Arabella (1967) ***

Under-rated comedy, set in 1928 Italy, had me chuckling all the way through. An episodic structure sees Arabella (Virna Lisi) duping an Italian hotel manager, British general and an Italian Duke (all played by Terry-Thomas) out of their cash in order to pay off the mounting tax debts of her grandmother Princess Ilaria (Margaret Rutherford) while trying to avoid the attentions of the mysterious Giorgio (James Fox).

Her scams are quite ingenious, beginning with arranging for a public urinal to be erected outside a five-star hotel and, pretending to be the lover of Benito Mussolini, convincing the manager that, for a price, she could arrange its removal. There’s nothing particularly original about faking a breakdown to attract the attention of  the general, a royal flunkey, but the blackmail trap she sets is elaborate.

But just as you think you know here this is going, it sprints off in another direction altogether, Arabella being the mark, and it’s one twist after another. She is rooked by Giorgio with whom she falls in love. The Duke, whom she sees as easy meat, instead uses her. Her grandmother’s ploy to burn down her mansion and claim the insurance money is foiled by a cat.  

All sorts of sly observations come into play. The hotel manager and his pals siphon off a large chunk of the cash they have taken from the safe to pay her off. The general, operating incognito, has his cover blown by a piece of music. The Duke turns the tables on his domineering wife and his son has an exceptionally clever ploy to keep mama sweet while enjoying his sexual independence. And it appears that every time Arabella gives in to entreaty, she is exploited. In other words, show weakness, give a loser an inch and they’ll take you for all you’ve got.

Terry-Thomas as a bumptious hotel manager with James Fox looking mysterious.

There’s no desperate reason for it to be set in the 1920s and, beyond the Charleston and costumes, it makes little attempt to evoke the era except perhaps to make the point that the world was not full of submissive women. And you might find inappropriate the trope about using a sexy woman to turn a gay man straight. It’s a sex comedy in the Italian style where just about anything goes and the act, rarely consummated, instead involves humiliation.

But Virna Lisi (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) certainly commands the screen, carrying the show, fashionably stylish rather than overtly sexual, a born comedienne. Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife), while initially appearing under his trademark persona, completes a transition for the Duke, almost another twist if you like, audiences expecting a similar duffer to his previous parts. Lisi and Terry-Thomas clearly have rapport, almost a synergy, not the charisma of a screen couple, as in romantic pairing, but work very well with each other.

Margaret Rutherford (Murder Ahoy!, 1964) and James Fox (The Chase, 1966) let the side down with such insipid portrayals you wonder why they signed up.  It’s almost as if they couldn’t be bothered working on their characterisations. Cigar smoking and general ditziness is as far as Rutherford, in her final role, goes. Fox just looks fey and the one flaw in the narrative is why Arabella could look at him twice. As the Duke’s son, duping his mother, a pre-gaunt Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) is very entertaining.  

To enjoy this you have to suspend your ideas about comedy based on the British and Hollywood tradition. It aims for farce, no attempt to make larger comment on life.  

Mauro Bolognini (He and She, 1969) hangs this together in a decent enough fashion, confident enough of his material to lead the audience into a bait-and-switch. In his debut Giorgio Alorio (Burn!/Queimada, 1969) and Adriano Baracco (Danger: Diabolik, 1968) wrote the screenplay with British playwright Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) spicing up the English dialog. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) ***** Now Officially The Greatest Western of All Time

Having complained about lists and then recanted when one of my favorites got the nod at the top of the heap, I’m doing the same again.

The recent Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Directors Poll did the unthinkable and placed Once Upon a Time in the West ahead of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) which, virtually since release, had been anointed the top western of all time. The critics who participated in the Critics Poll, which ran concurrently with the Directors Poll, were not, I hasten to add, quite so convinced. According to the critics, the John Ford picture was still top dog, ahead of the Leone masterpiece in second place. But in a battle between directors, who make a living making pictures, and critics, whose only skill is writing about them, I know which side I would come down on. And in any case I had long sided with the directors on this issue.

A masterpiece to savor. The greatest western ever made. Sergio Leone’s movie out-Fords John Ford in thematic energy, imagery and believable characters and although it takes in the iconic Monument Valley it dispenses with marauding Native Americans and the wrecking of saloons. That the backdrop is the New West of civilisation and enterprise is somewhat surprising for a movie that appears to concentrate on the violence implicit in the Old West. But that is only the surface. Dreams, fresh starts are the driving force. It made a star out of Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend, 1968), turned the Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent, 1961) persona on its head and provided Claudia Cardinale (Blindfold, 1965) with the role of a lifetime. And there was another star – composer Ennio Morricone (The Sicilian Clan, 1969)

New Orleans courtesan Jill (Claudia Cardinale) heads west to fulfil a dream of living in the country and bringing up a family. Gunslinger Frank (Henry Fonda), like Michael in The Godfather, has visions of going straight, turning legitimate through railroad ownership. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has been dreaming of the freedom that will come through achieving revenge, the crippled crooked railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) dreams of seeing the ocean and even Cheyenne (Jason Robards) would prefer a spell out of captivity.

The beginnings of the railroad triggers a sea-change in the west, displacing the sometimes lawless pioneers, creating a mythic tale about the ending of a myth, a formidable fable about the twilight and resurgence of the American West. In essence, Leone exploits five stereotypes – the lone avenger (Harmonica), the outlaw Frank who wants to go straight, the idealistic outlaw in Cheyenne, Jill the whore and outwardly respectable businessman Morton whose only aim is monopoly. All these characters converge on new town Flagstone where their narratives intersect.

That Leone takes such stereotypes and fashions them into a movie of the highest order is down to style. This is slow in the way opera is slow. Enormous thought has gone into each sequence to extract the maximum in each sequence. In so doing creating the most stylish western ever made. The build-up to violence is gradual, the violence itself over in the blink of an eye.

Unusually for a western – except oddities like Five Card Stud (1968) – the driving force is mystery. Generally, the western is the most direct of genres, characters establishing from the outset who they are and what they want by action and dialogue. But Jill, Harmonic and Cheyenne are, on initial appearances, mysterious. Leone takes the conventions of the western and turns them upside down, not just in the reversals and plot twists but in the slow unfolding tale where motivation and action constantly change, alliances formed among the most unlikely allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank, and where a mooted  alliance, in the romantic sense, between Jill and Harmonica fails to take root.

There’s no doubt another director would have made shorter work of the opening sequence in Cattle Corner, all creaky scratchy noise, in a decrepit railroad station that represents the Old West, but that would be like asking David Lean to cut back Omar Sharif emerging from the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock to trim back the hypnotic scenes of James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Instead, Leone sets out his stall. This movie is going to be made his way, a nod to the operatic an imperative. But the movie turns full circle. If we begin with the kind of lawless ambush prevalent in the older days, we end with a shootout at the Sweetwater ranch that is almost a sideshow to progress as the railroad sweeps ever onward.

No character is more against audience expectation than Jill. Women in westerns rarely take center stage, unless they exhibit a masculine skill with the gun. There has rarely been a more fully-rounded character in the movies never mind this genre. When we are introduced to her, she is the innocent, first time out West, eyes full of wonder, heart full of romance. Then we realise she is a tad more mercenary and that her previous occupation belies her presentation. Then she succumbs to Frank. Then she wants to give up. Then she doesn’t. Not just to stay but to become the earth mother for all the men working on the railroad.

Another director would have given her a ton of dialogue to express her feelings. Instead, Leone does it with the eyes. The look of awe as she arrives in flagstone, the despair as she approaches the corpses, the surrender to the voracious Frank, the understanding of the role she must now play. And when it comes to close-up don’t forget our first glimpse of Frank, those baby blue eyes, and the shock registering on his face in the final shoot-out, one of the most incredible pieces of acting I have ever seen.

And you can’t ignore the contribution of the music. Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West has made a greater cultural impact than even the venerated John Williams’ themes for Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) with rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica among those spreading the word to successive generations and I wonder in fact how people were drawn to this big-screen showing by the opportunity to hear the score in six-track Dolby sound. There’s an argument to be made that the original soundtrack sold more copies than the film sold tickets.

The other element with the music which was driven home to me is how loud it was here compared to, for example, Thunderball (1965), which as it happens I also saw on the big screen on the same day. Although I’ve listened to certain tracks from the Bond film on a CD where the context is only the listener and not the rest of the picture, I was surprised how muted the music was for Thunderball especially in the action sequences. Today’s soundtracks are often loud to the point of being obstreperous, but rarely add anything to character or image.

If you live in the U.K. you should get the opportunity to see this once again on the big screen because the British Film Institute, which coincidentally owns Sight & Sound, is planning to screen all the 100 films in its latest poll. Other countries might take note.

Behind the Scenes: “Barabbas” (1961)

It could as easily have been Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments, 1956) in the director’s chair. And Yul Brynner (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) and Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim, 1962) as the stars.

The Barabbas tale had already been plundered before Swedish novelist Par Lagerkvist published his relatively short bestseller – only 144 pages – in 1950. An earlier novel of the same name by Emery Bekessy hit American bookstalls at the height of the mid-1940s religious cycle kicked off by Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St Mary’s (1945). DeMille – whose portfolio included Biblical epics The Ten Commandments (1923), King of Kings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932) – was in competition with British producer Alexander Korda to buy the rights.

While that production never entered production, just to confuse matters a British film, Now Barabbas, based on a successful West End play and with no Biblical element, was released in 1949.

Swedish director Alf Sjoberg (Miss Julie, 1951), twice winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes,  turned the Lagerkvist book into a black-and-white film in 1953, the first Swedish picture to be dubbed into English.

A bigger-budgeted version, piggybacking on the success of Ben-Hur (1959), was the brainchild of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis who had pacted with Hollywood studio Columbia on a four-picture slate worth $17 million, the bulk of which, $10 million, was to be spent on Barabbas “with a cast of thousands headed by some of the biggest names in motion pictures.”

“Hollywood on the Tiber” was producing movies at a record rate – topping 200 a year – and De Laurentiis, who had shot to fame with Bitter Rice (1949) starring future wife Silvana Mangano and Fellini’s La Strada (1954) was intent on gaining a foothold in America beyond the arthouse market. Producing King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) for Paramount had not done the trick and the Columbia slate was a last-ditch attempt to break into the Hollywood game.

Hollywood had originally invested in Europe to take advantage of tax breaks or to access monies frozen by countries after the Second World War, but by the 1960s the continent had become more attractive as a cheaper production alternative. While Britain had been a substantial recipient of Hollywood largesse, Italy was fast catching up as the chosen locale for pictures as varied as Cleopatra (1963), The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Director Richard Fleischer’s career was at a curious impasse. The son of world-famous animator Max Flesicher, creator of the Popeye cartoons, Richard had won critical acclaim for low-budget thriller The Narrow Margin (1951), followed up with a pair of stupendous action hits, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and The Vikings (1958), both starring Kirk Douglas, and a daring examination of the world’s first “thrill killing” Compulsion (1959) with Orson Welles.

But he was at loggerheads with Twentieth Century Fox, to whom he was contractually tied, having turned down North to Alaska (1960) with John Wayne. As a result, he was relegated to lesser projects, Crack in the Mirror (1960), again with Orson, and The Big Gamble (1961), a picture with virtually no stars unless you count the questionable marquee value of Juliette Greco and Irishman Stephen Boyd trying to capitalize on his success in Ben-Hur (1959).

“Holdover” also meant it was not playing as a roadshow.
In the roadshow exhibition situation, a cinema would be required to play a movie for an agreed number of weeks, generally a minimum of eight or thirteen. Non-roadshow films relied on box office performance for the length of their run, the engagement extended week-by-week.

He had been on Dino De Laurentiis’ radar before, approached to helm War and Peace, circumstances dictating otherwise, and a $10 million project, a 70mm roadshow, presented an ideal opportunity to resuscitate his moribund career. As Fleischer put it, “Even if I had loved Darryl (F. Zanuck, the legendary Fox producer of The Big Gamble), I would gladly have jilted him for this assignment.”

Despite the promise of the budget, the reality was off-putting. The De Laurentiis studio was housed in a “dreary industrial slum” and consisted of a two-storey wooden building housing the offices and “three decaying stages.” However, there was little downbeat about De Laurentiis, “an impeccably tailored bundle of raw energy,” according to Fleischer, “the impact of meeting him for the first time is something akin to sticking your finger into an electric light socket.”

The Italian producer possessed a quality that was appreciated in Hollywood, especially among old-school mavens. He was a showman. He could drum up publicity at the drop of a hat. His first publicity coup was hiring French star Jeanne Moreau, at the time considered one of the few foreign actresses who need not rely on buxom figure, as the female lead. Her arrival in Rome for pre-production prerequisites such as costume and make-up testing induced a flurry of front pages. A mob of about 30 reporters almost prevented any testing. “Even though the tests were purely mechanical, she became the character in the script the moment the camera turned,” observed Fleischer.

Unfortunately, De Laurentiis had no intention of hiring her, not when he had wife Silvana Mangano at home. The press reaction to Moreau might have suggested he was backing the wrong horse, despite Mangano’s own marquee appeal, but he appeared delighted to have achieved a publicity coup, no matter that he had manipulated and duped a great actress and the director.

De Laurentiis pursued Yul Brynner for the titular role, a suggestion with which the director was in accord. This was the real thing, attempted recruitment not just a publicity gag. Until Charlton Heston muscled in with Ben-Hur, Brynner was the go-to actor for historical epics, The Ten Commandments (1956) making him an instant star, a position solidified with an Oscar for The King and I (1956) and commanding a $750,000 payday, on a par with john Wayne and William Holden.

Brynner was initially disinclined to play the role but after a day in discussion with Fleischer they shook hands on a deal only to have it torpedoed by De Laurentiis.

Scriptwriters Christopher Fry, famed English playwright but novice screenwriter, Nigel Balchin (The Man Who Never Was, 1956) and Diego Fabbri (The Corsican Brothers, 1961) were recruited with De Laurentiis reporting that they were “currently at work after having studied the material at length.” Later added to the roster was Italian Nobel prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo. Not trusting the producer to stick to the text, Lagerkvist assigned his son as overseer, a tactic that singularly failed to work.

Still lacking a male lead, De Laurentiis announced the movie would start shooting on January 7, 1961, with French pair Jeanne Moreau and Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1958) in the top female roles, neither of whom were ultimately involved.

Despite two Oscars as Best Supporting Actor, Anthony Quinn (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) had failed to reach the top echelons of Hollywood stardom, stuck in the rut of male lead to top-billed female or starring in lower-budgeted pictures. To rectify the situation, he had embarked on a project intended to provide a prestigious showcase for his acting skills. He had signed up to play opposite Laurence Olivier in the Broadway production of Jean Anouilh’s acclaimed play Becket.

He had to be prised away from the Broadway run by De Laurentiis who forked out $37,500 in compensation and guaranteed the actor time off halfway through the shoot to fulfil a commitment to Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In fact, Becket, while attracting good notices, was a Broadway flop, the production only going into the black as a result of the De Laurentiis pay-off.

The all-star cast never materialized. But there was prestige aplenty, three members of the cast Oscar winners, another trio nominees. Vittorio Gassman (Ghosts of Rome, 1961) was at best a rising star, marquee value restricted to Italy. Jack Palance (Shane, 1953), was better known in Italy than the U.S., having spent the previous five years in Italy and now attempting a Hollywood comeback as a director. He was signed to play the notorious gladiator intent on killing Barabbas in combat. Ernest Borgnine (The Vikings) was still clinging on to vestiges of stardom after unexpectedly winning the Best Actor Oscar for Marty (1955). His wife Katy Jurado (High Noon, 1952) remained a starlet. Despite a bout of Oscar nominations in the supporting actor category Arthur Kennedy (Elmer Gantry) and never-nominated Harry Andrews (Solomon and Sheba, 1959) were no more than character actors.

It would have been impossible to make Barabbas on the tiny studio De Laurentiis owned so, encouraged by tax breaks, he invested in hundreds of acres of cheap land to build a new state-of-the art studio. But when Fleischer first saw it, it was nothing but a barren wasteland. Even so it was in these empty fields that production designer Mario Chiari would construct the ancient world.

Over several hours, simply by pointing his finger in vague directions, the pair came up with over 100 buildings, and the sets for Jerusalem and the Praetorium. The movie already had its arena – the 2,000-year-old structure in Verona – which would double for the Rome Colosseum. The complicated gladiatorial spectacle was the first sequence to be shot, with a world-record 9,115 costumed extras, arriving on a fleet on 75 buses from nearby towns. The only obstacle to rolling the cameras: Anthony Quinn’s specially designed gladiator sandals had been left behind in Rome. A temporary pair were mocked up so the first shot could be completed before lunch.  

On the second day of shooting occurred a Hollywood fairy story. Looking for good characters to focus on in the crowd “one face truly stood out, that of an eighteen-year-old girl of stunning beauty.” The daughter of an officer at a U.S. military base in Vicenza, her name was Sharon Tate. Shortly afterwards, she moved in with Jack Palance, and not too long after that she was on the Hollywood glory trail prior to her premature death.

Another mishap threatened to spoil the scene where Quinn and Gassman, playing prisoners in the sulphur mine, were going to be chained together. The location was the top of Mount Etna in Sicily. On hand were 500 extras dressed as Roman slaves. It was a Sunday since that was the only day the roads would be clear enough to transport so many people and all the equipment up the two-hour drive from Catania up the twisty route.

The weather was terrible, the sky so black, the volcanic cinder ground a perfect match, with barely enough light to get an exposure. The only section of the scene unrehearsed was the riveting of the chains. And that required charcoal. But someone had forgotten the charcoal.  A race down the mountain to bring back the charcoal took till the afternoon. But just as the charcoal arrived there was a break in the clouds and a spot of perfect light. It lasted just long enough for the shot to be taken.

The solar eclipse was no special effect. It was actually taking place on February 15, 1961, and Fleischer had cameras in place to record the phenomenon, the only genuinely ethereal scene in a movie that was more concerned with realism. The burning of Rome was also filmed “in camera,” the sets consumed in one take in one night.

While there were other occasional production errors, Fleischer found the Italian crew as professional as he required. And as accommodating. One day he was informed the crew had to go on strike for one hour. But after consultation with the director, the crew was happy to strike during the lunch break.

Even with a schedule rearranged to include Quinn’s time away filming Lawrence of Arabia (1962), shooting went smoothly with no overages or budget-blowing.

The production faced other threats. The 1953 version, already conveniently dubbed, was being reissued. There was a television production called Give Us, Barabbas, and a new play was launched off-Broadway by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, all of which could have stolen the limelight.

The movie followed an unusual distribution pattern. Launched in Italy at the tail end of 1961 to big box office it was another six months before it made a mark in London. In June 1962 it was the opening presentation for a new cinema, the Odeon Haymarket in London’s West End, a 600-seat underground emporium set up to take advantage of the demand for hard-ticket roadshow venues. The premises had not operated as a cinema since 1939 when it had been known for a short period as the Gaumont. It was only the second cinema built in London since the Second World War, the other being the Columbia in Shaftesbury Ave which had opened in 1959. In separate-performance advance-booking format, and tickets priced at $1.05-$2.80, Barabbas would remain at the Odeon for over six months.

It didn’t reach the United States – at the DeMille in New York – until October and even then was beaten to the North American punch by the 2,318-seat Odeon Carlton in Toronto, the largest cinema to enter the roadshow arena. And although available as a 70mm roadshow, in most locations it was more likely to be presented in 35mm minus the separate performances that were the hallmark of the prestigious hard-ticket presentation.

Columbia created some enterprising marketing concepts for the U.S. launch, including a touring exhibit by six well-known painters who had all used the film as the basis of artworks. A 41-foot high float including a 10-foot high revolving figure of Barabbas had been seen by 1.2 million people when paraded through Los Angeles. A special 190-page “making of” book was published in hardback. Six months after launch, the film was promoted as a “Special Lenten Presentation” in local cinemas with prices increased by 25 cents.

Although a huge success in native Italy and generally well-received at the international box  office, Barabbas came up short in the U.S., rentals barely hitting $3 million, earning a lowly 35th place in the annual chart.

SOURCES: Richard Fleischer, Just Tell Me When To Cry, A Memoir (Carroll & Graf, 1993) p217-226; “Another Religious Picture May Be Barabbas Novel,” Variety, December 4, 1946, p4; “Now Barabbas Was A Robber,” Variety, June 1, 1949, p1; “First Swedish Picture Dubbed Into English,” Variety, June 23, 1954, p4; “Swedish Barabbas,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p4; “Lagerkvist, Nobel Winner, Assigns Son To Rome As Watchman on Barabbas,” Variety, December 14, 1960, p17; advert, Variety, January 4, 1961, p71; “Barabbas Budget over $10,000,000,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p3; “Dino De Laurentiis No 1 Indie Producer?,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p24;  “Figure $17,500 for Off-Broadway Barabbas,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p71; advert, Variety, April 26, 1961, p71; “Becket Got 37½G On Quinn’s Exit,” Variety, May 3, 1961, p83;  “Becket Folds As 40G Sleeper; Had Seemed Prestige-Only Flop,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p59; “Quinn Back To Work in Barabbas,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p17;  “No Time To Fiddle in Rome,” Variety, November 15, 1961, p1; “To Write Barabbas Dialog,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, pW6; “Canada Coin,” Variety, March 21, 1962, p40; “Barabbas Exhibits Start Key City Tour,” Box Office, March 26, 1962, pE8; “Barabbas London Event: New York Date Oct 10,” Box Office, June 11, 1962, p14; “Barabbas Premiere Set For Oct 4 in Toronto,” Box Office, July 23, 1962, pE8; “Hard Cover Book to Ballyhoo Barabbas,” Box Office, July 30, 1962, p10; “Palance Back, Try Directing,” Variety, October 17, 1963, p3; “Big Barabbas Float,” Box Office, January 4, 1963, pA1; advert, Variety, January 23, 1963, p27; “Barabbas at Eight,” Box Office, February 18, 1963, pK2;  “Lenten Angle for Barabbas Date,” Variety, March 13, 1963, p17; “Top Rental Features of 1963,” Variety, June 8, 1964, p37.

Barabbas (1961) ****

Brutally ironic ending adds a final twist to this religious epic that sheds a murky rather than heavenly light on the early days of Christianity. Barabbas (Anthony Quinn), in case you are unaware, is the criminal who, in a public vote, is spared crucifixion instead of Jesus Christ. Intent on returning to his lusty life, instead he finds himself drawn to the teachings of the Son of God despite his feverish attempts to deny it. Death might have been preferable to two decades spent imprisoned in the sulphur mines followed by a stint as gladiator only, finally refusing to deny his conversion, he ends up on a cross.

The fate of Barabbas in the Bible is undetermined, only meriting a few lines, but in the imagination of Swedish novelist Par Laverkvist he lived quite an extraordinary life, a criminal vagabond coming to believe in what he originally despised.  The religious element is almost an excuse to investigate life at the edge of a pauper’s existence, a world in which faith is possibly the only way to get through the day. It’s an episodic tale with Barabbas as a Job-like peasant on whom constant indignity and humiliation is heaped.

A witness at times to the most exalted elements of Christianity – the eclipse surrounding the crucifixion, the stone rolled away from the tomb – he also sees lover Rachel (Silvana Mangano), a Christian convert, stoned to death. It’s a miracle he survives imprisonment in the mines and that when, thanks to an earthquake, he escapes it’s almost bitter irony that he ends up in gladiator school, facing the demonically sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance). Even when pardoned, he is again arrested for, believing the end of the world is nigh as described in the Christian teachings, helping burn Rome to the ground. Arrest this time sends him back to where he started, heading for crucifixion, though this time willingly.

Anthony Quinn (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) is excellent as the dumb, mostly mystified peasant, only occasionally rising to the occasion, mostly defeated, or captured, and failing to defend those he should protect. Not entirely cowardly, witness his battle in the arena, but self-serving, and in a sense cursed by events outside his control.

Others are only briefly in the spotlight, Silvana Mangano (Five Branded Women, 1960) good as the converted Christian accepting her fate, ditto Vittorio Gassman (Ghosts of Rome, 1961) as an enemy prisoner in the mines, and Jack Palance (Once a Thief, 1965) over-the-top as the kingpin gladiator. In cameo roles – not exactly the promised all-star cast – you can find Ernest Borgnine (Chuka, 1967), Arthur Kennedy (Claudelle Inglish, 1961), Katy Jurado (A Covenant with Death, 1967), Valentina Cortese (The Visit, 1964) and Harry Andrews  (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968).

Director Richard Fleischer (The Big Gamble, 1961) does a brilliant job of keeping reverence at bay, turning the potential awe of the eclipse into a moment of personal terror, ensuring that current persecution rather than potential eternal life remains foremost, focusing on the human not the ethereal. He presents Barabbas as constantly mystified at his escape, guilt-ridden that he has done nothing with his life, thwarted in virtually every attempt at redemption.

The big scenes are well-handled, the sulphur mines a pit of Hell, the arena far more realistic than Spartacus (1960), the burning of Rome that initially represents freedom turning into a trap. Filmed in Technirama 70mm, Fleischer makes the most of the widescreen and the historical detail.

In some respects this makes more sense if viewed alongside the director’s crime triptych of Compulsion (1959), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1970) which concentrate on outsiders coming to national attention through illicit activity.

Far from the usual stodgy religious offerings of the period, more in keeping with a Pasolini-like vision, with a keener eye on history than creed, it’s been rather overlooked and deserves reappraisal.

Christopher Fry (The Bible…in the Beginning, 1966) was credited with the screenplay from the book by the Nobel prize-winning novelist Par Laverkvist.

The Demon / Il Demonio (1963) *****

I was riveted. This is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Highly under-rated and largely dismissed for not conforming to audience expectation that horror pictures should involve full moons, castles, darkness, fog, costumes, nubile cleavage-exposing female victims, graveyards, a male leading character, shocks to make a viewer gasp, and the current trend for full-on gore.

So if that’s what you’re looking for, give this a miss. Even arthouse critics, spoiled by striking pictures by the Italian triumvirate of Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni, were equally scornful. For the most part the action takes place in broad daylight, rather than the twilight and darkness beloved of Hollywood (and British) horror.

It is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains, where farming is so primitive the soil is tilled with horse and plough and water is collected in buckets from the river.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is that it creates its own unique universe. The townspeople are both highly religious and deeply superstitious, every traditional Catholic ceremony matched by old-fashioned ritual. Even some of the formal traditions seem steeped in ancient belief, sinners marching up a steep hill with people being scourged or carrying a heavy rock, in a convent the tree of a suicide covered in barbed wire.

Less conformist notions include a wedding night rite involving shoving a scythe under the bed to cut short Death’s legs with the bedspread covered in grapes to soak up evil and discord arranged in the form of a cross to act as bait for bad thoughts and poison them before they can cause the couple harm. When the people run through the town brandishing torches it is not, as would be genre tradition, to set fire to a castle but to vanquish evil from the air.

It is filmed in austere black-and-white. In the Hollywood Golden Era of black-and-white movies, lighting and make-up transformed heroines, rich costumes enhanced background. Here, if the heroine is wearing make-up it’s not obvious and the only clothes worth mentioning are a priest’s robes or a plain wedding dress. Otherwise the most arresting feature is the stark brightness against which the black-dressed figure of the heroine Puri (Daliah Lavi) scuttles about.

And although there are no jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, there are moments that will linger on in your mind, not least the heroine enduring a vicious extended beating from her father, an exorcism that turns into rape and the sight, Exorcist-fans take note, of a spider-walk, the young woman’s torso thrust up high on elongated arms and legs. Virtually the entire success of the picture relies on atmosphere and in places it is exquisitely subtle, the audience only realizes she has been raped, for example, by the look on her face.

The picture opens with a dialogue-free scene of stunning audacity, foreshadowing the idea from the start that image is everything. Puri pierces her chest with a needle, cuts off a chunk of her hair to mop up the blood, throws the hair into the oven and rams the crisp remains into a loaf of bread. Not to be consumed as you might imagine, but as a tool of transport.

Shortly after, having failed to seduce Antonio (Frank Wolff), she tricks him into drinking wine infused with the ashes of her bloodied hair, bewitching him, so she believes, to abandon his betrothed. In an echo of a Catholic sacrament she shouts, “You have drunk my blood and now you will love me, whether you want to or not.” 

The next morning when collecting water at the river she has a conversation with a boy Salvatore only to discover he has just died, his death blamed on her because his last words were a request for water, which she is judged to have denied him. She is beaten by women. She is feared by everyone in the village, her family tainted with the same brush, wooden crosses nailed to their door. She is not a ghostly figure, flitting in and out of the townspeople’s lives, an apparition tending towards the invisible, but fully formed, highly visible in her black dress and anguished expression, doomed by often vengeful action and forceful word.

Much of the film involves Puri being beaten or chased or captured, at one point trussed up like a hog. Attempts to exorcise her, whether by pagan or Catholic means, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Giuseppe involves blowing on a mirror before taking on sexual aspects which culminate in rape. The Catholic version in a church in front of her family is primarily, as it would be in The Exorcist, a duel between the priest and whatever possesses her.

Movie producers who took one look at the beauty of Palestinian-born Daliah Lavi (Blazing Sand, 1960) and thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure and that stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969) should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her astonishing acting ability.

And much as I have enjoyed such films, I doubt if I could watch them again without thinking what a waste of a glorious talent. This is without doubt a tour de force, as she alternatively resists possession and adores the being who has taken hold of her mind. She dominates the screen.

The rest of the mostly male cast is dimmed in comparison, as if overawed by the power of her personality. Future spaghetti western veteran Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Fellini. He made few films, none matching this in scope or imagination, perhaps as a result of the picture not receiving the praise it deserved. Even now it does not have a single critical review on Rotten Tomatoes.

One other point: you may have noticed that in general the proclivities of male horror characters are never in need of psychological explanation. Nobody considers that the Wolfman must have suffered from childhood trauma or that a vampire drinks blood because he was a rejected suitor. Strangely enough, as would be the case in The Exorcist and other instances of female possession, psychiatry is usually the first port of call and here all reviews I have read implicitly see Puri’s actions as based on sexual inhibition and rejection by Antonio. 

You would need to chase up a secondhand copy to find this, I’m afraid.

The Spy in The Green Hat (1966) ***

Unable to compete with the influx of big budget espionage pictures, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. throws in the action towel and comes out fighting as a comedy, and a more preposterous storyline you would be hard to find. As if spoofing a genre it helped create, our intrepid heroes find themselves in captivity one way or another, outwitted by a posse of retired Mafia hoods or sadistic females.

Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) can’t even manage a chase, crashing the car in pursuit of former Nazi scientist Dr Von Kronen (Ludwig Donath). The trail leads to Sicily where Solo, again incapacitated, meets the sultry Pia (Leticia Roman) and as a result of a romantic misunderstanding is forced into a shotgun wedding in Chicago by her Mafia uncles, the famed Stilletto Brothers.

Meanwhile, Kuryakin makes the acquaintance of the deliciously sadistic Miss Diketon (Janet Leigh), assistant and masseuse to highly nervous Thrush boss Louis Strago (Jack Palance). The action finally shifts to the Gulf Stream, where Pia is imprisoned and the usual missiles are set to be launched in the presence of head Thrush honcho Mr Thaler (Will Kuluva) in the usual global takeover scenario.

Abandoning any attempt at serious drama, this is just a hoot, a score of sight and visual gags, references to Little Caesar and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre abound. Any time one of our heroes needs speedy access to a villain hideout along comes a guard to be bumped off and uniform purloined. Solo caught hiding under Pia’s bed is let off when discovered by a Thrush operative because he’s not the Uncle agent they are looking for. Not only is Solo constantly whacked over the head, but Kuryakin ends up as the plaything of Miss Diketon.  

Solo and Kuryakin look as if they stepped onto someone else’s parade, trying to keep the narrative on an even keel, while the Mafia gang and Thrush personnel effectively play it for laughs. Pia has Wanted posters of her uncles on her wall on the assumption they are just wonderful guys. Von Kronen gets the hots for Miss Diketon because he admires her skill at torture, although a spurned Miss Diketon turns traitor leading Kuryakin to mutter to Solo when all three meet, “I brought Lucrezia Borgia, you brought the Mafia.”

What makes it work so well are the fabulous performances of the supporting cast. Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966), completely playing against type, still a villain sure, is a masochistic sweaty bag of nerves. Janet Leigh (Psycho, 1960) camps it up as the deadlier-than-the-male luscious female, dress slit at the thigh to reveal a hidden knife, whose pulse races at the mere thought of the cruelty she can inflict and the slower the better.  Will Kuluva (To Trap a Spy, 1964) is a bonus, the boss who just wants to party and has no idea of the technicalities of firing a missile.

Nobody even bothers to dress it up any more. The missiles look like something you would buy your kid for Xmas, the backdrops are as fake as anything on a backlot. But somehow it all works, as long as you weren’t expecting the original take on The Man from Uncle. And even so, director Joseph Sargent (One Spy Too Many, 1966) adds a few dabs of genuine cinematic icing, characters viewed from the ground-up, a fist fight that’s either in slo-mo or speeded-up freeze frame, the wife (Joan Blondell) of one of the Stiletto Brothers receiving a grapefruit in the mush.

After watching the original movie which came up better than expected in terms of action and spy malarkey, the last thing I anticipated that this would be headed in an entirely different direction. When that quickly became obvious, I feared the worst. Instead, I enjoyed a fun 90 minutes.

Of course, this wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S. just abroad with some added sex and violence, an expanded version, and in color, of a double black-and-white episode of the television series.   

Anzio / The Battle for Anzio (1968) ***

Seems you couldn’t make a moive about defeat in the 1960s, you had to find something in the story that sounded victorious. Although the Allied landings at Anzio in January 1944 eventually led to the liberation of Rome, the whole operation was a mess. So instead of concentrating on outnumbered American and British troops being pounded to pieces on the beaches, director Edward Dmytryk (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) opts for the men-on-a-mission angle.   

Somewhat bizarre is the insertion of war correspondent Ennis (Robert Mitchum) into the story. Sure, because he’s not going to get busted for insubordination, he can challenge and/or lambast fictional commanding officers General Carson (Robert Ryan) and Major General Lasky (Arthur Kennedy) but it seems odd that he goes around spreading anti-war sentiment when the people escorting him are in serious danger of ebing killed. On the plus side are three sequences depicting the brutal reality of war in a way that no other picture of the period dared.

After landing unopposed Laskey decides not to risk moving forward, leaving his troops open to being trapped by advancing Germans even though Ennis, after commandeering a jeep, managed to reach Rome with encountering any opposition.

A Ranger battalion is sent to scout the surrounding countryside and the movie chooses to concentrate on a small platoon unit within that, headed by Sgt Stimmler (Earl Holliman) and including the fun-loving Corporal Rabinoff (Peter Falk), the kind of guy who spends the night before the landing entertaining three sex workers in the back of stolen ambulance who are of course desperate to learn the words to “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”

After the Rangers are cut to pieces at the Battle of Cisterna, the unit escapes through a minefield, discovers a massive German construction site, holes up in house with three Italian women, is pinned down by snipers in a field of shell-holes and finally makes it back.

American tropps being slaughtered at Cisterna is a helluva note as the movie switches tack from exposing leadership folly to just getting the platoon out of this mess. Pursued by a flame-throwing Panzer, they pick their way through a minefield using the quite clever device of lobbing onto it large chunks of stone and then walking across on the stones as if crossing a dangerous river.

Wanting to find out more about the mysterious construction work results in Ennis causing the death of one of the gang. When they hide out in the Italian house, eventually killing off investigating Germans, the naïve Ennis wants to take the women with them.

Bit of marketing sleight-of-hand. Slinging a whole bunch of faces at the bottom of a poster was shorthand for all-star cast, which this picture definitely lacked.

Trapped by snipers in open country, they are being picked off one by one with only clever tricks and sacrifice offering a way out. One of the notions is to throw a fake grenade the snipers’ way. The instant reaction to any soldier to an incoming grenade is to get the hell out of the way, turning themselves into a turkey shoot. But the only other way to entice the snipers to reveal themselves is for the soldiers to take turns in presenting themselves as targets.

One of the ongoing themes of the picture is Ennis refusing to bear arms, and although the trailer shows him blasting away with a machine gun that only occurs at this climax when he seizes the weapon from a dead German. Ennis is an odd character for a war picture. None of the soldiers can believe anyone would not just volunteer to participate in a bloody war but carry nothing to defend themselves with. It’s a bit tiresome to hear him being reminded that he doesn’t have to be here, and to turn down the offer or a rifle or a grenade.

And for a non-combatant he’s not exactly uninvolved in strategic matters. A couple of times, as if he’s the most entitled grunt you ever came across, he virtually assumes command, barking orders that the others obey. Admittedly, it’s his cleverness that gets them through the minefield, but it’s his stupidity that gets others killed and to have him pontificating at the end that men go to war “because they like it” is incredibly facile, although in keeping with the anti-Vietnam sentiments of the time (1968, that is, not 1944).

Rabinoff, the only other character about whom we learn anything, is unfortunately on the preposterous side.

While the movie is far from dire, and as I said, very realistic when in portraying war actuality, it’s not the picture I guess audiences expected. While the scene-stealing of Peter Falk (Penelope, 1966) gets in the way, Robert Mitchum (5 Card Stud, 1968) proves an interesting character, although he is also laden down by having to spout a bunch of dumb lines. Arthur Kennedy (Fantastic Voyage, 1966) is the pick, especially at the end facing up to the ignominy of being relieved of command.

This kind of movie is potentially a breakout for the supporting cast. But here, with the exception of Falk, the script lets them down, nobody given the kind of distinctive characterisation that elevated The Dirty Dozen (1967), for example, above the norm. Apart from Earl Holliman (The Power, 1968) and Italian Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) this was not a career-making movie. You can spot Mark Damon (Dead Men Don’t Count, 1968), Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange, 1971), Anthony Steel (The Story of O, 1975), Rene Santoni (Guns of the Magnificent Seven, 1969), Wolfgang Preiss (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965)  and Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge, 1965).

Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965) does a reasonable job with the materials to hand, and the minefield and sniper scenes are first class. Italian veteran Duilio Coletti (Under Ten Flags, 1960) directed the Italian version though I’ve no idea what that was, or if it differed in any way from the Dmytryk cut. Coletti also had a hand in fashioning the screenplay along with H.A.L. Craig (Fraulein Doktor, 1969), Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose, 1977) and Giuseppe Mangione (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968).

Hannibal (1960) ***

Inconvenient truth never bothered Hollywood scriptwriters when it came to history and here the prospect of solving the “Great Hannibal Mystery” proved irresistible. For in 218 B.C. this invader from Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) had crossed the Alps, battered the Roman army into submission and had Rome at his mercy. But one of the greatest generals of all time did not attack Rome. Why? Love was the answer, according to the filmmakers, following the Romeo and Juliet template.  

I have to admit I didn’t have that on my mind. I was seduced by the poster, the involvement of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, 1934), the prospect of an action-packed adventure with marauding elephants and the fact that although familiar with the name Hannibal I had no idea who he was and why he crossed the Alps when surely it would have easier to take a ship from Tunisia to Italy. But I guess star Victor Mature (Samson and Delilah, 1949) was also duped into thinking that if an American nobody like Steve Reeves (Hercules, 1958) could make it big in Italy then so could surely the original Hollywood Mr. Muscles. Mixing the new-look sword-and-sandals genre with the old-style historical epic appeared a potential winner. But I should have guessed that the lean running time of 103 minutes meant an “epic” was out of the question.

The British Trade Descriptions Act would have a field day with the way the posters promoted the elephants. The much-vaunted “army” is scarcely seen in battle and the great beasts looked more cuddly than anything, striding along linked trunk-to-tail.

The picture does take a good while to warm up although the movie begins with a sense of the epic, otherwise how to explain the 15 minutes before Hannibal hoves into view, the preceding period of invaders crossing the Alps short of dramatic incident beyond a couple of men falling to their deaths and the elephants becoming a bit restive. Endless lines of soldiers, in this case stretching into the snowbound horizon, almost becomes a motif, too much valuable time wasted on too many marches.  

Hannibal turns out to be a clever commander, wanting to conquer Rome more by fear than battle, reckoning that if the Italians believed he possessed an unstoppable force they would rush to the negotiating table rather than engage in open battle and risk the destruction of their cities. He sends the captured niece Sylvia (Rita Gam) of Senator Fabius (Gabriele Ferzetti) back to her uncle with frightening tales. This doesn’t fool Fabius who views the woman as a traitor and realizes the pitfalls of surrender. Hannibal and Sylvia getting it together causes discord not just in Rome but in the Carthaginian camp, the delay in attacking the city put down to their romantic dalliance.   

The initial battle scenes come up short, presented primarily in montage, little snippets of fighting here and there, rather than opposing forces facing each other, no sign either of elephants striking terror into the hearts of their opponents. But the later battle more than recompenses. One of the greatest assets of historical and war pictures is the detail given over to strategy. And if filmed properly, you can see plans executed. Hannibal demonstrates his genius by drawing the main Roman phalanxes into a trap, attacking them from both sides and forcing them back towards a river from which there is no escape. Superbly filmed, it’s a bloody conflict (for movies of the period), arms hacked off, faces and bodies weeping with blood. There’s a tragic end to the romance.

Oh, and by the way, Hannibal loses an eye – but it’s not in battle but from conjunctivitis.

I should point out, having done my own digging, but there was a sounder reason than love for Hannibal not advancing on Rome. Simply put, he lacked the machinery to do it. The only way to conquer a city was by siege and to achieve that you needed siege machines which Hannibal lacked. But no matter how much he later tried to draw the Roman armies into the open, he was denied that opportunity by the wily Fabius who, instead, waged a war of attrition.

Hannibal was, in fact, an irritant to Rome for a decade, so this tale is heavily truncated. Although the tale of the strong man brought to his knees by passion is a Hollywood trope – look no further than Samson and Delilah – the lovers fail to strike the necessary sparks, in part because initially Hannibal views Sylvia merely as a tool to achieve a political end and in part because their time together is too limited. This is no grand passion in the vein of Doctor Zhivago (1965).

And that’s a shame because despite (or perhaps because of) his muscles, Victor Mature was no slouch in the romantic sweepstakes, having dallied in the past with the like of Janet Leigh (Safari, 1956), Susan Hayward (Demetrius and the Gladiators, 1954) and Jane Russell (Las Vegas Story, 1952). Here, Mature is better as a leader than a lover. The svelte Rita Gam (The Thief, 1952) – first wife of director Sidney Lumet –  was the opposite of the more voluptuous Italian screen queens of the Sophia Loren/Gina Lollobrigida variety and her career had not really taken off, only eight films prior to Hannibal and only two in the next decade. Paradoxically, she is better battling her uncle and accepting her fate than a woman in the grip of passion.

Gabriele Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) makes the most of a complex character. Look out for Rik Battaglia (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) as Hannibal’s brother and, as Fabius’s son, Terence Hill (God Forgives…I Don’t, 1967) and in a smaller role his future sidekick Bud Spencer.   

Directorial credit was split between Ulmer and Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia  (Amazons of Rome, 1961) with Mortimer Braus (The Son of Dr Jekyll, 1951), Sandro Continenza (The Inglorious Bastards, 1978) and Ottavia Poggi (Queen of the Nile, 1961) involved in the screenplay.

The Honey Pot (1967) ***

Shave 20-30 minutes from this and you would have had a taut thriller. You could start with the number of clever dicks who happen to notice that what’s going on bears a close resemblance to a play Volpone by Shakespeare contemporary Ben Johnson, even down to the anglicizing of the names of those fictional characters. And prune the number of detectives, three is two too many especially when there’s an actual genuine detective in the mix. And the shock ending is just…well…mince.

Otherwise, quite fun in a way. Wealthy Cecil Fox (Rex Harrison) hires sometime actor, sometime factotum, law graduate Marty McFly – oops William McFly – to help him pull off an elaborate joke, “people-baiting”, a modern version of “bear-beating” apparently. Fox pretends to be dying in order to bring three former lovers, all he presumes desperate to be named in his will, to his bedside in a grand palazzo in Venice. Upfront reason, some kind of revenge. Hidden reason, something darker obviously.

The trio are Texan Mrs Sheridan (Susan Hayward), movie star Merle (Edie Adams) and Princess Dominique (Capucine). Sheridan is accompanied by a nurse Sarah (Maggie Smith), the “voice of morality.” They all certainly seem to have a sense of humor. Two presenting Fox with gifts of clocks, the princess with an hour-glass filled with gold dust instead of sand, presumably with the notion that he can watch his life ticking away. Needless to say, this is like an reality TV show, Fox not having named an heir in his will, so they are all battling to be the heir, and as he points out, even the rich will succumb because there is no such thing as “enough money.”

Things do not go according to plan when Sheridan unexpectedly dies. Enter Inspector Rizzo (Adolfo Celi). Sarah suspects McFly because he used her as an alibi but disappeared for a time when she (for unexplained reasons) fell asleep in a posh restaurant (and nobody tried to wake her). Turning detective herself, she comes up with “proof positive.” Turns out the two remaining suspects had conspired to also give themselves an alibi, easily demolished by the kindly inspector. McFly, too, has been doing some digging.

But then comes another twist and everything you thought you knew flies out the window. Cue more investigation, more alibis and finally an Agatha Christie pay-off when the two amateur detectives and the real one confront everyone in the drawing room. By which time the twists are coming thick and fast.

Best thing about this is the playing. Although decidedly stagey, very little in the way of visual audacity, that works to the movie’s benefit, and not a bad choice to rely so heavily on the acting given the cast. With the exception of Edie Adams, Capucine and Celi, all were Oscar anointed. Two winners – Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady (1964) and Susan Hayward for I Want to Live (1958) – and between them another five nominations – and two future winners in Cliff Robertson for Charly (1968) and Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The others were not out of their depth, Edie Adams (Made in Paris, 1966) clocking up Emmy nominations. Adolfo Celi (In Search of Gregory, 1969) a deuce of nominations from the Cannes Film Festival while even Capucine (The 7th Dawn, 1964) had been nominated for a Golden Globe.  

So director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, 1964) makes the right decision to let his actors get on with. Rex Harrison is at his suave best, but with a malevolent undercurrent, and has most of the best – and zestiest – lines. Robertson, usually the hero, is sly and duplicitous. Susan Hayward was in her comfort zone, forthright and taking no prisoners, Capucine at her cold and haughty best. Smith and Celi were the revelations, the former losing the trademark drawl and the nurse’s mousiness as to some extent she exerts control, and Celi departing from the bombast and delivering a lower-keyed performance.

Doing double duty, Mankiewicz worked up the script from three sources: the original Volpone,  the play Mr Fox of Venice by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder) and a novel The Evil of the Day by Thomas Sterling. Next time the director went to the stage for inspiration he chose a better source for a mystery – Sleuth (1972).

Behind the Scenes: “The Bridge at Remagen” (1969)

A million-and-a-half dollars potentially went down the drain when, thanks to the Russian invasion two months into production, producer David L. Wolper had to shift location shooting of World War Two picture The Bridge at Remagen from Czechoslovakia to Italy and Germany. Actors and crew woke up on August 21, 1968, to find their hotel surrounded by Russian tanks. Only quick action saw 80 personnel ferried in a taxi convoy through the only remaining open checkpoint to the airport, their departure coinciding with the arrival of the Russian paratroopers.

This had not been the first international incident for the movie, based on the destruction of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remagen in Germany. Previously, Wolper had been accused of being a C.I.A. spy and reports were circulating that armaments were being brought in to support Czech leader Dubcek while rumours flew of “busloads of American troops…arriving in Prague disguised as tourists and film technicians.” Matters were so bad that the Czech army placed under lock and key the film’s entire TNT and dynamite inventory amounting to over 6,000 sticks of the former and 800lb of the latter.

Ben Gazzara and George Segal open fire.

Small wonder the Russians were alarmed because the production had arrived with a massive cache of weaponry – an inventory over 1,000 pieces strong – including eight Sherman tanks and over 130 Browning and Thompson machine guns, MI rifles and carbines and Colt pistols as well as 300 dummy rifles. Luckily, most of the film’s battle scenes action had been completed when production was interrupted but that still meant a month of interiors and exteriors.  

Wolper was something of a Johnny-come-lately to the Remagen scene. Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, 1954), who had fought at Remagen, and his brother Stuart were first into the frame, planning in 1958 to film for Warner Brothers Ken Hechler’s 1957 bestseller on the battle, as a follow-up to their first production, Wind Across the Everglades (1958). Stanley Kubrick was being lined up to direct. When WB bowed out the Schulberg Brothers moved it first to Columbia and then United Artists.  When that gamble failed to come off, United Artists assigned Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961) as director but that also hit the buffers. Although Wolper started work developing a treatment in 1965 – Irvin Kershner in his mind as director – he had Ihe had to deal with another contender in Flaum and Grinberg Productions which in 1966 announced this as their debut production.

Wolper had come to movies on the back of documentaries. Using his Metromedia outfit as an umbrella, he had struck a six-picture deal with United Artists. The first movie had been the documentary Four Days in November (1964). But the next was intended to be a “plotted dramatic film based on fact with a big star cast” known at the time as The Remagen Bridge. From the outset this was seen as a “harsh recreation of actual slogging combat with some four letter words and not a glorification of war but underlining its hellishness.”

In the event, this was overtaken on the Wolper schedule by another war movie The Devil’s Brigade (1968). Further pictures planned were Europe U.S.A. (a.k.a. If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium, 1968) and All the Conquerors (never made). Wolper had also in 1965 purchased the source material for The Green Beret, that proved to be a war movie too far and the project ended up with Warner Brothers and John Wayne.

After Roger Hirson delivered a story treatment for Wolper in 1965, the screenplay of The Bridge at Remagen went through the hands of Richard Yates, paid $25,000, the uncredited Ted Strauss (a Wolper executive with writing credits on documentaries) and Sam Watson who stiffened the treatment, with input from Wolper determined to “reinforce the image of Michaels (Segal) as one of the walking dead.”

While veteran William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) finalized many of the film’s elements, Wolper also turned to Ray Rigby (Operation Crossbow, 1965) to “deepen the characters and create scenes with more punch” and Rod Serling (another $25,000). But Hirson could lay claim to setting up the movie’s dynamic. “This is the story of two men and a bridge,” he wrote. Initially, the American was called Earl Ammerman then Floyd Love before hitting on Michaels and finally Hartman, although that first name went from Curt to Vic to Phil.  The German originally Hans Heller transitioned to Major Krueger, based on the real-life Hans Scheller. 

Early drafts contained references to German secret weapons, a chaplain, a group of Polish sex workers and a brief glimpse of the woman (Anna Gael) at the end. Anthony Hopkins, then unknown, and Robert Vaughn were considered for the role of Major Krueger. Vaughn could read German and had an Oscar nomination and was a leading television star. George Segal faced no competition for his starring role, having already been in uniform for King Rat (1965). But Alex Cord (Stagecoach, 1966) declined a supporting role and Robert Blake (Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, 1969) was considered

Filming on the original Rhine bridge was no longer possible given it had fallen ten days after the battle. Depending on which report you read, finding a replacement took around three years or 18 months or maybe just six months and involved a global search. One usable bridge was found in Washington State but with bare hillsides rather than town and mountain. John Frankenheimer on The Fixer (1968) had set a precedent for filming behind the Iron Curtain by using Budapest in Hungary to represent Russia.

Robert Vaughn about to open fire.

Not far from Prague in what was then known as Czechoslovakia the production unit alighted on the Davle road bridge, and struck a deal in October 1967. It was almost a perfect match for Ludendorff once towers had been added at either end, the bridge itself raised by 14ft and been augmented for authenticity by wooden and steel girders. To complete the transformation an 80ft tunnel was blasted out of the surrounding mountains. And a false church, another key scene, was built on a hill.

For $20,000 Wolper also bought a village called Most which the government had marked for demolition, allowing him to blow up designated buildings in a three-square block, providing the location for a key sequence in which the town was devastated by tank bombardment. (As I mentioned in my review, the collapse of these buildings looked incredibly real, and no wonder given they were not plaster-and-lathe imitations but genuine stone.)

Prague’s Barrandov Studios supplied 188 crew, up to 5,000 extras, interiors and transport. As part of the deal Czech labs would carry out the processing but not the synching or mixing. The decision to shoot in Czechoslovakia was primarily financial. Wolper reckoning shooting there could be done for $3.5 million, saving the production an estimated $2 million-$2.5 million if filmed in Hollywood. For the Czechs The Bridge at Remagen was a “test situation.” Should the country’s movie industry prove amenable to Hollywood it could result in an influx of hard currency and a stampede of U.S. productions. Already The Reckoning was heading for Bratislava.

Ironically, the success of a Communist-ruled country like Czechoslavakia in embracing Hollywood business lay in its acceptance of capitalism. It was ironic that what Wolper demanded of his  Czech counterparts would have been impossible to achieve in a democratic country. “No western society could suspect traffic from a public thorough fare for three months to benefit a private enterprise.” Motorists were forced to use a temporary ferry and river traffic was held whenever required.

Englishman John Guillermin, a World War Two veteran, was hired on the basis of World War One picture The Blue Max (1966). That he had completed A New Face in Hell (1968) by the time shooting began was a bonus. Vaughn credited Guillemin with the film’s success. “I think he did a lot of research to make it more than just another war movie.”

George Segal concurred, “That was a movie constructed by John Guillermin and cinematographer Stanley Cortez. They shot a war and Guillermin made sense out of it – the angles were so dramatic….It was an epic… (P.J./A New Face in Hell) was a tough-as-nails movie at that time and I knew that’s what Remagen needed…Developing the war-weary character of Hartman was a little bit of me and a little bit of working it out with Guillermin…He brought so much texture to it that you fed off him and his attitudes and the way he conducted himself… Very focused, very concentrated, Guillermin was very economical in his shooting…He was a great influence on me in that film because I was the one who had to take charge and he demonstrated to me how to take charge.”

There was another side to Guillermin that almost caused him to be fired. “He was kind of a martinet,” explained Vaughn, “but I got along very well with him.” Added Segal, “I know sometimes he was implacable and I know that Wolper had problems with him.” That was putting it mildly. “The first day of shooting,” recalled Bo Hopkins, “John Guillermin hollered so loud his veins stuck out.” But when Guillermin attempted to bar Wolper from the set for a complicated battle scene, the producer promptly fired him. “When he realized I was serious,” Wolper recollected, “he apologized so I rescinded his firing. But I wasn’t kidding. Without that apology, he would have been gone. I had learned early that, as a producer, you have to be tough and you have to be tough right away.”

That it was truly a war out there can be judged from the armoury. The rolling stock came courtesy of the Austrian army by way of a sale from the U.S. in 1947. These included eight M-24 Chaffee tanks, three M-3 half-tracks, three M-8 armoured cars, eight 2½ ton trucks and six jeeps. The German actors and extras were armed with 250 Mauser rifles, 28 M-P machine guns, 14 P-38 pistols, 14 Lugers and eight Bren machine guns on top of four 88mm anti-aircraft guns, eight troop carriers and a dozen assorted armoured vehicles. In total the picture drummed up 150,000 rounds of ammunition, and in addition to the TNT and dynamite consignment mentioned above over three tons of smoke-producing powder.

The German and American stories were filmed separately, with little crossover between the two units. Remagen battle tank veteran Col Cecil E. Roberts, retired, oversaw the training of extras as U.S. and German soldiers. Hal Needham took charge of the stunts.

Part of the Czech Hollywood education was understanding the hospitality needs of the stars. Usually for a long shoot abroad, principals would be lodged in private houses, but here the 35 most important personnel were pup up in hotels. To the Czech way of thinking “deluxe hostelry was inappropriate” was actors who would be playing tough soldiers so the worst of the modern hotels, The International, was where many ended up.

The mollycoddled Hollywood contingent, wherever accommodated, found service uniformly slow, water supplies liable to vanish at short notice, no water at all one day, and drycleaning facilities that took two days. The normal contingent of wives had little confidence in the Czechs reaching the necessary standards. Janice Rule (Mrs Ben Gazzara) lasted three weeks before skipping off to Paris. Mrs Segal and her child remained in Switzerland for the duration. Although the three top stars dined each night Segal drank little on the grounds that “it interferes with my suffering.”

The stars were suddenly newsworthy when they became the first refugees from Czechoslovakia. Robert Vaughn and most of the world had expected a different outcome when Alexander Dubcek took over, a basic form of democracy heralded as the “Czech Spring.” Recalled the actor, “By the time we started filming (on June 6, 1968) it was a joyous time to be in Prague…the smiles (the public) wore and their exuberant anything-is-now-possible mood exemplified the socialism with a human face then making headlines the world over.” Ben Gazzara commented: “They were closing down the borders. If one of our people hadn’t called the U.S. Embassy we would have gone to the wrong border checkpoint, one already closed by the Russians.”  Gazzara smuggled out a local waitress. The taxi convoy was met at the border by a fleet of buses organized by Wolper.

Stuck with an incomplete movie, and having to come to terms with the volume of equipment  equipment left behind, Wolper took three weeks to reorganize. Most of the action sequences had been completed, but the vast arsenal borrowed from Austria would require substantial compensation if not returned. In addition, also lost were 40 reels of unprocessed colour negative worth $250,000 and crucial plates for rear projection work. In the end, the Russians were not willing to go to war with a Hollywood studio and returned 5,200 items of materiel, arms, costumes and film as well as 47 heavy-duty military vehicles straight to Vienna. .

Wolper found two locations to replicate the lost Dalve bridge – a crossing near Hamburg employed to represent the underside of the historic bridge for a key scene and at Castel Gandolfo close to Rome in Italy he built a half-scale replica. The addition of a small part of the bridge and a tunnel allowed the director to complete a number of vital sequences including when Hartman runs under enemy fire.

A second unit under the direction of William Kronick was permitted to return to Czechoslovakia to film 12,000 feet of “critical shots that couldn’t be duplicated.” These comprised long shots of the Germans trying to blow up the bridge and the eventual crossing of the bridge by 600 American soldiers – played by Czech Army personnel in the relevant uniform – and tanks and half-tracks. This was done, however, under the watchful eye of 500 armed Russian troops. Wolper had to pony up an extra $1 million for reconstructing sets originally used in Prague, for building the new bridge in Italy, for transport and for an extraq five weeks in salary.

“We defy anyone to identify what was shot near Prague and what was shot near Hamburg or outside Rome,” boasted Wolper (although in fact such mismatches provoked negative comment). He was especially proud of the scene of George Segal running across the bridge which was begun in Czechoslovakia nine weeks before it was completed at Castel Gandolfo on the reconstructed bridge. “You cannot tell the difference,” he said. Considering the unexpected interruption, he could be justifiably smug that the movie completed shooting in just 93 days.

Wolper had no illusions about the movie business and did not believe in the notion that any studio or producer possessed a magic touch, much though that was a line given out by any filmmaker enjoying a bout of success. “Audiences are very selective nowadays,” he said. “The moviegoer has an antenna that goes up if they like a film. If the antenna doesn’t go up nothing will drag him in.”

Wolper decide to launch the picture with an old-fashioned “local” world premiere. Ever since Cecil B. DeMille premiered The Buccaneer (1938) in New Orleans, this had turned into a major marketing device, with movies having first showings in a variety of small towns and cities all over America linked to a location shoot or birthplace of a star. The idea had long been out of fashion but since the original author was now a respected West Virginia Congressman, the movie premiered at the Keith-Albee cinema in Huntingdon, the mayor declaring a “Remagen Week” and tanks rolling through the streets as part of a publicity blitz.

By the time The Bridge at Remagen appeared, Wolper was a big-time indie producer, having  splashed out $500,000 pre-publication on John Updike’s Couples to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (never made). Also on his agenda were: The Confessions of Nat Turner to star James Earl Jones with first Norman Jewison at the helm then Sidney Lumet, an original screenplay by Mort Fine (The Pawnbroker, 1964) called The Blessed McGill, The Great Cowboy Race from a screenplay by Abe Ginnes, Three Women (renamed I Love My Wife, 1970) and King, Queen Knave (1972) based on the Nabokov novel.

It’s axiomatic of the vagaries of Hollywood for even the most successful producers that two of these films never saw the light of day. Wolper stopped making movies after 1972, concentrating on television mini-series and documentaries for over two decades before returning to Hollywood in triumph with L.A. Confidential (1997).

SOURCES:  Steven Jay Rubin, The Making of The Bridge at Remagen, Cinema Retro, Vol 12, Issue 33, pages 26-37 and Vol 12, Issue 34, pages 18-25; “Schulberg Next for WB Rhine Crossing Saga,” Variety, August 13, 1958, p7; “Schulberg Freres Will Roll Book by Congressman,” Variety, June 3, 1959, p7; “Rolling in Germany,” Variety, November 16, 1960, p5;  “Phil Karlson Will Direct Mirisch Film in Europe,” Box Office, Jul 26, 1961, pW4;  “Remagen Bridge As Plotted Film for UA,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p17; “Wolper Purchases Rights to Green Beret,” Box Office, July 5, 1965, pW2”; “Flaum and Grinberg Form Production Firm,” Box Office, May 30, 1966, pW1; “Wolper Forms New Company To Produce Features, “ Box Office, February 27, 1967, p5; “Borrow Span, Blow Up Town,” Variety, November 8, 1967, p7; “UA Signs Wolper for Couples Release,” Box Office, February 26, 1968, p5; “Representative Hechler Is Adviser on Bridge at Remagen,” Box Office, April 22, 1968, p8; “Czechs Learn Fast What Yanks location Wants,” Variety, July 3, 1968, p31; “E Germans: Remagen a C.I.A. Front,” Variety, August 14, 1968, p14; “Czechs Want Western Production,” Variety, August 21, 1968, p16 – astonishingly this story ran on the day the Czechs ended any chance of Western movie investment when the Russians invaded the country; “Remagen Crew Safe, Will Finish at Hamburg Studio Site,” Variety, August 28, 1968, p3; “Remagen Weapons List,” Variety, August 14, 1968, p14; “Actors Cross Borders in Nick of Time,” Box Office, September 2, 1968, p12, “Wolper Retreat From Prague Costs Him Vast Arsenal for Remagen,” Variety, September 25, 1968, p32;  “Remagen, 2nd Unit Shoots with USSR Troops Watching,” Variety, November 6, 1968, p2;  “Despite Reds Czech Invasion, Wolper Winds His Remagen,” Variety, November 27, 1968, p28; Advertisement, Variety, January 15, 1969, p33; Advertisement. “Bridge at Remagen, The  Incredible Log of the Motion Picture that Became An International Incident,” Variety, May 7, 1969, p132-133. “Audiences Still Puzzle for Producer David Wolper,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pWC2; “Photograph,” Box Office, August 18, 1968, pB2.

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