“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.

The Split (1968) ***

You could not have a more explosive start. In the wake of the seismic slap Sidney Poitier delivered to an arrogant white man in In the Heat of the Night (1967) heist mastermind McClain (Jim Brown) bursts out of the traps by: picking a down-and-dirty knuckle-duster of a fight with hardman Bert (Ernest Borgnine); ramming a limo driven by Harry (Jack Klugman); locking technical wizard Marty (Warren Oates) in an electronic cell; and bracing marksman Dave (Donald Sutherland). It turns out these are all auditions for a $500,000 robbery from the Los Angeles Coliseum during a football match. Nonetheless, the point is made. Despite explanation for the ferocity it scarcely masks the fact that here was a hero unwilling to take any crap from anybody.

The Split follows the classic three acts of such a major crime: recruitment, theft, fall-out. Gladys (Julie Harris) sets up the daring snatch, entrusting a down-on-his-luck McClain –   attempting reconciliation with divorced wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll) – with pulling together a gang with particular sets of skills. The clever heist goes smoothly, the cache smuggled out in a gurney into a stolen ambulance, itself hidden in a truck, and spirited away to Ellie’s apartment until the ruckus dies down.

But someone else has a different plan. The stolen money is stolen again. McClain, responsible for its safekeeping, is blamed for its loss, while he suspects all the others. Adding to the complications is a corrupt cop (Gene Hackman). So it’s cat-and-mouse from here on in, McClain dodging bullets as he attempts to clear up the mess, find the loot and evade the cops.  

British release in a double bill with “Woman without a Face
originally released in the U.S. as “Mister Buddwing.”

The title refers to the way the way the money is intended to be shared out but it could as easily point to a film of two halves – recruitment/robbery and fall-out. The first section has several stand-out moments – a split-screen credit sequence, Marty’s desperate strip inside the cell to prevent the electronic door closing, an asthma attack mid-robbery, the beat-the-clock element of the heist, Dave’s targeting of tires to create the massive gridlock that facilitates escape. Thereafter, the tension grows more taut, as the thieves fall out with murderous intent.

One of the joys of the picture is watching a bunch of actors on the cusp. Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) was in the throes of achieving a stardom that would soon follow for Hackman (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Sutherland (also The Dirty Dozen) and Oates (Return of the Seven, 1966). Brown is tough and cynical in the Bogart mold, a loner with lashings of violence in his locker. Of the supporting cast, Sutherland’s funny maniac, complete with mordant wit, is the pick and he has the movie’s best line (“The last man I killed for $5,000. For $85,000 I’d kill you seventeen times.”) Hackman reveals an intensity that would be better showcased in The French Connection (1971) and Borgnine, Oscar-winner for Marty (1955) reverts to his tough guy persona. Having said that, you only get glimpses of what they are capable of.

Making the biggest step-up is Scottish director Gordon Flemyng whose last two pictures were Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth A.D. 2150 (1966). He helms the picture with polish and confidence, allowing the young bucks their screen moments while wasting little time in getting to the action and pulling off a mean car chase.

Crime writer Richard Stark’s (pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) was careful to sell the rights to his books one-by-one so that no single studio could acquire his iconic thief Parker. That accounted for him being renamed Walker in Point Blank (1967), Edgar in Pillaged (1967) and McClain in The Split, which was based on Stark’s The Seventh (that fraction being the character’s share of the loot).

Seven Golden Men (1965) ****

Very stylish caper picture that dispenses with the recruitment section, the ingenious hi-tech robbery accounting for the first half, escape and double-cross the second, a slinky Rosanna Podesta (the eponymous Helen of Troy, 1956, in case you’ve forgotten, and also appearing in Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) an added attraction/distraction. The Professor (Phillippe Leroy), in bowler hat and umbrella, orchestrates the gold bullion theft from an uber-secure bank using hidden microphones, cameras and a host of electronic equipment, the inch-perfect heist organized to mathematical precision and timed to the second.

His team, disguised as manual workers, dig under the road, don scuba gear to negotiate a sewer, drill up into the gigantic vault and then suck out the gold bars using travelators and hoists. Giorgia (Podesta), sometimes wearing cat-shaped spectacles, a body stocking and other times not very much, causes the necessary diversions and plants a homing device in a safety deposit box adjacent to the vault. Occasionally her attractiveness causes problems, priests in the neighboring block complaining she is putting too much on show.

It’s not all plain sailing. A cop complains about the workmen working during the sacrosanct siesta, a bureaucrat insists on paperwork, a radio ham picks up communication suggesting a robbery in progress, the police appear on the point of sabotaging the plan.

But the whole thing is brilliantly done, the calm professor congratulating himself on his brilliance, Giorgia seduction on legs. The getaway is superbly handled, the loot smuggled out in exemplary fashion, its destination designed to confuse. Then it is double-cross, triple-cross and whatever-cross comes after that, and with every reversal no idea what is going to happen next. It is twist after twist after twist. Some of the criminals are slick and some are dumb so as well as the high drama there are moments of exquisite comedy.

Italian writer-director Mario Vicario (The Naked Hours, 1964) handles this European co-production with considerable verve and although, minus the normal recruitment section, we don’t get to know the team very well except for The Professor and Giorgia each is still given some little identity marker and in any case by the time they come to split the proceeds we are already hooked. Frenchman Phillippe Leroy (Castle of the Living Dead, 1964) is the standout as a mastermind in the British mold, a stickler for accuracy, calm under pressure, working with military discipline. Podesta (also The Naked Hours) has no problem catching the camera’s attention or playing with the emotions of the gang  to fulfill her own agenda. The gang is multi-national – German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish – with only Gabriel Tinti likely to be recognized by modern audiences.

And there is a terrific score by Armando Trovajoli (Marriage Italian Style, 1964) that changes mood instantly scene by scene. One minute it is hip and cool jazz, the next jaunty, and then tense.

If ever a picture was pure cult, this is it.

Maroc 7 (1967) ***

With a string of Swinging Sixties fashion models providing the requisite bevy of beauties, a gang of thieves, a Moroccan heist, superb locations, great cast and a touch of archaeology with secret chambers and a long-lost relic thrown in, this splendid espionage frolic proves a welcome return to big screen top billing for Gene Barry after nearly a decade in television in Bat Masterson (1958-1961) and  Burke’s Law (1963-1966).

Something of a cat burglar himself, Simon Grant (Barry) infiltrates a gang which uses fashion as a cover and whose ingenious speciality is to steal famous heirlooms and replace them with fake ones in the assumption that on their departure from a foreign country the customs officers will not be able to tell the difference. Louise Henderson (Cyd Charisse) and Raymond Lowe (Leslie Phillips) head up the gang while Claudia (Else Martinelli) may or may not be in on the act.

Her dalliance with Simon suggests an inclination towards the right side of the law but the fact that she has been involved with the pair for so long sets up the intriguing notion that she is stringing the American agent along. Initially, she rejects Simon’s advances until told by Louise to comply and pump him for information leading to one of the movie’s best lines (and innuendo that a British audience in particular would adore). Says Simon: “We haven’t done much about pumping but maybe that will come later.”  Doubts also surround the intentions of Michelle Craig (Alexandra Stewart).  On their trail is Inspector Barrada (Denholm Elliott).

There is mystery aplenty and a fair quotient of punch-ups, romance, shoot-outs and murder while the unearthing of the hidden treasure is less heist amd more straightforward Indiana Jones. The fashion is the icing on the cake. The Moroccan fashion shoots are more than merely decorative, or an excuse to bare the charms of the gorgeous models. Instead, the shoots would not disgrace Vogue or any of the other glossy magazine temples to haute couture, with that Sixties focus on fabulous clothes, genuine location and outlandish hairstyles.

On top of that, several of the stars are either playing against type or out of their comfort zones. Legendary Hollywood dancer Cyd Charisse famed for such classic musicals as The Bandwagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957) sets such fluff aside to essay a criminal mastermind, whose cunning often gets the better of Simon. Leslie Phillips (Crooks Anonymous, 1962), better known as a charming Englishman with an eye for the ladies, is as ruthless a photographer as he is a criminal. Director Gerry O’Hara (The Pleasure Girls, 1965) has managed to get both Phillips and Denholm Elliott to drop their standard methods of delivery, usually embracing a drawl, making their characterisations a good bit more fresh than normal. Phillips was clearly intending to make some kind of career change since he was the producer.

Gene Barry makes a perfect entrance as an adventurer-spy, as confident in his seduction techniques without women falling at his feet like James Bond, with a nice line in self-deprecation and more than able to look after himself. Before being side-tracked by television, Barry had shown movie star potential in War of the Worlds (1953) and Thunder Road (1958) and now he delivers on that earlier promise. Elsa Martinelli (Hatari!, 1962) is the femme fatale who may or may not wish to play that role, keeping the audience completely on edge as to which side of the law she is likely to come down on. Added bonuses are Alexandra Stewart (Only When I Larf, 1968), Angela Douglas (Carry On Screaming!, 1966), Tracy Reed (Hammerhead, 1968), dancer Lionel Blair (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964) and Maggie London.

Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) ****

This heist picture made Charles Bronson a star, though, like Clint Eastwood a few years previously, he had to go to Europe, in this case France, to find an audience appreciable of his particular skill set. This was such a box office smash in France that it was the reason that Once upon a Time in the West (1968), a major flop virtually everywhere else, turned into a huge hit in Paris. After a decade as a supporting actor, albeit in some quality offerings like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson developed a big following, if only initially in Europe.

Farewell, Friend could also lay fair claim to stealing the title of  “first buddy movie” from the following year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) because, apart from the heist that is central to the story, it is essentially about the forging of a friendship. But it wasn’t released in the U.S. for another five years, in the wake of Bronson’s Hollywood breakthrough in The Valachi Papers (1972), and then under a different title, Honor Among Thieves.

And you can see why it was such a star-making vehicle. Bronson goes toe-to-toe with France’s number one male star Alain Delon (The Sicilian Clan, 1969). He had the walk and the stance and the look and he was given acres of screen time to allow audiences to fully appreciate for the first time what he had to offer. Like Butch Cassidy, the duo share a lot of screen time, and after initial dislike, they slowly turn, through circumstance and the same code of honor, into friends.

Dino Barran (Alain Delon) is the principled one, after a final stint as a doctor in the French Foreign Legion originally turning down overtures from Franz Propp (Charles Bronson) to become involved in a separate major robbery. Propp is an unsavory customer, making his living as a small-time thief who uses a stripper to dupe wealthy marks. Barran plans to rob a corporation’s safe during the three-day Xmas holiday of two million dollars as a favor to the slinky widow Isabelle (Olga Georges-Picot) of a former colleague, for whose death he retains guilt. Propp more or less barges his way into the caper.

It’s a clever heist. Isabelle gets Barran a job as a company doctor whose office is next door to the giant vault. But there’s a twist. Surveillance reveals only three of the seven numbers required to open the combination to the vault. But Barran reckons three days is sufficient to try out the 10,000 possible permurations.

Barran and Propp despise each other and pass the time playing juvenile tricks, locking each other into a room, stealing all the food from the one dispensing machine, winding each other up, while they take turns trying different combinations. But it opens after only 3,400 attempts and they face a shock. The vault is empty. They have been set up to take the fall for a previous robbery that must have been completed before the building closed for Xmas.  

And there’s no way out. They are in lockdown, deep in a basement. The elevators can only be opened by a small squadron of guards upstairs. Food long gone, they are going to run out of water. If they use a lighter to see in the dark, or build a fire to get warm, the flames will eat up the oxygen they need to survive in the enclosed space. So the heist turns into a battle for survival and brute force attempts to escape before the building re-opens and they are discovered, exhausted and clearly guilty.

But that’s only the second act. There is a better one to follow, as their friendship is defined in an unusual manner. And there are any number of twists to maintain the suspense and tension. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were close friends when that western began. Here, we see the evolution of a friendship between two forceful characters who express their feelings with their fists.

Delon was a known quantity, but Bronson really comes to the fore, more than holding his own against a top star who oozed charisma. This is Bronson in chrysalis, the emergence of the tough guy leading man screen persona that would turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world. Surprisingly, given his later penchant for the monosyllabic, here he does a lot of talking, perhaps more actual acting than he ever did later when his roles tended to fall into a stereotype.

He has the two best scenes, both character-defining, but in different ways. He has a little scam, getting people to gamble on how many coins it would take for an already full-to-the-brim glass to overflow when a certain number of coins were dropped in. While this is a cute trick, it’s that of a small-time con artist, but watching it play out, as it does at critical moments, is surprisingly suspenseful. The second is the strip scene which shows him, as a potential leading man, in a very poor light, and although thievery is the ultimate aim, it is not far short of pimping, with Bronson standing back while the woman (Marianna Falk) is routinely humiliated. It’s the kind of scene that would be given to a supporting actor, for whom later redemption was not on the cards. It says something for Bronson’s command of the screen and the development of his character that by the end of the picture the audience has long forgotten that he could stoop so low.

It is a film of such twists I would not want to say much more for fear of giving away too much, suffice to say that Olga Georges-Picot (Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, 1968) and her friend, mousy nurse Dominique (Brigitte Fossey, in her grown-up debut), are also stand-outs, and not just in the sense of their allure.

Director Jean Herman, in his sophomore outing, takes the bold step of dispensing with music virtually throughout, which means that during the critical heist sequence the audience is deprived of the usual musical beats that might indicate threat or suspense or change of mood, but which has the benefit of keeping the camera squarely on the two leading characters without favoring either. Most pictures focusing on character rely on slow-burn drama. In the bulk of heist pictures, characters appear fully-formed. Here, unusually, and almost uniquely in the movie canon, character development takes place during an action film.

Top French thriller writer Sebastian Japrisot (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) was responsible along with Herman for the screenplay. Japrisot was a key figure in the French movie thriller scene, churning out, either as original novels or original screenplays, A Trap for Cinderella (1965), Rider on the Rain (1970) and The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun (1970).

Even without Bronson, this would have been a terrific heist picture. With him, it takes on a new dimension.

Ocean’s 11 (1960) ***

Heist pictures break down into planning, execution and reprisal. Here the planning stage moves at a leisurely pace, a bit of recruitment, and setting up bitebacks that will cripple the military-precision plan by ex-army buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos of millions of dollars on New Year’s Eve. There’s a bit of reversal, Mr Big (Akim Tamiroff) is a collection of nervous tics, Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) a rich guy seeking financial independence from a possessive mother, Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) having second thoughts about the operation, and Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) trying to win back estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson) who surmises he prefers danger to intimacy. Mostly, it’s repartee between Harmon and Ocean while Foster makes a chump out of his mother’s next potential husband Duke Santos (Cesar Romero).

There’s not much hi-tech about the audacious plan, knocking out the electricity supply to the casinos, the switch to auxiliary power allowing the gang access to the inner sanctum where the cash is held, finding their way in and out of the darkness by nothing more sophisticated than luminous spray paint, and with a clever ruse to get the money out once all hell breaks loose.

The fun starts when one of the team (Richard Conte) drops dead post-raid and it transpires Santos is a big-shot underworld figure who investigates the robbery on behalf of the casinos and starts tracking the gang down, leading to a pay-off you don’t see coming.

Given the comedy element, there’s no great tension but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and Sinatra and Martin display an easy camaraderie that lights up the screen. It could have been funded by the Las Vegas Tourist Bureau so much attention is given to the wonder of the casinos, at a time when gambling was still only otherwise legal on racetracks, and with snippets of floorshows and the deluxe atmosphere. Add in a couple of numbers delivered a couple of times by Dean Martin (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”), legitimately since he is a cocktail bar singer, and Sammy Davis Jr. (“Eee-O-11”), somewhat shoehorned-in given he is a truck driver.

There’s a couple of neat reversals: Ocean’s dumped girlfriend Adele (Patrice Wymore) gets short shrift from Beatrice when she reveals the affair; casino bosses offered a double-or-quits gamble refuse to consider such a dangerous notion. Red Skelton and George Raft have credited cameos, Shirley MacLaine does not. As well as Richard Conte, Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) has a small part as does Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

Although there are on occasion outdated sexist attitudes, there is also a strong anti-racist statement in the hiring of Sammy Davis Jr., showcasing his talents in a big-budget picture, and clearly making the point that he has been welcomed by stars as big as Sinatra and Martin.  

And it’s worth also considering the picture in terms of early-onset brand management.  The “Rat Pack” was a loose group of entertainers which not only became a well-known stand-alone entity in its own right that celebrated what was considered “hip” at the time (assuming you excluded Elvis and his ilk), but as individuals supported each other on television and in live performance. They would make another two pictures as a team and another dozen or so where two or more of the players appeared. The principals were all major attractions at the nascent Las Vegas so they were also promoting their home patch. During the day they made the movie, at night they wove in and out of each others’ acts, creating an entertainment sensation. On top of that, Sinatra had his own record label Reprise – among the early acts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. So, in a sense, all this cross-promotion was money in their pockets.

Also of note are the opening and closing, the former for the credits devised by Saul Bass, the latter for the famous shot later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Ironically, Lewis Milestone, who devised the original shot, and long before that won two Best Director Oscars, is less well regarded these days than Tarantino.

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