I’m not sure if the caper movie could be referred to as a genre in itself. It’s basically an offshoot of the heist movie, which in turn has its origins in the world of thrillers. To me a caper should be a humorous take on a criminal enterprise and it should have a certain gloss or stylishness about it. As such, the 1960s were arguably the ideal period for these films, and I’m of the opinion that the best examples are to be found in that decade. Gambit (1966) checks all the boxes as far as I’m concerned: it’s got a couple of glamorous stars in the lead roles, a slightly convoluted plot that never takes itself too seriously, pretty locations, and an abundance of charm and style.

The structure of the film is one of its major assets, with the first half hour showing Harry Dean (Michael Caine) meticulously setting up the perfect crime before everything falls to pieces. Our hero has his sights on a priceless sculpture owned by a reclusive billionaire, Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), and has planned what he thinks is a foolproof method of snatching it. For the final pieces of his scheme to fall into place he needs a woman to play the part of his wife. Of course it can’t be just any woman, he needs someone who closely resembles Shahbandar’s late wife. Enter Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), an exotic dancer of Eurasian stock who just happens to be a ringer for the former Mrs Shahbandar. This is the leverage Harry hopes to use to get near enough to both the billionaire and his precious artifact. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen this, so I’ll stick to saying that the humour and suspense come not only from watching how the best laid plans come unstuck but how they can be pasted back together again.

Shirley MacLaine & Michael Caine 

Michael Caine had just done Alfie and The Ipcress File before this movie and had pretty much cornered the market for mouthy cockneys. It’s a lot of fun watching his Harry Dean go from the assured, smooth operator of the opening to the increasingly flustered and shouty blunderer of the rest of the film. Shirley MacLaine is probably even better as the would-be pawn who ends up bailing Harry out of a succession of uncomfortable situations. When one remembers that the actress doesn’t even open her mouth for the first half hour or so it just proves what a classy performer she is. Herbert Lom was another piece of great casting and always gave a memorable performance in every thing I’ve seen him in. He more or less plays two roles in this film and does so with the greatest of ease. Ronald Neame directed fluidly and kept the pace tight throughout. He also handled the combination of humour and suspense with a deft touch, maintaining a nice balance all the way. It’s also worth mentioning that this gentleman celebrated his 98th birthday last year since he’s one of the few remaining links to the golden age of cinema – here’s hoping he gets to celebrate many more.

Gambit is on DVD in the UK via Second Sight and they’ve done an excellent job on the presentation. The anamorphic scope transfer looks fantastic with strong, bright colours and a clean, sharp image. The disc has the added bonus of carrying a commentary track with the director, something I always appreciate on the rare occasion it’s available for older movies. This film is also now available in the US via Universal’s burn on demand programme – currently exclusive to Amazon. I have no idea how the editions stack up against each other but I will say that I managed to pick up my R2 on sale before Christmas for an absolute pittance. It remains to be seen whether the R1 counterpart will drop significantly in price. All told, I enjoyed the film enormously. It’s a delightful and fun piece right from the start, and I can’t say it disappoints on any level. The perfect tonic for those bleak evenings in the depths of winter – highly recommended.



Backlash (1956) is one of those films that seems to have slipped through the cracks. I’m not sure if it would be correct to call it a forgotten film, but it’s certainly not one that you hear mentioned much when the genre’s notables come up for discussion. It fits neatly into the “psychological western” category due to its less than perfect hero and mature themes. At first glance it may appear to be just another tale of a man seeking revenge (not that that’s a bad thing in itself), but as the story develops it becomes clear that this is a film which is going to dig a little deeper.

The opening shots of the film, with a lone rider traversing a rugged landscape to come upon a man filling in a grave, set the tone for the movie and establish the isolation of the two principal characters. The fact that both of them are soon under attack from a gunman perched in the rocks high above underlines the danger of the quest they are about to set out upon. There is also an undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust that will follow them now as neither one can be sure that the other isn’t responsible for setting the ambush. The rider is Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) and the gravedigger is Jim Slater (Richard Widmark); both are in search of the truth, and maybe $60,000 in gold. Years before, five men died at this spot at the hands of the Apache but one other escaped with his life and the gold, leaving his partners to their fate. Slater believes the father he never knew was one of the five, and Karyl believes her estranged husband to be another. With Slater seeking vengeance and closure, and the woman with her eyes on the gold they set out to identify and track down the mysterious sixth man. The manhunt pitches both these characters into one perilous situation after another, from a murderous Apache raid to a range war. Along the way their relationship slowly develops, although it’s no smooth ride for either of them – at one point Slater hauls off and belts Karyl full in the face for putting his life in danger, and she later takes an almost perverse pleasure in sealing up his wounds with a heated blade. By the end of the movie both these people will have to face down their own personal demons and maybe take something of real value away from the experience.


Backlash was made at a time when Sturges’ and Widmark’s stars were on the rise. John Sturges had just come off the magnificent Bad Day at Black Rock and would shortly go on to make Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He was close to his peak at this point and handled just about every aspect of the picture perfectly. Action and suspense blend seamlessly together and the Arizona locations look particularly fine through the wide lens. Widmark was also doing some of his best work around this time and this film must have helped him along nicely. His bony features and distinctive nasal giggle had landed him plenty of villainous roles but they were also ideally suited to playing the kind of damaged men that psychological westerns thrived on. He turns in a great performance here, obsessively digging into the past, searching for the truth and searching for himself – all the while fearing what he might learn yet unable to stop himself. Conversely, Donna Reed’s movie career was soon to end and she was close to moving into a successful run on television. With an impressive list of credits behind her she does well as the feisty, courageous woman-with-a-past. The support cast are solid too with Barton MacLane and an eye-rolling John McIntire standing out especially. A good screenplay is key to the success of any film and having Borden Chase’s name attached never hurt any. It struck me that the episodic structure and the underlying theme bore at least a passing resemblance to the writer’s earlier Winchester 73. 

Backlash has had a number of releases on DVD in R2 but the UK disc appears to be the only one with a proper widescreen image – there’s a R4 available but I’m not sure how it’s presented. Optimum’s UK disc has the movie looking very nice in a 2:1 anamorphic transfer, and I’ve been reliably informed that this is indeed the correct ratio for the film. There’s very little damage to be seen and colors and detail all looked excellent to my eyes. Surprisingly, for an Optimum release, the theatrical trailer is included but that’s it as far as extras go. However, when the main feature is there in OAR and looking good then I’m not about to complain. Backlash is a good example of a high quality mid 50s western – one that I rate and recommend.


Footsteps in the Fog


Victorian London, murder, illicit relationships, blackmail – Footsteps in the Fog (1955) has all the ingredients of a classic turn of the century potboiler. It’s the kind of lush, polished production that’s beautiful to look at, yet you know it conceals a bitter little heart that’s hard as a diamond. British cinema always had the knack of capturing the spirit of gothic tales, and this would reach its zenith a year or two later when Hammer really hit their stride.

In fact, Footsteps in the Fog opens almost like a Hammer production, with a clergyman solemnly intoning over a fresh grave in a rain drenched cemetery. Stephen Lowry (Stewart Granger) has just become a widower and his wife is being laid to rest. As his friends drop the pale, grief-stricken figure off at the sombre gates of his home, we see him make his lonely way up the drive and on into the empty house. As he pauses on the threshold of the drawing room, the camera remains focused on the back of this dejected man who stands gazing at the portrait of his dead wife above the fireplace. The shot now switches to a close-up of Lowry’s face as a slow smirk spreads across his features. Thus we learn of the two faced nature of the protagonist, a man that we soon discover has poisoned his wife for her money. This dark secret is also uncovered by the young maid, Lily Watkins (Jean Simmons), who has been harbouring a passion for her employer. Rather than being horrified or repulsed by the knowledge, Lily sees in it the opportunity to blackmail her way, first into the position of housekeeper, and then (she hopes) into her master’s heart. But nothing is ever that simple; Lowry is in love with the wealthy sweetheart of a young barrister and regards Lily as an irksome obstacle in the way of his future advancement. The question is how he will deal with Lily, and what his real feelings towards her are. The plot takes numerous twists and turns before reaching a conclusion that manages to be bleak, ambiguous and satisfying all at the same time.

The plot of Footsteps in the Fog is an engaging and absorbing one, but the film’s real strength lies in the performances of the two leads. Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons were a married couple at the time and they were able to bring some real chemistry to their more intimate scenes together. Granger was an old hand at playing in these kinds of period pieces, and seemed to effortlessly make a frankly despicable character charming – one who I caught myself rooting for at times despite his loathsome actions. However, good as Granger is, the real star of the show is Jean Simmons. It is her Lily Watkins that’s the driving force behind the story with her beguiling mix of trusting devotion and ruthless amorality. With a tight, solid plot and classy lead performances any director should be on fairly  safe ground. Arthur Lubin was mainly a journeyman director, with a string of Abbott and Costello and Francis the Talking Mule pictures behind him, but he does a good enough job and uses some nice low angle shots to help generate suspense and atmosphere. The movie is neatly paced (coming in at under an hour and a half) and really only lags in a few scenes – mainly those with Belinda Lee.

Footsteps in the Fog has been out on DVD in the UK for a bit over a year now as a Sony release exclusive to MovieMail. The film is presented anamorphically at 1.78:1 and the transfer is generally a good one with nice colours and really only suffers in one short segment. A little after the twenty minute mark the image takes on a very dupey appearance and there’s some colour bleeding. Fortunately, this only lasts for five minutes or so and I think it would be unfair to criticise the overall presentation based on that. There’s not much in the way of extras, save for the trailer and hard of hearing subs, but the film is something of a rarity and I’m just glad it’s available at all. I think it’s a cracking little movie and it should be a real pleasure for anyone who enjoys stylish gothic thrillers.