Wednesday 19 August 2015

The Big Gamble [1961]

THE BIG GAMBLE is an American adventure film that was directed by Richard Fleischer and originally released by 20th Century Fox in September 1961.  It stars Stephen Boyd, Juliette Greco and David Wayne.  It’s about an unlikely trio who have to drive a truck loaded with cases of beer across Africa.

It’s a wholly contrived situation of course and one that begs comparison with Henri-George Clouzot’s THE WAGES OF FEAR [1953] and William Friedkin's much-maligned but actually better remake SORCERER [1977].  The big difference of course is that Fleischer’s film is intended as a frivolous adventure, an almost family-oriented picture.  As such it doesn’t work as a thriller and what humour there is is pretty broad:  getting drunk, falling over and interacting with bemused Africans.  On top of all that it has an unreconstructed view of Africa, which is presented as a gigantic business opportunity for enterprising white people.

William Friedkin's SORCERER
Richard Fleischer's THE BIG GAMBLE
Considering all that I should have hated it.  That I didn’t is I think down to three things, or rather three people: Fleischer, Boyd and Greco.  Fleischer was a consummate pro who almost always delivered lean, efficient and highly watchable pictures.  Have a look at his CV: it’s not all great of course but for a forty year career there are remarkably few outright crappers. 

I don’t think it’s possible to claim Fleischer as an auteur but I’ve seen a lot of his now and I would suggests that he was particularly adept at what might be called ‘quest’ movies.  By that I mean a character or, more often, a group of characters coming together to accomplish a task.  These may be malevolent – ARMORED CAR ROBBERY [1950], COMPULSION [1959], THE BOSTON STRANGLER [1968] – or benevolent – FANTASTIC VOYAGE [1966], THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER [1977], CONAN THE DESTROYER [1984].  He differs from other ‘quest’ directors like Hawks, Huston and Brooks in that he’s not particularly interested in the camaraderie (like Hawks), the impossibility and frustration of the quest (Huston) or the group dynamic (Brooks).  What appears to interest Fleischer is the process of completing the quest, the nuts and bolts of it.

THE BIG GAMBLE is a case in point.  The film is really a handful of extended sequences bolted together, showing the characters laboriously doing things.  It’s difficult to think of any other director showing the entire sequence of a ship being unloaded: he shows the truck being lowered on to the shore-bound craft, then Boyd and Greco being lowered by crane, and then goes back to show David Wayne being transported in exactly the same way.

Crane shot 1:  the truck
Crane shot 2: Boyd and Greco
Crane shot 3: Wayne (note pith helmet and safari suit)
Later on our heroes come across a massive fallen tree blocking the road.  Happily coming the corner in the opposite direction are a merry African tribe who, in exchange for cases of beer, chop through the tree and shove it to one side.  Fleischer shows the whole operation from start to finish.  Other sequences show a precarious three-point turn on a mountain road and then the big finish of crossing a swollen river.  The attention to detail and commitment to the task is quite incredible.

Stephen Boyd drives into tree...
tries to axe it in half...
...decides to let the Africans do it...
...and let them roll it out of the way.  Simples.
I’m aware I may be making it sound rather tedious but somehow it isn’t.  In some ways it refreshing to see a film in which workaday solutions are discovered and executed.  I also like the fact that problems can be worked through via communication, negotiation and good old fashioned teamwork rather than through coercion or shooting.

"You're alright.."
"Whoah, you've got about an inch."
Boyd and Greco as Vic and Marie make a lovely couple: he strong and brave, she loving and intelligent.  It’s Greco who lifts this film out of the mundane really; she’s so beautiful and charismatic and – in the context of Dublin, where the filmstarts – so exotic.  Frankly, I’d drive across Africa in a Fiat Panda if Juliette Greco was sat next to me.  Most famous as a chanteuse, Greco didn’t make many films, and certainly not many is the US, probably because she’s one of those unique personalities whom Hollywood is stumped by.  She’s in one of my all-time favourite films, Jean Cocteau’s ORPHEE [1950].

Juliette Greco as Marie and Stephen Boyd as Vic
I’ve always liked Stephen Boyd; sadly he’s another major star about whom you hear very little these days.  That’s a surprise to me because although his most famous pictures were made 50-odd years ago some of them are regularly shown on TV, in the UK usually on bank holidays.  I’m talking of course about films such as BEN-HUR [1959], THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE [1964] and the aforementioned FANTASTIC VOYAGE.  I think Boyd’s problem, if that’s the correct word, was that his career went on for some time after his star had faded.  Looking at his CV he ended up making lots of low-budget movies, not always in the lead, which barely got released.  That’s not to say they’re poor films: THE SQUEEZE [1977] is a superb British crime movie (coincidentally playing a character also called Vic) which I would urge you to seek out.  My favourite Boyd film though is probably THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS [1956], a brilliant WW2 thriller which first propelled him to stardom.  Boyd died suddenly in 1978 aged just 45.

David Wayne (L) as Samuel
I’m not so sure I would drive across Africa, even in an AC Cobra, if David Wayne was sitting next to me.  I suppose the light relief he provides in THE BIG GAMBLE was necessary but it’s the weakest element.  He’s one of those performers, like Danny Kaye, who I just find extremely irritating.  Perhaps he was better in his stage work.  Having said all that he is in THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN [1971] which is a fine, and usual, sci-fi movie whose heroes are all scientists.

It would be unfair not to mention Elmo Williams who shot all the second unit sequences in Africa; second unit work is usually all the stuff for which the actors are not required, e.g. stunt scenes, pick ups, etc.  On a movie such as THE BIG GAMBLE this is important work.  Williams had worked with Fleischer several times before as an editor; Fleischer had allowed him to do some second unit work on a couple of his films and he did the same on this movie.  According to Fleischer, Williams’ footage usually looked terrible in the dailies but fabulous when cut together in post-production.  The actions sequences are a big part of what makes this film watchable so Williams deserves a lot of credit for that.