Friday, November 4, 2011

HOUSE OF CARDS: Little Movie Lost?

George Peppard has his hands full; good thing he apparently has six of them!
I haven’t seen House of Cards (HoC) in years, mostly because I haven’t been able to find it on DVD or any other format that I can afford that would work with my good old American DVD player.  I can’t even find a trailer for it, although I've found plenty for the 1993 drama by the same name starring Kathleen Turner as a mother trying to help her apparently autistic child. However, thanks to the many times I saw HoC on TBS and other local channels in my youth, I remember it like I saw it yesterday!

Dig that far-out groovy Peter Max-style poster, man!
During the 1960s, Universal Pictures made a mini-genre out of the Lighthearted International Technicolor Romantic Suspense Thriller, with such rollicking adventures as Charade; Arabesque; Mirage; Blindfold, and A Man Could Get Killed. Before making HoC, director John Guillerman had directed leading man George Peppard in the 1966 World War 1 thriller The Blue Max and the 1968 private eye drama P.J. (Note to Vinnie, all George Peppard fans, and all fans of Disney’s animated school comedy series Recess: Yes, P.J.’s last name is in fact Detweiler! But I digress....) I’ve always felt that HoC was one of the loopiest of the lot from its opening sequence: tracking shots of Paris from a corpse's-eye-view! There it is, floating in the River Seine practically unnoticed by the populace. Having grown up in a big city (NYC, for those who came in late), I know city dwellers tend to be blasé about things no matter what city they live in, but come on!

The many faces of Barnaby Shaw & pals
Peppard plays Reno Davis, a sort of hip 1960s Hemingway type who drifts from one country to another, either writing his novel or getting into boxing matches. Indeed, when we first meet Reno, he’s getting the hell beaten out of him in a Paris boxing ring. One night, someone shoots at him—and discovers the triggerman is a frightened child, Paul de Villemont (played memorably by the haunted-eyed Barnaby Shaw). Reno drags the little sharpshooter home to his surprised widowed mom, Anne, played by the luminous Inger Stevens with a vulnerable sophistication reminiscent of Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. To quote New York Times movie critic A.H. Weiler, “Miss Stevens is...pretty enough to turn any adventurer's head,” and Reno and Anne almost lose their own heads in more ways than one. You see, it turns out the glamorous but troubled Anne is the American widow of a French general; she and Paul are virtual prisoners of her sinister in-laws and their cohorts, including British actor Keith Michell (TV’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry VIII and His Six Wives, among others) as the secretive psychiatrist Dr. Morillon. Anne and Paul take a shine to Reno, and the feeling is more or less mutual. No surprise, really; at the very least, Reno’s iconoclastic loner routine is surely a welcome change of pace from the Daphne DuMaurier types slinking around the family chateau. Anne hires Reno as Paul’s tutor/companion. The DuMaurier types don’t exactly welcome Reno with open arms, which may also explain why men in Anne’s orbit don’t seem to live too long whenever they try to help her and Paul, including that poor slob we saw floating lifeless in the Seine earlier, one Sidney Scott (who doesn’t even get a credit in the film for his trouble, poor guy). 
It takes more than guns and Orson Welles as El Exigente to make Reno lose his cool!

Soon we viewers are catapulted from DuMaurier Land to Robert Ludlum Lite as the chateau’s occupants turn out to be not just any old Eurotrash stuffed shirts, but actually part of a Fascist group led by the powerful Leschenhaut, played by Orson Welles at his haughty and sinister best. Seems that Papa wanted his little man to be brought up as a Hitler youth! Before you can say “Alfred Hitchcock sent me,” Paul is kidnapped, Reno is framed for murder, and he and Anne (who’s not overjoyed about bodyguard Reno dropping the ball with her child; as a mother myself, I’m on Anne’s side!) are chasing and being chased all over Paris and Rome trying to save Paul and the world from these dastardly so-and-so’s.  House of Cards was adapted from renowned mystery author Stanley Ellin’s 1967 novel, and set in opulent locations including the Colosseum and all manner of manors all over France. True, some of the plot twists in James P. Bonner’s screenplay (actually a nom de plume for the screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., who brought us Hud, Hombre, The Cowboys, and Norma Rae, among others) stretch credibility to the breaking point (especially Dr. Morillon’s true identity). Also, some of the more attention-grabbing stuff is never explained, although I’m willing to blame some of that on TBS editing the version I saw on TV (besides, sponsors have to squeeze in commercials; they have to eat, too, I guess). Despite these quibbles, HoC still manages to be entertaining. When I first saw it on TV in my younger days, I found Francis Lai’s score to be a little syrupy for my taste, but it’s grown on me over the years. George Peppard, in his prime, was well-cast as a cynical rogue, with his all-American good looks, hard-boiled flippancy, and breezy charm. He cracked me up whenever he improvised outlandish excuses to authority figures, like in the Fountain of Trevi scene and this sexy sequence with leading lady Inger Stevens:

"Reno, thank goodness you're here! This is the stuffiest family reunion ever!"
Inger Stevens had been a favorite of mine since I first saw her on the TV series version of The Farmer’s Daughter. I always sensed something unconventional about her. Indeed, Stevens did have difficulties in life, and left us far too soon, but once you saw her, you couldn’t forget her. I thought Stevens was an excellent match for Peppard both physically and personality-wise, with screen presence aplenty. It wasn’t just Stevens’ striking blonde beauty and honeyed alto voice that made her stand out; she also had a warmth that belied her Nordic Ice Maiden looks, and a knack for being at once worldly and wholesome. This quality is reflected in Stevens’ fab Edith Head costumes, too.

This wildly complex thriller probably shouldn’t be watched by anyone with a migraine or a short attention span—but if you're in the mood for a well-cast conspiracy yarn that doesn't take itself too seriously, keep an eye out for HoC in your TV movie listings. Better yet, bug the folks at Universal and urge them to at least put out a House of Cards print-on-demand DVD!
A smorgasbord of George Peppard scenes (with and without Inger Stevens) for your viewing pleasure!

In any language, House of Cards is good fun if you can find it!


  1. My experience with George Peppard is limited to The A-Team and a terrifically awful Carlo Ponti film from the Sixties. But I like the man. He's charming, has a decent voice, and let's just face it: he's easy on the eyes.

    I really can't understand why studios aren't releasing more old films on DVD. They're just sitting in vaults somewhere collecting dust between showings on TCM and such. 'Tis sad.

  2. Emm, I agree that at his best, George Peppard can be quite charming and attractive. Your Auntie Dorian's favorite Peppard role is inevitably BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S; as a fellow Audrey Hepburn fan, I know you can relate! :-) I'll admit Peppard also had a knack for playing likable rogues like Reno Davis in HOUSE OF CARDS. I bet the Carlo Ponti film movie you're thinking of is OPERATION CROSSBOW. I remember finding it to be okay until...

    ...I discovered that my main reason for watching the film, Sophia Loren (no offense meant to Peppard! :-)), had a role that pretty much amounted to a cameo, and poor Sophia gets killed, to boot! What a gyp! Off went the TV!

    Anyway, Emm, I'm with you: with all the vintage films lying around waiting to be watched and loved (not unlike a homeless puppy), studios really need to make a greater effort to release older movies on DVD/Blu-Ray so they'll reach a wider audience, whether it's on TCM or some form of home video. Thanks for dropping by and joining the conversation, Emm, as always; drop by anytime!

  3. I'm a really bad Hepburn fan, actually. I haven't seen Breakfast at Tiffany's OR My Fair Lady.

    Yes. Operation Crossbow. It had slick production values, a great cast to draw from, and a story that was just depressing and uncool. NO LILLI PALMER, YOU DO NOT HAVE PERMISSION TO MURDER SOPHIA LOREN. And George Peppard. Really, mister. You spend at least 24 hours in the same hotel room as Sophia and not even one little kiss?!?! Are you human?!

    Yeah, there were some odd and suspicious things about that film. Everyone died in the end. At least visually it was fairly stunning.

  4. Emm, no need to fret over not having seen BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S or MY FAIR LADY yet. You're lucky that both those movies are readily available on DVD (and I think Blu-Ray too, by now) and are regularly aired on TCM, so you'll have other opportunities to see them, unlike HOUSE OF CARDS! :-)

    You once again prove you're a girl after my own heart with your witty and intelligent comments about the extremely frustrating OPERATION CROSSBOW! But as you said, at least it was visually stunning, which is more than some films can say! :-)

  5. Hi Dorian, another film I haven't seen. (At least that I can remember.) My knowledge of George Peppard is limited as well. Though I did like him in the A Team, thought he was perfectly cast. I also vaguely remember him in a film about the Oscar - I think. Something to do with how utterly sleazy Hollywood could be. Hey we didn't need to be hit over the head with that one. :)

    OPERATION CROSSBOW - know exactly what you mean. I was, like, HUH?!

    A story that proves the old maxim: When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you.

    As always, kiddo, I enjoyed reading your post.

  6. Yvette, delighted to have you join the conversation, as always; thanks for your positive feedback about the post! I'm glad you and Emm aren't the only ones who felt that OPERATION CROSSBOW left something to be desired.

    I must confess I'm not sure which film you're referring to about Oscars in sleazy Hollywood; so many films could fit that criteria! :-) I don't remember Peppard offhand being in THE OSCAR (unless it was a cameo?); could it have been THE CARPETBAGGERS or HARLOW? In any case, I agree with you that (the original) Hannibal from THE A-TEAM is my favorite Peppard role, with BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S running a close second!

  7. Have not seen this film but I did see the five Universal films you mention early. There are a couple of rare ones there (Blindfold and A Man Could Get Killed). As for George Peppard, I have l always found him a rather limited actor who made mostly mediocre films with only a few exceptions. If you look at his IMDB listing the few decent films he was in are mainly in spite of him (Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Victors and The Strange One). Like I said, I have not seen this film but after watching him in "P.J." "The Blue Max," "Rough Night in Jericho," "Pendulum" and "What's So Good About Feeling Bad," I cannot say I am holding my breath waiting to watch another Peppard "classic." That said, I always enjoy reading your entertaining reviews. And poor Inger Stevens, such a tragic beauty.


  8. Dorian, I hate to tell you this, The Blue Max was a WW1 film not WW2. Other than that a great post ,I really like George in How he West Was Won.

  9. Paul 2, I appreciate your pointing out my error. Of course THE BLUE MAX took place during World War 1! Having covered a number of movies with World War 2 as a backdrop, I've simply become accustomed to typing "World War 2" rather than "World War 1". :-) So sorry for my historical faux pas! Glad you enjoyed everything else about my HOUSE OF CARDS post, though; many thanks! :-)

  10. Also, Paul 2, I am correcting my error in the HoC blog post as we speak! :-) Thanks again for the alert!

  11. DorianTB, I have never heard of this film. Although.. it does sound like a movie I would like. Thank you for the awesome post!

  12. John, glad to have you joining the conversation about HOUSE OF CARDS! I'd love to see BLINDFOLD or A MAN COULD GET KILLED again; it's been years since I've seen them on TV, and I'm pretty sure they're not available on DVD. (Yoo-hoo, Universal, what are you waiting for? Get those movies on print-on-demand or something!)

    George Peppard seems to be one of those actors that people either love or loathe. Actually, I don't have strong feelings about Peppard either way, but I did enjoy him in HoC and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. Admittedly, Audrey Hepburn lights up any film! I must admit, however, that I got a kick out of your comment "If you look at (Peppard's) IMDB listing, the few decent films he was in are mainly in spite of him..." :-)

    I quite agree about the late, great Inger Stevens, always one of my favorites. Stevens drew me to HoC more strongly than Peppard, though they seemed to work well together onscreen. Ah, Inger, we hardly knew ye.

    Thanks for joining the chat, John, as always!

  13. Dawn, thank you for your nice praise of my HOUSE OF CARDS post! I definitely think you'd enjoy it if you got the opportunity to see it!

  14. How have I missed this one all these years? Every so often I like those movies where there is so much going on, you can't be blamed for blanking out and just letting it happen.

    What a minute! Detweiler?!

  15. Caftan Woman, I was just as taken by surprise as you were by "Detweiler"! :-) Oh yes, there's no question that HoC was a busy little movie. Heck, I enjoy busy movies myself when they're done entertainingly enough; the OCEAN'S ELEVEN series and the wild-and-crazy 1967 comedy version of CASINO ROYALE leap to mind.

    Hope you're feeling better after your truck trauma! I'm always happy to have you drop by and join the TotED chat!

  16. Dorian, I also haven't seen HOUSE OF CARDS in ages, so i only remembered it as i read your spunky review. I always felt George Peppard was one of the durable male stars of the 1960s. He could be charming, but his characters always had a sharp edge. One of my favorite of his pics was the equally complex GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY.

  17. Rick, your charming description of my HoC review as "spunky" put a great big smile on my face! Thank you, my friend! Good point you made about George Peppard's characters often having a sharp edge. THE GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY is one of those films I keep hearing about but never actually catching up with. I'll keep an eye out for it on TCM and such, thanks to your recommendation!

  18. I have listen about it many times but I have watched it's reviews for the first time, I think I must go to watch it.

  19. Thanks, Pingo! Hope you catch up with HOUSE OF CARDS and enjoy it!