When Roadshow Didn’t Rule

When two pictures made in the Cinerama process – Custer of the West (1967) and Krakatoa East of Java (1968) – didn’t make it onto the U.S. roadshow circuit, the industry was in shock.

There were two reasons for the unexpected decision – distribution logjam and cash flow. For a start you needed deep pockets not just to launch a movie in roadshow but to keep it there bearing in mind the ongoing outlay in interest costs for the production and the longer advertising schedule. That is, if you could find enough available cinemas.

Although there was still a production shortage as far as the general cinema marketplace went, that was not the case for first run. By 1967, studios were not dependent on roadshow for hits. In 1966, only one roadshow featured in the box office top ten. In 1967, the number rose to three. But that still meant the vast majority of first run movie theaters never ran short of product, especially when, should all the regular roadshow houses be already taken, they might be called upon to host a roadshow for a month or two.

Some movies – The Blue Max (1966), for example – which had not been made with roadshow in mind, were launched in a handful of cinemas as roadshow for prestige purposes. Conversely, other movies, produced with the express aim of being released in the roadshow format, skipped that element of the distribution chain and went straight into general release. The Great Race (1965) was shown in hard-ticket only in the Pantages in Los Angeles, but first run general release elsewhere. In Harm’s Way (1965) lasted just one day in roadshow.

But neither had been made in Cinerama which was considered the bedrock of the advance-booking separate-performance high-ticket-priced roadshow. There were two problems with that format and that company. The first was that cinemas equipped to show Cinerama were far fewer than those who could accommodate roadshow, so if they were full to capacity with existing pictures, opportunities to open elsewhere were not only limited but undesirable.

The second was that while in the past major studios had lined up to use the Cinerama format for their movies – Warner Brothers for Battle of the Bulge (1965), MGM for Grand Prix (1966), for example – now Cinerama had decided the company was best served by it taking control of output rather than sharing potential profit with anyone else.

Rather than simply licensing its film-making and projection equipment to studios and cinemas, respectively, and taking a small percentage of picture grosses and a fee for every ticket sold, Cinerama embarked on a bolder strategy. It would turn into a major production outfit – the dozen movies in its first tranche included, as well as the two roadshows, Charly, Shalako, The High Commissioner/Nobody Runs Forever, Candy and Stiletto. It also aimed to virtually double the number of cinemas equipped to show Cinerama, so there would be no shortage of roadshow outlets for its most prestigious pictures productions, and set up its own global distribution system.

But since Cinerama no longer had alliances with major studios, and in fact was now hellbent on competing with them, it lost those studios’ relationships with the big roadshow cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. There were only two houses in New York equipped with Cinerama, and Warner owned one and MGM had an almost symbiotic partnership with the other – Loews. That meant no place initially for Custer of the West.

But there was another option. Open it overseas. Roadshows often played for longer in European capitals than they did in New York or Los Angeles and those cities were often inclined, when demand was at its highest, to switch a big first run house into a roadshow theater.

And there was precedent. MGM had opened How the West Was Won (1962) in the Casino Cinerama in London ahead of its Stateside roadshow release. The Cinerama western had cleaned up, record takings, a massive run into the bargain, all serving to heighten expectation across the Atlantic. So, Cinerama opened Custer of the West in that cinema with top seats costing $3.50 and separate performances (two a day, three at the weekend) and to initial public and critical success.

The much-touted “record” opening week disguised the fact that the only record it took down, and then only by $200, was that of How the West Was Won five years previously; Battle of the Bulge’s opening salvo of $41,608 remaining intact. In any case ticket sales soon tailed off and Cinerama had second thoughts about the cost and wisdom of opening it in roadshow in the U.S. especially when the lack of theaters would produce further delay.

So it took another strategic, possibly perilous, route in deciding to miss out New York and Los Angeles – and Boston and Chicago for that matter – from its initial roadshow roll-out. The assumption was that big box office elsewhere would soon have New York and LA houses queuing up. The film’s U.S. premiere took place in Dallas and Houston on January 24 and it managed another 15 roadshow bookings in the months following.

Except for a “big” $15,000 in Detroit, the other opening week results were so soft – “fairish” $8,500 in Cincinnati, “just okay” $7,000 in Kansas City, $4,000 in Portland which was less than the previous week’s run-of-the-mill picture – the studio called for a rethink. “Due to spotty out of town dates thus far it seems an unlikely bet for New York roadshowing,” opined Variety. And so it proved. Cinerama promoted its general release as “direct from reserved-seat engagements” but it fared little better, a “thin” $171,000 from 34 houses in its first New York salvo.

With none of its ambitious slate beyond Charly striking box office gold, Cinerama tore up the rule book for Krakatoa East of Java. In some respects it followed the launch template of Custer of the West with the movie being seen first overseas, world premiere this time in Japan, six months ahead of the May 1969 U.S. opening. But the London launch, at the Astoria – where it ran for nearly six months – came after, on July 31, not before.

But there was clearly an unwillingness to risk all in roadshow. So, Cinerama came up with a clever compromise. While not strictly speaking entering roadshow in that it abandoned advance booking and high ticket prices, it stuck to separate performances but, to compensate for potential loss in box office receipts, operated on four performances daily rather than two. Cinerama called this “scheduled performances” and it was somewhere between roadshow and general release. But it was initially screened in Cinerama in those houses equipped with the projection equipment and only after those semi-hard-ticket bookings were complete did it enter general release.

Even without roadshow, the movie exploded onto screens on opening weeks – a “big” $60,000 in New York (and $55,000 in the second week), a record-breaking $31,764 (and $36,345 in week three) at the Pacific Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, a “giant” $50,000 in Cleveland, “hotsy” in Detroit with $36,000, $22,000 in Denver and a “mighty” $18,000 in Washington.

Between the Dome (a genuine roadshow with 14 performances a week) in Los Angeles and the Broadway Cinerama (the hybrid with double the performances per week) in New York it grossed $1.2 million. Overall, the various hard-ticket strands kept the movie on screens for most of the summer and into the autumn before a general release targeted for Thanksgiving and Xmas kept up the box office heat.

The studio put an unusually hefty marketing push behind the general release. Having gone round the houses, literally, once with promotional ideas, the company rejigged the best ideas and brought in new suggestions. But, basically, the word to new exhibitors was to learn from successful strategies used in the semi-hard-ticket release. “Rather than rest on its laurels,” the studio packaged the best ideas into a six-page A4 advert and stuck in in Box Office magazine. It knew what worked and just wanted to repeat and expand the process.

One of the marketing coups for the New York launch had been a giant outdoor sign in Times Square, at 265ft long and 62ft high the largest ever designed. The film’s artwork employed in this fashion attracted the attention of thousands of passers-by and served as an example of how the marketing material could work, even if on a smaller scale.

Exhibitors were instructed to target department or chain stores. The launch had found ready cooperation not just from Macy’s but discount store White Front, specially chosen to promote the “price reduction” idea, of a big movie at low prices. It was standard practice for roadshows going into general release to be advertised as “now at regular prices” but the idea of harnessing the mindset of a discount chain, associated with low prices, set a precedent.

There were the obvious routes – tie-ups with record stores and bookshops for the soundtrack and the Signet paperback – but the studio had also made available a reprint of an article on the Krakatoa eruption from Reader’s Digest magazine in 1946, and provided a Teacher’s Guide for schools. Educational avenues were heavily explored, and what teacher would not have an eager audience of young kids to be taught a lesson about volcanoes.

Where the semi-hard-ticket launch had secured the presence of Miss Java, it was suggested that local exhibitors should try and find someone of Indonesian origin, perhaps an exchange student at a local college, to participate in the local screenings. Pearls and balloons, intricate parts of the movie’s narrative, had been used in a big way for the launch, but still lent themselves to simpler exploitation, fake pearls could be given away and colorful balloons if a weather balloon could not be located nearby. The extra effort that went into the general release paid off.

The New York showcase popped a “smash” $430,000 from 31 houses. The company reissued Krakatoa East of Java and Custer of the West in a giant “East Meets West” double bill in 1971 in advance of the television prmeiere of the former two years later.

Overall, while Custer of the West was considered a flop in the U.S., Krakatoa East of Java qualified as a hit of modest proportions, and both movies did well globally. But by 1969, setting aside the $18 million it cost to turn Cinerama into a genuine studio with its own distribution arm, the company had turned a financial corner, and in 1970 income had soared to $46 million – up from $12 million – and there was at last a profit ($3.2 million) instead of a loss ($660,000).

Exactly how much Custer of the West and Krakatoa East of Java contributed to the overall turnaround is impossible to determine because for some arcane reason the studio refused to reveal rental figures even though it had been happy to supply them for other movies which had contributed to the uplift such as Candy, Charly and The Killing of Sister George.

Most film historians point to the flop of several big-budget pictures as the reason for the demise of the roadshow, but just as likely was the move by Cinerama to shift away from the roadshow format in favor of its hybrid, which retained some of the “special event” aspects of the roadshow release while pushing ahead on the more commercial approach of lower prices matched by more daily performances, effectively attempting to bring in revenue at a faster speed, which would be the determined aim of studios in the following decade. The Godfather (1972) might be considered the classic imitator.

SOURCES: Kim R. Holston, Movie Roadshows, A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings 1911-1973 (McFarland, 2013) p266-267; “Custer Pulls a Record $33,245 in London Bow,” Variety, November 22, 1967, p13; “Cinerama Sanguine on Custer After London; Gets U.S. Roadshowing,” Variety, November 22, 1967, p13; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, February 14, 1968, p18; “N.Y. Roadshow Problem for This & Next Season with Theater Map Torn Apart,” Variety, March 29, 1968, p5;  Advert, Box Office, April 29, 1968, p1;  “Krakatoa – 3-Site Premiere in Tokyo,” Box Office, January 20, 1969, pE1; “Krakatoa in Paris,” Variety, January 29, 1969, p4; Advert, Variety, May 21, 1969, p35; Advert, Variety, June 11, 1969, p31; “Krakatoa Shuns Roadshow,” Variety, July 9, 1969, p15; “Krakatoa London Bow,” Variety, July 2, 1969, p34; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, July 2-16, 1969; “General Release Set for CRC’s Krakatoa,” Box Office, November 3, 1969, p9; “Merchandising The Picture, ” Box Office, November 17, 1969, p13-18; “New York Showcases,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p9; “West End,” Kine Weekly, January 3, 1970, p9;“Cinerama’s Big Year,” Variety, March 25, 1970, p4.

London in the Raw (1964) ***

The headmaster of top English public school Harrow and the owners of upmarket emporium Grieves probably didn’t realize what they were letting themselves in for when they agreed to participate in this British version of Mondo Cane (1962), the movie that turned documentary into box office gold by the simple device of concentrating on the sleaze.

In truth it’s a bit of bait-and-switch, although anyone seeking titillation in those more repressed times when nudity was forbidden by the censor would be rewarded by the sight of three women topless, an anomaly explained by such nudity appearing in a non-sexual situation and my guess that the movie’s producers pointed to the stage loophole which permitted it as long as the women did not move. (That reasoning was explained, should you be interested, in Mrs Henderson Presents, 2005.)

The nudity occurs in the context of life classes, one organized by a bunch of beatniks as a means of funding their lifestyle, which includes eating baked beans cold and snacking on cat food, rebels that they are; when business is poor, they resort to taking snaps of the girls for Soho magazines. The other is the post-dinner entertainment in an upmarket restaurant where the customers sketch drawings of the undressed immobile models.

There’s an expose of clip joints, where elderly men are duped out of money by unfulfilled promise, paying extortionate amounts for non-alcoholic beverages, and a behind-the-scenes look at a strip club (nudity concealed behind nipple pasties) and a sex worker, the narrator making the point that while it’s not illegal for that woman to ply her trade indoors, a beggar playing a penny whistle in the street could be arrested. The strip club has the dingiest of entrances.

But in the main it’s a rather snippy examination of contemporary mores as staid London, at this stage not quite Swinging London, undergoes dramatic change. A health club enters the frame and there’s a gory piece on male hair transplants, a bloodier experience than audiences might expect, and a trawl round various unusual, but harmless, place of entertainment: an Irish pub with a horde of singers, an amateur Jewish theater, disco dancing at the renowned Whiskey-A-Go-Go, German students congregating for a slice of home at the Rheingold Club, the casino at Churchills, and cabaret.

“Bold! Brazen! Bizarre!” boasts the trailer and while that might be typical hype, audiences in those tamer times may well have been shocked especially when the camera focuses on two elements rarely discussed at that point in polite society: homelessness and drug addiction. Even so, it does find, as with the rest of the movie, unusual aspects of both. For example, the homeless lace their methylated spirits with milk. A director with an eye for dynamic composition could not have hit upon a better idea than contrasting the white contents of one bottle with the blue contents of another, the mixture being consumed in tea cups.

And I, for one, did not know that drug addicts were treated far more sympathetically in Britain than in the United States. That may well have been because the numbers were low, only 600 registered addicts compared to 47,000 across the Atlantic, though the degradation was no less pitiful, female abusers taking to the streets to pay for their addiction.

As a slice-of-life it’s less exploitational than the posters – or title – suggest and so falls into the historic category of The London Nobody Knows (1967), although less compelling, and it’s perhaps more interesting for the personalities involved, several of whom became significant figures, one way or the other, in the movie business.

Making the biggest later impact was Michael Klinger who went on to produce Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac (1966), drama Baby Love (1969), gangster classic Get Carter (1971), Gold (1974) and Shout at the Devil (1976). Co-producer Tony Tenser went on to found Tigon, the horror outfit that challenged Hammer. Stanley Long turbocharged the British sexploitation industry with numbers such as Groupie (1970), The Wife Swappers (1970) and Eskimo Nell (1975).

But it didn’t open many doors for director Arnold L. Miller who managed only a handful of features such as Frustrated Wives/Sex Farm (1974) which was banned by the British censor. Uncredited co-director Norman Cohen later made The London Nobody Knows.

Interesting for the most part and buy it if you want to play your part in upholding the British Film Institute which has rescued this from the vaults in the hope of making a quick buck.

Three Hats for Lisa (1965) ***

Until the triumphant arrival of Oliver! (1968), the bar for British musicals was set very low. This just about scrapes through, thanks primarily to the enthusiastic cast and a rare opportunity to hear Sid James warble, though that may well be a detrimental factor.

At this point the British movie musical was kept aloft by pop stars, Cliff Richard (Summer Holiday, 1963) injecting box office life into a moribund mini-genre, The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964) adding artistic credibility. Any pop star could front a musical, hence Ferry Across the Mersey (1965) starring Gerry and the Pacemakers, or if you filled the picture with enough stars (Gonks Go Beat, 1964) that was deemed sufficient.

You would be hard put to place Joe Brown, leading man of Three Hats for Lisa, in the Cliff Richard/Beatles class and no British effort could come close to West Side Story (1961), Gigi (1958) or South Pacific (1958).  Despite a paucity of hit singles – three Top Ten hits in 1962-1963 the extent of his chart success, Brown, voted UK Vocal Performer for 1962, and with a distinctive brush-cut, had already starred in What a Crazy World (1963), an adaptation of a stage musical, directed by Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968) which featured singers Susan Maugham, Marty Wilde and Freddie and the Dreamers.

But there was an emergent generation of stage songsmiths led by Lionel Bart (Oliver!, stage debut 1960) and Leslie Bricusse (Stop the World I Want To Get Off, stage debut 1961) and even the venerated John Barry (The Passion Flower Hotel, stage debut 1965) had tried his hand. Bricusse, on a publicity high after co-writing the lyrics for Goldfinger (1964), already had a movie musical to his name, Charley Moon (1956).

If Joe Brown had no proven box office cachet he was in good company. Frenchwoman Sophie Hardy had little musical experience that I’m aware of (unlike namesake Francoise Hardy), was making her English-speaking debut (as an Italian) and was best-known for Max Pecas’ number The Erotic Touch of Hot Skin (1964), a title that suggested far more than presumably the picture delivered. Una Stubbs, later famous for Till Death Us Do Part comedy series, was equally unknown.

Joe Brown is the one in the middle.

Narrative was the least consideration when crafting a British movie musical. This gets by on the notion that three irrepressible Cockneys – Johnny (Joe Brown), Flora (Una Stubbs) and Sammy (Dave Nelson) – somehow get entangled with a sexy Italian movie star Lisa (Sophie Hardy) who wants to dodge out of work commitments and collect a selection of typical British hats: a bowler, a busby (bearskin) and policeman headgear. Taxi driver Sid (Sidney James) is along, literally, for the ride. The rest of the time it’s a Swinging Sixties London travelog, an opening aerial shot of the capital, iconic sites to the fore, setting the scene, and subsequently cramming in as many tourist attractions as possible.

Every couple of minutes, for no particular reason, they burst into song and faux-West Side Story choreography. In fact, it’s stuffed with songs, fourteen over a short running time. Some are clearly spoofs – “The Boy on the Corner of the Street Where I Live” for example, or “Bermondsey” and none are particularly hummable. On the plus side, all the song-and-dance numbers are exteriors, though presumably because it was cheaper than hiring studio space. That London remained dry enough to accommodate such spectacles is probably the only miracle on show.

It’s far from dreary, and the story is daft enough, in the vein of 1940s Hollywood musicals, to get by, and the young cast fling themselves about quite splendidly, and there’s certainly an innocence to the proceedings, Johnny settling for just a kiss on the cheek from Lisa, and it would have probably stretched the imagination even more had serious romance beckoned. It seems a shame to mark down such effervescence, and though it’s in reality a two out of five, it’s not in the execrable league so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt especially as it was directed by Sidney Hayers (Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn, 1962) who usually manages to salvage something from unprepossessing material. And also because neither Sid James nor Talbot Rothwell, the Carry On series resident writer, give in to the temptation of the double entendre.

Midnight Lace (1960) ****

Works for the very reason that it shouldn’t – Doris Day’s off-the-scale hysteria. The actress junks her usual screen persona of spunky occasionally lovelorn heroine and channels her abundant physical energy into an exceptionally good portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

And, unlikely as it sounds, this a companion piece to David Miller’s later Lonely Are the Brave (1962),which equally presents a discordant character at odds with their surroundings whose inability to settle into the norm precipitates downfall.

Heiress Kit (Doris Day) is being hounded mainly over the telephone by a creepy stalker with a high-pitched voice, threatening to kill her. Before you can say Gaslight, you are casting a suspicious eye on millionaire businessman husband Anthony (Rex Harrison). But that only lasts for as long as it takes for a whole bunch of other suspects to hove into view.

The sinister man in black hat and coat appears too obvious a contender. Others have something off about them or appear at the wrong time and wrong place. Unemployed ne’er-do-well Malcolm (Roddy McDowell) who sponges off his mother, attempts unsuccessfully to tap Kit for funds and makes it plain he won’t be doffing his cap to her. Builder Brian (John Gavin) is over-friendly and, we overhear, makes a lot of phone calls.

And you wouldn’t count out gambler Charles (Herbert Marshall), an executive in Anthony’s firm, which, by the way, has uncovered a bit of fraud. Nor happily-married Peggy (Natasha Perry), Kit’s friend, who turns up in a bus queue the very moment Kit nearly ends up under the wheels of a London bus. And then there’s Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) who’s arrived from America and seems determined not to take Kit’s side.

Naturally, nobody can allay Kit’s suspicions. The police are the first to suggest she’s going off her head, seeking attention because neglected by her husband.

But this is so well done, Kit jumping at the slightest noise, that you are pretty much convinced it’s going to be one of those films where every incident is imagined, especially since that would be a helluva coup to have an actress of the lightweight caliber of Doris Day to play her.

Whenever anyone else answers the phone it’s to an innocent caller. And when Kit persuades Peggy to pretend she heard the voice, discovery of that ruse appears to seal her doom.

When we’re not stuck in Kit’s head, there are sufficient tense moments to keep the plot ticking along, trapped in an elevator, shadows on a ceiling, faces glimpsed in windows, voices appearing out the fog, whispers behind her back, friends turning against her, every  police ploy a dead end.

Quite why she’s such a giddy character to begin with is never explained, except of course being a millionairess, three months married, with nothing better to do with her time than waltz around in one stunning fashionable outfit after another, life a succession of expensive treats, and whisked off her feet, when he can spare the time, by adoring hubby.

So maybe it’s something as simple as a loved-up wealthy woman finding cracks appearing in her perfect life and in trying to ascertain the cause whirling round faster and faster. There’s certainly no sense of a solid character who could sit down and give herself a good talking-to or transform herself into an amateur sleuth. When the façade breaks, it’s a dam burst.

If at the beginning Doris Day seems already too-wound-up it doesn’t really matter, her lust for life turns very quickly into abject fear as the terrorization becomes only too real. This is a fantastic performance from the actress, woefully under-rated, and the scene where she collapses on the stairs is only too believable.

Rex Harrison (The Happy Thieves, 1962) is excellent in a custom-made role, handsome adoring husband, but every time he clasps her in a sympathetic embrace, the camera lingers on his eyes showing growing fear at her condition. The roster of supporting stars each brings something distinctive to their role, from the wheedling Roddy McDowell (Five Card Stud, 1968), in only his second movie role after eight years of solid television,  the too-good-to-be-true John Gavin (Back St, 1961) and old-timers Myrna Loy (The Thin Man, 1934) as the doubting aunt and Herbert Marshall (The Letter, 1940) as the impecunious gambler.

Director David Miller (Captain Newman, M.D., 1963) moves the camera in disconcerting fashion. You think you’re settled in for a stage-style scene when suddenly the camera whirls away and focuses on one character. The scene in the elevator is exceptionally well-done as is the finale, but possibly his biggest attribute is encouraging Doris Day to just go for it rather than reining in her character the way Hitchcock did for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (Portrait in Black, 1960) put together the screenplay from the hit Broadway play Matilda Shouted Fire by Janet Green.

I came at this with low expectations, not imagining Doris Day could pull off such a difficult role, and I came away wondering why she had not in consequence been given other opportunities to show off her dramatic skills.

The London Nobody Knows (1967) ****

Poverty is hardly an attractive movie subject. But in the light of Where the Crawdads Sing being accused of Hollywoodizing poverty, this is far grittier reminder of the grim reality.

Unexpectedly, documentaries hit a rich box office seam in the 1960s. But these were not the earnest features of the Man of Aran (1934) variety that elated the arthouse crowd or even Disney’s humor-leavened True-Life animal tales. No, documentaries in this decade mainlined the exploitative vein. West End Jungle (1961), Mondo Cane (1962) and London in the Raw (1964) had a very high cost-to-profit ratio.

The London Nobody Knows does not appeal to the prurient. It is a gritty riposte to the Swinging Sixties tourist-bedazzled London of Carnaby St fashion, pop music, red buses, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben. But to lure in an audience the camera intially focuses on the kind of travelogue that purports to show the different side to a well-known locale, before it delves into the terrible poverty which sections of the population could not escape.

Fronted by an actor – unusual then but standard now – in James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) it begins with a diatribe against the way modern soulless architecture has destroyed significant parts of traditional London, ignoring for the most part that it swept away slums. The actor, bedecked in tweed jacket, polished brown shoes, flat cap and rolled-up umbrella, is in sharp contrast to the often decayed parts of the capital he strolls round.

Initially, what he turns up is almost quiz-question material. A victim of Dr Crippen who had a connection to the abandoned Bedford music hall theatre, home to giants like Marie Lloyd and where artist Walter Sickert was an avid attendee, the backyard in Spitalfield where Jack the Ripper disposed of one of his victims. We visit Clink St, site of a famed prison, which gave its name to “the clink,” and the Roundhouse Theater, originally a  turntable for railway engines. Near the Savoy a man goes through the act of lighting a street gas lamp.

There’s a now-defunct egg-breaking plant, a business that carried out that chore on an enormous scale for chefs, and various bustling markets a-brim with the range of fresh food – eels squirming in their tanks, piles of fruit and vegetables – we only see these days in European or Asian markets. And there’s a look in passing at the type of fashions on parade when people don’t have a personal dresser, strange mixtures of outfits that were all the rage.

And then we come to the grim heart of forgotten London, a land of forgotten people, the homeless or near enough. Homelessness was not the issue it is now. The BBC play Cathy Come Home (1966) made a star out of Carol White, triggering a debate on the issue, highlighted by the formation the same year of homeless charity Shelter. But Cathy Come Home hardly touched the surface and after all it was fronted by a glamorous star.

There’s nothing glamorous about the awful, defeated often toothless faces here. Loss never looked so raw. Some don’t even find a park bench to spend the night but sprawl on the grass or fall asleep standing up leaning against a wall. Nothing so temporary as even a cardboard box available.  

Others eke out a living as buskers – again, not the acceptable occupation it is now – a man dressed in a pirate outfit doing a demented tap dance. Some are not quite homeless, living in a shared dormitory on bunk beds in a Salvation Army hostel for six shillings and sixpence a night (a third of one pound sterling) or if they are flush a private room for 63 shillings a week.

Mention when seeking employment that your abode is the Salvation Army Hostel and you’ll never be offered a job. It’s a stigma. The sole perk here – what with spitting and drinking and gambling outlawed – is breakfast, but comprising porridge or fried egg, tea and two slices of toast, a meager repast by Full English standards.  

The alcoholics drink something blue – methylated spirits probably – but the last vestiges of hope disappeared long ago except for one forlorn aged tramp who aims “to see if I could better myself…in a better way.”

The camera lingers on lived-in faces as though this was not a motion picture but the work of a photographer recording for posterity lives long worn away.

Oddly enough, there’s none of the self-pity that would predominate today. And there’s no blaming either. Circumstances are not investigated, though it’s obvious most took a wrong possibly alcoholic turn in their lives, were once gainfully employed but through unemployment were at the mercy of a system that didn’t yet exist to sustain them through this kind of tribulation.

Irish director Norman Cox had previously worked uncredited on London in the Raw, but the success of his mainstream breakthrough, the movie adaptation of television comedy series Till Death Us Do Part (1968), probably gave him carte blanche to undertake this though nothing else in his later portfolio – Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975), Stand Up Virgin Soldiers (1977) – approached this depth. Geoffrey Fletcher wrote the screenplay based on his own book published in 1965.

You Must Be Joking! (1965) ***

British thriller specialist Michael Winner (Death Wish, 1974) learned all about structure churning out low-budget comedies like this unusually contemporary number. A precursor of the reality television trope of a variety of characters in competition to complete a series of odd tasks, this has a military set-up, aiming to find, oddly enough in an organisation where strict hierarchy dominates, people capable of bending the rules. Initiative, in other words.

Some of the motley crew, of course, have no intention of bending any rules if they can get everyone else to do the work for them, namely upper-class Capt Tabasco (Denholm Elliott) who gets the game rolling by calling in a helicopter as a favor from an old school chum to rescue him from a maze, the first task. He spends most of the time pampered in a hotel suite while dispatching girlfriend Poppy (Tracy Reed) on various expeditions.

Saved by the double bill: Winner’s comedy found a bigger audience
by being booked as the support for hit “Cat Ballou.”

There’s a Yank involved, of course, to target the all-important American market, Lt Tim Morton (Michael Callan) also using assistance in the form of upmarket girlfriend Annabelle (Gabriella Licudi) whose specialty is causing vehicle pile-ups. We’ve got a whisky-drinking Scot, Sgt Major MacGregor (Lionel Jeffries), stiff upper back rather than stiff upper lip with his constant snapping to attention, and two graduates from the Army Hapless Division in Sgt Clegg (Bernard Cribbins) and Staff Sgt Mansfield (Lee Montague). Directing proceedings are Major Foskett (Terry-Thomas) and General Lockwood (Wilfred Hyde-White), at opposite ends of the character arc, the former frantic, the latter laid back.

A couple of the five tasks involve unravelling clues, finding a particular rose, for example, but the whole purpose of the exercise is to have the soldiers constantly getting in each other’s way, trying to outwit one another, falling into bizarre scenarios – a fox hunt the cleverest – and generally getting all muddled up one way or another, so that initiative is the last thing they display.

What the movie does have in abundance is imagination, otherwise how to explain the involvement of a seductive housewife, pop star, television show, tunnelling, Lloyd’s of London, Rolls Royce and a greyhound racetrack. On the other hand this might be a smaller-scale precursor to If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1969) in shovelling together all sorts of British institutions and tourist attractions. And certainly Capt Tabasco with his love of the finer things of life demonstrates just how much fun it can be to be British if you’re upper class, wealthy, went to the right school and are not above a bit of blackmail.

As you might expect, the pace is hectic, which is just as well, because if you stopped to think about what was going on you might well throw in the towel. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable in a riotous sort of way, running jokes almost in a separate competition of their own, and if you always hankered to see Michael Callan’s dance moves this is for you – suffice to say he’s not in the Fred Astaire class. But everyone here is there to be made a fool of, except Capt Tabasco, who rises above it all in classy fashion and when he’s out for the count appears blessedly delighted.

Denholm Elliott (Station Six Sahara, 1963) comes off best, testing out his lazy scoundrel, but  the top-billed Michael Callan (The Interns, 1962) might never have signed up if he’d known the consequence was being relegated to television for seven years. However, given we are well accustomed to the shtick of the likes of Bernard Cribbins (The Railway Children, 1970), Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon, 1964), Terry-Thomas (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! 1966) and Wilfred Hyde-White (The Liquidator, 1965), he does at least have the advantage of standing out, if only as a novelty.

And just in case the goings-on don’t hold your attention, Winner has recruited a platoon of top British stars in bit parts including Leslie Phillips (Maroc 7, 1967) and James Robertson Justice (Guns of Darkness, 1962) and rising stars such as Tracy Reed (Hammerhead, 1968), Gabriella Licudi (The Liquidator) and Gwendolyn Watts (The Wrong Box, 1966) and future British television treasures Clive Dunn (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977), Richard Wattis (Copper’s End, 1971) and Peter Barkworth (Telford’s Change, 1979). So if you get fed up trying to work out what’s what you can play who’s who.

Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) wrote the screenplay based on a story by director Winner.

Not non-stop hilarity but definitely non-stop something with a good few chuckles thrown in.

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

How is that the British, way down now in the rankings of global movie production, have come up with a successful genre all of their own – the national treasure. Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren to be sure first came to prominence in the same year, 1969, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Age of Consent respectively, but whereas Hollywood has turned its back on the ageing female contingent, the British film industry has wrapped its most famous stars in cotton wool and proceeded to give them roles they can take to the Oscar bank.

Mirren was in her early 60s when she romped home in The Queen (2006); you only have to say Downton Abbey and Smith, already two Oscars to the good, is regarded as screen royalty. And that’s before Judi Dench enters the equation, a few years older than Mirren when she nabbed the Oscar for Shakespeare in Love (1998). You can pretty much count on getting funding for any picture if you can rustle up any of this trio. Want to bring back the older crowd? Dangle these carrots!

Elevated into this category now is Lesley Manville, the 66-year-old star of the delightful Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. While largely escapist, there’s enough of a contemporary vibe, a Paris redolent of filth, the downtrodden going on strike, to provide an edge, and a narrative that continually punctures dreams any time fantasy looks like running away with itself. Set in 1950s London and Paris where the poor know their place, and are rigidly kept in it by the arrogant rich, but where aspiration can at any moment take flight.

Cleaner Mrs Harris, dreaming of buying a £500 dress – we’re talking the best part of £14,000 these days – scrimps and saves, and through a couple of more than fortuitous events, finds her way to the House of Dior where she is despised by haughty manager Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), adored by philosophic model Natasha (Alba Baptista) for having such aspirations, and manages to cast a spell, although not for the reasons expected, over rich widower the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson).

There’s not much plot. She has to remain in Paris for a fortnight for fittings and whiles away the time helping along the romance between under-manager Andre (Lucas Bravo) and Natasha, assisted by their existentialist leanings, eventually overcoming hostility and putting everything to rights in the Dior empire. But you don’t need plot when you’ve got charm. The English notion of fair play initially comes a cropper when facing French egalitarianism out of whack, when the rich can jump the queue and basically make everyone jump to their tune. But when a character like Mrs Harris settles for second best you can be sure she’ll come up trumps. Whether it’s icing on the cake or to make a rubbish-strewn Paris more palatable, there’s a good ten minutes of oo-la-la devoted to parading the latest fashions.

Not content with conquering one city, Mrs Harris developed sequelitis and headed for New York.

And there’s not just a philosophical undertone – people not what they appear on the surface – but a feminist one, women holding the world together while men whistle. But by and large it’s joyous entertainment, a confection straight out of the Hollywood top drawer, a poor woman having her day in the sun through sheer strength of character.

Unless you’re British or a big fan of arthouse director Mike Leigh or noticed her Oscar  nomination in the largely unnoticed The Phantom Thread (2017) Lesley Manville will probably have passed you by. She nabbed a cult following as the dumped-upon lead in comedy series Mum (2016-2019) and picked up a wider audience as Princess Margaret in The Crown, but mostly she’s known for a certain kind of acting, where she can change expression 20 times in a minute without ostensibly doing anything different. Just like her predecessors, Smith, Dench and Mirren.

You can’t take your eyes off her, which is quite feat when she’s up against French screen royalty (perhaps a “tresor national”) Isabelle Huppert (Elle, 2016). Alba Baptista (Warrior Nun series) could well be the breakout star here though Lucas Bravo definitely runs her close. I saw Bravo in Ticket to Paradise (2022) and the characters there and here could not be more different. Ellen Thomas (Golden Years, 2016), Lambert Wilson (Benedetta, 2021), Anna Chancellor (For Love or Money, 2019) and Jason Isaacs (Operation Mincemeat, 2021) have smaller roles.

Director Anthony Fabian (Skin, 2008) adds deeper issues to a movie that was crying out to be all surface. He co-wrote the screenplay with Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew, 2012) based on the classic Paul Gallico novel.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) ****

A more prescient picture you couldn’t find, tapping into a contemporary audience’s greatest fear – global warming. Its bold cliff-hanger ending would also appeal to a modern audience often left dangling at the climax of a blockbuster. And it cleverly skims on the special effects, relying on the more easily achieved downpours, thick fog, constant sweating, newsreel footage of natural disasters, water rationing and end-of-the-world riots than anything bigger.

But what surprised me more was the sheer pace. Not just a story moving at a frenetic pace but the British characters acting like they had been injected with a heavy dose of New York zap, talking over each other, hardly getting a complete sentence in before interruption, like Howard Hawks had taken command instead of a mere Englishman like Val Guest (Assignment K, 1968), a former journalist.

Front cover of the Pressbook.

It channels the director’s experience into creating the most realistic newspaper office you will ever come across, beating out All the President’s Men (1974) in its representation of how journalism really works, as concerned as much with the general fodder of unheralded stories as the scoops that normally drive such a narrative. And for a story that started off as pure pulp, the dialog is superb, so good it won the Bafta award.

It certainly helped that an actual newspaper editor, Arthur Christiansen (of the Daily Express) lent a guiding hand, playing the role of the editor of this downmarket daily. The summoning of copy boys (actually grown men), the demand for 500 words, the printers ready to switch the front page at a moment’s notice, the inevitable diet of pie and pint, and the emotional casualties as marriages crumble under the strain of a husband more concerned with this next story than wife or children, all serves to ground the film.

And yes, the narrative plays into the usual journalistic tropes, ambitious newspaperman Peter (Edward Judd), career on the line, uses typical wiles, duping lowly scientific secretary Jeannie (Janet Munro) into revealing more than she should. It’s a meet-cute of the old-fashioned variety, she hates him on sight.

Peter is as off-kilter as the world, knocked off its axis by the simultaneous explosion of nuclear devices, unable to come to terms with his divorce, finding solace in the time he spends with his child, and it seems fitting that much of that is spent diving into the darkness of the ghost train ride, the fog equally thematic as he wanders round in circles in that, as aimless as in his life, while a bath is just as cinematically important, not just for the obvious semi-nude scene but as a place of refuge from impending terror.  

These journalists know how to sniff out a story, how to separate the what from the chaff of the official line, digging deeper, and with global connections able to put two and two together far swifter than officialdom. It helps that Peter’s guardian angel Bill (Leo McKern) has a scientific brain and is able to work out the source of the infernal rising temperature.

It’s axiomatic of how clever the screenplay is that Peter and Jeannie come together over a lost child, although Peter, cynical and bitter, but more vulnerable than most, remains a conniving character, happy to risk their burgeoning relationship for the sake of a scoop.

Like Quatermass and the Pit (1967) it’s one revelation after the other as the world hurtles towards oblivion, though not before ending up as the biggest barbecue of all time. The film acknowledges the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the time before piling on proof that man has sown the seeds of destruction on a four-month countdown to doomsday.

We have been here before with end-of-the-world scenarios but this story unfolds not in scientific or official offices, and there’s no President around to add gravitas or take the blame, but in the minds of the dogged journalists, soon appalled by their discoveries, and for once a scoop is unable to save the day or give the villain his just deserts. Whoever is behind the catastrophe remains nameless, although the outcome of superpowers duking it out for supremacy is never in doubt.

Edward Judd (First Men on the Moon, 1964) delivers a star-making performance as the jaded, jagged, journo capable of emotional depths while Janet Munro (Hide and Seek, 1964) escapes Disney tomboy servitude with a very adult role. Leo McKern (Assignment K) has the solid acting chops that would, two decades before television fame as Rumpole of the Bailey, see as a formidable heavyweight addition to any film and a threat to any co-star through jis charismatic ability to steal scenes.

But the film belongs to Val Guest, who constantly turns up the emotional heat and the terror scale, getting the most out of the riveting, sparkling screenplay he co-wrote with Wolf Mankowitz (The 25th Hour, 1967).  

See How They Run (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Kind of film that needs sold on word-of-mouth and a slow platform-release rather than being bundled out to fill the distribution gap. Let the audience sing its praises first before slinging it out in wide release. Because this is a definite audience-pleaser, a fun whodunit. Though a limiting factor might be that appeal may be restricted to those of a certain age familiar with  The Mousetrap. I wouldn’t bet my last dollar, either, on modern young audiences even having a clue who Agatha Christie was, or responding to a picture set in dull, dull, Britain in a year -1953 – when there was a significantly more glorious event that might have suited better the average Downton Abbey moviegoer: the coronation of the recently-deceased Queen Elizabeth II.

Delightful pastiche on the detective story, too much to suggest it’s a piss-take on Knives Out or the latest big-screen veneration of Hercule Poirot, but it certainly has enough going for it even if none of those connections are eventually made. Certainly, there’s some sly humor in scoring points for mentioning, a la Murder on the Orient Express, that the initial murder could have been committed by all the suspects.

Basically, out of favor war hero and alcoholically-inclined cop Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) is saddled with rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) – two in-jokes right there, John Stalker being a very prominent British cop, playwright Tom Stoppard the author of The Real Inspector Hound – to investigate the death of Yank Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), in London to turn Agatha Christie’s famed play into a movie for real-life producer John Woolf (Reace Shearsmith) who made The African Queen (1951).

Virtually everyone associated with the play becomes a suspect. These include pompous playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), the play’s petulant producer Petula “Chew” Spencer (Ruth Wilson), real-life actor Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and even Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson) is not above a bit of poisoning. Throw into the mix that the cops have assigned the bulk of their resources to tracking down the 10 Rillington Place serial killer – another in-joke, Attenborough playing the murderer in that movie.

One of the movie’s delights is that whereas both Stoppard and Stalker have considerable personal issues, we discover them in passing, and neither character makes a meal of them. Instead, their screen charisma works a treat, Stoppard dogged and the earnest Stalker inclined to jump the gun.

Even the “all-star-cast” is a spoof on films like “Death on the Nile.” The title was a popular one, movies in big-screen or small using it in 1955, 1964, 1984, 1999 and 2006.

The stage shenanigans are a hoot, puffed-up pride and ruthless machinations powering many of the sub-plots. There’s some pretty clever sleight-of-hand not to mention occasional cinematic avant-garde and there’s no shortage of laughs and that out-dated comedy fall-back – slapstick. The climax is particularly excellent, in part because it is a notion immediately discarded as the denouement of the proposed movie version of the play, one that succinctly critiques the differences between British and Hollywood approaches to movie-making.

Red herrings and cul-de-sacs abound, flashbacks remove any plot-holes, while managing to ram in a country-house finale takes some brio. And in among all the jokes, you might be surprised to find a serious point being made about reality vs fiction. Full marks to the virtually laugh-a-minute screenplay by Mark Chappell  (The Rack Pack, 2016) and director Tom George in his movie debut who brilliantly shuffles the deck.

Dramatic heavyweight pair Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards, Outside Ebbing Missouri, 2017) and Saoirse Ronan (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) prove a double-act to cherish. In gentle comedic roles at odds with virtually their entire portfolios, a wise producer might already be sizing them up for a re-run. Everyone else gets to be bitchy/scheming/ruthless to their heart’s content and certainly in those categories Adrien Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014)  and Ruth Wilson (His Dark Materials, 2019-2022) win hands-down. But spare a thought for excellent performances from David Oyelowo (The Bastard King, 2020), Reace Shearsmith (of League of Gentlemen TV fame), Lucian Msamati (The Bike Thief, 2020) as the imperturbable Max Mallowan, husband of the distinctly perturbed Agatha, played with venomous glee by Shirley Henderson (Greed, 2019).

I went to see it not expecting much at all and came out singing its praises. Definitely worth a whirl.

Quatermass and the Pit / Five Million Miles to Earth (1967) ****

Five million dollars.  That’s roughly the budgetary difference between Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit and Twentieth Century Fox’s Fantastic Voyage. Although the protagonists in the latter face the unexpected, the movie is (as would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) an exercise in awe, in controlled exploration of wonder, whereas Quatermass, lacking the money for special effects, concentrates more on story and human impact. The government funds the experiment in Fantastic Voyage while Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds nothing but obstruction from his superiors.

Quatermass and the Pit is a masterpiece of stealthy exposition. Virtually every minute brings another development, gradually building tension, stoking fear. The principals – Dr Roney (James Donald), Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) and the professor – are cleverly kept apart during the early stages. A human skull discovered on a building site for a London Underground station is followed by a skeleton. Palaeontologist Roney determines it is five million years old, older than any previous find.

A metallic object is found nearby. First guess is an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. But it’s not ticking. And a magnet won’t stick to it. Col Breen (Julian Glover) is called in along with hostile rocket expert Quatermass. They have been locking horns from the outset.

There’s a whole bunch of apparent red herrings, mostly of the demonic variety. The location, historically associated with weird occurrences, is a nickname for the Devil. A pentagram is detected. Touching the object can give you frostbite. Col Breen argues it’s a leftover German propaganda machine from World War Two. A hideous dwarf and other spectral images are sighted. Telekinesis is involved. And tremendous vibrations.

Some people, such as Barbara, have a more receptive brain and can play memories millions of years old that reveal the alien truth. But this is an alien race with genocidal tendencies and able to unleash psychic energy.

The genre requires the scientists to discover an improbable solution which of course they do. Given the miserly budget, the special effects are not remotely in the Fantastic Voyage league. But that hardly matters. The movie coasts home on ideas, marrying sci-fi, the demonic, dormant and institutionalized evil, the militarization of the Moon and the ancient infiltration of Earth by Martians, no mean achievement, and a vivid narrative.

Director Roy Ward Baker (aka Roy Baker) provides many fine cinematic moments as he chisels away at the story, finding clever methods of revealing as much of the aliens as the budget will permit, focusing on very grounded characters, concentrating on conflict, and human emotions, mainlining fear rather than awe, building to an excellent climactic battle between man and monster.

Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the stars, in part because she is at such a remove from her normal Hammer scream-queen persona, but more importantly because she brings such screen dynamism to the role. It’s refreshing to see her step up, as she carries a significant element of the story. Oddlyenough, although she has as good a movie portfolio as Andrew Keir and is certainly superior to James Donald, the denoted star, in that department, she is only billed third.

While Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967), warm-hearted for an intellectual, and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963), trying to keep a cool head in the middle of inclination to panic, are good, they don’t bring anything we haven’t seen before. Julian Glover (Alfred the Great, 1969) is never anything but imperious and/or irascible, so ideal casting here.

The innovative electronic music was down to Tristram Cary and the unsettling credit sequence deserves some recognition. Nigel Kneale, who originally explored similar ideas for the character on television, came up with the screenplay.

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