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Finding cinema's buried treasures

January 11, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

"The Deadly Affair" had all the markings of a hit when Columbia released the British spy thriller in the U.S. in 1967.

Based on the bestselling novel "Call for the Dead," by John le Carre, the film boasted a strong cast at the top of their game including James Mason, Harriet Andersson and Oscar winners Simone Signoret and Maximilian Schell, as well as an equally acclaimed director, Sidney Lumet.

The film received numerous nominations from the British Film and Television Academy.

"This is one of the best translations of le Carre," says Drew Casper, film professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. "This is as good as 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.' I can't believe what a performance James Mason gives."

Despite excellent reviews, "Affair" proved deadly at the box office.

"It made no money," says Casper. And over the years, it has become nearly forgotten.

The American Cinematheque, though, has resurrected the film, and is screening it Saturday at the Egyptian Theatre as part of its second annual "Overlooked and Underrated" festival.

"Affair" is paired with an equally neglected 1968 spy thriller, "A Dandy in Aspic," starring Laurence Harvey as a double agent working for the British and Russians who is asked by his British bosses to eliminate the Soviet mole, who just happens to be him.

A pre-"Rosemary's Baby" Mia Farrow, Peter Cook and Tom Courtenay also star.

"I thought it was a great spy movie," says Cinematheque programmer Chris D. of "Dandy." "It was kind of hamstrung by the fact that the director Anthony Mann died during production and Laurence Harvey took over. It's one of those movies you really have to pay attention to; I personally like those kind of movies where you have to use your brain."

So how do films like "Deadly Affair" and "Dandy in Aspic" disappear from view?

"I think the criteria for good films has changed a little bit since some of these movies have been released," says Chris D. "I also think a lot of movies suffered when they went to TV."

Casper maintains it's all about the money. "Unfortunately, how much a film makes [equates] with the quality of the movie," he says.

In the case of the two 1968 Joseph Losey films, "Secret Ceremony" and "Boom," which are screening Jan. 18, Casper believes the films were given the cold shoulder by critics and audiences because "very few people were into Losey at the time. There were so many other directors [then] that were so chichi. . . . "

Also the subject matter of the films wasn't exactly palatable. "Secret Ceremony" is a truly bizarre psychological suspense thriller with Mia Farrow as an ethereal young orphan, Elizabeth Taylor as a prostitute who becomes her "mother" and Robert Mitchum as her mysterious stepfather.

"Losey never picked very mainstream or bourgeoise subject matter," says Casper. "In 'Secret Ceremony,' there is a prostitute mothering this very strange girl, and you don't know the background of the girl and the whole setup is strange."

Even stranger is "Boom," based on a Tennessee Williams flop, "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," with Taylor emoting enough for 10 actresses as Sissy Goforth, a rich recluse living in a village in the Mediterranean, and Richard Burton as a wandering poet who is actually the angel of death. "That is Tennessee Williams at his most exotic," says Casper.

"Overlooked and Underrated" also features two films from auteur Samuel Fuller on Sunday: 1957's "Run of the Arrow," starring Rod Steiger as an angry Confederate soldier who joins an Indian tribe rather than acknowledging that the Union won the war; and the 1962 World War II epic, "Merrill's Marauders," starring Jeff Chandler in his last -- and best -- film.

"The problem with Fuller in the postwar period was he was such a maverick," offers Casper. "No one had done [movies] quite like this. Everything was in your face. It was fierce filmmaking. He brought jump cutting to films before the French did. The films looked slapdash and crude. Aesthetically, they were shocking. That's why he never got an audience."

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