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.


Paul Bishop said...

WOW! Great post. Hope you're doing well!

Abe Lucas said...

Hey Tanner, I hope you picked up issue #10 of CINEMA RETRO (it's since sold out) because it had an extensive article on the film and an interview with Richard Johnson. Plus, Elke in her white bikini for the cover!

Delmo said...

Well done.

Did you get my reply about those rare Saint vids?

Christopher Mills said...

I am also a big fan of this film (surprise!), and agree with pretty much every word of your review.

I own the Hen's Tooth DVD, but as I do not possess a Region-Free player, I live in hope that someone, someday, will re-issue the film with an anamorphic transfer, and, hopefully, include its sequel.

Keep up the good work, sir!

Tanner said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Yes, CK, you bet I got that Cinema Retro the minute it came out! It was great to see so much written about Deadlier Than the Male.

If such an edition as you dream of, Christopher, ever does come out (and I dream of it too), I really hope that someone gets Johnson and Sommer (who both had plenty to say to Cinema Retro) to record a commentary track. I'd also love to see a full-fledged modern making-of documentary, especially with so much on-set footage already available to cull from.

Sorry I haven't had a chance to reply to your email yet, Delmo. I will later tonight. Thanks!

Ted said...

I snagged this DVD last year from eBya, it was delightful - reading your post makes me want to mix a good cocktail and fire it up again. I wonder how many of these semi-rare spy films from the 60s will ever see a Hi-Def release. With BluRay still mainly being used to release new movies (and well loved catalog films) it seems DVD is the format of choice for most of the old homing-beacon-and-bikini genre.

Here's hoping hi-def becomes cheaper and that well-loved cult classics get the upgrade they deserve. I'd love a copy of Deadlier than the Male that was given the camera negative restoration that Bond enjoyed!

Delmo said...

Finally saw it and enjoyed it immensely. Is there a soundtrack release available?

Tanner said...

I'm glad you watched it, Delmo. And also glad (but not surprised!) that you liked it. Sadly, there was no soundtrack release. The theme song, however, is available on a number of Scott Walker and Walker Brothers compilations (and probably on iTunes somewhere). Malcolm Lockyer's excellent "Drummond Theme" was issued as a promotional 45 single, which it took me years to track down. (Although I've seen a few come up on Ebay since then, so keep your eyes open!) The B-side was his also-good theme from the Michael Caine caper movie Gambit.

DorianTB said...

Having been a fan of spy movies (and Hitchcock films, too) since my older brother took me to my first James Bond movie as a little girl, I happened to come across DEADLIER THAN THE MALE on our local New York TV station on TV in the 1970s. I loved it, but I haven't had another opportunity to see it in years! Your delightful, detailed review brought back memories. I'll keep my eyes peeled for DEADLIER... in the event that a copy somehow comes my way. Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll turn up on TCM one of these days! :-) Looking forward to more!

Mark said...

A supreme example of the sex and death movie as spy comedy

Anonymous said...

Coming to blu-ray:


Fred James said...

I love this film ! A spot on review ! The women killers are the sexiest women in movie history the end ! a much better film than it was originally given credit for.