The phrase “in the wake of James Bond’s success” is probably the single most over-used phrase in any examination of the flood of spy films that flowed freely onto screens worldwide in the wake of James Bond’s success. Unfortunately, facts are facts and while the Bond films certainly were not the first espionage thrillers to grace the silver screen, they remain to this day the most popular and influential. While many of the films that followed Dr. No and From Russia with Love were very different from those two seminal Bond movies, there’s little doubt that Bond opened the doors, paved the way, and made producers a lot more interested in green-lighting spy movies. Nowhere was this truer than in Europe, where spy mania swept the continent and resulted in hundreds of espionage and caper films taking full advantage of the wealth of gorgeous European locations and equally gorgeous European screen sirens.
Italy and Spain had far and away the most audacious entries into the parade, which got underway shortly after the release of Dr. No in 1962 and really gained steam near the middle of the decade. England had already done its part by giving us James Bond but also fit to turn in an impressive array of spy movies that usually boasted more coherent and intelligent scripts than their continental brethren but also lacked the anything-goes bravado. France got in on the act as well with a few notable entries, the most fabulous of which was the Fantomas series, a pop art updating of a classic French anti-hero and master thief. Germany’s biggest contribution was the long-running series of Jerry Cotton adventures – that’s the character of Jerry Cotton, not the actor Jerry Cotton. All in all, it was a glorious cavalcade of men in turtlenecks or tuxedos, women in mini skirts or cocktail dresses, and assassins in slim-fit mod suits and fezzes.
Naturally, some of the films were better than others. Though none had the lavish production values and big budget look of the Bond films (which was attained thanks to the keenness of art director Ken Adam, as Dr. No was actually a fairly modestly budgeted affair), some were never the less quite good. Others were slapdash but approached the genre with such off-the-wall gusto and flat-out weirdness that they more than compensated for their shortcomings with energy, zeal, and insanity. And of course, some were just dreadful bores and cheap, slapped together nonsense. What is often overlooked in the stampede to dismiss the entirety of the Eurospy genre as a bunch of cheap and chintzy Bond knock-offs is the fact that not only were quite a few of the films exceedingly enjoyable, many of them used the Bond formula as a starting point but then took the spy story into wild and uncharted territory complete with unique approaches, ideas, and enough mod pop-art quirk to stay fresh and innovative even while dutifully fulfilling the genre requirements and expectations passed down from on high. Some of the twists were superficial, others were deeper, but the fact of the matter is that it’s unfair to wave off the entire body of work as one big Bond imitation.
One of the most frequent digressions from the Bond formula was to mix the film’s story and sense of design with the pervading artistic and fashion trends of the time. James Bond was set up as a timeless figure, a man who exists above flash in the pan trends and fashion sensations. He is a classic, a conservative, and he looks damn good. Likewise the women he encountered were usually similarly dressed in clothing befitting someone with grace, class, and elegance. By the Moore years, Bond had swapped the classics for flared tuxedo trousers and a safari suit — which was still better than Timothy Dalton’s Members Only, casual Friday Bond. But for the Connery years, Bond’s appearance was the paramount of timeless male fashion, a paragon of men’s style.
Many of the other European films, however, were more sympathetic to trends, and so we’d get heroes in slim-fit suits and turtlenecks, or women in mini skirts and go-go boots and fabulous mod dresses. Although I count myself as a lifetime fan of classic and conservative men’s fashion, I’m also a fan of the 60’s mod look, which I think maintained elegance and class but mixed it with a rebel sensibility. With limitless funds, I’d choose to be equal parts Savile Row and Carnaby Street. As such, I’m a huge fan of the psychedelic swingin’ 60s look adopted by a lot of the spy films of the era. An elegant black evening dress or an orange and white mini – either one is fine with me on a gal. Likewise, give me a smart suit or a well-tailored tux, and I’ll be a happy lad.
As with clothing, a lot of the smaller budget films looked to appeal more to the pop-art sensibilities in art and design. As such, even some of the lowest budget films can boast gorgeously realized interiors full of eye-popping candy, a tendency toward the psychedelic and surreal that would reach its eternally unmatchable apex in 1968 with the sci-fi spectacular Barbarella. Throw into the mix the fact that in Europe you can score striking and historic locations simply by walking out your front door, and the end result is a lot of films that looked very jet-set despite budgets that would have limited a similarly financed American film to be restricted to one location and a bunch of cheap indoor sets. In other words, you’d end up with Agent for H.A.R.M.
Despite the fact that London was the swingin’ center of the universe in the 1960s, as I said the British films tended to be ever so slightly more subdued than, say, their Italian counterparts. But then, being more subdued than the Italians still leaves plenty of room to blow minds. Its like saying, “Oh no, he’s less violent than Vlad the Impaler.” The two best British films besides the Bonds, which in my opinion are still the overall best of the 60s, would be 1965’s The Ipcress File and 1966’s Deadlier than the Male. The films couldn’t be further apart in tone and style, but along with the Bonds, they represent the cream of the crop in espionage actioners.
The Ipcress File was producer Harry Saltzman’s response to the fact that his Bond movies (which he co-produced with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli) were getting bigger and more cartoonish (often thanks to his own overzealous desire to throw anything and everything he could possibly think of). It introduced the character of Harry Palmer, as realized spectacularly by Michael Caine in one of the first and still best performances of his career. Palmer was a downbeat secret agent forced into service after some unpleasantness during his tenure in the military. His surroundings were the gritty, gray streets of London, and his biggest foe was actually the British bureaucracy and the endless barrage of forms that had to be filled out. He was, in many ways, a soul mate for American author Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm character, though when Helm made it to the screen, it was in the form of a goofball spoof filled by Dean Martin.
Deadlier than the Male, by contrast, has more in common with James Coburn’s Derek Flint films. It’s jokey and clever but not outright slapstick the way Matt Helm tended to be. It’s more reserved than a Bond film, but still plenty flashy, especially when compared to artfully distressed look of The Ipcress File (which incidentally allowed art designer Ken Adam from the Bond films to go just as wild but in the exact opposite direction as the Bonds, creating sets that were as gorgeously sparse as the Bond sets were complex). Consider that Deadlier that the Male opens with legendary Elke Sommer skydiving from a jet seconds before she blows it up, plunging into the water to be picked up by another European beauty, Sylvia Koscina (from the first two Hercules films, among others), in a skimpy bikini. Seconds later, both bikini-clad women emerge from the ocean and find a man lounging on his seaside patio, whom they promptly impale with a shot from a spear gun. Now that is how you get the viewer’s attention. The whole scene is obviously meant to spoof the iconic scene of Ursula Andress emerging from the sea clad in her skimpy white bikini and wielding a diving knife in Dr. No. For my money, any three of those women can emerge from the water and threaten me with bladed or pointy weapons.
We soon learn that the girls are industrial assassins, hired ostensibly to broker difficult to close multi-billion dollar deals. The people who hire them are rarely aware that their most common means of persuasion involves bombs and spear guns. In one case, however, their actions attract the attention of ace investigator Bulldog Drummond, played with aplomb by Richard Johnson, who manages to artfully walk the line between hip modster and middle-aged square, taking the best of both worlds and making them into his own style. Since one of their most recent victims was a friend of his, Bulldog Drummond is especially keen to unearth what sort of disreputable deeds these two gorgeous women have been engaging in. Hampering him, and later helping him, in his mission is his hip young nephew, Robert. Contrary to that description of the character, Robert never becomes tedious or odious. And since he’s usually accompanied by yet another comely lass, his appearances aren’t the cringe-inducing events they might otherwise be if Steve Carlson had been a more irksome actor.
It turns out that the girls are working for a mad genius who lives in a opulent castle high atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. Their current mission is to secure a nearly impossible-to-exploit oil contract from a country none to eager to have Europeans stealing their black gold. The man in charge of the yea or neigh on the matter, young King Fedra, happens to be good friends with Robert, meaning now Bulldog finds his own nephew in the position of being potential collateral damage in an assassination attempt.
Bulldog Drummond has, much like the character of Nick Carter (the detective and spy, not the boy band idol), a very long pedigree. He got his start in the 1920s in a series of stories revolving around a man who returns from the trenches of World War One to find peaceful intolerably dull. He begins to hire himself out as a private eye and all-around global adventurer. Written with breakneck action in mind and the pre-World War II British national pride, the stories were embraced by upper-class British schoolboys who would, soon enough, find themselves serving as officers on the front lines of World War II. In updating Bulldog for the 60s spy craze, screenwriters Liz Charles-Williams and David Osborn transform him into a high profile insurance investigator with a knack for involving himself in fighting schemes and scams orchestrated by international crime syndicates. I always thought insurance investigators did things like try to determine of some guy faked the theft of his Thunderbird and thus had to skulk around a lot in garages down South, but I guess they also jet set around the world and flirt with Elke Sommer, though I’m sure if I became one, I’d end up with the car theft case orchestrated by a big burly guy named Scout or Dakota.
The story in Deadlier than the Male, like most stories if the truth were put bluntly, is not spectacularly original, but the execution is marvelous. The script is smartly written and packed with clever dialogue and double entendres that are actually funny and witty, unlike say, the often nonsensical sex joke ramblings spouted by Dean Martin in the Matt Helm film (which, don’t get me wrong, are glorious in their own ragged way even if I constantly make fun of them). Bulldog Drummond is a determined and likeable lead, even though the real stars here are Elke and Sylvia. As was the case in the Matt Helm novels, the wicked women are often the most complex and best fleshed-out characters, and this movie does not prove to be the exception. Bulldog’s the hero. We know what he’s going to do and who he’ll judo chop. But the girls are unpredictable, fierce, and perverse in the almost childlike pleasure they take in the business of killing and torturing men. Clad in an array of graceful cocktail wear, evening gowns, and bikinis, they are a sight most pleasing to the eye.
Elke Sommer plays the more sultry Irma Eckman – not exactly the sexiest name you might think, but then, pretty much anything attached to Elke Sommer is going to fall victim to the woman’s undeniable and near overwhelming sensuality. Elke Sommer – now this is a sexy woman, and she carries herself in this film with an easy and natural grace that makes it easy to believe any man would succumb to her charms even he expected to be harpooned at the end of things.
And then there’s Croatian beauty Sylvia Koscina, just as gorgeous but more playful and coquettish, more flirtatious and at the same time, infinitely more delighted by dealing pain that her more professional counterpart. Up until I saw Deadlier than the Male, I’d only seen Sylvia in her two Hercules films (Hercules and Hercules Unchained, both with Steve Reeves) and Mario Bava’s delightfully bizarre Lisa and the Devil (also with Elke Sommer in the lead role). She was given very little to do in the Hercules films beyond cry and look out the window at the say and say, “Hercules my love, you’ve been gone these many years. When shall you return to my love?” Her part in Lisa and the Devil was relatively small but memorable, especially if you’ve seen the extra spicy uncut love scene between and her and well-known Italian genre actor Gabriele Tinti. Other than that though, the film focuses primarily, as the title would suggest, Lisa (Elke Sommer) and The Devil (Telly Savalas), and Koscina is little more than window dressing.
With Deadlier than the Male, Sylvia really gets to flex her flirtatious sex appeal and showcase a comedic and charismatic acting skill that will suckerpunch you with how deliciously cute she is even when she’s giggling to herself as she ties you up and cuts your throat. Together with Elke, they’re one of the most devastating screen combinations ever. There is enough sex appeal and beauty on that screen to make a grown man weep.
Not to leave the ladies out of things, Richard Johnson is wonderful as the stylishly square Bulldog Drummond. Although he hasn’t Sean Connery’s rough and edgy raw sex appeal, he’s still a good-looking guy, the kind of good looking you can relate to the real world. I bet you could still depend on him to get the chores done even if he had to kill dastardly evil spies earlier that day. He’s solid but not excessively spectacular, and his reserved manner hides the fact that if he needs to he can outshoot and out-judo any henchman who gets in his way – and plenty of henchmen will get in his way. Mastermind Nigel Green’s castle lair is crawling with karate masters and a bevy of beautiful gals trained to pleasure or kill a man, or more likely, pleasure and kill a man. As Nigel Green, actor Carl Peterson is perfectly serviceable but ultimately overshadowed by his more flamboyant chief hitwomen.
With ample eye candy of this caliber, one could forgive a film if it had a daft script and shoddy direction. Quite to the contrary, however, Deadlier than the Male has a smart script that moves along at a brisk pace and is full of crisp dialogue. Like Our Man Flint, it manages to spoof and poke fun at the spy genre without being disrespectful and while always remembering that spoof or not, it also has to be a very good film. Some films lived and died by their wit – well, died mostly – and it was always an important part of the spy genre. Deadlier than the Male acquits itself quite nicely in this regard, and Ralph Thomas’s direction is snappy, taking full advantage of the locations and the ladies. There are some nice set-pieces too, especially in Nigel’s booby-trap strewn castle, which culminate in a deadly game of chess with giant electronically controlled pieces and spaces on the board that open to reveal spiked pits. The film is dazzling, full of vibrant color and energy and well-deserved of its position as one of the most fondly remembered and best respected of the playful 1960s spy films.