Young English girl Nikky (Hayley Mills) and her Aunt Francis (Joan Greenwood) arrive at the Moon-Spinners, a hotel on Crete, to a less than enthusiastic welcome. The owner, Sophia (Irene Papas) didn’t receive Nikky’s telegram and her cool demeanour is only out-done by the surliness of her brother Stratos (Eli Wallach). Recently back from London, he doesn’t want strangers hanging around, but the holidaymakers land a room. Partying amidst a Greek wedding, Nikky befriends handsome, mysterious English lad Mark (Peter McEnery) who promises to take her swimming, but he is shot at while investigating Stratos’ late-night activities on Dolphin Island. Nikky comes to the injured Mark’s aid and finds herself embroiled in adventure involving stolen jewels, nefarious criminals and the exotic Madame Habib (Pola Negri).
Disney family films from the fifties and sixties almost always instil warm and fuzzy feelings (Their live-action output throughout the 1980s is another matter entirely). However, often overlooked is their ability to lace such confections with thrills, spills and on occasion, a surprisingly dark edge. Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) and Emil and the Detectives (1964) are two fine examples, and so is The Moon-Spinners. A vehicle for the studio’s biggest star, the divine Hayley Mills, it’s a neat little thriller packed with tense sequences (Nikky hanging off a revolving windmill), strangeness (Stratos chased by hordes of angry cats), and well orchestrated action (Stratos trying to kill Mark with his speedboat). The film taps into teenage dreams: summer romance in exotic climbs, excitement, mystery and fun. Its Greek characters occasionally stray into caricature, which is perhaps inevitable given the genre and the period, but the film is never malicious and is mostly a warm portrayal of Crete. What’s more, as the conflicted Sophia, Greek actress Irene Papas delivers a very strong, committed performance considering this is a children’s film.
A strong supporting cast includes the wonderfully breathless Joan Greenwood, an urbane John Le Mesurier as the duplicitous Gamble, and Sheila Hancock who, in a rather touching scene, drunkenly confesses she’s trapped in a dreary marriage away from all her friends. Walt Disney himself coaxed silent screen siren Pola Negri out of her twenty year retirement. The actress worked many times with the great Ernst Lubitsch and is suitably arch and vampish in her final screen role. Neilson drives the action with skill, although the final confrontation is flatly staged. Peter McEnery has charisma, but appears too frail to tangle believably with tough guy Wallach. An almost fairytale like contrast is drawn between sweaty, shifty Stratos (Eli Wallach oozes menace) and Nikky’s fresh-faced innocence. Blonde, blue-eyed Hayley, blossoming into womanhood, is at her prettiest. She makes a plucky, resourceful heroine - always game enough to bamboozle baddies or bop them over the head. Mills and Negri share a sweetly funny scene where Nikki explains the whole breathless plot to an incredulous Madame Habib and winds up drinking too much of the brandy meant to calm her down. “You know something you’re rather a dear little thing!” she giggles at Madame Habib. That’s our Hayley in a nutshell.