St. Ives (1976) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Steve Chibnall in his 400-page tome on the films of J. Lee Thompson (director of The Guns of Navarone, the original Cape Fear and the war classic Ice Cold in Alex) devotes a grand total of three words to the 1976 film St. Ives – not what you’d call a ringing endorsement! The film however is a bit better than this might suggest, not least as  it was adapted from a novel by Ross Thomas (under his ‘Oliver Bleeck’ pseudonym), known as The Procane Chronicle in the US and The Thief Who Painted Sunlight in the UK, one of a quintet about professional middleman Philip St. Ives. Charles Bronson plays the eponymous lead (but with his first name changed to Ray) and it was the first, and perhaps best, of the nine pairings between director and star.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected. I also submit it as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here.

“You’re tough, smart, got a lot of great looking bits and pieces”.

St Ives is a an experienced crime reporter who has given up his job to write the great American novel. Unfortunately it’s not going too well – plus he also has a bad gambling problem and as a result he lives in a real dump of a hotel, though he still drives around town in a classic Jag. So his agent – an underutilised  Michael Lerner seen only in the opening scene – gets him jobs as a professional go-between. He is hired by rich as Croesus but still amiable Bel Air resident Abner Procane (John Houseman sporting a copper dye job and clearly having a great time in the midst of his late career resurgence as a character actor after the success of The Paper Chase) to get back five leather-bound journals that have been stolen. The ransom is $100,000 and St Ives will get a fee of 10% of that. Being that this thriller is also something of a love letter to old style Hollywood, it is populated with many great character actors (most notably Elisha Cook Jr as St Ives’ somnolent doorman) with Procane invariably watching silent movies in the private cinema in his mansion. It is there that St Ives meets the beautiful Janet (played by the even more stunning Jacqueline Bisset in an unusually sparkly performance), an ex-cop who is very handy with a gun. She also works for Procane, in an unspecified capacity, and lives there too.

Bisset-StIves

Later St Ives also meets Procane’s  psychiatrist, a delightfully campy performance from Maximilian Schell in another of the film’s brief cameos by well-established thespians. It turns out that the movie screenings are part of the prescribed therapy for Procane – maybe that’s why I like this film as this is clearly the kind of psychotherapy I’d like to have my doctor order up for me! The money exchange is scheduled to take place at a laundrette but instead St Ives finds the thief dead, rolling around inside a dryer – he is promptly arrested by a passing patrolman and then grilled by the Tweedledum and Tweedle-dumber pair of detectives played by eternal movie cops Harry Guardino and Harris Yulin, who wonder what he is doing with a dead body and a Pan Am bag containing $100,000. St Ives only manages to get out from under them thanks by their boss (Dana Elcar), an old pal of his.

“Only stupid people don’t dream” - Procane (John Houseman)

Another drop off appointment for the ransom is arranged, but this also goes wrong and results in a dead body (this time thrown from a window of a high-rise apartment) and once again the two cops turn up to grill our hero. On his way home he is then attacked by a bunch of thugs who try to throw him down a lift shaft in an expertly executed action sequence that shows off the film at its best (we even see Bronson break into a sweat, which is nice for a change) – incidentally, the thugs include a young Robert Englund (the future star of A Nightmare of Elm Street) and Jeff Goldblum, who had just played a similar role in Bronson’s Death Wish.

It it is at this point, after half an hour, that we realise the film has been busking like crazy as nothing has really happened – St Ives has been hired to get the journals back and it keeps not happening. It eventually emerges that the journals contains the plans to a robbery, which predictably goes down at a drive-in for another movie reference (though the rest of the audience proves remarkably compliant as the film being screened consists of a cattle stampede repeated over, and over and over again – perhaps the stock footage budget didn’t stretch very far on this production). Things predictably go wrong, surprise minor villains are uncovered and then a Mr Big shows himself – predictably, and theatrically, from behind the screen of Procane’s home cinema (back in the days when this was literally true).

While dead bodies continue to pile up,  Thompson over-directs furiously to try and compensate for the fact that the plot is in fact remarkably thin, simply going backwards and forwards in the recovery of the journals until the final shootout. But there is plenty of fairly low-key action to keep things going and a great cast too. This is also a great looking thriller thanks to the work of Lucien Ballard, one of the great Hollywood cinematographers. He first got his break in 1935 lensing Crime and Punishment for Josef von Sternberg and went on to have a fascinating career with highlights including the Laird Cregar version of The Lodger (1944), Berlin Express (1948), starring his then wife Merle Oberon, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) as well as several excellent westerns and thrillers for Tom Gries, Henry Hathaway (such as the John Wayne Oscar-winner True Grit (1968)), Budd Boetticher (including Buchanan Rides Alone in 1958) and Sam Peckinpah (including The Wild Bunch (1968) and the Steve McQueen version of The Getaway, a review of which is due here fairly soon …).

So not a great movie perhaps – too loosely plotted for one thing – but with a great cast and top-notch technical credits (and a very 70s score by Lalo Schifrin) it’s hard to go wrong, especially as it is made by people who clearly love old movies. And it does have a sense of humour – there’s a great little moment when Bronson and Bisset finally get to go to bed together after much delay and we immediately cut to shots of exploding fireworks – which turn out to be in a movie Procane is watching. Silly, sly and fun. A review of the original novel incidentally will appear here at Fedora soon …

DVD Availability: Available in the US on a double-sided disc (with Telefon, which I reviewed here, on the other side), the film looks great with sharp image, strong colours and nary a nick.

St. Ives (1976)
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Producer: Pancho Kohner, Stanley Canter
Screenplay: Barry Beckerman
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Philip M. Jefferies
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Charles Bronson, Jacqueline Bisset, Maximillian Schell, John Houseman, Harry Guardino, Harris Yulin, Elisha Cook Jr, Dana Elcar, Val Bisoglio, Daniel J. Travanti, Michael Lerner, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Englund

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to St. Ives (1976) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. le0pard13 says:

    I remember this film well. I actually screened it while in my projectionist stint of the mid-70s. Your review brought it all back. Thanks for this, Sergio.

    • That’s so cool Michael – I never got beyond Super 8 and 16mm. I really envy you that. I’ve only ever seen it on TV or DVD and I think you do lose a lot that way

  2. Sergio – Thanks – a great review as ever. You know, I’ve always thought Jacqueline Bisset was under-rated. I’m honestly not a Bronson fan but he had some decent roles. I think this was one of them. I’ll be very interested to see what you think of the book now you’ve reviewed the film.

    • Thanks very much Margot – the book review will hopefully run fairly soon. It will be my first Thomas book under the ‘Bleeck’ pseudonym. I’m not necvessarily a huge Bronson fan but he is very complelling and charismatic in some of his movies at least and although this one is not necessarily one of his best overall, it does offer one of his more ‘engaged’ performances, lets put it that way. And Bisset is just smashing in it – I like her much more in this kind of agressive role than the comparatively supine character she played in Bullitt for instance.

  3. neer says:

    Very nice review. Makes me feel like seeing the movie.

  4. Colin says:

    Nicely done Sergio. As you know, I’m fond of Bronson’s movies anyway – although the 80s stuff doesn’t particularly engage me.
    I think this is a very entertaining film, mostly for the reasons you’ve highlighted here. Is it really the best of The Bronson/Thompson movies though? Personally, I might have reserved that honor for The White Buffalo. I’d also love to see Cabo Blanco again to see how it holds up – there’s a German Blu-ray that’s been tempting me for a while now.

    • Cheers Colin. You have a greater affinity for the Western than I do of course but the one time I saw White Buffalo I thought it was pretty silly actually (but it’s been a very long time) – and Capo Blanco has a great cast but my memory is that it is an utterly bizarre film – is it just me or does it feel only half finished? I would be curious to see the Blu-ray too actually just because Thompson’s films usually looked good and this is another example where I remember the climax in the bar in particular being insanely over the top in terms of the multitude of angles to try and pep up the story (lots of shots of a juke box as I recall).

      • Colin says:

        Yes, The White Buffalo doesn’t quite come off as it was probably intended to. Still, I like what it was trying to do.

        Like I said, I haven’t seen Cabo Blanco is an age, so I don’t feel qualified at the moment to make particularly intelligent comments on it. I will probably pick up that Blu at some point though, and either be delighted or massively disillusioned. :)

        • For some reason these two used to turn up a lot on Italian TV when i was growing up- well, Buffalo is a De Laurentiis I think, so that probably explains it … I just remember thinking Cabo Blanco was this weird if obvious riff on Casablanca that didn’t have a proper ending and then introduced a voice over at the nd out of nowhere to clear things up at the last second …

          • Colin says:

            That’s more or less the way I recall Cabo Blanco too. I do remember finding it fun and entertaining – of course my memory may be playing tricks.

          • The cast is great though and I remember liking to Goldsmith score too. There’s this nice little clip here from behind the scenes with Bronson blowing a line but that does tend to reinforce my memory of how much Thompson is hyping things up visually – quite modern in Michael Bay sort of way …

          • Colin says:

            Excellent! What a lovely little clip.

          • Starting to make this seem quite appetising … darn!
            CAPOBLANCO

          • Colin says:

            I know – tempting, ain’t it?

          • Sadly I’m having to be very strong-minded these days …

          • Colin says:

            Me too. Well, let’s say I’m trying…

          • Some amazing stuff coming out on Blu (you’re not helping with all your tidbits now that you are back at Custard land). Got review copy of the new Arrow disc of BLOW OUT and hated having to send it to the reviewer as it looked wonderful. Also, I’ve just seen that Frankenheimer’s SECONDS is going to be a Criterion – just as well it’s not out until the Summer …

  5. TracyK says:

    This movie sounds interesting. I do like Charles Bronson, although I haven’t seen that many of his movies. I had forgotten how many really good movies he did: Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Battle of the Bulge. He was on television in the 50’s. I did not realize that.

    Mainly though this makes me want to read more Ross Thomas. I have only read Cold War Swap but have quite a few I can read. Do you have any recommendations?

    • Glad you enjoyed the post TracyK – been a while since I read any Thomas but I remember liking The Porkchoppers and Briarpatch a lot! I haven’t read it yet, but many consider Chinaman’s Chance to be his best.

  6. Sergio, I’m quite certain I have seen this film, a long time ago. Bronson is a fine actor though I have always preferred him in his early films as opposed to his latter movies where he seems to have grown too old too soon including, if I’m not mistaken, in the last of the DEATH WISH series.

    • I agree with you Prashant – also, Bronson was a comparatively late bloomer to superstardom having spent a good 15 years as a supporting actor and minor lead – after all he was already in his later 40s when he made Once Upon a Time in the West and in his early 50s when Death Wish came out and cemented his international reputation.

      • Colin says:

        Actually, I think people forget how old Bronson was when he made it big. The fact is the guy was a remarkable physical specimen. We were talking about Cabo Blanco – it’s hard to believe the man was close to 60 years old at that point.

  7. There are significant differences between Ross Thomas’s novel and this Bronson movie. I always pictured St. Ives as a Peirce Brosnan type rather than a Bronson type.

  8. John says:

    All sorts of movie fan tidbits in this well written review again. I like the part where you talk about Lucien Ballard’s work. Makes me want to have DVD festival of his movies.

    Like Prashant I’m pretty sure I saw this. Probably in a butchered version on TV during the 1980s. I like young Charles Bronson than in his post-Death Wish days which are the movies the “real ” Bronson fans tend to like. Never been a fan of macho acting (or machismo in real life for that matter). That’s why all these blow-em-up movies leave me bored and why I wish Bruce WIllis, Arnold and Sylvester would just hang it up for once and for all.

    • Thanks John. That macho stuff, it’s all so much BS, isn’t it? I do really like Willis in Twelve Monkeys for instance where he is much more vulnerable (as opposed to his being more usually invulnerable). I did get a bit sidetracked by Ballard, you’re right, but what are you gonna do, I’m a big fan!

  9. piero says:

    Sergio, ti chiedo un piacere: hai mica una copia in inglese di Jumping Jenny di Anthony Berkeley? Magari già un ebook da potermi girare al mio indirizzo email? Oppure digitalizzarmi le prime 94 pagine, almeno fino all’omicidio e le ultime 10 pagine? Sto scrivendo un lungo articolo sul romanzo che purtroppo è stato ripubblicato in Italia con la vecchia versione, non integrale. E vorrei avere un termine di raffronto migliore.
    In più vorrei sapere se sei tu quel Sergio Angelini di cui ho visto delle guide di film uscite in Inghilterra: allora sei un autore! Non fai solo l’educatore come me!
    L’ho motato su Goodreads cui mi sono iscritto, così, tanto per fare qualche nuova amicizia. Ho trovato già una persona simpatica e molto disponibile del Suffolk.
    Ciao.
    Piero

    • Ciao Piero – mi dispiace ma questa volta non posso aiutarti. Io questo romanzo mi sa che l’ho solo letto nella versione Classici Mondadori (una parte si puo leggere su Amazon, ma suppongo che l’hai gia visto). Forse ce l’ho in Inglese ma tutti i miei libri stanno rinsacchiatti da qualche parte (non so dove esattamente) in una serra usata dalla compagia con cui ho fatto il trasloco – al momento sto ancora con i mei ma a Giugno spero di veramente ed effettivamente “finire” il mio trasloco quando riesco a concludere con questo appartamento dove spero di andar vivere – a quel punto riavro’ tutti i miei libri e DVD (SPERIAMO!), per non parlare dei CD e i miei vestiti … Be, si, e’ vero, lo devo ammetere, ho scritto degli articoli che sono stati pubblicati in varie raccolte di cinema e TV …

  10. Jeff Flugel says:

    Great to see the Fedora back in action again, Sergio! I think your excellent write-up is probably more than this film deserves, at least going by my memory of it. I do remember it being pretty thin gruel story-wise, with not much happening, though it does have a cool cast. Not one of my favorite 70s Bronson films (the pinnacle would be HARD TIMES, but I quite enjoy THE MECHANIC, TELEFON, BREAKHEART PASS and even MR. MAJESTYK).

    • Thank you Jeff, good to be back (sort of – all my stuff is still in storage – aaarghhh). Yes, I agree about this movie really and Hard Times is a terrific movie, as you proved here of course, and I think the Elmore Leonard-scripted Mr Majestik definitely deserves reassessment. Not sure I agree about the sluggish Breakheart Pass, though I always enjoy Alistair MacLean stories.

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