Nov 30, 2007

DVD Review: The Lady Vanishes

The satisfyingly thick liner notes to Criterion’s superb new DVD of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes call it "not a slice of life, but a slice of cake." A commentary track and a "video essay" on Disc 2 then go a long way to refute that, and illuminate all of its subtext. So is it the pure, escapist entertainment that a "slice of cake" implies? Or is it something more, layered with hidden meaning and symbolism? Like most Hitchcock movies, it’s both. It’s a richly layered cake!

The Lady Vanishes was one of Hitchcock’s last English films before decamping to Hollywood, and a key bridge between his somewhat stagier early British productions and his glossy, high budget American ones, notable for their intricate setpieces. Unlike Foreign Correspondent or Saboteur, this isn’t one setpiece on top of another. Instead, most of the movie is a single setpiece (prefiguring more radical experiments like Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window): a suspenseful, romantic spy adventure entirely confined to a train.

Well, not entirely. First we have a lengthy set-up at an Alpine hotel (its exact whereabouts disguised by the gibberish language its staff speak, assembled from odds and ends of various European dialects) introducing us to all of the characters. This portion is played mostly for comedy, although (as commentator Bruce Eder points out), here we are also unknowingly introduced to the film’s MacGuffin.

Primary figures include wealthy socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her frivolous companions, elderly (and ever-so-proper) British nanny Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), playboy musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), adulterous couple Mr. and "Mrs." Todhunter, and the comic duo of cricket-obsessed "overgrown schoolboys" (to borrow a phrase from Eder) Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). All of these vacationers are trapped in the hotel overnight while they wait for snow from an avalanche to be cleared from the train tracks.

Amidst farcical hijinks about overbooked rooms and noisy neighbors and an It Happened One Night-style "meet-cute" between Iris and Gilbert, there is an incongruous and rather alarming murder, but we’re not remotely privy as to why. And as it goes unnoticed by all of the characters, it’s purely for the audience’s benefit, reminding us that we’re in Hitchcock territory (even if it doesn’t quite feel like it yet) and that there is something sinister lurking beneath all this frivolity. Kind of like prewar Europe, still partying on the eve of strife. You see? The cake has layers! And like all of the director’s work of that time, they’re not particularly subtle.

Everyone boards the train the next day, and it isn’t until the thirty minute mark (roughly a third of the way into the film) that the lady in question actually vanishes. That lady is the nanny, Miss Froy. After helping Iris onto the train following a nasty bump on the head, and treating her to tea in the dining car, Miss Froy disappears. Iris awakes to find her gone, their compartment filled with severe Teutonic faces. All of the occupants claim to have no recollection of any English woman. Neither does the porter, or the waiter who brewed Miss Froy’s unique tea. Against all evidence to the contrary, Iris insists on her friend’s existence, leading neurologist passenger Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) to diagnose her as suffering hallucinations following her head trauma. Gilbert agrees to help her in her search, on a lark at first, but then more seriously as clues start amassing that suggest she’s telling the truth.

The brilliance of this part of the movie is that Hitch and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder provide separate, plausible reasons for all of the characters we’ve gotten to know to lie about having seen the governess. The adulterous couple doesn’t want to risk exposure should there be an official inquiry. Charters and Caldicott don’t want to do anything that might delay the train for fear of missing a crucial cricket match back in England. Even a stage magician traveling with the apparatus for his trick "The Vanishing Lady" has his reasons for lying.

It’s difficult to discuss the final act of the film without revealing too much, but when one of the characters turns out to be a British agent, the film becomes a rare early example of the "hero spy" genre. Spy films of this era (including many of Hitchcock’s) tended to portray spies (usually German) as the enemy, fifth columnists thwarted by an everyman hero. While The Lady Vanishes adheres to that everyman (or, in this case, "everywoman") tradition for heroine Iris, the actual spy is a good guy too, and a very atypical sort of movie secret agent.

The train eventually ends up in unfriendly territory, surrounded by the Gestapo-like secret police of a foreign power. All the British characters are gathered in the dining car (for tea, of course!), and wind up rallying around their nation’s agent, shooting it out with the enemy to provide cover. This scene exemplifies the sort of propagandist themes Hitchcock would infuse most of his wartime films with: patriotism (in this case British, and not American as in Saboteur), international responsibility and anti-isolationism. The film’s pacifist (a term at the time more associated with cowardice and Nazi collaboration than with a legitimate peace movement) abandons his British brethren, exiting the car waving a white flag. For his efforts, he’s gunned down. Everyone else, men and women, rich and poor, risk everything to escape. Even the comic bumblers Charters and Caldicott prove themselves refreshingly handy with firearms. This final scene, confined not just to the train, but to a single car, represents a uniquely Hitchcockian blend of humor and suspense. The situation is a real nail-biter, but the "veddy English" stiff-upper-lip resignation of the characters about the whole bothersome affair lightens the mood.

Film historian Bruce Eder discusses the more obvious symbolism of this scene and more subtle touches throughout the film in his solid, highly informative, wall-to-wall commentary. The guy never even pauses to take a breath! He’s well-prepared, and he knows his subject, making for a good track. (Although he does occasionally inject some personal opinion not directly related to the film, particularly about current US foreign policy!) Throughout the commentary, Eder gives plentiful production tidbits, delivers a plausible origin for the term "MacGuffin" (generally attributed to Hitchcock himself), and makes an interesting comparison between the opening of this movie, in the hotel, and that of Rear Window. In The Lady Vanishes, we’re introduced to all the characters by briefly eavesdropping on snippets of each of their conversations; in Rear Window, we’re similarly introduced to Jimmy Stewart’s neighbors via his own voyeurism, but mostly sans sound. (It should be noted Hitchcock makes excellent use of sound and music throughout The Lady Vanishes, something various other directors coming from a silent film background were never able to master.)

Disc 2 includes a "video essay" by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. This is basically another, shorter commentary, delivered over a thirty minute montage of scenes from the movie cut together with behind-the-scenes stills and posters. While it covers some of the same ground as the audio commentary (both men discuss the framing of a scene in which someone’s glass is poisoned in the dining car, for instance), it also offers a nice counterpoint to it. Leff and Eder disagree on certain interpretations, particularly with regards to the Charters and Caldicott characters. Leff believes that they’re supposed to be gay, while Eder refutes that and argues that they’re essentially overgrown schoolboys, representative of a certain class of British men of that period. Both make plausible cases for their points of view.

Of particular interest to spy fans, Leff takes a whack at defining the "spy picture," a task I’ve pretty much concluded is impossible after rethinking every definition I ever come up with. Leff calls it a "subgenre of the crime picture" and states that it came out of fiction. (Didn’t pretty much every film genre?) One phrase he uses to describe spy movies that I quite like is "just inside the borders of the possible." He postulates that Hitchcock’s sextet of British thrillers leading up to and including Lady all fall within the spy genre, but after further consideration concludes that they’re something different: "The Hitchcock picture." I think that both labels are apt, but I do agree that Hitchcock is essentially a genre unto himself. I’d love to pinpoint Foreign Correspondent as the genesis of the contemporary "action movie," but since it failed to spawn any serious and successful imitators on an equivalent scale (besides others by the director himself) until... probably Dr. No, I cannot identify it as the genesis of anything. One inescapable conclusion, however, is that Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely integral to the development of the spy genre. The video essay is both instructive and thought-provoking, and leaves a viewer with plenty to ponder.

This disc doesn't include any of the making-of documentaries we're used to from the Warner and Universal Hitchcock sets, and lacks the welcome comments from the ubiquitous Pat Hitchcock and Peter Bogdonovich, but, while I miss those, the alternative is frankly preferable. Those featurettes do start to run together a bit after you've watched so many of them, and they become somewhat repetitive. The "video essay" is less than a full-on documentary featurette, but really much more than the printed essays, or text features, that Criterion loves so much. A featurette might tell you about the making of the movie, but a video essay tries to interpret it for you, like a film school lecture. At least they offer a few different interpretations to choose from! And it does offer some behind-the-scenes info: it goes into detail about what Hitch himself added to the existing script, which was adapted from a novel.

We also get to hear from the auteur himself, in an eight-minute excerpt from Francois Truffaut’s "legendary 1962 audio interview" with Hitchcock. Even he discusses the much-mooted "poisoned drink" scene, and offers a few unique insights on the film while attempting to talk over a French translator.

By far the biggest extra on Disc 2, if not the most instantly captivating, is the inclusion of an entire other movie, Crook’s Tour. Crook’s Tour is a spin-off from The Lady Vanishes, featuring the popular Charters and Caldicott characters (who also appeared in Carol Reed’s Night Train To Munich, again supporting Margaret Lockwood, and their own radio serial) in starring roles. Crook’s Tour is definitely not Hitchcock, and clearly much lower budget, but it’s a very generous inclusion nonetheless, and a film that’s never been available on DVD before. The transfer is also superb for a B picture of its vintage, if not up to the quality of the truly remarkable picture and sound on the main attraction.

The Criterion disc is rounded out by a comprehensive gallery of international poster art and behind the scenes stills (featuring young Hitchcock with lots of hair!) and two interesting and very readable essays (by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr) in the aforementioned booklet. All of this is wrapped up in a very handsome package. Not many DVD cases compel me to write about their beauty, but everything about this design–from the vintage poster artwork to the colors to the attractive spine to Criterion’s relatively new logo, which has finally grown on me–is so pleasing to the eye that it bears mention. It’s the kind of DVD that you’d be happy to add to your collection even if it didn’t contain such a wonderful movie just because it looks so good on the shelf! This is one of the best Hitchcock DVD releases to date, and a must-purchase for fans of the director.

Nov 29, 2007

More Info On Upcoming Spy TV DVDs

The excellent resource TVShowsOnDVD has had a lot of news lately on upcoming spy releases. Today, they follow-up yesterday's news item on The Wild Wild West: The Fourth Season with cover art and an official press release... which sadly seems to confirm that the reunion telefilms I mentioned yesterday will not be included.

They also report that Acorn Media will release the first season of Intelligence, a drama about Canadian spies, on April 29, 2008. The first season is 14 episodes and stars former Max Headroom and former Sherlock Holmes actor Matt Frewer. I don't know anything about his series or about the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), so my interest is definitely piqued.

Finally, the site did some digging to provide some answers about a wide release of Get Smart. I'd been wondering about this, because TimeLife's exclusive rights to the show were supposed to be for one year, starting last fall, and should have expired by now, yet we've still seen no sign of this show turning up in stores. According to TVShowsOnDVD, the exclusive window means only that other Warner affiliates (HBO Home Video in this case) can't sell it during that time, not that TimeLife will offer it in stores as soon as the window closes. When Get Smart is eventually released commercially, it will be via HBO and may not include the same extras as the TimeLife release or the same fantastic packaging. As to when that happens, that's up to HBO. My guess is they're waiting to tie in release of at least the first season (or maybe the whole series) with next summer's theatrical debut of the new Get Smart movie starring Steve Carrell. So fans who've been waiting patiently for a cheaper alternative to TimeLife will have to wait a little longer...
Mini Review: Daniel Craig In The Golden Compass

I have to confess, I haven’t read any of Phillip Pullman’s books. I’ve been meaning to, but as the movie got closer that didn’t seem like such a good idea. The trailers looked good, and I just wanted to see Daniel Craig’s first big post-Casino Royale role. Reading the books shouldn’t be a prerequisite to seeing the movie, right? As it turns out, in the case of The Golden Compass (as with some of the Harry Potter movies), I suspect it would have helped.

Events in Chris Weitz’s very impressive-looking, big budget adaptation seem to happen because they’re supposed to, because they happen that way in a book and that’s what the core audience will be expecting, and not because one movie scene leads logically into another. Like the most recent Potter movie, scenes seem rushed and crammed in. It’s always a challenge to compress a lengthy book into a movie, and this one could have used some more judicious cutting. (Not shortening, mind you; the movie didn’t seem overly long. Just devoting more time to certain key scenes and eliminating ones that weren’t.) I’m sure that fans of the book will get more out of the movie than I did, if only to see some of their favorite moments realized. As a diehard Potter enthusiast, I certainly enjoyed seeing the whirlwind presentation of scenes and images from Order of the Phoenix, even if they didn’t coalesce as well as a whole as the prior two film adaptations. In the case of The Golden Compass, Pullman seems to have created a compelling and fantastic world, and the movie’s primary strength is in how that’s realized. There is room in this universe for Victorian orphanages, outrageous Art Deco flying machines, Cossack warriors, cowboys, armored polar bears, exploding laboratories, a sinister church-like organization called the Magesterium and even some spy gadgets: robotic wasps (shades of the Avengers movie?) called "spy flies." Surprisingly, all of these disparate elements blend well together as imagined by Weitz and production designer Dennis Gassner (who will lend his talents to the next Bond film as well). Costume designer Ruth Myers, too, deserves praise.

Also uniformly good is the acting. Craig does a good job as Lord Asriel (a role originated on stage by Timothy Dalton), although I was surprised at how small his part is. (The marketing campaign certainly presents him as one of the main stars.) His two former leading ladies, Nicole Kidman and Eva Green (neither of whom share any scenes with him here), are both excellent, especially Green (also in a relatively small role). Tom Courtnay, star of one of my favorite obscure Sixties spy films, Otley, also turns in a good performance, and the man with the golden gun himself–of course–completely commands his single scene. (I’m told Christopher Lee’s role of "First High Councilor" is larger in subsequent books, hence his casting here.) Single season Mission: Impossible star Sam Elliott (how weird is that?) is his reliably good self, and even newcomer child star Dakota Blue Richards makes a very convincing lead. But none of that acting is enough to overcome the "going through the motions" feel of the adaptation itself.

In the movie’s defense, it does get better as it goes along, and I cared more about the characters and their fates by the end. Or, more accurately, by the time the movie stops, since it doesn’t really have much of an ending. (Especially Craig’s storyline, which leaves off on a cliffhanger.) It’s clearly the opening salvo in a trilogy, and hopefully with the groundwork laid, subsequent installments will be more daring. Speaking after tonight’s screening, director Weitz revealed that all the principal stars, including Craig, were signed for the sequels (which would shoot back-to-back) should this one perform well enough to warrant them.

Note: This "extended preview" shows all sorts of Daniel Craig scenes that don't appear in the movie, including a kiss with Nicole Kidman. (The two characters never even meet in the final cut.)

Nov 28, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For November 28, 2007

Rendition On DVD

According to The Digital Bits, New Line will release this fall's politically-minded CIA drama Rendition on DVD on January 15. DVDActive adds that extras will include "an audio commentary with director Gavin Hood, an 'Intersections: The Making of Rendition' documentary, an 'Outlawed' featurette, deleted and alternate scenes, and the theatrical trailer." The film, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon, was one of several high-profile flops this year that dealt with current events.

Final Season Of Wild Wild West Due In March

TVShowsOnDVD.com reports that the fourth and final season of the Avengers-ish spy Western hybrid The Wild Wild West will be released March 18, 2008 by CBS/Paramount. It's set to include all twenty-four fourth season episodes, but there is no word now on the two TV reunion movies, The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild Wild West (1980). I was hoping those would be included as bonus features. Maybe Paramount has plans to release them on their own down the line, but that somehow seems unlikely... The Third Season came out last week, and I should have a full review up soon.

More Alex Rider To Come!

I had been under the impression that Anthony Horowitz's popular and influential series of novels about teen spy Alex Rider were set to conclude with Book 7, which materialized earlier this month in the form of the bestselling Snakehead. (I haven't read it yet because I'm not caught up with the series, but reviews have been wildly positive.) However, as Snakehead's publication drew near, it became clear that that wasn't the case. (Whether it ever was or I was just plain mistaken, I'm not sure.) Now Horowitz foresees three more books, ending the series with number ten. The author told Reuters, "The big secret is to stop while the books are good. I dread stopping. I love the books and the books are loved." I guess it is a classy move to wrap up the ongoing story and cut off the series before it starts to sag, but I'm definitely glad he's at least planning a few more. (I wish Charlie Higson would do the same with Young Bond!) Horowitz estimates the final three books will take him five years to complete.

He's much less enthusiastic about prospects for an Alex Rider film franchise, blaming the failure of the first movie, Stormbreaker, on its American distributor's perplexing decision to dump the promising feature. "Harvey Weinstein decided not to distribute it [in the United States]. It is one of the most bizarre and annoying things that the film didn't get given its shot in America. To this day I don't know why." I certainly sympathize with the author, and share his frustration. I really can't understand why the film was so unceremoniously dumped last fall, with virtually no advertising and a terrible (and misleading) poster in hardly any theaters! Horowitz says he's written a screenplay for the second book, Point Blanc, but "the chances are fairly slim" of that getting made.

Nov 27, 2007

New Spy Comics Out This Week: Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Left On Mission

...or rather, last week. But new comics don't ship till Thursday this week, so these are still the freshest batch!

First up, that Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Annual (Marvel) that writer Christos Gage had teased as taking its queue from Sixties Bond films and Steranko’s Nick Fury comics hit the shelves. The Iron Man Annual proves just how difficult it is to mix the spy and superhero genres, even for a writer who managed to successfully pull off this blend once before, in his enjoyable Union Jack miniseries. The problem inherent in the mixture is that superheroes are (generally speaking) invincible and spies are (theoretically) not. In Ian Fleming’s books, 007 is prone to all sorts of nasty bodily harm. In the movies, certainly less so, but all of their suspense depends on the knowledge that Bond is human, and could, in theory, be killed. (The movies work the least when they get too far away from this concept, as in Moonraker, and present 007 as completely invulnerable.)

On his mission to effect regime change in the fictional country of Madripoor, Tony Stark is stripped of the armor that makes him Iron Man. Good set-up! Stark, the current director of global espionage network S.H.I.E.L.D. is going on a dangerous mission himself, with only his guts and a few gadgets to rely on! Just like those Steranko Fury stories. Unfortunately, that promising concept is immediately abandoned. It’s made clear from the outset that Stark’s Iron Man armor is hovering in low orbit, just a cell phone call away if he needs it. And as soon as he gets into trouble, he’s immediately tempted to summon it rather than thinking (or even fighting) his way out of the situation. Furthermore, apparently Stark now has an "undersheath" of armor that he can "extrude at will" from within "the hollows of [his] bones." He does so every time he gets into a scrap in this comic, thus completely taking him out of potential peril and wrecking the whole "spy genre" idea. I love spy gadgets, but I hate when they go too far. It’s a really fine line, and the producers of the Bond films haven’t always walked it very well. (Eurospies are often even worse!) Comics are slightly more forgiving (an invisible car is OK for Nick Fury, but not for 007), but full metal body armor summoned psychically from within one’s bone marrow is going too far.

Stark may have the accoutrements of a secret agent (courtesy of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Q-like armorer, named "Boothroyd" by Steranko in a nod then subtle enough to be an homage, but now probably actionable enough to necessitate a re-Christening as "Gaffer") and the requisite pulchritudinous entourage (three very lovely S.H.I.E.L.D. bodyguards), but he’s too much of a superhero to ever be in peril. On top of that, the basic storyline is pretty slight anyway, a hodgepodge of underdeveloped ideas like a superweapon introduced in the final pages that may be sentient. (Granted, it’s difficult to develop too much plot in a single issue.) Harvey Tolibao’s artwork is certainly pleasing enough (though I don’t quite understand why the frequently shirtless Stark is drawn with the musculature one generally associates with the Incredible Hulk, seeing as his superpowers come from armor, not physical might!), but ultimately this Iron Man Annual is a cautionary example of what not to do when mixing spies and superheroes. Let’s hope Guillermo del Toro pulls off a better balance with his Champions movie!

Meanwhile, for better espionage comics, one need look no further than the slightly belated but wholly satisfying climax to Boom! StudiosLeft On Mission. Issue 5 brings this enthralling, real- world-grounded spy yarn to its (in some ways) inevitable conclusion, and does so in style. Artist Francesco Francavilla, who’s been a star here since Issue 1, gets to really show his stuff in an appropriately flashy 7-page "silent" segment. Like Steranko, who pioneered the silent comic book sequence in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1, writer Chip Mosher knows when to use words and when to ease up on the verbiage and let his story unfold purely in pictures. Steranko did it to highlight the action (and demonstrate the stealthiness of Fury’s infiltration of a secret fortress); Mosher does it to build suspense and highlight the emotional resonance. Steranko had the advantage in that he was drawing his comic himself; Mosher bravely entrusts his artist with conveying his lead character’s emotional climax. Fortunately, Francavilla is more than up to the task, once more aided immeasurably by the very impressive coloring of Martin Thomas. Left On Mission has been a damn good-looking book from the start, so it seems appropriate that its key moments rest on the shoulders of Francavilla. The one thing this issue doesn’t offer that all the others have is a fabulous new spy location for Francavilla and Thomas to bring to vivid life (retaining the last issue’s Moroccan setting), but at this point a new location would have probably detracted from the important story beats.

Left On Mission has been a joy to read in individual installments (though I still don’t understand that title!), but will probably play out even better when collected as a trade paperback this winter. The storyline, involving murky loyalties, doomed romance and serious ethical questions about the business of spying, is reminiscent of Le Carre or even Fleming at his more maudlin (people act surprised when I group those two together, but read Casino Royale! It’s a grim look at espionage!), but the action is more in keeping with Bourne or Bond (at his more down-to-earth), making an appropriate combination for the medium. It seems like just about every indie comic gets optioned for a movie these days; I certainly hope there’s an ambitious producer out there flipping through Left On Mission. Furthermore, I hope this creative team plans to revisit the spy genre soon.
Random Intelligence Dispatches For November 27, 2007

On DVD Today

Today's the day... TimeLife's long-awaited Complete Series set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is officially released! (As a mail-order only item.) However, if you order on their website now, they're listing a ship date of next week. And the 3-Disc Collector's Edition of Hot Fuzz is out today, including the Timothy Dalton commentary track found on the original Region 2 release.

Tradecraft: Chuck Gets A Full Season

The Hollywood Reporter reveals that NBC has picked up the "back 9" episodes for Chuck, giving the new series a whole season's order of 22 episodes total. (Whether that whole season ever actually materializes, of course, depends on the progress of the latest negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP and a quick resolution of the writers' strike.) Chuck has been getting better and better as it's gone on, and it's definitely one of my favorites of the new TV season. The recent revelation of Alias-like cabals and secret organizations within the CIA could be a bad sign, though, if it means we should expect this show to become as convoluted as that one...

Now let's play catch-up...

Equalizer Artwork

Amazon has now posted artwork for Universal's upcoming DVD release of The Equalizer: Season One. The set is due out Feb. 12, 2008 and costs $49.98. The Equalizer starred Callan star Edward Woodward as a former British intelligence officer who rights wrongs. It kicked off the career of 24 co-creator Joel Surnow, and certainly influenced Matt Nix's summer spy hit Burn Notice.

Moneypenny Diaries Come To America!

Some great news that I failed to report sooner (but later mentioned in passing): CommanderBond.net has reported that Samantha Weinberg's superlative trilogy of James Bond novels, The Moneypenny Diaries (which I've raved about plenty), will at last see a U.S. release! The first novel, Guardian Angel, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books (a division of St. Martin's Press) on May 13, 2008, just a week after Sebastian Faulkes' eagerly awaited new Bond novel, Devil May Care. Amazon doesn't have a cover image yet, but I really hope they hire Stina Persson, who did the cover for the paperback of the second book, and will do the British edition of the third, to do the artwork. I also hope that Thomas Dunne Books does a better job marketing this excellent series than the British publisher did. This could be an opportunity for Weinberg's books to really catch on, and find the vast audience they richly deserve!

John Frankenheimer Collection

MGM has announced a new John Frankenheimer Collection including three of the director's spy classics: The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin (still the largest collection of Bond villains on screen together, I think) and The Train, as well as the DVD debut of The Young Savages. The collection is due out January 22, and will retail for $39.98.

Nov 20, 2007

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season

Somewhere, there is a whole junkyard full of busted tape recorders like that field of duplicated hats at the beginning of The Prestige. Jim Phelps and his Impossible Missions Force went through one a week for twenty-five weeks, for eight seasons, and this was in the days before disposable electronics! But each smoking cassette player meant another taut, thrilling mission, and CBS/Paramount’s new Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season offers up twenty-five more fine examples of such from the 1968-69 season.

Phelps was played by Peter Graves, and Graves mastered the furrowed brow while listening to those recorded mission briefings. (It must have resulted in a lot of premature wrinkles.) And when I say "mastered," I mean it! He’s not just crinkling up his forehead to have a bit of stage business to do while the tape recording does the talking; he’s acting. As he listens to the scant details with which he’s provided, we can see him already formulating his ingenious plan. Each furrow of the brow is a crucial step in an elaborate heist, another layer to the big con. Once I caught onto what he was doing here, Jim became a much more proactive character than he seemed at first. Later on in the episode, it’s electronics wiz Barney (Greg Morris), seductress Cinnamon (Barbara Bain), and (especially) master of disguise Rollin (Martin Landau) who will have the showiest roles, but Graves makes it clear that Jim is the man with the plan, the architect of the entire dazzling operation to follow.

The formula remains essentially the same this season (although the repetitive "team selection" sequence has been mercifully omitted, except for missions on which Jim requires a guest agent), but producer Bruce Gellar and his writers have still somehow managed to outdo themselves and come up with what is probably the show’s strongest season yet. Sure, there’s more of the same (more phony psychic powers, more doctored playing cards, more gullible foreign dictators, and more masks than ever), but there’s also a new, hitherto unseen personal layer to the proceedings. This season, the characters become more than just highly capable cogs in a masterful scheme; they’re humanized. This is thanks to a few episodes that drastically shirk the formula and give us more insight into Phelps and his team.

The best example of this is "The Exchange." Right away, the viewer is aware that he or she is in for something different. It doesn’t begin with the typical "your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you decide to accept it" taped briefing, and there’s no exploding player. Instead, it plunges us into the final moments of an unseen mission, like a Bond pre-credits sequence, or the opening of Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible film, for that matter. The team is in the Eastern Sector of an unnamed foreign city, an obvious stand-in for East Berlin. Cinnamon is in the military dress of this communist power. She photographs some documents, but suddenly alarms start to blare. She’s trapped! She has just enough time to heroically toss the camera out the window to Jim and strongman Willie Armitage (Peter Lupus, also in uniform) before she’s captured.

Back in the safety of the Western Sector, we see a very different Jim Phelps than we’re used to. His tie is off; his collar’s unbuttoned. And he’s worried. For once, events have not gone according to his precise plan. He’s sweating it. Clearly, the famous words we didn’t hear in this episode are weighing heavily on him: "Should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions."

"We let her down," laments a distraught Jim, clearly feeling the full responsibility of his role as team leader. "They can break anyone. She may not be the same Cinnamon we knew once they’re finished with her... but they’ll break her. Then they’ll kill her." Thus different stakes are set for this episode than those we’re used to. Instead of discrediting some unknown foreign dictator, the team must devise a plan to rescue one of their own.

That plan, too, goes against the grain of the show. Without the resources of the United States government behind them, the team goes rogue and breaks a captured Eastern agent out of his (presumably West German) prison in order to exchange him for Cinnamon! But in order for their plan to work, they need to break him first. Cinnamon proves remarkably adept at resisting torture and interrogation (especially for a fashion model, if we’re still meant to buy into the show’s initial conceit!), but once her captors pinpoint her fear of claustrophobia, things get a lot worse for her. Meanwhile, her IMF colleagues use their own tactics on their prisoner, staging an elaborate scenario in order to trick him. (Both sides seem to have been watching lots of Prisoner episodes!)

This tense episode leads up to a good old fashioned border-crossing prisoner exchange, a scene familiar to any fan of Cold War spy movies. The IMF gang even get to wear trench coats! Of course, in keeping with the genre there’s still one twist yet to come... "The Exchange" takes a number of surprising risks for a show of this era, especially one so entrenched in its regular, successful formula. The result is an espionage classic, and one of the very best episodes ever of Mission: Impossible. And it’s not the only episode this season to eschew the formula.

"Nicole" gives us another more personal story, focusing on Jim Phelps, and the result is good, though not equal to the success of "The Exchange." "Nicole" is a decidedly uncharacteristic Mission: Impossible episode. It feels a lot more like a Danger Man or a Saint. Most of the team sit this one out as Jim and Rollin infiltrate a swanky party in disguise (as Sidney Bristow would do so often several decades later) to steal the same MacGuffin that would fuel DePalma’s 1996 film, a NOC list. (This one identifies American agents who have been turned by the other side.) Rollin has a lot of fun playing a lecherous old general, perpetually hitting on the glam Sixties dollybirds (atypical for the show) who populate this surprisingly swinging Commie shindig. Jim, passing himself off as his aid, also finds himself flirting... with no less a femme fatale than Joan Collins as the titular agent Nicole. She sizes Jim up as "unmarried, but not un-scarred," leading to some James Bond-style banter.

It’s very strange to see Jim flirting. It’s not a side of him we’ve seen before, and he doesn’t seem that comfortable at it. I suppose that’s because he doesn’t often let his guard down as much as Nicole inspires him to do, but her allure proves great enough to cause this usually thoroughly professional spy to make some mistakes. A pressurized floor alarm (again, shades of the film) gets the best of Rollin, and the pair end up forced into some atypical but exciting gunplay. Rollin escapes with the list, but Jim is shot and captured. Nicole aids his recovery and his escape, but which side is she on? We’re treated to such spy tropes as double crosses, double agents (even one code-named "Sparrow!"), disfigured villains and arty shots through wine glasses as Jim flees for his life and tries to figure out whom he can trust. And by the time all is said and done, one IMF agent will have very uncharacteristically shot and killed a man himself, and another will have shed some equally uncharacteristic tears. The whole affair feels like one of those Prisoner episodes that feel like Danger Man episodes ("A, B & C" or "The Girl Who Was Death"); it’s one spy show masquerading as another. But it’s thrilling, different and highly entertaining. Its undoing, however, is that it’s also fairly predictable. It may not play by the standard M:I playbook, but it follows a formula nonetheless, and one with which spy fans will be familiar.

"The Mind of Stefan Miklos" proves that the show doesn’t have to break with its formula in order to excel. This one is by the book, but sublime in its execution. The Ameri-cans are feeding a known double agent, Townsend, misinformation. His assistant, Simpson (Ed Asner), suspects, and reports his boss to their controllers, who send their most brilliant strategist, Miklos (Steve Ihnat, looking as if he just stepped out of a Yaroslav Horak illustration), to investigate. For once, Jim must compete with an opposite number every bit his equal. The regular heist and con routine isn’t enough (although the episode features both); he needs to create a double bluff. He needs to let Miklos uncover one IMF plot in order to legitimize another. "His ego demands that he use his own brilliance to assemble the pieces of the puzzle," Jim informs his colleagues. But the game isn’t played mano a mano; the whole team chips in.

Martin Landau (pictured here in his leering general guise from "Nicole") really shines this episode when Rollin must play two different roles (without masks, for once) to trick two different people. One moment he’s excellently impersonating the assertive Miklos; the next the jittery, nervous Simpson. The sudden transformation is remarkable.

It spoils nothing for the astute Mission viewer to reveal that Jim and his team come out on top, but watching how they get there is particularly rewarding this time around, and demands close attention. At the end, Miklos, tricked into thinking that he has won, says, "I wish I could meet the man that masterminded their operation. He was brilliant. I feel sorry for him. He played the game well. But he lost. It’ll destroy him." Phelps is listening through a bug, fully aware of the irony and clearly feeling the same way.

"The Cardinal" is another of the many first-rate episodes in this collection, if slightly more run-of-the-mill. Theodore Bikel plays a delicious villain who plans to substitute an actor for a popular pro-Western Cardinal who opposes his bid for leadership of a progressive Eastern Bloc nation. Unfortunately for him, the IMF is onto his scheme, and sends Rollin in to double the double, making for three identical Cardinals running around at one point! Jim’s means of getting him inside is once more ingenious and fun to watch, as it involves a vacuum full of infected mosquitoes and a Maltese Cross that doubles as a tire jack good up to 3000 pounds of pressure! (Although it seems impossible to have foreseen that the bad guys would dump Rollin in a stone sarcophagus that required such a tool to escape from.) On top of that, we get to see Rollin make up a mask on the spot from his do-it-yourself face kit (which is neat), we get creepy skeleton-filled catacombs and ancient traps, and we get a henchwoman dressed as a nun. We also get an Orthodox monastery that looks suspiciously like the main Paramount business offices on their lot. (Though that's nothing compared to the Iron Curtain capitol with its own clearly visible, giant soundstage in "The Play!")

As fun as the show is, and as superb as this season is, Mission: Impossible is not without its shortcomings. Besides the obvious backlot sets, we get some of the same gimmicks we’ve seen before, and we get an annoying tendency for the agents to freeze up (practically giving themselves away) when it looks like some guard has caught onto their scheme just before a commercial break, only to learn when the show returns that they’d actually planned for this exact eventuality, so that display was purely for the benefit of the audience. We also get occasional episodes that collapse under their own convoluted intricacy, like "The Freeze." (The IMF spends millions and millions of dollars setting up a fake cryogenic laboratory and fake future of the faraway year 1980, complete with flatscreen TVs, 8-tracks that behave like DVDs, plastic shrinkwrap dresses, and bubble-topped future cars, just to convince a bank robber he’s been asleep eleven years for... well, it turns out there was really no reason at all to do it.) But perhaps hardest of all for a modern viewer to swallow are the heavy Cold War politics.

While Mission: Impossible doesn’t use actual countries or governments, they do use a Cold War shorthand relying on audiences to instantly identify certain buzzwords ("dictator," "anti-democratic," "anti-Western") as automatically evil. (Hm, sounds like a certain administration I can think of!) The writers often don’t bother to paint the various foreign leaders who fall at the hands of the IMF as evil beyond that shorthand, so in some cases the heroes come off looking like a bunch of jerks, often hurting people who don’t really seem like they should deserve what they get. In "The Elixir," for example, Riva, an Evita Peron-like would-be ruler of a South American country (whose only vice we witness is vanity, though we’re told she’d make a cruel dictator), ends up the victim of some very cruel plastic surgery, robbed of her face and, as a result, hauled off to an insane asylum. (Duped into having the procedure, if you can believe it, because of 37- year old Barbara Bain’s, ahem, "youthful" good looks!) And in "The Play," the IMF dutifully subverts the artistic freedom of playwrights and actors to further their pro-Western cause. It plays like The Lives of Others in reverse! In the course of this particular operation, they also claim a completely innocent victim, duping a sympathetic Eastern European actor into leaving behind his country and his life for a bogus offer of Broadway stardom! "The Bargain" is a great episode that actually affords Barney the chance to spy through a cracked doorway while disguised as a Cajun chef and Cinnamon the opportunity to dress like a French maid, but ultimately spells doom for an exiled Central American leader whose only crime we’re let in on is a passing similarity to Fidel Castro. In 1968, I suppose that was enough.

None of that should be enough to dissuade a spy fan (of any creed) from snatching up this fantastic DVD set, though. It’s easy to see past the dated Cold War politics (though it’s curious that the American Cold War spy shows have dated more poorly than their British equivalents) to some very tight writing, taut directing and splendid acting. Furthermore, any show that can consistently pull off so simple a trick as switching actors and saying it’s another person "wearing a mask" deserves a lot of respect. I’ll be honest; they get me every time with that. Even though it’s no longer Martin Landau on screen as soon as he pulls on that latex face, I remain convinced that I’m watching Rollin. And I don’t suspend disbelief so easily for just any show! There’s a reason why Mission: Impossible is one of the most famous spy series of all time, and it’s all on screen in The Third TV Season.

Unfortunately, there’s one piece of bad news to accompany this review. This set bears the same warning as Season 2 of Hawaii Five-O: "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions." I suppose that means that Paramount was only able to find syndication masters for some of the episodes, and not original broadcast masters. I am not familiar enough with the series to identify which episodes this affects. On the upside, however, the picture and sound quality are phenomenal this time around, easily beating the previous seasons’ presentation. Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season is one of the must-buy spy DVDs of the season.
Upcoming Los Angeles Spy Star Appearances: Timothy Dalton In Person!

Timothy Dalton will join his Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright for one night of Wright's upcoming "Right Stuff" film festival at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. On December 5, the James Bond star will discuss his role as Prince Barin in Mike Hodges' cult classic Flash Gordon. Second on the bill that night is Mario Bava's pop art masterpiece Danger: Diabolik, a must-see for any Sixties spy fan. Joe Dante will help Wright introduce that one. The New Beverly does not sell tickets in advance.

On Wednesday, November 28, ubiquitous spy star Chris Cooper will attend a screening of Breach at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. He will discuss his role as real-life spy Robert Hanssen. Presumably this appearance is the first salvo in an Oscar campaign, and I hope it works. Breach came out so long ago that Academy voters are likely to have forgotten about it, but Cooper's performance was definitely one of my favorites so far this year.
New Spy DVDs Out Today

We’re in the heart of a very busy spy season for DVDs right now. In the coming weeks we have The Bourne Ultimatum, Hot Fuzz 3-Disc Collector’s Edition (with Timothy Dalton commentary) and, of course, TimeLife’s mammoth The Man From U.N.C.L.E. complete series. But this week, we’re getting at least four big spy releases.

CBS/Paramount continues fulfilling Sixties spy fans’ insatiable desire for classic television with the third seasons of Mission: Impossible and Wild Wild West. This season of Wild Wild West gets a bad rap for departing from the fantastic and beginning the slide into more mundane Western territory, but from what I’ve watched of the set so far, while there might be fewer of the fantastical elements, there’s still spying a-plenty! Unfortunately, there are none of the wonderful extras found on Season One, such as Robert Conrad introductions or commentaries. I guess we should count ourselves lucky to have gotten one season’s worth of such treatment. Mission: Impossible keeps getting better, and there are a lot of good arguments for the third season being the best one yet. The classic team (Peter Graves, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus) is still in tact, and some of the episodes ("The Exchange," "Nicole") depart the rigid, established formula and take on a surprisingly personal angle. Plus we get "The Mind of Stefan Miklos," one of the series’ very best episodes, a classic to rival Season Two’s seminal faked apocalypse in "The Photographer." Here, Jim Phelps needs all of his cunning to beat an equally brilliant enemy strategist at his own game in this bluff and counter-bluff classic of the espionage genre. For those who haven't picked up any seasons yet, but want the entire Landau and Bain run, you can also buy a three-pack of the first three seasons. Click here for my full review of Season Three.

There are also a few worthwhile re-releases in stores today, from opposite sides of the spy spectrum. First up, Criterion offers a truly beautiful new transfer of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes packed with bonus features including the DVD debut of the spinoff movie, Crook's Tour, featuring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprising their Lady Vanishes roles as Charters and Caldicott. Like most Criterion releases, even the packaging is outstanding (in plastic wrap that isn’t annoyingly stuck to the spine, a true mark of quality!), as is the lavish 22-page booklet inside. Second, Sony issues a long-awaited (by some) special edition of box office flop turned minor cult classic Hudson Hawk. Bruce Willis plays a very silly James Bond game as a cat burglar pressed into service for show-stealing CIA mastermind James Coburn in one of his final spy roles.

Nov 14, 2007

James Bond Returns To Comics

007 returns to the shelves of comic book stores this week, albeit in an unauthorized and frankly unflattering form! The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier finally came out today, after years or rumors, delays and missed release dates. No, it's not a sequel to Sean Connery's dismal cinematic swan song (if his retirement sticks, at least), but the latest in the series of brilliant Alan Moore graphic novels that inspired that wretched adaptation. The basic concept of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is that fiction's greatest (or most flawed) heroes have united throughout the ages to form "super-teams" (think Justice League of America) working for the British Secret Service. The first two volumes focused on the late Victorian incarnation of that team, including Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray (better known by her married name, Harker), Captain Nemo, Henry Jekyll and Hawley Griffin, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man. Black Dossier takes place in the late Fifties and features a few returning characters, as well as a slew of new ones from that decade. As it's an espionage tale, it should come as no surprise that Bond appears, identified as "Jimmy," grandson of the original series' Campion Bond. John Drake, Bulldog Drummond, "the Village" and Steed's boss "Mother" are at least name-checked, and a favorite Fleming villain makes an appearance, among other luminaries of spy literature. Moore has been known to take certain liberties with characters in the past, and his version of 007 is likely to rile many fans. He's certainly no "gentleman secret agent" as portrayed here. However, artist Kevin O'Neil's depiction of Fleming's Bond (complete with Hoagy Carmichael looks and that famous comma of black hair) is pretty dead-on!

Nov 12, 2007

DVD Review: Dangermouse

From the same studio that brought you the Danger Man megaset on DVD comes another dangerous megaset: Dangermouse: The Complete Series. Dangermouse, billed as "the world’s smallest secret agent," is a white mouse in a white monogrammed sweater with a Nick Fury eyepatch, a John Steed accent, a Derek Flint mastery of any situation and a Sid James sidekick, a dim-witted, cockney hamster named Penfold. He operates out of a red London postal box, and reports to an oft-befuddled superior with a bushy RAF mustache named Colonel K.

Dangermouse was the pro-duct of British animation studio Cosgrove-Hill (who also pro-duced the popular spin-off series Count Duckula), and ran intermit-tently throughout the ‘80s, on Nickelodeon in the Unites States, if memory serves me. Prior to watching the DVDs, I harbored vague (but positive) childhood memories of this series, but my mind had tricked me into recalling a slightly darker show. Now I remember why: as a child, I spent much of my Dangermouse-watching time trying to figure out how he had lost his eye, a grisly contemplation that’s sure to color any impressionable imagination. Fortunately, that was just my own morbid curiosity; the series itself spares us any such details, and today I’m capable of accepting the patch as a cool design element and nothing more. (Thank good-ness!)

While Dangermouse does serve up plenty of spy parodies throughout, the basic secret agent set-up is pri-marily used as a platform from which to branch off in all sorts of directions, sending up everything from Sher-lock Holmes to Indiana Jones, from sci-fi to superhero to horror. The animation itself is definitely "on the cheap," often reusing the same backgrounds, reusing entire repeated sequences each episode (DM and Penfold exiting their flat by couch elevator), or offering a camera move to substitute for actual motion within the frame, but the gang at Cosgrove-Hall actually use these limitations to their advantage, crafting a unique look for the show. One of the other things that stayed with me from childhood about Dangermouse is the unique, retouched photographic cityscapes (primarily London) that serve as backdrops to the adventures of DM and Penfold, and cheap though they may be, there’s an undeniable artistry to these backgrounds. They look good! Another favorite money-saving trick of the Dangermouse team is having the lights go out. It seems to happen at least once in every episode–and sometimes quite a bit more–and when it does, all you see is two sets of eyes. (At least until the inevitable third set of eyes opens, belonging to some terrifying lurking monster and unerringly leading to some Abbot & Costello antics!)

During the first season, Dangermouse’s adventures are all shorts, about seven minutes long. Later, half-hour adventures are divided up into four or more short segments, so that each short ends on a serial-style cliffhanger and resumes with a narrated recap. While this may have worked well with commercials when originally airing in the United States, or stripped together with other cartoon shorts, it is a little bit annoying on A&E’s DVDs to have to sit through (or fast forward through) closing and opening credits, as well as recaps, at least four times during a given episode. Luckily, in later seasons, full twenty-two minute episodes are presented without interruption. I’m not sure if that’s because that was how they aired, or if A&E merely decided to omit the annoying interruptions, but either way it’s a welcome omission.

One of the most original things about Dangermouse is its willingness to break the Fourth Wall. It’s a very postmodern cartoon. For example, in one episode the narrator himself (whose often erroneous voiceovers remind me a lot of those on Little Britain) becomes a character when everything he says comes true on the screen, much to Dangermouse’s annoyance. In another, DM actually runs off the side of the "filmstrip," past the sprockets into a white void of nothingness where he’s stuck until he can find a way to get himself back into the picture. These absurdist episodes may have been a direct result of the show’s overriding penny-pinching edict, but they are very creative. As the show progressed into its final seasons, with full half-hour episodes, the plots became more straightforward. At the same time, the budget clearly increased, and Dangermouse relied far less on still frames and more on real animation. The show may have lost a touch of originality at this point, becoming just another animated comedy adventure, but I actually prefer these episodes. The characters are still as engaging as ever, and the off-kilter (and ever-so-British) sense of humor remains intact. (I do miss the photographic backgrounds, though.)

Throughout all his adventures, psychedelic and nonsensical or efficient and somewhat trite, DM is accompanied by Penfold, who despite his many displays of cowardice, always stands by his "Chief." If Dangermouse is somewhat unsympathetically flawless in his Flint-like perfection, Penfold is a bundle of ostensible flaws: lazy, timid, not in possession of the sharpest of wits (to put it kindly), and good-hearted and loyal to a fault. He’s Nigel Bruce’s Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes. As in those movies, the humor in their relationship comes generally not at the expense of Penfold’s stupidity or DM’s arrogance, but in the collision of those two personalities, and the (usually) good-natured banter between them. They’re a good team, which is essential for a cartoon duo.

Their primary nemesis is the villainous frog Baron Greenback, equal parts Moriarty and Blofeld, who strokes a fuzzy white caterpillar named Nero. Greenback is the villain in almost every episode, and frankly Dangermouse would have benefited from a larger rogues’ gallery. Greenback’s horse voice, repetitive plans for world domination and total lack of motivation (perhaps I expect too much from a cartoon villain, but even Gargamel was driven by a manic compulsion to capture Smurfs!) get old fast. It’s to his credit, though, that the archvillain never wavers in his belief in his own superiority, that this time, he’s sure to crush Dangermouse! Lesser villains might be discouraged by the 88th failure.

Standout episodes include an excursion to a booby-trapped New York skyscraper more fiendish than "The House That Jack Built" (and Emma Peel endured) so surreal that they don’t even bother to give it a proper ending, the Indiana Jones-inspired globetrotting race against Greenback for "The Great Bone Idol," the Bondian spy farce "Dangermouse on the Orient Express," and any episode with the vegetarian vampire Count Duckula, who’s always a welcome alternative to Greenback. And perhaps I was right after all in my eyepatch-obsessed memory of the show as being dark; it may be the only children’s cartoon ever to end its final episode (a rare Greenbackless affair) with the total destruction of London, obliterated into a post-apocalyptic wasteland around Dangermouse’s unscathed mailbox headquarters!

A&E offer some good extras on their 9-disc Complete Series, too. There are two episodes of Count Duckula, each as enjoyable as the best Dangermouse episodes. There are suites of incidental music from the series, and the unaired pilot, which is actually better than most of the first season shorts, and telegraphs the more plot-oriented direction in which the show will eventually go. The most fascinating aspect of this collection is the ability to watch the series mutate and evolve over the course of 89 episodes of varying length and absurdity. Dangermouse has its share of misses, but they’re ultimately outnumbered by the hits, and hitting "Play All" on one of the discs is a great way for an animation-oriented spy fan to spend a Saturday afternoon. It’s certainly easier to recommend than other kid-friendly spy cartoons like Cool McCool, because it offers genuine entertainment on top of historical curiosity!
BLOGIVERSARY: The List Revisited
Revisiting a list made one year ago as the inaugural post on this blog.

5. Charlie Higson & Anthony Horowitz

There’s been no lack of coverage on the Double O Section of Charlie Higson and his Young Bond novels. In fact, two such volumes have been published since my original posting on the subject a year ago, Double Or Die and Hurricane Gold (as well as a Young Bond Rough Guide To London). Higson’s fifth and, as of now, final book in the series is due out in 2008. But that’s not all that’s happening on the Young Bond front. The first Young Bond graphic novel, illustrated by Kev Walker, is also due next year. It’s an adaptation of SilverFin, Higson’s first Bond novel. I’m very, very excited for this, as I dearly want to see more James Bond comic books in general. (This will be the first new material since Topps published two issues of an aborted four-part adaptation of GoldenEye in 1995.) However, I would honestly rather see original Young Bond adventures in comics than adaptations of the existing novels. (The last original Bond comics came from Dark Horse in the early ‘90s, and also included a half-finished mini-series.) I really hope that if the novel series truly concludes with Book 5, as it is supposed to, Higson turns his attention to penning some original comics about the teenage James Bond. I also hope that if the SilverFin adaptation is successful, Ian Fleming Publications doesn’t stop with Young Bond comics, but goes on to license original stories about the adult 007 as well.

On top of the new novel and the comic book, there are also rumors (courtesy of the Young Bond Dossier, naturally!) of a Young Bond short story in the offing. Higson told a group of fans that he was toying with the idea of writing one as a bridge between Hurricane Gold and the as yet untitled fifth book, wherein James is reunited with the SilverFin Bond girl Wilder Lawless aboard on ocean liner bound from Mexico back to England. He didn’t indicate where the story would see print, but maybe it could form the basis for a whole, For Your Eyes Only-like collection of Young Bond stories down the road!

Of course, Anthony Horowitz has already beaten Higson and IFP to the punch with teen spy short stories, just as he did with teen spy novels. (Though to be fair, Young Bond is not strictly a teen spy, like Horowitz’s Alex Rider, but a teenager who will one day grow up to be a spy.) Horowitz has produced two Alex Rider short stories so far, both of which are available online (which seems the most likely ultimate destination for a Young Bond story as well), one via The Daily Mail and the other on Horowitz’s official website (though you have to register to access it). The former is a Christmas story that serves as a prequel to the entire Alex Rider series; the latter takes place between Alex’s third and fourth adventures. These serve as good primers for potential readers to get a taste of Alex Rider without digging into an entire book (although the books are lightning fast reads).

I had thought that Horowitz’s teen agent series was originally slated to last for seven volumes, but the seventh Alex Rider novel, Snakehead, is due out tomorrow in the US and I’ve seen no fanfare about it being the final one, so plans must have changed. The movie version of the first book, Stormbreaker, trickled into US theaters for about one week last fall (after making a decent performance at the UK box office), then got dumped on an initially Wal-Mart-exclusive DVD courtesy of The Weinstein Company. Sadly, I think we can take its lack of American success as a sign that no one’s in a hurry to produce a sequel, which is too bad since the second book, Point Blanc, is a better story. Fans who want to see Point Blanc adapted into another medium can at least look forward to a graphic novel adaptation this Christmas. The first Alex Rider comic was adapted from the film; the second is a translation of the novel. As with Young Bond, I’d rather see original adventures in this format, but I am looking forward to Point Blanc.

I’ve only read the first several Rider books, but so far I stand by what I said about them last year. They’re not quite as well written nor as educational as the Young Bond books, but they are a lot of fun and quick, addictive reads. Alex Rider is definitely one of the better examples of the surprisingly fertile teen spy genre, even if the first few books are rather blatant repackagings of Ian Fleming plots.

Nov 8, 2007

Editorial: Stars And Strikes

Last week, Sony celebrated as Paul Haggis turned in a finished draft of Bond 22 ahead of the impending writers’ strike. This week, the writers are on strike, and Haggis is walking the picket line outside Sony. And now he says the script’s not quite done. "They haven't gotten the polish finished yet," Haggis revealed to the Los Angeles Times, going on to call the dispute "another example of corporate greed" [on the part of the studios] and declare, "It's my job as a member of the Guild to be here." [on the picket lines]. So if what Haggis says is true, what does that mean for Bond 22? It means that Daniel Craig’s second Bond film, the all-important follow-up to the most critically-acclaimed entry in the series, the BAFTA-nominated Casino Royale, might go into production this January without the best possible script.

Would Danjaq cross the Writers’ Guild of America and get someone else to finish it? Would Michael G. Wilson (who must be a WGA member, what with all his writing credits on the Bond series) turn scab and polish the script himself? Are Purvis and Wade Guild members, being British? Even if they aren’t, I highly doubt they’d cross picket lines, even proverbial overseas ones. [UPDATE: The Literary 007 spotted an ad in Variety in which Purvis and Wade, along with Goldeneye scribes Bruce Feirstein and Michael France, vow to do no writing "until all writers get a fair and reasonable deal."] So that leaves the option of delaying production until after the end of the strike (which could potentially be a long way off), or going into production with an unpolished screenplay and no writer on set to make last-minute tweaks. Neither option should appeal to fans, but I certainly hope the producers would opt to delay the movie rather than make a potentially sub-par one, especially after everything they did to get the franchise back on track. That seems unlikely, however, as they would risk losing director Marc Forster if the schedule changes drastically, or losing both him and Daniel Craig if the directors and actors strike next summer when their contracts expire. Neither option is a pleasant scenario.

The only good thing for the future of the Bond franchise (and for all the other big movies going into production between now and next summer, for that matter), is for the WGA and the AMPTP (American Association of Movie and Television Producers) to resume talks, come to an agreement on a contract, and end the strike.

Which means that the studios will have to compromise, something they’ve not yet shown any inclination to do.

Paul Haggis is right, and as much as I want a new Bond movie in theaters on time next Christmas, I also believe that the writers’ demands are perfectly reasonable. (Learn more about what the writers want and why here.) The Double O Section whole-heartedly supports Haggis and the Writers Guild of America in their efforts to get a fair contract. Furthermore, I think it’s important for other fan sites to do the same.

Yesterday’s Hollywood Reporter aptly calls the strike "a battle for hearts and minds," and it’s true. A massive work stoppage, especially a long one, will affect the product in theaters and on television, and will ultimately affect every filmgoer and TV watcher in America. Both the WGA and the AMPTP are trying to make that seem like the fault of the other party, and so far the AMPTP seems to be doing a better job with getting timely press releases out. (And it certainly helps that most major newspapers and magazines that report on entertainment just happen to be owned by the same media conglomerates, like Fox and Time-Warner, that the AMPTP represents.) Therefore, it is important for fan sites, especially influential ones with larger readerships than my own, to support the writers, the creators of the very product they’re dedicated to. It’s important that the American public understand the reasons for the strike, and understand that it could all end if the studios would simply agree to pay writers some meager residuals for "new media reuse" of the creative material they create.

I’m really not sure right now how best to convey that stand to the studios (although Aintitcool has linked to a petition, for what it's worth), but the first step is clear to me: the fan community must vocally support the people who write the movies and shows that they are fans of.

In this case, that’s spy movies. So how will the strike affect upcoming spy movies and shows? Here’s a sampling:

Bond 22
Daniel Craig’s next movie is scheduled to begin shooting in January as of now, but writer Paul Haggis, one of the men responsible for the franchise’s successful reboot, claims it’s not ready. I’ve already covered the ramifications of that above.

24
Apparently there are eight episodes of 24 in the can. As the show’s format doesn’t really lend itself to airing just eight episodes and then disappearing for who knows how long, Fox has decided to delay the seventh season (which was set to bow in February) indefinitely. That means the popular spy show might end up skipping a whole season altogether, and we might not see any more of Jack Bauer until sometime during the 2008-09 season, depending on the duration of the strike. Also, with the shooting schedule thrown off by the strike, it’s unclear if star Kiefer Sutherland’s jail time for DUI will still be compatible. That may delay things further.

Burn Notice
USA’s runaway summer hit was supposed to start shooting its second season in January. Obviously, with writers not currently generating scripts, that will have to be delayed at least somewhat, or else rushed, even if the strike is resolved soon. Since it wasn’t set to start airing until next summer, Burn Notice has a little more leeway than 24, but if the strike continues until next June as some pessimists prognosticate, we might not learn who really burned Michael Weston for quite some time. Would USA air it in the fall instead if circumstances so dictated? I hope so. The alternatives (delaying till summer ‘09, or giving up on the series altogether) are not appealing.

Get Smart
Next summer’s tentpole comedy has already wrapped, but star Steve Carrell (a WGA member himself) has refused to cross picket lines on his hit show The Office, effectively shutting down production on the sitcom. Does that mean he would be unavailable for reshoots on Get Smart should they be deemed necessary? Honestly, I’m not sure. But it’s something to consider. It’s not uncommon for big studio comedies to undergo some reshoots, and I hate to think that director Peter Segal might not be able to deliver the best product possible because the studios refuse to throw a little money the writers’ way.

Dollhouse

In the initial Hollywood Reporter story on the new Eliza Dushku show, Joss Whedon said, "I'll hit the ground running, and I'll work until I'm supposed to, then I'll stop dead in my tracks and will pick up my picket signs. I think the issues are extremely serious, and I think the studios are extremely entrenched. No one wants a strike, but it has to happen because (the studios) would not listen. I support it and will do anything to fight for the creative rights that the people deserve." So I guess that means that development of the new series is delayed indefinitely. Luckily, this wasn't supposed to debut until Fall 2008, so there's plenty of time to get things worked out and get the show up and running.

(If you know how the strike is affecting other spy-related entertainment in production, please contact me so I can keep people up to date.)