COLD SWEAT AT 50

Cold Sweat turns 50 this year, and is a movie hardly anyone knows or loves. B-movie fetishists are a perverse lot, and I am one of them. I can genuinely revel in a well-made, odd, quirky, forgotten second-rate flick, with few if any pretensions, seeing it with great affection and respect for what it is; whereas many a pretentious, 'bigger picture' can leave me cold. Cold Sweat is actually, in its way, a great film, but because the director Terence Young has almost no auteurist-following, it's been neglected; the reviews it does get are perfunctory and mainly indifferent - it's seen, if at all now, as a toss-offed Charles Bronson actioner, one of the cheap Euro-trash movies he made as his violent vigilante career went supernova.

It's out on DVD, and easy to find online. I'd recommend it to any fans of the crime/thriller genre, and, for the reasons I mention below, it is separately fascinating for being an example of how a film can gather incredible talent across cast and crew, to modest contemporary success, but leave a radiating quality worth noting later.  What used to be called critical reevaluation. Maybe still is.

Let's start with the director, Terence Young. Young was born in Shanghai in 1915, educated at Cambridge, and died in Cannes in 1994. He directed 40 movies. A few of those are among the best of their kind ever made, including the Bond classics Dr No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball. He is known for making low-budget thrillers, mainly. But his journeyman capabilities are admirable. In Cold Sweat, he adds an ironic, almost cruel, aspect reminiscent of Hitchcock.

The cast is top notch: Bronson, Liv Ullmann, James Mason, Jill Ireland, and Jean Topart, as the arch-villain, Katanga (more about him later). The music is by the tragic suicide Michel Magne, known for many great scores, including the OSS 117 cult films, and Gigot. The cinematography is from Jean Rabier, arguably one of the major French cinematographers - for example, his credit for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He was camera operator on The 400 Blows. The editor, Johnny Dwyre, was assistant editor on Topkapi and Zorba The Greek. The producer Robert Dorfmann had already produced Papillon and Last Year at Marienbad; his associate, Maurice Jacquin, had produced more B-fare, like The Exchange Student, Action Man and The Blonde from Peking.

I am marshalling these facts to suggest the level of sheer industry COMPETENCE, and experience, brought to bear on this this seemingly minor project. But now consider the writers!

The book on which Cold Sweat is based is by Richard Matheson, the legendary sci-fi and horror writer of The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, The Omega Man, and countless TV scripts for Star Trek, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Thriller, and ones Tarantino would enjoy: Have Gun - Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive and Lawman. More to the point, the screenplay was mainly adapted by Jo Eisinger, whose brilliant, sometimes eccentric scripts included Night and the City, Gilda, and Oscar Wilde; he was aided and abetted by a few hacks who had worked on numerous B-movies and classic 50s and 60s TV shows.

Given this movie was by the guy who made three of the top Bonds ever, starred Bronson, one of the coolest action stars of all time, and was written by masters of thrills and noir; with an impeccable supporting cast, beautiful filming, editing, stunts, set in the South of France on blazing summer days, you'd expect a special event.

And it is one.

The plot is pure noir - Bronson plays Joe Martin, a likeable guy with great arms and a lean build, who owns a small yacht he rents out, and takes people on cruises with, in a French port on the Med; he's washed up there after leaving his past, which his wife, Fabienne (Liv Ullmann) does not know about; they have an 11-year-old daughter Michelle, from Fabienne's first marriage. One summer night, close to the 14 of July celebrations, Joe gets a terrifying phone call - and soon, a group of damaged sinister ex-army buddies break into his home and take his family hostage, led by Southerner Captain Ross (James Mason, bearded and camping it up like a fugitive from a Tennessee Williams play).

It turns out Joe was the driver for their aborted jail break from an army prison in Germany, where Joe is in the stockades for a relatively minor offence of punching an officer while drunk; the sadistic ex-French Foreign Legion madman Katanga assisting on the outside needlessly kills a German cop, and Joe drives off, leaving the others to be recaptured and rot in jail for seven more years - that was seven years ago, and now they've escaped, to, perhaps paradoxically, terrify and punish Joe, but also, use his expertise and boat to pull off a tricky heroin deal with the French mafia; Joe quickly turns the proverbial tables on them, killing several, kidnapping Captain Ross's girlfriend Moira (Jill Ireland), and stashing the suitcase with the mafia loot.

In a botched rescue bid, Captain Ross takes one in the gut, and is  bleeding out; stuck in the mountains, they have about an hour to get a doctor to perform emergency surgery, and revive him with plasma injection, or he will die. This is made urgent by the fact that Katanga is being held off by Captain Ross who has a gun; Katanga has expressed the desire to kill Ross's hippie moll, Joe, Joe's wife, rape his daughter, and steal the loot, when Ross dies. So Joe, held at gunpoint by Moira, must use his expert car-racing skills to drive a cool red sportscar at top speed on Bastille Day into town, grab a doctor, and drive back - a two hour drive in less than 60 minutes. He races off, and Ross, quickly turning deathly pale, is nursed by Fabienne and her little girl, as Katanga smirks, smokes and leers, waiting for an hour like a vulture, until he can feed.

I won't spoil the last 30 minutes, which is especially thrilling, including a remarkable car chase, and a scene with Katanga that must rank among the most chilling in all pulp cinema. What seems most terrifying is the subtext of Katanga's paedophilia, never expressly mentioned, but vital to the horror of the idea that when Ross bleeds out and passes out, the women will fall instant prey to a monstrous predator.

Topart, as the sweating, balding, slightly chubby, villain, is riveting. His submachine gun is his best friend, and he uses it without compunction; he is a compulsive killer, and a coiled sex maniac, given the film's best bon mots. The stakes are unusually high for Bronson, and unlike his latest, more nihilistic Death Wish films, here he has a chance to prevent the rape and murder of his family, rather than merely avenge them. Cold Sweat actually manages to do what it says on the tin. I was enthralled, entertained, and scared. This is the sort of film the violent, over-praised Joker would love to be, but isn't - a lovingly made thriller without pretence, but plenty of heart, humour and horror. In short, a classic manqué.
Katanga (right) smokes and cradles his beloved machine pistol, as Joe waits to be sent on his mission



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