Nov 30, 2009

TV Review: The Prisoner (2009)

TV Review: The Prisoner (2009)

So let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? Two weeks since it aired and I still haven’t mentioned this. That’s because I only just got around to watching AMC’s new miniseries remake of Patrick McGoohan’s classic 1967 spy series The Prisoner this weekend. Well, I saw the first hour when it first aired, but only just caught up on the remaining five. It’s impossible for me to view this objectively as a modern TV viewer because I’m such a fan of the original series. Therefore, unfair as it may be, I’m not going to be able to help indulging in a little “compare and contrast” as I attempt to review the new version. Then again, it seems probable that most readers of this blog are also fans of the original, so that approach doesn’t seem so off-base. And if you’re not, what are you waiting for? The original is one of the cornerstones not only of spy television, but of the television medium at large. It’s a must-see for pretty much everyone. (And it’s just been released on Blu-ray in both America and Britain!) There, now that that’s out of the way, let’s examine the 2009 incarnation, written by Bill Gallagher and directed by Nick Hurran.

When I first heard about this remake, I was apprehensive. Excited, but also fearful. Messing with a classic is dangerous territory. Then again, I’m not opposed to remakes on principle, and the SciFi Channel’s recently-concluded reinvention of Battlestar Galactica proved that modern takes on old cult shows could sometimes even improve upon the originals. (Although, let’s be honest: the original BSG, enjoyable as it is, is by no means comparable to The Prisoner.) Despite my attempts to keep an open mind, however, I couldn’t help but become more fearful as the event grew closer. That is, until I saw the nine-minute presentation reel at the 2009 Comic-Con. I was blown away. The visuals were cool. The show looked good! I became more excited than apprehensive. Then came the reviews... and the mainstream critics weren’t kind. In fact, the American reviews were nearly uniformly negative. When I finally sat down to watch the first hour, after such a roller coaster of feelings about the miniseries, it was with greatly diminished expectations. And, happily, I ended up liking that first hour in spite of myself, quite a bit more than I’d expected to. If only that had remained the case.

By the time I saw the first episode, I was prepared for the drastic changes. Foremost among them, Number 6, or simply “Six,” as he’s known in the new version (making it easy to distinguish between old and new when writing about them), now has some sort of amnesia. He can’t remember much of his life prior to waking up in the mysterious, inescapable community known as the Village, wherein every inhabitant is known by a number instead of a name. The basic premise of the McGoohan series was that a revolving roster of Village chieftains, each one known as “Number Two,” tried elaborate methods of interrogation, torture and psychological trickery to extract from former spy Number 6 the reason for his abrupt resignation from the Secret Service. If the new Six had no knowledge of his past life, then obviously he couldn’t help them out with that. And his resistance to do so wouldn’t be an act of defiance against the System; it wouldn’t even be his own choice. It would just be because he didn’t know. The change seemed weird to me, since it undermined the very foundation of the original, but I was prepared for it.

So when I actually saw the first hour, I was pleasantly surprised by how many similarities it had to its illustrious antecedent. The opening titles reflect the original a bit: Six (now portrayed as an American by Jim Caviezel) still drives a car into a garage, but now it’s the Suburu that sponsors the show rather than a cool Lotus, and he needs to use a modern keypad to get in. He doesn’t drive down an up ramp, but instead charges up a down escalator for some reason. For no reason, actually; there’s no possible explanation for that other than just to be a cool reference to what’s gone before, and I appreciate that. Instead of banging his fist on a desk to resign, Six proceeds to very dramatically spray-paint “I RESIGN” (or maybe just “RESIGN”) in red letters across the glass walls of his ultra-modern office. Okay, that was a little weird. No, it doesn’t seem like a very practical way to quit. But the overall effect was a good one; despite lacking a theme as compelling as Ron Grainer’s original title music, the new sequence sent the message that the new series would be somewhat faithful to its predecessor. Which was really more than I’d hoped for.

Six wakes up in a desert outside the Village, and immediately encounters an old man trying to make his escape. The old man is dressed in the traditional Village garb of the original series: a black jacket lined with a white edging. And he looks kind of like the older, bearded Number 6 of the DC comic book sequel to the original series. Clearly, the part was meant to be a cameo for the late Patrick McGoohan, who supposedly gave his blessing to this series and hoped to be involved before his heath declined. But the role is not that of the original Number 6; there’s no point in trying to somehow make that connection work. The two series are radically different, and even set in radically different worlds. But the intention is definitely once again to at least evoke the original. Unfortunately, the costume designers on the new series got a small but crucial detail wrong: this jacket has white edging on its cuffs as well as its collar. To the only people this coat could have been included to amuse, it’s noticeably wrong. Suddenly I realize why the original costumers decided against doing the cuffs: it’s distracting. That’s a nitpick, but Prisoner fans are probably second only to Star Trek fans in terms of nitpickiness, so it bears mentioning.

When Caviezel finally makes it into the Village, it’s a pretty cool Village. Clearly, the producers of the new series couldn’t reuse Portmeiron, the iconic Welsh setting of the original series. They had to do something new. And production designer Michael Pickwoad deserves a lot of credit; the new Village is very well done. A series of identical, triangular buildings in the middle of the desert (it was shot in South Africa), it’s just as unique as Portmeiron, but in its own way. If that could be said for the whole series, then it would have been a success. Unfortunately, it can’t, but I didn’t realize that yet in the first hour. White cuffs aside, things were off to a good start.

In the Village, Six meets Two (not “Number 2"), played by Ian McKellen. McKellen is his usual amazing self, so it’s easy to see why the producers of the new series would eschew the old formula of having a different Number 2 every week if you could have just one with the gravitas of Gandalf. Six’s first encounter with Two was promising, as were further nods to the original series. Just like in that version, the pilot episode is entitled “Arrival,” and it’s actually a fairly close remake of the original “Arrival.” Six immediately tries to take a taxi out of town, only to discover it offers local rides only. He jumps out. Six goes to the general store to buy a map and asks for the biggest one they have, only to unfold a truly giant sheet that shows only the Village, but in a large scale. There’s a lava lamp in one scene. And, of course, Rover makes an appearance: the mysterious, iconic white balloon-like thing that emerges from the depths of somewhere and hovers menacingly, patrolling the Village perimeter. Like the original version, this Rover is pretty terrifying for a big beach ball–and it’s huge. Much larger than the one McGoohan faced. It’s cool. Before the episode’s over, Caviezel even utters the famous line, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

So all the nods in the first hour were cool. But as the series progressed, it became clear that they were far and away the most fun parts of the new series. And is there really a point to a remake when it’s just little nods to something better that you look forward to? Unfortunately, less and less, it seemed to me, as the miniseries progressed. Eventually the cute references weren’t enough to hide its many flaws.

On a story level, Six’s inability to remember his previous life is a real killer. The old Number 2's all had a clear objective: they wanted to know why Number 6 resigned. The new Two has much more nebulous motives. All he really seems to want is to get to know “the Six inside.” Okay. Well, Six himself doesn’t seem to really know the Six inside, so you lose the diametrically opposed titans dueling out their difference on the giant chessboard that is the Village. (Quite literally, I’m afraid; there is no giant chessboard in the new Village.) Even Six’s own objective is less clear. In the old series, he wanted to know who was running the Village in which he was a prisoner, and he wanted to know who Number 1 was, but first and foremost he wanted to escape. The new Six also wants to escape, but not nearly as singlemindedly as McGoohan did. For one thing, he’s not even sure that the Village is a prison, so escape seems less necessary. Mainly, he seems to want to remember where he came from. He recalls chunks of his final hours in his old life, which unfold chronologically over the course of the miniseries in convenient Lost-like flashbacks. He resigned. Not from a government spy agency, but from a private, Haliburton-like security and surveillance corporation called "Sumakor." At one point someone asks him why, but that just seems like more lip service to fans of the original. No one really seems to care why he resigned. Motives on all sides remain a mystery, which makes it tough to sustain six hours.

Technically, the editing of the miniseries is also a real problem. It’s edited in a manner designed to be purposefully confusing. Viewers are kept disoriented. Sure, this sustains the mystery, but only for so long. Since the narrative revels in constantly providing new questions but no answers whatsoever, it doesn’t help that the editing seems equally impenetrable. We cut between the Village and “real world” flashbacks with few visual clues to let us know where we are, and characters in each location who look confusingly similar. Abrupt cuts place Six in entirely new circumstances with no explanation as to how he got there. Nowhere is this more frustrating than at the end of each episode. He ends one episode strapped down to a gurney like a madman, declaring that he’s not a number as he’s wheeled off into the frightful “clinic,” yet he begins the next episode by waking up beside a road. He ends another one down in the terrifying tunnels beneath the clinic where “dreamers” (people who insist that there is a world outside the Village) are sent for “treatment.” Six is trying to escape with a woman and a girl, fierce guard dogs are barking at them, and Rover is closing in at the end of the tunnel, already doing whatever it is that Rover does to people to some other would-be escapees. How will Six get out of this? It should be an exciting action sequence, but we never find out because the next time we see him, at the start of the next hour, he’s back in the Village carrying on as if he’d never been down to the tunnels, as are the other characters who were with him. And the audience is robbed of their action sequence. (Two gives a brief explanation in passing, but it’s hardly satisfactory.) I assumed that these gaps would be filled in later on, providing us with an explanation so awesome that everything made perfect sense, but alas that never happens. It’s just sloppy cutting–and sloppy writing. The same holds true for individual moments. When Six first declares that he’s not a number, the moment is rapidly cut, with echoey sound overlays giving the statement far less clarity than McGoohan’s defiant exclamation.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Caviezel is, let’s be honest, no McGoohan. No matter what crazy scenario the old Number 2's threw at McGoohan, he remained implacable, utterly nonplussed. He remained defiantly resistant. And pissed off. He had a serious chip on his shoulder–and who wouldn’t, in those circumstances? His crisp, syncopated delivery made it clear that he was always in control of any situation, even with all the odds stacked against him, and that drove his jailers nuts. Caviezel just looks bewildered most of the time. He even asks in the fifth episode, when he should be used to all the weird stuff that’s happening to him, “Is this some kind of dream or something?” He seems genuinely perplexed, which McGoohan’s Number 6 never let on to be. At one point, a woman asks Caviezel, “Did anyone tell you, you have the most enchanting eyes?” And, unfortunately, it’s not true. His eyes–especially compared to McGoohan’s expressive, defiant stare–are blank. It’s sadly ironic that a version of The Prisoner that depends much more on audiences caring about who Six was as a person before he came to the Village depends on an actor who doesn’t really make you care much about him as a person. Caviezel is fine as a number, but as a free man he’s unconvincing. And whereas McGoohan had no problem standing up to the most imposing authority figures of his day (Guy Doleman, Peter Wyngarde and Leo McKern, to name a few), Caviezel never measures up to the towering McKellen. To be fair, though, few actors could.

Who would have been better in the lead? Clive Owen has expressed a desire to play The Prisoner, and I think he has the glowering intensity necessary for the role, but I doubt he’d ever go back to TV. If Christopher Nolan ever makes his Prisoner movie, Russell Crowe is another force of nature who could stand up to just about anyone, as, of course, is Daniel Craig, who would bring the proper “ex-spy” baggage to the part. But you probably couldn’t get any of those guys for TV. I think Matthew Macfadyen would have been good. I’m sure AMC insisted on an American lead, but the part just seems better suited to native of the British Commonwealth. (Yes, I’m aware that McGoohan was born in America, but his transcontinental upbringing allowed the Irish actor to play Number 6 with a commanding Anglo accent.) Macfadyen has demonstrated the requisite intensity before, and thanks to his stint on the early seasons of MI-5 (Spooks), he would also bring the proper “Secret Agent” extra-textual baggage to the role. Oh well. Caviezel isn’t a terrible actor; he’s just hopelessly miscast.

Many of the supporting performances fare better. Lennie James makes a likeable Village cab driver, number 147. The two female leads, Hayley Atwell and Ruth Wilson (both British), are both compelling. The only problem with them is that they look a bit too similar, which is confusing at first. And the guy who plays the proprietor of the Village store is great. McKellen, as mentioned, is as good as ever, but the character is certainly not one of his best. As with Six, Gallagher attempts to humanize Two more than any of his predecessors on the old series, largely by giving him a teenage son (who’s mainly involved in a completely extraneous subplot until he serves a crucial role near the end) and a wife (in some sort of mysterious coma), but, ironically, this Two comes off as less human than many of the original frustrated Number 2's, and more like the rote Bond villain-type baddie that McGoohan always strove to avoid. (Except, of course, when he was specifically parodying it.)

Each episode of the new Prisoner is titled with one word from an episode of the classic series. Sometimes the episode has echoes of its namesake; other times it doesn’t, but after “Arrival” there are no direct remakes. In fact, the whole premise and world of this new version are so substantially different from the original that direct remakes generally wouldn’t be possible. And what would be the point of them, anyway? The point of a remake in general is to bring something new to the table. And this miniseries does succeed in doing that in some ways.

For one thing, there is sex in this Village, unlike the Village of the chaste, ultra-Catholic McGoohan, who famously eschewed the sex usually associated with the Sixties spy genre in both Danger Man and The Prisoner. The addition of sex to the Village provides interesting opportunities, mostly explored in “Darling” (which bears no resemblance whatsoever to “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”) about a Village match-making service. It’s another way for Two to get at Six that’s not really explored in the original series, and for that reason “Darling” is probably the most successful episode. It’s the only one that invents a whole new game for Two and Six to play, leading up to Six’s potential marriage–and potential heartbreak. There’s even a Village strip club (possibly mixed gender), with a Penny Farthing bicycle hanging from the ceiling, glimpsed only very briefly. (I think it’s the only one in the show.)

“Schizoid” remains closer in concept to “The Schizoid Man,” but the explanation for Six’s evil doppelganger is far less satisfying–and the doppelganger sadly doesn’t wear inverted versions of Six’s clothes. The classic episode “A, B and C” doesn’t get a name homage (how could it, really?), but there are threads of it successfully woven throughout the entirety of the new series. Due to the concurrent flashback and Village storylines, it’s possible to weave people from Six’s past and present fairly regularly, and he never knows who to trust. “Anvil” is the most spy-heavy episode, wherein Six is recruited by Two to serve as an “undercover” and asked to spy on other “dreamers.” He knows it’s a trap; Two acknowledges that of course it’s a trap, and he wants to see if Six is smart enough to turn it into an opportunity. As in the classic series, pretty much everyone in the Village turns out to be an undercover, and most of them are at least double-agents if not triple. Everyone is spying on everyone, even–chillingly–the schoolchildren. Unfortunately, this concept of Six spying for Two, which holds a lot of potential, is dropped after “Anvil.”

Even on a micro level, there are some clever new touches in the remake. Six is interrogated by twin psychoanalysts, which is a cool, weird touch. One of them sits in the light (in a chamber whose production design owes quite a bit to the original series); the other sits in shadow behind him and only pipes up in occasional outbursts when he’s displeased with something Six has said.

There are also a few clever references to our own post-9/11 world, in many ways very different from McGoohan’s Cold War setting. When mysterious black holes start opening up around the Village, for instance, the authorities insist that these “atmospheric phenomenon” are best combated by the presence of pigs, and every family is encouraged to get a pig. There are even neat propeganda posters posted around the Village urging people to get pigs. The pigs, of course, have no real effect on the strange phenomenon, and I was reminded of how Americans were urged after 9/11 to acquire lots of duct tape. It was supposed to serve some purpose in the prevention of terrorism; what, exactly, I can’t recall. But for every clever jab at our own society, there are far more blantantly obvious, hackneyed ones–like the ubiquitous Evil Corporation, the 21st Century’s favorite fall guy. There are enough similarities between Cold War paranoia and privacy concerns and post-9/11 paranoia and privacy concerns that the original series remains completely relevant today despite its setting. I think the producers of the new version would have been better served exploring those similarities than trying to find applicable differences.

Whether it’s because the original seemed out of date, or out of a legitimate fear of repeating themselves and a desire to do new things, the producers of the new version choose to take the miniseries in a completely different direction than the original. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling either conclusion, but I will say that the ultimate explanation offered in the new version is cliched, overused and generally lacking in plausibility, even within the world of the show. It was a disappointment through and through. It’s difficult to discuss it without revealing anything, but I will say, somewhat obliquely, that the overall concept behind the new version has the potential to be intriguing. But to live up to that potential, it would have to be carried out in a manner different than several other recent movies and TV shows that explore similar themes, and it simply isn’t. It fails in the execution rather than the concept... although the concept is at least sixty percent iffy to begin with. (In the interest of fairness, I should disclose to those who don’t know that the finale of the original series generated substantial controversy when it first aired more than forty years ago, with many viewers hating it. Personally, I think it is brilliant and perfect.)

There is a lot to admire in the new Prisoner–more than many critics have acknowledged. But there is very little to actually like, and that’s the problem. Even after harping on so many flaws, I would actually watch it again (though maybe not all the way through, and maybe with the sound turned off) just to appreciate the fairly stunning visual ingenuity on display. The production design of the Village, from its buildings to its unique (and presumably locally-produced) vehicles to the fonts on its signage, is truly impressive. And a few of the more original battles between Six and Two (like “Darling”) play out as, at worst, intriguing fan fiction additions to the original seventeen classic episodes. But the overall concept, unfortunately, does not justify this remake, which ultimately has more in common with later cult television like Lost or Oliver Stone's shortlived Wild Palms (which I kept thinking of while watching it) than with the original Prisoner. Even so, I feel that the premise of McGoohan’s series is still relevant and still ripe for further exploration, and I would still love to see Christopher Nolan’s mooted theatrical film version come to fruition. I hope this exercise hasn’t dissuaded him from pursuing that.

AMC is re-airing their version of The Prisoner quite frequently right now, so if you missed it and you want to check it out (I certainly encourage all fans of the original to judge the new version for themselves), there are still more chances. You can find the schedule on their Prisoner website, which, incidentally, is quite good. Poke around and find other cool stuff like production diaries and video blogs, a cool interactive Village map and even an original online graphic novel sequel, making another addition to the short pantheon of official Prisoner comics. You can also pre-order the new Prisoner on DVD on Amazon.

Movie Review: Jerry Cotton In Death And Diamonds aka Dynamit in grüner Seide (1968)

Movie Review: Jerry Cotton In Death And Diamonds aka Dynamit in grüner Seide (1968)

While Jerry Cotton is technically an FBI man and not a spy, most of the movies–especially the later, color ones–still situate themselves firmly in the James Bond-inspired Eurospy genre by way of fantastic Bondian stunts and situations. Not so much with Death and Diamonds, which plays as more of a heist movie (or crime movie) than spy. There aren’t even a lot of stunts this time around, at least not after Jerry earns some points for needlessly using a crane to enter an apartment full of thugs in the pre-credits sequence. (Though there are a few doozies at the end that make up for the dearth in the middle!)

The FBI, as usual, wants to discover the identity of a big-time crime boss, this one named Stone. Stone’s gang are planning a heist in Los Angeles, so the Bureau inserts Jerry Cotton (American actor George Nader) undercover, posing as a safe cracker named Rick Trevor, known to the gang only by reputation. Rick is apparently a skilled piano player, so Jerry has to brush up on his ivory-tickling with his old teacher: his mother!

It’s not every day that we get to meet a Eurospy’s mom. Mrs. Cotton worries about her son as any mother might, and he lies to her, insisting his assignment isn’t dangerous. That’s not much comfort, though, because she remembers that the last assignment he said wouldn’t be dangerous put her son in the hospital for seven months!

The piano playing isn’t the biggest obstacle Jerry will have to overcome, though, to pose as Rick. You see, unfortunately (for the audience), Rick is British. That’s right; Jerry goes undercover as a British safe cracker. And yes, that means an accent. I think Dick Van Dyke was his dialect coach. It’s an awful, awful British accent, the kind that leans primarily on adding "old man" to the end of every sentence. Really, it wouldn’t fool a five-year-old, let alone a gang of ruthless criminals. But somehow... it does. I guess that’s because he’s also got the piano-playing chops to back it up. (That’s a joke; mercifully, he never has to actually play the piano.)

The L.A. setting results in some cool period shots of late Sixties L.A. scenery (mainly freeways and street signs) generously interspersed with incongruous German locations. The gang operates out of a pool hall/nightclub (and, apparently, dayclub, because the go-go dancers are in full swing and the ladies are in their evening best when he first arrives in the middle of the afternoon) called the Green Silk Bar. (Hence the otherwise nonsensical German title, Dynamite in Green Silk.) The gang themselves are the usual assortment of familiar Euro character actor faces (Carl Mohner, Dieter Eppler) and dim-witted thug personalities, easily pitted against each other when the time comes. There are also two very attractive ladies in the mix: good blonde Lana (Silvia Solar of Umberto Lenzi’s giallo Eyeball, Danger!! Death Ray and several other Eurospy movies, including a previous Jerry Cotton entry) and evil brunette Mabel (Marlies Dräger, who really should have worked more, but didn’t do anything else of note except the Edgar Wallace thriller Terror on Half Moon Street). Eventually, the brunette ties the blonde to a post somewhere in Barstow and whips her to make Jerry talk, injecting the requisite bit of sleaze to a mostly chaste genre entry.

For most of the middle of the film, Jerry is undercover with the gang, constantly arousing their suspicion, but never enough so to get himself killed. Not even by perpetually sounding like one of the American voices on the Beatles cartoon show. The big heist itself is kind of neat, involving an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner to suck up the diamonds by remote control, kind of like that Season 6 episode of Mission: Impossible, "Casino." (I wonder if its writers saw Death and Diamonds?) Of course the big problem with the heist scenario is that in a heist movie–especially of the Sixties Euro-caper variety–we're conditioned to root for the heist to be successful. So by inserting Jerry as an undercover man trying to throw a monkey wrench in the plan at every opportunity, we can't help but root against him. (Even more than we already are because of that really annoying accent.)

Once Jerry’s cover is finally blown, he can at last drop the accent and everyone can breathe a huge sigh of relief. He’s also free now, of course, to openly battle the gang, and that finally leads to some of Jerry’s trademark stunts. One in particular almost singlehandedly makes up for the earlier lack: Jerry perfects the coolest way ever of getting into a car! As the car careens towards him, he charges at it head-on and leaps, feet-first, smashing through the windshield and knocking out the driver! Then we cut to a closer shot inside the car, and Jerry has somehow managed to turn himself around and take the gun from Dräger in the backseat and turn it on her. Maybe it was sloppy editing, but I like to believe that a widescreen version would reveal Jerry doing a tricky bit of gymnastics inside the car and twisting himself around in time to make that work. Either way, the stunt is awesome enough that a flub is forgivable, like when James Bond drives his Mustang out of the alley on the wrong two wheels in Diamonds Are Forever. Plus, Jerry offers up a witticism to keep us from dwelling on continuity issues: "Well, it looks like this car’s had it. Let’s move on to yours, shall we?"

Speaking of cars, there’s sadly not much of Jerry’s Jag this time out, but we do get a nice white Mustang (hers that he’s referring to) and a motorcycle. Jerry commandeers the latter to pursue the bad guys out of their garage at the end when they escape in a fake police car, dressed as cops. And their driveway leads right into a quarry. There’s always a quarry at the end! Wherever they are in the world! This one takes place in my own neighborhood, and I never, ever realized that there was a giant quarry just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica! But somehow the quarry leads them from the house onto the PCH, and Jerry gives chase as the infectious Cotton Theme blares.

The baddies drive their police car to a waiting yacht... and once again, the geography doesn’t quite add up. Things seem to shift suddenly from Santa Monica to, I’m guessing, somewhere in Germany, because there’s suddenly a convenient bridge over what should be the Pacific Ocean. Whatever; geography doesn’t matter. After all, a bridge probably means a good stunt, right? Right! I suspect Jerry’s never met a bridge he didn’t jump off of, and this one proves no exception. In fact, he plunges from a really staggering height (it’s very impressive!) onto the awning roof of this yacht. (Of course the yacht has an awning roof. You need a lot of awnings when Jerry’s around.) There aren’t a lot of stunts in Death and Diamonds, but the ones there are are good ones. These, and Solar and particularly Dräger, make it well worth your while to sit through Jerry’s intolerable British accent for a breezy hour and a half.

After watching a few Jerry Cotton movies, though, I’m left with a burning question: Is Jerry himself supposed to be gay? Did the first heroic gay secret agent actually beat Jacob Keane to the screen by a good forty years? (And even beat Timothy Dalton’s character in Permission To Kill by a decade?) I know George Nader was gay, but I didn’t think the character was supposed to be. But there are just so many moments that would seem to support that, particularly in Jerry’s interactions with the many beautiful women who cross his path. In Death in a Red Jaguar, Jerry walked right past the open arms of the grateful damsel he’d just saved and into embraces of his male colleagues instead. In Death and Diamonds, when Lana puts her hand pointedly on Jerry’s and says at the end that she wants to be good, good friends, Jerry smiles and earnestly replies, "for a long, long time." In Tony Kendall’s (Kommissar X) mouth that line would somehow come out exceptionally sleazy, and you’d know that he meant friends with serious benefits. But coming from Jerry, I really do think he just means "friends." I suspect Lana is in for a disappointment...

Nov 27, 2009

BIG NEWS: Black And White Callan Episodes Come To DVD At Last!

2010 is already shaping up to be a great year for spy fans. UK company Network has announced that they will release the surviving episodes of the first two black and white seasons (1967-69) of the stellar Edward Woodward spy series Callan on DVD (Region 2, PAL) for the first time ever in February! Seasons three and four, shot in color, have previously been available in England (where they're now out of print) and Australia, and the first color season made its long-awaited Region 1 U.S. debut this past summer courtesy of Acorn Media (review here). Set 2 (the fourth season) comes out in January. But the monochrome episodes have never been officially available in any country before; they've only circulated as bootlegs. So this is big news! From Network's announcement:
After many years spent trying to untangle the Rights situation for the first two series [seasons], we can now announce that February will see the release of Callan: The Monochrome Years (4 disc set, RRP £29.99).

This set contains the original Armchair Theatre pilot play, A Magnum For Schneider, along with all the remaining black and white episodes from series one and two - the majority of which have been unseen in nearly forty years and are available here on any format for the first time.
Utterly fantastic! The original pilot plus all the surviving episodes! (Several episodes were "wiped," or erased, a standard–and unfortunate–practice in British television at the time.) Network's announcement concludes by adding that "Callan: The Colour Years, comprising series three and four, is currently scheduled to be released in May 2010." That will put Britain back up to speed on those series, and mean that all four seasons will be available in Callan's homeland next year. There's no mention now of the theatrical film Callan or the TV reunion episode Wet Job, but maybe Network will be able to include them as extras on the color set. Fingers crossed!

Hopefully this news will also pave the way for Acorn to be able to release the black and white episodes for American fans in the near future.

Read my review of Callan: Set 1 here.
Read my obituary of the recently departed Edward Woodward here.

Nov 26, 2009

Upcoming Spy Screenings: More Big Screen Bond In Los Angeles

Hot on the heels of this month's big Bond event at USC, Los Angelenos will have another chance to see 007 on the big screen this January when the American Cinematheque screens six James Bond films at my favorite movie theater in the world, Hollywood's famous Egyptian Theatre, over New Year's weekend--including two rarely screened Roger Moore movies! Things kick off on New Year's Day (a Friday) with Dr. No and You Only Live Twice, continue on Saturday, January 2, with the quintessential revival house double-feature, Goldfinger and Thunderball, and then conclude on Sunday, January 3 with Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only. Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia author Steven Jay Rubin will be on hand to introduce the movies the first two nights, and host another trivia contest on Saturday. (He did this three years ago in Santa Monica when the Egyptian's sister cinema the Aero ran a festival of Sixties Bonds.) Those are some good double features! I would love to see You Only Live Twice at the Egyptian. Unfortunately, I'll be out of town for the holidays and miss the first two nights, but in an incredible stroke of fortune, I should be back on Sunday for the double feature I want to see most! Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only are two of the four Bond films I still haven't seen in a theater, so I can't wait for that night! (Then I just need another revival house to screen A View To A Kill and Never Say Never Again, perhaps the most unlikely 007 double bill imaginable...) For showtimes and more information, head on over to the Egyptian's website. You can buy advance tickets through Fandango.

Nov 24, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

...or tangentially spy-related, anyway. Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Four contains the episode "The Avon Emeralds," guest-starring a very young Roger Moore as "Inspector Benson." Sir Roger recalls in his autobiography, "The series was topped and tailed by a speech from the great man himself, but of course he was never around the set. My episode was 'The Avon Emeralds' with Hazel Court as my co-star. I don't think it was particularly memorable, but it did keep me in LA and in the thick of where it was all happening." Now it's easy to judge if it's memorable or not, as Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Four hits DVD today from Universal. Retail is $39.99, but of course it's available cheaper from Amazon and Deep Discount, where during their 40% sale it can be had for $23.97.

Nov 21, 2009

Chuck's John Casey On How To Be A Deadly Spy

One of the more intriguing special features from Warner's upcoming Chuck: The Complete Second Season DVD set has turned up on YouTube: "John Casey Presents: So You Want to Be a Deadly Spy?" In his tough secret agent character, Adam Baldwin humorously outlines what it takes to be a professional assassin a grainy training film.
Thanks to Rebecca for the heads-up!

Nov 20, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Half-Hour Danger Man Comes To UK

Surprisingly, the original half-hour episodes of Danger Man have been out of print in the UK for quite some time. There was a bare-bones set from Carlton early in the century, but more recently British fans have had to import the Region 1 A&E discs from America. (Beautiful, but also bare-bones.) Now Network is rectifying that. Danger Man: The Complete First Series, containing all thirty-nine of secret agent John Drake's half-hour, black and white adventures, will be out on January 25, 2010. This is the seminal Sixties spy series, setting the template for a decade's worth of ITC shows even before Dr. No hit theaters. (In fact, it was based on his performance as Drake that McGoohan was supposedly considered for the Bond role.) Danger Man was the true beginning of the Sixties spy boom–and it's excellent. The half-hour episodes are my favorites. It was also the first Sixties spy work for such integral contributors to the genre as Ralf Smart (who created the series), Brian Clemens, Robert Shaw, Donald Pleasence, Honor Blackman and, of course, McGoohan. Network's six-disc set is a bit light on extras compared to some of their other ITC offerings (including their version of the later, 1964-68 hourlong series of Danger Man), but still pretty good: you get trailers, image galleries and, best of all, a "commemorative booklet on the making of the series by Archive Television Historian Andrew Pixley." If Pixley's previous "booklets" are anything to judge by, chances are good that this will be considerably more than a "booklet." Pixley's exhaustive histories included in sets like Adam Adamant Lives! or the hour-long Danger Man are full-fledged books, and the definitive word on the series in question. Danger Man: The Complete First Series fills in a crucial gap in Network's fantastic line of ITC titles. Needless to say, it's an essential for any UK spy fan. The set is available for pre-order from for £39.48.

Read my review of A&E's Secret Agent aka Danger Man: The Complete Collection here.
New Eurospy Spoof Scream Of The Bikini

Wow, this is cool. Cinema Retro points the way to a new Sixties Eurospy spoof apparently made in the "of its time" style and spirit of such recent retro comedies as OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, OSS 117: Lost in Rio and Black Dynamite (which, by the way, you really must try to see if you haven't already!). Scream of the Bikini (Asnesas en Vespa), billed as a lost spy thriller "filmed somewhere in South America in 1966, and poorly translated and dubbed by Germans," is in actuality an independently produced film currently making the rounds of the festival circuit. According to its official website, Scream of the Bikini is the brainchild of California-based actors and comedians Kelsey Wedeen, Bill Robens, Kiff Scholl, Rebecca Larsen and Darrett Sanders, all of whom share various duties behind and in front of the cameras. Taking the period spoof thing to a whole new degree (sort of a mixture of OSS 117 and Yuki 7), they've all assumed other identities for the sake of the production. In the Eurospy spirit, the actresses are credited as Jasmine Orozco and Paola Apanapal and the director as Fernando Fernandez, a Jess Franco-like figure. They've worked out characters for all of these supposed behind-the-scenes personalities, completely separate from their on-screen characters! The official website is a real treat, offering great Sixties posters, lobby cards, film clips, stills, behind-the-scenes tidbits (both real and imaginary) and, of course, a trailer. There's also information on upcoming screenings, and I'm depressed to learn that I actually just missed a Los Angeles screening tonight. If only I'd learned of it sooner! Oh well. Hopefully we'll all have the chance to check out Scream of the Bikini eventually. Personally, I can't wait!

Nov 18, 2009

Tradecraft: Red Attracts Bigger Cast

This movie Red seems like one to watch. The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision blog reports that one of the supposed finalists for the James Bond role in Casino Royale, Nip/Tuck's Julian McMahon, has joined the cast of the Bruce Willis spy thriller based on the Warren Ellis comic book. Along with him comes some serious star power of yesteryear: Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine and spy stalwart Brian Cox are all in talks to join the project. The trade reiterates the logline, “Red tells the tale of a former black ops agent (Willis), now in retirement, who has to contend with younger, more high-tech assassins who show up to kill him," then adds that "McMahon would play a Vice President with a dark side who is at the center of a shadow conspiracy. Borgnine will play the keeper of the CIA’s darkest records, while Dreyfuss will be a wealthy man who builds a fortune out of lucrative government contracts. Cox is a former Cold War spy and nemesis of Willis." This casting news comes hot on the heels of the news a few weeks ago that Helen Mirren, John C. Reilly and Mary Louise Parker had all joined Willis and the previously announced Morgan Freeman. This project is quickly shaping up to be the most all-star spy movie since Ronin! But none of these people seem the right age to play the "younger, more high-tech assassins" who come after Willis. So will we be seeing some younger talent named next? Red is being directed by Robert Schwentke, whose previous credits include Flightplan and The Time Traveller's Wife, from a script by Jon and Erich Hoeber; Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian are producing.
Tradecraft: Joe Wright Seeks Some Action

The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision blog reports that director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) is looking to direct his first action movie, and he's leaning toward an action/spy script called Hanna. The script, written by Seth Lochhead and David Farr and set up at Focus Features, must be pretty good, because it's attracted some top directors. Alfonso Cuaron and Danny Boyle previously flirted with the material. According to the trade:

The project is described as having shades of La Femme Nikita and the Bourne movies. The story centers on a 14-year-old Eastern European girl who has been raised by her father to be a cold-blooded killing machine. She connects with a French family, forms a friendship with their daughter and goes through the pangs of adolescence. When the girl is dragged back to her father’s world and discovers that she was bred as a killing machine in a CIA prison camp, she must fight her way to a free life.
Wright, who was once engaged to Bond Girl Rosamund Pike, was set to direct Cate Blanchett in an Edwina Mountbatten biopic called Indian Summer. "But as [that] project’s budget rose," the trade reports, "and with the conditions for upscale adult dramas not favorable, the makers opted to put the project on hold." British tabloids have also linked the director with a remake of My Fair Lady touted to star Keira Knightley with current 007 Daniel Craig as Henry Higgins.
Spy Girls On Bish's Beat

Bish over at Bish's Beat is hosting a pictorial tribute to Spy Girls, including the greatest Spy Girl of all time (pictured)... and others. Check it out!
CW Back On The Global Frequency

Aintitcool reports that The CW Network has commissioned Pushing Daisies writer Scott Nimerfro to pen a new pilot based on Warren Ellis' comic book Global Frequency. Global Frequency actually has a lot in common with Sixties spy series like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. Amazonian superspy Miranda Zero is a no-nonsense, Jim Phelps-like mastermind who recruits ordinary citizens to contribute whatever unique skill sets they have to offer to save the world from myriad crises. If your day begins with a telephone call telling you that you're on the global frequency, it's going to be a bad day. Unlike U.N.C.L.E., the ordinary citizens don't always survive the days Ellis puts them through. This is the second time an iteration of this network has flirted with an iteration of this series. In 2004, the WB (which later merged with UPN to become CW) commissioned a pilot from John Rogers, who went on to create TNT's Leverage. That version starred 24 alum Michelle Forbes as Miranda Zero and my friend Aimee Garcia as her associate, Aleph. And it would have been awesome. Let's hope the new one will as well!
Tradecraft: Shirley Bassey, Sean Connery Reunite

In a front page story, The Hollywood Reporter reports that "the voices of Shirley Bassey and Sean Connery have been drawn together on a feature for the first time since they were both involved in Goldfinger back in the day. Bassey has signed up to sing the title song named 'Guardian of the Highlands' for the CGI animated movie Sir Billi, which stars Connery's voice." Sir Billi is the indepently-produced Scottish film Connery has been involved with for several years. Goldeneye's Alan Cumming also lends his voice. The song was written especially with Bassey in mind, and she loved it. The final sentences of the Reporter's story are so weird that I'm going to reproduce them verbatim: "Connery is an exec producer and has been heavily involved with the independent studio project since its inception. The movie centers on a retired, skateboarding veterinarian who lives in a remote Scottish village and who spearheads the rescue of an illegal fugitive who also happens to be a beaver."

Nov 17, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: The Limits Of Control

That's right, after an embarrassment of riches these past few weeks, there is only one new spy title to speak of hitting DVD shelves this week. And it's a pretty offbeat spy title. Jim Jarmusch's existential might-be-spy deconstruction The Limits of Control starring Casino Royale's Isaac de Bankolé as a mysterious operative or assassin or something wandering around beautiful European locations meeting various eccentric contacts (including Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt) and being given new coordinates at which to meet his next contact. Knowing Jarmusch, that might well be all there is to it. And knowing Jarmusch, I'd gladly watch it if it were! Sadly, I missed this during the one or two week theatrical run it enjoyed in Los Angeles this summer, but I'll definitely be checking it out on DVD. While some are a bit weaker than others, I don't think I've ever seen a Jarmusch movie I haven't enjoyed. (And I've seen them all except for this one.) And Jarmusch doing spies? I can't wait. I've also been a fan of De Bankolé's ever since his role on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and after scene-stealing supporting turns in other Jarmusch movies and 24 and Daniel Craig's James Bond debut, it's about time he got a leading role. Plus: Bill Murray!
R.I.P. Edward Woodward

Callan's Red File has finally caught up with him. Yesterday, the world lost Edward Woodward, star of two classic spy shows: the terrific, gritty British series Callan from the Sixties and Seventies and its Eighties counterpart, the also-gritty American action series The Equalizer. Edward Callan and Equalizer Robert McCall had a lot in common; they were related in almost the same way that Patrick McGoohan's Number 6 was to his previous character John Drake. As with The Prisoner, it didn't matter if McCall and Callan were actually the same character (as some have suggested); what mattered was the extra-textual associations that Woodward brought to the character from his prior series. Callan was a bitter civil servant who did his country's dirty work because he was forced to; the specific dirty work he did often left a bad taste in his mouth. McCall was a former intelligence officer hellbent on atoning for the dirty work he'd done in his past life by using his skills for good. Woodward brought to the role a believable sense of world weariness, lent all the more credibility thanks to his earlier role.

While Woodward went on to play many more parts after McCall, his two spy shows worked nicely as bookends for his career. First, he was the spy as angry young man; later he was the spy as cynical, embittered old man, his soul wrecked by a lifetime spent ruining lives and inflicting violence on behalf of a government not always in the right. Those two archetypes together pretty much define the serious side of the spy genre, and they defined Woodward's own estimable career. The Equalizer, while more iconic in the United States, was not nearly the gold standard of the genre that Callan was, and wasn't always all that "serious." But even when the plots (sometimes concoted by future 24 mastermind Joel Surnow) veered into typical 80s vigilante action and mayhem, Woodward himself always remained as serious as hell, firmly anchoring the whole show with his undeniable gravitas. He was the prototypical asskicking old guy. Before Alias' Jack Bristow or Taken's Bryan Mills, McCall was a bonafide silver-haired action hero. And it wasn't his Walther that told kidnappers and drug dealers and other assorted 80s riffraff that McCall wasn't a man to be trifled with; it was Woodward's ice-cold stare. He was a master of the stare, conveying many emotions without speaking a word, from Callan's "I hate you and I detest what you're making me do, but you know damn well I'll do it" defiant stare reserved for his ever-changing boss, Hunter, to McCall's "don't you dare f--k with me, because I've seen it all and done it all and I may be old but you haven't got a chance" steely gaze.

As iconic as those two roles were, Woodward's contributions to the spy genre actually went well beyond Callan and McCall. Early in his career, he turned in memorable guest performances on ITC staples like The Saint (where he played a tormented politician) and The Baron. His Belloq-like, unscrupulous antiques dealer on the very best episode of the latter series was the dark side of the Baron himself (Steve Forrest), and a far more complex and compelling character. It's a pity he was introduced so late in the series, as he would have made a fantastic recurring antagonist. He created the character of Callan in dramatisation of James Mitchell's "A Magnum For Schneider" on the anthology series Armchair Theatre. That led to four seasons of the series, and after that Woodward reprised the role twice, in the theatrical film Callan (a remake of "A Magnum For Schneider") and the reunion movie Wet Job (1981). Later spy roles included an MI6 officer in Codename: Kyril (1988) and, in the late 90s, stepping into Gordon Jackson's shoes as leader of The New Professionals, Brian Clemens' (The Avengers) more espionage-heavy revival of his 70s action drama.

As good as he was at wet work, Woodward's CV covered a great deal more genres than spy. He revealed an unexpected flair for black comedy in Edgar Wright's sublime Hot Fuzz (2007), his last major theatrical role. He shined in military roles in movies like Breaker Morant (1980) and Mister Johnson (1990, with Pierce Brosnan) and even took a stab at Sherlock Holmes in the TV movie Hands of a Murderer, but will probably remain best remembered for his stellar performance as Sgt. Howie in the 1973 cult horror classic The Wicker Man, opposite Christopher Lee. While Lee had the showier role, it was Woodward on whom it fell to carry the movie. And he did so in fantastic fashion, playing a stuffy, unlikable hero with such utter conviction that you can't help sympathize with the out-of-his-depth policeman by the film's final moments. The character may have lacked Callan's steely resolve or McCall's prickly badassery, but once more Woodward brought to the role that undeniable gravitas that defined his career. He was an unsung titan of the spy genre, and he will be missed. For a good idea of the legacy that Edward Woodward leaves behind, I highly recommend checking out Callan: Set 1, finally released on DVD in America just this year.

Read my review of Callan: Set One here.

Nov 16, 2009

The Prisoner Blu-Ray On Sale At Deep Discount

Deep Discount is running their semi-annual DVD sale right now, but it's not quite as good as it usually is. Instead of 20-15% off their usually already low prices, it's 40% off of the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price this winter. In some cases, that equation works out in the consumer's favor. But in most, it means you don't save as much as you used to. Still, with the site's free shipping, you can still find a number of good deals for your holiday spy shopping. Foremost among them is a special offer that appears to be available for a single day: you can save a whopping sixty percent on A&E's Blu-ray edition of The Prisoner: The Complete Series! That makes the entire series (and we're talking about the utterly brilliant Sixties original here, starring the great Patrick McGoohan, not the new version) in high-definition, including all of the fabulous extras available in the United States for the first time with this release, only $39.99 as opposed to a hundred bucks. Wow! If there's a spy fan on your shopping list this season, pick this up now! In fact, if there are any intelligent people who like great television on your list, pick this up. And, of course, get one for yourself. That's a hell of a deal. And, just to maintain a shred of dignity, I'd like to stress that I'm not shilling for Deep Discount, but for The Prisoner itself. This deal just happens to be the cheapest way to get it. The series is absolutely essential television, spy or otherwise.

Nov 13, 2009


Congratulations to Dennis McPeek of Ohio. He is the winner of the Double O Section's Third Blogiversary Contest, and the proud owner of the brand new Alex Rider novel by Anthony Horowitz, Crocodile Tears! Your book will be shipped out today, Dennis, so hopefully you should have it on Tuesday when it hits U.S. bookstores everywhere. Whether you're new to the world of Alex Rider or a long-time fan, I hope you enjoy it! As to everyone else who entered, you should be able to find the book in all bookstores come Tuesday, or you can order it from Amazon. And, as always, there will be other opportunities to win great spy stuff on the Double O Section in the near future, so keep reading!

Nov 12, 2009

More Upcoming Spy Music: Inspector Clouseau

Boy, there sure is a lot of spy music coming out in the final months of 2009! And that's a wonderful thing. Due out the second week of December is Ken Thorne's fantastic score to Inspector Clouseau (1968). Yes, Inspector Clouseau is a spy movie. It's basically a Bond parody, moreso than any of the other Clouseau movies. It's also, of course, the only movie of its era not to feature the inimitable Peter Sellers as Clouseau. Instead, Alan Arkin essays the title role. Audiences couldn't accept that, the movie flopped, and now it's the black sheep of the Pink Panther series. In truth, though, there have been much worse entries. Arkin isn't bad, but he suffers the same primary flaw as Steve Martin, Roberto Begnini, Roger Moore and everyone else who's ever tried to play that role: he isn't Sellers. Still, the movie is entertaining enough and worth a watch for spy fans. Clouseau is seconded to British Intelligence and outfitted with various spy gadgets in order to go after a gang of international bank robbers. Composer Ken Thorne (Help!, The Persuaders!) has a task about as thankless as Arkin's: he had to fill the shoes of the legendary Henry Mancini, also absent from this Clouseau outing. He doesn't use the famous Pink Panther Theme, and actually creates a wonderful score that stands well on its own outside of the movie. In fact, it's one of my favorite Sixties spy scores. I've got it on vinyl somewhere, but I thought the closest I'd ever come to having it on CD were the samples on the second Portishead album. But now it's coming out, on the Kritzerland label (the same people who are releasing Billion Dollar Brain), and it's available to order from Buysoundtrax. The first hundred copies ordered will come signed by Ken Thorne.
Upcoming Spy CDs: Johnny Dankworth's Fathom Score And Prisoner Remake Soundtrack

The fabulous spy music website Spy Bop Royale has alerted me to the news I've wanted to hear for years: Johnny Dankworth's score for the hugely enjoyable 1967 Raquel Welch spy movie Fathom will finally be available on CD from Harkit... next week! I can't even recall how long ago this was first announced, never to come to fruition at that time. I think it was when Harkit first released the Modesty Blaise score on CD. That has to have been at least five years ago, right? Loving Fathom and its score, and also loving Dankworth's other work, like his elusive theme for the Cathy Gale era Avengers, I couldn't wait to have this score on CD. But, as it turned out, I did wait, like everyone else. For years. Fathom became one of my spy music Holy Grails. (Not quite up there with Ken Thorne's Persuaders! music, though.) Well, now, apparently, the waiting is over, and we should all be able to possess this wonderful score on November 17! In fact, it can be pre-ordered from Amazon right now. (I'm not sure why they opted for that cover, though, instead of using one of the many more iconic and sexy poster images from the film. Oh well.)

I also learned from the "What's New" page at Spy Bop Royale that Varese Sarabande will release a soundtrack for AMC's new version of The Prisoner on that same day. (It's also available for pre-order.) No longer dreading this remake and encouraged by the footage that I saw at Comic-Con, I'm still approaching it with a lot of trepidation. That said, you can never have too many Prisoner CDs, as Network proved when they managed to dig up another three discs' worth of material from the original series on top of the three CDs (some of them now out of print) put out by Silva several years ago. I don't expect Rupert Gregson-Williams' music for the new version to be anything like that, but it's new spy music nonetheless, and I'm certainly curious about it.