Prisoner In The Middle (1973)

AKA: Warhead, Sabra Command, Mission Overkill
Director: John O’Connor
Starring: David Janssen, Karin Dor, Christopher Stone, David Semadar, Art Metrano
Music (and Sound Effects) by Synchrofilm Inc.

Apparently The Prisoner In The Middle (and all the other names this film goes by), although made in 1973, was not released until 1977. That may indicate that it is a bit of a turkey, but it isn’t that bad. Sure it’s a pretty low to the ground effort, but I have watched worse (and I am sure will continue to do so in the future). The film opens with an active nuclear bomb sitting on desert sand, it’s parachute billowing in the wind. The bomb itself, looks like an accessory from the Bat Mobile. It is a very odd shape, black with fins, and has a giant, bulbous red light, which flashes instead of a nose cone. It’s not very aerodynamic at all.

To bring the viewers up to speed, and in typical spy film fashion, a typed message runs across the bottom of the screen. This one runs a little longer than most:


There is more to the message, but I think you get the gist of it.

So naturally we are in Jerusalem, and here’s where we meet Anthony Stevens (David Janssen). As was the fashion at the time, he is wearing a beige safari suit. As he wanders around, checking out the tourist sites, he is approached by a C.I.A. operative. It’s time for Stevens to find out what we already know.

His mission: He has to parachute into Jordan alone, Find the bomb and destroy the detonator before anyone else can get their hands on it. No sooner than he has received his instructions, we see him parachuting down into the desert. Armed with a Geiger counter, he starts searching for the weapon.

On a desert road, in a bus, Lieutenant Liora Schulman (Karin Dor), an Israeli soldier, is traveling with a group of school children. She is assigned to protect them. The kids are singing and joking around. Hidden in the dunes, on the side of the road is a mortar, and it fires as the bus passes. The bus explodes and everyone is killed except Liora. The perpetrators are the Palestinian Liberation Army, who have slipped across the border to carry out the attack. As the PLA approach the bus, to check the results of their heinous handiwork, Liora picks up a machine gun and mows them down. All except one, their leader, Malouf (David Semadar), who looks like Frank Zappa. He escapes, driving off in a jeep.

Have you ever noticed, that in films where barbaric acts are perpetrated on children, how we rarely see the carnage? (this film shows a little bit.) What we are always shown is a doll or a teddy bear amongst the wreckage. Well, that happens here too. Liora picks up a teddy and stares almost blankly at it. She is in shock. Then the flood of tears start.

Malouf has fled back to Jordan and is in hiding. The Israeli army assemble a team of soldiers to go in after him. The team of sixteen, is headed by Captain Ben-David (Christopher Stone), and Liora is second in command. The team, armed to the teeth, cross the border and a mine field in search of Malouf.

Meanwhile, Stevens has found the bomb. But as he starts to deactivate it, he is captured by Malouf and his men. As the PLA load the missile onto a truck, Ben-David and his soldiers arrive at the scene. A gun battle takes place. Both sides are keen to possess and take control of the nuclear weapon. Stevens caught between the two warring armies, clearly is ‘The Prisoner In The Middle’.

The story itself is quite okay (in a Six Million Dollar Man kind of way), if a bit simple. Afterall, we are talking about a genre that prides itself on convoluted plots, with double and triple crosses. In this movie, everybody is exactly as they seem. Not being the plot, the weaknesses of this film are the casting, and the acting. Janssen is clearly too old (and possibly has one too many chins) to be playing this kind of role. And the acting in places is truly awful. But having said that, The Prisoner In The Middle is serviceable, but I wouldn’t put it high on your list of ‘films to see’.

This review is based on the Flashback Entertainment DVD

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Die Another Day (2002)

Directed by Lee Tamahori
Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, Judi Dench as M, John Cleese as Q, and Samantha Bond as Moneypenny, Colin Salmon as Robinson.
Music by David Arnold
Title Song by Madonna
Based on characters created by Ian Fleming

Is Die Another Day the worst Bond film ever made? In a word, YES! That’s not to say it doesn’t have any good moments, like the sword fight sequence in Blades gentlemen’s club. The fight is one of the most muscular sword fight sequences ever filmed, and the equal to many of the classic fight scenes performed by the likes of Basil Rathbone (The Mark of Zorro), or Stewart Granger (Scaramouche) to name but two. But Die Another Day, as a whole, is a very patchy effort.

The film starts well enough with James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) impersonating a South African mercenary selling conflict diamonds to the North Koreans. Particularly to Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) and Zao (Rick Yune). (For those unaware, conflict diamonds originate from African nations controlled by forces in opposition to their legitimate and internationally recognised government (such as Angola or Sierra Leone). These diamonds are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments. On 1 December 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted, unanimously, a resolution which forbade the trade of rough diamonds originating in these areas, in the hope of breaking the link between the illicit trade in rough diamonds and armed conflict.. The recent film Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio shows why this resolution was put in place.)

Unfortunately for Bond, before he can complete his mission, his cover is blown. He escapes in a hovercraft, hotly pursued by the North Korean Army in their own flotilla of hovercrafts.

Ultimately, Bond and Moon end up wrestling on top of the same driverless hovercraft as it rushes towards a waterfall. The craft goes over the falls with Moon, but Bond leaps off at the last moment. His reprieve is short lived as he is captured by the North Koreans.

Here, dear readers, is where the films goes off the rails. Firstly, Madonna’s theme song is rubbish. This is not just a case of Madonna bashing on my behalf. I thought her song, Beautiful Stranger for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was a great pop song, but Die Another Day is sub standard.

Next problem is the title sequence. Bond’s torture at the hands of his captures continues throughout the titles. Daniel Klein, who took over the Bond title sequences after the passing of Maurice Binder, has proven himself over the past three movies. Let him do his job!

Once the film resumes, eighteen months has passed and Bond is still a captive. He is far from the suave, impeccably dressed agent we are used to. He is gaunt; his hair is long a matted and an unkempt beard adorns his face. But his incarceration period is over as he is swapped in a prisoner exchange, for Zao, who is now horribly disfigured with a diamond encrusted head.

Back in safe hands, Bond is not trusted. There has been an information leak and Bond is the obvious suspect. He is to be interrogated and locked up. Before this can happen he escapes. Clothed in a soggy set of pyjamas and with his hair still matted and tangled he marches into the foyer of an exclusive Hotel in Hong Kong. Of course, all the guests are disgusted at his appearance, but unperturbed, Bond walks up to the front desk and asks for his usual suite.

Within moments, Bond is cleaned up and back in a Tuxedo. Not long after that, he is in Cuba, tracking down Zao, the man he was traded for in the prisoner exchange. Bond traces Zao to Los Organos, a gene altering, transformation clinic. It is here that Bond meets C.I.A. agent Jacinta Johnson, A.K.A. Jinx (Halle Berry). Both agents are working on the same case but from different ends. But does this mean that they would pool their resources and work together? Not on your life. After a quick interlude, they go their separate ways.

Bond catches up to Zao at the clinic, but Zao evades capture. But he does leave behind one clue. Diamonds. These diamonds are engraved with G.G. While Bond was in captivity a young entrepreneur, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), has started a diamond mine in Iceland and had struck it rich. Bond finds it suspicious, that Graves’ diamonds should have they same composition as African Conflict Diamonds. He decides to look into Graves operation more thoroughly.

Although Toby Stephens is a good actor, he was fantastic in Cambridge Spies, in this film his performance is particularly ‘hammy’. Admittedly, he got lumbered with some atrocious dialogue, and equally silly scenes to act out. He comes off as a rather petulant young pup. When compared to the Bond villains of the past, he simply isn’t a threat.

My two major gripes, of the many things that I didn’t like, were the editing and the sloppy CGI. Editor Christian Wagner has adopted an MTV style of editing where there is exaggerated speeding up and slowing down of the action to create a visual effect. But all this does is cause Bond to look less potent than he should. Rather than throwing a good hard punch, Bond’s actions are slowed down and stylised. It is almost visual castration.

And now onto the CGI. It was atrocious. If there is one thing us Bond fans have come to expect is that the stunts that are performed professionally and generally, where possible, actually in front of the camera. Think of Bond skiing of the cliff in The Spy Who Loved Me (and now think of it done with CGI – blah!) But in Die Another Day we are treated to some substandard effects as Bond rides a gigantic ice wave. I know it couldn’t be done in real life, but at least hire a team of professionals who can render this type of environment well. It looks like a video game.

I am not even going to talk about the invisible car! My thoughts on that are best not aired in public.

A quick word about the music: With the exception of Madonna’s title song, which I have already talked about, the Dave Arnold score is of a high standard. Particularly the Cuban rhythms which are not only infectious they creatively incorporate the James Bond Theme. Strangely, little of the Cuban music ends up on the Soundtrack CD. But my last gripe about the music used in Die Another Day is the inclusion of London Calling by The Clash as Bond returns to London. In any other film, I’d almost applaud the use of The Clash or Joe Strummer in a soundtrack but in a Bond film it is inappropriate.

After the success of this film, there was talk of a spinoff movie featuring Halle Berry as Jinx. Again it was to be directed by Lee Tamahori. It is rumoured that a script was prepared but he film never eventuated. Maybe we were lucky? Tamahori would later go on to destroy the xXx franchise.

Die Another Day was an unworthy swan song for Pierce Brosnan. Sure Brosnan will go on to make great films after his time as Bond, but I sort of feel, that his Bond films were wasted opportunities. He’s a good actor, and he had the charm and charisma to succeed as Bond, but unfortunately he got lumbered with some poor scripts, and crew members (Directors, Editors, and even Actors) who just weren’t up to the task. Thankfully for the Bond series, the producers went in a different direction for the next feature Casino Royale. Sure, it was sad to see Pierce go, but if the series was to survive, a new approach was needed. And thankfully we got it.

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My Name Is Modesty (2003)

Director: Scott Spiegel
Starring: Alexandra Staden, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Raymond Cruz, Fred Pearson, Eugenia Yuan,
Music: Deborah Lurie
Based on Characters created by Peter O’Donnell

Time was running out for Miramax films, who held the film rights to the character Modesty Blaise. They had to make a film quickly or lose those rights. My Name Is Modesty is the result. It isn’t a ‘bad’ picture, but it is a low budget production which attempts to tell a small story about how Modesty, became Modesty Blaise. It is not a slam-bang action film. And in no way does it resemble the 1966 film, Modesty Blaise (and that is a good thing!) It was filmed in Romania and shot over a period of eighteen days…as you can see; it wasn’t exactly a labour of love…more of a contractual obligation.

The film starts off with a slick monochromatic title sequence, which uses pop-art colours. Since Modesty began her life as a comic-strip character, this seems appropriate. Then the story starts, somewhere in the Balkans…

In the middle of a war zone, a group of soldiers take a break from the carnage to eat. In the ruins is a young girl, Modesty of course, in tattered rags. It appears that her family is dead, and she lives amongst the rubble. One of the soldiers offers her a can of food, and asks her name. No reply. She takes it, and then is gone!

Eleven years later we are in a casino in Tangiers. Modesty Blaise (Alexandra Staden) is now one of the managers of the casino. She says:

“Everybody is born with a certain amount of luck. Some spend their luck on cards – some spend it at the roulette wheel – one in thirty-six chances – for the lucky, the brave or the foolish. One in thirty-six did I say? Actually no! One out of thirty-seven. Most people like to forget that the odds are stacked against them!”

Although Modesty is in charge of the casino, she doesn’t own it. Her boss is Henri Louche (Valetin Teodosin). Louche is planning some ‘big’ deal. We aren’t told what it is, but we know it is illegal and requires him to have a large amount of cash in the casino vault. As Louche, is chauffeured home, his car is ambushed and he is shot and killed.

Then the assailants burst through the door of the casino and shoot up the place. Naturally enough (in case you haven’t worked it out), they are after the money in the vault. Unfortunately for them, their itchy trigger fingers have killed all the people who know the combination. Well, except for one man, Garcia (Raymond Cruz) who has taken the evening off and is ‘entertaining’ a lady friend out of town.

The head of assailants, mercenaries if you will, is Myklos (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). He is a blood thisty, shoot first – ask questions later kind of guy. He now finds himself in a predicament. He takes all the staff hostage and threatens to shoot one person at a time till he is given the combination to the vault. Modesty takes control and explains that only one man can open it. She calls him on the phone, with a gun at her temple, so she can’t warn him. Garcia prepares to make his way back to the casino, but it will take him a few hours to make the journey.

While the mercenaries and the captive casino staff wait for him to return, Myklos and Modesty engage in a game of roulette to pass the time. If Modesty wins three spins in a row, one of the hostages is released. If Myklos wins, he gets to ask Modesty a question about her past. Why is he, a cold-blooded killer, so infatuated with Modesty? Let’s just say it is one of the conceits of the script, so that we can see via flashback how Modesty Blaise became the person she is today.

If you can get over the ‘smallness’ of this picture, it almost succeeds. The idea of explaining the origins of Modesty’s character is a good one – and even the films structure, given it’s budgetry and time constraints is pretty good. The real weak link is Alexandra Staden as Modesty. She certainly looks the part, but in a small (there’s that word again) ensemble piece like this, you really need an actress who is ‘electric’ as Modesty. Staden does not have the charisma or the depth to bring Modesty to life. It is pivotal that she dominates her screen time, and this doesn’t happen.

Many other reviews for My Name Is Modesty are fairly scathing, which isn’t an accurate reflection on this film. It is very flawed, that’s for sure, but if you have an interest in Peter O’Donnell’s character then this movie is not a total waste of time. It presents a different insight into one of popular cultures most loved heroines.

Let’s hope that if another Modesty Blaise film is made, that they finally get it right.

This review is based on the Miramax Home Entertainment USA DVD

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The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962)

AKA: The Invisble Claws Of Dr. Mabuse, The Invisible Horror
Director: Harald Reinl
Starring: Lex Barker, Karin Dor, Siegfried Lowitz, Wolfgang Preiss, Rudolph Fernau, Werner Peters
Music: Peter Sandloff

An appreciative audience has gathered at the Metropol Theatre to witness an Operetta. As the musical performance proceeds, in a viewing box at the back of the theatre, a set of binoculars follows the performers on stage – only these binoculars appear to be floating, as if an invisible man was holding them. No prizes for guessing who? So begins The Invisible Dr. Mabuse, a 1962 production, once again featuring Lex Barker as FBI agent Joe Como (Barker also appeared in The Return Of Dr. Mabuse, as Como). Como is a big lug. he seems to walk into more traps than he sets, but with sheer brute force, he manages to slug his way out of trouble.

Back at the Metropol; after the show, Nick Prado, an FBI agent snoops about backstage. One of Mabuse’s henchmen, Clown Bobo (Werner Peters – who managed to survive at the end of the last Dr. Mabuse picture) releases a trapdoor underneath the agent. The agent falls to a lower level of the theatre. Soon he is surrounded by Mabuse and his goons. We don’t actually see Mabuse; we see his shadow on a wall. The agent is questioned about the creatively titled ‘Operation X’. He says nothing and for his trouble is tortured and killed.

Mabuse’s henchmen dispose of the body clumsily on a wharf, and soon the police are involved. And in from America, the FBI send Joe Como to replace the dead agent. As the German connection, this time we don’t have Inspector Lohmann (maybe he finally got to go on his fishing trip?), and instead have Inspector Brahm (Siegfried Lowitz). Brahm is a bit more clandestine than his predecessor. He doesn’t have an office at police headquarters; he is located secretly at the back of an optometrist. Como immediately suspects Dr. Mabuse, but Brahm is skeptical. Everybody knows that Mabuse died at the end of the last film.

At the heart of this mystery, is ‘Operation X’, which is a top secret experiment being conducted by Professor Erasmus (Rudolph Fernau). Nobody has seen the professor in months because he keeps himself locked in his laboratory. No prizes for guessing what type of experiments he is working on. Yep, invisibility. And the authorities are now concerned that Mabuse (or some madman pretending to be Mabuse) has now acquired the Professor’s secret.

All the clues lead back to the Metropol theatre and seem to centre around the leading lady, Liane Martin (Karin Dor – Bond fans will remember her as the wicked Helga Brandt from You Only Live Twice“Mr. Osato believes in a healthy chest!”) In this picture she is the object of everyones affection and attention. Professor Erasmus has fallen in love with her and goes to see her perform every night. Dr. Mabuse wants her, because through her, he can control Erasmus. And finally Joe Como wants her because…well, he’s the star of the movie. the big lug has to get the girl at the end.

This movie (if you don’t mind old black and white films from Germany), is perfect popcorn fare. It has everything you could want, from punch-ups, gun play, a damsel in distress, mad scientists, and an invisible army of men attempting to change the fate of the world. There’s even a hint of Phantom Of The Opera to it, with much of the action taking place within the depths of the theatre. I enjoyed this very much, and although not to everyone’s taste, if this sounds like your cup of tea, I would recommend this entry in the Dr. Mabuse series.

Director Harald Reinl, scriptwriter Ladislas Fodor, and actors Karin Dor and Rudolph Furnau would work together again of the Bryan Edgar Wallace ‘krimi’, The Strangler Of Blackmoor Castle, which too, is a great deal of fun.

This review is based on the Retromedia USA DVD

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The Return Of Dr. Mabuse (1961)

Directed by Harald Reinl
Gert Frobe, Lex Barker, Daliah Lavi, Fausto Tozzi, Wolfgang Preiss
Music by Peter Sandloff

An undercover police officer sits alone in a compartment on a train. A suitcase is chained to his wrist. He is transporting some valuable documents from the USA to Germany that incriminate the mob.

A handicapped man with a wooden leg enters the train compartment. The officer insists that he sits elsewhere as he is in a restricted compartment. The handicapped man complains that his wooden leg is causing him discomfort. The officer relents and allows him to be seated. Soon after, the train rushes through a tunnel (no sexual symbolism here). When the train exits the tunnel, both men are gone and the window is open.

Next we meet Inspector Lohmann (Gert Frobe – most people will recognise Frobe as Goldfinger, from the film of the same name). Lohmann is about to go on leave; an extended fishing trip. But as he is about to head off, wouldn’t you know it, the phone rings. Lohmann is called back to duty, to investigate the murder of the police officer whose body was found by the railroad tracks.

Lohmann’s investigations lead him to some interesting characters. The first is Joe Como (Lex Barker). Como is supposed to be an FBI agent sent to infiltrate the Mob. But he may be Nick Scapio, a Mafia hoodlum posing as Como. We also meet Maria Sabrehm (an incredibly youthful Daliah Lavi). She is the daughter of a scientist, who was falsely convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Her father, Professor Sabrehm (Rudolph Forster), is now serving time in the local prison. That brings us to the prison doctor Bohmier, (Werner Peters), who have some unusual methods for rehabilitating the inmates.

What about Dr. Mabuse himself? He isn’t seen for most of the picture, but we hear his voice over the phone, and through microphones that seem to be planted all over the city. Somehow, Mabuse is controlling the inmates at the prison with an injection that turns them into mindless goons. Once the prisoners are attuned to Mabuse’s commands he sends them off, outside the prison walls, to do his bidding. In this instalment in the Mabuse series, his goal is to take over the cities nuclear power plant.

Initially Lohmann belies that the Warden is somehow involved in the crimes that are being committed in the name of Dr. Mabuse, but after the Warden’s car is blown up in the main street, his suspicions have to divert elsewhere.

This film features one great set piece, where Como and Maria are trapped in a generator room at the prison. Mabuse opens a series of water valves and the room begins to flood. We’ve all seen this scenario before (Espionage In Tangiers, springs to mind, and I seem to remember an episode of Get Smart, where Max was trapped in a phone booth that began to fill with water). But Como’s solution to this problem is better than most.

Another great element to this film is the music by Peter Sandloff. I must confess I don’t know much about Sandloff, but his hot stompin’ jazz score to this film is fantastic. There is a great catchy saxophone riff that once you have heard it, it will get stuck in your head for days.

The Return Of Dr. Mabuse is barely more than an amplified crime film, but it’s enigmatic villain, with his hidden microphones and cameras is clearly a Super Villain. He is one of the templates for the cinematic Blofelds of the world and is worthy of inclusion on this blogsite.

This film won’t please everyone, firstly because it is in German, so you’ll either have to watch a dubbed copy or read subtitles. Secondly it is in black and white. And third, by today’s standards, it is light on for action and the special effects, aren’t that special. But, if you are interested in the evolution of spy films to this day, this film will be of great interest, and provide solid entertainment. It may not be as canonical as some of the other Mabuse films, but it is definitely worth a look.

This review is based on the Retromedia USA DVD

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Firefox (1982)

Country: United States
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Freddie Jones, David Huffman, Ronald Lacey, Nigel Hawthorne
Music: Maurice Jarre
Based upon the novel by Craig Thomas

In 1982 Clint Eastwood had to re-invent himself again. Although he had massive success with Every Which Way But Loose (1977) and Any Which Way You Can (1981) and increased his fan base considerably, smartarse western characters weren’t as popular in the eighties as they had been in the seventies (Burt Reynolds career, apart from a few bright sparks, never really recovered). Eastwood chose to go hi-tech. The result was Firefox, an espionage thriller based on the novel by Craig Thomas.

Briefly, the film concerns Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood), a Russian born retired USAF pilot. Because he was born in Russia, he thinks in Russian, rather than thinks in English and then transposes it (if you know what I mean?). Why is this important? The Russians have just developed a new war plane, the MIG 31, codenamed: Firefox. The plane is the most advanced ever built, and features a thought controlled weapons system, can travel at Mach 6, and is invisible to radar. Naturally enough, the West is very eager to get their hands on this aircraft. There plan is to steal it. And that is where Mitchell Gant comes in. His Russian background makes him the perfect candidate to attempt the theft of this fantastic new weapon. There is a slight problem though. Gant suffers from a severe stress disorder, which cause him to blackout. This is the legacy of his days as a pilot in Vietnam. Apparently he was shot down and captured by the Vietcong.

Despite this disorder, the Agency behind this mission, decide to proceed, and Gant is launched into a whirlwind training regime. His controller is Kenneth Aubrey, played by veteran British character actor, Freddie Jones. Jones’ eyebrows, which have a character of their own, almost steal the movie from Eastwood.

After his training, Gant is sent off on his mission, which he knows very little about. His first port of call is Moscow. From there he is guided along by a network of dissidents and sympathizers until he finds his way to Bilyarsk, a military post where the Firefox is housed.

Firefox is a film that time has changed. I am not saying that it is better now than it was then. But it is different. But to understand how it has changed, first you must understand that it is a film of two very distinct halves. The first half is a Cold War spy story, and has a KGB – Big Brother is watching – style feel. The scenes are mostly shot at night, and are very claustrophobic.

The second half of the film is after Gant has stolen the MIG 31 plane and is racing through the clear blue skies. This is where the special effects and pyrotechnics take over.

Now, back to my point about the film having changed with time. When Firefox was released at the cinema in 1982, it was really at the tail end of a cycle of spy films. The first half, with it’s Cold War, Harry Palmer wannabe ethos, was very tired an dated. Many people considered it downright boring. The second half, however, was cutting edge visual effects, courtesy of Richard Dykstra, who had worked on Star Wars. When the Firefox flew through the Ural mountains and clouds of snow erupted into the air, there was a real feeling of speed and power.

But here we are in the next century and twenty five (plus) years have passed since the Firefox flew, and special effects have leapt forward at a tremendous rate. The models used in Firefox look rather ‘fake’ today. The whole airplane chase seems rather small and unimpressive.

But now that the Iron Curtain has come down, the Cold War story seems far more interesting. The world is a very different place. Now, the first half seems like a solid, good old fashioned, espionage thriller (the type that they don’t make anymore). I may be being a little generous in my appraisal there, but none-the-less, the passing years have freshened up the start of this movie.

Does that make Firefox a good film? I’m afraid not. However you look at it, then or now, the sum of it’s two distinct parts do not add up.

The character, Mitchell Gant, would turn up in a few more novels by Craig Thomas. These are the ones that I am aware of:

• Firefox Down (1983)
• Winter Hawk (1987)
• A Different War (1997)

And another character, Kenneth Aubrey (Gant’s controller), also has appeared in numerous novels.

This review is based on the Warner Brothers Australia DVD

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Breakheart Pass (1975)

AKA: Alistair Maclean’s Breakheart Pass
Director: Tom Gries
Starring: Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Ed Lauter, Charles Durning, David Huddleston
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Based on the novel by Alistair Maclean

Breakheart Pass is a weird hybrid, partly Western, partly ‘whodunnit’, and finally spy thriller. But mostly it is pure old fashioned seventies entertainment. But not quite like you’d expect.

By the mid seventies the spy film had become quite jaded. Bond-mania, which had driven the genre along during the sixties had died down, and even the serious anti-Bond films, like Scorpio, or Permission To Kill, had worn out their welcome. Writer Alistair Maclean, a veteran of the genre, decided to move into different territory, whilst still keeping all the espionage elements that had become his trademark in place. He moved towards the ‘western’. At the time, even the western film was suffering. The Spaghetti Westerns from Italy had breathed fresh life into the tired old genre, but even they had run their course. So in Breakheart Pass, in which Alistair Maclean wrote the screenplay, based on his novel, we have two tired genres rolled into one.

I am pleased to say that the idea really works. Maybe the traditionalists may be up in arms, saying that it is not really a spy film, but I beg to differ. I could explain why, but to detail the plot would give away a few of the surprises this movie has in store, but in simplified terms it is the story of a few characters in the old west who are on a steam train, as it winds through the Rocky Mountains to Fort Humboldt The cavalry fort is in the middle of a dipheria plague. The train contains medical supplies and troops who will replace the sick and dying men, as well as Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) who is leading the ragtag band to the fort. Along for the ride is Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), the cavalry officer in charge of the replacement troops, John Deakin (Charles Bronson), a gambler and a murderer, and Ben Johnson as Nathan Pearce, the US Marshall who is escorting him to trial.

Breakheart Pass features another great score by Jerry Goldsmith. For each Goldsmith soundtrack I come across, I am constantly astounded at the high quality and diversity of his work. This score may not be Goldsmith’s most subtle work, but essentially we have a movie about a train, and in keeping, he gives us a powerful, brassy, driving theme and motifs throughout the movie. It’s a good one.

I am going to go out on a limb here. Bronson made many great films as a part in an ensemble cast; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Once Upon A Time In The West to name but a few. But in films where he solely carried the story, the success rate is considerably lower. I think of Bronson’s solo efforts, Breakheart Pass is his best film. It’s a big call, but if you stack up the Death Wish movies, Mr. Majestyk, The Evil That Men Do and it’s ilk, for pure enjoyment, and a great performance, Breakheart Pass is the one!

This review is based on the MGM Home Entertainment USA DVD

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A View To A Kill (1985)

View To A Kill 1Director: John Glen
Starring: Roger Moore, Christopher Walken, Tanya Roberts, Patrick MacNee, Robert Brown, Lois Maxwell
Music: John Barry
Title song performed by Duran Duran

A View To A Kill was the fourteenth official James Bond movie, and the seventh (and last) film to feature Roger Moore as agent 007. Quite frankly, Moore was too old for the role by this time. He knew it and the producers knew it, but there was no logical successor at the time. The producers had considered casting American actor James Brolin in the role before filming began on Octopussy (the preceding movie in the series) but decided against it. Footage of Brolin’s screen tests can be seen on the recent MGM/UA 2 disk DVD of Octopussy. Octopussy ended up being one of Moore’s better films, which is probably why the producers stuck with Moore again. But for A View To A Kill, the team went to the well one time too many. Let’s look at why A View To A Kill doesn’t work:

The casting, with the exception of Patrick Macnee, is uniformly weak. I have already mentioned Moore’s age. He is really showing it here. Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), after 23 years of service, she appeared in Dr. No in 1962, is looking slightly out of place too. But you can almost forgive the aging Bond family regulars because they are faces you have grown to love. The major casting blunders are the female leads. Tanya Roberts as Stacey Sutton is so vacuous she barely registers as a human being. She spends most of the film shrieking and squealing. Often in Bond criticism, the Bond girls are given short shrift by the media. Most of the time, I think this is unfounded. Most of the female characters are intelligent and capable women who happen to be rather attractive. Not just mere window dressing. Many are equals to Bond. But Robert’s character comes off as a dumb blonde. He acting is so stilted, she destroys any dramatic scene in which she appears. Just don’t let her speak. She is the reason for any negative Bond girl criticism.

Similarly Grace Jones is rather wooden as Mayday. Her delivery of lines is very forced, but thankfully she doesn’t have many to deliver. She is very eye catching though, and certainly has a presence on the screen.

AVTAK 2Next we come to Christopher Walken. Walken is an actor I really appreciate. I can sit through most of his B-grade movies and smile due to his performances. But here, he is simply miscast. Not that he gives a bad performance; far from it. He does ‘psychopath’ very well. But his character is supposed to be an Anglo-French multi-millionaire industrialist, who was born in Germany. So the character is very European. Yet Walken is so New York. He doesn’t belong in a French chateau, or at Ascot in a top hat and tails.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, the one successful bit of casting is Patrick Macnee. The fact that Moore and Macnee were friends from their early television days, and appeared together in the movie The Sea Wolves, may count for the chemistry between them. But despite this (or maybe because), Macnee has an understated grace that makes it seem like he belongs in these opulent surroundings. And acting wise, his is the only character to have any emotional impact in the film.

The next weak element of the film is the script. Admittedly the writers have tried something new. Rather than a megalomaniac for a villain, they have a Max Zorin (Walken’s character) played as a psychopath. Interesting idea on paper, but on screen it doesn’t work. For example, when Zorin kills all his henchmen in a gleeful psychotic display, it leaves him isolated and alone (well practically) against Bond in the final showdown. And let’s remember that Bond has taken on armies in volcanoes, on oil rigs, and on space stations. No matter how creative the backdrop (atop the Golden Gate Bridge, no less), Bond is essentially going up against one man – it’s not impossible odds. And really with the way the plot has unfolded, Bond, with a little help from Mayday, has already saved the day The only reason to go after Zorin is to rescue Stacey Sutton, and you already know my opinion of that character. Do you think I care? The way the whole denouement unfolds is clumsily written.

The story is a fairly simple one. Wealthy industrialist, Max Zorin own’s a company that makes microchips. Unfortunately for Zorin, most of the world’s microchips are made in Silicon Valley in the USA. Zorin (I have already mentioned that he is psychotic), plans to cause an Earthquake, unlocking the San Andreas and Haywood faults. That will cause the destuction of Silicon Valley, which will simply disappear into the sea. His company will then have a worldwide monopoly. Naturally James Bond has to stop him.

To the music now: When the film came out in 1985, Duran Duran’s theme song was a massive hit, even though it sounds a little dated today. The theme ties in nicely with John Barry’s score, which is one of the more evocative one he has composed for the series. I am particularly fond of the music when Bond carries Sutton down a fire truck ladder to safety, while the San Francisco City Hall burns behind them. The music is rousing and heroic, combing the ‘dance into the fire’ motif from the title song with the ‘Bond sound’. The score is universally good except for one minor quibble. During the pre-title sequence, Bond uses a ski from a snow mobile as a snowboard. As he glides down an embankment of snow and across a small pond, instead of the John Barry score, which has been working a treat through the previous action, we are slapped in the face with an annoying cover version of The Beach Boys ‘California Girls’. It is simply not necessary, and it is certainly not funny!

While I do not believe A View To A Kill is quite as bad as Die Another Day, it is one of the weaker entries in the series. It is an unworthy swan song for Roger Moore, who despite a recent dip in popularity is truly one of the great Bond actors. He brought a great deal of enjoyment to many people, and most of all he filled the shoes of Sean Connery.

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From The Orient With Fury (1965)

Fureur sur le Bosphore (1965)AKA: Fury In The Orient, Agent 077 Operation Istanbul, Fury In Istanbul, Fury On The Bosphorus, Storm Over The Bosphorus
Director: Terrence Hathaway (Sergio Grieco)
Starring: Ken Clark, Fernando Sancho, Margaret Lee, Philippe Hersent, Franco Ressel, Vitorrio Sanipoli, Mikaela
Music: Piero Piccioni
Songs ‘Before It’s Too Late’ and ‘You Wonderful You’ sung by Lydia Macdonald

From The Orient With Fury (or any of the myriad of other names that this film goes by), is the second in the Ken Clark 077 series, and while being a slight step down form the first, Mission Bloody Mary, it is still a fairly slick Eurospy production. The film opens with a nice pop art rotoscope title sequence and Lydia Macdonald singing ‘Before It’s Too Late’.

In Istanbul, Professor Franz Kurtz (Ennio Balbo) arrives at a hotel, with a coterie of reporters at his heels. He has just invented a Beta Ray that disintegrates metal. Accompanying the Professor is C.I.A. agent McFlint, whose job is to protect the Professor. As they pass through the hotel lobby McFlint is called to the telephone. As he takes the call, the Professor makes his way up to his room. Waiting for him inside are a handful of burly gorillas dressed as the house band. The Goons kidnap the Professor, smuggling him out, hidden in a case for a double bass.

When McFlint finally makes it up to the Kurtz’s room, all he finds is a dead body slumped in an armchair. As McFlint investigates, the bomb goes off destroying the hotel room. Naturally, the authorities believe the dead man in the armchair was Professor Kurtz, and the newspapers of the world are filled with reports about his demise.

Meanwhile in Paris, the Head of the C.I.A., Heston (Philpe Hersent) is meeting with Kurtz’s daughter, Romy. He explains that he had the fingerprints checked and is positive that her father is alive. Now he intends to put his best man on the case to find the Professor. That man is Dick Malloy – Agent 077 (Ken Clark).

When we catch up with Dick Malloy, he is involved in a bar fight. For what reason, we never find out. As he is on holidays, maybe that is how he relaxes? Mid fight he is interrupted by a telephone call from Heston, and is sent to Paris for a briefing.

Malloy’s mission is to pick up the trail of the kidnappers and the Professor. His first task is to meet with one of the Professor’s colleagues, Preminger, at a night club called Martignon. Malloy is at the club at the allotted time. But unfortunately Preminger is followed by the hoods who kidnapped Professor Kurtz. Before he can talk to Malloy, he is silenced by a poison needle. With his dying breath Preminger says to Malloy, ‘Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’.

With barely a lead to go on, Malloy proceeds to Preminger’s house in a black Chevolet. Naturally enough for this sort of film, the villains of the piece, follow Malloy and a car chase takes place. As it is a spy film, Malloy’s car comes equipped with rear machine guns, and he disables his pursuers vehicle. And since we are talking about cars, one thing puzzles me about the appearance of Malloy’s black Chevy. I realise the 077 films do not have the budget of a Bond or a Flint, and sometimes things have to be done on the cheap. What I find strange though, is that the film-makers were too lazy to clean the bird-shit off the car windows before shooting the scenes. It is quite strange to see an urbane, sophisticated secret agent driving with two giant ‘splats’ on his driver’s side window, next to his head – classy stuff!

A spy film like this, would be complete without a bevy of beautiful women, and this film has three. The first, I have already mentioned, is Romy Kurtz (Evi Marandi). She’s also a scientist like her father, but unlike him, she has been completing her work in Moscow, and she is not so keen for her father’s work to be handed over to the American’s if Malloy should succeed.

Next we have the evil villainess, Simone Coplan (Fabienne Dali). She gives as good as she gets, and for her trouble she gets slapped around a little bit. Not only does she have to put up with some violent treatment, she has to put up with Malloy saying clumsy dialogue like: ‘Out with it, baby!’ as he crudely tries to interrogate her.

After two thirds of the film have passed, a favourite for fans of Eurospy films, Margaret Lee makes an appearance. Her character is also a secret agent called, Evelyn Stone. When we first meet Stone, she is in Malloy’s hotel suite and taking a shower. She teams up with Malloy at the end to track the villains to their lair and find the Professor. But mostly, she gets to play her signature role, another ditzy blonde. But hey, that’s why we like her!

What makes this film the weakest of the three Ken Clark, Dick Malloy films is that the villains role and character are hardly defined. Goldwyn (Franco Ressel), the architect of this evil plot is barely seen throughout the picture till the very end, and then he is hardly menacing. In fact, Simone Coplan would have been better as ‘the chief’.

From The Orient With Fury is not a complete waste of time, and is a fairly slick Eurospy production, but it does seem to lack direction and a climax worthy of the preceding hundred minutes.

It is not my policy to endorse any particular company or product, but if you searching for a copy of this film, rather than scouring the grey market, Dorado Films Inc, in the United States have released a nice clean copy on DVD.

This review is based on the Dorado Films Inc. USA DVD.

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Scorpio (1972)

Director: Michael Winner
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Paul Scofield, John Colicos, Gayle Hunnicut, Vladek Sheybal, Joanne Linville
Music: Jerry Fielding

Scorpio, while being far from brilliant is an interesting examination of a spy who has outlived his usefulness. Burt Lancaster is Cross, a C.I.A. operative who used to be their number one assassin. But now he is old and ‘thinks’ too much. More so, a life time’s accumulation of knowledge means he knows too much! And as we all know, dear reader, there is no retirement plan for secret agents.

The film opens in Paris where a Middle Eastern colonel (from the fictional country of Ritria), Selon Zim, disembarks from a plane amidst tight security. This is to no avail, because as soon as he hits the tarmac he is killed by Jean Laurier, AKA: ‘Scorpio’ (Alain Delon). Lurking in the shadows is Cross, who is Scorpio’s mentor. Cross has trained him in the art of espionage and, most importantly, killing!

In some confusing political mumbo jumbo Zim was pro-American, but killed because his allies would blame his enemies and become more powerful and useful to the United States. All this introduction does is show us that spying is a very dirty business and the men who operate within it’s realm are just pawns in the game. Good and bad do not exist.

Both Cross and Scorpio head back to Washington. Cross’ wife, Sarah (Joanne Linville) lives in Washington, so it’s a happy homecoming for him. Scorpio chooses to take an extravagant suite at a hotel. The room he chooses already houses a cat which Scorpio takes a shine to. Before Scorpio has had a chance to unpack, C.I.A. Controller, McLeod (John Colicos) contacts Scorpio. At this point it is revealed that in Paris, once the mission was complete, Scorpio was meant to kill Cross. Why? Because Cross wants to retire. He wants out of the game. Being an assassin is a game for young men and Cross realises his time is running out. Scorpio doesn’t want to kill Cross. He wants to be left alone and refuses to go into headquarters.

Meanwhile Cross realises something unusual is going on. He notices his home is being watched. The next day he drives to headquarters but is being tailed as he does so. He disables his pursuers, by leading them into an alley and then deliberately crashes his car into theirs. Then Cross allows one of the men to follow him on foot to the bus station. Hiding in the men’s room, Cross gets the jump on his pursuer after he blindly follows Cross into the gents. Cross then asks some hard questions, but doesn’t like the answers he gets. Apparently the agency wants him dead.

Cross goes on the run. He buys multiple plane tickets to blur his trail, and then takes multiple planes and trains passing through Pittsburgh, Toronto and finally landing in Vienna. In Vienna, Cross seeks out another old-timer, Serge Zharkov (Paul Scofield). Zharkov is a Russian agent, who tries to convince Cross to defect. But Cross simply tells him, ‘I want out, not to change sides!’

Back in the states a drug raid on Scorpio’s hotel room lands him in hot water. Naturally enough, Scorpio had nothing to do with the drugs being there, but that doesn’t matter to McLeod, who promptly blackmails Scorpio into performing the sanction on Cross. And now the cat and mouse game begins.

Scorpio was directed by Michael Winner, who at this time was at the peak of his powers (and not the hack B-grade director that he would later become). He had just come off the success of his incredibly dated but subversive thriller Death Wish, with Charles Bronson, and needed another thriller to cement his reputation. So it had to be violent and provocative, and for the time, Scorpio was. But today’s audiences may find it hard to stifle a yawn.

What may come as somewhat of a surprise is the lack of empathy created by either Burt Lancaster who appears to be sleepwalking, and Alain Delon who plays an icy character in a cold aloof manner. Then again, maybe that is the point. These are not nice men. Both men are professional assassins, and I’d guess it takes a certain amount of emotional detachment to be a contract killer.

Look, it isn’t a bad film but time has overtaken it and the themes it encompasses. I must sound like a parrot, comparing old films to the Matt Damon version of The Bourne Identity. But clearly shows what happens when an agent is no longer wanted, and in a far more impressive and entertaining style than The Bourne IdentityScorpio. This may sound like I am saying, ‘ignore the old’ and only concentrate ‘on the new!’ Far from it. Many of the old films still have a powerful story to tell. But Scorpio is more of a seventies time capsule, and while it’s story of an aging secret agent, is played out quite truthfully, more so than Innocent Bystanders (1973) or even Never Say Never Again (1984), it never fully connects with the audience.

If you are a spy completist who loves to look at the evolution of the spy film over the decades, Scorpio is a must have addition to your collection. But if you are a viewer who likes to watch spy films for pure escapism, I’d suggest this film isn’t for you.

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