Morituri / Saboteur: Code Name Morituri (1965) ***

For a film that staggered around trying to find a plot to justify its tale of moral ambiguity during World War Two the final third is surprisingly potent. Featuring two good Germans and a bunch of bad Yanks ostensibly it’s a straightforward story of a saboteur trying to prevent a German cargo ship captain from scuttling his ship should it come under attack from the British determined to lay their hands on its vital supplies of rubber.

Supposed German pacifist Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) – actually a coward – hiding out in India is blackmailed by British Col Statter (Trevor Howard) into posing as a high-ranking SS officer on the German ship in order to prevent it being sunk by Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner). After his last command ended in drunken disgrace, Mueller assumes Crain has been sent to keep an eye on him. So Crain spends an almighty time down in the engine room and various below-decks spots defusing the wiring that would cause the ship to blow up at the touch of a button by the captain.

Mueller’s second-in-command Kruse (Martin Benrath) is suspicious of the cosmopolitan art-loving Crain but it’s a renegade band of criminals, led by Donkeyman (Hans Christian Blech) forced into armed service, who rumble Crain. But he talks them into mutiny. The ship avoids detection by disguising itself as a neutral Swedish freighter. Mueller’s attitude to Crain changes when the latter prevents him hitting the self-destruct button as a British destroyer seems poised to attack, changing its mind at the last minute.

Meanwhile, a group of American prisoners, from a ship sunk by a Japanese U-boat, come on board, including Jewess Esther (Janet Margolin). Surprisingly, Mueller steps up to the plate, protecting her from his crew, providing her with a private berth and permitting her to eat in the officer’s mess. On board the submarine are Admiral Wendel (Oscar Beregi), who commissioned Mueller, and a German counter-intelligence officer and, surprised to find Crain on the cargo ship, challenge him. Crain calls their bluff, but when the Admiral leaves he plans to radio Berlin to check Crain’s credentials, information passed on to Crain, who now has a very short deadline to organise mutiny, take over the ship and sail it to safety.

To do that, the mutineers require the support of the prisoners, a task detailed to Esther, who can only achieve that mission by surrendering her body to the prisoners, in much the same way as she has done previously to the Gestapo.

Mueller goes to pieces on hearing that his beloved son, also a ship’s captain, has been given a medal for sinking his fifth enemy vessel – only this time it is a hospital ship. After Mueller drinks himself unconscious, and Kruse assumes command, Crain fails to enlist Mueller to the mutiny which then begins. The surprise ending is both brutal and poetic.

But despite almost capsizing under the weight of an unwieldy cargo of plot and double-plot, the picture finally makes its points, that in war, ambiguity reigns. Mueller, who hates the Nazis but stoutly defends his Fatherland, proves to have the highest moral standards, agreeing to help Esther when they reach their destination, and preventing further molestation of her while aboard. Crain, purportedly the good German, has no compunction about sending Esther to do his dirty work, knowing the risks a sole woman faces in a hold of desperate sex-starved men. The good Yanks turn into rapists at the slightest opportunity, every bit as heinous in their depredations as their enemy.

That the movie stays afloat for so long is largely down to the excellence of Marlon Brando (The Chase, 1966) and Yul Brynner  (The Double Man, 1967). Brynner’s magisterial presence, chest out, legs apart, serves him well, and the ongoing duel with Brando is an acting treat, though Brynner has the best scene, the look of anguish on his face when he realises what his son has done. Brando, reprising the silky German accent of The Young Lions (1958), is very convincing as the dilettante pressed into service, negotiating his way round the recalcitrant Brynner, and living on his wits when faced with the criminals and then the  Admiral. And while Janet Margolin (Nevada Smith, 1966) is little more than a symbol, she invests the role with terrifying humanity, a woman reduced to being a sex object, utter submission her only way to achieve temporary reprieve. Most of her best acting is just with the look on her face.

In his Hollywood debut Martin Benrath appears just a standard German until his mask slips and we realise how much he covets the captain’s uniform. Wally Cox (The Bedford Incident, 1965) is another compromised by immoral behaviour, the doctor who steals the ship’s supply of morphine. Hans Christian Blech (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) excellent as a vengeful mutineer. You might also spot William Redfield (Fantastic Voyage, 1966). Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express) is only there at the outset.

Austrian director Bernhard Wicki (The Visit, 1964) does his best with a plot bursting at the seams, but the scenes of sabotage are well done, and he does recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of a ship, and the final sequence is worth waiting for. Daniel Taradash (Castle Keep, 1969) wrote the screenplay.  

Behind the Scenes – “Man in the Middle”/”The Winston Affair” (1964)

You were asking for trouble to pair heavy drinkers Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard. But Man in the Middle was a fraught production long before the actors came on board. The picture was intended to kick off Twentieth Century Fox’s revamped 20-picture slate that signaled a studio back from the dead after near-bankruptcy. The success of The Longest Day (1962) triggered a cycle of World War Two pictures, Man in the Middle launching this cluster, which accounted for more than third of the studio’s projected output.

But before fox arrived on the scene, Man in the Middle was intended as a key element in the launchpad or an indie powerhouse, the grandly-named Entertainment Corporation of America (ECA), set up by Max Youngstein, one of the founders of the post-war version of United Artists. Youngstein had an 11-picture tab budgeted at $3 million including Honeybear, I Think I Love You starring Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Cold War thriller Fail Safe, The Winston Affair (as Man in the Middle was originally tabbed) and The Third Secret.

But concerns about legal action against Fail Safe torpedoed the venture within a few months of opening for business in November 1962 after theatre chain Ace Films pulled the plug on its $1.3 million investment and distributor Allied Artists followed suit. Columbia took over Fail Safe (1964) and Twentieth Century Fox The Winston Affair in a co-production with Marlon Brando’s Pennebaker shingle and Talbot which was Robert Mitchum’s outfit. 

With Fox’s recent financial vicissitudes keeping the studio in the media spotlight, budget control was essential. The movie’s $1.35 million budget was trimmed by clever scheduling, no actor, outside of the star, on set for more than three weeks, ensuring that overtime vanished. The title, however, appeared forever in flux. Original title The Winston Affair, the name of the Howard Fast book on which the film was based, changed to The Man in the Middle, then back to The Winston Affair, reverting again to The Man in the Middle before ending up with a contracted version of that – Man in the Middle. The confusion played havoc with a movie called Light of Day that snapped up Man in the Middle when the Fox title became vacant but was released as Topkapi (1964) when Fox took the title back.

Producer Walter Seltzer (Number One, 1969) pushed for more African American representation on the picture. Three roles, not written as African Americans in the novel or in the Waterhouse and Hall screenplay, were given to African Americans, the “best men for the job,” according to the producer. The trio were: Errol John, the N.C.O of the prison cell where the murder suspect is held, Frank Killibrew who doubled as the jeep driver and confidante to attorney Adams (Robert Mitchum) and Oscar James as a court reporter.

The two ECA movies taken over by Fox.

Mitchum didn’t just have drink problems. He was in the middle of an affair with Two for the Seesaw (1962) co-star Shirley MacLaine which result in public rows with long-suffering wife Dorothy. Mitchum had enjoyed a long business relationship with Max Youngstein and when the producer came upon The Winston Affair the actor agreed to star in it, only to find the rights had already been snapped up by Pennebaker. However, Pennebaker was in no position to fund a movie and without a commitment from Brando as star unlikely to get it off the ground. Since the production company nonetheless required, for tax purposes, to show a movie on its books Brando had agreed to throw in his lot with Youngstein’s ECA. And when Fox took over, Brando and Talbot retained their production credits.

When Seltzer flew to London to meet Mitchum who was finishing off his cameo for The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) the star lived up to his hell-raising billing, walking drunk from his room along the hallway and down the elevator at the plush Savoy Hotel. He was buck naked.

The bulk of the filming took place in Elstree Studios in London with just a couple of weeks set aside for location work in India. The ongoing romance with MacLaine meant production could grind to a halt in the middle of a scene while Mitchum took a call from the actress in New York although conversation was inhibited with Selzer at his elbow looking at his watch.

“He was a professional in every respect,” recalled Selzer. “He was on time, knew his lines and didn’t make any trouble…very good with France Nuyen (A Girl Called Tamiko, 1962), who was a little unsure of herself, and he did a lot to help her performance and boost her confidence.”

Trevor Howard was a different kettle of fish. Mitchum and Howard had become friends in the 1950s while working in Mexico, and Mitchum was a great admirer of the Englishman’s talent. However, Howard had “been all but blackballed of late due to his drinking.” Oscar-nominated for Sons and Lovers (1960), Howard had only made two films since. And even the role here was more of an extended cameo than a main supporting role. To win the part, Howard invited director and producer to visit him at his home where he put on a very good act of restraint, limiting himself to tea while the others consumed alcohol.

Restraint proved an illusion. While Mitchum could drink and still turn up for work, Howard would go to pieces with a few drinks in his system. On his second day of shooting, Howard turned up on set wearing mismatched socks and threw a drunken fit when asked to change.

Director Guy Hamilton had worked with big Hollywood personalities Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster on The Devil’s Disciple (1959) but compared to them Mitchum was a pussycat.

“He understood the importance of listening,” said Hamilton, “which is very, very rare for American stars…If all else failed in a scene, you knew you could always fall back on Mitchum’s reaction shots, which could say more than the dialogue.”

Mitchum was blessed with a photographic memory. Even when confronted with pages of new script he would have no trouble remembering his lines. In fact, if anyone fluffed their lines they could rely on Mitchum helping them out. When the movie decanted to India, he had an encounter with a maharajah’s daughter, which ended up in the bedroom. Once the movie was finished, Mitchum resorted to type, getting stoned on raw marijuana on the 16-hour flight home from India, a zip bag full of the stuff, and sailing through the Nothing To Declare section at Customs at the airport.

Most reports have this down as a big flop. But I’m not so sure. It cost comparatively little and earned $1 million in rentals in the U.S. Mitchum was a big enough star for it to be released around the world and I’d be surprised if it didn’t manage the extra $300,000 required to break even.

SOURCES: Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby, I Don’t Care (Faber and Faber, 2001) p457, 462-467; “Marlon Brando To Film Winston Affair,” Box Office, April 9, 1962, p16, “Youngstein As Exec Producer,” Variety, January 16, 1963, p4; “Entertainment Corp Sets Mitchum Film Overseas,” Variety, January 16, 1963, p4; “Four Months To The Day For Man,Variety, January 26, 1963, p5; “From Surefire to Fail Safe,” Variety, April 10, 1963, p3; “Winston Affair Set To Start 20th-Fox  British Production Program,” Variety, April 24, 1963, p22; “Fascination With Own Era,” Variety, May 22, 1963, p3.“Use Negro Skills in Seltzer’s Film,” Variety, October 2, 1963, p4; “No Principal On Role Longer Than 3 Weeks, Key Budget Control,” Variety, November 27, 1963, p3.

Man in the Middle / The Winston Affair (1964) ***

Scratch a war picture and you often find something more interesting underneath. This creditable courtroom drama makes a pitch for justice for all in the Compulsion (1959) vein while exploring the fragile and occasionally fractious relationship between the Allies during  World War Two. In front of several witnesses American officer Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) kills  in cold blood an ordinary British soldier in a remote depot in India.

It’s an open-and-shut case requiring a defence attorney of no great distinction. In fact so little legal ability is required that it’s assigned to Lt. Col Adams (Robert Mitchum), recovering from a war wound, who  hasn’t practised law in 14 years. It doesn’t help that Winston is a racist and psychopath, convinced left-wing conspirators are planning to take over the world. While dutiful, Adams displays no great enthusiasm for the task, taking time out to embark on romance with nurse Kate (France Nuyen), who is a good deal more fired-up about injustice than him. Adam’s superior officers just want Winston found guilty and hanged in double-quick-time to placate the British.

As if the odds aren’t already stacked against Adams, his boss General Kempton (Barry Sullivan) has brought in top prosecutor Major Smith (Paul Maxwell) while saddling Adams with two useless assistants. However, when Adams finally gets going, he discovers that Winston was assessed as mentally ill by psychiatrist Dr Kaufman (Sam Wanamaker) who has, unfortunately, been transferred and his report has vanished. Col Burton (Alexander Knox), who has taken over the case, refuses to accept Kaufman’s diagnosis. And Adams gets around to thinking there’s something fishy going on, the bottom line being that if the Winston is declared insane, then he won’t be hanged, the case neither open nor shut, fears rising of repercussions at a time when Allied unity is under threat.

So then we’re into classic courtroom territory. Kate has a carbon copy of the Kaufman report but as any lawman knows that in itself is inadmissible.  They can call back Kaufman to testify but there’s no allowing for the state of the roads and a driver in a hurry is liable not to make it. Major Kensington (Trevor Howard) might prove a trump card – or he may not. It’s a given that any defence lawyer’s life is filled with obstacles and this is no different. The out-of-practice Adams is in a hell of a pickle, and that’s how it should be.

On top of that, or underlying it, is the fight for justice for all. It’s easy to fight for the innocent but harder to battle for the sick and the mentally ill, however repellent their prejudices. You might despise the Winstons of this world, as Kate puts it, but you wouldn’t want to be his executioner.

And in the background are wartime considerations. What is one man’s life when judged against the uproar that would ensue and disrupt war planning should the self-proclaimed murderer be set free. Also, normally the mentally ill at this stage of Hollywood history are generally appealing characters, not hateful, but it’s only when Adams digs away at the experience of Winston that he realises the reasons for the murder, the hell that the insecure undergo when cleverer minds decide on torment.

Robert Mitchum (Secret Ceremony, 1968) is on excellent form as the attorney initially just going through the motions who determines to fight his superiors rather than toe the party line, even at the cost of losing his much-delayed promotion. France Nuyen (A Girl Named Tamiko, 1962) is somewhat spunkier than Hollywood nurses of this period and refuses to let romance get in the way of truth. Keenan Wynn (Warning Shot, 1967), a stubborn nutcase, is the worst kind of client, constantly shooting himself in the foot.

Trevor Howard (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) has toned down the normal irascible persona and makes a respectable showing. Barry Sullivan (Light in the Piazza, 1962) is as ruthless as he is charming. The solid supporting cast includes Sam Wanamaker (Danger Route, 1967), Alexander Knox (In the Cool of the Day, 1963) and Errol John (The Sins of Rachel Cade, 1961).

This was director Guy Hamilton’s last film before he shot to international fame on the back of Goldfinger (1964). The screenplay by British pair Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (A Matter of Innocence/Pretty Polly, 1967) was adapted from the novel by Howard Fast (Mirage, 1965).

Courtroom with depth, giving a glimpse of the politics prevalent among High Command in wartime, almost a companion piece of The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Cinema Archives has a much pricier edition but I reckon this cheaper version will do the job.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) ****

It’s worth remembering that Britain, led by roughly the same type of commander lampooned here, won the Crimean War and that initially this particular engagement, despite the deaths, was celebrated for its valour by poet Lord Tennyson, in much the same way as famous defeats like Dunkirk and The Alamo somehow managed to achieve the status of some kind of victory in the public perception. It’s also worth noting that the documentary-style realisation of Dunkirk, (2017) and to that extent Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) owe much to Tony Richardson’s approach, both films more interested in the bigger picture than individual acts of heroism.

And our conscience here, dashing cavalry officer Nolan (David Hemmings), is not quite saintly, engaged in an affair with the wife Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave) of a friend. Despite the director’s rush to judgement, his approach displays a refreshing change to a genre where acts of selfless courage were the norm. Setting aside the occasional self-reverential artistic lapse, it’s an excellent depiction of class-ridden Britain at war in 1854, an era when military advancement was purchased without any consideration to the leadership skills such high-ranking officers required. I’m never sure if John Ford invented the camaraderie of his Cavalry in westerns, where at dances  the officers mixed with the ordinary soldiers, but here the two classes are kept apart.

And while Richardson clearly wants to blame the class system for the military calamity, the outcome is a no-holds-barred ultra-realistic portrayal of war in in all its sordid glory. At its heart are the machinations of senior commanders jostling for position and control and, much as with Field Marshal Montgomery and General Patton in World War Two, allowing personal enmity to affect decisions.

The two biggest culprits are Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) and brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews) in charge of the ill-fated charge who openly spout bile at each other, remain deliberately obtuse, and are, nonetheless, a joy to watch. Cardigan is irascible to the point of apoplexy, incredibly brave, vainglorious, a vindictive sex-mad peacock, with an odd selection of principles (refuses to deal with spies, for example). Nothing can beat a quite marvellous spat between the pair over how to pitch tents. Both, however, are a vast improvement on the ineffectual commander-in-chief Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) whose idea of tactics is to “form the infantry nicely” and another commander who refuses to let the simple matter of being under attack ruin his breakfast.

At the other end of the scale are the poor recruits, drawn from the lower classes, so ill-educated they don’t know their left foot from their right (something of a necessity in obeying orders in the field), lured by the promise of glory and a job, and find themselves turned into horsemen in the most brutal fashion.

In the middle is the effete Nolan, initially introduced as the good guy, who believes horses should be treated with kindness and stands up to Cardigan. His romance with Clarissa is a masterpiece of nuance, all furtive glances, hardly a word spoken. And he has a pivotal role in sending the cavalry in the wrong direction at the Battle of Balaclava, causing the fatal charge.

It’s episodic in structure, characters bobbing in and out, some for comedic purposes, and without the battle it’s doubtful the picture would have been made for, excepting the high-level squabbling, there’s little inherently dramatic. And possibly that’s to the movie’s benefit for it clears the way to concentrate on how an army operates and goes to war, the focus, unlike most war or historical pictures, being as much on what goes wrong as goes right. So the horses dying during the voyage and callously dumped overboard and the men marching through Crimean heat and afflicted by cholera take centre stage rather than lavish sequences of soldiers on splendid parade.

On the downside, you have to accept the director’s version of the war’s causes, British imperialism don’t you know, rather than Russian aggression as a result of religious conflict in the Middle East. And there’s narrative indecision, various characters permitted interior monologue for no particular reason except artistic impulse. Mrs Duberley (Jill Bennett) wife of the paymaster (Peter Bowles) is permitted to accompany the expedition for the sole purpose it would appear of being shagged by Cardigan.

The detail of what exactly went wrong on the battlefield is obscured by the fact that Nolan, who hand-delivered the famous order to attack, itself unclear, died in battle, so it’s like one of those Netflix documentaries about unsolved murders, fascinating but ultimately annoying. If incompetence is measured in casualties, apart from this one charge the British came out better than the other participants, 40,000 dead compared to three times as many among their French allies and more than ten times as many among the Russian enemy.

The acting is of a very high quality, David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1968) as good as I’ve ever seen him, Vanessa Redgrave (Blow-Up, 1966), except for her deception a Stepford Wife Victorian-style, Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) brilliantly outrageous and John Gielgud (Sebastian, 1968) who turns befuddlement into a high art.

Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, 1963) makes some bold choices, not least in what is included and what is left out, the battle of the tents, fake news (from The Times!), soldiers facing the lash, the dashing charge and its terrible aftermath, the animated sequences, and his revolutionary soundtrack. Sergio Leone might have claimed the artistic high ground with the buzzing fly at the start of Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) but there’s little in film music of the time – beyond Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score – to compare with the sound of a fly playing over the end credits or its inclusion during the march when men are literally dropping like flies. This is a very different kind of curate’s egg, absolutely brilliant in parts, and never dull.

Unfortunately, there’s a topical parallel, Crimea having been invaded several years back by Russia and now the whole region aflame.

This was the first home-grown excursion into the all-star-cast business – other British movies in that ilk, originating from these shores, previously headlined by a Hollywood star like Gregory Peck (The Guns of Navarone, 1961),  Kirk Douglas (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) or George Peppard (The Blue Max, 1966). And I can see why the new box office stars David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, repeating their Blow-Up (1966) teaming, would have, in the narrative sense, occupied center stage. But given nobody knew for certain what caused the disastrous charge and that it would taken place anyway in the picture, the far more entertaining approach would be to concentrate entirely on the likes of the feuding Cardigan and Lucan, two characters who leapt off the screen. Outside of the battle itself, Nolan’s sole purpose, it would seem, was to point out that the army treated its horses badly, a point the audience would have easily picked up without Nolan’s display of alternative horsemanship. Still, all told, at the risk of repeating myself, an excellent watch.

A Matter of Innocence / Pretty Polly (1967) ***

Dramatically undernourished coming-of-age tale over-reliant on “authentic” travelogue and continuing the transformation of Hayley Mills from child to adult star, although that change had been clearly wrought by her previous outing in  The Family Way (1966) which had contained her first nude scene. While there’s definitely way more sex here it’s all off-screen.

In Singapore, family black sheep Robert (Trevor Howard) tries to stifle romance blossoming between his ugly duckling niece Polly (Hayley Mill) and local king of the fixers Amaz (Shashi Kapoor), to quote from list of the clichés the screenplay happily summons up. Polly is the bespectacled, dowdy, shy travelling companion to snippy aunt (Brenda de Banzie) – Robert’s sister not wife – who resides in a magnificent suite in Raffles Hotel, consigning her niece to a hovel of a room. When said aunt drops dead in the swimming pool, Polly, wasting no time on mourning, is free to turn butterfly, channeling her inner Brigitte Bardot with bouffant hairstyle and tight red dress.

The genial Amaz is on hand as a guide, in sexual matters as well as tourist, until huffing-and-puffing plantation manager Robert threatens to intervene and smarmy American Critch (Peter Bayliss) attempts to sweep her off her feet. And that’s about it, plot-wise. The meandering story provides insights into different aspects of local culture –  Whicker’s World was the only globe-trotting television series available at the time so all this would probably have entranced moviegoers rather than, as now, bored them to death.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is what’s left unsaid or never dwelt upon, of the posh English girl having sex with a native of Singapore. In previous movies – Bhowani Junction et al – miscegenation would have been the sole plot point with Brits up in arms at the suggestion of it. Here, the only objection to Amaz is that he’s a bit of a Casanova, practised seducer in the main of older women. While Amaz falls in love, Polly is considerably more objective, viewing their relationship in terms of rite-of-passage, rather an un-British approach, more in keeping with the attitudes those bold females exhibited in pictures like The Group (1966).

Polly is a pretty cool-headed kid, with a good head for booze, not staggering in gutters or throwing up after imbibing too much, alert to the intentions of Critch and more than capable of putting her uncle in his place. Despite her delight at enjoying sex Polly is more independent than you might imagine and the film’s actually a character study of a woman refusing to be defined – or trapped – by love and its obvious consequence marriage and viewing this new freedom as merely the starting point of her life.

For Hayley Mills fans, of course, her career divides sharply into Disney and post-Disney. Few child stars ever manage to take the first steps to an adult career never mind sustain one, but the actress made a good stab at throwing off her previous precocious screen persona by taking on challenging roles that perhaps upset her core followers. But the film would have benefitted from a better storyline and minus the distracting tourist elements been a lot tighter.   

The career of Trevor Howard, long-time second male lead, was on a bit of an upswing after sterling roles in Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and The Long Duel (1967) and although he remained the scowler supreme he brings more vulnerability to this role. Bollywood heartthrob Shashi Kapoor had come to prominence as far as the English-speaking countries were concerned through arthouse director James Ivory’s The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare-Wallah (1966) but this was his mainstream debut. He certainly has a screen presence and enjoys the best character arc, going from the cynicism of sex to the innocence of love. I’m sure the title is intended to refer to Polly but she is innocent, in screen shorthand terms, for about two seconds. Pretty Polly, the title of the short story on which the film is based, was not usable in certain countries because the name was the trademark of a popular brand of hosiery.

This was the final film of Brenda de Banzie (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956) and the second for British television stalwart Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances, 1990-1995), while for Chinese star Kalen Liu (Welcome to Hard Times, 1967) it was both her second and last picture.

This was perhaps an odd choice for director Guy Green (A Patch of Blue, 1965) but he was mired in the on-again off-again saga of proposed MGM roadshow epic Forty Days of Musa Dagh and compared to those travails this may have been welcome light relief. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Lock Up Your Daughters, 1969) developed the screenplay from Noel Coward’s short story.

The Liquidator (1965) ****

Brilliant premise, brilliant execution, brilliant acting. The best send-ups are driven by their own internal logic and this is no exception: spy boss, known simply as The Chief (Wilfred Hyde White), determines in most un-British fashion to get rid off a mole in the operation by eliminating all potential suspects. Bristling Colonel Mostyn (Trevor Howard) recruits Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) for the job, believing Oakes showed particular gallantry during World War Two, unaware this was pure accident. Oakes is given all the perks of a super spy – fast cars, fashionable apartment – and attracts women in a way that suggest this is also a perk and once realizing that being a killer is outside his comfort zone delegates the dirty work to another hit man Griffen (Eric Sykes).

The sweet life begins to unravel when Oakes takes a weekend abroad with Mostyn’s secretary Iris MacIntosh (Jill St John) and is kidnapped. Forced to battle for survival, another Oakes emerges, a proper killer.  Cue the final section which involves trapping the mole.

Where films featuring Matt Helm and Derek Flint imitated the grand-scale espionage they aimed to spoof, the laughs here come from small-scale observation and attacks on bureaucracy. According to regulations, Oakes’ liaison with MacIntosh is illicit. There is endless paperwork. Apart from an aversion to needless killing, Oakes has terrible fear of flying. Nobody can remember code names or passwords. Oakes’ automobile numberplate is BO 1 (the letters in those days being a standard acronym for “body odor”). It is all logical lunacy. And even when the story gets serious, it follows logic, a ruse, a dupe, a climax pitting resolve against human weakness.

Best of all, the parts appear custom-made for the players. Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963), in his first venture into comedy, displays a knack for the genre without resorting to the slapstick and double takes requisite in the Doris Day pictures to follow. And he is a definite screen charmer.

By this point in his career the screen persona of Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) had been shorn of subtlety. He was generally one choleric snort away from a heart attack. Here, while the narrative pricks his pomposity, he remains otherwise ramrod certain. The audience is in on the joke, but nonetheless his genuine ability as a spy master is not in question. On the other hand Jill St John (Who’s Minding the Store, 1963) is allowed considerable leeway in the subtlety department, as a demure English rose rather than the sexier roles into which she was later typecast.  In some respects British television comedian Eric Sykes is miscast. It is a particular English joke to present him as a killer since on television (in shows unlikely to be shown in America) he was hapless.

And it is worth mentioning Akim Tamiroff whose villainous stock-in-trade is allowed greater depth. David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins, 1964) and Gabriella Licudi (You Must Be Joking!, 1965), have small parts. Aso watch out for future British television stars Derek Nimmo (Oh, Brother, 1968-1970) and John Le Mesurier (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977) as well as Jennifer Jayne (Hysteria,1965) and Betty McDowall (First Men in the Moon, 1964).

Director Jack Cardiff had tried his hand at comedy before with My Geisha (1962) starring Shirley Maclaine but was better known for Oscar-nominated drama Sons and Lovers (1960) and action picture The Long Ships (1964).  John Gardner, who wrote seven books in the Boysie Oakes series, later penned James Bond novels.

It is well worth considering whether The Liquidator would have punctured the success of both Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) and sent spy spoofery in a different direction. It had premiered in the U.K. prior to both but litigation held up its American launch  until long after that pair had gone on to hit box office heights.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog are Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships, Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and Hotel (1967) and Trevor Howard in Operation Crossbow (1965) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

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