Category Archives: 1960s

Deadlier Than the Male (1967)

*. 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.

The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)

*. Frankie Avalon in a spy comedy released by American International. It’s 1967 and you’re probably wondering if this might be another Dr. Goldfoot movie.
*. It’s not just Avalon. The arch-villain Sumuru’s plot for global domination is actually quite similar to Dr. Goldfoot’s. She’s going to send her sexy agents out to seduce and marry the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men, making her the power behind their thrones. That’s the plot of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, and I guess it makes as much sense, or perhaps even more, than most of these plans for global domination.
*. Alas, her plans are undone by the weakness all women (even supervillains like herself) have for men, their near perverse need to be dominated by mojotastic hunks like George Nader. Sure they may enjoy the thought of running the world, but they’re still women and so feel the need to be dominated.

*. As far as gender politics go this is even more regressive than the brainwashed fembots of spy spoofs from Flint to Austin Powers. Nevertheless, in 1967 it was what they had to work with. And given Sumuru’s plot it at least makes sense that her recruits are all supermodels. The midriff-baring uniforms, however, attract attention the gang might not be seeking.
*. The character of Sumuru actually has a history. She was the creation of novelist Sax Rohmer, who wanted to have a female Fu Manchu (his better known franchise villain). He wrote five Sumuru books but I haven’t read any of them. In fact, I’d never heard of Sumuru before seeing this movie, though Shirley Eaton would return to play her again in The Girl from Rio (1969) and there would be another 2003 SF Sumuru film out of Germany.
*. The other connection to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is that this is a buddy spy movie. Most spies are loners: Bond, Palmer, Flint, et al. But in Bikini Machine Avalon was paired up with one of Dr. Goldfoot’s prospective victims and here Avalon is teamed with fellow agent Nader. Tommy Carter and Nick West, if you please.
*. Things were rolling along rather predictably I thought until you-know-who arrives. Mr. Klaus Kinski. The one guy who can steal every scene he’s in no matter what the role. Here he saunters on screen wearing a silk dressing gown and manages to take over the proceedings completely despite some awful voice dubbing. How I would have loved to have heard him play it in his own voice (who knows what sort of accent President Boong would have?), and with some of the gimmicks he’d proposed (including an extra-long tongue). As it is all we get is that robe and, later, a terrific wig.
*. Eaton is sort of colourless as Sumuru. Apparently a role she enjoyed, while admitting these were bad movies. Wilfrid Hyde-White shows up just to move things along. There’s an interesting weapon called a “cube amortis gun” that turns people into statues.
*. Despite the fact that they actually spent some money on this one (not a lot, but some) I found the results kind of baffling. There’s some production value, but also more of a porny flavour of exploitation about it. The poster art proclaims “She rules a palace of pleasure,” but does she? It also seems to be a comedy or spoof, but the joking of Avalon and Nader feel out of place.
*. It’s hard to say how to take this one. It’s both offbeat and generic. Most of it is very bad but some parts are fun. At 79 minutes at least it doesn’t drag until the final shootout. What it really needed though was more Kinski.

Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

*. For all their setting in the Cold War, the Bond movies are almost entirely uninterested in that epic contest, or in geopolitics more generally. They aren’t political films at all, especially with SMERSH being replaced by the fanciful SPECTRE organization. But Len Deighton was more grounded, and Billion-Dollar Brain (the novel had the hyphen, correctly, in the title) was one of the most political of the “Harry Palmer” stories (I have to put his name in quotation marks because he’s unnamed in the books).
*. This gives the film a bit more of a contemporary resonance, as the fire-breathing anti-communist General Midwinter (Ed Begley) is a type who is still with us (though he’s had to come up with new enemies). And while he certainly comes off as a caricature, I’m not sure that makes him any less realistic. We’ve become used to caricatures in political life in the twenty-first century.

*. It’s also a bit strange how fresh the computer angle feels. Let’s face it, few items have dated as badly as computers. The stacks of punch cards, giant reels of magnetic tape, and piles of paper spooling out of the printer are things that take some of us a long way back. But at the same time, we’re also more used to the idea of computers controlling everything, not to mention automated voice messages (and bonus points if you recognized that the voice belongs to Donald Sutherland, who also has a bit part as one of the technicians).
*. Having said that, it seems a little odd to me that the Brain (the computer) has such a small role to play in this movie. It seems clear that the maniac Midwinter is the one who is calling all the shots. What exactly does the Brain do except make creepy phone calls?
*. Initial reviews, which were mainly negative, complained that the story was hard to follow. Actually, Deighton is even harder. They make a lot of changes to the book, especially at the end, but overall I thought they did a reasonable job of streamlining things. I had no trouble understanding what was going on, even though the book still confuses me somewhat.
*. As with other films in the series a lot of the team from the Bond films gets some work here. The opening titles are by Maurice Binder. Syd Cain did the production design. And that’s Vladek Sheybal, who played SMERSH’s chessmaster in From Russia With Love as the doctor.

*. The rights were bought before the book was published and I wonder if Deighton was trying to write something more cinematic in the Bond vein. The megalomaniacal villain with a secret lair and a private army, for example. In the book he even has an artificial hand, like Dr. No. But the novel ends on a quiet note whereas they go full Bond here at the end with its epic homage to Alexander Nevsky (even using the same score). None of this makes sense in terms of the plot, but movie audiences had come to expect a bang at the end of Bond and Bond-like films.
*. Ken Russell. Not an obvious choice to direct (he’d mainly been doing television documentaries up to this point), but he was a friend of Caine’s, who recommended him to producer Harry Saltzman (I’ve also read that André De Toth had been tabbed to direct but had an accident, and that he in turn recommended Russell). Caine would soon admit this was a bad decision, calling Russell “a lunatic genius” and “the least ideal man to direct a thriller.” Russell himself would come to consider it a career mistake, wasting a year of his life. He would also feel embittered toward Saltzman, with whom he did not get along.
*. In his Trailers from Hell episode on Billion Dollar Brain Bernard Rose says that Russell didn’t add much to the movie aside from the operatic climax. I think this is wrong. Compared to other spy movies of the time it’s really quite stylish and clever, makes good use of its locations, and moves quite well. If anything, I wish he’d given the actors a bit more room. But then that’s not the kind of movie this is.
*. Caine is solid, as always, even in long underwear or an Astrakhan hat. And this time he’s backed up by a very good supporting cast. Karl Malden and Françoise Dorléac are both believable as a totally untrustworthy pair who shouldn’t be trusting each other. Ed Begley is surprisingly convincing as the sweaty Midwinter, always seeming to be just a moment away from cardiac arrest. Guy Doleman returns as Colonel Ross, which is actually another bit of streamlining. In the novels Ross, who is military intelligence, is a rival of Dawlish, the guy who is the head of Palmer’s organization.

*. There was controversy in the U.S. over the sympathetic portrayal of the Soviets (with Oskar Homolka back as the garrulous Colonel Stok). They might also have taken exception to the Texas oilman being portrayed as a full-throated Christian fascist, complete with all kinds of visual echoes of Nazi rallies and cowboys appearing as stormtroopers. Americans tend to get upset at this kind of thing.
*. If I had to rank them, I’d say this is my favourite of the Palmer flicks and the only one I can return to. I find it quite enjoyable, and it’s interesting in a lot of different ways as a historical/cultural time capsule. Alas, Saltzman had originally planned to do five Harry Palmer movies but after this flopped he cut his losses. Caine would go on to make two more Palmer movies in the 1990s, Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in Saint Petersburg, but by then the world had changed. In this movie it’s still called Leningrad, and by the ’90s the Brain really had taken over anyway.

In Like Flint (1967)

*. Our Man Flint made a lot of money, and since I don’t think there was any question that they were aiming to launch a franchise with it a quick sequel was inevitable. Unfortunately, unlike the Bond and Harry Palmer movies they didn’t have a series of novels to work from. They needed to write a script then, from scratch and in a rush.
*. I think this goes a long way to explaining why In Like Flint disappoints. It has all the trappings of a parody-Bond spectacle but at the end of the day doesn’t have a story to tell.
*. I don’t mean that the story makes no sense or is otherwise ridiculous. It’s more that there’s no clear sense of what the point of any of it is. Take, for example, the subject of the villains. As with the scientists in Our Man Flint, the women here aren’t all bad. They want to make a better world by putting women in charge. But their methods are hard to figure. Shouldn’t they be brainwashing men instead of their sisters? In fact, that was at first what I thought they were doing. I figured General Carter and his flunkies were all either brainwashed or had been replaced. What good was it doing to reprogram housewives with hairdryers?

*. Then there’s General Carter. What is his aim? Power, I guess. Though I can’t see what it is he wants to do with it. He’s so vaguely motivated that I can’t blame Steve Ihnat’s performance for making him fade into the background. He needed a cat or a metal hand. As Lee Pfeiffer remarks on the DVD commentary, “if there’s one thing this film lacks it’s a key, central villain in it . . . the villains are sort of spread throughout and none of them resonate.” This is a problem with the script more than anything. They had the cast and the sets and some fun action sequences (I particularly like the routine in the gym), but no clear idea as to what any of it was about.
*. It’s hard to say what we’re supposed to think of the women’s movement. They make some good points (at least to a twenty-first century ear), but Flint only sees them as deluded and a joke, and they are only redeemed by throwing their lot in with him and taking down the bad guys through Operation Smooch. I don’t think there’s any way of reading this as progressive. At least the women are not brainwashed into being pleasure units, but are they being brainwashed into being feminists? Or just fembots serving the feminists?

*. As the fake president is led off at the end he quotes Shakespeare, specifically Richard II from the deposition scene (totally fitting), and the Harfleur speech from Henry V (incorrectly, as it is so often). Would you get that in an Austin Powers movie today? And this was Austin Powers’ favourite movie!
*. The original Learjets with the tip tanks were a pretty plane weren’t they? That’s Bill Lear himself (founder of the company) welcoming Flint on board.
*. There are a few nice moments, but overall this doesn’t add anything or go in any new direction. I can tell why Coburn didn’t want to do any more. There are some good parts — I give a lot of credit to Coburn, Jerry Goldsmith, and the production design — but it mainly feels like a rehash, only heavier. Still better than the average Bond spoof, and still watchable over fifty years later, even as something more than a time capsule. As dated as it is, there’s something in Flint that holds up.

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.