Blonde (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Stream of consciousness reimagining of Marilyn Monroe’s life mainlining on celebrity, identity, mental illness and vulnerability and held together by a mesmerizing performance by Ana de Armas. Director Andrew Dominik’s slicing and dicing of screen shape, occasional dips into black-and-white and a special effects foetus won’t work at all as well on the small screen. Monroe’s insistence on calling husbands “daddy” and letters from a never-seen potential father that turns into a cruel sucker punch, threaten to tip the picture into an over-obvious direction.  

A very selective narrative based on a work of fiction by novelist Joyce Carol Oates leaves you wondering how much of it is true, and also how much worse was the stuff left out. As you might expect, the power mongers (Hollywood especially) don’t come out of it well, and her story is bookended by abuse, rape as an ingenue by a movie mogul and being dragged “like a piece of meat” along White House corridors to be abused by the President.

A mentally ill mother who tries to drown her in the bath and later disowns sets up a lifetime of instability. Eliminated entirely is her first husband, but the scenes with second husband (Bobby Canavale) and especially the third (Adrien Brody) are touchingly done, Marilyn’s desire for an ordinary home life at odds with her lack of domesticity, and each relationship begins with a spark that soon fades as she grapples with a personality heading out of control.

That she can’t come to grips with “Marilyn,” perceived almost as an alien construct, a larger-than-life screen personality that bewitches men, is central to the celebrity dichotomy, how to set aside the identity on which you rely for a living. It’s hardly a new idea, but celebrity has its most celebrated victim in Monroe.

According to this scenario, she enjoyed a threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr.  (Evan Williams) but otherwise her sexuality, except as it radiated on screen, was muted. The only real problem with Dominik’s take on her life that there is no clear indication of when her life began to spiral out of control beyond the repetition of the same problems. She remains a little girl lost most of the time.

I had no problems with the length (164 minutes) or with the selectivity. Several scenes were cinematically electrifying – her mother driving through a raging inferno – or emotionally heart-breaking (being dumped at the orphanage) and despite the constant emotional turbulence it never felt like too heavy a ride. But you wished for more occasions when she just stood up for herself as when arguing for a bigger salary for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I wondered too if the NC-17 controversy was a publicity ploy because the rape scene is nothing like as brutal as, for example, The Straw Dogs (1971) or Irreversible (2002), and the nudity is not particular abundant nor often sexual. That’s not to say there is much tasteful about the picture, and you couldn’t help but flinch at the rawness of her emotions, her inability to find any peace, the constant gnaw of insecurity, and her abuse by men in power.

Ana de Armas (No Time to Die, 2021) is quite superb. I can’t offer any opinion on how well she captured the actress’s intonations or personality, but her depiction of a woman falling apart and her various stabs at holding herself together is immense. The early scenes by Adrien Brody (See How They Run, 2022) as the playwright smitten by her understanding of his characters are exceptional as is the work of Julianne Nicholson (I, Tonya, 2017) as her demented mother. Worth a mention too are the sexually adventurous entitled self-aware bad boys Xavier Samuel (Elvis, 2022) and Evan Williams (Escape Room, 2017).

While there are no great individual revelations, what we’ve not witnessed before is the depth of her emotional tumult. Apart from an occasional piece of self-indulgence, Andrew Dominik, whose career has been spotty to say the least, delivers a completely absorbing with an actress in the form of her life. Try and catch this on the big screen, as I suspect its power will diminish on a small screen.

The Collector (1965) *****

William Wyler’s paean to Incels strike such a contemporary note it’s hard to believe it was made over 60 years ago. An insightful study of male entitlement, female submission and    novice serial killer that showcased two emerging British stars, this is as much about the psychological make-up of the victim as the captor.

Following a lottery win (see Note), lonely bank clerk Freddie (Terence Stamp) kidnaps the woman of his dreams, flame-haired art student Miranda (Samantha Eggar) in the hope that once she gets to know him she will fall in love. He has found a large cellar beside the secluded mansion he bought with his winnings. But this is no dank dungeon with a prisoner chained to the walls, but a comfortable abode with lighting, heating, clothing, food, and art materials. However, it is locked.

In turn angry, puzzled and submissive, Miranda tries to work out what she needs to do to achieve her liberty without realising that no matter what she does she will never fulfil his dreams. Despite his shyness, it wouldn’t be hard in other circumstances to fall for a guy as good-looking as this, if only for an affair. She is sexually experienced, but has just been rejected by an older man (Kenneth More), and love on the rebound is hardly uncommon.  

Unfortunately, Freddie lives such a soulless, empty, existence, no interests beyond an obsession with butterflies, of which he has amassed a collection large enough to supply a complete museum, that the chances of finding common ground are remote and the circumstances of their meeting pretty much douse the potential for any spark.

At first, once she has expended her anger at her incarceration, she is grateful not to be murdered or raped – even pleads that if he is going to take her by force sexually not to drug her – and soon her mind turns to ways of escape, especially once he invites her into the big house, allows her to bathe, cooks her a meal and shows the world she could enjoy as his willing partner.

With every step, Freddie dares to dream more, that his insane idea will come to fruition, that a beautiful princess will love the lowly commoner. And as much as this focuses on male domination, it is also an examination of female independence, Miranda being in the foreground of that generation to espouse personal freedom, not viewing marriage as an ultimate destination, but seeking a fulfilling career with love almost a perk on the side.

Even without going to extent of kidnapping a woman, males of the period still expected a female to cater to their every whim, wife-beating hardly considered a crime, and, ironically, it would be a rare woman who would not enjoy the worship a more ordinary Freddie planned to bestow on his beloved.

It being set in the England of a particular period, Freddie blames the gulf between them on “class,” that where or to whom you are born creating an unattainable barrier between young men and young women, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. But, of course, to the thwarted, there is always someone to blame.

You will be very familiar with the cinematic tale of the imprisoned female attempting to escape by wiles and ingenuity, but even so, this will take you by surprise, in part because the idea of being forcibly detained was a rare event back then, so Miranda does not spend her time trying to chisel through loose cement using a stolen fork or other ideas along the same lines. That she has even managed to negotiate the length of her prison term makes her initial custody tolerable, especially as, in terms of material things, she wants for nothing.

Unfortunately, although Freddie is immune to normal feelings, he is alert to the slightest nuance, and would feel it an insult to his intelligence should she just play along and pretend to fall in love with as a means of engineering her escape. That the audience is probably more aware of this than Miranda makes the tension virtually unbearable.

This is a duel of the highest caliber between captor and detainee. At several moments it looks as if the tide will turn. A terrific scene with overflowing bath water fails to make a nosy neighbor suspicious. She even at one point manages to whack her assailant over the head with a shovel and attempt a genuine escape. You are left to wonder if making a sexual sacrifice, even taking the initiative with a virgin, will make the necessary difference. But one look into those implacable eyes would have told you exactly where you stood without having to wait until you were dragged by the hair across the lawn in a rainstorm.  

Audiences more familiar with the director through late-career roadshows like Ben-Hur (1959) and Funny Girl (1967) or the earlier rom-com Roman Holiday (1953) would be forgiven for forgetting how adept Wyler was at racking up the tension from his early thrillers or dealing with unattainable love (Wuthering Heights, 1939) or entitlement (Jezebel, 1938). He evokes such a claustrophobic atmosphere, ingrained with pure Englishness, and plays with ironies of character beauty – Freddie’s eyes and cheekbones, that should have attracted women by the score, instead lending him devilish menace while Miranda’s sensational looks that would have most men begging for just a minute of her company prove insufficient to enslave this particular creature.

That there is genuine sexual tension, not just whether he will end up raping her, but whether she might see his more attractive version of himself and come to give him what he wants without being repulsed, brings a surprising sexual tension. You wouldn’t say there was chemistry between the characters in the normal sense, but the situation is electrifying.

This was a career high for Terence Stamp (Term of Trial, 1962), minus many of the acting foibles and vocal tics that peppered his later work, and the same went for Samantha Eggar (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966). But the performances are of such a high quality, especially when you think she has breached his defences sufficiently, that at times it is an unbearable watch. John Kohn (Caprice, 1967) and Stanley Mann (The Naked Runner, 1967) based their screenplay on the bestselling – and highly praised – novel by John Fowles, author of later cult work The Magus.

This would have stood the test of time anyway as a pure thriller but since it digs into what has now become a counter-culture it carries even greater significance today.

NOTE: He didn’t win the lottery. That didn’t exist then. Instead he won on the “Football Pools,” but that concept – it began in 1923 –  is so hard to explain to non-British people that I took the easy way out. However, the “pools” was a gambling phenomenon of the times, the entry fee so low, at its peak played by 14 million people in the UK every week in the hope of winning a jackpot akin to lottery cash. In essence, you had to guess out of all the soccer games being played on a Saturday (all games in those days kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday) how many would end in draws.

In Harm’s Way (1965) *****

Preminger at a peak, the more I watch this picture, not just the more impressed I become but the more I want to watch it again – three times, as it happens, for this review. A tale of heroism populated by morally wounded heroes, the undertone of critique for the Naval establishment dealt with in brilliant narrative fashion, terrific pacing, one of John Wayne’s very best performances, Kirk Douglas not far behind, great action scenes, and one of the few movies to fulfil this director’s original intent.

You can, of course, argue that it’s the height of political PR. Just as the Americans managed with The Alamo and the British with Dunkirk, the aim was to turn defeat into victory, so this moves beyond the humiliation of Pearl Harbor to the victories beyond. But in some sense Pearl Harbor is just the prologue to a stiffer examination of men at war, rather than sailors taken to task over the complacency that left them so open to cataclysmic attack.

And while there’s a number of sub-plots, these are more expertly handled than I can recall in many another lengthy big-budget picture, no endless cutting between major and minor characters, but the minor characters only entering the frame when they have a dramatic part to play.

Captain “Rock” Rockwell (John Wayne) falls foul of his superiors for basically being in command of a ship sunk by a torpedo. On a technical point, he’s stripped of command, and reduced to a desk job, a casualty of the peace-time hierarchy determined to find someone to blame, only returning to active duty – and promoted to Admiral – when more war-oriented figures are put in charge.

The desk job gives him time to romance feisty nurse Lt. Maggie Haines (Patricia Haines) who has the cojones to take charge of the budding relationship. She happens to share an apartment with another nurse, the much younger Ensign Annalee Dorne (Jill Dorne) who is dating entitled Ensign Jeremiah Torrey (Brandon de Wilde), Rock’s estranged son.

Jeremiah works for slimy glory-hunter Commander Neal Owynn (Patrick O’Neal), a former U.S. Congressman using his political skills to worm his way into the office of by-the-book Vice Admiral Brodick (Dana Andrews). Rock shares his apartment with Commander Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), a thrice-married playboy, high up in Navy intelligence.

Rock’s second-in-command is Commander – junior to a captain in case you don’t understand the U.S. Navy ranking system – Paul Eddington, a hothead whose mourning for dead wife Liz (Barbara Bouchet) results in him also being reduced to a desk job and exiled to the Pacific. On the fringes of the story are Lt. Commander “Mac” MacConnell (Tom Tryon) and pregnant wife Beverley (Paula Prentiss).

How all these characters enmesh is the consequence of a quite brilliant screenplay by Wendell Hayes (Advise and Consent, 1962). Rockwell and Eddington both seek redemption, the former to prove his Naval worth and regain the affection of his son, the latter to absolve himself for his terrible actions.

You can always tell the hero in war films because they are so rarely a physical casualty of war, all the others are killed and wounded but hardly ever the hero, so it takes something for the Hollywood Hero of the Century to play a character who is wounded not once but twice, and for the early part of the picture walks around with his arm in his sling (not quite an echo of the way he holds his arm in The Searchers, but evoking the same internal conflict).

The only supposed out-and-out hero is MacConnell, but his inaction at the beginning of the movie fails to prevent the death of Eddington’s wife. And his heroism largely takes place off-screen and it’s worth noting that Rock doesn’t raise a rifle or pistol in anger (or even get into a punch-up as was the actor’s wont in other films). Being in charge he’s removed from the core action even if suffering the consequences of battle. In a marvellous touch of irony, Rockwell is the most passive hero to hit the screen. It’s an incredibly bold and self-confident director who would even think of luring audiences into an action picture starring the Hero of the Century and then denying him a single moment of screen glory.

Much has been written about the cinematic arc John Ford took in the beginning and ending of The Searchers, the symbolic opening and closing of doors, but since Preminger is long out of critical favor nobody’s has bothered to notice how much of this film concerns cinematic echo.

To take the most obvious example, the first witnesses of the airborne Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are illicit pair Liz Eddington and her paramour (Hugh O’Brian) and towards the end it’s her husband Paul, by this point guilty of horrendous behaviour, who leads the airborne fightback against the enemy.

A beach – where Liz and escort make love – is how the director initially pushes the audience towards sympathising with the drunken Eddington. A beach is where we later learn to despise him, as he brutally rapes Ensign Dorne. And it doesn’t take much to work out that his wife’s exuberant wildness explains Eddington’s initial attraction to her, not realising that psychologically it provides him with an excuse for his own darker wildness, initially restricted to self-destruction but when it truly emerges it’s to the detriment of an innocent.

And that’s before we get on to Rockwell as the messenger of death, delivering the bad news to wives, and then being on the receiving end after his son dies in battle. And finally, the political peace-time high-ups get their come-uppance in actual war.

It’s insulting – as some have suggested – that the performance of John Wayne (The Hellfighters, 1968) is the result of undiagnosed cancer when in fact this is a finely nuanced role of a high-ranking figure living out in his life in regret, at times quite shamefaced about abandoning his son at a very early age. Preminger cracked down on Wayne’s habit of splitting his lines in two, so those typical pauses we have come to expect are in large part gone, and it helps the movie’s pacing. For most of the movie the character is saddled with consequence. That passivity that the director saw as essential to the role is virtually present all the time.

Preminger wrings a different performance, too, from Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968), equally laden with regret, but not enough to prevent him lashing out and the actor is accorded two quite stunning scenes, the first as he broods in silence over his wife, but for the second, prior to raping Ensign Dorne, the stone-cold look on his face suggests a serial killer held at bay for too long and now about to explode.

Burgess Meredith (Hurry Sundown, 1967) is another brought to directorial heel, his more common scene-stealing and vowel-stretching also eliminated, but in exchange given a larger-than-life character on which to expend screen energy. The entire cast is good-to-excellent and it’s jam-packed: Patricia Neal (Hud, 1962), Tom Tryon (The Cardinal, 1964), Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1963), Brandon De Wilde (Shane, 1953), Jill Haworth (Exodus, 1960), Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965), Franchot Tone (Advise and Consent, 1962), Patrick O’Neal (Stiletto, 1969), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), Henry Fonda (Battle of the Bulge, 1965), Barbara Bouchet (Danger Route, 1967) and Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, 1964) Many of the supporting cast were also playing against type – Prentiss as the young wife falling to pieces, Andrews and O’Neal as slippery political types, Holloway  a guerrilla, and perhaps most interesting off Neal, not the typical woman left behind when the man goes off to war but, in her role as nurse, entering harm’s way herself.

And despite criticism of the miniatures used in sea scenes while that might have been obvious on the big screen you don’t notice it on the small screen. The action  scenes are very well-done for the time, and quite unusual in that by and large it’s the Americans who appear shell-shocked not the enemy.

Cramming this much narrative into the overall arch of Pearl Harbor and retaliation against the Japanese, while bringing so many different characters to the fore with clear dramatic purpose is an amazing achievement, screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Advise and Consent) doing the heavy lifting in this department.

But Preminger the director is very much to the fore, in his composition and use of the camera for long tracking shots (a particular favorite of mine) such as at the beginning. A riveting watch full of splendid acting. Shooting it in black-and-white might have at one time appeared to date the picture but instead it has rendered it ageless. Five stars without a doubt.

Night of the Blood Monster / The Bloody Judge (1969) ***

Handsomely mounted historical drama set in 17th century England on the brink of revolution  meets Son of Witchfinder General. An uprising headed by the Duke of Monmouth in the south-west threatens to overthrow King James II. Involved in the plot are Harry Selton (Hans Hass), son of suspected agitator Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), whose beloved Mary Gray (Maria Rohm) is in the sights of Judge Jeffreys (Christopher Lee) after he has condemned her sister Alicia (Margaret Lee) to be burned as a witch.

The minute witchcraft enters the equation the narrative thrust is constantly interrupted by scenes of nudity, blood and torture, mostly involving women, but actually the film does attempt to cover the rebellion and its notorious aftermath when hundreds of rebels were executed, the “Bloody Assizes” with “Bloody Judge” Jeffreys to the fore. Conflating witchcraft with a genuine historical episode does not work very well and unlike Witchfinder General (1968), the murder of innocent women is more of a sideshow, despite the brutality involved, and you get the impression the story has been hijacked to accommodate supposed witch Mary in the interests of adding titillation.

Even as the story of the rebellion unfolds, the threat to the crown spelled out, the origins of the revolt mostly made clear (Monmouth being the illegitimate son of Charles II, and nephew to James II) although the sectarianism behind the rebellion is ignored, the narrative keeps jumping back to the witch element. Jeffreys connects the parallel narratives, hunting down rebels and witches, while handling most of the exposition. Given the budget, there’s a surprisingly good battle sequence, cavalry charging cannon. Given his later reputation, Jeffreys also reflects on the meaning of justice.

And while there are some camp moments – Jeffreys playing the organ while attired in grand robes, dancing girls sticking pins in his effigy – the twists and turns (Mary captured and rescued, captured again)  are effective enough. Despite the copious nudity, there a couple of low-key love scenes and, oddly enough, a touching moment when Mary licks the blood from a dead prisoner. And for all the blood, that is effect rather than cause, nothing too gory.

But with the powerful all-mighty, and investigators able to plant evidence, and the innocent forced into immoral acts to save their loved ones, lawlessness is apparently next to godliness. But in reality the wicked did not get away with their crimes so various villains get their come-uppance.

Most peculiar sight is Christopher Lee in a love scene where he is not about to sink his incisors into a neck. Occasionally, the film bursts into German with English subtitles – as if various versions were pillaged to produce this copy – or has lines like “you turn me on.”

However, fans of Spanish cult director Jess Franco (The Girl from Rio) who expected something more along the lines of 99 Women (1969) and Venus in Furs (1969) may be disappointed that he spends so much time on the historical elements and less on the random T&A. You might not be surprised to learn of the involvement of ubiquitous producer Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967).

Firecreek (1968) ****

Unfairly overlooked intelligent western with terrific performances from the two male stars and thematically prefiguring both Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Granted it appears slow but it’s the slow-burn kind of slow that works exceptionally well. Too often under-stated means under-rated while subtlety rarely attracts critical plaudits. And if you see the role of the screenwriter as probing personality and uncovering self-delusion rather than merely devising pithy lines then this is one for you.

Johnny (James Stewart) is a two-bit (“honorary”) sheriff  in a two-bit town stuffed full of losers. Into his patch comes a gang of hired killers fresh from range wars led by the wounded Bob (Henry Fonda) and including cocksure trigger-happy Earl (Gary Lockwood), mean Norman (Jack Elam) and dumb Drew (James Best). With Bob side-lined with his injury, it’s not long before the gang kicks off, Earl half-drowning a man, smashing up the saloon and nearly killing a pompous preacher (Ed Begley) while Norman attempts to rape Native American squaw Meli (Barbara Luna). They think a few dollars will repair the damage and nullify hurt feelings.

But for the most part tensions just simmer, it looking like the outlaws are temporary visitors, Johnny using diplomacy to settle matters, and none of the townspeople inclined to get into a shooting match. And there’s a rich seam of characters who even when they skirt cliché seem to offer if not necessarily something new but not shop-worn either and with emotional depth.

Headstrong teenager Leah (Brooke Bundy) is attracted to dangerous Earl even though he would as soon rape as romance her, level-headed Evelyn (Inger Stevens) finds solace in a man she knows is a killer and midwife Dulcie (Louise Latham) is so dry her language could cut you with a knife. Johnny’s too trusting wife Henrietta (Jacqueline Scott)  bewails “why did we settle for less than we wanted,” storekeeper Whittier (Dean Jagger) would be a knife-whittling charming elder statesmen except for his habit of going for the jugular,  and hero-worshipping stable boy Arthur (Robert Porter), too old to be just cute and verging on a calamity, “couldn’t tell you what day it was.” And there’s a hint that the upstanding Johnny ain’t quite so perfect, the question of Meli’s white child left dangling in the air.

It’s the kind of “cemetery” town people end up when they’ve nowhere else to go, the inhabitants discomfited “because today didn’t turn out like yesterday.” Johnny’s the worst offender, stopping here on his way to a better life further west because all he “saw here was land nobody wanted and ground that nobody would be challenging me for.” The only person who will stand up for law and order is the witless Arthur who unwittingly triggers trouble. The townspeople mirror the villagers in The Magnificent Seven (1960) who require the assistance of mercenaries before they can stand on their own two feet except in this case nobody is rushing to the rescue.

The initial stand-offs between Johnny and Bob are under-stated, serving to stoke up tension, and the twist is that it’s Bob who tries to avert a showdown, feeling sorry for the sheriff, knowing he will be no match for a proven gunslinger, while the climax provides a surprising saviour. In fact, Bob is the most self-aware of all the characters. He tells Evelyn “you are living even more in the past than I am” and that “I don’t have your temperament to accept another empty day.” And even though he doubts the quality of his gang, he can’t give them up, or the power of being in charge. “I’ve been alone, didn’t like it…I can’t gamble with being a nobody, I’ve been that, doesn’t work for me.”

Among the ton of great touches are Johnny’s badge, made by his kids, title misspelled, the climax in a dust whirlwind, the pompous preacher whose bluster can’t save him, and the most terrible wake you will ever witness.

It’s quite astonishing that a film with such a high quotient of characters – except Johnny at the end – lacking redeeming features could work so well. Director Vincent McEveety was the epitome of a journeyman, best known for television and Disney (Herbie Goes Bananas, 1977) go-to guy. This was his debut feature – if you exclude Blade Rider, Revenge of the Indian Nations (1966) stitched together from episodes of television’s Branded – and it sank at the box office despite the presence of Stewart and Fonda, admittedly at the tail end of their marquee power.

Outside of the wake and the climax, the best scenes are under-played. McEveety lets the words do the talking, a good choice given the exemplary writing (as indicated above) and three principal actors who can be relied upon to ignore the temptations of over-acting. He handles the action well and there’s a growing sense of terror as the townspeople realize what their cowardice has let them in for.

There’s a nod here and there to High Noon (1952) with the town full of cowards but from today’s perspective it’s as a precursor that the movie is perhaps more interesting. Henry Fonda’s (The Best Man, 1964) performance, complete with pitiless stare and thick stubble, seems a rehearsal for Once Upon Time in the West (1969) while his gang, like The Wild Bunch (1969), complete with squabbling outlaws and leadership challenge, are “running out of borders.”  You might notice how Fonda’s death here – the movement to the side when shot, the shock in his eyes – while markedly less operatic closely resembles a similar scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. And if you want further reference to Sergio Leone’s epic, how about a nearby town called Sweetwater.

You might think you’ve seen this James Stewart (The Rare Breed, 1966) performance  before but it’s a subtle variation on the hapless character of Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and far removed from the take-charge characters of this decade. This is man who has fooled himself into thinking he is something he is not, a man of the west in name only.

Inger Stevens (House of Cards) again delivers, like the other townspeople acting tough to hide the weak interior. There’s a terrific supporting cast. Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey) is given more rein than anybody else outside of Ed Begley (Warning Shot, 1967). Look out also for Dean Jagger (Elmer Gantry, 1960), Richard Porter (Mackenna’s Gold, 1969), Jay C. Flippen (Hellfighters, 1968), Louise Latham (Marnie, 1964), James Best (Shenandoah, 1965), Brooke Bundy (The Gay Deceivers, 1969) making her movie debut, Barbara Luna (Che!, 1969) and Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West).

Credit for the intelligent screenplay goes to Calvin Clements (Kansas City Bomber, 1972), also making his first picture.

Nevada Smith (1966) ****

Half breed Max Sand (Steve McQueen) has little truck with the notion that revenge is a dish best served cold. But he’s too young and raw, far from Lee Marvin’s callous killer in Point Blank (1969), to properly avenge the slaughter of his family by three outlaws.

This is a coming-of-age tale with a distinct difference. Max’s development includes, apart from initiation into sex of course, learning to read and write so he can make sense of signposts in order to track down the murderers and receiving tuition from gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) so that he can at least loose off some shots without doing himself damage. Vengeance burns so deep that he even stages a bumbled robbery so he can be sent to the prison where the second of his targets is incarcerated. Now that’s dedication for you. And along the way he learns the most important lesson of all, how to live, and not destroy himself through vengeance.

Even so, all Cord’s tuition counts for nought when Max needs a knife to dispatch his first victim Coe (Martin Landau). And he’s not yet so slick with a weapon to avoid serious injury himself. Kiowa saloon girl Neesa (Janet Margolin) nurses him back to health at her tribe’s camp. They become lovers but he rejects the wisdom of the elders and the opportunity to make a life with her.

Unfortunately, Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy)  is a jailbird. And worse, held prisoner in a swamp. Probably the worst bank robbery ever committed sends Nevada there. Max enrols another woman, Cajun Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) working in nearby rice fields – fraternisation between the jailbirds and these women permitted – to steal a boat to help him and Bowdre escape. Bowdre gets his and this time it’s Pilar who is the collateral damage.

A genuine outlaw now, Max has no trouble joining a band of robbers headed by Fitch (Karl Malden), the final prey. By now calling himself Nevada Smith, Max’s plans are thrown into confusion when it becomes apparent Fitch is aware of his true identity. A surprise ending is on the cards whichever way you cut it, and especially thrilling since it occurs during a well-planned gold bullion robbery.

It’s a film of two parts but divided into three if you like, the unusual swamp setting fitting in between two sections of more straightforward western. Though in the hands of director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969), there is little that’s so straightforward given his mastery of the widescreen and his hallmark extreme long shot. He’s capable of moving from the extreme violence of the vicious murder and rape of Max’s mother to the son’s discovery of the bodies shown just through Max’s physical reaction. And there’s some irony at play, too: gold triggers slaughter and climax; mental dereliction not as feared as its physical counterpart.

Although Hathaway was a true veteran, he was not best known for westerns in the manner of John Ford, more at home with film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947), war (The Desert Fox, 1951) and big-budget pictures like Niagara (1954) with Marilyn Monroe and Legend of the Lost (1957) teaming John Wayne and Sophia Loren. In a 30-year career he had only made three westerns of note – The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Rawhide (1951) and Garden of Evil (1954). So it was something of a surprise that in the 1960s over half his output was in the western genre. And unlike Ford and Howard Hawks who stuck to the formula of action within a defined community, Hathaway tended towards films of adventure, where the main character, often of a somewhat shady disposition, wandered far and wide.

Steve McQueen (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) carries the picture with some aplomb, moving deftly from the wet-behind-the-ears youngster to a clever and calculated killer and still retaining enough humanity to enjoy a romantic dalliance. There’s enough action here to satisfy McQueen’s fans spoiled by The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) and for those who had come to appreciate his acting plenty to enjoy. This and The Cincinnati Kid, where perforce as a poker player, he had to do a great deal of brooding, solidified his screen persona, a star you can’t keep your eyes off, wondering what on earth is going on in his mind. As much as he’s playing a character finding his feet, this is McQueen at very nearly the top of his game.

Brian Keith (The Rare Breed, 1966) is the pick of the support, adding a little softness to his usual more hard-nosed screen characters. The villains – Karl Malden (The Cincinnati Kid), Martin Landau (The Hallelujah Trail, 1965) and Arthur Kennedy (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) – are all good in their own different ways, and in the hands of excellent actors, easily differentiated. Suzanne Pleshette (Fate is the Hunter, 1964) shines in a too-brief role.

The sterling supporting cast includes Janet Margolin (Bus Riley’s Back in Town, 1965), Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968) and Raf Vallone (The Secret Invasion, 1964). John Michael Hayes (Harlow, 1965) fashioned the screenplay from The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins. 

Although Hollywood had been prone to sequels – Father’s Little Dividend (1951) following Father of the Bride (1950), Return to Peyton Place (1961), Return of the Seven (1966) etc – there had been no perceived market for prequels, so this was something of a first, Alan Ladd having essayed an older and considerably more sophisticated Nevada Smith in the 1964 film of Harold Robbins bestseller. 

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).

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