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.
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