Sinatra and ringing in the changes

Richard Lutz checks out a film by Old Blue Eyes. But first, a word about telephones….


I guess you could call it a sign of the times. My old friend Onetel has given up the ghost and handed its remaining assets to a huge French telecoms company called Fleur. Don’t worry, comes the old fashioned snail mail letter: You can still make cheap calls overseas.

Previously, I used this service every Sunday night when I would get in touch with ever-ageing family in the States. Those days are really gone. Now, if I want to speak to New York or Seattle, like everyone else, I use FaceTime or Whats App. There is no need to spend money, no matter how meagre, to talk internationally. Pretty soon, I would think even Fleur Telecom will disappear. And, I would think, the mega telecoms giants such as British Telecom will just make all calls free instead of soaking us.

Still in the ancient past, a TV recommendation: My faithful colleagues on the Screengrab desk (based in a Malaysian call centre, by all accounts), gives a thumbs up to Von Ryan’s Express (Wednesday, Film4, 13.50). I know this way of watching television harks back to the late 20th century. Why use normal TV when you can summon up anything on an infinite number of sites such as HBO or Netflix? But it’s still a big crystal rectangle in the corner of the living room crying to be used. So a word about this Frank Sinatra 1965 POW escape movie.

Old Blue Eyes (aka Francis Albert) is a colonel slapped up in a German war camp. He is hard and unloved – ergo his fellow inmates refer to him not as Col Ryan but as nasty Von Ryan. Anyway, his stern-eyed discipline helps them break out by stealing a Nazi locomotive. It’s a forgettable potboiler and you have to ask why it just doesn’t cut the cake (or barbed wire) like The Great Escape made two years previously. Well, I think the answer to that one is simple and reduces to two words: Steve McQueen.

But I like these forgettable 1960’s action pix sometimes because of the minor actors that people the screen. This being a Blue Eyes movie, there is Brad Dexter. Two reasons why you should really know him. One is that he saved the life of Sinatra when the singer almost drowned while on holiday, therefore ensuring that this B-lister always had work as long as Sinatra breathed on this planet. Secondly, and crucially, he is the member of the Magnificent Seven that you never remember in a pub quiz.

There’s also Edward Mulhare, an Irish thespo with an inkling of Peter O’Toole about him. Though he is a POW inmate in this film, you Hasselhoff fans will remember him as Knight Rider’s boss Devon Miles. And for you who love Broadway hits, he played Dr Doolittle for more than 1,000 performances in New York before he donned khaki to help Blue Eyes to escape.

And finally, there’s Joe Grey. He’s a Brooklyn bruiser. He must have been on the inside of the Rat Pack because he appeared in ten Sinatra films and, get this, 32 Dean Martin movies. In Von Ryan’s Thingy, he plays Prisoner. In other movies that have fast hit the rubbish bin of cinematic history, he played such dynamic roles as Bodyguard, taxi driver  and, this is my favourite, Undetermined Role.

Also a passenger on Von Ryan’s Express is Trevor Howard, a five star English stage and film actor. He refused a CBE honour in 1962 (now, there’s heroism for you) and had a love affair with French actress Anouk Aimee. And importantly, throughout his movie career, his contract stipulated he be excused from working if a crucial cricket test match was being played. English to the core. Pint of your best and a quick peak at the Telegraph, thank you very much.

There are other micro-luminaries in Von Ryan’s Express including James Brolin (dad of Josh) and English singer John Leyton (above) who had a couple of pre-Beatles chart hits including a number one called Johnny Remember Me. Well, sports fans, most of us don’t. But he had twin claims to celluloid fame: 

  • He was in The Great Escape with La McQueen. He was the guy who broke out with Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasance
  • A certain hippy dippy ingenue called Mia Farrow came to visit him on set. There she met Sinatra and they got married in one of the strangest hook-ups this side of Sunset Boulevard. Needless to say, it didn’t last long.

I knew there was romance in Hollywood.