By James David Patrick
Unfortunately for fans of the genre, the most unique of the James Bond imitators to arise in the latter half of the 1960s remain difficult to view. The espionage genre in general doesn’t get much respect outside of 007 and the occasional mini-series based on a John le Carre novel. I’ve made some inquiries with independent BD/DVD distributors about specific titles and they all give me variations of the same general response: “That stuff doesn’t sell.”
Counterpoint: Does it not sell because nobody knows these movies exist?
I must be stubborn or blind to the world around me, but I believe that 2019 audiences still enjoy the clandestine arts of megalomania, quippy men in bespoke suits, and wildly inefficient research and design departments. James Bond is the name we know, but there’s also Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Dick Malloy, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, and many, many, many others. In fact, there’s an exhaustive 308 back Eurospy Guide to help fans navigate the once prolific genre. Most of these films were cheap, fewer were competent – but almost all wore their specific charms on their sleeve like a boutonnière equipped with poison darts. The Netflix DVD service likewise doesn’t carry films that won’t woo subscribers, and subscribers can’t be wooed if they don’t know about the movies at their fingertips and readily available to view on home video.
As someone who’s been writing about these movies for approaching a decade, I’ve seen dozens (hundreds?) of these films and feel that it’s my duty to increase your desire to dig deeper into the spy film of the 1960s, the golden era of the genre.
High concept, live-action cartoon starring Doris Day and Rod Taylor. Other than a couple of scenes, the titular glass-bottomed boat remains irrelevant in this caper involving spies and outer space. Doris Day might not be the first lady of espionage, but The Glass Bottom Boat serves up a Technicolor romp through well-established spy tropes with a wink and a smile.
Tashlin (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) often undermined societal norms from within popular genre films and by casting Doris Day he’s provided the perfect mouthpiece for some sly gender politics and the opportunity for Day to let down her hair and smudge her wholesome on-screen persona.
Doris Day’s other spy caper directed by Frank Tashlin, Caprice (1967), lacks in narrative but excels at fashion and mod eye candy. It’s not as well-liked as The Glass Bottom Boat, but the pair makes for a fantastic double feature.
There's nothing special about Salt and Pepper… except Sammy Davis, Jr. (and his natural rapport with Peter Lawford). The duo has no special powers or gadgets (other than wearing a dashing cravat) and they appear to lack any discernible tact when it comes to being agents of espionage, inadvertent or otherwise. But here's the thing about characters in these late-1960s Bond spinoffs and regurgitations -- by this point they're not trying to be James Bond… or even in this instance capable humans. The "spy" genre became a receptacle for any manner of narrative laziness, and Salt and Pepper displays all the telltale signs of a movie without any real motivation or reason for existing.
Producer Milton Ebbins and Richard Donner had the good sense, however, to capitalize on one of the most charismatic and likable humans on the planet in Sammy Davis. Donner sprinkled knowing cliches throughout the film and provided scenery to chew and nightclubs in which to go-go. The spy films of the late ‘60s may not have generally had much going on upstairs, but they knew how to have a good time. Your opinion of Salt and Pepper will depend on how much you care to indulge this pair as they "solve" the murder of a MI5. They're the worst kind of Inspector Clousseaus – but they're swinging and know how to have a good time. Sometimes that's all that matters.
Fun fact: Bond producer Cubby Broccoli was the best man at Cary Grant’s wedding and wanted Grant to play James Bond in Dr. No (1962). Although Grant had agreed in principal, he demanded that his contract include only one film due to his age – which was 58 in 1962. The Bond producers wanted to lock in a multi-picture agreement with their “James Bond” and so they moved on to Sean Connery.
North by Northwest (1959) and Charade give us a taste of what Grant would have been like as James Bond. Suave, tanned, perfectly debonair with an unpredictable streak of mischief. The film itself stands as landmark cinema – witty, charming, thrilling and utterly cinematic. Who is Peter Joshua (and is he actually named Peter Joshua?) and why does he concern himself with the goons coming after Regina Lampert’s inheritance? Calling it anything other than one of the most enjoyable films of the 1960s would be selling Charade short.
This light Eurocrime deep cut features a stellar cast, an Ennio Morricone score, a nod to the French heist classic Rififi (1955), and a mess of pure entertainment. A Rio de Janeiro history professor retires and sets out to find an old friend with special skills. During his 30 years behind the desk, he’s planned a perfect $10 million diamond heist. The duo assembles a team of skilled eccentrics and goes after the loot.
Performance and patience makes the movie. It wouldn’t surprise me if Steven Soderbergh had internalized large chunks of this film before making Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Rooted in procedure and personality, the roster of stars including Janet Leigh, Adolfo Celi, Klaus Kinski, Robert Hoffman, and Edward G. Robinson get to samba through real-time heists and double crosses, and it’s a shame that people have never quite caught on to Grand Slam.
Not quite a clandestine operation, per say, Petri’s psychedelic satire of culturally-endorsed violence borrows liberally from the spy genre and almost certainly giftwrapped a number of gags for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).
10th Victim depicts the farcical nature of the television media's glorification of sex and violence played out in the streets of Rome in the 1960s. The game’s afoot. Will the relentless hunter (Andress) best the self-assured hunted (Marcello Mastroianni)? This proto-Hunger Games/Running Man/Battle Royale amplifies dark comedy and mod and fabulous fashion rather than the tragedy. As a result, we witness Ursula Andress in go-go boots and Fembot-caliber brassiere mowing down ogling masses of men too blind to see that death comes in the form of a masked Honey Rider.
James David Patrick is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a movie-watching problem. He has a degree in Film Studies from Emory University that gives him license to discuss Russian Shakespeare adaptations at cocktail parties. You’ll find him crate diving at local record shops. James blogs about movies, music, and ‘80s nostalgia at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. Follow him on Twitter @007hertzrumble, Instagram, and Facebook.