Dec 13, 2010

Movie Review: Spies Strike Silently (1966)

Movie Review: Spies Strike Silently (1966)

Spies Strike Silently stars Lang Jeffries as secret agent Mike Drum, an American working for the British Secret Service. “Probably thinks he’s James Bond,” whispers one civil servant to another haughtily, dreading Drum’s impending arrival on the scene. Don’t let that sly bit of scripting cloud your mind, though: Mike Drum is not James Bond. Imbued with all the qualities of actor Lang Jeffries, he’s handsome and suave–even kind of likeable when he needs to be–and good in a fight, but as bland as an indifferently blended sherry. In short, Jeffries is a perfectly acceptable Eurospy star, not as smarmy as some, but not as charming as others. But he's had better roles in other movies in the genre. Here, his character trait (yes, I said trait–singular–and even that is borrowed from Goldfinger) is that he favors a white dinner jacket. He’s pleasant and tolerable–and the same can be said for the movie. It’s competently made and boasts some interesting (if not especially creative) camera work, but ultimately lacks any truly memorable characters or setpieces.

The plot is a standard-issue affair about murdered scientists and hypnotized assassins that doesn’t totally make sense, but makes just enough sense that you’ll be fine if you’ve already had a few shaken martinis and can only half pay attention. (Let’s put it this way: it doesn’t not make sense enough to be remembered for that, either.) For the first half of the movie, Drum’s investigation seems more centered on the soap opera shenanigans of the forgettable supporting characters than on much spying or striking–silently or otherwise. Take this soapy exchange:
Drum: When I questioned Pamela and Edward, they acted strange. I think there’s something going on there. I had the impression they were lying. And when I watched them during dinner, I had the feeling there was something between Pamela and Rashid. And Edward was jealous.

Policeman: But Edward was engaged to Freeman’s daughter!

Drum: Aw, that means nothing! I’m sure Jane’s death didn’t break him up much, and he’s only interested in Pamela.
In the second half of the film, the run-of-the-mill murder investigation (which even the characters in the movie note seems beneath the talents of a secret agent) gives way to a string of dead or endangered scientists and ordinary people being subjected to “hypnotic toxins.” (“It may be perhaps related to the heroin drug,” speculates a helpful lab assistant–but he sounds like he’s guessing.) These toxins behave much as they do in all the other myriad movies they appear in, running the gamut from Eurospy ilk like Attack of the Robots to The Naked Gun: they turn ordinary people into unwitting assassins, prepared to do their masters’ bidding without question–even if he orders them to kill themselves. (Which is a favorite order among the sort of masters who create these hypnotoxins.) Drum himself manages to snap out of it pretty easily, of course, when he finally gets hypno-poisoned... for the second time. (The first time he was only pretending.)

The villain has a handy-dandy laser beam/death ray thingy (one that looks suspiciously like a regular old spotlight) that serves not one but two thrilling (and convenient) purposes. 1.) It can project his thoughts directly into the minds of another person (okay, makes sense), and 2.) If highly focused, it can immolate a human being. I’m not really sure why you’d want the same ray to do both things, because I’d expect that to lead to lots of cockups in which the person whose mind you’re trying to control ends up bursting into flames. For the sake of the movie, however, its two functions remain pretty separate, though both are of course demonstrated.

Amidst all the dying scientists and hypnosis/death rays and hypnotoxins and jazzy music (one of the film's highlights) and obvious traitors and belly dancing (oh, come on; that one goes without saying!), Spies Strikes Silently does feature a notable rarity: there’s actually a black Eurospy babe! (“Did you see a colored girl in a red dress leave the hotel?!”) And not just in Africa or the Caribbean or somewhere where the producers feel the need to add one for local color, either. Don’t worry though. She’s not treated like a minority; she’s treated just like any other lady in Eurospy Land: badly. Smacked around by the hero, and later left by some baddies with a bullet in her chest. Oh well. Surely it still counts as one of the decade’s many civil rights victories, right?

Some Eurospy movies are truly great, transcending a genre whose sole raison d’etre is to rip off better movies. Some are awful–appallingly so. The vast majority, though, are just middle-of-the road, doing exactly what they’re meant to do, hitting all of the pre-ordained beats on a checklist that was furiously scrawled in a dark theater during the Rome premiere of Goldfinger and then secretly passed from director to director (some of whom had trouble deciphering the partially legible Italian, leading them to misread “plot point” as “strip joint,” “story advancing” as “belly dancing” and “charming repartee” as “smarmy rape party”). Consequently, they tend to serve just fine as a diverting enough hour-and-a-half of recycled spy scenarios adorned with a proper ratio of beautiful women to slightly overlong fist or knife fights. Spies Strike Silently firmly stakes its claim smack in the middle of the middle-of-the-road category, dutifully avoiding in equal measure any of the jaw-droppingly poor choices or brilliantly quirky touches that make some of these middle-of-the-road entries just as memorable as the best or worst of the genre. (I’m not sure which of those the gender-bending finale of Fury in Marrakesh was–poor or brilliant–but it certainly makes the film stand out in my memory!) Spies Strike Silently just is... but not in a bad way. I’ve seen enough middle-of-the-road Eurospy movies now that I should be able to say what exactly makes me like one and dislike another, but I still can’t pinpoint that. Maybe it just depends on my mood.  At any rate, I liked Spies Strike Silently, but in two weeks it will be indistinguishable in my mind from countless others just like it, so it’s a good thing I have this review to refer back to.

The version under review is another excellent fan-dub hybrid, combining the best available elements for an English-language version with a quality widescreen picture. Once again, it’s the result of the tireless efforts of that master fan-dubber known as Skadog. If you’re intent on tracking down Spies Strike Silently (which isn’t available through any mainstream channels in the English-speaking world), this is definitely the version to watch. (But there are far better Eurospy rarities to track down first.)

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