The Angel Wore Red (1961) ***

Given that this is filmed in black-and-white, it seems a curious title. So I’m assuming the color is a reference to a scarlet woman which, indeed, Ava Gardner (On the Beach, 1959) is, working in a “cabaret” in an unnamed town at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Strangely enough, the decision to shoot in black-and-white works in the actress’s favor. She was one of the last relics of the Hollywood Golden Age when brilliant cinematographers used innovative lighting to capture on screen not so much great beauty but tantalizing emotion.

The close-up was almost exclusively the preserve of actresses who could convey deep feeling with minute changes of expression or simply through their eyes. Here, a couple of joint close-ups prove the point: Gardner’s face illuminated, struggling to contain passion; that of lover Dirk Bogarde (Song without End, 1960) merely the same as always.  

This Italian-American production is part homily, part reverential, part brutal. Bogarde plays a priest on the run from the invading Communist forces during the Spanish Civil War. He takes refuge in a cabaret (code for brothel) where he is sheltered by Gardner. He has just denounced his faith so when captured is not executed as an enemy of the state, thus allowing him to begin a relationship with her. They share an unusual type of innocence, Gardner because, as what was known in those days as a woman of easy virtue, she has never known true love, Bogarde, for obvious reasons, the same. Their trembling acceptance of this wondrous state of affairs is the beauty of the film. No one can portray a fallen woman like Gardner, but even as a mature woman her steps towards true love are hesitant, almost believing it is tucked away beyond the rainbow far out of reach, while inner conflict had become central to the Bogarde screen persona.

The love story which would surely in any case have a tragic outcome unfortunately too often plays second fiddle to a subsidiary tale of safeguarding a sacred relic – about whose importance, strangely enough, both sides are agreed – and of arguments between various other political characters over the conflict. Joseph Cotten as a cynical journalist – are there any other kind? – bears testimony to the opposing perspectives while Vittorio de Sica has a glorious cameo as a no-nonsense general who nonetheless deplores the “dirty” war. Neither side comes out well in the war, the Communists, like a mob storming Dracula’s castle, destroy the cathedral, the Republicans committed to killing all prisoners so as not to hold up the advance of their troops. Only the clergy retain their principles even when tortured.  

Writer-director Nunnally Johnson had good reason for choosing to film in black-and white – it permitted use of newsreel footage of diving Stuka bombers and more importantly since much of the story takes place at night it creates a haunted background of dark alleys. Color would have destroyed such a vision. You could argue there is artistic purpose here, filming a country which has fallen into spiritual darkness. But that would not be true of the star – black-and-white allows rare opportunity to show what the camera adores in Gardner, her face, even in repose, absorbing the light, as if she were, indeed, redemption.

   

The Happy Thieves (1962) ****

A triumvirate of art thieves are blackmailed into stealing a famous Goya painting from the Prada museum in Madrid. Jimmy Bourne (Rex Harrison) is the actual thief, Eve Lewis (Rita Hayworth) smuggles the artworks out of the country and Jean-Marie (Joseph Wiseman, soon to be more famous as Dr No, 1962) creates the forgeries that replace the stolen masterpieces. Hayworth is the least reliable of the trio, her drinking (she had a problem in real life) jeopardizes their slick operation. Not only has the painting they have stolen slipped through her hands but the thief Dr Victor Munoz (Gregoire Aslan) has filmed the original theft and is not above a bit of murder on the side.

Harrison and Hayworth are a delightful pairing. Hayworth has abandoned the sultry in favor of the winsome, Harrison shifted from sarcasm to dry wit. He is always one-step-ahead but  never overbearing, and the thefts are carried out with military precision. Even when let down by colleagues, who are inclined to scarper when threatened, he takes it all in his stride, the calm center of any potential storm. And there is genuine chemistry between Harrison and Hayworth though his matter-of-fact attitude tends to undercut the kind of passionate romance that moviegoers came to expect from top-class players thus paired. His proposal, for example, comes by way of dictation, “the new Mrs Bourne.” It would have been tempting for Hayworth to act as the ditzy blonde (brunette, actually) but instead she plays it straight, which is more effecting.

Bourne is the archetypal gentleman thief (“there is a touch of larceny in all successful men”) and Eve does her earnest best to keep up (“I want so much to be a first-class crook for you, I’m trying to be dishonest, honestly I am.”) There is never the remotest chance of them being confused with real gangsters. “I thought that stealing was the only honest way Jimmy could live with himself,” says Eve.  In truth, their characters set the template for better-known later heist pictures like How to Steal a Million (1966), Gambit (1966) and A Fine Pair (1968) – all reviewed on this blog – which couple one determined thief with one less so.   

Of course, heist pictures rely for much of their success on the actual heist. And Bourne’s plan for the Prada is brilliantly simple and carried out, as mentioned, with military precision. The get-out clause, which, of course, is how such films reach their conclusion, is more realistic and human than the other movies I have mentioned.

What’s more, there are number of excellent sight gags and great throwaway lines while Jean-Marie and Dr Munoz are well-written, the villain’s motivation particularly good. Other incidentals lend weight – their apartment is opposite a prison, the security guards at the Prada are caring rather than the idiots of How to Steal a Million, and a sub-plot involving a bullfighter (Virgilio Teixeira, Return of the Seven, 1966) also sheds light on Bourne.  There is a jaunty whistling theme tune by Mario Nascimbene (One Million Years B.C., 1966) which maintains levity throughout.

The movie does tilt from the gentleman thievery of the initial section into something much darker, but, so too, do the two principals and, unusually, rather than in the usual contrived fashion, Bourne and Eve undergo personal transition by the end.

I found the whole exercise highly enjoyable. It’s very under-rated. My only quibbles are that it is shot in black-and-white, which seems bizarre when Spain, the location, is such a colorful country. The title, too, is an oddity. This was the only picture produced by Hayworth in partnership with husband James Hill. They split up before the picture was released which might explain its poor initial box office.  Hill was an experienced producer, part of Hill-Hecht-Lancaster (The Unforgiven, 1960), but this proved his final film.

Hayworth, too, had previously worn the producer’s hat for The Loves of Carmen (1948), Affair in Trinidad (1952) and Salome (1953). Hayworth was still a marquee attraction at this point, taking top billing here, and second billing to John Wayne in Circus World/The Magnificent Showman (1963). But this is quite a different performance to her all-out-passionate persona or the slinky deviousness of Gilda (1946). Alida Valli (The Third Man, 1949) puts in an appearance and trivia trackers might take note of the debut of Britt Ekland (credited as Britta Ekman).

Director George Marshall was a Hollywood veteran with over a quarter of a century directorial experience including film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946), Jerry Lewis comedy The Sad Sack (1957) and western The Sheepman (1958) with Glenn Ford. In fact, five of his previous six pictures had starred Glenn Ford and his next shift would be on How the West Was Won (1962).

The Running Man (1963) ****

Twisty Carol Reed thriller pivoting on emotional entanglement that keeps you guessing right up to the end. In revenge for losing his business after an insurance company failed to cough up for his crashed plane, entrepreneur Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) fakes his own death and flees to Malaga in Spain.

But when girlfriend Lee Remick (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962) joins him she finds he has assumed the identity of an Australian millionaire whose passport he has purloined and completed the transformation by changing his black hair to blond. Harvey has a mind to repeat the experiment by killing off himself (under the new identity) and claiming the insurance. Remick, complicit in the original scam, not only balks at this idea but finds disconcerting his change of personality and clear attraction to the opposite sex.

Tensions mount when mild-mannered insurance investigator Alan Bates (A Kind of Loving, 1962) appears on the scene. Anyone watching the film now has to accept that in the days before social media every face was not instantly tracked and accept that Bates is unaware of what Harvey looks like.

The couple cannot run because they are awaiting a bank draft. Bates immediately sets the tone for suspicion when he pronounces that their vehicle  “looks like a getaway car.”  Forced to follow “The Godfather” dictum of keeping your enemies closer, the pair befriend Bates with the intention of finding out what he knows and what are his intentions. Harvey and Remick have to pretend they have only just met, and have separate bedrooms, leaving the door open for Bates to gently woo Remick, an action endorsed by Harvey. They are caught out in small lies. Harvey’s Australian accent falters. Bates keeps on making notations in a notebook. Harvey foils Bates’ attempts to photograph him.

The ensuing game of cat-and-mouse is complicated by Bates pursuit of Remick. Is this as genuine as it appears? Or is he trying to get her on her own to admit complicity? Both Harvey and Remick are, effectively, forced to adopt the new identities they have forged to dupe Bates with unforeseen results. There are red herrings aplenty, a race along mountainous roads, and some marvelous twists as the couple find the tale they have woven is turning too tight for comfort until murder appears the only solution.  

As with his international breakthrough The Third Man (1949), Reed grounds the whole Hitchcockian enterprise in local culture – this being unspoiled Malaga prior to the tourist deluge – Spanish churches, a wedding, a fiesta, the running of the bulls, with an occasional ironic twist – “gypsy” musicians watching ballroom dancing on television. Reed resists taking the material down a darker route –  Hitchcock would undoubtedly have twisted the scenario in another direction until Remick came under threat from Harvey – but instead allows it to play out as a menage-a-trois underwritten by menace.

The acting is sublime. Harvey wallows in his part, Remick quietly anxious scarcely coming to believe that she had played a part in the original crime, Bates with a pleasant inquisitive demeanor the ideal foil to Harvey. Unusually, they all undergo change, Harvey uncovers a more ruthless side to his character, Remick responds to the gentler nature of Bates, while Bates shrugs off his schoolmasterly aspects to become an attractive companion. It all leads towards a thrilling conclusion.

A couple of footnotes – special mention to Maurice Binder for the opening credits and this was the final score of British composer William Alwyn (The Fallen Idol, 1948).

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.