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.
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.
Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack is probably the least maligned aspect of producer Charles Feldman’s 1967 film version of Casino Royale. For connoisseurs of cinematic disaster, the problems that beset that production are well familiar. Kaufman, who held the movie rights to Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, intended to make a canonical James Bond film, but upon failing to secure the cooperation of Eon Productions, decided instead to mount a spoof on a grand scale. The film’s star, Peter Sellers, was fired halfway through production, requiring that the remainder of the already loosely structured film be written and shot around his absence. On top of that, multiple directors were engaged, each delivering a “chapter” of the film marked by their own individual sensibility. The result has been railed against as a shamefully self-indulgent work of anti-cinema, a triumph of – not style over substance – but style as substance.
Owing to his tendency to wear bland trousers, a bland blazer, and a bland, too-billowy white shirt with no tie, I have often referred to Timothy Dalton’s two turns as James Bond as “the Casual Friday Bond.” Because Roger Moore explored the questionable sartorial indulgences of the 1970s, he is often cited as one of the worst-dressed Bonds, but at least his safari suits and flairs had a certain memorable boldness to them which, if not the equal of Connery’s timeless style, at least stood out from the crowd without looking like a clown (relative to the style around him). Dalton’s Bond — as well as Brosnan’s — commits the sin of being terribly, terribly boring in his dress. I would not have wanted James Bond to indulge the extremes of 80s fashion — no one needs James Bond to don a pastel t-shirt and parachute pants — but I do want him to look like something other than a mid-level bank manager on casual Friday.
At this point, I don’t think there is much cause to recount the ninja craze that swept the world in the 1980s (you can piece together the story from our reviews of The Octagon and Enter the Ninja). From Hong Kong to Japan, Bollywood to the United States and of course Turkey, these black-clad shadow warriors fanned out and did that really rapid baby-step ninja run into our hearts. Although the ninja originated in Japan, and Hong Kong produced more ninja films, for my money the United States was still ground zero for eighties ninjamania (many Hong Kong ninja movies were made purely to export to the United States, as often as possible, with as many different titles for the same movie as distributors could dream up). But while the US was inarguably the capital of ninja fanaticism in the western hemisphere, we were not entirely alone. In the snowy northern land known as Sweden, a man named Mats-Helge Olsson was building a sizable filmography of hyper-violent, mostly terrible action films that shocked and disappointed his countrymen. That Mats Helge would make a ninja film was inevitable. That he made two is unfortunate.
In 1964, James Bond creator and sole author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, passed away. While the future of the movies, which had taken on a life of their own, was not in doubt (at least not for a couple more years, which was when Sean Connery left the series), the novels seemed like they might go to the grave with Fleming. After scrambling around for a way to continue the series, the Fleming estate and its publishing wing, Glidrose, chose acclaimed British novelist and well-known asshole Kingsley Amis to continue the series. Amis, who had previously written some Bond non-fiction and seemed to take the job solely so he could indulge his hatred of the character M, wrote the first post-Fleming Bond novel, 1968’s Colonel Sun. It was received about as well as one could expect (actually, about as well as any of Fleming’s novels before the rose-tinting set in after his death), with common criticisms being that it wasn’t Fleming enough, or that it was too Amis, or it was Amis writing down. So on and so forth. Whatever the case, plans were for Amis to continue, though when one hears some of the ridiculous ideas he had, including killing Bond off with an exploding martini, one thinks that it was perhaps for the best that these plans fell through. Similarly, plans to hire a series of authors who would all write Bond novels under the same pen name — Robert Markham — never came to fruition.
Jimmy Sangster is known to most as the writer of a brace of seminal Hammer gothic horror films. From his pen came the scripts for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula/Horror of Dracula (plus their immediate sequels) and The Mummy, not to mention the likes of Jack the Ripper and Blood of the Vampire for rival producers. Sangster’s place in the history of cinema is assured, but what’s not quite so well known is he didn’t have any particular interest in period horrors. Sangster got into screenwriting largely out of necessity, to supplement his meagre salary as a production manager at Hammer Films. His first script for the studio was a short subject, A Man on the Beach, made in 1955. This mini-film was directed by Joseph Losey and starred English theatre ogre Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit and Hammer regular Michael Ripper. Even at this early stage in Sangster’s career, Beach featured elements that would come to be recognised as his trademarks, including a honking great twist at the end.