Last Summer (1969) ****

Given the severity of the crime involved, you leave Frank Perry’s coming-of-age-drama wondering what happened to the four principals. Did the aggressive three young demi-gods of a golden age go on to pursue similar acts of cruelty? While one of them might show remorse, or at least suffer from guilt, of the other two I have my doubts. They would find ways to blame the injured party. And what about the victim? Would she have the courage to report the crime, or suffer in shame for decades.

It’s odd how time changes entirely the shape of a movie. In its day this was seen as a bold exposition of frank adventure by teenagers seeking their first experiences of growing up and experimenting with sex and drugs (pilfered from a parental stash). Although there is little focus on dysfunctionality, both Sandy (Barbara Hershey) and Rhoda (Cathy Burns) are missing a parent, the former’s father running off with another woman, the latter’s mother drowned by stupid misadventure. Both have been abused, unable to prevent the wandering hands of males. All are vulnerable, if only by youth.

Of the boys, Dan (Bruce Davison) is the more confident, Peter (Richard Thomas), while easily swayed, the gentler of the two. Dan merely seeks his first taste of sex, Peter the more likely to need love as well. Sandy is sexually precocious, somewhat on the exhibitionist side, peeling off her bikini top with apparently at times no idea of the effect it will have on the boys, at other times clearly uncomfortable with the notion that the guys might have nothing else on their minds but staring at her breasts. But she is the one who wants to continue watching a gay couple cavorting on the beach while Dan is embarrassed. Sometimes the frank sexuality is rite-of-passage stuff, other times it is distinctly creepy. In the cinema both men grope her breasts. She claims to have been excited by the experience, but you can’t help thinking at least one of the men should have shown restraint, not treating her as if she was some kind of sex toy.

The movie begins on a clearer note. The guys come across Sandy nursing a wounded gull and perhaps entranced by her good looks help her remove a hook from the bird’s throat, provide convalescence and eventually help the bird recover the confidence to fly again. It’s a cosy trio, but edgy, too, Sandy allowing them considerable latitude. But, of course, the guys do the same to her. When she bludgeons the bird to death because it bit her (“the ungrateful bastard”), the pair, initially shocked, are not shocked enough to reject her, afflicted by unassailable male logic, the kind that drove film noir, that maintained a beautiful woman could not have a black heart. 

Separated from the other two, Peter displays a gentler side, teaching the shy Rhoda to swim, kissing her in far more considerate fashion than the boys treat Sandy. But, effectively, she is a pet, and it’s only a matter of time before the unsavory aspect of Sandy’s character breaks out. After setting Rhoda up on a date, the trio do everything they can to spoil it, angry at the poor girl for not getting the “joke.”

Worse is to follow. Date-rape we’d call it today. Retreating to the cool forest, Sandy taunts Rhoda by removing her bikini top. When the horrified Rhoda refuses to do the same, Sandy attacks her, holding her down along with Peter while Dan rapes her. That’s where the film ends, no consequences, no repercussion. Back in the day it was a shock ending, an act of violence to mar an otherwise relatively innocent summer. After the deed is done, the camera pulls back into an aerial shot to observe the  guilty trio walking back to the beach, but without drawing conclusion or offering moral judgement. It’s hard to know what to make of the ending. These days, of course, we’d be appalled. But back then it didn’t appear to appall, certainly not drawing the outrage that accompanied similar scenes in The Straw Dogs (1971) or A Clockwork Orange (1971) perhaps because the perpetrators were so attractive and it was, after all, a coming-of-age picture, as if such things could be expected.

Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, judged that the conclusion “is not really important to the greatness of the movie.” Andrew Sarris of Village Voice noted that “Perry retreats from the carnal carnage” to end with a shot that “prefers symbolic evocation to psychological exploration.” In other words adolescence is fraught with risk and Rhoda is just collateral damage.

Certainly the acting is uniformly excellent for such inexperienced actors, coping with many changes in dramatic focus, from early exhilaration through growing pains to violence.  Barbara Hershey (Heaven with a Gun, 1969) would go on to become a major star. Amazing to realise that Bruce Davison (Willard, 1971) and Cathy Burns, Oscar-nominated for her role, were making their movie debuts and for Hershey and Richard Thomas (Winning, 1969) their sophomore outings.

Director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, 1968) had a special affinity with the young as he had proved with David and Lisa (1962) and at times the whole affair had an improvised free-wheeling style. Eleanor Perry (David and Lisa) wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Evan Hunter (The Birds, 1963).

This is very hard to find, it turns out, so Ebay might be your best bet.

My thanks to one of my readers, Mike, for digging up this story of the disappearance of Catherine Burns from the movie business.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/catherine-burns-inside-50-year-disappearance-an-oscar-nominee-1275646/

The Sweet Ride (1968) ***

Unusual drama mainlining on Californian surf, sex, bikers, a mystery of Blow-Up (1966) dimensions and the best entrance since Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962). Displays a 1960s vibe with a 1950s pay-off as the “hitchhiker” of responsibility rears its ugly head.

A woman thrown out of a car narrowly escapes being run over. The cops jack in the investigation after television actress Vickie (Jacqueline Bisset) refuses to explain why she’s been badly beaten up.  And so we enter flashback mode to supposedly find out. She makes a glorious entrance, emerging from the sea, minus bikini top, into the lives of surfer Denny (Michael Sarrazin), jazz pianist Choo-Choo (Bob Denver) and ageing beach bum and tennis hustler Collie (Tony Franciosca). From the off, she’s enigmatic, gives a false address, won’t explain bruises on her arm, has something clandestine going on with television producer Caswell (Warren Stevens) and like Blow-Up we are only privy to snippets of information.

She’s half-in half-out of a relationship with Dennis, with Collie hovering on the periphery hoping to pick up the pieces to his sexual advantage. Contemporary issues clog the background, Choo-Choo tries a camp number complete with pink dog to avoid the draft, a neighbor threatens to shoot Parker for wandering around in shorts and habitually stealing his newspaper, epithets like “degenerates” are tossed around, Choo Choo’s girlfriend Thumper, while appearing in movies with titles like Suburban Lust Queen acts den mother, there’s not much actual exciting surfing, and a biker called Mr. Clean is somehow involved.

The romance plays out well, Vicky unsure, Denny convinced but without a livelihood to offer and unable to get a straight answer out of her. Choo-Choo gets the gig of his dreams in Las Vegas and there’s an rape scene, more unsettling because it’s committed by Denny with the bizarre justification of getting “just for once something on my terms.”  And there’s the equally disquieting sense that the only explanation for Vickie’s behavior is to tab her a nymphomaniac, walking out of an argument with a mysterious man in a beach house to drop her clothes for a bout of sex with Mr Clean.

I must have seen a different picture from everyone else. A good few critics at the time and reviewers since appear to think Vickie was also victim of a gangbang by the bikers, but I can’t see why. When he sees Vickie coming down from the beach house, Mr. Clean shouts “everybody split” and his buddies clear the beach. However, Mr. Clean, ironically, gives the best indication of her state of mind, explaining that Vickie “kept staring back at the house and moaning about how she wanted to die” while he enjoyed the best night of his life sex-wise.

Denny and Collie prove not to be the pussycats they appear, bearding the bikers in their den and beating up Mr. Clean while Denny goes on to deliver a hiding to Caswell. But what this film turns out to be is an examination of vulnerability, how easily those with a new sense of freedom are trapped. An examination of contemporary mores, perhaps, but in not resolving the mystery of Vickie ultimately fails to deliver, especially as it does not, from the outset, carry the kind of artistic credentials of Antonioni in Blow-Up.

Perhaps the mystery needs no resolution, it’s just same old-same old dressed up in the novelty of sexual freedom. There’s no idea of why Vickie was beaten up, and essentially abandoned on the road to become accident fodder, and no hint really of why she fell foul of someone so badly she needed disposed of, no notion that she was a threat to anyone. (Or, for that matter, no explanation of what happened to her bikini top and why, if she was so apparently free with her charms, she was so shy about being seen half-naked.) On the other hand, victim may well have been Vicky’s destiny from the get-go, that kind of innocence only waiting to be defiled.

In any 1960s contemporary picture there’s always the temptation to accept as truthful or reject as phony the lives shown. The idea that sexual freedom bestows actual freedom is usually the issue until consequence (i.e. old-fashioned Hollywood morality) comes into play. This is less heavy-handed than, for example, Easy Rider (1969) or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). The characters make decisions to grow up or to stay locked in a world of easy sex, dope and money. There’s no grand finale, just a more realistic drifting apart, and it’s only Vickie who comes apart, although that process had begun long before she met the drifters.  

Jacqueline Bisset (The Detective, 1968), in her divinely posh British accent, comes over well as an attractive screen presence and complex character. In fact, she has a bigger part here than in Bullitt (1968) or The Detective (1968). If you wanted anyone to portray a soulful hippie you need look no further than tousle-haired Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) and normally if you required someone on the sly, despicable side, Tony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) might well be your first port of call, but Franciosca proves the surprise here, classic wind-up merchant and predator who exhibits considerable vulnerability when he realizes he is losing the worship of the idealistic young.

Former British matinee idol Michael Wilding (A Girl Named Tamiko, 1962) and Norma Crane (Penelope, 1966) appear as Vickie’s parents.  Bob Denver (Who’s Minding the Mint, 1967) and Michele Carey (The Spy with My Face, 1965) are solid support. Director Harvey Hart (Fortune and Men’s Eyes, 1970) tries to cover too much ground and could have done with narrowing the focus. Future Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph L.) made his screenwriting debut adapting the book by William Murray.

The DVD is a bit on the pricey side, but if you just want to check it out, YouTube has a print.

The Penthouse (1967) ****

Visceral home invasion thriller that ignited the genre and triggered later more controversial offerings like The Straw Dogs (1971) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Made virtually on one set for the indescribably minute sum of £100,000, it is charged with Pinteresque dialogue and aberrant philosophy. The genre splits into those pictures where the occupants have more than a good chance of avoiding their fate, the focus on the invaded pitting their wits against the invaders – classic examples being The Straw Dogs or more recently Panic Room (2002) – and those where the victims are mercilessly tormented, such as, in grueling detail, here.

As one of the perks of his job cocky married real estate agent Bruce (Terence Morgan) takes advantage of an expensive unoccupied apartment on his company’s books – “in the happy position to take advantage of my clients’ generosity in their absence” as he puts it – to enjoy an illicit tryst with mistress Barbara (Suzy Kendall). But when she answers to the door to two men coming to read the gas meter, their lives are turned upside down.

Tom (Tony Beckley) and Dick (Norman Rodway) are, of course, bogus and armed with a knife quickly take control, trying up Bruce and pouring alcohol down Barbara’s throat. As part of the overall creepiness, there is a sense that this is no casual visit, but that it has been planned, as if someone somewhere is familiar with the set-up, and there a debt, if only a moralistic one, to pay as a deterrent to the era’s permissiveness. Minus the knife, they would have passed as harmless. But never was their such difference between word and action, except for what they are capable of you could easily be persuaded that are in fact camp and bitchy.

The bound Bruce’s is spun round in a chair and can only watch as the men begin to strip Barbara. His only defence is verbal, trying to set the two men against each other, suggesting that Tom treats Dick as his assistant. But the relationship between the two criminals constantly shifts as if they were in passive-aggressive relationship. You don’t learn much about them until the end, so basically you have to rely on what they say about themselves, which is very little. They are prone to philosophic observation or interrogate Bruce about his possessions or extract from Barbara an unexpected ambition to be a painter.

One of the oddest pieces of promotional material ever produced. Studios were keen on this kind of jokey cartoon in the hope that it would be picked up by newspaper editors who might be less inclined to run a still from the picture. But it is completely out of touch with the tone of the movie.

The men take it in turns to torment Bruce while the other is in the bedroom with Barbara. Where Bruce resists verbally, Barbara gives in almost right away, but there is never the sense that this is in any way consensual, just that she is too drunk to defend herself – the first drink is a full glass of whisky forced down her throat – and the men have a knife. The invaders make constant reference to a character called Harry. That person’s eventual appearance provides a whole new range of twists.

It’s a film full of menace. Sexual tension, mind games, claustrophobia and the threat of physical violence never dissipate. Because it is rationed out, the brutality is all the more shocking.  But it is brilliantly directed. In his debut British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) uses the camera to suggest we are in anything but an enclosed space. In one long sequence the camera does not move, in another scene it turns 360 degrees, and at other times it twists and turns as if turning the characters inside out, suggesting some of the dizziness, the dramatic speed of change of feelings, that the stunned victims are enduring. At times it feels like an arthouse movie. At other times like a deranged B-picture.

The cast are all excellent. Tony Beckley (The Lost Continent, 1968) makes the best of a role of a lifetime, Norman Rodway (Four in the Morning, 1965) the more quietly psychotic sidekick. Terence Morgan (The Sea Pirate, 1966) has less to do but Suzy Kendall (Fraulein Doktor, 1969) is superb as the enigmatic girlfriend. Look out for Martine Beswick (Prehistoric Women, 1967) in a small part. Collinson wrote the screenplay based on a play The Meter Men by Scott Forbes.

Cultural note: “Tom, Dick and Harry” are considered such quintessentially British names that anyone familiar with this would understand immediately that they were a) pseudonyms and b) intended as a twisted kind of joke.

No sign of this being available on Amazon. Ebay is probably your best bet. There’s a copy on YouTube but it ain’t a good print.

The Wild Angels (1966) ***

Riders stretched out across a sun-baked valley – you could be harking back to the heyday of the John Ford cavalry western instead of the biker picture, the first in the American International series, that sent shockwaves through society and laid the groundwork for the more philosophical Easy Rider (1969) a few years later. Long tracking shots are in abundance. You might wonder had director Roger Corman spent a bit more on the soundtrack, the bikers just worn beads instead of swastikas, and been the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence how this picture would have played out critics- and box office-wise.

The Wild Angels set up a template for biker pictures, one almost slavishly followed by Easy Rider, a good 15 per cent of the screen time allocated to shots of the Harley-Davidson riders and scenery, and a slim plot. Here Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda), trying to recover a stolen bike, leads his gang into a small town where they beat up a bunch of Mexican mechanics, are pursued by the cops, hang out and indulge in booze, drugs and sex, and then decide to rescue the badly-injured Joe (Bruce Dern) from a police station. This insane act doesn’t go well and after Joe dies they hijack a preacher for a funeral service that ends in a running battle with outraged locals and the police.

One of the weirdest posters of all time – at first sight it looks like Nancy Sinatra is holding the decapitated head of Peter Fonda in front of her.

There’s an odd subplot, given the lifestyle of freedom and independence, of Monkey (Nancy Sinatra) trying to get a romantic commitment out of Heavenly. Conversely, Heavenly, rejecting the traditional shackles of love, finds himself trapped by grief, eventually and quite rightly blaming himself for Joe’s death, and apparently turning his back on the Angels to mourn his buddy. The decline – or growing-up – of Heavenly provides a humane core to a movie that otherwise takes great pride in parading (and never questioning) excess, not just the alcohol and drugs, but rape of a nurse, gang-bang of Joe’s widow (Diane Ladd), violence, corpse abuse, and wanton destruction.

A ground-breaking film of the wrong, dangerous, kind according to censors worldwide and anyone representing traditional decency, but which appealed to a young audience desperate to find new heroes who stood against anything their parents stood for. In a decade that celebrated freedom, the bikers strangely enough represented repression, a world where women were commodities, passed from man to man, often taken without consent, and racism was prevalent.

Roger Corman (The Secret Invasion, 1964) was already moving away from the horror of his early oeuvre and directs here with some style, the story, though slim, kept moving along thanks to the obvious and latent tensions within the group. If he had set out to assault society’s sacred cows – the police, the church, funeral rites – as well as a loathing of everything Nazi, he certainly achieved those aims but still within the context of a group that epitomized some elements of the burgeoning counterculture.

In retrospect this appears an ideal fit for Peter Fonda, but that’s only if viewed through the prism of Easy Rider for, prior to this (see the “Hot Prospects” Blog yesterday) he was being groomed as a romantic leading man along the lines of The Young Lovers (1964). Bruce Dern (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) was better suited, his screen persona possessing more of the essential edginess while Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) was the eternal outsider.

Rather surprising additions to the cast, either in full-out rebel mode as with Nancy Sinatra (The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, 1966) or hoping appearance here would provide career stimulus as with movie virgins Diane Ladd (Chinatown, 1974) and Gayle Hunnicutt (P.J. / A New Face in Hell, 1968). Sinatra certainly received the bulk of the media attention, if only for the perceived outrage of papa Frank, but Hunnicutt easily stole the picture. Minus an attention-grabbing role, Hunnicutt, long hair in constant swirl, her vivid presence and especially her red top ensured she caught the camera’s attention.

Charles B. Griffiths (Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961) is credited with a screenplay that was largely rewritten by an uncredited Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, 1971).

Alfred the Great (1969) ****

The Prince Who Wanted To Be A Priest. The King Who Didn’t Want To Fight. The Husband Who Raped His Wife.

Not exactly taglines in the grand tradition of Gladiator (1999), but a succinct analysis of a Film That Wanted To Be A Roadshow. This is almost an anti-epic, a down-n-dirty historical movie far removed from El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). And one element that has to be taken into consideration when making a historical picture set in Britain in AD 871, if you are aiming for realism, is the rain. The battles in the three movies mentioned, as with virtually every historical movie of the decade, took place in bright sunshine on hard ground, not in the rain on mud-soaked fields. Director Clive Donner lacks the genius of an Akira Kurosawa who turned rain into a glorious image in Seven Samurai (1954) or even Ridley Scott whose first battle in Gladiator took place in a snowstorm. But he does make a battleground reflect the grim reality.

Alfred (David Hemmings) was fifth in line to the throne – and just to a small region of England called Wessex – and as was common practice all set, quite happily, for a career in the priesthood. So it was not surprising, envisioning religion as a mark of civilization, and the priesthood guaranteeing an education, that he was loathe to become a warrior just because his brother King Ethelred (Alan Dobie) was a useless leader. The price of taking on the warrior’s mantle and, after his brother’s death, of ascending to the throne is that Alfred must not only cast away his priestly ambition but his chastity in order to get married to unify rival kingdoms and produce an heir. So there’s a good deal of the religious quandary of El Cid and the sexual ambivalence of Lawrence of Arabia.

So repelled by what he is forced to do, that on his wedding night Alfred rapes new wife Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome) and when the marauding Vikings win a decisive battle and the price of peace is the wife taken in hostage Alfred offers no great protestation. So Alfred is hardly an appealing character. His wife hates him so much that she conceals her pregnancy from him. If you were an Englishman you might well prefer the straightforward lustful Viking leader Guthrun (Michael York) whose men are not restrained by Christianity – “it’s a strange religion,” he mulls, “ that wars with everything your flesh and your blood cries out for” – who makes a better fist of wooing Aelswith, whom he could as easily rape, than Alfred.  

Eventually, of course, Alfred gets it together, rallies a bunch of outlaws and steals back wife and son (now four years old). However, there is no romantic reunion. Instead, he plans to imprison her for life, “the whore shall rot in silence.” Nonetheless, Alfred has acquired some tactical skills, adopting the old Roman infantry tactic of forming his troops up in a phalanx behind a wall of shields. His battlefield address is to promise ordinary people a set of laws that will give them equality with the wealthy and powerful.

Given there are no castles and this is indeed the Dark Ages as far as costume and interior design is concerned and that therefore the camera cannot, for respite, be turned onto some glorious image, Clive Donner (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1968) concentrates on character rather than scenery. There are a couple of inspired touches. For a start, in permitting various characters to offer prayers to God, he introduces a number of soliloquies which take us to the heart of troubled souls, and then he does a clever split-screen number to effect a transition. You can’t blame him for British weather and the battles are well-staged. He does show the courage of his convictions in making the film concentrate on conflicted character rather than going along the easier heroic route of underdog rallying people to a cause.

David Hemmings (Blow-Up, 1966) is both the film’s strength and weakness. He is excellent at capturing the torment, the soul divided, and the inherent arrogance as well as the preference for peace instead of war. But in terms of his leadership skills he is on a par with Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven (2005). That part was originally intended for Russell Crowe and Peter O’Toole was first choice for Alfred and you can’t help thinking both would have been a substantial improvement. On the other hand, Alfred was just 22 when he became king and for someone intent on the priesthood there would be no need for him to develop his physique or political skills. So this is a far cry from your typical Hollywood hero and in that regard the casting makes perfect sense and Hemmings a bold actor to take on such an unlikeable character.

Prunella Ransome (Man in the Wilderness, 1971) does well in her first leading role, suggesting both vulnerability and independence and while virtually imprisoned by both Alfred and Guthrun remaining principled. Michael York (Justine, 1969) was a definite rising star at this point and plays the Viking with considerably more gusto than his tendency towards passive characters would suggest.  

There’s virtually a legion of excellent supporting players in Colin Blakely (The Vengeance of She, 1968), Alan Dobie (The Comedy Man, 1964), Ian McKellen (Lords of the Rings and X-Men), Peter Vaughan (A Twist of Sand, 1968), Vivien Merchant (Accident, 1967),  Barry Evans (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1968), Sinead Cusack (Hoffman, 1970), Christopher Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small, 1978-1990) and Robin Askwith (Confessions of a Window Cleaner, 1974).

Oscar-winner James R. Webb (How the West Was Won, 1963) was an improbable name to be attached to a British screenplay. But this was a pet project he had been trying to get made since 1964. Ken Taylor (Web of Evidence, 1959) was brought in to lend a hand.

Not being a student of English history but familiar with the ways of the movie business, I am sure the picture has many historical inaccuracies, but it does present one of the most complex individuals ever to feature in a historical film of the period, when audiences preferred their heroes more black-and-white. So it is a significant achievement in the canon.

Sanctuary (1961) ***

This overheated melodrama stands as a classic example of Hollywood’s offensive attitudes to women. Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner could hardly blame the movies for sensationalising his misogynistic source material since if anything the movie took a softer line.  Told primarily in flashback as headstrong southern belle Temple Drake (Lee Remick) attempts to mitigate the death sentence passed on her maid Nancy (Odetta). Given that such appeals are directed at Drake’s Governor father (Howard St John), and that the maid has been condemned for murdering Drake’s infant child, that’s a whole lot of story to swallow.

Worse is to follow. Drake takes up with Prohibition bootlegger Candy Man (Yves Montand) after being raped by him and thereafter appears happy to live with him in a New Orleans brothel – the “sanctuary,” no irony intended, of the title – despite him slapping her around. The film steers clear of turning her into the prostitute of the original book, but pretty much sets up the notion that high class women will fall for a low-class tough guy whose virility is demonstrated by his brutality. In other words a “real man” rather than the dilettantes she has previously rejected.

After the Candy Man dies, Drake returns home and marries wealthy suitor Gowan Stevens (Bradford Dillman) who blames himself, rightly, for Drake falling into the clutches of the gangster in the first place. But a past threatening to engulf her precipitates the infanticide.

Faulkner was a Hollywood insider, adapting Sanctuary for The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and earning high praise for  his work on Bogart vehicles To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). The success of The Tarnished Angels (1957) starring Rock Hudson, The Long, Hot Summer (1958) with Paul Newman and The Sound and the Fury (1959) headlined by Yul Brynner had sent his cachet rocketing. But all three were directed by Americans – Douglas Sirk and Martin Ritt – who had a distinctive visual style and an ear for what made melodrama work.

Sanctuary had been handed to British director Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger, 1959) and he didn’t quite understand how to make the best of the difficult project. So while Lee Remick manages to suggest both strength and fragility, and makes her character’s wanton despair believable, Yves Montand is miscast and Bradford Dillman fails to convince even though portraying a weak character. Too many of the smaller roles appear as cliches. And it’s hard to believe the maid’s motivation in turning murderer. Watch out for Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967).

What was acceptable steamy melodrama in the 1930s fails to click three decades on. Faulkner’s thesis that high-falutin’ women want a man to master them and furthermore will fall in love with their rapist seems to lack any understanding of the female mind and will not appeal any more to the modern sensibility than it did on release. Lee Remick is what holds the picture together, in part because she plays so well the role of a woman embracing degradation, and refusing – no matter how insane the idea appears – to let go of the man she believes is the love of her life. It’s not Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s not that far off that kind of fantasy figure, and given the success of that book, it’s entirely possible there is a market for what Faulkner has to peddle.

Not easy to find. This is actually on YouTube if you go onto that channel and search. Strangely enough, if I post a link, it says it is no longer playing there – but just as strangely if you go looking you will find it.

Night of the Following Day (1969) ***

As his popularity in the 1960s faded, Marlon Brando was often called upon to save, or greenlight, a picture unworthy of his talent. Except that director Hubert Cornfield failed to extract enough tension from a kidnap thriller with an inbuilt deadline and a double-crossing sub-plot this might have been one to rise out of the mediocrity.

It’s not unknown for strangers working together on a robbery to adopt pseudonyms, colors in the case of Reservoir Dogs (1992) or cities as in Spanish television hit The Money Heist. Here they are known by their designated tasks, which seemed a nod towards artistic pretension at the time. Even so, the gang have too many frailties for taking on a caper like this, the pressure of a deadline and the publicity their crime attracts exacerbating the situation. So kidnapping a millionaire’s daughter (Pamela Franklin) are: Chauffeur (Marlon Brando), in on the job because he owes a favour to Friendly (Jess Hahn), whose sister Blonde (Rita Moreno) is also the chauffeur’s drug-addict girlfriend, the psychopathic Leer (Richard Boone) and a pilot (Al Lettieri).

All except the pilot are holed up in a remote beach house in France. The first signs of cracks show when Blonde is so drugged up she fails to collect her colleagues from a small local airport and, when suspecting the chauffeur of having sex with the girl, she explodes in to a tantrum. And because she can’t get her story straight she attracts the attention of a local cop (Gerard Buhr). Despite making a good job of calming down the terrified girl, Leer has other plans for her which the Chauffeur is constantly trying to thwart. At various points various people try to quit. At various points romantic and family ties are pulled tight.

The details of the cash hand-over are well done as is the unexpected double-cross and the diversion allowing them to escape but about ten minutes of the running time is people driving around in cars, only at the later stages to any useful dramatic purpose, time that would been better spent filling us in on the characters. Most of the tension derives from a gang with two loose cannons and certainly the wait for the confrontation between Chauffeur and Leer is worthwhile.

The biggest plus point is Marlon Brando (The Chase, 1966) and even – perhaps because of – sporting a blonde wig and black tee-shirt remains a compelling screen presence. He might have been slumming it but he is certainly believable as the minor criminal way out of his depth. It’s a mistake to think of him as intended to exude menace along the line of Quint in The Nightcomers (1971) because this is actually a complicated role. On the one hand he clearly never wanted to be involved, participation triggered by a sense of honor, trying to keep his girlfriend and the kidnappee safe while at the same time happy to resort to considerable violence to achieve his ends.

The malevolent Boone (The Arrangement, 1969) almost steals the show, beginning as the voice of reason and gradually succumbing to his inner vices. The love interest benefits from Brando and Moreno (West Side Story, 1961), also in blonde wig, being ex-lovers in real life and it takes little to ignite the anger in Moreno. But her portrayal of the addict who cannot stay off her chosen poison long enough to carry out a simple task is excellent. Pamela Franklin (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1968) has little to do except look scared and she has one revealing scene when in attempting to seduce the Chauffeur sets up the prospect of a different kind of liaison with Leer.

Hubert Cornfield had not directed a picture since Pressure Point (1962) which acted as a decent calling-card and showed how good he was at creating tension between opposing individuals. Instead of focusing here on the characters, Cornfield seems more interested in the visuals, none of which as it turns out are particular arresting and in one instance virtually impossible to see what is going on.

Not so much a curiosity as a masterclass in how to blow a once-in-a-lifetime gig with Marlon Brando and what not to do with a thriller.

CATCH-UP: Marlon Brando had a wayward time of it in the 1960s and you can follow his career through these previous reviews in the Blog: The Ugly American (1964), Bedtime Story (1964), The Chase (1966) and The Appaloosa (1966).

Amulet (2020) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Succession has a lot to answer for. Even demons stuck in the attic are now looking for an heir. Even demons who either puke up or give birth to hairless bats – it’s unclear which. A lot is unclear here, deliberately opaque, artistically opaque or, worst, carelessly opaque, like someone who can’t be bothered to join up any dots. Horror films rich in atmosphere are often short of the elements that make a good horror film.

Eastern European (no clue as to which country) Tomas (Alec Secareanu) who was once a border guard (or two miles away from the border and no clue as to why two miles away from the border was important) is working on a London building site when a fire renders him homeless. Spotted on the street by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), she provides him with shelter in a run-down house inhabited by Magda (Carla Juri) on the assumption he can spruce the place up a bit. Although a handyman, he does nothing, doesn’t scrape down any walls, fix a roof, or anything sensible. Instead, he takes a chisel to the ceiling (reason unexplained) where he uncovers something only he can see.

Magda is clearly unhinged, though she is a good cook. The longer the film went on I was hoping she was secretly poisoning him because the movie takes too long to go anywhere and by that time you’re already far ahead of the film. One of the reasons the movie is so reluctant to engage in a proper narrative is that the director delights in loitering over images of a snail, or the inside of a gutted fish or pans with what appears longing to the tops of very tall trees.

Occasionally, we get a flashback. Let me tell you how important this guard post is. It’s in a forest road in the middle of nowhere (all right then, two miles from the border). Tomas guards it during the day, but at night anyone could walk past. He’s not one half of a shift. He spends his time reading philosophy which makes him an “interesting character.”

Given he’s got nothing else to do all day it eventually occurs to Tomas there’s something odd going on what with banging on the ceiling and the occasional eye appearing through the cracks and someone nasty stabbing Magda when she peers through a keyhole. Turns out she is “looking after” her dying mother, although her definition of care leaves a lot to the imagination. When not adding to the world’s supply of bats, her ancient crone of a mother crawls around in a bare attic.

Not surprisingly, the good nun turns out not to be even a bad nun but not a nun at all – who would have guessed it? But in on the whole Succession business.

All this would have been fine – many horror films are pure barmy – if there was even one tiny scare, even an inkling of one. Horror movies, in case anyone has forgotten, are meant to scare the living daylights out of you. Either you get to jump in the cinema or if it’s the more subtle kind of horror picture it keeps you up at night worrying about the potential implications. The amulet turns out not to be a red herring as such but definitely not up to scratch.

I’m sure Carla Juri and Alex Secareanu are good actors, but the material here is so scant you never get the chance to find out. I never believed for a minute that Imelda Staunton was a nun, whether good or bad.

I thought we might at least be able to blame the National Lottery, the British Film Institute, the BBC or Channel four – the most common funding sources for stinkers – but it seems this was independently made. Debut director Romola Garai can’t even blame the script since she wrote the damn thing. Her talent as an actor (Miss Marx, 2020) hasn’t been duplicated here though she may improve given a second chance and a better script or script editor.  

In cinemas now – where I saw it. I should point out that I pay for my cinema ticket.

Murder, Inc. (1960) ***

A gangster trend hit the mean streets of Hollywood at the start of the 1960s. But in the absence of big box office hitters like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, these were all B films with unknowns or low-ranked stars in the leading roles. Whereas Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1931), The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949) were fictionalized accounts of hoodlums, the gun-toting movie spree kicked off by Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and Al Capone (1959) was based on the real-life gangsters who had terrorized America’s big cities in the 1920s and 1930s.

By the end of 1960, moviegoers had been served up an informal history of the country’s best-known mobsters from Ma Barker’s Killer Band (1960) and Pretty Boy Floyd (1960) to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and Murder Inc (1960). The infamy of the criminals was so comparatively recent that moviemakers assumed audiences had a wider knowledge of their exploits and the context of their crimes.

Murder Inc tells how underworld kingpin Lepke Buchalter – Tony Curtis played him in the more straightforward biopic Lepke (1975) – set up a system of killing dissenters in the ranks for the entire American Cosa Nostra (aka The Syndicate) in a way that prevented those ordering the murders being connected to those committing them, the same kind of protective cell operation used by terrorists. He created a separate organisation of hitmen.

This quasi-documentary, with occasional voice-over narrative, focuses on three characters – the quiet-spoken Lepke (David J. Stewart), hitman Abe Reles (Peter Falk) and singer Joey Collins (Stuart Whitman) who becomes involved to pay off a gambling debt. Later on, the focus switches to Brooklyn assistant district attorney Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan), against a backdrop of massive police corruption, investigating the murder epidemic this deadly enterprise has created. The films jumps around too much to be totally engrossing but it is certainly an interesting watch.

The two main villains could not be more different, Lepke representing the new school, a businessman, ordering killings but never participating, and for such a tough character tormented by a delicate stomach. Reles is old school, relishing opportunities to murder, and raping Collins’ honest wife Eadie (May Britt) in part because she treats him as scum. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for Joey especially as his wife takes the brunt of the violence.

In an Oscar-nominated performance Peter Falk (Castle Keep, 1969) steals the show as the chilling, venomous killer, the kind of nonentity who rises to prominence only through his penchant for homicide. Swedish star May Britt (The Blue Angel, 1959) isn’t far behind with a portrayal of a strong woman saddled with a weak husband. As the milk-drinking hood, David J. Stewart (The Young Savages, 1961) was as scary in his pitilessness as his more overtly violent underling.

Stuart Whitman (The Commancheros, 1961) is almost acting against type for he was later known for rugged roles. Henry Morgan (It Happened to Jane, 1959) gave his portrayal of Turkus similar characteristics to Lepke, appearing as a quiet individual, concerned with details,  except that he was incorruptible.

You might spot some interesting names in the cast. Simon Oakland (Bullitt, 1968) is an honest cop, Vincent Gardenia (Mad Dog Coll, 1961) is a lawyer, comedian Morey Amsterdam (The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1961-1964) plays a hotel manager, Sylvia Miles (Oscar-nominated for Midnight Cowboy, 1969) has a bit part and singer Sarah Vaughan is a singer.

For some reason, this movie starred a number of actors in leading roles who made few screen appearances. This was the only movie of the decade for May Britt, David J. Stewart made only three movies during the same period, and Henry Morgan only made three pictures in his entire career, this being the last.

The movie boasted two directors. Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) was replaced  by Burt Balaban (Mad Dog Coll, 1961) when the threat of strike action by actors and writers in 1960 forced the 18-day shoot to be cut by 10 days so it’s hard to say who was responsible for which scenes, although the film does boast some unusual aerial shots.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

The Last Duel (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A surprisingly contemporary core, bolstered by a quartet of excellent performances, drives Ridley Scott’s bold Rashomon-style historical tale. Despite its length it’s less of a historical epic in the style of Gladiator (1999) and more of an intimate and intricate exploration of power – and its lack. Each of the main characters, including and especially the women, while exerting some kind of power nonetheless are in thrall to a superior being whose word is absolute law. Challenging that authority could result in instant death. It’s a slow-burn for sure but exerts a tenacious grip as the story unfolds from three points-of-view to a double climax, both riveting for different reasons.   

And it’s far from typical Ridley Scott except in attention to historical detail. The battle scenes are almost perfunctory – in fact few end in victory – and except to demonstrate bravery do not follow the usual heroic template. There’s none of the trademark Scott cinematic sweep although the duel itself is exceptional.

Scarred to the point of facial disfigurement Damon has never played a character like this before.

In 14th century France Marguerite (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, the accusation finally settled by duel to the death. All three characters are given the chance to give their version of the story and this is where it becomes fascinating as shades of personality are filled in.

At the outset Jean comes across as brave, impulsive, marrying Marguerite to save her honour (her father is a traitor), and when wronged willing to challenge authority. But as other perspectives unfold he is revealed as blustering, ambitious, more interested in his wife’s sizeable dowry than her honour, over-proud, and a poor manager of his estate. While brave, educated and charming Le Gris turns out to be a greedy, conniving bed-hopper. Initially presented as a grateful wife and little more than an adornment Marguerite is revealed as the most courageous of all, an able estate manager, challenging the King, accepting the prospect of death rather than, as was apparently the custom of the times, allowing the rape to go unremarked.

Comer is a revelation and you could argue she steals the picture from her more experienced colleagues. There is an astonishing scene where she realises that, her husband’s bravery notwithstanding, he has condemned her to a terrible death should he lose the duel.

The sexual mores of the era are examined in depth, the worst examples of male prerogative sometimes just touched upon in passing, for example, since a wife is her husband’s property, in law he is the one besmirched not her. In taking sexual power as his central theme rather than the triumphs and woes of the men, Scott takes a huge risk in alienating a following expecting more action and cinematic bravura, but the bold story-telling pays off and although starting with Alien (1979) the director has a record of strong female characters this has more in common with Thelma and Louise (1991) where wronged women are backed up into a cul de sac.

Rejecting the heroism route allows Scott to present far more rounded characters. None of the four principals conforms to type. Damon is neither the common man nor the action hero, but a boor. Driver is neither charming seducer nor outright villain but somewhere in between, living on his wits. Comer cannot rely on female machismo or cleverness but must remain stout in the face of an onslaught of humiliation. And mention must be made of Ben Affleck as Pierre d’Alencon, employer of Le Gris and master of Carrouges, who is cocky, immoral, amoral, greedy, shifty and cunning. Other standout performances feature Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game, 2014) as a gleeful king and Harriet Walter (Atonement, 2007) as a loathsome and cruel mother-in-law. I just hope Oscar voters recognise at least some of these perfomances.

A blond and goateed Affleck as you have never seen him before, cockiness running riot, with a mean streak a mile wide, the epitome of Middle Ages entitlement.

It’s worth paying attention to the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Oscar-nominated for Can You Ever Forgive Me, 2018) and Damon and Affleck (their first joint effort since Good Will Hunting, 1997) and note how the language the characters employ changes according to the perspective. Words that we imagine in one section that appear to be spoken by one character in another section are delivered by someone else entirely.

I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott and while I came looking for adventure in the style of Gladiator (2000) or his other historical masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven (2005) I came away more than satisfied in the way he altered his style to suit the story almost in the same manner as he had done with American Gangster (2007), another picture about power.

You will probably be aware by now that this has been a colossal box office bomb and although the film has enormous merit you can see why audiences looked the other way. Oddly enough, I think it will acquire a bigger audience through small-screen streaming since it is really a drama.  I would still recommend catching it at the cinema but there’s fair chance it will not last for its full 45-day window.

I tend to judge directors not by critical acclaim but by a more rudimentary measure – how often I watch their pictures. I have seen Alien, Blade Runner (1982), Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, the Martian (2015)  and even the flawed Prometheus (2012) and Black Hawk Down (2001) more than half a dozen times each – often three or four times at the cinema – and I have a notion that The Last Duel will comfortably fit into this elite.

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