The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965) ****

One of the few romantic dramas of the 1960s to resonate today. Neglected wife Moira (Maureen O’Hara) abandons her two children to fly to the eponymous villa on Lake Garda in Italy to take up with composer Lorenzo (Rossano Brazzi).  While husband Darrell (Richard Todd) accepts the fait accompli, kids Michael (Martin Stephens) and Debby (Elizabeth Dear) set out to bring her back. Although Disney had created a hit on a similar theme with The Parent Trap (1961) – also starring O’Hara – The Battle of the Villa Fiorita failed to find an audience at the time primarily because it sailed too close to comfort regarding the reality of the effect of separation and impending divorce on children.

Nor are these kids Disney cute. While Debby occasionally calls upon her internal winsome to tug at heartstrings, both she and Michael are made of sterner stuff. Unwilling to use comedy as a means of bringing the errant adults to heel, the movie gets deeper and deeper into darker territory, as the kids embark on a war of attrition, disrupting the cushy love-nest and forcing their mother to accept her maternal responsibilities. And the ending is far from what you would term happy.

Moira injects some nascent feminism into her role, determining that she is entitled to happiness rather than merely fulfilling the part of a good mother, running a household,  looking after her offspring and enjoying the life of a well-to-do matron married by a husband too often away on business and the too-familiar company of boring respectable friends. A Disney picture would have seen the kids relying on the kindness of strangers or harmless subterfuge to make the trip from Britain by boat and train to Italy. Here, they fund the journey by selling Debby’s horse. The trek is not only dull but on their miserable budget they spend most of the time famished, unable to afford food on the train, resigned to watching adults in their compartment stuff their faces (Disney would have had the grown-ups share  out the tasty fare).

Arriving at the palatial villa, where Moira is waited on hand and foot, spoiled by presents and ardently wooed, the children are under no illusion about the uphill battle they face especially when Moira is not immediately stricken enough by conscience to give in to their entreaties. Lorenzo’s initial solution is to fly the children home. Adult fortitude begins to waver when the English pair join forces with Lorenzo’s estranged daughter Donna (Olivia Hussey) on a hunger strike. Lorenzo shows a sharper side to his temperament, Moira a weaker. The children’s solidarity is also, however, sorely tested by their own differences.

That there is no easy solution – the kids perhaps joining their mother full-time in Italy or some kind of child-sharing scheme – is what gives this movie its power. The classical idea of a repressed woman finding redemption in the arms of an Italian lover (as with Summertime, 1955, also starring Brazzi) is turned on its head as reality intervenes. It’s as well the kids don’t kill us with cuteness, but instead present a realistic example of what it’s like for adoring children to be abandoned. As the film progresses, and the children turn the screw, they soon face adult realization that, even if they win, the mother they will bring back will not be the mother they knew.

After turns with James Stewart (Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation, 1962) and John Wayne (McLintock!, 1963), Maureen O’Hara had regained her marquee appeal, and although feisty enough in those outings, this was a different, and more courageous,  performance than her fans might have expected. Her conflict is mostly internalized and especially when her children fail to see her point of view, that feistiness vanishes from sight replaced by a more somber, thoughtful individual. Brazzi is excellent as the lover whose paternal responsibilities he takes lightly compromised by a woman forced to come to terms with motherhood. Martin Stephens (The Innocents, 1961), Elizabeth Dear (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) and, making her debut, Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet, 1968) make convincing, conniving, children still dealing with their own hormonal and emotional growth.   

Adapting the bestseller by Rumer Godden (Black Narcissus, 1947), this proved to be the final movie for veteran director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, 1957).

Subterfuge (1968) ***

Worth seeing just for super-slinky leather-clad uber-sadistic Donetta (Suzanna Leigh) who  delights in torturing the daylights out of any secret agent who crosses her path, in this case Michael Donovan (Gene Barry). She’s got a neat line in handbags, too, the poisonous kind. Two stories cross over in this London-set spy drama. American Donovan is under surveillance from both foreign powers and British intelligence. When his contact comes into unfortunate contact with a handbag, he finds himself on the sticky end of the attention of Shevik (Marius Goring) while at the same time employed by the British spy chief Goldsmith (Michael Rennie) to find the mole in their camp.

The three potential British suspects are top-ranking intelligence officer Col. Redmayne (Richard Todd), British spy Peter Langley (Tom Adams) and backroom underling Kitteridge (Colin Gordon). On top of this Langley’s wife Anne (Joan Collins) adds conscience to the proceedings, growing more and more concerned that the affairs of the secret state are taking too much precedence over her marriage.

The hunt-the-mole aspect is pretty well-staged. Kitteridge always looks shifty, keenly watching his boss twisting the dials on a huge office safe containing top secret secrets. Langley is introduced as a villain, turning up at Shevik’s with the drugs that are going to send the Donovan to sleep for eight hours before being transported abroad in a trunk. But he turns out to be just pretending and aids Donovan’s innovative escape. Charming but ruthless Redmayne is also under suspicion if only because he belongs to the upper-class strata of spies (Burgess, Philby and Maclean) who had already betrayed their country.

In investigating Langley, Donovan fixes on the wife, now, coincidentally, a potential romantic target since her husband is suing for divorce. She is particularly attracted to Donovan after he saves her son from a difficult situation on the water, although that appears manufactured for the very purpose of making her feel indebted. However, the couple are clearly attracted, although the top of a London bus would not generally be the chosen location, in such glamorous spy pictures, for said romance to develop.

As you will be aware, romance is a weak spot for any hard-bitten spy and Shevik’s gang take easy advantage, putting Anne, her son and Donovan in peril at the same time as the American follows all sorts of clues to pin down the traitor.

This is the final chapter in Gene Barry’s unofficial 1960s movie trilogy – following Maroc 7 (1967) and Istanbul Express (1968) – and London is a more dour and more apt climate for this more down-to-earth drama. Forget bikinis and gadgets, the best you can ask for is Joan Collins dolled up in trendy mini-skirt and furs. Barry, only too aware that London has nothing on Morocco or Istanbul in the weather department, dresses as if expecting thunderstorms, so he’s not quite the suave character of the previous two pictures. In this grittier role, he does not always come out on top. But that does not seem to dampen his ardor and the gentle romantic banter is well done.

Joan Collins, in career trough after her Twentieth Century Fox contract ended with Esther and the King (1960), has the principled role, determining that the price paid by families for those in active secret service is too high. No slouch in the spy department himself, essaying Charles Vine in three movies including Where the Bullets Fly (1966), Tom Adams plays with audience expectations in this role. It’s a marvelous cast, one of those iconic congregations of talent, with former British superstar Richard Todd (The Dam Busters, 1955), Michael Rennie, television’s The Third Man (1959-1965), Marius Goring (The Girl on a Motorcycle, 1968) and Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) trading her usual damsel-in-distress persona for a turn as terrific damsel-causing-distress.

Shorn of sunny location to augment his backgrounds, director Peter Graham Scott (Bitter Harvest, 1963) turns his camera on scenic London to take in Trafalgar Square, the zoo, Royal Festival Hall, the Underground, Regent’s Park with the usual flotilla of pigeons and ducks to fill in any blanks in the canvas.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog are Gene Barry in Maroc 7 (1967) and Istanbul Express (1968), Joan Collins in Esther and the King (1960) and Suzanna Leigh in The Lost Continent (1968).

This is hard to find so your best bet is ebay although it is available on Youtube for free but the print quality is not great.

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