Deadlier than the Male (1967) ****

Now revealed as the first film seen by Quentin Tarantino – at the age of five.

For a movie intended to set up a series character in the vein of James Bond, it was ironic that it was the women who stole the show, not just from their tendency to turn up in bikinis but for their outrageous villainy. Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina) are the seductive assassins in the hire of Carl Petersen (Nigel Green) who has designs on an Arab oil empire. On her own Irma dispatches mogul Henry Keller (Dervis Ward) then the pair – emerging from the sea like a pair of latter-day Ursula Andresses – harpoon his colleague Wyngarde (John Stone).   

Soon Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), investigating the death of Wyngarde, becomes a target  and that sets him off, with nephew Robert (Steve Carlson) in tow,  to the Mediterranean and the yacht of oil-rich King Fedra (Zia Mohyeddin) where, of course, the girls lie in wait.

Dispensing with the gadgets – except for one item employed by the villainesses – and gimmicks of Bond, but retaining the quips, this is a fun ride with a more down-to-earth leading man – like the early Bonds – smarter girls, a more old-fashioned mystery, a hefty thug Chang (Milton Reid)  in the Oddjob mold, a castle doubling as the villain’s lair, a suave master criminal, some detective work, and a super scene involving giant robotic chess men.

The bickering between Irma and Penelope, who is not just a tad sadistic but a kleptomaniac especially as far as her partner is concerned, coupled with their overweening confidence, makes them much more human than any Bond Girl and the character traits explored have a pay-off at the climax. Equally interesting are the mind games, Drummond vs. Peterson but also Drummond vs. Irma. And that the female baddies see it as points on their scoreboard to seduce Drummond rather than the other way round.

Drummond is every bit as capable a seducer as Bond and equally ruthless, stripping a suspect naked. Petersen is also a clever character, faking his own death and running a very smooth operation, and certainly his recruitment techniques are second to none.

Some ideas were certainly ahead of their time, the chess men are the equivalent of a modern computer game while the human bomb has, unfortunately, entered the modern lexicon and there are enough female serial killers around to prevent anyone believing they are always (to use an outmoded sexist phrase) the gentle sex. However, in the middle 1960s, the concept that women would be partial to murder and torture not to mention repeatedly seducing males went so much against the grain of the male authority figures that the British censor slapped an X-certificate on the movie.

Shakespearian actor Richard Johnson was a one time MGM contract player, but his only previous top-billed outing was the Italian-made The Witch (1966). He certainly made a splash with this character, investing it with a great deal more gravitas than Flint or Helm. The Teutonic Elke Sommer (The Venetian Affair, 1966) is brilliant as one half of the assassin tag-team with a batch of one-liners for every occasion. Sylva Koscina (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), nose always put out of joint, almost steals the show.  Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), while his usual sardonic self, has the playfulness of the rich and powerful.

Steve Carlsen, in his movie debut, doesn’t make much of an impact in a largely lame role. Zia Mohyeddin has a more interesting part as the oil kingpin wanting to help his people. As you can expect in a spy picture there are a host of beautiful women – Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) a defector, Virginia North, also making her debut, Justine Lord (Night after Night after Night, 1969), and Didi Sydow in her only screen appearance.

The light comedy experience of director Ralph Thomas (Doctor in Distress, 1963) comes is very handy, as his sense of comic timing is excellent, but, perhaps learning from his previous brush with espionage in Agent 8¾ / Hot Enough for June (1964) brings a bigger punch to the action scenes. And it’s a bold ploy to start with an action sequence revolving around Irma and Penelope rather than our star man.

The screenplay was a team effort – Jimmy Sangster (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964), taking a break from Hammer duties, David D. Osborn (Maroc 7, 1967) and Liz Charles-Williams, making her screen debut  – all involved.  This was familiar territory for composer Malcolm Lockyer (Five Golden Men, 1967). British pop act The Walker Brothers had a hit with the theme tune.

This is more fun than camp, not a send-up of the genre like Derek Flint and Matt Helm, but a spy picture with a believable leading men and excellent villains. But the plot is more centred on filthy lucre rather than global control and there is a genuine understanding of how businesses work – takeovers, mergers, dirty dealings – though small wonder Petersen would like to be shot of pedantic boardroom nuisances like Bridgenorth (Leonard Rossiter) – wouldn’t we all?

Bulldog Drummond was an international crime-buster invented by “Sapper,” the pen-name of H.C. McNeile. Bulldog Drummond had been a Hollywood mainstay for over four decades, the twenty-plus pictures attracting stars like Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond, 1929, and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, 1934), Ray Milland (Bulldog Drummond Escapes, 1937), Walter Pidgeon (Calling Bulldog Drummond, 1951) and a young Ralph Richardson (The Return of Bulldog Drummond, 1934). But the notion, in the Swinging Sixties, of tagging any leading man by the moniker of ‘Bulldog’ did not seem like a good idea, so the character underwent wholesale reinvention and his nickname is never mentioned.  

The title comes from a line in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, The Female of the Species. That was the original title of the film and also of a Sapper book.

You can get his on a double bill with the sequel Some Girls Do from Network at a very reasonable price. Will be reviewing Some Girls Do next.

Ocean’s 11 (1960) ***

Heist pictures break down into planning, execution and reprisal. Here the planning stage moves at a leisurely pace, a bit of recruitment, and setting up bitebacks that will cripple the military-precision plan by ex-army buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos of millions of dollars on New Year’s Eve. There’s a bit of reversal, Mr Big (Akim Tamiroff) is a collection of nervous tics, Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) a rich guy seeking financial independence from a possessive mother, Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) having second thoughts about the operation, and Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) trying to win back estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson) who surmises he prefers danger to intimacy. Mostly, it’s repartee between Harmon and Ocean while Foster makes a chump out of his mother’s next potential husband Duke Santos (Cesar Romero).

There’s not much hi-tech about the audacious plan, knocking out the electricity supply to the casinos, the switch to auxiliary power allowing the gang access to the inner sanctum where the cash is held, finding their way in and out of the darkness by nothing more sophisticated than luminous spray paint, and with a clever ruse to get the money out once all hell breaks loose.

The fun starts when one of the team (Richard Conte) drops dead post-raid and it transpires Santos is a big-shot underworld figure who investigates the robbery on behalf of the casinos and starts tracking the gang down, leading to a pay-off you don’t see coming.

Given the comedy element, there’s no great tension but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and Sinatra and Martin display an easy camaraderie that lights up the screen. It could have been funded by the Las Vegas Tourist Bureau so much attention is given to the wonder of the casinos, at a time when gambling was still only otherwise legal on racetracks, and with snippets of floorshows and the deluxe atmosphere. Add in a couple of numbers delivered a couple of times by Dean Martin (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”), legitimately since he is a cocktail bar singer, and Sammy Davis Jr. (“Eee-O-11”), somewhat shoehorned-in given he is a truck driver.

There’s a couple of neat reversals: Ocean’s dumped girlfriend Adele (Patrice Wymore) gets short shrift from Beatrice when she reveals the affair; casino bosses offered a double-or-quits gamble refuse to consider such a dangerous notion. Red Skelton and George Raft have credited cameos, Shirley MacLaine does not. As well as Richard Conte, Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) has a small part as does Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

Although there are on occasion outdated sexist attitudes, there is also a strong anti-racist statement in the hiring of Sammy Davis Jr., showcasing his talents in a big-budget picture, and clearly making the point that he has been welcomed by stars as big as Sinatra and Martin.  

And it’s worth also considering the picture in terms of early-onset brand management.  The “Rat Pack” was a loose group of entertainers which not only became a well-known stand-alone entity in its own right that celebrated what was considered “hip” at the time (assuming you excluded Elvis and his ilk), but as individuals supported each other on television and in live performance. They would make another two pictures as a team and another dozen or so where two or more of the players appeared. The principals were all major attractions at the nascent Las Vegas so they were also promoting their home patch. During the day they made the movie, at night they wove in and out of each others’ acts, creating an entertainment sensation. On top of that, Sinatra had his own record label Reprise – among the early acts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. So, in a sense, all this cross-promotion was money in their pockets.

Also of note are the opening and closing, the former for the credits devised by Saul Bass, the latter for the famous shot later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Ironically, Lewis Milestone, who devised the original shot, and long before that won two Best Director Oscars, is less well regarded these days than Tarantino.

Easy Rider (1969) *****

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Selling a picture to the public and selling it to cinemas were two separate marketing skills. The easiest way to guarantee bookings for any film was to promote the box office figures through the trade press – as here in the British “Kine Weekly.” Columbia had cleverly booked the movie into one of the smallest cinemas in London’s West End where it was almost certainly guaranteed to break the box office record. But even the studio must have been taken aback by the way Easy Rider pulverized the previous record.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

Success in London was no guarantee that a movie would perform as well all over the country. Columbia continued to book it into smaller venues in the hope it would repeat the London experience of breaking box office records. When it did the studio took out another advert in Kine Weekly to let exhibitors know.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now.   

Of course, the Easy Rider soundtrack itself summons up memories of the era and it is worth listening to just by itself and you might even want to go all the way and listen to it in the original vinyl.

Below is a link for the DVD.

   https://www.amazon.co.uk/Easy-Rider-DVD-Peter-Fonda/dp/B00LTK2Z44/ref=sr_1_1?crid=YSG6SCL8QQF9&dchild=1&keywords=easy+rider+dvd&qid=1596660339&s=dvd&sprefix=easy+rider%2Caps%2C153&sr=1-1

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