The Last Duel (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A surprisingly contemporary core, bolstered by a quartet of excellent performances, drives Ridley Scott’s bold Rashomon-style historical tale. Despite its length it’s less of a historical epic in the style of Gladiator (1999) and more of an intimate and intricate exploration of power – and its lack. Each of the main characters, including and especially the women, while exerting some kind of power nonetheless are in thrall to a superior being whose word is absolute law. Challenging that authority could result in instant death. It’s a slow-burn for sure but exerts a tenacious grip as the story unfolds from three points-of-view to a double climax, both riveting for different reasons.   

And it’s far from typical Ridley Scott except in attention to historical detail. The battle scenes are almost perfunctory – in fact few end in victory – and except to demonstrate bravery do not follow the usual heroic template. There’s none of the trademark Scott cinematic sweep although the duel itself is exceptional.

Scarred to the point of facial disfigurement Damon has never played a character like this before.

In 14th century France Marguerite (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, the accusation finally settled by duel to the death. All three characters are given the chance to give their version of the story and this is where it becomes fascinating as shades of personality are filled in.

At the outset Jean comes across as brave, impulsive, marrying Marguerite to save her honour (her father is a traitor), and when wronged willing to challenge authority. But as other perspectives unfold he is revealed as blustering, ambitious, more interested in his wife’s sizeable dowry than her honour, over-proud, and a poor manager of his estate. While brave, educated and charming Le Gris turns out to be a greedy, conniving bed-hopper. Initially presented as a grateful wife and little more than an adornment Marguerite is revealed as the most courageous of all, an able estate manager, challenging the King, accepting the prospect of death rather than, as was apparently the custom of the times, allowing the rape to go unremarked.

Comer is a revelation and you could argue she steals the picture from her more experienced colleagues. There is an astonishing scene where she realises that, her husband’s bravery notwithstanding, he has condemned her to a terrible death should he lose the duel.

The sexual mores of the era are examined in depth, the worst examples of male prerogative sometimes just touched upon in passing, for example, since a wife is her husband’s property, in law he is the one besmirched not her. In taking sexual power as his central theme rather than the triumphs and woes of the men, Scott takes a huge risk in alienating a following expecting more action and cinematic bravura, but the bold story-telling pays off and although starting with Alien (1979) the director has a record of strong female characters this has more in common with Thelma and Louise (1991) where wronged women are backed up into a cul de sac.

Rejecting the heroism route allows Scott to present far more rounded characters. None of the four principals conforms to type. Damon is neither the common man nor the action hero, but a boor. Driver is neither charming seducer nor outright villain but somewhere in between, living on his wits. Comer cannot rely on female machismo or cleverness but must remain stout in the face of an onslaught of humiliation. And mention must be made of Ben Affleck as Pierre d’Alencon, employer of Le Gris and master of Carrouges, who is cocky, immoral, amoral, greedy, shifty and cunning. Other standout performances feature Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game, 2014) as a gleeful king and Harriet Walter (Atonement, 2007) as a loathsome and cruel mother-in-law. I just hope Oscar voters recognise at least some of these perfomances.

A blond and goateed Affleck as you have never seen him before, cockiness running riot, with a mean streak a mile wide, the epitome of Middle Ages entitlement.

It’s worth paying attention to the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Oscar-nominated for Can You Ever Forgive Me, 2018) and Damon and Affleck (their first joint effort since Good Will Hunting, 1997) and note how the language the characters employ changes according to the perspective. Words that we imagine in one section that appear to be spoken by one character in another section are delivered by someone else entirely.

I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott and while I came looking for adventure in the style of Gladiator (2000) or his other historical masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven (2005) I came away more than satisfied in the way he altered his style to suit the story almost in the same manner as he had done with American Gangster (2007), another picture about power.

You will probably be aware by now that this has been a colossal box office bomb and although the film has enormous merit you can see why audiences looked the other way. Oddly enough, I think it will acquire a bigger audience through small-screen streaming since it is really a drama.  I would still recommend catching it at the cinema but there’s fair chance it will not last for its full 45-day window.

I tend to judge directors not by critical acclaim but by a more rudimentary measure – how often I watch their pictures. I have seen Alien, Blade Runner (1982), Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, the Martian (2015)  and even the flawed Prometheus (2012) and Black Hawk Down (2001) more than half a dozen times each – often three or four times at the cinema – and I have a notion that The Last Duel will comfortably fit into this elite.

House of Cards (1968) ***

American boxer Reno Davis (George Peppard) stumbles on an international conspiracy when hired by rich widow Anne de Villemont (Inger Stevens) in Paris to look after her eight-year-old son Paul (Barnaby Shaw). All roads eventually lead to Rome and a showdown with arch-conspirator Leschenahut (Orson Welles) in this thriller which throws in a couple of measures of Gaslight (1944) and, more obviously, North by Northwest (1959) to the extent of Anne being an icy blonde of the Eva Marie Saint persuasion and the couple, on the run, sharing a compartment on a train.

The boy’s previous tutor has been murdered. After months in a sanatorium, Anne, paranoid about her son being kidnapped, is in virtual house arrest in the family mansion, watched over by arrogant psychiatrist Dr Morillon (Keith Michell) who has diagnosed her as unstable, neurotic and a danger to the boy.

After an assassin on a bridge on the River Seine takes potshots at Reno and Paul, Reno is framed for murder but escaping from the police returns to the mansion to find it empty, the furniture covered in dust sheets. I half-expected Reno to be told that the job was all in his imagination and that Anne did not exist, but instead finds out that mother and son have been taken to a castle in Dijon, in reality a fortress with a platoon of armed guards. Only Paul has been already been transported to Italy. So it’s attempted rescue, imprisonment, escape, fistfights, chase, clever moves and countermoves, twists and double twists as Reno and the still icy Anne head for Rome.

In among the mayhem are a few humorous moments, a play on the Trevi fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, a monk mistaken for a killer, a bored girl only too happy to be taken hostage, an over-familiar American who gives away valuable secrets because he mistakes Reno for a co-conspirator, Dr Morillon making the error of treating Reno as a servant. And characters involved in assisting escape extract a high price, one seeking financial reward, another that her husband be killed in the process. There is also a flirtatious but spiky maid Jeanne-Marie (Perette Pradier) and a couple of excellent reversals.

Reno is somewhat innovative in the weaponry department, the hook of a fishing rod, for example, while the son is rather handy with a pistol. But given the opposition are armed with machine guns, knives and swords that seems only fair.

George Peppard continues the excellent run of acting form that started in Tobruk (1967) and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968), developing his own niche, dropping the innate arrogance of The Blue Max (1965) and Operation Crossbow (1965), no chip on the shoulder. Here he is a good bit more attractive as a screen presence, a nice line with the ladies, more than able to take care of himself, a sprinkling of wit, completely at ease. Inger Stevens comes off well though her psychological problems and concerns for her son get in the way of any burgeoning romance with Peppard. But she has quite a range of emotions to get through, from wondering if she is mad, to dealing with the controlling family, and letting go of her son enough to allow the boy to bond with Reno, and despite her vast wealth down-to-earth enough to see a toothbrush as an essential when on the run.

Orson Welles (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), as ever, looms large over everything, with dialogue so good you always have the impression he improvised on the spot. Keith Michell, a couple of years away from international fame in BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), does a very good turn as the psychiatrist.

John Guillermin, who directed Peppard in The Blue Max and P.J., has a lot to do to keep the various balls in the air, especially keeping track of a multiplicity of characters. The screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Hud, 1963) pulled this one together from the novel by Stanley Ellin. Francis Lai’s memorable score is worth a mention, with distinctive themes for various parts of the story.

Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) was originally down for the part of Anne and Italian actress Rosemary Dexter (Romeo and Juliet, 1964) has a small part.

Catch-up: The Blog previously reviewed George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961),The Blue Max (1965), Operation Crossbow (1966), Tobruk (1967), P.J (1968) and Pendulum (1969); John Guillermin directed The Blue Max (1965) and P.J; Orson Welles was seen in Is Paris Burning? (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

Two for the Road (1967) ***

This film had everything. The cast was pure A-list: Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) and Oscar nominee Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963). The direction was in the capable hands of Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966), working with Hepburn again after the huge success of thriller Charade (1963). The witty sophisticated script about the marriage between ambitious architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and teacher wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) unravelling over a period of a dozen years had been written by Frederic Raphael, who had won the Oscar for his previous picture, Darling (1965). Composer Henry Mancini was not only responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – for which he collected a brace of Oscars – but also Charade and Arabesque. And the setting was France at its most fabulous.

So what went wrong? You could start with the flashbacks. The movie zips in and out of about half a dozen different time periods and it’s hard to keep up. We go from the meet-cute to a road trip on their own and another with some irritating American friends to Finney being unfaithful on his own and then Hepburn caught out in a clandestine relationship and finally the couple making a stab at resolving their relationship. I may have got mixed up with what happened when, it was that kind of picture.

A linear narrative might have helped, but not much, because their relationship jars from the start. Mark is such a boor you wonder what the attraction is. His idea of turning on the charm is a Humphrey Bogart imitation. There are some decent lines and some awful ones, but the dialogue too often comes across as epigrammatic instead of the words just flowing. It might have worked as a drama delineating the breakdown of a marriage and it might have worked as a comedy treating marriage as an absurdity but the comedy-drama mix fails to gel.

It’s certainly odd to see a sophisticated writer relying for laughs on runaway cars that catch fire and burn out a building or the annoying whiny daughter of American couple Howard (William Daniels) and Cathy (Eleanor Bron) and a running joke about Mark always losing his passport.

And that’s shame because it starts out on the right foot. The meet-cute is well-done and for a while it looks as though Joanna’s friend Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) will hook Mark until chicken pox intervenes. But the non-linear flashbacks ensure that beyond Mark overworking we are never sure what caused the marriage breakdown. The result is almost a highlights or lowlights reel. And the section involving Howard and Cathy is overlong. I kept on waiting for the film to settle down but it never did, just whizzed backwards or forwards as if another glimpse of their life would do the trick, and somehow make the whole coalesce. And compared to the full-throttle marital collapse of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) this was lightweight stuff, skirting round too many fundamental issues.

It’s worth remembering that in movie terms Finney was inexperienced, just three starring roles and two cameos to his name, so the emotional burden falls to Hepburn. Finney is dour throughout while Hepburn captures far more of the changes their life involves. Where he seems at times only too happy to be shot of his wife, she feels more deeply the loss of what they once had as the lightness she displays early on gives way to brooding.

Hepburn as fashion icon gets in the way of the picture and while some of the outfits she wears, not to mention the sunglasses, would not have been carried off by anyone else they are almost a sideshow and add little to the thrust of the film.

If you pay attention you can catch a glimpse, not just of Jacqueline Bissett (Bullitt, 1969) but Romanian star Nadia Gray (The Naked Runner, 1967), Judy Cornwell (The Wild Racers, 1968) in her debut and Olga Georges-Picot (Farewell, Friend, 1968). In more substantial parts are William Daniels (The Graduate, 1968), English comedienne Eleanor Bron (Help!, 1965) woefully miscast as an American, and Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, 1966).

Hepburn’s million-dollar fee helped put the picture’s budget over $5 million, but it only brought in $3 million in U.S. rentals, although the Hepburn name may have nudged it towards the break-even point worldwide.

Stillwater (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

A towering central performance from Matt Damon as a redneck American adrift in Marseilles just about saves this from being a total train wreck. Oscar-nominated director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, 2015) doesn’t just go off-kilter but dangerously off-piste in a truly bizarre third act that sabotages the entire picture, which already is within touching distance of the jump-the-shark record.

But let’s concentrate on the good stuff. Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an oil rig worker in Marseilles trying to clear gay daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from a murder charge – she has served four years of a ten-year sentence. Normally, he only remains in France for two weeks but this time, frustrated by the French judicial system, attempts his own investigation. He strikes up a relationship with single mother Virginie (Camille Cottin), becoming very attached to her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).

He becomes a surrogate father to Maya, collecting her after school, taking on babysitting duties to allow Virginie to continue her acting career. He moves in, initially in platonic fashion, but soon they become lovers. Considering he has been a lousy dad to Allison, who still, for good reason, distrusts him, he makes up for it with Maya and soon Virginie, sensing the decent qualities beneath the typical angry American, takes him into her bed.

These relationships are all terrifically well done and it’s almost Bill’s first stab at parenthood since he was absent for most of Allison’s childhood, either away working on oil rigs or out of his skull on drink or drugs. The character exhibits considerable self-awareness and the gradual transformation from bull in a china shop (not exactly how you would describe tough Marseilles, but still) to father and lover is incredibly well done.  

So the film could have gone one of two ways. He could have remained in France, working as a general laborer, contributing to the household, watching Maya grow up, perhaps (God forbid!) actually learning some French, and waiting to be reunited with his daughter once freed – she is allowed one day a month out of prison so their relationship is being strengthened in incremental stages.

***SPOILER ALERT***

Or, the director having succumbed to brain fever, Bill could decide to throw all that away by capturing the suspect he has been hunting, slicing off a hunk of hair for DNA purposes, and keeping the prisoner in his basement until the results of such testing comes through. And in the process discovering that his daughter is in fact guilty. It’s as if Damon had realized he was in the wrong picture and slipped into his Jason Bourne alter ego or had been watching too many Taken films.

It would be entirely in character that he hides this unsavory fact from the French police, only confronting his daughter with it once she is safely back home, but it might have been a different, and more satisfying, picture altogether if he had uncovered this evidence in another, simpler, manner and then had to deal with the consequences.

I am making it sound as if the whole picture comes apart in the final section but in truth it is perilously off the rails from the get-go. McCarthy’s contribution to an outdated sub-genre that includes Missing (1982) and Not Without My Daughter (1991) falls into the unacceptable trap of tapping foreign judicial systems as incompetent at best and corrupt at worst. Bill Baker exhibits the worst characteristics of dumb American colonialism as he charges around Marseilles baffled that none of the inhabitants can speak English. It is a truly awful directorial conceit where the eight-year-old Maya is expected to have a better grasp of English than Bill of French. He surely cannot be so dumb that he can’t say “Je t’aime” instead of letting loose an emotional barrage in English to the poor child.

Then there is the very uncomfortable treatment of the locals. Sure, parts of France are certainly racist, and although Bill Baker is comfortable with racists, since he has worked alongside them and he might well have been a Trump supporter had he been allowed to vote instead of being barred due to his criminal record, director McCarthy feels it is his duty as a brave American director shining a spotlight on the country’s nether regions to highlight this aspect of French culture.

Shooting yourself in the foot was never easier than here. The movie bears strong and quite unnecessary similarities to the Amanda Knox case, especially since Allison’s experience with her gay lover comes so close to the facts of the Knox situation.

And that’s not counting the improbabilities. Guess where Bill spots the suspect Akim (Idir Azougli) he has been chasing all his time? Yep, you’ve guessed it. In a crowd of 60,000 people. At a football match. It could only happen in Hollywood. He only needs a sample of the guy’s DNA, a snippet of hair would do, to prove he was present at the scene of the crime and cast sufficient reasonable doubt on his daughter’s conviction. Instead, having floored the guy in the street to get the few strands of hair required, he then locks him up in his cellar – for a week! – until the results of the DNA test comes through.

But someone tips off the cops. But lo and behold when they arrive there is not only no body in the cellar but no evidence that anyone has ever been there because the quick-thinking but very skinny Virginie has improbably managed to untie him and move him to some other unspecified hidden location.

And so we come to the mysterious title. Stillwater is a nondescript backwater in Oklahoma where Allison lived. But for some reason it’s the type of place where not even with a touch of irony canny manufacturers believe its name attached to a necklace would be an unbelievably attractive purchase in a retail outlet at an airport. And that it was worthy not just of being a mere bauble but of being made of gold, and sufficiently valuable that it would be acceptable as part payment to Akim for carrying out a bad deed.

Tom McCarthy has been incredibly lucky to receive a performance of a lifetime by Matt Damon, so sure-footed that there is not even an inkling of his trademark shy smile. Camille Cottin is also excellent. I’m not sure whether Abigail Breslin is meant to be this unlikeable, in which case blame the director, or whether her whiny behavior is a pointer to her guilt. Either way, she is over the top.

However, this is one of those rare instances where if you swallow your disbelief at the plotting, you will uncover a pure gem of a performance.

I saw this at the cinema as part of my Monday night outing. It’s available on Amazon Prime and not the type of picture where the visuals are so outstanding that I would urge you only to watch it on the big screen.

Moment to Moment (1966) ***

Screenwriter Alec Coppel, responsible for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) – now considered the best film ever made, supplanting Citizen Kane in the Sight & Sound poll – follows pretty much the same structural idea as in the James Stewart-Kim Novak thriller. The second half here is in many respects a repeat of the first, with a man trying to recapture previous experience in a bid to reawaken memory.

But in this case the man is French police inspector DeFargo (Gregoire Aslan) trying to trap glamorous Kay Stanton (Jean Seberg) suspected of killing young sailor and architect-wannabe Mark (Sean Garrison) with whom she has engaged in a brief affair. DeFargo is cunning in the extreme, almost stalking Stanton, turning up unexpectedly, employing all sorts of ruses, including recruiting Stanton’s unsuspecting husband Neil (Arthur Hill), an internationally renowned psychiatrist.

The picture is set on the French Riviera so it’s the height of fashion. Kay wears a series of stunning top-of-the-range clothes (designed in fact by Yves St Laurent), as does high-living  neighbor and suspected accomplice Daphne (Honor Blackman). Kay drives a red sports car and frequents swanky restaurants and chic bars.

A number of cleverly-wrought images in the first half – white doves that turn golden at sunset, dancing to a tune called “Moment to Moment,” the wind causing shutters to bang, a statue in a village square, some sketches, the clacking together of the hard balls used to play the French traditional game of boules, a boardgame called “Blockhead” – prove pivotal in the second half. They form clues from which the inspector has to determine meaning.  

But if ever there was a film of two halves, this is it, and they are not a great fit. The first section involves Kay, lonely due to her husband’s continual absence, embarking on an affair. That she initially resists, in order to prove she is at heart really a good woman, gets in the way of the picture, since that makes the romance more drawn-out than necessary and leaves the viewer wishing the director would get a move on. Even though the time is spent in planting all the clues necessary for the second half to work, had Kay been more keen on a piece of action, driven for example (as is the case) by her husband staying away far longer than promised, it would have speeded things up to get to the more interesting part of the story.

Part of the problem is that the affair is totally unconvincing. Mark is handsome enough and dashing in the way most sailors are in uniform with an artistic streak, first viewed  making sketches, but Sean Garrison is so wooden the romance never sparks. That leaves Seberg to do the heavy lifting and, in fairness, once she is targeted by the wily inspector she comes up to the mark.

I’m not the first to think, after watching this picture, what would Hitchcock have done? That was exactly the same conclusion reached by the New York Times critic on original release. For this picture has a great deal going for it, but not a sufficient quota of suspense, and, as I mentioned, takes too long to get to the core of the story.

However, the second half works exceptionally well, as Seberg is put under pressure by the wily inspector and her husband unexpectedly enters the equation. An abundance of  twists culminate with a number in the final few minutes that serve to confound audience expectation.

Seberg’s career up to now had been somewhat disjointed, a sense of unfulfilled potential. An Otto Preminger protégé via Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), she was widely believed, despite the artistic coup of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), to have thrown her career away by decamping to France where she made no further films of particular note. Her previous Hollywood offering Lilith (1964) had not commercially delivered. So this high-budget Universal number was considered something of a comeback. But the perfectly-coiffed fashion-model look seems a poor imitation of Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief, 1955) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds, 1963). At times, with the romance scarcely touching the lower rungs of passion, the movie falls back on haute couture.

Second half Seberg is better than the first as she is given far more material to work with and a decent opponent in Gregoire Aslan. Honor Blackman, as a flirtatious divorcee, reinvents her  screen persona, far removed from her memorable incarnations as Catherine Gale in British television series The Avengers (1962-1964) and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger  (1964). Sean Harrison made only one more movie, and his career mainly consisted of television. Arthur Hill (Harper, 1966) is excellent as the over-enthusiastic husband, unwittingly hammering nails in his wife’s coffin and Gregoire Aslan (Lost Command, 1966) almost steals the show as Seberg’s accomplished adversary.

Veteran Mervyn LeRoy (The Devil at 4 O’Clock, 1964) had a distinguished and versatile career including an Oscar nomination for Random Harvest (1942) and recipient of an Oscar in the form of the Irving G. Thalberg Award for lifetime contribution to the business. But this isn’t quite up to the mark of innovative gangster picture Little Caesar (1931), drama Little Women (1949), Biblical epic Quo Vadis (1951) or cultish The Bad Seed (1958).  

Topaz (1969) ****

Authentic, atypical, engrossing, this grittier Hitchcock mixes the realism of Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964) with the nihilism of The Birds (1963), a major departure for a canon that previously mostly spun on innocents or the falsely accused encountering peril. The hunt for a Russian spy ring by way of the Cuban missile crisis forms the story core but the director is more interested in personal consequence and even the villain suffers heart-rending loss. Betrayal is the other key theme – defection and infidelity go hand in hand.

The tradecraft of espionage is detailed – dead letter drops, film hidden in typewriting spools, an accidental collision that is actually a sweet handover. In a transcontinental tale that shifts from Copenhagen to New York to Cuba to Paris, there is still room for classic sequences of suspense – the theft of secret documents in a hotel the pick – and Hitchcock at times simply keeps the audience at bay by employing dumbshow at key moments.    

In some respects the director was at the mercy of his material. In the documentary-style Leon Uris bestseller (almost a procedural spy novel), the main character is neither the trigger for the plot nor often its chief participant and is foreign to boot. So you could see the sense of employing a cast of relative unknowns, otherwise an audience would soon grow restless at long absences from the screen of a Hollywood star of the caliber of a Cary Grant or Paul Newman. It is a florist (Roscoe Lee Browne) who carries out the hotel theft, a small resistance cell the spying on Russian missiles in Cuba, a French journalist who beards one of the main suspects, not the ostensible main character, French agent Andre Devereux (Frederick Stafford), not his U.S. counterpart C.I.A. operative Michael Nordstrum (John Forsythe) nor Cuban villain Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Unusual, too, is the uber-realism. The main characters are fully aware of the dangers they face and of its impact on domestic life and accept such consequence as collateral damage. It is ironic that the Russian defector is far more interested in safeguarding his family than Devereux. Devereux’s wife (Dany Robin), Cuban lover Juanita (Karin Dor) and son-in-law (Michel Subor) all suffer as a result of his commitment to his country. And that Juanita (Karin Dor), leader of the Cuban resistance cell, is more of a patriot than the Russian, refusing to defect when offered the opportunity. Hitchcock even acknowledges genuine politics: the reason a Frenchman is involved is because following the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 American diplomats were not welcome in Cuba.

In terms of bravura Hitchcock, the pick of the scenes are the hotel theft and the death of one of the principals, filmed from above.

I have steered clear of this film for over half a century. I saw it on initial release long before the name Hitchcock meant anything to me. But once it did I soon realized this film did not easily fit into the classic Hitchcock and the critics on whom I relied had always represented it as shoddy goods. So I came to it with some trepidation and was surprised to find it so engrossing.  

Frederick Stafford (O.S.S. 117: Mission for a Killer, 1965) was excellent with an insouciance reminiscent of Cary Grant and a raised eyebrow to match that star’s wryness. John Vernon, who I mostly knew as an over-the-top villain in pictures such as Fear Is the Key (1972), was surprisingly touching as the Cuban bad-guy who realizes his lover is a traitor. And there is a host of top French talent in Michel Piccoli (Belle de Jour, 1967), Philippe Noiret (Justine, 1969) Dany Robin (The Best House in London, 1969) and Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1967).

As you are possibly aware, three endings were shot for this picture and I can’t tell you which I saw without spoiling the plot. If you want to know, read tomorrow’s Blog.

In any case, this is worth seeing more than just to complete a trawl through the entire Hitchcock oeuvre, a very mature and interesting work.

Bronson Unwanted

That Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) was a smash hit in France did nothing for Charles Bronson’s Hollywood career. Hollywood had form in disregarding U.S.-born stars that Europe had taken to its box office bosom. Example number one of course was Clint Eastwood, ignored by the big American studios until four years after his movies had cut a commercial swathe through foreign territories. Charles Bronson took about the same length of time for his box office grosses abroad to make an impact back home.

While we tend to look upon The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a career-making vehicle for many of the supporting stars, that wasn’t actually the case. Jim Brown was quickest out of the blocks, a full-blown top-billed star a year later in The Split (1968). Otherwise, John Cassavetes had the biggest crack at stardom after landing the male lead in box office smash Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But the rest of the gang – Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckal et al – remained at least for the time being strictly supporting players.

For Charles Bronson, the year of The Dirty Dozen produced nothing more than television guest spots in Dundee and the Culhane, The Fugitive and The Virginian. Beyond that he had a berth in two flop westerns Villa Rides (1968) and Guns for San Sebstian (1968) and no guarantee his career was moving in an upward direction. But the latter picture was primarily a French-Mexican co-production, the Gallic end set up by top French producer Jacques Bar under the aegis of Cipra which had previously been responsible for Alain Delon vehicles Any Number Can Win (1963), Joy House (1964) and Once a Thief (1965).

There was another, as vital, French connection. Henri Verneuil directed both Any Number Can Win and Guns for San Sebastian so could attest to Bronson’s screen presence. And another legendary French producer, the Polish-born Serge Silberman, best known for Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), had taken note of Bronson, whose screen persona was similar to that of French stars Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Silberman’s Greenwich Films production shingle was in the process of setting up Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami.

Like The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), Farewell Friend was part of a new trend to make French productions in English as well as French, in this case the English version viewed as “the working one.” But that ploy failed to convince U.S. distributors to take a chance and the film sat on the shelf for five years. And little that Bronson did in the meantime increased his chances of a serious stab at the Hollywood big time.

Although Paramount had piled cash into the Italian-made Once upon a Time in the West (1968) it was counting on Henry Fonda – undergoing a career renaissance after Madigan (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) – to provide the box office momentum. Bronson was billed fourth after Claudia Cardinale, Fonda and Jason Robards, so still in Hollywood’s eyes a supporting player.

And while the Sergio Leone picture flopped Stateside, the success of Farewell, Friend in France turned Bronson into a star and was instrumental in the western breaking box office records in Paris (where it ran for a year) and throughout the country.

Fortunately for Bronson, European producers recognized his potential. His next picture should have been an Italian-French-German co-production of Michael Strogoff, for which he was announced as the top billed star (Advert, Variety, May 8, 1968, p136-137).  When that fell through, Italian company Euro International, bidding to become the top foreign studio outside Hollywood, gave him top-billing in Richard Donner drama Twinky (aka Lola, aka London Affair, 1970) and Serge Silberman tapped him for Rene Clement thriller Rider on the Rain (1970), another French hit.

British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) was responsible for recruiting him for You Can’t Win ‘Em All (aka The Dubious Patriots, 1970), but with Tony Curtis taking top billing. Again, though funded by an American studio, this time Columbia, it was another big flop, mostly because the studio did not know how to market the picture, Curtis in a box office slump and Bronson considered to have little appeal.

But still the Europeans kept the faith. Another French-Italian co-production Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) gave him top billing over exiles Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. That was also the case with Cold Sweat (1970), helmed by British director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962).  He had another French-made hit with Someone Behind the Door (1971) and Terence Young hired him again, along with Farewell, Friend co-star Alain Delon, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Dr No alumni Ursula Andress for international co-production Red Sun. While this western sent box office tills whirring all over the world, it only made a fair impression in the U.S., ranking 53rd in the annual box office chase.

Riding on the back of The Godfather phenomenon, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Bronson for Mafia thriller The Valachi Papers (1972), again directed by Terence Young, which produced something of a box office breakthrough in the U.S., ending the year just outside the Top 20. But it took another British director, Michael Winner, to help solidify the Bronson screen persona and boost his global appeal. Four – and all of the hits – out of the star’s next six pictures were directed by Winner.  These were the western Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1975). The Mechanic was such a big hit Stateside it did better in its second year of release than the first and Columbia redeemed itself by giving prison escape thriller Breakout (1975) the widest release – up to that point – of all time.

That America had little interest in developing Bronson as a breakout star could be judged by the distribution treatment of his pictures. As mentioned above, Farewell, Friend had to wait until 1973 for its U.S. debut and then renamed Honor among Thieves. Twinky was denied a cinema release in the U.S. and went straight to television in 1972. Violent City had to wait until 1973 for a distribution deal, Cold Sweat until 1974 and even Red Sun took nine months before it hit American shores.  Until The Valachi Papers did the business, Bronson was not considered the kind of star who could open a picture in the U.S.

By then, of course, Bronson had reversed the normal box office rules. Usually, for films starring American actors, foreign revenues were the icing on the cake. For Bronson it was the other way round. Along with Clint Eastwood he was the first of the global superstars, whose name resonated around the world, and whose pictures made huge amounts of money regardless of American acceptance or interest. But had it been left to Hollywood, Bronson would never have made the grade.

Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) ****

This heist picture made Charles Bronson a star, though, like Clint Eastwood a few years previously, he had to go to Europe, in this case France, to find an audience appreciable of his particular skill set. This was such a box office smash in France that it was the reason that Once upon a Time in the West (1968), a major flop virtually everywhere else, turned into a huge hit in Paris. After a decade as a supporting actor, albeit in some quality offerings like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson developed a big following, if only initially in Europe.

Farewell, Friend could also lay fair claim to stealing the title of  “first buddy movie” from the following year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) because, apart from the heist that is central to the story, it is essentially about the forging of a friendship. But it wasn’t released in the U.S. for another five years, in the wake of Bronson’s Hollywood breakthrough in The Valachi Papers (1972), and then under a different title, Honor Among Thieves.

And you can see why it was such a star-making vehicle. Bronson goes toe-to-toe with France’s number one male star Alain Delon (The Sicilian Clan, 1969). He had the walk and the stance and the look and he was given acres of screen time to allow audiences to fully appreciate for the first time what he had to offer. Like Butch Cassidy, the duo share a lot of screen time, and after initial dislike, they slowly turn, through circumstance and the same code of honor, into friends.

Dino Barran (Alain Delon) is the principled one, after a final stint as a doctor in the French Foreign Legion originally turning down overtures from Franz Propp (Charles Bronson) to become involved in a separate major robbery. Propp is an unsavory customer, making his living as a small-time thief who uses a stripper to dupe wealthy marks. Barran plans to rob a corporation’s safe during the three-day Xmas holiday of two million dollars as a favor to the slinky widow Isabelle (Olga Georges-Picot) of a former colleague, for whose death he retains guilt. Propp more or less barges his way into the caper.

It’s a clever heist. Isabelle gets Barran a job as a company doctor whose office is next door to the giant vault. But there’s a twist. Surveillance reveals only three of the seven numbers required to open the combination to the vault. But Barran reckons three days is sufficient to try out the 10,000 possible permurations.

Barran and Propp despise each other and pass the time playing juvenile tricks, locking each other into a room, stealing all the food from the one dispensing machine, winding each other up, while they take turns trying different combinations. But it opens after only 3,400 attempts and they face a shock. The vault is empty. They have been set up to take the fall for a previous robbery that must have been completed before the building closed for Xmas.  

And there’s no way out. They are in lockdown, deep in a basement. The elevators can only be opened by a small squadron of guards upstairs. Food long gone, they are going to run out of water. If they use a lighter to see in the dark, or build a fire to get warm, the flames will eat up the oxygen they need to survive in the enclosed space. So the heist turns into a battle for survival and brute force attempts to escape before the building re-opens and they are discovered, exhausted and clearly guilty.

But that’s only the second act. There is a better one to follow, as their friendship is defined in an unusual manner. And there are any number of twists to maintain the suspense and tension. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were close friends when that western began. Here, we see the evolution of a friendship between two forceful characters who express their feelings with their fists.

Delon was a known quantity, but Bronson really comes to the fore, more than holding his own against a top star who oozed charisma. This is Bronson in chrysalis, the emergence of the tough guy leading man screen persona that would turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world. Surprisingly, given his later penchant for the monosyllabic, here he does a lot of talking, perhaps more actual acting than he ever did later when his roles tended to fall into a stereotype.

He has the two best scenes, both character-defining, but in different ways. He has a little scam, getting people to gamble on how many coins it would take for an already full-to-the-brim glass to overflow when a certain number of coins were dropped in. While this is a cute trick, it’s that of a small-time con artist, but watching it play out, as it does at critical moments, is surprisingly suspenseful. The second is the strip scene which shows him, as a potential leading man, in a very poor light, and although thievery is the ultimate aim, it is not far short of pimping, with Bronson standing back while the woman (Marianna Falk) is routinely humiliated. It’s the kind of scene that would be given to a supporting actor, for whom later redemption was not on the cards. It says something for Bronson’s command of the screen and the development of his character that by the end of the picture the audience has long forgotten that he could stoop so low.

It is a film of such twists I would not want to say much more for fear of giving away too much, suffice to say that Olga Georges-Picot (Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, 1968) and her friend, mousy nurse Dominique (Brigitte Fossey, in her grown-up debut), are also stand-outs, and not just in the sense of their allure.

Director Jean Herman, in his sophomore outing, takes the bold step of dispensing with music virtually throughout, which means that during the critical heist sequence the audience is deprived of the usual musical beats that might indicate threat or suspense or change of mood, but which has the benefit of keeping the camera squarely on the two leading characters without favoring either. Most pictures focusing on character rely on slow-burn drama. In the bulk of heist pictures, characters appear fully-formed. Here, unusually, and almost uniquely in the movie canon, character development takes place during an action film.

Top French thriller writer Sebastian Japrisot (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) was responsible along with Herman for the screenplay. Japrisot was a key figure in the French movie thriller scene, churning out, either as original novels or original screenplays, A Trap for Cinderella (1965), Rider on the Rain (1970) and The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun (1970).

Even without Bronson, this would have been a terrific heist picture. With him, it takes on a new dimension.

Bedtime Story (1964) ***

Con men at opposite ends of the grifter divide face off in a duel over territoriality in the French Riviera. Freddy Benson (Marlon Brando) is a low-level scam artist who is happy to scrounge a meal or talk his way into an innocent damsel’s bed. Lawrence Jameson (David Niven) is his polar opposite, posing as an impoverished aristocrat to relieve gullible women of their wealth, seduction an added extra.

Initially, Jameson gets the better of their encounters until Benson realizes just what a killing the Englishman is making. Initially, too, Benson is happy to pair up with Jameson, although that involves demeaning himself as a supposed mad brother kept in a dungeon, until the Englishman dupes him out of his share. Eventually, they agree a winner-take-all battle. Whoever can swindle heiress Janet Walker (Shirley Jones) out of $25,000 shall inherit the shyster kingdom.

An example of the older style of British movie distribution. The prints started off in one section of London the first week and switched to another sector the following week. Even if the film was a big hit, it could not be retained since the prints were already promised elsewhere. Only after it had played London, would general release follow in the provinces. There was no point watching West End release dates for an idea of when a new movie would play in your local city, it would not be anywhere near you until it had completed the North and South London runs.

Benson takes the sympathy route to the woman’s heart, turning up in a wheelchair, while James adopts a psychological approach, persuading Ms Walker that Benson’s illness is psychosomatic for which he has the cure for the small consideration of $25,000. And then it’s one devious twist after another as the pair attempt to out-maneuver, out-think and generally embarrass the other. Both have a despicable attitude towards women, whom they view as dupes, but it is a woman who proves their undoing.

Most comedies rely on familiar tropes and you can usually see the twists coming, but this is in a different imaginative league and once the pair are in their stride I defy you to work out what they will come up with next. It is full of clever quips and a small dash of slapstick and because neither actor chases the laughs but plays their roles straight proves a very effective and entertaining morsel.

Director Ralph Levy in his movie debut knows more than where to just point a camera since he had decades of experience extracting laughs in television with top comedians like Jack Benny and Bob Newhart. Brando (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962), free of the shackles of the angst he normally incorporated into his dramatic performances, looks as if he is having a ball and while teetering occasionally on the edge of mugging never quite overplays his hand. This was a conscious effort by Brando, whose company Pennebaker was involved on the production side, to shift his screen persona.

David Niven (The Pink Panther, 1963) was born with a stiff upper lip in his mouth and while this kind of aristocratic character is a doddle for an actor of his stature the portrayal here is much more like the sharpest tool in the box. While oozing charm, Niven exhibits deadly spite. Screenwriters Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning had previously collaborated on Lover Come Back (1961) and Shapiro particularly made his bones on the Doris Day-Cary Grant-Rock Hudson axis so it is interesting to see him shift away from the romantic comedy cocoon into something with considerably more edge.

Enjoyable and original with excellent performances from the two principals and great support from Shirley Jones (The Music Man, 1962) as the mark and Egyptian Aram Stephan (55 Days at Peking, 1963) as an only too congenial French policeman.

Originally, it was lined up with a quite a different cast – Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis and Tippi Hedren. It was remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) with Steve Martin and Michael Caine.

CATCH-UP: The Blog has previously featured Brando in more dramatic vein in The Chase (1966) and The Appaloosa (1966) and also the dramatic side of David Niven in The Guns of Navarone (1961), Guns of Darkness (1962) and 55 Days at Peking (1963).

Behind the Scenes: “The Girl on a Motorcycle” / “Naked under Leather” (1968)

Although multi-country co-productions were very common in the 1960s, British-French co-productions were particularly thin on the ground, as if the cultural identities were so far apart there was nowhere they could ever meet. This was only the third such co-production in three years. British Lion, a long-established operation, had recently been overhauled with a new boss in John Boulting, a renowned filmmaker of Boulting Brothers (The Family Way, 1966) fame.

The film was based on a prestigious prize-winning French novel by Andre Pieyre de Manidargues. The budget was set at a modest $1.5 million with location shoots in Geneva, Heidelberg and Strasbourg with interiors shot at Shepperton. Director Jack Cardiff (Dark of the Sun, 1967) had originally hired a German actress, a Playboy centerfold,  for the leading role of the young girl who marries a timid young man while obsessed with a less conventional ex-lover. But the actress suffered a drug overdose and dropped out. Ironically, Marianne Faithful, her replacement, was also a drug addict and famed as a singer and as girlfriend of Mick Jagger.

Although her acting  experience was limited to television film Anna (1967) and a small part in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname (1967), Cardiff was captivated by her sensuality which was ideal for her character. Bear in mind that Cardiff knew what a camera captured. He had made his name as a cinematographer and worked with great beauties like Ava Gardner (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Sophia Loren (Legend of the Lost, 1957) and Marilyn Monroe (The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957) so if he thought Faithfull fitted that category then there was no reason to doubt his assessment. He commented: “Never since I saw Marilyn Monroe through the camera lens have I seen such irresistible beauty. To focus on her is to focus the camera on your innermost heart.”  

Cardiff took advantage of a new trend to film movies in both English and French to open up distribution channels. Claude Chabrol’s The Road to Corinth (1967) was shot in this manner as was Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) with Charles Bronson and Alain Delon.   

Faithfull could not ride a motorbike so a stunt double was utilised for long shots. But instead of resorting to back projection, for medium shots and close-ups the actress was towed on a trailer behind a camera car. Not having to worry about the controls also meant that Faithfull could look dreamlike while driving and with Cardiff not having to think about the actress he could turn the camera in a 360-degree pan while she rode along.

Since Faithfull was going to be seen on a motorbike for long sections of the movie, Cardiff came up with a method of creating variety. One of the techniques employed was “solarization.” This was, in effect, a half-positive half-negative exposure, but it had only been used in the past in very small doses, nothing like what Cardiff had in mind. BBC boffin Laurie Atkin had invented a computer system that allowed solarization to be used more extensively. Footage shot during the day was taken immediately to the BBC lab at night where Cardiff could tinker about with creating his effects.   

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this technique were the sex scenes. Without the solarization which hid naked bodies under a psychedelic whirl the sex scenes would never have got past the censor.  There was an unfortunate downside, however. The Girl on a Motorcycle had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Critical approval there would have given the picture artistic momentum. Unfortunately, delays caused by the laboratory work meant the film missed its scheduled screening slot. Even so, French critics gave it the thumbs-up. British critics, on the other hand, gave it the thumbs-down. Lack of critical estimation did not appear to matter to British audiences who came out in their droves.

But it was a different story in the United States.

No wonder that to some extent this is one of the great lost pictures because Warner Brothers could not find a way to sell it in the U.S. Having paid a record $1.5 million advance, the studio (known at that time as Warner-Seven Arts) was hit by a double whammy. The picture was the first to receive an X-rating from the newly-established MPAA censorship system which replaced the previous Production Code. The new system was supposed to allow filmmakers greater latitude in terms of sex, violence and language.

Theoretically, that should have been a marketing bonus and the film should have ridden the “sex-art” wave and turned into an arthouse hit with the mainstream, captivated by solid grosses, to follow.  In reality, many exhibitors refused to touch it, regarding the X-rating as a separate category catering for the worst of the adults-only smut market. Newspapers refused to carry advertising for films so rated. Critics hated it, all the New York critics giving negative reviews.

Warners slotted it into a handful of arthouse houses before pulling all prints out of circulation in May 1970 and sending to back for re-editing with the intention of re-submitting it, shorn of some of the nudity, to the MPAA in a bid to win a more acceptable R-rating. In other words, to “re-gear the picture for the general market rather than the adult sex-art trade originally in mind.”  

To ensure that its reputation was not “soiled” the picture was re-titled Naked under Leather – if the content was tamer, the title was certainly not. Initially, that appeared to do the trick when it was re-released a full year later. It pulled in a “boff” $125,000 (worth around $864,000 now – a whopping $36,000 per-screen average) in 24 houses in wide release in Los Angeles, was “hot” in Denver and “tidy” in Chicago and found a few bookings elsewhere. But then it stalled and could not find the extra gear. In reality it did not do much better than on initial release. In the 1969 annual box office chart it featured at No 231 and for the corresponding 1970 chart it placed at number 253.

Sources: Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour, Faber and Faber, 1996, p242-243; “New British Lion Mgt. Gets Motorcyle Rights in UK,” Variety, October 18, 1967, 23; “Stylistic Dash Marks Cannes Films,” Variety, May 22, 1968, 26“British Lion Wraps Up Distribution Deal with W-7 for U.S., Towa for Japan,” Variety, August 28, 1968, 29, “Features Passing Through MPAA,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 20; “All Imports; N.Y. Critics All Bad,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 7; “Recall and Re-Edits W-7’s Motorcycle; X-Rating Now R,” Variety, January 29, 1969, 7; “Computer Tally of 729, 1968,” Variety,  May 7, 1969, 36; “Naked under Leather,” Variety, April 22, 1970, 4; “L.A. First Run Healthy,” Variety, May 13, 1970, 9; “Top 330 Pix in U.S. for 1970,” Variety, May 12, 1971, 37.