The Best or Worst of Director Peter Collinson

*contains spoilers

Peter Collinson (1936-80 lung cancer) was a British director who died at the relatively young age of 44. He directed the much lauded and popular The Italian Job (1969) which over the years, when I asked young British fellows what their favourite film was – it always seemed to be The Italian Job. Things have changed a lot since then.

Director Peter Collinson

The films of Collinson veer from the slick and enjoyable to almost amateur and forgettable. After the success of The Italian Job, the director went on the make a series of international films in various locations around the world, especially Spain.

The Italian Job as you would gather was shot in Italy which probably started off Collinson’s wanderlust and probably a want for a good holiday experience in sunny climes while making a movie.

The Penthouse (1967) poster

His first feature is an underrated movie based on a play entitled The Penthouse (1967) which stars among others, Suzy Kendall (1937-) and Tony Beckley (1927-80 cancer). The film was written by Collinson for the screen but based on a play by Scott Forbes (1920-97). That writer’s work on The Penthouse is reminiscent in more ways than one of to the writing of playwright Harold Pinter (1930-2008 oesophageal cancer). It is probably not surprising that it was Pinter who encouraged Forbes to write The Penthouse in 1964 which like a Pinter play has mysterious characters invading a penthouse where a couple are staying unbeknownst to the owners who are out of the country.

Lobby card shows the mysterious meter readers in The Penthouse

The play has a kind of ring to it not unlike Pinter’s The Birthday Party which was made into a good film in 1968. These mysterious characters say they’re there to read the gas meter and then go on to terrorise the couple as strange dialogue abounds, something which adds to the creepiness and possible cult aspect to the piece. The original play was called The Meter Man.

The Penthouse (1967) trailer

The Penthouse gets awful reviews but it must have done well as Collinson followed it up with a screen version of director Ken Loach’s (1936-) 1965 black and white television programme Up the Junction (1968). Kendall appears again alongside Dennis Waterman (1948-) who would work again with Collinson in Fright (1971).

The film version of Up the Junction is considered a let-down compared to the tv version as it is glossily filmed in colour as it tells its story based on the 1963 collection of short stories about the slums of Clapham Junction. The slang Up the Duff for pregnant probably an inspiration. No-one needed to see the slums in colour.

The Long Day’s Dying (1968) poster starring David Hemmings

Collinson followed this with the anti-war film The Long Day’s Dying (1968) starring David Hemmings (1941-2003 heart attack) who was then on a career high. The film won the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and was entered into Cannes which was cancelled that year due to the turmoil of the student riots in France. It would be the highest major award kudos that Collinson would get during his career. I cannot find a copy of the film to see.

It is said by producer Michael Dreeley (1932-) that he gave Collinson the job on The Long Day’s Dying to see if he could handle The Italian Job. Obviously, it panned out.

Michael Caine (from left), Noel Coward, David Kelly and Collinson

One of Collinson’s first tweaks upon becoming the director of The Italian Job was to reject the screenwriter’s choice of Nicol Williamson (1936-2011 oesophageal cancer) as crime lord Mr Bridger. Instead, Collinson cast his godfather Noel Coward (1899-1973 heart failure). The aging and ill Coward had to do his final walk though the prison in the film in several takes because he was so unwell.

Anyway, Coward was probably the reason for Collinson being in the business and his early success. Collinson was the son of an actress and a musician who more or less abandoned him to live with his grandparents before being raised at the Actor’s Orphanage from ages eight to 14. Noel Coward was president of the orphanage at the time and became Collinson’s godfather, guiding him through his failure to enter the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts but into other theatre jobs, then tv and film.

Noel Coward sings for the orphans at the Actor’s Orphanage

Collinson ended up serving in Malaya as part of his National Service during the Malaya Emergency from the age of 20. It was probably at the orphanage and during his service where Collinson did much of the early smoking which contributed to his death. Coward was also a smoker.

There was even a radio play entitled Mr Bridger’s Orphan written my Marcy Kahan in 2013 about Coward and Collinson.

A trailer for the Noel Coward play which was filmed entitled Blithe Spirit (1945)

The young director did a lot of tv work before he did The Penthouse which was offered to him by producer and distributor Michael Klinger (1920-89). Klinger had helped get Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Cul-De-Sac (1966) made. Their popularity led to Polanski directing the high budget feature The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) to further success.

You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970) poster

Collinson’s success with The Italian Job led him to work on the Tony Curtis (1925-2010 heart attack) and Charles Bronson (1921-2003 respiratory failure) film You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970). Written by actor Leo Gordon (1922-2000 heart failure), Curtis wears a rather anachronistic hat…

Curtis wrote of Collinson in his book American Prince: An Autobiography that the director was a rabid anti-Semite. When a Jewish friend of Curtis’s came to visit him on set, Collinson is reported to have said: “How come you Jews always stick together?”.

Bronson and Curtis in You Can’t Win ‘Em All

To which Curtis replied that Collinson could go f#*k himself. Needless to say, it didn’t start off the relationship very well and Curtis said while Collinson had the technical ability to direct, he didn’t have it when it came to leadership.

“The picture was terrible,” wrote Curtis.

In fact, it’s not that bad if you can get over an initial viewing. Set in Turkey in the early 1920s during the Greco-Turkish war, there are plot points in the movie which saw it long banned in Turkey where it was made and it possibly is still banned there to this day. As a strong follower of Bronson, even an ordinary Bronson film is worth watching.

A quad poster for Fright (1971)

Collinson was continuing his burgeoning international career as a director with this film as it was totally filmed in Turkey, particularly around Istanbul. Why he didn’t gravitate immediately to America like many successful English directors… well, he didn’t quite make the leap with this one.

This Turkish movie’s plot about safe-guarding a priceless ‘treasure’ lacks the slickness of The Italian Job but it’s a bit of a rollicking good time in places… Its failure and the fact that it’s forgotten today probably was the reason why Collinson didn’t succeed on the level promised by his work on The Italian Job.

Susan George is a babysitter pushed to the limit in Fright (1971)

After that, the director did a couple of nasties including Fright (1971) about a young babysitter played by Susan George (1950-) who gets terrified by the ex-husband of the woman she is babysitting for. It’s not a good advertisement for mental health as actor Ian Bannen (1928-99 car crash) threatens not only to kill George but his child as well.

The child is almost manhandled in one scene but remains calm as he is played by one of Collinson’s two sons, this one Tara Collinson. Fright is nasty and cruel but it is one of the first babysitter in peril movies of the modern era which led on to Halloween (1978) and When a Stranger Calls (1979). The latter was the last film of Tony Beckley who was also in The Penthouse. Dennis Waterman also makes his second Collinson appearance as one of the victims in Fright. It’s definitely an early slasher type film.

Fright (1971) trailer

Collinson worked for Hammer for another film set in Britain entitled Straight on till Morning (1972) which stars Rita Tushingham (1942-) and Shane Briant (1946-). I haven’t seen this film but the ending apparently harks back to the Moors Murders when the murderer tapes and replays the sounds of his victims to his next victim as he performs his grisly deed. It has been described in Leslie Halliwell’s Film Guide as “wildly directed” while Leonard Maltin described it as “offbeat”. It rates around 5.8/10 on the IMDb.

Straight on till Morning (1971) quad poster

Next came the Stanley Baker (1928-76 lung cancer) film Innocent Bystanders (1972) which was shot in Spain and Turkey and showed Collinson again at his brutal best. In fact, it is torture and the like which Collinson proved himself pretty good at in terms of movies. But Innocent Bystanders would probably be one of Collinson’s last really good films with a supporting cast which includes Geraldine Chaplin (1944-), Donald Pleasance (1919-95 following heart surgery) and Dana Andrews (1909-92 heart failure)…

A macho Stanley Baker and Geraldine Chaplin in Innocent Bystanders

Based on a novel by British tv’s Callan series (1967-72) creator James Mitchell (1926-2002) who also wrote the screenplay, Baker plays British agent John Craig, who rather reluctantly carries out his mission where his boss, younger replacements and others try to stop him from bringing a Russian defector who is living with a goat herd in Turkey back to Britain alive.

Innocent Bystanders (1972) quad poster

The acting is good, with Baker in full macho handlebar moustache mode. Just the way many like him and he probably liked himself. Alan Pattillo (1929-2020) who worked heavily on the marionette Thunderbirds (1965-66) tv series and was a co-editor on Nicolas Roeg’s (1928-2018 natural causes) Walkabout (1971) does a nice job on Innocent Bystanders and worked with Collinson on several occasions.

“Old and just a little bit past it,” comments a younger colleague of Baker’s played by Derren Nesbitt (1935-) as they more than playfully belt each other up with their fists which in one overhead toss threatens to dislodge Baker’s toupee.

Derren Nesbitt underestimates Stanley Baker in Innocent Bystanders

Later, boss Pleasance tells Baker: “You killed people nicely” in the past tense since on his last job the bad guys ruined Baker’s love life through torture by high voltage electrodes attached to his bollocks repeatedly activated. This leads to one great scene during the movie when the torture is recreated but when they only pretend to turn on the juice, Baker still feels the excruciating pain as a part of his neurosis. Baker is a seasoned tough guy in the mould of Charles Bronson and so it is not surprising Collinson worked with both.

Oh, the torture! Baker gets his bollocks electrified. Or not?

Won’t say too much more except that Chaplin aids the film by giving a sensitive performance. She too is tortured rather horribly.

Take a look at Baker’s gut at the end of the movie as he sits in the plane as it flies off, it’s obvious he enjoyed some gastronomical delights and wines on location in Spain and he probably polished off several packets of cigarettes as the evening wore on as well! No doubt Collinson did the same!

Innocent Bystanders (1972) trailer

It was after this film that Collinson made The Man Called Noon (1973). And it was around this period about the time of the death of his godfather Noel Coward that the work of Collinson declined. The first sign was this rather good to look at but almost inconsequential Western, which was again shot around Spain. It stars Richard Crenna (1926-2003 pancreatic cancer) and Stephen Boyd (1931-77 heart attack on golf course) and was written by Scot Finch (?-2005) from a novel by prolific western writer Louis L’Amour (1908-88).

The slightly underwhelming The Man Called Noon (1973)

The story about a cache of gold and a gunfighter suffering from amnesia has plenty of posturing but it fails to click in terms of excitement and is not one of the director’s most memorable movies. Farley Granger (1925-2011 natural causes) from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951) is the bad guy.

Foreign poster for Open Season (1974)

Collinson then made one of his last better movies. Open Season (1974) is regarded as nasty and reprehensible by many critics as three Vietnam veterans bond in their youth by raping a young woman and then as adults leave for the backwoods of America every year to their self-built lodge where they torture and kill couples they pick up on the highway on the way there. Thus, the title.

This regular hunt and slaughter is carried out by actors Peter Fonda (1940-2019 lung cancer), John Phillip Law (1937-2008 pancreatic cancer) and Richard Lynch (1940-2012 heart attack). There is a small but key role by William Holden (1918-81 drunken fall and loss of blood) who would also appear in Collinson’s final film The Earthling (1980).

The three killers in Open Season: Law, Lynch and Fonda

Shot at Pinewood studios and on location once more in Spain, Peter Fonda had fond memories of being able to play a totally evil character. What is generally an unpleasant movie in the end turns out to be a revenge film. I have admired it over the years despite its critical scorn… perhaps it’s that ending that makes up for all gratuitous sexual and physical violence.

Open Season is well made exploitation and one of the first films to feature an autistic child.

Open Season (1974) trailer

Then came one of British producer Harry Alan Towers (1920-2009 after short illness) aka Peter Welbeck’s versions of And Then There Were None – he produced a few – and this time it is the 1974 version with its interesting then contemporary international cast which includes Oliver Reed (1938-99 heart attack), Elke Sommer (1940-), Thunderball Bond villain Adolfo Celi (1922-86 heart attack), French singer Charles Aznavour (1924-2018 dead in bathtub), Austrian Maria Rohm (1945-2018), Herbert Lom (1917-2012 in sleep), Goldfinger himself Gert Frobe (1913-88 heart attack) and Richard Attenborough (1923-2014 stroke). It also guest stars the voice of Orson Welles (1915-85 heart attack). I’m impressed!

You may recognise some of the faces in And Then There Were None (1974)

I find this to be the best version of Towers’s movies even though the script is reportedly almost identical to the 1965 version. It’s just this time instead of an isolated snowy mountain location it is a remote hotel in the Middle Eastern desert.

Quad for And Then There Were None aka Ten Little Indians (1974)

Again, Collinson is working in Spain with some other locations in Iran before the fall of the Shah in that country. The film is criticised for its lack of tension but there’s no more fun than seeing a great cast get knocked off one by one if you’re familiar with the story. It’s the mystery which is the fun part.

Elke Sommer plays the last surviving member in the story and in real life is the last remaining cast member to survive.

And Then There Were None (1974) trailer

Despite this being the beginning of Collinson’s decline he still peaked with this movie.

Sadly, his remake of the 1940s movie The Spiral Staircase (1975) is a poorly paced and edited version about a character played by Jacqueline Bisset (1944-) who can’t speak after seeing her husband and child perish in a house fire. She goes to stay with her elderly grandmother… it’s a big house and there’s murders happening and so on.

An Asian The Spiral Staircase (1975) poster

The film is a disappointment and the rest of the cast includes John Phillip Law again and The Sound of Music’s Christopher Plummer (1929-). It just makes no sense in who committed the murders if you watch it again. At least the original had a bit of art and depth to it. No wonder it was remade since it is regarded as a classic Gothic horror… and it is even claimed to be one of the first slasher films! Collinson strikes out with this one.

The poster for The Sellout (1976) which showed the director losing his touch

And he wouldn’t fare any better with the next few. There is the Israeli set The Sellout (1976) which uses England and Israeli locations as poor Richard Widmark (1914-2008 after long illness) is saddled with an ordinary script by Murray Smith (?-2003) who took over from David McGillivray that same year on Pete Walker’s Schizo (1976). That is the better movie. Never has intrigue failed to grab me than in this poorly shot movie which also stars now Collinson regular Oliver Reed. Given that the transfer I saw was poor may have added to my frustration and despair over this movie. Collinson seemed to have lost interest in creating a good movie at this point.

Artwork for the none too good Target of an Assassin. It’s okay.

What followed was Target of an Assassin (1976) aka Tigers Don’t Cry with John Phillip Law again as the assassin of the title in this South African made movie which almost had to wait for apartheid to end before it got a release in the United States in the mid-1980s. This film is again poorly photographed and the action scenes contrive a climax with four army helicopters obviously happily on loan from the South African armed forces when surely no more than two were needed.

Anthony Quinn (1915-2001 throat cancer) stars as a male nurse at a hospital who spirits away an injured foreign president for ransom. It’s a slightly tacky international production. And I hate to say it but the stunts are poorly executed and unbelievable on their small scale. It’s better than Collinson’s previous two efforts only marginally and interesting also to see Quinn in a few touching scenes with his on-screen daughter.

Susan George and Oliver Reed in Tomorrow Never Comes (1978)

Collinson made one of his few North American forays into film with the Canadian siege drama Tomorrow Never Comes (1978). Again, he has a cast he knows with Oliver Reed and Susan George and Donald Pleasance. Others in the above average cast include Canadian veterans John Ireland (1914-92 leukemia) and Raymond Burr (1917-93 kidney tumour) but they can’t save it as again the suspense is botched with a crowd of spectators standing around far too close to the proceedings.

I liked this film once upon a time…

For some reason I held this film in high regard for many years after having seen it first on VHS but its hasn’t aged well, something which plagues much of Collinson’s work.

His final theatrical feature was the Australian outback or, to be more precise, Australian high-country film The Earthling (1980). William Holden stars alongside newcomer child star Ricky Schroder (1970-).

Apparently, Collinson monstered Schroder which caused him to bond with Holden. The depth of this relationship is showed by the fact that Schroder named one of his sons Holden after the actor.

Ricky Schroder obviously looked up to William Holden during the making of The Earthling (1980)

The film was originally going to be made in the United States but went to Australia where at the cost of $5 million it was reportedly the most expensive film to be made in the country at that time.

“Until then, you fight like hell to stay alive… you get that?,” is one line Holden delivers to young Ricky, which must have seemed like good advice under the circumstances. The story as such tells of Holden suffering from cancer returning home to die while Ricky is orphaned when his parents drive off a cliff in their campervan. Accidentally, of course.

Echoes of the ending of The Italian Job but a bit more tragic

It’s not great but Collinson finishes his career with a movie which is lifted somewhat by its stars and Aussie cinematographer Donald McAlpine’s (1934-) photography which is probably a bit overloaded by Aussie flora and fauna. Little Ricky is even almost eaten alive by rats!

So with better images in The Earthling for the first time in a while, it is only spoilt at the end when young Ricky is about to make his trip back to civilisation after burying Holden only to show it was shot beside a highway where cars can see whizzing by in the dying moments of the movie. Well, Collinson was born on 1 April – so April Fool!

The Earthling (1980) trailer

Collinson died four months after the film was released. He avoided making a film in the States for some reason preferring the relative freedom of international productions and what must have been a large number of friends in Spain as company over what I guess was food, wine and cigarettes. He is relatively forgotten today except for The Italian Job with its ending of a bus vacillating on the side of a cliff – one of the great endings – even if it was only in preparation for an unmade sequel.

Michael Caine and Peter Collinson obviously enjoyed themselves during The Italian Job

He made a tv movie before The Earthling entitled The House on Garibaldi Street (1979) again in Spain which was about Mossad’s tracking down of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in South America. Was the director making up for his alleged anti-Semitism? I haven’t seen it but I have read some good reviews.

Look deep into Peter Collinson’s apparently bad movie career and it contains some good movies. Surprising also is the fact that this man who seemed to avoid Los Angeles as his home as a filmmaker reportedly died there but was cremated back in England.

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