I’d eagerly awaited this trip back to Underrated 1965 for Rupert Pupkin Speaks so I could share some of my favorite, lesser-known descendants of James Bond. Then I sifted through the movies I’d wanted to highlight and realized that 1965 turned out to be a bit of a buzzkill. There’s a handful of worthy genre flicks, but few really qualified as being overlooked or forgotten gems. They were merely better than the rest of the chicken scratch. The French/Italian Corrida pour un espion (aka Code Name Jaguar) starring Ray Danton, for example. Worth watching, but would you feel rewarded for seeking it out? Spy fans, definitely. The rest of the world? Ehhhh… probably not so much. (It’s available on YouTube if you’re curious.) Beginning with Dr. No in 1962, James Bond churned out four movies by the end of 1965. The rest of the world struggled to reinvent. Many of the early parodies, ripoffs, and cash-ins just failed to distinguish themselves. (Just wait for 1966, though!) Rather than force-feed readers a mélange of mediocrity, I branched out. I’ve included the most notable non-Bond spy flick, an early giallo (also a favorite genre of mine), two films featuring Ursula Andress and a plain old non-genre film about a girl coming of age (what’s that doing here??). Never fear. To make up for the lack of official spy business, I’ve included a bonus commentary on the 1965 Bond film that takes far too much grief.
Agent 077: Mission Bloody Mary (1965, dir. Sergio Grieco)
“You seem rather nervous. This can’t be the first time you’ve seen the breast of a woman.”
“In fact it’s the second. And the first time was my wet nurse.”
Mission Bloody Mary opens on a rainy night. A police officer stops to aid a woman stranded on the side of the road. Of course she’s beautiful. Of course she’s exotic. Of course she’s sopping wet. And of course she stabs him with a flashlight dagger. Thus sets into motion the scheme to be foiled: a nuclear weapon’s on the loose and only a most cunning superspy can infiltrate the mysterious Black Lily crime syndicate to prevent a global meltdown.
This is the first of three spy outings with Ken Clark starring as Dick Malloy, American Agent 077. Clark plays James Bond filtered through the American ideal. He’s taller and physically more imposing than Sean Connery. Clark, he of the chiseled jaw, worked briefly in the Hollywood B-movie system (starring in such films as Attack of the Giant Leeches) and made a few failed TV pilots before casting away to make spaghetti westerns, sword and sandal epics, and Eurospy movies in Italy during the 1960’s.
Though Mission Bloody Mary’s entrenched as a sincere budget Bond knockoff, it knows precisely which buttons to push. Beautiful women (in rose petal pasties), despicable villains (though a little on the bland side) and exotic international locales. There’s a brutal fisticuffs sequence on a train (recalling From Russia With Love) that ends with an impromptu window guillotine. Though Ken Clark is a largely humorless actor, the script allows him bits of natural comedy that plays off his wooden persona. For example, Malloy starts a bar brawl with a few sailors as a distraction and all the while fights with a lit cigar (James Bond meets Hannibal Smith). At one point a henchman makes a crack about 077’s cardigan sweater and subsequently pays the ultimate price.
As with almost all of these mid-60’s cheap Bond knockoffs, there’s bad acting and poor dubbing, vague motivation and few logical narrative threads. This first Ken Clark outing features all of that… but Mission Bloody Mary manages to offer its own brand of whimsical, half-baked cardigan-clad thrills with panache. The series peaks with the excellent third and final entry, Special Mission Lady Chaplin, co-starring Bond girl Daniela Bianchi.
Libido (1965, dir. Ernesto Gastaldi, Vittoria Salerno)
When a movie’s prefaced by a Sigmund Freud passage about childhood trauma… that promises good times.
Mario Bava generally gets credit for kickstarting the giallo genre with 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (which feels more like a German krimi to me) and 1964’s Blood and Black Lace. Then most histories jump forward to Umberto Lenzi and Lucio Fulci in the late 60’s before Dario Argento ushers in the genre properly with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970.
For whatever reason, Gastaldi and Salerno’s Libido gets excised from the conversation. Ernesto Gastaldi would go on to write some of Italy’s most proficient spaghetti westerns and giallo films of the 60’s and 70’s including My Name is Nobody, The Grand Duel, The Case of the Bloody Iris, and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. Though an early example of a giallo, Libido contains all of the major genre trappings: sexual perversion, a black-gloved murderer and stylized cinematography. The stark black and white cinematography of rocky cliffs and perilous precipices reminded me immediately of Antonioni’s L’avventura. Sadly, however, a tenth of preservation work has been done on Libido. The available DVD serves its purpose – we can watch the film, but it’ll likely never look as good as it should.
Libido also marks the screen debut of Giancarlo Giannini, playing Christian, a young man set to inherit his father’s estate upon his 25th birthday. The dark underbelly of this pending wealth is that it was in this estate as a child that the young boy witnessed his father murdering blonde woman before jumping off the cliff. This all took place in a room filled with mirrors and some sadism, but you know how it goes. Christian travels to the estate with his fiancée and a second couple in order to take inventory before Christian puts it all on the market. Christian hopes to overcome these childhood traumas if only temporarily. Instead he begins seeing strange things that suggest his father might still be alive. Soon Christian, nor the viewer, can separate the real from the illusory.
Shot entirely in one location – the house and the immediately surrounding environs – Libido makes great use of this isolated setting to induce a sense of inescapable paranoia. Like the only way to leave this godforsaken place is to throw oneself over the cliffs. One twist leads to another… and another… each of them earned and surprising until the final moments of the film.
10th Victim (1965, dir. Elio Petri)
Within the first 5 minutes, 10th Victim offers up Ursula Andress in Go-go boots and a Fembot-caliber brassiere. She’s executing her “hunter,” a Japanese businessman who gets a little too handsy with a masked stripper he doesn’t recognize as his “prey.” Thus begins this proto-entry in the Running Man/Hunger Games/Battle Royale line of satirical sci-fi takes on uber-violence in popular culture. Only this one is groovy, full of kitschy costumes, comically elaborate assassination attempts (Catapults! Alligators!), and stars the aforementioned Dr. No Bond girl alongside the great Marcelo Mastroianni.
While modern examples of the genre emphasize blood and brutality to make social or political statements, 10th Victim exaggerates for laughs. Regarding the more strict rules about where hunters may kill their pray, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) laments that Americans can kill anywhere while Italians are forced to abide by a no church, no barbershop code. A random kill/chase scene with two arbitrary contestants culminates on the steps of a memorial building. The policeman that confirms the legitimacy of the kill lauds the victor for the theatricality of his pursuit and then hands him a citation for illegal parking. As viewers we’re trained to anticipate the elements of a film like the 10th Victim to culminate in uneasy violence and aggressively unfunny satire. Petri’s film, however, is a contemporary farce wrapped in a dystopian package that cares far more about showmanship than hammering home any specific ideology.
There’s a darker underbelly to the film that Petri never foregrounds. For example, Marcello hides his parents, presumably because the government, hell bent on population control (the impetus behind “The Hunt”), would make them disappear should they know where to find them. 10th Victim undercuts the horrible nature of this realization by using Marcello’s parents to interrupt a scene of awkward seduction. They emerge from behind a pop-art wall that slides away with some beep boop beep sound effects to take a peek at the copulation.
There’s some criticism over the atonal performances by Mastroianni and Andress. Yet it is their dire seriousness that amplifies the vortex of nonsense around them. They need to be deadly serious to ground the film. We, the viewer, are intended to watch 10th Victim (or any of these meditations on government-or media-sanctioned murder) and consider the absurdity of society’s predisposition toward violence. 10th Victim has dared to make a farce out of the horror.
Up To His Ears (1965, dir. Philippe De Broca)
When I picked up the Cohen Media Blu-ray for Our Man in Rio earlier this year, I considered the second feature on the two-disc set, Up To His Ears, a nice Belmondo bonus for spending mucho bucks on the main feature. I didn’t know, for example, that Up To His Ears was done by the same director, Philippe De Broca, or that the movie featured Ursula Andress. Either of these factors would have sold me on this film. I regret not paying more attention. Those days misspent days I didn’t watch Up To His Ears were just more days without this brilliant, visual cacophony of sight gags, one-liners and absurd chase scenes in my life. There are so many chase scenes that the movie feels lost whenever Arthur Lempereur isn’t fleeing some manner of assassins.
Arthur (Jean Paul Belmondo) is a young man of limitless wealth and influence. He owns 17 castles and 3 knitting mills. In order to interrupt his daily malaise he attempts suicide and fails 9 times. He travels to Hong Kong where a Chinese philosopher convinces him not to die in vain, rather take out an insurance policy on and help those around him benefit from his death. The philosopher, of course, reluctantly accepts half with the other half going to his fiancé. And, as it goes, upon signing the paperwork Arthur has some buyer’s remorse.
For the next 90 minutes, Arthur flees, evades, cross-dresses, participates in Kabuki Theater, and hides from hired goons, snipers and greedy family members. Along the way he picks up fan-dancer/traveler Alexandrine (Andress) and two men sent by the insurance company to protect him from his would-be assassins. The repetitive, undulating pacing of the film itself is pure balletic madness on the scale of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Chase. Pause. Chase. Pause. Chase. Chase.
Anyone whose experience with Belmondo begins and ends with, say, Breathless or The Professional, will find a very different Belmondo here (as in Our Man in Rio). He is part Harold Lloyd (high-wire physical comedian), part Jacques Tati (subtle rhythms and purpose amid chaos) and occasionally a dash of Peter Sellers (total, extended immersion for a worthy gag).
Andress becomes a worthy fetish for De Broca’s lens. Stunning and elegant amid the chaos, the Swiss sex symbol emerges as a true star, even stealing the occasional scene from Mr. Belmondo. In her introduction, she performs a fan dance in reverse, becoming ever more clothed behind the machinations of the feathered obstruction. We are made keenly aware of her physical talents for performance and not just her, well, physical talents. Toward the end of the film, one can’t help but think that De Broca intends to recall Honey Rider as Alexandrine and Arthur wash up on a desert island and all she has to wear are her white skivvies.
Up To His Ears is purposefully escapist, feather-lite fare tailored for fans of silent comedy and pure silliness. …and it’s so much more than just an Our Man in Rio B-side.
Rapture (1965, dir. John Guillermin)
I’d never heard of Rapture until I first dove into the Twilight Time Blu-ray offerings a couple of years ago. The movie came highly recommended by some of the label’s aficionados. I picked it up to fill out an order… because why not? Why not blind buy a movie for $30? Sometimes these “Why Not?” decisions turn out pretty damn well.
A father, daughter and their housekeeper move to a decrepit piece of country. The father (Melvyn Douglas) is distant and does little to understand his daughter, Agnes (Patricial Gozzi), who seeks human connection by caring for her doll. When she drops her doll down into the rocky cliffs, she’s without companionship. To fill the void, she builds a scarecrow for the garden and cares for it like a child. One night when an escaped convict named Joseph (Dean Stockwell) takes the scarecrow’s clothes and hides in the shed, Agnes believes he is the scarecrow come to life. She convinces the family to harbor him and soon becomes emotionally invested.
On paper, Rapture doesn’t sound like much, but this is one complex emotional rollercoaster of a film. Marcel Grignon’s high-contrast black and white cinematography teamed with George Delerue’s score paints a soulless landscape that unsettles and embellishes the frigid relationship between Agnes and her father. Agnes, meanwhile, struggles with her pending womanhood. She’s confused, angry and caught between being a child and a sexual being. She doesn’t understand how to harness these new emotions. As the tenuous, uncertain relationship between Agnes and Joseph highlights Agnes’ internal conflict, it also brings out her father’s suppressed fear and anger.
Though only 15 at the time, Gozzi manages the near impossible balance of being impulsive and childish, but not annoying. She’s a striking, beautiful figure on screen – we soon forget how young and fragile she’s supposed to be. Paired with the 29-year-old Dean Stockwell, the two actors captivate our attention while simultaneously sending our moral compass into a frenzy.
Thunderball (1965, dir. Terence Young)
At some point over the last handful of years Thunderball has fallen out of favor. I hear the same criticisms over and over again in discussions on Twitter. It’s too slow. It’s too long. It’s too waterlogged. I get it. I hear you. I just think you’re absolutely nuts if you’re rating this highly competent and influential James Bond outing as one of Connery’s (or even dare I say the entire series’) worst entries behind the likes of the self-parodic You Only Live Twice or the dismal Diamonds Are Forever.
Terence Young knew how to pace a Bond film. He knew how to focus on Bond’s charms and foreground the character despite the growing demands for spectacle and one-upmanship. Thunderball’s greatest mistake was following Goldfinger, the Bond movie that transformed the franchise into a global phenomenon. Young was caught between two worlds. He provided the foundation for Bond in Dr. No and From Russia With Love. These films were more modest endeavors. Guy Hamilton helmed Goldfinger, and I’d argue that movie succeeded not because of Hamilton but rather in spite of Hamilton. The more time I’ve spent with Bond over the course of the James Bond Social Media Project, the more I’ve come to see Goldfinger as a fun but flawed Bond movie – it’s just not the best of 007. Bond stumbles about rather incompetently, and the finale feels comically implausible (and that’s saying something for a Bond movie).
Due to public demand for bigger! better! more! Thunderball’s biggest mistake is focusing too greatly on underwater spectacle. The languid and balletic fight scenes over submerged nukes cause much anxiety and hand-wringing. But let’s consider the novelty of underwater cinematography in 1965. Jacques Cousteau had just begun photographing the mysteries beneath the ocean surface, and few people had ever seen anything like the underwater fight choreography in Thunderball. I’ve come to enjoy these scenes, but I understand how one might find fault. So let’s go beyond these scenes. Consider then how it was Thunderball that established and perhaps perfected both the Bond formula proper and the three-Bond girl hierarchy.
Blofeld remains a mystery (he was never as menacing on screen as he was in shadow) while the great Italian actor Adolfo Celi performs the on-screen villainy. He’s a slimy and worthy adversary even if he lacks the preposterous megalomania that would dominate Bond films for the foreseeable future. Thunderball’s trio of women, Claudine Auger, Luciana Paluzzi and Martine Beswick, are unparalleled in the series. Sean Connery’s at his comfortable quippy best. Thunderball also marks the last Bond movie in which he remained engaged. His disinterest oozes all over the next entry, You Only Live Twice.
Though much of Thunderball inspired related gags in the Austin Powers series, it’s important to distinguish the original from the subsequent parodies (you can count YOLT in this category as well). These elements became profoundly influential. Bond punching the female mourner in the pre-title sequence. (That’s no lady! It’s a man, man!) Arian henchmen. Sharks. Eyepatched villain. You name the spy-genre cliché… it likely began here. Click here to read my original #Bond_age_ essay on Thunderball.