Behind the Scenes: “The Biggest Bundle of Them All” (1968)

Films that reach the screen two years after filming was completed are generally stinkers. Ken Annakin caper movie The Biggest Bundle of Them All wrapped production in summer 1966 and was not released until January 1968. But the reason was not the usual.

The cause of the unseemly delay was a temper tantrum by Oscar-winning uber-producer Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) who had been working on a similar project about incompetent amateurs kidnapping a gangster kingpin – The Happening (1967) starring Anthony Quinn (previously reviewed in the Blog). After bringing a charge of blatant plagiarism, Spiegel was mollified by being permitted to bring his movie out first, with an inbuilt eight-month gap  between both releases, the deal sweetened by a 15% cut of The Biggest Bundle’s profits and the right to vet the script.

Despite success with Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Battle of the Bulge (1965) British director Annakin was at a career impasse. The Fifth Coin written by Francis Ford Coppola and starring George Segal failed to get off the ground. He turned down western Texas Across the River (1966) at a time when Catherine Deneuve and Shirley Maclaine were slotted in for the female roles and was fired from The Perils of Pauline (1967). The Italian Caper as it was then known, recalled Annakin, “did not seem a world-shattering movie but I found the caper fascinating and the cast irresistible.” 

Let them eat cheesecake.

It marked the movie debut for producer Josef Shaftel of The Untouchables television fame and for screenwriter Rod Amateau (The Wilby Conspiracy, 1975), also then a television regular although the final script was attributed to another neophyte Sy Salkowitz. The film made the most of Italian locations, Naples and Rome, as well as the South of France and Provence. Annakin caught pneumonia just as shooting was to commence. Shaftel took over for five days only for his material to prove unusable.

Both veteran actors proved easy to direct. “Robinson was like putty in my hands, completely trusting.” And while Vittorio De Sica was every bit as amenable he was inclined to fall asleep on the set as the result of entertaining his mistress the night before. Di Sica was also a compulsive gambler and at one point lost half his salary in a casino.

Raquel Welch, in only her second picture after One Million Years B.C. (1966) – which contained minimal dialogue – was initially a handful. Primarily, this was due to inexperience and her desire to present herself in as alluring a fashion as possible, with impeccable hairstyles and make-up. After she had kept the crew waiting once too often Annakin threatened to eliminate her close-ups unless she respected the shooting schedule.

“On the whole I was quite pleased with the results because she really applied herself and so long as one broke up the scenes into a couple of lines at a time she became able to handle them quite adequately…I was getting along excellently with Raquel – even to the extent of trying to find another picture with her,” Annakin noted in his autobiography. Since this was written three decades after the movie was made, it would have given him ample time to get rid of any latent hostility to the actress. This reaction, it has to be said, is contrary to much of what has been written about Welch’s behavior on the picture. At the time of filming he reported that “she has a marvelous flair for comedy.”

But it appeared that Annakin was the only one who spotted her star potential. “The rest of the cast, especially Bob (Robert Wagner), regarded her as a pin-up girl on the make…none of them thought she was particularly sexy at this time.”

Otherwise, the only other trouble came from Godfrey Cambridge who “had a chip on his shoulder” and from Robert Wagner’s insistence on wearing false eyelashes. Problems arose over the cinematographer’s determination to employ powerful lights even at the height of a Mediterranean  summer and a massive dust storm interrupted filming of the final scenes.  Annakin also benefitted from the locations and using his experience was able to shift 35 pages of script from interiors to outdoors, completely altering the look of the picture. This made the $2 million movie “look like it cost three or four million,” according to Annakin. 

At this point Welch, best known for having been sued by her publicist, was in the process of turning herself into a star in demand. In 1966 Welch was something of a Hollywood secret. She had three pictures in the bank, was working on a fourth and had signed up for a fifth before any of her movies had been released. On the other hand, she was fast becoming one of the most famous faces (and bodies) in the world, on the cover of of hundreds of magazines in Europe, many for the fourth or fifth time.

Having set up a company, Curtwel, managed by husband Patrick Curtis, she would earn $15,570 a week on loan to MGM for a second film Italian movie Shoot, Loud…Louder, I Don’t Understand (1966), considerably more than through her contract with Twentieth Century Fox. A year later she collected £100,000 for two weeks on portmanteau picture The Oldest Profession (1967).

Curtwel was also moving into the production arena, in 1965 attempting to set up No Place for the Dead and the following year optioning the musical comedy The Opposite Sides of the Fence and taking a quarter share in the mooted The Devil’s Discord to star Peter Cushing and Edd Byrnes under the direction of Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968). None of these ventures materialzed.

As well as having to contend with audience disinterest in the clumsy crook scenario as witnessed by the flop of The Happening, the enforced time gap allowed a second picture featuring bungling criminals called Too Many Crooks (1967) to reach cinemas prior to The Biggest Bundle. However, by January 1968, Welch was a much bigger name on movie marquees, having appeared on 400 international magazine covers and selected by U.S. exhibitors for the International Star of the Year Award while The Biggest Bundle had been preceded by another seven pictures including hits One Million Years B.C. and Fantastic Voyage (1966).

SOURCES: Ken Annakin, So You Wanna Be a Director, (Tomahawk Press, Sheffield 2001), pages 187-194; “Raquel Welch and Manager Form Curtwel Co,” Box Office, May 3, 1965, pW3; “Raquel Welch, Pat Curtis Form Curtwel Prods,” Box Office, October 5, 1965, pSE6; “Toutmasters Sue for 5% of Raquel Welch,” Variety, October 6, 1965, p14; “Raquel Welch in Rome,” Box Office, April 25, 1966, page SE1; “MGM’s Bundle Wrapping at Nice, Orders On Set in 3 Languages,” Variety, July 6, 1966, p7; “8 Pix for 2 Unseen Actresses,” Variety, August 17, 1966, p5; “Businesswoman Side of Raquel Welch,” Variety, November 2, 1966, p20; “Oldest Profession Gets New Locale in West Berlin, Raquel Welch’s 100G Job,” Variety, January 18, 1967, p24; “Columbia-Spiegel Holds 25% Share of MGM’s Bundle,” Variety, December 6, 1967, p3.

The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) ***

Bunch of incompetent crooks kidnap an impoverished Mafia boss who pays his ransom by setting up a major heist. By a stroke of casting alchemy this brings together Cesare (Vittorio De Sica), the epitome of old world Italian charm, knock-out gangster’s moll and scene-stealer-in-chief Juliana (Raquel Welch) replete with scanty knock-out outfits, and criminal mastermind Professor Samuels (Edward G. Robinson). In order to acquire the funds necessary to steal $5 million of platinum ingots from a train – that plan involving a tank and an WW2 bomber – the crew, initially headed by American Harry (Robert Wagner), need to carry out smaller jobs.

Problem is, none of them are any good, not even Cesare, who has lost his flair and botches an attempt to rob an old flame of her jewels. This is a twist on Topkapi (1964) which employed effective amateurs. This bunch can’t even carry out a simple theft from a restaurant. The heist itself is pretty spectacular and innovative. And the movie is quirky, with a darker edge. While there are few belly laughs, the light tone is enough to carry the gentle humor, mostly inspired by the misplaced team, amateurs for various reasons, not necessarily outright lawbreaking, on the run. These include London Cockney mechanic Davey (Davy Kaye), chef Antonio (Francesco Mule) distracted by hunger at every turn, cowardly violinist Benny (Godfrey Cambridge) and Joe (Mickey Knox) with a helluva brood to feed.

The story does a good bit of meandering, as does the camera, much of its focus on the voluptuous charms of Juliana, but the hurt pride of Cesare and the grandiose machinations of the professor keep it on course. The Italian settings, incorporating grand villas and ruins, do no harm either. The heist is terrific and there is a final twist you may or may not see coming. The interplay of characters works best when it involves Juliana, who attempts to twist Cesare around her little finger, that tactic mutual it has to be said, and who keeps the professor on his toes by dancing with him in a disco, and it soon becomes apparent that she has the upper hand over lover-boy Harry.

You could be forgiven for thinking the title refers to Raquel Welch – a cinematic infant at this stage with only One Million Years B.C (1966) in her portfolio – especially when her cleavage and looks receive such prominence, but the caper is classy and different. As well as being obvious she is both sinuous and seductive and clearly has a mind of her own, possibly the most criminally intent of the entire outfit, with weapons the others lack. By this point, she had invented the pop-out bikini, pictures of which had flooded Europe, making her the pin-up par excellence, but those who came to simply gawp quickly realized there was talent behind the body. Although of course there would be those who didn’t care.

De Sica constantly plays around with the idea of being a defunct godfather and Robinson is the antithesis of the gangster roles on which his fame relied. Robert Wagner is less effective, miscast and out of place in such august acting company and losing out to Welch in every scene.

This was a considerable change of pace for British director Ken Annakin after Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Battle of the Bulge (1965) and he brings to this the comedy of the former coupled with the narrative complications of the latter, wrapping everything up in an easy inviting style that makes the most of his stars and the locations. Screenwriter Sy Salkowitz was a television veteran (Perry Mason, The Untouchables et al) , this marking his first venture into the big screen.     

Not in the Topkapi class – very little is – but a pleasant diversion nonetheless and for avid Raquel Welch fans, setting aside her outfits, a chance to see her develop more of a screen persona than was permitted in her debut One Million Years B.C.

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