Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Spy-Fi Flashback: U.N.C.L.E. @ 45

Cinema Retro reminds us that forty-five years ago tonight, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. premiered on NBC. Starring Robert Vaughn as suave secret agent Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as his enigmatic Russian colleague, the show ran for four years.

The first U.N.C.L.E. show I ever saw was the 1983 TV movie reunion. Not the greatest example, obviously, but it was good enough to make me want to see more.

I never saw an episode of the original series until the mid-1980s, when cable's CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network, ran the first season, black & white U.N.C.L.E. episodes at five AM on weekdays. I set my VCR timer to record the show, and enjoyed finally seeing the series I had been reading about for years.

In subsequent years, I caught episodes from the later seasons on stations like TNT, and last year I finally got my hands on the complete series DVD set.

U.N.C.L.E. was both a product of its time and a bit ahead of it. It was a Cold War era spy show that flat out ignored the Cold War, and showed an American agent (some sources claim Solo was Canadian, but that was never mentioned on the air) and a Russian agent working together to keep the world safe. Despite the limitations of a television budget, the producers and directors used the resources of the then-fading MGM studios -- especially its vast backlot -- to give the show a sense of scope and spectacle that its contemporaries lacked. And it was its success that helped give rise to the TV spy boom of the Sixties, making it responsible, in part, for the existence of shows such as Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, I Spy and Mission: Impossible.

So, happy anniversary to the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, for without it, this blog may not have been possible.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: THE 10TH VICTIM DVD

A cult classic from the swinging sixties, Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim may not be a spy movie, but it is a fun bit of speculative, sly Europop, with an intriguing sci-fi premise that has proven, in the years since the film was made, to be somewhat prescient.

It is the 21st century and the governments of the world have turned murder into a sporting event called The Big Hunt. Intended as a sort of pressure valve for society, volunteers sign on to hunt and be hunted by other players. Each volunteer is contracted to ten "hunts;" five as hunter and five as victim. Survivors receive huge cash prizes, and if they survive all ten hunts, they get a million bucks cash. When lovely Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress, Doctor No) is pitted against Italian champion Marcello Polletti (Marcello Mastroianni) in her last hunt, she arranges to have her expected victory – Marcello's death – televised for her corporate sponsors. Unfortunately for her, Marcello has no desire to cooperate.

An audacious mix of satire, farce, science fiction and romance, The 10th Victim is a genuinely unique film experience. In its tone, story and production design, it has influenced a wide variety of subsequent films, from Death Race 2000 and The Running Man to Mike Myers’ Austin Powers series, and predicted the "reality television" craze that plagues us today.

Blue Underground’s recently released DVD is a reissue of an out of print Anchor Bay edition, with the same anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and limited extras. Much better cover art, though, taken from the original film poster. Audio options include both the original Italian dialogue tracks and the English dub. The only extras are the theatrical trailer and text bios of Andress and Mastroianni.

A one-of-a-kind film, The 10th Victim is very much a product of its era, with a 60s pop art vibe that may seem campy or dated today, but if you have a genuine interest in cinematic satire, I strongly recommend checking it out. It’s a minor masterpiece and should appeal to fans of the era's Eurospy and "psychedelic" films.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Video: THE SILENCER

Continuing my efforts to find rare spy-fi-related clips: buxom Joi Lansing performs the theme from the Dean Martin Matt Helm film The Silencers in this burlesque-inspired musical short for scopitone "video jukeboxes" of the Sixties.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: OPERATION KID BROTHER

After years of reading about it, I finally got a chance to watch Operation Kid Brother (a/k/a OK Connery, Operation Double 007) the infamous Eurospy film starring Neil Connery, the younger brother of 007 himself, Sean Connery. The film also stars 007 film veterans Adolfo Celi, Daniela Bianchi, and Anthony Dawson, as well as (much to the annoyance of Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli) series regulars Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell.

Directed by Alberto De Martino, Operation Kid Brother is an amusing novelty of a movie. Neil Connery plays, uh, Doctor Neil Connery, the younger brother of England's top secret agent. Doctor Neil is not a spy – but he is a plastic surgeon, master hypnotist, lip reader, expert archer, and probably hell of a croquet player. He looks a bit like his brother, but sports a neatly-trimmed van dyke beard and utterly expressionless eyes – which is regrettable since we get so many close-ups of those vacant orbs. When his sibling is unavailable for a mission, a Commander Cunningham (Lee) and Miss Maxwell (Maxwell) recruit the multi-talented civilian.

It seems that an evil organization called THANATOS (actually, that's a pretty cool name) is out to conquer the world with a magnetic device that will cause all machinery to stop working. The man in charge of the operation is Mr. Thai (Celi), and he's aided by the lovely Maya (Bianchi). Fortunately, defeating Thai and THANATOS specifically requires a lip-reading plastic surgeon with hypnotic powers – and, let's not forget, master bowman – so everything works out all right in the end.

Actually, there's a lot of fun stuff in this flick. Lois Maxwell gets to do a lot more here than she ever did as Miss Moneypenny, even toting a machine gun and participating in a commando raid. The climax, in which a group of Dr. Neil's archery buddies invade Thai's underground lair and perforate his leather-clad guards with arrows, is entertainingly surreal. Bianchi's costumes are delightfully over-the-top, and the score, by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai is bouncy and upbeat.

Neil's just awful, though. Calling him a block of wood is an insult to trees. As I mentioned above, his eyes are lifeless, which, combined with his nearly immobile face, is somewhat disturbing. When a young woman – one of his patients, mind you – is shot in front of him while passing on secret information under hypnosis, he shows no emotion at all. Occasionally he manages to look irritated, so I guess that's something. It doesn't help that his voice is dubbed by someone with a flat, American accent. Assuming his own line readings were unusable, couldn't they at least found someone with a Scottish accent?

Anyway, I've finally seen it, and I'm glad I did. I also watched the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the film this week, and that was fun, too. The movie inspired some particularly funny commentary from Joel and the 'bots, and their Connery-inspired comedy sketches were great.

• Interestingly, the movie poster art above was the work of the legendary Bob Peak, who also painted the poster for 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me and some ultimately unused promotional art for 1989's Licence To Kill.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Happy Birthday, George!

Actually, the star of my favorite James Bond movie celebrated his 70th birthday yesterday, but what's a day among friends?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Review: KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE

Just a year before assaying his most famous role as TV's tough private eye, Joe Mannix, Mike Conners starred in this fun 1966 spy-fi adventure from producer Dino DeLaurentis (Danger Diabolik) and director Henry Levin (Murderer's Row, The Ambushers).

Conners plays CIA agent Kelly. We don't learn much about the character over the course of the film, not even whether "Kelly" is his first or last name. All we really find out is that he's smart, good with his fists, and likes bananas.

Kelly is in Rio de Janerio, investigating a millionaire named Ardonian (played by Italian actor Raf Vallone), who seems to collect girlfriends -- several at a time. These young women (all beautiful, of course) all seem to go missing eventually. Among Ardonian's most recent amorous interests is Susan Fleming (Dorothy Provine), an aristocratic Englishwoman.

Eventually, it is revealed that Susan is also a secret agent, working for MI6 and also investigating Ardonian. Her chauffeur, James (Terry-Thomas) is also her partner-in-espionage, working as her back-up man and bodyguard. He also drives her Rolls Royce, which is equipped with numerous secret weapons and gadgets.

Working together, Kelly and Susan uncover Ardonian's sinister plot: the Red Chinese have provided him with a rocket, with which he intends to launch a satellite into orbit. This satellite will emit waves of radiation that will destroy the male sex drive, and ultimately cause the human race to die out. The Chinese have been assured that he will only "sterilize" the West, but Ardonian has bigger plans. Those missing girls? He has them cryogenically preserved in his underground rocket base/secret lair, and intends for them to be the mothers of his own, world-conquering progeny.

Kiss The Girls And Make Them Die surprised me. I had expected it to be an outright spoof, but it wasn't quite as cartoonish as the Matt Helm movies, instead playing out a bit more like the Flint films; outlandish but played straight-faced. It was also a more lavish production than I expected, with a seemingly larger budget than any of its Eurospy contemporaries. The Rio locations were used well (especially a nice action scene in and around the Redeemer statue on Corcavado) and Ardonian's lair was nicely designed and impressive in scope. The fight scenes were very well staged and performed, too.

I really liked Mike Conners' laconic performance, and was really surprised at how much I enjoyed Terry-Thomas' character. I had previously only seen him play stereotypical upper-class twits and clueless bureaucrats, so I was caught of guard the first time he laid out some thugs with surprisingly convincing judo moves. I was less impressed with Dorothy Provine; she was okay in the role, just not my "type." Eurospy vixen Margaret Lee also appeared in the movie, though, and she's always welcome eye candy.

And yeah, it's true: an awful lot of this movies plot -- including it's Rio setting -- seems to have been cribbed by screenwriter Christopher Wood for the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker. Several scenes are almost identical, and it just doesn't seem likely that it was coincidental.

I wish someone would give this film a legitimate DVD release.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Weekly Debriefing 012

Begin Transmission.

• Sorry for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks. I've been under the gun (a Walther PPK, of course) on several freelance assignments. I did come into possession of a few new spy-fi discs (courtesy of a fellow aficionado), and will be reviewing some of them here.

• My only spy-fi purchase this past week was the Blu-Ray special edition disc of Casino Royale (2006). I'm slowly building up my Bond Blu-Ray collection, and can't wait for them to get around to On Her Majesty's Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me.

• This week's Bond film was You Only Live Twice. Man, that movie makes no sense if you think too hard about it. I love the spectacle - Ken Adams' sets are amazing - and it has several extremely well-staged action sequences, but that script! It's Roald Dahl's Tales of the Inexplicable! Still, it's fun.

Look for more posts this week.

End Transmission.