Istanbul Express (1968) ***

Calling this a by-the-numbers spy thriller does this movie no disservice since numbers are crucial to the complicated plot. On the one hand it’s quite a simple set up. Suave high-living art-dealer-cum-spy Michael London (Gene Barry) travels from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express to bid for secret papers in a secret auction. The complication: he must pick up the auction money from a bank in Istanbul using a code given to him along the way, each number by a different unknown person. On his side are train security chief Cheval (John Saxon), investigative journalist Leland McCord (Tom Simcox) and colleague Peggy (Mary Ann Mobley). Out to get him are Mila Darvos (Senta Berger) and Dr Lenz (Werner Peters).

The numbers business is an interesting addition to the usual spy picture formula of scenic location – Venice and the Eastern bloc as well as the other famous cities – violence and beautiful, sometimes deadly, women. You spend a good time guessing just how the numbers will be passed on and let me warn you it is sometime by inanimate means while the numbers themselves come with a twist. There’s also a truth serum, bomb threat, a traitor and every obstacle possible put in London’s way to prevent him completing his mission. London is about the world’s worst passenger, always missing the train as it sets off on the next leg of its journey, and requiring alternative modes of transport to catch up. But it’s as much about quick thinking as action and ends with a couple of unexpected twists. And it’s darned clever at times where the numbers are concerned.

Admittedly, the plot is a tad over-complicated but it’s fun to see London wriggle his way out of situations and for Cheval and McCord to turn up unexpectedly to provide assistance.

Gene Barry (Maroc 7, 1967) is little more than his television alter ego from Burke’s Law but he has an easy screen presence, never flustered, tough but charming and a winning way with the ladies. John Saxon (The Appaloosa, 1966) is the surprise turn, on the side of the angels rather than a villain, and equally commanding on screen, and certainly in one of his better roles. Austrian Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) is not given as much screen time as you would like – a long way from being set up as the normal espionage femme fatale – but is certainly a convincing adversary.

This was only a movie if you saw it outside of the United States. There it was shown on television. But it had high production values for a television movie and director Richard Irving, who directed the television feature that introduced Columbo (Prescription Murder, 1968), keeps it moving at a healthy clip.  The numbers idea was probably a television device, allowing the opportunity for timed breaks in the action. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link were a class television act, creating Columbo, and prior to that the Jericho (1966-1967) and Mannix (1967-1975) television series.  

Interestingly, Senta Berger, John Saxon, Gene Barry, Levinson/Link and Richard Irving were all at various points involved in the groundbreaking U.S. television series The Name of the Game (1968-1971).

I had not realized Istanbul Express was a made-for-TV picture until I had finished watching it and in that case found it a superior piece of television and a decent-enough riff on the spy movie. You can catch it on Amazon Prime.

CATCH-UP: Senta Berger has featured in the Blog in The Secret Ways (1961), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Necklace (1962), Major Dundee (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966).

Topaz (1969) ****

Authentic, atypical, engrossing, this grittier Hitchcock mixes the realism of Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964) with the nihilism of The Birds (1963), a major departure for a canon that previously mostly spun on innocents or the falsely accused encountering peril. The hunt for a Russian spy ring by way of the Cuban missile crisis forms the story core but the director is more interested in personal consequence and even the villain suffers heart-rending loss. Betrayal is the other key theme – defection and infidelity go hand in hand.

The tradecraft of espionage is detailed – dead letter drops, film hidden in typewriting spools, an accidental collision that is actually a sweet handover. In a transcontinental tale that shifts from Copenhagen to New York to Cuba to Paris, there is still room for classic sequences of suspense – the theft of secret documents in a hotel the pick – and Hitchcock at times simply keeps the audience at bay by employing dumbshow at key moments.    

In some respects the director was at the mercy of his material. In the documentary-style Leon Uris bestseller (almost a procedural spy novel), the main character is neither the trigger for the plot nor often its chief participant and is foreign to boot. So you could see the sense of employing a cast of relative unknowns, otherwise an audience would soon grow restless at long absences from the screen of a Hollywood star of the caliber of a Cary Grant or Paul Newman. It is a florist (Roscoe Lee Browne) who carries out the hotel theft, a small resistance cell the spying on Russian missiles in Cuba, a French journalist who beards one of the main suspects, not the ostensible main character, French agent Andre Devereux (Frederick Stafford), not his U.S. counterpart C.I.A. operative Michael Nordstrum (John Forsythe) nor Cuban villain Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Unusual, too, is the uber-realism. The main characters are fully aware of the dangers they face and of its impact on domestic life and accept such consequence as collateral damage. It is ironic that the Russian defector is far more interested in safeguarding his family than Devereux. Devereux’s wife (Dany Robin), Cuban lover Juanita (Karin Dor) and son-in-law (Michel Subor) all suffer as a result of his commitment to his country. And that Juanita (Karin Dor), leader of the Cuban resistance cell, is more of a patriot than the Russian, refusing to defect when offered the opportunity. Hitchcock even acknowledges genuine politics: the reason a Frenchman is involved is because following the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 American diplomats were not welcome in Cuba.

In terms of bravura Hitchcock, the pick of the scenes are the hotel theft and the death of one of the principals, filmed from above.

I have steered clear of this film for over half a century. I saw it on initial release long before the name Hitchcock meant anything to me. But once it did I soon realized this film did not easily fit into the classic Hitchcock and the critics on whom I relied had always represented it as shoddy goods. So I came to it with some trepidation and was surprised to find it so engrossing.  

Frederick Stafford (O.S.S. 117: Mission for a Killer, 1965) was excellent with an insouciance reminiscent of Cary Grant and a raised eyebrow to match that star’s wryness. John Vernon, who I mostly knew as an over-the-top villain in pictures such as Fear Is the Key (1972), was surprisingly touching as the Cuban bad-guy who realizes his lover is a traitor. And there is a host of top French talent in Michel Piccoli (Belle de Jour, 1967), Philippe Noiret (Justine, 1969) Dany Robin (The Best House in London, 1969) and Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1967).

As you are possibly aware, three endings were shot for this picture and I can’t tell you which I saw without spoiling the plot. If you want to know, read tomorrow’s Blog.

In any case, this is worth seeing more than just to complete a trawl through the entire Hitchcock oeuvre, a very mature and interesting work.

How to Steal a Million (1966) ***

A new documentary on Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn – Audrey: More Than an Icon – provides the perfect excuse to look back at some of her work. I have already reviewed her performance in an untypical role in John Huston western The Unforgiven (1960) in which she played “a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious.” Perhaps more typical of her appeal is romantic comedy How to Steal a Million in which she once again tops the chic league.

This is her third go-round with director William Wyler after similar romantic shenanigans in Roman Holiday (1953) and the more serious The Children’s Hour (1961) and the French capital had previously provided the backdrop to Paris When It Sizzles (1964). Hepburn plays the daughter of a wealthy art forger who hires burglar Peter O’Toole to recover a fake sculpture which her father has donated to a museum unaware that its insurance package calls for a forensic examination.

Compared to such sophisticated classics as Rififi (1955), Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1966) the theft is decidedly low-rent involving magnets, pieces of string and a boomerang. But the larceny is merely a “macguffin,” a way of bringing together two apparently disparate personalities and acclaimed stars to see if they strike sparks off each other. And they most certainly do but the romance is delightful rather than passionate.  

Written and directed by Helen Coan who made Chasing Perfect (2019)

Of course, it’s also a vehicle for the best clothes-horse in Hollywood. While some actresses might occasionally stir up a fashion bonanza (Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, for example), Hepburn’s audiences for virtually every film (The Unforgiven a notable exception) expected their heroine attired in ultra-vogue outfits. De Givenchy, given carte blanche to design her wardrobe, begins as he means to go on and she first appears in a white hat that looks more like a helmet and wearing white sunglasses. Her clothes include a pink coat and a woollen skirt suit dress and at one point she resembles a cat burglar with a black lace eye mask and black Chantilly lace dress. As distinctive was her new short hairstyle created by Alexandre de Paris. Cartier supplied drop earrings and a watch. Her tiny red car was an Autobianchi Bianchina special Cabriolet.

As much as with his charisma, O’Toole was a fashion match. He looked as if he could have equally stepped from the pages of Vogue and drove a divine Jaguar. He appeared as rich as she. He could have been a languid playboy, but imminently more resourceful. But since the story is about committing a crime and not about the indulgent rich, their good looks and fancy dressing are just the backdrop to an endearing romance. Although there are few laugh-out-loud moments, the script by Harry Kurnitz (Witness for the Prosecution, 1957) remains sharp and since Hepburn’s first responsibility is to keep her father out of jail there is no thunderclap of love.  An Eli Wallach, shorn of his normal rough edges, has a supporting role as an ardent suitor, Hugh Griffith with eyebrows that seemed poised on the point of take-off is the errant father while French stars Charles Boyer and Fernand Gravey put in an appearance.

If fashion’s your bag you can find out more by following this link: http://classiq.me/style-in-film-audrey-hepburn-in-how-to-steal-a-million.