Battle Beneath The Earth (1967)

For your reading pleasure today, I am linking to fellow Teleport City writer, Todd Statdman’s excellent review for Battle Beneath The Earth.

Apart from Kerwin Mathews, the film also features Ed Bishop, who some of you may recall from Gerry Anderson’s UFO series. But for me, he will always be ‘Klaus Hergersheimer’ from Diamonds Are Forever.

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Saboteur (1942)

Country: United States
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Norman Lloyd, Otto Kruger, Alan Baxter, Alma Kruger, Dorothy Peterson, Clem Bevans

Saboteur was Alfred Hitchcock’s first all American film, and it’s not too bad at all. It sits very nicely between The 39 Steps and North By Northwest, while not quite reaching the heights of those two films.

The film begins in an aircraft factory in Los Angeles. Two friends Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and Ken Mason are on their break when a fire breaks out at the plant. Naturally the two men rush to assist in putting out the blaze. Keane is handed an extinguisher by another employee, Frank Frye (Norman Lloyd). Kane then passes the extinguisher on to Mason who rushes into the hanger. As Mason tries to fight the fire, the hangars erupts in a giant fireball, and he is killed.

Later it is revealed that the extinguisher used was actually filled with gasoline, and attempting to fight the fire made the situation worse. Kane reports how he was handed the extinguisher by Frye, but when management looks at the records, they find that nobody by that name was employed to work at the plant. Suspicion falls upon Kane, who is accused of sabotage. Fearing false imprisonment, Kane sets out on a trek across America in search of Frye in an attempt to clear his name.

Recently I watched Showtime’s television series, Sleeper Cell which is an up to the minute depiction of a terrorist cell planning an attack on American soil. It is strange, going back and watching this wartime propaganda movie, which contains so many very similar themes. Back then though, they weren’t called Sleeper Cells, they were called Fifth Columnists.

Kane’s journey is not an easy one. Apart from being chased by the police, as he begins to unravel the mystery, he also becomes the target for the Fifth Columnists who seem to spring up everywhere. But if that isn’t enough, he then has to deal with the public, who are also on the lookout for the ‘dirty saboteur’. One civilian who gets caught up with Keane in his cross country quest is Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane). When Patricia first meets Kane, she doesn’t believe his story and intends to turn him into the police, but as the story progresses, she becomes a useful ally as the story reaches it’s conclusion.

The film features some nice bumps along Kane’s journey. There’s a very nice sequence at an elegant ball, where Kane tries to impress on the other guests that they are in fact in the midst of a nest of Nazi spies. Much to Kane’s chagrin, the other guests either believe Kane is joking or he is drunk. Hitchcock also has quite a bit of fun during a chase sequence staged at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, where Kane chases his quarry into cinema. That action unfolding on the screen mirrors the pursuit unfolding around the patrons. The climatic scenes take place on and around the Statue Of Liberty. Presenting a famous landmark as a backdrop for Hitchcock’s unique kind of mayhem was a device he’d revisit when he made North By Northwest, where the resolution is played on the Mount Rushmore.

Although Priscilla Lane receives top billing, she is probably the weakest of the main acting ensemble. The three best performances come from Robert Cummings, Otto Kruger and Vaughan Glaser. Robert Cummings is excellent as Barry Kane, the everyman who gets caught up in the web of intrigue. The character isn’t as confident as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps. Hannay had a bit of swagger, and was more than able to take care of himself, whereas Kane is just relentless. He just seems to walk into trap after trap, but his persistence in getting to the bottom of the matter and discovering the truth keep forcing him forward. You can almost sense his frustration. The next actor is Otto Kruger. Good films have good villains, and Kruger plays a classic sophisticated villain, in Charles Tobin. It is never mentioned in the film who Tobin works for, but it is clear that it is the Nazis. As with all the best villains, Tobin doesn’t have to rant and rave to show you that he is evil. In fact he is charming, and dare I say it likable, but that’s why he is so dangerous. He doesn’t lose his temper, and is always in control. The third performance that rates a mention is Vaughan Glaser as Phillip Martin. Glaser’s character is the heart of the film. And remembering that this film is a wartime propaganda piece, Glaser also has the job of extolling the virtues and strengths of American society. It’s a sequence that could be jingoistic and cringe worthy, but he delivers it with sincerity, passion and a hint of humour.

With the possible exception of Steven Spielberg, Hitchcock is the world’s most famous movie director, and as such, many words have been devoted to his films. As with all of Hitchcock’s output, the film has been examined and picked apart by the gamut of the world’s film critics. This attention to his work is quite simply due to the high standard achieved over the body of his work, and while Saboteur may not be a cinematic tour de force, like some of his other films, even a lesser Hitchcock is still a very good and highly entertaining film.

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The IPCRESS File (1965)

Country: United Kingdom
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Frank Gatliff
Music by John Barry
Based on the novel by Len Deighton

Harry Saltzman, one of the Producers of the Bond franchise went out on his own and produced this ultra cool Michael Caine spy thriller. In The IPCRESS File, which is based on a book by Len Deighton, Caine plays working class secret agent Harry Palmer. Despite Saltzman’s participation, Palmer is very different to Bond.

Imagine James Bond, heading up a team of ninjas, who are standing on the lip of a hollowed out volcano which houses the lair of an evil mastermind. But instead of storming the complex, Bond and the ninjas have to wait for their L101 form to be processed, and they have to receive TX82 clearance from headquarters. Obviously the worlds that James Bond and Harry Palmer inhabit are very different. Bond’s is one of action and instinct, whereas Palmer’s is one of rules, bureaucracy and paperwork. Despite this less glamourous world, The IPCRESS File is an excellent film, and Harry Palmer is an intriguing hero.

One of the thing that has always struck me about The IPCRESS File is that it is not packaged very well. On video in Australia, it first incarnation was in a drab Mondrian inspired package with orange and black lines. Later Village Roadshow released it – the packaging was better with a dominant photographic image of Michael Caine, but it wasn’t flash. When you look at the colourful painterly images of the James Bond, Derek Flint or Matt Helm films of the same era, then old Harry Palmer comes off second best. This subdued promotional approach works both for and against the film. It works against the film in that The IPCRESS File is one of the truly great sixties spy films and deserves to be thrust into the public eye. But it also works for the film in that Harry Palmer is not a glossy spy hero like Bond, Flint or Helm. Palmer isn’t assigned to glamorous missions and he isn’t equipped with an inexhaustible supply of gadgets to get him out of tricky situations. No, Palmer is more like a glorified policeman. But isn’t that what real ‘intelligence work’ is all about – hunting for and then chasing down leads. The villains in Palmer’s world don’t let them selves be known and certainly wouldn’t be found attracting attention to themselves in a casino playing baccarat. It takes a real spy to find them.

So Palmer is a blue collar spy, and he works for Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman). Or at least he did. At the start of the film, Palmer is given a promotion and a transfer. His new superior is Major Dalby (Nigel Green). Dalby’s department is working on what they call the ‘Brain Drain’ problem. It seems that many of Britain’s best and brightest scientist have either disappeared or have become burnt out and useless. Dalby doesn’t believe it is a co-incidence, and when another scientist, Radcliffe goes missing, Dalby assigns all his men to track him down.

But Dalby’s department isn’t completely clueless. There is one man who has been known to deal in kidnapped scientists – that’s not much of a job description is it? ‘What do you do for a living? – I deal in kidnapped scientists!’ This rotters name is Eric Ashley Grantby (Frank gatliff), and he has been codenamed ‘Blue Jay’. Pamler is assigned to track down Grantby, and like a bloodhound, track him down he does. Through an old contact at Scotland Yard, Palmer learns that Grantby has received three parking tickets over the last year – all in the same location – outside a public library. Palmer gets along to the library and makes contact with Blue Jay. But Grantby doesn’t appear to want to play ball, The telephone number he gives Palmer has been disconnected. It looks like it is back to square one for Palmer.

The IPCRESS File is an amazing film to watch. It is heavily stylised with scenes shot through key holes, phone boxes and lamp shades. Often the angles are skewed to throw the viewer off balance, but never does this visual trickery seem incongruous. It is simply another way of looking at things. It’s almost as if, we the viewers are ‘the spies’ – catching glimpses of something we are not supposed to see.

The score by maestro John Barry is brilliant as well. Unlike some of his work on the Bond series, this soundtrack is moody and tense. The muted trumpet (I presume by Derek Watkins?) is haunting over the zithery strings that make up the bulk of the score.

Uniformly the cast is very good. Michael Caine is an actor I love to watch. I love the fact, that mixed right up with all his great performances – like Get Carter, The Italian Job, Dressed To Kill, and The Man Who Would Be King (how good is that film?) – there is some real shit – like The Island, The Jigsaw Man, Bullseye and Jaws 4. He is (or was – he’s more selective these days) a jobbing actor. When I watch a Michael Caine film for the very first time, there is always this tremendous amount of anticipation. I don’t know what I am going to see. Will it be a masterpiece or is it going to be a ham-fisted piece of trash. But The IPCRESS File has other actors in it besides Michael Caine. It also features Nigel Green. I mean Nigel Green! What an actor! The guy was in Zulu (with Michael Caine – ah, that was a good one), and he was in Play Dirty (with Michael Caine – er, that was a bad one). Green also played my favourite Nayland Smith in The Face Of Fu Manchu. He even popped up in The Wrecking Crew. In the late sixties, the guy was everywhere. Rounding out the cast we have Guy Doleman as Colonel Ross and genre favourite Gordon Jackson as Jock Carswell. Apparently Guy Doleman is an Australian, but I can’t remember seeing him in any Australian shows. Like most Aussie actors in the sixties, he fled to London and plied his craft over there. He played Count Lippy in Thunderball, and then Colonel Ross in the three original Harry Palmer films. That’s all I know about the guy. I am sure he would have worked on quite a few television shows.

The IPCRESS File is one of the classic spy films from the halcyon days of the genre. It’s not Bond, or even a Bond imitator – it’s something different, but that ‘something’ is exciting and mesmerising to watch. If you’re just starting your journey into the world of spy films, this has to be one of your first ports of call. It is a core spy film from the period. If you have seen The IPCRESS File a great many times – well then I am preaching to the converted – may I suggest that you drag out your old battered and worn VHS (or sparking DVD) and give it another whirl. It deserves to be watched again (and again).

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ESPy (1974)

I still haven’t got another review ready, so in the meantime, for your reading pleasure, enjoy this short review from houseinrlyeh on his Blog The Horror. ESPy is another in the endless list of spy films that I haven’t seen. The list just keeps getting longer.

To read the review click here.

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The Espionage Agent (1939)

Ahhh, Brenda Marshall! She cost me $20, you know! How? When I was young and foolish and believed I knew everything about movies, I made a bet with an old guy, that Olivia de Havilland starred in The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn. It seemed a good bet because de Havilland had made so many films with Flynn. But alas no. It was Brenda Marshall in The Sea Hawk. I was $20 down and my pride was severely dented.

But enough of the folly of my youth. Tanner at the Double O Section has written up a great review for The Espionage Agent which stars the lovely Brenda Marshall and Joel McCrea.

To skip over to the Double O Section and read the review click here.

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Hot Enough For June (1964)

Country: England
Director: Ralph Thomas
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Sylva Koscina, Robert Morley, Leo McKern, Roger Delgado, John LeMesurier, Richard Pasco, Eric Pohlmann, Richard Vernon, Amanda Grinling, Noel Harrison, Derek Nimmo
Music: Angelo Lavagnino
Based on the novel ‘Night of Wenceslas’ by Lionel Davidson

I must sound like a parrot, but I like the films of producer Betty E. Box, and director Ralph Thomas. I think they are some of the more enjoyable examples of sixties British cinema. Amongst their output are films like The Thirty Nine Steps (the Kenneth More version), The High Commissioner, Deadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do. Okay, they are all spy films and I have a penchant for spy films, so that makes me a tad biased.

The film opens with Roger Allsop (John Le Mesurier) turning up at MI6 headquarters. He walks down a long corridor to a large counter. Onto the counter he places a large black leather bag and starts to retrieve items from it. First there are several passports, then a shoe with a hollowed out heel, a revolver, and lastly a lucky rabbit’s foot. Although this foot didn’t bring too much luck to it’s owner. You see these are the personal effects of a secret agent who has just been killed. The attendant behind the counter picks up the items and places them in a cubby hole which has the number 007 allocated to it. Now MI6 need a replacement.

Enter Nicholas Whistler (Dirk Bogarde). Whistler is an unemployed writer who turns up at the Labour Exchange to collect his unemployment benefits. Much to his chagrin, rather than just collecting his money, he is also sent to a job interview at a glass manufacturing company. This glass company is actually a front for MI6, and it is headed by Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley).

Whistler turns up for his job interview late, hoping that would dissuade them for employing him. But Cunliffe and MI6 need a man who speaks Czech for their next mission to Prague and Whistler, who is bi-lingual seems like the perfect man for the job. Whistler really doesn’t want the work, but changes his mind when Cunliffe offers him a particularly obscene amount of money as a salary.

So next Whistler is off to Prague to meet Mr. Galushka (Eric Polmann), the head of the state run Zapopaki Glass Works. Whistler he been told that the instructions for a new glass making technique with be handed to him at the works, but he must identify himself with the phrase, “It’s hot enough for June.” The contact in Prague will respond with, “Arrr, you should have been here last September.” Even with the cloak and dagger code words, Whistler still believes everything is above board and he is simply doing some business with a neighbouring glass factory.

Whistler checks into a hotel and waits to be summoned to the Glass Works. When his summons arrives, he finds Vlasta Simoneva (Sylva Koscina) waiting downstairs as his liaison and driver. Up until this point the film has been a gentle paced comedy. The humour has been smile producing rather than inducing belly laughs and has been carried largely by Robert Morley who appeared to be having a good time hamming it up. But now at the twenty three minute mark, Sylva Koscina has entered the story and the film shifts to a romantic comedy. In most romantic comedies the relationship starts out rocky, and Hot Enough For June is no exception.

The trip to the glass works doesn’t go well after Whistler makes some heavy handed comments about the Communists shooting each other. Vlasta can barely contain her contempt for this arrogant young Westerner who sees fit to criticize her way of life.

Once at the glass works, Whistler is given a grand tour by Mr. Galushka. As Whistler travels through the factory and talks with the staff, he slips the ‘hot enough for June’ phrase into each conversation, but no-one responds with the counter phrase. As he is about to leave, he stops at the washroom to wash his hands. The washroom attendant starts talking about the weather, giving Whistler the perfect opportunity to drop ‘hot enough for June’ in the conversation, but before he can, Galushka interrupts and drags Whistler away. Though now, Whistler is convinced that the man in the washroom is his contact and contrives to revisit the glass works again in two days time.

But in the meantime he must wait, and what do you do when you’ve got two nights and a day to kill in Czechoslovakia? You attempt to seduce Vlasta Simoneva. Whistler starts by asking her out for a drink that evening which leads to dinner later on at a colourful restaurant.

But things aren’t as they seem. We already know that Whistler is a spy – even if he doesn’t realise it himself. But the Czech Secret Police aren’t so stupid. They know he’s a spy and have assigned an agent to find out what he is up to. That agent, as you may have guessed is Vlasta Simoneva. Complicating things even further is that the head of the Secret Police (Leo McKern) in this part of the world happens to be Vlasta’s father.

The next day Whistler and Vlasta spend the day jaunting around Prague doing the type of things that young couples do. There’s a spot of swimming at the local pool, which gives Koscina an opportunity to parade around in a bikini. I believe that parading around in a bikini was almost a trademark for Miss Koscina. In Deadlier Than The Male, when we are first introduced to her character, she is in a bikini – albeit carrying a speargun. In A Lovely Way To Die, once Kirk Douglas is in the picture it doesn’t take her long to strip down pool side either. As the day wears on, the jaunting around turns into flirting and finally our young couple, after a rain storm end up at her home in soggy clothes. Naturally they take them off and, well you know….

The next day Vlasta is relieved of her escort and intelligence gathering duties. It is deemed that she has gotten too close to her subject. Another driver takes Whistler back to the glass factory, and this time he successfully makes contact with the agent in the washroom. As the contact hands over the top secret information, it finally dawns on Whistler that he is a spy. Up until this point, it has all bee a lark, but now the game is serious.

Once Whistler returns to his hotel, he finds out how serious. The Secret Police, including Vlasta’s father, turn up to arrest him. Whistler escapes by hiding in a cupboard, and then makes his way out into the unfamiliar streets of Prague.

An extensive manhunt is launched to track Whistler down, but somehow he manages to stay just one step ahead of the police. His objective though, is to make it to the British Embassy. Unfortunately the Secret Police are counting on that too, and have stationed a barricade of men at the gates, so Whistler cannot get past. Instead he returns to Vlasta’s home. At first she is skeptical about his intentions. She believes he is using her to smuggle out State secrets. Whistler dispels that notion when he throws the information that he received into the burning fireplace. Vlasta, once again in love, agrees to help him escape to freedom.

Hot Enough For June is a pleasant film, but as a romantic comedy, it doesn’t really work. As a romance the story is a bit forced and contrived, after all Vlasta is an intelligence officer who chooses to use ‘romance’ and ‘sex’ as a tool to get close to her target. She isn’t forced to use this technique; it her option. With that as a starting point, it’s hard to believe that over a day, that she’d do a complete backflip over a man that she despises on first meeting. And furthermore, betray her country and father for this same man. But I guess Bogarde and Koscina display a certain amount of on-screen chemistry that almost makes you believe this could happen.

As a comedy, the film is very light. There aren’t any laugh out loud moments, but here are quite a few scenes that produce broad grins. Robert Morley makes the best out of the comedic moments in the script.

All-in-all Hot Enough For June isn’t ground breaking or life changing cinema. It’s the type of film that you watch and enjoy, but really don’t know why. Well, …actually I know why! It has Sylva Koscina in it. For me that’s enough of a drawcard. As always she lights up the screen in every scene she is in. Digressing for a second, some people are perplexed at the success of Peplum films. ‘Why would you want to see a steroid bloated man with no neck toss around paper mache rocks?’ The truth is you don’t (well not much, anyway. Maybe a little bit). You watch Peplum films for the girls dressed in candy coloured, flimsy negligees. And Sylva Koscina was a ground breaker in that area, when she starred opposite Steve Reeves in Hercules, and Hercules Unchained. No-one could wear a negligee quite like her. When Eurospy films came along, she was quick to slip out of her negligee and squeeze into a bikini, with equal success.

The sixties had a great many sex sirens. Some of them are still household names, and some are now relegated to cinema history. Sylva Koscina appears to fall into the later category, and is one of the most neglected and under-rated actresses ever.

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Double Agent Popov: The Original James Bond (2006)

There have been many theories over the years about who Ian Fleming used as the template for his character James Bond. It is universally acknowledged that Bond is an amalgam of several different ‘real people’ (including Fleming, himself). Among the names bandied around are William Mason, Wilfred ‘Biffy’ Dunderdale and Dusko Popov. This documentary focuses entirely on Dusko Popov, who Fleming had encountered in a casino in Lisbourne, where he taught an arrogent Albanian spy a lesson in a high-stakes card game. Many believe this incident was the inspiration for Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale.

This 2006 documentary was initially released around the same time as Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale was released at the cinemas, so the intro and the end titles try to evoke the Bond spirit to entice viewers to watch the show. The film-makers need not have bothered, because Popov’s life was certainly action packed and interesting enough not to warrant such marketing gimicks. As they say, sometime truth is stranger than fiction.

The show traces Popov’s life from birth in Serbia, to his schooling in Germany. It is here that as the Nazi’s rose to power, and after a particularly nasty incident with the Gestapo, that Popov became a staunch anti-Nazi. Later, when a good German friend, Johan Jebsen asked Popov to work as a German spy, Popov readily agreed. Straight after, he marched into M.I.6 headquarters and offered himself as a double agent, quite willing to diseminate false and misleading information to the Nazis.

Later in his career as a superspy, he went to the United States and presented J. Edgar Hoover with a detailed report that documented that the Japanese were planning to bomb Pearl Harbour. Hoover and Popov did not get along, and it has been speculated that Hoover supressed the report out of arrogant pride.

In the early to mid 1970′s, Popov actually wrote his autobiography which outlined his numerous exploits. The book was called Spy / Counter Spy. I do not have a copy, but after watching this documentary, I believe that it is essential reading for any Bond, or spy enthusiast.

I found this documentary to be a fascinating insight into a real life spy. It’s funny that I may not have watched this, if the show didn’t attach ‘James Bond’s’ name to the title, which would have been a shame, because Popov, whose actions saved a countless number of lives, is in reality a far more important character than the fictional James Bond. It is a shame that a show about a man of this cailbre has to attach itself to the coat-tails of James Bond to get viewed. This is well worth checking out.

If you wish to watch the documentary, you can see it on the SBS Television Website. The link is in the column on the right hand side. I don’t know how long they’ll keep the link up, but it was screened on Friday December 5, 2008 at 8.30pm. If you’re interested, I’d get across there pretty quick.

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Spy In Rome (1968)

Here’s a lazy posting for the day. It’s a link to Die Danger Die Die Kill and the Bollywood Spy film, Spy In Rome.

Over at Die Danger Die Die Kill, for those you want to venture further into the strange and neglected world of Indian, Thai and Mexican movies, allow Todd Stadtman. to be your guide. Todd’s worldly and witty reviews take you to the far flung corners of the world, and if you’re lucky, will then safely guide you out again.

To read Todd’s review of Spy In Rome Click here.

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Top Secret! (1984)

Country: United States
Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Val Kilmer, Lucy Gutteridge, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Kemp, Christopher Villiers, Warren Clarke, Omar Sharif
Music by Maurice Jarre

Top Secret! is a Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker production (the team behind the Kentucky Fried Theatre), and as such anyone who has seen Flying High (that’s Airplane to most of you) or the Naked gun films will know the type of humour to expect – although this film falls short of their standard. The film takes a scattershot approach to comedy, thickly layering on the sight gags, word plays and silly plot contrivances. Some jokes work, and others miss their mark by a long shot, but due to the shear quantity, you’ll find yourself laughing, or at least grinning broadly at regular intervals.

The film is a parody of all the wartime spy thrillers that appeared in the forties and fifties – basically the spy films that pre-date Bond, James Bond. This provides a nice springboard for some old-fashioned trench coat action – and let’s face it, is there anything funnier than a man in a trench coat? Well yes – but let’s go with it. The film starts with a Western secret agent, Cedric played by Omar Sharif being accosted by an East German soldier on the roof of a moving train. As they come to a low bridge over the tracks, Omar ducks down under, while the soldier keeps standing. We expect to see the soldier chopped off at the knees as he collides with the bridge, but instead we see the bridge shatter like polystyrene, and the soldier continues to stand. This is the first sight gag in a film that is littered with them. Some are truly inspired – this is a good start – but others barely raise a groan. Omar, realising that his attacker is pretty strong – he shattered a bridge, dammit – decides to leap off the train.

The bad guys are pretty upset that Omar has escaped because he knows that they are up to no good. They have a plan to destroy the British submarine fleet with an advanced new weapon. Omar intends to pass this information onto the French resistance.

Meanwhile, to divert the world’s attention from their wicked scheme, the East Germans are holding a music festival. Among their guest is Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer). Rivers is a decadent Rock ‘n’ Roller. Incidentally, Elvis Presley played a character called Deke Rivers in Loving You. To go off a tangent for a moment, I find it strange that Elvis never made a spy film. After all he was a sixties icon, and at that time Bondmania was sweeping the world. I am sure the King was a fan of spy films and if he had made one, he would have made one that was right up there with the standard of his other films – actually maybe it’s better that he didn’t, after all his attempt at a Spaghetti Western, Charro, was pretty lame. But let’s return to Top Secret! and Val Kilmer. Nick Rivers, as a performer, provides plenty of opportunities for musical interludes, which parody the Beach Boys, Elvis and a few 50’s crooners.

This is a relatively early starring role for Kilmer, and although it seems to say this so many years down the track, his youthful boyish charm shines through. Despite cameos be a few big name stars, like Omar and Peter Cushing, Kilmer still has to carry the bulk of this film, which he does. The shortcomings of the film can be attributed to some poor material rather than his performance.

The comedy spy film is a difficult proposition at best, because so many of the ‘straight’ films have many comedy elements in them to begin with. So to make a comedy spy film, you really have to go ‘way out’, and Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker are just the men to do it. Even then though, Top Secret! isn’t as successful as other ZAZ productions, but it still is worth a look. Whatever your taste in comedy, there’s bound to be at least one joke that tickles your funnybone.

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Sleepers (1991)

Mini-Series 4 Episodes
Country: United Kingdom
Created by John Flanagan, Andrew McCulloch Nigel Havers, Warren Clarke, Michael Gough, David Calder, Joanna Kanska, Richard Huw, Christopher Rozycki Music by David Dundas and Rick Wentworth

Sleepers is a comedic BBC mini-series made after the fall of communism in Russia. At the time of it’s initial showing, the idea of presenting the culture clash as the agents on both sides come to terms with the new dynamic would have been fresh and at times, quite funny. But here we are, closing in on twenty years later, and the themes contained in this series just don’t hold as much water as they used to. That’s not to say that this series is bad. No, no – far from it – but some of its more biting observations have been dimmed by time and repetition in other shows.
The series opens in a mental hospital in Russia. A patient, Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough) is wandering around at night, ranting and raving. This will not be tolerated and two male nurses contain him and then strap him to a table. What has sent this man over the edge?

The titles then roll, and we are shown a montage of images from the sixties, including scenes of the weapons build up in Russia intercut with scenes of The Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
After the titles, we are in Moscow. We are told it is ‘Now’ – so around 1991. A secret room, that has been bricked in since the 1960’s is found in the Kremlin. A Russian Officer, Oleg Petrovski (Christopher Rozycki) walks into the dusty darkened room with a flashlight. As the light flickers around the room he discovers an artificial street with shopfronts, footpaths, cars, crossings, mailboxes and even mannequins standing in for the people. Albeit covered in dust and spiderwebs, it looks like a 3-D snapshot of swinging’ sixties Piccadilly Circus. At first the Russians surmise that the elaborate setup may have been for an Anti-British propaganda film, but this is soon dismissed. Why would they seal up a film set?

The room was in fact set up as a training ground for two KGB sleeper agents, Vladimir Zemenski and Sergei Rublev. In the room, they were to familiarise themselves with every aspect of swinging sixties British culture. But that was twenty-five years ago. What happened to the sleepers? Well now, one is Albert Robinson (Warren Clarke). He has a job at Braithwaite Brewery, and at home he has a wife and three kids. He is living your average working class life, but he is happy with his lot. The other sleeper is Jeremy Coward (Nigel Havers). Coward is a hotshot financier who pulls in 300,000 a year, drives a sportscar and is part owner in a race horse. Needless to say he is very happy with his adopted life.

The Russians first try to make contact by using old radios that the sleepers had been originally given when they were planted. Coward tossed his radio years ago. But Robinson still keeps his in the attic. He is quite dismayed; when after all these years the radio suddenly comes to life. He does not answer but decides to contact Coward.

Vladimir Zemenski and Sergei Rublev as they were once known, have not seen each other since they first arrived in the country, and when Robinson first arranges a meeting with Coward, Coward is quite annoyed to see his old comrade. His first reaction is a rather selfish one – but since he’s on a good wicket, why not? – he intends to kill Robinson and then leave the country. In the end though, Coward discovers that Robinson has no more desire to go back home than he does. After twenty-five years of the good life, why go back to a tiny concrete box in bitterly cold Russia? They decide to ignore the signals and requests and go back to their normal lives.

Unfortunately for Robinson and Coward, the Russians are adamant that they want their agents back and send Major Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanksa) to England to uncover the undercover agents and bring them back for debriefing. Instead, the two men choose to go on the run. This seems easier said than done, because not only are the men wanted by the Russians, but the attention they have received also puts them under the scrutiny of the C.I.A and M.I.6. With all sides chasing them it’s a mad and at times amusing scramble across the country.

Ah, but who is Andrei Zorin; the madman in the mental asylum? Well he’s the madman who put the sleeper plan into operation, without authorisation in the first place. And naturally, he knows more than he is telling.

In the end, Sleepers is an entertaining diversion. In it’s day, it was considered one of the better mini-series productions. Although not intentional, now it is an interesting time capsule looking back at the late eighties and early nineties. As with all things, over time attitudes and ideas change – not to mention fashion. Despite all this, the show succeeds on the strength of the performances by Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke.

Apparently Sleepers is available on DVD for those seeking it out, but apparently it has had to be modified from its original broadcast form for copyright reasons. I am guessing (I haven’t seen the new DVD) that this is because the use of some Beatles music in the opening scenes – much the same as the Beatles tunes were removed from the recent Billion Dollar Brain DVD. I don’t think the changes would diminish any viewing pleasure that this series is likely to bring.

Thanks to Mick

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