Seven Seas to Calais (1962) ***

In between hi-hat Hollywood endeavors The Time Machine (1960) and The Birds (1963) Rod Taylor made a couple of pit stops in Italy. Here, he tries his hand at a swashbuckler and does a pretty good job of it, depicting famed English naval hero Sir Francis Drake, in a story that covers about a dozen years from him circumnavigating the globe to masterminding the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Not content with glorifying tales of his derring-do as he robs the Spanish of their gold, the producers also mine a rich seam of political intrigue as the Spanish King Philip II seeks to nullify the English threat first by a treaty and then by conspiracy before embarking on full-blown invasion. Queen Elizabeth (Irene Worth) proves a political maestro, telling the Spanish what they want to believe and condemning Drake’s activities in public while in fact privately financing his expedition and relying on his booty to fund her navy.  

After putting down a potential mutiny, most of Drake’s time is spent plundering Spanish galleons or gold mines. When not pillaging, Drake takes time out from his adventures to discover potato and tobacco and for a romantic dalliance with what appear to be Native Americans (judging from the feathers they wear) including a young woman called Potato (Rossella D’Aquino). It is left to his number two Malcolm Marsh (Keith Michell) to carry the main subplot which has French beauty Arabella (Edy Vessel) in his absence taking up with Babington (Terence Hill), a traitor with an eye to freeing the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots (Esmeralda Ruspoli).

There are more than enough swordfights for purists and Drake employs a certain amount of cunning and bravado in his various piratical enterprises. Clever filming makes the ships look realistic enough, though in long shot they do resemble toys. In making it look as though Drake has returned from his voyage in the nick of time to save Elizabeth from the Spanish aggressors, the producers neatly kaleidoscope the actual time frame. Elizabeth takes no prisoners and there are spicy exchanges between the queen and the pirate.

Rod Taylor presents a more muscular and athletic screen persona than in any of his previous pictures and his presence exudes authority but he also has that lightness of tone that would become a trademark. However, American stage actress Irene Worth just about plays him off the screen, her regal bearing hiding an agile mind.  Keith Michell (The Hellfire Club, 1961) makes a strong impression as does future spaghetti western star Terence Hill, (They Call Me Trinity, 1970) credited here as Mario Girotti. Edy Vessel (The Thief of Baghdad, 1961) only made two more films, although one was Fellini’s (1963). This was the second film outing after Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) for Esmeralda Ruspoli

Strangely enough, given the part Drake played in English history, he has been dealt a poor hand in the movies. A British television series Sir Francis Drake (1961-1962) starring Terence Morgan was unlikely to have instigated this picture so it is odd to rely on Italy for the only picture, regardless of its veracity.

In the portfolio of veteran director Rudolph Mate (When Worlds Collide, 1951), this immediately followed on from The 300 Spartans (1962) but lacks that film’s rigor and vigor. The script was dreamt up by Filippo Sanjust (also Morgan the Pirate).

CATCH-UP: Rod Taylor pictures reviewed in the Blog are The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967) and Dark of the Sun (1968).

Selling Tough Guys – The Pressbook for “Dark of the Sun”

Mercenaries rampaging through strife-ridden Africa, chainsaw the weapon of choice, marketing to The Dirty Dozen crowd a formality, but how do you interest the rest of the paying public?

“Bright ideas to boost your box office” as computed by the MGM marketeers in the Pressbook fell into four categories: fashion, jungle, diamonds, and military. Oddly enough, the pick of the bunch was fashion. And not what the chic mercenary was wearing. Instead, the focus was on Yvette Mimieux who “took time off” filming to “model sensational creations by Dorothy McNab of Jamaica Fashions.” This picture is set in the Congo and Jamaica is about 3,000 miles away across an entire ocean so where did Jamaica come into it? Well, it was shot in Jamaica and that appeared excuse enough, and it was hoped that cinemas would link up with department stores showing the seven outfits modelled ranging from casual to elegant evening wear.

Creative license was used here for Mimieux never fought side by side with Taylor and Brown on the top of the train.

The jungle seemed a safer bet so managers were encouraged to kit out doormen and usherettes in jungle outfits while tropical plants and foliage and possibly tropical birds could turn the lobby into a jungle paradise. Local military Army reserve or National Guard units could be persuaded to lend military equipment to add to the display and, as a longer shot, recruitment agencies might choose to get involved. Since the main thrust of the picture involves diamonds the marketeers suggested linking up with large jewelry store chains to give away cheap industrial diamonds prior to launch or as a competition.

Since Toyota land cruisers play a significant part in the movie, MGM had set up a promotional tie-in with 1500 dealers coast to coast with the potential for one of the vehicles mounted on a ramp in front of the theater drawing attention both to the picture showing inside and the car itself. In addition, discounted tickets to members of four-wheel drive clubs might bring in customers. More standard material included an original soundtrack album and a paperback book.

Much of a Pressbook’s job was to provide snippets of information that could be fed to local journalists. Former boxer Rod Taylor did some of his own stunts, 6-foot 3-inch 240lb former gridiron star Jim Brown needed his own bed flown in to location, the temperature was so high the actual film had to be cooled down in giant vats of ice, and certain sequences used live bullets. The giant steam locomotive was a “55” built in 1902 and brought out of retirement.

And there was no shortage of usable quotes. “I don’t believe in love at first sight,” commented Mimieux; “I was warned off directing by some of the finest directors in the business,” said director Jack Cardiff.

Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) ****

Rod Taylor made a brisk transition to two-fisted action hero from his previous forte of drama (Hotel, 1967) and comedy foil to Doris Day (The Glass Bottom Boat, 1966) in this violent adventure set in the Congo in the early 1960s. As Captain Curry, assisted by sidekick Sgt Ruffo (Jim Brown) and 40-man local outfit Striker Blue Force, he leads an ostensibly humanitarian mission to rescue settlers cut off by the Simba rebels as a cover for collecting $50 million in diamonds. The loot is essential to save the toppling regime of President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart).  The only feasible transport is train. There is a three-day deadline.

Problems immediately ensue, not least a clash with Capt. Heinlein (Peter Carsten), former Nazi leader of Blue Force, who is even more ruthless than Curry, mowing down two native children who stray too close to the train, and apt to take a chainsaw into a fistfight. The train is attacked by a United Nations plane and on reaching its destination Curry is forced to wait three hours until the time-controlled giant diamond vault can be opened, giving the rebels time to catch up. Then it’s an ongoing battle of one kind or another.

Although the worst of the violence is carried out by the rebels – rape, torture and massacre – a core element of the drama is how a lifetime of killing has affected Curry. Ruffo, a man of principle who grew up in a primitive tribe, acts as his conscience – and that of the audience – spelling out how violence is more than a money-making scheme and essential to upholding order in terrorist times. Curry has some redemptive features, saving widow Claire (Yvette Mimieux) from the rebels and then from Heinlein, sending alcoholic Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More) to help a woman give birth, and eventually acknowledging his strong bond with Ruffo. Although Curry would like to think he is the opposite of Heinlein, they are carved from the same stock and when the savage beast is loose blood lust takes over.  

Mimieux is more or less there as bait, tempting Heinlein and any rebels in the vicinity, but coming into her own in convincing Wreid, paralytic by this stage, to carry out a section on the pregnant woman, and as a reminder of civilization for Curry.

The action scenes are terrific, especially the plane strafing the train, and there is a particularly good ruse, instigated by Ruffo, to outwit the enemy. Hollywood never managed to portray the terror of the native Vietnamese on being overrun by Viet Cong, and this film could easily be that substitute, especially when some of the rescued white settlers realize they will not escape.

This is not one of those films like Born Free (1966) or Out of Africa (1985) which are scenic odes to the continent, in part because the picture was shot in Jamaica, but in the main because director Jack Cardiff (The Long Ships, 1964) chooses to focus on the mechanics of the mission. And in so doing, he writes a love letter to a train. There had been a mini-vogue for war movies set on trains – Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and The Train (1965) come to mind – but none reveal an adoration for the power and perhaps the beauty of the locomotive. Every move it makes (to steal an idea from pop group The Police) is noted on screen and on the soundtrack, the hissing, the belching smoke, the wheels, cabooses, engine, the coupling and uncoupling of links, the screech of brakes, and various tracking and crane shots as the train snakes its way through enemy terrain.

Rod Taylor is excellent in the kind of role he is made for. Jim Brown in a major step up the billing after The Dirty Dozen (1967) is surprisingly good in a part that calls as much for reflection as action. Peter Carsten is the all-time Nazi scum. Yvette Mimieux, who had partnered Taylor in The Time Machine (1960), is also in transition mode, her role a meatier dramatic departure from the likes of the innocuous Monkeys, Go Home! (1967). In what was essentially his last major role – even though it doesn’t amount to much in screen time – Kenneth More wavers considerably from his stiff-upper-lip default.

The score by Jacques Loussier is particularly good, as Quentin Tarantino attested when he incorporated elements of it for Inglorious Bastards, which was a boon for the composer since up till then he was best remembered for the music accompanying the advert for Hamlet cigars. You might get a laugh out of the screenplay credits. Quentin Werty (i.e. Qwerty, the first six letters on a typewriter) the pseudonym of Ranald McDougall, Oscar-nominated for Mildred Pierce (1945), co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Wilbur Smith, with television writer Adrian Spies.

An outstanding example of the all-out action mission picture, its occasional outdated attitudes do not get in the way of the picture and half a century later from what we now know of how wars are fought the levels of violence will appear realistic rather than exploitative.   

Catch-Up: This completes a Rod Taylor mini-season – previously features in the Blog are The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and Hotel (1967).

Catch it on Amazon Prime.

The Liquidator (1965) ****

Brilliant premise, brilliant execution, brilliant acting. The best send-ups are driven by their own internal logic and this is no exception: spy boss, known simply as The Chief (Wilfred Hyde White), determines in most un-British fashion to get rid off a mole in the operation by eliminating all potential suspects. Bristling Colonel Mostyn (Trevor Howard) recruits Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) for the job, believing Oakes showed particular gallantry during World War Two, unaware this was pure accident. Oakes is given all the perks of a super spy – fast cars, fashionable apartment – and attracts women in a way that suggest this is also a perk and once realizing that being a killer is outside his comfort zone delegates the dirty work to another hit man Griffen (Eric Sykes).

The sweet life begins to unravel when Oakes takes a weekend abroad with Mostyn’s secretary Iris MacIntosh (Jill St John) and is kidnapped. Forced to battle for survival, another Oakes emerges, a proper killer.  Cue the final section which involves trapping the mole.

Where films featuring Matt Helm and Derek Flint imitated the grand-scale espionage they aimed to spoof, the laughs here come from small-scale observation and attacks on bureaucracy. According to regulations, Oakes’ liaison with MacIntosh is illicit. There is endless paperwork. Apart from an aversion to needless killing, Oakes has terrible fear of flying. Nobody can remember code names or passwords. Oakes’ automobile numberplate is BO 1 (the letters in those days being a standard acronym for “body odor”). It is all logical lunacy. And even when the story gets serious, it follows logic, a ruse, a dupe, a climax pitting resolve against human weakness.

Best of all, the parts appear custom-made for the players. Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963), in his first venture into comedy, displays a knack for the genre without resorting to the slapstick and double takes requisite in the Doris Day pictures to follow. And he is a definite screen charmer.

By this point in his career the screen persona of Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) had been shorn of subtlety. He was generally one choleric snort away from a heart attack. Here, while the narrative pricks his pomposity, he remains otherwise ramrod certain. The audience is in on the joke, but nonetheless his genuine ability as a spy master is not in question. On the other hand Jill St John (Who’s Minding the Store, 1963) is allowed considerable leeway in the subtlety department, as a demure English rose rather than the sexier roles into which she was later typecast.  In some respects British television comedian Eric Sykes is miscast. It is a particular English joke to present him as a killer since on television (in shows unlikely to be shown in America) he was hapless.

And it is worth mentioning Akim Tamiroff whose villainous stock-in-trade is allowed greater depth. David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins, 1964) and Gabriella Licudi (You Must Be Joking!, 1965), have small parts. Aso watch out for future British television stars Derek Nimmo (Oh, Brother, 1968-1970) and John Le Mesurier (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977) as well as Jennifer Jayne (Hysteria,1965) and Betty McDowall (First Men in the Moon, 1964).

Director Jack Cardiff had tried his hand at comedy before with My Geisha (1962) starring Shirley Maclaine but was better known for Oscar-nominated drama Sons and Lovers (1960) and action picture The Long Ships (1964).  John Gardner, who wrote seven books in the Boysie Oakes series, later penned James Bond novels.

It is well worth considering whether The Liquidator would have punctured the success of both Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) and sent spy spoofery in a different direction. It had premiered in the U.K. prior to both but litigation held up its American launch  until long after that pair had gone on to hit box office heights.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog are Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships, Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and Hotel (1967) and Trevor Howard in Operation Crossbow (1965) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

Hotel (1967) ***

The cardinal rule of the grand hotel picture was that it featured major stars. That is not so much the case here although the portmanteau of stories is up to scratch. Traditional hotel manager Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor) and boss Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas) battle ruthless financiers, aristocrats Geoffrey (Michael Rennie) and Caroline (Merle Oberon) are involved in a fatal car accident, hypocritical God-fearing businessman Curtis O’Keefe (Kevin McCarthy) has a mistress Jeanne Rochefot (Catherine Spaak) on the side. Added into the mix are hotel thief Keycase Milne (Karl Malden) and hotel detective Dupere (Richard Conte). Not forgetting a dodgy elevator (you know where that’s headed!).

None of the stars mentioned comes up to the marquee standard set by the original in the subgenre – Grand Hotel (1932) boasted Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery – while an offshoot of the same idea The VIPs (1963) had Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton Orson Welles and the later Airport (1970) would rustle up top attractions Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin and Jean Seberg.

Top British film critic Alexander Walker espoused the movie.

It’s a fair bet that Warner Brothers felt audiences would be satisfied that the storylines were augmented by the behind-the-scenes insider information promised by the Arthur Hailey bestseller on which the film was based, such as how B-girls stole hotel keys, the tricks employed by a hotel thief and the various corrupt opportunities open to hotel staff. But it’s a major miscalculation to assume an audience cares that much who owns a particular hotel. And in the year in which In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dealt with racism head-on, it was odd to see desegregation parlayed as a device to lower the asking price for the business or introduced out of economic necessity rather than high-minded principle.

Such gripes aside, this is movie comfort food, a picture that moves at a leisurely pace among its interwoven tales. Kevin McCarthy’s ruthless arrogant businessman steals the show, closely followed by Merle Oberon’s scheming duchess. To use a soccer analogy Rod Taylor is more like an old-fashioned center half rather than a midfield maestro, holding the picture together rather than setting it alight and his romance with McCarthy’s mistress (half his age) is an unlikely diversion, although the soft-spoken French actress, confronted by conscience, is particularly good. Melvyn Douglas as the aging owner mixes curmudgeon with affection and it’s hard not to feel sorry for Conte, outwitted by an older woman, and especially for Malden as the thief finding out how much the credit card has cut into the larceny business.

This was the last big-budget production for director Richard Quine whose career had been on the slide since box office highs The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Sex and the Single Girl (1964). But he may have been somewhat restrained by having screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) as his producer. While well-crafted affair and glossy it lacks the inherent tension of an Airport.

The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) ***

I’ve never gone out of my way to watch a Doris Day picture with the exception of musical Calamity Jane (1953) when it became a camp classic as well as Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and films where she happened to be co-starring with Cary Grant.

So I came to The Glass Bottom Boat with low expectations, especially as this was towards the end of her two-decade career and co-star Rod Taylor was a different level of star to Grant and Rock Hudson. By now, she had dropped the musical and dramatic string to her bow and concentrated on churning out romantic comedies and also been supplanted by Julie Andrews as Hollywood’s favourite cute star.

But on the evidence here I can certainly see her attraction. This is entertaining enough. And she sings – the theme song, one other and a riff on one of her most famous tunes “Que Sera Sera.” Unless there’s a symbolism I’ve missed, the title is misleading since the boat only appears in the opening section to perform the obligatory meet-cute with Taylor as a fishermen hooking Day’s mermaid costume.

The plot is on the preposterous side, Day suspected as a spy infiltrating Taylor’s aerospace research operation. It’s partly a James Bond spoof – when her dog is called Vladimir you can see where the movie is headed – with all sorts of crazy gadgets. But mostly the plot serves to illustrate Day’s substantial gifts as a comedienne. For an actress at the top of her game, she is never worried about looking foolish.

And that’s part of her appeal. She may look sophisticated even when, as here, playing an ordinary public relations girl, but turns clumsy and uncoordinated at the first scent of comedic opportunity. There’s some decent slapstick and pratfalls and some pretty good visual gags especially the one involving a soda water siphon. A chase scene is particularly inventive and there’s a runaway boat that pays dividends. But there are a couple of effective dramatic moments too, emotional beats, when the romance untangles.

She’s in safe hands, director Frank Tashlin responsible for Son of Paleface (1952) and The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). I also felt Taylor was both under-rated and under-used, never given much to do onscreen except stick out a chiseled jaw and turn on the charm. Although he had been Day’s sparring partner in her previous picture Do Not Disturb (1965) he’s not in the Cary Grant-Rock Hudson league.

It’s also worth remembering that the actress had her own production company, Arwin, which put together over a dozen of her pictures, including this one, so she would be playing to her strengths rather than those of her co-star. On the bonus side, watch out for a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo by Robert Vaughn (The Man from Uncle), a featured role by Dom DeLuise as a bumbling spy and, in a bit part as a neighbour, silent screen comedienne Mabel Normand.    

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