Notable for the debuts of Sarah Miles (Ryan’s Daughter, 1970) and Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) and an ending that even in those misogynistic times was wince-inducing. The halcyon era of dull English schoolteachers being celebrated (Goodbye, Mr Chips, 1939) or finding redemption or even just managing to overcome pupil hostility (The Browning Version, 1951) were long gone, replaced by a more realistic view of the casual warfare endemic in education establishments, not quite in The Blackboard Jungle (1956) vein but running it close, with bullying, sexual abuse and ridicule running riot.
Self-pitying Graham Weir (Laurence Olivier) has failed to achieve his ambitions in part due to alcoholism, in part to antipathy to his conscientious objection during World War Two. And although he has a sexy French wife Anna (Simone Signoret) in the days when any Frenchwoman was deemed a goddess, she is embittered that the future he promised has not materialized. Like To Sir, with Love (1967) his classroom is filled with no-hopers so that he responds to the meek and innocent wishing for educational betterment.
Weir’s only defence against endless indignity is a stiff upper lip and slugs of whisky. His lack of character contrasts with a young lad who takes revenge against constantly being chucked out of his house by his mother’s lover (Derren Nesbitt) by blowing up the man’s sports car.
Spanning the twin cultures of religion and the razor, one falling out of favor, the other holding violent sway, opportunity to rise above kitchen-sink England lies with the self-confident such as thug Mitchell (Terence Stamp) who smokes in class, gives the teachers lip, takes photographs of girls in their underwear in the toilets, physically threatens classmates and when his target is bigger gets older men to give him a good thumping.
A somewhat unlikely development is an end-of-term trip to Paris where the infatuated Shirley (Sarah Miles), who the good-hearted Weir has been giving free private tuition, ends up in the teacher’s bedroom and later accuses him of abuse. The impending court case and threat of imprisonment scupper Weir’s chances of promotion, make him consider suicide, and Anna to leave him.
The court scenes allow a number of famous character actors a moment of acting glory. Laurence Olivier (Bunny Lake Is Missing, 1965) must in part have been attracted to the role by a terrific court monologue. The movie is very downbeat in a country universally known never to enjoy an ounce of sunshine justifying the black-and-white movie rendition. If there is liveliness in the streets, cinemas, shops, it never translates into any of the main adult characters, all determined to uphold ancient values and endure constricted lives.
Exploiting audience expectation for verbal fireworks, the tension in Laurence Olivier’s finely judged performance comes from his untypical, unshowy delivery. You can almost hear him grinding his teeth. Simone Signoret (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) also acts against the grain, battening down her inherent sexuality, and her very presence speaks of lost hope, the fact that she was once attracted to Weir indicating he was once a very different prospect.
Sarah Miles excels as the wannabe seducer, that hesitant voice that would become her hallmark, struggling here to turn innocence into lure, expressing her adoration in heart-breaking simplicity, and yet aware that to catch Weir would require more than just the submission a guy like Mitchell requires. While hers is a stunning debut, I’m at a loss to see what marked out Terence Stamp’s typical surly teenager for speedier stardom.
Oscar-winner Hugh Griffiths (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) is the pick of the supporting roles. A remarkable scene-stealer, a shift of his head, a flicker of his eyelashes is all he needs while sitting in the background to attract the camera from another character in the foreground. Look out for Barbara Ferris (Interlude, 1968), Derren Nesbit (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), Allan Cuthbertson (The 7th Dawn, 1964), Roland Culver (Thunderball, 1965) and Thora Hird (television’s Last of the Summer Wine, 1986-2003).
Surprisingly un-stagey direction from Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) who was far better known as a theater director in London and Broadway. Probably in those days if you were setting a movie outside sophisticated London you had to present a gloomy version of Britain so you can’t really blame him for that and Olivier was hardly a major box office attraction so a budget trimmed of color would be a requisite. Although the older characters display grim determination, the younger ones have not had the spirit knocked out of them in the Saturday Night and SundayMorning (1960) manner and the location shots reveal a buzzy atmosphere.
Glenville also wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by James Barlow.
Over-complicated occasionally thoughtful thriller studded with contemporary nods to ecology and keeping fit pits history student Babe (Dustin Hoffman) against war criminal Szell (Laurence Olivier) in latter-day version of a hunt of Nazi ‘gold.’ Although obsessed with clearing the name of his dead father from charges trumped up during the Communist witch hunt, Babe is not the nerd of The Graduate, his persistence resulting in a romantic tryst with out-of-his-league Swiss blonde Elsa (Marthe Keller). The existence of a secretive government agency tilts this towards the paranoia thriller mini-genre.
It takes a while for all the pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place as we try to absorb the importance of a freak accident in New York that kills a German whose diamonds end up in the hands of Babe’s brother Doc (Roy Scheider), a rich businessman who appears to double up as a courier of some kind. Delivering the jewellery to connection LeClerc (Jacques Marin) in Paris, Babe’s suspicions that something is awry are confirmed when he realizes a bomb planted in the street was intended for him, later finds LeClerc dead and is attacked in his hotel room.
Meanwhile, the mysterious Szell emerges from his South American hideout and heads for New York. Doc blows up Babe’s romance by revealing his girlfriend is lying about her origins. Doc then keeps an appointment with Szell who proceeds to knife him although he manages to survive long enough to die in Babe’s apartment, shadowy government agent Janeway (William Devane) among others convinced Doc told Babe something important before he died.
That notion paints Babe as the target especially as Szell is of the same opinion. Soon Babe, literally on the run, is enmeshed in lethal game of double-cross but not before he makes the acquaintance of Szell who puts his dentistry skills to work in a still wince-inducing torture scene. It takes another fair while to work out not just who is who, but who Babe can trust, and what’s going on, the true nature of his brother’s employment and what exactly is the role of the government “special division that does what the F.B.I. and C.I.A. can’t handle.”
By the time it becomes a straightforward thriller, the tension has ratcheted up to eleven and Babe is fighting for his life not just against a killing machine but a sadistic one at that. It’s not just the hint of the government black ops lurking in the background that gives this picture an extra dimension, but it presents an eerie prediction of contemporary concerns with its acknowledgement of ecological activists, the interest in running that was just a sneered-at fad at the time, and a world that could at any time be disrupted by strike action.
There are some terrific set pieces and bold directorial choices, one murderous assault mostly seen from the point of view of an elderly invalid across the street who can scarcely see what is going on for curtains in the way. Trapped in the bathroom Babe can only watch as assailants prise the door off, especially terrifying as the bath has been previously signalled as Babe’s refuge, slumped in the water with a cloth masking his face. There’s a clever meet-cute and any number of incidentals in the passers-by caught on camera.
This was as slick an A-list picture as Hollywood could muster in the 1970s with Dustin Hoffman on an Oscar- (three nominations so far) and commercial-streak – Papillon (1973) and All the President’s Men (1976) solidifying his box office marquee. Laurence Olivier (Sleuth, 1972) cemented his position as the world’s best actor heading a top-notch cast that included Roy Scheider (The French Connection, 1971) and the teeth-baring William Devane (Rolling Thunder, 1977), directed by British Oscar-winner John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) and written by the legendary William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969) from his own bestselling novel. Marthe Keller was at the start of a Hollywood roll with Black Sunday (1977), Bobby Deerfield (1977) and Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978) to come.
Echoing Alan J. Pakula in The Parallax View (1974), Schlesinger lets many tense scenes roll minus music and the score, when it does appear, is by the king of the eerie score, Michael Small (The Parallax View). Pick of the images, though, is the football bouncing from nowhere into a scene that triggers Doc’s panic. It’s not a paranoia thriller in quite the same vein as The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, but the existence of a secret government agency willing for its own reasons to do a deal with the most horrific people strikes another contemporary note.
Unusually for an Otto Preminger project, this took an unconscionably long time to get off the ground, given he had purchased rights to the bestseller by Evelyn Piper which had been published in 1957. The first problem was that no one could lick the screenplay. Getting first bite was Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, 1967), followed by “wholesale doctoring” by Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, 1960) who delivered a “polished script.” But that failed to satisfy the director either and triggered further attempts by Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) and Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mummy’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, 1967). But nobody seemed able to come up with a satisfactory job. The book had been set in New York as had the various subsequent screenplays. The solution appeared to be to shift the location some 3,000 miles to London. Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote a draft but ended up having a fight with Preminger and withdrew and the project was completed by her husband John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969).
The Levin screenplay was dismissed as being too faithful to the book, the kidnapper in this instance turning out to be a former teacher who was childless and afflicted with “menopausal psychosis,” a character Preminger found weak and uninteresting. Trumbo changed the villain into a wealthy woman, not just childless but judged unfit to adopt, an approach the director deemed “very theatrical and wrong.” The Kopit and Eastman versions offered no better solution. “I almost gave up Bunny Lake,” admitted Preminger, “because while working in the script I realized that women would not like the film…because they are afraid of all situations in which a child is in danger.” After considering transplanting the story to Paris, Preminger finally settled on London, and hired the Mortimers whose villain brought the picture a 2new dimension.”
Until now, and in keeping with the original novel, Newhouse, while assisting in the investigation, had been a psychiatrist. In the hands of the Mortimers he now morphed into a police inspector. Wilson who had been Newhouse’s quite respectable friend turned into a drunken reprobate. At this point the heroine’s name remained Blanche as in the book. There was one other significant element that changed between the initial Mortimer script and the final shooting script: at the start of the film the Ann and Steven were shown reacting as if the child was there, whereas when the movie went before camera the question of the child’s existence remained in doubt. Penelope Mortimer dropped out when, summoned with her husband to Honolulu where Preminger was filming In Harm’s Way, she was roundly ignored.
Filming was originally scheduled to slip in between Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960) with a budget set at $2 million. But something always seemed to get in the way. Occasionally it was a bigger project. After Columbia announced filming was scheduled for 1961, Bunny Lake was pushed back to spring 1962 to permit the filming of Advise and Consent (1961). Then The Cardinal (1962) took precedence but only to the extent of shifting the Bunny project till later that year. Then it was set to be completed by fall 1963. Further cause of delay was the decision to accommodate the pregnancy of that Lee Remick who had signed for the leading female role. But when she was ready to go, Preminger was not and she fell out of the equation.
At one point, fearful of his schedule becoming too crowded – filled with expensive projects like The Cardinal and In Harm’s Way (1965) – Preminger had tried to wriggle out of the directorial commitment, planning to limit his involvement to producing only, but studio Columbia would not accept this. Preminger was in considerable demand, like a major movie star contracted to deals with rival studios, in 1961 for three pictures with United Artists and four for Columbia and by 1965 adding into the mix a seven-picture deal with Paramount, and most of these big pictures, leaving little time for a relatively low-budget – by his standards – picture.
Finally, Bunny Lake received the green light with filming beginning in London on April 9, 1965. Unusually, the movie was shot entirely on location, the director expressing a “yen for realistic on the spot” filming in a dozen places including a pub, the Cunard office and Scotland Yard. A school in Hampstead doubled for the nursery, the mews flat was found just behind Trafalgar Square. He was quick to point this was not a matter of economy. “What you save in studio (time) you spend in other ways. But I think it leads to more urgent film-making.” Somewhat surprisingly, he aimed to shoot in black-and-white, colour now being predominant except for low-budget movies and those wishing to take advantage of black-and-white world War Two newsreel footage as was the case with his previous picture In Harm’s Way.
Carolyn Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) was given the lead with Keir Dullea (David and Lisa, 1962) in the pivotal role of her brother. Neither could be considered a big star although Lynley had the second female lead in The Cardinal and moved up the credit rankings to female lead in the low-budget Shock Treatment (1964). But she was such a hot prospect Preminger in 1965 signed her to a four-picture deal although this was not exclusive as she also had contracts with Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia. Dullea was potentially a better prospect, picking up some acting kudos for David and Lisa, the designated star of that picture and The Thin Red Line (1964) but only second lead for Mail Order Bride (1963) and the Italian-made The Naked Hours (1963).
Although some decades away from his Hollywood box office prime, the casting of Oscar-winner and five-time nominee Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, 1960) was something of a coup, although he was only hired because another actor proved too expensive. Other parts were filled by actors experienced in the Preminger school of film-making, Martita Hunt from The Fan (1949)- and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Victor Maddern (Saint Joan, 1958) and David Oxley (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse).
The first day’s shooting was in a television studio to capture the newsreader and pop group The Zombies which the content of the show shown in the pub on television. Contrary to depictions of Preminger as a martinet on set, he was keen in rehearsals to “put everyone at ease” although he emphasised the need for “slow, thoughtful diction.” The famous Preminger wrath came down heavily on personnel failing to carry out their job correctly. But he accepted Olivier’s decision to omit a particular phrase. He was specific about the look he wished to achieve, required high contrast black-and-white cinematography while nothing was to be done “to enhance Carol Lynley’s beauty: instead…to deepen her features, bring out her emotions.”
And he was determined to get what he wanted, 18 takes required to complete a lengthy tracking shot that flows Inspector Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) as they negotiate a passage through a group of noisy children in a classroom and then across a hall. Accepting Lynley’s difficulty in expressing the pain of losing a child, he instructed her to forget about subtext and play the moment. However, 14 takes of a scene between Lynley and Olivier was too much for the actress but she was comforted when Preminger told her the famous actor was the problem not her. But on another occasion, Preminger ended up giving her an almost line for line reading of how he wanted the scene played. The only way he got what he wanted was to reduce her to “sobbing uncontrollably” and then start the camera rolling.
Without question, Keir Dullea came off first. “He would humiliate you, he would scream at you…his dripping sarcasm was the worst of it,” recalled Dullea. “I was always very prepared in terms of knowing my lines…but the stress, there was some action where I was supposed to put a glass down or pick up a glass” that Dullea kept getting wrong. In face of what he deemed incompetence, Preminger accused him of being “an actor who can’t even remember a line and if heremembers a line he can’t remember an action…what, you can’t do these two things at the same time.” In the end Dullea faked a nervous breakdown and after than “he never screamed at me again.”
Olivier would occasionally coming to rescue, persuading the director to ease off and “stop screaming at the children.” Olivier found Preminger such a bully that it “almost put me off his Carmen Jones, which I found an inspired piece of work…It’s a miracle it came from such a heavy-handed egotist.” On the other hand Noel coward, who played the landlord Wilson, believed Preminger an excellent director.
Preminger spun his marketing on a similar gimmick to that utilised by Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho (1960) in preventing the public from entering once the movie had started. To make this more dramatic, he had clocks installed in the lobbies of theaters that counted down the length of the performance and a sign that stated “nobody admitted while the clock is ticking.” Preminger was credited with coming up with a longer tagline for the advertisements: “Not even Alfred Hitchcock will be admitted after the film has started.”
The only problem was Return from the Ashes, released at the same time, had adopted a similar marketing ruse, nobody admitted “after Fabi enters the bath.” Despite this, Preminger went hell-for-leather for this marketing trick, to the extent of adding a rider to exhibitor standard contracts to that effect, not a problem in more sophisticated cities where by now patrons had become accustomed to turning up for a picture’s announced start time but a problem in smaller towns and cities where the whole point of continuous programme (i.e. no break between one film and another) was that moviegoers could walk in whenever they liked.
The whole tone of the marketing did not meet the approval of two important segments of the greater movie community. The National Association of Theater Owners opined that the marketing campaign was weak and were astonished to learn that there was nothing Columbia could so about it – Preminger had advertising-publicity approval. Allowing that some of the advertising images for Preminger pictures, courtesy of designer Saul Bass – The Man with the Golden Arm (1953), Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus etc – were among the most famous in Hollywood history, it would appear Preminger knew what he was doing. But, in fact, although the Saul Bass credit sequence showing pieces of newspaper being torn away made sense in the framework of the picture, the idea was not so effective taken out of that context.
Not intentionally, perhaps, Preminger also riled the critics, deciding that to “preserve the secrecy of the surprise ending,” the movie would open without the normal advance screenings for reviewers. Such action was more likely to set alarm bells ringing, it being a standard assumption among critics that the only films that went down this route were stinkers. From a practical point-of-view it also ensured that marketing was undercut since the lack of timed reviews denied the picture an essential promotional tool.
Finally, the movie ended up in a war with the censors. Many states in the U.S. had their own censors. Columbia objected to having to wait on the say-so of a local censor – in this case Kansas – before being able to release a movie. And for any release to be delayed if there was any nit-picking by the censor, especially as this movie had an undercurrent of incest. So Columbia refused to conform and failed to submit Bunny Lake Is Missing to the Kansas censors. After being promptly banned for such arrogance, Columbia objected again and the case went to the Kansas State Supreme Court which judged that the censor was unconstitutional. That resulted in the censors losing their jobs when the board was abandoned and the movie entering release a good while after its initial opening dates.
Although it made no impact at the Oscars, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris picked it as one the year’s ten best and it was nominated for cinematography and art direction at the Baftas. The film was a flop, failing to return even $1 million in rentals at the U.S. box office. In fact it probably made more when it was sold to ABC TV for around $800,000.
SOURCES: Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, p330-342; (Faber and Faber, 2008) “Trends,” Variety, January 14, 1959, p30; “Ira Levin Pacted by Preminger for Bunny,” Variety, September 2, 1959, p2; “Col Primed To Start ½ Dozen Prods,” Variety, April 5, 1961, p3; “Otto Preminger Views Film Festivals As Important Marketplaces,” Box Office, May 1, 1961, p11; “Trumbo May Script for UA,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p5; “Bunny Lake Delayed,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p18; “Preminger Postpones One,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, p13; “Otto Preminger to Film Cardinal for Col,” Box Office, August 7, 1961, -10; “Otto Preminger Is Guest of Soviet Film Makers,” Box Office , May 14, 1962, pE-4; “Two Writers Signed,” Box Office, August 6, 1962, pSW-3; “Preminger,” Variety, September 12, 1962, p15; “Preminger’s New Rap at Costly U.S. Distribution,” Variety, October 10, 1962, p7; “Preminger Gets Rights to Hurry Sundown,” Box Office, November 23, 1964, p9; “Prem’s Next in London,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p18; “Preminger Signs Actress for Four More Pictures,” Box Office, February 8, 1965, pW-3; “Advertisement,” Variety, April 7, 1965, p1; “Preminger-Paramount Pact Calls for 7 Films,” Box Office, April 26, 1965, p7; “100% Location for Bunny,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p29; “Not Even Hitch,” Variety, September 1, 1965, p4; “Preminger’s Nix on Pre-Opening Critics,” Variety, September 22, 1965, p16; “2 Pix Enforce Entrance Time on Ticket Buyers,” Variety, September 29, 1965, p5; “Time Rules Are Set for Bunny Shows,” Box Office, October 4, 1965, p13; “Preminger’s Promotional Prerogative,” Variety, October 27, 1965, p13; “Clock for Bunny Lake,” Box Office, November 8, 1965, p2; “Village Voice Vocal on Bests,” Variety, January 26, 1966, p4; “Col Kayos Kansas Censoring,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p5.
Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown, 1967) returns to his film noir roots (Laura, 1944; Whirlpool, 1950) for this crisply-told tale, mixing police procedural with psycho-drama, of a missing child who may the figment of her mother’s imagination. It’s beautifully filmed and for anyone brought up on modern cinema of short takes and the camera bouncing from one close-up to the next, it will be a revelation, as Preminger favors classic Hollywood style, long takes, in a single shot the camera often following a person in and out of several rooms, and equally classical composition, scenes containing three or four characters where everyone acts within the frame.
Single-mother Ann (Carol Lynley) turns up to collect her four-year-old daughter Bunny from her first day at a London nursery only to discover not just the child gone but nobody has any recollection of the child being there in the first place. That is, apart from the school cook (Lucie Mannheim), who promised to look out for the child but who has subsequently disappeared. Ann is anxious anyway because she is moving house and in her new apartment has an encounter with her creepy landlord Horacio (Noel Coward), a master of the innuendo and the casual stroke of the arm.
It’s a very English school with stiff-upper-lip not to mention snippy teachers. “We mustn’t get emotional,” school administrator Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) warns the distraught mother. Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea), a journalist, kicks up more of a stink, arguing with staff, and with a very threatening manner. Things get creepier still. Upstairs, they hear voices but it’s just the school’s founder Ada (Martita Hunt) who records children talking about nightmares. Steven seems over-protective towards his sister, which is understandable, and somewhat over-affectionate, which is not.
Detective Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and sidekick Sgt Andrews (Clive Revill) investigate. He is an unusual cop. A university graduate but not of the excitable Inspector Morse persuasion for one thing, and reasonable to an irritating degree in that he keeps all his options open. But the cops are thorough, descriptions of the missing child issued, search of the premises and surrounding area undertaken. But it turns out there is no record of Bunny in the school ledger, no sign of her existence in the flat, and it transpires that as a child herself Ann had an imaginary companion called Bunny.
As Steven becomes more obstreperous and the intense Ann verges on the hysterical, not helped by the unwanted attentions of the landlord, a BBC performer with a melodious voice he believes irresistible to women and more than a passing interest in sadism, the case appears to be heading in the direction of a quick visit to a psychiatry ward. The usual anchor in these situations, the policeman, is not as definite as normal, Newhouse not pushing the investigation in a direction the audience will find acceptable, but largely standing back, as if yet to make up his mind, which adds to the sense of mystery.
Preminger isn’t in the business of piling twist upon twist, but as these arrive in due course, the options they offer are even more psychologically damaging. And from setting off at a steady pace with everything apparently settled down by the steady superintendent, the minute he departs the scene, the story takes on a different dimension and there are three superb chilling scenes, one in hospital, another in a doll’s hospital and the last in a garden as the question of just who is unhinged becomes more apparent. There is certainly madness in the movie but it comes when you least expect it and from a direction you may not have considered. On another level, the world of children is entirely alien to the adult and the reconciliation between the two worlds impossible to bridge.
Preminger extracts a performance from Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) that cuts the character to the bone, eliminating many of the actor’s tropes and tics, but at the same time making him perfectly human, unable to resist, for example, a traditional school pudding, and finding ways to curb Steven’s excesses while comforting Ann. By controlling the actor who always exerts screen presence, Preminger makes him come across with even greater authority. It’s an achievement in itself to ensure that Olivier never raises his voice.
Carol Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) is excellent as the distraught mother, one step away from losing her mind and Keir Dullea (The Fox, 1967) constantly raises the stakes. Noel Coward (The Italian Job, 1969) possibly does the best job of the lot, his normal high levels of sophistication eschewed in favour of the downright creepy. In supporting roles look out for Clive Revill (Kaleidoscope, 1966), Finlay Currie (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969), Anna Massey (De Sade, 1969) and Adrienne Corri (The Viking Queen, 1967). Pop group The Zombies featuring Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone put in an appearance.
Husband-and-wife team John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969) and Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote the screenplay from the besteller by Evelyn Piper. But it is most assuredly an Otto Preminger production. He has a surprisingly good grasp of British custom and character, shot all the movie on location, but in black-and-white so it is not dominated by the tourist London of red buses or red pillar boxes, and his probing camera and long takes are a marvel for any cinematic scholar.
The Pressbook for The Shoes of the Fisherman is almost reverential in approach. For a start there is a complete lack of the madcap schemes designed by marketing men to promote the picture to the exhibitor. Nor is there any mention of the tie-ins that did exist – the book had sold seven million copies and the soundtrack by Alex North was already being acclaimed – it would be nominated for an Oscar. And there are very few of the titbits that might appeal to a local journalist.
There is only one piece of artwork, although a truncated version provides a secondary opportunity for advertising and combined with a scene from the film material for a third ad. Taglines are equally scarce. “A distinguished international cast ignites all the dramatic power…all the magnificent spectacle of Morris L. West’s best-selling novel” is all there is apart from a puff from Look magazine puff that espouses “The Shoes of the Fisherman restores faith in films.”
The better tagline, in the sense that it sold an actual story rather than promoted the ingredients, was: “A modern-day story that reaches from the shadows of the Kremlin to the splendor of the Vatican.” One further tagline gave away more of the plot: “In a last desperate attempt to prevent World War III, a secret meeting is arranged. One man is called upon to succeed where all the world leaders have failed. That man was once a prisoner in a Russian labour camp. He is now the Pope.”
So what’s left, you might ask. Well, as promised in the tagline, the “distinguished international cast” and “magnificent spectacle.” The cast was awash with Oscars. The stars included four-time Oscar winner Vittoria De Sica, two-time Oscar winner Anthony Quinn, Oscar winner Laurence Olivier and Oscar nominated Oskar Werner.
The sets were of the no-expense-spared variety. Barred from using the Vatican itself, the producers used a mixture of real locations and sets at Italian studio Cinecitta to create the necessary backdrops. The Sistine Chapel set measured 133 feet by 45 feet and the paintings that dominate the altar including “The Last Supper” were copied in Hollywood and transported piece by piece. This set actually functioned and was accurate down to the tiniest detail. The only major touch omitted from the sets was the steps leading to the altar, since that would have necessitated cumbersome ramps to track the movement of the cardinals as they cast their votes.
Oher buildings were appropriated for modern scenes – the Palazzo dello Sport for the secret peace conference. Cardinals arriving to vote were filmed at Fiumicino airport and Stazione Termini railroad station. Other locations included the Palazzo Farnese at Capranola used for scenes of the breaking of the old Pope’s seals, the Church of San Andrea della Valle for the interior of St Peter’s for the papal coronation, and Castello San Angleo, Biblioteca Vallicelliani and Palazzo Barberini.
Incidental information, the kind that journalists could use to augment their material, was scant. Author Morris L. West had once been a monk; bit part actor Clive Revill had been knifed in his previous film by Burt Kwouk; stage actress Barbara Jefford was appearing in only her third film and her role as a cerebral wife was in stark contract to her debut as the sensual Molly Bloom in Ulysses (1967); small-screen star David Janssen of The Fugitive played a small-screen reporter; and Oskar Werner had turned down over a 100 screen roles if they interfered with his commitment to the stage.
Thought-provoking drama with a surprisingly contemporary slant set against the grandeur of the Vatican amid geo-political turmoil. At a time of global crisis, dissident Russian archbishop Lakotov (Anthony Quinn) is unexpectedly freed from a labour camp by the Russian premier (Laurence Olivier). Arriving at the Vatican, he is promoted to cardinal by the dying Pope (John Gielgud) before becoming an unexpected contender for Papal office.
The spectacular wealth of the Catholic Church is contrasted with the spectacular poverty of China, on the brink of starvation due to trade sanctions by the United States, nuclear war a potential outcome. The political ideology of Marxism is compared to the equally strict Christian doctrine, of which Lakotov’s friend Father Telemond (Oskar Werner) has fallen foul. There is a sub-plot so mild it scarcely justifies the term concerning television reporter George Faber (David Janssen) torn between wife Ruth (Barbara Jefford) and younger lover Chiara (Rosemary Dexter).
Lakotov is drawn into the Russian-Chinese-American conflict and the battle for the philosophical heart of the Christian faith while bringing personal succour to the lovelorn and performing the only modern miracle easily within his power, which could place the Church in jeopardy, while condemned to the solitariness of his position.
The political and philosophical problems addressed by the picture, which was set 20 years in the future, are just as relevant now. The film’s premise, of course, while intriguing, defies logic and although the climax has a touch of the Hollywood about it nonetheless it follows an argument which has split the Church from time immemorial.
You would not have considered this an obvious candidate for the big-budget 70mm widescreen roadshow treatment, but MGM, after the Church not surprisingly refused access to the Vatican, spent millions of dollars on fabulous sets, including the Sistine Chapel. The roadshow version of the picture, complete with introductory musical overture and an entr’acte at the intermission, is leisurely and absorbing, held together by a stunning – and vastly under-rated – performance by Anthony Quinn (The Lost Command, 1966) who has abandoned his usual bombastic screen persona in pursuit of genuine humility and yet faces his moments when he questions his own faith.
Ruth has a pivotal role in bringing Lakotov down to earth but George has the thankless task, setting aside the quandaries of his love life, of talking the audience through the sacred ceremonies unfolding sumptuously on screen as the cardinals bury one Pope and elect another.
You wouldn’t think, either, that Hollywood could find room in such a big-budget picture for philosophical discussion but questions not only of the existence of God but whether he has abandoned Earth are given considerable scope, as are discussions about Marxism and practical solutions to eternal problems. None of these arguments are particularly new but are given a fair hearing. There is a hint of the Inquisition about the “trial” Telemond faces. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) carries off a difficult role.
David Janssen (Warning Shot, 1967) is mere window dressing and Rosemary Dexter (House of Cards, 1968) mostly decorative but Barbara Jefford (Ulysses, 1967) is good as the wounded wife. Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) is the pick of the sterling supporting cast which included John Gielgud (Becket, 1964), Burt Kwouk (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966), Vittorio de Sica (It Happened in Naples, 1960), Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), Frank Finlay (A Study in Terror, 1965), Niall McGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967). In a small role was Isa Miranda, the “Italian Marlene Dietrich,” who had made her name in Max Ophuls Everybody’s Woman (1934) and enjoyed Hollywood success in films like Hotel Imperial (1939) opposite Ray Milland.
Michael Anderson (Operation Crossbow, 1965) directed with some panache from a script by veteran John Patrick (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960) and Scottish novelist James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960) based on the Morris West bestseller.
I found the whole enterprise totally engrossing, partly because I did not know what to expect, partly through Anderson’s faultless direction, partly it has to be said by the glorious backdrop of the Vatican and the intricacy of the various rites, but mostly from the revelatory Quinn performance. And even if the plot is hardly taut, not in the James Bond clock-ticking class, it still all holds together very well. From the fact that it was a big flop at the time both with the public and the critics, I had expected a stinker and was very pleasantly surprised.