Chief among the movie’s assets are the very... assets that the global marketing campaign played up most: Elke Sommer (A Shot in the Dark) and Sylva Koscina (Hercules in the Haunted World). These gorgeous European actresses play a pair of sexy assassins, enforcers for the movie’s mysterious villain, Carl Peterson. (Yes, "Carl Peterson" hardly has the ring of "Ernst Stavro Blofeld" or "Auric Goldfinger," but that’s the name Drummond creator Sapper saddled his hero’s arch-nemesis with, so apparently the film’s scribes were stuck with it. The Ipcress File's Nigel Green makes the most of the name, relishing his role.) Sommer and Koscina play fantastically off of each other, and as good as Richard Johnson is as the hero, the movie completely belongs to these ladies. Sommer is the sultry, no-nonsense blonde Irma Eckman, and Koscina the playful kleptomaniac tease, Penelope. In a running gag, Penelope always steals Irma’s things, much to her companion’s annoyance. "And I told you before not to wear my negligee!" Irma chastises her at one point.
"Oh, I didn’t think you’d mind," pouts Penelope, hurt.
"I do mind!" snaps Irma.
In one of my all-time favorite opening sequences, Malcolm Lockyer’s memorable (and suitably Bondian) "Drummond Theme" plays as we open on a private jetliner, mid-flight. We’re introduced to the beautiful Elke Sommer in the temporary guise of a stewardess aboard said flight. She uses a trick cigar (handily hidden in her garter belt) to assassinate the CEO of a major corporation. Ever dedicated to overkill, she then covers her tracks by setting a bomb to go off on the plane, putting on a parachute, and jumping out! Cue the Walker Brothers’ iconic title song (the best Bond song ever not actually written for a Bond movie*), and the main titles roll as Sommer parachutes away from the exploding aircraft. Koscina (clad in a memorable bikini) pilots a speedboat below, and waves up to her descending companion as if she’s casually greeting her at the beach. There’s something sadistically–yet irresistibly–sexy about the way these women treat their deadly occupation as a lark. Sommer makes a perfect landing on the speedboat, and away they go. (I once had the opportunity to question Charlie’s Angels director McG on whether the opening of that movie was a conscious homage to Deadlier Than the Male, and he confirmed that it was indeed.) And so director Ralph Thomas sets the pitch-perfect tone for the movie to come.
The ladies’ next assassination is equally memorable. Together, they rise out of the Mediterranean onto the private beach of a luxurious Italian villa clad in jaw-dropping bikinis, an image sure to ingrain itself in the memory of any heterosexual male viewer. It’s an Ursula Andress double-act, but deadlier: these women carry spear guns. This vision of perfect beauty is the last one their hapless victim, Mr. Wyngarde, will ever see, as after a brief flirtation, they skewer him. "Oh! Poor Mr. Wyngarde," laments Penelope with concern immediately after firing her harpoon. This iconic scene formed the basis for the film’s successful worldwide marketing campaign.
Back in London, we meet our hero, Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, ably played by one-time Bond contender Richard Johnson. Drummond himself is not actually a spy, but an insurance investigator. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but if Eurospy movies are to believed, this was the closest profession out there to being James Bond. I’ve discussed the curious "insurance investigator" sub-genre of spy movies before, but of all of them, the Sixties Drummond films are at the top of the heap. In fact, Deadlier Than the Male could well have been the Top Gun of insurance investigator recruitment films. I’d be curious to know if their ranks swelled after its release in 1967. (Perhaps some enterprising grad student will one day draw a direct connection between Elke Sommer in a bikini and a drastic population increase in Hartford, Connecticut, but until then, we can only guess...) Anyway, we meet Drummond just as he’s polishing off a hulking opponent in a karate match, because in the Sixties that’s the sort of thing insurance investigators did. And Johnson looks suave doing it.
Drummond is called in on the case by his boss Sir John, played by Laurence Naismith of Diamonds Are Forever and The Persuaders! He’s told that his friend Wyngarde is dead, and instructed to look into it. Wyngarde was investigating the suspicious deaths of various CEOs insured by their company, including the one killed on the airplane at the beginning. His only clue is a minute fragment of audio tape Wyngarde was recording at the time of his death, with the mysterious phrase "ate the ruler and the ak."
No sooner is Drummond assigned to the case than he becomes the victim of several assassination attempts, including an exciting showdown in a parking garage in which he demonstrates not only a talent for survival, but also the ruthlessness of Connery’s Bond. Instead of the hapless thugs Drummond dispatches so easily, Peterson clearly should have put Irma and Penelope on the job! They’re showing a much better track record across town as they eliminate Leonard Rossiter, the only man who stands in the way of one of their boss’s extortion schemes. Like cats (and in Germany, the film was aptly known as Tödliche Katzen–"Deadly Cats"), they toy with their victims before each kill, bickering all the while. Played differently, their assassinations could power a horror movie, but Sommer and Koscina skillfully keep things light even as they paralyze their victim and then, while he’s unable to move a muscle, toss him to his horrifying doom from a skyscraper balcony. Their killing spree lies somewhere between your standard Avengers episode (which tended to chalk up tremendous body counts, but did so with such style that you hardly noticed) and a giallo; it’s a bit nastier than the former, but less harrowing than the latter.
As Drummond investigates the deadliness of these particular females and dodges death himself, his brash American nephew Robert (Steve Carlson) inflicts himself on his uncle. The role seems modeled on Robert Wagner’s role as David Niven’s nephew in The Pink Panther, and the situations that arise from Robert’s stay in Drummond’s flat mirror that movie as well–but succeed on their own merit. Carlson remains likable while assaying a rather thankless role unfortunately required of many British movies of the period to secure distribution in the States: the token American. (Even worse, the token American youth!) His attempted seduction of the gorgeous Virginia North (when she has her eye set on his cad of an uncle) makes for a welcome farcical setpiece, which culminates (naturally enough) in another one of those pesky assassination attempts.
Mistaken for his uncle, Robert gets caught up in the action–and tied up by Koscina’s Penelope. Koscina lightens the ensuing torture scene by playing it with an appealing, almost childish coquettishness. "We’ve so much to talk about... and do," she breathes, burning him with her cigarette. When he grunts in pain, she cringes, apparently contrite. "Oh!" she squeals breathlessly, "I like you, you know. And I would much rather be nice to you. But Eckman will be back soon. And she will be absolutely livid if you haven’t talked. So be a good boy, please?" She’s playing with a new toy–and indeed duly chastised for it by the sterner Irma. ("That is a very untidy job, Penelope, very untidy.") Whatever her motivations, you can’t really feel too sorry for Robert. The experience clearly isn’t without its pleasures.
In the film’s second half, the action shifts from Swinging London to beautiful, scenic Northern Italy, thanks to that clue about eating the ruler and the ak. It’s ideal Eurospy country–locations just as photogenic as the female stars–and that look great in bold Technicolor. Here we get yachts, speedboats, sports cars and a castle–all the luxuries one hopes for in a Sixties spy movie. Drummond, naturally, is captured in the course of his insurance investigation, and put to the ultimate test: can he resist the allure of the insanely attractive Ms. Sommer, in all of her pulchritudinous, black eyelinered glory? Fortunately he’s aware of her praying mantis-like mating habits, but it would still be a tough choice. Irma proves herself to be quite the proto-Xenia Onatopp.
Deadlier Than the Male is mercifully (and surprisingly, given its undeserved obscurity) available on DVD in the United States from Hen’s Tooth video. There are unfortunately no extras on the disc, but the widescreen transfer is gorgeous (if not anamorphic)–as is the cover, which uses artwork from the American half-sheet.
The Region 2 DVD from Network makes up for America’s bare-bones edition by featuring nearly an hour of promotional material from the time of the film's release. There are interviews with the principal stars conducted by a rather silly, blinky British interviewer. They’re not terribly probing or informative (he inquires as to whether or not Elke Sommer is "for glamor in the movies" and asks Sylva Koscina why she has to wear a bikini so often), but they’re still fascinating time capsules, and Sommer is absolutely adorable. On top of that, we’re treated to some black and white B-roll of Sommer filming, Johnson waterskiing and Green snorkeling while on location in Italy. Each interview contains some amusing moments. When asked if its true that she plays a killer, Koscina coyly (and truthfully) distills the essence of her character, claiming, "Oh, but I’m very sweet you know! I kill in a sweet way! With a little smile and with a sexy voice!" and Carlson boasts that he "represents youth and vigor" in the film.
Network’s current version comes bundled as a double feature with the film’s sequel, Some Girls Do. Some Girls Do is enjoyable enough and well worth watching once, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the magic of Deadlier Than the Male–primarily because it’s missing the two key ingrediants to that film’s success. While Johnson returns, even the sexy Dahlia Lavi can’t replace Sommer and Koscina. The sequel also fails to capture the tone that makes the first film so successful, opting instead for a jokier formula that doesn’t gel right. Despite these detractors, though, Some Girls Do makes the ultimate special feature in a great Deadlier Than the Male package! If you have a multi-region DVD player and have the option, this is the version of the film to get. (And it’s on sale for a ridiculously low price through Sunday at Network’s site!)
*Lead singer and driving creative force Scott Walker would eventually record an actual Bond song, "Only Myself to Blame" (written by David Arnold and Don Black) for end credits of The World Is Not Enough. The producers regrettably opted not to use it (they went for The James Bond Theme instead), but it did end up as the final track on the released soundtrack CD. The track has spurred a lot of controversy among fans over the years, but I think it’s great and would have been a welcome addition to a fairly lackluster 007 outing. It’s decidedly down-tempo, and maybe more appropriate to a truly downbeat ending like OHMSS or CR than to "I thought Christmas only came once a year," but it has a great world-weary spy edge to it. It’s not a good basis of comparison for "Deadlier Than the Male," though, which is much more in keeping with the classic, up-tempo Bond sound.