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Films: W is for...

Where the Spies Are

You couldn’t throw a stick in a cinema during the ’60s and ’70s without a) getting done for common assault, and b) hitting some kind of comedy spy spoof riffing on (or, if you prefer, ripping off) the popularity of that man in the bowtie and shapeless, ill-fitting rug. This film’s a prime example, with David Niven as a mild-mannered doctor drawn into MI6 work with the promise of a vintage car, but it’s just one of many – some rather good, many mediocre, and probably just as many absolutely abysmal. As you may already have guessed from the unwieldy length of this billing, we’re going to have a go at listing them. Spacebars at the ready! First off, TV movies adapted from Bond-aping series like Get Smart and The Man From UNCLE don’t count, and neither, for reasons of space more than anything else, do out and out ’80s jokefests like Top Secret!, Spies Like Us and, er, Leonard Part 6. Mind you, we’ve mentioned them there, so that’s that scheme knackered. Anyway. The stand-alone film franchises proved surprisingly durable. The two Flint films are great for Coburn’s meaty presence of course, and the Matt Helm series are lairily sporadic fun too, though Dean Martin’s presence is a little too meaty, in the physical sense. Dean’s Rat Pack chums showed up in ill-advised effort Salt and Pepper, in which an ageing Sammy Davis (Charles Salt) and Peter Lawford (Chris Pepper) are a pair of Soho nightclub owners inducted by John Le Mesurier into the British secret service and subsequently gallivanting around the Home Counties in a gadget-heavy car. A sequel, One More Time, was directed by Jerry Lewis and was even more useless, featuring Lawford in a duel role as his upper class British cousin and, apropos absolutely nothing whatsoever, a bit of business where Sammy Davis opens a secret passage behind a bookcase to discover Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in costume as Frankenstein and Dracula. That sounds as bad as it gets, but sadly it ain’t. If Casino Royale’s the summit of the genre (and for the sake of a non-argument let’s just assume it is for now), what marks the bottom of the barrell? Well, there’s No Secrets! of course, but arguably even worse than that Ollie Reed cock-up is the Bond-oriented canon of zero-budget schlock peddler Lindsay Shonteff, who started early in ’65 with Licensed to Kill, which boasted a Sammy Davis theme song and Tom ‘DFS’ Adams as a rather callous secret agent who shot Russians from under his coat. Later efforts by the man were more downmarket – a Modesty Blaise-style saucy female spy called Harriet Zapper made a couple of shabby entries (in hot competition with Pete Walker’s Tiffany Jones, starring a semi-clad Anouska Hempel), and turned Len Deighton’s fifth Harry Palmer book into a mess starring Nicholas Parsons and Nigel ‘Fish Slice’ Plaskitt, before hitting on a more ‘hard boiled’ (read – drearily violent) comic spy character in Charles Bind, played variously by Nicky Henson and Gareth Hunt, before the repeal of the Eady Levy put a stop to such wanton shoestring abandon. Back in the ’60s, Dirk Bogarde played a mild-mannered codebreaker adrift in Swinging London in Sebastian (theme song by Anita Harris!) after playing similarly hapless secret agent 008 3/4 for Ralph ‘Doctor’ Thomas in iron curtain romp Hot Enough for June. Thomas later tried to revive decrepit detective Bulldog Drummond in a couple of Euro-trotting, bikini-stuffing capers featuring the decorative likes of Elke Sommer and Daliah Lavi. Slightly higher up the Swingingometer are the various Hitchcock pastiches, from Stanley Donen’s uncopyrighted Charade through the London-based Arabesque and Frank ‘Hare Remover’ Tashlin’s masterfully daffy Caprice, with lashings of hairspray and a literally swinging double bed. More downbeat but no less daft was Hopscotch, with Walter Matthau as a retiring cantankerous CIA agent releasing dynamite secrets to the world chapter by chapter, and legging it across the globe avoiding recriminations in the process. A couple of rogue gems in the genre were The Spy with a Cold Nose, Galton and Simpson’s bugged bulldog caper with Lionel Jeffries agog at a scantily clad Daliah ‘In these sorts of films a lot’ Lavi, and the truly mad The In-Laws, in which mild-mannered orthodontist Alan Arkin invites nutball father of his prospective son-in-law Peter Falk to dinner, resulting in him becoming an unwitting stooge in the latter’s currency printing scam, leading to a precipitous flight to a ludicrous South American banana republic presided over by Richard ‘the swami off of All of Me’ Libertini’s screwball general, complete with second-in-command hand puppet. Getting down to the dregs, Matchless saw the world’s spies (led by Donald Pleasence) converging on Patrick ‘Once the Killing Starts’ O’Neal and his invisibility ring, S*P*Y*S got severely limited mileage out of a bumbling Donald Sutherland/Elliot Gould partnership, while Out of Sight was a beach party UNCLE rip-off replete with secret organisation FLUSH and a Freddie and the Dreamers concert. Our favourite spoof? Well, Royale aside (if indeed you can put Royale aside), we’d have to go for The President’s Analyst, although that does occupy a sort of dual nationality with the whole Cold War conspiracy genre. In fact these two formats, along with possibly the crime caper, must constitute the richest vein of largely unheralded films we know of, as they’re overflowing with more funny, colourful, misguided and plain mad examples than any other area of filmdom you may care to mention.

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  1. George White

    December 23, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Hopscotch has a scene where Walter Matthau is disguised in Michael Bates-esque brownface in a London bookshop trying to buy the book he has written, while standing in front of a very noticeable promotional stand for Mitchell Beazley non-fiction.
    Also has Bullet Baxter, and Herbert Lom in an Oktoberfest scene vaguely like one in the Pink Panther Strikes Again without the comedy assassins.

  2. George White

    August 27, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    The new Man from UNCLE is very vanilla, and the two leads are charisma vacuums. A David Menkin has been in a noir short by Madtv writer BRAD KAAYA, the Man from Uncle and ALien ABduction by the ludicrously named Leroy Hedgepeth, a friend of my Kelsey ZUlowski

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