Otto Preminger’s drama was the first of a trio of heavyweight films in 1967 – the others being In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – that took African American issues seriously. In post-war Georgia land-grabbing by ambitious Henry Warren (Michael Caine) pits him against World War Two vet Rod (John Philip Law) and African American farmer Reeve (Robert Hooks) who team up. Throw in a quintet of feisty women – Henry’s wife Julie Ann (Jane Fonda), Rod’s wife Lou (Faye Dunaway), schoolteacher Vivian (Diahann Carroll) – Reeve’s love interest – Henry’s lover Sukie (Donnie Banton) and Rod’s mother (Beah Richards) – and emotional confrontation comes thick and fast.
Preminger had spent most of the decade making films about big subjects – Exodus (1960), the politics behind the formation of Israel; Advise and Consent (1962), just politics; The Cardinal (1963), politics within the Roman Catholic Church; and In Harm’s Way (1965), Army politics and bluster around Pearl Harbor
Preminger is both economic and elegant. From opening dialogue to climactic court scene, the picture races along, and continuous use of tracking shots ensures the movie never gets bogged down. While there is no lynching, racist abuse, whether direct or indirect (through patronizing attitude) is never far from the surface. Corrupt Judge Purcell (Burgess Meredith) is by far the most vicious, his unrestrained language making you wince. But even those with more measured approaches have to play the game, Reeve gives a lift to Rod but has to let him off before they reach town in case anyone spots this, Rod forbidden, for example, to buy dynamite.
But the racists do not get it all their own way. Julie Ann stands up to the judge and her position in the community is so strong that others boycott the judge’s daughter’s wedding leading to the judge receiving a tongue-lashing from his wife. Weak Sheriff Coombs (George Kennedy) coming to arrest Rod is bamboozled by his female relatives while Vivian charms her way past the judge.
The women are uniformly strong. Julia Ann goes from seductive wife to distraught mother, but in between capable of defrauding Rod’s mother, her childhood nanny, out of her inheritance. Lou resents her husband’s return after in his absence taking on a full-time job while running the farm and now resisting the idea of selling up to Henry. Rod’s mother, beholden to white men all her life, now turns against them. The judge’s daughter (Donnie Banton) makes no bones about the fact that she is marrying her “dull” fiancé for his money. This is no spoiler because you will have guessed some similar outcome but at the end it is Vivian who takes the initiative in her relationship with Rod and marches into his house with her baggage, declaring she has come to stay.
And although the ruthless Henry is the bad guy, he, too, is afforded insight, soothing himself by playing a musical instrument, a man with talent who had “distracted” himself by pursuit of money. And there is another touching moment when he takes in a runaway child. Acting-wise, Michael Caine (Gambit, 1966) is a revelation. Gone is the trademark drawl and the laid- back physical characteristics. Here he talks snappily – and no quibbles with his Southern accent either – and strides quickly. That we can believe he is brutal, gentle, remorseful and ruthless is testament to his performance.
Similarly, this is a massive step forward in Jane Fonda’s (Cat Ballou, 1965) career, away from Hollywood comedies and sexed-up French dramas, and her internal conflict springs from being forced to choose between husband and son, between her innate sexiness that oozes out in every intimate scene and maternal longing to comfort her disturbed child. Her usual shrill delivery is tempered somewhat by the deeper emotions she is forced to bear. While her attempt to defraud Rod’s mother comes from a desire to keep her husband, her eyes tell you she knows that is no excuse.
What’s perhaps most surprising of all is the tenderness. There are wonderful, gentle love scenes between Caine and Fonda and Law and Dunaway.
Children, too, also unusually, play a central role. Henry’s callousness is no better demonstrated than in his earlier treatment of his son. Reeve’s eldest son also resents his father’s return and, viewing Henry as a more suitable adult, betrays his father. The Judge is obliged to drop one of the worst aspects of his racism in order to appease his daughter.
The acting throughout is uniformly good. Dunaway’s debut won her a six-picture contract with Preminger. Singer Diahann Carroll’s role as a confident young woman led to a television series. Robert Hooks would also enjoy small-screen fame. The surprisingly effective John Philip Law would partner Fonda in sci-fi Barbarella (1968) and link up with Preminger again in the ill-fated Skidoo (1969). Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962) and Thomas C. Ryan (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by K.B. Gilden.
Unfairly overlooked by Oscar votes, who preferred the other Poitier films, Hurry Sundown, despite the rawness of the language and the innate brutality meted out to African-Americans, has been vastly under-rated. It is worth another look because at its core is not just racism but big business which scarcely cares about the color of those it exploits. It is as much about the power shift in relationships and ambition.
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.
A western dream team. Beginning with Winchester ’73 (1950) James Stewart had revived his career post-World War Two with a string of tough westerns and had made seven movies in the genre in the 1960s including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Shenandoah (1965). Starting with Rio Bravo (1959) Dean Martin had made six including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Genre debutante Raquel Welch had hit the box office running with One Million Years B.C. (1966) and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Following McLintock (1963) and Shenandoah, director Andrew V. McLaglen was considered one of the hottest western directors around.
Legendary Twentieth Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck put together the cast and director as a “package” before calling in screenwriter James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah) to shape an idea by producer Stan Hough. McLaglen explained: “It was a Zanuck thing from the beginning.” He was working on another picture when he took a call from Zanuck. “I got a six-page outline for a western,” said Zanuck, “and I figure you ought to direct it. James Lee Barrett out to write it and Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch ought to be in it. Nobody else. That’s the combination I want.” McLaglen took Hough’s six-page outline to Barrett who wrote it based on the actors involved.
Originally entitled Mace after the James Stewart character, the movie quickly became Bandolero!, the exclamation mark possibly to differentiate it from the 1924 Spanish picture of the same name which had been made for Metro-Goldwyn (as the studio was then known).
Despite the success of the Matt Helm spy pictures and a number of decent westerns, Dean Martin ceded top billing to James Stewart (had they shared the billing, Martin would have come first in the traditional alphabetical order).
Marc Eliot, one of Stewart’s biographers, arrived at a more unlikely scenario for the movie being greenlit, concluding that because Martin and Stewart had got on so well when the latter appeared on the former’s television show they decided to make a picture together. Given the show was taped in summer 1967 and the movie went into production a few months later it left an improbable amount of time for the picture to be set up.
Director Andrew V. McLaglen would be reunited with two of his favorite movie characters – screenwriter James Lee Barrett and James Stewart, both key to Shenandoah. The actor had been the driving force behind McLaglen’s recruitment for that Civil War picture. “I just loved working with him,” said the director, “it got to the point where any time he did a movie he wanted me to direct it.” He viewed Barrett as “one of the best dialog writers I’ve ever known in movies.”
Although theoretically, the movie was set up as a package, with stars and director in place, Dean Martin remained a doubt since he was already committed to a film with Columbia that might clash. And Stewart might easily have dropped out if producer Frank McCarthy’s plans for Patton, with Burt Lancaster in the title role and Stewart as General Omar Bradley, had come to early fruition.
Raquel Welch was on a publicity high, featured on 400 magazine covers, generating such industry buzz that she had been named “International Star of the Year 1967” by U.S. cinema owners, her growing screen popularity ranking her eleventh in Box Office magazine’s female “All-American Favorites of 1968.” Dean Martin, incidentally, came ninth on the corresponding male chart, two places above Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman topping the poll.
George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) had small parts in Shenandoah and The Sons of Katie Elder before graduating to second male lead in McLaglen’s previous western The Ballad of Josie (1967). McLaglen, you might like to know, was highly regarded by the trade as “more concerned with entertaining the public than making intellectual and emotional demands on the audience.” Just after the movie’s launch the director signed a two-picture deal with Fox, The Undefeated (1969) next on his dance card.
One of the few studios to persist with a talent school – Welch claimed as the most recent high-flying graduate – Fox gave current student Clint Ritchie a role in Bandolero!, others in the Class of 1968 including Jacqueline Bisset (The Sweet Ride, 1968) and Linda Harrison (Planet of the Apes, 1968). Relative newcomer Andrew Prine had acted with Martin in Texas Across the River (1966) and enjoyed a supporting role in McLaglen war picture The Devil’s Brigade (1968).
As well as genre newcomers Welch and Ritchie, the cast included western character actors like Will Geer (Winchester ’73), Don “Red” Barry (The Adventures of Red Ryder, 1940) and Harry Carey Jr. who had appeared in three previous McLaglen westerns. Even current “Tarzan,” Jock Mahoney, who played Maria’s husband, had a string of B-westerns in his portfolio. Possibly as important was the presence of James Stewart’s horse Pie, his onscreen companion for two decades.
Shooting began in Paige, Arizona, on October 2, 1967, before shifting two weeks later to Brackettville and the Shaban ranch where The Alamo (1960) was filmed. Parts of the San Antonio de Bexar set were revamped as the Texan town of Val Verde where the hanging in the film took place, while The Alamo doubled as the Mexican village of Sabinas which provided the action for the climax. Seven buildings were added to the San Antonio set including the jail, while a curio shop was transformed into a bank, a gift shop became a hotel and, conversely, an old hotel was turned into a general store. Thirty-five thousand traditionally-cast adobe bricks were made on site to create the dozen buildings required for Sabinas plus the locale’s arch, fountain, wells and wall.
Other locations included Arizona, Utah and Texas with interiors filmed at the Fox studios. The shootout between the posse and the outlaws was filmed near Turkey Mountain in Texas. The Rio Grande was forded at Devil’s River but Mace crossed the river at Pinto Creek. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was utilized for the bandit attack and, naturally enough, for sequences requiring canyons. Other scenes were shot at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, Balanced Rocks, and Big Water in Utah. But the first time we view Sabinas is an effects shot.
You do wonder why this film entered the studio books as costing $5 million. None of the principals were in the million-dollar salary range and the cost of 40 days shooting at the Shaban ranch was put at $25,000 a day.
The principals eventually enjoyed on-set camaraderie. Initially, Welch was too serious for the others, bombarding the director and more experienced actors with questions about her character’s motivation and psychology. “I wouldn’t say creativity was the primary concern on that picture,” commented the actress. “Barrett was there mainly because everybody said nobody could write dialog for Jimmy like he could. As far as other things in the script were concerned, they weren’t really supposed to be questioned.
“And with McLaglen it was all by the book. McLaglen created a very constrained atmosphere. It was an inoffensive nine-to-five project with a lot of very senior people, the old John Ford gang. Very cliquish. Except for Jimmy who’d always kind of throw out little things. I felt pretty lonely the whole shoot.”
To “loosen her up,” the two stars invited her out to dinner and “got her good and drunk.” Remembers McLaglen, “Dean and Jimmy and I would take Raquel Welch to dinner and we’d kid around with her.” Quite whether that was sufficient to rid Welch of her feelings of alienation was never established. However, she did register that she was surrounded by talent. Stewart “could cry on cue. No mess, no fuss. Just like that you could see tears in his eyes.
McLaglen equally enjoyed an esprit de corps with the male stars. “When I think of my time with Dean, there’s nothing but joy in my heart…without doubt the most conscientious actor I have ever worked with,” adding, “I think Jimmy had more fun on that location than he ever had.”
Texas was chosen for the June 1968 launch on the grounds that Shenandoah had done so well there. Instead of a city-by-city premiere lasting a week with many stars in attendance, the studio opted for a “new kind of premiere,” opening night at the Majestic in Dallas accompanied by a 30-minute live telecast broadcast to 23 Texas television stations. Also available was a 16mm featurette on Welch promising “an intimate look at a new star.” Welch contributed her vital statistics and preferences to a computer program that would help select the winner in a beauty contest to find the woman closest to the star in looks and personality.
Stewart, of the tub-thumping generation, believed stars should hit the publicity trail, public appearances adding 10 per cent to the gross, rather than insisting it was beneath their dignity or not worthy of their time. He claimed publicity tours were “good for the soul. Unless he has a real bitter selfish attitude (an actor) has to enjoy getting out to different parts of the country and meeting people.” Raquel Welch was one of the stars he chided for adopting the wrong attitude with autograph hunters.
Little of the weaponry seen on screen was from the period, the movie being set in 1867. And even the supposed Remington 1858 New Army revolver used by Martin, Kennedy and Welch, was improvised from another pistol. But Stewart used a genuine Single Action Army “artillery” revolver. There was some cheating going on, Martin firing a Winchester 1892 saddle ring carbine, and others using a Winchester model 1892 rifle and a Winchester Model 1873 carbine.
Despite claims by James Stewart biographer Gary Fishgall that the “film opened to near-instant obscurity” Bandolero! proved a solid box office success in the United States, where it was the top western for the year, finishing 18th in the annual chart, collecting $5.5 million in rentals (not gross) and performing very well overseas. It was a signal year for westerns, though some languished. Hang ‘Em High was 20th with $5 million, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly 24th ($4.5 million), Five Card Stud 34th ($3.5 million) and The Scalphunters 43rd ($2.8 million). In the flop category were Will Penny in 54th spot ($1.8 million), Villa Rides 75th ($1.2 million), Firecreek 79th ($1.2 million) and Shalako 85th ($1.1m).
SOURCES: Gary Fishgall, Pieces of Time, The Life of James Stewart, (Scribner, 1997) p314; Marc Elliot, James Stewart, A Biography, (Aurum, 2007, paperback) p365; Howard Hughes, “Welch Out West Part 1,” Cinema Retro, Vol 11, Issue 31, 2015, p10-17; internet movie firemarms database; “Raquel Welch To Get Int’l Star Award,” Box Office, February 19, 1967, p4; “Mace Retitled Bandolero!,” Box Office, August 7, 1967, pE6; “Cast Patton and Bradley,” Variety, September 20, 1967, p13; “Bandolero! Moves to Texas Oct 16,” Box Office, October 16, 1967, pC1; “Filming of Bandolero! Ending at Bracketville,” Box Office, December 4, 1967, pSW1; “Fox On Texas Trail for Kickoffs,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p32; “James Stewart: Stars Should Tout Films in Television Age,” Variety, May 29, 1968, p19; “Now There’s A New Kind of Premiere,” advertisement, Variety, June 12, 1968, p17; “Bandolero! Dallas World Premiere Covered Live By 23 TV Stations,” Box Office, June 24, 1968, pSW1; “Fox’s Talent School,” Variety, June 26, 1968, p13; “20th-Fox Signs McLaglen to Two-Picture Pact,” Box Office, August 26, 1968, pW1; “Big Rental Films of 1968,” Variety, January 8, 1969, p15.
Darkest – and possibly the most under-rated – western of the decade featuring a top-class cast playing against type, down-and-dirty in its depiction of the itinerant cowboy, an ending you won’t see coming and if it’s not a heretical notion close cousin to the later The Wild Bunch (1969).
Gang of outlaws led by Dee (Dean Martin), condemned to death for robbing a bank, is rescued by his brother Mace (James Stewart) posing as a hangman. While a posse led by Sheriff Johnson (George Kennedy) is in hot pursuit and the outlaws kidnap as potential hostage recently widowed Maria (Raquel Welch), Mace, sauntering through the deserted town, indulges in a bit of larceny himself.
All head for Mexico, a pitiless region, where the posse are picked off by bandits, the outlaws directed by the native Maria towards a small town which turns out to offer no safety at all. While there’s plenty action, this is more character-based. Mace and Dee are on the Civil War divide, the former (still sporting his Union uniform) riding with General Sherman, the latter with the Confederate Quantrill’s Raiders, despised by Mace as nothing more than glorified killers.
And while they are both outlaws, Mace blaming his situation on the Civil War, they are divided too by a sense of honor, Mace making it a point of principle never to harm women or children, Dee, far removed from any sense of himself, guilt-ridden, past caring, and lonely, can’t remember the last time he was with a woman he respected.
Sheriff Johnson is in pursuit in part due to unrequited love for Maria. Quick to action in a professional capacity, he is tongue-tied in her presence. Nor has the newly-wealthy Maria much need of a male protector. A whore since the age of 13 to provide for her extended family, sold into marriage nd acceptance that for security not love, she has been, ironically, set free by violent robbery. Dee’s gang views Maria as plunder, rape imminent should the brothers turn their backs. While Maria has little interest in another male protector she finds herself attracted to Dee.
Mace is mostly peacemaker, prodding his weaker sibling into responsibility, trying to instil into him the kind of code by which the likes of The Wild Bunch swore, but, still on the shifty side himself, concealing from the others the loot from his own robbery. But where The Wild Bunch are essentially sanctified by Peckinpah, especially with their hypocritical codes of honor and their unlikely redemption, the lives of Dee and Mace are unfulfilled, lawful or lawless drifters enjoying little of life.
There’s an ambivalence to Mace, theoretically a law-abiding rancher, but apparently turning outlaw on a whim. We are introduced to an impoverished Mace being ripped off for food and accommodation, spending the night in an overcrowded bunkhouse, his Unionist uniform doing him no favors two years after the end of the Civil War in Confederate Texas. He appears less prone to violence but we are not privy to how he persuaded a hangman to part with his outfit. And he’s a mean hand with a rifle, helping his brother escape his pursuers.
You might wonder just how Mace came to be an outlaw when he witters on so often about his God-fearing mother and his upbringing on a farm and you always have the sense he’s part of that woeful Hollywood creation, the “good” outlaw, as if there was such a thing, certainly no sign of him dispersing ill-gotten gains to the poor. He might just be as deluded as his brother.
Of the three, Maria is the most clear-sighted, no qualms about her behaviour, and, provided with weaponry, perfectly capable of defending herself. Mexican bandits offer her no clemency either, assuming that, escorted by gringos, she has abandoned the land of her birth, or just because any woman is prey.
So it’s a perfect onion of a western, layers upon layers, the pursued needing to defend themselves not just against the pursuers, but bandits lying in wait, and within their supposed close-knit community the brothers guarding against fellow outlaws and protecting the woman.
James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) played many a tough guy at the reinvention of his career in the early 1950s in Anthony Mann westerns, and while his characters often displayed venal qualities they were not outlaws. Career-wise this was a dicey role for an established western hero. That he brings the common touch that was the hallmark of his original screen persona to this characterisation of an outlaw with a code of honor does not disguise the fact that he is still an outlaw.
Dean Martin had essayed a really mean bad guy in Rough Night in Jericho (1967) but again this was his debut as an outlaw, and a conflicted one at that, enjoying the boost to his self-esteem that leadership brings, but finding himself enmeshed with the dregs of society, and certainly not on the look-out for any acts of kindness or redemption. This is a beautifully nuanced performance especially when he realizes Maria is responding to him.
Raquel Welch (Fathom, 1967) in what amounts to her first major film opposite two Hollywood legends more than holds her own. Not able to rely upon her overt sex appeal as in her previous outings, she portrays an upstanding women, abused by men in the past, determined not to take that route in the future. Alone of all the characters, having accepted her fate at an early age, she has developed a self-esteem not sacrificed to circumstance. The whore and the outlaw might be the oldest trope in the book but it works very well here as two characters find solace in each other.
George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), more accustomed to playing tough guys, leavens his portrayal by appearing idiotic with women. This, too, is a departure for Andrew V. McLaglen. Anyone aware of Shenandoah or The Undefeated (1969) will be familiar with his dexterity for widescreen composition, but here he tamps down on that stylistic device, concentrating more on group reaction and interaction. James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah) wrote the biting script based on a story by producer Stanley Hough.
While there’s plenty action it’s not a rip-roaring western, too much character involvement for that, but certainly ranks as one of the top westerns of the decade.
Apologies again for the premature appearance of the blog “Behind the Scenes: Bandolero!” but that will definitely appear tomorrow.
“I owe you some pain,” barks the heavy to hero in one of the memorable lines in this classy thriller with surprisingly contemporary overtones. Underlying this tale of amnesiac David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) recovering his memory are themes of personal commitment, commitment to cause (“if you’re not committed to anything you’re just taking up space”), of individuals taking a stand against powerful forces seeking to thwart democracy, and of malevolent pandemic, the oldest of them all, greed, that infects even the most philanthropic enterprises.
The structure is brilliant. To every question David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) asks in trying to establish his identity, the answers are mystifying. He doubts his sanity and is plunged into a life-threatening conspiracy.
The film opens superbly. The camera pans across a New York skyline at night, every skyscraper lit up. Suddenly, one of the buildings goes dark. Cut to confusion inside as workers deal with the electricity cut-out. Among them Stillwell who is surprised to meet a woman on the stairs, Shela (Diane Baker), who not only recognizes him but seems to know a lot about him that is unfamiliar to him. They end up in the fourth level of the basement and on leaving discover that Charles Colvin (Walter Abel), a name that’s only vaguely familiar to Stilwell, has committed suicide by jumping from the building.
When he gets home to his apartment he is accosted by gunman Lester (Jack Weston) who tells him “The Major” wants to see him. Stillwell escapes but on reporting the incident to the police can’t remember his date of birth. After his amnesia being rejected by a psychiatrist he turns to private eye Ted Caselle (Walter Matthau) who takes up the case. But in Stillwell’s apartment a fridge he recalls as being empty is now full, the same with a dispatch case, the opposite with a closet, and in the building where he thinks he works there is now a wall where his office should be.
Stillwell believes he was employed as a cost accountant without a notion what that job entails. The basement has no fourth level. Another gunman Willard (George Kennedy) is also in pursuit. Corpses pop up with increasing regularity. To add to the mystery, nobody actually wants him dead. He is too valuable alive. He has a secret only he doesn’t know what. The police connect him to the suicide.
And so the movie plays out brilliantly, with the audience only knowing what Stillwell knows, as confused as he, until piece by piece the jigsaw comes together although at times with cunning sleight-of-hand the pieces are the wrong shape or, worse, don’t fit the jigsaw in hand. There’s an emotional jigsaw to be put back together too, one that requires proper commitment, Shela’s “togetherness is not enough” could have been a mantra for today’s generation.
All the time Shela bobs in and out, hard to tell whether she is a victim or conspirator, whether to be trusted or merit suspicion, and she has an interesting philosophy of her own in terms of the trapped and caged.
As in the best thrillers we have been given the clues all the time, just not realized them for what they were, and in a series of brilliant scenes you cannot help but applaud the entire mystery is carefully stitched together. You will never in a million years guess the cause of Colvin’s mysterious death.
The ending is satisfying on a variety of levels. Yes, mystery solved, the secret Stillwell holds a good one, but the climax involves characters taking sides, displaying commitment, challenging their consciences, circumstances reflecting very much the world in which we find ourselves now.
One of the beauties of the movie is how it plays with our expectations. Peck has done amnesia before in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) but since then his screen persona has been men of upstanding character, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) the personification, confusion not a trait readily identified with him. Equally, the heavies look anything but, Jack Weston small and rotund, George Kennedy bespectacled and slim.
Diane Baker, enigmatic throughout, far from the glamorous thriller female lead (think Audrey Hepburn in Charade or Sophia Loren who partnered Peck on Arabesque or Claudia Cardinale in Blindfold), describes herself as a “lonely woman with a low opinion of herself due to many mistakes.” In the middle of the high tension, with Stillwell being pursued by cops, there is a wonderful scene where a little girl lets him hide in her apartment and on making him coffee it turns out to be the pretend coffee little girls make.
Gregory Peck (Arabesque, 1966) is superb, his face absorbing shock at his condition, at once welcoming unravelling mystery at the same time as doubting its source, wending his way through a past he cannot believe is true, a personality that occasionally appears abhorrent, and having to make the same decisions that he feared making in the past. Diane Baker (Marnie, 1964) has a difficult role, introspective where most heroines in this kind of film are more voluble, and frightened of her own vulnerability.
You can see from here how much George Kennedy bulked up for his breakthrough movie Cool Hand Luke (1967). Walter Matthau, too, was a stage away from interesting supporting roles to full-blown star in The Fortune Cookie (1966). Jack Weston might have been rehearsing his role as the stalker in Wait until Dark (1967). I am not going to mention the other sterling supporting players since that will give the game away.
Veteran director Edward Dymytryk (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) is on song, stringing the audience along beautifully, extracting wonderful performances, not frightened to give the film deeper meaning. The theme of commitment, of standing up to malevolent forces, seems an odd one for a straightforward thriller but it reflected Dmytryk’s experience as a victim of the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s.
On the debit side, I can’t see any reason why this was made in black-and-white and it certainly served to put off the public, the film’s box office poor, but I dispute the criticism of what appeared too-frequent flashbacks. Rather than re-emphasizing plot points for the audience, I saw this instead as Stillwell holding up a mirror to a memory he doubted he could trust.
Top-notch screenplay by Peter Stone who knows his way around this genre, having previously written Charade and with Arabesque round the corner, from the novel called Fallen Angel by ,surprisingly, given he is best known for Spartacus, Howard Fast under the pseudonym Walter Ericson. At least a dozen quotable lines included this cracker relating greed to a pandemic: “You’re a carrier, you infected him and he died from it.”
All told, an excellent thriller with modern resonance.
Oddly enough, Mirage was remade a couple of years later as Jigsaw (1968), directed by James Goldstone and starring Harry Guardino.
P.S. I see you that the “I owe you” line was adapted for use by Willow in the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer TV series. There’s even a link to that scene on YouTube. Glad to see it has found some kind of immortality. It’s the kind of line that should be a gimme for t-shirt manufacturers.
Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) has none of the truculence of the ordinary rebel, consequence not part of his vocabulary, “it seemed a good idea at the time” his unfailing mantra. Outside of Butch Cassidy, a more amiable criminal you would struggle to find. He defies authority with a smirk, indiscriminate in opposing the system, whether devised by guards or prisoners and they are indiscriminate in return, swiftly punishing anyone who steps out of line.
First-time director Stuart Rosenberg’s meditation on martyrdom remains an iconic curiosity and one of a handful of great performances that showcase Paul Newman’s immense acting skills. It is about ten minutes too long, unremitting sequences of lorries travelling to and from work detail, in the morning or at night, and the work itself, way too repetitive, suggests a director who did not quite trust his audience to get it.
In a prison movie, the main narrative is always escape, but Luke is as much trying to escape from himself as his circumstances. There is a self-pitying aspect in him blaming God for making him the way he is. But beyond these gripes it remains an astonishing and involving work. This is a world reduced to a single common denominator – brutality. For a man who loathes rules, this is hell.
While no other character apart from Dragline (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role) and the Warden (Strother Martin in one of his best mean roles) is given much to do, nonetheless the rest of the cast do not merge into the background, facial expressions and tiny actions revealing character.
There are a number of terrific scenes – Newman refusing to give in when beaten to a pulp in a boxing match, the egg-eating contest, the digging-the-hole method of destroying a man’s spirit, the guard bewailing the death of his dog. But the movie also examines the universal need for hero worship, Dragline’s bewilderment when Luke eventually fails to live up to expectation is affecting.
Two other aspects stand out. With every prisoner in the same uniform and the countryside bleak and undistinguished, Conrad Hall’s cinematography is miraculous while Lalo Schifrin’s score, with the wonderfully evocative simple theme, is continuously inventive. As definitive an examination of the outsider as the later Easy Rider.