Stolen Hours / Summer Flight (1963) ***

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther famously took Susan Hayward to task for over-acting in the first half of this picture before turning subtle in the second without realizing that was the whole point. Hayward was always full-on, either because he played tougher-than-tough characters (weakness their Achilles heel) or was squaring up against macho males like Clark Gable (Soldier of Fortune, 1954) or John Wayne (The Conqueror, 1956).

Here, she duped audiences. Anyone expecting to view her normal feisty screen persona would come away happy with the first half, bewildered by the second. But, as I said, that was the whole point, a superb effort turning expectations on their head. In any case it was a pretty bold undertaking. In the 1960s, Hollywood went on a cycle of regurgitating old classics but mostly with newcomers like Alex Cord standing in for John Wayne in Stagecoach (1966) or Doug McClure for Gary Cooper in Beau Geste (1966).

There were not many actresses who would think of trying to match the legendary Bette Davis in one of her legendary roles. But Susan Hayward was not just larger than life but a queen of melodrama, able to ratchet up emotions with a look. No actress in the early 1960s could match Davis’s record of two Oscars and a further eight nominations (she would win another one later). By that point Katharine Hepburn equalled her on number of wins but had two fewer nominations (her other wins also came later).  But Hayward ran both pretty close, one win (for I Want To Live, 1959) and four nominations.

So if you were going to select an actress to take on the Davis role in a remake of Dark Victory (1939) you could do worse than choose Hayward. The plot’s been transitioned to England but it follows the same formula as before – in other words stand by for a full-scale weepie. Jet-setting divorced socialite Laura (Susan Hayward) lives life to the full – and then some. When diagnosed with a brain tumor, her reaction is to let all her wildness hang out, reviving romance with old racing driver boyfriend Mike (Edward Judd) before taking stock and abandoning the high life and settling down in the back of beyond (remote Cornwall) with Dr Carmody (Michael Craig).

It’s basically a film of two halves. The almost otherworldly life of the rich and famous who chase after every expensive delight without any notable increase in their happiness quotient contrasts with life in a Cornish village where problems, although apparently smaller, are every bit as vital to those affected. The gaudy section is filled with fine costumes, grand houses and glorious scenery. The serious part is a good bit more down-to-earth as the grande dame discovers her neighborly and maternal qualities. The characters inhabiting the rich life appear flimsy, the poorer people much more realistic. It is almost as if she has swapped fantasy for reality and uncovered a different kind of richness.

There’s not much more to the story than that so it requires acting of the highest caliber to keep us hooked all the way through. Well, for that, you’ve certainly come to the right place. What appears over-acting in the first section is just that, and deliberately so, since the personality switch is the ideal hook. The film’s emotional impact will hit you hard especially the ending. What initially appears to be heading for the sensational soon pulls back to reveal an ordinary person trying to overcome adversity, not with a grand gesture, but simply by living an ordinary life to the full.

While Michael Craig (Life at the Top, 1965) is pretty much a bystander, his calming approach sorely needed in the first half is redundant in the second as Laura comes into her own, developing an inner life she never knew was possible. Hitchcock protege Diane Baker (Mirage, 1965) continues to show early-career promise.

Perhaps more attention should be focused on director Daniel Petrie (The Main Attraction, 1962) who slides out from under his journeyman tab to over-egg the first section and under-egg (if there is such a word) the second. You could almost get the impression of a conductor fine-tuning an orchestra of one.

Superb showing from Hayward certainly gives Bette Davis a run for her money though you could argue she was too old for the role, Davis half her age in Dark Victory, but it’s to Hayward’s credit that you feel the loss of such a vibrant middle-aged personality as you do with Davis’s younger protagonist.

They don’t do melodrama like this anymore, mostly because there isn’t the likes of a Susan Hayward to make them work.

The Lie (2018) ***

I rarely feel inclined to dig around the two streamers – Netflix and Amazon – available to me what with a vast backlog of 1960s DVD/VHS still to plough through and interest in contemporary cinema sated though a weekly visit to the multiplex.  It’s rare that I can sit through more than five minutes of the movies funded or picked up by streamers, so poor is their quality control. So this came as a surprise.

The acting’s not the best and just when you are beginning to run out of patience suddenly the real twist kicks in and it makes terrible, terrible sense and a situation that has spiralled out of control ends up in a bottomless pit. I say the real twist because I had guessed the first twist, an obvious consequence of the set-up of these kind of films. But the real twist is much darker and eminently more savage.

So, the basic story is rock musician Jay (Peter Sarsgard), estranged from wife Rebecca (Mireille Enos), takes teenage daughter Kayla (Joey King) to dance camp and on the way picks up her best pal Trini (Dani Kind) and somewhere in the middle of an ice-bound wilderness said friend needs the toilet. Kayla and pal go off but only Kayla returns, admitting she has pushed friend off a bridge into icy river.

Jay’s now got to decide how to protect his murderous daughter, hide any evidence of Trini being in the car etc. He confides in Rebecca, and protecting their daughter brings the couple closer together. Meanwhile, Kayla is acting as if what’s all the fuss about. This is dysfunctional on the rocks.

Luckily, it turns out Trini has a record of running away and her dad Sam (Cas Anwar) has a terrible temper and may be abusing her so it’s relatively easy to get the police to consider him the main suspect, especially as he’s very lax in reporting the child missing. Plus, Rebecca seems to know her way about the police and Sam makes the mistake of causing a scene in the street.

But, of course, nothing goes according to plan, the situation gets worse, as the innocent parents try to fabricate something that will make the police go away. There’s a lot of other subtle stuff that complicates the situation. But essentially it’s two parallel stories diverging along psychological lines.

With those malevolent eyes, Peter Sarsgard (The Batman, 2022) has some difficulty passing for innocent, and of course his character is not exactly saintly, so that muddies the waters, as I guess is the intention, while the casting of Mirielle Enos (best-known as the detective in the U.S. television adaptation of Nordic hit The Killing, 2011-2014) also suggests the director is hoping to mislead the audience.

Joey King (Bullet Train, 2022) is so sulky and petulant from the outset that you wouldn’t be remotely surprised that her teenage hormones could escalate into murder and then for her sit back and enjoy watching her parents try to deal with the consequences.

And you might nitpick and wonder exactly what kind of town this is when there’s not a single neighbour to appear at the sound of an argument or a fight or a car accident, and no cameras on the streets. But generally, this is a tight mostly three-hander with tension quietly building, wrong decisions taken by people who think they are cleverer than they are, a finely balanced pyramid of parental attitudes to children and vice-versa and throwing out the one question every parent hopes to avoid: how will your react if your beloved child commits a heinous crime? What lengths will you go to protect them?

So in the context of the shattering ending, everything makes far worse sense.

A very neat thriller and almost a made-for-streamer feel about it, in the old made-for-television sense.

Writer-director Veena Sud (The Salton Sea, 2016) keeps a keen grip on a tale that is a remake of German picture Wir Monster (2015).

On Amazon Prime.

Beau Geste (1966) ***

Two brothers battle inhospitable terrain, warring tribes and a sadistic sergeant major in a  remake of the classic tale. The title translates as “noble and generous gesture” and is a pun on the name of hero Michael Geste (Guy Stockwell), an American hiding out in the French Foreign Legion in shame for being involved, innocently as it happens, in embezzlement. His attitude is markedly different to the “scum of the earth” who make up the battalion and his quick wit and refusal to kowtow make him a target for Sgt Major Dagineau (Telly Savalas), a former officer busted to the ranks.

Dagineau delights in imposing hardship and devising mental torture, making some recruits including Geste walk around blindfold at the top of a cliff. Geste’s resistance to his superior is almost suicidal and he even volunteers to take a whipping on behalf of his comrades. “It’s me he wants,” says Geste, “if not now the next time.” At another point he is buried up to his neck in the blazing sun.

Joined by his brother John (Doug McClure), the battalion sets out as a relief force for a remote fort but when commanding officer Lt De Ruse (Leslie Nielsen) is seriously wounded, the sergeant-major takes charge. Under siege from the Tuareg tribe, honor, treachery, mutiny, fighting skills and courage all come into play in a final section.

The action and the various episodes and confrontations are strong enough and Geste has a good line in witty retort, but blame the casting for the fact that it turns into Saturday afternoon matinee material. It was always going to be a stretch to match Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Susan Hayward from the 1939 hit version.

Stagecoach, remade the same year, was able to rustle up a bona fide box office star in Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas, 1964) and a host of supporting players with considerable marquee appeal including Bing Crosby (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964), Robert Cummings (Promise Her Anything, 1965) and Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963). Nobody in the cast of Beau Geste could compare. Apart from the Spanish-made Sword of Zorro (1963), Guy Stockwell usually came second or third in the credits, as did Doug McClure (Shenandoah, 1965) while Telly Savalas, despite or because of an Oscar nomination for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), was viewed as a character actor.

But that was the point. Universal gambled on turning the latest graduates from its talent school into major box office commodities. The set pieces and the action are well handled and while there are excellent lines especially in the verbal duels between hero and villain, it’s not helped by the most interesting character being Dagineau, who, despite his failings, accepted his fall from grace, worked his way back up the career ladder, believing brutality the only way to control the soldiers, and in the end out of the two is the one who has the greater sense of honor, refusing to allow a lie to befoul the truth, rejecting the notion of when the legend becomes fact print the legend, And it’s a shame that the movie has to present his character in more black-and-white terms rather than invest more time in his background or accept his version of reality.   

Telly Savalas (The Scalphunters, 1968) steals the show with a performance of considerable subtlety. Guy Stockwell (Tobruk, 1967) is little more than a stalwart, the heroic hero, with little sense of the irony of his situation. Doug McClure (The King’s Pirate, 1967) presents as straighforward a matinee idol. If you only know Leslie Neilsen from his later spoof comedies like Airplane! (1980) you will be surprised to see him deliver a dramatic performance as the drunken commander who still insists, in an echo of El Cid, in rising from his sick bed to lead his troops. Normally this kind of macho movie – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) prime examples – throws up burgeoning talent who go on to make it big. It’s one of the disappointments here that this does not occur.

This was the second and final movie of Douglas Heyes (Kitten with a Whip, 1964).  

Stagecoach (1966) ****

It’s probably sacrilege to admit that I quite enjoyed this. Also it’s been so long since I’ve seen the John Ford original that I could remember very little of the specifics and I haven’t seen the remake before so this was just like watching a new movie.

Basically, it’s the story of a group of passengers taking the stagecoach to Cheyenne for different reasons who are joined by an escaped murderer and shepherded along by the driver and a town marshal. There is some excellent action but mostly it’s a relationship picture, how the characters react to one another and their response to crisis.

Good-time girl Dallas (Ann-Margret) is on the run, banker Gatewood (Bob Cummings) is hiding a stash of stolen money, alcoholic doctor Boone (Bing Crosby) is penniless, liquor salesman Peacock (Red Buttons) is a coward, gambler Hatfield (Mike Connors) has Civil War secrets, pregnant Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers) is meeting her cavalry husband in Cheyenne. Ornery Buck (Slim Pickens) is the driver. Curley (Van Heflin) is riding shotgun and when he comes upon stranded escaped murderer the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) promptly arrests him.

The drama unfolds as the characters confront each other or their own weaknesses. Dallas, who had a high old time as a saloon girl, is way out of her depth in respectable company,  concealing the secret of her affair with the married Gatewood. Ringo coaxes her along, bringing her out of her shell, giving her back self-respect, and of course falling in love. Curley, with his eyes on the $500 reward for bringing Ringo in, has no intention of letting the gunslinger take his revenge in Cheyenne on Luke Plummer (Keenan Wynn) who killed his family. Boone and Peacock provide the fun, the doctor spending most of his time separating the salesman from his cargo of booze.

There are endless permutations with a story like this, the kind of material favoured in  disaster movies like Airport (1970) and The Towering Inferno (1974) where disparate characters battle for survival. The action is only part of the deal. The picture only truly works if the characters are believable. For that, you need a heap of good acting. The audience could certainly rely on old dependables like Bing Crosby (The Road to Hong Kong, 1962) in his big screen swansong, Van Heflin (Shane, 1953), Red Buttons (Oscar-winner for Sayonara, 1957), Robert Cummings (Saboteur, 1942) and cowboy picture veteran Slim Pickens to put on a good show. But the main dramatic load was to be carried by relative newcomers Ann-Margret and Alex Cord.

Ann-Margret has made her name with sassy light-hearted numbers like The Pleasure Seekers (1964) and had only just stepped up to the dramatic plate with Once a Thief (1965). This was Alex Cord’s sophomore outing after Synanon (1965), the odds stacked against him making any impact in the role which turned John Wayne into a star. 

Amazingly, the casting works. Ann-Margret moves from feisty to restrained, meek to the point of being cowed, and for most of the film, far removed from the false gaiety of the saloon, seeks redemption. The cocky trouble-making minx emerges only once, to knock the wind out of Mrs Mallory, but, after taking a tumble down the humility route, gradually steers her way towards a better self, preventing Gatewood from causing chaos, nursing Mallory and inching her way towards true feelings for Ringo. As in the best movies, it’s not for her to open up about her woeful life but for another character, in this case Ringo, to identify her predicament: “What you doin’ about your scars, you got ‘em even if they don’t show…when you goin’ to stand up and stop crawlin’?” When they finally kiss it is one of the most tender kisses you will ever see.  

My reservations about Alex Cord’s acting skills were based on his moustachioed performance in Stiletto (1969) but I reversed my opinion after seeing him in The Scorpio Letters (1967) and this is another revelation. As much as he can deliver on the action front, and sports on occasion a mean-eyed look,  it’s in the dramatic scenes that he really scores, gentle, vulnerable, caring. He certainly matches the Duke’s trademark diffidence in terms of romance. That the camera can mine depths of expression from both faces proves the calibre of their acting.

If director Gordon Douglas (Rio Conchos, 1964) had more critical standing, his bold long opening aerial tracking shot over rugged forest, mountain and plain before reaching the stagecoach would have received the acclaim accorded Stanley Kubrick for a similar shot in The Shining (1980). The opening also makes it clear how far removed this is from the original, not just in colour obviously, but (although filmed in Colorado) in a different locale, Wyoming, rather than the arid Arizona of Monument Valley. After a brief glimpse of the stagecoach, Douglas switches to a cavalry troop making camp. A soldier going into a wagon is met by a hatchet in the head. The camera tracks the corpse’s blood as it flows down a stream where it alerts another soldier washing clothes. Before he can raise the alarm, he gets a lance in the back.

Where the passengers have heard rumors, quickly dismissed (“nobody got scalped by an old rumor”) of the Sioux (Apaches in the original) on the warpath, the audience has seen the cavalry troop slaughtered, so (in effectively a Hitchcockian device) provides the movie with the tension the on-screen characters initially lack The passengers soon grasp reality when they come across another patrol dead at a staging post, and eventually are battling for their lives when ambushed. But prior to that there is a tense sequence of leading the stagecoach across a narrow mountain ridge during a storm.

There’s a clever reversal before the Sioux onslaught. The passengers think they have seen soldiers approaching, but it is the Sioux wearing cavalry uniforms. There is no river to cross as in the original, but the chase along a mountainous path is breathtaking, aerial and tracking shots given full rein, ending in a shoot-out without (as in the original) the cavalry riding to the rescue.

Douglas has his work cut out with the drama, as various characters confront their issues, and his staging is superb, characters always given reason to move. Screenwriter Joseph Landon (Rio Conchos) borrowed material from the Dudley Nichols original but added and subtracted quite a bit.

At the time critical deification of John Ford had not begun and Hollywood was in a cyclical remake mood – new versions of Beau Geste and Madame X appearing the same year – so Gordon Douglas didn’t quite face a critical backlash, although praise was generally sparse. Judging by the box office it received an audience thumbs-up – as it does from yours truly.

You can rent this on Amazon Prime.

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