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.

Gambit (1966) ****

The heist movie – as epitomised by The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1958) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1954) – had tended to be a relatively low-budget affair. Top-ranking stars steered clear because complicated plot often got in the way of character development  In the highly polished and entertaining Gambit British director Ronald Neame’s riff on the genre involved a narrative shift worthy of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and, of course, Akira Kurosawa who had with Rashomon (1950) single-handedly invented the complex point-of-view.

Neame brought another couple of other aces out of the deck. First of all, there was the fun of watching over-confident thief Michael Caine’s apparently foolproof plans come unstuck. Secondly, in a romantic dynamic in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934) the less accomplished female (Shirley MacLaine) proves more accomplished than the male.

Gambit was also a clear demonstration of the power of the female star not just in the plot complications but from the fact that Caine owed his big Hollywood break to MacLaine, the actress having the power of veto over the male lead and, equally, contractual right to choose her co-star. The movie went through an interesting development phase. The original script by director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965) had Cary Grant in the central (i.e MacLaine) role. Rewritten by Jack Davies (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965) and in his movie debut Alvin Sargent (The Stalking Moon, 1968) the main character underwent a gender shift.

After Psycho (1960) audiences had become used to being messed around. Stars could be killed off halfway through or not appear (Operation Crossbow a classic example) until well into the movie. Neame was not quite so bold but what audiences made of the usually garrulous MacLaine being rendered mute during the early part of the picture was anybody’s guess, perhaps the dumb show was a joke in itself. But lack of dialogue did not prevent MacLaine from stealing the show and proving what an adept comedienne she was, a barrage of submissive looks enough to send an audience into hysterics.

In essence, Caine plays two characters. In the opening segment he is the brash, cocky  English gentleman-thief at the top of his game, bossing MacLaine around, gulling his mark (Herbert Lom) with an audacious plan to steal an expensive sculpture. In his version of events his plan goes off without a hitch. But when we switch to the MacLaine perspective, in which nothing goes according to plan, his cool demeanour is sorely tested and he turns into a frustrated idiot. Watching the movie now, you can almost imagine that the MacLaine character, with a host of useless facts at her fingertips, was making fun of Caine’s well-known love of trivia, but that predated the actor’s acknowledgement of this aspect of his real-life character.

What makes the movie so much fun is that both parts of the film work and for the same reasons: believable characters, exciting heists and plenty of twists. The initial premise is that Caine recruits Hong Kong dancer MacLaine due to her startling resemblance to the late wife of Arab billionaire Herbert Lom as part of a ploy to relieve him of a priceless artefact. While Lom is falling for MacLaine, Caine moves in for the kill with an ingenious heist. Mission accomplished he pays her off. But in the real version of the story, as seen through her eyes, Lom does not fall for the ridiculous scam, Caine’s plan fails to work until MacLaine comes to the rescue. Meanwhile, MacLaine has fallen for Caine, but does not want to be in love with a criminal. Although Caine initially resists his own emotions, he, too, takes the romantic plunge except that to win her he may have to lose what he prizes more.

As I mentioned it is awash with twists and the heists themselves are exceptionally well done but the screen chemistry between the two leads is terrific. Caine, who had otherwise been in control in his previous starring roles as the upper-class officer in Zulu (1963), spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and the womanising Alfie (1966) – The Wrong Box (1966) was an ensemble item – was taking a chance in playing a character who would effectively play second fiddle to the star and in terms of the thief often appears out-of-control. MacLaine was more obviously in her safety zone. Hollywood spent a lot of time investing in screen partnerships, mostly failing, but this pairing certainly succeeded.

Manny Farber, Critic’s Critic

Gunning for You – Manny Farber

You wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Manny Farber, generally considered along with Andrew Sarris, the godfather of serious film criticism. “Visceral” was the word most commonly associated with his writings.

He came to movies from an unusual perspective. He was a painter, one of the most celebrated still life artists of his generation. He never worked for a big paper like the New York Times or a stylish magazine like the New Yorker. Instead, his work appeared in Film Culture, Artforum, The Nation and men’s magazine Cavalier.

An early advocate of the work of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh, he was also inclined towards lean B-films over more profligate big-budget pictures.

Chances are you will disagree with everything he said, especially when he was slicing-and-dicing one of your favorites, but it is equally guaranteed that you will marvel at his prose. His work had punch and clarity and it might just make you laugh.

Here are some of his musings on the 1960s movie scene:

Easy Rider (1969): “Dennis Hopper’s lyrical, quirky film is better than good in its handling of death…The death scenes, much more heartbreaking, much less programmed than Peckinpah’s (The Wild Bunch), come out of nowhere…The finality and present-tense quality of the killings are remarkable: the beauty issues from the quiet, the damp green countryside and a spectacular last shot zooming up from a curving road and a burning cycle.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): “The most troublesome aspect of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is that the story moves faster and further than the actor who is not unlike the Tin Woodsman of Oz (O’Toole starts with a springing outward movement, to walk over the world, then turns into a pair of stilts walking in quick, short strides.)”

On Albert Finney: “The Big Eat is a growing factor in films, in effect probably invented by Finney in his Saturday Night. In his case, it was a combination effect, involving a big chomp, heavy breathing, slashes of braggadocio, a side swivel, and baring of teeth. This emphasized eating has been fined and slowed down in his latest work, but within the timespan of four Finneyfilms it has taken hold, cementing a new convention for giving an underside, the animalistic traits, to character.”

The Ipcress File (1965): “This is a Chandleresque thriller that has no thrills, with an antihero who is more like a sugary flavor than an actor doing a Philip Marlowe…the only suspense is how slowly a knight (non-played ‘superbly’ by Michael Caine) can put dimes in a parking meter, crack eggs in a skillet or flatfoot his way through a library.”

The Rounders (1965): “Fonda’s entry into a scene is of a man walking backward, slating himself away from the public eye. Once in a scene, the heavy jaw freezes, becomes like a concrete abutment, and he affects a clothes-hanger stance, no motion in either arm.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966): “The most famous scene is an erotic nondancer, which is neither erotic nor dancelike, in which Elizabeth Taylor suggests a gyrating milk-bottling mechanism.”

The New York Film Festival 1968: “In the category called Bloody Bores, the Festival offered Capricious Summer, Hugo and Josefin and Twenty Four Hours in a Woman’s LifeHugo and Josefin is life as seen through the eyes of a Kodak camera ad.”

On Rita Tushingham: “An even worse example of megalomaniac star who can make the simplest action have as many syllables as her name. The myth that a director makes or breaks a film is regularly disproved by this actress who…carries on a war of nerves against the other actors.”

The Graduate (1968): “Benjy…leads a split life on screen; half the time he’s hung up between Mrs. and Miss Robinson; the other half he’s at half mast; a flattened silhouette…Dustin Hoffman is laid out like an improbably menu. People are always darting into his periphery to point him out as a boy wonder…Benjamin, as it turns out, is Bill Bradley crossed with Denny Dimwit.”

It is unlikely you’ll get hold of this book Movies at a decent price since it is long out-of-print and a collector’s item but you can easily find Farber on Film, a whopping 800-page tome which covers his compete writings.

The Wrong Box (1966)***

Somewhere between SBIG (So Bad It’s Good) and WAL (Worth a Look), The Wrong Box is a black comedy in the wrong directorial hands.

Better known for thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and POW drama King Rat (1965) Bryan Forbes struggles to bring enough comedy into the proceedings or to wring sufficient laughs out of what he has. Neither the wit nor the slapstick is sharp enough. But it does exhibit a certain charm.

Essentially an inheritance story, it pivots on the notion that the two potential inheritors are on their last legs and putting one (Ralph Richardson) out of action will benefit the dastardly nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) of the sole survivor (John Mills). It turns out Richardson is not dead. That does not cue as much hilarity as it should.

Surprisingly, the film relies on affecting performances from Michael Caine, playing against type as a gentle soul, and Nanette Newman as a young woman terrified of being murdered, who enjoy a very innocent romance. Hitherto, I had been rather sniffy about Ms Newman, but here she is delightful. Ralph Richardson steals the movie as a dotty pedant, weighted down with erudition and a knack, equally, for boring the pants off anyone within earshot and for escaping from the jaws of death including a massive train pile-up and several murderous attempts by Mills.

Cook and Moore let the show down by being so obviously just themselves but there is a nice cameo from Peter Sellers as an inebriated doctor.

Michael Caine got it spot-on when pointing out in his autobiography that it was a “gentle success in most places except Britain” precisely because to foreigners it represented an acceptably stereotypical view of a country full of eccentrics while to Brits it was all too stereotypical. So if you’re from America or other points global you might like it and if you are British you might not. On the other hand, the score by John Barry is one of his best with a wonderful theme tune.

POSTCRIPT. Just to back up Caine’s assertion, I pulled out the Pressbook from my stack and it goes heavy on critical praise. Newsweek said: “As funny and sunny a movie as any audience could ask for.” From the New York Times came: “so fantastic and explosive it virtually pops right out of the screen! A crazy, merry tale that tumbles somewhere between black humor and elegant, uninhibited camp.” The New York Post thought it was “a beautifully designed elaborate spoof,” while as far as the New York Daily Post was concerned it was “a laugh a minute.”