Da Istanbul ordine di uccidere aka From Istanbul, with Orders to Kill (Carlo Ferrero as Alex Butler 1965)
A curious and off beat spy story that is obscure and quite bizarre. The only film of director Carlo Ferrero and leading man Christopher Logan, “Da Istanbul ordine di Uccidere” has several qualities that are intriguing. Languid drawn out scenes dressed in Italian high style (wardrobe, architecture and interior design) are interspersed with quick, jolting moments of action. An excellent freeform jazz score by little known Alessandro Brugnolini unifies the disparate elements.
The one familiar Eurospy face is Janine Reynaud with a brief role at the beginning as Lucille. By the time FBI agent Williams catches up with her, she has been killed for microfilm hidden in her shoe. Chief suspect is Felix, a gunrunner and drug smuggler. Williams happens to know a dead ringer for Felix, a down at heel writer called John (Christopher Logan.) He hires John for $20K to become Felix.
Felix makes his entrance sporting skimpy swimming trunks making it evident he is shockingly well – endowed. He is caught and replaced with John. With the real Felix out of the way, John is free to amble though the luxurious lifestyle of the drug -runner with impeccable suits, cars, furnishings and ladies galore. Leah quickly rumbles him after an amorous encounter saying “You should have been aware I’d recognise an impostor.” Long look down at his groin. “There are some things a woman knows instinctively.” This is an example of the truly leftfield moments in this film.
John is sent to Istanbul for a drug deal. We are treated to a wealth of slick location scenes as he attempts to meet his contact in the city. The hand held work is top notch and the travelogue detail is fascinating.
Whilst “Da Istanbul ordine di Uccidere” is no masterpiece, its peculiar style is notable. The director at times seems to have both an assured hand and an amateurish flare. The film oscillates between arthouse and genre trash. Godard meets Jess Franco. Interesting! 5/10
Danger Route (Seth Holt, 1968)
“Danger Route” is one of the best spy films ever made. It’s small, its low- budget and short. And it leaves you wanting more. If James Bond is to the spy genre what Dracula is to the horror genre then “Danger Route” is “The Wicker Man”. “Danger Route” was virtually forgotten on its release and its greatness has only emerged with time. Unlike “Wicker Man” or “Get Carter”, “Danger Route” has yet to be reclaimed by “the academy”.
The book on which it was based, “The Eliminator” by Andrew York (aka Christopher Nicole) is a strong piece of espionage fiction. The book was first in a series of nine featuring Jonas Wilde, an assassin for the British Secret Service. Both the books and “Danger Route” strike a balance between the glamour and style of Fleming and the dark, existential backwaters of Le Carré. Jonas Wilde is at the top of his game. He utilises innate charm to win peoples’ confidence and access any situation. He has also perfected a killing technique that requires only a single blow to the base of the skull. With these skills and carrying no gun he has survived for twelve years as an assassin. But Wilde is troubled by his work.
“The Eliminator” starts with Wilde completing a complex and difficult assassination mission in Jamaica. Budget constraints on “Danger Route” meant that all that is left of this mission is Wilde’s suntan and the bad taste in his mouth from the job. Richard Johnson gives one of the great performances of his long career as the spy raked by cynicism. Unlike Leamus (Richard Burton) in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, Wilde is a dissatisfied spy who is a heroic figure. Unlike the “kitchen sink” misery of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, the despair in “Danger Route” is tempered by glamour, excitement and style. These contradictory elements give the film its power. By way of digression, one could compare the whole tone of “Danger Route” with the theme music of “When Eight Bells Toll” or “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. In other words; deep, mournful and melodic whilst having plenty of drive and attack.
Of the music in “Danger Route” only the title song could be said to offer the same heady equation of sadness mixed with speed (A Bassey-esque belter over the titles by Anita Harris and Lionel Bart that incorrectly signal the film as a Bond copy.) Both score and film hastily depart from any Bond stylings at this point. Indian composer John Mayer supplies a sitar and tabla based score adding sitar glissando stings to Wilde’s executions.
The story of Wilde being ensnared in his own execution is complex and utterly believable. Stand out performances from Sam Wanamaker as Lucinda and Harry Andrews as Canning are a joy. Especially good is watching Gordon Jackson playing a sadistic torturer in a chilling scene with Barbara Bouchet. All the females in the film are terrific: Sylvia Syms, Barabara Bouchet, Diana Dors and possibly best of all, Carol Lynley.
Seth Holt’s direction is fluid and on the mark. Not a second is wasted and stylistic touches only ever enhance, never intrude. Examples are the gently swaying camera on Wilde’s yacht or the Dutch tilt camera angle on the ferry to Jersey. Indeed, much of the film plays out as a cross channel tale utilising the maritime details so prevalent in the Jonas Wilde novels.
Seth Holt and writer Meade Roberts took the highly unusual step of discarding the happy ending of the original novel, and ending on a downbeat note. It was a brave move giving the film a cold shiver at the end that is very resonant. Whilst leaving the film open to potential sequels, the dark denouement may have in fact contributed to its box office failure. It is a shame that the film did not enjoy more success as the episodic Jonas Wilde novels would have made a superb series of films. At least we have “Danger Route”. 10/10
Day of the Jackal, The (Fred Zinnemann, 1973)
“The Day of the Jackal” is a great assassination film. It is based on Frederick Forsyth’s massive bestseller about a plot to kill French president De Gaulle. The outcome is known from the start (De Gaulle was never assassinated) leaving the film to rely on the minutiae of the Jackal’s preparations and the intelligence services’ hunt for him.
Edward Fox gives the performance of his career as the Jackal. His true identity is a mystery even to his employers, the OAR (an ultra conservative underground movement opposed to De Gaulle’s withdrawal from Algeria.) The planning, realisation and indeed variety of his various false identities is compelling. He slips from one identity to another with ease; Paul Duggen to Charles Calthrop to Per Jensen and finally Andre Martin. The dedication to detail in making passport, papers and disguises is mirrored by the traditional detection techniques of the intelligence services in Britain and France (Such as Inspector Labell’s call to shift through 8,041 passport applications)
Zinnemann’s style is very tight without a wasted second. The first twenty minutes have a fantastic pace created with hand held shots, short hard edits and a non nonsense attitude to dialogue and plot. With its documentary aesthetic the film feels like Costas-Gravas on speed. You are utterly hooked.
Fox portrays the jackal as an aloof yet charming upper class Englishman who can blend into the background where ever he is. One of the pivotal moments in the film (and in revealing the Jackal’s true nature) is his pause on the French / Italian border. He knows his last identity has been uncovered. He has to decide whether to turn right for Ventigmila and safety or left for Paris and uncertainty. He recklessly turns right and the die is cast.
“The Day of the Jackal” is an undisputed classic. 10/10
Deadlier Than the Male (Ralph Thomas, 1966)
The French have a generic name for female spy films: “Hit-Ladies”.
“Deadlier than the Male” is without doubt the premiere example of this sub genre. Exploiting the female form is only a part of the equation. It is the added dynamic of deadliness that completes the cocktail by creating a distillation of the potent sex and death urges that drive our psychology. For both men and women, a beautiful bikini clad babe empowered by a sub machine gun is guaranteed to be stimulating.
The Hit-Ladies of this film, Penelope (Sylva Koscina) and Irma Eckman (Elke Sommer) are also extremely funny with great dialogue, much “cattiness” and carefree psychopathy. “Deadlier” starts with a fantastic set piece that showcases the ladies’ talents. Aboard a private jet, Irma is carrying out stewardess duties for oil magnet Keller. The whole scene is dressed in blue and grey tones (as favoured by Hitchcock in “North by Northwest”.) Keller has a custom built blue/ grey map of the world panel above his desk. Irma lights Keller’s cigar which has a firing mechanism that kills him, she sets the timer on a bomb, and parachutes to Sylva Koscina’s waiting speedboat. Titles roll as the jet explodes. The ladies emerging from the sea with harpoon guns in the next scene is utterly iconic and one of the great Eurospy images.
But it’s not just ladies whose sexuality is maximised in “Deadlier than the Male”. Richard Johnson who plays Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond is one of the coolest and most dashing of all secret agents. His winning good looks, sexy voice and superlative wardrobe are second to none. (All these qualities are at the fore when Drummond says “I usually go to Spindles of Knightsbridge”.) Johnson plays Hugh Drummond with great charm and smoothness but beneath the sheen is the same steely edge that characterises his other great spy role, Jonas Wilde in “Danger Route”.
Gerald Fairly and Sapper’s original Hugh Drummond character was a very British gentleman and a defender of the empire. Indeed, the Bulldog Drummond books inspired Ian Fleming in writing James Bond. Jimmy Sangster and co-author’s David Osborn and Lis Charles-Williams’ script was designed to be a Bond spoof but it is heavily underpinned by the long literary and filmic heritage of Drummond. Original author, Fairly was present on the film set to advise on the character. These origins add an assured touch to the film that sets it apart from those trying to simply emulate the motifs of the Bond pictures. It has its own two legs to stand on.
The script also has a wonderful light tone and comedy that is a great strength. The fact that the whole cast play it straight is what makes “Deadlier” great. When Irma and Penelope throw Bridgenorth (Leonard Rossiter) off a skyscraper, Irma says without a trace of irony “I’ve had men fall for me before but never like this”. It is Elke Sommer’s delivery makes this line work.
Also there is Malcolm Lockyer’s fun, horn driven score and the famous Scott Walker title song to put the icing on the cake. The lush location shooting in Lerici adds a further dusting of sugar.
“Deadlier than the Male” gets better and better as it ages. It is a prime example of light, effervescent Eurospy. From the fantastic pre title sequence to the explosive denouement at the finale, the film moves swiftly and effortlessly with wit and style. 10/10
Dirty Game, The (Christian-Jaque, Werner Klingler, Carlo Lizzani, Terence Young, 1965)
An effective portmanteau film that is Italian, French, American and British in equal measures. Directors Christian-Jaque, Carlo Lizzani and Terence Young bring excellent spy film credentials to the table in this three part overview of “the real true story” of espionage. American co-production investment is evident not just in the casting of Robert Ryan and Henry Fonda but in the overarching style of the piece. The film harkens back to the “red scare” spy story of 1950s American cinema. (See “The Iron Curtain” and “Operation Manhunt”.) The sub genre was derived from the newsreel tradition of documentary storytelling with an “educational” voice over. The same devices are at work here; General Bruce’s voiceover, which bookends the three stories, tells of the hardship for a soldier of presiding over “the dirty game”. Although made in 1965, the film is shot in black and white to add to the “realism”.
By contrast the film has a big bombastic Italian Eurospy score courtesy of Robert Mellin and Gian Piero Reverberi. This works very well giving the somber tone a bouncy pace that locates it squarely in the mid 1960s.
The opening tale is set in Rome. Agents Peregio (Vittorio Gassman) and Natalhia (Maria Grazia Buccella) have to protect Professor Orsanigo and his super fuel formula from an enemy spy ring. The story is rich in espionage tricks – a poison tipped pen, Morse code coin and toe tapping and a terrific collection of vehicle disguises. There is a nicely framed shootout and good performances all round.
The second story features French comic icon Bourvil as Lalande in an impressive straight role as the low-key, over aged and bald agent that is in fact a super-agent. Lalande is sent to French colony Djibouti in Somaliland to prevent Polaris and Nautilus submarines being hijacked. Using intelligence, detection skill and hidden physical prowess, Lalande saves the day. A very refreshing alternative to the strong jawed supermen sent to save the world.
The third section has a disheveled Henry Fonda breaking his deep cover and escaping from East Berlin. He’s put in a very unsafe transit hotel by a Petchatkin (Peter Van Eyk) where his nightmare begins. The constant rain falling on Berlin adds to the menacing and moody quality of this final chapter.
Each story has a smattering of its indigenous language included, further evidence of the intent to convey realism. The film plays like a collection of good Danger Man episodes that is somewhat let down by the heavy handed red scare top and tailing device with its ominous voice over. 5/10
Docteur Justice (Christian-Jaque, 1975)
John Phillip Law of “Diabolik!” fame is cast as the World Health Organisation doctor and martial arts expert who is famous for his heroics. “Doc Justice” was a character in the French monthly “Pif Gadget”: the biggest selling European comic strip of the 1970s.
Veteran director Christian-Jaque had made every kind of film since beginning his career in 1932 including numerous spy films such as “Geheimnisse in goldenen Nylons” (1967), “Le Saint prend l'affût” (1966) and “The Dirty Game” (1965). Here he teamed up with Doc Justice’s creators Jean Olivier and Raphael Marcello to write a James Bond styled action adventure.
John Phillip Law is the ideal superhero. He is good looking and athletic and performs his martial arts with aplomb. Gert Fröbe gets to play two characters; master criminal Max Orwall and his twin brother mad scientist Georges Orwall. The ambitious crime of hijacking of oil cargo from super-tankers is clever and suitably grand in scale for the man best known as Goldfinger.
The film is a Spanish / French co-production utilising plenty of Spanish locations (Canaries, Alicante and Barcelona) and technicians (infamous director Paul Nachy makes an appearance). “Docteur Justice” trundles along at a reasonable pace placing little demands on the viewer. The film is likeable and light hearted but easily forgotten. 5/10