The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) ****

A more prescient picture you couldn’t find, tapping into a contemporary audience’s greatest fear – global warming. Its bold cliff-hanger ending would also appeal to a modern audience often left dangling at the climax of a blockbuster. And it cleverly skims on the special effects, relying on the more easily achieved downpours, thick fog, constant sweating, newsreel footage of natural disasters, water rationing and end-of-the-world riots than anything bigger.

But what surprised me more was the sheer pace. Not just a story moving at a frenetic pace but the British characters acting like they had been injected with a heavy dose of New York zap, talking over each other, hardly getting a complete sentence in before interruption, like Howard Hawks had taken command instead of a mere Englishman like Val Guest (Assignment K, 1968), a former journalist.

Front cover of the Pressbook.

It channels the director’s experience into creating the most realistic newspaper office you will ever come across, beating out All the President’s Men (1974) in its representation of how journalism really works, as concerned as much with the general fodder of unheralded stories as the scoops that normally drive such a narrative. And for a story that started off as pure pulp, the dialog is superb, so good it won the Bafta award.

It certainly helped that an actual newspaper editor, Arthur Christiansen (of the Daily Express) lent a guiding hand, playing the role of the editor of this downmarket daily. The summoning of copy boys (actually grown men), the demand for 500 words, the printers ready to switch the front page at a moment’s notice, the inevitable diet of pie and pint, and the emotional casualties as marriages crumble under the strain of a husband more concerned with this next story than wife or children, all serves to ground the film.

And yes, the narrative plays into the usual journalistic tropes, ambitious newspaperman Peter (Edward Judd), career on the line, uses typical wiles, duping lowly scientific secretary Jeannie (Janet Munro) into revealing more than she should. It’s a meet-cute of the old-fashioned variety, she hates him on sight.

Peter is as off-kilter as the world, knocked off its axis by the simultaneous explosion of nuclear devices, unable to come to terms with his divorce, finding solace in the time he spends with his child, and it seems fitting that much of that is spent diving into the darkness of the ghost train ride, the fog equally thematic as he wanders round in circles in that, as aimless as in his life, while a bath is just as cinematically important, not just for the obvious semi-nude scene but as a place of refuge from impending terror.  

These journalists know how to sniff out a story, how to separate the what from the chaff of the official line, digging deeper, and with global connections able to put two and two together far swifter than officialdom. It helps that Peter’s guardian angel Bill (Leo McKern) has a scientific brain and is able to work out the source of the infernal rising temperature.

It’s axiomatic of how clever the screenplay is that Peter and Jeannie come together over a lost child, although Peter, cynical and bitter, but more vulnerable than most, remains a conniving character, happy to risk their burgeoning relationship for the sake of a scoop.

Like Quatermass and the Pit (1967) it’s one revelation after the other as the world hurtles towards oblivion, though not before ending up as the biggest barbecue of all time. The film acknowledges the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the time before piling on proof that man has sown the seeds of destruction on a four-month countdown to doomsday.

We have been here before with end-of-the-world scenarios but this story unfolds not in scientific or official offices, and there’s no President around to add gravitas or take the blame, but in the minds of the dogged journalists, soon appalled by their discoveries, and for once a scoop is unable to save the day or give the villain his just deserts. Whoever is behind the catastrophe remains nameless, although the outcome of superpowers duking it out for supremacy is never in doubt.

Edward Judd (First Men on the Moon, 1964) delivers a star-making performance as the jaded, jagged, journo capable of emotional depths while Janet Munro (Hide and Seek, 1964) escapes Disney tomboy servitude with a very adult role. Leo McKern (Assignment K) has the solid acting chops that would, two decades before television fame as Rumpole of the Bailey, see as a formidable heavyweight addition to any film and a threat to any co-star through jis charismatic ability to steal scenes.

But the film belongs to Val Guest, who constantly turns up the emotional heat and the terror scale, getting the most out of the riveting, sparkling screenplay he co-wrote with Wolf Mankowitz (The 25th Hour, 1967).  

Hide and Seek (1964) ***

Too many peculiarities for a small British B-picture that just about makes it over the line after “The Big Reveal.” You can start with the fact that, ostensibly, this was director Cy Endfield’s follow-up to his blockbusting Zulu (1964). In fact, it had been made long before, but sat on a shelf for a year, and only released to cash in on Zulu. And you can see why studio British Lion didn’t know what to do with it.

Diving down a 39 Steps thriller-sized rabbit hole, baffled professor saddled with adventurous female go on the run searching for answers to, wait for it, a crime which hasn’t actually been committed. There’s action on a train, some comedy as the worlds of academia and the sophisticated fast set collide, romance on a barge,  Cold War skullduggery,  too much chess, a bit of welcome role reversal, a cliff-top fight, and some dry wit that might have fitted better into a straightforward romantic comedy. And it ends with a twist of such audacity that it would either come as a relief to a bewildered audience or send them home frustrated at such a denouement.   

Rocket scientist David Garrett (Ian Carmichael) becomes embroiled in not even really a plot when he attempts to return a box, containing an inordinate amount of loot, to its owner,  chess grandmaster Dr Melnicker (George Pravda). Luckily, a clue in the form of a chess move takes him to a posh London house in fashionable Chelsea where he encounters the slinky Maggie (Janet Munro) and after hiding in a sandpit in a children’s playground to evade pursuers he ends up on a train with her heading north to a place called Flamboro.

But, wait, his pursuers are also on the train, so naturally the couple have to jump off, fall into a river and hitch a lift on a passing barge whose owner Wilkins (Hugh Griffith) proves most obliging. Indeed, Maggie is even more obliging, taking the lead in bedding the shy professor.  Things get interesting when Maggie, at a road sign, takes David in the completely opposite direction to Flamboro. That works for about ten seconds until a henchman Paul (Kieron Moore) captures them at gunpoint.

Rather than just shooting David dead he decides it would be cleaner to chuck him over a cliff. Luckily, David is a shade pluckier than you might expect. After winning this cliff-top tussle and shocked at having chucked a man over a cliff he is even more astonished to discover he is stranded, Maggie having made off in the car. Luckily, a passing policeman on a bicycle ensures David makes it safe to Flamboro, which turns out to be a huge mansion perched on a cliff.

My guess is by now you are so hooked by this story that you’ll want me to reveal The Big Reveal. Well, the whole thing turns out to be a trap. Melnicker, the pursuing thugs, Paul (who,  you’ll not be too astonished to learn, ain’t dead) and even Maggie have all been plotting to bring David here so that he can be kidnapped and handed over to a submarine arriving the following day. You see, David has been so outspoken (has he?) against his masters that everyone will put his disappearance down to defection. It’s all been a cleverly worked-out chess move as chief baddie Hubert (Curd Jurgens) takes pains to point out.

But our David isn’t exceptionally brainy for nothing and finds a way to outwit the bad guys with Maggie, by now repenting of her bad ways and fallen in love, along for the ride.

So what’s gone wrong? The casting, unfortunately, for one thing. Star Ian Carmichael (School for Scoundrels, 1960), better known for comedy, doesn’t quite make the switch to more straightforward thriller. And Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), whom you might expect to add some gloss, doesn’t appear till the end.

Worse, the film doesn’t find the right tone, too much comedic British observation, and not enough of the hero being in genuine jeopardy. Only a clueless professor would run from the thugs. If the big twist had occurred halfway through and the audience had time to wonder whose side Maggie was on and feel David was in in genuine danger it might have hit the bullseye because, oddly enough, the romance is believable in a Hot Enough for June (1964) kind of way, where innocent male is scooped up by a more worldly female way above his league.

But the role reversal is fun. She’s the one who goes to his rescue when he falls in the river, she’s the seductress, and gets to tell him he looks better “when he’s cross” (a line more typically with slight variations falling to the male) and delivers the movie’s one cracker: “Being a man you have no respect for a mink coat.” She would be an ideal candidate for femme fatale if only the director had let us in on the story quicker, but she’s certainly an astute lure.

Because I wasn’t expecting much, I have probably been a shade less critical than if I was viewing it as a follow-up to Zulu. In the end, it’s passable enough, especially if you are willing to see how clever it’s been.  

As I mentioned Ian Carmichael (Lucky Jim, 1957) is the weak link but former Disney protégé Janet Munro (Swiss Family Robinson, 1960), now blossomed in sexy fashion, steals the show and on this performance you might be surprised she  did not have a more illustrious career but she had a heart condition and died prematurely at the age of 38. Curd Jurgens was at the early stages of inventing his villainous persona. The other characters are merely pawns in the plot so end up as stock villains. Cy Endfield’s genuine follow-up to Zulu was worth seeing – Sands of the Kalahari (1965).

You can catch this on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3zj_VcTdBM

Sebastian (1968) ***

Decoding the emotional life of mathematics professor Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) lies at the heart of a spy thriller mainlining on loyalty and trust. The presence of a flotilla of potential Bond girls has opened this picture up to charges of being a spoof, but I saw the mini-skirted incredibly-bright lasses as being a reversal of the standard secretarial pool. And a supposed  representation of the “Swinging Sixties” would hold true if shot in the environs of Carnaby St  rather than the bulk of locations being arid high-rise buildings. 

In roundabout fashion, intrigued after literally bumping into him in Oxford, Rebecca (Susannah York) is recruited into an espionage decoding department staffed entirely by gorgeous (but brainy) women. Among the older employees is chain-smoking left-winger Elsa (Lili Palmer) whom security chief General Phillips (Nigel Davenport) suspects of passing on secrets. When romance ensues with Rebecca, Sebastian dumps dumb pop singer girlfriend Carol (Janet Munro) who is already having an affair and spying on Sebastian.

Sebastian and girlfriend.

Although there is no actual beat-the-clock codes to be unraveled, tensions remains surprisingly high as in the best Alan Turing/Bletchley manner, breakthroughs are slow. There’s an undercurrent of electronic surveillance, eavesdropping on recruits, bugs planted in the houses of even the apparently most trusted personnel, seeds of distrust easily sowed, codes shifting from numbers to sounds.  The occasional nod to the contemporary, a disco, pop songs, Rebecca doing a fashion shoot in the middle of traffic, is background rather than center stage.

Sebastian, though worshipped by is female staff, is “more whimsical than predatory.” Nonetheless, introspective and often morose, unable to deal with emotions, it falls to Rebecca to take on the task of sorting him out which naturally leads to complications.

Most reviewers at the time complained it was a victory of style over substance, but somehow they managed to overlook the essential questions about trust the picture asked. That said, it does follow an odd structure, the third act dependent on directorial sleight-of-hand.

Rather unique meet-cute: Sebastian, all set to attend a function at Oxford University,
gives Rebecca a word-game test.

Dirk Bogarde (Accident, 1966) is always highly watchable and Susannah York (The Killing of Sister George, 1968) Rebecca catches the eye with an  impulsive, slightly kooky character who turns out to be down-to-earth. Nigel Davenport (The Third Secret, 1964) bring his usual cynical malevolence to the party but with the twist of not knowing whose side he is really on. John Gielgud (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) is a delight. There’s a brief appearance by a pipe-smoking Donald Sutherland (The Dirty Dozen, 1967). Janet Munro (Bitter Harvest, 1963) decidedly rids herself of her Disney persona. Miss World Ann Sidney is one of “Sebastian Girls”

In his second picture after The Shuttered Room (1967) David Greene’s direction is mostly competent but the opening aerial tracking shots set the precedence for occasional bursts of style.  Jerry Fielding supplied the score.

Another freebie on Youtube.

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