Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: DR. DEATH

I'm pretty sure that this was the first Nick Carter, Killmaster paperback that I ever read. Back in the late Seventies, there was a local couple who ran a used bookstore out of their barn, about three or four miles from my house. In the Summer, I would often ride my bike there, spending sweltering afternoons in that ill-ventilated barn, exhaustively examining the packed bookshelves before carefully selecting my purchases. Initially, it was the science fiction section that demanded most of my attention, but once I had exhausted that, I discovered the men's adventure shelves.

God help me.

This thick volume, which claimed to be the hundredth installment of the long-running series, contained three complete novels! My allowance was meager, so such a bargain greatly appealed to me. I was even more pleased with my purchase when I discovered that the sexual content of these stories – well, in Dr. Death, anyway – was considerably more graphic than any I'd yet read. Far more so than in the James Bond or Matt Helm books! My healthy teenage imagination found that especially titilating, and helped inspire me to purchase many more Nick Carter adventures.

This book contains three stories. The first is Dr. Death, the 100th Killmaster spy thriller. This is followed by a reprint of Run, Spy, Run, the very first Killmaster book from 1964. The third, however, is not a Killmaster story; instead it features the original, dime novel incarnation of Nick Carter, an American Sherlock Holmes imitation that made its debut in 1891. The story is "The Preposterous Theft," a short detective mystery from1895.

I recently re-read 1975's Dr. Death, and was reminded why I got hooked on the series in the first place. It starts with a bang, as N3 meets a French agent – an old friend called Remy – in a seedy nightclub whose main attraction is a gorgeous belly-dancer. Turns out that a French scientist – an explosives genius nicknamed "Dr. Death" – has been kidnapped by a terrorist group, and Remy could use Carter's help. Before he can complete his briefing however, two thugs with Sten guns enter the place and start spraying bullets. Remy gasps something about a volcano with his last breath, and Carter escapes, taking the belly-dancer with him. Good thing, too, since she's the scientist's daughter!

The search for Dr. Death takes Carter and the girl from Tangiers to New York (where a mysterious Chinese girl joins them for reasons of her own) to San Juan (and a close call inside a leper colony), and finally, after commandeering a yacht belonging to a candy-obsessed millionaire named Sweets, to the Caribbean island stronghold of the aforementioned terrorists.

Of course, there are the usual double crosses, but Nick Carter completes his mission, saves the world and ends the book with the right girl.

Dr. Death is fast-paced and action-packed. The writing is polished, with clean, descriptive prose that reads very quickly. The characterizations are colorful and fairly fleshed out, and Carter himself is quite likable in this one – charming, confident and professional, without coming across like an arrogant dick.

Dr. Death was my first Killmaster book, and it's still one of my favorites.

Spy-Fi Poll 002: Results

My second Spy-Fi Channel Poll, which asked the decidedly unoriginal question,"Which actor portrayed the best James Bond?", came to a close yesterday.

The top vote-getter – and this was really no surprise – was Sean Connery. Of the twenty votes cast, he garnered eight. George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton – the actors with the most abbreviated tenures in the role – tied for second place, with four votes each. Pierce Brosnan had two supporters, while Roger Moore and Daniel Craig received one vote apiece.

50's American television Bond Barry Nelson and Casino Royale '67's David Niven, unsurprisingly, didn't even manage any sympathy votes.

Personally, I like all of the "official" Bonds, though I like Daniel Craig the least. (IMO, Bond should not be a surly thug.) I love Sean, and acknowledge that he set the bar in regards to the cinematic 007, but I voted for Timothy Dalton.

Ever since I first saw The Living Daylights, back in the summer of 1987, I cannot read a James Bond novel without picturing Dalton as 007 and hearing his voice in my mind. To me, he most closely approximates Ian Fleming's conception of the character: a hard-drinking, hard-smoking professional that takes no joy in killing, yet feels some satisfaction at doing his job well. If Dalton's Bond was less of a womanizer than his literary antecedent, well, that's the screenwriters' fault.

If you voted, I'd be interested in knowing the reasons for your choice. Feel free to share your opinions in the comments, and be sure to check out this week's poll over there in the sidebar.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Video: IF LOOKS COULD KILL (1991)


I'll admit that I have a certain fondness for this film, a "teen spy" comedy adventure starring Richard Grieco (totally unconvincing as a high school kid), Burn Notice's Gabrielle Anwar, and Linda Hunt (as a diminutive and different henchwoman). The villain's plot was actually pretty clever, the action scenes were well executed, and it had surprisingly high production values.

This is the only version of the trailer I could find. Outside of the U.S. it went by the more descriptive but dull title Teen Agent. The movie's not currently available on DVD, unfortunately. But if it was, I'd buy it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Weekly Debriefing 003

Begin Transmission:

• Not much to report this week. I've been busy working on various freelance assignments, and haven't had time for much else. I did finish watching the fourth season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and really enjoyed it. Shame it was canceled when it was getting itself back on track creatively. I also finished watching the third season of Get Smart. A lot of great episodes there. I especially enjoyed "Die, Spy," a parody of the then-current I Spy show. Not only did Don Adams and guest star Stu Gilliam do a hilarious impression of Robert Culp and Bill Cosby's distinctive "patter," but Culp also has a funny cameo as a waiter and they even used Earle Hagen's I Spy theme music (I guess both shows were on the same network?). Another episode, "Run, Robot, Run," features a pair of KAOS agents who are near-ringers for The Avengers' Steed & Mrs. Peel.

• I made only one spy-fi purchase this week; I picked up and started reading Tod Goldberg's second Burn Notice novel, The End Game. So far, it's as good as the first. I'll probably post a review this weekend.

So, how was your week?

End Transmission.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: EYES OF THE TIGER

Here's another Nick Carter, Killmaster, adventure from the long-running series of spy-fi paperback thrillers, originally published by Award Books in 1973 (the same year as Target: Doomsday Island).

In Eyes Of The Tiger, AXE agent N3 finds himself in Switzerland, teamed up with a lovely young baroness who may or may not be on his side, searching for two war criminals – German Max Rader and Japanese Shikoku Hondo. These two men each hold half of a key to a horde of art treasures stolen by the Nazis during WW II. Specifically, Carter is trying to get his hands on "the Eyes of the Tiger," a small statue of a tiger, natch, with bejeweled eyes – that may be more than it appears to be....

The book moves pretty briskly, but it's not very well plotted; a lot of events don't seem to make much sense. But Carter gets laid a lot, battles a grotesque eunuch in a graphically described knife fight, and faces down ex-Nazi Max Rader (or is it?) in an old castle, complete with medieval torture chamber.

The unknown author of this particular Nick Carter entry isn't very good, unfortunately. As I wrote above, the plotting is weak, the characterizations slim, and he has a really annoying habit of spelling Carter's rank, KILLMASTER, in all caps. Also, Carter himself is quite unlikable in this volume. Written in first-person, like the other Nick Carter books of the era, agent N3 comes across as an insufferable egotist, not to mention a misogynist and a racist.

Ultimately, Eyes Of The Tiger isn't one of the better entries in the series, but I very much like the cover art – even if the main figure is virtually identical to the one on the Fawcett Gold Medal reprint of The Name of the Game is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe (a much better book) also released in 1973! I wonder which artist stole it from the other, or if they both stole it from somewhere else?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review: A MAN CALLED SLOANE - "Collision Course"

The seventh episode of A Man Called Sloane begins with Sloane in London, where he is to meet another UNIT agent at a planetarium. When he arrives, he discovers his contact – an old friend – murdered, with strange markings on his neck. Noticing a beautiful woman apparently fleeing from the scene, he follows, and is attacked by a couple of thugs.

Investigating the agent's death, Sloane discovers that an old adversary, Jefferson Crane (Eric Braeden, The Rat Patrol), a man that Sloane believed he had killed some years before, is behind a plot of cosmic proportions. Using two stolen nuclear missiles, he plans to divert a comet (the fictional Caesar's Comet, which the script would have us believe was first spotted at the time of Julius Caesar's assassination, and which has returned every 100 years) and crash it into the Earth.

Soap opera veteran and popular heavy Braeden makes a satisfactory villain, and Nancy DeCarl, as the dead agent's sister, is a lovely girl of the week, but the story is pretty unspectacular. For one thing, while the script goes to great lengths to emphasize how involved and difficult it was to calculate the comet's trajectory, it also posits that the U.S. military transports nukes around on the back of easily hijack-able trucks. (Actually, stealing nukes is made to look very easy throughout the series!)

Not one of the stronger episodes, unfortunately... though the scene where a bunch of polo players on horseback attack a van containing Sloane, Torque and the girl is both kinda cool and damned weird.

• This episode was written by Stephen Kandel, a frequent contributor to various spy-fi shows, including Mission: Impossible, The Wild Wild West, It Takes A Thief and MacGyver.

Spy-Fi Poll 001: Results

A week ago, I discovered how to add a poll to the sidebar of this blog. So, for the heck of it, I posted one. I think I'm going to continue to do so, at least as long as I can think up questions and people find it fun to vote.

Our first poll question was "Which Spy-Fi Television series of the Sixties was your favorite?"

Twenty people cast votes, and the clear winner, with 8 (nearly half) of the votes going to The Avengers. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was second with 4, The Wild Wild West garnered 2, while Mission: Impossible, I Spy, The Prisoner and It Takes A Thief received one vote each.

I'm a bit surprised, but I shouldn't be (I voted for The Wild Wild West myself; it may not have been the best of the era, but it's probably my favorite one to watch), as The Avengers was probably the most consistently stylish and compelling of the bunch. And of course, it had Diana Rigg.


The next poll presents a decidedly unoriginal question, I'm afraid, but I'm curious to see how it plays out: "Which actor portrayed the best James Bond?"

Review: TARGET: DOOMSDAY ISLAND

In this 1973 Nick Carter, Killmaster adventure from Award Books and an anonymous ghost writer, the intrepid top agent of AXE heads to a private Caribbean paradise owned by a reclusive military contractor named Grady Ingersoll, to determine whether the eccentric billionaire has fallen under the influence of aforeign power and stolen for them the plans for a new nuclear missile system called Tripleheader.

The government has become concerned because Grady has recently taken to hosting huge parties for pot smoking, free loving hippies at his island home. Or islands, actually: Grady owns Double Cay, two tiny isles (Doomsday Island and Resurrection Island) where he has built – and is building – luxury resorts. Obviously, no upstanding American industrialist would indulge in such obvious subversive decadence unless something was seriously wrong, right?

This particular Nick Carter is actually pretty decently written, with a fairly straight-forward plot, plenty of gunplay, intriguing femme fatales, and the usual Seventies trappings, including easily duped, clueless hippies and sinister Red Chinese agents. There's not as much sexual content as in other books in the series from the same era, so maybe this ghost writer was more interested in other kinds of action.

Worked for me. Target: Doomsday Island is a fun, fast trip back to the Seventies.

I'm a big fan of the Nick Carter paperbacks, and recently recovered my collection from my parents' basement. I actually read this – along with a few more – over a month ago, but wasn't able to scan the cover until tonight. Look for more Nick Carter reviews in the future.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: BURN NOTICE S2 DVD

Sunday was cold, wet, windy and altogether unpleasant, and as my wife and I had no pressing reasons to leave the relative comfort of our living room, we, uh, burned our way through the second season of USA Network's spy show, Burn Notice on DVD.

In season two, blacklisted ex-spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) finds himself firmly under the thumb of a mysterious new "handler" named Carla (Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica), who has threatened to kill his friends and family if he fails to do her bidding. Even with this omnipresent threat – and the hazardous missions she forces him to carry out – Westen still finds time to help out the helpless of Miami with the aid of his gun-and-bomb happy girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and ex-SEAL buddy Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell). Over these 16 episodes, Westen & company find themselves pitted against modern day pirates, con-artists, professional thieves, kidnappers, gangsters, the usual slew of drug dealers, and several assassins and ex-operatives whose skills rival Westen's own.

The second season continues the fast pace, sharp dialogue and generous helpings of gunplay and explosions that distinguished the first, with the addition of some significant character development, especially between Westen and Fiona, and between the hero and his family. It's probably the best action adventure show currently being produced, with attractive, appealing characters, plenty of real-world action and stunts, and its gorgeous, sun-drenched Miami location work. In fact, it's an almost perfect blend of old school, 80's escapist fare, with it's self-contained, single-episode plots (helping out his civilian clients) and today's continuity-heavy serialized dramas (with the ongoing "burn notice" investigation).

Fox's 4-DVD set includes all 16 episodes of the basic cable series' second season, presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and 5.1 Dolby Surround. There are Deleted Scenes from nearly every episode, commentary by cast and crew on select episodes, and a Gag Reel.

The only bad thing is now I have to wait a year for the Season 3 DVDs.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Weekly Debriefing 002

Begin transmission:

• I've been watching the fourth and final Season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. this week, and I've got to say, I'm really amazed at how well the producers managed to pull the show back from the absurdity and campy depths of Season 3. If anything, they may have pulled it back a bit too far – some of the S4 episodes are positively grim.

The season begins with a mole hunt in U.N.C.L.E.'s Berlin HQ, which features a surprisingly harrowing (for 60's television, anyway) scene of Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) being interrogated by another U.N.C.L.E. agent. Unfortunately, this episode also features one of the most unconvincing uses of the MGM backlot's "waterfront," but I blame that on the director's poor blocking.

This season also features the great two-parter, "The Prince of Darkness Affair," with a fine villainous turn by Bradford Dillman. And then there's "The Deadly Quest Affair," in which my man Darren McGavin (and a lepoard!) hunts Solo and the girl of the week through the abandoned buildings and empty streets of a condemned section of New York. "The Survival School Affair" features another mole hunt, this time at U.N.CL.E.'s secret, Caribbean island training school (run by film noir tough guy, Charles McGraw)! Hell, so far (I'm about halfway through the season) there hasn't been a outright clunker in the bunch. Some of these tales are almost Mission: Impossible grim, with the heavies meeting very nasty ends indeed. Even the traditional "light moments" that we've come to expect at the end of the episodes are frequently dropped in favor of Solo and Kuriyakin (David McCallum) simply walking away or heading off to a new assignment.

The producers also spent some serious money in this last season, with some snazzy new futuristic and functional sets for U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, and a new office – and a regular secretary/assistant – for Mr. Waverly (Leo G. Carroll). This season the writers also seemed to have a firmer hand on how exactly U.N.C.L.E. was organized and run. That helped the verisimilitude of the stories, too.

Well, even if it was too late to recapture the vast audience that tuned out and never came back after their ill-advised embrace of dumb camp comedy in Season 3, it's nice to know that, creatively anyway, the program redeemed itself somewhat before it was canceled.

• Still working my way through Get Smart Season 3 an episode or two at a time. Still funny after 40 years. "Maxwell Smart, Private Eye" and "99 Loses CONTROL" (with guest villain Jacques Bergerac of Special Mission Lady Chaplin) are a couple of real stand outs so far. Barbara Feldon... sigh....

• It turns out that I was able to pick up the Second season DVD set of Burn Notice (which came out this past Tuesday), after all. I don't have cable – or even broadcast television now, actually – so I've been following this series on disc. I've managed to avoid any spoilers for the season, which isn't easy in this internet age. I've only watched the first episode so far, but I'm still diggin' it.

• Didn't read any spy fiction this week or watch any spy movies (just TV shows). Been under the gun on some writing/editing projects, and had a death in the family, so time's been tight. Watching some TV episodes (the aforementioned U.N.C.L.E.s and Smarts) during meal breaks was about the most I could manage. Maybe I can get back to those Alan Caillou paperbacks next week. I would really like to start posting some more book reviews here.

How was your week?

End transmission.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Guilty Pleasures: SHE SPIES

Back in 2002-03, there aired a two-season, late night syndicated adventure series called She Spies. Now, I never saw it when it was on television, but a few years back, MGM released the first season on DVD and sent me a copy for review. Needless to say, I was intrigued – "shes" and "spies" being two of my favorite things, after all.

Once I started watching the show, I found myself very pleasantly surprised. No, not that it was low budget and ludicrous – one doesn't expect much from a "jiggle" adventure series intended to air after midnight – but at how much I enjoyed the characters and how funny it was.

The first season of She Spies is a deliberate and knowing spoof of television adventure shows (and late night syndicated action shows in particular), loaded with broad humor, pop culture references and in-jokes. The premise – which is bluntly stated in nearly ever episode – is that the government has taken three gorgeous convicts: a con artist named Cassie (the stunning Natsha Henstridge – who was once rumored to have been cast as Modesty Blaise for a proposed Quentin Tarantino Blaise film) a streetwise tough girl (the sexy Natashia Williams) and a skillful computer hacker named D.D. (the astoundingly adorable Kristen Miller, whom I love desperately), and put them to work as agents for a secret federal agency dedicated to eliminating evildoers. Their "control" is a likable schlub named Jack (Carlos Jacott), who really needs for the She Spies program to work, since it was his idea.

Basically a rather blatant TV rip-off of director McG's Charlie's Angels feature films (which is why it's so amusing that four(!) people are listed in the credits as "creators;" I guess they all chipped in to rent the Angels videos), She Spies still manages to succeed on its own silly merits. The scripts are generally witty, sharp and occasionally heartwarming (yeah, I was surprised, too) the chemistry among the characters is great, and while there's clearly not much of a budget (which the characters are well aware of, too), the production values are pretty good. The humor in the first couple of episodes is too broad and over-the-top for my tastes, but the producers soon find a nice balance between plot and comedy, and by mid-season, the show evolved into something quite entertaining.

Now, I've never seen any episodes from the series' second season, which apparently removed all of the self-referential and fourth wall-breaking humor. They also replaced Jancott as the team's control officer with a couple of more traditional authority figures. Boo!

MGM's DVD presentation of the first season of the show is basic, but respectable. You get 20 episodes on four discs, in two twin slim packs. The show is presented in the standard TV 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. There are no extras whatsoever.

Three beautiful babes, self-aware humor, ninjas… it's perfect viewing for 2 A.M and as easily digestible as Jello. It might not be for everyone, but every once in a while, when I'm in the mood, I'll spin a disc and rewatch an episode or two. Fun stuff.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Spy-Fi Flashback: SECRET AGENT X-9 (1945)

Phil Corrigan, alias Secret Agent X-9, was a popular comic strip character of the 30's and 40's (though the feature ran well into the 90's) created by the acclaimed mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and artist Alex Raymond (who would later go on to create Flash Gordon, and then Rip Kirby for the same newspaper syndicate). Universal Studios produced two movie serials based on the character, both simply titled, Secret Agent X-9; the first in 1937 and the second in 1945.

The 1937 serial has Agent X-9 functioning pretty much as a standard movie G-Man, chasing after a ring of international jewel thieves. It’s a very decent serial; Scott Kolk makes an adequate X-9, and Jean Rogers (Dale Arden in Flash Gordon) is a lovely leading lady. Unfortunately, it’s not really a spy story. Instead, it’s pure, Depression-era, cops and robbers melodrama.

The 1945 serial, on the other hand, is a genuine espionage adventure. This one stars a young, up and coming Lloyd Bridges as Phil Corrigan, Secret Agent X-9. The charismatic and talented Bridges was a far better actor than most other serial heroes, and his nascent star quality really infuses the 13-chapter serial with energy. Unlike some other chapterplays of the era, you don’t get bored between fistfights and car chases.

The story is set in 1943 on the aptly-named Shadow Island, a small isle of intrigue somewhere off the coast of China, which the Japanese have allowed to remain neutral. Of course, secret agents from all over the world descend upon the island, which is portrayed as a sort of South Pacific Casbalanca. Shadow Island is run by a saloon owner named Lucky Kamber (Cy Kendall), but he’s only allowed to operate at the sufferance of a sly and slinky Japanese agent called Nabura (Victoria Horne in faux Asian make-up).

The plot revolves around the accidental discovery by a Japanese scientist (Benson Fong, Charlie Chan’s #3 son) that aviation fuel can be manufactured cheaply by mixing an artificial chemical called 722 with water. Seeing the obvious benefits for Japan’s war plans, Nabura devises an intricate plan to steal the formula for 722 from an American scientist in the States. Fortunately, Australian spy Lynn Moore (Jan Wiley) learns of the plan and, in response to her report, American Intelligence sends Phil Corrigan to Shadow Island to foil the plot. Soon after X-9’s arrival, he finds himself not only teamed with the pretty Aussie agent, but partnered with a very competent Chinese operative named Ah Fong (the great Keye Luke, Charlie Chan’s #1 son). It’s a good thing, too, because X-9’s got his hands full.

Shadow Island swarms with suspicious characters. Among the various factions maneuvering on Shadow Island are a mysterious French couple – Hotel owners Papa and Mama Pierre – whose motives and loyalties are unknown, and an enigmatic gentleman known only as Solo (Samuel S. Hinds) who sits for endless hours at Kamber’s bar playing tiddley winks. Additionally, there’s a Japanese submarine (and its crew) standing by to facilitate Nabura’s scheme, and a "civilian" German freighter commanded by Herr Kapitan Graf, in port.

Needless to say, double (and triple) crosses, gunfights, brawls and shadow skulking are the order of the day on this island of spies, and X-9 has to keep on his toes if he’s going to foil Nabura’s machinations. The serial is briskly-paced (unusually so, for a Universal serial, which tended to be more leisurely than those produced by studios like Republic and Columbia) by directors Lewis Collins and Ray Taylor, and has fairly high production values. The pre-WWII setting is fascinating, and the cliffhangers are all pretty exciting. The final chapter is satisfying, too – not always the case with these Saturday matinee chapterplays.

VCI Entertainment offers both Secret Agent X-9 serials on DVD. Both look good, but the 1945 serial looks particularly fine for its age. There’s some occasional, minor print damage here and there, but the transfer is very solid for the most part. The VCI disc also includes a commentary over the first chapter by mystery writer and comic strip historian Max Allan Collins, an interview with Bridges’ son, Beau Bridges, a still gallery, and trailers for other VCI serial discs.

I'm a big fan of old serials, and the 1945 Secret Agent X-9 is one of my very favorites. Not only is it a great serial, but a fun spy movie, too.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review: A MAN CALLED SLOANE - "The Venus Microbe"

Episode six of A Man Called Sloane centers around a lethal alien microorganism brought back to Earth by a Venus probe. (Funny how in reality, our interplanetary probes aren't actually ever intended to return to Earth, though they regularly do in fiction!) This "microbe" is so dangerous that the government both fears that it might get loose and salivates at the thought of using it as a weapon. Thus, they have a team working on an "antidote."

Dr. Franklyn (Alex Henteloff) is part of that team of government scientists, but KARTEL has snagged him in a honeytrap using a professional seductress named Charlene (Zacki Murphy), and turned him. He steals both the microbe and antidote with her help, inadvertently trapping a couple of his colleagues in a sealed chamber and exposing them to the microbe.

Sloane and Torque happen to be visiting the lab at the time, and chase after him. Unfortunately, KARTEL has him covered, and our heroes are attacked by an "ambulance" with a rocket launching "siren." We discover here, for the first time, that Sloane's vintage Cord has some defensive capabilities, as he employs a good old fashioned oil slick to thwart his would-be assassins. ("I guess we gave them the slip!") Unfortunately, the ambulance attack has allowed Franklyn and Charlene to escape with their deadly prize.

Franklyn turns the microbe and the as-yet-untested antidote over to casino proprietor and KARTEL honcho Jonathan Cambro (veteran character actor Monte Markham). Obviously, KARTEL needs to know the antidote works, so the sinister Cambro forces Franklyn to test it on himself. It doesn't work. Apparently the good doctor misplaced a page while transcribing the formula, and that page is now in the hands of neophyte private eye Melissa Nelson (Morgan Fairchild). Eventually, Melissa and Sloane combine forces, and with only 48 hours to recover the antidote (remember those trapped scientists?), go after the sinister Cambro.

Not the strongest episode, but Fairchild and Conrad play off each other quite well, and Markham is, as always, excellent in his villainous role. The science is ludicrous, of course, and the plot is all-too predictable, but it moves along briskly.

• Scriptwriter Marc Brandel also contributed scripts to Danger Man and Amos Burke, Secret Agent.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Weekly Debriefing 001

Begin Transmission:

What espionage-related activities have I been up to this week?

• Picked up Season 3 of Get Smart at Best Buy last night. It just came out this past Tuesday, and BB offered a decent discount. Regretfully, I wasn't able to get the Time-Life exclusive box set of the entire series when it came out a few years ago, but these single-season releases suit me quite well. While it's a shame that I'm missing out on all the behind-the-scenes bonus material included in the TL edition, the picture quality on these discs is very satisfactory, and they still include the Barbara Feldon audio intros and commentaries. I haven't seen most of these episodes since one of our local stations re-ran them on weekday afternoons in the mid-Seventies, when I was about thirteen! Anyway, so far, it looks like year 3 may be the best of Get Smart's five seasons, and I'm really enjoying watching these episodes again.

It's actually pretty amazing how well these shows hold up, even after forty years. I find myself laughing out loud surprisingly often!

• As noted below, I bought and read the latest "Young Bond" novel by Charlie Higson, Hurricane Gold. I don't think it's the best in the series – I think that honor might go to the previous entry, Double or Die, so far – but it's a very strong adventure with good villains, a great "Bond girl" (Precious Stone, by name), and a marvelous, thrilling climax. Good stuff.

• This past week, I also finally got around to reading Tod Goldberg's first Burn Notice tie-in novel, The Fix. Goldberg has done a remarkable job of capturing the personalities and voices of the entire cast, but especially that of ex-operative Michael Westen, from whose point of view the story is told. He's also very good at exploiting and describing the series' Miami setting.

The plot is solid – and nicely complicated – and would make a great two-parter on the show. Not much progress is made in regards to Westen's ongoing investigation into the motives behind his burn notice, but then, I'm guessing that particular plotline is, by necessity and contract, the domain of the television writers. Still, we have dangerous people coming out of Westen's shadowy past to complicate his life, he gets to help get someone out of trouble, Sam is lovably loyal, Fi is sexily scary, and there's plenty of action and gunplay.

My only complaint with the book is that there are a surprising number of typographical errors, and that most of them could have been avoided if the editor hadn't relied so much on the computer spellchecker and had actually read what he was editing. Sigh.

A great read, and I look forward to picking up Goldberg's second Burn Notice novel, The End Game, which I believe came out recently.

Season 2 of the Burn Notice television show comes out on DVD next week. I doubt I'll be able to afford to pick it up for a while, though...

• I'm working on my next Sloane episode review, and should have it posted later today or tomorrow.

End Transmission.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Video: Shirley Bassey Bond Medley

Dame Shirley Bassey sings a medley of her three James Bond theme songs in this clip from a 2005 television special. Wow.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

HURRICANE GOLD

Monday afternoon I picked up the latest (in the U.S., anyway) "Young Bond" novel by Charlie Higson, Hurricane Gold, at our local Barnes & Noble. Today, I wasn't feeling very well, and couldn't seem to get any work done, so I headed upstairs, stretched out on the bed, propped myself up with pillows, and started reading.

I finished it about ten minutes ago.

Like the previous three volumes in the series, Higson has managed to spin a rip-snorting, balls-out adventure tale about the boy who would grow up to be Her Majesty's most famous secret servant. Not a spy novel – though it does have some espionage in it, in the form of some stolen military secrets – it is, nonetheless, a legitimate and worthy James Bond adventure.

Each of Higson's novels have excelled at showing how the boy was forged and tempered into the man that Ian Fleming wrote about, and Hurricane Gold is no exception. Once again, young Bond is pushed to the limits physically, but through intelligence and an iron will, he perseveres.

When this series was announced, I – like many fans, I'm betting – felt considerable anxiety about the Harry Potter-izing of our favorite British agent, (or worse! Remember James Bond Jr?) but Higson has really pulled it off, following Fleming's chronology and hints about Bond's past, and placing the character into just-credible adventures that echo Fleming's unique worldview. Higson is especially adept at crafting Fleming-esque villains, just as physically and psychologically twisted as any in the original canon. Most impressively, he doesn't write down to his presumably juvenile audience.

They're great books. I eagerly anticipate the next volume, By Royal Command.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Review: THAT MAN BOLT

When I was in high school, the A-V department used to get these thick, phone book-sized catalogs for 16mm rental films. Along with the expected "educational" variety of cinema, there were hundreds of entertainment features included; many of the listings illustrated with the original newspaper ad slicks. Since the school usually discarded these catalogs, I snagged them whenever I could.

For an embryonic film buff in the pre-home video era, these catalogs were far more educational and exhaustive than most available reference books, listing movies across the broad spectrum of cinema – everything from foreign art house fare to Hollywood "classics" to the most obscure drive-in programmers. It was in one of these catalogs that I first saw the listing and ad art for That Man Bolt, and became obsessed with seeing it.

It only took me about thirty years...!

An odd hybrid of blaxploitation action, martial arts film and espionage thriller, That Man Bolt (1973) begins with freelance international courier Jefferson Bolt (Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, Hell Up In Harlem, Black Ceasar, Bucktown) practicing martial arts in a Macao prison cell. Soon, he's visited by a "government" operative (the nation involved is never named, but the agent certainly appears to be British), who offers him a job carrying a cool million in American currency from Hong Kong to Mexico City, via Los Angeles.

The suave, well-dressed Bolt never makes it to Mexico, though, as he's waylaid in L.A. by agents intent on snagging his briefcase full of cash. Soon, neither Bolt nor the audience is sure whether the money is real or counterfeit (and you know, I'm still not quite sure how it turned out), people are dying left and right, and Bolt's on his way back to the orient for a kung fu confrontation in Hong Kong.

I love this movie. Can't even begin to decipher the story, but I love the movie anyway. Fred Williamson's always been my favorite blaxploitation lead, and Jefferson Bolt is clearly his attempt at creating a more general-audience, mass-market hero along the lines of James Bond (right down to the initials!). Bolt is a former captain of U.S. Special Forces, graduate of Cal Tech and MIT with a master's degree in physics, and a black belt in karate. He wears expensive suits, has several cool apartments around the world, uses telescopic sunglasses, and possesses an upscale persona right out of the Ian Fleming playbook. Even the sex scenes are handled tastefully off-screen, as in the early Bond films.

The pacing is fast, the Hong Kong photography is beautiful, the funky score is great, and the unbeatable combination of Williamson's sideburns, Alpha male machismo and cigar-chewing charisma carry the film, even as the plot continues to deteriorate with each additional minute of running time.

That Man Bolt is available on a "Soul Showcase" DVD from Universal, which presents the film in a beautiful, crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with clear, Dolby Stereo sound. There are no extras included.

• There are two directors credited – Henry Levin and David Lowell Rich. Levin also directed two of the Dean Martin Matt Helm films – The Ambushers and Murderer's Row.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review: A MAN CALLED SLOANE - "Demon's Triangle"

Episode five of A Man Called Sloane is probably the best of the run so far... except for one thing, which I'll gripe about later.

The episode opens at an airport in some Central American country, where UNIT's gadget girl Kelly (series regular Karen Purcill) is waiting to board a plane to the United States after enjoying a long-overdue vacation. Unexpectedly, Sloane and Torque show up, pursued by armed troops, and, pressing her into service as an impromptu courier, give her a top secret microchip, which she hides in her ring while the boys lead their pursuers away.

Unfortunately, Kelly's plane disappears in The Demon's Triangle ("Like the Devil's Triangle, only not as well known," according to The Director). There's only one inhabited island in the area – Corsair Island – so Sloane and Torque are off to the Caribbean to search for Kelly and the microchip, which – not unexpectedly – could compromise national security if it should fall into the wrong hands.

Well, the island is lorded over by Morgan Lancaster (Clive Revill) who claims to be the direct descendant of Sir Henry Morgan. He has a device that allows him to remotely control aircraft, and he's behind the disappearance of Kelly's flight. Surprisingly, he has no knowledge of the microchip nor Kelly's UNIT ties – all he wanted was the pilot, one of the few men on Earth qualified to fly America's most top secret aircraft, the XT-100 (which stock footage reveals to be an apparent code name for the then-new B1 bomber). The experimental plane is scheduled to make a test-flight over the area, and Lancaster needs a qualified pilot to bring it down with his machine.

Needless to say, Sloane and Torque not only rescue Kelly from the modern-day pirate's clutches and retrieve the microchip MacGuffin, but foil his skyjacking plans as well.

"Demon's Triangle" has a clever, pulpy script and makes good use of the characters. It's nice to see Kelly out of the lab, and she uses her wits to keep the microchip out of Lancaster's hands. Revill makes a fine Bondian villain, and delivers his comic book dialogue with relish. Sloane, Kelly & Torque escape from a prison cell through a cleverly-executed plan, and the producers even manage a fair approximation of a Caribbean island setting. Hell, the villain's lair is even hidden within "Voodoo Mountain!" That's some fun spy-fi, right there!

My only complaint? Why call it "Demon's Triangle?" Did someone at NBC Standard & Practices think that the names "Devil's Triangle" or "Bermuda Triangle" were trademarked by a rival network? Cripes!

• This episode was written by Jimmy Sangster, who also wrote the great 60's spy-fi classic, Deadlier Than The Male, and the 1980 telefilm, Once Upon A Spy.

• Clive Revill also played the villain – a different but similar character – in the pilot film T.R. Sloane/Death Ray 2000.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I Spy-Fi

I want to thank everyone who's tuned into the Spy-Fi Channel in the week or so of its existence. I've been going through a bit of a funk lately, and although the last thing I probably needed was to start up yet another blog, in practice, it has turned out to be pretty good therapy.

I had lost a lot of enthusiasm for my trade – which is writing – of late, but turning my attention to a new (or mostly new) subject for a while has helped restore some of that energy. Also, I recently scored bootlegs of A Man Called Sloane and wanted to share the giddy nostalgia I've experienced upon revisiting the series. I've often said that my tastes in entertainment peaked when I was about fifteen, and I'm sure it's no coincidence that Sloane debuted during my fifteenth year...

Anyway, I'm currently re-reading the Alan Caillou spy novel A League of Hawks, and intend to review it and its sequel here once I'm done. Caillou was an interesting guy – author, adventurer, actor – and I remember enjoying his two novels about MI6 researcher-cum-spy, Ian Quayle, when they came out back in the mid-80's. We'll see how they hold up.

I'm also hoping to get my hands on Charlie Higson's fourth Young Bond novel, Hurricane Gold, soon. It only recently came out here in the U.S., and if I wasn't so short of cash, I would have snatched it up as soon as it hit the shelves. I've loved the first three books in the series, and am eager to lay my hands on the latest.

Since I was inducted into the COBRAS so recently, I haven't had the time to prepare a post for their June roundtable, "Man Vs. Machine." However, I've rented the Michael Caine "Harry Palmer" film Billion Dollar Brain from Netflix, and hope to view it and review it before the week is up. I've never actually seen any of the Palmer films before (shocking, I know), and while this is the third in the original trilogy, it looks to be right up my alley.

If you want to check out what the other COBRAS are writing about on this topic, check out the links to the left.

Anyway, thanks again for stopping by; I'll have another Sloane review up soon – "The Demon's Triangle!"