The Mad Room (1969) ***

Tight little thriller lifted by excellent performances from Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters focusing on murders a dozen years apart. Mandy (Barbara Sammeth) and older brother George (Michael Burns), incarcerated in a mental institution after the murder of their parents, the twist being nobody can discover which child was responsible, are released into the custody of big sister Ellen (Stella Stevens), secretary to wealthy widow Mrs Armstrong (Shelley Winters) and betrothed to her son Sam (Skip Ward).

While concealing the children’s past, Ellen persuades Mrs Armstrong to offer them lodgings, that arrangement coming unstuck when the kids demand a room where they can go “to work things out.”  Armstrong is a bit barmy, engaged on building beside her home a museum to her husband, hence contractors and construction workers on site, and a horde of “ladies who lunch” involved in fundraising. She has also appropriated masseur Armand (Lou Kane), husband of alcoholic Mrs Racine (Beverly Garland), to fulfil her sexual needs.

Don’t worry – the poster doesn’t give the game away.
The blood comes from Stella Stevens discovering the corpse.

When Mrs Armstrong threatens to chuck the kids out, she comes to a sticky end, and the question is raised again of whether Mandy or George are responsible. Mandy is the more highly-strung, stubborn and likely to challenge authority. George appears predatory, stalking the maid. Both are convinced the other is guilty.

Meanwhile, Ellen undertakes to remove the body and pretend Armstrong met her death by accident at a beauty spot, no mean feat given the palaver caused by the builders outside and the constant need for construction decisions and the unexpected arrival of a posse of ladies including the alcoholic Mrs Racine intent on raising merry hell.

It’s part whodunit, part nutcases-on-the-loose, part film noir, part slasher picture,  and part grand guignol. Hands are severed and blood is used to daub flowers on the walls. It’s tense enough even before Armstrong’s demise. She’s not only a loony, but untrustworthy, selfish, capricious and demanding, and it’s as much as Ellen can stand to constantly iron out all the loose ends in her employer’s life. But she sounds believable, an earnest do-gooder even while conspiring against what she sees as Ellen’s gold-digging.

Ellen, life thrown into turmoil after the death of her overbearing impoverished parents and only now building a new identity removed from the shadow of the children, faces the prospect of losing her ideal future. While it would have suited her for the children never to be released, she exhibits surprisingly a strong emotional attachment to her siblings, willing to both shelter and protect them, and conceal again their crimes.

Initial tension revolves around a chase, savage dogs, a shifty maid and Ellen dealing with the manipulative Mrs Armstrong, holding her own long enough until she is safely married, while further pressure builds with the necessity to cover up the murder, explain Mrs Armstrong’s absence, cope with the sudden influx of people and ascertain who has the murderous tendencies. There are some excellent scenes and twisty payoffs, and quite a bit of misdirection – the chase, rabid dogs, a childish song – and some inspired drama such as Mrs Racine letting rip, and Mrs Armstrong’s growing puzzlement.

Stella Stevens (Sol Madrid, 1968), normally eye candy or in a supporting role, is a revelation as Ellen, creating a grounded personality, with several changes of emotion and except for being a little pop-eyed on occasion carries off the part tremendously well and not falling prey to the temptation of grandstanding. Shelley Winters (A House Is Not a Home, 1964), who knows all about playing larger-than-life characters, tones it down here, even the obvious nuttiness reined in.

Michael Burns (That Cold Day in the Park, 1969) is the better of the two younger actors, while Barbara Sammeth’s (Foul Play, 1978) stiffness could be put down to inexperience – this was her debut. Otherwise former horror queen Beverly Garland (Stark Fear, 1962), one-time horr

The Title Jungle: The A.K.A. Business 1960s Style

We’ve all been there. You are scrolling through a movie website and you come across a new Audrey Hepburn picture called The Loudest Whisper (1961) and you get all excited and wonder how on earth you could have missed it. You check it out. Something about the other credits sounds familiar – directed by William Wyler, co-starring Shirley Maclaine. Wait a minute, isn’t that The Children’s Hour? Yep, you got it. Welcome to the title jungle, the constant changing of the names of movies from country to country.

You could see how this was necessary, possibly even essential, as different languages and cultures struggled to make sense of Hollywood titles. There could be other reasons. What actually does To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) mean and is it translatable into Greek or Italian? What happens if the publisher of the bestseller-cum-movie has already changed the title? Or  if an American bestseller sank like a stone in other countries and the whimsical title means nothing to nobody.

But The Loudest Whisper was the British title for the William Wyler picture. And Britain, it turns out,  was not shy about changing titles. Elia Kazan’s America, America (1964), a straightforward title you might think, suggesting longing, was changed into the incomprehensible The Anatolian Smile, assuming the ordinary public knew where (or what) Anatolia was. Burt Kennedy western Mail Order Bride (1964), an idea too obvious for the sensitive Brits, became the meaningless West of Montana.

Glenn Ford-Stella Stevens western comedy Advance to the Rear (1964), a simple joke in any language unless your mind ran in cruder directions, turned into Company of Cowards. Glenn Ford again, Experiment in Terror (1962) was translated for British audiences as The Grip of Fear. Rene Clement French thriller Joy House, perhaps suggestive of a house of ill-repute, with Alain Delon and Jane Fonda became the no-less risqué Love Cage. And any notions that The Stripper would prove impossible to resist for any red-blooded male were scuppered by renaming it Woman of Summer.   

In any case, the Italians had already co-opted the whole stripping thing, Warner Brothers musical Gypsy (1962) was translated as The Woman Who Invented Striptease, which was actually what Gypsy Rose Lee was famed for even if Hollywood did not want to admit it upfront. In fact, the people in charge of foreign titling often came up with a better choice than the original. Two Seducers was the Italian title for Bedtime Story (1964) starring Marlon Brando and David as, guess what, rival seducers.

In case you had no idea what The Prize (1963) referred to, what could be better than renaming it, as in Italy, Intrigue in Stockholm or, in accepting some knowledge of the Nobel Prize, the Greek version No Laurels for Murderers, both revamped titles a bit more persuasive above a marquee than the bland original, especially if the Irving Wallace bestseller on which it was based had not been a success in the respective countries.

Cape Fear (1962) – based on a book with the straightforward title of The Executioner – was improved upon in several countries, all taking a similar approach to the problem. In Switzerland it was known as Bait for a Beast, in West Germany Decoy for a Beast, both of which actually touched more succinctly on the main plot than the Hollywood version. And some countries believed in saying it as they saw it, Irma La Douce (1963) shown in Greece as The Streetwalker.

Clearly, some Hollywood titles provoked much head-scratching as titling experts tried to work out if they had, perhaps, a hidden meaning. Frank Sinatra comedy Come Blow Your Horn (1963) was variously called I’ll Take Care of the Women (Italy), If My Sleeping Room Could Talk (West Germany), If My Bed Could Talk (Greece) and the more straightforward Bachelor’s Apartment (Israel).

Some titles came with inbuilt bafflement. Italy had an interesting take on MGM musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), tabbing it I Want To Be Loved in a Brass Bed. Move Over Darling (1963) emerged as One Too Many in Bed (West Germany) and Her Husband Is Mine (Greece) while another Doris Day vehicle Lover Come Back (1961) became A Pajama for Two (Switzerland), and A Pair of Pajamas for Two (West Germany). But some essential facet of the character of Hud (1962) was captured in Wildest Among a Thousand (West Germany) and Wild as a Storm (Greece).

And back to that To Kill a Mockingbird problem. Italian audiences were treated to Darkness Beyond the Hedge and Greek moviegoers to Shadows and Silence. Incidentally, in Israel The Stripper was known as Lost Rose while Advance to the Rear in West Germany appeared as Heroes without Pants.  

SOURCE: “How U.S. Titles Are Retitled in Foreign Lands,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p108 and examination of movies on Imdb.

Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang (1968) ***

Was it David McCallum’s floppy-haired blondness that prevented him making the jump to movie action hero because, with the ruthlessness of a Dirty Harry, he certainly makes a good stab at it in this slightly convoluted drugs thriller. Never mind being saddled with an odd moniker, the name devised surely only in the hope it would linger in the memory, Sol Madrid (McCallum) is an undercover cop on the trail of the equally blonde, though somewhat more statuesque, Stacey Woodward (Stella Stevens) and Harry Mitchell (Pat Hingle) who have scarpered with a half a million Mafia dollars. Hingle is the Mafia “human computer” who knows everything about the Cosa Nostra’s dealings, Woodward the girlfriend of Mafia don Villanova (Rip Torn).

Sol tracks down Stella easy enough and embarks on the audacious plan of using her share of the loot, a cool quarter of a million, to fund a heroin deal in Mexico with the intention of bringing down both Mexican kingpin Emil Dietrich (Telly Savalas) and, using the on-the-run pair as bait, Villanova. A couple of neat action sequences light this picture up. When Sol and Stella are set upon by two knife-wielding hoods in a car park, he employs a car aerial as a weapon while she taking refuge in a car watches in terror as an assailant batters down the window. Sol has hit on a neat method of transferring the heroin from Tijuana to San Diego and that is filled with genuine tension as is the hand-over where Sol with an unexpected whipcrack slap puts his opposite number in his place.

Meanwhile, Villanova has sent a hitman to Mexico and when that fails turns up himself, kidnapping Stella and planning a degrading revenge. Most of the movie is Sol duelling with Dietrich, suspicion of the other’s motives getting in the way of the trust required to seal a deal, with Mitchell, hiding out in Dietrich’s fortified lair, soon being deemed surplus to requirements. Various complications heighten the tension in their flimsy relationship.

Madrid is Dirty Harry in embryo, determined to bring down the gangsters by whatever means even if that involves going outside the law he is supposed to uphold, incipient romance with Woodward merely a means to an end. McCallum certainly holds his own in the tough guy stakes, whether trading punches or coolly gunning down or ruthlessly drowning enemies he is meant to just capture, and trading  steely-eyed looks with his nemesis.

It’s a decent enough effort from director Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), but is let down by the film’s structure, the expected confrontation with Villanova taking far too long, too much time spent on his revenge with Woodward, for whom audience sympathy is slight. Just at the time when Hollywood was exploring the fun side of drug taking – Easy Rider just a year away – this was a more realistic portrayal of the evil of narcotics.

It is also quite prescient, foreshadowing both The Godfather Part II (1974) in the way Villanova has modernised the Mafia, achieving respectability through money laundering, and this century’s television obsession with South American drug cartels with all-out police battles with the Narcos. And there is a bullet-through-the-glasses composition that will be very familiar to fans of The Godfather (1972), and you will also notice a similarity between the feared Luca Brasi and the Mafia hitman Scarpi (Michael Conrad) here. And why we’re at it, Woodward’s predicament is close to Gene Hackman’s in French Connction II (1975).

The action sequences are excellent and fresh. Think Madeleine cowering in terror as the car window is battered in No Time to Die (2021) and you get an idea of the power Hutton brings to the scene of a terrified Woodward hiding in the car. Incidentally, you might think McCallum was more of a secret agent than a cop with the cold-blooded ruthlessness with which he dispatches his enemies.

Stella Stevens (The Silencers, 1966) is the weak link, too shrill and not willing to sully her make-up or hair when her role requires degradation. Her part is better written (“I never met a man who didn’t want to use me”) than Stevens can act and she gets a clincher of the film’s final line. Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) with his playful villain, though the trademark laugh is in occasional evidence, is in sharp contrast to Rip Torn who is all snarling bad guy. Ricardo Montalban (Madame X, 1966) is Sol’s Mexican sidekick and Paul Lukas, a star of the Hollywood “golden age”, puts in a fleeting appearance.

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