Tarawa Beachhead

A film admired by the director of Les Carabiniers, “in general one might cite the fine tracking shots which spring up between two fix-focus images, like a sniper between two thickets, to place a grenade in the CinemaScope slit of a Japanese pill-box.” (Cahiers du Cinéma, tr. Tom Milne)

Leonard Maltin, “standard”. TV Guide, “a fine story”.

Taps, then the guns. The basis of the structure is evidently Mallarmé’s “Toast Funèbre”.

The name of the atoll, “not much bigger than a couple of city blocks,” hit by “more than fifteen tons of explosives to each square yard,” is pronounced on the analogy of “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay”.

Cp. Attack on the Iron Coast, Siegel’s Hell Is for Heroes, Dmytryk’s Eight Iron Men, Marton’s The Thin Red Line, from Seiler’s Guadalcanal Diary, Ray’s Flying Leathernecks, Ford’s What Price Glory.

Sarris in The American Cinema has Wendkos “teetering somewhere between Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer.”


Battle of the Coral Sea

Escape of a U.S. sub crew from Jap prison camp, to deliver vital information.

The prelude is photoreconnaissance at Rabaul of the Jap fleet headed for Australia.

The prison island is owned by a neutral family, the daughter serves as interpreter. The camp commander is a Jap intelligence officer working up psychological ploys against the skipper and crew, “democracy in action”, fight with a prison guard, etc.

The battle concludes the picture.

TV Guide’s reviewer thought it was “undistinguished” and “missed the whole point of the fracas”, he found himself “rooting for the Japanese”.


Testimony of Evil
The Untouchables

A reform candidate speaks out against mob influence and is Tommy-gunned on his bandwagon. A political boss up on charges of income tax fraud and interstate commerce violations, an old hand at political murder, has no room in his office for the latest testimonial he’s received. He owns the deputy police chief, they rose through the ranks together.

Ness has detectives guarding his two witnesses in and around a hotel room. One witness goes out the window, a detective has been bought.

The dead man’s girl is sought and found, then defended against a Tommy-gun assault. The boss turns State’s evidence and dies a natural death in prison.


Mr. Moon
The Untouchables

He deals in curios and objets d’art, throws firework displays for Chinatown in San Francisco, where he runs Chow Lee’s. Two years of planning and three murders net him a shipment of paper from the Bureau of Engraving, he springs a forger from Leavenworth and begins the biggest counterfeiting swindle ever.

Frank Nitti takes fifty percent of the action ($100,000,000 in all) for a half-million up front. The forger likes Beethoven, so does Mr. Moon, his minder calls it junk, they quarrel, the forger skips out to see Carmen at the opera company, his hundred-dollar bill does the whole scheme in. Mr. Moon beats him to death with a whiskey flask.

The Chin Lee fireworks in the basement of his shop go off in a mad array of sparks as Mr. Moon dies in a shootout, sprawled all over Nitti’s cash.


The Untouchables

The nation stands still while mobsters raise prices with surcharges and “protection”, the Fulton Fish Market is controlled by one man who murders in broad daylight to maintain his rule.

Joe Kulak heads the syndicate, a grand jury is investigating, the order is to lie low.

The mobster taps Ness’s phone, eliminates a witness, silences a retail organizer with acid.

Ness goes to the newspapers, the outcry becomes general, the mobster is ordered to throw a bone to Ness. One torpedo shoots another, he’s left for dead but found alive.

At his wake, the torpedo kills his assassin, then realizes he was spared. He wounds the mobster, both are apprehended.

The price of fish drops 52%.


Gidget Goes Hawaiian

The essential metaphors are precocity in a certain sense, calumny and fame in others. An island luau is trumpeted on with conch shells, roast pig on a palanquin, men dance with lighted torches, women ignite them. All this in a processional background to the elements of this surreal musical.

Accused, Gidget has a triple fantasy, herself as streetwalker passed over by sailors, as fan dancer peeling a golden brassiere to shouts of repugnance, as forsaken mother and child gladly greeted by her tenement father.

The love of her life is a bright surfer rather slow on the uptake. Her rival is the polished daughter of a New York restaurateur. A Hollywood dancer enters the picture, his nightclub number is himself besieged everywhere by autograph-hunting girls.

Gidget is assailed by Hollywood’s jaded glory, envied by New York’s fame and fortune (those two are perhaps made for each other). Gidget surfs, she takes her hydrophobic rival to ride a wave on a board coming in at Waikiki.


The Genna Brothers
The Untouchables

The brothers stuff Little Italy with illegal immigrants to brew alky for the speaks of Capone. Ness has the job of running down the booze from clothesline to dumbwaiter. Capone knows “every greenhorn you bring in is a place for Ness to hit,” he is defied. The six Gennas live like lords, beat up a man on the street, kill a guard on the docks and a wounded immigrant, to tidy up.

The bride is taken from the bridegroom, her father persuades the rest to strike. His son-in-law is targeted for assassination, the bullet goes astray, his daughter is killed.

The assassin is murdered in the street, not by Capone but the unassuming groom, who turns himself in.

A sneering message is sent early on to Ness, the squad wants to reply with action, he holds still. “Let them make the mistakes.”


The Untouchables

The crime imperium of Frank Nitti has a leak, recourse is swiftly had to Capone’s security man. Nitti has two choices for the squealer, further investigation will decide which one. As a matter of economy, both are eliminated.

The security man persuades Nitti to beef up his defenses, and gets the job.

Ness is spied on with a lip-reader, but turns the tables.

When the security man makes a play for the empire with half the council in his pocket, he is surprised to find they are not there, and Nitti completely unflappable.

The security man runs for his life, Ness and the squad shoot it out with him.


City Without a Name
The Untouchables

The nameless city is on the Eastern Seaboard, protected from corruption by a vigilant electorate. The local mobster has horned in on City Hall with threats and bribes, a Federal agent is murdered.

Nitti decides to capitalize on the situation. Ness has a murder to investigate.

The key man in City Hall, from the mobster’s point of view, is Commissioner Bodeen. The “lever of love” is his family, they are menaced.

Nitti sends a quiet fixer and a torpedo who has to be eliminated when he starts to show signs of an independent streak.

In the end, fixer and mobster cut a deck to decide, which doesn’t obviate gunplay. Ness intervenes, on the trail of the assassin.


The Gang War
The Untouchables

The supremely elegant composition is in two parts. Ness stops Nitti from a shooting war in both by means of a ruse.

The McCoy is served out of Canada in roadhouses beyond the city, each directly opposite one of Nitti’s places, a map looks like trench war. Nitti hits a speak, his Club Montmartre is bombed out from under him.

His boys go into conference with the rival manager, the supplier is named. Surigao flies the stuff in, the plane crashes and burns in a field, he won’t negotiate with Nitti.

The boys go into conference with the pilot, a partner in Prebble Air Lines, his colleagues spill the beans to save his life. Nitti on the way to the warehouse is stopped by Ness, who takes a scarecrow from a farm to man his car, sprayed by bullets from Surigao’s Tommy guns. Ness and the squad go in, the warehouse full of whiskey ignites.


The Untouchables

The Tommy-gun wars are quelled, Moran has reserved four choppers, Capone’s empire is hit.

Nitti engages a master mechanic from the old country, a Polish mill worker, to make a dozen machine guns.

A cousin is put to death for speaking to Ness.

In a tight spot, Nitti offers half to Moran, a hundred million each, too big a business for a complete takeover.

To seal the deal, a convoy of alky from Capone in Miami is steered to Moran. Ness and the squad are in one of the trucks.

The mill worker and his wife are to be killed. The triggerman lets them go. The delivery is not made.


Gidget Goes to Rome

One of the most brilliant films in the epoch was conceived let us say to correct the stylistic understatement of Gidget Goes Hawaiian, which escaped the notice of Bosley Crowther’s mind. The American girl is Stroheim’s, this is the America of Schoenberg (“500 years behind the times”) and Renoir (“a pleasure working at Sixteenth Century Fox”). Gidget Grows Up with Sheldon and asks if her father’s wisdom isn’t Matthew Arnold’s, Gidget Gets Married with Swackhamer and goes to London for a gag involving Byron and Tennyson. About to embark for Rome seeking “a little culture”, Gidget on the beach at Malibu speaks of “a purely æsthetic concept, of course.” The Borgesian food of poets awaits her, “anguish, humiliation, suffering.”

A chaperone is needed, Judge (Joby Baker) has an Aunt Albertina in Paris, she will meet the party of six in Rome, three girls, three boys. Mr. Lawrence parachuted into a tree behind the lines in 1944 and was helped down by Paolo Cellini (Cesare Danova), whose secret instructions are to watch over Gidget unbeknownst. Mrs. Lawrence has a gift for her daughter, a ten-dollar Liberty Head gold piece received from her own father on the occasion of a first trip from home, to Indianapolis.

Gidget knows Rome ancient and modern, she has a view of international relations that includes the phrase “en rapport”, which her father translates as “pretty cozy”, eyeing the travel arrangements askance.

Moondoggie speaks Italian rather well, and had to flunk English to do it, says Judge. Aunt Albertina (Jessie Royce Landis) has two little toy dogs, Howard and Ethel, with ribbons in their hair. “Quiet, darlings,” she tells them, “or I’ll cut you out of my will.” The children gawp at her, she responds, “Close your mouths.” Her appreciative remark to Moondoggie is, “You were born much too late,” but Gidget is bluntly addressed, “Obviously you’re going to be the sweet one.” A botched hotel reservation is smoothed over with two offers of cash to the desk clerk, the transaction is exquisitely filmed by Wendkos. Marco Tulli gives Gidget a bowdlerized pinch on the cheek.

At home, Gidget stands out in a snapshot facing the camera while her two friends struggle with towels and garments facelessly, resembling nothing so much as Henry Moore sculptures. Her excitement in Rome is cooled by Moondoggie, Tiber not Rubicon, Verona someplace else. He joins street musicians on the sunny quay to sing about this “vacanza romana”.

Robert Venturi never got over the Campidoglio, Wendkos films it from an arcade at first. The tour guide is Daniela (Danielle De Metz), the desk-clerk’s beautiful daughter, a palæontology major. The girls are put out of countenance (“makes you want to throw up,” says one), Gidget’s knowledge goes by the boards. The Trevi Fountain remembers Negulesco’s three coins, the Colosseum evokes a fantasy of Gidget as a Christian victim rescued by centurion Moondoggie (“Oooh, for me?”, asks Emperor Judge as she is carried in Moondoggie’s arms toward him and Daniela as the empress, but “oh” he says, realizing, and snaps a picture), and as Cleopatra crossing a puddle on Moondoggie’s prostrate body (she allows him to remove her plimsoll). In reality, Judge is snapping tourist photos, and Moondoggie is taken with Daniela. Gidget leaves the tour, changes her hair and misses the Sistine Chapel, which the rest have viewed lying on their backs. A waiter at the hotel spills a tray on her, drenching her hair. “Have an accident?”, the desk clerk wants to know. “No, thanks,” she sanely replies, “I just had one.”

Paolo Cellini presents himself as a Roman magazine writer quietly interested in her views. Her name is Frances, Paolo and Francesca she knows from Dante, “but they were in hell,” Cellini points out.

Moondoggie is jealous. A nightclub dance resembles Fellini, a waiter is disconcerted that Gidget has never heard of Pickford and Fairbanks (Louis B. Latimer fills this gap for Sheldon and Swackhamer). She is off “tourist traps” now, she wants to see the poor and the rich of Rome, “how they tick”, Cellini promises to show her.

Wendkos cranes down on the intersection of two red carpets in the hotel lobby, where seated at a side table Moondoggie worries about Gidget and college boys (she is 18), doesn’t want her hurt, counsels wisdom about Daniela. Gidget echoes, “Take what like what?

Wendkos sets up a tourist shot to record the group taking a tourist shot. Gidget amongst the ancient statuary hears the mocking voices of the gods, two guards eye her as an art thief.

Wendkos records the sound of the lightly reverberant foyer at the American Embassy, where Gidget faces a Marine sergeant.

The jokes are abundant. “I thought it was Budget or something,” Aunt Albertina says of Frances. A Prince Bianchi invites Gidget and Paolo to one of his scandalous parties, it is still more Fellinian with a dry sense of wit (La dolce vita) or Loseyesque (Eva).

Wendkos’ finest achievement may be a long view of a certain fountain by daylight, dreamy and distracted Gidget floats between Moondoggie and Daniela, it’s like a memory of youth as it is being registered.

The great fashion house Sorelle Fontana lends itself gloriously to a ferocious gag sequence. Gidget asks for Cellini at the door, the “goldsmith and silversmith” is well-known to the doorman but dead for centuries, she is taken for a fashion spy. Through the back entrance she peeks behind the scenes at a fashion show and is seized, stripped, fitted with a pink dress and pumps and a palm hat that covers half her face, then thrust onto the runway to gawk about for several maddening seconds, pigeon-toed, balloon-rumped, purblind and hulking. She escapes through the alley on her hands and knees in a cardboard box, Moondoggie discovers her. Gidget is still wearing the dress, she’s pursued for it, the two hide in an entranceway for police officers only and are questioned. She’s not daunted, but the girl who wowed them at Waikiki has been brought very low, and worse is to come. Moondoggie knows the truth about Cellini, that he is a professional man with a family. “That kook is married!” Gidget is in love with the Italian, she meets the wife and children at home, reads the letter from her father.

The Liberty Head coin goes in the Trevi and has to be fished out. “She’s my girl,” Moondoggie tells an official at the American Embassy. Aunt Albertina has an assortment of wigs (trim dark Italian, trailing strawberry blonde), Gidget is always herself, such as she is. Albertina has an easy friendship with a countess by not catering to the woman’s vanity. Gidget, so innocent in Hawaii that she had to be traduced by her enemy, leaves Rome victorious in spite of all, and no less innocent.


The Conquest of Maude Murdock
I Spy

A turncoat is a sort of foil to her Oklahoman numen (cf. Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair).

Robinson and Scott are assigned to her as a test case.


Attack on the Iron Coast

A German naval installation in France, servicing battleships.

The Canadian major has failed in a commando operation against a similar target, disastrously.

It comes to what the war has come down to, from the British perspective, fighting with all one has. That is the main analysis, following the affair to the tiniest of glimpses leads at last to the big picture of Germans running to fat on French cuisine surprised by an all-out effort spearheaded by a determined Colonial, overseen by a sage Admiralty, and assisted by a tattered RAF, the very unity of these forces attained in the strenuous realization of a war on is half the battle.

Altogether a different matter than Hell Boats, very brief shots give a sight of England, the rest is heavily engaged for the duration.

Screenplay by Herman Hoffman, score by Gerard Schurmann.

Howard Thompson of the New York Times found “British crispness”.

The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “routine”.

Halliwell’s Film Guide, “stagey... modest”.

Compton Bennett’s Gift Horse (Glory at Sea) evidently describes the same operation, here under the code name Mad Dog.



Hawaii Five-O

This two-episode pilot introduces Wo Fat, the brilliant Chinese agent with a noticeably distinctive touch, in a recent variant of water torture, a brainwashing technique using sensory deprivation as a sort of floating Coventry, a case that re-enlists McGarrett in the U.S. Navy for the duration by reason of national security work. In Part One, Wendkos does not rely on his camerawork, good as it is, instead his main thrust is in the deeply sculptural lighting, which organizes shots or, with camera movement, articulates scenes, and gives his close-ups a monumental quality. Part Two mobilizes the camera spectacularly.

A complex set of factors is brought to bear upon this dark night of the soul, beginning with the writer’s end in Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., and ultimately concluding along the lines of Coppola’s The Conversation (with a foretaste of Gavin Millar’s Mr and Mrs Edgehill). The psychological “trigger” is adapted from Kubrick’s Spartacus.

Victory is an upwelling and backlit glass of champagne, shared amongst those of good will.


Guns of the Magnificent Seven

Early on, in the church scene where the rebels meet, Wendkos gives a significant homage to Welles’ The Stranger, a film in which everybody notices the cranework but no-one (except directors like Donen and Wendkos) appreciates the subtle, forceful editing-in-the-camera of the scene where Welles and Loretta Young meet in the church to discuss their situation.

Wendkos’ stylistic understanding is very akin to this whole approach, contrasting joy in action with still, inward perspectives. He is a master of the expressive image, from the opening shot of a prisoner’s arms extending past the bars of his half-buried cell to his deposition at the feet of Col. Diego (Michael Ansara). It’s one continuous shot, the prisoner is dragged by unseen men across the fortress yard (the camera stays on him), only Col. Diego’s boots are seen and his shadow slapping its thigh with a stick. Later, an intellectual who “feeds the rebels” (Fernando Rey) is put in the cell. He clutches the bars above his head and relinquishes them in a dramatic effect seldom equaled.

Cassie (Bernie Casey) has a brash and impudent fellow by the collar and headfirst in a barrel of water, at that moment he sees Chris Adams (George Kennedy) offcamera looking for a quorum. Levi Morgan (James Whitmore) has come in from a day of chores, he rinses his face at a barrel of water. This alone, like Wendkos’ images in general, tells a most impressive tale, but that’s also when the job is mentioned, Whitmore turns... Slater (Joe Don Baker) has a real shootout, only in a circus context, he trickshoots his opponent and then chats with Chris against a background of fairground stalls, sideshow acts and pistol-jugglers.

The image recurs transformed. Chris regards his clientele calmly, objectively, professionally. When he is shown a few dozen of them buried up to their chins in that same fortress yard and then trampled by horses, his face collapses in pity and dismay. Accosted by the rebel’s friend, a bandito played by Frank Silvera as though the original town tormentor were back in the guise of a robust Dan Duryea as Karl Marx, Chris rises to the challenge, his face full of canny assessment. He looks at a young boy orphaned by the regime, and begins to know where he is. Later, alert and concentrated, he is addressed by the boy, his face turns and regards the lad with complex diffidence. Finally, in a nighttime confab before shuteye, the seven are idly talking on the eve of the assault, his face is barely lit by the fire and replete with significance (the poetic phrase is “clouds were gathered” in it), it contains everything that is to follow.

That’s one strand of development. Another is more musical. Keno (Monte Markham) is about to be hanged for horse-stealing. As though it were a wedding, the sheriff asks the townspeople gathered on Main Street if there are any objections. Chris interposes the wisdom of Solomon, says he’ll find out who the horse belongs to. He walks a ways down the street, the prisoner follows him, stands in front of a water trough (the trough fills the lower right corner of the screen, in the background against the sky is the gallows). The other man stands across the street, the horse is between them, seen in a low-angle shot with the hot sun blazing behind him, intermittently, as his head moves. Keno is saved, and much later on Wendkos picks up the musical note of water in a high-angle shot of a running creek amid great rocks, panning left to one of the seven pensively musing there.

Wendkos in this film likes the crane car. Pan-tilt-and-dolly is a specialty, not infrequently supplemented by a short crane up or down, a pan-and-crane or dolly-and-pan. A POV handheld shot over the shoulders of prisoners looking out from a barred wagon (walking the camera sideways) is answered later by a rapid dolly past the same wagon at an angle to Morgan aiming a rifle at the lock. A lateral dolly shot reveals hidden elements.

All of the seven are assembled in a saloon, and the effect after so much long work assimilating Sturges is now, in a low-angle shot of cardplayers, Van Gogh lanterns, roofbeams and Whitmore’s serape-poncho, indefinably Kurosawa.

Arresting scenes reveal character. Slater awakens from a tortured nightmare, he’s an old Johnny Reb, he puts a gun to sleeping Cassie’s head, then forces himself to fire it into the ground wildly, like Dr. Strangelove controlling his arm. He’s about to lop off the offending member with a hatchet when Cassie stops him (Casey’s look of confused pity is Poitierian). At the fort, Col. Diego is dallying with a girl in his quarters when the seven explode a charge at the gate. He rushes to his door and just opens it when it’s hit by fire from a Gatling gun in the guard tower now manned by Cassie. Holding the inner doorknob, Col. Diego simply recoils a few sufficient inches, the professional soldier’s reflex.

The conclusion is a summation of Wendkos’ handling of the material, as the hills and horizon, to the accompaniment of Bernstein’s score, receive the last of the seven.

His view has an affinity with the undivided ambiguity of Emilio Fernandez. Wendkos is ahead of his time in the ability he displays at making perfectly great films that no-one (except Godard, who liked Tarawa Beachhead and said so in the Cahiers du Cinéma) could admire or understand very much, for reasons that are impossible to determine in the light of the work itself.


Hell Boats

When you come upon a masterpiece such as this, little-known and that little despised, you have to wonder.

It opens in the English Channel in 1942, a motor torpedo boat captain (James Franciscus) defending a convoy rams a Nazi E-boat, he and his crew are machine-gunned in the water by another.

Recovered from his wounds, he’s assigned to Malta in aid of the North African campaign. His CO there is a stuffy blighter with a lonely wife, the crews are stymied and outmatched. Our skipper trains them, leads them on increasingly aggressive missions, and finally organizes a commando raid against Nazi installations in Sicily, while simultaneously conducting an affair with the CO’s wife.

They meet for the first time on the rock beach of the island, he is walking alone in his thoughts, she is bathing nude in a crevice. He lends her his shirt, she rises like the foam.

After the raid (she waits atop a building’s ornate façade, viewed in a low-angle shot through coils of barbed wire), which is joined by the CO timorously, the two men climb the long stone stairway from the docks, and she embraces her husband.

Dramatically, the genius of the piece is to build toward a confrontation that never takes place, going beyond that to a real guffaw (cf. Clayton’s The Pumpkin Eater, “you’re not the bloody Duke”). This is the substance of the film per se, except that Wendkos has a view of Malta far and away surpassing it, or explaining it, or justifying it, or the result of it (if a variable print available can be consulted properly on this matter), or just the equal of it, the way his interiors are every bit as fine as his exteriors.

The stone island is sunshowered and sunshot, flat, wide, ancient. Wendkos films it as abstractly as he might, abstracted of people, uniform in color, archetypal as Robbe-Grillet’s Istanbul.

Wendkos has complete control of the material, a daylight cocktail party on a terrazzo (also ringed by barbed wire) has the principals in brief confabs, ending with the CO before the camera, the skipper walking away in the background, and in the middle distance the wife abstracted by focus into pure expressive form.

The interiors are meticulously designed, a military installation with X-ed out windows, the CO’s formal and finely-appointed domicile, the bedroom of painted walls and tightly-clustered photographs, the palatial accommodations of the Nazis in Italy (filmed like the officers’ ball in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory).

The provenances and associations of the piece are Combat!, The Saint, and Phil Karlson’s Hornets’ Nest, in terms of style and collateral work, especially by the writers. Wendkos begins very much in the manner of a Forties film, the subtle and overwhelming magnificence of the film as a whole appears to have been overlooked because of this stylistic turn, there can’t be any other explanation.


The Underground Man

A sturdily adept employment of locations in maritime Los Angeles marks this as careful and methodical in its adaptation of a Lew Archer mystery—well-placed.


The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd

One of the great movies for television by a director who justifies the medium. Dr. Mudd (Dennis Weaver) treated John Wilkes Booth’s stage injury, and so is sent to prison. There is great realism in its approach, which is superficially a response to Papillon and a recollection of The Andersonville Trial.


One Man’s Seduction

The real estate market, heady and competitive. Middle-class buyers are squeezed out, money and coke squeeze through the impasse.

A real estate salesman, middle-aged, moves up in the scale when his hopes are dashed after an acquisition merger. The instrument is cocaine, while it lasts.

Well-filmed by Wendkos, so good it’s unnoticeable, or nearly.

Dennis Weaver, Karen Grassle, James Spader, Jeffrey Tambor, et al.

The large-scale vistas of San Diego merge with the neighborhood views and the office rendezvous, a great city.


White Hot
The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd

This is taken at an elegantly beautiful angle, with possibilities rising from the script like incense from Salomé’s apron. Abetting these moral considerations is a characteristic adoption of Hollywood locations and thereabouts to great effect.