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.

1 comment:

David said...

Fantastic review. I haven't picked this one up yet, but it's definitely on the list.