The Ugly American (1963) ***

Terrific performance from Marlon Brando saves this prescient but preachy meditation on Vietnam. Harrison MacWhite (Marlon Brando) is the new ambassador, whose political credentials are questioned by many,  parachuted into the fictional South-East Asia country of Sarkhan, knee-deep in civil war, communist north versus westernized south. The battleground is the American construction of a “Freedom Road” north to China which dissenters fear will be a conduit for the military. MacWhite owes his appointment to his friendship with Deong (Eeji Okada), a charismatic leader.

On arrival, the ambassadorial car is engulfed in a riot, car rocked, windscreens smashed. MacWhite shakes up a complacent embassy and though articulate and scholarly believes he holds the solution to the tricky situation while unwilling to accept that national self-determination does not necessarily mean complete hatred of the Americans. There is duplicity on both sides, rebels blaming U.S. truck drivers for deaths they caused, the Americans so used to getting their way they don’t stop to think if it is the right way.

Anxious not to be seen as a lapdog for Communism, MacWhite’s actions inflame the situation, while Deong falls victim to internal forces. Construction boss Homer Atkins (Pat Hingle) promotes the clever use of building hospitals along the road, thus encouraging locals to back it, but nobody falls for such honest skull-duggery masquerading as well-meaning intent.

Friends turning into enemies is a decent premise for any movie but this is over-burdened with debate that while interesting and providing a reflection of the times is basically a mixture of virtue-signalling and apportioning blame and, most heinous of failings, doesn’t really advance the story.

First-time director George Englund handles the action sequences well and captures the essence of a country about to explode against a background of growing tension and political machination. Use of Thailand as a location added authenticity.

The movie was based on a controversial novel by political scientist Eugene Burdick (who also wrote a more straightforward cold War thriller Fail Safe) and William Lederer, navy veteran and CIA officer, so it carried the stamp of authority in terms of putting forth the arguments for both sides. However, while the film bore only a “passing resemblance” to the book, according to co-author Burdick, he deemed it a superior achievement on the basis of its more dramatic treatment. Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) was the screenwriter who received blame and praise in equal measure.

Marlon Brando (Bedtime Story, 1964) exudes authority, broad shoulders packed into a suit, and brilliantly captures the anguish of a man led into disaster by arrogance. Coming off back-to-back flops One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), this was a considerable change of pace for the actor, the first of several excursions into political territory. Eeji Okada (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, 1958) proves a worth opponent. Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968), Arthur Hill (Moment to Moment, 1965) and Jocelyn Brando (The Chase, 1966) provide sterling support.

The movie did not just predict what would happen if the U.S. lost the battle for hearts and minds but a similar situation confronting the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia in 1965 whose appointment was unwelcome in that country.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang (1968) ***

Was it David McCallum’s floppy-haired blondness that prevented him making the jump to movie action hero because, with the ruthlessness of a Dirty Harry, he certainly makes a good stab at it in this slightly convoluted drugs thriller. Never mind being saddled with an odd moniker, the name devised surely only in the hope it would linger in the memory, Sol Madrid (McCallum) is an undercover cop on the trail of the equally blonde, though somewhat more statuesque, Stacey Woodward (Stella Stevens) and Harry Mitchell (Pat Hingle) who have scarpered with a half a million Mafia dollars. Hingle is the Mafia “human computer” who knows everything about the Cosa Nostra’s dealings, Woodward the girlfriend of Mafia don Villanova (Rip Torn).

Sol tracks down Stella easy enough and embarks on the audacious plan of using her share of the loot, a cool quarter of a million, to fund a heroin deal in Mexico with the intention of bringing down both Mexican kingpin Emil Dietrich (Telly Savalas) and, using the on-the-run pair as bait, Villanova. A couple of neat action sequences light this picture up. When Sol and Stella are set upon by two knife-wielding hoods in a car park, he employs a car aerial as a weapon while she taking refuge in a car watches in terror as an assailant batters down the window. Sol has hit on a neat method of transferring the heroin from Tijuana to San Diego and that is filled with genuine tension as is the hand-over where Sol with an unexpected whipcrack slap puts his opposite number in his place.

Meanwhile, Villanova has sent a hitman to Mexico and when that fails turns up himself, kidnapping Stella and planning a degrading revenge. Most of the movie is Sol duelling with Dietrich, suspicion of the other’s motives getting in the way of the trust required to seal a deal, with Mitchell, hiding out in Dietrich’s fortified lair, soon being deemed surplus to requirements. Various complications heighten the tension in their flimsy relationship.

Madrid is Dirty Harry in embryo, determined to bring down the gangsters by whatever means even if that involves going outside the law he is supposed to uphold, incipient romance with Woodward merely a means to an end. McCallum certainly holds his own in the tough guy stakes, whether trading punches or coolly gunning down or ruthlessly drowning enemies he is meant to just capture, and trading  steely-eyed looks with his nemesis.

It’s a decent enough effort from director Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), but is let down by the film’s structure, the expected confrontation with Villanova taking far too long, too much time spent on his revenge with Woodward, for whom audience sympathy is slight. Just at the time when Hollywood was exploring the fun side of drug taking – Easy Rider just a year away – this was a more realistic portrayal of the evil of narcotics.

It is also quite prescient, foreshadowing both The Godfather Part II (1974) in the way Villanova has modernised the Mafia, achieving respectability through money laundering, and this century’s television obsession with South American drug cartels with all-out police battles with the Narcos. And there is a bullet-through-the-glasses composition that will be very familiar to fans of The Godfather (1972), and you will also notice a similarity between the feared Luca Brasi and the Mafia hitman Scarpi (Michael Conrad) here. And why we’re at it, Woodward’s predicament is close to Gene Hackman’s in French Connction II (1975).

The action sequences are excellent and fresh. Think Madeleine cowering in terror as the car window is battered in No Time to Die (2021) and you get an idea of the power Hutton brings to the scene of a terrified Woodward hiding in the car. Incidentally, you might think McCallum was more of a secret agent than a cop with the cold-blooded ruthlessness with which he dispatches his enemies.

Stella Stevens (The Silencers, 1966) is the weak link, too shrill and not willing to sully her make-up or hair when her role requires degradation. Her part is better written (“I never met a man who didn’t want to use me”) than Stevens can act and she gets a clincher of the film’s final line. Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) with his playful villain, though the trademark laugh is in occasional evidence, is in sharp contrast to Rip Torn who is all snarling bad guy. Ricardo Montalban (Madame X, 1966) is Sol’s Mexican sidekick and Paul Lukas, a star of the Hollywood “golden age”, puts in a fleeting appearance.

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