Apr 30, 2009

Movie Review: OSS 117: Murder For Sale (aka Pas de roses pour OSS 117, 1968)

In eager anticipation of the new OSS 117 parody movie, OSS 117: Lost In Rio, I decided to take a look at one of the original OSS 117 movies: the second-to-last of the Sixties cycle, OSS 117: Murder For Sale, starring John Gavin. I’d seen this movie before, but only in French–on the Region 2 DVD box set, which offers up fantastic transfers, great bonus features and a terrific, lavishly-illustrated booklet on the history of the series–but, most regrettably, no English subtitles or language tracks. Chunks of Murder For Sale are still in English in that version, but the majority is in French. And my high school French can only get me so far in a movie. (The bonus features are another story, though; prior OSS 117 star Kerwin Matthews’ French is about as good as mine, so I could understand his slowly spoken, American accented words just fine!) It makes a big difference seeing a film in a language you can understand. From my French viewings of the series, Murder For Sale was not one of my favorites, but seeing it this time I really enjoyed it.

For readers only familiar with the modern OSS 117 revival series, the most important thing to know about the original films is that they are not parodies. They’re straightforward, very Bondian Eurospy films, based on a series of equally straightforward, pulpy novels by Jean Bruce. Bruce’s spy novels predate even Ian Fleming’s, but I don’t think they were widely published in English, if at all. While there was one OSS 117 movie attempted in the late Fifties, the proper series kicked off in the immediate wake of the cinematic 007, like all Eurospy series.

That they are not parodies, however, doesn’t mean that the Sixties flicks are without humor; as in the Bond films, there is plenty of it on display in OSS 117: Murder For Sale, a lot of which didn’t come through for me previously with the language barrier. Villain Curd Jurgens is a particular joy, and gets all the best lines. This might come as a surprise to Bond fans who know him only as one of the drier Bond villains, Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me. Stromberg is the formulaic Old White Guy Blofeld clone, with the usual ambitions of world domination. Jurgens has much more fun with his OSS role, identified only as "The Major." Clad in every scene in a shiny, weirdly textured, patterned Nehru jacket (what else?), Jurgens plays the Major rather effeminately. Not enough so to detract from his villainy, but enough to make him a more interesting character. His organization (dubbed, quite unoriginally, "The Organization") employs code names inspired by Disney characters: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, etc. The Major, of course, is Snow White. He also gets the best lines. After his hulking, oafish henchman makes a critical mistake, the Major wrings his hands and moans, "Oh... Oh, my dear God, when will my prayer for one single intelligent henchman be answered?"

"I haven’t been beaten by [OSS 117]," he chides the brute, "but by your thick skull! And your floundering stupidity!" Compared to Karl Stromberg, this animated performance is a revelation!

Representing the forces of good, we have John Gavin playing Secret Agent 117 this time out. (And it’s easier just to stick with the nomenclature, since he has so many identities in this movie. Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is going by the name Jonathan Roberts, playing the undercover role of a killer named Chandler who in turn is given the alias James Mulligan. Whew!) Gavin, probably best known either for playing the boyfriend, Sam Loomis, in Psycho or for being the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan, has his own Bond history as well. He was signed, paid and all set to play 007 in Diamonds Are Forever, following George Lazenby. Then, at the last minute, Sean Connery was lured back with a then-unheard-of million dollar offer, and Gavin never got his chance.

Here, he ably demonstrates that he could have made a very credible Bond... if only he weren’t American. The accent never would have worked, but he does have very Connery-like expressions and mannerisms, not to mention good looks. Most importantly, he’s charming and likable, difficult skills for Eurospy heroes, who often come off as charmless and loathsome.

Gavin also appears to do his own fights, and he’s got some pretty good moves. There are a lot of fight scenes, and they’re actually all good (even if they’re occasionally marred by sped-up photography), which is never a certainty in Eurospy fare! Highlights include a climactic rooftop scuffle with the aforementioned hulking henchman, and a scene in which Gavin is rudely gotten out of bed (one he’d been sharing with the beautiful, naked Rosalba Neri) and forced to fight several police officers in the nude! Eventually they get him at gunpoint, though, leaving him covering his privates with a newspaper. Unfortunately, that’s when they shout, "Hands up!"

117 is arrested because he’s posing as a guy named Chandler, France’s Public Enemy Number One. He’s even, according to his American bosses (who do, indeed, have a curtain in their office, living up to Eurospy tradition), had plastic surgery to look like Chandler! (Which also, conveniently, explains why he’s played by a different actor than he was in the last movie–and also proves what a bad idea that ploy would have been had the Bond producers used it in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which had been considered!) The plan is that "Chandler" will be recruited, as most top killers are, by The Organization to conduct political assassinations. Sure enough, The Organization bites, springing him from custody by dangling a wacky sleeping gas canister (one that looks an awful lot like the roulette wheel laughing gas dispenser in Casino Royale) over the motorcade that’s transporting him. Then he’s whisked off to meet The Major in his plush villa. There, he also meets The Organization’s doctor, played by Thunderball’s gorgeous Luciana Paluzzi. She tests him, but he in turn seduces her. She falls for him so hard, in fact, that she’s reluctant to inject him with the "general vaccination" that The Major orders... due to the fact that she knows it’s really a deadly poison.

The Major instructs 117 to meet up with another doctor in the Middle East, where he’s to carry out his assignment and assassinate a UN watchdog. "As lovely as your house physician?" inquires Gavin.

"A matter of taste," says the Major. "It’s a man." To which OSS 117 rolls his eyes.

The male doctor tries to put an end to such eye-rolling with the admonishment, "Let me warn you: I have no sense of humor." He proves the point by revealing that the new agent is on a short leash. The Organization doesn’t trust him, so 117 will have to report to him each day at 5PM to be injected with the antidote to the poison–or he’ll die. It’s a good gimmick that leads to a tense fight later on (with a male nurse so enormous that you know as soon as he’s introduced that our hero will have to fight him) as the seconds count down to certain death.

The movie contains some interesting similarities to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service–particularly interesting since this predates the Bond movie by a year. In one scene, OSS 117 escapes his doorknobless guest room by using a metal letter opener to go out sneaking. In another, he finds himself clamoring around an elevator shaft remarkably like the cable car room in OHMSS. And in another, he parks his car at the edge of a beach for a day-for-night fight and ends up carrying a beautiful woman in his arms! Almost certainly coincidences, but eerily similar enough to be worth noting nonetheless.

The OSS 117 films tend to feel a bit higher budget than many other Eurospy movies (curtain walls notwithstanding), and the flawless transfer offered on the Gaumont DVDs really accentuates the beautiful scenery and gorgeous photography, making this one appear even moreso. Beyond that, there’s a great, catchy score (by Piero Piccioni), glamorous Sixties fashions, sexy girls (led by the lovely Eurospy stalwart Margaret Lee), and an awesome sports car (something called an Iso Grifo GL350).
Add to all this a charismatic, capable hero and a properly scenery-chewing villain, and you’ve got yourself a very entertaining movie. It’s not without its drawbacks, though. Things slow down a bit in the second half with lots of skulking around in a Bedouin encampment involving two comic sidekicks and a donkey; Luciana Paluzzi inexplicably disappears all too soon, and the villain meets a disappointingly anticlimactic end. But overall, the good far outweighs the bad. OSS 117: Murder For Sale is high grade Eurospy.

Nick Fury Contest At Mister 8

Tomorrow is the last day to enter a contest to win some cool Nick Fury prizes (including a SHIELD logo magnet and a sketch by the talented Mister 8 auteur himself, Armstrong Sabian) over at fellow COBRAS site Mister 8. In fact, the contest is part of Armstrong's final post in his own Costumed Adventurer week, which wraps up the theme that began right here on the Double O Section a month and a half ago in grand style by examining one of my own two favorite comic book spies, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. (For the record, as I'm sure regular readers can guess, the other one is Tara Chace, Agent of Queen & Country. Does that qualify me for your contest, Armstrong?) Even if you're not planning on entering the contest, I highly recommend that Fury fans check out the post. Armstrong has collected a truly awesome assortment of Nick Fury images from around the web by a wide assortment of wonderful artists. Highlights include a truly amazing piece by Francesco Francavilla (artist behind that incredible retro-style Quantum of Solace poster and the fantastic spy comic Left On Mission) that speculates what might have happened one minute on from Jim Steranko's classic surrealist cover to Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #7, a piece by animation maestro Bruce Timm, a cool what-if vision of Bruce Willis as Nick Fury by Jeff Spokes, and a mouthwateringly Bondian portrait of Fury and Black Widow by Paul Gulacy (pictured). Gulacy is one of my very favorite spy artists, who drew the best James Bond comic book to date, Dark Horse's James Bond 007: Serpent's Tooth. (See more at his own website, where you can also order his incredible art book Spies, Vixens and Masters of Kung Fu.) Shockingly, he's never illustrated a Nick Fury series, although he's done plenty of pin-ups and promotional pieces. Hopefully that will be rectified soon, as he announced a project last summer focusing on Fury's pre-spy days with the Howling Commandos.

Head over there now to ogle all the artwork and enter the contest!

Read my own appreciations of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD here and here.
Random Intelligence Dispatches: Glam Rocker Likes Bond

This really is a random one! I'm a big fan of Seventies glam rock: Bowie, Eno, Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Mick Ronson, Steve Harley, Suzi Quattro, Slade and, of course, The Sweet. Pretty much the lot. The Sweet (of Ballroom Blitz, Fox on the Run and The Six Teens fame) have split off into different factions over the years. Pretty much each of the original members at one time or another have fronted their own version of the band. There are currently two incarnations touring: Steve Priest's Sweet, who are playing the House of Blues in Hollywood tonight and which I would be seeing if I wasn't stuck home sick (and which prompted my Sweet-related web surfing today to begin with) and Andy Scott's Sweet, who are playing tonight somewhere in Germany. Andy Scott has a blog on his band's website, where he professes his love of James Bond. And I just found this random enough to warrant a mention. I mean, it's kind of weird to me that a shaggy glam rock musician in many ways responsible for the whole hair metal look of the 80s would write, "I always connected with Bond and therefore as a fictional character this was how I perceived myself." Weird... but cool! On his blog, Scott laments that he's feeling more like Blofeld than Bond these days (which gets him down), but also reveals that he owns first editions of almost all the Fleming novels:

I have a lot of books in my house, almost a library or a bookshop. I have also realised that many are unread which is unforgivable. So to put things right I am setting about this task by reading the John Gardner “Bond” books and this has left me with a dilemma. I read the original Ian Fleming novels in the 1960s and have subsequently returned to them on a regular basis so much so that I now have them as 1st editions (all bar Casino Royale, you would need a small fortune to buy this book). I always connected with Bond and therefore as a fictional character this was how I perceived myself (Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Number 6 etc) so why am I feeling more like Blofeld?
If you're intrigued, click here to read his entire post and find out why he's feeling more like Blofeld! (Hint: it has something to do with a cat.) I know there aren't too many readers who will even be interested in this item, but I'm always fascinated when two of my own disparate interests come together in weird ways, so I had to share. Anyway, I hope Andy Scott enjoys the Garner novels, and decides to move on to Benson, Higson and Weinberg!
Tradecraft: Taken Director Stuck On Spies

Variety reports that Taken director Pierre Morel will helm an untitled Tokyo-set spy thriller for Paramount following his second EuropaCorp spy movie, From Paris With Love, which is due out in America next year from Lionsgate. The new film is being written by Frank Baldwin, who's written a few scripts for Paramount and is currently penning a remake of House of Flying Daggers for Sam Raimi at Sony. Of the new project, the trade reveals:
Like Morel's breakout hit Taken, pic will be heavy on action and intrigue. Story follows a CIA operative, stationed in Japan but on the verge of retirement, who is ordered to carry out a final mission. He finds himself caught in the middle of an international conspiracy.
Sounds good to me! I enjoyed Taken immensely, and look forward to any further spy movies Morel decides to undertake.

In related news, Variety also reports that Luc Besson's EuropaCorp (the company behind Taken and From Paris With Love) is developing an English-language remake of the Morel's first movie, District B13, "about an undercover policeman and former criminal trying to infiltrate a gang armed with a neutron bomb." The remake will be titled Brick Mansion. EuropaCorp is also developing an English language remake of their French hit Tell No One with Miramax and Focus Features.

Apr 29, 2009

New Spy Comics Out This Week: Queen & Country

Greg Rucka's Queen & Country: Definitive Edition: Volume 4 trade paperback (from Oni Press) finally showed up on the shelves of comic book stores today! (It will still take a few more weeks to hit regular bookstores and Amazon.) This volume wraps up collecting all extant Queen & Country comics; now we've got to wait patiently for Rucka to write some long-promised new ones to fill another volume! Volume 4 includes the three "Delcassified" mini-series, each of which tells the story of an early mission of one of the Q&C supporting players. The fantastic first story follows Tara Chace's hard-nosed boss Director of Operations Paul Crocker (back when he was still a field agent) on a classic, Le Carré-esque bit of late-Cold War wall-crossing intrigue. The second story follows Tom Wallace on a mission to Hong Kong on the eve of its changeover in 1997. The final one, following gay agent Nicholas Poole back when he was still with the SAS in Northern Ireland, finds Alex Rider graphic novelist Antony Johnston ably filling in for Rucka on writing duties. The volume is backed up with ample bonus material, including the usual assortment of sketches as well as lengthy interviews between Rucka and the various artists. All four volumes of this series are absolutely essential in any library of serious spy literature!

Click here to read my overview of Queen & Country
Click here to read my dream cast for a Queen & Country movie
Click here to read the latest news on the future of Queen & Country

Apr 28, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: More Missions

Mission: Impossible's Sixth TV Season hits DVD this week, courtesy of CBS/Paramount. The sixth season sees the departures of Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliott and Lesley Ann Warren from the Season Five cast. Linda Day George comes aboard to take on both Nimoy's duty of being a master-of-disguise and Warren's of being a woman. Nobody takes on Elliott's duties because, good as he was, he never really had any duties. Series star Peter Graves graciously takes upon himself Nimoy's additional duty of being a clotheshorse for hideous Seventies fashions. And electronics whiz Barney adds singing to his own list of skills. This is the season where the IMF team finally turns their attention almost exclusively to taking on crime bosses for "the Syndicate" in America. You'll get sick of hearing the words "the Syndicate" pretty quickly. At some point, Jim must have poured himself a stiff drink and pondered, "A year ago this time I was toppling dictatorships... and now I'm framing crooked record producers. What happened?" I can't pretend that the show doesn't finally start to go a bit downhill this year, but the plots are still generally ingenious (emptying a vault of its money by turning it into a giant vacuum) and outlandish when they need to be (a gangster played by William Shatner is made to believe he's gone back in time forty years, and miraculously de-aged to sell the conceit). The season's best episode happens to also be the only one that's really an espionage story: the team convinces an enemy agent that he's been out cold for days and in the meantime the foreign power he works for has taken over America!

Apr 27, 2009

James Bond Covers On New CD

Hollywood, Mon Amour, a CD compilation of covers of songs from 80s movies, came out last month, but I only just became aware of it this past weekend when Los Angeles radio station KCRW played a cover of Duran Duran's "A View To A Kill" by Morcheeba's Skye. Further investigation reveals that the album also includes a take on Sheena Easton's "For Your Eyes Only" by a group or artist called Dea Li (whom I've never heard of). The album is produced by Marc Collin, who also produces Nouvelle Vague. Nouvelle Vague is known for putting a new spin on 80s staples, and they do a great job with it. Other songs on Hollywood, Mon Amour include Top Gun's "Take My Breath Away" as performed by Inga, Leelou's take on "Don't You Forget About Me" from The Breakfast Club and new versions of classic David Bowie movie songs "Cat People" (Dea Li again) and "This Is Not America" (Juliette Lewis). Last month also saw the release of Duffy's intriguing cover of "Live And Let Die" on the compilation War Child Presents Heroes.
OSS 117: Lost In Rio Already An-nounced For Region 2 DVD And Blu-Ray

The brand new French spy parody OSS 117: Rio Ne Repond Plus (aka OSS 117: Lost in Rio for English-speaking audiences), which just opened last week in France, has already been announced for DVD and Blu-Ray release in that country this fall. Both formats hit stores on October 15, and both are available for pre-order from French Amazon. There's no information yet about content, but the French DVD for the first movie, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies did include English subtitles, so hopefully even if the movie doesn't secure international distribution anytime soon (which hopefully it will), fans around the world will at least be able to import it to play in their multi-region players...

I apologize that I haven't yet been able to post my review of this film; I promise it will be up soon! But it may not be the very next post. I've got a ton of OSS 117-related content coming this week!

Apr 22, 2009

DVD Review: Hawaii Five-O Season 6

Season Six of the seminal cop series Hawaii Five-O doesn’t really have too much to offer in the way of international intrigue compared to previous seasons–other, of course, than the original Felix Leiter himself, Jack Lord, in the starring role as Steve McGarrett. For the first time, McGarrett’s arch-nemesis, Red Chinese agent Wo Fat, doesn’t even make an appearance. Usually his single, dependable guest appearance would signify a good spy plot. But he sits this season out, unfortunately. Even the top American Intelligence man in Hawaii, Jonathan Kaye, makes only one appearance this year, in the season’s most spy-like offering, "Anybody Can Build A Bomb."

"Anybody Can Build A Bomb," is, as the title implies, a nuclear blackmail episode–one of the spy genre’s most reliable chestnuts. But what all governments fear most today–and what Jack Bauer thwarts (or occasionally fails to thwart) on a regular basis on television–still seemed a more fanciful threat in 1973. And Hawaii Five-O, a pretty gritty show in general, commendably tries its best to make the notion of a homemade suitcase nuke more credible. This isn’t an outlandish Thunderball scenario involving hijacked Air Force jets, hydrofoil yachts and underwater shenanigans; it’s a homemade nuclear device in the hands of a ruthless psychopath.

The Governor calls McGarrett in for a ride in his limo one morning and shares a nuclear blackmail note he found on his door. The blackmailer, who calls himself "Mercury," claims to have in his possession "a couple of birdcages of plutonium," a piece of jargon the writers are obviously quite proud of, as we’ll hear it again and again throughout the episode. The Governor makes matters timely by sharing that at the last governor’s conference he attended, they learned that in the foreseeable future, major cities will face atomic blackmail. "I never thought it would be Honolulu!" he admits.

Fortunately, Jonathan Kaye is able to assign them Elias Haig, a nuclear physicist from the Manhattan Project right there in Honolulu–and one of the top men in his field. Dr. Haig has even written a book warning of this very scenario... which makes him rather suspicious. Haig delivers necessary exposition by giving a pretty good lecture on the basics of how nuclear bombs work, then as soon as McGarrett’s left he heads to his phone, dials a sinister number and confirms our worst suspicions by gravely intoning, "The pigeon is in the coop. It came on wings of Mercury. Pass the word." Weirdly, there are two episodes in a row this season where the "top man" in a given field just happens to live in Honolulu–and turns out to be the bad guy!

McGarrett and his team follow an intricate trail of clues (always well handled on this series) all over town, ordering bodies exhumed in no time and putting two and two together very quickly.

They dig up the body of a scientist and find he died of radiation poisoning. The coroner says he had thirteen fillings, each one "radioactive enough to burn a hole through the top of his head."

Mercury doesn’t like how close they're getting, and interrupts a meeting between Jonathan Kaye, the Governor and other Old White Men (arguing over whether or not to pay the ransom) with a new threat: to prove he means business, he’ll stage a small-scale "radioactive event" somewhere in the city. That event amounts to setting off an itty-bitty nuke in a park, but fortunately Haig has a change of heart and confines the detonation to a public restroom. McGarrett and hundreds of others cringe as the nuke goes off in the little building, safely shielded by the cinder block structure. (Hm?) Despite stretches in credibility like this one, "Anybody Can Build A Bomb" is a tense episodes, prefiguring many of Jack Bauer’s worst days. And at the end, it looks like we haven’t seen the last of Mercury. (I have no idea if this turned out to be the case or not.)

While "Anybody Can Build A Bomb" throws McGarrett up against a domestic terror threat, "A Bullet For El Diablo" treads more of the international intrigue territory. He finds himself in a political spot when Maria, the daughter of an unpopular South American dictator affectionately referred to as "El Diablo," is kidnapped in Hawaii just prior to her father’s visit. Washington makes it known that politically, finding the kidnapped girl is top priority. They don’t want an international incident. They end up with much worse, though. The kidnapping turns out not to be a kidnapping at all, but an assassination plot. Maria is substituted by a double, her illegitimate half-sister Rita, who is now working with a rebel group. Five-O believe they have rescued Maria and agree to her request to be alone with her father. That’s when lovely Rita smiles and pulls her silenced pistol. She shoots El Diablo, then unspools some hidden rope and rappels down to a lower balcony in the same hotel, where she meets her partner and immediately strips down to a bikini so that they can walk out of the hotel as tourists. An assassin who rappels away, then strips off her "innocent" attire to reveal a bikini for a getaway! Now this is spy territory! (Specifically it reminds me of Daniella Bianchi’s similar act at the beginning of the Eurospy classic Special Mission Lady Chaplin.)

Most of the episodes in Season Six are more routine matters for the state police, however. McGarrett takes on a parade of thieves, con-men, counterfeiters, forgers, psychos and killers galore. A standout villain is an older man who’s apparently been something of a mentor to McGarrett and keeps referring to him as "Steven." Hawaii Five-O episodes have a tendency to go pretty dark, too. Even "One Born Every Minute," an episode that starts off as a con man caper, takes a grim turn halfway through.

I prefer the lighter touch, and that’s why the season finale "30,000 Rooms, And I Have the Key" was my favorite of this batch. In that one, McGarrett matches wits with a John Robie-like gentleman cat burglar and master of disguise operating in a beachside hotel. The burglar, a classy older guy named Horus who likes to do things like speak in French when he’s hanging out enjoying the finer things in life, walks deliberately into Five-O’s trap only to escape the great McGarrett. He then challenges McGarrett by sending him a very cordial invitation to his next robbery. It’s a classic game of cat-and-mouse played in the exotic setting of a Hawaiian luxury hotel. Horus always seems one step ahead of McGarrett, and you can’t help but root for him to succeed. It’s all topped off by some fantastic caper music, which serves as an assurance that this one won’t plunge into the seedier territory that this series so often embraces.

Whether you get a dark episode or the rare breezy one, though, Hawaii Five-O remains a quality program in its sixth year... which turns out to be just halfway through its epic, twelve-year run! But if you’re seeking Seventies spy shenanigans, this season isn’t right for you. Save your money for next week’s Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season, also from Paramount, which offers up a good deal more than that wrapped up in the same inescapable garish fashions that defined that decade. As for Hawaii, well I’m looking forward to the return of Wo Fat in Season Seven. I missed him and his espionage in this set.

Read my review of Hawaii Five-O: Season Three here.
Read my mini-review of Hawaii Five-O: Season Two here.
Read my review of Hawaii Five-O: Season One here.

Apr 21, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

Christian Slater's Jekyll-and-Hyde-meets-Jason-Bourne spy show My Own Worst Enemy hits DVD today as a prematurely Complete Series from Universal. Retail is just $29.99 for the two disc set, which includes all nine episodes. Also out today is Paramount's Hawaii Five-O: The Sixth Season, but this season doesn't have much to offer in the way of spy episodes, I'm afraid. Still, it is a pretty terrific cop drama if that's up your alley, and it does, of course, star the original Felix Leiter, Jack Lord.
James Bond Movies On The Big Screen In Los Angeles This May

Includes Two Roger Moore Films

It's been over two years since the successful festival of Connery and Lazenby Bond films at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theater in Santa Monica, CA, and finally--as promised--James Bond is returning! From May 1-3, the Aero will screen "The Best of James Bond: Agent 007." Unfortunately, this isn't the Roger Moore festival that was promised at the end of the 2007's successful run of Connery films, but another festival consisting mostly of Connery films. Don't get me wrong; I love all the Connery Bonds; it's just that they screen pretty often in revival houses and the Moore ones do very rarely. But the good news is there is one night of Roger Moore movies, a double feature of The Spy Who Loved Me and Live And Let Die on Sunday, May 3 at 7:30. (I'd have rather seen the even rarer For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy, since those never play, but I'm certainly happy to see Moore's best and his first.)

The mini-fest kicks off on Friday, May 1 with Dr. No and From Russia With Love starting at 7:30. Saturday brings us the ubiquitous Goldfinger and Thunderball, also beginning at 7:30. And Sunday wraps things up with Sir Roger. Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia author Steven Jay Rubin (who also hosted the 2007 event) will be on hand to introduce both Connery nights. Visit the Aero's website for full details and advance ticket sales.

The Cinematheque's superb Hollywood theater, the Egyptian, will host a rival spy night on Saturday, May 2, with Patrick McGoohan in Ice Station Zebra.

Apr 19, 2009

OSS 117: Lost In Rio Screening In Los Angeles This Week

Other French Spy Films As Well

No sooner did I complain about probably having to wait years to see the new OSS 117 sequel than reader Matthew (aka The Solex Agitator) left a comment calling my attention to this week's ColCoa Film Festival, which showcases contemporary French Cinema. And among that contemporary French cinema is the very James Bond/Eurospy parody I was talking about, OSS 117: Lost In Rio! It plays this Friday night, April 24, at 5:45 PM at the Director's Guild Theater on Sunset and Fairfax. (Which is a great theater, by the way, and home to a Live And Let Die cast reunion screening several years ago.) Not only is this an exclusive opportunity to see the movie in America before it even has a U.S. distributor, but Co-Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius will do a Q&A following the screening. If you're in the Los Angeles area, this is likely to be an unmissable event for spy fans, so plan accordingly! And if you haven't yet seen the first film, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, do yourself a favor and check it out right away to see why I'm so excited for this sequel! Read the festival's description of the film here and see reviewer quotes and (if you happen to be a film distributor eager to net yourself a surefire comedy hit) international sales information. Go here to purchase advance tickets, which is recommended because several movies in the festival have already sold out.

But OSS 117: Lost In Rio isn't the only spy film playing at ColCoa. Secret Defense (aka Secrets of State) is a (much) more serious espionage thriller starring Casino Royale's Simon Abkarian (Solange's husband, who has it out with Bond in the body exhibition) as a terrorist mastermind. It plays at 7:30 on Tuesday, April 21.

Finally, Espion(s) aka Spy(ies), follows two baggage handlers at the Paris airport whose on-the-job petty thievery gets them unwittingly caught up in a terror plot. One of them (played by Tell No One's Guillaume Canet) finds himself recruited by the DGSE and sent on an assignment to London. There, his MI-5 contact (played by Stephen Rea) instructs him to seduce the wife of a terror suspect. Spy(ies) plays at 10:30 Friday night, following OSS 117: Lost In Rio.

Tickets for all ColCoa events are available here.

Apr 16, 2009

Young Bond Companion Due Out This Fall

Zencat at the Young Bond Dossier has some fantastic news this morning. Even though there's no new James Bond novel scheduled this year from Charlie Higson (and even though the future of his Young Bond series is totally unknown at this point), there will be a Young Bond companion book this fall, called Danger Society: The Young Bond Dossier. I love the title not only because it evokes Zencat's terrific site and news section (called Danger Society News), but also Kingsley Amis's James Bond Dossier, one of the first serious studies published on the subject of Ian Fleming's novels. I love companion books like this, and I've hoped for one for the Young Bond novels. We got a taste of what such a volume might be like in the awesome Young Bond Rough Guide to London (which I reviewed in full here), a mini-book given away in England to promote Higson's third novel in the series, Double or Die. And it was a great taste, which definitely left me wanting more! The credited author on the cover shown on the Young Bond Dossier (the website, that is; this is going to get confusing) credits only Charlie Higson as the author, but it seems unlikely that the author actually penned such a guide in its entirety. I wonder if Zencat had a hand in this book? (I certainly hope so! UPDATE: He didn't. Oh well.) Best of all, YBD reports that, in addition to "in-depth character profiles," features on cars, weapons and exotic locations and other "facts, statistics, photographs, maps, and illustrations by Kev Walker," this book will also feature a brand new Young Bond short story by Charlie Higson! Will this story give us our first hint of what happens to James after he's expelled from Eton at the end of the last novel? (No, that's not a spoiler to anyone who's read Fleming; it's the end we knew was coming the whole time for the initial series.) Or will it be the shipboard story that Higson had previously mulled set to take place immediately following the events of Hurricane Gold involving the return of SilverFin's Wilder Lawless? I guess we'll find out this fall...

Updated with cover artwork thanks to YBD. As you can see, the book follows the design format of the British Hurricane Gold hardcover I loved so much! We can tell it's shiny, but I can't quite figure out from this image exactly what color it is.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: Callan And Burn Notice

TVShowsOnDVD has the cover art for Acorn Media's upcoming Callan: Set 1 DVD. As exclusively reported here all the way back in December, this release is not the black and white first season (some of whose episodes are lost), but actually the third season of the show, the first to be filmed in color. Acorn are following the same model as Umbrella did with Callan in Australia (or as A&E did with The Avengers here in America) and starting with the color seasons. Depending on sales, hopefully they will eventually go back and pick up the surviving black and white episodes, which still have not been relased officially in any country. I like the cover art. It's certainly not as cool as the 70s film poster for Callan, but it's eyecatching and a definite improvement on the drab Australian artwork! The third season is a sort of odd place to begin Callan, because the premiere relies heavily on what's come before. (The second season had ended on a big cliffhanger.) And it's not a very good episode, especially if you haven't seen the previous season! Hopefully it won't put consumers off of the Edward Woodward classic, though.

Turning to a contemporary series that owes a lot to another Edward Woodward spy show, Fox has issued a press release confirming the previously rumored June 16 release date for the second season of Burn Notice on DVD and Blu-Ray–and providing an overview of the special features. They're still plentiful, but despite my prediction to the contrary they don't sound quite as good as those on the first season. I was a big fan of the highly entertaining "select scene commentaries" on that set by series creator Matt Nix and his star trio of Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar and champion DVD commentator Bruce Campbell. This time, the commentaries appear to be full episode commentaries, but there are only a few of them, and not with the stars together. Nix still appears on all three tracks, but he's accompanied by guest stars like Method Man and Tim Matheson. Campbell makes one appearance, and Donovan and Anwar none. So that's too bad. On the plus side, we still get plenty of deleted scenes, plus a featurette on Nix (who I'm eager to learn more about), another gag reel and an Easter Egg called "Boom Notice." (Possibly a compilation video of all the show's explosions? That would be in keeping with some of the lesser Season 1 featurettes.) Extras aside, however, Burn Notice just keeps getting better and better in its second season, and this is a must-see DVD for every spy fan.
OSS 117: Lost In Rio Opens In France; Variety Has Review

The newest OSS 117 film, sequel to 2006's dead-on period spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, opened in France last night. Kees Stam of the Harry Palmer Movie Site was in Paris earlier this week and reports that "there is a Rio poster on every corner of every street or square or boulevard in Paris. The film is on every cover of every major TV or film magazine in France as well." Sounds like a total saturation campaign, the equivalent of an actual James Bond opening! I wish that sort of thing were going on here in America, but as far as I know the sequel doesn't even have a U.S. distributor yet. That didn't stop trade magazine Variety from reviewing it, though. Critic Jordan Mintzer gives the film (apparently officially titled OSS 117: Lost In Rio for English-speaking audiences, as opposed to the much more Eurospy-sounding OSS 117: Rio Doesn't Answer) what can only be described as a rave review. "Returning team of scribe Jean-Francois Halin and writer-director Michel Hazanavicius once again turns the original character and timeframe upside down, presenting a hilariously straight-faced mockery of the Cold War era and its nationalist mindset," writes Mintzer. He particularly praises star Jean Dujardin, saying "the actor invents a persona that, like Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, is a continual joy to watch." Read the full review for more praise and a preview of some of the gags. He gives away a few jokes (that sound quite funny), but doesn't really tread into any spoiler territory. I cannot wait to see this movie! (Somehow!)

Apr 15, 2009

Tradecraft: EON Spies Another Way

The Hollywood Reporter reports some very surprising and very exciting spy news today. James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson are re-teaming with Sony to produce a non-James Bond spy movie. This is awesome because these are the producers behind the greatest spy series of all time, who (despite occasional hiccups) have provided hours and hours of first rate spy entertainment, and who I am certain have the ability to do it again. I welcome any and all EON produced spy movies. Then again, this is also surprising news because it was EON co-founder (and father of Barbara, step-father of Michael) Albert R. Broccoli's philosophy that producing James Bond was a full-time job. Part of the rift between him and his co-producer Harry Saltzman was over the fact that Saltzman was interested in making other movies outside of the Bond series, and Broccoli didn't want to dilute his focus. Will making another spy movie dilute Broccoli and Wilson's focus and have a negative impact on the current Bond movies? Or will it simply produce another amazing spy franchise, like Saltzman's Harry Palmer pictures? Only time will tell.

The project in question is Remote Control, a spy novel by Mark Burnell. Burnell will adapt his own book while Broccoli, Wilson and Ileen Maisel produce. "Wilson and Broccoli aren't straying far from the Bond milieu," notes the Reporter. "Remote follows a war correspondent-turned-British corporate-intelligence analyst who goes on the run with a former lover when he gets caught up in a conspiracy to destabilize the Chinese economy." Wilson and Broccoli's EON Productions, of course, worked with Sony on the last two Bond movies, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. The next Bond movie is set to go back to MGM. Judging from the producers' decision to work with Sony again on EON's first non-Bond film since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968 (when Barbara Broccoli was only 8), Broccoli wasn't just saying nice things for the press when she gushed about her experience working with Sony! Is this a sign that the producers are angling behind the scenes for a continued partnership between MGM and Sony on future Bond pictures? I'd say it's a possibility. EON, Sony and MGM are already collaborating together on a new adaptation of Ian Fleming's children's novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which The Hollywood Reporter wrongly attributes Roald Dahl, who adapted the book for the screen the first time around.
Timothy Dalton Action Figure Announced!
Also a Peter Wyngarde Figure

Toymaker Bif Bang Pow! has announced action figures of spy stars Timothy Dalton and Peter Wyngarde... for their roles in the 1980 sci-fi epic Flash Gordon. Unfortunately for Wyngarde fans, that means that the figure doesn't bare the Jason King actor's likeness. His role of Klytus wears a Dr. Doom-like metal face mask the entire time. Dalton's Prince Barin figure, however, is a fantastic representation of the star at that age. His mustache will make James Bond customization difficult, but then again there are certainly Dalton fans (Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright among them) who would prefer a mustached Dalton figure anyway. (Wright believes strongly in the power of Dalton's 'stache, and insisted he grow one for Fuzz.) I know that I can't wait to have a Timothy Dalton Prince Barin figure on my shelf! You can see more pictures (including comic book artist extraordinaire Alex Ross's designs for the Dalton Figure) on Bif Bang Pow!'s blog. Sideshow previously produced a high-quality 12-inch Dalton doll, but as far as I know this is the first Dalton action figure.

Apr 14, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

Lots of new spy DVDs out this week, although many of them are on the more obscure end of the spectrum. Which certainly doesn't make them any less essential! The biggest and most mainstream release is Intelligence: Season 2, from Acorn Media. And it's not as mainstream in America as it should be. The Canadian spy/crime drama follows officers of Canada's intelligence service CSIS and their assets (including drug runners and prostitutes). As with Sandbaggers and the early seasons of MI-5, the most interesting aspect of the series is the politics. The politics here are cut-throat, and the officers even use their assets to spy on each other as they claw for important promotions while trying to rid the service of moles and double agents. Season 2 begins with the series' most action-packed episode yet as criminal/asset Jimmy Reardon (in a continuation from Season 1's cliffhanger ending) finds himself set up by the DEA and framed for murder in Seattle. His first step is crossing the border back into Canada, which proves problematic... Meanwhile, back at CSIS, would-be director Mary Spaulding finds the political waters murkier than ever, and relations with the United States' intelligence services seriously strained, to say the least. It's like The Wire meets MI-5. Not quite as good as either of those shows, but still highly compelling, intelligent intelligence drama.

Today also sees the separate releases of two rare Antonio Margheriti Eurospy titles. As previously reported, Lightning Bolt is included in Media Blasters' latest Rare Flix compilation, Rare Flix Vol. 4. Lightning Bolt starts off slow, but if you stick with it it actually builds to a pretty spectacular finale. It's the rare case where most of the budget was saved for the end of a Eurospy movie, so that the action actually builds rather than petering out. The film also boasts a fun sense of humor and one one of the Eurospy genre's more tolerable heroes. Its second half alone qualifies it as one of my personal favorites. Read my full review here. I wasn't familiar with Media Blasters' Rare Flix series, but apparently Volume 3 (released late last year) included the rare Eurospy movie Killer Likes Candy, which I hadn't realized had ever had a legitimate DVD release in America. [UPDATE: Rare Flix Vol. 4 appears to have been delayed until next week.]

I haven't seen the other Margheriti flick out today, but I've wanted to for a while, so I'm looking forward to it. Mr. Superinvisible (1970) was Margheriti's contribution to the Italian costumed adventurer branch of the Eurospy family, but more family-oriented than some of the other fumetti movies. Ubiquitous Sixties Disney star Dean Jones stars (hoping to evoke said Disney films) as a scientist who, naturally, invents an invisibility formula, thus attracting the attention of various nefarious groups. Besides having one of the greatest titles ever, Mr. Superinvisible also features an invisible monkey sidekick. Did you hear me? I said invisible monkey sidekick! Why aren't you buying it already? This release, from a company called Wham! USA, seems slightly dubious. Hopefully the quality of the transfer is at least a little better than the quality of their cover art... Click here to read my recent week's worth of costumed adventurer reviews.

Finally, the BBC keeps unearthing lost performances from Sean Connery's younger days! Following on the heels of their rediscovery a few weeks ago of his Hotspur in Shakespeare's Age of Kings, this week they're putting out a 1961 adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in which he co-stars with Claire Bloom. According to the BBC's description, Connery plays "the dashing soldier, Vronsky" with whom Bloom's Anna has a torrid affair, setting herself on a tragic trajectory.

Apr 13, 2009

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season

We know right away to expect changes in Season 5 of Mission: Impossible, because the first episode, "The Killer," shockingly doesn’t open with the traditional shots of Jim retrieving his top secret tape recording. Instead, it opens with a teaser. There’s Jim West himself, Robert Conrad, playing a modern-day toughie complete with a tough tattoo. Behind him, his girlfriend dances feverishly–by herself–to the radio. With this alarming sight, we’re welcomed to the Seventies, full-on. Peter Graves drives that fact home in the next scene, as he wears a skintight orange turtleneck to retrieve his mission briefing tape. So much for somber suits of the Sixties. Further messing with tradition, there is no agent selection sequence with Phelps going through dossiers. Since the team is usually the same on every mission, that wasn’t really necessary anymore, but it’s still an alarming break with the familiar.

Even that most sacred of all Mission: Impossible tropes is tampered with in some episodes this season: Lalo Schifrin’s instantly-identifiable theme song! There’s a new version that was possibly intended to sound hip and contemporary for the new decade, but actually sounds embarrassingly like it was recorded by a marching band. The cast is also a little different, but that’s really nothing new. Mission: Impossible has had a revolving door for actors ever since Steven Hill’s team leader Dan Briggs disappeared after the first season to be replaced by Peter Graves’ far more iconic Jim Phelps. That said, the absence of strongman (and series mainstay) Peter Lupus from about half the episodes of Season 5 is a bit alarming, though a very young (and disarmingly mustache-free) Sam Elliott does a good job in his stead during the ones he sits out.

The void left by Barbara Bain after Season 3 is finally filled, though–unsurprisingly–there’s no introduction for new female team member Dana; she’s just there, played by Leslie Ann Warren. The premiere episode doesn’t really make clear what it is she adds to the team. What’s her skill? Being a woman? Being pretty? The Gabrielle Anwar-like ability to not wear a bra? (According to The Mission: Impossible Dossier, this point actually caused a lot of friction between the liberated actress and the show’s more conservative producers.) Whatever the case, she’s clearly eons younger than anyone else on the team, and also younger than most of the rotating female agents who filled in for Barbara Bain during the fourth season. The age discrepancy feels a bit incongruous.

We’re still heavy on the Paramount lot, but there are also some actual LA street shots mixed into the premiere episode, which is nice. Conrad plays a contract killer who decides everything at random, with the roll of two dice. Therefore, it’s impossible for the team to predict where he’ll go or what he’ll do, and consequently trickier to mount one of their elaborate cons. Luckily, as the show’s title suggests, "impossible" is their specialty, and Jim and the gang soon have matters well in hand. They construct a fake hotel set in a vacant building, but don’t know what to call it until they hear what hotel Conrad chooses. Then they have twenty minutes to create a duplicate of that hotel, and they have to hope he picks one of their taxis. Luckily they have two, but even in the Seventies, could you really have your pick of taxicabs at LAX? This point seems dubious, but luckily it works out for the team, and the killer selects Paris (Leonard Nimoy, back for his second season on the show) to drive him.

Paris, of course, knows to bring him to the fake hotel. He has to make the drive a slow one, though, giving his comrades more time to prep the set. You see, Jim’s plan is unfortunately a tad over-dependent on an old lady using a sewing machine to embroider the hotel name on the sheets! Willy (Lupus) slows Paris down further by monkeying with traffic lights (with a neat gadget) and creating other assorted disturbances. And that’s all just the setup! Before the rather convenient conclusion, there will be a dummy Barney, an explosion and a near miss averted only thanks to Jim’s seemingly psychic brilliance. It’s all a little preposterous, but then that’s exactly what makes it classic Mission: Impossible material. Another season’s off to a great start, even if the new female star remains an unknown quantity.

Jim’s orange turtleneck at the beginning, however, was not an isolated event. Loud Seventies fashions abound in this episode, a harbinger of the whole season. In previous seasons, occasionally unfortunate trendy fashions stood out because they were so few and far between. Most of the team dressed very conservatively throughout the Sixties, and Jim always wore suits. Not so anymore. The fashions now are uniformly obnoxious and ubiquitous, but there’s usually one standout in each episode. In this case, Robert Conrad’s electric blue tank top narrowly edges out Jim’s orange turtleneck for that honor. The fashions in Season 5 are so entertainingly dismaying, in fact, that they necessitate a new review feature: periodic "Fashion Alerts" showcasing the most egregious efforts of the costume department.

Fashion Alert: Robert Conrad’s blue tank top

The more personal episodes were always standouts in past seasons, mainly because they were rarities in what was normally such a clinical show. There are more of them this year, but they actually lose something in becoming more common.

There’s no mission briefing at all in "Homecoming," alerting us that it will be one of those more personal episodes. Jim returns to his small, quintessentially American hometown–only to discover a serial killer operating in its midst. Naturally, he calls in the team, who are all happy to help out. (Paris, in particular, "digs old hometowns" in general for some reason.) This seemed like such a good setup for an episode: a team of professional spies–used to operating behind the Iron Curtain, no less!–come to a small town in America to catch a local murderer. Yet for all his spy skills, Jim’s big plan at the end amounts to hiding in some bushes peeping on people. And while I was looking forward to getting some insight into Jim’s character, learning a bit about his past–maybe even meeting a family member–what we get is a series of increasingly cheesy slow motion flashbacks featuring a kid who looks surprisingly like he could be young Peter Graves frolicking in fields with other kids who appear to have stepped out of an Our Gang short. The present-day action centers around a local watering hole operated by a childhood chum of Jim’s named Midge. When pretty young ladies start turning up strangled, the town turns on its sheriff–another old pal of Jim’s. Soon, Dana is undercover as a new waitress at Midge’s–tempting bait for the serial killer.

The elements that work best here are the scares. The killer generates some genuine creepiness, all the more effective for how out of place it feels in an episode of Mission: Impossible. It seems unlikely that the show’s producers would have seen Dario Argento’s seminal giallo thriller The Bird With the Crystal Plumage that year, but a number of giallo trappings do turn up in this episode. The unseen, heavily disguised killer tracks women through POV shots and hoarsely whispers, "Pretty girl! Pretty girl!" before attacking them. Furthermore, the killer’s identity will come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone familiar with Bird and other gialli. Unfortunately, for Jim the solution comes in a memory triggered by his stopwatch, which causes him to flashback to being the kid with the stopwatch timing all the other children as they ran and frolicked. You all remember that kid, right? The "kid with the stopwatch?" Me either. It’s a lame device in a regrettably underwhelming episode.

Fashion Alert: Jim’s leather jacket with its odd buckled collar arrangement (I really want one!)

"Flight" is yet another variation on Season 3's "The Submarine." This time, instead of tricking a Nazi into thinking he’s on a sub, though, they trick a left-leaning Latin American would-be dictator into thinking he’s on a plane. The team is really good at constructing these rigs on the fly. Their tubular plane contraption looks very much like their submarine one, but it can’t be the same rig transported to another continent, as that one was discovered by Eastern European authorities. As is this one by Latin American authorities. So they must just have the construction down pat, even without their strongman. That’s right, Willy sits this one out in favor of Sam Elliott’s Dr. Doug Lang. (Or is that Doug Robert? There’s some confusion there.) The network apparently thought it was stupid to have a strongman on the team when his role was so limited. To an extent, they were right. There are plenty of episodes whose plots don’t actually call for demonstrations of great strength. "Flight," ironically, isn’t one of them! Muscle is called for to simulate turbulence by rocking the airplane fuselage model using levers... and it’s a sweaty Jim operating the levers! Where’s Willy when you need him? What there isn’t much call for is a doctor. As likable as Elliott is in the role (and he is likable, even if it’s weird watching him without his trademark bushy mustache), "doctor" isn’t a specialized skill set often needed on these impossible missions. Sure, he’s traveling as a doctor, but he doesn’t have to do any doctoring. Any one of the team could have played the part of doctor for their purposes. Lang does have to surreptitiously drug the would-be dictator with the prick of a needle, but that’s also something all the team members have shown themselves adept at in the past.

The staged plane crash is a neat concept, though, even if it’s only a setup for an overly elaborate scenario to make the target believe he’s crash-landed on an island controlled by tunnel-dwelling escapees from a penal colony. Throwing a monkey wrench into Jim’s plan is the unfortunate coincidence that a civilian reports the gang’s phony ambulance for speeding (who reports an ambulance for speeding?), leading the police to discover their setup and arrest Dana. The subplot about her escape is more interesting than the main storyline, even if she gets a little bit annoying in the course of performing a sob story for the police chief.

As with so many Season 4 episodes, the obvious Paramount backlot settings are quickly wearing thin. Why do Central America and Eastern Europe look so similar? And why is the most common architecture in both places so soundstage-y? Something to ponder.

One of the season’s more unique episodes, "My Enemy My Friend" also begins without a mission briefing for Jim. Instead, the teaser finds Paris motorcycling along the Swiss Alps (which are surprisingly deserty, as played by Los Angeles’s Griffith Park) at the close of mission, heading to rendezvous with the team. Along the way, his bike is run off the road and he’s captured by foreign agents. Whereas a lot of the teasers are utterly disposable, this one is both exciting and crucial to the episode’s plot. The enemy operatives perform an elaborate, IPCRESS-like brainwashing on him, turning him into their own Manchurian Candidate, his mission to kill his control... Jim Phelps. The brainwashing requires delving into Paris’s past, and the hallucinatory interrogation scene provides some vivid flashbacks and interesting character insights. Leonard Nimoy excels at these scenes, once again proving himself a more-than-adequate replacement for Martin Landau.

The second half of the villains’ plan requires setting Paris free, and letting him follow his standard procedures to meet up with his control in an Alpine resort. The whole team is there, of course, and Jim is hilariously disguised as a Scottish birdwatcher! Fortunately, the part is written in such a way as to only require one line of dialogue delivered in a faux brogue. Also populating the resort are enemy agents, including a beautiful honeytrap designed to set off Paris’s kill scenario, and a ruthless assassin played by Mr. Wint himself, Bruce Glover. This episode aired less than a year before Diamonds Are Forever, so he’s quite recognizable to Bond fans (and equally psychotic) despite a villainous goatee. Barney and Doug get to do some nifty breaking and entering, and for just a moment I thought they were going to dangle, Ethan Hunt-style. Alas, they don’t, and fans of Topkapi-style dangling will have to turn to the Tom Cruise film instead of the series to get their fix. The episode has a satisfyingly downbeat ending.

As much as I love the taped mission briefings, I also like that the series has started experimenting, and beginning episodes where they once would have left off. Besides "My Enemy My Friend," "The Hostage" is another example of this intriguing technique. Paris is kidnapped at the outset by South American rebels who believe he really is the wealthy hotel magnate he’s been impersonating on his most recent mission! We never learn much about that mission, but this mistaken identity forms the basis of the next–unplanned–one. Naturally, the team turns out to rescue him from this predicament. Despite the dire warnings of the taped voice, no one is ever disavowed on the series.

Anthony Zerbe, guest star of one of the all-time classic Mission episodes, "The Bunker," returns for what turns out to be another classic, "The Amateur." This is as quintessentially "spy" as Mission: Impossible ever gets: the team is stuck behind the Iron Curtain in an East Germany-like country (identified onscreen in a very Germanic font as "Ransdorf, Eastern Europe"). Of course it’s really the Paramount lot, but at least it’s an Octoberfest sort of street there. Dana’s working for the typically slimy Zerbe as a bar girl and arranges a meet between Jim and a local operative so he can deliver a stolen "rocket laser" prototype. The operative is followed to the meet and gunned down, leading to a rare moment where Jim and Barney both draw guns to shoot it out. They escape with the rocket laser, but the whole team is now trapped behind enemy lines as the head of the secret police orders, "Until further notice, I want this country closed, shut, locked down tight!"

Meanwhile, the entire IMF spy network is now compromised. Jim’s got to concentrate on reaching his asset, Father Bernard, and retrieving his list of agents before the enemy does. (Not too smart to keep a written list of your agents, but whatever. The guy trained at a seminary, not the Farm.) In case he gets captured, he breaks up the rocket laser and entrusts Dana with the guidance system, without which the technology is apparently useless. She must have seen Our Man Flint recently, because she decides to hide it in some cold cream. This arouses the suspicions of bar owner Zerbe (whose German accent curiously drifts now and again towards Irish), certain Dana’s a spy. He sees an opportunity and takes it. But he’s soon to learn that an amateur (hence the title) shouldn’t play games with real secret agents...

Before Jim enacts one of his most ingenious escape plans ever right under the nose of the secret police chief in the airport finale, you’ll witness Dana contending with a jealous stripper, Jim and Doug disguised as priests and forced to perform last rites, and Barney and Paris in bicycle shorts! There’s disguises (including Paris in that doozy!) and spying galore in this excellent hour of spy television–one of Mission: Impossible’s finest moments.

Fashion alert: Jim’s wearing that weird buckle-neck jacket again–in Eastern Europe, no less, where it’s sure to stand out!

Several episodes this season deal with race in an effective, adult way. By "adult," I don’t mean hitting viewers over the head with after-school special-like "lessons;" I mean that they manage to work serious and–unfortunately–still touchy (in 1970) themes into highly entertaining adventure stories. "The Hunted" boasts a great opening with the team extracting a black leader from a (pseudo) South African prison hospital. Now the M:I tropes are so well established that they can do a whole episode’s worth of cons in a four minute teaser, just like the Brian De Palma movie did decades later. Surprisingly this time, one of the team members actually gets hit, and the others leave him behind! I’ve secretly always wanted that to happen. Of course, it’s just a random guest star "redshirt"... or is it? He stumbles into a doorway, where a black woman tends to his wounds... and discovers he’s wearing a mask. Underneath, it’s Barney! He’s also wearing fake white skin on his hands and feet in order to pass unnoticed in Apartheid society. This is a good episode for Barney, giving Greg Morris a chance to really shine as he carries the majority of the program. Paris gets the rest as he goes on the run as a decoy–the wounded white man everyone’s looking for–in order to lure police away from Barney. It’s unfortunate that the woman aiding Barney turns out to be deaf and mute, as that leads to some overly precious cliche moments. But overall, "The Hunted" is a very strong episode and another example of this season’s high quality. It also makes great use of variations on Schifrin’s "Mission: Impossible Theme" throughout, and not just at the beginning and end. Furthermore, everything builds to a big budget, action-packed finale involving a helicopter.

Fashion alert: Jim in shorts!

"Kitara" explores similar racial territory with a rather fantastic sci-fi device. It takes place in the fictional nation of "Bocamo, West Africa," ruled by "a colonial minority practicing severe racial segregation." It’s impressive that a show like Mission: Impossible dared to take on such a subject when just a few short years earlier the same exact thing was going on in the Southern United States. The team’s target is the sadistic, racist, and naturally white Colonel Kolba. Dana poses as a journalist there to interview him, and dredges up a story of a black man posing as a white man who was exposed by an illness and appropriately "reclassified." With these thoughts planted in Kolba’s head, Jim and Barney set about a Ralph Ellison-like experiment and plot to make Kolba think that he himself is black. To that end, Barney has an amazing lightbulb that turns white skin black! (Albeit a rather unconvincing shade.) Jim exposits, "One exposure to the lamp at night, and he’ll be black by the morning." Of course the team relies on more than just parlor tricks to build a very convincing con job.

Race is also the elephant in the room in "Cat’s Paw," but it’s tastefully non-explicit. This episode is Barney’s turn to take center stage in his very own "Homecoming." At the beginning, he sees his brother and they say all of the things that people in movies say to each other right before one of them gets killed, like "when are we going to get around to that fishing trip we’ve always been meaning to take?" Predictably enough, this is the last Barney sees of his brother, and soon he’s pulling the whole team in to help him get revenge for his death. (It’s too bad Paris doesn’t remind everyone again how much he "digs" old hometowns! But maybe his enthusiasm doesn’t extend to the inner city?)

Race is at the heart of the conflict that got Barney’s brother killed; a black syndicate is vying with a white one for control of the area. Unlike in blacksploitation movies, however, the black syndicate is just as bad as the white one–and they’re colluding with the white police chief, who’s happy to take money from either side. While Barney goes undercover with the black gangsters, Paris and Dana focus on their white accountant with the same old bogus psychic routine they’ve used about a billion times by now. The two plotlines feel very separate, and don’t come together that well. (Furthermore, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the widowed accountant Paris dupes.) As much as I always wanted to know more about the characters, for some reason the personal episodes this season don’t work too well. There is a good ending to "Cat’s Paw," though, in which Barney is forced to sell out a criminal woman who loves him–and does so in a surprisingly cold-hearted fashion.

Fashion alert: Paris’s flowery blue collar when he’s impersonating a spiritualist

"The Party" treads familiar territory much more convincingly. It opens up with a communist agent making a phone call from LA’s San Fernando Valley just before American counterintelligence operatives move in on him. He leads them in a pretty cool chase across fences and rooftops before being captured. This sets the stage for Jim and his team to pull the sort of con that they can do in their sleep, but that’s always fun to watch. They need to convince the foreign agent that he’s been traded back to his own people in order to get him to reveal top secret information. For once, both Willy and Doug are part of the team–together! Willy, however, is back to his traffic light-rewiring role from "The Killer" instead of his strongman routine. Doug gets to be a doctor, and even performs a medical examination, taking full advantage of his supposed skill set for a change.

The IMF team stages a phony "welcome home" party at the enemy agent’s embassy in order to fool him. This requires first emptying the embassy of its actual personnel (thanks to an elaborate bomb threat from Barney), then repopulating it with fake partygoers. The imposters (led by Willy) enter through the sewers, and it’s a nice image seeing all these upperclass types in evening attire mucking through drainage pipes. The plan also calls for a side trip to the agent’s home country, and the art director’s managed some more convincing locations than usual to stand in for Eastern Europe. Most importantly, they’re not soundstages! (Small things, however, like US mailboxes in the foreground, do give them away.) We also learn that Paris looks surprisingly good in a heavy Russian overcoat.

I keep waiting for Mission: Impossible to veer decidedly downhill, as is its reputation in later seasons. But that keeps not happening. Yes, there are some major changes in Season 5, and not all of them for the better. But overall, the series delivers another season of thrilling television. And while there may have been more "Syndicate" episodes than in seasons past, there were also more pure, straightforward espionage episodes than ever before. And even the ones dealing with the mob aren’t automatically domestic; "Squeeze Play," for instance, takes place in Marseilles. (Although it looks as much like the Paramount backlot as all the other foreign locales.) While some Season 5 episodes are of a decidedly lesser quality than others, there are also probably more first-rate episodes overall than we’ve had since Season 2 (possibly owing to the "hard spy" angle). And every episode was fun to watch. In fact, I’d argue that Season 5 may be the most fun season yet. What can I say? Bad fashions add to my enjoyment of a lot of period TV. But on top of that, things are generally faster paced, and the team faces far more unexpected left turns than in previous years this time out. It’s not quintessential Mission: Impossible, but The Fifth TV Season is essential nonetheless.

Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.