Spy Girls

If you’ve not already come across Cinema Retro magazine – now celebrating 18 years of publication –  or its various Special Issues you are in for a treat. Spy Girls fell under its “Foto Files Special Edition” portfolio and includes over 200 illustrations of the actresses who dominated the wave of espionage pictures in the 1960s and to a lesser extent the 1970s.

As well as focusing on the leading female stars in every series film – James Bond, Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Bulldog Drummond, The Man from Uncle and Harry Palmer – the magazine also pay tribute to the wide variety of starlets who appeared in bit parts such as Zena Marshall (Dr No, 1962), Aliza Gur (From Russia with Love, 1963), Shirley Eaton and Margaret Nolan (Goldfinger, 1964) Molly Peters (Thunderball, 1965) and Gila Golan (Our Man Flint, 1966).

However, in the main the concentration is on the flood of European actresses who set Hollywood agog following multiple appearances in spy pictures. Beginning with original Swiss-born Bond girl Ursula Andress (Dr No and Casino Royale, 1967, the magazine features every actress who had a starring role in the mainstream spy films. Some, of course, seemed very comfortable in the genre with roles in several pictures.

Leading that particular parade were Italian Daniela Bianchi who, after her spy debut in From Russia with Love, was seen in Slalom (1965), Operation Gold (1966), Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966), Requiem for a Secret Agent (1966) and Operation Kid Brother (1967). Matching her was Austrian Senta Berger, caught in The Secret Ways (1961), The Spy with My Face (1965), Our Man in Marrakesh (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), The Ambushers (1967) and Istanbul Express (1968).

Not far behind came Israeli Daliah Lavi who lit up the screen in The Silencers (1966), The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Nobody Runs Forever (1968) and Some Girls Do (1969). German Elke Sommer was another regular, headlining The Venetian Affair (1967), The Corrupt Ones (1967), Deadlier than the Male (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1968.) Also a regular in the genre was Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina with Hot Enough for June/Agent 8¾ (1964), That Man in Istanbul (1965), Agent X-77 Orders to Kill (1966) and Deadlier than the Male (1967)

Canadian Beverly Adams featured three times in the Matt Helm series, in The Silencers, Murderers Row (1966) and The Ambushers (1967). Czechoslovakian Barbara Bouchet turned up in Agent for H.A.R.M (1966), Casino Royale and Danger Route (1967) and Austrian Marisa Mell had top roles in Masquerade (1965), Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966) and Danger:Diabolik (1968). Another three-peater was Rome-born Luciana Paluzzi – To Trap a Spy (1964), Thunderball (1965) and The Venetian Affair (1967) – not forgetting Swede Camilla Sparv in Murderers Row (1966), Assignment K (1968) and Nobody Runs Forever (1968).

No study on the girls involved in espionage over these two decades would be complete without mention of Raquel Welch for Fathom (1967), Monica Vitti in Modesty Blaise (1966), Honor Blackman in Goldfinger and Britt Ekland in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). The occasional American leavened the pot – Jill St John appearing in The Liquidator (1966) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Lana Wood also in the latter. 

The extensive illustrations include stills, and photographs of the stars relaxing on set or setting up a shot, as well as a veritable archive of posters from virtually every country in the world, often with substantially different artwork to the originals. In addition, articles on the main actresses are included as well as snippets of information on the lesser stars.

Priced at just £6.95 / $11.99 this might make a nice Xmas filler.

http://www.cinemaretro.com/index.php?/archives/8048-COMING-FROM-CINEMA-RETRO-SPY-GIRLS-FOTO-FILES-ISSUE-1.html

The Scorpio Letters (1967) ***

Desultory spy thriller with over-complicated story that’s worth a look mostly for the performance of Alex Cord (Stiletto, 1969). I can’t say I was a big fan of Cord and I certainly didn’t shower him with praise for his role as a disillusioned Mafia hitman in Stiletto. But now I’m wondering if I have been guilty of under-rating him.

Normally, critics line up to acclaim actors if they deliver widely differing performances – Daniel Day-Lewis considered the touchstone in this department after Room with a View and My Beautiful Launderette opened in New York on the same day in 1985. But usually screen persona rarely changes, amounting to little more than a heightened or amalgamated version of the actor’s character or features. Once Charles Bronson, for example, started wearing his drooping mustache he was never seen without.  Actors may grow old, but never bald.

The macho mustachioed Cord of Stiletto is nowhere in sight. In fact, in The Scorpio Letters minus moustache and resisting attempts to reveal his musculature, he is almost unrecognizable. In this picture Joe Christopher (Alex Cord) is flip, resentful, thoughtful, occasionally pedantic, more natural than many of the crop of Hollywood new stars being unveiled at the time, and for once as a transplanted American in London rather scornful of British traditions. There’s a realistic flourish here, too, he is so poorly paid – and on a temporary contract – that he has to take the bus. And although he is an ex-cop fired for brutality, that level of violence ain’t on show here. Virtually the opposite of the character Cord created for Stiletto, I’m sure you’ll agree. So full marks for versatility and talent.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is not up to much, at the very bottom of the three-star review category, almost toppling into two-star territory. Christopher is investigating the death of a British agent who was the subject of a blackmail attempt. By coincidence – or perhaps not – another part of British Intelligence is investigating the same death and this brings Christopher into contact with Phoebe Stewart (Shirley Eaton) and eventually they work together to unravel a list of codenames and uncover the conspiracy with a bit of risk to life and limb.

But the pay-off doesn’t work despite all the exposition attempting to build it up and you’re left with a kind of drawing-room drama rather than exciting spy adventure. It’s determinedly London-centric with red buses, red postboxes, Big Ben, and The Horse Guards all putting in an appearance. The scene shifts to Paris and Nice without a commensurate heightening of tension. Despite a couple of neat scenes – a chase held up behind a wedding party, an irate German chef, an interrogation in a wine cellar – it’s much too formulaic.

Cord apart, Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger, 1964) adds some glamour, but her rounded portrait depicts a character with warmth rather than oozing sex. This is the kind of film that should be awash with character actors and up-and-comers but I recognized few names except for Danielle De Metz (The Karate Killers, 1967), Oscar Beregi (Morituri, 1965) and Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963).

One-time top MGM megger Richard Thorpe (The Truth about Spring, 1965) was coming to the end of a distinguished career which had included Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953). This was his penultimate film. The appropriately-named Adrian Spies (Dark of the Sun, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the Victor Canning thriller. Making his movie debut was composer Dave Grusin (Divorce American Style, 1967)

Albeit made on a budget of just $900,000, MGM intended the picture for theatrical release but with a short cinema window to make it available for a speedy showing on ABC TV. It was originally scheduled for a May 1967 theatrical release but MGM, contractually obliged to deliver the picture within a specified time to television, could not fit in an American release. So it made its debut in the “Sunday Night at the Movies” slot on February 19, 1967, and was shown in cinemas abroad. Nor was it shown first on U.S. television because the studio believed it to be a disaster. Reviews were positive. Variety (February 22, 1967, page 42) called it “very hip.”

Carry On Nurse (1960) ***

There was no greater divide between audiences and critics in Britain than the long-running comedy “Carry On” series (outside of an occasional satirical bulls-eye like Carry On Up the Khyber (1968). And a similar gulf existed between the type of audiences the movies attracted in Britain and those in America. In Britain they were vastly popular general releases while in America their usual habitat was the arthouse as if they were seen as the natural successors to the Ealing comedies. And there was a third chasm – between the endearing risqué early comedies and the more lascivious later versions.

Carry On Nurse fell into the endearing camp. The humor was gentle rather than forced, the emphasis on misunderstanding and innuendo and smooth seducers like Leslie Phillips rather than exposed female flesh and the grasping likes of the ever-chortling Sid James. Perhaps you could define this earlier film as pre-nasal Kenneth Williams, his peculiar type of delivery not yet at full throttle. Here there is innocence rather than lust and the males quake in fear not just of the indomitable Hattie Jacques in brusque matron mode but of the other efficient nurses led by Shirley Eaton who have the measure of their rather hapless patients, although student nurse Joan Sims – making her series debut – is an accident-prone soul.

The action is mostly confined to a male ward. There are plenty of gags – alarms rung by mistake, boiling catheters burned to a turn, medication making a patient go wild, patients intoxicated by laughing gas and the famous replacement of a rectal thermometer by a daffodil. Wilfred Hyde-White as a constant complainer and obsessive radio listener Charles Hawtrey provide further ongoing amusement.  

But the thrust of the story is romance. Journalist Terence Longdon fancies Shirley Eaton but his initial advances are spurned as she is in love with a doctor. In a role far removed from his later brazen characters, Williams plays a shy intellectual who finally comes round to the charms of Jill Ireland (later wife of Charles Bronson). Although Leslie Phillips is his usual suave self, he makes no designs on the female staff since he has a girlfriend elsewhere and  his ailment – a bunion on the bum – makes him an unlikely candidate for a hospital liaison.  

Hattie Jacques is in imperious form, Shirley Eaton shows what she is capable of, Kenneth Williams playing against type is a revelation.  

The story of how Carry On Nurse unexpectedly conquered America is told tomorrow in  “Follow that Nurse.”

Note: by and large this blog follows American release dates so although Carry On Nurse was shown in Britain in 1959 it did not reach America until 1960.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

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