Sunday, September 20, 2009

24 HOURS TO KILL (1965)

One of the most jarring moments in Fernando Di Leo's Milano Calibro 9 comes when the hero's girlfriend, assuming that he has the loot the mob's accused him of stealing, suggests that they take the money and run away ... to Beirut. A modern viewer's first response has to be "BEIRUT???" but it must be remembered that Di Leo's film was made before Lebanon really fell apart and Beirut became a byword for urban guerrilla warfare. Now here's a film made earlier still, produced by the late, great Harry Alan Towers, filmed largely in Swinging Lebanon back in the day.

The situation is simple. An Athens-bound jetliner has to make an emergency landing in Beirut due to technical trouble. The crew and passengers will have to remain there for 24 hours while repairs are made. For some of the crew, this means looking up the Beirut listings in the proverbial little directory of loose women. For the captain, Jaimie Faulkner (Lex Barker) it means an opportunity for a quick bit of tourism with his stewardess girlfriend. For fellow crewmember Norman "Jonesy" Jones (Mickey Rooney) it means nothing but trouble. The crew knows Jonesy as a stalwart, reliable guy. It's he who pacifies the situation during the emergency when a frantic Arab woman rushes the cockpit (talk about your accidental contemporary relevance). But once they're in Beirut he gets all nervous and shifty, desperate to have people around him at all times. And with some reason, too. People are watching him, and for good reason on their part, as the rest of the crew will learn to their chagrin once Jonesy's past naughtiness with some 40,000 Pounds of gold puts them all in danger.

The gun turns out to be a gag, but that doesn't mean Mickey Rooney shouldn't worry during his 24 Hours to Kill.

Peter Bezencenet's film feels like a Eurospy film without any of the fancy gadgets or much of the action. The movie's a bit less action-packed than it ought to be, which means it had better be acting-packed to compensate. The burden falls on our two leads and on Walter Slezak as the fez-clad villain. Rooney is up for the task, of course; he does frantic well. Meanwhile, I continue to be impressed by Lex Barker's work in European films. I found him a lackluster Tarzan, but once he crossed the Atlantic I've liked him in just about everything I've seen, from La Dolce Vita to Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism. I make no great claims for him as an actor, but he brings an almost unconscious charisma and natural authority to any movie he turns up in. He and Rooney make a good Mutt and Jeff act in this film as Faulkner grows increasingly perturbed and Jonesy increasingly untrustworthy.

Lex Barker negotiates with Walter Slezak (above), then with some of his aides (below).

The film's main visual virtue is its travelogue of Lebanon before the deluge. The story's twenty-four hours give the characters time to visit picturesque ruins at Baalbek and Byblos, and a good deal of the story seems to have been filmed on the streets of Beirut. I can't vouch, however, for the scenes shot at "the gayest place in Beirut," but the film does credit the dance troupe of the Casino de Liban, so the can-canning and suchlike we see may well be authentic.

Lebanon old and new in 24 Hours to Kill. Well, it was new 44 years ago.

Bezencenet is competent without being particularly stylish, and while the film is full of incident it doesn't quite develop the dramatic momentum it should. Finally, the ending is quite anticlimactic; it's the sort of finish that might work if this were a short story in a pulp magazine, but Towers, writing under his "Peter Welbeck" alias, lets audiences leave with a final impression that 24 Hours to Kill was rather a dull affair. For fans of the actors or the decade, or for virtual tourists of the past like myself, it really isn't so dull, but it is, overall, an underinspired if not completely uninspired film that I'd only risk recommending to the sort of enthusiasts I just mentioned.

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