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June 2015

Deadlier Than The Male

cast: Richard Johnson, Elke Sommer, Sylvia Koscina, Nigel Green, and Steve Carlson

director: Ralph Thomas

99 minutes (12) 1967
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Network blu-ray region B

RATING: 6/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Deadlier Than The Male

Tributes to the actor Richard Johnson, who died aged 87 in June of this year, added him to the list of 'men who would be Bond', that ever-growing pantheon of actors British, American, and Commonwealth, who are claimed to have at one time or another been offered the tuxedo and shoulder-holster of fiction's greatest spy. Legend has it that Ian Fleming would have liked Cary Grant in the role, a choice possibly influenced by Grant being Raymond Chandler's ideal for the role of Phillip Marlowe; anyone who has heard Fleming's deferential radio interview with Chandler will acknowledge the respect the English writer had for the American author.

Fleming's Bond novels were of course a potent blend of the kind of British patriotism flaunted in the Bulldog Drummond novels of 'Sapper', Herman Cyril McNeile, and the sex and violence of the American Mickey Spillane. Sapper's presentation of arch-villain Carl Peterson, collecting a multi-national cabal of associates with an axe to grind against the British empire, seems an obvious inspiration for Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the formation of SPECTRE. Espionage and international terrorism is all a bit of fun for Sapper's Bulldog Drummond, he takes as much delight in Peterson's escape at the end of the first novel as he did in witnessing his nemesis' bout of sea-sickness earlier in the tale. Death and torture meted out to his unfortunate associates are nothing to Drummond, just so long as he doesn't get bored. It's a cynical amorality that most commentators have perceived in Bond.

Many of the more outré aspects of Fleming's books may owe their inspiration to Sapper as well; Bond's encounter with Dr No's pet squid reminds one of Drummond's victorious, and frankly ridiculous, wrestling-match with Peterson's gorilla in the very first book. Drummond was based upon H.C. McNeile's friend Gerard Fairlie who took over writing duties upon McNeile's death in 1937. Dr No, the first Bond film, rather left the home-grown critics cold. Connery's scripted shoot-first, shag-and-abandon swagger was too much for British sensibilities, it was felt, but audiences reacted differently of course and returned to the cinema again and again, which was how films made their money in those days. The success of Bond on the big screen inevitably led to a spate of imitations and outright spoofs.

Rod Taylor appeared in an adaptation of James Gardner's The Liquidator (1965), in which 'Boysie' Oakes accidentally saves the life of a British spy at the close of WWII and gets the job of hired killer for the intelligence services for his pains. Oakes, no stone killer, is so well paid that he manages to sub-contract his assignments to a genuine hit-man, played affably by the great Eric Sykes. Author Gardner went on to pen many novels continuing Bond's career beyond the death of Ian Fleming.

Tom Adams starred in Licensed To Kill (aka: The 2nd Best Secret Agent In The Whole Wide World, 1965), and Where The Bullets Fly (1966), two shameless Bond knock-offs; Adams went on to star in the BBC's 1970s espionage series Spy Trap. The USA had The Man From UNCLE, and the excellent James Coburn as the hipster spy Derek Flint in Our Man Flint (1966), and In Like Flint (1967), as well as Dean Martin in Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series from 1966 to 1969, a particularly sexually crude manifestation of the sub-genre in a field not noted for delicacy.

That Bulldog Drummond should be resurrected as an imitator of Bond is entirely appropriate given that the one character was an influence on the creation of the other. Notably, Drummond had a healthy creative afterlife on the big screen long before Bond was ever thought of. The first Bulldog Drummond movie appeared in 1922 and, in his cinematic career, the character was portrayed by notables such as Jack Buchanan, Ralph Richardson, Ronald Colman, Ray Milland, Tom Conway, and Walter Pidgeon. Hitchcock's original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) was at first intended to be a Drummond picture but the rights to the character could not be obtained.

As Richard Johnson explains in an on-location interview, the Bulldog Drummond character has been brought bang up to date for Deadlier Than The Male, he has also been tweaked for 1960s sensibilities. The original 'Bulldog' was nicknamed not for his tenacity but for his pug-ugly features, he is romantically monogamous, and impeccably imperialistic and lazily racist. The literary Drummond stumbled into derring-do because, having thoroughly enjoyed the war, he was bored, and that led him to placing an ad in the paper looking for adventure. Johnson's version of Drummond is handsome, gainfully employed as some sort of wealthy insurance underwriter and investigator, driving a Rolls Royce convertible, sleeping around, and keeping himself fit with ju-jitsu.

The film begins with the murder of a top oil executive, with an exploding cigar, by a beautiful blonde, played by Elke Sommer, who I first saw opposite Paul Newman in The Prize (1964). In a successful if predictably-cast career Sommer also starred in another spy spoof, the Matt Helm picture The Wrecking Crew (1969), as well as a couple of Mario Bava pictures in the 1970s; Carry On Behind (1975), as the love-interest of Kenneth Williams would have to be designated a career-low.

Here, Sommer is Irma, an assassin, with her equally attractive colleague Penelope, played by Sylvia Koscina - star of the obscure experimental Italian picture L'assoluto Naturale (aka: He And She, 1969) with producer/ co-star Lawrence Harvey. Irma and Penelope are next seen emerging from the Mediterranean, armed with harpoon-guns to skewer an investigator who has made a tape recording for his friend Drummond alerting him to shady goings-on. The two female killers work for an organisation obtaining million-pound fees from companies, and their insurers, if obstructions to mergers, takeovers, and other such deals take place. Quite how this obviously illegal transaction would work in practice is glossed over, but when oily executive Leonard Rossiter objects to paying the fee he is chemically paralysed and flung out of his apartment window by the two women.

Company CEO Bledlow asks Drummond to investigate and pretty soon his own life is imperilled, as is the life of his American nephew Robert (Steve Carlson in a rare movie appearance from a career in TV), who comes to freeload on his Uncle while in London. The Drummond uncle and nephew situation rather parallels that of David Niven and Robert Wagner in The Pink Panther, although here Robert is drawn into his Uncle's crime-fighting rather than criminal activities. Robert's friend 'Pogo', King Fedra (Zia Mohyeddin) is next in line for assassination, and Drummond and Robert journey to the Med to confront the criminal mastermind Carl Peterson who is behind the plot. It comes as no surprise to discover that Nigel Green, originally introduced as a shareholder on Bledlow's board, is actually Peterson, and he finally faces Drummond in a game of remote control chess with giant pieces. Coincidentally, as Deadlier Than The Male was released in 1967 this version of a chess game might be compared with 'Checkmate' an episode of The Prisoner which was aired in that year.

Because of its female assassins, sex, and a torture scene between Koscina and Carlson, the film fell foul of the BBFC and received an X-certificate. Nowadays it is fairly tame. For a spoof it isn't particularly funny, for a thriller it isn't particularly thrilling. Johnson, excellent actor though he was, doesn't have a vast amount of screen impact, and it is left to Sommer and Koscina to hold our attention, although the screenplay obviously expects them to have to be in a state of undress to do so. There was a follow-up in 1969, Some Girls Do which featured robot girl-assassins, an idea probably lifted from the Dr Goldfoot films and, ultimately, the inspiration for Dr Evil's fem-bots in Austin Powers. As a final curiosity, the theme for Deadlier Than The Male is performed by the Walker brothers.

There's not much in the way of extras in this blu-ray release; basically some on-location interviews with the stars, conducted by a reporter with particularly bizarre barnet. As a long-time fan of Nigel Green, I enjoyed the interview with him. Green describes his role as 'one of many red-herrings', the original trailer for the film actually reveals Green to be the main villain, not a massive reveal but one they might have kept hidden given the paucity of twists and turns in the plotting.

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