Year End Round-Up 2022: Top 30 Films Chosen By You

As is by now traditional (well, it’s the second full year) this isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a chart of the films viewed the most times over full calendar year of January 2022 – December 2022.

  1. Jessica (1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge. The film had debuted at No 30 in the previous year’s chart so showed remarkable staying power.
  2. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Sergio Leone’s masterpiece now acclaimed as the greatest western ever made. Top class cast – Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Jason Robards – and one of the greatest scores ever written courtesy of Ennio Morricone.
  3. The Swinger (1966). Ann-Margret sparkles as author reinventing herself by writing a sex novel.
  4. Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall as German spy outwitting the British during World War One.
  5. Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Fellini-esque musical with abundant nudity as writer-director-star Anthony Newley tries to unravel the meaning of life.
  6. Father Stu (2022). Under-rated biopic with Mark Wahlberg as unlikely priest.
  7. Blonde (2022). Andrew Dominik’s controversial reimagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe with Ana de Armas
  8. For a Few Dollars More (1965).Sergio Leone re-teams with Clint Eastwood in the second in the spaghetti western trilogy with Lee Van Cleef as a rival bounty hunter.
  9. A Place for Lovers (1968). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in Vittorio De Sica doomed romance.
  10. Fade In (1968). Burt Reynolds disowned this romance filmed against the backdrop of making the Terence Stamp western Blue but it’s better than he thinks.
  11. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role. Top film for 2021, so demonstrating the ongoing popularity of films based on the author’s works.
  12. The Sisters (1969). Complicated menage a trois that borders on the semi-incestuous starring Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg.
  13. Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt. Another film with legs – it was No 3 in the 2021 annual chart.
  14. Water Gate Bridge / Battle at Lake Changjin II (2022). Another epic, non-stop action from the Chinese point-of-view in a sequel to one of the most famous battles of the Korean War.
  15. Harlow (1965). Carroll Baker as the blonde bombshell who rocketed to fame in 1930s Hollywood.
  16. Baby Love (1969). Morality tale as orphaned Linda Hayden tries to fit into an upper-class London household.
  17. Moment to Moment (1966). Hitchockian thriller set in the South of France with adulterous Jean Seberg suspected of killing her lover.
  18. Secret Ceremony (1968). Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum in atmospheric Joseph Losey drama.
  19. Lady in Cement (1969). Gangster’s moll Raquel Welch steals the show in Frank Sinatra’s second outing as private eye Tony Rome.
  20. Subterfuge (1968). Suzanna Leigh steals the show as a sadistic henchwoman trying to prevent Gene Barry uncovering a mole in M.I.5.
  21. P.J. / New Face in Hell (1967). George Peppard taken to the cleaners as down-on-his luck private eye.
  22. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie  starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar. This was No 6 last year.
  23. The Gray Man (2022). Spectacular Netflix misfire with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans as rival assassins and Ana de Armas adding some spice.
  24. The Brotherhood (1968). Martin Ritt Mafia drama sees siblings Kirk Douglas and Alex Cord falling out.   
  25. Some Girls Do (1969). Richard Johnson returns as Bulldog Drummond battling archvillains Daliah Lavi and Beba Loncar.  
  26. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier treats racist patient Bobby Darin. Very unusual imagery.
  27. The Double Man (1967). C.I.A. operative Yul Brynner battles Russian espionage in Switzerland with Britt Ekland providing the glamor.
  28. Operation Mincemeat (2022). Re-telling of “The Man Who Never Was” World War Two plot that duped Hitler over Sicilian invasion plans.
  29. Orgy for the Dead (1965). Bizarre cult horror tale where most of the female characters appear to be auditioning for a nudie film.
  30. Texas Across the River (1966).  Alain Delon acts against type in Dean Martin comedy western.

Behind the Scenes: “Bandolero” (1968)

A western dream team. Beginning with Winchester ’73 (1950) James Stewart had revived his career post-World War Two with a string of tough westerns and had made seven movies in the genre in the 1960s including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Shenandoah (1965). Starting with Rio Bravo (1959) Dean Martin had made six including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Genre debutante Raquel Welch had hit the box office running with One Million Years B.C. (1966) and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Following McLintock (1963) and Shenandoah, director Andrew V. McLaglen was considered one of the hottest western directors around.

Legendary Twentieth Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck put together the cast and director as a “package” before calling in screenwriter James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah) to shape an idea by producer Stan Hough. McLaglen explained: “It was a Zanuck thing from the beginning.” He was working on another picture when he took a call from Zanuck. “I got a six-page outline for a western,” said Zanuck, “and I figure you ought to direct it. James Lee Barrett out to write it and Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch ought to be in it. Nobody else. That’s the combination I want.” McLaglen took Hough’s six-page outline to Barrett who wrote it based on the actors involved.

Originally entitled Mace after the James Stewart character, the movie quickly became Bandolero!, the exclamation mark possibly to differentiate it from the 1924 Spanish picture of the same name which had been made for Metro-Goldwyn (as the studio was then known).

Despite the success of the Matt Helm spy pictures and a number of decent westerns, Dean Martin ceded top billing to James Stewart (had they shared the billing, Martin would have come first in the traditional alphabetical order).

Marc Eliot, one of Stewart’s biographers, arrived at a more unlikely scenario for the movie being greenlit, concluding that because Martin and Stewart had got on so well when the latter appeared on the former’s television show they decided to make a picture together. Given the show was taped in summer 1967 and the movie went into production a few months later it left an improbable amount of time for the picture to be set up.  

Director Andrew V. McLaglen would be reunited with two of his favorite movie characters – screenwriter James Lee Barrett and James Stewart, both key to Shenandoah. The actor had been the driving force behind McLaglen’s recruitment for that Civil War picture. “I just loved working with him,” said the director, “it got to the point where any time he did a movie he wanted me to direct it.” He viewed Barrett as “one of the best dialog writers I’ve ever known in movies.”

Although theoretically, the movie was set up as a package, with stars and director in place, Dean Martin remained a doubt since he was already committed to a film with Columbia that might clash. And Stewart might easily have dropped out if producer Frank McCarthy’s plans for Patton, with Burt Lancaster in the title role and Stewart as General Omar Bradley, had come to early fruition.

Raquel Welch was on a publicity high, featured on 400 magazine covers, generating such industry buzz that she had been named “International Star of the Year 1967” by U.S. cinema owners, her growing screen popularity ranking her eleventh in Box Office magazine’s female “All-American Favorites of 1968.” Dean Martin, incidentally, came ninth on the corresponding male chart, two places above Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman topping the poll.

George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) had small parts in Shenandoah and The Sons of Katie Elder before graduating to second male lead in McLaglen’s previous western The Ballad of Josie (1967). McLaglen, you might like to know, was highly regarded by the trade as “more concerned with entertaining the public than making intellectual and emotional demands on the audience.” Just after the movie’s launch the director signed a two-picture deal with Fox, The Undefeated (1969) next on his dance card.

One of the few studios to persist with a talent school – Welch claimed as the most recent high-flying graduate – Fox gave current student Clint Ritchie a role in Bandolero!, others in the Class of 1968 including Jacqueline Bisset (The Sweet Ride, 1968) and Linda Harrison (Planet of the Apes, 1968). Relative newcomer Andrew Prine had acted with Martin in Texas Across the River (1966) and enjoyed a supporting role in McLaglen war picture The Devil’s Brigade (1968).

As well as genre newcomers Welch and Ritchie, the cast included western character actors like Will Geer (Winchester ’73), Don “Red” Barry (The Adventures of Red Ryder, 1940) and  Harry Carey Jr. who had appeared in three previous McLaglen westerns. Even current “Tarzan,” Jock Mahoney, who played Maria’s husband, had a string of B-westerns in his portfolio. Possibly as important was the presence of James Stewart’s horse Pie, his onscreen companion for two decades.

Shooting began in Paige, Arizona, on October 2, 1967, before shifting two weeks later to Brackettville and the Shaban ranch where The Alamo (1960) was filmed. Parts of the San Antonio de Bexar set were revamped as the Texan town of Val Verde where the hanging in the film took place, while The Alamo doubled as the Mexican village of Sabinas which provided the action for the climax. Seven buildings were added to the San Antonio set including the jail, while a curio shop was transformed into a bank, a gift shop became a hotel and, conversely, an old hotel was turned into a general store. Thirty-five thousand traditionally-cast adobe bricks were made on site to create the dozen buildings required for Sabinas plus the locale’s arch, fountain, wells and wall.  

Other locations included Arizona, Utah and Texas with interiors filmed at the Fox studios. The shootout between the posse and the outlaws was filmed near Turkey Mountain in Texas. The Rio Grande was forded at Devil’s River but Mace crossed the river at Pinto Creek. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was utilized for the bandit attack and, naturally enough,  for sequences requiring canyons. Other scenes were shot at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, Balanced Rocks, and Big Water in Utah. But the first time we view Sabinas is an effects shot.

You do wonder why this film entered the studio books as costing $5 million. None of the principals were in the million-dollar salary range and the cost of 40 days shooting at the Shaban ranch was put at $25,000 a day.

The principals eventually enjoyed on-set camaraderie. Initially, Welch was too serious for the others, bombarding the director and more experienced actors with questions about her character’s motivation and psychology. “I wouldn’t say creativity was the primary concern on that picture,” commented the actress. “Barrett was there mainly because everybody said nobody could write dialog for Jimmy like he could. As far as other things in the script were concerned, they weren’t really supposed to be questioned.

“And with McLaglen it was all by the book. McLaglen created a very constrained atmosphere. It was an inoffensive nine-to-five project with a lot of very senior people, the old John Ford gang. Very cliquish. Except for Jimmy who’d always kind of throw out little things. I felt pretty lonely the whole shoot.”

To “loosen her up,” the two stars invited her out to dinner and “got her good and drunk.” Remembers McLaglen, “Dean and Jimmy and I would take Raquel Welch to dinner and we’d kid around with her.” Quite whether that was sufficient to rid Welch of her feelings of alienation was never established. However, she did register that she was surrounded by talent. Stewart “could cry on cue. No mess, no fuss. Just like that you could see tears in his eyes.

McLaglen equally enjoyed an esprit de corps with the male stars. “When I think of my time with Dean, there’s nothing but joy in my heart…without doubt the most conscientious actor I have ever worked with,” adding, “I think Jimmy had more fun on that location than he ever had.”

Texas was chosen for the June 1968 launch on the grounds that Shenandoah had done so well there. Instead of a city-by-city premiere lasting a week with many stars in attendance, the studio opted for a “new kind of premiere,” opening night at the Majestic in Dallas accompanied by a 30-minute live telecast broadcast to 23 Texas television stations. Also available was a 16mm featurette on Welch promising “an intimate look at a new star.” Welch contributed her vital statistics and preferences to a computer program that would help select the winner in a beauty contest to find the woman closest to the star in looks and personality.

Stewart, of the tub-thumping generation, believed stars should hit the publicity trail, public appearances adding 10 per cent to the gross, rather than insisting it was beneath their dignity or not worthy of their time. He claimed publicity tours were “good for the soul. Unless he has a real bitter selfish attitude (an actor) has to enjoy getting out to different parts of the country and meeting people.” Raquel Welch was one of the stars he chided for adopting the wrong attitude with autograph hunters.

Little of the weaponry seen on screen was from the period, the movie being set in 1867. And even the supposed Remington 1858 New Army revolver used by Martin, Kennedy and Welch, was improvised from another pistol. But Stewart used a genuine Single Action Army “artillery” revolver. There was some cheating going on, Martin firing a Winchester 1892 saddle ring carbine, and others using a Winchester model 1892 rifle and a Winchester Model 1873 carbine.

Despite claims by James Stewart biographer Gary Fishgall that the “film opened to near-instant obscurity” Bandolero! proved a solid box office success in the United States, where it was the top western for the year, finishing 18th in the annual chart, collecting $5.5 million in rentals (not gross) and performing very well overseas. It was a signal year for westerns, though some languished. Hang ‘Em High was 20th with $5 million, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly 24th ($4.5 million), Five Card Stud 34th ($3.5 million) and The Scalphunters 43rd ($2.8 million).  In the flop category were Will Penny in 54th spot ($1.8 million), Villa Rides 75th ($1.2 million), Firecreek 79th ($1.2 million) and Shalako 85th ($1.1m).

SOURCES: Gary Fishgall, Pieces of Time, The Life of James Stewart, (Scribner, 1997) p314; Marc Elliot, James Stewart, A Biography, (Aurum, 2007, paperback) p365; Howard Hughes, “Welch Out West Part 1,” Cinema Retro, Vol 11, Issue 31, 2015, p10-17; internet movie firemarms database; “Raquel Welch To Get Int’l Star Award,” Box Office, February 19, 1967, p4; “Mace Retitled Bandolero!,” Box Office, August 7, 1967, pE6; “Cast Patton and Bradley,” Variety, September 20, 1967, p13; “Bandolero! Moves to Texas Oct 16,” Box Office, October 16, 1967, pC1; “Filming of Bandolero! Ending at Bracketville,” Box Office, December 4, 1967, pSW1; “Fox On Texas Trail for Kickoffs,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p32; “James Stewart: Stars Should Tout Films in Television Age,” Variety, May 29, 1968, p19; “Now There’s A New Kind of Premiere,” advertisement, Variety, June 12, 1968, p17; “Bandolero! Dallas World Premiere Covered Live By 23 TV Stations,” Box Office, June 24, 1968, pSW1; “Fox’s Talent School,” Variety, June 26, 1968, p13; “20th-Fox Signs McLaglen to Two-Picture Pact,” Box Office, August 26, 1968, pW1; “Big Rental Films of 1968,” Variety, January 8, 1969, p15.

Bandolero (1968) ****

Darkest – and possibly the most under-rated – western of the decade featuring a top-class cast playing against type, down-and-dirty in its depiction of the itinerant cowboy, an ending you won’t see coming and if it’s not a heretical notion close cousin to the later The Wild Bunch (1969).

Gang of outlaws led by Dee (Dean Martin), condemned to death for robbing a bank, is rescued by his brother Mace (James Stewart) posing as a hangman.  While a posse led by Sheriff Johnson (George Kennedy) is in hot pursuit and the outlaws kidnap as potential hostage recently widowed Maria (Raquel Welch), Mace, sauntering through the deserted town, indulges in a bit of larceny himself.

All head for Mexico, a pitiless region, where the posse are picked off by bandits, the outlaws directed by the native Maria towards a small town which turns out to offer no safety at all. While there’s plenty action, this is more character-based. Mace and Dee are on the Civil War divide, the former (still sporting his Union uniform) riding with General Sherman, the latter with the Confederate Quantrill’s Raiders, despised by Mace as nothing more than glorified killers.

And while they are both outlaws, Mace blaming his situation on the Civil War, they are divided too by a sense of honor, Mace making it a point of principle never to harm women or children, Dee, far removed from any sense of himself, guilt-ridden, past caring, and lonely, can’t remember the last time he was with a woman he respected.

Sheriff Johnson is in pursuit in part due to unrequited love for Maria. Quick to action  in a professional capacity, he is tongue-tied in her presence. Nor has the newly-wealthy Maria much need of a male protector. A whore since the age of 13 to provide for her extended family, sold into marriage nd acceptance that for security not love, she has been, ironically, set free by violent robbery. Dee’s gang views Maria as plunder, rape imminent should the brothers turn their backs. While Maria has little interest in another male protector she finds herself attracted to Dee.

Mace is mostly peacemaker, prodding his weaker sibling into responsibility, trying to instil into him the kind of code by which the likes of The Wild Bunch swore, but, still on the shifty side himself, concealing from the others the loot from his own robbery. But where The Wild Bunch are essentially sanctified by Peckinpah, especially with their hypocritical codes of honor and their unlikely redemption, the lives of Dee and Mace are unfulfilled, lawful or lawless drifters enjoying little of life.

There’s an ambivalence to Mace, theoretically a law-abiding rancher, but apparently turning outlaw on a whim. We are introduced to an impoverished Mace being ripped off for food and accommodation, spending the night in an overcrowded bunkhouse, his Unionist uniform doing him no favors two years after the end of the Civil War in Confederate Texas. He appears less prone to violence but we are not privy to how he persuaded a hangman to part with his outfit. And he’s a mean hand with a rifle, helping his brother escape his pursuers.

You might wonder just how Mace came to be an outlaw when he witters on so often about his God-fearing mother and his upbringing on a farm and you always have the sense he’s part of that woeful Hollywood creation, the “good” outlaw, as if there was such a thing, certainly no sign of him dispersing ill-gotten gains to the poor. He might just be as deluded as his brother.

Of the three, Maria is the most clear-sighted, no qualms about her behaviour, and,  provided with weaponry, perfectly capable of defending herself. Mexican bandits offer her no clemency either, assuming that, escorted by gringos, she has abandoned the land of her birth, or just because any woman is prey.

So it’s a perfect onion of a western, layers upon layers, the pursued needing to defend themselves not just against the pursuers, but bandits lying in wait, and within their supposed close-knit community the brothers guarding against fellow outlaws and protecting the  woman.  

James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) played many a tough guy at the reinvention of his career in the early 1950s in Anthony Mann westerns, and while his characters often displayed venal qualities they were not outlaws. Career-wise this was a dicey role for an established western hero. That he brings the common touch that was the hallmark of his original screen persona to this characterisation of an outlaw with a code of honor does not disguise the fact that he is still an outlaw.

Dean Martin had essayed a really mean bad guy in Rough Night in Jericho (1967) but again this was his debut as an outlaw, and a conflicted one at that, enjoying the boost to his self-esteem that leadership brings, but finding himself enmeshed with the dregs of society, and certainly not on the look-out for any acts of kindness or redemption. This is a beautifully nuanced performance especially when he realizes Maria is responding to him.

Raquel Welch (Fathom, 1967) in what amounts to her first major film opposite two Hollywood legends more than holds her own. Not able to rely upon her overt sex appeal as in her previous outings, she portrays an upstanding women, abused by men in the past, determined not to take that route in the future. Alone of all the characters, having accepted her fate at an early age, she has developed a self-esteem not sacrificed to circumstance. The whore and the outlaw might be the oldest trope in the book but it works very well here as two characters find solace in each other.

George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), more accustomed to playing tough guys, leavens his portrayal by appearing idiotic with women. This, too, is a departure for Andrew V. McLaglen. Anyone aware of Shenandoah or The Undefeated (1969) will be familiar with his dexterity for widescreen composition, but here he tamps down on that stylistic device, concentrating more on group reaction and interaction. James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah) wrote the biting script based on a story by producer Stanley  Hough.  

While there’s plenty action it’s not a rip-roaring western, too much character involvement for that, but certainly ranks as one of the top westerns of the decade.

Apologies again for the premature appearance of the blog “Behind the Scenes: Bandolero!” but that will definitely appear tomorrow.

Behind the Scenes: “A Swingin’ Summer” (1965)

Might be a stretch to imagine A Swingin’ Summer has anything of note to add to the momentous cinematic history of the decade except for it falling into a booming phenomenon – the actor-producer. John Wayne (The Alamo, 1960), Paul Newman (Rachel, Rachel, 1968), Jack Lemmon (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) and Kirk Douglas (Lonely Are the Brave, 1962) led the way in actors taking complete control of their careers and putting together the movies they wanted to make rather than pitching up as hired hands.

Dale Robertson was an unexpected entrant into the hyphenate business, never having achieved the marquee clout of others, best known for string of B-westerns and the television series Tales of Wells Fargo (1957-1962). Television could be lucrative, especially if you were the star of a long-running show, but the longer you worked on the small screen the more you jeopardised the continuation of a big screen career. Law of the Lawless (1964) was his first movie for six years.

Advert in “Variety” heralding the arrival of Dale Robertson’s new business.

But Dale took an unusual approach to the production business, planning even more control than his predecessors, by setting up a distribution company, United Screen Arts (“USA” a useful acronym”). He had a simple credo, the “clean family film” seen as niche market worth exploiting at a time when only Disney paid it any continuous attention and when Hollywood stood accused of eroding family values with salacious product.

He had teamed up with Earl Collins, intending to release a dozen pictures a year, claiming their operation would be “the salvation of the independent producer.” On top of that, they spent $200,000 acquiring for U.S. television syndication rights to 39 foreign films starring the likes of Elke Sommer and Bebe Loncar.  There was talk of The Redeemer, a low-budget rival to The Greatest Story Ever Told, of handling British film The Quare Fellow and Tom Laughlin’s debut The Young Sinner which had been languishing in distribution limbo for four years.

But the company’s first move was, as trumpeted, into the family market, straight into the lion’s den with The Man from Button Willow (1965), an animated feature, Robertson lending his voice to the main character. And while the family market could offer substantial returns as Mary Poppins (1964) had proved, there was an even more attractive subgenre awaiting exploitation: the teen market.

Your face looks familiar – Dale Robertson with “billboard girl” Raquel Welch in tv show “Hollywood Palace.”

It was estimated that U.S. teenagers had $11 billion in pocket money to spend on records, clothes and movies. Teenagers assumed to have outgrown the Disney animated features were too young to be permitted entrance to more racy fare. But the Britpop explosion, headlined by The Beatles, had emphasised this market’s buying power.

From just a handful of pictures targeting the older young, there were now close on 20 features heading its way, split almost evenly between beach movies and those featuring pop stars – The Dave Clark Five, The Mersey Beats among other British exports along with Elvis Presley – or movies with little attempt at narrative, no more than a “filmed variety show with little variety.”

These movies exhibited acceptable anomalies, one of which was that the pop stars playing the lead roles retained their own first names in order “to speed up and simplify teener identification with their roles.” Remove parents and the threat of a morals clause, and it was a fresh approach to sexuality, and with nudity never an option well within the Production Code definitions of harmless fun.

AIP had successfully segued from its Edgar Allan Poe line of horror movies to beach pictures. Beach Party (1963), with over 10,000 bookings so far, had kick-started the mini-genre, and another half-dozen AIP offerings had entered the movie food chain. Along the way it made stars of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello who acted as a junior version of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, bedroom shenanigans reimagined as more innocent beach shenanigans, and instead of being dressed to kill the main characters were as undressed as much as possible, bikinis and shorts the order of the day.

Dale Robertson set out to tap into this market, A Swinging Summer “custom-tailored for the vast teenage audience.” USA lacked the $500,000-$700,000 budget of AIP which permitted the presence of older stars like Dorothy Malone, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. USA’s aim was, effectively, a C-picture with sunshine and music. Record companies were happy for screen exposure for their artists, so guest spots, which might otherwise have stopped the narrative dead in its tracks, turned into highlights.

With a no-name cast – Robertson knew Raquel Welch from television variety show Hollywood Palace – and a simple location at Lake Arrowhead in California, the movie was quickly filmed in summer 1964 but held back a year. USA managed tie-ups with Suzuki and Yamaha motorbikes, the former promising a free ride to anyone brandishing a ticket stub, and with record company Moonglow, which offered prizes of the latest album by The Righteous Brothers. A press conference and screening was held for 300 high school newspaper editors and Robertson managed to put together a nationwide tour with some of the participants, although its biggest piece of publicity came from a woman who got her finger stuck in the spoke of a steering wheel during a drive-in screening in Milwaukee.

A few years before or a few years after, A Swingin’ Summer would have been support material, speedily in and out of theaters. But riding a short-lived zeitgeist and taking advantage of the unexpected rise in popularity of Raquel Welch it did much better.

There was a saturation release in 71 houses in North Carolina, “impressive grosses” at the Pacific Drive-In circuit, topped by a record-breaking opening in the Crest Theater in Bakersfield, a good $7,500 at the Twin Drive-In in Cincinnati, a very healthy $28,000 in a New Orleans break, and $26,500 from five cinemas in Kansas City. First-run proved hard to come by but it still snapped up $7,500 at the 2,432-seat Fox in Denver. Supporting features included Major Dundee and Wild in the Country.

There were sightings through 1967, no doubt on account of Raquel Welch’s growing popularity. And if it wasn’t a shoo-in for big city center palaces, it found a hearty welcome in smaller operations in small towns. “The best beach picture ever played,” was the opinion of the Fayette Theater in Fayetteville while at the New Theater in Arkansas it was considered “one of the smaller pictures” that outgrossed bigger-budgeted efforts.

But this was a short-lived phenomenon, and within a few years a beach picture would be a rawer affair like The Sweet Ride (1968) and music would have segued from pop into drugs and rock’n’roll.

Dale Robertson’s foray into production was equally short-lived, moving back into television and developing a night club act. The beach genre generated not one long-term talent outside of Raquel Welch.

SOURCES: “Swingin’ Summer Release To United Screen Arts,” Box Office, February 22, 1965, p10; “Advert,” Variety, February 24, 1965, p21; “Teenagers And Their Pocket Money, A Film Market Unto Themselves,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p4; “Kansas City,” Box Office, May 31, 1965, pC4; “Dale Robertson’s Distribution Credo,” Variety, June 16, 1965, p11; “A Swingin’ Film,” Box Office, June 27, 1965, pNC2; “USA’s Summer Starts Strong in Bakersfield,” Box Office, June 27, 1965, pW5; “Swingin’ Summer Set for Pacific Drive-ins,” Box Office, August 9, 1965, pW5;  “Honolulu,” Box Office, September 13, 1965, pW4; “USA’s Swingin’ Summer Opens in 71 NC Dates,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pSE4; “USA Sets Record Tie-Up for Swingin’ Summer,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pB1; “USA, KFWB Host Schools To Promote Summer,” Box Office, November 1, 1965, pA3; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, October 24, 1965, pB4; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, September 11, 1967, pA4. Variety box office figures: June 9, 1965, p9; August 4, 1965, p9; September 22, 1965, p9.

A Swingin’ Summer (1965)***

I admit it: spotting this on YouTube I couldn’t resist. After all, someone has to report on the first proper Raquel Welch picture. Plus, I had never seen a beach movie, such a staple of the decade. Plus, depending on your point of view, Raquel gets to sing.

But why waste any brainpower coming up with a new idea when you can recycle an old one – let’s put the show on in the barn. Or a version of it.

Raquel Welch – distinctive in any language.

When their summer plans are dashed, students Mickey (James Stacey) and Rick (William Wellman Jr.) decide to promote a series of beach concerts. That doesn’t sit too well with lifeguard Turk (Martin West) who takes an unwelcome shine to Mickey’s neglected girlfriend Cindy (Quinn O’Hara). Rick, meanwhile, is intrigued by nerdy Jeri (Raquel Welch) but a bit put off to discover she’s more interested in a meeting of minds than anything more obvious, and possibly by her independent, proto-feminist streak, in that she selected him for her “summer romance.”

Just in case you thought there wasn’t much else to do but wait till the wannabe promoters got their act together and people fell in and out of love, there’s a hefty amount of subplot: a fistfight, a robbery and a water-ski version of “chicken.” Plus if there was any chance of you getting bored, house band Gary and the Playboys and a variety of other acts, including as the climax The Righteous Brothers, hit the stage and, in the interests of gender equality, the platoon of good-looking women hanging around are matched by a squad of good-looking men. 

There’s even some effort at comedy, a few pratfalls, mostly thanks to the distractions of Jeri, and one gender-switch sight gag which seemed pretty daring for the times, and even a nod in the direction of health food fads. Perhaps, more surprisingly, are the solid characterisations, the principled Mickey who refuses to sponge off Cindy’s rich father. Discovering she bailed him out behind his back, securing the sum required for the project from her father, he accepts the money as a loan but renegotiates the interest rate.

Jeri is way ahead of her time, analysing the men she fancies and with the repartee to keep them in line. It’s pretty even-handed in the beach costume department, for every girl in a bikini or tight top there’s a bare-chested topless hunk, though it still manages to be overtly sexist, girls needing measured by an obliging male in order to enter a beauty contest.

Scottish actress Quinn O’Hara (The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, 1966), a former beauty queen and girlfriend of pop star Fabian (Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation, 1963), must have thought the prospect of becoming the breakout star pretty high, what with her reimagining of the Lana Turner/Jayne Mansfield tight top. Her only rival was the girl playing the nerd who hooked the male lead’s best friend. Ostensibly, the nerd was not much of a part, spouting psycho-babble most of the time.

A nerd is still a nerd, O’Hara must have assumed. Unless she’s Raquel Welch.

Welch handles the dialog very well, probably longer speeches than anyone else, but even with  her horn rim glasses and hair in a bun, and determined to measure potential partners by their brain cells, she stands out as an independent thinker long before she releases her secret weapon, a yellow bikini, and smart enough to work out that if that doesn’t set a man’s pulse racing to head for second base – jumping onto the stage to strut her stuff.

It’s a bit of a stretch to argue that an appearance in a low-budget beach movie ushered her into the Hollywood fast lane, but, hey, timing is everything, especially if you happened to catch the eye of a producer looking for someone to model a fur bikini.

None of the men made much of a splash in the movie business though James Stacy was the male lead opposite Welch in Flareup (1969). Supporting actor Allan Jones was the biggest name in the cast but well past his heyday as a Marx Bros stooge.

Some of the singers were better known than the actors. Topping the bill in that respect were The Righteous Brothers – hot after “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling and “Unchained Melody” – who sang “Justine” (no smash, reaching just No 85 in the U.S. singles chart). Gary Lewis and the Playboys also topped the charts in 1965 with “This Diamond Ring.” But The Rip Chords were coming to the end of their chart life. Raquel’s song “I’m Ready to Groove” did not set the house on fire, it’s fair to say.

Robert Sparr (More Dead Than Alive, 1969) was at the helm. Leigh Chapman (Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, 1974) and Reno Carrell (Winter a-Go-Go, 1965), also the producer,  collaborated on the screenplay.

A harmless curio – a neat 80 minutes long – and if you’re intent on watching a beach movie it might as well be this.

Raquel Before She Ruled

Raquel Welch did not exactly come out of nowhere. Potential audiences had probably seen her image without necessarily knowing her name. In retrospect, she had one of the cleverest build-ups of any new star. Of course, it wasn’t unknown for glamor pictures to pave the way for a new sex-queen, Marilyn Monroe had posed for plenty cheesecake pictures before she hit the screen.

But those kind of pictures did not break out of the confines of cheesecake magazines. Raquel Welch was different. Although she had taken the usual route of an ingenue, bit part in movies and television programs, there was no obvious sign that she was made for bigger things.

Not what you’d expect when you see the term “cover girl.”
And hardly the magazine men were going to buy.

Blink and you’ll miss her debut as a call-girl in A House Is Not a Home (1964). You wouldn’t have seen much more of her in Roustabout (1964) or Do Not Disturb (1965). When she won a role on television, she wasn’t credited much more than as saloon girl (The Virginian, 1964), stewardess (Bewitched, 1964), beauty queen (The Rogues, 1964) or the billboard girl in three episodes of Hollywood Palace (1964-1965).

There might have been an inkling of something in A Swingin’ Summer (1965). Reviews said she “shows promise” and “it’s hard to look away when she’s in view” but this was a low-budget beach movie with little chance of becoming a breakout. (Though by the time it reached Britain in October 1966, she was miraculously the denoted star.)

Amateur photogrpahers of course lived the dream.

And although Welch would later claim all the fuss over One Million Years B.C. took her by surprise, that she was just an ordinary mother of two, that was far from the case, as she was actively involved in trying to expand her movie career, whether with the help of studios like Fox and MGM, or as an independent producer. I mentioned in a previous article that the company she ran with her husband Patrick Curtis – Curt-Wel Productions – was attempting to put together starring vehicles for her. Long before Twentieth Century Fox entered the equation Curt-Wel announced that production would start in fall 1965 of The Other Side of the Fence, an original musical comedy.

Yet, even as her best efforts to improve her career prospects faltered, somehow she seemed to get far more coverage than other young women in her position. You were as likely to find her photo in a newspaper with Salvador Dali (involved with Fantastic Voyage) or Groucho Marx. But while her face adorned the covers of ordinary magazines in the U.S. – Real Story, Intimate Story, U.S. Camera & Travel and she modelled for adverts for Wate-On, it was a different story abroad. Magazines in Europe could not get enough of her, either adorning their covers, or given a full-page feature inside, parading in a bikini or skimpy clothing. No photographic editor on a European magazine turned down the opportunity of a spread featuring Raquel Welch.

Nothing could define the differences between current generations and that of the 1960s – unless anorexia was a hidden scourge – than this advert telling women to get bigger. A more sexist ad you could not find – “a full figure…is a man’s way of judging a woman.” !!!

And despite her lack of proven screen product, she was a guest at the world premiere in London of Born Free, was photographed cutting the cake to celebrate the first anniversary of The Sound of Music at the Dominion in London’s West End and was tabbed as “one of the most publicized stars of the year.”

Whereas features might use her name and explain that she was a rising star, perhaps justifying her presence by pointing to her role (sixth- billed) in A Swingin’ Summer (1965), she was usually anonymous on covers, just the gorgeous woman who attracted buyers on the newsstand.

And if the fur bikini doesn’t attract their attention, thought Hammer, we can always fall back on a more straightforward bikini shot. Tjhis advert appeared in “Variety” – one month
after the initial fur bikini advert.

And while Twentieth Century Fox had her under contract, and could throw out a whole rash of glamour pictures aimed at the glamour market, it was unlikely that more prestigious magazines would come calling. Yet they did. “There is no pinpointing exactly what it is about her,” noted the fawning author of a two-page feature, “Raquel Welch: The Definitive Chickie,” that appeared in the October 1965 issue of Esquire.

But if the journalist didn’t know what she had, Welch certainly did. “I just seem to have glomped on those foreign cats. I’m on every one of their covers,” she explained.

In those more innocent times, an actress might have Playboy sniffing around for a tasteful nude shot, but it was more usual for an actress to only apparently be naked but in reality conceal her entire body either by clever use of her arms or behind a bikini or a skimpy dress. Prior to One Million Years B.C., Welch had often been photographed in a bikini.

Spoof newspaper produced for the Pressbook.

But the fur bikini was something else. The image proved iconic.

Hammer knew and Twentieth Century Fox, the company that had built up Marilyn Monroe on the back of her sexuality, knew it. Welch was signed to a one-picture-a-year deal with the studio but it had exercised its option six months early when One Million B.C. – that remained the title as late as November 1965 – came up as part its contract with Hammer.

One Million Years B.C. received its world premiere in London in December 1966 and opened in the U.S. a couple of months later. The movie had gone before the cameras in the Canary Isles on September 19, 1965. In December 1965, 15 months ahead of the U.S. launch Hammer ran the first fur bikini advert in Variety. How prescient, you might think. The studio clearly knew Raquel Welch in a bikini could sell tickets.

Spot the Raquel.

It just didn’t know which bikini. It followed up that ad with another one of the actress in an ordinary bikini (if that word could ever be applied to how the star wore that item of clothing) standing on a beach in front of a boat. Eventually, of course, studio, exhibitor and public reaction made the decision for Hammer. Fur bikini won hands done.

The poster sold a million copies.

By the time the movie appeared she was one of the best-known women on the planet. If there had been an Internet in those days, she would have broken it. There hadn’t been an image like it since Monroe stood over grate and let the wind blow up her dress in The Seven Year Itch (1955).

Critics tended to be dismissive in the 1960s of anyone who led with their looks but Welch, like George Peppard for example, soon proved she could act, even if that was routinely ignored.

SOURCES: “Review”, A Swingin’ Summer, Variety, March 3, 1965, p6; “Review”, A Swingin’ Summer, Box Office, March 22, 1965, pA11; Advert, Screen Stories, June 1965; “Other Side of the Fence,” Box Office, July 26, 1965, pW5; “Raquel Welch Will Star in One Million BC,” Box Office, September 6, 1965, pW3; front cover, U.S. Camera & Travel, October 1965; “London Report,” Box Office, November 8, 1965, pE4; advert, Variety, December 1, 1965, p21; Advert, Variety, January 5, 1966, p179; front cover, Intimate Story, February 1966; “London Report,” Box Office, April 4, 1966, pE4; Real Story, 1966; “Review,” A Swingin’ Summer, Kine Weekly, October 20, 1966, p22; “MGM Productions Showcase New Talent,” Box Office, December 5, 1966, p12.

One Million Years B.C. (1966) ****

The three ages of man: child watches this film for the dinosaurs, teenager for Raquel Welch, mature male for the dinosaurs now he knows who Ray Harruhausen is.

Guilty pleasures multiplied. Add the Mario Nascimbene (The Vengeance of She, 1968) score to the delights of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini and Ray Harryhausen’s sensational stop-motion animation.  Generally dismissed as high-level hokum, it features an intriguing gender role reversal, and is virtually, not to be too academic about it, a throwback to silent cinema, minus the title cards that helped audiences a century ago work out what was going on. Everything relies on facial expression and gesticulation.

Luckily, there’s not too much in the way of narrative complication. Tumak (John Richardson), the son of the chief of the Rock Tribe, is chucked out into the wilderness for standing up to his father. He probably wouldn’t be crying too much about that, given the strong rule over the weak, old men are left behind to die, and the feeble are last in line for food.  Plus, his brother Sakana (Percy Herbert) is prone to stabbing people in the back.

Unusually, the picture went straight out into U.S. wide release (saturation). It was an 80-theater break. Twentieth Centry Fox mounted a huge advertising campaign based on the fur bikini image, but by this point she wasn’t an unknown star, already seen in “Fantastic Voyage.” The New York Times might be wincing now at its “monument to womankind” now.

Reaching a distant shore, Tumak is rescued by Loana (Raquel Welch) of the Shell Tribe who takes an instant fancy to him, helping protect him from a huge marauding creature. But his aggressive temperament doesn’t sit too well among this peace-loving democratic group either, despite him saving some kids from another marauding creature. But when he’s chucked out this time, Loana goes with him.

But you know that any journey pretty much takes them into the heart of dinosaur heaven, and Tumak makes the mistake of retuning to his own tribe, where Loana is made unwelcome by Nupondi (Martine Beswick), Tumak’s previous squeeze. It’s power politics all over again until marauding creatures and a convenient volcano intervene and matters can be settled.

All eyes are on Loana and her miraculous bikini until a dinosaur appears, which occurs at frequent intervals. Then you can’t take your eyes off Ray Harryhausen’s creativity, at first expecting the match between humans and his wizardry to be so obvious the illusion will be shattered, but once you realize that is not going to be the case you just sit back in wonder.

Spoof newspaper from the Pressbook.

Harryhausen has made dramatic improvements in his techniques since previous highpoint Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Cleverly, he builds anticipation by matte work to present scenes of live creatures. The first, the warthog, is of normal proportions, and its capture suggests man’s domination over beast. But that proves a false assumption. Anything later is just gigantic – iguana, turtle and tarantula. In normal circumstances only the giant spider might appear a threat but in the distant past it would appear any creature bigger than man looked upon humans as an easy meal.

And that’s before the allosaurus rampages into sight and a pteranodon swoops out of the sky snaring Loana and then has to battle a rhamphorhynchus over its prey, almost as if Harryhausen was determined to animate the most difficult creatures possible in order to prove his innate skill.

Sure, hostility is much easier to telegraph than other emotions and a fair bit of the picture is people getting cross with each other, but meet-cute between Loana and Tumak involves little as significant, glances and eye contact the core of communication. It’s pure cinema. Stripped of any meaningful dialog, the camera captures everything we need to know. It’s a brutal world, dog eat dog, man eat warthog, dinosaur eat woman, every living thing is a snack of one kind or another and when they’re not killing for food they’re battering each other out of power lust, rivalry or jealousy.

And although nobody could have guessed the impact Ms Welch would have on the male pulse, Hammer had previous in the department of introducing a stunning female into a tale, and it may be pure coincidence that both Loana and Ayesha in She (1965) were woman of power, rather than mere playthings of men. Ayesha is introduced in stunning fashion, her presence pre-empted, most of the picture prior to her appearance serving merely to build her up. Obviously, Ursula Andress did not disappoint but she was introduced in majestic fashion rather than catching fish at the seashore. Albeit Loana sported a bikini, so did all the other fisherwomen and director Don Chaffey resisted the temptation to present her in more statuesque fashion, regardless of the image presented on the poster.

Just as it’s hard to underestimate the iconic impact of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini, so, too, is the work of Harryhausen. And I would also add the innovative score of Nascimbene, with sounds Ennio Morricone would have been proud of.

Despite myth to the contrary, it’s rare for an unknown to emerge from a movie a real star, but Raquel Welch certainly did, though her image on a million posters might have had something to do with her sudden success.

As he did with Jason and the Argonauts, Don Chaffey keeps the story spinning along, makes the best of the lunar landscape and raw actors like Welch and John Richardson (She). Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968) based his screenplay on One Million B.C. (1940).

The problems of creating believable dinosaurs were so evident that nobody really tackled pre-history until Steven Spielberg waded in with Jurassic Park (1993). It’s a measure of how successful this effort is that the director eschews the cute kids that seemed endemic to the later genre and had his characters facing up to the monsters rather than running away like crazy or expecting that somehow man could control them.

Much more entertaining than I expected, high class special effects, strong narrative, and more than enough to wonder at.

Fathom (1967) ***

If audiences rallied to the sight of Raquel Welch wearing nothing more than a fur bikini for the entirety of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and a skin-tight suit in Fantastic Voyage (1966)  Twentieth Century Fox must have reasoned they would surely return in droves were the star to spend most of Fathom in a succession of brightly-colored bikinis.

Given such a premise who would care that a sky-diving expert was named after a nautical measurement? Or that Fathom (Raquel Welch) came nowhere near the height indicated by her name? Or that  the character as described in the source material (a novel by Scottish screenwriter Larry Forester) had a distinctly harder edge; murder, sex and drugs among her proclivities.

With Our Man Flint (1966), the studio had successfully gatecrashed the burgeoning spy genre and spotted a gap in the market for a female of the species, hoping to turn Modesty Blaise (1966) starring Monica Vitti and Fathom into money-spinning series. The Fathom project was handed to Batman, The Movie (1966) co-conspirators, director Leslie H. Martinson and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon, 1980).

Female independence was hard-won in the 1960s and there were few jobs where a woman was automatically at the top of the tree. Burglary was one option for the independent entrepreneur (see The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl) and sport was another.

Welch plays an innocent bystander recruited for her top-notch sky-diving skills (her aptitude demonstrated in the opening sequences) to help Colonel Campbell (Ronald Fraser) of British intelligence recover the “Fire Dragon,” a trigger that could explode a nuclear bomb. Her sky-diving skills are required to land in the courtyard of playboy Peter Merriwether (Anthony Franciosa).

That turns out to be baloney, of course, a MacGuffin to point her in the direction of a valuable Chinese heirloom. And then it’s case of double-cross, triple-cross and whatever cross comes next.   

There’s an intriguing mystery at the heart of this picture and a couple of top-class hair-raising moments. In one she is trapped in a bull ring and stunt double Donna Garrett had a few very definite close calls trying to avoid the maddened beast. In another she is stalked at sea by a circling motor boat while being peppered with harpoons. There is also an airplane duel and a ton of great aerial work. A couple of comic sequences are well wrung – Campbell pins his business card to one of the prongs of a pitchfork being brandished with menace by Fathom  while Peter delivers a classic line: “The only game I ever lost was spin the bottle and that was on purpose.”

You could probably determine something about national character from the color of costume different countries chose to show Raquel Welch in.

The biggest problem is that the film veers too far away from the source material which posited the heroine as a much tougher character, one who can despatch bad guys with aplomb. Instead, Fathom is presented almost as an innocent, bundled from one situation to another, never taking charge until the very end. Minus karate kicks or a decent left hook, she is left to evade her predators by less dramatic means. She has a decent line in repartee and by no means lets the show down. However, the idea, no matter how satisfactory to fans of the actress, that Fathom has to swap bikinis every few minutes or failing that don some other curve-clinging item, gets in the way of the story – and her character. Into the eccentric mix also come a millionaire (Clive Revill) and a bartender (Tom Adams).

There’s no doubt Welch had single-handedly revived the relatively harmless pin-up business (not for her overt nudity of the Playboy/Penthouse variety) and had a massive following in Europe where she often plied her trade (the Italian-made Shoot Loud, Louder…I Don’t Understand in 1966 and the British Bedazzled in 1967) but she was clearly desperate for more meaty roles. Those finally came her way with Bandolero (1968) and 100 Rifles (1969) and Fathom feels like a lost opportunity to provide her with that harder edge. 

She’s not helped by the odd tone. As I mentioned she gets into plenty of scrapes and proves her mettle with her diving skills. In the hands of a better director and with a few tweaks here and there it could have been a whole lot better and perhaps launched a spy series instead of languishing at the foot of the studio’s box office charts for that year.  

Anthony Franciosa (Rio Conchos, 1964) , still a rising star after a decade in the business, who receives top billing, doesn’t appear for the first twenty minutes. And then he behaves like a walking advert for dentistry, as though his teeth can challenge Welch’s curves. And some of the supporting cast look like they’ve signed up for a completely different movie. Richard Briers (A Home of Your Own, 1965) – Ronald Fraser’s intelligence sidekick – looks like a goggle-eyed fan next to Ms Welch while Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) thinks it’s a joke to play a Russian as a joke. Ronald Fraser (Sebastian, 1968) provides decent support.

But it is certainly entertaining enough and you are unlikely to get bored.

Book into Film: A Girl Called Fathom by Larry Forrester (1967)

The blurb gives the game away. The British paperback published by Pan went: “She was blonde. She was beautiful, she was six foot tall. She’d killed the man who had dragged her to the lowest depths of addiction and lust.” The American Fawcett Gold Medal paperback was more succinct: “lady by birth, tramp by occupation and murderess by design.”

If any of that rings a bell, it was not from the film Fathom (1967) starring Raquel Welch which chose to ignore her background and her venomous skillset. The novel opens with the heroine killing a man in cold blood. He had promised her a film career but turned her into a call girl and heroin addict. Her father, now dead, was in the British secret service.  Once she has committed her first murder, she is immediately kidnapped by a secret organization (C.E.L.T.S. – Counter Espionage Long-Term Security) and trained to become an even more ruthless government-sanctioned killing machine.

Larry Forrester was a Scottish television scriptwriter who had worked on a stack of British series such as Whirligig (1953), Ivanhoe (1958) and No Hiding Place (1960-1964) before publishing his first novel A Girl Called Fathom. His sole screenplay was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) after which he concentrated on U.S. television including episodes of Fantasy Island (1980-1983) and Hart to Hart (1983-1984).   

A Girl Called Fathom is split into two. Comprising roughly two-fifths of the book, the first section concentrates on her brutal training and on getting her off drugs. There’s a fair amount of sexual intrigue not to mention sex. But also a lover’s betrayal.  For the final part of her training she is abandoned in the middle of nowhere in scorching heat and barely makes it home. “She had passed over a great divide. She was empty, hard – dehumanized. Alone. She would always be alone.” And then she is forced to kill again.

As was common with this kind of book in the 1960s, it was fast-moving and globe-trotting with plenty of realistic detail to offset the preposterous plot. For the remainder of the book, which shifts location to Europe, Fathom is up against an organization called W.A.R. (World of Asian Revolution) which aims to destabilize the existing world order. Her arch enemy is an American-born Soviet agent (and whip and knife expert) Jo Soon (who turns up in the film Fathom in slightly different form as Jo-May). Fathom’s team must protect French elder statesman Paul-Auguste Valmier whose playboy son Damon (who fantasizes about burning people alive), a friend from her past, is her main contact.

The book is peopled by interesting and occasionally outrageous characters – for example Tin (shades of Iron Man), who has hardly a human bone left in his body; the far-from-harmless Aunt Elspeth; and a sadistic colleague who loves her but dare not let his emotions out lest he loose on her his love of pain. The central plot is driven by a mass of twists and turns, heroine endangerment, fights with knife and gun and fist, traitors (naturally) and the clever idea of killing off the leaders of the free world with a bomb hidden in the coffin of a man worthy of a state funeral being held in Paris.

At the end she is counting the human cost of victory and sees herself as one of the walking wounded, a reject, driven from the herd. The film was apparently based on an unpublished sequel so it’s conceivable that the plot concerning the Chinese heirloom was pulled from that in its entirety. But even so the film’s heroine was neutered, not a patch on the ruthless killer with a sordid past outlined in A Girl Called Fathom.

Fantastic Voyage (1966) ****

If this had appeared a couple of years later after Stanley Kubrick had popularised the psychedelic in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and with his budget, it might have been a bigger hit. As it is, the ground-breaking sci-fi adventure, going in the opposite direction from Kubrick, exploring the mysteries of the body rather than the universe, is a riveting watch.  

Before we even get to the science fiction, there’s a stunning opening 15 minutes or so, a thriller tour de force, the attempted assassination of scientist Dr Jan Bedes (Jean Del Val), vital to the development of embryonic new miniaturization technology, baffled C.I.A. agent Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd) transported to a futuristic building (electronic buggies, photo ID) where he is seconded to a team planning invasive surgery, entering the scientist’s bloodstream and removing a blood clot from his brain. They only have 60 minutes and there’s a saboteur on board.

Heading the mission are claustrophobic circulation specialist Dr Michaels (Donald Pleasance), brain surgeon Dr Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and lovelorn assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). Backing them are up Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield) who designed the Proteus submarine.  

The high concept is brilliantly delivered with ingenious improvisations, of the kind we have come to expect from the likes of Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian (2015) that save the day. I’ve no idea how accurate the anatomical science was but it sounded very convincing to me. There’s a brilliant sequence when the scientist’s heart is slowed down and the heartbeat is reduced to a low thump but when the heart is reactivated the sub literally jumps.

The bloodstream current proves far stronger than imagined, taking them away from their planned route. After unexpectedly losing air, they need to literally suck air in from the scientist’s body. Swarms of antibodies attack. Claustrophobia and sabotage up the ante, not to mention the anxious team overseeing the operation in the control room, the minutes ticking by.

It’s not a fantastic voyage but a fantastic planet, the visualisation of the human interior – at a time when nobody could call on CGI – is as fascinating as Kubrick’s meditations on outer space. They could have landed on a distant planet judging by what look like rock formations. It’s wondrous. Sometimes the world takes on a psychedelic tone. The special effects rarely fail, the worse that occurs is an occasional flaw in a process shot, and a couple of times the actors have to fall back on the old device of throwing themselves around to make it look like the vessel was rocking.  The craft itself is impressive and all the gloop and jelly seems realistic. There’s a gripping climax, another dash of improvisation.

The only problem is the characters who seem stuck in a cliché, Grant the action man, Duval blending science with God, Michaels the claustrophobic, an occasional clash of personality. But given so much scientific exposition, there’s little time for meaningful dialogue and most of the time the actors do little more than express feelings with reaction shots. Interestingly enough, Raquel Welch (Lady in Cement, 1968) holds her own. In fact, she is often the only one to show depth. When the process begins, she is nervous, and the glances she gives at Duval reveal her feelings for him. It’s one of the few films in which she remains covered up, although possibly it was contractual that she be seen in something tight-fitting, in this case a white jump suit.

If you are going to cast a film with strong screen personalities you couldn’t do worse than the group assembled. Stephen Boyd (Assignment K, 1968), five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy (Nevada Smith, 1966) ), Donald Pleasance (The Great Escape, 1963), Edmond O’Brien (Rio Conchos, 1964) and William Redfield (Duel at Diablo, 1966) aren’t going to let you down.

But the biggest credit goes to Richard Fleischer (The Big Gamble, 1961, which starred Boyd) and his Oscar-winning special effects and art direction teams. While not indulging in wonder in the way of Kubrick, Fleischer allows audiences time to navigate through the previously unseen human body simply by sticking to the story. There are plenty of set pieces and brilliant use of sound. Harry Kleiner (Bullitt, 1968) created the screenplay based on a story by Otto Klement and contrary to myth the only part Isaac Asimov played in the picture was to write the novelization.

A joy from start to finish with none of the artistic pretension of Kubrick. This made a profit on initial release, knocking up $5.5 million in domestic U.S. rentals against a budget of $5.1 million according to Twentieth century Fox expert Aubrey Solomon and would have made probably the same again overseas plus television sale.

Lady in Cement (1969) ****

Frank Sinatra in cruise control reprises his Tony Rome (1967) private eye in a hugely enjoyable and vastly under-rated murder mystery with man mountain Dan Blocker of Bonanza fame and femme fatale Raquel Welch of pin-up fame. One of the actor’s greatest characterizations, albeit with little in it for the Oscar mob, this is one of the coolest gumshoes to hit the screen. Exhibiting none of the self-consciousness of latter-day Philip Marlowes or Sam Spades, Sinatra embellishes the character with more “business” than ever before, larding his dialogue with quips while he talks his way out of sticky situations and, as a big star, happy to be picked up by Blocker and dumped on a work surface. Can’t see Newman, Redford, McQueen, and Eastwood et al putting up with that kind of treatment.

Tony Rome is almost as much of a bum as he is a detective, betting on anything possible, wasting his time on fruitless quests for sunken treasure, lazing around in his yacht until in one of his deep sea forays comes across the naked titular damsel. Reporting the murder sees Rome co-opted by cop Lt. Santini (Richard Conte) to ID the woman. Sent to the apartment shared by Sandra Lomax and Maria Bareto in search for a potential client, Rome encounters Waldo (Dan Blocker) who hires him to find Lomax.

The British release paired an action picture with a sex comedy, the idea being to catch different types of audiences rather than putting two action films or two comedies together which would
later become the prevailing exhibition wisdom. Although the two films had in common a star in bikini.
Note that the double bill went on general release at the same time as the two pictures
were, separately, playing at London’s West End.

That takes Rome to Jilly’s go-go club where his conversation with dancer Maria (Lainie Kazan) is rudely interrupted by owner Danny Yale (Frank Raiter). Next stop is a swimming pool and who should emerge in a wet bikini than millionairess Kit Forrest (Raquel Welch) whose party Sandra attended. But a) she’s an alcoholic with memory issues and b) objects to snoopers so calls in neighbor and former hood Al Mungar (Martin Gabel) who sends Rome packing. When Maria is bumped off, Waldo is the prime suspect.

So we are enveloped in an interesting plot that soon involves blackmail and robbery and a suspect list that extends to Mungar and son Paul (Steve Peck) who has the hots for Kit, Yale and muscular boyfriend Seymour, and of course Waldo (whose reason for finding Sandra is revenge) and Kit. Despite the seeming light touch, inheritance is a theme, and the tale is character-driven, relationships complex, locales somewhat off-beat, a crap game in a mortuary, a nude painter’s studio, strip clubs, massage parlors and go-go dancing establishments abound, but with none of the moralizing that came with the territory. A racetrack is almost prosaic by comparison.

For most of the picture Santini and Rome have an antagonistic relationship until we find out, in a lovely scene, that Rome was the cop’s ex-partner, that the grumpy cop has a loving home life and that Rome is greeted with delight as “Uncle Tony” by Santini’s son. Rome is also very well acquainted with film noir and knows that a woman who appears too good to be true is in fact too good to be true so he’s sensible enough to steer clear of seduction (the bane of any film noir character’s life) unless he’s just pretending in order to glean information.

Raquel Welch is more sedate in this poster.

It’s a classic detective story, one lead following another, naturally a few contretemps along the way, some deception, and the laid-back Rome proves not as relaxed as you might expect, possessing a handy right hook and a neat uppercut. Interesting subsidiary characters include Al’s neglected wife, a bumptious beach attendant and a whining nude model.

Director Gordon Douglas – who handled Sinatra in Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), Tony Rome and The Detective (1968) – brings out the best in the actor, keeps the action zipping along despite multiple complications and prefers a quip to a momentous speech.

Sinatra is just so at ease he oozes screen charisma. His shamus is no slick unraveller of truth, but a steady digger, accumulating information. You might think any tentative relationship with Kit stretches the age angle a tad but bear in mind at this stage Sinatra was married to Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior. Raquel Welch (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968) is surprisingly good as a vulnerable mixed-up wealthy alcoholic and, except in her opening scene, manages to steer clear of a bikini for most of the picture.

Richard Conte (Hotel, 1966) is as dependable as ever but Martin Gabel (Divorce American Style, 1967) steals the supporting show as an apoplectic racketeer trying to go straight. You might like to know Lainie Kazan (Dayton’s Devils, 1968) is still working, The Amityville Murders (2018) and Tango Shalom (2021) among her recent output. It’s a shame Dan Blocker did not live long enough (he died in 1972) to build on his idiosyncratic performance.

The lively screenplay was written by Marvin H. Albert (A Twist of Sand, 1968) and Jack Guss (Daniel Boone: Frontier Trail Rider, 1966) based on Albert’s novel. Mention, too, for the jaunty theme tune by Hugo Montenegro (The Undefeated, 1969). You’ll find yourself humming it for days on end, it pops up often enough.

Into the catchphrase hall of fame must go Blocker’s exhortation “Stay loose” just before he unleashes mayhem. And while we’re about it, what is it about the quality of actor or status of a star that permits hoodlum Al’s peeved “I tried to go clean and you dragged me down” to be ignored while a couple of decades later a similar line from The Godfather Part III (1990) uttered by Al Pacino is hailed as a classic. You know the one I mean: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” Steven Spielberg is another who should have watched this picture for tips on how to deal with marauding sharks – Rome’s solution: kick them on the snout. By the way did Blocker fall out with imdb? Despite third billing, he’s not listed at all in the main credits and when you scroll down to the extended credits, he’s at the very bottom. Jeez!


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