May 29, 2020
Roger Corman's rock bottom budget for this film would put one comfortably in a mid-range Audi today. He directed and produced this sixty-six-minute, double-billed, imaginative film released by Allied Artists. The frenetic, driving score with percussive xylophone by Walter Greene opens and closes the film like a mid-Sixties science fiction television series. Coupled with the trendy, opening animated graphics—a Corman trademark—and strategic placement of bold text, it suggests the viewer will hardly be able to contain themselves for an hour. You may have seen this one before. In traditional crime thriller fashion, this is the oft-told tale of the evil twin. Except there are no darkened alleys or shadowy skyscrapers. No low, dramatic camera angles. No snappy dialogue. No fedora hats. All the tension takes place aboard a manned satellite spacecraft with interior props made from the finest cardboard and plywood.
As is so often the case in recent movies, it is left to a single hero to save the film, the world and the girl. This would be Dick Miller and Susan Cabot (above). The film opens with a gratuitous romantic couple—an apparent vaudeville comedy team—in a convertible parked on the lane of love. They are witness to a UFO landing, though what they pick up appears to be a large, professional firework. Whatever. A Latin phrase is inscribed. Roughly translated, “Earthlings are a bunch of belligerent boobs.” Just a guess. From a matching set of leather recliners, and with arms crossed before launching, anyone can survive space travel from the "liftoff lounge."
The story picks up inside the United Nations, where world representatives discuss recent attacks of an unknown force on satellites. War with Earth has been declared after the UN disobeys the repeated subtle hints of satellite destruction. Richard Devon (above and below) is the genius behind the “Sigma Project” designed to eliminate the attacks. Miller and Cabot are key team members supporting Devon’s theory. The responsibility of launching satellites falls under the UN Satellite Control center. The single control panel is so simple to operate, the entire project is monitored by one man.
As it is for many brilliant scientists, Devon has Lincoln-Mercury's latest navigation system during his drive to the UN. That is, an alien force takes control of the steering wheel—despite Devon’s humorous preventive efforts—and plummets the vehicle down an embankment resulting in a fiery crash. The sound effects of the alien force are lifted from the martian crafts in “The War of the Worlds,” released two years earlier. For about a minute the UN council members mourn the death of Devon as many thought he was a bit screwy. He suddenly appears at the UN—not a scratch or burn on him—with a sterile speech pattern yet few recognize the evil twin. He is now equipped with a popular accessory, the ability to “splinter off” any number of clones, all with the internal organs of a human. Murder and mayhem ensue.
The makeup department provided an effective, final evil appearance for the last clone for a progressively more demonic look. There is a rather cool but weird solarization effect near this point—with music that sounds as if played backward—an effect that will get a good workout after the mid-Sixties with added hallucinogenic colors. Ironically, this all takes place in the satellite’s Solar Energy Room, whatever function that was supposed to provide. The aliens cannot comprehend the inherent need for humans to defend themselves against aggressive attacks on freedom. Dick Miller is left to make the point that every country has the right to explore space.
Note: The point of this film has been used often after the US ended World War Two. To this day, according to many Hollywood scriptwriters, aliens are nearly always smarter than humans and arrive to warn us, in varying degrees of gullibility, about the use of nuclear weapons, their expected mutations from testing such, or the conquering of space, destroying its purity. The mere suggestion of such things masquerade as fact.
May 22, 2020
This ninety-one-minute crime film noir pseudo-documentary was directed by Gordon Douglas for Edward Small Productions and released by Columbia Pictures. It is full of shadowy goodness by cinematographers Edward Colman and George Robinson with enough on-location shooting to put the viewer on the streets with the FBI. The film is enhanced by a fine screenplay by George Bruce from a story by Bertram Millhauser. The dependable Paul Sawtell provided the score. Be patient, as any real action does not arise until an hour has elapsed. The authoritative voice of actor, Reed Hadley, melodramatically barks out narration with all the seriousness he can muster throughout the film as if it were an exposé ripped from the headlines. There is a red menace but they are not from the planet Mars. The director is determined to keep the audience guessing a traitor’s identity.
This film makes it three in a row for Dennis O'Keefe, who was on a noir high, coming off two superior efforts, “T-Men” and “Raw Deal.” Here, he picks up from his T-man role but as an FBI special agent assigned to a top-secret project fleshing out a Communist spy ring that has infiltrated an atomic research plant. The plant's tight security is somewhat of a prison-inspired process where every worker passes by what is referred to as an “electronic eye” which can detect the minutia on a worker’s uniform. The same year of this film’s release, the first group of enormous Convair B-36 intercontinental bombers were delivered to the USAF as a “peace through strength” deterrent to Communist aggression. America’s threat was as real as it was imagined.
Scotland Yard sends over detective, Louis Hayward, to help the investigation and monitor a fellow countryman—not above suspicion—involved in the California project. O'Keefe and Hayward walk through their roles genuinely, effortlessly, as one would expect from professionals. The British has intel on a suspected spy who spends much of his time painting landscapes with stolen codes printed underneath the oils, only visible with ultraviolet light. It is London’s duty to confiscate them before they go any further.
The FBI has set up an agent in an adjacent building to monitor the traitor’s tapped phone line. With cutting edge technology, the agent makes an on-location recording of each conversation as the needle cuts a vinyl disk for later playback. O’Keefe likes what he hears and a delightful snippet of dialogue arises:
O’Keefe: Can you trace that call?
Agent: Eh, dialed telephone calls are tough.
O’Keefe: How long will it take?
Agent: The miraculous we do immediately. The impossible takes a few minutes longer.
O’Keefe: Good boy!
Alluding to the unthinkable, O’Keefe and Hayward suggest during a thoughtful repose, the real possibility that the person sitting next to another might be a Communist. Indeed, Communists were spying on America during the Eisenhower administration. O’Keefe makes a disheartening comment that the apparent dead-end investigation might not even “come out in the laundry” and Hayward, in a real eye-opener, links his comment to a local laundry service used by one research facility employee. Hayward goes undercover as a laundry worker. He spots Raymond Burr pick up a suspect package. Waiting in a darkened alley, O’Keefe knocks out Burr, taking the package back to the lab. The embroidered handkerchief reveals, after the correct chemical tests, another hidden code. Unfortunately, Hayward’s laundry cover is blown and Burr gives him a serious “Martinizing” at his apartment. Burr also returns a beating on O’Keefe when he arrives, then before departing, instructs two comrades to eliminate both of them. Hayward’s landlady, a Soviet defector, grabs at the revolver of one spy but is mortally wounded. Sawtell’s score kicks in big time as the four men duke it out. The scene ends quietly with the landlady at peace knowing she did her part in protecting America’s freedom.
What follows is an over-detailed consensus as the search narrows, all of which is a bit tedious. The viewer is provided license plate suspense with no relevance to the climax. The heroic duo center their speculations around Louise Allbritton, the secretary to the head scientific doctor for the research center. She is grilled pretty hard based on their visual evidence at the aforementioned laundry. She vehemently denies every accusation. In a bit of contrived staging, the FBI finally catch their Twentieth Century “Benedict Arnold” with humble apologies awaiting Allbritton. Hadley closes the film, assuring Americans they have an ally in Great Britain. That two countries together are better than one alone. That the FBI is better with Scotland Yard. That two actors are...uh...you get the idea.
Note: Producers or screenplay writers of crime dramas were not shy about using the word "crooked" during this period. John Payne’s, “The Crooked Way” followed the next year with Mickey Rooney’s, “Drive a Crooked Road” coming just six years later. Crooked has found its way into a number of film titles since then.
May 16, 2020
6 FROM THE ‘60s BLOGATHON
My selected films all have lasting appeal. My main justification for including them. One may be compelled to watch any of these films to its completion, despite where one enters. Admittedly, the lone low-budget film, “Blast of Silence,” will play much better if one starts at the beginning. My thanks to Classic Film and TV Café (linked above) for hosting this blogathon. There is no bigger cheerleader of the movie genre than “Rick’s Café,” the one not in Casablanca. In sequential order by release date:
Blast of Silence (1961)
This quirky film, in all its stark simplicity, is singularly in its own category. Even the title is a dichotomy. Allen Baron produced, directed and stars in this dark film about a contract killer. It packs a wallop unlike the other five. His oddball approach suggests a university student allowed the artistic freedom to do whatever he wants. Baron blows his classmates away and gets that "A" grade. With essentially no budget. Filmed during a frigid Christmastime in New York City, Baron stares straight ahead, not aware of any decorated storefronts as real-life pedestrians—unaware they are being filmed—appear as “extras.” The periodic low camera positioning or the shadowy goodness may remind one of an expressive art film. Rarely has location shooting looked so expensive. The viewer follows a lonely, emotionally damaged and disgusted hitman by way of Mel Davenport’s narration, done distinctively by the wood-chipper voice of Lionel Stander. The voice-over is the defining element of this film, serving as an assessment of Baron’s pessimistic life. This is probably the cheapest, most expensive-looking film to begin the Sixties.
The Great Escape (1963)
This famous American war film produced and directed by John Sturges, is perhaps the quintessential “buddy movie” with a cast so popular, the entertainment value belies its nearly three-hour length. Unforgettable is Elmer Bernstein’s score with a rather quirky opening theme with dominant tubas that seems to contradict the seriousness of war. Casting American actors as prisoners is perhaps it's only flaw—deviating from the historical account in Paul Brickhill’s novel. But considering their charisma—many nearing the peak of international stardom—the entertainment value is undeniably high and accounts for its endearment. Filmed in Panavision, it is embedded with characters that were long-remembered after leaving the theater. Few could forget the likes of The Cooler King, The Scrounger, Big-X, The Tunnel King, The Forger, and The Manufacturer. The viewer is instantly rooting for them. A conglomeration of several nationalities—all likable chaps—work in concert for a common cause. The humor is measured and appropriate as an escape is planned almost immediately. Enjoy Garner scrounging up material, McQueen swashbuckling on a motorcycle with Bernstein’s driving score, the claustrophobic Bronson digging the tunnels or Coburn escaping simply by bicycle.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Nostalgia can enhance a film. While favorite moments may change with subsequent viewings, this epic still affects the funny bone thanks to Stanley Kramer’s fast-paced, action-filled direction, a good script, wacky automobile chases, a slap-stick ending with a comedy troupe of historic proportions. The all-star cast only rivaled by a non-stop list of cameos by seasoned actors and actresses. The film re-appropriated the term epic, previously defined in “Spartacus.” It also required an intermission. But funny it was not. The sheer scope of this frenetic, silly romp will have your senses worn to a frazzle by the end. One must mention Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett trying to fly a chartered plane after their alcoholic pilot knocks himself out. Through panic attacks and pulling enough “Gs” to render them unconscious, they remain cautiously optimistic. Then there is this. After double-crossing Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers is also interested in that buried cash under the big “W.” He puts his trust in a local boy who suggests a shortcut over the steepest, rockiest terrain imaginable for a 1948 Ford only to end up in a river that submerges his convertible.
What a Christmas present for anyone with tickets to this film’s premiere. They certainly got their money's worth, what with a suspense thriller, romance and comedy all rolled exquisitely into one. This film will have one smiling for nearly all of its hour and thirteen minutes. Henry Mancini's theme song accompanied by Maurice Binder’s animated titles open the film. If one is not enchanted by then, the first scene at the ski lodge will certainly do it. The repartee between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn sets the stage for a non-stop who-done-it that is indelibly linked to them. The latter having serious trust issues. One might fantasize that their screen time together was shot in one take. This globetrotting caper will have the senses immersed in the stylish Paris cinematography, interesting characters, moody lighting, plot twists and humorous one-liners. Foretelling his future trademark sardonic delivery, Walter Matthau’s introductory scenes are perfect and he is deceptively likable. There are two FBI agents with questionable tactics, George Kennedy with his metal hand providing some menacing humor and James Coburn as the terrifically named Tex Panthollow. A timeless classic.
The Train (1964)
In contrast to the likes of “The Longest Day,” this American war film centers on a small faction during the late stages of World War Two. The top-notch screenplay about looted French art treasures by the Germans, pits two single-focused individuals, one trying to run a train, the other trying to stop it. Directed by John Frankenheimer, an early master of complicated continuous scenes, it is superbly filmed in black and white, accompanied by an unobtrusive score. The unique camera work, location filming and the realism of actual railroad operations make for a captivating story. It is another tour-de-force for Burt Lancaster, despite his lack of a French accent. His character’s commitment to stop a German train with its unrelenting dangers and obstacles embodies the term “hero.” It also provides an opportunity for Lancaster to showcase his athleticism. This astonishingly well-crafted film also stars Paul Scofield as a German officer determined to possess the ill-gotten artwork. The arrogant Colonel’s self-obsession blinds him from inevitable defeat. Finally, Jeanne Moreau has a pivotal role as a French sympathizer, initially surmising Lancaster’s “personal vendetta” would endanger her countrymen. Enthralling throughout.
Appropriate praise has been placed on the ground-breaking chase scene within this film. Amazing considering its brief screen time, but the film seems made up of gravitating brief moments. Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy “cat and mouse” score to set up the chase—as well as his main theme—carries just as much impact. Beyond this presumed “car guy film,” Steve McQueen is at his apex in a role perfectly suited for his subtleties. One particular scene has Bullitt returning to the hotel where a contract killing took place. There is no dialogue. No music. Only the sound of highway traffic coming through an open window. Contemplating how the murder could have happened, his minute expressions, eye movement and body language make this seemingly dull scene very powerful. Another defining element concerns his co-star, Robert Vaughn, in a hospital communication station. Foretelling the tension coming in the famous chase, the two characters come to terms. They do not like each other. Bullitt’s tolerance reaches its peak with the self-aggrandizing Chalmers. “You work your side of the street, I’ll work mine.” It is a beautiful “un-acted” scene, making it overwhelmingly realistic. A quality that sums up the entire film.
May 15, 2020
Though overshadowed by bigger named stars, there have been numerous lead actors and actresses who turned in respectable performances but never accumulated a lot of mileage in films. With the advent of television, a common occurrence was their transition to the new medium, often becoming familiar faces in homes across America. These periodic entries offer an insight into the performer and their transition.
FORGOTTEN FILMS AND TELEVISION TRANSITIONS
Peggie Castle: Peggy Blair (1927-73)
Peggie Castle had a brief career in B-grade films typically playing a conniving second love interest or a woman on the wrong side of the law. She signed a seven-year contract with Universal-International and made her film debut—as Peggy Call—in the 1947 film, When a Girl's Beautiful. In 1949, the 5’ 7” model was voted "Miss Classy Chassis" by members of the United Automobile Workers Union from seven Western states. Just one of the modeling titles bestowed upon her during the period. She continued with uncredited or supporting roles in a number of forgotten films until landing a lead role as a socialite in Invasion U.S.A. (1952), a low-budget film concerning the power of hypnosis and its mind-altering perceptions about a third world war. Then came a solid role in the gripping crime noir, 99 River Street (1953) opposite John Payne, in which her character meets an untimely demise at the hands of Brad Dexter. Westerns became a staple as she was assigned the female lead in Jesse James’ Women (1954) and the starring role of, Two-Gun Lady (1955). Both far-fetched and forgettable.
Her car logically turned to television and the western was her stock and trade. She appeared on Cheyenne (1955-60). In one episode, Fury at Rio Hondo (1956), she was delightfully playful as a singer and pickpocket nicknamed “Mississippi.” Castle tapped into her roots for a pretty convincing Virginia accent. She rejoined John Payne twice on his western series, The Restless Gun (1958-59) before a regular role in the more popular series, Lawman (1959-62) in the second season. With little surprise, she was the owner of The Birdcage Saloon, giving stars John Russell and Peter Brown someplace to hang out. She left show business after the show’s cancellation therein struggling for the next decade with alcoholism.
Note: Born in the small town of Appalachia, Virginia, her characters came across as a woman to reckon with more than a dainty flower as her alto vocal range with scripted caustic remarks fitting her film noir roles. From an acting standpoint, she never embarrassed herself on screen. Indeed, her performance could be considered the most memorable in some of her low-budget productions.
May 8, 2020
THE QUADRUPLE DOH!
Based on Murray Forbes’ novel of the same title, this film is better known by its reissued title in the United States, “The Scar.” A title that best clarifies the film’s pivotal detail. This film noir crime drama is supported by a top-notch cast but do not expect gripping action. Still, few faults here. It was directed by Steve Sekely and released by Eagle-Lion Films. The oldest of seven little Foys, Bryan, was the executive producer while its dual-role star, Paul Henreid served as producer. A dynamic score by Sol Kaplan enhances the film. Riveting at times. The cinematography by John Alton is also noteworthy with some interesting camera positions, lighting and point of view perspectives.
The film opens promising as the viewer discovers that the soon-to-be-released prisoner, Henreid, is an intelligent, well-educated man and med school dropout with a tendency toward violence. Lacking zero prison reformation, he wastes no time picking up where he left off. He gathers a team for a big heist of a gambling casino, run by mobster, Thomas Browne Henry, the actor whose nose and brow was the envy of eagles worldwide. The robbery goes badly with Henry eliminating half of Henreid’s team then places a hit on each remaining thief.
Henreid escapes by train to another town where his brother, Eduard Franz, has arranged a desk job for him. However temporary. But the manager’s condescending attitude deliberately causes tension and after repeated badgering, Henreid sends the manager to the office floor with a single right cross. Upset at his brother’s firing, Franz is more upset that Henry’s men have tracked him to his current location. Henreid seeks a foolproof cover and a chance encounter with a dentist, John Qualen, who mistakes him for his friend and psychoanalyst working in the same building. To Henreid's amazement, he has an identical twin from another mother. The doctor and Henreid also share the same accent and vocal range. What luck! Except the real doctor has a scar on his left cheek. Maybe the right.
Illegally searching the twin’s office after hours, Henreid is surprised from behind by the office secretary, Joan Bennett, who kisses her preferred physician. She instantly realizes her mistake and I assume is quite puzzled by her suspended disbelief. On the other hand, as much as she likes the doctor, his scar always bothered her a wee bit. Henreid charms his way into her life. They seem to have a future together until Henreid suavely calls off their “unfortunate timing.” The story of her life. He needs to “disappear.” Joining Bennett in the suspended disbelief ward is the audience who witnesses a contrived identity swap.
Weeks pass and Henreid gets a job at an automotive service garage. It is from here that the doctor’s car will be returned after servicing and Henreid takes the service call as a favor to a fellow employee. Confusingly, he has grown a mustache of a useless purpose, perhaps to further distance himself from…himself. Henreid uses a photographic print of the doctor to copy the scar reflected in a mirror. His med school studies not totally wasted, he performs a bit of surgery on his own left cheek. Zero grimacing. A few scenes later the scar looks like a decades-old scar, skipping the logical progression of a healing scab. For all his smug cleverness, he was unaware he was looking at a flopped image due to incompetent photo processing. DOH! He first discovers this upon disposing of the doctor’s body. DOH! In too deep to turn back, he masters the doc’s handwriting and his med school studies in psychology continue by using the doctor’s library. All the while, Kaplan’s powerful score intensifies these vignettes.
Henreid now has the perfect cover by tuning out his patient’s chattering while under the guise of a calm demeanor offering incompetent advice. In quintessential form, gentle Qualen returns for a charming scene in the doctor’s office, unknowingly relaying to the impostor doctor of his past encounter with the twin. He is a wee bit flummoxed, as well. He apologizes for not realizing the doctor’s scar is on the opposite cheek he thought it was.
In a rather slick scene, Henreid takes a phone call while in his fake office and is enlightened to learn the dead doctor had his own girlfriend. Deftly, Henreid covers his identity over the phone and goes with the flow. To make sure he identifies her, he not only chooses the location to meet but suggests, out of pure devotion, of course, she select an orchid to wear and charge it to his account. He smoothly fakes his way through the evening at a frequented casino yet he mistakenly calls the ever-present dealer by the wrong name. He is corrected with a blunt reply. Time to be moving on.
Aware of Henreid’s studies in psychology, Franz reenters the picture to seek help in finding his brother...from his brother. Oh, brother. Franz is skeptical of his accused “mistaken identity” and apologizes. He informs him that Henry and his men have been arrested, so there is no reason for his brother to keep hiding. DOH!
Bennett’s suspicions deepen after overhearing a patient say that her recent sessions seem different. Knowing now that the real doctor has not been in the office for days, she suspects what Henreid has done. Finally. It is a well-acted, powerful scene when they confront each other before she boards a ship, torn between reality and what might have been. Yet still holding out hope the imposter might join her. He does rush to the dock but two thugs corner him thinking he is the real doctor, who owes a casino a lot of money and further in debt up to his clipboard. DOH! It is a tough sale for Henreid to convince them that the doctor they seek has a scar on the opposite cheek.
Note: The automotive service garage provides a humorous scene for Henreid’s fellow, unassuming employee, Alvin Hammer, who shares his passion for a career as a professional ballroom dancer in spite of his short stature. With hand gestures as proof, he believes this disadvantage can be masked by projecting an illusion of height. Henreid could care less what he aspires to as he glances around the garage, purposely distracted by the inventions in his mind.
May 1, 2020
At sixty-five minutes, most will be able to sit through this one if you ignore the low production quality, obvious budget constraints and an artificial gang leader that stretches the gullibility of the viewer. The main cast does not embarrass themselves despite the area microphone echo in certain scenes. If one misses the opening credits it is still likely many will readily guess this is another production by Roger Corman. Less successful would be guessing it was distributed by Sparta Productions. Using its original title, “Cry Out in Vengeance,” it was a double feature with “High School Big Shot” (posted October 20, 2018) and the first release of Corman’s company, The Filmgroup. At times, the overpowering, Corman trademark jazz combo soundtrack of solo drums, trumpet or piano can be distracting. The film does, however, have a fairly decent screenplay, co-written by star John Brinkley and co-star Tony Miller. This is one of five Corman pictures for television regular, Ed Nelson. He honed his craft churning out nearly twenty-two low budget films. He is the main attraction of this essay. Lobby poster images never used the original T-Bird, choosing to use a current-generation model. For whatever reason, Nelson is MIA in these promo shots. See below. For automobile accuracy, I created a revised poster to start this essay.
The opening scene sets the tone of this rickety film with meandering bongo drums as the camera moves in on Nelson's T-Bird and his right-hand henchman Tony Miller. Nelson snaps his fingers and Miller provides him a smoke. From a safe distance, they await the outcome of a warehouse burglary in which things do not go as Nelson planned. Seemingly an expert in the misdemeanor crimes of household and warehouse burglaries, Nelson is technically only an accessory to murder. Top-billed Brinkley arrives at the warehouse to find his father, the night watchman, murdered, however. Later in a bar, Nelson sees Brinkley defend himself in a fistfight with a troublemaker and invites him to join his gang. The police captain coaxes Brinkley to go undercover to help flesh out Nelson's gang who they figure is responsible for the murder.
Nelson is the cool gang leader whose ego is stroked by being a chess player, bossing twenty-something “high schoolers” around by snapping his fingers and relaxing to classical music. With an air of superiority, good looks and wearing driving gloves or the occasional ascot, he exudes big shot qualities. His girlfriend, Pat George, in her film debut and career closer, is treated like an airhead by Nelson, but she usually beats him at chess when she is not devouring a series of good books. He angrily switches to poker to improve his winning chances. She is also easily amused and her unbridled laughter annoys him. As it did me. At one point “Mr. Warmth” purposely knocks over a glass of milk onto her new coat so she has to leave the room. A real sweetheart.
For all his assumed success Nelson still drives an older, two-seat Ford Thunderbird. His low mileage status symbol is his security blanket as he cowardly stays in the driver’s seat for every caper. The gang's next warehouse caper also goes awry—in part due to an awkward score—but mostly because Brinkley tipped off the police. A security guard is knocked unconscious by being punched in the kidneys. The most amazing—the only—special effect in the film. Nelson realizes he has been set him up and takes the undercover rat to a closed tavern. Nelson will need a new town of teenagers after this blown caper. He lets it slip that his second-hand man doing his dirty work, Miller, can easily be replaced. Unaware Miller overheard the discouraging words, he repeatedly beats Nelson with a pool cue then spears him with its blunt end. Somehow. Scratch one gang leader. An empty tavern can be drafty as the pool cue slightly sways back and forth in Nelson's “stomach” in the closing seconds.
Note: As testament to a low-budget Corman film, there are a few awkward or funny moments in addition to those mentioned earlier. A solo trumpet nearly kills a tender moment between Brinkley and his girl. The trumpet is about as subtle as Doris Day wearing an eye patch. Later in dazed conversation, he twists strands of her hair into a 4” long rope. Not by request. But the topper is Nelson’s hilarious one-ding doorbell in his modest studio set. It is exactly the sound ending another boxing round.
April 24, 2020
This slightly longer-than-necessary, one-hundred-three-minute British film is notable for Rod Steiger's gravitating performance along with some interesting camera positions and closeups in the film's early stages. His intensity for offbeat, often volatile characters are legendary though his range seemed to have few boundaries. All other characters in the film are faded by comparison. Yet for this film, he is almost an absurd figure of illogical attitudes and intents while channeling fellow method actor, Brando. His German accent is no better than Artie Johnson from “Laugh-In” television fame with his, “Vely Intelesting” signature comment. Perhaps another signature role though the film's believability factor suffers as he crosses America by train where the panicked Steiger is placed in some forced, compromising suspense sequences as he begins his cowardly escape from justice. Not to say it is not exciting.
Based on a short story of the same name by Graham Greene, the film was produced by The Rank Organisation and directed by Ken Annakin and filmed at Shepperton Studios, Middlesex, England, UK and in Spain. The set-up is quite engaging as Scotland Yard arrives with embezzlement charges at Steiger's British office. The doors are opened, providing visual evidence they have the right man as they witness a self-aggrandizing floor-to-ceiling “Stalinesque” self-portrait of himself. The music score supports their shocking revelation. Steiger gets the warning while at his New York office. With inevitable escape procedures already in place, he arranges his immediate departure to Mexico for a three-month hideout. Scotland Yard sends an inspector across “the pond” to apprehend the condescending embezzler.
The scheming egoist assumes the identity of a rail passenger by matching the duped man's passport picture allowing him to cross the Mexican border. In a heinous act, he shoves the drugged passenger from the speeding train. Steiger retains the passenger's suitcase for identity purposes with a plan to dispose of it alongside the road. It snaps open revealing that the man is wanted in Mexico for the assassination of a Mexican governor. His unfortunate twist. Perhaps a major miscue, Steiger's sweaty fingers have apparently lost the man's passport. But it gets worse. The man survived his abrupt train departure. Rescued and secretly treated by his “personal” doctor, the assassin is recovering in a singular motel along a Texas thoroughfare. Bandaged and in traction from head to toe—appears to be the inspiration for the final scene in “Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”—the man is threatened by Steiger at gunpoint for his passport.
There is a fair amount of assuming throughout the film. At least one Porter on the American train has a British accent. We can assume he found work overseas. Another character slips in and out of a faint British accent though he is a life-long Lone Star State resident. One could also assume he arranged for his French-speaking girlfriend to join him on the prairie. Steiger gets apprehended at the Mexican border and the authorities assume he is their wanted man. But the smug thief tells them who he really is. They could care less. Steiger is further stunned. The assassin's wife confesses he is her husband! Hard to believe there was not an initial question about why he was assuming that particular man's identity. Finally, Steiger's angry demands assume he is above the law, even offering a bribe to the Mexican police chief to get “his” passport back.
The police chief and the British inspector conspire to keep Steiger trapped in the Mexican border town in an effort to pressure him into escaping across the bridge back to America for prosecution. But the agreement is a one-sided affair in Mexico’s favor. He is never getting out of Mexico. Steiger is content to settle in the town for as long as it takes. His wealth buys him whatever he desires until the political assassin’s body is returned home, killed in a Mexican raid at the motel. I am not sure why the townspeople feel Steiger is responsible for leaving behind a widow and child, but they band together, refusing his money or his existence.
Note: After assuming that unfortunate identity, Steiger is unaware he is now the owner of an adorable spaniel. Rather risky when the baggage car handler has to remind him not to leave his previously fawned over pet behind. The dog seems to recognize the impersonated face and follows him around town. When Steiger disposes of the assassin's suitcase, he also tries to leave the dog behind. Weary and exhausted from escaping, his life is spared by the whimpering dog, alerting the dozing criminal of a scorpion on his trousers. Steiger has a change of heart toward the dog and it eventually becomes his only friend. Yet the catalyst for his death.