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.

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Royal Flash 1974 ***

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Malcolm McDowell takes the lead in this period romp from Richard Lester, based on the Flashman books by the late George MacDonald Fraser. A period James Bond with cowardly tendencies, Flashman is enlisted by Bismarck (Oliver Reed) into impersonating a Prussian dignitary, but Flashman soon finds himself over his head in European intrigue. As well as a sexy turn from Florida Ballkan, Royal Flash offers an array of great supporting work from Alastair Sim, Alan Bates, Tom Bell, Joss Ackland, Britt Ekland and a tiny role for the late Bob Hoskins as a police officer. The mix of slapstick violence, fake patriotism and espionage doesn’t quite gel, but Royal Flash is worth seeing for its cheerful irreverence and lavish period detail.

The Tourist 2010 ***

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An early tweet from the Avengers; Age of Ultron movie showed Robert Downey Jr in a hi-visibility vest; the huge awareness of movie stars inevitably leads to a constant re-appraisal of their growing or waning popularity. Johnny Depp is a case in point; the media feast on stories of his failures, with 2011’s espionage comedy The Tourist seen as a key moment in his decline. Certainly, The Tourist doesn’t seem to be about much in particular; based on the film Anthony Zimmer, and anonymously directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Tourist focuses on glossy Italian intrigue between American abroad Frank (Depp) and his romantic entanglement with Elise (Angelina Jolie). Who is who and what’s being done is the question; with writing talent as diverse as Julian Fellowes (Downtown Abbey) and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), The Tourist aims to keep the audience guessing. Perhaps the director’s pedigree from terse spy drama The Lives of Others led expectations in the wrong direction; The Tourist is a throwback to glossy, empty entertainments like Charade or To Catch a Thief, and Depp’s silent comedy techniques hold the attention is this neglected film that hits a simple target.

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.



 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 2011 ****

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John le Carre’s spy novels are something of an institution in the UK, where the television series featuring Alec Guinness as George Smiley are a cultural cornerstone. Thomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) was a surprising choice to helm this reboot of the Smiley franchise, but he pulls off the dingy British 70’s feel with style. Gary Oldman plays Smiley, with John Hurt as his boss (Control) and Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Stephen Graham and Toby Stephens amongst the agents who may, or may not, be in the pocket of Smiley’s Russian counterpart Karla. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy packs a complex, nuanced narrative into a dense two hours of crosses and double crosses, but there’s a wry humour about Alfredson’s view of the game; using music as diverse as George Formby’s Mr Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now, Dana’s All Kinds of Everything and a triumphant live recording of La Mer by Julio Iglesias, he scores Smiley’s investigation with surprising counterpoints, and creates a text worth repeated viewings, even if the action rarely rises above covert conversations.

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.

When Eight Bells Toll 1970 ***

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With Chris McQuarrie apparently considering an Ice Station Zebra reboot, it would be nice to imagine a renaissance of interest in the work of Scottish writer Alistair Maclean, with When Eight Bells Toll a good example of the kind of terse derring-do that made his work internationally knows.  Coming out post Where Eagles Dare and in the same years as the speedboat-chase-tastic Puppet on a Chain, it attempted to set up an alternate Bond franchise, with two more films planned but never to materialize. Sporting a healthy head of lustrous hair, Anthony Hopkins plays Philip Calvert, sent by Robert Morley to deepest darkest Scotland to investigate a missing ship, and uncovering espionage ring. Calvert is a professional and shoots first, giving When Eight Bells Toll a gritty heart that most action movies lack. Directed by Etienne Perier.