Arabella (1967) ***

Under-rated comedy, set in 1928 Italy, had me chuckling all the way through. An episodic structure sees Arabella (Virna Lisi) duping an Italian hotel manager, British general and an Italian Duke (all played by Terry-Thomas) out of their cash in order to pay off the mounting tax debts of her grandmother Princess Ilaria (Margaret Rutherford) while trying to avoid the attentions of the mysterious Giorgio (James Fox).

Her scams are quite ingenious, beginning with arranging for a public urinal to be erected outside a five-star hotel and, pretending to be the lover of Benito Mussolini, convincing the manager that, for a price, she could arrange its removal. There’s nothing particularly original about faking a breakdown to attract the attention of  the general, a royal flunkey, but the blackmail trap she sets is elaborate.

But just as you think you know here this is going, it sprints off in another direction altogether, Arabella being the mark, and it’s one twist after another. She is rooked by Giorgio with whom she falls in love. The Duke, whom she sees as easy meat, instead uses her. Her grandmother’s ploy to burn down her mansion and claim the insurance money is foiled by a cat.  

All sorts of sly observations come into play. The hotel manager and his pals siphon off a large chunk of the cash they have taken from the safe to pay her off. The general, operating incognito, has his cover blown by a piece of music. The Duke turns the tables on his domineering wife and his son has an exceptionally clever ploy to keep mama sweet while enjoying his sexual independence. And it appears that every time Arabella gives in to entreaty, she is exploited. In other words, show weakness, give a loser an inch and they’ll take you for all you’ve got.

Terry-Thomas as a bumptious hotel manager with James Fox looking mysterious.

There’s no desperate reason for it to be set in the 1920s and, beyond the Charleston and costumes, it makes little attempt to evoke the era except perhaps to make the point that the world was not full of submissive women. And you might find inappropriate the trope about using a sexy woman to turn a gay man straight. It’s a sex comedy in the Italian style where just about anything goes and the act, rarely consummated, instead involves humiliation.

But Virna Lisi (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) certainly commands the screen, carrying the show, fashionably stylish rather than overtly sexual, a born comedienne. Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife), while initially appearing under his trademark persona, completes a transition for the Duke, almost another twist if you like, audiences expecting a similar duffer to his previous parts. Lisi and Terry-Thomas clearly have rapport, almost a synergy, not the charisma of a screen couple, as in romantic pairing, but work very well with each other.

Margaret Rutherford (Murder Ahoy!, 1964) and James Fox (The Chase, 1966) let the side down with such insipid portrayals you wonder why they signed up.  It’s almost as if they couldn’t be bothered working on their characterisations. Cigar smoking and general ditziness is as far as Rutherford, in her final role, goes. Fox just looks fey and the one flaw in the narrative is why Arabella could look at him twice. As the Duke’s son, duping his mother, a pre-gaunt Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) is very entertaining.  

To enjoy this you have to suspend your ideas about comedy based on the British and Hollywood tradition. It aims for farce, no attempt to make larger comment on life.  

Mauro Bolognini (He and She, 1969) hangs this together in a decent enough fashion, confident enough of his material to lead the audience into a bait-and-switch. In his debut Giorgio Alorio (Burn!/Queimada, 1969) and Adriano Baracco (Danger: Diabolik, 1968) wrote the screenplay with British playwright Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) spicing up the English dialog. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

The Karate Killers (1967) ****

What a hoot! A sheer blast! The most brilliant yet of the madman dominating the world schemes, autogyros to out-Bond Bond, a fabulous cast and of course the most incompetent spies this side of Get Smart.

You can’t get better than a scientist inventing a way of turning water into gold. Takes chutzpah to even think of that as a plot. No having to batter your way into Fort Knox as poor Bond did in Goldfinger (1964), you just turn on the tap. But, wait, the formula is lost and our intrepid heroes have to – heaven forbid! – track down five gorgeous women to find it. Was there ever a more onerous proposal?

I never saw any of these films when they came out. At the time I guess they would have been viewed as small screen rivals to James Bond. But although 007 in every picture would eventually be trapped in the madman’s lair, he spent most of the film beating the sh*t out of the bad guys. In sharp contrast, The Men from U.N.C.L.E. seem always to be on the wrong side of a beating, number one hero Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) more hapless than number two Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).

With hindsight, it looks like this was never meant to be taken seriously and without going into over-spoof plays exceptionally well as a light-hearted romp. Solo seems to be constantly outwitted with Kuryakin invariably coming to the rescue, the former too often duped by beauty, the latter a bit more discerning. There’s a lovely moment here in their reactions to the instruction by boss Mr Waverley (Leo G. Carroll) to hunt down a dead scientist’s quintet of daughters/step-daughters; Solo gives a knowing smirk, Kuryakin shows disdain.

Must be the best cast yet assembled: legendary Joan Crawford, suddenly hot again after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1965), Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968), Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Kim Darby (True Grit, 1969), Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965)  and Jill Ireland (Mrs Charles Bronson) as you’ve never seen her before.    

The U.N.C.L.E. duo are in a race against T.H.R.U.S.H. operative Randolph (Herbert Lom) to track down the missing formula. Randolph has a head start. He has been having an affair with the scientist’s wife Amanda (Joan Crawford) who is shocked to discover his charming exterior conceals a ruthless interior.

Solo and Kuryakin track down the scientist’s daughter Sandy (Kim Darby), a good bit brighter than your average eye-candy spy girl, who points the way to the step-daughters and to the possibility that each has one part of the missing formula. Was there ever an easier justification for introducing such a random set of characters?

First up is stark naked Countess (Diane McBain) locked away by jealous impoverished husband (Telly Savalas) in a castle in Rome. Then we’re onto Imogen (Jill Ireland), a flamboyant lass shaking her booty at any opportunity, arrested by a constable (Terry-Thomas) for indecent exposure, and involved in a punch-up in a London night-club where Solo is nearly drowned (yup!) and Randolph instructs the band to keep playing since the ruckus is nothing to do with them.

Then we’re off to Switzerland and Yvonne (Danielle De Metz) and a machine-gun ski chase down a mountainside (beat that, Mr Bond). And so on until all the clues, contained in photographs of the dead father, have been found and, wait for it, the puzzle remains incomplete. Eventually it’s unravelled and the final showdown is on.

But what a way to go. Never mind the ski chase, the picture opens with the duo being attacked by a fleet of autogyros (one-man mini helicopters, the “Little Nellie” of the later You Only Live Twice, 1967 ), and as usual someone, this time Kuryakin, is trapped on a low-tech machine, this time on a ice-block travelator where blocks of ice are smashed to bits by nasty spikes.

Randolph is the most droll villain alive. “Don’t be so melodramatic, my dear,” he informs Amanda when she uncovers his villainy and is about to be murdered. The whole jigsaw is exceptionally appealing, the global whizzing about, Japan also included not to mention one of the poles where T.H.R.U.S.H. has established its HQ.  

The action is a good bit more thrilling, the aerial and ski sequences very well done on a budget a fraction of the Bonds, and there’s more than enough going on to keep interest levels high, not just where to go next, and who to encounter, but the gathering of the clues,  and working out of the final mystery, which offers a nice emotional touch.

Kim Darby is more of a typical ingenue here, sparkier than you might expect but not offering the originality of character expressed in True Grit, while Jill Ireland is a good bit more sassy than she ever appeared thereafter. Barry Shear (Wild in the Streets, 1968) directed.

This is the best so far that I have seen on the series. My interest had begun to flag but, thus fortified, I will continue with my endeavors to watch them all. on your behalf, of course.

You Must Be Joking! (1965) ***

British thriller specialist Michael Winner (Death Wish, 1974) learned all about structure churning out low-budget comedies like this unusually contemporary number. A precursor of the reality television trope of a variety of characters in competition to complete a series of odd tasks, this has a military set-up, aiming to find, oddly enough in an organisation where strict hierarchy dominates, people capable of bending the rules. Initiative, in other words.

Some of the motley crew, of course, have no intention of bending any rules if they can get everyone else to do the work for them, namely upper-class Capt Tabasco (Denholm Elliott) who gets the game rolling by calling in a helicopter as a favor from an old school chum to rescue him from a maze, the first task. He spends most of the time pampered in a hotel suite while dispatching girlfriend Poppy (Tracy Reed) on various expeditions.

Saved by the double bill: Winner’s comedy found a bigger audience
by being booked as the support for hit “Cat Ballou.”

There’s a Yank involved, of course, to target the all-important American market, Lt Tim Morton (Michael Callan) also using assistance in the form of upmarket girlfriend Annabelle (Gabriella Licudi) whose specialty is causing vehicle pile-ups. We’ve got a whisky-drinking Scot, Sgt Major MacGregor (Lionel Jeffries), stiff upper back rather than stiff upper lip with his constant snapping to attention, and two graduates from the Army Hapless Division in Sgt Clegg (Bernard Cribbins) and Staff Sgt Mansfield (Lee Montague). Directing proceedings are Major Foskett (Terry-Thomas) and General Lockwood (Wilfred Hyde-White), at opposite ends of the character arc, the former frantic, the latter laid back.

A couple of the five tasks involve unravelling clues, finding a particular rose, for example, but the whole purpose of the exercise is to have the soldiers constantly getting in each other’s way, trying to outwit one another, falling into bizarre scenarios – a fox hunt the cleverest – and generally getting all muddled up one way or another, so that initiative is the last thing they display.

What the movie does have in abundance is imagination, otherwise how to explain the involvement of a seductive housewife, pop star, television show, tunnelling, Lloyd’s of London, Rolls Royce and a greyhound racetrack. On the other hand this might be a smaller-scale precursor to If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1969) in shovelling together all sorts of British institutions and tourist attractions. And certainly Capt Tabasco with his love of the finer things of life demonstrates just how much fun it can be to be British if you’re upper class, wealthy, went to the right school and are not above a bit of blackmail.

As you might expect, the pace is hectic, which is just as well, because if you stopped to think about what was going on you might well throw in the towel. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable in a riotous sort of way, running jokes almost in a separate competition of their own, and if you always hankered to see Michael Callan’s dance moves this is for you – suffice to say he’s not in the Fred Astaire class. But everyone here is there to be made a fool of, except Capt Tabasco, who rises above it all in classy fashion and when he’s out for the count appears blessedly delighted.

Denholm Elliott (Station Six Sahara, 1963) comes off best, testing out his lazy scoundrel, but  the top-billed Michael Callan (The Interns, 1962) might never have signed up if he’d known the consequence was being relegated to television for seven years. However, given we are well accustomed to the shtick of the likes of Bernard Cribbins (The Railway Children, 1970), Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon, 1964), Terry-Thomas (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! 1966) and Wilfred Hyde-White (The Liquidator, 1965), he does at least have the advantage of standing out, if only as a novelty.

And just in case the goings-on don’t hold your attention, Winner has recruited a platoon of top British stars in bit parts including Leslie Phillips (Maroc 7, 1967) and James Robertson Justice (Guns of Darkness, 1962) and rising stars such as Tracy Reed (Hammerhead, 1968), Gabriella Licudi (The Liquidator) and Gwendolyn Watts (The Wrong Box, 1966) and future British television treasures Clive Dunn (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977), Richard Wattis (Copper’s End, 1971) and Peter Barkworth (Telford’s Change, 1979). So if you get fed up trying to work out what’s what you can play who’s who.

Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) wrote the screenplay based on a story by director Winner.

Not non-stop hilarity but definitely non-stop something with a good few chuckles thrown in.

How To Murder Your Wife (1965) ***

Men had a hell of a time in the 1960s to judge from this riff on marital strife that starts off like Walter Mitty meets The Odd Couple. It’s one of those daft comedies that only work on their own terms – and for the most part this works very well.

Dedicated bachelor Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon), enjoying a host of one-night stands, ensconced in almost a bromance with butler and kindred spirit, the very English Charles (Terry-Thomas), makes the mistake of getting hammered at a drunken party and ends up married to a beauty queen (Virna Lisi). Although she is gorgeous and very loving – most scenes end on a fade as she devours him in kisses – and a good cook (though a bit lax by the high housekeeping standards of Charles), Stanley resents being burdened with a wife, especially when it costs him the services of his butler. 

The biggest casualty is his self-image. He has fashioned his persona after his Bash Brannigan comic strip, syndicated to hundreds of newspapers, that permitted him the fantasy of being secret agent/adventurer/detective, fighting off bad guys and rescuing damsels in distress. Marriage inflicts a devastating change in his mental state, and he transforms from hero into hen-pecked booby.

In a bid to restore his self-esteem, and provide a fictional glimpse of freedom, he plans to murder his wife, if only in the comic strip. It has been Stanley’s working practice to act out and have photographed all the elements of his stories so Charles records the whole episode, from getting advice on how to drug Mrs Ford to (using a dummy) incarcerating her in cement. Unfortunately, Mrs Ford, outraged on discovering the illustrations for this particular comic strip episode, vanishes, leaving no explanation for her disappearance, except that various people witnessed him carrying out the supposed murder. He is arrested and put on trial.

You couldn’t make this up, but strangely enough, it is all very believable. The opening section where Stanley enacts the part of his action man Bash Brannigan in “The Case of the Faberge Navel” is just a delight. When the future Mrs Ford comes to explain exactly why she came to be jumping out of a birthday cake in a bikini, it is as daft as everything else.

However, the picture’s overall theme, the war between men and women, where men feel controlled, is somewhat dated. You might expect such a war to go nuclear when Mrs Ford dares to infringe on the sanctuary of a men-only enclave. The trial scene is particularly laborious in trying to determine that men are victims of controlling women. Despite that, there are some very funny lines that hit the nail on the head – men “are always guilty about something” declares Mrs Ford’s confidante Edna (Claire Trevor) whose strategy is always to keep men off-balance.

Jack Lemmon (The Apartment, 1960) has ploughed this path before, conspirator to the illicit,  although generally to be found in the loser camp rather than, as, effectively here, despite his complaints to the contrary, in the winner’s circle with an enviable lifestyle and willing girlfriends to hand. There’s a gleefulness in his performance, the little boy getting away with everything, that turns into a small boy’s sullenness when it is all apparently taken away.

Italian star Virna Lisi (Assault on a Queen, 1966), in her Hollywood debut, is a delight.  Her frothy sexuality goes down a treat but she is far from a dumb blonde, learning English from television, excellent cook, and wise enough not to go down Edna’s route of dealing with men. Terry-Thomas (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) delivers just as interesting a confection, a touch of ruthlessness to the stiff upper lip, high chieftain of the Male Protection League, reveling in the prospect of ridding the world of insidious influences like Mrs Ford. And there’s a welcome role for Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, 1966), especially when, in a party scene, she really lets go.

The other males, ranging from dumb and dumber to dumbest,  totally lacking in Jack Lemmon’s charm, perfectly illustrate the need for a woman’s firm hand, among them Eddie Mayehoff (Luv, 1967), Sidney Blackmer (A Covenant with Death, 1967) and Harold Wendell (My Blood Runs Cold, 1965).

Richard Quine (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960) directed from an original screenplay by George Axelrod (The Secret Life of an American Wife, 1968).

Strange Bedfellows (1963) ****

I had my first belly-laugh within seconds, a wonderful sight gag, and was chortling all the way through this London-set battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Rock Hudson is a high-flying businessman who needs to win back long-estranged wife Gina Lollobrigida in order to gain promotion in a family-conscious oil company. Initially, Hudson re-discovers the reasons he had first fallen in love with her but then, of course, only too bitterly, why they split. Hudson and La Lollo had previously teamed up for Come September (1963) and Hudson had spent most of the early 1960s in romantic mishap with Doris Day so he could call on an extensive range of baffled and enraged expressions. Lollobrigida is an artist-cum-political-firebrand which sets up hilarious consequence. Gig Young is on hand to act as referee.

There’s some marvelous comic invention,  a conversation between the two principals relayed through taxi controllers turns into a masterpiece of the misheard and misunderstood. Complications arise from Lollobrigida’s fiance Edward Judd (First Men on the Moon, 1964), also an activist, but on the pompous side, and an Italian lothario. Taking advantage of the less than congenial London weather, there are jokes aplenty about umbrellas and in a nod to farce occasions for Hudson to lose his trousers and share a bed with the fiance. Smoldering sexual tension also kindles many laughs. By the time the film enters its stride it’s one comedic situation after another. It being England, naturally enough Lady Godiva is involved.

Hudson in suave mode trying to cope with the feisty Lollobrigida is an ideal comedy match. Costume designer Jean Louis has swathed the actress in a stunning array of outfits, some of which leave little to the imagination. When Doris Day got angry you tended to laugh, not quite believing this was anything more than a moderate hissy fit, but if you crossed Lollobrigida you were apt to get both barrels and it never looked like acting, she was a very convincing when she switched on the fury engine, plus, of course, whatever she threw added both to the comedy and her character’s conviction.   Both have terrific comic timing.

Writer-director Melvin Frank was something of a comedy specialist, a dab hand at suiting comedy to screen persona having previously set up Road to Hong Kong (1962) and Mr.  Blandings Builds a Dream House (1948). Terry-Thomas makes an appearance as a comic mortician and there are parts for English comedian Arthur Haynes and Dave King. Hudson and Lollobrigida exude screen charisma and while not in the class of Come September this delivers enough laughs to make you wonder why they don’t make them like that anymore.

You should find this in Amazon Prime.

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) ***

All hail Senta Berger! Another from the Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) portfolio, this is a spy-thriller mash-up with a bagful of mysteries and a clutch of corpses. At last given a decent leading role, and although you wouldn’t guess it from either poster, Senta Berger steals the show from the top-billed Tony Randall (as miscast as Robert Cummings in Five Golden Dragons) and a smorgasbord of European  talent including Herbert Lom (The Frightened City, 1961), Terry-Thomas, Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons), John Le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White (Carry On Nurse, 1959). In this company, the glamorous Margaret Lee (Five Golden Dragons), as Lom’s cynical lover (“you are never wrong, cherie, you told me so yourself,” she tells him) is an amuse-bouche.

A more comedic approach to the movie when it was re-titled for U.S. release. At least here it did not try to sell itself as a Bond-type picture.

Six travellers – including oilman Randall, travel agent Le Mesurier, salesman Hyde-White and tourist Berger, meeting her fiancé – board a bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh. One is carrying $2 million as a bribe to ease through a vote in the United Nations, but bad guy Lom doesn’t know which one it is. When Berger’s fiance’s corpse tumbles out of Randall’s cupboard, the pair become entangled. Berger is a marvellous femme fatale, trumping Randall at every turn. 

With no shortage of complications, the tale zips along, directed on occasion with considerable verve by Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964). There are some inventive double-plays – with a body in the boot Berger and Randall are stopped by a cop who tells them their boot is open. An excellent rooftop chase is matched by a car chase. And there’s a terrific shootout. Kinski is at his sinister best and Terry-Thomas a standout in an unusual role as a Berber.

The film was shot on location including the city’s souks, the ruined El Badi Palace and La Mamounia hotel (featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). But Berger seamlessly holds the whole box of tricks together, at once glamorous and sinuous, practical and tough and exuding sympathy, and it’s a joy to see her for a large part of the picture leading Randall by the nose. Quite why this did not lead to bigger Hollywood roles than The Ambushers (1967) remains a mystery.

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