The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) **

This affectionate homage to 1920s vaudeville goes awfully astray under the heavy-handed direction of William Friedkin. Never mind the sexist approach, there’s an epidemic of over-acting apart from a delightful turn from Britt Ekland as the innocent star-struck Amish who accidentally invents striptease and former British music hall star Norman Wisdom who knows what he’s doing on the stage. The plot is minimal – burlesque theater manager (Elliott Gould) needs to save theater from going bust in a few days’ time. That’s it – honest!

The rest of the story looks tacked on – the overbearing leering other half (Jason Robards) of the Norman Wisdom double act tries to bed anything that moves, Amish father (Harry Andrews) in pursuit of his daughter, vice squad official (Denholm Elliott) determined to shut the theater down.

The saving grace of this debacle is Ekland’s performance which carries off a difficult part. Could anyone really be so dumb? She is endearing in a murky world but still capable of interpreting the Bible to her own ends (there is dance in the Good Book, for example) and she has confidence that the Lord will give her the go-ahead to have sex. Her innocence appears to transcend reality and since she doesn’t know a showbiz shark when she sees one she carries on as if life is just wonderful. Somehow this should never work but Ekland is so convincing that it does.

What might have been another saving grace is the documentary feel of much of the background, black-and-white pictures of the epoch transmuting into color, but too often the movie simply cuts to that without any real purpose. Equally, the various song-and-dance acts, chorus lines and comic turns provide an insight into burlesque reality but, again, all too often, that goes nowhere. There are plenty of people trying to be funny without much in the way of decent laughs. There’s altogether too much of everything else and not enough of the ingredients you might have considered essential.

This scarcely sounds like William Friedkin material given that although this preceded The French Connection and The Exorcist, by this point he had already made his mark with an adaptation of Harold Pinter play The Birthday Party (1968). In fact, his original cut was re-edited once he had departed the picture. Might it have worked better with Tony Curtis in the Jason Robards role as originally planned – he certainly had more charm than the jaundiced Robards. Regardless of who was cast what it needed most was a better story and less in the way of stock characters. And since in American theater folklore Minsky’s is synonymous with the invention of the striptease it meant that quite a few of the audience were there just to see how much skin would be revealed – which is not really the basis for a good mainstream picture.

Stiletto (1969) ***

Tough talking Patrick O’Neal (Castle Keep, 1969) whose “hello” is usually accompanied with a fist enlivens this adaptation of a slim bestseller by Harold Robbins as cop George Baker on the trail of Mafia hitman Count Cesari Cardinali (Alex Cord ). Unusually, Cord was the go-to star for producers of Mafia pictures, his previous movie being The Brotherhood (1968). Equally unusual, Cardinali is a part-time assassin, spending the rest of his time as a fun-loving playboy with a string of women, fast cars and racehorses. Only problem is he wants to retire – and not in normal fashion, weighted down by a block of cement. Unfortunately, his dilemma is hardly one to solicit sympathy from an audience much less Mafia boss Emilio Matteo (Joseph Wiseman) and Cord isn’t enough of an actor in any case to tug at the heartstrings.

Cord made a brief splash as an action hero in the monosyllabic Clint Eastwood/Charles Bronson mold after debuting in the John Wayne role of the Ringo Kid in the remake of Stagecoach (1966) and Italian-made A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die (1967). But didn’t have more than half a dozen stabs at making his name on the big screen before disappearing into the television hinterlands. So he’s something of an acquired taste, maybe the small output enough to qualify him for cult status. Here, he’s a decent fit for the violence but saddled with a role that makes little sense and sure enough he soon discovers that Wiseman doesn’t consider him a candidate for a pension while O’Neal bullies witnesses into providing the legal ammunition to bring the gangster down.

One such person is illegal Polish immigrant Illeana (Britt Ekland), Cardinale’s girlfriend when he is not chasing Ahn Dessie (Barbara McNair). This is another thankless role for Ekland (Machine Gun McCain, 1969), there to add glamour, but, surprisingly, she manages to bring pathos to the part. McNair, who is always worth watching and had made an auspicious debut the year before in If He Hollers, Let Him Go, hardly gets any screen time.  But it’s O’Neal (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) as the ruthless cop who holds it all together.

Director Bernard L. Kowalski (Krakatoa, East of Java, 1968) proves better at the action than the characterization, though, luckily nobody needs to be anything other than tough. Three scenes, in particular, are well handled – the opening murder in a casino, a shoot-out at a penthouse and the climax on a deserted island which has more than a hint of a spaghetti western. Wiseman (Dr No, 1962) rustles up another interesting performance and Roy Scheider (Jaws,1975) also appears.

This old-style tough-guy thriller would have been better off had the Cord vs. O’Neal set-up taken center stage, with the assassin on murderous overkill hunted down by the zealous cop. As it is, it’s a missed opportunity for Cord to develop an Eastwood/Bronson persona and enter the action star hall of fame. This was the seventh adaptation of the books of bestseller writer Harold Robbins after Never Love a Stranger (1958), A Stone for Danny Fisher (filmed as King Creole in 1958), The Carpetbaggers (1964) – which also resulted in Nevada Smith (1966) – and Where Love Has Gone (1966).

This isn’t easy to get hold of but you are more likely to find it will find it on Ebay (new) than Amazon.

The Happy Thieves (1962) ****

A triumvirate of art thieves are blackmailed into stealing a famous Goya painting from the Prada museum in Madrid. Jimmy Bourne (Rex Harrison) is the actual thief, Eve Lewis (Rita Hayworth) smuggles the artworks out of the country and Jean-Marie (Joseph Wiseman, soon to be more famous as Dr No, 1962) creates the forgeries that replace the stolen masterpieces. Hayworth is the least reliable of the trio, her drinking (she had a problem in real life) jeopardizes their slick operation. Not only has the painting they have stolen slipped through her hands but the thief Dr Victor Munoz (Gregoire Aslan) has filmed the original theft and is not above a bit of murder on the side.

Harrison and Hayworth are a delightful pairing. Hayworth has abandoned the sultry in favor of the winsome, Harrison shifted from sarcasm to dry wit. He is always one-step-ahead but  never overbearing, and the thefts are carried out with military precision. Even when let down by colleagues, who are inclined to scarper when threatened, he takes it all in his stride, the calm center of any potential storm. And there is genuine chemistry between Harrison and Hayworth though his matter-of-fact attitude tends to undercut the kind of passionate romance that moviegoers came to expect from top-class players thus paired. His proposal, for example, comes by way of dictation, “the new Mrs Bourne.” It would have been tempting for Hayworth to act as the ditzy blonde (brunette, actually) but instead she plays it straight, which is more effecting.

Bourne is the archetypal gentleman thief (“there is a touch of larceny in all successful men”) and Eve does her earnest best to keep up (“I want so much to be a first-class crook for you, I’m trying to be dishonest, honestly I am.”) There is never the remotest chance of them being confused with real gangsters. “I thought that stealing was the only honest way Jimmy could live with himself,” says Eve.  In truth, their characters set the template for better-known later heist pictures like How to Steal a Million (1966), Gambit (1966) and A Fine Pair (1968) – all reviewed on this blog – which couple one determined thief with one less so.   

Of course, heist pictures rely for much of their success on the actual heist. And Bourne’s plan for the Prada is brilliantly simple and carried out, as mentioned, with military precision. The get-out clause, which, of course, is how such films reach their conclusion, is more realistic and human than the other movies I have mentioned.

What’s more, there are number of excellent sight gags and great throwaway lines while Jean-Marie and Dr Munoz are well-written, the villain’s motivation particularly good. Other incidentals lend weight – their apartment is opposite a prison, the security guards at the Prada are caring rather than the idiots of How to Steal a Million, and a sub-plot involving a bullfighter (Virgilio Teixeira, Return of the Seven, 1966) also sheds light on Bourne.  There is a jaunty whistling theme tune by Mario Nascimbene (One Million Years B.C., 1966) which maintains levity throughout.

The movie does tilt from the gentleman thievery of the initial section into something much darker, but, so too, do the two principals and, unusually, rather than in the usual contrived fashion, Bourne and Eve undergo personal transition by the end.

I found the whole exercise highly enjoyable. It’s very under-rated. My only quibbles are that it is shot in black-and-white, which seems bizarre when Spain, the location, is such a colorful country. The title, too, is an oddity. This was the only picture produced by Hayworth in partnership with husband James Hill. They split up before the picture was released which might explain its poor initial box office.  Hill was an experienced producer, part of Hill-Hecht-Lancaster (The Unforgiven, 1960), but this proved his final film.

Hayworth, too, had previously worn the producer’s hat for The Loves of Carmen (1948), Affair in Trinidad (1952) and Salome (1953). Hayworth was still a marquee attraction at this point, taking top billing here, and second billing to John Wayne in Circus World/The Magnificent Showman (1963). But this is quite a different performance to her all-out-passionate persona or the slinky deviousness of Gilda (1946). Alida Valli (The Third Man, 1949) puts in an appearance and trivia trackers might take note of the debut of Britt Ekland (credited as Britta Ekman).

Director George Marshall was a Hollywood veteran with over a quarter of a century directorial experience including film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946), Jerry Lewis comedy The Sad Sack (1957) and western The Sheepman (1958) with Glenn Ford. In fact, five of his previous six pictures had starred Glenn Ford and his next shift would be on How the West Was Won (1962).