Callan: Set 2
The last week in January is a huge week for new spy titles–especially spy TV. Foremost among today's many releases is Callan: Set 2 from Acorn Media. As I stressed in my review of Set 1, Callan is one of the cornerstones of the "serious" side of the spy genre. Simply put, it's essential viewing. What Acorn has released as "Set 2" actually comprises Season 4 of the show, but Acorn opted to begin with the first color season, which was Season 3, as Set 1, so now we have Season 4 as Set 2. That was only really an issue with the first episode of Set 1, which could prove a bit confusing to first time viewers as it resolves some cliffhangers from the end of the previous black and white season, which itself isn't included. (The surviving episodes of the black and white seasons are due out in England from Network next month, so maybe there's hope of seeing them here in American down the line.) Anyway, Set 2 is no less essential than Set 1. Edward Woodward remains a commanding presence in the lead, turning in some of his best work. All the essential supporting players from Set 1 return, including Russell Hunter as Callan's dimwitted chum Lonely, Patrick Mower as his calculating colleague Cross and William Squire as his reptillian boss Hunter. They're joined by Anthony Valentine as fellow agent Meres, a major presence in the black and white series who sat out the first color season. All of the acting is stellar, as are the tight, downbeat plots. This time around Acorn provides a valuable extra feature, as well, in the form of two audio commentaries by the late Woodward. Oh, and Callan kills someone with a speargun! Indoors, no less. Yes, I know I just established this as very much part of the "serious" spy tradition, in keeping with The Sandbaggers and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and speargun deaths reek of the more fantastical sort of espionage adventure, like Thunderball or Deadlier Than the Male. But I assure you, the speargun death in Callan is not only credible, but also gruesome. The speargun as spy weapon is thoroughly deromanticized. Callan: Set 2 is just as essential to a thorough spy collection as Callan: Set 1, and should be the first thing you buy out of this week's batch. (It's also currently on sale as part of DeepDiscount's Acorn sale.) Check back soon for a full review.
MI-5: Volume 7
One of the best contemporary spy shows (though it's got nothing on Callan) also returns today, with BBC Home Video's release of MI-5: Volume 7. (Or Spooks, as its known in its native country of Britain.) Season 6 was a real return to form for MI-5, and I can't wait to dig into the seventh season of this addictive drama. No character, no matter how beloved, is ever safe in this ever-changing cast, but at least right off the bat Rupert Penry-Jones returns once more as Adam Carter. Hermione Norris and Miranda Raison also reprise their roles from previous seasons, and Richard Armitage joins the cast as agent Lucas North. (Uh-oh! Longtime viewers will be aware the the addition of a new cast member usually signals death for one of the existing ones. Who will it be?) It's Peter Firth's crusty spy boss Harry Pearce, however, who has emerged as the series' true hero, and one of the only ones at this point who's been around since the very beginning. Just as Season 6 focused on Iran as the primary enemy in a season-long arc, Season 7 turns its attention towards Russia... and a rekindling of Cold War tensions. Special features on MI-5: Volume 7 include commentaries and various featurettes. Read my reviews of previous seasons of MI-5 here.
Action Man Collection
The Action Man Collection from VCI unites four near-lost gems of Sixties and early Seventies spy and caper action featuring such stars as Robert Stack, Jean Gabin, Stephen Boyd, Cameron Mitchell, Edward G. Robinson, Ray Milland, Martha Hyer, Jan Murray and Eurospy goddess Margaret Lee. Colorful heist movies Action Man (1967) and Day of the Wolves (1973) will likely appeal to Sixties spy fans just as much as spy movies The Big Game (1972) and Peking Blonde (1967), although the latter, a Eurospy entry from the writer of Help!, is undoubtedly the (ahem) spylight of this collection.
The spy gods at Network unleash one of the seminal Sixties spy series this week with their release of Danger Man: Series 1, starring the great Patrick McGoohan as John Drake. This set comprises the black and white, half-hour episodes. The subsequent hour-long episodes (known as Secret Agent in the US) have been available for a while in the UK on another Network release, but the half-hour series has long been out of print in its native land. Danger Man was the true beginning of the Sixties spy boom–and it's excellent. The half-hour episodes are my favorites. It was also the first Sixties spy work for such integral contributors to the genre as Ralf Smart (who created the series), Brian Clemens, Robert Shaw, Donald Pleasence, Honor Blackman and, of course, McGoohan. Network's six-disc set is a bit light on extras compared to some of their other ITC offerings (including their version of the later, 1964-68 hour-long series of Danger Man), but still pretty good: you get trailers, image galleries and, best of all, a "commemorative booklet on the making of the series by Archive Television Historian Andrew Pixley." If Pixley's previous "booklets" are anything to judge by, chances are good that this will be considerably more than a "booklet." Pixley's exhaustive histories included in sets like Adam Adamant Lives! or the hour-long Danger Man are full-fledged books, and the definitive word on the series in question. Danger Man: The Complete First Series fills in a crucial gap in Network's fantastic line of ITC titles. In America, the entire run is available in A&E's Secret Agent aka Danger Man: The Complete Collection. You can read my review of that set here.
This was actually out last week, but I missed it! Hot on the heels of a recent Region 2 release from a company called Second Sight comes an unexpected American release of the classic Michael Caine caper movie Gambit. That's right, it's not a spy movie at all, but fans of Sixties spy movies generally tend to be fans of Sixties caper movies, and this really is one of the best of them, ever. Plus, I would imagine most readers of this site also enjoy a good Michael Caine movie, so this rarity definitely bears a mention. Gambit is out in America as a Universal Vault Series DVD-R, burnt on demand in the style of the Warner Archives and available exclusively through Amazon. I'm not quite sure how I feel about this burnt-to-order trend. I was very excited when the Warner Archive began, because it created the opportunity for obscure catalog titles to be made available in high-quality transfers that we never would have seen otherwise. But now I feel like Warner and the studios who have emulated them are simply using the technology as an excuse to put out all of their catalog titles in lower quality versions than we would have gotten had they been released as legitimate DVDs. But maybe that's an overly pessimistic view. The fact is, the Home Video market absolutely sucks right now, and I'll take Gambit however I can get it! The ingeniously-plotted caper co-stars Shirley MacLaine and the great Herbert Lom. Buyers should be aware, however, before buying the Universal Vault version, that the Region 2 release includes a commentary track with director Ronald Neame.