A House Is Not a Home (1964) ***

Best remembered these days as the debut film for Raquel Welch (One Million Years BC, 1966), the rest of the film is well worth a look.

Hypocrisy had its heyday in The Roaring 20s when prohibition made bootleggers millionaires, helped bankroll other criminal activities like prostitution and encouraged cops and politicians to seek their share of the loot. No surprise then that the biopic of real-life madam Polly Adler (Shelley Winters) is knee-deep in corruption.  

Thrown out of her own home after being raped, Adler finds a knight in shining armor in the shape of bootlegger Frank Costigan (Robert Taylor) and is soon, at first apparently innocently, pimping out her friends. The reality of what becomes her profession is not ignored, the word “whore” bandied around, one girl, Madge (Lisa Seagram), turning junkie as a result while Lorraine (Meri Welles) commits suicide. As in Go Naked in the World (1961) Polly realizes that true love has no place in her world, a relationship with musician Casey (Ralph Taeger) unsustainable.

Adler, in her many voice-overs, explains why vulnerable women become sex workers – poverty, lack of family and lack of hope is her take on it – and she professes to view it as a business and preferable to working in a factory for pitiful wages, but the movie is at its best in linking the nether worlds of infamy and showing that the woman is always the loser.  Morality got in the way of portraying Adler as a winner, a successful businesswoman who brought a certain amount of style to the oldest profession. Women profiting from illegal activity would not be deemed heroic (to use the word loosely) until Molly’s Game (2017) and like Jessica Chastain in that film Adler’s love life is in tatters because, like her male counterparts, she devotes so much time to her business.

While any attempt to properly portray the period is hampered by lack of budget, it does provide an array of interesting and occasionally real-life characters, Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) for example. A brothel proves an ideal meeting place for crooks and politicians, the latter easily bought by contributions to their campaign funds. Cops are not shy about asking for donations to their Xmas funds or using the facility.

The Adler operation puts a glossy shine on the shady business since all her girls are glamorous. But still the movie pulls no punches except in the case of the madam herself, presented too often as an innocent and who saw nothing wrong in taking as much advantage of the vulnerable girls in her employ as the  clients who paid for them. Nonetheless, while Adler attempts to justify her life the film’s moralistic tone undercuts this.

 

Oscar-winner Shelley Winters (The Chapman Report, 1962), more often a supporting player at this point in the 1960s than the star, grabs the role with both hands and although unconvincing as the younger girl delivers a rounded performance minus the blowsy affectations that marred much of later work. One-time MGM golden boy Robert Taylor, pretty much in the 1960s reduced to television (The Detectives, 1959-1962) and low-budget pictures, shows a glimpse of old form as the smooth bootlegger.

Cesar Romero (Oceans 11, 1960) and Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford (All the Kings Men, 1949) head up a checklist of old-timers filling out the supporting cast. Future director Lisa Seagram (Paradise Pictures, 1997) as the junkie hooker makes the biggest impact among the girls.

From the flotilla of wannabes playing Polly’s girls, apart from Raquel Welch the only one to break into the big time was Edy Williams (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970). In the main they comprised beauty queens – Amede Chabot (Miss America), Danica d’Hondt (Miss Canada) and Leona Gage (Miss Universe) who had a small part in Tales of Terror (1962). Otherwise Sandra Grant became the most famous – for marrying singer Tony Bennett. Patricia Manning had the most screen experience, second-billed in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958), bit parts in television shows, and fourth-billed in The Grass Eater (1961). Inga Nielsen would later turn up as bikini fodder in The Silencers (1966), In Like Flint (1967) and The Ambushers (1967).

Director Russell Rouse (The Fastest Gun Alive, 1956) was better known for the screenplay of D.O.A. (1949) and had a story credit for Pillow Talk (1959). In fairness, although the film has no great depth, Rouse keeps it ticking along via multiple story strands, although occasional lapses into comedy fail to work. Lovers of curiosities might like to note that Rouse was the producer on an abortive American attempt to remake the classic British television comedy Steptoe and Son for U.S. audiences with Lee Tracy in the role of Albert and Aldo Ray as his son Harold.

This is hard to get hold of. Ebay will be your best bet. Youtube has a print but it’s not in great condition.

Ammonite (2020) ****

I came at this picture with some trepidation and in truth only watched it at the cinema because I had seen everything else worth a look in the few weeks since the picture houses have reopened. Although initially attracting Oscar buzz, that failed to materialize when it mattered and it was left out of the Oscar loop. While kate Winslet was a proven commercial box office draw, this appeared to have arthouse sensibilities and the few reviews I had read promised a turgid evening.

The reality was something different and as a result of what I can only describe as the magic of the big screen. Watching a film in a cinema is automatically more involving than on the small screen: there are fewer distractions, the dominating size of the screen is unavoidable and it is dark. Had I watched it at home I could well have switched it off after fifteen minutes in reaction to the slow pace. But in a cinema, slowness did not matter, and until it widened out in the final few scenes it was like an absorbing chamber piece, featuring a handful of characters.  In approach it was closest to a film about an artist, Pollock (2000) and Mr Turner (2014) come to mind, where obsession is the driving force, narrative and plot merely subservient. We are exposed to considerable detail about the character’s archaeological work, which is often filthy and undertaken outside in all sorts of weather, requiring the constitution of a miner or farmer rather than a painter, as well as the patience of a saint to brush, wash or poke clean her discoveries.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was not an attractive personality, downright truculent and rude for the most part, given that she depended for her living on selling the archaeological items she had found in the Lyme Regis area to tourists and collectors. That her major archaeological discoveries resided in the British Museum brought no personal satisfaction because thanks to the male archaeological hierarchy they were presented there under the names of the purchasers rather than the finder. What she earned for major pieces could keep herself and her ageing and infirm mother (Gemma Jones) for a year. By and large, they lived in poverty, existing on soup mostly, the mother at least as obsessive as the daughter with her collection of knick-knacks, one for each of her eight children who had died prematurely, which she washed and polished every day. Mary spurned any male overtures and indeed appeared to resent any friendship, the hint of some kind of betrayal in brief scenes with Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a local worthy.

Mary is hired by wannabe archaeologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) to look after his insipid, annoying, depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Gradually a friendship forms, leading to desire. Nothing is more illustrative of the Victorian attitude to sex than that the idea of a lesbian relationship ran counter to all imagination. Perhaps one of the more refreshing aspects of the picture is that while Victorian women clearly resented having sex with their husbands that was largely down to the fact the men had no idea how to satisfy a woman. That is not the case here and though the sex scenes have been criticised in places as “too strong” I thought it was essential just to be sure that the women did know what they were doing and clearly derived enormous satisfaction from the sexual act if properly performed. A chaste kiss and cuddle would hardly do justice to the passion suddenly erupted.

While Mary experiences jealousy when Charlotte is entranced by Elizabeth, romance does not produce complete fulfilment and when Charlotte, as if she were a man, appoints herself Mary’s protector that independence for which the archaeologist had fought so hard is imperilled. Love miraculously changes Charlotte’s outward demeanour, the same is not true of Mary.

This isn’t the picture-postcard version of a Victorian seaside town, rather its harsher cousin. Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country, 2017) refuses to soften the rude edges of life and the best a true romanticist can expect is that the storms occasionally abate and the surf does not pound so heavily.

Powerful roles have been in short supply of late for Kate Winslet (Blackbird, 2019) and she is superb as the stoic woman in a male-dominated world, unable to express passion except in whittling away at pieces of ammonite. Saoirse Ronan (Little Woman, 2019) moves from bitter and confused child-woman to finding joy and from then to taking charge. Veteran British character actors Gemma Jones (Rocketman, 2019) and Fiona Shaw (My Left Foot, 1989) are impressive while James McArdle (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) and Alec Secareanu  (Amulet, 2020) offer different interpretations of the entitled male.

To be sure there is no conclusive proof that Mary Anning was this way sexually inclined but in these days of Hollywood reinvention or reimagining for little more than comic-book glory it would be hard not to allow the director some leeway in providing his love story with an interesting backdrop and a fascinating character. At times it is a painful watch, but a rewarding one.

The Crimson Cult/ Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) ***

Horror is a small world and at any moment you are likely to bump into stars of the caliber of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele – or in this picture all three. Investigating his missing brother Peter sends antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) to a remote country mansion where he encounters owner Morley (Christopher Lee), his seductive niece Eve (Virginia Weatherall), the wheelchair-bound authority on witchcraft Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff), deaf mute Elder (Michael Gough) and a centuries-old mystery.

Morley can legitimately deny that Peter has ever set foot on the premises since it was common for the brother to adopt an alias when seeking out significant antiques. By the time Robert amasses sufficient clues to challenge Morley on this particular issue, it appears that further ideas of more sinister goings-on may be illusory. On his first night Robert observes an annual celebration of the Black Witch but although an effigy is burned this festival appears to have more to do with the innocent consumption of alcohol and heady bouts of sex than satanism.

Thanks to career reinvigoration after Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets” (1967)
Boris Karloff gained top billing in the British release.

And after a while, Robert indulges in carnal delight with Eve. However, he is plagued by a nightmare that involves a grotesque trial by a jury wearing animal heads. Gradually, he learns that Morley, meanwhile, is such a congenial host, and his niece delightful and sybaritic company, that the finger of suspicion points at Elder, who does take a pot shot at Robert, and the professor who has a collection of instruments of torture.

Were it not for veteran director Vernon Sewell (Urge to Kill, 1960) beginning proceedings with some kind of black mass complete with floggings and female sacrificial victim, the audience might have been kept in greater suspense. As it is, the non-violent annual celebration throws us off the scent as does the seduction of Eve and the prospect that Robert’s nightmare is little more than psychedelic hallucination. The denouement is something of a surprise. The ritualistic aspects of the picture are well done and given this is a Tigon film rather than Hammer you can expect harsher treatment of the S&M element, flagellation delivered by women, especially for the period.  

In the U.S. – where it was shown both as “The Crimson Cult” and “The Crimson Altar” – Christopher Lee was accorded prime billing status.

The eerie atmosphere and well-staged witchcraft scenes are a plus, but, despite the involvement of a handful of horror gods, the movie’s reliance on lesser players to drive the narrative is a minus. Lee, Karloff and Steele (though in a more minor role) are all excellent as is the demented Michael Gough but Mark Eden (Attack on the Iron Coast, 1968) is too lightweight to carry the picture although Virginia Wetherall in her first big part suggests more promise.  More of Lee, Karloff and Steele would have definitely added to the picture but since this type of film often requires the young and the innocent to take center stage that was not to be.

Claudelle Inglish (1961) ****

Simple small-town morality tale, brilliantly told, with a quiet nod to The Blue Angel and Citizen Kane. Shy dirt-poor farmer’s daughter Claudelle Inglish (Diane McBain) after falling for the handsome Linn Varner (Chad Everett) expects to be married when he returns from his Army stint until she receives a “Dear John” letter. Initially devastated, keeping all his letters and the dancing doll she had won with him at a fair, she decides that lying in bed all day and staring at the ceiling is not going to work. So she smartens up her frumpish look with lipstick and turns her simple wedding dress into a more attractive outfit.

She discovers that the boys are so desperate to come calling on this new-look creature that they will bring presents to every date, ranging from the biggest box of candy in the shop to a pair of red shoes. Encouraging her determined manhunt, dissatisfied mother Jessie (Constance Ford), who has endured twenty years of broken promises throughout marriage to hardworking Clyde (Arthur Kennedy),  beseeches her to go after a rich man. Luckily, there is one in the vicinity, the widowed S.T. Crawford (Claude Akins) who happens to be their landlord. Crawford tries to bribe Clyde with free rent and other benefits to put in a good word, but to no avail, the father believing that true love cannot be bought and, furthermore, will alleviate abject poverty.

Advertisement to the trade encouraging exhibitors to book for one
of the key dates on the U.S. release calendar.

Claudelle bluntly rejects Crawford as “too old and too fat” but takes his present anyway and, under pressure, agrees to go for a ride with him without allowing him to stop the car. Dennis Peasley (Will Hutchins), elder son of a store owner, believes he is the front runner, deluging her with gifts, naively believing she is his sweetheart until he realizes he is in competition with a horde of other local boys, including his younger brother, and outsider Rip (Robert Colbert). Jessie, seeing the prospect of a rich husband slip away, embarks on an affair with Crawford. Soon, Claudelle has the entire male population in the palm of her hand, piling up presents galore. However, tragedy, in the way these things go, is just round the corner.

What struck me first was the subtlety. Nothing here to bother the censor, beyond the immorality on show and despite Hitchcock breaking all sorts of sexual taboos with Psycho the year before. This isn’t an all-hot-and-bothered essay like the previously reviewed A Cold Wind in August or a picture that pivots on twists-and-turns like A Fever in the Blood, both out the same year. It is so delicately handled that took me a while to work out that Claudelle was actually having sex with all these guys.

Erskine Caldwell was America’s bestselling author at the time with over 40 million books sold and most famous, of course, for God’s Little Acre, filmed in 1958, and Tobacco Road (1941).

The initial shy girl blossoming under the first blush of love is done very well, a gentle romance ensuing, Claudelle still withdrawn in company, agreeing to an engagement even though Linn cannot afford a ring, waiting anxiously for his letters, adoring the dancing doll,  paying off a few cents at a time material for a wedding dress. It’s only after she receives a Dear John (Dear Jane?) letter that it becomes clear, though not crystal clear, that sex has been involved because that word is never spoken and that action never glimpsed. Only gradually do we realise that present-givers are being rewarded, and as her self-confidence grows she is soon able to pick her own presents.  One look is generally all it takes to have men falling all over themselves to give her what she wants, which is, essentially, a life where promises are not broken. But the closest she gets to showing how much she is changed from her original innocent incarnation is still by implication, telling a young buck she is “pretty all over.”

I was also very taken with the black-and-white cinematography by Ralph Woolsey. The compositions are all very clear, but in the shadows Claudelle’s eyes become glittering pinpoints. The costumes by Howard Shoup won an unexpected Oscar nomination, his third in three years. Veteran director Gordon Douglas (Them!, 1954) does an excellent job of keeping the story simple and fluent, resisting all temptations to pander to the lowest common denominator while extracting surprisingly good performances from the cast, many drawn from Warner Brothers’ new talent roster.

Diane McBain (Parrish, 1961) handles very well the transition from innocence to depravity (a woman playing the field in those days would be tagged fallen rather than independent) and holds onto her anguish in an understated manner. In some senses Arthur Kennedy (Elmer Gantry,1960) was a coup for such a low-budget production, but this could well have been a part he was born to play, since in his movie career he knew only too well the pain of promise, nominated five times for Best Supporting Actor (some kind of record, surely) without that nudging him further up the billing ladder. His performance is heartbreaking, working his socks off without ever keeping head above water, repairs getting in the way of promises made to wife and daughter, kept going through adoration for his wife.

Constance Ford (Home from the Hill, 1960) is heartbreaking in a different way, scorning her loving husband and dressing like her daughter in a bid to hook Crawford.  Television regular Claude Akins is the surprise turn. In a role that looked like a cliché from the off – i.e. older powerful man determined by whatever means to win the object of his desires – he plays it like he was auditioning for The Blue Angel, hanging on every word, being twisted round her little finger, demeaning himself as he is made to wait, sitting downcast outside the Inglish house like an rejected schoolboy. Of the younger cast, Will Hutchins was Sugarfoot (1957-1961), Chad Everett was making his movie debut, and Robert Overton had appeared in A Fever in the Blood (1961). Leonard Freeman (Hang ‘Em High, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the Erskine Caldwell bestseller.

And where does Citizen Kane come into all this? The dancing doll Claudelle won at a fair when dating Linn is something of a motif, never discarded, as if a symbol of her innocence, and in close-up in the last shot of the film.

The Girl on a Motorcycle / Naked under Leather (1968) ***

An erotic charge deftly switched this picture from the Hell’s Angels default of violent biker pictures spun out cheaply by American International.  Where Easy Rider (1969) was powered by drugs, this gets its highs from sex. Rebecca (Marianne Faithful), gifted a Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorbike by lover Daniel (Alain Delon) two months before marriage to staid teacher Raymond (Roger Mutton), takes to the highways to find herself.

This ode to speed (of the mechanical kind) allows her to shake off her preconceptions and fully express her personality, beginning with the one-piece black leather outfit, whose zip, in one famous scene, Daniel pulls down with his teeth. The bike is masculine. “There he is,” she intones and there is a none-too-subtle succession of images where she clearly treats it as a male appendage.

She is both self-aware and lost. In some respects Raymond is an ideal partner since he respects her wild nature and gives her space, and she views marriage to him as a method of avoiding “becoming a tart.” In other words he represents respectability, just like her father (Marius Goring) who owns the bookshop where she works. But he is just too reasonable for her and, in reality, as she would inevitably discover that is just a cover for his weakness. The only scene in which she does not appear is given over to Raymond being tormented by young pupils who have him chasing round the class hunting for a transistor radio.

But Daniel is not quite up to scratch either. He believes in “free love”, i.e. sex without commitment and he is not inclined to romantic gestures and she knows she could just become another in a long line of discarded conquests should they continue. Raymond is a “protection against” Daniel and her ending up as an adulteress teenage bride and potential nymphomaniac. She seeks abandon not reality.

As well as sexy interludes with Daniel, her head is filled with sexual images, not to mention dabbling with masochism, in a dream her leather outfit being stripped off piece by piece by a whip-wielding Daniel, in a bar imagining taking off her clothes in front of the aged drinkers.

Jack Cardiff’s film is certainly an interesting meditation on freedom and sexual liberation at a time when such notions were beginning to take hold, but it suffers from over-reliance on internal monologue and Marianne Faithful’s lack of acting experience. Cardiff went straight into this from violent actioner Dark of the Sun (1968) and audiences remembering him from The Liquidator (1965) and The Long Ships (1964) would need reminded that he braced romance before in the touching and Oscar-nominated Sons and Lovers (1960). In that film he elicited an Oscar-nominated performance from Mary Ure, something that was unlikely here.

Pipe-smoking was generally the preserve of the old, or detectives, unless you were a young intellectual as Delon is here, but it does seem an odd conceit to force the actor into such a contrivance. Delon is accustomed to playing amoral characters, so this part is no great stretch, but, minus the pipe, he is, of course, one of the great male stars of the era and his charisma sees him through.

It was also interesting to compare Cardiff’s soundtrack to that of Easy Rider. Here, the music by Les Reed – making his movie debut but better known as a songwriter of classic singles like “Delilah” sung by Tom Jones – is strictly in the romantic vein rather than an energetic paeon to freedom such as “Born to Be Wild.” 

Cardiff’s skill as an acclaimed cinematographer (Oscar-winner for Black Narcissus, 1947) helps the picture along and clever use of the psychedelic helped some of the sexual scenes escape the British censor’s wrath, though not so in the U.S. where it was deemed an “X”. 

Les Biches (1968) *****

Innocence and experience alike are corrupted by the destructive power of love in this elegant and compelling early masterpiece from French director Claude Chabrol. Although he owed much of his later fame to slow-burning thrillers, this is more of a three-hander drama with a twist and it says much for his skill that we sympathize in turn with each of these amoral characters.

Wealthy stylish Frederique (Stephane Audran), in an iconic hat, picks up younger pavement artist, the artistically named Why (Jacqueline Sassard) in Paris. They decamp to St Tropez where Audran keeps a rather discordant house, indulging the antics of two avant-garde house-guests. Sassard loses her virginity to architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who soon abandons her in favor of Frederique. Each is guilty of betrayal and although a menage a trois might have been one solution instead the lovers dance from one to another with Frederique apparently in control, in one scene stroking Why’s hair with her hand and caressing Paul’s face with her foot. In an attempt to win the man back, Why dresses like her rival down to hairstyle, make-up and even the older woman’s beauty spot.    

At no point is there angry confrontation, nor does Frederique simply dismiss Why from the household, but the story works out in more subtle insinuation, Frderique clearly expecting either that Why makes herself scarce or, alternatively, make herself available for whenever the bisexual Frederique tires of male companionship. The movie’s focus is the baffled Why. When the older pair disappear to Paris, the camera follows Why through off-season St Tropez, chilly weather replacing glorious sunshine. Frederique and Paul are the sophisticates who expect Why to know how to play the game. The younger woman has wiles enough to see off the avant-garde irritants.

It looks for a while as if it might be a coming-of-age tale or of young love thwarted but every time Frederique enters the picture her dominance is such that proceedings, no matter how deftly controlled, have an edge and so it becomes a study of something else entirely. At one point, each has power over the other. What appears on the surface, how each character is initially represented, disguises their interior lives. If Why has learned anything it is restraint, so the movie never descends to tempestuous passion. She also learns, in a sense, to submit, since the impoverished can never compete with the rich. In the end her revolt takes the only other option available, against which even the wealthy have no defense.

Not that it makes much difference unless you were going to analyse the picture to the extreme but clearly the names have significance. Frederique is a feminization of a male name, Paul Thomas is two male names (perhaps indicating alpha male) while Why is obviously not a real name, and either meant to represent anonymity or intrigue. Luckily, the acting is of such a high standard we are not left only in thrall to the intricacies of naming characters.

Jean-Louise Trintignant was the best known of the stars following the international success of A Man and a Woman (1966). Stephane Audran, wife of the director, had been in movies for a decade, this her best part to date. Jacqueline Sassard had broken through with Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967). Claude Chabrol, a driving force behind the French New Wave, had enjoyed conspicuously less success than compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut until finding his metier in crime thrillers The Champagne Murders (1967) and The Road to Corinth (1967) but it was Les Biches that marked him out as a sensational talent.