Reignited the careers of director Don Siegel (no Hollywood traction since Hell Is For Heroes in 1962), Richard Widmark (reduced to supporting roles) and Henry Fonda (no longer first name on the team sheet for the biggest pictures) and reinvented the cop thriller as a gritty urban affair. The plot – chasing down a suspect – is a MacGuffin to explore tough police methods, corruption, and the harm the job does to the domestic lives of the police.
Detective Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark) and partner Rocco Bonero (Harry Guardino) come woefully and embarrassingly unstuck when hood Benesch (Steve Ihnat) evades capture and steals their guns. They have 72 hours to bring him back or be suspended. So, basically, they spend most of the time following a bunch of leads, intimidating anyone who gets in their way, including a helpless secretary. And while Bonero is happily domesticated, Madigan’s lonely wife Julia (Inger Stevens) is fed up with late nights and broken promises to the extent of considering a one-night stand when hubby stands her up once too often.
Commissioner Russell (Henry Fonda) has his hands full dealing with the errant detectives without the ramifications of corruption involving his best friend, long-time cop Chief Inspector Kane (James Whitmore). The widowed Russell would be a poster-boy for the principled cop except he’s having an affair with married woman Tricia (Susan Clark).
While Madigan is kicking and snarling his way through the underworld, Russell is trying to work out how to save his friendship and his affair. And while they might appear opposites, the classy top officer and the street cop, the uptight Russell envies Madigan’s way with people. Madigan is comped drinks and even a suite at the Sherry-Netherland hotel not merely because he’s a cop but because his charm goes a long way.
And while Russell dithers over helping out a friend, Madigan has no qualms about being taking for a ride by an old pal down on his luck and in need of an excuse to be bought a drink. When it comes down to it, Madigan is the better advert for humanity.
The soap opera elements don’t intrude too much on the thriller. Madigan and Bonero go in with fists blazing and work their way through a menagerie of skunks including Castiglione (Michael Dunn) and stool pigeon Hughie (Don Stroud). Benesch is a piece of work, not just clever enough to use his lover’s nudity to distract the attention of cops, but sufficiently hard-boiled to shoot a cop dead in the street and have little hesitation in opening fire on anyone who comes too close.
There’s some fascinating internal cop politics as Kane locks horns with Chief of Detectives Lynch (Bert Freed) over the latter’s insistence on suspending Madigan. And Russell has to finagle his way through the problems a well-heeled son is causing a rich doctor (Raymond Jacques).
Every time the pace slackens, the movie falls back on the old Chandler routine, have someone come through the door with a gun (a fist would suffice). Madigan is a driven cop, struggling to hold onto his marriage, Julia too often the sacrificial lamb. And for all his outward bravado, there’s a superb scene when unexpectedly encountering Russell he turns into a stammering ball of nerves, like a schoolkid anticipating a roasting from a headmaster.
Richard Widmark (The Bedford Incident, 1964) has a hell of a part, tough guy, check, but with a side helping of kindness, and pretty assured on the loving front, investing what could have been a fairly cliched character with a good deal of complexity. Henry Fonda (Firecreek, 1968) does a lot of pacing as his self-esteem implodes; how can he be a good guy if he’s running around with another man’s wife and how can he stick to his principles if he’s going to let a pal away with corruption?
Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968) is impressive as the disappointed wife trying to keep disappointment at bay. Harry Guardino (Hell Is For Heroes) always makes a good sidekick, but James Whitmore (The Split, 1968) digs into a sack of guilt as he attempts to avoid the oncoming storm. Don Stroud was almost auditioning for Don Siegel – he would turn up again in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Joe Kidd (1973); Susan Clark, too, Eastwood’s squeeze in Coogan’s Bluff. In smaller parts are Sheree North (Lawman, 1971) and Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968).
But the show belongs to Don Seigel. There can be few directors so out-of-favor that they are able on their return to kick start a new cop cycle that culminated in Dirty Harry (1971). While this pulls no punches on the action front, it’s the quieter behind-the-scenes domesticity that almost as much catches the eye, the way he gives the characters time to breathe, opens them up to reveal more intricate inner workings.
It also spelled rebirth for blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) in his first credit under his own name for 17 years. He didn’t do it all himself, though, Howard Rodman (Coogan’s Bluff) sharing the chores, the pair working from the novel The Commissioner by Richard Dougherty.
Producer Joseph E. Levine was so carried away by the sensational performance of Zulu (1964) in Britain that he earmarked a million-dollar marketing budget for its U.S. launch. Levine was already doing the rounds of U.S. exhibitors in January 1964 and it was reviewed that same month in Variety – which predicted it would be a “sturdy box office prospect” – leading observers to believe its launch was imminent. That it was held back till the summer suggested interest from the trade, not as fascinated by an obscure war in Africa as the British, was not as high as the producer would have liked. Even then Box Office magazine reckoned it “should be a box office smash” to emulate the $589,000 it had taken in nine weeks in the first run Plaza in London’s West End coupled with two weeks in 29 houses on the British ABC circuit.
But somewhere along the line Levine had lost heart and promoted it as if was Hercules all over again, 500 simultaneous bookings in a month, little time to build on the decent box office it attracted in New York in two weeks at the first run Palace. The drubbing Zulu (1964) received at the American box office – it did not even attract the $1 million in rentals needed to place it in the Variety annual box office chart – made trade journalists, while recognizing Michael Caine’s initial promise, reserve judgement on his future, observing that he “still has some ground to cover before he becomes as familiar to filmgoers as Sean Connery.”
Despite Zulu’s failure, Variety predicted that Caine’s performance had “won this blond young man a swift passport to potential stardom” and even while The Ipcress File (1965) divided critics, the trade paper reported “there’s no disputing Caine’s personal impact…the sky’s the limit.”
To justify his deal with Harry Saltzman, Caine was committed to appearing in ten films in five years, although the producer was not only happy to loan him out to other studios but share the spoils. That was an unusual trait, given that stars as varied as Sandra Dee, Carroll Baker and Rock Hudson bristled at what they saw as exploitation, when their paymaster retained the entire amount gained from loaning their services to other studios, often pocketing a hefty profit in the process. Caine, on the other hand, “kept the major share of any loan-out loot.”
After The Ipcress File, Caine would have five films released in the U.S. in the space of eight months from July 1966 to February 1967, an output that could make or break him. In order of U.S. launch these were: black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), ribald sex drama Alfie (1966), caper movie Gambit (1966), a second outing for Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin (1966) and big-budget steamy Otto Preminger drama Hurry Sundown (1967) not to mention a reissue in 1967 of Zulu to capitalize on his growing fame.
The breadth of acting skills Caine brought to these diverse movies caught the attention, by and large, of the critics as well as the industry. The National Association of Theater Owners, proclaimed him their Future Star of the Year in September 1966 with the ringing endorsement of “never has a newcomer to films so fully and immediately captured the imagination of the world audience.”
Oddly enough, there was no better follow-up as far as America was concerned to The Ipcress File than The Wrong Box in which he was a last-minute replacement for American actor George Hamilton. The Wrong Box (1966) presented Caine as the timid romantic opposite of the lothario of Alfie and the accomplished seducer of The Ipcress File (1965) but it was the kind of role to make critics sit up and wonder what else he had in his acting box of tricks.
But the release strategies employed by the various distributors, Columbia for The Wrong Box, Universal for Gambit and Paramount for the other three, ensured that the movies did not go down the Levine saturation-release route that had done for Zulu. Limited openings in prestigious arthouse-style cinemas allowed for slow build. In fact, it was almost tantamount to creating ‘sleepers’ out of every film. A film that remained for months at a time in one or two cinemas in a major city was the best way of driving up word of mouth. And during this hectic period whenever Caine was promoting one film, he was also being asked about all the rest.
It was almost inevitable that when a new picture opened, all the others were still playing. As a measure of how well this unplanned strategy worked, at Xmas 1966 his films were playing in six first run cinemas in New York, far more than any other star, and far more than any other star in the history of Hollywood. Each new opening boosted the box office of all the rest and when Oscar consideration or Year-End Best Awards entered the equation they served notice that, through his other films, this was an actor with a wide range of skills.
What had become quickly apparent to studios was that they had no idea how to assess Caine’s box office appeal. Such reticence proved invaluable. The limitations imposed on his film launches ensured that audience demand would dictate the release pattern. Only after Universal had opened The Ipcress File to sensational business at the Coronet in New York at the start of August 1965 did it consider widening the movie out. Audience response gave the studio the confidence to book it towards the end of the following month into Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles for an “unprecedented booking.” The two cinemas could not have been more opposite – the New York house seating just 590, the Los Angeles venue nearly three times as much with 1,517 seats. The studio was “evidently convinced to go commercial with the picture nationwide as booking into Grauman’s indicates.”
Columbia almost copied that campaign to the letter. The Wrong Box opened in early July 1966 to an “amazing” $35,000 at the 700-seat Cinema One. What was just as astonishing was that it was pulling in $28,500 in its seventh week by which time it had begun first run engagements across the country – a “socko” $25,000 in Chicago, “wham” $25,000 in Philadelphia, “boffola” $20,000 in Boston, “boffo” $18,000 in Washington D.C.
Although distributed by a different studio, Alfie followed a similar pattern, opening in New York again at the Coronet and also at the 500-seat New Embassy, breaking all-time records at both cinemas. Alfie, however,was less of a risk. On the financial front, it had already recouped its $750,000 costs solely from its London run. On the critical front, the film had won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.
Just as important was Paramount’s marketing backing. A 16-page A3 Pressbook began by detailing both the critical acclaim enjoyed by the picture on its New York opening and its subsequent commercial success. Every advertisement was garnished with critical quotes: “Alfie bubbles with impudent humor and ripe modern wit” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times), “delightful comedy” (Judith Crist, NBC Today Show), “you are going to enjoy Alfie very much” (Life). “There’s no question about it,” crowed the Pressbook, “Alfie has completely conquered New York…(and) is the new champ of the press.” The New York Times had run four separate articles on the film, major magazines lined up to profile the star, on publicity duties Caine had come across as charming and personable, and the movie’s theme song topped the charts.
Three pages of the Pressbook were devoted to Michael Caine, calling him “multi-talented” and setting out the proposition, “Will Alfie’s Michael Caine Become the Newest Teenage Idol?” Caine predicted, “I believe it takes at least five movies to make a star of anyone,” counting Zulu as his first, plus The Wrong Box and Alfie. Given Funeral in Berlin and Gambit were still to come, he was already well on the way to proving himself correct.
Alfie launched in New York a few weeks after The Wrong Box had already whetted appetites. The Coronet delivered a $43,000 opener and the New Embassy $33,400, both all-time non-holiday records. Second weeks were equally potent, $40,000 at the Coronet, $33,000 at the New Embassy.
So Paramount “nursed” the sleeper. It didn’t properly expand until Thanksgiving and even then was limited to 56 theaters which had to commit to 14-week runs that would see it safely past Xmas and New Year so as to be “in active exhibition” during Oscar season. Before the first Oscar nomination was in, Paramount had pulled in $3m million in U.S. rentals (the studio’s share of the box office gross) and about the same again overseas (including Britain). Winning five Oscar nominations – including Best Picture and Best Actor – boosted takings.
The Xmas 1966 unofficial “Michael Caine Season” saw a three-cinema New York opening for Funeral in Berlin (budgeted at $2.6 million) and one house for Gambit while Alfie was still playing in two houses. The Harry Palmer sequel rocked up with a “wow” $40,000 – equivalent to $356,000 today – opening week at the 813-seat Forum, an “amazing” $21,000 ($187,000 equivalent) at the 450-seat Guild (extra shows to cope with the demand) and $37,000 ($330,000 equivalent) at the 568-seat Tower East. Gambit knocked up a “smash” $20,000 at the 561-seat Sutton with Alfie bringing in a “wham” £21,000 in its 18th week at the New Embassy plus $14,000 in its first week at the 430-seat Baronet. The capacities of all these cinemas showed that, in reality, they were glorified arthouses rather than the bigger 1,000-plus-seaters where the big-budget pictures resided.
In Britain, a top box office draw, in America king of the arthouses.
How well his movies did outside that limitation depended on popularity and accessibility. Pairings with top female stars like Shirley MacLaine (Gambit) and Jane Fonda (Hurry Sundown) ensured that the actor’s transition into the Hollywood elite was painless. His career has had many ups and downs, and many fans know him only from his appearance in Christopher Nolan films, but in celebrating a career that encompasses nearly 70 years as a star, no one should forget the eight months that turned him into one.
SOURCES: “Levine Heads Zulu showmanship Meets,” Box Office, January 13, 1964, p8; “Big Zulu Whoop,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p3; Review of Zulu, Variety, January 29, 1964, p6; “Levine Sells His Theatres,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, pNE2; Advert for Zulu, Variety, April 29, p26-27; “Britain Bubbles with Talent,” Variety, April 29, 1964, p58; Review of Zulu, Box Office, June 22, 1964, pA11; Review of The Other Man, Variety, September 16, 1964, p41; Review of The Ipcress File, Variety, March 1965, p6; “Newcomer Talent in British Pix,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p57; Advertisement for Zulu, Box Office, Jun 15, 1964, p3; “Ipcress File Pre-Release in NY Aug 2,” Box Office, July 26, 1965, pE4; “Michael Caine No Bottled-In Bond,” Variety, September 15, 1965, p30; “Grauman’s Sets Extended Run of Ipcress File,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pNC1; “Preminger Signs Caine,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, pE1; “Funeral in Berlin Budget $2,600,000,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p29; “Caine Is Able at B.O. with Five Star Roles in 33 Months since Zulu,” Variety, August 31, 1966, p2; “Michael Caine Named NATO Future Star,” Box Office, September 19, 1966, p3; “Par Nurses Its Alfie with Limited Playoff Through Holidays,” Variety, October 12, 1966, p21; “Michael Caine On Tour for Funeral in Berlin,” Box Office, November 21, 1966, pE2; “Embassy Reissues Three Caine, Belmondo Films,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, p10; “Alfie Could Be Par’s Tom Jones,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p3. Box office figures taken from the “Picture Grosses” section of Variety: July 20, 1966-September 24, 1966 and December 28, 1966.
The movie Cinderella story to end all movie Cinderella stories. Quite how The Wicker Man came to earn its cult status given that for more than a decade it was hardly screened is quite a remarkable tale. An occult picture that as authoritative a producer as Michael Deeley (Blade Runner, 1982) deemed one of the ten worst films of all time – and without even the compensation of falling into the “so bad it’s good” category.
Most people who saw it during its original British release did so by default. They had gone to see Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) with top stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and tagged onto that box office hit – and critical smash – was this other movie critics had dismissed. That it surfaced at all was because British Lion put it out on the lower part of a double bill in order to legitimately defray its costs by snipping off some of the revenue accrued by Don’t Look Now.
It certainly wasn’t that the Nicolas Roeg picture needed a helping hand on the box office front. Prior to opening, Don’t Look Now had already covered its $1.2 million budget by selling off foreign rights with Paramount taking it for the United States. Despite having the same budget of $1.2 million, The Wicker Man, did not attract the same foreign interest, or indeed any foreign interest. and for the time being was put on the shelve. British Lion had been sold to EMI who put Deeley in charge and his assessment of The Wicker Man‘s worth put paid to any prospect of a high-end launch.
Don’t Look Now opened, minus The Wicker Man, in October 1973 at the London West End’s most prestigious cinema, the Odeon Leicester Square and in phenomenal fashion. An opening week $32,000 (equivalent to $126,000 these days) was bettered by a second week of $44,000 ($174,000 equivalent). A further two weeks brought in $41,000 and $35,000 respectively (or about close on to a total of $600,000 in today’s money).
Then it switched, still minus The Wicker Man, virtually next door to the equally prestigious 1,402-seater Leicester Square Theater. An opening salvo of $29,000 dropped just $1,000 in the second week. A six-week run garnered $138,000 ($546,000 equivalent). Four weeks into that run it also opened at the 1,394-seat Metropole, this time as a double bill with The Wicker Man. It wasn’t a genuine double bill. A proper double bill consisted of two films of roughly equal standing that might both have premiered in the West End, top billing given to the movie that had performed best at the box office.
The Wicker Man had been on quite a different trajectory to Don’t Look Now. Despite it being promoted in “a savvy publicity ploy” at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1973 with a 30ft high “wicker man” set on fire on the Croisette, once Michael Deeley took control, replacing Peter Snell, also producer of The Wicker Man, he had no intention of giving a solo launch. By piggybacking on a hit movie, it was guaranteed to bring in some income.
However, initially, it seemed a disastrous idea. The Metropole double bill opened in mid-December 1973 to a miserly $5,300, second week no better, just $4,900.
But then something extraordinary happened. The third week was through the roof, a whopping $13,700. Over seven weeks it snapped up $57,000 (equivalent to $225,000 today). It wasn’t that surprising, however, since in the first two weeks it was still showing at the Leicester Square Theatre, but once the Metropole was the only option, the figures jumped up. Assuming revenue would taper off, in the fifth week of the Metropole run it began playing simultaneously at the 1,883-seat Odeon Kensington – probably to coincide with the general release – where the first week raked in $16,800. It continued at this cinema for six weeks, bringing in another $57,000.
And even then it wasn’t done. Towards the end of February the double bill switched to the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket, also in the West End. and opened with $6,000. A decent enough tally for a movie that had been on the market for over four months, but it turned out that except for its eighth and final week, that amount was the lowest it grossed. It ran out with a similar sum to the other two cinemas, $56,200. And then it moved again to the 150-seat Cinecenta 3, just off Leicester Square in London’s West end for a final flourish of $5,300 in two weeks, the second week improving on the first. All told, the double bill grossed $175,100 in the West End (just under $700,000 at today’s figures). The double bill also went out on general release on the Odeon circuit in Britain at the start of February 1974 – and not in December 1973 as has been argued (the London West End screenings were what would be termed “pre-release” activity).
How much of the double bill’s success could be attributed to The Wicker Man is not that difficult to calculate. As we have seen, Don’t Look Now was already an enormous success before it took on a perhaps-unwanted partner. Not every Odeon general release required a supporting feature, often a short would do. Without another film on the program, Don’t Look Now would have received more daily showings which could boost receipts and at the very least been more profitable for not having to share the box office.
Whereas Don’t Look Now sailed into New York on a tide of box office and critical glory at the 549-seat Sutton with a first week tallying $30,000 and had massed $110,000 in five weeks, The Wicker Man was deemed a massive flop. British Lion wrote it off to the tune of $470,000, a substantial amount.
There was no chance of British Lion fobbing off the more astute Americans with the notion of The Wicker Man running as the stablemate of Don’t Look Now. Major U.S. distributors bought pictures that had been hits on release in their home country. Perhaps not surprisingly, the main contender for the rights was Roger Corman, a horror specialist, and he thought he could make it work if the film was editing from the original 102-minutes to 86-minutes, a timing that make it more appealing in a double bill. But Corman could not meet EMI’s terms.
However, it was bought in 1974 for American release by the Beechwood Properties – which Variety mispelled as “Beachhead Corp” but only initially as as a tax shelter. However, Beechwood succeeded in drumming up a distributor, National General Corporation which distributed John Wayne movies Rio Lobo (1970) and Big Jake (1971) as well as Little Big Man (1971) and Le Mans (1971), The Getaway (1972) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). NGC was taken enough by the movie to pay EMI $300,000 for the rights.
But then NGC hit a financial brick wall and pulled out and the project passed on to Warner Brothers after it picked up the top prize at the International Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As a prelude to a release, Warner Brothers submitted it to the American censor where it earned an “R” (restricted) rating in keeping with its British X-certificate. Warner Brothers test-marketed the shortened version as a solo feature with 24 prints playing the San Diego and Atlanta regions. But when the movie failed to attract an audience it was deemed a flop and shelved.
And in summer 1974 it was officially shelved.
So it sat in limbo for another three years before in 1977 Cinefantastique magazine dubbed it “The Citizen Kane of Horror Pictures” and devoted a 32-page spread to it in its Vol 6 No 10 issue, so determined it had uncovered a work of genius that it took out a substantial advertisement in U.S. trade paper Variety. That appeared to elicit some distributor interest and it was purchased in 1977 from Beechwood by New Orleans company Abraxas, headed by Stirling Smith, John Alan Simon, and Ron and Micheline Weinberg. Abraxas got the rights for a song – just $20,000.
But then the Weinberg’s split from Abraxas and set up a company (I am presuming) called International Films. It looked like they were licensed to show The Wicker Man, which they did in a kind of hit-and-run strategy, racing all over the country with the movie in the back of the car, and renting it out to around 30 arthouses, presumably assuming the “Citizen Kane” tag might attract an audience.
Distributed under the banner Summerisle Films, some of these showings were indeed propitious. In January 1979 at the 300-seat Lumiere in San Francisco with tickets priced at $4 it knocked up a “boffo” $19,000 (equivalent to a meaty $75,000 now). There was none of the steep fall-off either that you might expect. The second week hauled in an excellent $15,500 ($59,000 today) and the nine-week run brought in total of $93,000 (a very good $368,000 in today’s terms). It was deemed so successful that it achieved in exhibitor parlance a “move-over,” transferring to the 300-seat Cento Cedar.
Results were similar in Los Angeles. At the 763-seat Los Feliz Westland 1, also primarily an arthouse, it racked up opening week figures of $19,000 and after six weeks had powered to $61,900 plus another $37,000 from a two-week run at four suburban houses. There was a decent performance in Seattle, close on $40,000 in a five-week run at the 700-seat Crest. Enough to counter a poor showing in Minneapolis at the 461-seat World where it opened to a “slow” $2,000. And excepting that result, the prospects must have looked rosy.
That is, until the wheels came off.
International Films turned out to be beset by financial problems. Weinberg had been due to pay Abraxas a total of $150, 000 by December 1978, paid off in three tranches, an initial amount of $30,000 by December 1977, another $50,000 by June 1978 and the the remaining sum by December of the same year. When the debt was not settled, Abraxas took Weinberg in court in July 1979 and the outcome was that the rights reverted back to Abraxas, now headed by Smith and Simon. And that was timely from a publicity perspective for the movie had just been named Best Horror Picture and Best Screenplay by the Academy of Fantasy and Horror Films.
So Abraxas started all over again, sticking to the precedent of opening it in arthouses. But it looked like they sold off regional rights for the movie appeared under different distributors, Horror Films as well as Abraxas and the original Summer Isle banner April 1980 saw The Wicker Man set a new house record at the 200-seat Orson Welles III in Boston with a $15,000 opening and over the next eight weeks it locked up a hefty $73,500 ($256,000 equivalent). The same month it hit New York, but an excellent opener of $21,000 at the 533-seat Paramount dropped to just $9,000 in the second week, then $4,400 in the third and $4,000 in the last. In December it scored $7,500 at the 150-seat Cerberus II in Washington D.C, finishing with $16,000 for three weeks.
In January 1981 it was the last movie shown in a 12-week season of revivals at the 560-seater Fine Arts in Kansas City and, despite registering only a “mild” $3,500, it moved over the Watts Mill 2 for a $3,200 opener and an $8,400 total over four weeks. But a four-screen “showcase” in Miami produced a “remote” $3,700. There was some publicity derived for being selected, eight years after initial launch in Britain, at the Cleveland International film Festival.
But success in the independent field required momentum and despite excellent results in a handful of cinemas, The Wicker Man never really took off.
Salvation came via another route – video. Without VHS and then DVD it is doubtful if the movie would ever have achieved its current cult status. It’s not the first film to hit the ground running in the video format after a less than stellar performance in the cinema. I doubt that anyone, years after it was first shown, believed The Wicker Man had a hidden pot of gold. But my guess is the video rights cost little and in the burgeoning market where taste was not stifled by choices made at a cinema chain head office it was a film that finally found an audience.
SOURCES: “Michael Deeley Replaces Snell at Brit Lion,” Variety, April 11, 1973, p4; “Doing The Cannes-Cannes,” Variety, May 23, 1973, p26; “Form Beachhead Corp To Handle Wicker Man,” Variety, Jan 2, 1974, p4; “This Week’s Code Tags,” Variety, April 24, 1974, p4; “Wicker Man Wins Top Prize at Fantasy Fest,” Variety, May 1, 1974, p7; “British Lion 6 Months Slips to 890G,” Variety, January 29, 1975, p39; Advert, Variety, November 16, 1977, p38; Stuart Byron, “Something Wicker This Way Comes,” Film Comment, November-Dcember 1977; “Abraxas Corp Sues Ronald Weinberg,” Variety, April 18, 1979, p5; “Enjoin Weinberg Re Wicker Man,” Variety, Jul 4, 1979, p35; “Cleveland: 45 Titles: 3 Situations,” Variety, April 1, 1981, p24; “Metropolis Strikes Deal with Magnum,” August 10, 1988, p34. Box office figures all from the following issues of weekly Variety: Oct 24, 1973-April 24, 1974; October 5, 1977; March 21, 1979, April 11, 1979; April 18, 1979; April 25, 1979; May 7, 1979; April 23, 1980; December 3, 1980; February 4, 1981; April 1, 1981; May 20 1981.
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.
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).
British critics hated the “Carry On” films until late in the decade Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) hit a satirical note. Critics felt the movies pandered to the lowest common denominator and were a poor substitute for the Ealing comedies which had given Britain an unexpected appreciation among American comedy fans.
It was a well-known fact the comedies did not always travel. Apart from Jacques Tati, the more vulgar French comedies featuring the likes of Fernandel were seen as arthouse fare. Unless they featured a sex angle or the promise of nudity, coarse Italians comedies struggled to find an international audience. The “Carry On” films were bawdy by inclination without being visually offensive
Carry On Sergeant (1958), the first in the series, had been a massive success in Britain. Distributors Anglo-Amalgamated was so convinced it would find a similar response in the U.S. that it was opened in New York at a first run arthouse. Although the comedies were hardly standard arthouse fare, this was generally the route for low-budget British films. The picture lasted only three weeks and other exhibitors taking that as proof of its dismal prospects ignored it.
The follow-up Carry On Nurse (1959) took an entirely different route when launched in America in 1960. This time New York would be virtually the last leg of its exhibition tour. Instead it opened on March 10 at the 750-seat Crest in Los Angeles. Away from the New York spotlight, the little movie attracted not just good notices but decent audiences.
Instead of being whipped off screens after a few weeks, it developed legs. In Chicago it ran for 16 weeks in first run before transferring to a further 50 theaters. Within a few months of opening it had been released in 48 cities. In Minneapolis it was booked as a “filler” at the World arthouse, expected to run a week and no more. Instead, it remained for six weeks and when it shifted out to the nabes out-grossed Billy Wilder’s big-budget comedy The Apartment (1960) with a stellar cast of Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine.
In its fourth month at the 600-seat Fox Esquire in Denver where it opened in May, it set a new long-run record for a non-roadshow picture. It had been taking in a steady $4,000 a week since opening.
SOURCES: “How To Nurse a Foreign Pic That’s Neither Art nor Nudie: Skip N.Y.,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 3; “British Carry On Nurse A Sleeper in Mpls With Long Loop Run, Nabe Biz,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 18;