Action Adventure movies


FLIGHT TO FURY. Filipinas Productions / Lippert Pictures, 1964. Dewey Martin, Fay Spain, Jack Nicholson, Joseph Estrada, Vic Diaz, Jacqueline Hellman. Screenwriters: Monte Hellman, Jack Nicholson, Fred Roos. Director: Monte Hellman.

   Filmed in the Philippines back to back with Back Door to Hell (reviewed here ), Flight to Fury is a low budget crime film that, while nothing spectacular, has some interesting sequences and hints of genius to come. Directed by Monte Hellman, and with a screenplay written by Jack Nicholson, the movie has a fatalistic sensibility from start to finish. This is largely due to some terrific hardboiled dialogue and compelling performances by Nicholson as a cynical diamond thief, and Filipino actor Vic Diaz as a sleazy criminal who likewise has illicit gains on his mind.

   Although it takes a while for the movie’s plot to come into sharp focus, Flight to Fury soon reveals itself to be a caper film. A ragtag group of individuals are enclosed together on a small aircraft. Each seems to be hiding a secret. Or secrets. When the plane goes down in a remote jungle, it becomes clear that the pilot was smuggling diamonds. Four of the survivors, all male apart from one woman who is more than willing to employ her seductive charms to get what she wants, are soon struggling for possession of the diamonds that the now deceased pilot had stashed in his luggage.

   And if you think surviving a crash is bad, just wait until some guerrillas stumble upon the group and take them captive. What happens next is both predictable and rather downbeat, with an obligatory firefight between the group and their captors as well as a final Western-style showdown between two men for control of the diamonds.

   In the end, what makes Flight to Fury worth a look is that it paints a stark picture of a fallen world in which no one wins, everyone loses, and there are no heroes.


OPERATION EICHMANN. Allied Artists, 1961. Werner Klemperer, Ruta Lee, Donald Buka, Barbara Turner, John Banner. Director: R. G. Springsteen

   Arrogance. That was Eichmann’s defining trait. At least that is how it was presented in Operation Eichmann, a 1961 release from Allied Artists. Directed by R. G. Springsteen, best known for his extensive work with B-Westerns, the film is a deeply flawed, but nevertheless historically interesting feature about the rise and fall of SS officer Adolf Eichmann, the man considered instrumental to the logistics of the concentration camp system set up by the Nazis in Poland and Germany.

   German-American actor Werner Klemperer, whose father was Jewish, portrays Eichmann as an arrogant, obsessive, and paranoid man who is absolutely devoted to the Nazi cause. Although Klemperer may be best known to American audiences for his portrayal of Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, his performance in this downbeat, grim feature demonstrates that he was an immensely talented actor also capable of handling serious dramatic roles.

   The film traces Eichmann from the height of his political power during the Nazi regime to his life on the run in Madrid, Kuwait, and Argentina. All the while, seeing himself as the natural heir to Hitler, Eichmann was also interested in wealth and women. As depicted in the film, it was Eichmann’s haughtiness and paranoia that did him in and allowed for Israeli intelligence agents to eventually capture him in Argentina and bring him back to Jerusalem for trial.

   The main problem with the film, aside from the fact that it looks and feels more like a TV show than a feature film, is that we never really get to know the film’s nominal hero: an Israeli intelligence agent who was a child in Auschwitz and remembers Eichmann’s brutality from his childhood. David (Donald Buka) is a cipher, a character that the audience never gets to really know. This is a real shame, for there could have been a much more gripping film here about a young boy who grows up seeking vengeance on Eichmann.

   Instead, Operation Eichmann presents David as a staunch moralist, more concerned about trying Eichmann than in killing him. Klemperer was also a far more compelling screen presence than Buka, allowing his fictionalized Eichmann to completely overshadow the unfortunately empty character of David. And without a compelling hero to root for, one is left with remembering Klemperer’s Eichmann more than anything else. Which is not necessarily terrible, given Klemperer’s stand out performance. But it didn’t do much to make me believe this movie is worth a second viewing.


WATUSI. MGM, 1959. George Montgomery, Taina Elg, David Farrar, Rex Ingram, Dan Seymour. Screenwriter: James Clavell, based on the novel King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard. Director: Kurt Neumann.

   Twelve year old me would have absolutely loved Watusi, an MGM production with a script by James Clavell. The sense of adventure in an exotic locale, the footage of African wildlife, and the quest for treasure — all would have appealed to my sensibilities and childhood sense of wonder.

   But I’m not twelve years old anymore and I can see just how flawed a movie Watusi really is. In many ways, it’s just talky and boring. And a lot of that great footage that I just alluded to is stock footage, some from MGM’s King Solomon’s Mines (1950). The constant switch back and forth between the film proper and stock footage is distracting and does little to give the viewer confidence that MGM had much faith in the project.

   That said, I do like George Montgomery, although I know him mainly from his presence in Westerns. Here he portrays Harry Quatermain, Allan Quartermain’s son from Canada.

   He’s come to Africa to continue his father’s project to find and to acquire the diamonds ensconced in King Solomon’s Mines. Along the way, he must face down a hostile tribe, fight off wild animals, and overcome malaria.

   Quatermain also must come to terms with his own personal demons, including a deep-seated hatred for Germans, whom he collectively blames for his sister’s death during World War I. As luck – and the script – would have it, he ends up saving the daughter of a German missionary from a violent warlord. She, along with his father’s friend Englishman Rick Cobb (David Farrar) becomes his travel companion on the proverbial road to King Solomon’s Mines.

   But Rick’s got a secret. He was born in Germany and is ethnically German. It’s only at the end of the movie that the “message” of the whole film is delivered: prejudice against any ethnic group is wrong. It’s all very trite and forced.

   Honestly, that’s about it. The plot doesn’t have much in the way of thrills, and the characters don’t have all that much depth. Kurt Neumann, who also collaborated with screenwriter James Clavell on The Fly (1958), provides competent direction. But it’s not enough to make this action-adventure film anything more than a minor curiosity. A great soundtrack would have helped immensely. For an adventure film, Watusi is notably lacking fanfare. Still, I would have loved it when I was twelve.


THAT MAN FROM RIO. Les Films Ariane, France, 1964. Lopert Pictures Corporation, US, 1964 (subtitled). Original title: L’homme de Rio. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Francoise Dorleac, Jean Servais and Adolpho Celi. Written by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Ariane Mnouchkine, Daniel Boulanger, and Philippe de Broca. Directed by Philippe de Broca.

   The first thing I noticed was that this movie had four writers, just like the old-time movie serials it resembles. The second thing was that it’s fun, funny and compulsively watchable.

   Steven Spielberg said those old serials were the inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but this seems the more likely antecedent, starting with the theft of an ancient relic in Paris, the kidnapping of a scientist’s lovely daughter (Dorleac) and the whole rest of the movie, spent in a cliff-hanging pursuit to a lost temple in the jungle filled with priceless treasure etc. etc …..

   De Broca & Co handle all this with speed and good humor, tossing a few laugh-out-loud moments into a stew of fights, chases and amusing stunt work by Belmondo himself, who insists on keeping his ugly mug to the camera so we can see that it is he who is dangling from skyscrapers, clinging to the wing of an airplane, swinging through jungles and getting knocked about in a spectacular barroom brawl.

   Jean Servais and Adolpho Celi lend some fine villainy to the proceedings, and Ms Dorleac is spirited, lovely, and a far better actress than most serial queens. As for Belmondo, he makes a perfect heroic Everyguy: bemused, bothered, and beleaguered, as he tromps through one peril and the next with a patient shrug and a wry smile, not taking any of this more seriously than we do.

   I should add that towards the end there’s a very thoughtful and sobering split-second. A plot twist I wasn’t expecting that seems like a grim augury of things to come — things we weren’t paying much attention to in 1964 — but it’s soon over, and we’re back to the light-hearted comedy.

   Funny, though: I’ll remember this movie with affection, but I suspect I’ll remember that dark moment a lot longer….


THE DAY OF THE JACKAL. Universal Pictures, 1973. Based on the book by Frederick Forsyth. Edward Fox as the Jackal, Michel Lonsdale as Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel, Adrien Cayla-Legrand as President Charles de Gaulle. Director: Fred Zinnemann.

   For a captivating thriller/police procedural, The Day of the Jackal also manages to keep the viewer at a safe distance. Unlike some movies in that genre that succeed mainly due to propelling the viewer straight into the action, the semi-documentary feel of the film allows for a sense of detachment on the part of the audience. But this does not mean that the film is not compelling and deeply engrossing.

   Directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon), this British-French production is one of the better political thrillers adapted to film from a best selling novel. Indeed, it’s the film’s very mechanical approach, due in large part to brilliant editing by Ralph Kemplen (who won a BAFTA for his work), which makes this cinematic adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s a superb work of 1970s commercial cinema.

   Edward Fox, then a largely unknown British actor, portrays the eponymous Jackal, a high priced assassin-for-hire. He has been hired by renegade members of the OAS, a coterie of right-wing French nationalists who blame President Charles de Gaulle for allowing France to lose possession of Algeria. They have hired the Jackal to assassinate De Gaulle. Much of the film centers upon the Jackal’s movement through various European countries as he plans his act of violence, acquires a specially made rifle for the occasion, and assumes various identities along the way. That is one part of the story and is very much part of the thriller genre.

   The other part, which is a police procedural, follows the French authorities as they attempt to both discern the identity of the Jackal and to stop him from killing the French president. Leading the investigation is the determined, if somewhat emotionally distant Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale) who is nothing if not methodical. Lonsdale, who many American viewers will remember as Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1979), is nearly flawless in his portrayal of the unflappable policeman who trusts no one.

   A final word about the movie: the Jackal is a ruthless, heartless, and cold calculating killer who is more than willing to employ violence to stop anyone who gets in his way. Zinnemann chose to film many of the scenes in which the Jackal kills so that the viewer actually doesn’t see the killing, at least not the brutality of it. Instead of shielding the audience from the Jackal’s ruthlessness, however, this aesthetic choice – one that fans of films noir will be quite familiar with – only serves to heighten it.


THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT. Columbia, 1939. Warren William (Michael Lanyard), Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, Virginia Weidler, Ralph Morgan. Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel Red Masquerade (Doubleday, 1921) by Louis Joseph Vance. Director: Peter Godfrey. Shown at Cinevent 26, Columbus OH, May 1994.

   Warren William is, as I have pointed out before, one of the great favorites of film convention audiences (both Cinevent and Cinefest), so his stint in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt was eagerly awaited by the conventioneers. Well, everybody has an off day, and it appeared to me that Williams’ dapper suavity was showing its age and formulaic quality here.

   He was not helped by co-star Ida Lupino, an intelligent actress requited to throw ignored girl friend fits that were noisy but sour rather than funny or wry. Lupino was uneven as an actress, sometimes betrayed by her natural ability to command attention whatever she did, even when it seemed out of key with the movie.

   Virginia Weidler was arch as Williams’s precocious daughter (a role she patented in The Philadelphia Story), although the writer of the program notes thought her “delightful.” A reminder that not all “B” movies were little gems.


SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE. RKO, 1932. Gwili Andre, Gregory Ratoff, Frank Morgan and John Warburton. Written by Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker from magazine stories by Ashton Wolfe. Director: A. Edward Sutherland

SECRETS OF SCOTLAND YARD. Republic, 1944. Edgar Barrier, Stephanie Bachelor, C. Aubrey Smith, Lionel Atwill, Martin Kosleck, John Abbott and Mary Gordon. Written by Denison Clift. Directed by George Blair.

   Two very different films, each lots of fun in its own way.

    French Police is a lavish Selznick production, with splendid sets, moody photography and lots of lurid pre-Code mischief as it weaves the tale of General Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) a Russo-Chinese criminal mastermind (you know the type) who schemes to abduct an innocent young flower girl (the lovely Gwili Andre) and pass her off as Princess Anastasia, using hypnosis and drugs.

   That would be plenty for any self-respecting super-villain, but Moloff goes the extra mile, murdering inconvenient witnesses and leaving notes written in the victim’s blood incriminating other inconvenient witnesses — and that’s just when he’s in a hurry; given time and leisure, he drains his victims’ blood, covers them with plaster, and displays them as statues in his sinister palace, guarded by malevolent Orientals and surrounded with death traps.

   In short, a villain who takes his arch-fiendishness seriously, with the sort of old world polish one just doesn’t find in scoundrels these days.

   All of this is off-set knowingly by Frank Morgan as a sharp police inspector who recruits the flower girl’s burglar-boyfriend (John Warburton) to penetrate Moloff’s fiendish lair and unhatch his diabolical plots. And though I’m not sure “unhatch” is actually a word, Morgan and Warburton underplay their parts beautifully (I particularly enjoyed the scene where Warburton explains to Morgan why he thinks the World owes him a living), adding a touch of cynicism to the theatrical goings-on that keeps it slightly — very slightly—grounded in reality amid the cliffhangers and killings.

   The result is a film that seems part pulp-magazine and part send-up of pulp magazines, and an immensely satisfying blend of both.

   Scotland Yard, on the other hand, is a cheap little thing from Republic, a studio that knew how to do cheap movies just right, with a better than usual cast for them.

   We start with the defeat of Germany in World War I, with the German High Command already plotting their next strike by planning to get a mole into the decoding unit of the British War Department. Fast-forward to 1939, and the decoding unit run by C. Aubrey Smith (he of the lantern jaw and eyebrows like blunt instruments) and staffed with familiar character actors. Edgar Barrier plays the star decoder, but they no sooner break the code than he’s found dead on the floor, with his work erased.

   So it seems that the Germans got their mole in place, and the question is, which one is it? And how to find out? Fortunately for the allied cause and the film’s title, Barrier has a twin brother who works for Scotland Yard, and he steps into the dead man’s shoes to find out.

   What follows is fifty agreeable minutes of cat-and-mouse, helped along considerably by a cast of suspects that includes Lionel Atwill, John Abbott and Martin Kosleck at his sinister best, the whole thing — punctuated by vigorous fist-fights in the Republic manner.

   But there are also some telling bits of atmosphere rare for Republic: fog-shrouded streets, country cottages, and even Mary Gordon on leave from Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series as a cheerful housekeeper. And perhaps best of all, a quiet moment in the decoding office as the staff solemnly listens to King George VI’s halting radio speech declaring war, and everyone stands at attention when the radio plays “God Save the King.”

   It’s one of those little touches that lifts Secrets of Scotland Yard out of the B-Movie rut, and, together with that quintessential movie cast, help to make it memorable.


THERE’S ALWAYS A WOMAN. Columbia, 1938. Joan Blondell , Melvyn Douglas, Mary Astor, Frances Drake, Jerome Cowan, Robert Paige, Thurston Hall. Director: Alexander Hall.

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN. Fox Films, 1932. Edmund Lowe (Chandu/Frank Chandler), Irene Ware (Princess Nadji). Bela Lugosi (Roxor). Based on the radio serial of the same title. Cinematography by James (Wong) Howe. Art direction by Max Parker. Directors: William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel.

   The high point of Monday morning’s screenings was There’s Always a Woman, starring Joan Blondell and Melvyn Douglas as a husband-and-wife team who split up professionally and then, separately, have a go of solving the murder of Mary Astor’s husband (played by Lester Mathews), Blondell’s scatterbrained zaniness proved to be a good match for Douglas’s more conventional detecting as an investigator for the D.A.

   My choice of top overall pick for the convention, however, would probably be Chandu the Magician. Edmund Lowe stars as Chandu, with Bela Lugosi, lithely clad in close-fitting black sweater and slacks, as Roxor, the “malignant” super-villain, ready to reduce humanity to an anarchic mob, which he would command as ruler of a (much-reduced) universe.

   Not for Roxor the imperial trappings of Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials. It’s power he wants, and it’s his burning ambition — along with his magnetic eyes — that makes Roxor a more menacing villain than Charles Middleton’s Ming.


FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE. Twentieth Century Fox, UK, 1970. National General Pictures, US, 1971. Robert Shaw, Malcolm McDowell. Screenplay: Robert Shaw. based on the novel by Barry England. Director: Joseph Losey.

    Figures in a Landscape isn’t exactly the type of movie to grow on you, but it’s one that lingers in your mind for a while after you’ve finished watching. Part of this has to do with the fact that, at least on one level, not all that much happens in the movie.

   There are two primary characters – the only two characters with real dialogue – and the movie follows their journey through fields, villages, canyons, and mountain peaks as they attempt to outrun a mysterious black helicopter in a deadly game of cat and mouse. The other reason that the film lingers in your mind’s eye after watching is because there’s actually a lot happening in the movie, albeit on a symbolic level. Indeed, much of the movie is an extended metaphor about the basic human quest to be free from constraints and rules. The movie also has a lot to say about warfare, borders, and government power.

   Robert Shaw and a young Malcolm McDowell portray two British men in a hostile territory. We don’t know who they really are or why they are on the run and who may be on their trail. The movie opens with the two of them in handcuffs trying to evade an omnipresent black helicopter constantly hovering above them. It soon becomes clear that the helicopter, operated by two men dressed all in the black, is not simply interested in capturing the duo. It, or at least its pilot, wants to torment them.

   As the film progresses, the viewer learns that Shaw’s character, Mac, is a gruff, crude sort, while McDowell’s character, Ansell, is a more sensitive type whose good with the ladies and who isn’t afraid to cry. Both men need each other to evade the helicopter and, even though they clearly have little in common, decide to forge a partnership for the time being.

   Their journey takes them through all sorts of terrain. It’s here that Joseph Losey’s direction really shines. The natural vistas presented here are breathtaking, and all serve to remind the viewer that duo are small figures upon a larger naturalistic canvas.

   But what is the point of all this? For a movie rich with existential themes and which attempts to say a lot by saying very little, the dialogue is eminently forgettable. Although the banter between the two at times resembles that of a bickering old married couple, neither of duo has all that much interesting to say about their plight. More is said by their actions than by their words. This is particularly true for Mac (Shaw). By the time the two men are almost free from the helicopter, he is increasingly mentally unbalanced and erratic.

   All told, Figures in a Landscape definitely isn’t a great movie, but it’s a good one. It’s boldly experimental and benefits from not only Losey’s direction, but from exceptional cinematography and a haunting score by Richard Rodney Bennett.


THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. American International Pictures, 1977. Burt Lancaster (Dr. Paul Moreau), Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells. Director: Don Taylor.

   Burt Lancaster puts in a superb performance as the Dr. Moreau in this 1977 cinematic adaptation of the extraordinarily influential H.G. Wells novella about a mad scientist turning animals into men on a remote Pacific island.

   Unlike Charles Laughton in the pre-code sleazefest Islands of Lost Souls (1932), who never seemed to be a comfortable fit for the role, Lancaster portrays Moreau as a vaguely sympathetic antihero who genuinely wants to do good for the work, but who gradually transforms into a bestial, hateful figure. Lancaster had a way of just using his eyes to convey emotion and he does it wonderfully here. His Moreau is a great movie villain. Why? Because he has reasons for doing what he is doing and, more importantly, deep down he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

   That’s not to say that Michael York, whose performance I absolutely loved as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1973), isn’t good in this film as well. He portrays Braddock, the shipwreck survivor who washes up on Moreau’s island, totally unaware of what he is about to encounter. But there’s something a little too innocent about the Braddock character. He’s nowhere near as formidable a figure as Moreau.

   Which leads me to the film’s plot. In many ways, if one were to view Braddock (York) as the protagonist, the movie would be a meandering mess. This is mainly because, for most of the movie, it’s not clear exactly what Braddock wants. To escape the island? Unlike in Island of Lost Souls where the shipwrecked man was truly trapped on the island, Braddock actually still has his rowboat. It’s a little worse for wear, but he’s safely hidden it on the island.

   So escaping is not what he wants. Is it that he wants to discover what Moreau is up to? Well, it doesn’t take him long to do so and Moreau is more than willing to fill in the blanks. It’s only toward the tail end of the movie that he actually wants something – to escape from Moreau’s captivity after the mad doctor performed a sick experiment on him – but that’s too little too late.

   What makes the movie work is not York’s character, but Lancaster’s. The Island of Dr. Moreau is truly the story of Dr. Moreau, about his ambitions and his downfall. In that sense, the film is as much as horror story as a tragedy. And that’s where Lancaster’s stellar performance comes in. Portraying Moreau as a man capable of great things, but who succumbs to his own bestial nature, is what makes this adaptation, despite its numerous flaws, a chilling portrait of a scientist who defies the laws of nature and pays the ultimate price for it.

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