Gioco delle spie, Il aka Our Men in Bagdad (Paolo Bianchini 1966)
An effective and solid genre film from Paolo Bianchini (who also directed experimental Eurospy entries “Hypnos follia di un Massacro” and “Devilman Story”). The tone is serious throughout and the film has a surprisingly downbeat ending.
Roger Hanin, Rory Calhoun and Evi Marandi (Sadov, Alex and Sonia respectively) star as Russian agents caught up in a complex counterespionage plot. At the centre of the story is an American / Arab trade deal – arms for oil rights. General Fiodorenko (Tino Carraro) sends Roger Hanin to steal an attaché case containing details of the deal. Hanin takes the place of US jet pilot transporting the documents and parachutes into the sea with the case. However the case is taken back from him on the train to Istanbul and so begins a bitter struggle for ownership of the documents. Someone is rotten in the Russian camp and when the attaché case is back in Russian hands it contains a bomb instead of documents.
The middle eastern locations, Roberto Pregadio’s sometimes mournful score and the intense performances deliver a low key and enigmatic spy tale that like all Bianchini’s spy films is in need of rediscovery. 8/10
Golden Rendezvous (Ashley Lazarus, Freddie Francis 1977)
“Golden Rendezvous” is an overlooked Alistair MacLean adaptation about nuclear terrorism and gold bullion piracy on the high seas. Richard Harris plays ships officer John Carter doing battle with uncompromising villains led by John Vernon as Luis Carreras. Whilst this is not a spy film, there is nothing Harris does that Commander James Bond would not attempt. The story is firmly in the tradition of the MacLean espionage story with a hero who is nimble footed, fearless and can fire two machine guns simultaneously.
Spy film favourite Gordon Jackson plays Harris’s right hand man Dr. Marston and Ann Turkel as Susan Beresford is his right hand woman. (She gets to fire guns, drug guards and slap Richard Harris.) David Janssen, Burgess Meredith and Dorothy Malone add further star quality to the piece.
The pirates adopt a no nonsense trigger happy approach to their control of the luxury casino / cargo ship. The amount of bloodshed is quite considerable with the captain, mouthy passengers and anyone near a radio set being quickly dispatched.
Composer Jeff Wayne is equally merciless with his wailing synth chords. Director Ashley Lazarus has elected to smother the film in this crude early eighties sci-fi disco sound. If the “War of the Worlds” is you thing, his score may enhance the thrills and spills but for most it has to be a negative.
It cannot be simply down to Wayne’s terrifying score that the film is virtually unknown. Probably being a film of South African origin it has fallen between the cracks of ownership and distribution rights. There is no doubt it is comparable with other 1970s espionage thrillers like “Juggernaut” or “The Cassandra Crossing”. The action is well staged and exciting, the performances solid and the film moves at a good pace. It should be better known. 7/10
Great Van Robbery, The (Max Varnel 1959)
This tight no - nonsense spy / crime story from Britain comes highly recommended. Denis Shaw plays utterly believable Interpol agent Caesar Smith. Like a proto Robbie Coltrane, Shaw is a portly and down to earth investigator that has a serious yet good natured demeanour. Not a word is wasted during the refreshingly slim running time of 61 minutes. Caesar Smith goes in, asks the right two questions and heads off to another capital city. His hunt for the lost loot from a royal mail van robbery takes him to Rio, Rome, Paris and London.
The superbly tight script is by Brian Clemens who became “the” writer of British television spy programmes. He wrote many familiar titles such as "Quiller”, "The Persuaders!", "The Avengers", "Danger Man” and "The Baron". On the strength of this little gem, his forgotten spy shows are probably in need of discovery; namely "Top Secret", "Riviera Police", "The Sentimental Agent" and "Intrigue". Also of note is his spy film “Die Hölle von Macao” aka “The Corrupt Ones”.
Sadly, the other key figures in the production of this film were not so successful. Both director Max Varnel and Denis Shaw went onto do less prodigious television work. After a few Interpol flavoured entries like "Man from Interpol" and "Interpol Calling", Varnel ended up directing “Neighbours” in Australia whilst Shaw did character roles ending up with roles like “2nd sinister passenger” and “1st soldier”. They are best remembered for this gritty little film that is quite forgotten. 7/10
Guerre est Finie, La (Alain Resnais 1965)
Alain Resnais’ mannered vision is utterly formal and self conscious giving it the necessary authorial stamp so fashionable in 1960s nouvelle vague. Just as in Resnais’ famous “Last Year in Marienbad”, non linear psychologically driven montages, fluid tracking shots, quiet voice over and anti narrative are all to the fore in “La Guerre est Finie”. Such stylistics fixes the film squarely within its own time and place with its art house credentials fully visible. This is not a good or a bad thing, but such an approach keeps the film from ever gathering any real momentum. The self-reflexive approach constantly draws the viewer’s attention to technique rather than story making for a long drawn out experience. Compounding this slow pace is the material itself. The story of Diego Mora, a weathered Spanish professional revolutionary living in exile is a tale of disillusion and disquiet that has no resolution. This is not a fun film.
But, and it is a big but there is the cast. Yves Montand as Diego Mora gives a heavyweight performance that shines through the torpid narrative and dense mise en scene. Montand had extraordinary screen presence and makes this story quite compelling; it is his film. Geneviève Bujold, Ingrid Thulin, Jean-François Rémi, Michel Piccoli and Dominique Rozan are the other stellar cast members that bring this melancholy tale to life.
The mechanics of boarder crossings, passport forgery, secret code words and identities bring the film a level of minutiae that is enjoyable. Much like the catalogue of preparations that make up “The Day of The Jackal” (1973) such details are satisfying as they are clandestine by nature and as such inherently narrative friendly.
Whilst actually saying very little about Spain or the anti-Franco movement, “La Guerre est Finie” is worth watching for Montand going through the motions of espionage. 6/10
Han matado a un cadaver aka They Killed a Corpse (Julio Salvador, 1962)
Whilst there is some pleasure in seeing a film shot in Barcelona in the early 1960s, this is an undistinguished Spanish police procedural. The film opens well with a beautiful girl called Teresa Montez (Colette Ripert) found dead in a car crash off a coast road. This is followed by bustling street scenes and horn driven Spanish Jazz.
However, the film loses momentum as soon as it goes indoors. The police have found false banknotes in the bag of the dead girl and so call in Interpol. Inspector Bernhardt (an unrecognisable Howard Vernon) follows the trial to a flamenco club where Montez sang. Bernhardt employs her twin sister Margarita (Colette Ripert) to take her place and help infiltrate the counterfeit ring.
The film plods along with little to get excited about making the nightclub songs a highpoint. The climax is unexceptional and arrives about fifteen minutes too late. 2/10
Hauser’s Memory (Boris Sagal 1970)
“Hauser’s Memory” is a well crafted television spy film starring David McCallum as driven scientist Hillel Mondoro working on memory transference. He acts as a guinea pig in an experiment that allows memories caught in DNA to be transferred via an injection. He finds himself slowly regaining the memories of a dead German scientist called Hauser who worked for the soviets after WW2. Hauser’s memories include Soviet scientific secrets of great interest to both East and West.
Heavyweight government agents Joseph Slaughter (Leslie Nielsen) and Dorsey (Robert Webber) send Mondoro to Europe where Hauser’s memory really starts to return producing a kind of schizophrenia.
Director Boris Sagal was a very competent television director of Ukranian decent who made hundreds of television shows before dying suddenly on his last film by walking into the rear rotor blades of a helicopter. When he made “Hauser’s Memory” for Universal TV he had already made fifty TV shows including “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and the illusive “Destiny of a Spy”. His two U.N.C.L.E. episodes were released in Europe theatrically as “The Helicopter Spies”. “Hauser’s Memory” was given the same treatment with cinema releases in Spain, France and West Germany.
The high production values; great cast and European locations make “Hauser’s Memory” far more than an average TV movie. The bearded David McCallum is excellent in a difficult role. After “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, McCallum made several spy films featuring characters much darker than Illya Kuryakin presumably in an effort to broaden his range. (In addition to “Hauser’s Memory” there was “La cattura”, “Sol Madrid”) There is also further acting talent on show in the shape of Lilli Palmer and Susan Strasberg.
Like many early TV films “Hauser’s Memory” is hard to find but it is worth the effort. 7/10
Hennessy (Don Sharp, 1975)
Britain ignores a lot of cinema. The vague notion prevails that anything worthwhile will be released. We rely on the powers that be to act as a quality filter for our cinematic diet. And so, many great foreign films go unheard of in Britain. Indeed, even British films suffer a similar fate, especially when they are about the IRA.
“Hennessy” belongs to a small sub genre of espionage films about the conflict in Ireland that Britain has never heard of. Like “I See a Dark Stranger” (Frank Launder, 1946) it does not take a pro- British position in it’s depiction of the IRA. Both of these films are classics of British cinema whose exclusion form “the academy” is because of their contentious content.
Rod Steiger’s performance as Nial Hennessy is one of his finest. His portrayal of an apolitical man spurred into terrorist action by the murder of his wife and child is very strong. Our sympathies are toyed with as Hennessy is at once both brave and dangerous. This is quite something for this angry man is a suicide bomber wearing 30 lbs of gelignite.
Opening with actual footage of the British Forces in Northern Ireland filmed in 1972, the film seamlessly integrates newsreel shots into the dramatic scenes. (The finale extensively features real shots of the royal family and the House of Lords.) The serious tone of the film is amplified by this device.
The original story was written by cult Eurospy actor Richard Johnson (who also plays rugged special branch policeman Inspector Hollis.) John Scott’s score is urgent yet moody with dynamic staccato horns. Altogether these elements create a compelling authenticity.
It is just a matter of time before this film comes to regarded as highly as the similarly styled “The Day of the Jackal” (Fred Zinnemann, 1973) “Hennessey” is a top notch political thriller. 8/10
House of Cards (John Guillermin, 1968)
Like the film’s opening point of view shot of a dead man floating in the Seine, “House of Cards” has plenty of unusual twists and turns to keep one absorbed. Down on his luck boxer / writer Reno Davis (George Peppard) is doing the American in Paris / Hemingway thing when a boy fires a handgun at him. Somewhat incensed, he takes the boy back his palatial family home to demand an apology. Here his troubles start. Heading up a dysfunctional aristocratic family (and an extreme right wing terrorist group) is everyone’s favourite monomaniac Orson Welles as the demented Leschenhaut. After being hired as the boy’s babysitter by perpetually distraught mother Anne (Inger Stevens) Reno soon finds his best friend murdered himself in the frame and the boy kidnapped.
George Peppard is a great leading man with his good looks, non nonsense approach and air of independence. He is certainly up to sparing with Orson who is reminiscent of previous obsessive incarnation “Mr. Arkidan”
In order to clear his name by finding the boy, Reno has to take Anne on a wild trip around Europe. The journey by train to the family’s Dijon country chateau displays fine chemistry between Peppard and Stevens. The chase takes them to the family’s Villa Frascati in Rome and an impressive climax in the coliseum.
Of note is the main title song by Francis Lai and sung by Pierre Barouh who collaborated on the iconic score of “Un Homme et une Femme”. Like this theme song, the film has a very European feel no doubt in part attributable to the almost entirely European cast and crew. “House of Cards” bears all the markings of an American “runaway” production made to utilise frozen profits stuck in Europe.
This is a good thriller with much to enjoy. 8/10