Le Samourai (1967)

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There are two actors who represent the epitome of “Gallic cool” in the 1960s: one is Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the other Alain Delon. Belmondo was the French Bogart: a true tough guy (or at least one who thought he was tough), cigarette poised in the corner of his mouth, rumpled and just slightly the worse for wear. Delon was the Alan Ladd of the French New Wave: cold, calculating, beautiful, and psychotic.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai has Delon at his ice-cold best. He’s Jef Costello, a hitman who dresses (and kills) as befits a Japanese warrior. Hired by an unknown organization to kill the owner of a Parisian nightclub, the film follows Jef as he prepares for and completes his assignment. A chance encounter with pianist Valerie (Cathy Rosier) following the murder places Jef in danger, and the police are soon on his trail. Determined to prove Jef guilty, the investigating officer (Francois Pelier) goes to all lengths, threatening witnesses, trailing suspects, and bugging Jef’s flat.

Le Samourai is part crime thriller, part police procedural, and occupies that curious position of 1960s films with few, if any, sympathetic characters. Jef is a detached, unsmiling figure, his methodical killing abilities hinting at that edge of sociopathy that Delon played with great aplomb in Purple Noon. Yet the world that surrounds him permits no attachment, even if he was capable of one: his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) is a “kept woman” who gives him his alibi and with whom he never even manages to take off his coat. Each character fits their surroundings like pieces of furniture: Jef in his spartan apartment, Jane in her more opulent flat, Valerie in her black and white art deco apartment and night club.

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The key here is style: Jef’s clothing and physicality are precise and a perfect match to the surroundings in which we first encounter him. His apartment is spartan to an almost absurd degree, the only point of color or activity occupied by the small bird in a cage that provides Jef with his most poignant relationship. As he rises and dresses to go out, fixing his hat and coat in the mirror as though fitting himself for battle, the film has established its argument without a line of dialogue. This is about style and style is about fate: each character moves along their established lines and either cannot or will not deviate from the future set out for them.

Le Samourai might almost be termed a nihilistic film; it’s certainly a cold one. Human connection does not exist, nor is the viewer asked to sympathize with Jef beyond the fact that he is our central character. No one else is even likable, least of all the investigating officer who pursues Jef with a mania bordering on obsession. This could be read as an indictment of France’s surveillance society, if the film made any move to establish a political argument. But that is not Melville’s project; the bugging of Jef’s apartment and relentless pursuit by the police is simply another form of fate.

Le Samourai is not a lovable film, but it is a great one. It offers no explanation for its events and barely any character motivation, yet it is not therefore inexplicable or dull. Delon conjures a fascinating character without making him sympathetic. As the film proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, the viewer is drawn into rooting for Jef without being allied to him. We know how this is going to end, though, because there is no other ending.

Dressed to Kill (Episode 03-14, December 1963)

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Dressed to Kill is The Avengers meet Agatha Christie, with some very mixed results. The plot revolves around a train trip on New Year’s Eve, with numerous guests, one of whom is a nefarious villain. The episode begins with Steed explaining to Cathy that World War III very nearly broke out the night before, when all the country’s early warning stations received word of a nuclear attack. The alarm proved false, but the government needs to know how and why the signal was sent. To solve the mystery, Steed joins a New Year’s fancy dress party on board a train. The guests share one thing in common: they all have options on plots of land in Cornwall, coincidentally close to the only early warning station that did not receive the false signal. When the train is diverted to an abandoned station and the guests begin dying off, Steed has to grapple with suspicions against him while trying to ferret out the killer.

Dressed to Kill has much to recommend it. The majority of the episode is occupied with the train journey and the guests at the party, all of whom do a credible job at appearing villainous and innocent in equal measure. The plot itself is sinister and the cinematography atmospheric and among the best The Avengers ever accomplished, with hardly a misstep in sight. Things pick up even more when stowaway Cathy pops up on the scene, providing one very entertaining scene as our heroes try to pick a pair of handcuffs.

Dressed to Kill has its problems, though. It is difficult to imagine a more annoying set of secondary characters, such that it’s almost a relief when they begin dying off. Among the worst are William Cavendish (Leonard Rossiter), dressed as Robin Hood, who makes it a point to be loud, venal, and insulting to everyone; and Jane/”Pussy Cat” (Anneke Wills), an insipid model character there to give the writers an excuse to make bad pussy and dumb blonde jokes. Her character in particular reinforces the fact that while The Avengers might have been very ahead of the times in female representation, it could still do sexism with the best of them.

The plot of Dressed to Kill likewise has a number of holes if considered for too long, with a denouement that feels both speedy and bit too pat. I could think of at least two other solutions to the mystery that would have been far more interesting, but alas, it was not to be. What is more, some of the early sequences on the train have so much dialogue going on at once – not to mention ambient noise – that it’s virtually impossible to catch what individual characters are saying, or if it’s even important.

Dressed to Kill rests very squarely on Macnee’s shoulders, and luckily he’s more than happy to oblige, playing his “gentleman of leisure” character to the hilt and evidently enjoying sporting a cowboy hat and six-shooter (In fact, Macnee played a few cowboys in his short Hollywood career). When Blackman reappears dressed as a Highwaywoman, events pick up and the episode saves itself.

Dressed to Kill would later be remade as the vastly inferior The Superlative Seven in Season 5. The original, for all its difficulties, is the better episode and remains one of the best examples of what The Avengers could do with limited budget and only three cameras.

Seven Days in May (1964)

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Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had a friendship that spanned decades, during which they made seven films together, playing heroes, villains, friends, and enemies. They were among that generation of actors that started their careers in the midst of the Studio System and managed to find their way out of it again, producing some truly remarkable films under their own production banners. Among these is 1964’s Seven Days in May, a political thriller about the near-overthrow of the United States by a military coup.

Lancaster is General James Mattoon Scott, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is in direct disagreement with President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) over a missile treaty recently signed with Russia. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to disarm their nuclear warheads, effectively bringing the Cold War standoff to an end and avoiding any future nuclear war. The decision is unpopular with America at large, but none more so than General Scott, who believes that the President is setting the U.S. up for an attack when the Russians fail to honor the agreement. What few realize, and what Scott’s aide ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) soon discovers, is that Scott and several other high-ranking commanders of the Army, Navy, and Marines have been setting up a military coup aimed at killing the President and taking over the U.S. government. When Casey stumbles across information about the coup, he’s placed in a position of defying his commanding officer, whom he greatly admires, in order to stop it.

The film is directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate) and scripted by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) for Kirk Douglas’s own production company. The script is taut and topical, dealing with the Cold War and arms race to immediate and chilling effect.  The first half of the film is primarily concerned with the discovery of the coup and Jiggs’s crisis of conscience. He has to do the right thing and report his suspicions, but he doesn’t particularly want to. The mis-en-scene in this section is all lights and darks, as the chiaroscuro mirrors Jiggs’s increasing suspicions and divided loyalties. As we head into the second half of the film, occupied with proving and preventing the coup, the pacing picks up significantly, moving away from the conflict between Jiggs and Scott and into the attempts of various members of the President’s staff to find something concrete on Scott.

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Seven Days in May is chock full of excellent performances: everyone from Lancaster and Douglas to Martin Balsam and Ava Gardner, who plays Scott’s former lover with more on the General than she realizes. It becomes increasingly clear that Scott is a self-obsessed sociopath who believes that what he’s doing is not for personal aggrandizement but the good of the United States. Few actors can portray the intensity of the fanatic and still remain firmly grounded, but Lancaster pulls it off. His General Scott is a true-believer, logical and totally terrifying.

If Seven Days in May has a flaw it is in the few speeches handed to its characters, particularly Frederic March’s President Lyman. While March’s performance is a strong one, he has at least two speeches intended to provide the film’s already obvious message about the dangers of Cold War rhetoric and nuclear armament. The speeches are largely unnecessary and do somewhat date an otherwise topical film.

Far more chilling are the moments that hammer home how prescient this film is. Scott gives a speech about patriotism and freedom that eerily reminds one of some pundits we typically hear on Fox News…and in Congress. The coup relies on a belief that Scott and his compatriots know the will of the people, and will force that will on the country irrespective of democracy. The continuous refrain of jingoistic patriotism is as recognizable today as it was in 1964. Seven Days in May is frightening because it is so believable.

While firmly embedded in Cold War mentality, Seven Days in May should be an iconic film because it is still so universal. Strong performances and script keep things moving along, though really the whole film is held on two sets of very broad shoulders. Lancaster and Douglas would make other films together, but none perhaps quite so prescient.

The Grandeur That Was Rome (Episode 03-10, November 1963).

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The Avengers typically conjures up some impressive plots: diabolical masterminds with delusions of grandeur abound, some of them with a pretty good idea and a desire to rule the world. The Grandeur That Was Rome and its villain Sir Bruno Luca (Hugh Burden) should be among the finest examples of early insanity in a show that would eventually feature man-eating plants from the Moon. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that a good idea turns out to be so poorly done.

The basic plot is this: Sir Bruno, a feed manufacturer with an obsessive love for Ancient Rome, decides that he’s going to take over the world and turn it into a new Roman Empire, with himself as Caesar. To accomplish this, he enlists the help of Marcus (John Flint) to drum up trouble abroad when the grain he manufactures begins killing off livestock and tainting crops. But Bruno’s plans run even deeper and more diabolical than that, as Steed and Cathy step into the picture to stop the madman and save the world.

This has all the hallmarks of a really great episode: an obsessive madman, a credible and deadly plot, and plenty of togas. How, then, does it manage to fall so precariously short? For starters, the episode spends far too much time on the sneering villains and far too little time with our intrepid heroes. While Hugh Burden’s Sir Bruno is an excellent bad guy, it eventually becomes difficult to stomach his obvious delusions. His right-hand man Marcus and consort Octavia (Colette Wilde) are even less interesting, posturing to a degree that is boring rather than chilling.

When Steed and Cathy do put in an appearance, things begin to pick up. While we have precious little of Cathy’s judo to enjoy, there are some charming scenes of repartee between the pair. One might have hoped for some even greater excitement with the final act Bacchanalia at Sir Bruno’s house, but (as with the later Emma Peel episode A Touch of Brimstone) the censorship requirements of 1960s television put a damper on things. There is the joy of seeing Steed in a toga – not to mention Cathy’s reaction – but unfortunately that does not make for more than a few seconds of justifiable fun.

The Grandeur That Was Rome is an episode that I earnestly wish had been remade later in the series, when money and a better crew of writers might have been able to turn it into something truly weird and delightful. As it is, there are only a few scenes to really justify its existence.

The White Elephant (03-15, January 1964).

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Steed and Cathy grapple with ivory smugglers and big game hunters in The White Elephant, making it the only episode that utilizes Cathy’s past as a big game hunter in Africa as an important plot element. It’s unfortunate that The White Elephant fails to gain momentum, because it has all the hallmarks of a good episode.

The trouble all begins with the disappearance of a white elephant named Snowy from “Noah’s Ark,” a clearing-ground for imported animals run by Noah Marshall (Godfrey Quigley). The animals are captured by Noah’s team of hunters, and then run through the Ark on their way to zoos and “private collectors” across Britain and Europe. But Steed suspects that Noah’s Ark is also a front for smuggled ivory from illegally slaughtered elephants. Cathy joins up as a new hunter while Steed starts tracing possible co-conspirators, leading him to a gun merchant’s and, more amusingly, a ironworks specializing in cages and restraints.

The White Elephant goes through a lot of bending and twisting to make everything work out, once more introducing the “young lovers” motif that makes so many episodes from the video seasons so very boring. These lovers are not terribly sympathetic: secretary Brenda (Judy Parfitt) and hunter Lew Conniston (Scott Forbes) are among the least likable of the bunch. Their nasty little problems drag down some scenes that might otherwise pop, and unfortunately they take up more than their allotted space. The time spent with secondary characters takes away from the main plot, but it also continues to highlight the somewhat questionable activities of…pretty much everyone. While the importation of captured animals must have been more common in 1964, it leaves a bad taste in 2015 – especially as we watch a final fight waged around animals who look somewhat terrified by the whole ordeal.

Still, there are certainly high points in The White Elephant. We have Cathy telling one baddie that he “surely does not need a gun to kill a woman” (answer: yeah, he does), while Steed has a marvelous time purchasing restraints. Our two heroes seem to be enjoying each other’s company for the majority of the episode, playing chess and looking over Steed’s bondage purchases with open interest. If the rest of the plot was as interesting as their relationship, The White Elephant would be one of the best of the season. As it is, it’s not quite a bad episode, but is also nothing to write home about.

The Gilded Cage (Episode 03-07, November 1963).

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As The Avengers moved into its third season, the series hit a stride that produced some of its all-around best episodes. Still tied down by the necessities of live videotaping, the writers and directors tried to expand their repertoire to involve more locations and more complex plots. Among the best of Season 3 is The Gilded Cage, an episode that eerily foreshadows Honor Blackman’s later foray into the gold trade.

The Gilded Cage has Cathy posing as a gold bullion expert employed at a secret vault that stores millions of pounds worth of gold bars. She and Steed attempt to draw millionaire criminal  J.P. Spagge (Patrick Magee) out of retirement using a brilliantly planned robbery (conceived by Cathy) as bait. Things do not  go as planned, resulting in Cathy’s arrest for Spagge’s murder. All is not as it seems, however, and Cathy soon finds herself in the company of some nefarious (but charming) criminals, led by Abe Benham (Edric Connor), while Steed tries to figure out just what the hell is going on.

The Gilded Cage has two things going for it: excellent plotting with numerous but explicable twists and turns, and a very strong supporting cast. Edric Connor’s performance as Abe Benham is notable – he’s a charming crook, likable and good-humored, with an undercurrent of ruthlessness that perfectly matches Cathy’s. He’s also one of the only black actors to have a major role in an Avengers episode, happily giving the lie to Brian Clemens’s unfortunate pronouncement that there are no black people in that world. Abe and Cathy have a powerful, amusing chemistry together that makes one almost wonder if Cathy wouldn’t like to chuck in the whole “law and order” thing and have a go at being a criminal mastermind.

The plot of this episode demands a number of location changes and some pretty complicated blocking, most of which comes off without a hitch. The greatest failure in the episode is that lack of Steed and Cathy banter – they’re separated within the first fifteen minutes, and remain separated right until the end. But both get to have their fun: Cathy with Abe and the boys, and Steed as a rather inept crook nonetheless admired by Spagge’s butler Fleming (Norman Campbell). Listen carefully as Fleming delineates Steed’s wardrobe, where he got it, and how much he paid for it: it’s a beautiful litany of male sartorial appreciation.

The Gilded Cage is a high point of Season 3, right up there with The WringerThe Nutshell, and Don’t Look Behind You. The Avengers would be cleaner in the future, but you can’t get much better than this.

All Night Long (1962)

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Shakespeare has been retold, re-adapted, modernized; he has been edited for length and subject, retold to fit high school love triangles, Miami street gangs, and even animated lions. Ubiquitous as Shakespeare is, it should come as no surprise that someone along the line decided to retell Othello as a (then) modern tale of love and race among drunk and disorderly jazz musicians in 1960s London.

Basil Dearden’s All Night Long takes the plot of Othello and adds some needed jazz scoring. Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) is the leader of a major jazz ensemble that includes his passionate sax player Cass (Keith Mitchell) and brilliant drummer Johnny Cousins (Patrick McGoohan). Rex is married to Delia (Marti Stevens), a beautiful blonde chanteuse who quit her night job to be his wife. On the eve of their one-year wedding anniversary, music promoter Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) throws the happy couple a big party, complete with fellow jazz musicians Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, and Keith Christie to keep the music and spirits flowing. Things are not well in paradise, however: Johnny Cousins wants a band of his own, with Delia at the head. To this end, he employs any nefarious means necessary to get Delia away from Rex and back in the spotlight.

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There are two real stars in All Night Long, and the first is the music. The likes of Brubeck and Dankworth lend some serious musical talent to the proceedings, punctuating the backstage manipulations, petty jealousies, and passionate love affairs with piano solos and drum kicks. The non-musical lead actors do a credible job of miming their instruments, but give wide range to the real jazz performers to do what they do best. Even if the film was unsuccessful in other ways, the sheer virtuosity of the jazz would be enough to make me watch it all again.

The other star is Patrick McGoohan. His Johnny Cousins is the perfect Iago: a blend of malevolence and desperation, a pathetic sociopath incapable of loving anyone, including himself. Johnny makes his entrance with a slew of drum cases bearing his name, bruiting both his self-involvement and his desperation to be recognized as someone important. His manipulation of Delia, Rex, and just about everyone else at the party starts out as calculated and self-serving, but it soon becomes apparent that, like Iago, Johnny does what he does out of pure spite. McGoohan has never been one of my favorite actors, but his intensity is perfect for the part. (As, indeed, are his formidable drumming skills. It’s difficult to mime drumming chops, and as far as I could tell McGoohan was doing his own work).

One of the more interesting elements of All Night Long is the racial aspect – or rather, the lack thereof. Despite the setting of London in the early 1960s, the marriage of Rex and Delia does not seem to raise any eyebrows. Other musicians are critical of Rex for making his wife quit working (though he constantly reiterates that she made the choice herself), but no one remarks on the social difficulties of a marriage between a black man and a white woman. Johnny’s malevolence has no hint of racial motivation, as it does to some degree in Othello - gone are Iago’s racial epithets, replaced by Johnny’s painful inability to love. We should note that Dearden was also the man behind films like Sapphire (about a racially motivated murder in 1960s London) and Victim, both unflinching in their examination of British intolerance. Yet in All Night Long, there is much being said in no one saying anything.

All Night Long has its failings, however. The trope of marijuana causing people to behave violently and erratically was a recognizable one in the 1960s, but is pretty laughable in 2015. The jazz lingo employed by our (predominantly British) musicians falls harshly on contemporary ears, making some lines impossible to listen to without cracking a smile. Finally, there is the confusion of British actors playing Americans, with McGoohan especially having difficulty maintaining a clear-cut accent. While far from a deal-breaker, some elements of All Night Long have dated rather badly, making the film more a product of its period than a universal classic.

Basil Dearden is one of finest and least recognized directors coming out of Britain in the 1960s. Here he makes excellent use of an excellent cast, highlighting some of his favorite social issues without shining a spotlight too fully on them. Patrick McGoohan in particular gives a fascinating performance, as Johnny’s cruelty runs hand in hand with his pathetic psychology. Othello was never as swinging as this.