Firefox 1982

firefoxLong before Space Cowboys or Sully, Clint Eastwood was flexing his muscles with this high-tech thriller with an aviation rather than web-browser bent. Mitchell Gant (Eastwood) is recruited to infiltrate Soviet Russia and return in the cockpit of the Firefox, a plane so high-tech it responds to the thoughts of the pilot. The first half of the film has a lot of Clint standing around in toilets looking pensive, but once Gant gets his hands on the plane, it’s all action fare; even if the projection work isn’t quite to modern standards, it’s amazing for 1982. Adapted from Craig Thomas’s novel, Firefox is still fun to watch, even just as a record of Eastwood learning his trade; a strong supporting cast including Nigel Hawthorne, Freddie Jones, Warren Clarke and Ronald Lacey are also along for the ride in this unusual star vehicle. Reboot, please!

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Swallows and Amazons 2016

children-in-boat-shallows-amazons-950In terms of unappetizing prospects, an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s 1930’s book about children on a jolly boating adventure is hard to beat; it’s so old-fashioned it makes Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven look as hard-boiled as a Jim Thompson novel. Credit Dear Frankie screenwriter Andrea Gibb for adding a few select espionage elements to this BBC prodiction which manage to give it more of the flavor of classic spy-story The Riddle of the Sands. Philla Lowthorpe directs and there’s a strong supporting cast including Kelly Macdonald, Rafe Spall, Harry Enfield, Andrew Scott and Jessica Hynes. The sunny feel of the Swallows and their rivalry with the Amazons is well caught, but the careful integration of real-world issues is deftly handled and revitalizes a fairly hoary old property to good effect.

The Night Manager 2016

night-managerThere’s an illustrious history of John le Carre’ adaptations, and this six hour BBC entry in the cycle has the blessing of the spy-master himself, who even provides a cameo for the writer. The first hour is all slow burn as Tom Hiddletone’s hotel manager Jonathan Pine gets a whiff of the danger posed by Hugh Laurie’s billionaire Richard Roper and his entourage. But a stunning plot-jump moves the action on at great pace, as Pine suddenly becomes part of Roper’s gang after rescuing his son, and works his way deep into the businessman’s empire, encouraged by UK intelligence in the form of Olivia Coleman. If the recent film of le Carre’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy felt like a crash course in espionage, The Night Manager offers a careful, granular approach to detail that matches the original prose. The Night Manager is intense, sexy and compelling tv that’s just as good as any recent cinema spy-game.

Deadlier Than The Male 1967

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Ralph Thomas’s take on the Bulldog Drummond novels of Sapper is something in the vein of a low-fi Bond picture, and features Richard Johnson as the smooth detective immersed in Euro-glamour with Elke Sommer. Johnson was Terrence Young’s original choice to play James Bond in Doctor No, and provides a happy centre for this spy shenanigans, with Nigel Green as Carl Petersen, a businessman who uses bikini-clad girl assassins to polish off his rivals. Updating Drummond to the swinging 60’s is an odd fit, but Thomas throws in plenty of dark humour in the dialogue, plus a iconic finale involving a giant, life-sized chess set in Petersen’s lair. Such moments make Deadlier Than The Male worth catching, even if the sequel, Some Girls Do, takes the salaciousness too far. Leonard Rossiter pops up briefly in a cameo.

Exodus 1960

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Like much of Otto Preminger’s work, his 1960 epic of Jewish empowerment, Exodus, has largely been consigned to the sidelines of cinematic history; long and serious, it’s a high-minded blockbuster that deals with the founding of the state of Israel. Paul Newman is agent Ari Ben Cannan, who steps up to the plate to take charge when a boatload of Jewish people is refused port by British authorities. Dalton Trumbo adapts Leon Uris’s book at a hefty 208 minute length, and although momentum is lost when the ship is parked around the halfway mark, it’s easy to see why Exodus is a key film in Jewish and Israeli culture; despite a hackneyed romantic subplot, there’s an underlying excitement about the political opportunities of a new state, and Preminger’s film is required viewing for anyone interested in exploring the various sides of the on-going conflict.

The Matt Helm franchise 1966-68

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While the minutia of the James Bond franchise are still picked over by fans in forensic detail, there’s other 60’s spy franchises worth a look, with the four Matt Helm film making for undemanding kitsch viewing. Dean Martin seems to have made no effort whatsoever to look interested in playing Donald Hamilton’s laid-back spy as anything other than himself, a self-parody interested only in booze and women. In The Silencers, The Ambushers, Murderers Row and The Wrecking Crew, Martin wanders from exotic location to studio set with the air of a drunkard in an airport departure lounge, a half-empty glass glued to his hand and a bevy of beauties to ogle at. Times were changing in the 1960’s, and the charm of the Matt Helm movies is seeing Martin struggle to keep a straight face while lobbing ’hanky panky’ bombs at enemies, riding on flying saucers and seducing women with the charm of a freshly awakened warthog and a stream of resistible single entendres:  “I’m gonna shock her out of her mini-skirt!’. Non-Bond franchises were clearly subject to the laws of diminishing returns at the time, and yet as the quality of the productions collapses, the fascination of the films rises; the efforts to convince audience of Helm’s coolness only make the tattiness of the films more entertaining. The Matt Helms were always more comedic that thrilling; they’ve probably never seemed funnier than they look now. Streaming for free on Crackle.

http://www.crackle.com/c/murderers-row

http://www.crackle.com/c/the-silencers

http://www.crackle.com/c/the-ambushers

The Quiller Memorandum 1966

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With Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer kick-starting the kitchen-sink spy genre, director Michael Anderson took the bleak feel of the ant-James Bond movement and captured it neatly in The Quiller Memorandum. George Segal is Quiller, who arrives in Berlin to investigate the deaths of two secret agents. His MI6 training is put to the test when he tangles with Oktober (Max Von Sydow), with boss Pol (Alec Guinness) fretting in the background. Adapted by Harold Pinter from Trevor Dudley Smith’s book, this handsome 1966 thriller radiated intelligence from Pinter’s script, and describes an earthier view of secret service investigation than the John Barry score might suggest.