Morituri / Saboteur: Code Name Morituri (1965) ***

For a film that staggered around trying to find a plot to justify its tale of moral ambiguity during World War Two the final third is surprisingly potent. Featuring two good Germans and a bunch of bad Yanks ostensibly it’s a straightforward story of a saboteur trying to prevent a German cargo ship captain from scuttling his ship should it come under attack from the British determined to lay their hands on its vital supplies of rubber.

Supposed German pacifist Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) – actually a coward – hiding out in India is blackmailed by British Col Statter (Trevor Howard) into posing as a high-ranking SS officer on the German ship in order to prevent it being sunk by Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner). After his last command ended in drunken disgrace, Mueller assumes Crain has been sent to keep an eye on him. So Crain spends an almighty time down in the engine room and various below-decks spots defusing the wiring that would cause the ship to blow up at the touch of a button by the captain.

Mueller’s second-in-command Kruse (Martin Benrath) is suspicious of the cosmopolitan art-loving Crain but it’s a renegade band of criminals, led by Donkeyman (Hans Christian Blech) forced into armed service, who rumble Crain. But he talks them into mutiny. The ship avoids detection by disguising itself as a neutral Swedish freighter. Mueller’s attitude to Crain changes when the latter prevents him hitting the self-destruct button as a British destroyer seems poised to attack, changing its mind at the last minute.

Meanwhile, a group of American prisoners, from a ship sunk by a Japanese U-boat, come on board, including Jewess Esther (Janet Margolin). Surprisingly, Mueller steps up to the plate, protecting her from his crew, providing her with a private berth and permitting her to eat in the officer’s mess. On board the submarine are Admiral Wendel (Oscar Beregi), who commissioned Mueller, and a German counter-intelligence officer and, surprised to find Crain on the cargo ship, challenge him. Crain calls their bluff, but when the Admiral leaves he plans to radio Berlin to check Crain’s credentials, information passed on to Crain, who now has a very short deadline to organise mutiny, take over the ship and sail it to safety.

To do that, the mutineers require the support of the prisoners, a task detailed to Esther, who can only achieve that mission by surrendering her body to the prisoners, in much the same way as she has done previously to the Gestapo.

Mueller goes to pieces on hearing that his beloved son, also a ship’s captain, has been given a medal for sinking his fifth enemy vessel – only this time it is a hospital ship. After Mueller drinks himself unconscious, and Kruse assumes command, Crain fails to enlist Mueller to the mutiny which then begins. The surprise ending is both brutal and poetic.

But despite almost capsizing under the weight of an unwieldy cargo of plot and double-plot, the picture finally makes its points, that in war, ambiguity reigns. Mueller, who hates the Nazis but stoutly defends his Fatherland, proves to have the highest moral standards, agreeing to help Esther when they reach their destination, and preventing further molestation of her while aboard. Crain, purportedly the good German, has no compunction about sending Esther to do his dirty work, knowing the risks a sole woman faces in a hold of desperate sex-starved men. The good Yanks turn into rapists at the slightest opportunity, every bit as heinous in their depredations as their enemy.

That the movie stays afloat for so long is largely down to the excellence of Marlon Brando (The Chase, 1966) and Yul Brynner  (The Double Man, 1967). Brynner’s magisterial presence, chest out, legs apart, serves him well, and the ongoing duel with Brando is an acting treat, though Brynner has the best scene, the look of anguish on his face when he realises what his son has done. Brando, reprising the silky German accent of The Young Lions (1958), is very convincing as the dilettante pressed into service, negotiating his way round the recalcitrant Brynner, and living on his wits when faced with the criminals and then the  Admiral. And while Janet Margolin (Nevada Smith, 1966) is little more than a symbol, she invests the role with terrifying humanity, a woman reduced to being a sex object, utter submission her only way to achieve temporary reprieve. Most of her best acting is just with the look on her face.

In his Hollywood debut Martin Benrath appears just a standard German until his mask slips and we realise how much he covets the captain’s uniform. Wally Cox (The Bedford Incident, 1965) is another compromised by immoral behaviour, the doctor who steals the ship’s supply of morphine. Hans Christian Blech (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) excellent as a vengeful mutineer. You might also spot William Redfield (Fantastic Voyage, 1966). Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express) is only there at the outset.

Austrian director Bernhard Wicki (The Visit, 1964) does his best with a plot bursting at the seams, but the scenes of sabotage are well done, and he does recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of a ship, and the final sequence is worth waiting for. Daniel Taradash (Castle Keep, 1969) wrote the screenplay.  

Nevada Smith (1966) ****

Half breed Max Sand (Steve McQueen) has little truck with the notion that revenge is a dish best served cold. But he’s too young and raw, far from Lee Marvin’s callous killer in Point Blank (1969), to properly avenge the slaughter of his family by three outlaws.

This is a coming-of-age tale with a distinct difference. Max’s development includes, apart from initiation into sex of course, learning to read and write so he can make sense of signposts in order to track down the murderers and receiving tuition from gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) so that he can at least loose off some shots without doing himself damage. Vengeance burns so deep that he even stages a bumbled robbery so he can be sent to the prison where the second of his targets is incarcerated. Now that’s dedication for you. And along the way he learns the most important lesson of all, how to live, and not destroy himself through vengeance.

Even so, all Cord’s tuition counts for nought when Max needs a knife to dispatch his first victim Coe (Martin Landau). And he’s not yet so slick with a weapon to avoid serious injury himself. Kiowa saloon girl Neesa (Janet Margolin) nurses him back to health at her tribe’s camp. They become lovers but he rejects the wisdom of the elders and the opportunity to make a life with her.

Unfortunately, Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy)  is a jailbird. And worse, held prisoner in a swamp. Probably the worst bank robbery ever committed sends Nevada there. Max enrols another woman, Cajun Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) working in nearby rice fields – fraternisation between the jailbirds and these women permitted – to steal a boat to help him and Bowdre escape. Bowdre gets his and this time it’s Pilar who is the collateral damage.

A genuine outlaw now, Max has no trouble joining a band of robbers headed by Fitch (Karl Malden), the final prey. By now calling himself Nevada Smith, Max’s plans are thrown into confusion when it becomes apparent Fitch is aware of his true identity. A surprise ending is on the cards whichever way you cut it, and especially thrilling since it occurs during a well-planned gold bullion robbery.

It’s a film of two parts but divided into three if you like, the unusual swamp setting fitting in between two sections of more straightforward western. Though in the hands of director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969), there is little that’s so straightforward given his mastery of the widescreen and his hallmark extreme long shot. He’s capable of moving from the extreme violence of the vicious murder and rape of Max’s mother to the son’s discovery of the bodies shown just through Max’s physical reaction. And there’s some irony at play, too: gold triggers slaughter and climax; mental dereliction not as feared as its physical counterpart.

Although Hathaway was a true veteran, he was not best known for westerns in the manner of John Ford, more at home with film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947), war (The Desert Fox, 1951) and big-budget pictures like Niagara (1954) with Marilyn Monroe and Legend of the Lost (1957) teaming John Wayne and Sophia Loren. In a 30-year career he had only made three westerns of note – The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Rawhide (1951) and Garden of Evil (1954). So it was something of a surprise that in the 1960s over half his output was in the western genre. And unlike Ford and Howard Hawks who stuck to the formula of action within a defined community, Hathaway tended towards films of adventure, where the main character, often of a somewhat shady disposition, wandered far and wide.

Steve McQueen (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) carries the picture with some aplomb, moving deftly from the wet-behind-the-ears youngster to a clever and calculated killer and still retaining enough humanity to enjoy a romantic dalliance. There’s enough action here to satisfy McQueen’s fans spoiled by The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) and for those who had come to appreciate his acting plenty to enjoy. This and The Cincinnati Kid, where perforce as a poker player, he had to do a great deal of brooding, solidified his screen persona, a star you can’t keep your eyes off, wondering what on earth is going on in his mind. As much as he’s playing a character finding his feet, this is McQueen at very nearly the top of his game.

Brian Keith (The Rare Breed, 1966) is the pick of the support, adding a little softness to his usual more hard-nosed screen characters. The villains – Karl Malden (The Cincinnati Kid), Martin Landau (The Hallelujah Trail, 1965) and Arthur Kennedy (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) – are all good in their own different ways, and in the hands of excellent actors, easily differentiated. Suzanne Pleshette (Fate is the Hunter, 1964) shines in a too-brief role.

The sterling supporting cast includes Janet Margolin (Bus Riley’s Back in Town, 1965), Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968) and Raf Vallone (The Secret Invasion, 1964). John Michael Hayes (Harlow, 1965) fashioned the screenplay from The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins. 

Although Hollywood had been prone to sequels – Father’s Little Dividend (1951) following Father of the Bride (1950), Return to Peyton Place (1961), Return of the Seven (1966) etc – there had been no perceived market for prequels, so this was something of a first, Alan Ladd having essayed an older and considerably more sophisticated Nevada Smith in the 1964 film of Harold Robbins bestseller. 

Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965) ***

Given that Ann-Margret receives top billing I had automatically assumed she was the Bus Riley in question. Although decidedly the female lead, her role is secondary to that of a sailor returning to his small town. The backstory is that Bus – no explanation ever provided for this nickname, Buster perhaps? – Riley (Michael Parks) had been too young to marry the gorgeous Laurel (Ann-Margret) before he joined the U.S. Navy and in his absence she married an older wealthy man.  

Bus dithers over his future, re-engages with his mother and two sisters and finds he has not lost his attraction to Laurel. Although a handy mechanic, he has his eye on a white collar  career. An initial foray into becoming a mortician founders after sexual advances by his employer (Crahan Denton). Instead he is employed as a vacuum salesman by slick Slocum (Brad Dexter).  While his sister’s friend Judy (Janet Margolin) does catch his eye, she is hardly as forward or inviting as the sexy Laurel who crashes her car into his to attract his attention. But easy sex available with Laurel and the easy money from exploiting lonely housewives trigger a crisis of conscience.

Perhaps the most prominent aspect is the absence of good male role models. Bus is fatherless, his mother (Jocelyn Brando) taking in boarders to meet her financial burden – including the neurotic Carlotta (Brett Somers) – and while younger sister Gussie (Kim Darby) adores Bus the other sister Paula (Mimsy Farmer) is jealous of his freedom. Judy’s father is also missing and her mother (Nan Martin) a desperate alcoholic. The biggest male players are the ruthless Slocum and Laurel’s husband who clearly views her as a plaything he has bought. The biggest female player, Laurel, is equally ruthless, boredom sending her in search of male company, slithering and simpering to get what she wants.     

Scandal is often a flickering curtain away in small towns so it’s no surprise that Bus can enjoy a reckless affair with Laurel or that a meek mortician can get away with making his desires so quickly apparent, or that behind closed doors houses reek of alcohol or repression. A couple of years later and Hollywood would have encouraged youngsters like Bus and Laurel to scorn respectability in favor of free love. But this has a 1950s sensibility when finding a fulfilling job and the right partner was preferred to the illicit.

In that context – and it makes an interesting comparison to the more recent Licorice Pizza that despite being set in the 1970s finds youngsters still struggling with the difference between sex and love – it’s an excellent depiction of small-town life.

While Michael Parks (The Happening, 1967) anchors the picture, it’s the women who create the sparks. Not least, of course, is Ann-Margret (Once a Thief, 1965), at her most provocative but also revealing an inner helpless core. And you can trace her screen development from her earlier fluffier roles into the more mature parts she played in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and more especially Once a Thief (1965).

In her movie debut Kim Darby (True Grit, 1969) is terrific as the bouncy Gussie and Janet Margolin (David and Lisa, 1962) invests her predominantly demure role with some bite. Jocelyn Brando (The Ugly American, 1963) reveals vulnerability while essaying the strong mother. Mimsy Farmer (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971) also makes her debut and it’s only the second picture for David Carradine (Boxcar Bertha, 1972). Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) is very convincing as the arrogant salesman.

It’s also the first film for Canadian director Harvey Hart (The Sweet Ride, 1968) and he has some nice visual flourishes, making particular use of aerial shots. The scenes of Bus trudging through town at night are particularly well done as are those of Laurel strutting her stuff.

It was also the only credit for screenwriter Walter Gage. That was because Gage didn’t exist. Like the Allen Smithee later adopted as the all-purpose pseudonym for pictures a director had disowned, this was the name adopted when playwright William Inge (Oscar-winner for Splendor in the Grass, 1961) refused to have anything to do with the finished film.

The movie was in limbo for over a year. It was never intended as a major picture, the budget limited to $550,000. Shot in Spring 1964, release was delayed for about a year until  Universal re-edited it and added new scenes. In part this was because Ann-Margret had  achieved surprising movie stardom between her recruitment and the film’s completion. Along with Raquel Welch, she became one of the most glamorous stars of the decade and in building up her own career Welch clearly followed the Ann-Margret template of taking on a bucket of roles and signing deals with competing studios.

After making just three movies, Ann-Margret was contracted for three movies with MGM at an average $200,000 per plus an average 12% of the profit, substantial sums for a neophyte. On top of that she had four far less remunerative pictures for Twentieth Century Fox, three for Columbia, Marriage on the Rocks with Frank Sinatra and a couple of others.

Universal also had another property to protect. Michael Parks was one of small contingent of novice actors in whom the studio had invested considerable sums, using them in television roles before placing them in major movies. Others in this small group – at a time when most studios had abandoned the idea of developing new talent – included Katharine Ross and Tom Simcox who both appeared in Shenadoah (1965), James Farentino (The War Lord, 1965), Don Galloway (The Rare Breed, 1965), Doug McClure (The Lively Set, 1964) and Robert Fuller and Jocelyn Lane in Incident at Phantom Hill (1965).

However, the introduction of Parks had not gone to plan. He was set to make his debut in The Wild Seed (1965) – originally titled Daffy and going through several other titles besides – but that was also delayed until after Bus Riley, riding on Ann-Margret’s coat-tails, offered greater potential.

SOURCES: “Escalating Actress,” Variety, May 22, 1963, page 4; “Inge Thinks Writer Contentment May Lie in Creative Scope of Cheaper Pix,” Variety, May 6, 1964, p2; “Ann-Margret Into the Cash Splash,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p5; “Universal Puts 9 Novices Into Pix,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p25; “Fear Ann-Margret Going Wrongo in Her Screen Image,” Variety, March 24, 1965, p5.

There’s a VHS copy available on Amazon, but otherwise it’s Ebay or this decent enough print on YouTube.

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