Year-End Round-Up: Top 30 Films Chosen by You

Top 30

This isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a chart of the films viewed the most times over the full calendar year of January 2021 – December 2021.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960). Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack embark on an audacious Las Vegas robbery.  
  3. Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt.
  4. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie  starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. Moment to Moment (1966). Jean Seberg is caught up in a Hitchcockian murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary.
  9. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  10. Once a Thief (1965). Trying to go straight ex-con Alain Delon is coerced into a robbery. Ann-Margret is a revelation as his wife. Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey add up to a great supporting cast.  
  11. Stiletto (1969). Alex Cord as a Mafia hitman wanting to retire is pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland heads a supporting cast which includes Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  12. Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry is called to London to uncover a mole in M.I.5. Joan Collins provides the romance. Richard Todd, Tom Adams, Suzanna Leigh and Michael Rennie lend a touch of class.
  13. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster delivers a superlative performance as a man whose life is falling apart.
  14. The Rock (1996). Blistering thriller starring Sean Connery as an ex-inmate of Alcatraz helping Nicolas Cage infiltrate the island to prevent mad general Ed Harris destroying San Francisco. Michael Bay directs.
  15. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Alain Delon joins forces with Jean Gabin to pull off an daring jewel heist with tenacious cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil.
  16. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  17. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  20. A Twist of Sand (1968). Beleaguered smuggler Richard Johnson spars with Jeremy Kemp in thriller about hidden diamonds in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  21. Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Ray Harryhausen special effects dominate this legendary tale of the hunt for the Golden Fleece.  
  22. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). Disney movie that was turned into a mini-series in the U.S. starring Patrick McGoohan as the eponymous Robin Hood-type character who assists smugglers.
  23. The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021). Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson reunite for wild sequel also featuring Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.
  24. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). Rod Taylor leads a private army into the war-torn Congo to rescue a cache of uncut diamonds. Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller.
  25. The Guns of Navarone (1961). Classic war mission picture with an all-star cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas and Gia Scala. Adapted from the Alistair McLean bestseller.
  26. Maroc 7 (1967). Gene Barry infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves in Morocco operating under the cover of a fashion shoot. Dazzling female cast includes Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  27. The Satan Bug (1965). John Sturges adaptation of Alistair MacLean pandemic thriller stars George Maharis, Richard Basehart and Dana Andrews.
  28. Five Golden Dragons (1967). Cult thriller with Robert Cummings as the playboy caught up in an international crime syndicate. Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee head an exceptional supporting cast that also includes Margaret Lee, Brian Donlevy, George Raft, Dan Duryea and Maria Rohm.
  29. Claudelle Inglish (1961). Diane McBain as the poor farmer’s daughter who wants to get rich quick.
  30. Jessica (1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge.

The Road to Corinth (1967) ***

Top-class cast and occasional stylish direction get in the way of a thriller that can’t make up its mind whether it is in reality just a spoof. On the one hand we have a killer in a white suit complete with straw boater and a secret service boss who sells Turkish Delight, on the other hand a story not so much from James Bond but from Bond imitators.

Agent Robert Ford (Christian Marquand) is on the trail of black boxes that prevent missiles launching. When wife Shanny (Jean Seberg) is framed for his murder she determines to uncover the real killer, aided by Dex (Maurice Ronet), and find the maker of the boxes.

But that’s an over-simplification of an over-complicated plot so it’s best to concentrate on the highlights. For example, when customs officials stop a magician they find white rabbits and doves in his vehicle and, despite severe interrogation, he can, magically, release himself from his bonds enough to swallow a concealed cyanide pill. Instead of the usual cute children that proliferate in these kind of films, there’s a really annoying one. Shanny, imprisoned, has to make dolls. Greek Orthodox priests play a significant role.

Throw in kinky secret service boss Sharps (Michel Bouquet) who relishes being slapped for his inappropriate overtures to Shanny, a porn film starring Madame Phiphi, the heroine dangled from a crane and later lashed down to a dumper, and a villain willing to give up his villainy for the love of a good woman.

But mostly it’s a picture in a rush. There are chases galore and nods to Hitchcock and lush Greek scenery.

It would be easy to assume that in eye-catching outfits Jean Seberg (Moment to Moment, 1966) is mostly there to provide eye candy but she does manage to outwit her pursuers from time to time although she seems equally to have a knack for being caught. Maurice Ronet (Lost Command, 1966), Christian Marquand (The Corrupt Ones, 1967) and especially Michel Bouquet (La Femme Infidele, 1969) bring an air of quality to the proceedings.  

Apart from the occasional stunning image, this is not the Claude Chabrol (Les Biches, 1968) that lovers of his thrillers would expect.

There’s a print of this on Youtube. Amazon Prime has this for certain regions. Otherwise it will be Ebay.

Pendulum (1969) ****

It’s better to come at this as a drama rather than the thriller it was marketed as. That the name of George Schaefer, the last to make a movie of the directors who shot to fame in television in the 1950s, is attached should be indication that this is character- and issue- rather than action-driven. It’s more about people being sucked into the system, about the vulnerable members of society, who, whether cop or criminal, have no recourse to some kind of higher power to sort their lives out. As such, it’s a satisfying drama.

A-list male stars playing emotionally vulnerable characters was a growing trend in the late 60s. Think of Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer (1968) and Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement (1969) – all reviewed in the Blog, incidentally. Here top Washington detective Frank Matthews (George Peppard) goes through the personal and professional wringer, suspecting wife Adele (Jean Seberg) of an affair then becoming a suspect himself in a murder case. Underlying these plot-driven aspects is an exploration of the political issue of civil liberties, in particular the constitutional rights of criminals, setting this up as one of the earliest law’n’order movies, a trope that would take center stage in films like Dirty Harry (1971).  

At a peak of professional success, having been awarded a medal and promoted to consultant on a subcommittee on Law and Order headed by Senator Augustus Cole (Paul McGrath), Matthews’ ethics come under scrutiny when alleged murder/rapist Paul Sanderson (Robert F. Lyons), whom Matthews had arrested, is freed on a technicality thanks to the efforts of civil liberties attorney Woodrow Wilson King (Richard Kiley).

Matthews appears distracted much of the time trying to keep track of his wife’s whereabouts.  After delivering a speech in Baltimore, he walks the streets in a fug of depression. Meanwhile, King is disturbed by the fact that a man he clearly believes guilty refuses to seek psychiatric help. The question in the audience’s mind is where he will strike next. There’s an excellent scene in King’s office where his secretary Liz (Marj Dusay), delighted at the lawyer’s success in overturning Sanderson’s case, instinctively pulls away from the freed man.

When Adele and lover are murdered in Matthews’ bed, he finds himself on the opposite side of the law, undergoing the kind of treatment he has meted out to so many criminals, quickly aware that circumstantial evidence could find him guilty. Front-page news himself now, suspended from his job by a quick-to-judge senator, emotionally isolated and a laughing stock, he retreats further inside himself. Naturally, he evades subsequent arrest, setting out to track down the killer himself, that leads him into the murkier depths of society from which emotionally-abused villains easily spring. 

Other issues are explored in passing, the independent woman for a start, whether it is wanting to have her own career and not play the stay-at-home wife or considering it fair game – as with Gwen (Faye Dunaway) in The Arrangement – to upturn accepted morality and take a lover.

But the focus remains squarely on Matthews struggling to cope with life running away from  him, falling deeper into despair and into the maw of the criminal justice system which has the knack of bending its own rules. He has never been the saintly cop and there are moments where violence seems the best option, although not the vicious kind later espoused by Inspector Harry Callaghan. It’s ironic that the only solid detection the cop does in the first part of the film is tracking down his wife’s whereabouts.

George Peppard (Tobruk, 1967), generally a much-maligned actor, excels in a part where he can neither charm his way into an audience’s heart, nor confide in someone else about his marital problems, nor resort to action to define his character. That his pain is all internalised shows the acting skills he brings to bear. Oddly enough Jean Seberg (Moment to Moment, 1966), a specialist in emotional pain, takes a different path, coming across as a devious minx, keeping Matthews on the hook while enjoying relations with an ex-lover, whose career, as it happens, has panned out a lot better than her husband.

I only knew Richard Kiley, an American theatrical giant and primarily in the 1960s a television performer, through that mention in Jurassic Park (1993), but he is solid as the attorney who has qualms about releasing a prisoner he knows is guilty. Robert F. Lyons, making his movie debut, brings jittery danger to the unbalanced criminal. Look out also for Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin, 1952) as the cop determined to take Matthews down and Frank Marth (Madigan, 1968) as the subordinate who gives the suspect too much leeway – to his cost. Madeleine Sherwood (Hurry Sundown, 1967) is excellent as the disturbed, needy mother.

George Schaefer, at this point a four-time Emmy award-winner, specialized in thought-provoking drama such as Inherit the Wind (TV, 1965) and Elizabeth the Queen (TV, 1968).  This fits easily into that pattern. The title is a giveaway, too, referring to the pendulum swinging, “perhaps too far,” from all-powerful police to the rights of the accused taking prominence.

This was the only screenplay from Stanley Niss, who died shortly after the film’s release. He was also the producer. And better known as the writer-producer of television series like Jericho (1966-1967) and Hawaiian Eye (1959-1961).

Catch-Up: George Peppard pictures reviewed in the Blog are Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Operation Crossbow (1965), The Blue Max (1966), Tobruk (1967), and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968).

Pendulum is best sourced on Ebay.

Moment to Moment (1966) ***

Screenwriter Alec Coppel, responsible for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) – now considered the best film ever made, supplanting Citizen Kane in the Sight & Sound poll – follows pretty much the same structural idea as in the James Stewart-Kim Novak thriller. The second half here is in many respects a repeat of the first, with a man trying to recapture previous experience in a bid to reawaken memory.

But in this case the man is French police inspector DeFargo (Gregoire Aslan) trying to trap glamorous Kay Stanton (Jean Seberg) suspected of killing young sailor and architect-wannabe Mark (Sean Garrison) with whom she has engaged in a brief affair. DeFargo is cunning in the extreme, almost stalking Stanton, turning up unexpectedly, employing all sorts of ruses, including recruiting Stanton’s unsuspecting husband Neil (Arthur Hill), an internationally renowned psychiatrist.

The picture is set on the French Riviera so it’s the height of fashion. Kay wears a series of stunning top-of-the-range clothes (designed in fact by Yves St Laurent), as does high-living  neighbor and suspected accomplice Daphne (Honor Blackman). Kay drives a red sports car and frequents swanky restaurants and chic bars.

A number of cleverly-wrought images in the first half – white doves that turn golden at sunset, dancing to a tune called “Moment to Moment,” the wind causing shutters to bang, a statue in a village square, some sketches, the clacking together of the hard balls used to play the French traditional game of boules, a boardgame called “Blockhead” – prove pivotal in the second half. They form clues from which the inspector has to determine meaning.  

But if ever there was a film of two halves, this is it, and they are not a great fit. The first section involves Kay, lonely due to her husband’s continual absence, embarking on an affair. That she initially resists, in order to prove she is at heart really a good woman, gets in the way of the picture, since that makes the romance more drawn-out than necessary and leaves the viewer wishing the director would get a move on. Even though the time is spent in planting all the clues necessary for the second half to work, had Kay been more keen on a piece of action, driven for example (as is the case) by her husband staying away far longer than promised, it would have speeded things up to get to the more interesting part of the story.

Part of the problem is that the affair is totally unconvincing. Mark is handsome enough and dashing in the way most sailors are in uniform with an artistic streak, first viewed  making sketches, but Sean Garrison is so wooden the romance never sparks. That leaves Seberg to do the heavy lifting and, in fairness, once she is targeted by the wily inspector she comes up to the mark.

I’m not the first to think, after watching this picture, what would Hitchcock have done? That was exactly the same conclusion reached by the New York Times critic on original release. For this picture has a great deal going for it, but not a sufficient quota of suspense, and, as I mentioned, takes too long to get to the core of the story.

However, the second half works exceptionally well, as Seberg is put under pressure by the wily inspector and her husband unexpectedly enters the equation. An abundance of  twists culminate with a number in the final few minutes that serve to confound audience expectation.

Seberg’s career up to now had been somewhat disjointed, a sense of unfulfilled potential. An Otto Preminger protégé via Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), she was widely believed, despite the artistic coup of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), to have thrown her career away by decamping to France where she made no further films of particular note. Her previous Hollywood offering Lilith (1964) had not commercially delivered. So this high-budget Universal number was considered something of a comeback. But the perfectly-coiffed fashion-model look seems a poor imitation of Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief, 1955) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds, 1963). At times, with the romance scarcely touching the lower rungs of passion, the movie falls back on haute couture.

Second half Seberg is better than the first as she is given far more material to work with and a decent opponent in Gregoire Aslan. Honor Blackman, as a flirtatious divorcee, reinvents her  screen persona, far removed from her memorable incarnations as Catherine Gale in British television series The Avengers (1962-1964) and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger  (1964). Sean Harrison made only one more movie, and his career mainly consisted of television. Arthur Hill (Harper, 1966) is excellent as the over-enthusiastic husband, unwittingly hammering nails in his wife’s coffin and Gregoire Aslan (Lost Command, 1966) almost steals the show as Seberg’s accomplished adversary.

Veteran Mervyn LeRoy (The Devil at 4 O’Clock, 1964) had a distinguished and versatile career including an Oscar nomination for Random Harvest (1942) and recipient of an Oscar in the form of the Irving G. Thalberg Award for lifetime contribution to the business. But this isn’t quite up to the mark of innovative gangster picture Little Caesar (1931), drama Little Women (1949), Biblical epic Quo Vadis (1951) or cultish The Bad Seed (1958).  

My Movie Books of the Year

Rather than write about the best films I have seen this year, I thought I would look at the four best books about films that I have read over the last twelve months. However, I’m beginning with an older book. I was so taken with Kirsten Stewart’s portrayal of actress Jean Seberg in the biopic Seberg (2019) that I sought out Garry McGee’s Jean Seberg – Breathless, Her True Story first published in 2007 and reprinted in 2018 in time for the movie.

The film concentrates on Seberg’s mental disintegration as she discovers she is on J. Edgar Hoover’s hit list. But the biography has a far wider remit.

This is a startling and ultimately a very sad book of the star as an American tragedy who shot to the heights in her first film and spent the rest of her life with a couple of exceptions falling earthwards. She took her own life, aged 40, in 1979. She was seen as both calculating and a victim, a woman of great strength and immense vulnerability, who used her popularity to espouse unpopular causes.

Her career followed no pattern anyone could understand, least of all Hollywood. Thrust into the limelight as a teenager when hand-picked as Saint Joan (1957) by director Otto Preminger – an experience that scarred her physically and mentally – she quickly shifted to France where she was enshrined in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave masterpiece Breathless (1960), but remained in France too long appearing in less prestigious productions. She was a vivid Lilith (1964) in Robert Rossen’s dissection of mental illness, but disappeared off the Hollywood map again until reappearing at the end of the decade in roadshow musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) – in which she stole the show from Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. After blockbuster Airport (1970) and western Macho Callahan (1970) she departed Hollywood for good, her final films being made in Europe.

Why her career was so apparently topsy-turvy is explored in this excellent biography, the final departure from America propelled by the discovery that she was under investigation by the FBI.

Chinatown (1973) is one of the greatest noir thrillers ever made but with its director Roman Polanski now persona non grata in Hollywood, it remains to be seen whether the film will retain its high status. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood leaves any discussion of the director’s sexual mores until the last chapters when the shock of the allegations against him threaten to overwhelm the entire book. That said, up till then, it is a riveting book, not just the convoluted process of making this particular movie, but especially fascinating when discussing the screenplay, the working methods of writer Robert Towne, and the tangled dealings with agents.

After The Godfather (1972), Paramount was on a high and studio boss and wunderkind Robert Evans was apparently untouchable – the studio had given him his own production company – but his wife Ali McGraw had run off with Steve McQueen and he was at war with studio president Frank Yablans. Jack Nicholson, however, was approaching a box office peak. Polanski was hot and if his touch was anywhere as good as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) it would be a slam dunk. But as the movie approached its premiere, it was looking more like a stinker. Preview audiences hated it. The original score was dumped, Jerry Goldsmith brought in to make the music more evocative of the period.

The author takes a wider view than the normal “making of” book and his portrayal of Hollywood at a time of massive change and the corrosive and often self-destructive nature of many of the personalities involved gives the subject material greater bite. A film of this book is being greenlit with Ben Affleck’s involvement.

According to Stephen Rebello, Valley of the Dolls (1968) is in a class of its own. It was top of the class in Bad Movies We Love, the book he co-wrote with Edward Margulies. Rebello has now accorded to his “making of” one of the longest book titles in history – Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!, Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, The Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time. Rebello, of course, is famous for his opus on Psycho. Valley of the Dolls was based on the bitchy bestseller by Jacqueline Susann and the movie itself fell into a similar category. Director Mark Robson had been twice Oscar-nominated, once for his adaptation of Peyton Place, a novel occupying the same trashy ground as Valley of the Dolls. Although Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Bette Davis and Kim Novak were at various times in the running, the book was such a huge bestseller that Twentieth Century Fox thought it would get away with a less-than-stellar cast. The best known of the stars Judy Garland was fired over her alcoholism. Rebello has an irreverent style, but a forensic eye for detail and has produced a highly-readable book of a film now termed a camp classic.

If Valley of the Dolls was in a class of its own, then so too was Ryan’s Daughter (1970), filmed on location in Ireland. In the David Lean canon, none of his pictures have been so maligned. While not approaching the sensational box office of Doctor Zhivago (1965) it was still a massive audience favorite. In Glasgow, where I lived, it ran as a 70mm roadshow presentation at the first-run ABC2 for an entire year. But it was mauled by the critics who felt it was clearly within their rights to dole out to Lean a public humiliation after inviting him to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics where Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel in particular tore his film to shreds.

Quite why the book has taken so long to be published is another mystery given the author says he did the bulk of the research in 1999-2003. Maybe the publishers were counting on a 50th anniversary revival. Certainly, he has no shortage of material from the drunken and pot-smoking shenanigans of star Robert Mitchum to the miscasting of Christopher Jones and the director’s own haphazard personal life. MGM, which was going through a financial tsunami, backed the director to the hilt even as the budget continued to soar -it ran 135 days over schedule. Because of the overages Jones took home more than this £200,000 contracted salary and John Mills nearly double his original $200,000. Lean’s legendary perfection endangered the lives of the crew and actors during the storm sequence while the sex scene between Jones and Sarah Miles caused particular problems. The author alleges that Jones’ food was spiked. For some reason the author has dubbed this “one of the great movie follies” and while I would not agree with that estimation it remains an interesting read.

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