The Big Gamble

THE BIG GAMBLE didn’t pay off at the box office in 1961, but it’s a reasonably entertaining light adventure, written by Irwin Shaw, directed by Richard Fleischer. Darryl F. Zanuck produced it, casting his current girlfriend Juliette Gréco to co-star with Stephen Boyd and David Wayne.

Irish merchant sailor ‘Vic Brennan’ (Boyd) and his newlywed French wife ‘Marie’ (Gréco) convince his well-off family to loan him the money to start a truck transport service in Africa. They agree, but send bookish cousin ‘Samuel’ (Wayne) along to keep an eye on the investment. After their ship deposits them and their truck on the West African coast, their journey to an inland town is fraught with perils: a fallen tree, crossing a swollen river, traversing narrow cliffside roads, losing brakes on the downhill, a thief, fever.

Spirited little saga with some decent detail oriented passages: the sequence of getting the truck ashore from the ship and later the river crossing in particular are well handled.  The Ireland section was shot in Dublin, some of the African material was done in southern France, the rest in the Ivory Coast/Côte d’Ivoire, which achieved independence from France in 1960. The Africa-shot action material was directed by Elmo Williams. Though the idea of a team driving a truck through rough country recalls the classic adventure drama Wages of Fear, this has a much lighter touch, exemplified by the cargo Boyd buys–300 cases of beer.

Boyd’s first follow-up to his big break in Ben-Hur has him as bullheaded but decent, with Wayne getting the sap duty and the obligatory fever-flipout scene. Gregory Ratoff has a brief colorful cameo as a rogue they encounter on the journey. Other than the scenery and by-gone time period feel, what gives the movie real juice is the expressive and winning performance from the legendary Juliette Gréco.  This was the 4th project Zanuck put her in, after The Sun Also Rises, The Roots Of Heaven and Crack In The Mirror. She was already a veteran of arduous African-locations, as The Roots Of Heaven (a really tough assignment) was made in Chad, and her less-known The Naked Earth had been filmed in Uganda. *

Budgeted at $4,000,000: no box office returns are readily available. Veteran cameraman William C. Mellor handled the lensing, while up & coming Maurice Jarre did the music score.  With Sybil Thorndike, Fernand Ledoux, Marie Kean and Jess Hahn. 100 minutes.

* Darryl F. Zanuck had a penchant for grooming and casting mistresses. Gréco had been preceded by Bella Darvi (The Egyptian, Hell And High Water), who flamed out. When Gamble folded, she dumped Zanuck and he “found” Irina Demick, who then decorated several pictures including The Longest Day. She was eventually replaced by his last passion pick Genevieve Gilles. Of the them all, the fascinating, multitalented Gréco was by far the best actress. Called “the muse of existentialism” for her friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre and the Bohemian revival of the 50s, she passed away in 2020, at the age of 93, having survived jail and the Gestapo during WW2, affairs with Albert Camus and Miles Davis, three marriages and a suicide attempt. With all that, some sweaty discomfort making an minor adventure flick wasn’t such a challenge.

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