Monday, August 19, 2013

Five Films Worth a Second Look

This past May as part of its Friday Night Spotlight Turner Classic Movies aired "Second Looks", hosted by director, screenwriter, and actress Illeana Douglas. "Second Looks featured films that did not perform very well on their initial release (often critically as well as at the box office), but may now be worthy of reevaluation (hence the title, "Second Looks"). During its run "Second Looks" included such films as The Loved One (1965), Mickey One (1965), and A New Leaf (1971).

Ever since TCM aired "Second Looks" I have thought of films that in my opinion are ready for rediscovery. To this end I have come up with a list of five films that number among my favourites, but are not widely known and appreciated. Now I do have to point out that not all of these films were critical failures at the time of their release, as some of them actually received generally positive reviews. That having been said, none of them did particularly well at the box office and some of them are largely forgotten today.

Catch Us if You Can (1965): With the success of The Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night (1964), it was inevitable that other British bands of the era would star in their own movies. Sadly,  Herman's Hermits' Hold On! (1966) and The Spencer Davis Group's The Ghost Goes Gear (1966) would be typical of the British rock band musicals of the mid-Sixties, films nearly as forgettable as they were poor in quality. An exception was The Dave Clark Five's Catch Us if You Can (retitled Having a Wild Weekend in the United States).  In fact, the film received largely positive reviews upon its initial release. Unfortunately, it also performed poorly at the box office. It would be the first feature film directed by then documentary film maker John Boorman, who would go onto direct such films as Deliverance (1972) and Excalibur (1981).

John Boorman and screenwriter Peter Nichols (who went onto write the movie Georgy Girl) were not content to mimic The Beatles' success with A Hard Day's Night, instead making Catch Us if You Can dramatically different from any other British rock musical of the Sixties. Indeed, The Dave Clark Five do not even play themselves, but rather a team of stuntmen (something which Dave Clark had done in real life) who flee London in rebellion against the images and advertising generated by the media. Indeed, central to Catch Us if You Can is the question of what is truly real and what is illusion. Particularly when compared to the other British rock band musicals of the era, Catch Us if You Can can be surprisingly dark. At the same time, however, it is also extremely funny and contains some of the best songs The Dave Clark Five ever performed.

Hot Enough for June (1964): In the early Sixties TV shows such as The Avengers and Danger Man, sparked a spy craze in the United Kingdom. The spy craze was kicked into high gear with the release of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962, which also brought the craze to the United States. With audiences on both sides of the Pond hungry for anything related to spies, a number of both serious spy thrillers and comedic spy spoofs would be released from the early to mid-Sixties. Many were poor imitations of the Bond movies. One film that was not a pale imitation of a Bond film was the comedy Hot Enough for June (released as Agent 8 3/4 in the United States) starring Sir Dirk Bogarde.

Hot Enough for June utilises the time honoured premise of an ordinary person getting caught up in international intrigue. What sets Hot Enough for June apart from earlier films of a similar nature (such as the classic North by Northwest) is that Nicholas Whistler (played by Mr. Bogarde) is truly an ordinary Englishman. When he find himself caught in the midst of spy games he does not suddenly discover heretofore unknown talents (such as marksmanship or driving cars like a professional stuntman), but instead reacts as any ordinary person realistically would--he is confused, bewildered, scared, and on the run. This alone sets Hot Enough for June apart from other spy spoofs of the era. It is further set apart by the fact that it takes a subtle, tongue in cheek, but very intelligent approach to espionage, the Cold War, and relations between the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe.

Despite a solid cast (which included, in addition to Sir Dirk Bogarde, Robert Morley, Leo McKern, and Roger Delgado) and, in my humble opinion, a first rate screenplay, Hot Enough for June was received poorly by critics in the United Kingdom. American critics were slightly kinder to the film. Regardless, Hot Enough for June was not a hit at the box office on either side of the Pond. It is definitely a film just waiting to be rediscovered.

Penelope (1966): It can be argued that the heigh of Natalie Wood's career was in the early to mid-Sixties. She starred in such hit films as West Side Story (1961) and Splendour in the Grass (1961), while receiving an Oscar nomination for Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). The year 1965 would see her star in The Great Race, an epic comedy that was the sixth highest grossing film of the year. Released in 1966 Penelope would have seemed poised to be a smash hit. Unfortunately, the film received  largely negative reviews from critics. And while Penelope started out strong at the box office (it was the #1 film in the United States in its second week of release), audiences were soon staying away from it in droves and it topped out at a paltry $4 million.

I find this sad as, in my humble opinion, Penelope is actually a very funny and well done comedy. It is essentially a caper film centred around the title character (played by Natalie Wood), the kleptomaniac and slightly madcap wife of a rather staid banker (played by Ian Bannen). Miss Wood shines as Penelope, convincingly playing a character who is by turns flighty and wily and always charming. What is more, Penelope boasts a stellar supporting cast, including Dick Shawn (as Penelope's lovestruck psychiatrist), Peter Falk (as the down to Earth, but clever detective Lt. Bixbee), and Lou Jacobi (as con artist Ducky). There is even a cameo by Jonathan Winters, as sex crazed anthropology professor Klobb. Penelope also boasts excellent production design, including costumes designed by Edith Head.

The President's Analyst (1967): I was a bit hesitant to include this film in this list, as it is not exactly obscure. Indeed, The President's Analyst is something of a cult classic. That having been said, I really think it should be better known and that it should be considered simply a classic, cult or otherwise. Indeed, The President's Analyst received overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release and it is still highly regarded (indeed, it enjoys an 81% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes). Despite the large amount of critical praise The President's Analyst  received, it died at the box office. The film only made $2,450,000 in its initial release.

Although often called a spy spoof, The President's Analyst may be more accurately described as a cultural satire. The plot centres upon Dr. Sidney Schaefer (played by James Coburn), who finds himself hired as the president's psychiatrist. When the pressures of the job get to him, Dr. Schaefer decides to go on the run. Unfortunately, what seems like every government in the world (and one rather huge corporation) is hot on his tail, anxious for the valuable information they think he has. In the process The President's Analyst sends up everything from spy movies to the FBI to liberals to conservatives to modern telecommunications.

Even given the fact that it was released in a time ripe with satirical black comedies such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and The Loved One, The President's Analyst was an edgy film for the era. In fact, then  head of production at Paramount Robert Evans claimed that he was visited by the FBI who told him that they did not want him to make the film due to its rather unflattering portrayal of the Bureau. Regardless, before the film's release all references to the FBI were replaced by the "Federal Bureau of Regulation" and "FBR" and all references to the CIA were replaced by the "Central Enquiries Agency" or "CEA". Whether Mr. Evans' claim is true or not, such lampooning of government agencies, let alone portraying them in unfavourable terms, was rare in the days before such films as The Parallax View (1974) and Wag the Dog (1997). In some respects, then, The President's Analyst was a bit ahead of its time.

The Satan Bug (1965): In the Sixties director John Sturges was at the peak of his career. He had ended the Fifties with one of his two biggest films, The Magnificent Seven (1960). In 1963 another one of his biggest films, The Great Escape, was released. Both were blockbuster films with all star casts. The Satan Bug would be a very different film. Based on Alistair MacLean's  novel of the same name, The Satan Bug featured no big name stars and eschewed action of the sort seen in the James Bond thrillers for a more intellectual approach.

The Satan Bug centres on former intelligence agent Lee Barrett (played by George Maharis), who finds himself investigating the theft of a virus that could kill all life on Earth in a matter of months (the "Satan bug" of the title) from a secret government bioweapons laboratory. While its premise is admittedly Bondian, The Satan Bug unfolds very differently from other spy thrillers of the era.  The emphasis is not on non-stop action, but instead on dialogue, character interaction, and planning. Combined with its rather deliberate pace, The Satan Bug is then much more suspenseful than if it had been done in the manner of the Bondian thrillers of the day. It also benefits from a great cast, that includes Richard Basehart, Anne Francis and Dana Andrews.

It was perhaps because it was so different from other espionage thrillers of the time that many critics were not kind to The Satan Bug upon its release. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times complained that it "...has much the triteness and monotony of an average serial television show." The headline of Mae Tinnee's review in The Chicago Tribune summed up many critics' opinion of the film, "The Satan Bug,'All Talk, Little Action'". Worse yet, The Satan Bug fared poorly at the box office. In all it earned only $6 million. While The Manificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Ice Station Zebra are all well remembered, The Satan Bug remains one John Sturges film that is largely forgotten. And this should not really be the case at all.

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