Tag Archive for super spies

Who Is Duncan Jax?

Ian Hunter as Duncan Jax in Unmasking the Idol (1986)

The amazing Duncan Jax made his cinematic debut in 1986 at the height of the G.I. Joe craze. The syndicated cartoon was still going strong, and the Joes even had their own breakfast cereal (Action Stars!). Just like the “Real American Heroes”, the world of Duncan Jax was a crazed mix of military gunfondling, super spy silliness, ninjas, and a baboon. Yep, baboon.

Unmasking the Idol (1986) is the first Duncan Jax adventure, with Ian Hunter as the secret agent / greatest ninja in the world. The story was conceived by producer Robert P. Eaton, whose own personal backstory will come back to haunt these films in a later installment. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, involving stolen gold presumably going to be used by evil ninja Scarlet Leader to purchase nuclear weapons to spark World War III. As if that wasn’t enough of a stake for Duncan, he’s also told in his mission briefing that Scarlet Leader is working with Goldtooth, the German arch-nemesis who killed his parents. That really baits the hook for ol’ Duncan.

Director Worth Keeter laid the groundwork here for his future as a director for over a hundred episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and related series. He’s got some other worthy credits, including the Sybil Danning / Wings Hauser vehicle L.A. Bounty and Pamela Anderson’s debut feature Snapdragon, so I’m sure we’ll be revisiting his outstanding oeuvre again someday.

Like many James Bond films, both Duncan Jax adventures begin in medias res, with Duncan showing off during some unrelated mission. We then get our requisite mission briefing from Star (C.K. Bibby) and a gearing-up phase with Shangtai Tuan playing the Q-role as the exasperated Sato. Missions like these NEVER go off as planned, so both films feature supporting casts of miscellaneous allies and enemies for Duncan Jax to berate, scowl at, or seduce, sometimes all three.

Below is the opening title sequence from the West German release of
Unmasking the Idol, curiously retitled Duncan Jack und Mister Boon,
but with the amazingly over-the-top theme song left intact

He walks the night between the wrong and right,
but he’s drawn, like a moth, to the light.

The flame grows higher, his will can fight desire,
so he walks into the fire.

Ride on the wings… of the wind… to the sun..
but not… till the game is won.

Yeah, revenge is sweet, if you can stand the heat,
and can you stay in for the run?

The masked man and the devil’s gold
is a story about to be told.

Of course, Duncan’s most trusted ally is Mister Boon, his baboon sidekick. Boon’s skillset complements Duncan’s quite well since he is also trained in ninjitsu as well as tank driving and obscene gestures. Yep, tank driving, but trust me, you have not lived until you have seen a baboon kill a man with a shuriken.

After his adventure on Devil’s Crown Island in Unmasking the Idol, Jax and Boon would return in 1987′s The Order of the Black Eagle. In his second, and sadly final, mission, Duncan Jax must infiltrate the titular neo-Nazi terrorist group with the aid of fellow agent Tiffany Youngblood and a ridiculous false mustache. Predictably, everything goes pear-shaped and our heroes must escape deathtraps and recruit allies from some conveniently located South American rebels. Each of the rebels has a cute code name and related specialty, just like the members of the G.I. Joe team. A particular standout is Spike, played by Flo Hyman, a Silver Medalist on the 1984 U.S. Women’s Olympic Volleyball Team. Sadly, Flo died before filming was completed, and the film is dedicated to her.

Duncan Jax File Card
Mister Boon File Card

As I write this, Order of the Black Eagle is currently on Netflix streaming, so I predict a drinking game is in order. Stay tuned and gird thy loins. There’s really not much one can do to prepare oneself for the overwhelming awesomeness of Duncan Jax.

Super Spies of the Swinging Sixties!
 (1967 Edition)

Raquel Welch is "Fathom"


The voluptuous Raquel Welch is Fathom Harvill, a dental assistant turned skydiver turned secret agent turned bullfighter, in that order. In a fun little bit of character development, the varied explanations given for her quirky name are “Papa was hoping for a tall son” (six foot, or an imperial “fathom”), “First initials for uncles” (Freddy, Arthur, Tom, Harry, Oscar, Milton), “It’s short for Elizabeth”, or “As a child, you were very deep”. Regardless of WHY she’s named Fathom, Miss Harvill is a born adventurer and easily recruited by H.A.D.E.S. (Headquarters Allied Defences, Espionage & Security) to prevent the “Fire Dragon” from falling into the wrong hands. Depending upon who you believe, the MacGuffin is either an atomic trigger or a Ming vase. If you’re working that hard to follow the plot, you’re missing the point of this film, which is Raquel Welch running around in a bikini for 99 minutes, give or take.

Said plot is based on the second, unpublished Fathom novel by Larry Forrester, Fathom Heavensent. The first, A Girl Called Fathom, was published a year earlier and apparently did well enough to get a screen treatment written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (Batman). She is billed as “the ingenious new mistress of suspense” on the Fawcett paperback movie tie-in, but, alas, no more published adventures followed, and copies of the novel are now hard to come by.

Tony Franciosa (A Hatful of Rain, Career) is Peter Merriwether, Fathom’s first target, but he quickly becomes a foil and frenemy for the buxom beauty. Clive Revill (Modesty Blaise) hams it up as the true villain of the piece, Sergi Serapkin, and Tom Adams (The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World) turns in a cameo appearance as Mike, the Owner of Casa Miguel, bringing together some talent from previous espionage efforts.

My better half has long been a fan of the grenade earring gimmick. Not too likely I’d get her skydiving, however. I’d probably have better luck with bullfighting.

Check out the end of the trailer (2:38). “Toonces, look out!”

Bulldog Drummond in Deadlier Than the Male

I’ll admit this one’s a bit of a cheat since Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond is an insurance investigator and not a super spy, but Bond creator Ian Fleming cited Drummond as a direct influence on his famed secret agent. Starring in a series of pulp novels and their respective film adaptations from 1920 to 1954, the “Bulldog” stories featured even MORE racism than was typical in the imperial adventure tales of the time. Thankfully, little of that translates to the screen here, but being 1967, sexual innuendo is clearly fair game.

Richard Johnson stars as the two-fisted detective, and was supposedly Bond director Terence Young’s first pick for the role of 007. Nigel Green (The Ipcress File) plays Drummond’s recurring arch-enemy Carl Peterson. But the real stars of this romp are Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina as Peterson’s bikini assassins Irma and Penelope. The German release obviously knew which side its bread was buttered on by calling the film Heisse Katzen (“Hot Cats”). Steve Carlson, a contract star for Universal at the time, is shoe-horned into the plot as Hugh’s hip American nephew, but he also brings Virginia North to the table as his girlfriend Brenda, so I consider it a fair trade.

Richard Johnson reprised the role of “Bulldog” Drummond in Some Girls Do (1969), notable for featuring a female sidekick named “Flicky” (Sydne Rome) and Joanna Lumley as a girlbot. Both films have been released on DVD as a double feature, but that might be too much sexy for most audiences to sit through back-to-back.

Liguria’s gonna be the witness to the ultimate test of cerebral fitness.

Johnny Banner in The Fastest Guitar Alive

With its mix of Bond derring-do and western hijinks, The Wild Wild West was riding roughshod over the competition in its time slot. Elvis Presley was crooning his way through the jailhouse, the battlefield, Hawaii, and Las Vegas. It was only natural, then, that someone take Sun Records stablemate Roy Orbison and make him a singing cowboy spy with a tricked-out guitar. Okay, not so much.

I’m thinking Robert Rodriguez owes his entire career to this caper. “Dr. Ludwig Long’s Magic Elixir” and “The Chestnut Sisters” seem innocent enough, but, in reality, they are Confederate spies planning on robbing the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. Along with six dance hall girls and his six-string shootin’ iron, Roy brings “seven of his brand new songs” to the Old West, including the insipid “Good Time Party” and the obnoxious “Medicine Man, Medicine Man”. I guess he don’t believe in travellin’ light.

The line-up of dancing girls includes Johnny’s best girl Sue, played by Joan Freeman (Panic in Year Zero!), Maggie Pierce (Tales of Terror) as Flo, Wilda Taylor (the incomparable “Little Egypt” in Roustabout), Victoria Carroll (How to Stuff a Wild Bikini), Maria Korda, and Poupee Gamin (Journey to the Center of Time). It’s hard to concentrate on the lovely ladies, however, with Orbison’s beady little eyes staring a hole in your soul as he meanders awkwardly through the musical numbers like a stalking butler, who upon the finger rests</Tool>. Predictably, this would be Orbison’s first, last, and only film appearance.

Watch ol’ Roy sing seven new songs, doo dah doo dah,
Makes the film feel seven hours long, takes all doo dah day.

Neil Connery as Dr. Neil Connery
in Operation Kid Brother

Sean Connery was James Bond. Neil Connery was a plasterer.
That’s where things should have stayed.

For some reason, Producer Dario Sabatello thought it would be wonderful to get Sean Connery’s younger brother Neil to play the younger brother of James Bond… except in the movie he’ll go by “Dr. Neil Connery”, so you know he’s Sean’s brother, strangely implying that Sean is an actual secret agent. Whatever, it’s not Rashomon.

Casting Neil may have been too subtle a move for Sabatello, so he also cribbed a metric butt-ton of Bond background players, including M himself, Bernard Lee, as Commander Cunningham. Lois Maxwell, Bond’s secretary Miss Moneypenny, plays… uh… Miss Maxwell. On the bad guy side, we’ve got Adolfo Celi (Thunderball‘s Emilio Largo) as Beta and Anthony Dawson (Prof. Dent in Dr. No) as Alpha. Our requisite femme fatale is the capable Daniela Bianchi (From Russia with Love) as the assassin Maya. She has the enviable distinction of being the only woman seduced away from an evil criminal organization by BOTH Connerys.

The film appears in Season 5 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 under the title Operation Double 007. A particular highlight of that episode is the graph showing the career progressions of the Connery boys. I do miss Joel and the ‘Bots. Good times, good times.

This trailer features 3 arrows (1 explosive), 1 speargun, 1 garter blowgun(?),
2! ballistic knives, a thrown spear, a flamethrower, and a bludgeoning buoy.
That’s “2 much”.

Super Spies of the Swinging Sixties!
 (1966 Edition)

Monica Vitti as "Modesty Blaise"

Modesty Blaise

Ever so loosely based on the popular comic strip by Peter O’Donnell, Modesty Blaise is a high camp take on the female super spy. Blaise (Monica Vitti) is a thief and a scoundrel, recruited by British Intelligence to foil a diamond heist.

Unfortunately, Vitti plays the role like some kind of spastic fashion doll with a learning disability. Her exasperated enunciation is eerily reminiscent of Maya Rudolph’s impersonation of Donatella Versace on Saturday Night Live (“Get owwt!”). Still, she’s certainly easy enough on the eyes and clearly having fun with the material.

Terence Stamp fares better with the sidekick role as Cockney Willie Garvin, but the grim loyalty seen in the strip comes across here as a terminal case of puppy love. Dirk Bogarde hams it up as villainous mastermind Gabriel, owner of the greatest wine glasses ever captured on film and surrounded by a crew of gimmicky henchmen and sychophants.

Despite the goofy gags, there’s still enough pulp bravado to entertain. Sheik Abu Tahir (Clive Revill) lays out Modesty’s backstory in swaggering expository dialogue and still manages to steal the scene. Modesty Blaise is worth watching just to see Mrs. Fothergill (Rosella Falk) silently strangle a French mime with her legs. Sublime.

And hey, at least it’s better than Brooke Shields and Timothy Dalton in Brenda Starr.

“There is a sting in my tail.”

Secret Agent Super Dragon

Despite this being his first film adventure, Bryan Cooper (Ray Danton), aka Secret Agent Super Dragon, is lured out of retirement to avenge the murder of a colleague. Star Danton is perhaps best known for carrying off glamorous wife Julie Adams Creature from the Black Lagoon-style after they worked together on The Looters (1955). Unlike most super spies, Super Dragon takes his gadget supplier on the mission with him. Codenamed “Baby Face” (Jess Hahn), the big man largely provides comic relief, pun intended. Super Dragon is recruited into this caper by Cythia Fulton (stunning exploitation film mainstay Margaret Lee), who seems to be keeping close tabs on him by putting in a welcome appearance any time the plot starts to lag.

Marisa Mell in "Secret Agent Super Dragon"

Marisa Mell in Secret Agent Super Dragon

Our requisite femme fatale is Charity Farrel, played with relish by the sultry Marisa Mell (Danger: Diabolik). Charity is so striking in her blue-grey cocktail dress with matching long gloves that the image would appear on the lobby card of the unrelated film Danger Dimensione Morte in an effort to make it more appealing. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

The voice-over in this trailer totally reminds me of
Stephen Colbert as Harvey Birdman‘s Phil Ken Sebben

Two 07 in 7 Golden Women Against Two 07

Former Mr. Universe and Mr. Jayne Mansfield, Mickey Hargitay plays Mark Davis, secret agent Two 07. He’s on a mission to locate a Nazi treasure hidden in the Mediterranean by Martin Bormann. The location of the treasure is hidden in a Goya painting. The only problem is, seven identical replicas of the painting were sold at auction to seven “beautiful” women, each hoping against hope that theirs is the real McCoy. Cue the obligatory catfights…

Of course, even though the film is titled 7 Golden Women Against Two 07, these eight principals aren’t the only ones after the treasure. Leading the pack of also-rans is the writer-director-producer-editor-and-star Vincenzo Cascino as Barbikian. There’s no explanation as to why he’s painting them gold and the only justification is it looked good on Shirley Eaton.

Warning: NSFW due to a brief glimpse of Goya’s The Naked Maja.

Matt Helm in The Silencers

Matt Helm is a counterespionage agent created by novelist Donald Hamilton. Much like James Bond, Helm is much more serious and realistic in his literary adventures than in the over-the-top camp that appears on film. The casting of Rat Pack wise guy Dean Martin just takes The Silencers up to eleven.

With the cover identity of a fashion photographer for “classy” men’s magazines such as the curiously titled “Slaymate Magazine” and a house full of gadgets and girls, Matt operates just one shade shy of Austin Powers. In this and the subsequent films in the series, Dean Martin parodies his own flamboyant lifestyle as much as that of the super spies of the era. The film accurately captures one detail from the novels, the fact that Helm has grown soft and is well past his prime. At the time of The Silencers, Dino was nearly fifty years old.

As the clip below clearly demonstrates, Helm is not content to keep to the platonic relationship with his secretary, the “cleverly” named Lovey Kravezit (Beverly Adams), that Bond shares with Moneypenny. In an effort to outperform its competitors, The Silencers abounds with opportunities for Helm to display his machismo. Similar to Secret Agent Super Dragon, Matt is accompanied by an ambitious female agent, in this case, Daliah Lavi (Ten Little Indians) as ICE agent Tina.

The infamous opening credits feature a trio of Vegas-style burlesque strippers in a sequence that would be considered risqué even by today’s standards, though rumors of an “uncensored” version of dance legend Cyd Charisse’s segment are wishful thinking and fondly misremembered by impressionable young minds. The more raw stills from that routine are outtakes, some of which were used to promote the film, but clearly not the most notorious which could only have been used to market Brazilian wax. Go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait.

Even toned down, it’s an effective intro that should definitely get your attention. Nancy Kovack (Diary of a Madman) gets exactly 2:32 of screen time as a honey trap dressed solely in high heels and one of Helm’s dress shirts (Yes, I timed it). She certainly does make the most of it, though, especially in VHS versions which don’t crop the… ahem… bottom of the frame.

Perenniel Playboy Playmate Stella Stevens “rounds out” the cast as the out-of-her-depth femme fatale, Gail Hendricks. She undergoes some of the more controversial interrogation techniques of Mr. Helm (one of the few scenes kept from the novel, though greatly glamorized) that might make some viewers squirm.

I start every Sunday just like Matt, except with more bourbon and less double entendre.

Super Spies of the Swinging Sixties!
 (1965 Edition)

Sue Lloyd and Michael Caine in "The Ipcress File"

Harry Palmer in

The Ipcress File

Len Deighton’s novel, The Ipcress File was released shortly after the first James Bond film, Dr. No (1962). The novel sold well enough that producers Harry Saltzman and “Cubby” Broccoli asked Deighton to write the script for the next Bond film, From Russia with Love. He only got about 35 pages in before the producers replaced him for working too slowly.

Still, there was no desire to throw the baby out with the bath water, so Saltzman decided to use The Ipcress File as the foundation for a completely new secret agent film franchise. Fresh off his first big break in Zulu, Michael Caine took the role of working class secret agent Harry Palmer. Palmer is essentially the anti-Bond. He stays in sleazy hotels, cooks his own meals, wears thick glasses, and complains about his pay. Nevertheless, he is every bit the super spy.

“A friend of mine met Putin and he was head of the KGB then and he said, ‘Tell Mr. Caine we used to watch those movies and laugh because he was such a clever spy and we were never that clever.’” — Michael Caine

The character, as created by Deighton in first-person narratives, goes unnamed as a matter of course. He could have any name and it could be just as valid or just as false, given his line of work. Still, for the film, especially the birth of a new franchise, the character needed a name, one that lacked the glamour and panache of “Bond… James Bond.” Harry Saltzman asked Caine, “What’s the dullest name you can think of?” Not considering the source, Caine replied, “Harry.” Michael Caine also supplied the surname Palmer, that of the most boring boy in his school. And thus, Harry Palmer began his career in cinematic espionage. Michael Caine reprised the role in four sequels, Funeral in Berlin (1966), Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Bullet to Beijing (1995), and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996), but only the first two are based on Deighton novels.

Don’t Ipcress me, bro.

Lt. Harry Sennet in Operazione Goldman

aka Lightning Bolt

Anthony Eisley (Frankie and Johnny) is Lt. Harry Sennet, codenamed “Goldman” (or “Lightning Bolt” in U.S. release a couple years later) for his unlimited expense account. Unfortunately, the expense account of the folks who made this Eurospy entry appeared quite limited, but they did what they could, even flooding the entire set for the big finale.

Sennet works for the Federal Security Investigation Commission, which breaks a sacred super spy convention by being an unpronounceable acronym (“FSIC?!”). To add insult to ineptitude, the agency office nameplate looks like painted macaroni letters stuck to a block of wood. His superior officer, Capt. Patricia Flanagan (“Agent 36-22-36″, played by the sultry Diana Lorys) joins him on the mission, mostly so he’ll have someone to sexually harrass close at hand.

The “Goldman” name and gimmick where a checkbook is more effective than a gun was envisioned to capitalize on the rampant success of Goldfinger, but by the time of the U.S. release, Thunderball was the Bond film du jour, hence the retitle to Lightning Bolt. After the negatives were lost, the film had to be reassembled from available prints. Eisley also recorded some English narration to help explain the convoluted plot.

Folco Lulli (The Wages of Fear) supplies the menace as the portly beer baron Rehte. He even has a tricked out beer truck with a spinning mug on the roof and surveillance equipment within. Brewmeister Smith from Strange Brew would be duly jealous. Rehte has the requisite underwater lair and a cute schtick where he freezes all his foes in cryostasis so he can gloat at them rather than killing them outright. Still, he is clearly no match for our super spies.

It’s such a supercharger.

Charles Vine in Licensed to Kill aka

The Second Best Secret Agent

in the Whole Wide World

While other super spy films of the 1960s take their inspiration from James Bond, Licensed to Kill wasn’t afraid to make a slew of indirect references to him. Tom Adams (The Great Escape) is Charles Vine, an agent with nearly as much skill as a certain 00 agent, and the license to prove it. Originally released in the U.K. as Licensed to Kill the film was recut and repackaged for U.S. release as The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World with a catchy new theme song by Sammy Davis Jr. and a name and marketing campaign inspired by Avis Rent-a-Car. The structure of the film was altered to make it feel more like a Bond film, with a pre-credit sequence, but a direct reference to Bond by the Agency brass was removed along with expository dialogue regarding the macguffin and a scene in which Charles helps a young lady with a crossword just dripping with double entendre.

If you’re going to rip off James Bond, there’s no reason to half step it. Writer/director Lindsay Shonteff (The Million Eyes of Su-Muru) throws everything into this one:
An evil twin, a transvestite assassin named Vladimir She-He, a helicopter fight, a Russian assassin named Sadistikov, and a broomhandle mauser carried by Vine in a fashion similar to “Nick” from the TV series Tightrope. The film would do well enough to spawn no less than FIVE sequels, two with Tom Adams as Charles Vine but without Shonteff and three with Shonteff and a trio of different actors taking on the rechristened Charles Bind.

“Women come first.” A gentleman to the last.

Boysie Oakes in The Liquidator

Before reviving the Bond novels in 1981, John Gardner created his own super spy in Boysie Oakes. Boysie joins Harry Palmer as an anti-Bond, but in a different way. Boysie (Rod Taylor) isn’t a working class super spy. He’s a coward, a lecher, and a liar. Recruited in error, he is given the codename “L” for “Liquidator” and sent on an assassination mission. Naturally, he does what any good super spy would do. He hires a true professional assassin to do the dirty work for him while he takes the boss’ secretary (the vivacious Jill St. John pre-Diamonds are Forever) out for the weekend. The vacation is short-lived, however, as an enemy agent tricks Boysie into attempting to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh.

While not up to Bond film standards, effort was made to capture the style of the genre. Lalo Schifrin (“Theme from Mission: Impossible) composed the score, and Shirley Bassey (“Goldfinger”) sang the title song. MGM planned a series of Boysie Oakes films, but a year’s delay in the U.S. release of The Liquidator found the window of opportunity closing on them. As you’ll see in the days ahead, the field was about to get quite crowded…

“Overpaid, oversexed, and over THERE!”