The Best House in London (1969) *

One of the worst – and certainly among the most repellent – films ever made. A hymn to misogyny under the guise of the not very difficult task of exposing Victorian hypocrisy, it labors under the bizarre thesis that all women want to be prostitutes. Screenwriter Denis Norden’s befuddled sense of history is awash with the same kind of contempt for audiences. Elizabeth Barrett (of Wimpole St fame) rubs shoulders with Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s illicit lover) even though they lived half a century apart, the Chinese Opium Wars and The Indian Mutiny feature despite being separated by 15 years.

Sex workers had proved the basis for many good (and occasionally excellent) pictures in the 1960s ranging from Butterfield 8, Never on Sunday, Irma la Douce and Go Naked in the World at the start of the decade to Midnight Cowboy at its end, but these all featured well-rounded characters facing understandable dilemmas. But here the cynical and demeaning plot –  more Carry On Up the Brothel than political satire – makes you wonder how this concept was perceived as either plausible or an acceptable subject for comedy

The monocle joke. Dany Robin sports the manacles her idiotic girls were supposed to wear rather the monocles they did wear.

Feminist philanthropist Josephine Pacefoot (Joanna Pettet) – a character based on the real-life campaigner Josephine Butler – has set up the Social Purity League to rescue fallen women. Walter Leybourne (David Hemmings) is hired as a publicist to bring the issues raised to a wider audience. When Josephine inherits the fortune of Uncle Francis (George Sanders) the pair come up against the nefarious Benjamin Oakes (also played by Hemmings), her cousin and his half-brother, who has purloined his uncle’s mansion in Belgravia as the premises for London’s first brothel – The Libertine Club. This venture is backed by the Home Secretary (John Bird) as a way of getting streetwalkers away from upmarket shopping streets where their presence discourages wealthy females. Josephine also has to deal with a caricatured “evil” Chinaman (Wolfe Morris) through her uncle’s investment in opium. There’s also for no particular reason apoplectic airship inventor Count Pandolfo (Warren Mitchell).

All the women rescued from the oldest profession by Josephine are soon recruited by Oakes and a good chunk of the middle section of the movie involves various excuses to give the viewers intimate glimpses of what goes on in the brothel, involving an abundance of nudity.  Oakes also aims to seduce Josephine while the shy Walter struggles to entice her into romance.

Excepting Josephine and Oakes’ mistress Babette (Dany Robin), the women are uniformly stupid. The story begins with Oakes’ duping a woman in a hot air balloon into removing her clothes on the grounds that it was the only way to reduce height enough to land. And it does not get any better. Women supposedly forced onto the streets after bad experiences with men turn out to be the seducers. Walter has the devil’s own job getting any of the girls to agree they had been raped. Walter, hoping to sell a story to The Times, is no less crass: “I can get five columns for a good rape.” Flora (Carol Friday), rescued much to her displeasure, is “gagging” for it. And there’s just an awful scene where a young girl sings about her “pussy” which even in the 1960s surely raised adverse comment.

The humor is largely of the sniggering variety. The brothel girls wear monocles instead of manacles, the only game on display in the Card Room is strip poker, and naturally there is a peeping tom, lawyer Sylvester (Willie Rushton).

As if to display his erudition, but without raising the laughter quotient, Norden chucks in literary cameos by the score – Charles Dickens (Arnold Diamond), Alfred Lord Tennyson (Hugh Burden), the aforementioned Elizabeth Barrett (Suzanne Hunt) and Lord Alfred Douglas (George Reynolds), Sherlock Holmes (Peter Jeffrey) and Dr Watson (Thorley Walters), plus explorer David Livingstone (Neil Arden) and department store entrepreneurs Fortnum (Arthur Howard) and Mason (Clement Freud).  

That the movie actually gets one star is thanks to a number of excellent visual jokes: one scene of Uncle Francis defying the mutineers by raising the Union Jack cuts to the blood-splattered flag decorating his coffin; Sylvester frustrated at the keyhole but still hearing the moans of seducer-in-chief Oakes is followed by the sight of the wannabe lover struggling to get out of his bonds, having been attacked by Chinamen.

There’s not much difference, beyond hair color, between the characters essayed by David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1969). Both are one-dimensional, the pop-eyed virgin astonished by the goings-on at the brothel, the suave villain who might as well be twirling his moustache for all the depth he brings to the role. Thankfully, Joanna Pettet (Blue, 1968) is at least believable though even she could not act her way out of scenes where she was suspended by the Chinaman above a vat of boiling acid.

George Sanders (Sumuru, Queen of Femina aka The Girl from Rio, 1969) has a ball as the hypocrite-in-chief who knows how to monetize vice while Dany Robin (Topaz, 1969) brings some finesse to an otherwise one-dimensional part. But everyone else is a cipher which is a shame given the talent on show – John Bird (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968), John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda, 1988), Warren Mitchell (The Assassination Bureau, 1969), Bill Fraser (Masquerade, 1965) and Maurice Denham (Some Girls Do, 1969). Among the girls, you might spot Veronica Carlsen (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968) , Margaret Nolan (Goldfinger, 1964) and Rose Alba (Thunderball, 1965).

Director Philip Saville (Oedipus the King, 1968) should have known better and certainly made amends later in his career with among other projects BBC series Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). But Denis Norden (Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell, 1968) never wrote a more misguided piece in all his life.

For sure, a film like this is not going to do down well in these times but I was surprised how vilified it was on release, critics like Roger Ebert insulted by its endless attacks on women, the public no less hostile and it died a death at the box office.

Behind the Scenes: The Spies Who Came in from Television: “The Spy with My Face” (1965)/”To Trap a Spy” (1965)

MGM wasn’t the first studio to hit upon the idea of re-editing episodes of a television series into a movie for cinema release. Small-screen The Lone Ranger had spawned The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1952) and Disney had stitched together episodes from its Davy Crockett franchise to create Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1955). The Challenge for Rin Tin Tin (1957) derived from The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Frontier Rangers (1959) born out of Northwest Passage, the Texas John Slaughter series the basis for five movies shown between 1960 and 1962, Crimebusters (1962) originated from Cain’s Hundred and Lassie’s Great Adventure (1963) from five episodes of the eponymous series.

But all these movies had one major disadvantage. Like their source material, they appeared in black-and-white. The Disney pair mined some box office gold, but primarily as matinee material. The rest were fillers, scheduled for the bottom half of a double bill and aimed at suburban and small-town cinemas and drive-ins desperate for anything to fill out a program. And all were nothing cruder than editing two or more episodes together to make a feature film.

MGM took a different approach. Instead of merging two different episodes, albeit starring the same stars, the studio decided to take one episode and expand it, filling out the story with subplots and extra characters and spicing up proceedings with levels of sex and violence that would not be tolerated on mainstream television. As important, it would be shot in color to make it stand out from the television series being shown in black-and-white.

First picture in the trial scheme was To Trap a Spy (changed form the initial To Catch a Spy), an expanded version of the television pilot known as The Vulcan Affair, and as well as series leads Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) and David McCallum (The Great Escape, 1963) toplined future Bond femme fatale Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball, 1965). A second movie was culled from The Double Affair which had been screened on November 17, 1964, with an European star with a considerable pedigree in Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965).

Since MGM had no idea whether the spy series, launched in the U.S. on NBC on 22 September 1964,  would catch on abroad, where in any case stations paid comparatively little to screen top American shows, its initial idea was to release films only for the foreign market.  

In fact, the studio didn’t wait to see if the BBC could make a hit out of the debuting The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series and shunted out To Trap a Spy before the series even screened in Britain. And lacking momentum from television, it went out as the support on the ABC circuit in Britain to The Americanization of Emily (1965) starring Julie Andrews and James Garner.

At that time, the ABC chain was not beholden to the double bill idea. In fact, more than half the annual weekly releases went out as solo affairs. A double bill was more likely to suggest that there were doubts over the pulling power of the main film. There was no way of judging the box office appeal of any film put out in the lower half of a double bill.

The odd thing was that if MGM had held off pressing the button on the circuit release, To Trap a Spy would have demonstrated box office success. At the same time as the double bill was simultaneously released at nationwide first run theaters, To Trap a Spy opened in London’s West End in May 1965 at the 529-seat Ritz and delivered the best business MGM had enjoyed there for two years. It returned to the 556-seat Studio One, also in the West end, in October that year as the top attraction in a double bill that included Glenn Ford-Henry Ford western The Rounders (1965) and in its fifth week took in an excellent $5,600 and a few weeks later shifted back to the Ritz.

Between released the first and second Uncle pictures, MGM had launched a major marketing campaign on the back of the launch of the series on BBC. One marketing gimmick, inviting the audience to write in for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. certificates, brought in over half a million applications. MGM splashed out $85,000 marketing The Spy with My Face (1965). Again, the movie went out in an ABC circuit release – in July 1965 – as part of a double bill, with Son of a Gunfighter (1965), but this time the Uncle film topped the bill. Launched in the West End at the much larger 1,330-seat Empire it took $22,000 in its opening week.  Nationally, “it was far and away above average for a top-grossing picture in the UK.”

To Trap A Spy and The Spy with My Face each grossed $2 million in the UK market. By January  1996, a third Uncle film had launched in the British market, One Spy Too Many,  based on the two-episode Alexander the Great Affair which had screened in America in September 1965. This time MGM held off from ABC circuit release until mid-February until One Spy Too Many had cleaned up in January in the West End, $25,000 at the Empire, helped along by a Xmas merchandizing bonanza that saw the country flooded with memorabilia, paperbacks, three singles and an album. It broke studio records in 91 of the 125 situations it first played.   

The success of the first pair pointed up the potential U.S. box office from these featurized episodes and MGM put together the double bill The Spy with My Face/To Trap a Spy on the  assumption that the films at the very least would pick up business outside first run venues where bigger-budgeted pictures dominated and provide respite for showcase (wide release) theaters, drive-ins and small cinemas suffering from product shortage. The bigger a hit a movie became, whether roadshow or not, the longer it took to move down the food chain.

MGM was also inspired by the merchandizing boom generated by the television. A toy gun was well on its way to notching up sales of two million, and there were in addition, games, puzzles, trading cards, costumes and masks and chewing gum.  

The MGM was entering a very crowded espionage market. Not only had Thunderball taken the top off the box office with an explosive debut in Xmas 1965, but any new entrant into the field in 1966 would come up against such spy behemoths as Columbia’s Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) from Twentieth Century Fox as well as more offbeat spy numbers like Paramount’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and other pictures aiming for a slice of the cake like Where the Spies Are (1966) with David Niven and That Man in Istanbul (1965).

Variety magazine was sniffy about the double bill’s prospects – “for the least discriminating audiences” was its take on To Trap a Spy although Box Office deemed it “far better story-wise” than The Spy with My Face.

Advert in “Variety” (May 27, 1964, p41) announcing the new series.

The Spy with My Face/To Trap a Spy gained surprising traction in first run, even though MGM was demanding a 50 per cent share of the box office. In some cities it ran smack bang into the openings of one or other of the biggies while Thunderball played for months on end. Even so, the results were surprisingly good. Leading the single cinema first run bows was $24,000 – equivalent to $214,000 now – in Chicago (and a second week of $18,000). Boston audiences delivered $16,000 (plus $11,000 second week), Detroit $18,000 (and $12,000). It ran for three weeks in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Providence and two weeks in St Louis, Buffalo, St Louis, San Francisco and Cleveland.

There were one-week bookings at other major cities like Seattle, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Cincinnati. Except in Portland (“drab” first week and “dull” the second) and Seattle (“okay”) the box office verdict varied from “potent,” “virile” and “sock”  to “nice,” “fine,” and “pleasant.” Box Office magazine reckoned that in Hartford the duo produced revenues over three times the average and in Memphis twice the average.

Following first run, it would go into wider breaks in these various cities. Some cities ignored first run and opted for a straight “showcase” (wide release) bow, New York leading the way with $104,000 – $928,000 equivalent today – from 25 cinemas, Kansas City bringing in $35,000 from 10 in week one and $25,000 from 10 in week two, and Baltimore good for $40,000 from 18. In new England cinemas and drive-ins united for a multiple run release hat “rang up some of the briskest business of the winter months despite the adverse weather conditions.” The only downside was the Pacific chain of drive-ins refusing to show the double bill on the grounds that previous experience of showing movies adapted from television series had “brought patron beefs” and that its own tests had not worked.

Even when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series ended after three-and-a-half seasons, MGM continued bringing out movies, eventually totalling eight in all. The others were: One of Our Spies Is Missing (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1966), The Karate Killers (1967), The Helicopter Spies (1968) and How to Steal the World (1968).

Towards the end of the decade the Easy Rider (1969) phenomenon prompted a brief vogue for box office analysts to point to low-budget pictures generating the biggest profit. Nobody tended to include the first three Uncle films in this equation regardless of the fact that, costing an original $200,000 per episode plus extra for reshoots and editing, they were, on a profit-to-cost basis, extraordinarily successful, easily bringing home revenues in the region to 10-15 times their budgets.

SOURCES: Allen Eyles, ABC: The First Name in Entertainment (CTA, 1993), p123; “Another Uncle Sequel As O’Seas Theatrical,” Variety, September 23, 1964, p79; “Uncle Gets 3rd Whirl As O’seas Feature,” Variety, January 27, 1965, p26; “International Soundtrack,” Variety, May 26, 1965, p26;  “Toys from Uncle,” Variety, June 30, 1965, p42; “Uncle Stunt in London Is Metro Hit,” Variety, December 8, 1965, p23; “Metro Sees Uncle TV Stanzas As B.O. Kin to James Bond in Theaters,” Variety, February 2, 1966, p1; Review, Variety, February 16, 1966, p18;  Review, Box Office, February 21, 1966, pB11; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, March 14, 1966, p22; “One Spy Looms MGM Leader in Britain,” Variety, March 20, 1966, p29; “Drive-Ins in New England Preparing To Solve Springtime Problems,” Box Office, March 21, 1966, pNE4; “Pacific Prefers Not To Follow Video,” Variety, April 20, 1966, p24; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, June 20, 1966, p14; “How Uncle in Great Britain Clicked Via Tie-Ups with Tele,” Variety, June 22, 1966, p17; “Uncle TV Conversions Boffo at B.O. Theatrically O’Seas,” Variety, March 20, 1968, p4; Box Office figures taken from the weekly edition of Variety in the “Picture Grosses” section on the following dates: in 1965 on November 10 and December 8, in 1966 from February 2 until June 1; and August 18, 1966.  

Baby Love (1969) ****

Disturbing tale about grooming marking the debut of Linda Hayden could not more accurately reflect changes in public perception from over half a century ago.  What had originally seemed a movie about a young woman wreaking havoc on a middle-class family is now more easily recognized as a more sympathetic study of a young girl denied familial attention attempting to find a stable and welcoming home.

After the suicide of her mother (Diana Dors) Luci (Linda Hayden) is taken in by Robert (Keith Barron), a highly successful doctor and ex-lover of her mother, and his wife Amy (Ann Lynn). His marriage to sophisticated housewife Amy is distinctly rocky. They live in a fabulous three-storey house on the bank of the Thames with son Nick (Derek Lamden), a typical teenager the same age as Luci but who is sexually naive, confused and hypersensitive. Amy comforts Luci when the young girl has terrible nightmares and ends up sleeping in the same bed until she realizes how inappropriate is such behavior.

Nick chances his arm with Luci but is continually rejected, not surprisingly since his approach is more than a tad creepy, spying on her in the bathroom, entering her bedroom when she is naked, leching after her in the garden. Robert is the only one to try and keep his distance and in the absence of her own father becomes the subject of a father fixation.

Conditioned to accept the advances of older men finds her in potentially unsavory situations in a cinema, a club, and with a friend of the couple (Dick Emery). That she apparently welcomes such attention reveals the depth of her grooming, not just forced to watch her mother make love, but, as suggested in a flashback, the mother complicit in not preventing her lovers making a play for her. If Luci appears sexually confident that only disguises her inner turmoil, a desperate need to be loved, lack of proper parenting and setting of boundaries and having chanced on a proper home determined to do whatever it takes to remain there.

It is actually Ann who is the disturbing element, eventually overcoming her own inhibitions and not only seducing the girl but telling her that if she wants to remain in the house she will need to twist Robert round her little finger. And the only way she knows how to do that is follow her mother’s example and exploit her sexuality. If Luci appears exploitative in the context of the family that is only because they are not privy – as is the audience – to the depth of her nightmares, the constantly reappearing image of her mother dead in the bath, her mother’s leering lovers. Even when she goes over-the-top with make-up or clothing there is an innocence to such behavior, little more than a young woman testing boundaries and trying to find her way. Any intelligent assessment of what is going on would clearly see the child as the victim.

The grandeur of her new potential home bears no comparison to the poky working-class council house she occupied up north. For a child with such an impoverished upbringing, she is fairly grounded. She is not the wild child you might expect from her upbringing. She fits well into family life, happy to listen to classical music, and to Ann’s astonishment can actually cook breakfast and knows how to lay a table, skills her spoiled son patently lacks.

Considerable efforts are made to make each character more rounded. Robert hates his wife’s sophisticated parties and is an insomniac judging from the stack of books on his bedside.  The guilt he feels for abandoning Luci’s mother, apparently his one true love, in favor of ambition, is exacerbated by Luci’s presence that reminds him not only of a path wrongly chosen but of what he has lost, that relationship ripped asunder when abortion entered the frame.

Ann clearly needs to project success, expensive clothes and champagne the least of their lifestyle, and with little outlet for pent-up emotion and a need to mother settles on Luci as the object of, initially at last, her affection. Nick hides his cigarette ends in a matchbox, would accept Luci as just a friend, occasionally rising to the role of protector, delighted to be seen in the company of a beautiful girl. Teenage fantasy in other words but with an edge of entitlement that goes too far.

In her debut Linda Hayden (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970) is superb in an extremely difficult role and it was a shame that it was the sexual part of her portrayal that made its biggest impact on future movie producers rather than the sensitivity of her performance, the look in her eyes when she is shown her bedroom for the first time is amazing. Also making a  movie debut Keith Barron (Nothing But the Night, 1973) lacks the mellifluous tones that were later his hallmark and his performance as unloved husband and guilty ex-lover is very well observed.

Ann Lynn (I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname, 1967) has the most challenging role of a woman tortured by desire she has until now kept hidden or under control. Derek Lamden did not make another movie. Diana Dors (Hammerhead, 1968) has a fleeting role.

It wasn’t the fault of director Alasdair Reid that uber-producer and marketing kingpin Joseph E. Levine (The Carpetbaggers, 1964) wanted to sell a different movie from the one that was made, focusing on titillation and turning Luci’s sexual confusion into something predatory. The idea that this movie is a sexualized film noir is a marketing trick. Closer re-examination reveals that Luci is entering a disturbed household, one she lacks the skills to negotiate and is in reality the exploited one.

In fact, Reid (Something to Hide, 1972) did a very commendable job. He made some bold decisions especially relating to sound. The opening credits are accompanied by the sound of a dripping tap that would turn into a cascade of water. That would become a recurring motif, along with steam. Most scenes lacked music. Although most nightmares are image-driven, the initial one is full of clashing sound as well as disturbing sights. As the movie hits its stride, a clever device is adopted, showing disturbing images outside the house that are actually, you quickly discover, another nightmare. Mostly the camera remains fairly static but it occasionally swoops to represents anxiety from one point-of-view. The bulk of the story takes place in the house but when the camera goes outside, to a disturbing scene on the river for example there are original ideas, one character speaking through a megaphone.

Passed by the British censor with an X-certificate then and an 18-certificate DVD today, it still has the power to shock. However as far as I can see it was last classified in 1994 and I have written to the BBFC to see if that classification should still stand.

Well worth a reappraisal.

Network has this on DVD.

Behind the Scenes: “The Wicker Man” (1973) – Revised Version

The movie Cinderella story to end all movie Cinderella stories. Quite how The Wicker Man came to earn its cult status given that for more than a decade it was hardly screened is quite a remarkable tale. An occult picture that as authoritative a producer as Michael Deeley (Blade Runner, 1982) deemed one of the ten worst films of all time – and without even the compensation of falling into the “so bad it’s good” category.

Most people who saw it during its original British release did so by default. They had gone to see Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) with top stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and tagged onto that box office hit – and critical smash – was this other movie critics had dismissed. That it surfaced at all was because British Lion put it out on the lower part of a double bill in order to legitimately defray its costs by snipping off some of the revenue accrued by Don’t Look Now.

It certainly wasn’t that the Nicolas Roeg picture needed a helping hand on the box office front. Prior to opening, Don’t Look Now had already covered its $1.2 million budget by selling off foreign rights with Paramount taking it for the United States. Despite having the same budget of $1.2 million, The Wicker Man, did not attract the same foreign interest, or indeed any foreign interest. and for the time being was put on the shelve. British Lion had been sold to EMI who put Deeley in charge and his assessment of The Wicker Man‘s worth put paid to any prospect of a high-end launch.

Don’t Look Now opened, minus The Wicker Man, in October 1973 at the London West End’s most prestigious cinema, the Odeon Leicester Square and in phenomenal fashion. An opening week $32,000 (equivalent to $126,000 these days) was bettered by a second week of  $44,000 ($174,000 equivalent). A further two weeks brought in $41,000 and $35,000 respectively (or about close on to a total of $600,000 in today’s money).

Advertisement that ran in the “Variety” trade paper on November 16, 1977.

Then it switched, still minus The Wicker Man, virtually next door to the equally prestigious 1,402-seater Leicester Square Theater. An opening salvo of $29,000 dropped just $1,000 in the second week. A six-week run garnered $138,000 ($546,000 equivalent). Four weeks into that run it also opened at the 1,394-seat Metropole, this time as a double bill with The Wicker Man. It wasn’t a genuine double bill. A proper double bill consisted of two films of roughly equal standing that might both have premiered in the West End, top billing given to the movie that had performed best at the box office.

The Wicker Man had been on quite a different trajectory to Don’t Look Now. Despite it being promoted in “a savvy publicity ploy” at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1973 with a 30ft high “wicker man” set on fire on the Croisette, once Michael Deeley took control, replacing Peter Snell, also producer of The Wicker Man, he had no intention of giving a solo launch. By piggybacking on a hit movie, it was guaranteed to bring in some income.

However, initially, it seemed a disastrous idea. The Metropole double bill opened in mid-December 1973 to a miserly $5,300, second week no better, just $4,900.

But then something extraordinary happened. The third week was through the roof, a whopping $13,700. Over seven weeks it snapped up $57,000 (equivalent to $225,000 today). It wasn’t that surprising, however, since in the first two weeks it was still showing at the Leicester Square Theatre, but once the Metropole was the only option, the figures jumped up. Assuming revenue would taper off, in the fifth week of the Metropole  run it began playing simultaneously at the 1,883-seat Odeon Kensington – probably to coincide with the general release – where the first week raked in $16,800. It continued at this cinema for six weeks, bringing in another $57,000.

Let the fun begin: Ingrid Pitt does a blade runner.

And even then it wasn’t done. Towards the end of February the double bill switched to the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket, also in the West End. and opened with $6,000. A decent enough tally for a movie that had been on the market for over four months, but it turned out that except for its eighth and final week, that amount was the lowest it grossed. It ran out with a similar sum to the other two cinemas, $56,200. And then it moved again to the 150-seat Cinecenta 3, just off Leicester Square in London’s West end for a final flourish of $5,300 in two weeks, the second week improving on the first. All told, the double bill grossed $175,100 in the West End (just under $700,000 at today’s figures). The double bill also went out on general release on the Odeon circuit in Britain at the start of February 1974 – and not in December 1973 as has been argued (the London West End screenings were what would be termed “pre-release” activity).

How much of the double bill’s success could be attributed to The Wicker Man is not that difficult to calculate. As we have seen, Don’t Look Now was already an enormous success before it took on a perhaps-unwanted partner. Not every Odeon general release required a supporting feature, often a short would do. Without another film on the program, Don’t Look Now would have received more daily showings which could boost receipts and at the very least been more profitable for not having to share the box office.

Whereas Don’t Look Now sailed into New York on a tide of box office and critical glory at the 549-seat Sutton with a first week tallying $30,000 and had massed $110,000 in five weeks, The Wicker Man was deemed a massive flop. British Lion wrote it off to the tune of $470,000, a substantial amount.

There was no chance of British Lion fobbing off the more astute Americans with the notion of The Wicker Man running as the stablemate of Don’t Look Now. Major  U.S. distributors bought pictures that had been hits on release in their home country. Perhaps not surprisingly, the main contender for the rights was Roger Corman, a horror specialist, and he thought he could make it work if the film was editing from the original 102-minutes to 86-minutes, a timing that make it more appealing in a double bill. But Corman could not meet EMI’s terms.

However, it was bought in 1974 for American release by the Beechwood Properties – which Variety mispelled as “Beachhead Corp” but only initially as as a tax shelter. However, Beechwood succeeded in drumming up a distributor, National General Corporation which distributed John Wayne movies Rio Lobo (1970) and Big Jake (1971) as well as Little Big Man (1971) and Le Mans (1971), The Getaway (1972) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). NGC was taken enough by the movie to pay EMI $300,000 for the rights.

But then NGC hit a financial brick wall and pulled out and the project passed on to Warner Brothers after it picked up the top prize at the International Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As a prelude to a release, Warner Brothers submitted it to the American censor where it earned an “R” (restricted) rating in keeping with its British X-certificate. Warner Brothers test-marketed the shortened version as a solo feature with 24 prints playing the San Diego and Atlanta regions. But when the movie failed to attract an audience it was deemed a flop and shelved.

And in summer 1974 it was officially shelved.  

Christopher Lee with flowing locks.

So it sat in limbo for another three years before in 1977 Cinefantastique magazine dubbed it “The Citizen Kane of Horror Pictures” and devoted a 32-page spread to it in its Vol 6 No 10 issue, so determined it had uncovered a work of genius that it took out a substantial advertisement in U.S. trade paper Variety. That appeared to elicit some distributor interest and it was purchased in 1977 from Beechwood by New Orleans company Abraxas, headed by Stirling Smith, John Alan Simon, and Ron and Micheline Weinberg. Abraxas got the rights for a song – just $20,000.

But then the Weinberg’s split from Abraxas and set up a company (I am presuming) called International Films. It looked like they were licensed to show The Wicker Man, which they did in a kind of hit-and-run strategy, racing all over the country with the movie in the back of the car, and renting it out to around 30 arthouses, presumably assuming the “Citizen Kane” tag might attract an audience.

Distributed under the banner Summerisle Films, some of these showings were indeed propitious. In January 1979 at the 300-seat Lumiere in San Francisco with tickets priced at $4 it knocked up a “boffo” $19,000 (equivalent to a meaty $75,000 now). There was none of the steep fall-off either that you might expect. The second week hauled in an excellent $15,500 ($59,000 today) and the nine-week run brought in total of $93,000 (a very good $368,000 in today’s terms). It was deemed so successful that it achieved in exhibitor  parlance a “move-over,” transferring to the 300-seat Cento Cedar.

Results were similar in Los Angeles. At the 763-seat Los Feliz Westland 1, also primarily an arthouse, it racked up opening week figures of $19,000 and after six weeks had powered to $61,900 plus another $37,000 from a two-week run at four suburban houses. There was a decent performance in Seattle, close on $40,000 in a five-week run at the 700-seat Crest. Enough to counter a poor showing in Minneapolis at the 461-seat World where it opened to a “slow” $2,000. And excepting that result, the prospects must have looked rosy.

That is, until the wheels came off.

International Films turned out to be beset by financial problems. Weinberg had been due to pay Abraxas a total of $150, 000 by December 1978, paid off in three tranches, an initial amount of $30,000 by December 1977, another $50,000 by June 1978 and the the remaining sum by December of the same year. When the debt was not settled, Abraxas took Weinberg in court in July 1979 and the outcome was that the rights reverted back to Abraxas, now headed by Smith and Simon. And that was timely from a publicity perspective for the movie had just been named Best Horror Picture and Best Screenplay by the Academy of Fantasy and Horror Films. 

So Abraxas started all over again, sticking to the precedent of opening it in arthouses. But it looked like they sold off regional rights for the movie appeared under different distributors, Horror Films as well as Abraxas and the original Summer Isle banner   April 1980 saw The Wicker Man set a new house record at the 200-seat Orson Welles III in Boston with a $15,000 opening and over the next eight weeks it locked up a hefty $73,500 ($256,000 equivalent). The same month it hit New York, but an excellent opener of $21,000 at the 533-seat Paramount dropped to just $9,000 in the second week, then $4,400 in the third and $4,000 in the last. In December it scored $7,500 at the 150-seat Cerberus II in Washington D.C, finishing with $16,000 for three weeks.

In January 1981 it was the last movie shown in a 12-week season of revivals at the 560-seater Fine Arts in Kansas City and, despite registering only a “mild”  $3,500, it moved over the Watts Mill 2 for a $3,200 opener and an $8,400 total over four weeks. But a four-screen “showcase” in Miami produced a “remote” $3,700. There was some publicity derived for being selected, eight years after initial launch in Britain, at the Cleveland International film Festival.

But success in the independent field required momentum and despite excellent results in a handful of cinemas, The Wicker Man never really took off.

Salvation came via another route – video. Without VHS and then DVD it is doubtful if the movie would ever have achieved its current cult status. It’s not the first film to hit the ground running in the video format after a less than stellar performance in the cinema. I doubt that anyone, years after it was first shown, believed The Wicker Man had a hidden pot of gold. But my guess is the video rights cost little and in the burgeoning market where taste was not stifled by choices made at a cinema chain head office it was a film that finally found an audience.

SOURCES: “Michael Deeley Replaces Snell at Brit Lion,” Variety, April 11, 1973, p4; “Doing The Cannes-Cannes,” Variety, May 23, 1973, p26; “Form Beachhead Corp To Handle Wicker Man,” Variety, Jan 2, 1974, p4; “This Week’s Code Tags,” Variety, April 24, 1974, p4; “Wicker Man Wins Top Prize at Fantasy Fest,” Variety, May 1, 1974, p7; “British Lion 6 Months Slips to 890G,” Variety, January 29, 1975, p39; Advert, Variety, November 16, 1977, p38; Stuart Byron, “Something Wicker This Way Comes,” Film Comment, November-Dcember 1977; “Abraxas Corp Sues Ronald Weinberg,” Variety, April 18, 1979, p5; “Enjoin Weinberg Re Wicker Man,” Variety, Jul 4, 1979, p35; “Cleveland: 45 Titles: 3 Situations,” Variety, April 1, 1981, p24; “Metropolis Strikes Deal with Magnum,” August 10, 1988, p34. Box office figures all from the following issues of weekly Variety: Oct 24, 1973-April 24, 1974; October 5, 1977; March 21, 1979, April 11, 1979; April 18, 1979; April 25, 1979; May 7, 1979; April 23, 1980; December 3, 1980; February 4, 1981; April 1, 1981; May 20 1981.

Operation Mincemeat (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

British espionage team embarking on a scheme to fool Adolf Hitler during the Second World War find they are susceptible to deceit and deception in their own lives. What could have been a plodding step-by-step documentary-style picture is given a huge fillip by examination of the lives of those involved. The twists and turns of this extraordinary tale, both in the professional and personal sense, make for a very enjoyable picture. It is no less thrilling for, like The Day of the Jackal (1973), being aware of the outcome.

Planning to invade Sicily in 1943, the Allies are determined to convince Hitler that they are instead more likely to attack Greece. The British come up with “Operation Mincemeat,” a variation on the Trojan horse with the “gift” this time being secret papers referring to the Greek assault that are contained in a briefcase attached to a corpse which washes up on the shores of Cadiz in Spain. The assumption is that the German high command is predisposed to being hoodwinked after having ignored the papers on a genuine corpse that came their way prior to the invasion of north Africa.

Tasked with devising the operation are the accomplished Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and the gawky Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) into whose orbit comes Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) whose persona is used to provide a romantic background for the corpse. Although the project has been given the green light from the highest authority i.e Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) not everyone is in favour and the team face obstacles, since technically the plan comes under the remit of the Royal Navy, from Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs).

The romantic intrigue that ensues creates sufficient resentment for one member of the team to spy on the other at the behest of the admiral, thus ensuring that those charged with deceiving Hitler through moral means are entering into immoral personal activity.  

But what drives this picture is the detail. Finding the correct type of corpse, ensuring it is preserved and has sufficient water in the lungs to make a convincing drowned man at the same time as creating a suitable legend for the character. Films dependent on the inner workings of espionage science, for want of a better word, do not always work. Enigma (2001), a riveting book, did not translate well onto the screen while The Imitation Game (2014), covering similar territory, did.  Here, the minutiae of minutiae are presented in such detail it is an education, down to the importance of an eyelash, how to extract a letter without breaking the seal on an envelope, and, critically how to judge whether the Germans have examined the material closely enough to ensure they have taken the bait.   

The story has already been told though not in such detail as “The Man Who Never Was” (1956)
but with Hollywood stars Clifton Webb and
Gloria Grahame playing the leads.

And that’s before other twists and turns. The corpse was a down-and-out, abandoned, so it appeared, by all and sundry, until out of the blue his sister arrives to claim the body. The coroner on duty in Cadiz turns out, against all expectations, to be an expert in drowning. The British Attache in Spain must seduce both genders to ensure smooth passage of the secret documents. On the more human side, widows abound, husbands lost in combat. A spy on the British side must be unmasked or rendered harmless. A host of other smaller stories unfold within the larger narrative. Above all lies the tension of the necessity for the operation’s success, failure would mean the deaths of thousands of men on the Sicily beachheads and possibly a thwarted invasion.

Matthew Macfadyen (Succession, 2018-2021) steals the show as the over-sensitive individual with the sense of entitlement that comes from having too big a brain, Oscar-winner Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2014) the imperturbable figure who finds emotion wreaks havoc, Kelly Macdonald  (Goodbye Christopher Robin, 2017) the secretary drawn deeper into a world where genuine emotion has little place.

The cream of British character actors providing sturdy support include Johnny Flynn (Emma, 2020) as spy writer Ian Fleming, Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey: A New Era, 2022), Mark Gatiss (The Father, 2020), Alex Jennings (Munich: The Edge of War, 2021), Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin, 2017) and Mark Bonnar (Guilt, 2019-2021). ,

Oscar-nominated John Madden (Shakespeare in Love,  19980 directs with something approaching verve, never letting the pace drop, zipping from scene to scene, from the war effort into more intimate moments, without any sign of the tension flagging. In her movie debut Michelle Ashford (The Masters of Sex, 2014-2016) does an excellent job of distilling  Ben McIntyre’s bestselling book.

Sure, this is one of those British pictures in a long line of movies that show the country at its best, generally in the thick of war, but the story is so involving that it merits viewing. It is still showing at the time of writing in British cinemas but in the United States and Latin America it will air on Netflix on May 11.

Behind the Scenes: “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965)

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.

A good example of the British distribution system. The film opened at the Odeon Leicester Square and quickly went into general release, first in cinemas in North London and a week later the prints shifted to South London. In the West End, it ran solo, in the suburbs as a double bill.

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.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) ****

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.

Carol Lynley with the potential landlord from hell Noel Coward.

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 Penthouse (1967) ****

Visceral home invasion thriller that ignited the genre and triggered later more controversial offerings like The Straw Dogs (1971) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Made virtually on one set for the indescribably minute sum of £100,000, it is charged with Pinteresque dialogue and aberrant philosophy. The genre splits into those pictures where the occupants have more than a good chance of avoiding their fate, the focus on the invaded pitting their wits against the invaders – classic examples being The Straw Dogs or more recently Panic Room (2002) – and those where the victims are mercilessly tormented, such as, in grueling detail, here.

As one of the perks of his job cocky married real estate agent Bruce (Terence Morgan) takes advantage of an expensive unoccupied apartment on his company’s books – “in the happy position to take advantage of my clients’ generosity in their absence” as he puts it – to enjoy an illicit tryst with mistress Barbara (Suzy Kendall). But when she answers to the door to two men coming to read the gas meter, their lives are turned upside down.

Tom (Tony Beckley) and Dick (Norman Rodway) are, of course, bogus and armed with a knife quickly take control, trying up Bruce and pouring alcohol down Barbara’s throat. As part of the overall creepiness, there is a sense that this is no casual visit, but that it has been planned, as if someone somewhere is familiar with the set-up, and there a debt, if only a moralistic one, to pay as a deterrent to the era’s permissiveness. Minus the knife, they would have passed as harmless. But never was their such difference between word and action, except for what they are capable of you could easily be persuaded that are in fact camp and bitchy.

The bound Bruce’s is spun round in a chair and can only watch as the men begin to strip Barbara. His only defence is verbal, trying to set the two men against each other, suggesting that Tom treats Dick as his assistant. But the relationship between the two criminals constantly shifts as if they were in passive-aggressive relationship. You don’t learn much about them until the end, so basically you have to rely on what they say about themselves, which is very little. They are prone to philosophic observation or interrogate Bruce about his possessions or extract from Barbara an unexpected ambition to be a painter.

One of the oddest pieces of promotional material ever produced. Studios were keen on this kind of jokey cartoon in the hope that it would be picked up by newspaper editors who might be less inclined to run a still from the picture. But it is completely out of touch with the tone of the movie.

The men take it in turns to torment Bruce while the other is in the bedroom with Barbara. Where Bruce resists verbally, Barbara gives in almost right away, but there is never the sense that this is in any way consensual, just that she is too drunk to defend herself – the first drink is a full glass of whisky forced down her throat – and the men have a knife. The invaders make constant reference to a character called Harry. That person’s eventual appearance provides a whole new range of twists.

It’s a film full of menace. Sexual tension, mind games, claustrophobia and the threat of physical violence never dissipate. Because it is rationed out, the brutality is all the more shocking.  But it is brilliantly directed. In his debut British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) uses the camera to suggest we are in anything but an enclosed space. In one long sequence the camera does not move, in another scene it turns 360 degrees, and at other times it twists and turns as if turning the characters inside out, suggesting some of the dizziness, the dramatic speed of change of feelings, that the stunned victims are enduring. At times it feels like an arthouse movie. At other times like a deranged B-picture.

The cast are all excellent. Tony Beckley (The Lost Continent, 1968) makes the best of a role of a lifetime, Norman Rodway (Four in the Morning, 1965) the more quietly psychotic sidekick. Terence Morgan (The Sea Pirate, 1966) has less to do but Suzy Kendall (Fraulein Doktor, 1969) is superb as the enigmatic girlfriend. Look out for Martine Beswick (Prehistoric Women, 1967) in a small part. Collinson wrote the screenplay based on a play The Meter Men by Scott Forbes.

Cultural note: “Tom, Dick and Harry” are considered such quintessentially British names that anyone familiar with this would understand immediately that they were a) pseudonyms and b) intended as a twisted kind of joke.

No sign of this being available on Amazon. Ebay is probably your best bet. There’s a copy on YouTube but it ain’t a good print.

Nobody Runs Forever (1968) / The High Commissioner ****

Character-driven intelligent thriller ripe for re-evaluation. And not just because it stands out from the decade’s genre limitations, neither hero threatened by mysterious forces in the vein of Charade (1963) or Mirage (1965) nor, although espionage elements are involved, fitting into the ubiquitous spy category. Instead, it loads mystery upon mystery and leaves you guessing right to the end.

And a deluge of mystery would not work – even with the London high-life gloss of cocktail parties, casinos and the Royal Box at Wimbledon – were it not for the believable characters. Rough Aussie Outback cop Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) is despatched to London at the behest of New South Wales prime minister (Leo McKern) to bring home Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) to face a charge of murder.

Probably a better title than either “Nobody Runs Forever”
or “The High Commissioner.”

Unlike most cop pictures, Malone is not sent to investigate a case, he is merely muscle. While he may have his doubts about the evidence against Quentin, suspected of murdering his first wife, he resists all attempts to re-open the case. Arriving in the middle of a peace conference hosted by the principled Quentin, he agrees to investigate security leaks from Australia House and along the way turns into an impromptu bodyguard when Quentin’s life is endangered. But Quentin’s wife Sheila (Lilli Palmer) and secretary Lisa (Camilla Sparv) are not taken in by the deception and so Malone himself forms part of the mystery.

With a preference for cold beer to expensive champagne, you might expect Malone to be a bull in a china shop. Instead, dressed for the part by the solicitous Quentin, Malone fits easily into high society, taking time out from his duties for a dalliance with the elegant Madame Chalon (Daliah Lavi). The background is not the gloss but the passion the Quentins still feel for each other, she willing to do anything (literally) to save her husband, he losing the thread of an important speech when worried about his wife.

While there is no shortage of suspects for all nefarious activities, red herrings abound and cleverly you are left to make up your own mind, rather than fingers being ostentatiously pointed. There is some delicious comedy between Malone and Quentin’s uptight butler (Clive Revill), enough punch-ups, chases and clever tricks to keep the movie more than ticking along but at its core are the relationships. Malone’s growing respect for Quentin does not overrule duty, Lisa’s evident love for Quentin cannot be taken the obvious further step, Sheila’s overwhelming need to safeguard her husband sends her into duplicitous action.

The politics are surprisingly contemporary, attempts to alleviate hunger and prevent war, and while there was much demonstration during the decade in favor of world peace, this is the only picture I can think of where a politician’s main aim is not self-aggrandisement, greed or corruption. There are some twists on audience expectation – the dinner-jacketed Malone in the casino does not strike a James Bond pose and start to play, he is seduced rather than seducer, and remains a working man throughout.

Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) and Christopher Plummer (Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) are terrific sparring partners, red-blooded male versus ice-cool character, their jousts verbal rather than physical. The rugged Taylor turns on the charm when necessary, a throwback to his character in Fate Is the Hunter (1964). Thoughts of his wife soften Plummer’s instinctive icy edge. Lilli Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor) is superb as yet another vulnerable woman, on the surface in total control, but underneath quivering with the fear of loss. Two graduates of the Matt Helm school are given meatier roles, Daliah Lavi (The Silencers, 1966), as seductress-in-chief is a far cry from her stunning roles in The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) – and it still feels a shame to me that she was so ill-served in the way of roles by Hollywood. Camilla Sparv (Murderers Row, 1966) has a more low-key role.

Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) has another scene-stealing part and look out for Calvin Lockhart (Dark of the Sun), Burt Kwouk (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and, shorn of his blond locks, an unrecognizable Derren Nesbit (The Naked Runner, 1967) and in his final role Hollywood legend Franchot Tone (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935).

Ralph Thomas (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) directs with minimum fuss, always focused on character, although there is a sly plug for Deadlier than the Male in terms of a cinema poster. (Speaking of posters, I couldn’t help notice this interesting advert at an airport for a VC10 promoted as “10derness.”) Wilfred Greatorex (The Battle of Britain, 1969) made his screenplay debut, adapting the bestseller by Jon (The Sundowners) Cleary. This may not be quite a true four-star picture but it is a grade above three-star.

CATCH-UP: Rod Taylor films reviewed in the blog so far are Seven Seas to Calais (1962), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967) and Dark of the Sun (1968).

If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1968) ***

The combined tourist boards of Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy must have funded this film. Although Belgium and Switzerland may have been justified in asking for their money back since all we glimpse of either country is cheese. Nor does it particularly show the American tourist in a good light. In fact, the occupants of the tour bus seem drawn from the worst clichés of the American personality – characters who demand hamburgers wherever they go, think there sex available everywhere, steal everything in sight, and demand more than their money’s worth. These are characters who are not difficult to send up. And ever the democrat, director Mel Stuart pokes fun at every country.

So it’s something of a surprise to find the movie is perfectly palatable, a smorgasbord of  conflicting attitudes, on an 18-day bus tour of Europe rattling through a host of comedic situations, held together by burgeoning romance between playboy tour guide Charlie (Ian McShane) and soon-to-be-married Samantha (Suzanne Pleshette) by way of running gags revolving around Harve (Norman Fell) chasing wife Irma (Reva Rose) who jumped on a rival tour bus, kleptomaniac Harry (Aubrey Morris), and more guest stars in blink-and-you-miss-it roles than were cast in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Like films nowadays (Marry Me, 2022, for one) that seem to think an audience needs to kept constantly apprised of social media, this goes overboard on technology, in this case, the camera, in one instance legitimately comedic, but the rest of the time just to cram in much of what would more sensibly be left alone.

Luckily, the two central romances work. Charlie, initially rebuffed at every turn by Samantha, who has a nice line in one-liners (“I am about to turn into an Ugly American before your very eyes”), eventually believes it is time to part company with his playboy ways and settle down, while Samantha, about to settle down back home, discovers she has not yet sown enough wild oats. The ever-amorous Shelley (Hilarie Thompson), taken on holiday to prevent her giving in to lust at home, conducts a country-by-country romance with a young swain on a motorbike ending up – serve ‘em right – in a cellar listening to a dirge by pop star Donovan.

Some of the jokes hit an interesting target. German and American tourist at a shrine to the Battle of the Bulge, in the same loud, hectoring tones, deliver a story of victory, the kleptomaniac even steals a lifebelt, an Italian fed up with patronizing tourists reports one to the cops, Harve embarking on a daddy dance in a glamorous nightclub, an authentic shoemaker (Vittorio De Sica) sells a tourist an authentic shoe that he buys out of a catalogue, the mismatch of languages sets up endless permutations. However, it’s a bit of a stretch in the late 1960s to find a bidet in a London hotel.

Still, if you fed up trying to keep up with the countless plotlines or are trying to work out which country is which, you can always keep yourself entertained spotting the cameos. It’s some list: Senta Berger (Istanbul Express, 1968), Yutte Stensgaard (Some Girls Do, 1969), Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960), Catherine Spaak (Hotel, 1965), Carol Cleveland (Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series), Joan Collins (Subterfuge, 1968), Elsa Martinelli (Maroc 7, 1967), Virna Lisi (The Secret of Santa Vittoria, 1969) and Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances television series) And that’s just the women. There are also glimpses of Robert Vaughn (The Venetian Affair, 1966), Ben Gazzara (Bridge at Remagen, 1969) and John Cassavettes (Machine Gun McCain, 1969).

While all eyes are likely to focus on Ian McShane wondering how this fresh-faced lad turned into the gravel-voiced spittoon-soaked stylish icon of John Wick (2014), it is worth taking a look at the performance of Suzanne Pleshette (The Power, 1968) who was rarely given the opportunity to essay such a rounded character. Supporting players include Murray Hamilton (Jaws, 1965), Mildred Natwick (The Maltese Bippy, 1969) and the generally choleric Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967) turning positively volcanic.

A documentary film-maker up to this point, Mel Stuart (I Love My Wife, 1970) generally keeps the audience on-side with a non-stop barrage of ideas. David Shaw (A Foreign Affair, 1948) devised the screenplay.

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