The Venetian Affair (1966) ****

Robert Vaughn gives a terrific performance as a numbed alcoholic ex-C.I.A. journalist drafted into Venice to investigate a plot involving ex-wife and Communist defector Elke Sommer. He’s the spy who lost it rather than a flashy contemporary of James Bond. This occasionally very stylish number kicks off with an excellent credit sequence that concludes with a suicide bomber blowing up a nuclear disarmament conference. Unshaven and with a Columbo cast-off overcoat, Vaughn discovers Sommer was key to the atrocity, the bomber an otherwise distinguished diplomat with no known proclivities in the area of mass murder.

Although sold as an action picture, nobody is ripping through the canals as in a Bond film, and it is altogether a more somber, reflective, intelligent  movie. Vaughn’s feelings for his ex-wife are shown when, in her apartment, he tenderly touches her clothes and smells her perfume. Far from being party to the plot, it appears Sommer has had a change of heart and wants to defect back, leaving Vaughn in a perilous dilemma. Does he believe her or is she just using him? It is beginning to sound like a modern-day film noir, except he is already being used by the C.I.A., his presence in Venice a device to draw Sommer out, C.I.A chief Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) every bit as ruthless as the villains.

His investigations lead him to Dr Pierre Vaugiraud (Boris Karloff) and power broker Robert Wahl (Karl Boehm) who possesses a mind-altering drug that can make a man terrified of a mouse, send him into a trance and on his way to deliver savage retribution. There is death aplenty, fisticuffs and chases and Sommer, in hiding disguised as a nun, is worth waiting for.

Based on the bestseller by Scottish novelist Helen MacInnes, who outsold Alistair Maclean in her day, the project was at one point to be directed by Guy Hamilton. Coincidentally, David McCallum, Vaughn’s co-star in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series, was in Venice at the same time shooting Three Bites of the Apple.

Vaughn is superb in a downbeat role – shaking off his Napoleon Solo television persona- never sure if he is being duped, on the rack from falling back in love, and emerging from an alcoholic haze with a few decent ruses up his sleeve. It’s often forgotten that this is an Oscar-nominated (for The Young Philadelphians, 1959) star and that the subtlety of his performance in The Magnificent Seven (1960) is generally overlooked.

Television stalwart Jerry Thorpe making his debut contributes some interesting moments. Interpreters listening in to the conference hear the magnified ticking of the bomb moments before explosion. A sequence on a train is well done and the activity surrounding the mouse is first class. There’s a solid cast, Asner menacing even as a good guy, Karl Boehm a charismatic villain, Karloff memorable in his last performance in a non-horror picture, and interesting appearances by Felicia Farr as a C.I.A agent masquerading as the murderous diplomat’s unsuspecting mistress and Luciana Paluzzi as the girlfriend of an agent. Lalo Schifrin produces an outstanding score.

It was a flop first time round because audiences, partly duped by the title (all Uncle episodes incorporated the word “Affair” although the book, in fairness, was written long before the television series was envisioned) expected to pay to see Napoleon Solo, or something quite like him, on the big screen, with all the pizzazz and gimmickry of the small-screen show. Unfairly under-rated, this is a really satisfying thriller set against a murky Cold War background with Vaughn, trapped between love and redemption, the only character with a streak of morality.

Selling Paul Newman – The Pressbook for “The Prize”

You’ve got a new Paul Newman picture to sell to the exhibitors responsible for booking the picture into theaters – or not. So, do you mention the fact that he has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar three times in the last five years? Nope, that gets discounted because that was serious Paul Newman, heavy dramas, weighty themes. This is new-look Newman – a thriller in the vein of North by Northwest. The movie is set against the background of the Nobel Prize, the most important award scheme in the world, so surely promotion could focus on that. Well, no, actually that’s kind of weighty as well.

Nope, your best bet, according to the marketing team putting together the Pressbook (Exhibitor’s Campaign Manual) for The Prize is – wait for it – nudity and food. The first promotional page of the manual hits you with a couple of great ideas based on the fact that in the movie Paul Newman ends up in a nudist colony with only a towel to protect his dignity. “Announce that the first fifty women at your theater opening day will receive a costume just like the one worn by Paul Newman in the film” – in other words a towel. And if that doesn’t work “install a peek-a-boo box in which theater patrons can see the famous nude scene.” After all, continues the manual in confident tone, you are sitting on “the controversy of the century.”

Next big idea – “pre-sell The Prize with gourmet foods from Sweden.” Apparently, a heavy focus on food promotion had worked wonders for previous MGM pictures The VIPs (1963) and The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and neither of these pictures could call upon the actual menu served at the actual Nobel Banquet for 800 people at the Stockholm City Hall. The Pressbook gives menu ideas for exhibitors to pass on to local newspapers including such delicacies as “Supreme de Poulet Farci a la Royal” which is basically chicken stuffed with goose liver, cognac and madeira.  Alternatively, housewives could be tempted into making “Charlotte a la Royal” which consists of pineapple sorbet, curacao parfait, almond pastries filled with Grand Marnier, almond meringue and candied grapes.

Luckily, there were more mundane marketing ideas more likely to appeal to the theater manager who believed the name of Paul Newman should be all he or she needed to sell the picture. MGM had cut a single of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for the picture – four singles actually by four different artists – and that was guaranteed airplay in over 500 radio stations, the tune was also included in a composite album of movie themes.

And link-ups were also possible with your local book store, newsagent and drug stores for the movie tie-in paperback of the bestselling Irving Wallace novel with the stars on the cover.

It was only the last two pages of the 16-page glossy A3 Pressbook that carried any information on the film itself and the stars. German Elke Sommer making her Hollywood debut was given as big a push as Newman himself. She had taken the alternative route into acting of winning a dancing contest (according to MGM’s press office – a beauty contest according to Imdb) that led to a small part in an Italian picture.

The pressbook erroneously stated her second picture was directed by Vittorio De Sica, whereas he was merely the star and Sommer merely a supporting actress. By the time she came to make The Prize, she was a veteran with 25 pictures in the can. Sommer’s wardrobe as worn in the picture might also generate tie-ups with sweater shops, beauty salons and lingerie retailers. An idea for a lobby stunt was to stick an enlarged photo of Sommer on the wall and give a prize for the best sketch by a local artist.

Needless to say, neither director Mark Robson nor screenwriter Ernest Lehman merited a mention in the Pressbook.

The Prize (1963) ****

Thoroughly involving potboiler with alcoholic novelist Paul Newman turning unlikely detective to uncover murky double-dealings at the annual Nobel Prize ceremony. Based on the Irving Wallace bestseller set in Stockholm, director Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express,1965) strings together a number of different stories that coalesce in a gripping climax. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest,1959) brings alive what could have been a very soggy adaptation of a beefy bestseller with witty and literate dialog and a plot that hovers just the right side of hokum.

Elke Sommer, delegated to look after Newman, starts out as stuffed shirt not sexpot, allowing Newman’s attention to drift towards Emily Stratman (Diane Baker) – daughter of another winner Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) – while he is also dragged into romantic entanglement with neglected wife Dr Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle). Mostly, Newman just wants his next drink and his almost continual inebriation sparks some good comedy and he is gifted good lines to extricate himself from embarrassment. Simmering in the  background are warring winners – the Marceau husband-and-wife team and Dr John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy) convinced that Dr Carlo Farelli (Gerard Oury), with whom he is sharing a prize, has stolen his research.  

 There are sufficient character clashes and plots to be getting along with if you were just intent on taking a Valley of the Dolls approach to the material, that is, cutting between various dramatic story arcs, but, without invalidating the other subsidiary tales, the movie takes quite a different turn, providing the potboiler with considerable edge.  

Turns out that Newman is so impoverished that he has been writing detective novels under a pseudonym and suspecting that Dr Stratman is an imposter he starts investigating. So in some respects it’s a private eye procedural played out against the glamorous backdrop of the awards. But the clues are inventive enough and there is a femme fatale and once Sommer comes along for the ride and with Newman a target the picture picks up an invigorating pace. Echoing the humorous auction scene in North by Northwest is a sequence set in a nudist colony where Newman seeks refuge to avoid villains while another terrific scene plays out in the docks.

Newman looks as if he is having a ball. In most of his pictures he was saddled with seriousness as if every part was chosen with an eye on the Oscars. Here, he lets rip with a lighter persona, and even if he mugs to the camera once too often, the result is a screen departure that lifts the picture. Inebriation has clearly never been so enjoyable. Sommer is a delight, showing great dramatic promise. Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves,1960), more renowned for his gangster roles, convinces as a scientist. Diane Baker (The 300 Spartans, 1962), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers,1956) and Leo G. Carroll (North by Northwest) provide sterling support.

Robson directs with dexterity, mostly with an eye on pace, but it is Lehman’s script with occasional nods to Hitchcock that steals the show.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and Cool Hand Luke; Diane Baker in Marnie and The 300 Spartans; Elke Sommer in The Corrupt Ones and Mark Robson picture The Lost Command.  

 

The Corrupt Ones / The Peking Medallion (1967) ****

Non-stop action as spy Robert Stack (The Untouchables tv series) battles a variety of crooks in Macao on the Chinese border as they seek the legendary Peking medallion. Stack hails from the James Bond school of espionage, duty bound to kiss every girl he meets. He might wonder at their compliance until he realizes they are only after his knowledge of the missing medallion.

The violence is criminally brutal – punch-ups, gunfights, samurai swordfights, murder, torture by blowtorch and acid and being dragged behind a motorboat. The string of sexy women is matched by handsome men (Christian Marquand and Maurizio Arena in addition to Stack). The thriller pitches helter-skelter through nightclubs, casinos, caves, temples and palatial mansions, the pace only slowing down for, naturally, a scene in a stately rickshaw.

As well as Stack who briefly – and unknowingly – has the medallion in his possession, others in the hunt include Elke Sommer, wife of the man (Arena) who passed it to Stack before being killed. Sommer is on the wrong side of the femme fatale equation. Once Stack is wise to her seductive charms he quips, “Maybe you’re telling the truth but I can’t trust you.”

The original title of the picture was “Hell in Macao” and that was used in Germany for example. It was called “The Peking Medallion” in the UK, Italy and Mexico and “The Corrupt Ones” in the US, France and Spain.

Also in hot pursuit are gangster Brandon (Marquand) and a Chinese mob headed by Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960). That’s on top of a corrupt cop (“I have never feared death only poverty” is his mantra) who doesn’t care who wins the prize as long as he gets his share. Double cross is the order of the day, alliances forged then broken. The action never stops long enough for one of those tension-building scenes of which Alfred Hitchcock or imitators like Stanley Donen (Charade, 1963, and Arabesque, 1966) were so fond.

Stack faces danger with a quip, a kiss or gritted teeth, an old-fashioned tough guy without the James Bond self-awareness. He carries out his manly duties until his brain kicks in and he realizes this isn’t a spy picture after all but a genuine treasure hunt with clues that have to be deciphered. As this causes the movie to sidetrack down another route, it looks like the picture has lost the plot. But then all hell breaks loose and we are back on the safe ground of fistfights, double-crossing and shooting.

The script by Brian Clemens deftly mixes a variety of genres. What might have been a definite change of pace for British director James Hill given his previous effort was Born Free (1966) was anything but since he was responsible for the most recent Sherlock Holmes thriller A Study in Terror (1965).

Fans of improbable storylines, exotic settings, action, interesting bad guys and twists and turns will love this. How can you fail to love a movie with a fight featuring a samurai sword versus a camera tripod?

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.