King of the Roaring 20s (1961) ***

Occasionally stylish B-picture purporting to tell the story of American Prohibition-era gangster Arnold Rothstein. It’s more of drama with various nefarious figures trying to outwit each other rather than a shoot ‘em up in the style of Al Capone (1959). David Janssen (Hell to Eternity, 1960) is ideal casting as the thoughtful, cold, calculating and possibly gambling genius Rothstein, the opposite of an intemperate crook like Capone.

The story is told essentially in two parts, Rothstein’s rise to power in partnership with childhood pal Johnny Burke (Mickey Rooney), initially running dice games in the street and  pulling the odd con before graduating to fly-by-night horse racing operations. When the opportunity arises to move into mainstream illegal gambling, he dumps Burke. Corrupt cop Phil Butler (Dan O’Herlihy) is a constant thorn in his side and showgirl fiancée Carolyn Green (Dianne Foster) views marriage as risky – “he’s the gambler but I’m the one that’s going to be doing the gambling.”

For whatever reason, the movie dodges what was believed to be Rothstein’s biggest coup, the fixing of the baseball World Series, but one long section is devoted to how he wins $850,000 (equivalent to $13 million today) on his horse Sidereal at odds of 30 to 1 at the New York Aqueduct track on July 4, 1921, through insider information and strategic betting. Inevitably, his gambling puts the kibosh on his marriage but by far the most interesting part of the picture is the chicanery as he shakes off one partner, battles another, and without compunction sets up Burke as patsy to settle his score with Butler.

In some respects Rothstein is a template for Vito Corleone (The Godfather, 1972) in terms of his business brain and ability to out-think and out-fox opponents and certainly his facial expressions and innate coldness bear comparison with what Al Pacino brought to his characterization of Michael Corleone. Except that he didn’t trust banks, and carried around wads of cash (hence the title of the biography on which this is based – The Big Bankroll), it’s hard to get a sense of the wealth the gangster generated or, given the minimal violence,  the world of imminent peril he inhabited. 

Period detail is cursory, limited to dancing the Charleston and pouring champagne into teacups. A better idea of the flavor of the times is the wholesale corruption endemic in police departments, untrustworthy lawyers and hypocrisy run wild.  It’s not really Janssen’s fault that it’s hard to warm to such a cold-blooded character, although you could point to The Godfather and The Brotherhood (1968) for that matter as examples of hoods who do elicit audience empathy.

With occasional bravura moments involving long tracking shots and overhead shots, and a terrific image of champagne bubbles seen through a pair of binoculars, director Joseph M. Newman (This Island Earth, 1955) shows stylistic flourishes that eschew his B-movie roots. Given Janssen is called upon to show as little emotion as possible, he does very well. Dianne Foster (The Last Hurrah, 1958), though initially demure, provides the fireworks. Jack Carson (The Bramble Bush, 1960) as kingpin Tim O’Brien matches Janssen in the cool stakes and proves a worthy adversary. Oscar nominee Rooney overacts but another Oscar nominee Dan O’Herlihy (The Night Fighters, 1960) relishes his dirty cop role.

In a rare Hollywood outing British sexpot Diana Dors (Hammerhead, 1968) puts in an unexpected and brief appearance as Carolyn’s cynical flatmate. The tremendous supporting cast includes Keenan Wynn (Point Blank, 1967), Mickey Shaughnessey (North to Alaska, 1960), Regis Toomey (The Last Sunset, 1961), Oscar-winner Joseph Schildkraut (The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959) and veteran character actor William Demerest.

Jo Swerling (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946) delivers a pointed screenplay focusing on gangster conflict with some excellent observation of the deterioration of the Rothstein marriage and the nervousness of the usually ice-cold Rothstein when confronted by his father. This is one of those pictures that you think deserves a Netflix series, a dozen or so episodes to explore the myriad characters involved and especially to examine Rothstein in forensic detail. The movie gives a hint of that potential and on a tight budget does it well.

Hard to find unless you fancy paying $90 for a DVD or $24 for a VHS video, but you will find copies on the secondhand market.

The Brotherhood (1968) ****

Minimal violence and no sex was the wrong recipe for this Mafia picture – as proven at the box office – but this is an absorbing, underrated drama nonetheless.

It bears a surprising number of parallels to The Godfather (1972). Pure coincidence, extraordinary though that may appear, because The Brotherhood premiered in December 1968 while the Mario Puzo novel was printed in March 1969 (and delivered to the printers long before), so no opportunity at all for plagiarism.

The two films could be opposite sides of the same coin. For a start, both begin with a wedding. Vince Ginetta (Alex Cord), brother of Mafia kingpin Frank (Kirk Douglas), is marrying Emma (Susan Strasberg), daughter of another Mafia chief Dominick (Luther Adler). Like Michael (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Vince is just out of the army, well-educated and primed for a life outside the business. And like Michael is called upon to commit an act of supreme violence. There’s even a hint of Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in the relationship between the brothers, Frank having brought up the much younger Vince after his father’s premature death.

And just as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) refuses to join the other Mafia families in a new business venture (in that case, drugs) so Frank bows out of an incredibly high risk (but amazingly prescient) scheme to invest in electronic firms involved in military work for the government, a deal that not only promises huge profits but a potential hold over the powers-that-be.

Frank’s wife Ida (Irene Papas) is like Don Corleone’s wife, not wanting to know anything about the business, but both Emma and Frank’s daughter Carmela (Connie Scott) are thematic cousins to Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) as initial implicit trust is wiped away. When Frank dances with Carmela at the wedding, that is reflected in Don Corleone dancing with his daughter at her wedding. Like The Godfather our first sight of the other Mafia chieftains – including Jim Hagen (Murray Hamilton) and Don Peppino (Eduardo Cianelli) – is at the feast where they are viewed with suspicion by Frank’s clan. And the scene where Frank uses a banana to tease his nephew will remind you of Don Corleone spooking his grandson with an orange.

However, the twist, if you like, is that, unlike Michael, Vince is desperate to join the Family and is instrumental in developing legitimate enterprises, which is echoed by Michael Corleone’s strategic shift to Las Vegas. In some respects, Frank is more like Sonny (James Caan), happy to assume personal command of murders which the other Mafia chiefs now scrupulously delegate to “mechanics” in Los Angeles. He is more old-school whereas the others act as respectable businessmen.

And then it becomes a question of loyalty. Which side the ambitious Vinnie will take is crucial to the story. Frank is under pressure on all sides, from the other Mafia leaders, a government investigation, Vinnie, and the need to exact revenge on the man who caused his father’s death.

There is authentic detail here as well – religious procession in Sicily, Frank playing boccia (the Italian version of the French boules) with his old pals, family dinner, canary stuffed in the mouth of a stool pigeon, but it is less spaghetti-drenched than The Godfather. Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Fox, 1967), also listed as technical adviser, claimed to be drawing on his intimate knowledge of organized crime.

There are only three moments of violence – four if you count a shocking moment of someone spitting on a corpse at a wake – a pair of straightforward murders that bookend the film, plus a scene of Godfather-style brutality in which a man slowly strangles himself to death after being hogtied. Everyone is happily married, Ida very old-school to the extent of removing her husband’s clothes (and shoes) when he returns home drunk, Vince in a good relationship.

Kirk Douglas (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) is excellent in a difficult role that presents a fully rounded character, playful with his daughter, loyal to his wife, holding his own against the other mob bosses, enjoying the company of the old-timers who resemble his father, and the changing nature of his relationship with brother Vince. Alex Cord, whose work I initially dismissed (Stiletto, 1969), I have come to more fully appreciate, especially here, where, in a masterpiece of restraint, he makes the transition from adoring brother to threat.

The supporting cast is terrific, a rare Hollywood sojourn for Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), Luther Adler  (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) as one of the hoodlums exasperated by Frank’s recalcitrance,  Murray Hamilton (The Graduate, 1967) but, except at the start, Susan Strasberg (The Trip, 1967) is underused.

While director Martin Ritt (Hombre, 1967) is at times guilty of melodrama, his rendering of family life is much more nuanced than Coppola’s. There are very tender moments between Frank and his wife and Frank and his daughter, as well as moments where Ida plays a more maternal role.

For nearly half a century, The Brotherhood has lain in the shadow of The Godfather simply because they both deal with the Mafia. But this is an excellent movie in its own right.

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.

Bestseller Hollywood, Part Two – Movie Tie Ins

The movie tie-in was such an obvious synergy you had to wonder why it was not employed in more significant fashion prior to the 1960s. The reason was that movie-making and publishing were generally viewed as completely separate entities, only crossing over when books were sold to Hollywood. And up to the mid-1950s, Hollywood had a ton of other, better, more effective marketing tools at its behest. It was reckoned that by 1955 the industry was taking advantage of promotional plugs worth about $350 million a year (equivalent to $3.5 billion today).

In 1948, for example, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House had amassed an estimated $5 million merchandising pot (worth around $56 million today), so much so the booklet listing all the participants ran to a massive 72-pages. Anything that could be sold on the back of a picture – furnishing, clothes, vehicles – provided a mountain of free advertising by the simple device of enrolling manufacturers, suppliers and retailers in a marketing campaign. But by 1960, as television advertising more straightforwardly pitched such goods towards the general public, that well of merchandising dried up.

Film publicists casting about for new exploitation outlets latched onto paperbacks. At the start of the decade, the paperback industry was booming, shifting over 280 million copies a year. Dell, in particular, had come to realise the “remarkable sales impact of books which have tie-ins with a motion picture” and noted that “in most instances (paperback) book sales prior to the picture will be equaled following the release of the picture.” Publishing executive William C. Engel, pointing to the movie tie-in for Psycho, reprinted three times in two months, reckoned that a “big spectacular picture will stimulate sales of a paperback.” At that time Bantam was equally buoyant, with 32 books in the tie-in business on the basis that films increased sales by 50 per cent.

Many moviegoers will fondly remember the 1960s as the glory days of the movie tie in. Sometimes the first time a film fan would get a glimpse of a movie’s advertising campaign was when they picked up the book tie-in. In those days hardcover books were often very plain, little on offer but title and author. But paperback specialists like Dell, Avon, Pocket Books, New American Library, Bantam, Fawcett and Ballantine in the U.S. and Pan, Fontana and New English Library in Britain seemed to revel in glorious colorful titles and were positioned to take advantage of movie advertising campaigns.

While waiting to make the movie, Columbia kept the novel in the bestseller lists by pumping funding into an advertising campaign for the book.

Some studios like Columbia had begun to spend money promoting the books it had bought in order to keep the titles in the bestseller lists until it was time for the movie to appear – a technique later adopted by Paramount to turn Love Story (1970) into a bestseller in the first place.

At the start of the decade, virtually every Twentieth Century Fox release was linked with a paperback. United Artists, in 1961, could count on paperbacks to support ten of its releases – Judgement at Nuremberg, The Young Doctors, Paris Blues, Sergeants 3, Something Wild, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Miracle Worker, The Happy Thieves, What a Wonderful Life and Jessica.

It was an odd relationship in many respects. Studios paid publishers for the rights to film their novels then when the properties they had purchased were turned into films they then helped publishers achieve a bigger bounty, assisting them sell more books by furnishing movie artwork and stills for the covers. Yet there was benefit. Every copy printed was one more piece of advertising for the film, often in places where a studio would not normally advertise and serving as advance buzz.

It soon became apparent that publishers could target potential moviegoers in ways that were too difficult or too expensive for studios. Publishing designers did not need to employ their skills to come up with original covers, they simply took the movie advertising artwork and stills for front and back cover. Occasionally, they would run a photo spread inside. They might even run movie credits alongside the title page. If the sight of a movie advert on the cover of a paperback encouraged the public to consider going to the movie, then the reverse was equally true, movie advertising resulted in increased book sales. Studios used a diverse range of paperback publishers, going where they were likely to get the best promotional deal.

By the mid-1960s every studio was knee-deep in movie tie-ins.

In 1965 Dell had 47 titles sold to studios either for imminent or future production. The Collector, Genghis Khan and Lord Jim were slated for Columbia, there was Harlow for Embassy and The Sound of  Music (based on the Von Trapp Family book) for Twentieth Century Fox. How to Murder Your Wife and The Knack were being filmed by United Artists, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders by Paramount, Assault on a Queen and The Bride Wore Black set for Seven Arts, and The Cincinnati Kid and The Loved One lined up for MGM.

That same year MGM promoted ten movie tie-ins. Operation Crossbow, The Yellow Rolls Royce, The Sandpiper, She, Joy in the Morning, Once a Thief, Lady L and Doctor Zhivago were placed with publishers other than Dell who handled, as noted above, The Loved One and The Cincinnati Kid. In 1966 Paramount had nine deals with different paperback houses to promote Is Paris Burning?, Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Seconds, Hurry Sundown, Funeral in Berlin, The Swinger, Alfie, El Dorado and Warning Shot. Disney, which had long been the master of merchandising, contracted with Scholastic Publishing to target schools and libraries.

Studios occasionally ran their own bookstore promotions. This one, in 1968, simply announced that Universal had acquired “Airport,” “Topaz”, “Red Sky at Morning” – all later filmed – and “Vanished” which was not. Most interesting of all, these books were hardcover not paperback,
so this fell very much into the long-range marketing department.

By the end of the decade publishers were desperate to jump on the movie tie-in bandwagon. In 1968 Twentieth Century Fox had pacts with a dozen different publishers covering 19 pictures including Bandolero!, Star!, The Devil’s Bride, Planet of the Apes, The Boston Strangler and The Sweet Ride.  Dr Dolittle came out in 26 different editions through various publishers. The following year MGM pitched in with a half a dozen movie tie-ins including The Appointment and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, already having taken advantage of readership interest in Alistair Maclean hits Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra, the reissued Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur, and The Shoes of the Fisherman and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 1969, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) tied in with National Library Week. Under the cross-promotional tagline “Read These Important Books – See These Important Films,” libraries across the country promoted a variety of current pictures sourced from novels including True Grit, Belle de Jour,  Goodbye, Columbus, John and Mary and Topaz. In return NATO distributed posters advertising the library involvement via 5,000 theaters.

The same year Bantam Books ran a trailer in 100 cinemas for its own “film festival tie-in” of eight books – Goodbye, Mr. Chips, John and Mary, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Hail, Hero!, Marooned, Topaz, A Dream of Kings and Women in Love.

Although it is often considered that the movie tie-in business began in the 1970s when books spawned mega-hits like Love Story, The Godfather and Jaws, these pictures were in reality only benefitting from the heavy lifting put in during the previous decade.

SOURCES: “Paperback-Film Tandems Zowie,” Variety, February 3, 1960, p5; “Columbia’s Book Bally Budget,” Variety, September 21, 1960, p24; William C. Engel, “Big Stake in Publishing’s 280,000,000 Annual Sale,” Variety, January 4, 1961, p25; “To Issue Paperback Books on 10 United Artists Films,” Box Office, August 28, 1961, p9; “Big Hike in Film Tie-Ins Noted by Bantam Books,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, pA3; “Commercial Tie-Ups Back After Slump,” Variety, December 27, 1961, p7;  “Dell Paperback Tie-Ins,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p22; “Ten Books in Paperback Promote MGM Releases,” Box Office, May 31, 1965, pE-4; “Paperback Books Arranged for 9 Paramount Films,” Box Office, August 15, 1966, pE5; “Scholastic To Publish Disney Properties,” Box Office, May 2, 1966, pA1;  “12 Publishers Print Books on 20th-Fox Productions,” Box Office, February 26, 1968, pA1; “Paperback Book Tie-Ups for 12 MGM Pictures,” Box Office, March 31, 1969, pA1; “Tenth Year for Tie-Up with Library Week,” Box Office, May 5, 1969, p6; “Bantam Books Plans Film Fest Tie-In,” Box Office, November 10, 1969, p10.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.