Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Golden guys and spoof proof spies

Of late I’m discovering that my cinematic comfort food of choice tends to be old European spy films from the 60s –- or Eurospy films, if you’re nasty. They’re breezy and mindless, usually dubbed into English, and not so off-the-beaten-path that I necessarily feel compelled to tell you all about them at length –- although I often do, anyway.

There’s also a coziness about them for me that I think derives from the fact that they were staples of the afternoon “Dialing For Dollars” type movies that used to air on TV when I was a little kid, back in that ancient age before movies were only shown on cable. In fact, I think that these movies very well may have had some subliminal influence on my childhood conception of what it meant to be an adult, and, more specifically, my formative graspings with the idea of manhood. Envisioning myself as a grown up in those days almost invariably involved conjuring up the image of a dapper rogue in a crisp black tuxedo with a beautiful woman on his arm. And this image was not for me a signifier of success, but more a natural birthright, as if that tux and that woman just got handed to you as you passed through the gateway to maturity.

Anyway, after my scheduled early evening flight from JFK last Friday unexpectedly turned into a redeye, and I returned home to weather that was unseasonably… well, l believe the term the weatherman used was “hot as balls”… I determined that the only thing for it was to dedicate the weekend to some concerted lying in. (Never have it said that I am even remotely close to being a sturdy traveler.) Fortunately, I happened to have, in that looming stack of unwatched dvd-rs that has now taken command over my living room like a silent but nonetheless insistent extra tenant, a healthy selection of Eurospies. It was obviously time to spend some quality couch time with a few of those sharply dressed rogues from my youth.

First up was the 1967 German/Italian/Spanish co-production Spy Today, Die Tomorrow, aka Mister Dynamite. Spy Today is a resolutely average example of the genre, but, for my purposes, almost comfortingly so. American actor Lex Barker –- probably most known on these shores as a former Tarzan, but better known in Europe for his recurring role as Old Shatterhand in the German made Karl May Westerns -- was far from the best of the Eurospy leading men, but he wasn’t the worst, either. Like a lot of them, he simply supplies the template on which to project the boilerplate version of the impossibly unflappable, globe-hopping chick magnet that so many of these adventures revolve around –- a generic conception that makes the experience of watching them tantamount to buying James Bond by the yard.

As an additional plus, the film boasts a roster of pleasantly familiar faces, not the least of which belongs to Kommissar X series regular Brad Harris, who turns in a dependably rough and tumble performance as the CIA counterpart to Baxter’s German BND agent Bob Urban. As usual, it’s the job of Harris, an experienced stuntman, to take on all of the heavy lifting so that the top billed -- and, in this case, considerably older -- star is freed up to project all of that aforementioned crispness and unflappability without any risk of pit stains or mussed hair.

Spy Today, while in some respects slickly accomplished, also displays those occasional poverty-driven holes in its façade that are so key to the whole Eurospy experience. These include an overreliance on stock footage, some woefully inadequate miniature work, and an anticlimax that tries to pass off showing a room full of people staring anxiously at the second hand of a clock as a fitting substitute for something that might actually be suspenseful. Of course, such shortfalls would be nothing if not combined with a corresponding tendency to overreach, and so the film manages to at the same time supply us with frugal approximations of some of the oddball extravagances we expect from a 60s spy movie. The villain of the piece comes equipped with a model train obsession that sees him barking orders from behind a sprawling train set that doubles as a control console. He even has a train set on his private plane!

 Our villain: A man with HO scale ambitions in an N scale world

Next up were a pair of unconnected 1965 Italian films that both happened to be spoofs of the James Bond movies in general and Goldfinger in particular: Goldginger and James Tont: Operazione U.N.O. Now, as I have probably pointed out too many times before, spoofing the Bond films, as popular as that activity may have been in the 1960s, is a bit of a redundant pursuit, given that those movies generally don’t take themselves all that seriously in the first place. And Goldfinger especially seems like an odd target for satire, notable as it was at the time for departing from the previous entries by way of its tongue in cheek attitude and self consciously campy excesses. Still, one can perhaps understand the appeal of using parody as an excuse to ride the coattails of such a successful franchise, and the makers of both of these films do just that. Each duplicates to some extent or another almost every iconic moment and character from the original. There is an actor playing an “Oddjob” type henchman in each, and James Tont goes so far as to have a sound-alike theme tune.

Now let me say this right up front: Goldginger is a starring vehicle for the inexplicably popular Italian comedy duo Franco and Ciccio, and Franco and Ciccio are awful. If you’re unfamiliar with them, suffice it to say that they’re like an Italian version of Martin and Lewis, except if Martin was just some nondescript guy with a mustache who never sang anything. In fact, that comparison is even unfair to Jerry Lewis, because, as willfully ignorant of Lewis’ shtick as I am, I’m still sure that it is far more nuanced and refined than the jabbering and mugging that Franco Pecora reduces it to. (It is also far from ameliorative that, in the English version of the film, the pair are dubbed with-ah cartoony Italian accents-ah. Mamma mia!) In any case, what this means is that, if one were able to cut a perfect, Franco and Ciccio sized hole in Goldginger, you might end up with something reasonably enjoyable, but there also wouldn’t be a whole lot of Goldginger left.

Franco and Ciccio’s box office clout is reflected in Goldginger’s production values, which are definitely on the plush side for a Eurospy film. This probably also accounts for why an international star of the caliber of Fernando Rey would be appearing in the film as its titular bad guy. Rey’s Goldginger has a scheme that, while outlandish in real world terms, is basically the Eurospy villain’s version of thinking inside the box, involving replacing world dignitaries with lookalike robots. He also, for some reason, finds it worth his efforts to trick the bumbling photographers played by Franco and Ciccio into assassinating a military official by having a minion place a death ray inside their camera. Eventually George Hilton shows up as suave agent 007 and is quickly and unceremoniously bumped off, which somehow opens up the opportunity for Franco and Ciccio to be recruited as secret agents in his place.

Back in my review of the Malaysian Bond take-off Mat Bond, I remarked upon the two approaches most commonly taken by 1960s filmmakers seeking to lampoon the 007 films. Goldginger follows the well-trod path of showing us bumbling everymen who find themselves unwittingly thrust into a James Bond world full of danger, espionage and intrigue. James Tont: Operazione U.N.O. -- which was directed by Sergio’s brother, Bruno Corbucci -- takes the other approach. Star Lando Buzzanca (who I last saw in When Women Lost Their Tales, but I won’t hold that against him) has sufficiently leading man compliant looks, and, as the movie’s titular secret agent, is allowed to maintain some of the Bondian air of mastery typical of more straightforward Eurospy protagonists. Of course, it is the nature of this style of spy spoof to use the super spy’s supernatural levels of confidence and aptitude against him. So, unlike in a film like Goldginger, where the outmatched heroes hysterically bungle their way from disaster to disaster, when James Tont fails, it is funny (ostensibly) precisely because he was so sure that he would succeed.

Casting their lead in more of a straightforward hero mode also affords the makers of James Tont the luxury of indulging in some more straightforward action film theatrics. A car chase involving Tont’s elaborately tricked out Fiat works both as comedy and as a high speed display of fancy stunt driving. Thus the audience gets to enjoy some of the same type of big screen thrills afforded by the Bond films while also getting to see the smug hero occasionally being taken down a peg. Like Goldginger, the film also observes the familiar Eurospy practice of spreading its action out over a variety of European locales, and even outdoes Goldginger with some New York and Las Vegas location sequences, as well as a climax set in a set-bound version of Hong Kong.

Unlike the heroes of Goldginger, however, James Tont further follows in the footsteps of his inspiration by getting the girl in the end, and also dallies with a few others along the way. In this sense, he has a lot more in common with the hero of a “serious” Eurospy film like Spy Today, Die Tomorrow, which is not to suggest that Spy Today doesn’t do a lot of laughing up its sleeve on its own part. In fact, if one were looking for a telling example of the resistance of Bond-style films to this type of parody, one might find it in the fact that James Tont, in its efforts to push its action to satirical extremes, actually prefigures a couple of specific stunts from the later Bond films. These include a bit where a car careens along tilted on one side, as would be seen in Diamonds Are Forever some six years later, and another involving a car that converts into a submarine, as in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. These bits are both clearly played as wacky sight gags in James Tont, while in those later mentioned titles they would be woven into the consistent, low level irreverence of the films overall.

Interestingly, over the course of the same weekend that I watched these films, I also watched 0SS 117 – Lost in Rio, the second of director Michel Hazanavicius’ lacerating yet idiosyncratically scrupulous parodies of the French 0SS 117 Eurospy films of the 60s. In these films, Hazanavicius brings to the forefront an aspect of the Eurospy hero that I think also subtly informs more juvenile parodies like Goldginger and James Tont. That is the aspect of these heroes as the faces of empire, barreling through one exotic port of call after another as if they owned the place (because, to their minds, they do), never troubling their minds with an ounce of curiousity, but with every intention of imposing their manly wills, while at the same time viewing every man they encounter as a potential servant and each woman as a prospective addition to their personal harem. The most frightening aspect of this scenario is the idea that such men would be those whom their leaders would entrust with the task of keeping world peace –- and the concurrent dawning realization that this may not, in fact, be that much of a departure from the way that things really are.

In Lost in Rio, our hero, Hubert Bonisseur de al Bath, aka French agent OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin), mocks a group of hippies for their expressed desire to “change the world”. Of course, he finds this notion ridiculous because, as far as he’s concerned, the world is perfectly fine as it is. And I imagine you’d hear the same response from James Bond (who, as you might recall, wouldn’t brave the Beatles without ear muffs), or the Kommissar X films’ Joe Walker (who in one film lectured a young woman about the virtues of whisky over LSD), or Spy Today, Die Tomorrow’s Bob Urban. Though we only check in with them when they are in the process of saving the world, these are men who’s nine-to-five is all about preserving the status quo, simply because they lack the moral imagination to envision a world that’s any different or better –- especially when that world might be one in which they weren’t the unquestioned Numero Uno.

Of course, the joke ends up being on OSS 117, because it is the very youth culture that these hippies represent that will contribute in large part to his looming cultural irrelevance. (The same force that conceivably lead the James Bond movies to build-in self loathing by way of ever increasing self mockery and deliberate camp.) However, in exposing his hero for the caricature that he is, Hazanavicius does not –- as in, say, the Austin Powers films –- allow us to forget that the simplistic hegemonic fantasy he represents still has very real ramifications upon how business is conducted in our all too complex and fractious real world.

And so it is that the putative comedy in a film like Goldginger derives not just from the slapstick spectacle of seeing simple men trying to accomplish a task for which they are hopelessly unsuited, but also from the very absurdity of the idea that such men would undertake a task so thoroughly opposed to their own interests. James Bond, after all, doesn’t fight for the little guy, but for himself. As such, a film like James Tont, taking an opposite approach, allows us to partake in the vicarious fantasy of such an individualist hero while at the same time seeing him punished for his arrogance. That both of these films, very much unlike OSS 117 – Lost In Rio, do this without ever managing to actually be funny is beside the point.

The point, however, does seem to be that, whatever your position on the Bondian archetype, his position in our culture is so entrenched that one apparently has to come to terms with him one way or another. My personal reckoning on the matter seems to involve a war between the child in me, who simply wants to approach these films as mindless escape, and the grown up who instead insists upon discoursing upon them at rambling length (keeping the child in me up way past his bed time in the process). Needless to say, this scenario was not part of the swankily accessorized adulthood that I had imagined for myself back in those innocent days of youth. At least I remembered to put on my tuxedo.


memsaab said...

But did you watch Golden Eyes?! :)

Those "Dialing for Dollars" movie afternoons were so sublime. I would come home from school, lie down on the couch and switch the TV on for whatever they might have to throw at me. Very often it was Vincent Price, for which I will always be grateful.

Todd said...

Golden Eyes is coming soon, I promise!

Elliot James said...

Wasn't Franco's last name Franchi?