Suspense & espionage films

CIPHER BUREAU. Grand National Pictures, 1938. Leon Ames, Charlotte Wynters, Joan Woodbury. Don Dillaway, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Tenen Holtz. Directed by Charles Lamont. Available for viewing on YouTube here.

   Joan Woodbury as a foreign spy?!? Tell me, Maury, that it isn’t so. But even if true – and that’s a big if – she’s as beautiful as ever. And do you know? With the hint of an exotic foreign accent, maybe she should have been cast as a beautiful foreign spy in the movies more often. (And who knows, maybe she was. I haven’t watched all of her movies yet.)

   I didn’t happen to catch what country the bad guys were working for, or what the plans they are trying to steal are all about. Just that they are important plans, and do you know, that’s all we really need to know.

   The real reason this movie may have been made, though, and I’m just guessing, is to show the movie-going public back in 1938 what governmental code breaking is all about. Or at least what Hollywood thought it was all about back in 1938, with letters in a message called out by one person in the Cipher Bureau, while another uses a chalkboard to keep  a tally on how many times each letter is used.

   To be honest, some other techniques are used, but they’re never really explained, not really, which makes it seem as though the head of the bureau. Major Waring (Leon Ames) is relying on hunches and guess work as much as anything else.

   There are a couple of semi-romantic subplots, and the major’s obsession with the work at hand only results on his brother getting kicked out of the Navy, a fact that the script seems to take in stride, as he is soon back in good graces again.

   Even though the movie drags a lot (that is to say, it is rather dull) it was successful enough to produce a sequel, Panama Patrol (1939), starring both Leon Ames and Charlotte Wynters as his faithful secretary, Helen Lane.




CHARLES EXBRAYAT – A Ravishing Idiot. Popular Library, US, paperback, 1965. Originally published in France as Une Ravissante Idiote (1962); translated by Peter Sourian.

UNE RAVISSANTE IDIOTE. France, 1964. Released in the US as Agent 38-24-36 (Seven Arts, 1964). Brigitte Bardot, Anthony Perkins, Gregoire Aslan. Screenplay by François Billettdoux, based on the novel by Charles Exbrayat. Directed by Edouard Molinaro.

   Harry was suffering from the worst of the Capitalists’ diseases: he was in love and he dreamed of giving the girl a Rolls Royce, a mink coat, and a cottage in Dorset — ideas, which had the Kremlin known about them, would have classified him as a hopeless reactionary.

   Harry Compton (Piotr Sergievitch Miloukine) is a Russian agent in London who is in love with the beautiful and very blonde Miss Penelope “Penny” Lightfeather, who it seems is Harry’s ticket into the Admiralty for a mission from Moscow run by Armenian restaurant owner Ter-Bagdassarian to uncover the recently completed British Naval plan to attack the Russian bases in the Baltic known as Avalanche.

   Moscow is desperate to uncover Avalanche, Ter-Bagdassarian is ruthless in his plans, and Harry and Penny are key to his success — poor devil, because his serious spy mission has just landed in the middle of a screwball comedy romance.

   The problem is Russian spy and traitor Harry is head over heels in love, and not overly bright or overly loyal, and Penny, well, Penny is her own way is a genius, or a lightweight flake, or possibly the finest agent in the British Secret Service, or just possibly all those things and more.

   In France where this was first published the book won the Gran Prix du Roman d’Advenures and was a bestseller so it isn’t surprising it was tagged to be filmed with Brigitte Bardot as Penny, Anthony Perkins as Harry, and Gregoire Aslan as the Armenian.

   Like the book the film is a fairly slight affair, a souffle rather than a main dish, and dependent on the viewers patience watching Miss Bardot look like Miss Bardot and Mr. Perkins mugging attractively as the inept spy Harry.

   I’ll grant I find the movie amusing, but I have no real problem with anyone who complains the souffle falls flat or that Bardot and Perkins aren’t quite enough to leave them satisfied. As comedy spy films go it is more romantic comedy than spy film and lacks even the relative excitement of a similar American souffle like the Doris Day/Richard Harris Caprice (which at least has a good opening).

   All things considered it is mostly a vehicle for Bardot to look like Bardot while Perkins mugs.

   That is enough for me, but I won’t argue with anyone who does not find it so.

   â€œBut of course I forgive you! You’re so funny…always asking me to forgive you without ever telling me what it is you want me to forgive.”

   … Penny tells Harry, and that pretty much sums up the film. I forgave it without ever being exactly sure why.

   The book is much more successful all around, written by a firm hand at keeping the reader turning pages for barely fifty thousand spare words since neither the conceit nor the story could stand up to one more paragraph than what is there, but manage to hold up playfully for its exact length.

   The book even manages to build a bit of suspense, which is more than the film does. It is a quick, literate, and very funny read thanks to its attractive leads, and the film only fails to the extent it doesn’t manage to send up the whole spy thing with the same panache, but handles that end of things all too ham-handedly. Harry is mindful of one of the hapless heroes of one of Graham Greene’s lighter entertainments and Penny is a delight on paper, less so on film.

   The film needed to be The Tall Blonde Man With One Red Shoe, but is too busy mugging to rise to that level. The book manages that delicate balancing act with precision.

   I liked the one, and was surprised how much I loved the other.




OSS 117: MISSION FOR A KILLER. Valoria Films, France/Italy, 1965. Embassy Pictures, US, 1966. Originally released as Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117. Frederick Stafford (Hubert Bonnisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117), Mylene Demeonget, Raymond Pellegrin. Based on the novel Dernier quart d’heure by Jean Bruce, his 44th OSS 117 book, published in English in 1965 under the title Live Wire (UK) and The Last Quarter Hour (USA). Directed by Arthur Hunnebelle.

   This third outing in the series of OSS 117 films in the Sixies features Frederick Stafford (Topaz, 1969) as Hubert Bonisoir de la Bath, OSS 117, the American CIA agent created by popular French journalist and former Resistance fighter and FFI agent Jean Bruce.

   Unlike most of the briefly popular Eurospy genre that followed in the wake of the James Bond craze, the OSS 117 films were mostly expensive productions in the Bond mode, this one filmed on location in Brazil and with some sets and big action scenes rivaling a James Bond film of the era.

   Hubert (Frederick Stafford) has been called off his vacation because of a series of terrorists acts in South America. A journalist in Rio de Janero has information leading to a mysterious group that is using some unknown drug to turn innocents into deadly killers, and it is the job of OSS 117 to contact him and follow the clues to the plans of these dangerous assassins.

   The usual beautiful women and dangerous games follow, handsomely shot in Eastmancolor with fine cinematography in Francoscope, the French equivalent of Cinemascope and thanks to the Bruce novel, the story is loosely based on a more cogent plot than most Eurospy films could manage. The budgets and production values far exceed the George Nader / Jerry Cotton films or the Joe Walker / Kommisar X films, much less the various films starring Roger Hanin, Ken Clark, German Cobos, Ray Danton, Gordon Scott, Brett Halsey, or Anthony Eisley to name a few.

   Stafford, who was wooden in Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz, is relaxed and playful in his first outing as Bruce’s dashing agent who had previously been played in two films with Kerwin Matthews and would be played one more time by Stafford before a final outing with John Gavin in the role.

   Of course when OSS 117 reemerged in the 21rst Century it would be in the person of Jean Dujardin in two brilliant spy comedies that recreated the look and feel of the original films, but with Hubert something of a sexist dunce whose 1950’s early 1960’s Playboy lifestyle sensibility is clashing with a changing world. In addition the two Dujardin films turned Hubert into a French spy, rather than the Louisiana-born Creole aristocrat CIA agent of the books.

   Aside from the novels by Jean Bruce, OSS 117 was successful in comics and other mediums in his long run though the books never did well here (two were published by Fawcett Crest in the Sixties). There were more published in England, but still Hubert never saw anything like the same success in English as he had on the Continent.

   It should be pointed out that however much this series of films was influenced by the success of the Bond films, OSS 117 himself was created in 1948, and had a five year run before 007 made his debut in Casino Royale in 1953. In addition the first OSS 117 movie appeared in 1957 well before Dr. No in 1962.

   Desmond Cory’s Johnny Fedora also beat Ian Fleming and Bond into print by five years, as did several other post war spies including Burke Wilkinson’s Geoffrey Mildmay (Proceed at Will, Run Mongoose) and Sea Lion’s Desmond Drake (Damn Desmond Drake), the influence for all for all but Wilkinson being Peter Cheyney’s well received “Dark” series of spy novels written during the war and even praised by Anthony Boucher, who wrote the introduction to the omnibus edition of the books.

   It was simply an idea whose time had come and Fleming was best positioned with a mix of style, panache, war time experience, and luck to cash in. He was of course a better writer than all but Cory (Shaun McCarthy), and a more serious one than him, plus Fleming kept an eye out for the American market from the start even if it took time to crack it.

   The parallels between Fleming and Bruce are still notable both in the numeric identification of their heroes, their war time intelligence ties, both men being journalists, their legendary drinking and womanizing, and both dying in 1964 at relatively young ages (Fleming of a heart attack, Bruce in a wreck in his beloved sports car). And like Bond, Bruce’s creation lived on as a sort of family cottage industry.

   Arthur Hunnebelle (Fantomas) directed this one which finds Hubert teaming with beautiful Mylene Demeonget and hostage of a supervillain who plans nothing less than taking over all of South America by assassinating the current leaders and creating a new super power and world order dedicated to harmony and peace, and if murder and torture are what it takes to achieve that end,..

   Eggs cracked and all that.

   The finale is a battle with Hubert and a handful of allies and natives who the madman has enslaved and experimented on shooting it out in a jungle mountain fortress before the arrival of the Brazillian army by parachute (in a scene mindful of the similar arrival of the cavalry in Thunderball) and a final confrontation between the fleeing villain and Hubert over a vast waterfall as he rescues Demeonget.

   It’s all nonsense, but by the standards of the Eurospy genre as spectacular as the then contemporary Bond films if lacking some of the narrative drive and those pulsing John Barry scores — and of course, Sean Connery.

   The five Sixties films are worth seeing still (available in a boxed set on DVD), and by all means the wonderful Jean Dujardin films, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, and OSS 11:7 Lost in Rio (DVD and Blue Ray). The 1957 film is available in French on YouTube, OSS 117 is not Dead with Ivan Desny. A couple of other non-OSS 117 Jean Bruce books into films are also out there and available on YouTube including Mission to Venice with Sean Flynn and ex-OSS 117 star Kerwin Matthews as The Viscount, a suave insurance investigator.


OSS 117 is not Dead (1957) Ivan Desny (B&W)
OSS 117 is Unleashed (1963) Kerwin Matthews (B&W)
OSS 117 Panic in Bangkok (1964) Kerwin Matthews
OSS 117 Mission for a Killer (1965) Frederick Stafford
OSS 117 Mission to Tokyo (1966) Frederick Stafford
OSS 117 Double Agent (1968) John Gavin
OSS 117 Cairo Nest of Spies (2006) Jean Dujardin
OSS 117 Lost in Rio (2009) Jean Dujardin



CODE 7: VICTIM 5. British Lion Film Corp., UK, 1964. Columbia Pictures, US, 1965. Lex Barker, Ann Smyrner, Ronald Fraser, Walter Rilla. Co-producer (uncredited): Harry Alan Towers. Director: Robert Lynn.

   Code 7: Victim 5 has the distinction (?) of being one of the first films to try and cash in on the post-Goldfinger James Bond craze. This was marketed as a spy thriller (The original title was simply Victim 5) but it’s actually … well, what is it exactly? Something about a New York Private Eye named Steve Martin (is he meant to be the same character Raymond Burr played in Godzilla? Could this be the basis of future academic discussion?) called to Cape Town South Africa to find out who killed a millionaire’s butler, and learning this is simply one in a series of murders involving former POWs from World War II who … who … zzzzz.

   Steve (played here by Lex Barker) Martin’s investigative technique consists of going from one tourist spot to another – any place where there’s scenery, really — looking for clues or something and getting in fights, shoot-outs and car chases, all of which, the background music Insists, must be very exciting, but they seemed sort of blah to me.

   There’s a bit of imagination In one sequence involving Death by Ostrich Stampede, and late in the film we get to see the former Tarzan once again stalking lions through the jungle, but mostly this is the kind of film that is usually (and charitably) dismissed as “routine.” The smutty-sub-Bond double-entendres and the plethora of girls In Beach Party bikinis, sporting 1960s hairdo’s maybe made the movie look hip back in ’65, but now it just looks quaint — it doesn’t have a quaint charm, it’s merely quaint.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #44, March 2006.



PANIC IN THE CITY. Feature Film Corp. of America, 1968. Howard Duff, Linda Cristal, Stephen McNally, Nehemiah Persoff, Anne Jeffreys, Dennis Hopper. Director: Eddie Davis.

    Just because a movie isn’t good, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be interesting. Case in point: Panic in the City, a late 1960s Cold War thriller that you’ve probably never heard of, let alone seen. By all normal standards, it’s not a particularly well-crafted film. The plot, in which a federal agent tracks down a rogue Eastern Bloc agent aiming to detonate a nuclear device in Los Angeles, is essentially something that could just have been done better in an episode of Mission: Impossible. As for the cinematic quality of the film, it is practically non-existent. Indeed, the movie really feels more like a made-for-TV pilot episode of a mid-tier detective show than something one would pay to see in a theater.

    What makes the movie worth a look, however, are a couple things. First, there are two performances in the film that stand out. Although he is only in the movie for less than thirty minutes, Dennis Hopper has a memorable turn as Goff, a thug for hire. He’s signed up to work for rogue communist agent August Best (Nehemiah Persoff) and engages in murder for hire job before the tables are turned and he is himself murdered. The late 1960s, of course, would be a turning point in Hopper’s career. For much of the 1950s and early 1960s, Hopper was primarily a guest star or supporting actor in television shows. All that would change in 1969 – one year after Panic in the City – with the release of Easy Rider (1969).

    As for the aforementioned Persoff, his role in this film is, like nearly all of his performances, acutely memorable. A student of Elia Kazan, discussed here, Persoff never achieved the fame of many of his contemporaries and never really became a leading man. Nevertheless, he had many roles in both television and film. For those interested, you can view part of his performance as a mob boss in an episode of Hawaii Five-O, one that also features John Ritter, here.

    Another aspect of Panic in the City that makes it a bit more interesting than would be expected is that (SPOILER ALERT!!) the lead character, federal agent Dave Pomeroy (Howard Duff) dies at the end. In a nuclear blast no less. There is no optimistic Hollywood ending here. Just a death in a mushroom cloud and a lonely woman walking the streets alone. You can watch the entire film here, with ads unfortunately.



GOLDENEYE. United Artists, 1995. Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Joe Don Baker, Judi Dench (M), Robbie Coltrane, Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Samantha Bond (Moneypenny). Based on characters created by Ian Fleming. Director: Martin Campbell. Currently streaming on Netflix.

   Marking Pierce Brosnan’s debut as James Bond, GoldenEye is a movie that both pays tribute to the Cold War past and hints at the equally dangerous post-Soviet present. The plot follows Bond as he seeks to uncover who is beyond the destruction of a Russian military base and the subsequent theft of a nuclear, electromagnetic pulse device that could wreak havoc on the world’s communications systems. Little does Bond know that the man he’s seeking is a former ally, a fellow MI6 agent (Sean Bean) whom Bond assumed was long dead.

   In terms of action, this one’s got it all. The fight sequences are stunningly choreographed; the stunt sequences were among the best to date in a Bond film. What the movie does lack, apart from a brief appearance or two by Jon Don Baker as a CIA agent, are the types of exceedingly memorable oddball characters that were omnipresent in the earlier Bond films. While Famke Janssen is notable for portraying a sadistic female assassin, most of the other villains and shady characters here are somewhat bland. Nothing against Sean Bean, but he is just not Donald Pleasence or Christopher Lee.

   Still, for those who haven’t yet seen GoldenEye, it is worth your time. For two hours, this one provides the kind of pure escapism that harks back to the Sean Connery era. Brosnan would go on to star in three more films before being replaced by Daniel Craig in the more subdued, emotionally wrought Casino Royale (2006). I have a feeling that, in years to come, more people will look upon the Brosnan era as a high point for the franchise.


THE DIPLOMATIC CORPSE. Rank, UK, 1958. Robin Bailey, Susan Shaw, Liam Redmond, Harry Fowler, André Mikhelson. Director: Montgomery Tully.

   Robin Bailey, known best to me for playing Charters in the British TV series Charters & Caldicott, is a newspaper reporter in this one, along with Susan Shaw, who works the paper’s woman’s news desk. To tell you the truth, though, she seems to have more a nose for news than he does. Shaw is a pretty blonde who ought to have had a greater movie career than she seems to have had (even looking at her IMDb list of credits, they all seem to be minor – I don’t recognize any of them).

   Dead is an attaché for a foreign embassy in London. While the viewer knows who the villains are as soon as they appear on the screen, it takes our stalwart detective pair a little longer, even with the reluctant assistance of a Scotland Yard detective, whose hands are tied because, as everyone knows, embassies are not legally on British soil.

   Which as it so happens, without really giving anything away, I hope, is the key to the case, as a purely legal matter, although I do think the bad guys give up way too easily.

   The Diplomatic Corpse is a minor film from any perspective, but its mere 60 minutes running time makes it seem that it’s moving faster than it really is. It’s stagy and severely handicapped by a lack of more than the three or four sets than are actively used, all indoor. Even when Susan Shaw’s character is caught impersonating the switchboard operator in the embassy and locked in an upstairs bedroom, it doesn’t move the needle on the suspense meter more than one small notch, if that.

   And yet, and yet, after all this carping, as minor as this movie is, I enjoyed watching it. Whatever the story and production may be lacking, the actors were pros at the job and they seemed to having a good time. That counts for a lot.

Scheduled for November. Hopefully theaters will be open by then. It looks like this one needs a big screen:

SALT. Columbia Pictures, 2010. Angelina Jolie (Evelyn Salt), Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl. Screenwriter: Kurt Wimmer. Director: Phillip Noyce.

   I have a theory that that says that the reason they called this movie Salt was so that they could call the sequel Salt II. But even though this movie cries out for one – a sequel, that is – it never came about. It is a shame, because not only did it do well at the box office, but I found it both faster and flashier than several James Bond movies which I will not mention here.

   Originally created with Tom Cruise in mind for the leading role, Angelie Jolie, as a CIA agent accused of secretly working for the Russians, proves that she can do the stunts (not herself, surely, all of them) and take as much physical punishment (on the screen) as any male actor in the world, including Tom Cruise.

   If by which you take that to mean that there are plenty of car chases, gunfire, explosions and attempted assassinations to fill anyone’s dance card for the evening, that is exactly what I wish you to take, with eye-opening twists in the plot to give you enough whiplash to keep your chiropractor busy for a week.

   It is not until it’s over until you realize how unlikely the whole affair was. And yet, even now that it’s over, I have to tell you that I found this the most enjoyable out-and-out thriller movie I have seen all year.




COTTAGE TO LET, aka BOMBSIGHT STOLEN. Gainsborough, UK. 1941. Leslie Banks, Alastair Sim, John Mills, George Cole, Michael Wilding, and a host of solid British supporting players. Screenplay by Anatole de Grunwald, from a play by John Kerr. Directed by Anthony Asquith.

   A surprisingly jaunty film to come out of England during the Blitz, and a solidly entertaining one.

   The plot circles around a cottage in Scotland that has been designated as a recovery hospital for wounded airmen. It has never had a patient, but:

   It houses the laboratory of an eccentric inventor (Leslie Banks) and:

   The grande dame who owns it decides it would be a perfect place to accommodate children evacuated from London during the Blitz. She gets only one, a scruffy street urchin (George Cole, in his film debut age 15) not knowing that:

   The agents who manage the Grande Dame’s property (he sign is an in-joke) have rented it out to Alastair Sim. and then:

   They get their first patient, a likeable downed flier (John Mills.)

   Add a comely nurse for romance, an officious butler for comic relief and it looks like a set-up for light comedy. But then:

   It develops that Banks’ inventions are really helping Britain in the War Effort, but information on them is leaking out to the Germans. So British Intelligence has sent someone there to ferret out the spy, and we’re supposed to guess Who is What while they all act suspiciously — except for the cockney kid from London, who is a fan of Sherlock Holmes (“The greatest bloke what ever lived!”) and uses his powers of deduction….

   From this point on, Cottage spins between deft comedy, suspense, and heart-stopping action in the early Hitchcock-Gilliatt vein, with cunning traps, narrow escapes, and characters with a bit more depth than one expects. Leslie Bank chafes so convincingly at official red tape that one suspects he may be selling his own secrets to the Nazis. John Mills is really quite moving as the flier who is not what he seems to be, and Alastair Sim, funny as ever, is surprisingly sinister in his best moments.

   This film began a life-long friendship between George Cole and Alastair Sim, who put him in many of his movies. It’s also a lot of fun, with a showy shoot-out in a tawdry hall of mirrors. Don’t be put off by the soporific title — this is the Goods!


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