Jan 30, 2009

Latest Neo-Eurospy Movie Opens Tonight In USA

Luc Besson's Europa Corp's latest entry in the neo-Eurospy genre they're single-handedly perpetuating opens tonight in North America. Taken, directed by Pierre Morel (District B13, cinematographer on the first Transporter), plugs the somewhat unlikely candidate Liam Neeson into the successful Transporter formula as a former spy who sets out on a mission of vengeance, using his unique skill set to track down and kill the people who have kidnapped his daughter–and seriously messing up Paris in the process. ("I'll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to!") The script is by producer Besson and his Transporter trilogy co-writer Robert Mark Kamen (Lethal Weapon 3). Goldeneye's Famke Janssen co-stars.
Network Offers Free Ipcress File Poster

Network's "Deal of the Week" this week is a pretty good one! The British DVD company is offering their two-disc Special Edition of The Ipcress File (that's the Region 2 PAL one that comes with the Len Deighton book and the John Barry soundtrack CD as well as loads of special features) for the greatly reduced price of just £12.99... and bundled with a special, limited-edition quad poster from the film's 2006 British theatrical re-release! Sure, it's a couple bucks more than it was during their big clearance sale last week, but it's still a great bargain–and that poster's mighty nice! The poster will come shipped separately, rolled in a sturdy mailing tube. Among the many extra features included on the DVD are: an exclusive interview with Michael Caine, a new exclusive interview with the great production designer Ken Adam, an audio commentary with director Sidney Furie and editor Peter Hunt, some sort of "comedy sketch" starring Phil Cornwell (huh?), a 1969 documentary called "Candid Caine," featuring star Caine talking frankly about his career, the original theatrical trailer, US radio commercials, a stills gallery Len Deighton's original novel, the soundtrack CD by John Barry, a dual-sided mini movie poster (separate from the full-size quad you'll get with this offer) and an introductory booklet by the author of Michael Caine: A Class Act. Whew!

Remember, you need a DVD play capable of playing Region 2 PAL discs to play this.

Jan 29, 2009

Movie Review: THE SATAN BUG (1965)

Movie Review: The Satan Bug (1965)

The Satan Bug has a good reputation and an excellent pedigree (written by James Clavell from a novel by Alistair Maclean, directed by John Sturges hot off The Great Escape), but ultimately it’s a convoluted, plodding affair without much to recommend in it.

The movie opens with a stiff, Joe Friday-type government agent in a hat landing in a helicopter at a top secret desert base called Station 3. Just back from Washington, he walks around and talks to enough other older men in suits and hats and lab coats that it starts to look like he might be our main character, which is not an appealing prospect. Fortunately, he’s abruptly murdered by some thieves who’ve pulled the old Trojan Horse trick and had themselves delivered into the secure top secret facility in crates. They make off with a deadly virus that’s been cultivated in the lab known as (you guessed it) "the Satan Bug" because it has the capacity to wipe out all life on earth and because there is supposedly no vaccine. Given this dire scenario, it’s clearly time to call in the real hero of the piece, former agent Lee Barrett.

We meet Barrett (Route 66's George Maharis) in a bongo club, which tips us off right away to the fact that he’s not like the Joe Friday guy who got killed. He’ s a different kind of secret agent, clearly more in touch with the counterculture. Consequently, he’s not real big on authority. "You rate rather high on insubordination," comments the official tasked with bringing this prodigal son back into the fold. Apparently, he’s been active in anti-war activities as well. "You’re quoted as saying that war had aged you so fast you were too old to play with toys," continues the serious-minded official. "Fired three months ago. Reason: emotional rejection of purpose of project." Sounds like the perfect guy for the job! The government man goes on to orchestrate a pretty neat trick in order to test Barrett’s loyalty, which he passes with flying colors. Evidently, he is the right man for the job.

It doesn’t take long for Barrett to get back to Station 3, whose security he was apparently once responsible for. He may not approve of what they’re doing there (cultivating viruses for germ warfare), but he definitely doesn’t want any of that stuff out in the world and in the hands of crackpots. After lots and lots of exchanging of names between more old white guys in hats ("You know Mr. Kavanaugh? Mr. Barrett?" etc.), Barrett conducts a thorough investigation of the crime scene and determines with Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning how it all went down. (The movie is at its best when Barrett demonstrates his cleverness.) He then risks his life to discover exactly what’s been stolen, and confirms everyone’s worst fears: the Satan Bug.

At this point, Anne Francis lures him away from the base to a nearby resort... but only, it turns out, to put him in touch with her father, the general in command of the germ warfare project (played by Dana Andrews). Of course, Francis and Maharis clearly have a past together. The general has received the usual sort of telegram from whoever was responsible for the break-in, claiming to have the virus and threatening a demonstration to show they mean business. Barrett spends some time recapping everything that he and we just learned at the base for the benefit of the general, and does all that name-dropping all over again rattling off the identities of all the characters in hats we’ve barely met. The general wants to know who’s responsible. "Take your pick," says Barrett. "The extreme Left, or the extreme Right." (Another one of those Men in Hats has his own theories on the subject: "A lunatic! With the kill of all times! It gives me the creeps. This whole operation gives me the creeps.")

The bad guys’ threatened demonstration turns out to be quite harrowing, and the film’s most effective moment for its impact. They release the virus in Florida. The Men In Hats back at Station 3 watch aerial footage taken of the infected area, and see bodies everywhere: in the street, in truck cabs, in cars or just having stumbled out of cars, even on a cabin cruiser off the coast. It’s like the scene in Goldfinger with all the "dead" soldiers at Fort Knox, only these people don’t get back up again. Unfortunately, such a chilling scene ultimately seems out of place in The Satan Bug, because it isn’t dwelled on and before long we’re back to old white men in hats trading names and acting frustratingly stupid as to how they proceed, but with almost no concern for what’s happened in Florida.

Interestingly, the villains are operating out of candy-colored suburban tract homes, which makes a nice change of pace from Ken Adam lairs. They dress up like fishermen, which makes them almost as ridiculous as the fact that one of them is played by Ed Asner–who just can’t come off that menacing, even when armed with a vial of deadly virus.

Normally John Sturges is a master of handling a large cast of characters in a clear manner, but that skill fails him here. Of course, usually he has casts of very recognizable stars populating every role, which helps set them apart. Here, he’s working with a cast largely made up of TV actors and character actors. Old, white, virtually identical character actors. In hats. As a fan of hats in movies, I never thought I’d say it, but there are too many hats in this movie! While the indistinguishable old men in hats bicker about various courses of action (all of which seem to amount to doing nothing as Los Angeles is threatened as the next target), Barrett and Ann (yeah, that's her character's name, too, only without the "e") have been captured and spend a lot of time riding around the desert in vans and station wagons. This renders the hero pretty much impotent for a good chunk of the movie, while his bosses consider him so "unpredictable" that his absence doesn’t even alarm them to the danger. Besides, they’re too busy radioing their other men with helpful instructions like, "Stay put!" and "Don’t do anything!" Which gives you a pretty good idea of the speed with which the plot unfolds.

The bland settings don’t help The Satan Bug, either. If its not drab conference rooms, it’s sprawling desert. Not majestic Spaghetti Western desert, either: scrubby desert. Eventually, the action shifts via helicopter to Los Angeles, but it’s too little too late. The scenes of the city’s last-minute evacuation don’t ring true at all. While the freeways are predictably jammed, the surface streets are entirely empty of both cars and people. Somehow I don’t think a frantic evacuation would play out like that. Barrett struggles with the villain for control of both the virus and the out-of-control helicopter they’re flying in over the city, but all that comes too late to really enliven The Satan Bug too much.

Maharis makes a solid enough hero, but he’s kind of bland and his role doesn’t give him enough to do. His flashes of Sherlock Holmes-like deductive brilliance are his best moments, but they stop as soon as he gets taken prisoner halfway through the film. Anne Francis is criminally underused; she’s undeveloped as a love interest, and frustratingly ineffectual at anything else... especially for the woman who played Honey West! I should also mention that not one but two plot points hinge on cars breaking down. Granted, they’re all American cars, but those were supposed to be built to last back in 1965, weren’t they? Especially in dry desert conditions, I would think.

Ultimately, the movie plays out pretty passionlessly, as if no one involved really put their heart into it. It also plays as stupefyingly square for its time. It’s essentially a slow-moving 1950s drama about Men In Hats paralyzed with indecision when they should be doing something, but that simply won’t work in the post-James Bond world. 007 had already changed all the rules for this sort of adventure. Despite a hero who’s very carefully designed to seem "with it," The Satan Bug is simply too stodgy for its era.
Tradecraft: Fleming Biopic Moves Forward

The Hollywood Reporter today reports that writer John Orloff has signed on to write the screenplay for Fleming, the Ian Fleming biopic in development at Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way production company for Warner Bros. The project originated at Andrew Lazar's Mad Chance, and they are still involved as well. Mad Chance first announced Fleming in the trades with a press release carefully timed to coincide with the announcement of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond in 2005. The last draft was penned by Damian Stevenson, who seemed to be taking the same approach as the 90s TV movies Goldeneye and Spymaker: The Life of Ian Fleming: eschewing most true details of the author's life and instead turning the movie into a thinly veiled James Bond story. Hopefully Orloff will approach things differently, since the true story of the life of Bond's creator is incredibly rich and has a lot to offer without embellishment! Orloff wrote the Daniel Pearl biopic A Mighty Heart in 2007, and previously worked on the stellar HBO war series Band of Brothers.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: Our Man In Havana

As with The Anderson Tapes starring Sean Connery, another Sony “Martini Movie” release has gotten by me until the last minute. They really need to do a better job promoting these waves! Anyway, Our Man In Havana, the comedic 1960 spy classic starring Alec Guinness and based on the novel by Graham Greene, makes its long overdue debut on Region 1 DVD next week, on February 3! This is one of the wrongly overlooked cornerstones of the genre (as well as the direct antecedent to John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama and John Boorman’s film of that book), and I’m so glad that that oversight will start to be rectified next Tuesday. This DVD belongs in any comprehensive spy movie collection, and I’m looking forward to adding it to my own!

In keeping with Sony’s other "Martini Movie" titles, extras are likely to be sparse (probably just a drink recipe), and retail is $19.94. (Although it's much cheaper at the usual online retailers, of course.)

Read my full movie review of Our Man In Havana here.

Jan 27, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Panther, Panther And Patrick

The unstop-pable Pink Panther returns this week in several new iterations from MGM--this timed to coincide with Sony's newest Steve Martin movie bearing that brand name and coming hot on the heels of MGM's big holiday release The Pink Panther Ultimate Collection. That set collected all the original films (save of course for that pesky Return of the Pink Panther; since that one was financed by Lew Grade and ITC, it's never been a part of the MGM library and is currently available on DVD from Universal's Focus Features. Too bad, because it's one of the best in the series!), all the cartoons and the first Steve Martin version--plus a hardcover book on the series. And it cost a pretty penny. This week brings some smaller, more affordable combinations of the contents of that big set, and the Blu-Ray debut of Blake Edwards' original classic with Peter Sellers and David Niven.

The Pink Panther Film Collection

The Pink Panther Film Collection contains the Peter Sellers classics The Pink Panther (co-starring Niven, Capucine, Robert Wagner and the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale), A Shot In the Dark (co-starring Herbert Lom and Elke Sommer), The Pink Panther Strikes Again and Revenge of the Pink Panther. It's also got a number of attempts to extend the franchise beyond Sellers' death including Trail of the Pink Panther (cobbled together out of some genuinely hilarious Sellers outtakes from the other films hung on a shaky framing device involving New Avenger Joanna Lumley as an intrepid reporter), Curse of the Pink Panther (with Roger Moore cameoing surprisingly ably as Clouseau; he's still the most successful pretender to Sellers' un-fillable throne) and Son of the Pink Panther (starring Roberto Begnini, with Licence To Kill's Robert Davi as the baddie). That means all you're missing from the larger, movie-wise, are Alan Arkin's shot at the title role in Inspector Clouseau (1968) and Steve Martin's recent attempt. Both of those are available individually.

While The Pink Panther is a heist movie and A Shot in the Dark is a murder mystery, both of them exemplify the same widescreen Sixties glamor as the early Bond films. Furthermore, they export the same brand of British Imperialistic nostalgia as 007, despite featuring a bumbling French hero. All of the other Panther movies are really fairly legitimate spy flicks, owing more to the Bond genre than to any police movie. Clouseau may be an Inspector or Chief Inspector in the Sûreté, but his assignments often take him from Paris to exotic locations all around the world and require him to go undercover, don disguises and even use gadgets. The most gadget-laden affair is Inspector Clouseau (which is really a full-on Bond parody), but that one isn't included here. I'm sure that most Bond fans are well-versed in The Pink Panther as well, but if you're not, chances are you'd like the Sellers movies.

The first film is a new Special Edition version that includes the Blake Edwards commentary track, trailer and other documentaries available on the previous edition as well as the new featurettes "The Coolest Cat in Cortina: Robert Wagner," "The Tip Toe Life of a Cat Burglar: A Conversation with Former Jewel Thief Bill Mason" and "Diamonds: Beyond the Sparkle."

The Pink Panther Classic Cartoon Collection

With a cover that nicely compliments the Film Collection, The Pink Panther Classic Cartoon Collection contains all six previously released discs of DePatie Freleng cartoons featuring the famous feline and his friends, as well as three others not available individually. While the original shorts did the occasional James Bond parody (the classic "Pinkfinger" comes readily to mind), my favorites have always been the "Inspector" cartoons. These are much more direct extensions of the film series, with an unnamed Clouseau squaring off against a variety of crooks, fiends and "mad bombeurs." Among the new discs is The Inspector, Volume 2, so there's even more of those antics to be found in this set than anywhere else. (Well, except that Ultimate set.)

The Pink Panther Blu-Ray

The original film makes its debut on Blu-Ray this week, with all the same features as the Special Edition available in the boxsets. It and all the others are also reissued on standard DVD with cool new covers.

Patrick Macnee in Dead of Night

In this 1977 TV movie follow-up to Trilogy of Terror, Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis directs three eerie yarns adapted by Richard Matheson. The middle one, "There's No Such Thing As A Vampire," stars The Avengers' Patrick Macnee in a Victorian tale of household vampirism.

Jan 26, 2009


DVD Review: Secret Agent Fireball (Var Man I Beirut) (1965)

Secret Agent Fireball is a terrifically entertaining little Eurospy film that has the distinction of belonging to two separate series of Sixties James Bond imitators: it’s both an "077" movie and a "Bob Fleming" movie, depending on the country you’re watching it in! It’s certainly not an "official" 077 movie (like the Ken Clark series), but in some territories it was marketed as such. In others, hero Bob Fleming (Richard Harrison) was known as Agent X117, further confusing viewers by alluding to yet another popular Eurospy series, the OSS 117 films. On Swedish label Fin de Siecle’s excellent new Region 2 DVD, Fleming manages to be both X117 and 077 at once; the English language soundtrack identifies him as the former while the non-removable Swedish subtitles clearly call him the latter. On top of that, the main character’s name is a clear allusion to James Bond’s creator, so the movie seemingly manages to invoke just about every spy series association possible. Clearly, it’s derivative, but then that’s the point with Eurospy movies. And Secret Agent Fireball actually acquits itself much better than certain others of its ilk. Within the realm of Bondian tropes, it manages an admirable originality as often as it directly rips off 007.

You know the format. Even if you’ve never seen a Eurospy movie, you know the format. Something bad happens (in this case, "Italy’s Peter Lorre" Luciano Pigozzi kills a scientist with a nifty little dart-shooting pipe), causing the Western spy chief to call in his best agent (um, or whatever agent he can get), naturally interrupting said agent’s attempt to make time with some beautiful woman.

And so we’re introduced to Bob Fleming (or, on the English soundtrack at least, "Bart Fleming..." What kind of secret agent name is that?), played by the good-natured but unremarkable Richard Harrison (Ring Around the World). As a former peplum star, Harrison has a good physique (and a kind of Ben Afflecky face), but that doesn’t exactly translate into a distinctive presence. For a spy, though, that’s a good thing, right? Wasn’t Alec Guinness rightly praised for "disappearing" as George Smiley, and leaving no particular impression? Well, Fleming’s not Smiley, so perhaps it’s a bit extreme to go comparing Richard Harrison to Alec Guinness at this juncture. But like all Eurospy heroes, Fleming is written with enough cocky swagger to make him a touch loathsome (and I wouldn’t have it any other way; it’s a trademark of the genre), so it’s really a good thing that Harrison exudes no excess of personality. When you get a truly exuberant actor in a Eurospy role, he usually comes off as a jerk. I’d rather be stuck next to Bart Fleming on a flight than, say, Joe Walker (Tony Kendall). (Then again, I’m not a woman. Women stuck next to Fleming on flights must endure wolf whistles and then, when they prove unresponsive, having those wolf whistles explained to them as being his "mating call.")

Anyway, Fleming reports to his boss for the standard briefing. The senior officer stands in for not only M, but Q as well, outfitting his agent with several gadgets. Among them are a pen that detects certain radio frequencies, another pen with a powerful laser capable of destroying doorknobs (they always choose weird things to demonstrate on in these movies, though a doorknob doesn’t come close to my favorite such moment, in Espionage In Tangiers, when a disintegration ray is used on a fireplace), and some Aspirin tablets with transmitter devices inside that still serve their primary function as well. "You can even use it for headaches!" the boss proudly reveals.

"That’s good," says Fleming. "I have a feeling the Russians are going to have a lot of headaches." Sadly, poor Fleming might have chosen his witticism more carefully, because ironically it’s him who ends up with all the headaches, setting some sort of Eurospy record for the number of times he gets conked on the head in the course of his adventure. And that’s noisy, because every karate chop (and there are a lot) in this film sounds like a gunshot! So the audience might be in need of some Aspirin after a while, too. But the boss is unfazed, doling out the tablets to Fleming in front of his curtain.

That’s right; I said "curtain." It's a curious thing I’ve come to notice in Eurospy movies: the bosses’ offices almost always have a curtain substituting for at least one of their walls. The productions apparently can’t afford enough walls, and for some reason it’s the boss’s office that always suffers! Is it just me, or does it seem like rather a bad idea to build a spy headquarters without walls? Anybody could be listening in on the other side of that curtain!

The Russians, on the other hand, appear to enjoy an excess of building materials. Their spy boss just happens to have extra balsa wood sitting around on his desk (stolen from the Americans, no doubt), which comes in handy when he wants to emphasize a point by splitting it with a swift karate chop! (That sounds like a gunshot, natch.) It’s a neat touch to see the enemy agents being briefed as well as the hero (and all the better because of the karate chop). It puts the two sides on roughly equal footing as they each set out in pursuit of the same MacGuffin. That MacGuffin turns out to be the designs for the Soviet H-Bomb, which might seem a bit old hat by 1965, when (as one of the characters points out) both sides already had it. But the writers were actually remarkably forward-thinking here, with the real concern being about those plans ending up on the international black market and falling into the hands of a third, less stable power.

The hunt for the H-Bomb plans takes Fleming and his Communist counterparts (whose numbers include Pigozzi and slinky femme fatale Wandisa Guida, of Lightning Bolt) to an odd nightclub where the entertainment isn’t just standard Sixties go-go dancing (or even a chaste Jess Franco-style strip tease), but female wrestling. The weird thing is the crowd reaction. As these two shapely women (one with startlingly hairy armpits) struggle for all they’re worth (and some of the moves look painful), the well-dressed, mixed-gender crowd laughs instead of cheering or even leering appreciatively. I guess the mere notion of female sport was hilarious back then.

An assassination at the nightclub leads to a car chase (with Fleming commandeering an ambulance) and the surprising revelation that the Hamburg police drive amphibious boat-cars! Yes, they manage to come in handy, but not in quite as spectacular a fashion as one would hope for.

Regular readers know that one of my favorite aspects of spy films is the thrilling locations, and Secret Agent Fireball treats us well on that account. After already visiting Paris and Hamburg, Fleming sets out for Beirut, which was a pretty cool looking city in the 1960s, with the appropriate exotic feel.

Fleming is met at the airport by his contact/driver, who gleefully shows off his car’s optional extras by setting fire to a car on his tail in a pretty unique manner. Shortly afterwards, the driver gets his own car chase, his taxi serving as a decoy while Fleming drives his much more photogenic Mercedes without incident. During this chase, filmmakers Ernesto Gastaldi and Luciano and Sergio Martino display the creativity that will serve them so well the next decade in their gialli–and that elevates Secret Agent Fireball above the more pedestrian Eurospy entries. They give us a clever and humorous variation on the old "carrying a pane of glass across the road" chase cliche. In Beiruit, it’s not glass but kerosene tanks that people carry across streets prone to car chases! With much more rewarding results:

Bob Fleming’s a risk-taker. When the only lead is a likely trap, he’s the kind of guy who walks into it anyway. "Don’t you care about your skin?" asks his colleague.

"Sure," says Bob. "But I’ve rented it to my country for $2000 a month." Please, Bob. Don’t you know it’s crass to discuss your salary?

The trap is a pretty cool one. It involves a weird moment where a corpse in an open coffin appears to be talking to Bob, but it’s really just coming from an off-the-hook phone receiver. The details aren’t important, but this leads to Bob being tied up with Lisa (Dominique Boschero), the professor’s daughter. (Did I not mention the professor? I really shouldn’t have to; there’s always a professor!) There’s a funny moment when he throws her an Aspirin (remember the one with the tracker?) that lands on the floor and mimes that she should swallow it. Poor Lisa looks just as repelled as you our I would if Richard Harrison tried to get us to swallow a pill that had just come from his pocket and was now on a dirty floor!

Fleming, meanwhile, uses his laser pen on his ropes behind his back. It’s a pretty risky move, considering he’s seen the beam disintegrate a doorknob! Luckily, it doesn’t take his hands off. He’s free to go off and steal a helicopter, which he uses to track Lisa from the air with the receiver in his watch. This leads to some great aerial footage of the city, but Bob should have stolen a better chopper... or at least one with a full tank of gas. Luckily, this one at least takes Regular, so he can fill up at a local gas station (well before 007 did this in Octopussy) before engaging in some exciting helicopter-versus-motorboat shenanigans.

I won’t reveal the fate of the microfilm, but (after some good twists and double-crosses and a hardliner who feels that Russian Communists have betrayed the Party) there’s a nice moment of detente at the end when Bob realizes that he’s been fighting on the same side as the Russians after all, since they all want to prevent the atomic secrets from falling into the hands of a more reckless enemy. It prefigures the similar ending to For Your Eyes Only by a decade and a half. Like Ian Fleming in his later years and like the producers of the Bond films, the makers of Secret Agent Fireball had a good grip on Cold War geopolitics and the sense that that ideological struggle alone wasn’t really enough to power their plot... and wouldn’t age well.

Secret Agent Fireball isn’t quite the cream of the Eurospy crop, but it’s emblematic of the genre nonetheless. Its action scenes are a cut above average, and it hits every mark you want from a good Eurospy movie. In a genre better loved for following a predictable formula than for transcending it, that’s pretty high praise. In fact, it’s easy to view as a template for the loving 2006 Eurospy parody/tribute OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies–even moreso than any of the actual Sixties OSS 117 movies. There’s a great, quintessentially Eurospy moment in the trailer for the sequel to Cairo Nest of Spies where star Jean Dujardin struts confidently through a poolside patio in swim trunks so snug lesser men would fear to don them. Not so Eurospy heroes. And Bob Fleming has a pretty directly analogous moment in Secret Agent Fireball, strolling poolside in his own crotch-hugging bathing suit, showing off his Peplem-toned body. Women in bikinis check him out appreciatively. "All they care about is your musk!" says his jealous friend. The scene is slightly repulsive, yet also slightly compelling and entirely appropriate. Like the movie as a whole, it’s the essence of Eurospy. If you like the genre to begin with, you’ll likely love Secret Agent Fireball.

And if you’re still on the fence about it, consider the fact that Fin de Siecle has done a phenomenal job with this DVD. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is top-notch (especially compared to the gray-market versions fans are used to seeing these films in) and the mono English soundtrack is great. I can’t speak to the Italian one, since there aren’t English subtitles. The non-removable Swedish subtitles aren’t an issue, though, mostly falling outside the picture area on a regular TV. And they occasionally lend an extra layer of amusement to juvenile minds, as when the Russians often shout "Satt Fart!" There’s even a bonus image gallery, featuring poster art, stills and lobby cards for the film from around the world, courtesy of Eurospy Guide co-author Matt Blake. One poster lies, "This man has no name! Not even a number!" Not true on either count! He has two names (Bob Fleming or Bart Fleming, depending on the translation) and two numbers (X117 or 077)! In America, however, I suppose the prospect of no name or number was seen as a better selling point for some reason. It’s great to get a glimpse at how these films were marketed. What more could a Eurospy fan hope for? I’m thrilled with this release, and I hope it’s just the first in a long line of Eurospy titles from this label.

If you have the means to play Region 2 PAL discs, you can either order Secret Agent Fireball from DiabolikDVD in America or directly from Fin de Siecle in Sweden.

Jan 25, 2009

Last Day For Network DVD Sale
Sorry; It's All Over Now!

If you've been biding your time snapping up PAL Region 2 spy movies cheaply (if you have the necessary equipment to play them, that is), bide no more! Network's 40% off sale ends today, so be sure to pick up that Danger Man soundtrack or Return of the Saint set or Bulldog Drummond double feature quickly! Click here for the sale.

Jan 24, 2009

Lipstick Feminism: Gender Roles In Deadlier Than The Male (Or: When Is A Speargun Just A Speargun?)

My review of Deadlier Than the Male took a divergent turn at some point, and became more of a Film Studies paper than a movie review, so I excised those bits to post separately as their own article. It’s a movie that deserves more discussion than a single review, anyway. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I revisit it.

A beautiful, tranquil coastal villa in Northern Italy. A man catches up on some work outdoors, overlooking the water. Suddenly, its surface is broken–by two Venus de Milos, blonde and brunette (Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina, respectively), rising out of it in tiny bikinis that show off their voluptuous bodies. They’re the perfect model of Sixties womanhood, but they’re carrying spear guns. The man has but a few moments to bask in their beauty, as they toy with him flirtatiously. Then they kill him.
This scene (which you can see recreated in screenshots here) from Ralf Thomas’s 1967 spy film Deadlier Than the Male (produced by the prolific Betty Box, one of the only female producers working in British cinema at the time–and one of the hardest working producers in the business) combines two classic Bond Girl moments: Honey Rider’s famous introduction on the beach in Dr. No, and Domino’s killing of Largo with a speargun in Thunderball. In doing so, it successfully subverts the established Bond Girl formula, and sets a tone for generations of action heroines to follow. This isn’t the classic femme fatale of film noir, using her whiles to manipulate men, and perhaps turning their own pistol on them. No, this is a new type of deadly female for a more sexually liberated era. These women strut confidently forward, completely at ease with their sexuality, their femininity on full display, blatantly brandishing the most phallic weapon of all, a spear gun. Without missing a beat, they penetrate their male prey, establishing their dominance in a traditionally male arena: killing. Within the first reel, we’re shown just how apt the title is. From here on in, these women are in control. They won’t be seduced; they’ll be seducers. Richard Johnson’s Bulldog Drummond doesn’t defeat Sommer by conquering her; he ultimately defeats her by denying her. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s clear from the moment of their introductions that Sommer and Koscina are the forces to be reckoned with in this film.

Only after seeing the anti-heroines in action are we finally introduced to Drummond, in the middle of a karate bout. Tough, charming, and in possession of the same distinct brand of masculinity as Sean Connery, this is the man tasked nominally with solving these murders and, more crucially, re-establishing male dominance in a world controlled by women. The odds are stacked against him. The deadly females have struck the first blow, made the first impression. He’s fighting with his hands; they have spear guns!

Ultimately, Drummond can’t hope to defeat Sommer and Koscina. He’s relegated to a battle with the fey Nigel Green instead, and even then it’s an intellectual battle and not a physical one. The two men square off in a life-size chess duel. Not only is this an iconic Sixties spy setpiece (one thinks of Steed thrust into a life-size board game on The Avengers, or The Prisoner’s human chessboard), but by employing giant robotic pawns to do their fighting, it sidesteps the normally requisite contest of strength between the hero and archvillain at the end of any spy movie. That realm still belongs to the women. Sadly, we never get to see a confrontation between Drummond and the ladies. (Of course, that would have been impossible, because in the context of this world, he would have had to lose, and we simply can’t have the hero losing!) His only victory over them, as mentioned earlier, comes by following the female lead of Lysistrata and denying Sommer sex. (And how masculine is that?) As the dominant force in the film, the two women can only be done in by themselves, and that is exactly what happens.

Drummond saves the day (I hope I’m not ruining anything by revealing that), but male dominance never gets the chance to prevail. The battle of the sexes ends in a stalemate at best, but the road has been paved for a new breed of femme fatale, one as comfortable kicking ass as using her sexuality. While Emma Peel and Honey West blazed the way on TV, Sommer and Koscina did it on film, serving as direct antecedents to the women of Seventies revenge flicks, or, later, the Charlie’s Angels movies and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

Jan 23, 2009

Movie Review: Deadlier Than the Male (1967)

Movie Review: Deadlier Than the Male (1967)

Deadlier Than the Male, a Bond-age update of Bulldog Drummond (its title inspired by the Drummond novel The Female of the Species), is my very favorite non-Bond spy movie. (And, as should be evidenced by this blog, I love spy movies!) It’s the best Bond knock-off ever, better than all its Eurospy ilk (enjoyable as they may be), and better even than its more famous Hollywood counterparts like the Flint movies. Of all the imitators 007 spawned in the 1960s, Deadlier Than the Male is the only one that can really go toe-to-toe with Bond.

Of course, even if the toes match, it only gets up to about Connery’s bow tie in production values. The Bond movies were so far ahead of anything else of their era, budget-wise and effects-wise, that all imitators pale in comparison. But of those imitators (and there were many), Deadlier Than the Male comes closest. Even on a relatively large budget for its genre, it can’t duplicate Thunderball’s underwater spectacle or You Only Live Twice’s volcano base, but it does manage to duplicate the style, the glamor and–most importantly–the wry tone of the Bond movies–thanks to the winning team of director Ralph Thomas, producer Betty Box and screenwriters David Osborn, Liz Charles-Williams and Jimmy Sangster (a Hammer stalwart). Other spoofs fell short because they attempted to lampoon what was already tongue-in-cheek (even at that stage), but Deadlier Than the Male manages the same level of playful self-parody that Goldfinger achieves. It’s sheer fun.

Chief among the movie’s assets are the very... assets that the global marketing campaign played up most: Elke Sommer (A Shot in the Dark) and Sylva Koscina (Hercules in the Haunted World). These gorgeous European actresses play a pair of sexy assassins, enforcers for the movie’s mysterious villain, Carl Peterson. (Yes, "Carl Peterson" hardly has the ring of "Ernst Stavro Blofeld" or "Auric Goldfinger," but that’s the name Drummond creator Sapper saddled his hero’s arch-nemesis with, so apparently the film’s scribes were stuck with it. The Ipcress File's Nigel Green makes the most of the name, relishing his role.) Sommer and Koscina play fantastically off of each other, and as good as Richard Johnson is as the hero, the movie completely belongs to these ladies. Sommer is the sultry, no-nonsense blonde Irma Eckman, and Koscina the playful kleptomaniac tease, Penelope. In a running gag, Penelope always steals Irma’s things, much to her companion’s annoyance. "And I told you before not to wear my negligee!" Irma chastises her at one point.

"Oh, I didn’t think you’d mind," pouts Penelope, hurt.

"I do mind!" snaps Irma.

In one of my all-time favorite opening sequences, Malcolm Lockyer’s memorable (and suitably Bondian) "Drummond Theme" plays as we open on a private jetliner, mid-flight. We’re introduced to the beautiful Elke Sommer in the temporary guise of a stewardess aboard said flight. She uses a trick cigar (handily hidden in her garter belt) to assassinate the CEO of a major corporation. Ever dedicated to overkill, she then covers her tracks by setting a bomb to go off on the plane, putting on a parachute, and jumping out! Cue the Walker Brothers’ iconic title song (the best Bond song ever not actually written for a Bond movie*), and the main titles roll as Sommer parachutes away from the exploding aircraft. Koscina (clad in a memorable bikini) pilots a speedboat below, and waves up to her descending companion as if she’s casually greeting her at the beach. There’s something sadistically–yet irresistibly–sexy about the way these women treat their deadly occupation as a lark. Sommer makes a perfect landing on the speedboat, and away they go. (I once had the opportunity to question Charlie’s Angels director McG on whether the opening of that movie was a conscious homage to Deadlier Than the Male, and he confirmed that it was indeed.) And so director Ralph Thomas sets the pitch-perfect tone for the movie to come.

The ladies’ next assassination is equally memorable. Together, they rise out of the Mediterranean onto the private beach of a luxurious Italian villa clad in jaw-dropping bikinis, an image sure to ingrain itself in the memory of any heterosexual male viewer. It’s an Ursula Andress double-act, but deadlier: these women carry spear guns. This vision of perfect beauty is the last one their hapless victim, Mr. Wyngarde, will ever see, as after a brief flirtation, they skewer him. "Oh! Poor Mr. Wyngarde," laments Penelope with concern immediately after firing her harpoon. This iconic scene formed the basis for the film’s successful worldwide marketing campaign.

Back in London, we meet our hero, Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, ably played by one-time Bond contender Richard Johnson. Drummond himself is not actually a spy, but an insurance investigator. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but if Eurospy movies are to believed, this was the closest profession out there to being James Bond. I’ve discussed the curious "insurance investigator" sub-genre of spy movies before, but of all of them, the Sixties Drummond films are at the top of the heap. In fact, Deadlier Than the Male could well have been the Top Gun of insurance investigator recruitment films. I’d be curious to know if their ranks swelled after its release in 1967. (Perhaps some enterprising grad student will one day draw a direct connection between Elke Sommer in a bikini and a drastic population increase in Hartford, Connecticut, but until then, we can only guess...) Anyway, we meet Drummond just as he’s polishing off a hulking opponent in a karate match, because in the Sixties that’s the sort of thing insurance investigators did. And Johnson looks suave doing it.

Drummond is called in on the case by his boss Sir John, played by Laurence Naismith of Diamonds Are Forever and The Persuaders! He’s told that his friend Wyngarde is dead, and instructed to look into it. Wyngarde was investigating the suspicious deaths of various CEOs insured by their company, including the one killed on the airplane at the beginning. His only clue is a minute fragment of audio tape Wyngarde was recording at the time of his death, with the mysterious phrase "ate the ruler and the ak."

No sooner is Drummond assigned to the case than he becomes the victim of several assassination attempts, including an exciting showdown in a parking garage in which he demonstrates not only a talent for survival, but also the ruthlessness of Connery’s Bond. Instead of the hapless thugs Drummond dispatches so easily, Peterson clearly should have put Irma and Penelope on the job! They’re showing a much better track record across town as they eliminate Leonard Rossiter, the only man who stands in the way of one of their boss’s extortion schemes. Like cats (and in Germany, the film was aptly known as Tödliche Katzen–"Deadly Cats"), they toy with their victims before each kill, bickering all the while. Played differently, their assassinations could power a horror movie, but Sommer and Koscina skillfully keep things light even as they paralyze their victim and then, while he’s unable to move a muscle, toss him to his horrifying doom from a skyscraper balcony. Their killing spree lies somewhere between your standard Avengers episode (which tended to chalk up tremendous body counts, but did so with such style that you hardly noticed) and a giallo; it’s a bit nastier than the former, but less harrowing than the latter.

As Drummond investigates the deadliness of these particular females and dodges death himself, his brash American nephew Robert (Steve Carlson) inflicts himself on his uncle. The role seems modeled on Robert Wagner’s role as David Niven’s nephew in The Pink Panther, and the situations that arise from Robert’s stay in Drummond’s flat mirror that movie as well–but succeed on their own merit. Carlson remains likable while assaying a rather thankless role unfortunately required of many British movies of the period to secure distribution in the States: the token American. (Even worse, the token American youth!) His attempted seduction of the gorgeous Virginia North (when she has her eye set on his cad of an uncle) makes for a welcome farcical setpiece, which culminates (naturally enough) in another one of those pesky assassination attempts.

Mistaken for his uncle, Robert gets caught up in the action–and tied up by Koscina’s Penelope. Koscina lightens the ensuing torture scene by playing it with an appealing, almost childish coquettishness. "We’ve so much to talk about... and do," she breathes, burning him with her cigarette. When he grunts in pain, she cringes, apparently contrite. "Oh!" she squeals breathlessly, "I like you, you know. And I would much rather be nice to you. But Eckman will be back soon. And she will be absolutely livid if you haven’t talked. So be a good boy, please?" She’s playing with a new toy–and indeed duly chastised for it by the sterner Irma. ("That is a very untidy job, Penelope, very untidy.") Whatever her motivations, you can’t really feel too sorry for Robert. The experience clearly isn’t without its pleasures.

In the film’s second half, the action shifts from Swinging London to beautiful, scenic Northern Italy, thanks to that clue about eating the ruler and the ak. It’s ideal Eurospy country–locations just as photogenic as the female stars–and that look great in bold Technicolor. Here we get yachts, speedboats, sports cars and a castle–all the luxuries one hopes for in a Sixties spy movie. Drummond, naturally, is captured in the course of his insurance investigation, and put to the ultimate test: can he resist the allure of the insanely attractive Ms. Sommer, in all of her pulchritudinous, black eyelinered glory? Fortunately he’s aware of her praying mantis-like mating habits, but it would still be a tough choice. Irma proves herself to be quite the proto-Xenia Onatopp.

So we’ve got beautiful women (in bikinis! with spearguns!), ingenious killings, impressive action and breathtaking locations. What else do we need to make this a perfect Sixties spy movie? Oh yes: a life-size, robotic chess set. In one of the quintessential Eurospy finales, Drummond finds himself doing battle with his nemesis on a giant chess board, dodging the looming, stylized chessmen as Peterson commands them to advance on him. (Several of these chessmen, which evidently sat around Pinewood for years after filming, end up in Scaramanga’s funhouse in The Man With the Golden Gun, visible behind Christopher Lee as he searches for his gun at the beginning of the film. I also spotted them, repainted, the the Sweeney episode "Queen's Pawn." I'm sure they've made quite a few cameos over the years.)

This is the movie that opened my eyes to the world of Bond beyond Bond; it showed me that there were still exhilarating places left to go once one had exhausted the Bondian canon many times over. It's the movie that inspired me to write a blog about the wider world of spy movies. It's sheer, unadulterated entertainment that delivers everything I could possibly ask for in a rollicking spy adventure–and delivers in spades. I love it as much as I love the Bond movies of its era. It's a movie I'll never grow tired of watching, and if you've never seen it before (yet are reading this blog), I cannot recommend it enough.

Deadlier Than the Male is mercifully (and surprisingly, given its undeserved obscurity) available on DVD in the United States from Hen’s Tooth video. There are unfortunately no extras on the disc, but the widescreen transfer is gorgeous (if not anamorphic)–as is the cover, which uses artwork from the American half-sheet.

The Region 2 DVD from Network makes up for America’s bare-bones edition by featuring nearly an hour of promotional material from the time of the film's release. There are interviews with the principal stars conducted by a rather silly, blinky British interviewer. They’re not terribly probing or informative (he inquires as to whether or not Elke Sommer is "for glamor in the movies" and asks Sylva Koscina why she has to wear a bikini so often), but they’re still fascinating time capsules, and Sommer is absolutely adorable. On top of that, we’re treated to some black and white B-roll of Sommer filming, Johnson waterskiing and Green snorkeling while on location in Italy. Each interview contains some amusing moments. When asked if its true that she plays a killer, Koscina coyly (and truthfully) distills the essence of her character, claiming, "Oh, but I’m very sweet you know! I kill in a sweet way! With a little smile and with a sexy voice!" and Carlson boasts that he "represents youth and vigor" in the film.

There’s also a pair of excellent vintage promotional featurettes shot on location which give us more behind-the-scenes footage (and more of the ladies in their swimwear), a trailer and (somewhat oddly) the mute, textless elements for the trailer. The featurettes are amazing, showing lots of on-set antics, including Thomas directing, Sommer doing her own hair and makeup, Carlson trying to impress some of his female co-stars with his guitar prowess (that's the youth and vigor he was talking about!) and Johnson conferring with Sapper’s Bulldog inspiration and co-author, Gerard Fairlie. We also see the stars being coached by fightmaster Bob Anderson (a man whose career stretches from Douglas Fairbanks up through Lord of the Rings and Die Another Day, for which he supervised Pierce Brosnan's fencing), rehearsing, and hanging out in their free time. Interestingly, they're allowed to wear their movie swimsuits even when at liesure. The producers really wanted those bikinis on camera whenever possible!

Network’s current version comes bundled as a double feature with the film’s sequel, Some Girls Do. Some Girls Do is enjoyable enough and well worth watching once, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the magic of Deadlier Than the Male–primarily because it’s missing the two key ingrediants to that film’s success. While Johnson returns, even the sexy Dahlia Lavi can’t replace Sommer and Koscina. The sequel also fails to capture the tone that makes the first film so successful, opting instead for a jokier formula that doesn’t gel right. Despite these detractors, though, Some Girls Do makes the ultimate special feature in a great Deadlier Than the Male package! If you have a multi-region DVD player and have the option, this is the version of the film to get. (And it’s on sale for a ridiculously low price through Sunday at Network’s site!)

Stay tuned for more on Deadlier Than the Male later today or tomorrow: Lipstick Feminism: Gender Roles In Deadlier Than The Male (Or: When Is A Speargun Just A Speargun?)

*Lead singer and driving creative force Scott Walker would eventually record an actual Bond song, "Only Myself to Blame" (written by David Arnold and Don Black) for end credits of The World Is Not Enough. The producers regrettably opted not to use it (they went for The James Bond Theme instead), but it did end up as the final track on the released soundtrack CD. The track has spurred a lot of controversy among fans over the years, but I think it’s great and would have been a welcome addition to a fairly lackluster 007 outing. It’s decidedly down-tempo, and maybe more appropriate to a truly downbeat ending like OHMSS or CR than to "I thought Christmas only came once a year," but it has a great world-weary spy edge to it. It’s not a good basis of comparison for "Deadlier Than the Male," though, which is much more in keeping with the classic, up-tempo Bond sound.