“Penelope” (1966) ***

Comedic twist on the heist movie with Natalie Wood (This Property Is Condemned, 1966) as a kleptomaniac. Given its origins in a tight little thriller by E.V. Cunningham, pseudonym of Howard Fast (Mirage, 1965), it’s an awful loose construction that seems to run around with little idea of where it wants to go. Wood, of course, is a delightfully kooky heroine who takes revenge on anyone who has ignored or slighted her by stealing their possessions.

The picture begins with her boldest coup. Cleverly disguised as an old woman, she robs the newest Park Avenue bank owned by overbearing husband James (Ian Bannen). This prompts the best comedy in the movie, a man with a violin case (Lewis Charles) being apprehended by police, the doors automatically locking after a clerk falls on the alarm button, James trapped in the revolving doors losing his trousers in the process.

In flashback, we learn that she turned to thievery after a rape attempt by Professor Klobb (Jonathan Winter), her college tutor, and while half-naked managed to make off with his watch fob. She stole a set of earrings from Mildred (Norma Crane) after suspecting she is having an affair with James. “Stealing makes me cheerful,” she tells her psychiatrist, Dr Mannix (Dick Shawn) and while admitting to dishonesty denies being a compulsive thief. After the bank robbery she even manages to relieve investigating officer Lt Bixby (Peter Falk) of his wallet.

Nobody suspects her, certainly not her husband who could not conceive of his wife having the brains to carry out such an audacious plan. Bixby is a bit more on the ball, but not much. Clues that would have snared her in seconds if seen by any half-decent cop are missed by this bunch. And generally that is the problem, the outcome is so weighted in Penelope’s favor. The plot then goes all around the houses to include as many oddballs as possible – boutique owners Sadaba (Lila Kedrova) and Ducky (Lou Jacobi), Major Higgins (Arthur Malet) and suspect Honeysuckle Rose (Arlene Golonka). Naturally, when she does confess – to save the innocent Honeysuckle – nobody believes her in part because everyone has fallen in love with her. Bixby, just as smitten, nonetheless makes a decent stab at the investigation.

Howard Fast under the pseudonym of E.V. Cunningham wrote a series of thrillers with a woman’s name as the title. He was on a roll in the 1960s providing the source material for Spartacus (1960), The Man in the Middle (1964), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Sylvia (1965), Mirage (1965) and Jigsaw (1968).

Taken as pure confection it has its attractions. It’s certainly frothy at the edges and there are a number of funny lines especially with her psychiatrist and the slapstick approach does hit the target every now and then. The icing on the cake is top class while the cake itself has little of substance. It strikes a satirical note on occasion especially with the Greenwich Village cellar sequence. It doesn’t go anywhere near what might be driving this woman towards such potential calamity – that she gets away with it is only down to her charm. There has probably never been such a pair of rose-tinted spectacles as worn by Penelope, even though her every action is driven by revenge.

Without Natalie Wood it would have sunk without trace but her vivacious screen persona is imminently watchable and the constant wardrobe changes (courtesy of Edith Head) and glossy treatment gets it over the finishing line. It’s one of those star-driven vehicles at which Golden Age Hollywood was once so adept but which fails to translate so well to a later era. Ian Bannen (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is in his element as a grumpy husband, though you would wonder what initially she saw in him, and Peter Falk (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1965) delivers another memorable performance.  Dick Shawn (A Very Special Favor, 1965) is the pick of the supporting cast though screen personalities like Lila Kedrova (Torn Curtain, 1966), Jonathan Winters (The Loved One, 1965) and Lou Jacobi (Irma la Douce, 1963) are not easily ignored.  Johnny Williams a.k.a John Williams wrote the score.

Arthur Hiller (Tobruk, 1967) delivers as much of the goods as are possible within the zany framework. Veteran Oscar-winner George Wells (Three Bites of the Apple, 1967) wrote the screenplay and it’s a far cry from the far more interesting source material and I would have to wonder what kind of sensibility – even at that time – could invent a comedy rape (not in the book, I hasten to add).

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) ****

The one with the wife-swapping. Like Easy Rider released earlier the same year, a hymn to freedom, only this time of the sexual kind. Responsible thirtysomethings, well-to-do, married with children, jealous of the younger generation’s counter culture, seek guilt-free irresponsibility. They feel they’ve missed out, despite knocking back cocktails in their heyday, probably remained virgins until marriage. Like the recently-reviewed The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965), the problems incurred in marriage appear eternal, and decades later this holds up superbly, not just for taking a measure of its times, but for a screenplay setting up a bold series of reversals, character reaction you would never expect, that will have you in stitches even as it dissects universal truths.

Documentary film-maker Bob (Robert Culp) and housewife Carol (Natalie Wood) “find” themselves at a weekend retreat espousing naked yoga, primal screams, group therapy and emotional intimacy. Carol admits she finds her husband controlling. They return in evangelistic mode, desperate to pass on their new-found knowledge to their stuffier friends, Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon).

The advertising campaign focused on the tease of wife-swapping.

The film unfolds in a series of long sequences, each sparked by external incident. Bob confesses to his wife that while away on business he had an affair. To his astonishment she forgives him. Expecting this to be a prelude to some new way of tormenting an unfaithful husband, Bob remains skeptical until Carol convinces him that her world-view has changed following the retreat.

But Ted and Alice find it harder to accept. In a brilliant scene that exposes basic gender differences, he sees the problem as his revelation, she as the act of infidelity itself. High after meeting the other couple, Ted wants sex, but Alice, shocked by what she has heard, cannot contemplate it. He exerts so much pressure that she, deeply insecure, is almost on the verge of giving in. The dialogue not just marvelously encapsulates their marriage but sets out opposing views that, I am sorry to say, would probably be as prevalent today.

But the best scene, a superb reversal, occurs when Bob, spurning another night of illicit passion, returns home from a trip early to find his wife in bed with the tennis coach. Gender equality et al. The sequence turns completely on its head when, according to the couple’s new philosophy, Bob should not only accept and forgive, but help the tennis coach out of his predicament, calming his fears of facing an angry husband, in effect consoling his bedroom rival.

Bob and Carol and the Tennis Coach.

What appears to have been just a Ted fantasy, hooking up with a woman he met on an airplane, turns out to be true, creating a crisis in that marriage and when Alice is pacified, acknowledging a new truth, it is she who calls for an orgy. Now this is a revolution for Alice is by far the most repressed, although attractive almost matronly, and still using a childish word to describe her private parts. Her confessions to a psychiatrist reveal a tormented individual.

It’s a stunning debut from Paul Mazursky (An Unmarried Woman, 1978) who also had a hand in the screenplay with Larry Tucker (I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, 1968). He takes a story of endorsed immorality and stamps it as a morality tale. A movie that depended so much on dialogue concludes with a fabulous series of shots where the look on the faces of the characters tells you all you need to know.

Elliott Gould (The Night They Raided Minsky’s, 1968) and Dyan Cannon (The Murder Game, 1965) are the pick of the actors, both stepping up to the plate after less than stand-out performances previously. Both were Oscar-nominated but more importantly here created  screen personas that would define their futures. Natalie Wood (This Property Is Condemned, 1966), in her first picture in three years, revitalized her career after a string of flops. Robert Culp, in a step-up from the I Spy television series (1965-1968), initially takes center stage but cedes ground to the superior acting of the others.  

Where a whole bundle of films by new directors flopped that year and the next by targeting the younger generation, this was a success by painting a wry picture of a slightly older generation, not yet tipping into middle age, but terrified they might be missing out on something.

Box Office Poison 1960s Style

The success in 1968 of such disparate movies as The Graduate (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with no discernible stars got Hollywood thinking whether they needed stars anymore. Stars were viewed as insurance. Their names were attached to pictures in the hope that they would bring a sizeable audience.

But for some time that had proved not to be the case. Certainly actors with the box office clout of Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Elizabeth Taylor, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Richard Burton and Elvis Presley justified their extravagant salaries. But exhibitors had begun to complain that studios were forcing them to carry the cost of stars who did not deliver, the salaries inflating “the terms that theatres must pay for films.”

Big names viewed as box office poison in 1968 included Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, William Holden and Natalie Wood. An investigation by trade magazine Variety uncovered the fact that in each case the last four pictures of each star – who earned $250,000 or more per movie – had flopped. Average movie budgets by now had climbed to $3-$4 million not counting marketing costs so most movies had to bring in over $10 million at the global box office to break even

The star with the worst track record was Anthony Quinn. Average rental for his past four pictures – $800,000. While Zorba the Greek (1964) had been an unexpected hit, what followed was anything but. Discounting a cameo in Marco the Magnificent (1965), the box office duds comprised adventure A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Lost Command (1965), war film The 25th Hour and misconceived hippie comedy The Happening (1967).

Not far behind was Glenn Ford, a star from the days of Gilda (1946), The Blackboard Jungle  (1955) and The Sheepman (1958). He had begun the current decade badly with big-budget losers Cimarron (1960) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) and his career never recovered. His last eight pictures brought in an average of less than $1 million apiece in rentals. The sad bunch were: comedy western Advance to the Rear, Dear Heart and aerial drama Fate Is the Hunter (all 1964) followed by western The Rounders and thriller The Money Trap (both 1965) as well big budget war epic Is Paris Burning? (1966), rabies drama Rage (1966) and western The Long Ride Home (1967).

Scarcely any better was William Holden, star of David Lean Oscar-winner Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), John Ford western The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). His last four efforts – The Lion (1962), romantic comedy Paris When It Sizzles (1964), war drama The 7th Dawn (1964) and Civil War western Alvarez Kelly (1966) – returned an average of $1.05 million in rentals. Variety reckoned he was struggling with the problem of how to “gracefully mature his screen image.”

James Garner, once seen as the natural successor to Clark Gable, had failed to capitalize on the success of John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). Five of his last seven films had dredged up a mere $1.3 million average. Making up the awful quintet were thriller 36 Hours (1964), comedy thriller A Man Could Get Killed (1966), western pair Duel at Diablo (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967) plus drama Mister Buddwing (1966). Quite why comedy The Art of Love (1965) had done better – $3.5 million in rentals – nobody could ascertain and even though roadshow Grand Prix (1966) was a hit Garner, who was billed below the title, was not considered a reason for it, with some insiders claiming his name had held it back and it would have done much better with someone else in his role.

Morituri (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966), western sequel Return of the Seven (1966), Triple Cross (1966) and The Long Duel (1967) had mustered an average of $1.4 million leaving observers to the conclusion that Yul Brynner’s “brand of sex appeal” no longer attracted audiences in America.

Marlon Brando had generated just $8.4 million in total rentals – an average of $1.6 million – for his previous six films. No matter what he did, regardless of genre, he had lost his box office spark whether it was comedies like Bedtime Story (1964) and The Countess from Hong Kong (1966), dramas like The Chase (1966) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), western The Appaloosa (1966) or thriller Morituri (1965). From the industry perspective he was by far the worst performer since his movies cost so much in directors (Charlie Chaplin, John Huston), co-stars (Elizabeth Taylor. Sophia Loren) and sets.

A string of comedies had sounded the box office death knell for Tony Curtis. Boeing, Boeing (1964), Not with My Wife You Don’t (1966), Arrivederci, Baby! (1966) and Don’t Make Waves (1967) delivered a lamentable $1.77 million on average.

Rock Hudson had fallen far from the pedestal of being the country’s top male star in the early 1960s. Two romantic comedies Strange Bedfellows (1965) and A Very Special Favor (1965), a brace of thrillers Blindfold (1966) and Seconds (1965) plus war film Tobruk (1967) did nothing to restore his standing with just $1.86 million in average rental.

Added to the list of dubious stars was Natalie Wood whose career was considered to be in such jeopardy that she had not made picture in two years. Small wonder after dramas Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966) and crime caper Penelope (1966) which averaged $2.2 million.

Whether anybody’s career could be resuscitated after these disasters was anybody’s guess.

Strangely enough, some did regain at least a measure of their former glory, Marlon Brando the obvious example after The Godfather (1972). James Garner had his biggest-ever hit with Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). Tony Curtis revived his fanbase with The Boston Strangler (1968). William Holden returned to favor after the double whammy of The Devil’s Brigade (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Natalie Wood hit the spot in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969) and Yul Brynner as a robotic gunslinger turned his career around in Westworld (1973).

But Glenn Ford’s career was coming to an end and Anthony Quinn followed up this bunch of flops with two more of the same ilk in the Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and The Magus (1968) although he would still be offered starring roles for more than a decade.

Of course, luckily, decades on, we are not so much guided by the box office various films had and many pictures that were once dubbed flops are now being re-evaluated by a new generation of film fans.

SOURCE: Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1

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