Thursday, June 19, 2014

Culture Shock 06.19.14: 'Deadlier Than the Male' is an underrated classic of the spy craze

Elke Sommer, left, and Sylva Koscina are "Deadlier Than the Male."
When you've seen as many films as I have, the overlooked jewels become increasingly rare. Seams run dry. But still, on occasion, you stumble across a movie that leaves you wondering how you haven't seen it before.

"Deadlier Than the Male" is just such a movie, and I'm kicking myself for only now getting to it.

One of a flood of movies released during the James Bond-inspired spy craze, "Deadlier Than the Male" (1967) gets lost among its better-known contemporaries. Dean Martin's Matt Helm films and James Coburn's "Our Man Flint" receive far more repeat airplay. Sometimes, sadly, even Turner Classic Movies falls down on the job.

Yet unlike those straight-up parodies of Sean Connery's 007 outings, "Deadlier Than the Male" could almost be a Bond film. It opens with an airborne assassination that would easily be ranked among the best pre-credit set pieces of the Bond series.

Hen's Tooth Video released "Deadlier Than the Male" on DVD, but an upgrade on that decade-old pressing is in order. Hen's Tooth's disc is widescreen but non-anamorphic. That said, it's still colorfully vivid on my HDTV, even in zoom mode.

Richard Johnson (1963's "The Haunting") stars as Hugh Drummond — like Bond, a character with literary origins, in this case H.C. McNeile's 1920s gentleman hero "Bulldog" Drummond. Updated for the swinging '60s, Johnson's Drummond is an insurance investigator assigned to look into some very expensive and deadly "accidents."

The trail leads to a scheme to eliminate stubborn businessmen who stand in the way of — well, that would be telling. Let's just say someone has a rather aggressive idea of a "hostile" takeover.

Johnson turned down the role of James Bond, not wanting to commit to a long-term contract. His loss was Connery's gain — and ours. But "Deadlier Than the Male" gives us an idea what kind of 007 Johnson would have made. With his slighter build, less-rugged appearance and greater refinement, Johnson comes across as a Pierce Brosnan-type Bond in a Connery-type Bond movie. The approach works surprisingly well, hinting that the problem with the Brosnan-era 007 movies was never Brosnan.

Yet's Johnson's charming, unflappable Drummond is destined to be overshadowed.

The "deadlier than the male" assassins referenced in the title (and the catchy title tune by the Walker Brothers) take the shapely forms of Irma Eckman, played by Elke Sommer ("A Shot in the Dark") and Sylva Koscina ("Hercules," "Hercules Unchained"). When the two emerge bikini-clad from the Mediterranean to carry out a spear-gun assassination, it's Ursula Andress times two. Calling Dr. Yes.

Sommer's trademark "Teutonic temptress" — really, even her Internet Movie Database bio calls her that — is more than a match for any man, except maybe Bulldog Drummond. But as captivating a screen presence as she is, even she is outdone by Koscina, who would also be her co-star in Mario Bava's ghostly 1972 masterpiece "Lisa and the Devil." Koscina's playfully sadistic Penelope steals the show, especially when she's called upon to torture Drummond's clueless nephew (Steve Carlson) for information, or when she's "borrowing" from Irma's wardrobe. With their banter and bickering, Penelope and Irma are like a couple of mismatched college roommates, which adds humor without quite falling into camp — as befell the Bond series starting with "Diamonds are Forever."

Rounding out the cast is underrated British character actor Nigel Green, perhaps best remembered as Hercules in 1963's "Jason and the Argonauts." Indeed, there's a lot of under-appreciated talent here, in front of and behind the camera. "Deadlier Than the Male" boasts a story by Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster ("Horror of Dracula"), gorgeous cinematography by Ernest Steward (the "Carry On" films) and a swinging spy-fi score by Malcolm Lockyer (1965's "Dr. Who and the Daleks").

If some company wants to revisit "Deadlier Than the Male" for a much-needed Blu-ray upgrade, throwing in a bonus CD of the score wouldn't make any enemies.

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