Mar 10, 2009

DVD Review: Flashman (1967)

DVD Review: Flashman (1967)

The hero is trapped in a helicopter, high over London. He grapples with the controls, but to no avail! They’re useless. The bad guy, back on the ground, is flying it by remote control. He plays with the hero, making the chopper swerve and dip a bit, coming a little too close for comfort to some tall buildings and a bridge. But that’s just for fun. His real aim is to destroy his enemy, and if he has to waste a perfectly good helicopter in doing so, so be it. You know this scene, right? It’s the opening of For Your Eyes Only (1981). But that’s not what I’m talking about! It’s also an early standout action sequence in Flashman, a 1967 Costumed Adventurer movie from Mino Loy and Ernesto Gastaldi, the team responsible for the Eurospy gems Fury In Marrakesh and Secret Agent Fireball! It’s another great example of how the Eurospy genre (or in this case its more colorful offshoot), which owed its very existence to the James Bond films, in turn fueled the Bond canon. Sure, it’s possible that Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum came up with the sequence on their own, independently of Flashman, for Roger Moore’s fifth 007 outing, but it seems more likely that one of them at least subconsciously remembered this sequence from the earlier, more obscure movie.

It’s a healthy cycle, and we still see it today: the unstoppable Bond franchise inspires countless imitators, and some of them turn out pretty good and inject something new into the genre. That, in turn, gets injected right back into the Bond films, and the creative cycle sustains the series. Right now it’s happening with the Bourne films. Some people complain that Daniel Craig’s Bond movies owe too much to the Matt Damon series, but they’re forgetting that there would be no Damon series without Bond. In the case of James Bond and his followers, it’s not a question of which came first. But the give and take between the two is a healthy one, allowing the imitators to exist and the Bond series to flourish. It’s also a big part of what I love about Eurospy movies. For all they take from James Bond, they give something back as well. It’s a two-way creative street.

So who is Flashman? Well, for starters, he’s not Octopussy co-writer George Macdonald Fraser’s like-named cad antihero, lifted from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and planted into a series of popular historical adventure novels (and even a film called Royal Flash). Nope, no relation. He’s yet another wealthy English gentleman (with the rather un-English name Count Alexei Burman, played by the Hugh Laurie-looking Paolo Gozlini) who dresses up in a gaudy costume to fight crime. (Why do the Italians always base their superheroes in London instead of Rome or–if they’re dead set on going abroad–New York, the superhero capital of the world? It’s kind of odd, as they British themselves have never really had much of a homegrown superhero industry.) Flashman doesn’t appear to have any special powers, per se (although he can jump pretty high), but the costumed pastime seems to ward off the ennui of a life of privilege. He lives with his sister in a large country house, and they each deal with the utter boredom of wealth differently. She dives headlong into the mad world of the mods, wrapping herself up in the latest in Carnaby street fashion and far-out make-up and face-painting (like drawing eyes on her cheeks... she’s that mod!) while he puts on a cape and chain mail and looks for trouble.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We don’t know who Flashman is when the movie opens. And we don’t begin with him. Instead, we begin with the villain killing one of those overly enthusiastic middle-aged scientists who always get killed (or kidnapped) for their inventions at the beginning of Eurospy movies. And if a Euro-baddie is killing a scientist, well then he must have an invention, right? Spot on! This one’s developed the world’s first successful invisibility formula! He’s only tested it on mice, but that’s good enough for this villain (played by Ivano Staccioli), who grabs it and blows up the lab. Then he heads back to his gang’s headquarters and prepares to make himself a human guinea pig. (He doesn’t trust this power in the hands of any of his minions.) Before chugging the serum, though, he begins casually undressing in front of his subordinates. If I were a small time hood and my boss started doing that, I think it would freak me out a little bit. But they’re nonplussed. I suppose the movie should be commended for even considering the clothing factor; it seems like oftentimes in movies people just turn invisible with whatever they’re wearing. And that does indeed apply to women in Flashman (later on one drinks the formula and it turns her and her gold corset see-through), but not men. Still, maybe it’s generations’ worth of Puritan American prudeness that’s been bred into me, but I think I would turn invisible first, then strip off my clothes rather than going the full monty in front of my gang. Not this guy, though! He strips off, then turns invisible.

Now, at this moment we should all pause and ask ourselves what’s worse: an invisible man running around London with no one to answer to–or a naked one? The combination is particularly alarming. If I owned a bank, I think I’d be almost as worried about unseen naked buttocks on my upholstery as someone slipping into my vault undetected. I know, I know; I’m fixating... but by stripping before turning invisible, Staccioli forces us to do that!

Once invisible, he runs naked to the nearest bank (as you do) and... holds it up. That’s right, he doesn’t use his powers of invisibility to slip in and out without a trace, but instead uses them to wield a visible gun and force the nebbish accountant who’s working late to fill up a few bags of cash for him. This sort of strategy creates the opportunity for lots and lots of guns and cigarettes and whatnot to be floating around on strings that aren’t quite as invisible as the people who are supposed to be holding the items, so that creates some inadvertent moments of hilarity. But Flashman is the sort of movie whose sheer unbridled enthusiasm easily sweeps you past any shoddy effects work.

Once the invisible man has snuck away, the bank guards find that nebbish accountant holding the gun and unable to account for the whereabouts of the money he was handling. He blathers on about an invisible robber, and naturally they suspect him. This is where the movie gets really cool: the accountant jumps out the window and goes on the run! All along, Flashman has been undercover as an accountant at this particular bank, investigating an altogether different (and coincidental) crime: a gang of beautiful women working at banks all over London have been secretly swapping out the real money for counterfeit bills. The hero is a master of disguise.

When next we see him, of course, he’s in his costume, adventuring. He follows the invisible man (how, exactly, is not made clear) back to his hideout and starts punching up the hired help. That’s when the villain tricks him into thinking he’s getting away in a helicopter, only for Flashman to climb aboard and discover it’s on autopilot. Cue the For Your Eyes Only Sequence.

It’s a surprising and effective way of introducing the hero, and pays off much better than Fenomenal, which kept us guessing practically the whole movie. In Flashman, we only have to go about fifteen minutes or so wondering who the hero is–and when it’s revealed, it’s unexpected and neat. After a dip in the Thames (escaping remote-controlled helicopters can be a wet experience), Flashman comes back to his home where a butler helps him change into his bathrobe while he’s still wearing his mask! It’s an amusing sight.

Meanwhile, as Flashman relaxes with his butler and sister, the usual idiotic police inspector, Baxter, is busy ignoring these reports of invisible people and trying to pin the crime on Flashman. He’s part Inspector Lestrade (the Dennis Hoey version) and part Chief Inspector Dreyfus. In fact, Flashman irritates him so much that he starts to develop Dreyfus’s famous facial tic! Of course, some of his annoyance is justified, as when Flashman kidnaps him and hauls him off to Beirut. You see, the invisible gangster has now hooked up with Alika (Claudie Lange), the gorgeous leader of the all-girl counterfeiting ring–and the two of them have set their sights on a wealthy maharajah in Lebanon.

The bad guys use their invisibility in a rather ingenious way to get their hands on the maharajah’s money, and his daughter, a princess, becomes imperiled. Cue Flashman to save the day. Problem is, she doesn’t know who this masked stranger who wears his underwear on the outside is–and she's a little freaked out. "He’s Flashman!" one of her guards tells her, excitedly. "Haven’t you heard of him?" The princess looks at him as blankly as you or I would and admits, "no."

I guess Flashman’s determined to make more of a name for himself, because he doesn’t give up on saving this princess. And she keeps getting into trouble. The villains revive a deathtrap so old that doesn’t turn up often in Eurospy fare, and tie her to the train tracks. "Hurry up!" demands Alika. "There’s an express train at seven and we have to leave her on the tracks." I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a villain so concerned about time tables as she tethers her victim, and I found that refreshing. Flashman determines (somehow) that the fastest way to get to her and save her is to run along the top of the train. I don’t follow his logic, but the plan gives him the opportunity to flounce along the top of the train cars just like Argoman. I guess these Euro-heroes really love running on top of trains!

The invisibility formula changes hands many times in the second half of the film, and even Flashman gets a go at it. He carefully strips out of his costume first, and neatly folds it before kicking some surprised bad guy ass. (He’s every bit as fastidious as you would expect of a confirmed bachelor who lives with his sister.) He also uses his invisibility to taunt Baxter in the Beirut police station. ("Someone’s twisting my nose!" the alarmed copper exclaims.) Later, to prove to the dubious Baxter that the invisibility formula exists, he puts the costume back on while still invisible, leading to the curious sight of an empty mask (no chin!) commanding the police what to do. (Examine the second picture and you'll catch onto how they did it...) Baxter is forced to admit defeat to his Lebanese counterpart: "What would my men think of me if I ordered them to arrest an invisible man in a superman costume?" He’s got a point!

That doesn’t stop him from still trying to arrest Flashman (which is rather unfair, since unlike Argoman, Flashman is only out to uphold the law), and the two inspectors show up on the beach in time to witness Flashman involved in a From Russia With Love-style boat chase. Only when the person he’s pursuing sets fire to the oil on the water, Flashman uses a handy parachute that he keeps under his cape to create a parasail, and soars over the flames. (He then lands in the water and has to swim to shore in a soggy cape, which must be slightly embarrassing.)

After all that, there’s still an okay beach chase to come and, of course, the finale where the hero gets the girl. Not Flashman, however. In fact, I’m not too sure that he likes girls. My suspicions seemed to be confirmed when the beautiful princess says she’s always wanted to go to London, and Flashman’s helpful sister says he’d be happy to take her... but the truth is he clearly wouldn’t. "My kid sister always goes too far," he grins. What's the joke? Oh, I get it...

Flashman isn’t quite as much fun as its cousin Fantastic Argoman, or as the Eurospy pictures this team was responsible for, but it’s still a blast. Despite a few questionable invisibility effects, the action is generally quite well done and there are some impressive setpieces. (Including, of course, the one that inspired James Bond.) It’s got great locations, beautiful girls and a catchy (if kind of hilariously annoying) theme song–all necessary ingredients for a successful Eurospy romp. And it’s filled with amusing dialogue from everyone from the two perpetually bickering police inspectors to the henchman with a penchant for stating the obvious ("He must have used the serum! That’s why we can’t see him!") to the wistful guard who, on observing the princess dangling precariously from a helicopter comments mournfully, "Everybody’s got helicopters. Even her." It’s hard to dislike Flashman.

Adding to the movie’s appeal, Fin de Siecle Media (the company responsible for Fury in Marrakesh and Secret Agent Fireball) has recently put out a great Region 2 DVD of it, complete with the terrific widescreen transfer we’ve come to expect of them and a gallery of posters. The disc is available from DiabolikDVD in the U.S. or, slightly cheaper, directly from Fin de Siecle.


Armstrong Sabian said...

"...To the wistful guard who, on observing the princess dangling precariously from a helicopter comments mournfully, 'Everybody’s got helicopters. Even her.'"

That's the funniest thing I've heard today. Another purchase to make!

Anonymous said...

Great Blog, Love this Film, anybody who wants to check it out before you Buy see below free streaming link

but if you like it PLEASE Buy the original DVD :)

Tanner said...

I can't vouch for that link and I didn't actually try playing it, but it DOES lead to a file named Flashman, so it SEEMS to be legit and not random spam, so I'm leaving this comment up. But I'll reiterate Marmike's admonition to buy the DVD if you really like the movie.