Wonderful Life (1964)****

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.

The Naked Runner (1967)***

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.

The main departure from the book by Francis Clifford (also author of the source novel for “Guns of Darkness,” 1962) is the movie overview. The book follows the hero from start to finish. Only at the end is explanation offered. In the book the assassin’s target is a defector not an escaped spy. However, opening the book up to involve Slattery discussing his methods and providing an overview of the espionage world is a bit like tacking on an unnecessary message to an otherwise straightforward thriller. Straying from Laker’s point-of-view lessens rather than increases tension. Sinatra Enterprises produced the picture so presumably screenwriter Stanley Mann’s change of emphasis had the actor’s blessing.

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.

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