Sunday, 22 September 2019

Burning bright… 12+1 or The Thirteen Chairs (1969)

Once upon a time in Hollywood, a young starlet was persuaded to make a comedy film in Europe featuring a host of British and Italian actors, along with a certain Mr Welles… the results were rather mixed to say the least. But and every good story should have a “but”, it was an entertaining romp and the starlet in question, was a ray of positive light.

Searching for Sharon Tate’s character in Quentin Tarrentino’s latest film you might feel a little hard done by; the “Sharon” in the film is expertly played by Margot Robbie who has similar qualities of beauty and is an impressive actor but you only ever feel that you’ve glimpsed parts of her, slivers of a rising star. Sharon’s brightness is on display in this film and Tarrentino captures that, but less so the sharpness that made her such a success in comedies.

Maybe the filmmaker’s aim is not to capture Tate whole but just to reflect what was best known: she didn’t have enough of a career to show us a rounded performer but she was certainly funny, sharp and impossibly good-looking.

Sharon Tate
That was enough for this pan-European melange from co-directors Nicolas Gessner and Luciano Lucignani and Tate does very well in her first full starring role mixing well with the many experienced hands around her.

There’s a precious sequence with Terry Thomas as a salacious removal man, who entertains his passenger, Pat (Sharon Tate) with the plot of the naughty paperback he’s reading; there’s an obvious rapport between the old-pro and the actress and I would have paid to see a road trip with just these two… Terry Thomas knew he’d found a live one there!

Less successful is Tate’s rom com with Vittorio Gassman as New york-based barber Mario Beretti, the inheritor of his auntie’s fortune hidden in one the thirteen chairs. Gassman was 47 and Tate just 26, better odds than her previous film with 52-year old Dean Martin, The Wrecking Crew, and in both cases, an improbability gap too far: there’s no spark except between the actress and audience.

Vittorio Gassman arranges the hair lotion
Tate’s character Pat is an ambitious antiques dealer who joins up with Beretti in pursuit of his inheritance after he sells it off the antiques shop where she works believing it worth nothing, before he finds a note from Auntie explaining her ruse to avoid inheritance tax.  The chairs get bought by the unlikely pairing of Tim Brooke-Taylor and William Rushton, whose Jackie and Lionel are in the midst of a terminal falling out, the former having been attracted to join forces with a younger man… TBT camps it up for all he’s worth and at one point exclaims “Hello Cheeky!” which, for fans of his seventies radio show with Barry Cryer and John Junkin, is everything!

Before long the chairs are distributed across London and, after some competitive confusion – there’s an inevitable attraction between Pat and Mario – peace breaks out, kind of, as he tries to extract the key sales slip from her bra (this is 1969 after all).

The great Terry Thomas explains the plot of his dirty book.
Mario’s manic attempts to find the money attracts the attention of a psychiatrist who believes his slashing of chairs to indicate a new psychosis whilst a prostitute Judy (Mylène Demongeot), is surprised by this new deviance that takes pleasure in destroying her newly delivered antique chair.

In one bizarre sequence, Mario becomes involved in a stage play being directed by Orson Welles as Maurice Markau… a rather over-theatrical production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde over-laden with greasepaint Welles is a strange presence and takes the film off into a different direction as Mario – now battling with Jackie – tries to grab and slash open his new props.

The chase leads to Italy where Pat and Mario attempt to recover the money from Italian entrepreneur Carlo Di Seta (Vittorio De Sica) and his vivacious daughter Stefanella (Ottavia Piccolo). There are lots of complications around this family scene especially when Jackie, Pat and Mario arrive and romantic attractions make the chair-napping a lot more complex… there’s a daft fight in the swimming pool and a gratuitous scene of Pat in a clingy wet white shirt…

That's Orson Bloomin' Welles!
Time and furniture are both running out and the ending follows the trajectory of many capers of the period; will Mario get his just reward? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Dusty Verdict: Based on The Twelve Chairs, a 1928 satirical novel by the Soviet authors Ilf and Petrov, the film is an enjoyable romp, still funny in parts partly thanks to Thomas and Brooke-Taylor. It’s well made with lots of great exterior shots of London especially, and an interesting choice for Tate for whom comedy seemed to be the way forward after The Wrecking Crew and Fearless Vampire Killers. We’ll never know what the change of tone would have brought her in the seventies but I’m sure she would have enjoyed more success in dramas too especially with husband Polanski probably involving her in more of his work. Her next film contract was for $1 million and so she was going places.

Like Tarrantino, we must view Tate in the context of the everyday and this film is a fine example of her doing the day job: flawed it may be but we can see her for all her vibrant talent and potential. This is Sharon Tate and not the tragedy that came at her very end; forget that and celebrate what a force she was.

The film is only available on Italian DVD and it is to be hoped that an English language version will come after renewed interest; there are far worse comedies of this era on Blu-ray after all!

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Mind craft… The Third Secret (1964)

Let’s get this out the way from the start: the First Secret you keep from others, the Second Secret you keep from yourself, and the Third Secret is the truth. This applies to the everyday as much as the narrative in this smart psychodrama directed by the venerable Charles Crichton and starring Hollywood’s favourite Ulsterman, Stephen Boyd and the precocious Pamela Franklin – just 14 at the time of filming but carrying so much old emotion; a remarkable performance.

The film has elevated production values, with some glorious shots of the Thames side near Kew at Strand-on-the-Green where a lot of the action happens although when I say “action” I mean deep pondering set against the wide-grey waters and a poignant monochrome sky… Boyd is adept a brooding and carries an energy that suggests he is not only capable of dynamic action but also destruction and this much we see in one sequence where he trashes an apartment, accidentally making a small cut on the face of his young friend, Catherine.

Pamela Franklin and Stephen Boyd
The girl herself is fascinating as an actress and a character; not many teenagers could pull of the emotional conflictions she does and create the impression of violent damage as well as something deeply hidden… the “third secret” is one you can hold from yourself.

Catherine’s father, prominent London psychoanalyst Dr. Leo Whitset, is discovered fatally injured from a gunshot wound and as he dies, he whispers, "Blame no one but me." It looks like suicide and the coroner agrees but his closest patients tend to disagree. Boyd plays Alex Stedman, an investigative TV reporter haunted by demons and drink but still driven by a need to seek the truth. Catherine and he share a bond and she turns up at the studios to plead for his help in investigating what she is convinced is murder.

Stephen Boyd and Nigel Davenport
For a dynamic reporter, Alex certainly has a lot of self-doubt but I guess that’s why he was seeing Dr Whitset, but his need to restore his friend’s reputation is almost as important as the need to find his killer. Chief suspects look to be anyone of the Professors’ regular customers which just so happen to include Alex…

Aside from the angry, unpredictable journalist, there’s Alfred Price-Gorham (Richard Attenborough) who runs an elite art gallery, Sir Frederick Belline (the great Jack Hawkins) a high-level judge and Anne Tanner (Diane Cilento) a nervous secretary completely lacking in self confidence or resilience…The suspects are all impressive enough and what’s interesting is Alex flawed approach in investigating them. He’s no Sherlock Holmes even though he’s smart, solving the riddles that Catherine keeps on chalking on the walls of bankside near her home.

Richard Attenborough
At Price-Gorham’s gallery, Alex strikes up an encouraging conversation with his PA, Miss Humphries (Judi Dench in her first big screen role, before co-starring in the following year’s Four in the Morning). Her boss is a frustrated artist and trying to sneak his own work amongst the more established artists on show. Alex decides he’s an unlikely suspect based on his fear of elderly and opinionated customers… but you never know, he was working on a portrait of the professor.

Next Alex takes his “professional” interest in the case far too far in a one-night stand with the very vulnerable Anne Tanner (Diane Cilento) … it doesn’t end well and, as with his first interview leads us no closer to the chief suspect. It serves to show how “vulnerable” Alex is and how, if anything, he’s just another one of the four main characters who has lost their therapist.

Diane Cilento and Mr Boyd
The same is true of his eventual meeting with Sir Frederick who, whilst he undoubtedly has many things to hide, is not about to break down and deliver.

All of which leads us back to the Thames and the word games and pensive silences between Alex and Catherine… she in search of a father figure and he, possibly even unsure whether he’s a suspect. It’s a film that undermines the traditional string male lead and, whilst it meanders, leads us all down a false trail on purpose.

Dusty verdict: The Third Secret is well directed by Charles Crichton with some subtly stunning cinematography from Douglas Slocombe; if it feels less than the sum of its parts that’s possibly because there’s not enough meat in the character’s motivations outside of their internal crises. It’s perhaps too introverted for its own good.

The denouement is dramatic and might catch the unwary… it leaves a feeling of unease, something that could have been more prevalent earlier for despite itself, the film doesn’t have enough suspense or action.

Young Judi
That said, the acting is superb and none more so than from Pamela Franklin. There’s also a good supporting cast including Rachel Kempson, Peter Sallis and the ever-superb Nigel Davenport as Alex’s boss! Well worth seeking out now that it’s on Blu-ray.