A Twist of Sand (1968) ***

Initially promising, ultimately disappointing thriller that proves you should not go to sea  without a big budget. Because he is the only skipper to have successfully negotiated the Skeleton Coast off Namibia in South Africa, smuggler Geoffrey Peace (Richard Johnson) gets roped into a scheme by Harry Riker (Jeremy Kemp) and Julie Chambois (Honor Blackman) to collect stolen diamonds.

Peace knows his way around this area thanks to World War Two submarine exploits and that particular expedition is recalled in flashback while its repercussions form part of a plot. Also on board the boat are the goggle-eyed knife-wielding Johann (Peter Vaughn) and Peace’s shipmate David (Roy Dotrice).

Peace has to navigate the treacherous waters of the Skeleton Coast before the team embark on a trek through the desert to find the diamonds, hidden in the unlikely location of a shipwreck, itself in imminent danger of being buried in an avalanche of sand that could be triggered by (shades of Dune) sudden movement or sound.

On paper – and it has been adapted from the bestseller by Geoffrey Jenkins – it has all the ingredients of a top-class thriller but it doesn’t quite gel. For a start, the flashback, where Peace has to hunt down a new class of German submarine and not only sink it but make sure there are no survivors, gets in the way of the action.

The sexual tension you might expect to simmer between Peace and Julie does not appear to exist, the bulk of the threat coming from the villainous-looking pair, Riker and Johann, the former already known to be untrustworthy, the latter too fond of producing a knife at odd occasions. The trek into the desert takes way too long and rather than increase tensions slackens it off and there is no real explanation as to why the ship was lost so far into the desert without entering Clive Cussler archaeological territory.

Extracting the diamonds is certainly a taut scene, with the sand dunes threatening to collapse any moment but the climax you saw coming a long way off and although there is an ironic twist it is not enough to save the picture.

On the plus side, Richard Johnson (Deadlier Than The Male, 1967) shucks off the suave gentleman-spy persona of Bulldog Drummond to emerge as a snarly, believable smuggler. But Honor Blackman (Moment to Moment, 1966) is wasted and this is one of the least effective bad guy portraits from the Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) catalogue. Roy Dotrice (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) is better value while Peter Vaughn (Hammerhead, 1968), menacing enough just standing still, overplays the villain.

Set up as a thriller very much in the Alistair MacLean vein, this shows just how good MacLean’s material was, how great a command he had of structure and not just of action but twists along the way. A Twist of Sand wobbles once too often in its structure and never quite manages to build up the necessary tension between characters. Although the Skeleton Coast sea-scene falls apart due to defective special effects, the other two sequences at sea are well done, the opening section where Peace is being chased by Royal Navy vessels, and the underwater attack on the German submarine where murky water manages to obscure the effects sufficiently they appear effective enough.

Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) does his best with material that’s not quite up to standard. Marvin H. Albert (Tony Rome, 1967) doesn’t do as good a job of adapting other people’s work as he does his own.  

Catch-Up: Richard Johnson films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Khartoum (1966), Deadlier than the Male (1967), and Danger Route (1967).

Deadlier than the Male (1967) ****

Now revealed as the first film seen by Quentin Tarantino – at the age of five.

For a movie intended to set up a series character in the vein of James Bond, it was ironic that it was the women who stole the show, not just from their tendency to turn up in bikinis but for their outrageous villainy. Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina) are the seductive assassins in the hire of Carl Petersen (Nigel Green) who has designs on an Arab oil empire. On her own Irma dispatches mogul Henry Keller (Dervis Ward) then the pair – emerging from the sea like a pair of latter-day Ursula Andresses – harpoon his colleague Wyngarde (John Stone).   

Soon Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), investigating the death of Wyngarde, becomes a target  and that sets him off, with nephew Robert (Steve Carlson) in tow,  to the Mediterranean and the yacht of oil-rich King Fedra (Zia Mohyeddin) where, of course, the girls lie in wait.

Dispensing with the gadgets – except for one item employed by the villainesses – and gimmicks of Bond, but retaining the quips, this is a fun ride with a more down-to-earth leading man – like the early Bonds – smarter girls, a more old-fashioned mystery, a hefty thug Chang (Milton Reid)  in the Oddjob mold, a castle doubling as the villain’s lair, a suave master criminal, some detective work, and a super scene involving giant robotic chess men.

The bickering between Irma and Penelope, who is not just a tad sadistic but a kleptomaniac especially as far as her partner is concerned, coupled with their overweening confidence, makes them much more human than any Bond Girl and the character traits explored have a pay-off at the climax. Equally interesting are the mind games, Drummond vs. Peterson but also Drummond vs. Irma. And that the female baddies see it as points on their scoreboard to seduce Drummond rather than the other way round.

Drummond is every bit as capable a seducer as Bond and equally ruthless, stripping a suspect naked. Petersen is also a clever character, faking his own death and running a very smooth operation, and certainly his recruitment techniques are second to none.

Some ideas were certainly ahead of their time, the chess men are the equivalent of a modern computer game while the human bomb has, unfortunately, entered the modern lexicon and there are enough female serial killers around to prevent anyone believing they are always (to use an outmoded sexist phrase) the gentle sex. However, in the middle 1960s, the concept that women would be partial to murder and torture not to mention repeatedly seducing males went so much against the grain of the male authority figures that the British censor slapped an X-certificate on the movie.

Shakespearian actor Richard Johnson was a one time MGM contract player, but his only previous top-billed outing was the Italian-made The Witch (1966). He certainly made a splash with this character, investing it with a great deal more gravitas than Flint or Helm. The Teutonic Elke Sommer (The Venetian Affair, 1966) is brilliant as one half of the assassin tag-team with a batch of one-liners for every occasion. Sylva Koscina (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), nose always put out of joint, almost steals the show.  Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), while his usual sardonic self, has the playfulness of the rich and powerful.

Steve Carlsen, in his movie debut, doesn’t make much of an impact in a largely lame role. Zia Mohyeddin has a more interesting part as the oil kingpin wanting to help his people. As you can expect in a spy picture there are a host of beautiful women – Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) a defector, Virginia North, also making her debut, Justine Lord (Night after Night after Night, 1969), and Didi Sydow in her only screen appearance.

The light comedy experience of director Ralph Thomas (Doctor in Distress, 1963) comes is very handy, as his sense of comic timing is excellent, but, perhaps learning from his previous brush with espionage in Agent 8¾ / Hot Enough for June (1964) brings a bigger punch to the action scenes. And it’s a bold ploy to start with an action sequence revolving around Irma and Penelope rather than our star man.

The screenplay was a team effort – Jimmy Sangster (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964), taking a break from Hammer duties, David D. Osborn (Maroc 7, 1967) and Liz Charles-Williams, making her screen debut  – all involved.  This was familiar territory for composer Malcolm Lockyer (Five Golden Men, 1967). British pop act The Walker Brothers had a hit with the theme tune.

This is more fun than camp, not a send-up of the genre like Derek Flint and Matt Helm, but a spy picture with a believable leading men and excellent villains. But the plot is more centred on filthy lucre rather than global control and there is a genuine understanding of how businesses work – takeovers, mergers, dirty dealings – though small wonder Petersen would like to be shot of pedantic boardroom nuisances like Bridgenorth (Leonard Rossiter) – wouldn’t we all?

Bulldog Drummond was an international crime-buster invented by “Sapper,” the pen-name of H.C. McNeile. Bulldog Drummond had been a Hollywood mainstay for over four decades, the twenty-plus pictures attracting stars like Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond, 1929, and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, 1934), Ray Milland (Bulldog Drummond Escapes, 1937), Walter Pidgeon (Calling Bulldog Drummond, 1951) and a young Ralph Richardson (The Return of Bulldog Drummond, 1934). But the notion, in the Swinging Sixties, of tagging any leading man by the moniker of ‘Bulldog’ did not seem like a good idea, so the character underwent wholesale reinvention and his nickname is never mentioned.  

The title comes from a line in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, The Female of the Species. That was the original title of the film and also of a Sapper book.

You can get his on a double bill with the sequel Some Girls Do from Network at a very reasonable price. Will be reviewing Some Girls Do next.

Danger Route (1967) ***

If the producers had not signalled Bond-style ambitions with a big credit sequence theme song by Anita Harris, moviegoers might have come at this with more fitting expectations in the Harry Palmer and John le Carre vein. So although slipping into the late decade spy boom flourish don’t expect villains planning world domination, gadgets or a flotilla of bikinis.

Seth Holt’s bread-and-butter espionage thriller sets government agent Jonas Wild (Richard Johnson) – on his “last assignment” no less after eight licensed murders in five years – to kill off a defector in the far from exotic location of a Dorset country house not realizing that he is also being set up. That his liquidator will be a woman puts the mysterious Mari (Barbara Bouchet) in pole position.  

The Eliminator was the source material for Danger Route.

Wild gains access to the heavily-guarded mansion by seducing housekeeper Rhoda (Diana Dors) but after completing his mission is captured and tortured by Luciana – pronounced with a “k” – (Sam Wanamaker) who explains he is a patsy and that there is a mole in M.I.5. When his boss Tony Canning (Harry Andrews) disappears and another friend is murdered, Wild goes on the run with Mrs Canning (Sylvia Syms) and eventually makes his way back to his bolt-hole in Jersey to solve the mystery.

There is a decent amount of action, including a fight with a guard dog and a battle on a fog-bound yacht. Clever maneuvers abound – a bug is planted in a bandage. Treachery is always just round the corner and there is no shortage of suspects.

The film’s down-to-earth approach is somewhat refreshing after half a decade of spy thrillers and spoofs. Wild doesn’t employ anything more hi-tech than masquerading as a brush salesman to win over Rhoda. And although that relationship ends up in bed, there is no sex, Wild having drugged her to avoid that complication. Tony Canning is nagged by his wife. Wild’s girlfriend (Carol Lynley) is a sweet girl, sexy in a languid rather than overt fashion.  And Luciana takes enormous pride in telling Wild just how stupid he has been.

Sylvia Sims in a ticklish situation.

But that comes with a caveat. The plot doesn’t quite hang together and the movie sometimes fails to connect.

That said, Johnson (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) is excellent, quite an accomplished actor rather than a brand name. Both Barbara Bouchet (Casino Royale) and Carole Lynley (Harlow, 1965) play against type while Sylvia Sims (East of Sudan, 1964) and Harry Andrews (The Hill, 1965) present variations to their normal screen personas. Sam Wanamaker (The Warning Shot, 1967) has a peach of a role and Gordon Jackson (The Long Ships, 1964) and Maurice Denham (The Long Duel, 1967) are afforded small but critical parts. 

This is not easy to come by, so you are best looking for a secondhand copy.

The Pumpkin Eater (1964) ***

The reference point for Anne Bancroft in the 1960s is usually her cynical Mrs Robinson in The Graduate (1967) but she was Oscar-nominated here for a less ostentatious role as a woman who finds pregnancy – she has five kids by two husbands – almost a state of grace. Denied that role as a birth mother – husband number three (Peter Finch) wants an abortion – sees her tumble into depression.

This is more a character study than anything else and despite a whole bunch of marital confrontation, clever dialog from screenwriter Harold Pinter and some artistic black-and-white cinematography, it would have benefitted greatly from Bancroft actually explaining what ails her rather than everyone around her putting the words in her mouth. Hitchcock used to employ a subsidiary character to spell out the dangers of consequences for the leading actor, but that worked well in a thriller, and less so in a drama where you are desperate to get inside the mind of a woman who shows every signs of being neurotic.

While the unstated worked exceptionally well in director Jack Clayton’s previous picture The Innocents (1961), we really here need much more clarity. It is certainly richly atmospheric in places and the sequence prior to her nervous breakdown in Harrods where without dialog the camera shows her wandering around is very well done. But spending too much time on a self-obsessed person is less appealing.

Story has Finch (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1960) destroying her confidence by his philandering (although she dumped her previous husband for Finch) – but it is left to the woman (Yootha Joyce) setting next to her in the hairdresser to express the feeling that a woman needs to be desired by her husband and for a psychiatrist (Eric Porter) to suggest that for her “sex is sanctified by incessant reproduction.” To neither assessment does she respond. She clearly has a happy boisterous family, one to which Finch fits in, children lining up to wave him goodbye and rushing to greet his return.

Finch is on top form as the arrogant, competitive husband with Maggie Smith, delightfully kookie, among the notches on his bedpost. James Mason has a small role as a cuckold and Richard Johnson as a discarded husband. Adapting from a novel by film critic Penelope Mortimer, Pinter provides some distinctive Pinteresque moments, and, beyond the marital disputes, while most of the story is played out at a distance, there are excellent moments of spite, not least Mason choosing to read to Bancroft a love letter from his wife to Finch. In some respects it is a raw look at marriage, but in many ways it ducks out of proper examination of the principals, his character revealed by action, hers rarely explicated.

One particular aspect of the story is glossed over, with no reaction from Bancroft, which seems implausible given her previous attitude. Abortion was still illegal in the 1960s but permission could be granted were pregnancy to jeopardize a patient’s mental health. But to endorse such a sanction also involved sterilization to prevent future occurrence. Since Bancroft offers no insight one way or the other you are left with the impression she welcomes this which would run entirely against the character we have known.

I’ve no idea why the picture did not start at a point where Bancroft initiated action, when she dumped husband number two for Finch. At that point she was responsible for making a decision and clearly some kind of illicit affair had been taking place first. Unlike, for example, The Pawnbroker in which the main character has the same defeated attitude we are given access to his tortured past and he is forced into confrontation with the present. But here passivity is an obstacle to understanding.

Setting aside all my reservations which I guess are primarily structural, it is an absorbing film and Bancroft certainly deserved the Oscar recognition. Finch and Mason are also on top form and it’s worth a look if only to see what Maggie Smith could do with a part before people (perhaps herself) decided her career should go in a different direction.

Khartoum (1966) ****

You don’t have to look far for contemporary parallels in this absorbing drama.

A charismatic and clever military strategist the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) inspires a holy war in the Middle East. Ruling global power Britain wants to avoid  “policing the world” and instead of sending in the army despatches in an unofficial capacity its hero of the day, the equally charismatic “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston).

He is the do-gooder as man-of-action having quelled an uprising in China and destroyed the slave trade in Sudan, of which Khartoum is the capital. Offered £6,000 by local interests to become Governor of Sudan, he takes £2,000, “that’s all I need.”

But where a similar kind of hero, Lawrence of Arabia, was politically naive, Gordon is politically adept and much of the joy of this picture is seeing him out-maneuver British prime minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson – compare this performance to his bumbling bore in The Wrong Box out the same year). Gordon’s ostensible task is to evacuate Egyptians from Khartoum. If he succeeds, Britain saves face, if he fails he takes the rap. Directed by British stalwart Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp, 1950; Victim, 1961), the pictures cleaves closer to drama than spectacle.

I remember being quite bored by all the talk when I saw this as a twelve-year-old, but this time round found it completely absorbing, a battle of wits between Gordon and the Mahdi on the one hand and between Gordon and Gladstone on the othor. The action, when it comes, is riveting without the aplomb of Lawrence of Arabia, but audience interest is focused on the main characters.

Richard Johnson, removed from his Bulldog Drummond persona (Some Girls Do), is excellent as Gordon’s aide or, as he acknowledges, “Gladstone’s spy.”

This is a Cinerama picture (cue spectacular widescreen scenery) without the distracting Cinerama effects (a race downhill, a runaway train), a bold political drama poorly received at a time when Cinerama meant spectacular effects and much more action. Definitely worth a second – or first – look.    

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Khartoum-DVD-Charlton-Heston/dp/B000089AUD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2WXSB64ZF7PIT&dchild=1&keywords=khartoum+dvd&qid=1592640053&sprefix=khartoum%2Caps%2C147&sr=8-1

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