I never thought I’d see the day when Paul Newman was out-acted by Julie Andrews. Or spent most of the time wondering how much better it would be with James Stewart or Cary Grant instead. They can both do stillness. For all the wrong reasons you cannot keep your eyes off Newman – he is such a jittery, fidgety commotion.
Which is a shame for all that is wrong with this often wrongly-maligned Hitchcock picture is the set-up. The opening love scene is only necessary to get it out of the way (“Newman! Andrews! Together!” type set-up) though it is something of a riff on Psycho, setting up the possibility of a bad girl (i.e. goody two-shoes Andrews having sex before marriage) being punished. You could have started more economically with Andrews just turning up in Copenhagen for whatever reason (fill in the blanks) and the story pushing on from there, unintentionally Andrews becoming involved in Newman’s plan to infiltrate the East German nuclear program.
The rest of the picture is classic Hitchcock, and as ever he uses sound brilliantly, just the clacking of feet as a bodyguard pursues Newman through an empty museum. And he riffs on North by Northwest in the tractor scene. The murder, also soundless apart from the noise of human terror, is quite brilliant. And another riff, on The 39 Steps, with the woman who knows their true identity but has her own reasons for not giving them away.
Every time we think they are going to be caught something unexpected prevents it, every time we think they are safe something unexpected prevents that. Clever twists all the way. Hitchcock has a knack of doing the same thing differently every time, he hated repeating himself, so when transport enters the picture, there are unexpected results.
Julie Andrews (The Americanization of Emily, 1964) is far better than you might expect. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is one of her best performances. Like Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, she is often the focal point of the story, getting Newman out of a spot. Two scenes in particular stand out: one in a bedroom where she is filmed side-on looking out of a window with Newman at the far back of the screen and the other when she lets a single tear leak out of her eye. Where Paul Newman (The Prize, 1963) just looks out of sorts (maybe he was annoyed Andrews was being paid more), she does a nice line in barely contained rage.
You never know what to expect with Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds, 1963). Yet he was always being taken to task by critics who expected something other than what he delivered. Taking us back to the espionage of North by Northwest (1959) he cleverly changes the male-female dynamic and delivers a different kind of thriller. Novelist Brian Moore (The Luck of Ginger Coffey, 1964) wrote the screenplay with a little help from British pair Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Pretty Polly/A Matter of Innocence, 1967).
Even with the annoying Newman, Torn Curtain is still up there not at the very top of the Hitchcock canon but certainly in the second rank
Made just before director Basil Dearden embarked on Khartoum (1965), this is probably best-known these days for being screenwriter – and ace self-publicist – William Goldman’s first credit. It’s based on Castle Minerva by Victor Canning whose previous filmed books included The Golden Salamander (1950) with Trevor Howard, The Venetian Bird (1952) with Richard Todd, and The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) with Robert Taylor.
I’d like to say this is a self-aware thriller with spy and comedic elements but it veers awful close to either a cult film or a mess. Basic story has Frazer (Cliff Robertson) hired by former wartime commander and now British intelligence agent Col Drexel (Jack Hawkins) to look after an Arab princeling who has been kidnapped by the British (so much for Brits always being on the side of the angels) to help seal an oil concession in the Gulf.
Theoretically, the kidnapping is for the teenager’s own good, to prevent him being assassinated before he ascends to the throne…see it’s getting awfully complicated already. Anyway, it turns out he actually has been kidnapped by Drexel who has turned rogue in order to fund his retirement. The boy is held in some kind of fortress/castle in Spain and then another more sinister one.
Frazer meantime falls for the seductive charms of Sophie (Marisa Mell) who he thinks is a smuggler intent on stealing his boat but a) is part of the kidnap gang and b) in love with him enough to help him escape when he in turn is captured.
Did I mention the film also included a circus, a clown act, a gunfight on a dam, characters left dangling on a rope bridge, a lady in red, a balancing act along a perilous ledge, entrapment in a wine tanker (huh?) and an animal cage (double huh?), a vulture, men in bowler hats…
It is enlivened by visual gags – ultra-large footprints (from somebody wearing flippers). The dialogue sparkles as when the prince, with an overactive entitlement gland, says, “I am practically divine,” to which Hawkins deadpans “Your Highness, you are irresistible.” Add to that various cliché-twisting scenes – the double-dealing Sophie now overcome by love, says to Drexel: “Ask me anything you want and I will tell you the truth,” but every question he asks solicits the response, “I don’t know.” Then, imprisoned in a cage, after protracted cobbling together of lengths of bamboo to steal keys they turn out to be the wrong keys.
Throw in: British propriety – Frazer’s substantial fee for risking his life is reduced to a miserable sum once tax has been deducted; and a superb Arab charge on horseback with tracking cameras, either a rehearsal for Khartoum or the scene that got Dearden the gig.
Actually, the more I write about it the more fun it sounds and I wish it were, but it does not quite gel. Cliff Robertson (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) and Marisa Mell (Danger: Diabolik, 1968) don’t convince – Robertson talks through gritted teeth without suggesting he has much inner grit – although Jack Hawkins (The Third Secret, 1964) and other British stalwarts like Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) and Bill Fraser (The Best House in London, 1969) and Frenchman Michel Piccoli (Danger: Diabolik) deliver the goods. It should have been a straightforward three-star job or – if qualifying as a cult – in the five-star class. It is definitely not an outright stinker. Perhaps best filed under “curiosity.”
What the enemy do to an Allied spy is nothing compared to his friends. Blood brother to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966) where agents are mere pawns in a bigger game, this is set on the eve of D-Day. The old trope of sending a spy in with misleading information is turned upside down in that this isn’t a corpse as in The Man Who Never Was/Operation Mincemeat, but live bait.
Except the agent doesn’t know he’s being used and has been chosen because he is deemed to have sufficient courage to stand up to initial torture but not hold out forever so that when he inevitably breaks the secrets he spills are believable.
Ruthless Capt Rawson (Harry Andrews) who devises the cunning plan employs psychiatric assessment and the romantic wiles of his secretary Lucy (Suzy Parker) to select the correct victim, Paul Raine (Bradford Dillman). “A perfectly good man is exactly what we don’t want,” expounds Rawson.
War is gender-neutral. Although from the off, Rawson is unscrupulous, with only a modicum of conscience, Lucy is more human, and when she is drawn into the deception, initially just to report on Raine’s qualities, she proves as ruthless, though afflicted more by conscience, a factor her boss dismisses as making women “singularly unsuited” for war, despite the fact that she is making greater sacrifice, having fallen in love with Raine.
Orphaned, Raine covers up the emotional instability detected by psychiatrists with derring-do, battling through terror out of fear that he will be consumed by fear. A Canadian who speaks French he is the right “wrong man” for the job.
Considerable effort goes into ensuring he won’t be caught out by detail. His French-bought watch has an English strap, for example. And although, once on enemy territory, his innate skills mean he evades capture for longer than intended. He slips off a train, passes himself off as a woodcutter’s temporary assistant.
Unaware of the plot against him, when captured and brought before “good” German Capt Stein (Robert Stephens), who respects a gentleman officer, he refuses to give up his secrets, undergoing a whipping, electrocution and a primitive though equally effective form of water-boarding. At the very last, courage long gone, he aims to deprive his captors of victory by biting on a cyanide pill hidden in his tooth only to discover this is missing.
After that, all that is left is irony. He is treated as a hero, officially accorded a medal, but post-war hiding behind a bottle in Tangiers because he can’t face the truth. Lucy, scarred by her experience, knowing she is as guilty as her superior in destroying a man, tries to retrieve an irretrievable situation.
After only really knowing Bradford Dillman as often a one-note supporting actor, I’ve been surprised to discover he has a greater range of acting skills to offer. A Rage To Live (1965) provided one insight and Sgt Ryker (1968) another but this is on a different plane, mean-budgeted B-picture though it is. It’s a difficult part to pull off, afraid that his bold exterior hides a cowardly personality, and that in the final analysis his soul will be laid bare. There’s not much help in the script. He doesn’t get to explore his fears with Lucy except in the most basic fashion. He has to rely on facial expression, rather than screaming his head off, to get across the rest of it. And he is pretty exemplary on that score. And since he’s Canadian that can hardly be put down to having learned the British stiff-upper-lip.
Suzy Parker (The Interns, 1962) , formerly the world’s highest-paid model (and soon to be Mrs Dillman), has mastered her stiff-upper-lip as well as a passable British accent. She’s not permitted much in the way of anguish script-wise, and lacks Dillman’s acting skills in presenting interior feelings. But, equally, her character is a subordinate and a well brought-up English lass, as she would need to be to qualify for such a post, would not make her feelings known too forcefully to her commanding officer.
A Richard Burton or a Peter O’Toole might have injected more into the part, but Dillman does more than enough. It’s a shame Hollywood failed to recognize his talent. In his final picture Jack Lee (A Town Like Alice, 1957) directs admirably, though I could have done without the flashback structure, it might have added more tension to not know the outcome, and the rescue sequence seemed an anomaly.
Otherwise, crisply told and a precursor to the cold-blooded spy stories to come.
Takes a little while to come to the boil what with disreputable women, a crew of platinum-white-haired thugs, a religious cult, some very dry dialog, a high priestess with her own chorus line of psychedelic dancers, four identical brothers, and a female lead parading a prize shaggy dog story. Our intrepid heroes appear more capable this time round, the previously inept Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) not beaten up quite so often, though he does end up being drowned in sand (water too precious to spare, apparently).
This time round, too, the good guys are taken for a ride by mad scientist Luther Sebastian (Bradford Dillman) who hoodwinks the U.N.C.L.E. organisation into stealing a “thermal prism” from the fortress of another mad scientist Dr Kharmusi (John Dehner). To put his own grand plan into operation Sebastian just has to hijack a rocket. And you should be aware going into this that there’s not the amount of helicoptering you might expect given the title.
This time round, too, there’s hardly a good gal in sight. Azalea (Lola Albright), aforementioned high priestess of cult The Third Way, has betrayed the good doctor in favor of Sebastian. Sebastian’s wife Laurie (Julie London) pretends to a) be out of contact with him for years and b) maintain a virtuous existence. And that’s before we come to the plainly bonkers, but still traitorous, Annie (Carol Lynley) who will make up any story in a bid to free an imprisoned unseen husband.
Sebastian has some neat touches as a leader, rewarding his team of thugs with booze and women as a prelude to killing them all off. He’s got an ejection seat in his car for getting rid of troublesome passengers. He prefers efficiency, to the point of iciness, to sexiness in his paramour and female underlings. And he has a very dry manner, which elicits a good few laughs.
But some of his thugs just ain’t that bright, the one instructed to follow Solo has just allowed him access to Laurie’s house. Laurie ain’t that bright, either, falling for an old trick by Solo who, as usual, is less bright that Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).
Some of the set pieces are excellent. Sebastian’s followers meet in an abandoned movie theater where Azalea gives the lowdown on the grand plan assisted by her bevy of dancers. Infiltrating the organisation by the simple device of dying his hair, Solo ‘s disguise is uncovered after being sprayed with champagne.
There are a surprising number of human touches. Head henchman Carl (Roy Jenson) vowing to take “Mom” away from her dingy life running her eponymous diner finds she enjoys too much her dingy life. Carl, appreciative of the disguised Solo’s efforts, apologises for making him ride in the baggage train. Annie can stretch innocence to breaking point, to an extent where nobody cares about her problems.
But where The Karate Killers had a straightforward storyline – find the five daughters of a dead scientist – this gets a tad lost in the first section introducing the thermal prism, the cult, doubling down on mad scientists, and giving Annie all the importance of a red herring.
I thought for a moment that this was the end of the line in my appreciation of the U.N.C.L.E. franchise, the one where it all fell flat on its face and we could see the joins, but after the shaky start it picked up and became quite enjoyable in the series’ inimitable barmy fashion. I suppose I should applaud the initial narrative boldness, audience pretty much fooled from the off, the fortress assault not much more than an extended MacGuffin, with neither Sebastian nor Azalea what they seemed.
I could quibble about the guest stars but in fact this is a superb deadpan performance from Bradford Dillman (Sanctuary, 1961) and quite a departure for the Carol Lynley of Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). And you could say the same for Lola Albright, previously seen essaying a different kind of character in The Way West (1967).
Boris Sagal (The Omega Man, 1971) directed from a screenplay by Dean Hargrove (One Spy Too Many, 1966).
I’ve only got a couple to go to wrap up the entire series and for your sake I will persevere. If you’ve not already done so, it’s back to the box set.
What a hoot! A sheer blast! The most brilliant yet of the madman dominating the world schemes, autogyros to out-Bond Bond, a fabulous cast and of course the most incompetent spies this side of Get Smart.
You can’t get better than a scientist inventing a way of turning water into gold. Takes chutzpah to even think of that as a plot. No having to batter your way into Fort Knox as poor Bond did in Goldfinger (1964), you just turn on the tap. But, wait, the formula is lost and our intrepid heroes have to – heaven forbid! – track down five gorgeous women to find it. Was there ever a more onerous proposal?
I never saw any of these films when they came out. At the time I guess they would have been viewed as small screen rivals to James Bond. But although 007 in every picture would eventually be trapped in the madman’s lair, he spent most of the film beating the sh*t out of the bad guys. In sharp contrast, The Men from U.N.C.L.E. seem always to be on the wrong side of a beating, number one hero Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) more hapless than number two Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).
With hindsight, it looks like this was never meant to be taken seriously and without going into over-spoof plays exceptionally well as a light-hearted romp. Solo seems to be constantly outwitted with Kuryakin invariably coming to the rescue, the former too often duped by beauty, the latter a bit more discerning. There’s a lovely moment here in their reactions to the instruction by boss Mr Waverley (Leo G. Carroll) to hunt down a dead scientist’s quintet of daughters/step-daughters; Solo gives a knowing smirk, Kuryakin shows disdain.
Must be the best cast yet assembled: legendary Joan Crawford, suddenly hot again after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1965), Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968), Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Kim Darby (True Grit, 1969), Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) and Jill Ireland (Mrs Charles Bronson) as you’ve never seen her before.
The U.N.C.L.E. duo are in a race against T.H.R.U.S.H. operative Randolph (Herbert Lom) to track down the missing formula. Randolph has a head start. He has been having an affair with the scientist’s wife Amanda (Joan Crawford) who is shocked to discover his charming exterior conceals a ruthless interior.
Solo and Kuryakin track down the scientist’s daughter Sandy (Kim Darby), a good bit brighter than your average eye-candy spy girl, who points the way to the step-daughters and to the possibility that each has one part of the missing formula. Was there ever an easier justification for introducing such a random set of characters?
First up is stark naked Countess (Diane McBain) locked away by jealous impoverished husband (Telly Savalas) in a castle in Rome. Then we’re onto Imogen (Jill Ireland), a flamboyant lass shaking her booty at any opportunity, arrested by a constable (Terry-Thomas) for indecent exposure, and involved in a punch-up in a London night-club where Solo is nearly drowned (yup!) and Randolph instructs the band to keep playing since the ruckus is nothing to do with them.
Then we’re off to Switzerland and Yvonne (Danielle De Metz) and a machine-gun ski chase down a mountainside (beat that, Mr Bond). And so on until all the clues, contained in photographs of the dead father, have been found and, wait for it, the puzzle remains incomplete. Eventually it’s unravelled and the final showdown is on.
But what a way to go. Never mind the ski chase, the picture opens with the duo being attacked by a fleet of autogyros (one-man mini helicopters, the “Little Nellie” of the later You Only Live Twice, 1967 ), and as usual someone, this time Kuryakin, is trapped on a low-tech machine, this time on a ice-block travelator where blocks of ice are smashed to bits by nasty spikes.
Randolph is the most droll villain alive. “Don’t be so melodramatic, my dear,” he informs Amanda when she uncovers his villainy and is about to be murdered. The whole jigsaw is exceptionally appealing, the global whizzing about, Japan also included not to mention one of the poles where T.H.R.U.S.H. has established its HQ.
The action is a good bit more thrilling, the aerial and ski sequences very well done on a budget a fraction of the Bonds, and there’s more than enough going on to keep interest levels high, not just where to go next, and who to encounter, but the gathering of the clues, and working out of the final mystery, which offers a nice emotional touch.
Kim Darby is more of a typical ingenue here, sparkier than you might expect but not offering the originality of character expressed in True Grit, while Jill Ireland is a good bit more sassy than she ever appeared thereafter. Barry Shear (Wild in the Streets, 1968) directed.
This is the best so far that I have seen on the series. My interest had begun to flag but, thus fortified, I will continue with my endeavors to watch them all. on your behalf, of course.
Unable to compete with the influx of big budget espionage pictures, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. throws in the action towel and comes out fighting as a comedy, and a more preposterous storyline you would be hard to find. As if spoofing a genre it helped create, our intrepid heroes find themselves in captivity one way or another, outwitted by a posse of retired Mafia hoods or sadistic females.
Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) can’t even manage a chase, crashing the car in pursuit of former Nazi scientist Dr Von Kronen (Ludwig Donath). The trail leads to Sicily where Solo, again incapacitated, meets the sultry Pia (Leticia Roman) and as a result of a romantic misunderstanding is forced into a shotgun wedding in Chicago by her Mafia uncles, the famed Stilletto Brothers.
Meanwhile, Kuryakin makes the acquaintance of the deliciously sadistic Miss Diketon (Janet Leigh), assistant and masseuse to highly nervous Thrush boss Louis Strago (Jack Palance). The action finally shifts to the Gulf Stream, where Pia is imprisoned and the usual missiles are set to be launched in the presence of head Thrush honcho Mr Thaler (Will Kuluva) in the usual global takeover scenario.
Abandoning any attempt at serious drama, this is just a hoot, a score of sight and visual gags, references to Little Caesar and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre abound. Any time one of our heroes needs speedy access to a villain hideout along comes a guard to be bumped off and uniform purloined. Solo caught hiding under Pia’s bed is let off when discovered by a Thrush operative because he’s not the Uncle agent they are looking for. Not only is Solo constantly whacked over the head, but Kuryakin ends up as the plaything of Miss Diketon.
Solo and Kuryakin look as if they stepped onto someone else’s parade, trying to keep the narrative on an even keel, while the Mafia gang and Thrush personnel effectively play it for laughs. Pia has Wanted posters of her uncles on her wall on the assumption they are just wonderful guys. Von Kronen gets the hots for Miss Diketon because he admires her skill at torture, although a spurned Miss Diketon turns traitor leading Kuryakin to mutter to Solo when all three meet, “I brought Lucrezia Borgia, you brought the Mafia.”
What makes it work so well are the fabulous performances of the supporting cast. Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966), completely playing against type, still a villain sure, is a masochistic sweaty bag of nerves. Janet Leigh (Psycho, 1960) camps it up as the deadlier-than-the-male luscious female, dress slit at the thigh to reveal a hidden knife, whose pulse races at the mere thought of the cruelty she can inflict and the slower the better. Will Kuluva (To Trap a Spy, 1964) is a bonus, the boss who just wants to party and has no idea of the technicalities of firing a missile.
Nobody even bothers to dress it up any more. The missiles look like something you would buy your kid for Xmas, the backdrops are as fake as anything on a backlot. But somehow it all works, as long as you weren’t expecting the original take on The Man from Uncle. And even so, director Joseph Sargent (One Spy Too Many, 1966) adds a few dabs of genuine cinematic icing, characters viewed from the ground-up, a fist fight that’s either in slo-mo or speeded-up freeze frame, the wife (Joan Blondell) of one of the Stiletto Brothers receiving a grapefruit in the mush.
After watching the original movie which came up better than expected in terms of action and spy malarkey, the last thing I anticipated that this would be headed in an entirely different direction. When that quickly became obvious, I feared the worst. Instead, I enjoyed a fun 90 minutes.
Of course, this wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S. just abroad with some added sex and violence, an expanded version, and in color, of a double black-and-white episode of the television series.
If audiences rallied to the sight of Raquel Welch wearing nothing more than a fur bikini for the entirety of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and a skin-tight suit in Fantastic Voyage (1966) Twentieth Century Fox must have reasoned they would surely return in droves were the star to spend most of Fathom in a succession of brightly-colored bikinis.
Given such a premise who would care that a sky-diving expert was named after a nautical measurement? Or that Fathom (Raquel Welch) came nowhere near the height indicated by her name? Or that the character as described in the source material (a novel by Scottish screenwriter Larry Forester) had a distinctly harder edge; murder, sex and drugs among her proclivities.
With Our Man Flint (1966), the studio had successfully gatecrashed the burgeoning spy genre and spotted a gap in the market for a female of the species, hoping to turn Modesty Blaise (1966) starring Monica Vitti and Fathom into money-spinning series. The Fathom project was handed to Batman, The Movie (1966) co-conspirators, director Leslie H. Martinson and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon, 1980).
Female independence was hard-won in the 1960s and there were few jobs where a woman was automatically at the top of the tree. Burglary was one option for the independent entrepreneur (see The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl) and sport was another.
Welch plays an innocent bystander recruited for her top-notch sky-diving skills (her aptitude demonstrated in the opening sequences) to help Colonel Campbell (Ronald Fraser) of British intelligence recover the “Fire Dragon,” a trigger that could explode a nuclear bomb. Her sky-diving skills are required to land in the courtyard of playboy Peter Merriwether (Anthony Franciosa).
That turns out to be baloney, of course, a MacGuffin to point her in the direction of a valuable Chinese heirloom. And then it’s case of double-cross, triple-cross and whatever cross comes next.
There’s an intriguing mystery at the heart of this picture and a couple of top-class hair-raising moments. In one she is trapped in a bull ring and stunt double Donna Garrett had a few very definite close calls trying to avoid the maddened beast. In another she is stalked at sea by a circling motor boat while being peppered with harpoons. There is also an airplane duel and a ton of great aerial work. A couple of comic sequences are well wrung – Campbell pins his business card to one of the prongs of a pitchfork being brandished with menace by Fathom while Peter delivers a classic line: “The only game I ever lost was spin the bottle and that was on purpose.”
The biggest problem is that the film veers too far away from the source material which posited the heroine as a much tougher character, one who can despatch bad guys with aplomb. Instead, Fathom is presented almost as an innocent, bundled from one situation to another, never taking charge until the very end. Minus karate kicks or a decent left hook, she is left to evade her predators by less dramatic means. She has a decent line in repartee and by no means lets the show down. However, the idea, no matter how satisfactory to fans of the actress, that Fathom has to swap bikinis every few minutes or failing that don some other curve-clinging item, gets in the way of the story – and her character. Into the eccentric mix also come a millionaire (Clive Revill) and a bartender (Tom Adams).
There’s no doubt Welch had single-handedly revived the relatively harmless pin-up business (not for her overt nudity of the Playboy/Penthouse variety) and had a massive following in Europe where she often plied her trade (the Italian-made Shoot Loud, Louder…I Don’t Understand in 1966 and the British Bedazzled in 1967) but she was clearly desperate for more meaty roles. Those finally came her way with Bandolero (1968) and 100 Rifles (1969) and Fathom feels like a lost opportunity to provide her with that harder edge.
She’s not helped by the odd tone. As I mentioned she gets into plenty of scrapes and proves her mettle with her diving skills. In the hands of a better director and with a few tweaks here and there it could have been a whole lot better and perhaps launched a spy series instead of languishing at the foot of the studio’s box office charts for that year.
Anthony Franciosa (Rio Conchos, 1964) , still a rising star after a decade in the business, who receives top billing, doesn’t appear for the first twenty minutes. And then he behaves like a walking advert for dentistry, as though his teeth can challenge Welch’s curves. And some of the supporting cast look like they’ve signed up for a completely different movie. Richard Briers (A Home of Your Own, 1965) – Ronald Fraser’s intelligence sidekick – looks like a goggle-eyed fan next to Ms Welch while Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) thinks it’s a joke to play a Russian as a joke. Ronald Fraser (Sebastian, 1968) provides decent support.
But it is certainly entertaining enough and you are unlikely to get bored.
Book into Film: A Girl Called Fathom by Larry Forrester (1967)
The blurb gives the game away. The British paperback published by Pan went: “She was blonde. She was beautiful, she was six foot tall. She’d killed the man who had dragged her to the lowest depths of addiction and lust.” The American Fawcett Gold Medal paperback was more succinct: “lady by birth, tramp by occupation and murderess by design.”
If any of that rings a bell, it was not from the film Fathom (1967) starring Raquel Welch which chose to ignore her background and her venomous skillset. The novel opens with the heroine killing a man in cold blood. He had promised her a film career but turned her into a call girl and heroin addict. Her father, now dead, was in the British secret service. Once she has committed her first murder, she is immediately kidnapped by a secret organization (C.E.L.T.S. – Counter Espionage Long-Term Security) and trained to become an even more ruthless government-sanctioned killing machine.
Larry Forrester was a Scottish television scriptwriter who had worked on a stack of British series such as Whirligig (1953), Ivanhoe (1958) and No Hiding Place (1960-1964) before publishing his first novel A Girl Called Fathom. His sole screenplay was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) after which he concentrated on U.S. television including episodes of Fantasy Island (1980-1983) and Hart to Hart (1983-1984).
A Girl Called Fathom is split into two. Comprising roughly two-fifths of the book, the first section concentrates on her brutal training and on getting her off drugs. There’s a fair amount of sexual intrigue not to mention sex. But also a lover’s betrayal. For the final part of her training she is abandoned in the middle of nowhere in scorching heat and barely makes it home. “She had passed over a great divide. She was empty, hard – dehumanized. Alone. She would always be alone.” And then she is forced to kill again.
As was common with this kind of book in the 1960s, it was fast-moving and globe-trotting with plenty of realistic detail to offset the preposterous plot. For the remainder of the book, which shifts location to Europe, Fathom is up against an organization called W.A.R. (World of Asian Revolution) which aims to destabilize the existing world order. Her arch enemy is an American-born Soviet agent (and whip and knife expert) Jo Soon (who turns up in the film Fathom in slightly different form as Jo-May). Fathom’s team must protect French elder statesman Paul-Auguste Valmier whose playboy son Damon (who fantasizes about burning people alive), a friend from her past, is her main contact.
The book is peopled by interesting and occasionally outrageous characters – for example Tin (shades of Iron Man), who has hardly a human bone left in his body; the far-from-harmless Aunt Elspeth; and a sadistic colleague who loves her but dare not let his emotions out lest he loose on her his love of pain. The central plot is driven by a mass of twists and turns, heroine endangerment, fights with knife and gun and fist, traitors (naturally) and the clever idea of killing off the leaders of the free world with a bomb hidden in the coffin of a man worthy of a state funeral being held in Paris.
At the end she is counting the human cost of victory and sees herself as one of the walking wounded, a reject, driven from the herd. The film was apparently based on an unpublished sequel so it’s conceivable that the plot concerning the Chinese heirloom was pulled from that in its entirety. But even so the film’s heroine was neutered, not a patch on the ruthless killer with a sordid past outlined in A Girl Called Fathom.
Initially, much more of a character study than murder mystery or spy tale. And like the previous John Le Carre adaptation The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) directed by an American, there Martin Ritt, here Sidney Lumet. Although as repressed as the main character in Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) and sharing with it remembrance of the Holocaust, master spy Charles Dobbs (name changed from George Smiley due to Paramount’s rights from the earlier film) is far more capable of expressing his feelings and taking action than the pawnbroker.
Dobbs sleeps in a separate bedroom, his wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) indulging in so many affairs she is considered a nymphomaniac. Although resigned to this behavior, he is nonetheless shocked when her latest amour turns out to be his old friend and colleague Dieter (Maximilian Schell) and even attempts to offer him advice, the politeness of the English at its best. “In any other country,” retorts Dieter, “we wouldn’t be on speaking terms.” This kind of betrayal Dobbs can manage, but the other kind, of a professional nature, has him rushing to the bathroom to throw up.
If you’ve come to admire the character of George Smiley (aka Dobbs) as played by Alec Guinness in BBC TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and its sequel where he is generally a passive character you might get a shock when here the man springs into action.
Dobbs comes up against the Establishment when his boss (Max Adrian) refuses to investigate the suicide of a low-level agent Fennan (Robert Flemyng), a former Communist cleared of suspicion of being a double agent by Dobbs himself. Dobbs resigns in order to go his own way enlisting retired policeman Mendel (Harry Andrews), a pet lover and prone to falling asleep at inopportune moments. Although it is essentially a murder story, it’s Mendel who does most of the detecting, using his resources to track relevant pieces of information – typewriters, wake up calls, theatre tickets fall into his purview – and very much the old-school cop, not above a bit of burglary and beating up a suspect.
There are leaks within the secret service, Dobbs tailed, a blond man Harek (Les White) hovering into view long enough to tamper with witnesses, including dodgy car dealer Scarr (Roy Kinnear), a bubbly character with “two wives.” Key to the investigation is Fennan’s wife Elsa (Simone Signoret), a Jewish refugee from the concentration camps, and committing the cardinal sin of not offering Dobbs a cup of tea when he comes to visit, though pouring herself one. “I’m a battlefield for your toy soldiers,” she proclaims, another in le Carre’s stream of innocents unwittingly caught up in the “game.”
This is dingy rather than tourist London, Battersea power station on the horizon, rain prominent, a murky Embankment, the Thames a river of sludge, dubious pubs in unsavory locations, except for a very English spurt of theatre (a plot point) involving characters with very jolly accents. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the spy’s downfall is “minor human weakness” i.e. falling in love and so it is here, Dobbs’ mental health taking a beating by not just his wife’s unfaithfulness but by remaining faithful to her. Of course, he wouldn’t be the first man to have married out of his league and be unwilling to surrender his prize.
Lumet’s gaze is anything but sentimental. In fact, as much as Dobbs is a master of the spy game, he is a dunce at the game of love, and Lumet does not let him off lightly. Any man who commiserates with his wife’s lover on the grounds that he (said lover) will be hurt when the woman ultimately abandons him, is straight from idiot school.
So this is a far more complex, and human, reflection on the spy game, and it’s not so much about paying the price of being a spy, as occurred with Alec Leamas, than the folly of marrying the wrong woman. You can see how easily Dobbs was seduced by the insane prospect that a beautiful woman had fallen in love with him, rather than, as he must have been trained to do, examining her reasons.
Of course, it’s not unusual for detectives to have miserable home lives and end up as loners, but this was part of a trend (see The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) to see spies not as bed-hoppers of the James Bond variety but as human beings with normal failings. One oddity is that, in line with the Paramount dictat on names, Dobbs’ boss is called “The Adviser” rather than “Control” (although apparently there was such a title in le Carre’s version of the secret service prior to this book).
James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is excellent as brilliant spy/bewildered lover. Harry Andrews (The Hill, 1965) has a ball in a change from his normal taciturn characters. Oscar-winner Maximilian Schell (Topkapi, 1964) is equally convincing but I found Harriet Andersson (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961) too much one-note certainly compared to the riveting performance by Simone Signoret (Is Paris Burning? 1966).
You can spot a string of future stars in a supporting cast led by Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl, 1966), Corin Redgrave (The Girl with a Pistol, 1968) and Kenneth Haigh (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) among older hands like Robert Flemyng (The Blood Beast Terror, 1968), Roy Kinnear (The Hill) and Max Aitken (Henry V, 1944).
Paul Dehn (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) wrote the screenplay based on John le Carre’s novel Call for the Dead, which was written before the book which made the author famous.
The perfect riposte to the James Bond phenomenon. By comparison, a kitchen sink spy drama that challenges the glamorous version of espionage promoted by 007. Had the film been made as soon as the source novel by John Le Carre hit the bestseller charts in 1963 it might have stopped the Bond bandwagon, which didn’t really kick off until Goldfinger (1964), in its tracks. Realistic to the point of cynicism, the innocent are sacrificed in a ruthless chess battle for espionage supremacy.
Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) infiltrates the East German counter-espionage system after purportedly becoming a defector. His intention, however, is to stitch up Mundt (Peter van Eyck), the head of the East German unit, so that he is overthrown. Mundt has been causing too much grief to the British spy network in East Germany, the film opening with Leamas at the Berlin Wall watching an escaping agent being shot trying to pass through Checkpoint Charlie. At the behest of Control (Cyril Cusack), the head of the British spy organization, Leamas pretends to quit the outfit, and playing the embittered card, ends up in prison for assault, on release being surreptitiously recruited by the East Germans as a potential defector.
Initially, the British appear almost too gentlemanly for the vicious spy game, Control almost apologizing (over endless cups of tea) about having to take such ruthless steps. Leamas has a tale he hopes will incriminate Mundt largely through the envy of his subordinate Fiedler (Oskar Werner). But once Leamas falls into the enemy’s hands, the game does not go according to plan. After initial gentle interrogation by Fiedler, the arrival of Mundt causes Leamas to be arrested and then tried for treason. Along the way, Leamas’s naïve girlfriend Nancy (Claire Bloom) is implicated and Leamas realizes he is a patsy, forced into quite a different role, that tests his beliefs.
The British, portrayed in Bond films and every other spy film up till then, as being on the side of the angels, are revealed as being just as heinous as the enemy. All through his defection Leamas is able to snigger at the abominable way the Communist superiors treat their underlings, simple demonstrations of power intended to humiliate at every opportunity, but it is soon apparent that the British are every bit as heartless. There is a very telling scene when Leamas realizes he may well be walking into a trap when his face appears on the front pages of a British newspaper. The look in Leamas’s eyes suggests he knows he has been betrayed.
If you remember Le Carre’s most famous creation George Smiley (Rupert Davies) as a humble man from the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) television series, you will be surprised to discover what depths the man will sink to here.
Oscar-nominated American director Martin Ritt (Hud, 1963) filmed this in black-and-white – even the advertising material was in mono – to remove all sense of glamour. There are no gadgets or girls in bikinis. This is the down-and-dirty version of espionage. And while the British top brass clearly regarded any staff lost as collateral damage, Leamas had a more human, more emotional, response.
Richard Burton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) is superb, received a well-deserved Oscar nomination (his fourth), as a character destroyed by “minor human error” in a world where humanity is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) presents his character is such a way that he comes across as anything but a villain, even his costume has a little bit of the beatnik about it, and he treats his captive with courtesy. Peter van Eyck (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is a more standard German villain, complete with blond hair. Claire Bloom (Three into Two Won’t Go, 1969) has a small but pivotal role as a sweet librarian.
And there’s strength in depth in the supporting cast beginning with Cyril Cusack (Fahrenheit 451, 1966) in a deftly underplayed part. Sam Wanamaker (Warning Shot, 1967) and Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966) are among those routinely humiliated by their paymasters. Also watch out for Rupert Davies (television’s Maigret), Bernard Lee, moonlighting from James Bond duties, Beatrix Lehmann (Psyche ’59) and Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great and Small series 1978-1990).
Also taking time off from Bond duties was screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, 1964) who adapted the novel with the help of Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962).
Paramount boldly opened around the same time as Thunderball in December 1965 and although the fourth Bond proved a box office tsunami, the Martin Ritt picture survived the onslaught and did pretty well.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the number U.S. hardback bestseller of 1964, according to the Publishers Weekly annual chart. That year You Only live Twice by Ian Fleming came eighth, the first time a Bond had appeared in the annual top ten. The following year Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War took the number four spot while The Man with the Golden Gun was seventh. It was the beginning of a mini-boom in spy novels among hardback buyers, and although neither Le Carre nor Fleming featured again during the decade Helen MacInnes placed fifth in 1966 with The Double Image and third with The Salzburg Connection in 1968 while Leon Uris’ Topaz was fourth in 1967.
An unexpected delight. More farce than spoof and more Hitchcockian thriller than espionage adventure, but bursting with laughs. Spinning on the premise of mistaken identity, a New York banker becomes mixed up with diamond smugglers while being pursued by a posse of Europe’s shadiest characters and a very determined femme fatale. All the more enjoyable because identity confusion is very difficult to pull off unless you have a top class cast like Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959).
Landing in Lisbon, New York banker William Beddoes (James Garner) is mistaken for the emergency replacement for a recently-deceased British spy. It’s not just embassy officials like Hatton Jones (Robert Coote) who are afflicted by this notion, the villains are so determined to get rid of their man two bombs are planted in his car. Attending his supposed predecessor’s funeral brings Beddoes into contact with glamorous Aurora (Melina Mercouri). Smuggler Steve (Anthony Franciosca) offers his service to Beddoes to help recover $5 million in stolen industrial diamonds. To complicate matters, identity is also an issue for Steve, who while working under an assumed name is outed by Amy (Sandra Dee) who recognizes him as her family’s former gardener.
Unable to convince anyone he is not who he says he is, Beddoes is swept into the conspiracy, his every move under surveillance by rival villains, including Florian (Gregoire Aslan) and Milo the Murderer (Arnold Diamond), while Aurora attempts seduction to bring him to heel. Eventually, while never ruling out double-cross, Beddoes, Aurora, Steve, Amy and embassy officials work together to decipher a series of clues revolving around rice, azaleas, a red pig and a man who sneezes, none of which align with obvious meanings and naturally are interpreted as something to do Red China or the Iron Curtain.
A picture based on a simple premise is better than a spoof that labors to create a plot and so it’s true here. Everything springs from the mistaken identity and the diamond hunt, and as one twist effortlessly follows another characters with conflicting agendas collide. Beddoes spends all his time trying to escape from kidnap, assassination or seduction. It’s helter-skelter stuff, so no surprise that chases, of the Buster Keaton variety, produce laughs. I found myself laughing out loud at the scene where Steve can’t find anywhere to sit in a café that is not next to a villain, Beddoes getting attacked by drapes, an ambassador (Cecil Parker) more concerned with knotty chess problems than espionage, and a great visual gag where Beddoes wallops a cop. Escaping pursers, Steve takes a short cut that leads him straight back into danger.
Naturally, the whole enterprise is loaded with confusion, not least because making the wrong decision, taking the wrong turn and making the wrong assumption sets up the next gag. Throw in ambulance theft, Beddoes sitting in a row of hookers in jail, a tape recording turning up in a bread roll and you get the idea.
The cast could have been hand-picked for this kind of picture. James Garner (The Hour of the Gun, 1967) is the natural successor to Cary Grant in the double-take department. This role is a play on previous ones where he was the trickster and not the patsy. He’s more stiff-upper-lip than the Brits. Comedy skills honed on this one that were put to terrific use in Support Your Local Sherriff (1969). And while Melina Mercouri (Topkapi, 1964) is more than a little over-the-top, the dominant woman from whom ordinarily Beddoes would run a mile, but also possessing the cunning survival instincts lacking in an innocent like him. One scene that depicts their contrasting characters so well is when she runs around half-naked to create a diversion and he chases after trying to cover her up, clearly no idea that distraction is necessary.
Tony Franciosca (The Swinger, 1966) leads with his teeth, his smarminess undercut by Sandra Dee reminding him he is a glorified gardener. Dee (Tammy and the Doctor, 1964), however, never manages to stray from her ingénue roots. An excellent supporting cast includes Robert Coote (The Swinger), Gregoire Aslan (Moment to Monet, 1966), Cecil Parker (A Study in Terror, 1965). This was British actress Dulcie Gray’s final film.
The movie had a fractured genesis. Original director Cliff Owen (The Vengeance of She, 1968) fell out with the stars and was shunted aside in favor of Ronald Neame (Gambit, 1966), more adept at male-female chicanery. The screenplay originated from comedic masters – Richard Breen (Do Not Disturb, 1965) and T.E.B. Clarke (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951) – based on the book Diamonds for Danger by David E. Walker. And there are many delightful lines. “I’m my own bait,” spouts Aurora. Trying to placate Amy, Steve explains “It’s unusual to find this many dead spies in one day.”
The movie failed to register with the public which was astonishing. At a time when theme songs helped turn other films like Alfie (1965) into successes, the movie contained the tune that would give Frank Sinatra his first number one single in over a decade, “Strangers in the Night.” Unfortunately, the movie did not carry Sinatra’s imprimatur. The music in the film was an instrumental. Had Sinatra’s voice been heard in the movie it might have turned it into a hit.
For a long time, this under-rated delightful comedy was hard to find. There still is not a Region 1 DVD, but you can find it on Region 2 and YouTube has kindly provided a free copy.