Assault on a Queen (1966) ***

I always wondered why this was a flop. I’m still baffled. Not only is it a perfectly serviceable caper picture, but it’s also high-concept before the term was invented, a World War Two submarine involved in holding up high-end ocean liner Queen Mary (yep, the real thing, thanks to cooperation from owners Cunard). 

The dialogue’s crisp, the robbery well-planned, a good number of twists, plenty underwater thrills, hostility between crew members, and sexual tension kept high by the presence on board of the Italian Miss Big. Diver Mark Brittain (Frank Sinatra) is sucked into a treasure hunt in part because he needs the money and in part through the sexual magnetism of Rosa (Virna Lisi), the expedition backer, who already has suave Vic (Anthony Franciosca) on a string.

The plan evolves into piracy when Brittain discovers a World War Two German submarine on the seabed. As it happens, skippering the salvage vessel is former German U-boat captain Eric (Alf Kjellin). After Mark successfully raises  the sub, it’s game on, Vic’s qualms wilting under Rosa’s seductive gaze. The other team members are engineer Tony (Richard Conte) and wireless operator Linc (Errol John). The prize is a cool million in cash and gold bullion.

Catch No 1: the sub can’t stay submerged for more than an hour. Catch No 2: it’s not that seaworthy and could spring a leak at any time (“don’t just look for water, listen for it,” advises Eric). Catch No 3: in order to successfully board the Queen Mary looking for vital equipment, one of these very American Yanks has to pass himself off as a British sub captain on a secret mission.

Potential Catch No 4 has already been dealt with – if the Queen Mary officers rumble the ruse and call the thieves’ bluff the hijackers plan to put a dummy torpedo up the spout and fire it into the ship’s hull. Catch No 5: there’s so much pent-up hostility among the team the whole endeavor could be sunk. Mark and Vic are vying for Rosa’s favors and clever bombshell that she is she intends to keep it that way, stringing both along.

Racist Vic takes against Eric and also resents splitting the loot with late arrival Tony. Alf not only resents Mark, also a former sub officer, for ending up on the war’s winning side, but exhibits psychopathic tendencies and might just for the hell of it blow a passing tanker out of the water. Like any gang, each member brings something specific to the party. And without giving too much away, the  endgame turns into a battle of wits, especially when the unexpected occurs.

I’m a big fan of Sinatra’s acting style. He is so natural, his gestures don’t look like they’ve been rehearsed for hours in a mirror, you’ll never accuse him of Method acting, or picking parts with Oscars in mind, but somehow he still manages to inhabit his characters.

This is a fascinating role for Virna Lisi (How to Murder Your Wife, 1965), reminiscent of film noir in the way she handles men, but also years ahead of her time not just in combining  sexual and financial independence but of being the boss funding the heist and recruiting the team, and soon has the reluctant Mark playing ball with no sense that’s ultimately she’s going to fall at his feet.

Anthony Franciosca (Rio Conchos, 1964) is mostly a distraction, engaged in a private feud with James Coburn as to who has the brightest and biggest screen teeth. Richard Conte (Lady in Cement, 1969) and Alf Kjellin (Midas Run, 1969) are the physical and mental muscle, respectively, and Trinidadian Errol John (Man in the Middle, 1965) essays an interesting role. Jack Donohue (Marriage on the Rocks, 1965) keeps it all ticking along.

Rod Serling (Planet of the Apes, 1968) devised the screenplay from the novel by Jack Finney (Good Neighbor Sam, 1964). So why did critics and the public have such a downer on the picture? Critical attitudes to the star were easier to understand. Sinatra’s films were generally disliked, and knowledge of his one-take preference allowed critics to thumb their collective noses at his acting, assuming he put no effort into it.

Rumors of his underworld connections were beginning to emerge, he had just married Mia Farrow, less than half his age, and the Beatles and the British invasion had usurped his position in the pop rankings. The general feeling was he was on the way out so why not boot him while he was down. This was despite him receiving some of the best notices of his career for Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

Audiences might have been expecting another Rat Pack lark in the vein of Ocean’s 11 (1960) or felt the supporting cast lacked lustre, Lisi a little known commodity, this only her second Hollywood picture, Franciosca still the second banana, and Hardy Kruger would certainly have invested the German with more malevolence. Otherwise, it’s hard to see what there is to complain about. As I mentioned the dialogue was good, characters simmering, and the story satisfying enough.

Sure, a better director might have extracted more tension from the set pieces, lifted the pace, and added a booming score as with Ice Station Zebra (1968).

It might not be the best heist picture ever made, but it’s too good to be dismissed.

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!


Hotel (1967) ***

The cardinal rule of the grand hotel picture was that it featured major stars. That is not so much the case here although the portmanteau of stories is up to scratch. Traditional hotel manager Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor) and boss Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas) battle ruthless financiers, aristocrats Geoffrey (Michael Rennie) and Caroline (Merle Oberon) are involved in a fatal car accident, hypocritical God-fearing businessman Curtis O’Keefe (Kevin McCarthy) has a mistress Jeanne Rochefot (Catherine Spaak) on the side. Added into the mix are hotel thief Keycase Milne (Karl Malden) and hotel detective Dupere (Richard Conte). Not forgetting a dodgy elevator (you know where that’s headed!).

None of the stars mentioned comes up to the marquee standard set by the original in the subgenre – Grand Hotel (1932) boasted Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery – while an offshoot of the same idea The VIPs (1963) had Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton Orson Welles and the later Airport (1970) would rustle up top attractions Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin and Jean Seberg.

Top British film critic Alexander Walker espoused the movie.

It’s a fair bet that Warner Brothers felt audiences would be satisfied that the storylines were augmented by the behind-the-scenes insider information promised by the Arthur Hailey bestseller on which the film was based, such as how B-girls stole hotel keys, the tricks employed by a hotel thief and the various corrupt opportunities open to hotel staff. But it’s a major miscalculation to assume an audience cares that much who owns a particular hotel. And in the year in which In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dealt with racism head-on, it was odd to see desegregation parlayed as a device to lower the asking price for the business or introduced out of economic necessity rather than high-minded principle.

Such gripes aside, this is movie comfort food, a picture that moves at a leisurely pace among its interwoven tales. Kevin McCarthy’s ruthless arrogant businessman steals the show, closely followed by Merle Oberon’s scheming duchess. To use a soccer analogy Rod Taylor is more like an old-fashioned center half rather than a midfield maestro, holding the picture together rather than setting it alight and his romance with McCarthy’s mistress (half his age) is an unlikely diversion, although the soft-spoken French actress, confronted by conscience, is particularly good. Melvyn Douglas as the aging owner mixes curmudgeon with affection and it’s hard not to feel sorry for Conte, outwitted by an older woman, and especially for Malden as the thief finding out how much the credit card has cut into the larceny business.

This was the last big-budget production for director Richard Quine whose career had been on the slide since box office highs The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Sex and the Single Girl (1964). But he may have been somewhat restrained by having screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) as his producer. While well-crafted affair and glossy it lacks the inherent tension of an Airport.

Ocean’s 11 (1960) ***

Heist pictures break down into planning, execution and reprisal. Here the planning stage moves at a leisurely pace, a bit of recruitment, and setting up bitebacks that will cripple the military-precision plan by ex-army buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos of millions of dollars on New Year’s Eve. There’s a bit of reversal, Mr Big (Akim Tamiroff) is a collection of nervous tics, Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) a rich guy seeking financial independence from a possessive mother, Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) having second thoughts about the operation, and Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) trying to win back estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson) who surmises he prefers danger to intimacy. Mostly, it’s repartee between Harmon and Ocean while Foster makes a chump out of his mother’s next potential husband Duke Santos (Cesar Romero).

There’s not much hi-tech about the audacious plan, knocking out the electricity supply to the casinos, the switch to auxiliary power allowing the gang access to the inner sanctum where the cash is held, finding their way in and out of the darkness by nothing more sophisticated than luminous spray paint, and with a clever ruse to get the money out once all hell breaks loose.

The fun starts when one of the team (Richard Conte) drops dead post-raid and it transpires Santos is a big-shot underworld figure who investigates the robbery on behalf of the casinos and starts tracking the gang down, leading to a pay-off you don’t see coming.

Given the comedy element, there’s no great tension but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and Sinatra and Martin display an easy camaraderie that lights up the screen. It could have been funded by the Las Vegas Tourist Bureau so much attention is given to the wonder of the casinos, at a time when gambling was still only otherwise legal on racetracks, and with snippets of floorshows and the deluxe atmosphere. Add in a couple of numbers delivered a couple of times by Dean Martin (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”), legitimately since he is a cocktail bar singer, and Sammy Davis Jr. (“Eee-O-11”), somewhat shoehorned-in given he is a truck driver.

There’s a couple of neat reversals: Ocean’s dumped girlfriend Adele (Patrice Wymore) gets short shrift from Beatrice when she reveals the affair; casino bosses offered a double-or-quits gamble refuse to consider such a dangerous notion. Red Skelton and George Raft have credited cameos, Shirley MacLaine does not. As well as Richard Conte, Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) has a small part as does Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

Although there are on occasion outdated sexist attitudes, there is also a strong anti-racist statement in the hiring of Sammy Davis Jr., showcasing his talents in a big-budget picture, and clearly making the point that he has been welcomed by stars as big as Sinatra and Martin.  

And it’s worth also considering the picture in terms of early-onset brand management.  The “Rat Pack” was a loose group of entertainers which not only became a well-known stand-alone entity in its own right that celebrated what was considered “hip” at the time (assuming you excluded Elvis and his ilk), but as individuals supported each other on television and in live performance. They would make another two pictures as a team and another dozen or so where two or more of the players appeared. The principals were all major attractions at the nascent Las Vegas so they were also promoting their home patch. During the day they made the movie, at night they wove in and out of each others’ acts, creating an entertainment sensation. On top of that, Sinatra had his own record label Reprise – among the early acts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. So, in a sense, all this cross-promotion was money in their pockets.

Also of note are the opening and closing, the former for the credits devised by Saul Bass, the latter for the famous shot later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Ironically, Lewis Milestone, who devised the original shot, and long before that won two Best Director Oscars, is less well regarded these days than Tarantino.

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