All hail Senta Berger! Another from the Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) portfolio, this is a spy-thriller mash-up with a bagful of mysteries and a clutch of corpses. At last given a decent leading role, and although you wouldn’t guess it from either poster, Senta Berger steals the show from the top-billed Tony Randall (as miscast as Robert Cummings in Five Golden Dragons) and a smorgasbord of European talent including Herbert Lom (The Frightened City, 1961), Terry-Thomas, Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons), John Le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White (Carry On Nurse, 1959). In this company, the glamorous Margaret Lee (Five Golden Dragons), as Lom’s cynical lover (“you are never wrong, cherie, you told me so yourself,” she tells him) is an amuse-bouche.
Six travellers – including oilman Randall, travel agent Le Mesurier, salesman Hyde-White and tourist Berger, meeting her fiancé – board a bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh. One is carrying $2 million as a bribe to ease through a vote in the United Nations, but bad guy Lom doesn’t know which one it is. When Berger’s fiance’s corpse tumbles out of Randall’s cupboard, the pair become entangled. Berger is a marvellous femme fatale, trumping Randall at every turn.
With no shortage of complications, the tale zips along, directed on occasion with considerable verve by Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964). There are some inventive double-plays – with a body in the boot Berger and Randall are stopped by a cop who tells them their boot is open. An excellent rooftop chase is matched by a car chase. And there’s a terrific shootout. Kinski is at his sinister best and Terry-Thomas a standout in an unusual role as a Berber.
The film was shot on location including the city’s souks, the ruined El Badi Palace and La Mamounia hotel (featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). But Berger seamlessly holds the whole box of tricks together, at once glamorous and sinuous, practical and tough and exuding sympathy, and it’s a joy to see her for a large part of the picture leading Randall by the nose. Quite why this did not lead to bigger Hollywood roles than The Ambushers (1967) remains a mystery.
Sean Connery in an early role as a gangster is not the only reason for watching this brisk British thriller about a London protection racket. Primarily told from the point-of-view of the bad guys, this explores how a ruthless Mr Big (Herbert Lom) builds up a criminal empire. Lom, a bent accountant, brings together the six major gangs involved in extorting money from pubs and stores into a democratically-run syndicate. Lom then moves on to demanding bigger sums from bigger enterprises such as construction businesses. However, when the gangsters fall out they go to war.
This film is way ahead of the game in presenting gangsters as displaying any intelligence. Generally, they were depicted as brutes who ruled by force. But criminality at the top level demanded as much organization as in a legitimate business. Personalities had to be harnessed to work together rather than shoot each other on sight. Such skills had to exist in order for gangsters to operate on any scale. This picture examines how this was done.
The cops led by John Gregson are almost a sub-plot and the story would have adequately run its course without their involvement. Gregson sails close to the wind hoping to “tilt the scale of justice in our direction for a change.” Connery doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes as a karate-expert cat-burglar turned enforcer. Connery’s involvement with the syndicate ends when his code of honor is breached and he turns on his employers. His code is not so sacrosanct that it prevents him cheating on his girlfriend. But he does display the virility to fill James Bond’s shoes.
There’s far more violence that would be expected in a British crime picture. Night clubs, shops and pubs are wrecked and there’s plenty of fisticuffs and when the gangsters go head-to-head they upgrade to grenades. There’s a bit more plot than the running time can deal with so director (and producer and co-writer) John Lemont occasionally resorts to cliché devices like newspaper headlines. Canadian Lemont – most famous for writing the first serial hon on ITV, Sixpenny Corner – was an auteur of the old-fashioned (and unheralded) kind, and previously writer-director of The Shakedown (1960). Triple-hyphenates, while rare in the movie business, were generally of a high calibre such as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so Lemont was in good company, and clearly, in consequence, the movie that appeared reflected his own vision.
Top billing was a step up for Lom and he made the most of it, delivering a suave villain among the thugs. Gregson (The Captain’s Table, 1959) was a solid British star and ideal cop material (he was later British television’s Gideon). Yvonne Romaine, as Connery’s new squeeze, a nightclub singer exploited by Lom more for her looks than her voice, was known to audiences after Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In only her second film Scottish television actress Olive McFarland was Connery’s dumped girlfriend. Unusually, for a British picture at this time, the theme tune written by Norrie Paramour was covered by The Shadows and turned into a hit.
Producers were contractually bound in relation to the size of credits that appeared on any advertising. But there were no such regulations regarding the visuals of an advert. Although top-billed, Lom is not shown on any of the adverts. Given greatest prominence was Yvonne Romaine. There were thirteen different ads and she appeared in them all. Although Connery was third-billed and she was two rungs below in the credit stakes, he was the junior partner when it came to the artwork. While, Connery appeared in eleven in only one did he overshadow Romaine and in another they were visually-speaking accorded roughly the same status. But otherwise, she hogged the adverts.
The picture was not seen much in the United States, sent out in first run as the lower half of a double bill in only a handful of big cities, so there’s a fair chance it’s completely unknown except to Connery completists. But it’s certainly worth a look.
The heist movie – as epitomised by The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1958) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1954) – had tended to be a relatively low-budget affair. Top-ranking stars steered clear because complicated plot often got in the way of character development In the highly polished and entertaining Gambit British director Ronald Neame’s riff on the genre involved a narrative shift worthy of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and, of course, Akira Kurosawa who had with Rashomon (1950) single-handedly invented the complex point-of-view.
Neame brought another couple of other aces out of the deck. First of all, there was the fun of watching over-confident thief Michael Caine’s apparently foolproof plans come unstuck. Secondly, in a romantic dynamic in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934) the less accomplished female (Shirley MacLaine) proves more accomplished than the male.
Gambit was also a clear demonstration of the power of the female star not just in the plot complications but from the fact that Caine owed his big Hollywood break to MacLaine, the actress having the power of veto over the male lead and, equally, contractual right to choose her co-star. The movie went through an interesting development phase. The original script by director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) had Cary Grant in the central (i.e MacLaine) role. Rewritten by Jack Davies (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965) and in his movie debut Alvin Sargent (The Stalking Moon, 1968) the main character underwent a gender shift.
After Psycho (1960) audiences had become used to being messed around. Stars could be killed off halfway through or not appear (Operation Crossbow a classic example) until well into the movie. Neame was not quite so bold but what audiences made of the usually garrulous MacLaine being rendered mute during the early part of the picture was anybody’s guess, perhaps the dumb show was a joke in itself. But lack of dialogue did not prevent MacLaine from stealing the show and proving what an adept comedienne she was, a barrage of submissive looks enough to send an audience into hysterics.
In essence, Caine plays two characters. In the opening segment he is the brash, cocky English gentleman-thief at the top of his game, bossing MacLaine around, gulling his mark (Herbert Lom) with an audacious plan to steal an expensive sculpture. In his version of events his plan goes off without a hitch. But when we switch to the MacLaine perspective, in which nothing goes according to plan, his cool demeanour is sorely tested and he turns into a frustrated idiot. Watching the movie now, you can almost imagine that the MacLaine character, with a host of useless facts at her fingertips, was making fun of Caine’s well-known love of trivia, but that predated the actor’s acknowledgement of this aspect of his real-life character.
What makes the movie so much fun is that both parts of the film work and for the same reasons: believable characters, exciting heists and plenty of twists. The initial premise is that Caine recruits Hong Kong dancer MacLaine due to her startling resemblance to the late wife of Arab billionaire Herbert Lom as part of a ploy to relieve him of a priceless artefact. While Lom is falling for MacLaine, Caine moves in for the kill with an ingenious heist. Mission accomplished he pays her off. But in the real version of the story, as seen through her eyes, Lom does not fall for the ridiculous scam, Caine’s plan fails to work until MacLaine comes to the rescue. Meanwhile, MacLaine has fallen for Caine, but does not want to be in love with a criminal. Although Caine initially resists his own emotions, he, too, takes the romantic plunge except that to win her he may have to lose what he prizes more.
As I mentioned it is awash with twists and the heists themselves are exceptionally well done but the screen chemistry between the two leads is terrific. Caine, who had otherwise been in control in his previous starring roles as the upper-class officer in Zulu (1963), spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and the womanising Alfie (1966) – The Wrong Box (1966) was an ensemble item – was taking a chance in playing a character who would effectively play second fiddle to the star and in terms of the thief often appears out-of-control. MacLaine was more obviously in her safety zone. Hollywood spent a lot of time investing in screen partnerships, mostly failing, but this pairing certainly succeeded.