Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy was Russia’s less internationally known Tolstoy. While the one was writing thousand-page tomes about sad people losing things (pretty sure that’s the plot of most Leo Tolstoy books) that would be forced upon generation after generation, the other Tolstoy was writing slick science fiction adventures like Aelita (1923, adapted into a movie a year later), Engineer Garin (1924), and Count Cagliostro, which American high school students did not get to read, since there was no time left after plodding through Anna Karenina — in which absolutely no one travels to Mars, builds a death ray, or practices alchemy. To be fair to Leo Tolstoy though, it’s been twenty-six years since I read Anna Karenina, and all I really remember is a chapter where two rivals for the love of the title character retire to a nearby barn to try and outdo one another in feats of gymnastic prowess, and I may even be getting that wrong. In fact, I think much of what I remember of Anna Karenina is actually Great Expectations. I am, however, quite certain there was no death ray.
It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.
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.
Frolicking Afield over at the Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema again, the official companion to the Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast. And this time I’m talking Antonio Margheriti, James Bond rip-off Eurospy films, and Lightning Bolt, a thriller in which the hero tries to avoid conflict by offering to pay his nemesis off, then asks if it’s OK if he pays by personal check.
A new Frolic Afield at a new place. The Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema is the written word supplement to the wildly popular Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast. And I am over there writing about Covert Action, the movie in which the Eurospy film collides with the Eurocrime film and brings Maurizio Merli along to slap some people.
There’s a problem often faced by those of us who chose to both watch and write about the Eurospy films of the 1960s: as enjoyable as they can be, and fun and breezy and cool, there is often very little that can be said about them in the form of an article. When you try to put finger to key and review one of these movies, you suddenly realize just how much of its run time — which was probably under ninety minutes to begin with — was taken up by fluff and filler. Travelogue footage, nightclub scenes, guys just walking through hotel lobbies while swinging music plays — all great stuff, but the visual appeal of these de rigueur accoutrements of swingin’ sixties spy cinema doesn’t often translate to having very much to say about a film, even when you’ve enjoyed it. Such is the case with Ypotron, a light and airy espionage adventure with sci-fi elements and almost no interest whatsoever in its own plot, so enamored is it instead with low-budget globe-trotting and extremely large hats.
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.
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).
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.