The Southern Star (1969) ***

There’s a surprisingly good movie here once you strip out the cliché jungle stuff and the racist elements. The diamond of the title is actually a MacGuffin, just enough to get you started on two parallel tales of revenge.

Dan (George Segal) is a mining engineer-cum-adventurer and Erica (Ursula Andress), daughter of mine owner Kramer (Harry Andrews), as far from the traditional jungle heroine (except in one regard) as you could get. She saves him from crocodiles, rescues him from jail and quicksand, swims across a hippo-infested river and is a better shot than him (or anybody for that matter) with a rifle. This is female empowerment with a vengeance.

Suspected of stealing the diamond, he is hunted by ranger Karl (Ian Hendry), Dan’s love rival, who intends to win Erica back using the simple expedient of killing the thief. Lying in wait is all-purpose rogue Plankett (Orson Welles) who seeks revenge on Karl. The second unit had a whale of a time filming anything that moved –  lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, monkeys, antelopes, the aforementioned hippos and crocodiles and what looked like a cobra – and at one point everything does move in coordinated fashion if you can call a stampede coordinated.

But the main focus is an Erica who constantly confounds Dan’s sexist expectations. Docility is her disguise. Anytime she appears to be doing what she’s told you can be sure she’s planning the opposite. While Dan does have his own specific set of jungle skills, he often looks a fool. But they do make a good screen partnership and their dialogue is lively.

Hollywood spent millions of dollars trying to create screen chemistry between various stars and although it seemed to work very well in the industry’s golden age with Clark Gable and any number of MGM female stars, Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn and I guess you could chuck John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara into that particular mix, the formula seemed to have gone awry by the 1960s discounting the Doris Day/Rock Hudson combo, big budget romances like El Cid (1961) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and an occasional home run with whomever Cary Grant was romancing on screen. So it was usually hit-or-miss whether any sparks flew between the stars.

Andress had certainly been a European femme fatale par excellence as seen in Dr No (1962) and The Blue Max (1966), but it was certainly not a given that she would more than hold her own for an entire picture. Segal was nobody’s idea of a romantic leading man although the notion had been given a tryout in The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No (1968) with Virna Lisi. But here the whole enterprise works in an It Happened One Night vein with the supposedly superior male recognizing that perhaps his companion was more than a match.

Harry Andrews and Orson Welles both try to steal the picture, with polar opposite characterizations, Andrews loud and menacing, Welles soft and menacing. You can tell Scottish director Sidney Hayers (The Trap, 1966) was an editor because he cuts for impact and mostly does an efficient job of sticking to the story. Supposedly, Orson Welles directed his own scenes, but that might be to make sure he got to hog the camera. He has enough choice lines and bits of business to keep him happy and gives his venomous character a camp edge. Matakit (Johnny Sekka), Dan’s buddy, who actually has the diamond, is separately pursued and subjected to racism and being whipped.

Despite my reservations, this is well constructed and keeps one step ahead of audience expectation with plenty twists to subvert those, although the music by Johnny Dankworth gets in the way, offering musical cues opposite to what is required.

As it is a jungle picture there is the obligatory heroine’s bathing scene – and to balance the books on that score Segal does whip off his shirt at one point. Except for the clichés and the racism, it would have gone higher in my estimation for by and large it is well done and Andress is once again (see The Blue Max) a revelation.   

The Learning Tree (1969) ****

Director Gordon Parks made a big noise a couple of years later with Shaft (1971), Richard Roundtree shooting to fame as a slick and sexy private eye, memorable score by Quincy Jones. But The Learning Tree had possibly a bigger impact on the Hollywood consciousness, the first movie released by a major studio (Warner Brothers) that was directed by an African American. Although actors like Sidney Poitier and Jim Brown had smashed the Hollywood glass ceiling, directors lagged far behind. And this would have been an interesting tale in its own right of adolescence in 1920s Kansas had the leading character Newt (Kyle Johnson) and buddy Marcus (Alex Clarke) not faced such blatant racism.

Told today, the story would take a different route, concentrating on the dilemma of Newt in coming forward with the evidence that could convict Marcus’s father Booker (Richard Ward) of murdering a white man, not just the guilt at sending another African American to the electric chair but fear of the killing spree that must follow from enraged whites. Instead, that aspect comes at the tail end of a story that sees Newt and Marcus react in different ways to white supremacy. It’s not that Newt is spineless, toeing the line, but that Marcus, filled with venom, sees violence as the only way to establish any kind of equality.

When Newt, a reasonable enough scholar, though hardly in the genius class, is marked down by his teacher on the grounds that it’s a waste of time going to college when he will still end up a cook or a porter, the young man responds, “You hate us colored kids, well, we hate you, every one of you.” Marcus has a similar mantra, “this town don’t want me and I don’t want this town.” That underlying endemic racism contrasts with the more overt vicious bullying of local cop Kirky (Dana Elcar) who casually shoots any African American who sensibly runs away at his approach and who ends every sentence with the word “boy.”

What makes this so powerful is that for long stretches there’s just the ordinary coming-of-age tale of Newt falling in love with Arcella (Mira Waters), sneaking a kiss, finding their own special place among the daffodils, buying each other Xmas presents, the romance conducted among summer picnics, winter snow, rowing on the river, the young man showing his beloved every respect even given that he is not a virgin, having unexpectedly lost his cherry while sheltering from a tornado.  He has a conscience, too, going to work voluntarily for a farmer whose apples he stole.

It’s not just Newt’s equable temperament that’s prevents him from reacting like Marcus to the unfairness of the white-dominated world. He has the ability to get the best out of situations. A born negotiator he manages to triple the reward offered by Kirky for helping bring up a dead man from a river, and, having been taught to box, earns good money in a match. Marcus goes to jail for beating up a white man who attacked him with a whip and this not being a sanitised version of the African American world on release ends up working in a whorehouse while his father steals a supply of hooch.  

Even so this is a hierarchy even a prominent white person cannot overturn. When a judge’s son invites Marcus and Arcella into a drug store, the other two must take their drinks outside.

A staff photographer for Life magazine, director Gordon Parks, adapting his autobiographical novel,  avoids the temptation to pack the movie with brilliant images, instead concentrating on core coming-of-age aspects to drive forward the narrative. He doesn’t have to do much to point up the injustice. That’s inherent in the material.

It probably helped that the three young principals were inexperienced, although at the time of course roles for African Americans, except in cliché supporting parts, were hardly abundant.  Kyle Johnson (Pretty Maids All in a Row, 1971) was 16 when playing the 14-year-old, Alex Clarke (Halls of Anger, 1970) pushing 20 and making his debut as was Mira Waters (The Greatest, 1977). There’s no straining for dramatic acting effect. Everyone plays it straight.

Others involved are Estelle Evans (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962), Dana Elcar (Pendulum, 1968), Richard Ward (Black Like Me, 1964) and Russell Thorson (The Stalking Moon, 1968). Not only did Parks write, produce and direct but he supplied the music too.

It’s an absorbing, if at times difficult, watch. It’s an accomplished picture for a beginner. And you can’t help but wondering how four decades after this story takes place little had changed for ordinary African Americans and another five decades after the film’s release the battle for equality has not been resolved.

We Need To Talk About Sir Sean, Part II: Who Wrote That Heinous Racist Scene: Book into Film – “Woman of Straw” (1964)

You can blame one of the screenwriters, either Robert Muller (Contest Girl, 1964) or Stanley Mann (The Collector, 1965), for coming up with the scene in Woman of Straw where the grotesque millionaire Charles Richmond (Ralph Richardson) forces his two black servants to pretend to be dogs to show his own dogs how to jump over each other. It’s not in the book. However, in fairness to the screenwriters they must have thought this preferable to the scene in the original book by Catherine Arley where Richmond offers a gold watch to the best imitation of a dog by his servants. This includes them getting down on all fours and eating food like a dog. Disgusting though this is, it is tempered by being a competition with a more than decent reward (a gold watch) for the winner.

The offensive scene in “Woman of Straw.”

And now we get into a difficult position since one of the most highly-praised episodes of Succession involved employees of grotesque millionaire Logan Roy (Brian Cox) being forced to get down on the floor and pretend to be boars and eat sausages like a boar (Boar on the Floor, Succession, Season Two, Episode Two). This sequence has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the critical accumulation website. The episode won an Emmy for director Andrij Parekh. Scott Tobias of Vulture gave it five stars and Randall Colburn of The A.V. Club an A-minus. Various commentators referenced the Stanford Experiments, the culture of fear inherent in working with wealthy individuals, and the animalistic collapse of civilization.

So that has left me wondering if my objection to Woman of Straw was merely on racist grounds and to wonder if there would have been an outcry if the Succession episode had featured a black person grovelling on the ground.

The screenwriters made significant changes to the source novel. For a start in the book both the woman and the millionaire were German. Hildegarde Meiner in the book becomes the Italian Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) in the film. But Hildegarde is not a relatively innocent nurse as in the film. Instead, she is an out-and-out gold-digger, determined to marry a wealthy man in order to make up for a desperate life in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Back cover of the movie tie-in edition of the British paperback.

In the book the villain of the piece is also German, Korff, not British like Sean Connery. And he is simply the millionaire’s secretary not his nephew. The pivotal element of the story is the same, Tony Richmond (Connery) feeling he is owed much more of the old man’s fortune than the pittance provided for him in the will. Korff is also 60 years old and although Hildegarde makes a play for him, any romantic liaison is out of the question because the secretary wants to adopt her as his daughter.  Korff sets Hildegarde up as the nurse and instructs her to play it aloof and principled. Hildegarde does not fall into the category of beauty but, with better clothes and professional make-up, oozes class.

The rest of the story plays out much like the film except there is no rescue at sea and the millionaire does not listen to classical music. The novel narrative, while not in the first person, is told from the woman’s perspective. However, Korff is more devious than Anthony Richmond, ensuring in several ways that the nurse will take the rap.

Front over of earlier British paperback, not a movie tie-in.

The film’s ending is driven by the need for some kind of happy resolution, for the guilty to be brought to justice, the dupe exonerated to some extent. But the book belongs more to the film noir genre and the ending is quite different, the villain getting away with and Hildegarde seeing no way out but to commit suicide.

The deprivations that Hildegarde has undergone as a consequence of her Hamburg family being killed during the war and her struggle for survival thereafter and her desperation to find a wealthy white knight make her a more  sympathetic character.

The book is an excellent thriller in its own right.

We Need To Talk About Sir Sean – Racism in “Woman of Straw” (1964)

Of course racism was endemic in Britain and the remainder of the British colonies in the 1960s where people of whatever color were treated as inferiors, underlings and at times with a brutality that bordered on slavery. So I’m not intending to say anything new here. But I was incredibly shocked by one scene of racism in Woman of Straw (1964) that I reviewed yesterday, a thriller in the Hitchcock mould starring Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida with Ralph Richardson as the wealthy man the subject of a murder plot.

Richardson’s character, Charles, is completely heinous, treating everyone badly, and they being in his thrall cannot bite back, unlike his dogs.

This is a still from the picture showing the offensive incident and would have been
used to promote the movie. As good an indication as any of the prevalent
racism is that clearly nobody believed this to be in bad taste.

For reasons best known to himself, Charles wants his dogs to be able to jump over each other. And when they fail to obey his commands, he instructs his two black servants, played by Johnny Sekka and Danny Daniels, to show them how it is done. One has to kneel on the grass like a dog and the other to jump over him. In due course, the dogs get the hang of it, leaping over the humiliated man on the ground.

There are enough other instances in the film to ensure the audience gets the right idea about Charles without this.

But I was shocked to the core. I have seen many instances of black people treated much worse in films, but in 1964 I guess such treatment would not have been permitted by the censor and this was the closest they could get to the abject degradation required. I can’t have been the only person shocked by it. But nobody was in 1964 otherwise it would not have got past the British censor – eliminating the scene would not have affected the plot – not a murmur from a critic, and certainly no sign of audiences leaving in droves.

But why should it be left to post-production? Did Sean Connery really think there was nothing untoward in the script? If it had been a Scotsman being used in this fashion might he have complained? Did Gina Lollobrigida think nothing of the scene? Similarly, had it been an Italian servant might she have objected? Connery and Lollobrigida either individually or collectively had far more box office cachet than the director – in fact this was Dearden’s move into the big time – so could easily have asked for the scene to be eliminated.

And what of Sir Ralph Richardson, at the time considered one of the great theatrical triumvirate (Olivier and Gielgud the others) who played the character? A forthright person in many other ways, but not here. Perhaps the most surprising person to be blind to the offensiveness of the scene was director Basil Dearden, especially since a previous film Victim (1961) was sympathetic to gay men. I would like to know if the scene was in the source novel by Catherine Arlay.

Whatever, one of the reasons that racism remained so endemic in the 1960s and far beyond was because people failed to see it when it was right in front of their eyes. I’ve no idea who owns the rights to this otherwise good thriller but it might be a good idea for them to take a look and excise this scene or at least give warning that it exists.

The British Board of Film Censors gave this a “12” rating when it came out on DVD. I contacted the BBFC to see if anybody had ever re-watched the film to come to the ratings conclusion. Naturally, I am still waiting to hear back.

You can check out what I’m referring to on YouTube which has a reasonable print. This incident occurs at the 16-17 minute mark. 

Pressure Point (1962) ****

Central to this under-rated tale of psychopathy and racism is one extraordinary scene, possibly the most exceptional bar-room sequence ever filmed. In the annals of imaginative repulsion, it ranks alongside the rape committed by Alex and his “droogs” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It begins with mere intimidation as an unnamed young man (Bobby Darin) begins to etch into a bar counter the lines and symbols of Tic-Tac-Toe (a.k.a. Knots & Crosses or Noughts and Crosses). Discovering tins of paint, the man and his gang proceed to cover the entire bar – floor, walls, ceiling, even tables – with the same symbols.

The humiliation is ratcheted up a notch when the gang leader forces tavern owner (Howard Caine)  to lie on the floor behind the counter where he cannot see the bar hostess (Mary Munday), rigid with fear, being tormented. Using lipstick rifled from her handbag, the man decorates her face in the same fashion before pulling down the back of her dress and doing the same there. Fortunately, the rest of the scene, presumably ending in rape, is left to our imagination.

Italian poster showing image from the Tic-Tac-Toe scene. A variation of this was shown in the main image which removed the domineering man and concentrated on the humiliated woman.

Other potent scenes show how the man arrived at his crazed state, smothered with affection by a weak mother (Anne Barton) who has taken to bed in order to escape his drunken, raucous father (James Anderson) who taunts his ineffective wife by flaunting in her face his casual pick-ups and making love to them in the same room. Indicative of the lonely child’s disturbed personality is that when he invents an imaginary playmate, it is to have someone to subjugate, making his fictional friend lick his boots.

Imprisoned during the Second World War for sedition, the man, suffering from blackouts and nightmares – in which he imagines himself clinging to the edge of a giant plughole before being swept away by a torrent of water from the taps – becomes a patient of a young, also unnamed, doctor (Sidney Poitier) whom he subjects to racial abuse.  The doctor, physically bigger and more imposing than the patient, would like to simply give him a good thumping, but his profession necessitates that he treats this objectionable person as just another patient. And eventually they come to enough of a concord that the patient accepts treatment although the doctor suspects that his core personality has not changed.

The U.S. poster was different to that used in Italy. This is pretty much a straight rip-off of “The Defiant Ones” (1958).

The movie is layered with themes other than psychopathy and psychiatry. While the racist element is to the fore, including the doctor’s need to prove himself in a white man’s world, and the lack of diversity in this particular medical field at that time, director Hubert Cornfield also explores the growth of right-wing extremism among the disaffected who see no contradiction in still espousing traditional American values, for example giving the Nazi salute while singing in all sincerity the national anthem. The African American doctor has to come to terms with lack of objectiveness when dealing with such an abhorrent person.

The movie flits between scenes between the two protagonists staged in a stagey manner and  expressionistic almost dreamlike sequences representing the patient’s upbringing such as being menaced by his butcher father among the swinging carcasses of the store. The patient flashbacks are shown without dialogue, explanation given in voice-over by either the patient or the doctor.

The father torments the mother by bringing a casual pick-up to their bedroom.

Reliance on visual dexterity, however, detracts from the tension and director Hubert Cornfield (The 3rd Voice, 1960) is also hampered by an unnecessary framing device which results in the story being told in flashback – leading to a conflation of flashbacks: the older Poitier explaining his earlier problems dealing with a difficult patent and listening in turn to the patient’s own life story. So the pressure indicated by the title is often undercut and does not build as much as you might expect. Critical reaction in those days pivoted on the racism elements, but a contemporary audience is almost certainly going to be as influenced by sequences involving the patient, so the picture automatically becomes more involved and Cornfield’s visual mastery more appreciated.

You can detect the influence of producer Stanley Kramer. In his capacity as director he had explored psychiatric therapy and anti-semitism in Home of the Brave (1949) and racism in The Defiant Ones (1958) also with Poitier. As producer he was responsible not only for selection of the original material, based on a short story The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert M. Lindner, but also imposed the framing device, which Kramer wrote. Those scenes relate to another psychiatrist (Peter Falk) coming to a much older and experienced Poitier for advice after hitting a brick wall with a similarly repugnant patient, Poitier telling the story of his treatment of the Bobby Darin patient as a way of showing that even the worst patients are treatable.

This is quite a different Sidney Poitier than you might be used to. Wearing suit and tie, and spectacles, this is a more restrained, measured performance. Poitier’s taboo-busting Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones had not progressed his career that much, still restricted to starring roles in low-budget pictures. But Kramer broke another taboo in Poitier’s favor with this one, casting him a role not initially written as an African American.

Bobby Darin (Come September, 1961) had parlayed his status as hit recording artist into a burgeoning movie career but does not quite display the menace necessary for a fully-fledged psycho. The likes of Richard Widmark would have been a more convincing adversary. Peter Falk (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) has a small one-tone role. The jazz-nuanced music by Ernest Gold (Exodus, 1961) is worth a listen. And if someone can tell me who designed the striking credit sequence I would be very pleased.

Incidentally, the title of Lindner’s short story is ironic. Patients pay for one hour of a psychiatrist’s time but in reality only receive 50 minutes in order for the professional to achieve a swift turnaround and keep his/her appointment timetable scheduled to the hour. Tic-Tac-Toe, in case you are unfamiliar with this two-person childhood game, consists of drawing lines to create nine squares and filling those with either a zero or a cross. The object of the exercise is to create a complete line of either symbols.

Catch-Up: Sidney Poitier films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Long Ships (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) and Duel at Diablo (1966).

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