Mar 31, 2007

Review: Secret Agent aka Danger Man: The Complete Collection

Along with The Avengers, The Prisoner and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Saint, Secret Agent (known in the UK as Danger Man) is a quintessential Sixties British spy show, and one of the very cornerstones of the entire genre. It’s an absolute must-see for any spy fan, and A&E’s new Megaset (not to be confused with their old, more expensive but less-comprehensive and less-mega Megaset) is the best, most economical way to own it. The new Megaset includes all 39 half-hour episodes (originally available in an attractive but pricey set called "Danger Man") and all 47 hour-long adventures (originally packaged by A&E as "Secret Agent.") They’re housed on 18 appealing, single-disc slimcases packed in a compact, satisfyingly hefty cube of a box that takes up considerably less shelf space than the previous Megaset, which only included the hour-long episodes!

Secret Agent/Danger Man stars the great Patrick McGoohan as John Drake. In the half-hour format, Drake works for NATO and has a clipped, Mid-Atlantic American accent; in the re-tooled hour-long program, he’s British and works for MI-6. Although he has occasional recurring bosses, it’s essentially McGoohan’s solo show. Unlike the lighter tone of that other solo staple, The Saint, Secret Agent is a fairly serious espionage show. Drake participates in actual spying (undercover work, intelligence gathering, agent recruitment), doesn’t generally carry a gun, and doesn’t always win. He usually does, but it’s sometimes a bittersweet victory.

Danger Man began 1960, around the same time as The Avengers (which wouldn't come into its own for another year), and before the Bond films. This gave it the rare opportunity to essentially define its own genre, something no other spy series would ever have the chance to do once 007 etched the espionage standards in stone. Of course, the producers (led by Ralph Smart) borrowed from Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, but also from the darker espionage literature of Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, and from John Le Carre’s nascent Smiley cycle. The series was set in the contemporary political climate of the Cold War, but actual countries were rarely named, replaced by fictional stand-ins. (Castelvara was their go-to South American dictatorship, for instance.)

Just because Drake walked a slightly more realistic beat than Bond doesn’t mean the episodes are action-free. They all pack at least one punch-up, often more, and usually an exciting chase or two. Danger is constant, as Drake is always at risk of being found out when undercover, often behind the Iron Curtain. Drake doesn’t womanize (supposedly at the insistence of the devoutly Catholic McGoohan, who reportedly turned down the Bond role because he didn’t approve of the character’s promiscuity and penchant for violence), but he’s not above leading a woman on and using her for information. His work requires him to constantly misrepresent himself and betray hastily-forged friendships, which takes its toll on him. As a result, Drake is petulant and often at odds with his bosses. It’s not hard to see this character becoming so embittered as to eventually resign... as McGoohan’s unnamed character does in his follow-up series, The Prisoner.

Whether or not The Prisoner’s Number Six is meant to be John Drake is a source of constant, often vehement, debate among fans. McGoohan has stated publicly that they are not the same character, but then, he has to say that, officially, as he and his production company (who made The Prisoner) did not have the rights to the John Drake name. The characters certainly share many traits, including a keen intelligence (which always comes through in McGoohan’s eyes even when Drake is pretending to be someone else), a disregard for authority, and hints of a Holmesian condescending superiority. This latter trait manifests itself most frequently towards Drake’s controllers and the enemy agents who think they can outwit him. Number Two after Number Two (the position had a very high turnover rate) would try to wring the same disregard out of Number Six with varying methods, but little success. Ultimately, whether the Prisoner technically is Drake or not is beside the point. McGoohan’s years spent in the Drake role and the popularity of the character were extra-textual baggage he brought with him to The Prisoner, no matter what. The public’s perception of McGoohan as a spy made it possible for him to provide such little background on Number Six, and enabled him to set the wheels moving so quickly in the first episode, "Arrival," which he began with his character resigning. (The sequence was subsequently summarized the The Prisoner’s main titles every week.) Episodes like "A, B and C" took further advantage of McGoohan’s Secret Agent legacy, and "The Girl Who Was Death" sends it up brilliantly, along with The Avengers and all other Sixties spies.

But while viewing Danger Man informs and enhances viewing The Prisoner (though it’s by no means a pre-requisite), knowledge of The Prisoner is not at all necessary to watch Danger Man. In fact, the latter show’s acknowledged brilliance and justified fame have unfairly obscured the former’s rock-solid reputation. Unlike The Prisoner, Danger Man did not set out to break new ground or deconstruct the genre, but merely to tell great spy stories. And it succeeds as well as–if not better than–ninety percent of the countless other series that have had the same goal. While a few clunkers are inevitable in such a long-running program, the vast majority of episodes are extremely well written, well acted, superbly directed and tightly edited. The show makes better use of its thirty minute format than any other action drama I’ve seen at that length, always managing to tell a full, fast-paced but satisfyingly complete story in its limited time. (Apparently ITC had completely forgotten the trick by the time they got around to The Adventurer!) And it’s a convenient running time; the half-hour episodes (actually running shorter than that) make perfect viewing when you’re just looking for something to put on during dinner or while waiting to go out. Stand-out adventures in this format include "The Sanctuary," "Colonel Rodriguez," and "Time To Kill" (penned by future Avengers mastermind Brian Clemens), in which Drake finds himself handcuffed to an argumentative schoolteacher in an unfriendly nation.

When the series expanded to an hour (and began airing in America as Secret Agent, whose famous Johnny Rivers theme song accompanies the US title sequence included as a bonus feature on these discs), it adapted easily to the new length. These episodes never feel flabby; instead they use the extra running time to create more complex plots and develop Drake’s character more fully. "Yesterday’s Enemies" is one of the very best examples of what could potentially make Drake become disillusioned with his business, and could on its own make a fitting prequel to The Prisoner. Drake looks into a network of double-agents set up by a disgruntled former colleague, and the tragic consequences of his investigation sicken him. The episode shows the toll that the spy business takes on the families of those involved. It's a moving piece of television, very much of the "depressing spy story" sub-genre later perfected by The Sandbaggers.

"A Room In the Basement," on the other hand, in which Drake goes rogue to rescue a fellow agent after diplomatic channels fail, could be a prototype for a very different type of spy show. With plenty of deception, intrigue, action and breaking and entering, it could have easily been remade as an Alias. It's to Danger Man's credit that the series can pull off both of these radically different types of episode without seeming schizophrenic. Another teriffic entry, "Fair Exchange" finds a happy medium between the two ends of the spectrum in a great tale of East German border-crossing.

"Don’t Nail Him Yet" is a particularly exemplary episode, and one of the series’ finest moments. In order to trap a suspected spy, Drake learns his habits and creates a character he thinks he’ll respond to, then expertly befriends the man. His quarry, Denis Rawson (John Fraser) is not presented as a "bad guy," but as a decent, lonely man who’s been compromised, and he earns the audience’s sympathies. (This same set-up, and the inevitable complications and moral quandaries which follow, also forms the basis for the best episodes of MI-5/Spooks.) When Drake’s superiors become anxious to make an arrest, he’s forced to speed up his strategy, hoping to learn who Rawson is reporting to. This episode contains good, realistic characters, intelligent drama, fascinating tradecraft (Drake and a somewhat resentful Special Branch detective tail the suspicious Rawson as he attempts to evade them with a circuitous route in a lengthy, Hitchcockian sequence), and bursts of thrilling action (including a car colliding with a plane!). All this and the sort of slightly melancholy conclusion Secret Agent episodes often end with. If you’re Netflicking and just want a taste of the show, "Don’t Nail Him Yet" is as good a taste as you’ll find.

Unfortunately, the next episode on that disc, "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove," is a rare failure, but an interesting one. It’s atypical for the series, with an unsure, possibly drugged Drake never fully aware of his own circumstances, and touches of surrealism more associated with The Avengers (particularly "Death’s Door") and perfected in The Prisoner. For these reasons alone it’s worth watching (especially for fans of McGoohan’s other series), as well as for Desmond "Q" Llewellyn in a fairly substantial role.

The final two hour-long episodes are in color (and were cobbled together into a movie called Koroshi for release in Europe), but are not among the series’ strongest. Nonetheless, it’s good to see Drake in color for once, and makes for a nice bridge into The Prisoner. (In fact, when McGoohan fell behind on his production schedule on that show, the color episodes of Secret Agent filled the timeslot.) These episodes are both set in Asia, and contain some nice, colorful shots of Tokyo and other Eastern landmarks. Whether this footage was taken by a second unit for the show or came from ITC’s stock footage library I’m not sure, but due to the quality I’d actually lean toward the former.

This Megaset contains the same discs as the individual collections, with the same transfers and the same extras. The transfers are generally quite good, and since Danger Man was always shot on film (as opposed to videotape, like the early Avengers episodes), picture is uniformly clear and crisp and there are no sound problems. All of that is definitely a rare treat for fans of British television from that era, since we’re used to the unavoidable muddy dialogue and bleary image from those videotaped Avengers. The extras are thin, as they usually are on A&E’s TV releases. Each disc of the hour-long episodes contains a still gallery, a brief McGoohan bio, and the aforementioned American titles, using the Johnny Rivers song instead of Edwin Astley’s "Highwire" theme from the British versions.

McGoohan is consistently excellent, a pleasure to watch, and nearly all the episode are worth seeing again and again, so Secret Agent aka Danger Man undoubtedly belongs in every serious spy fan’s collection. If you don’t have any of the previous releases, this new Megaset is definitely the way to go. It may be pricey, but it’s a bargain compared to buying all the sets on their own! Even if you already have some of the sets, it may still turn out cheaper to buy this box than continue building your collection one expensive piece at a time, and it definitely saves shelf space. Highly recommended.
New Le Carre Movie

Dark Horizons reports that the UK production company behind the supurb Constant Gardener is developing John Le Carre's latest novel, The Mission Song, as a movie. No director is set and production is "at least a year away," according to sources quoted in the report.

(By the way, pay no heed to the website's claim that The Bourne Legacy is set to be adapted. While that's certainly a possibility in the future, the "news item" is dated April 1 and should be disregarded.)

Mar 29, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For March 29, 2007

Classic Bond Posters Covered

CommanderBond.net has published an excellent interview with the author of the German tome, Licence To Thrill: James Bond Posters 1962 - 1997. Nixdorf's book pre-dated Tony Nourmand's English language James Bond Movie Posters: The Official 007 Collection. While I can't comment on the sparse text, not speaking German, the pictures in Nixdorf's book are excellent and he offers many that can't be found in the later book (which has the advantage of being able to include Never Say Never Again and the '67 Casino Royale). Both are essential to the 007 poster afficianado. Anyway, Devin Zydel's interview with Nixdorf is very interesting and collectors should definitely give it a read.

Sandler To Star In Spy Movie?

I don't know how much of a spy movie it will actually turn out to be, but Adam Sandler is playing a Mossad agent in his next film, You Don't Mess With Zohan. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Sandler's character "fakes his death so he can move to New York and become a hairstylist." Dennis Dugan directs, and Rob Schneider co-stars. If that doesn't sound very enticing to you, consider that the script is co-written by comic genius Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin). Could be another funny spy comedy...
The Good German Hits DVD In May

DVDActive reports that Warner Bros. will release the best movie no one saw last year, The Good German, on DVD May 22. There's no word yet on special features, but I really hope they load this disc, as it would be very interesting to see all the work that went into making it look and feel like a 40s Warner Bros. picture. The sticker price is steep at $27.95, but I'm sure it will be readily available much cheaper than that from the usual discount retailers. Personally, I wish they'd stuck with the evocative theatrical poster artwork for the cover, but at least they still more or less maintain the Casablanca flavor with this watered-down version.

Hopefully more people will have the chance to check out this minor masterpiece on DVD. It never even seemed to get the wide release it deserved theatrically. If anyone had seen it, then Cate Blanchett surely would have given Helen Mirren a run for her money as Best Actress.

Mar 28, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum Trailer

Finally! I was just wondering when we were going to see a trailer for the latest Jason Bourne movie, seeing as it comes out this summer, when AICN gives the heads-up today that it's now available on Yahoo UK. The movie looks pretty good, although (not surprisingly) it also looks like it has nothing at all whatsoever in common with Robert Ludlum's book of the same name. Neither did The Bourne Supremacy, and even The Bourne Identity pretty much only took the book's concept and a couple of its characters. I've really enjoyed this cycle of Bourne films (especially Supremacy), but I also loved those books when I was a kid, and I still dream of one day seeing filmed versions which do them justice. (Preferably period pieces set in the last decade of the Cold War... Hey, I can dream, right?) The Richard Chamberlain mini-series version of Identity at least got the first half right, only to make it all the more jarring when it went so off course in the second part. The Damon movies may be less faithfull, but they also make better viewing.

Mar 26, 2007

Before They Were Spies

UK distributor Network released the gritty 1957 trucker noir Hell Drivers on Region 2 DVD this week. No, it's definitely not a spy movie (not even close!), but it has more than enough spy connections to warrant a mention here. For one thing, tough-guy star Stanley Baker is supported by a gaggle of future spy stars. Secret Agent Patrick McGoohan, Man From UNCLE David McCallum, Professional Gordon Jackson, and Double-O man Sean Connery round out the ensemble. For another, it's co-written and based on a story by John Kruse, who would go on to write for The Saint, The Protectors, The Persuaders and Return of the Saint, as well as penning the screenplay for Roger Moore's zippy pre-Bond spy flick Crossplot. Like most recent Network releases, this 2-disc affair is packed with bonus material including an audio commentary, interviews with Baker, documentaries, a whole Danger Man episode, and Who Killed Lamb, a well-regarded 1974 teleplay starring Baker.

Mar 25, 2007

Sixties Spies On The Big Screen In The Big Apple

And I thought all the great film events happened here in LA! After missing out on this winter's classic James Bond screening series at the Aero in Santa Monica (which was successfull enough to warrant a follow-up series focusing on the Roger Moore era coming this fall!), New Yorkers will get their revenge with a chance to see a whole slew of Bond and various Sixties spy movies at the Film Forum in April and May. The theater will play every Bond movie, official and unofficial, from Dr. No to A View To A Kill except for Moonraker. They will intersperse them with theatrical rarities The Silencers, Our Man Flint, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Our Man In Havana (which isn't even on DVD), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, the unmissible Harry Palmer double feature of The Ipcress File and Billion Dollar Brain, and the equally heavenly double-bill of Fathom and Danger: Diabolik!

If you're a New Yorker who's never seen Fathom, and you consider yourself a spy fan, you really owe it to yourself to check this one out! Fathom is best described as a fluffy delight. Yes, I will hate myself in the morning for using that term, but it's pretty apt. It stars Raquel Welch at her very sexiest in a lime green bikini as a skydiving dental hygienist who gets mixed up with spies. Among these spies is the great Clive Revill in the scene-stealing role of Serapkin, a campy Sixties spy villain on par with Dirk Bogarde's tour-de-force turn as Gabriel in the otherwise disposable Modesty Blaise. It's a humongously enjoyable little film that I should really review soon for this blog.

Anyway, if you're in the Northeast, it looks like you're in for a good time this spring. And I'm jealous!

Thanks to a forum poster on CommanderBond.net for getting the word out on this series.

Mar 23, 2007

Young Bond Exclusive In The Guardian

The Young Bond Dossier reports that a Young Bond Rough Guide To London, based on Charlie Higson's latest, London-set entry in the series, Double or Die, will be bundled with the April 7 issue of The Guardian. Apparently it will only be included with copies of The Guardian distributed in the London area. This means it will most likely be very difficult to locate in the United States, like last fall's supplement with the Moneypenny short story in The Spectator. If you live in London, though, keep an eye out for it!
America's First Spy... Movie

Variety reports that Warner Bros. has picked up the film rights to M. William Phelps' upcoming Nathan Hale biography For the Sake of Liberty: America's First Spy. The trade says, "In September 1776, Hale volunteered for an espionage assignment authorized by the country's first intelligence org, formed only a month earlier under George Washington's authority." Of course, any American with an elementary school knowledge of history knows how that turned out. Hale was hanged by the British with the famous last words, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Danica Radovanov, VP of production company Josephson Entertainment, says, "We want to do it as an exciting spy story." Sounds exciting to me! I'm all for spy movies in different historical settings, and Hale's story has fascinated me ever since I was little, when the drive to my kindergarten took me past teacher Hale's original schoolhouse in New London, Connecticut every morning.

Mar 22, 2007

Review: Cool McCool (1966)

BCI’s new release of this Sixties cartoon (on their Ink & Paint imprint) is a real find for animation enthusiasts, but likely to bore the uninitiated. Cool McCool is a Maxwell Smart-ish bumbling, mustachioed secret agent whose gadgets–and very existence–clearly owe a debt to James Bond, but whose look comes more from the previous incarnation of "spy": a trenchcoat instead of a tux. The packaging plays up the spy aspects of the series (Cool’s magnifying glass just happens to illuminate the last three digits in "[Cool’s] back for 2007!"), but the series’ best attributes are more likely to appeal to fans of classic cartooning than spy fans.

Like Inspector Clouseau, Cool is incompetent and succeeds only by accident. His catchphrase comes when he assures his unseen, cigar-smoking, M-like boss, No. 1, that whatever embarrassment he’s just perpetrated "will never happen again!" After which, of course, it always happens immediately. The animation is actually very impressive for the era, looking more like DePatie-Freeling’s theatrical Pink Panther cartoons than Ralf Bakshi’s barely-animated Spider-Man series (the one where his spider emblem only has six legs because it’s simpler to draw that way!) that aired on TV around the same time. The backgrounds are spare, but beautifully painted, the character designs are creative, and their movement is impressively fluid. There are even a few avant-garde touches, like the occasional use of photographs amidst the animation (such as a wall of actual pin-up girls displayed on wanted posters).

After an overlong title sequence that takes up a big chunk of each episode and unnecessarily introduces every villain in a rather lackluster theme song, episodes are divided into three self-contained segments. (So amidst the twenty episodes in the set, you actually get sixty shorts in total. Not bad!) The first features Cool, the second his dad ("my pop the cop"), Harry McCool, and his bumbling Komedy Kops (Tom and Dick, har-har), and the third Cool again, sometimes with a child sidekick (his son?) named Breezy. The Komedy Kops shorts recycle old Keystone Kops routines and animation gags that were already old when these originally aired in the Sixties. My advice is to skip them altogether and just watch the considerably funnier Cool McCool segments. (A very well-designed menu conveniently allows you to do just that, presenting each segment as its own selectable chapter.)

Many of the jokes in the Cool segments come from his gadgets. In one, Cool can’t figure out if the ringing he’s hearing is coming from his watch phone or his pencil phone or his mustache phone. Turns out it was coming from his TELEphone! In another, one of the series’ most inspired gags, the Q character, Riggs, comes into No. 1's office to outfit Cool with a new invincibility spray. Sprayed head-to-foot, Cool is put into a "punishment box" to test it. The spray evidently doesn’t work, and the box beats the crap out of Cool with its cartoon thrashers. Poor Riggs starts crying at his failure, and No. 1 comforts him. When Cool finally stumbles out of the box, battered, No. 1 chastises him for disregarding poor Riggs’ feelings!

When Cool gets in his car, he goes through a checklist: "Let’s see if I’ve got everything... machine guns... tear gas...smoke screen... and my LICENSE TO KILL! If only I had a license to drive!" And off he goes with little concern for the well-being of pedestrians. (His license to kill has a large skull and crossbones on it!)

Cool McCool may be most famous for its rogues’ gallery, for which creator Bob Kane basically recycled his best (and worst) Batman villains under new names. Instead of the Joker, there’s Jack-in-the-Box; instead of the Penguin, there’s the Owl, etc, etc. The quality of any episode basically depends on the villain. If you get an Owl or Rattler episode, it’s likely to be good; if you get Hurricane Harry or Dr. Madcap, not so much. They’re just silly, much more "cartoon" than "spy" or "comic book," and unlikely to entertain anyone older than eight. Rattler and, especially, the Owl, though, are more adult-friendly parodies with cleverer, funnier schemes. (The funniest episode finds Cool disguising himself as a bird to infiltrate the Owl’s gang of criminal fowl.) The Owl’s sidekick is a Catwoman clone named (of course!) Pussycat.

In addition to presenting very nice transfers of such old and relatively obscure material, BCI also pack this set with special features, most featuring animation voice legend Chuck McCann. Commentary moderator Wally Wingert estimates with little exaggeration that McCann is responsible for 90% of the voices on the series (which only employed three voice actors), though he does not play Cool. The commentary on the pilot is basically a good, informative interview between Wingert and McCann, but it’s not really screen-specific. They get way off topic early on and talk about all sorts of things, paying little attention to what’s going on onscreen. McCann on McCool is an interesting on-camera conversation between the same two participants. You’ll hear how McCann creates his character voices as "hybrids" of impersonations, like Sydney Greenstreet and Jack Benny–unless you’re too distracted by Wingert’s alarming Weird Al hair. (Perhaps Wingert should have remained off camera...)

Chatting With Chuck is a close-quarters gathering of twenty or so friends and "famous" fans of McCann’s (like Bob Denver’s son) moderated by the ubiquitous Wingert. It’s a career-spanning retrospective that covers more ground than the previous features and includes extended old TV clips of McCann, as well as a brief puppetry demonstration. Finally, we have one of the strangest special features I’ve ever seen on any DVD, a music video called "The School of McCool." It appears to have been shot in the early Nineties and features Wingert (looking like Dante from Clerks and dressed in an off-color McCool costume) singing about how much he likes McCool. Even though it’s clearly low-budget, it’s also clear that a lot of work actually went into this. There are go-go dancers, and sets (sort of) and even a kooky guest appearance by (you guessed it) Chuck McCann. WHY WAS THIS MADE???? What purpose could it have possibly served? It is SO WEIRD! But its utter strangeness also makes it a must-see clip, of course. There are also trailers for dozens of other eclectic Ink & Paint releases, and they’re all entertaining in their own right. Anyone with fond memories of Eighties (or earlier) cult cartoon shows like He-Man and She-Ra should definitely check them out.

While dedicated followers of Sixties animation shouldn’t hesitate to pick up this inexpensive, feature-packed set, regular spy fans will probably be satisfied with just a taste. Queue up a disc on Netflix and see if you like it before committing.

Mar 20, 2007

DVD Review: Casino Royale (2006)

There’s not really too much to say about Sony’s recent DVD of Casino Royale. The transfer is unsurprisingly excellent, and the extras are slim, despite this being a two-disc set. As for the film, I still feel pretty much the same as I did when I reviewed it when it was in theaters. It’s an excellent Bond movie, and Daniel Craig is great in it. It is a bit overlong, and it’s interesting to note which parts you instinctively skip when you have that ability on DVD. For me, it was the lengthy Miami airport sequence. It’s a good, tense chase with some exciting music and great effects (I love it when the police car flies up in the jet stream!) but it seems like a bit of an unnecessary detour. After the gritty prologue and the adrenaline rush of that amazing opening foot chase, I was eager for the plot to get underway. It’s off to a good start with Bond’s gambling and investigation in the Bahamas, but seems sidetracked (literally, since 007 actually leaves the Bahamas only to return) by thirteen minutes of airport mayhem before we get into the meat of the story in Montenegro. I realize that it’s important for Bond to thwart Le Chiffre’s deadly investment scheme, but it doesn’t need to take so long, and we’ve already seen a top-notch tanker chase in Licence To Kill. Of course, the look on Craig’s face when the terrorist inadvertently blows himself up is priceless.

There is no commentary track, and neither the mouth-watering teaser (with that Carmina Burana-like vocal version of the James Bond theme) nor the excellent trailer for Casino Royale is included. (Though you do get trailers for The Holiday and The Pursuit of Happyness, if that’s any consolation...) A good chunk of the "over 90 minutes of extras" they promise on the box comes from Maryam D’Abo’s documentary Bond Girls Are Forever, which isn’t even a new feature! (It was originally made for AMC to promote Die Another Day and released as a Best Buy exclusive with the DVD of that movie.) Of course, this is Bond Girls Are Forever 2006, which means that we get a few extra minutes edited into the final third featuring Eva Green and Caterina Murino, whom D’Abo doesn’t even interview in person. No attempt is made to disguise the fact that the focus of the piece is Die Another Day, and that Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike feature most prominently. The good news is that this and the two new featurettes you do get are all excellent documentaries. If you didn’t already have Bond Girls Are Forever, it’s a worthy addition to any Bond fan’s library, produced and hosted by one of the best of the Bond girls.

Becoming Bond is a half-hour look at Daniel Craig’s casting and the challenges he had to overcome in taking over from Pierce Brosnan as the world’s most famous spy. It’s surprisingly candid, going into detail on the tabloid press’s repeated assaults on Craig and the so-called "fan" nonsense like CraigNotBond.com. Craig himself is able to look back on it now from the enviable position of being the most commercially successful Bond ever in new interview segments probably taped on the set of The Golden Compass, judging from his facial growth. The documentary addresses the unjust criticisms of Craig for wearing a life jacket on his way to the initial press conference announcing his casting (soundly refuting them by showing footage of the actor protesting a Royal Marine’s insistence that he do so) and not being able to drive a stick shift. While it’s refreshing to see such potentially controversial issues addressed in a promotional piece, the scope is fortunately broader than that, and also covers the initial filming in the Bahamas with a good deal of behind-the-scenes footage.

Narrated entirely earnestly by comic genius Rob Brydon, Bond For Real touches on a bit of the same material, but generally picks up where Becoming Bond left off, focusing on the spectacular stunt work in Casino Royale. A lot of attention is given to free-runner Sebastien Foucan and the sport he co-created, parkour, which he demonstrates in the African foot chase. We’re even treated to clips from the original BBC documentary on the subject which first caught the writers’ eyes. We also meet Craig’s stunt double, and get shots of him and Craig on set, performing in the fight with Foucan on beams suspended high above the ground. The Miami airport chase is covered, too (why on earth did they wreck a Jaguar as their test vehicle for that police car stunt?), as is the amazing Aston Martin crash and roll. (Seven rolls, actually, setting a world record.) It’s incredible that they actually performed that stunt for real, and that someone was actually driving the car!

Neither of these documentaries is a thorough, in-depth making-of, and they’re certainly not on the level of the "Inside..." docs on the DVDs of the classic Bond movies, but they’re both better than average, and not just the electronic press kits that are sometimes recycled onto the initial DVD releases of big films. Both are definitely worth a watch for even a casual Bond fan.
There should be no doubt that Sony plans to revisit Casino Royale with a more loaded special edition DVD in the near future (director Martin Campbell has even said as much, revealing that he’s recording a commentary track for that release), but in the meantime this is a disc that no 007 addict can be without. Of course, if you’re reading this blog, you probably already know that because you probably already have it!

Mar 19, 2007

Review: The Wild Wild West: The Second Season

With Agent 007 shooting up the big screen and Gunsmoke and Bonanza still going strong on TV, "Spy" and "Western" were the two most popular genres of the mid-Sixties. It was an obvious move to attempt to meld them in some way. But spy fans who have never seen The Wild Wild West should not be put off by the fact that it’s a Western. Because, in fact, it’s not a Western. It is a Sixties spy show, through and through, which happens to be set in the Wild West. "Spy" is the genre (or the closest thing this rather unclassifiable show comes to having a genre) and "Western" is the setting.

By its second season (1966-67), the original "James Bond in the Wild West" concept of The Wild Wild West had drifted even further into what it really was: "The Avengers in the Wild West." Out of all the popular spy shows Hollywood produced during that glorious decade, this is the closest they ever came to an American Avengers. The Wild Wild West possesses the same delightfully off-kilter sensibility, the same surrealist bent, the same... sheer weirdness The Avengers became famous for during its Emma Peel years. And as with The Avengers, the weird factor went up when the series switched to color in its second season.

The first (black and white) season was like the monochrome episodes of The Avengers. There was a very specific landscape which never quite actually existed (a slightly fantastical version of the American frontier as opposed to an idealized "tea and crumpets"/"Village Green" version of England) populated by eccentrics and over-the-top diabolical masterminds played by seasoned character actors. The plots were out there, but fairly down to earth, like a mad big game hunter using a circus as a cover for a counterfeiting operation. They occasionally veered even further into the bizarre, but stopped short of the impossible. Then, after the switch to color and all the psychedelic opportunities that it offered, the impossible became the norm. Like The Avengers, secret service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) found themselves facing extraordinary threats–like man-eating plants and shrink rays–on a weekly basis.

Right off the bat, the premiere episode of the first color season gives a good indication of what to expect. Our heroes face a villainous organization known as the Eccentrics, and true to their name they boast a roster of even more unusual villains than Jim and Arte had faced before. Victor Buono (who also played a different villain in the series pilot) guest stars as the chief Eccentric, a magician. His tricks include fantastic electrical fields and the apparent ability to shoot lightning out of his hands. He and his gang (including Richard Pryor as a mad ventriloquist and a supposedly English knife-thrower with a cockney accent far worse than Dick Van Dyke’s) plot to replace the President of Mexico with a double for nefarious purposes. Hardly the stuff of Gunsmoke! Not content to be naturalistic, the art direction employs loud, vibrant carnival colors to accentuate the bizarreness of the situations.

From there on, each episode is more wild than the one before it. In "Night of the Golden Cobra," Jim is captured by Indians. No, not the Native American kind; the Hindu variety! He’s taken to a maharajah’s palace on the plains where he has to contend with cobras and tigers and... a dancing gorilla? Yes, the palace entertainment actually includes a dancing gorilla. That’s how weird this show is! (I assumed it must be Arte in one of his more ridiculous disguises, but I was wrong. It was supposed to be a real ape.) Weird, yes, but endlessly fun. I love The Avengers, and by comparison most other spy shows from the period really seem too conventional. It’s great to discover another show where the secret agent has to use wits and gadgets to defeat Indian princes right out of the Arabian Nights. (Yes, I know, I’m mixing my Eastern cultures, but that’s exactly what they do on the program.)

The weirdest episode of all features the return of Season One’s most memorable villain: the diminutive Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played by Michael Dunn as a sort of demented midget version of Woody Allen. West’s gadget’s may be anachronistic (a miniature blowtorch hidden in his heel), but Loveless’s are the stuff of science fiction! He gives Jim a cigar that shrinks him down to the size of a doll. It’s a great (if utterly preposterous) moment when Jim wakes up and the camera pulls out to reveal he’s tiny, lying in the middle of a giant bed. (Loveless’s girlfriend, Antoinette, has sewn him a doll-size version of his own suit so he needn’t go naked.) Things get even weirder when Loveless sics his (comparatively giant) house cat on the mouse-like spy, then celebrates by doing a jig on a table and performing a duet with Antoinette of the Beach Boys’ "Sloop John B!" Yes, The Wild Wild West truly lives up to the two "wilds" in its title. (The Avengers tread oddly similar territory that same year when Steed became shrunken down to a few inches in "Mission... Highly Improbable," but beat WWW to the punch with man-eating plants, which it had served up the previous season in "The Man-Eater of Surrey Green.")

One thing The Wild Wild West has that The Avengers never really went in for (Cybernauts excepted) is recurring villains, and Loveless is the primary antagonist. Dunn is great, and casts a long shadow over the whole series. He only appears in four of the twenty-eight episodes presented here, but leaves such an impression that you could swear he was in all of them! And each appearance tops the last in terms of outlandish plots for world domination or revenge. The next time we encounter the diminutive mastermind, he’s inexplicably disguised as Robin Hood, and his thugs as Merry Men. Why is never explained (the American Indians he’s trying to impress would hardly relate to medieval English legends!) but it really doesn’t need to be. Clearly the main reason is to present Jim and Arte with the surreal image of a knight in full armor in the middle of the Wild West. And it does provide a striking visual–and also some levity. When Jim is challenged to a mace duel with the knight (really Loveless inside a suit of armor with mechanical legs), Arte asks him, "Have you ever fought with a mace before?"

"Fought with one?" ponders Jim. "I’ve never even seen one!"

Loveless’s plot itself is fairly standard (release a deadly balloon over Washington D.C.), but his methods are still unnecessarily bizarre. In fact, the most typical Western plot of the season comes against the backdrop of Loveless’s most fantastic scheme when he recruits the seven fastest guns in the West to take Jim out. How does he lure West to this trap? By devising paintings that act as dimensional portals (it somehow involves harmonics, for the scientifically inquisitive among you) and placing them in museums so that thieves can move in and out of the pictures undetected and steal crown jewels! Despite the crazy sci-fi premise, we get to see the heroic duo using old-fashioned brains and brawn to win the day. Arte uses cunning to waylay quick-draw assassin Lightning McCoy, and Jim uses his own quick draw to beat him. It’s precisely this duality (the mundane with the bizarre, the Western with the Spy) that makes The Wild Wild West so infinitely entertaining. Even the episodes without Loveless contain outlandish threats (women from Venus, an underwater city designed to wreak havoc with shipping) in this spirit.

CBS/Paramount’s Season 2 DVD set again comes packaged in double slim-packs, making it nicely compact on your shelf. The artwork and copy on the back seem to deliberately downplay the weirdness and present it as more of a conventional Western, which is strange and misleading. The transfers look great, bursting with the sort of vivid color only seen in the Sixties. The one big disappointment of this set is its lack of extras (aside from trailers for other CBS shows, most notably Mission: Impossible). Since many studios don’t include any extras at all on their classic television releases, this might not even stand out except for the fact that Season One was loaded with very impressive bonus features, such as audio commentaries, interviews, and episode introductions by the incredibly charismatic Robert Conrad. Where is Conrad on Season Two? After setting the bar so high with their first release, Paramount really dropped the ball this time around. I hope they correct that with the third season, because the color episodes have a different feel from their black and white forebears, and I’d love to hear Mr. Conrad’s thoughts on them as well. Despite that one omission, though, this is an excellent presentation of an excellent, wonderfully bizarre series that definitely deserves a watch, especially for Avengers fans.

Mar 15, 2007

Review: OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006)

Ever since reading a review in Variety sometime last year, I’ve been hoping and hoping that OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies would get a North American theatrical release. Sadly, that hasn’t come to pass, so I took some advice on the Eurospy Forum and ordered the Region 1 DVD from Amazon.ca. Ordering directly from Canada works out to be much cheaper than shelling out fifty bucks for the import and then waiting six weeks to get it from Amazon.com. I had never seen any of the straightforward Sixties OSS 117 movies (although I do enjoy the soundtrack CD), but was still looking forward to seeing a modern spy movie shot as if it was from that era, even if the new movie was a spoof rather than the real thing.

Director Michel Hazanavicius's OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies resurrects novelist Jean Bruce’s titular hero as a comedic version of himself–as well as of James Bond and countless other Eurospy types. As played by Jean Dujardin, OSS 117 (aka Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath) comes off as a slightly more competent version of The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau. His competence comes in his fighting abilities, though, not in deductive reasoning. He represents everything that’s worst about the West and about colonialism, primarily in his total ignorance to other cultures. He laughs at the Arabic language and dismisses Islam as a fad that will never catch on. He’s hopelessly patriotic, believing his own government can do no wrong at all; he carries around pictures of French president Coty and distributes them to various Egyptians he meets. Dujardin’s version of OSS 117 is a clever comedic creation, smoothly sending up the annoying smugness and utter arrogance of all the Eurospy heroes of the Sixties. And he's got the crucial "spy eyebrows" down pat!

His mission takes him to Cairo, naturally, to investigate the disappearance of his predecessor and childhood friend, Jack. In Cairo his cultural obliviousness sidetracks him again and again, and it’s only with the aid of his beautiful local contact Larmina (Bernice Bejo) that he manages to get anything done. Despite her help, he still manages to offend her, her people and her religion time and again.

On one level, the movie is a sharp satire on global politics and Western ignorance, sending up the culture of the "Ugly American," even if it does so with a Frenchman instead. But on another level, it’s a rather silly slapstick spy farce. This ultimately impedes its success as a biting satire, because it dulls the blows with pratfalls, but the lighter tone is to the movie’s advantage. It comes off as a daft, enjoyable comedy that actually makes a few good points if you stop and think about it, but certainly doesn’t hit you over the head with them.
The biggest laughs come from those moments of sheer silliness. Bath becomes obsessed with the poultry business that serves as his French Secret Service cover. When the lights go on, the chickens all start clucking madly. When the lights go off, they shut up. Fascinated by this behavior, he amuses himself over and over again by flipping the light switch on and off. It doesn’t sound like much on paper (or computer screen), but it’s a very effective gag, especially as a call-back to punctuate another character’s remark that Bath is either "very stupid or very smart."

The production values are impressive all-around, and do a good job mimicking technicolor films of the Fifties and Sixties. They incorporate grainy stock footage and obvious models, as well as rear projection, plenty of Brill cream, a suitably retro score (though not as good as Michel Magne's original OSS 117 themes) and cool studio-bound sets. The best of those sets is a Neo-Nazi enclave hidden inside a pyramid and decked out with the requisite swastika flags, as well as an array of security monitors that use a new technology to record their feeds onto magnetic tape. (Appropriate, since Eurospies were always on the cutting edge of technology. We may still not have a disintegration ray, but at least VCRs have come and gone!) OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies doesn’t do as good a job of replicating period production values as, say, Todd Haynes’s fantastic Far From Heaven, or Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, but it does so well enough to add another layer of amusement.

If that idea particularly appeals to you, or if you are a big fan of the (original) Pink Panther films then you may want to import this DVD. Otherwise, you might as well save your money for now and wait for a more affordable domestic release, which is sure to come eventually... Right? I certainly hope so! Thanks to the film’s staggering success overseas, a sequel is already in the works. If the first movie has at least gotten a home video release here by then, then perhaps it will prove slightly easier to find in theaters in les Etats Unis.

The Canadian DVD is a handsomely-packaged two disc set. It comes in a digipak with a sheet of stickers promoting the movie. (An odd but welcome extra.) Disc 2 contains the special features, including theatrical trailers and an interview with star Dujardin and a making-of. (Other regions apparently got a more in-depth documentary and deleted scenes.) Unfortunately, the special features don’t have English subtitles, and my French isn’t so good, so I didn’t get much out of them. Another reason to cross my fingers for an eventual American release!

Mar 14, 2007

RIP Gareth Hunt

Very sad news today: New Avengers star Gareth Hunt has died of pancreatic cancer at age 65. Even saddled with silly Seventies fashions, Hunt always managed to look cool as third-wheel Avenger (and Steed protege) Mike Gambit. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Hunt was the coolest part of that iteration of The Avengers. His interplay with Joanna Lumley's Purdy was always the highlight of every episode. The New Avengers may get a bad rap as a show, but it's definitely got its moments--and many of them involve Hunt.

He was so cool on The New Avengers that it's really too bad Hunt didn't play more spy roles. His one other major foray into the genre was as Charles Bind in Lindsay Shonteff's parody No. 1: Licensed To Love and Kill (1979). It's a Shonteff movie, which is a spy subgenre unto itself--and definitely an acquired taste--but Hunt is good as ever.

Even without more spy movies under his belt, though, Gareth Hunt left an indelible mark on the genre during his tenure as Mike Gambit. He was an Avenger, and he will be missed.

Mar 13, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches
For March 13, 2.007

Casino Royale Out On DVD Today In North America
Well, the big news today is obviously that Casino Royale (2006) hits Region 1 DVD. There are several exclusives. As previously reported, Best Buy offers a free Corgi Aston Martin and Walmart offers cards and poker chips. Additionally, Circuit City offers a "collectible coin" made to look like a poker chip (possibly in different denominations), and Target offers a miniaturized version of Greg Williams' photo book, Bond On Set. It is NOT a bonus DVD, as some web sites have previously reported, apparently due to an error in Target's listing in their circular.

Cool McCool
007's not the only spy on disc today! Sixties cartoon secret agent Cool McCool (created by Batman's Bob Kane) also makes his DVD debut in an affordably-priced 3-disc set loaded with commentaries and other extras.

Aston Martin Sold
Ford finalized their sale of Aston Martin this week, selling off the luxury marque to a British-led consortium (which also includes Kuwaiti backsers) for nearly $1 billion. What this means for the future of the car's relationship with James Bond is uncertain, but the filmmakers' ongoing deal with Ford probably precludes 007 from driving a non-Ford-owned DBS in the next movie. It's previously been speculated that he'll switch to a Jaguar, which Ford still owns.

New Bond Book Covers
Some cool new cover designs have recently hit the web. The Young Bond Dossier has revealed the Japanese cover for Charlie Higson's first Young Bond adventure, SilverFin, and provides a link to exclusive images of the cover and slipcase. It's quite different from the American and British covers! And Amazon.co.uk has revealed the final cover art for Samantha Weinberg's second Moneypenny Diary, Secret Servant. It's much better than the covers for the two hardcovers, and also an improvement over the original prototype artwork for this paperback. It's a nice, retro, Sixties kind of cover, and reminds me of the old Modesty Blaise covers. Still no mention of the cash-cow himself, James Bond, on the front, though! Don't the publishers know that's what will sell these books??? They did at least finally get themselves a new quote, instead of repeating Joanna Lumley's "Thrilling!" once again. The Daily Mirror seems to sum up Ian Fleming Publications' original concept for the series, as "Bridget Jones crossed with Spooks." Sadly, that sells the series short; Ms. Weinberg has made these engaging books a lot more than that simple high concept, and they are really full-fledged Bond novels, just told from a different perspective.

Son Of Bond Meets Bond
Liz Smith has an interesting tidbit in her gossip column in today's Variety about a meeting between David Niven's son and Daniel Craig. Jamie Niven recalls: "Well, I stumbled as I was going to shake hands with Daniel Craig so 007 caught me right in his arms. I told him he was the best James Bond yet but I modestly added that my father had also played the same role in the original version of 'Casino Royale.' Craig said -- 'And your father would have been David Niven? Well, you know the original 'Casino Royale' is quite a cult movie.'"

Mar 10, 2007

Review: Espionage In Tangiers/Assassination In Rome

Dark Sky’s "Drive-In Double Feature" DVD of Espionage In Tangiers and Assassination In Rome elevates two so-so Eurospy titles into a must-buy package by giving them an excellent presentation. Everything about the disc is classy, from the two top-notch widescreen transfers–both sourced from pristine-looking prints–to the creative "virtual drive-in" programming. Dark Sky is hardly the first company to hit on this concept (Something Weird’s been doing it for years through Image), but the inclusion of vintage trailers, advertisements and concession jingles really spruces up a double feature disc. No, they’re not featurettes exclusively relating to the movies at hand, but using public domain material to recreate an evening at a drive-in circa 1966 is a relatively cheap way to make the viewing experience a lot more fun.

From the main menu you can only select to play the whole double-feature, but if you return to the menu after selecting that option you’ll have the choice of watching either movie on its own. If you’ve got the time, though, I recommend opting for the whole experience. You’ll start out with some decidedly non-mouthwatering shots of hamburgers and hotdogs, originally intended to pique your appetite for over-priced concessions, then get some trailers (roughly period-appropriate, but chosen more to advertise other Dark Sky discs) for Hellfire Club (with Peter Cushing!), Frankenstein vs. the Space Monster and The Horror of Party Beach. Then comes the first feature, Espionage In Tangiers.

Espionage In Tangiers (1965)

This version runs over one hour and thirty minutes, which means that it’s considerably longer than the roughly sixty minute version reviewed in The Eurospy Guide. So if you have an old gray market copy, you might want to upgrade and see whatever it is you’ve been missing.

Espionage In Tangiers is a typical, low-budget Bond wannabe (along the lines of Secret Agent Super Dragon), starring a typical, low-budget Connery wannabe (Luis Davila) as secret agent Mike Murphy. It’s got a good whistled theme, but not enough music in general. Long segments seem even longer without a catchy score to accompany them. And a catchy score can go a long, long way in a Eurospy movie! Espionage In Tangiers certainly could have used more.

For the Macguffin, a brilliant scientist has invented a ray (yep, rays again!) that can disintegrate anything. At least we’re told it can disintegrate anything; all we ever actually see it disintegrate is a car and a fireplace. (Yep, a fireplace. Not even the whole hearth!) Before he can deliver it to the UN, who will supposedly use it for world peace, it is stolen. In an elaborate opening sequence, each party involved in the theft is eliminated by their higher-up until the ray gun gets to a mysterious figure, leaving a trail of corpses behind.

We then meet our hero in a Bond-like introduction, making out (rather poorly, from the looks of it) with a beautiful girl. (He is wearing a decidedly un-glamorous white undershirt.) He’s summoned to a briefing, and soon turns up late in the kind of suit Connery used to wear. Whatever spy agency he works for, they can’t afford a Moneypenny, so he barges right into his boss’s office, which consists of three rather flimsy-looking walls, a table, and a particularly lumpy map whose continents seem rather misshapen and whose borders aren’t defined, which you’d think would be essential for a secret service. (It looks as if the art director drew this map from memory.)

Soon Murphy’s off on his mission to recover the disintegration ray, and look out, stewardesses! I feel sorry for stewardesses in the Sixties, constantly being hit on by all these cheesy Eurospy types. It must have been really annoying. At least Mike Murphy isn’t as sleazy as Joe Walker!
The flight takes him to Tangiers, where, true to the title, we do indeed get some espionage. Right off the bat someone shoots him in the heart at the airport. Wow! How did he survive? You brace yourself for some cool gadget or amazing trick, but it turns out he just happened to have a Bible in his chest pocket. (And he really doesn’t strike me as a Bible-thumping kind of guy.) It’s really quite disappointing, but it helps you readjust your expectations for the movie. They’re not out to break any new ground here, just to tread the old ground in a fairly competent, low-budget manner. This means some decent fights, but no real action. When the bad guys speed away in a car, Murphy spots a convenient motorcycle. Does that mean we’re in for a chase? Nope. In this movie, a motorcycle is just a means of getting from A to B, not for doing stunts. We cut to Murphy arriving at B on the bike, presumably having followed them without incident.

At least we get a pretty cool fight at B. Murphy enters a warehouse full of coffins, and bad guys start emerging from them! It’s a nice, Avengers-ish moment, though it doesn’t take too long for him to beat the crap out of them all. He snoops around Tangiers some more, giving us some very nice location photography, all the more stunning thanks to the high quality of the print. Unfortunately, the mystery villain seems to specialize in killing his own men, so every time Murphy gets ahold of one, he dies before he can tell him anything useful in advancing the plot. When he finally does manage to capture a baddie, our hero reveals himself as something of a proto-Bauer, happily torturing the information out of him. The information in question leads Murphy and his espionage out of Tangiers just halfway through the film, and into Nice, another beautiful location.

In Nice we do get an actual car chase, and it’s well-shot if not overly exciting. We also get some beautiful women, but the banter never rises above "you’re the sexiest spy I know!" Murphy’s proclivities for aggressive information-seeking extend to the fairer sex as well, and some slapping turns into foreplay as the "sexiest spy" succumbs to his rather... subtle charms.

Ultimately, if I followed the plot correctly, the mission turns out to be pretty pointless in the end, with very little accomplished. That’s how the whole movie feels as well. The most memorable setpiece finds Murphy trapped in a chamber slowly filling up with water, but the villains change their minds at the last minute and he doesn’t even have to escape it himself. Again, what was the point? Other memorable moments include a surprisingly brutal (for the time) torture scene in which a wire garotte is tightened around a man’s belly, and a good fight at the end on a rocky beach location reminiscent of a better Eurospy movie, Special Mission Lady Chaplin. Ultimately, though, neither scene served too much purpose. The whole movie was perfectly decent to watch, and even occasionally entertaining, but very low on nutrients, like a tolerable appetizer that leaves you still hungry for more. And luckily, that’s exactly what it is, because there is more: a whole second feature still to come!

Assassination In Rome (1965)

True to drive-in form, we get some more previews before Assassination In Rome gets underway, including one for Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill!, which Dark Sky was supposed to release this month, but has apparently been cancelled or postponed. Then the main feature starts up, and it’s once again a beautiful print (until the last couple of reels, at least, which have a few brief problems).

Assassination In Rome stars Hugh O'Brian (cut from the same cloth as Rod Taylor) as an intrepid American reporter based in Rome and Cyd Charisse (kind of wooden, but perfectly acceptable in a role that demands very little) as his old flame whose husband has gone missing. The spy element only comes into play in the third act, and even then it’s minor. The hero works for a newspaper, not a government agency (which fortunately means he doesn’t have to be a sleazy James Bond clone), and the story has a lot more in common with early giallo films, like Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, than with any contemporary Eurospy films. Like most gialli, it takes a lot of inspiration from Hitchcock, and also from the first-rate Hitchcock imitator, Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963). It does, however, deliver the same great locations (Rome and Venice), fancy cars (Alpha Romeo), treachery and duplicity and even, eventually, gunplay we expect of a Eurospy feature, all to the beat of a superior score by Armando Trovajoli.

Unlike the first feature, Assassination In Rome has an actual plot that moves forward and makes sense, even if it sometimes drags a bit. The colorful and well-shot footage of Rome is enough to recommend it to Europhiles, and some of the characters (like an exiled Mafia don) are just as colorful. The costumes are interesting, to say the least. I can’t write about this film without noting some truly bizarre hats, especially one worn by the mysterious Lorena towards the end.

Overall, your enjoyment of Assassination In Rome is likely to depend on how much of a giallo fan you are. The conclusion is pure giallo, and features several elements that will come to be clearly identified with that genre a few years later. There’s one of those chases up an endless staircase, and a masked killer whose true identity turns out to be very much a giallo convention.
I enjoyed the second feature a bit more than the first, but neither leaves a real lasting impression. The overall presentation, however, does. Dark Sky have put together a very nice package with excellent transfers of two obscure movies and a fun gimmick holding them together. I hope they choose to revisit the Eurospy genre in future "Drive-In DVD" releases. Budget-priced at under $12, they certainly provide good value for your dollar. And, despite my criticisms, if you're at all a fan of Sixties European thrillers, you'll eat this stuff up.


I do have one question, though: Espionage In Tangiers is supposed to be George Lazenby's first movie, and he's even credited on the back of the box (though not in the movie). I know his part is tiny, but I never spotted him, even for an instant! Does anyone know where he turns up?

Mar 6, 2007

Review: Death Is Nimble, Death Is Quick (1966)

Ah, best for last! At least it comes last on Retromedia’s double-sided Kommissar X triple feature disc, although there seems to be some confusion over the production order of these movies. Even the normally unassailable Eurospy Guide contains conflicting information. Whatever position it occupies in the series, though, Death Is Nimble, Death Is Quick is the stuff Eurospy dreams are made of. I recommend saving it for last, though, so that you’ll already be accustomed to the heroes’ appalling sexist antics and jerky behavior, and better able to savor all the well-staged, well-shot and well-directed action it has to offer instead of dwelling on that. And instead of me dwelling on the plot, I’ll just refer you back to my overall Kommissar X plot description in my last review, and move onto said action, which this time around takes place in gorgeous Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then known).

Much credit has to go to Brad Harris, who serves as fight coordinator as well as co-star. He performs a breathtaking chase across a beautiful seaside hotel rooftop, running down a buff, bald karate killer. The chase culminates in each actor (no doubles here ) leaping off the roof into a tall palm tree, then letting their momentum bend the tree down to the ground and jumping out! It’s a great scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Bond movie. No sooner has it ended than we get another exciting chase, in which a Jeep driving in the surf keeps pace with a train on a parallel track, shooting at a fugitive running along the tops of its cars! Great stuff.

Joe and Tom suffer the usual elaborate assassination attempts, which naturally fail, but one particularly creative dirty trick snares a bad guy instead. He gets himself under a shower meant for Joe, and instead of spraying water, it sprays “a new kind of chemical that destroys body cells. It acts like bacteria.” It also leaves the man a bloody mess in the bathtub. That chemical (and it’s creator, the usual brilliant professor type) serves as the Macguffin for this movie as well.

Another overly elaborate (but especially tense) assassination attempt finds a sniper aiming for a bottle of nitroglycerin his cohorts have surreptitiously deposited on Tom and Joe’s patio table. They’re saved only by the smart intervention of a particularly capable (for this series) and especially beautiful woman, Michelle.

There’s a rather effective scene in which a greedy traitor dies alone and silently screaming in the soundproof, airtight backseat of a partitioned car, clutching his purloined millions as deadly gas leaks in. Tom later finds himself in the same predicament, and the scene generates some good suspense, even though you know he’ll get out of it.

In a definite improvement over the previous entries in the series, most of the shots are cut together in a manner that, surprisingly enough, makes sense and tells a story! The cinematography is even worth noting (not that it’s bad in the other movies), with some beautiful golden hour shots on a beach.

So are there any criticisms? Well, sure. This is a Kommissar X movie, after all. That means we’re subjected to the usual smugness, smirking and terrible banter from Joe. For instance, when the professor’s very proper daughter asks him outright if he’s a Golden Cat (the name of the villainous organization in this one), he replies, “No, I’m often called a Tomcat, though.”

Luckily, such moments are countered by a good score, great settings and some setpieces that actually qualify as “spectacular.” (Within their limited budget, at least.) The villain’s base is in the middle of a foreboding place called “Death Lake.” Filled with stumps and dead trees protruding from the still, algae-filled water, and aided by an effectively creepy score, it certainly lives up to its name. Furthermore, Death Lake is protected by a horrifying monster that breathes fire and crushes trees, scaring away the locals. Yes, someone’s clearly been watching Dr. No again. But the rip-off “dragon” is actually at least as impressive as the real thing. It’s an armored trimaran with a bulbous, eye-like cockpit and front-mounted flame thrower, capable of gliding right over the stumps in the lake, and incinerating them.

Indicating a higher-than-average budget for this outing, there are lots of pyrotechnics in the third act (well, lots of fire, anyway), as Joe and Michelle escape the flame-spitting monster in a Zodiac. The special effects do become a little dodgy, though, when the trimaran apparently blows itself up. Obviously the craft was borrowed, because we don’t actually see it destroyed. Instead we see Joe’s reaction, then cut back to some fire where the monster just was. Oh well.

Luckily, the money the producers saved by not exploding their trimaran turns up on screen in the finale, for which they’ve constructed a truly awesome, fairly gigantic set. Tom’s final showdown with his worthy karate adversary, King (the one he chased along the roof at the beginning) takes place in the Temple of the Golden Cats, an ornate, cavernous sanctuary big enough to hold a bunch of onlooking worshipers and three huge, golden cat heads, whose mouths serve as oversize doors. The fight itself is again well-choreographed, and exciting. Surprisingly (and mercifully!), Tom even manages to keep his shirt on while he fights! (It does get a little torn, though...) This duel leads to an even bigger concluding setpiece outdoors involving a jeep, an airplane, a herd of elephants (actual elephants, not stock footage!), and the explosive combination thereof.

Then, after things have been going so well, just because they can’t help themselves, they bring things back down to a typical Kommissar X level by ending on a really bad, typically chauvinist joke. As one elephant charges away (with good reason, it turns out), the hunter who’s been minding the herd yells, “Wait! Stop! It’s acting mad!” Tom asks, “Is it a female?” When the hunter dubiously confirms his suspicion, Tom states, “Well, that explains it!” And they both have a hearty chuckle. Mystery solved!

Overall, though, Death Is Nimble, Death Is Quick is good enough that it withstands all of these kinds of remarks, all of Joe’s perpetual smarm, and even all of his “hmm”s. (Tony Kendall says “hmm” a lot. He uses it to punctuate any scene, be it with a woman, an adversary, or with Tom.) This is not only the best movie on The Kommissar X Collection; it’s one of the better Eurospy movies I’ve seen, and one of the best 007 knock-offs. Highly recommended!

Mar 4, 2007

Review: So Darling, So Deadly

After watching three Kommissar X movies, I feel fairly qualified to take a guess and suppose the following description pretty much sums up the plot of all of them: Joe and Tom arrive in a foreign location to protect a professor who has invented some sort of device. Joe woos the professor’s beautiful daughter (and any other woman who happens to walk on camera), and generally behaves like a jerk, much to Tom’s annoyance. Joe and Tom tangle with the minions of a mysterious villain, which inevitably includes at least two beautiful female assassins. They get into some brawls, perform some impressive stunts, Joe smirks, Tom takes his shirt off, they raid an underground lair where the villain’s true identity is revealed, stuff blows up, and Joe goes off with a minimum of two girls.

All that’s certainly the case in So Darling, So Deadly, and the device this time (not that it matters), is a gizmo that can shut down the engine of any vehicle within a hundred miles, including airplanes. Now that the plot’s out of the way, I can move on to all the things that actually matter in this kind of movie.

We begin with a typically sexist exchange, just to remind everyone they’re watching a Kommissar X flick:

A voluptuous blond Eurospy babe (above) sashays up to Joe and Tom.

Blonde (in a Marilyn Monroe voice): “I don’t need brains, do I, Joe? A girl can use other things. I’ll see you around ”

Tom: “She’s got all it takes ”

Joe: “Too bad I can’t bring that on the trip to Singapore! I don’t suppose Apollo would pay for excess baggage like that

Yes, he emphasizes “that” twice. The camera helpfully zeroes in on the lady's well-defined derriere as she slinks away.

And with that, we’re off to Singapore, accompanied by an Oriental-tinged reprise of “I Love You, Joe Walker,” from the first movie. I’m not sure if it’s really Singapore (the only thing to make me assume otherwise is the distinct lack of actual Asian actors), but this movie was definitely shot on location somewhere pretty. (The impressive Tiger Balm Gardens from the finale of Ring Around the World is again put to good use.) The scenery is typically breathtaking, one of the real highlights of the Kommissar X movies. They shot around the world in great locations, and didn’t rely on Rome to double for every city on Earth the way other, lower budget Eurospy movies were sometimes known to.

Despite their mission, Joe and Tom decide to just hang out, Joe by the pool and Tom waterskiing. This leads to a little too much of Tony Kendall in his bathing suit, flopping around in the water, and a lot too much of Brad Harris shirtless.

Let me take a moment here to address Brad Harris’s physique, since the producers make sure we see it at least once in every movie. There’s no question that Harris is in good shape (he’s clearly an athlete, and a veteran of peplum movies), but he has very weird muscles. Particularly his abs. They’re not a six-pack per se, but more of a five pack, with a single big, lumpy muscle across the top. And it occupies a space where no muscle is meant to be, smack in the middle of his torso. It’s fascinating.

Anyway, while he’s waterskiing, Tom comes under attack by another bearded henchman... or maybe it’s the same one from Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill. Yep, same one. Guiseppe Mattei, in a different bearded hench-role. Luckily, it turns out Tom keeps a pistol in a plastic bag on him when he goes waterskiing in just his swim trunks Where was that hidden? (Now I can really see what he meant a few minutes earlier when he declared that “guns cramp my style.”) I like the detail that it’s in a plastic bag. Some movies might ask us to believe that a wet gun won’t misfire (no matter where it’s been hidden), but Kommissar X actually provides this single touch of realism amidst all its utterly ludicrous pseudo-science. It’s a nice touch.

The boys recover from their respective assassination attempts (Joe with the aid of a bullet-proof suitcase), and decide to discover what it’s all about. Joe meets with the professor’s daughter, Sybille, and states, “All I know about your father is that he’s a physicist who’s experimenting with certain rays.” Uh-oh I’ve seen enough Eurospy movies to know that rays always mean trouble. Always. No exceptions. Sure enough, this ray business leads to further assassination attempts, several conducted by blond assassin sisters, one of whom (Stella) has a particular, fashion-forward penchant for midriff-baring shirts.

Joe and Tom escape one of these situations by using the old “set the whole pier on fire” diversion (and then gleefully spraying down Stella with a firehose!), and another by dressing in traditional women’s clothes to evade a whole slew of enemies unseen. This pains the ever-macho Joe, who whines, “I’d rather fight than do this ”

Joe shows his soft side again when a pretty girl in a nightclub informs him that two people are trying to murder her. Even though he has every reason to believe she’s telling the truth, he chooses to just smile and dance (you gotta see Tony Kendall’s moves!) and force her to keep dancing with him until she does, indeed, get shot. Then he runs away. One is reminded of what Pamela said about him in Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill: “He’s the most charming man I’ve ever met! Charming!” (Perhaps she led a very sheltered life.)

The bad guy’s underground lair this time appears to be in a sewer, and has to be accessed by dressing in frogman suits and swimming under the city. We later learn that it also has a front door. Joe is of course captured and told that “Beautiful women will have you torn to pieces. They are the claws of the Golden Dragon.” His response? “That sounds very nice.” Knowing Joe, I doubt he’s being glib.

He escapes, of course (again due to his irresistible charms and Stella’s susceptibility to them), and meets up with Tom for a rather sub-standard punch-up in a muddy, low-rent waterfront location. Not one of the best Kommissar X finales.

Overall, So Darling, So Deadly isn’t bad, and it’s still plenty of fun, but it’s not as enjoyable as the other two Kommissar X movies in this collection, and for once it doesn’t offer any standout setpieces.