Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) ****

Setting aside the Biblical angle and the need to inject as much sin as the censor at that time would permit, this works very well as a historical drama filled with political intrigue, pivoting on the morality/sin axis, and with a terrific battle scene. The set up is superb. Bera (Anouk Aimee), Queen of the titular twin cities, allows Hebrew leader Lot (Stewart Granger) to settle his wandering tribe along the River Jordan in order to provide a buffer between her kingdom and the marauding Elamite tribe. Meanwhile, her treacherous brother Astaroth (Stanley Baker) intends using the Elamites to dethrone his sister.

Stunning image from the Pressbook.

The Sodom-Hebrew arrangement is ugly from the start. Sodom owes its wealth to salt. And it relies for its salt mining and processing to thousands of slaves, literally worked to death, corpses piled high on wagons and dumped in the desert. The Hebrews abhor slavery. But having been homeless for so many years, Lot is in no position to argue and assumes that his people can live peacefully enough alongside the heathens, even accommodating Sodom to the point of returning fleeing slaves.

Another superb illustration from the Pressbook.

In fact, in agreeing to live in such close proximity to Sodom, Lot is already in the throes of seduction. In what appears a gesture to seal the deal, Bera presents Lot with her chief female slave Ildith (Pier Angeli). In reality this is a cunning move designed to undermine Hebrew culture. Naturally, Lot grants Ildith her freedom but her presence creates disharmony, Melchior (Rik Battaglia) leading the dissenters. Astaroth seduces both of Lot’s daughters Shuah (Rosanna Podesta) and Maleb (Claudia Mori).

Eventually, of course, the Hebrews succumb to many of the pleasures of Sodom, especially after discovering their own salt deposits which instantly make them wealthy, while Astaroth continues to stir up trouble. Lot the politician is more to the forefront than Lot the good and faithful servant, ignoring the slavery for the sake of peace. However, politics remain a sticky maneuver and, in the end, of course, it is God who intervenes, smiting the wicked.

There are surprising depths to the story. Ildrith initially rejects Lot’s overtures of marriage on the grounds that it will diminish his goodness. In trying to improve living conditions for the Hebrews, Lot does the opposite, jeopardizing their beliefs, his actions rendering virtually invisible the distinctions between the opposing cultures, especially when he is up close to the dancing female slaves and men being burned alive on a wheel. Queen Bera is a political genius, skilled at keeping her enemies closer, not just taking advantage of Lot’s weakness but ensuring that Astaroth never catches her cold.

It’s a very absorbing mix of power, politics, human weakness, the dangers of collaboration, sex and action. Although Lot takes center stage, it is only to watch his decline from man of principle to weak-willed politician, through the astute workings of Queen Bera, a far better manipulator of human emotions than her opposing number.

Images showing the capture of slave Tamar (Scilla Gabel)

Stewart Granger (The Secret Partner, 1961) is surprisingly good as the Hebrew leader. He might lack the physical presence of the likes of Charlton Heston but he proves himself no mean adversary in the various action scenes, two fights with Astaroth for example, the battle itself and in quickly dealing with dissent in the ranks. It would never have occurred to me that a shepherd’s crook was much of a weapon, but in Granger’s hands it proves very effective. He knows he is being seduced, first by Ildith, and then by Sodom, but, as a human being rather than figure of spirituality, is powerless to stop it.  Stanley Baker (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) as the queen’s treacherous brother, on the other hand, just looks shifty and mean throughout.

Anouk Aimee (La Dolce Vita, 1960) is excellent as the politically astute monarch, and save for God’s intervention, would have got the better of everyone around her.  Pier Angeli (The Angry Silence, 1960) is touching, initially angry at being cast out of Sodom, gradually warming to Lot, but only too aware that in succumbing to her charms he might spoil his own innate goodness, like a femme fatale only too wary of her own powers.  Rosanna Podesta (Seven Golden Men, 1965) is good in a supporting role as is Rik Battaglia (Esther and the King, 1960) while Scilla Gabel (Colossus of the Arena, 1962) has a smaller part as the slave Tamar who meets a horrible death. Look out, too, for Gabrielle Tinti (Esther and the King, 1960), later best known for his marriage to Laura Gemser of the Black Emmanuelle series, and future spaghetti western anti-hero Anthony Steffen (Django the Bastard, 1969).

Novelisation of the screenplay with a cover placing the focus strictly on sin.

Robert Aldrich (4 for Texas, 1963) creates an excellent addition to the genre, the pace of the drama, with various storylines, never slacking. As a historical picture this aims higher than mere pulp where sexiness and torture are the audience hooks. His battle sequence is outstanding, unusual in that the balance of power shifts throughout, in part through treachery, between the participants. Although Aldrich often disparaged this picture, he has done a really good job of working up the ingredients into a heady brew, notwithstanding the “deus ex machina” ending that met audience expectation. Ken Adam (Dr No, 1962) headed up the production design and Wally Veevers (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) among the half dozen experts contributing to the special effects. Mention also to Maurice Binder for the credit sequence and Miklos Rosza (Ben-Hur, 1959) for a nuanced score.

Catch-Up: Reviewed previously in the Blog are Robert Aldrich’s 4 for Texas (1963) and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Stewart Granger in The Secret Partner (1961) and The Secret Invasion (1964), and Stanley Baker in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Girl with a Pistol (1968).

4 for Texas (1963) ****

To my mind the best of the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin collaborations, outside of the more straightforwardly dramatic Some Came Running (1958), and for the simple reason that they are rivals rather than buddies. The banter of previous “Rat Pack” outings is given a harder edge and it is shorn of extraneous songs.

I came at this picture with some trepidation, since it did not receive kind reviews, “stinks to high heaven” being a sample. But I thought it worked tremendously well, a delightful surprise, the ongoing intrigue intercut with occasional outright dramatic moments and a few good laughs.

It’s unfair to term it a comedy western since for a contemporary audience that invariably means a spoof of some kind, rather than a movie that dips into a variety of genres. In some respects it defies pigeonholing. For example, it begins with a dramatic shoot-out, stagecoach passengers Zack Thomson (Frank Sinatra), a crack shot with a rifle, and pistolero Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin) out-shooting an outlaw gang headed by Matson (Charles Bronson). When director Robert Aldrich (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) has the cojones to kill off legendary villain Jack Elam in the opening section you know you are in for something different.

After out-foxing Matson, Jarrett attempts to steal the $100,000 the stagecoach has been carrying from its owner Thomas. Jarrett looks to be getting away with it until he realizes he is still in range of Thomas’s rifle. Then Thomas looks to have secured the money until Jarrett produces a pistol from his hat. And that sets the template for the movie, Thomas trying to outsmart Jarrett, the thief always one step ahead, and the pair of them locking horns with corrupt banker Harvey Burden (Victor Buono), in whose employ is Matson.

The movie is full of clever twists, cunning ruses, scams, double-crosses, reversals and sparkling dialog. Whenever Jarrett and Thomas are heading for a showdown, something or someone (such as Matson) gets in the way. While Thomas has the perfect domestic life, fawned over by buxom maids and girlfriend Elya (Anita Ekberg), Jarrett encounters much tougher widow Maxine (Ursula Andress) who greets his attempts to invest in her riverboat casino by shooting at him.  

Take away the comedic elements and you would have a plot worthy of Wall Street and ruthless financiers. The story is occasionally complicated without being complex and the characters, as illustrated by their devious intent, are all perfectly believable.

It’s a great mix of action and comedy – with some extra spice added by The Three Stooges in a laugh-out-loud sequence – and it’s a quintessential example of the Sinatra-Martin schtick, one of the great screen partnerships, illuminated by sharp exchanges neither lazily scripted nor delivered. Even the blatant sexism is played for laughs.

Sinatra and Martin, especially, are at the top of their game. Forget all you’ve read about Aldrich and Sinatra not getting on. Sinatra never got on with any director. But an actor and director not getting on does not spell a poor picture. Sinatra brings enough to the table to make it work, especially as he is playing against type, essentially a dodgy businessman who is taken to the cleaners by both Martin and Buono.

The only flaw is that Ursula Andress (Dr No, 1962) does not turn up sooner. She has a great role, mixing seductiveness and maternal instinct with a stiff shot of ruthlessness, not someone to be fooled with at all, qualities that would resonate more in the career-making She (1965).  Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960) on the other hand is all bosom and not much else. Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) demonstrates a surprising grasp of the essentials of comedy for someone so often categorized as the tough guy’s tough guy.

The biggest bonus for the picture overall is the absence of the other clan members – Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – who appeared in previous Rat Pack endeavors Oceans 11 (1960) and Sergeants 3 (1963). Without having to laboriously fit all these other characters in, this film seems to fly along much better. As I mentioned, the fact that Sinatra and Martin play deadly enemies provides greater dramatic intensity.

Robert Aldrich was a versatile director, by this point having turned out westerns (Vera Cruz, 1954), thrillers (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955), war pictures (The Angry Hills, 1959), Biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and horror picture Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). But 4 for Texas called for even greater versatility, combining action with quickfire dialog, a bit of slapstick and romance and shepherding the whole thing with some visual flair.

If you are a fan of Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3 you will probably like this. If you are not, it’s worth giving this a go since it takes on such a different dynamic to those two pictures.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog: Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3; Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967); and Ursula Andress in The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) ****

Take twelve condemned men, drop them in the desert hundreds of miles from safety with only enough water to last two weeks, and nothing to eat but dates, and make them work together to effect salvation from their predicament. Not exactly the premise for The Dirty Dozen (1967) but not far off. Flight of the Phoenix appears a dummy run for director Robert Aldrich’s more ambitious war picture, not least because in terms of structure it is only eight minutes shorter. There are no women in the picture (except those appearing in a mirage) and the men, of all different types, must come together or die in the savage heat.

You might argue that the audience for this kind of picture no longer exists. In the 1960s there was a big market for the Nevil Shute/Hammond Innes/Elleston Trevor type of novel which contained a lot of practical detail at a time when heavy industry – mining, shipbuilding, oil, car manufacture – was a massive employer and the ordinary man had an easy understanding of – and was often fascinated by – the principles of engineering. Bear in mind that this was the era of space rockets and there was excitement about man’s planned flight to the moon.

During a sandstorm a small twin-engined plane carrying passengers from an oil field crash lands in the Sahara. James Stewart as the pilot was a casting trick. In a previous aerial adventure No Highway (1951), Stewart was the ordinary joe challenging authority. Here he is the authority figure challenged and part of the film’s guile is the way he has to concede that authority to the one person on board everyone hates, arrogant German aircraft designer  Hardy Kruger. The global job lot of passengers includes: two soldiers, martinet officer Peter Finch and his mutinous sergeant Ronald Fraser; Richard Attenborough as an alcoholic navigator; oil worker Ernest Borgnine on the brink of insanity; Scotsman Ian Bannen reprising the sarcastic troublemaker of previous desert drama Station Six Sahara (1963); Frenchman Christian Marquand as a doctor; veteran Dan Duryea as the company accountant; Italian Gabriele Tinti; George Kennedy and Alex Montoya; plus a monkey of no fixed abode. The monkey, incidentally, is cleverly utilised. He’s not a sentimental or cute device, there to soften a hard guy or for comic relief, but Aldrich often cuts to his squeals or his face when there is imminent danger.

Two passengers are already dead, one is seriously injured. They have been blown so far off-course they will be impossible to locate. There is only enough water for ten or eleven days. It is a given in such circumstances that tempers will explode and hidden secrets surface. Were they guaranteed rescue those two pegs would be enough to hang a movie on.  Since there is no such guarantee, this becomes a picture about survival. The obvious manoeuvre comes into play on the fifth day. Finch determines to walk to safety, over 100 miles in deadly heat. But it’s not a trek picture either, the engineers present know the risks. Mountains will cause false compass readings and those going will walk around in circles.

What? I can get that magnetism in the mountains can affect a compass but where does the walking round in circles enter the equation? Because, explains Attenborough patiently, a person does not automatically walk in a straight line if there is no actual road. If right-handed then you’ll walk in a left-hand direction because the right leg is more developed than the other and takes a longer stride and there’s nothing you can do about it. This doesn’t matter if you are walking along an actual path but in the desert with no road markings it’s lethal. And this is the beginning of a bag of what would otherwise be deemed trivia except that such facts are a matter of life and death. This is a movie about reality in a way that no other realistic or authentic picture has or will be. Physics is the dominant force, not imagination.

Finch’s sergeant fakes an injury to avoid going. The mad Borgnine, originally prevented from leaving, sneaks away in the night. James Stewart, in courageous mode, goes after him. While he is away, Kruger carries out a character assassination. And continues on his return – “the only thing outstanding about you is your stupidity.” By now though, Attenborough has warmed to Kruger’s insane idea of building a single-engined plane out of the wreck of the twin-engined one. And that becomes the crux of the story. Can they build this weird contraption? Will they manage it before they die of thirst? Will rising tensions prevent completion? Are they fit enough after days in the boiling heat to manage the herculean tasks involved?

Aldrich keeps psychological tension at fever pitch, helped along by the pessimistic Stewart and the wildly pessimistic Bannen, needling everyone in sight, who delivers lines like “how I stopped smoking in three days.” Stewart and Attenborough have to come to terms with the parts they played in the plane crashing, Fraser with his cowardice. Issues arise over leadership and water theft.

I won’t spoil it for you by mentioning the incident that threatens to demolish the entire project. But the finale is truly thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff and the skeletal monstrosity being constructed looks hardly capable of carrying the monkey let alone a full complement of passengers. Aldrich is a master of the group shot with unerring composition and often movement within the frame or just a simple bit of business by an actor, for example George Kennedy at one point tapping his hand against his leg, ensuring that the film does not solely focus on a couple of characters. Sometimes all Aldrich needs to make his points are reaction shots.

Aldrich called on Lukas Heller for the screenplay, having worked with him on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Aldrich’s son William and son-in-law Peter Bravos had bit parts, killed off during the crash.

Flight of the Phoenix virtually invented the self-help rescue genre that relied on ingenious mechanical ideas – rather than more simplistic notions – such as later absorbed in movies like Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian  (2015). Aldrich’s mastery of group dynamics would stand in him in good stead for The Dirty Dozen. A terrific movie and well worth seeing.

See also also the companion piece – Book into Filmwhich is posted tomorrow.