Banning (1967) ***

Robert Wagner’s bid for stardom is scuppered by a limp plot set in the overheated world of the country club set where a posse of sexually predatory women operate. It doesn’t help that the main narrative thrust finds trouble just hanging in there.

Ex-professional golfer Banning (Robert Wagner), a “moral diabetic” on the run from a loan shark, pitches up at an upmarket country club where he finds work as the assistant golf pro to Jonathan (Guy Stockwell). His most arduous task appears to be picking his way between the toned bikini-ed bodies lounging around the pool and avoiding the advances of Angela (Jill St John) and Jonathan’s wife Cynthia (Susan Clark) while coming on strong to overpaid secretary Carol (Anjanette Comer).

There’s an element of Life at the Top (1965) here, with Jonathan married to the boss’s daughter, resenting their close relationship while not making the executive advances he would like. Every now and then bits of what sound like a complicated past implicating Jonathan and the alcoholic Tommy Del Gaddo (Gene Hackman) pop up and around the halfway mark a subplot kicks in, involving something called a “Calcutta,” a golf tourney which looks like it’s being rigged.

Given that it’s organised by a club boss (Howard St John) who claims every gimme going and feigns drunkenness to skin members at poker, it’s almost a given that Banning is going to come out worst. I have to tell you you probably couldn’t care less, since most of the action, and all of the fun, is off course, and not so much in the bedroom stakes as the war between women for available men.

“I bought you,” purrs Angela in her  most seductive attire after she has made it possible for Banning to find a way to pay off his debts. “I want you,” snaps single mother Carol, making a forthright play after spending most of the picture fending off his advances. Standing on the side-lines, watching Angela making her moves, Cynthia observes, “I’d say Angela’s had at least a dozen husbands,” pause for the punchline, “including mine for all I know.”

Predatory moves are not all one way. Turns out the price Carol pays for a salary five times the going rate and a nice house and private schooling for her daughter is setting aside Thursday afternoons for Jonathan. But in the pragmatic manner that appears inbred in the country club, she states, “No apologies, no excuses.”

And before Carol works out just how attractive Banning actually is she had to cut him dead a couple of times and, in a scene guaranteed to put off the modern audience, prevent him drunkenly raping her. It was almost a throwback to the 1940s and 1950s when, it appeared, a woman just needed a good smack on the chops before she could submit and start billing and cooing.

Robert Wagner (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968), tanned within an inch of his life, doesn’t so much miss the target as not being given a target worth hitting. There’s very little sense danger, of a man on the run from the mob or whichever gangster has picked up the tab for his debt, and he’s not a lounge lizard. Acting-wise, he relies on a raised eyebrow, an eye swivel and that scene-stealing trick, copyright Robert Vaughn, of raising his lowered head to open his closed eyes, a neat device for a supporting star but hardly required when you are top-billed.

Anjanette Comer (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) doesn’t snatch the brass ring either, relying on a tremulous lower lip to evoke emotion. In fact, it’s a toss-up between the classier Jill St John (The King’s Pirate, 1967) and Susan Clark (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) as to who steals the most scenes, both winging it with striking dialog, emanating power, regarding men as weak and playthings.

Gene Hackman (Lilith, 1964), generally a prime contender for scene stealing, especially with trademark chuckle now in full swing, unfortunately does himself no favors by over-acting.  You might also spot James Farentino (Rosie, 1967) and Sean Garrison (Moment to Moment, 1966).

Ron Winston (Ambush Bay, 1966) directed from a screenplay by James Lee (Counterpoint, 1967). It would have worked better to concentrate more on the bitchy women than the sub-plots.

I’m sorry to say you’ll have a hard job finding this since I purchased my DVD on the second-hand market. Worth the hunt if you’re a fan of St John and Clark or to discover why Wagner’s promising screen career never took off.

Phantom of the Open (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

A sentimental ending and Oscar winner Mark Rylance (The Bridge of Spies, 2015) can’t save this latest tribute to that particularly British phenomenon – the loser. While no doubt this is in essence the true story of golfing wannabe Maurice Flitcroft who gained some kind of notoriety – and latterly some celebrity – as the world’s worst golfer after posting, on live television, by a long way the worst score in British Open history, it’s plagued with a woeful attempt at no-hoper charm that just doesn’t work.

Rylance (Maurice Flitcroft) is part of the problem. He could be a cousin to Jim Broadbent’s dour character in The Duke, but where Broadbent comes to life in the second half, Rylance does not, a one-note performance that fails to elicit any sympathy for the character. Where do I start with what is wrong with the picture?

Well, for a start, the idea that a crane driver is an awful job. My grandfather was a crane driver in the shipyards in Clydebank and it was a skilled and highly-prized job and earned him a little bit more than the other workers down below and instead of moaning about his job he drove on his children to become educated – my mother among three of the family to go to university in World War Two Glasgow. Clearly, also, “poor” Maurice earned enough to put down a deposit on a house, a big achievement in the 1960s.

And the idea that Maurice had never heard of golf until the mid-1970s seemed preposterous when hardly 80 miles away Tony Jacklin, the son of a steel worker, won the British Open at Royal Lytham St Annes in 1969. The whole of Britain was electrified. I remember with my brother peering through the window of a television shop to watch it live on television. Equally preposterous is the notion that golf was a middle-class hobby. I remember as a teenager just after Jacklin’s famous win caddying for my father at a public golf course, which required no payment of annual fees nor wearing of fancy golfing ensembles. Golf was far from a hobby restricted to the well-off.

The closest loser-hero to Flitcroft is British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle (also filmed) but Eddie was at least a recognized and official contender in his sport. He did not try to sneak in the back door without doing any of the endless training necessary for anyone who wants to compete at a high level. It’s just crazy to set Flitcroft up as some kind of official-tweaking hero, when he simply managed to gain entry to the Open by cheating. The closest comparison in golf in the winner-from-nowhere category was John Daly who won a major in the U.S. in 1991, only qualifying after one of the contenders dropped out, but he had been a professional golfer for four years by that time.

And I hate this grim mud-tainted view of the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up in that period and certainly don’t recognize the picture painted. Flitcroft’s children, luckily, didn’t inherit the delusional gene, his twins becoming world champion disco dancers and his other son becoming a successful businessman.

Flitcroft just wanted glory without any of the hard work and it’s hard to find any sympathy for such a delusional man. Anyone who pointed out to Flitcroft just how delusional he was received short shrift in the film. Woe betide any official who thought this character was going to bring derision to golf, at a time when the sport was going through a revival, thanks to Jacklin who would inspire a generation of even better golfers like Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam.

It’s almost a cosmic joke that everyday golfers looked upon Flitcroft as their idol simply because he played the game as badly as they did and that he received some kind of celebrity as a result. Odd, too, that nobody’s ever thought to make a film about a true winner like Tony Jacklin.

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