Downhill Racer (1969) ***

Idealising heroes is endemic. Most films which portray sport stars with feet of clay generally start off with an attractive personality who presses the self-destruct button through alcohol, sex or drugs (or all three) such as Number One (1969) with Charlton Heston. The general consensus is that this approach to the sports movie was not rescinded until the brutal boxer exposed in Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980). But it turns out Scorsese was not the first.

Downhill Racer is a character study of a loner who cares for no-one but himself. Alienated from his father, his girlfriend at home treated as little more than a sex object, a constant source of friction for his national team manager (a pre-chuckle Gene Hackman) and not above the kind of dirty tricks as typified in Slap Shot (1977) he sees nothing wrong with making no bones about the fact that he is in the game for fame. He has no illusions, he’s a farm boy and few steps up from being illiterate.

That Paramount had little faith in the project was shown by the Pressbook. It was a mere eight pages long when 16-plus pages were devoted to other pictures. There was no mention of the startling success of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” released a few months before. Its limited appeal was shown by the fact there were only two adverts, both very artistic, whereas most movies had at least half a dozen different variations to help cinemas market the movie to their specific audiences. And there was but a single tag-line “how far must a man go to get from where he’s at.” Studio marketeers had managed to drum up just two promotions, both fashion-led, a six-page section in “Glamour” magazine and five pages in “Ski” magazine. A better bet was the accompanying two-page advertising supplement showing the movie had scored excellent reviews from “Time”, “Life”, “Newsweek” and the “New York Times.”

His only attractive feature is that he is played by Robert Redford, and the film plays upon the conceit that as handsome a man as this will at some point turn into a good guy.  There’s an interesting debate – and one that would last decades – about whether Redford’s looks got in the way of the characters he portrayed. Imagine Robert Duvall in the part, for instance, and relentless determination would not be called into question. This leaves the film with only pity as a way to give the character any sympathy, which duly occurs when his hopes of genuine romance with a top-notch blonde (Camilla Sparv) are dashed. 

Michael Ritchie, making his directing debut, opts for a documentary-style approach, so minimalist it’s almost perfunctory. This is a decent option given there’s very little going on beyond lonely hotel rooms, and an endless round of competitions and an occasional outburst from Hackman. Less welcome is his decision to fall back on television commentators to fill us in on exactly where we are geographically and specifically regarding individual competitions.

The film’s biggest drawback is that the skiing scenes, sensational at the time, offer little on the small screen. But at least they were competently done. Ritchie drew on a number of experts in that department: German racer Heini Schuler, Swiss team members Peter Rohr and Arnold Alpigger and ski instructors Marco Valli and Rudi Gertsch. Former U.S. Olympic team member Rip McManus turns up as an on-camera commentator. Although it gained good reviews, audiences failed to respond although Redford was on a career high after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). But it was a brave choice for the actor.

And it was the start of his producing career. The film had been a stop-start project at Paramount and when the studio continued to dither Redford set up Wildwood with Richard Gregson, husband of Natalie Wood with whom Redford had appeared in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966).

The Lost Continent (1968) ***

Hammer had struck gold revisiting ancient civilizations in One Million Years B.C. (1966) and with its adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (1967). The Lost Continent was another Wheatley number (source novel Uncharted Seas) mixing dangerous voyage, hints of the legendary Atlantis, and monsters. While the first half could have been marketed as The Wages of Fear At Sea the second half would come under the heading  “The Greatest Oddball Film Ever Made.”

It boasts one of the most intriguing setting-the-scene openings not just of a Hammer picture but of any film – a camera pans along a steamship on whose deck are: people dressed in furs, others in modern clothing and – Conquistadors. Attention is focused on a coffin.  How and why they got there is told in flashback. A first half of taut drama, mutiny, sharks, a ferocious octopus, and lost-at-sea a thousand miles from land segues into sci-fi with carnivorous weeds, monsters, and a weird, weird world.

It’s hard to know what’s worse, ship’s captain Eric Porter (straight from television mega-hit The Forsyte Saga) with a cargo of toxic chemicals made combustible when touched by water or the equally combustible passengers all with murky pasts, so determined to escape their previous lives that they refuse to turn back in the face of a hurricane. Heading the Dodgy Half-Dozen is dictator’s mistress Hildegarde Knef  (Catherine of Russia, 1963) with two million dollars in stolen securities and bonds. Nigel Stock (television’s Dr Watson in the 1960s Sherlock Holmes series), a back-street abortionist, is at odds with daughter Suzanna Leigh, who has cornered the market in backless dresses. Tony Beckley (The Penthouse, 1967) plays a conman while Ben Carruthers is trying to recover the pilfered bonds.

But the arrival of cleavage queen Dana Gillespie from the weird world signals a shift to Planet Oddball. The only way to navigate the weeds trapping the ship is with a primitive version of snowshoes with (naturally) balloons attached to the shoulders. Soon they are trapped in the past, not as prehistoric as One Million Years BC, just a few centuries back to the Spanish Conquistador era. The film steals the idea from the Raquel Welch picture of giant creatures locked in battle but without going to the necessity of hiring Ray Harryhausen.

On board ship, director Michael Carreras, fresh from Prehistoric Women (1967), does well, the characters are all solidly presented with decent back stories, the tension mounting as the passengers encounter nautical turbulence, but once he enters weird world budget deficiencies sabotage the picture. Even so, it’s worth a look just to see what you’re missing. If you’re looking for a genuine freak show, this ticks the boxes.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

Sky West and Crooked (1966) ***

These days troubled teens are likely to turn into monsters or superheroes, but such cinematic opportunities did not exist in the 1960s. The exploration of teenage angst – Rebel without a Cause (1954) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) belonged to a separate compartment although the treatment of mental disorder found outlet in David and Lisa (1962) and Lilith (1964).

But Sky West and Crooked occupies different territory. Hayley Mills does not rail against society and she has found companionship among the younger children. Although the adults want to see her treated in some way, she is not yet an outcast. And it takes an outsider to see her as herself.

Immediately preceding The Trouble with Angels (1966) and The Family Way (1966), this is the first real attempt to move Hayley Mills from cute Disney child star to grown-up. The only problem is that she is both older and younger, older by age (17) but much younger in emotional development. Her main entertainment is burying animals, which becomes something of an obsession. There are hints of sexuality, mild compared to the bolder The Family Way, but a romance with a gypsy when it develops is rather more innocent.

It’s a family affair, marking the directorial debut by her father John Mills and written by her mother Mary Hayley Bell (helped by John Prebble). In part the direction is clean and bold, the trigger for the girl’s ongoing trauma established in the opening scene. But in other parts the movie becomes too bogged down by subsidiary characters determined to form a cabal to contain what they see as her bad influence among younger children. They could almost be kin to the more sinister villagers of Straw Dogs (1971). 

Matters are not helped by her alcoholic mother (Annette Crosbie) who is even more unhinged. The vicar (Geoffrey Bayldon – later British television’s Catweazle) is Mills’ only ally until the arrival of a handsome gypsy Ian McShane in his sophomore movie role. McShane has no knowledge of her history and so not been conditioned to view her askance. In fact, he risks alienation among his own community for befriending her.

If Mills is already slightly off-beam (the title an American phrase for madness), then she is knocked completely off-kilter when reminded of the trigger incident which she has managed to keep buried. This is probably the best scene in the film. The teller of the story, clearly intending mischief, is overcome by his own emotions.

Mills was a cut above the normal child star. She had the requisite cuteness while demonstrating considerable acting skill and does herself no disservice here. McShane offers a strong hint of the brooding persona he has since perfected.

This is a well-done drama without being completely satisfying, in part because the fairytale ending jarred with what was otherwise an authentic observation piece. It would have been interesting to roll forward a couple of years to see if decisions taken worked out.

In fairness to the director, he knew he had his work cut out. In his memoir Still Memories he explained: “I have always believed in my career that you should never go on the floor without a totally tight script and, in this case, I was unable to do that. I was persuaded against my better judgement to start filming eight weeks before I was ready. And inevitably it showed in the finished picture. It wasn’t a very bad film, but it could have been a great deal better.” That about sums it up – it wasn’t in the “very bad” class at all but certainly could have been improved.

Hatari! (1962) ***

What this movie needed was Cinerama. That format blended exotic locale and thrills. The Tanganyika setting and jeeps belting across uneven terrain to capture myriad wildlife provide the two required elements. But the rest of the film struggles to keep up.

Here Howard Hawks combines his two most common themes, a group of men stuck together facing an unusual task and a battle of the sexes. But without the tension of an upcoming gunfight (Rio Bravo, 1959) or bizarre romantic comedy contrivance (Bringing up Baby, 1938), it falls short of the director’s highest standards. But as he set such high standards, virtually anything would.

Paramount went the extra mile on this one, producing, in addition to the normal pressbook, a special “Care and Handling Manual” such as had previously accompanied Psycho. This was a week-by-week breakdown of marketing activities – from arranging a John Wayne hat tie-up, to getting record stores and bookshops to prepare window displays, stencilling paws on the ground leading to the cinema and organising permits for a safari-parade on opening day. There was a tie-in with Jeep and the movie was a natural for involvement with schools and kids

The original concept intended to pair Clark Gable and John Wayne so that might have produced better results. Setting aside the gripe of the unlikely romance between a young Elsa Martinelli (rather than a mature Maureen O’Hara) and the ageing Wayne, this remains highly entertaining and a thrilling ride. Watching the actors do their own dangerous stunts, bouncing over potholes and battered in trucks moving at high speed, holding on for dear life (Wayne as the catcher unprotected on the outside)  as the vehicles swerved and twisted, the thunder of hooves, confronting extremely dangerous and extremely wild animals such as rhinos, makes up for other deficiencies.

Martinelli does not quite have the zap of a Hepburn or Monroe but does well as the photographer infiltrating a male enclave and her bonding with the baby elephant (triggering Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” theme) steals the picture. A pet leopard also provides a decent riff on the girl-in-the-bath number. Quite a number of plot lines are worked in to give actors of the calibre of Hardy Kruger something to do and to stretch the likes of Red Buttons who is rarely given any decent dramatic material.

In quite a different role, Wayne, for once not called upon to save the day, gives a good performance. Not only do they not make them like that anymore, they wouldn’t be allowed to make them like that these days, notions about working with animals (though none were harmed) much changed.  

      

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.