Morituri / Saboteur: Code Name Morituri (1965) ***

For a film that staggered around trying to find a plot to justify its tale of moral ambiguity during World War Two the final third is surprisingly potent. Featuring two good Germans and a bunch of bad Yanks ostensibly it’s a straightforward story of a saboteur trying to prevent a German cargo ship captain from scuttling his ship should it come under attack from the British determined to lay their hands on its vital supplies of rubber.

Supposed German pacifist Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) – actually a coward – hiding out in India is blackmailed by British Col Statter (Trevor Howard) into posing as a high-ranking SS officer on the German ship in order to prevent it being sunk by Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner). After his last command ended in drunken disgrace, Mueller assumes Crain has been sent to keep an eye on him. So Crain spends an almighty time down in the engine room and various below-decks spots defusing the wiring that would cause the ship to blow up at the touch of a button by the captain.

Mueller’s second-in-command Kruse (Martin Benrath) is suspicious of the cosmopolitan art-loving Crain but it’s a renegade band of criminals, led by Donkeyman (Hans Christian Blech) forced into armed service, who rumble Crain. But he talks them into mutiny. The ship avoids detection by disguising itself as a neutral Swedish freighter. Mueller’s attitude to Crain changes when the latter prevents him hitting the self-destruct button as a British destroyer seems poised to attack, changing its mind at the last minute.

Meanwhile, a group of American prisoners, from a ship sunk by a Japanese U-boat, come on board, including Jewess Esther (Janet Margolin). Surprisingly, Mueller steps up to the plate, protecting her from his crew, providing her with a private berth and permitting her to eat in the officer’s mess. On board the submarine are Admiral Wendel (Oscar Beregi), who commissioned Mueller, and a German counter-intelligence officer and, surprised to find Crain on the cargo ship, challenge him. Crain calls their bluff, but when the Admiral leaves he plans to radio Berlin to check Crain’s credentials, information passed on to Crain, who now has a very short deadline to organise mutiny, take over the ship and sail it to safety.

To do that, the mutineers require the support of the prisoners, a task detailed to Esther, who can only achieve that mission by surrendering her body to the prisoners, in much the same way as she has done previously to the Gestapo.

Mueller goes to pieces on hearing that his beloved son, also a ship’s captain, has been given a medal for sinking his fifth enemy vessel – only this time it is a hospital ship. After Mueller drinks himself unconscious, and Kruse assumes command, Crain fails to enlist Mueller to the mutiny which then begins. The surprise ending is both brutal and poetic.

But despite almost capsizing under the weight of an unwieldy cargo of plot and double-plot, the picture finally makes its points, that in war, ambiguity reigns. Mueller, who hates the Nazis but stoutly defends his Fatherland, proves to have the highest moral standards, agreeing to help Esther when they reach their destination, and preventing further molestation of her while aboard. Crain, purportedly the good German, has no compunction about sending Esther to do his dirty work, knowing the risks a sole woman faces in a hold of desperate sex-starved men. The good Yanks turn into rapists at the slightest opportunity, every bit as heinous in their depredations as their enemy.

That the movie stays afloat for so long is largely down to the excellence of Marlon Brando (The Chase, 1966) and Yul Brynner  (The Double Man, 1967). Brynner’s magisterial presence, chest out, legs apart, serves him well, and the ongoing duel with Brando is an acting treat, though Brynner has the best scene, the look of anguish on his face when he realises what his son has done. Brando, reprising the silky German accent of The Young Lions (1958), is very convincing as the dilettante pressed into service, negotiating his way round the recalcitrant Brynner, and living on his wits when faced with the criminals and then the  Admiral. And while Janet Margolin (Nevada Smith, 1966) is little more than a symbol, she invests the role with terrifying humanity, a woman reduced to being a sex object, utter submission her only way to achieve temporary reprieve. Most of her best acting is just with the look on her face.

In his Hollywood debut Martin Benrath appears just a standard German until his mask slips and we realise how much he covets the captain’s uniform. Wally Cox (The Bedford Incident, 1965) is another compromised by immoral behaviour, the doctor who steals the ship’s supply of morphine. Hans Christian Blech (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) excellent as a vengeful mutineer. You might also spot William Redfield (Fantastic Voyage, 1966). Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express) is only there at the outset.

Austrian director Bernhard Wicki (The Visit, 1964) does his best with a plot bursting at the seams, but the scenes of sabotage are well done, and he does recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of a ship, and the final sequence is worth waiting for. Daniel Taradash (Castle Keep, 1969) wrote the screenplay.  

Behind the Scenes – “Man in the Middle”/”The Winston Affair” (1964)

You were asking for trouble to pair heavy drinkers Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard. But Man in the Middle was a fraught production long before the actors came on board. The picture was intended to kick off Twentieth Century Fox’s revamped 20-picture slate that signaled a studio back from the dead after near-bankruptcy. The success of The Longest Day (1962) triggered a cycle of World War Two pictures, Man in the Middle launching this cluster, which accounted for more than third of the studio’s projected output.

But before fox arrived on the scene, Man in the Middle was intended as a key element in the launchpad or an indie powerhouse, the grandly-named Entertainment Corporation of America (ECA), set up by Max Youngstein, one of the founders of the post-war version of United Artists. Youngstein had an 11-picture tab budgeted at $3 million including Honeybear, I Think I Love You starring Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Cold War thriller Fail Safe, The Winston Affair (as Man in the Middle was originally tabbed) and The Third Secret.

But concerns about legal action against Fail Safe torpedoed the venture within a few months of opening for business in November 1962 after theatre chain Ace Films pulled the plug on its $1.3 million investment and distributor Allied Artists followed suit. Columbia took over Fail Safe (1964) and Twentieth Century Fox The Winston Affair in a co-production with Marlon Brando’s Pennebaker shingle and Talbot which was Robert Mitchum’s outfit. 

With Fox’s recent financial vicissitudes keeping the studio in the media spotlight, budget control was essential. The movie’s $1.35 million budget was trimmed by clever scheduling, no actor, outside of the star, on set for more than three weeks, ensuring that overtime vanished. The title, however, appeared forever in flux. Original title The Winston Affair, the name of the Howard Fast book on which the film was based, changed to The Man in the Middle, then back to The Winston Affair, reverting again to The Man in the Middle before ending up with a contracted version of that – Man in the Middle. The confusion played havoc with a movie called Light of Day that snapped up Man in the Middle when the Fox title became vacant but was released as Topkapi (1964) when Fox took the title back.

Producer Walter Seltzer (Number One, 1969) pushed for more African American representation on the picture. Three roles, not written as African Americans in the novel or in the Waterhouse and Hall screenplay, were given to African Americans, the “best men for the job,” according to the producer. The trio were: Errol John, the N.C.O of the prison cell where the murder suspect is held, Frank Killibrew who doubled as the jeep driver and confidante to attorney Adams (Robert Mitchum) and Oscar James as a court reporter.

The two ECA movies taken over by Fox.

Mitchum didn’t just have drink problems. He was in the middle of an affair with Two for the Seesaw (1962) co-star Shirley MacLaine which result in public rows with long-suffering wife Dorothy. Mitchum had enjoyed a long business relationship with Max Youngstein and when the producer came upon The Winston Affair the actor agreed to star in it, only to find the rights had already been snapped up by Pennebaker. However, Pennebaker was in no position to fund a movie and without a commitment from Brando as star unlikely to get it off the ground. Since the production company nonetheless required, for tax purposes, to show a movie on its books Brando had agreed to throw in his lot with Youngstein’s ECA. And when Fox took over, Brando and Talbot retained their production credits.

When Seltzer flew to London to meet Mitchum who was finishing off his cameo for The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) the star lived up to his hell-raising billing, walking drunk from his room along the hallway and down the elevator at the plush Savoy Hotel. He was buck naked.

The bulk of the filming took place in Elstree Studios in London with just a couple of weeks set aside for location work in India. The ongoing romance with MacLaine meant production could grind to a halt in the middle of a scene while Mitchum took a call from the actress in New York although conversation was inhibited with Selzer at his elbow looking at his watch.

“He was a professional in every respect,” recalled Selzer. “He was on time, knew his lines and didn’t make any trouble…very good with France Nuyen (A Girl Called Tamiko, 1962), who was a little unsure of herself, and he did a lot to help her performance and boost her confidence.”

Trevor Howard was a different kettle of fish. Mitchum and Howard had become friends in the 1950s while working in Mexico, and Mitchum was a great admirer of the Englishman’s talent. However, Howard had “been all but blackballed of late due to his drinking.” Oscar-nominated for Sons and Lovers (1960), Howard had only made two films since. And even the role here was more of an extended cameo than a main supporting role. To win the part, Howard invited director and producer to visit him at his home where he put on a very good act of restraint, limiting himself to tea while the others consumed alcohol.

Restraint proved an illusion. While Mitchum could drink and still turn up for work, Howard would go to pieces with a few drinks in his system. On his second day of shooting, Howard turned up on set wearing mismatched socks and threw a drunken fit when asked to change.

Director Guy Hamilton had worked with big Hollywood personalities Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster on The Devil’s Disciple (1959) but compared to them Mitchum was a pussycat.

“He understood the importance of listening,” said Hamilton, “which is very, very rare for American stars…If all else failed in a scene, you knew you could always fall back on Mitchum’s reaction shots, which could say more than the dialogue.”

Mitchum was blessed with a photographic memory. Even when confronted with pages of new script he would have no trouble remembering his lines. In fact, if anyone fluffed their lines they could rely on Mitchum helping them out. When the movie decanted to India, he had an encounter with a maharajah’s daughter, which ended up in the bedroom. Once the movie was finished, Mitchum resorted to type, getting stoned on raw marijuana on the 16-hour flight home from India, a zip bag full of the stuff, and sailing through the Nothing To Declare section at Customs at the airport.

Most reports have this down as a big flop. But I’m not so sure. It cost comparatively little and earned $1 million in rentals in the U.S. Mitchum was a big enough star for it to be released around the world and I’d be surprised if it didn’t manage the extra $300,000 required to break even.

SOURCES: Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby, I Don’t Care (Faber and Faber, 2001) p457, 462-467; “Marlon Brando To Film Winston Affair,” Box Office, April 9, 1962, p16, “Youngstein As Exec Producer,” Variety, January 16, 1963, p4; “Entertainment Corp Sets Mitchum Film Overseas,” Variety, January 16, 1963, p4; “Four Months To The Day For Man,Variety, January 26, 1963, p5; “From Surefire to Fail Safe,” Variety, April 10, 1963, p3; “Winston Affair Set To Start 20th-Fox  British Production Program,” Variety, April 24, 1963, p22; “Fascination With Own Era,” Variety, May 22, 1963, p3.“Use Negro Skills in Seltzer’s Film,” Variety, October 2, 1963, p4; “No Principal On Role Longer Than 3 Weeks, Key Budget Control,” Variety, November 27, 1963, p3.

Remake Fever – The 1960s

Hollywood has been hitting the retread button for over a century. Today’s reboots and re-imaginings are nothing new. Although in the past the excuse was technological development, the splurge of remakes in the 1960s including Beau Geste (1966), Stagecoach (1966) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) were superior to the originals in one particular aspect – they were in color. 

When silent films went from two-reels to four-reels and from six-reels to eight-reels, roughly the length of a modern picture, and when silent gave way to sound the remake business went into overdrive. The 80-minute Tess of the Storm Country (1914) starring Mary Pickford was transformed into a 137-minute version eight years later headlined by the same star.  Zane Grey westerns starring William Farnum Raiders of the Purple Sage (1918), The Lone Ranger (1919) and The Last of the Duanes (1919) were remade as Tom Mix vehicles between 1923 and 1925 and toplining George O’Brien between 1930 and 1931. Over 120 remakes were made between 1928 and 1930, with around 80 per cent going out with the same title. There was another remake burst at the end of the 1930s including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

Color was the prime instigator for the remake business in the 1960s. But you could also add the technological development of 70mm, the key element of roadshow pictures. Many big-budget films of the 1920s and 1930s had hit the box office target and with studios looking for as many sure-fire winners as possible it seemed sensible to give a new look to older projects. Ben-Hur (1959) could be seen as lighting the remake touch paper especially when it scored equally highly at the box office and the Oscars. MGM followed through with roadshows of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), one-third as long again as the 1935 original, Cimarron (1960) with an extra 20 minutes compared to the 1931 Oscar-winner. But the reimagining of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) ran about the same length as the Rudolph Valentino version of 1921 as did King of Kings (1961) compared to the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille version.

The famed Raquel Welch vehicle was based on a film of 1940.

Prior to considering the expensive business of investing in a remake, studios had been able to rely on sticking out the old movie as a reissue, limited financial exposure often resulting in considerable box office. But it was impossible to sell silent pictures, excepting comedians like Charlie Chaplin, to a modern audience and many of the big hits of the 1930s had either been already sold to television or were considered dated by contemporary standards and although black-and-white films were still being made halfway through the decade (In Harm’s Way, 1965, for example) they were a difficult re-sell.

Far easier to revamp a well-known, perhaps beloved, product with the addition of color cinematography, better sound, and possibly with major stars in the vein of Marlon Brando (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). It also seemed the case that lesser stars could still prop a remake with little adverse effect on the receipts especially if the lower-priced actors substantially reduced the budget and consequently the income required to turn a profit.    

Some movies appeared to be on an endless recycle. The Count of Monte Cristo (1964) had been filmed in 1956, 1954 and 1934, the latter starring Robert Donat. The Perils of Pauline (1967) had been remade twice since Pearl White had made the character her own in 1914. Back Street (1961) with Susan Hayward had been filmed twice before in 1941 and 1932. The Spanish-made The Last of the Mohicans (1963) starring Jeffrey Hunter was the fifth attempt at filming the famous novel after movies made in 1920, 1932, 1936 and 1957.

“The Bonnie Parker Story” laid the groundwork for this box office smash-and-grab.

Some remakes changed their titles. Cary Grant comedy Walk, Don’t Run (1966) was based on The More the Merrier (1943), Stolen Hours (1963) with Susan Hayward on Dark Victory (19390 with Bette Davis, Doris Day vehicle Move Over Darling (1963) on My Favorite Wife (1940), and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1963) on The Old Dark House (1932). William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn drew on These Three (1936), Uptight (1968) was a modern take on John Ford’s Oscar-nominated The Informer (1935), and comedy The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) with Don Knotts had its origins in The Paleface (1948) starring Bob Hope. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic Rashomon (1950) retuned as The Outrage (196) starring Paul Newman. The Bonnie Parker Story (1958) was drastically retuned as Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) was based on his own Lady for a Day (1932). Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965) took only three years to re-emerge as Jigsaw (1968).   

Other studios decided the original title was too big an attraction to be discarded. Of Human Bondage (1964) with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey had been made 30 years earlier with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Night Must Fall (1965) starring Albert Finney had originated 27 years prior. Raquel Welch-starrer One Million Years B.C. (1966) had been slightly truncated from One Million B.C. (1940), Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson headlined The Killers (1964) based on characters originally essayed by Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner 18 years previously, Mayerling (1969) with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve had starred Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux in the 1936 version.

Horror was the most obvious genre to receive a revamp. Robert Bloch rewrote The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari (1962) forty-two years after the original. Hands of Orlac (1961) with Mel Ferrer had previously been known as Mad Love (1936). Herbert Lom reprised The Phantom of the Opera (1962) following on from Lon Chaney in 1925 and Nelson Eddy in 1943. French-made The Golem (1967) was based on versions screened in 1921 and 1937.

Some films were remade with music, Goodbye Mr. Chips – the Robert Donat, Greer Garson original belonging to 1939 – the most obvious example but The Sound of Music (1965) was essentially a musical version of the Germanic The Trapp Family (1956), and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) set in Rome turned up as the musical The Pleasure Seekers (1964) set in Madrid, both films directed by Jean Negulesco. On the other hand, State Fair (1962), which had been turned into a drama in 1945 despite being based on a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, was restored to its roots. 

Not every remake idea proved a slam dunk. Projects that failed to get off the ground included: The Birth of Nation (1915), Ecstasy (1933), Metropolis (1927) to be directed again by Fritz Lang, Wuthering Heights (1939) to star Richard Harris, Dark Angel (1925 and 1937) with Rock Hudson, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The Crusades (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) with Roger Moore – although it was remade in 1968 – Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Jane Eyre (1943) to star James Mason, The Macomber Affair (1946)  and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Anthony Quinn was touted for a remake of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962) and Saul David planned a westernized version of that director’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).

French director Claude Chabrol had ambitions to make a version of Hamlet (1948) from Ophelia’s point of view though a Russian version appeared in 1964. MGM blocked a remake of Tarzan of the Apes (1931). Francis Ford Coppola proposed Heaven Can Wait, a reworking of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, to star Bill Cosby. Stephen Boyd was mooted for a remake of The Quiet Man (1952).

Producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl, 1967) announced new versions of Casablanca (1942) and a Peter Collinson-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941). Musical versions were announced of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Our Town (1937), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Roman Holiday (1953), the latter to star Robert Redford.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p21, 27, 31; “Drift Towards Remakes Grows on Coast,” Box Office, March 11, 1939, p37; “That Birth of a Nation Title,” Variety, April 13, 1960, p6; “Sales Come-On But Never Mislabel Content – Hathaway,” Variety, October 26, 1960, p13; “Bischoff-Diamond To Make Charge,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p11; “Bash Vindicated – After 4 Yrs,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p5; “MGM Is Upheld In Suit over Tarzan,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p13; “New Cycle of Classics for French Prods,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p16; “Dark Angel Remake to Writer Lee Mahin,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, pW-8; “Robert Blees Plans Remake of Macomber Affair,” Box Office, March 12, 1962, p16; “Anderson-U.A. Talk Wuthering Remake,” Variety, August 28, 1963, p22; “Spain’s Latest Western,” Variety, October 23, 1963, p18; “MGM Signs for 3 Co-Productions in Spain,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p22; “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, p16;  “Japanese Sanjuro Remake for Quinn,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p4; “Weintraub Sends Down L.A. Roots,” Variety, January 12, 1966, p5;“Universal Re-Do of DeMille 1935 Crusades,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p3; “Plan Rebel Without Cause For Remake As Musical,” Box Office, April 18, 1966, p9; “Lee Thompson Busily Reprints His Musical Version of Henry VIII,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p17; “U’s Future Parks 17 Vehicles,” Variety, May 25, 1966, p33; “Re-Do of Quiet Man,” Variety, March 5, 1967, p5; “De Laurentiis in New Par Dickers,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p5; “David to Re-Do Kurosawa Plot As U.S. Western,” Variety, June 12, 1968, p4; “Re-Do of Falcon,” Variety, July 10, 1968, p14; “Star In W7 Pic,” Variety, January 15, 1969, p3.

Night of the Following Day (1969) ***

As his popularity in the 1960s faded, Marlon Brando was often called upon to save, or greenlight, a picture unworthy of his talent. Except that director Hubert Cornfield failed to extract enough tension from a kidnap thriller with an inbuilt deadline and a double-crossing sub-plot this might have been one to rise out of the mediocrity.

It’s not unknown for strangers working together on a robbery to adopt pseudonyms, colors in the case of Reservoir Dogs (1992) or cities as in Spanish television hit The Money Heist. Here they are known by their designated tasks, which seemed a nod towards artistic pretension at the time. Even so, the gang have too many frailties for taking on a caper like this, the pressure of a deadline and the publicity their crime attracts exacerbating the situation. So kidnapping a millionaire’s daughter (Pamela Franklin) are: Chauffeur (Marlon Brando), in on the job because he owes a favour to Friendly (Jess Hahn), whose sister Blonde (Rita Moreno) is also the chauffeur’s drug-addict girlfriend, the psychopathic Leer (Richard Boone) and a pilot (Al Lettieri).

All except the pilot are holed up in a remote beach house in France. The first signs of cracks show when Blonde is so drugged up she fails to collect her colleagues from a small local airport and, when suspecting the chauffeur of having sex with the girl, she explodes in to a tantrum. And because she can’t get her story straight she attracts the attention of a local cop (Gerard Buhr). Despite making a good job of calming down the terrified girl, Leer has other plans for her which the Chauffeur is constantly trying to thwart. At various points various people try to quit. At various points romantic and family ties are pulled tight.

The details of the cash hand-over are well done as is the unexpected double-cross and the diversion allowing them to escape but about ten minutes of the running time is people driving around in cars, only at the later stages to any useful dramatic purpose, time that would been better spent filling us in on the characters. Most of the tension derives from a gang with two loose cannons and certainly the wait for the confrontation between Chauffeur and Leer is worthwhile.

The biggest plus point is Marlon Brando (The Chase, 1966) and even – perhaps because of – sporting a blonde wig and black tee-shirt remains a compelling screen presence. He might have been slumming it but he is certainly believable as the minor criminal way out of his depth. It’s a mistake to think of him as intended to exude menace along the line of Quint in The Nightcomers (1971) because this is actually a complicated role. On the one hand he clearly never wanted to be involved, participation triggered by a sense of honor, trying to keep his girlfriend and the kidnappee safe while at the same time happy to resort to considerable violence to achieve his ends.

The malevolent Boone (The Arrangement, 1969) almost steals the show, beginning as the voice of reason and gradually succumbing to his inner vices. The love interest benefits from Brando and Moreno (West Side Story, 1961), also in blonde wig, being ex-lovers in real life and it takes little to ignite the anger in Moreno. But her portrayal of the addict who cannot stay off her chosen poison long enough to carry out a simple task is excellent. Pamela Franklin (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1968) has little to do except look scared and she has one revealing scene when in attempting to seduce the Chauffeur sets up the prospect of a different kind of liaison with Leer.

Hubert Cornfield had not directed a picture since Pressure Point (1962) which acted as a decent calling-card and showed how good he was at creating tension between opposing individuals. Instead of focusing here on the characters, Cornfield seems more interested in the visuals, none of which as it turns out are particular arresting and in one instance virtually impossible to see what is going on.

Not so much a curiosity as a masterclass in how to blow a once-in-a-lifetime gig with Marlon Brando and what not to do with a thriller.

CATCH-UP: Marlon Brando had a wayward time of it in the 1960s and you can follow his career through these previous reviews in the Blog: The Ugly American (1964), Bedtime Story (1964), The Chase (1966) and The Appaloosa (1966).

The Box Office Equalizer: Part Two

Variety’s revolutionary new box office tracking system, introduced in 1969, allowed it to include far more films in an annual assessment of performance. The “Annual Rentals” chart that appeared every January still covered how much of the box office pie was returned to studios and therefore gave a good indication of potential profit. But that was limited to only those pictures that met that chart’s criteria i.e. they had to return $1 million rentals. That usually meant only 80-odd films.

But now, in addition, from the computerized information gathered every week from hundreds of cinemas, Variety was able to give a pretty accurate estimate of the box office gross for ten times as many movies. In 1969, the survey covered 1,028 pictures. This wealth of information was of enormous value to exhibitors. Not only did it cover the obvious titles – the roadshows and those with top stars – but also the run-of-the-mill movies on which most cinemas now depended. In the current severe product shortage, reissues played a vital role. As did sexploitation.

Among films reviewed so far in the Blog annual grosses were shown for: They Night They Raided Minksy’s $1.9 million, Mafia picture The Brotherhood $1.9 million, Anthony Newley number Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness $1.3 million, Hard Contract $1 million, Mayerling $980,000, Justine $536,000, Les Biches $391,000, Assassination Bureau $146,000, Fraulein Doktor $114,000 and The Sisters $50,000. (Multiply these figures by 50% for an accurate estimate of their rentals).

Other figures worth noting were: The Fixer $1 million, Secret Ceremony $1 million, The Italian Job $614,000, Marlon Brando in The Night of the Following Day $424,000, Shalako $78,000 and The Extraordinary Seaman $61,000. Bottom of the box office pile was motor racing documentary Hot Rod Action with just $1,000.

Given it was widely considered a flop, these are interesting figures for Hieronymous Merkin, rentals now estimated as being in the region of $2 million against a budget of $1.6 million – although other sources put the budget as low as $500,000 thus making it extremely profitable. Secret Ceremony had grossed $617,000 the previous year so its rentals would have approached $2.5 million, far more than was previously assumed. Fans of cult British thriller The Italian Job will perhaps be astonished how poorly it did in the U.S.

The top-grossing reissue was Bonnie and Clyde/Bullitt ($1 million) followed by a pair of Clint Eastwood double bills – A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More ($912,000) and Hang ‘Em High/The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ($740,000). Also in the mix were Goldfinger/Dr No ($323,000), A Man and a Woman ($226,000), Belle de Jour/A Man and a Woman ($199,000), a revival of Lola Montes from 1955 with $148,000 and less successfully, from 1961, A Cold Wind in August with just $21,000.

As previously noted, the impact of sexploitation was becoming more obvious. The biggest hit was The Libertine which crossed the $1 million mark followed by Camille 2000 ($868,000), Inga ($819,000) – bringing in three times as much as the previous year – Swedish Heaven and Hell ($458,000) and The Female ($279,000). Others charting included Vibrations, Without a Stitch, Erotic Dreams and The Sex Perils of Pauline. In addition, sexploitation movies were ripe for reissue, I, A Woman/Carmen Baby clocking up $363,000.

More importantly, what the chart did show and what the new weekly Top 50 was beginning to recognize was how often cheaply-made exploitation pictures held their own or even outgrossed big studio pictures for which exhibitors were often held to ransom. If ever there was a sign of the direction in which the business was now heading, this annual survey was it.

SOURCE: “Variety B.O. Charts’ 1969 Results,” Variety, April 29, 1970, p26.   

The Making of “The Godfather” (1972)

With the 50th anniversary imminent it’s no surprise to see a further addition to the already weighty library of works on The Godfather. What is surprising is just how good it is, wrapping up all previous research as well as adding copious new information about the making of the Mafia saga, in particular relationships between the filmmakers and the Cosa Nostra itself. A battle of egos as much as anything else with a budget that lay in tatters, quite how such a masterpiece emerged could have been a film in itself. Journalist Robert Seal has delivered a riveting book, replete with fascinating anecdotes, and with an insider’s knowledge of how a movie gets put together.

Some of the drama is certainly overplayed, the financial threats to Paramount at the end of the 1960s, the presence on the set of an auditor (hardly unusual with a director who had never handled such a big budget before), and the conflict with legendary producer Robert Evans who, after the event, claimed a greater share of the glory than he was entitled to. Evans at least had a track record – Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969) and Love Story (1970) among his successes during his tenure at the studio – compared to official producer Albert Ruddy with three flops to his name including Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) and best known for television hit Hogan’s Heroes. But Ruddy was known as a producer who could bring a project in under budget. As an indication of the kind of penny pinching that Evans expected, he made Ruddy buy his own copy of the novel.

Australian distributors took a different approach to advertising the movie.

Paramount had little interest in Mafia movies after the under-rated The Brotherhood (1968) – reviewed in the Blog – had flopped at the box office and Burt Lancaster was waiting in the wings ready to take the project off the studio’s hands. Compulsive gambler and impoverished author Mario Puzo had no screenwriting credits when brought in to work on the picture. And no idea how to write a screenplay. So he mostly played tennis. His biggest contribution when he was sitting in meetings with little to show for his efforts was to suggest Marlon Brando as star. A suggestion that met with complete silence because Brando was box office poison.

Francis Coppola – himself the creator of three flops and as impoverished as Puzo had once been – was hired as director in part because Paramount got the notion that the reason The Brotherhood had failed was lack of cultural assimilation, director Martin Ritt having no Italian heritage. Coppola was pushed as having an insider’s knowledge of Italians even though as Paramount executive Peter Bart pointed out that he “may have had pasta now and then but I don’t think their family is any more Italian than my family.”

Paramount took out an eight-page ad in “Variety” (March 29, 1972) to publicize the colossal initial gross and listed the receipts from every cinema where it had been playing for mostly three or five days.

As the makers of Succession have realised, there is a classic story to be told about business inheritance. Coppola wanted to make a movie that was about “more than guns and goons and sex and spaghetti.” He envisaged a “classic succession concerning a great king who had three sons, each of whom had a single element of what made the king great.” Prior to Coppola making his presentation to the studio, Ruddy told him to play up the low budget. Instead, the director gave “one of the great sales jobs of all time” convincing executives to at least give him a shot at doing it his way. He was hired for $175,000 and six per cent of the profits. “I had two kids, a pregnant wife, and no money. I was terrified,” said Coppola.

As well he should have been. Not only did he have mobsters knocking on his door complaining on the one hand about how the film could adversely present Italian Americans and on the other hand determined to land a role in the picture to the extent of paying for their own screen tests. So many talent schools charged $100 to shoot screen tests for any gullible schmuck that Paramount had to take out restraining orders. But made man Gianni Russo did land the role of Carlo Rizzi. Al Lettieri’s brother was involved in the business. Ex-wrestler Lenny Montana with no acting experience was picked out of a crowd watching the shooting to play hitman Luca Brasi.

Not the ideal balladeer to sing about the Mafia.

Although Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Laurence Olivier and Rod Steiger were among the stars pitched for the Brando role, Puzo had sent a handwritten letter to Brando imploring him to consider the role. The Brando test, with the star improvising his own make-up, was electric. But the greatest actor of his generation had to accept a pitiful deal – $50,000 for six weeks’ work – though, thankfully, a percentage had been tagged on.

Robert Evans wanted Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty or Ryan O’Neal for Michael. “One of the reasons I got the job,” said Coppola, “was because they thought they could push me around.” He stuck to his guns, holding out for his dream team of James Caan, Al Pacino, Robert  Duvall and Diane Keaton, “eccentric and kind of weird in a way…to enliven the straight boring character” of Kay Adams.

But the casting was just the beginning of a momentous battle to keep Coppola’s vision intact. He came close to getting fired several times (“I was getting fired every other week,” recalled Coppola), especially as the budget, initially figured at $2 million, headed towards $6 million. The story of the shoot is told here in forensic detail. Come post-production, Evans wanted Henry Mancini to do the score so Coppola threatened to take his name off the picture unless the Nino Rota music was kept. 

Finally, when the film was ready it was met with – deafening silence. Paris premiere – silence. New York premiere – silence. When Albert Ruddy and Al Pacino watched it in an ordinary cinema with an ordinary audience the result was the same – silence. But the lines around the block indicated something else – a phenomenon.

The only area where author Seal gets it wrong is in his understanding of release strategy. “Its distribution was a revolution,” claimed Mark Seal. Only it wasn’t. I know because I wrote a book on the subject (In Theaters Everywhere if you’re interested) and there was nothing at all novel in releasing a movie in New York in 26 cinemas all at once.

But apart from that glitch, Seal has produced a brilliant, incredibly readable book, that covers the saga of the making of the film in as much detail as an aficionado would want. Drawing on the dozen other books written previously about the film and adding his own fulsome research, Seal has created a book that will be as much a monument to this film as the film is to Hollywood cinema in the 1970s.

For some reason the guy who created the best movie of the year wasn’t good enough to be named Best Director at the Oscars- that went to Bob Fosse for “Cabaret.”

In 1972, there was no such thing as a global wide release. Although it was shown in the U.S. in March that year, in Glasgow, Scotland, where I lived, The Godfather did not get its first showing until the end of August. It opened at the ABC 1 in Sauchiehall St in the city centre as well as over the River Clyde at the ABC Coliseum. It was competing with two roadshows, Young Winston and Mary, Queen of Scots at the Odeon 1 and Odeon 3, respectively, Robert Redford in heist picture How to Steal a Diamond at the Odeon 2 and What’s Up Doc? at the ABC 2. Western The Hired Hand was playing the arthouse Cosmo and the arty Made for Each Other at the gigantic Green’s Playhouse. The La Scala had the double bill of Dr No/Thunderball and the Regent was in the second week of Dirty Harry, somewhat unusual in that this was a second run house where pictures were rarely retained.

There were three performances a day for The Godfather but no advance booking – as would have been the case if it had gone into roadshow – so the queues outside both cinemas were huge. It had such an impact on me I saw it twice in the same day. When I moved to London I used to take regular advantage of the double bill The Godfather / The Godfather Part II when it used to play a cinema in Regent St on occasional Sundays, so I have no idea how many times I have seen both. Never enough, I would guess.

Where were you when you first saw The Godfather?

And where will I be on February 26 when The Godfather will be reissued in cinemas all over Britain (and possibly worldwide for all I know)? I leave it to you to guess.

To cash in on the 50th anniversary, cinemas all around the world are planning to screen all three parts of the trilogy. So watch out for them.

Book into Film – “The Godfather” (1972)

Watching King of the Roaring 20s (1961) and Murder Inc (1960) and struck by the number of similarities to The Brotherhood (1968) that could be found in The Godfather (1972) induced me to examine how well the original novel by Mario Puzo survived the often dangerous transition onto the screen.

There could not be a more textbook example of how to turn a big bestseller into a compelling motion picture. Although director Francis Coppola added texture and style to the bestseller, the film owes far more to the memorable characters created by author Mario Puzo. Apart from some slight structural changes and the elimination of a couple of subplots, the movie follows Puzo’s brilliant structure almost to the letter. And except for a few lines, virtually all the dialogue and many of the most unforgettable lines come directly from the book.

The opening wedding feast is an excellent example of the screenplay approach. The order of the action occasionally alters but the novel’s structure is strictly adhered to. The film’s striking opening line “I love America” by the undertaker is a slight but significant adaptation of that character’s line “I believe in America” in the book. But the screenwriters junk the book’s actual opening section which gives the background to the issues the three characters appealing to Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for intervention against perceived injustice from Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and goes straight to the book’s wedding.  Here, too, the various elements are taken directly from the book with slight changes. For example, to the FBI men taking down car number plates in the novel the screenplay adds in photographers so that, to demonstrate his temper at an early stage, Sonny Corleone (James Caan) can smash a camera.

Straight from the book: fat Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) dancing, wiping his brow and calling for wine from Paulie (John Martino); Sonny whispering in the ear of bridesmaid Lucy (Jeannie Linero); the frightened undertaker being told off by Vito; the  Luca Brasi story Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) tells Kay Adams (Diane Keaton); Sonny and Lucy having sex and being interrupted by Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall); and the screams that greet  singer Johnny Fontane (Al Fontane) and the subsequent scene where Vito shouts at the singer to act “like a man.” Additions are slight: in the book Sonny’s wife is in the kitchen not at a wedding table in dumbshow making jokes about her husband’s manhood, and Luca Brasi rehearsing his speech.

Indicative of the ruthlessness with which the screenplay treats the book is the elimination of a moving scene at the tail end of the wedding where Vito goes to see his dying partner Genco. As indicative of the author’s brilliance is that he invented degenerate film producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) and the decapitated horse in his bed.  But the storyline, the film’s core, from the attempted murder of Vito, Michael’s assassination of the Turk Solozzo (Al Lettieri) and corrupt cop McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), the exiled Michael struck by the “thunderbolt” falling in love, the ambush of Sonny and the stricken Vito suing for peace, is pretty much exactly that of the book. In some case, it’s clear that actors have drawn from Puzo’s characterizations, the chilling way Michael takes control of the Family, how Fredo goes from useless gangster to hotel dandy.

There are occasional additions. In the book Enzo’s hand outside the hospital is  shaking but Michael lighting his cigarette is the movie shorthand to demonstrate his icy calm, Sonny’s “bada-bing” isn’t in the book nor is Luca Brasi sleeping with the fishes, though there is something similar “Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean.”

Occasionally, in the novel, for technical reasons, Puzo drifts away from the central characters to provide some more background or detail about a subsidiary person and in this manner we enter into the minds of Paulie, Carlo (Gianni Russo), Kay, Clemenza, McCluskey and Albert Neri just as they are about to play a significant role in forthcoming action.  Other subsidiary characters featured more prominently in the novel, in particular Johnny Fontane whom the book reveals develops from Oscar-winning actor to successful movie producer and from manic seducer to more considerate male.

Fontane also helps revitalize the career of another singer Nino who does not appear in the movie at all and plays a role in developing the Family’s interests in Las Vegas. Lucy, who disappears entirely from the film after the wedding, is more significant in the book, finding romance after Sonny’s death with a surgeon and there’s a part of their relationship that would only now be permissible to film. Sicilian shepherd Fabrizio, instrumental in the attempted assassination of Michael, also reappears in the book. The book also devotes more attention to Michael’s new breed, Alberto (Richard Bright) and Rocco (Tom Rosqui).

The death of Vito in the garden is almost identical to the book with the grandson present except for Marlon Brando’s improvisation of stuffing his cheeks with orange to frighten the boy. And Michael’s betrayal by Tessio and the subsequent mass murder of all his enemies is also drawn from the book except for Moe Green having been killed earlier (Fabrizio the shepherd slotting into his place in the book’s action). Some slight detail is changed – Barzini (Richard Conte) killed beside his waiting car not on the steps, Tattaglia (Tony Giorgio) murdered in a chalet not an apartment block. Somewhat surprisingly the image of acolytes paying homage to Michael as briefly viewed by Kay has its origins in the book. The two final scenes in the book, both concerning Kay, are excluded from the film, in the first, having run away, she is challenged by Hagen and in the second she prays for Michael’s soul in church just as (in the book) Michael’s mother had prayed for his father

A lengthy chapter on Vito’s beginnings, explaining his early relationships with Clemenza, Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Luca Brasi, was wisely held over for The Godfather Part II.

Having by now read a number of books that were subsequently filmed, my over-riding impression was that in many cases (The Secret Ways, Arabesque) little survived of the original tale or that characters, locations and timescales (The Detective) were substantially altered. In some instances the book’s length precluded a straightforward adaptation. Occasionally, subjects easily dealt with on the printed page were not so welcome on the screen. But, for whatever reason, change appeared inevitable for a bestseller being translated into a movie.

The Godfather almost stands alone as a novel that made the transition with virtually no alterations. All the main characters are present as described by Puzo and the storyline entirely reflects the book. The bulk of the dialogue was originally written by Puzo. While there is no doubting the Coppola’s achievement in putting the book on film, there is equally no doubt that the book leant itself to easier adaptation than most bestsellers.

The Ugly American (1963) ***

Terrific performance from Marlon Brando saves this prescient but preachy meditation on Vietnam. Harrison MacWhite (Marlon Brando) is the new ambassador, whose political credentials are questioned by many,  parachuted into the fictional South-East Asia country of Sarkhan, knee-deep in civil war, communist north versus westernized south. The battleground is the American construction of a “Freedom Road” north to China which dissenters fear will be a conduit for the military. MacWhite owes his appointment to his friendship with Deong (Eeji Okada), a charismatic leader.

On arrival, the ambassadorial car is engulfed in a riot, car rocked, windscreens smashed. MacWhite shakes up a complacent embassy and though articulate and scholarly believes he holds the solution to the tricky situation while unwilling to accept that national self-determination does not necessarily mean complete hatred of the Americans. There is duplicity on both sides, rebels blaming U.S. truck drivers for deaths they caused, the Americans so used to getting their way they don’t stop to think if it is the right way.

Anxious not to be seen as a lapdog for Communism, MacWhite’s actions inflame the situation, while Deong falls victim to internal forces. Construction boss Homer Atkins (Pat Hingle) promotes the clever use of building hospitals along the road, thus encouraging locals to back it, but nobody falls for such honest skull-duggery masquerading as well-meaning intent.

Friends turning into enemies is a decent premise for any movie but this is over-burdened with debate that while interesting and providing a reflection of the times is basically a mixture of virtue-signalling and apportioning blame and, most heinous of failings, doesn’t really advance the story.

First-time director George Englund handles the action sequences well and captures the essence of a country about to explode against a background of growing tension and political machination. Use of Thailand as a location added authenticity.

The movie was based on a controversial novel by political scientist Eugene Burdick (who also wrote a more straightforward cold War thriller Fail Safe) and William Lederer, navy veteran and CIA officer, so it carried the stamp of authority in terms of putting forth the arguments for both sides. However, while the film bore only a “passing resemblance” to the book, according to co-author Burdick, he deemed it a superior achievement on the basis of its more dramatic treatment. Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) was the screenwriter who received blame and praise in equal measure.

Marlon Brando (Bedtime Story, 1964) exudes authority, broad shoulders packed into a suit, and brilliantly captures the anguish of a man led into disaster by arrogance. Coming off back-to-back flops One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), this was a considerable change of pace for the actor, the first of several excursions into political territory. Eeji Okada (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, 1958) proves a worth opponent. Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968), Arthur Hill (Moment to Moment, 1965) and Jocelyn Brando (The Chase, 1966) provide sterling support.

The movie did not just predict what would happen if the U.S. lost the battle for hearts and minds but a similar situation confronting the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia in 1965 whose appointment was unwelcome in that country.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

The Brotherhood (1968) ****

Minimal violence and no sex was the wrong recipe for this Mafia picture – as proven at the box office – but this is an absorbing, underrated drama nonetheless.

It bears a surprising number of parallels to The Godfather (1972). Pure coincidence, extraordinary though that may appear, because The Brotherhood premiered in December 1968 while the Mario Puzo novel was printed in March 1969 (and delivered to the printers long before), so no opportunity at all for plagiarism.

The two films could be opposite sides of the same coin. For a start, both begin with a wedding. Vince Ginetta (Alex Cord), brother of Mafia kingpin Frank (Kirk Douglas), is marrying Emma (Susan Strasberg), daughter of another Mafia chief Dominick (Luther Adler). Like Michael (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Vince is just out of the army, well-educated and primed for a life outside the business. And like Michael is called upon to commit an act of supreme violence. There’s even a hint of Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in the relationship between the brothers, Frank having brought up the much younger Vince after his father’s premature death.

And just as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) refuses to join the other Mafia families in a new business venture (in that case, drugs) so Frank bows out of an incredibly high risk (but amazingly prescient) scheme to invest in electronic firms involved in military work for the government, a deal that not only promises huge profits but a potential hold over the powers-that-be.

Frank’s wife Ida (Irene Papas) is like Don Corleone’s wife, not wanting to know anything about the business, but both Emma and Frank’s daughter Carmela (Connie Scott) are thematic cousins to Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) as initial implicit trust is wiped away. When Frank dances with Carmela at the wedding, that is reflected in Don Corleone dancing with his daughter at her wedding. Like The Godfather our first sight of the other Mafia chieftains – including Jim Hagen (Murray Hamilton) and Don Peppino (Eduardo Cianelli) – is at the feast where they are viewed with suspicion by Frank’s clan. And the scene where Frank uses a banana to tease his nephew will remind you of Don Corleone spooking his grandson with an orange.

However, the twist, if you like, is that, unlike Michael, Vince is desperate to join the Family and is instrumental in developing legitimate enterprises, which is echoed by Michael Corleone’s strategic shift to Las Vegas. In some respects, Frank is more like Sonny (James Caan), happy to assume personal command of murders which the other Mafia chiefs now scrupulously delegate to “mechanics” in Los Angeles. He is more old-school whereas the others act as respectable businessmen.

And then it becomes a question of loyalty. Which side the ambitious Vinnie will take is crucial to the story. Frank is under pressure on all sides, from the other Mafia leaders, a government investigation, Vinnie, and the need to exact revenge on the man who caused his father’s death.

There is authentic detail here as well – religious procession in Sicily, Frank playing boccia (the Italian version of the French boules) with his old pals, family dinner, canary stuffed in the mouth of a stool pigeon, but it is less spaghetti-drenched than The Godfather. Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Fox, 1967), also listed as technical adviser, claimed to be drawing on his intimate knowledge of organized crime.

There are only three moments of violence – four if you count a shocking moment of someone spitting on a corpse at a wake – a pair of straightforward murders that bookend the film, plus a scene of Godfather-style brutality in which a man slowly strangles himself to death after being hogtied. Everyone is happily married, Ida very old-school to the extent of removing her husband’s clothes (and shoes) when he returns home drunk, Vince in a good relationship.

Kirk Douglas (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) is excellent in a difficult role that presents a fully rounded character, playful with his daughter, loyal to his wife, holding his own against the other mob bosses, enjoying the company of the old-timers who resemble his father, and the changing nature of his relationship with brother Vince. Alex Cord, whose work I initially dismissed (Stiletto, 1969), I have come to more fully appreciate, especially here, where, in a masterpiece of restraint, he makes the transition from adoring brother to threat.

The supporting cast is terrific, a rare Hollywood sojourn for Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), Luther Adler  (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) as one of the hoodlums exasperated by Frank’s recalcitrance,  Murray Hamilton (The Graduate, 1967) but, except at the start, Susan Strasberg (The Trip, 1967) is underused.

While director Martin Ritt (Hombre, 1967) is at times guilty of melodrama, his rendering of family life is much more nuanced than Coppola’s. There are very tender moments between Frank and his wife and Frank and his daughter, as well as moments where Ida plays a more maternal role.

For nearly half a century, The Brotherhood has lain in the shadow of The Godfather simply because they both deal with the Mafia. But this is an excellent movie in its own right.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

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