House of Cards (1968) ***

American boxer Reno Davis (George Peppard) stumbles on an international conspiracy when hired by rich widow Anne de Villemont (Inger Stevens) in Paris to look after her eight-year-old son Paul (Barnaby Shaw). All roads eventually lead to Rome and a showdown with arch-conspirator Leschenahut (Orson Welles) in this thriller which throws in a couple of measures of Gaslight (1944) and, more obviously, North by Northwest (1959) to the extent of Anne being an icy blonde of the Eva Marie Saint persuasion and the couple, on the run, sharing a compartment on a train.

The boy’s previous tutor has been murdered. After months in a sanatorium, Anne, paranoid about her son being kidnapped, is in virtual house arrest in the family mansion, watched over by arrogant psychiatrist Dr Morillon (Keith Michell) who has diagnosed her as unstable, neurotic and a danger to the boy.

After an assassin on a bridge on the River Seine takes potshots at Reno and Paul, Reno is framed for murder but escaping from the police returns to the mansion to find it empty, the furniture covered in dust sheets. I half-expected Reno to be told that the job was all in his imagination and that Anne did not exist, but instead finds out that mother and son have been taken to a castle in Dijon, in reality a fortress with a platoon of armed guards. Only Paul has been already been transported to Italy. So it’s attempted rescue, imprisonment, escape, fistfights, chase, clever moves and countermoves, twists and double twists as Reno and the still icy Anne head for Rome.

In among the mayhem are a few humorous moments, a play on the Trevi fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, a monk mistaken for a killer, a bored girl only too happy to be taken hostage, an over-familiar American who gives away valuable secrets because he mistakes Reno for a co-conspirator, Dr Morillon making the error of treating Reno as a servant. And characters involved in assisting escape extract a high price, one seeking financial reward, another that her husband be killed in the process. There is also a flirtatious but spiky maid Jeanne-Marie (Perette Pradier) and a couple of excellent reversals.

Reno is somewhat innovative in the weaponry department, the hook of a fishing rod, for example, while the son is rather handy with a pistol. But given the opposition are armed with machine guns, knives and swords that seems only fair.

George Peppard continues the excellent run of acting form that started in Tobruk (1967) and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968), developing his own niche, dropping the innate arrogance of The Blue Max (1965) and Operation Crossbow (1965), no chip on the shoulder. Here he is a good bit more attractive as a screen presence, a nice line with the ladies, more than able to take care of himself, a sprinkling of wit, completely at ease. Inger Stevens comes off well though her psychological problems and concerns for her son get in the way of any burgeoning romance with Peppard. But she has quite a range of emotions to get through, from wondering if she is mad, to dealing with the controlling family, and letting go of her son enough to allow the boy to bond with Reno, and despite her vast wealth down-to-earth enough to see a toothbrush as an essential when on the run.

Orson Welles (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), as ever, looms large over everything, with dialogue so good you always have the impression he improvised on the spot. Keith Michell, a couple of years away from international fame in BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), does a very good turn as the psychiatrist.

John Guillermin, who directed Peppard in The Blue Max and P.J., has a lot to do to keep the various balls in the air, especially keeping track of a multiplicity of characters. The screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Hud, 1963) pulled this one together from the novel by Stanley Ellin. Francis Lai’s memorable score is worth a mention, with distinctive themes for various parts of the story.

Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) was originally down for the part of Anne and Italian actress Rosemary Dexter (Romeo and Juliet, 1964) has a small part.

Catch-up: The Blog previously reviewed George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961),The Blue Max (1965), Operation Crossbow (1966), Tobruk (1967), P.J (1968) and Pendulum (1969); John Guillermin directed The Blue Max (1965) and P.J; Orson Welles was seen in Is Paris Burning? (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) ****

Exceptional down-and-dirty thriller and throwback film noir woefully underrated on release but with a brilliant mystery (or two), a touch of satire, red herrings, some great lines, and believable characters. Private eye P.J. Detweiler (George Peppard) is so down on his luck he is willing to play the lover so an errant wife can be photographed in a motel room. What little he earns goes on paying is debts. So he can hardly reject the chance of serious money as bodyguard to Maureen (Gayle Hunnicutt), mistress of rich businessman William Orbison (Raymond Burr), never mind that she initially treats him as a servant.

Orbison has a legendary mean streak – to save on paper secretaries have to type closer to the edge of the sheet, he forces wife Betty (Colette Gray) to account for every dime of her allowance to the point of almost making her beg. Sadism is another character trait. He enjoys watching animals die. The childless millionaire adds his mistress to his will for the sole purpose of upsetting every other potential heir. In front of guests at a prestigious party he forces Betty to acknowledge Maureen’s existence.

The title was changed for British audiences and came from a line in the film.

This apparently wealthy world is riddled with seedy inhabitants, whose only motivation is  greed, all desperate to retain status or inheritance and enjoying Orbison’s largesse, which, despite his miserly nature, he nonetheless flaunts. As well as Betty enduring ritual humiliation to enjoy a gilded lifestyle, his executive assistant Jason (Jason Evers) accepts being treated as a gofer in order to keep his position and the perks that go with it, and Maureen makes no bones about prostituting herself for temporary and future gain. Everyone has to kowtow, even the occupants of a West Indian island dependent on Orbison for investment, not only a kids choir welcoming Orbison on arrival, but a calypso performer singing a song in his praise.

As various threats, including narrowly missing a bullet, are made against Maureen, making a classical entrance in a red dress and alternating between helpless victim and femme fatale, with her creepy manservant Quell (Severn Darden) reporting her every move, inevitably Detweiler grows closer to his client, unaware that Orbison is planning to have someone killed.

That someone turns out to be Jason, whom Orbison suspects of clandestine activity with his wife, and whom Detweiler innocently kills. As this takes place on the island, where the death is hushed up, Detweiler begins to wonder if he’s a patsy and, paid off by Orbison, undertakes his own investigation, quickly entering more dangerous waters, viciously beaten up at Quell’s behest in a gay bar, narrowly avoiding death in the subway and literally finding himself in the firing line.

Detweiler’s character undergoes transition, too. From begging for scraps and turning the other way so as not to jeopardize easy income, he rediscovers his suit of shining armor, walking down some pretty mean streets, a diligent private eye who can no longer be bought off, determined to get to the bottom of what turns out to be a complicated mystery. Detweiler is no Marlowe or even Tony Rome, but rather despicable at the outset, employing all sorts of dodges, his interest in Maureen not slackening even after he knows she indulges in a quickie with Orbison. He takes too much at face value.

The unfolding mystery is superbly handled, involving proper clues and investigation, shoot-outs and fisticuffs, the outcome not what you might initially imagine. Although primarily an old school private eye picture, it’s great fun, with some wonderful comedy involving a dog, gentle satire on the West Indian island where political whitewash is the order of the day, and some touching romantic foreplay.

Peppard (Tobruk, 1967) is outstanding as the dupe who rediscovers his moral compass and his Detweiler is an excellent addition to the ranks of the private eye.  Raymond Burr, a far cry from his Perry Mason (1957-1966) television persona,  is easily one of the worst screen millionaires in his contempt for humanity and with his silver hair and bulk and scheming proves a slick adversary. Gayle Hunnicutt (Eye of the Cat, 1969) is allure on legs, brilliantly playing every man in sight, eyes never diverted from the prize.

Brock Peters (The Pawnbroker, 1964) has a standout cameo as the island’s cynical police chief. Susan Saint James (The Name of the Game, 1968-1971) makes her movie debut as Orbison’s slinky sex-mad niece.  Also putting in an appearance are Wilfrid Hyde-white (The Liquidator, 1965) as the island’s sycophantic governor, Colleen Gray (Red River, 1948) as the humiliated wife, Severn Darden (The President’s Analyst, 1967) as the odious Quell and John Ford regular John Qualen (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962).

This was the second of director John Guillermin’s George Peppard trilogy following The Blue Max (1966) and prior to House of Cards (1968). Generally dismissed as a journeyman, Guillermin brings a sly eye to this picture, the send-up of British colonialism, the master-servant aspects, an over-the-shoulder shot of an unknown assassin, the scenes in a bar which doubles as Detweiler’s office, the brutal beating in the gay bar, and a brilliant subway sequence adding layers to the movie. He is bold in his use of close-ups with Hunnicutt, some compositions almost a homage to the Bogart-Bacall chemistry, and brings out a world-weary performance from the usually cocky Peppard.

Philip Reisman Jr. (All the Way Home, 1963) fashioned the screenplay, delivering one of cinema’s most memorable final lines.

The Blue Max (1965) ****

Quite how working-class George Peppard makes the transition from grunt in the trenches to Germany’s elite flying corps is never made clear in John Guillermin’s glorious World War One aerial adventure.

But he certainly brings with him an arsenal of attitude, clashing  immediately with upper-class colleagues who retain fanciful notions of chivalry in a conflict notorious for mass slaughter. He climbs the society ladder on the back of a publicity campaign designed by James Mason intent on creating a new public hero.

On the way to ruthlessly gaining the medal of the title, awarded for downing twenty enemy aircraft, he beds Mason’s playful – although ultimately treacherous – mistress Ursula Andress, for once given the chance to act. Mason’s aristocratic German somewhat redeems the actor after his appalling turn the same year as a Chinaman in Genghis Khan.

While the human element is skillfully drawn, it is the aerial element that captures the attention. The planes are both balletic and deadly. Because biplanes fly so much more slowly than World War Two fighters, the aerial scenes are far more intense than, say, The Battle of Britain (1969) and the dogfights, where you can see your opposite number’s face, just riveting. Recognition of the peril involved in taking to the sky in planes that seem to be held together with straw is on a par with Midway.

I was astonishing to discover not only was this a flop – in part due to an attempt to sell it as a roadshow (blown up to 70mm for its New York premiere) – but critically disdained since it is an astonishing piece of work.

Guillermin makes the shift from small British films (The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, 1960; Guns at Batasi, 1964) to a full-blown Hollywood epic with ease. His camera tracks and pans and zooms to capture emotion and other times is perfectly still. (Films and Filming magazine complained he moved the camera too much!).

The action sequences are brilliantly constructed, far better than, for example 1917, and one battle involving planes and the military is a masterpiece of cinematic orchestration, contrasting raw hand-to-hand combat on the ground with aerial skirmish. Guillermin takes a classical approach to widescreen with action often taking place in long shot with the compositional clarity of a John Ford western. Equally, he uses faces to express emotional response to imminent or ongoing action.

Peppard is both the best thing and the worst thing about the picture. He certainly hits the bull’s eye as a man whose chip on one shoulder is neatly balanced by arrogance on the other. But it is too much of a one-note performance and the stiff chin and blazing eyes are not tempered enough with other emotion. It would have been a five-star picture had he brought a bit more savvy to the screen, but otherwise it is at the top of the four-star brigade. Mason is at his suave best, Jeremy Kemp surprisingly good as the equally ruthless but distinctly more humane superior officer and, as previously noted, Andress does more than just swan around.

One scene in particular showed Guillermin had complete command over his material. Peppard has been invited to dinner with Andress. We start off with a close up of Pepperd, cut to a close up of Andress, suggesting an intimate meeting, but the next shot reveals the reality, Peppard seated at the opposite end of a long table miles away from his host.

The best scene, packing an action and emotional wallop, will knock your socks off. Having eliminated any threat from an enemy plane, rather than shoot down the pilot, Peppard escorts it back to base, but just as he arrives the tail-gunner suddenly rouses himself and Peppard finishes the plane off  over the home airfield, the awe his maneuver originally inspired from his watching colleagues turning to disgust.  

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blue-Max-DVD-George-Peppard/dp/B007JV72ZO/ref=tmm_dvd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1592640176&sr=8-2

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