Banning (1967) ***

Robert Wagner’s bid for stardom is scuppered by a limp plot set in the overheated world of the country club set where a posse of sexually predatory women operate. It doesn’t help that the main narrative thrust finds trouble just hanging in there.

Ex-professional golfer Banning (Robert Wagner), a “moral diabetic” on the run from a loan shark, pitches up at an upmarket country club where he finds work as the assistant golf pro to Jonathan (Guy Stockwell). His most arduous task appears to be picking his way between the toned bikini-ed bodies lounging around the pool and avoiding the advances of Angela (Jill St John) and Jonathan’s wife Cynthia (Susan Clark) while coming on strong to overpaid secretary Carol (Anjanette Comer).

There’s an element of Life at the Top (1965) here, with Jonathan married to the boss’s daughter, resenting their close relationship while not making the executive advances he would like. Every now and then bits of what sound like a complicated past implicating Jonathan and the alcoholic Tommy Del Gaddo (Gene Hackman) pop up and around the halfway mark a subplot kicks in, involving something called a “Calcutta,” a golf tourney which looks like it’s being rigged.

Given that it’s organised by a club boss (Howard St John) who claims every gimme going and feigns drunkenness to skin members at poker, it’s almost a given that Banning is going to come out worst. I have to tell you you probably couldn’t care less, since most of the action, and all of the fun, is off course, and not so much in the bedroom stakes as the war between women for available men.

“I bought you,” purrs Angela in her  most seductive attire after she has made it possible for Banning to find a way to pay off his debts. “I want you,” snaps single mother Carol, making a forthright play after spending most of the picture fending off his advances. Standing on the side-lines, watching Angela making her moves, Cynthia observes, “I’d say Angela’s had at least a dozen husbands,” pause for the punchline, “including mine for all I know.”

Predatory moves are not all one way. Turns out the price Carol pays for a salary five times the going rate and a nice house and private schooling for her daughter is setting aside Thursday afternoons for Jonathan. But in the pragmatic manner that appears inbred in the country club, she states, “No apologies, no excuses.”

And before Carol works out just how attractive Banning actually is she had to cut him dead a couple of times and, in a scene guaranteed to put off the modern audience, prevent him drunkenly raping her. It was almost a throwback to the 1940s and 1950s when, it appeared, a woman just needed a good smack on the chops before she could submit and start billing and cooing.

Robert Wagner (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968), tanned within an inch of his life, doesn’t so much miss the target as not being given a target worth hitting. There’s very little sense danger, of a man on the run from the mob or whichever gangster has picked up the tab for his debt, and he’s not a lounge lizard. Acting-wise, he relies on a raised eyebrow, an eye swivel and that scene-stealing trick, copyright Robert Vaughn, of raising his lowered head to open his closed eyes, a neat device for a supporting star but hardly required when you are top-billed.

Anjanette Comer (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) doesn’t snatch the brass ring either, relying on a tremulous lower lip to evoke emotion. In fact, it’s a toss-up between the classier Jill St John (The King’s Pirate, 1967) and Susan Clark (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) as to who steals the most scenes, both winging it with striking dialog, emanating power, regarding men as weak and playthings.

Gene Hackman (Lilith, 1964), generally a prime contender for scene stealing, especially with trademark chuckle now in full swing, unfortunately does himself no favors by over-acting.  You might also spot James Farentino (Rosie, 1967) and Sean Garrison (Moment to Moment, 1966).

Ron Winston (Ambush Bay, 1966) directed from a screenplay by James Lee (Counterpoint, 1967). It would have worked better to concentrate more on the bitchy women than the sub-plots.

I’m sorry to say you’ll have a hard job finding this since I purchased my DVD on the second-hand market. Worth the hunt if you’re a fan of St John and Clark or to discover why Wagner’s promising screen career never took off.

Coogan’s Bluff (1968) ***

Almost a curiosity in the Clint Eastwood canon from the later perspective, this modern western concerning a maverick Arizona cop pursuing a fugitive in New York could also be interpreted as a riposte to the violent avenger of the “Dollars” trilogy and Hang ‘Em High (1968). Like Rio Conchos (1964) there’s an action-packed start and finish and not much in between unless you count Coogan (Clint Eastwood) being beaten up, and like Firecreek, made in the same year but less of an audience attraction, a slow burn with little of the depth of the Vincent McEveety effort.

It fits more neatly into the “victim” niche of The Beguiled (1970) and Play Misty for Me (1971) with Eastwood, while attempting to present a macho image, set upon by predatory women. Here, although led into a trap by the girlfriend Linny (Tisha Sterling) of the wanted Ringerman (Don Stroud), the victim elements are mostly humorous, Coogan a fish-out-of-water taken advantage of by cab drivers and hoteliers and by a justice system that takes more note of due process than he is accustomed to. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a romance as Coogan, for whom persistence pays off, beds probation officer Julie (Susan Clark).

Coogan is a paid up member of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am fraternity, frolicking with an adulterous lover in Arizona, and displaying no qualms about getting it on with Linny. In the hands of Jack Lemmon this would be a comedy, so it’s a strange choice for Eastwood unless for experimental purposes, trying to set himself up more as Steve McQueen than John Wayne.

The picture opens with Coogan tracking down a Native American, and manacling him to a pole outside a house while he repairs inside for sex. Interrupted by a sheriff frustrated by his ways, he is despatched to New York where he manages, through a bluff, to have Ringerman removed from Bellevue mental hospital. On the way home, he is ambushed by Linny and some thugs, losing consciousness and his gun, neither going down well with the more bureaucratically-minded Lt. McElroy (Lee J Cobb) whose undercover stake-out plans he has also ruined.

Luckliy, Coogan has chanced upon probation officer Julie who can’t quite manage to deter his amorous advances and at an appropriate moment he sneaks a look at her files for his next lead. Not quite as sharp as he imagines, and clearly not much good at assimilating painful lessons, after a dalliance with Linny, he is astonished to be led into yet another trap. In the end, of course, he gets his man, courtesy of a motorbike chase. But there’s a curious ending. Not only does Julie, who he has betrayed with Linny, turn up to wave him off, but, as if he has now turned into a kinder, more humane specimen, he affords his prisoner a smoke, something he pointedly refused to do with the Native American.

It’s not dated particularly well and modern audiences will have trouble accepting domestic abuse and rape as comedic situations and eyebrows are scarcely going to be raised at the drug-addled Linny nor the club where naked women fly overhead on trapezes. The idea that intelligent women like Julie, weighed down with psych jargon and over-concern for offenders, just need a big hunk in their lives doesn’t fly either.

But if you accept the out-of-towner trope, and are happy to see Clint practising his squint and double take , you will find in between the action  and “victim” agenda, a quite tolerable romance. It was a bold choice for a star best known for killing people. Tough guy that he is, he is flummoxed by the big city and has a hell of a job getting his man. On the other hand Eastwood and Clark have excellent chemistry. This is embryo Eastwood, almost as if he is trying on a variety of screen persona to see what will fit. After Dirty Harry (1971) there was little truck with romance except for The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and In the Line of Fire (1993) so it’s interesting to see his moves, albeit that the best romantic work he did was in the director’s chair with Breezy (1973).

Susan Clark is superb, all the professional confidence of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) but the romantic cynicism replaced by an appealing hesitancy. Lee J. Cobb (Exodus, 1960) has little to do except be grumpy, Don Stroud (Madigan, 1968) doesn’t feature prominently enough while Tisha Sterling (Journey to Shiloh, 1968) makes the bigger impact.

Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) would become an Eastwood long-time confederate, directing him in six movies, of which this was the first. He had just made a Hollywood comeback after six years in the feature film wilderness with Madigan (1968), a tougher cop picture. I would be inclined to lavish more critical plaudits on the idea of playing around with the tough guy persona, but I’m not sure that was the intention.

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