All-Time Top 40

I started this Blog two years ago this month and to my astonished delight it is now read in over 120 countries. I am now well past over 500 reviews. So I thought you might be interested to know which of these reviews has attracted the most attention. This isn’t my choice of the top films in the Blog, but yours, my loyal readers. The chart covers the films viewed the most times since the Blog began, from June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2022.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark exudes menace in this adaptation of an early Alistair MacLean spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War. Senta Berger  has a small role.
  2. Jessica (1962). Innocently gorgeous widow Angie Dickinson finds her looks turn so many male heads in a small Italian town that the female population seeks revenge.
  3. Ocean’s 11 (1960). The Rat Pack makes its debut – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. et al plan an audacious Las Vegas robbery. 
  4. Pharoah (1966). Priests battle kings in Polish epic set in ancient Egypt. Fabulous to look at and thoughtful.
  5. Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall in the best role of her career as a sexy German spy in World War One.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. The Swinger (1966). Ann-Margret struts her stuff as a magazine journalist trying to persuade Tony Franciosca she is as sexy as the character she has written about.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary
  9. A Place for Lovers (1969). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in doomed love affair directed by Vittorio De Sica.
  10. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  11. Moment to Moment (1966). Hitchcockian-style thriller with Jean Seberg caught up in  murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  12. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  13. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  14. The Double Man (1967). Yul Brynner chases his doppelganger in the Swiss Alps with Britt Ekland adding a touch of glamour.
  15.  Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry hunts an M.I.5 mole in London. Intrigue all round with Joan Collins supplying the romance and a scene-stealing Suzanna Leigh as a villain.
  16. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  17. Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Off-the-wall musical directed by star Anthony Newley that has to be seen to be believed. Joan Collins pops up. 
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Deadlier than the Male (1967). Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond is led a merry dance by spear-gun-toting Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina in outlandish thriller.
  20. Valley of Gwangi (1969). Special effects genius Ray Harryhausen the star here as James Franciscus and Gila Golen encounter prehistoric monsters in a forbidden valley.
  21. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  22. Orgy of the Dead (1965). Bearing the Ed Wood imprint, mad monster mash-up with the naked dead.
  23. Once a Thief (1965). Ann-Margret is a revelation in crime drama with ex-con Alain Delon coerced into a robbery despite trying to go straight. Supporting cast boasts Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey. 
  24. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Stunning caper with thief Alain Delon and Mafia chief Jean Gabin teaming up for audacious jewel heist with cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil. Great score by Ennio Morricone.
  25. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). More diamonds at stake as Rod Taylor leads a gang of mercenaries into war-torn Congo.  Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller
  26. Stiletto (1969). Mafia hitman Alex Cord pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland as the treacherous girlfriend heads a supporting cast including Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  27. Maroc 7 (1967). Yet more jewel skullduggery with Gene Barry infiltrating a gang of thieves in Morocco who use the cover of a fashion shoot. Top female cast comprises Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  28. The Rock (1996). Former inmate Sean Connery breaks into Alcatraz with Nicolas Cage to prevent mad general Ed Harris blowing up San Francisco. Michael Bay over-the-top thriller with blistering pace.
  29. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster’s life falls apart as he swims pool-by-pool across the county. Superlative performance. 
  30. Hour of the Gun (1967). James Garner as a ruthless Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in John Sturges’ realistic re-telling of events after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
  31. Fade In (1968). Long-lost modern western with Burt Reynolds serenading low-level movie executive Barbara Loden whose company is actually filming Terence Stamp picture Blue.
  32. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). The British movie version of Disney American television mini-series sees Patrick McGoohan as a Robin Hood-type character assisting local smugglers.
  33. P.J./New Face in Hell (1968). Private eye George Peppard is duped by shady millionaire Raymond Burr and mistress Gayle Hunnicutt in murder mystery.
  34. Sol Madrid/The Heroin Gang (1968). In his second top-billed role David MacCallum drags hooker Stella Stevens to Mexico to capture drugs kingpin Telly Savalas.
  35. A Twist of Sand (1968). Diamonds again. Smugglers Richard Johnson and Jeremy Kemp hunt long-lost jewels in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  36. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  37. Interlude (1968). Bittersweet romance between famed conductor Oskar Wener and young reporter Barbara Ferris.
  38. Woman of Straw (1964). Sean Connery tangles with Gina Lollobrigida in lurid tale of murder and inheritance.
  39. Bedtime Story (1964). Marlon Brando and David Niven are rival seducers on the Riviera targeting wealthy women.
  40. Sisters (1969). Intrigue, adultery and incest haunt Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg as they try to recapture the innocence of the past.

Selling James Bond: Part Two – Pressbook for “Thunderball” (1965)

Wooing the audience was no longer required after Goldfinger (1964) had broken the box office bank. Thunderball, claimed producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, was “the hottest merchandise campaign you have ever handled” as the first four pages of the Pressbook went to show. No longer was there a retailer free-for-all with companies which had nothing to do with endorsements jumping on the Bondwagon.

The potential for promotional tie-in was so high that retailers and manufacturers were willing to spend a fortune to become involved and, in so doing, provide a massive spread of free advertising. Colgate had an entire line of toiletries for men including after shave, shaving lotion, deodorant, and talcum powder, each item branded with the 007 logo with Colgate investing in a massive advertising campaign aimed not just as men but the women who buy for men.

Shoe-wear manufacturer Endicott Johnson set up a nationwide contest through the Montgomery Ward chain of stores. Customers were invited to participate in a free sweepstake and store managers were encouraged to become active in promoting Thunderball at sales points throughout their shops.

Toy manufactuer A.C. Gilbert had devised a James Bond 007 Road Race which would be promoted in the biggest marketing campaign in Sears Roebuck history to 60 million homes. The catalog would feature a five-page spread. “Beatles fans will be reached through a TV buy that Sears has made advertising the Road Race on ABC-TV’s Beatles Cartoon Show.” Adlers Slacks was the exclusive licensee for James Bond 007 Boys Slacks – with two hidden pockets. Revere Knitting Mills was promoting four sweaters “as worn by James Bond.”

Other licensed products included The Official James Bond Secret Agent 007 Shooting Attache Case, Harry Diamond sports shorts with the Bond logo, Allison tee-shirts and sweat shorts, bubble gum and trading cards from the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corp, and a walkie-talkie set from Gabriel. In addition, Weldon was selling “007 Pyjamas – Go to Bed Dressed to Kill,” Voit manufactured underwater equipment, Spatz advertised its trenchcoats in Playboy, Trimount clothing range included items for men and boys, and Milton Bradley had four board games and six jigsaw puzzles.

So for the first time in history, exhibitors had to do nothing to attract customers, no zany attention-grabbing gimmicks required, because the massive cross-promotional campaign devised by the producers ensured that potential moviegoers could hardly go anywhere without coming across something alerting customers to the movie.

All this was in addition to the normal standard promotional tools such as original soundtrack album and paperback movie tie-in. Tom Jones had released a single and six other artists had brought out instrumental singles and albums. Trade magazine Cash Box noted that the Bond name signified “something big in the worlds of film and music…many labels have themed LPs after the valuable James Bond Agent 007 image.” Signet had brought out the movie tie-in paperback with artwork on front and back covers.

The bulk of the Pressbook was taken up with advertising and information about the licensed products leaving just three pages for the editorial section. By now of course Sean Connery was a big box office star so he received considerable coverage, explaining that he had been chosen for Dr No as a result of a London newspaper poll. There was space too for the movie’s playgirls – former Miss France Claudine Auger, villainess Luciana Paluzzi best known to American audiences through the Five Fingers television series, Molly Peters and a return for Martine Beswick who had appeared in From Russia with Love.

Not surprisingly, the Aston Martin DB5, which had caused a sensation in Goldfinger, also returned. The customised version cost $45,000 (worth $400,000 today), compared to the usual price of $13,000, and came complete with twin Browning machine guns, tire slashers, revolving number plates, radar screen, ejector seat, and retractable bullet proof shields.

Selling James Bond – Pressbook for “From Russia with Love” (1963)

United Artists had two concepts in mind when it came to marketing the second in the James Bond series From Russia with Love (1963). The first, and quite audacious notion, was to tell anyone who hadn’t seen Dr No (1962) much they had missed. Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman reckoned 69 million moviegoers across the world had seen Dr No, but America only accounted for a small fraction of that total. So their mission was to ensure that American audiences did not miss out again on the “throbbing world of hot-blooded excitement.”

To target that marketplace, the adverts were more like a relaunch, not a sequel, and the taglines began with “Meet James Bond, Secret Agent 007.” And then, “For those unlucky few who missed Dr No…You are unprepared for the sophisticated mayhem and polished lovemaking. The James Bond bug has not bitten you. But take heart! There is still time to jump on the Bond bandwagon with the second James Bond adventure From Russia with Love. See it and we guarantee – you will be hooked for good.” The final exhortation: “Don’t you think it’s time you met secret agent 007?”

But of course James Bond already had some kind of fan club in the States. “James Bond Is Back!” screamed the alternative advertisements. For both, however, the emphasis was on the new. “His incredible new women! His new incredible enemies! His new incredible adventures!”

“Target: the unkillable James Bond 007. Blast him! Seduce him! Bomb him! Strangle him!” The tone of the adverts suggested something entirely new. While heroes in thrillers could expect to face danger at every turn, and while a romance might sweeten the pot, there would not be a selection of alluring scantily-attired women. “For those who saw Dr No, consider yourself fortunate. Now you are prepared for the further fantastic adventures of that master of intrigue and women, secret agent 007 James Bond, join him in his new thriller From Russia with Love.

To whet the appetite of local newspapermen there was a host of snippets. Oxford University had organized an 007 Society whose members included three lords and the heir to one of the the country’s largest department stores. While James Bond never uses a Windsor knot in his ties, Sean Connery does. Ian Fleming’s Bond novels had sold 30 million copies including six million of From Russia with Love. Four Istanbul mosques featured in the new film as well as an underground cistern a millennium old.

Door posters five feet high.

Beauty queens were always a good bet for coverage – Miss Universe runner-up Daniela Bianchi  won the role of James Bond’s girlfriend after a screen test and former Miss Israel Aliza Gur and former Miss Jamaica Martine Beswick played the fighting gypsy girls. Lotte Lenya was married to Kurt Weill who, with Berthold Brecht, wrote The Threepenny Opera. Sean Connery was fitted out by his own Savile Row tailor Anthony Sinclair and during filming got through ten customized shirts, eight suits, two top coats and a dress suit.

Highly sought-after these days in the memorabilia market are the door panels – measuring 20 inches x 60 inches – which exhibitors would stick to lobby doors but which could also be utilized as displays in stores. Signet brought out a movie tie-in paperback which came with its own promotional material. As there were already other books in the series, booksellers would be inclined to set up a Bond display. As well as the John Barry original soundtrack album, other artists recording material from the film included Matt Monro, Jackie Gleason, Kenny Ball, Al Caiola and Si Zetner, all creating promotional tools.

“Bondmanship” was the overall name given to lifestyle items worn by Bond or which he might wear so tie-ups with fashion stores and retailers were encouraged “no direct endorsement is necessary.” So, for example, restaurants were encouraged to offer “ a menu good enough for James Bond.” It didn’t matter that Bond did not wear a manufacturer’s shoes, ties or suits in the film, just that he might wear them if they were of sufficient quality.

The marketeers came up with a simple stunt: send a set of keys to a newspaper, turn up the next day with a dispatch box handcuffed to your wrist, open it and find inside various promotional items. Or the keys don’t open the case and you need to send for a locksmith. Either way it was important to have a photographer to hand.

We Need To Talk About Sir Sean, Part II: Who Wrote That Heinous Racist Scene: Book into Film – “Woman of Straw” (1964)

You can blame one of the screenwriters, either Robert Muller (Contest Girl, 1964) or Stanley Mann (The Collector, 1965), for coming up with the scene in Woman of Straw where the grotesque millionaire Charles Richmond (Ralph Richardson) forces his two black servants to pretend to be dogs to show his own dogs how to jump over each other. It’s not in the book. However, in fairness to the screenwriters they must have thought this preferable to the scene in the original book by Catherine Arley where Richmond offers a gold watch to the best imitation of a dog by his servants. This includes them getting down on all fours and eating food like a dog. Disgusting though this is, it is tempered by being a competition with a more than decent reward (a gold watch) for the winner.

The offensive scene in “Woman of Straw.”

And now we get into a difficult position since one of the most highly-praised episodes of Succession involved employees of grotesque millionaire Logan Roy (Brian Cox) being forced to get down on the floor and pretend to be boars and eat sausages like a boar (Boar on the Floor, Succession, Season Two, Episode Two). This sequence has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the critical accumulation website. The episode won an Emmy for director Andrij Parekh. Scott Tobias of Vulture gave it five stars and Randall Colburn of The A.V. Club an A-minus. Various commentators referenced the Stanford Experiments, the culture of fear inherent in working with wealthy individuals, and the animalistic collapse of civilization.

So that has left me wondering if my objection to Woman of Straw was merely on racist grounds and to wonder if there would have been an outcry if the Succession episode had featured a black person grovelling on the ground.

The screenwriters made significant changes to the source novel. For a start in the book both the woman and the millionaire were German. Hildegarde Meiner in the book becomes the Italian Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) in the film. But Hildegarde is not a relatively innocent nurse as in the film. Instead, she is an out-and-out gold-digger, determined to marry a wealthy man in order to make up for a desperate life in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Back cover of the movie tie-in edition of the British paperback.

In the book the villain of the piece is also German, Korff, not British like Sean Connery. And he is simply the millionaire’s secretary not his nephew. The pivotal element of the story is the same, Tony Richmond (Connery) feeling he is owed much more of the old man’s fortune than the pittance provided for him in the will. Korff is also 60 years old and although Hildegarde makes a play for him, any romantic liaison is out of the question because the secretary wants to adopt her as his daughter.  Korff sets Hildegarde up as the nurse and instructs her to play it aloof and principled. Hildegarde does not fall into the category of beauty but, with better clothes and professional make-up, oozes class.

The rest of the story plays out much like the film except there is no rescue at sea and the millionaire does not listen to classical music. The novel narrative, while not in the first person, is told from the woman’s perspective. However, Korff is more devious than Anthony Richmond, ensuring in several ways that the nurse will take the rap.

Front over of earlier British paperback, not a movie tie-in.

The film’s ending is driven by the need for some kind of happy resolution, for the guilty to be brought to justice, the dupe exonerated to some extent. But the book belongs more to the film noir genre and the ending is quite different, the villain getting away with and Hildegarde seeing no way out but to commit suicide.

The deprivations that Hildegarde has undergone as a consequence of her Hamburg family being killed during the war and her struggle for survival thereafter and her desperation to find a wealthy white knight make her a more  sympathetic character.

The book is an excellent thriller in its own right.

We Need To Talk About Sir Sean – Racism in “Woman of Straw” (1964)

Of course racism was endemic in Britain and the remainder of the British colonies in the 1960s where people of whatever color were treated as inferiors, underlings and at times with a brutality that bordered on slavery. So I’m not intending to say anything new here. But I was incredibly shocked by one scene of racism in Woman of Straw (1964) that I reviewed yesterday, a thriller in the Hitchcock mould starring Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida with Ralph Richardson as the wealthy man the subject of a murder plot.

Richardson’s character, Charles, is completely heinous, treating everyone badly, and they being in his thrall cannot bite back, unlike his dogs.

This is a still from the picture showing the offensive incident and would have been
used to promote the movie. As good an indication as any of the prevalent
racism is that clearly nobody believed this to be in bad taste.

For reasons best known to himself, Charles wants his dogs to be able to jump over each other. And when they fail to obey his commands, he instructs his two black servants, played by Johnny Sekka and Danny Daniels, to show them how it is done. One has to kneel on the grass like a dog and the other to jump over him. In due course, the dogs get the hang of it, leaping over the humiliated man on the ground.

There are enough other instances in the film to ensure the audience gets the right idea about Charles without this.

But I was shocked to the core. I have seen many instances of black people treated much worse in films, but in 1964 I guess such treatment would not have been permitted by the censor and this was the closest they could get to the abject degradation required. I can’t have been the only person shocked by it. But nobody was in 1964 otherwise it would not have got past the British censor – eliminating the scene would not have affected the plot – not a murmur from a critic, and certainly no sign of audiences leaving in droves.

But why should it be left to post-production? Did Sean Connery really think there was nothing untoward in the script? If it had been a Scotsman being used in this fashion might he have complained? Did Gina Lollobrigida think nothing of the scene? Similarly, had it been an Italian servant might she have objected? Connery and Lollobrigida either individually or collectively had far more box office cachet than the director – in fact this was Dearden’s move into the big time – so could easily have asked for the scene to be eliminated.

And what of Sir Ralph Richardson, at the time considered one of the great theatrical triumvirate (Olivier and Gielgud the others) who played the character? A forthright person in many other ways, but not here. Perhaps the most surprising person to be blind to the offensiveness of the scene was director Basil Dearden, especially since a previous film Victim (1961) was sympathetic to gay men. I would like to know if the scene was in the source novel by Catherine Arlay.

Whatever, one of the reasons that racism remained so endemic in the 1960s and far beyond was because people failed to see it when it was right in front of their eyes. I’ve no idea who owns the rights to this otherwise good thriller but it might be a good idea for them to take a look and excise this scene or at least give warning that it exists.

The British Board of Film Censors gave this a “12” rating when it came out on DVD. I contacted the BBFC to see if anybody had ever re-watched the film to come to the ratings conclusion. Naturally, I am still waiting to hear back.

You can check out what I’m referring to on YouTube which has a reasonable print. This incident occurs at the 16-17 minute mark. 

Woman of Straw (1964) ***

In a plot worthy of Hitchcock without that director’s sly malice, rich playboy Tony (Sean Connery) conspires with not-so-innocent nurse Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) to rid himself of  heinous upper-class racist misogynistic bully Charles (Ralph Richardson), his uncle. Beyond  a savage case of entitlement, Tony has good reason to hate the wheelchair-bound multi-millionaire, blaming him for his father’s suicide and for seducing his widowed mother, now dead. Tony’s ploy, in part by opposing the very idea, is to get Maria to marry Charles, inherit his fortune and provide himself a £1 million finder’s fee when the seriously ill old man dies.

Maria’s refusal to kowtow to the old man and her initial resistance to Tony make her all the more desirable to both. When Maria saves the old man from a potential heart attack, he is moved enough to marry her and draw up exactly the will the pair want. But when he suddenly dies, Maria surprises herself by the depth of emotion she feels.

But that soon changes when she comes under suspicion. A bundle of complications swiftly change the expected outcome. A police inspector (Alexander Knox) doubts cause and place of death.

The first half is the set-up, the various figures being moved into place, not quite as easily as might have been anticipated, which adds another element of tension. Charles is such a hideous person nobody could lament his passing, but still his vulnerability, not just his wheelchair confinement but his love of music, his better qualities coming to the fore as the result of Maria’s presence, accord him greater sympathy than you would imagine.

That the otherwise gallant Tony’s entitled life depends entirely on his uncle’s good wishes lends him an appealing frailty. The nurse’s principles safeguard her against being taken in by riches alone, but there is a sense that she has used her physical attraction in the past to her advantage.

After the first two James Bond pictures, this was Sean Connery’s first attempt to move away from the secret agent stereotype and in large part he is successful. As amoral as Bond, he could as easily be a Bond villain, smooth and charming and larger than life and superbly gifted in the art of manipulation, the kind of putting all the pieces in place that Bond villains excelled in.

It will come as a surprise to contemporary viewers that he is merely the leading man, not the star. Gina Lollobrigida (Go Naked in the World, 1961) receives top-billing because she carries the emotional weight, initially perhaps as cold as Tony, but her attitude to Charles changing after marriage, meeting a need that Tony would not consider his to fulfill, and beginning to regret going along with any devious plan. That she then discovers she may merely be a pawn rather than a partner creates the dilemma on which the final section of the film depends for tension.

Both actors are excellent, exuding star wattage, the screen charisma between them evident, and audiences craving the pairing of Connery with an European female superstar will be well satisfied. Lollobrigida has the better role, requiring greater depth, but it is romance as duel most of the way. Ralph Richardson (Khartoum,1966) has never been better as one of the worst human beings ever to grace a screen. Johnny Sekka (The Southern Star, 1969) brings dignity to the maligned servant and Alexander Knox (Khartoum) is a crusty cop. 

A slick offering from Basil Dearden (The Mind Benders, 1963), with one proviso which I will touch on tomorrow, but could have done with expending less time on the set-up and getting to the meat of the thriller quicker.

CATCH-UP: Sean Connery pictures reviewed in the Blog so far are: The Frightened City (1961), Dr No (1962), Marnie (1964), The Hill (1965) and The Red Tent (1969). I have been pretty thorough in examining the work of Basil Dearden, reviewing the following: The Secret Partner (1961), Masquerade (1965), Khartoum (1966), Only When I Larf (1968) and The Assassination Bureau (1969).

The Rock (1996) *****

Amazingly, there’s been no 25th anniversary razzamatazz for this pulsating piledriver of an action movie, a stone cold classic. Instead of the standard breaking out of Alcatraz, a brilliant reversal sees a crack military team of U.S. Navy SEALS trying to break in to stop maniac martinet General Hummel (Ed Harris) devastating San Francisco with stolen missiles containing nerve gas. Notwithstanding his iconic turn as James Bond and Oscar acclaim for The Untouchables (1987), this is surely Sean Connery’s best, if not boldest, performance, the calm at the heart of the storm, exuding a riveting screen persona. No other star of his calibre would have allowed themselves to be seen at the start with such lack of dignity, not just shackled but with dirty exceedingly long hair.

Not only is it a brilliant entrance but such is director Michael Bay’s mastery of his material that he makes audiences wait 25 minutes for it while he sets up the terror that awaits the city from a rain of terrifying gas, Hummel as a ruthless legendary officer with a point to prove and allows Nicolas Cage to break out of his initial geek. Backed by a classic battering ram of a score by Hans Zimmer and Nick Glennie-Smith and an outstanding battalion of supporting players, Bay never lets up the high-pitch tension, finding his stylistic way with slo-mo, helicopters swaying in the sky, brutal stand-offs.

Former British spy John Mason (Connery), the only man alive who has broken out of Alcatraz, is released from prison to lead the break-in, Hummel holding hostages as well as his weaponry. Never has a star done so much with so little, using a coin to discover his nemesis F.B.I. director Womack (John Spencer) and with nothing more than a piece of string engineers his own escape from a San Francisco hotel that leads to a riveting car chase ending in wanton destruction and a touching scene reuniting Mason with a long-lost daughter (Clare Forlani). That such a cracking movie bothers with emotional hooks –  academic FBI chemical expert Stanley Goodspeed also has his girlfriend in harm’s way – shows the screenwriter skill in bringing greater character depth. Except for his daughter, Mason would have made another escape from Alcatraz at the first opportunity.

What appears mission impossible becomes mission impossible too far when Hummel’s men slaughter the military invasion leaving the unlikely duo of Mason and Goodspeed to save the city – and their own lives when the equally ruthless operation overseers determine it’s better to completely liquidate Alcatraz rather than risk the missiles being fired.

And without Cage as the mild-mannerd scientist stepping up to the action plate, this would be a different picture, over-dominated by Connery. Cage delivers a multi-layered performance, from the emphatic strum of a guitar string to his flickering fingers and the brilliant delivery of the humdrum line “in the name of Zeus’s butthole.” He shifts from fearful geek who has left his gun behind to determinedly hunting down Mason in a car chase and then finding a true action mojo on the rock.

Given this top-notch performance, it’s proof of Connery’s star power that he easily steals the picture. Suspicious, clever, ruthless, soft-hearted when it matters, he mentors Goodspeed, though not always gently, “losers always whine about their best, winners go home and f*** the prom queen.”

Odd as it might be to say about a Michael Bay picture, this is layered too. From the conflict between Mason and Womack, the nuanced performance by the essentially honorable Hummel, brilliant character development –  like Hilts in The Great Escape Mason the loner eventually persuaded to help the general cause –  the transition of Goodspeed from goofy oddball to saviour, speedy edits, some cracking images, a script dipped in paranoia (references to Roswell, the Kennedy assassination, black ops and secret military slush funds)  and a stack of one-liners. All this delivered in passing as this high-speed train of an action blockbuster thunders along the line.

The whole enterprise is bolstered by a top-notch supporting cast led by the Mason-hating John Spencer (stepping up from a supporting role in L.A. Law, 1990-1996), David Morse (The Green Mile, 1999), eternal heavy William Forsythe (J. Edgar Hoover in The Man in the High Castle, 2018-2019) getting the chance to lighten his load, Michael Biehn (Aliens, 1986), John C. McGinley (Any Given Sunday, 1999) and Bokeem Woodbine (Queen and Slim, 2019). Two young actresses show tremendous promise – Clare Forlani capitalised on this break with Meet Joe Black (1998) but it proved less of a Hollywood calling card for Vanessa Marcil (Goodspeed’s fiancé), her best work coming in television (Las Vegas, 2003-2008). This was Mark Rosner’s only screenplay from a story by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg. who collaborated on Double Jeopardy (1999).

It was also Michael Bay’s calling card to enter the high-octane world of big-budget blockbusters like Armageddon (1998). While his career had as many ups as downs, this is unquestionably his action masterpiece, a no-holds-barred non-stop adrenaline spike.

The Bond They Couldn’t Sell – “Dr No” (1962)

United Artists almost had to give away this picture in the United States in order to gain bookings. Astonishingly, it was the picture the studio felt it could not sell. And for good reason – the studio hated it. “To them it was a B-picture,” recalled producer Harry Saltzman. “They said Hammer made the same kind of picture for one-third of the price.”

Dr No, produced on a miserly budget of $840,000 – $40,000 over budget –  had triumphed in London after snagging an opening run in 1962 at the Leicester Square Theatre primarily because the cinema needed to fulfil its quota of showing British pictures. Although it set a London box office record that would stand for more than a decade and proved a huge draw throughout Britain, U.S. studio United Artists had been burned once too often by British films that did well at home only to flop spectacularly in America.

Since box office statistics began to be gathered in earnest in the 1930s only a handful of British pictures mustered the $1 million in rentals required for entry into the annual list of box office champions. The bulk of the Ealing comedies had not made the grade, nor had such diverse successes as Doctor in the House (1954), Reach for the Sky (1956), Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). American audiences rejected British films as too slow, technically backward, and with accents it was often impossible to understand. Putting together an advertising, public relations and marketing package for them could easily cost as much as the film itself.

“When we had an answer print ready there were about eight people from United Artists including (chairman) Arthur Krim who came to see it,” Saltzman told Variety a quarter of a century later. “We started the film at 10am and when it was over a few minutes before twelve the lights came up and nobody said anything except a man who was head of the European operation and he said, ‘the only good thing about the picture is that we can only lose $840,000.’ Cubby (Broccoli) and I were just shattered,” confessed Saltzman.

That didn’t stop Saltzman and Broccoli embarking on their own campaign to raise awareness. They went right to the heart of the American exhibition community, taking space at the annual Show-a-Rama event in Kansas City in March, bringing along Sean Connery and models to represent the Bond girls. In addition, around the same time UA held a sneak preview in New York attended by the likes of Johnny Carson, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Rudy Vallee i.e. not that high-falutin’ an audience but at least the festivities were filmed and broadcast on NBC Monitor and Armed Forces Radio. Sean Connery also featured in a 12-minute segment in the middle of ABC Sunday Night at the Movies.

The Bond promotional bandwagon set up shop for a couple of days each in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles between March 7 and March 15 and pulled in journalists from the surrounding areas. There was also a touring show comprising 150 stills. And the marketeers had some success in targeting exhibitors through the trade magazines although the two-page article featuring in Box Office attempted to interest exhibitors on the basis of a marketing campaign in Connery’s native Scotland, which hardly seemed to be ideally suited. Nor did the marketing team really care what tricks exhibitors pulled to bring in the customers – for no particular reason one cinema employed a safe-cracking stunt even though the film’s story did not lend itself to that.

Dr No’s biggest marketing tools were photos of Ursula Andress in a bikini and copies of the Ian Fleming novels which since 1961 had the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy. Cheap paperbacks sold in drug stores and newsstands had created greater awareness of the character as well as acting as unpaid advertising for the forthcoming film.

But, basically, that was as much – or as little – as the film had going for it. In effect, no great marketing energy.

As it happened, exhibitors were beginning to organise their own marketing programs – “box office building campaigns” – and the Bond team were able to convince exhibitors in the Midwest and Southwest to kick off the idea with Dr No.

That meant shifting away from the conventional release pattern where a film opened in one cinema in a big city and then fanned out week-by-week to smaller venues and towns. Instead it was everywhere all at once which meant it cannibalized its own audience since it could not be held over in any cinema for a further week because the prints were already scheduled elsewhere.

Although most historians pinpoint New York as the launch pad for Dr No, United Artists did not want to risk the picture potentially flopping in that territory.  According to Harry Saltzman the first commercial showing, effectively a trial run, was in Atlanta, Georgia, where it ran for eleven weeks and was considered a success. But not enough for UA to consider shifting its release strategy. A movie that launched anywhere other than New York was considered a dodgy proposition.

From May 8 it was launched in 450 cinemas in the Midwest and southwest. This was the same release strategy as had been employed on another film about which UA had its commercial doubts – The Magnificent Seven (1960) – and that had turned into a flop. It opened in New York in June in 18 cinemas including two in the city centre, the Astor and the Murray Hill, both arthouses.

But here’s the kicker.

In order to get the bookings, United Artists had to dramatically lower its asking price.

Normally new pictures were sold to exhibitors on a 50/50 basis – meaning the studio received 50 per cent of the gross. “The funny things is,” recalled Saltzman, “they booked it for 30 percent. The theaters took it at first because they got it for 30 per cent.” That meant UA sold Dr No to cinemas on the basis that any exhibitor booking the picture would retain 70 per cent of the gross.

This was not unheard-of. In fact, it was often the standard deal for foreign movies going into arthouses. But arthouse pictures with the occasional exception of a La Dolce Vita were usually hard sells to a very finite audience. James Bond was anything but.

As a result of this approach, the movie did not register particularly well on the annual box office rankings. In fact, it placed 42nd. Not a disaster, but not a particularly brilliant showing. However, that did not represent the film’s true appeal. Had it been sold on a 50/50 basis, the rentals would have been high enough to pitch it just outside the Top 20, which would been seen as a genuine success. On the other hand, if UA had not been so generous in handing the exhibitors the bigger share of the box office, perhaps it might have elicited far fewer bookings and the James Bond story might have been completely different.

SOURCES: “United Artists Sell Campaign in Its Dr No Film,” Box Office, February 25, 1963, p10;  “Festivities Mark Dr No Sneak Preview in New York,” Box Office, March 11, 1963, pE-2; “450 Situations Play Dr No at Opening,” Variety, April 3, 1963, 19; “Producer Saltzman Faces Big Decision on 2nd James Bond Thriller,” Variety, April 25, 1962, p13; “Feature Reviews,” Box Office, April 1, 1953 pA-11; “Showmandiser: Premiere Showmen Say Yes to Dr No, Ticket Buyers Too,” Box Office, April 29, 1963, pA1; “Harry Saltzman Recalls Early Coolness to Bond Features,” Variety, May 13, 1987, p57; “Dr No in 17 Theatres,” Box Office, May 27, 1963, pE-8; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, June 5, 1963, p10; “Smash Business General for 4-Day Holiday,” Box Office, June 10, 1963, pE-2; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, pA3; “Safe Crackers Invited,” Box Office, June 24, 1963, pA3.

Dr No (1962) *****

Minus the gadgets and the more outlandish plots, the James Bond formula in embryo. With two of the greatest entrances in movie history – and a third if you count the creepy presence of Dr No himself at the beds of his captives – all the main supporting characters in place except Q, plenty of sex and action, plus the Maurice Binder credit sequence and the theme tune, this is the spy genre reinvented.

Most previous espionage pictures usually involved a character quickly out of their depth or an innocent caught up in nefarious shenanigans, not a man close to a semi-thug, totally in command, automatically suspicious, and happy to knock off anyone who gets in his way, in fact given government clearance to commit murder should the occasion arise. That this killer comes complete with charm and charisma and oozes sexuality changes all the rules and ups the stakes in the spy thriller.

 Three men disguised as beggars break into the house of British secret service agent Strangways (Tim Moxon) and kill him and his secretary and steal the file on Dr No (Joseph Wiseman). A glamorous woman in a red dress Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) catches the eye of our handsome devil “Bond, James Bond” (Sean Connery) at a casino before he is interrupted by an urgent message, potential assignation thwarted.

We are briefly introduced to Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) before Bond is briefed by M (Bernard Lee) and posted out immediately – or “almost immediately” as it transpires – to Jamaica, but not before his beloved Beretta is changed to his signature Walther PPK and mention made that he is recovering from a previous mission. But in what would also become a series signature, liberated women indulging in sexual freedom, and often making the first move, Ms Trench is lying in wait at his flat.

In another change to the espionage trope, this man does not walk into the unknown. Suspicion is his watchword. In other words, he is the consummate professional. On arrival at Jamaica airport he checks out the waiting chauffeur and later the journalist who takes his picture. The first action sequence also sets a new tone. Bond is not easily duped. Three times he outwits the chauffeur. Finally, at the stand-off, Bond fells him with karate before the man takes cyanide, undercutting the danger with the mordant quip, on delivering the corpse to Government house, “see that he doesn’t get away.” 

Initially, it’s more a detective story as Bond follows up on various clues that leads him to Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), initially appearing as an adversary, and C.I.A. agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) before the finger of suspicion points to the mysterious Dr No and the question of why rocks from his island should be radioactive. Certainly, Dr No pulls out all the stops, sending hoods, a tarantula, sexy secretary Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the traitororous Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) to waylay or kill Bond.

But it’s only when our hero lands on the island and the bikini-clad Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) emerges from the sea as the epitome of the stunning “Bond Girl” that the series formula truly kicks in: formidable sadistic opponent, shady organization Spectre, amazing  sets, space age plot, a race against time. 

It’s hard not to overstate how novel this entire picture was. For a start, it toyed with the universal perception of the British as the ultimate arbiters of fair play. Here was an anointed killer. Equally, the previous incarnation of the British spy had been the bumbling Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1959). That the British should endorse wanton killing and blatant immorality – remember this was some years before the Swinging Sixties got underway – went against the grain.

Although critics have maligned the sexism of the series, they have generally overlooked the reaction of the female audience to a male hunk, or the freedom with which women appeared to enjoy sexual trysts with no fear of moral complication. Bond is not just macho, he is playful with the opposite sex, flirting with Miss Moneypenny, and with a fine line in throwaway quips.

Director Terence Young is rarely more than a few minutes away from a spot of action or sex, exposition kept to a minimum, so the story zings along, although there is time to flesh out the characters, Bond’s vulnerability after his previous mission mentioned, his attention to detail, and Honey Rider’s backstory, her father disappearing on the island and her own ruthlessness. The insistently repetitive theme tunes- from Monty Norman and John Barry – were innovative. The special effects mostly worked, testament to the genius of production designer Ken Adam rather than the miserable budget.

Most impressive of all was the director’s command of mood and pace. For all the fast action, he certainly knew how to frame a scene, Bond initially shown from the back, Dr No introduced from the waist downwards, Honey Rider in contrast revealed in all her glory from the outset. The brutal brief interrogation of photographer Annabel Chung (Marguerite LeWars), the unexpected seduction of the enemy Miss Taro and the opulence of the interior of Dr No’s stronghold would have come as surprises.

Young was responsible for creating the prototype Bond picture, the lightness of touch in constant contrast to flurries of violence, amorality while blatant delivered with cinematic elan, not least the treatment of willing not to say predatory females, the shot through the bare legs of Ms Trench as Bond returns to his apartment soon to become par for the course.

Future episodes of course would lavish greater funds on the project, but with what was a B-film budget at best  by Hollywood standards, the producers worked wonders. Sean Connery (The Frightened City, 1961) strides into a role that was almost made-to-measure, another unknown Ursula Andress speeded up every male pulse on the planet, Joseph Wiseman (The Happy Thieves, 1961) provided an ideal template for a future string of maniacs and Bernard Lee (The Secret Partner, 1961) grounded the entire operation with a distinctly British headmaster of a boss.

Readers’ Top 30

I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
  3. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
  4. Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
  7. Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
  8. The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
  9. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
  10. The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
  11. Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
  12. Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
  13. The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
  14. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
  15. The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
  16. The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
  17. 4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
  18. Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
  19. Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
  20. Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
  21. Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
  22. Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
  23. Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
  24. A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
  25. The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
  26. In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
  27. Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
  28. The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
  29. Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
  30. Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.
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