Largely forgotten and hard to trace, Terence Young’s 1966 television film to promote the UN’s work is a real oddity; reuniting the director of the original James Bond films with the author Ian Fleming, who provided the outline here, The Poppy Is Also A Flower features an all-star cast in a thriller about stopping the opium epidemic from spreading. Executive produced by Euan Lloyd, best known for his gung-ho action (Who Dares Wins, The Wild Geese), Young’s film is packed with talent, with Terence Howard and EG Marshall the unlikely duo at the centre of the commotion. The ads promised blazing action, but apart from a couple of late punch-ups on a train, there’s very little to cheer, but the story is interesting; spies impregnate a consignment of opium with radioactive material, and trace it to various distribution points to nail the chain. It’s a pre-French Connection policier, also known as The Opium Connection and Danger Goes Wild; fun to watch, if only to spot guest stars like Omar Sharif, Rita Hayworth, Yul Brynner and a scene-stealing Eli Wallach.
Ian Fleming’s less developed franchise has so far run to only one film; a pity, since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a strange and rather wonderful piece of work. Inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) and squeeze Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) restore an ancient Grand Prix car and head off with some kids on an adventure to child-less domain Vulgaria. Screenwriter Roald Dahl only based the sunny first half of the film on Fleming’s work; the second, a dark and frightening turn of events, is entirely Dahl’s own, and the creation of the Child-catcher (Aussie dance-whizz Robert Helpman) typifies Dahl’s macabre sense of humour. The overtones generally are far too dark for family audiences, but a slew of famous names supporting (James Robertson Justice, Benny Hill, plus many of the Bond cast) plus Ken Adam’s amazing set design and some singable songs make Ken Hughes’s film one you’ll get a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from.
It’s a shame that the Derek Flint superspy series only amounted to two entries; James Coburn was such a charismatic and personable actor that there was still clearly plenty of juice in the tank. Whether sporting white slacks and a coloured panel sweater or immaculate in eveningwear, Flint is the consummate action man, ‘as at home in the kasbah as he is in the boudoir’ as the trailer puts it. He’s sent on a mission by his boss Cramden (Lee J Cobb) to investigate into weather control, leading him to Galaxy Island to uncover a world domination plot. The template for the Austin Powers films, which reference the Flint films specifically by having the same ring-tone on his phone, Our Man Flint is campier than Bond, but a good old-fashioned romp with gadgets and girls galore. The sequel, In Like Flint, doesn’t have the same cheerful energy and is for completists only.
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.
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.
For a bestselling novelist, Wilbur Smith’s work rarely ended up on the big screen: Roger Moore did his best to realize his work, starring with Lee Marvin in 1976’s Shout at The Devil, and also in 1974’s Gold, adapted from Smith’s novel Gold Mine. With many of the crew on a break from the Bond franchise, including director Peter Hunt, professional standards are high in this drama about manly man Rod Slater (Moore) who takes over a South African gold mine only to uncover a plot to flood it, raising the value of gold for his competitors. John Gielgud, Bernard Horsfall and Gordon Jackson are amongst the Brits on board, with Susanna York the romantic interest. Gold builds towards an impressively realized climax, as Slater battles to stop an underground lake from destroying the mine. Filmed on South African locations, somewhat controversially for the time, Gold has resurfaced after a long absence of leave on Amazon Instant.
For a man with effortless charisma, Roger Moore was rarely satisfied with just exerting his easy-going charm, and is cast somewhat against type in North Sea Hijack, also known by the name of his character Ffolkes. With an odd distaste for women and a penchant for kittens, Ffolkes is called into service when Kramer (Anthony Perkins) leads a terrorist assault on a North Sea oil rig, with James Mason stepping aside to let Ffolkes do his thing. Adapted by Jack Davies from his novel Esther, Ruth and Jennifer (the names of three oil platforms), North Sea Hijack marks another fresh collaboration between Moore and director Andrew V McLaglen, son of Victor, with The Wild Geese and The Sea Wolves also on his CV. A precursor to the Die Hard era for situation-based action, the combination of star and director makes for an enjoyable time-passer for action fans, even if the terrorism on offer is lamentably lo-fi.