Deadlier than the Male (1967) ****

Now revealed as the first film seen by Quentin Tarantino – at the age of five.

For a movie intended to set up a series character in the vein of James Bond, it was ironic that it was the women who stole the show, not just from their tendency to turn up in bikinis but for their outrageous villainy. Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina) are the seductive assassins in the hire of Carl Petersen (Nigel Green) who has designs on an Arab oil empire. On her own Irma dispatches mogul Henry Keller (Dervis Ward) then the pair – emerging from the sea like a pair of latter-day Ursula Andresses – harpoon his colleague Wyngarde (John Stone).   

Soon Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), investigating the death of Wyngarde, becomes a target  and that sets him off, with nephew Robert (Steve Carlson) in tow,  to the Mediterranean and the yacht of oil-rich King Fedra (Zia Mohyeddin) where, of course, the girls lie in wait.

Dispensing with the gadgets – except for one item employed by the villainesses – and gimmicks of Bond, but retaining the quips, this is a fun ride with a more down-to-earth leading man – like the early Bonds – smarter girls, a more old-fashioned mystery, a hefty thug Chang (Milton Reid)  in the Oddjob mold, a castle doubling as the villain’s lair, a suave master criminal, some detective work, and a super scene involving giant robotic chess men.

The bickering between Irma and Penelope, who is not just a tad sadistic but a kleptomaniac especially as far as her partner is concerned, coupled with their overweening confidence, makes them much more human than any Bond Girl and the character traits explored have a pay-off at the climax. Equally interesting are the mind games, Drummond vs. Peterson but also Drummond vs. Irma. And that the female baddies see it as points on their scoreboard to seduce Drummond rather than the other way round.

Drummond is every bit as capable a seducer as Bond and equally ruthless, stripping a suspect naked. Petersen is also a clever character, faking his own death and running a very smooth operation, and certainly his recruitment techniques are second to none.

Some ideas were certainly ahead of their time, the chess men are the equivalent of a modern computer game while the human bomb has, unfortunately, entered the modern lexicon and there are enough female serial killers around to prevent anyone believing they are always (to use an outmoded sexist phrase) the gentle sex. However, in the middle 1960s, the concept that women would be partial to murder and torture not to mention repeatedly seducing males went so much against the grain of the male authority figures that the British censor slapped an X-certificate on the movie.

Shakespearian actor Richard Johnson was a one time MGM contract player, but his only previous top-billed outing was the Italian-made The Witch (1966). He certainly made a splash with this character, investing it with a great deal more gravitas than Flint or Helm. The Teutonic Elke Sommer (The Venetian Affair, 1966) is brilliant as one half of the assassin tag-team with a batch of one-liners for every occasion. Sylva Koscina (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), nose always put out of joint, almost steals the show.  Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), while his usual sardonic self, has the playfulness of the rich and powerful.

Steve Carlsen, in his movie debut, doesn’t make much of an impact in a largely lame role. Zia Mohyeddin has a more interesting part as the oil kingpin wanting to help his people. As you can expect in a spy picture there are a host of beautiful women – Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) a defector, Virginia North, also making her debut, Justine Lord (Night after Night after Night, 1969), and Didi Sydow in her only screen appearance.

The light comedy experience of director Ralph Thomas (Doctor in Distress, 1963) comes is very handy, as his sense of comic timing is excellent, but, perhaps learning from his previous brush with espionage in Agent 8¾ / Hot Enough for June (1964) brings a bigger punch to the action scenes. And it’s a bold ploy to start with an action sequence revolving around Irma and Penelope rather than our star man.

The screenplay was a team effort – Jimmy Sangster (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964), taking a break from Hammer duties, David D. Osborn (Maroc 7, 1967) and Liz Charles-Williams, making her screen debut  – all involved.  This was familiar territory for composer Malcolm Lockyer (Five Golden Men, 1967). British pop act The Walker Brothers had a hit with the theme tune.

This is more fun than camp, not a send-up of the genre like Derek Flint and Matt Helm, but a spy picture with a believable leading men and excellent villains. But the plot is more centred on filthy lucre rather than global control and there is a genuine understanding of how businesses work – takeovers, mergers, dirty dealings – though small wonder Petersen would like to be shot of pedantic boardroom nuisances like Bridgenorth (Leonard Rossiter) – wouldn’t we all?

Bulldog Drummond was an international crime-buster invented by “Sapper,” the pen-name of H.C. McNeile. Bulldog Drummond had been a Hollywood mainstay for over four decades, the twenty-plus pictures attracting stars like Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond, 1929, and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, 1934), Ray Milland (Bulldog Drummond Escapes, 1937), Walter Pidgeon (Calling Bulldog Drummond, 1951) and a young Ralph Richardson (The Return of Bulldog Drummond, 1934). But the notion, in the Swinging Sixties, of tagging any leading man by the moniker of ‘Bulldog’ did not seem like a good idea, so the character underwent wholesale reinvention and his nickname is never mentioned.  

The title comes from a line in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, The Female of the Species. That was the original title of the film and also of a Sapper book.

You can get his on a double bill with the sequel Some Girls Do from Network at a very reasonable price. Will be reviewing Some Girls Do next.

This Sporting Life (1963) ****

What began as the last gasp of the British New Wave working class kitchen sink drama has now after a six-decade gap resolved into a struggle over political and sexual ownership. Macho athlete Frank Machin (Richard Harris) jibes against his paymasters at a Yorkshire rugby league club – in similar fashion to Charlton Heston in Number One (1969) –  while trying to hold sway over widowed landlady Margaret (Rachel Roberts). While documenting the class divide over which British writers and directors obsess, Lindsay Anderson’s debut takes a wry look at power.

Machin belongs to the Arthur Seaton (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) class of loudmouth boors, determined to take as much as they can, riding roughshod over anyone who gets in their way, even attacking players of his own team. Although a fan favorite, his position at the club still requires backing from the moneyed directors, support that appears go awry when he rejects overtures from Mrs Weaver (Vanda Godsell), wife of a board director (Alan Badel). While Margaret eventually succumbs, her actions fill her with shame, the presents he buys making her feel like a kept woman.

Both Machin and Margaret are the rawest of creatures, forever appearing ready to topple into some emotional crevasse of their own making. At a time when marriage was the rock of society and women had little independence, a woman could dwindle away in face of scorn from neighbours, while a man lacking emotional intelligence would crumble in the face of his own fears.

The non-linear narrative blurs some aspects of the story. There is no reference to Machin’s background save that he was once a miner and still works somewhere unspecified to supplement his footballer’s income. He rejects the paternalism of ageing scout Johnson (William Hartnell) while appears to be seeking to resolve maternal issues, the widow with two small children at least a decade older, and although he could easily afford better accommodation refuses to move out.

His obsession with Margaret is never properly explained, except by her, who sees him as acting like an owner. Equally, Margaret is the opposite of the women in virtually every movie of the period, for whom marriage is the sole ambition. Whether she still grieves over the loss of her factory worker husband, who may have committed suicide, or loathes Machin’s dominant nature is never explained. It might have been better if they had married for unhappy husbands and wives tend to give each other both barrels, emotions never concealed. Or she could be in the throes of an undiagnosed depression – author David Storey suffered from this all his life – expressed as anger.

Machin is the other side of the British Dream – the assumption that anyone who escapes going down the pits or the mindless grind of the factory will automatically enjoy happiness. While Machin revels in his celebrity, he has no idea how to make his life happier. This is in contrast to the other footballers who either enjoy womanizing and drinking or are married or engaged and accept the unwritten rules of the game rather than fighting everyone.

There is plenty grime on show, and the football field has never been so pitilessly portrayed, and as a social document the movie fits in well to the small sub-genre of films depicting working class life, but the picture’s thrust remains that of two opposites who will clearly never meet except in the delusional head of Machin.

Power is demonstrated in various ways. Weaver has the clout to give Machin a hefty signing-on fee against the wishes of the board, Weaver’s wife takes her pick of the footballers to satisfy her sexual needs, Machin believes he is entitled to berate waiters in an upmarket restaurant, while Margaret is demeaned by accepting his present of a fur coat.

As ever with these films of the early 1960s there is a wealth of acting talent. Both Harris and Roberts were Oscar-nominated. Others making a splash in the cast were Alan Badel (Arabesque, 1966), Colin Blakely (The Vengeance of She, 1968), Jack Watson (The Hill, 1965), and if look closely you will spot double Oscar-winner Glenda Jackson (Women in Love, 1969). Future television stalwarts included William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who), Arthur Lowe (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977), Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp, 1974-1978), Frank Windsor (Softly, Softly, 1966-1969) and George Sewell (Paul Temple, 1969-1971).

Lindsay Anderson (If… 1969) no doubt believed he was making an excoriating drama about the class struggle, but in fact has delivered a classic thwarted love story. David Storey wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.

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