Monthly Archives: January 2021

You Only Live Twice (1967)

*. There’s some variation in where people rank You Only Live Twice in the Bond film canon, but I think most people agree with the idea that the formula was starting to feel tired. It did great box office, but less than Thunderball, marking the first falling off in what had been the franchise’s previously inexorable rise. There were just too many spy movies being released in the ’60s, including countless Bond clones and parodies.
*. On top of this staleness (as Roger Ebert’s contemporary review called it) there was the fact that Connery didn’t want to be here and had only been coaxed back by a bigger payday. Lewis Gilbert, in his first turn as a Bond director (he’d be back for a couple more, ten years later), also had to be talked into doing the movie. Then Ian Fleming’s novel had to be completely reworked, basically only keeping the title and the Japanese setting. There’s nothing in the book about stealing spaceships, for example, or a secret base in a volcano.
*. Roald Dahl, a friend of Fleming’s, was given the job of making a screenplay out of what he thought was a plotless travelogue. He hadn’t written a screenplay before (at least for anything that had ben produced) and his instructions included following what had become the Bond formula, one of the chief elements being the disposable Bond girls. Perhaps as a result the triumvirate here of Aki (the friend who gets killed), Helga Brandt (the villainess who gets killed) and Kissy Suzuki (Aki’s replacement, who Bond “marries”) constitute perhaps the least memorable line-up of women in any Bond film. This puts them on the same level as the dour Hans, who is among the least memorable bodyguards. Like the girls, he’s just a prop.
*. The story Dahl came up with is beyond silly. Could Blofeld have possibly come up with a less complicated and expensive way to start a Third World War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union than stealing their spaceships? Not to mention how he manages to keep such an operation under the radar. I don’t think that covering over the volcano would fool many people. All of which may sound like pointless carping at a Bond movie, but Auric Goldfinger’s plot to nuke Fort Knox at least made a kind of sense.

*. The effects were impressive for the time, but today the space stuff doesn’t play very well. This was the year before Kubrick’s 2001, and a decade before Star Wars reset the game entirely. So the spaceships still have a 1950s look to them and seem kind of silly to me. But then, Moonraker (also directed by Gilbert) was silly too, what with all the lasers.
*. Some people like the title track, sung by Nancy Sinatra (her dad had passed on the honours). I don’t. I don’t care for the credit sequence either, or how long it takes for us to get to it. Nor do any of the plot mechanics that are introduced make sense. What is achieved, really, by faking Bond’s death? Or by disguising him as Japanese? It’s not like everyone isn’t on to him anyway. Note how easily the Ninja Academy is infiltrated (twice!). Doesn’t this make it clear that SPECTRE know about him?
*. More than in any of the previous films there’s a sense that we’re just here to watch the big signature scenes. A car being picked off the highway by a giant magnet hanging from a helicopter. A spectacular aerial duel with Bond in a gyrocopter. And of course a climactic battle where the giant volcano set gets blown up. These are the things people remember.

*. They might also remember the car. A Toyota 2000GT. I guess when in Japan one drives local. Apparently one poll has this as the seventh best Bond car, but Daniel Craig voted it his favourite. I like it, and might rank it as high as third, behind the Aston Martin from Goldfinger and the Lotus Esprit that turns into a submersible in The Spy Who Loved Me. I had a toy one of those when I was a kid.
*. In much if not all of this the sense I get is of a movie that is trying hard to impress more than to be enjoyed. The best of the Connery Bond films — From Russia With Love and Goldfinger — were a kind of dance. They just had a flow to them, like the shot of Red Grant tracking Bond from within the train as Bond walks on the station platform, or the diving board-to-below-the-pool shot that introduces us to Miami. Here that just seems to be missing, the exposition is clunky, and the musical notes don’t help.
*. A good example of the kind of thing I mean is the rooftop chase and fight at the docks. This is done as an aerial shot, and it is impressive. But it doesn’t have the kind of flow to it that those other scenes I mentioned have. The sheer logistics of it actually detract from its impact. It’s spectacular, but kind of dull.
*. Much the same could be said of the volcano base. Yes, it’s impressive. But its sheer size is alienating, the long shots used to show us all of its magnificence at once keep us at a distance from the action, like the rooftop chase. I just found myself sitting back and admiring Ken Adam’s handiwork and all the controlled explosions.
*. We finally get to see Blofeld’s face and it’s . . . Donald Pleasence. Not a great choice, in my opinion. And I wonder if it would have been better to have kept him off screen. Perhaps. But then the shots of him just stroking his cat were getting ridiculous.
*. You’ll probably have guessed from the tone of these comments that I don’t think that much of You Only Live Twice. I think it better than a lot of what was to come, but not as good as the earlier Bonds, including Thunderball. Danny Peary calls it “the first disappointing Bond film.” Pauline Kael, interestingly, was of another opinion, calling it “the most consistently entertaining of the Bond packages up to the time.” In my judgment it starts to drag about half way through, despite the giant bellows being used to keep air in it. Box office was still great, though it also fell for the first time in the franchise’s history. Commentators blamed the oversaturation of the market with spy movies, and they certainly had a point. But also, as Connery felt, it was time for a change.

Modesty Blaise (1966)

*. In the ’60s spy movies were everywhere. In the midst of Bondmania everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. How do you know this? Well, you could just look at a list of all of the titles. Or you could look at Modesty Blaise. If Joseph Losey is directing a spy spoof with Monica Vitti in her English-language debut then you know that everyone is officially in on the act.
*. Vitti might have worked. In fact, I think she does work. Maybe it’s only her association with Antonioni (who arrived on set with her, putting Losey’s nose out of joint), but I just love to look at her. Call it a “thing.” But Losey? Could you think of a director less suited to this campy, comic-book, totally “mod” material than Joseph Losey?
*. I think it’s clear Losey has no feel for the material at all. Despite Vitti’s presence I found this a hard movie to sit through. It has no energy, and no interest in its story at all. In fact I had a very hard time keeping focus on what was supposed to be happening. Stolen diamonds? Diamonds that were about to be stolen? And who were all these people? They all seemed to know one another but I couldn’t figure out how they were related. It was like being dropped into Avengers: Endgame without having seen any of the previous MCU movies or read any of the comics.

*. Speaking of being related, at one time, meaning around this time, I would have had trouble distinguishing between Dirk Bogarde (Gabriel) and Terence Stamp (Willie). They might have been brothers. Bogarde was actually 17 years older though. That surprised me. In any event, they both seem miscast. Bogarde should be having a lot more fun playing up the gay thief, while Stamp seems positively sullen as Willie. I get the sense this wasn’t a fun set to work on.
*. Harold Pinter helped (?) on the script. Not surprising, as Losey was working a lot with Pinter at the time (he’d written The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between). But it is surprising, somewhat, that the script is this bad. But then, as I said in my notes on The Quiller Memorandum, just because Pinter was a great playwright doesn’t mean we have to give him a pass for everything he did.
*. What might have been. When rights to the comic were first bought the idea was to have Sidney Gilliat direct, with Barbara Steele playing Modesty and Michael Caine as Willie. Cor! I’d have watched that for a dollar!

*. Women are not treated well in the spy films of this period. As Bruce Eder remarks in his Criterion essay on Charade, that film “occupies a special place among sixties thrillers. In an era of spy films resplendent with macho-driven eroticism (the James Bond series), cynicism (Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer series), or farcical irreverence (Casino Royale; the Flint movies, with Charade costar James Coburn), it was the only successful take on the genre to place a woman at its center.”
*. Well, Modesty Blaise was successful. Not a hit, but it made money. And Modesty is a far stronger female lead than Regina in Charade. As the Girl with the Scorpion Tattoo she’s a kick-ass heroine well ahead of her time. As is Mrs. Fothergill, the sexual psychopath. These are not Bond girls or fembots but true leading ladies.
*. So it’s a movie that gives you a lot to talk about. And something to look at. But it’s a misfire, incoherent and dull. Enjoy the theme song (“She’ll turn your head, though she might use a judo hold . . .”) because it’s pretty much all downhill from there.

Murderers’ Row (1966)

*. Murderers’ Row was the second of four Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin. I’m not a big fan so it may be the only one you’ll see any notes on here.
*. Don’t bother going to the source, which is Donald Hamilton’s novel of the same name. The movie has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Instead this is a generic Bond spoof, of a kind that were very thick on the ground at this time given how successful the Bond franchise had become.
*. It’s interesting that so many people tried to spoof Bond without trying to really imitate him. The Flint films, to take another prominent example, are spy comedies too. But while the Bond movies have a lot of funny bits that make them ripe for parody, they aren’t comic vehicles.
*. Director Henry Levin came to this project right after making another such Bond spoof, the Eurospy romp Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. I don’t know if this movie is any better, and I don’t blame Levin. Instead I’d look first at Dean Martin.
*. Kiss the Girls was set in Rio and its star Mike Connors (who narrowly missed out being cast as Helm) was a game player who even did his own stunt in being lifted on a helicopter ladder from the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Martin, on the other hand, wouldn’t even go to Europe to do any of the location shots for this movie. I don’t know why. Turning down a working vacation on the Côte d’Azur?
*. As a result there are a lot of bad process shots that have to be worked in that don’t sell us on the fact that Martin really isn’t there. There’s also the fact that Martin was pushing 50, and in those days (and with his lifestyle) that was a very old man. Connery was 13 years younger, and would be 52 when he came out of retirement in Never Say Never Again, where I think everyone agreed he was much too old for the part. Even Martin’s voice sounds old here, too mellow and avuncular for the part.
*. Maybe that was part of the joke. Like the way he complains about the mod scene at the disco, and is called “Dad” by one of the band members (who was, in fact, played by Martin’s son). It goes with the way that Martin never projects any sense of danger, or even good health. He always seems to me to be about to keel over, last drink in hand. He’s just here to goof around, enjoy the booze, and swing with some younger ladies. Like Ann-Margret. Over twenty years younger. Sounds right.
*. “It’s called a discotheque!” Ann-Margret tells him. He would have to be told. That was a word that was quite new in 1966. Merriam Webster lists its first English usage as 1960. I think it only started being used to refer to a modern dance club in France in the 1950s. I wanted to look that up because we tend to think of discos as very much a part of late ’70s culture, reaching a peak with Saturday Night Fever in 1977.
*. Something else that was relatively new at the time is the hovercraft. They’d only started coming into commercial use a few years earlier, and their use here was probably pretty impressive. Though I don’t think they add much to the movie.
*. But of course a Bond spoof needs its gimmicks, large and small. The main one here is a gun with a delayed firing mechanism. It gets used quite a lot. There’s also another gun that fires a freezing spray. Works well on drinks and bad guys.
*. Most of it plays as second-rate though, and no better as such than Kiss the Girls or even Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. There’s a swinging score by Lalo Schifrin, and Karl Malden doing his best as the bad guy, but they just had nothing to work with. I don’t even know if they had much in the way of a budget. Even the way the bad guy with the chrome skull is disposed of — off-screen, with only the flash of an explosion — reeks of cheap.
*. So a bargain Bond spoof without anything memorable about it. Only for fans of Dean Martin or ’60s culture in general (I’m guessing there’s some overlap). Most of it has dated very badly. Which makes one wonder why the Bond movies of the same period remain so timeless. Perhaps Bond himself was just a figure as at home in 1962 as he would be in 2020. Dino? Not so much.

Funeral in Berlin (1966)

*. In my notes on The Ipcress File I mentioned how Len Deighton was a much better writer than Ian Fleming. He is, but he’s also more difficult. I don’t just mean in terms of plot either. Deighton has a habit of delaying explanations of what’s going on until an action is over, which has the effect of leaving the reader in a fog some of the time.
*. But then there is the plot. I have to admit that, reading the novel, I had trouble keeping Johnnie (Johnny in the film) Vulkan and Paul Louis Broum separate. By the end, when the (unnamed) agent is trying to explain he even says “Vulkan, Broum, whatever you want to call him.” Basically the point is that Vulkan was a German prison guard and Broum a rich Jewish prisoner who paid off an SS officer to kill Vulkan so that Broum could assume his identity. Then, in order to get his money out of a Swiss bank he needs identity papers from the British government to prove he’s Broum. These will be provided in order to expedite the defection of a scientist.
*. I think that’s it, and in outline it’s the same as in the movie, though they’ve cut some of the characters like the defecting scientist. But I don’t think anyone coming to the movie cold would have a hope of figuring it out. I’d read the book and I had a hard enough time just trying to keep straight what side of the Berlin Wall we were supposed to be on.
*. If you’re not meant to be following the plot, what are we meant to be doing? Admiring another cool performance by Michael Caine, who plays Harry Palmer beautifully as someone who knows a lot more than he’s letting on. He’s got the perfect deadpan in a game of double- and triple-crosses. And also worth noting is the good look around Cold War Berlin we get by way of some great use of locations. I mentioned how burned-out London looked in The Ipcress File (more like Vienna in The Third Man than the swinging London of the ’60s). Berlin is looking just as worse for wear here, much as it does in The Quiller Memorandum. This is the dirty anti-Bond look they were going for.

*. An anti-Bond from a lot of the Bond team. Harry Saltzman producing and Ken Adam on production design, just as with The Ipcress File. John Barry didn’t do the score but that’s Guy Hamilton directing, coming (almost) right off of Goldfinger. Another name you might not recognize (because she was rarely credited) is Nikki Van der Zyl, providing the voice for Eva Renzi, who plays Samantha Steele. Van der Zyle was probably “in” more of these spy movies in the ’60s than any other actor. She also did the lead female voices in all of the early Bond films, including Dr. No (Honey Ryder), Goldfinger (Jill Masterson), and Thunderball (Domino).
*. It’s a quiet movie, I think deliberately so. For example, the novel ends with a gunfight that takes place during a fireworks celebration on Guy Fawkes Night. Here there’s a game of cat and mouse played in a ruined building filled with shadows, with little noise at all. That’s a direction you don’t often see a film adaptation taking.
*. The quiet ending may have disappointed audiences. And the confusion of the plot probably didn’t help it at the box office either. I’ve seen a lot of people who rank it last among the Harry Palmer movies. Perhaps it’s because I know the book, but I like it a little better and would put it ahead of The Ipcress File. I enjoyed the atmosphere, Johnny Vulkan’s flashy car (a bronze 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible), and the cool banter among the various spies and schemers who all think they’re playing a chess game on different levels. Of course, only one of them can be right.

Our Man Flint (1966)

*. I mentioned in my notes on The Ipcress File how there were two general responses to Bondmania: trying to do more realistic spy stories (less girls and gadgets), or upping the ante into parody (more girls and gadgets). These two tendencies would see Bond, in the first instance, replaced by George Smiley and Harry Palmer, and later Jason Bourne, as in parody he would be replaced by Derek Flint, Matt Helm, and later Austin Powers and Johnny English.
*. One way of distinguishing the two responses is by their reference to psychedelia. Bond, at least the movie Bond, was very much a creature of the ’60s and swinging London, but there’s little psychedelic imagery, fashion, or music in the movies. The same goes for the realistic spy flicks, where the Cold War landscape makes everywhere look like some place behind the Iron Curtain. Hell, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was even shot in black-and-white. It doesn’t get any colder or more depressing than that.
*. The Flint movies, however, are a day-glo-a-go-go. We get Flint’s jazzy lair with its decadent art and furnishings, a bevy of girls in crazy outfits, and an almost obligatory hypnosis scene presented as a kind of psychedelic trip. It’s groovy, man.
*. This is what, as much as anything else, tells you we’re in parody country. On the DVD commentary by film historians Eddie Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer they call Our Man Flint “less of a parody and more of an homage,” but this is hard to credit. I mean, the anti-spy organization is Z.O.W.I.E., which they could only get by cramming together, incoherently, Zone Organization World Intelligence Espionage.
*. There were a slew of Bond derivatives coming out during these years and I’d rank Our Man Flint as one of the better ones. Meaning there were many, many worse offerings. Even more than fifty years later it’s still perfectly watchable. But compared to the Bond films it is second-rate in every department. This despite the fact that its budget at $3.5 million was comparable to the budget for Goldfinger (1964). The early Bond films, it’s easy to forget, were done on the cheap. Only with Thunderball (1965) did their budgets start to take off. And by then Bond was the biggest show in moviedom.
*. When I say second-rate I mean that the set design is marvelous, but not quite what Ken Adam achieved. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is very good, but doesn’t hit any of John Barry’s iconic notes. There is no theme song or bravura title sequence to set the tone. The Flint Girl (Gila Golan) is very pretty, and looks great in a bikini, but Raquel Welch had been originally slated for the part and it’s hard not to feel that something was missed there. Coburn is distractingly svelte in the first role he would receive top billing for, but he’s no Sean Connery when it comes to charm or physical presence.
*. Was this the first villain’s lair to be located in a volcano? You Only Live Twice would be the next year. By the time The Simpsons got around to their Bond parody episode it could be taken as a cliché.
*. Though this is mainly an entertaining bit of period fluff there were a couple of points that I thought interesting enough to dilate on.
*. In the first place there are the villains. In this case plural, since it’s a triumvirate of scientists who are creating all sorts of climactic catastrophes by way of their never-even-partially-explained weather-control technology. It’s Geostorm long before the days of CGI. But what is it these nerds in lab coats want? Money? Power? Women? None of the above. No, they want to make a better world for everyone. They want to “organize the potential of all mankind” for good, putting an end to war, hunger, and poverty.
*. Our man Flint, however, is having none of it. The commentary has something I found very interesting to say about this, seeing how Flint’s rejection of this altruistic mission expresses: “the underlying theme of the movie . . . the rugged individualist versus the scientific collective . . . and that was what Coburn was most proud of . . . the idea that he could play, that he could represent the American spirit, the idea that you could constantly learn and strive and be your own person, and that’s how you kept progressing rather than a group of scientists who decided that this is what’s good for you.”
*. Well, I’m sure it would be wise not to trust this bunch of scientists. After all, those who won’t submit to their Utopian schemes are either sent off for reconditioning or, if unreclaimable, to the electrofragmentizer. But there’s also an air of the populist rejection of elites and anti-intellectualism embodied in Flint as well, for all his own ostentatious culture and learning.
*. The do-gooder villains are a twist to the usual Bond-style plot. The treatment of women is far more conventional, for the time, and is the other point I found interesting. What does it signify that the Bond villains, as here, collect so many beautiful women but seem to have no use for them? They are merely trophies, or perhaps baubles brainwashed, as here, into serving as pleasure units in a Westworld-style bordello that the conspiracy’s mooks have to take a kind of Viagra before they can enjoy. Meanwhile, our hero (Bond or Flint) is more than man enough to service an entire army of women, to the point where, as the Austin Powers movies recognized, his mojo becomes a kind of magic power.
*. I also wonder, building on this, where fembots — brainwashed or robotic perfect women — first came from. I’m sure someone has done a study of it. Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives was published in 1972. The episode of Star Trek “Mudd’s Women,” which had the Lothario Mudd attended by a small army of sexy droids, aired in October 1966, making it nearly contemporary with this film. Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine had come out just a year before. It’s obviously a male fantasy of long standing, but the use of hypnosis or robotics to program the perfect female had to wait for those technologies to fully enter the cultural mainstream before we could have stories like this. And was something else at work? Was it all a response to second-wave feminism? The timing can’t have been a coincidence.
*. It finally does seem to me to be a movie that, unlike Coburn’s impressive planking technique, falls between two stools. It’s not a thrilling action movie or a funny comedy. With regard to the latter I think it’s clear that director Daniel Mann had no sense of comic timing and probably wasn’t the right guy for the job. But the production is nicely turned out and if you’re interested in what was happening in the genre of spy pictures in the ’60s, which was their big decade, then it’s essential viewing.

Torn Curtain (1966)

*. Torn Curtain was Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th movie, and as you might expect that was both a cause for celebration and an obvious entry point for critics to pile on. When an older, established artist puts out work this dull the reviews write themselves (or at least they did, before today’s cult of idol-worship took over). And so Richard Schickel: “Hitchcock is tired to the point where what once seemed a highly personal style is now repetitions of past triumphs.” Or Bosley Crowther: “In these times, with James Bonds cutting capers and pallid spies coming in out of the cold, Mr. Hitchcock will have to give us something a good bit brighter to keep us amused.”
*. The reference to Bond is particularly telling. Hitchcock had been doing spy pictures for decades, but, with North by Northwest, he’s often credited with having made the proto-Bond film. Now, only five years later, he’d been surpassed at his own game.
*. So yes, Hitch was old, and not in good health. I think everyone could feel it. Though he was trying to keep up. He’d asked Bernard Herrmann for a more “pop” score to appeal to a younger generation of moviegoers. Herrmann’s response (related in Patrick McGilligan’s Hitchcock bio) says a lot: “Look Hitch,” Herrmann told him, “you can’t out-jump your own shadow. And you don’t make pop pictures. What do you want from me? I don’t write pop music.”
*. You can’t out-jump your own shadow. Ouch. Words no one wants to hear. So Herrmann and Hitch fell out. But there were more pressing problems, starting with the cast and the script.
*. Nobody liked the script, including the screenwriters. The matter of who would get a credit later had to go to arbitration, though none of the parties involved, including Brian Moore who ended up “winning,” had wanted their name on the project. Pauline Kael: “Brian Moore is credited with the original screenplay, but probably his friends don’t mention it.” You know you’re in big trouble when.
*. Then there were the leads. Hitchcock had wanted to remain in his comfort zone, recasting Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint from North by Northwest. But Grant knew he was too old and the studio thought Saint too old. One begins to detect a pattern.

*. Though there was no direct conflict, Hitch didn’t get along with Paul Newman, who was more of a Method type actor. His bigger problem came with trying to find or create some chemistry between Newman and co-star Julie Andrews. This was never going to happen, in part because of Newman and Andrews but also because there’s nothing there in the script. Indeed, it doesn’t seem as though Armstrong is that interested in Sarah.
*. Why anyone thought Julie Andrews, coming right off Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, was right for the part is beyond me. Because she was a hot property she was only available for a short amount of time, leading to a rush to get the film in production. Also, along with Paul Newman, she was very expensive. The high cost led, in turn, to a need to cut corners in production, meaning lots of studio work.
*. The studio work, matte paintings, and process shots received a critical drubbing for being old-fashioned, and this was deserved. The set for the park (yes, it’s a set, for a park) where Armstrong finally tells Sarah what’s going on looks like it might have been left over from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

*. It’s curious that most of the difficulty people had with the script concerned the dialogue. Maybe they were just used to the absurdity of Hitchcock’s plots. Armstrong is . . . what? A freelance spy? And he didn’t bother to tell his fiancée? In fact he took her along with him on the trip he was going to “defect” on?
*. Nor is the structure of the story any better. Why did they have to include all that crap about the Countess (Lila Kedrova, fresh off winning an Oscar in Zorba the Greek)? That whole subplot was just awful, and didn’t set anything interesting up. As for the set-piece scenes, even the one that gets the most praise, the struggle in the farmhouse, plays awkward to me, and winds up on a ridiculous note. Hitchcock wanted to show audiences how hard it is to actually kill someone. This is not, in itself, entertaining.
*. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what other chunks of the story are doing in here as well. Take the business with the bookstore. That seems an awfully convoluted, and dangerous, way to pass on a simple message. Couldn’t they have just sent another telegram?
*. There you have it. Most critics try to salvage what they can even from bad Hitchcock but I don’t see the need to bother. There’s nothing here that he hadn’t done better before, and nothing I liked on its own. Perhaps his age and health did contribute something to the generally listless feel to the proceedings, but I don’t think Hitchcock was washed up. I think he’d been to this particular well too many times though, and wasn’t inspired by a project that seemed fated to be a disappointment anyway. Even the title is a lame joke (Newman didn’t like it), and the opening credits play like a poor man’s Bond title sequence. Again that comparison, unavoidable and invidious. But this really was a movie too late for its time.

Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966)

*. I’ve read, somewhere, that Quentin Tarantino considers this to be one of his favourite movies. By now I’m not sure how many movies there are out there that Tarantino hasn’t said this about. It doesn’t mean as much as it used to.
*. Still, if not for Tarantino’s recommendation I doubt this would be a movie on many people’s radar, and I was pleasantly surprised by Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. I wasn’t expecting much, and right from the get-go it raised the bar with a really impressive sequence shot on Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ the Redeemer. No, it’s not great filmmaking but it does make good and full use of the location for a totally satisfying intro.
*. The rest of the movie comes down a bit from the top of Corcovado Mountain, but a lot of it is still very good. Mike Connors, who narrowly missed being cast as Matt Helm, is perfectly serviceable as the secret agent “Kelly” (even he’s not sure if that’s his real name, as we find out in one of the wittier exchanges of dialogue). Raf Vallone is better than average as the villainous Mr. Ardonian. Dorothy Provine is a fellow spy who can act the bimbo when the situation demands. Terry-Thomas is killed off in the opening minutes, but is back later as an omnicompetent chauffeur. It’s a good cast.
*. I mentioned Connors narrowly missing out on being cast as Matt Helm. Director Henry Levin would be luckier, being picked to direct the next two Helm movies (Murderers’ Row and The Ambushers) based on the success of this.
*. There are solid production values, as I think was fair to expect from a Dino De Laurentiis production. This is a good looking movie, shot on location in Rio and in studio at Rome. The sets are a fair imitation of Ken Adam. There are a number of truly memorable touches, like the guck Terry-Thomas puts in a car’s radiator that causes it to spontaneously disassemble, the way another car turns into a billboard, a feather boa that conceals a boa constrictor (yoiks!), and even the control panel for the rocket at the end which has a launch button labeled “BLAST OFF.”

*. The plot is, as you’d expect, generic. Indeed it would be pretty closely reworked in Moonraker. Ardonian is going to launch a satellite that will irradiate the entire Earth, killing off the sex drive of the human race. Apparently his motives are at least partially altruistic, as he feels overpopulation is going to lead to mass famine and cannibalism in the near future. Luckily he has a bunch of women in cold storage that he will later be able to repopulate the world with himself. Actually, that sounds a lot like the plot to Casino Royale as well, a film they rushed to be released ahead of.
*. The role of women in these sorts of movies is something that’s interesting to consider a little more deeply. In the Bond films there’s always lots of eye candy, both in the form of the Bond girl and (sometimes) a Bond villainess. But it’s only in the Bond spoofs that they went overboard in creating the figure of the fembot, or had plots involving making women into brainwashed sex slaves. Those are two points I find noteworthy: that this presentation of women is not part of the Bond mythos but is nearly ubiquitous in its parodies. So where is the missing link?
*. I don’t know how many fans this one has aside from Quentin. Leonard Maltin gave it a BOMB rating (his lowest) and Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film calls it “The worst Bond imitation known to man.” I don’t understand this. There were a lot — and I mean a lot — of Eurospy movies put out in the ’60s and almost all of the ones I’ve seen are a lot worse than this.
*. So judged alongside its peers I think this is actually pretty good. It’s derivative to be sure (the scene where Kelly listens to the villains plotting from below comes from Goldfinger, Ardonian’s use of an electric chair to rid himself of difficult partners is from Thunderball) but there are enough original touches to keep it interesting, at least for genre fans. For a movie with no aspirations beyond providing a bit of fun that’s good enough.

The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

*. This should have been good. The anti-Bond, Cold War-spy movie was at its peak, with both The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Ipcress File released the previous year. Once again there was a recently published bestselling novel as a source and a quality cast and crew. But The Quiller Memorandum is a dud.
*. Where did it go wrong? Director Michael Anderson doesn’t have any of Sidney Furie’s flare or the playfulness of the Bond franchise, but he handles the locations well. John Barry, who scored Bond as well as Palmer, acquits himself well. Most of the cast is quite good. Max von Sydow, coming off playing Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told, changes gears to play Oktober. In hindsight he was just entering into a long career playing memorable heavies. Blofeld in Never Say Never Again, Leland Gaunt in Needful Things, the Director in Minority Report, even the evil Brewmeister in Strange Brew. Alec Guinness is so aware that he could do his role half asleep that he even plays one scene incongruously in his pyjamas and housecoat.
*. I think everyone understood the basic idea here as well. Agent Quiller (George Segal) isn’t a gadget man. In fact, I don’t think he even uses a gun. There are no exotic locales, aside from Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, or fancy hideouts. The bad guys have their base in an abandoned mansion, the good guys on a vacant floor of an office building. Berlin itself doesn’t look that far advanced from Vienna in The Third Man. Or London in The Ipcress File. In other words: run-down and grungy.

*. All this is to the good. The problem? If I had to point a finger it would at Harold Pinter. As the review in the Monthly Film Bulletin from the BFI put it: “Based on a popular spy thriller, adapted by a fashionable playwright, and acted by a distinguished international cast, The Quiller Memorandum had everything in its favour even without the spice of topicality gained from the recent neo-Nazi successes in West Germany. But spy thrillers depend on constant action and narrative twists, whereas plots and Pinter simply do not mix. In disposing of most of the storyline he has virtually thrown the baby out with the bathwater. All that remains is a skeleton plot which barely makes sense and is totally lacking in excitement.”
*. Pinter should have been a good fit for the material. His plays are full of the looming dread and obscure, coded language of the spy world. But the script here is awful. Much as I admire Pinter as a playwright, I’m not giving him a pass.
*. It’s based on The Berlin Memorandum, the first of what would be 19 Quiller books by Elleston Trevor (a pseudonym). For some reason, however, the titular spy Quiller is turned into an American. I can understand the box office appeal of having an American star, but it leaves the movie not making any sense. What is the CIA doing teaming up with the Brits on this case?
*. A larger question concerns what is even going on. Quiller isn’t up against commies, but Nazis (it’s still too early for them to be neo-Nazis) in Berlin. What is their secret plan? I’ve no idea. As far as I can tell the movie never says. On the commentary track Eddie Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer do their best to sell the notion that Nazis were a real threat at the time. But I don’t think they were. I think there was just some popular interest in what war criminals who escaped justice might be up to. This sold well, as evidenced in such works as The Odessa File and Marathon Man, but I don’t think it has much to do with whatever’s going on here.
*. As an aside, when the movie was released in Germany they erased any mention of Nazis (which shouldn’t have been hard since I don’t think there are many). Instead, the bad guys are commies. Which means the censored version of the movie actually makes more sense.

*. So there’s no real plot to speak of. Just on the level of the basics the action makes no sense. Why do the Nazis let Quiller get away? Why does he, as Pfeiffer puts it, just walk into the Nazi base and get captured without any realistic back-up plan? Then why does Oktober let him wander about the streets of Berlin all night? And perhaps most perplexing of all, what is George Sanders doing here?
*. Things don’t even work on the level of dialogue. I think Pinter enjoyed playing around with some of the back-and-forth spytalk, but there’s only a bit of this and it’s all incidental. Meanwhile, the one place where I thought he’d shine, the interrogation scene, is totally flat, with no memorable lines. No “Choose your next witticism carefully.” No “Is it safe?” Not even a “Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” Instead it’s just Oktober being malevolent and urbane but then getting angry and yelling at Quiller when he doesn’t respond.
*. Then there’s George Segal. Whatever you think of him as an actor, it seems obvious to me that he’s miscast here. I couldn’t buy him for a second. He just doesn’t have a dark side, and in general doesn’t seem tough enough. I blame the hair. Might he have worked as Derek Flint? I think so. Would James Coburn have been a better Quiller? Ditto.
*. I did like the understated ending. There’s a nice quiet bit of business involving a bomb in a garage, and after that things just sort of trail off. Von Sydow and his gang are call captured, but we only find out about that from a telephone call. Then there’s the showdown with Senta Berger that isn’t. I don’t think there’s any ambiguity here, but at the same time there’s no resolution. I’m sure the final sequence was meant as a nod to The Third Man, only inverted. Given Berger’s profession it’s actually quite a bleak ending, as she is free to presumably corrupt the next generation.
*. Ending on such a high (low) note isn’t enough, however, to salvage a misfire of a movie. The potential was definitely there, and there are a few good scenes, but the total is a lot less than the sum of its parts.

Quiz the one hundred-and-eleventh: Just a note (Part three)

Do you really? Do you know who I am? Well, my name is on this blog. File this week’s quiz under nostalgia. I suppose if I keep doing these things long enough I’ll have to include one on text messages. But for now you’ll have to put up with an earlier form of note.

See also: Quiz the twelfth: Just a note (Part one), Quiz the thirty-first: Just a note (Part two).

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