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.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

The Red Tent (1969) ***

If you’re unfamiliar with the abortive Italian airship expedition to the North Pole led by General Umberto Nobilo (Peter Finch) in 1928, you’ll find this an absorbing tale. If you are familiar then you will probably appreciate the film-makers’ attempts, via an unusual framing device, to carry out a post-mortem and to apportion blame for the disaster. If you know your history you’ll also be aware both poles had already been conquered, American Robert Peary first to the North Pole in 1909, Norwegian Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery) claiming South Pole bragging rights two years later. So you’re also probably wondering what was the point nearly two decades later of the Nobilo operation?

But the sled-led efforts of Peary and Amundsen were feats of endurance i.e. man vs.  nature. This was science vs. nature. The dirigible was the apex of aviation advancement and nations still battled for exploration glory. So to travel in some comfort and fly over the North Pole in a few days would be a demonstration of scientific supremacy. Conquest of one of the most inhospitable places on earth was almost a PR exercise. With no intention of landing it was also a glorified tourist trip.

Connery and Cardinale lock horns over tea.

However, the science was flawed. Nobody had counted on the build-up of ice. The airship crashed and since this was a joyride nobody was equipped to walk their way out. Just surviving would be difficult enough. Loss of radio transmission (science) indicated a problem to those waiting back at the base so rescue airplanes were deployed. But without a location to pinpoint, the searchers had about two million square kilometers cover. Luckily, a brilliant scientific deduction by expedition member Finn Malmgreen (Eduard Martsevich) saves the day and a ham radio user (amateur science) picks up the location. Game on!

Except airplanes are too easily thwarted by blizzards, fog and the inhospitable. Home base, set up simply to welcome home a successful jaunt, is not capable of organizing a proper rescue. A Russian ice-breaker joins the rescue attempt. Taking greater risks is aviator Einar Lundborg (Hardy Kruger), fired up by the promise of sex with desperate nurse Valeria (Claudia Cardinale), who happens to be Malmgreen’s girlfriend, and a bounty from Nobilo’s insurers. The redoubtable Valeria does not have to sell her body to persuade the more highly-principled Amundsen to join the rescue effort.

So it’s gripping clock-ticking-down stuff, action shown in considerable detail, almost over-populated in one sense as director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957) covers multiple storylines, the various disjointed rescue efforts, the survivors weakening by the day, imperiled by marauding polar bears and the ice cracking up beneath their feet.

In the main it’s a true story, Valeria the only fictional element, inserted for dramatic purpose, to give the audience someone to emotionally root for back on land and for her character to guide us in almost contemporary fashion through the ghoulish carnival onshore as thousands gather to witness first-hand news of disaster.

What’s patently untrue is the framing device, given that it shows the still-living Nobilo summoning up the ghosts of others involved in the event for a post-mortem, in which his guilt drives him into the position of sacrificial lamb. Although on first encounter it appears a bizarre idea, that, too, soon achieves dramatic purpose. Clearly there was intense discussion at the time and in the immediate aftermath by those who survived the disaster and there must have been high-level talks behind closed doors that usually excluded the main characters of the kind that was played out in a host of historical pictures made during the decade. Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and Khartoum (1965) had many such set-pieces where reputations were shredded.

This approach permits opportunity for all the principals to come together for confrontational purposes in the one room. Not all discussion follows the expected path and there is an interesting argument between Nobilo and Amundsen about leadership. From an audience perspective, it is, of course, quite satisfying to see Sean Connery facing off against Peter Finch with Hardy Kruger and Claudia Cardinale embroiled in the debate.

All eyes on Claudia Cardinale in the Japanese poster.

There is the bonus of fabulous cinematography of the majestic Arctic, the icy waste and breaking up of ice floes and collapsing icebergs never before captured in such widescreen glory. Further pluses are in the performances, especially Connery as an aged Amundsen, Finch as the glorious pioneer bewildered the sudden turn of events and Cardinale as a woman willing to go to any lengths to save her lover. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

However, you are best going into this to be aware that while Finch has a goodly amount of time onscreen, Connery and Cardinale (the ostensible stars judging by the credits) are not seen so frequently. That said, the movie happily falls into the survival sub-genre. The DVD version I saw was just a shade over two hours – cut by about 30 minutes from original release – but reportedly the longer version adds little more than some extra angst.

The Hill (1965) ****

Set in a British Army prison camp in North Africa during World War Two ruled by sadistic Sergeant Wilson (Harry Andrews) who believes himself above the regulations he forces others to follow, The Hill is a parable about the hypocrisy of totalitarian rule. And much of what is shown would be offensive to modern sensibilities. Although the commandant (Norman Bird) and medical officer (Michael Redgrave) are his superior officers, Wilson runs the unit by force of personality. He believes his ruthless treatment of the prisoners turns them into proper soldiers. Into his fiefdom come five new prisoners including coward Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), African American Jacko King (Ossie Davis), another Scot Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and weakest link George Stevens (Alfred Lynch).

Most films about prisons emphasize imprisonment, most scenes taking place in cells or other places of confinement. Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) directs this film as though it is a paeon to freedom with incredible shots of the vista within which the men are contained. He uses some of the most bravura camerawork you will ever see outside of David Lean. The film opens with a two-minute crane shot credit sequence that begins with a prisoner collapsing on the titular hill and pulls back to reveal the entire encampment and follows with a one-minute reverse tracking shot of Andrews striding through his domain. And while the camera controls what we see, our ears are constantly assailed by the constant drumbeat of other marching prisoners.  

Climbing the hill in full pack would break any man and those who collapse are roused by pails of water. The first to crack is Stevens who is constantly tormented by homophobic jibes. Continuous racist abuse is heaped on Jacko King until driven to the point of madness he begins to behave like a gorilla which frightens the life out of his superiors. Obeying orders, says Joe Roberts, is “like a dog picking up a bone.”  RSM Wilson is out of control, the commandant spending his nights with a prostitute, the medical officer clearly sent here as punishment for some previous misdemeanor. Of the senior staff only Harris (Ian Bannen) comes away with any dignity, constantly trying to thwart the worst bullying.

When Stevens dies suddenly, the film changes tack and becomes a battle for survival among those who could be blamed for causing his death and those who dare to point the finger.  Wilson has no problem stitching up his colleagues and blackmailing the medical officer while Roberts is beaten up for his effrontery in standing up to authority. But the astonishing presence and self-confidence and, it has to be said, courage of Wilson lords it over everyone, and there is an extraordinary scene where he forces the entire battalion of prisoners to back down when they are on the brink of open rebellion.

Connery as Roberts is superb in what is his first dramatic role in a bread-and-butter dramatic production rather than the glossier Marnie (1964) and Woman of Straw (1964) and while he has his moment of defiance he gives enough glimpses of vulnerability and fear to ensure we do not mistake him for his alter ego James Bond. Ian Bannen delivers a touching assured performance far removed from the nasty sarcastic personalities he portrayed in his other desert pictures, Station Six Sahara (1963) and the Flight of the Phoenix (1965).  Ossie Davies, as defiant as Connery, is brilliant as the man who works out a way to beat the enemy by confusing them; the scene in the commandant’s office where he treats the officer as his inferior is a tour de force.   

Although the Army is meant to run according to established regulation, where obedience to a superior is paramount, it is equally apparent that it can also become a jungle if those who are the fittest assume control. Sgt Wilson demands unquestioned discipline even as he is breaking all the rules in the book. But he retains his authority not just by bullying, but by intelligence, exploiting weakness, coolness under pressure and by welcoming confrontation, his personality as dangerous as any serial killer.   

Marnie (1964) *****

Arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most difficult film and with some attitudes that will not sit well with today’s audiences nonetheless this is an assured work and the completion of an unofficial trilogy that tries to explain the unexplainable. The director had not been making what might be termed traditional Hitchcock pictures for well over half a decade if you take North by Northwest (1959) as the anomaly in a sequence that began with the obsessive Vertigo (1958). You could argue that Hitchcock had turned a bit “north by northwest” himself, the “hero” of Psycho (1960) a mother-obsessed serial killer, the “bad guys” in The Birds (1963) the titular rapacious creatures who besiege the leading characters and set the world on an apocalyptical course.  

Attempts are made in both Psycho and The Birds to explain the actions of the predators, but such explanations are external, remote, and with Marnie Hitchcock takes the bold step of attempting to explain what makes such a devious, compulsive, frigid liar tick. Hitchcock called the movie a “sex mystery” but it was unclear whether he was just once again trying to tantalize his audience or whether he believed it was film about the mystery of sex, what causes attraction between two people and what sets others up to steadfastly reject the concept.  To embellish his thesis he chose one of the world’s most beautiful actresses (Tippi Hedren) and the actor (Sean Connery) who could easily lay claim to being the world’s sexiest man (as he was later anointed in various polls).

It seemed almost an indecent proposal to deny the bed-hopper-par-excellence – as viewed from the James Bond perspective. And it certainly took all the charm Connery could muster to prevent audiences baulking at the almost perverse scientific aspects of his character, an amateur zoologist who welcomed a known criminal into his world for the chance to examine her at close quarters.  The audience is constantly kept at one remove. In the first section we watch enthralled as Hedren carries out her bold thefts, as if she is capable of wrapping the entire male population around her little finger by the simple device of adjusting her skirt.

But in the middle section, it is Connery who is in control and the trapped Hedren who is twisting and turning searching for an escape route. In the final section, when it is clear that it is the lover, not the scientist, in Connery that tries to find a way round the problem, the tension is at its height because we have no idea whether she will run true to form and manage to steal and lie her way out or whether Connery’s patience will snap and he will throw her to the wolves who are certainly by this point circling.

The central device on which Hitchcock hooked an audience was the moviegoer demand for a happy ending. He duped cinemagoers in Psycho, slaughtering the heroine halfway through. In The Birds Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren underwent a harrowing physical assault and while clearly romantically involved by the end Hedren was a wreck. Here, the assaults are mental. There is none of the romantic banter that defines the greatest of his traditional works. Hedren and Connery are together because he has forced the issue and loving though his blackmail is it is still an unequal relationship and one from which she will seek to escape at every opportunity. Hedren’s compulsive character is a mystery that appears insoluble as she resists every attempt to break down the wall she has erected to protect herself from her past.

Cover of the Winston Graham source novel. In the book, Marnie is being pursued by two men but in the film this is turned to Connery being the one with two women in tow.

The story is straightforward with few of the twists of other pictures. We meet Hedren as she escapes with nearly $10,000 stolen from her employers. We learn quickly that she is a master of disguise, has several social security cards up her sleeve, can turn from brunette to blonde, and is so practiced in her deception that she can convince an employer to take her on without references. As that particular duped employer is spelling out his predicament to the police, an amused Sean Connery, a customer of her employer,  appears. Hedren runs off to a bolthole, an upmarket hotel, close to the stables where she keeps a horse, Forio.

Shifting back to Hedren we find her visiting her mother in a tawdry street near the docks. The artifice of confidence is shredded away. She is jealous of the attention her mother gives a little girl whom she looks after. She wants love that her mother is unable to give. When she lays her head on her mother’s lap waiting for the soothing stroke of a hand all she receives is rebuke for leaning too heavily on her mother’s sore leg. The mother in North by Northwest was played for comedy, in Psycho an occasion for murder, and here a means of control. Here, too, we witness the color red sparking an inexplicable and frightening experience.

When Hedren applies for a new job it is at Connery’s firm, where he is the coming man. He watches amused as she is interviewed, intervenes to ensure she is hired. They have in common that they are widowed. Hedren is already planning her next big score, discovering that the combination to the safe is kept in a drawer to which her employer’s secretary has the key.

But he is ready for her and it seems almost perverse that he does not let her know he is aware of her true identity. Instead, under the guise of asking her to work overtime, he gives her an academic paper to type. The subject is predators, “the criminals of the animal world” in which females feature. His gentle pressure is almost sadistic and she is saved by a sudden storm which triggers another bad subconscious reaction.  

Her theft of money from the office is a classic Hitchcock scene. It begins in complete silence. The screen is divided in two, the office and the corridor. Seeing a cleaner appear, Hedren removes her shoes to make her getaway. Almost as she reaches the safety of the stairs, a shoe falls out of her pocket and clatters on the floor. The cleaner does not look up. She is very hard of hearing.

But Connery is again prepared and when she disappears tracks her to her bolthole, confronts her, questioning her again and again until he thinks he is close to the truth. He can’t turn her in because he has fallen in love. Her choice is stark – him or the police. Soon they are married. But the honeymoon, despite his patience, is a disaster, she cannot “bear to be handled” and they return home further apart than ever.

Meanwhile, figures from her past begin to appear. Lil (Diane Baker) who lusts after Connery brings peril to their door. Connery persists with trying to get Hedren to open up.

Eventually, there is a break in her compulsive syndrome, brought on by love, and we head back to her mother’s to get to the root of the problem. Even when the problem is solved her mother remains distant, still won’t stroke her hair. If there is a happy ending it is like that of The Birds, an immediate problem solved but who knows when or if the crows will return, and there is a similar resolution here, Hedren learns the source of her nightmares but it would be a very blind person who did not see terrible ramifications for the future.

There are certainly a few jarring moments, Hitchcock’s insistence on back projection for a start, but then you didn’t really think in North by Northwest that the director was allowed to film in front of the United Nations, did you? Rather than a technical flaw, the back projection seems to fit another purpose, a device to make the audience stop and examine what is going on, for much of it occurs when Hedren is in her fantasy world. And you would have to take exception to Connery’s actions in the bedroom on honeymoon, no matter how gentle his caresses at other times. And certainly, the psychological assumptions ring hollow given our current knowledge of such conditions, but despite that make for tense viewing.

But the meat of the movie is self-deception. Hedren is convinced she can get away with a series of thefts. Connery is convinced her can cure her. His constant interrogation is what passes for lovers’ banter. In aligning himself as her moral guardian and perhaps her savior, “dying to play doctor,” Connery has entered a nightmare of his own making. Only an arrogant man would believe all women would fall at his feet and Hitchcock clearly makes a connection with Connery’s ongoing incarnation as James Bond where that is exactly the case. Connery is every bit as flawed, as obsessive, as Scottie in Vertigo, determined to shape a woman into perfect form, and, yes, expecting to eradicate the imperfect past.

Connery emanated such ease, such amazing grace, on the screen that it backfired. Critics often didn’t believe he was putting much into his acting when in reality he was acting his socks off. This is a tremendously difficult part, walking the tightrope between looking a deluded fool and retaining audience empathy and coming across badly when he pushes a vulnerable woman too hard. This is a very rounded character, a gentle adoring lover in the main, but not one to be crossed. His interrogations are intense and yet still you can see that it will kill him if he is double-crossed. The casual amusement with which he greeted her appearance at his office is replaced by fear at her sudden departure.

Hedren, too, whose acting ability was often called into question, carries on where she left off in The Birds. By the end of that picture her nerves had been shredded. Here, her emotions, which she cannot as easily control as the rest of her life, too often fly off into a high pitch. Half the time she is the cool collected customer of The Birds, the rest of the time she is demented.  Except in The Birds she was self-confident around men. Any self-assurance she has now is skin deep. There was always a fragility about Hedren, hidden behind the glossy exterior and fashionable outfits, and here it is exposed. The touching scenes with her mother, the mouth tightened in jealousy over the little girl, are perfectly played. A little girl lost in wolf’s clothing. And trapped, she is almost snarling at her captor, the submissive dialogue concealing the mind hard at work looking for an exit.

The interrogative scenes between Connery and Hedren are extremely difficult to pull off. It would have been easier if Connery was not in love with her, and to some extent pulled his punches. It would be easier for her if he was an out-and-out predator who could be paid in kind to shut up and go away. Instead, they both have to walk a verbal tightrope and only actors of some excellence can pull off that trick without losing the audience.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. There is a particularly awful pan-and-scan version of this film on YouTube. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Frightened City (1961) ***

Sean Connery in an early role as a gangster is not the only reason for watching this brisk British thriller about a London protection racket. Primarily told from the point-of-view of the bad guys, this explores how a ruthless Mr Big (Herbert Lom) builds up a criminal empire. Lom, a bent accountant, brings together the six major gangs involved in extorting money from pubs and stores into a democratically-run syndicate.  Lom then moves on to demanding bigger sums from bigger enterprises such as construction businesses. However, when the gangsters fall out they go to war.  

This film is way ahead of the game in presenting gangsters as displaying any intelligence. Generally, they were depicted as brutes who ruled by force. But criminality at the top level demanded as much organization as in a legitimate business. Personalities had to be harnessed to work together rather than shoot each other on sight. Such skills had to exist in order for gangsters to operate on any scale. This picture examines how this was done.

The cops led by John Gregson are almost a sub-plot and the story would have adequately run its course without their involvement. Gregson sails close to the wind hoping to “tilt the scale of justice in our direction for a change.” Connery doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes as a karate-expert cat-burglar turned enforcer. Connery’s involvement with the syndicate ends when his code of honor is breached and he turns on his employers. His code is not so sacrosanct that it prevents him cheating on his girlfriend. But he does display the virility to fill James Bond’s shoes.

There’s far more violence that would be expected in a British crime picture. Night clubs, shops and pubs are wrecked and there’s plenty of fisticuffs and when the gangsters go head-to-head they upgrade to grenades. There’s a bit more plot than the running time can deal with so director (and producer and co-writer) John Lemont occasionally resorts to cliché devices like newspaper headlines. Canadian Lemont – most famous for writing the first serial hon on ITV, Sixpenny Corner – was an auteur of the old-fashioned (and unheralded) kind, and previously writer-director of The Shakedown (1960).  Triple-hyphenates, while rare in the movie business, were generally of a high calibre such as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so Lemont was in good company, and clearly, in consequence, the movie that appeared reflected his own vision.

Top billing was a step up for Lom and he made the most of it, delivering a suave villain among the thugs. Gregson (The Captain’s Table, 1959) was a solid British star and ideal cop material (he was later British television’s Gideon). Yvonne Romaine, as Connery’s new squeeze, a nightclub singer exploited by Lom more for her looks than her voice, was known to audiences after Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In only her second film Scottish television actress Olive McFarland was Connery’s dumped girlfriend. Unusually, for a British picture at this time, the theme tune written by Norrie Paramour was covered by The Shadows and turned into a hit.

At this point in his career, Connery had already had two bites of the cherry without much success – romancing Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place (1958) and Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). This was three films before his breakthrough with Dr No (1962) but the Pressbook showed signs that he was headed for the heights.  Co-star Yvonne Romaine (and her distinctive body measurements) were accorded three separate stories in the Pressbook, compared to one each for Lom and Alfred Marks, at that point better known as a comedian, but none of Connery. But Connery (and Romaine) outshone their co-stars when it came to the advertising campaign.  

Producers were contractually bound in relation to the size of credits that appeared on any advertising. But there were no such regulations regarding the visuals of an advert. Although top-billed, Lom is  not shown on any of the adverts. Given greatest prominence was Yvonne Romaine. There were thirteen different ads and she appeared in them all. Although Connery was third-billed and she was two rungs below in the credit stakes, he was the junior partner when it came to the artwork. While, Connery appeared in eleven in only one did he overshadow Romaine and in another they were visually-speaking accorded roughly the same status. But otherwise, she hogged the adverts.  

The Pressbook was small by American standards, consisting of six A3 pages, the bulk of which was given over to adverts. But what it lacked in pages it made up for in taglines – of which there were six main types. Of course, Connery would become an “Untouchable” in the later Brian dePalma film.

The picture was not seen much in the United States, sent out in first run as the lower half of a double bill in only a handful of big cities, so there’s a fair chance it’s completely unknown except to Connery completists. But it’s certainly worth a look. New 60th anniversary edition has come out in April 2021 – that’s the top DVD, the previous one is below.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.