Beau Geste (1966) ***

Two brothers battle inhospitable terrain, warring tribes and a sadistic sergeant major in a  remake of the classic tale. The title translates as “noble and generous gesture” and is a pun on the name of hero Michael Geste (Guy Stockwell), an American hiding out in the French Foreign Legion in shame for being involved, innocently as it happens, in embezzlement. His attitude is markedly different to the “scum of the earth” who make up the battalion and his quick wit and refusal to kowtow make him a target for Sgt Major Dagineau (Telly Savalas), a former officer busted to the ranks.

Dagineau delights in imposing hardship and devising mental torture, making some recruits including Geste walk around blindfold at the top of a cliff. Geste’s resistance to his superior is almost suicidal and he even volunteers to take a whipping on behalf of his comrades. “It’s me he wants,” says Geste, “if not now the next time.” At another point he is buried up to his neck in the blazing sun.

Joined by his brother John (Doug McClure), the battalion sets out as a relief force for a remote fort but when commanding officer Lt De Ruse (Leslie Nielsen) is seriously wounded, the sergeant-major takes charge. Under siege from the Tuareg tribe, honor, treachery, mutiny, fighting skills and courage all come into play in a final section.

The action and the various episodes and confrontations are strong enough and Geste has a good line in witty retort, but blame the casting for the fact that it turns into Saturday afternoon matinee material. It was always going to be a stretch to match Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Susan Hayward from the 1939 hit version.

Stagecoach, remade the same year, was able to rustle up a bona fide box office star in Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas, 1964) and a host of supporting players with considerable marquee appeal including Bing Crosby (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964), Robert Cummings (Promise Her Anything, 1965) and Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963). Nobody in the cast of Beau Geste could compare. Apart from the Spanish-made Sword of Zorro (1963), Guy Stockwell usually came second or third in the credits, as did Doug McClure (Shenandoah, 1965) while Telly Savalas, despite or because of an Oscar nomination for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), was viewed as a character actor.

But that was the point. Universal gambled on turning the latest graduates from its talent school into major box office commodities. The set pieces and the action are well handled and while there are excellent lines especially in the verbal duels between hero and villain, it’s not helped by the most interesting character being Dagineau, who, despite his failings, accepted his fall from grace, worked his way back up the career ladder, believing brutality the only way to control the soldiers, and in the end out of the two is the one who has the greater sense of honor, refusing to allow a lie to befoul the truth, rejecting the notion of when the legend becomes fact print the legend, And it’s a shame that the movie has to present his character in more black-and-white terms rather than invest more time in his background or accept his version of reality.   

Telly Savalas (The Scalphunters, 1968) steals the show with a performance of considerable subtlety. Guy Stockwell (Tobruk, 1967) is little more than a stalwart, the heroic hero, with little sense of the irony of his situation. Doug McClure (The King’s Pirate, 1967) presents as straighforward a matinee idol. If you only know Leslie Neilsen from his later spoof comedies like Airplane! (1980) you will be surprised to see him deliver a dramatic performance as the drunken commander who still insists, in an echo of El Cid, in rising from his sick bed to lead his troops. Normally this kind of macho movie – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) prime examples – throws up burgeoning talent who go on to make it big. It’s one of the disappointments here that this does not occur.

This was the second and final movie of Douglas Heyes (Kitten with a Whip, 1964).  

The Scalphunters (1968) ****

If ever a film deserves reassessment, this is it. This western, marketed as a vehicle for Burt Lancaster in the wake of hugely successful The Professionals (1968), sees the star playing  cussed trapper Joe Bass trying to retrieve furs stolen first by Native Americans and then by outlaws. That the serious race issues tackled here were dressed up in very broad comedy and typical western action ensured it missed out on the kind of recognition that critics would assign a straightforward drama and lost its rightful place as a pivotal picture of the decade.

In theory, a somewhat unusual Burt Lancaster western. In reality something else entirely. For large chunks of the movie Lancaster is absent as the story follows the fortunes of black slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) as he achieves not just freedom but genuine equality. Joseph is introduced as a slave of the Kiowa, left behind when the Indians steal Joe Bass’s furs. In compensation for his loss, Bass plans to sell Lee in the slave market in St Louis and in the meantime enrols him to help recover his furs.

However, a band of outlaws, specializing in collecting Native American scalps (hence the title) and selling them at $25 a time, get to the furs first as a by-product of a raid on the Kiowas. In pursuit with Bass, Lee falls into a river at the outlaw encampment and becomes the slave of Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) who also aims to sell him. Lee plans to escape until discovering Howie’s large troop is headed for Mexico where the slave would automatically become free. With clever talk, beauty-treatment skills and knowledge of astrology and ecology, Lee insinuates himself into the wagon of Howie’s paramour Kate (Shelley Winters).

With Bass still in pursuit, there are several excellent action scenes as the outnumbered trapper seeks to outwit Howie who turns out to be just as devious. But the main question is not whether Bass will recover his stolen property but which side will Lee pick. Will he act as spy to help Bass get back his furs or will he disown Bass and remain with the murderous genocidal gang? Either in the company of Bass or Howie, he is constantly reminded of his status, taking a beating from one of Howie’s thugs, Bass refusing to share his whisky because he views him not just as a slave who “picked his master” but as a coward refusing to fight back when attacked beaten up.

The film comes to a very surprising ending but by that time through his own actions Lee is accepted as an equal by Bass and the issue of slavery dissolved. In effect, it is a tale of self-determination. Lee effects liberty by taking advantage of situations and standing up for his own cause.

Lee is one of the most interesting characters to appear on the western scene for a long time. Exactly where he acquired his education is unclear and equally hazy are how – and from where – he escaped and how he ended up as slave of the Commanches before they traded him to the Kiowa. However he came to be in the thick of the story, his tale is by far the most original. But he’s not the only original. The fearless Bass was an early ecological warrior with an intimate understanding of living off the wild, not in normal genre fashion of killing anything that moves, but in knowing how to find sustenance from plants. That in itself would endear him to modern lovers of alternative lifestyles.

Normally the derogatory term “scalphunters” would be reference to Native Americans, but here it is American Americans who exploit this market. Despite being the leader of a vicious bunch, Howie turns out to be a bit of a romantic and Kate a bit more interested in the world than your average female sidekick.

Director Sydney Pollack (The Slender Thread, 1965) does a marvelous job not just in fulfilling action expectations and taking widescreen advantage of the locations but in allowing Lee to take center stage when, technically, according to the credits, Ossie Davis was only the fourth most important member of the cast. Burt Lancaster was approaching an acting peak, following this with The Swimmer and Castle Keep, happy to take risks on all three pictures, especially here where for most of the movie he is outwitted and ends up in a mud bath.

Both Telly Savalas (Sol Madrid, 19680 and Shelley Winters (A House Is Not a Home, 1964) reined in their normal more exuberant personas.  Savalas, in particular, cleaves closer to his straightforward work in The Slender Thread than the over-the-top performance of The Dirty Dozen (1967). Winters, usually feisty, is here more winsome and vulnerable, apt to be taken in by sweet-talking men.

But Ossie Davis (The Hill, 1965) is the standout, his repartee spot-on. It is a hugely rounded performance, one minute wheedling, the next sly, boldness and cowardice blood brothers, and while his brainpower gives him the advantage over all the others he is only too aware that such superiority counts for nothing while he remains a slave.

It’s dialogue rich and it’s a shame it wasn’t a big hit for that would have surely triggered a sequel – especially in the wake of the following year’s buddy-movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – because the banter between Lee and Bass is priceless. For the dialogue thank the original screenplay by future convicted gun-runner William W. Norton (Brannigan, 1975), father of director Bill Norton (Cisco Pike, 1971).

CATCH-UP: This Blog has covered virtually the entire career this decade of Sydney Pollack. Check out my reviews on The Slender Thread, This Property Is Condemned (1966) and Castle Keep (1969). Burt Lancaster films reviewed are: The Unforgiven (1960), Seven Days in May (1964), The Swimmer and Castle Keep.

The Slender Thread (1965) ****

Hollywood paranoia in the 1970s ensured that any type of electronic surveillance was treated with suspicion. Cops, too, were almost certain to be corrupt. Although he would subscribe to such paranoia and implicit corruption in Three Days of the Condor (1973), in his movie debut director Sydney Pollack turns these concepts on their head.

Crisis center volunteer Alan (Sidney Poitier) faces a battle against time to save potential suicide Inga (Anne Bancroft), using his own powers of empathy and persuasion, but helped more than a little by dedicated policemen and the system of tracking calls. On the one hand the ticking clock ensures tension remains high, on the other Alan own’s battle with his nascent abilities brings a high level of anxiety to the proceedings especially as we learn of the particular circumstances driving Inge.

Alan is studying to be a doctor and he carries within him the arrogance of his profession, namely the power to cure. But that is within the realms of the physical. When it comes to dealing with the mental side of a patient he discovers he is ill-equipped. The intimacy he strikes up with Inga ensures he cannot seek relieve by handing over the problem to anyone else, the fear being that the minute he introduces another voice the spell will be broken. His medical training means only that he knows far better than a layman the effect of the pills the woman has taken and can accurately surmise how long she has to live. In the process he experiences a wide range of emotions from caring and sympathetic to angry and frustrated.

By sheer accident Inga’s otherwise loving husband, Mark (Steven Hill), skipper of a fishing vessel, has discovered that their son is not his. On being rejected, she has nothing to live for.

The simple plotline is incredibly effective. The pair never meet but we discover something of Inga’s life through flashbacks as her life gradually unravels and elements of insanity creep in. Alan, meanwhile, is shut in a room, relying on feedback from colleagues such as psychiatrist Dr Coburn (Telly Savalas) and others monitoring the police investigation attempting to discover where she is.

 Initially, the movie treats Seattle as an interesting location with aerial shots over the credits and other scenes on the shore or seafront, but gradually the picture withdraws into itself, the city masked in darkness and the principals locked in their respective rooms.

Sidney Poitier is superb, having to contain his emotions as she tried to deal with a confused woman, at various times thinking he was over the worst only to discover that he was making little headway and if the movie had gone on for another fifteen minute she might have reflected how impotent he had actually been. Anne Bancroft matches him in excellence, in a role that charts disintegration. The fact that their characters never met and that their conversations were conducted entirely by telephone says a lot about their skills as actors in conveying emotion without being in the same room as the person with whom they are trying to communicate.

Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) delivers a quieter performance than you might expect were you accustomed to his screen tics and flourishes. Ed Asner (The Venetian Affair, 1966) and Steven Hill, in his last film for 15 years, are effective. This was only the second screenplay of the decade by prolific television writer Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, 1967).

The bold decision to film in black-and-white pays off, ensuring there is no color to divert the eye, and that dialogue, rather than costumes or scenery dominates. Pollack allows two consummate actors to do their stuff while toning down all other performances, so that background does not detract from foreground. As the High Noon of the psychological thriller this ore than delivers. Gripping stuff. And it’s worth considering the courage required to undertake such subject matter for your first movie.

Winning the Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963) had not turned Sidney Poitier into a leading man and in fact he took second billing, each time to Richard Widmark, in his next two pictures.  Anne Bancroft was in similar situation after being named Best Actress for The Miracle Worker (1962) and although she took top billing in The Pumpkin Eater (1964) it was her first film after her triumph and, besides, had been made in Britain. And for both 1967 would be when they were both elevated to proper box office stardom.

CATCH-UP: Sidney Poitier performances reviewed on the Blog are Pressure Point (1962), The Long Ships (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) and Duel at Diablo (1966); regarding Anne Bancroft only The Pumpkin Eater (1964) features here.

The Interns (1962) ***

Patients are a nuisance to be tolerated on the route to wealth in this superior soap opera that sees young doctors wrestling with ambition and ethics. Although also concluding that impending lofty status will snare them an attractive bride, they find women less biddable than expected, romance proving the trickiest of all procedures.

The main cast of four men and one women are played by a roster of hotly-tipped newcomers, including future Oscars winners and nominees and the elusive Haya Harareet (The Secret Partner, 1961). Director David Swift, accustomed to handling multiple characters in the likes of Pollyanna (1961), keeps the pot boiling and although some storylines lead to obvious conclusions the screenwriters bring sufficient imagination to the various strands.

The story unfolds over the one year the doctors spend in a general hospital, where the patients are liable to be drunk and obstreperous, before taking up residencies elsewhere. As you might expect, the main characters divide into the good and the arrogant. Heading the latter are Alec Considine (Michael Callan) who cheats on girlfriend Mildred (Anne Helm) with older nurse Vicky (Katharine Baird) in order to gain through her connections a residency at a highly prestigious hospital. Matching him in the cocky stakes is John Paul Otis (Cliff Robertson), charming to old ladies but willing to risk his career to bed movie actress Lisa (Suzy Parker). The good guys are Lew Worship (James MacArthur) who is seduced into the supposed backwaters of obstetrics and Sid Lackland (Nick Adams), an all-round good egg who falls for patient Loara (Ellen Davalos).

The most interesting of the young doctors, however, is single mother Madolyn Bruckner  (Haya Harareet) who takes on surgeon Dominic Riccio (Telly Savalas) at every turn. Riccio spends his time berating his charges and in particular has a downer on female doctors. At every encounter, despite his vicious tongue, she refuses to back down.

But it is the patients, in particular Arnold Auer (Peter Brocco) and Loara, who blow a hole in the myth of hospitals. In the best scene in the film, Auer, suffering from a degenerative illness that will turn him into a vegetable, takes over from the doctor in giving his own awful diagnosis. His pleas for clemency from his ordeal, in essence assisted suicide, create an ethical dilemma for the young doctors who did not realize that modern medicine would prolong rather than curtail patient suffering. Auer’s anguished wife Emma (Angela Clarke) flits in and out of the picture as she buttonholes any doctor willing to listen to a new cure she has discovered. While the more hard-hearted doctors can inure themselves to his agony, a savage turn of events finds them all caught up in a situation that could jeopardize their future careers.

Racy image of Olga (Carroll Harrison) adorns the cover of the soundtrack album with music by triple-Oscar-nominee Leith Stevens (“The Five Pennies,” 1959).

Although Loara has an incurable disease and has more or less given up, Lackland’s effervescent good humor and determination that surgery can resolve all health issues brings her hope. If you were in her condition possibly the last thing you would want would be a cheerleading doctor on your side, but in this instance it brings succor and in the doctor’s case forces him to rethink his priorities.

Probably the last thing the doctors – and the audience – expected was to come up against such stubborn free-thinking women. While Bruckner appears to fly the flag for female independence, she has solid support from Lisa who spends most of the picture rejecting Otis’s advances on the grounds that even when he becomes rich he will be too poor for her liking. Eventually, Vicky forces Considine to choose. Shy nurse Gloria (Stefanie Powers) shocks Worship by putting global travel ahead of marriage. But she’s not as shocking as the bespectacled inhibited Olga (Carroll Harrison) who makes a spectacle of herself by losing her inhibitions in flamboyant style at a wild New Year’s Eve party, her disheveled state a key element of promotional artwork.

Although, theoretically, a film about young doctors having a romp, in reality it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking picture, tackling issues that would have been taboo at the time and removing the submissive tag that daunted most movie female characters in the movies.

Those who succeeded in later winning Oscar favor were Cliff Robertson, Best Actor for Charly (1968), and Nick Adams and Telly Savalas, both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the former in Twilight of Honor (1963) and the latter in The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Robertson was the pick of the bunch, a star in his own right graduating from 633 Squadron (1964) and Masquerade (1965) to J.W. Coop (1971) which he also directed. But largely, the stars did not fulfil initial promise. The peak of Michael Callan’s movie career was reprising his role in The New Interns (1964), star in British director Michael Winner’s You Must Be Joking! (1965) and second male lead in Cat Ballou (1965). James MacArthur had a steady movie career before an epic run in television series Hawaii Five-O (1968-1979). Nick Adams switched between film and television before his premature death in 1968.  Haya Harareet made only one more film, The Last Charge (1962).

Although primarily in television, the less-heralded stars enjoyed greater ongoing success. Mainly a strong supporting actor, Telly Savalas had only one stab at a starring role (Land Raiders, 1970) before achieving worldwide fame as Kojak (1973-1978).  Stefanie Powers was television’s The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-1967) and later Hart to Hart (1979-1984). Buddy Ebsen (who plays the older Dr Sidney Wohl) went straight into a nine-year run of The Beverley Hillbillies

The Assassination Bureau (1969) ***

A couple of decades before the “high concept” was invented came this high concept picture – a killer is hired to kill himself. Oliver Reed is the assassin in question and Diana Rigg the journalist doing the hiring. So Reed challenges the other members of his murderous outfit to kill him before he despatches them. The odds are about ten to one. Initially involved in shadowing Reed, Rigg becomes drawn to his aid when it transpires there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.

Set just before World War One, the action cuts a swathe through Europe’s glamour cities – London, Paris, Vienna, Venice – while stopping off for a bit of slapstick, some decent sight gags and a nod now and then to James Bond (gadgets) and the Pink Panther (exploding sausages). Odd a mixture as it is, mostly it works, thanks to the intuitive partnership of director Basil Dearden and producer (and sometime writer and designer) Michael Relph, previously responsible this decade for League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), Masquerade (1965) and Khartoum (1966).

The American advertisement for the film set out its stall in a different way to the British advertisement with Diana Rigg taking pride of place.

Moustached media magnate Telly Savalas has a decent chomp at an upper-class British accent. It’s easy to forget was one of the things that marked him out was his clear diction and he always had an air about him, so this was possibly less of a stretch. Ramping up the fun is a multi-cultural melange in supporting roles: Frenchman Phillipe Noiret (Night of the Generals, 1967), everyone’s favourite German Curt Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964) playing another general, Italian Annabella Contrera (The Ambushers, 1967) and Greek George Coulouris (Arabesque, 1966) plus British stalwarts Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George, 1969) as a brothel madam, television’s Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Kenneth Griffith and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967).

The action flits between sudden danger and elaborate set pieces. When Reed announces his proposal to his board he promptly fells a colleague with a gavel just as that man throws a knife. Apart from folderols in a Parisian brothel, we are treated to a Viennese waltz and malarkey in Venice. There are disguises aplenty, donned by our hero and his enemies. Lighters are turned into flame throwers. And there is a lovely sly sense of humour, an Italian countess, wanting rid of her husband, does so under the pretext of Reed gone rogue. Reed and Rigg (in her best Julie Andrews impression) are in excellent form and strike sparks off each other. The second-last film from Dearden suggested he wanted to go out in style.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

Genghis Khan (1965) ****

Hollywood was never reined in by the strictures of history, much preferring fiction to fact for dramatic effect, and that’s largely the case here, although the titular hero’s real life remains shrouded in myth.

If you do catch this surprisingly good feature, make sure it’s not one of the many pan-and-scan atrocities on the market. I watched this in the proper Panavision ratio which meant it occupied only one-third of my television screen, but in that format it’s terrific. It’s a bit of an anomaly for a decade that churned out high-class historical epics like El Cid (1961) because this clocks in about a hour short of other films in the genre and there’s no star actor or director to speak of and no Yakima Canutt to handle the second unit action scenes.

Omar Sharif’s marquee value at this point was so low that if you check out any of the original posters you’ll note that his name hardly rates a mention and he also comes at the very end of the opening screen credits. Although this is post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it’s pre-Doctor Zhivago (1965), suggesting nobody had a clue how to market his talents.

Director Henry Levin was a journeyman, fifty films under his belt, best known for not a great deal except for, following this, the second and third in the Matt Helm spy series. Given this film was critically ignored on release and since, and a flop to boot, it definitely falls into the “Worth a Look” category. Although there are few stand-out scenes of the artistic variety such as pepper Lawrence of Arabia or El Cid, this is still well put together and Levin shows an aptitude for the widescreen.

The narrative breaks down into three parts – the first section describing Sharif’s enslavement by nemesis Stephen Boyd (the picture’s star according to poster and screen credits) before banding together rival tribes in revolt, the second part a long trek to China, and the third encompassing a final battle and hand-to-hand combat with Boyd. For a two-hour picture it has tremendous sweep, not just the scenery and the battle scenes, but political intrigue, romance, a rape scene and even clever comedy. Sharif is excellent as a leader who believes his glory is predestined, but who has very modern ideas about the role of women.

The best section, oddly enough, is set in China where Sharif engages in a duel of wits with Robert Morley’s distinctively contradictory emperor, but that’s not to detract from the film’s other qualities, the action brilliantly handled, especially the chaos of battle, the romance touching, and the dialogue intelligent and often epigrammatic. Unlike James Mason who makes a calamitous attempt at a Chinese accent, Morley, costume apart, looks as if he has just walked out of an English country house, but his plummy tones belie a very believable character. Telly Savalas and Woody Strode have decent parts as Sharif’s sidekicks, the former unexpectedly bearing the brunt of the film’s comedy. French actress Francoise Dorleac is effective as Sharif’s wife.

Hitchcock stole one of his most famous ideas from Genghis Khan. About the only scene in Torn Curtain (1966) to receive universal praise was a killing carried out to a soundtrack of nothing more than the grunts of assailant and victim. But, here, where the score by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic was extensively employed, the rape scene is silent and just as stunning. If the only prints widely available are of the pan-and-scan variety I’m not surprised the film has been for so long overlooked, but if you can get hold of one in the preferred format you will be in for a surprise.      

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