The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) **

This affectionate homage to 1920s vaudeville goes awfully astray under the heavy-handed direction of William Friedkin. Never mind the sexist approach, there’s an epidemic of over-acting apart from a delightful turn from Britt Ekland as the innocent star-struck Amish who accidentally invents striptease and former British music hall star Norman Wisdom who knows what he’s doing on the stage. The plot is minimal – burlesque theater manager (Elliott Gould) needs to save theater from going bust in a few days’ time. That’s it – honest!

The rest of the story looks tacked on – the overbearing leering other half (Jason Robards) of the Norman Wisdom double act tries to bed anything that moves, Amish father (Harry Andrews) in pursuit of his daughter, vice squad official (Denholm Elliott) determined to shut the theater down.

The saving grace of this debacle is Ekland’s performance which carries off a difficult part. Could anyone really be so dumb? She is endearing in a murky world but still capable of interpreting the Bible to her own ends (there is dance in the Good Book, for example) and she has confidence that the Lord will give her the go-ahead to have sex. Her innocence appears to transcend reality and since she doesn’t know a showbiz shark when she sees one she carries on as if life is just wonderful. Somehow this should never work but Ekland is so convincing that it does.

What might have been another saving grace is the documentary feel of much of the background, black-and-white pictures of the epoch transmuting into color, but too often the movie simply cuts to that without any real purpose. Equally, the various song-and-dance acts, chorus lines and comic turns provide an insight into burlesque reality but, again, all too often, that goes nowhere. There are plenty of people trying to be funny without much in the way of decent laughs. There’s altogether too much of everything else and not enough of the ingredients you might have considered essential.

This scarcely sounds like William Friedkin material given that although this preceded The French Connection and The Exorcist, by this point he had already made his mark with an adaptation of Harold Pinter play The Birthday Party (1968). In fact, his original cut was re-edited once he had departed the picture. Might it have worked better with Tony Curtis in the Jason Robards role as originally planned – he certainly had more charm than the jaundiced Robards. Regardless of who was cast what it needed most was a better story and less in the way of stock characters. And since in American theater folklore Minsky’s is synonymous with the invention of the striptease it meant that quite a few of the audience were there just to see how much skin would be revealed – which is not really the basis for a good mainstream picture.

The Pawnbroker (1964) *****

Director Sidney Lumet (Fail Safe, 1964) could have made an excellent film just about the customers of a pawn shop, the haunted individuals haggling for more bucks than they will ever be paid, the sad sacks, junkies, lost souls and general losers whose stories are told in the items they pawn or redeem – candlesticks, lamps, radios, musical instruments, occasionally themselves. You don’t need to be a pawnbroker to know that three hoodlums turning up with a pricey lawnmower are dealing in stolen property. And it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the pawnbroker is involved in some kind of money-laundering scam for a local gangster. Clearly shot on location on a bustling low-rent area, north of 116th St in East Harlem, New York, there’s enough going on in the streets – the markets, the tenements, poolrooms, the bustle, the eternal noise – to keep you hooked.

But you might think twice about positing as your hero an “absolute bastard” as Lumet himself described shop owner Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). He is more haunted than any of his clientele, a Holocaust survivor, plagued by flashbacks to the concentration camp where he witnessed his son die and his wife raped. He is devoid of life, completely shutdown to any emotion, rejecting overtures of friendship, and his life is played out in tiny elliptical shreds. He does not even derive any enjoyment out of his affair with a widow and although he claims to worship money – according to him the only “absolute” outside of the speed of light – that brings no fulfillment either. It is surprising he has lasted so long without imploding. After his war experience, you would have to wonder at a man who spends his life behind the bars of the grille in his shop and just in case he considers escaping from his predicament designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, 1973) incorporates other visual aspects of imprisonment into the production.

This startling image taken from the Pressbook encapsulates one of the striking moment of the film. As seen on the advert at the top of the blog, although not technically a roadshow in the normal sense (i.e. in the grandeur of 70mm) it played separate performances. This was a technique to drive up demand by limiting access. Originally, to take advantage of a British tax break known as the Eady Levy, the film was due to be made in London. Lumet pulled out when MGM insisted on a London shoot and only returned after that idea was abandoned and second-choice director Arthur Hiller bowed out.

Steiger gives a very restrained performance, especially for an actor known for his volubility and over-acting. He seems to sink into the role. He is accused of being among “the walking dead.” Around him are a set of very lively characters, his ambitious assistant (Jaime Sanchez, The Wild Bunch, 1969) trying to go straight and his girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a very smooth and wealthy and gay gangster (Brock Peters), and a trio of small-time hoods with whom the assistant is friendly. But also the deranged and the lonely. A widowed social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who suffers from the “malady of loneliness” offers him friendship but is rejected.

There is little plot to speak but it is just enough to teeter him on the brink of self-destruction. So it is primarily a character study. Unusually, Lumet observes without any sentimentality those around Steiger. “Sol has buried himself in this area,” Lumet wrote (“Keep them on the hook,” Films and Filming, October 1964, p17-20) “because he needs to be with people that he can despise….This is a man who is in such agony that he must feel nothing or he will go to pieces.” There is no redemption and he lacks the courage to commit suicide. It’s a stunning, bold picture, as raw as you can get without turning into a bloodsucker.

Fans of “The Godfather” might recognise this image – of a puppet on the strings -used to symbolise the power of the Mafia don. Eight years before Coppola’s gangster saga, this rarely seen but similar image in the Pressbook for “The Pawnbroker” evoked the opposite – a broken man.

The film had a few firsts. It was the only mainstream American picture to deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor (although films like Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, has shown camp victims). It broke mainstream conventions on nudity, bare breasts being seen for the first time. Lumet experimented with incredibly short cuts – just one-frame and two-frames in places (a technique he had first used in television)- when the standard assumption was that audiences required three frames to register an image. Brock Peters played not just the first openly gay person in a mainstream picture, but the first gay African-American (although The Long Ships the same year had a bit of comedy about a eunuch chasing Vikings).

Quincy Jones made his debut as a movie composer. If you listen closely you might detect a piece of music later made famous by the Austin Powers pictures and if you look closely you might spot a debut sighting of Morgan Freeman. And if want another anomaly, try and work out why Rod Steiger lost out to that year in the Best Actor Oscar stakes to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965).

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Age of Consent (1969) ***

Reputations were made and broken on this tale of a jaded artist returning to his homeland to rediscover his mojo. Director Michael Powell had, in tandem with partner Emeric Pressburger, created some of the most acclaimed films of the 1940s – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) just remade by the BBC and The Red Shoes (1948) – but the partnership had ended the next decade. Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960) was greeted with a revulsion from which his career never recovered. Age of Consent was his penultimate picture but the extensive nudity and the age gap between the principals left critics shaking their heads.

For Helen Mirren, on the other hand, it was a triumphant start to a career that has now spanned half a century, one Oscar and three Oscar nominations. She was a burgeoning theatrical talent at the Royal Shakespeare Company when she made her movie debut as the muse of the artist played by James Mason. It should also be pointed out that when it came to scene-stealing she had a rival in the pooch Godfrey.

You would rightly be concerned that there could be some grooming going on. Although 24 at the time of the film’s release, Mirren played an under-age nymph who spent a great deal of time sporting naked in the sea off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But there are a couple of provisos. In the first place, Mirren’s character was not swimming for pleasure, she was diving for seafood to augment her impoverished lifestyle. In the second place, she was so poor she would hardly have afforded a swimsuit and was the kind of free spirit anyway who might have shucked one off. Thirdly, and more importantly, Mason wasn’t interested. He wasn’t the kind of artist who needed to perve on young girls. An early scene showed him in bed with a girlfriend and it was clear that he was an object of lust elsewhere. Mason was an artist, fit and tanned, as obsessed any other artist about his talent, and was in this remote stretch not to hunt for young naked girls but to find inspiration. As well as eventually painting Mirren, he also transforms the shack he rents into something of beauty.

Mason is as vital to Mirren’s self-development. The money he pays her for modelling goes towards her escape fund. Her mother being a useless thieving alcoholic, she has little in the way of role model. And the world of seafood supply was competitive. She is lost in paradise and the scene of her buying a tacky handbag demonstrates the extent of her initial ambition. Although her physical attributes attract male attention, it is only on forming a relationship with the painter that Mirren begins to believe in herself. There’s not much more to the central story than the artist rediscovering his creative spark and helping Mirren’s personal development along the way.

And if Powell had wanted to make an erotically-charged movie, he need look no further than his own Black Narcissus, in which two nuns are brought to the brink of lustful temptation in a convent in the Himalayas. Powell, himself, had form in the erotic department, having previously been the illicit lover of the film’s star Deborah Kerr and at the time of making the movie had switched, in similar illicit fashion, to her co-star Kathleen Byron. There is no question that the young Mirren in a beauty, but it is not lust that guides Mason.

Female career longevity has always been an issue in Hollywood, the assumption being that women had shorter careers than men. But when I was writing “When Women Ruled Hollywood,” I discovered this was not true. Until Sophia Loren’s late foray this year, Jane Fonda had led the roll of honor – male or female – with a career lasting 58 years. Next came Shirley Maclaine with 56 years, then Clint Eastwood (54), Katharine Hepburn (52) and Helen Mirren (51) and Robert Redford (51). Loren’s latest – The Life Ahead – gave her a career as a recognised star turn of 66 years.

Mason is a believable character. He is not an impoverished artist. Far from being self-deluded, he is a questing individual, turning his back on easy money and the temptations of big city life in order to reinvent himself. He isn’t going to starve and he has no problems with women. And he is perfectly capable of looking after himself.  A more rounded artist would be hard to find. Precisely because there is no sexual relationship with Mirren, the movie, as a film about character development, is ideally balanced.

The movie is gorgeously filmed, with many aerial shots of the reef and underwater photography by Ron and Valerie Taylor.  

What does let the show down is a proliferation of cliched characters who over-act. Jack McGowran as a sponging friend, ruthless seducer and thief heads that list closely followed by Neva Carr-Glynn as Mirren’s grandmother who looks like a reject from a Dickens novel. There’s also a dumb and dumber cop and a neighbor so bent on sex that she falls for McGowran. It’s not the first time comedy has got in the way of art, but it’s a shame it had to interrupt so often what is otherwise a touching film.

At its heart is a portrait of the artist as an older man and his sensitive relationship with a young girl. In later years, Powell married film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and after his death she oversaw the restoration of Age of Consent, with eight minutes added and the Stanley Myers score replaced by the original by Peter Sculthorpe.