Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '66 - James David Patrick ""

Friday, September 23, 2016

Underrated '66 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.

See his Underrated '76 & '86 lists: here:

Since 1966 is widely regarded as the "Year of the Spy" - the year that the entire world went crazy for spy parodies, knock-offs and re-interpretations - I felt it would be a disservice to, well, everyone if I accommodated both spies and non-spies in a list of reasonable length. I was told by the proprietor of this here website that the only reasonable solution would be to create two distinct lists. Obviously! First up is my gaggle of non-spies, though you'll undoubtedly note that James Bond still manages to make an appearance.

A Fine Madness (Irvin Kershner, 1966)
Between outings as James Bond, Sean Connery starred in this droll comedy about a poet named Samson Shillitoe. Poor Samson can't finish his epic masterpiece and cleans carpets in order to pay alimony to his first wife. His beleaguered bread-winning current wife (Joanne Woodward) objects to his sex addiction and anger management issues. You know, as you would. Samson Shillitoe represents Sean Connery's attempt to avoid action hero typecasting. He's a loathsome, offensive brute and Connery brings the character to life with the swagger of an actor buoyed by creative freedom, unshackled from the restraint required to play cool, calculated 007. And much to his credit, director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) appears to give Connery misbehavior carte blanche to wreak social and moral havoc. Shillitoe assaults a police officer and a civil servant. While on a cleaning job, he sleeps with an office secretary while flooding the building with carpet bubbles. Later he seduces his psychiatrist's wife in a mental institution's therapy tub, an action that directly leads to Samson being given a quasi-lobotomy to quell his anger problems. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't work.) The movie earned a number of positive reviews from the press, but studio head Jack Warner regretted the project from the outset. He thought he'd hired Connery for a Bond-style action film. Once he finally read the script and understood the film as an anarchic dramedy, he demanded a multitude of rewrites. After the completion of filming, Warner banned Kershner from the Warner lot and ordered re-edits and a new score. The notorious stick-in-the-mud Warner clearly never got the joke. Now it's impossible to tell where Kershner's version ends and Warner's meddling begins. The film flopped at the box office, presumably because the audience, like Jack Warner, failed to see the brilliant joke inherent to the notion of James Bond, pugnacious poet.

The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966)
Is there a narrative vehicle inherently more British than the tontine? (Tontine: n. - an annuity shared by subscribers to a loan or common fund, the shares increasing as subscribers die until the last survivor enjoys the whole income.) After all, British humor is best served when deft comedic mania explores the latent bits of our dark and mangled human nature. The Wrong Box is stuffed full of Victorian anti-manners that indulge humanity's worst eccentricities. Oh the hilarity of the misplaced mutilated body in a barrel gag! Making light of the tottering and impossibly old and senile butler! High-speed horse-drawn hearse chases! Consider further that Michael Caine's character plays one of the lone voices of naïve sanity and reason. The Wrong Box is Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, John Mills, Ralph Richardson and Peter Cook almost all behaving badly-very, very badly-in the name of cold cash. A fortune falls into the lap of the Finsbury brother that outlives the other. The families of each man are torn between forcibly keeping them alive or knocking them off to ease the burden of dealing the old fools... or pretending they're actually alive to dupe the other family (kind of a proto-Weekend at Bernie's). Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Moore) believe their uncle Joseph has died and try to conceal his death to win the tontine. Meanwhile, Michael (Michael Caine) has falsely reported the death of Joseph's brother, causing a chain reaction of erroneous judgment. The movie devolves into anarchic slapstick and chase scenes as the twisty narrative unfolds and the characters grow even more desperate and maniacal. In the best possible way, of course. Based on the 1889 novel by Robert Louis Stephenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, The Wrong Box clearly sought inspiration in style and substance from the Ealing comedies of the 1940's. The "otherwise decent people doing horrible things" genre has a grand tradition, and the Wrong Box updates that formula for the 1960's by tenuously straddling the line between good taste and outright offense. Fans of distasteful British gallows humor have just discovered their new favorite movie.

Gambit (Ronald Neame, 1966)
An oddly underseen comedic caper considering the star wattage involved. The narrative may not be seamless and the gotcha! ending may or may not be worth the rigmarole, but director Ronald Neame (Hopscotch, Tunes of Glory) turns on the camera and gets out of the way. He makes the film all about his young stars Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. Harry Dean, a Cockney thief (Caine, obviously), and his sculptor partner hire Shirley MacLaine's red-headed Eurasian nightclub singer/firebrand to help them steal a priceless statuette from middle eastern millionaire Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom). You may have noted the preposterous casting of MacLaine as a person of Asian descent and Herbert Lom as a kind of demi-Shah. Shahbandar sniffs out the ruse and ruins Dean's con. Or does he? Of course he does. Or not. I refuse to speak further on the matter; you'll just have to watch. Gambit serves up a familiar brand of light-hearted heisting, but this movie boasts Caine and MacLaine and those other movies don't. The snappy script hits narrative beats at a pace that resists scrutiny and gives its stars plenty of time to play off each other. If not for Michael Caine day on TCM a couple years ago, I wouldn't have heard of this highly entertaining flick. And that's a shame. Born out of a classic Hollywood mode of filmmaking - stars first - Gambit crackles with vim and vigor. Twisty fun without pretense.

Lord Love a Duck (George Axelrod, 1966)
Lord Love a Duck left me a little awestruck. It's a brash and ballsy slapstick criticism of the sex- and commercial-crazed 1960's. Breaking taboo left and right and in between, Lord Love a Duck could be seen as the dark counterpoint to the Frankie and Annette Beach Party movies (which were, admittedly an easy target, and already parodying themselves by the time Lord Love a Duck was released in 1966). I'm not even sure how anyone approved such a bizarre and baffling movie for release... but I do thank them for it. It's almost as if the studio heads didn't understand the duplicity of the script and just gave the film the go ahead based on prolonged scenes of jiggling, bikini-clad bottoms. Tuesday Weld (in perhaps her best display of Tuesday Weldness) plays Barbara Ann, a high school girl of limitless ambition. Alan Mollymauk Musgrave (Roddy McDowall) aims to make all of it happen with a wink and a smile. They sign a devil's pact in wet cement, and Alan facilitates Barbara Ann's ascent to becoming a bikini-clad cinema idol. Is Alan a deranged, delusional high school student with an unhealthy obsession with Barbara Ann? Or is he something much more subversive? If it all weren't so much goddamn fun, you might notice how untoward Lord Love a Duck really is. Director George Axelrod was best known for the notches on his screenwriting belt, having provided the blueprints for classic films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and The Seven-Year Itch. Lord Love a Duck feels like the product of a disillusioned Hollywood insider set to undermine the institution. Many contemporary critics considered him an old Hollywood creep merely ogling teenage girls. Clearly, like the studio that greenlit this picture, they just didn't get the joke. Axelrod runs roughshod over popular culture, his targets plentiful and his attacks often unfocused. As a result, Duck's construction begins to feel slapdash (hamfisted?) during the second half of the film, overburdened by the volume of Axelrod's satirical efforts. This amateurish construction embellishes the chaos unfolding on screen. It's clearly the film's satirical successes and narrative miscues that have endeared it to cult movie fans for decades. Lord Love a Duck becomes far more interesting as a result of its faults. Much of the credit must go to the impressive cast - Tuesday Weld and Roddy McDowall, of course, but also Ruth Gordon, Harvey Korman and the deft Lola Albright who plays Barbara's mother, a perpetually drunk, cat-tailed cocktail waitress. The actors commit to Axelrod's script even as it pulls apart at the seams. What's left is a curiously satisfying concoction of bizarro moments. If you watch Lord Love a Duck and you start thinking "This isn't all that odd," just wait until the cashmere sweater scene. If you're still watching after that, you'll be hooked on the Mollymauk.

The Swinger (George Sidney, 1966)
The Swinger opens with Ann-Margret serenading audiences in a black cat-style suit from a rope swing (because kitschy synonyms and innuendo!). Clearly audiences couldn't get enough of that face-to-face Ann-Margret pre-title action. Bye Bye Birdie was just the appetizer. The movie then gives us a Los Angeles travelogue. Fender-benders. Shopping. Food - mostly hot dogs, for phallic reasons. And finally Hollywood, the movies, specifically infernal nudie pictures. Now the introduction to Sir Hubert, the letchy bottom-pinching proprietor of Girl-Lure Magazine, a symbolic stand-in for all that is wrong with the modern world. For the next 80 minutes, The Swinger offers a criticism of this sex-crazed, misogynist patriarchy while also appealing to the very same sex-crazed patriarchy. "There is more to people than just sex glands," Ann-Margret's Kelly Olsson scolds as a Girl-Lure representative (Anthony Franciosa) rejects her "cute" writing and tells her to go home and bake something. In that moment, she decides that the easiest road to publication is writing a dirty dimestore paperback. Before I continue, I'd like to make one thing perfectly clear. The Swinger is both a successful satire and cinema of gross miscalculation (but perhaps only from our modern perspective). The film is probably best known for a couple of scenes where Ann-Margret channels her fictional character to prove that she's written scandal from firsthand experience. I don't care who you are; there isn't one person alive that won't raise an eyebrow at the combination of Ann-Margret, striptease, and body paint. A spread appeared in Playboy to promote the body-paint scene in The Swinger. Longer cuts of the "paint-dance" sequence and the striptease exist, but no one can seem to agree whether the post-release editing was done to appease censors when the film ran on TV or merely trim run time. The notion of a mainstream 1960's skin-flick beaten down by old-fashioned protestant decency paranoia offers much fodder for titillating analysis but its probably far from the truth considering that by 1966, most of these cultural censors would have been crippled by the sexual revolution, encroachment of racier European cinema, and the increasing popularity of underground films from Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. To put 1966 in finer perspective, Antonioni's Blow-up became a stateside hit that same year and offered American audiences their first fleeting glimpses of pubic hair in a mainstream film. By the time this film aired on TV in the 1970's and the edits were made, I'd be surprised if this was anything more than time management. The appeal for modern audiences remains, of course, Ann-Margret in a multitude of outfits that showcase her timeless assets. The secondary appeal is revisiting the 1960's as a screwy Technicolor wonderland filled with dopey guys and dopey dames who all just want to have a bit of fun without a stubbornly focused political agenda. But then again don't we all? After my rewatch for this blurb, I believe now that The Swinger is actually more intelligent than it lets on, and it's a shame that the movie is so completely unavailable. Once available to watch on Amazon Streaming, the only remaining venue seems to be YouTube (both were the edited version).

The Swinger on Youtube:
Full paint dance scene from The Swinger:

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