You might ask yourself why star Richard Widmark bought the rights to Alistair MacLean Cold War thriller The Last Frontier (title changed to The Secret Ways for American publication and the film) if he was going to ignore so much of the author’s brilliant story. In the original version hero Reynolds (the Widmark character) does not simply fly into Vienna as in the film, but has already crossed the Austrian border into Hungary in a blizzard after hitching a lift in a truck but now is stranded on foot in sub-zero temperatures, 30 miles from Budapest. This is not the only change authorized by Widmark, wearing his producer’s hat.
His Reynolds is a freelance gun for hire clearing a gambling debt and hired by an American spy ring compared to MacLean’s British secret service agent, intensely trained for 18 months for this mission. The mission in MacLean’s book is to rescue/kidnap British scientist Professor Jennings, the world expert on ballistic missiles, with the help of Hungarian resistance leader -Hungary at the time part of the Soviet bloc – Jansci (Wolf Rilla). Widmark eliminated all mention of Jennings. Instead, the task facing his Reynolds is to get Jansci out of Hungary. Widmark’s Jansci is still a resistance leader but doubling up as the professor albeit a straightforward scholar with nothing to do with missiles.
Combining characters was not unusual in the movie business and Widmark may have deemed it necessary to streamline the plot. But if the idea was to simplify the plot, that hardly explained the existence of Elsa (Senta Berger). She was not in the book. Her sole purpose may have been to provide Widmark with casual romance – a testament in Hollywood terms to his irresistible attraction – early in the story.
This was Alistair Maclean’s first shift away from the trio of war novels, including The Guns of Navarone, which had rocketed him into the bestseller class, and it proved to be a major change of style that created the non-stop thriller template that would underpin the later Fear Is the Key (published in 1961), When Eight Bells Toll (printed in 1966) and Puppet on a Chain (1969 publication), all of which were filmed, which saw loners or secret agents enduring horrific physical abuse as they battled the odds.
MacLean’s Reynolds enters Budapest a captive, rather than as in the Widmark version merely catching a train. Widmark meets Jansci’s daughter Julia (Sonia Ziemann) in Vienna. But in the book the secret agent meets Julia, along with her father, after he is captured by the resistance. In the book Reynold’s kidnap occurs in the first 20 pages, in the film at the halfway mark. From the outset Maclean thrusts his hero pell-mell into action with nary a let-up but in the film the action is punctuated by romance and various political meanderings.
Perhaps Widmark shied away from the MacLean plot due to budget constraints for the novel is certainly more intense and continually action-packed. Starting with the blizzard and ending with a perilous river crossing, the novel has several scenes which would have looked stupendous on screen. The story Widmark ignored involved the scientist in danger of being removed from Hungary to be returned to the Soviet Union, forcing Reynolds to effect a rescue on board a train, in a devil-may-care episode worthy of James Bond, by separating one car from the rest. There follows a 400-kilometer chase to the Austrian border where, pursued by Hungarian secret police, they cross the river Danube. In a final twist, while the professor and Julia are safe, Jansci refuses to leave his native country.
In various blogs covering the transition of novel into screenplay, I have mostly understood why a screenwriter would delete, alter or embellish plot, characters, time scale and even locale. Sometimes the screenwriter simply comes up with a more believable plot (as in Blindfold) or is required by the sheer length of the novel to make considerable changes. It’s rare for me to think that the screenwriter has taken the wrong approach. I thought The Devil Rides Out could have done with more of the occult background in the Dennis Wheatley novel. Here, it’s quite obvious that Maclean had a far better storyline than the film Widmark chose to make, the blizzard, train and river crossing scenes far more exciting than anything in the finished picture. As I noted, money may have been the issue.
However, it’s just as interesting that Widmark and Co. managed to make an enjoyable picture by not following the original story. The role of gambler-gone-bad was more appropriate to the Widmark screen persona than a secret service agent (outside of the humorous Our Man in Havana, there were not many of those around until a few years later). The film did introduce Senta Berger to a wider audience and the plot as it stands made a lot of sense.
The book was published in Britain in 1959 as The Last Frontier. In America the same year Doubleday renamed it The Secret Ways. There was a Victor Mature western called The Last Frontier in 1955 – and the title had also been used in 1932 and 1939 – so unless Richard Widmark had purchased the film rights prior to American publication and announced a name change, then I have no idea why the book title changed.
Since this is the most popular review on the Blog, I thought I might delve into the background to the picture.
“The reason I made The Secret Ways,” Richard Widmark told British film monthly Films and Filming, “is that I like spy thrillers. I’ve been in this business quite a long time and to survive you have to do all kinds of pictures, you can’t just specialize on just one kind.”
Widmark wasn’t just branching out into a different genre, he was developing a completely new set of skills – turning producer. His Heath Productions had cut its teeth on Time Limit (1957), a Korean war drama in which he starred with a strong supporting line-up in Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, Martin Balsam and Rip Torn. For a neophyte producer, Widmark went out on a limb in his choice of director, Karl Malden, better known as an Oscar-winning actor. So he had no problem taking chances. He had bought the property from Warner Brothers at a time when big studios were running shy of doing small pictures.
Widmark purchased the rights to The Secret Ways in March, 1959, one month after American publication by Doubleday, with the intention of beginning production before the year was out, putting him on target to produce three films in a year. Also on his production schedule were The Seven File for United Artists and bullfighting drama Wounds of Honor which he would direct but not star. Budget for The Secret Ways was set at $1 million.
“I enjoy production,” Widmark later claimed. “I like to act but over the years I find that I can do more and I enjoy setting things up and seeing them through.” But he could have hardly have been happy with his experience on The Secret Ways. Screenplay issues prevented Widmark meeting his initial start date. Peter Viertel (The Old Man and the Sea, 1958) had first crack followed by Scotsman William Templeton who having written the film adaptation of 1984 in 1956 was expected to understand the Cold War elements. But it was left to Widmark’ s wife Jean Hazelwood to take the screenwriting credit, even though this would be her movie debut and she never made another film.
Finalizing roles proved equally last minute. Female lead Sonja Zieman signed up only a few weeks before production rolled, Senta Berger a couple of weeks after. Obstacles arose once filming finally got underway on August 1, 1960. Rather than importing crews from Britain or America, Widmark chose the budget-conscious idea of utilizing a German-only team. Problems proved as much psychological as a culture clash of working principles.
Widmark recalled that it was “like fighting World War Two all over again – you have the Austrians and the Germans fighting like mad with the English and the Americans, they hated us.” Added to that were language barriers, technical obstacles and cultural difficulties, one example being that the foreign crews were not accustomed to going out into the street and shooting all night for five consecutive weeks. Nor, presumably, were they so keen to be filming so close to the borders. Much of the filming, according to assistant producer Euan Lloyd in a six-minute documentary, was “done directly under the guns of communist guards only yards away.”
Worse, star and director Phil Karlson were soon at odds, not helped by the fact that Widmark had little regard for directors. “There are to me about eight to ten efficient directors in the world,” he declared, not counting Karlson among that figure. When the director took ill for a week with a virus, rather than shutting down the production, the star took over the directorial reins. Three weeks later, the director quit, over creative differences regarding the ending. Widmark took up his seat again in the directorial chair.
Release was delayed due to Widmark’s other commitments. Once he had completed his role in the film he was away from mid-October shooting John Ford’s Two Rode Together and not able to return to post-production until December
The biggest problem was avoiding making an overt political statement. “I was trying to make an adventure story, a sheer adventure story. But some of it (politics) just creeps in.” Hungarians in Detroit complained the movie did not go far enough in depicting the reign of terror. “They had been in contact with the Hungarian Secret Police,” said Widmark, “had gone through this torture, which seems corny with the dope, the needle and the steam room. But it’s not incredible, it goes on every day of the week there.”
Despite tepid box office, Widmark ploughed ahead with plans to make The Tiger’s Roar from the Jack Davies novel as a vehicle for Trevor Howard. But this and his other two features did not come to fruition and the star did not climb back into the producer’s chair until The Bedford Incident in 1965, which proved his last stab at production.
Working with Widmark inspired Zieman to set up her own production arm, announcing Next Stop Paradise, based on husband Marek Hlasko’s novel, in which she would star. But that did not get off the ground either.
SOURCES: “Widmark to Star Self in Secret Ways,” Hollywood Reporter, March 20, 1959, p18; “Viertel Secret Plottter,” Hollywood Reporter, October 2, 1959, p11; ”Widmark Projects Three Heath Prod’ns Next Year,” Hollywood Reporter, November 11, 1959, p2; “Bill Templeton Plots Secret Ways for U-I,” Hollywood Reporter, December 17, 1959, p1; “Widmark Signs Fem Lead,” Hollywood Reporter, July 11, 1960, p2; “ “Widmark Film Rolls,” Hollywood Reporter, August 1, 1960, p3; “Viennese Actress Set,” Hollywood Reporter, August 9, 1960, p3; “Phil Karlson resumes,” Hollywood Reporter, September 6, 1960, p2; “Karlson Exits Widmark Picture Over Different Endings,” Hollywood Reporter, September 22, 1960, p1; “Widmark Reports,” Hollywood Reporter, October 11, 1960, p3; “Widmark Back to U-I,” Hollywood Reporter, December 15, 1960, p2; “Crew Hazards Under Red Guns As Documentary for U’s Secret Ways,” Variety, March 1, 1961, p19; “New Role for Sonja,” Box Office, May 8, 1961, W2; Richard Widmark, “Creating Without Compromise,” Films and Filming, October 1961, p7-8.
Calling this a by-the-numbers spy thriller does this movie no disservice since numbers are crucial to the complicated plot. On the one hand it’s quite a simple set up. Suave high-living art-dealer-cum-spy Michael London (Gene Barry) travels from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express to bid for secret papers in a secret auction. The complication: he must pick up the auction money from a bank in Istanbul using a code given to him along the way, each number by a different unknown person. On his side are train security chief Cheval (John Saxon), investigative journalist Leland McCord (Tom Simcox) and colleague Peggy (Mary Ann Mobley). Out to get him are Mila Darvos (Senta Berger) and Dr Lenz (Werner Peters).
The numbers business is an interesting addition to the usual spy picture formula of scenic location – Venice and the Eastern bloc as well as the other famous cities – violence and beautiful, sometimes deadly, women. You spend a good time guessing just how the numbers will be passed on and let me warn you it is sometime by inanimate means while the numbers themselves come with a twist. There’s also a truth serum, bomb threat, a traitor and every obstacle possible put in London’s way to prevent him completing his mission. London is about the world’s worst passenger, always missing the train as it sets off on the next leg of its journey, and requiring alternative modes of transport to catch up. But it’s as much about quick thinking as action and ends with a couple of unexpected twists. And it’s darned clever at times where the numbers are concerned.
Admittedly, the plot is a tad over-complicated but it’s fun to see London wriggle his way out of situations and for Cheval and McCord to turn up unexpectedly to provide assistance.
Gene Barry (Maroc 7, 1967) is little more than his television alter ego from Burke’s Law but he has an easy screen presence, never flustered, tough but charming and a winning way with the ladies. John Saxon (The Appaloosa, 1966) is the surprise turn, on the side of the angels rather than a villain, and equally commanding on screen, and certainly in one of his better roles. Austrian Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) is not given as much screen time as you would like – a long way from being set up as the normal espionage femme fatale – but is certainly a convincing adversary.
This was only a movie if you saw it outside of the United States. There it was shown on television. But it had high production values for a television movie and director Richard Irving, who directed the television feature that introduced Columbo (Prescription Murder, 1968), keeps it moving at a healthy clip. The numbers idea was probably a television device, allowing the opportunity for timed breaks in the action. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link were a class television act, creating Columbo, and prior to that the Jericho (1966-1967) and Mannix (1967-1975) television series.
Interestingly, Senta Berger, John Saxon, Gene Barry, Levinson/Link and Richard Irving were all at various points involved in the groundbreaking U.S. television series The Name of the Game (1968-1971).
I had not realized Istanbul Express was a made-for-TV picture until I had finished watching it and in that case found it a superior piece of television and a decent-enough riff on the spy movie. You can catch it on Amazon Prime.
CATCH-UP: Senta Berger has featured in the Blog in The Secret Ways (1961), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Necklace (1962), Major Dundee (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be turning in his grave. Workmanlike at best, awful at its worst, or a “so-bad-it’s-good” candidate? Christopher Lee goes through the motions, there’s an oddly inserted heist, the continuity goes haywire, and the deduction would not have troubled a child. Even the great sleuth having to match nemesis Moriarty in cunning fails to lift this turgid tale. Despite being made in Germany, all the actors, save Senta Berger, appear injected with a fatal dose of stiff upper lip.
A corpse in the water alerts Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Lee) to the presence of Moriarty (Hans Sohnker) who is hunting Peter Blackburn (Wolfgang Lukschy) who has appropriated Cleopatra’s necklace from an archaeological dig. This takes them to Hampshire where corpses abound but the necklace is gone. Holmes burgles Moriarty’s apartment and steals back the necklace which is sent, in heavily protected police van, to an auction house. Holmes outwits Moriarty by infiltrating the heist the villain has planned.
The best scene comes at the beginning when boys throw stones at something floating in the Thames only to discover it’s a corpse. After that, you can choose from any number of bad scenes. Where do you start? The disguises? Holmes is first seen wearing a false nose to pass himself off as dock worker. An eyepatch is enough to convince Moriarty’s henchmen that Holmes in one of their kind. Bare-handed, Holmes kills an obviously plastic snake. To find out what Moriarty is up to, they listen down a chimney!
The deduction is so awful Dr Watson (Thorley Walters) could have done it. A dying man who manages to whisper one word is unable to whisper two and instead still has the strength to flap his hands in a way that any child in the audience familiar with shadow play would have known signaled a bird. Holmes follows bloody footsteps over grass in the darkness. The hands of a corpse are too calloused to be a high-class gentleman. And that’s as much of the detective’s genius as is on show. Moriarty, who is meant to be ever so bright, offers Holmes £6,000 a year to enter into a criminal partnership with him.
Did I mention the continuity? Holmes, in docker’s disguise, turns up outside his apartment lying on the pavement calling for help. Wounded, perhaps? A bit of a joke? We never find out. Once inside, he just turns back into Sherlock Holmes. In the middle of the Hampshire countryside, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Cooper (Hans Neilsen) turns up in a trice.
The film has also been dubbed so the performances are all flat except that of Ellen Blackburn (Senta Berger), the only character who injects emotion into the picture. Everybody else is wooden. Christopher Lee bases his entire interpretation of Holmes on his costume, deerstalker prominent and always puffing on his pipe. Austrian Senta Berger at least shows promise and manages to project some personality into her small part.
Made in a Berlin studio, with some location work in Ireland, this German-made movie has a screenplay by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, 1941), purportedly based on the Conan Doyle tale The Valley of Fear. British director Terence Fisher (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) is generally assumed to have helmed this project but the actual credits on the picture have him sharing duties with Frank Winterstein, so perhaps Fisher can be absolved of the complete blame.
The so-bad-it’s-good category had obviously not been invented in the early 1960s so this picture was shelved in Britain for six years, although shown in Germany and France before then.
CATCH-UP: If you’ve been tracking the often subtle performances – for a glamour queen – of Senta Berger through the Blog, you can also check out my reviews of The Secret Ways (1961), Major Dundee (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), and Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966). If you’re a Berger fan or fast becoming one to can see one of her later performances in Istanbul Express (1968) which, by coincidence, is reviewed tomorrow.
If recruiting John Wayne is essential to getting your new picture off the ground, it would help not to have fallen out with him big-style previously. After every studio in Hollywood had turned down Cast a Giant Shadow, writer-producer-director Melville Shavelson turned to the Duke. The only problem was the pair had hit trouble on football picture Trouble All the Way (1953) should take.
In his capacity as producer of Trouble All the Way, Shavelson, also co-writing the screenplay, had given Wayne one version of the script while behind his back instructing director Michael Curtiz to shoot a different version with subsidiary characters that would change the film’s plotline. When Wayne found out, Shavelson was the loser. When you make an enemy of John Wayne, it takes a lot to win him back as a friend.
After that debacle, Shavelson had gone on to win some kudos and occasional commercial success as a triple hyphenate on pictures like Houseboat (1958), It Started in Naples (1960) and A New Kind of Love (1963) with top-ranked performers in the vein of Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable and Paul Newman. When Shavelson pitched to Wayne the story of Cast a Giant Shadow, about the birth of Israel and based on the bestselling biography of Mickey Marcus by Ted Berkmann, the star’s response was: “That’s the most American story I ever heard.” Wayne was hooked on the idea that America had helped Israel achieve its independence and that top American soldier Colonel Mickey Marcus had died in the process.
Wayne’s potential involvement came with a proviso – he had script approval. And while Shavelson owned the rights to the book, he didn’t have a screenplay. Nor, with his background as a writer being primarily concerned with comedy, did he consider himself best suited to the job.
He had, however, written a treatment. In his eyes, a treatment was not just about encapsulating the story, but about selling it to a studio. So his first few paragraphs included references to box office behemoths Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone and Bridge on the River Kwai – planting in the minds of potential backers the notion that this film was headed down the same route of substantial profit – and a reference to an “American of heroic proportions…with the ability to love,” the latter being code for sex.
But in the end he wrote the screenplay as well. Wayne put his imprimatur on the picture in more ways than one. Part of the deal was that his production outfit Batjac become involved, with son Michael in line for a co-producer credit. Shavelson managed to snag Kirk Douglas for the starring role only by giving up part of his own salary to meet the star’s fee. Douglas and Wayne, with the credit ranking reversed, had starred together in In Harm’s Way (1965).
It was Douglas who insisted his character’s role be change from passive to active. Shavelson invented an American general for John Wayne and a female Israeli soldier (Senta Berger) for Douglas – in reality his character was a married man – to have an affair with. “I’m introducing a fictitious romance into the film with the full consent of Marcus’s widow,” Shavelson told Variety, though it’s doubtful that real-life wife Emma Marcus went along so merrily with this notion.
It wasn’t only Wayne who demanded script approval. The Israeli government, with whom cooperation was essential to guarantee the use of troops and equipment, had made the same condition. The Israelis worried that the film would fall into the usual Hollywood trap and to that extent the government insisted that the picture not end up as a “an Errol Flynn Burma stunt” – a reference to Objective Burma (1945), originally banned in London for Americanizing the film. The government spelled it out: “Col Marcus didn’t win our war, he just helped.” But the production was offered “further facilities than normal.” Two sound stages – the first in the country – were being built in Tel Aviv.
Shavelson was shown military locations that no other civilian had ever seen. When the Israelis did “approve” the script it was with the proviso that 31 changes were made including the deletion of the “sex-starved woman” (Senta Berger), although in reality Shavelson got away with his vision intact.
When the film went ahead it had a crew of 125 plus 800 Israeli soldiers, 1,000 extras and 34 featured players including Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, and Angie Dickson. Only some of the film was made in Israel. The interiors for the Macy’s department store were built in Rome, along with the concentration camp sequence, one of the battles, and scenes set in Coney Island that were edited out from the final picture.
The biggest problem was the supply of soldiers and equipment at a price the production could afford. Shavelson was being charged twice as much for the soldiers as the producers of Judith (1966). It took the intervention of the Israeli Prime Minister for sensible negotiation to get under way and for prices to drop to a tolerable level. Neither was it possible to film on the original battle sites in Israel since they were basically in a no man’s land, covered in barbed wire and littered with mines.
Principal photography began on May 18, 1965, in 115 degree heat – so hot the film buckled in the cameras – at the fortress of Iraq Suidan to recreate the Battle of Latrun. Shavelson had been denied permission to access the Latrun fortress itself which stood across the Jordanian border even though the engagement had been an Arab victory. To keep the sun off his face, Kirk Douglas decided to wear an Australian Army forage cap, and it did the job so successfully he kept it on for the entire movie.
On another location – this time when the temperature reached 126 degrees – a $40,000 Panavision camera exploded filming too close to a tank-muzzle firing, the jeeps got vapor lock, three soldiers were wounded by dummy bullets and the charging tanks vanished after the first take when their commander received new instructions from his army superiors.
Shavelson had met Sinatra some years before when he and scripting partner Jack Rose had helped write the Inaugural Gala organized by the singer in honor of President John F. Kennedy. Using that connection and the fact they shared the same agent, Sinatra, who had a pilot’s license, agreed to play a two-day role as a Piper Cub aviator dropping seltzer bottles on tanks. When filming began Shavelson discovered that what he had imagined was his own inspired invention turned out to be close to the actual truth. To write the score, Elmer Bernstein visited Israel to conduct his own research.
He also discovered the real reason for Sinatra’s eagerness to be involved. His salary had been donated to set up the Frank Sinatra Arab-Israeli Youth Centre in Nazareth. Actually, there was another less noble reason for Sinatra signing up. He had begun an aviation business, Cal-Jet Airways, supplying planes to Hollywood, and clearly thought appearing as a pilot in a picture would help promote the new company.
However, when filming of his scenes began Sinatra proved unintelligible. He had taken the script at face value and thought he was playing a Texan and delivered his lines with a Texan accent. Eventually, Sinatra was persuaded to play it with his own normal voice. But Sinatra could only be filmed in the plane on the ground since his insurance didn’t cover him being in the air unless accompanied by a co-pilot.
By the time they came to film the immigrants’ landing scene the picture was already half a million dollars over budget. With the country enjoying full employment and nobody inclined to take time off to work in the blazing sun as an extra, the 800 extras were in reality all newly arrived immigrants – and therefore unemployed – from Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia.
The only item that was lacking to complete the landing scene was a ship offshore, but the owners were asking too much money. Instead, the director came up with the idea of a “glass shot.” An artist had painted in smoke billowing from the funnels, but it was blowing in the wrong direction from the wind. The solution – a double-exposure job in the lab – cost as much as hiring the ship.
Once the production headed home, Shavelson discovered that virtually all the sound recordings made in Israel were unusable. Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas re-recorded their dialog in Hollywood, Yul Brynner and Senta Berger in London and dozens of Israeli students attending Los Angeles universities were called upon to replicate background Hebrew voices.
For prestige purposes, the movie was launched at the end of March 1966 as a restricted roadshow, just three cinemas in New York – the DeMille in the Broadway area, the Fantasy Theater in Long Island and Cinema 46 in New Jersey. Douglas employed a helicopter to fly from venue to venue. The first wave of first run houses followed in Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami.
Most of the promotional activity centered on the true story of Mickey Marcus but in London, where the character was unknown, United Artists took the gimmick route, placing an advert in The Times newspaper calling for “giant men” standing over six foot seven inches tall. Expecting to find 25 such giants, they ended up with 100 attending the British premiere, the tallest seven foot three inches. In keeping with this gimmicky approach, tickets for the first performance were also a king-sized twelve inches by nine inches.
SOURCES: Melville Shavelson, How To Make a Jewish Movie, W.H. Allen, 1971; “Wayne To Co-Produce, Star in Israeli War Pic,” Variety, May 27, 1964, 2; “We’ll Lift Part of Local Expenses, Israeli Offer to UA,” Variety, July 1, 1964, p3; “Kirk Douglas Set to Star in Cast a Giant Shadow,” Box Office, March 8, 1965 pW-2; “Batjac Productions Moves to Paramount Lot,” Box Office, March 29, 1965, pW-2; “Shavelson Aim on Mickey Marcus Film: Realism,” Variety, March 31, 1965, p25; “WB-Sinatra Film in October; Sinatra’s Aviation Firm,” Box Office, August 23, 1965, 6; “Elmer Bernstein to Israel for Film Music Research,” Box Office, October 18, 1965, pW-3; “Cast a Giant Shadow Set for 3 N.Y. Roadshow Dates,” Box Office, December 6, 1965, pE3; “Kirk Douglas To Helicopter to All 3 Shadow Openings,” Box Office, March 28, 1966, pE-7; “Cast a Giant Shadow set in 14 Key Centers, April 6-8,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, p6; “Small Ad Brings 100 Giant Men to London Opening of United Artists’ Cast a Giant Shadow,” Box Office, October 3, 1966, pA3.
In some respects a sequel to the film Exodus (1960) as Israel, on the eve of independence in 1948, prepares to repel invasion from neighboring Arabs. Colonel Mickey Marcus (Kirk Douglas) is recruited to help organise the Jewish forces even though he has little actual combat experience, having sat out the Second World War behind a desk until D-Day, and having already resumed his legal career.
To facilitate entry to Palestine, he is met at the airport by Magda (Senta Berger), herself a soldier, pretending to be his sister. The journey from the airport in armored bus reveals the perilous reality of the situation, the vehicle strafed as they pass through towns. He finds a rabble of a fighting force, lacking in weaponry, disorganised, and made up of various groups at each other’s throats, and focused on defense rather than attack. Initially, Marcus is strictly an advisor, writing training manuals until he encourages a commando raid and is eventually, at the behest of Asher (Yul Brynner) put in complete command of all the units, effectively the country’s first general.
In the background, General Mike Randolph (John Wayne) is helping organise support in the United States to recognise Israel’s independence. Marcus organises a campaign to lift the siege of Jerusalem, first through direct attack, but then through an incredible foray into impassable mountains, building the “Burma Road,” equivalent in the tactical sense to Lawrence of Arabia’s trek through the desert to attack Aqaba.
A fair bit of the early part of the picture is flashback to establish Marcus’s military credentials, which are scant, in sum total no more than a week of active combat, and it would have been better to concentrate on why he was recruited in the first place, because of the name the real-life Colonel had made for himself in organizing the war crimes trials in Germany.
Apart from the action and military politics, the drama concerns Marcus abandoning wife Emma (Angie Dickinson) in New York, embarking on a romance with Magda and establishing a sense of identity with his adopted country. The action is particularly good, audacity the Israeli’s major weapon.
It is mostly through Magda that we view the Jewish experience. She married Andre (Michael Shillo) in order to save his life, although she did not love him. A veteran of many skirmishes, she suffers a breakdown when trapped in her vehicle during one particularly vicious battle. In what is possibly the most imaginative scene in the film, when Marcus encourages her to keep driving her stalled truck with cries of “Come on, Magda,” in cruel torment the surrounding Arabs take up the cry until it echoes round the hills. Once she falls for Marcus, of course, she never knows if he will return safe from battle.
Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) leads mostly with his chin, never letting subtlety get in the way of his performance, but given the character assigned he has little option and is nonetheless effective as a leader and believable as a man torn between wife and lover. Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) has never been better (or not so far in the films thus reviewed) with a meaty role that shows soldiering from a female perspective in a country where sacrifice is a given.
John Wayne (The Undefeated, 1969) has a small role as a grumpy general and Frank Sinatra (The Naked Runner,1967) a cameo as a commercial pilot who finds himself dragged into the war. Angie Dickinson (Fever in the Blood, 1961) is the long-suffering wife and singer Topol (Sallah, 1964) has a small role. The smattering of Brits includes Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966), Gordon Jackson (Danger Route, 1967), Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963).
Melville Shavelson wouldn’t be your first choice for an action picture given he made his name with comedies like It Started in Naples (1960), but does a fair job of directing, especially the action, the “Come on, Magda” scene and the confrontation with the British when immigrants land. He wrote the screenplay based on the biography by Ted Berkman.
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.
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.
Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
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.
The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
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.
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.
The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
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.
Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
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.
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.
A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
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.
Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.
This gritty realistic thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s The Last Frontier, has much in common with The Quiller Memorandum (1965) with spies stalked through dark cobbled streets. To pay off his gambling debts, Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark), posing as a journalist, agrees to smuggle out of Hungary resistance leader Jansci (Walter Rilla) on the Soviet hit list after the failed 1956 uprising. Assisting him is Jansci’s daughter Julia (German star Sophie Ziemann) and, making her debut, Senta Berger as Elsa.
This is a city of staircases and tunnels and echoing footsteps and authorities keeping close tabs on visitors. The first time Widmark escapes their notice he is beaten up and it takes considerable skill, dodging through cinemas, creeping along window ledges, to make any headway in his assignment. Various complications ensue, not least that Julia despises Reynolds and that Jansci does not want to flee his country. Reynolds, who starts out as anything but your standard good guy, ends up less mercenary.
Mostly it is atmospheric cat-and-mouse with ruthless opposition partial to the odd spot of torture. Once it gets going, it a chase that the escapees are unlikley to evade. That Reynolds is distrusted by those he is trying to help and that he doesn’t want to be here at all, forced into adventure by adverse personal circumstance, stokes up the tension.
Widmark doesn’t quite abandon his snarling persona but manages some deft dry-wit comedy when trying to play a journalist accommodating his hosts. Senta Berger makes a striking debut. Sophie Ziemann is less impressive but veteran character actor Walter Rilla has the brooding and charismatic presence of a leader. Vienna, generally not considered a soulless city, does a great job standing in for Budapest.
This was one of many Widmark bids to gain greater control of his career and provide himself with more interesting leading roles than the standard villains or tough guys that Hollywood marked him down for. He was the producer and at one point took over direction from Phil Karlson after artistic differences of opinion. Jean Hazlewood, Widmark’s wife, wrote the screenplay. While there’s less out-and-out action than Maclean devotees brought up on Where Eagles Dare and Fear Is the Key might expect, there are still considerable rewards from an intelligent screenplay and the crackle of pursuit. Seen as a late entrant to the Hollywood cloak-and-dagger genre than a precursor of the 1960s Bond-style adventure, this has a great deal going for it.
Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, and The Quiller Memorandum; Richard Widmark in The Bedford Incident, The Long Ships, Flight from Ashiya and Alvarez Kelly.
Best viewed as a rehearsal for his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), this Sam Peckinpah western covers much of the same thematic ground – feuding friends, Mexico, betrayal, comradeship, brutality, and a grand gesture climax. But the set-up is more complicated than The Wild Bunch. This time out Unionist Charlton Heston in the titular role and former friend Confederate Richard Harris team up towards the end of the American Civil War to hunt down a band of Apaches. Heston’s prisoner, Harris faces the choice of joining his unit or being shot. Since both lived in the South, Harris sees Heston as a traitor for siding with the North. After the Apaches are destroyed, Harris plans to kill Heston.
If the set-up was as straightforward as that, it would have probably resulted in a better film. But once Heston’s soldiers cross the Rio Grande they also come up against the French. And the timescale of the picture covers a complete campaign from November 1864 to April 1865, barely a month before the end of the Civil War so the pace is sluggish despite being packed with incident. And it struggles with allowing the weight of narration – via the cliched diary – to fall on a young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), the only survivor of an Apache attack.
That said, the action sequences are terrific, especially the battle on the Rio Grande itself. Like the best military movies, there are clever maneuvers and deceptions – from both sides. And since the unit comprises not only the quarreling Heston and Harris but warring Unionists and Confederates, freed former slaves and a bunch of criminals in the same league as Robert Ryan’s Wild Bunch gang the tension remains high throughout. Subsidiary characters are given a full story arc – the raw lieutenant (Jim Hutton) making his bones, the bugler losing his virginity. Added to this, Major Dundee is clearly in the last chance saloon, his posting seen as a punishment, and several times his military decisions are, rightly, called into question. His attitude to command is also questionable, minus his uniform in the field and legs on the table while addressing junior officers. And, as with The Wild Bunch, this is no idealized Mexico, but an impoverished, savaged, ravaged country.
There was no romance in Peckinpah’s original take on the story. But the presence of Senta Berger as a widowed Austrian stranded in Mexico brings out the humanity in Heston. Unlike many of her more volatile Latin counterparts, Berger is soft-spoken and gentle. Here, that acts very much as a counterbalance to the pugnacious Heston. She is fearless, effectively acting as the leader of the Mexican village the soldiers initially intend to pillage, persuading them otherwise. She demonstrates considerable intelligence: “The war won’t last forever,” says Heston; “It will for you,” she replies. But, ultimately, she is betrayed by the womanizing Heston.
In the duel between old friends, Harris comes off best in terms of principle. He defuses an ugly racial incident and clearly commands more authority among his men. When difficult action must be taken regarding a deserter again he does not hesitate to act. And he keeps to his word of honoring a flag he despises as long as he is under Heston’s leadership. In some senses, he has the better part since he has to keep normal impulse in check. Many critics considered Heston miscast but that was mostly after the fact when Peckinpah was able to line up a more dissolute William Holden in The Wild Bunch because by that time the actor was already wasted physically from alcoholism. But Major Dundee’s inability to meet his own high standards is exactly the kind of role you want to see a physical specimen like Heston take on.
Half a century after initial release, another dozen minutes were added to the movie as part of an overall restoration, and the film was acclaimed by critics as a lost masterpiece. That was a rather rose-tinted perspective and, although the extra footage clarified some points, in general it did not lift the confusion surrounding the narrative. The movie needed fewer minutes not more. The deletion of the entire French section would have prevented the movie sinking under the weight of its own ambition. Certainly, the studio Columbia played its part in undermining the movie by shaving too much from the budget just as shooting was about to begin. It is still a decent effort and without it, and perhaps learning from his mistakes, the director might never had turned The Wild Bunch into a masterpiece.
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. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.
All hail Senta Berger! Another from the Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) portfolio, this is a spy-thriller mash-up with a bagful of mysteries and a clutch of corpses. At last given a decent leading role, and although you wouldn’t guess it from either poster, Senta Berger steals the show from the top-billed Tony Randall (as miscast as Robert Cummings in Five Golden Dragons) and a smorgasbord of European talent including Herbert Lom (The Frightened City, 1961), Terry-Thomas, Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons), John Le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White (Carry On Nurse, 1959). In this company, the glamorous Margaret Lee (Five Golden Dragons), as Lom’s cynical lover (“you are never wrong, cherie, you told me so yourself,” she tells him) is an amuse-bouche.
Six travellers – including oilman Randall, travel agent Le Mesurier, salesman Hyde-White and tourist Berger, meeting her fiancé – board a bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh. One is carrying $2 million as a bribe to ease through a vote in the United Nations, but bad guy Lom doesn’t know which one it is. When Berger’s fiance’s corpse tumbles out of Randall’s cupboard, the pair become entangled. Berger is a marvellous femme fatale, trumping Randall at every turn.
With no shortage of complications, the tale zips along, directed on occasion with considerable verve by Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964). There are some inventive double-plays – with a body in the boot Berger and Randall are stopped by a cop who tells them their boot is open. An excellent rooftop chase is matched by a car chase. And there’s a terrific shootout. Kinski is at his sinister best and Terry-Thomas a standout in an unusual role as a Berber.
The film was shot on location including the city’s souks, the ruined El Badi Palace and La Mamounia hotel (featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). But Berger seamlessly holds the whole box of tricks together, at once glamorous and sinuous, practical and tough and exuding sympathy, and it’s a joy to see her for a large part of the picture leading Randall by the nose. Quite why this did not lead to bigger Hollywood roles than The Ambushers (1967) remains a mystery.