The Borgia Stick / F.B.I vs Gangsters (1967) ****

Happily married after five years Tom Harrison (Don Murray) turns to wife Eve (Inger Stevens) and asks: “Who are you?” No, we’re not tumbling down some existential rabbit hole. Reiterating his love for her, he continues, “Don’t you want to know who I am?”

They’re living an effective lie, nice house in the suburbs, Tom catching the train every morning with neighbor Hal (Barry Nelson), joshing with Hal’s youngest son about the giraffe that took the elephant’s seat one morning, Eve a contented housewife, cocktails and sex at the ready, charity work to occupy her idle day.

Since nobody knew what money-laundering was in the 1960s and any mention of Borgia took audience minds in a historical direction it was best to play safe in the title department.

They work for The Company aka The Mob. Nothing nasty though. He’s not in the drugs/enforcement/prostitution departments. He’s a money launderer. He goes round the country opening accounts in obscure banks and helping deposit Mafia cash as a means of buying other companies. “It’s not illegitimate, but it’s legal,” he’s informed.

This isn’t the Mafia that Coppola and Scorsese would later invest with grandeur, it’s closer to the faceless corporation of Point Blank (1967) but taking the business aspect to a higher level. There’s computerisation for a start, personnel files appear as a printout, and some hefty degree of organisation required to keep tabs of the $100 million-plus that enters legitimate business each year. And you would think they were spies, everyone uses code names, “Borgia Stick” being Tom’s, telephones have particular numbers, even conversation is some kind of code.

Trouble is, what was supposed to be an arrangement with benefits has turned into true love, and Tom wants to find a way out, live a different life, have kids. Eve backs off from that kind of commitment. But eventually the decision is taken out of their hands. A guy called Prentice (Ralph Waite) comes snooping around, claiming he knew Tom as Andy Mitchell from Toledo.

“Murder Syndicate” in one country translated into “Gangster Syndicate” in another, no mention of the FBI.

Cover potentially blown, Tom’s boss Anderson (Fritz Weaver) plans to give him a new life – his employers are not “unfeeling monsters” after all – pack him off to Rio with $83,000 to get him started. But only Tom. Eve is sent back to her old life, to prove she can be trusted, the life she was trying to keep from her husband. She is put to work in a clip joint.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way and there are about a dozen twists before we reach an unexpected climax, especially given the opening scene which I won’t disclose.

Although The Godfather is seen as the high point of humanising the Mafia, in that picture Michael’s constant concealment from his wife of his true life means it avoids the real drama of the situation. Here, that drama is the crux. A clever big boss would try to avoid a marital mismatch. The wrong kind of love match can endanger the Family – just look at Meghan and Harry – and it’s a pretty clever device to splice two souls rescued from potential prison and a more sordid life, give them life’s trappings, assured that a woman who has sold herself to so many different men might be grateful just to be assigned a single one, and that a man who otherwise might have been a dull banker could receive, almost as an “extra,” a glamorous wife.

That they might have feelings for each other may well have been calculated into the equation. What would that matter? Surely, it would only benefit the relationship. Every manager knows that an employee with a happy home life is one less problem to worry about.

As long as company loyalty remained uppermost. Eve reminds Tom he’s no less guilty in helping the company get rid of tainted money than the guys on the ground who made it in the first place. Quite why Tom has a stab of conscience and hasn’t the smarts to work out that gangsters can be happily married is never made clear. However, once he sets rolling the particular ball of quitting the Mafia, it can only end in trouble.

Director David Lowell Rich (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968) does an exemplary job, spinning emotion and angst, humanising a couple we should really despise, and every now and then throwing in a corker of a twist. Unlike the experience of Lee Marvin in Point Blank, the employers are shown to be far from rigid, with an apparent touching regard for their employees.

Rich even manages to slip in a couple of scenes that provide greater insight. One of Tom’s co-workers  talks like any successful salesman about the pressure of hitting his targets. And he fears the effect of computerisation, that it could make the Mafia vulnerable to Government investigation (rather than, as would later transpire, harnessing it to massive financial effect). And there’s a little nugget about how 200 businesses who controlled the entire U.S. economy in 1932 held the country to ransom for a year by refusing to accede to the wishes of President Roosevelt.

Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968) is the pick here, by turn confident, vulnerable, loving, hating, and with a terrific scene as she tries to control her emotions when tossed back into bargain basement of prostitution. Don Murray (The Viking Queen, 1967) spent his entire career trying to live up to the promise shown in Bus Stop (1956), for which he was Oscar-nominated, without quite getting the roles consistently enough that he deserved. But he is pretty convincing here.

This was television regular Barry Nelson’s first movie role in a decade. Fritz Weaver (The Maltese Bippy, 1969) is good as the boss whose game face is “understanding” and you might spot John Randolph (Seconds, 1966). George Benson wrote the songs for the nightclub sequence.

If you’ve never heard of this, it’ll be because David Lowell Rich is a very under-rated director and because it started life as a made-for-television movie in the heyday of that particular notion, but, as was often the norm with such projects, was released as a movie abroad under the alternative title.

Terrific little film, well worth a look. Way ahead of its time regarding money-laundering, sexual business arrangements (Homeland, 2011-2020), the pressures of working for the Mafia (The Sopranos, 1999-2007) and quitting that organization (Stiletto, 1969). You can catch it on YouTube but be warned this was filmed on video so the quality ain’t great.

The Maltese Bippy (1969) *

The start is promising. Three decent laughs in the first three scenes, all jests at the expense of Hollywood. But when the movie settles down to a werewolf spoof, there’s a nary a chuckle to be found. It was rare in the 1960s for television shows to be given a big-screen outing, but it did occasionally happen. This came two years into the six-year run of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In television show, an innovative mixture of gags, punchlines and sketches stitched together in random fashion. A huge hit in the U.S., it was considered a slam dunk to turn it into a movie. Perhaps if they had stuck to the same format it might have worked.

Sam Smith (Dan Rowan) and Ernest Grey (Dick Martin) are down-on-their-luck soft-porn movie makers living in a mansion on the edge of a cemetery. After suffering a bite on the neck, Dick turns into a werewolf. You can see the comic possibilities, I’m sure. Either Rowan and Martin failed to find them or lacked the expertise to turn the material into laughs. Sure, there’s a creepy family, the Ravenswoods, next door who could be auditioning for The Munsters but that goes nowhere except the obvious and certainly not in the direction of laughs.

A few good actresses – Carol Lynley (Danger Route, 1967),  Julie Newmar (Mackenna’s Gold, 1969) and Mildred Natwick (Barefoot in the Park, 1967) – were snookered into this alongside Fritz Weaver (To Trap a Spy, 1964) without hope of redemption.  It was almost as though the picture was conceived as a piece of merchandising that Rowan and Martin just had to put their names to and not do much else.

It was strange it was so awful because director Norman Panama had a track record in comedy. Among other pictures he had made The Court Jester (1955) starring Danny Kaye – “the vessel with the pestle” – displayed an abundance of great comic timing and in some respects was a spoof of the historical genre. He had also directed Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong (1962) so you would expect him to be familiar with the workings of screen comedic partnerships.

The laughs were meant to be supplied by Everett Freeman (The Glass Bottom Boat, 1966)  and Ray Singer, a specialist in television sitcom and creator of Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). But either they couldn’t come up with sufficient gags or Rowan and Martin’s delivery was out of key with the lines. Or something.

Maybe nostalgia was what was missing from my viewing of the picture. I don’t recall holding any particular affection for the television show, though I was aware it provided a star-making platform for performers like Goldie Hawn (Cactus Flower, 1969), Judy Carne (All the Right Noises, 1970) and Lily Tomlin (Nine to Five, 1980) and that John Wayne put in a guest appearance.

But don’t take my word for it. Variety called the picture “as zany and fast a funfest as has come down the pike in years” and a “ cinch for heavy box office reception.” Mainstream critics were less kind, four out of the most prominent five giving unfavorable reviews. Even though the stars made the cover of Life magazine and the film received a seven-page spread inside, the movie barely made a ripple with audiences, a total of just $22,000 garnered in its opening week in two cinemas in New York with a total capacity of over 2,000 seats. British kids film Ring of Bright Water made more at a 360-seater.

The expected audience did not materialize, either from poor word-of-mouth or because customers resisted paying for something they could get for free every week on the small screen. So poorly did it perform that its initial run was truncated and a few weeks later when it went wide in a Showcase opening in New York MGM stuck on a reissue of Grand Prix (1966) as the support. Variety estimated it barely took $1 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios once cinemas take their share of the box office). Final proof of its unpopularity was being sold to television a couple of months after its debut.

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