Jul 31, 2009

Spy Screenings In Los Angeles This Weekend

Including New Geroge Lazenby Movie Opening In US - UPDATED

As a reminder, two very rare spy movies starring the great James Mason (North By Northwest) will screen tonight (Friday, July 31) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The double bill kicks off at 7:30 with Joseph Mankiewicz's 1952 WWII espionage dramedy 5 Fingers, in which Mason plays a social-climbing valet in the British embassy in Ankara plotting to sell Allied secrets to the Germans. His machinations get him pursued by agents of both sides. 5 Fingers is followed at 9:30 by The Deadly Affair, Sidney Lumet's excellent 1966 adaptation of John Le Carré's novel Call for the Dead. Mason plays George Smiley, only Columbia couldn't call him Smiley because Paramount owned the rights to the name for their film of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, in which Smiley plays a relatively small part. So Mason's Smiley is called Charles Dobbs. But he's quite excellent in the role, and local Le Carré fans should definitely make a point of catching this screening if they've never seen this film. I was hoping to attend myself, but it looks like I won't be able to make it. If someone else does, please post a comment! Neither movie is available on DVD in the United States, although The Deadly Affair is available in Britain and 5 Fingers is available in South Korea.

Visit the LACMA website for more information on this screening.

Read more about 5 Fingers in The LA Weekly's piece on the whole James Mason retrospective.

Read my whole review of The Deadly Affair here.

Also playing this weekend in Los Angeles and New York is Not Quite Hollywood, that documentary about Australian grindhouse (or "Ozploitation") movies that features one-time James Bond George Lazenby. I first reported on this when Aintitcool linked the trailer last fall. The movie covers a ton of insane Aussie exploitation films from the 70s and 80s and the insane people who made them. Included on the roster is Lazenby's The Man From Hong Kong (1975); I wouldn't be surprised if Stoner (1974) and maybe some of his other action films of the era turned up as well. Lazenby appears in the trailer in some amazingly-remastered clips, as well as in a brief snippet from a new, on-camera interview, but Quentin Tarantino dominates the proceedings in the trailer, as he does most things related in any way to cult cinema. Boasting the tagline, "Finally a documentary full of gratuitous nudity, senseless violence, car crashes... and a bit of kung fu," this looks quite entertaining, and I'm definitely hoping to check it out! Not Quite Hollywood opens in Los Angeles (at the Nuart) and New York (at the Village East) tonight; it expands the following week to the E Street Cinema in Washington, DC, and then to Berkeley, San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Seattle on August 14. Then it opens in Cambridge and Philadelphia the week after that, and presumably other markets will depend on how it performs in the first stages of its platform release. So check your local listings, as they say! It's already on DVD in Australia.

Jul 30, 2009

Nick Fury Variant Cover

Secret Warriors is a Marvel comic book half of which features awesome Nick Fury spy action, the other half of which features big confusing battles amongst teenage characters no one cares about. I wish Marvel had had the guts to just make it a Fury book (the terrific subtitles is "Nick Fury: Agent of Nothing" following the collapse of SHIELD), but it's still nice to have even half a book's worth of the eyepatched superspy every month. Unfortunately, he doesn't get to be on the cover of his own book very much. Issue 6, which hit this week, rectifies that with a pretty awesome "70s Decade Variant" cover drawn by artist Tomm Coker. I found the design cool enough to warrant sharing. Fury fans should try to snag a copy of the variant as the regular one, per usual, does not feature him. And is it just me, or does that Nick Fury look a bit like Jack Bauer with an eyepatch? The issue also contains some big revelations about Fury and his world. (Not that Marvel continuity really means anything anymore.)
Click the image to enlarge.
Tradecraft: Gorham Sets Affairs

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Harper's Island star Christopher Gorham will play the male lead opposite Piper Parabo in USA's newest spy series, Covert Affairs. The trade summarizes what we've heard before about the series adding a few new snippets about Gorham's role: "Written by Matt Corman and Chris Ord, Affairs centers on Annie Walker (Perabo), a multilingual CIA trainee who joins the Agency still reeling over a mysterious ex-boyfriend who appears to be of particular interest to her bosses. Gorham will play Auggie Anderson, a CIA military intelligence/special-ops agent blinded years ago on an assignment who is helping Walker navigate her new job." USA is hoping another spy series will replicate the success the network has enjoyed with Burn Notice. Gorham, who played a recurring role on Ugly Betty, most recently starred on CBS's summer slasher series Harper's Island. Speaking of Harper's Island and going way off topic here, did anyone else watch that? It was cheesy but pretty fun for most of the journey, however I was hugely let down by the finale after investing thirteen weeks in the series. Am I alone?
COMIC-CON: Burn Notice Panel

According to The Hollywood Reporter, last Thursday’s original episode of Burn Notice on USA not only easily topped the cable ratings; it also bested most of the networks' offerings in the key demographic of adults ages 18-49. This popularity was certainly reflected by the line for its panel at Comic-Con a week ago, which snaked out of the convention center, looped through a mercifully tent-covered maze outside and finally doubled back into the cavernous Ballroom 20, which accomodated the first 4000 fans in that line. The panelists on hand were series creator Matt Nix and co-executive producer Alfredo Barrios, Jr., co-star Bruce Campbell (Sam Axe) and recurring guest stars Jay Karnes (Brennen), Seth Peterson (Nate), Ben Shenkman (Stickler) and Michael Shanks (Victor), who moderated. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever been to Comic-Con (or anyone who’s ever listened to an audio commentary on one of the Evil Dead movies) that Bruce Campbell dominated this panel. As he should. He’s the King of Comic-Con. (Though Kevin Smith is probably the Pope of Comic-Con, who might wield more power...) When someone shouted out that they loved him, Campbell demanded to know who had said that and then stood up and proceeded to pay the person cash from his wallet. If he didn’t already have the crowd eating out of his hands, he certainly did at that point. Despite claiming he was broke after each occasion, Campbell kept hilariously paying people throughout the panel, including one audience member who suggested that Sam should have more fight scenes on the show.

Of course, despite appearances (one young fan asked Nix is Campbell was the person who helped him come up with "all the funny stuff," much to the writers’–and actors’ amusement–though it was revealed that a lot of Bruce’s final lines in scenes are ad-libs), Matt Nix is the man responsible for Burn Notice’s success and the direction it goes. The first question he fielded dealt with Michael Westen’s (Jeffrey Donovan) absent and (presumably) long-dead father. To the implication that his mysterious dad might play a role in future events, Nix declared, "Michael’s father is not the one who burned him." He never intended for people to think that, but realized that when you have a show with a central, driving mystery and a conspicuously absent character, people are bound to make connections. Nix pointed out that there had already been a spy show with various family members (often long-estranged or believed dead) who all turned out to be spies and shadowy figures pulling the strings of the hero(ine): Alias. The only reason he included Michael’s family life to begin with (in the person of his widowed and long-suffering mother, Madeline, played by Sharon Gless) was because he wanted to explore what sort of background led people to become covert operatives. Broken homes, apparently, are common history for many spies.

When asked what resources they used to come up with Michael’s MacGyverish spy advice, the writers credited their consultant, Michael Wilson (no, not that Michael Wilson)... before revealing that most of it comes from "the Internet." The trick is to give just enough information to sound plausible, but it’s okay to fudge the details like how long it actually takes to do some of that stuff. Nix was quick to assure people that they never provide enough information that someone could kill themself trying Michael Westen’s techniques. "They’d have to go do their own Internet research for that!" quipped Barrios. He also added that writing the voice-overs was the hardest part for all the writers besides Nix, because they sound exactly like Nix does when he talks!

Bruce Campbell wanted audiences to know that Nix won’t have any digital explosions on his show. Nix chimed in and said that they always looked fake. He likes blowing things up for real. He likes the little details, like a rearview mirror flying off a car and breaking its window, things he says the digital artists never get. I suppose this policy explains why wealthy art thieves sometimes end up driving ‘88 Jags: it’s pretty expensive to destroy late model Mercedes for real every week! There was one explosion this season that ended up being pretty costly, though. When Fiona wired the house of returning bad guy Brennen (Karnes) to blow up a few weeks ago, the practical stunt was supposed to blow out all the windows, giving the impression that the whole house blew up. But the technicians misjudged, and they ended up exploding the whole house for real! Well, it looked good.

In dominating the panel, Campbell found the majority of the audience’s questions aimed at him, including some unrelated to Burn Notice. (The funniest moment of the hour came when he acted hurt over not being cast in Sam Raimi’s latest horror movie, Drag Me To Hell, and he assured the crowd that Raimi would "pay" for that.) Even questions that made more sense going to other people were directed at Campbell. Although Seth Peterson, who plays Michael’s brother Nate, was sitting right there at the other end of the table, one fan asked Bruce if Nate would have a bigger role this season! "You’re asking me?" Campbell gaped. Peterson did get a chance to speak himself when another fan asked him what had changed most for his character. "The biggest thing that’s changed for me is Nate’s facial hair," he quipped, going on to explain that fans hated the character when he sported his scruffy goatee, but had really come around on him since he shaved it off.

From Bruce Campbell’s constant jokes to Matt Nix’s thoughtful answers, the Burn Notice panel was one of the highlights of this year’s Comic-Con, even without series stars Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar present. (One suspects Campbell would have still dominated even if Donovan had been present.) Hopefully the event was filmed and will be included on the DVD of Season 3. Everyone who attended was rewarded with a ticket to collect a cool Burn Notice T-shirt.

Tradecraft: Ron Howard To Direct Ludlum's Parsifal Mosaic

Tradecraft: Ron Howard To Direct Ludlum's Parsifal Mosaic

Today is a crazy day of super-bigtime directors attaching themselves to spy movies! It's great, isn't it? Hot on the heels of the amazing news that Steven Spielberg is interested in directing Paramount's Matt Helm redo comes news on one of the spy movies in the pipeline that I'm most excited about: as the title of this post indicates, Variety reports that Ron Howard will direct The Parsifal Mosaic for Universal. The studio is anxious to get another Ludlum property up and running while waiting for progress on a fourth Bourne film (at one time itself rumored to be based on The Parsifal Mosaic). Parsifal is part of Universal's overall first-look deal with Captivate Entertainment (formerly Ludlum Entertainment), who control all of the Ludlum titles. As previously announced, Brian Grazer will produce. The trade adds that Road To Perdition scribe David Self "will adapt the Ludlum novel about a CIA operative who thinks he witnessed the execution of his lover after she was identified as a KGB double agent." Let's hope that this is Frost/Nixon Howard directing and not The Da Vinci Code Howard... After living most of my life in a world where Hollywood for some reason didn't recognize the awesome potential of Robert Ludlum-based films, I pinch myself every time I read about a new Ludlum movie. To my mind, Universal can't make them all fast enough! And The Parsifal Mosaic is a great place to start.

Jul 29, 2009

Tradecraft: Steven Spielberg Interested In Directing Matt Helm!

Holy shit! Sorry, I try to keep my content family-friendly, but this item deserves such an exclamation! It looks like the long-gestating Matt Helm reboot may finally be gaining traction. Big traction! Variety's Michael Fleming is reporting that Steven Spielberg himself may direct the movie. As previously reported, Paul Attanasio has penned the latest draft of the script, and Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (currently the hottest guys in the business) are producing. The trade says that "the current script is set in the present and the tone is closer to The Bourne Identity than those campy Matt Helm films that Dean Martin toplined in the 1960s." That bit should delight the many fans of Donald Hamilton's novels who have long dreamed of a truer, grittier screen adaptation!

Spielberg has famously long wanted to direct a popcorn spy movie. (I say "popcorn" to indicate that Munich doesn't count.) He approached the James Bond producers back in the late Seventies while still riding the success of Jaws, and Cubby Broccoli turned him down. Broccoli reasoned that a director of Spielberg's stature would surely not only demand final cut, but also profit participation, both things that the keepers of the 007 franchise have always been loathe to give up. When Broccoli refused his services, it's an oft-told tale that Spielberg's buddy George Lucas called him up and said, "I've got something better than Bond," and thus began the Indiana Jones phenomenon. Lucas and Spielberg later tipped their hat to Indy's cinematic progenitor by casting Sean Connery as the archaeologist's father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Now, ironically, Spielberg may once again be denied his spy-directing dreams. Even though he's pretty much the King of Hollywood and has his pick of scripts, Matt Helm remained at Paramount following Spielberg's DreamWorks' divorce from that studio. "While some DreamWorks-developed projects left behind at Paramount give Spielberg and [DreamWorks prexy Stacey] Snider the option to co-finance and co-distribute, Matt Helm isn’t one of them," reports Fleming. "The picture is 100% owned by Paramount." And Paramount, he reminds us, "has made a concerted effort to cut back on first-dollar gross deals [and] might not want to step up to Spielberg’s traditionally rich deal and could save money by going with another filmmaker." So poor Steven Spielberg, who used to clear his head by flying remote control helicopters around his garage while blasting "The James Bond Theme" from a portable stereo, is once again in the exact same position as he was way back in the 1970s when he wanted to direct 007!

Despite the high cost of doing business, I can't imagine the studio turning away the man who launched the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park franchises (not to mention Jaws). Fleming reports that Paramount execs are quite excited about the new script, and are excited about its franchise potential. And nobody does franchises like Steven Spielberg... Let's keep our fingers crossed. This is potentially very exciting news. I, for one, would love to see Spielberg try his hand at a good old-fashioned spy thriller!

The Variety article concludes by teasing that "the drama is expected to play out by week’s end."

DVD Review: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete First Series

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was an anthology series produced by Thames Television in the early Seventies based upon the short story anthologies of the same name compiled by Hugh Greene (co-author, with his brother Graham, of The Spy’s Bedside Book). Like the books, the show features the adventures of other Victorian and Edwardian detectives written by Arthur Conan Doyle’s contemporaries. In some ways, all of the detectives follow the Holmes model so precisely that it isn’t like an anthology show at all; it follows a rigid formula, week after week, beginning with a private detective sparring with his friend in the police force who’s not quite as sharp as he is. Each detective is generally assisted in his investigation by a very Watson-like sidekick. The detectives just happen to be played by different actors each week. In other ways, however, it’s very much an anthology, as each detective offers some sort of twist on the Sherlock Holmes model: he hunts ghosts, he’s blind, she’s a woman, etc. I’m frankly surprised that none of these detectives were spun off into their own series, as they’re mostly quite entertaining characters. John Neville’s Dr. Thorndyke, in particular, would have lent himself wonderfully to his own show. Only a few detectives return in another episode in the first season: Peter Vaughn’s Horace Dorrington, Peter Barkworth's Martin Hewitt and Ronald Hines' Jonathan Pryde, who feature in two stories each. There is some overlap there, though, as Pryde and Hewitt team up in "The Case of Laker, Absconded." The entire series appears to have had a surprisingly high budget, much moreso, apparently, than the BBC’s Sixties Holmes series. It’s in color and, though shot on video, looks quite good, with excellent period sets and costumes. In fact, Network's DVD presentation looks much better than many other shot-on-video series of the era.

Of most interest to spy fans will be "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo" starring Ronald Hines as "enquiry agent" Jonathan Pryde. On The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Pryde is presented as Martin Hewitt's partner. Hewitt, absent from this tale, gets a solo tale as well, and the two appear together in the aforementioned "team-up" episode. Oddly, Pryde himself did not appear in author Arthur Morrison's short stories. He is an original creation for TV, presumably because the producers didn't want their anthology series to feature too much of any one character. Even if he's based on the literary Hewitt, I will refer to the detective by his screen name here. Pryde (ie Hewitt) is more of a "working stiff" sort of private detective, the sort who would become popular in the following century. He has more in common with Philip Marlowe (or, even more fittingly, Harry Palmer) than Sherlock Holmes. Pryde is hired by representatives of the Admiralty and the Foreign Office to keep their Naval secrets safe. Particularly, they want him to keep an eye on a cantankerous old inventor named Dixon and the fantastic new prototype torpedo he’s working on. They’re particularly worried that the Russians might be after the designs. "Curious work for an investigator," Pryde comments.

"But who else is there to do it, my dear fellow?" asks the Admiralty man with no small degree of class condescension. "Gentlemen don’t spy on each other!" And so Jonathan Pryde becomes surely one of the first private detectives hired–or pressed–into the service of his government against his better judgement if not quite against his will. And the British government isn’t the only government with the idea of hiring him. A Russian diplomat bursts into his office and hires him to track down some counterfeit rubles.

"Why not leave this to the Okra," asks Pryde suspiciously, referring to the Tsarist secret police. The diplomat–a prince, actually–explains that he’d like to avoid a diplomatic incident at all costs since they’re operating in London. Of course, as tends to happen in this sort of story, the two cases turn out to be connected, and soon Pryde has the Okra after him as well in the form of the hulking assassin Ivanov.

The story is surprisingly risque for early Seventies television–not to mention Victorian literature! Dixon (who’s a great semi-comical character in the hands of veteran character actor Derek Francis) turns out to have a pretty big vice: prostitutes. This seemingly respectable gentleman likes to entertain them–"two at a time!"–in his special "private sitting room." Needless to say, it is through this vice that the Russians manage to get at him, although I will not reveal exactly how.

Besides the sexpionage angle and the proto-Cold War Russia/Great Britain rivalry, there are other antecedents of popular spy fiction on display, including rudimentary gadgets. Pryde uses a telescope to spy on Dixon testing his torpedo, but also spies another spy–spying with binoculars. One shady character uses a hollowed-out cane with a screw-top knob to hide something. No, they’re not Aston Martins with ejector seats, but they’re all pretty cool little gimmicks and used well.


Ultimately, Pryde’s instincts as a detective clash with his duties as a hired spy. He’s horrified to learn that the British and Russian "diplomats" both operate in the same ways, eager to explain away inconvenient bodies as "suicide" or "unsolved murder." Like Harry Palmer, his sense of civic duty is left unfulfilled by his involvement with spooks. The spymasters hope to persuade him to "act for us again in the future" and Pryde declines.

"No, I don’t think so. I prefer crime. It’s more honest." That’s a theme that would certainly recur again and again in the spy literature of the next century!

It’s also worth noting that there’s another trait, besides his class, that sets Pryde apart from Holmes and the Holmes clones: he’s married. Furthermore, his wife turns out to be quite sharp, lending him valuable counsel on his case. "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo" is excellent all around, and I would have liked to see more of these characters in their own show. At least Pryde returned for one more episode, "The Case of Laker, Absconded," but it’s a shame there was only one more episode with Pryde and his pals.

John Neville’s hubrisitic Dr. Thorndyke is one of the many scientific detectives in this batch. Forensics were a new field in the Victorian era, and it wasn’t only Sherlock Holmes who was interested. (Though, if detective fiction is to be believed, the private sector was far more enthusiastic about the emerging science than the police!) Thorndyke is a doctor and a professor of medicine who sometimes assists the police on their cases. Although he’s probably the most direct Sherlock Holmes clone of the batch (right down to a faithful housekeeper named Mrs. Hobbes), he carries all of Holmes’s antisocial tendencies even further (if that’s possible), making him a great delight to watch. In fact, he’s got a lot in common with the Holmes-inspired Dr. House, played by Hugh Laurie. Neville (who played an excellent Sherlock in A Study in Terror) has great fun with these aspects of the character.

Thorndyke is an unrepentant intellectual snob. He sees everyone else as beneath him. "How refreshing to see someone who’s not a fool," he comments at one point, because he considers almost everyone around him to be one. Even his poor Watson, Dr. Jervis (James Cossins), suffers constant insults. Thorndyke treats him like he might treat one of his students, and when Jervis–presented with the same clues as Thorndyke–asks how he came to one of his stunning revelations, Thorndyke instructs him, "Don’t attempt to suck my brain when you have an excellent brain of your own to suck!" Like Dr. Watson, though, Jervis is about the only person to actually stand up to Thorndyke’s bullying and call him on his rude behavior. "I’m often burning to strike you dead!" Jervis snaps at his friend one point. Thorndyke seems to get satisfaction out of driving Jervis to the limit. Besides his petulance, Thorndyke also shares (and even exceeds) Holmes’s smugness. He quickly dismisses one police officer by declaring, "This fellow is a ninny." What he’s got that Holmes hasn’t, though, is his very own scientist in a labcoat (named Fulton) at his beck and call, ready to carry out whatever experiment Thorndyke asks of him!

The Thorndyke story presented here, "A Message from the Deep Sea," ends with a court scene in which Thorndyke provides a snarky running commentary on how wrong everyone else is before finally taking the stand himself to amaze and astound the collected crowd with his own deductions. He’s certainly a showoff–and that’s why he’s so much fun to watch. (That and the wonderful Victorian euphemisms he uses to avoid talking directly about such unsavory topics as whorehouses and their clients!) Although the instant familiarity I felt with these characters is probably due to their extremely close resemblance to Holmes and Watson, I certainly would have liked to see more of them as well. Spy fans may also be interested to note that The Sandbaggers' Ray Lonnen pops up in "A Message from the Deep Sea."

Former Bond villain Donald Pleasence gives an excellent, subdued performance as William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the "ghost detective." No, he’s not a ghost detective in the sense that Marty Hopkirk is; he’s more of an occult investigator who’s earned that title for his scientific research into the spirit world. Despite having seen what he’s seen, however, Carnacki remains a skeptic. His first conclusions when called to look into a famous "invisible horse" that attacks the daughters of a certain family on the night before their weddings is that some flesh-and-blood human being is staging the occurrences. He turns out to be half right. There is a culprit to unmask, making this tale fit in with the other rivals of Sherlock Holmes, but unlike in Holmes’s own adventures, the supernatural is also at work. Carnacki is another man of science, and he uses modern gizmos as well as ancient occult rites in his attempts to protect the young woman (Michelle Dotrice) from the spectral horse.

Pleasence’s supremely understated performance is a welcome surprise. In a series that usually focuses on eccentrics, the detective with the most eccentric cases of the whole lot is the least eccentric guy here. Pleasence’s Carnacki is mild-mannered and even self-effacing, in stark contrast to Neville’s Thorndyke! In trying to reassure the young lady that he will be able to protect her and she will live to see her nuptials, Carnacki promises, "I shall break the habits of a lifetime and dance at your wedding."

"I hope so," she musters, unconvinced.

"You haven’t seen my dancing," jokes the ego-less Carnacki. "The Horse of the Invisible" is another top-notch entry in the series.

Other detectives are less chivalrous. Romney Pringle (Donald Sinden) is a reformed con man who lends his services to law and order, but his investigation into a scam in "The Assyrian Rejuvenator" is rather mundane. On the plus side, he actually works things out so that he ends up with a nice personal profit–and the girl–at the end of the affair. Peter Vaughn’s not entirely un-Steed-like detective Horace Dorrington is delightfully unscrupulous and thinks nothing of bilking stupid blackmail clients out of a few extra bucks if he can figure out a way to do so. The more straight-arrow sleuths are a bit less interesting, and sometimes conventional to the point of blandness. Dixon Druce, as played by John Fraser in "Madame Sara," is one such character, but luckily he’s thrust into a fairly unique scenario. He falls in love with a suspect in one of his cases, and ill-advisedly lets his emotions get the best of his logical thinking. The story is somewhat similar to "A Scandal In Bohemia," except that Druce’s attraction to the titular Madame Sara is far more overpowering and far more developed than Holmes’s grudging admiration for Irene Adler. (Many screen incarnations of Holmes exaggerate that relationship and turn it into something more akin to the one presented here.)

Druce’s classical education both aids him in his detective work and belies his literary origins. "You put [cases] together like a jigsaw puzzle," his police inspector friend comments.

"More like a play," states Druce, expounding on Aristotle’s theories of dramatics. A good murder plot, he says, requires carefully planned acts. "Madame Sara" does not let down in that respect come the conclusion. Even if Dixon Druce is a rather bland detective, though, "Madame Sara" still manages to be one of the best stories presented in this set. The murder method is quite ingenious, and worthy of Conan Doyle himself. Its solution calls for rather brutal action on Druce’s part–including performing surprise dentistry on an unsuspecting young woman he’s just assured can trust him!

"The Woman In the Big Hat," based on a story by the Baroness Orzcy, showcases this series’ only female rival to Sherlock Holmes, Lady Molly of the Yard (Elvi Hale). It’s unclear in what exact capacity Lady Molly is meant to serve Scotland Yard, but she’s quite adept at solving murders to the constant annoyance of Inspector Saunders, whose job that is. Inspector Saunders is played by wonderfully by the great Peter Bowles, a familiar face to any frequent viewer of Sixties spy television, particularly memorable for his many Avengers guest appearances. (My personal favorite is his villainous turn in "Escape In Time.") Lady Molly’s female Watson comments that Inspector Saunders speaks very highly of feminine intuition, a comment Lady Molly herself quickly dismisses. "Fiddle faddle! That man only talks about intuition because he cannot bear the idea that a woman can think!"

Lady Molly is good at thinking, but even this strong female Victorian character might not quite please contemporary feminist critics. Much of her success comes from the fact that she and her female friends think of details that the men would overlook–like fashionable hats, dress details and matters of propriety.

There’s a lot to like on display for spy fans in this set. Besides "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo," the Max Carrados case "The Missing Witness Sensation" provides a good dose of domestic intrigue as the blind Carrados tangles with a London cell of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. And beyond the stories, there are lots of familiar actors (like Pleasence and Bowles) from Sixties spy fare who it’s fun to see in Victorian garb. And for mystery fans, well, this is a must. Not just one great detective to watch, but eleven (in thirteen episodes) all played by excellent actors! If you’re looking for more Victorian mystery television to move on to after Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, then, as much as I love other actors like Peter Cushing in that role, you might be better off turning to Holmes’s rivals. All in all, this is a more eclectic offering of the same sort of deerstalker-in-the-fog stories as Conan Doyle’s. Network’s Region 2 DVD looks great, preserving the series’ high production values. There are no extra features, but the show alone is reason enough to buy this. And American viewers needn't miss out, for once! The first season of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is due out Stateside in September from Acorn, and I’ll have a full review of their set soon.

Read my review of Acorn's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 here. (All different content!)
Read my review of Acorn's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2 here.

Jul 28, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

The best new spy DVD out this week is a Region 2 offering from Network in the UK: 1964's Hot Enough For June, starring Dirk Bogarde (Modesty Blaise), Leo McKern (The Prisoner's final Number 2) and Deadlier Than the Male's luscious Sylva Koscina. Released the same year as Goldfinger, Hot Enough For June (also known as Agent 008 3/4) was one of the first films to ride the 007-inspired spy wave. It's also one of the most enjoyable. Bogarde (as charismatic a leading man as ever there was) stars as an out-of-work writer who checks in at the unemployment office unaware that it also functions as a recruiting station for MI6. Robert Morley is the spymaster who tricks Bogarde into taking an assignment behind the Iron Curtain–without bothering to tell him the true nature of the assignment. Hot Enough For June was made by the same director/producer team as Deadlier Than the Male: Ralf Thomas and Betty Box. It's previously been available only as a Greek import, so Network's widescreen release (which also features image galleries and PDFs of the original pressbook and posters, which featured some utterly fantastic spy art) is a most welcome one. If you own a player that can play Region 2 discs, then get this one for sure.

Another Sixties classic, as stylish and mod as they come, makes an eagerly-awaited return to DVD in the United States today, courtesy of Blue Underground. Elio Petri's slick satire The 10th Victim stars Marcello Mastroianni and unbearably gorgeous Bond Girl Ursula Andress (in a wide variety of jaw-dropping, barely-there costumes) as rival assassins out to kill each other in an international competition, but–like Modesty Blaise and Casino Royale–it's better remembered for its sets and its fashions than its story. And for Ursula's gun barrel breasts, later aped by the fembots in Austin Powers. This edition retains the fairly scant features found on the long out-of-print Anchor Bay edition, which will presumably now lose all of its considerable value.

Finally, today also sees the release of Joss Whedon's spy-fi series Dollhouse: Season One, starring a modern actress sexy enough to fit comfortably in the same post as Sylva Koscina and Ursula Andress: Eliza Dushku. Dushku plays Echo, an unwitting agent (or "active") in the service of a mysterious organization known as The Dollhouse. Actives are imprinted with personalities uniquely suited to the mission at hand, and then re-programmed again and again for each assignment. Over the course of the first season, Echo slowly become and more self-aware–and the show gets significantly better. Meanwhile, agents of the FBI and the NSA are closing in on the Dollhouse, each with their own agendas. The highlight of the season was the most espionage-heavy episode, "A Spy In the House of Love." The DVD and Blu-Ray notably contain an episode that never aired on TV, "Epitaph One," as well as the original, unaired version of the pilot.

Jul 27, 2009

CONTEST: Win The Comic-Con Prisoner Comic Book

At last week's San Diego Comic-Con, AMC distributed free Marvel comic books based on their upcoming miniseries remake of the classic Patrick McGoohan TV show The Prisoner. (The remake stars Ian McKellen as Number 2 and Jim Caviezel as Number 6, referred to simply as "Six" in this reimagining.) The network were also thoughtful enough to publish a PDF of the whole thing on their website (direct link here) so that even Prisoner fans not attending Comic-Con would be able to read it. But for those collectors out there who would rather own a hard copy of the first new Prisoner comic book since DC's mini-series over two decades ago (and don't want to be squeezed by Ebay pirates), I am giving away six copies right here! All you have to do to win a Prisoner comic book is send an email with the subject heading "PRISONER COMIC" including your name and mailing address to the Double O Section by midnight, Pacific Time on Monday, August 3, 2009. Winners will be announced next Tuesday. Good luck–and be seeing you!

Visit fellow COBRAS member site Mister 8 for the most comprehensive overview on the history of The Prisoner in comics that I've seen on the web.

One entry per person, please. Double entries will be disqualified. Six winners will be drawn at random and announced on Tuesday, August 4, 2009. The winners' names will be posted here and they will be notified via email. All entries will be deleted immediately after the contest’s close, and no personal information will be retained or transmitted to any third parties. The contest is open to anyone, in any country. Unfortunately, the Double O Section cannot assume responsibility for items lost or damaged in transit.

Jul 25, 2009

COMIC-CON: Spy Swag Part 1




I'll have some of those Prisoner comics to give away next week. Stay tuned for more Comic-Con coverage, including the Burn Notice panel and the new Prisoner...

Jul 23, 2009

COMIC-CON: New Prisoner Comic Book

You can't walk into the Convention Center here in San Diego without having free Prisoner comics thrust at you by people dressed in classic Village attire--the Sixties kind, not the new kind. The comic, however, is firmly tied in with AMC's Prisoner remake series debuting this fall. It's a short introduction to the series published by Marvel. And you don't even have to be here at Comic-Con to read it! You can download a free PDF from AMCTV.com. The cover depitcts Ian McKellen as Number Two and Jim Caviezel as Number Six... or just "Six" as they appear to be calling him this time out. (Boo.) It also shows Rover, still looking the same (yay!) and for some reason unexplained within, some pigs. (Or possibly people wearing pig masks.) The back cover is a rather awesome photo-based advertisement for the show featuring the two leads and Rover. The Prisoner panel is tomorrow.

Jul 20, 2009

Book Review: Seductive Espionage: The World of Yuki 7 By Kevin Dart And Ada Cole

If you consider yourself a fan of Sixties spy pop culture, then you need this book!

When I first posted the link to Stephane Coedel’s fantastic animated trailer for Kevin Dart’s fictional Sixties spy heroine Yuki 7, I commented that I was dying to see the movie and that it was frustrating that A Kiss From Tokyo didn’t actually exist. Now I’ve read the book, Seductive Espionage: The World of Yuki 7, written by Ada Cole, based on Dart’s creation and overflowing with his amazing illustrations (as well as contributions from others), and as much as I’d like to see those Yuki 7 movies, it simply doesn’t matter that they don’t exist. It doesn’t matter because Dart and Cole have captured the essence of the Sixties spy genre, everything I love about it, and packed it into this book–not just a beautiful art book, but a thorough history of a series of movies that never was.

Often, the movies themselves almost feel like afterthoughts. Sometimes the poster captures the true essence of the Sixties spy genre better than the movie ever could. Take, for example, the majority of Eurospy posters. I love them. I collect them. I decorate my walls with them and I stuff the ones that won’t fit into tubes and sleeves and portfolios that litter my apartment. They’re all dripping with the best elements of James Bond: exotic locations and impeccable fashions, heroic leading men and sultry, sexy, frequently bikini-clad women clutching guns or–better still–spearguns, fast, exotic sports cars, helicopters, airplanes and even more exotic forms of transportation, amazing gadgets, exciting action and explosions galore. On paper, every movie is equal, regardless of the budget. How exciting a movie looks is limited only by the artist’s imagination, and the guys who created these posters had pretty good imaginations.

I’m looking right now at my very favorite poster in my collection, the German one-sheet for Deadlier Than the Male (or Tödliche Katzen), which hangs in my living room. Besides the gorgeous Elke Sommer, who can’t really be improved upon, there’s a man diving forward at me, out of the poster, clutching a gun. He doesn’t really look like Richard Johnson, but his pose is dynamic. There’s a man getting shot by some thugs in a car–not a scene that actually happens in the movie, but an exciting poster image. And there’s an exploding yacht and a flaming jetliner plummeting towards Earth. Those things do happen in the film (more or less), but in much less spectacular fashions. There’s a frame where a model of a jetliner suddenly stops being a model of a jetliner and is instead a modest detonation, and later on there’s a bomb that goes off, off screen, near a large-ish boat. On film, those incidents are limited by the production’s budget–but not on the poster. I love the film–love it!–but I might just love the poster even more. It’s like the director’s cut: what Ralf Thomas would have done if he’d had Broccoli and Saltzman money to work with.

Another German poster I love is the one for Lightning Bolt. After first seeing the image in The Eurospy Guide (whose caption points out the unmissable and nearly unbelievable phallic imagery of the swimsuit-clad girl perched atop the hero’s giant gun), I purchased the poster long before I’d ever seen the movie. Once again, there are explosions. There’s even a rocket launching! The poster played its own movie for me, and it was one I loved. When I finally saw the film Lightning Bolt, it certainly didn’t let me down. (I quite enjoyed it, in fact.) But it also didn’t live up to that poster image. How could it? While the second half of the film really made the most of its limited budget, the first half showcased mainly plywood sets and those ubiquitous Eurospy walls made of curtains. (There are no curtains on the poster.) The rocket launch, naturally, was a piece of grainy stock footage rather carelessly inserted into the proceedings. There are other Eurospy posters that I’ve bought and still haven’t gotten to see the movies of, but that doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the poster images. I sincerely doubt that Password: Kill Agent Gordon can possibly live up to the incredible one-sheet (though I’d dearly love to see it try!), and while the authors of The Eurospy Guide are fairly dismissive of Goldsnake, that didn’t stop them from using its iconic poster artwork as the cover to their book–or stop me from buying the poster! It won’t stop me from watching the film, either, whenever I finally get the chance. But for now, the poster tells its own story. Segretissimo is a poster I haven’t been able to get my hands on yet, but from the tiny, tantalizing jpegs that I have seen, I want to acquire the poster just as much as I want to see the film!

My point is that it’s possible to capture everything wonderful about Sixties spy movies in two-dimensional images, and that’s exactly what Kevin Dart has done in Seductive Espionage. The spy posters he’s created–French, Japanese and UK Quads–painstakingly capture the spirit of the Sixties spy phenomenon. Dart’s ultra-cool style, laden with jittery brush strokes and ragged line work, isn’t an approximation of famous Sixties poster artists like Robert McGinnis or Frank McCarthy, but each layout might well have been for a real movie poster, and Dart perfectly captures the nuances that differentiate the advertising from each of those different countries. He’s created an ideal synthesis of actual Sixties movie poster styles and his own style.

The power of Seductive Espionage goes well beyond artwork alone. This is the rare art book that you will actually want to read through from cover to cover before returning time and again to flip through admiring the pictures. Ada Cole has created text pieces that tell the whole story of this series that never was, this ultra-popular series of Japanese spy films about the adventures of female secret agent and fashion icon Yuki 7. The history of the films comes out through snippets of biographies and autobiographies of directors and producers, magazine clippings of interviews with actresses and costume designers and more. And Cole is as painstaking as Dart in her attention to detail. One magazine excerpt, for instances, tells how hundreds of Japanese girls went to fortune tellers to divine where the next shipment of Yuki 7 communicator earrings would arrive! The peculiar subtlety of the anecdote rings entirely true. Such a story would fit seamlessly into a volume like John Cork’s and Bruce Scivalli’s James Bond: The Legacy, which is full of comparable anecdotes about the height of Bondmania.

Speaking of Bondmania, Seductive Espionage captures that as well. In the book’s parallel universe, Yuki 7 became nearly as big a phenomenon as 007 himself. (Yuki 7 actress Kimiko Suzuki tells the fashion magazine Elan about meeting Sean Connery at the Academy Awards, and the interviewer asks Suzuki about the possibility of a crossover between the world’s most famous spies.) Yuki 7 inspired as many weird merchandising tie-ins as James Bond (remember James Bond Bread? I think there’s an ad for it on one of the DVDs), and Seductive Espionage devotes pages to these as well, thus incorporating the work of other artists into Dart’s world. There’s a photograph of a Yuki 7 feather duster created by Elizabeth Ito. Did James Bond ever inspire a feather duster? Not that I know of, but such a product certainly wouldn’t have been beyond the realm of possibility in 1966! We’re also treated to a page from a Yuki 7 comic book, illustrated by Bill Presing in homage to Jim Steranko’s classic wordless seduction sequence from Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #2. The references come fast and furious, and it’s a real treat for fans of the genre to spot them.

The book is divided into chapters on Yuki’s films, focusing mostly on the first four entries–the classics: A Kiss From Tokyo (1964), Danger is a Female (1965), Roman Rendezvous (1966) and To Catch a Temptress (1967). Each one gets a plot summary, production artwork, costume designs and more–along with chapters focusing on the memorable villainesses or similar subjects interspersed throughout. Best of all, both the plot descriptions and the posters themselves each recall plenty of other spy movies. Danger is a Female, with its underwater settings (and its year) clearly invokes Thunderball, but also more than a little Deadlier Than the Male with the poster prerogative focused on bikinis and spearguns. The title itself is a nod to Death is a Woman, another classic bikini-and-speargun poster–and another poster (the Japanese version) that I bought without having seen the movie. Deadlier Than the Male also informs the artwork for Roman Rendezvous–and why shouldn't it? There are plenty more iconic moments in that film to reference! To Catch a Temptress comes the same year that Danger: Diabolik was made (but not released), and features both a masked antagonist and a number of improbable heists... on top of the obvious Hitchcock reference. It also seems to reflect the ninja craze popularized that year in You Only Live Twice.

While there were some standout Japanese spy films in the Sixties, like Black Tight Killers and Age of Assassins, more of the touchstones for Yuki 7 appear to come from European spy movies. But making Yuki a Japanese series enables Dart and Cole to incorporate the seemingly disparate influences of Japanese pop culture as well, which only makes the whole endeavor all the more fascinating.

Seductive Espionage: The World of Yuki 7 actually manages to channel the Sixties spy zeitgeist better than almost any other attempt I’ve seen, in any medium–and that includes Austin Powers. Dart’s passion for the art and films of the period comes through in every brush stroke–and in his informative notes on the creation of Yuki 7 that wrap up the book. (He lays bare his whole creative process, from thumbnail sketches through the final painted images.) This is an endearing tribute to the genre I love, and instantly one of my favorite books related to the subject. It’s sure to pop up on my year end best-of lists, and would make a great Christmas present for anyone into spies, graphic design or Sixties pop culture in general. But Christmas is still five months away. In the meantime, if you’re reading his, chances are you're a fan of Sixties spies. So what are you waiting for? Go buy this beautiful book right now! You will not be disappointed. Seductive Espionage is available from the publisher Fleet Street Scandal for $25, along with various cool pieces of Yuki 7 memorabilia like prints and T-shirts. And if you're attending Comic-Con later this week, look for Kevin Dart at the Fleet Street Scandal booth.

Check out more images from Seductive Espionage on Kevin Dart's blog.

Read Jason Whiton's interview with Dart at Spy Vibe.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: Hitchcock And The Unit

According to DVDActive, Warner Home Video has announced a new DVD edition of Alfred Hitchcock's immortal spy classic North By Northwest–as well as the title's Blu-ray debut! The 50th Anniversary Edition contains all of the features of the previous edition (including a commentary track by screenwriter Ernest Lehman), as well as "Cary Grant: A Class Apart" and the new documentaries "The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style" and "North by Northwest: One for the Ages." The Blu-ray edition comes packaged in 44-page book "full of photos, film facts and insider information." The DVD will retail for $24.98; the Blu-ray for $34.99. Both come out November 3.

Meanwhile, Fox has announced The Unit: The Complete Giftset, collecting every episode (on nineteen discs) of the prematurely cancelled covert ops drama from The Shield creator Shawn Ryan and playwright David Mamet. It comes out September 29, the same day as the series' Complete 4th Season, which is also its final season. The Unit: The Complete 4th Season will also be available on Blu-ray. It contains the same impressive assortment of commentaries, deleted scenes and featurettes that have marked all the previous seasons.
Raymond Benson Reveals Cover Art For Second James Bond Anthology

James Bond author Raymond Benson has revealed the cover art on his website for the second anthology of his James Bond novels from Pegasus Books, now titled Choice of Weapons. The eye-catching artwork nicely complements that of the first volume, The Union Trilogy, published last year. Like The Union Trilogy, Choice of Weapons will also include a real treat for Bond fans: two rare Benson short stories, "Live At Five" and "A Midsummer Night's Doom." The former was first published in TV Guide (a 1999 issue with Pierce Brosnan on the cover promoting The World Is Not Enough) and the latter in Playboy; this will be the first time either story has been collected in book format, making this edition a must for collectors! Benson's first Bond short story, "Blast From the Past," appeared uncut for the first time in The Union Trilogy collection. There is no word yet on whether these two short stories will also be expanded in the new collection. For all I know, they may not have been cut to begin with. "Live At Five" was an extremely short story owing to TV Guide's limited page allotment. I jumped straight to the short story news because those are the rarest inclusions in this book, but the meat of the collection is three Benson novels: Zero Minus Ten, The Facts of Death and The Man With the Red Tattoo. Between the two volumes, all of Benson's original Bond novels will now be collected and back in print, which is great news! Perhaps if sales remain high, Pegasus will publish a third anthology containing his three movie novelizations, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day... Personally, I love the idea of these anthologies, and I'm really glad that they present an affordable way to keep Benson's Bond novels in print. I'd like to see a similar reprint program bundling John Gardner novels together in such omnibuses. Choice of Weapons will be out in spring 2010.

Benson also mentions in his latest update that he will be teaching an adult Continuing Education course on James Bond at the Oakton Community College in Illinois. The six-week course on the history of Bond is called "The James Bond Phenomenon." Benson reveals that "students will view films and read books and explore the world of 007 and his creator, Ian Fleming." Chicago area Bond fans take note. It would be pretty cool to take a class on 007 from the author of what I still consider to be the definitive book on the subject, The James Bond Bedside Companion.

Jul 17, 2009

Dorado Reveals New Eurospy Cover Art

Dorado Films have released artwork for some previously announced upcoming Eurospy DVDs. The company, now paired with a larger distributor, will get its first wave of DVDs into stores on October 27, among them a reissue of their previous release of the 1965 Ken Clark 077 film From the Orient With Fury (Agente 077 dall'oriente con furore). It may not be the best of Clark's 077 films (that would be Special Mission Lady Chaplin, also slated for re-release from Dorado in the near future), but it's still a fantastic example of Eurospy cinema–and the whole series is essential for fans of the genre. Also set for future release (but still without a date) is the ridiculously fun Eurospy/superhero hybrid The Fantastic Argoman, a masterpiece of the fumetti genre–or, as I like to call it, the costumed adventurer genre. This movie is highly recommended, and judging from the excellent quality of their past releases (and from that cover), Dorado's disc looks to be a vast improvement over the unauthorized version that's been floating around. Read my full review of The Fantastic Argoman here. Thanks to DVD Sleuth for the heads-up on this news.
Tradecraft: Goodman Reports To Station

Variety reports that Ben Stiller is producing a new spy sitcom pilot for Fox. According to the trade, "The Station revolves around a group of lackluster CIA operatives at a covert South American outpost, where they're charged with installing a new dictator. [Goodman] will play Ted Gannon, a gruff CIA vet and head of its Altamara Station." Justin Bartha, Whitney Cummings, Rob Huebel and Julio Oscar Mechoso round out the cast. It's about time we had another spy comedy. This sounds like a good idea, and it's got talented people behind it. Role Models director and former State man David Wain is directing.

Jul 16, 2009

Tradecraft: The Ludlum Connection... To Taken

Well, this isn't a spy movie per se, but the story involves the cool convergence of two of the of the biggest names in contemporary spy movies (box office-wise, at least): Variety reports that Captivate Entertainment (the company behind the Bourne films, formerly Ludlum Entertainment) will team up with Taken director Pierre Morel. The film, Pursuit, isn't a spy story, but the trade promises that it is "in the same elevated action-thriller genre" as the Robert Ludlum thrillers in Captivate's library. Apparently the company is eager to build their brand beyond Ludlum's novels with original properties in the a similar vein. Which is awesome! I just wish they'd require that all their films have Ludlumesque titles. All you have to do is add a name before "Pursuit!" Since the project is "based on the early career of conflict photographer Jason Howe, who fell in love with a woman while on assignment in Colombia, only to discover she was an assassin," you just call it "The Howe Pursuit!" Hm, maybe not quite the right syllabic ring. In any case, the director of Taken (and one of the key movers and shakers in the neo-Eurospy genre) is a good match for the rights holders of the Ludlum library.

The story concludes with a snippet on Taken 2: "Morel said that he and Luc Besson are taking their time trying to come up with a sequel to Taken, which became a surprise hit earlier this year."
Upcoming Spy Screenings In Los Angeles

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art will screen a double bill of rare spy films starring James Mason on Friday, July 31. At 7:30 the museum will kick things off with Joseph Mankiewicz's 1952 WWII espionage dramedy 5 Fingers, in which Mason plays a social-climbing valet in the British embassy in Ankara plotting to sell Allied secrets to the Germans. His machinations get him pursued by agents of both sides. 5 Fingers is followed at 9:30 by The Deadly Affair, Sidney Lumet's excellent 1966 adaptation of John Le Carré's novel Call for the Dead. Mason plays George Smiley, only Columbia couldn't call him Smiley because Paramount owned the rights to the name for their film of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, in which Smiley plays a relatively small part. So Mason's Smiley is called Charles Dobbs. But he's quite excellent in the role, and local Le Carré fans should definitely make a point of catching this screening.

Neither movie is available on DVD in the United States, although The Deadly Affair is available in Britain and 5 Fingers is available in South Korea.

Visit the LACMA website for more information on this screening.

Read more about 5 Fingers in The LA Weekly's piece on the whole James Mason retrospective.

Read my whole review of The Deadly Affair here.

Jul 14, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Leverage

Leverage: The 1st Season, out today from CBS/Parmount, may be an obvious attempt on the part of cabler TNT to copy USA's superior Burn Notice, but it's still loads of fun in its own right. Basically, it's a modern-day take on Mission: Impossible in the same way that Burn Notice updates the old Saint formula. Timothy Hutton leads a team of various experts in different fields (hacking, fighting, burgling, acting, etc.) to commit elaborate cons against myriad bad guys week after week, just like Peter Graves did all those years ago. It's actually much closer to the M:I formula than the Tom Cruise movies that officially continue the brand! The DVD is a surprisingly feature-laden affair. All thirteen episodes include audio commentary and deleted scenes, for starters. There are also a number of featurettes on the making of the series, the fights, the stunts, the cameras, etc, as well as some short comedic features. Leverage: The 1st Season is currently selling for nearly 50% off at Amazon.

Jul 13, 2009

DVD Review: Callan: Set 1

Note: Normally I like to profusely illustrate my DVD reviews with screen captures, but I wasn't able to make any from these DVDs for some reason. Apologies for the dense block of text!

Acorn Video fills in a crucial gap on any spy shelf by finally bringing the esteemed 1967-72 Edward Woodward series Callan to DVD in the United States in the form of Callan: Set 1. Callan has a great reputation as a true classic of the genre–specifically of the downbeat, realistic subgenre. And in the late Sixties, amidst other British spy shows like The Avengers, The Champions and Department S, downbeat and realistic were qualities that stood out. I’m happy to report that Callan fully lives up to its reputation: this is high quality espionage drama. In fact, it’s on par with the more highly regarded and slightly less hard to see Seventies classic, The Sandbaggers–and quite possibly even bleaker in its world view than that series.

David Callan (Woodward), like Harry Palmer, finds himself forced into the dirty business of espionage. And he’s in the dirtiest part of it: an assassin for a highly secret section of the Security Services known simply as, well, "the Section." Only jobs of the most unpleasant nature come the way of the Section: problems that need fixing with no margin for error and no time for moralizing. Callan reports to a boss known as Hunter, but like "M," "Hunter" is a name assigned to whoever occupies that position. Callan reports to at least four different Hunters over the course of the series, but in these episodes (the first color episodes, comprising season three of four), he’s played by William Squire. Also in the section is James Cross (Patrick Mower, ubiquitous in Sixties and Seventies spy TV), a younger, leaner operative, eager to prove himself better than Callan, but also eager to be mentored by him. The Section is based in what appears to be a very drab basement, and all we ever see of it are Hunter’s office, the dismal antechamber where his secretary, Liz, serves as gatekeeper and occasionally the firing range where the armorer makes sure Callan keeps in good form. It’s true that limiting the regular sets like this keeps things cheap, but it also feels right for the Section as presented on the show. It’s a dirty secret, used when necessary by men with windows in their offices, but best forgotten about the rest of the time. Shooting the interiors on video (standard for lower budget British shows of the period) lends the shabby rooms and even seedier feel, which also seems appropriate. These are seedy men doing the seedy jobs that the government occasionally needs done. (The filmed exterior shots aren't in great shape, but are certainly easier to adjust to than the videotaped interiors, as with The Sandbaggers.)

In The Sandbaggers, it’s never in doubt that Neil Burnside believes that the job he’s doing is worthwhile and for the greater good, even if his methods often aren’t. In Callan, though, I’m not so sure. Series creator James Mitchell (who wrote for the more serious early seasons of The Avengers before creating the character of Callan, about whom he wrote several novels) seems almost disdainful of the espionage establishment, and when Hunter and Cross get to plotting on their own in the second episode, "Summoned to Appear," one gets the feeling that they might actually be evil men who have found the ideal profession for their personalities: one which lets them kill with impunity and ruin lives. Squire’s reptilian features and Mower’s general oily smarm lend further credence to this point of view, but despite their darker tendencies, both men have more redemptive moments as the series continues. Cross, in particular, becomes much more likable through the course of a strong character arc. No one’s motives on this show are black or white; every character is a fully-realized and fully flawed human being.

Callan himself is the most moralistic, and questions what the Section does more than the others, yet he still goes along and does those things. One suspects that it’s all he knows how to do. And even as Callan disapproves of the ways in which Hunter manipulates people for his own ends, so does he manipulate the dimwitted Lonely (Russell Hunter). Lonely is a none-to-bright and hygienically-challenged cockney crook, and Callan uses him (and "uses" is certainly the right word) again and again on his assignments. Lonely, of course, has no idea that Callan is any sort of spook; he thinks that he’s a big-time criminal. Ironically, this twenty-five time repeat offender is probably the most well-intentioned character on the show. Callan’s relationship with Lonely is complex. He has an almost fatherly concern for his well-being and resents it whenever Hunter wants to hang Lonely out to dry, yet he will himself put Lonely in all sorts of dangerous, life-threatening predicaments–and isn’t above using force to do it. He’s also short-tempered with Lonely, who certainly suffers the most from Callan’s mood swings. Callan must do as Hunter orders him, no matter how much he disapproves, and he frequently takes out his frustration on poor Lonely, further down in the pecking order.

Callan enjoys the same relationship to The Equalizer that Danger Man/Secret Agent does to The Prisoner. It doesn’t matter if Number 6 is really John Drake and it doesn’t matter if McCall is really Callan; what matters is that in both cases the earlier programs provide intertextual baggage for the audience that helps establish the later characters. Since The Equalizer’s McCall (also Woodward) seems so intent on atoning for the sins he committed in his espionage career, Callan’s sins could easily qualify. The character is never comfortable with the dirty work he’s forced to do.

Unlike most other British spy and adventure shows of the period, Callan features ongoing storylines and characters who grow and change. It’s not strictly a serial (the main plot of each episode is wrapped up–though rarely neatly–in an hour), but it does benefit from watching in order–with one glaring exception. I already mentioned that Acorn (like Umbrella before them in Australia) has opted to start with Callan’s third season (despite the moniker Set 1). From a commercial standpoint, this makes some sense. The first two seasons are in black and white, and several episodes from them are lost (that awful British television practice of "wiping" old programs rather than preserving them for posterity). Furthermore, the quality is said to vary more on the existing black and white episodes, which do circulate as bootlegs. But from a story standpoint, the first color episode is actually a terrible place to start. "Where Else Could I Go" is a direct continuation of the last episode of the previous season, which evidently ended on a rather explosive cliffhanger. Apparently Callan was programmed to kill his boss (ala James Bond in Ian Fleming’s The Man With the Golden Gun) and indeed succeeded in murdering the former Hunter. The first episode deals with the fallout of that action, and with Callan’s subsequent rehabilitation and the effects of his protracted absence on Lonely, who manages to get himself nicked (of course) without his guardian angel. Callan pulls strings to get him out on bail, and Lonely’s legal troubles will remain an ongoing plotline throughout the season, eventually dovetailing (in quite a satisfying manner) with Callan’s own spy activities.

The second episode, "Summoned to Appear," is a much better introduction to Callan and his world. It also showcases the kind of utterly bleak plot that typifies this series. At the very beginning, Callan and Cross are keeping tabs on a suspected foreign agent at a suburban train station. In a fatal mix-up, Cross accidentally kills an innocent man in front of witnesses–and the spy gets clean away. In many spy shows that would be the end of the matter, and the focus of the episode would be on tracking down the spy who got away. But Callan, firmly rooted in the real world, goes a different direction, and the episode follows Callan being hauled into the police station to make a statement as a witness. In order to keep his partner, Cross, and the Section out of the spotlight, Callan has to make a statement that contradicts that of the other witness, an understandably hysterical local woman. He also has to surreptitiously cast her reliability into question. Lies on top of lies spin out of control, and Callan eventually finds himself having to commit perjury in court for the good of the department. That doesn’t bother Hunter one bit, but it weighs heavily on Callan, particularly when he discovers this his testimony, alleging that the unfortunate victim killed himself, could result in the man’s widow getting no insurance money. Callan may be a show about an assassin, but the climax of the episode is a moral dilemma rather than an action scene. This is typical of the series.

"The Same Trick Twice" delivers more traditional spy tropes than many Callan episodes; it begins with a prisoner exchange at a border crossing in Germany and ends with violence, and there’s a even beautiful blonde somewhere in the middle. But none of it is remotely glamorous. Again and again, Callan reinforces its central thesis that spying is a very dirty business. Two British prisoners are returned from the East, and Callan immediately informs them that he’s been "authorized to look after you" for the next few weeks. One of them is fine with that, but the other isn’t, realizing that it means interrogation at the hands of the British. The dissatisfied one, Surtees, immediately goes on TV and announces that he was blackmailed into spying for Britain, creating a PR nightmare for the Security Services. Hunter acknowledges that such a claim is not beyond the realm of possibility, but the thing is, neither MI5 nor MI6 have any records of him ever actually working for them! (I assume, at least, that the irritating Bishop is supposed to represent MI6; when Callan himself demands to know who he works with, he’s met with a circuitous torrent of vague euphemisms–which seems accurate!) Callan needs to get to the bottom of the situation, and isn’t above roughing up a private citizen on committing a little breaking and entering with Lonely along the way. He remains, as is often the case on this show, a step or two behind the enemy at all times, and once again innocent people have their lives ruined–or ended, acceptable collateral damage in the games being played between the East and the West.

In "A Village Called ‘G’," Hunter’s secretary, Liz, suddenly goes missing. She’s a "red file" like Callan, which means that she knows too much. (The set-up reminded me of The Moneypenny Diaries, in which an administrative assistant with too many state secrets in her head is frequently put in dangerous positions.) The whole department immediately goes on high alert. "I like Liz," says Hunter. "It would be best if you brought her back unhurt."

When they’re on their own, Cross clarifies his interpretation with Callan, his usually cold veneer clearly ruffled: "He’s saying we can kill her."

"If we have to, yeah," acknowledges Callan. Cross asks if Callan would really do that, and Callan snaps at his young colleague. "How the hell should I know? It hasn’t happened, has it?"

This is a very well directed episode, introducing some artsy flair to a season that’s previously offered fairly workmanlike direction. Besides unusual camera angles, it’s also an important turning point for the character of Cross, whose veneer starts to crack on such a personal assignment. It turns out he’s been involved in a highly illicit relationship with Liz, and the only way that Callan can think of to extricate his young colleague from that situation (which, needless to say, goes against Section policy) involves publicly humiliating–even emasculating–him. The audience's conception of who Cross is begins to change. It’s also an episode that takes a lot of left turns from its initial premise, with the story eventually involving Nazi war criminals and the Israeli secret service. There’s also some welcome humor amidst the characteristically bleak proceedings. Hunter’s interim secretary, for instance, doesn’t take well to Callan calling her "Luv," as he always did Liz. "But what else am I meant to call you?" he asks.

"Suddenly–At Home" is probably the most downbeat episode in the whole season. Callan becomes involved with a civilian woman, which in this sort of series you just know can’t end well–and it doesn’t. Once again, the series spotlights innocent lives destroyed by the games that governments play. The plot involves a French TV producer (who dresses like Jason King–and even wears his mustache) who’s previously interviewed Castro, Mao, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh offering £10,000 to the widow of a deceased foreign secretary to tell her story on his program. The government, of course, is afraid that state secrets will come out, so the Section gets involved and Callan is sent round to do whatever’s necessary to keep her from doing the show. This episode contains another very important moment in Cross’s arc, and forces the audience to further reconsider their initial opinion of this callous killer. When Callan explains to him that Lonely thinks they’re crooks, Cross seems embarrassed. "Why?" asks Callan. "Think what we do’s any better? Better than thieving?"

Cross is defiant. "I think it is, yeah. I think it’s important. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t do it." Cross, who on the surface appears to have far fewer scruples than Callan, actually does operate by some sort of moral compass, and believes in what he’s doing. Callan rarely gives the impression that he does. This episode showcases Callan’s own more violent instincts, and we see him, motivated by revenge, kill for his own satisfaction even when Hunter, for once, has forbidden it. We’re also treated to an action scene that represents the show itself pretty well.
At one point, Callan and Cross make a (very) slow-speed getaway after an assassination, cranking their way up the side of a building in a window-washer’s rig. Callan is by no means without action; it’s just that when it occurs, like everything else in this series, it’s of a far more real-world variety than Bondian chase scenes.

In "Act of Kindness," the Section pulls its weight in the private sector. Two men are up for the job of general director at a company that manufactures tractors: Prescott and Land. Land receives some photographs of the married Prescott in a very compromising position while on a business trip to Moscow. (Callan features a surprising amount of full frontal female nudity for its era–in still photos, at least. Many episodes involve blackmail photographs, and blackmail photographs sure couldn’t look like that on American television, even today!) The photographs should assure Land the position, and he’s clearly the better man for it, as well as being very moral and an all-around good guy. But Callan’s job is to help the reprehensible, chauvinist Prescott secure the position, because he is, in fact, an MI6 asset. (A well positioned one, given his frequent business trips to Moscow.) Callan wants Cross to handle this job, because he’s already put in for a few days’ leave to attend a model soldier convention. Model soldiers are Callan’s passion, and his hobby is a very humanizing character trait. It also happens to be Land’s hobby, hence Hunter’s choice of operative.
 
Callan befriends Land at the convention by making a particular soldier that Land had been advertising for in a hobby trade. The two men hit it off, and play war games against each other. They position their troops on small-scale terrain, roll dice and move them accordingly. The lead soldiers advance across the battlefield in stop-motion animation, which is a neat touch. Their battle–and friendship–continues after the convention, and the wealthy Land invites Callan to play wargames at his house, where he has a special room set up for it. Callan is highly impressed. But Land’s onto him. As they strategize against each other, he makes some pointed remarks about spies before finally calling Callan out for what he is.

Land wants to use the photographs to expose Prescott for the jerk that he is. And he plans to pursue the general directorship. Callan’s job is to talk him out of it. Otherwise, Cross might get his way. Cross argues that they should kill Land if necessary, and Hunter is willing to go along with it. Callan plays out an elaborate game of strategy both against Land–whom he likes very much–and his own department to try to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion for all involved. There’s very little action beyond the mock battlefield, but this was probably my favorite episode of the bunch. Callan comes off as very human in it, much moreso than most TV spies.

"God Help Your Friends" returns again to the series’ favorite theme of innocent people crushed in the cogs of international intrigue. When the daughter of a British general who also happens to be a high-level interpreter with access to government secrets (played by Stephanie Beacham) gets herself engaged to a communist sympathizer suspected of leaking secrets to Moscow, it’s up to the Section to break off the engagement. Callan is assigned to the guy, and Cross to the girl. The episode plays out like a macabre farce: spies sending flowers purporting to be from suitors and making phone calls from restaurants to lure jealous lovers. It could be a romantic comedy premise, but it’s deadly serious. The effects of these seemingly humorous actions, of course, take a very deep toll indeed on the innocent people caught up in their game. This episode actually uses score music at one point, which is highly unusual for the normally music-free series and stands out.

The eighth episode, "Breakout," really wraps up the themes and ongoing storylines of the season. As Lonely’s case finally goes to trial, Callan testifies as a character witness on his behalf with the upshot of Lonely getting off with twenty-five six-month sentences... served concurrently. The fact that that means he only needs to spend six months in jail confuses Lonely greatly, but he’s happy nonetheless. Of course, even now Callan is pulling the poor guy’s strings. He arranges to have him transferred to a high-security prison outside London where a KGB agent has recently been interned. The enemy spy turned himself in to escape Hunter’s dragnet. The man carries in his head a "death list" of British agents marked for termination by the Russians. Callan’s name is on the list. Obviously, from the Section’s point of view, he has to die before he can ever make contact with his controllers. Ironically, the one place he’s absolutely safe is in prison–and he knows it. Callan and his team, therefore, must pose as a KGB squad and break the spy out of British prison... with the ultimate goal of killing him. Naturally, there’s lots of action in a plot like this. When Hunter emphasizes that Russia thinks that Callan is a top man for his name to be on that list, it’s as close as he’ll ever come to saying as much himself, and would be a good ending for the season. But there’s still one more episode to go.

"Amos Green Must Live," which concludes the season, is unfortunately the only sub-par episode besides the first one, so things end on a bit of a low note. Still, the episode deals with interesting themes (race politics) and offers up the most action-packed finale of any Callan episode this season. The Section must protect a racist British politician from assassins. No one agrees with his politics, but that’s the job at hand. Callan has to become "the Man" and spy on the Black Power movement, going so far as to break into their headquarters at night. A good performance by guest star Stefan Kalipha as the primary radical elevates the episode, as does the bang-up conclusion in which assassins in gas masks shoot gas bombs into a country house before having their car blown up! Even Callan is involved in this action, bursting in, guns blazing, with his own gas mask. It’s a cool action sequence, but not really typical of the series. The heart of this season lies in the unimpeachable episodes two through eight; one and nine are merely dessert.

The only special features on Acorn’s release are a short text bio of Edward Woodword and some genuinely interesting–but also brief, and also text–"Callan Trivia." Even Umbrella didn’t go much further; the only thing you’re missing out on from the Australian release is a short interview with Woodward. But a show this good doesn’t need extras to spice it up. This is spy television of the absolute highest quality, and an absolutely essential purchase for genre enthusiasts. Here’s hoping that the first set sells well and Acorn ends up releasing every surviving episode, because Callan is riveting entertainment.