Gambit (1966)

“You can’t tell the crooks from the good guys anymore” Nicole

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****Contains quite a large spoiler for an early twist in the film****

Following on from his success in British made Zulu, The Ipcress File and Alfie Michael Caine made his first Hollywood movie with Gambit. His co-star Shirley MacLaine had seen Caine in The Ipcress File and by the terms of her contract was allowed to choose the male lead. The pair were rewarded with Golden Globe nominations for best actor and actress.

Gambit is a heist movie with an interesting structure. Caine plays Harry, a cat burglar with a plan to steal a valuable sculpture from a reclusive billionaire. In order to do this he has to recruit dancer Nicole, played by MacLaine as she bares a striking resemblance to the billionaire’s late wife and in turn the sculpture. The film opens as Harry identifies Nicole and puts his proposal to her. We then see the full heist in action as everything runs smoothly and the sculpture gained only to find that what we have seen is simply Harry explaining the plan to his friend and colleague Emile. In other films this might have taken up just a few minutes, but here we have a full half hour before we essentially jump straight back to the opening of the film with Harry about to approach Nicole. It’s a very brave choice and there are both positives and negatives to its use. On the one hand the pay off of how the plan plays out in Harry’s mind to the less than smooth reality is wonderful. The problem is that it means the first half hour fails to fully engage. Caine still gets bits to do and is very watchable, but MacLaine though on screen for much of the time doesn’t have a single line until the action bounces back to reality. Similarly Herbert Lom who plays billionaire Shahbandar has little of his usual charisma in the opening.

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Fortunately when we return to real events the film becomes a huge amount of fun. Caine and MacLaine have wonderful chemistry together and produce a lovely comic partnership. Harry’s increasing exasperation as the reality of events doesn’t quite match his slick plan allows Caine to really shine. He plays short-tempered exasperation very well and this is the first time in his film performances so far that he really has that opportunity. Indeed there’s a moment when in growing frustration he yells at MacLaine “well it’s driving me round the bloody bend” that feels almost archetypal Caine. He switches effortlessly between the slick version of Harry in his plan recital to the deadpan slightly less professional version in reality while also maintaining a believability as a competent thief.

MacLaine is equally superb in her role once she is allowed to show some character. In the initial ‘fictional’ scenes she has nothing to do but play the sad, silent stooge. Dressed beautifully in oriental outfits she reminded me of Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die. As already mentioned those early scenes do help set up some of the humour of the later action, but it feels like a waste of MacLaine’s talents in particular. Thankfully when we see the reality of Nicole she has much more character and personality and she is the real driver of the movie. Just a couple of films on from Alfie and it’s portrayal of female characters Nicole comes as a breath of fresh air. She is a strong character who shows a wit and intelligence that often shows up Harry or helps get him out of trouble. MacLaine has a lovely gift for comedy and has some lovely lines here (“why is it that people who follow people always end up fingering trinkets?”). It’s a shame that she is required to do something silly and out of character towards the end to place her and Harry in jeopardy during the heist, but overall it’s a welcome strong female character beautifully played by an excellent actor.

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Herbert Lom is also much improved in the second act as his natural charisma is allowed to play out. I’m a big fan of Lom and he was outstanding in Passport to Shame featured earlier in this blog. There’s a nice back and forth between him and Caine here as they both try to suss each other out and his enjoyment of playing the game comes across beautifully. His performance overcomes the slight issues with the skin tones he is given by the make-up team, which see him alternate between looking like he has been tangoed in the early stages to having just emerged from a coal mine in the latter.

After watching the first half hour of Gambit I felt it was going to be a difficult watch. In the end I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It’s a shame they didn’t find a way to make that opening a little more engaging as it’s a solid idea and would have made for a more complete film. In the end though the last hour and the performances of MacLaine and Caine make this well worth a watch.

The Wrong Box (1966)

“You’d never think that there were two Pratts in one room would you.” Doctor Pratt

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The Wrong Box is exactly the sort of film I should really like and for that reason I was somewhat suspicious of it. A comedy with acting knights John Mills and Ralph Richardson sharing the screen with Caine and a host of British comedy greats including Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock. My suspicions partly came from a belief that with such a strong cast including a number of my comedy heroes if it was something worth a watch then I would have been likely to have already seen it. Add in the fact that while Cook, Moore and Hancock have produced some of the best television and radio comedy ever made their cinematic work was certainly less consistent. Fortunately my suspicions were mostly unfounded.

The film is a farcical comedy based on a novel written by Robert Louis Stephenson and his step-son Lloyd Osbourne. I haven’t read the book so how closely the film mirrors it’s source material I couldn’t say for certain, but there seem to be a lot more one-liners than I would possibly have expected to be in the original novel. The farce was a genre of comedy extremely prevalent in sixties cinema, but aren’t seen quite as often now. On the small screen two of the finest comedies ever made in Fawlty Towers and Frasier were brilliant exponents of the farce with the laughter building and building with each more improbable event. That never quite happens with The Wrong Box as all the elements don’t quite hang together well enough for there to be that build up of laughter. Instead where the film is at its strongest is the short little interactions between individual characters and there are sufficient funny jokes and strong performances throughout to make it an enjoyable enough watch.

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The plot is based around the idea of a tontine, a scheme whereby everybody puts money into a pot, which is invested and then the total inherited by whoever is the last left alive. The Simpsons would use the same plot device in the episode The Curse of the Flying Hellfish where Grandpa Simpson and his army regiment had come to a similar agreement. In The Wrong Box the last two survivors are the Finsbury brothers played by Mills and Richardson. The opening scenes where we see the unlikely and unfortunate demises of the other members of the tontine is one of the most enjoyable and successful in the film. It also features an impressive roster of actors in very brief cameos including Graham Stark, Leonard Rossiter, Valentine Dyall, Nicholas Parsons and Timothy Bateson. Caine plays Mills’ Grandson, imaginatively named Michael who is infatuated by Julia his ‘cousin’ and niece of Richardson. Cook and Moore are the nephews of Richardson desperately trying to keep him alive in order to pocket the rewards of the tontine, now worth over one hundred thousand pounds for themselves.

As the farce develops there is confusion over who might be dead and who isn’t, with the brief introduction of the Bournemouth strangler, as the title implies a number of easily mistaken boxes and everybody turns out to be not quite as related as they thought they were. It just about works even if it does feel a little like a group of funny scenes cobbled together with some much less funny bits. This slightly chaotic feel isn’t helped by a directorial decision to use intertitles, which add little to the action and disappear for a large period in the middle of the film before suddenly arriving again at the end indicating a lack of faith in the action to be able to tell the story.

Following on from three brilliant performances Michael Caine struggles to make much of an impact with the role he is given in The Wrong Box. He is perfectly proficient, but to be honest he isn’t given a whole lot to work with. It’s a shame given the talent he has always shown for comedy that here he is mostly used as a straight man with only the occasional gag to deliver (“My Grandfather is dying. Oh it’s nothing serious” is possibly the pick of them) moving instead between the dual roles of romantic lead and pleasant, but dim foil. The romantic plot between his character and Julia, played by Nanette Newman who is one of many actors to appear who were also in The Wrong Arm of the Law, also sits as one of the weaker elements of the film. There’s a strange slow motion sequence as they finally act on their feelings for each other that might have worked better in a different film, but only really serves to interrupt the flow of the farce. There is at least one funny line at the end of it, but that goes to Newman rather than Caine. Interestingly when the eponymous Wrong Box arrives and sparks his character into life as he begins to panic you can definitely see more of Caine’s natural charisma show and indicating what could have been had he been given just a little more to do. Up to that point his performance is gentle and softly spoken with more of a hint of his upper class Zulu-esque accent. Already we have had roles that it’s hard to imagine somebody other than Caine playing and through this blog there will be many more. Here the slightly atypical soft nature of the delivery of his lines brought to my mind Harry H. Corbett as Percy Winthram in Rattle of a Simple Man, which had been released a couple of years earlier and I could easily imagine him in this role. Nonetheless Caine does what he can do with it and continues a run of very different performances.

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This was Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s big screen debut, coming as it did a year before the release of the excellent Bedazzled. Cook has the bigger role here with Moore’s appearances more fleeting and mostly based around a running joke that sees him managing to have a tryst with any woman he comes into contact with. Perhaps unsurprisingly they are at their best when they find themselves together. There’s a lovely scene that really is just exposition, but is made joyous as Cook taps Moore on the nose as he is speaking to him, which results in Moore having to scratch the end of his nose. The sequence is repeated three or four times and while it may sound like nothing they make it into something delightful. It is only bettered by the sight of them walking around in a circle, holding hands and occasionally jumping over a body in a piece of beautiful silliness. It’s often said that Cook and Moore as a partnership never quite matched the magic they had together when they crossed over to films and while that is true in terms of consistency there is still much to enjoy from them and you can see some of the promise here that would come out further in the aforementioned Bedazzled, which is a film I have a huge amount of time for.

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It’s less in doubt that Tony Hancock never managed to transition successfully to cinema from his simply brilliant television and radio series. Despite receiving a prominent credit his appearance here is essentially a cameo arriving in the very latter stages of proceedings. In the very last scene he manages to exhibit some of the comedic exasperation that was such a part of his comedy persona, but overall his role could almost be excised from the film without any great effect. In fact Hancock’s Half Hour alumni John Le Mesurier with an even shorter screen time manages to effortlessly breeze in and out once again with his usual style and Owens he, and sporting an excellent tan and moustache combination, to much greater effect.

The most laughs of the film though go to Peter Sellers. This is just a year after the release of both Dr. Strangelove and A Shot in the Dark and he is pretty much at his peak before his film output became more inconsistent over the years. As Doctor Pratt he only has a couple of scenes, both with Cook, but most of his lines hit the spot and his performance is just the right side of over the top. Special mention should also go to Wilfrid Lawson as Peacock the butler whose delivery as the doddery help is never anything other than spot on and he manages to steel a fair few scenes he share with Caine.

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The Wrong Box is another film with a huge number of actors who also appeared in Doctor Who. As well as Nicholas Parsons, Valentine Dyall and Timothy Bateson making brief appearances Tutte Lemkow makes another appearance in this blog following his role in The Wrong Arm of the Law. Also appearing later as the clergyman is Norman Bird who has an enormous amount of British television and film credits, but who despite having seen him in a number of these I always associate with a very small role in the Randall & Hopkirk episode But What a Sweet Little Room. Easily my favourite cameo though comes not from a person, but from a band in the shape of The Temperance Seven an appearance elevated by the extraordinary resemblance one of their number has with Adolf Hitler due to his particular style of moustache and haircut.

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Ultimately, I found The Wrong Box fairly enjoyable. It is by no means a classic and certainly doesn’t provide the best vehicle for the talents of Michael Caine, but there are genuine laughs at regular intervals and some very enjoyable performances. It’s worthy of being a little better known and certainly a film I will happily watch again.

Alfie (1966)

“Nobody in this world has any right to stop you doing what you want to do.” Alfie

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Completing a trilogy of iconic sixties films after Zulu and The Ipcress File comes Alfie. It’s a hugely important film in the career of Michael Caine and his performance is simply magnificent. There are other good and even great things about Alfie too, but they don’t hide the fact that ultimately it makes for an uncomfortable watch.

Alfie is a horrific character. He is a misogynistic and manipulative womaniser who for the vast majority of the film thinks of little else, but himself. His treatment of the many women who enter his life during the film is inexcusable. Right from the opening scenes of the film as he looks to camera and refers to the married woman he is with not by name, not even as she or her, but as “it” there is no doubting the unpleasant nature of his character. While that’s clear from his words it is equally backed up by his actions as he is selfish and manipulative in his interactions with the sweet natured Gilda. His selfishness eventually reaching a peak as he seduces the wife of his ‘friend’ Harry and then shows his lack of class as his idea of a galant gesture is to repay her the £25 she needed for an illegal abortion after she falls pregnant with his illegitimate child.

An unpleasant central character with questionable morals and actions doesn’t necessarily cause a problem. It’s entirely possible for any story to be populated with characters such as Alfie and not feel quite so uncomfortable to watch. An example of this comes with the seventies British sitcom Rising Damp. In the comedy Leonard Rossiter played the often unpleasant Rigsby whose firmly ingrained racism was brought to the fore when a young black student played by Don Warrington moved into a room in the building of which Rigsby was the Landlord. Rising Damp is a brilliantly funny show that while including a racist character is not a racist show. In their interactions it is always clear that Rigsby’s views are idiotic and Warrington’s character of Phillip is always the intelligent and high status figure.

Unfortunately Alfie doesn’t quite manage to pull off the same trick. With the possible exception of Shelley Winters’ Ruby none of the girls Alfie meets have that status. The rot is set early with Gilda who is very well played by Julia Foster, but her characterisation is lacking. She is hopelessly devoted to the man who treats her terribly and unfortunately this is a theme prevalent through the film. As we come to the end there is seemingly a sense that Alfie has come to a realisation that possibly his actions and the way he treats women has ultimately been wrong, but it’s not really an admission that the events of the film has earned. It means that those unpleasant traits of sexism and misogyny at the forefront of the character of Alfie feel equally front and centre in the film’s overall tone.

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It’s ultimately a shame as this is an absolutely stellar performance from Michael Caine. It earned him his first Oscar nomination as well as nods for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA and despite my obvious issues with the film they were well deserved. So unlikable did I find Alfie as a character that I can’t imagine being able to get through the film without Caine in the lead role. His charisma and star quality shine through and he absolutely owns the screen. It’s a technically difficult performance encompassing as it does a number of scenes where he has to combine his interactions with other actors and regular breaks of the fourth wall. He pulls that off with aplomb and some of the best scenes in the film showcase that ability. Chief among them is his scene with Eleanor Bron as he continually chats away to camera while also engaging with her as she carries out his medical examination. It makes for some lovely comedic moments and in the hands of a lesser actor simply wouldn’t have worked.

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Although there is a fairly large cast and there are some other terrific performances Alfie is nonetheless a star vehicle and simply wouldn’t work if the lead was anything other than exceptional. It’s easy to forget that this is just Caine’s third major film performance as he rises to that challenge wonderfully exhibiting a range he is often not given enough credit for. That’s most evident in the most effecting scene of the film with the aftermath of Lily’s abortion. It’s a dark scene that stands out as the one clear castigation of Alfie’s actions. Everybody involved in the scene is at the top of their game. Vivien Merchant was also Oscar nominated for her role as Lily and director Lewis Gilbert also received a nomination and this scene sees them and Caine at their best. The horror of the scene isn’t seen explicitly, but instead demonstrated by the slow breaking down of Alfie, even more effective because of his previous calculated coolness. Caine plays the whole thing to perfection and extends it as he ensures he has restored his cool and wiped away any tears before emerging from the room for fear of demonstrating any real emotion.

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Gilbert’s direction throughout is wonderful. If the film’s attitudes have dated significantly in the last half century then his cinematography has not. There are a number of beautiful night shots around famous London backdrops and he bookends the film delightfully with gorgeous shots of a stray dog padding around the streets near the Thames at night. This is the second film in this blog helmed by Gilbert after Carve Her Name With Pride and happily it won’t be the last either. Sadly since I wrote that blog post Gilbert passed away, but he left a hugely impressive body of work. Carve Her Name With Pride was one of the highlights of those early minor and uncredited Caine roles and Gilbert’s direction was a key element to that. Alfie is a very different beast of a film, but his talents as a cinematographer are just as clearly on show.

Of the supporting cast there are a number of solid performances. Of the girls who come into Alfie’s life Vivien Merchant as Lily is unquestionably the stand out, but the actors aren’t often given a lot of depth of story or character to work with. That’s a shame because there is a lot of missed potential with the acting talent on screen. Foster, Winters and Jane Asher do what they can, but none really have the time or opportunity to fully develop their characters. Eleanor Bron, who I can watch in anything and is never anything less than brilliant is given even less to do in what really amounts to a glorified cameo. The same can be said of the equally wonderful Denholm Elliott who manages to imbue his small turn as the abortionist with an appropriately sinister edge. Graham Stark makes a rare straight acting appearance and in addition to Bron with minor uncredited roles for Tony Selby, Neil Wilson (Spearhead from Space) and erstwhile stuntman Terry Walsh Alfie scores well for my regular hunt for actors who also appeared in Doctor Who.

Ultimately though the rest of the cast take a back seat to Michael Caine. There’s too much in the tone and attitude of Alfie as a film that I don’t like to say that I particularly enjoy it. What I do enjoy though is Caine’s performance, which stands up against anything you will see. In his first three major film roles he has shown himself to be an actor with genuine range and star quality. Alfie may not be a great film, but it’s a film that played a major part in fully establishing Caine as a genuine acting talent and for that I am very grateful.

The Ipcress File (1965)

“I was counting on you being an insubordinate bastard Palmer” Colonel Ross

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Following on from a classic of British cinema in Zulu we have another in the shape of The Ipcress File. As with Zulu this is another favourite of mine and another I have fond memories of sitting down to watch on a regular basis with my Dad. It’s also the first film of his career in which Michael Caine is the undisputed star. In Zulu he shared top billing with Stanley Baker and Jack Hawkins, but The Ipcress File is unquestionably his film and he carries it with aplomb.

The Ipcress File was based on the book by Len Deighton and was the first of a series of films starring Caine as spy Harry Palmer. The film sees Palmer assigned to a section of the MoD charged with investigating the disappearance of a leading scientist and it’s connection to sixteen other scientists leaving their high profile jobs with no explanation. Harry Saltzman produced the film having already co-produced the first three James Bond films. Palmer is a very different type of spy to Bond and even as a big Bond fan I have to say The Ipcress File is for me a far more successful film.

There is a domesticity about The Ipcress File that is absent from Bond. It’s evident right from the initial scene that plays over the credits. Palmer is woken by his alarm clock and has to reach for his glasses as a blurring of the camera shows how he struggles without them. He makes himself some coffee and sits to drink it as he picks out a few horses from the back of the newspaper. Only when he is preparing to leave do we get a glimpse into the other world Palmer exists in as he returns to the bed and reaches under the covers for the gun he sleeps with.

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It’s not just with Palmer himself that The Ipcress File takes a more down to earth view of the world of espionage. As Palmer is transferred to the department of Major Dalby his first visit to his new place of work is similarly low key. Rather than the glamour or a Miss Moneypenny a similar role is played in this world by an older, gray haired woman with a fag hanging out of the corner of her mouth. She feels more from the streets of early Coronation Street than Bond, but is absolutely authentic to the world created on screen where every action taken has to be recorded in the days paperwork, guns have to be signed for before they are handed over and information is exchanged not in casinos or expensive bars, but in supermarkets and at military band recitals.

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Key to the success of the film is Caine’s performance. This may be a less glamorous world than Bond, but Harry Palmer is an effortlessly cool figure thanks largely to Caine’s natural charisma. Whether he is making his own entertainment during a routine and boring observation job by making jokey reports, flirting with his female co-workers or making dry reply’s to his superior officers Caine creates a hugely likeable figure. Fortunately Palmer is also a character of greater depth than may first appear. He is a lover of good food, but is far more likely to be cooking it himself than heading off to a fancy restaurant. He loves his classical music and although the has an eye for the ladies and clearly likes to flirt with “the birds” his relationship with his colleague Courtney is far more respectful and even handed than might be expected. Caine plays all of this brilliantly. There’s also a vulnerability to Palmer that is very well portrayed. When things start to go wrong for him things spiral very quickly and there is an authenticity to the dishevelled half broken figure you see being subjected to some pretty unpleasant mental torture, as there is to the genuine emotional hit he takes upon finding out that his friend and colleague Jock has been murdered, possibly because he was mistaken for Palmer himself. It’s a thoroughly well rounded performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that this is really only Caine’s second significant role and first as the undisputed leading man.

Fortunately Caine’s performance is brilliantly supported by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green as Colonel Ross and Major Dalby respectively. Both men playing Palmer’s superiors manage to portray their roles inscrutably enough to leave you doubting exactly how much they can be trusted without resorting to any caricatured villainy. The scene where they sit drinking tea from china cups, a faux politeness hiding their gentle animosity is wonderful and demonstrates brilliantly the subtlety of their performances. Green also had a significant role in Zulu and as I’ve lavished praise on Caine for two wonderful performances in contrasting films and parts I should say the same for him. He is exceptional in both films and the quality of his and Doleman’s performances give Caine the vehicle to shine.

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Also making another appearance in this blog is Gordon Jackson as Jock. His screen time is fairly limited here, but the scenes he shares with Caine showcase an excellent chemistry between the two. It’s testament to the quality of his performance and the depth he gives to Jock that even having been on screen for a relatively small amount of time his death still carries a lot of weight.

Alongside the excellent cast it is the work of director Sidney J Furie that really stands out. His use of light and in particular shadow is quite simply superb and is crucial to creating the atmosphere and feel of the film. He also produces some genuinely wonderful shots by shooting from behind an actor, framing the character they are conversing with over their shoulder. The two techniques are combined in the end scene as Palmer confronts his two superiors. It’s one of my favourite scenes in cinema and the way Furie shoots it is a masterpiece. With Palmer now dishevelled, with no glasses, unkempt, top button undone a far cry from the dapper sixties man we have seen earlier in the film and Dalby and Ross each framed over his shoulder against the wall illuminated by individual lights above them. It’s magnificently realised and a fitting denouement to a wonderfully plotted, tense spy classic.

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It’s almost impossible to analyse and review a spy film without drawing a comparison to James Bond. As a franchise over the years Bond has veered between what it wants to be. The tongue-in-cheek humour of Moore to the gritty realism of Dalton before edging back to a more Moore-like tone with Brosnan and then back again to a more serious post-Bourne world with Craig. In future blogs we will see why Harry Palmer didn’t manage to fully succeed as a series of films, but I would argue that The Ipcress File in isolation is the film the Bond franchise would always loved to have created. There’s a grittiness to it and a surprisingly hard edge at times, but there’s also a humour, a dryness and a wit that feels entirely in keeping with the world Palmer inhabits. The more times I see it the more I believe it to be a masterpiece of British cinema and one in which Caine excels. He was a star from the beginning.