Ucho aka The Ear (Karel Kachyna 1970)
Simply, “Ucho” is a masterpiece of cinema. Made under the Czech regime it attacks, “Ucho” is more like a documentary in state control and surveillance than a fiction film. The fact that it remained unseen and shelved until the 1990s is a testament to how close to the bone the film is.
It tells the story of a night of terror in the lives of married couple. Government official Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohatý) and his wife Anna (Jirina Bohdalová) return from a state function where they have discovered Ludvik’s boss has been relieved of his duties. They discover doors unlocked that should be locked and doors that were unlocked are now locked. As the night progresses they see waiting cars in the street and men in the garden. As the paranoia heightens it becomes clear that every room in the house has been bugged and they are under close surveillance.
“Ucho” is full of technical innovation and stylistic touches that are still fresh and original today. For example, a non linear montage keeps returning Ludvik and Anna to the state function. We see the event from their points of view with p.o.v. shots of characters speaking directly to camera. All natural sound is stripped out except the dialogue. In place of the sound effects track is a weird and mysterious music. This music mixed with the dislocated dialogue creates a superb evocation of the other worldliness of paranoia.
“Ucho” is unrelenting in its quiet depiction of life under a strict and invasive regime. Many films are made about living with oppression in a police state (such as Costas Gravas’ Etat de Siege and Z.) Whilst commendable they often are made in exile whereas “Ucho” was made under the noses of the oppressors. This gives the film an authority and first hand intensity that elevates it the level of masterwork. 10/10
Un milione di dollari per 7 assinni aka A Million Dollars for 7 Assassins. (Umberto Lenzi, 1966)
Set in Egypt, Un milione di Dollari Per 7 Assinni is a middle of the road spy yarn with some stylish touches. Michael King (Roger Browne) is employed by Simpson to find his son - a former nuclear research scientist turned junkie. Tracking the drug dealers, King finds Martin Simpson has been murdered and left at the cemetery. King is then hired to kill the murderers. He sets out on a systematic destruction of the gang responsible.
Ingenious tactics abound in King’s methods of execution. King despatches drug dealer James Mann with a violin case full of automatic weapons. At Mann’s funeral, King jumps out of a coffin having hijacked the undertakers and guns down more of the killers. King then calls the gang at their nightclub to say he will wipe them out at midnight. But he has arranged for their clock to be fast and surprises them at ten past.
As the espionage plot unfolds, King discovers a formula stolen from the dead scientist is stored on some contact lenses. King is aided by low key blonde agent Lilli (Monica Pordon) who maintains her anonymity throughout the film. She discovers the lenses, arranges for the nightclub clock to be changed and saves King at the end.
Like “Rififi Ad Amsterdam” Roger Browne’s true credentials as a spy are revealed in the closing scenes. With the mission completed, King is sent to Geneva on the next Pan Am flight for his next mission that will relay on his skills as a ladies man. His contact at the airport is one of a brass band of old ladies. 6/10
Upperseven l'uomo da uccidere aka Mann mit den 1000 Masken, Der (Alberto De Martino, 1966)
Upperseven is rich in fun Eurospy motifs that redeem the dubious special effects and peculiar ending. Paul Hubschmid plays Captain Paul Finney, codename Upperseven. His pursuit of gold smuggler Kobras involves a frantic pan - world tour: Copenhagen, London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Basel, Ghana and Rome. To stay ahead of his nemesis, Upperseven utilises an array of rubber masks and disguises. The masks let the film down a bit with clunky cuts between actors with very different bone structure, height and build; but you just go with it. More convincing are Upperseven’s straight disguises. His first appearance as Henry Forsyth of Lloyds of London is great fun. Upperseven tricks his way into Kobras’ factory as a dull old city banker, then leaps into action with a bullet and harpoon firing cane.
Kobras arranges for agent Brigit (Vivi Bach) to poison the water supply of Basel. The ensuing chaos enables him to switch US cash for counterfeit notes. Upperseven’s co-agent Helen Farheit (Karin Dor) oversees moving the false banknotes to Rome unaware of the switch. From here it’s a race by motorbike, aeroplane and rubber mask to get the cash back. But Kobras has the edge; Karin Dor is literally tied up in her own dress in a road block kidnap and Upperseven is disarmed of his gun by Kobras’ giant magnetic wall. They are taken to Ghana for the explosion filled finale in Kobras’ underground lair. Back in Rome, the final scene involves Upperseven purposefully winding up an Italian traffic cop and getting arrested for being rude – a peculiar ending?
A classic spy score by Bruno Nicolai adds much to the proceedings. It is full of stylish down tempo guitar, vibraphone and percussion. The original recording for the title song by Paola Orlandi no longer exists and was rerecorded by Sabina Montes for the “Our Man from Rome” compilation in 1998.
Paul Hubschmid and Karin Dor make impressive agents. Both have strong presence, are serious looking and convincing. Hubschmid even gets away with the bowler hat and city gent outfit he dons for promenading swinging London.
Upperseven was the first of three spy films from Alberto De Martino. It preceded the extraordinary “Operation Kid Brother” and the Magnificent “Speciale Missione Lady Chaplin” 5/10
Vicious Circle, The (Gerald Thomas 1957)
Before spending the rest of his life making “Carry On” films, director Gerald Thomas made this efficient and watchable spy thriller. Sir John Mills plays Dr Howard Latimer who meets a glamorous German film star at London airport only to find her dead in his flat that evening. So begins a vicious circle of false accusations, murder, blackmail and fake passports. Mills is on the run whilst having to prove his innocence despite Scotland Yard closing in. It is a classic scenario perfected by Hitchcock in “The 39 steps” and “North by Northwest”. “The Vicious Circle” could not hope to attain the stature of these classics but has plenty of style of its own that makes it a worthwhile experience. Much of the pleasure is in the casting: Wilfred Hyde-White and Roland Culver play the intelligence officers who toy with Mills, Derek Farr and Noelle Middleton play his allies in his race against enemy agents. 6/10
Vicomte règle ses comptes, Le aka The Viscount (Maurice Cloche 1966)
The success of the OSS 117 franchise in France bought about several related films such as “Estouffade à la Caraïbe”, "Un Killer per sua maestà" and “Le Vicomte règle ses comptes”. Taking a story by the OSS 117 author Jean Bruce and hiring former OSS 117 star Kerwin Matthews, “Le Vicomte règle ses comptes” was clearly designed to succeed using the same formula.
Matthews plays Clint de la Roche, an unlikely insurance agent of royal decent. This regal playboy is known around the world for his ruthless gun totting methods in sorting out insurance problems. With a plumby English accent and a heavy butler in the shape of Jean Yanne, he is ready to wow the ladies and take on the hoods.
A $2 million bank job is neatly pulled off in Paris masterminded by Marco Demoygne (the eminently watchable Fernando Rey.) The insurance company call on the services of “the viscount” to find out who did it. Stepping on the toes of Interpol and the French secret police, Clint de la Roche is soon embarking on a trans- European tour with stop offs in Sicily and Malaga.
“Le Vicomte règle ses comptes” ticks all the boxes with the requisite punch-ups, groovy George Garavantz score, sophisticated Riviera locations, lovely ladies and a clutch of neat gadgets (including a chunky laser gun for the bank job, cigarettes that work as gas masks and a knife hidden in a belt). It is certainly an enjoyable romp and in no way intellectually taxing.
Notable is the unusual decision to make French and English versions simultaneously. Director Maurice Cloche took this unusual step to combat the problem of dubbed product not working in Anglophone territories. The majority of scenes were shot in English whilst those featuring character Rico Barone used Folco Lulli for the French version and Edmond O’Brien for the English one. Likewise the title song was different for each film. (Dick Rivers sang “Le Vicomte” for the French version and Tony Allen sang "The Investigator” for the English version.) Perhaps the most telling alteration is the hugely different edits made of Sylvia Sorrente’s strip tease at the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. The English version is tame, rather dull and over in a moment. The French version is far sexier, lingering on Miss Sorrente and the heavy guaze she uses as a curtain between the audience and her performance.
It is fascinating to see such careful tailoring of a film in an effort to cater for the tastes of different national audiences. (Such a notion would be unthinkable today where world audiences are more homogenised and indeed cosmopolitan)
Despite such efforts to broaden the appeal of the film, Matthews is really not very convincing as an English aristocrat with a faux upper class accent. The film actually works better in French with Matthews voice dubbed. Perhaps Cloche should have just made one version after all. 7/10
Voitheia o Vengos, faneros praktor '000' aka Visible Agent 000 (Thanasis Vengos, 1967)
Thanasis Vengos star as Thou-Vou and directs this insanely offbeat Greek spy comedy. It has incredible pace and is very funny even with the most rudimentary translation from the Greek.
Thou-Vou is attending a secret agent school where a portrait of Sean Connery’s James Bond is hung on the front gate and on the wall of every office like Chairman Mao. Each agent has to complete three tasks to qualify and for each task they are awarded a score out of ten. Their final score determines their codename. When Thou Vou gets zero for the first two missions he hopes he will get 7 for his final mission.
“Voitheia o Vengos, faneros praktor '000'” has to be the only spy film that mixes pie fights, songs, newsreel footage, slapstick and baby kidnapping with more familiar spy elements. There is also a terrific space age synthesiser soundtrack bleeping away amidst the traditional Greek music.
Thanasis Vengos’s baldheaded antics are certainly avant garde. There is a zaniness to the film that pre-empts the later lunacy of Python and Benny Hill. This is one of the few 1960s spy spoofs that is actually funny leaving behind the forced comedy of the Flint films, “Carry on Spying” or “That Riviera Touch”. Well worth discovering! 8/10
When Eight Bells Toll (Etienne Périer, 1971)
When a formidable and seasoned novelist like Alistair MacLean writes the screenplay of one of his best novels it is going to be good. None of the changes made from the original book are a compromise – they are neat solutions to adaptation for film. Minor characters from the book such as Sue Kirkside (Wendy Allnutt) and Tim Hutchinson (Leon Collins) retain their depth through precise dialogue and nuance despite being only on screen for a short time.
MacLean is at home in the setting of his native Scottish highlands. The film provides a cold and unwelcoming portrait of grey icy waters, forbidding coastline and terrible weather. Such a gritty and overcast look adds an authenticity to the story of political corruption and gold bullion piracy.
The casting of Anthony Hopkins is a step away from the standard square jawed super-spy. Whilst many considered him unsuitable as an action hero he brings his big acting talent to the piece adding to the realism. His character Philip Calvert is a classic loner spy; heroic, intelligent, insubordiante and highly skilled. He kills numerous enemy agents in cold blood and is remorseless, chilling and matter of fact. Like Connery in “Dr. No”, we are still routing for him despite these murders. Playing against Robert Morley’s amusing Uncle Arthur, Hopkins underplays his role giving Calvert further gravitas. In response, Morley in fact downplays his usual over the top and camp persona whilst still delivering the witty lines.
Plenty of further acting talent is at hand. Jack Hawkins is reliable as ever and ubiquitous bald spy henchman Oliver MacGreevy (“Se tutte le donne del mondo”, “The Ipcress File” & “Modesty Blaise”) is actually allowed to speak which in itself is quite scary. Nathalie Delon is suitable delectable as a double agent.
Etienne Périer was a strange choice for the director of an all action picture. Although he was known as an artistic and celebral filmmaker in France, he had just made the light hearted spy film “Le Rouble à deux faces” aka “The Day the Hot Line Got Hot”. He handles the action well with breathtaking copter shots of shipwrecked tankers and gripping underwater fight sequences.
Walter Stott, who later became Angela Morley, provides a terrific score that is based around a driving main theme that is dark and melancholy whilst having lots of funk and attack.
This is a prime example of a spy film that is one of the best of the Alistair MacLean adaptations. 9/10