I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1935 version of The 39 Steps is one of those films that’s so seminal that when watched today it can seem like little more than a parade of hoary old clichés; that is, until you consider that The 39 Steps is where many of those clichés originated. The film lays a foundation that countless espionage thrillers have built upon and continue to build upon to the present day. It’s all here: The innocent everyman abroad who’s drawn into a web of intrigue by an encounter with a mysterious and exotic woman; the shadowy international criminal organization whose reach is so extensive that it’s impossible to know who can be trusted; the ardently sought-after “MacGuffin” that sets the plot in motion despite ultimately being inconsequential to the outcome; the criminal mastermind with an identifying disfigurement who hides behind a genteel facade of upper-class respectability; the urbane, witty hero who has a way with the ladies, etc. And while it’s hero takes the train rather than hopping the globe on a luxury airliner, The 39 Steps is worth considering as a necessary precursor to the jet setting spy capers that would follow in its wake some thirty years later.
Genghis Khan is certainly one of the great figures in the history of the world. When you say “Mongolia,” he’s the first person of whom you’re likely to think. He conquered China, swept westward, and eventually had a chain of shopping mall formal wear rental stores named after him. Were it not for Genghis Khan’s contributions to society, I would have been at a loss as to wear to rent my tux for the prom back in 1990. But aside from all that, he was one of the world’s great conquerors, and whether he was a hero or a villain depends largely on whether or not he conquered in your name or just plain conquered you. Certainly as with all history’s epic conquerors — Ramses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Vlad Tepes, and Bono from U2 — Genghis Khan is a person who lends himself to having a sweeping, vast, and complex movie made about his life and influence. And like most of the conquerors throughout history, he’s still waiting for that movie to be made.
It’s become popular in recent years for authors to write stories with the high concept of, “What if James Bond creator Ian Fleming had real-life James Bond adventures?” There have been several books published by several different authors using this as a premise, and two made-for-television movies (the most recent one airing on Sky in the UK and BBCA in the United States in February 2014). Certainly Fleming’s biography lends itself to such supposition. He was, after all, a notorious womanizer and drinker, a gadabout of the first degree from a well-heeled family that circulated in the rarefied airs of British society. And it’s true that he was a member of British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War and rightly earned a reputation for cunning and original planning (but no cunning plans as cunning as a fox that’s just been made professor of cunning at Oxford University).
Green Snake is set in a world between myth and reality. Zhao Wen-zhou stars as a young monk who spends his days hunting down demons and spirits who have crossed over from their own realm into the realm of mortals. Some of them come with malicious intent, but many of them seem only to want to run wild and free in the physical world for a brief time. The monk operates under the notion that the two worlds simply cannot cross paths, harmless intentions or not. The opening scene of the monk chasing an old wiseman who is actually a spider demon through a field as they both run through mid-air sets a beautiful but disturbing tone for the film. It’s incredibly lush and over-saturated with dreamlike color. The hallucinatory beauty seems eerie, however, not at all peaceful, sort of like those old fairy tales where things are actually creepy and sinister.
After making a veritable tidal wave with a slew of twisted DTV hits including the Dead or Alive trilogy, Visitor Q, and Ichi the Killer, Japanese cult film director Takashi Miike hit a rough patch in which most of his films went unnoticed or, worse, disliked by the throngs who had so recently celebrated his cracked vision of filmmaking. The fact that Miike was directing upwards of four or five movies a year meant that, previously, if he hit a couple clunkers it was no big deal, because something new would be coming out in a couple months. But a couple high-profile flops, including Izo, his collaboration with Takeshi Kitano, coupled with the fact that another DTV maverick (Ryuhei Kitamura) was gobbling up the big budget theatrical jobs (although his success at such films, specifically Godzilla: Final Wars is a topic of considerable debate) were pointing to the notion that Miike’s career was going to be very much a live fast, die young sort of comet.
Interpol 009 has everything you’d want in a 1960s spy movie–except for a memorable villain, a spectacular crime, and audacious action set pieces. On balance that leaves you with attractive stars, lots of nicely photographed scenes shot in glamorous locations, some nice cars, and a lot of fun gadgets. Fortunately, thanks to its amiable tone and sure-handed technical delivery, that’s enough to make Interpol 009, if far from a dazzling entertainment, at least a pleasant way to wile away an hour or so with a cocktail (or two).
The Mexican film industry’s contributions to the 1960s spy craze tend to be on the whimsical side. If they don’t feature a masked wrestler in a pivotal role, they tend to be something along the lines of Agente 00 Sexy, in which heroine Amadee Chabot spends a lot of time wearing a Frederick’s of Hollywood-style cat costume. Given the overall zany-ness of the field, then, I do not say lightly that Cazadores de Espias (Spy Hunters) may very well be the silliest of them all. Strangely, though, it doesn’t start out that way–and that makes watching Cazadores de Espias sort of like watching a movie that’s gradually losing its mind.
To the very limited extent that the German science fiction series Raumpatrouille Orion (full English title: Space Patrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Starship Orion) is known in my own United States, it tends to be the victim of a certain unfair association. On those pitifully rare occasions when it’s mentioned, it’s seldom without being compared unfavorably to Star Trek – and sometimes even referred to as “The German Star Trek“, usually in the dismissive tone reserved for inferior foreign copies of iconic American brands. That Raumpatrouille is an imitation of Star Trek is unlikely, given that the series made its debut on German television within just two weeks of Trek’s initial bow in America (and quite a few years before Captain Kirk and company would make it to the German airwaves). And while the series does share some striking similarities with Trek, those ultimately just serve to highlight some even more striking differences.
In addition to flying sports cars and a machine that mixes the perfect martini, one of the accoutrements of worldly masculine adulthood that impressionable young boys weaned on sixties pop culture grew up to expect is the ready availability of pliant female robots. What surprises me about this particular trope is not just how much it turned up in movies, TV shows and dime fiction throughout the decade, but how much it showed up in stories that were ostensibly set in the then present day. It’s as if the people who cooked up these ideas were somehow convinced that the technology already existed to create fembots, but that some self-appointed guardians of knowledge were conspiring to keep the discovery away from the general public–perhaps out of some misguided fear that people might use such an invention irresponsibly.