Macao (Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray 1952)
“Macao” is a hard boiled tale of intrigue in the Far East starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. The film has a good reputation as solid entertainment with both actors in their prime. They play a pair of world weary Americans who end up in Macao – she’s an experienced singer and he’s a war veteran.
After stealing his wallet and passport on board the ship to Macao, Julie Benson (Jane Russell) ends up protecting Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum) from her new boss Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter). Halloran is a master criminal nightclub owner and Cochran has been mistaken as an Interpol agent sent to extradite him.
Of course the real Interpol agent is not far away and there are plenty of thrills as the crime network and bent police chief close in on Cochran.
The film was started by Josef von Sternberg but finished by Nicholas Ray with Sternberg taking the credit despite being fired. Ray alledgedly got Mitchum to pitch in writing additional linking scenes. (Such pick ups would have been straight forward as this was a Hollywood studio picture with only exterior general views shot on location.)
The film was also a showcase for Russell’s singing talents with "You Kill Me" and "One for My Baby" sung in their entirety.
The dialogue sparkles and the chemistry between Mitchum and Russell is captivating. Romance is at indisputably atthe centre of “Macao” but the backdrop of foreign intrigue certainly adds to the film’s dynamic. Good stuff! 7/10
Man in the Looking Glass (Cyril Frankel, 1965)
“Man in the Looking Glass” is an example of stitching two episodes of a TV series together for theatrical release in foreign territories. Norman Felton had great success doing this with the “Man from UNCLE” TV series and Lew Grade did the same trick with several of his ITC productions such as “The Saint”, “Man in a Suitcase” and “The Persuaders”. “Man in the Looking Glass” was a feature made from two episodes of “The Baron” (“Masquerade” and “The Killing”) and it is rather good. Whilst the limitations of TV production may be evident in “Man in the Looking Glass” they do not spoil it. This is mainly due to a good script and a first class cast.
Steve Forrest plays The Baron aka John Mannering, Texan rancher, antiques dealer and undercover agent of the British secret service. His serious and powerful demeanour drives the action while his female opposite Cordelia Winfield (the wonderful Sue Lloyd) adds enormously to the proceedings. In a precursor to his similarly themed “The Double Man”, director Cyril Frankel delivers a meaty doppelganger story with Forrest playing both men. It is essential to have a good actor for such a task and like Yul Brunner in “The Double Man”, Forrest handles sharing the screen with himself very well.
Bernard Lee as Morgan Travis finishes off the tough edge of “Man in the Looking Glass”. His cold, calculating villain is superb. On several occasions he chillingly exacts sudden acts of violence followed by friendly admonishments.
A tight espionage / jewellery heist TV film that is an excellent introduction to “The Baron” 7/10
Man on a String (André De Toth 1960)
Producer Louis De Rochemont was nicknamed "father of the docu-drama". After the war, he utilised newsreel stylistic motifs to engender authenticity in his drama films. “Educational” voice over, the use of true stories and filming in actual locations helped authenticate and sell his films. The films proffered an unequivocal morality well suited to the “red scare” diatribes of the 1950’s and the patriotic retelling of wartime victories. His spy films such as Walk East on Beacon!, The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine all shared these qualities.
“Man on a String” bears all the same hallmarks. Ernest Borginine plays Boris Mitrov – a successful Hollywood film producer / deep cover Russian spy who is turned counteragent and sent to Berlin to penetrate the Kremlin. Based on the true story of music producer Boris Morros (who wrote the screenplay) the film has plenty of factual detail and realism. Also the use of actual locations is not only atmospheric but quite an historical document. The film was made before construction of the Berlin Wall started on 13 August 1961. The film was shot in both east and West Berlin in particular around the Brandenburg gate and Pariser Platz. The city is still devastated from wartime bombing conjuring an apocalyptic backdrop akin to Vienna in “The Third Man”. Perhaps even more surprising are the sequences filmed in Moscow. The Cold War was not in its infancy so permission to film would have required Soviet script approval. Quite a coup!
Once back in the USA, De Rochemont swamped the film with his trademark voice over. The moralistic and heavy handed “voice of authority” hampers André de Toth’s direction to a certain extent. When the story moves up a gear for the last twenty minutes, the locations, performances and direction add up to a thrilling experience. The dramatic impact is watered down by the closing monologue which proudly declares “for his services as a counteragent and penetration of the Kremlin he has received special commendation in the congress of the United States”.
Nevertheless the film has plenty to enjoy. Borgnine’s stay in a “spy hotel” in Berlin and a trip to a “spy school” outside Moscow are great genre moments. Borgnine plays the naïf with skill and intensity and Kerwin Matthews as his right hand man and undercover CIA agent is low key and impressive. His smooth demeanour was soon utilised to a greater extent in the four spy films he was about to star in. 7/10
Man Who Finally Died, The (Quentin Lawrence 1963)
It’s always a pleasure to watch Stanley Baker – his tough and taciturn demeanour is utterly convincing. Before playing nihilistic super-spy John Craig in “Innocent Bystanders” he made this long forgotten British espionage tale.
Baker plays Joe Newman, formally Jochaim Deutsch who has lived in Britain for twenty years. He believes his German father, Kurt Deutsch, has been dead since he was a child. He gets a phone call from a stranger summoning him to come and help his father. He has to go to the remote hill-town of Königsbaden where he is spied on from the outset. He is told his father in fact died last week leaving a young widow. He meets Lisa von Deutsch (Mai Zetterling) in the house of family friend Dr. Peter von Brecht (Peter Cushing). Whilst the death of Kurt Deutsch seems in order, their behaviour makes Newman suspicious. Trips to meet Inspector Hofmeister (Eric Portman) and the clerk of the Stuttgart cemetery (Brian Wilde) add further to Newman’s paranoia. He is also aware of spied on by Brenner (Niall MacGinnis) and Hirsch (Nigel Green.)
The tension created by this web of intrigue builds with Baker’s growing desperation. Nothing is as it seems and the plot twists and turns to a satisfying climax on the train to Nuremberg.
This was the only feature from Quentin Lawrence who went on to a long career in television drama. His use of musical cues by Philip Green is somewhat heavy handed. (Big harpsichord stabs punctuate each of Newman’s early conflicting discoveries.) Such cues belittle Baker’s performance which has no need of such dressing. His scenes without music are much more powerful. After the first two reels this problem goes away as the score settles down into more traditional string arrangements.
The film belongs to Baker and the first rate supporting cast who are all memorable. All in all this is a strong, low budget British feature deserving of wider recognition. 8/10
Marche ou Crève (Georges Lautner, 1959)
Georges Lautner’s auspicious debut is full of the style and ideas that would be the hallmark of his large genre output. Belonging squarely in the “espion - noir” category, “Marche ou Crève” tells the story of Stefan (Jacques Riberolles) a former secret service agent who is forced back into espionage after wife Denise (Gisèle Sandré) is kidnapped by Lenzi (Bernard Blier). Lenzi heads a spy ring that are after documents detailing NATO missile sites in Europe. The group also includes the mysterious Edith (Juliette Mayniel). She has the most seductive eyes and looks great in a raincoat. Lenzi meets her in a wild sculpture park in a dream-like sequence that demonstrates Lautner’s already keen framing and composition.
The pursuit of the documents take the spies from France to Amsterdam accompanied by Georges Delerue’s excellent score. The noir style remains at the fore with seduction, gunfights in the docks a deadly magnetic car bomb sequence and the film’s climax in a mineshaft.
The cast are all formidable; not least Bernard Blier who played villainous deadpan spies in so many spy films (Such as Duello nel mondo and La Peau d'espion.) He worked with Lautner on two more excellent spy films: “En plein cirage” and “Les Barbouzes”. Unfortunately the impressive Gisèle Sandré had only a couple of other major parts. 7/10
Marie Chantal contre Dr. Kha (Claude Chabrol, 1965)
Chabrol has said he didn’t make his spy films “for pleasure”, that he was forced to make them for money. His biographers tend to ignore his four spy titles. However, in 1997s self referential Rein Ne Va Plus, Chabrol fondly revisits his super-villain Dr. Kha naming him Monsieur K. He also uses the same spectacular alpine setting as Marie Chantal. Chabrol has reassessed his artisan output of the 1960s. And why not; the effervescent charm and lightness of touch of Marie Chantal looks probably better today than it ever has.
Marie Chantal (played by Marie Laforêt) is a resourceful, fashionable and sexy female. Although she has a male sidekick (Francisco Rabal) who she let’s do most of the fighting, Marie Chantal is the star. While pretending to be naïve and somewhat “dippy”, Laforêt has the edge on everyone, in particular super-villain Dr. Kha. She is more than just eye-candy. (Watching the belly-dancers she says: “These women – all they do is undress!”)
Stéphane Audran (Chabrol’s wife) who plays Dr. Kha’s top agent Olga is equally dynamic. She is Laforêt’s opposite in the film rather than Kha. There are shades of Chabrol’s “Les Biches” in the intimacy and conflict between Audran and Laforêt. (Audran also played a strong female lead in Jean Dellanoy’s brilliant spy film “La Peau De Torpedo”.)
Akim Tamiroff’s Dr. Kha has a slow studied menace. His albino-like features set against his black suit, tie and leather gloves make for a great super-villain. His best feature is his deep almost electronic voice that brings to mind the “alpha 60” computer in Alphaville. (Tamiroff also has a significant role in Alphaville)
There is an array of top French actors - Charles Denner, Serge Reggiani and Roger Hanin who die in array of amusing ways. (One is dispatched with poison shot from a ski –stick.) Chabrol himself plays a barman spy embarrassed into drinking his own poisoned pineapple juice.
The film relocates from the ski slopes to Morocco half way through. Marie Chantal is carrying the Blue Panther jewel that Roger Hanin has given her before he is killed. She is followed by a parade of spies who are after the Jewel that conceals a virus.
The Moorish architecture, Moroccan bazaars, street scenes and Kha’s lakeside palace through which Marie Chantal’s adventures ensue are stunningly photographed. True to the genre, Marie Chantal Contra Dr, Kha has a high exotica factor
Playing with dynamic framing, aerial shot inter-cutting and symmetry in both narrative and character, Chabrol is refining his style with Marie Chantal. It may have appeared genre hack work compared to the psychodrama masterpieces he was soon to make, but Chabrol was not scared of getting his hands dirty. For an art house director he displays none of the disdainful intellectual superiority that ruined Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise. Chabrol attacks the spy genre with invention and gusto playing with the genre conventions and audience expectations.
It was rumoured Chabrol only did the film to make a “tour gastronomique “of Morocco. That may be so, as this film has been made with the exuberance and joie de vivre of a filmmaker enjoying himself. 8/10
Misión Lisboa aka Espionage in Lisbon (Tulio Demicheli, 1965)
Misión Lisboa is a very unusual spy film. On first viewing it seems meandering, oddly unreal and frankly weak. But it lurks in the memory with its weird Portuguese atmosphere and relentless lounge core Hammond organ. On closer inspection and with the knowledge that Jesus Franco wrote and scored it (uncredited) everything starts to fall into place. It has the Franco subversive approach to storytelling.
A relaxed and carefree Brett Halsey plays opposite the powerhouse Marilù Tolo. Great Spanish actor Fernando Rey is the enemy agent with no name. Eurospy George Nader (Jerry Cotton) has a cameo as a drunk. Erica Blanc even makes an appearance as “ragazza in bikini”.
There is also a host of fun gadgets. “Operation Mannequin” has Rey transmitting messages through a compartment hidden in the behind of a showroom dummy. Halsey sends a spy fly (a fly of the buzzing variety with a built in microphone) to monitor conversations. Enemy agent Olga (Jeanne Valérie) kills with a handbag gun; Losky (Alfredo Mayo) has a briefcase transmitter and Rey uses a pen – gun.
Marilù Tolo is super cool and chic as agent Terry Brown who is undercover as a nightclub singer. She looks stunning in the black and white dress of the closing scene. The Portuguese locations are panoramic and impressive.
Of note is the inclusion of the 077 codename obliquely written on a napkin in a casino. It serves no narrative purpose despite a big close up and is there as a vague reference to marketing the film as a 077 film in certain territories.
Argentinean director Tulio Demicheli also made “Nuestro agente en Casablanca” with Lang Jeffries which is a great Eurospy. 6/10
Missione Mortale Molo 83 aka MMM 83 (Sergio Bergonzelli, 1965)
My first viewing of this was of an American TV print in black and white which was more enjoyable than my second viewing in colour. The film had something of the espion noir feel of the early sixties / late fifties French spy film in black and white. Pier Angeli at the airport being photographed by a spy with a concealed camera was more stylish.Without this quality there is little else to recommend this film. In colour it is strangely dull despite a few glamorous alpine shots.
Fred Beir is fairly irritating as Jack Morris; a smug, cocksure agent with little charm. Gérard Blain plays his opposite number Robert Gibson, but he brings little to the film. The editing is poor and the story ponderous. A shoot out at Pier 83 is staged just like a bad western.
The music by Piero Piccioni is heralded by many as classic Eurospy. Whilst having a good bass theme, the horn section is overrated. The title song by Lydia MacDonald is a de rigeur torch song but I find her vocal style rather jarring.
Watch the shimmering beauty of Pier Angeli in “Berlino - Appuntamento per le spie” or “Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117” instead. All in all, watching MMM83 is a struggle. 2/10
Missione Speciale Lady Chaplin (Alberto De Martino, 1966)
Lady Chaplin is a great example of how disregarding narrative clarity can be a virtue. Whether by design or not, this is a common attribute in Eurospy. With high speed twists and turns in the story and different characters coming and going the viewer is denied a real grasp of the plot. Instead, one gets a sense of a web of intrigue. In a spy story like Lady Chaplin (that is hardly slow and existential) this sense of confusion works fine. There is so much going on that why it is going on is not very important.
True to the nature of cult film phenomena as described by Umberto Eco, it is the disconnected moments that are to be celebrated, rather than a unified whole. Lady Chaplin is full of moments that leap out of the memory unconnected to anything as irrelevant as plot. Examples are the pre title sequence of a nun driving a yellow 2CV to a hilltop monastery and blasting the monks with a sub machine gun. Or, the climactic scene of Lady Chaplin parachuting to safety having been thrown out of a plane (edited to the massive horn stabs of Bruno Nicolai’s score.)
Such moments in cult films have a mythic quality. Reality is subverted in a depiction of the actions of archetypes. In the closing moments of Missione Speciale Lady Chaplin, Annabelle Chaplin is taking on an army single-handedly on the beach. She only has a handgun, but what an outfit! Her expression is truly heroic – she is not just a lady, she is a goddess. With little regard for plot, Dick Malloy appears out of the sea like Poseidon in a wetsuit. Untouched by the irritants of salt water he lets rip his harpoon bomb launcher. Victory is theirs.
Whilst these archetypal heroics are by definition grandiose, they are grounded in a 1960’s low budget co-production “quickie” setting. This “genre look” gives a certain grittiness not found in polished productions. The tension between this low budget look and the superhuman antics depicted empowers the film. (Indeed, Pasolini films of classical myths (Medea, Oedipus) made a feature of their low budget settings to amplify their “authenticity”.)
Special mention must be made of Bruno Nicolai’s splendid score. Building on the down tempo style of Upper Seven, Nicolai brings harps, horns and a big spy sound to Lady Chaplin that is perfect for the large scale heroics described above.
Lady Chaplin is a powerhouse of a spy girl – sexy and deadly. Like Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina in Deadlier than the Male”, Lady Chaplin is an empowering and exciting sixties female ripe for identification with by women in the audience. And of course to be desired by the men. In the closing moments Dick’s boss warns him that Lady Chaplin is “a lot of trouble”. Dick replies “But she’s still a lot of a woman.” 8/10
Môme Vert De Gris, La aka Poison Ivy (Bernard Borderie 1953)
This was Eddie Constantine’s first major film role. It was also the first French film version of Peter Chaney’s cosmopolitan FBI man Lemmy Caution. Chaney’s books had been successful in his native English but had also been a hit in translation. Constantine’s films made Lemmy Caution an icon in Europe. He reprised the role fourteen times (including television productions in the 1980s.) His other secret agent incarnations were interchangeable with Caution: Nick Carter, Jeff Gordon and Mike Warner were all hard drinking, fist fighting but intelligent ladies men. These qualities allied with Constantine’s craggy well worn good looks were his trademark in over 100 film and television appearances. Constantine’s screen persona was such that his films were often re-titled with just his Christian name: "Ça va être ta fête" became "Eddie em Lisboa" in Portugal, "Lemmy pour les dames" became "Eddie ja naiset" in Finland and "Des frissons partout " became "Eddie wieder colt-richtig" in West Germany and "Eddie, o tromokratis ton Parision" in Greece".
It is somewhat ironic that the cinema of Lemmy Caution remains unknown in Anglophone territories despite being created and made popular by an English novelist. Lemmy Caution is only really known in English territories as the central character in Godard’s arthouse spy / sci-fi classic “Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution”. Godard chose the character because of his iconic status, but this connotation is lost on English audiences. Hence it is usually referred to with the shortened title “Alphaville”.
It all started with “La Môme Vert De Gris”: a tight film noir that created the template for the Eddie persona. FBI in Washington has received information about a planned heist of $2 million in gold bullion in Casablanca. (In the ‘50’s and 60’s FBI and CIA were synonymous outside the USA) Caution goes undercover as Perry Charles Rice, Texan businessman to Casablanca which provides a backdrop of intrigue, danger and exotica. Director Bernard Borderie makes much use of the shadowy alleyways, busy markets and “Kasbah” atmosphere. Caution arrives at Chez Joe nightclub to find his contact dead in the phone cubicle. He watches the opening number by Dominique Wilms as Carlotta de la Rue. (Her nickname is poison ivy – “she burns”.) Carlotta’s chanson “Seule dans la Foule” has Eddie mesmerised but he is still first to spot a stealthy assassination of an audience member. This is a dangerous nightclub.
Caution pretends to be the dumb tourist cum amateur sleuth as he blunders into Carlotta’s dressing room and meets her boyfriend Rudy Saltierra.
(Rudy is played by the great Swiss actor Howard Vernon) Saltierra tries to have him framed for the killing but Caution is able to explain his way out of it. Clearly, Rudy and Carlotta are in need of further investigation.
A classic Caution tactic is to go straight into the enemy camp to test what reaction he gets. It’s usually dangerous, is completely unexpected and speeds up the investigation no end. Caution employs this approach several times in “La Môme Vert De Gris” usually relying on his fists, pre-planning or quick wits to get out again. Rather than plot, it is Caution’s confidence and mental agility in such scenes that make his films so engaging.
There is also crackling dialogue in “La Môme Vert De Gris” particularly between Carlotta and Caution. Their hard-boiled interchanges are both sexy and smart. The verbal parrying with Saltierra is also fun. Constantine’s physicality is impressive. Having walked into the enemy camp one time too many, Caution takes on a room full of men. He loses this fight but appears both brave and strong.
Strategy and smart manoeuvres is the ace in Caution’s hand and the secret to this films success. In addition to good pace, moody atmospherics and a palpable sense of danger the film scores with strong performances and smart direction. It is easy to see why this launched Constantine’s iconic status and his lifelong career reprising the role of Lemmy Caution. 8/10