The Comedians (1967) ***

Over-long, over-hyped and over-cast. Pretty much an early example of virtue-signalling, exposing corruption in a dictatorship (Haiti), but offering more through the singular self-deception of the main characters. An element of sleight-of-hand is also practiced on an audience enticed by four big stars “above the title” comprising three Oscar winners and one multiple nominee. Luckily, the ironic in-joke of naming characters with traditional English names – Smith, Jones and Brown – would probably pass most people by.

Brown (Richard Burton), a hotelier, is present throughout but Major Jones (Alec Guinness) appears only briefly at the beginning then disappears until late on to spike the plot. Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the adulterous love interest, pops up sporadically as does her husband Ambassador Pineda (Peter Ustinov). There’s not much of a story, Brown, cynical about the dictatorship, is friendly with a rebel leader, Jones is an ineffectual arms dealer, and missionary couple the Smiths (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish) offer comic relief until barbarity rears its head.

Great play is made of naivete but the film suffers from the Hollywood curse of only being able to examine foreign politics through the prism of a (white) American or Englishman. At the time it might have been shocking to see brutality so convincingly dispensed, and there is, also, in Mondo Cane fashion, too much time spent on strange ritual, but at the same time, of course, the U.S. was inflicting its own barbarities on the Vietnamese.

On the other hand, Brown is exactly the kind of foreigner who believes things must improve because, damn it all, he’s British and bad things can’t happen to a Brit in a strange land. He is convinced he will be able to sell a hotel located in a war-torn country, persists in believing Martha will abandon husband and son, and convinces himself he is the very man the rebels have been looking for.

Jones mistakenly believes everyone is taken in by his hail-fellow-well-met routine and his tales of heroism in World War Two jungles, thinks he is in with a chance with Martha and that his gun-running activities will avoid detection. The ambassador thinks his wife will not leave him as long as he turns a blind eye to her affairs. And Martha, probably wondering why she married such a buffoon, can’t work out to dump him. Everyone who has much to lose appears to be continually on a precipice and it’s hard to see what they could gain from their actions. 

They are all misfits, “comedians,” stuck in the rut of their own destiny, unable to change.

Nobody is more gullible than those who dupe themselves and the film comes into its own when it sets personal delusion against political naivete. In narrative terms Jones is the most obviously unmasked but the others are no less shown to be foolhardy in their expectations.

This had all the hallmarks of a prestige picture, initially planned as a roadshow,  around $2 million spent on the above-the-line cast, another chunk on buying the rights to the Graham Greene bestseller and assigning the author the screenplay, location shooting in Dahomey.

Don’t expect oratorical fury from Richard Burton (The Bramble Bush, 1960) nor outbursts of angst from Elizabeth Taylor (Secret Ceremony, 1969). There’s something almost comically homely in their deception and in the outwardly confident Brown perceiving Jones as a love rival.  Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) is the big treat, an upmarket con man, his boisterous voice and mannerisms far removed from his more usual introspective performances. Peter Ustinov (Topkapi, 1964), a bit too fidgety for my liking, nonetheless attracts sympathy as the man who is batting above his weight in snaring a trophy wife he knows he cannot hold onto.

Burton was the odd one out in the Oscar rankings. Despite five nominations by this stage, he had never taken home the statuette. Elizabeth Taylor, by contrast, had won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Guinness once for Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Ustinov also twice Spartacus (1961) and Topkapi.  

However, in some senses if you remove the star turns, you are left with a rawer picture, and director Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) captures much of the personal intensity of the novel. Taylor, in particular, misses the mark. Although playing a German, she never once bothers attempting an accent. Had Burton been the sole star, the movie would have worked much better since his low-key playing would not have been so much at odds with other actors.  

There’s a host of striking turns from supporting stars, ranging from silent film star Lillian Gish (The Unforgiven, 1960) to Roscoe Lee Brown (Topaz, 1969), James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope, 1970), Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968) and Cicely Tyson (Sounder, 1972).

Warning Shot (1967) ****

So underrated it doesn’t even feature on Wikipedia’s chart of 1960s crime pictures, this tight little gem, with an early reflection on police brutality, a dream cast, violence in slow motion  (prior to The Wild Bunch, 1969, mind you) and a stunning score from Jerry Goldsmith, is definitely in need of resurrection. Astonishing to realize that cop pictures had fallen so out of fashion, that this was the first Hollywood cop film of the decade – outside of a drama like The Chase (1966) – the entire previous output focusing on gangsters with a rare private eye (Harper, 1966) thrown in. With none of the vicious snarl of Madigan (1968) or the brutality of Coogan’s Bluff (1968), this was more in keeping with the later In the Heat of the Night (1967) in terms of the mental and physical barrage endured by the cop.

In thick fog on a stakeout for a serial killer at an apartment block Sgt Tom Valens (David Janssen) kills a potential suspect, wealthy Dr Ruston. Valens claims the suspect was reaching for his gun. Only problem – nobody can find the gun. Up on a potential manslaughter charge, Valens is pressured by boss (Ed Begley), lawyer (Walter Pidgeon) and wife (Joan Collins) to take the rap and plead guilty.  The public and media rage about police brutality. Putting Valens’ testimony in doubt is a recent shooting incident, which left Valens with a stomach wound, and which may have clouded his judgement.

Although suspended, Valens has no alternative but to investigate, interviewing elderly patient Alice (Lillian Gish) whom the doctor was visiting, patient’s neighbour playboy pilot Walt (George Grizzard), doctor’s assistant Liz (Stefanie Powers), doctor’s wife   Doris (Eleanor Parker) and doctor’s stockbroker (George Sanders) without nothing to show for his efforts but a savage beating, filmed in slow motion, inflicted by the doctor’s son and pals, and a further attempt on his life. He gets into more trouble for attempting to smear the doctor as an abortionist (a crime at the time).

The missing gun remains elusive though the direction at times suggests its existence is fiction. The detection is superb, red herrings aplenty, as Valens, the odds against him cheating conviction lengthening by the day, a trial deadline to beat, everyone turning against him, openly castigated as the killer cop, struggles to uncover the truth. And it’s clear he questions reality himself. He has none of the brittle snap of the standard cop and it’s almost as if he expects to be found guilty, that he has stepped over the line.

Along the way is some brilliant dialogue – the seductive drunk wife, “mourning with martinis” suggesting they “rub two losers together” and complaining she has to “lead him by the hand like every other man.”  Cinematography and music combine for a brilliant mournful scene of worn-down cop struggling home with a couple of pints of milk. The after-effects of the stomach injury present him as physically wounded, neither the tough physical specimen of later cop pictures not the grizzled veteran of previous ones.

David Janssen (King of the Roaring 20s, 1960) had not made a picture in four years, his time consumed by the ultra-successful television show The Fugitive, but his quiet, brooding, internalized style and soft spoken manner is ideal for the tormented cop. This also Joan Collins (Esther and the King, 1960) first Hollywood outing in half a decade.

Pick of the supporting cast is former Hollywood top star Eleanor Parker (Detective Story, 1951) more recently exposed to the wider public as the Baroness in The Sound of Music (1965) whose slinky demeanor almost turns the cop’s head. Loading the cast with such sterling actors means that even the bit parts come fully loaded.

In the veteran department are aforementioned famed silent star Lillian Gish (The Birth of a Nation, 1915), Brit  George Sanders (The Falcon series in the 1940s), Walter Pidgeon (Mrs Miniver, 1942) also in his first film in four years, Ed Begley in only his second picture since Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and Keenan Wynn (Stagecoach, 1966). Noted up-and-coming players include Stefanie Powers (also Stagecoach), Sam Wanamaker (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965), George Grizzard (Advise and Consent, 1962) and  Carroll O’Connor (A Fever in the Blood, 1961). American television star Steve Allen (College Confidential, 1960) plays a hypocritical pundit.

A sophomore movie for noted television director Buzz Kulik (Villa Rides, 1968), this is easily his best picture, concentrating on character with a great eye for mood. Screenwriter Mann Rubin (Brainstorm, 1965) adapted the Whit Masterson novel 711  – Officer Needs Help. The score is one of the best from Jerry Goldsmith (Seconds, 1966).

Has this emanated from France it would have been covered in critical glory, from the overall unfussy direction, from the presentation of the main character and so many memorable performances and from, to bring it up once again, the awesome music.

Worth catching on Amazon Prime.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.

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