Friday, December 16, 2016

MOOM PITCHER REVIEW BY BILL SHUTE! THE DAY THE HOTLINE GOT HOT starring Robert Taylor, George Chakiris and Charles Boyer (1968)

While people today may feel that they have access to a wide array of international culture because of the internet, and of course they do, since the 1990’s, there have been very few foreign films playing your local theater in competition with Hollywood product. Oh, there are university film programs and film festivals and the occasional arthouse here and there--we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about international films playing your local theater--not with subtitles and not presented as an art film or something that is somehow “good for you” (like a colonoscopy), but films dubbed in English out there competing in the marketplace representing a number of popular film genres. From the 1950’s through the 1970’s (although continuing on, to some limited extent, through the 1980’s), this was VERY common. While many were distributed in the US by smaller companies, some were picked up by the majors to fill out their release schedules and to use as the bottom half of double bills (you usually got TWO films for your ticket money until the early 1970’s). It was easier for an American film distributor to acquire a foreign product, usually for a modest advance and then a percentage, or an inexpensive “buy” for the American market, than to produce a new programmer feature. Nowadays, if you don’t include films from the UK, seeing a film from outside North America in the general cinema marketplace is rare. Here in South Texas, presently, dollar theaters have gotten into the practice of having special showings of Bollywood films or Mexican films or Filipino films or Thai films for ethnic populations wanting a taste of home, but those are in the original languages and NOT intended to compete with American product. With all the talk of diversity, it’s funny how little diversity you see at the multiplexes of America today. And the same 12 or 14 films are playing at every chain theater in the nation. You notice this when you travel. During the golden age of foreign and independent film in the 1950’s-1970’s, there might be anywhere from 75 to 100 DIFFERENT films in active circulation on US screens at any particular time, if not more. Those days are long gone.

Also, the 1960’s were the age of the “international co-production.” Tax laws and governmental subsidies toward film-making in Europe and elsewhere made it advantageous to make a film which involved two or three or even four countries as participating production partners (thus, getting a subsidy from each country). One country would tend to be the lead partner, but the other countries would be represented in both the technical crew and the cast. Since most European films were shot MOS (without live sound) and were dubbed in multiple languages, international casts were not a problem. And since the United States film industry led the world in popularity, and American stars were basically bankable international currency in a film project, many of these co-productions would feature an American star, or in some cases an American who was not a star here but was “American” and had star quality and often became a star overseas. Talents such as Brad Harris and Richard Harrison would fall into that category.

Then there were people who revived their careers overseas and became bigger there than they were here at home. George Nader and Lex Barker would be examples of that. Older American and international stars would often be used as secondary characters in such films (with a younger lead being in every scene), for both their name value and for the quality that their seemingly effortless professionalism would bring to the production.

If THE DAY THE HOTLINE GOT HOT is known at all, it’s as the final film of the great ROBERT TAYLOR. Taylor was a hard-working man who always seemed to make multiple films per year and who had been doing the occasional project overseas (THE GLASS SPHINX, SAVAGE PAMPAS) through the mid-1960’s. Taylor smoked heavily, and he died of cancer soon after this film, but he was an excellent and subtle yet charismatic actor who could play anything, and from the mid-1940’s on, he brought a sense of gravitas to whatever he was in. He’d had a successful TV series called THE DETECTIVES in the early 60’s, he’d appeared in TV movies, and he was still a relatively big star name.

This is a French-Spanish co-production, which seems to have a lot of French crew (and a Belgian director who was France-based) but was filmed in Spain (although there are not a lot of Barcelona exteriors, unfortunately).

It’s essentially a cold war farce. Taylor plays the head of American intelligence, and Charles Boyer his Soviet counterpart. George Chakiris (of WEST SIDE STORY fame), probably in his 30’s here, is a low-level IBM employee who has the curse of always telling the truth, which does not help him in his career at IBM, as he sometimes tells the truth to potential clients, and they either go elsewhere or do the job themselves because of his candid comments. Thus, he gets transferred a lot....because he’s a brilliant mind, and the company does not want to lose him, but no local office wants the headaches he causes. As the film begins, he causes trouble in Stockholm and gets transferred to Barcelona.

Simultaneously, a trio of wacky grannies in their 70s or 80s (!!!!) invade some Western intelligence office in Stockholm and force the lady working there (the lovely Marie Dubois, a short-haired reddish blonde in the classic French tradition) to send some provocative message to the Kremlin hotline to stir up trouble between the US and Soviets. They then kidnap Dubois to keep her from talking, put her in a steamer trunk, and ship her to Barcelona. That steamer trunk looks exactly like George Chakiris’s, which is arriving at the airport at just the same time, and.....well, you can guess the plot from there.

Taylor is brought in from Langley, VA (CIA headquarters) and Boyer from Moscow, and these two have been friendly sparring partners for decades, with agents going from one side to the other to the point where neither really knows who’s on whose side that particular week. Add to that the mix-up with the lady in the steamer trunk and George Chakiris, and the bumbling local cops, and the devious grannies who are fouling up international relations....then have it all performed in a manner that is to the cold war what Hogan’s Heroes was to World War II, and you’ve got THE DAY THE HOTLINE GOT HOT.

It is a pleasure to watch the two old pros Taylor and Boyer (who no doubt knew each other, or at least knew OF each other, back during the MGM days of the 30’s and 40’s) at work, and having them cast as friendly adversaries allows them to have a somewhat leisurely pace (these are older men, after all) but subtle sparring, which is just right to bring out the best from each. Leading man George Chakiris (who looks great--he’s also surely the only one in this cast to have recorded a single for Joe Meek!) is excellent with this kind of light comedy, as a kind of meek and bumbling but intelligent tech-nerd (I could see Jim Hutton in this role, though Chakiris is more of a heart-throb).

How funny is the film? Well, I first saw it in the middle of the night on a UHF station back in the late 70’s. I was working at a restaurant/bar/club in the kitchen, from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.. It was open until 2, but we’d stop serving food at midnight and then start breaking down and cleaning the kitchen so we’d be done by 2. As a perk of employment there, we could have two free drinks an evening. I always took mine when we’d finish--two scotches. Back in those days, UHF and independent stations programmed old B-movies and more recent dubbed European films in the all-night slots. I’ll write a piece about that phenomenon in the future, as it’s not really documented adequately on the internet, and I don’t want the knowledge of that amazing period to die with those of us who were alive back then. I want future generations to be green with envy because they did not have the joy of a Channel 27 or Channel 56 during such a Golden Age, which was taken for granted by many, but appreciated and savored by us here at BTC back in the day.

I’d check TV Guide, and when I got off work, with the buzz of two scotches, I’d go home and catch some great film on my small B&W television. On any random night I might see, say, MINNESOTA CLAY with Cameron Mitchell....or one of the Dr. Mabuse films with Lex Barker....or some Italian costumed historical drama with Guy Madison....or a Republic Pictures or Allied Artists crime film....or a PRC Tex Ritter/Dave O’Brien “Texas Rangers” film. But one night, circa 2:30 a.m., it was THE DAY THE HOTLINE GOT HOT. I’d vaguely remembered this playing (it was released in the US by the obscure Commonwealth United, of Jess Franco’s VENUS IN FURS and Mickey Spillane’s fame/infamy) on the bottom of the bill at some drive-in back in the 69-70 period, and I loved Robert Taylor, so I set up in front of my 14” TV in my $80 a month furnished room with kitchen and bathroom....and took a trip to Barcelona. Oh, I asked “how funny is the film?” Well, it produced a lot of smiles, the European “look” of the sets and the supporting players and the cars and the locations took me out of my everyday world, Taylor and Boyer were a pleasure to watch, Chakiris always has charisma to burn and also has excellent comic timing, and as a longtime dancer, he has excellent physical timing too, and Marie Dubois certainly set my adolescent heart a-fluttering. She looked like that French teacher I had a crush on in Junior High School.

I couldn’t have been happier, being able to watch such an interesting, little-known, and vaguely exotic film for free on a low-powered UHF station right when I got off work and was looking to wind down. I finally scored a grey-market DVD-R of this a few years ago, and it’s amazing how much I remembered of it.

There might be a million films out there on You Tube and on BitTorrent downloads, but the thrill of seeing an obscure European film with recognizable American actors out of their usual comfort zone but bringing their can-do attitude and smooth professionalism to these low-budget international co-productions....and having these on free TV that anyone can receive....and back when there were only maybe SIX television stations you could pick up, which meant a lot of people were watching these....that thrill of the 3 a.m. film find----whether you were coming in late and “coming down” to the film, or whether you stayed up or got up for it (which I often did when not working late)----is something wonderful and something that died by the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, as broadcasting was de-regulated (and stations could show informercials all night, which they COULD NOT DO prior to de-regulation--they had to show actual CONTENT, with a maximum of 17 minutes of commercial per hour----infomercials are, by definition, 60 minutes of commercial per hour, and thus were not allowed) and then specialized cable took over, causing the present dilemma of having 750 stations available to you, but nothing worthwhile to watch. 

Ahhhhh....750 STATIONS AVAILABLE, BUT NOTHING WORTHWHILE TO WATCH. Boy, that certainly sums up life today, doesn’t it!

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