Sep 30, 2009

Network Announces More ITC Soundtrack CDs
Including Music From The Saint and The Persuaders!

UK-based DVD company network, who over the past few years have produced a steady output of fantastic, multi-disc soundtracks for a number of ITC spy series including Danger Man, The Prisoner, Jason King and others, have announced a new wave of CD titles. Whereas the original releases were sometimes up to five discs and comprehensive, sometimes including multiple variations on the same theme, this wave will be comprised of single disc highlights from each of the box sets. Highlight CDs due out November 2 include Man in a Suitcase: Original Soundtrack Highlights, Danger Man: Original Soundtrack Highlights (drawing from the company's two separate sets covering the original half-hour series and the later hour-long show, known in the U.S. as Secret Agent), The Prisoner: Original Soundtrack Highlights, Department S: Original Soundtrack Highlights and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased): Original Soundtrack Highlights. Each of these single-disc releases will retail for £9.78, which makes them a good option for fans who really want all the key themes and a good flavor of the incidental score from their favorite series, but aren't obsessive enough to require every surviving cue available. (For those of us who are that obsessive, like me, the original sets will remain available.)

But the biggest news of Network's announcement is not the highlights discs. The real news is a two-disc compilation called The Music of ITC. Not only does this essential collection of cool music draw from all of the series listed above, it also includes "exclusive music suites from The Persuaders!, The Zoo Gang, Return of the Saint and The Baron that are not available elsewhere!"

While there are only four cues from The Persuaders!, I am thrilled to have even that! For years the only music available from that series has been John Barry's iconic theme! That theme is present and accounted for, as is the song that plays during the splitscreen chase scene in the first episode. Since Ken Thorne is credited, presumably that means the remaining two cues come from his score music. I'm also excitedly looking forward to the eight tracks representing Return of the Saint (Brian Dee & Irving Martin, John Scott and Guido & Maurizio de Angelis are the credited composers)! Other delicacies include eight selections from The Zoo Gang (consisting of both Paul McCartney's title theme and Ken Thorne's incidental music), three tracks from The Adventurer, seven from The Baron (Edwin Astley) and, finally, eight from The Saint (Astley again). The music from The Saint isn't described as previously unreleased, so I'm a little worried that might be cues already included on Astley's soundtrack album, but hopefully not... Overall, though, there are enough extremely rare musical treasures on this tracklist to have me positively giddy! I can't wait for this CD!

Of course, the hope is that the fact that Network is including these selections on this set means that they're hard at work on full-fledged soundtrack sets for each of these series, and this is only a taster. Here's hoping!
A&E's U.S. Prisoner Blu-Ray To Include All Of Network's Special Features!

Available to pre-order at half-price!

Alright, time to finally publish a post that's been sitting half-finished for nearly two weeks... Sorry for the delay on this one! For once, U.S. fans won't lose out in terms of an American release of a classic British spy show. Judging from a press release on, A&E appears to have ponied up the dough to license all of the amazing special features from Network's UK DVD release of the 40th Anniversary Collection. (Whose same content is replicated on Network's own recently released UK Blu-Ray set.) Most of these have never been seen before on a North American release. The amazing features I speak of include the impressive feature-length documentary “Don’t Knock Yourself Out” (boasting loads of interviews with all sorts of key production personnel), a featurette on the show's music with music editor Eric Mival (including "a unique look at the Music Bible for the show"), the restored original edit of “Arrival” with an optional music-only soundtrack featuring Wilfred Josephs’ complete and abandoned score, audio commentaries from members of the production crew on seven episodes, trailers for all episodes, commercial break bumpers, behind-the-scenes footage, PDFs of all the scripts and production paperwork, and loads of image galleries. On top of all that, there's also a preview of AMC's upcoming Prisoner remake, which this release is timed to coincide with. Furthermore, the packaging looks satisfyingly compact. Check it out at TV Shows On DVD. A&E's The Prisoner Blu-Ray Edition debuts October 27 with an SRP of $99.99. I'm pretty sure that's (substantially!) less than the company was selling the old DVD set for a few years ago. And—get this—Amazon is currently taking pre-orders at nearly half that price! Right now it's just $50.49!

Sep 29, 2009

Tradecraft: Queens And Ghosts

Variety reports that former Fox executive turned producer Peter Chernin has come aboard as a producer on Queen & Country, the film based on Greg Rucka's stellar series of comic books and novels. Other than that, the story doesn't tell us anything about the project that we didn't already know. , but I like to report any time that Queen & Country is mentioned in the trades as this is a project I'm really, really rooting for. It's one of my very favorite spy series ever, in any media, so I want to see the film done right! The trade reiterates the same logline the used last time, reinforcing my belief that the current screenplay appears to be based on a combination of the first comic book arc and the first novel. According to the story, Chernin will also produce a new Travis McGee based on the first book in John D. MacDonald's classic detective series, The Deep Blue Goodbye. Leonardo DiCaprio will star and co-produce. Hm. It will be cool to see Travis McGee revived on the bigscreen, and while DiCaprio seems a somewhat odd choice, I think I can see it... maybe. (Apparently, Bish feels differently!)

Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter reports that Pierce Brosnan's next spy movie, The Ghost, has been delayed by the arrest of director Roman Polanski in Switzerland. According to the trade, "Polanski's agent, ICM chief Jeff Berg, said Polanski had completed much of the editing on The Ghost. But other postproduction work, including music scoring and sound mixing, had yet to be done, Berg said." The film does not yet have a US distributor, which Polanski usually lines up after he finishes. Robert Harris, author of the novel upon which the movie is based, reiterates why he thinks Polanski is the perfect director for the material: "There's a lot of psychological intrigue in the story, as well as espionage and politics, and most of the action takes place in an oceanfront house during the middle of winter -- all of it classic Polanski territory." Brosnan stars alongside Ewan McGregor, Tom Wilkinson, Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall.

Sep 24, 2009

Tradecraft: Sleepers, Superspies And Deep Cover Operatives

Variety reports that CBS Films has acquired Sleeper Spy, "a fast-paced thriller script" by Anthony Jaswinski. Jeff Wadlow (Never Back Down) will direct. The only plot detail the trade provides is that "the thriller centers around the plot to assassinate a political figure." From the title, though, I'm guessing it also involves a sleeper spy. Maybe? Arnold and Anne Kopelson will produce.

According to Variety, Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) has joined the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz spy movie that was at one time called Wichita and still doesn't have a better title. (I really hope they don't just go back to Wichita out of laziness since that's all anyone calls it!) Dano will play the "charming but mysterious" inventor of the film's previously-revealed MacGuffin, a battery that holds the key to an infinite power source. I'm very curious about this film. It's starting to sound like a really fun, old-school Eurospy-style spy movie. And with Bond having gone so gritty (for better or for worse), there really aren't a lot of those around these days!

The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Syriana writer/director Stephen Gaghan has penned a new spy thriller. The vague and somewhat confusing logline reported in the trade is that the film centers on "an elite deep cover operative who becomes a Brooklyn beat cop and fights a global organization." Gaghan will direct; Shannon Burke co-wrote the screenplay. Lionsgate will distribute.

Sep 22, 2009

Michael Caine Hopes To Revive Harry Palmer One More Time

The ultimate online resource on all things pertaining to the Harry Palmer films, the aptly named Harry Palmer Movie Site, has uncovered an extremely exciting story: Michael Caine wants to revive Palmer, one of his most famous characters, who he portrayed in The Ipcress File, Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain back in the Sixties. All three films were produced by James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman. Caine already reprised the role twice in the mid-Nineties, in two subpar Harry Alan Towers productions, Bullet To Beijing and Midnight In St. Petersburg. Towers sadly passed away last month, and obviously wouldn't be involved in a potential new film. It appears that Caine himself may now control the rights to the character from certain statements he's been making to the press lately. According to The Canadian Press:

"There's a script which I like very much, which is called Cold War Requiem," said Caine, adding that Susan Sarandon was interested in playing his wife in the film.

"It's about an old spy from the '60s in the Cold War, who's now retired - just like me, an old guy. And his enemies come back to kill him because of what he did in those days. ... It's a very good thriller. it might get done, it might not."

He went into a few more details for WENN, confirming that this was indeed a Harry Palmer project:
"I have a script called Cold War Requiem, which is Harry retired and he's living out his fantasy in some middle class area in London and the guys who he screwed have now got rich and they've decided to come and kill him. I would like to get that done but we haven't got that financed yet."
"Harry Palmer" was a name invented for the movie versions of Len Deighton's bestselling novels about an unnamed agent. The novel Spy Story, about the same character, was filmed in 1976 by Lindsay Shonteff featuring a hero called Pat Armstrong (not played by Caine). Caine played a very Palmer-like character named "Harry Anders" in the 1992 HBO film Blue Ice. It's possible that Cold War Requiem might follow the pattern of Blue Ice and slightly change the protagonist's name, but I hope not. The name Harry Palmer carries a lot of weight for spy fans, and I would love to see Caine return to the role once more for a really good final entry, even if it's not based on a Deighton novel. I'd also love to see some of the author's other "Palmer" books like Horse Under Water and An Expensive Place To Die filmed as period pieces set in the Sixties, but that seems less likely and obviously couldn't star Caine.

Caine will next appear in the old guy revenge movie Harry Brown (for which I cannot wait!) and then play a small supporting role in Christopher Nolan's Inception.

Sep 18, 2009

Tradecraft: Vinnie Jones James Bond Howard Chaykin Chuck TV Stuff

Yeah, that's not much of a headline, I know. But that's how I talk in real life. Things having to do with things that I like tend to come out in blurts, usually with the words "James" and "Bond" somewhere in there, and occasionally with "Howard Chaykin." Ask my girlfriend. She puts up with that a lot. Anyway, that's also pretty much all there is to this article in The Hollywood Reporter: a few Bond references and a few other spy-relevant names dropped, but not much solid information to go on. Based on what is there, though, I'm excited all around! The trade reports that British footballer-turned-movie badass Vinnie Jones (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) will be coming to TV in two separate spy roles. The first will be a guest turn on Chuck as "an expert hitman with a soft side" named–hee hee!–Karl Stromberg. The second project elicits a more direct 007 reference from the star. "The untitled new series, based on an upcoming comic book series by Howard Chaykin, centers on Jake Noble, an international spy who teams with his long-lost daughters he never knew existed." Jones tells the trade, "I never really thought of TV before as a medium for me. However, with it becoming such a source of creativity these days, and this project with its modern James Bond style and feeling to it, I couldn't resist." Just as I won't be able to resist watching it. Chaykin, of course, is a top-notch comic book creator, a writer and artist whose spy credits include some Nick Fury issues and the 1981 For Your Eyes Only movie adaptation for Marvel. He's currently producing a very adult new take on 1930s adventure hero Dominic Fortune, a character he created decades ago. I haven't heard anything else about this upcoming comic book on which the show is based. The show, interestingly, doesn't yet have a network or syndication deal. Instead, twenty-two episodes will be independently produced. This is an interesting model we're seeing more often these days (the new Saint series is following a similar pattern for the time being, although the producers hope to pre-sell it to a network, I believe), and hopefully it will produce some creative results.
Movie Review: Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Like most Quentin Tarantino movies, Inglourious Basterds defies easy categorization. It is many genres at once: a spy movie, a Western, a revenge movie and, lastly, a war movie. It may be marketed as a war movie, but it’s more of a wartime movie than a war movie per se. There are no battles, no scenes on the front lines, and very few with men in uniforms. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a WWII picture with so few vehicles before! Most of the action of Inglourious Basterds takes place behind enemy lines, in Nazi-occupied France. The "Basterds" of the title are described as "an American Secret Service outfit" and operate entirely behind German lines. Under the leadership of Brad Pitt’s hillbilly sergeant Aldo "The Apache" Raine, the group of Jewish-American soldiers’ singular mission is to kill as many Nazis as possible in horrific ways, scalping their victims and spreading panic amongst the German ranks. Raine reports to the OSS, America’s wartime intelligence service and precursor to the CIA.

The British, meanwhile, send their own spy (Lt. Archie Hicox, Michael Fassbinder) in behind enemy lines to meet up with the Basterds and a beautiful German actress turned British agent (Diane Kruger) in order to carry out Operation Kino. Operation Kino is a plan concocted by General Fenech (Austin Powers’ Mike Meyers, as usual channeling a good dose of Peter Sellers) and Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor, totally unrecognizable from his Sixties spy days in films like The Liquidator and The High Commissioner). The goal is to take out a good chunk of the German high command when they attend the gala premiere of Joseph Goebbels’ newest Nazi propaganda film, Nation’s Pride. No one involved in it, however, is aware that the proprietress of the theater where it’s being held, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is a Jew hiding in plain sight with her own plans for revenge at the premiere.

Inglourious Basterds is divided into chapters, many of which amount to single, lengthy scenes, giving it the pacing of a play. (Or several loosely connected one-act plays.) The length of the scenes, of course, is quite deliberate. Tarantino masterfully builds the suspense to Hitchcockian degrees during the incredibly tense scene in which all the spies meet up under the eyes of a German officer.
Despite the play feel, the staging is anything but theatrical; in fact perhaps never before has any movie been so aware of being a movie! Tarantino piles on the cinematic references (including using the name of Eurospy director Antonio Margheriti as one character's alias) so fast and furious that they’ll delight any ardent cinephile. Tarantino is an artist, though, and his references actually add to his art. This isn’t just a blender of scenes ripped off from other movies. This is a filmic Finnegans Wake. The myriad references and allusions (of which I don’t pretend to have caught nearly all) add further layers to the story he’s telling, enhancing it for those who can recognize and appreciate them. Despite all these allusions, though, the film isn’t pretentious. In fact, it’s surprisingly light at times. When it’s violent, it’s brutal, but there are a lot of laughs in the film as well. Both from jokes and from violence so sudden, extreme and, frankly, desired, that the viewer can’t help but laugh. Audiences want to see Jews slaughtering Nazis. It’s great cinematic revenge for the worst atrocity of the 20th Century. Yet Tarantino anticipates our reaction, and gently scolds us for it while indulging us. Adolf Hitler (a deliriously cartoonish, swastika cape-wearing portrayal by Martin Wuttke) behaves the same way while watching the Nazi propaganda film-within-a-film. As the young Nazi hero of Nation's Pride slaughters American soldiers, Hitler laughs out loud. Just as we do when Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are punished. Above all else, Inglourious Basterds is about the power of cinema: its power to satisfy us, its power to allow us to vicariously work out our own aggressions, its power to surprise us by contradicting what we know. To be any more specific, sadly, would spoil the film–and it has one of the best endings in movie history, which I’d really hate to spoil!

Beyond being a great movie, there is even more here for spy fans to latch onto. While he’s publicly bitched about not getting to direct Casino Royale, and mooted the notion of making a trilogy of films based on Len Deighton’s "Game, Set, Match" trilogy, this could be the closest Tarantino ever gets to directing a full-on spy movie, and he can’t resist acknowledging the tropes of the genre. (Just look at the posters!) We get Brad Pitt in a white dinner jacket for most of the climax, including the movie’s funniest scene in which the Appalachian sergeant tries to convince the enemy that he’s Italian. We get beautiful women in sexy dresses packing pistols. We get another nod to a spy-like series of wonderful, pulpy novels, as one character reads a French copy of The Saint In New York, recalling John Travolta’s affinity for Modesty Blaise in Pulp Fiction. And, above all, we get gadgets. One of the basterds uses a glove pistol that fires a small caliber bullet at close range when he punches someone. I was thrilled when I saw this gadget in action in the film, because I remembered it from a book that I loved to thumb through when I was a kid called OSS Special Weapons and Equipment: Spy Devices of WWII by spy expert H. Keith Melton. (He later wrote a follow-up on CIA spy devices of the Cold War, but they weren’t quite as cool.) It was a catalog of 1940s spy gadgetry, and I just loved it. When I saw this weapon in the movie, I thought gleefully Tarantino must have read the same book I did! Then I realized, no, this is Tarantino, and this film is a cornucopia of movie references. Tarantino must have seen it in another movie. It’s probably just one of hundreds of film references I’m not getting, but they’re all working together so well that it doesn’t matter, and they’ll only make rewatching this masterpiece all the more rewarding in the future, with lots of layers remaining to be peeled back. Inglourious Basterds is one of Tarantino's best, and one of the best films of the year, for sure.

Sep 16, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Dangerous Knowledge

DVD Sleuth reports that UK company Simply Media will release the 1976 British spy series Dangerous Knowledge on Region 2 DVD next week. The six-episode miniseries stars John Gregson, Patrick Allen and Ralf Bates. Director Alan Gibson directed my favorite Hammer picture of the Seventies, Dracula A.D. 1972 as well as its sequel The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Gibson also directed the stellar episode of Hammer House of Horror that guest-starred Peter Cushing, "The Silent Scream," as well as episodes of Thriller and Quiller for TV, the latter of course a spy series based on the Adam Hall novels. And I only really mention that because I like typing "Thriller and Quiller." According to DVD Sleuth's description of the plot, Gregson stars as Kirby, an ex-Army Intelligence officer. "Now he’s a mere insurance salesman. Or is he? Returning from a trip to France, Kirby finds himself being shadowed by two agents and the ‘innocent bystander’ who helps him escape just happens to be the daughter of a spymaster." I've never heard of this before, but it sounds good! The Seventies were a fruitful decade for high quality spy TV coming out of Britain.

Dangerous Knowledge retails for £14.99, though has it for less.
Tradecraft: Archer, Tailor, Director, Spy

No, I'm afraid I don't actually have any news about tailors from the trades. But all the rest is covered.

We might not be getting that new Peter Morgan-scripted movie adaptation of John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy quite as soon as we thought. According to Variety, previously announced director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has said he plans to shoot the Nicole Kidman sex change drama The Danish Girl "before his previously announced John Le Carré adaptation, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for Working Title." Sigh.

In quite a different sort of spy news, Variety also reports that FX will air a sneak preview of a new animated spy series called Archer this Thursday night at 10:30 PM following the season premiere of the network's sitcom It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. According to the trade, Archer is "a spy agency where global crises are merely an opportunity for employees to antagonize each other." So, like 24 but animated! Archer features the voices of Aisha Tyler, Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell and Judy Greer. The actual series doesn't premiere until January, but the cable net hopes to build buzz by previewing it with Sunny, which it sees as " a strong companion to Archer."

Sep 15, 2009

Lots Of Spy Trailers On Upcoming Compilation

DVD Drive-In has a review of the latest cult movie trailer compilation from Synapse Films, 42nd Street Forever Vol. 5: Alamo Drafthouse Edition. And, apparently, it includes a slew of trailers for spy titles! Among them, the rare 1965 Eurospy spoof James Tont: Operazione U.N.O. (discussed at length in the DVD Drive-In review), Antonio Margheriti’s ridiculously fun 1966 Eurospy flick Lightning Bolt (aka Operation Goldman), and perhaps most tantalizingly, one of the Japanese spy films Woody Allen edited into his parody What's Up, Tiger Lily?, International Secret Police: The Diamond Trap. And that's not the only Asian Interpol import; there's also Mission: Thunderbolt (1983), about an Interpol agent fighting gangs. The description of this one on DVD Drive-In sounds pretty hilarious. Again, these are only trailers, not films, but it will still be great to have them preserved on DVD. Lightning Bolt is available in Region 1 (in beautiful widescreen, no less, and with the trailer as an extra), but the others are sadly not, so trailers are as close as we'll come to owning the films for now. As well as spy movies, the disc includes trailers for all genres of exploitation films from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties including barbarian movies, blaxploitation films, sex comedies and more.

Sep 12, 2009

Tradecraft: New Writer Boards Queen & Country Movie
New Rucka Novel On The Way As Well

I somehow missed this bit a few weeks ago, but according to The Hollywood Reporter, the Queen & Country movie is still on track! That's great news! Not having heard anything about it for a few years (when Leverage's John Rogers was penning the screenplay), I had assumed that the film adaptation of my favorite spy series was dead in the water. But the trade reports that the movie version of Greg Rucka's comics and novels starring British agent Tara Chace is set up at Fox, and that Ryan Condal, who wrote last year's Black List script Galahad, is penning a new draft. "The project," they helpfully remind those who haven't read Rucka's work, "centers on a female Special Ops agent who is on the run after carrying out a high-level assassination in Eastern Europe. Those familiar with the project have described it as a female version of The Bourne Identity. [Behind Enemy Lines director] John Moore had penned a draft of Country, which Jenno Topping is producing and Peter Kang is overseeing for Fox." Hm, from that description I'd hazard that they're combining the first arc of the comic series with the first novel, A Gentleman's Game, which really isn't a bad idea. But while A Gentleman's Game in particular offers a lot of action, Queen & Country really isn't Bourne. I hope that's just studio shorthand, and that Fox isn't actually turning the best modern example of the more "realistic" school of spy fiction into a Bourne clone! Rucka's stories owe far, far more to The Sandbaggers than to Robert Ludlum.

All this is particularly topical because Whiteout, a film based on another Rucka comic book (the very one that introduced readers to Tara Chace, in fact, under the guise of Lilly Sharpe) opens in U.S. cinemas tonight–unfortunately to less than stellar reviews. I've been excited for the Whiteout movie since it was first announced (and reported here) more than two years ago, so I definitely plan on seeing it and formulating my own opinion. But the reviews are a bit discouraging. I would really hate to see Rucka's brilliant Queen & Country, which I've previously called the best ongoing spy saga in any medium, turned into a less than brilliant film. So here's hoping that Fox and Condal have a good grip on the material!

The Reporter mentions that Nicole Kidman was at one point attached to the project, which "is seen as a vehicle for a strong female lead." Judging from the tense used, she's no longer attached. A couple of years ago, I picked my dream cast for a Queen & Country movie... and I stand by my choices today. (Click here to see them.) While Kate Winslet would be good (as a commenter pointed out on that post), I still think that Kelly Macdonald is the best woman for the job–and her star has risen considerably since then!

Even if a potential Queen & Country movie is still a long way off, Mister 8's Armstrong Sabian alerted me that Rucka has officially confirmed on his blog that he's hard at work on a new Tara Chace novel! So there's that to look forward to, for sure. Still missing in action is a third Whiteout graphic novel announced in 2007 and now nearly two years overdue, but that sort of schedule is par for the course with Rucka and publisher Oni Press. The good news is, it's always worth the wait!

Sep 11, 2009

DVD Review: George Lazenby In The Man From Hong Kong (1975)

DVD Review: George Lazenby In The Man From Hong Kong (1975)

As a fan of George Lazenby, I’ve wanted to see The Man From Hong Kong for some time now. But viewing the recent documentary Not Quite Hollywood–which features a lot of stellar clips from the film as well as an interview with Lazenby–really inspired me to finally watch it. A pariah in the mainstream American and British film industries after walking away from James Bond before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service even opened, Lazenby drifted around the margins of international cinema for most of the Seventies, making exploitation pictures in Italy, Hong Kong and Australia. While at the time that must have been frustrating for him, he actually ended up working in three of the most exciting international film scenes of the Seventies. The Italian horror market came alive when Dario Argento breathed new life into it with his seminal giallo, The Bird With Crystal Plumage. (Lazenby’s giallo entry was the somber Who Saw Her Die? in 1972) The Australian film industry was really in an embryonic phase, and prior to getting serious later in the decade with movies like Breaker Morant and Picnic at Hanging Rock, it emerged in the form of the wildly creative exploitation films celebrated in Not Quite Hollywood. And the Hong Kong film industry, of course, was enjoying its all-time zenith thanks to the kung fu craze sparked by Bruce Lee. Lazenby, always an impressive fighter (as showcased on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), signed a contract with Golden Harvest, the company that had made Lee famous, with the plan of starring opposite Lee in several films. Unfortunately, that was just before the star’s tragic and premature death. (In fact, Lee’s Wikipedia entry claims that Lee was due to have dinner with Lazenby the very night of his death.) Lazenby ended up starring instead with the likes of the great Angela Mao in Stoner, and the not-quite-as-great pretender to Lee’s throne, Jimmy Wang Yu in The Man From Hong Kong.

While his fighting skills are impressive (and seen to better effect in period epics like the Zatoichi films and the classic Master of the Flying Guillotine), Wang Yu simply isn’t as exciting to watch in action as Bruce Lee is, especially in contemporary settings. He’s also nowhere near as charming a leading man. It’s unfortunate that the film centers on such a charisma vacuum, but The Man From Hong Kong has enough delirious, gonzo fun going for it (thanks to ubiquitous Aussie action director Brian Trenchard-Smith) that it manages to overcome that handicap. It also affords Lazenby the opportunity to steal the show. Oozing with a confidence not seen in his 007 outing (my theory is that it comes from his impressive mustache, which could easily go toe-to-toe with Timothy Dalton’s Flash Gordon ‘stache), Lazenby relishes his villainous role and chews up all the scenery he can get his mouth on. He’s got swagger to spare (presumably the same swagger that did him few favors off screen amongst the Bond crew) and that comes through both in his fight scenes and his scenes of shouting orders at minions while modeling the best in wide-collared Seventies sleazebag fashions. His character’s arrogance when fighting Wang Yu’s Inspector Fang Sing Leng may come from the steel rods hidden in the wrappings on his fists or the army of henchmen ready to leap to his aid, but the fact is Lazenby stands his ground well against the trained martial artist, and doesn’t appear at all mismatched, as untrained Western villains sometimes do in kung fu movies. (Lazenby did have some martial arts training, and it shows.)

Lazenby’s drug kingpin, Jack Wilton, is introduced a half hour into the film wearing white karate garb with a musical sting very deliberately reminiscent of the James Bond Theme. (This isn’t the sort of film to shy away from in-jokes.) He’s the sort of guy who entertains his guests by shooting apples off of women’s heads with his crossbow. But he’s not one to leave all the fighting to his underlings. "I understand your culture," he says to Fang. "And your language. And your martial arts. Especially those." He goads Wang Yu into a fight at a garden party (under the guise of a "kung fu exhibition") by taunting, "I’ve never met a Chinese yet that didn’t have a... yellow streak." Of course, as soon as the tables turn against him, in rush his goons armed with rakes and hoes!

The ensuing melee is one of many highly entertaining action sequences in The Man From Hong Kong. I was grinning from ear to ear from the very beginning, a drug deal gone sour that leads to a chase and fight atop Australia’s famous landmark Ayers Rock. In his never dull audio commentary (with phoned-in contributions from others), director Brian Trenchard-Smith calls that opening "the most improbable drug deal that you could ever wish to concoct" and says that’s probably why he chose it because "much of the conventions of this film were to reflect the improbable and unlikely stereotypes of action movies at the time." I’m not sure "reflect" is the right word. The movie downright embraces all of the improbable and unlikely stereotypes of action movies at the time (with less intentional parody, I suspect, than Trenchard-Smith now takes credit for), and that’s what makes it so damn enjoyable!

Subsequent setpieces include more melees as well as closed-quarters fighting, a pretty spectacular (and lengthy) car chase, a short-lived foot/motorcycle chase (Wang Yu curtails the bad guy’s getaway plans by knocking him off his bike with a flying kick to the chest), George Lazenby on fire and enough hang-gliding to justify its prominent display in the film’s marketing. The scene where Lazenby (or rather, his jacket) catches on fire, by the way, it the subject of an amusing anecdote in Not Quite Hollywood. After the director demonstrated how safe it was to wear the specially treated, burning coat, the macho George certainly couldn’t turn it down. But when the cameras rolled, he couldn’t get the jacket off! The take used in the movie shows him desperately flailing about trying to get his arm out of the fiery sleeve, and the panic in his eyes isn’t acting. All subjects concerned recall that Lazenby was (justifiably) furious, and Trenchard-Smith claims the actor punched him following the take! Perhaps with the benefit of a selective memory, Lazenby himself denies hitting him, but a stunt man corroborates the story.

Fang is a cop so spectacularly unheeding of rules and regulations that he makes Dirty Harry and Jack Bauer look like champions of due process. To get an idea of just how flagrantly Fang violates the rules of his profession, consider that the Aussie man-bear who sports a remarkable afro/mullet combo and wears his belt around an untucked shirt or tunic, is by comparison the by-the-book cop! (He's the one on the left.)

While cutting his unchecked swathe of violence and destruction across Sydney, Wang Chu spends much of the movie in a blue and white version of Bruce Lee’s famous yellow and black jumpsuit. (It looks kind of like an Emmapeeler, in fact, but he doesn’t wear it nearly as well as Diana Rigg!) The forced comparison doesn’t do Wang Yu any favors, but his impressive fighting skills easily carry him through all the scenes where he doesn’t have to talk. When he does, he’s dubbed (by Roy Chiao, the actor who played Lao Che in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, according to Smith) in an inexplicable John Wayne drawl. I suppose the idea was to emphasize his rule-breaking, lone wolf personal, but it kind of makes him seem like a real jerk (Eurospy hero-style!) in exchanges like this one:

Girl: And do all police officers drive Mercedes?
Him: Only ones in the Special Branch.
Girl: And what’s so special about the special branch?
Him: Allow me to show you.

Cut to sex scene. (And resounding groans.) Trenchard-Smith admits his dialogue is "fairly appalling" but defends it by claiming it’s all "satirical!" Sure, Brian! Either way, it’s entertaining, even in the cringe-inducing moments. But the legacy of The Man From Hong Kong lies not in its dialogue or its acting; it’s in the action, which is uniformly spectacular. (Or possibly in its theme song, "Sky High" by Jigsaw, which is also spectacular and made more of a lasting splash than the film itself in America.) If you’re looking for thoroughly entertaining, well-executed, over-the-top action sequences of the mid-Seventies variety, this film delivers in spades. It’s easily one of Lazenby’s best non-Bond efforts. Furthermore, The Man From Hong Kong left such an unmistakable mark on the genre that it’s hard to shoot action in Sydney without paying homage. It’s influence can be seen in later Australia-set action movies like The Protector and Mission: Impossible II.

The R4 PAL Madman DVD presents a very nice widescreen transfer (certainly much better than the grey market versions that circulated in America for a while). It’s a two-disc affair with good extras–but not quite as good as you might be led to believe by the box. The box states that the second disc includes two bonus films by Brian Trenchard-Smith. What it doesn’t share is that one of those, Hospitals Don’t Burn Down, is an industrial short, made to promote fire safety in hospitals, while the other, Kung Fu Killers, is a documentary on Seventies kung fu and its practitioners. The documentary is actually very good, both on its subject and as a time capsule of the period. But the battered print is not restored or remastered, and it certainly isn’t a feature dramatic film as the omissions on the box might lead one to believe! Other extras are more what you’re expecting. The Australian and Hong Kong trailers are both top-notch. They’re well-cut trailers each with a distinct sort of Seventies voice-over, and they do a great job of conveying the tone of the film. If you don’t have time to show your friends the whole movie, both trailers will give them a nice taste. (And the Hong Kong one even throws in some nudity.) The twenty plus minutes of "never before seen behind-the-scenes footage" contain both alternate takes and some legitimate behind-the-scenes footage, but it’s all MOS (without sound). It would have been great B-roll edited into a whole making-of featurette, cut together with interview subjects, but lacking the sort of budget necessary for such a documentary, it might have livened things up had we at least gotten Brian Trenchard-Smith’s commentary on this material. His commentary on the feature film is clearly the highlight of the disc, special features-wise. He’s self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing at once, a great combination that makes for an audio commentary every bit as engaging as the film itself. And he’s got a great memory, easily recalling stories from the set and doling out fascinating facts about the people involved. As previously mentioned, other contributors to the film occasionally contribute their recollections over a staticky telephone connection.

If you’re a George Lazenby fan, you can’t miss The Man From Hong Kong. And if you have the option of playing PAL discs from different regions, the Madhouse release is definitely the version to get.

Sep 10, 2009

New German Jerry Cotton Teaser

A teaser trailer has gone up on YouTube for the new, comedic reinvention of Sixties Eurospy mainstay Jerry Cotton. As previously reported, Christian Tramitz will step into George Nader's shoes as G-Man Jerry Cotton, and Christian Ulmen will play his sidekick Phil Decker, now apparently comic relief. Penelope's sister Monica Cruz is the girl; the red Jaguar remains the same. See previous behind-the-scenes videos from the set here.

The Internecine Project Due Out Next March

Late last year I reported that Code Red DVD would release the rare James Coburn spy thriller The Internecine Project on DVD in the summer of 2009. Then summer came and went, and we never heard anything else about that disc. Code Red's been going through some changes and a lot of their announced titles dropped off the schedule, so I kind of assumed that we'd never see The Internecine Project. Luckily, that's not the case! Today DVD Sleuth reports that the title "will be released by Code Red offspring Scorpion Releasing on March 29, 2010." And they've got artwork to back that up (using that cool poster art and helpfully explaining the titular vocabulary), so it looks like it's really happening this time. Which is excellent news. "Internecine" means "pertaining to multiple murders" which gives you quite a good idea of what this movie's about. Coburn plays a former CIA agent appointed to a flashy new political post. But to get it, he'll have to remove anyone with knowledge of his shadowy past. To do so, he concocts a diabolical plan to get all of his enemies to kill each other. Surprisingly, this dark, dark thriller is directed by one of the five credited directors of 1967's farcical version of Casino Royale, Ken Hughes--and written by Barry Levinson!

Sep 9, 2009

Tradecraft: Covert Gets Awesome

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Sandy Cohen himself, Peter Gallagher, has joined the cast of USA's upcoming spy series Covert Affairs. This potential Burn Notice companion show stars Piper Perabo and Christopher Gorham. According to the trade, "Gallagher will play CIA director Arthur Campbell, a regal man and former Naval officer who loves a good fight, great scotch and a filthy joke." The OC made me love Peter Gallagher. Like the Bruce Campbell casting in Burn Notice, this supporting part is the one that makes me most excited for the series!

Sep 7, 2009

Tom Petty's Version Of "Goldfinger" Sees Official Release

According to an official announcement on, the new Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Live Anthology, a four-disc set (or five-disc in a deluxe configuration) will include a number of covers the band has performed live over the years, including their legendary late nineties rendition of the theme song from Goldfinger! I believe this comes from the Heartbreakers' multi-week stint at the Filmore in San Francisco. As a huge Petty fan, I remember reading about this in setlists at the time and being blown away by the notion of their rendition of the classic Bond song. It's circulated as a bootleg over the years, but this will be its first official release. Sadly, I think it's an instrumental. Not that a surf-rock instrumental version by one of the tightest rock'n'roll bands in the world is a bad thing, but it would have been cool to hear Petty's vocal take. Either way, I eagerly await this release. It has to be one of the most unexpected Bond song covers out there!
1000th Post!
Tradecraft: Steven Soderbergh Seeks To Launch New Female-Driven Spy Franchise

Luc Besson is about to have some competition in his little cottage industry of turning out big Eurospy-style action hits on modest budgets. Ocean's 11, 12 and 13 director (as well as The Good German and lots more highbrow fare, of course, and next week's Matt Damon industrial espionage comedy The Informant) Steven Soderbergh will try his hand at the action spy genre according to Michael Fleming in Variety. The trade reports that the helmer "has committed to next direct Knockout, a spy thriller that will mark the screen starring debut of Gina Carano, the mixed martial arts circuit fighter." Further details sound promising:
Scripted by Lem Dobbs, Knockout casts Carano as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who is given a second chance to use her skills for constructive purposes. The film is a closer cousin to La Femme Nikita and Kill Bill than Million Dollar Baby, in that it doesn’t take place in the fight ring. Rather, Soderbergh considers the film as a flat out action film in the James Bond mold, and will shoot in locations around the world that include Ireland, Turkey and the U.S.

I like the locations. Despite starring a non-actor (like Soderbergh's most recent film, The Girlfriend Experience, which cast porn star Sasha Grey in her first mainstream film role), Soderbergh's name and talent lends a lot of credence to this project. This is the sort of movie that in the 80s would have gone direct-to-video in the U.S. (like most Cynthia Rothrock fare), but today attracts top directors. I like that change in the industry!
The film is being fully financed by Relativity Media with a domestic distributor expected to fall quickly into place. Soderbergh aims to begin production in January, and he'll cast lots of name actors to support newcomer Carano. Soderbergh is forgoing his usual upfront salary, instead opting for an ownership stake in the character shared with Relativity. It's a rare arrangement, and essentially the same one the Broccoli family enjoys with MGM. If Carano's character really turns out to be the next 007, that deal could prove quite lucrative indeed!

On a more personal note, I just noticed that this little news item is my 1,000th post here at the Double O Section. That's another big milestone, coming hot on the heels of last week's 200,000th hit and in advance of next month's three-year blogiversary. Very exciting! Man, that's a lot of writing...

Sep 4, 2009

Network Celebrates Its Prisoner Blu-Ray Release With All Night Prisoner Marathon In London

Live in London? If so, I'm jealous of you! Because you could take part in the awesome release event Network is holding to celebrate the release of their upcoming definitive Blu-Ray release of The Prisoner. "The Prisoner All-Nighter" will take place on Saturday, September 26 (the same day Los Angeles spy fans are watching On Her Majesty's Secret Service in dye-transfer Technicolor!) at the Prince Charles Cinema in Central London. The event begins at 8:30 in the evening and continues throughout the night and much of the next day as all seventeen episodes of Patrick McGoohan's legendary series are screened back-to-back, in high definition. "Will you still feel like a free man after being subjected to 17 TV hours in the village alongside special guests who appeared in the show?" asks Network's email announcement, adding that "The Prisoner All-Nighter will be opened by Prisoner Loudspeaker Announcer Fenella Fielding and closed by an additional special guest. More guests are expected, subject to availability." Additionally, everyone attending will receive an exclusive reproduction of a 1967 Prisoner brochure and be entered to win other unique Prisoner memorabilia given away throughout the night. Prizes include six copies of original Prisoner special edition DVD artwork personally signed by the late, great McGoohan!

So how does one get to attend this event? You have to pre-order the Blu-Rays through Network's website. "To mark the Blu-Ray release of The Prisoner the first 125 Network customers who pre-order the Blu-Ray edition from the Network web site will receive a pair of tickets." Head on over and pre-order now (you know you'll be getting it anyway!) to secure your spot! And remember, those who go: I'm jealous of you all!

Sep 3, 2009

Is Dougray Scott The New Saint?

For months now, Saint Club Secretary Ian Dickerson (who is actively involved in the development of a new Saint TV show) has been dropping hints on the forums at about the identity of the next TV Saint. Production on a new Saint series has been rumored for years now, and came remarkably close to fruition in 2008 when James Purefoy was announced as the next Simon Templar in a series to be produced by Homicide: Life On the Streets veterans Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (who was also to direct the pilot), Rome co-creator Bill MacDonald and the son of TV's first Saint, Geoffrey Moore, among others. For better or for worse (depending on who you talk to), that incarnation fell apart and Purefoy moved on to star in the very Saint-like (but not nearly Saint-like enough!) NBC series The Philanthropist, produced by Fontana. Dickerson's hints pointed fairly strongly toward Dougray Scott as the new Saint (but also led to speculation on the forum about actors ranging from Spooks' Rupert Penry-Jones to Eddie Izzard), but formalities have kept him from confirming. Now sharp-eyed forum member Tybre has spotted a post on Roger Moore's official website wherein the erstwhile Templar himself, Sir Roger, appears to have done so! Moore goes as far as confirming the initials D.S., which don't really leave room for a lot of other likely candidates. He also says that shooting (whenever it happens) will take place in Vancouver, and that he himself will take a small role in the pilot which could likely become recurring should it go to series.

Dickerson has previously revealed other details about the newest take on The Saint at CBn: namely that Simon will be driving an "eco-chic" Fisker Karma sports car and T.J. Scott is directing. I'm a fan of Scott's work on Sam Raimi's syndicated TV shows Hercules and Xena back in the late 90s (when he also directed an episode of Raimi's short-lived spy series Spy Game), and in many ways he seems a better fit for The Saint (which should be fun) than the more prestigious Levinson would have been. I would have loved to have seen Purefoy essay the role, but I'm still eager for this new version of The Saint to get rolling and I wish Dougray Scott all the best under the halo! Scott is well known to spy fans from his roles in Mission: Impossible II, Hitman and, in his best spy foray, Enigma.
Tradecraft: New Series From Burn Notice Creator Matt Nix

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Fox has picked up a new hourlong series from Matt Nix, the man who created TV's hottest (and best) current spy show, Burn Notice. And it's not just a pilot order, but following Fox TV Studios' new "straight-to-series inernational co-production model," the show has received a full thirteen-episode order! The new series, Jack and Dan, is not a spy series. The logline given in the trade doesn't sound particularly original, but then again, Burn Notice's Saintly (or Equalizery) premise probably didn't read that original on paper either, and Nix has approached that tried and true formula with exciting creativity. Jack and Dan "centers on Jack, an ambitious, by-the-book cop who is partnered with Dan, a drunken, lecherous, wild-card cop." I bet Nix cringes at that write-up. He provides more details that provide a better picture of the series: "It's an action comedy cop show that follows both the cops and the criminals and the ways they come together. The fun is seeing how they clash, and that doesn't happen in the conventional procedural ways." I can definitely see that being fun in Burn Notice's tone.

But enough about cops. We're here for spies! How will Jack and Dan affect Burn Notice? Not much, hopefully! "Schedules on both shows will be staggered," according to the Reporter, "to accommodate Nix, for whom Burn continues to be a priority. 'I am extremely conscious of the fact that we have a very good thing in Burn Notice,' he said. 'It's my baby; I love it, and I still think about it all the time.'" So there you have it. It should be possible to juggle two thirteen-episode series, and Nix should be able to still devote himself fully to Michael Westen & Co.

Sep 1, 2009

DVD Review: The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 (Acorn)

DVD Review: The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 (Acorn)

No, you’re not experiencing deja vu... This is a brand new review!

No doubt there were lots of jealous Americans reading when I reviewed Network’s Region 2 DVD set of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes earlier this summer. Well, good news, fellow countrymen: the first season of this excellent show is now available on Region 1 DVD courtesy of Acorn Media! And they’ve done a really excellent job with it, too. As I explained when I reviewed the British version, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was an anthology series produced by Thames Television in the early Seventies based upon the short story anthologies of the same name compiled by Hugh Greene (co-author, with his famous brother Graham, of The Spy’s Bedside Book). Like the books, the show features the adventures of other Victorian and Edwardian detectives written by Arthur Conan Doyle’s contemporaries. Most of these rivals owe a very obvious debt to Doyle’s creation, but the best ones tend to also offer some sort of twist on the formula. The Baroness Orzcy’s Lady Molly of the Yard, for example, is a woman; William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki (Donald Pleasence) hunts ghosts; etc. Every single example is an entertaining variation on the Victorian detective. For a full overview of the premise, please check out my review of the Network set (here), in which I focused largely on one of this season’s most espionage-heavy episodes, "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo." Rather than re-treading ground already covered, I will discuss entirely different episodes in my review of the American DVDs. Rest assured, however, that both sets feature every episode from the first season of the show.

While it would be hard to give a Victorian detective a bigger handicap than Lady Molly’s gender (given the era and its prevailing attitudes), writer Ernest Bramah gave it a shot by making his Holmsian hero blind. "The Missing Witness Sensation" showcases future Sherlock Holmes (in Billy Wilder’s espionage-oriented The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) Robert Stephens (father of Bond villain Toby Stephens) as sightless sleuth Max Carrados in the season’s second spy-themed story. Carrados functions like a nineteenth century version of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil: a blind man who has developed his other senses so acutely as to almost fully make up for his lack of vision. Carrados is so proud of overcoming his handicap that he’s constantly showing off–even moreso than Sherlock Holmes. This incurable vanity gets him into trouble more than once, and even gets him captured by a local cell of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

While writer Phillip Mackie occasionally resorts to voiceover describing what Carrados "sees" with his ears and his nose, Stephens does a great job of conveying his character’s handicap without ever making it seem like anything more than a mild inconvenience. Stephens plays the detective very flamboyantly, foreshadowing the way he will play Holmes. Even in the face of death, he can’t resist demonstrating his superior mental powers to those around him. Carrados spends a good part of the episode as a prisoner of the Irish nationalists (though curiously doesn’t grow any facial hair over his lengthy period of imprisonment) and becomes close to the woman in their ranks who lured him into this trap by pretending to be blind herself. His predicament is somewhat similar to Jacques Futrelle’s classic story "The Problem of Cell 13" (itself adapted in the second season of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes), in that Carrados must think his way out of prison. While the entire plot depends a little too much on a complete coincidence, everything comes together in an extremely satisfying manner. It’s great to see how Carrados has managed to remain several steps ahead of everyone else (including, of course, the police, in the form of his friend Inspector Beedle) despite his incarceration.

The Network set offered no bonus features. Acorn’s set doesn’t offer many, but the one that it does offer is an extremely welcome one, however low-tech. In a section called "The Rivals & Their Creators," there are text biographies on each detective and the writer or writers behind him (or her). This simple inclusion proves essential for students of the genre who would like to learn more about the characters. While watching the UK discs I frequently turned to my paperbacks to read Greene’s introductions, but this is far more convenient and concise. And, in some cases, even more informative! Without the text features, I probably wouldn’t have figured out that detectives Jonathan Pryde and Martin Hewitt were actually one and the same. In the TV series, they’re presented as partners. Each one gets a solo case (name-checking his absent partner) and they both appear in "The Case of Laker, Absconded." However, according to "Rivals & Creators," Jonathan Pryde does not appear in author Arthur Morrison’s short stories. Presumably he was created for TV because the producers didn’t want their anthology series to rely too heavily on Peter Barkworth’s Martin Hewitt. That information came as a bit of a shock to me as Pryde (Ronald Hynes) was probably my favorite detective in the batch! (He is the star of "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo," reviewed earlier.) Barkworth, however, is quite good as well, playing the real Martin Hewitt in "The Affair of the Tortoise."

Hewitt is in many ways the anti-Holmes. Whereas Sherlock is a cold fish all around, Hewitt is warm and sociable. Unlike Holmes (and some of his rivals, especially John Neville’s Dr. Thorndyke), Hewitt is never rude or petulant. He goes out of his way to be nice to everyone. Both of them are good detectives, although Hewitt relies a bit more on doggedly following down every possible lead than on making brilliant deductions in his head. If you were a client and you had to consult with one of them, you would probably prefer the company of Hewitt.

In "The Affair of the Tortoise," Hewitt stumbles upon his latest case while concluding another. He’s just tracked down a young woman to tell her she’s come into a large fortune thanks to a forgotten relative, recently deceased, and he’s clearly attracted to her. (Another stark contrast to Holmes!) Therefore, he’s quick to help her when she complains about her obnoxious, drunken neighbor, Monsieur Rameau (Stefan Kalipha, whose guest appearance on Callan I singled out and is equally impressive here). Rameau terrorizes the building with his drunken caterwauling and mean-spirited practical jokes. He’s soon murdered, and his body vanishes. The kindly caretaker (and brunt of most of Rameau’s jokes) is the chief suspect, and the young woman hires Hewitt to prove him innocent.

The presence of any Hatian character in Victorian fiction generally means the presence of Voodoo, and this case is no different. The Voodoo element makes for a good, exciting story complete with Voodoo doll (always accompanied by drums on the soundtrack, of course) and an expert in the occult. This expert is the proprietor of a curio shop that stocks everything from antiques to a triceratops skull, making it a very interesting setting.

Unlike many of the detectives on this series, Hewitt gets along with well with the police inspector, Nettings, who happily lets him look around in case he finds something the police overlooked. When one character snidely remarks, "Usual story, I suppose. Police baffled? Sorry state of affairs I must say," the indignant Nettings declares "I am not baffled!" Of course he is, and at the end he concedes to Hewitt that "I seem to have made a lot of mistakes on this case."

But Hewitt, ever considerate, is understanding. "Your mind can’t be expected to work at concert pitch all the time, Inspector," he consoles him.

Hewitt returns in "The Case of Laker, Absconded," following a trail of clues leading to a bank clerk who has supposedly absconded with £15,000. Pryde is on board this time as well, and after "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo" I was looking forward to his return. Unfortunately, he has little more to do than occasionally offering his partner very competent assistance. Hewitt again gets to demonstrate how extraordinarily nice he is, forming a fast friendship with the absconded clerk’s fiancé who accompanies him in the course of his inquiries. He also gets to go undercover as a meter reader for the gas company, and even turns up the charm to seduce a maid! The solution to the case depends on Pryde’s decoding of a classified ad the audience isn’t privy to, but it’s still a very enjoyable journey. The rather unconvincing snowy exteriors, however, reveal a slightly tighter budget than I would have guessed based on the other, fairly lavish, productions.

Not all of the rivals are as kindhearted as Martin Hewitt. Horace Dorrington, for instance (played with a Steedish charm by Peter Vaughn, memorable from his guest appearances on The Persuaders!, The Avengers, The Saint and other classic spy shows) is a downright nasty piece of work. He’s by far the most unscrupulous private detective of the bunch, and really more of an outright scoundrel than a hero. It’s all about money for him, and he’s not above fencing the items that he recovers himself it that nets him a greater profit than returning them to his clients. And despite a perpetual smile, he’s not nice to anyone, including those clients–and his employees. He’s also the only one of the bunch to pull a gun on people. (Not very sporting, what?) Despite his thorough lack of morals, though, Dorrington is actually quite a good detective. He follows leads and discovers clues and even makes brilliant connections. He just uses his conclusions to further his own ends. The "Rivals & Creators" text piece has some interesting things to say about the character. "Handsome and muscular, Dorrington often uses charm to obtain trust, create a ruse and dishonestly make a profit.... Overall, Dorrington was perceived [by Victorian audiences] more as an accomplished criminal than as a trustworthy and effective detective." That sounds about right.

It’s worth noting (Acorn’s copy on the box makes a big deal of it, in fact) that a very young Jeremy Irons makes his first screen appearance in one of the Horace Dorrington episodes, "The Mirror of Portugal." It’s a very small part (credited only as "Nephew") as a Bertie Woosterish dolt who makes exclamations like, "What larks, eh?" Despite this novelty and despite Vaughn’s impressive performance, it’s actually kind of hard to watch an episode centering on such a thoroughly unlikable, downright despicable individual.

Roy Dotrice, however, proves that not every villain need be so unlikable in "The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds!" Dotrice is gentleman thief Simon Carne, who disguises himself as the aged, celebrated detective Klimo. As an upstanding member of London society, Carne sports a false humpback. While he admits that this phony deformity sometimes gets in the way of his love life, it’s very convenient in throwing any suspicion off of him. How could a humpback possibly pose as Klimo–or anyone else? The episode spends an awfully long time showing Dotrice applying his Klimo facial disguise in real time. I suppose the intent was to show that it can be done, but the scene is a little boring. Carne’s got some great gadgets, including a desk in his study that rotates from his townhouse apartment into Klimo’s adjoining one! He has a different servant in each residence, each of whom is in on the con.

Despite being a rogue, Carne is not nasty like Dorrington. It’s easy to root for him and his Jeeves-like butler to pull off their elaborate heist against high society members who can more than afford to lose their diamonds. It’s also fun to watch him bamboozle the police, intentionally making asses out of them like Diabolik. And despite the seemingly overcomplicated setup, the heist itself is a whole lot of fun, with lots of twists and misdirects.

All of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes are thoroughly entertaining, from the crooks and the cads to the earnest do-gooders to the amateur spies to the snide, petulant misanthropes. Victorian fiction was awash with all sorts of gems of this sort, and the TV series does as good a job as Greene’s original anthologies at unearthing them. I can’t believe that television this good has remained unseen for so many decades! Anyone who’s remotely into Sherlock Holmes or his period should rejoice in this release and make a point of seeking it out. Personally, I can’t wait for Set 2!

Read more about The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in my review of the British DVDs here.