S.O.S. Pacific (1960) ***

There’s a whole book to be written about poster deception. But this plays with audience expectation in an unusual manner.  Here it’s a case of duping by billing. The top-billed Richard Attenborough (Only When I Larf, 1968) disappears in the last third, John Gregson (The Frightened City, 1961)  spends most of the time out of it and the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by fifth-billed Eddie Constantine (The Great Chase, 1968).

That’s no bad thing because Constantine, self-deprecating tough guy in the Lee Marvin mold, does pretty well in this survival picture, airplane crashing in the Pacific, a motley bunch stranded on an island. And with the bonus of Attenborough and Gregson, typically of the English stiff-upper-lip persuasion,  playing against type.

Alcoholic Jack (John Gregson), piloting  a seaplane on its last legs, is ferrying wanted smuggler Mark (Eddie Constantine), handcuffed to cop Petersen (Clifford Evans), along with shifty witness Whitey (Richard Attenborough), stewardess Teresa (Pier Angela), physicist Krauss (Gunnar Moller), sparky spinster Miss Shaw (Jean Anderson) and the “loaded with sin” Maria (Eva Bartok).

When Mark attempts to put out an electrical fire on board he accidentally kills co-pilot Willy (Cec Linder) and with Jack out cold the plane heads for the drink. Luckily, there’s a deserted island nearby. Unluckily, it’s next door to a nuclear test site.

Meanwhile, Mark, emerging as the hero, is soon fighting off the attentions of Maria and Teresa, Jack’s girlfriend. Whitey, who pointed the finger at Jack and not wanting to be stranded on the same island as him, steals the cop’s gun, puts a hole in one of the two dinghies and sets off to sea on the other. On discovering lead-lined housing, Krauss is able to work out the nuclear issue. With barely five hours to detonation, Mark elects to swim two miles in shark-infested water to the tiny island housing the nuclear device, armed only with a few rudimentary tools.

There’s a surprise waiting for him of course. Should he succeed in his enterprise, there’s reward too because Jack, in best Scott of the Antarctic form, has sacrificed himself to the sharks to give Mark a chance.

There’s some good stuff here, namely seeing Attenborough as a snivelling spiv complete with dangling cigarette, and Gregson as a self-pitying drunk, killing his career one bottle at a time, an airsick cop, the doughty Miss Shaw still fancying herself as a femme fatale, some well-scripted dialog between bad guy Mark and bad girl Maria, and a host of twists.

Contemporary audiences will feel let down by the ending. If only it was as easy to prevent nuclear catastrophe. But on the other hand it is one of the first films to take the issue of the atom bomb seriously, Jack’s self-destruction the result of witnessing at first hand the devastation of Hiroshima.

Yank Eddie Constantine, hightailing it to France to improve his career prospects in the 1950s, and becoming a B-movie star, was still largely an unknown quantity. He had top-billed in French and German pictures and was the male lead to Diana Dors in Room 43 (1958). This should have kick-started a Hollywood career or at least a British one.

A potential inheritor of the Humphrey Bogart mantle, the tough guy with a soft centre, snappy with the one-liners, in this outing willing to go with the flow, confident he will end up back on his feet, if not at least enough appeal to have dames falling at his feet.  But, probably, he would have had to work his way up again, which might be a slow business, whereas in France scripts were being written to suit his screen persona. If you’re interested check out his turn as Lemmy Caution in Your Turn, Darling (1963) and his outings as secret agent Jeff Gordon and private eye Nick Carter.

Eddie Constantine played by far the most interesting character here, and except for Jean Anderson (Solomon and Sheba, 1959) the women were underwritten, Pier Angeli (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) and Eva Bartok (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) there mainly to polish the hero’s ego.

Robert Westerby (Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, 1963), television writer Gilbert Thomas and Bryan Forbes (Station Six Sahara, 1963)  had varying hands in the screenplay.

Director Guy Green (The Magus, 1968) does a good job of marshalling his box of tricks, keeping tensions – whether romantic, criminal or survivalist – high especially as he had to find a way round the unexpected climax, and once you accept that neither Attenborough nor Gregson are going to leap to the rescue quite easy to get on the Eddie Constantine wavelength. Not in the class of The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) or Sands of the Kalahari (1965), and lacking their character complexities, but not far off.

The Third Secret (1964) ***

Non-exploitative films about the psychologically vulnerable were thin on the ground during the 1960s and although The Third Secret is a bit talky nonetheless it does explore issues normally dealt with in heavy-handed fashion. Catherine Whitset (Pamela Franklin) the young daughter of a famous psychiatrist convinces television journalist Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd) to investigate her father’s supposed suicide. Whitset needs the murder verdict because otherwise she will lose her home (no insurance payout on suicide). Stedman, Whitset’s patient, wants a similar outcome because his world would be turned upside down if the psychiatrist had committed a deed which he appeared steadfastly opposed.

The main suspects are all patients of the dead doctor – judge (Jack Hawkins), gallery owner (Richard Attenborough) and secretary (Diane Cilento). Although all outwardly successful socially-functioning upstanding members of society each is mired in mental agony – anger management, sexual inadequacy, depression, low self-esteem among problems addressed – defenses against which are perilously thin. Under sustained pressure each of the individuals will crack to reveal the cowering creature underneath.

But are they the killer or just condemned to torment? With the one man who could keep them sane removed from their lives, who knows what carnage they can self-inflict. All, even Stedman – given to bouts of terrible rage and drunkenness – seem capable of murder and there is every likelihood (as any viewer will guess) that his investigation could lead back to himself.

Director Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951) might have been suffering from low self-esteem himself having been unceremoniously dumped from The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and certainly the atmosphere is one of severity, not just characters teetering on the brink, but the black-and-white photography rendering London a wasteland, the tide on the Thames always out so the shore is just mud. However, his compositions do have style. The title’s explanation by the way is that the first secret is what you keep from the public, the second is what you hide from yourself, but the third is the truth.

Boyd (Ben-Hur, 1959) and Franklin (The Innocents, 1961) appear often on the point of hysteria, the girl’s high-pitched voice set against his growling outbursts. Attenborough (fresh from the heroics of The Great Escape, 1963) plays against type as a hand-wringing wannabe artist stuck in a role he despises. Hawkins, too, more used to heroic roles, is convincing as a man trying to escape his past. The neurotic Cilento has the best scenes, touching in her efforts to cling to normality. Judi Dench makes her debut in a bit part. The investigation takes the form of character analysis rather than “where were you on the night of…” which gives the picture an unique flavor, but best to know that going in rather than complain about the slow pace. If the psychological does not keep you hooked, there are sufficient twists to keep you watching.

Only When I Larf (1968) ***

Terrific, elongated, 20-minute pre-credit sequence sets up this brisk con-man thriller as the trio of Richard Attenborough, his younger lover Alexandra Stewart and apprentice David Hemmings fleece a couple of greedy businessmen in New York.  The action moves with military precision, the trio so appealing, the scam so well-worked, you want them to escape.

But when their next sting fails to come off, roles are reversed and it is floppy-haired Hemmings who takes charge, organizing the scheme, and making moves on Stewart. Meanwhile, Attenborough is planning to double-cross them. The first and last schemes work a treat but the middle one sags, even allowing for cracks to appear in the relationships.

Attenborough is the pick of the bunch, switching accents and personalities, one minute a suave businessman, the next a nervous Lebanon banker, while at other times his stiff upper lip contends with his sergeant-major attitude. Hemmings’ accents are less convincing, all over the place at times, but the switch from junior partner to operation controller is convincing especially as he clearly enjoys putting Attenborough in his place, forcing him to shave off his moustache and giving him the name Longbottom. And Stewart is never quite what she seems, willing to indulge either man to suit her purpose. Scottish actress Melissa Stribling, wife of director Basil Dearden, is a late addition to the crew and colder-eyed.

This was a departure for author Len Deighton, better known for The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

This was Attenborough’s first starring role since Guns at Batasi (1964) – Best Actor at the Bafta Awards – and although he had featured roles in Hollywood productions The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) – his screen person was quite confined in those pictures. Here, it feels like he has been let free. Hemmings was coming off three heavy roles in Camelot (1967), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and The Long Day’s Dying (1968) so it felt like he, too, had a spring in his step. This was a distinct mainstream jump for Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart, although she had small roles in Maroc 7 (19670 and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968),

Basil Dearden slipped this one in between the more lavish Khartoum (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). There is a slapstick chase reminiscent of the latter but, basically, he keeps to the story and allows character to develop. This being a British film, you might find some outdated British attitudes. This was bestselling author Len Deighton’s first stab at production.

The Flight of the Phoenix, Khartoum and The Assassination Bureau have previously been reviewed in this blog.

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