Feb 24, 2010

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

Well, the biggest spy DVD release this week (and certainly the biggest spy DVD release of the year so far–and, frankly, not likely to be surpassed in that capacity) comes from England, where Network unleashes the surviving episodes of the first two seasons of Callan–for the first time ever on home video.  Callan: The Monochrome Years marks the first time that these early, black and white episodes of this seminal spy series have been legitimately available to see since the Sixties.  I've talked a lot about how great the later, color seasons of this Edward Woodward espionage drama are, and these earlier episodes are no different.  They're every bit as good and every bit as gritty as the subsequent seasons.  That grittiness must have been a jolt when Callan first aired on British television in the late Sixties amidst must more fantastical spy fare like The Avengers, The Saint and Department S. Now, don't get me wrong; I love those shows too.  But I want to illustrate what a radical departure Callan must have been when it debuted!  While James Bond and his escapist cronies like Derek Flint and Matt Helm (and all the Euroguys, of course) had grittier, more down-to-earth competition on cinema screens from the likes if The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, there simply weren't many realistic alternatives on TV.  Danger Man and Man in a Suitcase were both serious spy dramas, but still ITC adventure series first and foremost.  Callan alone positively thrived on the seedier side of spying.  While it's a huge shame that so many episodes from these early seasons are lost, it's an even huger bit of luck that so many actually survive–and a gift to spy fans everywhere that Network has released them.  The company even secured the rights to include the show's de facto pilot, an episode of Armchair Theatre called "A Magnum For Schneider."  This is truly great television preserved on truly great DVDs from one of the best companies in the business.  Every time I mention Callan, I also mention "essential," and I promise you it's not an exaggeration.  These DVDs are essential.  And, luckily, they're also currently available at nearly half price on Network's website.  If you have the capability to play Region 2 PAL discs, get them! 

Here in America, we get another long-awaited spy drama on DVD: The Internecine Project, starring James Coburn as a decidedly un-Flint-like secret agent.  This has been available in England for a while, but not in a new, high-definition animorphic widescreen transfer, and not with extras like a half-hour interview with writer Jonathan Lynn, an audio interview with James Coburn's daughter and the film's original theatrical trailer.  The Internecine Project was first announced by Code Red way back in 2008; now almost a year and a half later it finally materializes courtesy of Scorpion Releasing, who I believe are somehow affiliated with Code Red.  Surprisingly, this extremely dark and brutal suspense thriller comes from Ken Hughes, one of the many directors on the 1967 version of Casino Royale.

Also out today on DVD and Blu-ray is one of the best of the surprisingly few spy movies released in 2009, Steven Soderbergh's industrial espionage comedy The Informant!, in which Matt Damon plays a spy as unlike Jason Bourne as imaginable.  He's Mark Whitacre, a delusional corn executive turned at times unwilling and always incompetent undercover man for the FBI.  (He asks to be called 0014, boasting that he's "twice as smart as James Bond.")  There's actually less spying and less comedy on display here than the trailers would have you believe, but the resulting film is nonetheless excellent.  I found Soderbergh's intentionally underlit (was it natural lighting?) cinematography annoying at times, but the clever script by Scott Burns and perfectly-utilized Seventies spy score by former Bond composer Marvin Hamlisch (not to mention a stellar performance from Damon) more than make up for that.  As is so often the case with Warner Bros. releases, DVD buyers get screwed out of an extra feature. The standard DVD features only deleted scenes; the Blu-ray features those and a commentary track with Soderbergh and Burns. 

Finally, I must mention an item crucially overlooked last week: another one of the best spy movies of 2009 (in fact, it might well have been my surprise top pick of the year had I ever gotten around to my best of list), the hilarious blaxploitation comedy Black Dynamite.  Michael Jai White plays a former CIA agent pulled back in by the Agency to investigate the murder of his brother at the hands of drug dealers on the streets of Los Angeles.  What is the CIA's interest in a drug murder?  You'll have to watch the movie to find out, as I wouldn't dare spoil the absolutely hilarious directions the conspiracy leads our hero.  Just as the new OSS 117 movies are to the Eurospy genre of the Sixties, Black Dynamite is in equal measures a parody of and a loving tribute to the Seventies blaxploitation genre, fetishistically recreating the period and the style of filmmaking, right down to intentionally visible boom mikes in a few shots.  While it's not a traditional, straight-up spy movie, anyone who appreciates the blaxploitation genre or good comedy in general should definitely check out Black Dynamite, which came out last week on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony.


Iron Mammoth said...

I have always loved Callan (and most of the other "seedier" spy-fi).

I have not seen many of the TV episodes, one or two of the later colour ones and I have the movie on DVD.

Anyway, I am patiently awaiting the postmans ring at the door with my Monochrome years box set.....

Rob Buckley said...

The monochrome B&W episodes of Callan are excellent - I prefer them to the colour ones in many ways (Ronald Radd is possibly the best Hunter, although William Squire is certainly neck-and-neck with him for the title; Anthony Valentine is certainly the best Meres and leagues ahead of Patrick Mower's Cross. The plots are also better).

However, I don't think they were total shock for British TV. While they were undoubtedly grittier than most spy fare at the time, The Avengers started off - when Ian Hendry was the lead and Patrick Macnee was just a shady supporting character - as a pretty gritty crime/spy drama (not much on YouTube to illustrate, but the titles give you an idea). Indeed, the creator of Callan, James Mitchell, was one of the original writers of The Avengers and Callan was in part a reaction to the direction The Avengers took in the Diana Rigg/Linda Thorson years, with Mitchell wanting to get back to those original roots.

Outside the genre, other British TV shows, such as John Thaw's military police drama Red Cap (see this clip for example), had equally gritty angles. And indeed, many of the one-off play strands that aired on both BBC and ITV at the time broached some difficult subjects - it's no surprise that Callan started off - as you mention - as an Armchair Theatre play called 'A Magnum for Schneider'.

It's definitely worth getting the Network DVD releases since "The Worst Soldier I've Ever Seen" only existed as an unedited recording block until now, and Network have actually edited it to recreate the original episode, which doesn't survive. It's actually quite an important episode, too, so well done Network!