Let’s Make Love (1960) ***

Despite a luminous performance by Marilyn Monroe (Some Like it Hot, 1959) , in revealing outfits half the time, this backstage musical drama barely staggers over the line. Whatever relationship the actress enjoyed off-screen with co-star Frenchman Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966) fails to register here. In this fish-out-of-water tale of the Broadway intrigue involved in putting a musical together, watching klutz billionaire Jean-Marc Clement (Montand) getting his act together as neophyte actor-cum-singer fails to fly.

It’s always difficult observing a good actor trying to be bad. If he’s a really good actor, it’s going to be an awful watch. And unless he’s got the comedic chops to trigger a bucketload of laughs it’s painful to observe. Gregory Peck reportedly quit this role in favour of The Guns of Navarone (1961) because there was too much Marilyn Monroe in it, and possibly an awkward Peck would have been more fun to watch though comedy was scarcely his forte, but without Monroe the movie would have been virtually unwatchable.

The story’s familiar, a twist on Cinderella with Clement being the ugly duckling in terms of talent. The billionaire businessman, notorious for his love life, attends a rehearsal of a show intending to register outrage at its veiled portrayal of him. Instead, he is mistaken for an auditioning actor and offered a role. He falls for Amanda (Monroe) but she shows little interest, either obsessed with her knitting or trying to improve her education at night class, and appears far more interested in her stage co-star Tony (Frankie Vaughan).

In order to sharpen up his act, Clement hires a bunch of well-known thespians: Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly.

This is where the show could be get interesting. Genuinely learning the secrets of a great comedian, singer and dancer should at the very least provide a fascinating insight into their skills. Of these, Crosby is the pick, demonstrating the importance of raising or dropping your voice at various points in order to maximize the emotion in a song, in other words a singing masterclass. Berle has too much screen time and does little to justify it.

Whatever, regardless of what the script says, Clement seems to take on board little of what he is taught. Montand was a gifted crooner in any case, having begun his career as Edith Piaf’s protégé, and it just seems like he switched instantly from being a bad singer to a good one. In contrast, when Amanda has to take direction, she immediately shows how simple it is to improve a number by adding some actions.

Luckily, Monroe is such a mesmeric screen quality that she can rescue any indifferent movie.  This would work better with a more charismatic leading man – and the prospect of Peck teaming with Monroe was intriguing – but regardless of who she acts opposite Monroe will always blow them away. This is a different kind of role for her because in a sense she is neither the girl adored nor the victim of romance gone wrong. For the most part she’s just a career girl focusing all her attention on getting on. She’s almost just the foil in the dramatic sequences for Montand. But once she has the stage or screen or to herself she dazzles.

Sanctuary (1961) ***

This overheated melodrama stands as a classic example of Hollywood’s offensive attitudes to women. Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner could hardly blame the movies for sensationalising his misogynistic source material since if anything the movie took a softer line.  Told primarily in flashback as headstrong southern belle Temple Drake (Lee Remick) attempts to mitigate the death sentence passed on her maid Nancy (Odetta). Given that such appeals are directed at Drake’s Governor father (Howard St John), and that the maid has been condemned for murdering Drake’s infant child, that’s a whole lot of story to swallow.

Worse is to follow. Drake takes up with Prohibition bootlegger Candy Man (Yves Montand) after being raped by him and thereafter appears happy to live with him in a New Orleans brothel – the “sanctuary,” no irony intended, of the title – despite him slapping her around. The film steers clear of turning her into the prostitute of the original book, but pretty much sets up the notion that high class women will fall for a low-class tough guy whose virility is demonstrated by his brutality. In other words a “real man” rather than the dilettantes she has previously rejected.

After the Candy Man dies, Drake returns home and marries wealthy suitor Gowan Stevens (Bradford Dillman) who blames himself, rightly, for Drake falling into the clutches of the gangster in the first place. But a past threatening to engulf her precipitates the infanticide.

Faulkner was a Hollywood insider, adapting Sanctuary for The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and earning high praise for  his work on Bogart vehicles To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). The success of The Tarnished Angels (1957) starring Rock Hudson, The Long, Hot Summer (1958) with Paul Newman and The Sound and the Fury (1959) headlined by Yul Brynner had sent his cachet rocketing. But all three were directed by Americans – Douglas Sirk and Martin Ritt – who had a distinctive visual style and an ear for what made melodrama work.

Sanctuary had been handed to British director Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger, 1959) and he didn’t quite understand how to make the best of the difficult project. So while Lee Remick manages to suggest both strength and fragility, and makes her character’s wanton despair believable, Yves Montand is miscast and Bradford Dillman fails to convince even though portraying a weak character. Too many of the smaller roles appear as cliches. And it’s hard to believe the maid’s motivation in turning murderer. Watch out for Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967).

What was acceptable steamy melodrama in the 1930s fails to click three decades on. Faulkner’s thesis that high-falutin’ women want a man to master them and furthermore will fall in love with their rapist seems to lack any understanding of the female mind and will not appeal any more to the modern sensibility than it did on release. Lee Remick is what holds the picture together, in part because she plays so well the role of a woman embracing degradation, and refusing – no matter how insane the idea appears – to let go of the man she believes is the love of her life. It’s not Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s not that far off that kind of fantasy figure, and given the success of that book, it’s entirely possible there is a market for what Faulkner has to peddle.

Not easy to find. This is actually on YouTube if you go onto that channel and search. Strangely enough, if I post a link, it says it is no longer playing there – but just as strangely if you go looking you will find it.

The Sleeping Car Murder (1965) ****

Absolutely brilliant thriller. Even after a half a century, still a knock out. A maniac on the loose, baffled cops, glimpses into the tattered lives of witnesses, victims and relatives, told at break-neck speed by Greek director Costa-Gavras (Z, 1969) on his debut and concluding with an astonishing car chase through the streets of Paris.  Not just an all-star French cast – Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966), Oscar-winner Simone Signoret (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Les Biches, 1968) and Michel Piccoli (Topaz, 1969) – but directed with a Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret) sensibility to the frailties of humanity.

As well as the twists and turns of the narrative, what distinguishes this thriller are the parallel perspectives. Where most whodunits present an array of suspects, inviting the audience to work out the identity of the killer, here virtually all the characters are presented both objectively and subjectively. Some are delusional, others highly self-critical, occasionally both, and we are given glimpses into their lives through the characters’ internalized voice-over and dialogue.

Tiny details open up worlds – the wife of a dead man bewailing that he would not be able to wear the fleecy shoes she had just bought him to keep out the cold during his night-time job, a policeman revealing he wanted to be a dancer, a vet who wants to create a new breed of animals, a witness whose parents committed suicide. But just as many, the flotsam and jetsam of the police life, irritate the hell out of the cops: Bob Valsky (Charles Denner) constantly berates their efforts, relatives bore the pants off their interviewer, not to mention self-important police chief Tarquin (Pierre Mondy) who has an answer for everything.

A young woman Georgette (Pascale Roberts) is discovered dead in the second-class sleeper compartment of a train after it has pulled into Paris. Initial suspicion falls on the other  occupants including aging actress Eliane (Simone Signoret) in the thrall of her much younger lover Eric (Jean Louis Trintignant), impulsive blonde bombshell Bambi (Catherine Allegret), low-level office worker Rene (Michel Piccoli) and Madame Rivolani (Monique Chaumette). Weary Inspector Grazziani (Yves Montand), suffering from a cold and wanting to spend more time with his family, is handed the case. But before he can interview the suspects, they start getting knocked off.

So convinced are the police of their own theories that they ignore the testimony of Eliane and instantly home in on fantasist Rene, treated with contempt, a dishevelled lecherer who on the one hand misinterprets signals from women and on the other realizes that no one in their right mind would ever date him. Eliane is tormented by the prospect of being abandoned by her controlling lover.

It’s a race against time to find the passengers before the killer. In the middle of all this there is burgeoning romance between Bambi and clumsy mummy’s boy Daniel (Jacques Perrin), who may well hold the key to the murders. Their meet-cute is when he ladders her stockings.

I won’t spoil it for you by listing all the red herrings, surprises, mishaps, tense situations and explorations of psyche, but the pace never abates and it keeps you guessing to the end. And while all that keeps the viewer on tenterhooks what really makes the movie stand out is the depiction of the inner lives of the characters.

So often cast as a lover Yves Montand is outstanding as the diligent cop. Signoret captures beautifully the life of a once-beautiful woman who now enjoys the “empty gaze of men,” Trintignant essays a sleazier character than previously while Michel Piccoli who often at this stage of his career played oddballs invited sympathy for an unsympathetic character. Catherine Allegret (Last Tango in Paris, 1972) and Jacques Perrin (Blanche, 1971) charm as the young lovers. In tiny roles look out for director Claude Berri (Jean de Florette, 1986), Marcel Bozzuffi (The French Connection, 1971) and Claude Dauphin (Hard Contract, 1969),  

Costa-Gavras constantly adds depth to the story and his innovative use of multiple voice-over, forensic detail, varying points-of-view, plus his masterful camerawork and a truly astonishing (for the time) car chase points to an early masterpiece. Sebastian Japrisot (Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on his novel.  

Can’t remember where I got my DVD, perhaps second-hand, but there is an excellent print, taken from the 2016 restoration, available on YouTube.

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