Blending In with Bond

A Primer on Blended Scotch Whisky and 007’s Favorite Labels

It was a good plan. You managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain a madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target. But then his right-hand-man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you found yourself tied down in front of a villain sitting in an egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow-moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain to you his nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be blended scotch whisky.

For the villains of old spy and Bollywood thrillers, no secret lair or fortified chateau was complete without a hidden panel that slid open to reveal a silver serving tray, two rocks glasses, and a bottle of whisky. They drink it to celebrate. They offer it to the captured hero to gloat. They drink it again when their nefarious schemes begin to crumble around them. It’s near universal. Italy, Germany, India, Turkey, the United States—it doesn’t matter where you are. If you are a megalomaniac bent on world destruction or just a common thug who is sick and tired of Maurizio Merli slapping you around, chances are your drink of choice is scotch. You’re not going to catch Blofeld toasting the demise of James Bond with a wine cooler, and you’d never catch Bond wooing a sultry woman by ordering a Fuzzy Navel. Those drinks have their place, but that place is not a secret lair inside a volcano.

James Bond, one of global culture’s most recognized imbibers, drinks no fewer than 317 drinks throughout the series of books authored by Ian Fleming. Most of those are whiskey or whiskey cocktails, with Bond favoring bourbon over scotch. It’s not random that Bond champions the American spirit; he likes to tweak his nose at his country of origin from time to time. Ian Fleming famously switched from gin to bourbon because his doctor told him it was better for his health. But scotch need not worry. Bond’s number one drinking buddy, American CIA agent Felix Leiter, has only two functions in the novels: to slap his forehead and exclaim, “James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” and to order Haig & Haig on the rocks.

Single Blender

Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grains and water, with yeast added to activate fermentation. Scotch, simply enough, is whisky made in Scotland. Like champagne is to a specific type of sparkling wine from a specific region in France, so is “scotch” a legally defined and pugnaciously protected term. It has to be whisky, and it has to be from Scotland. There are other rules, but those are the basics. Within the sub-category of scotch, there are subdivisions, but the most important for now are single malt and blended scotch. A single malt is a whisky that comes from one distillery and is made from 100% malted barley. It does not have to be from a single batch distilled at the same time; just from the same distillery. For years, single malt was a niche product, but during the scotch revival of the 2000s, that changed.

Even with that change, blended scotch still makes up the bulk of the scotch that is made and consumed. Blended scotch combines a number of single malts in pursuit of a particular profile. These malts can come from any distillery, as long as it’s in Scotland. This blend is then further blended “neutral grain spirit”—something close to vodka, produced inexpensively and in large quantities. Traditionally, when people referred to scotch, they were referring to a blend, and when someone is asked to name a scotch brand, chances are that if they don’t say “Jack Daniels,” they’ll probably name a blended scotch: Johnnie Walker, most likely.

In a blend, the neutral spirit generally makes up the bulk of what you’re drinking. The higher the price, most times, the higher the amount of single malt in the blend, or the older the single malts. If you are going to put an age on the whisky, for single malts it is the duration between when it goes into a barrel and when it goes into a bottle. Whisky does not age once bottled. A ten-year-old whiskey from 1940 is still a ten-year-old whiskey. On a blend, if it carries an age statement, the age is of the youngest whiskey present. So if you combine a 50-year-old scotch and a four-year-old scotch, you have a four-year-old blend.

Because most single malts, despite the market for them on their own, are still sold to professional blenders (in fact, quite a few single malts will never be tasted by consumers, as 100% of the output is allocated for blending), and because less actual “whisky” goes into them, blends are less expensive and, thus more popular. Some are great, some are good, and some are terrible, but master blenders have been at this game for a long time now, and in a competitive market like whisky, few producers manage for very long with an inferior product.

If you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of scotch, or if you are looking for a gift for an old-timer, blends are almost always the best bet. Master blenders work hard and have passed knowledge down for decades about creating appealing, enjoyable, and above all, consistent blends. Single malts, lacking the cheaper-to-make neutral grain spirit, are usually more expensive and have traditionally been less popular. However, among whisky connoisseurs, single malts enjoy much greater popularity, even if master blenders will joke that drinking a single malt is like eating the ingredients of a cake instead of combining them to make a cake.

Of War and Whisky, Monks and Malts

Trying to pinpoint the “first” whisky is a fun but pointless endeavor. By the time people get around to writing something down, it’s been around for ages. For the sake of verifiable facts, however, let’s begin in 1494, which is the first known recorded appearance of whisky in Scotland. “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” With that entry into the Scottish Exchequer Rolls, whisky revealed its existence. But of course, that was just for the tax man. It had been around longer.

According to whisky lore, distillation came to Scotland by way of Ireland and is likely traced back to North Africa. St. Patrick, it is said, introduced distilling to Ireland in the fifth century, and the Dalriadic Scots took the process with them when they migrated to Scotland. St. Patty himself apparently learned the process from people in France and Spain, where distillation was used to create perfume and later used on grapes to create brandy. In areas where there were no grapes, and thus no wine-making, distillation of “mashes” made with an assortment of grain was adopted. The official use for this concoction, of course, was medicinal. Things that make you tipsy have a long history of being “medicinal.” Surprisingly, it was sometimes even true. Scientists figured out that the presence of certain antibiotics, which would not be discovered by medicine for thousands of years, in Egyptians mummies was because they occurred naturally in the beer Egyptians consumed.

The medieval version of whisky—the water of life, aqua vitae, or usquebaugh in Gaelic, sometimes shortened to usky and later…well, you can figure it out—was raw stuff that had more in common with backwoods moonshine that modern scotch. Distillation was primitive. The recipe and process varied from one maker to the next. Aging it in a barrel was basically non-existent. It was a local drink, growing in popularity but with no sort of agreed-upon definition or production method. A modicum of organization was introduced in 1505 when King James IV of Scotland granted the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh sole rights to make and sell usquebaugh in the capital. Whisky’s popularity continued to grow during the 1500s. The quality of spirit improved. Advances in still design and distillation produced spirits considerably less harsh than the early whiskies. And then there were the monks.

At the end of the 1400s, Europe and Britain were in a hopeless tangle of treaties that seemed designed to guarantee rather than prevent war. The first to go at each other were Italy and France, in what would become known as The Italian Wars. If there’s one thing England loved, it was going to war with France, so England allied itself with Italy. James IV of Scotland, however, had a binding treaty with France. In 1295, Scotsman John Balliol and Philip IV of France agreed that one country would always help the other if attacked by England. This agreement, known as The Auld Alliance, was renewed from time to time with little consequence, until eventually French monarch Louis XII called in the favor. As England came into the war on the side of Italy, Scotland was obliged by the Auld Alliance to invade England in support of France.

Italy—which is to say, Pope Leo X—was most displeased with Scotland and threatened the Scottish monarch with censure. England’s King Henry VIII decided that if the Pope was mad at James IV, Henry (himself not exactly a fan of popes, but whatever) might as well declare himself overlord of Scotland. He felt justified in doing this since, in 1502, England and Scotland had signed a non-aggression pact. By fulfilling Scotland’s old treaty with France, James IV was violating the newer one with England. James IV defied both king and pope, carrying out raids and sending Scottish sailors to reinforce the French navy. The war between the two neighbors came to a head in 1513, when James IV led a host of 30,000 Scots into battle against the English. the Battle of Flodden, sometimes known as the Battle of Branxton since that’s actually where it took place, went poorly for the Scots. James IV himself led the army and paid the ultimate price, falling in battle and effectively ending Scotland’s involvement in what was now being called War of the League of Cambrai.

Things settled down, but not for long. Henry VIII’s support of Italy in the wars had less to do with England’s love of the Pope and more to do with their hatred of France. The Reformation, which among other things sought to combat the vast wealth of the Church and the terrible poverty of its followers, was gaining steam throughout Europe, and Rome was scrambling to curtail the damage. In distant England, Henry VIII was pushing through a series of reforms to the Church of England that better reflected the mood of the population—and also happened to make it easier for the crown to confiscate wealth from the Church (and get a divorce). In 1534, Henry issued the first Act of Supremacy, naming the Crown, rather than the Pope, supreme head of the Church of England.

Among the things Henry did as the Church of England extracted itself from the Roman Catholic Church was begin the dissolution of monasteries. Monks were the original distillers. What else are a bunch of dudes living together going to do with their time? You can only chant so much. When Henry declared the monasteries to be no more, suddenly a lot of monks were out of a job. Forced to make it in the outside world, many fell back on their distilling skills, resulting in an influx of knowledgeable experts to the world of whisky-making and substantial advancement in the art and science of distilling. Whisky making continued to thrive and evolve in a loose and wild style, with the occasional violent conflict over taxation, until 1823 when the Excise Act essentially laid the foundations for the modern whisky industry. At that time, whisky was still a pretty rough spirit. The knowledge of the monks advanced the process substantially, but that’s “advanced” by the standards of the 16th century. It remained largely a provincial indulgence sold locally by grocers—grocers who had surnames like Walker, Dewar, Ballantine, and Chivas.

Blend in the Wind

In 1831, an inventor by the name of Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey, or Patent, still, sometimes also called a continuous or column still because why let something have one name when it can have like half a dozen? Traditionally, whisky had been made in a pot still consisting of a rotund “pot” with a neck where condensation takes place. In a pot still, you could only distill one batch of whisky at a time. Then you had to drain it, clean it, and pour in the next batch. By contrast, the Coffey still ran liquid through a long column that enabled distillers to ply their craft in a continuous flow. The only time you had to stop distilling was when you needed to clean the still or your workers went on holiday.

The invention of the column still also led to the production of “grain whisky.” But isn’t all whisky “grain” whisky, what with the legal definition of whisky being that it has to be made from grains? Well yes, but the designation of something as “grain” whisky at the time meant that it is made with, well, pretty much any grain other than barley. It is more accurate to call them “neutral” grain spirits, as the goal eventually became to produce a mostly-flavorless spirit, which generally occurs because it is distilled at a higher proof. Not everything that comes off a column still is a neutral grain spirit. Many bourbons, for example, are produced using column stills, and many grain spirits are rich in flavor because they are distilled at a lower proof and then aged. So, a little fuzzy sure, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the history and laws of booze are fuzzy.

Grain whisky off those early column stills had an altogether different taste than the rustic pot still whisky being cooked up by Scottish hillbillies. But that hillbilly stuff, well, it had it’s good points, too. A man named Andrew Usher wondered what might happen if you took that big, beastly pot still whisky and blended it with the more refined , delicate column still whisky. What might happen, it turns out, is you might create the biggest whisky market in the world. Since then, “blended” scotch has dominated the market. Up until very recently, it was pretty much all any whisky drinker consumed. Single malts were a statistically non-existent sliver of the market. As far as most people were concerned, single malts were nothing more than the raw ingredients that went into making true scotch; that is to say, blended scotch.

Yet, as mentioned, many hardcore whisky aficionados have changed their tune, trumpeting single malts as the true expression of a whisky while blends are diluted and “dumbed down” for the masses. Go to any reputable whisky shop these days and you will almost certainly see the bulk of the shelves taken up with an array of single malt scotches—Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and so forth—while the blends are relegated to the bottom shelf. This arrangement does not reflect the reality of the market as a whole, however, even if it may reflect the focus of people at that particular specialty shop. First of all, anyone who thinks a single malt is superior to a blend purely by virtue of being a single malt is a person whose opinion should not be trusted in any matter of import. There are fantastic, complex single malts. There are also dumb, simple, one-note single malts. There’s everything in between as well. The same is true of blends. There are blended scotches that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best single malt has to offer. There are also blends that are terrible, and the whole range in between.

The heavy weighting of a specialty shop’s whisky selection toward single malts also doesn’t reflect the simple economics of the industry. Over 90% of the single malt produced is used to make blends. There would be no single malt market if not for the demands of blended scotch. The world over, blends are still overwhelmingly what people drink. Chances are when ordering your first whisky, you probably ordered a blend. Those are the brands everyone knows. If your grandfather drank scotch, he almost certainly drank a blend (your dad didn’t drink scotch, at least not when he was your age; he drank beer and smoked weed). Recently, that wave of single malt snobs has come back around to the blends they once dismissed. Boutique whisky makers started making blends glamorous again. The over-inflation of single malt prices as they gear themselves more toward ultra-mega-billionaire investors and portfolio managers rather than drinkers also meant that people with less money to spend started eying blends. What they discovered was that a lot of these blends are good.

Going for a Walk

When you talk blends, especially blends favored by movie villains, there is no more obvious a place to start than Johnnie Walker, the drink of choice for screen villains and heroes alike. Johnnie Walker boasts an almost incomprehensible cinematic pedigree, thanks to its popularity, along with VAT 69, in the prolific film industry of India. Johnnie Walker has appeared in more Bollywood films than any other actor, including Johnnie Walker, a comedic actor who changed his name to reflect the popularity of, well, Johnnie Walker.

To count the number of villains who have sipped Johnnie Walker while relaxing in their lair, plotting the overthrow of the government, is an impossible task. Everyone from Dev Anand to Amitabh Bachchan to Dharmendra has celebrated victory or drowned defeat with Red or Black Label. Pretty much every Bollywood hero has had it offered to him by a sneering villain or femme fatale. The “dancing while displaying a bottle of whisky” routine that appears in so many Bollywood movies has resulted in Johnnie Walker Red likely being popular dancer Helen’s most frequent on-screen partner.

Johnnie Walker started as an experiment conducted by Kilmarnock farmer-turned-grocer John Walker, whose specialty was blending tea leaves. He figured that, although tea leaves were nothing like whisky, the experience could apply to making the harsh spirits commonly thought of as whisky into something more palatable. He began mixing malts together, then blended them with less abrasive grain whisky to create his signature store brand. It was a modest success but hardly a global juggernaut—at least until 1857, when Walker’s son took over the business. Alexander Walker was ambitious. He was the one who created the brand’s unique identity with the slightly askew black and gold label. He was the one who came up with the square bottle, a design that reduced breakage during shipping and also enabled retailers to fit more onto a shelf.

Alexander Walker’s three sons took over the business in 1889. Alexander Walker Jr. expanded and improved the product portfolio. By 1906, the John Walker & Sons whisky company offered three blends: the basic blend, with a white label; Extra Special Old Highland, with a red label; and Walkers Old Highland Whisky, 12-years-old and sporting a black label. In 1909, the three brand names were simplified: White Label, Red Label, and Black Label. In 1909, George Walker hired cartoonist Tom Browne to create a logo for the brand. Browne created a likeness of John Walker sporting a top hat, waistcoat and high boots—the iconic Walking Man.

Through a combination of canny, aggressive advertising and quality product, Johnnie Walker became one of the pre-eminent global brands. In 1925, when a lot of consolidation was happening and businesses were reeling from American experimentation with Prohibition, Johnnie Walker merged with Distillers Co. Ltd, an arrangement that stayed in place until they became part of Guinness in 1986. In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo, the whisky world’s number one Blofeld-esque supervillain. Diageo’s stewardship of Johnnie Walker has been fraught with controversy, as are most things involving Diageo.

The global beverage mega-corporation shuttered the facility in Kilmarnock, causing substantial economic strife in a small town who’s number one industry was Johnnie Walker. Accusations of a substantial drop in quality plagued the brand as well, though whether these are true or simply a symptom of the dislike engendered in so many people by Diageo and its business practices is a matter of debate. Suffice it to say that there’s a pretty good chance the entire town of Kilmarnock found itself dangling over a crocodile pit while Diageo offered it a tumbler of Johnnie Walker and explained its dastardly plan to close the plant (citation needed).

Bollywood’s relationship with whisky in general, and Johnnie Walker in particular, is also contentious and often contradictory. India consumes more Johnnie Walker than anywhere else in the world, and their fondness for it is what makes it the most popular whisky in the world. In fact, Johnnie is so popular in India that there are years when Indian consumers purchase more Johnnie Walker than is actually made. Counterfeiting Johnnie Walker is a booming business that India is only just now beginning to get under control, a fact that has led to a seemingly endless economic and legal battle between India and the Scotch Whisky Association, the body tasked with enforcing a variety of trade agreements and copyright issues.

In movies, Johnnie Walker represents the schizophrenia inherent in judging the perceived vices of others. Out of one side of the mouth, Indian cinema frames alcohol as a demon stalking virtue and traditional Indian goodness. Johnnie Walker, more times than not, is the drink of the evil or a crutch for the weak. Out of the other side of its mouth, of course, whisky is heralded as a symbol that you (and India) made it, that you have attained a better standard in life. That message, of Johnnie Walker equating to a more sophisticated status, is often undercut by the need to pander both to the urbane city dweller and the more suspicious traditionalists who see such advancement as horrifying and immoral.

Ultimately, the morality expressed by most Indian cinema is the same as the one espoused by the cinema of most other countries: buy a ticket. So Johnnie Walker remains both hero and villain, success and ruin. Whatever the case, you’ll see a lot of it. When the villain swivels around to offer you a pour from his bottle of Johnnie Black, sneer at him and say, “I prefer Green Label. But then, it’s less common so perhaps you’ve not familiar with it.” You may still get strapped to the nose of a nuclear missile, but at least you’ll die with the satisfaction of knowing you got a minor whisky-related leg up on the megalomaniac super villain.

Bond In a Pinch

Ironically, the most recognizable scotch in the world never makes an appearance in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Fleming himself, when he wasn’t downing a pint of gin or whatever, preferred bourbon because he thought it was healthier (he also thought Miller High Life was the greatest beer in the world). But as mentioned, while James Bond might have reflected Fleming’s taste for the American spirit, and while Johnnie Walker may be conspicuous by its absence, there’s no shortage of scotch consumed in the Bond books, most of it by Bond’s number one sidekick, Felix Leiter. And there’s nothing Leiter likes more than Haig & Haig on the rocks.

Perhaps no other brand is mentioned by name and consumed quite so often as Haig & Haig, known these days as Pinch and instantly recognizable thanks to the odd-shaped bottle enclosed in a thin web. Haig & Haig, or Pinch—or Dimple, as it’s known everywhere but the United States—was one of the first-recorded whiskey distilling companies. Well, in a manner of speaking. It got on the books when farmer Robert Haig was summoned before church elders in 1655 to answer for the crime of operating his still on the Sabbath. Blue laws, you know. Haig & Haig proper came into existence 1824, when one of the blasphemous farmer’s descendants, John Haig, opened a distillery in Cameronbridge, Scotland. In 1870, John’s son, John, became the first Haig to go into scotch blending. One of his best creations was Pinch, introduced sometime in the 1890s. Like many scotches, Haig & Haig was eventually absorbed into the conglomerate United Distillers and Vintner, and later became part of beverage leviathan Diageo.

Massive quantities of the stuff, still referred to at the time as Haig & Haig (that portion of the name was eventually dropped) are consumed in the Bond novels. Felix Leiter has two Haig & Haigs on the rocks in Casino Royale. In fact, it shares space with perhaps the single most quoted drinks order in James Bond history, short of “vodka Martini…shaken, not stirred.”
Bond insisted ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A Dry Martini”, he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet…Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” That’s Haig & Haig, rubbing shoulders with the cocktail soon to be known as the Vesper.

In Live and Let Die, Bond and Leiter drink it in Harlem and share a bottle when they’re in Florida. Bond also drinks Haig & Haig by himself while wasting time in his hotel room in New York. In Moonraker, Bond finds a half a bottle of Haig & Haig in the villain’s desk and drains it with Gala Brandt. You know, to prepare for the harrowing life-or-death mission ahead. The Dimple also makes appearances in Goldfinger, the short story The Living Daylights, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Marc-Ange Draco drinks Pinch when he meets 007. Draco is one of the Bond associates for whom Fleming had the most affection (note his “warm, dry handshake,” a sure sign of trustworthiness in any Bond novel), so having him prefer Pinch is a glowing endorsement.

Bond in Black and White

Bond also proves fond of Black & White, a blended scotch whiskey that traces its beginnings to the 1880s. It was an offshoot of London-based whiskey makers James Buchanan and Company’s Buchanan Blend and was originally known as House of Commons. Buchanan was actually born in Canada, lived in Scotland, and was raised in Northern Ireland. He got into the whiskey business through his brother’s grain company, and after picking up experience, became a London agent for whiskey blenders Charles Mackinlay & Co. He set up his own company five years later, acquiring casks of whiskey for private clients.

He soon noticed that the bulk of the product available on the market did not appeal to the London palette. He set out to create a blend that would find purchase among the denizens of the big city. The result was House of Commons, deriving its name from one of Buchanan’s biggest booze clients, the British House of Commons. However, the distinctive packaging—a black bottle with a white label depicting a Scottish Terrier and white Westhighland Terrier—eventually became so recognizable that the whiskey changed its name to Black & White.
Buchanan pushed Black & White into other markets: France, Germany, Canada, The United States, New Zealand and South Africa. He established satellite offices in Paris, New York, Hamburg and Buenos Aires. He used the money from his success to purchase several Scottish distilleries, including the lowland distillery Bankier and the highland distillery Convalmore. He built his own distillery, Glentauchers, at Mullben in 1898 and later acquired the Campbeltown Distillery Lochruan.

Buchanan, like many distillers, ran into hard times because of Prohibition. The industry was already in turmoil. Many distilleries were going out of business, so distillers began forming coalitions. Chief among these was the Distillers Company, Ltd. (DCL). Buchanan and some associates formed their own Scotch Whisky Brands, Ltd. in 1915. When, on top of that, Prohibition began across the Atlantic, things got dire. After a merger in 1919, Buchanan’s coalition changed its name to Buchanan-Dewar’s. Eventually, “Buchanan” was dropped. Dewar’s became part of the DCL family. Black & White changed hands a couple more times, passing for a time to Guinness before finding its way to its current home under the globe-encompassing umbrella of spirits megalith Diageo, which it turns out is actually controlled by SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Stavros Blofeld (citation needed).

Bond drinks his first Black & White in the novel Moonraker, when he stops in at a Dover pub called World Without Want to investigate the murder of a Ministry of Supply security officer. He also enjoys a Black & White in the movie Dr. No when he, Leiter, and Quarrel are having a post-dinner round before they confront a mysterious female photographer trying to snap their pictures.

Starting in the Pierce Brosnan era of movies, single malts started making appearances, first int he form of Talisker and, in the Craig era, Macallan. Additionally, the movies finally started tapping into that spirit that truly captured 007’s heart: bourbon. And that is another tale.

You Only Listen Twice

Further Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi

As a body of work, albums made to cash in on the popularity of James Bond movies and spy shows are generally regarded as “disposable,” something a group of studio musicians would throw together to earn some easy money. And while that may indeed have been the motivation more times than not, you can’t blame an artist for earning some cash, and you’ll frequently discover that talented musicians are talented musicians no matter how throw-away the project. But you’ll also discover that there are, after you do some digging, some genuinely strange histories attached to what might otherwise be pretty run-of-the-mill collections of Bond theme covers. For example, a record of James Bond surf and exotica tunes involving trippy jazz legend Sun Ra and members of Blood Sweat and Tears.

When I was selecting the line-up for a follow-up article about 007 cash-in albums, I didn’t expect to find the stories I found. But here we are, with records full of interesting music arranged by, for example, one of the most accomplished session guitarists in Hollywood, who worked with Nancy Sinatra; the son of a bandleader who worked at a restaurant where he likely performed for the Queen of England, Ian Fleming, and a playboy spy from WWII who inspired the plot of Casino Royale; or a truly nutty go-go pop record by an Austrian Jew who was arrested for being a German spy before being cleared…and becoming a British spy. And then there’s big band legend Count Basie, and his curious connection to Monty Norman and Dr. No.

So put on the headphones and prepare yourself for another swinging, occasionally baffling journey through James Bond themed records.


Billy Strange
The Secret Agent File (1965)
James Bond Double Feature (1967)

Billy Strange was, among other things, a guitarist for the famed collection of studio musicians that became known as the Wrecking Crew. If you’ve never heard about them, I suggest you do a bit of reading, because the story is fascinating, and a sobering look at how the music industry works (in short: many of the greatest groups in music history played their own instruments a lot less on albums than they’d like you to know). In addition, Strange worked with Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, and arranged the non-soundtrack version of Nancy’s You Only Live Twice theme, which adds a pretty amazing layer of bombast to the song. He’s also the guy playing guitar on her melancholy hit, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” and did the arrangements for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” He’s the guy playing guitar on the theme from the TV shows The Munsters and Batman. He worked with everyone from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys to Willie Nelson. So…by no means some fly-by-night musician. Strange was the real deal.

Obviously, a Strange album of James Bond music is going to lean heavy into the guitar. The first of two Bond cash-ins for him, The Secret Agent File starts with a banger of a version of the Thunderball theme (the movie was released the same year as this album), full of twanging surf guitar and macho brass. That’s followed by a moody rendition of “A Man Alone,” the theme from the stellar Michael Caine spy film, The IPCRESS File. Strange delivers most of the hits you will come to expect from a James Bond inspired album, including great versions of I Spy, The Man from UNCLE, Get Smart, Our Man Flint, and a moody arrangement of the theme from the bleak The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, based on the grim John Le Carre novel. There’s also top-notch versions of the James Bond theme; the nigh-ubiquitous “007 Theme” that manages to stand out from the pack and is very Ventures-esque (makes sense—Strange worked with the Ventures) and then figures what the hell, why not throw in some burlesque beat R&B sax; and the similarly ubiquitous Goldfinger theme.

Strange’s second foray into spy movie music, James Bond Double Feature, is more varied, both in content and style. While it’s unfortunate that we don’t get his version of You Only Live Twice with Nancy (you can find that on the Nancy Sinatra retrospective Lightning’s Girl: Greatest Hits 1965-1971), we do get quite a lot, though not a lot of James Bond. The album fulfills the letter of the title, if not the spirit, and presents two Bond theme covers, one for You Only Live Twice and the other for Casino Royale, both released the same year as this album. Both are quite good. The rest of the album is also good, despite the lack of any more 007 music. Strange shows his mastery of a number of styles, turning in everything from Ennio Morricone numbers (the theme from For a Few Dollars More) to breezy lounge pop (The Summer Scene, the theme from Alfie), and a pretty great version of theme from In Like Flint. So, while it may be light in the James Bond music department, this is still a good album to pick up, especially if you’re a fan of twangy surf-meets-spaghetti western guitar.


The Chaquito Big Band
Spies And Dolls (1972)

Coming out in 1972, this Bond cash-in from Chaquito Big Band takes full advantage of the musical styles that had become popular by then. Lots of wah-wah guitar, Hammond organs, rapid fire percussion, and the sort of big brass and strings you were getting in everything from Isaac Hayes to the music from Enter the Dragon to big hit cop TV shows. The Chaquito of the group’s name was British composer Johnny Gregory, who among other accomplishments, led the storied BBC Radio Orchestra for nearly two decades. He came from a musical family, with a father who led a dance band at London’s legendary Italian restaurant, Quaglino’s. Apart from being a hot spot for British aristocracy (including Queen Elizabeth herself, who became the first reigning British monarch to dine at a public restaurant when she dropped by in 1953), Quaglino’s has a few important stamps on its James Bond and espionage history passport. Ian Fleming dined at Quaglino’s with Maud Russell, an American ant-fascist activist and, for a time, Ian’s lover. The two spent dinner arguing over politics, most likely having to do with Ian being at the time, like many upper-class Brits, in favor of appeasement rather than war with up-and-coming dictator Adolf Hitler.

Quaglino’s was also the restaurant that MI5 operative Major Thomas Robertson, who specialized in double agents, chose to influence a potential important asset: Agent Tricycle, aka Dusan “Dusko” Popov.* Popov would eventually be chaperoned at a Lisbon casino by young Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who watched with awe as playboy spy Popov used the money given to him by the British government to bankrupt Nazi after Nazi at the gambling tables. Popov’s brash actions made such an impact on Fleming that he eventually used the night as the basis for the plot of his first novel, Casino Royale. Later in life, when asked what it felt like to be one of the primary models upon which Fleming based James Bond, Popov, in a move as cool as 007, brushed it off, claiming (perhaps rightly) that his own life was far more exciting than Bond’s.

Johnny Gregory’s father, Frank Gregori, would likely have been the band leader at Quaglino’s while all of this was going on, and since young Johnny worked in the band for a time as a violinist, it’s even possible he performed for some point for Ian Fleming or Dusko Popov. True to his background in pop, dance bands, and scoring, the Chaquito Big Band’s contribution to the world of Bond cash-ins, is big and bold and very early 1970s. It starts out with a truly blistering rendition of the theme from the Sidney Poitier film They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, followed by a number of other ace arrangements of movie themes, including The Anderson Tapes, The French Connection, Our Man Flint, Bullit, and Shaft. There’s also some good original compositions. What there isn’t weirdly, are any James Bond themes. However, don’t let that sour you on this album. Chaquito Big Band delivers a high-energy album that bridges some gaps between the purer John Barry sound of the 1960s and the more groove-oriented sound of the 1970s.


Count Basie
Basie Meets Bond
(1966)

While a lot of accomplished musicians recorded albums of James Bond and spy movie music, most of them were big names behind the scenes, as talented arrangers and session musicians. But there’s no bigger name in the field known to the public than jazz pioneer Count Basie, who in 1966 decided to make a few extra dollars by committing his band to dashing off some disposable but well-executed spy anthems. Not surprisingly, of all the albums so far featured in these world tours, this is the one that skirts the closest to pure swinging jazz and big band, though it also remains modern and in touch with the John Barry style. Also not surprisingly, it didn’t fall on particularly receptive ears when jazz fans at the time, attracted by Basie’s name, gave the LP a spin and found it mostly to be a skippable cash grab. In subsequent years, it’s been reassessed, and generally gets more complimentary reviews.

Well, cash grab it may have been, but it’s still a pretty great album. The Count draws music from the first four 007 films (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball) and concentrates particularly on music from Dr. No, which gives him an excuse to flex some calypso muscle. In fact, the messy story of the Dr. No soundtrack directly involves Count Basie and a song on Basie Meets Bond, “Dr. No’s Fantasy” (of which the album contains two versions). When Monty Norman, officially the composer for the movie’s soundtrack (the bad blood between he and John Barry, especially over what would become the well-known James Bond theme, was the stuff of multiple lawsuits), was in Jamaica doing research alongside Island Records founder (and eventual owner of Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home, Goldeneye), he met up with Basie. Norman was struggling to nail the film’s signature theme, and Basie was interested in Norman’s Dr. No music, so Monty sent the Count some of his ideas. What Basie came up with and pitched back to Norman as a possible theme for the movie was “Dr. No’s Fantasy.” In the end, it was judged not “sinister” enough to serve as James Bond’s theme, though a version appears on the re-issued Dr. No Soundtrack and Basie’s two versions appear on Basie Meets Bond.

Given his connection, however tangential, to Dr. No, it’s no surprise that Basie would explore other tracks from that film, including arrangements of “Kingston Calypso” and the movie’s signature tune, “Underneath the Mango Tree.” Monty Norman’s life probably would have been easier if they’d gone with Basie’s proposed theme. Beyond the Dr. No songs, Basie and his band deliver breezy versions of themes from the subsequent three Bond films, as well as the inescapable “007 Theme” and, of course, a swingy, loungy version of the James Bond theme. Is it an essential album for Basie or harder-core jazz fans? I doubt it. But for aficionados of Bond music and some of the more esoteric pieces of James Bond history, Basie Meets Bond is a worthwhile curiosity with some fun, undemanding music with a twisty direct connection to official James Bond music.


Ray Martin and His Orchestra
Goldfinger and Other Music From James Bond Thrillers (1965)
Thunderball and Other Thriller Music (1965)

Ray Martin was a Austrian-British orchestra leader who made a name for himself as a dependable composer of “light” music. Wasting no time (notby choice) in establishing his espionage bona fides, he immigrated to England from Austria in 1938 and was promptly placed under suspicion of being a Nazi spy (even though he was Jewish). He was interned as a prisoner of war and sent to Australia, where he was held until 1941. Upon his release, he apparently bore no ill will toward the new home that had tossed him in a prison camp, because he promptly joined the Army. He worked for six years in British Intelligence and, in his spare time, he was an arranger and composer for the Royal Air Force Band, and he somehow mounted an operation to rescue his brother, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. If that doesn’t qualify a man to dash off a couple albums of James Bond and spy movie music, then nothing does.

The first of his two Bond albums, Goldfinger and Other Music From James Bond Thrillers opens with…you guessed it the theme from Goldfinger yet again. However, for a change, this version brings something new to that well-worn territory. Martin’s arrangement nails the brassy John Barry sound, but he gives it a little something extra by adding female vocals either sighing wordlessly or belting occasional lyrics from the original. No Shirley Bassey, these ladies, but they give the song a very mod, pop sensibility. After so many versions of this particular theme, it’s a joy to hear one that makes you take notice. The ladies stick around for most of the tracks, taking on, among other things, a vocal rendition of the guitar parts in the James Bond theme, which Martin really jazzes up. Because not only did the song need ghostly female vocals, it also needed a sax solo. Similar goosing is done to most of the song, including the theme from From Russia with Love and the one song other than Goldfinger and the Bond theme that might be the most ubiquitous, “007 Theme,” and even that Ray and the gang turn into something new. Every song is infused with go-go boots and miniskirts energy, much poppier than jazzy most of the time but always exciting and unique among Bond cash-ins. It’s one of my favorite of all of these albums.

He brings along the girls, the sax, and the gusto for his second Bond album, Thunderball and Other Thriller Music, anchored by a spectacular, fast-paced version of the Thunderball theme and delving into more non-Bond material, including a breezy arrangement of the theme from The Knack…And How to Get It, a version of “A Man Alone” from The IPCRESS File that could almost fool you into thinking the movie isn’t depressing, and similarly lunatic go-go pop versions of The Man from UNCLE, the Bond track “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Honey West, and more. Both of these Ray Martin albums are absolute joys. They are just…delirious. Beautifully, energetically delirious, like someone took John Barry, Esquivel, Lulu, Bruno Nicolai, Al Caiola, and a drive down the Amalfi Coast in a convertible MG and threw them all into a blender.


* Want to know more about the wild story of Ian Fleming and Dusko Popov? Well, I just happen to have written a book, Cocktails and Capers, that has a chapter dedicated to the story, with special guest appearances by Mussolini, Lucky Luciano, and a bunch of cocktail recipes.

James Bond cash-in albums will return in…
Goldsinger: Now Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi!

The Sound of Spying

Diving Into the World of James Bond Cash-In Albums

There are many elements that go into making and so have become defining factors of James Bond films: the clothes, the cars, the exotic locations, the drinks, the attitude—and of course, the music. James Bond without John Barry and Monty Norman’s instantly identifiable guitar and big brass theme might as well be that guy from Agent for H.A.R.M. John Barry’s work on the Bond films created the audio template in which all future Bond composers would operate. Even the ones who synth and disco’d things up in the 1970s and ’80s still colored within the lines of Barry’s style. As Never Say Never Again illustrated, James Bond without the James Bond sound was awkward.

When the Bond films proved runaway successes in the 1960s, hundreds of movies were made in dozens of countries, all looking to cash in on the same basic formula, and each of those movies needed music. What they came up with, often composed by exceptionally talented and creative artists, was usually breezy, swinging ’60s style cocktail lounge music laced with the occasional twangy guitar. Outside of film scores, there was an equally lucrative cash-in industry of record labels releasing Bond and spy-themed albums not connected to any actual movie—at least not officially.

Most of these albums were disposably enjoyable, offering nondescript but professionally competent renditions of popular Bond theme songs, as well as music from assorted espionage television shows. Some also mixed in original compositions done in the style of Bond music, and more than a few threw a half-assed rendition of a Bond theme song onto an album full of otherwise unrelated-to-spy-stuff easy listening tunes so they could justify calling the album Music to Thrill By or something and putting a picture of a guy with a Walther PPK on the cover.

There were a number of pretty great cash-in albums and cash-in composers sprinkled through the trend, the biggest of whom happens to have also gotten the closest to actually working on a James Bond film…even if it was 1967’s Casino Royale.

Roland Shaw: The Man with the Golden Horns

Towering above all other Bond cash-in album composers was Britain’s Roland Shaw, an accomplished musician who attended the Trinity College of Music and served in the Royal Air Force in World War II, where he lead the RAF No. 1 Band of the Middle East Forces. Shaw released a series of James Bond cash-in records that featured arrangements of 007 themes and background music that were often just as good as the originals, and in some cases, perhaps even better. His willingness to delve into the library of background music is what set Shaw apart from his contemporaries, most of whom were happy to simply churn out a thousand different covers of the themes from Goldfinger and Thunderball.

Recording for Decca between 1966 and 1971, Shaw and his orchestra released several James Bond themed albums, as well as one album of more general spy themes. Keeping the albums straight can be a chore, as in the true spirit of cash-in albums, they were re-released multiple times, often with different names and covers. Plus, Shaw’s previous releases were frequently reassembled by producers into wholly different albums. But the following run-down should cover the additions you need to make to your smooth spy lounge soundtrack.

Themes From The James Bond Thrillers (1964)
Shaw’s first foray into the world of all-007 music sets the tone for all of Shaw’s subsequent albums. It’s a mix of main themes (From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and the James Bond Theme and other notable cues from From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Dr. No. Most of the best songs on this collection would pop up on later Roland Shaw albums, but a couple — “Dr. No’s Fantasy” (from Dr. No), “Leila Dances,” and “The Golden Horn” (both from From Russia with Love) — I haven’t found on any other album but this one. Shaw’s arrangement of “007” is, in my opinion, even better than the John Barry original.

More Themes From James Bond Thrillers (1965)
Shaw’s follow-up to his first album of Bond music is another great one, partly because it sticks almost entirely to more obscure tracks and background music. There’s the obligatory arrangement of the theme from the latest Bond movie (Thunderball, with no one bothering to attempt a recreation of Tom Jones’ vocal bravado), but after that, Shaw shies away from themes and instead serves up great takes on the rest of what James Bond music has to offer: a few tracks from Dr. No (including a cover of “Underneath the Mango Tree” that has the first appearance of vocals on a Roland Shaw spy music album), From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger. There’s not as much that’s as “iconic” on this album, though once again it’s very good and serves to create a more complete universe of James Bond music.

Themes From The James Bond Thrillers, Vol. 03 (1966)
This third volume of Bond music kicks off with a vocal version of the theme from You Only Live Twice. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this version is superior to the Nancy Sinatra original, it’s still an great version. The rest of it is pretty good as well, once again leaning heavily on music other than the themes — though you do get arrangements of the themes from 1967’s Casino Royale (both the Herp Alpert song and Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” with vocals that obviously can’t match Dusty) and Thunderball, just in case you didn’t have enough versions of the theme from Thunderball. The rest of the tracks are cues taken from Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Casino Royale, From Russia with Love, and one more from Dr. No. All good stuff, but the theme from You Only Live Twice makes this one essential.

Themes for Secret Agents (1966)
This collection of brassy, bombastic themes ranges outside the James Bond canon and includes arrangements of music from The Man from UNCLE, The Saint, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Our Man Flint, I Spy, The Avengers, and The IPCRESS File. There are still several Bond themes, including “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and the themes from Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Thunderball, and of course the James Bond theme. Shaw keeps things fast paced and upbeat. In particular, I love his versions of The Avengers theme, From Russia with Love, and “The James Bond Theme”—that last one will make you feel like going out and getting in a speed boat chase or leaping from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of some dastardly assassin.

The Return Of James Bond In Diamonds Are Forever…And Other Secret Agent Themes (1971)
This is a spectacular sampler of Roland’s work, sticking primarily to main themes rather than highlighting lesser-covered tracks. Released in 1971, it repackages many of Shaw’s arrangements of the Bond themes and combines them with other spy movie and TV themes featured on other albums. New for this album are superb renditions of the themes from Diamonds are Forever and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as well as the song “Let the Love Come Through,” which Shaw originally wrote for the 1967 James Bond send-up, Casino Royale. Those three tracks make this album worth the repeated material, but you also get Mission: Impossible, Peter Gunn, and Wednesday’s Child. The orchestra’s “Diamonds are Forever Reprise” decides that nothing jazzes up a song quite like adding a bunch of funky wah-wah guitars.

And They Strike…!

There were a lot of other great albums made to cash in on the popularity of music from the James Bond movies. There were even more passable but forgettable albums, and more than one or two terrible ones. And then there were a few that were, for one reason or another, completely weird. A lot of the people working in the field of cash-in albums were legitimately talented musicians, so the urge to tweak the formula and get a little bonkers must have been overwhelming.

While by no means the “weirdest,” here are some of my favorite variations on the spy lounge theme.

Cheltenham Orchestra & Chorus
Songs from Goldfinger (1964)
If you have at least a passing familiarity with cocktail lounge music, you’ve probably run across the New Classic Singers and their version of “Call Me.” Even if you don’t know them, you know the sound, because it’s the very typical lounge sound you’d think of: lots of strings, and a chorus hitting you with lots of “zu zu zu wow!” singing. If you can imagine that sort of lounge pop choral group doing Bond themes, then you can begin to grasp this record. Four songs isn’t really enough, but then again, maybe it is, because at just four tracks, it manages to be entertaining and even charming without the novelty wearing thin. Three of the songs are Bond themes: From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and the “James Bond Theme,” which is a pretty small offering of Goldfinger songs for an album called Songs from Goldfinger. The fourth is a track with the rolls-off-the-tongue title of “Theme For Guitar – Fran – Chucks Monster – Riff – Funky.” It’s a little…you don’t want to call this sort of bubblegum cocktail pop “edgy,” but let’s just say it eschews the soothing singers in favor of electric guitars, wild drums, and a sax player who apparently wandered in from a 1960s burlesque club.

David Lloyd & His London Orchestra
Confidential: Sounds For A Secret Agent (1965)
The thing that makes this album weird isn’t the arrangement or style of the music. It’s pretty straight forward cocktail stuff. No, it’s the fact that almost all of these “themes” are original pieces. You should be clued in almost immediately by the fact that the album features themes based on Bond stories that wouldn’t be made into movies for years yet. So what you have, then, are original themes written by David Lloyd for the Ian Fleming books, though a few movie themes make it in. Just in case you didn’t already have 10,000 versions of Goldfinger, you get another one here, and it’s pretty good. Also, you probably needed one more version of “007” from From Russia With Love, so here you go. Lloyd’s arrangement of the From Russia With Love theme is nice, with a lot of strings and even an accordion because, well, why the hell not? It’s like a version you’d here by a band of talented French musicians pestering you outside a cafe while you’re waiting to exchange microfilm with a beautiful Eastern European spy. After those selections, and the obligatory “James Bond Theme,” you get into the original stuff. While I can’t say any of it is overly memorable, it’s all decent, and if nothing else, it’s fun to hear what Lloyd imagined as the theme songs then compare it to what became the theme song for the eventual movie. John Barry’s job was never in jeopardy, but I like most of Lloyd’s concepts.

Harry Roche Constellation
Casino Royale & Other Hip Sounds (1967)
First of all, the fact that they refer to their songs as “hip,” even when it was hip to call things hip, means that you’re pretty much guaranteed something decidedly unhip. That said, this album opens with a decently danceable arrangement of “Strangers in the Night” that would play well if you’re looking to take a slightly tipsy dame in a “just a little bit too short” black cocktail dress onto the dance floor at a decent hotel bar. That song sets the mood for the rest of the album: hardly hip, but perfectly serviceable for a boozy night of cocktails in the lounge. Despite invoking the name of Casino Royale, there’s little in the way of Bond or other spy themes. You get a decent instrumental version of “The Look of Love.” The Constellation also turns in a fair enough rendition of the Tijuana Brass’ Casino Royale theme, this time with female vocals. The rest of the album is cocktail lounge standards. If you’re looking for spy anthems, you won’t really find them here, but if you’re in the mood for an undemanding collection of easy listening tunes that are, true to the genre, easy to listen to as background music, then you’re in pretty safe territory here.

The “Sleepwalk” Guitars Of Dan & Dale
Theme From Thunderball And Other Themes (1965)
Other than the Roland Shaw albums mentioned above, if you were to seek out one James Bond cash-in album, it should be this one, because not only is the music pretty oddball, it has by far the most interesting backstory. Dan and Dale was a studio-only group made up of guitarists Danny Kalb and Steve Katz of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Backing them up on organ, sax and other instruments were ultra-outre avant garde jazz musicians Sun Ra, Al Kooper, and other players from Sun Ra’s bizarre Solar Arkestra. Sun Ra and the Arkestra are best-known for discordant free jazz heavily influenced by Sun Ra’s personal mythology about space aliens, alternate dimensions, ancient Egypt, and Black empowerment. However, they were adept at a wide range of styles, so it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds to hear them earning a paycheck playing on album of James Bond covers and original spy-inspired compositions.

Everything here is a winner, leaning very heavy into the surf guitar sound that would become increasingly identified with espionage movies. There’s also more than a little exotica and Polynesian pop in the mix. Never has the “Spectre Theme” made the amoral organization seem so languid and ready for a luau. But then it gets stranger, because in 2021, the record was released as an mp3 album, but with a near-totally different line-up of songs. Except they’re not different songs; they’ve just been retitled by…who exactly is even responsible for the mp3 version (which is available through Amazon)? No idea, but by any name the songs are supremely weird and amazing.

James Bond cash-in albums will return in…
You Only Listen Twice:
Further Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi!

When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head

The Utterly Strange Sounds of Peter Wyngarde

Around these parts, Wyngarde is revered for his role as Jason King, the swingin’ international man of mystery, adventure novel writer, and part-time espionage agent he played on the series Department S and, later, in his own spin-off series, Jason King. The man spent his days solving unsolvable mysteries, penning potboilers, wooing ladies, drinking champagne and scotch for breakfast, and puzzling over which of his many puff ties to wear with his silk lounging robe. This despite the fact that Jason King was, shall we say, something less than a Greek god to behold. But he carried himself with such panache, such style, and such biting wit and arrogance that it’s hard not to see his charms, if only from a somewhat campy aspect.

Anyway, if King wasn’t your style, there was always his Department S colleague, Stewart Sullivan (played by Joel Fabiani). And we can’t really say enough about his other colleague: analyst, computer wiz, and second most beautiful woman in espionage (Emma Peel is secure atop the heap, after all), Annabelle Hurst (Rosemary Nicols). But none of them had the bizarre yet undeniable appeal of Jason King, who was the perfect blend flamboyant dandy and hard-drinkin’ lady’s man — it’s the sort of thing that might happen, say, a screenwriter comes up with a swingin’ Romeo superspy then gives it to a gay man to interpret — which is what Wyngarde was, and what he did.

Riding the tide of popularity his portrayal of Jason King brought him, Wyngarde was approached by RCA with the prospect of recording an album. Getting popular TV personalities to record albums was all the rage, and when they promised Wyngarde complete creative freedom, he agreed. And thus we start down the road toward infamy.

The album was completed, released, then yanked from shelves almost immediately in an air of blistering controversy. Expecting, one assumes, some frothy concoction of easy listening and perhaps go-go rock, RCA execs and fans must have been taken aback when they spun the record and found it to be a bizarre collection of musical cues in multiple styles accompanied by Wyngarde — or more accurately, perhaps, Jason King — rambling on and occasionally talk-singing about a variety of topics. Sex, mostly, though. There was indeed some easy listening cocktail groove thrown into the mix, but he doesn’t restrict himself in any way. At the center of the controversy was the song “Rape,” which would be offensive if it wasn’t so goddamn weird. In it, Wyngarde/King babbles semi-coherently about how the style of rape differs from one country to the next. Not content to simply offend in that aspect, it throws a racist “Chinaman” bit in for good measure.

The rest of the album really veers into left field. The “song” “Hippie and the Skinhead” begins with Wyngarde, accompanied by some music, opening the paper and reading a letter written by a couple skinhead girls explaining various factual errors in the paper’s recent article about skinheads. As the letter draws to a close, Wyngarde suddenly launches into a country-western style song about queer bashing.

The rest of the album is just as strange, with Wyngarde talking and pseudo-singing, occasionally flying into fits of boiling rage, occasionally adopting bizarre character voices. Even in the permissive atmosphere of 1970, the album was considered too much to bear — not so much because of the one song, but because of the whole thing just being to artistically confounding. RCA pulled it off shelves and did their best to pretend it was never recorded. In 1975, Wyngarde was “outed” as a homosexual — even though his homosexuality was well-known amongst his peers, where he occasionally adopted the name Petunia Winegum. The ensuing scandal and “moral outrage” saw the man shuffled to the margins of the public consciousness, much like his album. In 1980, he appeared behind a metal mask as Klytus in Flash Gordon, but his career never fully recovered from the 1975 scandal.

Collectors have been searching for and trading the elusive album for years. While finding the album  was not that difficult (the Internet makes it all so easy), affording the album was well beyond my means. Although there were labels looking to re-issue the self-titled record, contractual wrangling, cold feet, and other tangles always got in the way. Until 2009.

Out of the Closet, Out of the Shadows

Through some Herculean dedication to the cause, British label RPM managed to secure the rights and re-release the album on CD in the United Kingdom, retitled (appropriately) When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head. While some people would consider buying a CD re-issue no proper accomplishment when compared to searching for the vinyl, all I really wanted to do was own and listen to the damn thing, treasure hunt and exorbitant LP prices be damned. So I made the purchase, actually knowing very little at the time about the album other than that it had disappeared almost as soon as it had been released, and having only heard one track, the more or less conventional (when compared to songs recorded by other TV stars — Nimoy and Shatner, for example) “Neville Thumbcatch.”

You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Belloq screams, “It’s beautiful!” right before his head explodes? Well, pretty much. When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head is indeed a study in profound weirdness, the recorded LP equivalent of a drunken ramble at the end of a night of secret society decadence and debauchery delivered by a man who is at once embracing and lambasting his ladies’ man image while struggling with the fact that his heart’s just not into being a ladies’ man. The opening track, “Come In” starts about like you might expect the album to start — with a splashy bit of adventure series music right out of the ITC production library. But that quickly fades, and we are greeted by Wyngarde drunkenly singing in French then introducing some woman/us into his bachelor’s den. Still, if you knew Jason King, this isn’t really out of character, and the unsuspecting listener couldn’t be blamed for thinking this was just an in-character intro to more conventional tracks to come. But when Wyngarde tells this unseen lover (actually, it could just as easily be a man, but for the line about a beautiful dress, and even then…), “Here’s to a pleasant evening… and a few surprises,” he speaks the truth.

“You Wonder How These Things Began” is a strange spoken word “mood setter” accompanied by medieval style lutes. And then comes “Rape.” Returning to the brass-and drums action music that began the album, the song adds female screams and pleas, guttural roaring of the word “rape,” then launches into Wyngarde’s “international rape 101” lecture. On the surface, the song is obviously full of things to offend. But taken in the context of Wyngarde’s semi-secret personal life, it could just as easily be an indictment of the “might makes right” machismo that makes rape such a tragically common crime. Like everything surrounding Wyngarde and Jason King, it’s hard to extract any cohesive “philosophy” from the swirling mix of emotion.

Nothing else on the album is quite so incendiary, though it remains plenty weird. Musician Vic Smith did the arrangements, and he seems to be having a good time indulging every bizarre whim and fancy; here sparse and minimal, there symphonic and melodramatic, elsewhere Sgt. Peppers style baroque-pop. And all the while Wyngarde talks on like some psychotic stream-of-consciousness poet, at once sad and enraged. Beneath the weirdness is a chord of bitterness, frustration, and melancholy, Laugh with it, laugh at it, and then all of a sudden you’ll realize that, campiness aside, something just isn’t quite right. It’s as amusing as it is oddly unsettling, especially once you get to the closing track, “April,” the jaunty strings-and-“picnic beneath the veranda on a fine summer day” style music of which can’t mask the stinging final message.

It’s hard to pick anything out as a favorite. The album works more or less like a long suite rather than individual tracks, and the gestalt experience is more important than the separate pieces. The cover of “Neville Thumbcatch,” as I said, is the most conventional song, but it’s still quirky. I quite like “Once Again (Flight Number 10)” as well, being a sort of Ulysses-style stream-of-consciousness rumination on everything from existential loneliness to the kid who won’t stop picking his nose.

If you are a fan of Jason King, then the album is essential listening. All things considered, it really does sound like the kind of thing one would hear if one spent some time with Jason King, who (especially in his own spin-off series) always boasted an air of world-weary bitterness beneath his promiscuous frolicking. For those unfamiliar with Jason King, the album is a harder sell, though if you enjoy exploring the unusual world of celebrity vanity projects and utterly strange cult albums, you should be mightily satisfied. All others need tread lightly and with trepidation into these waters, though. You may never emerge again. And even if you do, you might be wearing a silk dressing gown and lavender ascot.

Technicolor Paradise

Exotica Goes Noir in a Box Set of Obscure Polynesian Pop

There’s who you’ve heard. There’s who you’ve heard of. And then there’s the rest. The hundreds, thousands of small, local, and one-off bands who maybe played a few shows, maybe cut a 45, maybe survived for a while as the house band in the cocktail bar of some Midwestern motel before the members dispersed. Maybe no one ever cared about their music. Maybe they meant a lot to someone. Exotica music is defined by a predictable if still enjoyable canon of primary texts: Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Yma Sumac. If you expand the definition to include space age bachelor pad music and the latinesque, then throw in Esquivel and Perez Prado. These are worthy standard bearers, each one a musical genius. If you dig deeper, you hit the second tier: just as talented many of them, and perhaps wildly popular in their day, but not quite as well remembered. A lot of them were famous for working with either Baxter or Denny before striking out on their own: Augie Colon, Sabu Martinez, Ethel Azama. Or they were better known for other styles of music but decided to dabble: Nelson Riddle, for example, or Al Caiola.

But then, if you are the kind of person who dug down to the second level, you’re probably the kind of person who keeps digging, who keeps looking not just for the obscure and sublime, but also the strange. That’s when you start to wander into the realm of Robert Drasnin and Korla Pandit, territory mined by the people behind and interviewed in RE/Search’s two volumes of Incredibly Strange Music. And then you keep digging, into small-town local acts and one-off groups thrown together by talented studio musicians. And if you are Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley of Chicago’s Numero Group, you start taking notes and compiling libraries. And eventually, you release Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights.

“It was a musical cocktail born in a marketing meeting: Two parts easy listening, one part jazz, a healthy dollop of conga drums, a sprinkling of bird calls, and a pinch of textless choir. Serve garnished with an alluring woman on the album jacket for best results. Liberty Records co-founder Si Waronker called it Exotica.”

liner notes, Technicolor Paradise

The nebulous genre known as “exotica” is, like just about every genres, one of those concepts with no concrete point of origin. At its most general, it is an attempt to summon a certain “exotic” mood, to adapt any music that is “other and apart” from your local culture. It does not mean attempting to play the music of other cultures, but rather to play someone’s concept of what that music might be. It’s almost always white musicians drawing from non-white. And while I’m sure some Greek sailor came back from one war or another, picked up a lyre, and started playing “you know, like, Persiany stuff,” for the purposes here, we can set a much more recent, definitive time frame for modern exotica — the 1930s — and a few definitive sources — the opening of Don the Beachcombers, the relationship between the United States and then-independent Hawaii, and the scattering of US servicemen and women throughout the south Pacific in the years leading up to and during World War II. As a result, early examples of exotica were heavily influenced by Polynesia, or at least by the idea of Polynesia. But rapidly, the arsenal of exotica sounds grew to incorporate Cuban and South American rhythms as well as Easts both Middle and Far.1

Donn Beach parlayed growing American infatuation with the South Pacific into a successful bar and restaurant empire, the first so-called tiki bars.2 Musicians were soon to follow suit, and by the 1950s, with additional assists from Hawaiian statehood and the advent of jet travel, exotica was in full bloom. But for every Martin Denny in residence at a posh Californian or Hawaiian resort, there were dozens of other, independent musicians plying their trade in the genre, often with strange, stunning, and sometimes downright spooky results. It is these musicians, a sort of garage punk-esque exotica underground, that Technicolor Paradise celebrates, collecting 54 tracks across three discs (you can get vinyl too, and it’s worth it for the accompanying book and photos) and highlighting, by and large, artists and groups that even exotica maniacs probably haven’t heard of.

“I think what people have thought of as exotic and lounge music before was through the lens of all the major labels — those Capitol Ultra-Lounge series and stuff like that,” said Ken Shipley in a March 2018 interview with Billboard. “I wanted to make something that’s the indie version of all that, and it’s just as interesting.”3

Inspired by the website The Exotica Project, Shipley began the task of finding tracks and biographical information, as well as tracking down licensing information and photos. Technicolor Paradise is the end result of his effort (and he tells Billboard he already has more than enough material for a second volume), and it is glorious. Divided into three categories — “Daiquiri Dirges,” “Rhum Rhapsodies,” and “Mai Tai Mambos” — the collection showcases just how deep exotica ingrained itself into the pop culture consciousness, how diverse interpretations of the sound could be, and ultimately, how disposable most of it ended up being. Not everything is a lost gem, but the good outweighs the mediocre, and among the good, some tracks are very good indeed.

Martin Denny’s sound was pure “mai tais at the Royal Hawaiian” party music. Les Baxter drifted between a similar sound and his more bombastic exotica soundscapes, songs that conjured up images of lost cities and adventurers hacking through the jungle. It’s no coincidence that Baxter became such an in-demand film composer. Some of the tracks on Technicolor Paradise aim to recreate one or both of those sounds, albeit with much more meager resources than were afforded Baxter and Denny. But even more tracks delve into darker, more haunting, at times downright sinister sounds, mixing Denny/Baxter-esque exotica classique with twanging surf guitar, moody Mellotrons, and ghostly, wordless female voices. Exotica noir, if you will, sparking the eerie mood of a film such as Curtis Harrington haunting, poetic Night Tide (1961) or as if Twin Peaks had fewer lumberjack and more aloha shirts.

Much of the time, the sound is dictated by necessity. Les Baxter could score world-class studio and orchestra musicians, and indeed, orchestras. Lenny and the Thunderbirds likely didn’t have access to the same scale of resources. But they, and countless groups like them, did have guitars and organs and a drum kit. The first disc, “Daiquiri Dirges,” is given over largely to guitar-driven instrumentals. And while I try to be discerning, the fact of the matter is that out of 18 tracks, there is only one I don’t like (the irritating “Jaguar Hunt” by The Crew). And for the other 17…it’s not just that I like them. I love them. If bigger brand exotica was meant to inspire images of a fictional Polynesia or Asia or High Andes, the songs here — while the bands may have aimed to inspire the same thoughts of pristine beaches, ancient temples, and deep dark jungles — conjure a somewhat different fantasy for me.

Attempts at island languidness instead sound spooky. Motel exotica. Images of a four-piece crew on the rickety stage of some backwater, wood-paneled cocktail lounge full of deep wooden booths and red velvet banquettes. Threadbare, aiming for regal, like a penniless aristocrat. Maybe after hours there’s a bump ‘n’ grind show. The crowd, such as there is, is a mixture of adventure tourists sheltering for the night, a smattering of local hustlers, a private shamus or two looking to collect proof that one spouse is cheating on the other, a couple local swingers looking for a prospective third, someone who used to be someone but was never really anyone, and probably one person in a shadowy corner who no one knows what to make of. Exotica once removed, no less fictional in the faded glory dream of roadside Americana than Martin Denny’s idea of Hong Kong.

The second disc, “Rhum Rhapsodies,” is no less haunting. Perhaps more so, as it introduced vocals, often in the form of what I call “ghost lady singing.” Wordless, melancholy, and so beautiful. The song “Nature Boy” as originally performed by Nat “King” Cole was already otherworldly and infused with something to do with the supernatural. Add a growling “slow grind” style sax and ghost lady vocals, and it’s positively unnerving, the sort of song you hear when you’re driving down a lonesome highway and stop to pick up a sorrowful-looking young hitchhiker who gives you her address, which you realize when you arrive, is a cemetery. And then she’s gone. Other tracks are suitable for anything from a burlesque “dance of the seven veils” to a romantic tryst on a moonlit beach. But probably one of the people in the tryst will also be a ghost.

Finally, “Mai Tai Mambos” aims to be a little more danceable, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less odd. After all, anyone dancing to these bands was probably a traveling salesman or local lounge lizard on his or her third Zombie. Things get weird at that point. That, or the person doing the dancing is on a stage wearing nothing but tassels and a G-string. There’s a lot of crossover between these tunes and what became known as, depending on your reference, “burlesk beat” or “Las Vegas grind.” You know it when you hear it, even if you’ve never heard it before. It’s inevitably played by a group of guys wearing slim suits, bath towel keffiyehs or fezzes, and Wayfarer sunglasses. More times than not, they are playing a song about a harem or the Casbah, with rhythms at least as authentically middle eastern as Martin Denny was authentically Polynesian. “Mai Tai Mambos” also marks an appearance by Robert Drasnin, probably the biggest name in the entire set. Drasnin was a jack-of-all-trades musician who was hired to cut an album cashing in on the exotica craze and ended up cutting three, known collectively as the “Voodoo trilogy.” If exotica noir has a godfather, it has to be Drasnin. He took the music into a steamy, sinister direction that was just as alluring but far more menacing.

Technicolor Paradise closes with “Lost Island,” by an artist named Clyde Derby. It’s an organ-driven slice of hotel lobby exotica that sounds like Korla Pandit channeling Arthur Lyman. It may not be the best track in the set, but it’s a fitting closing credits song regardless, because it is so oddball and obscure. If you went to a Polynesian themed haunted amusement park, this would be the song playing in the background. Exotica was always about transporting listeners, about immersing them in a fantasy of “the other.” If this is what cashing in on a cash-in trend sounds like, I’ll take that second helping as soon as it’s ready. If Les Baxter was too Hollywood, and if Martin Denny actually played in Honolulu, the mysterious artists of Technicolor Paradise were the people they were making the music for. Landlocked, or in a northerly clime. Regional sales managers and housewives and some kid dreaming of getting the hell out of this one-house town and joining the Merchant Marine or something. It’s smoky, sultry, and secretive. It’s music of private eyes and shadow-shrouded booths, of dreams about dreams and modest trysts carried on in economical motel rooms with pink neon spilling in through the window blinds.


Notes

  1. I can’t to justice to the complex history of exotica here, but you know where justice is done? Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation by Francesco Adinolfi (2008, Duke University Press Books).
  2. And if you want the full story on the rise of tiki bars, check out Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari by Jeff Berry (2016, SLG Publishing) and California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees by Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko (2018, The History Press).
  3. Graff, Gary. “‘Technicolor Paradise’ Is the ‘Indie Version’ of an Exotica Retrospective.” Billboard, March 26, 2018.

Barflies and Boulevardiers

The History of the Boulevardier Cocktail

If you walked into Harry’s New York Bar in 1927, which as you know was and remains in Paris, then undoubtedly the biggest celebrity you were likely to run into was Ernest Hemingway, fresh of the critical and financial success of his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, published the previous year. But while he was the brightest star at Harry’s, Hemingway was by no means a man alone. Harry MacElhone, the Harry in the name of the joint, was a celebrity in his own right. MacElhone was a Scotsman whose influential fingerprints were on several of the era’s most iconic bars — Ciro’s in London, the Plaza Hotel in New York, and most notably, the Paris watering hole that still bears his name. MacElhone wrote a number of cocktail books throughout his storied career, including 1927’s Barflies and Cocktails (still in print), in which appears the recipe for a cocktail called the Boulevardier.

The recipe for the Boulevardier appears in a section called “Cocktails Round Town,” attributed to Arthur Moss. Moss was a writer, wit, and among a trio of wealthy American ex-pats who founded a magazine called Boulevardier  — a boulevardier being someone who prowled the Parisian boulevards in search of revelry. The magazine did poorly, but it was high enough profile to attract submissions from the likes of Ernest Hemingway. 

Moss was a regular at Harry’s, and when it came time for MacElhone to compile a book, he enlisted Arthur’s help. For his section, Moss profiles a rogues’ gallery of boulevardiers who called Harry’s home, each one paired with a signature cocktail. Among the barflies he included was a gadabout scion of the Vanderbilt family named Erskine Gwynne, who also happened to be another of the founders of Boulevardier. So it made sense that Gwynne’s cocktail would be called the Boulevardier. As Moss writes:

“Now is the time for all good Barflies to come to the aid of the party, since Erskinne Gwynne crashed in with his Boulevardier Cocktail; 1/3 Campari, 1/3 Italian vermouth, 1/3 Bourbon whisky.”

If you are familiar with a Negroni, then you will recognize the similarity between it and the Boulevardier, which is often shorthanded in descriptions as “a whiskey Negroni.” That’s a bit like saying a Manhattan is a whiskey Martini. Compared to a Negroni, the Boulevardier is a richer drink, the bourbon lending a velvet touch where gin adds a bright botanical flavor.

A Dash of Mad Science

Author and historian Gary Regan wrote in The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita that one of the best things about the Negroni is its versatility. The classic recipe is exceptional, but it lends itself to endless experimentation. That’s probably how the Boulevardier was struck upon in the first place. And that is one way in which the Negroni and the Boulevardier are very similar. It begs to be tinkered with — different whiskies, different vermouths, a few drops of orange bitters, altered ratios. Heck, even Harry MacElhone wasn’t 100% on the recipe. In another of his books, Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, he lists the Boulevardier as being made with Canadian Club. This was 1927, after all. After seven years of Prohibition (and an era that was much less fussy about categorization), it stands to reason that pickings were slim.

So who knows what Harry (or Erskine Gwynne) was using when he made the drink? Toby Cecchini, one of the owners of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar, where the Boulevardier is the house cocktail, prefers rye to bourbon. There are also options for how you serve it — straight up in a coupe glass, or on the rocks in an old-fashioned tumbler. But rather than wander pointlessly into the weeds, these variables should be embraced. Heck, Cecchini also suggests replacing the vermouth with Cynar or Braulio, and splits the rye into two styles — Rittenhouse (bonded, 100 proof) and the softer Old Overholt.

Not only is the Boulevardier easy to make, even for a novice, it’s also easy to play with.

Boulevardier: The Harry MacElhone Way

  • 1 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz Campari

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

For the bourbon, I had a mysterious bottle of 80-proof Mark Twain purchased in 2009 or 2010, produced apparently by Heaven Hill. It’s a serviceable 36-month-old bourbon that succeeds at being everything you think a decent bourbon should be while offering no surprises. For the sweet vermouth, Carpano Antica Formula, because I had a 2/3 empty bottle in need of finishing. And also because it’s lovely. You can disagree, but I feel like using “whatever is handy” is a pretty authentic way to create an old-school cocktail experience. For the Campari, I chose Campari. Because it’s Campari. When you need Campari, it’s hard to beat Campari.

This first attempt was a pretty good drink… but it wasn’t quite there. The relatively tame Mark Twain, at 80 proof, just wasn’t assertive enough to play with the bold, passionate Italians, all belting out “Funiculì, funiculà!” at the top of their lungs and drowning out the bourbon’s high lonesome bluegrass. A bolder, higher-proof bourbon might be less of a pushover, but if I was going to go bold, then I figured It was time to take Toby Cecchini’s advice and use rye.

Try the Rye

I used a 90-proof Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye. I also decided to be true to myself and make this one in a rocks glass with ice. It’s just how I like ’em. Now this was a really good drink. The rye spice and higher proof match the vermouth and Campari blow for blow, then they all go staggering off down the cobblestone street, arm in arm, best friends for life.

An American (and a Scotsman) in Paris

Wanting to pay tribute to the Boulevardier’s French roots, and not having to wake up early the next morning, I tried a third variation using Brenne French Single Malt Whisky, a spirit made in France, finished in ex-Cognac barrels, and turned into a brand by American Allison Parc. My bottle of Brenne is of an older generation, bursting with tropical fruit notes. It made for a very interesting, very worthy entry into the sweepstakes.

Not one to leave well enough alone, I started wondering how it would taste with a really bold whiskey. And there, staring at me from a shelf, was a half-full bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, a complex, peaty single malt scotch.  “Why not?” I said. After all, MacElhone was a Scotsman. I regret nothing. It was exceptional. Smoky, peaty, bitter, and a little sweet. But just as the bourbon was a little meek, the Ardbeg threatened to bowl over its compatriots in the glass.

But the rye? Like Goldilocks said, the rye was just right (I think that’s how the story goes). If you are looking for a cocktail that will allow you to experiment and almost always succeed, the Boulevardier is a fantastic place to start. I didn’t push the boundaries of my home bartending skills with this one, but I built up some confidence, got pretty good at stirring, and had a quartet of lovely drinks.

Further Reading

Ypotron

Ypotron is a light and airy espionage adventure with sci-fi elements and almost no interest whatsoever in its own plot, so enamored is it instead with low-budget globe-trotting and extremely large hats. Like many Eurospy movies, Ypotron‘s lack of plot can sometimes fool you into thinking it has a really complicated story. A couple of times during the movie, I looked away or was distracted for under thirty seconds. When my attention returned to the film, I found in that very brief amount of time I had become hopelessly lost as to what was going on. However, after I rewound the movie and picked up where my focus flagged, I realized that no, I hadn’t missed anything. The plot just doesn’t care to keep itself front and center, not when it could itself get distracted by bikini girls, gratuitous Riviera type shots, and the donning of futuristic sunglasses.

As was the case with Scorpions and Miniskirts, the opening scene wastes no time in establishing the film’s disdain for logic, and if you can roll with it then you will probably be, like me, rather delighted throughout the movie even while recognizing how sloppy it is. Anyway, a futuristic door slides open to admit our hero, good-looking, rock-jawed Lemmy (or Robby, depending on your dub) Logan (Luis Davila, Mission Stardust, Espionage in Tangiers), to a room across which he slowly stalks whilst clad in a tuxedo and some weird sci-fi eyeglasses. Behind him, a slot opens in the metal wall, the barrel of a machine gun emerges from it…and Logan is mercilessly riddled with bullets.

Of course, he is OK, and it is soon revealed that he was simply helping to test out a new type of bullet-proof vest using the sort of test that would absolutely never, ever make sense. There is nothing about the testing of said vest that would require your top field agent to pretend to sneak around in a room until a hidden assailant cuts him down with live ammunition, but in the world of Ypotron, you will quickly discover that this nonsense is the most sensical of the nonsense with which you are about to be assaulted.

When it comes time to develop some sort of plot, Ypotron goes with the tried and true Eurospy chestnut about a kidnapped scientist with (naturally) a gorgeous young daughter. Said scientist is Professor Morrow (or Leikman, again depending on which version of the movie you have) played by Alfredo Mayo (Mission Bloody Mary, Special Mission Lady Chaplain, Espionage in Lisbon), and his daughter, Jeanne, is played by Gaia Germani (Hercules in the Haunted WorldCastle of the Living Dead with Christopher Lee, and the Lemmy Caution film Your Turn, Darling with Eddie Constantine). Logan is assigned to track down the missing scientist, which naturally leads him all over as much of the world (or Europe) as the production can manage to afford. Along the way, he acquires the help of Eurocult staple Janine Reynaud (Two Undercover Angels, Succubus), forever plagued to have movies slather way too much make-up on her face.

After a seemingly endless (but not unwelcome) and ultimately pointless series of twists and turns, the plot leads Logan and Jeanne Morrow to the Sahara, where they discover a rocket base cleverly disguised as, well, a huge rocket launchpad. It turns out the shady SPECTRE-like organization that kidnapped Professor Morrow has designs on ushering in a new era of…oh, you know, the usual really vague and ill-conceived villain notions of what they’ll do after they hold the world hostage. Luckily for Logan and all mankind, they went to the “now I shall bring you into my sanctum sanctorum and explain all my plans to you while not really keeping an eye on you” school of villainy.

Ypotron is a slight film, even by the forgiving standards of the Eurospy genre, but just because it’s slight doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. I am always up for an espionage fantasy that throws a little science fiction into the mix, and although Ypotron doesn’t come close to the crackpot insanity of Operation Atlantis, where the plot is so far-out that I can barely even explain it (suffice to say it has to do with the Chinese building an entire underground Atlantis civilization, complete with wizards in shiny robes, just to cover up a clandestine mining operation), Ypotron still delivers candy-colored confectionery satisfaction. Many Eurospy films suffer from a lack of decent prints in circulation, which means the genre’s stock in trade — exploiting Europe’s many scenic locations — doesn’t come across, and renders cheap films even cheaper looking. Luckily, Ypotron is in relatively good shape, and thus we can indulge in its travelogue footage as Logan trots around in pursuit of the missing scientist. The villain lair may leave a little to be desired — it looks like they set up shop in an old boiler room — but there’s enough on-a-budget jet-setting throughout to keep the film looking more expensive than it actually was.

Luis Davila makes an excellent and handsome square-jawed hero, while Gaia Germani is simply stunning, if largely useless. Jeanine Renault (Kiss Me Monster, Succubus) adds a flash of life on the female side of the equation as a femme fatale, albeit one on the side of the good guys. She’s always a welcome performer. There’s a fair amount of action, and director Giorgio Stegani (who also directed the Eurocrime film The Last Desperate Hours) keeps everything snapping along so that you don’t notice (or barely notice) how silly it all is. It’s a shame he didn’t direct more Eurospy films, or more films in general. Screenwriter Remigio Del Grosso’s script may be slight on plot, but he heaps on the outlandishness to keep things interesting. He was an old hand at this sort of thing, and he wrote a number of highly entertaining movies, including Journey Beneath the Desert, The 300 Spartans, Secret Agent Super Dragon, and the gothic horror classic Mill of the Stone Women. Together, it’s a cast and crew that managed to eke out a mild victory with Ypotron.

Asambhav

It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.

Arjun Rampal plays Aadit Arya, super-duper Army commando and part-time international spy. When evil Kashmiri Muslims hatch a scheme to kidnap the President of India while he is in Switzerland, it’s up to Arya, and for some reason only Arya, to foil the dastardly scheme. You might think that the kidnapping of a country’s president would inspire a slightly more forceful reaction and better security, but I guess the security here is orchestrated by the same people who arranged the security for the transport of weapons-grade plutonium in James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. I also thought by the time of this movie, the whole evil Pakistani/Kashmiri Muslim thing was played out. Didn’t Sunny Deol single-handedly defeat the entire Pakistani army and all radical Muslim terrorists groups simply by staring at them in an intense fashion with a flag waving behind him in slow motion? Years after the fact, however, Rai returns to that seemingly eternal well, though frankly, the whole Kashmiri/Pakistani thing is really little more than window dressing by this point. It doesn’t feel like the movie’s heart is really into it. I reckon they assume you pretty much got the gist of things at this point, so they throw the Kashmiri terrorists in as a way to get the ball rolling without having to explain motivation.

In Switzerland, Arya poses as a reporter and meets the obligatory gorgeous female pop star, Alisha (Priyanka Chopra). Since this is a Bollywood film, we can’t have just one plot. So Alisha is the unwitting drug mule for slick Switzerland-based Indian criminal Sam Hans (Naseeruddin Shah, who steals the film, though that’s no big feat considering the rest of the cast), who works with her handlers to hide the drugs inside musical instruments. Having Alisha in the movie means that we now have our excuse for gratuitous musical numbers, though in all honesty, they’re pretty tame by comparison to many musical numbers. Most of them are just passed off as club performances or video shoots, which is kind of weak even if it is more “realistic.” None of the songs are all that catchy, and the choreography is pretty listless. In an effort to add to the realism, we frequently cut from people who do look hot and are able to dance to people who don’t and can’t. Seeing big hulking gangster henchmen beaming big, goofy smiles and doing that “I can’t really dance” dance is pretty funny, though.

Eventually, we learn that Sam is involved with the terrorists who kidnap the president, but he’s hardly in the scheme for political reasons. And since he’s the coolest character in the film, you can also figure that he’ll be the one with ulterior motives and depth of character that allow for the obligatory “moment of redemption.” There’s another subplot that unveils the fact that someone in the Indian Embassy has betrayed their country as well and is in league with the terrorists. Incidentally, the Indian Embassy in Switzerland is apparently staffed by a number of leggy bombshells in micro-skirts and cleavage-revealing tops.

Naseeruddin Shah seems to be channeling a bit of Gary Oldman crossed with Graham Norton’s wardrobe in his portrayal of Sam Hans. He’s flamboyant but stops just short of scene-chewing or going needlessly over-the-top, though he does wear lots of lavender silk suits and whatnot. Whatever the case, he turns in a good performance made better by the fact that everyone else is pretty bad. The hitman in the long shiny blue trenchcoat is just silly, and he looks sort of like Benny Urquidez mixed with Christian Slater, but with none of the menace such an abomination would actually exude. Our hero Arya is pretty much a non-entity through most of the film. He shows up from time to time to kungfu the crap out of people, but Arjun Rampal really isn’t much of an actor at this point in his career. He looks good, he handles action believably, but his character is thoroughly uninteresting. Villains are always the better and more complex characters, and it takes an actor of tremendous talent or a very good (for the hero) or bad (for the villain) screenwriter to make the hero more interesting than the villain. Compared to Sam Hans, Arya barely even registers. For long stretches of film, you’ll forget that he’s even in it.

Priyanka Chopra has little more to do besides tag along, get captured, and look beautiful. She does all these things well, and also handles most of the movie’s musical numbers. The one that doesn’t involve her is also the only one that isn’t set in a club and grounded in some daft semblance of reality. Upon successfully kidnapping the president, the vile terrorist organization retires to their lair of villainy to celebrate with a musical number that involves a scantily clad woman singing and dancing with a whole cast of bald gay guys in short shorts, combat boots, and chain mail. It’s like these terrorists pack an entire dance troupe of Right Said Fred clones with them. Maybe they should have just unleashed their nightmarish Right Said Fred army on the world. No one would be expecting some Islamic Fundamentalist to stand in front of a camera and broadcast through Al Jazeera that he’s “too sexy for this Jihad!”

But then, this terrorist organization does have a martial arts hitman in a shiny blue trenchcoat, and a squad that drives around Switzerland in generic “mercenary” fatigues, including a woman in camo booty shorts and a halter top. And you thought the revolution was all chadors and guys with scraggly beards. This is by far the battiest musical number, and as such, the best.

There are a couple of things this film does differently than the average Bollywood film, and even the average Bollywood action film. Most noticeable is the more or less complete absence of a romantic subplot. Oh sure Alisha and Arya are going to fall in love, but the film spends hardly any time at all on this. There’s not even a musical montage of them set against the various famous landmarks of the world. No, they simply meet, and then we assume they’re in love because this is a movie and they’re the male and female leads. Some Bollywood films would spend a good hour on a romantic comedy subplot, but Asambhav is content to simply take the well-worn path all action films take, and just say, “Look, they fall in love, OK?” Then it’s on to some kungfu. There’s also precious little comic relief. Arya gets saddled with a comic relief sidekick agent in Switzerland, but his mugging is graciously limited.

Even with all that, the director must have thought that the real star of the film was the director, because he crams every cheap trick and technique he can into the film. It’s like watching distilled essence of 24 mixed with Mission: Impossible, which seems to be this film’s main inspiration, especially since “mission asambhav” translates more or less to “mission impossible.” Or if that’s too good for you, then Mission: Impossible 2. For starters, this film can’t go ten seconds without a split screen. Sometimes, it’s five or six different frames in one shot. And it’s not just in scenes where split screen might heighten the tension or give us an alternate point of view. No, much of the time, it happens when something as mundane as a guy reaching for a tissue is all that’s going on. Need to pick up a pencil? Show three different angles, and make sure one of them is in slow motion with thumping techno music in the background. This movie also loves that thing where you start in slow motion, then the action speeds up to super-hyper fast motion for a second, then goes back to slow motion. Once again, this is used at the drop of a hat, often with no meaning at all. Walking down the street? Why not shoot it slow-hyper-slow? And it’s not like anyone is walking to a fight or anything. They’re just walking down to the mailbox to see if their new issue of India Times has arrived.

There’s also the tendency to have “ghost images” of a person appear, again for no real reason. Rather than augmenting or working with the action in the movie, all these goofy tricks simply distract you. They muddy the waters. They stink of a first-time music video director getting final edit on a feature film, though Rai is not a first-time director. He’s just a bad director. The one thing I will say in his defense, however, is that as far as I remember, there was not a single instance of “bullet time.” And let that be a lesson to all other directors: if bullet time is too tired even for Rajid Rai, who has never seen a stupid editing trick he didn’t like, then it’s really past its prime. So let bullet time go, people. Let it go. Rajit Rai did, and he replaced it with doing four-thousand split screens in one shot.

It’s amazing just how crippling over-direction can be. Asambhav would not be an especially good film even if it had a good director, but Rajid Rai’s relentless over-indulgence really pulls the carpet out from under what was otherwise an unimpressive-but-enjoyable action film. At the same time, I might have been bored if this movie had been competently directed. The sheer insanity exhibited by Rai does, I must admit, turn this film into an absolute disaster, but one that is largely entertaining. I don’t like to pull the “so bad it’s good” card all that often, but it sort of applies here. You have an average film. It’s made awful by an over-indulgent director. But then, it becomes so over-indulgent, so awful, that it comes full circle and manages to be sort of entertaining in a way. It’s by no means much of a recommendation, but it’s the best I can do. The fight scenes are solid but uninspired. The acting is mostly below-average. The musical numbers are largely unengaging. But you know, the whole thing is such a hideous eyesore that it kept me watching.

Plus, Sam Hans was all right. Every single time he shows up on screen, no matter how mundane his appearance, the soundtrack blares with “O Fortuna.” And it can’t bear to stop the song. They thought it was so cool that even when Sam talks, they keep “O Fortuna” rolling, only at a nearly inaudible level. As soon as Sam pauses, the song volume rockets back up, then back down if he speaks again. So Asambhav really has few redeeming features (Naseeruddin Shah’s hamming is the only one I can think of at the moment. Well, that and Priyanka Chopra’s midriff, and that crazy-ass hard gay musical number the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists put on).

It’s a crummy action film with awful direction. It’s a completely soulless, paint-by-numbers action film that could have been churned out by a computer. It’s never thrilling, and the lead male and female character disappear for large swaths of film, and you don’t even notice or care because they were pretty boring anyway. This movie is a total bomb, and that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. Don’t listen to me, because I’m going to tell you to go ahead and see Asambhav. The near universal chorus of bad reviews this movie received are right, and I am wrong. Don’t do it. Why do you even trust me any more? For God’s sake, man, that’s the road to madness!!!

League of Gentlemen

Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper film League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes for a living, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; as if his humorous classified ad was answered by a fellow demobilized officer putting together a crew for a heist. Surely the overly complicated ladder theft that results would appeal to Drummond’s sense of humor. Unlike the old Bulldog Drummond movies however, beneath the breezy, dryly comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The man was a master at making mainstream, commercial films that packed powerful, at times very pro-counter culture messages.

The year before he directed the all-star ensemble cast of League of Gentlemen, Dearden made Sapphire, a police procedural about a couple of cops trying to solve a murder. In doing so, they stumble into the middle of the hyper-charged racial tension boiling to the surface in London. In that film, the social message is front and center, becomes the very essence of the plot, and the viewer is not granted any sort of emotional reprieve by forays into comedy. With League of Gentlemen, Dearden’s intent is no less political, but the message of the film — about the treatment of veterans after their service in a war and the difficulty combat veterans have readjusting to civilian life — is couched in the language of a heist film, with ample touches of humor to lighten what could be a much heavier film (as we would see a a little over a decade later in the United States, with films about returning veterans of Vietnam).

A year after League of Gentlemen, Dearden would direct another serious, controversial film about a touchy social issue. 1961’s Victim stars Dirk Bogarde as a closeted gay lawyer who discovers a blackmail ring preying on other gay men — homosexuality being a crime punishable by imprisonment at the time. Risking his own exposure, Bogarde decides to apply himself to unmasking the blackmailers and seeing them punished. The film is generally regarded as the spark that started a gay rights movement in the UK that eventually saw the abandonment of anti-homosexual laws. All of which makes it odd to me that so many British critics dismiss Dearden’s films as empty, meaningless, and bureaucratic. Not everything he made dwells on social and political topics — The Assassination Bureau is really nothing more than a jaunty romp (albeit one with Oliver Reed blowing up a lot of people) — but Dearden’s films seem to me to often strike that sweet spot where they are commercially viable but also socially challenging. Then again, I was not alive in England in 1960, so perhaps I’ve misread utterly the climate of the time or am too biased by a specific selection of his films.

League of Gentlemen begins with a scene that seems like it should have come from a German krimi film based on the lunatic mystery novels of Edgar Wallace. A well-dressed man in smart evening wear emerges from a manhole somewhere on one of the steamy streets of London then proceeds to enter a waiting Rolls Royce. He drives himself home and then sets about the task of writing seven letters. Each of these he places in a parcel alongside an American potboiler novel called The Golden Fleece, ten half-£5-notes, and an invitation to lunch at the Cafe Royal (a restaurant established at 68 Regent Street in London’s Piccadilly by a Frenchman fleeing his bills in 1865; it was renown as having one of the best wine cellars in all of England. Sadly, it closed in 2008 and was converted into a hotel).

This man, we learn, is Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (storied British actor Jack Hawkins — Oh! What a Lovely War, Theatre of Blood, The Lodger, The Bridge on the River Kwai…so on and so forth), a decorated veteran of the British army who has been unceremoniously dumped into retirement. “Made redundant.” Each of the seven parcels are delivered to similarly discharged veterans, though unlike Hyde, each of them left the armed forces under some cloud of disrepute and have arrived at undesirable, sometimes criminal stations in life. Hyde’s pitch to them, by way of the pulp novel, is to use their combined military experience to pull off a bank robbery. Not like common thieves, mind you, but with the planning and precision of accomplished soldiers. At the end of it all, they will each be £100,000 richer.

For many fans of older heist movies, the most important thing isn’t the crime itself; it’s the scenes of planning and, even more important, the scenes of “putting the crew together.” And indeed much of League of Gentlemen‘s run-time is concerned with showing us the lives of each of the eventual conspirators as they receive Hyde’s cryptic invitation. This crew is a virtual who’s who of British players, including Nigel Patrick, Roger Livesey, Terence Alexander, Bryan Forbes, Kieron Moore, Norman Bird, and Richard “I brought dinosaurs back to life” Attenborough. Each of the men brings a specific set of skills to the scheme, as well as each being desperate enough to say yes to the idea of a bank robbery based almost entirely on the plot of a middling pulp novel (in the book on which this movie is based, author John Boland uses the title of a real crime novel, Lionel White’s Clean Break — itself the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film, The Killing). Planners for future capers take note: although the crew includes many a scoundrel, it contains no raving lunatics and psychopaths.

Much of the film is also taken up with the heist-before-the-heist. Guns other than hunting rifles being difficult to obtain in England, Hyde has decided the weapons they will use in the heist must first be stolen from a nearby military base — allowing them not only to arm themselves with state-of-the-art gear, but also allowing them to stick it to the military that slighted them all. This entire plan is based on actual occurrences. In 1954, the Irish Republican Army launched two separate raids on English military bases to capture weapons and ammunition. In both cases, one in June at Armagh and the second in October at Omagh (oh, those Irish names), members of the IRA infiltrated the bases disguised as British soldiers and took advantage of on-base distractions such as dances to obscure their chicanery. Even these weren’t the first time the IRA equipped themselves by robbing their British foes. In December of 1939, they mounted the first of such plans, known as the Christmas Raid and, as was the case many years later, took advantage of lax security and distractions caused by festive base events. The version that appears in League of Gentlemen is an amalgamation of both the 1954 raids, and like those — and like every single movie heist ever that has every move planned down to the last second — it doesn’t go off without a few hitches to heighten the suspense.

Having armed themselves, Hyde and the lads set about the more important of their two schemes, though once again in classic heist film form, the main heist only takes up a few minutes of the film’s time. It is, however, exceptionally well done, with the crew donning intimidating gas masks (conjuring images of London during the Blitz) and firing off their purloined machine guns while smoke bombing the entire bank so that they make off with the loot without actually seriously harming anyone. As with just about every heist in heist film history, they took care of every single detail… except one.

If this plot about a group of soldiers getting together to pull off a robbery with military precision sounds familiar — I mean, familiar from somewhere other than League of Gentlemen — it’s because it’s been used several times since then. Most famously, with a few tweaks, more humor (or less British humor I suppose), and more “hey babe” cocktail culture swankiness, League of Gentleman shares a plot with the American film Ocean’s Eleven, also released in 1960 and starring a similarly brawny list of who’s who that included just about every member of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Pete Lawford, Joey Bishop, Henry Silva, Angie Dickinson, and of course, Norman Fell). Incidentally, the original version of the Rat Pack (the 1960s version preferred to be called “The Summit”) was fronted by Sinatra but actually centered around Humphrey Bogart. Among its members were Caesar Romero (who appears in Ocean’s Eleven), British actor David Niven, Lauren Bacall (“The Den Mother”), Judy Garland (“The Vice President”), and Cary Grant. Grant, it turns out, was originally offered the role of Hyde in League of Gentlemen, with Niven pegged to play his right-hand-man.

Decades after Ocean’s Eleven (but before the remake of Ocean’s Eleven), the idea of a group of army buddies coming together for one big heist was revived and retooled, becoming Dead Presidents, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes in 1995. There is little political about Ocean’s Eleven. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) and his crew all seem pretty well off. They decide to pull a heist — in the case of that particular movie, robbing multiple Las Vegas casinos at the same time on New Year’s Eve — mostly as a lark and because why the hell not? The politics in League of Gentlemen are more substantial, but I’d hardly call them substantial, especially compared to other Dearden films like Sapphire and Victim. There is something there however, something about the way a country uses up its military men then, when their time is done, tosses them back into society with little preparation and often with little to support them beyond a fabulously inept and corrupt system of veterans’ affairs. Making this point however, is not the film’s primary focus. League of Gentlemen is more interested in being a breezy, humorous little thriller.

Dead Presidents is the most overtly and savagely political of the three. In its case, the veterans are all young American black men who served in Vietnam and returned home to shattered communities, racism, drugs, and the rising tide of the black empowerment movement. In each case, we can see a set of motivations decreed by class and circumstance. For the cats in Ocean’s Eleven, it’s just a way to amuse themselves. For the League of Gentlemen, the motivation is a mixture of revenge against the system and a desire to improve one’s station in life. For the crew in Dead Presidents, the motivation is a combination of desperation, anger, hopelessness, and in the case of black rights activist Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), political.

In Ocean’s Eleven, they are all old Army buddies, but there’s not much thought given to that beyond being an excuse for them to know each other and be able to come up with plans that require Sinatra to read off a lot of timetables. In League of Gentlemen, more attention is paid to the military careers of each of the “gentlemen” (a term applied, in some cases, ironically). It takes on an almost Dirty Dozen style explanation of each man and the trouble in which he found himself (and in fact, at its core, Dirty Dozen is sort of a heist movie that seems influenced by League of Gentlemen). But as to showing us the service of each man, that is not the aim of the film. Dead Presidents however is structured as much like a “coming-of-age” film as it is a heist film, and it spends a considerable amount of time showing us the childhood of the main character and his gruesome combat experiences in Vietnam before moving on to the actual portion of the film revolving around the robbery. Which goes to show that the same plot can be implemented in very different ways with very different atmospheres. Although more overtly political and bleaker, Dead Presidents really is the most like League of Gentlemen, even if League‘s melancholy is buried under the stolid veneer of dry British humor and quirk.

Originally envisioned as a Hollywood film starring Cary Grant and David Niven, the inability of producer Carl Foreman to successfully obtain the services of Grant (who in 1959 was busy making North By Northwest and Operation Petticoat) caused the project to derail. The rights to the script by Bryan Forbes were then procured by Basil Dearden (One can assume it’s entirely probable that memories of the script eventually percolated up and became Ocean’s Eleven), who that same year had responded to the increasingly difficult process of getting proper studio funding for quality British films by starting his own production company with Forbes, Richard Attenborough, Guy Green, Jack Hawkins, and producer Michael Relph — sort of a British version of United Artists that was called Allied Film Makers. League of Gentlemen, after being tweaked to be a more properly British affair, was the first film the new partnership produced. It was the perfect project. This new crew of friends and professional associates going against the system, coming together to make a film about a crew of friends and associates going against the system?

It paid off in spades. League of Gentlemen was one of the top grossing British films of 1960. In that year, the scars of the Second World War were still relatively fresh in the minds of the British public. Many of the wartime veterans were entering middle age, and a goodly many of them had, like the rascals of League of Gentlemen, found it difficult to re-acclimate to civilian life and adjust to a life of marriage, mundane jobs, dull apartments and houses. Their budding midlife crises reminded them that, just fifteen years ago, they’d been duking it out with Hitler, sharing cigarettes with comrades on the front, defending British air space from the Luftwaffe’s blitz. How do you go from that to saying “yes, sir” to some petty bank manager or telling your kids to eat their dinner? And though this movie in particular stems from the male wartime experience, let’s not forget that for many women the war was equally harrowing and heroic. How do you ask a woman who was helping to break the Enigma code, serving as a front line nurse, or being parachuted behind enemy lines as a spy for the SOE to come home and be content with a life of changing diapers and caring for a husband?

Whatever scoundrels they might have been, the winking thieves of League of Gentlemen struck a chord with many viewers who were finding peaceful British life unbearable, who looked at post-war England and thought that, though no one wanted a war back, something vital and adventurous had been lost in the transition to peace. What’s more, many felt that the men and women who fought this incomprehensibly epic struggle had been tossed back after the war with no real concern for their well-being or respect for what they’d sacrificed. Entrenched as we are, as this is being written in the final months of 2014, in another protracted (if very different) war, the issue of how a nation treats its combat veterans after their tour of duty is over remains a tender and unresolved sore spot. Men and women returning from war are faced with everything from the dismissal of post-traumatic stress to the nightmare that is navigating the VA hospital system. Politicians who blithely send people off to war are more than happy to screw those same people when they return, robbing them of treatment and benefits earned, and tossing them back into a civilian economy that, while better than it was eight years ago, is still in a state of depression. Which is part of the reason League of Gentlemen seems to have aged so little. The accents might have changed, the war might be different, but the core impetus that inspires Hyde to mount this complicated heist remains.

Of course, it’s just a cracking fun movie as well, which helps. We’ve written time and again about how professional British actors rarely deliver anything less than a solid performance. With League of Gentleman, you get some of the best the British film industry had to offer doing their best. After all, it was their own production company. Almost everyone with a main role in the film also had a stake in Allied Film Makers. No complaining about the boss. In the lead role, craggy-faced Jack Hawkins is exceptional. The fact that the script spends so much time telling the stories of each of the men makes them much more relatable. It makes the complex double-heist that much more tense. And the air of jaunty British can-do keeps the undercurrent of politics from becoming oppressive. None of the robbers is a perfect human. They are robbers, after all, and most were dismissed from the army for some criminal indiscretion. “You’re all crooks, aren’t you?” asks Hyde of his motley crew, “Of one kind or another.” Despite their faults, however, and their occasional distrust and personal quirks, the film convinces you to like them.

With so many British pros executing their craft on-screen, one can almost forget poor Basil Dearden behind the camera. His direction is rarely flashy, but it more than gets the job done. The two heists, in particular, are expertly shot and edited. In the case of the raid on the arms depot, cutting between the hoax being perpetrated to facilitate the actual theft, with all its complicated moving parts, lends the scene a great air of tension. The direction of the bank heist is different, but no less effective. Shot quickly, with a cacophony of noise and movement and confusion, it’s a breath-taking sequence, even if you happen to be wearing a gas mask. It’s one of the best bank robberies film has ever produced, not really being matched until Michael Mann’s Heat, released the same year as Dead Presidents and featuring a central heist that is just as exciting — and just as brief — as the one in League of Gentlemen. Although Dearden’s movie is a largely light-hearted and spirited affair, he still knows how and when to ratchet up the stakes. In fact, it’s probably because so much of the film is infused with witty panache that it’s two big set-pieces take on such a greater air of gravity.

It’s not an action packed film; only the final heist has anything akin to action, the raid on the military base being played more for tension than thrills. But like I said, a good heist film is rarely about the heist itself. It’s about everything leading up to (and sometimes happening after) the heist. In that regard, there’s a reason the template set by League of Gentlemen has been used by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Hughes Brothers. A group of inspired British film makers making their own movie, on their own terms, with a defiant twinkle in their collective eye makes for a very engaging caper. Unfortunately for Allied Film Makers, this would prove to be their one and only big hit. Subsequent films produced by the partnership did not generate the same sort of success, and the group went under in fairly short order (just like what happens in most heist films). But if the movie you leave behind as a testament to your vision is League of Gentlemen, then you’ve done very well indeed.

Aboard the African Queen

One of my early film memories, and still one of my favorite films, is The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Kate Hepburn. It was an early model for what I assumed my life would be, fueled as I was at the time by golden age adventure films and Illustrated Classics versions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Naturally, I would become a grizzled adventurer and lead the kind of life where I spent a lot of time drinking whiskey at the end of a jungle bar in a joint of French Colonial design and where I was known simply as “the American.” While my life hasn’t been without its adventures, both grizzled and clean-shaven, they’ve rarely attained quite the rarefied airs of dragging a boat through a leech-infested swamp, though I did once find myself caught in the middle of a massive frog migration in Paynes Prairie, Florida. In the summer of 2015, however, I came a little bit closer to my childhood (and later) dreams of living an African Queen adventure, thanks to the fact that the actual African Queen ended up, through a circuitous series of events, docked in Key Largo (a fittingly Bogart location) where it is available for tours of the canals and coastline.

If you haven’t seen the movie, my first suggestion is that you get on that. Bogart is at his unshaven, sweaty best; and despite decades of “strong female characters” since, the single toughest moment in cinema history is still Katherine Hepburn sliding into the black, leech-filled water to help pull the boat through razor-sharp reeds at which she’s hacking with a machete. There’s not enough adjectives in the English language to describe how cool Katherine Hepburn was. In a nutshell, it tells the story of prim missionary Rose (Hepburn) in German East Africa who is forced to cast her lot in with a drunken riverboat captain named Charlie (Bogart) when, upon the outbreak of World War One, German soldiers descend upon the mission, burn it down, and kill Hepburn’s brother and fellow missionary. Charlie mentions to Rose a German gunship that patrols a large lake at the end of the un-navigable Ulanga River, preventing any sort of British response to German aggression. Rose then come sup with an utterly insane plan: to take Charlie’s shambling little boat, the African Queen, down the impossible river, emerge onto the lake, and destroy the German ship.

The boat that would serve as their home for most of the movie was built in 1912 at Lytham shipbuilding in England and was originally christened the S/L Livingstone. As the Livingstone, the boat plied the waters of the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert on the border of the Belgian Congo and Uganda, carrying mercenaries, missionaries, cargo and hunting parties in the service of the British East Africa Railways company. In 1951, when sniffing around for props and locations, director John Huston happened upon the S/L Livingstone and cut a deal to use the boat, shabby but full of character, for his movie, at which time it was rechristened the African Queen. The boat was not functional at the time, so for most of the filming it was towed behind another boat. It was discarded again until 1968, when a San Francisco restaurant owner bought it to refurbish and use as a novelty charter. From there, the venerable old girl had an improbable journey that led to Oregon and, finally, to what looked to be her final resting spot, rotting away in a field in land-locked Ocala, Florida.

By some stroke of fortune, an attorney named Jim Hendricks, himself a big Bogart fan, tracked the ship’s circuitous trip to Ocala and purchased it in 1982 with the intention of saving it from decay. After substantial restoration, the African Queen was water-worthy again in 1983 and was employed in the service of entertaining holiday goers in its new port of Key Largo, Florida. Under Hendricks’ stewardship, the African Queen not only toured Florida’s Upper Keys but was also sent overseas to appear at special occasions, showing up to put-put around waterways as far-flung as Ireland and Australia. In 2001, however, the old engine gave out, and while the African Queen was still cared for and maintained, it was as a non-functioning display outside a Largo Holiday Inn.

The African Queen stayed on display but not seaworthy until 2012, when Key Largo locals Lance and Suzanne Holmquist bought the Queen from Hendricks’ son and set about restoring it to its film state, including once again making it a functioning boat. Employing a small army of dedicated restoration artists and working from original plans and with as many original materials as possible, the Holmquists patched the African Queen back up, complete with a cooler hidden inside a wooden Gordon’s Gin crate. The broken down old steam engine was replaced with a “new” one built around the same time as the original. Later that year, on the boat’s 100th birthday, the African Queen was lowered into one of Key Largo’s winding canals and chugged out to sea once again. It’s been in operation ever since, and in June of 2015, I celebrated a hot, sunny birthday of my own (not a centennial) aboard the determined little boat I’d been watching since I was a child. And in case you are thinking that surely I’m not nerdy enough to have purchased a Bogart-as-Charlie style outfit specifically to wear while tooling around on the African Queen, well then you really must be new to my writing.

We stepped aboard along with a few other old-timers and listened to the captain run through a history of the boat and the production of the film, which was about as fraught with sickness and hardship as you would guess. For most of the filming, Hepburn was suffering from severe nausea and other maladies, as was much of the rest of the cast and crew. They contracted stomach illnesses when they drank water. Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston remained oddly unaffected, though. It turns out that’s because they skipped the water and spent most of the shoot drinking scotch. After flipping through a book of photos, many of them donated by collectors and fans and a few straight from Bogart’s son, the captain coaxed the ancient engine to life, and with a cry from the steam whistle and the incessant signature chk-chk-chk of the engine, we were off at a pace slightly faster than a man might walk on dry land.

The canals of Key Largo are not as fraught with peril as the river down which Rose and Charlie struggled, but the lack of rapids, swamps, impenetrable clouds of mosquitoes, and leeches are replaced by more modern dangers more indicative of the African Queen’s new home in the Florida Keys. Gentle manatees replace leeches, and the rapids are simulated by the wake of passing giant yachts and dive boats. Still, the Keys are frequented by a pretty quirky bunch of people, so the houses and boats lining the canal offer plenty to see on your way out to the open ocean even if you don’t get to blow anything up at the end. Sadly, bottled water has replaced Charlie’s beloved Gordon’s gin, but given how sweltering our leisurely trip along the winding canal was, perhaps that’s for the best. From time to time, the captain will let one of us passengers take hold of the till and steer the boat around. Jumping into the water and pulling the boat along by a rope was strictly forbidden however, and rarely requested. The entire cruise lasts about two hours, with most of that spent puttering along the calm waters of the canal and, ultimately, into the open waves of the Atlantic. No arrangements had been made for us to torpedo an old German warship, but I suppose one must leave something for next time.

Pan Am Worldport

007 is no stranger to New York City. He was here for Live and Let Die, both the film and the novel, and returned for the (really) short story “007 in New York,” which Ian Fleming was compelled to write by way of a “make peace” after his travel book, Thrilling Cities, peppered readers with an unending barrage of insults directed toward the city. In fact, he visits several more times, in Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger, both by Fleming, in For Special Services and Brokenclaw by John Gardner, and in the short story “Blast From the Past” by Raymond Benson. But it is Live and Let Die that gives us the most involved look at James Bond’s New York. He arrives in New York via John F. Kennedy International Airport. Only in 007’s case, he gets to emerge from a terminal we denizens of the 21st century cannot: the Pan-Am Worldport.

A lot about New York’s John F. Kennedy airport has changed since it first began operation as New York International Airport in 1948, commonly known as Idlewild until it was rechristened John F. Kennedy Airport in 1963. It was, during the heyday of jet-set travel, a model for the sleek, modernist style that defined journeys by air. Over the decades, that futuristic architecture has been trimmed, pruned, and demolished for any number of reasons. In some cases, the original buildings simply couldn’t be brought up to modern codes of safety. In others, the airline that paid for them went belly up, taking their space age showpiece terminals with them. In many other cases, it was simply the depressing march toward a more mundane, less tasteful sort of “conference room dreariness” that seems to travel in-step with cost-cutting measures. One by one, the jewels in JFK’s crown were pried up.

Terminal 3, known as the Worldport, was once the distinctive flying saucer shaped home of Pan Am. It was designed by two firms: Ives, Turano & Gardner Associated Architects and Walther Prokosch of Tippets-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton and adorned with statues derived from the Zodiac by sculptor Milton Hebald.  It’s signature was the giant flying saucer roof, notable not just for the ambition of its design but also for the fact that it made the terminal one of the first to offer passengers protection from the elements as they boarded or disembarked the plane (this was before the era of covered jetways connecting the interior of the terminal directly tot he plane’s hatch). It also boasted the Panorama Room, a restaurant with a view of the entire concourse, and a museum dedicated to the history of Pan American Airlines.

The designers meant for it to be the shining example of jet age design and the glamor of travel. When it opened in 1960, it was known simply as the Pan Am Terminal, or more officially, the Pan Am Unit Terminal Building. In 1971, it underwent expansion in order to accommodate the gigantic new Boeing 747 jets, which vastly expanded access to international jet travel. It was at that time Terminal 3 got its new name: the Worldport. Not too long after that, James Bond strode confidently  through the terminal en route to the adventures comprising Live and Let Die.

For twenty years, the Worldport remained an example of the ambition and creativity of the jet set era and was one of the largest terminals in the world.  That all came to an end in 1991, when Pan Am folded and Delta took over the terminal. In an effort not to completely demonize Delta, I’ll say that it is likely by that time, the Worldport was probably in need of a lot of upkeep and modernization that the failing Pan Am had not been able to provide. However, Delta had no interest in doing anything but the minimum required to keep the building from collapsing — at least until such time as they decided to collapse it themselves. They allowed it to deteriorate into a shell of its former glory until, in 2013, it was decommissioned and demolished to the sound of much public outcry.

I flew out of the Worldport a couple times before Delta destroyed it to make a parking lot for its airplanes. One could find, if one searched, remnants of the terminal’s former glory, but by and large it had been the victim of the creeping cheapness and disinterest that typifies modern air travel, which treats itself less as a wondrous adventure and more as just a fast food conveyor belt sort of experience. When Delta announced plans to demolish the terminal, preservationists around the world mobilized to protect the historic Worldport. They didn’t succeed. On May 23, 2013, the final departure from the Worldport left the terminal. Delta Air Lines Flight 268 to Tel Aviv departed from Gate 6 at 11:25pm. The next day, Delta shuttered the entire terminal, 53 years to the day from when it opened. On June 23, demolition began despite sustained outcry, protest, and attempts to halt the destruction of such an iconic piece of aviation and architectural history. On November 22, the signature flying saucer was destroyed. By the summer of 2014, the Worldport existed only in photographs.

James Bond was not the only famous person to put in an appearance at the Worldport. Heck, it wasn’t even Roger Moore’s only appearance. He walked through the terminal during a bit of location shooting for an episode of the series that got him the gig as James Bond, The Saint. In 2011, as Delta was signing the death warrant for the terminal itself, it found brief renewed glory via sets and CGI in the short-lived nostalgic television series Pan-Am, which incidentally, also boasted an espionage plot as one of its major threads. James Bond’s port of arrival is often misidentified as the similarly famous, even more architectural ambitious TWA Flight Center. But that’s not the case. And unlike the Worldport, the TWA Flight Center still exists, as the TWA Hotel.

Prague Museum of Communism

Nestled with irony between a McDonald’s and a casino is Prague’s Museum of Communism (only the KGB Museum has a more deliciously ironic location, next door to the heavily guarded U.S. embassy). It walks the thin line between being another tacky tourist trap museum (which I love) and an actual educational experience (which I also enjoy), with the over-arching message of, “Communism — that sure did suck.”

Tracing the history of Communism from it’s beginning and the founding of the Soviet Union to its rapid spread through eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II, the museum makes no claim at being unbiased. The people who established the museum lived through Communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, and they make no bones about criticizing the political system and the paranoia, tyranny, and oppression that came with it. It’s a fascinating look behind the Iron Curtain and exploration of how ideas can so quickly become corrupted, how revolutionaries can so quickly become reactionaries. After strolling through so many artifacts of a dark time, it’s at least refreshing to end the museum with a detailed look through relics and video at the Velvet Revolution, the uprising and demonstrations that led to the overthrow of the Communist Czech government in 1989.

And then one emerges onto Wenceslas Square, once the sight of mass demonstrations and street battles with police and soldiers, now a polished promenade for dining, shopping, saucy nightclubs, museums, and amazing architecture. A strange trip indeed, and one well worth checking out.