Saturday, 20 July 2013

Non-singing detective… The Last of Sheila (1973)

Raquel again...
There’s a genre of seventies film that tries to walk the fine line between comedy and crime. Pretty Maids all in a Row is one example as is this film, written by Stephen Sondheim in cahoots with one Anthony Perkins.
There are no songs from Sondheim but there is a Perkins-like psycho and the aim of the game is to work out who this is.

Mason, Welch, Hackett, McShane, Cannon and Benjamin
In this twisted Christie mystery the main character Clinton Greene (James Coburn) gathers together all of his chief suspects for the hit and run killing of his wife a year earlier. They are to spend a week on his yacht and are all assigned cards denoting a crime a member of the party has supposedly committed. No gets the card for their particular guilty secret and the aim of the game is to work out who actually did what in a series of stage nightly mysteries… a bit like a host a murder party only after the fact.

Career trajectories...
The guests are a mix of high-powered creatives, obviously drawn from the experiences of the two writers… there’s the disappointed writer Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin in classic period earnest-moustache…) and his quietly uptight wife Lee (Joan Hackett), the good time girl with a heart of gold Christine (the always interesting Dyan Cannon) and the past-his-best director Philip Dexter (James Mason) who is currently reduced to filming commercials.

Clinton eyes his guests
They are joined by the up and coming actress with a great future behind her Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her cynical Brit of a husband Anthony (Ian McShane), eager to get ahead but weighed down by lack of actual talent.

Clinton has lured them along by saying he wants them to help make a movie about his late wife… the irony is all on him. The characters gather on the boat and are ushered into their cabins, cracks in each relationship readily apparent.

Clinton has filled his boat with games for all to play but his main recreation will be watching them struggle to untangle each evening’s mystery.

On the first night the party is sent ashore with keys and have to discover the door they open, here they’ll find the clue to one of the crimes and if the person holding that “crime card” finds out first the game is over and they get to keep their secret… or rather their unknown neighbour’s secret.

The second night involves a trip to a deserted monastery which is far more unsettling all round with Clinton having set up tape machines throughout the darkened ruins to freak his guests out. But, whilst this has the desired effect, there is a genuinely shocking development as Clinton is found dead, seemingly crushed beneath a falling column…

Shaken, the guests try to work out what has happened with Tom and Philip leading the investigation. It looks like foul play after they work out that the fatal slab of masonry was from the base of the column and not the top…

Twisted Christie...
Panic starts to settle in by Tom takes charge by asking the guests to reveal what their crime was hoping by elimination to work out who had the most to lose and, by implication, who must the killer be!

This leads to the shocking revelation that Tom’s own wife had been driving the car that killed Sheila… a complete accident from an alcoholic driver but surely she can’t be the killer as well?

There are plenty more twists and turns in this entertaining albeit slightly cheesy story.

Dyan Cannon
It’s a stellar cast and all perform well with Welch being especially interesting given the “single-tracked” nature of most of her early career. Here she is relatively subdued although naturally she gets to show off more in her bikini along with Cannon.

Joan Hackett and Raquel Welch
The dialogue is crisp and quick as these old friends barely maintain civility and look for their main chances and you’d expect nothing less from a lyricist of Sondheim’s pedigree. And that edge of darkness you’d guess comes fresh from the talented Mr Perkins…

Oh and in a shock twist, there is singing, as Bette Midler pops up over the end credits belting out Friends… never had the context for that song: now I understand!

Dusty verdict: Certainly worth keeping for a rainy day when you need something well-crafted but un-demanding!

It’s available on DVD from Amazons but a bit of a collector's item from the looks of it.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Sun, sea and spying… Fathom (1967)

OK, what’s the excuse for watching this film? On a rare sick day it was good to watch the least demanding thing possible… and, as what passes for British summertime being what it is, additionally pleasing to watch a film based largely in that stretch of the Costa del Sol so beloved of the British tourist from the start of the jet age: Nerja, through Malaga to good old Torremolinos. Sunshine and nostalgia never seem more connected, especially with the British summer being what it is…etc.

Then there was also a fine cast led by smiley Anthony Franciosa, stalwart Ronald Fraser, comically-creepy Clive Revill, young and bumbling Richard Briers and, erm, the pre-eminent sexual super power of the time, Raquel Welch…

Great views all round

All round, the view is pretty spectacular and the camera spends much time on the natural beauties of Andalucía.

Fathom came after the initial post-Bond period when spy films had evolved into female spy films and also into comedy female spy films. As such it’s everything you’d expect, from an exponentially twisting narrative to snappy dialogue and the glamorous location… The Brits didn’t colonise Torrey for another full decade… and even now the country inland just a few miles is sensational.

The pre-eminient what?
Larry Forrester had invented the character in his 1967 novel A Girl Called Fathom and this film was based on the draft for his follow-up, Fathom Heaven-sent which was never published.

Miss Welch plays Fathom Harvill a dental hygienist who is also a part-time sky-diver. She’s in Spain to take part in a competition, one she has a very good chance of winning.

Fathom is briefed by the men from HADES
She is picked up by a casual and slightly comic Englishman, Flight Lt. Timothy Webb (Briers) who whisks her away to meet one Col. Douglas Campbell (Fraser) who is, Chief of HADES, a British secret agency who want to utilise her skills to land in a villa containing international spies who have stolen a valuable triggering mechanism for a nuclear weapon. The mechanism has been hidden in an ancient Chinese statuette, the Fire Dragon.

Timothy takes Fathom on a fly past to show her the location and the “enemy”, American mercenary Peter Merriwether (Franciosa) who is working with the Chinese secret service agent Maj. Jo-May Soon (Greta Chi) and the strange English family of Mr and Mrs Travers…

Fathom meets the baddies?
Fathom makes her drop armed with a helmet containing a recording device. But when she enters the vila she finds a dead body and, picking up the murder weapon by instinct, is photographed by Merriwether. He intends to blackmail her into telling him everything but she’s pretty smart for an untrained spy/trained hygienist and quick talks her way to safety after helping him dispose of the still unexplained body.

She books a room in Casa Miguel, a charming local hostelry run by ex-pat scuba-diver, photographer and hotelier Mike (Tom Adams).

Tim presents Fathom with the secret weapon...
Fathom is then sent armed in iconic lime green bikini, to investigate a third party who is interested in the Firefly… a strange Russian Sergi Serapkin (Revill) who inhabits a temperature controlled yacht… his metabolism always has him ten degrees cooler than an average person, so far so sixties…

Fathom cools Sergi’s passion and uses an explosive earring supplied by the Brits to make her escape.  Serapkin pursues her but is intercepted by a speedboat recklessly driven by Timothy.

The plot gets really complicated as Fathom is unsure which guys are the bad guys and if, indeed there are any good guys. By this stage, as in all such things, it hardly matters as the twists and turns are “cheaply” made and, literally anyone could be either and anyone could be alive or playing dead.

Spot the baddie...
The surprises are maintained though, largely thanks to the excellent cast who make up for any plot deficiencies by playing it for laughs. Fraser and Briers make for a good pairing, both capable of “sinisterly-comic” whilst Franciosa more straight-ahead good humour could easily be mistaken for the amorally psychotic.

The Joey Tribbiani school of acting...
As for Raquel… she acquits herself well and has more comic timing than she’s maybe given credit for. Maybe the abundance of revealed flesh confuses the viewer and possibly distracts from any balanced view of technique. Sixties sexuality was a curious thing… Fathom side-steps feminism and the character gives better than she gets from the chauvinists all around her.

Leslie H. Martinson provides snappy direction and oversees some glorious shots of La Costa whilst British jazz legend,  Johnny Dankworth provides a knowing and of the moment score.

Dusty verdict: undemanding and good-looking comfort food for rainy days and sick days.

It’s available on DVD from the usual suspects