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A box office success and a product of its time
The timing was right. Art house sex films were all the rage and the marketing in the States was simple and brilliant, taking good advantage of punters seeking cinema kicks during the dawn of the sexual revolution. A phone number was published for people to call who wanted to know what the title meant. The bewildering erotic-horror element and the hallucinatory visuals and dialogue were not what many of them expected.
Old-timers in the Manhattan theatrical exhibition business told me it did very well at the box office. The put-downs by Canby and Ebert didn't hurt. Newspaper of the subway crowd, The New York Post, gave it a good review. The gloss of Euro-sophistication gave it a veneer of respectability that the crude sleaze of routinely shot American sexploitation films lacked. Viewers didn't feel the urge to slink out of the theater trying not to be seen.
In today's DVD and streaming world, with thousands of independent theaters now vanished from the landscape, without titillating ads in big city newspapers, Succubus-style films released today would be quickly forgotten.
Hard Contract (1969)
A violent film without violence (Spoilers)
What's unique about the crime film Hard Contract is that it totally swims against the waves in so many ways including the climax which becomes this trippy-dippy-hippie all-you-need-is-love ending with no casualties, like one of those wacky, surrealistic, Brit comedies of the 1960s.
It's a hit-man film without any violence or weapons or blood and a great many pages of dialogue about the nature of violence. How many Hollywood films do this? People watch hit-man films to see murder and car chases, not to see people talk (unless they're Quentin Tarantino fans which is why QT adds those explosions of insane violence after his talk sessions.
James Coburn and Robert Culp were two of the most ultra-cool actors of that time; not rebels but showing the streak of counter-cultural and anti-hero/anti-establishment behavior that Steve McQueen had. The detached, seemingly relaxed, self-confident Coburn fit his Cunningham character,a killer and emotionless sex-machine only banging hookers, like a well-fitted suit. Lee Remick brings her own brand of cool sex- appeal--not brittle or icy but somewhere hovering near that. This might be her most physically sexual role.
As the jaded, man-eating divorcée traveling with her friend, the attractive middle-aged Lili Palmer as a forerunner of what's called a cougar today, Remick is able to just use facial expressions to make clear that Coburn has given her the first orgasm of her life. In return, her beauty and her spirit make him fall in love with her and unable to function again with prostitutes, the only women in his life before meeting her. Both of these hot yet cool women travel with two male companions, ex-Nazi and now pacifist Patrick Magee (not well-utilized here) and elderly Claude Dauphin, presumably a former gigolo now playing Palmer's non-sexual escort.
Coburn leaves a man inexplicably dead in a movie theater showing a documentary about African orphans, he pushes a suitcase out of an airplane, presumably with victim #1 or his body parts inside, and there's a long shot of victim #2 falling out a window. Coburn glowers at his victims as he watches them and it appears that he kills weaponless, with his hands.
If this film were made today by the usual suspects as either big-budget or cable-junk, Coburn would kill Meredith, Remick would turn out to be a surprise hit-woman and kill Coburn, or Hayden and Coburn would try to kill each other in a final stand-off. Sorry, no dice. There's one moment that makes you think he'll kill the entire cast by driving a stretch limo with all the characters off a cliff. The film bizarrely ends with Palmer and Meredith falling in love and riding off in a donkey cart and Remick and Coburn making passionate love on the outskirts of a gypsy camp, turning the genre completely on its head. Pacifism wins as Coburn renounces murder for dollars in favor of love and ultimate sex with a gorgeous millionairess. Happily ever after? The closing iris shot (a common editing effect in silent films), like a telescopic rifle sight, on the couples' heads is yet another ambiguous touch. Will another hit- man come for him now that he has quit?
It's never clear who Coburn is killing for. His boss Meredith seems to be working for a US spy agency, not organized crime. This is never made clear like most of the main points in the story or what the victims did to be targeted. In the late 60s and early 70s, Mafia types were often depicted as Anglo-Saxons (Point Blank for example), not the usual accented Costa Nostra types. From some of the ambiguous dialog, they seem to be connected to the CIA or some other agency.
I loved the Flint films (and liked The President's Analyst, rumored to be based on a third Derek Flint script) but when it came to many of Coburn's other films, Duffy, The Carey Treatment, Dead Heat On A Merry Go-Round, The Internecine Project, Waterhole #3, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots, Harry In Your Pocket, and other not so compelling titles, I've always had a difficult time sitting still for them. It took me years to watch Hard Contract and I had it recorded on my drive for months before I actually watched it in one sitting last week. Now that I have, I'm sorry I waited so long.
Mannix: The Nowhere Victim (1969)
Mannix vs Mafia (spoilers)
This was an unusual Mannix episode in that he gets involved between two factions of a Mafia family, one led by young rebel Lloyd Battista (from the Tony Anthony Euro westerns), the other by his repulsive uncle, old- school Hollywood mob guy Mark Lawrence who has snuck back into the States after being deported and wants his chair back. This is not the Wasp-corporate mob that was popular in late sixties TV. This is old school Italian-American Mafia. Phrases like "the family" and "the brotherhood" are used by Mannix before The Godfather popularized the terms. The heavies were cast for their ethnic looks. In a wild, rock-em, sock-em closing scene different from the usual Mannix story, a swarm of hit men on motorcycles attack the farm house where a wounded Angelo is recuperating. This also predates the use of motorcycle-riding executioners that became popular in Europe in real-life hits. In a very twist-plotted story, Mannix is saved by a beautiful hostage (Corinne Comacho). There are some very over-the-top events here. Mannix takes a case that he knows should have been reported to the police and in doing so violates his own personal code, and there's some ridiculous shooting by Lawrence that almost sinks the show at the very end.