Assault on a Queen (1966) ***

I always wondered why this was a flop. I’m still baffled. Not only is it a perfectly serviceable caper picture, but it’s also high-concept before the term was invented, a World War Two submarine involved in holding up high-end ocean liner Queen Mary (yep, the real thing, thanks to cooperation from owners Cunard). 

The dialogue’s crisp, the robbery well-planned, a good number of twists, plenty underwater thrills, hostility between crew members, and sexual tension kept high by the presence on board of the Italian Miss Big. Diver Mark Brittain (Frank Sinatra) is sucked into a treasure hunt in part because he needs the money and in part through the sexual magnetism of Rosa (Virna Lisi), the expedition backer, who already has suave Vic (Anthony Franciosca) on a string.

The plan evolves into piracy when Brittain discovers a World War Two German submarine on the seabed. As it happens, skippering the salvage vessel is former German U-boat captain Eric (Alf Kjellin). After Mark successfully raises  the sub, it’s game on, Vic’s qualms wilting under Rosa’s seductive gaze. The other team members are engineer Tony (Richard Conte) and wireless operator Linc (Errol John). The prize is a cool million in cash and gold bullion.

Catch No 1: the sub can’t stay submerged for more than an hour. Catch No 2: it’s not that seaworthy and could spring a leak at any time (“don’t just look for water, listen for it,” advises Eric). Catch No 3: in order to successfully board the Queen Mary looking for vital equipment, one of these very American Yanks has to pass himself off as a British sub captain on a secret mission.

Potential Catch No 4 has already been dealt with – if the Queen Mary officers rumble the ruse and call the thieves’ bluff the hijackers plan to put a dummy torpedo up the spout and fire it into the ship’s hull. Catch No 5: there’s so much pent-up hostility among the team the whole endeavor could be sunk. Mark and Vic are vying for Rosa’s favors and clever bombshell that she is she intends to keep it that way, stringing both along.

Racist Vic takes against Eric and also resents splitting the loot with late arrival Tony. Alf not only resents Mark, also a former sub officer, for ending up on the war’s winning side, but exhibits psychopathic tendencies and might just for the hell of it blow a passing tanker out of the water. Like any gang, each member brings something specific to the party. And without giving too much away, the  endgame turns into a battle of wits, especially when the unexpected occurs.

I’m a big fan of Sinatra’s acting style. He is so natural, his gestures don’t look like they’ve been rehearsed for hours in a mirror, you’ll never accuse him of Method acting, or picking parts with Oscars in mind, but somehow he still manages to inhabit his characters.

This is a fascinating role for Virna Lisi (How to Murder Your Wife, 1965), reminiscent of film noir in the way she handles men, but also years ahead of her time not just in combining  sexual and financial independence but of being the boss funding the heist and recruiting the team, and soon has the reluctant Mark playing ball with no sense that’s ultimately she’s going to fall at his feet.

Anthony Franciosca (Rio Conchos, 1964) is mostly a distraction, engaged in a private feud with James Coburn as to who has the brightest and biggest screen teeth. Richard Conte (Lady in Cement, 1969) and Alf Kjellin (Midas Run, 1969) are the physical and mental muscle, respectively, and Trinidadian Errol John (Man in the Middle, 1965) essays an interesting role. Jack Donohue (Marriage on the Rocks, 1965) keeps it all ticking along.

Rod Serling (Planet of the Apes, 1968) devised the screenplay from the novel by Jack Finney (Good Neighbor Sam, 1964). So why did critics and the public have such a downer on the picture? Critical attitudes to the star were easier to understand. Sinatra’s films were generally disliked, and knowledge of his one-take preference allowed critics to thumb their collective noses at his acting, assuming he put no effort into it.

Rumors of his underworld connections were beginning to emerge, he had just married Mia Farrow, less than half his age, and the Beatles and the British invasion had usurped his position in the pop rankings. The general feeling was he was on the way out so why not boot him while he was down. This was despite him receiving some of the best notices of his career for Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

Audiences might have been expecting another Rat Pack lark in the vein of Ocean’s 11 (1960) or felt the supporting cast lacked lustre, Lisi a little known commodity, this only her second Hollywood picture, Franciosca still the second banana, and Hardy Kruger would certainly have invested the German with more malevolence. Otherwise, it’s hard to see what there is to complain about. As I mentioned the dialogue was good, characters simmering, and the story satisfying enough.

Sure, a better director might have extracted more tension from the set pieces, lifted the pace, and added a booming score as with Ice Station Zebra (1968).

It might not be the best heist picture ever made, but it’s too good to be dismissed.

Lady in Cement (1969) ****

Frank Sinatra in cruise control reprises his Tony Rome (1967) private eye in a hugely enjoyable and vastly under-rated murder mystery with man mountain Dan Blocker of Bonanza fame and femme fatale Raquel Welch of pin-up fame. One of the actor’s greatest characterizations, albeit with little in it for the Oscar mob, this is one of the coolest gumshoes to hit the screen. Exhibiting none of the self-consciousness of latter-day Philip Marlowes or Sam Spades, Sinatra embellishes the character with more “business” than ever before, larding his dialogue with quips while he talks his way out of sticky situations and, as a big star, happy to be picked up by Blocker and dumped on a work surface. Can’t see Newman, Redford, McQueen, and Eastwood et al putting up with that kind of treatment.

Tony Rome is almost as much of a bum as he is a detective, betting on anything possible, wasting his time on fruitless quests for sunken treasure, lazing around in his yacht until in one of his deep sea forays comes across the naked titular damsel. Reporting the murder sees Rome co-opted by cop Lt. Santini (Richard Conte) to ID the woman. Sent to the apartment shared by Sandra Lomax and Maria Bareto in search for a potential client, Rome encounters Waldo (Dan Blocker) who hires him to find Lomax.

The British release paired an action picture with a sex comedy, the idea being to catch different types of audiences rather than putting two action films or two comedies together which would
later become the prevailing exhibition wisdom. Although the two films had in common a star in bikini.
Note that the double bill went on general release at the same time as the two pictures
were, separately, playing at London’s West End.

That takes Rome to Jilly’s go-go club where his conversation with dancer Maria (Lainie Kazan) is rudely interrupted by owner Danny Yale (Frank Raiter). Next stop is a swimming pool and who should emerge in a wet bikini than millionairess Kit Forrest (Raquel Welch) whose party Sandra attended. But a) she’s an alcoholic with memory issues and b) objects to snoopers so calls in neighbor and former hood Al Mungar (Martin Gabel) who sends Rome packing. When Maria is bumped off, Waldo is the prime suspect.

So we are enveloped in an interesting plot that soon involves blackmail and robbery and a suspect list that extends to Mungar and son Paul (Steve Peck) who has the hots for Kit, Yale and muscular boyfriend Seymour, and of course Waldo (whose reason for finding Sandra is revenge) and Kit. Despite the seeming light touch, inheritance is a theme, and the tale is character-driven, relationships complex, locales somewhat off-beat, a crap game in a mortuary, a nude painter’s studio, strip clubs, massage parlors and go-go dancing establishments abound, but with none of the moralizing that came with the territory. A racetrack is almost prosaic by comparison.

For most of the picture Santini and Rome have an antagonistic relationship until we find out, in a lovely scene, that Rome was the cop’s ex-partner, that the grumpy cop has a loving home life and that Rome is greeted with delight as “Uncle Tony” by Santini’s son. Rome is also very well acquainted with film noir and knows that a woman who appears too good to be true is in fact too good to be true so he’s sensible enough to steer clear of seduction (the bane of any film noir character’s life) unless he’s just pretending in order to glean information.

Raquel Welch is more sedate in this poster.

It’s a classic detective story, one lead following another, naturally a few contretemps along the way, some deception, and the laid-back Rome proves not as relaxed as you might expect, possessing a handy right hook and a neat uppercut. Interesting subsidiary characters include Al’s neglected wife, a bumptious beach attendant and a whining nude model.

Director Gordon Douglas – who handled Sinatra in Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), Tony Rome and The Detective (1968) – brings out the best in the actor, keeps the action zipping along despite multiple complications and prefers a quip to a momentous speech.

Sinatra is just so at ease he oozes screen charisma. His shamus is no slick unraveller of truth, but a steady digger, accumulating information. You might think any tentative relationship with Kit stretches the age angle a tad but bear in mind at this stage Sinatra was married to Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior. Raquel Welch (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968) is surprisingly good as a vulnerable mixed-up wealthy alcoholic and, except in her opening scene, manages to steer clear of a bikini for most of the picture.

Richard Conte (Hotel, 1966) is as dependable as ever but Martin Gabel (Divorce American Style, 1967) steals the supporting show as an apoplectic racketeer trying to go straight. You might like to know Lainie Kazan (Dayton’s Devils, 1968) is still working, The Amityville Murders (2018) and Tango Shalom (2021) among her recent output. It’s a shame Dan Blocker did not live long enough (he died in 1972) to build on his idiosyncratic performance.

The lively screenplay was written by Marvin H. Albert (A Twist of Sand, 1968) and Jack Guss (Daniel Boone: Frontier Trail Rider, 1966) based on Albert’s novel. Mention, too, for the jaunty theme tune by Hugo Montenegro (The Undefeated, 1969). You’ll find yourself humming it for days on end, it pops up often enough.

Into the catchphrase hall of fame must go Blocker’s exhortation “Stay loose” just before he unleashes mayhem. And while we’re about it, what is it about the quality of actor or status of a star that permits hoodlum Al’s peeved “I tried to go clean and you dragged me down” to be ignored while a couple of decades later a similar line from The Godfather Part III (1990) uttered by Al Pacino is hailed as a classic. You know the one I mean: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” Steven Spielberg is another who should have watched this picture for tips on how to deal with marauding sharks – Rome’s solution: kick them on the snout. By the way did Blocker fall out with imdb? Despite third billing, he’s not listed at all in the main credits and when you scroll down to the extended credits, he’s at the very bottom. Jeez!


All-Time Top 40

I started this Blog two years ago this month and to my astonished delight it is now read in over 120 countries. I am now well past over 500 reviews. So I thought you might be interested to know which of these reviews has attracted the most attention. This isn’t my choice of the top films in the Blog, but yours, my loyal readers. The chart covers the films viewed the most times since the Blog began, from June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2022.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark exudes menace in this adaptation of an early Alistair MacLean spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War. Senta Berger  has a small role.
  2. Jessica (1962). Innocently gorgeous widow Angie Dickinson finds her looks turn so many male heads in a small Italian town that the female population seeks revenge.
  3. Ocean’s 11 (1960). The Rat Pack makes its debut – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. et al plan an audacious Las Vegas robbery. 
  4. Pharoah (1966). Priests battle kings in Polish epic set in ancient Egypt. Fabulous to look at and thoughtful.
  5. Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall in the best role of her career as a sexy German spy in World War One.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. The Swinger (1966). Ann-Margret struts her stuff as a magazine journalist trying to persuade Tony Franciosca she is as sexy as the character she has written about.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary
  9. A Place for Lovers (1969). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in doomed love affair directed by Vittorio De Sica.
  10. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  11. Moment to Moment (1966). Hitchcockian-style thriller with Jean Seberg caught up in  murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  12. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  13. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  14. The Double Man (1967). Yul Brynner chases his doppelganger in the Swiss Alps with Britt Ekland adding a touch of glamour.
  15.  Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry hunts an M.I.5 mole in London. Intrigue all round with Joan Collins supplying the romance and a scene-stealing Suzanna Leigh as a villain.
  16. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  17. Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Off-the-wall musical directed by star Anthony Newley that has to be seen to be believed. Joan Collins pops up. 
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Deadlier than the Male (1967). Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond is led a merry dance by spear-gun-toting Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina in outlandish thriller.
  20. Valley of Gwangi (1969). Special effects genius Ray Harryhausen the star here as James Franciscus and Gila Golen encounter prehistoric monsters in a forbidden valley.
  21. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  22. Orgy of the Dead (1965). Bearing the Ed Wood imprint, mad monster mash-up with the naked dead.
  23. Once a Thief (1965). Ann-Margret is a revelation in crime drama with ex-con Alain Delon coerced into a robbery despite trying to go straight. Supporting cast boasts Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey. 
  24. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Stunning caper with thief Alain Delon and Mafia chief Jean Gabin teaming up for audacious jewel heist with cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil. Great score by Ennio Morricone.
  25. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). More diamonds at stake as Rod Taylor leads a gang of mercenaries into war-torn Congo.  Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller
  26. Stiletto (1969). Mafia hitman Alex Cord pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland as the treacherous girlfriend heads a supporting cast including Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  27. Maroc 7 (1967). Yet more jewel skullduggery with Gene Barry infiltrating a gang of thieves in Morocco who use the cover of a fashion shoot. Top female cast comprises Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  28. The Rock (1996). Former inmate Sean Connery breaks into Alcatraz with Nicolas Cage to prevent mad general Ed Harris blowing up San Francisco. Michael Bay over-the-top thriller with blistering pace.
  29. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster’s life falls apart as he swims pool-by-pool across the county. Superlative performance. 
  30. Hour of the Gun (1967). James Garner as a ruthless Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in John Sturges’ realistic re-telling of events after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
  31. Fade In (1968). Long-lost modern western with Burt Reynolds serenading low-level movie executive Barbara Loden whose company is actually filming Terence Stamp picture Blue.
  32. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). The British movie version of Disney American television mini-series sees Patrick McGoohan as a Robin Hood-type character assisting local smugglers.
  33. P.J./New Face in Hell (1968). Private eye George Peppard is duped by shady millionaire Raymond Burr and mistress Gayle Hunnicutt in murder mystery.
  34. Sol Madrid/The Heroin Gang (1968). In his second top-billed role David MacCallum drags hooker Stella Stevens to Mexico to capture drugs kingpin Telly Savalas.
  35. A Twist of Sand (1968). Diamonds again. Smugglers Richard Johnson and Jeremy Kemp hunt long-lost jewels in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  36. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  37. Interlude (1968). Bittersweet romance between famed conductor Oskar Wener and young reporter Barbara Ferris.
  38. Woman of Straw (1964). Sean Connery tangles with Gina Lollobrigida in lurid tale of murder and inheritance.
  39. Bedtime Story (1964). Marlon Brando and David Niven are rival seducers on the Riviera targeting wealthy women.
  40. Sisters (1969). Intrigue, adultery and incest haunt Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg as they try to recapture the innocence of the past.

The Title Jungle: The A.K.A. Business 1960s Style

We’ve all been there. You are scrolling through a movie website and you come across a new Audrey Hepburn picture called The Loudest Whisper (1961) and you get all excited and wonder how on earth you could have missed it. You check it out. Something about the other credits sounds familiar – directed by William Wyler, co-starring Shirley Maclaine. Wait a minute, isn’t that The Children’s Hour? Yep, you got it. Welcome to the title jungle, the constant changing of the names of movies from country to country.

You could see how this was necessary, possibly even essential, as different languages and cultures struggled to make sense of Hollywood titles. There could be other reasons. What actually does To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) mean and is it translatable into Greek or Italian? What happens if the publisher of the bestseller-cum-movie has already changed the title? Or  if an American bestseller sank like a stone in other countries and the whimsical title means nothing to nobody.

But The Loudest Whisper was the British title for the William Wyler picture. And Britain, it turns out,  was not shy about changing titles. Elia Kazan’s America, America (1964), a straightforward title you might think, suggesting longing, was changed into the incomprehensible The Anatolian Smile, assuming the ordinary public knew where (or what) Anatolia was. Burt Kennedy western Mail Order Bride (1964), an idea too obvious for the sensitive Brits, became the meaningless West of Montana.

Glenn Ford-Stella Stevens western comedy Advance to the Rear (1964), a simple joke in any language unless your mind ran in cruder directions, turned into Company of Cowards. Glenn Ford again, Experiment in Terror (1962) was translated for British audiences as The Grip of Fear. Rene Clement French thriller Joy House, perhaps suggestive of a house of ill-repute, with Alain Delon and Jane Fonda became the no-less risqué Love Cage. And any notions that The Stripper would prove impossible to resist for any red-blooded male were scuppered by renaming it Woman of Summer.   

In any case, the Italians had already co-opted the whole stripping thing, Warner Brothers musical Gypsy (1962) was translated as The Woman Who Invented Striptease, which was actually what Gypsy Rose Lee was famed for even if Hollywood did not want to admit it upfront. In fact, the people in charge of foreign titling often came up with a better choice than the original. Two Seducers was the Italian title for Bedtime Story (1964) starring Marlon Brando and David as, guess what, rival seducers.

In case you had no idea what The Prize (1963) referred to, what could be better than renaming it, as in Italy, Intrigue in Stockholm or, in accepting some knowledge of the Nobel Prize, the Greek version No Laurels for Murderers, both revamped titles a bit more persuasive above a marquee than the bland original, especially if the Irving Wallace bestseller on which it was based had not been a success in the respective countries.

Cape Fear (1962) – based on a book with the straightforward title of The Executioner – was improved upon in several countries, all taking a similar approach to the problem. In Switzerland it was known as Bait for a Beast, in West Germany Decoy for a Beast, both of which actually touched more succinctly on the main plot than the Hollywood version. And some countries believed in saying it as they saw it, Irma La Douce (1963) shown in Greece as The Streetwalker.

Clearly, some Hollywood titles provoked much head-scratching as titling experts tried to work out if they had, perhaps, a hidden meaning. Frank Sinatra comedy Come Blow Your Horn (1963) was variously called I’ll Take Care of the Women (Italy), If My Sleeping Room Could Talk (West Germany), If My Bed Could Talk (Greece) and the more straightforward Bachelor’s Apartment (Israel).

Some titles came with inbuilt bafflement. Italy had an interesting take on MGM musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), tabbing it I Want To Be Loved in a Brass Bed. Move Over Darling (1963) emerged as One Too Many in Bed (West Germany) and Her Husband Is Mine (Greece) while another Doris Day vehicle Lover Come Back (1961) became A Pajama for Two (Switzerland), and A Pair of Pajamas for Two (West Germany). But some essential facet of the character of Hud (1962) was captured in Wildest Among a Thousand (West Germany) and Wild as a Storm (Greece).

And back to that To Kill a Mockingbird problem. Italian audiences were treated to Darkness Beyond the Hedge and Greek moviegoers to Shadows and Silence. Incidentally, in Israel The Stripper was known as Lost Rose while Advance to the Rear in West Germany appeared as Heroes without Pants.  

SOURCE: “How U.S. Titles Are Retitled in Foreign Lands,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p108 and examination of movies on Imdb.

Sergeants 3 (1962) ***

There’s a terrific western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) inside this Rat Pack offering, the second of four in the series. On the plus side are plenty twists on traditional scenarios, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin displaying a certain kind of easy screen charisma, and three exceptional and well-choreographed battle scenes.

Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford play the eponymous sergeants, Lawford committing the cardinal sin of wanting to quit the regiment to get married, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave, bugler (an important plot point) and horse-lover wanting to sign up, and Joey Bishop (television star and occasional movie actor) as their sergeant-major boss.

A fair bit of time is spent on the usual Rat Pack shenanigans, getting drunk, brawling, playing tricks on each other, and exploring odd comic notions such as playing poker with a blacksmith’s implements as chips. But when it gets down to proper western stuff, it fairly zings along, with a decent plot (a Native American uprising) and excellent action scenes. You could have had William Goldman writing the script for the number of reversals involved as the picture keeps one step ahead of audience expectation.

For a start, rather than flushing out outlaws from a town, the troopers have to remove Native Americans who have taken it over. Instead of the cavalry pursuing Native Americans, it is mostly the other way round. It is the soldiers rather than the Native Americans who attack a wagon. Sinatra finds himself employing a bow-and-arrow and then a tomahawk rather than being on the receiving end of such weaponry.  Instead of dynamite, the good guys make do with fireworks. Where Native Americans are usually pinned down, this time it is Sinatra’s merry band. And when it comes to resorting to serious violence, that, too is usually the remit of the Native Americans, not as here, Sinatra chucking man off a cliff.

When it sticks to action, the picture is very well done and involving. When Sinatra has to take charge instead of larking about, the movie has focus. Both Sinatra and Martin were undertaking serious roles around this time, the former in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the latter in political drama Ada (1961) so this might have appeared welcome relief.

The comedy isn’t along the laugh-out-loud lines of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) or Blazing Saddles (1973) and the action of so full-on you wonder why anybody thought this required comedy at all, although there is a pretty good punchline ending. Action aside, It’s almost the equivalent of easy listening. The Rat Pack was a particular 1960s institution, the members joining each other on stage in Las Vegas or featuring in television programs, but there’s no real modern correlative.

It was interesting to see how the Rat Pack concept developed. This movie chucked out the idea of including a few songs as with Oceans 11 (1960) while the next one in the series, 4 for Texas (1963) was more of a serious straight western. But the final picture Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) went in the opposition direction and was a full-on musical as if by the time they came to making that picture everyone had realized the film would make more sense if it played to their inestimable talents.

The series developed in other ways, too. Romance was minimal in Oceans 11, barely seen here, but was a major element of 4 for Texas – who would want to waste the talents of Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg – but just as Andress is a smooth operator in 4 for Texas when it came to the last Rat Pack picture Barbara Rush was also a significant player for whom romance was merely a means to an end. You could also argue that the disappearance of Lawford and Bishop allowed the supporting roles to be played by actors who were not in on the joke.

CATCH-UP: the entire Rat Pack quartet has now been reviewed in the Blog with Oceans 11 (1960) and 4 for Texas (1963) also to be found here. Other Frank Sinatra films reviewed are Can-Can (1960), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Naked Runner (1967) and The Detective (1968) while for Dean Martin the list, so far, comprises Texas Across the River (1966) and Rough Night in Jericho (1967).

Selling The Rat Pack: Pressbook for “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1965)

Warner Brothers pushed the boat out for Robin and the 7 Hoods with this lavish Pressbook. Apart from roadshows, most pressbooks of the era were around 16-pages A3. But this stretched to 28 pages with a tremendous range of advertisements, taglines and tie-ups plus, easier to accommodate from the exhibitor’s perspective, a healthy number of relatively straightforward marketing suggestions. On top of that, always a great incentive for cinema managers to rack their brains for good promotional ideas, the studio was offering seven cash prizes worth a total of $1,500 – about $14,000 today – for the best individual campaigns as well as a “special bonus prize” of the golf clubs used by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bing Crosby for the most original stunt.

With Pressbooks popping through a cinema manager’s door at the rate of one or two or three a week – dependent on how often a picture house changed its program – this one would certainly have made an impact, not so much from its size, but its commitment to the exhibitor. Most Pressbooks began either with information on the stars and the filming or with the advertisements and there was a sense of exhibitors being called upon to fit in with a pre-conceived campaign. Warner Brothers was not the first studio to go down the prize-giving route as a means of attracting attention, but in making the competition the first item on the promotional agenda – two of the first four pages were devoted to it – it certainly ensured it was high priority.

Following the competition came four pages of suggestions for gimmicks, stunts and tie-ins. WB had already tied-up with the The Antique Automobile Club of America and its members were being encouraged to lend out their vehicles to any movie theater planning a stunt. Exhibitors were told that car owners were “pleased to show them off.” There were over 100 chapters/branches of the Club so no shortage of eager participants. A parade of old-time cars in the town or a rally outside the cinema or even a race was guaranteed to attract publicity.

The Roaring 20s was another concept easily adopted – flapper fashions, the Charleston being performed outside the theatre or a dance competition, or girls dressed up in the outfits of the day strolling around town “carrying phonographs and camp stools; at busy intersections they can sit down and play one of the Robin tunes.”  Reward posters could be put up for famous gangsters of the speakeasy period, with photographs of the film’s characters included. A jazz parade was another possibility complete with straw hats and blazers. Setting up a gambling den was another suggestion using “actual gambling equipment captured by the police.”

And all this was before exhibitors could let fly with ideas based on the archery motif since “the words Robin Hood and archery and practically interchangeable.” Archery contests could be staged in a sports store, park, shopping mall or in front of the cinema. Robin Hood hats made of simulated felt with a feather sticking out – or bullet-riddled – were available at a low cost and ideal for giving away to children and to be worn by ushers and other staff as well as employees in other organisations participating in any promotion. Or just handed out to a local restaurant.

On top of that, since this Rat Pack picture was actually a denoted musical in which all the principals sang, there was the best tie-in of all – an original soundtrack album, an easy marketing tool for record shops. WB had also arranged for a book tie-in with Pocket Books, novelization written by Jack Pearl and stocked in 120,000 outlets.  The record, promised WB, would be “on every radio station night and day.” Even though Sinatra was no longer a top recording artist – “My Kind of Town” did not break the Cashbox Top 100 singles chart – his voice and that of his co-stars were exactly the kind of easy listening that appeared to radio addicts fed up with the British Beatle invasion.

The advertising campaign was fairly straightforward consisting of as many of the stars as could be crammed onto a poster – usually the main four plus either Barbara Rush or Peter Falk, occasionally all six. The tagline went hip: “Like we’ve taken the Robin Hood legend and changed the bows and arrows to machine guns…! Like with songs yet!…Like Wild.” The last word might be changed to “Wow.”  An alternate tagline along similar lines went: “In Merrie Olde Chicago, in the days when King Al ruled the land…” And “Gather round all ye swingers and hear this…we’re doing the Robin Hood legend in Chicago’s wildest era…with songs yet!” A final version ran: “Warner Bros right merrily presents the wild idea of doing the Robin Hood legend in Chicago’s wildest era.”

With the box office and recording firepower of Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Crosby and the range of promotional ideas, there was little need to jazz up the Pressbook with journalistic nuggets, but WB did not stint on this count. The appearance of Edward G. Robinson in the genre and studio where he made his name three decades before in the like of Little Caesar was too good an opportunity to miss – more so when the wardrobe department discovered his suit size had not changed. Other cinematic stalwarts from the early gangster picture days included Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue, now a restaurant owner and making his first WB movie in 23 years.

Elegance was a keynote for Barbara rush’s femme fatale. Designer Don Feld created a range of dinner gowns, coats and negligees which served almost as a disguise for the hard-as-nails operator. Commented Rush, “I am as tough as daddy and just as blood-thirsty. But I play it sweet throughout and never become hard or evil. The role has more substance when you realize this sweet girl has the ruthlessness of a cobra.” Pool hustler Harold ‘Red’ Baker was hired to teach Dean Martin how to perform like a champion player and also set up the shots for the game between Sinatra and Martin. Baker. But the editorial section ran for only two pages, which was a mighty small proportion of the overall Pressbook.

Robin and the 7 Hoods (1965) ****

I’m still trying to work out why I enjoyed the Rat Pack’s last hurrah so much. Sure, it’s the knockout debut of “My Kind of Town,”  the last tune Frank Sinatra performed on the big screen and one that would have epitomised Ol’ Blue Eyes had it not been supplanted a few years later by “My Way.” And Bing Crosby, also in top crooning form, would have stolen the show except for Peter Falk’s gangster and Barbara Rush weaving a seductive web around all the males.  But, actually, it’s mostly because this one time, far more than in the three preceding pictures, there’s a match between story and stars, as if at last the whole idea has come together. The gimmick of transplanting the Robin Hood legend to 1920s Prohibition Chicago works a treat, a gentle spoof rather than an awkward one.

The notion that you would bring together three of the greatest singers – Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. – of their generation and deny audiences the chance to hear their voices was anathema to audiences. As if nobody could make up their mind which way a Rat Pack vehicle was headed, Martin and Davis were accorded tunes in Oceans 11 (1960) but the next two pictures, westerns of one kind or another, appeared tuneless. Robin and the 7 Hoods is a proper musical, all the stars sing, some even get to dance, and the story carries a lot more heft than your usual musical, some decent running gags, and an affectionate nod to the old Warner Brothers gangster pictures.

Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk), having taken control of the city by rubbing out his rival, comes up against Robbo (Frank Sinatra) refusing to bow the knee. Naturally, both decide the only solution is to bust up each other’s joints. Even more naturally, this ends in stalemate. Cue the entrance of Marian (Barbara Rush), the dead mob boss’s daughter who wants her father avenged. As a by-product of her involvement, Robbo ends up donating $50,000 to the poor, a good deed turned into public relations bounty by orphanage chief Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby), reviving the legend of the outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

Complications arise when Robbo refuses to fall for Marian’s wiles and is framed for the murder of a corrupt Sheriff Glick (Robert Foulk). Marian proves far smarter than her male counterparts and when bribery, seduction and corruption fail she turns to politics.

While Sinatra’s rendition of “My Kind of Town” is the standout, tunesmiths Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen showcase some terrific numbers, in particular the gospel-style “Mr Booze” performed by Bing Crosby, “Style” involving Sinatra, Martin and Crosby, a Martin solo “Any Man Who Loves His Mother,” Sammy Davis with “Bang! Bang!”  and even Peter Falk makes a decent stab at “All for One and One for All.”  Once Sinatra, Martin or Crosby wrapped their larynxes round a particular song, they claimed ownership for life, you can’t imagine anyone else doing it better. And so it proved here.

In acting terms Sinatra, Martin and Davis are on cruise control, although Sinatra, the butt of the conspiracy, tends to have to work a little harder. The supporting cast relish the opportunities presented. Peter Falk (Penelope, 1966) makes the most of a made-to-order role as the back-stabbing mob chief, his fast-talking style little match for more superior brains, and you can see a screen persona develop in front of your eyes. Bing Crosby (Stagecoach, 1966) starts out as a joke with his outlandish language but soon comes to represent a different perspective on legitimate illegitimate moneymaking schemes. Barbara Rush (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) is quite superb as the conniving sophisticate, all long dresses and innovative ideas.

Although Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, 1966) would hardly be your go-to director for a musical, he acquits himself very well, incorporating a great deal of the style he evinced in Claudelle Inglish (1961). There are two marvellous running scenes. The first is that whenever the municipality sees fit to lay the foundation stone of some great new building you can be sure the block contains a corpse. But the second is just wonderful. Any time Marian has a man in her lounge, she goes round switching off the lamps until the room is in darkness. Each time, the scene is played in exactly the same way and of course the minute she starts switching off the lights, moving as sinuously as a spider from lamp to lamp, you know where this scene is going. I should also mention the “Mr Booze” sequence in which an illegal nightclub is transformed into a gospel meeting.

Edward G. Robinson (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968) has a cameo and also look out for Oscar-nominated Victor Buono (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, 1962).   

Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965) ***

Given that Ann-Margret receives top billing I had automatically assumed she was the Bus Riley in question. Although decidedly the female lead, her role is secondary to that of a sailor returning to his small town. The backstory is that Bus – no explanation ever provided for this nickname, Buster perhaps? – Riley (Michael Parks) had been too young to marry the gorgeous Laurel (Ann-Margret) before he joined the U.S. Navy and in his absence she married an older wealthy man.  

Bus dithers over his future, re-engages with his mother and two sisters and finds he has not lost his attraction to Laurel. Although a handy mechanic, he has his eye on a white collar  career. An initial foray into becoming a mortician founders after sexual advances by his employer (Crahan Denton). Instead he is employed as a vacuum salesman by slick Slocum (Brad Dexter).  While his sister’s friend Judy (Janet Margolin) does catch his eye, she is hardly as forward or inviting as the sexy Laurel who crashes her car into his to attract his attention. But easy sex available with Laurel and the easy money from exploiting lonely housewives trigger a crisis of conscience.

Perhaps the most prominent aspect is the absence of good male role models. Bus is fatherless, his mother (Jocelyn Brando) taking in boarders to meet her financial burden – including the neurotic Carlotta (Brett Somers) – and while younger sister Gussie (Kim Darby) adores Bus the other sister Paula (Mimsy Farmer) is jealous of his freedom. Judy’s father is also missing and her mother (Nan Martin) a desperate alcoholic. The biggest male players are the ruthless Slocum and Laurel’s husband who clearly views her as a plaything he has bought. The biggest female player, Laurel, is equally ruthless, boredom sending her in search of male company, slithering and simpering to get what she wants.     

Scandal is often a flickering curtain away in small towns so it’s no surprise that Bus can enjoy a reckless affair with Laurel or that a meek mortician can get away with making his desires so quickly apparent, or that behind closed doors houses reek of alcohol or repression. A couple of years later and Hollywood would have encouraged youngsters like Bus and Laurel to scorn respectability in favor of free love. But this has a 1950s sensibility when finding a fulfilling job and the right partner was preferred to the illicit.

In that context – and it makes an interesting comparison to the more recent Licorice Pizza that despite being set in the 1970s finds youngsters still struggling with the difference between sex and love – it’s an excellent depiction of small-town life.

While Michael Parks (The Happening, 1967) anchors the picture, it’s the women who create the sparks. Not least, of course, is Ann-Margret (Once a Thief, 1965), at her most provocative but also revealing an inner helpless core. And you can trace her screen development from her earlier fluffier roles into the more mature parts she played in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and more especially Once a Thief (1965).

In her movie debut Kim Darby (True Grit, 1969) is terrific as the bouncy Gussie and Janet Margolin (David and Lisa, 1962) invests her predominantly demure role with some bite. Jocelyn Brando (The Ugly American, 1963) reveals vulnerability while essaying the strong mother. Mimsy Farmer (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971) also makes her debut and it’s only the second picture for David Carradine (Boxcar Bertha, 1972). Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) is very convincing as the arrogant salesman.

It’s also the first film for Canadian director Harvey Hart (The Sweet Ride, 1968) and he has some nice visual flourishes, making particular use of aerial shots. The scenes of Bus trudging through town at night are particularly well done as are those of Laurel strutting her stuff.

It was also the only credit for screenwriter Walter Gage. That was because Gage didn’t exist. Like the Allen Smithee later adopted as the all-purpose pseudonym for pictures a director had disowned, this was the name adopted when playwright William Inge (Oscar-winner for Splendor in the Grass, 1961) refused to have anything to do with the finished film.

The movie was in limbo for over a year. It was never intended as a major picture, the budget limited to $550,000. Shot in Spring 1964, release was delayed for about a year until  Universal re-edited it and added new scenes. In part this was because Ann-Margret had  achieved surprising movie stardom between her recruitment and the film’s completion. Along with Raquel Welch, she became one of the most glamorous stars of the decade and in building up her own career Welch clearly followed the Ann-Margret template of taking on a bucket of roles and signing deals with competing studios.

After making just three movies, Ann-Margret was contracted for three movies with MGM at an average $200,000 per plus an average 12% of the profit, substantial sums for a neophyte. On top of that she had four far less remunerative pictures for Twentieth Century Fox, three for Columbia, Marriage on the Rocks with Frank Sinatra and a couple of others.

Universal also had another property to protect. Michael Parks was one of small contingent of novice actors in whom the studio had invested considerable sums, using them in television roles before placing them in major movies. Others in this small group – at a time when most studios had abandoned the idea of developing new talent – included Katharine Ross and Tom Simcox who both appeared in Shenadoah (1965), James Farentino (The War Lord, 1965), Don Galloway (The Rare Breed, 1965), Doug McClure (The Lively Set, 1964) and Robert Fuller and Jocelyn Lane in Incident at Phantom Hill (1965).

However, the introduction of Parks had not gone to plan. He was set to make his debut in The Wild Seed (1965) – originally titled Daffy and going through several other titles besides – but that was also delayed until after Bus Riley, riding on Ann-Margret’s coat-tails, offered greater potential.

SOURCES: “Escalating Actress,” Variety, May 22, 1963, page 4; “Inge Thinks Writer Contentment May Lie in Creative Scope of Cheaper Pix,” Variety, May 6, 1964, p2; “Ann-Margret Into the Cash Splash,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p5; “Universal Puts 9 Novices Into Pix,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p25; “Fear Ann-Margret Going Wrongo in Her Screen Image,” Variety, March 24, 1965, p5.

There’s a VHS copy available on Amazon, but otherwise it’s Ebay or this decent enough print on YouTube.

Can-Can (1960) ****

A sterling cast does justice to some great Cole Porter songs in an entertaining musical typical of the period. Apart from appropriating some stock footage, nobody was going to bother to head out on location when a Hollywood-ized version of Paris could be recreated on the set. While the film is ahead of its time in several ways – Simone (Shirley Maclaine) owns the nightclub and the women in the title dance are meant to be minus their panties, hence attempts by authorities to shut it down – the plot features an old-fashioned love triangle.

While the chief magistrate (Maurice Chevalier) turns a blind eye to the lewd dance, his younger colleague Phillippe (Louis Jourdan) does not and ensures Simone is arrested. Complications arise when Philippe falls in love with Simone who already has a lover, the lawyer Francois (Frank Sinatra) who is averse to committing to marriage. The four stars are all very charming and there is gentle comedy and effortless acting as the romantic knots are tightened and then unpicked. Hypocrisy is tested and found wanting. The courtroom scenes are amusing and most of the story focus is on how Phillippe can get round his principles and legal obligations to successfully woo Simone.

But in reality, the audience is here for the music, and to hear classic Porter songs interpreted by Sinatra and Chevalier. While the songs are top-drawer, what captured my imagination most was the “Garden of Eden” ballet with a stunning design and superb dancing by Simone and Claudine (Juliet Prowse).  The “Apache Dance” also boasts some singular choreography but otherwise while the “Can-Can” itself is rousing and well-done this is for obvious reasons a censored version.

The Cole Porter contribution includes: “I Love Paris,” “C’Est Magnifique,” “It’s Allright With Me,” “Let’s Do It,” and “Just One of Those Things.”

Walter Lang was a safe pair of hands in this genre having helmed Call Me Madam (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Oscar-nominated for The King and I (1956). The screenplay was a harder slog. The original Broadway musical was a romance between the judge and the nightclub owner. Adding the lawyer Francois to the mix necessitated major changes to the story. But Dorothy Kingsley also had form, having been responsible for the screenplays of  Kiss Me, Kate (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Pal Joey (1957). Co-writer Charles Lederer, although involved in Kismet (1955), had a better grasp of comedy, as seen in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and It Started with a Kiss (1960).

Although not universally admired by the critics, it won two Oscars – color costume design for  Irene Sharaff and best music for Nelson Riddle. It didn’t hit a home run at the box office either and the finger was pointed at Twentieth Century Fox for committing the mortal sin of inflating revenue figures on its initial launch.

While not one of the all-time great musicals and put in the shade when compared to West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), it’s an enjoyable confection, the easy screen charisma of Sinatra, Chevalier, Jourdan and MacLaine holding it all together.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.