Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1963) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Bookended by disaster – a ship turning turtle, fire raging in the big tent – and kept aloft by giddy circus turns this long-ignored movie in the John Wayne canon is ripe for reassessment. In more down-to-earth mold, with no villains to rein in, no gun-toting required, this calls upon something more basic from the actor, the dramatic skill required to make the audience fix on a strong character within a spectacular screen event.

Presented in stunning Super Technirama, the swansong of maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), and mistakenly viewed as little more than a travelog or a compendium of circus acts, this dwells instead on transition and loss as Matt Masters (John Wayne) struggles to allow adopted daughter Toni (Claudia Cardinale) to grow up and to come to terms with the part he played in the romantic calamity – father a high-wire suicide, acrobatic mother Lili (Rita Hayworth) fleeing to Europe – that left her parentless.  

It’s no coincidence that sending his three-ring circus cum Wild West Show on a lucrative tour of Europe in the early part of the 20th century provides an opportunity to hunt for Lili, the love of his life. But the circus ship capsizes in Barcelona, leaving Masters penniless, forced to  work for a rival European promoter until he can scrape together enough dough to start again. Masters uses the opportunity of traveling through European capitals to scout new acts, including clown Aldo (Richard Conte), a lion-tamer turned tiger-tamer Emile (Hans Dante), and ballerina Katharyna (Giovana) who performs on the high wire while Toni wants to chance her arm against Matt’s objections as an acrobat and flex her romantic muscles in romantic dalliance with Matt’s new partner Steve (John Smith).

The subplots add dramatic heft, the lion-tamer is frightened of tigers, Aldo has vengeance in mind, so in between the scintillating circus acts the storyline is compressed around the drink- and guilt-sodden Lili and conflict on several fronts with Toni while old retainer Cap (Lloyd Nolan) is on hand to pep up or challenge Matt.

You wouldn’t be allowed to make this kind of film these days so it’s worth glorying in the glory days of the circus – dancing horses, lions, tigers, elephants, acrobats and genuinely hilarious clown sequences. It being a three-ring circus there’s always something going on, plus the Wild West element which comprises a stagecoach being attacked.

John Wayne is as befuddled as ever in romance, restricting his trademark double take to astonishment at Tony’s transition to womanhood. There’s an occasional reversal but mostly  it’s a battle against the odds, potential triumph leavened by gritty loss.

A modern producer would have switched the disasters – it didn’t really matter how Matt got into a fix. But the capsizing, appearing so early the effect is stunning, is brilliantly handled, not just the rescue of people and animals but Matt in lion-taming mode and ending with a clever coda. In every photograph Lili’s face has been scratched out but in among the saturated notes of Matt’s vital cash box is a picture of her.

Some critics have suggested John Wayne (In Harm’s Way, 1965), recovering from his own financial debacle caused by over-investment in The Alamo (1960), took the role for financial expediency. But I can see the attraction, as I’m sure the actor did. This is a far more rounded character than anything since The Searchers (1956) and he can’t even find redemption from a six-shooter. He’s more protective than aggressive, paternal instinct triggering character reaction, and it’s more of a James Stewart type of role, coming back from adversity, and nothing straightforward about a man whose love affair caused marital disaster.

Critics have also taken pot-shots at Claudia Cardinale (The Pink Panther, 1963) as if she was not already an accomplished actress (a favorite of Visconti, for example) in a compelling role and competing on even terms with a star of John Wayne’s charisma without being able to fall back on the old saw of the romantic interest. Although playing a character nearly a decade younger, Cardinale  brings an earthy feistiness to a character with a bucket of decisions to make, turning on its head her relationship with Matt and going through the dramatic hoops with Lili.

Rita Hayworth (The Happy Thieves, 1961) has shucked off the glamor, a worn-down relic of her former self, turning to drink and religion in equal measure in vain hope of finding peace. Veteran Lloyd Nolan (The Double Man, 1967) and Richard Conte (Assault on a Queen, 1966) hold their own, but John Smith (Waco, 1966) does not. Look out for former British star Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965).  

Henry Hathaway (5 Card Stud, 1968) does a terrific job marshalling all the elements, containing the core family drama within the wider action-oriented structure. While there’s never a dull moment, in among all the spectacular scenes are some exhibiting a particularly sensitive directorial touch such as when Matt discovers Lili’s hotel room and reflects on his own misdemeanors.

There were almost as many writers as circus performers – James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961), Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945), Julian Zimet (A Place for Lovers, 1968), Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963), Nicholas Ray (The Savage Innocents, 1960) and Philip Yordan (El Cid).

Come at it from the fun perspective and you won’t go wrong. John Wayne completists will adore it.

I was lucky enough to see this is full glorious widescreen at the cinema where it was the Closing Film at this year’s  Widescreen Weekend in Bradford. What a way to end a show!

The Gray Man (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

I could have seen this for nothing on Netflix, but instead, hoping to do an action picture justice by seeing it on the  big screen, I shelled out my bucks for the privilege. Bourne Ripoff is as much as you need to know. Lazy writing with a bundle of the incongruities you can get away with within the MCU because as long as there’s the requisite action nobody bothers too much about logic.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is John Wick gone wild. It’s many things gone wild, including a heap of overacting, and a pair of the biggest villainous klutzes you will ever come across. It’s vaguely redeemed by an explosions/ shootout/ tram chase in Vienna but that’s only enough to shift it up from one-star to two. And it’s a shame because Ryan Gosling (First Man, 2018) in his first movie for four years is a believable tough guy in the Bourne tradition and Ana de Armas delivers on the action chops she displayed in No Time to Die (2021).

A poster straight out of the Joseph E. Levine playbook. He used to dream up these kind of posters which characters were assigned titles that bore no resemblance to the part they played on screen.

It should be an action romp, but instead it’s a mess. A C.I.A. black ops unit – inventively called the gray department – is hiring convicted killers to knock off anyone they want. Six (Ryan Gosling) got jailed for an insane amount of time, would you believe (nope!) for, as a teenager, killing his dad who was domestically abusing both his sons (trying to drown Six, for example). Six’s latest mission is to kill a guy who turns out to be an assassin in the same line of work but who is blackmailing C.I.A. boss Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page).

There’s nothing cool about Carmichael, he throws coffee at windows when he’s cross, and that sets an awfully bad example because his underling Suzanne (Jessica Henwick) is also prone to getting very cross. But that’s nothing compared to complete nutjob Lloyd (Chris Evans) who enjoys a bit of torture and gives psychopaths a bad name, but if I got this right attended Harvard with Carmichael so that’s okay then. Lloyd is hired to kill Six because he knows too much. And Lloyd calls in other assassins.

Now we’ve had that template in Bourne so what’s going to make it different? I know, let’s ramp it up. Instead of individual assassins, who might display some kind of finesse, let’s have teams of rampaging assassins. You can’t really wreck Vienna with just an assassin or two, you need a whole army.

Danush (Avik San) is an unusual assassin in that he operates on his own, not needing a huge team, but he is also cursed by – remember he’s a ruthless assassin – being suddenly conscience-stricken.

Oh, I forgot to mention Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), the guy who sprung Six from jail but is now retired. Luckily, he happens to have a young niece Claire (Julia Butters). And that comes in handy when Lloyd needs to bring him to heel – and can kidnap the girl. But wait, two years before, Six was assigned to protect Claire and saved her life twice.

Twice? Yep, once from assassination and once when he rushed her to hospital after something went wrong with her pacemaker. Yep, she has some terrible heart disease. But not enough apparently to prevent her being the world’s pacemaker poster girl. Guess what? She can race along the top of a castle and jump 100 feet off a castle wall into a moat.

After being blame-shamed by Carmichael, Six’s C.I.A. sidekick Dani (Ana de Armas) switches sides to help him and can be counted on to turn up to shoot darts at Lloyd and appear with a fast car in time to save Six from assassins on the aforesaid tram. But she’s one of the victims of the lazy writing. She has two clear chances to save the day by marksmanship and fails each time. The first excuse is just so dumb. Thrown a sharpshooting rifle by Six, she discovers this comes minus ammunition. “Never throw a loaded gun,” must be one of the stupidest lines ever written, a lame joke that clearly makes reference to No Time to Die. Armed with another sharpshooting device and with clear line of sight on Lloyd, for reasons that are never made clear she doesn’t shoot.

Did I mention that Six is the kind of tough guy who, armed with little more than a penknife, can saw through a water pipe because the directors want to do some kind of riff on Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) or that this this is the thriller version of If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium (1969) with a different country about every ten minutes. And if people aren’t losing digits, it’s fingernails.

Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas come out of this well but Chris Evans (Avengers: Infinity War, 2018), with a Tom Selleck moustache, is just awful, a joke villain, the only surprise being he doesn’t twirl said moustache. It’s almost as if he’s doing his utmost to make people forget he was ever Captain Marvel, but this is to the utmost and beyond. Stick to Bridgerton would be my advice to Rege-Jean Page. Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa 2, 2016) plays one of his more restrained characters.

The Russo Brothers (Avengers: Infinity War) throw every trick in the book at the movie without starting from the obvious point – a decent script.

Selling Sharif – The Pressbook for “Mayerling” (1969)

MGM didn’t know how to sell this. So they came up with three different campaigns. The first was the classical illustration of stars Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve about to kiss. This image was used for the film’s launch in the U.K. and at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The artwork could be augmented if need be by various scenes from the film. You would categorize this as the straightforward romantic sell. Sharif after all was the most famous romantic idol of the decade following the monumental success of Doctor Zhivago (1965).

But this was the more liberalized 1969 rather the restrained mid-decade so MGM offered exhibitors the opportunity to promote the picture as a more salacious number, not overdone sexually since that would defeat the purpose of achieving a rating designed to attract the widest possible adult audience, but nonetheless touching on enough of the risqué to satisfy modern cinemagoing taste.

Of the two alternatives, one was considerably more spicy than the other. Using the tagline “No one woman could satisfy him…until he fell in love” this presented Sharif as wanton playboy, wine glass in hand, cavorting with cleavage-ridden woman.  The other approach, though technically more reserved, was as provocative since it highlighted Deneuve’s role as a high-class sex worker in Belle de Jour (1967), the sensational arthouse breakout. The connection would not be lost on the more sophisticated members of the audience.

Nor did the Pressbook avoid the more intimate elements of the drama and in fact the biggest article in the promotional material concerned the “emotional incest” between Sharif as the Crown Prince and his mother played by Ava Gardner – “the abnormally close relationship between the two was noted again and again in records of the era” – and in their first scene together “looked like lovers to the silver screen born.”

Historical films lent themselves to the kind of detail that journalists loved and the Pressbook for a movie set in a magnificent Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century capitalized on this.  As you might expect, waltzes played a key role in the social life of high society. The Pressbook introduced newspaper editors to the concept of “left-waltzing,” a particularly energetic form of the dance performed on state occasions. This waltz had a “strict etiquette” in that it is “forbidden to reverse no matter how dizzy one gets,” explained director Terence Young. Auditioning for extras to participate was made simpler by eliminating anyone who collided with another dancer.

The Pressbook, unusually, also casts light on directorial technique, again in reference to a waltz. This is the one where Omar Sharif scandalizes the court by opening a ball by dancing with his mistress Catherine Deneuve. Young wanted to create the effect of the whirling couple revolving into a world of their own.  To achieve this the stars had to “dance in a perfect circle, keeping a constant distance in the center of the ballroom floor from director of photography Henri Akedan and his revolving camera.”

Initially, Young resorted to “two elaborate and – as it proved – punishing devices since the dance had to be done over and over.” The first saw camera and stars balanced at opposite ends of a rotating “see-saw.” But this moved so fast Sharif lost his balance and Deneuve suffered from dizziness. Next, they were connected by a lasso but this metal contraption struck them so often in the hips it was abandoned. Finally, they reverted to the simplest of solutions, working round a circle chalked on the floor. 

To ensure authenticity, Young was able to film at the Hapsburg Palace, the Karlschirche and the Schonbrunn Palace. However, such was the urge to preserve these antiquities, the stars were not permitted to sit on any of the chairs or even get anywhere close to them, so it was standing room only for days at a time. However, the Vienna Opera House of 1888 was reconstructed on Parisian sound stages.

The marketers were able to take advantage of the current fashion for the vintage look as pioneered by the likes of The Beatles. Under the heading “Groovy Gear,” the promotional gurus encouraged exhibitors to target the university crowd and metropolitan areas with a preponderance of young people who would appreciate the “freaky clothes” and “up-town hippy clothing” like the military garb, long topcoats, high boots and fur hats worn in the film. Even so, the Pressbook originators were remarkably unimaginative when it came to dreaming up stunts and promotional gimmicks. Their best suggestions were a Catherine Deneuve look-alike contest and a competition to list all Omar Sharif’s roles. Rather more ambitious was the idea of inviting high school pupils to write an essay on aspects of the period.

Book into Film – “The Secret Ways” (1961)

You might ask yourself why star Richard Widmark bought the rights to Alistair MacLean Cold War thriller The Last Frontier (title changed to The Secret Ways for American publication and the film) if he was going to ignore so much of the author’s brilliant story. In the original version hero Reynolds (the Widmark character) does not simply fly into Vienna as in the film, but has already crossed the Austrian border into Hungary in a blizzard after hitching a lift in a truck but now is stranded on foot in sub-zero temperatures, 30 miles from Budapest. This is not the only change authorized by Widmark, wearing his producer’s hat.

His Reynolds is a freelance gun for hire clearing a gambling debt and hired by an American spy ring compared to MacLean’s British secret service agent, intensely trained for 18 months for this mission. The mission in MacLean’s book is to rescue/kidnap British scientist Professor Jennings, the world expert on ballistic missiles, with the help of Hungarian resistance leader -Hungary at the time part of the Soviet bloc – Jansci (Wolf Rilla). Widmark eliminated all mention of Jennings. Instead, the task facing his Reynolds is to get Jansci out of Hungary. Widmark’s Jansci is still a resistance leader but doubling up as the professor albeit a straightforward scholar with nothing to do with missiles.  

Cover of the Doubleday U.S. hardback edition in 1959.

Combining characters was not unusual in the movie business and Widmark may have deemed it necessary to streamline the plot. But if the idea was to simplify the plot, that hardly explained the existence of Elsa (Senta Berger). She was not in the book. Her sole purpose may have been to provide Widmark with casual romance – a testament in Hollywood terms to his irresistible attraction – early in the story.

This was Alistair Maclean’s first shift away from the trio of war novels, including The Guns of Navarone, which had rocketed him into the bestseller class, and it proved to be a major change of style that created the non-stop thriller template that would underpin the later Fear Is the Key (published in 1961), When Eight Bells Toll (printed in 1966) and Puppet on a Chain (1969 publication), all of which were filmed, which saw loners or secret agents enduring horrific physical abuse as they battled the odds.

MacLean’s Reynolds enters Budapest a captive, rather than as in the Widmark version merely catching a train. Widmark meets Jansci’s daughter Julia (Sonia Ziemann) in Vienna. But in the book the secret agent meets Julia, along with her father, after he is captured by the resistance. In the book Reynold’s kidnap occurs in the first 20 pages, in the film at the halfway mark. From the outset Maclean thrusts his hero pell-mell into action with nary a let-up but in the film the action is punctuated by romance and various political meanderings.

Giving the game away No 1: the back cover of the Fontana paperback movie tie-in explains the plot – and it’s different from the one Widmark filmed.

Perhaps Widmark shied away from the MacLean plot due to budget constraints for the novel is certainly more intense and continually action-packed. Starting with the blizzard and ending with a perilous river crossing, the novel has several scenes which would have looked stupendous on screen. The story Widmark ignored involved the scientist in danger of being removed from Hungary to be returned to the Soviet Union, forcing Reynolds to effect a rescue on board a train, in a devil-may-care episode worthy of James Bond, by separating one car from the rest. There follows a 400-kilometer chase to the Austrian border where, pursued by Hungarian secret police, they cross the river Danube. In a final twist, while the professor and Julia are safe, Jansci refuses to leave his native country.

In various blogs covering the transition of novel into screenplay, I have mostly understood why a screenwriter would delete, alter or embellish plot, characters, time scale and even locale. Sometimes the screenwriter simply comes up with a more believable plot (as in Blindfold) or is required by the sheer length of the novel to make considerable changes. It’s rare for me to think that the screenwriter has taken the wrong approach. I thought The Devil Rides Out could have done with more of the occult background in the Dennis Wheatley novel. Here, it’s quite obvious that Maclean had a far better storyline than the film Widmark chose to make, the blizzard, train and river crossing scenes far more exciting than anything in the finished picture. As I noted, money may have been the issue.

Giving the game away No 2: the back cover of the Pocket Books paperback movie tie-in explains that Reynolds is a British secret service agent – but that’s not how Widmark played him.

However, it’s just as interesting that Widmark and Co. managed to make an enjoyable picture by not following the original story. The role of gambler-gone-bad was more appropriate to the Widmark screen persona than a secret service agent (outside of the humorous Our Man in Havana, there were not many of those around until a few years later). The film did introduce Senta Berger to a wider audience and the plot as it stands made a lot of sense.

The book was published in Britain in 1959 as The Last Frontier. In America the same year Doubleday renamed it The Secret Ways. There was a Victor Mature western called The Last Frontier in 1955 – and the title had also been used in 1932 and 1939 – so unless  Richard Widmark had purchased the film rights prior to American publication and announced a name change, then I have no idea why the book title changed.

 

Mayerling (1968) ****

Sumptuous historical romantic drama set in a fading European empire awash with political intrigue and incipient revolution. Archduke Rudolf (Omar Sharif), married heir to the throne and constantly at odds with rigid father Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), sympathizes so strongly with Hungarian dissidents that he threatens to tear apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, when he falls in love with Maria (Catherine Deneuve) and wants to marry her instead that, too, threatens to throw the empire into disarray.

Although dissolute, a mistress (or two) on the side, and addicted to morphine, that is not the way Rudolf is introduced to the audience. Instead, he is one of a string of bloodied men arrested after a demonstration giving his name to an officer in a police station who, once he is recognized, orders all other prisoners be released. He is the poster boy for good royalty. The Hungarians, agitating for independence, want him to become their king.

Beautifully mounted with lavish sets and enough in the way of balls, ballet, processions,  horse riding and sleighs to keep up a steady parade of visually interesting distractions, the films steadily builds up an undercurrent of tension, both between father and son and between rebels and ruler. The emperor is a political genius, not just spying on his son, but full of devious devices to hold together whatever threatens to break up the empire.

The romance develops slowly and with true historical perspective, the first kiss they share is not on the lips, Rudolf kisses both her cheeks, she kisses his palm. Yet, there is a real sense that, no matter his power, they can still both be trapped in roles they despise, separated at the whim of parents. Rudolf, as he understands true love for the first time, finds the self-belief to challenge political certainties.

The regal aspects are well done, arguments about the rule of monarchy come over as heated conversation rather than boring debate, the political realities unavoidable. Rudolf, desperate to avoid a future where someone has to die before he has a reason to live. Escape is not an option.

There is a wonderful bitchy atmosphere in the court, where ladies-in-waiting disparage each other behind their backs, one dress described as “wallpaper,” and are forever seeking advancement. Countess Larish (Genevieve Page) is a self-appointed procurer-in-chief for Rudolf, not caring what chaos she causes.

I should add, if you are as ignorant of your European history as myself, that Mayerling is a place not a person. I tell you this so that you don’t make my mistake of waiting for a Mayerling character to appear. The film pointedly avoids a history lesson but it could have spared a minute to explain that the events depicted take place just 20 years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest land-mass in Europe, and among the top two or three nations. That would have helped clarify why Franz-Josef was in such a constant state,  worried about forces that could break up the empire, and as concerned that his son, living such a debauched life, lacked the personal skills to hold it together after his father’s death.

It is ironic that Rudolf does prove his worth as a result of being briefly separated from Maria, taking the army to task for its incompetent officers and poor maintenance of everything from weaponry to horses.

To his credit director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962) does not rely on Omar Sharif’s soulful brown eyes and instead allows action to convey character and looks and touch the meaning of his love. This is probably Omar Sharif’s best role, one where he clearly made all the acting decisions rather than being over-directed by David Lean as in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Catherine Deneuve is equally impressive as a far-from-docile innocent, especially given the wide range of more sexually aware characters she has created for Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1967).

James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is superb as the conniving emperor, so rigid he will not approve a change of buttons for the army, so cunning that an apparent rapprochement with his son has unseen strings attached. Ava Gardner (55 Days at Peking, 1963) sweeps in briefly as an empress protective of her son and making the best of life in a gilded cage. Also impressive are Genevieve Page (Grand Prix, 1966) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) as the high-living British heir nonetheless under the thumb of his mother Queen Victoria.

Terence Young also wrote the literate, often amusing script, although Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Joseph Kessel (Night of the Generals, 1967) are credited with additional dialogue. While Francis Lai (The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl, 1968) wrote the score he relies heavily on classical music from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus.

If you come at this not expecting a David Lean style affair full of striking compositions, but an old-fashioned drama advancing at leisurely pace, you will not be disappointed.

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