activities to Nikki who in any case has already played the independence card.

Getting all the necessary information to the audience and ensuring various characters are properly introduced without the whole enterprise turning into a turgid mess is a tricky proposition but director James Neilson is equally at home with complicated plot and multi-character scenario from his experience on Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963) and with Mills from Summer Magic (1963). And he lets mystery and action take precedence over budding romance, the kiss when it comes hardly going to make an audience swoon, and uses the traditional Greek elements to build up atmosphere.

All in all entertaining enough, especially if viewed as Saturday matinee material, but it’s clear that the leading roles would have worked better if played by older characters as was the case with the source novel by Mary Stewart. Hayley Mills (Pollyanna, 1960) makes a game stab at putting forward a more grown-up persona but relies far too much on the acting tricks that got her into the child-star business in the first place. Even so, once she exerts her independence, she becomes more believable although the idea of a teenager solving a crime creates more problems than it solves in attracting an adult audience.

In his first leading role Peter McEnery (Beat Girl, 1960) impresses. Villainy is a stock in trade for Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) but here he dials down the brutality. Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) plays his sister and were it not for her husky voice Joan Greenwood  (Tom Jones) would have been a dead ringer for a dotty aunt. It’s a treat to see a famed silent star Pola Negri (Shadows of Paris, 1924) putting in an appearance. Character actors John Le Mesurier (The Liquidator, 1965), Andre Morrell (The Vengeance of She, 1968) and Sheila Hancock (Night Must Fall, 1964) complete the British contingent.   For British television writer Michael Dyne this proved his sole screenplay.

Catch Up: you can follow Hayley Mills’ unfolding career on the Blog through reviews of Pollyanna, The Truth about Spring (1965), Sky, West and Crooked / The Gypsy Girl (1966)  and her adult breakthrough The Family Way (1966). Eli Wallach films reviewed are: The Magnificent Seven, Lord Jim (1965), Genghis Khan (1965) and A Lovely Way to Die (1968).   

A Lovely Way To Die/A Lovely Way To Go (1968) ****

Woefully neglected detective thriller with a sparkling script and sexy leading stars exuding screen charisma. Like the celebrated William Goldman-scripted opening to Paul Newman private eye picture Harper (1966), the credit sequence here is at least as innovative in that it appears to be little short of a trailer, a highlights reel showing the audience what lies in store.

Kirk Douglas is a womanizing cop too handy with his fists, half his arrests making an unexpected detour to hospital. Sylva Koscina is the bored young wife of an older millionaire whose idea of fun is to chuck an expensive scarf out of a speeding car forcing her husband to pull up and go back and fetch. When her husband is shot, suspicion falls on Koscina – inclined  to dress in revealing outfits for the media – and her playboy boyfriend.

At the behest of attorney Eli Wallach with a rich Southern accent and a knack for speaking in parables, Douglas, having resigned from the force one step ahead of being fired, is sent in to provide security and find out whether her alibi stacks up. He soon finds out it doesn’t but by this time he has fallen under her spell. Witnesses disappear, intruders are dealt with, attempts are made on the detective’s life, and the twists come thick and fast. Koscina is the arch femme fatale who is a past master in the twisting department – twisting every male within a 50-mile radius round her little finger.

Harper was a throwback to The Maltese Falcon/The Big Sleep but A Lovely Way To Die knocks that shamus tradition on the head. For a start, Douglas is a high-living high-rolling  character who doesn’t take prisoners. The second time we meet him he has dumped the girl he took to the races for someone he has met while picking up his winnings.  Seducing gorgeous women and dumping them is second nature. This is Douglas as glorious charmer, a part of his screen persona lost after a glut of more serious pictures like Seven Days in May (1964) and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). Yugoslavian actress Koscina, often little more than eye candy for most of the decade, had vaulted into the higher echelons after a turn as Paul Newman’s squeeze in The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968).

Typical of the cheesecake type of photo used in movie fan magzines in the 1960s – this one of star Koscina appeared in the Yugoslavian magazine “Filmski Svet.”

An inherent part of the attraction of this picture is how deftly she keeps Douglas at bay. Scriptwriter A. J. Russell and director David Lowell Rich (Madame X, 1966) deliver the goods in maintaining the tension in their relationship. There is a wonderful scene where the expectant Douglas follows her up the stairs of her fabulous mansion and three times he ignores the import of her unmistakable “Goodnight,” his uber-confidence taking him to her door – which she shuts in his face.  

Sure, in some ways it is slick, but it is also taut and realistic, Douglas does not win all his fights and he eats with the rest of the help at the mansion. And he does some terrific detection so it doesn’t fall short in that department. He is definitely helped by some choice lines – “police methods are sometimes difficult for an amateur to understand” he tells Koscina after brutally despatching an intruder. Koscina is in her element as the sexy, wealthy suspect, and especially in her banter with Douglas, in which her main aim to disarm his cockiness.

Eli Wallach is also superb, given just enough ham to hang himself, but matching Douglas in arrogance and outgunning the D.A. with his courtroom gymnastics. A couple of the subsidiary characters are well-drawn, a housekeeper who plays the markets for example.   

For some reason this sank like a stone on its initial outing, audiences perhaps being more attuned to the Bogartian sleuth, but I found it highly enjoyable and this could be seen as a  taster for anyone familiar with the antics of the star’s son Michael Douglas who found himself in similar territory in Basic Instinct (1992).

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   

How to Steal a Million (1966) ***

A new documentary on Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn – Audrey: More Than an Icon – provides the perfect excuse to look back at some of her work. I have already reviewed her performance in an untypical role in John Huston western The Unforgiven (1960) in which she played “a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious.” Perhaps more typical of her appeal is romantic comedy How to Steal a Million in which she once again tops the chic league.

This is her third go-round with director William Wyler after similar romantic shenanigans in Roman Holiday (1953) and the more serious The Children’s Hour (1961) and the French capital had previously provided the backdrop to Paris When It Sizzles (1964). Hepburn plays the daughter of a wealthy art forger who hires burglar Peter O’Toole to recover a fake sculpture which her father has donated to a museum unaware that its insurance package calls for a forensic examination.

Compared to such sophisticated classics as Rififi (1955), Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1966) the theft is decidedly low-rent involving magnets, pieces of string and a boomerang. But the larceny is merely a “macguffin,” a way of bringing together two apparently disparate personalities and acclaimed stars to see if they strike sparks off each other. And they most certainly do but the romance is delightful rather than passionate.  

Written and directed by Helen Coan who made Chasing Perfect (2019)

Of course, it’s also a vehicle for the best clothes-horse in Hollywood. While some actresses might occasionally stir up a fashion bonanza (Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, for example), Hepburn’s audiences for virtually every film (The Unforgiven a notable exception) expected their heroine attired in ultra-vogue outfits. De Givenchy, given carte blanche to design her wardrobe, begins as he means to go on and she first appears in a white hat that looks more like a helmet and wearing white sunglasses. Her clothes include a pink coat and a woollen skirt suit dress and at one point she resembles a cat burglar with a black lace eye mask and black Chantilly lace dress. As distinctive was her new short hairstyle created by Alexandre de Paris. Cartier supplied drop earrings and a watch. Her tiny red car was an Autobianchi Bianchina special Cabriolet.

As much as with his charisma, O’Toole was a fashion match. He looked as if he could have equally stepped from the pages of Vogue and drove a divine Jaguar. He appeared as rich as she. He could have been a languid playboy, but imminently more resourceful. But since the story is about committing a crime and not about the indulgent rich, their good looks and fancy dressing are just the backdrop to an endearing romance. Although there are few laugh-out-loud moments, the script by Harry Kurnitz (Witness for the Prosecution, 1957) remains sharp and since Hepburn’s first responsibility is to keep her father out of jail there is no thunderclap of love.  An Eli Wallach, shorn of his normal rough edges, has a supporting role as an ardent suitor, Hugh Griffith with eyebrows that seemed poised on the point of take-off is the errant father while French stars Charles Boyer and Fernand Gravey put in an appearance.

If fashion’s your bag you can find out more by following this link: http://classiq.me/style-in-film-audrey-hepburn-in-how-to-steal-a-million.

 

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