Passport to China / Visa to Canton (1961) **

Marked down for sheer laziness. Another Hammer “thriller,” this time with fading American star Richard Basehart and Italian glamor puss Lisa Gastoni. But mostly a hodge-podge travelog of stock footage with dialog taking the place of action, a tedious voice-over far removed from the snappy one-liners we are accustomed to getting from Chandleresque investigators. And let’s forget the red-eyed Chinese replete with drooping moustaches who pepper the picture.

A plane has gone down in Red China with an American courier carrying vital “scientific” information, Approached to help by US government personnel, snappily-dressed Hong Kong travel agent Benton (Richard Basehart) refuses. But when he discovers the pilot is Jimmy (Burt Kwouk), a member of a Chinese family he has befriended during World War Two, he mounts his own rescue mission. Which consists, by the way, of nothing more than floating a sampan up a river, avoiding a few bullets and whisking the lad away.

But he is blackmailed into rescuing the courier when Hong Kong police imprison Jimmy. So off he trots to Macao and then Canton aided along the way, in the opulent back room of a casino, by Chinese businessman Kong (Eric Pohlmann) who you might mistake for a James Bond villain such is his fondness for being surrounded by women – or such is his girth mistake him for a Robert Morley lookalike. Kong happens to be a Russian spy.

No sneaking into China by parachute or perhaps motor boat is required, Kong simply furnishes him with the visa of the title. Benton, vaguely assisted by a maker of fake porcelain, has clues –  Three Fishes, The Stream of the Willows.

In his hotel bedroom sits the courier, blonde Lola (Lisa Gastoni), held prisoner. But no sooner have they kissed, as you might expect of any self-respecting travel agent doubling as a spy, than they are interrupted by Kong. She disappears. Naturally, Benton finds her easily enough. She doesn’t have papers, instead a photographic memory.

But she’s not working for the Americans. She’s an espionage freelance, working for the highest bidder. She does it for the danger, perhaps like a certain James Bond, danger is the drug, heightens her senses.

But she’s also pretty damn clever. Knowing Kong is a double agent and can’t just snatch her out of China, she starts an auction for her information. Benton offers more. Therefore she is his property. To get over the tickly issue of Kong, in revenge, keeping her prisoner in China, he is conveniently accidentally shot.

So now they have to escape. But in the shoot-out at the docks (in a barn full of hay for some reason she gets shot) so the movie suddenly turns into one of those post-Bond thrillers where all that effort has been expended for no result.

But you might have thought a producer (Michael Carreras) would have introduced Lola much earlier in femme fatale fashion. But then this producer who, as it happens was also the director, seems to think that voice-over will solve all the tedious problems of actually creating a screenplay that works.

You shouldn’t have cared less about a snappy-suited character such as the one played by Gene Barry in his informal espionage trilogy – Maroc 7 (1967), Istanbul Express (1968) and Subterfuge (1968) – he’s about on a par as an actor as Basehart. But those movies at least had proper stories that made sense and were not just a series of jumps explained by voice-over, the hero neither having to undertake any shamus digging or go into harm’s way, or battle his way out of perilous situation.

It’s not even bad enough to eventually win over a cult audience. The problem is it’s well-made up to a point and the story is intriguing up to a point, but that mark is very low.

Richard Basehart (The Satan Bug, 1965) isn’t called upon to do much except act as the storyteller he’s okay and Lisa Gastoni (Maddalena, 1971) isn’t accorded sufficient screen time to really make a mark. Which is the biggest shame because an amoral spy like her would have made a brilliant femme fatale had she been introduced early on and then turned out to be the mercenary she was.

The rest of the cast are caricatures, though interesting to see Burt Kwouk in pre-Pink Panther persona but cringe-worthy to see Bernard Cribbins (You Must Be Joking, 1965)  mangle a foreign accent. Clearly Carreras learned a lesson from this implosion of talent and story because two pictures on he directed taut thriller Maniac (1963).  

King’s Pirate (1967) ****

Swell show. Virtually every movie Doug McClure (Beau Geste, 1966) made was under-rated, mostly due to his presence, but here he is at his impish cavalier best in a swashbuckler that rather than offering a re-tread goes in for clever reversals, running jokes and a healthy dose of the flashing blade. While McClure is no Errol Flynn (Against All Flags, 1952) he would be a safe match for Tyrone Power and Jill St John (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) as his nemesis/lover could give the pirate picture’s most reliable spitfire, Maureen O’Hara (Against All Flags), a run for her money.

Well, actually, it is a bit of a re-tread, a spirited good-humored remake of Against All Flags, and  follows the same story as Pirates of Tortuga (1961) of good guy infiltrating a pirate stronghold by pretending to be a buccaneer. But the locale has shifted a good three thousand miles to Madagascar, ideally placed to plunder cargo ships en route to India, and it would be hard to argue that Lt Brian Fleming’s (Doug McClure) motivation is pure, given he is expecting major financial reward for risking his life. 

Still, to complete his disguise, he submits to a flogging. His task is to incapacitate the cannons that protect the island from Royal Navy invasion. But his team is somewhat unusual, a bunch of acrobats headed by Zucco (Kurt Kasznar) which ensures he can avoid the wall/cliff-climbing normally associated with such endeavors. Having just about convinced pirate king John Avery (Guy Stockwell), Fleming’s mission runs into trouble when Mogul’s daughter Princess Patna (Mary Ann Mobley) falls in love with him after he saves her from a burning ship, though admittedly one he had helped set on fire. He falls foul, too, of “Mistress” Jessica (Jill St John), the island’s de facto ruler and accomplished femme fatale, expert swordswoman, but a la Pirates of Tortuga with a yen to be a “lady.”

So, basically, he has to dodge the suspicious Avery, and put off the princess while trying to woo Jessica in order to find a secret map of the cannon locations.

The island’s preferred style of execution is staking men at the water’s edge and letting the rising tide do the rest. When Fleming, on initial arrival on the island, gulps at this demonstration of barbarity, you probably don’t guess this will happen to him. It’s just one a litany of reversals that make this a delight.

Talking of reversals and delights, how about the Indian princess speaking in a Scottish accent, courtesy of her governess, the fearsome Miss MacGregor (Diana Chesney)?

Not to mention Jessica’s habit of making her romantic inclinations known at gunpoint. Unusually lacking in the female ability of expressing her emotions, Jessica’s actions tend to be the opposite of her stated intention, resulting in, having given Fleming the brush-off, bidding against him in the slave market for Princess Patna to avoid the Indian lass getting her romantic claws into him. But not only is Jessica expert with the sword she is a crack shot and can shoot the end off a rapier.

Of course, when his sword can’t do the talking. Fleming has to weasel his way out of many a dicey situation with an inventiveness that would do Scheherazade proud.

All in all the best pirate film of the decade – though there wasn’t much competition. Competently made with McClure and St John striking cinematic sparks with former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley (Istanbul Express, 1968) happily cooperating in turning her character into a comedic gem.

While there’s certainly a touch of the Tony Curtis in McClure’s portrayal it is also his stab at carving out a position as a jaunty leading man. Jill St John, given a lot more to do than in most of her pictures, takes the opportunity to shine. Guy Stockwell (Beau Geste) delivers another villain.

Don Weiss (Billie, 1965) directed and does exceptionally well steering audiences away from unfulfillable expectation, given the low budget, by focusing on the qualities of the stars and a ripping tale knocked out by television comedy writer Paul Wayne, who rewrote or incorporated material from Aeneas MacKenzie and Joseph Hoffman responsible for the original.

Catch it on YouTube.

Tormented (1960) ***

Effective island-based thriller. The marriage plans of jazz piano “genius” Tom (Richard Carlson) are thrown into disarray by the sudden arrival of old flame Vi (Juli Reding). A tryst atop an abandoned lighthouse ends in disaster when Vi tumbles over a railing and Tom refuses to rescue her. Fishing her corpse out of the water the next day he finds instead he is holding wet seaweed.

Cue all sorts of strange events: footprints on the beach, a lingering smell of perfume, a vinyl platter recorded by Vi playing all on its own, missing wedding ring, wilting flowers, wedding dress is covered in seaweed, ghostly apparitions of the dead woman.

Richard Carlson and the disembodied.

Initially denying his guilt, Tom soon finds himself consumed by it. Blind Mrs Ellis (Lillian Adams) suspects the supernatural. Fiancee Meg (Lugene Sanders) is soon on red alert, the situation exacerbated by her younger sister Sandy (Susan Hubbard) who develops an unhealthy crush on Tom and has a creepy hold over him.

Tension is racked up by the arrival of boatman Nick (Joe Turkel) intent on blackmailing Tom ahead of the imminent wedding. It doesn’t end the way you’d expect, but Tom proves a darker character. This kind of thriller you’d expect a final twist but you’d have to be very savvy to guess this one.

It’s a bold enterprise for a B-picture. Director Bert I. Gordon had made his name on special-effects-driven pictures like The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) but here that element is underplayed, the main focus on the gradual disintegration of Tom as he succumbs to guilt and the voices and sights he imagines. Some images are clearly inside his head, but Mrs Ellis and Meg detect the perfume scent, the flowers wilt in full view of everyone, and Sandy is present when the ring vanishes. Gordon employs the Hitchcockian technique of having subsidiary characters propose various unsettling possibilities to the guilty party. The jazz soundtrack is not the cool music you might expect but a more jangly score. And any time there’s a quiet moment you can hear thundering surf in the background.

B-picture and sci-fi veteran Richard Carlsen (The Power, 1968) isn’t quite able to suggest sufficient internal anguish, you’d need a James Stewart in Vertigo mode to manage the kind of obsession required. But Carlsen goes neatly enough from composed epitome of “cool” to nervous wreck, likely to land himself in trouble from reacting too violently to the unreal.

And there’s enough peripheral tension, Meg’s wealthy father (Harry Fleer) opposes the wedding, believing a jazz musician a poor candidate for his daughter’s hand. Mrs Ellis probing a little too close to the bone, the innocent Sandy unwittingly endangers herself. Virgin Meg is oblivious to the fact the man she is marrying is scarcely in the same category.

It’s a chamber piece, a few characters rattling round each other, uneasiness emanating from Tom visualizing phantoms. And it’s short, barely 75 minutes, classic length for a supporting feature, and it’s to the director’s credit he makes no attempt to puff it out. One twist after another and specters everywhere, all the template you need. It set some sort of record for killing off careers. It was the last movie for Juli Reding, Susan Gordon and Lugene Sanders but you might recall Joe Turkel from The Shining  (1980).

Very good example of what you can do with a low budget, an edgy script and a director who doesn’t lean too heavily on the special effects.

Burn / Quiemada (1969) *****

May have lost its allegorical power now that Vietnam is no longer a cause but even more compelling for standing as a generic condemnation of imperialism. The Vietnam connection is invoked immediately as Englishman Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) on arrival is told that the Portuguese conquered the island hundreds of years before simply by setting fire to it until all the natives had perished or fled and restocking it with slaves from elsewhere. For a 1960s audience, that summoned up images of U.S. military use of napalm and carpet bombing.

The idea must have stuck in Walker’s head because that’s exactly the strategy he devises towards the end of the movie. Beyond his title, and the fact that he looks and talks like an upper-class Englishman of the mid 1800s, Walker is one of these shady characters you often found in the Colonies doing shady work for the British government. While this island is ruled by the Portuguese rather than the British, that’s about to change since the British find Portuguese attitudes to free trade too restrictive.

So Walker sets about creating the spark for an explosion. Having earmarked the local bank for an easy heist, he recruits Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez) to head a team of locals. Of course, such a large-scale robbery ensures pursuit. Capture is evaded when Walker produces a cache of rifles aware that in defending themselves the natives will trigger revolution. Walker then goes to work on the upper-classes, explaining how much better off they would be if they could side with the rebellion and overthrow the Portuguese.

Mission accomplished, he scoots off home, only to return when corruption has so destroyed the island, now a British colony, that Jose Dolores is back creating rebellion. Old friend becomes foe and is ruthlessly hunted down.

You can’t help but admire Walker’s guile. To create a large enough distraction to pull off the robbery he simply gets the entire town population drunk on free booze, giving soldiers more than enough rioting to cope with. To provide the circumstances to assassinate the President, he takes advantage of the costuming for a festival, allowing people to sneak past guards in any disguise. But when cunning doesn’t work, it’s down to brute force. The group with the biggest army, more weapons and the greater degree of ruthlessness will always win.

This isn’t one of those movies that sets out to idolise a rebel leader or where a small band of outlaws outwit the ruling power with clever ruses or filled with duels or ambushes or full-on battles. This is about the puppeteers, the men who use violence for their own commercial ends.

Like General Custer, Walker is a man with a job to do, even while he might despise it and certainly is filled with disgust at the ruling party. He claims he is not the author of either group’s misfortune but merely “the instrument.” On his return, he argues, “I didn’t start it; when I arrived you were already butchering each other.” In other words, blameless, just following the orders of either government or employer. But he takes pride in doing his job “well,” no matter the cost.

Every action has consequence. Even attempting to save Jose Dolores’s life, it is with consequence in mind. Let him live and set him free elsewhere and he will be viewed as a traitor. Kill him and he will be seen as a martyr, the most dangerous currency for incipient rebellion.

He knows exactly what buttons to press. In order to convince the ruling band of natives to support revolution in the first place, he makes a comparison with prostitution. You hire a sex worker by the hour to fulfil a need, you are not required, as with a wife, to dress her and feed her and look after her for her entire life. Should the employers free their slaves, that would eliminate the need for a lifetime of care (no matter how little) but could hire them as required.

The brutality is not dwelt upon, no The Wild Bunch-style bloody carnage, just a growing number of corpses on either side depending which group has the upper hand. The difference between the brutal Portuguese and the sedate English is in their approach to execution. The Portuguese rely on the garotte, by which a steel band fixed round the neck is slowly twisted until life is extinguished. The English prefer the speed of the gallows.  

Marlon Brando considered this one of his finest performances and I am inclined to agree. There is no showboating either way, neither inflating a character nor deflating him, as the actor was apt to do when playing a loser. Instead, Walker never loses a grip on his emotions, no temper, no tears, just saying whatever someone wanted to hear, guiding with a hidden hand, a man who might have invented the term “results-based.” It is the calmest you will ever see Brando, and you might catch elements of this portrayal in his Godfather pushing pawns into place. But you won’t see here a single explosion of anger. For a non-actor, Evaristo Marquez gives a superb performance, though mostly he is also restrained, as if he was learning from a master.  

Director Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, 1966) takes a semi-documentary approach to the subject, concentrating on the machinations, no attempt to pull audience heartstrings with images of poverty. The garotte death does the work of explaining the brutality to come.

But there are three brilliant scenes that showcase the unstoppable character of war. In the best, the rebels, trying to escape an island ablaze, seek shelter on the higher ground. But this arid region is also exposed, no jungle here to provide cover, and scrambling up the naked slopes they are picked off, in long shot, one by one.

In the second example, the closest Walker comes to emotion is waking up one morning to the sound of a gallows being built. He takes a moment, listening, aware perhaps, though unwilling to admit it, that the harvest of a seed sown is about to be reaped. Brando is such a good actor that sadness only appears as a flicker of regret that the rebellion he began took a wrong turn once it was taken over by the wrong hands.

And, technically, his hands are clean. He is never seen firing a weapon. In the last of this trio of scenes, the English introduce hanging to the island. But since no one possesses the expertise to make a noose strong enough to support a head, Walker shows how.

There are two versions of this movie. It was filmed as Quiemada and this version is 17 minutes longer than the one released as Burn! I would urge you to see the far more atmospheric former. Editing down the picture, the distributors took out much of the background material. As a plus, there is a score by Ennio Morricone.

One of the best films ever made about the politics of war and the destructive force of commerce.

Babylon (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Wild raucous’n’roll rollercoaster that, contrary to expectation, I found totally absorbing, length not an issue. Employing a simple structure of rise and fall, and exploring the upside and downside of Hollywood in the transition from silent to sound, it seemed to me in essence to capture movie-making. A Broadway play could be a hit if seen by 100,000 people, that size of audience constituting a flop for a movie, but the play was viewed by 100,000 of the “right” people, the moneyed elite who could afford the tickets, a movie by the flotsam and jetsam that made up the majority of the American population even when, theoretically, the country was going through the boom times of the “Jazz Age.”

Most films and books concentrate on the downside, the battle to get to the top, the seamy undercurrent, the inevitable collapse, but none capture the giddy heights like this. Silent movies were viewed primarily as technical, nobody had to even talk, much less learn lines or spout Shakespeare. Initially, the stars were drawn from vaudeville so had some proven talent but then it was clear anyone could become a star, such as here Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), or a producer like Manny Torres (Diego Calva) by simply being in the right place at the right time, initiating a gold rush to Los Angeles.

Just as there is no single reason for the camera and audience to turn a person into a star, the same applies when they fall out of favor. In a movie thankfully given little to long lectures on filmmaking beyond aspirations to “form” and wanting to do something good, the best explanation about how/why careers end is delivered in dry tones by columnist Elinor St John (Jean Smart) to disillusioned out-of-favor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).

The narrative shuttles between Conrad, LaRoy and Torres, interweaving the lives of trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo),  Conrad’s multiple wives, LaRoy’s hapless father (Eric Roberts), director Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton) studio wunderkind Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper), gangster James McKay (Tobey Maguire) and imperious director Otto (Spike Jonze). Excess is the name of the game whether ostentatious consumption Hollywood-style or the more sedate black tie dinners of caviar and lobster enjoyed by the elite.

The elite looked down their noses on a new class of wealthy individuals who were ill-educated, didn’t talk proper, but had struck gold simply from being able to stand in front of a camera without being able to tell their Ibsen from their Shakespeare and didn’t understand art. 

Surprisingly, this is a pretty good comedy, slapstick sometimes but excelling at setting up visual jokes, though audiences might recoil from a rare reliance on elephant ordure and vomit. Some scenes are pure standout: Nellie’s first talk scene where the sound engineer has tyrannical control; Nellie’s fight with the snake; Manny’s race to find a camera before the director loses the light; the uncontrolled venom of battle scenes; the black Sidney not black enough; and of course the various wild parties although nothing in the Hollywood imagination could match the depravity of one where Manny is the unwilling guest of gangster McKay, as if fiction cannot match reality.

Of course, people who have everything rarely know what they actually want and spend their lives throwing away what they have in pursuit of the unattainable, so Conrad is apt to view wives as disposable, Nellie finds relief in drugs and gambling, Manny’s obsession with Nellie which should lead to ruin paradoxically by happenstance brings him happiness. The rampant unchecked hedonism that runs through the picture could well just be a metaphor for the helter-skelter modus operandi of the movies, enjoy it while you’re hot, cram in as much as you can, because, heaven knows, something from left field (sound, for example) could dramatically upend everything.

Brad Pitt (Bullet Train, 2022) is very good as the often drunk but generally streetwise star. You can hardly take your eyes off Margot Robbie (Amsterdam, 2022), not just for her brazen sexuality, but her ability to cry on cue, awareness of her self-destructive personality, inherited from self-destructive parents, greedy idiotic father, mother committed to an upmarket mental institution. Diego Calva (Beautiful Losers, 2021) is good in a less showy part. Interesting cameos abound.

This has the intensity of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) rather than the cleverness of La La Land (2016).

I mentioned in my review of Tar that it could have done with a stronger producer to cut down on the running times and some elements I felt were bound to alienate audiences. I would make the same suggestion here, though not so forcefully. Elephant shit and urination are always, I reckon, going to be a major turn-off for audiences. While I had no trouble with the length, that’s clearly been an issue and it would hardly be a problem for a decent editor to snip chunks out of party scenes or eliminate non-essential characters.

Emotionally and artistically this seems to me to capture the essence of the formative days of Hollywood before the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Hays Code brought about a systematic rethink with studios insisting their stars take more care hiding their proclivities from general view.

Ignore the reviews and check it out.

Miracle of the White Stallions (1963) ***

You wouldn’t look to Walt Disney in the 1960s to provide a tyro director with a calling card when so much of that studio’s output was saccharine. But this beautifully-mounted World War Two drama showed there was a new kid in town worth watching, name of Arthur Hiller. And if you always wondered why the later biopic of General Patton showed him in riding gear, that penchant is more clearly explained here.

You might balk, however, at the idea of a bunch of horses being considered in the same category as an art treasure worth protecting from the worst predations of war. And just as with the Von Trapp family, Austrians, despite welcoming the annexation of their country by Hitler in 1938, are given a free pass here.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna was a celebrated nearly 200-year-old institution in which the famed Lipizzaner white “dancing” horses were put through their paces. With the Second World War coming to a close it was threatened on three fronts: the German Army poached its instructors to man the front line, the invading Russians wanted to appropriate the horses and starving refugees focused on the potential horse meat.

School chief Col Alois Podhajsky (Robert Taylor) and wife Pedena (Lili Palmer) organise an evacuation under the guise of using the horses to draw cartloads of legitimate art treasures. They hole up in the castle of Countess Arco-Valley (Brigitte Horney) but the mares are stolen by the Russians and hidden in Czechoslovakia. (Only the stallions perform, but without the females as breeding stock, the line would become extinct.)

The colonel ditches his German uniform on the arrival of American forces and puts on a performance in a makeshift arena in an attempt to convince Patton (John Larch) to mount a rescue of the captured horses. Patton, we learn here, is a renowned horseman, competed in the equestrian section of the 1912 Olympic Games, and if anyone considers a fabulous horse more valuable than a work of art it’s him. As it happens, there are prisoners to be freed in Czechoslovakia so the horses are included in that mission.

What’s unusual about this animal tale, given Disney’s predilection for anthropomorphising animals, is that it’s not told from the point-of-view of the horses. Nor, as you might have expected, given the studio’s plethora of young talent, turned into  the story of a young girl or boy attached to the horses. Instead, the focal point is the impact of the creatures on those around them.

Of course the colonel is bound to be obsessed. But for the ordinary soldiers, who might never appreciate a work of art, they represent a kind of majesty,  a grandeur, rising above the horror of war, something well worth the effort of rescue.

What’s even more unusual in saccharine-town is the script’s recognition of the effect of war on humanity. At one point Pedena laments that men are asked to possess “the strength and fury of giants…and then be again the men they were before.” And in some respects acknowledging the beauty of the horses is a step in the right direction. The Yanks are neither celebrated as brave nor foolhardy, in fact mostly they are just working grunts, cleaning out the castle, fixing up the arena, cracking jokes.

Hiller is the big find here. There’s a brilliant scene, all of 40 seconds long (I timed it) that would have been cut out of any other Disney picture. In a chiaroscuro of light, the colonel walks from one end of the deserted Vienna riding hall to the other and his wife, entering the frame, goes to join him. Nothing more is needed to indicate loss. Hiller clearly recognised opportunity and while the film itself is no masterpiece every single frame reveals a talented mind at work, his use of colors and costume, movement within the frame, employing Pedena and the Countess to comment on the action, allowing the inbuilt tension to carry the story without extraneous drama.

You’re mostly likely to remember the performing horses, the balletic choreographed movements, the “airs above the ground,” and indeed Hiller wisely devotes a good 15 minutes to this, but without his input this would either be overly sentimental, saccharine or little more than a documentary. This is a very grown-up picture for Disney.

Robert Taylor (A House Is Not A Home, 1964) was at the tag-end of his career, his first film in four years, but he still has the charisma to carry the film and the gravitas to see it over the line. Lili Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) is well cast as a voice of reason and offering commentary on humanity. Curt Jurgens (Pysche ’59, 1964) has an interesting role, lamenting, as he picks out a classical tune at the piano, how Hitler outlawed famous composers.

There’s a stronger supporting cast than you might expect: Eddie Albert (Captain Newman M.D., 1963) , James Franciscus (Valley of Gwangi, 1969) and German actress Brigitte Horney (The Trygon Factor, 1966).

Somebody certainly took notice of Hiller’s talent because his next films were The Wheeler Dealers (1963) with Lee Remick and James Garner and The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews and Garner.  A.J. Carothers (The Happiest Millionaire, 1967) based the screenplay on the book by Alois Podhajsky.

Tar (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Editor wanted to stop self-indulgent director sabotaging his own work. Normally, this would be a producer’s job but there’s so many of them (I counted 14) in this co-production that I doubt any was at the wheel of the ship, trusting the director wouldn’t do something so guaranteed to alienate an audience as stick in four minutes (or more) of credits on a blank screen at the start. Credits that, virtue-signalling gone mad, list every Tom, Dick and Harry (and potentially their dog) who so much as pushed a pen for any of the production companies involved.

That won’t erode much of the mighty 158 minutes but it will make it appear several minutes shorter, assuming the audience bolts at the end. The cinema audience I saw it with wasn’t so courteous. Some were bolting long before the end. The sound of clacking chairs could be heard on a regular basis from halfway through the film.

You what!!! But this is an acclaimed picture, 92 Metascore on Imdb! Are we going to have start screening audiences now so that only people with the taste to sit to the end are allowed in?

To be honest, I shared their pain. Absolutely terrific Oscar-worthy performance by Cate Blanchett, pretty good work too from Nina Hoss as her long-suffering partner, but boy does it go on. And on. Was the director assuming the audience was too thick to get that the eponymous lead was a bit of a fitness freak without sticking that in endlessly? It’s not like it builds tension a la Vertigo with James Stewart’s apparently endless driving.

I enjoyed quite a lot of this even though at times it felt like one of those Classic Albums documentaries where those involved dissect their work, explaining how they married a riff here with a riff there, except given the composers are all dead the only creative force available is the conductor, otherwise those pesky musicians will just go off and do their own thing.

The problem is a lot of the dialog is “dead.” It doesn’t enhance our understanding of character, build character or (God forbid!) narrative or tension. One way or another it’s just intellectual discussion of classical music. Which is fascinating – but only for a time.

The story itself is told with subtlety in some places and with a sledgehammer in others. You couldn’t have telegraphed more an impending problem with an unseen musician than have Tar (Cate Blanchett) delete email correspondence. And the minute cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) appears on the scene with her come-to-bed eyes, you know this is a femme fatale on the prowl, and expect speedy unfair promotion is on the cards at some point.

That power corrupts, whether in male or female hands, appears to the driving point of the rest of the story but you have to wait a good 90 minutes before that assumes any real significance, plus social media is presented here in its best guise as an instrument of truth.

It’s a rise and fall tale, although the climax doesn’t ring true, the director either dodging the true climactic scene, a confrontation with Tar over an enforced change in her professional status, or that didn’t take place and the first thing the conductor knows about what has occurred is when she’s about to take her place on stage. Neither decision makes much sense.  

So, onto the good parts. Blanchett puts in a riveting performance, not just in her sense of her own superiority, but in managing so effortlessly to make a conversation just sound like a conversation rather than a string of points making dramatic emphasis. She leaves most of the parenting of their child to partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) only stepping in when someone needs to put a bullying girl in her place. That this relationship is long past its best is obvious from the off, and that Tar has a wandering eye is plain once Olga appears.

And although Tar seems to have a fine grasp of orchestral politics and can drive a hard bargain with those seeking financial gain, she is blind to consequence, needlessly making enemies of long-standing supporters, failure to provide promised promotion triggering betrayal.

What the film does get right (I guess, since I’m no expert) is the role of the big-name music director/conductor in the classical world, ferried across continents in private planes, knowing how to bend the rules in a business where, it transpires, the orchestra wields a great deal of power, and with a genuine genius for imbuing listeners with her enthusiasm for music.  

Her interpretation of “Mahler’s Symphony No 5,” initially fascinating, soon lost its hold because I had no idea what she was up to (so I hold my hands up on that one) but you’d have to be intimately acquainted with the work to get so much out of it given the time spent exploring it. This isn’t about a composer of course and lacks Peter Shaffer’s instinct with Amadeus (“too many notes” and the scene where the ill  Mozart describes his music to his arch-enemy) so quite a lot of the music stuff went over my head, leaving me with no interest in large sections of the film.

Cut down to two hours plus, okay, those four minutes of credits back in their proper position at the end, and you would have a very satisfactory movie that explored the classical musical world while detailing the downfall of a female tyrant.

Director Todd Field (Little Children, 2006) carries the can on this one.

But I would also point out to him that if you’re appealing to an adult audience and a largely arthouse one at that you’re trying to target generations that have seen all the best stuff, that respond to unusual films that take them to new places dramatically or stylistically and will not stand to be bored rigid.

People slapping down £14 to see it in their local Odeon aren’t going to be as inclined to tell people to go see it than critics watching it for free. And anybody who thinks a streaming audience isn’t going to be reaching for the switch-off button during the marathon opening credits is asking for further financial misery.

Vanishing Point (1971) *****

There always was an existential element to speed. Destination was another symbolic aspect. A “vanishing point” has an artistic meaning; relating to perspective it’s the place where parallel lines cross. But it also means something so diminished as to be unimportant, and you could argue this movie is a place where the figurative and metaphorical collide. Throw in a couldn’t-care-less driver and you have all you need for a cult film, a cross between the thoughtful paeon to speed of Easy Rider (1969), Sugarland Express (1974) and the camped-up chase characteristics of the later Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

It has less in common with the city-bound Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), whose protagonists had the excuse of being on the right side of the law. And where Easy Rider is majestically scenic, the route here is through Backwater U.S.A.

With a little bit more planning, Kowalski (Barry Newman), tasked with delivering a car from Denver, Colorado, to San Francisco, could easily have driven the 1250 miles (see Note) roughly within the 16.5-hour deadline he set himself – and very easily within the target set by his employer – without breaking the law. But he’s got no intention of easing his foot off the accelerator. Instead of pulling over, he sends the first pair of speed cops into the ditch.

And that sets the tone. Countless cops set out to stop him, countless cops are driven off the road, the authorities increasingly infuriated by constant humiliation. Kowalski is helped by blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who has infiltrated police radio, and whoops up public support.

Director Richard C. Sarafian could have hit the existential mother lode by making Kowalski mysterious, akin to the western’s anonymous lone rider, or to a contemporary audience “the last American hero.” Or he could have dressed him up in more contemporary colors. But instead of being a long-haired drugged-up sex-mad hippie, he’s a decorated war vet, a stock car racer and a cop who exposed corruption and prevented a colleague raping a young girl. Unlike the drug peddlers of Easy Rider or the hostage-takers of Sugarland Express, he doesn’t start out as a law-breaker (setting aside his intake of Benzedrine) and the most he’ll be charged with is a misdemeanor.

Apart from a desire for the freedom of the open road untrammelled by petty rules, we don’t get much of an idea why Kowalski is so intent on risking his life, beyond a hint that an idyllic loved-up beach lifestyle had been shattered. There’s a fatalism that Ridley Scott ripped off for Thelma and Louise (1991).

The awe-inspiring driving across arid country is interrupted by episodes uncovering the underside of the American Dream and the nascent counter-culture. He is almost robbed by a couple of gay hitchhikers, encounters an old man (Dean Jagger) living off the land, trapping rattlesnakes and trading them for supplies, and a youth-oriented revivalist group who make music their mantra. He turns down free sex and marijuana offered by a beautiful nude motorcycle rider (Gilda Texter) while her boyfriend (Timothy Scott), with a stolen police siren, guides Kowalski through roadblocks.

Mostly, though, the focus is on the driving. Kowalski’s white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum, souped-up to reach 160 mph, leaves a Jaguar E-Type in the dust, and makes a mockery of the succession of wannabe cop speedsters.

He can leap over gaps, race off-road, charge through the desert, hide from pursuing helicopters, and could probably have hidden out till the heat died down except his blood is up and his eyes are starting to glaze over and he’s got a peculiar smile on his lips.  

Even on a small screen the full-throttle driving hits the spot. But it scores on many other emotional and intellectual levels. It strikes a chord with the disaffected. It’s the ultimate in defiance of authority, innate skills belittling superior forces. The fastest man will always have an audience rooting for him. If you can’t win, choosing how this will end means you remain in control. Speed puts a man in the zone, where you are reduced to an essence of being.

On paper, this should hardly work at all. In the hands of director Richard C. Safarian (Fragment of Fear, 1970) it works like a dream. Barry Newman (The Lawyer, 1970) is superb with very little to go on, nothing but a buttoned-up driving machine. Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles, 1974) on the other hand goes nuclear as the hippest of the hip disc jockeys. Oscar-winning Dean Jagger (Firecreek, 1968) makes his mark and you might like to know Gilda Texter went on to become a successful costume designer. Depending on what version (not the one I caught) you see, you’ll get a glimpse of Charlotte Rampling (Three,1969).

Stone cold classic. Gets the adrenaline going, but leaves you thoughtful.

The DVD is worth buying just for Sarafian’s commentary.

NOTE: That’s according to Google. Though estimates vary. One reference puts it at 15 hours of non-stop driving, another between 19 and 22 hours. Without breaking the speed limit of 70mph and allowing for not hitting any big cities necessitating curbing your speed, I reckoned he would only cover 1150 miles within his deadline but there are clearly plenty stretches of remote road where you would be able to crank up your speed without any bother. It’s noticeable that Kowalski sets off during the night but we never see him doing any night-time driving, he only attracts the attention of the cops during the day.

Arabella (1967) ***

Under-rated comedy, set in 1928 Italy, had me chuckling all the way through. An episodic structure sees Arabella (Virna Lisi) duping an Italian hotel manager, British general and an Italian Duke (all played by Terry-Thomas) out of their cash in order to pay off the mounting tax debts of her grandmother Princess Ilaria (Margaret Rutherford) while trying to avoid the attentions of the mysterious Giorgio (James Fox).

Her scams are quite ingenious, beginning with arranging for a public urinal to be erected outside a five-star hotel and, pretending to be the lover of Benito Mussolini, convincing the manager that, for a price, she could arrange its removal. There’s nothing particularly original about faking a breakdown to attract the attention of  the general, a royal flunkey, but the blackmail trap she sets is elaborate.

But just as you think you know here this is going, it sprints off in another direction altogether, Arabella being the mark, and it’s one twist after another. She is rooked by Giorgio with whom she falls in love. The Duke, whom she sees as easy meat, instead uses her. Her grandmother’s ploy to burn down her mansion and claim the insurance money is foiled by a cat.  

All sorts of sly observations come into play. The hotel manager and his pals siphon off a large chunk of the cash they have taken from the safe to pay her off. The general, operating incognito, has his cover blown by a piece of music. The Duke turns the tables on his domineering wife and his son has an exceptionally clever ploy to keep mama sweet while enjoying his sexual independence. And it appears that every time Arabella gives in to entreaty, she is exploited. In other words, show weakness, give a loser an inch and they’ll take you for all you’ve got.

Terry-Thomas as a bumptious hotel manager with James Fox looking mysterious.

There’s no desperate reason for it to be set in the 1920s and, beyond the Charleston and costumes, it makes little attempt to evoke the era except perhaps to make the point that the world was not full of submissive women. And you might find inappropriate the trope about using a sexy woman to turn a gay man straight. It’s a sex comedy in the Italian style where just about anything goes and the act, rarely consummated, instead involves humiliation.

But Virna Lisi (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) certainly commands the screen, carrying the show, fashionably stylish rather than overtly sexual, a born comedienne. Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife), while initially appearing under his trademark persona, completes a transition for the Duke, almost another twist if you like, audiences expecting a similar duffer to his previous parts. Lisi and Terry-Thomas clearly have rapport, almost a synergy, not the charisma of a screen couple, as in romantic pairing, but work very well with each other.

Margaret Rutherford (Murder Ahoy!, 1964) and James Fox (The Chase, 1966) let the side down with such insipid portrayals you wonder why they signed up.  It’s almost as if they couldn’t be bothered working on their characterisations. Cigar smoking and general ditziness is as far as Rutherford, in her final role, goes. Fox just looks fey and the one flaw in the narrative is why Arabella could look at him twice. As the Duke’s son, duping his mother, a pre-gaunt Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) is very entertaining.  

To enjoy this you have to suspend your ideas about comedy based on the British and Hollywood tradition. It aims for farce, no attempt to make larger comment on life.  

Mauro Bolognini (He and She, 1969) hangs this together in a decent enough fashion, confident enough of his material to lead the audience into a bait-and-switch. In his debut Giorgio Alorio (Burn!/Queimada, 1969) and Adriano Baracco (Danger: Diabolik, 1968) wrote the screenplay with British playwright Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) spicing up the English dialog. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

Cash on Demand (1961/1963) ***

Ideal crime B-picture. No femme fatale, but a tight one-location two-hander. Set a couple of days before Xmas in a rural English market town, while possessing sufficient twists to see it through, in the main it is a battle of wills between urbane thief Col Gore Hepburn (Andre Morell) and his victim, stuffed-shirt bank manager Harry Fordyce (Peter Cushing). Combines slick heist with An Inspector Calls mentality where the morally superior are taken down a peg.

Fordyce is the kind of martinet who makes his staff remove Xmas cards from display, nit-picks about the state of nibs (in the days when pens were dipped in ink) and threatens to sack chief clerk Pearson (Harry Vernon) over a minor error that he has worked up into potential embezzlement. So unpopular, he is not invited to the staff party.

Under the guise of carrying out a security inspection Hepburn sets up a robbery, tying Fordyce in moral knots, his unwilling collaboration ensured by threatening to stick electrodes to the bank manager’s wife’s head. Hepburn has done his research, aware of all aspects of security, but, more importantly, knows his man, how to exert pressure, how to keep Fordyce on edge. Hepburn reeks of self-assurance, Fordyce of insecurity, a friendless man who bullies his staff, living a life suffused with discipline and bereft of enjoyment.

Though there are a couple of red herrings, and an unexpected incident, what mostly endangers Hepburn’s bitingly clever plan is the unforeseen, that the cold-hearted bank manager will come apart under pressure.

Underlying the action is class conflict. But not the usual working- class vs upper class. Instead it is aspiring middle class vs assured well-educated upper class. Hepburn is the kind of well-dressed smoothie  who could talk his way into any company and out of any situation. He puts everyone at their ease, knows how to enjoy himself, would make any party go with a swing, could flirt convincingly with your grandmother, and you would trust within an inch of your life. Fordyce, on the other hand, is one of life’s scrapers, everything by the book, creeping into management painfully slowly, and once acquiring a position of authority letting everyone know who is boss and terrified of losing his standing in society. It’s “class” of another kind too, that of the winning personality versus the eternal loser.

Peter Cushing as the bank manager.

This plays against expectation. Normally, in a heist scenario, there’s one employee who’s trying to beat the baddies, some clever device or trick up their sleeve. That’s not the case here. Instead, we’re served up a character study, the supposedly upright pillar of the community revealed as a coward and moral bankrupt.

And the unexpected also comes in the casting. Both Peter Cushing and Andre Morell play against type. At this point they were best known as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), an upright team on the side of the angels. Cushing, while often tight-lipped, generally exhibited a morally superior screen persona. Here, that trademark persona rapidly vanishes under pressure.

Quentin Lawrence (The Secret of Blood Island, 1965) directs within a very tight timeframe.

The movie had unusual origins. It was expanded from a short-lived series called Theatre 70 on British ITV, the number relating to time, the program running for 70 minutes rather than the usual hour. And it had just as unusual a release. Perhaps for copyright reasons, it didn’t see the inside of a cinema in the UK until December 1963 when it went out as the support to musical Bye Bye Birdie (1963) on the Odeon circuit. But it had already been released by Columbia in the US in 1961 as the support to Twist Around the Clock (1961).

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