Posts tagged ‘International co-production’

October 9, 2008

Hotel Du Pud (part two): Harry Alan Towers and “Ten Little Indians” (1974)

by Dean Brandum

By 1973 the two-year partnership between the British EMI and Hollywood’s MGM had fractured to the point where the American organization decided to finalize its British production involvement and keep all of its dealings on its home side of the Atlantic. This was pleasing for EMI (the owners of the expansive and proficient Elstree Studios) as they had been suffering losses incurred by MGM’s disastrous losses in the USA. As a now single corporation, EMI company head Nat Cohen choose the 1973 Cannes film festival to announce a £5 million package of seven films, most of which would be American features with an EMI distribution interest. Of the domestically produced EMI features announced that year, it was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s bestseller Murder on the Orient Express that garnered the most interest. It had taken a lot of strenuous negotiation between Christie and Cohen, but he eventually secured the rights to three of her Hercule Poirot novels, believing that such material would be the ideal screen antidote for Britain in what was a gloomy time of industrial, social and civil unrest.

Filming did not begin on Murder on the Orient Express until March of 1974, ten months after the announcement at Cannes. Yet in that time another Christie adaptation was conceived, financed, cast, prepared and already filming.

“Same Script different locations. You always kill off the most expensive stars first!” – Harry Alan Towers on his three versions of “Ten Little Indians”

In October that year, Variety‘s “international wrap” included a brief mention that Towers was producing a new version of Ten Little Indians. The news was from their correspondent in Madrid, so it seemed the film would either be shot there or at least based in that country. Towers, based at the time in Lichtenstein had attracted a strong cast for this project – Oliver Reed, James Mason, Elke Sommer and Herbert Lom were verified, with Adolfo Celi in talks and negotiations continuing with several international names.  Each week would bring new casting news with the November 7th column stating that the British-French-German-Italian-Spanish production was looking for two Spaniards to round out the cast and that James Mason had left the production. 20th Century Fox was expected to distribute the film in the USA.

Towers had arranged his most widespread production yet, involving five nations. It took some delicate work to make the arrangement as equitable as possible for each participating company to benefit from their local subsidies and rebates.

The companies and incentives involved were:

Oceania (French) who had previously worked with Towers on Call of the Wild and had a history of involvement in multi-national productions, especially genre-based films including westerns and crime thrillers. Tax rebates and no interest loans were available from the Centre du Cinema.

Talia (Spain) were a reasonably new company also in the co-production business. With Spain having equal partnership in this production they were eligible for a 15% rebate on ticket sales.

Coralta: (Italy) had, until this time restricted themselves to either local productions or partnerships with French companies. In those cases they were eligible for low-interest loans from the Film Credit Section of the Banca Nazionale (SACC) as a not majority participant on Towers’ film, the loan would be far smaller.

Corona (Germany), a well-established company that had previously funded several of Towers’ collaborations with Jess Franco. Germany offered State Aid, in which films German companies shared equal partnership were eligible. Companies could also offset.

The British component was Towers himself, through the aptly named Filibuster Films, a company created for this production only. Towers packaged the production and although Filibuster did not contribute any capital, it acted as a broker between the other companies. The creation of Filibuster was for the purposes of Eady levy rebate eligibility, yet although nominally British it was listed as located in elsewhere. This was due to these four companies had another, silent partner.

In the 1970s Tehran had an established film festival, one which showcased both Iranian and world cinema. Endorsed by the Shah or Iran, the festival spared no expense in attracting stars and directors to attend the festival, held late each year. The success of the festival led to the Iranian government believing that cinema was the ideal medium to promote the country internationally as a progressive nation. The Film Development Company of Iran was created and endowed with a large budget to attract international filmmakers. The 1974 Film Festival brought news of the first international film to be shot there – Ten Little Indians. The Film Development company offered the superb location of the Shah Abbas Hotel for filming (and five star accommodation for the cast and crew) there was also an added inducement that Towers could not resist – moving his company Filibuster to Iran which would act as a tax shelter for the entire budget and all of Tower’s personal fees. In this way, Towers took the money from his four partners and did not have to pay any tax on the amount until the film had grossed a certain percentage of the cost. Even then, this tax shelter offered minimal taxation rates.

The cast was finalised with a not quite equal spread of actors – there were two Britons (Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough), two Germans (Gert Frobe and Elke Sommer) and two French (Stephane Audran and Charles Aznavour). However there was only one Italian (Adolfo Celi) and a single Spaniard (Alberto de Mendoza). Rounding out the cast were Herbert Lom (Czech) and Maria Rohm (Towers’ Austrian wife). This problem was solved by providing extra credits for Spaniards and Italians on the film. Jess Franco has spoken of this as a regular practice on Towers’ films. In order to meet a country’s co-production guidelines they would invent roles or create ‘strawmen’. This would entail paying a small amount to a certain artist or technician to agree for his name to be used and, if asked by the authorities, to state he did work on the film. Although there is no official record of these ‘strawmen’ being used, two extra producers are listed alongside Towers. These men (Juan Estelrich and Tibor Reeves) had fulfilled minor production roles on previous Towers’ films. One may also wonder about the names credited alongside that of screenwriter Peter Wellbeck (actually Towers’ pseudonym), Erich Kronke and Enrique Llovet. Although screenwriters, it seems unlikely that they had any true input, for the screenplay is almost identical (to the very word) with the once Towers wrote for the 1965 film. The only changes were very minor, detailing characters commenting on the outside landscape (changed from snowy alps to sandy desert).

Briton Peter Collinson was hired to direct. In his short career he had worked in a number of countries across a variety of genres. He had one true hit film to his credit, the 1969 caper comedy The Italian Job. After that, with the British film industry in difficulties he had travelled the world making films in Greece – You Can’t Win ‘em All (1970), Hollywood – A Man Called Noon and Spain – Open Season. He joined Towers just before production began, having left pre-production on a project titled “Nights of the Moulin Rouge” which appears to have never been made. Filming in Iran started in late December and seems to have taken around 3-4 weeks. The Iranian backers had requested that two of their popular stars be given roles, so a short sequence where two detectives stumble across the bodies was also filmed. Although mentioned in the press material, these cameos were excised from English language market prints. Several cast members then returned to Spain to film some interior shots and the film was then taken to Teddington Studios in Britain for post-production work, including the dubbing of Celi, Frobe, de Mendoza and Aznavour into English. They had spoken their lines in their natural languages during shooting, not fluent enough to have mastered the dialogue in English.

It must be mentioned that Oliver Reed has commented only that he did “a movie in Iran for the money”, which was to pay the upkeep on his large English estate, not even mentioning its title in his autobiography. Attenborough has stated that after having retired from acting he spent so long trying to finance his long-cherished Gandhi project (which he eventually directed in 1981) that he took what work he could find for the money. James Mason (originally cast) had relocated to Switzerland for tax reasons and although his biography does not mention his involvement in this film, that year he worked on four films in Europe which he’d described as ‘rubbish’, yet once again, he needed the money. These were harsh times for British actors, with little work available at home and high tax rates meaning they had to find work where they could. This explains why so many British actors and American tax exiles seemed to spend much of the 1960s-1970s jetting from one European co-production to another. Arthur Kennedy, an American character actor who managed a prolific career in Europe has said that he generally read only his part of the script for those films and seldom saw the finished product.

A scan of the actors’ credits reveals that after working with Towers, most of the cast worked predominantly in international genre co-productions for the rest of their careers. It would seem that having chosen such work, it was difficult to return to cinema with a distinct national flavour.

Murder on the Orient Express exceeded the expectations of all involved. Running for over a year in both Britain and the USA, it amassed a splendid $19 million in US rentals alone and a similar amount again internationally. Praised by critics, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in the film.

Ten Little Indians opened late in 1974 in West Germany to “good” business and was rated as “popular” when it was released in Spain in December. Under the title of And Then There Were None (a late change as the pressbook still uses the original title), it was not released in the United States until August of 1975, (through Avco-Embassy, with Fox having passed) where it received unanimous negative reviews from the New York critics. It rose as high as eleventh on Variety’s Top 50 Box Office chart in its only week of wide release then quickly dropped away, grossing under a million dollars in the United States. Although it has been reported that the film never played theatrically in Britain, it was kept on the shelf for 16 months until it finally managed a solitary week in London in 1976 and was promptly withdrawn after a £1013 gross. There is no report of it playing provincially. Its poor British performance may be due to the fact it was distributed by EMI who had produced and distributed Murder on the Orient Express and did not want the rival film harming its business. There is also a theory that many of Towers films did not play in Britain due to his creditors there having the legal right to seize any returns from his films. France, the final official partner in the production, did not release the film until two years after it first screened in Europe.

Ten Little Indians has all the hallmarks that critics reviled of the international co-production: It rode on the coattails of a successful British/American production; it had performers chosen due to their passport rather then suitability for the role and a setting determined by investor demands. The film also is guilty of the most rank opportunism. Charles Aznavour, the first victim, is in the film for less then ten minutes and only has a couple of lines which are dubbed into English anyway, yet his one scene features him singing (in its entirety) his hit song “Dance the old fashion way”. The pressbook for Ten Little Indians even urges exhibitors to emphasise that point through radio and record store promotions. The film is also guilty of the criticism that such productions have their inspiration in antiquated and well-recycled narratives that lost their freshness early in the century. With such adherence to stock and stereotypes they ignore modern political realities and prefer to exist in a purely fictional temporal and spatial universe, one where the same narratives are repeated beyond exhaustion and invention and innovation are shunned in favour of formulae.

Rather than attempt to hide the fact, Towers’ film wore its international pedigree with pride. The American advertising stated it had an “international all star cast” and the pressbook contained several stories telling of the production and how various nations were ‘represented’ in the casting and how some performers were ‘obtained’ from countries, as if this was a film sanctioned by government.  Perhaps Charlton Heston closer to the truth then he knew when he had complained of Towers’ business practices amounting to ‘United Nations -style filmmaking’.

One can see the influences within the narrative. There is the obvious connection to the all-star casting aspect of Murder on the Orient Express (a film Ten Little Indians’ pressbook has no shame in continually referencing, even name-checking it on the film’s poster), yet this is an aspect both films share with the disaster movie cycle of the time. It has been theorized that audiences of the 1970s took great delight in watching luminaries of the screen being killed in gruesome ways. The advertising of Towers’ film also shares the ‘picture-box’ theme of several disaster movie posters in which the studio portraits of the cast are situated around the border, each identified by name. This method feeds the impression that it will be the performers we may pay to see die, rather then the characters they portry. But rather than a disaster movie, Ten Little Indians resembles an entry in the Italian giallo genre. One of the pioneers of that form of thriller, Mario Bava, has admitted that one of his films, Bay of Blood (1971) was inspired by the Christie story and that another, Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) was a direct rip off. Ten Little Indians (1974) has a dour nature that is not evident in other versions of the story and, with its gloved hand seen dispatching victims, inventive manners of death and surprise revelation of the killer, it is clearly giallo-influenced. Cinematographer Fernando Arribas and composer Bruno Nicolai had previously worked on gialli, so their styles help in creating such an aesthetic. Yet it must be noted that of all the versions made of Ten Little Indians, not a single one has been filmed, or set, in England. With its lack of detective and misanthropic world-view, it does adhere to the European tradition of darker, rival variants of popular American and British culture. James Bond had Fantomas, Dr. No had Fu Manchu and John Wayne had ‘The Man with No Name’. With this theory in mind, Ten Little Indians is Christie’s anti-Murder on the Orient Express.

Note the Giallo-esque alterations to the advertising campaign

Note the Giallo-esque alterations to the advertising campaign

However, the most apt influence upon this international film is its own creation. With its financing and production methods Ten Little Indians manipulated the system to its fullest so it is only apt that the system is eulogized by the narrative. If the disaster influence valued stardom over character, then Towers’ film takes the theme a step further.

Ten Little Indians opens with a helicopter landing at a grand hotel in an unnamed country. Ten jet-lagged people step out and try to gain their bearings. Strangers to each other but with some acquainted by reputation, they have been invited there to a party by a mysterious host, ostensibly because he admires their professional capabilities. Instead, he wishes to sentence them for crimes they have committed (mostly) in the course of those very professions. There is no escape from the location and he kills them off, one by one, the only survivors being the two who he falsely accused.

One can read such a synopsis as a metaphor for the international film, perhaps this very film. Ten jetlagged actors arrive at a grand hotel in an unknown country, having been invited by a mysterious producer to participate in a film, believing it was their talents that have brought them there. The producer never appears, yet via the recorded voice of Orson Welles, who scoured the world for film work, he tells them they had each long sold out their integrity for financial gain. Their punishment will be to never escape the international film system, as represented by the hotel in the non-specific nation. They are destined to re-enact these roles, killed off for the audience’s delight, for the remainder of their careers. It is the two youngest stars who escape the punishment and they have the opportunity to return to careers with integrity and substance.

However, like so many co-productions, this is the imposed and unrealistic happy conclusion. Had Christie’s original ending remained then the truth would have been preserved, for there was no salvation for either Oliver Reed or Elke Sommer, both seldom found film work outside of international co-productions and their stars faded as the 1970s drew to a close. It is Attenborough who plays the judge and is revealed as Ten Little Indians‘ killer. Ironically, Attenborough  extricated himself from the international film roundabout and he barely acted again, realizing his dream of directing grand and respectable, middlebrow entertainments. The other members of the cast (and the director) spent their careers jetsetting from one unidentifiable country to the next and in that regard they never left the Shah Abbas hotel.

Ten Little Indians is a rare form of self-reflexive cinema, in that such self commentary is probably unintentional. Had the European co-production never existed, and had Harry Alan Towers and his ilk been restricted from practice then the film, as we see it today would be little more than a curio. Yet, it is impossible to see it existing anyway, had such productions and producers never occurred. It remains a film of a time, a place and a method and a film whose method creates its own time and a place.

As for Harry Alan Towers, well you can’t keep a cunning old rogue down. From Ten Little Indians he returned to his blue territory, producing efforts for Italo sleazers Joe D’Amato and Massimo Dallamano and failing to make much of a star of Annie Belle in the process. It was then back to the public domain classics for a while, raiding H. Rider Haggard, Jack London and H.G. Wells and giving work to Jack Palance, David McCallum and Rod Steiger while taking advantage of tax breaks in Canada and South Africa. More soft porn kept him busy in the 1980s along with forays into the sword n’ sandal epics that were briefly popular at the time (the Gor movies, for example). Michael Dudikoff was his star for a while and Towers took to buying up the fag-ends of spent series for Howling IV – The Original Nightmare (1988), American Ninja 3 (1989), Delta Force 3 – The Killing Game (1991) and a pair of Michael Caine Harry Palmer spy flicks – Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in St. Petersburg (1996). A slew of South African filmed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from Towers gathered dust on video store shelves in the late 80s -early 90s, wringing whatever marquee value was left from Donald Pleasance, Oliver Reed and um, Ginger Lynn Allen.

But if you thought he was done with Christie well another decade, another Ten Little Indians. In 1989 he produced what was originally to be titled Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, but was forced to abbreviate the title when the novelist’s estate complained. This time his then regular director Alan Birkinshaw took duties behind the camera and the cast included Brenda Vaccaro, Herbert Lom, Donald Pleasance and (yes!) Frank Stallone. Shot in South Africa it went directly to video in most territories.

Towers, now back in Britain having settled his legal difficulties is still in action today. For 2009 he has announced a version of Moll Flanders, with none other than Ken Russell as director. At 88 years of age there appears to be no stopping this great vagabond of the international co-production.

Harry, here’s to you.

September 30, 2008

Hotel Du Pud (part one): Harry Alan Towers and “Ten Little Indians” (1974)

by Dean Brandum

Following on from my post providing a brief history of the international co-production comes the first in a series turning the spotlight on the films tainted with this unsavoury brush. First up, the third version of Ten Little Indians (1974). Never even released on video in this country and long-unavailable on the tape format in either Britain or the United States, it has yet to appear anywhere on DVD (officially, at least) and remains a most difficult film to see. Having lingered (festered?) in my memory since a TV screening around 30 years ago, it became one of many films I have been determined to track down over the years in an obsession to place some order on the collected fragments cluttering my subconscious.

Original avertising admat for the film.

Original avertising admat for the film.

I finally found a copy and upon viewing Ten Little Indians, I was immediately gripped.  No, not for reasons artistic as it is an inept and shoddy production, lacking credibility and logic and devoid of even the most basic of thrills. Instead, the film captures most beautifully the entire euro-pudding movement, not only in its production method, but (no doubt unintentionally) as its own subtext.

“”Ten Little Indians,” the latest remake of the Agatha Christie story, looks less like a movie than a movie deal…an international movie mess of the sort that damages the reputations of everyone connected with it” – (Vincent Canby – New York Times)

Before we get to that we have to trace the history of this forgotten, minor landmark. It is a long tale – too long for one post. What I must do is introduce you to the inimitable Mr. Harry Alan Towers…

“I can step off a plane in any country in the world and within 24 hours have a film in pre-production” – Harry Alan Towers.

The son of a theatrical agent, Harry Alan Towers was born in London in 1920. By his early twenties Towers was becoming known to the public as a radio personality and within the industry as a producer of scripted dramatic series for that medium (many of which he wrote himself). By the age of thirty he had established offices in several countries (including Australia and the United States) distributing these series. His success in radio and ability to produce vast quantities of high quality programming saw him drafted into television by Lew Grade at the ATV network. Towers’ commission was to produce television programs with the same efficiency as his radio business and he accomplished the task with relish. Although he was creating strong profits for the network, Towers was asked to resign due to conflict of interest concerns. In what acts as an indicator of his future unorthodox business practices, Towers was asked to create a nightly chat show and given a substantial production budget, Towers decided to host the show himself, be thrifty with the other costs and keep the rest of the allocated budget for himself, as a hosting fee.

After a brief foray into feature film production with a pair of B-films produced by his Towers of London banner, in 1963 Harry Alan Towers was on the run and hiding out in South Africa. Two years earlier, he had skipped bail after being arrested in New York on the charge of running a call-girl ring. Naturally, that ruled out any return to the United States, but due to a number of previous deceitful dealings in his native Britain, his creditors were eagerly awaiting his arrival home, meaning setting up a production base in Britain was also out of the question.

Undaunted, Towers teamed up with Oliver A. Unger, a producer who had made his name and fortune in the 1950s – the early years of television syndication – most notably through purchasing old cartoons from the major studios, editing them into half-hour programs and selling the packages to television networks and individual stations. Hoping to extend into theatrical film production and distribution he hooked up with the experienced Towers in 1963 and they planned a number of projects that contained exciting action, colourful backdrops and could be cheaply filmed. With Towers’ showmanship, Unger’s U.S. experience and the conditional agreement of several fading screen stars willing to perform in these productions, they managed to sell the North American distribution rights to the Canadian based Seven Arts Pictures (this was the company that pounced upon the troubled Warner Brothers Corporation in 1967 when they bought out founder Jack Warner’s controlling interest. However, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts lasted a mere two years before a financially disastrous 1969 saw that Seven Arts stake bought out by the Kinney Corporation).

With the Seven Arts distribution deal in place and the resultant funds from the rights’ sale in pocket, by 1965 they had completed an impressive slate of six feature films which they unveiled in the market section of that year’s Cannes film festival. Operating under the banner of UPI (Unger Productions Incorporated) a full page advertisement in Variety immodestly announced that these were pictures of “Major Importance”. With no mention of Towers’ involvement whatsoever (Unger was listed as sole producer of each film) the suspicions of creditors and law enforcers either side of the Atlantic would not be raised.

Four of the titles were filmed in Africa. Mozambique was an adventure tale of diamond smugglers, 24 Hours to Kill fell into the espionage and intrigue genre that was highly popular in the wake of the successful James Bond franchise, Coast of Skeletons was a remake of the colonial drama Sanders of the River (1938) and Sandy the Seal hoped to capture the family audience. With the likes of Mickey Rooney, Steve Cochran, Dale Robertson and Richard Todd there was enough (fading) star wattage to fill out the lower half of double features in the English language markets. However the savvy Towers also peppered his cast with a number of actors popular in Germany, where Towers would later base many of his operations. The American sales had financed most of the productions but it was a silent partnership with the Munich-based Terra Filmkundst that completed the budgets. Their financing was conditional on the casting of German actors in each of the productions in order to increase their appeal in those markets. This accounts for the likes of Hildegarde Neff, Paul Hubschmid, Elga Anderson, Walter Slezak and Lex Barker in the films. The venture was a successful one with all of these titles having all territories sold by the end of the festival. However, although the rights to these titles were available individually, they were generally sold as a complete package at discounted rates when buyers paid the higher fees for the two gems in UPI’s slate – The Face of Fu Manchu and Ten Little Indians.

Towers had always known the value of a good story, especially one with an inbuilt audience familiarity. The Scarlet Pimpernel series was one of his early television productions and in the early 1970s he was to film versions of Black Beauty and White Fang. More recently he has produced Blood of the Mummy, a version of Phantom of the Opera and a series of Edgar Alan Poe adaptations. Apart from their marketability as known literary commodities, these properties were also public domain titles, meaning Towers did not have to pay screen rights to the authors, much less any later royalties. But the downside to this ploy was that these titles were overly familiar to audiences, having been filmed many times, both for the cinema and television. Towers needed exclusivity with some prize material so he purchased, for £25,000, the rights to a number of novelist Sax Rohmer’s books, including thirteen that featured Oriental criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu (although Towers also produced two films based on Rohmer’s less known other arch-villain, Sumuru).

The Face of Fu Manchu was the first of five Towers films to feature the character (played by Christopher Lee), with the first entries resembling Hammer Studios productions, but the final pair (as directed by Jess Franco in 1970) delving deeper into the territory of sleaze and sadism that would characterize many of Tower’s productions in the coming decade.

Ten Little Indians was the final film on UPI’s 1965 Cannes slate and the one with the most mainstream potential. Agatha Christie had written the novel Ten Little Niggers in 1939 and upon its release was hailed her masterwork and remained her personal favourite of all her writings. The novel tells the story of ten strangers who are invited to a weekend on ‘Indian Island’ as the guest of a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen. Never having met their host the guests are under the impression they have been invited due to their fame and expertise in their various professions (judge, doctor, detective, entertainer etc).

Yet they never meet their host who only makes his presence felt via a gramophone recording in which he accuses each of the guests of being guilty of a serious crime (each involving the death of innocents) for which they have (so far) gone unpunished. Furious at the allegations but unable to leave the island, the guests endure a horror evening in which their party is reduced in number as one by one they are victims of an unseen killer. Central to the décor of the dining room is an ornate piece of china depicting ten Indians and with each death one is mysteriously broken from the display. The children’s nursery rhyme (from which the novel takes its title) in framed in each room, which each line seemingly foretelling the circumstances of each of the guests’ deaths. The invited party (who have admitted their guilt for the crimes of which they were accused) soon realize that, having searched the house and its grounds in vain,   Mr. U.N. Owen does not exist and the killer is indeed one of them, implementing this elaborate plan in order to fulfill his or her insane scheme of social justice. Suspicions are raised and tempers flare but the killings continue. Eventually Vera Claythorne kills the last suspect, her love interest Phillip Lombard. She appears to be the only survivor but the judge – already believed killed – reappears to admit he is the mastermind of the scheme. Stating he is terminally ill, he drinks poison, leaving Vera alone with a noose hanging from the ceiling. Realising that the police will believe her the killer and seeing no way out of her predicament, she hangs herself – the final piece of the judge’s plan now complete and following the exact last lines of the nursery rhyme:

One little Indian left alone alone.

He went and  hanged himself

And then there were none.

Ten Little Niggers differs from many of Christie’s more celebrated work in that it does not feature a sleuth (professional or amateur) solving the crime and detecting the identity of the villain. Yet it still remains a archetypal example of classical British crime fiction. Featuring prototypical aristocratic and upper-middle class gentlemen and ladies hiding dark pasts of violence and improper behavior, the plot convolutions throw up numerous red herrings until the dénouement unmasks the real criminal, an unexpected character with a once seemingly foolproof alibi. With its settings rarely straying from the confines of the mansion (a subsidiary character itself), Ten Little Niggers conforms to the ‘drawing room’ characteristic of the form, as does its preoccupation with manners and conduct (un)becoming.

The novel may have been a hit in Britain but its title caused obvious discomfort American publishers. She agreed for it to be released there as And Then There Were None and subsequent edition in Britain and the Commonwealth were retitled Ten Little Indians. Christie also had the problem that the novel’s downbeat conclusion proved problematic for adaptations into other media. Christie herself rectified the situation by writing a version for the stage, with a reworked ending that had not only Vera and Lombard surviving, but actually innocent of their supposed crimes. The judge was not as infallible as he (and the audience) believed, realizing the last act of his grand plan was in ruins only after he had sipped his fatal drop of poison. Certainly this adhered to the most popular aspect of melodrama in which villainy is quashed in the final moments by the virtuous, restoring a moral order to the universe and offering a catharsis for the audience (with the promise of a romantic future thrown in for good measure). However, it could be argued that for those with a more cynical bent, the original narrative restored its own order, with the judge’s virtue and sense of righteousness (albeit with a brutal bluntness) righting the moral unbalance that social norms have been unable to correct. For the needs of a potentially wide audience though, the proposal that society’s conventions of law and justice are inherently flawed was a notion too impalpable to contemplate.

Christie was correct. Her stage adaptation opened in November 1943 to capacity crowds London and replicated that success in New York the following year. The film industry was immediately interested and independent producer Leo V. Popkin purchased the screen rights from Christie and the resultant 20th Century Fox production marked the first time a Christie property had been filmed by Hollywood (five previous Christie works had been filmed in her native Britain and another in Germany). Directed by Frenchman Rene Clair with celebrated screenwriter Dudley Nicholls opening it up for the cinematic approach, And Then There Were None was cast with a gallery of fine character actors including the likes of Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, C. Aubrey Smith and Dame Judith Anderson. Released in 1947 the film was expectedly acclaimed as an outstanding mystery-thriller but was tellingly praised for its casting, period atmosphere, stylish design and musical score – the hallmarks of a well budgeted studio system production of the day. It is the care (or lack thereof) taken with the material that would mark the versions filmed by Harry Alan Towers in the decades to come.

Towers’ purchased the screen rights from Harry M. Popkin in the early 1960s, with Popkin believing that the story’s surprise ending was too well-known by audiences for another film version to succeed. However, although he sold the property for a low sum he took a production credit on the film and a cut of any profits as part of the deal. The reason Towers was interested in the material was due to the success MGM had enjoyed with a series of Miss Marple adaptations filmed at their Borehamwood Studios in Britain. Starring the inimitable Margaret Rutherford as the amateur village sleuth, dotted with a cast of eccentric English stereotypes and a bright comedic sensibility, these inexpensive productions were very popular as mainstream releases in Britain and on the American arthouse circuit. However, after four films in as many years MGM discontinued the series as they were hoping for more than a cult following in the United States. MGM owned the rights to a large proportion of Christie’s other work, except for those stories that featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. A notoriously difficult person to deal with, Towers never considered negotiating for her unsold stories and instead sought out this one, already purchased property. In order to replicate the feel of the MGM Marple films he hired George Pollock, the director of that series to film his version of Ten Little Indians and filled the cast with a number of well-known English Character actors such as Leo Genn, Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price and Wilfred Hyde-White. The leads were Shirley Eaton who had memorably been a victim of ‘Goldfinger’ in the James Bond film of 1964 and the imported American actor Hugh O’Brian who had starred as television’s Wyatt Earp for six successful seasons and was now attempting a career as a leading man in the cinema. As with the rest of the Terra Filmkundst financed films, three roles were given to German actors – Daliah Lavi, Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe which also enabled the film to be eligible for German subsidies and tax concessions.  Finally, in casting calculated for the youth market, American pop singer Fabian played the first of the murder victims.

Set in a Scandinavian chateau, but filmed at one of Ireland’s stately homes (some footage shot in the Austrian mountains was spliced in for establishing shots), the 1965 version of Ten Little Indians was one of several British-German co-productions during the 1960s. Apart from the German subsidies available to Towers (via his ‘Tenlit’ company, established just for this film and delisted shortly afterwards) the film’s quotient of British talent allowed it to be eligible to take advantage of the Eady Levy. Instigated in 1949, this was a tax placed on all cinema tickets sold in Britain for foreign films. The pooled revenue was then shared amongst the British films screened that year, proportional to their box office (a percentage also went to the National Film Finance Corporation and the Children’s Film Foundation). The more a British film earned, the more it could claim. This fund rewarded successful films and promoted further filmmaking ventures. However, not matter how well intentioned, the system was ripe for exploitation. American films shot in British studios were often eligible, no matter if that was the extent of their ‘Britishness’. In the late 1970s the worst abuse of the system occurred when distributors of the American blockbuster Grease purchased a £25,000 20 minute British short film about skateboarding and paired it on programs with Travolta musical. This provided enough British content for not only Grease being able to avoid paying the Eady Levy, but qualifying for £200,000 of the Eady share and virtually draining the pool in a very quiet year for the British film industry. The system was finally abandoned in 1985 in favour subsidies granted on individual proposals.

When it played it cinemas during 1965, Ten Little Indians was targeted towards a youth audience. Taking a cue from American producer-director William Castle who marketed his films with various gimmicks, Towers included a 60-second ‘Fright Break’. This entailed the screen turning black shortly before the dénouement and a narrator explaining to the audience they have one minute to guess the twist ending. Each murder is replayed on screen as a clock ticks by in the corner. The minute over, the film resumes. Receiving mixed reviews but healthy boxoffice, the major release of UPI’s slate was its most successful. Towers and Unger parted ways and the Englishman entered the second period of his international co-production, known as his ‘blue phase’, teaming with Spanish director Jess Francofor a series of sex and sadism shockers aimed at the growing adult film market.

After Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970), Harry Alan Towers realised that the darker environs of the sadistic sex film were losing their boxoffice appeal as they became increasingly ghettoised into grind-house cinemas and smaller drive-in chains. He and Jess Franco parted ways, with the Spanish director happily prospering in that field for several further decades.  In late 1969 Towers arrived in London trying to gain financial backing for a version of Anne Sewell’s “Black Beauty”. Unfortunately he arrived too late. A couple of years earlier the British-based Hollywood companies would have shown strong interest in a children’s film set in the English countryside but as the decade closed they were moving their investments out of Britain. With the respectable production companies interested in neither Towers nor the oft-filmed story, he found unlikely backing through Tigon, a company associated with low budget horror and erotic films. They had previously distributed his Sandy the Seal and were intrigued by the idea of a foray into the family market. Tigon supplied part of the budget and Towers spent the next few months raising the rest of the funds in Spain and Germany. Shot in Ireland and Spain and featuring the usual assortment of international stars, Black Beauty (1970: James Hill) was well received by critics but failed to make much of an impression with audiences. Undeterred (and having made a nice personal profit from presales), he embarked on a series of further family films, each based on established, public domain, classics.

Although the Spanish-French-Italian White Fang (1973: Lucio Fulci) was a well-reviewed success, two other productions were beset by difficulties. Treasure Island (1972: John Hough) starring Orson Welles as Long John Silver and using the star’s own, pseudonymous screenplay (with other names also attached for the purpose of national contribution) ran short on finances and filming was shut down on several occasions. Tower’s showmanship had lured Charlton Heston to star in Call of the Wild (1972: Ken Annakin) but the star detested the experience, describing Towers as ‘shadowy’ and ‘untrustworthy’. Once again finances did not flow smoothly and Heston has said that working with a West German, French, Italian and Spanish crew was just like ‘the United Nations’ with lots of yelling, no-one understanding each other and nothing getting done. Heston was so incensed at the quality of the finished product that he persuaded Paramount, who owned the U.S. distribution rights, to not release the film. It eventually received a few brief screenings in 1975, after it was on-sold by Paramount to the exploitation distributor Intercontinental Releasing Corporation for a pittance. Costly and requiring much arduous location work for a market offering only slim returns, Towers never truly conquered the family film market. In 1973 he was looking for a new opportunity the on that would arise was a return to an old success, but relaunched with a decade of new skills acquired on in the fierce market of international film finance.

And now, an intermission….

September 16, 2008

Pan(ned) Atlantic – The dreaded international co-production.

by Dean Brandum

To any self-respecting, serious film-buff, the term ‘international co-production’ is cause for instant derision and immediate dismissal. Conjuring up memories of turgid and incomprehensible narratives set in far-flung corners of the earth and populated with a gallery of disinterested, fading performers delivering depressingly dreadful dialouge. Once a staple of 1960s-1970s cinema (and later filling many a late night TV schedule), such Europuddings are still concocted, but their multi-national pedigrees are somewhat better disguised.  Indeed, if you follow the production histories of many recent Hollywood blockbusters you will find they are a complex web of financial necessities are considerations, with input from a consortium of international backers. Tax concessions, currency exchange rates, available production facilities, appeal to foreign markets are all woven into the getting a film off the ground. Today’s international co-production may appear more seamless than those earlier forays into a true, global cinema, yet such smoothing of the edges has robbed the mode of its jet-setting soul.

There is little love lost for the original euro-pudding (or ‘runaway production’ as the trade more kindly described it), however, in a regular series, I would like to delve into this rather forgotten past and pay some tribute to the films, their makers and how (and why) they came into being.

For those unfamiliar and those just trying to forget, perhaps a very brief and potted explanation is in order…

“In the age of political integration, co-productions are inevitable and necessary. Indeed, they provide the only strategy to boost the cinema economically and to secure a film’s success at the boxoffice. Worries that artistic input might suffer in purely economic considerations might be justified. But much more important is to find the foundations for workable joint productions with any country in the world which is willing to co-operate…” – Horst Axtmann in 1967

Following the Second World War the European Cinema was in a state of crisis. Individual nations were deep in debt, talent had been decimated and infrastructure destroyed. Assistance to the European countries from the United States arrived swiftly to both wartime allies and enemies in the form of loans and rebuilding programs. A number of American films also arrived on the continent, provided free for educational, inspirational and entertainment purposes.

During the war, Hollywood lost its once lucrative European markets. Apart from Britain, the studios were only importing (and deriving income from) the British Empire, Latin America and a handful of neutral countries of negligible value. With a number of markets now again available, the studios leapt into the void created by the war and the dearth of local product by flooding European cinemas with the backlog of films accumulated over several years. The American industry was also aided by the loss, during the war period, of the many practices such as quotas and tariffs imposed by governments that had restricted the import of foreign (especially American) films. With the approval by the US government for a legal cartel formed by the studios to enhance export opportunities, these factors allowed for a concerted effort by Hollywood to gain a position of power in a vulnerable European film market. That it was detrimental to the European industries was an inevitable consequence.

Yet, the European nations fought back. Apart from the damage to European industry and culture, the American studios were draining currency from desperately poor nations with little tangible in return. Restrictions on film imports were implemented and, in an attempt to stem the currency loss, new regulations were imposed whereby the American companies could only use such funds (or percentages of them) if they were used for purposes of production or investment within the European countries. In 1946 Italy and France signed an ‘experimental’ co-production agreement, ratifying it in 1949. Of the many bi-lateral and more expansive agreements made in the decade after the war, this was the most successful, producing over 230 films by 1957. Germany signed with France in 1951, France with Argentina and Spain in 1953, then with Yugoslavia and Austria two years later. Eventually nearly all of the filmmaking countries (including smaller nations such as Holland, Hungary, Sweden and Denmark) of Europe had passed agreements, often with overlap. Each of these agreements had a complex set of criteria for each participating company to fulfil in order that the production met the requirements of national representation within the pact. This process was often tied in with government initiatives that supported film production, such as subsidies and tax rebates. Various categories were established (often markedly different over each agreement) in which the percentage of investment could be evaluated. This would determine such details as how many performers and crew would be required from that country and, how many scenes would need to be shot there. Indeed, in many cases, having a compatriot fulfil a certain high profile position, such as director, would be regarded highly by the regulators at the expense of some other, otherwise mandatory, requirements.

When quantified in numbers of pure production, the co-production method was highly successful. Between 1949-1964 there were 1091 films made involving at least two national partners. Mostly genre films, the filmmakers adapted quickly to ever-changing market tastes. In the process some genres such as the German ‘Heimatfilme’ (domestic melodramas of the ‘homeland’) which were very popular in the 1950s had vanished by the end of the decade. Action became the key ingredient of the co-production, a selling point that appealed to audiences across all national boundaries. The concentration of spectacle also alleviated the reliance upon dialogue, relegating it to general conversation and exposition. This also strengthened the films’ claims to being truly pan-European, with post-synchronising (dubbing) of the soundtrack made easier. Importantly, action-based genre films, especially those featuring Europe’s most cinematic natural and urban landscapes, could be exported outside of the continent, including to the lucrative US market. Although not within the scope of this discussion, it must be noted that many well received films that played well in the international arthouse market were the product of co-production details. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) was an Italian-French co-production, as was Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) was financed through Italian, German, French and American partners. The system did allow an auteur-cinema to flourish, as long as the directors were willing to bend to certain pan-national conditions.

Hollywood was suffering its own crises at home during this period. Forced to divest itself of its theatre chains they also faced a post-war slump in the audiences who were now finding their entertainment in other sources, especially television. The various measures set up in Europe to negate a perceived attempt at American domination actually proved a blessing in disguise for the Hollywood studios. After attempting a number of underhanded schemes to access boxoffice funds frozen on the continent, the studios finally relented and began investing in European films. Believing that spectacle would lure audiences back to cinemas, they found Europe offered the scenery required for such exotic epics and that production crews were not only capable but comparatively inexpensive. For a time the giant Cinecitta studios in Rome were known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ due to the number of what would be referred to as ‘runaway’ American productions shooting there. The Hollywood studios also carefully met any requirement for such films to be declared ‘French’, ‘Italian’, ‘British’ or wherever they were shooting in order to receive the due government inducements such as tax minimisations and subsidies offered by that particular country. Although Britain was reluctant to join any pan-European co-production agreements, they also benefited from American involvement, with Hollywood investment paving the way for a number of successful films in the 1960s that were ostensibly British but backed with American finance. In fact, American involvement was so important in Britain that when it was withdrawn late in that decade the British industry ground to a halt, subsisting through much of the 1970s on low budget exploitation product. The success of European genre films in the 1960s also allowed for a number of small distributors in the United States to expand rapidly by importing these films at low cost to an appreciative American youth market, who had become the most important audience for the Hollywood studios. A company such as AIP made a fortune by cheaply acquiring the distribution rights to Goliath and the Barbarians (1959: Carlo Campogallianni) and after similar successes then began financing European productions.

Even within the confines of the action genre the co-produced film would move through various cycles and forms, mimicking successful Hollywood hits or even finding variations on their own profitable formulas. From peplums to gothic thrillers, westerns to detective thrillers, espionage adventures to softcore pornography, it became a business of gambles and speculations, whether a producer could jump aboard a particular genre when it was popular with audiences and if they knew it was time to move on before the audience tired of that particular formula.

From the early 1960s, there was a surge in the number of films co-produced by companies in two or more countries, particularly within Europe. Although their initial aim was for Continental success, many found their way to the United States, often through the distribution arms of the major Hollywood studios, who found them to be ideal product for cheaply buffering their release schedules. The derision for the international co-production from critics in the United States and Britain stemmed from a number of factors. A New York Times review of The Viscount (1970: Maurice Cloche), a West German-French-Spanish co-produced espionage thriller partly set in the USA was typical in relaying several of the prejudices which could be expressed in a short-hand fashion in many reviews for such productions:

“[The Viscount] pretends to the title and the class of a high-born Bond-type picture and all it is is a low-grade gangster film-so low that it thinks Jersey City was the height of elegance as a center of crime in years gone by. Charge that up to the fact that it is one of those European sausage films – ground out by a group of co-producers representing West Germany, France and Spain-and you know what usually happens when the Europeans try to show how wise they are about America….it is the sort of picture they’d be strongly inclined to brush under the rug in Hollywood-or quickly sell to television for burial on the late night shows.” (Crowther).

Within this review is the belief that the film is attempting to defraud the audience, by modeling itself on a genre created, refined and perfected by British and American filmmakers (in this case, the high-class spy thriller). It tries to present a familiarity with the American milieu, yet its background reveals it an imposter in Hollywood guise. The reviewer displays a possible xenophobic streak in his distrust of European comment of American issues (and seems to feel that the newspaper’s readership agrees). The film’s international pedigree is described in a manner that implies financial considerations over artistic ambition (referring to producers rather than a director), with no singular national vision. That it was ‘ground out’ demeans the film as a low-grade factory created product, but one without any class, skill or even pretence to art. The inclusion of “one of those” indicates a pre-supposed knowledge on behalf of the readership in that that they are well-aware of this type of film and its inherent traits. Finally, in a direct comparison with Hollywood product, The Viscount is assessed as being so inferior as to being worthy of the then lowest and last rung of mainstream exhibition – late night television.

Yet, for all the invective they suffered, the internationally co-produced genre film flourished for many years, particularly in Europe and through various channels still found distribution in English language markets.

Even when the budgets were substantial and the aims highbrow, the critics rarely let up –

The Red Tent (1969: Mikhail K. Kalatozov), an Italian-Soviet aviation drama featuring a cast of mixed nationalities including Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Hardy Kruger “Soon succumbs to that spectre of modern movie-making, International Co-Production….one is left with a niggling doubt about the wisdom of spreading creative co-operation over so many boundaries” – Monthly Film Bulletin.

Such critical invective may be explained by the refusal to accept the notion of a trans-national cinema. This stubborn attitude was borne of a belief in the inherent ‘purity’ of a singular national voice which – through the work of a filmmaking collective from that particular country – will impart a sincere representation of the issues, concerns and art of that nation and its people. The by-product of a transnational cinema which utilizes cast, crew, finances and locations from several nations is an inevitable dilution of such a voice. The transnational film it was believed, was one created by filmmakers thrown together for funding purposes rather than any true desire to work together, creating a narrative with the intent of appealing to as many nationalities as possible and in the process, thought many critics, pleasing very few. These were the sentiments of Sidney Cole in 1962. Within his concerns for the future of European film was an anxiety for the future of his own industry. As founder of the British Film Technicians Union, he feared that, in order to compete with a flourishing pan-European market, Britain film companies would be forced to integrate, losing their cultural identity in the process.

Cole had other things to worry about – namely Hollywood pulling up stumps by the end of the decade and leaving the British industry in ruins, taking nearly two decades to return to a near-viable concern. In that time, Hollywood reconsolidated its position as of world dominance and, streamlining their release slates, fewer overtly international co-productions were included in their schedules. Instead, the major studios adapted the mode to their own benefit – securing their own international finance, taking advantage of available concessions, shooting where cheapest and, with varying degrees of discretion, slotting international stars into their casts, for maximum global boxoffice potential.

The true euro-pudding was left to the continental market and when they found American distribution, it was generally in the lower tiers of the art and grind markets, eventually ghettoing in films direct to video or the wasteland of cable television. Oh yes, in these single continental currency days the highbrow euro-pudding is still around and can be found on display at various notable festivals. Check out The Barber of Siberia (1998: Nikita Mikhalkov), Vatel (2000: Roland Joffe) and Luther (2003: Eric Till). The bewildering world of pre-sales usually ensures the films make profits, even if few actually perform well at the box office.

Films seemingly from nowhere, trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by pleasing few in the process. Yet there are pleasures to be found as I hope this ongoing series of Europudding pieces will illustrate.