A Twist of Sand (1968) ***

Initially promising, ultimately disappointing thriller that proves you should not go to sea  without a big budget. Because he is the only skipper to have successfully negotiated the Skeleton Coast off Namibia in South Africa, smuggler Geoffrey Peace (Richard Johnson) gets roped into a scheme by Harry Riker (Jeremy Kemp) and Julie Chambois (Honor Blackman) to collect stolen diamonds.

Peace knows his way around this area thanks to World War Two submarine exploits and that particular expedition is recalled in flashback while its repercussions form part of a plot. Also on board the boat are the goggle-eyed knife-wielding Johann (Peter Vaughn) and Peace’s shipmate David (Roy Dotrice).

Peace has to navigate the treacherous waters of the Skeleton Coast before the team embark on a trek through the desert to find the diamonds, hidden in the unlikely location of a shipwreck, itself in imminent danger of being buried in an avalanche of sand that could be triggered by (shades of Dune) sudden movement or sound.

On paper – and it has been adapted from the bestseller by Geoffrey Jenkins – it has all the ingredients of a top-class thriller but it doesn’t quite gel. For a start, the flashback, where Peace has to hunt down a new class of German submarine and not only sink it but make sure there are no survivors, gets in the way of the action.

The sexual tension you might expect to simmer between Peace and Julie does not appear to exist, the bulk of the threat coming from the villainous-looking pair, Riker and Johann, the former already known to be untrustworthy, the latter too fond of producing a knife at odd occasions. The trek into the desert takes way too long and rather than increase tensions slackens it off and there is no real explanation as to why the ship was lost so far into the desert without entering Clive Cussler archaeological territory.

Extracting the diamonds is certainly a taut scene, with the sand dunes threatening to collapse any moment but the climax you saw coming a long way off and although there is an ironic twist it is not enough to save the picture.

On the plus side, Richard Johnson (Deadlier Than The Male, 1967) shucks off the suave gentleman-spy persona of Bulldog Drummond to emerge as a snarly, believable smuggler. But Honor Blackman (Moment to Moment, 1966) is wasted and this is one of the least effective bad guy portraits from the Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) catalogue. Roy Dotrice (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) is better value while Peter Vaughn (Hammerhead, 1968), menacing enough just standing still, overplays the villain.

Set up as a thriller very much in the Alistair MacLean vein, this shows just how good MacLean’s material was, how great a command he had of structure and not just of action but twists along the way. A Twist of Sand wobbles once too often in its structure and never quite manages to build up the necessary tension between characters. Although the Skeleton Coast sea-scene falls apart due to defective special effects, the other two sequences at sea are well done, the opening section where Peace is being chased by Royal Navy vessels, and the underwater attack on the German submarine where murky water manages to obscure the effects sufficiently they appear effective enough.

Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) does his best with material that’s not quite up to standard. Marvin H. Albert (Tony Rome, 1967) doesn’t do as good a job of adapting other people’s work as he does his own.  

Catch-Up: Richard Johnson films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Khartoum (1966), Deadlier than the Male (1967), and Danger Route (1967).

The Naked Runner (1967)***

We always knew the spy world was filled with the worst kind of legal renegade, the type who can get away with murder in the name of King and Country, with little regard for collateral damage, claiming the Cold War justifies any action. British espionage chiefs, wishing to assassinate an escaped spy before he can reach the Russian border, recruit against his will widowed businessman Sam Laker (Frank Sinatra). The spy top brass don’t care what methods of persuasion are used, “blackmail or drugs,” and eventually they decide that kidnapping his only son will make Laker toe the line.

Spy chief and wartime colleague Martin Slattery (Peter Vaughan) is a cold-blooded killer aiming to turn an ordinary man, albeit with a distinguished war record, into a cold-blooded killer.  Laker is duped into delivering a message while on a business trip to Leipzeig in East Germany. When his son disappears it is at the behest of the equally ruthless East German secret police boss Colonel Hartmann (Derren Nesbitt) and thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse between Sinatra and the two spymasters competing for his services especially when it transpires he is a crack marksman. He is shifted to Copenhagen to assassinate the fugitive.

Naturally, the web is soon even more tangled. Laker becoming even more tense, with his son’s life hanging in the balance questions of morality are void. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff because the audience is as much in the dark as Laker about what is actually going on. Fans of the sophisticated spy thriller will not be surprised that there is a surprise ending.

The main departure from the book by Francis Clifford (also author of the source novel for “Guns of Darkness,” 1962) is the movie overview. The book follows the hero from start to finish. Only at the end is explanation offered. In the book the assassin’s target is a defector not an escaped spy. However, opening the book up to involve Slattery discussing his methods and providing an overview of the espionage world is a bit like tacking on an unnecessary message to an otherwise straightforward thriller. Straying from Laker’s point-of-view lessens rather than increases tension. Sinatra Enterprises produced the picture so presumably screenwriter Stanley Mann’s change of emphasis had the actor’s blessing.

Director Sidney J. Furie has some form in this murky world, having helmed the ground-breaking The Ipcress File (1965) whose spies are lot less glamorous than their James Bond counterpart. Even so, Michael Caine was a jaunty hero. Sinatra is the polar opposite. A more dour individual you could not meet. Sinatra is excellent in a role that asks him to bury a normal screen persona that oozes self-confidence. Furie is obsessed with odd camera angles and extreme long shots and extreme close-ups which has probably the intended disconcerting effect, concentrating the viewer on characters rather than surroundings.

While this approach worked in The Ipcress File and The Appaloosa it is less effective here, largely I think because Sinatra cannot brood with Brando’s intensity nor is his face as open and inviting as Caine’s. Although Sinatra is good in the role it does not suit the director’s intent which was surely to portray a man about to crack. Whereas the director’s impulse for the unusual made The Ipcress File a stylish film, here the camera angles get in the way of what is otherwise a taut story of a man driven to the limit. In fairness, the abundance of close-ups may not have been Furie’s fault. Sinatra disappeared for several days when the shoot moved to Copenhagen forcing Furie to shoot around him and inserting previous filmed close-ups.

Edward Fox (Day of the Jackal, 1973) has a small role as a diplomat and Romanian Nadia Gray (Two for the Road, 1967) appears as Laker’s initial contact in Leipzig.

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