On the Fiddle / Operation Snafu (1961) ***

Unassuming but undeniably charming British World War Two comedy denied U.S. release until four years later when a savvy distributor jumped on the James Bond bandwagon. Primarily of interest these days for the opportunity to see a pre-Bond Sean Connery (Dr No, 1962) in action its merit chiefly lies in ploughing the same furrow, though with a great deal less pomposity and self-consciousness, as the later The Americanization of Emily (1964), of the coward backing into heroism.

Horace Pope (Alfred Lynch) is a scam merchant who only dodges prison by enlisting. Assigned to the RAF he teams up with Pedlar Pascoe (Sean Connery) and they embark on a series of schemes designed to keep them as far away from the front line as possible. It’s hardly an equal partnership, Pope dreams up the fiddles while Pascoe just falls in with them. It’s not dumb and dumber but a collaboration that goes no further back in the annals of movies than brain and brawn.

Needless to say, the movie lacks the the damsels in bikinis which were a prerequisite of the Bond pictures. Sean Connery takes top billing Stateside where he was originally behind Lynch.

It’s certainly a cynical number, reflecting the boredom experienced by many of the Armed Forces backroom staff, the administrators whose inefficiency turns them into easy dupes, and the determination of soldiers to take advantage of every opportunity to bend the rules. It takes the unusual position of presenting the ordinary soldier as smart and every officer as a numbskull, an approach that would only have been possible 15 years after the war ended and in marked contrast to the determined heroism of other British war films – such intrepid stiff-upper-lip behavior a hallmark of the British version of the genre.

First stop is to run an operation issuing leave passes – for a price – and the sheer effrontery exhibited by Pope is a joy to behold. Next up is selling stolen meat on the black market.

While Pedlar is the wide-eyed camp follower, and more likely to forever sit on the sidelines, cheerful but shy, and only a few pratfalls away from being a bumbling idiot, they do make a good team. Being sent to France is more of a heaven-sent opportunity to increase their bankrolls than a hazardous wartime mission as Pope sells rations to the French. Eventually, of course, their various scams are rumbled and they are forced into battle.

The only thing better than one pre-Bond Connery picture is two.

The movie switches a bit more deftly into serious mode than the aforementioned The Americanization of Emily mostly because these are actual soldiers trained to be soldiers rather than an officer who landed a cushy number and whose main effort is to avoid combat. War is presented as horrific rather than comedy and it must have been the same experience for an ordinary soldier at the time, after months of inactivity suddenly thrust into the cauldron.

The picture moves at a brisk pace and is continually amusing if not particularly laugh-out-loud. You’ve probably seen most of the set-ups before but they are reinvented with an appealing freshness and briskness  As a bonus there’s reams of British character actors and comedians – plus token American Alan King (who would appear in Connery starrer The Anderson Tapes, 1971) – along the way. The term “snafu” in case you’re interested, has a similar meaning to the “fubar” of Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Alfred Lynch (The Hill, 1965) doesn’t milk the Cockney patter overmuch and he’s got a greater international screen appeal than the likes of the more English Sid James (Carry On films) or Norman Wisdom. Think a shiftier Sgt Bilko, if the Phil Silvers creation could be any more untrustworthy.

Connery’s performance is well worth a watch as a prelude to what was to come once his roles were tailor-made. He is an effortless scene-stealer, gifted in expressing emotion through his eyes, and although verbally Lynch dominates it’s difficult to take your eyes off Connery.

The roll-call of character actors includes Cecil Parker (A Study in Terror, 1965), Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, 1964), John Le Mesurier (The Moon-Spinners, 1964), Graham Stark (The Wrong Box, 1966) and Victor Maddern (The Lost Continent, 1968).

Cyril Frankel (The Trygon Factor, 1966) comfortably cobbles this together from a screenplay by Harold Buchman (The Lawyer, 1970, and who had ironically enough penned the picture Snafu in 1945) based on the novel Stop at a Winner by R.F. Delderfield.

When the box office supremacy of the Bond pictures was underscored by the reissue of the Dr No/From Russia with Love double bill in 1965, distributors, as had been their wont, racked the vaults for anything featuring Connery that could be re-sold to a willing public.    

While there is a readily available DVD, this turns up on a regular basis, in Britain at least, on television.

In the Cool of the Day (1963) ***

Jane Fonda tagged this the worst film of her career but that’s a bit harsh and I suspect it owed a lot to the actress being dressed up Audrey Hepburn-style in outfits that scarcely suited her. While it’s certainly overheated, melodramatic moments indicated by thundering music, a marvellous supporting cast, including a quite bitchy Angela Lansbury, provides ample compensation.

It’s  romance in the Love Story vein, rich young flighty heroine Christine (Jane Fonda) at death’s door half her life, but feeling smothered by understandably over-protective husband Sam (Arthur Hill). When she falls for married publisher Murray (Peter Finch) and sets off on a trip to Greece, chaperoned it turns out by Murray’s bitter wife Sybil (Angela Lansbury), it takes a while for romance to physically bud. That it does at all is only because   Sybil has taken off with suave traveling salesman Leonard (Nigel Davenport).

The movie takes a long time to heat up because, as in The Bramble Bush fashion, there’s overmuch character filling-in to do. Part of the interest in this picture is how the bad guys are effectively good guys, more victims of their partner’s behaviour than anything else, though for story purposes, the audience has to be persuaded otherwise.

So besotted Sam, having dealt with umpteen bouts of his wife’s pneumonia and lung operations, a “slave” to her illnesses, is deemed as treating her like a child rather than a wife, preferring her ill rather than well, and denying her the adventure to which she feels entitled. When she meets Murray she has run away. Murray’s wife has a downer on her husband because, wait for it, he killed her child and left her facially scarred (hidden now by hair but she’s still very sensitive about it) in a car accident he caused.

But she’s portrayed as over-sensitive, worried about her appearance, snippy, blaming him for her distraught life, and worse, a philistine, hating being dragged around ancient Greek monuments. Aware of her husband’s proclivities, she mocks, “You’d be an idiot to fall in love with her.” And any time she ventures out, the music rises to a crescendo as if she is a character straight out of film noir.

When she goes off with Leonard, her love affair is viewed as sneaky rather than redemptive, even though he restores her faith in herself. Triumphantly, she tells Christine, “He’s all yours” and her husband “nobody need feel sorry for me any more.”Admittedly, she does take revenge by informing Christine’s husband, who has entrusted his wife to Murray’s care, of their affair. And you would be hard put to argue, although the film wants you to believe otherwise, that Sybil and Sam have been ill-treated by their partners, Sam, in particular, funding her trip to Greece in the hope that allowing her the freedom she needs will save their marriage.

Of course, the characters of both partners, even if their self-pitying is the result of circumstance, do mean that Christine and Murray are presented as people trapped in bad marriages and for whom love, however brief, provides sanctuary from tortured lives, her physical, his more mental, since he is not averse to guilt. 

Sybil’s lack of interest in tourist Greece handily gives the prospective lovers plenty time to fall in love, amid gorgeous scenery, and breathing in air rich in culture. With all film made in the 1960s and set in foreign parts – Pretty Polly (1967) another example – sometimes the story takes second place to the scenery, so it’s lucky that the romance is played out against such an interesting background, an ideal combination, killing two birds with one stone if you like. Given this is prior to Zorba the Greek (1964), the filmmakers have even managed to sneak in some traditional Greek dancing, albeit on the deck of a ferryboat.

Dress-wise, the lovers are ill-matched, Murray plodding around in a suit while Christine parades the latest often clingy fashion. When Sybil departs the scene, that leaves one happy character of the happy couple free of marital encumbrance, but still leaves open the question of how Christine will rid herself of Sam and, more importantly, will Murray wish to take on the all-consuming job of nursing Christine. He never gets the chance to find out. When she does fall ill – as the result of Murray recklessly keeping her out in a thunderstorm – her mother Lily (Valerie Kendrick) swoops in to rush her to hospital.

Spoiler Alert – I’m telling you that she dies because it seems to me that the ending the filmmakers hoped for is not how the audience will perceive it. Beautiful young woman dies too young, yep that’s there, but the man, now free and able to shake off his dull life and start afresh as a writer, seems a long shot. Given he has now, thanks to the thunderstorm episode, killed two people, I would surprised if guilt was not uppermost in his mind.

Not so-good-it’s-bad, and despite the complications, and perhaps because of the Sybil-Leonard romance, it’s certainly an interesting picture as much, perhaps, because it fails to send the audience in the desired direction.

In only her fifth movie, Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969), exhibiting the nervous friskiness that would become a hallmark, does pretty well with a febrile, spoiled, character. If she falls down at all it’s that she appears uncomfortable wearing Orry Kelly’s fabulous gowns and it would take Hollywood some time to work out she was not a natural successor to Audrey Hepburn. Peter Finch (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) is perfectly at ease with the illicit.

But Angela Lansbury (Harlow, 1965), a hoot as the wife who turns rejection into triumph, steals the show. Throw in Arthur Hill (Moment to Moment, 1966), Nigel Davenport (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965), for once neither smug nor snippy, Alexander Knox (Khartoum, 1966), veterans Constance Cummings (The Criminal Code, 1930) and Valerie Taylor (Went the Day Well, 1942), John Le Mesurier (The Liquidator, 1965) and Alec McCowan (Frenzy, 1972) and you have a movie where hardly a moment goes by without admiring a performance.

Robert Stevens (I Thank a Fool, 1962) directed from a screenplay by Meade Roberts (Danger Route, 1967) based on the novel by Susan Ertz.

The Liquidator (1965) ****

Brilliant premise, brilliant execution, brilliant acting. The best send-ups are driven by their own internal logic and this is no exception: spy boss, known simply as The Chief (Wilfred Hyde White), determines in most un-British fashion to get rid off a mole in the operation by eliminating all potential suspects. Bristling Colonel Mostyn (Trevor Howard) recruits Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) for the job, believing Oakes showed particular gallantry during World War Two, unaware this was pure accident. Oakes is given all the perks of a super spy – fast cars, fashionable apartment – and attracts women in a way that suggest this is also a perk and once realizing that being a killer is outside his comfort zone delegates the dirty work to another hit man Griffen (Eric Sykes).

The sweet life begins to unravel when Oakes takes a weekend abroad with Mostyn’s secretary Iris MacIntosh (Jill St John) and is kidnapped. Forced to battle for survival, another Oakes emerges, a proper killer.  Cue the final section which involves trapping the mole.

Where films featuring Matt Helm and Derek Flint imitated the grand-scale espionage they aimed to spoof, the laughs here come from small-scale observation and attacks on bureaucracy. According to regulations, Oakes’ liaison with MacIntosh is illicit. There is endless paperwork. Apart from an aversion to needless killing, Oakes has terrible fear of flying. Nobody can remember code names or passwords. Oakes’ automobile numberplate is BO 1 (the letters in those days being a standard acronym for “body odor”). It is all logical lunacy. And even when the story gets serious, it follows logic, a ruse, a dupe, a climax pitting resolve against human weakness.

Best of all, the parts appear custom-made for the players. Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963), in his first venture into comedy, displays a knack for the genre without resorting to the slapstick and double takes requisite in the Doris Day pictures to follow. And he is a definite screen charmer.

By this point in his career the screen persona of Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) had been shorn of subtlety. He was generally one choleric snort away from a heart attack. Here, while the narrative pricks his pomposity, he remains otherwise ramrod certain. The audience is in on the joke, but nonetheless his genuine ability as a spy master is not in question. On the other hand Jill St John (Who’s Minding the Store, 1963) is allowed considerable leeway in the subtlety department, as a demure English rose rather than the sexier roles into which she was later typecast.  In some respects British television comedian Eric Sykes is miscast. It is a particular English joke to present him as a killer since on television (in shows unlikely to be shown in America) he was hapless.

And it is worth mentioning Akim Tamiroff whose villainous stock-in-trade is allowed greater depth. David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins, 1964) and Gabriella Licudi (You Must Be Joking!, 1965), have small parts. Aso watch out for future British television stars Derek Nimmo (Oh, Brother, 1968-1970) and John Le Mesurier (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977) as well as Jennifer Jayne (Hysteria,1965) and Betty McDowall (First Men in the Moon, 1964).

Director Jack Cardiff had tried his hand at comedy before with My Geisha (1962) starring Shirley Maclaine but was better known for Oscar-nominated drama Sons and Lovers (1960) and action picture The Long Ships (1964).  John Gardner, who wrote seven books in the Boysie Oakes series, later penned James Bond novels.

It is well worth considering whether The Liquidator would have punctured the success of both Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) and sent spy spoofery in a different direction. It had premiered in the U.K. prior to both but litigation held up its American launch  until long after that pair had gone on to hit box office heights.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog are Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships, Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and Hotel (1967) and Trevor Howard in Operation Crossbow (1965) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

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