Titane (2021) *****

Perhaps the most unforeseen development of this startling picture is that ruthless serial killer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) develops a caring relationship with an anguished fire chief father (Vincent Lindon) when masquerading as his long-lost son.  Even when it becomes increasingly clear he is harbouring an imposter his naked need for familial intimacy forces continued acceptance. Of course, given Alexia has been impregnated by an automobile, the cinematic wild ride is hardly over. Not just that the father is inclined to pump himself full of steroids to maintain his failing virility and the firemen let off steam by dancing, with no homoerotic overtones, of dancing among themselves.

But tension never slackens due to the off-the-wall off-the-scale opener that saw her enter the realms of the serial killer and the fact that her nipples start leaking oil. A relationship that could have been creepy and/or unbelievable becomes incredibly tender especially when the so-called boy, as teenagers will, causes his father major embarrassment only this time by revealing a more feminine side to his dancing.

While exploring similar territory to David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), this shifts into a completely league. With the exception of what she undertakes to create the transformation into a boy, binding her breasts and breaking her nose, the violence is less about self-harm  than straight-out murder, weapon of choice being a handy hatpin. The most bizarre aspect about the enterprise is not the victims mounting up, but the hilarity the film engenders. When Alexis discovers that she has chosen the wrong locale for one of her killings and with a shrug of frustration has to embark on hunting down an entire household you can’t help but laugh. And the meet-cute with a female model is one of the funniest ever put on the screen.

We never find out what has turned her into a murderer especially as she is not gender-specific in this department. A car accident as a child that resulted in her being fitted with some metal has clearly created some affinity with vehicles and she earns a living as a bikini model who drapes herself over motors at car shows to the delight of leering men. Automobiles are more generally seen as expressions of male eroticism so it’s something of a twist that Alexia takes such love to the ultimate extreme.

Outside of superhero and fantasy movies, it’s rare to find a picture that creates its own world and maintains it in consistent fashion. What we learn about this vicious killer is that she needs care as much as anybody else. As the movie shifts from her selfish enjoyment to filling a gap in the fireman’s life it takes us on quite a different journey to that initially suggested.

Director Julia Ducournau (Raw, 2016) presents an unflinching vision that may be too brutal for most tastes. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but looks like being ignored by the Oscar fraternity. But the surface is deceptive. If the ending comes as a shocker then you haven’t been paying attention because enough hints are provided as to the potential outcome. And it also means you’ve been ignoring the film’s development which is heading in the direction of togetherness and paternal understanding rather than individual insanity.

In her movie debut Agathe Rousselle is quite astonishing, giving herself up to the needs of a picture that forces tremendous physical demands. It’s a tour de force in what it means to be a committed actor, action driven by character. Oscars have been handed out for a lot less and what makes her characterisation stand out is the transition from woman trapped by a fetish whose only emotional outlet is murder to someone accepting love without question or vicious rejection.

Vincent Lindon (Rodin,2017)  is at the other end of the career scale, with nearly three decades in the business, highlighted by a previous Cannes and Cesar win for The Measure of a Man/ La Loi du Marche (2015). His is a thankless role, at the very least a willing dupe, as much a self-harmer judging from the bruises on his exterior, as likely to be lost and flailing in his jab – a sequence of a forest fire is outstanding – as in his empty emotional life. Hats off also to Lindon, as one of France’s biggest stars, for supporting this project. Without his involvement, funding would have been more difficult.

Titane is a true original with surprising emotional depth.

Sisters (1969) ****

Erotically-charged, symbolically-heavy French drama of siblings trying to re-establish the intense relationship they enjoyed as teenagers. After a nervous breakdown and on the point of divorce, blonde translator Diana (Nathalie Delon) seeks respite at the home of younger sister Martha (Susan Strasberg), a brunette happily married to the wealthy and indulgent Alex (Massimo Girotti).

Initially, the more worldly Diana, the more flamboyant dresser, appears the superior but it soon transpires she is the more fragile. The apparently timid Martha allows her husband to control her life to the point of buying all her clothes and she confesses to feeling as if she is on “a perpetual cruise.” While on the surface, it seems as if she has given up too much, in reality she disapproves of disorder and seeks perfection. She comes across as needing protection, and believes the woman’s role is to sacrifice, but in fact has managed to arrange her life to her own satisfaction.

Their competitive streaks emerge in different ways, Diana in obvious fashion, seeking to beat her sister while out horse-riding, Martha in more subtle and sensual manner, flaunting her sexual relations with her husband, almost offering her sister to her husband, and having a lover (Lars Bloch) on the side. There is a sense of each attempting to impose their world view on the other. Diana gives her sister a make-over, a new look which Alex adores, Martha hates it. There’s a sense of a chess game, males the obvious pawns.

Sensuality is never far away. Diana nuzzles her sister’s neck to smell her perfume. Alex is photographed, encouraged by Martha, in almost intimate mode with Diana. Dario (Giancarlo Giannini) is brought in to tempt Diana. And a scene where the girls experiment with colorful scarves suggests libertarianism. 

But it is clear that both sisters live empty lives devoid of true love and equally obvious as the picture progresses that both have arrived at the conclusion that they were at their most happiest when together. There are subtle hints of incest, comforting each other in bed, the sensuality electric and the film begins to examine whether this taboo can be crossed and, if so, will it provide the necessary escape.

Despite Martha’s apparent subjugation, there is more than an inkling of feminism, the girls involved in a complicated scenario in which males are either rejected or made to look fools. While not fulfilled, Martha has turned as much as possible to her own advantage and Diana seems perfectly capable of taking what she wants.

Alex provides the symbolism. He cultivates rare plants in a greenhouse that need to hide from the sun, lengthy exposure to whose atmosphere would be fatal to humans. He endlessly photographs them because they won’t last long. And in similar fashion provides a haven for the apparently vulnerable Martha.

Nathalie Delon (When Eight Bells Toll, 1970), married at this point to Alain Delon, shows a subtlety of expression that is rare for someone appearing in just her third film, and effects a gradual character transition throughout. Susan Strasberg, daughter of famed acting coach, Lee Strasberg, inventor of the Method Style of Acting, was one of the boldest actors of her generation, appearing in drug pictures The Trip (1967) and Psych Out (1968). She delivers an excellent portrait of a woman who manages to keep her true personality hidden, and for whom sexuality has few barriers.

This is the puppy-fat version of Giancarlo Giannini (Swept Away, 1974), barely recognizable as the future arthouse superstar whose physical appearance relied on gaunt, angst-riddles features.  Massimo Girotti (Theorem, 1968) is good as the husband who thinks he has everything, not realising how little he has.  

Although this was an accomplished directorial debut from Roberto Malenotti, he only made one more movie. Perhaps he made enough from directing the famous Coke commercial I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (1971).

Always intriguing, revelations continually undercutting what we think we know of the characters, but delivered in subtle European tones rather than employing Hollywood shock, each of the four main people involved changing considerably due to their interaction with the others. While certainly skirting close to the borders of what was permissible at the end of the 1960s, it does so without exploiting the actresses.

Not an easy one to find, your best bet is a secondhand copy on Ebay.

The French Dispatch (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It can only be ironical that Wes Anderson’s wonderfully idiosyncratic, evocative, often hilarious, picture – featuring ex-pats writing for an American magazine in the style of the New Yorker – is located in the French town of Ennui (translation: “boredom”) because it is anything but, a continuous stream of imaginative and inventive scenes, settings and characters. Where other directors make aspects of history their own (Ridley Scott, David Lean) and others lay claim to greatness by inverting genres (Quentin Tarantino), Anderson’s genius lies in creating worlds nobody else could lay claim to. Although this particular film covers just a triptych of tales, you can easily imagine Anderson has another hundred or so stories at his fingertips, all contained in his own unique universe.

You can see why actors queue up to work with him for he allows them to develop highly-individual characters far removed from their denoted screen personas.  Some like Timothy Chamalet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright and Lea Seydoux take advantage of this freedom to conjure deliciously realised human beings, while others such as Owen Wilson and Tilda Swinton let the opportunity slip or appear  in the picture so briefly (Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban) as to make little impact. Even headliner Bill Murray, who bookends the show, is given to more inventiveness than usual, breaking up his usual deadpan  delivery to make an occasional emphatic point.

While mostly this zips along, when Anderson occasionally stops for breath the effect is electric, for example a static camera taking in the back of a tenement through which we see by virtue of various windows a waitperson’s exhausted ascent. Mostly, the tales follow their own internal logic, but when forced into a genre corner, such as a shoot-out, Anderson resorts to pure zest. And while the narrative is mostly driven by voice-over, this takes on different aspects, from a loquacious raconteur (Jeffrey Wright) to a droning lecturer (Tilda Swinton).

Clearly planning to keep one step ahead of critics who claim his movies run out of steam, Anderson heads off that issue by filming three short unconnected stories. Del Toro and Seydoux head up the best item which sees a psychotic murderer embark on an artistic career that hooks art dealer (Adrien Brody).  Those who expect Anderson to spring surprises might still be taken aback when it transpires that the nude model (Seydoux) of the prisoner (Del Toro) is in fact his gaoler. Having opened a box of twists, Anderson continues in this wild vein. Narrators attempting to impose a semblance of normality generally find themselves at odds with their subject matter. In the second tale, as off-beat a student revolutionary as you could find, Chamalet breathes as much life into the character as he appeared stultified in trying to create a real person in the misfiring Dune (2021). Crime is not usually best served best by asides and droll self-importance but Wright, in the final story, manages to tie up in knots what should a taut kidnapping tale.   

If you come looking for star turns by Bill Murray and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, you will be sorely disappointed but if you willing to settle for an energetic, fresh, nostalgic take on an imaginary France, with plenty laugh out loud moments, you should come away well satisfied. Of course whether the French will feel as insulted as by television show Emily in Paris remains to be seen but I’m sure the Hungarians did not take The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) too literally.

I notice that this received a platform release in the States and broke per-cinema box office records in the process and I wonder what might have been the fate of The Last Duel (2021), regardless of its budget, had it opted for a similar launch approach.

Book into Film – “The Detective” (1968)

Screenwriter Abby Mann (Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961) had his work cut out adapting Roderick Thorp’s tombstone of a novel that ran to over 500 pages. The first job was to make the book – set mostly in the 1940s – contemporary. The book’s fictional locations of Port Smith and Manitou were transposed to New York. Joe Leland was younger in the book – in his mid-30s compared to the 50-plus Frank Sinatra.

And while the principals remained the same, the screenwriter employed some distinctive structural sleight of hand to keep apart the two investigations occupying Leland, the murder of a homosexual and the apparent suicide of a businessman. In the book the first investigation takes place in the past and is told in a long, detailed, flashback, while the suicide case takes up the present. For the film Mann relocated both crimes to the same timeframe, with the suicide simply following on to the murder.

But there was one distinct change. When Leland in the book investigates the suicide, he is doing so as a private eye, not a cop. He had resigned from the force after seeing a criminal sent to the electric chair. A minor alteration was also involved in the suicide case in that the widow Norma (Jacqueline Bisset in the film) was six months pregnant in the book.

More significantly was the swapping over of the sexual characteristics of Leland’s estranged wife (Lee Remick in the film) and the widow. In the film Remick is the nymphomaniac. In the book, it is the other way round, although Norma, after marriage, has that tendency under control.

Although Leland is a decent enough policeman, he makes none of the overt pitches for decency that occur in the film. That is all Abby Mann’s invention. And the scene in the picture where Leland objects to the stripping of a suspect is lifted from another episode in the book, one in which Leland has no involvement. While incorporating minor aspects from the book such as the annoying politician and civic corruption, Mann invented the atmosphere of the police station, the friction between the various cops and Leland’s ruthless ambition.

As I noted in my Blog on the novel A Cold Wind in August (published in 1960), fiction writers had far greater flexibility as regards sexuality than movie makers and Thorp’s 1966 novel reflects that trend. Although the book falls into the category of police procedural, and Thorp himself worked for his father’s detective agency, the sprawling canvas offers as much insight into human relationships as crime and investigative processes.

In some respects this is a textbook adaptation, stripping away the various layers of a dense book to focus on the essential narrative, then both trimming and expanding the main relationships to suit the new plotline. Virtually unspoken in both book and film are Leland’s reaction to the situations that have arisen as a result of his action, not because the writer in either circumstance was dodging the issues, but because both reader and moviegoer could work it out for themselves without introducing melodrama where it was not required.

The Last Duel (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A surprisingly contemporary core, bolstered by a quartet of excellent performances, drives Ridley Scott’s bold Rashomon-style historical tale. Despite its length it’s less of a historical epic in the style of Gladiator (1999) and more of an intimate and intricate exploration of power – and its lack. Each of the main characters, including and especially the women, while exerting some kind of power nonetheless are in thrall to a superior being whose word is absolute law. Challenging that authority could result in instant death. It’s a slow-burn for sure but exerts a tenacious grip as the story unfolds from three points-of-view to a double climax, both riveting for different reasons.   

And it’s far from typical Ridley Scott except in attention to historical detail. The battle scenes are almost perfunctory – in fact few end in victory – and except to demonstrate bravery do not follow the usual heroic template. There’s none of the trademark Scott cinematic sweep although the duel itself is exceptional.

Scarred to the point of facial disfigurement Damon has never played a character like this before.

In 14th century France Marguerite (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, the accusation finally settled by duel to the death. All three characters are given the chance to give their version of the story and this is where it becomes fascinating as shades of personality are filled in.

At the outset Jean comes across as brave, impulsive, marrying Marguerite to save her honour (her father is a traitor), and when wronged willing to challenge authority. But as other perspectives unfold he is revealed as blustering, ambitious, more interested in his wife’s sizeable dowry than her honour, over-proud, and a poor manager of his estate. While brave, educated and charming Le Gris turns out to be a greedy, conniving bed-hopper. Initially presented as a grateful wife and little more than an adornment Marguerite is revealed as the most courageous of all, an able estate manager, challenging the King, accepting the prospect of death rather than, as was apparently the custom of the times, allowing the rape to go unremarked.

Comer is a revelation and you could argue she steals the picture from her more experienced colleagues. There is an astonishing scene where she realises that, her husband’s bravery notwithstanding, he has condemned her to a terrible death should he lose the duel.

The sexual mores of the era are examined in depth, the worst examples of male prerogative sometimes just touched upon in passing, for example, since a wife is her husband’s property, in law he is the one besmirched not her. In taking sexual power as his central theme rather than the triumphs and woes of the men, Scott takes a huge risk in alienating a following expecting more action and cinematic bravura, but the bold story-telling pays off and although starting with Alien (1979) the director has a record of strong female characters this has more in common with Thelma and Louise (1991) where wronged women are backed up into a cul de sac.

Rejecting the heroism route allows Scott to present far more rounded characters. None of the four principals conforms to type. Damon is neither the common man nor the action hero, but a boor. Driver is neither charming seducer nor outright villain but somewhere in between, living on his wits. Comer cannot rely on female machismo or cleverness but must remain stout in the face of an onslaught of humiliation. And mention must be made of Ben Affleck as Pierre d’Alencon, employer of Le Gris and master of Carrouges, who is cocky, immoral, amoral, greedy, shifty and cunning. Other standout performances feature Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game, 2014) as a gleeful king and Harriet Walter (Atonement, 2007) as a loathsome and cruel mother-in-law. I just hope Oscar voters recognise at least some of these perfomances.

A blond and goateed Affleck as you have never seen him before, cockiness running riot, with a mean streak a mile wide, the epitome of Middle Ages entitlement.

It’s worth paying attention to the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Oscar-nominated for Can You Ever Forgive Me, 2018) and Damon and Affleck (their first joint effort since Good Will Hunting, 1997) and note how the language the characters employ changes according to the perspective. Words that we imagine in one section that appear to be spoken by one character in another section are delivered by someone else entirely.

I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott and while I came looking for adventure in the style of Gladiator (2000) or his other historical masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven (2005) I came away more than satisfied in the way he altered his style to suit the story almost in the same manner as he had done with American Gangster (2007), another picture about power.

You will probably be aware by now that this has been a colossal box office bomb and although the film has enormous merit you can see why audiences looked the other way. Oddly enough, I think it will acquire a bigger audience through small-screen streaming since it is really a drama.  I would still recommend catching it at the cinema but there’s fair chance it will not last for its full 45-day window.

I tend to judge directors not by critical acclaim but by a more rudimentary measure – how often I watch their pictures. I have seen Alien, Blade Runner (1982), Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, the Martian (2015)  and even the flawed Prometheus (2012) and Black Hawk Down (2001) more than half a dozen times each – often three or four times at the cinema – and I have a notion that The Last Duel will comfortably fit into this elite.

Three (1969) **

More interesting for the stars involved – in particular Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling as well as an ex-fighter pilot, an Australian pop star and a model – than the film itself, which presents a European arthouse take on youngsters freewheeling around Europe looking for their share of the free love purportedly available everywhere.

There’s not really any story, mostly it’s scenery, and whatever tension there is rarely rises to the point of drama. However, it is refreshing to see a picture not steeped in angst that reflects the normality of life rather than superficially-imposed heightened confrontation. On a tour of Italy, American college buddies Taylor (Sam Waterston), the shy gawky one, and Bert (Robie Porter), the better-looking confident one, take up with British girl Marty (Charlotte Rampling). The guys make a pact not to compete for the girl’s attentions, but that idea doesn’t last long. The title suggests she might end up with one – or both. In trying to sell the film, the marketeers felt obliged to make that idea more implicit.

The guys make plays for other girls they meet but seem to find little genuine action and in that sense it is more true to life than other films of the period which suggested sex was there for the asking. But none of the characters are particularly interesting and while that is also more realistic it diminishes enjoyment. The highlight is a naked Taylor attempting to save a girl from drowning in the sea, but in keeping with the film’s tone he is beaten to it by a boat.

There’s not much sign here of the intense dramatic style Oscar nominee Sam Waterston would later bring to the movies. This was his third film after small parts in The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (1966) and Dick Van Dyke vehicle Fitzwilly (1967) and he wouldn’t hit his stride until The Great Gatsby (1974).

Perhaps the oddest movie fate befell Charlotte Rampling, also a later Oscar nominee. How else to explain that she followed up this picture with Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and preceded it with Roger Corman’s Target: Harry (1969). With a career that at this point appeared to follow no particular pattern, after making an impact in Georgy Girl (1966) as a libidinous flatmate, she took a small role in The Long Duel (1967) before reaching leading lady status opposite Franco Nero in Italian thriller Sequestro di Persona (1968). Her languid screen persona was turned on its head with The Night Porter (1974).

Who was Robie Porter you might very well ask? And why did he only make two pictures, the other being The Carey Treatment (1972)? He was an Australian pop star, specializing in instrumentals on a steel guitar, with a series of hits including two at number one. He chanced his arm in Britain, without repeating that success, then moved to the U.S. and landed parts in television series Daniel Boone and Mannix. After Three, he returned to the music business, as part-owner of record label Sparmac and producing for the band Daddy Cool.

Other names in Three, in bit parts only, none making any discernible impact in the picture, included model Edina Ronay (daughter of celebrated food critic Egon Ronay) who had appeared in A Study in Terror (1965) and Prehistoric Women (1967). Equally as celebrated, if for other reasons, was Gillian Hills, best known as one of the girls cavorting naked with photographer David Hemmings in Blow Up (1966) and as the titular Beat Girl (1960)

Writer-director James Salter was a genuine Hollywood curiosity. He hit a peak of cinematic activity in 1969, with two other screenplays filmed – Downhill Racer (1969) and The Appointment (1969). This is pretty much a companion piece to Downhill Racer (1969) which has a bunch of professional skiers on a similar scenic tour and often sitting around with not much to do although that film builds in confrontation and a more standard love affair.

Generally considered a “writer’s writer” – i.e. adored by his peers more than the public – his first novel The Hunters (1958), based on his Air Force experiences, was turned into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. He dabbled in documentary film-making, whose impact can be seen in his feature films, but was better known for a short erotic novel A Sport and a Pastime set in Europe. None of his 1969 trio were hits, he ended up in Hollywood limbo, and he didn’t reappear on the movie credits list until Richard Pearce’s sci-fi Threshold (1981) starring Donald Sutherland.   

It’s not a stinker, but it’s not much of anything else either.

Number One (1969) ****

Quite possibly Charlton Heston’s best performance – as an ageing pro footballer refusing to bow down to the inevitable. Ron Catland (Heston) has much in common with Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) in The Swimmer (1968) as characters who believe they have been let down by the American Dream. And like that picture, plot is in short supply, it’s mostly a character study with sideswipes at the realities and inanities of American football.

An injury puts star quarterback Catland’s career in doubt. The media write him off, younger quarterback Kelly (Richard Elkins) is waiting in line, while former colleague Ritchie Fowler (Bruce Dern) offers him a job in his car leasing business, or he could opt for a second career in computers, but Catland wants the only life he has ever known to go on forever.

There’s nothing inherently likeable about Catland. In fact, he’s downright mean most of the time, in part because of the falsity of his profession, management buttering you up when it’s contract time, then on your back once you have re-signed. He’s got a hero’s arrogance, has ignored from the outset the coach’s instructions, at odds with independent fashion-designer wife Julie (Jessica Walter), no children to shore up their marriage. Hardly surprising he drifts into another affair, “an occupational hazard” his wife calls it, this time with the fey Ann (Diana Muldaur) who owns a tennis shop.

VHS cover

You are probably familiar with the kind of football picture which climaxes with a last-minute touchdown or the more realistic movies like North Dallas Forty (1979) or the superlative Any Given Sunday (1999) where nonetheless the focus is on winning and characters are ramped up for dramatic effect. Or you might imagine Hollywood had been routinely churning out football movies like Knute Rockne All-American (1940) and Jim Thorpe All American (1951) for decades. But strangely enough the movie industry had not focused on this particular sport for well over a decade until the NFL documentary They Call It Pro Football (1967) and comedy Paper Lion (1968).

Number One sets out to set the record straight on the reality of being a football hero. And it’s by far the most realistic of the species. For every good-looking gal wanting to pass him a note on a napkin in a restaurant there are plenty fans turning on him for refusing to sign an autograph. For every sports reporter writing a puff piece, there are others tearing him to pieces in print.

The documentary-style approach by director Tom Gries (100 Rifles, 1969) serves the film well. This is a different kind of football team to the later fictional depictions. It’s a lonely life for a start. The players are rivals, not comrades.  There’s little camaraderie. The dressing room is like a morgue. No practical jokes and tomfoolery. No over-the-top team talk by the coach and thank goodness no padre who pretends to walk every aching mile in their shoes. Any exhortation is almost a plea. Injury is mostly ignored. Legs are constantly strapped up. And when your career is over you might be reduced to bumming a loan from a current star. The politics are brutal.

New Orleans Saints cooperated with the production so the game scenes come across well though not obviously with the razzamatazz of Any Given Sunday and Heston has the physique for a sportsman. Primarily a television writer, David Moessinger (The Caper of the Golden Bulls, 1967) only crafted two films and this, the second and last, was an unusual effort, as the character twists and turns trying on the one hand to escape the cage of his career and on the other determined to squeeze the last drop out of his golden imprisonment.

Catlan still sees himself (at the age of 40, no less – but younger than today’s legendary Tom Brady) as the best quarterback in the business and simmers with anger that his body is letting him down and that he has nothing in place to fill the gap that abandoning the game will create. Underneath the volatility is a hole of pain. There’s no sense either that he has enjoyed his time at the top, just that it has always one way or another been a struggle.

Heston and Gries took a different approach to the western Will Penny (1968) and here they do the same to the sports picture. Although the movie was marketed with Heston as an aggressive individual, in fact it calls for a far wider range of emotions from Heston, and for this part he delivers in spades. Jessica Walter (Grand Prix, 1966) gives as good as she gets, Bruce Dern (Hang ‘Em High, 1968) as the fast-talking salesman who got out of the game in good time and Diana Muldaur (The Swimmer, 1968) are excellent. But this is Heston’s film. But it’s more of a reflective piece, none of the dramatic highs and lows of other football pictures, instead it is true to the cynicism and human exploitation of the game.

Three into Two Won’t Go (1969) ***

Unhappily married and childless salesman Steve (Rod Steiger) begins an affair with kooky promiscuous hitchhiker Ella (Judy Geeson). A free spirit in control of her life – no VD and on the Pill – and happy to drift from mundane job to mundane job, Ella ranks her many lovers on their sexual performance. Steve has just moved into a new house in a dreary new estate, perhaps in the hope of revitalizing his staid marriage to Frances (Claire Bloom).

While Steve is away on business, Ella turns up at his home where, revealing – without implicating Steve – that she is pregnant and convinces Frances to let her stay the night. Naturally, it is Steve’s baby but Ella plans an abortion. Steve wants the baby and so, too, still unaware of the father, does Frances, seeing adoption as the solution to their marital woes. And so a love triangle, or more correctly a baby triangle, plays out, with a few unexpected twists.

Like most of the marital dramas of the 1960s, especially in the wake of the no-holds-barred Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), this is riddled with outspoken protagonists who have no idea how to find real happiness. Based on the book by Andrea Newman and adapted by Edna O’Brien, who both have previously marked out this kind of territory, the picture shifts sympathy from one character to the next. While no one is entirely culpable, none are blameless either. Yet there is an innocence about Steve and Frances in the way they fling themselves at unlikely salvation. They are not the first couple to find themselves in a marital cul de sac, nor the first to do nothing about it, hoping that somehow through a new house or job promotion things will right themselves.

Audiences, accustomed to seeing Steiger (In the Heat of the Night, 1967) in morose roles, might have been shocked to see him happy and he manages to present a more rounded character than in some previous screen incarnations. In burying herself in domesticity, Claire Bloom (Charly, 1968) essays a far from fragile character, whose resilience and pragmatism will always find a way forward. Geeson is the surprise package, at once knowing and in charge, and at other times completely out of her depth, and to some extent enjoying the chaos she sparks. The exuberant screen personality she presents here is almost a grown-up more calculating version of the character she portrays in Hammerhead (1968).

Director Peter Hall (Work is a Four-Letter Word, 1968) ensures more universal appeal by not grounding the movie in the swinging sixties so that it would not quickly become  outdated. The snatching at last-minute fantasy to avert marital disharmony will still strike a note. The performances are all excellent, including a turn by Peggy Ashcroft (Secret Ceremony, 1968) and bit parts from British character actors Paul Rogers (Stolen Hours, 1963) and Elizabeth Spriggs in her second movie.

Make sure you catch the correct version of this picture if you hunt it down. Against the director’s wishes. Universal edited it then added new characters for the version shown on American television.

The Reckoning (1970) ****

Fans of Succession will love the boardroom battles and fans of Get Carter (1971) the gritty violence. Michael Marler (Nicol Williamson) is a thug whichever way you cut it. He’s a business hard-ass, at his nicest he’s obnoxious, at this worst brutal. He drives like a demon. Even in love, he’s fueled by hate, sex with wife Rosemary (Ann Bell) infernal. And all of this made acceptable, according to the left-wing tenets that underwrite the film, because he is a working-class man battling upper-class hypocrisy, never mind that his upper-class wife was hardly foisted upon him, nor that he was forced to live in luxury.

Unexpectedly, the film also explores other themes which have contemporary significance. Computers play a pivotal role and so does honor killing. The picture’s original title – A Matter of Honor – was ironic given that in the upper-class worlds in which Marler moved, courtesy of job and marriage, he is considered to have little in the way of chivalry. But in the working-class world he has escaped he must exact revenge according to a code of honor steeped in violence.   

This advert dates from October 1968, which gives an indication of how long the film’s release was delayed, not appearing until January 1970. Interestingly, the advert appeared in the U.S. trade magazine Box Office (October 28, 1968), suggesting Columbia had high hopes for the British production. The title here suggest a different approach to the movie.

The sudden death of his father sends Marler back to Liverpool where he discovers the old man was killed in a pub brawl. But the local doctor and the police, uninterested in complicating what must be a regular occurrence, view his death as accidental. So Marler takes it upon himself to uncover the culprits and wreak revenge, any kind of revenge on any kind of culprit, regardless of the fact that from the outset it is clear they will hardly be gangsters.  While contemplating violence, he strikes up a sexual relationship with the married Joyce (Rachel Roberts).

The story jumps between the back-stabbing corporate world to a scarcely less violent working class environment. The combination of charm and brute energy holds a certain appeal for Rosemary (Ann Bell) and helps keep him in the good books of his boss, but he is otherwise a bully, targeting the weak spots of anyone who stands in his way on his climb to the top, and while heading up the sales division of a company in trouble blaming everyone else for his own failings. And while scorning his wife’s upper-class friends is quite happy to enjoy the benefits of her lifestyle, the flashy car might be the result of his endeavors but not the huge posh house. Marler stitches up another associate with the assistance of another lover, secretary Hilda (Zena Walker), and his long-suffering wife finally takes umbrage at his venomous manner.

Marler hides his hypocrisy behind the façade of a left-wing class-struggle. John McGrath’s screenplay clearly intends Marler’s working-class background to provide him with a get-out-of-jail-free card as well as to launch an attack on upper classes seen as namby-pamby except when it comes to putting the poor in their place. The anti-class polemic has somewhat eroded over time but in its place can be found an accurate portrait of the social mores of ordinary people for whom, alcohol, the drug du jour, plays a massive part.  The going-home element is populated by endless terraced houses without a single parked car, vast caverns of pubs which host wrestling matches and are a tinder spark away from erupting in a brawl. This is in stark contrast to the high-living life Marler enjoys in London.

He has no desire to go back home, hasn’t visited in five years, escaping from there deemed a sign of success, and mostly returns metaphorically to draw on memories with which to scourge the upper-class and excuse his own behavior. 

Nicol Williamson (Inadmissable Evidence, 1968) delivers a tour de force, his screen presence never so vibrant, exhibiting the same raw appeal as Caine in Get Carter. At this point in his career, with a critically-acclaimed Hamlet on stage, he was perceived as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier and Columbia held up the release of The Reckoning to allow the Tony Richardson film of that stage production to pick up critical momentum. Oddly enough Rachel Roberts had not capitalized on her Oscar-nominated role in This Sporting Life (1963), this only her second movie in seven years. Initially coming across as brassy caricature, she soon softens into a surprisingly wistful character. Both Ann Bell and Zena Walker bring greater dimension to their characters rather than as adoring doormats. You can catch Paul Rogers (Three Into Two Won’t Go, 1969) and Tom Kempinski in supporting roles.

Director Jack Gold, who had worked with both Williamson and McGrath on his movie debut The Bofors Gun (based on the writer’s play), does a great job of capturing a particular period of British social history as well as allowing Williamson to stomp around in his pomp.

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.

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