Producer Lew Grade certainly had an eye for a bad movie; ponying up for The Cassandra Crossing, Saturn 3 and Raise the Titanic indicates a complete lack of discernment , and presumably that’s what led him to the door of director Michael Winner. Even Winner’s successes, notably Death Wish, are in dubious taste, but his worst efforts have to be seen to be believed, and Firepower is pretty bad. Originally developed as a Dirty Harry movie, Firepower is a shambolic violent caper movie set in a drab looking Caribbean. James Coburn plays Jerry Fanon, a gun-for-hire who agrees to locate and secure reclusive businessman Carl Stegner, teaming up with Adela Tasca (Sophia Loren) who wants revenge on the billionaire for personal reasons. With the film-makers imagination seemingly taken up by thinking of strange character names like Manley Reckford, securing appearances by Jake LaMotta and OJ Simpson, blowing up buildings or demolishing them with bulldozers, there’s little chance for old-timers like Eli Wallach or Vincent Gardenia to shine. The final action scenes have a couple of great shots to recommend them, but most of Firepower is notable only as a repository of disinterested performances and seemingly improvised quirks; Loren’s ability to make scrambled egg sandwiches is her most interesting trait, while Coburn unwisely play two characters in the same scene without any special effects; Winner’s inability to frame the two characters convincingly reduces this scene, like many others here, into a Godardian mush of incoherence. There’s a lot going on in Firepower, but not much of it is in front of the camera; a brief glimpse of Victor Mature with green hair tops things off with just the right bizarre note in time for the closing credits. And any film which has a specific credit for saxophone solos deserves a special mention in dispatches; slathered over the locations like a cheap balm, these moments of musical noodling turn the stomach and yet tickle the mind with their awfulness, much like Winner himself.
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.
Intended by the star as the start of a franchise, Hudson Hawk was seen as a debacle on release, and the name stuck as a label for out-of-control vanity projects. Michael Lehmann’s comedy-adventure certainly puts Bruce Willis centre-stage, playing up his comic talents and ramping up the action to a level that some found ridiculous. But in a CGI world, Hudson Hawk has plenty of lo-fi qualities that make it an endearing watch. Hawk (Willis) and his partner Tommy (Danny Aiello) up against a sinister conglomerate that want to get their hands on Leonardo Da Vinci’s alchemy machine. Hawk, a wily thief, gets in the way; an early scene in which Hawk and Tommy raid a gallery to the tune of Swinging On A Star indicates that plot is less important here than attitude. Willis has since re-invented himself as a tough guy and an excellent actor; Hudson Hawk marks the end of the light-comedy phase that followed on from Moonlighting, and its cheerful chaos is still enjoyable today.
It’s hard to imagine Stephen Sondheim getting behind the typewriter alongside Psycho’s Anthony Perkins, but they share the writing credits on Herbert Ross’s playful take on an Agatha Christie who-dunnit. Millionaire Clinton Green (James Coburn) invites a group of friends to holiday on his yacht, including Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Raquel Welch and Ian McShane, and they are presented with nightly mysteries to solve, but the real intent is to uncover the culprit of the murder of Sheila. Cannon’s character is based on famously tough Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, and there’s plenty of in-jokes and references to enjoy. It was Sondheim and Perkins’ interest in puzzles and games that inspired the film; The Last of Sheila’s twist and turns are a joy to unravel.
Robert Parrish is something of an unsung hero of off-beat movie making, with Doppleganger aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun amongst his other films. Working from a script by writers including a pre-Performance Donald Cammell, his caper film Duffy is an odd bird, starting slowly as Parrish establishes the country-house lifestyle inhabited by wealthy Charles Calvert (James Mason) and his family, including his son, James Fox’s dissolute, cravat-wearing toff Stefane. The action shifts to the Mediterranean where Duffy (James Coburn) a sculptor is enlisted in a plan to hi-jack a yacht, but Duffy has his own ideas about how the heist should be conducted. Marking something of a clash between traditional crime movies and hipster deconstruction, Duffy is a pleasurable wallow in late sixties ennui, with Coburn having fun in what he described as his own favourite amongst his roles.
Julius J Epstein (Casablanca) was amongst the writers for Sam Peckinpah’s adult drama set in the dying days of the Eastern Front during WWII. James Coburn’s war-weary Sgt Steiner stands up against Captain Hauptmann (Maximilian Schell), with James Mason and David Warner watching from the side-lines. Adapted from the book The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich, Peckinpah’s film has plenty of gritty tank, snow and mud action, balanced against some articulate discussion of the motivations for war. Steiner returned in a sequel, Breakthrough, as played by Richard Burton, but Coburn makes the role his own in this bitter, accomplished anti-war film.
Any film based on a story by Bruce Lee and James Coburn has to be interesting, and Circle of Iron/The Silent Flute is a genuine oddity. Richard Moore’s film features Jeff Cooper as Cord, who seeks a confrontation with wizard Zetan (Christopher Lee), but must go through many obstacles to get there. Bruce Lee died before the film could go into production, but the four roles he would have played are picked up by David Carradine, and the mystical quality of his Kung Fu TV show is much in evidence here. Roddy McDowell has an unlikely cameo, as does Eli Wallach, discovered in a caldron full of oil where he punishes himself for his own misdemeanours. If you ever wondered what kind of films Bruce Lee might have made if he’s lived to enjoy his stardom, Circle of Iron/ The Silent Flute has your answer; mystical, dotty but entertaining.