Feb 28, 2008

DVD Review: MI-5 (Spooks) Volume 5

I was almost prepared to write this show off after its gradual shift from Sandbaggers-like semi-realism to 24-like soap opera mayhem and a rather lackluster fourth season. However, I’m happy to report an amazing rebound with Season Five, which probably ties with Two as the series’ best! Yes, it’s a totally different show than it was. I’ve accepted that now, and maybe I just needed a season’s worth of action-heavy episodes to do that. But it’s mastered its new genre, and manages to do it better than 24 or anything comparable on TV.

The season doesn’t get off to the greatest start, however. Perpetuating an ongoing flaw in the series, the preceding season’s dramatic cliffhanger is once again instantly resolved and then swept aside to make way for new challenges. At the close of Season Four, team leader Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) was shot by a sniper. Well, within the first few minutes of the new season, that sniper jumps from her perch and kills herself, and Adam’s whisked off to the hospital for a seemingly speedy recovery. While he’s in bed, terrorists manage to bring Britain to its knees with attacks on fuel depots and pseudo-biological warfare. Wait–all that happens while our hero’s in bed??? Yes, it does. Wouldn’t it have been a much better cliffhanger for Season Four if Adam and MI-5 had failed to stop an attack they were racing to prevent? It would have been dramatic and paved the way for this season. It just seems like the writers don’t bother to plan too far ahead when ending each one. No matter, though. Within five minutes, all that set-up’s out of the way, Adam’s back at work, and things are moving at a breakneck pace.

Echoing 24 in another respect, the producers of both shows clearly have political agendas; they just happen to be diametrically opposed. The two-hour premiere really sets up the MI-5 writers’ agenda for the season. They’re wary of the Bush/Blair regimes (remember, America gets these seasons a year late) and uncomfortable with new restrictions on civil liberties. Yet they’re telling stories about an agency that’s essentially a domestic secret police force, which spies on its own citizens for their protection. They reconcile this by turning the oft-vilified MI-5 into the unlikely guardians of freedom and democracy, and making rival agency MI-6 (concerned with spying abroad) into a Gestapo-like organization out of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta. It’s a bit of a stretch, but the show is made so well that one soon accepts this new reality and goes with it. In the first season, it would have seemed very odd to have MI-5 boss Harry Pearce (the still-excellent Peter Firth) stand up for anyone’s civil liberties, but in the context of Season Five, we accept from him declarations like "Britain will be ruled by an unelected committee with the silhouette of a hangman behind it!" in response to new "special measures to protect democracy" that include "compulsory detention orders at the discretion of the security services which deprive the citizen of every existing legal protection." We even accept a situation wherein Harry himself has been remanded to a newly-established "detention center" (looking right out of Children of Men) and ends up sharing a cell with a well-known Civil Liberties advocate. The evil MI-6 jailer punches her in the face and says, "Every time I’ve heard you yapping about Civil Liberties on television, I’ve wanted to do that to you." Harry nobly comes to her defense, even though the spook is acting on a sentiment that he may well have agreed with in Season One!

Like nearly all fictions dealing with the British Security Services (and, presumably, like real life), MI-5 has always played Five and Six off against each other. But, in a perfect representation of how the show has changed since its inception, we’ve now gone from bureaucratic standoffs to full-on hand-to-hand combat between agents of the two organizations. In the first season Harry matched wits and traded wry barbs with his MI-6 counterpart, the deliciously condescending and snobbish Jools Siviter (Hugh Laurie) in the confines of Siviter’s private club. In Season Five, Harry actually smashes his wine glass and attacks the Siviter-like JIC chief, Oliver Mace (Tim McInnerny), drawing blood in a similar club setting! Subtlety is officially out the window, but the tension is higher than ever. It’s a tradeoff. In Season Four, I was still lamenting the fact that what was once the anti-24 had become an imitation of 24. Now I’ve had a season to accept the new direction, and the show has had a season to embrace it. MI-5 might be "doing" 24 now, but they’re doing it better than 24 ever did! Instead of merely imitating the real-time spy thriller, they’ve surpassed it.

MI-5 does remain true to form in one important aspect, which is that no character remains safe. We’re reminded of that right off the bat as one of the most beloved characters meets a brutal end in the season opener. And they won’t be the only regular to sign off this season, either! MI-5 is a suspense show where not even the hero is safe, upping the ante tenfold. 24 may boast a high body count, but audiences can remain fairly secure in knowing that Jack Bauer never dies permanently. The same cannot be said for MI-5, which has already cycled out all of its original leads.

The gripping two-part opener is as good as any modern theatrical spy movie. It has moles, betrayals, twists, gunfights, chases and dangerous games of cat-and-mouse. It’s got conspiracies (linking Big Media, oil companies and government) and even some villain speeches worthy of Ian Fleming. ("I wonder why we fetishize democracy so much?" muses one of the conspirators.) And it acknowledges the classic themes of the genre. "This isn’t a game!" exclaims one team member after the loss of another.

"That’s exactly what it is!" insists Adam. "It’s a big, elaborate game. And the question we always have to ask ourselves is: what do they want us to do? How do they want us to react?" Even after the Cold War, the fabled "Great Game" endures. Throughout Season Five, the writers of MI-5 appear to be very consciously acknowledging, celebrating and sometimes subverting the best conventions of the spy genre. It doesn’t play like cliches, though, and it rewards afficionados of the form.

The third episode is one of those "recruiting an innocent" yarns that MI-5 does so well, and that seem to best reflect the true mission of the real-life agency. (My understanding is that actual MI-5 case officers spend a lot more time attempting to recruit spies and turn informants than shooting it out with their sister service.) When MI-5 plays up this angle, however, it’s a far cry from the innocent recruits of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or other spy shows of the past. Like the agents, the safety of the recruits is never guaranteed, and some of these episodes have ended quite tragically.

Where many U.S. spy shows purposely avoid addressing real threats to the nation’s security, and only make coded references to current events, MI-5 embraces them. For instance, Zaf (Raza Jaffrey) infiltrates an actual Al Qaida cell (not a less scary analogue for the terrorist organization), and Adam must make a split-second decision about whether or not to order the shooting of a Muslim man who might be a bomber, recalling the real-life tragedy in which British authorities killed an innocent civilian.

Where can liberally-minded writers turn for reliable enemies in the current climate so as not to use Arab extremists every week? America, of course! (And France, for good measure, because apparently no one likes the French.) I was intrigued by the matter-of-fact routine with which TV’s MI-5 bugs the suites of their supposed allies at a conference on Africa, but I suspect that’s probably pretty accurate. However, as the team tries to ensure that the "cousins" don’t subvert a British-led initiative for international aid to Africa, they discover that their own government isn’t so altruistic either. One bugged official admits the whole conference is about "getting aging rock stars off our backs" about the issues in that troubled continent. This intriguing look at what happens when MI-5 intercedes in politics recalls the best episode of Season Four, in which the team subverted democracy for the good of the nation to discredit a neo-fascist politician.

This same episode provides the first clues of this season’s primary character arc as well. Adam appears to be cracking up the way that Tom, the team’s first leader, did. Throughout the season, he flashes back to personal tragedies suffered in past seasons, cries, freezes up at crucial moments, and even takes to drink. (He’s also prone to shirtlessness this season, but one suspects that’s more to appeal to the female demographic than to signify his mental deterioration.) A psychiatrist diagnoses him as suicidal. Will Adam’s story end in tragedy? This being MI-5, you never know. It’s as likely as not.

The fifth episode is another that thrives on conventions of the genre. It plays out as a classic Mission: Impossible symphony of plot and counterplot. When Ruth is set up by rival forces inside the intelligence community, she despairs. She recognizes the signs. She’s caught in exactly the same sort of trap she herself has helped MI-5 ensnare dozens of others in, and she sees no way out.

Midway through the season, things get a little bit repetitive. An MI-6 mole (whenever someone from Mi-6 shows up on MI-5's grid, he or she is inevitably a mole. It’s as predictable as 24 in that respect!) uses the same trick to get a new recruit at Five to do his bidding that Jenny Agutter used in the very first season, and this season’s new heroine, Ros, finds herself in the same situation that Zoe encountered before her: trapped in a diplomatic party which is taken over by terrorists. Those terrorists use the threat of a human bomb to distract MI-5 from their true objective, the same ploy used at the end of Season Three! Along with repetitions come subtle inconsistencies, as one week Adam will rail against extreme rendition and torture, and the next he’ll throw an Arab informant against a car and threaten to send him to "a new place that makes Guantanamo look like Spearmint Rhino" (itself a bit of a repetition of his Jack Bauer-like behavior in the Season Four premiere). Of course, perhaps this wavering is merely a symptom of his impending breakdown.

The theme of indistinguishable lines between friends and enemies returns when the MI-5 team find themselves up against Israeli Mossad officers in three episodes in a row. The two organizations may be allies, but they have different objectives and different means of reaching them. Harry is particularly cruel in his punishment of a Mossad officer caught instigating terrorism on British soil (in order to further his own agency’s ends).

When things get too dark, you can always rely on techies Malcolm and Colin for some levity. One of the season’s funniest moments comes from the relish with which Malcolm sweeps a hotel room for bugs. "What a beauty!" he exclaims, unearthing one that’s been lodged there for decades. "Russian. Circa late Seventies. See that? It’s a motion sensor. Saves battery. It’s one oft he few missing from my collection!" Colin also maintains another important convention of the spy genre, keeping the team equipped with the latest gadgets–even if they’re all relatively believable, down-to-earth gizmos. (The only one that pushed it a little–but is probably quite feasible–was a "bone-anchored" receiver he injects into the back of Ros’ neck just under her ear! Yeah, kind of gross.)

Like the premiere, the two-parter in which Ros gets that device (and gets into her "Die Hard in an embassy" situation) could easily be a movie. Director Andy Hay brings a lot of cinematic flair to the show, producing an even slicker product than we’ve seen before. He brings some new techniques to the table, including a very effective use of the Children of Men trick of sound dropping out, followed by residual ringing on the soundtrack, to accompany an unexpected explosion.

Flashy direction also takes the forefront in the subsequent episode, which follows up this season’s Islamic and Jewish extremists with Christian extremists, who haven’t plagued MI-5 since its very first episode. "Afghanistan under the Taliban frightens me no more than England under Cromwell," states Harry very reasonably. Director Julian Simpson uses this theme as a chance to treat the material like a Gothic, with lots of high contrast, long shadows and even a rogue priest talking to God and unblinking statuary in an empty, darkened cathedral.

The threat is addressed with another elaborate sting that would do Jim Phelps proud, and it really showcases everyone’s talents. The whole team comes together well, with Adam and Ros in the field, Malcolm and Jo supporting them on com, using satellite imagery, and Harry trying to resolve the situation his agents are in through diplomatic channels. That "situation," of course, isn’t helped by the fact that Adam is really unstable by this point.

If the whole of Season Five plays as a tribute to spy stories of the past, it’s the penultimate episode that really brings home the theme. Titled, appropriately, "Tradecraft," it revels in all the classic tactics of Cold War spies familiar to avid readers of Le Carré and viewers of Sandbaggers. It’s got all the familiar tropes: a moonlit rendezvous on the Austro-Serbian border, dead drops, betrayals, microdots (wholly unfamiliar to the younger members of the team), moles, even an Old School "book code" like the one in Our Man In Havana! This episode, about a deep cover operative (and former childhood pal of Adam’s) who wants to come in from the cold, is a real treat for fans of Cold War spy thrillers.

After that, the actual finale is a bit of a letdown. The plot is another rather standard (for the new model of MI-5, at least) "Die Hard in a..." situation (in this case, in a... water... thing... of some sort; it’s hard to explain, but levee-like in nature and probably more familiar–and therefore more exciting–to Londoners). Recalling (a little too closely) the finale of the previous season, the terrorists who have taken over this dam-like structure demand the release of a classified document which may or may not actually exist. If their demands aren’t met, they’ll flood all of London. Adam insists on going in alone, but once he’s inside (and out of communication), some digging on Ros’ part reveals his most recent psych evaluation, and his colleagues become aware for the first time of the seriousness of his current mental state. Needless to say, the conclusion is wet. I won’t reveal whether Adam or anyone else makes it out alive, but I will say that we do find out; this season may end abruptly, but it doesn’t end with the typical MI-5 cliffhanger.

Like on the Season Four set–but decidedly unlike prior volumes–there is a dearth of extras on MI-5: Volume Five. Disc 1 has the cast interviews, which mostly play like EPK material. There’s far too much time spent on Miranda Raison (Jo) being sarcastic about the new girl, Hermione Norris (Ros), saying "oh, she’s so horrible to work with" and whatnot, which stopped being funny and started being overdone a long time ago on DVD features! The contributions from Rupert Penry-Jones and Peter Firth prove the most interesting, though I feel like I’ve seen Firth make similar comments on previous seasons (about the show’s high mortality rate–and how he always checks the last page of each new script he gets to make sure he’s still alive!). The whole brief interview segment is rife with Season Five spoilers, as well as warnings to that effect. I’m glad they provide warnings, but the placement of this revealing feature on Disc 1 (of five!) is rather perplexing. It’s certainly no good for Netflix viewers! Similarly, it seems an odd choice to put the "Season Five trailer" (really just a trailer for the season premiere) on Disc 3.

There are only two commentary tracks this time around–on the last two episodes–along with a "Season Six Preview" on Disc 5. It’s not really much of a preview, but rather a brief, on-set video diary by Miranda Raison that reveals nothing about the plot of the season.

Lack of extras aside, MI-5: Volume Five is a terrific DVD set, and a very satisfying purchase for spy fans. If you’ve lapsed as a viewer since the series’ initial Golden Age, it’s a good time to return, and it would likewise make a decent jumping-on point for the uninitiated. It’s undoubtedly a different show with a different tone from what it was the first few seasons, but it’s managed to reinvent itself quite successfully, and proves every bit as slick and entertaining as most big screen espionage fare.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4

Feb 27, 2008

Burn Notice Coming To DVD This Summer?

It's hardly a surprise to know that Burn Notice: Season One is on its way (presumably timed with the start of Season Two on USA this July), but TVShowsOnDVD has confirmation of that today, if not a date or any tangable information. I assume it will be a Fox release.
R.I.P. William F. Buckley, Jr.

Most obitiuaries will cite his achievements/notoriety in other fields, but among the many hats worn by the late conservative icon was that of spy novelist. Buckley's amorous hero, Yale-educated CIA agent Blackford Oakes (not to be confused with John Gardner's Boysie Oakes) was perhaps most distinctive among his fictional brethren for bedding the Queen of England in his debut adventure, Saving the Queen (1976). Interestingly, Oakes' Cold War adventures were not contemporary. While they were written between 1976 and 2005, they took place between 1952 and 1987. This enabled Buckley to work his protaganist into real-world intelligence operations. The final Blackford Oakes novel was Last Call For Blackford Oakes.

Feb 26, 2008

Fox Revisits 24's First Season On DVD

While double-, triple-, or, in the case of the Evil Dead franchise, quadruple-dips are quite commonplace amongst film titles on DVD, they're still relatively rare for television shows outside of packaging updates (though I suspect we'll see that change soon as existing series are issued on Blu-Ray with new features). Fox leads the charge by revisiting 24: Season One as a new Special Edition. And it makes sense. 24 hadn't yet become the phenomenon that it is when they issued the first version of Season One, and it's consequently lacking on special features, whereas later seasons were packed with 'em. So it only makes sense to redo the first season.

According to a Fox press release, the new extras include an all-new documentary called "The Genesis of 24," five extended episodes (comprising the hours of 7PM to 12AM, or the final five episodes of the season), twenty-five extended or deleted scenes, yet another, never-before-seen alternate ending for the season finale (the alternate ending seen on the original DVD will still be included, as well), commentaries on the premiere and finale, and two "The Rookie" online short films. Whew! I think all that should at least make this encore worthwhile to hardcore fans. The original introduction from Kiefer Sutherland will also be retained from the first release.

The new version will be readily identifiable on store shelves by its metal tin packaging (complete with ticking digital counter... but only four digits' worth) and will also include "special introductory letters from both series co-creators on their inspiration and challenges working on this groundbreaking show."
Bourne Reborn

AICN picked up on a small mention of a fourth Bourne movie in the midst of a larger Variety article about the future of Universal and its new regime. "More recently," says the trade, "[executives] Shmuger and Linde landed Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon for a fourth 'Bourne' movie, even though the director and star seemed ready to wrap it up after three pics." That's all the information given, but it looks like things have progressed beyond Damon's saying he'd "be interested" into something more concrete. But can they get Tony Gilroy back to script, or have all of his Michael Clayton Oscar nominations solidified his desire to direct? Either way, it's great news that this franchise is continuing after hitting a high point with the third installment last year. I'm not worried that Ludlum never wrote a fourth book in the series; the last two movies have already eschewed the books' plots entirely, so that shouldn't make a difference. Or maybe they can now go back and take some of the best elements that the never used from Ludlum's series and incorporate them into their fourth film! That would be cool.

Feb 23, 2008

See The Quantum Of Solace Art Director In Los Angeles Today!
(Yesterday now)

Update: I wasn't able to make it myself. If anyone did, please let me know if they said anything about Bond. Thanks! Original post follows.

Sorry for the last minute notice, but if any Angelenos happen to be checking in on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 23, you can see two of the creators of Quantum of Solace's visual style discuss their craft for free today at 2:30PM at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Art Director Dennis Gassner and Set Decorator Anna Pinnock will be part of an Oscar Nominated Art Directors Seminar this afternoon. The two will screen excerpts of their Academy Award nominated work on The Golden Compass, starring Daniel Craig and Eva Green. The Art Direction on that movie was incredible, and by far its most laudable aspect. Gassner also previously worked with Craig on The Road to Perdition. While the focus will be on The Golden Compass, I can't imagine they'd neglect to mention QoS, as Bond films are sort of a Holy Grail for art directors, thanks largely to the trailblazing work of Sir Ken Adam.

Admission to the event is free.

Feb 21, 2008

Random Intelligence Dispatches For Feb. 22, 2008

Rare Patrick McGoohan Series Coming To DVD At Last!

DVDActive reveals the titles in the latest wave of Disney Treasures DVDs, set for release November 8, 2008... and it includes the long-awaited Patrick McGoohan mini-series Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow! Best of all, the release will include both the original, three-part TV version (aired as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh), and the edited theatrical feature. If previous Treasures releases are anything to go by, it should contain other extra features as well. (The ubiquitous Leonard Maltin introductions are a given, but dare we hope for the reclusive Prisoner star to break his silence and participate in some of the special features?) Disney has teased McGoohan fans in the past by announcing The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and then withdrawing it from its schedule, but presumably that was in order to prep this more elaborate edition. Meanwhile, Universal released Hammer's (quite good) version of the same legend, Captain Clegg, starring Peter Cushing, as Night Creatures in their Hammer Horror Franchise Collection a few years ago.

Dr. Syn tells the tale of a former pirate turned quiet English vicar who transforms himself into a horriffic vigilante outlaw dressed as a scarecrow to fight injustices perpetrated by the Crown. A Robin Hoodish figure, he fights the King's dragoons to protect the townspeople (mostly smugglers) from exorbitant taxation and impressment.

New Bond Toys On The Way

MI6 has the rundown on a whole wave of new James Bond toys on the way... and they don't look nearly as fun as their Sixties counterparts! In addition to the fantastic-looking action figures they'll be releasing later this year, Corgi will also issue a line of play gadgets. Proving just how mundane and commonplace gadgets have become since 007's inception, these new toys include a lot of faux cell phones, good for "sending messages between the devices" and "sending MP3 audio tracks." Yawn! The 21st Century version of Bond's classic attache case contains a "removable LED flashlight" and "secure compartment with whiteboard message board." Consider that the Sixties equivalent, produced by Gilbert and modeled on the From Russia With Love film version, included a toy version of Bond's collapsible sniper rifle, spring-loaded knives and trick locks, among other gimmicks! We have not progressed. Luckily, some things never change, and the new product line does include some spy toy classics, like invisible ink pens and various decoders.

Want To Pay $100 For A Dead Format?
Trying desperately to cash in on the death throes of a losing format, Paramount will release The Jack Ryan Collection on HD DVD next month for $99.99, according to DVDActive. The set includes The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears. All four films are the same bare-bones versions currently available on regular DVD in various configurations, with no added bells or whistles.
Tradecraft For February 21, 2008

The Return Of Doctor Mabuse

Rat Pack, the German production company behind the revival of classic German pulp cinema like Edgar Wallace thrillers and Jerry Cotton (forthcoming), has struck again. This time they're making a new Dr. Mabuse film. The Hollywood Reporter doesn't say that this will be a comedy, but presumably Rat Pack will follow the successfull formula behind their Wallace spoofs The Trixxer (2004) and The Vexxer (2007), which were comedic interpretations of material that was taken seriously in the Sixties, much along the same lines as the recent French OSS 117 film. Fritz Lang directed a silent Mabuse film in 1922, then revisited the character in his classic Testament of Dr. Mabuse in 1933 and The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960. The "thousand eyes" refer to the spies employed by the criminal mastermind, Mabuse. Lang's 1960 film starred Goldfinger himself, Gert Frobe, in a heroic role. Frobe also appeared in at least one of the follow-up films made in the Sixties, collected on DVD last year by Retromedia.

New Potential Spy Franchise Optioned

Variety reports that CBS Films (who actually make theatrical films, not TV movies) has acquired the rights to author Vince Flynn's series of novels about CIA operative Mitch Rapp for Lorenzo Di Bonaventura to produce. Flynn has written nine books in the series so far. Says the trade, "The studio and producers haven't decided yet which novel to use as the basis for the first film. Most involve Rapp defusing a global crisis in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq or the U.S."

Feb 19, 2008

New Spy DVDs Out Today

It's a week for dreary, serious spy movies on DVD...

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee's Big Serious wartime spy movie won top honors at the Venice Film Festival, made headlines for its graphic, NC-17 sex scenes (which play more clinical than erotic, frankly), and then fizzled on arrival at the American box office last fall. If one wanted to be mean, one could call it the porno version of Shining Through, but it's really much better than that, if still far from perfect. Lee is a masterful director, the film looks beautiful, the score is fantastic and the performances are great, but ultimately something's missing. I can't quite put my finger on what, which is probably why I never got around to writing a full review when it came out. Lee certainly takes a visual cue from Bernardo Bertolucci's masterpiece The Conformist, which shares a similar plot but very different themes. Be sure to pick up the legit NC-17 version, though, and not the cut-down, compromised R-rated version they're passing off for Blockbuster.

Rendition

A citizen is hauled off to a secret location, possibly by his own government, for intensive interrogation comprised of questionable techniques. Think of it as The Prisoner for the post-911 generation. Like most things of this generation, though, it doesn't look like nearly as much fun. Director Gavin Hood's Rendition probably deserves a watch as one of the first movies to take on the very current issue of the CIA's practice of extraordinary rendition, but it looks so thoroughly depressing that I couldn't bring myself to see it in the theater. Roger Ebert called it "a perfect movie," though (apparently) and the cast is good, so I'll probably take a look on DVD. Still, for entertainment purposes, I prefer my rendition with lava lamps. Jake Gyllenhaal (as a reluctant CIA agent), Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin and Reese Witherspoon star.

Feb 18, 2008

DVD Review: Mister Jerico (1969) Starring Patrick Macnee

DVD Review: Mister Jerico (1969) Starring Patrick Macnee

Last year, Network put out a DVD of Mister Jerico, a long-lost ITC TV movie starring Patrick Macnee made immediately after the conclusion of The Avengers, with much of the same crew behind the camera. I would have thought this release would have been greeted by Avengers fans with unrestrained jubilation, but it didn’t really make much of a splash, even in the fan community. Maybe that’s because nobody knew about it. If you are an Avengers fan–and especially if you’re a Patrick Macnee fan–Mister Jerico is well worth watching. It’s even worth picking up a $30 all-region DVD player at Best Buy for, as its unlikely to be released anytime soon on Region 1 DVD. I’ve been intrigued by this elusive title ever since seeing a single still from it in Macnee’s book The Avengers and Me, and I’m very glad to finally be able to have seen it!

Macnee stars as Dudley Jerico (presumably the writers felt that "Jerico" was too unbelievably cool a last name, so their hero should be saddled with a first name mundane enough to tether him securely to earth), a con man with an incongruous reputation for scruples. We meet Mr. Jerico (yes, that's how it's spelled) mid-con, as he relieves a wealthy American tourist of $10,000. Just as Jerico and his partner make their getaway from the man’s yacht by speedboat, their ruse is detected and the yacht’s crew give pursuit in their own launch, guns blazing. Jerico gives them the slip, Macnee peels off his unflattering fake mustache, and an impossibly awesome theme song kicks in sung by Lulu, with music by George Martin and lyrics by Don Black. According to Lulu’s website, this amazing track from a trio of Bond musicians has never before been issued in its entirety prior to this DVD release, which allows the whole thing to play out at the end of the movie rather than cutting it off when the credits end. I can’t believe it’s never made it onto some sort of Lulu compilation! (If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know, as I’d love to have it on my iPod.)

Macnee relishes his victory as Lulu croons, "A little bit won’t satis-fy him/that’s why he takes from everyone/as they pass by him! Yes, they’re pleased that they know... Mister Jerico!" and the boat skirts a beautiful Mediterranean coastline. What’s not to like? Well... Confession time: I’ve omitted one little detail. There’s Marty Allen.

With that revelation, I’ve probably lost any spy fan who’s ever battled their way through The Last of the Secret Agents or any of Allen’s other vehicles with his comedy partner Steve Rossi. In fact, it was in part Allen’s dependably irritating presence here that kept me from watching Mister Jerico for so long, even after I had the DVD. Fortunately, his part turns out to be relatively small, and though I did cringe the first several times he attempted to generate laughs by creepily ogling various beautiful women, even Marty Allen managed to grow on me by the film’s conclusion. Perhaps that’s because I was so swept up in the general charm of the whole affair, but I'll give him enough credit for it that I might give Last of the Secret Agents another shot...

The movie begins in earnest when Macnee and Allen put down their stakes in Malta (the real Malta, mind you, not an Elstree backlot!) and catch the attention of Victor Rosso, a shady millionaire with a reputation for his lack of scruples, played by the always top-notch Herbert Lom, and his secretary, Susan (an impressive Connie Stevens, sporting a blond Jean Seberg haircut). Rosso invites Jerico to his mansion for reasons that are never adequately explained, but that don’t really need to be in this kind of glossy con man caper. Neither man trusts the other, but both are ever so cordial. (We’d expect nothing less from John Steed, would we?) Rosso seems to expect Jerico to attempt to con him, and Jerico, in turn, seems to see it as his obligation. So begins a thoroughly enjoyable, gentlemanly game of one-upmanship involving a priceless diamond, its long lost twin, and more than one paste copy thereof. Complicating matters (and forcing Macnee to steal the same gem again and again) is the presence of a third party, the beautiful and mysterious con woman known only as Georgina.

Macnee charms Lom, romances both Georgina and Susan, cracks safes, dangles from hotel balconies, and models a wide array of the most hideous outfits from fashion’s darkest decade, the Seventies. Actually, this was 1969, but apparently ITC was already fashion-forward, eschewing the waning decade’s mod esprit and Carnaby flair for actual flares and velour T-shirts. Yes, Macnee’s casual attire actually includes a golden velour T, worn with shockingly orange trousers. I’m not convinced that anyone outside of an ITC program ever actually wore orange trousers, even in the Seventies, but ITC was big on them. Mister Jerico previews all the hideously camp stylings we’d see in their next generation of programming, from The Persuaders to Jason King to The Adventurer (in declining order of sartorial taste). Macnee wears one particularly perplexing purple-print silk shirt that proves remarkably versatile. It can be worn alone for a pajama-like casual look (good for sneaking about and blending into well-stocked women’s wardrobes) or dressed up with a sash, pendant and a wide-collared jacket that appears to be made out of hemp. I wish that I could provide you with evidence of all these fashion crimes, but for some reason the DVD won’t play on my computer, thus preventing screencaps. C’est la vie.

As should be evident, the appalling outfits actually added immensely to my overall enjoyment of Mister Jerico, as they do with those other, later shows. Macnee proves that his undeniable charisma was not due to Steed’s generally tasteful wardrobe, because he still manages to ooze charm even in these outfits. Furthermore, the beauty of the scenery, the women and the cars more than makes up for all the aggressive orange and purple in the costumes. I’m a sucker for a good heist or con man movie, especially if it has a Mediterranean setting, and Mister Jerico fits into that frothy genre well. It should definitely appeal as much to fans of To Catch a Thief or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as to fans of ITC adventure shows or of The Avengers. Its tone is very much in keeping with the final color seasons of The Avengers, as well it should given its pedigree. Mister Jerico was written by Philip Levene, directed by Sidney Hayers and produced by Julian Wintle, with typically fantastic music by Avengers composer Laurie Johnson and art direction by the ever-reliable Harry Pottle.

Mister Jerico would have made a good series, so it’s a pity it wasn’t picked up. Perhaps that’s because it would have been difficult to make a con man a hero. Even though we’re told he has scruples, they’re not very much in evidence. True, Rosso is supposedly a bad guy, but it is his money Jerico’s after! As for the mark at the beginning, I think it was just his American-ness (evidently synonymous in Europe with obnoxiousness) that made him an acceptable target!

I’m only assuming that it was intended as a pilot, as it certainly feels that way. Macnee makes no mention of that, however, in his book, The Avengers and Me (recently reissued by Titan as The Avengers: The Inside Story) in which he just refers to it as a TV movie. (He does, however, reveal that he was cast only when preferred star Robert Wagner proved unavailable, and that his casting didn’t impress co-producer Michael Eisner, who told him, "You’re too fat. You’re too old. I don’t like you in the part but, God, as you’re in it we’d better go ahead!") Likewise, I can find no mention of it in Robert Sellers’ history of ITC, Cult TV.

Whatever its origins, though, I’m very grateful to Network DVD for making this obscure film available. They even provide some wonderful extras from the vaults: two Macnee chat show appearances, and one with Herbert Lom. These appearances have nothing to do with Mister Jerico, but they are nonetheless interesting viewing for fans of the actors. The later Macnee one was done to promote the ‘97 movie version of The Avengers, which he speaks very highly of, something I’m sure he regrets today!

UPDATE: For American Macnee fans without all-region DVD players, you can now stream Mister Jerico on Amazon!

Feb 13, 2008

Random Intelligence Dispatches For February 13, 2008

Doug Liman To Direct Valerie Plame Movie?

AICN tips a story on MTV Movies Blog today reporting that Bourne Identity director Doug Liman is prepping a real-life spy movie based on the Valerie Plame affair. I can't really make heads or tails of their actual story (is all that redacting his joke or theirs?), but the gist appears to be that Liman has worked closely with Plame to devise a unique take on her story that won't run afoul of the same CIA censors that chopped up her book. Liman talks a big game: “I have a really, really insane take on how to tell it. It’s so outrageous,” the director gushes. “Ultimately, I’d be doing something no one has ever done before. Therefore it’s automatically appealing to me. I’m just starting to explore whether [what I have in mind] is even possible to do.” Okay... Interesting! I've loved Liman's previous spy movies, and I've always thought that Valerie Plame's story sounded right out of a John Le Carré novel: the agent in the field outed and betrayed because it served the political needs of her masters. It's a story we've heard before, but even more interesting because it really happened... and happened very publicly. Furthermore, Liman's in a good position to tell such a story, having grown up surrounded by the inevitable controversy that occurs whenever espionage and politics mix; his father Arthur Liman served a chief counsel on the Senate's Iran-Contra hearings!

Oh, and he's got Nicole Kidman playing Plame. That's good too. Very good.

Rod Lurie, meanwhile, is developing a rival Plame movie, told not from Plame's point of view like Liman's film, but on that of a Judith Miller-like journalist. Vera Farmiga plays the Plame role in Lurie's Nothing But the Truth.

Jackson Is Still Fury

MTV Movies Blog (why do I keep wanting to type "MTV's Movie Blog?") also has a post today throwing gasoline on the ages-old "Is or isn't Sam Jackson Nick Fury in Iron Man?" fire. At this point, it seems pretty widely assumed that he is (MTV aptly calls the casting "the worst-kept secret in comicdom"), but Jackson himself still won't quite admit it. "I am indeed Nick Fury," he tells MTV, "but I don't know if I'm gonna be in [Iron Man]." Make of that what you will. Possibilities include that he will show up as Fury in this summer's The Incredible Hulk (which has also been rumored, originally to tie the two movies together), that he will play Nick Fury in the long-in-the-works Nick Fury film, or that he will indeed be in Iron Man (and possibly any combination of those other possibilities as well) and is just playing coy. I lean toward the latter...

Tradecraft: Show Runner Joel Surnow Leaves 24

Variety reports that 24's co-creator (with Bob Cochran) and showrunner Joel Surnow is leaving the series when his contract with Fox expires in April. Howard Gordan, who's already been overseeing day-to-day operations for some time, will take over showrunning duties. Surnow was widely considered the mastermind behind the series (although it's clear from the behind-the-scenes features on the DVD sets that it's a collaborative effort) and attracted a lot of attention for his political views, once describing himself as a "right wing nutjob." He also came under fire recently in the media for Jack Bauer's frequent reliance on torture at a time when the issue has been in the spotlight so much in real life. One of Surnow's earlier series (as writer and supervising producer), The Equalizer, was just released on DVD this week. 24 won't return for Season Seven (which has been troubled from the get-go) until January of 2009.

Weird James Bond Casting Rumor

Aintitcool is running a very bizarre rumor today about possible villain casting in Quantum of Solace. If true, then it's potentially a huge spoiler, so proceed with caution. I highly doubt it's true, but stranger things have happened. The rumor pertains to who might be playing the mysterious Blofeld-like mastermind of the villainous organization behind Le Chiffre and the events in Quantum of Solace. We don't even know for sure that we'll meet such a character in this movie, or that it isn't Mathieu Amalric's character, Dominic Green. All we know about the organization is that based on Casino Royale's Mr. White and some of the new villains' names revealed for QoS, its members appear to take codenames based on colors, ala Reservoir Dogs. (Hey, Mr. Blond was in Die Another Day, wasn't he? That was almost as weird as today's casting rumor!) It's a kind of cheesy tactic, but at least different from SPECTRE's numbering system which has been so parodied by Austin Powers and others. My secret hope is that the new organization actually turns out to be SPECTRE, as Daniel Craig hinted at last year. I think EON has sewn up the rights at this point, and they could even use Blofeld again if they wanted to (though that might open the door for more unwelcome lawsuits). I, for one, would love to see a new incarnation of Bond's oldest cinematic enemy!
DVD Review: The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 4

"Startling international intrigue becomes the weirdest case in the annals of crime!" boasts the trailer when Charlie Chan takes on a prewar Nazi spy ring operating in Paris in 1939's Charlie Chan in City in Darkness (the final entry in Fox’s superb new Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 4). From then on (with the outbreak of WWII), pretty much all his cases had something to do with espionage. Eventually he’d even officially work for the U.S. Secret Service. But in City in Darkness, he’s still following his usual, well-established routine: on vacation in an exotic port of call (Paris), Chan becomes embroiled in a murder mystery and helps out his local law enforcement colleagues by solving their case. What’s extraordinary this time around, though, is the setting. Not merely the location, mind you, but the geopolitical setting.

As the stellar special features (produced, again, by John Cork’s Cloverland) go to great lengths to point out, this is a surprisingly political Chan film. I’d actually go so far as to say that the viewing experience isn’t complete with the movie itself; one must watch the featurettes to have it appropriately historically situated. Yes, we all know what was going on in Europe at that time. But I, for one, was unaware that the Hayes Code forbade Hollywood movies from "maligning" a nation, effectively preventing filmmakers from directly commenting on the rise of Nazism. Nor did I know that the script was adapted from a play written by recent European emigres who had just been through the events it portrays. The facts one learns from "The Making of City In Darkness" greatly enhance the viewing experience. (They also spoil the film, so be sure not to watch it beforehand!)

Charlie himself is considerably different from when we saw him last, in Fox’s Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 3; he’s now played by Sidney Toler, stepping in for the late Warner Oland. By City in Darkness, Toler has had three films to get used to the part, and he’s essentially made it his own. Unfortunately, he finds himself without his amiable comic-relief sidekick, Number 2 Son, and instead saddled with Harold Huber as a somewhat lacking substitute, the dim-witted, proto-Clouseau cop nephew of Charlie’s friend, the Prefect of Police. Huber, a reliable character actor who made appearances in various roles throughout the Chan series, isn’t bad, and some of his antics are amusing, but a little goes a long way. His best gag is one of the most surprising aspects of the film: every time planes are heard overhead, he runs off camera and comes rushing back in panic, loaded down with gas masks. It’s rather startling that the filmmakers were comfortable making jokes about this at a time when Paris–and the world–were gripped with fears of war and air raids! The real joke, of course, is slyer than the sight gag of seeing Huber weighed down by clumsy contraptions; it’s a comment on the ultimate futility of these hysteria-inducing "duck and cover" responses (to borrow an anachronistic term from the atom age). Which, frankly, isn’t the sort of joke one expects in a B-mystery programmer! Air raids, it bears mentioning, are also the reason that the titular city is bathed in darkness, as a precaution against German bombers and, as the Prefect fears, providing a field day for crooks.

The cloud of war (represented by the prevailing darkness) hangs over all the events of the movie, and lends a darker undercurrent to the typical comic mystery goings on of a Chan film. Similarly, there’s a more dangerous edge to City in Darkness than to some of the entries that preceded it most directly. Charlie Chan finds himself in real, mortal danger at the hands of future U.N.C.L.E. boss Leo G. Carroll, and it requires all of his ingenuity to escape. Reflecting the new espionage angle, all of the motives are murkier as well, even that of the murderer. There is more gray in a spy film than a typical mystery film, and Chan films especially tended to be clear-cut black and white. City in Darkness takes a while to get underway, but its historical setting–and particularly its finale, and Charlie’s final epitaph–make it compulsory viewing for fans of spy films of this era, particularly in conjunction with the short documentaries included on the disc.

Fox has really outdone themselves with the special features on their Charlie Chan collections, and they alone would make these sets appealing even if the films weren’t as enjoyable as they are. Each film in Vol. 4 is accompanied by several relevant featurettes that shed light on both the period in which the film was made and they key players involved in its making. Despite their smaller budget (which Cork manages to stretch impressively), they remind me of the incredible documentaries on the Young Indiana Jones DVDs, and serve a similar function. For me, movies like this are even more fun to watch when situated in the context of their times. In addition to the fascinating "Making of City in Darkness," this disc includes a featurette on the writing team of Helen Logan and Robert Ellis, reliable and prolific Fox scribes who churned out a wide array of Charlie Chan, "Jones Family" and Shirley Temple pictures before moving on to a number of "A" musicals. While it’s a little frustrating that the documentary raises more questions than it answers (implying, for instance, that his partnership with Logan may have been responsible for the dissolution of Ellis’ marriage to movie star Vera Reynolds), it’s fantastic that time and money are being devoted to long-forgotten writers at all!

Charlie Chan in Reno boasts equally arresting documentaries. The movie itself is a top-rate Chan mystery that particularly showcases relative newcomer Sen Yung as comic relief Number 2 Son. (Sen Yung joined the series with Toler, replacing Keye Luke who played Number 1 Son to Oland’s Chan.) Boasting a nighttime setpiece in a Western ghost town, the film (unsurprisingly, given its title) plays out against the sin-drenched backdrop of 1930s Reno. My own limited impressions of Reno were of a sort of poor man’s Vegas, but the movie–and the documentaries–provide another context. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Reno was apparently known as a "divorce resort." According to the featurette "Welcome to Reno," the state of Nevada legalized gambling, turned a blind eye to prostitution and made divorces easier in order to remain vital after the gold and the railroads dried up. Divorce was a lengthy–and sticky–process elsewhere, but in Reno it took just six weeks. Women would check into hotels, boarding houses, or "divorce ranches" in order to "take the Reno cure" and end the marriage that ailed them. Meanwhile the city attracted gigolos and Lotharios eager to swoop in on the new divorcees, making it a hotbed of lowlifes and the ideal setting for a Chan picture. One of the contributors to "Welcome to Reno," a dude ranch cowboy named William McGee also shares his memories of the time and place (including dishing on movie stars) for "Reno Memories." It’s a strange subject, and a very strange place to discover it, but I’m glad I did. An interview-based documentary with actress Kay Linaker rounds out the disc, but contains spoilers.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is also fascinating, as are its features. Widely considered one of the very best movies in the whole series, Treasure Island earns its reputation in spades. Set against the backdrop of the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, it contains more than its share of exotic flavor (travel by Pan Am clipper, parties with famous magicians) and exotic mysticism (seances, fortune-telling and ESP). Cesar Romero turns in a great performance as the Houdini-like magician/debunker Rhadini, who joins Chan in his attempt to discredit phony spiritualist/suspected blackmailer Dr. Zodiac. The imposing Dr. Zodiac is a masked, egomaniacal criminal who issues written warnings like, "Do not challenge the supernatural unless you are prepared to visit your ancestors." The featurette "Charlie Chan and the Zodiac" explores this and other startling connections between the Chan film and the Zodiac killings that terrorized San Francisco in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Some of them are tenuous, but it certainly makes enough of a case to believe that the infamous Zodiac killer could well have been influenced by Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. These spooky connections will be evident watching the film to anyone who’s seen David Fincher’s Zodiac, but the documentary provides further exploration with testimony from experts. The other major featurette on this disc looks at Treasure Island itself, the location of the World’s Fair. It’s another fascinating chunk of forgotten history, illustrated with interviews with people who went there as children and remarkable color footage of various movie stars and celebrities attending. The disc also offers a commentary track by Cork and Chan historian Ken Hanke which proves every bit as insightful and listenable as their previous commentaries.

The special features on the first disc, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, are also wonderful, focusing on the passing of the torch from Oland to Toler. Oland’s own final days (rife with drink and questionable mental stability) were the subject of a great documentary on the last set; "Reinventing Chan" picks up right where that left off, with the search for Oland’s replacement. "Sidney Toler: The Man Who Became Chan" focuses on Toler himself, and includes a nice montage of his character roles in other Fox films leading up to his most famous part. Like Oland, he came from a very prestigious stage background. Neither of these documentaries speak very favorably about Charlie Chan in Honolulu, though; in fact they were so negative that they dissuaded me from even watching it for now, though I’m sure I’ll go back to it eventually. Apparently Toler required time to grow into the role, but it didn’t take too long because he manages to make it his own in the other films in this collection.

There is only one spy movie in this batch, but Fox deserves a lot of credit for their attention to detail with the entire Chan line; they truly reward fans of genre cinema. The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 4 is another great addition to the series.

Feb 12, 2008

New Spy DVDs Out Today

Universal releases the long-awaited The Equalizer: Season One, in which Callan star Edward Woodward plays McCall, a former Intelligence operative who attempts to atone for his shady past by working for "The Company," using his unique skill set to right wrongs and generally equalize things. 24 mastermind Joel Surnow contributed a number of scripts, and got his start as a producer on this show. Season One, which ran from 1985-86, includes twenty-two episodes. Retail is $49.98.

Today also sees the release of Charlie Chan in City in Darkness as part of Fox's truly impressive Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 4. In City in Darkness, Chan (Sidney Toler) takes on a prewar Nazi spy ring operating in Paris during a self-imposed blackout (out of fear of German bombers). It's a good Chan movie already, but Fox's new special edition DVD makes it fascinating with a pair of documentaries that contextualize it. Yes, we all know what was happening in Europe in 1939, but the excellent making-of featurette draws other interesting connections. (I had no idea, for instance, that the Hayes Code specifically forbade "maligning" another nation, thus making it difficult for filmmakers to directly criticize the Nazis prior to the war.) The movie really takes on a new light when viewed in conjunction with the featurettes.

There are three other highly entertaining Chan movies in the collection, by the way; they just aren't spy movies. (Pretty much all of them from this point on are, though.) And there's a whole slew of really fantastic special features. It's amazing how well Fox is treating this seventy-year old series of B movies, and for a bargain price at that! I'll have a full review later today.

Feb 11, 2008

Random Intelligence Dispatches For February 11, 2008

Agent 077 Covered At Cinema Retro

Cinema Retro, the excellent glossy publication whose fabulous current issue showcases Deadlier Than the Male and its star, Elke Sommer, has another great Sixties spy write-up--this time on its website. Dean Brierly looks at the trio of official "Agent 077" Eurospy movies--specifically at the wonderful DVD releases from Dorado Films. I say "official," because the popular codename (itself a ripoff of something, I'm sure!) spawned a whole slew of imitations, all covered in The Eurospy Guide. The Guide lists nine films (including Espionage In Tangiers) that qualify as 077 movies for one reason or another, whether they actually call their hero by that number, were just marketed as such, or even just feature the numbers scrawled on a napkin! My favorite of these attempts to cash in on the popular series was perpetrated by Piege pour un espions, which the Guide says was "marketed as an 'OSS 77' film to confuse fans of both the 077 films and the OSS 117 films!" Eurospy promoters were nothing if not shameless. Anyway, go ahead and check out Dean's teriffic article on the series!

R.I.P. Barry Morse

Cinema Retro also reports some sad spy news: Barry Morse, the actor who played Mr. Parminter on the ITC series The Adventurer, has passed away at the age of 89. Fortunately for Mr. Morse, he's better remembered for playing the relentless Lt. Gerard on the vastly superior show The Fugitive! Still, Morse was by far the best part of the hilariously awful Adventurer, and his contributions to the bonus features on Network UK's recent DVDs of the show are priceless. Morse also costarred on the ITC adventure series The Zoo Gang. He will be missed.

Another Interpol Movie

In a sign that the world might be sick of British and American agents as their heroes, and hungry for more international-friendly agents, there is yet another Interpol movie in the works(following Hitman and the forthcoming The International, among others). Variety reports that Thomas Jane has signed on to star in Run for action maestro John McTiernan. Run will shoot in Argentina and, according to the trade, "has an American Interpol agent happening upon a conspiracy during a thrills-and-spills high-speed pursuit across the country." BMW has signed on to provide cars for the chase, which will also feature a supercharged Mustang. Presumably Jane is replacing Karl Urban, who was originally attached when the movie was set to shoot in Europe. That's too bad. I think The Bourne Supremacy's Urban has what it takes to be an action star and I'd like to see him get the chance. Jane, on the other hand, didn't convince me of this in The Punisher, but he is a good actor so maybe given the right, ahem, vehicle, he will break out.

More Burn This Summer; No More Chuck Till Fall

With the Hollywood writers' strike finally drawing to an end, TV Guide's Michael Ausiello reports that we sadly still won't see any new episodes of NBC's Chuck until the fall. The good news, however, is that last year's best new spy show, Burn Notice, will return as early as July! The second season was originally scheduled to air on USA beginning early this summer, and shouldn't arrive too much later than that now. Ausiello claims shooting is slated to begin in late April.

Feb 10, 2008

All Bond Sets On Sale At DeepDiscount

The same DeepDiscount.com sale mentioned below has all four volumes of the current James Bond "Ultimate Collection" on sale for under $25 apiece. They were available for prices like this in certain sales before Christmas, but if you still haven't picked them up, now's a great opportunity to do so! At these rates, you can own all the two-disc special editions for considerably cheaper than collecting the single-disc versions of the movies available in each set. And they're worth it!
Brisco County Jr. DVD On Sale

This is a bit of a stretch since the series only had one true "spy" episode (but it was a good one!), but it's too good a deal for me not to spread the news. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.--probably my very favorite TV series of all time--is now on sale at DeepDiscount.com for just $22.14--$77 off from its normal (admitedly exorbitant) asking price of $99.95!

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. starred Burn Notice co-star Bruce Campbell as a bounty hunter searching for the gang who killed his father--and "the coming thing"--in the waning days of the Old West. But it wasn't really as straightforward as that. The brainchild of Lost mastermind Carlton Cuse and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, it flummoxed Fox network executives by blending comedy, Western and sci-fi genres in a wholy original way. Its closest progenitor was probably The Wild Wild West, so fans of that series would probably enjoy Brisco. The spy episode mentioned above found Brisco escorting Ms. Emma Steed, an American double agent posing as a Mexican spy, to the Mexican border to be exchanged for an operative held prisoner by the Mexicans. It parodied everything from Bond to West to The Avengers to The Beatles while playing as a good, straightforward espionage yarn at the same time. A few other episodes touch on issues of intrigue, but never to the same extent. Still, the tone of the series should make it appealing to fans of the other shows I've mentioned here. I can't recommend this series enough.

I don't know how long this sale will last; the listing could even be a mistake! So I'd advise acting quickly...

Feb 6, 2008

"The 39 Steps" On Broadway

Being isolated in the smog-bubble of L.A. is advantageous in terms of keeping up with film and television news (and for the opportunity to see lots of classics on the big screen), but may also be why I'm a little behind on my theater. As sophisticated New Yorkers and Londoners will no doubt already be aware (but I only just became), John Buchan's seminal spy novel The 39 Steps has been adapted into a play and is now on Broadway. Only it's not Buchan who gets the possessive; it's Alfred Hitchcock. The Hollywood Reporter explains that thusly: "The Hitch reference comes from the fact that though 'Steps' initially was a 1915 novel by John Buchan, this particular adaptation is an almost scene-for-scene spoof/interpretation of Hitchcock's 1935 movie version that starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll." Robert Osborne, The Reporter's reviewer, goes on to rave about the production, which apparently uses a cast of only four actors and minimal sets to great effect. I hope this is still running next time I manage to get to New York; I'm anxious to check it out! In the meantime, I and any other interested parties can satisfy our curiosity with a number of clips from the production available on the theater's website. (They also have the entire movie available for free online viewing.)

Feb 4, 2008

Random Intelligence Dispatches For February 4

New Raymond Benson Anthology Cover

Raymond Benson has revealed the cover for the upcoming anthology of three of his James Bond novels on his website. The collection includes the "Union Trilogy," Benson's equivilant of Fleming's "SPECTRE Trilogy," wherein 007 battles a single villainous organization for three books. Doubleshot, the middle chapter of the Union Trilogy, is, in my opinion, Benson's best book. While I'm very happy that Benson's continuation novels are being anthologized and will be back in print, the obvious highlight of this collection is the inclusion of the entire, uncut version of his short Bond story, "Blast From the Past." I like the cover art, though it puzzles me why the designer didn't use a Walther PPK since that's the iconic weapon most associated with James Bond, and especially since Benson made such a big deal of re-arming 007 with the PPK after John Gardner had him using various other guns, most notably the ASP 9mm. Weird.

Game, Set, Match, Remake?

Dark Horizons quotes a recent interview with Sight and Sound Magazine wherein Quentin Tarantino expressed an interest in making a film based on all three of Len Deighton's "Game, Set, Match" novels. (That would be Berlin Game, Mexico Set, and London Match.) This was the first of three trilogies featuring British Intelligence officer Bernard Samson, and was previously filmed as a television miniseries in 1988 starring Ian Holm as Samson and Mel Martin as his wife, Fiona. Many fans consider this version pretty definitive, but not among them, apparently, was Deighton. It's been rumored that his displeasure with the adaptation is what's kept the series from being available on DVD. If that's truly the case, then it's too bad, because it would be a welcome addition to any collection of great spy DVDs. If true, it would also seem to bode poorly for Tarantino's chances at securing the rights, as it's unlikely Deighton would want to be burned twice, and Tarantino's already suggested that he would radically alter the source material by excising the whole double agent plotline! Still, I've never been let down by Tarantino yet, and it would be great to see him finally make a spy flick. (He's previously mooted a Man From U.N.C.L.E. feature and, very loudly, a James Bond movie. He takes credit for the idea of filming a straight version of Casino Royale, but I seriously doubt that that hadn't occurred to the Broccolis already as soon as they won the rights to the novel!)

All of this should be taken with two large grains of salt:

1. Tarantino constantly talks about possibly remaking various movies he loves, but has yet to actually take the plunge with any of them. And why should he? He usually comes up with better stuff on his own by taking all of that source material and throwing it in a blender.

2. Dark Horizons is already jumping the gun a bit in its reporting. In the actual interview, Tarantino makes it clear that he's speaking in hypotheticals. The only reality of the conversation is that at the time of the interview, he was currently re-reading Berlin Game. The rest of the discussion is what he calls "an exercise," discussing how he would adapt if he were to do so.

Of Deighton's novels (and as much as I'd like to see the existing Game, Set, and Match available on DVD), I'd honestly rather see Harry Palmer revived (and not in a Midnight In St. Petersburg sort of way). I'd still love to see a movie made of Horse Under Water, which was at one point supposed to be the fourth Michael Caine movie, and then once Caine got out of his contract was still slated to go ahead starring his Play Dirty co-star Nigel Davenport in the lead. Unfortunately, the box office disappointment of Ken Russell's brilliant Billion Dollar Brain killed those prospects. I'd especially love to see it filmed as a period movie set in the Sixties…

Charlie Wilson's DVD

DVDActive reports a rumored April release date for Universal's DVD of Charlie Wilson's War, and they even have the snazzy cover art. Extras include a Making-Of and a featurette called "Who Is Charlie Wilson" which promises "a profile of the real Charlie Wilson" with interviews with Charlie Wilson, Tom Hanks, Aaron Sorkin and others. That one sounds pretty interesting; I'd be very curious to know how closely the movie stuck to reality.

British Hitchcock Spy Movies On British Hitchcock DVD

Network DVD in the UK will release a Region 2 collection of Hitchcock's early British films including the spy movies The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes, as well as The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Downhill, Jamaica Inn and Young and Innocent. (Is that one a spy movie? I've never seen it.) Many of these titles have only been issued in the U.S. on budget DVDs in dire need of remastering, so the Brits really luck out getting this kind of collection from a superior distributor like Network. Extras include script PDFs, trailers, "On Location" featurettes for Sabotage and The 39 Steps, a documentary called "Hitchcock: The Early Years," rare interviews with the director, a booklet by film historian Charles Barr and introductions by Barr to all of the films, among other things. Whew! Oh well, at least we Americans have that recent, amazing Criterion version of The Lady Vanishes to cherish...

Feb 3, 2008

Tim Lucas On Eddie Constantine

Mario Bava biographer, Video Watchdog publisher and cult movie blogger extraordinaire Tim Lucas has announced his latest obsession on his blog, and it's a name that will be familiar to Eurospy lovers: Eddie Constantine. Personally, I haven't seen any of Constantine's spy movies, or of his proto-spy "Lemmy Caution" films (well, except for Alphaville, but I don't really think that counts...), but I'm familiar with his work through its coverage in Matt Blake and David Deal's excellent Eurospy Guide. "Apart from Lemmy Caution," the Guide tells us, "his most notable characters, spy-wise, were Nick Carter and Jeff Gordon." The Guide covers those movies, as well as several Lemmy Cautions and two Jess Franco movies that Constantine starred in, Attack of the Robots and Residence For Spies. Lucas provides an excellent introduction to the actor and overview of his career, which, combined with the positive mentions in The Eurospy Guide, really make me want to see more of his work! Lucas has already done the work for curious parties such as myself by rounding up a bunch of Constantine YouTube clips in a follow-up posting. Included is a trailer for the incredibly intriguing Hot Money Girl co-starring Christopher Lee and Dawn Addams! Like Lucas, I really want to see that. Read his posts and learn more about Constantine. It was largely Lucas' one-man crusade that brought Bava to the masses, resulting in most of the Italian director's work becoming available on DVD in America; perhaps he'll be able to do the same for Lemmy Caution...



DVD Review: The Bob Hope MGM Movie Legends Collection

Covering a fairly long span of the legendary comedian’s career, this recently issued Bob Hope box set offers several titles of interest to spy fans. In addition to classic comedies like The Princess and the Pirate, Alias Jesse James and I’ll Take Sweden, it includes Hope’s never-before-available-on-DVD 1942 spy spoof They Got Me Covered (which sends up Hitchcock thrillers of the time like Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, among other things) and his final collaboration with Bing Crosby, The Road To Hong Kong (1962). Coming almost a decade after the previous Road instalment, that movie feels kind of weird, with one foot firmly in the 1960s (complete with Peter Sellers cameo and spy spoofery galore, including lots of surprising Bond connections) and the other steadfastly attached to the 1940s! Full reviews of each of those films follow below; unfortunately there are no extras to speak of in this set, not even trailers.

Also worth a look for espionage afficionados (and also making its DVD debut) is Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number, Hope’s 1966 team-up with that luscious face of Sixties spydom, Elke Sommer. Ms. Sommer gets another chance to demonstrate her deft comic timing (as seen previously in A Shot In the Dark), as well as display her famous figure (as showcased to great advantage a year later in Deadlier Than the Male) as a European actress known best in Hollywood for her bubble bath scenes who would rather display her deft comedic timing than reveal her famous figure! Coincidence and crossed lines (courtesy of a drunk operator) insert her into the lives of Hope and his family after she storms off the set of her latest bubble bath movie, and comedy ensues, largely of the farcical door-slamming "I’m hiding a beautiful Hollywood actress in my basement but it’s not what it looks like!" variety.

It’s all pretty sexist, and despite her character’s defiance of such labels, Sommer is so much treated as "just a body" (includ-ing four bub-ble bath scenes in the course of the film!) that for a good chunk of the movie she’s exactly that, unconscious (having taken sleeping pills) and subjected to all sorts of manhandling (by Hope and the supremely annoying Phyllis Diller as his hopeless housekeeper) and physical gags. But the truth is, she’s great at the physical stuff, whether playing conscious or not, and seems to revel in it. It’s a meaty role for her, and well worth checking out for her fans, even if one has to fast-forward the bits with Diller dancing or racing her motorcycle. The movie plays very dated today (moreso than those reviewed below), but it’s funny and Elke Sommer is fantastic, as usual. There’s a moment early on when Hope, thinking he’s speaking to his wife on the phone, but really connected to Sommer, taps into the zeitgeist of the time by saying, "I’m Secret Agent 007 3/8 who tracked you down, so get your lovely little chassis down here fast or I’ll paint you gold!" Which serves as a nice segue into the real spy movies in the set...

Review: They Got Me Covered (1943)
Review: The Road To Hong Kong (1962)