Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

House, over at ‘The Horror’ blogspot is at again and beaten me to the punch with the Billion Dollar Brain. Harry Palmer is back. With a bigger budget and some glossy set pieces. This is the third of the Harry Palmer films, this time directed by Ken Russell.

After a slick title sequence by Maurice Binder (Binder did many of the Bond title sequences, along with Charade and Arabesque), we are launched into the sordid world of Harry Palmer. Palmer has left the British Secret Service and become a second rate private detective.

This is the last of what I’d call the official Harry Palmer films, but Harry Palmer did return in the mid 1990’s in two low-budget, tele movies called Bullet To Beijing and Midnight In St Petersburg.

To read House’s review – click here.

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The Intercine Project (1974)

Country: United Kingdon / West Germany
Directed by Ken Hughes
James Coburn, Lee Grant, Harry Andrews, Ian Hendry, Keenan Wynn, Christiane Kruger, Michael Jayston, Julian Glover
Music by Roy Budd

Based on the novel ‘Intercine’ by Mort W. Elkind

internecine adj. mutually destructive.

That’s not me, being a smart alec, above. I have 2 reasons for listing a dictionary definition. Firstly, I didn’t know what ‘internecine’ meant. Secondly, the DVD cover (through Feemantle Media) states that it is ‘a fancy word for multiple murder’. I wanted to check if that was true. Hmmm!

Onto the plot! The movie gets off to a promising, if somewhat mysterious start with a gloved driver speeding from place to place, checking times on a stop-watch. At each stop he inspects a manilla folder. The four folders contain information on Christine Larsson (Christiane Kruger), Alex Hellman (Ian Hendry), David Baker (Michael Jayston) and Albert Parsons (Harry Andrews). Each of these characters are essential to the plot but take a back seat for a while.

We move on. Julian Glover has a small role as host of the TV show ‘The World This Week’, and this weeks guests include Professor Robert Elliot (James Coburn), who is a senior lecturer on economic studies at Havard University, and Jean Robinson (Lee Grant), a journalist. By the taunting and the repartee between the two guests, it is obvious that they have had a previous relationship that has gone sour, and now she doesn’t trust him or what he stands for.

Her suspicions grow when E.J. Farnsworth (Keenan Wynn), Vice President of Central Oil, meets with Elliot and during a game of golf, offers Elliot the high flying position of ‘Chairman Of The President’s Economic Committee’. There’s a small catch. Before Elliot can accept the position he has to clean up all the skeletons in his closet. Put simply, he has to dispose of the people who know all his dirty secrets that have helped him to the top – the four characters mentioned in the second paragraph of this review.

At this point, you’re probably saying ‘Gee David, this all seems rather complicated and political, what with wheeling and dealing between the White House and the oil companies!’ My response is ‘nah!’ It’s only complicated to make you think that Elliot is important. It really is an elaborate excuse to arrange some simple murders. As we’ve seen, the dictionary definition of ‘internecine’ is ‘mutally destructive’. So after all that overly complicated plotting at the beginning, we get to the heart of the movie. Elliot has to convince his four cohorts to kill each other – ‘mutal murder’.

The Internecine Project is a low key film compared to Coburn’s glossy espionage thrillers from the sixties, such as Our Man Flint, In Like Flint and The President’s Analyst; but as the story plays out, the tension slowly builds up, and what you’re left with is a taut little thriller.

The film has a lot to recommend it. It features another great moody score by Roy Budd, and has a fine cast of English character actors fleshing out the smaller roles. The story too, is engrossing. But this is a small film and not a particularly happy one at that. Coburn never breaks into his trademark grin and there is a sense of foreboding about the whole affair. If you choose to seek out The Internecine Project, be prepared for something quite different to the films that Coburn had done before.

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Funeral In Berlin (1966)

While I may have been slacking off over the Christmas break it appears that others have been working hard. One of those people is House, over at The Horror blogspot.

Here’s his take on the second of the Harry Palmer films – Funeral In Berlin.

I believe that Funeral In Berlin is a big step down from The IPCRESS File. But The IPCRESS File is a masterpiece, so slipping down a level brings you back to a bloody good film – and rest assured Funeral In Berlin is a good film.

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Rendition (2007)

Country: United States

Directed by Gavin Hood Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Omar Metwally, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin, Meryl Streep, Igal Naor
Music by Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian

Rendition is a very good, if slightly unsettling film. As an Australian, Rendition is a term that I am not really familiar with. Apparently it relates to a law that enables the American Government, in the interest of National Security to whisk away suspects, out of the country, where they can be interrogated without the usual legal rights. In this film, Rendition is presented as a rather brutal and barbaric way to extract information.

Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is a successful American chemical engineer. When I say American, I mean that he has lived in America for twenty years after immigrating from Egypt. He was schooled in America and married a pretty American girl, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). They have a son named Jeremy and another child is on the way. When we first meet Anwar he is in Cape Town, South Africa where he has just attended an engineering conference. He is now on his way to the airport to catch a flight back home to Chicago, via Washington.

Meanwhile in an un-named North African country, a new CIA section chief, named Dixon has taken over. Accompanied by a self confessed pen-pusher, Douglas Freeman, Dixon is on his way to meet the country’s chief of security, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor). That morning an assassination attempt is made on Fawal. The sniper misses but kills a waiter. Fawal’s bodyguards quickly rush him out the back as a suicide bomber blows himself up in the city’s centre square. In their car, on the opposite side of the square are Dixon and Freeman, and when the bomb goes off, the blast hits the car, shatters the windows and kills Dixon. Taking responsibility for the attack is a group called El-hazim.

Back in Washington, US Security head, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) receives a call in the middle of the night. She is briefed about the situation and authorises the Rendition of Anwar at Washington Airport. On his way through the terminal, to catch his connecting flight to Chicago, he is approached by a policewoman. She tells him that there is an emergency and he is to follow her, which he does. She leads him to an emergency exit, and once through the doors, he is pounced on by several agents, and a black bag placed over his head. The operatives then collect his luggage and delete his information from the passenger records. Anwar is spirited out of the country and delivered to Abasi Fawal in Northern Africa.

Also in Africa, Freeman, after Dixon’s death, is promoted to section head. At this time he is to act as a US observer as Fawal starts his own interrogation of Anwar. Fawal’s methods are slightly more primitive than the CIA’s, but the information that they have received indicates that Anwar El-Ibriahimi is a terrorist, and indirectly, is responsible for the recent terrorist attack in the city square. But allow me to flesh out the background story a bit more. The organisation, El-hazin claimed responsibility for the bombing, and the head man for them is a fellow called Rashis Salemi. Over the past two years Salemi has been behind a multitude of terrorist attacks, but only recently have his bombs become more sophisticated and powerful. Linking Salemi to Anwar is a series of telephone calls made on a mobile phone. As Anwar is a chemical engineer, the supposition is that he is the person who has been upgrading Salemi’s bombs. Anwar on the other hands, claims not to know who Salemi is, and the information must not be correct. But under Fawal’s brutal control, Anwar has no recourse. He is to be tortured until he talks. And if he doesn’t talk, well that’s just too bad.

But this storyline is just one of the many facets to this story. There are also two family based storylines running simultaneously. The first concerns Anwar’s wife, Isabella, who frantically starts searching for her missing husband, only to find she is cut off in every direction she tries to turn. The second strand examines the disappearance of Fawal’s daughter who has fallen in love with a young boy named Khalid, who happens to have fallen in with some Muslim extremists.

As I said from the outset, Rendition is a very good film and it is bolstered by an excellent cast. Although his name is down the list on the billing, Omar Metwally’s performance as Anwar holds the film together. The confusion, desperation and horror of the situation he goes through is heartbreaking to watch. The other actors also give good performances, notably Gyllenhaal as the torment CIA operative, Witherspoon as the frustrated wife who gets no answers and Streep as the ice-cold bitch who does what she has to, in the interests of National Security.

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Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966)

AKA: Operation Lady Chaplin
Country: Spain / Italy / France
Director: Alberto De Martino
Starring: Ken Clark, Daniella Bianchi, Jacques Bergerac, Phillipe Hersent, Evelyn Stewart, Mabel Karr, Helga Liné
Music: Bruno Nicolai
Song, ‘Lady Chaplin’, sung by Bobby Solo

What is it that attracts the worlds spy story tellers to scorpions? Just of the top of my head I know there are two Bond films with scorpions – Diamonds Are Forever and Die Another Day, coincidentally both made after this flick. Then there’s The Scorpio Letters and Scorpio – okay no actual scorpions but playing on the image of the scorpion. Modesty Blaise has a giant scorpion tattoo on her leg in Joseph Losey’s 1966 film. If you look at books, John Gardner had a Bond continuation novel called Scorpius (can’t remember the story but I don’t think there were any scorpions – I seem to recall a lot of snakes though); and Anthony Horrowitz, in this Alex Rider series had Scorpia – lots and lots of scorpions, yeah! Why is the scorpion such a potent espionage symbol? I don’t know really, but I thought that was a good way to kick off the review for Special Mission Lady Chaplin which features a madman who keeps pet scorpions.

The film is actually the third film in the Ken Clark 077 films, and as I would have mentioned previously, despite the large amount of films marketed with 077 in their title, there are only actually three films in the series. This entry opens with a nun driving a Citroen delivery van up a winding mountain road to a monastery. Two monks greet her as she brings in a basket of fresh linen. She places the basket on a table and removes some of the items. Underneath she has hidden a machine gun, which she grabs, turns and fires, mowing down the monks. She then searches the monastery until she finds a cabinet with a large radio transmitter. She blasts the radio to hell and then, her mission complete, leaves the scene. Unbeknownst to the machine gun wielding nun, there was actually a third monk, who was outside when she arrived. He survives her onslaught and slips away safely.

The surviving monk makes his way to the US Embassy in Madrid and bargains for immunity with a dog tag from a US Naval Officer. As you may have guessed, this man is not really a monk, and you’re probably wondering why would a dog tag be important. It just so happens that it belonged to an officer on the US Thresher, which was a submarine that sank twelve months previously. It went down in water so deep that it could not be salvaged. The Thresher also happened to be carrying sixteen Polaris missiles. Now if the sub was too deep to be salvaged, then how did the officers dog tag reach the surface? And that’s just exactly the question that Heston (Phillipe Hersent), the Head of the CIA wants answered. To get answers he turns to his top man, Dick Malloy, Agent 077.

Malloy is immediately shunted off to make contact with the surviving monk and retrieve the dog tag. As soon as he makes contact, a man in a black turtle neck pops up with a gun and tries to kill the monk. Malloy intervenes and the first of many chases takes place.

The nun who performed the hit at the monastery happens to be Arabel Chaplin (Daniella Bianchi), who is a master of disguise. She works for a slimy fellow called Kobra Zoltan (Jacques Bergerac). Zoltan just happens to run the world’s largest salvage company and is the only person who could have possibly reached the Thresher. He immediately becomes a prime suspect in Malloy’s investigations.

The third and in some ways finest of the 077 series is buoyed by the addition of Daniela Bianchi to the cast as the mysterious Lady Chaplin. Is she a good girl or a bad girl? Well it doesn’t really matter – during her scenes she is fine clothes horse, outfitted by some lurid creations by Casa d’Alta Moda. While this film clearly has a larger budget than the first two films in the series, the money appears to have gone solely to the very splashy wardrobes of the female stars. But sadly for poor old Ken Clark, the star of the series, he gets lumped with a set of trousers that are clearly too short for his lanky frame.

As with most Eurospy films, Special Mission Lady Chaplin benefits greatly from the location shooting for the outdoor action sequences. Rest assured that the interiors were filmed in Italy, but this story visits locations as diverse as New York, the Costa Del Sol, Madrid, London, Paris and finally Morocco. All in all, Special Mission Lady Chaplin is a pretty tight little thriller. As you’d expect from a film of this vintage, some of the ideas are a bit outlandish, but this film certainly isn’t as silly as many of it’s contemporaries.

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Lightning Bolt (1966)

AKA: Operation Goldman
Country: Spain / Italy
Director: Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti)
Starring: Anthony Eisley, Diana Lorys, Folco Lulli, Ursula Parker, Wandissa Leigh, Paco Sanz
Music: Riz Ortolani

There’s a line towards the end of this film, where the hero quips to the villain that he ‘never liked your beer anyway’. What can I say? How evil can you get. Not only is the evil megalomaniac in this film intent on taking over the world, he can’t even provide a quality beverage for the masses. Yep, the evil genius runs a brewery. That’s nothing new. The villains in The Ambushers also operated out of a brewery, but at least they had the common decency to produce a quality bottle of beer. When Matt Helm fell into the vat of beer it seemed like an inconvenience rather than a chore. But this guy, Rehte is his name is an ungodly creature, is pure evil. And that’s why we need secret agents like Harry Sennet (Anthony Eisley) and Pat Flannagan (Diana Lorys).

Lightning Bolt is a slick but silly Eurospy film from Italian journeyman director Antonio Margheriti. The film opens with NASA test firing a new rocket. It starts well, but then spirals out of control. NASA have no option but to push the self destruct button – after all they don’t want it to make an unexpected landing in someone’s back yard. It’s the sixth rocket test that has failed, and now they are beginning to suspect sabotage. Dr. Rooney, one of the NASA scientists does some analysis and comes up with the first lead. He has discovered, at the time that the rockets were launched, strange radio signals were coming from the bottom of the sea. He cruises out in a small runabout with a Navy diver named Wilkes. Using a Geiger counter, Rooney homes in on the signal and once in position, sends Wilkes over the side to investigate. Wilkes quickly meets his end, and Rooney’s boat is blown up – but strangely the good scientists body is not found.

At this point the Federal Security Investigation Commission – or the F.S.I.C. for short – are called in to take over the investigation which is codenamed ‘Lightning Bolt’. The first agent is Captain Pat Flannagan, also known as Agent 36-22-36 – yep, she’s a woman alright! Her underling is a cheeky young chap named Harry Sennet. Sennet is different to most spies in that he doesn’t like to use violence to solve his missions. He prefers to use a chequebook – that is to say if Sennet finds himself in a dangerous situation, rather than pulling a gun or a knife, he pulls out a chequebook and bribes his assailant. As a cover, he chooses to play a wealthy playboy – it’s great work if you can get it!

Sennet and Flannagan head to a hotel in Miami for no other reason than it is a hot-bed of spies. Their hunch is right and soon they are hopping from one scrape to the next. Along the way, Sennet provides a very dry narration, as if the film were a detective thriller from the 1940’s, but rather than delivery witty wisecracks, Sennet spits out sleazy one-liners like a cut-rate Connery.

Look, I know that Lightning Bolt is a load of rubbish and ‘normal people’ would do well to steer clear, but I found this film to be extremely entertaining. All the silly spy film clichés are in place. It has swanky living; sexy girls in slinky costumes; an underwater lair for the mysterious madman; rockets; and an E-type Jag being thrashed to within an inch of it’s life. The sets and the models in this film aren’t too bad either – okay you can tell they are models, but that just adds to the trip. Lightning Bolt may not be one of the best Eurospy films that came out riding on the coattails of James Bond in the mid sixties, but it sure is a lot of fun.

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The Golden Buddha (1966)

Original Title: Jin Pur Sa
Country: Hong Kong
Director: Wei Lo
Starring: Paul Chang, Jeanette Lin Tsui, Fanny Fan, Lo Wei, Wu Ma
Music: Wang Chu-Jen (with some snatches from John Barry’s Thunderball score)

A belated happy New Year to everyone, and I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable Christmas. I am still on holidays – playing a bit of golf and sunning myself on a rock. Without the aid of my own computer my time on the net has been very limited – hence the lack of posts and follow up to any comments. But I’ll kick into gear soon. In the meantime, here’s The Golden Buddha.

The Golden Buddha is an extremely enjoyable Bond imitation film from the Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong. The spy films produced by Shaw Brothers benefit greatly from the amount of money poured into set design and location shooting. There’s no denying that these films look fabulous.

The film opens at Hong Kong airport and a gentleman named Paul is heading off to Singapore on a business trip. Boarding the plane after Paul is a fellow named Chung Cheung. Chung’s black briefcase is not allowed on the overhead shelves, so the sexy stew takes it away and places it towards the back of the plane with the other cases. The camera lingers long enough for us to see an identical case has already been stowed. Now prizes for guessing who this case belongs to. Then Chung takes his seat, and wouldn’t you know it, he is seated next to his old pal, Paul. Chung is off to Bangkok on urgent family business. His brother sent him a letter saying that there was an emergency and he should fly over straight away.

The planes first stop is in Bangkok, so Chung gets off and as he leaves he inadvertently takes Paul’s suitcase rather than his own. But as luck would have it, due to inclement weather in Singapore, the next leg of the plane flight is delayed. The passengers are forced to stay in Bangkok for the evening.

Paul checks into a hotel for the evening and opens up his case only to find that it is not his case at all. Inside he finds a small wooden box containing an even smaller golden Buddha statuette. From a letter inside, Paul realises that it is Chung’s case. Paul catches a taxi to the address on the letter to exchange the case only to find Chung dead with a bloody great knife in his chest.

Not wanting to get involved Paul returns to his hotel only to find two thugs waiting for him in his room – no doubt they tracked him from the information in the case that Chung had?) What the thugs didn’t count on was the fact that Paul is a pretty fearsome fighter and handles himself quite admirably. Finally on the verge of defeat, the thugs decide to leg it, and use a smoke bomb as a diversion as they make their retreat.

Later Paul goes through Chung’s case more thoroughly and reads the letter that was sent to Chung by his brother. It says they have clues to a fabulous buried treasure, and that the location can be found by reading the engravings on three separate golden Buddhas. It appears that each member of the Chung family have a Buddha. The other two siblings are his sister Mei-nan and his older brother Tai.

Next Paul examines the Buddha statuette for the secret engraving. After fiddling for a bit, he discovers that the statuette has a false base and on the inside there is an inscription. He immediately does a brass rubbing onto a piece of paper and then scratches away the inscription on the Buddha. So the message is not lost, Paul then heads to a tattoo parlour and has the message inked onto the calf of his leg.

Now Paul’s motives are not mercenary. He is not after the treasure at all. His course of action is entirely motivated by the death of his friend. His mission happens to be to find Chung’s siblings and to hand on Chung’s piece of the puzzle. Paul’s first port of call is to see Tai.

Paul arrives just in time as Tai is being menaced by the operatives of an evil organisation called The Skeleton Gang. Once again Paul’s martial art skills come to the fore and be beats off the aggressors. Afterwards he explains the details of Chung’s death and how he is the keeper of his legacy. Tai is saddened to hear of his brother’s demise, and now fears for his sister’s life. As Tai is being watched, Paul is sent to retrieve Mei-nan.

Unfortunately Paul has to fight The Skeleton Gang every step of the way, which isn’t quite the burden you expect it to be when you realise that one of The Skeleton Gang’s main operatives is the delightfully wicked Fanny Fan.

As I mentioned at the top, one of the pleasing aspects of this production is the location shooting and the set design. Firstly, the locations. Much of the film is shot in Thailand, including Bangkok International Airport, and they also make use of the ancient ruins of the Ayutthaya.

As for the set design, The Skeleton Gang’s underwater headquarters is quite amazing. I am quite sure Bond designer Ken Adam would be pleased with the imagination on display here (although I do remember something similar in the Bob Hope, Bing Crosby vehicle, Road To Hong Kong!).

The film-makers have also sampled quite a lot of John Barry’s music from the early Bond films. To purists, this may seem like sacrilege, but if you can forgive this, it just adds to the enjoyment of this time capsule from the past. It’s colourful, it’s loud and it’s sixties kitsch with an Asian flavour base. What more could you want?

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Danger Girls (1969)

Here’s a film I learnt about from Bob over on the Eurospy Forum. Apparently it’s the second in a series featuring secret agent Alex Dynamo – the first film is SOS Operacion Bikini

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Fantomas Vs Scotland Yard (1966)

Country: France / Italy
Director: André Hunebelle
Starring: Jean Marais, Louis De Funes, Myléne Demongeot, Jacques Dynam, Jean-Roger Caussimon, Françoise Christophe, Henri Serre

Music: Michel Magne

Fantomas Vs Scotland Yard is the third and final of Andre Hunebelle’s sixties revival of the Fantomas character. If you haven’t noticed yet, I find the Fantomas films to be wild exuberant fun. But if you are looking for closure in the Fantomas series – that is, you want Fantomas captured, or at least an explanation of why he does all these evil deeds – well, you’ll be sadly disappointed. This film is more of the same.

A Rolls Royce follows a procession of Highland pipers through the streets of a Scottish village, before winding it’s way out of town and to a castle in the country. The castle is the residence of Lord Rashley, one of the word’s richest men. In the Rolls is Walter Brown who has been retained to draw up an insurance policy for Rashley.

But Brown is not all that he seems. In fact he isn’t Brown at all, but arch criminal Fantomas, in one of his life-like replica masks. For those of you who are joining us late, that’s one of Fantomas’ specialties – impersonating them using these life life latex masks. When he is appearing as himself, he appears with a blue, bald synthetic face (I know, on the poster it looks a bit green).

Fantomas assures Rashley (Jean-Roger Caussimon) that he doesn’t want to destroy the world just yet. He wishes to pillage for a bit longer. And so to his latest evil scheme – The super villain has a proposal for Rashley, which runs along the lines of: ‘if the rich want to continue living they will have to pay a tax!’ A life tax. Fantomas has set up a company to collect fees from the world’s wealthiest people. If they do not pay, Fantomas will kill them.

After his proposal, Fantomas leaves Rashley’s estate by helicopter. As he circles overhead, he tosses out the real Walter brown’s lifeless body, which crashes down at Lord Rashley’s feet.

It isn’t long before the press get hold of the story – ‘another Fantomas killing!’ Naturally, at the forefront of any journalism relating to Fantomas is Fandor (Jean Marais). As soon as the story breaks, coupled with his trusty photographer, and girlfriend, Helene (Mylene Demongeot), he is off to Scotland to track down the evil mastermind once more.

Meanwhile Lord Rashley is implementing his own plans to defend himself against Fantomas. To do this he requires the services of the world’s foremost law-enforcement authority on Fantomas – who just so happens to be Commissioner Juve (Louis De Funes). Rashley invites Juve and his dim-witted assistant Bertrand (Jacques Dynam) to Scotland, expecting that they will capture the blue headed fiend.

Later the world’s richest men all gather at Lord Rashley’s Estate to discuss Fantomas and the ‘life tax’ that has been imposed on them. During the meeting, Rashley lays out his plan to capture Fantomas in his castle. But their are further complications – Rashley’s assistant, Andre Bertiere (Henri Serre) has hatched a plan with Rashley’s wife (Françoise Christophe) to kill the Lord and inherit all his money. Unfortunately Fantomas’ plan has put a spanner in the work. But Bertiere is a resourceful young chap and he approaches some local gangsters for help. Their plan is to bump off Fantomas, but not to tell the ‘wealthy victims’ that Fantomas is dead. Instead they will collect the tax. But Fantomas is not a dimwit, and is quickly onto the gangsters plan. His response is simple, he places a ‘life tax’ on the gangsters as well. The gangster, now feeling rather threatened, hatch another plan. This time it is to join with Rashley and the other millionaires to rid the world of Fantomas once and for all. Well, this plan is rather flawed too, because Fantomas has killed Lord Rashley and is now impersonating him.

While all this plot convolution is going on, we are treated to the usual repetoire of gags from Louis De Funes as Juve – a dash of derring do from Jean Marias as Fandor – and Mylene Demongeot looks as beautiful as always.

Fantomas Vs Scotland Yard is as enjoyable as the previous two Fantomas films, and while this was the end of Andre Hunebelle’s trilogy, it wasn’t the end for Fantomas. The evil mastermind would pop up in productions from all around the world. For those wishing to hunt the madman down, amongst his many appearances, you can find him in Iron Claw The Pirate and Saazish, which features the fabled Bollywood Fantomas.

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Get Smart: Mr. Big (1965)

Directed by Howard Morris
Don Adams, Barbara Feldon, Edward Platt, Michael Dunn, Vito Scotti

Get Smart, although a comedy series, is iconic television. On this site you’ll stumble on a great many spy comedies. As you read these reviews, you’ll also realise that many of these films are absolutely dreadful. I have surmised that this is because a great number of the so-called ‘straight spy’ films already have a healthy dollup of humour in them. To make a parody of something that is already humorous requires going off at the deep end to get even greater laughs. And no doubt there is an element of ‘going off at the deep end’ in Get Smart. But Get Smart is layered like a fine homestyle lasagna. There are many comedy styles displayed over the length of an average episode. There is broad slapstick farce, parody and satire. And it’s the last of these, ‘satire’ where the real comedy gold comes from. The best laughs come from not going ‘out there’, but rather going ‘in there’. They look at the minutiae of work for a bureaucratic body. Many of the laughs do not come from the absurdity of a mission – they stem from the apparatus in place to send an agent on their mission. This is exemplified by the ‘cone of silence’ that Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86 (Don Adams) always insists upon when receiving a mission briefing from the ‘Chief’ (Edward Platt). But before we go any further, maybe it’s best that we have a brief look at the ‘Get Smart’ universe.

In the television series Get Smart, there are two spy organizations. The first is ‘Control’ which represents ‘good’ and ‘niceness’. The second is ‘KAOS’ which represents ‘evil’ and ‘badness’. Control’s two gun agents are Maxwell Smart and his partner Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon). KAOS, on the other hand has an ever-changing cadre of evil-doers intent of subjugating the world. Some of the villain’s names may even sound vaguely familiar to you – there’s Bronze Finger and Dr. Yes. That’s right, get Smart is a parody of the Bondian universe, but added to this, Smart’s continual ineptitude puts him on par with another mid-sixties comedy icon, Inspector Clouseau – as portrayed by Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther films. Maybe it’s no co-incidence, after the success of Get Smart, that Peter Sellers would actually play James Bond later in the decade, in the abhorrent comedy spoof, Casino Royale.

Although Maxwell Smart may be the bastard son of Bond and Clouseau, he has spawned his own progeny in the form of Austin Powers, Johnny English, and in the recent revision of OSS 117 portrayed by Jean Dujardin. Get Smart proved that a well-written spy comedy could work, and over the years there have been many attempts revive the formula.

A wise man once said, ‘there’s no such thing as an old joke if you haven’t heard it before’. For me, growing up in an outback town, where television was an endless rotation of re-runs, you were bound to hear jokes time and time again. They were all old jokes. For some shows, this meant that they quickly overstayed their welcome. However, Get Smart was a shining beacon in such an environment. The running gags – the old jokes – actually got better with age. ‘Sorry about that, Chief’, ‘Missed it by that much’, ‘Would you believe…’ are lines that are indelibly burnt into the subconscious mind of any regular Get Smart viewer. These catchphrases, even through repeated episode after episode, season after season, took on a life of their own. When watching an episode, there was a perceptible tingling of anticipation, while you waited for Smart to deliver one of these signature lines. Usually the set-ups were so transparent, it was easy for the viewer to join in (not that I am one to talk to my television).

Of course, the main reason for the show’s success was the casting of Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, and Barbara Feldon as 99. Naturally these two were provided with quality scripts written by the likes of Mel brooks and Buck Henry, but what’s sewerage to a magistrate is caviar to a psychopath – or in English, in the hands of different leads, the show would have appeared quite different. This is born out in the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb, which didn’t feature Barbara Feldon – and basically was crap! The magic wasn’t there.

Mr. Big was the first episode in the Get Smart series and was the only one made in black and white. As such, when the program was shown in repeats, quite often this episode was left out. But from the very beginning most of the familiar Get Smart trademark lines and situations were already in place.

The episode opens in a theatre in Washington DC. A symphony orchestra is playing to a sell out crowd, and seated in the audience is Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86 for Control. During the show, much to the chagrin of those seated around him, Smart’s shoe phone rings. In this day and age with mobile phones and almost instant communication, a portable phone may not seem like the world’s coolest gadget, but back in 1965 this was cutting edge technology and ferociously funny.

On the phone is the Chief of Control. It appears that the evil organization KAOS are up to their usual tricks and the Chief wants to brief Smart for the new mission. Control has a rotation policy when assigning agents to missions, and unfortunately, it is Smart’s turn once again. Max rushes to headquarters.

During the briefing it is explained that Professor Hugo Dante (Vito Scotti) has been kidnapped by KAOS. Along with the Professor they have taken his latest invention called the ‘Inthermo’ – yes, it is Dante’s Inthermo – groan! The Inthermo is a laser weapon that can convert heat into immense destructive power. Control know that KAOS is being the kidnapping because, Mr. Big (Michael Dunn) has radioed in a ransom demand for one hundred million dollars.

Smart is assigned to find and destroy KAOS and Mr. Big, and then find the Professor and return the Inthermo. To assist him on his mission, he is to be teamed up with a new partner, Agent 99, who is to meet him at the airport.

There is not too much point outlining much of the plot as each episode only runs for half an hour (even less if you count the time set aside for adverts). Mr. Big is a fine introduction to the Get Smart series. Some of the bumbling that would become inherent in later episodes in the series is slightly missing in this pilot episode. There is a fight scene towards the end of the show, where Smart actually looks like a competent agent and handles himself admirably.

Get Smart was quality comedy television, made at a time when most shows of it’s type were family based sitcoms. Get Smart broke that formula and came up with something quite new in television entertainment. Forty years down the track, and the shows freshness may have been diminished by the countless imitators and followers, but the show was groundbreaking in it’s day and deserves to be looked upon as one of the classics of the spy genre.

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