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1922. The Aegean Sea. Adam Dyer, a former U.S. Army soldier is rescued from his sinking skiff by Josh Corey and his gang of mercenaries who relieve him of his money and valuables as payment. In return, Adam outwits his hosts and gains command of their ship, setting in motion a friendly rivalry with Josh that eventually brings them together on a dangerous mission - to escort the three daughters of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to Smyrna. Even more appealing is a fortune in gold that is hidden among the transported cargo. Adam and Josh soon discover that there is an even more valuable treasure in their midst, which inspires a series of double-crosses between the mercenaries, Colonel Elci, and Aila, the guardian of the Sultan's three daughters
Originally titled The Dubious Patriots and once slated as a project for director Howard Hawks, You Can't Win 'Em All (1970) is an attempt to create a lively, two-fisted action-adventure buddy movie on the order of Beau Geste or Vera Cruz or North to Alaska, complete with barroom brawls, lots of gunfire and explosions and exotic women. Featuring the unlikely combination of Tony Curtis and Charles Bronson, the film, directed by Peter Collinson, was not a commercial success though the problem wasn't due to a lack of chemistry between the two stars.
Shot on location in Turkey in a mountainous area 200 miles from Istanbul, the filming of You Can't Win 'Em All was an endurance test for the cast, who often had to work under the broiling sun in temperatures that rose to 120 degrees. According to Charles Bronson, there was a great deal of tension on the set and he revealed that the director "can only work in a fraught atmosphere, whipping up everyone against everyone else. This is awful. It was an awful experience for me making You Can't Win 'Em All."
Peter Collinson had previously directed The Italian Job (1969), a caper film with a light, satiric touch, that suggested he could handle the mixture of comedy and dramatic action that You Can't Win 'Em All required. The Italian Job, however, might have been a lucky fluke because action comedy is not Collinson's forte. He is much more effective at brooding melodramas and psychological thrillers such as The Penthouse (1967), The Long Day's Dying (1968) and Fright (1971).
Part of the problem was the lackluster script by Leo Gordon, who is better known as a character actor who played big, burly villains in movies such as Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and The Big Operator (1959). Gordon also worked for producer/director Roger Corman in the late fifties and early sixties, collaborating on story ideas and screenplays for The Cry Baby Killer (1958), Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), The Wasp Woman (1959) and The Terror (1963) to name a few. For You Can't Win 'Em All, Gordon teamed up with Roger's brother, Gene Corman, and Harold Buck as producers, and even cast himself in a minor supporting role.
Tony Curtis, in his autobiography, recalled that he had just backed out of doing the burlesque comedy The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968) - Elliott Gould was his replacement - and realized he needed to find a replacement project. "A movie actor has to make movies, and that's what I kept doing," he recalled. "You Can't Win 'Em All was an adventure story about the Turkish civil war. It didn't have anything going for it except me and Charles Bronson, who was the most entertaining yet introverted man I ever met, very quiet and unassuming. I learned a lot from Charlie about how to stay in shape. He never lifted a weight. He had one of those thick rubber things that you hook to a car to keep the luggage from falling off, and he was always pulling on it. That's how he kept himself in shape. He was a fine, quiet, laid-back man who always did his work nicely and with a sensitivity to how you were doing yours."
It is unfortunate that Curtis and Bronson didn't have better material to work with in You Can't Win 'Em All because they clearly have a relaxed, easy-going on-screen rapport with each other that plays up Bronson's tight-lipped, laconic delivery and Curtis's unsolicited wisecracks. But with dialogue like "Looks like the crap just hit the fan" or "You welcome the Greeks. I'll check on the Turkish delight," their efforts were in vain. At that point in their careers, Bronson was one of the biggest stars in Europe, a popularity that began with his iconic role in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), but Curtis was at the beginning of a career slump that motivated him to accept work in television (The Persuaders!, 1971-72) and inferior films on both sides of the Atlantic such as Lepke (1975) for Israeli director/producer Menahem Golan, the Italian sex comedy Casanova and Co. (1977) and Sextette (1978), Mae West's final film.
Of course, with a title like You Can't Win 'Em All, the Curtis-Bronson film was practically inviting reviewers to trash it and most of them did. Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote "Peter Collinson...has directed You Can't Win 'Em All for clichs not only of the adventure movie and the caper movie and the warfare nostalgia movie (biplane bombers, and armored train, old staff cars, etc.), but also of the exotic picturesque. Lacking a plot of any interest, it settles instead for spectacular scenery - which it keeps revealing by drawing back or up and away from the file of mercenaries or the speeding train or whatever - as if the matter in view were to become less uninteresting the further you get from it - which in the case of You Can't Win 'Em All is pretty much true." Variety reinforced this opinion with their comment "You Can't Win 'Em All is both a title and a kind dismissal to this Gene Corman potboiler," and The Hollywood Reporter noted that "Curtis and Bronson occasionally strike a few sparks together, but the going is rough when they are forced to engage in some of the lamest repartee that can ever have passed for wit in an American movie."
One final bit of trivia: French actress Michele Mercier, who plays the role of Aila, was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, who has provided uncredited voiceover work for such Bond girls as Ursula Andress, Shirley Eaton and Claudine Auger. Ms. Mercier is best known for her appearance in the "Angelique" series, five bodice-ripping historical romances that began with Angelique, marquise des anges (1964), and such films as Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963).
Producer: Gene Corman
Director: Peter Collinson
Screenplay: Leo V. Gordon
Cinematography: Ken Higgins
Art Direction: Seamus Flannery
Music: Bert Kaempfert
Film Editing: Raymond Poulton
Cast: Tony Curtis (Adam Dyer), Charles Bronson (Josh Corey), Michele Mercier (Aila), Gregoire Aslan (Osman Bey), Fikret Hakan (Col. Elci), Salih Guney (Capt. Enver), Patrick Magee (The General Attaturk), Tony Bonner (Reese), John Acheson (Davis).
by Jeff Stafford
Tony Curtis: The Autobiography by Tony Curtis with Barry Paris (William Morrow and Co.)
Tony Curtis: The Man and His Movies by Allan Hunter (St. Martin's Press)