The Birds (1963) *****

Years ago I was asked to write a book on the six best Hitchcock films and from those choose the one I considered his very best. My choice was The Birds (1963). And it is for these reasons.

Firstly, unusually in the master’s work, there is a proper meet-cute. In most of his films, the couple are either already together (Rear Window, 1954; Torn Curtain, 1966) or when they get together it is for a hidden reason, one is on the run, or being pursued by the other, and the getting together is a convenient way of reaching an ulterior goal. When Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) meet in the pet shop it is a certainly a precursor for the future and ensures that Mitch gets in a stickier jam he would otherwise likely have avoided but in the true sense it is the traditional Hollywood boy-meets-girl.

Secondly, and now cutting more to the chase, this is where the modern action film was invented. You might think that honour rested with Dr No (1962) or any other of the Bond pictures or even as late as Bullitt (1968) with its epochal car chase. But although the Bonds are filled with derring-do and escape, there is nothing to match the scene when the birds attack the town, wave after wave, as if they were World War Two bombers. There is even the point-of-view from the air which Hitchcock also invented and has been repeated in airplane war films ever since, most famously Pearl Harbor (2001).

But the way in which full-scale disaster, with everyone rendered helpless, unfolds is a true first. People in the café can see the river of petrol and the match about to be discarded and can only observe as the river of flame reaches the petrol tanker and in a perfectly ordinary town setting – rather than a military base – there is an almighty explosion. It is terror for the sake of it. And there is no escape, no one racing to the rescue, just pure devastation,

Lastly is the ending. It is apocalyptic. In every other Hitchcock when the hero/heroine escapes from dire peril, that is the end of the matter, there is no final twist as with a film like Carrie (1976). But although the birds are now silent and the couple can pick their way through their lines, you know full well this is not the end and that the birds will soon be as inexplicably massing somewhere else.  

That’s three reasons but there are many more. For a start, in other films where the hero/heroine is in danger, the peril is not relentless. And often it is the threat of danger or of being captured that provides the narrative spring. And if there is physical threat in that era it was not unrelenting. And it is with another character whom you can fight or at least attempt to outwit. Not just, later in this instance rather than sooner, realize that there is no way to defeat these marauding creatures, no way at all. So, compared to his other films, when attacks of one kind or another punctuate a film, here it is like a battery of machine-guns and not episodic but virtually non-stop for over 30 minutes.

The storyline since it is after all a meet-cute is excessively simple. Melanie and Mitch meet, trade remarks, she leaves him what would easily be interpreted as a love token, and they link up after she is attacked by a gull. Wherever they go now, there will be no escape. Gulls attack children playing outside. The same day sparrows invade Melanie’s home. There is another attack on children. In town the gulls swarm in wholesale, wreaking the devastation mentioned above. All his is just a prelude to the final overwhelming siege. Except in modern horror pictures where a body is dispatched every ten minutes or so, there is  nothing to match the unremitting attacks. It is as though Mitch and Melanie are in the front line of battle, under siege, Zulu (1964) with birds perhaps, but with no hope of salvation. Unlike Zulu, there is no sign that in raising the siege, the birds are hailing their bravery.

Unusually, too, for a Hitchcock film, there is considerable back story that informs current action. Mitch has an overbearing mother who seems to hover over his life attempting to scare off any woman who comes near. Annie has been left behind precisely because he needed to escape his mother. For her part, Melanie’s mother ran off with another man and she is a spoiled socialite with a habit of getting into trouble, possibly attention-seeking behaviour as a result of abandonment issues. Full to the brim with sophistication. Melanie is the least likely candidate for motherhood, yet her maternal feelings rush to the fore when she has to care for a terrified child.

Tippi Hedren’s career when south when she parted company with Hitchcock so we only have this and Marnie (1964) to consider her worth as a star. This is easily her best performance, shifting from icy cold to playful to romantic to maternal and of course no one has quite emoted such shock and terror. This is Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) coming into his stride as a leading man. He always had the charm and certainly the brawn, but rarely displayed both in the one picture. You would not have picked the Rod Taylor of Seven Seas to Calais to lead a squad of mercenaries in Dark of the Sun but he might well be first pick after this performance.

Hitchcock got so many of his effects by laying on the tension, a man or woman on the run, an innocent framed, a man displaying dubious morality (Rear Window, 1954, and Vertigo, 1958) nonetheless being presented as hero, the question in every instance being whether they will escape their fate. Here, the barrage of devilry is so intense it is almost inconceivable that anyone could get out alive. That they sneak out by the skin of their teeth, watched by their silent conquerors, for me was only the prelude to The Birds Part Two.  

36 Hours (1964) ***

High concept thrillers that derails two-thirds of the way through. While it’s a battle of wits between German psychiatrist Major Gerber (Rod Taylor) and kidnapped spy Major Pike (James Garner), and between the German and his cynical superior, S.S. chief Schack (Werner Peters), it’s a fascinating insight into the power of mind games, almost slipping into the sci fi genre. Pike has intimate knowledge of the Allied D-Day plans but instead of submitting him to routine torture, he is handed over to Gerber who convinces him he has been suffering from amnesia for six years.

Pike finds himself in what he perceives to be an Allied hospital where everyone wears Yank uniforms, speaks English and listens to baseball scores on the radio. Pike has aged, thanks to greying hair and vision blurred so badly he requires spectacles. There’s even a wife, Anna (Eva Marie Saint), he doesn’t remember marrying. On the eve of D-Day the Germans expect the main invasion thrust to target Calais, the shortest crossing from England, not the Normandy beaches further to the south.  Someone who knows the truth might well be willing to suffer extreme torture to keep the secret out or enemy hands, therefore justifying this approach.

While the idea of a prefabricated existence would not be foreign to today’s audience, it was  an unusual idea at the time, although films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and 1984 (1956) revolved around alternative reality. That the whole scheme is entirely plausible is down to Gerber. Rather than the one-dimensional villain, he’s an early version of the “good German,” whose scientific breakthroughs have alleviated suffering. Yes, he’s charming and suave and clever enough to hurry Pike along, but also very humane.

As you might expect, the best part is the constructed universe, Pike’s understandable disbelief at suffering from amnesia, and for so long, the shock to his vanity that his hair and eyes show signs of ageing. Just like Battle of the Bulge (out the next year) where American-born Germans were dropped behind enemy lines as saboteurs, Gerber’s ease with American idiom and culture is key to making the enterprise work. An easy-on-the-ear scientist, he employs a cupboard as a prop to explain the differences in the various types of amnesia. Pike is fooled and does inadvertently betray his country and the twist is that Schack, with so much invested in the notion of the invasion at Calais, refuses to believe it.

As ever in this kind of semi-sci-fi film it’s something incredibly simple (along the lines of the aliens susceptible to water in Signs or the common cold in War of the Worlds) that makes the clever construct unravel. In this case it’s Pike finding a paper cut on his finger and working out it should not be so sore after six years. So, thereafter, the film shifts into escape mode, which is considerably less thrilling compared to the sci-fi hi-jinks. A sub-plot involving Anna, a Jew willing to do anything to avoid the concentration camp, adds some depth to the proceedings.

Oddly enough, despite the title there’s no real sense of a deadline, nor does it come close to achieving the tension racked up in Day of the Jackal (1973) for an event the audience knew never took place, since 36 Hours fails to convince us the D-Day landings were ever in jeopardy.

It’s much more involving, not to mention highly successful, in the middle section where Pike is being duped, the lengths to which Gerber has gone to create the perfect fiction under audience scrutiny, while we watch Pike twist and turn as he comes to terms with what in those days would be perceived as serious mental illness, and from which there is no defined cure. That the escape is triggered by Gerber’s ego adds another element.

The picture did not hit the box office target on release in part I guess because by that time no enemy had to kidnap anyone to fill in the blanks in their scientific knowledge since there was such a plethora of defectors and in part because it seems insane that anyone would go to such excesses when less costly and proven torture implements were to hand.

That it works at all is down to the acting. James Garner (Hour of the Gun, 1967) straddles a number of his screen personas, from his instantly recognisable cocky character of The Great Escape (1963) to the befuddled double-takes of A Man Could Get Killed (1966) and tougher incarnation of Grand Prix (1966). Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) is his match with one of his best performances, infusing the mad scientist with surprising humanity at the same time as wriggling out from under the maw of the inhuman Schack, and, despite clearly being desperate to see his plan work, managing to keep his character on an even, chatty, keel. Eva Marie Saint (The Stalking Moon, 1968), the go-to choice for a vulnerable woman, brings an edge to her role.

Audiences glimpsing the name Roald Dahl in the credits in those days would not have been expecting an imaginative confection in the Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory  (1971) vein but something much more adult given the twist-ridden short stories which had made his name. This was based on his Beware of the Dog (1946) tale, the first of his pieces to be made into a film although some of the best of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1958-1961) had lent heavily on his work.

Writer-director George Seaton put the project together, with occasionally some elan,  but as with The Counterfeit Traitor (1962) it’s a film of two distinct parts, but whereas with that film the latter stage was the more interesting here it is the first section. This is best approached as an offshoot of the kind of sci fi themes that inform the work of Philip K. Dick.

Catch-Up:  Rod Taylor’s acting development can be traced through films already reviewed in the Blog – Seven Seas to Calais (1962), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967), Dark of the Sun (1968) and The High Commissioner (1968). James Garner pictures previously reviewed are: Doris Day comedy Move Over, Darling (1963), spy spoof A Man Could Get Killed (1966) and the westerns Duel at Diablo (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967).

Nobody Runs Forever (1968) / The High Commissioner ****

Character-driven intelligent thriller ripe for re-evaluation. And not just because it stands out from the decade’s genre limitations, neither hero threatened by mysterious forces in the vein of Charade (1963) or Mirage (1965) nor, although espionage elements are involved, fitting into the ubiquitous spy category. Instead, it loads mystery upon mystery and leaves you guessing right to the end.

And a deluge of mystery would not work – even with the London high-life gloss of cocktail parties, casinos and the Royal Box at Wimbledon – were it not for the believable characters. Rough Aussie Outback cop Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) is despatched to London at the behest of New South Wales prime minister (Leo McKern) to bring home Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) to face a charge of murder.

Probably a better title than either “Nobody Runs Forever”
or “The High Commissioner.”

Unlike most cop pictures, Malone is not sent to investigate a case, he is merely muscle. While he may have his doubts about the evidence against Quentin, suspected of murdering his first wife, he resists all attempts to re-open the case. Arriving in the middle of a peace conference hosted by the principled Quentin, he agrees to investigate security leaks from Australia House and along the way turns into an impromptu bodyguard when Quentin’s life is endangered. But Quentin’s wife Sheila (Lilli Palmer) and secretary Lisa (Camilla Sparv) are not taken in by the deception and so Malone himself forms part of the mystery.

With a preference for cold beer to expensive champagne, you might expect Malone to be a bull in a china shop. Instead, dressed for the part by the solicitous Quentin, Malone fits easily into high society, taking time out from his duties for a dalliance with the elegant Madame Chalon (Daliah Lavi). The background is not the gloss but the passion the Quentins still feel for each other, she willing to do anything (literally) to save her husband, he losing the thread of an important speech when worried about his wife.

While there is no shortage of suspects for all nefarious activities, red herrings abound and cleverly you are left to make up your own mind, rather than fingers being ostentatiously pointed. There is some delicious comedy between Malone and Quentin’s uptight butler (Clive Revill), enough punch-ups, chases and clever tricks to keep the movie more than ticking along but at its core are the relationships. Malone’s growing respect for Quentin does not overrule duty, Lisa’s evident love for Quentin cannot be taken the obvious further step, Sheila’s overwhelming need to safeguard her husband sends her into duplicitous action.

The politics are surprisingly contemporary, attempts to alleviate hunger and prevent war, and while there was much demonstration during the decade in favor of world peace, this is the only picture I can think of where a politician’s main aim is not self-aggrandisement, greed or corruption. There are some twists on audience expectation – the dinner-jacketed Malone in the casino does not strike a James Bond pose and start to play, he is seduced rather than seducer, and remains a working man throughout.

Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) and Christopher Plummer (Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) are terrific sparring partners, red-blooded male versus ice-cool character, their jousts verbal rather than physical. The rugged Taylor turns on the charm when necessary, a throwback to his character in Fate Is the Hunter (1964). Thoughts of his wife soften Plummer’s instinctive icy edge. Lilli Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor) is superb as yet another vulnerable woman, on the surface in total control, but underneath quivering with the fear of loss. Two graduates of the Matt Helm school are given meatier roles, Daliah Lavi (The Silencers, 1966), as seductress-in-chief is a far cry from her stunning roles in The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) – and it still feels a shame to me that she was so ill-served in the way of roles by Hollywood. Camilla Sparv (Murderers Row, 1966) has a more low-key role.

Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) has another scene-stealing part and look out for Calvin Lockhart (Dark of the Sun), Burt Kwouk (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and, shorn of his blond locks, an unrecognizable Derren Nesbit (The Naked Runner, 1967) and in his final role Hollywood legend Franchot Tone (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935).

Ralph Thomas (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) directs with minimum fuss, always focused on character, although there is a sly plug for Deadlier than the Male in terms of a cinema poster. (Speaking of posters, I couldn’t help notice this interesting advert at an airport for a VC10 promoted as “10derness.”) Wilfred Greatorex (The Battle of Britain, 1969) made his screenplay debut, adapting the bestseller by Jon (The Sundowners) Cleary. This may not be quite a true four-star picture but it is a grade above three-star.

CATCH-UP: Rod Taylor films reviewed in the blog so far are Seven Seas to Calais (1962), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967) and Dark of the Sun (1968).

Fate Is the Hunter (1964) ***

More like Flight from Ashiya (1964) than Flight of the Phoenix (1965) in that airline disaster triggers flashback rather than contemporaneously finding a solution to the problem, but similar in tone to the more recent Flight (2012) and Sully (2016) where the automatic response of the authorities was to blame pilot error rather than ascertain mechanical malfunction. Unlike the two modern pictures, pilot Jack Savage (Rod Taylor) cannot be interrogated in court because he died in the explosion. So investigator Sam McBane (Glenn Ford) seeks some corresponding incident in the past which might account for the pilot making such a mistake.

Other options face McBane. Sabotage could be the cause since  a passenger took out a $500,000 insurance policy days before boarding the twin-engine plane. Bird strike cannot be ruled out after feathers are found in the engine. Or it could be simple misfortune. Three inbound planes all running late prevent the plane returning immediately to Los Angeles and it would have landed safely on a beach except for hitting a temporary structure. But engineers hardly need to pore over the evidence. The fault is staring them in the face. Savage had reported two engines catching fire but the wreckage reveals one engine intact.

However, the only survivor, stewardess Martha Webster (Suzanne Webster) maintains that two red warning lights were flashing, indicating malfunction in both engines. But since she is badly injured and in a woozy state, this is not taken as gospel. So McBane dips into the playboy past of Savage, a buddy, a man with such appeal he can serenade real-life figures as Jane Russell (playing herself). Two occasions highlight the man’s heroic history of  emergency landings. So can he be the unreliable character painted by a jilted fiancée (Dorothy Malone) or the drinker who should not have been in a bar so soon before take-off.?

The tight-lipped shoulder-hunched humorless soulless McBane, described as “one of the best-built machines” known to man, finds himself questioning his own attitudes as he uncovers more of his friend’s life. But when it comes to the big enquiry, televised, he has no better an explanation to ascribe the unexpected collision of different events  than the “fate” of the title. Naturally, that mystical prognosis hardly goes down well with his superiors. Luckily, McBane comes to his senses and suggests a simulation which does, in fact, pinpoint the flaw.

It’s relatively easy to pinpoint the flaw in the picture. Audiences expecting a disaster movie with characters stranded by a crash were disappointed to find that by cinematic sleight-of –hand they were being presented with The Jack Savage Story, which with the larger-than-life character and his various aviation and romantic adventures would easily have made a picture in tis own right. Stuck instead with the glum McBane as their guide, who, beyond his steadfastness, does not come into his own until the last 15 minutes seemed an unfair trick. The explosion of the doomed plane at the 10-minute mark is easily the dramatic highlight and the continued flashbacks rather than adding to the tension often eased it.

With four stars above the title, audiences might have anticipated some kind of four-sided triangle, but the two female stars scarcely appear although Martha has one excellent scene, shocked when asked to don her uniform again, and Sally (Nancy Kwan) enjoys a fishing meet-cute with Savage.

That said, if you accept as McBane as more of a private eye, his surly demeanor fits, and the Savage life story is certainly a fascinating one and the various aviation episodes unusual enough to maintain interest. Glenn Ford (Is Paris Burning?, 1965), his box office sheen waning and about to shift exclusively to westerns, is always watchable but there’s no real depth to the character. Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) is at his most exuberant and that’s no bad thing, and beneath the bonhomie a good guy at heart, but his portrayal provides little of the shade that would make it thinkable he was to blame. Suzanne Pleshette (The Power, 1968) and Nancy Kwan (Tamahine, 1963) are both under-used. Look out for Mark Stevens (Escape from Hell Island, 1963), Jane Russell (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953) in her first movie in seven years, and Dorothy Malone (The Last Sunset, 1961).

Ralph Nelson (Once a Thief, 1965) sticks to the knitting but four scenes stand out: the explosion, Martha’s breakdown at the sight of her uniform, the stewardess during the simulation staring down the plane at the empty seats filled with sacks of sand, and an excellent composition (which Steven Spielberg pays homage to in West Side Story) of a character being preceded into a scene by his very long shadow. Also worth pointing out is that, in almost James Bond style,  the opening sequence lasts ten minutes before there is any sign of the credits.

Harold Medford (The Cape Town Affair, 1967) wrote the screenplay based very loosely on the eponymous bestselling memoir by Ernest K. Gann, whose The High and the Mighty had been turned into a hit picture a decade before. The author was so furious with how much the adaptation veered from his biography – which often pointed out the dangers of flying, recurrent pilot death and airplane unworthiness a main theme – that he took his name off the credits, missing out on an ancillary goldmine as the movie, a box office flop, proved a television staple.

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.    

  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Glass-Bottom-Boat-Doris-Day/dp/B089Q38254/ref=sr_1_2?crid=33N53Z2O4WYJB&dchild=1&keywords=the+glass+bottom+boat+dvd&qid=1595511843&s=dvd&sprefix=the+glass+bottom%2Caps%2C146&sr=1-2

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