Behind the Scenes: “The Wicker Man” (1973) – Revised Version

The movie Cinderella story to end all movie Cinderella stories. Quite how The Wicker Man came to earn its cult status given that for more than a decade it was hardly screened is quite a remarkable tale. An occult picture that as authoritative a producer as Michael Deeley (Blade Runner, 1982) deemed one of the ten worst films of all time – and without even the compensation of falling into the “so bad it’s good” category.

Most people who saw it during its original British release did so by default. They had gone to see Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) with top stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and tagged onto that box office hit – and critical smash – was this other movie critics had dismissed. That it surfaced at all was because British Lion put it out on the lower part of a double bill in order to legitimately defray its costs by snipping off some of the revenue accrued by Don’t Look Now.

It certainly wasn’t that the Nicolas Roeg picture needed a helping hand on the box office front. Prior to opening, Don’t Look Now had already covered its $1.2 million budget by selling off foreign rights with Paramount taking it for the United States. Despite having the same budget of $1.2 million, The Wicker Man, did not attract the same foreign interest, or indeed any foreign interest. and for the time being was put on the shelve. British Lion had been sold to EMI who put Deeley in charge and his assessment of The Wicker Man‘s worth put paid to any prospect of a high-end launch.

Don’t Look Now opened, minus The Wicker Man, in October 1973 at the London West End’s most prestigious cinema, the Odeon Leicester Square and in phenomenal fashion. An opening week $32,000 (equivalent to $126,000 these days) was bettered by a second week of  $44,000 ($174,000 equivalent). A further two weeks brought in $41,000 and $35,000 respectively (or about close on to a total of $600,000 in today’s money).

Advertisement that ran in the “Variety” trade paper on November 16, 1977.

Then it switched, still minus The Wicker Man, virtually next door to the equally prestigious 1,402-seater Leicester Square Theater. An opening salvo of $29,000 dropped just $1,000 in the second week. A six-week run garnered $138,000 ($546,000 equivalent). Four weeks into that run it also opened at the 1,394-seat Metropole, this time as a double bill with The Wicker Man. It wasn’t a genuine double bill. A proper double bill consisted of two films of roughly equal standing that might both have premiered in the West End, top billing given to the movie that had performed best at the box office.

The Wicker Man had been on quite a different trajectory to Don’t Look Now. Despite it being promoted in “a savvy publicity ploy” at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1973 with a 30ft high “wicker man” set on fire on the Croisette, once Michael Deeley took control, replacing Peter Snell, also producer of The Wicker Man, he had no intention of giving a solo launch. By piggybacking on a hit movie, it was guaranteed to bring in some income.

However, initially, it seemed a disastrous idea. The Metropole double bill opened in mid-December 1973 to a miserly $5,300, second week no better, just $4,900.

But then something extraordinary happened. The third week was through the roof, a whopping $13,700. Over seven weeks it snapped up $57,000 (equivalent to $225,000 today). It wasn’t that surprising, however, since in the first two weeks it was still showing at the Leicester Square Theatre, but once the Metropole was the only option, the figures jumped up. Assuming revenue would taper off, in the fifth week of the Metropole  run it began playing simultaneously at the 1,883-seat Odeon Kensington – probably to coincide with the general release – where the first week raked in $16,800. It continued at this cinema for six weeks, bringing in another $57,000.

Let the fun begin: Ingrid Pitt does a blade runner.

And even then it wasn’t done. Towards the end of February the double bill switched to the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket, also in the West End. and opened with $6,000. A decent enough tally for a movie that had been on the market for over four months, but it turned out that except for its eighth and final week, that amount was the lowest it grossed. It ran out with a similar sum to the other two cinemas, $56,200. And then it moved again to the 150-seat Cinecenta 3, just off Leicester Square in London’s West end for a final flourish of $5,300 in two weeks, the second week improving on the first. All told, the double bill grossed $175,100 in the West End (just under $700,000 at today’s figures). The double bill also went out on general release on the Odeon circuit in Britain at the start of February 1974 – and not in December 1973 as has been argued (the London West End screenings were what would be termed “pre-release” activity).

How much of the double bill’s success could be attributed to The Wicker Man is not that difficult to calculate. As we have seen, Don’t Look Now was already an enormous success before it took on a perhaps-unwanted partner. Not every Odeon general release required a supporting feature, often a short would do. Without another film on the program, Don’t Look Now would have received more daily showings which could boost receipts and at the very least been more profitable for not having to share the box office.

Whereas Don’t Look Now sailed into New York on a tide of box office and critical glory at the 549-seat Sutton with a first week tallying $30,000 and had massed $110,000 in five weeks, The Wicker Man was deemed a massive flop. British Lion wrote it off to the tune of $470,000, a substantial amount.

There was no chance of British Lion fobbing off the more astute Americans with the notion of The Wicker Man running as the stablemate of Don’t Look Now. Major  U.S. distributors bought pictures that had been hits on release in their home country. Perhaps not surprisingly, the main contender for the rights was Roger Corman, a horror specialist, and he thought he could make it work if the film was editing from the original 102-minutes to 86-minutes, a timing that make it more appealing in a double bill. But Corman could not meet EMI’s terms.

However, it was bought in 1974 for American release by the Beechwood Properties – which Variety mispelled as “Beachhead Corp” but only initially as as a tax shelter. However, Beechwood succeeded in drumming up a distributor, National General Corporation which distributed John Wayne movies Rio Lobo (1970) and Big Jake (1971) as well as Little Big Man (1971) and Le Mans (1971), The Getaway (1972) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). NGC was taken enough by the movie to pay EMI $300,000 for the rights.

But then NGC hit a financial brick wall and pulled out and the project passed on to Warner Brothers after it picked up the top prize at the International Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As a prelude to a release, Warner Brothers submitted it to the American censor where it earned an “R” (restricted) rating in keeping with its British X-certificate. Warner Brothers test-marketed the shortened version as a solo feature with 24 prints playing the San Diego and Atlanta regions. But when the movie failed to attract an audience it was deemed a flop and shelved.

And in summer 1974 it was officially shelved.  

Christopher Lee with flowing locks.

So it sat in limbo for another three years before in 1977 Cinefantastique magazine dubbed it “The Citizen Kane of Horror Pictures” and devoted a 32-page spread to it in its Vol 6 No 10 issue, so determined it had uncovered a work of genius that it took out a substantial advertisement in U.S. trade paper Variety. That appeared to elicit some distributor interest and it was purchased in 1977 from Beechwood by New Orleans company Abraxas, headed by Stirling Smith, John Alan Simon, and Ron and Micheline Weinberg. Abraxas got the rights for a song – just $20,000.

But then the Weinberg’s split from Abraxas and set up a company (I am presuming) called International Films. It looked like they were licensed to show The Wicker Man, which they did in a kind of hit-and-run strategy, racing all over the country with the movie in the back of the car, and renting it out to around 30 arthouses, presumably assuming the “Citizen Kane” tag might attract an audience.

Distributed under the banner Summerisle Films, some of these showings were indeed propitious. In January 1979 at the 300-seat Lumiere in San Francisco with tickets priced at $4 it knocked up a “boffo” $19,000 (equivalent to a meaty $75,000 now). There was none of the steep fall-off either that you might expect. The second week hauled in an excellent $15,500 ($59,000 today) and the nine-week run brought in total of $93,000 (a very good $368,000 in today’s terms). It was deemed so successful that it achieved in exhibitor  parlance a “move-over,” transferring to the 300-seat Cento Cedar.

Results were similar in Los Angeles. At the 763-seat Los Feliz Westland 1, also primarily an arthouse, it racked up opening week figures of $19,000 and after six weeks had powered to $61,900 plus another $37,000 from a two-week run at four suburban houses. There was a decent performance in Seattle, close on $40,000 in a five-week run at the 700-seat Crest. Enough to counter a poor showing in Minneapolis at the 461-seat World where it opened to a “slow” $2,000. And excepting that result, the prospects must have looked rosy.

That is, until the wheels came off.

International Films turned out to be beset by financial problems. Weinberg had been due to pay Abraxas a total of $150, 000 by December 1978, paid off in three tranches, an initial amount of $30,000 by December 1977, another $50,000 by June 1978 and the the remaining sum by December of the same year. When the debt was not settled, Abraxas took Weinberg in court in July 1979 and the outcome was that the rights reverted back to Abraxas, now headed by Smith and Simon. And that was timely from a publicity perspective for the movie had just been named Best Horror Picture and Best Screenplay by the Academy of Fantasy and Horror Films. 

So Abraxas started all over again, sticking to the precedent of opening it in arthouses. But it looked like they sold off regional rights for the movie appeared under different distributors, Horror Films as well as Abraxas and the original Summer Isle banner   April 1980 saw The Wicker Man set a new house record at the 200-seat Orson Welles III in Boston with a $15,000 opening and over the next eight weeks it locked up a hefty $73,500 ($256,000 equivalent). The same month it hit New York, but an excellent opener of $21,000 at the 533-seat Paramount dropped to just $9,000 in the second week, then $4,400 in the third and $4,000 in the last. In December it scored $7,500 at the 150-seat Cerberus II in Washington D.C, finishing with $16,000 for three weeks.

In January 1981 it was the last movie shown in a 12-week season of revivals at the 560-seater Fine Arts in Kansas City and, despite registering only a “mild”  $3,500, it moved over the Watts Mill 2 for a $3,200 opener and an $8,400 total over four weeks. But a four-screen “showcase” in Miami produced a “remote” $3,700. There was some publicity derived for being selected, eight years after initial launch in Britain, at the Cleveland International film Festival.

But success in the independent field required momentum and despite excellent results in a handful of cinemas, The Wicker Man never really took off.

Salvation came via another route – video. Without VHS and then DVD it is doubtful if the movie would ever have achieved its current cult status. It’s not the first film to hit the ground running in the video format after a less than stellar performance in the cinema. I doubt that anyone, years after it was first shown, believed The Wicker Man had a hidden pot of gold. But my guess is the video rights cost little and in the burgeoning market where taste was not stifled by choices made at a cinema chain head office it was a film that finally found an audience.

SOURCES: “Michael Deeley Replaces Snell at Brit Lion,” Variety, April 11, 1973, p4; “Doing The Cannes-Cannes,” Variety, May 23, 1973, p26; “Form Beachhead Corp To Handle Wicker Man,” Variety, Jan 2, 1974, p4; “This Week’s Code Tags,” Variety, April 24, 1974, p4; “Wicker Man Wins Top Prize at Fantasy Fest,” Variety, May 1, 1974, p7; “British Lion 6 Months Slips to 890G,” Variety, January 29, 1975, p39; Advert, Variety, November 16, 1977, p38; Stuart Byron, “Something Wicker This Way Comes,” Film Comment, November-Dcember 1977; “Abraxas Corp Sues Ronald Weinberg,” Variety, April 18, 1979, p5; “Enjoin Weinberg Re Wicker Man,” Variety, Jul 4, 1979, p35; “Cleveland: 45 Titles: 3 Situations,” Variety, April 1, 1981, p24; “Metropolis Strikes Deal with Magnum,” August 10, 1988, p34. Box office figures all from the following issues of weekly Variety: Oct 24, 1973-April 24, 1974; October 5, 1977; March 21, 1979, April 11, 1979; April 18, 1979; April 25, 1979; May 7, 1979; April 23, 1980; December 3, 1980; February 4, 1981; April 1, 1981; May 20 1981.

The Picasso Summer (1969) ***

Must-see for collectors of cinematic curios. A reflection on entitlement, bullfighting, Picasso, the impact of celebrity on everyday lives and the hermaphroditic qualities of snails? Or an innovative piece of moviemaking utilizing jigsaw split-screen, an audacious reimagining of the painter’s work via documentary and animation? Or just plain bonkers and despite the involvement of top talent like Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963), Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968), composer Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) and writer Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, 1966), rightly consigned to the vault and never given a cinema release?  

George (Albert Finney), a disenchanted San Francisco architect who designs warehouses, and wife Alice (Yvette Mimieux) take a holiday in France to rekindle his love of Picasso and set out to find and – in in a severe case of early onset entitlement – talk to the legendary artist. So they fly to Paris, take the train to Cannes and cycle around.  Romance, it has to be said, in that idyllic countryside is the last thing on his mind, although George does pluck a guitar and sing a love song on a riverbank and they do dally in the sea. And he is far from a stuffed shirt, in one scene stealing a boy’s balloon to prevent the kid hogging a telescope.

There are barely ten lines of meaningful dialogue, though Alice’s frustration at her husband’s obsession is soon obvious. Reimagining Picasso via animation works well. Picasso broke down the world, so we are told, and represented it as his own so by this token it seems pretty fair to do the same to the artist’s work. In the best scene George turns toreador (not sure the budget ran to stuntmen) facing up to a real bull. But there is plenty Picasso to make up, including a candlelit walk along the “Dream Tunnel” displaying the artist’s War and Peace murals, a lecture on the painter’s ceramics and his self-identification with death in the bull ring.

And there is a twist at the end, as the couple on a beach do not loiter long enough to see a man resembling the artist make Picasso-like drawings on the sand. But mostly it’s a story about American entitlement, that a painter should not shut himself off from the world in order to prevent the world stopping him getting on with painting. When George, denied entrance or even acknowledgement, stands at the gate to the Picasso villa, it is almost as he is the one imprisoned by his need for celebrity. Half a century on, the need for ordinary lives to be validated by contact with celebrities has become an insane part of life. The fact that the impossible mission ends in defeat (“everything is still the same”) lends a tone of irony.

Finney’s box office status at this point in his career allowed him to retain his thick Lancashire accent – Sean Connery managed that trick for his entire career. As in Two for the Road (1967) he does a trademark Bogart impression and eats with his mouth open. And he is game enough to stand in a bull ring with a raging bull. Yvette Mimieux is scandalously underused, insights into her thoughts conveyed by lonely walks through night-time streets, although she is the only one to fully appreciate art when she comes across a blind painter (Peter Madden). The best part goes to Luis Miguel Dominguin playing himself, a bullfighter and renowned friend of Picasso. In the incongruity stakes little can match Graham Stark (The Plank, 1967) as a French postman.

As you might have guessed this had a somewhat complicated production. Three directors were involved: Robert Sallin, Serge Bourguignon and Wes Herchendsohn. It was the only directorial chore for Sallin, better known as the producer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It brought a temporary halt to the career of Oscar-nominated director Bourguignon (Sundays and Cybele, 1962) whose previous film was Two Weeks in September starring Brigitte Bardot. Herchendsohn was primarily an animation layout artist/supervisor later credited with episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974).  

There is some stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, 1972) and a superb score by Michel Legrand.  This was the beginning and end of the movie career of Edwin Boyd who shared the screenwriting credit with Bradbury. And it was the beginning and the end of the movie as a viable film for general release, Warner Brothers promptly shelving it, a decision that made headlines in the trade press, especially given the movie’s budget and the box office status of the stars.

In the hands of a French, Italian or Spanish arthouse moviemaker, with a tale of protagonists going nowhere, this might have gained critical traction. It’s hardly going to fall into the highly-commended category, but in fact from the present-day perspective says a lot about celebrity obsession and entitlement. Despite the oddities – perhaps because of them – I was never bored.

You might be surprised to hear that a film initially disowned by the studio is actually available on DVD.

Once a Thief (1965) ****

Latter-day film noir gem with terrific cast filmed in black-and-white and often at night that crams into a taut storyline  different slants of the themes of the con-going-straight, the vendetta and the double-cross. While Hollywood at this point had imported platoons of foreign beauties in the Sophia Loren-Elke Sommer vein, there had been less interest in the male of the species with the exception of a small British contingent and possibly Omar Sharif, on whom the jury was still out. 

MGM was gambling on Frenchman Alain Delon (The Leopard, 1963) to alter industry perceptions at the same time as pushing new contract star Ann-Margret (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) along more dramatic lines away from the glossy puffery that had made her name and which relied more upon her physical assets than acting potential. Had she continued in this vein, her career would certainly have taken a different turn. 

Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon), former minor hood turned San Francisco truck driver, is happily married to Kristine (Ann-Margret) with a young daughter they both adore. But tough cop Mike Vido (Van Heflin), with a reputation for brutality, is determined to pin a murder on him in revenge for purportedly being shot by him early in Eddie’s previous career. Eddie manages for a time to resist the overtures of brother Walter (Jack Palance) to participate in a million-dollar diamond. But when he loses his job, that changes.

While the robbery naturally takes center stage, that’s not actually the dramatic highlight. Instead, it is the Eddie-Kristine relationship. Instead of Eddie being the usual down-on-his-luck ex-con, he has clearly turned his life around, so much so he can afford a $500 down payment on a small boat. A loving father, he accepts without rancor when his daughter interrupts a night-time lovemaking session. And he’s stylish, too, wearing an iconic sheepskin jacket and driving a snazzy 1931 Ford Model A roadster. Kristine just wants a normal home life, desiring domesticity above all else, but swallowing her pride when she needs to go out to work in a night club to make ends meet, for a time rendering the unemployed Eddie a house husband.

But Eddie is not all he initially seems. His tough streak has not been smothered by the good life. In a brilliant Catch-22 situation he gets violent when an employment benefits clerk refuses to accept that Eddie was fired from his job, instead believing his employer’s claim that he resigned – the former triggering relief payment, the latter zilch. But that’s nothing to the beating he inflicts on Kristine when, pride injured that he is not the breadwinner, he discovers the skimpy costume she wears for her job.

Adding to the unusual mix are Vido and Walter, the former’s brooding presence somewhat undercut by the fact that in middle age he still lives with his mother, the latter while a big-time gangster letting nothing get in the way of strong fraternal feeling for Eddie. You won’t be surprised to learn that double cross is in the air, not when Walter employs a creepy sunglass-wearing henchman Sargantanas (John Davis Chandler) who appears to have more than a passing interest in little girls. The climax, which contains both emotional and dramatic twist, involves redemption and sacrifice.

Delon has played the cold-eyed ruthless but romantic character before, but here adds depth from his paternal commitment and as a man turned inside out by the system.

Ann-Margret is the revelation, truly believable as mother first, sexy wife second, and her anguish in the later parts of the picture showcase a different level of acting skill to anything she previously essayed. This role immediately preceded her man-eater in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) which attracted far more attention and considerably bigger box office and it would have been interesting to see how her career might have panned out had Once a Thief been the critical and commercial triumph. She probably did not attain such acting heights again until Carnal Knowledge (1971). And I did wonder, as with Daliah Lavi (The Demon, 1963) before her whether her acting skills were too often overshadowed in the Hollywood mindset by her physical attributes.  

Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963) is excellent as the cop tormented by the idea that a villain is walking free, Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966) is good as always and character actor Jeff Corey (The Cincinnati Kid) puts in an appearance as Vido’s whip-cracking boss. This marks the debut of Tony Musante (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970). Watch for a cameo by screenwriter Zekial Marko, who wrote the original book.

This represented another change of pace for director Ralph Nelson, Oscar-nominated for the Lilies of the Field (1963) and also known for box office comedy hit Father Goose (1964). His  use of an experimental extremely light-sensitive camera eliminated the bulky lighting commensurate with filming at night, bringing freshness and greater freedom to those scenes. His natural gift for drama ensured that the emotional was given as much prominence as the action. Racial awareness was demonstrated by the opening scene in a jazz club where African Americans were clearly welcome, hardly the norm at that time.

The picture was shot on location in San Francisco including Nob Hill, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. To add authenticity, Nelson employed as extras or in bit parts people famed for different reasons in the area. There was Armenian Al Nalbandian who owned the Cable Car flower store on Union Square. William ‘Tiny’ Baskin was a highly successful diamond cutter, owner of the city’s biggest diamond collection – because of his size he was ideal to play a night club bouncer. The North Beach night club provided cameos for Big Al and resident jazz drummer Russell Lee, who both play themselves. Local singer Toy Yat Mar plays the woman murdered at the start of the film. Also appearing were piano player Jimmy Diamond, bus driver Wed Trindle and belly dancer Shereef.

Mention again of a terrific score by Lalo Schifrin, especially the bold drum solo that played out over the credit sequence. Schifrin’s work on the film was showcased in a featurette aimed at schools and colleges. Russell Lee’s drumming so impressed Ralph Nelson that the opening credits were rewritten around his drum solo.

Catch-Up: Alain Delon has featured in the Blog in reviews for Lost Command (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and Farewell, Friend (1968); check out also Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) and Ann-Margret in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1969) ***

Everyone wants to be a star-maker. Director Mark Robson thought he had some form in this area after Valley of the Dolls (1968) showcased Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate. There’s no doubt British actress Carol White reveling in critical kudos for Poor Cow (1967) had promise. But not necessarily good professional advice otherwise how to account for a supporting role in Prehistoric Women/Slave Girls (1967) her first picture after success in three BBC television productions. The female lead in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whatisname (1967) was followed by a small role in the more prestigious John Frankenheimer drama The Fixer (1968). But none of these films did anything at the box office. Enter Mark Robson.

This thriller might have made her a star had it not been so darned complicated. It veers from paranoia to stalkersville to Vertigo via Gaslight without stopping for breath and some elements are so obviously signposted at the start you are just waiting for them to turn up. Plus, if ever a film has dated, it’s this one, going back to the days when abortion carried automatic stigma and fathers could get away with lines like “you murdered my baby.”

So, one of the few times in history San Francisco got snow (it averages zero inches annually according to Google) the meet-cute is sketch artist Cathy (Carol White) being hit by a snowball thrown by wannabe Kenneth (Scott Hylands, making his debut). But when she realizes how much he enjoys watching cats stalking canaries decides she doesn’t want his baby and aborts it.  A few years later she marries congressional candidate Jack (Paul Burke from Valley of the Dolls) and when pregnant crosses paths with Kenneth who manages to insinuate himself into her family via her husband. Twist follows twist until we are on the Top of the Mark (a famous city landmark) for a gripping climax.

White does well as she shifts through the emotional gears but she is barely given respite from being overwrought so at times her acting appears one-dimensional rather than varied. In fairness to her, the movie’s plot gives her no chance to deliver a settled performance. Hyland looks as if he’s auditioning for a role as a serial killer, but the depth of his cunning and his twisted perceptions kept this viewer on edge -what it would take for Cathy to make amends will chill you to the bone.

Robson has some nice directorial touches, a scene reflected in the eye of a cat, a clever jump-cut from marriage proposal to marriage ceremony and some flies in milk.  Mala Powers makes a welcome big screen appearance after nearly a decade in television. That this whole concoction emanated from the fertile imaginations of screenwriters Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, 1974) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Fathom, 1967) might give you an idea of what to expect.

Catch-Up: Mark Robson films previously reviewed in this Blog are: The Prize (1963) and  Lost Command (1966).  

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