Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '66 - Espionage Edition (James David Patrick) ""

Friday, November 4, 2016

Underrated '66 - Espionage Edition (James David Patrick)

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at thejamesbondsocialmediaproject.com. Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.

This is James' Second Underrated '66  list - see his first list here:

See his Underrated '76 & '86 lists: here:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/07/underrated-james-david-patrick.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/05/underrated-james-david-patrick.html

In the wake of James Bond's global and overwhelming success everyone began churning out knockoffs to capitalize on the phenomenon. The years of 1966 and 1967 represented the pinnacle of the genre - both in terms of quantity and quality - before falling off the table at the end of the 1960's. From bigger "name" productions like The Quiller Memorandum, Our Man Flint, Murderer's Row and Modesty Blaise all the way down to the international budget productions, producers figured out what made these genre films appeal to a broader audience, even if they weren't always the most competent in their execution. Sometimes they were great cinema, most often they were not - but as a result of both their successes and their failures they make for damn entertaining cinema. That is, if you're able to track down copies of these films at all.

Sadly, the Eurospy films of the 1960's have never been treated with the greatest of admiration. They were B-films, made on a budget for a quick payout and handled without consideration for longevity. Despite a number of notable artists dabbling in the Eurospy business during this time period, a shocking few films from this era have been restored and released for the modern audience. The spy genre never achieved the same levels of enduring mass appeal as other genres from the same era. Consider the volume of C-grade horror films or even spaghetti westerns that have been made available in high-definition from niche distributors. I consider it a crime against moviewatching humanity. By spotlighting a few of these films here and through my #Bond_age_ 'Year of the Spy - 1966' Retrospective, I'm just trying to do my part in increasing interest in some of the better entries so that maybe, just maybe, some more distributors will pay attention to this underrepresented genre on home video.

Sidenote: Support the few niche and indie labels that even try to release Eurospy on physical media (even if they are often little more than VHS rips) - Dorado Films, Something Weird, Cult Action, etc.

Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966, Alberto de Martino)
Dick Malloy, Agent 077 is a fool-slapping, lady-punching, stone cold agent of espionage and just because he fancies a nice cardigan every now and again doesn't make him any less of a bad m'f'er. Malloy (Ken Clark, Attack of the Giant Leeches) borrows Sean Connery's Cro-Magnon sex appeal but very little of his charm. Yet somehow this lack of tact enhances the experience that is Ken Clark, agent of espionage.

Special Mission Lady Chaplin represents the third and final Agent 077 film starring Ken Clark. This entry finds Dick Malloy mixed up with a Parisian fashion stylist, a misplaced nuclear submarine and sixteen AWOL warheads. But that is neither here nor there. The 077 narratives provide the means by which Ken Clark will punch his adversaries and ogle the women. Sometimes he crosses the streams and punches his women as well. In fact, Ken Clark pulls zero punches. He'd punch his own mother if she wandered into frame.

While each of the Dick Malloy films provides individual charms, Special Mission Lady Chaplin remains the best of the trilogy due to the presence of Daniela Bianchi (Tatiana Romanova of From Russia with Love). Daniela gets to vamp and vogue as both Clark's object of attraction and his villainous adversary, chewing scenery and changing wardrobes with ‚lan. While Eurospy producers often employed the Bond girl in limited roles to capitalize on her 007 association, Alberto de Martino makes Bianchi more than just part of the canvas. She's the counterbalance to Ken Clark's overwhelming testosterone and the reason this flick stands as arguably the most essential Eurospy thriller.

Murderer's Row (1966, Henry Levin)
To fully appreciate the Matt Helm films, I present a brief history lesson.

Producer Irving Allen had been Albert "Cubby" Broccoli's production partner at Warwick Productions. Cubby urged Allen to meet with Fleming about obtaining the cinematic rights to 007. Irwin passed. In fact, during this meeting he'd dressed Fleming down with the comment that his novels weren't even fit for television. (Oops.) Broccoli went on to partner with Harry Saltzman and United Artists to release Dr. No, leaving Irving Allen to chew on his faulty business acumen and stew over his spy-less filmography. Allen tapped Donald Hamilton, author of the Matt Helm novel series to be his savior. One problem: If James Bond represented the realm of male fantasy, Matt Helm represented the mid-life crisis.

Allen aimed to bring the James Bond counterpoint to the big screen. He enlisted film noir director Phil Karlson and A Streetcar Named Desire's screenwriter Oscar Saul to adapt. But then Allen hit a snag. Allen's list of A-list actors all turned him down, among them Tony Curtis and Paul Newman. They all cited ongoing projects and not wanting to exist in James Bond's shadow. Without a true leading man to inhabit Matt Helm, Allen chose to change tact and offer the role to Dean Martin. In the wake of the dissolution of the Martin/Lewis film partnership, Dino feared his film career had come to a close and believed that Allen's offer was a prank. Martin responded by making a litany of outlandish contractual demands to test the producer's intent. Allen accepted, much to Martin's surprise, and overnight the script for Matt Helm #1: The Silencers got flipped into a comedy. Martin even brought in some of his Rap Pack writers to "Dino" it up a bit.

After the financial success of The Silencers, Dean Martin went on to make three more Matt Helm films - the best of which turned out to be #2, Murderer's Row. Matt Helm represents the best of the cartoonish excess of the 1960's before the social disillusionment of the latter part of the decade put a damper on the party. Matt Helm drinks, smokes and womanizes to gloriously fabulous excess. If you're familiar with Dean Martin's Rat Pack persona, you've met Matt Helm.

Murderer's Row relies on some overt Bond parody but mostly the personalities of Dean Martin and his co-stars Ann-Margret and Karl Malden. Ann-Margret in particular assumes the spotlight for a legendary Go-Go dancing sequence that concludes with Dean Martin tossing a wedding dress at a massive portrait of Frank Sinatra. Mixed in somewhere is a narrative about blowing up Washington, D.C. with some kind of helium laser beam, but why bother mentioning that when plot only gets in the way of ogling ladies and cracking wise.
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Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966, Henry Levin, Arduino Maiuri)
There's a nasty tendency to underappreciate Eurospy flicks. I've been in contact with a few distributors about the potential for restoring and releasing gems like KTGAMTD and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but each representative tells me the same thing. "Nothing but horror sells." While I understand the nature of the business, I refuse to believe that a reasonable market does not exist for high concept entertainment like Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. There can't be a market for espionage B-movies if nobody ever bothers to release the essentials. Many known actors and filmmakers worked on Eurospy films in the 1960's and this is an untapped market.

This Dino Del Laurentiis production boasts a top-notch cast and photography courtesy of the acclaimed Aldo Tonti (Nights of Cabiria). Unfortunately, the film's availability (or lack thereof) means it's relatively unknown and none of the viewing options do the scope and scale of this film justice. An opening scene atop the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janiero statue provides very North By Northwesternly thrills.

Mike Connors (Mannix) stars a Kelly, CIA agent 409. He looks good in a tuxedo and has above average comic timing. Other than that, I'd be hard pressed to detail any specific skills on his resume. Dorothy Provine joins him as an equally capable British agent in a struggle against Raf Villone's villain who aims to sterilize the entire United States (and eventually the WORLD! Bwahaha!). Armed with their wit, a collection of modest gadgets, and a killer Rolls Royce, our heroes attempt to prevent the world's population from shooting blanks.

Unlike Matt Helm and most other Bond spoofs, KTGAMTD never nudges and winks after a good gag. The film's situational humor plays naturally and without narrative pause or interruption. Much of this due to Terry-Thomas who plays Dorothy Provine's "chauffer" and provides a veritable highlight reel of droll comic precision. (Whatever you do, don't touch the Rolls.)

Bond fans will be interested to note the ways in which Moonraker borrowed (ripped off?) specific narrative and visual elements from KTGAMTD.

Our Man in Marrakesh (1966, Don Sharp)
Our Man in Marrakesh succeeds for many of the same reasons as Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. It earns its humor as a result of situational happenstance and the charisma of its cast, especially leading man Tony Randall and bit-player Terry-Thomas (making a much deserved second appearance on this list). The film never resorts to parody for a quick laugh.

An otherwise typical mistaken identity comedy, Our Man in Marrakesh spends a lot of time scuttling around as an ersatz chase film, but the excellent script and fully formed characters make up for narrative shortcomings. Though Marrakesh always errs on the side of humor, Don Sharp (in his only outing as an espionage director) injects enough suspense to keep the pace hurtling forward between gags.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that in addition to Terry-Thomas, the supporting cast includes Eurospy regular Margaret Lee, Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. Kinski also appears in the underrated and rarely seen Target for Killing starring Stewart Granger. Track that one down on YouTube if you want to dig into the B-sides of this Underrated Espionage list.
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Kommissar X - Jagd auf Unbekannt (1966, Gianfranco Parolini)
When people think abstractly about Eurospy films - especially when they have little to no experience with the genre - they conceptualize a film that takes the basic building blocks of James Bond and re-renders them with bad dubbing, conspicuously poor acting, heightened chauvinism and an even more hyper-convoluted narrative.

If this is your notion of Eurospy film, then you're halfway to Jagd auf Unbekannt, the first of the Kommissar X films. My only quibble is that I'd never consider James Bond to be much of an inspiration for Kommissar X. Stylistically, Gianfranco Parolini clearly drew from the Jerry Cotton series that overlapped both Eurospy and the German crimi films and began in 1965. Not that any of that matters. Jagd auf Unbekannt is certified bonkers cinema.

Just absorb this plot description for a moment.

A smooth-ass, womanizing private detective named Joe Walker (Tony Kendall) picks up a lovely damsel who offers him a substantial fee for finding her nuclear scientist brother. This leads Joe to a nightclub where a performer in a purple wig gets killed with a poison dart and Joe, for whatever reason, becomes the primary suspect. It turns out that a local millionaire is assassinating obstacles and business partners in order to hold the worlds' economies hostage with his stockpile of irradiated gold. Oh and by the way, the millionaire owns an island populated by an army of robot women in purple wigs. If you wondered where Dr. Evil came up with his idea for Fembots, look no further.

If it sounds incredibly dumb, you're absolutely right... but it's also 100% pure amusement. Parolini (billed as Frank Kramer, best known as the director of the Sabata films starring Lee Van Cleef) tosses so much absurdity at the screen that you're never given long to dwell on any of it. And he does it with a measure of style and panache.

The best quote I've read about this film came from Matt Blake in The Eurospy Guide when he said, "I'm pretty sure that when God created man, He had no idea that man would come up with anything quite this daft."

That is a true Eurospy endorsement if I've ever heard one.
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