*. In From Russia With Love (Ian Fleming’s novel, not the film), when Red Grant gets the drop on Bond in the train carriage he warns him not to try any “Bulldog Drummond stuff.” Grant would know about Drummond because his residence is strewn with “garish paperbacks and hardcover thrillers.” Bond might not because he reads Eric Ambler.
*. Today I think the number of people who have read a Bulldog Drummond novel must be approaching zero. I know I haven’t. From what I can gather he was a Mike Hammer kind of guy, though also an English gentleman. Good enough for hopeful studio types to try and launch him in a spy franchise in the midst of ’60s Bondmania. After all, he’d been sort-of big on the big screen in the 1930s so at least he was a brand name. And why not cast Richard Johnson as Drummond, the guy who had been Terence Young’s original choice to play Bond? Johnson had turned the part of Bond down because he was under contract at MGM, but would be back (in a movie released just a couple of months after this one) playing yet another Bond clone in Danger Route, and Bulldog Drummond again two years later in Some Girls Do.
*. Given its obvious links to Bond I don’t think comparisons, however unflattering, are out of line. The thing is, they had a lot of the right ingredients here for a successful movie.
*. Cast? Johnson is excellent. Elke Sommer looks sexy wearing whatever (or next to nothing). Her body actually has a very modern buff quality to go with the curves, which wasn’t the fashion in the 1960s. She looks here like she’s been working out. Nigel Green is the same fallen member of the establishment he was in The Ipcress File, and just as good. The bikini killer crew are beautiful. Steve Carlson is Drummond’s gee-whiz nephew. Milton Reid is the Oddjob bodyguard, a part he played in countless movies over several decades (including three Bond pictures that I’m aware of).
*. The script is by Jimmy Sangster (not based on any of the Drummond novels) and it has the virtue of actually making a bit of sense. The sexy assassins are bumping off CEOs in order to achieve a series of corporate takeovers. Of course their methods (exploding cigars, spear guns, paralyzing drugs) are a little far-fetched, but I could at least understand the broad outlines of their plan. Why bother with ruling the world when you can just get rich?
*. The score has a jaunty and catchy movement to it that I don’t think John Barry would have been ashamed of, and the theme song was actually a single by the Walker Brothers (none of whom were related, or even named Walker).
*. The climactic battle is silly, but a fun idea. Johnson and Green have it out on a giant chess board as the pieces are directed by voice commands. You can’t quite credit it, but I have to say I’ve seen a lot worse. Plus there’s the usual business about a bomb about to go off and all the rest of it.
*. So like I say, the ingredients are here. But then most of these Bond rip-offs had no trouble getting the right ingredients together. Where they fail, as this one does, is in their combination. What the Bond movies managed to do, somehow, is find a perfect balance between danger and humour, real violence and good fun. In Deadler Than the Male that line is hopelessly blurred, to the point where it’s never clear to what extent what we’re watching is meant as a spoof and how much we’re meant to take (semi)seriously.
*. Take the scene where Drummond’s nephew gets captured by Sommer. He’s tied up and has his fingernails torn off and cigarettes put out on his chest, the after effects of which we will later see quite clearly. And yet the whole scene is played as a joke.
*. While I’m being critical I’ll also mention one my least favourite movie clichés. This is the scene where someone is being run down by a car (or sometimes a truck, or horse and carriage) and could easily avoid being hit by simply dodging to one side. In this movie this is repeated twice in the same scene set in a parking garage. At any point the guys being chased by a car could simply duck behind a pillar and that would be the end of it, but instead they insist on running right in front of the car that’s bearing down on them. Clichés are bad enough, but the stupid ones really frustrate me.
*. Directed by Ralph Thomas, who I think is best known for doing some of the Doctor and Carry On movies. From his charmingly frank summation of his career I think we can find some suggestion of what went wrong with regard to this movie not settling on any distinct or consistent tone. He described himself as “a sort of journeyman picture maker and I was generally happy to make anything I felt to be halfway respectable. So my volume of work was enormous; I had a lot of energy and made all kinds of pictures. If you make all kinds, you score a hit sometimes. I made thrillers, comedies, love stories, war stories, one or two adventure things. Some filmmakers have a lot of talent and genius for it; others simply have a lot of energy and I’m afraid I belong in the latter category!”
*. That’s where I’ll leave it. A movie with lots of things to like but the whole isn’t nearly as interesting as the parts. Not a bargain-basement Bond, but one that trades at a big discount. Not nearly stylish or polished enough to play in the same league, and not sure enough of itself to be consistent with any single coherent vision. Today it’s largely forgotten — along with, to be fair, most of the rest of Bondmania. As the Highlander said, there can be only one.