With astonishing rapidity, not to mention alarming ferocity, Hollywood took the release of Dr No as the starting pistol to a silly spy spoof celluloid race to out-Bond Bond himself. Top of the uber-007 pile has to be James Coburn’s brilliant, aloof, ultra-suave freelance spy Derek Flint. When staff agent 0008 isn’t available, the US government goes cap in hand to Flint’s luxury Manhattan apartment, full of art treasures and high-haired ‘playmates’, to beg for his help in dealing with a trio of white-coated scientists manufacturing global warming from their remote island base in an attempt to force unilateral nuclear disarmament, with the help of Edward Mulhare as a bludgeon-handed henchman with the brilliantly ‘Briddish’ name of Malcolm Rodney.
The highly cultures, chess-playing Flint is a damn sight more cosmopolitan than your vodka-swilling, baccarat-playing, yet still undoubtedly Tory-voting, Bond. From karate to chess, he’s the master, managing to annoy the audience, his enemies and even his employers with his ludicrous precocity. He blithely rejects the standard issue Walther PPK for his own, superior arsenal of lethally absurd gadgetry, which includes an 82-function lighter (83 if you use it to light cigarettes), a wristwatch microscope and a safecracking stethoscope implanted in a shirt collar, among other miniaturised marvels from the Espionage Innovations catalogue.
When transistorised help fails, he can get out of a sticky situation by stopping his heart at will. He gets some condensed pre-mission kip by sleeping thus, supported only at head and feet by two antique dining chairs. (He’s wakened from this Spartan slumber by a bevy of flatsharing beauties, of course – self-denial isn’t that big a deal.) Best of all, after an attempted assassination with a poison dart (fired from a concert harp, of course) he analyses the characteristic traces of garlic and herbs on the tip and tracks his assassin down to a specific Marseilles club via a whirlwind gastronomic tour of southern France, just in time for a fist fight with old pal 0008. Flint appeals to anyone who finds Bond’s unlikely mixture of gritty espionage and pompous high living ridiculous, a secret agent who’d rather relax in erudite splendour than drop kick a jump-suited henchman off a gantry.
The problem with even the best Bond spoof is of course the eternal question: surely Bond himself was a spoof? Well, yes, but those films – until they went for all-out Goodies-esque daftness in the seventies – did at least keep up some pretence of playing with a straight bat. No such seriousness for Flint: he’s suave, disinterested and smugly capable to a cartoonish extent, and no-one could convey the mix of Rat Pack cool and Bugs Bunny superciliousness better than the heavy-lidded, eternally-underrated Coburn. And he may be working for the Establishment, but he’s hip! Whereas Bond was always more a creation of the pipe-and-sweatered ’50s, Flint’s world is as groovy as they come. Go-go girls litter the screen, Flint’s playmates fall victim to a switched-on sex cult and become ‘pleasure units’, split-level bachelor pads pling with perspex plushness, and even the spy organisation – Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage – has a pleasingly diggable acronym. And, need it be said, the thing looks ludicrously lavish, seeing Dr No‘s million dollars and raising it another half dozen, at least. Sod the International Laws of Parody, why can’t decorative daftness beget ever more decorative, ever dafter daftness? And Mike Myers fans note – you heard that “diddle-ah, diddle-ooh, diddle-ee, diddle-um-dum-dah” emergency telephone ring here first.