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.

Assault on a Queen (1966) ***

I always wondered why this was a flop. I’m still baffled. Not only is it a perfectly serviceable caper picture, but it’s also high-concept before the term was invented, a World War Two submarine involved in holding up high-end ocean liner Queen Mary (yep, the real thing, thanks to cooperation from owners Cunard). 

The dialogue’s crisp, the robbery well-planned, a good number of twists, plenty underwater thrills, hostility between crew members, and sexual tension kept high by the presence on board of the Italian Miss Big. Diver Mark Brittain (Frank Sinatra) is sucked into a treasure hunt in part because he needs the money and in part through the sexual magnetism of Rosa (Virna Lisi), the expedition backer, who already has suave Vic (Anthony Franciosca) on a string.

The plan evolves into piracy when Brittain discovers a World War Two German submarine on the seabed. As it happens, skippering the salvage vessel is former German U-boat captain Eric (Alf Kjellin). After Mark successfully raises  the sub, it’s game on, Vic’s qualms wilting under Rosa’s seductive gaze. The other team members are engineer Tony (Richard Conte) and wireless operator Linc (Errol John). The prize is a cool million in cash and gold bullion.

Catch No 1: the sub can’t stay submerged for more than an hour. Catch No 2: it’s not that seaworthy and could spring a leak at any time (“don’t just look for water, listen for it,” advises Eric). Catch No 3: in order to successfully board the Queen Mary looking for vital equipment, one of these very American Yanks has to pass himself off as a British sub captain on a secret mission.

Potential Catch No 4 has already been dealt with – if the Queen Mary officers rumble the ruse and call the thieves’ bluff the hijackers plan to put a dummy torpedo up the spout and fire it into the ship’s hull. Catch No 5: there’s so much pent-up hostility among the team the whole endeavor could be sunk. Mark and Vic are vying for Rosa’s favors and clever bombshell that she is she intends to keep it that way, stringing both along.

Racist Vic takes against Eric and also resents splitting the loot with late arrival Tony. Alf not only resents Mark, also a former sub officer, for ending up on the war’s winning side, but exhibits psychopathic tendencies and might just for the hell of it blow a passing tanker out of the water. Like any gang, each member brings something specific to the party. And without giving too much away, the  endgame turns into a battle of wits, especially when the unexpected occurs.

I’m a big fan of Sinatra’s acting style. He is so natural, his gestures don’t look like they’ve been rehearsed for hours in a mirror, you’ll never accuse him of Method acting, or picking parts with Oscars in mind, but somehow he still manages to inhabit his characters.

This is a fascinating role for Virna Lisi (How to Murder Your Wife, 1965), reminiscent of film noir in the way she handles men, but also years ahead of her time not just in combining  sexual and financial independence but of being the boss funding the heist and recruiting the team, and soon has the reluctant Mark playing ball with no sense that’s ultimately she’s going to fall at his feet.

Anthony Franciosca (Rio Conchos, 1964) is mostly a distraction, engaged in a private feud with James Coburn as to who has the brightest and biggest screen teeth. Richard Conte (Lady in Cement, 1969) and Alf Kjellin (Midas Run, 1969) are the physical and mental muscle, respectively, and Trinidadian Errol John (Man in the Middle, 1965) essays an interesting role. Jack Donohue (Marriage on the Rocks, 1965) keeps it all ticking along.

Rod Serling (Planet of the Apes, 1968) devised the screenplay from the novel by Jack Finney (Good Neighbor Sam, 1964). So why did critics and the public have such a downer on the picture? Critical attitudes to the star were easier to understand. Sinatra’s films were generally disliked, and knowledge of his one-take preference allowed critics to thumb their collective noses at his acting, assuming he put no effort into it.

Rumors of his underworld connections were beginning to emerge, he had just married Mia Farrow, less than half his age, and the Beatles and the British invasion had usurped his position in the pop rankings. The general feeling was he was on the way out so why not boot him while he was down. This was despite him receiving some of the best notices of his career for Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

Audiences might have been expecting another Rat Pack lark in the vein of Ocean’s 11 (1960) or felt the supporting cast lacked lustre, Lisi a little known commodity, this only her second Hollywood picture, Franciosca still the second banana, and Hardy Kruger would certainly have invested the German with more malevolence. Otherwise, it’s hard to see what there is to complain about. As I mentioned the dialogue was good, characters simmering, and the story satisfying enough.

Sure, a better director might have extracted more tension from the set pieces, lifted the pace, and added a booming score as with Ice Station Zebra (1968).

It might not be the best heist picture ever made, but it’s too good to be dismissed.

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).

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