DEADLIER THAN THE MALE. Rank, UK, 1966. Universal, US, 1967. Richard Johnson (Hugh Drummond), Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Nigel Green, Suzanna Leigh, Steve Carlson. Screenwriters: Jimmy Sangster, David Osborn) & Liz Charles-Williams, based on a original story by Jimmy Sangster and the character Bulldog Drummond created by Herman C. McNeile (as Sapper) & Gerard Fairlie. Directed by Ralph Thomas.

   By the late 1960s, almost everyone was cashing in on the wildly successful Bond films and seeing if they could make their own without breaking the international copyright laws. This splurge of spy movies gave us the two Derek Flint films with James Coburn, the four Matt Helm films, questionably starring Dean Martin, and – closer to home – the so-called ‘Euro-spy’ films. These were badly-dubbed Italian and French films which featured a Bond-like character.

   Here in Britain, we also had the Harry Palmer films, The Quiller Memorandum, Hot Enough for June and Modesty Blaise, along with comedies like Carry On Spying and that one with Morcambe & Wise.

   So it was only expected that some bright spark would dust off the old Bulldog Drummond adventure novels by 1920s writer ‘Sapper’ which were partly responsible for Bond in the first place. The original character is considered to be a racist bigot now, but he was more or less Bertie Wooster with a penchant for brutal justice and initially went up against criminal mastermind Carl Peterson.

   This film, however, strips Drummond of his nick-name, military rank, character, backstory, supporting cast and storylines and makes him a smooth, wryly-amusing insurance investigator with a Rolls Royce and a passion for karate. Richard Johnson would always be a respected actor and is perfectly likeable here as Drummond, but he was clearly cast because he bears a passing resemblance to Sean Connery.

   That’s no bad thing, of course. I would’ve cast someone who looked like Connery too (I wouldn’t, however, have cast Connery’s brother, as Italian director Alberto De Martino did that same year).

   I had big hopes for this film, not least because it managed to spawn a sequel, but mainly because I had seen so much love for it on the internet.

   First, the good: there’s the two glamorous female assassins, Irma and Penelope, played by Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina. There’s an outrageously Avengers-like scene near the beginning in which they emerge from the ocean, clad in bikinis and armed with spear-guns, and kill a sunbather. There’s a cigar which fires bullets into whoever smokes it. There is the excellent Nigel Green.

   Also, Leonard Rossiter (whose ability and work, of course, there isn’t a superlative strong enough to describe) dies in another Avengers-like scene in which our pair of saucy slaughterers paralyses him with a mysterious spy-fi drug and send him tumbling off the balcony of his fifteen-storey apartment building.

   There’s also a great bit where Drummond meets his old army friend, the crime boss Boxer, who is lying low in a tropically-themed flat after faking his own death. It’s one of those instances in which the character seems to live beyond the confines of the scene he’s in.

   Finally, there’s the climax, where Drummond and his nemesis creep around a life-size chess board in a duel to the death. Again, very Avengers. So, how come I don’t like the film as a whole?

   Well, the plot is dull and unimaginative. It’s all about a company named Phoenecian Oil and a merger which one man on the board of directors, Henry Keller, opposes. A third party has offered to resolve the issue, via an undisclosed method, within six months and asks to receive a million pounds in return. Subsequently, Keller dies in a plane explosion, the merger can go ahead and this mysterious problem-solver demands payment. It is, of course, villain Carl Peterson and he wants to take his murderous solution to every corporation in the world.

   Drummond is tasked with finding out what is going on. His only lead is an inch of audio tape which Keller had recorded a message, but only half of one sentence remains. It could well reveal the answer to the mystery, if Drummond can only make sense of the jumble of words.

   Unfortunately for Drummond, and indeed the viewer, his American nephew Robert has come to stay with him. Now, in order to secure distribution in the states, many British films cast an American actor in a role. This is one such example. As the ‘60s was a decade obsessed with youth, perhaps it seemed like a good idea to cast one in the film. Arguably, the result isn’t a good one, as the Robert character brings next to nothing to the film and distracts from the story it is trying to tell.

   The whole movie can be divided between the first half, set in London, and the second half, which moves to Northern Italy. Here, the film seems to come to a crashing halt. Drummond meets Peterson, yes, and we get to see his castle lair, but nothing really happens. It’s this half which I have always struggled with during three previous efforts to appreciate the film.

   I must reiterate, however, that the film seems popular enough with other people, and is certainly better than a couple of other Bond-pastiches of the era, such as Death Is a Woman (1966) and Hot Enough for June (1964), both of which I found to be utterly unwatchable.

   Despite this, I’ll check out the sequel [Some Girls Do (1969) was the second], while I’m always in the mood to watch the older Bulldog Drummond films, and indeed the books.

Rating: **