Synanon (1965) ***

Pre-dating Hollywood’s love affair with drugs, before sub-culture transformed into counter culture, before smoking a joint marked a generational divide, before marijuana symbolized freedom and was, well, the epitome of cool, before all that heroin was still seen as a scourge.

Addiction had rarely been viewed as persuasive audience fodder with the odd exception of The Man with the Golden Arm (1953) or the less-starry Monkey on My Back (1957). And this was also before Synanon became a byword for cult excess and was eventually closed down for committing the cardinal sin of employing tax exemption to get stinking rich.

At the time it was a byword for something else – rehabilitation. Its methods might have been controversial given leader Chuck (Edmond O’Brien) had no psychiatric training and was simply an ex-addict looking to find a way back. The main weapon in the community’s arsenal was confrontation. What became known as attack therapy. Rather than being permitted to stew in self-pity, inmates, all voluntary, had their weaknesses spelled out by others until they were ready to acknowledge them for themselves. The key to recovery was talking. Anyone not talking was hiding from their problems. (I’m not so well up on addiction therapy to know whether Synanon invented that kind of counselling of talking out problems in groups that then became the norm.)  If patients took to the scheme they were soon addicted to smoking and coffee; sex being considered too dangerous to contemplate.

Anyways, heroin addict Zankie (Alex Cord) is a newcomer helped along an entrant’s path by Joaney (Stella Stevens), a single mum so out of kilter with responsibility she kidnaps her son, and confronted by hardass Ben (Chuck Connors), so consumed with guilt over the death of his dope-fiend wife that he spurns all women. There’s a sub-plot of sorts. Chuck is being charged with various minor violations, including permitting convicted criminals out on parole to enter the establishment. But Chuck’s main job is to be sarcastic, challenging anyone’s notions that they could be cured, but occasionally analytically correct. “You put yourself in a position where you could lose control,” he tells Ben.

It’s a hothouse of emotions for sure. Zankie and Ben come to blows over Joaney. Zankie sees little wrong in knocking back some cough medicine. Eventually, Zankie skips out, pursued by Joaney, who goes back to turning tricks to fund her habit. There’s a surprising scene – for the time (likely excised from the British version and possibly the original) – of Chuck going through the whole candle, spoon, injection routine.

Set up as a sanitised public relations package promoting Synanon ideals with overmuch detail on the establishment’s background and conflict with authority, nonetheless it touches far better than most addiction movies on the lack of self-awareness that afflicts users, their creation of fantasy worlds where whatever they do is deemed right. The tension that comes from an entire house of jumpy characters, their dependence on a higher power (Chuck in this case) is well-drawn. Even the incessant smoking and the constant reliance on coffee suggests those with an addictive personality are only too likely to switch to something else.

You might question the casting. Alex Cord (Stagecoach, 1966), Stella Stevens (Rage, 1966) and Chuck Connors (Move Over Darling, 1963) are far too well-groomed to pass for skanky addicts even if on the road to recovery. And Edmond O’Brien (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) and his sidekick (Richard Conte, Lady in Cement, 1968)) come across like tougher versions of the tough priests tackling delinquency that used to be played by the likes of Spencer Tracy.

But Cord and Stevens do suggest the vulnerability of the delusional addict, Stevens little-girl-lost persona at odds with her glamor, actions devoid of the concept of consequence. Although boasting a six-pack, Cord’s portrayal of a man destroyed by weakness did not suggest he would segue from this screen debut into tough-guy leading roles. Better actors might have suggested a greater degree of internal conflict but externally, in the looks department, might have looked like this was always going to be their destination. So the casting works both ways, more surface, less depth, but a warning that even the prom king and queen are not immune from addiction.

Soberly directed by Richard Quine (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) from a screenplay by Ian Bernard, in his debut, but feels it owes too much from input by the original Chuck Dederich.

Rage (1966) ***

You can count on Glenn Ford to bring his A-game to a B-picture. While never reaching the top tier of stardom he had been a box office stalwart in the 1950s until gradually losing his marquee touch in the early 1960s.

This is an odd one, with some nods at Wages of Fear (1953) and any picture that involved a trek or featured a hooker with a heart of gold. The story was certainly unusual – rabies. And the idea of a resulting pandemic will resonate more now than it did then. But it takes quite a long time for the key storyline to emerge, which is just as well because it allows Glenn Ford (Experiment in Terror, 1962) time to turn in one of his best characterisations.

Generally, Ford was Mr Dependable, very capable of holding his own and meting out punishment to anyone who crossed the line. So, this is as far from typecasting as you can get.

Dr Reuben (Glenn Ford) is a washed-up alcoholic working in a flyblown mining pitstop in Mexico, riddled with guilt at the death of wife and child. So when a posse of prostitutes turns up, he’s last in the queue, possibly his disinterest the attraction for Perla (Stella Stevens). By the time he realises he’s contracted rabies, he’s up against the clock, 48 hours to reach a town with an antidote, but still a baby to deliver, a jeep that has to cross a rickety bridge and then runs out of gas, so that, once linked up again with Perla and helped by Pancho, he has to cross mountain and desert to reach safety.

Logic isn’t in much evidence here. Despite knowing he has contracted the disease, he still delivers a baby and then spends most of the final 36 hours in the company of Perla and Pancho (David Reynoso), not to mention that the Mexican has abandoned his wife, who has just given birth in a shack, in order to accompany the doctor, or that the doc finds his way onto a bus loaded up with kids (presumably they are immune).

Not to mention that with a jeep running out of gas surely the last thing you’d want is to weight it down with passengers. And with a budget that’s not going to cater for a proper runaway bus that sequence falls back on the old speeded-up film.  And if you’re going down the line of a rickety bridge, do it once, don’t repeat it.

But then you wouldn’t have anyone on hand to deliver philosophic lines, or to start to fall in love (wih Perla, you understand, not Pancho).

Take away the illogicality and there is still quite enough that works. The driver of the hooker truck unceremoniously jacks up his load to dump them in the town. A woman is tied to a table in preparation for giving birth. A suspected rabies victim is dragged through the streets by rope. The hunt for gas leads them to drain oil lamps. There’s a very self-aware Perla, more than enough common sense for both of them. She knows exactly what she has become and that’s something for which there ain’t no cure. But there are a couple of beautifully-wrought scenes that would allow Reuben and Perla to express their true feelings if either was capable of letting go, and you won’t see more expressive fingers.

They struggled to sell this one. The old “woman scorned” line is out of place as is a town eaten up with rage and Glenn Ford does little pistol-packing. But Stella Stevens does look pretty in pink.

And the clock running down also means that the symptoms are building up. Reuben’s senses are heightened. Light is too bright, sounds deafening, and if the doctor is already too ill he won’t be able to drink from a waterfall.

Every now and then director Gilberto Gazcon – who hadn’t made a picture in four years since La Risa de la Ciudad (1962) and wouldn’t make another for three years – chucks in a cinematic morsel, the camera whizzing around or racing back, to show Reuben’s state of mind. But, honestly, he needn’t have bothered.

You hire Glenn Ford and you get everything through his eyes, maybe a sly tensing of his features or a gesture from time to time, but this is one actor – mostly under-rated – who is just rock solid when it comes to displaying character. So when he’s not trying to save himself, dashing from one scheme to the next, he’s flat out trying to stop himself going mad, and only pausing for a bit of reflection as Perla tries to inject some meaning into his life.

Stella Stevens (Sol Madrid, 1968) ain’t that gold-hearted she’s going to let men treat her like dirt, she hands out a couple of good thumpings, but in her world you’re not going to come across any men who aren’t pure predatory, and it’s a shock for her to meet someone who thinks a woman can’t be bought. This is a rounded character – tough but vulnerable, and surprisingly tender should the opportunity arise.

Definitely a mixed-bag and a bit more work on the screenplay would not have gone amiss but top-drawer performance from Glenn Ford.

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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