Friday, June 22, 2007

Neglected Nuggets and Obscure Classics: Collecting Rare Spy Films


By Wesley Britton

If you're a spy buff like me, you've spent hours pouring over catalogues and peering through bins of videos and DVDs looking for interesting secret agent titles beyond the Bond blockbusters and Hollywood releases for sale or rent. More often than not, you've been disappointed with the slim pickings.

In other files here--"The Indispensables" and "Very Honorable Mentions"--I offer short reviews of mainstream films espionage enthusiasts shouldn't miss. Here, you'll find viewing suggestions for hard-to-find films either not released on authorized DVDs or aren't the most well-known of titles. At the end of this list is contact information on good sources to find many of these rarities.


Bang! Bang! You're Dead. (A.K.A. Our Man in Marrakesh.) 1966.

First, consider the elements of any spy film by the master--Alfred Hitchcock. Typically, we have an intelligent innocent, whether played by Robert Donet, James Stewart, or Cary Grant, pulled into the covert world by way of mistaken identity, witnessing a crime, or by helping out someone in distress who turns up dead. Typically, at the heart of it all is a single "Mcguffan"--a code, secret, or device spies are after. Then toss in a suspenseful plot, elaborate set pieces, dark-edged humor, and, oh yes, romance.

Few spy films after Hitch would fail to draw from this well. For example, Bang! Bang! You're Dead has an innocent American in the person of Tony Randall playing a low-level engineer on holiday. He's so naïve and decent that he makes every other character in this European set romp seem sophisticated by comparison, whether the urbane British tax collector or the Moroccan townsman who drives Randall into the mountains. But he's not the only innocent to confuse either enemy agents or we the audience. He's one of seven people on a train and spies know one of them is a courier with secret information but don't know which. The Mcguffan is A briefcase full of documents in a plot to buy votes at the U.N.

What makes this different from a Hitchcock thriller? Mostly the complications. One body of a dead agent pops up so frequently in one hotel room or another that it's hard to know how it's being transported after leaving the hotel the first time hidden in a laundry bin. At one point, our hero complains he's being framed for murder by murderers who want to murder him. Is the delicious Senta Berger good CIA agent or bad, and even if good, what does she say Randall can believe? How about Margaret Leigh? And all the supporting characters that provide sub-plots and red herrings played by the likes of Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom, and Terry - Thomas?

For some critics, Randall plays a credible part. While no Stewart nor Grant, he seemed perfectly cast. Perhaps so. For me, it's everything else in the film that keeps interest going from the dark-humored script to the charms of Senta Berger to the shifting settings to the various surprises at film's end. If you like Randall in this role, all the better for your entertainment dollar. If not, there's still plenty to make this neglected nugget worthwhile in any spy buff's collection.


Carry On Spying. 1964.

For years, I've been wondering why this entry in the popular British "Carry On . . ." series is so hard to find. Other films can be picked up at your local Best Buy or Mediaplay individually and in boxed sets on both video and DVD. Was there something wrong with this outing that discouraged the owners of the rights from releasing this one?

If so, I can't see the problem. I can't resist the alliteration--this is a silly, slapstick, cross-dressing send-up of the British Secret Service and its arch-nemesis, S.T.E.N.C.H. (Society for the Total Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans.) In the story, four bumbling agents--and bumbling to the extreme--including Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawltry, and the squeaky-voiced Barbara Windsor as Agent Honeybutt go after Dr. Crow, the half-man, half-woman head of S.T.E.N.C.H. He, er, she, they? Is/are after a secret formula of some sort but the agents spend more time in this plot bantering with each other than they do investigating or battling any minions of evil. The characters are over-the-top nutcases unaware of their exuberant foolishness as they exchange oddball passcodes, wear conspicuous disguises, and survive every trap set for them without a single use of skill or courage. Well, Windsor is the observant one with the photographic memory, but the boys don't let her do much. They're afraid white women are in mor jeopardy than any other group. But it's a white woman who saves them in the end--an agent from S.N.O.G. (Society to Nock Out Germs.)

Throughout this romp, supported by a soundtrack that's part take-off of "The Third Man Theme," part rip-off of Warner Brothers cartoon melodies, there's a cheerfulness and sense of play that should make most viewers--dare I use the expression? --LOL. Forget Johnny English or even Austin Powers--here is British comedy that the Marx Brothers would enjoy.


Corrupt Ones, The. (A.K.A. The Peking Medallion) 1966.

In the Matt Helm film series, Dean Martin played a reluctant spy posing as a fashion photographer, reluctant, that is, because he has more interesting things to do than go on missions despite his U.S. intelligence paycheck. Let's flip that set-up. Take a adventurous photographer played by a rough-and-tough type like Robert Stack (Elliott Ness on TV's The Untouchables) and pull him into a multi-layered story from which Stack's character could have bailed out at any time. In the script, partly written by Avengers producer/writer Brian Clemens, Stack is given a package to hold for a few hours by another adventurer which turns out to be a medallion that holds the secret to a fabulous treasure in Red China. Stack's contact--clearly no friend--turns up tortured to death by a blow-torch. In come the ladies--Tina (Nancy Kwan), agent of a Chinese Tong organization, and Elke Somer as Lillian Mancini, the wife of the man who stole the medallion and entrusted it with Stack. She is no grieving widow--she just wants what's coming to her as hubbie was no loving contributor to her well being. Add to the plot a gangster who wants the treasure and you have a three-way tug-of-war between the gangster, the Chinese, and Stack--oops, forgot the helpful cop who has his own ideas. And is Sommer a partner or is she playing footsie chess?

In his description of the film, collector Louis Paul wonders why this film remains left out of most discussions of spy movies. My guess was the clearly B-movie visuals and tacky score (excepting the title song by Dusty Springfield.) For my money, the script and characterizations were not A list, but B means better than average in school. Often gritty and largely humorless, I think connoisseurs will find this entertaining and worthy of an evening's viewing.


Deadly Recruits. 1986.

While rooting through a discount bin at my local Mediaplay, my eyes lit up when I discovered a four-movie set on two DVDs called Spies, The CIA, the Kgb (Diamond Entertainment, 2004). I hadn't heard of any of the films--and three of them I won't even mention here. But the fourth . . .

The only thing wrong with this effort is the title which sounds more brutal and sophomoric than what we get. In the thoughtful story, government agent David Audley (Terence Stamp) begins an investigation of a mysterious motorcycle accident. Paired with another agent, the two expand the search for unexplained disappearances of Oxford University students in what turns out to be a KGB plot to create its agents by turning England's best and brightest into Reds. By this means, they need not try to bring in outside agents or create traitors. Corruption from within by coercion or skillful brainwashing is all they need in a secret college community.

Here, with many nods to Kim Philby's "Cambridge Spy Ring," we get a highly-sophisticated, long-term Cold War plot that is plausible, insidious, and more chilling than whiz-bang special effects, secret formulas, or kidnapped scientists. With excellent acting, pace, and believable spycraft, it's hard to believe this British effort isn't better known. Well worth looking for.


Fanfare for a Death Scene. 1964.

Now, this one is a seriously neglected nugget of the genre. Originally intended for TV broadcast on the "Kraft Suspense Theatre" as a potential pilot, Fanfare was deemed too adult for television and was instead released theatrically in Europe. In this case, adult means violent but also intelligent--we should be grateful this concept wasn't dumbed down for network prime time.

Many typical ingredients of the secret agent universe are handled skillfully in this crowded story. Paul Striker (Richard Egan) is a confident ex-G-2, O.S.S., and CIA agent who's left the cloak and dagger world to build a multi-million dollar industrial complex. He's high enough in the ranks to turn down phone calls from every department in the U.S. government until the president calls him into service. It seems a psychotic trumpet-playing nuclear scientist (Burgess Meredith) has disappeared with entirely too many defense secrets in his head. He needs to be found before any one of a number of enemies can track him down. Striker is ahead of everyone else--he knows the ultimate enemy is the "Golden Horde," a Mongolian organization with roots deep in history. The leader (Telly Savalas), whom every intelligence agency in the world doesn't believe exists, puts Fu Manchu to shame. Like the U.S. government, he has access to cutting-edge technology including mini-cams and bugs in Striker's house, devices that can block transmitters, and similar machines helpful in torture. His cohorts include the Imperial Princess of Mongolia (Tina Louise) who first poses as the scientist's murdered wife before revealing her true redheaded colors as carrying the royal bloodline of Genghis Khan himself.

Music played an important role in the film including a jazz score by trumpeter Al Hirt and a closing scene at a concert used to draw out the music loving Meredith. Another praised aspect was the black-and-white cinematography which captures the flavor of New York in the '60s. The film has but one noticeable flaw, being a very rushed conclusion at the concert where a decoy is set up to confuse the enemy (which doesn't work) before the final shootout. We never learn the scientist's motives for disappearing which probably doesn't matter. Perhaps he murdered his wife and not the Horde? The twist, all along, was that neither the good nor bad guys had him. The story was the duel between the cool Egan and the cultured Savalas who are well matched opponents with equal measures of style.

Perhaps this short description sounds like that of yet another far-fetched '60s adventure. No, no, this project has very plausible, and well-acted characters in realistic if tongue-in-cheek situations. No spy buff should consider their collection complete without it.


Invisible Horror, The. (A.K.A. Invisible Dr. Mabuse, The. 1962.

I've been interested in this series ever since I ran across references to director Fritz Lang's original 1922 film, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler. (See discussion in my "Spy-ography" of Lang posted here.) I suspected the sequels--including Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse, Return of Dr. Mabuse, Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse, Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and this outing--would all be sci-fi/horror B flicks with little to recommend them.

Well, I was partly right. IN this tale, Dr. Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) is after "Operation X," a device so secret it was said to be more important than super-bombs or rocket ships. Turns out, it's a device that can make him invisible. FBI agent Joe Como (Lex Barker) is also after the secret project invented by a mad professor who hid in a lab. After an accident disfigured him, he created the machine so he can be with the unwitting love of his life, an actress (Karin Dor, later to star in You Only Live Twice). For most of the film, Barker tries to convince West German policeman Gert Frobe (yes, Goldfinger) that Mabuse actually exists while Dor wants someone to believe her, that an invisible man is haunting her theatre dressing-room and giving her invisible kisses. Worse--the mad professor is watching her bathe--it's when he moves a bath towel that Barker finally nabs him. All the professor wants is to be with the girl who captures his eye on and off-stage--Mabuse wants to rule the world.

All of this is simple matinee fun and much analysis is beside the point. The story and gimmicks are what this film are about and not characterizations nor acting. The biggest surprise was the lengths the writers went to make the invisibility device plausible with detailed scientific explanations of how it works. Spy trappings include secret meetings in planetariums where messages are sent via ear-pieces while a lecturer explains the mysteries of the galaxy. Barker, Frobe, and Price are all rather dry when delivering their lines, although Mabuse is most often heard over a speaker. Only Dor pumps out much emotion with strategically placed screams to break up any long expositions.

In short, a perfect late-night movie that's probably more interesting if one sees all the films in the series. So I have more nuggets to track down . . .


Hunter of the Unknown. 1965.

I don't know about this one. In his description of the film, Louis Paul wrote:

"On a Caribbean island, a secret agent (George Ardisson) discovers that a
crazy leader (Fernando Sancho) has kidnapped scientists developing rockets loaded with a life - disintegrating gas. A Russian agent (Frank Wolff) is also dispatched to
the island. Highly recommended!"

Highly recommended, eh? Well, I watched what seemed to me to be a by-the-numbers badly dubbed knock-off and kept wondering what Louis saw in it. "I guess it's all the bronzed-bodies," I said to my wife, remembering Paul was co-writer of Film Fatales. "Can't be bronze bodies," replied my literal-minded wife. "It's in black-and-white." Hmm. So I wrote Louis and asked why he thought so much of Hunter. His reply:

" . . . some of its enjoyment lies in the cut-rate pop-art spectacle of an oddly endearing hero who looks somewhat like Sean Connery (but not as much as say German Cobos of Desperate Mission who looks quite a bit like Connery), and somewhat like a cute chipmunk, who manages to find a really straight face, and save the world. Also, the women are all hard femm fatales in this movie, and you really don't find that
all too often. Another plus is the presence of Frank Wolff as a stalwart villain, anti-hero, than a hero ...and Hunter moves well to boot."

Okie dokie. Maybe I'll give this one a second chance. Some day. But if that description sounds down your alley, well, go for it.


Operation: Kid Brother. 1967.

No one has ever suggested this film is more than a novelty item of special interest to Bond fans. It's the casting that makes this Italian knock-off something for your collection. After all, the lead is Dr. Connery, Neal Connery, played by Connery, Neal Connery, kid brother of Sean. He's a bit Derek Flint, master of many fields. He's a master plastic surgeon who's mastered a special hypnosis technique, several languages, the martial arts, not to mention lip reading. He's a bit Dr. McCoy from Star Trek. When he's approached by Commander Cunningham of the British Secret Service (played by Bernard Lee, the "M" of the Bond films), he protests saying, "I'm a surgeon, not a secret agent." Cunningham wants kid brother to step into his older brother's shoes after agent 00-something is killed in a plane crash. Cunningham's assistant Miss Maxwell (Lois Maxwell, the Miss Moneypenny of big brother's movies) isn't sure the younger model is as handsome as the elder sibling, but can't be sure because of his beard. Other casting choices were clearly attempts to link this extravaganza to the Bond phenomena. Adolpho Celli is the bad guy--as he had been in Thunderball--and the femme fatale is Daniela Bianchi, who'd starred in From Russia With Love. Other small nods came in dialogue as when one girl doesn't believe Connery's warnings about trouble afoot. "You've been reading too many novels by Fleming."

In my view, the scriptwriters hadn't read much Fleming but had poured over any number of other low-budget scripts. You'd think from the description above that they were playing for laughs, but it's all straight-forward--if tongue in cheek. Celli wants to take over a criminal cartel by having Connery make a duplicate of the actual leader of the organization while setting up a magnetic field which will disrupt all uses of metals across the globe while blowing up his own army of girl soldiers on a yacht while prying secrets from hypnotized women while blind factory workers handle radioactive materials while . . . well not a stone is unturned.

It's easy to see why Neal collected only one paycheck for this sort of thing. It's hard to tell he's related to Sir Sean, and maybe it's my American ear, but it's hard to tell he hails from the British Isles. Sean's son, Jason, did better when playing the creator of 007 in Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming and as Harry Palmer's apparent son (Palmer being Michael Caine) in Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg. All that being said, the film is passable entertainment, especially for audiences who like to write their own jokes.


Secret Ways, The. 1961.

This classic got on my radar screen when I read an interview with Euan Lloyd, one of the film's producers, in the premiere issue of Cinema Retro magazine. There, Lloyd claimed his company had trouble casting the female lead until, one day in Vienna, he was riding with actor Richard Widmarck and spotted a lovely vision walking down the street. He leaped out of their car and asked the girl if she was an actress. She was. So Senta Berger was discovered. I passed this story on to a spy list serve and got a message back from Eric Newsome. He quoted Louis Paul's much-mentioned Film Fatales where it's reported it was Widmarck who discovered Berger when he saw her riding a bicycle.

Whatever the facts behind this casting choice, it's true Senta Berger is a major contribution to this strangely overlooked spy nugget. Secret Ways was based on an Alistair Maclean novel, set in Vienna and Budapest in 1956. Richard Widmarck played Mike Reynolds, a cocky, cynical soldier-of-fortune hired against his better judgement to help a Hungarian freedom fighter escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Reynolds knows the mission is dangerous but he needs the $60,000 to pay off his debts. Posing as a reporter, his first task is to find the fighter's daughter (Berger) who is living in Austria after escaping a short time previously to lead him to her father. Willful and independent, she insists on accompanying him as his secretary to Budapest. Turns out, Dad doesn't want to leave his homeland despite the ticking clock of his immanent arrest by the secret police. And Berger doesn't want to leave without him.

This synopsis, of course, sounds like the storyline of many a Cold War drama. But much sets Secret Ways above the pack. The location shooting (Vienna for Budapest) is first-rate as is the acting by all hands. The dueling cultural contrasts are approached with fresh touches, as with the use of language. When Widmarck and Berger enter Hungary, the secret police try to trip her up by having a linguist evaluate her dialect to see where she truly comes from. Because she was trained in Munich as a schoolteacher, her accent belies her Hungarian heritage. When the Communist watch-dogs become overbearing, Widmarck confuses them and drives them away by using American idioms, slang, and catch-phrases they can't understand. And, despite the fact he's an agent-for-hire, he becomes convincing when he tries to persuade the stubborn, ideological father to escape precisely because he is a pragmatist with no personal motives of his own. Nothing is overdone here in what could have turned into another anti-Red propaganda piece. For example, no musical score and little talk accompanies the long, tense escape sequence. Only the action and sound effects are needed to keep audience interest in a climax that is no foregone conclusion.

It's a mystery why Secret Ways hasn't been released on mainstream video or on DVD with a good commentary track. Until then, go for a bootleg. This one is worth it.


Some Girls Do. 1969.

First, I admit being a fan of the Bulldog Drummond films of the 1930s when John Barrymore, John Howard, and John Lodge each took turns playing Major Hugh Drummond, the adventurer who can't stay out of trouble. In those days, he missed his wedding so many times, his fiancee hid his trousers and cut his phone line so he'd stay home and make his nuptials. In one outing, a policeman even tried to keep him in jail so Phyllis wouldn't miss her big day. But even iron bars couldn't keep our hero penned in. It took several films before the union surprised everyone after all sorts of crooks, spies, and cops drug Drummond into all manner of light intrigue involving secret gadgets, clever gizmos, and unusual smuggling operations. In each adventure, Drummond bantered in engaging repartee with his sardonic butler, an entourage of willing cohorts, and Scotland Yard investigators.

Little of any of this came through in the two updatings of the character in the '60s. First, there was Deadlier Than the Male (1966), which introduced Richard Johnson as the above-it-all insurance investigator and sometime spy. The sequel, Some Girls Do, returned Johnson, this time facing 13 women with artificial brains whose electronic strings were being pulled by his old nemesis, Carl Peterson (James Villears). (When I say old, I mean old. Novelist Sapper--pen name for Lt. Col. Herman Cyril McNeile--created both Drummond and Peterson in 1920.) This time, Peterson is out to earn 8 million pounds by using a new "infra-sound" device to knock out experimental British planes.

This incarnation of Drummond was shaped more by the Bond mythos than anything Sapper or John Barrymore could have imagined. The gimmick of girl robots, trained in a bogus cooking school, would have made for a good The Avengers script. Or even a story like In Like Flint where sexy girls were brainwashed by hair-dryers. In fact, Drummond seems to be a Peter O'Toole imitation waltzing casually in a production built around girls, girls, girls. Well, the film was so British it would be better described as birds, birds, birds. For example, the sultry voiced Delilah Lavi, in an attempt to recapture the glow of Elke Somer in Deadlier Than the Male, is Helga, the girl sent to seduce Drummond before attempting to murder him. The other beauties include Beba Loncar, Vanessa Howard, Sydney Rome, and Yutte Stenssgaard. You could call them the Stepford Killers.

All this being said, there is a place for Some Girls in your collection, especially if you like films with an overt '60s flavor. The music, settings, and cinematography will take modern viewers back to old "Swinging London" baby-boomer styles. The main problem is that the minimal story drags after the first 30 minutes unlike the fast-paced adventures of the 1930s. The production values are better than 99% of other knock-offs of the era, so if light entertainment stirred with delightful eye-candy is your thing, this one is certainly sweet enough.


When 8 Bells Toll. 1971.

While I don't want to overstate the case, it often seems the Brits are better able to make better use of limited budgets than anyone else. Maybe it's the well of talent they can draw from. Maybe it's their history with espionage that runs deeper than almost any other country. As John Le Carre' repeatedly demonstrated, the English class system is a means to dramatize conflict above and beyond old Cold War duels between East and West. Whatever the reasons, UK productions often rely more on scripts and acting than any need to entertain by way of excessive pyrotechnics or gimmicks.

For example, in this well above-average offering, Anthony Hopkins (much later, our Hannibal Lector) played Culvert, an independent underwater expert brought in by upper-crust British intelligence chiefs to investigate piracy of bullion shipments at sea and the mysterious disappearances of ships around England. There are no clues other than the crews are dropped off on deserted islands without any knowledge of where they've been. The chiefs are unhappy with Calvert's propensity for doing things on his own without following the niceties of social propriety. Of course, he didn't go to the best schools like his primary suspect (played by Charles Gray, the Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.) After all, Gray's character went to the best schools, he goes to the best clubs. He couldn't possibly be the one who's got an entire Scottish town under his thumb by kidnapping and holding citizens in underground cells. No, no, he's too well-bred to sink boats that happen to be in the waters within 48 hours of the hijackings.

In this mystery, Hopkins shows he has the presence to be both intelligent and quick to action, willing to take risks and change direction when the red herrings prove to be false trails. In some ways, the film looked like a pilot for a TV series featuring Hopkins. The score certainly sounded like a television movie and the ending showed him freeing the bad girl and sailing off for new adventures. Too bad they didn't make more of these. Perhaps the producers wondered if they could maintain the balance between tense intrigue and humor. In some scenes, the chiefs walk a thin line between being characters and caricatures. For example, after Calvert defeats an assassin on his boat, they are more preoccupied with blood on the carpet and the awful taste of RAF cheeserolls than the violence they abhor. In the end, they're vindicated--the old-school buddy wasn't the leader of the gang but rather another of the victims with his wife one of those held in the sunken cells. But it's clear he's saved in spite of the system, not because of the establishment the old boys want to preserve.

For me one mystery remains--the title. I don't recall any bells or any count of them. Still, this is a case where scriptwriters outdo the likes of Clive Cusler and so many other films and books involving sea adventure. Perhaps not a classic, but easily a more than worthy nugget.


If any of these titles appeal to your tastes, good purchasing sources include:


(Caution: The price for Blood Times videos or DVDs is a bit high for dubs that vary wildly in quality. Every DVD I played skipped at least in one scene or another. I appreciate rarity, but I kicked myself when I discovered I'd paid $12 for Operation: Kid Brother when I saw it had been taped off the Movie Channel. Nonetheless, unless you have a better source, Blood Times has titles not easy to find. It's your call.)

P.O. BOX 2388
NEW YORK, N.Y. 10108-2388
Email Address: -

Sinister Cinema

These folks have an incredible catalogue of rare Action-adventure thrillers. Their categories include:

Drive-In Double Features; Edgar Wallace; Exploitations; Fantasy; Forgotten Horror; Jungle; Juvenile Schlock; Kung Fu, Martial Arts; Mystery; Sci-Fi; Silent Thrills; Sinister Serials; Spaghetti Western; Sword and Sandal; The Sinister Trailer Park; 16mm and 35mm print sales; Movie Poster Sales

Under the "Spies, espionage, and intrigue" listing, they currently have 65 titles from obscure 1960s exploitation flicks to chestnuts from the early days of cinema. Most are on VHS and sell for $16 each. However, they do occasionally have a $98 sale going on.


Glammazon said...

One unusual spy film I do have in my collection is an old British caper from the 1930s called THE WIFE OF COLONEL LING. The title character in this one is a woman who has married a Chinese merchant who turns out to be Colonel Ling, the leader of a rebellion. She is assisted by a secret agent, a former acquaintance of hers, who is trying to stop the Colonel.

Glammazon said...

Intriguingly, THE WIFE OF COLONEL LING is now public domain, and the distributor of the DVD is not the same as the studio who made it.