joe-up: day seven

and on the seventh day joe rested and let michael caine take over. the first half of our double feature finale is ronald neame's gambit (1966).

michael caine and shirley maclaine are in fine form in this nimble and clever caper film. caine is international burglar harry dean and he has formulated a plan to relieve the richest man in the world of a priceless bust. maclaine is nicole chang, the hong kong dancing girl who is crucial to the ploy. she bears an uncanny resemblance to both the target's late wife and the statuette and her presence all but guarantees them an audience with the man and entry into his home. the plan works seamlessly and as maclaine provides the distraction, caine makes off with the bust. a perfect plan executed to the letter. or, at least that's how it works when caine explains it to an accomplice. in reality, things are a little different. nothing goes according to plan. their relationship is contentious from the start and their mark is on to them from the second their plane touches down. he lays a trap for them which they apparently stumble right into. from there it's a series of dizzying, yet mostly plausible, twists that make for a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. this movie is great fun. caine is fantastic, overestimating his abilities as an international criminal without ever coming across as arrogant, unappealing or a broadly comic bungler. he is constantly being exposed as not quite as talented or sophisticated as he thinks and shirley maclaine picks up his slack admirably, providing an occasional burst of charm and worldliness in a character that could have easily been undone by playing her as too world-weary. neame's direction is fleet, playful and on the money. it all makes for a lean, funny and entertaining film. it would make a great companion piece to yesterday's bedazzled (1967) actually, as neame as stanley donen share some similarities - an efficient, light touch, an excellent understanding of the importance of capturing chemistry and an approach to comedy with an emphasis on cleverness, style and wit that smartens you up rather than dumbing things down. as heist films go, though lightweight, this is one of the better ones. highly recommended.

we end our experiment this week with caine's first major starring role in cy endfield's epic, zulu (1964).

it's an account of the battle of rorke's drift in 1879 between british military forces and the zulu nation. a handful of british soldiers have been left to defend an outpost that really isn't much more than a church, a supply station and a m.a.s.h. unit from an immense wave of zulu warriors, headed their way after a victory over a much larger british contingent. the odds are terrible for the british and retreat is not an option. the number of sick and wounded make that an impossibility. they have no choice but to fortify their position and wait. the zulu fighters descend on the encampment, in waves at first then in overwhelming numbers in one final clash. through a combination of luck, superior technology and one solid piece of strategy, the outnumbered british manage to finally fend off the zulus with both sides sustaining significant casualties. there is much to recommend about this film. it is exceedingly well made. caine does well playing against what would become type as a somewhat effete lieutenant, stanley baker is appropriately sturdy and pragmatic as the engineer who inherits the responsibility of commanding the detachment and gert van den bergh does a fine job as the voice of experience, as a survivor of the previous defeat. the photography is excellent and the vistas are simply stunning. they certainly took maximum advantage of the south african location shoots. the battle scenes, especially the climactic one, are fairly well staged, though there is a lack of blood common to that period in filmmaking that makes it harder to suspend disbelief. there are some historical inaccuracies, most of which fall within the normal, acceptable range of artistic license. the one thing that i can't get past, though, is a nagging feeling of post-colonial damage control. history is most certainly written by the victors and that is on full display here. it is true that endfield consulted with zulus during the making of the film, including direct descendants of participants in the battle, but it's hard to cheer an even moderately accurate portrayal of the defense of rorke's drift when you can draw a straight line from that to apartheid. it is telling, and hardly coincidental, that in a film literally called zulu you aren't given a single zulu character that you can name. there is a great deal to the film that is deeply troubling in this regard. i have my cultural biases too, though. it could be that as a comanche i am more sensitive than the average guy about white folks relating their version of how the deal went down in a fight with indigenous peoples. all in all, philosophically it is deeply flawed while remaining eminently watchable. it is a considerable cinematic achievement, very exciting but very vexing.

and with that, we put another queue to bed. well done, joe. i am now off to watch something that is the exact opposite of a musical, whatever that is.

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