Rider on the Rain (1970) ****

This is not the Charles Bronson you think you know, the mean, truculent, monosyllabic persona who turned into a box office powerhouse later in the decade. It took the French to recognize the leading man qualities Hollywood determinedly ignored. God forbid, he is actually pretty charming, although his methods for squeezing information out of a suspect are, well, suspect. And he turns up pretty late in the picture, just when you think the focus is going to be on the suspect, Mellie (Marlene Jobert) and it’s going to be one of those pictures where an innocent woman is suspected of a crime and the man has to clear her name.

Except Mellie isn’t innocent. She’s killed a rapist who broke into her house and then dumped his body over the cliff. And she isn’t, officially at least, a suspect, local cop Inspector Toussaint (Jean Gaven) more interested in getting a loan from her husband, pilot Tony (Gabriele Tinti), to pay off gambling debts. Needless to say, any time the cop does knock on her door, she jumps out of her skin.

And she would have got away with the murder, except for the arrival of Dobbs (Charles Bronson). He turns up at a wedding, ensures she gets to see a newspaper headline of the murder, insinuates his way into her life, not too difficult once her husband heads off on another flight. She runs a bowling alley with her mother Juliette (Annie Cordy) who scarcely has a maternal bone in her body.

Rather than helping the cops solve the case, Dobbs is more interested in the red bag the rapist was carrying. But when she hands over the bag, it doesn’t contain the $60,000 Dobbs wants.  We never see what Dobbs gets up to when he’s not with Mellie. But we hear it. His investigations may be carried out off screen but he’s tailing her – knows she bought a ton of newspapers – and tells her what he’s found out by speaking to cops and neighbors. Even though she’s replaced the cartridges in the shotgun she used to kill the rapist, he knows the gun has been fired. When she claims she was aiming at rats in the cellar, he points to the marks on the wall, too high for even the most acrobatic rat.

Mellie is trapped in a claustrophobic world, assailed by her own guilt and a jealous husband with too much unexplained loose cash (drug smuggling is the implication), turns against her best friend, boutique owner Nicole (Jill) who had an affair with her husband, and against her mother whom as a child she caught in bed with another man, causing her father to dump the mother.

They started to get tricky with double bills in the 1970s, trying to suggest
the films were equally attractive, ignoring the fact that if they had been
such hits they wouldn’t have been paired in the first place.

Most of the tension is self-inflicted but Dobbs has thing about nuts and soon is whizzing shells across rooms, some trick where they break on impact with a window, but the noise is like a shot, too close to the blast of the shotgun.

Every twist ratchets up the tension. And by concentrating on the suspect the police are ignoring and making Dobbs, by default, the chief investigator, and nobody to turn to, Mellie is turned inside out by his mere presence, never mind, when exasperated, he employs his own interrogation method, akin to waterboarding, except the liquid is alcohol, forced down her throat until her lungs are full to bursting.

The last act is a bit murky, as the locale shifts to Paris, involving a brothel owner and a set of gangsters who are even more intent on humiliating Mellie. With echoes of Charade (1963) and Moment to Moment (1966), it’s superbly directed by Rene Clement (Is Paris Burning? 1965), who doles out clues and twists like he’s playing a hand at cards.

In spite of the concentration on tension, he takes the time to build up his characters. A series of emotional flashbacks show the fault-lines in Mellie’s character, no matter that she initially appears confident with fashionable short hairstyle and white outfits bound to attract attention. Dobbs’ obsession with suddenly chucking nut shells around maintains the tension and his cavalier tone, especially his jocular use of a nickname, suggests an interesting personality behind the tough guy pose.

Like his script for The Sleeping Car Murder (1965), screenwriter Sebastian Japrisot is as concerned with ordinary life as with the thriller elements.

Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami, 1968)  delivers the best performance of his entire career, tough guy with a charming underbelly, kind of Cary Grant with muscle. Marlene Jobert (Catch Me a Spy, 1971) is excellent as the victim turned suspect, and even Jill Ireland, for whom a part was always found in husband Charlie’s movies, shows a different side to her screen persona.

A riveting watch.

The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) ****

A sheer delight, a twisty thriller with a standout sexy burglar. It might put you immediately in mind of To Catch a Thief (1955) but this takes the Hitchcock embryo and molds it in something effortlessly stylish and not just to keep the audience on the hop. A second viewing has raised it in my estimation.

Unless you were a fan of the more permissive pictures at the end of the 1960s or kept a close eye on the gossip columns – or for that matter Playboy magazine – you were unlikely to have come across slinky blonde Daniele Gaubert. A former teen model and supporting actress in a number of French and Italian films at the start of the 1960s, she had a brief brush with Hollywood as Yul Brynner’s girlfriend in United Artists’ Flight from Ashiya (1964) but then married Rhadames Trujillo, son of the Dominican Republic dictator.

The year after The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl she starred in Radley Metzger’s provocative Camille 2000 which set pulses racing especially at the censor’s office. Then marriage beckoned again, this time to French Olympic triple gold medallist skier Jean-Claude Killy with whom she made her last picture The Snow Job (1972) also known, depending on where you lived, as The Ski Raiders and The Great Ski Caper.

She only made eighteen movies but The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl is by far the standout. A taut thriller with plenty of twists and stylish action scenes, the French-Italian co-production  was the only film of documentary film maker Edouard Logerau and that background helps shape the movie with many of the most thrilling sequences lacking musical accompaniment.

Female empowerment is not normally associated with crime, given that organized crime is generally organized by men. But burglary is a different matter, lending itself to non-gender-specific individual enterprise. Though there are safes to break, there’s no glass ceiling in this brand of thievery.

Gaubert plays a cat burglar ironically known as “the lone wolf” (as in the original title) who is forced to trade her freedom by stealing a cache of drugs for the police in order to apprehend a criminal mastermind (Sacha Pitoeff). (Maybe this notion inspired Luc Besson’s Nikita.)  Her sidekick is Michael Duchaussoy, seconded from his usual job as an embassy press attache, on the grounds that he can lip-read (which proves more than a gimmick as the plot unfolds).

Given that this was all shot “in camera” – Christopher Nolan’s favourite phrase – without the benefit of CGI or, so it would appear, much in the way of bluescreen, the burglary scenes are pretty impressive. For a kick-off, Gaubert is a sexy as you can get in a skin-tight cat-suit. Furthermore, her character calls on skills from her previous occupation as a trapeze artist. While the director doesn’t match Hitchcock’s in the tension-racking stakes, the sheer verve of the burglary takes the breath away.

The first burglary – before she is caught – takes place at a fancy chateau where a party is in full swing (owners in residence less likely to take extra precautions to hide their valuables), Gaubert nips over a wall, slips up a tree,  uses a line thrower (a type of harpoon) to connect tree to building, and then proceeds to walk along the tightrope. Mission accomplished, she zooms off in a sports car, only stopping to remove false tyre treads and strip out of her costume before hiding her ill-gotten gains in a secret compartment at the back of the fridge.

The police burglary is in an office block. She and the lip-reader are holed up in an apartment opposite watching via a telescope. Although they pass the time in gentle flirtation, especially as she favours revealing outfits, she is not quite as imprisoned as it might seem and is already hatching her own plans to outwit her captors. This burglary is even more dangerous, in the pouring rain for a start, across Parisian rooftops, and involving a trapeze and ropes.

Thereafter, plot twists come thick and fast after this. She escapes to Switzerland, pursued by lip-reader (to whom she has clearly formed an attachment), cops and furious drug runners. Eventually re-captured she agree to another official burglary as a way of finally trapping Mr Big.

The tone is lightened by repartee and some interesting characterization. The lone wolf turns out to have very strong principles that prevent her just running off. Mr Big is a stamp aficionado. A lava lamp is turned into a weapon. Instead of counting to five before killing someone, a bad guy does the countdown according to the number of people diving into a swimming pool. Gaubert fools her captors into thinking they have a flat tyre by dangling her handbag over the edge of the door until it bumps into the tyre and makes the thwock-thwock of a burst tyre. “Survivors give me goose flesh,” quips a thug.

The closest comparison is not Hitchcock but Danger: Diabolik (1968) featuring John Philip Law which has a definite comic book riff. And you might also point to Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) or even, for a self-contained independent woman, to Raquel Welch’s Fathom (1967. But this lone wolf is ice-cold. Blonde is not enough. She is one step ahead of the law and the criminals. There are hints of a tragic past – a trapeze artists requires a partner, for example.

The last shot has Genault triumphant on a Paris rooftop. There is a nod to Hitchcock (think Rear Window) in the use of a telescopic framing device for many scenes, giving them a voyeuristic aspect. Sure, a bigger budget and a better supporting cast – and perhaps a more obvious romance – might have lifted the picture but Genault’s presence ensures that the film does not lack style. Gaubert dominates so much you could imagine she harldy needed direction but it is the cleverness of Edourd Logerau (Paris Secret, 1965) that makes it appear seamless.

Definitely deserves a more appreciative audience.

Taste of Excitment (1969) **

Must-see for all the wrong reasons. An epic of confusion, appalling acting and dodgy accents make this thriller a prime contender for the “So-Bad-It’s-Good” Hall of Fame. Director Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964) jibed at star Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) when he should have concentrated on a script that is over-plotted to within an inch of its life. A couple of kidnaps, casino visit, a sniper, and a vertiginous cliff-top maneuver are thrown in before a truth serum lights up the climax in spectacularly hilarious fashion.

Promising material goes badly awry. English tourist Jane Kerrell (Eva Renzi), floating around the South of France, is being targeted for unknown reasons. A white Mercedes has tried to drive her off the road, mysterious phone calls and visions make her believe she is going mad, that prognosis helped along by handy psychiatrist Dr Forla (George Pravda). And before you can say Surete, Scotland Yard and NATO she is the chief suspect in the murder of a man called Chalker on the ferry to France. Assistance comes in the form of handsome artist David Headley (David Buck) – preposterously famous “I’m David Headley” “The painter?” – who nearly does what’s she’s been complaining everyone else is trying to do, namely knock her down with his car. He specialises in painting nude women and for no reason at all, given he is identified immediately as a lothario, he resists her attempts to take her to bed.

Turns out Jane is something of a boffin, as any self-respecting computer expert would be known in those days, and a millionaire businessman Beiber (Paul Hubschmid), one of Headley’s rich clients, enlists the painter to offer her a job. Of course, he has something else in mind. His company is being accused to shipping unnamed goods to the unnamed opposition, hence the involvement of NATO chap Breese (Francis Matthews).

But nobody is to be trusted, especially as the French police have dismissed her fears as nonsensical. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Malling (Peter Vaughan) throws flames on the fire by not coming to her rescue but planning to arrest her since she is the last person to see Chalker alive. Then it turns out Chalker must have given her a code or secret message before he died. The police take apart her red Mini Cooper in clinical French Connection style but find nothing. That just shows how dumb they are. It never occurred to them, as it does instantly to Headley, to check the carburretor.

By now you’ll have guessed consistency is not this movie’s strong point. You never even know who the sniper Gaudi (Peter Bowles) is targeting his aim is so appalling. There’s even a sinister secretary Miss Barrow (Kay Walsh) with a pronounced Scottish accent in the Jean Brodie class. Headley comes up with an idea to disguise her – by changing her hairstyle (that’ll fool them!! – and astonishingly, in keeping with the bizarre tone, it does).

For someone who is meant to be paranoid Jane is surprisingly trusting, toddling off with clearly-identified villains when fed a line.

Most of the advertising, including this spread in “Films and Filming” magazine, made play of the sight of Eva Renzi’s naked derriere but ignored the unusual gender equality when it came to the nudity since in this scene David Buck gets out of bed and stands as equally starkers by the window.

You won’t be surprised when Jane ends up trussed and gagged, in her bikini naturally, in a fabulous house with an electrified fence. I can’t resist telling you about the truth serum. Before the evil psychiatrist has the chance to question her he is bopped on the head, Headley having sneaking in before (the dolts!) Gaudi thought to switch on the electric fence. (The electric fence is nullified by the police who just switch off all the electricity in the area.) But when she escapes, still full of the truth drug, when Gaudi calls out to find out where she is hiding, the serum forces her to give the correct answer. In the midst of the danger, Headley takes the opportunity to get an honest answer to the question of whether she loves him. And that’s not the best bit. The final line, given there hasn’t been a decent line all the way through, is a cracker. “Never believe a woman when she is telling you the truth” certainly gives you something to ponder.

So much is held back from the audience that there is never a chance, unlike Charade (1963), of genuine tension. Even the one gripping moment, taking a shortcut along a perilous cliff road, which is well done, is undercut by their pursuer beating them to their destination. The whole thing has an air of being improvised or being devised by someone who thought that twists counted more than characterisation, plot development or relationships.

The acting is so uniformly bad that Eva Renzi actually looks good. David Buck (Deadfall, 1968) is miscast in the slick Cary Grant role. While it is entertaining to see Peter Bowles (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) drop his plummy English accent, his Italian accent fails to pass muster. Peter Vaughan (Alfred the Great, 1969), saddled with the bulk of the murky exposition, does his best. In a bit part, veteran Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965), holds the acting aces but she doesn’t have much competition.

Director Don Sharp also had a hand in the screenplay so it’s difficult to know who must take most blame, him or colleagues Brian Carton and Ben Healey. This was the alpha and omega of this pair’s movie career.

If you want to see how not to handle a potentially classy thriller tune in.  Can’t make up my mind whether to give this two stars for being so bad or four stars for being so bad it’s good. You decide.

And you can do so for free on Flick Vault. Be warned that you have to get past some adverts first. And if you’re wondering what happened to the opening credits, there ain’t any.

Charade (1963) *****

Arguably the slickest thriller ever made. Two stars at the top of their game, three rising stars giving notice of their talent, more twists than you could shake a Hitchcock at, the chance to frighten the life out of the most fashionable actress of her generation, and standout scene after standout scene.

Three characters are presented upfront as bad guys, but whole enterprise is so laden with suspicion you are not all surprised when the finger points at Peter (Cary Grant) and Reggie (Audrey Hepburn), not least because Peter keeps changing his name, but also because audiences with lingering memories of film noir could easily imagine Reggie as a femme fatale especially when she comes on to a man whose got three decades on her.

Basic story: Reggie returns from a ski holiday where she met divorced Peter to find her husband dead and Parisian apartment empty. She is menaced by three men – Tex (James Coburn), Herman (George Kennedy) and Leopold (Ned Glass) – convinced she knows the whereabouts of $250,000 they lay claim to. Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) of the C.I.A. also stakes a claim. Tex has a nasty habit of throwing lighted matches at her, Herman threatening her with his steel hand. And there are doubts about Peter, initially perceived as a savior.

It is a film of such constant twists, you never know quite where you are, and forced to follow the lead of a befuddled and confused Reggie you question everything, so it’s an unsettling watch. Given the permutations, you could easily come up with a number of different endings.

And although this is virtually thrill-a-minute stuff it has the most endearing light romance, full of beautifully-scripted sparkling cross-purpose banter, and managing to work in marvellous scraps of Parisian atmosphere, some tourist-hinged (a market, boat ride on the Seine), others (a subway chase) less exhilarating. At times, Reggie turns spy and comes up with clever ruses to evade pursuit.

You can have this amount of conflict – baffling clues, perplexed French Inspector Grandpierre (Jacques Marin) kidnap, rooftop fight – without corpses soon mounting up. Alleviating the tension are a myriad of little jokes: a small boy with a water pistol, time out in a night club to play the rather frisky orange game, Peter showering with his clothes on. The romance might have helped except every time Reggie trusts Peter he gives her good reason to distrust him. And, of course, she could as easily have squirreled the money away herself.

The whole ensemble is delivered with such style and attention to detail (a bored man at a funeral clips his nails, cigarettes are expensive in France, voices echo when a boat passes under a bridge, phone booths are both refuges and traps) that it’s as if every single second was storyboarded to achieve the greatest effect.

It’s not just the entrance of the bad guys, door slamming in an empty church, that signals a director alert to every nuance, but the fact they all proceed, in different ways, to check Reggie’s husband is actually dead. A man has drowned in his bed. “I sprained my pride,” explains Peter after coming off worse in a fight. Apart from the core tale of suspicion, betrayals, theft and murder, everything else in the thriller genre is completely revitalized, in dialog and visuals this is nothing you have ever seen before.

The principals invest it with a rare freshness. Cary Grant (Walk, Don’t Walk, 1966) and Audrey Hepburn (Two for the Road, 1967) are such natural screen partners you wonder why (expense apart) the exercise was never repeated. And in typical John Wayne fashion, to minimise the May-December romance element, it’s Hepburn who makes all the running in that department, and you get the impression that she had been married to an older man anyway. Grant’s character is surprisingly adept at the old fisticuffs while Hepburn is more feisty than helpless, and devious, too, not above using the old screaming routine as a device to bring Grant running for romantic reasons.

James Coburn has his best role since The Magnificent Seven (1960), Walter Matthau (Lonely Are the Brave, 1962), at this point not considered comedian material, brings very human touches to his role, and George Kennedy (Mirage, 1965) presents a memorable villain.

And that’s not forgetting an absolutely outstanding score by Henry Mancini (Hatari!, 1962), jaunty one minute, romantic the next, and for the most thrilling sequences creating the type of effect David Shire achieved in All the President’s Men (1976) of steadily mounting tension rather than instruments shrieking terror. And the Saul Bass-style title credits were actually conceived by Maurice Binder of James Bond fame.

Outside of his musicals, this is the peak of Stanley Donen’s (Two for the Road) career. The gripping screenplay was the work of Peter Stone (Mirage), based on a story by Marc Boehm (Help!, 1965).

One of the few twist-heavy thrillers that rises effortlessly above the material.

Return from the Ashes (1965) ****

When your starting point is an arcane French inheritance law and the plot revolves around swindling a concentration camp survivor you are immediately on “icky” ground. Throw in a relationship between an adult male and the step-daughter of his deceased wife and the audience might already be backing off.

So it’s a tribute to the acting and that each character is not so much unlikeable as both vulnerable and predatory that this turns into a very involving drama. On the eve of World War Two in Paris Dr Michele Wolf (Ingrid Thulin) buys the love of penniless Polish chess player Stanislaus (Maximilian Schell) but at the cost of abandoning her step-daughter Fabi (Samantha Eggar). For him, love is contingent on wealth, but he marries Michele, a Jew, in a (failed) bid to save her from the clutches of the Nazis. Fabi, shorn of maternal love finds turns to a paternal variation, but is capable of coming up with an ingenious murder plot.

Just quite how hollow Michele has become is demonstrated in a brilliant opening scene set after the end of the war. In a railway carriage, a bored small boy endlessly kicks a door. Pretty much for 90 seconds we either see or hear that door being kicked. Foolishly, his hands wander from the window to the door handle. Next thing, he has fallen out. Cue screams, chaos, shocked passengers racing out of the carriage.

But when the conductor turns up to investigate the incident he finds Michele still sitting in her seat, oblivious to any death, even that of a child. When she returns to Paris, she takes a room in a hotel under a pseudonym, fearing that her ravaged looks make her unattractive, guilty at surviving (by volunteering to work in the camp brothel) when all her relatives were wiped out, unaware that she has unexpectedly inherited all their combined wealth.

So the story begins in a different way. When Stanislaus meets her accidentally under her false name, he immediately assumes she is just a dead ringer for his deceased wife and enrols her in a scheme to win the millions currently held in escrow under this inexplicable French law.

Since she continues to play the part of a different woman, she hears the truth about her relationship with Stanislaus, that although he committed the only unselfish “gallant act” in his life in marrying her nonetheless his prime reason was money. Already Fabi, in full femme fatale mode, is planning to rid the couple of Michele once the money has been legally acquired.

To his credit, Stanislaus initially balks at this notion, but when Michele reveals her true identity and scuppers his relationship with Fabi while at the same time trying to win back the affection of her step-daughter, matters take a deadly turn.

For the most part what we have is a menage a trois, equal parts driven by money and love, but in each instance propelled by innermost desire. Stanislaus is adept at pulling the wool over Michele’s eyes, she only too willingly blinding herself to his sexual deception. But Michele is equally willing, even when she knows his true feelings, to use her money to win him back while Fabi, aware that for her lover money will always trump romance, is determined to use her body to achieve the same effect.

What makes this so compelling is that, unusually, it avoids sentiment. It would have been easy to load each character up with such vulnerability that an audience would not condemn them. Instead, in addition to their individual weaknesses, we are shown their inherent predatory natures.

What makes it so enjoyable is the acting. So often Maximilian Schell is called upon to play stern characters, often typecast from his accent as a villainous German of one kind or another (Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, The Deadly Affair, 1967), rather than allowing him to invent a more rounded character as he did in Topkapi (1964). This is a wonderfully involving performance,  the wannabe chess grandmaster who uses his considerable charm to buttress his fears of poverty, and is only too aware of his failing, full of joie de vivre, bristling at being a kept man yet at the same time only too ready to financially exploit the situation.  

Where in The Collector (1965) Samantha Eggar was constrained by circumstance and in Walk, Don’t Walk (1966) saddled with an initially cold character, here she is permitted greater freedom to develop a conflicted personality, loving and deadly at the same time, drawn to and hating her step-mother, attracted by the thought of the money that would secure Stanislaus but repulsed by the cost.  

Ingmar Bergman protégé Ingrid Thulin (Wild Strawberries, 1957) is given the least leeway, another of the tormented characters in her intense portfolio. Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968) puts in an appearance as a friend trying to warn her off Stanislaus.  

Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) takes the bold approach of allowing characters and situation to develop before moving into thriller mode. There are a couple of quite superb scenes, running the opening segment close is the much-vaunted scene of Fabi in the bath (“No one may enter the theater once Fabi enters her bath” was a famous tagline). It is brilliantly filmed in film noir tones, bright light slashed across eyes rather than through windows, and Johnny Dankworth provides an interesting score. Julius J. Epstein (Casablanca, 1942) wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by Hubert Monteilhet.

Is Paris Burning (1965) ****

Politics don’t usually play a part in war films of the 1960s but’s it’s an essential ingredient to Rene Clement’s underrated documentary-style picture. Paris has no strategic importance and after the Normandy landings in 1944 the Allies intend to bypass the German-occupied French capital and head straight for Berlin.

Meanwhile, Hitler, in particular vengeful mood after an attempt on his life, orders the city destroyed. Resistance groups are splintered, outnumbered and lacking the weaponry to achieve an uprising. Followers of General De Gaulle, the French leader in exile, want to wait until the Allies send in the troops while the Communists plan to seize control before British and American soldiers can arrive. 

When the Communists begin the fight by seizing public buildings, the Germans retaliate by planting explosives on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and other famous buildings and all the bridges across the River Seine. German commandant Von Choltitz (Gert Frobe), no stranger to slaughter having overseen the destruction of Rotterdam, holds off obeying his orders because he believes Hitler is insane and the war already lost.

The Gaullists dispatch a messenger to persuade General Omar Bradley to change his mind and send troops to relieve the city. Director Clement, aware how little tension he can extract from the question of whether von Clowitz will press the destruct button (history tells us he did not) so he takes another route and documents in meticulous detail the political in-fighting and the actual street battles that ensued, German tanks and artillery against Molotov cocktails and mostly old-fashioned weaponry.

The wide Parisian boulevards provide a fabulous backdrop for the fighting. Shooting much of the action from above allows Clement to capture the action in vivid cinematic strokes. Like The Longest Day (1962) the film does not follow one individual but is in essence a vast tapestry. Scenes of the utmost brutality – resistance fighters thrown out of a lorry to be machine-gunned, the public strafed when they venture out to welcome the Americans – contrast with moments of such gentleness they could almost be parody: a shepherd taking his flock  through the fighting, an old lady covered in falling plaster watching as soldiers drop home-made bombs on tanks.

This is not a film about heroism but the sheer raw energy required to carry out dangerous duty and many times a character we just saw winning one sally against the enemy is shot the next. The French have to fight street-by-street,  corner-by-corner, bridge-by-bridge,   enemy-emplacement-by-enemy-emplacement, tank-by-tank.

And Clement allows as much time for humanity. Francophile Sgt Warren (Anthony Perkins), an American grunt, spends all his time in the middle of the battle trying to determine the location of the sights he longs to see. Bar owner Simone Signoret helps soldiers phone their loved ones.

Like The Longest Day and In Harm’s Way (1965), the film was shot in black-and-white, but not, as with those movies for the simple reason of incorporating newsreel footage, but because De Gaulle, now the French president, objected to the sight of a red swastika.

Even so, it permitted the inclusion of newsreel footage, which on the small screen (where most people these days will watch it) appears seamless. By Hollywood standards this was not an all-star cast, only fleeting glimpses of Glenn Ford (Fate Is the Hunter, 1964), Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), Robert Stack (The Corrupt Ones / The Peking Medallion, 1967), Orson Welles (House of Cards, 1968) and George Chakiris (West Side Story, 1961).

But by French standards it was the all-star cast to beat all-star casts – Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, 1960), Alain Delon (Lost Command, 1966), Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966), Charles Boyer (Gaslight, 1944), Leslie Caron (Gigi, 1958), Michel Piccoli (Masquerade, 1965), Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1959) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, 1966).  Director Rene Clement was best known for Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley starring Alain Delon

At $6 million, it was the most expensive French film ever made, a six-month shooting schedule, shot on the streets of the city including famous locations like Etoile, Madeleine and the Louvre. Big hit in France, it flopped in the United States, its box office so poor that Paramount refused to disclose it.

Black Butterflies / Les Papillons Noirs (2022) **** – Netflix

Not since Basic Instinct (1992) has there been such an obvious connection between sex and murder. Slow-burn French film noir throwback, every twist, unusually, is matched by emotional resonance. Over six episodes this turns into an absolute cracker with several shocking scenes and, for once, a post-credits scene in the final episode worth waiting for.

You do however need to give this time. The first episode is mostly confusing as it sets up the three main strands. But episode two contains such a revelatory twist thereafter you’re on a rollercoaster.

In the present day ex-con acclaimed but impoverished novelist Adrien (Nicholas Duvauchelle) takes up a not particularly well-paid ghost-writing job listening to grizzled old fella Albert (Niels Arestrup) recount his memoirs. Adrien, on the jealous side, has a tangled relationship with partner Nora (Alice Belaidi). Also in the present day a couple of cops, Carrell (Sami Bouajila) and Mathilde (Marie Denarnaud),  are working on a cold case, the death of renowned photographer Steven Powell.

Running parallel with these two tales we go delving into the romantic past of Albert and in particular his relationship with Solange (Alyzee Costez) back in the 1970s when the entire world was on a massive experimental binge. A couple of other elements pop up from time to time,  a small boy and his mother, Adrien and his stepfather, and an artist/tattoo artist Catherine (Lola Creton).

Eventually, it all comes together and when it does it packs an incredible punch, a real emotional wallop, as the lives of all concerned are turned upside down.

And while there is most definitely twist upon twist upon twist, what raises this above most movies/programs that rely just on twists, is the emotional impact of such changes, and above all, characters seeking identity, trying to work not just who they are but whether they like or are repelled by the characters they have become.

Chock-full of atmosphere, this will have you hooked from the incredible second episode which tumbles full-tilt boogie into a dazzling mysterious past. Mostly, it takes place in France but just for the hell of it we race to Brussels and Genoa, and timewise, there’s an important element that takes place at the conclusion of the Second World War.

Everyone is damaged one way or the other and as the series progresses you realize just how damaged. And one of the best parts of the series is that lives that should collapse under the weight of such heavy emotions find themselves taking an alternative route that occasionally provides solace and occasionally dodges the issues enough to keep them steady. But, of course, nobody can escape the past.  

While this is definitely on the raunchy side, it does set out to show the part sex plays in the lives of the characters, whether emotional crutch, expressing the full joy of falling in love, or desperate measure.

The characters are well-drawn, and as new personality details emerge, they take the story in different directions. In some respects it’s grounded by Albert, the kind of old guy who really knows how to smoke, slipping the cigarette into his mouth old-style, sucking the life out of it, and for all his obvious dodginess a genuine human being seeking respite and redemption.

What Adrien discovers relates only too well to what he suspects about his own instincts and so he is as much disgusted as revelling in each new discovery. An ex-kick boxer, one of the running motifs is not so much being up for the fight, or in true private eye mode being able to hold your own in the fisticuffs department, but willing to accept physical punishment. That is matched by an understanding of the toll emotions can take on your life, especially if you lack the mental capacity to defend yourself against such intrusions.

And at the heart of the story is the mysterious, seductive, beautiful Solange, a different kind of femme fatale, perched atop beguiling innocence, at times unaware of the passions she unleashes, and yet, trying to find a way out of her own spiralling emotions, internal conflict typified by undergoing various abortions while so desperately wanting a child that she plays interminably with a doll’s house, her own reaction to the sexual act buried deep in her past.

I’ll admit the first episode is at timse heavy-going as writer-directors Olivier Abbou (Get In, 2019) and Bruno Merle (The Lost Prince, 2020) set out their complex stall, but the second episode is such a humdinger it more than makes up for it. The contrast between the free-wheeling free-spirited 1970s and the grungy contemporary look where responsibility brings an edge to everything is very well done. But while the violence would do Tarantino proud, contemplation of the creative process is as considered.

It probably helps that I’m unfamiliar with any of the actors because for me they carry no screen baggage. Nicholas Duvauchelle (Lost Bullet, 2020) carries off his first top-billed role superbly, making a terrific transition from a character almost playing a part to one who wishes he had done a better job of remaining an ordinary guy. On the basis of this, Hollywood should come calling for veteran Niels Arestrup (A Prophet, 2009) any time they’re looking for a crusty supporting actor.

Alyzee Costee, in her biggest role to date, certainly announces her presence, presenting the most complicated character of the lot, daughter, lover, mother, possibly the most intriguing female character of all time, beauty matched with fragility matched with toughness matched with an agility to switch persona at dizzying speed. This is what Netflix is best at, investing in foreign television programs, or just sticking their name on them, to bring them to global attention. This is definitely worth a wider audience

Behind the Scenes: “Circus World / The Magnificent Showman” (1964)

For John Wayne it was the best of deals and the worst of deals. He had signed a six-picture seven-year contract with Paramount. On the plus side the studio paid the entire amount  upfront, wiping out the accumulated debts from the debacle of The Alamo (1960). On the debit side, he received only $500,000 per picture, well below his standard price of $750,000. In fact, Paramount could recoup some of its expense by hiring him out at his previous going rate.

Wayne was coming off hits McLintock (1963), Hatari! (1962) and How the West Was Won (1962) but other movies The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Donovan’s Reef (1963) – the first in the multi-picture deal – had punctured a hole in his supposed box office supremacy. But for maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), getting his hands on a star of the magnitude of Wayne was a coup. Originally entitled Those Were the Days, the title switched to the more appealing Circus World.

Bronston was a new-style producer. Apart from a $2.5 million injection by Paramount he  financed his pictures by country-by-country advances, and backed by DuPont, hardly the first big company to be seduced by the prospect of becoming a big Hollywood player. Distributors who advanced money in this fashion made hay if the film hit the bull’s eye, but if it flopped they didn’t get their money back. And a flop made it more difficult for an independent producer to raise the dough for his next picture. So Wayne’s involvement was viewed as a guarantee.

Nicholas Ray (King of Kings, 1961) was initially hired to direct followed by Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946), also made a Bronston partner, who tried to sabotage the script, planning only to shoot the sections he had rewritten. Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963) was credited with the original idea, but when Wayne came on board he brought with him James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961).

Grant was only tempted by the promise of a three-picture deal. The tussle ended with Capra evicted at a cost of $150,000 and Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, 1960) at the helm. Hathaway instigated a week of rewrites with Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945) before settling down to more serious work with Grant.

Initial casting envisaged Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) in the role of Wayne’s partner and would-be lover of Cardinale, but he took the job without reading the script and on realizing it was little more than male romantic lead he bowed out. David Niven (55 Days at Peking, 1963) was initially signed as Wayne’s old buddy Cap but he, too, quit over the script. (Wayne and Taylor got on very well and should have teamed up for The War Wagon, 1967, until Kirk Douglas muscled his way in, later doing so for The Train Robbers, 1973. )

Their replacements John Smith (who had made his debut in Wayne picture The High and the Mighty, 1954) and the veteran Lloyd Nolan were hardly in the same box office league, but shaved cash off the budget.

A bigger concern than hiring a supporting cast was the circus. Bronston recruited famed European outfit Althoff Circus, whose 400 performers ensured the ringside element was authentic. For further realism Bronston added Bob Dover from Ringling Bros. There was no need for specialist horses, Bronston already having 125 trained from The Fall of the Roman Empire to pull circus wagons and for bareback riders.

The entire circus had to be transported by rail on 51 freight cars through the Brenner Pass to Germany and via Switzerland and France to Spain, halting at the Spanish border to unload the whole shebang onto a different train because the gauges didn’t match.

For the picture’s most spectacular scene, the capsizing of the ship transporting the circus, Bronston bought the 250ft long S.S. Cabo Huertas which was heading for the breaker’s yard. Repainted, decorated with circus posters and renamed S.S. Circus Maximus it was all set for a sinking overseen by special effects expert Alex Weldon (El Cid, 1961).

Three hundred tons of water were pumped into the half of the hold furthest away from the dock. The additional weight of 600 extras was enough to flip the ship on its side. Four 50-ton steam winches with steel cables kept the ship upright until it was time for action.

Female extras who were going to end up in the drink were fitted with corsets made of cork while the men wore cork belts hidden under their costumes. The Spanish Coast Guard cleared the harbor of debris and a local fleet of boats, just out of camera view, stood by for rescue. Seven divers patrolled the harbor bottom in case the cork failed to keep actors and extras afloat. Three sets of costumes were created for each participant so they would be kept dry as long as necessary.

Hathaway completed the scene without a single injury. He called it “the greatest job of its kind I have ever been involved in.” Bronston, who was as much a detail man as Cecil B. DeMille, ensured the band played instruments from the period

The picture went in front of the camera in September 1963 with Wayne due to end his commitment on December 18. But severe flooding in Spain knocked the movie off schedule and it went way over budget, running on until March 1964, the finishing touches added in London, the budget hitting $9 million.

Rita Hayworth, who hadn’t made a picture in two years, proved a handful, usually late on set, committing the cardinal sin of not learning her lines and, probably as worse, being rude to everyone

At  just 135 minutes long, Circus World  wasn’t originally envisaged as a roadshow until Cinerama put an estimated $2.5 million into the project, which defrayed the costs. By the time that partnership was announced, it was too late to shoot it in the Cinerama process. The 35mm Super Technirama footage was blown up to 70mm for showing in 60 U.S. theaters boasting the iconic Cinerama curved screens. Everything in Cinerama at that point was roadshow. And they had two more projects lined up with Bronston, Vittorio De Sica’s Paris 1900 and Jack Cardiff’s Brave New World, neither of which were made. Bronston also had another two movies in preparation with Paramount: The Nightrunners of Bengal to be directed by Richard Fleischer and Suez, neither made either.

Roadshow suited Paramount which had not used that method of premium release since The Ten Commandments (1956). In 1963 it had set up a roadshow department to handle the forthcoming Becket (1964) and The Fall of the Roman Empire, which were proper roadshow length of, respectively, nearly 150 minutes and over three hours. But, initially, Circus World did not fall into the roadshow category as far as Paramount was concerned. Only the arrival of Cinerama as an investor made it imperative.

To avoid a title clash with the ultra-successful It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), British distributor Rank changed the title to The Magnificent Showman. That alteration did little to improve its box office, opening at London’s Coliseum for a “NSG” (not-so-good in Variety parlance) $11,200, not much more than The Fall of the Roman Empire in its 17th week, How the West Was Won (90th week) and Cleopatra (51st). Nonetheless it ran there for seven months, followed by a mass general release in the U.K. with a record number of prints. In the U.S., on the eve of general release in April 1965, Paramount considered a title change to Wild Across the World and a switch of marketing emphasis to John Wayne and action.

Audiences didn’t bite, certainly not enough to recoup the budget, and far from enough to prevent Bronston’s operation sliding into liquidation.

SOURCES:  Scott Eyman, John Wayne, The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2014) p379-385; Mel Martin, The Magnificent Showman (Bear Manor Media, 2007), p153-168; Sheldon Hall, Introduction to Circus World, Bradford Widescreen Festival, 2022; “Rank To distribute New Bronston Pic,” Variety, September 26, 1962, p15; “Althoff Circus Logistics for Bronston’s Film,” Variety, September 25, 1963, p4;“New Roadshow Dept at Paramount,” Variety, November 13, 1963, p3; “Bronston and Paramount in 4-Picture Deal,” Box Office, December 9, 1963, p7; “Circus World Filming in London,” Box Office, February 17, 1964, p14; “Bronston’s Circus Goes Cinerama,” Variety, February 19, 1964, p4; “Bronston-Cinerama Unite on 2 Films,” Box Office, February 24, 1964, p5; “Special Mass Release for Showman,” Kine Weekly, May 28, 1964, p3; “Paramount Retains Circus World Title,” February 24, 1965, p3.

Behind the Scenes: “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961)

The late British Queen Elizabeth II put it succinctly, “Recollections may vary.” Or as director Alain Resnais, in reference to his masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad, explained, “It is quite possible that all the characters are speaking the truth…what is presented as the present or the past is simply a reality that exists while the character is speaking.”

However, Resnais was keen to dismiss other theories. “As far as I am concerned Marienbad contains no symbols or allegories.” He suggested that anyone looking for such meanings “will arrive at a correct interpretation 60% or 80% of the time but your interpretations will never hold good for the film as a whole.” Nonetheless, even Resnais was susceptible to such possibilities, for example, there is a Breton legend of Death coming to fetch his victim but allowing him a year’s respite.   

It was unusual for a director to admit he has no clue what his film was actually about. Resnais confesses that “the game (Nim) is the only point about which I am unable to tell you anything…Robbe-Grillet (the screenwriter) invented a variation without knowing it (the game) existed. My personal impression is that Albertazzi (the would-be lover) loses it consciously and deliberately.”

Offering an alternative view to the film’s meaning, Resnais added, “The whole thing is possibly a part of the woman’s stream of consciousness, as, on the point of deciding what to do, she recalls all the various factors in a few seconds.”

The last pages of the script had barely been written before shooting began. And while that was scarcely unusual, nor for pages to be rewritten during filming, what was singular in this approach was that when the editing could offer dozens of ways of putting it back together, “we always fell back on our original ideas.”

“We wanted the film to work quite differently from a conventional entertainment: by a sort of contemplation, of meditation, a series of advances and retreats from the subject. We wanted to feel ourselves in the presence of a sculpture which one studies first from one angle, then from another, from near or farther away.”

In one sense the movie, as Resnais accepted, can be seen as the man playing the role of a psychiatrist forcing his patient to accept events she has deliberately suppressed. Resnais also introduced other psychoanalytic themes: “the ostentatiously large rooms indicating a tendency to narcissism.”

Resnais added, “It is also attractive to conceive of her (Delphine Seyrig) as an invalid. First of all, the hotel has a special air. And I have always been intrigued by (potential husband) Sacha Pitoeff’s words to the woman as she lies on the bed, ‘You must rest, remember that is why we came here.’ Perhaps the hotel is really a clinic.”

Resnais’s directorial method included making sketches to elucidate his thoughts. “It helps in my relationships with the actors and the cameramen. They save the actor from getting panicky eight or ten days before the shoot. If he has read the shooting script and has a clear idea of it and then while shooting I place him in a position or composition which hasn’t been foreseen he is apt to worry.

“And as I like everyone to be relaxed as possible on the set, I prefer arguments to be over before shooting. I’m all in favor of rehearsing the entire film before shooting begins.

“For Marienbad we drew up a complete chronology on squared paper. And before beginning any scene with the actors, we said, ‘in the editing this scene follows such and such a scene, but in actual chronology it follows another scene which will appear later in the film.’ I frequently recorded a fragment of the preceding scene so as to work from the continuity rather than from the cue.”

He hesitated to adapt his ideas to suit the cinematographer. “I would be reluctant to transform a setting, even in small details, to suit the camera. It is up to the camera to present the décor in the right way, it’s not for the setting to conform to the camera. The same holds good for the actor. I have an immense respect for an actor’s work. (But) how rarely we alter the shooting to suit an actor’s feelings, whereas we are constantly changing it on account of the weather.”

SOURCE: Alain Resnais, “Trying To Understand My Own Film,” Films and Filming, February 1962. P9-10, 41; translated from Cahiers du Cinema by Raymond Durgnat.

Last Year in Marienbad / L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad (1961) *****

Six decades later this miraculously emerges as a compendium of contemporary themes. Starting off with “my truth,” and segueing through unreliable narrator, false memory, parallel universe, stream of consciousness, dream vs. reality, repetitive voice-over, and still the most tantalising – or infuriating – movie ever made. A cinematic jigsaw with every piece of the puzzle highly stylized.

People have shadows but not the trees, the interpretation of a statue is disputed, characters in backgrounds are as frozen as mannequins, there’s a game you cannot win, no one has a name, and every now and then a row of men as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley wivel in turn and shoot at targets. Set in a huge baroque chateau with fabulous meticulous grounds, this fantasy building proves the ideal locale for an endless discussion of reality. And whatever happened last year in Marienbad could have occurred instead  in a number of other locations.

The trees have no shadows. These days CGI would rid trees of shadows but in those days it was the other way round and the shadows of the characters
were painted on the ground.

Two men, a prospective lover (Giorgio Abertazzi) and potentially a husband (Sacha Pitoeff), buzz around a woman (Delphine Seyrig). The would-be lover conjures up a tremendous amount of detail about when he met the woman, only for her to deny all knowledge of the incident, to the extent of failing to recall the reason they are meeting again, one year on. According to him, she had refused to enter into an affair the previous year but vowed to consider his ardent proclamations of love a year later. He has come to claim his reward.

That plot, slim as it is, is all you’re going to get. The movie goes all around the houses trying to establish not only was such an agreement actually struck but also whether she has ever met him at all and where exactly this supposed event might have taken place.

And were it not for the hypnotic tone, the mastery of camerawork, the cleverness of the situation, and the long tracking shots – for me an enormous plus – you might have given up the moment the man repeats, with mild differences, sentences he has already uttered. It’s the equivalent of the crime novel’s closed room mystery, except there is no solution.

So you either dismiss it as a typical French New Wave farrago, fall out with your friends over its meaning, or just sit back and enjoy it, as I did.

For a start, it’s one of the best films ever made in black-and-white, the contrast between the two so striking, the white glowing, the black occasionally ethereal, the lack of dialog almost insisting this is in reality a silent film. There are all sorts of pieces of experimental cinema, flash cuts in conflict with the languorous stately progress of the tracking camera, the aforementioned shadows and mannequins, greater emphasis given to the ceilings and corridors than to the people.

Time and place are distorted, different versions of events presented, the initial story given substance by the husband attempting to put the lover in his place by continuously beating him at an obscure game of cards (the Japanese Nim). And much to my astonishment, just as I was well settled in to letting the director take me where he wanted and expecting no conclusion, there is a climax of sorts that may point the audience in the direction of the correct reality.

By that point, did we even care, the whole essence of the movie being the inability to detect truth, the slipperiness of meaning, the elusiveness of intent and the certainty that what was clear one year is not the next. Cinema is built on conflict, and the most obvious one is difference of opinion. What one person regards as fact, the other dismisses as supposition. This could have been played out in dialog, endless discussion about meaning and veracity, we see it all the time in crime pictures and romance, what exists in one mind not having the same resonance in another, but instead we are treated to one long glorious cinematic essay.  

Director Alain Resnais had already set cinema alight with Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and there can have been few artists who hit the arthouse ground running in such style. That the script had been written by eternal bad-boy and future director Alain Robbe-Grillet (Trans-Europ Express, 1966) ensured that it was always going to be controversial. Unusually, Resnais, apparently, stuck very close to the script, so in that sense it was a collaboration rather than the usual loose interpretation of a screenplay.

The stars all took different subsequent routes. Delphine Seyrig, in her debut, would go on to become an arthouse darling in Accident (1966), Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968) and Jacques Demy’s La Peau Deuce/Donkey Skin (1970). Italian Giorgio Albertazzi did not become an arthouse darling, more likely to turn up in bit parts in a historical drama like Caroline Cherie (1968) or in a supporting role in giallo Five Women for the Killer (1974). You might remember Sacha Pitoeff from The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968) and he, too, headed down the support/bit part route.

You might end up resistant to what you see, but everyone with an interest in cinema should see Last Year at Marienbad at least once.

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