The Picasso Summer (1969) ***

Must-see for collectors of cinematic curios. A reflection on entitlement, bullfighting, Picasso, the impact of celebrity on everyday lives and the hermaphroditic qualities of snails? Or an innovative piece of moviemaking utilizing jigsaw split-screen, an audacious reimagining of the painter’s work via documentary and animation? Or just plain bonkers and despite the involvement of top talent like Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963), Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968), composer Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) and writer Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, 1966), rightly consigned to the vault and never given a cinema release?  

George (Albert Finney), a disenchanted San Francisco architect who designs warehouses, and wife Alice (Yvette Mimieux) take a holiday in France to rekindle his love of Picasso and set out to find and – in in a severe case of early onset entitlement – talk to the legendary artist. So they fly to Paris, take the train to Cannes and cycle around.  Romance, it has to be said, in that idyllic countryside is the last thing on his mind, although George does pluck a guitar and sing a love song on a riverbank and they do dally in the sea. And he is far from a stuffed shirt, in one scene stealing a boy’s balloon to prevent the kid hogging a telescope.

There are barely ten lines of meaningful dialogue, though Alice’s frustration at her husband’s obsession is soon obvious. Reimagining Picasso via animation works well. Picasso broke down the world, so we are told, and represented it as his own so by this token it seems pretty fair to do the same to the artist’s work. In the best scene George turns toreador (not sure the budget ran to stuntmen) facing up to a real bull. But there is plenty Picasso to make up, including a candlelit walk along the “Dream Tunnel” displaying the artist’s War and Peace murals, a lecture on the painter’s ceramics and his self-identification with death in the bull ring.

And there is a twist at the end, as the couple on a beach do not loiter long enough to see a man resembling the artist make Picasso-like drawings on the sand. But mostly it’s a story about American entitlement, that a painter should not shut himself off from the world in order to prevent the world stopping him getting on with painting. When George, denied entrance or even acknowledgement, stands at the gate to the Picasso villa, it is almost as he is the one imprisoned by his need for celebrity. Half a century on, the need for ordinary lives to be validated by contact with celebrities has become an insane part of life. The fact that the impossible mission ends in defeat (“everything is still the same”) lends a tone of irony.

Finney’s box office status at this point in his career allowed him to retain his thick Lancashire accent – Sean Connery managed that trick for his entire career. As in Two for the Road (1967) he does a trademark Bogart impression and eats with his mouth open. And he is game enough to stand in a bull ring with a raging bull. Yvette Mimieux is scandalously underused, insights into her thoughts conveyed by lonely walks through night-time streets, although she is the only one to fully appreciate art when she comes across a blind painter (Peter Madden). The best part goes to Luis Miguel Dominguin playing himself, a bullfighter and renowned friend of Picasso. In the incongruity stakes little can match Graham Stark (The Plank, 1967) as a French postman.

As you might have guessed this had a somewhat complicated production. Three directors were involved: Robert Sallin, Serge Bourguignon and Wes Herchendsohn. It was the only directorial chore for Sallin, better known as the producer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It brought a temporary halt to the career of Oscar-nominated director Bourguignon (Sundays and Cybele, 1962) whose previous film was Two Weeks in September starring Brigitte Bardot. Herchendsohn was primarily an animation layout artist/supervisor later credited with episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974).  

There is some stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, 1972) and a superb score by Michel Legrand.  This was the beginning and end of the movie career of Edwin Boyd who shared the screenwriting credit with Bradbury. And it was the beginning and the end of the movie as a viable film for general release, Warner Brothers promptly shelving it, a decision that made headlines in the trade press, especially given the movie’s budget and the box office status of the stars.

In the hands of a French, Italian or Spanish arthouse moviemaker, with a tale of protagonists going nowhere, this might have gained critical traction. It’s hardly going to fall into the highly-commended category, but in fact from the present-day perspective says a lot about celebrity obsession and entitlement. Despite the oddities – perhaps because of them – I was never bored.

You might be surprised to hear that a film initially disowned by the studio is actually available on DVD.

The 355 (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Serviceable actioner but proof that if you don’t have a star big enough to front  a shoot-‘em-up then sticking in another three – or four – actresses of equal, middling, or up-and-coming, status won’t do the trick, not if the characters lack the originality of a Bourne or Bryan Mills (Taken, 2008). There’s plenty of bang for your buck, but the story hangs on the old trope of an electronic device that can blackout the world.

I am not sure why Jessica Chastain has never become a bigger box office star. She certainly has the kudos – two Oscar nominationss – and is not shy of taking on difficult subjects (Miss Sloane, 2016) and she’s certainly enjoyed the occasionally leg-up from a series (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, 2015; It Chapter Two, 2019) to boost her box office credentials. But her last venture into the action arena (Ava, 2020) was a box office flop, though possibly you could put the blame on the pandemic. By my count she has been the top-billed star (excluding her X-Men appearance) in her last eight pictures and none have been a hit.

Her presence in the credits would encourage me to stump up my money at the box office but apparently I am in the minority. I could say the same about Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers, 2021), the second biggest star here, and while she certainly retains top-billed status in her native Spain, otherwise she is occasionally a female lead but more likely a supporting player.

If I had been putting my money on anyone to take the action box office by storm it would be Diane Kruger who has the meanest stare this side of Lee Van Cleef. But she’s gone down this route to no commercial response before in The Operative (2019) and The Infiltrator (2016), neither fulfilling the promise she showed in Liam Neeson crackerjack Unknown (2011). Bingbing Fan, (Cell Phone 2, 2019) another X-Men alumni, has only recently achieved box office success, but in limited markets. Mexican Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o – here billed fourth and sporting a British accent – may well have the biggest fan base of the lot having clocked up appearances in three Star Wars pictures, taken top billing in Us (209) and third billing in Black Panther (2018).

But back to our story. On the run from the C.I.A. Mace (Jessica Chastain) teams up with Marie (Diane Kruger), a loner working for the German secret service, and Khadjiah (Lupito Nyong-o), a digital wizard formerly of the British secret service. Bing, who turns up later, represents the Chinese good guys. Graciela (Penelope Cruz) is the rank outsider, a therapist just caught up in the shenanigans. The action rattles through Paris en route to Marrakesh before a final stop in Shanghai. As you might expect, traitors lurk in various corners.

There are plenty shootouts and opportunities for the team to show off their hand-to-hand skills, but the action is slowed down by soap opera, having to spell out all the backstories of the principals, only one of whom, Marie, has anything worth listening to. Far be it for me to complain about too much emotion, but it took us over a dozen movies to learn anything significant about James Bond’s past, Bourne had no idea who he was, and at the other end of the scale Bryan Mills was so emotionally driven from the outset it formed the film’s core. Here, emotional quandary pops up when convenient. A bit of mystery would have helped more and cut a good 15 minutes off an overlong playing time.

As to the title, that is the only thing that is kept hidden to the end and when the revelation is made you realize it won’t mean a damn thing to the vast majority of the audience. As an origin story, I doubt the current box office receipts are sufficient to spawn future episodes. Which is a shame because having dumped all the emotional baggage in this picture, the characters could have focused more straightforwardly on action and story in the next.

The Scorpio Letters (1967) ***

Desultory spy thriller with over-complicated story that’s worth a look mostly for the performance of Alex Cord (Stiletto, 1969). I can’t say I was a big fan of Cord and I certainly didn’t shower him with praise for his role as a disillusioned Mafia hitman in Stiletto. But now I’m wondering if I have been guilty of under-rating him.

Normally, critics line up to acclaim actors if they deliver widely differing performances – Daniel Day-Lewis considered the touchstone in this department after Room with a View and My Beautiful Launderette opened in New York on the same day in 1985. But usually screen persona rarely changes, amounting to little more than a heightened or amalgamated version of the actor’s character or features. Once Charles Bronson, for example, started wearing his drooping mustache he was never seen without.  Actors may grow old, but never bald.

The macho mustachioed Cord of Stiletto is nowhere in sight. In fact, in The Scorpio Letters minus moustache and resisting attempts to reveal his musculature, he is almost unrecognizable. In this picture Joe Christopher (Alex Cord) is flip, resentful, thoughtful, occasionally pedantic, more natural than many of the crop of Hollywood new stars being unveiled at the time, and for once as a transplanted American in London rather scornful of British traditions. There’s a realistic flourish here, too, he is so poorly paid – and on a temporary contract – that he has to take the bus. And although he is an ex-cop fired for brutality, that level of violence ain’t on show here. Virtually the opposite of the character Cord created for Stiletto, I’m sure you’ll agree. So full marks for versatility and talent.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is not up to much, at the very bottom of the three-star review category, almost toppling into two-star territory. Christopher is investigating the death of a British agent who was the subject of a blackmail attempt. By coincidence – or perhaps not – another part of British Intelligence is investigating the same death and this brings Christopher into contact with Phoebe Stewart (Shirley Eaton) and eventually they work together to unravel a list of codenames and uncover the conspiracy with a bit of risk to life and limb.

But the pay-off doesn’t work despite all the exposition attempting to build it up and you’re left with a kind of drawing-room drama rather than exciting spy adventure. It’s determinedly London-centric with red buses, red postboxes, Big Ben, and The Horse Guards all putting in an appearance. The scene shifts to Paris and Nice without a commensurate heightening of tension. Despite a couple of neat scenes – a chase held up behind a wedding party, an irate German chef, an interrogation in a wine cellar – it’s much too formulaic.

Cord apart, Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger, 1964) adds some glamour, but her rounded portrait depicts a character with warmth rather than oozing sex. This is the kind of film that should be awash with character actors and up-and-comers but I recognized few names except for Danielle De Metz (The Karate Killers, 1967), Oscar Beregi (Morituri, 1965) and Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963).

One-time top MGM megger Richard Thorpe (The Truth about Spring, 1965) was coming to the end of a distinguished career which had included Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953). This was his penultimate film. The appropriately-named Adrian Spies (Dark of the Sun, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the Victor Canning thriller. Making his movie debut was composer Dave Grusin (Divorce American Style, 1967)

Albeit made on a budget of just $900,000, MGM intended the picture for theatrical release but with a short cinema window to make it available for a speedy showing on ABC TV. It was originally scheduled for a May 1967 theatrical release but MGM, contractually obliged to deliver the picture within a specified time to television, could not fit in an American release. So it made its debut in the “Sunday Night at the Movies” slot on February 19, 1967, and was shown in cinemas abroad. Nor was it shown first on U.S. television because the studio believed it to be a disaster. Reviews were positive. Variety (February 22, 1967, page 42) called it “very hip.”

House of Cards (1968) ***

American boxer Reno Davis (George Peppard) stumbles on an international conspiracy when hired by rich widow Anne de Villemont (Inger Stevens) in Paris to look after her eight-year-old son Paul (Barnaby Shaw). All roads eventually lead to Rome and a showdown with arch-conspirator Leschenahut (Orson Welles) in this thriller which throws in a couple of measures of Gaslight (1944) and, more obviously, North by Northwest (1959) to the extent of Anne being an icy blonde of the Eva Marie Saint persuasion and the couple, on the run, sharing a compartment on a train.

The boy’s previous tutor has been murdered. After months in a sanatorium, Anne, paranoid about her son being kidnapped, is in virtual house arrest in the family mansion, watched over by arrogant psychiatrist Dr Morillon (Keith Michell) who has diagnosed her as unstable, neurotic and a danger to the boy.

After an assassin on a bridge on the River Seine takes potshots at Reno and Paul, Reno is framed for murder but escaping from the police returns to the mansion to find it empty, the furniture covered in dust sheets. I half-expected Reno to be told that the job was all in his imagination and that Anne did not exist, but instead finds out that mother and son have been taken to a castle in Dijon, in reality a fortress with a platoon of armed guards. Only Paul has been already been transported to Italy. So it’s attempted rescue, imprisonment, escape, fistfights, chase, clever moves and countermoves, twists and double twists as Reno and the still icy Anne head for Rome.

In among the mayhem are a few humorous moments, a play on the Trevi fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, a monk mistaken for a killer, a bored girl only too happy to be taken hostage, an over-familiar American who gives away valuable secrets because he mistakes Reno for a co-conspirator, Dr Morillon making the error of treating Reno as a servant. And characters involved in assisting escape extract a high price, one seeking financial reward, another that her husband be killed in the process. There is also a flirtatious but spiky maid Jeanne-Marie (Perette Pradier) and a couple of excellent reversals.

Reno is somewhat innovative in the weaponry department, the hook of a fishing rod, for example, while the son is rather handy with a pistol. But given the opposition are armed with machine guns, knives and swords that seems only fair.

George Peppard continues the excellent run of acting form that started in Tobruk (1967) and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968), developing his own niche, dropping the innate arrogance of The Blue Max (1965) and Operation Crossbow (1965), no chip on the shoulder. Here he is a good bit more attractive as a screen presence, a nice line with the ladies, more than able to take care of himself, a sprinkling of wit, completely at ease. Inger Stevens comes off well though her psychological problems and concerns for her son get in the way of any burgeoning romance with Peppard. But she has quite a range of emotions to get through, from wondering if she is mad, to dealing with the controlling family, and letting go of her son enough to allow the boy to bond with Reno, and despite her vast wealth down-to-earth enough to see a toothbrush as an essential when on the run.

Orson Welles (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), as ever, looms large over everything, with dialogue so good you always have the impression he improvised on the spot. Keith Michell, a couple of years away from international fame in BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), does a very good turn as the psychiatrist.

John Guillermin, who directed Peppard in The Blue Max and P.J., has a lot to do to keep the various balls in the air, especially keeping track of a multiplicity of characters. The screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Hud, 1963) pulled this one together from the novel by Stanley Ellin. Francis Lai’s memorable score is worth a mention, with distinctive themes for various parts of the story.

Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) was originally down for the part of Anne and Italian actress Rosemary Dexter (Romeo and Juliet, 1964) has a small part.

Catch-up: The Blog previously reviewed George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961),The Blue Max (1965), Operation Crossbow (1966), Tobruk (1967), P.J (1968) and Pendulum (1969); John Guillermin directed The Blue Max (1965) and P.J; Orson Welles was seen in Is Paris Burning? (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

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.

 

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