The Ceremony (1963) ***

Actors taking the hyphenated route were quite a fad in the 1960s. Mostly, primarily for tax purposes, they turned themselves into actor-producers. But some went all-out for artistic glory, saddling themselves with the task of directing the movies in which they starred, by this point in the decade John Wayne (The Alamo, 1960) and Marlon Brando (One-Eyed Jacks, 1961) the most celebrated examples. Despite lacking that pair’s box office pulling power, Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) threw his hat into the ring with this often compelling, atmospheric, but occasionally pretentious, offering.

Irishman Sean McKenna (Laurence Harvey) is in prison in Tangiers – “a city of money” – for one crime he did commit (bank robbery) and one he did not (shooting a guard dead during the robbery). Although facing an imminent death penalty for the murder, he refuses to name the killer. Local prosecutor Le Coq (Ross Martin)  is intent on making him an example while the prison warden (John Ireland) pleads for clemency, especially as it is suspected the inmate is innocent.

Astonishing to imagine now but this went out on general release in Britain
as the lead film in a double bill with “Lilies of the Field.”

Meanwhile, McKenna’s girlfriend Catherine (Sarah Miles) and his brother Dominic (Robert Walker Jr) plan an audacious escape. The brother is not altogether altruistic. His price is half the hidden loot and Catherine, that part of the deal sealed when she submits to sex with him.

Dominic gains entry to the prison disguised as a priest, swapping clothes with his brother, so that when sirens sound to announce potential intrusion by Dominic’s sidekick Nicky (Lee Patterson), Sean can simply walk out unharmed. However, when Seans learns of the price to be paid he doesn’t thank Catherine for her noble sacrifice but turns against both. Dominic, now on the run and chased by the police, is virtually burned alive when his car explodes.

My apologies but in order to properly discuss this picture I’m going to have to take you through to the end. So SPOILER ALERT.

Dominic is so badly burnt in fact that he is unrecognizable and the police (decades before DNA would disprove such an assumption) believe he is actually his brother. Dominic is faced with  “the ceremony” – an ironic tittle if ever there was one – in which he is strapped to a wooden throne and shot by firing squad. Despite his brother’s betrayal, and the fact that his death would set Sean free, Sean decides it would better to “prevent the unjust killing of an innocent man” and gives himself up, too late, as it happens, to spare Dominic, but allowing Sean, in a Pieta-style gesture, to carry the corpse into the prison courtyard and announce “my brother died for me.”

Not quite the ending you would expect, not least because religious allegory has been distinctly missing from the proceedings unless you count the somewhat dotty Father O’Brian (Jack MacGowran) who spends most of his time delivering soliloquies unless you count cars, cows and mules as potential conversationalists.

You get the impression the ending was what attracted the director to the tale, and though it is quite a stunning climax, cinematically as well as thematically, Harvey has, like so many debutants, determined to make a big point. “There’s a little bit of God in everyone,” pronounces Fr O’Brian with a saintly air, which would beg the question of when the Good Lord channelled his inner bank-robber.

For all the film’s flaws there are several pluses. The atmosphere “of chilly hell” (to steal a quote about another book) is well done, footsteps echo off stone floors and cobbles, nobody in this black-and-white feature is seen without a dose of noir lighting, resulting in long shadows and aerial shots of tiny figures swarming. While everyone else over-acts for no apparent reason except directorial inexperience, when Sarah Miles (Term of Trial, 1962) overacts, lips constantly a-quiver, words delivered in gasps, she has every right to, since her character has succumbed to the most evil kind of temptation for the best sort of reason.

The only other interesting character, beyond the stock ones populating the prison, is lonely landlord Ramades (Carlos Casaravilla) who has outlived his four lives and whose rooms abut the prison and where Catherine takes refuge while the escape is going on. He senses her tension, but mistakes the cause, assuming she is here to wait for the shots announcing her husband’s death as a means of “sharing his punishment,” quite a piece of psychological insight for an ordinary guy. And there’s also a creepiness about the whole scene, a sense that she might have to give herself to him as well in order to prevent him wandering too far from the bedroom where he might discover Dominic putting into action a crucial part of the escape plan.

Among the flaws: no real tension, especially in terms of the escape, not enough directorial understanding that much more could be gained from greater focus on Catherine’s dilemma, the obvious lack of a body in the burning car, the fact that the Irishman shows no signs of an Irish accent, the priest’s scenes which provoke hilarity more than reverence, and as much as it is a strength the ending appears out of nowhere.

Robert Walker Jr (The Happening, 1967) is too much of a lightweight for this role, but John Ireland (55 Days at Peking, 1963) and Ross Martin (Experiment in Terror, 1962) excel. Look out for Fernando Rey (The French Connection, 1970).

Valiant effort by Harvey who only directed one other time, on his last film Welcome to Arrow Beach / Yellow-Head Summer (1973), plus a stint filling in for Anthony Mann who died during the filming of A Dandy in Aspic (1968). For The Ceremony Harvey was a quadruple hyphenate –  actor-producer-writer-director – for he also contributed enough dialogue to claim a screen credit along with Ben Barzman (The Blue Max, 1966) who adapted the novel by Frederic Grendel.

The Hot Prospects Business – 1960s Style

As difficult as it was to guess which films would hit the box office target and which would turn into irredeemable flops, Hollywood studios and exhibitors stewed as much over the potential of the next generation of stars. This was an era when talent schools still existed, youngsters taken on at modest wages and provided with both standard acting lessons and other important elements of movie education such as riding a horse or sword-fighting as well as breaking in the actors and actresses with small roles. They would be given progressively larger roles until they emerged, hopefully, as genuine candidates for box office glory.

Of course, the studios had their own ideas which of their youngsters was likely to make the grade, the most obvious marker being the types of parts they were handed, but exhibitors helped the process along by taking part in an annual survey organized by trade paper Box Office.

So I’ve chosen a year – 1965, midway through the decade – at random to see how many of the new generation of stars made the grade. According to the Box Office survey the top six males (in order) were Peter Fonda, Robert Walker Jr, Patrick Wayne, Keir Dullea, Doug McClure and Tommy Sands. The top six females were:  Patty Duke, Stefanie Power, Nancy Sinatra, Rita Tushingham, Rosemary Forsyth and Barbara Eden.

You can see from the list that a recognizable name goes a long way, a full one-third of the candidates blessed with a father with a famous name, Peter the son of Henry Fonda, Patrick the son of John Wayne, Nancy the daughter of Frank Sinatra. Robert Walker had never been in that elite class but it appeared his name was still strong enough for his son to capture public attention.

What exactly a rising star embodied appeared to be in the eye of the beholder. Some of the stars already had a decent portfolio, others not so much. (The survey was published in early 1966 so I assuming it took into account acting performances up to the end of 1965.)

On acting talent alone the front runners should have been Rita Tushingham, Patty Duke and Keir Dullea. Britisher Tushingham had won Best Actress at Cannes for A Taste of Honey (1961) and was tipped for a Bafta for The Knack (1965) – she did in fact win. In both films she was top-billed and again for The Trap (1966). Patty Duke had won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962) and been top-billed in Billie (1965) but her popularity surge was largely thanks to her eponymous television show which ran from 1963 to 1966.

Since starring in David and Lisa (1962). Dullea’s career appeared jeopardized by offbeat choices, The Thin Red Line (1964) and The Naked Hours (1964), in both top-billed, before sliding down the credit rankings for Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). Peter Fonda appeared to be heading for success as a romantic star after appearing in fluff like Tammy and the Doctor (1963) and his first top-billed role in The Young Lovers (1964). Robert Walker Jr, top-billed in Ensign Pulver (1964), had followed this up with Italian oddity The Touching and Not Touching (1965) thus demonstrating versatility.

Stefanie Powers was clearly a rising star, smaller roles in The New Interns (1964) and Love Has Many Faces (1965) had led to second-billing in Die! Die! My Darling (1965) and her forthcoming role in Stagecoach was expected to solidify her mainstream career. Barbara Eden was dependent on television for her high placing, after I Dream of Jeannie kicked off in 1965. Most heavily dependent on nepotism were Patrick Wayne and Nancy Sinatra. Wayne was by far the least proven, riding very much on his father’s coat-tails, but fourth-billed in Shenandoah (1965) and a leading role in television series The Rounders which had kicked off in 1966. Sinatra was the longest shot, just bit parts so far.

Television’s The Virginian had been the launch pad for Doug McClure but he had since ventured out into Shenandoah (1965) and Beau Geste (1966), second-billed each time. Apart from his reputation as a singer, it’s hard to see why Tommy Sands ended up so favored, with just a couple of bit parts to his name. But you could see why Rosemary Forsyth, after the female lead in The War Lord (1965) was attracting industry attention.

So what happened to the prospects? Were the talent-spotters proved right? As you might expect, yes and no is the answer.

Keir Dullea and Peter Fonda proved the standouts. Dullea followed the offbeat The Fox (1967) with the big-budget big hit 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Fonda quickly transitioned to The Wild Angels (1966) and starred in the decade’s most unexpected hit, Easy Rider (1969), and long-term was easily the most successful graduate of the Class of ’66.

Patty Duke was second-billed in big hit Valley of the Dolls (1967) and won outright top billing for Me, Natalie (1968). After The Wild Angels (1966) Nancy Sinatra became a pop star in her own right before sharing the billing with Elvis Presley in Speedway (1968) but that was the highlight of her movie career. Patrick Wayne took longest to find his feet but snagged several top-billed roles, mostly leading with his chin in fantasy pictures such as Beyond Atlantis (1973), The People That Time Forgot (1977) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Rita Tushingham starred in a string of films including The Trap (1966) Smashing Time (1968), The Guru (1969) and The Bed Sitting Room (1969) that failed to click with U.S. mainstream audiences.

Doug McClure was second-billed in Beau Geste (1966) and top-billed for swashbuckler The King’s Pirate (1967) and comedy Nobody’s Perfect (1968) before drifting back into television to emerge years later as a credible top-billed star of Hellhounds of Alaska (1973), The Land Time Forgot (1974) and At The Earth’s Core (1976). Stefanie Powers only managed top-billing for Crescendo (1970) and had to wait over a decade to realize her potential, and then in television show Hart to Hart (1979-1984).

Roy Walker Jr.’s career never took off, his biggest success as Young Billy Young (1969) was a flop. Rosemary Forsyth got as high as leading lady on Texas Across the River (1966) and Where It’s At (1967) but then drifted down the credits into the ranks of supporting players. Barbara Eden only managed a few television movies. Tommy Sands’ movie career died the death except for third billing in biker picture The Violent Ones (1967).

Screenwriter William Goldman coined the phrase “nobody knows anything” in relation to movies but it might equally apply to industry expectation of hot prospects, some of whom crashed and burned, and some never were even hot.

SOURCE: “12 most popular players of ’65,” Box Office, February 28, 1966, p76-77.

The Happening (1967) ***

Poor casting blows a hole in this picture’s great premise and only an excellent turn by Anthony Quinn as an indignant kidnappee prevents it achieving “so-bad-it’s-good” infamy. In fact for the first third of the movie you could pretty much guarantee it’s going to be a stinker, so dire are the performances of the quartet of hippy kidnappers. Only when the camera cuts  Quinn a bit more slack and the script skids into a clever reversal does the movie takes flight although still hovering dangerously close to the waterline.

Faye Dunaway (Sandy), all blonde hair and pouting lips, looks for the most part as though she has entered an Ann-Margret Look-A-Like Competition. Michael Parks (Sureshot) resembles a fluffy-haired James Dean. George Maharis is condemned to over-acting in the role as ringleader Taurus while Robert Walker Jr. as Herby does little more than mooch around. None shows the slightest spark and behave virtually all the time as if they are in on the joke.

For no special reason, beyond boredom, they kidnap hotel tycoon Roc (Quinn) hoping to make an easy score with the ransom. Unfortunately for Roc, none of those he is counting on to cough up the dough – wife Monica (Martha Hyers), current business partner Fred (Milton Berle), former business partner Sam (Oscar Homolka) and offscreen mother – will play ball. In fact, Monica and Sam, enjoying an affair, would be delighted if failure to produce a ransom ended in his death.

Eventually, while the movie is almost in the death throes itself, Roc fights back, using blackmail to extort far more than the kidnappers require from his business associates and taking revenge on his wife by setting her up as his murderer. It turns out Roc is a former gangster and well-schooled in the nefarious. So then we are into the intricacies of making the scam work, which turns a movie heading in too many directions for its own good into a well-honed crime picture.

Quinn is the lynchpin, and just as well since the others help not a jot. From a kidnappee only too willing to play the victim in case he endangers wife and son, he achieves a complete turnaround into a mobster with brains to outwit all his enemies. But in between he has to make a transition from a man in control to one realizing he has been duped by all he trusted.

Director Elliott Silverstein, who got away with a lot of diversionary tactics in Cat Ballou (1965) – such as musical interludes featuring Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole – essays a different kind of interlude here, fast cars speeding across the screen at crazy angles. But that does not work at all. Probably having realized pretty quickly that he can’t trust any of the young actors, he mostly shoots them in a group.  

Some scenes are completely out of place – a multiple car crash straight out of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, for example. But occasionally he hits the mark in ways that will resonate with today’s audience. Sureshot, confronted by a policeman, refuses to lower his hands in case he is shot for resisting arrest. Although drug use is implied rather than shown, Sureshot is so stoned he can’t remember if he has actually made love to Sandy. And like any modern Tinderite, neither knows the other’s name after spending a night together.  

The strange thing about the youngsters was that they were not first-timers. Dunaway had made her debut in Hurry Sundown (1967). George Maharis had the lead in The Satan Bug (1965) and A Covenant with Death (1967), Michael Parks the male lead in The Idol (1966) and played Adam in The Bible (1966) and although it marked the debut of Robert Walker Jr. he had several years in television. Oh, and you’ll probably remember a snappy tune, the music more than the lyrics, that became a single by The Supremes.

I’ve got an old DVD copy but I don’t think this is readily available but you can catch it for free on YouTube, although it’s not a good print. Via Google you should be able to see The Supremes performing the title song.

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