Woman of Straw (1964) ***

In a plot worthy of Hitchcock without that director’s sly malice, rich playboy Tony (Sean Connery) conspires with not-so-innocent nurse Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) to rid himself of  heinous upper-class racist misogynistic bully Charles (Ralph Richardson), his uncle. Beyond  a savage case of entitlement, Tony has good reason to hate the wheelchair-bound multi-millionaire, blaming him for his father’s suicide and for seducing his widowed mother, now dead. Tony’s ploy, in part by opposing the very idea, is to get Maria to marry Charles, inherit his fortune and provide himself a £1 million finder’s fee when the seriously ill old man dies.

Maria’s refusal to kowtow to the old man and her initial resistance to Tony make her all the more desirable to both. When Maria saves the old man from a potential heart attack, he is moved enough to marry her and draw up exactly the will the pair want. But when he suddenly dies, Maria surprises herself by the depth of emotion she feels.

But that soon changes when she comes under suspicion. A bundle of complications swiftly change the expected outcome. A police inspector (Alexander Knox) doubts cause and place of death.

The first half is the set-up, the various figures being moved into place, not quite as easily as might have been anticipated, which adds another element of tension. Charles is such a hideous person nobody could lament his passing, but still his vulnerability, not just his wheelchair confinement but his love of music, his better qualities coming to the fore as the result of Maria’s presence, accord him greater sympathy than you would imagine.

That the otherwise gallant Tony’s entitled life depends entirely on his uncle’s good wishes lends him an appealing frailty. The nurse’s principles safeguard her against being taken in by riches alone, but there is a sense that she has used her physical attraction in the past to her advantage.

After the first two James Bond pictures, this was Sean Connery’s first attempt to move away from the secret agent stereotype and in large part he is successful. As amoral as Bond, he could as easily be a Bond villain, smooth and charming and larger than life and superbly gifted in the art of manipulation, the kind of putting all the pieces in place that Bond villains excelled in.

It will come as a surprise to contemporary viewers that he is merely the leading man, not the star. Gina Lollobrigida (Go Naked in the World, 1961) receives top-billing because she carries the emotional weight, initially perhaps as cold as Tony, but her attitude to Charles changing after marriage, meeting a need that Tony would not consider his to fulfill, and beginning to regret going along with any devious plan. That she then discovers she may merely be a pawn rather than a partner creates the dilemma on which the final section of the film depends for tension.

Both actors are excellent, exuding star wattage, the screen charisma between them evident, and audiences craving the pairing of Connery with an European female superstar will be well satisfied. Lollobrigida has the better role, requiring greater depth, but it is romance as duel most of the way. Ralph Richardson (Khartoum,1966) has never been better as one of the worst human beings ever to grace a screen. Johnny Sekka (The Southern Star, 1969) brings dignity to the maligned servant and Alexander Knox (Khartoum) is a crusty cop. 

A slick offering from Basil Dearden (The Mind Benders, 1963), with one proviso which I will touch on tomorrow, but could have done with expending less time on the set-up and getting to the meat of the thriller quicker.

CATCH-UP: Sean Connery pictures reviewed in the Blog so far are: The Frightened City (1961), Dr No (1962), Marnie (1964), The Hill (1965) and The Red Tent (1969). I have been pretty thorough in examining the work of Basil Dearden, reviewing the following: The Secret Partner (1961), Masquerade (1965), Khartoum (1966), Only When I Larf (1968) and The Assassination Bureau (1969).

East of Sudan (1964) ***

Remembering this picture as a summer holiday matinee of stiff-upper-lip-ness entangled in all sorts of Khartoumery, I came at this film with low expectations. Given producer Charles H. Schneer’s (First Men on the Moon, 1964) involvement, there were no Ray Harryhausen magical special effects. I was only aware of star Anthony Quayle as a bluff supporting actor in epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Sylvia Syms as a willowy supporting actress (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960). So I was in for a pleasant surprise. Take away the back projection, stock footage and the unlikely zoo of wild animals and there is a fairly decent action film set in the Sudan on the fringes of the Mahdi uprising (that story filmed as Khartoum the following year).

Quayle is a former army sergeant awaiting court martial when he escapes from a battle near Khartoum, ends up saving governess Syms, her charge Jenny Agutter (making her debut), officer Derek Fowlds (BBC Yes, Minister) and a wounded soldier. The motley crew flees down the Nile in a boat. You know you are in for something quite different when the soldier dies and Quayle wants to toss him overboard. Overruled by prim Syms and stiff upper lip Fowlds, this good deed is rewarded by losing their beached boat while burying the dead. A picture like this only survives on twists. Burning the remainder of their boat to attract the attention of the British relief force only brings in their wake a mob of Arabs, who we are informed, in a spicy exchange, don’t know the ten commandments, especially “thou shalt not kill.”  It turns into a battle of the sexes, with Syms’ innocence and good breeding quickly eroded in the face of danger, her natural antipathy towards a scallywag like Quayle softening. Lacking due deference, said scallywag is given some choice lines which spark up proceedings. It being Africa, the animals have nothing better to do than torment them, so cue snakes, crocodiles, charging rhinos, hippos, elephants without even an entertaining monkey to lighten proceedings. Quayle sets his ruthless tendencies to one side to take a tender, paternal interest in young Agutter. Ongoing action prevents the usual male-female meet-cute African Queen-style banter and it’s all the better for it.

Capture by African tribesman takes the story on an interesting detour. Quayle, attempting to make friends, shouts out despairingly (and without irony), “Don’t any of you even speak English?” only for chieftain Johnny Sekka (The Southern Star, 1969) to stride out of the bushes with the reply, “I speak, English, Arabic and Swahili.” Quayle explains, “We come in peace.” Sekka retorts, “With gun in hand?” Game on! The plot goes offbeat when we become involved in Sekka’s life. A former slave, his village presents an unusually realistic alternative world not least for Agutter, ill by this time, saved by an African witch doctor.  There are further surprises, clever ruses to foil the enemy, revelations about Syms and a surprising but very British ending.

Quayle is convincing, reveling in the opportunity to create a fully-formed character rather than  confined to a small chunk of a picture. Syms, too, with more on offer than normal, Agutter (Walkabout, 1971) not a precocious Disney cut-out, and Fowlds revealing what did for all those years before turning up on television as puppet Basil Brush’s sidekick. As a British B-picture making do on a small budget, it overcomes this particular deficiency with some sparkling dialogue and attitudes that go against both the time in which it was set and the era in which it was made.

NOTE: Khartoum, The Southern Star, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Southern Star and First Men in the Moon (with Harryhausen effects) have all been reviewed on this blog.     

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