Nov 17, 2011

New Spy DVDs Out This Week and Last

New Spy DVDs Out This Week and Last

It Takes A Thief

Finally! It feels like we've been waiting years for It Takes a Thief! And I don't just mean the year-plus that it's been since the title was first announced as forthcoming by eOne Entertianment. I mean that this Sixties spy classic is long overdue on DVD in Region 1, and as one of the last major spy shows of that decade to be released, it's sort of hard to believe that it's finally here. (Now we just need Amos Burke, Secret Agent and T.H.E. Cat...) But it is, and in its three-season entirety all at once, no less!

eOne's 18-disc set  contains all 66 episodes of the 1968-70 ABC series starring Robert Wagner (The Pink Panther, Austin Powers) as master cat burglar Alexander Mundy, who's caught and pressed into service by SIA agent Noah Bain (Malachi Throne) to use his considerable skills for Uncle Sam as a thief-cum-spy. ("Let me get this straight.... You want me to steal?" clarifies a bemused Mundy when Throne makes his proposal.) The great Fred Astaire plays his dad (also a gentleman thief) on a handful of episodes during the third season, and guest stars include Senta Berger (Otley, The Quiller Memorandum), Adolfo Celi (Thunderball, Operation Kid Brother), Joseph Cotton (The Third Man), Bette Davis (Madame Sin) and even Peter Sellers (Casino Royale)  in dual roles. Extras on the discs include new (separate) half-hour interviews with Wagner and writer/producer Glen A. Larson, and the feature film version of the pilot episode, entitled Magnificent Thief, which runs almost 40 minutes longer than the TV version (which is also included). There's also a booklet with informative liner notes by Cinema Retro's Dean Brierly (who also curates the great Sixties Crime Films blog).

That's the good news. Now the bad. For starters, the retail price on this puppy is a heart attack-inducing $199.98. Luckily, that one's easily enough overcome since the set is available for half price at a number of online retailers including Deep Discount, WalMart and Amazon. (You can now support this blog again by buying things from my Amazon links; Amazon made peace with California, fortunately.) Not so easily overcome is the astoundingly atrocious packaging! Seriously, I think this is the worst packaging I've ever seen for a DVD set, even worse than that annoying box for The Wild Wild West: The Complete Series. I'm not a fan of unnecessarily bulky packaging to begin with, because I have a lot of DVDs and shelf space is always at a premium. But, unfortunately for people like me, the studios always put complete series sets in unnecessarily bulky long-boxes or cubes because they want them to take up a lot of shelf space at big box stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas. They also feel that their size should reflect the steep prices they like to charge for them, because they think consumers feel that way. Maybe some consumers do. I don't. But understanding all that, this one is still worse than most. At this excessive price point, the nearest comparison spy fans have are Time-Life's gift set releases of the complete series of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart. Both were clunky, but they were also clever (the former was shaped like an attache case and the latter mimicked the many doors leading into Control) and (the attache case's handle notwithstanding), for the most part, sturdy. The cube encasing these It Takes A Thief discs is neither clever nor sturdy. It's made out of the flimsiest cardboard I've ever seen used on a DVD box set. If you pick it up the wrong way, you'll crush it. On top of that, it's massively inefficient. When you open the box, you find a lot of empty space taken up by a cardboard placeholder and stupid trinkets like a set of four It Takes A Thief coasters (coasters!) and a "limited edition senitype." Senitypes are those individually numbered cardboard dealies with a little piece of 35mm film stuck into them. It's not even from an original print; it's a reproduction. They're the stupidest kind of artificial collectible I can think of... except maybe coasters. Is there really any demand for Robert Wagner coasters? It's almost insulting to think that eOne thought these cheapo items would justify such an excessive price point. But it's not the trinkets that really bother me. It's the fact that they take up so much space in the box... and yet not all of the space!

There's a tremendous amount of wasted, empty space inside this stupid box. And to make matters worse, the stuff that goes in it (including the actual discs, housed in square wallets, as well as the trinkets) don't all fit comfortably inside. It should be a simple matter of spacial logic, but it's not. One season's folder is awkwardly packed in sideways, because the others, which are stacked, don't fit snugly enough without that one wedged in there. But because the discs are in wallets and not Amrays, you can't really display them on their own without the packaging... so you're stuck with this chunky, inefficient cube. (Definitely hang onto that cardboard space-filler. You can use it to creatively rekajigger the arrangement as seen below for something that almost fits...) If these things matter to you, you really might be better off waiting and hoping that eOne releases more conveniently packaged individual seasons down the line. (That happened with Get Smart.)

However, the show itself is a lot of fun and a must in any Sixties spy fan's library. And from the brief bit I've sampled so far, the picture looks awfully good. [Scratch that! See below.] So while this box and its dumb trinkets are definitely not worth $200, the three seasons of the series itself are easily worth Amazon's $98.99. So put it on your Christmas list after all. Even if the packaging sucks, the actual content won't disappoint. Because it's a great thing to finally have It Takes A Thief on DVD.

UPDATE: I've watched a few more episodes now and I take back what I said about the picture looking good. The first episodes I sampled were all from Season One, and that does, indeed, look pretty good. Today I checked out some Season Three episodes, and the quality is horrible! Horrible enough to warrant this edit. I'm really not a stickler for top quality, either. A lot of the Eurospy titles I'm into are so obscure that you have to take what you can get, and I'm used to that. I'm okay with it, even. If those are all the elements available, we have to make do. But I cannot believe for a second that these discs from eOne represent the best elements available from a major American network series like It Takes A Thief! Were the original masters lost in that Universal fire a few years ago? I find it impossible to believe that the studio can't provide better elements otherwise. As is, these discs offer no improvement from the bootlegs die-hard fans likely already have. eOne claims on the packaging that they're "remastered," but they must have been remastered from an ancient video source by the look of it. They are definitely not restored in any way. Some people have complained about Warner Archives' non-remastered Girl From U.N.C.L.E. discs, but that's only because they were spoiled by Time-Life's beautifully restored Man From U.N.C.L.E. set. Girl looks fantastic compared to It Takes A Thief. I still believe that any It Takes A Thief is better than no It Takes A Thief, but at this steep price point, I can't really recommend upgrading if you've got episodes taped off TV. It's a real shame.

Page Eight

Last week saw the release from PBS of David Hare's elegant, adult BBC spy thriller Page Eight, which recently aired on PBS' Masterpiece Contemporary. This serious spy drama boasts an all-star cast to equal that of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, including Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Ewan Bremner and Judy Davis. And it's really, really good. Hopefully I'll have a full review up soon. Nighy plays veteran MI5 officer Johnny Worricker. When his boss and best friend Benedict Baron (Gambon) dies suddenly, he leaves behind an inexplicable file, threatening the stability of the organization and the government itself. Johnny's colleagues and the Prime Minister (Fiennes, playing a PM so evil he could only be described as Voldemort in a tuxedo) all scramble to use the file to their own ends, but how will Johnny use it? Meanwhile, a seemingly chance encounter with his striking next-door neighbour and political activist Nancy Pierpan (Weisz) seems too good to be true, so he has her vetted by a former colleague (Bremner). Johnny is forced to take some extreme measures to find out the truth. Set in London and Cambridge, Page Eight is,  PBS puts it in their disc copy, "a contemporary spy film for the BBC, which addresses intelligence issues and moral dilemmas peculiar to the new century." It's also the closest thing on television right now to the serious spy series of the late Seventies and early Eighties like the original Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People, as well as Game, Set and Match and Mr. Palfrey of Westminster. In other words, if you're looking for 24, look elsewhere. But if you're looking for intelligent, adult, thought-provoking spy drama, definitely give this disc a look. SRP is $24.99 for the DVD and $29.99 for the Blu-ray, though both are available for less from the usual online retailers. Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any features on this Region 1 release; at least the Region 2 DVD featured cast and crew interviews.

Bognor: The Complete Series

"THE SAINT, STEED, CALLAN, DICK BARTON... now the most unlikely super hero of them all comes to your screen!" blared ITV's announcement of their latest spy(ish) series, Bognor, in a February 1981 TV Times. Now Network reworks that hyperbole in their copy for its DVD release: "John Steed, Simon Templar, Dick Barton… and Simon Bognor. Following in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, the principal agent of the Special Investigations Department of the Board of Trade ventures forth to take on wrongdoers wherever they may lurk!" Since the odds are most people have never heard of him, obviously Bognor (played by David Horovitch) didn't really make it in such lofty company. But I'm intrigued by anyone who tries, so I'm curious to give this humorous take on the secret agent format a chance--especially since it does actually have a connection to one of those aforementioned TV heroes. Bognor is based on a series of novels by Tim Heald, author of John Steed: An Authorized Biography: Volume One - Jealous in Honour. That was a fictional biography of the famous Avenger, (in the vein of John Pearson's James Bond: The Authorized Biography of 007) which also featured an unauthorized cameo from Bond. (Read more about it here.) Only one edition was ever printed and it's become quite hard to find, but it's worth tracking down for Avengers fans. It's good enough to inspire interest in Bognor. Here's the rest of Network's copy: "In [the serial] 'Unbecoming Habits,' [Bognor] poses as a CID officer to investigate a friary suspected of passing agricultural secrets to the Soviets; 'Deadline' sees him lowering journalistic standards as he goes undercover to probe the murder of a gossip columnist; in 'Let Sleeping Dogs Die' he trails ruthless pedigree dog smugglers; 'Just Desserts' finds him uncovering deadly intrigue in the world of haute cuisine. But will the assignments throw up more clues than Bognor can handle?" Network's 4-disc Region 2 PAL DVD set includes all 21 episodes of the series, which originally ran from 1981-82. The set is a web exclusive, available only from Network's website for £35.00. While you're there, you can also check out a video of the show's entertaining opening credits, which gleefully send up the title sequences of Sixties spy series.

Bulman: The Complete Second Series

Finally, another Network web exclusive came out last week that isn't principally a spy show, but still has enough Cold War-themed episodes to interest fans of British spy TV. Don Henderson stars in his third TV show playing the same part, classics-quoting detective George Bulman (previously seen in The XYY Man and Strangers, as well as the first series of Bulman), now retired from the police force, but still taking cases on a private basis--and taking unofficial assignments from Secret Service mandarin William Dugdale (Thorley Walters). It's a detective show, but like most UK detective shows of that era, detection and espionage often intersect. Ingrid Pitt, Robert Hardy and Iain Cuthbertson also appear. The 2-disc set (PAL, Region 2) containing all 6 episodes of Series 2 is available exclusively from Network's website for £15.00.

It's worth noting that Network's web exclusives are now available for a limited time only. Both Bognor and Bullman: The Complete Second Series will be discontinued on November 4, 2012.


Armstrong Sabian said...

I've not heard of Bognor nor Bulman. Thanks for drawing my attention to them.

As for It Takes a Thief...well, a bit awkward to see this release come out in the midst of today's news, re: Natalie Wood. Still, excited to watch this one.

Tanner said...

Hm, yeah, that is unfortunate timing. I hadn't heard about that until reading your comment.

Simes said...

I've got the first series of IT TAKES A THIEF on an Australian release; pretty good. I decided on the Aussie version as I suspect it's probably not going to see a UK release.

BULMAN is a follow on to a Granada TV police series called STRANGERS. It's got a cult following of sorts but IMO is nowhere near as enjoyable as STRANGERS. I really do think that it's a bit of a stretch to consider either of these as "Spy DVDs" y'now..... ;-)

Brian R. Sheridan said...

Lana Wood seems to smell another payday from Wagner with the release of the DVD set. She has had an ax to grind against him way before her sister's death.

Simes said...

Yes, the 'reopening' of the Natalie Wood case does smack of interesting timing. Though I really doubt that sales of the set would provide much of a payday, if that's what's on Lana Wood's mind. Is this set going to set the world on fire, sales-wise?

I doubt it.

PS: The Australians are planning to release the Wagner/Eddie Albert series SWITCH at some point!

Tanner said...

Ha! Simes, you're the only person I've ever had complain about the stuff I DO cover! (But of course I love your enthusiasm.) Usually, people complain about stuff I DON'T cover. But I try to cover a fairly broad spectrum of spy entertainment, and give most things on the borderline the benefit of the doubt. And with a whole half the episodes of the first season of Bulman concerning espionage, I think it actually makes its case better than some of the other things I cover here! But I did try to make it clear that it wasn't an up-and-down spy show.