High expectation can kill a picture. Low expectation can have the opposite result. I came at The Appaloosa with the latter attitude in mind. I knew the picture had been a big flop and that critics had carped – as they had done through most of the 1960s – about the performance of Marlon Brando.
Neither was director Sidney J. Furie’s style to everyone’s taste. And it seemed an odd subject – Texan takes on Mexican warlord to recover a stolen horse. It is surely a slow burn, but it certainly worked well beyond my anticipation. There’s not much more to the story than two guys fighting over a horse.
First of all, Brando’s performance came across as natural, not mannered. Secondly, this was a real character. He was not a John Wayne striding into action to protect the underdog or a woman or out of some goddam principle.
At first it did seem odd that Matt Fletcher (Marlon Brando) placed so much importance on the horse given that said warlord Chuy Meena (John Saxon) had offered him a more than fair price for it. But in one brilliant two-minute scene, expertly directed and with virtually no close-ups – the actor caught mostly with his back to the camera or in silhouette – we discover why. Fletcher has been such a disappointment to his father that bringing home such an animal was proof that he had made something of himself. A buffalo hunter to trade, he was on the verge of starting a new life.
The second aspect of this intriguing picture was that Medena placed so much importance on a horse when he could easily buy any horse he wanted. But he was faced with losing face. His wife Trini (Anjanette Comer) had tried to escape from him on the horse and the only remedy was to persuade the watching federales that Fletcher had previously sold him the horse.
When Fletcher refuses, Medena takes the horse by force. Fletcher, in retaliation, and to save his own sense of pride, tries to take it back. He is not represented as a superhuman John Wayne or savage Clint Eastwood, but an ordinary guy who soon finds himself out of his depth. So ordinary that the first time he aims his rifle he misses the target by a mile.
Nor is he burdened with an over-enlarged empathy gland. He not only refuses to help Trini, but steadfastly refuses to take her with him, not even as far as the border, until in another of the film’s lengthy scenes she explains the reasons for her escape attempt.
Few films have exceeded it for atmosphere. This Mexico is grim, pitiless. Hostility and suspicion are endemic. Women are abused and discarded. The standout scene is Medena and Fletcher arm-wrestling over scorpions, played out against a soundtrack of scraping chairs and the poisonous insects scrabbling on the table.
This is a brooding western featuring the actor with the best eye for brooding in the business. Sidney J Furie (The Ipcress File, 1965) is gifted – or afflicted depending on your point of view – with an eye for the unusual camera angle. Here I think the gift not the affliction is on show.
When you watch this and The Chase (1966) together it’s hard to see what on earth got the critics so rattled about Brando’s mid-decade performances. This is realistic acting at his best. Where John Wayne or Clint Eastwood present a superhuman screen persona, even if for part of a picture they are downtrodden, Brando was happy to play very human characters. In both pictures he is just an ordinary joe – forced into action by circumstance.
Producer Joseph E. Levine (The Graduate, 1967) would be cancelled these days for his treatment of Michael Caine back in 1964. Levine had stumped up (along with Paramount) the $1.7 million budget for what was assumed to be the actor’s breakout picture, Zulu (1964), and signed him up to a seven-year contract. Caine would receive $75,000 – his fee for Zulu had been just $10,000 – in his first year, with increments every following year.* But before the film was released Levine rescinded the contract on the basis that Caine “looked like a queer on screen.”
While Zulu was a box office smash in Britain, in the United States it was a big flop despite the marketing dollars thrown at it by Levine. And nobody needed a younger version of the British stiff- upper-lip. And despite the buzz before the film opened, producers were not clamouring at Caine’s door, the only options on the table a small part in a television production of Hamlet at Elsinore (1964) and the leading role in The Other Man (1964), a television drama about Britain succumbing to the Nazis in 1940.
That is, until Bond producer Harry Saltzman summoned him to his table in a restaurant and in a conversation that lasted all of two minutes offered him The Ipcress File and a seven-year contract. Aged 32 at this point, Caine was mature enough to be ranked a proper rising star, the casualty rate among the twenty-somethings accorded that status alarmingly high mostly due to their screen immaturity.
However, Saltzman owed his involvement in the picture to another chance meeting. He had been in the United Artists offices in New York when hair product entrepreneur Charles D. Kasher arrived to pitch Len Deighton’s novel The Ipcress File as a potential movie. Saltzman was looking for an alternative to James Bond that would appeal to international audiences with the emphasis on low-cost. He put together the picture on a budget of only $460,000. But the project looked dead in the water when original Hollywood backers Columbia pulled out shorlty before shooting was due to star. Universal saved the day.
Hammer director Jimmy Sangster recommended Canadian director Sidney J. Furie (Wonderful Life/Swingers’ Paradise, 1964) who had just turned down A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and just signed up to do indie horror movie Devil Doll (1964) before managing to ease himself out of that contract.
Caine was far from first choice. Christopher Plummer had chosen The Sound of Music (1965) instead and Richard Harris, a bigger name in Hollywood after MGM roadshow Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and a critical success after This Sporting Life (1963) turned it down in favour of Sam Peckinpah western Major Dundee (1965). In a bid to give the character the ordinariness he required Harry H. Corbett (Rattle of a Simple Man, 1964) was also considered. Caine had been sharing a flat with Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) but when Stamp decamped to America moved in with composer John Barry and was thus the first to hear the music Barry had dreamed up for Goldfinger (1964).
Aware how easily contracts could be dissolved Caine “stuck to him (Saltzman) like a drowning man to a straw.” Thus, he was present when discussions arose over naming the spy – anonymous in the book which was written in the first person. It was decided the character should have a dull name. “Harry” was chosen before everyone present realized the producer might just take offence. However, Saltzman’s real first name was Herschel, so he laughed it off.
Saltzman also came up with idea of the character wearing glasses to make him look more ordinary. Caine was short-sighted in real life and always wore glasses and Saltzman noticed how comfortable he was with them, knowing how to handle them properly, unlike clear-sighted actors given spectacles for roles without having any idea what to do with them. It was surprising how fragile the spectacles were, though, Caine getting through the allocated three pairs and new supplies having to be commandeered. Saltzman took the ordinariness too far, suggesting a duel with supermarket trolleys as one of the big fight scenes.
Even though Furie had never met Caine, he disliked him, having come across the actor and his friend Terence Stamp at the White Elephant Club in London. “I’d see Terence Stamp always there with this other blonde guy who wore glasses,” recollected Furie, “and they were rather chummy and always had these pretty girls at their table, and they were always laughing. And I sort of hated him at the time. Sometimes, I would get a bit drunk and tell whomever I was with, ‘I want to punch that guy in the face.’ I guess I was jealous.”
Joan Collins, completely out of favour in Hollywood and with no roles since The Road to Hong Kong (1962), auditioned – as did the unknown Carol White (Poor Cow, 1967) – for the part of Jean that went to Sue Lyons, in her first featured role. Otherwise, the main roles went to established British character actors including Nigel Green (Zulu), Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape, 1963) and Guy Doleman (Thunderball, 1965)
Interestingly, laughable though it is now, a character who cooked was considered to be gay, even though Palmer clearly used his cooking skills for female seduction. Unfortunately, no great cook himself, Caine was unable to crack two eggs with one hand and the movie used the hands of author Len Deighton, so excellent a cook he had written a cookbook. That explains why the hands that picked up the eggs on screen had blond hairs but the hands that cracked them had black hairs. The cooking scene remained the cause of macho concern, with one U.S. studio executive demanding the scene be re-shot with the woman cooking the meal.
Director Sidney J. Furie (Wonderful Life/Swingers’ Paradise, 1964) hated the script and demonstrated his loathing by gathering cast and crew together on the first morning of filming and burning the script on the studio floor. While sticking to the basis of the screenplay, characters were encouraged to improvise. The poor script – Kasher had called it “garbage” – was the reason for introducing this kind of style, the script being rewritten as production proceeded.
Furie recalled, “All day there were two writers writing our scenes for the next day…We knew where we had to get to because Harry Saltzman, the producer, had ordered the set for the climax built, so we were stuck with it.” If the pages didn’t turn up, Furie found ways to instigate delay, getting the cameramen spending an inordinate amount of time lighting a scene. Furie sipped whisky in his Scotch all day, not enough to be inebriated but “it would help me go with my gut.” The full complement of writers involved in the script were James Doran and W. H. Canaway plus uncredited contributions from Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) , Lionel Davidson (source author for Agent 8 ¾, 1964) , Ken Hughes (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1960) and Johanna Harwood (Dr No, 1962).
Furie’s style on The Ipcress File was very distinctive – “scenes where you had someone’s shoulder blocking the screen and you could only see three quarters of the screen…If you try to use the screen the way a painter uses a canvas, somehow it’s not considered acceptable.”
Furie and Saltzman did not get on, the producer loathing what he saw as the director’s stylistic excesses and was convinced he required editor Peter Hunt to rescue the project once shooting was complete. For his part, Furie’s definition of producers was “the people who tried to wreck the movie.” Explained the director, “I was very depressed always when we started shooting, thinking that it was going to be really lousy and I didn’t know what to do, so I told myself I would come up with a style of shooting that is different. I put shoulders across the screen, I shot up at things, I shot down, just to make it different, to give it ambiance. It was done out of insecurity.”
At one point the director quit the set, resulting in a chase through London with the producer’s Rolls Royce in pursuit of the London bus on which the director had escaped. However, Furie conceded, “The movie would not have gotten made without him (Saltzman) and his devotion to seeing it through, considering the problems with Universal, no matter how much I fought with him during the making of it.
To Saltzman’s astonishment when Peter Hunt arrived and examined the dailies he told the producer “this is the most brilliant footage I’ve ever seen” In order to convince the producer that it was all going to work, Hunt edited together the sequence where, with a marching band in the background, Nigel Green marches in step to the tempo followed by “dialogue between Green and Guy Doleman, carefully intercut with their closed umbrellas stepping with them in motion…Once I assured him (Saltzman) it would be a good film, he started getting confident.”
While British critics lauded the picture, its reception Stateside was mixed, “though the public weighed in heavily with its money” – Variety noting not just that it was “short on thrills,” over-stylised, and could do with being a “a trifle more lively,” the overall verdict being that it was “so soft-pedalled that the audience will be screaming for more kicks” of the Bond kind.
*NOTE: In his autobiography Caine stated his $75,000 annual salary would double every year. That doesn’t sound right. A second year of $150,000 and even a third of $300,000 might be acceptable for a rising star. But if you were looking at $600,000 for his fourth year and $1.2 million for his fifth up to $4.8 million for the final year, that would make him by the end of the decade easily the highest-paid star in Hollywood. Caine would need to be working like a Trojan, four or five films a year, to come anywhere close to earning such sums and his movies would all have to be big hits. Of course, to cover his costs, Levine could farm him out to other studios, but even so, it was a disproportionate amount for any actor to earn. Even John Wayne and Steve McQueen would not pull in such a salary by 1971.
SOURCES: Daniel J. Kremer, Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films (University of Kentucky Press, 2015), p74-84; Michael Caine, What’s It All About? (Arrow Books, 1993) p189-190, 195-210; Michael Caine, The Elephant to Hollywood (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010), p85-90; Paul Rowlands, Interview with Sidney J. Furie, Money into Light website, 2017.
Stylish take on the espionage genre when it was still in its infancy and could accommodate stylish directors like Sidney J. Furie (The Appaloosa, 1966). Eschewing the bombastic effects and villains of the James Bond series, relying more on intrigue and the elements of betrayal that other practitioners of the dark arts such as John Le Carre espoused, this is as much a character study and presents in some cases a fairer picture of the class struggle in Britain than most kitchen-sink dramas. So it’s either going to put you off entirely or make you appreciate the film more when I tell you that my favorite scene is the fistfight between Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) and shaven-headed thug Housemartin (Oliver MacGreevy) outside the Royal Albert Hall in London that is shot entirely through the windows of a traditional red telephone box. You can’t say bolder than that.
The credit sequence, more famously ripped off by William Goldman for private eye saga Harper/The Moving Target (1966), is equally inspired. An alarm clock wakes Palmer, he reaches out for the girl who shared his bed last night to discover she is gone and then punctiliously and as if time-shifted to the twenty-first century when it would be the norm proceeds to grind fresh coffee beans, fill a cafetiere with only as much liquid as would constitute a small espresso, dresses and last but not least searches among the disturbed bedclothes for his gun.
Palmer is transferred from dull surveillance duties to a team hunting for missing scientists. Given both his insolent and insubordinate manner, he is not expected to fit in to a service riddled with the upper-classes. His new superior Dalby (Nigel Green), a “passed-over major,” owes his present situation to Palmer’s former boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) and both sport three-piece suits, bowler hats and umbrellas and speak in those clipped tones that invariably carry undertones of menace. Where James Bond’s front, the import-export business, is rather more upmarket, here the background is considerably downmarket, Dalby masquerading as the owner of an employment agency and distributor of fireworks. It is insatiably bureaucratic, reams of forms to be filled in. What Palmer has in common with James Bond, beyond fisticuffs, is the ability to think outside the box and in this case picks the brains of a policeman friend to track down the wanted villain, code-named Bluejay (Frank Gatliff)
As in the best post-Bond espionage, there are traitors everywhere, and the departments employing spies tend to employ other spies to spy upon them, though in this case Palmer has the luck to draw the sexy Jean (Sue Lloyd). When Palmer picks up the trail of Ipcress, the plot thickens. There is no shortage of action, a gun battle, fisticuffs, but it presents a different approach to modern espionage, with a properly rounded hero – one who can cook (as did author Len Deighton who wrote a cookery column) for a start – while the ladies, with whom he shares a roving eye with Bond, are not required to turn up in bikinis.
There is deft employment of that favorite British cultural emblem – irony – and one wonderful scene takes place in a park where Dalby taps his cane in appreciation of a brass band. Throw in a bit of brainwashing and it’s a completely different proposition to Bond who could escape such a dilemma in a trice. There is a clever ending.
Michael Caine (Hurry Sundown, 1967), complete with spectacles, is superb as Palmer, making enough of an impression that the series ran for another four episodes. The stiff-upper-lip brigade have a field day in Nigel Green (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) and Guy Doleman (Thunderball, 1965), the latter shading it with his purported sense of humor. Sue Lyon (Corruption, 1968) is excellent as the seemingly unattainable gal who falls within Palmer’s purvey but not entirely due to his charm. The villains, too, are not from the James Bond school of cut-outs, but come across as equally human, and the chief rascal you could argue has the most finely developed sense of humor of the lot. Throw in Gordon Jackson (Danger Route, 1967) and Freda Bamford (Three Bites of the Apple, 1967) as the bureaucratic attack-dog Alice and you have a very well cast movie.
Sidney J. Furie divided critics. Some believed he was ahead of his time, others that he was in thrall to arty French directors, and a reasonable number who didn’t give a stuff as long as he delivered the goods. But his predilection for odd angles here proves a strength, his compositional excellence also spot-on, one scene in particular where in a library Palmer looks down on the villain with Housemartin on a landing between. And he takes great delight in emphasizing the class distinctions, both bosses have huge offices with a small desk in the corner, and when Ross places briefcase, umbrella and bowler hat on the desk of Dalby it could not be a more clear invasion.
And you can’t forget the score by espionage doyen John Barry (Goldfinger, 1964). W.H. Canaway (A Boy Ten Feet Tall, 1963) and James Doran, making his movie debut, adapted Len Deighton’s classy bestseller but a fair amount of polish was added by thriller writer Lionel Davidson (Hot Enough for June, 1964), Johanna Harwood (Dr No, 1962), Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Ken Hughes (Arrivederci, Baby, 1966).
I have just discovered a new guilty pleasure. I was too young to remember when Cliff Richard was the British equivalent of Elvis and by the time I became aware of him he was already in the family-favorites league with his own television show and popping up in the wider consciousness from time to time with a number one single. But I was conscious that Cliff’s aspiring film career was totally obliterated by the emergence of the Beatles. I found Wonderful Life to be totally innocuous, highly enjoyable, charming fun. There’s no story to speak of beyond an affectionate spoof of Hollywood but it has zest and exuberance and some decent choreography by Gillian Lynne who went on to be deified for her work on the original London productions of Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
But there are some very funny visual gags, beginning with the opening scene when Cliff and Co are waiters on board a ship attending to a drunk whose glass moves out of reach every time the ship rolls. Having caused a power outage, they are chucked overboard in a dinghy and turn up in the Canary Islands where Cliff becomes a stunt man on the terrible Foreign Legion movie directed by a Hollywood ogre (Walter Slezak) and starring incompetent actress Susan Hampshire who has made a career of sorts playing the daughter of a sheik or sultan. You have to like a movie with lines like, “Follow that camel” and a geek (Richard O’Sullivan) whose scientific predictions invariably come undone. Cliff, realizing the lines are better sung than spoken, begins to make a musical on the back of the drama. And it’s true – the lines are good lyrics.
Britain had no reputation for musicals among the Hollywood cognoscenti unless you count the Jessie Mathews and Gracie Fields films of the 1930s which were far too parochial and contrived for American tastes and in terms of invention and musical technique a far cry from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! which would be filmed a couple of years later and in terms of originality not a patch on A Hard Day’s Night (1964) the same year. The songs are evenly contributed by various members of the Shadows – Bruce Welch composed the standout “A Matter of Moments” and with Brian Bennett the theme song – and the Peter Myers-Ronald Cass team who also wrote the screenplay. But this film comes across as naturalistic, rather than the contrivances of most Hollywood musicals. It doesn’t take much for these lads to strike up a song, any excuse will do. And the film is better for the lack of high emotion attached to every lyric.
You would be mightily surprised to learn that director Sidney J. Furie’s next film was stylish spy thriller The Ipcress File (1965) followed by Appaloosa (1966) with Marlon Brando and The Naked Runner (1967) starring Frank Sinatra. Here, he is in free-association mode, the ideas tumbling out, especially in the Hollywood parody dance numbers sections where we go from Chaplin pastiche to Greta Garbo and Groucho Marx, Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers, West Side Story and James Bond. We have gangsters whose violin cases contain violins, a singing cowboy with subtitles (to explain the growth of the foreign movie) and a song about homesickness played out with Battersea Power Station in the background. If anybody can actually act they’re not putting any great effort into it. And that doesn’t matter either. The storyline is no more preposterous than many of the great Hollywood musicals. Everyone looks as if they’re having a whale of a time and I guess that would include the audience because the movie was the fifth-best performer of the year in Britain. This was the type of movie, during the rise of the permissive cinema, that you could take your grandmother to see and still come away surprised you had enjoyed it so much yourself.
We always knew the spy world was filled with the worst kind of legal renegade, the type who can get away with murder in the name of King and Country, with little regard for collateral damage, claiming the Cold War justifies any action. British espionage chiefs, wishing to assassinate an escaped spy before he can reach the Russian border, recruit against his will widowed businessman Sam Laker (Frank Sinatra). The spy top brass don’t care what methods of persuasion are used, “blackmail or drugs,” and eventually they decide that kidnapping his only son will make Laker toe the line.
Spy chief and wartime colleague Martin Slattery (Peter Vaughan) is a cold-blooded killer aiming to turn an ordinary man, albeit with a distinguished war record, into a cold-blooded killer. Laker is duped into delivering a message while on a business trip to Leipzeig in East Germany. When his son disappears it is at the behest of the equally ruthless East German secret police boss Colonel Hartmann (Derren Nesbitt) and thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse between Sinatra and the two spymasters competing for his services especially when it transpires he is a crack marksman. He is shifted to Copenhagen to assassinate the fugitive.
Naturally, the web is soon even more tangled. Laker becoming even more tense, with his son’s life hanging in the balance questions of morality are void. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff because the audience is as much in the dark as Laker about what is actually going on. Fans of the sophisticated spy thriller will not be surprised that there is a surprise ending.
Director Sidney J. Furie has some form in this murky world, having helmed the ground-breaking The Ipcress File (1965) whose spies are lot less glamorous than their James Bond counterpart. Even so, Michael Caine was a jaunty hero. Sinatra is the polar opposite. A more dour individual you could not meet. Sinatra is excellent in a role that asks him to bury a normal screen persona that oozes self-confidence. Furie is obsessed with odd camera angles and extreme long shots and extreme close-ups which has probably the intended disconcerting effect, concentrating the viewer on characters rather than surroundings.
While this approach worked in The Ipcress File and The Appaloosa it is less effective here, largely I think because Sinatra cannot brood with Brando’s intensity nor is his face as open and inviting as Caine’s. Although Sinatra is good in the role it does not suit the director’s intent which was surely to portray a man about to crack. Whereas the director’s impulse for the unusual made The Ipcress File a stylish film, here the camera angles get in the way of what is otherwise a taut story of a man driven to the limit. In fairness, the abundance of close-ups may not have been Furie’s fault. Sinatra disappeared for several days when the shoot moved to Copenhagen forcing Furie to shoot around him and inserting previous filmed close-ups.
Edward Fox (Day of the Jackal, 1973) has a small role as a diplomat and Romanian Nadia Gray (Two for the Road, 1967) appears as Laker’s initial contact in Leipzig.