Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) ***

All hail Senta Berger! Another from the Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) portfolio, this is a spy-thriller mash-up with a bagful of mysteries and a clutch of corpses. At last given a decent leading role, and although you wouldn’t guess it from either poster, Senta Berger steals the show from the top-billed Tony Randall (as miscast as Robert Cummings in Five Golden Dragons) and a smorgasbord of European  talent including Herbert Lom (The Frightened City, 1961), Terry-Thomas, Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons), John Le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White (Carry On Nurse, 1959). In this company, the glamorous Margaret Lee (Five Golden Dragons), as Lom’s cynical lover (“you are never wrong, cherie, you told me so yourself,” she tells him) is an amuse-bouche.

A more comedic approach to the movie when it was re-titled for U.S. release. At least here it did not try to sell itself as a Bond-type picture.

Six travellers – including oilman Randall, travel agent Le Mesurier, salesman Hyde-White and tourist Berger, meeting her fiancé – board a bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh. One is carrying $2 million as a bribe to ease through a vote in the United Nations, but bad guy Lom doesn’t know which one it is. When Berger’s fiance’s corpse tumbles out of Randall’s cupboard, the pair become entangled. Berger is a marvellous femme fatale, trumping Randall at every turn. 

With no shortage of complications, the tale zips along, directed on occasion with considerable verve by Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964). There are some inventive double-plays – with a body in the boot Berger and Randall are stopped by a cop who tells them their boot is open. An excellent rooftop chase is matched by a car chase. And there’s a terrific shootout. Kinski is at his sinister best and Terry-Thomas a standout in an unusual role as a Berber.

The film was shot on location including the city’s souks, the ruined El Badi Palace and La Mamounia hotel (featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). But Berger seamlessly holds the whole box of tricks together, at once glamorous and sinuous, practical and tough and exuding sympathy, and it’s a joy to see her for a large part of the picture leading Randall by the nose. Quite why this did not lead to bigger Hollywood roles than The Ambushers (1967) remains a mystery.

The 300 Spartans (1962) ****

Doomed for half a century to be seen as Saturday television matinee material and then put into the shade by the Zack Snyder’s stylish 300 (2006), The 300 Spartans is in sore need of re-evaluation.  Lacking the big budget of an El Cid (1961) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and released during an era when historical drama – Barabbas (1961), The Mongols (1961), Sword of the Conqueror (1961), The Trojan Horse (1961), and The Tartars (1961) – was at a peak, this is a stripped-down version of the famous Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. and none the worse for it.

Clever camerawork suggests thousands of warriors involved but there is little sign of scrimping in the wardrobe department and there is more than enough action. Also, this is a surprising literate picture, with great lines for cynical politicians as much as for warriors and peasants. Themistocles (Ralph Richardson) comments: “Some day, I may enter religion myself. It’s better than politics. With the gods behind you, you can be more irresponsible.”  Told that the invading Persian army has “arrows that will blot out the sun,” Spartan King Leonides retorts, “then we will fight in the shade.”  And there’s sexist banter typical of the period between a peasant couple: wife – “goats have more brains than men”; husband – “who can understand the ways of the gods, they create lovely girls and then turn them into wives.”

Originally titled” The Lion of Sparta”, the film could not have been made without the wholesale cooperation of the Greek army which supplied over 2,000 soldiers. Those playing Spartans had to be over six foot tall. Since the Greeks had no cavalry and few knew how to ride, around 200 were given a crash course. It was a bonanza for the soldiers – their normal wage of $2 was supplemented by $5.50. Thermopylae no longer looked like the area immortalised by the battle, so the action was shot at Loutraki, near Corinth and 80 miles from Athens. 

Quite how Leonides ends up fighting the massive army on its own is down to a mixture of politics and religion. Oracles foretell doom. The various Greek states refuse to join together, although Athens lends Sparta its fleet (“Athens’ wooden wall”). Even Sparta officially refuses to participate on the grounds that battle would interrupt a major religious festival. Leonides’ “army” of 300 men is comprised of his bodyguard. A romantic subplot involving a young couple results in catastrophe. Just how ruthless is the opposition is shown when  Persian king Xerxes slaughters all his soldiers’ wives to make the men more determined to get to Greece where doubtless they will enslave the female population. When his archers fire, he doesn’t care if the arrows hit his own men.

What marks out the best historical action pictures is the intelligence behind the battle. Strategy is key. The first weapon, of course, is surprise so the Spartans sneak into the Persian camp from the sea and burn their tents. During battle, to counteract the Persian cavalry, the front row of the Spartan army lies down and allows the horses to jump over them, then rising up, traps the cavalry and drives them into the sea. Other clever measures are used deal with the Persian crack infantry regiment, the Immortals. Even at the end, the Spartans continue to confound the enemy with clever ruses.

Richard Egan is effective as Leonides, Ralph Richardson excellent as the wily but honourable Themistocles while Hitchcock protégé Diane Baker (“glaringly miscast” according to Variety) has the female lead though Anne Wakefield as a Persian queen the more interesting role. Former British star David Farrar (Meet Sexton Blake, 1945) is the intemperate Xerxes.

Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rudolf Mate delivers the directorial goods, his handling of the dramatic scenes as confident as the action and masking the holes in his budget by making clever use of trees as the invaders march, suggesting an army far bigger than he could afford to put on the screen. Color-coding the Spartans – they were in red – made the action clearer to follow. George St George, with few credits of notes (and few at all) doubling up as producer, wrote the script. This thoughtful drama with striking action deserves reassessment.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) ***

A couple of decades before the “high concept” was invented came this high concept picture – a killer is hired to kill himself. Oliver Reed is the assassin in question and Diana Rigg the journalist doing the hiring. So Reed challenges the other members of his murderous outfit to kill him before he despatches them. The odds are about ten to one. Initially involved in shadowing Reed, Rigg becomes drawn to his aid when it transpires there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.

Set just before World War One, the action cuts a swathe through Europe’s glamour cities – London, Paris, Vienna, Venice – while stopping off for a bit of slapstick, some decent sight gags and a nod now and then to James Bond (gadgets) and the Pink Panther (exploding sausages). Odd a mixture as it is, mostly it works, thanks to the intuitive partnership of director Basil Dearden and producer (and sometime writer and designer) Michael Relph, previously responsible this decade for League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), Masquerade (1965) and Khartoum (1966).

Moustached media magnate Telly Savalas has a decent chomp at an upper-class British accent. It’s easy to forget was one of the things that marked him out was his clear diction and he always had an air about him, so this was possibly less of a stretch. Ramping up the fun is a multi-cultural melange in supporting roles: Frenchman Phillipe Noiret (Night of the Generals, 1967), everyone’s favourite German Curt Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964) playing another general, Italian Annabella Contrera (The Ambushers, 1967) and Greek George Coulouris (Arabesque, 1966) plus British stalwarts Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George, 1969) as a brothel madam, television’s Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Kenneth Griffith and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967).

The action flits between sudden danger and elaborate set pieces. When Reed announces his proposal to his board he promptly fells a colleague with a gavel just as that man throws a knife. Apart from folderols in a Parisian brothel, we are treated to a Viennese waltz and malarkey in Venice. There are disguises aplenty, donned by our hero and his enemies. Lighters are turned into flame throwers. And there is a lovely sly sense of humour, an Italian countess, wanting rid of her husband, does so under the pretext of Reed gone rogue. Reed and Rigg (in her best Julie Andrews impression) are in excellent form and strike sparks off each other. The second-last film from Dearden suggested he wanted to go out in style.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964) ****

If ever a movie was in sore need of reappraisal it’s Richard Wilson’s western, which encountered both audience and critical indifference on initial release. If you’ve heard of Wilson at all it will, hopefully, either be down to his connection with Orson Welles or from his crime duo Capone (1959) with Rod Steiger and Pay or Die (1960) with Ernest Borgnine.  On the other hand, you may be more familiar with the name from the Ma and Pa Kettle series in the 1950s or perhaps raunchy comedy Three in the Attic (1968). Or because he was an unlikely contender for the triple-hyphenate position (writer-producer-director) held on the Hollywood scene by the likes of Billy Wilder and less-heralded figures such as John Lemont on the recently-reviewed The Frightened City (1961).

Wilson was not first choice to direct since the western had been on the Stanley Kramer company slate since 1957 when it was planned for Paul Stanley before it moved in 1961 into Hubert Cornfield’s orbit with a script by James Lee Barratt and then repossessed by Kramer when Rod Steiger was briefly attached. The film, backed financially by Kramer, barely rates a paragraph in the director’s autobiography in which he describes the picture as “an adult western with a somewhat complicated plot.” There’s no getting past the fact that the plot is complicated, but it’s not the plot but the characters that held me in thrall. Kramer thought the film contained elements of High Noon (1952). But for me the starting point was surely The Magnificent Seven (1960) and not just because Yul Brynner played a gunfighter complete with black outfit and cigar. It wasn’t Brynner’s look in the previous western that brought me to that conclusion, but the scene where the gunfighters sit around talking about where their career has taken them – to precisely nowhere: no wives, no family, no home.

Invitation to a Gunfighter makes more sense as an adult sequel to The Magnificent Seven than any of that movie’s other retreads. Imagine that Brynner, despite the boost to his esteem from beating the Mexican bandits, had not shaken off what we would most likely classify these days as a malaise or a depression. He is trying to make sense of a life that has proved unfulfilled. His options are salvation or suicide. At some point he will come up against a quicker gun, so it is suicide to continue in this profession.

But this Brynner is also close kin to Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, the mercenary who takes full advantage of his power in lawless towns, and especially to the later embodiment of such a character in High Plains Drifter (1973). (Perhaps Eastwood got the idea of renaming the town ‘Hell’ and painting it red from the scene where Brynner, fed up with the hypocrisy of the righteous townspeople, goes on a drunken wrecking spree.) However, Brynner is far from anonymous. His name is so rich – Jules Gaspard D’Estaing – that the locals curtail it to the more peremptory Jewel. And this Brynner is cultured. He plays the spinet (a kind of harpsichord) and the guitar, sings, quotes poetry and cleans up at poker. He is sweet to old ladies, but that is in the guise of righting wrongs. And he is defender of the under-privileged, in this case  downtrodden Mexicans. He was himself the son of a slave. The most compelling aspect of this picture is that despite knowing so much about him he remains mysterious.

Brynner wasn’t the two-fisted kind of action hero, but more the guy who could disarm the opposition with a mean stare, and charm women with his brooding good looks. As mentioned, the plot is complicated so to get the best out of the picture you need to kind of set that to one side. Simply put, Confederate soldier George Segal, returning from the Civil War, finds his farm has been appropriated and his sweetheart Ruth Adams (Janice Rule) has married someone else, the one-armed Crane Adams (Clifford David). Brynner is brought in to get rid of Segal who is causing a nuisance to the town’s immoral hierarchy.

So the story, rather than the plot, is the interaction between these four. Crane Adams clearly wants any opportunity to kill off his rival. Equally, Segal wants to win Rule back. And Brynner finds himself unexpectedly drawn to the sad, pensive Rule, abandoning the Santa Fe stagecoach on catching a glimpse of her, only hired when the townsfolk discover his occupation. Brynner has a fantasy of taking her away from all this, the pair of them riding off together, and there is no doubt Rule is tempted as he implants himself in their household and shows himself to have everything her husband, or Segal for that matter, lacks. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is that nothing is clear cut. Our sympathy shifts from Brynner to Segal to Rule. Even when Brynner brings the town’s hierarchy to heel, there is no guarantee that will be enough to win over Rule. And if he cannot have her, what does he have? The Eastwood loner never seems to care about emotional involvement, he just takes what he wants, but the Brynner character is more sensitive and does not want a one-sided relationship based solely on power.

For the movie to work at all, Rule needs to engage our sympathies. Having clearly been somewhat mercenary herself in discarding Segal in favor of Crane Adams (presumably not originally disabled), she needs to portray a woman who is not just going to jump at the next best thing.  Rule is especially good, far better than in more showy roles in Alvarez Kelly (1966) and The Chase (1966). Never given the opportunity to verbalize her emotions, nonetheless in scene after scene her quiet anguish is shown on her face. Magnificent Seven alumni Brad Dexter and John Alonzo (later the famed cinematographer) have small parts.

I certainly saw a different picture to the “offbeat but confusing western” viewed by Variety’s critic and possibly, for once, because the passage of time has allowed this film to be seen in a new light. Rather than a morality play in the vein of High Noon, I saw it as a character study of a gunfighter knocking on heaven’s door.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) ****

Take twelve condemned men, drop them in the desert hundreds of miles from safety with only enough water to last two weeks, and nothing to eat but dates, and make them work together to effect salvation from their predicament. Not exactly the premise for The Dirty Dozen (1967) but not far off. Flight of the Phoenix appears a dummy run for director Robert Aldrich’s more ambitious war picture, not least because in terms of structure it is only eight minutes shorter. There are no women in the picture (except those appearing in a mirage) and the men, of all different types, must come together or die in the savage heat.

You might argue that the audience for this kind of picture no longer exists. In the 1960s there was a big market for the Nevil Shute/Hammond Innes/Elleston Trevor type of novel which contained a lot of practical detail at a time when heavy industry – mining, shipbuilding, oil, car manufacture – was a massive employer and the ordinary man had an easy understanding of – and was often fascinated by – the principles of engineering. Bear in mind that this was the era of space rockets and there was excitement about man’s planned flight to the moon.

During a sandstorm a small twin-engined plane carrying passengers from an oil field crash lands in the Sahara. James Stewart as the pilot was a casting trick. In a previous aerial adventure No Highway (1951), Stewart was the ordinary joe challenging authority. Here he is the authority figure challenged and part of the film’s guile is the way he has to concede that authority to the one person on board everyone hates, arrogant German aircraft designer  Hardy Kruger. The global job lot of passengers includes: two soldiers, martinet officer Peter Finch and his mutinous sergeant Ronald Fraser; Richard Attenborough as an alcoholic navigator; oil worker Ernest Borgnine on the brink of insanity; Scotsman Ian Bannen reprising the sarcastic troublemaker of previous desert drama Station Six Sahara (1963); Frenchman Christian Marquand as a doctor; veteran Dan Duryea as the company accountant; Italian Gabriele Tinti; George Kennedy and Alex Montoya; plus a monkey of no fixed abode. The monkey, incidentally, is cleverly utilised. He’s not a sentimental or cute device, there to soften a hard guy or for comic relief, but Aldrich often cuts to his squeals or his face when there is imminent danger.

Two passengers are already dead, one is seriously injured. They have been blown so far off-course they will be impossible to locate. There is only enough water for ten or eleven days. It is a given in such circumstances that tempers will explode and hidden secrets surface. Were they guaranteed rescue those two pegs would be enough to hang a movie on.  Since there is no such guarantee, this becomes a picture about survival. The obvious manoeuvre comes into play on the fifth day. Finch determines to walk to safety, over 100 miles in deadly heat. But it’s not a trek picture either, the engineers present know the risks. Mountains will cause false compass readings and those going will walk around in circles.

What? I can get that magnetism in the mountains can affect a compass but where does the walking round in circles enter the equation? Because, explains Attenborough patiently, a person does not automatically walk in a straight line if there is no actual road. If right-handed then you’ll walk in a left-hand direction because the right leg is more developed than the other and takes a longer stride and there’s nothing you can do about it. This doesn’t matter if you are walking along an actual path but in the desert with no road markings it’s lethal. And this is the beginning of a bag of what would otherwise be deemed trivia except that such facts are a matter of life and death. This is a movie about reality in a way that no other realistic or authentic picture has or will be. Physics is the dominant force, not imagination.

Finch’s sergeant fakes an injury to avoid going. The mad Borgnine, originally prevented from leaving, sneaks away in the night. James Stewart, in courageous mode, goes after him. While he is away, Kruger carries out a character assassination. And continues on his return – “the only thing outstanding about you is your stupidity.” By now though, Attenborough has warmed to Kruger’s insane idea of building a single-engined plane out of the wreck of the twin-engined one. And that becomes the crux of the story. Can they build this weird contraption? Will they manage it before they die of thirst? Will rising tensions prevent completion? Are they fit enough after days in the boiling heat to manage the herculean tasks involved?

Aldrich keeps psychological tension at fever pitch, helped along by the pessimistic Stewart and the wildly pessimistic Bannen, needling everyone in sight, who delivers lines like “how I stopped smoking in three days.” Stewart and Attenborough have to come to terms with the parts they played in the plane crashing, Fraser with his cowardice. Issues arise over leadership and water theft.

I won’t spoil it for you by mentioning the incident that threatens to demolish the entire project. But the finale is truly thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff and the skeletal monstrosity being constructed looks hardly capable of carrying the monkey let alone a full complement of passengers. Aldrich is a master of the group shot with unerring composition and often movement within the frame or just a simple bit of business by an actor, for example George Kennedy at one point tapping his hand against his leg, ensuring that the film does not solely focus on a couple of characters. Sometimes all Aldrich needs to make his points are reaction shots.

Aldrich called on Lukas Heller for the screenplay, having worked with him on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Aldrich’s son William and son-in-law Peter Bravos had bit parts, killed off during the crash.

Flight of the Phoenix virtually invented the self-help rescue genre that relied on ingenious mechanical ideas – rather than more simplistic notions – such as later absorbed in movies like Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian  (2015). Aldrich’s mastery of group dynamics would stand in him in good stead for The Dirty Dozen. A terrific movie and well worth seeing.

See also also the companion piece – Book into Filmwhich is posted tomorrow.

Hatari! (1962) ***

What this movie needed was Cinerama. That format blended exotic locale and thrills. The Tanganyika setting and jeeps belting across uneven terrain to capture myriad wildlife provide the two required elements. But the rest of the film struggles to keep up.

Here Howard Hawks combines his two most common themes, a group of men stuck together facing an unusual task and a battle of the sexes. But without the tension of an upcoming gunfight (Rio Bravo, 1959) or bizarre romantic comedy contrivance (Bringing up Baby, 1938), it falls short of the director’s highest standards. But as he set such high standards, virtually anything would.

Paramount went the extra mile on this one, producing, in addition to the normal pressbook, a special “Care and Handling Manual” such as had previously accompanied Psycho. This was a week-by-week breakdown of marketing activities – from arranging a John Wayne hat tie-up, to getting record stores and bookshops to prepare window displays, stencilling paws on the ground leading to the cinema and organising permits for a safari-parade on opening day. There was a tie-in with Jeep and the movie was a natural for involvement with schools and kids

The original concept intended to pair Clark Gable and John Wayne so that might have produced better results. Setting aside the gripe of the unlikely romance between a young Elsa Martinelli (rather than a mature Maureen O’Hara) and the ageing Wayne, this remains highly entertaining and a thrilling ride. Watching the actors do their own dangerous stunts, bouncing over potholes and battered in trucks moving at high speed, holding on for dear life (Wayne as the catcher unprotected on the outside)  as the vehicles swerved and twisted, the thunder of hooves, confronting extremely dangerous and extremely wild animals such as rhinos, makes up for other deficiencies.

Martinelli does not quite have the zap of a Hepburn or Monroe but does well as the photographer infiltrating a male enclave and her bonding with the baby elephant (triggering Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” theme) steals the picture. A pet leopard also provides a decent riff on the girl-in-the-bath number. Quite a number of plot lines are worked in to give actors of the calibre of Hardy Kruger something to do and to stretch the likes of Red Buttons who is rarely given any decent dramatic material.

In quite a different role, Wayne, for once not called upon to save the day, gives a good performance. Not only do they not make them like that anymore, they wouldn’t be allowed to make them like that these days, notions about working with animals (though none were harmed) much changed.  

      

The Frightened City (1961) ***

Sean Connery in an early role as a gangster is not the only reason for watching this brisk British thriller about a London protection racket. Primarily told from the point-of-view of the bad guys, this explores how a ruthless Mr Big (Herbert Lom) builds up a criminal empire. Lom, a bent accountant, brings together the six major gangs involved in extorting money from pubs and stores into a democratically-run syndicate.  Lom then moves on to demanding bigger sums from bigger enterprises such as construction businesses. However, when the gangsters fall out they go to war.  

This film is way ahead of the game in presenting gangsters as displaying any intelligence. Generally, they were depicted as brutes who ruled by force. But criminality at the top level demanded as much organization as in a legitimate business. Personalities had to be harnessed to work together rather than shoot each other on sight. Such skills had to exist in order for gangsters to operate on any scale. This picture examines how this was done.

The cops led by John Gregson are almost a sub-plot and the story would have adequately run its course without their involvement. Gregson sails close to the wind hoping to “tilt the scale of justice in our direction for a change.” Connery doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes as a karate-expert cat-burglar turned enforcer. Connery’s involvement with the syndicate ends when his code of honor is breached and he turns on his employers. His code is not so sacrosanct that it prevents him cheating on his girlfriend. But he does display the virility to fill James Bond’s shoes.

There’s far more violence that would be expected in a British crime picture. Night clubs, shops and pubs are wrecked and there’s plenty of fisticuffs and when the gangsters go head-to-head they upgrade to grenades. There’s a bit more plot than the running time can deal with so director (and producer and co-writer) John Lemont occasionally resorts to cliché devices like newspaper headlines. Canadian Lemont – most famous for writing the first serial hon on ITV, Sixpenny Corner – was an auteur of the old-fashioned (and unheralded) kind, and previously writer-director of The Shakedown (1960).  Triple-hyphenates, while rare in the movie business, were generally of a high calibre such as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so Lemont was in good company, and clearly, in consequence, the movie that appeared reflected his own vision.

Top billing was a step up for Lom and he made the most of it, delivering a suave villain among the thugs. Gregson (The Captain’s Table, 1959) was a solid British star and ideal cop material (he was later British television’s Gideon). Yvonne Romaine, as Connery’s new squeeze, a nightclub singer exploited by Lom more for her looks than her voice, was known to audiences after Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In only her second film Scottish television actress Olive McFarland was Connery’s dumped girlfriend. Unusually, for a British picture at this time, the theme tune written by Norrie Paramour was covered by The Shadows and turned into a hit.

At this point in his career, Connery had already had two bites of the cherry without much success – romancing Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place (1958) and Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). This was three films before his breakthrough with Dr No (1962) but the Pressbook showed signs that he was headed for the heights.  Co-star Yvonne Romaine (and her distinctive body measurements) were accorded three separate stories in the Pressbook, compared to one each for Lom and Alfred Marks, at that point better known as a comedian, but none of Connery. But Connery (and Romaine) outshone their co-stars when it came to the advertising campaign.  

Producers were contractually bound in relation to the size of credits that appeared on any advertising. But there were no such regulations regarding the visuals of an advert. Although top-billed, Lom is  not shown on any of the adverts. Given greatest prominence was Yvonne Romaine. There were thirteen different ads and she appeared in them all. Although Connery was third-billed and she was two rungs below in the credit stakes, he was the junior partner when it came to the artwork. While, Connery appeared in eleven in only one did he overshadow Romaine and in another they were visually-speaking accorded roughly the same status. But otherwise, she hogged the adverts.  

The Pressbook was small by American standards, consisting of six A3 pages, the bulk of which was given over to adverts. But what it lacked in pages it made up for in taglines – of which there were six main types. Of course, Connery would become an “Untouchable” in the later Brian dePalma film.

The picture was not seen much in the United States, sent out in first run as the lower half of a double bill in only a handful of big cities, so there’s a fair chance it’s completely unknown except to Connery completists. But it’s certainly worth a look.

Gambit (1966) ****

The heist movie – as epitomised by The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1958) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1954) – had tended to be a relatively low-budget affair. Top-ranking stars steered clear because complicated plot often got in the way of character development  In the highly polished and entertaining Gambit British director Ronald Neame’s riff on the genre involved a narrative shift worthy of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and, of course, Akira Kurosawa who had with Rashomon (1950) single-handedly invented the complex point-of-view.

Neame brought another couple of other aces out of the deck. First of all, there was the fun of watching over-confident thief Michael Caine’s apparently foolproof plans come unstuck. Secondly, in a romantic dynamic in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934) the less accomplished female (Shirley MacLaine) proves more accomplished than the male.

Gambit was also a clear demonstration of the power of the female star not just in the plot complications but from the fact that Caine owed his big Hollywood break to MacLaine, the actress having the power of veto over the male lead and, equally, contractual right to choose her co-star. The movie went through an interesting development phase. The original script by director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) had Cary Grant in the central (i.e MacLaine) role. Rewritten by Jack Davies (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965) and in his movie debut Alvin Sargent (The Stalking Moon, 1968) the main character underwent a gender shift.

After Psycho (1960) audiences had become used to being messed around. Stars could be killed off halfway through or not appear (Operation Crossbow a classic example) until well into the movie. Neame was not quite so bold but what audiences made of the usually garrulous MacLaine being rendered mute during the early part of the picture was anybody’s guess, perhaps the dumb show was a joke in itself. But lack of dialogue did not prevent MacLaine from stealing the show and proving what an adept comedienne she was, a barrage of submissive looks enough to send an audience into hysterics.

In essence, Caine plays two characters. In the opening segment he is the brash, cocky  English gentleman-thief at the top of his game, bossing MacLaine around, gulling his mark (Herbert Lom) with an audacious plan to steal an expensive sculpture. In his version of events his plan goes off without a hitch. But when we switch to the MacLaine perspective, in which nothing goes according to plan, his cool demeanour is sorely tested and he turns into a frustrated idiot. Watching the movie now, you can almost imagine that the MacLaine character, with a host of useless facts at her fingertips, was making fun of Caine’s well-known love of trivia, but that predated the actor’s acknowledgement of this aspect of his real-life character.

What makes the movie so much fun is that both parts of the film work and for the same reasons: believable characters, exciting heists and plenty of twists. The initial premise is that Caine recruits Hong Kong dancer MacLaine due to her startling resemblance to the late wife of Arab billionaire Herbert Lom as part of a ploy to relieve him of a priceless artefact. While Lom is falling for MacLaine, Caine moves in for the kill with an ingenious heist. Mission accomplished he pays her off. But in the real version of the story, as seen through her eyes, Lom does not fall for the ridiculous scam, Caine’s plan fails to work until MacLaine comes to the rescue. Meanwhile, MacLaine has fallen for Caine, but does not want to be in love with a criminal. Although Caine initially resists his own emotions, he, too, takes the romantic plunge except that to win her he may have to lose what he prizes more.

As I mentioned it is awash with twists and the heists themselves are exceptionally well done but the screen chemistry between the two leads is terrific. Caine, who had otherwise been in control in his previous starring roles as the upper-class officer in Zulu (1963), spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and the womanising Alfie (1966) – The Wrong Box (1966) was an ensemble item – was taking a chance in playing a character who would effectively play second fiddle to the star and in terms of the thief often appears out-of-control. MacLaine was more obviously in her safety zone. Hollywood spent a lot of time investing in screen partnerships, mostly failing, but this pairing certainly succeeded.