Ride the High Country (1962) ****

Far from routine western with director Sam Peckinpah, in his sophomore picture, channelling territory that would later become more familiar, old friends turning enemies, the encroachment of civilization, the passing of the Old West, and sharing with The Misfits (1961) incredulity that the once noble occupation of cowboy/lawman has become redundant.  In Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), the story turns on former friends turned enemies, here that aspect is in its infancy.

Down on his luck former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), shirt collar frayed, holes in his boots, eyesight not what it was, recruits old pal Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), reduced to running a western sideshow, to help him escort a load of gold down from the mountains. Gil brings along his younger sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr). Along the way, romance beckons for the ever romantically-inclined Heck when he encounters young Elsa (Mariette Hartley), daughter of Bible-thumping farmer Joshua. When she runs off, intending to marry prospector Billy Hammond (James Drury) at the mining camp, they act as her escort.

Gil turns out not to be the straight-shooter he originally appeared, planning to rob the gold consignment on the way back, with or without Steve’s assistance. The plot takes a wild detour in the mining settlement when Elsa realizes that her marriage will take place in a brothel, her fiancé is a drunk, and that his four brothers reckon they will have equal claim on her sex-wise. Gil arranges for the marriage to be apparently annulled, which doesn’t for a moment fool the Hammond brothers, and the return journey, already splintered by Steve working out what was on Gil’s mind, turns into one ambush after another.

The narrative switch away from the cowboys bewailing their lot, or, in Gil’s case planning payback for a life gone awry, to the plight of the vulnerable woman in the last of the lawless western wildernesses, is a nifty one. But you can’t help seeing Gil’s point, all the gun wounds, gunfights, months in hospitals, jobs lost as a result of confinement, make a man’s mind turn to the notion he has not been correctly reward for his endeavours. And not quite as convinced as Steve that honor makes up for everything.

There is some very lively dialog, great banter as Gil tries to sow sedition in Steve’s ear, Steve with an endless fund of humorous retorts, gently explaining that the hole in his boot is a masterpiece of the shoemaker’s art, a clever method of hidden ventilation, at each point deflecting a wily tongue probing for weakness. Steve is soon revealed as anything but a gunman past his past, or even a bare-knuckled fighter, knocking out cold a disbelieving Heck.

The romance is well done, Heck convinced he has prised Elsa away from her father, only to discover he is not included in her plans, and the isolated virgin unlikely to respond to male ardor. But when the reality of marriage strikes home, a slap in the face required to guarantee compliance, Elsa is extremely lucky not just to find Steve and Gil willing to come to her rescue, but for the less upstanding Gil to take legal matters into his own hand, although you can’t help feeling, in terms of the subsequent mortality rate, this is a hell of a price to pay for a young girl who was not aware of the realities of married life. But, hell, every decent western requires sacrifice.

Peckinpah introduces some excellent twists on more common scenes. A horse race is won by a camel, belly dancers instead of saloon girls, the restaurant bust up in the traditional fistfight is Chinese, Steve assumes the crowds lining the streets to witness the race are extending a hospitable welcome to him, courtesy of his previous exploits. And to Gil’s consternation, the fat pot of gold, literally, diminishes by the minute, the original quarter of a million dollars reduced first to twenty thousand and then a mere eleven, almost hardly worth reneging on a lifetime friendship. Unusually, the lusty young Heck begins to question turning criminal. And the clue to Joshua’s behavior is visual, as we glimpse his wife’s headstone, marked “harlot.”

But when it comes to the showdown you will see an early rehearsal of the famed shootout in The Wild Bunch. But here observation takes the place of action and the steady drip-drip of Gil’s moans serve to highlight a life wasted in community service and Steve’s stoical insistence on law and order, a code that demands good humor in the face of adversity.

This was a splendid last hurrah for Randolph Scott (Western Union, 1941) , well past his Hollywood heyday and now consigned to B-movie westerns, though lucky enough to team up with Budd Boetticher for the seven late-1950s pictures known as the Ranown Cycle, now held in very high esteem. Joel McCrea (Union Pacific, 1939), too, was on the downward Hollywood slide, pretty much restricted to westerns for the whole of the 1950s. This proved to be his final movie of this decade and he only made three more. So, for both, Ride the High Country, was a fitting send-off. Future Wild Bunch alumni Warren Oates and L.Q Jones had small parts.

Ron Starr (G.I. Blues, 1960) and Mariette Hartley (Marnie, 1964) were unlucky that their performances did not reach a wider audience, especially among producers, because they both created multi-faceted characters. Sam Peckinpah was far luckier, Ride the High Country becoming a calling card among foreign critics.

Deadfall (1968) **

“The Big Reveal” comes too late to save this heist-cum-melodrama. It can’t make up its mind whether it wants to join the canon of superlative 1960s caper pictures – in which case it needed to make a greater effort on the cat burglary front – or whether it’s an odd addition to the menage a trois category, in which case it needed characters you could actually believe. Worst of all, it contains one of the great artistic follies, a robbery carried out in time with an  orchestra playing one of the great John Barry compositions, “Romance for a Guitar and Orchestra.”

The only problem, there’s no dramatic reason for this. Since the concert is miles away from the robbery, it’s not as if the music drowns out the shenanigans. Director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) shoots himself in the foot. It’s too clever a device by half, even if the music is intended as a counterpoint to the  robbery’s more dramatic themes or the silence which had become a trope.

Cat burglar Henry (Michael Caine) forms a business partnership with elderly safecracker Moreau (Eric Portman) and falls for his wife Fe (Giovanna Ralli). The husband-wife relationship is off to begin with, he preferring males, and the wife admitting she doesn’t always find men attractive, though quite what she is hinting at is never made clear. The target is millionaire Salinas (David Buck), whom Henry is investigating to the point of pretending to be an alcoholic so he can get to know Salinas in a sanatorium.

Any other movie would get straight to the point – draw up plans and get on with it. But here, for no real reason except delay, Moreau wants them to do a trial run,  a safecracking job on the mansion of the kind of couple who drive off in a posh car to attend a concert. The effort put into the planning isn’t really up to scratch, not when compared to the likes of Topkapi (1964) – to which every heist film of the era was measured – or Gambit (1966) or even the less well-known The Happy Thieves (1960) or Seven Thieves (1960).

Apart from some cat burglary skills the whole episode is perfunctory, guard dogs knocked out by drugs. The background music, the aforementioned John Barry opus, just about kills off any prospect of tension. It only sparks into life when Moreau admits the safe is beyond him and Henry has to prise it out of the wall and cart it to the waiting car.

The second heist would have been far more interesting had we known from the start that Salinas welcomes burglary attempts, seeing it as some kind of duel of wits with malfeasants.

In between the two robberies there is time enough – too much time in fact – for Henry and Fe to get it together, for Fe to run off and then return only to learn in The Big Reveal the kind of despicable man her husband is. The movie can’t even deal with the incestuous sub-plot and just lets it hang there. But by that stage you couldn’t care less. Fe isn’t the type of femme fatale to bother crossing the road for, the romance seems too prescribed and the downbeat ending makes no sense.

I’m only giving this any points at all really because it stars Michael Caine (Hurry Sundown, 1967) and features a lengthy slice of John Barry music. Caine has been in enough duds for sure, but this doesn’t have the ring of one of his doing-it-for-the-money numbers or a stab at the Hollywood big-budget scene. Caine is good enough and Eric Portman (The Bedford Incident, 1965) is an interesting study. But it just doesn’t gel, not just let down by Giovanna Ralli (The Caper of the Golden Bulls, 1967) but by the pretentious direction and dramatic miscalculation of Bryan Forbes.

Forbes’ wife Nanette Newman (The Wrong Box, 1966) makes a puzzling appearance in a small role with no dramatic credibility. Leonard Rossiter (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) provides another cameo. For many the high spot will be to see John Barry in the flesh, conducting the orchestra playing his composition.

Seven Thieves (1960) ****

You wouldn’t figure director Henry Hathaway for a caper movie. He seemed more at home with action, whether that be war (The Desert Fox, 1951), adventure (Legend of the Lost, 1957) or western (Nevada Smith, 1966) although he was a dab hand at film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947). And before the big-budget all-star Oceans 11 entered the equation in the same year as Seven Thieves – and stole much of its thunder – the heist movie ran mostly on B-movie steam such as Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).

And probably judged against other glossy efforts of the 1960s like Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1967) Seven Thieves would appear on the surface to come up a bit short. No doubt accounting for it being so under-rated. But while this is in itself a neat little thriller the kick comes in the emotional entanglements and a succession of twists at the end that sends it in my book into a higher category.

And it’s so outrageously clever that the mystery of why French-based criminal mastermind Theo Wilkins  (Edward G. Robinson) would reach out across the Atlantic Ocean to recruit former jailbird Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) to spearhead the heist of a cool four million dollars from a Monte Carlo casino is not resolved until the end, and in spectacular fashion.

Technically, there are actually only six thieves, the other is an inside man, Raymond (Alexander Scourby), who has fallen for the seductive charms of nightclub dancer Melanie (Joan Collins). Making up the rest of the septet are safe cracker Louis (Michael Dante) and muscle-cum-driver Hugo (Berry Kroeger) with Poncho (Eli Wallach) playing the key role of the pretend crippled, arrogant, irascible millionaire – and contrary to the claims of one poster he is the decoy not Melanie.

Distrust of his team makes Theo bring in Paul, who ruthlessly knocks them into shape, putting into seamless action the plan devised by Theo. Simply put, Poncho is going to act as a distraction by having a heart attack at the gambling table while Paul and Louis climb out a window along a ledge to the casino director’s flat which provides, by means of an elevator, direct access to the underground vaults. Once they’ve stolen the cash, they clamber back along the ledge and hide in the flat where, by this time, Theo, playing the role of Poncho’s personal physician, has taken him. The money will be hidden in Poncho’s wheelchair and removed to a waiting ambulance.

But Paul is a rather suspicious character and wants to know what he’s letting himself in for so in turn works out the weaknesses of his team. Melanie hides behind a façade of high birth, Pancho is too reckless, “measuring danger only in terms of profit,” Hugo prone to unnecessary violence, while Louis has omitted to mention he is terrified of heights, the ledge on which the operation depends standing on a 100ft high cliff.   

In some posters, this was promoted as Al Capone (Steiger)
vs Little Caesar (Robinson).

The plan relies on Poncho actually appearing to be dead, so dead that the casino director (Sebastian Cabot) will not hesitate, at Theo’s insistence, to shift him out of sight of the rest of the gamblers into his flat. But Complication No 1 is that Poncho doesn’t want to be dead, even if it is a ruse, skeptical of Theo’s plan to convincingly knock him out by means of a carefully measured dose of cyanide. Complication No 2 is that a night club client recognizes Melanie and casts doubt on her credentials as a lady of quality. Complication No 3 is that English physician Dr Halsey (Alan Caillou) questions whether Poncho is as dead as he seems.

But such complications are nothing compared an extraordinary range of twists that raise tension sky-high at the movie’s denouement. I challenge you to guess what these three superbly-conceived twists would be, all of them one by one turning the project on its head, and it rapidly shifts from one direction to another, ending with an unbelievable – and yet so in keeping with the premise – climax.

Attention to character detail lifts this out of the rut, whether it be Theo’s penchant for collecting seashells, Paul resplendent in a white suit, Melanie resisting the blandishments of becoming a kept woman, Raymond trying to climb out the murky depths into which the lure of Melanie has taken him, and a series of subtle relationships, some developing through the robbery, others which began long before the heist working themselves out.

The heist itself is well done, tension kept constant mostly through the failings of the crew and the suspicions of the dupes. All in all an excellent picture.

This was a critical film in the careers of most of the cast. Edward G. Robinson (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) was handed his first top-billed role in four years. It was a deliberate change of pace for Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker, 1964). For Eli Wallach, best known at the time for stage work, it was the first of three films that year that would launch him into the higher ranks of top supporting stars; it was followed by The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits. After being leading lady to the likes of Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, this spelled the end of Twentieth Century Fox’s belief in Joan Collins’ star qualities while for Michael Dante (The Naked Kiss, 1964) it was a step up.

Wallach and Dante could be accused of over-acting but Robinson, Steiger and Collins all act against type with considerable effect. Hathaway does a superb job working from a script by Sydney Boehm (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) based on the Max Catto bestseller.

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.

Experiment in Terror / The Grip of Fear (1962) ****

For a modern audience any film that contains mention of “Twin Peaks” and “Tarantino” either shows amazing prescience and/or an indication of what is to come. This classy thriller does not disappoint. Part police procedural, part portrait of a killer, part clever heist and part women in peril, it has you wondering why director Blake Edwards did not stick to the genre. Set in San Francisco in an era when the F.B.I. was generally considered a good thing rather than the paranoia-inducing entity it would become a decade later.

Bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick)  is terrorized by an unknown assailant into helping him carry out a audacious $100,000 heist. F.B.I. agent Ripley (Glenn Ford), aware of the prospective theft, is drawn into the diabolical web as is Sherwood’s younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). The only clue to the thief is his asthmatic voice. Levels of forensic detection set a new bar with the F.B.I. employing telephone, personal and even aerial surveillance, commandeering of television cameras to scan a crowd, and analyzing a telephone conversation to identify the criminal.

Released in Britain as “The Grip of Fear,” exhibitors tried to pull a fast one on the public by using as the support “Operation Mad Ball,” a Jack Lemmon number from 1957, in a bid to convince moviegoers that this program would repeat the successful pairing of Remick and Lemmon in “Days of Wine and Roses.”

There are red herrings aplenty. Tension is racked up so adroitly that any character entering the frame automatically arouses suspicion. Edwards takes a leaf out of the Hitchcock suspense book by finding constant ways to remind Kelly – and the audience – just what is at stake, Ripley promising her a “reign of terror” and not, as you might expect, lying to her about the threat she faces.

As Ripley digs further into the robber’s past, he uncovers not only a catalogue of crime including rape and three murders, but also an unusual personality. Yes, as you might expect, a control freak, but also a guy capable of affection and of lavishing thousands of dollars on those worse off than himself. And, of course, he is exceptionally good at planning crime, outwitting the F.B.I., and picking the kind of vulnerable victim susceptible to intimidation. Every time, the F.B.I. thinks it is closing in, he remains one step ahead. Eventually, the F.B.I. has amassed so many clues, including his identity, a photograph and previous lovers, that you think it’s impossible for him to escape – until he does.

Kelly is so on edge, in following instructions, that she picks up the wrong man in a bar, the police so antsy they mistake a drunk for the assailant. Drenched in atmosphere and rich in subsidiary characters, there’s scarcely a dull moment, from a mannequin repairer (Nancy Ashton) with a roomful of dangling inert bodies, a karate class with (ironically) a woman well able to defend herself, to a small boy desperate to see a G-man’s weapon, an informant (Ned Glass) with a penchant (as did director Edwards) for silent comedies, and a bank manager who promises Kelly a promotion even if she has to steal the money.

On top of this there are some genuine creepy moments that up-end our expectations. What Ripley doesn’t tell Kelly is that she’s also bait and clearly has little concern that she might end up collateral damage – anticipating at the very least she will have a nervous breakdown when it’s over, if, in fact, she survives – in his bid to snare the criminal. A terrified  kidnapped Toby strips down to underwear in front a man we know is a rapist. And the movie touches on the woman-who-loves-a-killer motif, a theme very much in the contemporary vein.

Blake Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) delivers a directorial tour de force. The criminal is hidden for most the picture, drip-fed to the audience in glimpses, his mouth here, his back there, other times in disguise. Edwards establishes the F.B.I. as such a “very efficient organization” using the most up-to-date methods and involving a vast number of staff plus police that it seems impossible to fail – until it does. And there is an absolutely brilliant six-minute sequence at the outset, milking the best of film noir lighting, when the criminal surprises Kelly in her garage and spells out in detail her vulnerability and the basics of his plan. By keeping the criminal in the shade, and what little available light there is covering her face, Edwards makes the most of Lee Remick’s eyes – every bit as iconic as Audrey Hepburn’s outfits in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – and her acting skill.

Remick (Sanctuary, 1961) is superb, trapped by emotion as much as terror, placing her trust in an F.B.I. that lets her down time and again. This is an edgier role for Glenn Ford (Fate Is the Hunter, 1964) as he steps up from the trustworthy guy-next-door to reveal a more ruthless streak. Stefanie Powers (The Warning Shot, 1967) does well in a small role and there is sterling support from Ross Martin (The Ceremony, 1963), Patricia Huston (Synanon, 1965) and Clifton James (Live and Let Die, 1973). Gordon and Mildred Gordon wrote the screenplay based on their novel Operation Terror.

“Twin Peaks” in case you are wondering is the district in which Kelly lives. There’s a sign towards the end for Tarantino’s World-Famous Cocktails.

“Penelope” (1966) ***

Comedic twist on the heist movie with Natalie Wood (This Property Is Condemned, 1966) as a kleptomaniac. Given its origins in a tight little thriller by E.V. Cunningham, pseudonym of Howard Fast (Mirage, 1965), it’s an awful loose construction that seems to run around with little idea of where it wants to go. Wood, of course, is a delightfully kooky heroine who takes revenge on anyone who has ignored or slighted her by stealing their possessions.

The picture begins with her boldest coup. Cleverly disguised as an old woman, she robs the newest Park Avenue bank owned by overbearing husband James (Ian Bannen). This prompts the best comedy in the movie, a man with a violin case (Lewis Charles) being apprehended by police, the doors automatically locking after a clerk falls on the alarm button, James trapped in the revolving doors losing his trousers in the process.

In flashback, we learn that she turned to thievery after a rape attempt by Professor Klobb (Jonathan Winter), her college tutor, and while half-naked managed to make off with his watch fob. She stole a set of earrings from Mildred (Norma Crane) after suspecting she is having an affair with James. “Stealing makes me cheerful,” she tells her psychiatrist, Dr Mannix (Dick Shawn) and while admitting to dishonesty denies being a compulsive thief. After the bank robbery she even manages to relieve investigating officer Lt Bixby (Peter Falk) of his wallet.

Nobody suspects her, certainly not her husband who could not conceive of his wife having the brains to carry out such an audacious plan. Bixby is a bit more on the ball, but not much. Clues that would have snared her in seconds if seen by any half-decent cop are missed by this bunch. And generally that is the problem, the outcome is so weighted in Penelope’s favor. The plot then goes all around the houses to include as many oddballs as possible – boutique owners Sadaba (Lila Kedrova) and Ducky (Lou Jacobi), Major Higgins (Arthur Malet) and suspect Honeysuckle Rose (Arlene Golonka). Naturally, when she does confess – to save the innocent Honeysuckle – nobody believes her in part because everyone has fallen in love with her. Bixby, just as smitten, nonetheless makes a decent stab at the investigation.

Howard Fast under the pseudonym of E.V. Cunningham wrote a series of thrillers with a woman’s name as the title. He was on a roll in the 1960s providing the source material for Spartacus (1960), The Man in the Middle (1964), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Sylvia (1965), Mirage (1965) and Jigsaw (1968).

Taken as pure confection it has its attractions. It’s certainly frothy at the edges and there are a number of funny lines especially with her psychiatrist and the slapstick approach does hit the target every now and then. The icing on the cake is top class while the cake itself has little of substance. It strikes a satirical note on occasion especially with the Greenwich Village cellar sequence. It doesn’t go anywhere near what might be driving this woman towards such potential calamity – that she gets away with it is only down to her charm. There has probably never been such a pair of rose-tinted spectacles as worn by Penelope, even though her every action is driven by revenge.

Without Natalie Wood it would have sunk without trace but her vivacious screen persona is imminently watchable and the constant wardrobe changes (courtesy of Edith Head) and glossy treatment gets it over the finishing line. It’s one of those star-driven vehicles at which Golden Age Hollywood was once so adept but which fails to translate so well to a later era. Ian Bannen (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is in his element as a grumpy husband, though you would wonder what initially she saw in him, and Peter Falk (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1965) delivers another memorable performance.  Dick Shawn (A Very Special Favor, 1965) is the pick of the supporting cast though screen personalities like Lila Kedrova (Torn Curtain, 1966), Jonathan Winters (The Loved One, 1965) and Lou Jacobi (Irma la Douce, 1963) are not easily ignored.  Johnny Williams a.k.a John Williams wrote the score.

Arthur Hiller (Tobruk, 1967) delivers as much of the goods as are possible within the zany framework. Veteran Oscar-winner George Wells (Three Bites of the Apple, 1967) wrote the screenplay and it’s a far cry from the far more interesting source material and I would have to wonder what kind of sensibility – even at that time – could invent a comedy rape (not in the book, I hasten to add).

Ambulance (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

High-octane non-stop adrenalin rush that crams in a heist, car chase, street shoot-outs, high-risk surgical procedures, some neat characterisations, helicopters (of course) and slam-bang technical wizardry. Director Michael Bay (The Rock, 1996) is back on form with this pulverising pedal-to-the-metal thriller through the streets – and river – of Los Angeles and even finds time for a couple of sly jokes, including a reference to one of his own pictures, a paint job and a dog that (literally) stops the astonishing action.

Bank robber Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) organising the heist of a lifetime – $32 million – ropes in brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) sorely in need of a mere $300,000 for a life-saving operation. Not only does lovesick cop Zack (Jackson White) jeopardise the operation but an elite cop division headed by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt) is lying in wait. Cue shoot-out carnage forcing the siblings to hijack an ambulance containing paramedic Cam (Eiza Gonzalez). Her passenger, a wounded cop, ensures the pursuing flotilla of cop vehicles and fleet of helicopters remains at bay.

But only for a time because Monroe is a master of drawing his victims into a trap. But that will only work with lesser villains because Sharp has not one, but two, plans up his sleeve. To rack up the tension, FBI Agent Clark (Keir O’Donnell) joins the hunt while in the ambulance, tearing along at top speed, causing more carnage during rush hour, Cam is called upon to dig out a bullet in her patient’s spleen and Will realizes he needs to be a good bad-guy.

While the action is buckled up and buckled down, there is excellent savvy background as we learn just how top cops go about snaring their victims and for all that Monroe is pumped up with arrogance Clark is there to take him down by filling us in on just what a rapacious opponent he is dealing with. Despite the film’s pace, without slowing the picture down, Bay manages to seed the characters well. Sharp’s iconic gangster – cousin to Heat’s Neil Macauley in the ruthless stakes – still takes family seriously. Will brings his military training to bear to assist Cam, a closed-off loner who blew a promising medical career on drug addiction and is easily one of the toughest females recently seen on screen.

Characters are established in a few lines – the gay Clark in couples therapy, the tougher-than-tough Monroe still a sap unwilling to sacrifice his dog, Danny not quite as psychotic as his father. And there are some great supporting characters, sassy helicopter pilot Dzazhig (Olivia Stambouliah), a stressed-out gangster and another thug who wears the wrong shoes to a robbery.

Although it’s virtually all a set-piece, the action hardly straying from the ambulance, there are still some awesome sequences, the automated attack on the cops for a start, two surgeons whisked off the golf course to guide Cam through a tricky op. The camera races around with abandon, up and down skyscrapers like a hyperactive drone.

A remake of a Danish thriller of the same name, Bay has pumped up the action, brought believable characters to the fore, and hopefully given audiences something to whoop for outside of the comic book hero. In his movie debut Chris Fedak, best known for television work like Prodigal Son (2019-2021), sticks in the occasional zingy one-liner and treats the characters as human beings.

Only Jake Gyllenhaal’s second starring role in three years, his first action film in nearly a decade should thrust him back on top of the box office after a series of more arty pictures. He’s been creepy before, most notably in Nightcrawler (2014), but Danny is more a straight line gangster. Eiza Gonzalez (Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021) is the pick of the actors, in a difficult role confined for the most part to the ambulance. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Candyman, 2021) does well in what in other hands could have been a thankless role. Garret Dillahunt (Army of the Dead, 2021) and Keir O’Donnell (The Dry, 2020) are names you might hear more of in the future.

Dead Heat on a Merry Go Round (1966) ****

Highly entertaining woefully underrated heist picture with an impish James Coburn (Hard Contract, 1967), Swedish Camilla Sparv (Downhill Racer, 1969) in a sparkling debut and at the end an outrageous twist you won’t see coming in a million years. This is the antithesis of capers of the Topkapi (1964) variety. Not only is it an all-professional job, it takes a good while before you even realise the final focus is robbery or even the actual location. There are hints about the that event and glimpses in passing of material that may be used, and although the theft is planned to intricate detail, none of that planning is revealed to the audience.

The paroled Eli Kotch (James Coburn), who has seduced the prison psychiatrist, immediately skips town and starts fleecing any woman who falls for his charms. He changes personality at the drop of a hat, fitting into the likes of the mark, and in turn is burglar, art thief, car hijacker, in order to raise the loot required to buy a set of bank plans, and yet not above taking on ordinary jobs like shoe salesman to meet the ladies and coffin escort to get free travel across the country. So adept at the minutiae of the con he even manages to impersonate a hotel guest in order to get free phone calls.

He enrols girlfriend Inger (Camilla Sparv) to act as an amateur photographer working on a “poetic essay on transient populations” to get an idea of sites he means to access. He manages to have the head of a Secret Service detail blamed for a leak. Everything is micro-managed and his final masquerade is an Australian cop with a prisoner to extradite which provides him with an excuse to linger in a police station, privy to what is going on at crucial points.

If I tell you any more I’m going to give away too much of the plot and deprive you of delight at its cleverness. The original posters did their best not to give away too much but you can rely on critics on imdb to spoil everything.

This is just so much fun, with the slick confident Eli as a very engaging con man, the supreme manipulator, and almost in cahoots with writer-director Bernard Girardin (The Mad Room) in manipulating the audience. There are plenty films full of obfuscation just for the hell of it, or because plots are so complex there’s no room for simplification, or simply at directorial whim. But this has so much going on and Kotch so entertaining to watch that you hardly realize the tension that has been building up, not just looking forward to what exactly is the heist but also how are they going to pull it off, what other clever tricks does Kotch have up his sleeve for any eventuality, and of course, for the denouement, are they going to get away with it, or fall at the last hurdle. There is a great twist before the brilliant twist but I’m not going to tell you about that either.

There’s plenty Swinging Sixties in the background, the permissive society that Kotch is able to exploit, and yet the film has some unexpected depths. You wonder if the memories Kotch draws upon to win the sympathy of his female admirers have their basis in his own life. You are tempted to think not since he is after all a con man, but the detail is so specific it has you thinking maybe this is where his inability to trust anyone originates.

Bernard Giradin was not a name known to me I have to confess, since he was more of a television director than a big screen purveyor – prior to this he had made A Public Affair (1962) with the unheard-off Myron McCormick – and Coburn was the only big star he ever had the privilege to direct. But there are some nice directorial touches. The movie opens with a wall of shadows, there are some striking images of winter, a twist on bedroom footsie, and jabbering translators. But most of all he has the courage to stick to his guns, not feeling obliged to have Kotch spill out everything to a colleague or girl, either to boast of his brilliance, or to reveal innermost nerves, or, worse, to fulfil audience need. There’s an almost documentary feel to the whole enterprise.

James Coburn is superb. Sure, we get the teeth, the wide grin, but I sometimes felt all the smiling was unnecessary, almost a short cut to winning audience favour, and this portrayal, with the smile less in evidence, feels more intimate, more seductive. This may well be his best, most winning, performance. Camilla Sparv is something of a surprise, nothing like the ice queen of future movies, very much an ordinary girl delighted to be falling in love, and with a writer of all the things, the man of her dreams.

The excellent supporting cast includes Marian McCargo (The Undefeated, 1969), Aldo Ray (The Power, 1968), Robert Webber (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Todd Armstrong (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) and of course a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of Harrison Ford as the only bellboy (that’s a clue) in the picture. You might also spot showbiz legend Rose Marie (The Jazz Singer, 1927).

The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) ***

Bunch of incompetent crooks kidnap an impoverished Mafia boss who pays his ransom by setting up a major heist. By a stroke of casting alchemy this brings together Cesare (Vittorio De Sica), the epitome of old world Italian charm, knock-out gangster’s moll and scene-stealer-in-chief Juliana (Raquel Welch) replete with scanty knock-out outfits, and criminal mastermind Professor Samuels (Edward G. Robinson). In order to acquire the funds necessary to steal $5 million of platinum ingots from a train – that plan involving a tank and an WW2 bomber – the crew, initially headed by American Harry (Robert Wagner), need to carry out smaller jobs.

Problem is, none of them are any good, not even Cesare, who has lost his flair and botches an attempt to rob an old flame of her jewels. This is a twist on Topkapi (1964) which employed effective amateurs. This bunch can’t even carry out a simple theft from a restaurant. The heist itself is pretty spectacular and innovative. And the movie is quirky, with a darker edge. While there are few belly laughs, the light tone is enough to carry the gentle humor, mostly inspired by the misplaced team, amateurs for various reasons, not necessarily outright lawbreaking, on the run. These include London Cockney mechanic Davey (Davy Kaye), chef Antonio (Francesco Mule) distracted by hunger at every turn, cowardly violinist Benny (Godfrey Cambridge) and Joe (Mickey Knox) with a helluva brood to feed.

The story does a good bit of meandering, as does the camera, much of its focus on the voluptuous charms of Juliana, but the hurt pride of Cesare and the grandiose machinations of the professor keep it on course. The Italian settings, incorporating grand villas and ruins, do no harm either. The heist is terrific and there is a final twist you may or may not see coming. The interplay of characters works best when it involves Juliana, who attempts to twist Cesare around her little finger, that tactic mutual it has to be said, and who keeps the professor on his toes by dancing with him in a disco, and it soon becomes apparent that she has the upper hand over lover-boy Harry.

You could be forgiven for thinking the title refers to Raquel Welch – a cinematic infant at this stage with only One Million Years B.C (1966) in her portfolio – especially when her cleavage and looks receive such prominence, but the caper is classy and different. As well as being obvious she is both sinuous and seductive and clearly has a mind of her own, possibly the most criminally intent of the entire outfit, with weapons the others lack. By this point, she had invented the pop-out bikini, pictures of which had flooded Europe, making her the pin-up par excellence, but those who came to simply gawp quickly realized there was talent behind the body. Although of course there would be those who didn’t care.

De Sica constantly plays around with the idea of being a defunct godfather and Robinson is the antithesis of the gangster roles on which his fame relied. Robert Wagner is less effective, miscast and out of place in such august acting company and losing out to Welch in every scene.

This was a considerable change of pace for British director Ken Annakin after Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Battle of the Bulge (1965) and he brings to this the comedy of the former coupled with the narrative complications of the latter, wrapping everything up in an easy inviting style that makes the most of his stars and the locations. Screenwriter Sy Salkowitz was a television veteran (Perry Mason, The Untouchables et al) , this marking his first venture into the big screen.     

Not in the Topkapi class – very little is – but a pleasant diversion nonetheless and for avid Raquel Welch fans, setting aside her outfits, a chance to see her develop more of a screen persona than was permitted in her debut One Million Years B.C.

Topkapi (1964) *****

The mother of all heists directed by the father of all heist pictures.

Films as diverse as The Italian Job (1969), Mission Impossible (1996) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001) owe director Jules Dassin a massive debt since he pretty much invented this genre with the French-made Rififi (1955). But that involved professional criminals. Outside of masterminds Elizabeth (Melina Mercouri) and Walter (Maximilian Schell), this crew are amateurs, deliberately chosen for their lack of criminal records and with a mind to the specific tasks required. So we have acrobat Giulio (Gilles Segal), upper-class English gadget inventor Cedric (Robert Morley), strongman Hans (Jess Fisher) and driver Arthur (Peter Ustinov).

The target is the impenetrable, complete with sound-sensitive floor, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where they plan to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger. The plan is ingenious. Arthur is initially only hired to smuggle the weapons essential to the audacious heist across the border. But when he is caught and forced to cooperate with the Turkish secret police, he is enlisted as a replacement for Hans. Minus the rifles and grenades which at first appeared indispensable to the plan, the thieves come up with an even more inspired alternative involving among other things scampering across rooftops, abseiling, a parrot and slowing down the revolutions of a lighthouse.

Originally intending to betray his colleagues as soon as possible, Arthur falls under the seductive spell of Elizabeth and finds himself recruited as the replacement muscles. Elizabeth exudes such sexuality she has the entire gang in her thrall and makes the cowardly, weak, acrophobic Arthur believe he can overcome all his fears. Like current television sensation Money Heist, Walter engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the police, always one step ahead, with a bagful of red herrings at his disposal, eventually giving the pursuers the slip during a wresting competition held in a massive outdoor arena.

Interestingly, too, this doesn’t have the trope of gangsters at each other’s throats, planning to double-cross one another or bearing old grudges. Nor is this the last robbery for anyone prior to retirement. Equally, nobody challenges the leader. In fact, the entire crew could not be more docile, content to sit at the feet of Elizabeth and Walter, lapping up the former’s flirtation, wondering at the latter’s skill, as if they are all honored to have been chosen.

The climactic heist, carried out minus music, and lasting over 30 minutes is absolutely superb, setting a very high bar for future imitators, and there is a twist ending. Dassin mixes light comedy and high tension with the sultry attractions of Elizabeth to produce an at times breathtaking picture. As well as the heist itself, the wrestling sequence is stunning and the transition of Arthur forms the acting highlight (he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar).

But all four main stars are superb. Audiences accustomed to a more uptight Maximilian Schell (The Condemned of Altona (1962) will have been surprised by his charming performance. Melina Mercouri (Oscar-nominated for Never on Sunday, 1960) is the archetypal blonde bombshell, liberal with her favours but careful not to favour just one. Although Walter devises the plan, she is actually the criminal supremo, selecting the targets, and then delegating to ensure the tasks are carried out. Robert Morley is having the time of his life. Akim Tamiroff (Lord Jim, 1965) has a cameo as a chef.

A film noir star after Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) Dassin’s Hollywood career collapsed in the wake of the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings and he was blacklisted. Rififi opened few doors but even the success of Never on Sunday (1960) brought negligible offers. Despite returning to the mainstream with such elan through the conduit of Topkapi, albeit with a European cast, he remained on the Hollywood periphery and although the American-set Uptight (1968) – previously reviewed in the Blog – involved another heist that was primarily the wrapping for social documentary.

More at home with comedies screenwriter Monja Danischewsky (The Battle of the Sexes, 1960) draws out more humour than the source material, Light of Day by noted thriller writer Eric Ambler, would ostensibly suggest.

A delight from start to finish, the crème de la crème of the heist genre, this is unmissable. Dassin can lay claim to being the John Ford of the crime picture.

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.