The Best House in London (1969) *

One of the worst – and certainly among the most repellent – films ever made. A hymn to misogyny under the guise of the not very difficult task of exposing Victorian hypocrisy, it labors under the bizarre thesis that all women want to be prostitutes. Screenwriter Denis Norden’s befuddled sense of history is awash with the same kind of contempt for audiences. Elizabeth Barrett (of Wimpole St fame) rubs shoulders with Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s illicit lover) even though they lived half a century apart, the Chinese Opium Wars and The Indian Mutiny feature despite being separated by 15 years.

Sex workers had proved the basis for many good (and occasionally excellent) pictures in the 1960s ranging from Butterfield 8, Never on Sunday, Irma la Douce and Go Naked in the World at the start of the decade to Midnight Cowboy at its end, but these all featured well-rounded characters facing understandable dilemmas. But here the cynical and demeaning plot –  more Carry On Up the Brothel than political satire – makes you wonder how this concept was perceived as either plausible or an acceptable subject for comedy

The monocle joke. Dany Robin sports the manacles her idiotic girls were supposed to wear rather the monocles they did wear.

Feminist philanthropist Josephine Pacefoot (Joanna Pettet) – a character based on the real-life campaigner Josephine Butler – has set up the Social Purity League to rescue fallen women. Walter Leybourne (David Hemmings) is hired as a publicist to bring the issues raised to a wider audience. When Josephine inherits the fortune of Uncle Francis (George Sanders) the pair come up against the nefarious Benjamin Oakes (also played by Hemmings), her cousin and his half-brother, who has purloined his uncle’s mansion in Belgravia as the premises for London’s first brothel – The Libertine Club. This venture is backed by the Home Secretary (John Bird) as a way of getting streetwalkers away from upmarket shopping streets where their presence discourages wealthy females. Josephine also has to deal with a caricatured “evil” Chinaman (Wolfe Morris) through her uncle’s investment in opium. There’s also for no particular reason apoplectic airship inventor Count Pandolfo (Warren Mitchell).

All the women rescued from the oldest profession by Josephine are soon recruited by Oakes and a good chunk of the middle section of the movie involves various excuses to give the viewers intimate glimpses of what goes on in the brothel, involving an abundance of nudity.  Oakes also aims to seduce Josephine while the shy Walter struggles to entice her into romance.

Excepting Josephine and Oakes’ mistress Babette (Dany Robin), the women are uniformly stupid. The story begins with Oakes’ duping a woman in a hot air balloon into removing her clothes on the grounds that it was the only way to reduce height enough to land. And it does not get any better. Women supposedly forced onto the streets after bad experiences with men turn out to be the seducers. Walter has the devil’s own job getting any of the girls to agree they had been raped. Walter, hoping to sell a story to The Times, is no less crass: “I can get five columns for a good rape.” Flora (Carol Friday), rescued much to her displeasure, is “gagging” for it. And there’s just an awful scene where a young girl sings about her “pussy” which even in the 1960s surely raised adverse comment.

The humor is largely of the sniggering variety. The brothel girls wear monocles instead of manacles, the only game on display in the Card Room is strip poker, and naturally there is a peeping tom, lawyer Sylvester (Willie Rushton).

As if to display his erudition, but without raising the laughter quotient, Norden chucks in literary cameos by the score – Charles Dickens (Arnold Diamond), Alfred Lord Tennyson (Hugh Burden), the aforementioned Elizabeth Barrett (Suzanne Hunt) and Lord Alfred Douglas (George Reynolds), Sherlock Holmes (Peter Jeffrey) and Dr Watson (Thorley Walters), plus explorer David Livingstone (Neil Arden) and department store entrepreneurs Fortnum (Arthur Howard) and Mason (Clement Freud).  

That the movie actually gets one star is thanks to a number of excellent visual jokes: one scene of Uncle Francis defying the mutineers by raising the Union Jack cuts to the blood-splattered flag decorating his coffin; Sylvester frustrated at the keyhole but still hearing the moans of seducer-in-chief Oakes is followed by the sight of the wannabe lover struggling to get out of his bonds, having been attacked by Chinamen.

There’s not much difference, beyond hair color, between the characters essayed by David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1969). Both are one-dimensional, the pop-eyed virgin astonished by the goings-on at the brothel, the suave villain who might as well be twirling his moustache for all the depth he brings to the role. Thankfully, Joanna Pettet (Blue, 1968) is at least believable though even she could not act her way out of scenes where she was suspended by the Chinaman above a vat of boiling acid.

George Sanders (Sumuru, Queen of Femina aka The Girl from Rio, 1969) has a ball as the hypocrite-in-chief who knows how to monetize vice while Dany Robin (Topaz, 1969) brings some finesse to an otherwise one-dimensional part. But everyone else is a cipher which is a shame given the talent on show – John Bird (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968), John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda, 1988), Warren Mitchell (The Assassination Bureau, 1969), Bill Fraser (Masquerade, 1965) and Maurice Denham (Some Girls Do, 1969). Among the girls, you might spot Veronica Carlsen (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968) , Margaret Nolan (Goldfinger, 1964) and Rose Alba (Thunderball, 1965).

Director Philip Saville (Oedipus the King, 1968) should have known better and certainly made amends later in his career with among other projects BBC series Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). But Denis Norden (Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell, 1968) never wrote a more misguided piece in all his life.

For sure, a film like this is not going to do down well in these times but I was surprised how vilified it was on release, critics like Roger Ebert insulted by its endless attacks on women, the public no less hostile and it died a death at the box office.

Last Summer (1969) ****

Given the severity of the crime involved, you leave Frank Perry’s coming-of-age-drama wondering what happened to the four principals. Did the aggressive three young demi-gods of a golden age go on to pursue similar acts of cruelty? While one of them might show remorse, or at least suffer from guilt, of the other two I have my doubts. They would find ways to blame the injured party. And what about the victim? Would she have the courage to report the crime, or suffer in shame for decades.

It’s odd how time changes entirely the shape of a movie. In its day this was seen as a bold exposition of frank adventure by teenagers seeking their first experiences of growing up and experimenting with sex and drugs (pilfered from a parental stash). Although there is little focus on dysfunctionality, both Sandy (Barbara Hershey) and Rhoda (Cathy Burns) are missing a parent, the former’s father running off with another woman, the latter’s mother drowned by stupid misadventure. Both have been abused, unable to prevent the wandering hands of males. All are vulnerable, if only by youth.

Of the boys, Dan (Bruce Davison) is the more confident, Peter (Richard Thomas), while easily swayed, the gentler of the two. Dan merely seeks his first taste of sex, Peter the more likely to need love as well. Sandy is sexually precocious, somewhat on the exhibitionist side, peeling off her bikini top with apparently at times no idea of the effect it will have on the boys, at other times clearly uncomfortable with the notion that the guys might have nothing else on their minds but staring at her breasts. But she is the one who wants to continue watching a gay couple cavorting on the beach while Dan is embarrassed. Sometimes the frank sexuality is rite-of-passage stuff, other times it is distinctly creepy. In the cinema both men grope her breasts. She claims to have been excited by the experience, but you can’t help thinking at least one of the men should have shown restraint, not treating her as if she was some kind of sex toy.

The movie begins on a clearer note. The guys come across Sandy nursing a wounded gull and perhaps entranced by her good looks help her remove a hook from the bird’s throat, provide convalescence and eventually help the bird recover the confidence to fly again. It’s a cosy trio, but edgy, too, Sandy allowing them considerable latitude. But, of course, the guys do the same to her. When she bludgeons the bird to death because it bit her (“the ungrateful bastard”), the pair, initially shocked, are not shocked enough to reject her, afflicted by unassailable male logic, the kind that drove film noir, that maintained a beautiful woman could not have a black heart. 

Separated from the other two, Peter displays a gentler side, teaching the shy Rhoda to swim, kissing her in far more considerate fashion than the boys treat Sandy. But, effectively, she is a pet, and it’s only a matter of time before the unsavory aspect of Sandy’s character breaks out. After setting Rhoda up on a date, the trio do everything they can to spoil it, angry at the poor girl for not getting the “joke.”

Worse is to follow. Date-rape we’d call it today. Retreating to the cool forest, Sandy taunts Rhoda by removing her bikini top. When the horrified Rhoda refuses to do the same, Sandy attacks her, holding her down along with Peter while Dan rapes her. That’s where the film ends, no consequences, no repercussion. Back in the day it was a shock ending, an act of violence to mar an otherwise relatively innocent summer. After the deed is done, the camera pulls back into an aerial shot to observe the  guilty trio walking back to the beach, but without drawing conclusion or offering moral judgement. It’s hard to know what to make of the ending. These days, of course, we’d be appalled. But back then it didn’t appear to appall, certainly not drawing the outrage that accompanied similar scenes in The Straw Dogs (1971) or A Clockwork Orange (1971) perhaps because the perpetrators were so attractive and it was, after all, a coming-of-age picture, as if such things could be expected.

Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, judged that the conclusion “is not really important to the greatness of the movie.” Andrew Sarris of Village Voice noted that “Perry retreats from the carnal carnage” to end with a shot that “prefers symbolic evocation to psychological exploration.” In other words adolescence is fraught with risk and Rhoda is just collateral damage.

Certainly the acting is uniformly excellent for such inexperienced actors, coping with many changes in dramatic focus, from early exhilaration through growing pains to violence.  Barbara Hershey (Heaven with a Gun, 1969) would go on to become a major star. Amazing to realise that Bruce Davison (Willard, 1971) and Cathy Burns, Oscar-nominated for her role, were making their movie debuts and for Hershey and Richard Thomas (Winning, 1969) their sophomore outings.

Director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, 1968) had a special affinity with the young as he had proved with David and Lisa (1962) and at times the whole affair had an improvised free-wheeling style. Eleanor Perry (David and Lisa) wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Evan Hunter (The Birds, 1963).

This is very hard to find, it turns out, so Ebay might be your best bet.

My thanks to one of my readers, Mike, for digging up this story of the disappearance of Catherine Burns from the movie business.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/catherine-burns-inside-50-year-disappearance-an-oscar-nominee-1275646/

Sumuru, Queen of Femina / The Girl from Rio / Mothers of America (1969) ***

Cult fans assemble. Sci fi crime thriller with for the time a fair sprinkling of nudity, and channelling psychedelic turns like Barbarella (1968) and Danger: Diabolik (1968) and one step up from the ultra-confident gals of Deadlier than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do  (1969). It would have helped if there was a decent plot, and not just a barrage of double-crossing halfway in, but you can’t have everything and director Jess Franco seems to believe that the presence of a tribe of women decked out in red capes, white knee-length boots and not necessarily much in between, goes some way to compensate.

Crook Jeff Sutton (Richard Stapley) holes up in Rio with $10 million in stolen cash, unaware that his presence has already been noted by gang boss Masius (George Sanders) and local ultra-feminist Sununda (Shirley Eaton). After hooking up with manicurist Lesley (Maria Rohm), Sutton is set upon by Masius’ henchmen but escapes in a plane to Femina, “the capital city of the world of women,” a female fortress along the lines of the Bulldog Drummond pictures.

Turns out Sununda is partial to men with piles of cash, kidnapping and torturing them until they hand it over. So she can’t believe her luck when millionaire Jeff walks into her lair. Except Jeff is a bit of a fibber, having made up the story about the ten million, and instead landing at Femina in order to rescue Ulla (Marta Reves).

The plot only really kicks in when he escapes. Masius agrees to help Jeff in return for the pretend-thief helping him hijack Sununda’s vault of gold. In reality, Masius is using Jeff as bait, to tempt Sununda down from the clouds, and then turn him over in exchange for just half her gold. And so it’s back to Femina for all concerned.

There’s no real pretence at the kind of sci-fi that enthralled Barbarella audiences and none of the slick campness of Danger:Diabolik, and most of the ideas seem still-born and occasionally contradictory – in order to enslave men women must first be taught how to be irresistible to them – torture is accomplished either by whispering or kissing, and the ray-guns employed looked like cast-offs from the 1950s, but the regiment of women, with spies infiltrating everywhere, led by the ruthless Sununda, have the makings of a warrior nation.

The movie has far better luck with Masius, a splendidly-drawn character who doodles on restaurant tablecloths, enjoys reading Popeye comic books, and – a bit of drawback for a man in his profession – can’t stand the sight of blood. While his sidekicks are mostly incompetent, they do drive around in hearses that resemble pagodas or dress in unnecessary masks and while his girlfriends appear docile they are in fact spies. And there’s a spot of waterboarding in case you ever wondered where the American secret services got the idea.

The source material was from Sax Rohmer but Sununda lacks the inherent obvious evil of the author’s more successful Fu Manchu series, Shirley Eaton no match for Christopher Lee, the most recent Fu Manchu, nor Richard Shapley on a par with Fu Manchu nemesis Nayland Smith, regardless of whether played by Nigel Green (The Face of Fu Manchu, 1965),  Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966) or Richard Greene (The Blood of Fu Manchu, 1968, and The Castle of Fu Manchu, 1969).

And anyone attracted to the picture by director Jess (Jesus) Franco is going to be disappointed by the lack of sleaziness he exhibited in pictures like Succubus (1968), 99 Women (1969) and  Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969) and there’s not enough style, though abundant campness, to make up.  It’s hard to say quite why it did not have a harder edge, perhaps producer Harry Alan Towers, responsible for 99 Women, felt it should err in the softer direction of Fu Manchu than the overt sex-and-violence of the nascent women-in-prison genre.  

Franco and Towers (24 Hours to Kill, 1965, and Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) had collaborated on The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu as well as Venus in Furs (1969) and Marquis De Sade’s Justine so presumably knew how far they could go and decided that here it was better to rein in Franco’s tendencies. Whether a tougher-edged approach would have made much of a difference given the indifferent playing – neither Shirley Eaton (The Scorpio Letters, 1967)  nor Richard Stapley (Two Guns and a Coward, 1968) bring much to the leading roles and George Sanders (Warning Shot, 1967) is not in it enough to save it. Maria Rohm, Franco’s wife, appeared in many of his films.  

Towers appeared on surer ground in the likes of 24 Hours to Kill (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) and Five Golden Dragons (1967) when he could draw on a more interesting cast, better stories and more colourful locations. This was a sequel to The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967) again with Shirley Eaton and plum role for Klaus kinski.

Despite the film’s potential, the director and George Sanders it does not fit into the so-bad-it’s-good category nor has enough going for it to be labelled a true cult film. But I could be wrong in both those assumptions.

Lady in Cement (1969) ****

Frank Sinatra in cruise control reprises his Tony Rome (1967) private eye in a hugely enjoyable and vastly under-rated murder mystery with man mountain Dan Blocker of Bonanza fame and femme fatale Raquel Welch of pin-up fame. One of the actor’s greatest characterizations, albeit with little in it for the Oscar mob, this is one of the coolest gumshoes to hit the screen. Exhibiting none of the self-consciousness of latter-day Philip Marlowes or Sam Spades, Sinatra embellishes the character with more “business” than ever before, larding his dialogue with quips while he talks his way out of sticky situations and, as a big star, happy to be picked up by Blocker and dumped on a work surface. Can’t see Newman, Redford, McQueen, and Eastwood et al putting up with that kind of treatment.

Tony Rome is almost as much of a bum as he is a detective, betting on anything possible, wasting his time on fruitless quests for sunken treasure, lazing around in his yacht until in one of his deep sea forays comes across the naked titular damsel. Reporting the murder sees Rome co-opted by cop Lt. Santini (Richard Conte) to ID the woman. Sent to the apartment shared by Sandra Lomax and Maria Bareto in search for a potential client, Rome encounters Waldo (Dan Blocker) who hires him to find Lomax.

The British release paired an action picture with a sex comedy, the idea being to catch different types of audiences rather than putting two action films or two comedies together which would
later become the prevailing exhibition wisdom. Although the two films had in common a star in bikini.
Note that the double bill went on general release at the same time as the two pictures
were, separately, playing at London’s West End.

That takes Rome to Jilly’s go-go club where his conversation with dancer Maria (Lainie Kazan) is rudely interrupted by owner Danny Yale (Frank Raiter). Next stop is a swimming pool and who should emerge in a wet bikini than millionairess Kit Forrest (Raquel Welch) whose party Sandra attended. But a) she’s an alcoholic with memory issues and b) objects to snoopers so calls in neighbor and former hood Al Mungar (Martin Gabel) who sends Rome packing. When Maria is bumped off, Waldo is the prime suspect.

So we are enveloped in an interesting plot that soon involves blackmail and robbery and a suspect list that extends to Mungar and son Paul (Steve Peck) who has the hots for Kit, Yale and muscular boyfriend Seymour, and of course Waldo (whose reason for finding Sandra is revenge) and Kit. Despite the seeming light touch, inheritance is a theme, and the tale is character-driven, relationships complex, locales somewhat off-beat, a crap game in a mortuary, a nude painter’s studio, strip clubs, massage parlors and go-go dancing establishments abound, but with none of the moralizing that came with the territory. A racetrack is almost prosaic by comparison.

For most of the picture Santini and Rome have an antagonistic relationship until we find out, in a lovely scene, that Rome was the cop’s ex-partner, that the grumpy cop has a loving home life and that Rome is greeted with delight as “Uncle Tony” by Santini’s son. Rome is also very well acquainted with film noir and knows that a woman who appears too good to be true is in fact too good to be true so he’s sensible enough to steer clear of seduction (the bane of any film noir character’s life) unless he’s just pretending in order to glean information.

Raquel Welch is more sedate in this poster.

It’s a classic detective story, one lead following another, naturally a few contretemps along the way, some deception, and the laid-back Rome proves not as relaxed as you might expect, possessing a handy right hook and a neat uppercut. Interesting subsidiary characters include Al’s neglected wife, a bumptious beach attendant and a whining nude model.

Director Gordon Douglas – who handled Sinatra in Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), Tony Rome and The Detective (1968) – brings out the best in the actor, keeps the action zipping along despite multiple complications and prefers a quip to a momentous speech.

Sinatra is just so at ease he oozes screen charisma. His shamus is no slick unraveller of truth, but a steady digger, accumulating information. You might think any tentative relationship with Kit stretches the age angle a tad but bear in mind at this stage Sinatra was married to Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior. Raquel Welch (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968) is surprisingly good as a vulnerable mixed-up wealthy alcoholic and, except in her opening scene, manages to steer clear of a bikini for most of the picture.

Richard Conte (Hotel, 1966) is as dependable as ever but Martin Gabel (Divorce American Style, 1967) steals the supporting show as an apoplectic racketeer trying to go straight. You might like to know Lainie Kazan (Dayton’s Devils, 1968) is still working, The Amityville Murders (2018) and Tango Shalom (2021) among her recent output. It’s a shame Dan Blocker did not live long enough (he died in 1972) to build on his idiosyncratic performance.

The lively screenplay was written by Marvin H. Albert (A Twist of Sand, 1968) and Jack Guss (Daniel Boone: Frontier Trail Rider, 1966) based on Albert’s novel. Mention, too, for the jaunty theme tune by Hugo Montenegro (The Undefeated, 1969). You’ll find yourself humming it for days on end, it pops up often enough.

Into the catchphrase hall of fame must go Blocker’s exhortation “Stay loose” just before he unleashes mayhem. And while we’re about it, what is it about the quality of actor or status of a star that permits hoodlum Al’s peeved “I tried to go clean and you dragged me down” to be ignored while a couple of decades later a similar line from The Godfather Part III (1990) uttered by Al Pacino is hailed as a classic. You know the one I mean: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” Steven Spielberg is another who should have watched this picture for tips on how to deal with marauding sharks – Rome’s solution: kick them on the snout. By the way did Blocker fall out with imdb? Despite third billing, he’s not listed at all in the main credits and when you scroll down to the extended credits, he’s at the very bottom. Jeez!


The Sweet Ride (1968) ***

Unusual drama mainlining on Californian surf, sex, bikers, a mystery of Blow-Up (1966) dimensions and the best entrance since Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962). Displays a 1960s vibe with a 1950s pay-off as the “hitchhiker” of responsibility rears its ugly head.

A woman thrown out of a car narrowly escapes being run over. The cops jack in the investigation after television actress Vickie (Jacqueline Bisset) refuses to explain why she’s been badly beaten up.  And so we enter flashback mode to supposedly find out. She makes a glorious entrance, emerging from the sea, minus bikini top, into the lives of surfer Denny (Michael Sarrazin), jazz pianist Choo-Choo (Bob Denver) and ageing beach bum and tennis hustler Collie (Tony Franciosca). From the off, she’s enigmatic, gives a false address, won’t explain bruises on her arm, has something clandestine going on with television producer Caswell (Warren Stevens) and like Blow-Up we are only privy to snippets of information.

She’s half-in half-out of a relationship with Dennis, with Collie hovering on the periphery hoping to pick up the pieces to his sexual advantage. Contemporary issues clog the background, Choo-Choo tries a camp number complete with pink dog to avoid the draft, a neighbor threatens to shoot Parker for wandering around in shorts and habitually stealing his newspaper, epithets like “degenerates” are tossed around, Choo Choo’s girlfriend Thumper, while appearing in movies with titles like Suburban Lust Queen acts den mother, there’s not much actual exciting surfing, and a biker called Mr. Clean is somehow involved.

The romance plays out well, Vicky unsure, Denny convinced but without a livelihood to offer and unable to get a straight answer out of her. Choo-Choo gets the gig of his dreams in Las Vegas and there’s an rape scene, more unsettling because it’s committed by Denny with the bizarre justification of getting “just for once something on my terms.”  And there’s the equally disquieting sense that the only explanation for Vickie’s behavior is to tab her a nymphomaniac, walking out of an argument with a mysterious man in a beach house to drop her clothes for a bout of sex with Mr Clean.

I must have seen a different picture from everyone else. A good few critics at the time and reviewers since appear to think Vickie was also victim of a gangbang by the bikers, but I can’t see why. When he sees Vickie coming down from the beach house, Mr. Clean shouts “everybody split” and his buddies clear the beach. However, Mr. Clean, ironically, gives the best indication of her state of mind, explaining that Vickie “kept staring back at the house and moaning about how she wanted to die” while he enjoyed the best night of his life sex-wise.

Denny and Collie prove not to be the pussycats they appear, bearding the bikers in their den and beating up Mr. Clean while Denny goes on to deliver a hiding to Caswell. But what this film turns out to be is an examination of vulnerability, how easily those with a new sense of freedom are trapped. An examination of contemporary mores, perhaps, but in not resolving the mystery of Vickie ultimately fails to deliver, especially as it does not, from the outset, carry the kind of artistic credentials of Antonioni in Blow-Up.

Perhaps the mystery needs no resolution, it’s just same old-same old dressed up in the novelty of sexual freedom. There’s no idea of why Vickie was beaten up, and essentially abandoned on the road to become accident fodder, and no hint really of why she fell foul of someone so badly she needed disposed of, no notion that she was a threat to anyone. (Or, for that matter, no explanation of what happened to her bikini top and why, if she was so apparently free with her charms, she was so shy about being seen half-naked.) On the other hand, victim may well have been Vicky’s destiny from the get-go, that kind of innocence only waiting to be defiled.

In any 1960s contemporary picture there’s always the temptation to accept as truthful or reject as phony the lives shown. The idea that sexual freedom bestows actual freedom is usually the issue until consequence (i.e. old-fashioned Hollywood morality) comes into play. This is less heavy-handed than, for example, Easy Rider (1969) or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). The characters make decisions to grow up or to stay locked in a world of easy sex, dope and money. There’s no grand finale, just a more realistic drifting apart, and it’s only Vickie who comes apart, although that process had begun long before she met the drifters.  

Jacqueline Bisset (The Detective, 1968), in her divinely posh British accent, comes over well as an attractive screen presence and complex character. In fact, she has a bigger part here than in Bullitt (1968) or The Detective (1968). If you wanted anyone to portray a soulful hippie you need look no further than tousle-haired Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) and normally if you required someone on the sly, despicable side, Tony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) might well be your first port of call, but Franciosca proves the surprise here, classic wind-up merchant and predator who exhibits considerable vulnerability when he realizes he is losing the worship of the idealistic young.

Former British matinee idol Michael Wilding (A Girl Named Tamiko, 1962) and Norma Crane (Penelope, 1966) appear as Vickie’s parents.  Bob Denver (Who’s Minding the Mint, 1967) and Michele Carey (The Spy with My Face, 1965) are solid support. Director Harvey Hart (Fortune and Men’s Eyes, 1970) tries to cover too much ground and could have done with narrowing the focus. Future Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph L.) made his screenwriting debut adapting the book by William Murray.

The DVD is a bit on the pricey side, but if you just want to check it out, YouTube has a print.

Men (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Bizarre movie seeks cult audience! You might as well have stuck that on the poster. When I tell you the film climaxes like a Monty Python sketch with four successive men giving birth – from a variety of orifices – the first three to emerge different versions of the same character, the last the dead husband James (Paapa Essiedu) of Harper (Jessie Buckley). And that men also appear fully naked, in the form of some kind of vegetation, and can survive despite having an arm spliced from elbow to fingers. And that James desperately wants her to feel guilty about his suicide, triggered by her demanding a divorce.

Of course, all this could be taking place in her tormented mind except that she steadfastly refuses to admit to torment over the suicide even though she does scream her head off in church. If any of this is remotely realistic it points to someone with a severe downer on men, since there is not a single likeable one in sight. Men, in fact, are just four-letter words (choose your own) whose sole purpose is to accuse women of not loving them enough. And women – cue symbolism – are all born of Eve and inclined to eat a forbidden apple.

None of this would be so bad if in attempting a psychological thriller and/or horror film (I am assuming horror because of the births and arms sliced in two) there was actually a shock or two or even a general sense of creepiness. On the plus side, should this ever achieve cult status – “makes Titane look like Paddington” (1 or 2, you choose) – then I am sure director Alex Garland will only be too happy to turn up for a tenth anniversary Q&A and explain his intentions and/or symbolism and if he’s very lucky find an audience composed of students who have written a thesis on the film.

So the story – or did you think there wasn’t one – sees Harper repair to a village in the country to a fantastic country house with all the trimmings including an Aga and a baby grand for two weeks holiday to recover from the suicide, her mind still so muddled that she’s not thought to change her married name. It’s the kind of village where there appears a considerable amount of inbreeding. The letting agent (Rory Kinnear) looks suspiciously like the long-haired vicar (Rory Kinnear) and the rude schoolboy (Rory Kinnear) and the policeman (Rory Kinnear) and the bollocks-naked stalker (Rory Kinnear).

Harper gets lost in the unfamiliar countryside and happens across a tunnel where the echo effects could have been created by Robert Fripp and is then chased by a man (Rory Kinnear anyone?) and then catches sight of the naked man who later appears in her garden looking like an rewilded exhibit from the Chelsea Flower Show. The various versions of the man appear at different points and even when the letting agent appears good (and brave) actually he is just as bad.

I felt sorry for the Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter, 2021) for having to put up with this script. I also felt sorry for Rory Kinnear (No Time to Die, 2021) with a movie career so far consisting of supporting roles who must have been convinced that the chance to channel his inner Alec Guinness/Peter Sellers and play multiple characters would have been his breakthrough.

I did not in the slightest feel any sympathy towards Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 2014) for dreaming up this pile of tosh. This is one those films that strides the critic/moviegoer divide. Around 70 per cent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a positive review but moviegoers disagreed and, as surveyed by Cinemascore, gave it a D score (on a rank from A to F).

Marathon Man (1976) ****

Over-complicated occasionally thoughtful thriller studded with contemporary nods to ecology and keeping fit pits history student Babe (Dustin Hoffman) against war criminal Szell (Laurence Olivier) in latter-day version of a hunt of Nazi ‘gold.’ Although obsessed with clearing the name of his dead father from charges trumped up during the Communist witch hunt, Babe is not the nerd of The Graduate, his persistence resulting in a romantic tryst with out-of-his-league Swiss blonde Elsa (Marthe Keller). The existence of a secretive government agency tilts this towards the paranoia thriller mini-genre.

It takes a while for all the pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place as we try to absorb the importance of a freak accident in New York that kills a German whose diamonds end up in the hands of Babe’s brother Doc (Roy Scheider), a rich businessman who appears to double up as a courier of some kind. Delivering the jewellery to connection LeClerc (Jacques Marin) in Paris, Babe’s suspicions that something is awry are confirmed when he realizes a bomb planted in the street was intended for him, later finds LeClerc dead and is attacked in his hotel room.

Didn’t take long for the British newspapers to cotton on to the punning possibilities of the title.

Meanwhile, the mysterious Szell emerges from his South American hideout and heads for New York. Doc blows up Babe’s romance by revealing his girlfriend is lying about her origins. Doc then keeps an appointment with Szell who proceeds to knife him although he manages to survive long enough to die in Babe’s apartment, shadowy government agent Janeway (William Devane) among others convinced Doc told Babe something important before he died.

That notion paints Babe as the target especially as Szell is of the same opinion. Soon Babe, literally on the run, is enmeshed in lethal game of double-cross but not before he makes the acquaintance of Szell who puts his dentistry skills to work in a still wince-inducing torture scene. It takes another fair while to work out not just who is who, but who Babe can trust, and what’s going on, the true nature of his brother’s employment and what exactly is the role of the government “special division that does what the F.B.I. and C.I.A. can’t handle.”  

By the time it becomes a straightforward thriller, the tension has ratcheted up to eleven and Babe is fighting for his life not just against a killing machine but a sadistic one at that. It’s not just the hint of the government black ops lurking in the background that gives this picture an extra dimension, but it presents an eerie prediction of contemporary concerns with its  acknowledgement of ecological activists, the interest in running that was just a sneered-at fad at the time, and a world that could at any time be disrupted by strike action.

There are some terrific set pieces and bold directorial choices, one murderous assault mostly seen from the point of view of an elderly invalid across the street who can scarcely see what is going on for curtains in the way. Trapped in the bathroom Babe can only watch as assailants prise the door off, especially terrifying as the bath has been previously signalled as Babe’s refuge, slumped in the water with a cloth masking his face. There’s a clever meet-cute and any number of incidentals in the passers-by caught on camera.

Dustin Hoffman (wearing the baseball cap in case you couldn’t guess) with director John Schlesinger on set. Hoffman’s ‘method’ acting riled Laurence Olivier, who, exasperated at yet another delay as the younger actor sought his motivation for a scene, beseeched him to ‘just act.’

This was as slick an A-list picture as Hollywood could muster in the 1970s with Dustin Hoffman on an Oscar- (three nominations so far) and commercial-streak – Papillon (1973) and All the President’s Men (1976) solidifying his box office marquee. Laurence Olivier (Sleuth, 1972) cemented his position as the world’s best actor heading a top-notch cast that included Roy Scheider (The French Connection, 1971) and the teeth-baring William Devane (Rolling Thunder, 1977),  directed by British Oscar-winner John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) and written by the legendary William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969) from his own bestselling novel. Marthe Keller was at the start of a Hollywood roll with Black Sunday (1977), Bobby Deerfield (1977) and Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978) to come.

Echoing Alan J. Pakula in The Parallax View (1974), Schlesinger lets many tense scenes roll minus music and the score, when it does appear, is by the king of the eerie score, Michael Small (The Parallax View).  Pick of the images, though, is the football bouncing from nowhere into a scene that triggers Doc’s panic. It’s not a paranoia thriller in quite the same vein as The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, but the existence of a secret government agency willing for its own reasons to do a deal with the most horrific people strikes another contemporary note.

The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) ***

The Husband-Hunting Adventures of Moll Flanders” might have been a more accurate title and if you were seeking a template for a multi-character eighteenth-century Olde English picturing majoring on sexual shenanigans here would be a very good place to start, rather than the shambolic recently-reviewed Lock Up Your Daughters (1969). Of course, Tom Jones (1963) was the precursor but told the story from the male perspective and here it is from the more vulnerable female point-of-view. Despite the hilarity and the sexual proclivities on show, it remains abundantly clear that marriage remains a refuge, where the un-titled can gain either security or status, but also a contract, a means of further enrichment for the already wealthy.

So orphan housemaid Moll Flanders (Kim Novak) has a difficult time of persuading the elder brother (Daniel Massey) of her wealthy employer to marry her. Instead, he takes her as his mistress, leaving her no option but to marry the drunken fool of a younger brother (Derren Nesbitt) and instantly regret her decision. When he drowns, you would have thought that would solve her problems. But this was the eighteenth century and a widow with no fortune (and therefore power) of her own can easily be tossed out penniless.

A widowed banker (George Sanders) might be a prospect especially as she has the wits to prevent him being entirely robbed by highwayman Jemmy (Richard Johnson). Plans to marry him thwarted, she takes a job for food and lodgings with Lady Blystone (Angela Lansbury) and her husband, an impoverished Count (Vittorio De Sica), who are constantly pursued by debt collectors. Meanwhile Jemmy has taken the decision to marry a rich woman and become a kept man.

But this set of characters becomes enmeshed, rather than going off in sundry directions as with Lock Up Your Daughters, so the tale unfolds in classic fashion. Assuming Moll to be moneyed, Jemmy masquerades as the owner of three ships. Nothing, of course, works out for anybody, certainly not those pretending to be something they are not while aspiring to wealth beyond their reach, but it all concludes in propitious fashion as the actions of the various principals become embroiled.

While certainly having an inclination towards the amorous, Moll wishes for that within the context of true love, rather than selling her physical wares to the highest bidder. So for a picture sold on immorality – the “rollicking ribaldry” of the poster – there is an unsung moral standpoint. Finding safe passage into affluence proves very tricky indeed. And what appears at first glance to be merely a picaresque episodic tale turns out to be very well structured indeed. And those looking for cleavage will find it here in abundance, as if some kind of rationing had been imposed on clothing, or that it was matters of economy that dictated that the area around the bosom be left unclothed. Being the lusted-after heroine it falls to Moll Flanders to shed even more of her attire from time to time.

You are more likely to laugh out loud at the moments of offbeat humour – a flotilla of ducks heading in Moll’s direction when she cries for help in a lake, the Count while acting as a butler demanding a tip – but it is more of a gentle satire. There is some of the expected bedroom farce but, mercifully, no recourse to a food fight. It is handsomely-mounted and meets the highest expectations of the costume drama.

Kim Novak (Of Human Bondage, 1964) easily passed the English-accent-test and carries the picture with ease. Richard Johnson (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) reveals a rakish side so far hidden in his more dramatic works to date. And there is a fine supporting cast including George Sanders (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966), Angela Lansbury (Harlow, 1965), Vittorio De Sica (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968), Lili Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) as Jemmy’s mistress, Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968) as Jemmy’s sidekick going by the name of Squint, Daniel Massey (Star!, 1968) and Derren Nesbitt (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968). In bit parts looks out for Cecil Parker (Guns at Batasi, 1964), Dandy Nichols later of Till Death Us Do Part television fame and Carry On regular Peter Butterworth.

All directed with some style by Terence Young (Mayerling, 1968) and adapted from the lengthy Daniel Defoe novel by Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Roland Kibbee (Valdez Is Coming, 1971).

An old-fashioned romp with, if you can bothered to look, a moral center. You catch this on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure why they have chosen a black-and-white illustration since the film is shot in glorious color.

Baby Love (1969) ****

Disturbing tale about grooming marking the debut of Linda Hayden could not more accurately reflect changes in public perception from over half a century ago.  What had originally seemed a movie about a young woman wreaking havoc on a middle-class family is now more easily recognized as a more sympathetic study of a young girl denied familial attention attempting to find a stable and welcoming home.

After the suicide of her mother (Diana Dors) Luci (Linda Hayden) is taken in by Robert (Keith Barron), a highly successful doctor and ex-lover of her mother, and his wife Amy (Ann Lynn). His marriage to sophisticated housewife Amy is distinctly rocky. They live in a fabulous three-storey house on the bank of the Thames with son Nick (Derek Lamden), a typical teenager the same age as Luci but who is sexually naive, confused and hypersensitive. Amy comforts Luci when the young girl has terrible nightmares and ends up sleeping in the same bed until she realizes how inappropriate is such behavior.

Nick chances his arm with Luci but is continually rejected, not surprisingly since his approach is more than a tad creepy, spying on her in the bathroom, entering her bedroom when she is naked, leching after her in the garden. Robert is the only one to try and keep his distance and in the absence of her own father becomes the subject of a father fixation.

Conditioned to accept the advances of older men finds her in potentially unsavory situations in a cinema, a club, and with a friend of the couple (Dick Emery). That she apparently welcomes such attention reveals the depth of her grooming, not just forced to watch her mother make love, but, as suggested in a flashback, the mother complicit in not preventing her lovers making a play for her. If Luci appears sexually confident that only disguises her inner turmoil, a desperate need to be loved, lack of proper parenting and setting of boundaries and having chanced on a proper home determined to do whatever it takes to remain there.

It is actually Ann who is the disturbing element, eventually overcoming her own inhibitions and not only seducing the girl but telling her that if she wants to remain in the house she will need to twist Robert round her little finger. And the only way she knows how to do that is follow her mother’s example and exploit her sexuality. If Luci appears exploitative in the context of the family that is only because they are not privy – as is the audience – to the depth of her nightmares, the constantly reappearing image of her mother dead in the bath, her mother’s leering lovers. Even when she goes over-the-top with make-up or clothing there is an innocence to such behavior, little more than a young woman testing boundaries and trying to find her way. Any intelligent assessment of what is going on would clearly see the child as the victim.

The grandeur of her new potential home bears no comparison to the poky working-class council house she occupied up north. For a child with such an impoverished upbringing, she is fairly grounded. She is not the wild child you might expect from her upbringing. She fits well into family life, happy to listen to classical music, and to Ann’s astonishment can actually cook breakfast and knows how to lay a table, skills her spoiled son patently lacks.

Considerable efforts are made to make each character more rounded. Robert hates his wife’s sophisticated parties and is an insomniac judging from the stack of books on his bedside.  The guilt he feels for abandoning Luci’s mother, apparently his one true love, in favor of ambition, is exacerbated by Luci’s presence that reminds him not only of a path wrongly chosen but of what he has lost, that relationship ripped asunder when abortion entered the frame.

Ann clearly needs to project success, expensive clothes and champagne the least of their lifestyle, and with little outlet for pent-up emotion and a need to mother settles on Luci as the object of, initially at last, her affection. Nick hides his cigarette ends in a matchbox, would accept Luci as just a friend, occasionally rising to the role of protector, delighted to be seen in the company of a beautiful girl. Teenage fantasy in other words but with an edge of entitlement that goes too far.

In her debut Linda Hayden (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970) is superb in an extremely difficult role and it was a shame that it was the sexual part of her portrayal that made its biggest impact on future movie producers rather than the sensitivity of her performance, the look in her eyes when she is shown her bedroom for the first time is amazing. Also making a  movie debut Keith Barron (Nothing But the Night, 1973) lacks the mellifluous tones that were later his hallmark and his performance as unloved husband and guilty ex-lover is very well observed.

Ann Lynn (I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname, 1967) has the most challenging role of a woman tortured by desire she has until now kept hidden or under control. Derek Lamden did not make another movie. Diana Dors (Hammerhead, 1968) has a fleeting role.

It wasn’t the fault of director Alasdair Reid that uber-producer and marketing kingpin Joseph E. Levine (The Carpetbaggers, 1964) wanted to sell a different movie from the one that was made, focusing on titillation and turning Luci’s sexual confusion into something predatory. The idea that this movie is a sexualized film noir is a marketing trick. Closer re-examination reveals that Luci is entering a disturbed household, one she lacks the skills to negotiate and is in reality the exploited one.

In fact, Reid (Something to Hide, 1972) did a very commendable job. He made some bold decisions especially relating to sound. The opening credits are accompanied by the sound of a dripping tap that would turn into a cascade of water. That would become a recurring motif, along with steam. Most scenes lacked music. Although most nightmares are image-driven, the initial one is full of clashing sound as well as disturbing sights. As the movie hits its stride, a clever device is adopted, showing disturbing images outside the house that are actually, you quickly discover, another nightmare. Mostly the camera remains fairly static but it occasionally swoops to represents anxiety from one point-of-view. The bulk of the story takes place in the house but when the camera goes outside, to a disturbing scene on the river for example there are original ideas, one character speaking through a megaphone.

Passed by the British censor with an X-certificate then and an 18-certificate DVD today, it still has the power to shock. However as far as I can see it was last classified in 1994 and I have written to the BBFC to see if that classification should still stand.

Well worth a reappraisal.

Network has this on DVD.

Ennio (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

I became an instant fan of Ennio Morricone after watching dance troupe Pan’s People performing on BBC TV’s weekly Top of the Pops to Hugo Montenegro’s version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it topped the singles charts in Britain in 1968. Sure, there had been successful theme songs in the charts before like Shirley Bassey’s rendering of Goldfinger, but never a pure instrumental and not a wailing guitar. This is quite simply an extraordinary documentary, and although it comes with an indulgence of anecdotes, what is considerably more compelling is the concentration, in accessible fashion, on the artist’s compositional skills. I could have watched four hours of this, never mind that clocking in at 156 minutes it’s already on the lengthy side for a documentary.

Morricone should never have been a film composer or a composer of any kind. He was too poor. His father was a trumpet-player and Morricone only took up music, designated instrument the trumpet, because his father believed a good trumpet player would always make a living and provide for his family. He was not a good trumpet player. At least, not at the start. Given that once orchestras and dance bands went out of favor, trumpet playing would have been a precarious existence, it was lucky his father’s insisted he also study harmony and composition. He won a place at a conservatoire, where the pupils, all except him, were the sons and daughters of the wealthy elite. And a conservatoire in those days was academically inclined, intending to produce classical composers and players, not people who would work as arrangers and composers of pop songs or commit the unpardonable sin of writing for the movies.

Morricone, always prolific, started working as an arranger of pop tunes for the RCA label in Italy and then for RAI, the Italian state television. But he was also an innovator and many of his songs began with a distinctive sound rather than the music being merely a backdrop to the song. He founded an experimental music group, making music out of anything but a musical instrument. You can see the benefits of that inquiring mind from the first 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), for me his compositional masterpiece and my favorite western.

When he started working for Sergio Leone, he realized they had once been classmates. Leone came to him because Morricone had already written music for Italian westerns. Of course, the collaboration became legendary. As you will be aware, Leone liked the music recorded before filming began and played it during filming. While an interesting approach, I always thought it odd, until I witnessed, here, Robert De Niro making an entrance in one scene of Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

While his themes were often complex, he had a genius for catching the ear of the listener. Many scenes showed Morricone with voice and fingers tapping out a theme you will instantly recognize because all his best work was instantly recognizable. Although an extremely shy person, he was not above walking out – or threatening to do so – if a film was not going according to plan, if a director insisted on making a change or incorporating other material. Nor, for such a genius, was he full of self-confidence. Eventually, he relied on his wife as a listening board to decide if his work was any good. For what he called the “triumphant” scene from The Untouchables (1987), where cops brandishing shotguns prompted by Sean Connery burst in on bootleggers, he supplied nine ideas for director Brian De Palma, who proceeded to use the one Morricone considered the weakest. Other times, he was the one suddenly requiring an extra piece of work, calling upon Joan Baez to supply lyrics at the last minute to his theme for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) that became the memorable “Here’s To You.”

One of the most enjoyable elements of the movie is seeing concert renditions of his themes, “Here’s To You” with a massive choral ensemble making the hairs on the back of your head stand on end. You could probably make a case for Morricone reinventing the chorus, paving the way for such practitioners as Hans Zimmer. Until then, there was many a heavenly chorus, but Morricone found better use for a chorus. And you could also argue that he influenced the likes of Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 1999) in using female opera singers to introduce a completely new sound to movies. 

One of Morricone’s stated aims was to use music to bring something else out of a scene, not to merely provide a relevant sound. So for the death of Sean Connery in The Untouchables or the baby carriage scene his music goes completely against what you are watching but nonetheless adds a deeper understanding. We also see how he folds different themes into the one piece of music.

There are a number of very moving sequences, when Morricone, for example recalls his father – he would not use a trumpet in his compositions until his father died – or when he explains his hurt at being made to feel an outcast by his classical peers, and there is one extraordinary moment when one of those who has disdained him writes a letter asking forgiveness for having so under-rated his work. And certainly there is clear petulance at being passed over for the Oscar for The Mission (1986), a piece of work that director Roland Joffe said made the movie a completely different experience. Morricone complained that half the music that won Herbie Hancock the Oscar for Round Midnight (1986) was actually old, rather than new, music.

My favorite anecdote is how Gillo Pontecorvo, hearing heard a piece of music Morricone had composed for The Year of the Cannibals (1970) promptly stole it for his own Queimade/Burn (1969) before settling, after an argumemt, for a similar piece. Actors, composers and directors in the anecdote queue include Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, 2015) , Clint Eastwood, Terence Malick (Days of Heaven, 1978), Dario Argento (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971), John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Oliver Stone (U Turn, 1997) Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket, 1965) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900, 1976).

Morricone’s film music changed over the decades. Following the westerns were giallos, marked by dissonance rather than melody, then Hollywood came calling. I hadn’t quite realized what an audience Morricone commanded – over 70 million albums sold. He had hit singles In Italy –  A Fistful of Dollars ranked fourth in the charts, For a Few Dollars one place below, “Here’s To You” also fourth. In Britain, “Chi Mai” reached the second spot; in France “Man with Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West went to number one, as did “Chi Mai” while “Here’s To You” was at number two. And, of course, his music has been adopted by a host of rock bands, most notably Bruce Springsteen and Metallica.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, who has a special place in the Morricone catalog thanks to Cinema Paradiso (1988), has produced a magnificent tribute to the genius. In my half century of regular cinema going, there are four composers I rank above all the rest, John Barry, John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone, but of them all, the latter is the number one for not just his enormous output – 500 scores including 29 in one year – and his wide range of melodies, but because they are so many memorable pieces. Once Upon a Time in the West is never off my CD player and especially gets worn out in the car. For sheer enjoyment this is an undeniable five-star treat. 

I am sure this will end being streamed somewhere but I urge you to try and catch it at the cinema, the effect will be lost on the small screen of the massed choruses or Morricone conducting in vast amphitheaters.

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