Cliff Hanger

I recall seeing bits of MASQUERADE (1965) — always the same bits, too — on TV over the years. Being a moderate admirer of Basil Dearden, I finally decided to see the whole thing. It’s — moderately good. Cliff Robertson is an American ex-serviceman at a loose end, recruited by former comrade Jack Hawkins to protect an Arabian prince from his evil uncle (regular pseudo-arab Roger Delgado, the Master in Dr. Who). Pitched at Hitchcock romp level, and from a novel by FAMILY PLOT’s Victor Canning, it suffers from a major plot twist heavily telegraphed by modern standards, and easily predictable to anyone who’s previously seen Hawkins as a disillusioned soldier turning to crime in Dearden’s THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN.

Bizarre nod to Bunuel?

Still, the cliffhanging is suspenseful, and co-scenarist William Goldman serves up his first reversal in a long career of rug-pulling, when Robertson, imprisoned in a  circus cage, tries to reach a set of keys dangling just out of reach. He espies some bamboo in a neighbouring cage, and hatches the plan of assembling a rod to fish for the keys — trouble is, the cage is occupied by a very nasty vulture. Much agonized pecking later, Cliff does manage to rig up a key-catching stick — only to discover than none of the keys fits his lock. Of course: why would the bad guys leave the keys to HIS cage in plain view?

The reversals come ever thicker and faster, until, like Goldman’s later screenplay for MAVERICK, it becomes rather hard to be surprised anymore. But more damaging is the misogyny, a tonal pain in any ostensibly lighthearted flick. Marisa Mell is a free-spirited circus girl, sporting bruises from hairy ape boyfriend Michel Piccoli. “I don’t mind,” she tells Robertson. “Say, you’re pretty kinky, baby!” he exclaims, thus putting the film’s portrayal of abusive relationships on a psychological par with the apache dance.

His later line, “I’d give you a smack in the face only I’m afraid you might like it,” doesn’t help matters. I still didn’t like the line when it was plagiarised for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA years later. By all means, abuse masochists, that’s what they like, but don’t make fun of ’em! One also wants to say to the writers: “She’s your sexual fantasy, mate. Why are you having a go at her?”

Nobody seems too bothered by Goldman’s sexism, which strikes me as a constant in his work. It doesn’t quite spoil THE PRINCESS BRIDE, a truly charming film, but it forms a bit of a stain. Probably less harmful to my enjoyment than the tacky production values, but when you have Wallace Shawn and Mandy Patinkin and Peter Cook etc, and some very very funny jokes and characters and plotting, you can get away with murder. I get the impression that Goldman’s status as some kind of screenplay guru puts him either above criticism or beneath contempt, so nobody looks too closely at the actual strengths and weaknesses. (His analysis of some of his own flaws in Adventures in the Screen Trade is often very telling, though.)

Dearden’s nicest bit of direction comes when a dopey Robertson wanders dazed through a castle at night — sudden Carol Reed infusion of canted angles, vaseline-smeared filter making fairy-tale dream-effect — but it’s all so out of keeping with the rest of the movie, which has totally neglected Hitchcockian POV and expressionist tricks, that it sticks out like a sore, soft-focus thumb.

Still, the sight of Charles Gray dangling from a helicopter is worth anybody’s 102 minutes. Deus Ex machina!

Buy Goldman’s book —

UK: Adventures in the Screen Trade

US: Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting

Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground (Sapphire, The League of Gentlemen, Victim, All Night Long) (Criterion Collection)

11 Responses to “Cliff Hanger”

  1. kevin mummery Says:

    Basil Dearden seems like kind of a workman-like director, but I’ve only seen the films in the recent Criterion/Eclipse set and “The Assassination Bureau”, so maybe I need to see more to make any kind of accurate assessment. Since my first viewing of “Danger:Diabolik” I’ve been a Marisa Mell fan, and in fact purchased “CQ” thinking she’d be in it in a cameo…unfortunately not so as she’d died some time before it was made. About Jack Hawkins; no one has ever done a better impression of Jack Hawkins, than Jack Hawkins. His Jack Hawkins is even better than Frank Gorshin’s Jack Hawkins, which is the gold standard as far as most people are concerned.

  2. hwre’s more about Marisa

    The “ill-fated Boradway musical” Mata Hari was to mark a return to great white way by the great (wait for it!)

    Vincente Minnelli.

  3. Wow!

    Dearden did indeed spend most of his career being workmanlike, but there are flashes of something far, far greater, particularly his work in Dead of Night, where he shot not only a good episode but also the climax. Saraband for Dead Lovers was a costly flop but it has moments of superbly orchestrated visual elegance and overpowering emotion.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Lest we forget…

    Basil Dearden also made VICTIM, the first serious ‘gay rights’ movie after Richard Oswald’s DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS way back in 1919.

    Not sure if he had a personal axe to grind in this matter?

  5. Of course you do. So do I.

    And so did Dirk

  6. Dirk wrote in his relevant volume of autobio, “The film featured one genuinely gay actor, Dennis Price.” Only one?

    Had Dearden’s career started earlier or later he could have ridden the wave of the 40s or 60s, and his more creative urges would have been encouraged, but the 50s basically demanded he be middlebrow and unadventurous. Within that, he still managed some terrific things, whatever Charlton Heston thought of him (“Khartoum was the one good film that didn’t have a good director”).

  7. Mention of Wallace Shawn brings to mind THE MODERNS, which I never got around to watching until yesterday. I love Alan Rudolph. A problematic film, yes, but … I *still* love Alan Rudolph.

    Among its virtues is one great Wallace Shawn moment. His character, seemingly, has killed himself, but then Shawn shows up in drag, revealing that the death has been faked. Says Shawn, still in drag , “I ran into Maurice Ravel in the men’s room [pause] he didn’t recognize me”

  8. Saw Wallace Shawn being accosted by a gaggle of teenage girls, waving paper and pen, in a candy store on the Upper East Side. He was kind of holed up in there in the middle of a shoot. Description wouldn’t do justice to the look on his face; you can pretty much imagine it.

    Clueless gets played nonstop on cable; may have been the source of the admiration.

  9. Mention of Wallace Shawn brings to mind Gossip Girl (on which he’s currently appearing) AND his great play Aunt Dan and Lemon, which explains neo-con psychopathology better than anything currently available.

  10. He kind of has an ideal existence, profitably typecast in film and TV, and able to express himself fully in his theatrical work. Sounds idyllic.

  11. yes, they were shooting Gossip Girl.

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