That Prince Among Shampoos

The History of Pinaud Elixir Shampoo and Clubman Grooming Products

“His two battered suitcases came and he unpacked leisurely and then ordered from Room Service a bottle of the Taittinger Blanc de Blancs that he had made his traditional drink at Royale. When the bottle, in its frosted silver bucket, came, he drank a quarter of it rather fast and then went into the bathroom and had an ice-cold shower and washed his hair with Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos, to get the dust of the roads out of it.” — James Bond checks in, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Pinaud is a venerable men’s grooming company, having been established — if you believe the label — in 1810 by French perfumer Edouard Pinaud. But since Pinaud himself wasn’t born until sometime around that year, one assumes a bit of poetic license is being taken by the brand. Still, it’s been around for a long time. Pinaud opened his first shop in Paris in 1830, and in 1833 his “lilac vegetal” product became so popular with Emperor Napoleon that the ruler had Pinaud appointed “Royal Parfumer,” and the company’s Lilac Vegetal after-shave became the official facial pick-me-up of the Hungarian cavalry. Never mind that Napoleon had died in 1821, and that Napoleon III, while alive at the time, wasn’t in France and didn’t have much of anything to do with Hungary’s cavalrymen. But what can you do? Let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Pinaud’s somewhat fanciful and not very well fact-checked origin story as a distiller of perfumes and scents bears a humorous parallel to another type of distilling. Whiskey distillers are notorious liars—or marketing geniuses—when it comes to spinning lavish yarns about their origins and ancient recipe and date of founding. I guess something about the fumes from a still makes one susceptible to mild embellishments of what the uncreative insist on calling “the truth.” The silly thing is, just as many good whiskies make up a bunch of origin stories lie they don’t need since their whiskey is perfectly fine without the “distilled on the dewy banks of a secret river from a 300-year-old family recipe” nonsense, so to was Pinaud doing just fine without rumors of Napoleon and Hungarian soldiers slapping his aftershave onto themselves as they rode into battle. He was given a royal patent by Queen Victoria, and other European rulers followed suit. Before too long, Pinaud was the most successful creator and importer/exporter of perfumes in all of Europe.

He also soon bought the Legrand Parfume House, established in 1810 and thus lending him his new date of founding (something common, again, among whiskey distillers and, perhaps not oddly, academic universities). Success continued, and soon most of the Victorian and Gilded Age world smelled like a Pinaud product. The company broke into the US market with the popular Eau de Quinine hair tonic, so that your hair would look good and never have to worry about malaria. Pinaud products were on the high-end of things, so they remained the purview of the well-to-do and nicely appointed tonsorials. In an effort to expand the American market, Pinaud launched the moderately priced Roman Smelling Salt Perfumes line in 1895. Five years later, the company launched its Bay Rum scent. While popular again in barbershops, the Pinaud aftershaves were still not cracking into the mass market. Pinaud decided there was only one way he could really conquer the United States. In 1920, Pinaud opened his first American distillery on 5th Avenue in New York City.

Pinaud chugged along and even managed to weather the Great Depression, now with two increasingly distinct companies. By 1933, Pinaud USA had finally made headway into the “common man” market, thanks in large part to Bay Rum and the Lilac Vegetal aftershave. Pinaud France felt the American operation was cheapening the lofty heritage of Pinaud as the brand of kings and queens. They did not want to be associated with the more affordable approach on which their New York branch, now under the control of Edouard Pinaud’s son-in-law Victor Klotz, was now focusing. Klotz, however, was adamant about becoming the preferred brand of middle-class men rather than upper-class women.

The two branches of the company reached an agreement that saw the Ed. Pinaud Building in New York renamed was renamed Klotz Family Business Co. Additionally, though Klotz and the New York crew would continue to pursue the middle-class dollar, they would refrain from doing very much marketing, selling instead directly to barbershops and relying on word of mouth. In the 1940s, New York launched the Clubman line: aftershave, talc, hair tonic, shampoo and soap. Word of mouth worked wonders, and by the 1950s, Clubman was so popular that it was actually being exported back into France where it would outsell the home company’s pricier line.

Pinaud Clubman continued its meteoric rise. Everyone from Cary Grant to Robert Mitchum to Henry Fonda used their products (or so it was claimed — no idea if this was a bit of the ol’ Napoleon or not). And, famously for me, Ian Fleming name drops it in the passage from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the 1970s, when companies like Brut and Aqua Velva began massive marketing campaigns, Pinaud did not follow suit. American International Industries bought Pinaud US in the 1970s. In the 1990s, in an effort to save money as their market share dwindled against better known “drugstore brands” and the rise of interest in premium brands, Pinaud switched to plastic bottles and reformulated many of its signature scents to compensate for the plastic. Once again, the history of perfume and whiskey distilling reflect one another. Whiskey brands tend to get reformulated, the names sold and resold, until what bears the name does not bear much resemblance to what used to bear the name. The reformulated line of Pinaud Clubman products was not warmly welcomed by fans of the brand, who thought the new stuff was too artificial smelling since many natural botanicals had been replaced by synthetics.

By the time I was shamelessly aping James Bond and looking for Pinaud Elixir shampoo, the company had undergone further confusing upheaval. Pinaud France seemed on its final leg. The Elixir, no longer manufactured, was only available via mail order from a barbershop in Sweden (I believe), and their supply was extremely limited (and by now is long gone). Pinaud Clubman was still around, but their distribution was spotty. Luckily, there’s a shop here in New York called C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries that stocks pretty much all of the Clubman products, as well as a bunch of other old-school and European grooming lines.

The world has the Internet now, so even though my prowling the bottom shelves of the men’s aisle at the local drugstore turned up nothing, a few clicks had me swimming (so to speak) in Pinaud Clubman products. Also because of the Internet, and thanks to the revival in interest in old school barbershops and men’s grooming, Pinaud is enjoying a small, if dedicated, revival of interest. In the name of proper research, I got a few different items: Clubman Country Club shampoo (the closest existing equivalent to James Bond’s cherished Elixir), the classic Pinaud and Lilac Vegetal aftershaves,  the Bay Rum and Lime Sec colognes, the Eau de Quinine hair tonic, and the Pinaud styling gel. The entire pile cost me maybe $40.

This brings us to a minor manifesto. I promise it will be short. The world is full of pricey grooming products, both for men and women. I use a few of them — who doesn’t love spending $35 on a vial of facial scrub from Kiehl’s? I’m also a huge fan of C.O. Bigelow’s own product line, Royall colognes, Imaginary Authors scents, and a crushing number of Korean products. At the same time, and once again as with whiskey, price does not always directly correlate to quality. Some very expensive things are terrible. And sometimes, very inexpensive things can be really good. As I mentioned above, there has recently been a revival of interest in classic grooming products. On the drugstore shelf, below the over-perfumed body sprays and pungent colognes, you will find that sometimes dusty and ignored row of classic products.

The old school, and we’re talking Pinaud Clubman here specifically but it applies to a whole class of inexpensive and time-tested products—the “stuff your grandfather smelled like.” I can’t say entirely what it is about the scent. There is a cultural association with it, something to do with a time when a fella could roll up his sleeves, survive a Depression, build a skyscraper, and punch Hitler in the face all while still making sure his hair was expertly parted and he didn’t reek of physical effort. Grooming and ruggedness were not always as mutually exclusive as modern society would have us believe. Taking good care of yourself was as much a part of being “manly” (“manly” is a term but it isn’t restricted to men when I use it. Bond Vivant ain’t into restrictive gender stereotypes) as being able to start a fire without matches.

I won’t pretend this association, real or perceived, doesn’t have something to do with my affection for these products and how they smell. It’s the stuff my grandfather would slap on after a day of working the farm. It’s the little way you pamper yourself and those around you after you’ve been breaking your back. The move away from that, among heterosexual men in particular, has a lot to do (I think) with a combination of “gay” and “feminized” panic that crept into straight male thinking during the 1990s. I simply do not have time for those nonsense attitudes. Anyone who tells you a little grooming isn’t manly probably needs to be kicked by Teddy Roosevelt—and I bet you Teddy will have slapped some Lilac Vegetal on himself right before doing it.

Product Reviews, and What to Drink When You Use Them

Pinaud Clubman Country Club Shampoo

This is where it all started for me, and while I was disappointed I couldn’t spend a lot of money to mail order some original version of Pinaud Elixir, I was happy there is still an equivalent, even if it isn’t exactly the same thing. First of all, it smells great. There is a signature Pinaud scent, and this is it. Fresh, powerful but not overpowering, citrus and powder — the classic old-school barbershop scent. Some have complained about it drying their hair out a little. That hasn’t been my experience, but experience varies. The scent is strong at first, but it doesn’t linger, and by the time you are dry, it is a faint whiff — which is nice since too much of a good thing can be, you know, too much. James Bond called Pinaud Elixir “that prince among shampoos,” and its modern incarnation as Country Club lives up to its royal heritage. If it isn’t a prince among shampoos, it’s at least a viscount.

Pinaud Clubman Eau de Quinine Hair Tonic

Hair tonic was originally created as a way to help remove the waxy pomades of the old days and reinvigorate the scalp that had been trapped under layers of wax. Modern pomades and waxes generally use different, friendlier compounds than their old-time brethren, but while the original purpose of hair tonic may be somewhat moot, it still affords one a nice, tingling scalp treatment and keeps even uppity hair like mine a little more in control.

Eau de Quinine was one of the original Pinaud USA products, and though the formula has no doubt changed over the decades, it is still one of the signature products. Straight from the bottle, it has a bit of a funky smell. Think Luden’s cough drop with rosewater, talc, and Angostura Bitters, maybe a little bit of undefinable “spice.” It’s an oddball scent to be sure, but the smell of it concentrated in your hand is different from it once it’s spread throughout your hair and across your scalp (or just your scalp, if you don’t have much hair). The weirdness dissipates, leaving mostly the smell of talc and a very light citrus (lemon, mostly) note. It gives the scalp a nice tingle and provides a very mild…not exactly hold…let’s say taming property. All in all, I am very happy with it, though the slightly odd, medicinal smell might turn some away. If that’s the case, I recommend trying one of Pinaud’s other hair tonics — the classic Pinaud or the Eau de Portugal. Or just get yourself some Vitalis.

Clubman Styling Gel

The phrase “styling gel” for me conjures up goopy tubs of neon-colored Dep that smells like artificial fruit and toxic chemicals. Such is the burden of any of us who grew up during the 1980s (it probably didn’t help that I applied it by the handful). I think that decade made me styling gel shy. In the ’90s I slowly crept back to using something in my hair other than water, usually a light pomade if my head wasn’t shaved. But my head very often was shaved, so I wasn’t asking a whole lot of whatever I might put in it. When I decided that I wanted to actually groom at my age level but wasn’t quite in need of a pomade, I turned to Pinaud Clubman Styling Gel.

Out of the tube (it sells in both tubs and tubes) is bright translucent green, and I immediately started having flashbacks. Is that…is…do I hear Howard Jones wafting to me on the breeze?? I know you weren’t to blame, man! I know you weren’t to blame! But then I remembered Clubman was less 1980s and more 1890s, so I should trust them. And despite looking like something that Jeffrey Combs might use to reanimate the dead, it has the classic Pinaud smell of talc—or maybe I should call it the classic Clubman smell, since smelling of talcum powder was one of the things that Pinaud France considered low-class about Pinaud USA. Anyway, it’s far from the smell of glycerine and chemical plants and fake apples I associated with gel. It goes in easily and without feeling gloppy or gunky or any other scientific terms like that. It’s much lighter than I expected and holds my hair without making it look wet or shellacked. A little bit keeps me looking smart throughout the day.

Pinaud Clubman Aftershave

The foundation on which all Clubman is built. Clubman offers a pretty big lineup of aftershaves, and I haven’t tried them all (but I am an obsessive, so I will). If you have to choose one with which to begin, it should be this one, the classic. I know in the intro I mentioned that Clubman products had been reformulated over the years, and some people were upset by the new formulas. I don’t really have a way to compare (I’m not going to spend money on eBay for vintage, though if you want to, go for it), so all I can go on is what we have today. So just like how the formula for Chivas scotch might have changed over the years but I really like the current Chivas scotch, I also really like the current Pinaud Clubman aftershave. And this is the iconic Clubman scent: talcum powder, a faint hint of citrus and spice, and admittedly a whiff of something not entirely natural but also not unpleasant. Going on after a shower or a shave, it has a little kick to it but quickly settles down to cool, refreshen, and invigorate the face. The scent is strong at first but fades into the background and gives you a more subtle and grown-up hint of smelling nice. Apply it in moderation, but do apply it. If you are looking for the perfect old-school barbershop scent, this is it.

Wear it when you drink: Whiskey Sour

Clubman Aftershave is the solid workhorse aftershave of the common man. As such, it goes perfectly with the common man’s cocktail. A whiskey sour has no pretense. It has no airs about it. It’s a good, stiff drink for men and women who just got done defeating the Nazis and need a libation, or who are on their way to or from a mob hit in a seedy back alley hotel.

Take 2 oz. of whiskey (bourbon is most common, but give rye a go),  2/3 oz. of lemon juice (never, ever sour mix), and 1 tsp of sugar. Combine in a shaker with cracked ice, shake, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a single Maraschino cherry; nothing more. As for the egg whites you sometimes see in the drink: that’s up to you. I like them, but then I’ve never experienced Salmonella poisoning. I did have Sal Mineo poisoning once, but that’s a different story.

Pinaud Clubman Lilac Vegetal Aftershave

What are you going to do? Argue with the 19th-century Hungarian cavalry and Napoleon? Hell no, and if this was good enough for them, then it’s good enough for you. Some insecure lads might balk at the thought of lilacs, but those lads are a sad and pathetic lot, like those guys who get all freaked out if a cocktail, regardless of how strong and well-made it may be, comes to them garnished with a flower or contained within a dainty glass. Teddy Roosevelt and Charles Baker and Ernest Hemingway had no problem with that stuff, so get it over it.

Lilac Vegetal aftershave is a personal favorite. It has the signature talcum powder scent, but instead of citrus and spice, there’s more of a floral note, although the floral is light; not the overpowering artificial floral you get from cheap perfume. I also find this one goes on a little smoother than the straight-up Clubman aftershave. Less burn, but just as soothing and refreshing. Neither aftershave dries out my skin. In fact, I feel quite like I’ve just applied a light moisturizer, and it leaves me pretty comfortable throughout the day, even when I’m not charging enemy lines on my trusty steed.

Oddly, for something I think smells perfectly normal, “the Veg” elicits a wide and very emotional range of responses and opinions. Some, like me, think it smells like a barbershop and the early morning before a big adventure. Others think it smells like a seedy old folks’ home. One of my go-to sites for research in the world of things men splash on their face, Badger and Blade, has perhaps the best summation of it, by a forum poster named Topgumby: “Legends say the Veg will magnify your true essence…on some, it smells like cannon smoke and raw courage; on others, like an involuntary bodily reaction caused by the sudden unexpected appearance of cannon smoke and raw courage.”

Wear it when you drink: Lilac Domino

The Lilac Domino is the most obscure cocktail in this article, the only one that isn’t a foundation cocktail of the American bar. Its first appearance, according to the essential website Cocktail Virgin/Slut, was in 1937’s Cafe Royal Cocktail Book. The drink was created by British bartender Lilian Gerrard. It goes well with Lilac Vegetal because the cocktail uses the floral Creme Yvette and the medicinal tasting herbal liqueur Chartreuse. And like the Veg, some men might have a problem being seen drinking a Lilac Domino. Unfriend these men. They are insecure and poor-quality drinking partners.

The drink breaks down thusly: 1 oz. Calvados, 1 oz. gin, 1/2 oz. Yellow Chartreuse, 1/2 oz. Creme Yvette (1/2 oz), 1/2 oz. lemon juice. Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a Luxardo cocktail cherry.

Pinaud Clubman Virgin Island Bay Rum

If any scent besides barbershop talc can claim to be the ultimate scent for rugged good grooming, it’s bay rum (sandalwood is OK). Bay rum was made by distilling rum with the leaves and berries of the West Indian bay tree—so it’s like a rum-based gin you slap on your face. Or not really. Anyway, some say it has been around since the dawn of guys smelling funny and needing to freshen up, but bay rum as we know it today was developed in the 19th century as the perfect cologne to mask the briny, sweaty smell of your average sailor plying the Caribbean. When you watch (or read) Master and Commander, just assume everyone on Lucky Jack Aubrey’s ship smells like bay rum.

The scent was devised, at least for commercial application in 1838 by Danish chemist Albert Heinrich Riise, who observed locals on the island of St. Thomas using the bay tree and rum concoction as a salve for sunburn and liniment for sore muscles. Riise soon had a bay rum ready for market, and its popularity exploded. In the 1920s, desperate Americans even took to drinking the stuff, a Prohibition tragedy that was slightly less deadly than the consumption of wood grain alcohol but nevertheless led to the banning of all bay rum imports. It was reintroduced in 1946 and embraced by a very different clientele than salty sailors and desperate Jazz Age drunks. Since it’s possible a few of you are not sailing the wild seas and romancing the provincial governor’s rebellious son or daughter, seducing lusty dockyard barmaids, or inviting that tan and well-muscled able seaman to a secret cove for a bit of bathing au naturel, bay rum’s more modern heritage will be more relatable to you. It was pretty much the go-to scent of the hard-working American man during the 1950s and ’60s. When Don Draper didn’t smell like J&B and cigarettes and drunk sweats, he smelled like bay rum. As one of my favorite style websites, Ivy Style, once wrote: “Bay rum is what men think a man should smell like.”

Pinaud Clubman Virgin Island Bay Rum is perhaps a bit of a variation on a theme. Bay rum is classically very citrus and bay laurel forward, but Clubman’s take on the scent has a lot more spice in the foreground: cloves, cinnamon, that sort of thing. A little splash will do you — the difference between aftershave and cologne is largely in the scent’s staying power (and cologne usually lacks the toning and firming medicinals, real and imagined, of an aftershave). Like most of the Pinaud Clubman line, it comes out of the bottle and into your palm like a ferocious lion but soon calms down and settles in nicely — like a less ferocious lion. You know, the ones that lounge about in the trees. They’re pretty docile and satisfied, but they’re still lions. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. Clubman Bay Rum is fine. Measured up against better, more natural bay rum colognes, however, it definitely skews more toward a candy version of bay rum.

Wear it when you drink: Dark & Stormy

Tropical drinks can be a little much sometimes, with entire fruit salads sprouting from them. I will admit that those drinks have their place and time, but when you have anointed yourself with Pinaud Clubman Virgin Island Bay Rum, you need something a little less flamboyant. And that’s where the Dark & Stormy steps in. Strong and simple, with a bit of bite, just like the aftershave (though they don’t taste the same).

Like the scent, the cocktail has its origins (or at least its origin story) rooted in the British navy. During the 1800s, navy men were issued a daily issue of rum to keep them healthy and happy. At some point, the Royal Navy opened itself a ginger beer bottling plant (ginger beer and ginger ale differ in the way they are made, but neither is usually alcoholic — although the company Crabbie’s makes an excellent alcoholic ginger beer), ostensibly to encourage their sailors to drink something a little less boozy. Sailors being sailors, they just mixed the ginger beer with the rum, and thus was born the Dark & Stormy.

Like all of the most enjoyable old-school cocktails, it’s a simple concoction: 2 oz. dark rum (Gosling’s will insist — sometimes via legal threats — that it has to be Gosling’s brand rum),  3 oz. ginger beer (again, Gosling’s will insist on Gosling’s, and in this case, why not?), and 1/2 oz. lime juice. Combine all the ingredients in a glass with ice cubes and stir. The lime juice is optional — common in the United States, frowned upon in Bermuda.

Pinaud Lime Sec

Well, they can’t all be winners.

Pinaud’s Lime Sec Cologne is the only product on this list that doesn’t bear the Clubman brand. Its exact origin is shrouded in a mystery that spans generations. Or something. Whatever the case, Lime Sec is the most divisive modern Pinaud scent after the Lilac Vegetal among the types of people who get divisive over inexpensive grooming supplies and aftershaves. The charge against Lime Sec primarily is that it smells too candied and artificial, less lime and more Jolly Rancher. And straight from the bottle (nosed, not consumed), I can see where they’re coming from. It is strong, and whatever else might be there is overpowered by the artificial lime scent. Applied to neck and wrist, the lime is pronounced, but it fades quickly. Very quickly. This can lead some gents to over-apply (as I did once), and then yes indeed you can walk around smelling like a piece of candy. In fact, even after applying what I thought was a reasonable quantity on a warm day, the artificial lime smell was so strong that I stopped in a public restroom to see if I couldn’t wash some of it away. It can be applied properly, but you could also buy something better.

Wear it when you drink: Philip Marlowe’s Gimlet

“We sat in a corner of the bar at Victor’s and drank gimlets. “They don’t know how to make them here,” he said. “What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.” — Lennox, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

The gimlet never really caught on in the United States the way the Martini or Manhattan did, but Raymond Chandler’s iconic hardboiled private eye, Philip Marlowe, enjoyed them (at least until death and misery spoiled his taste for the drink). Although Chandler wasn’t as big on dropping brand names as Ian Fleming, I have no doubt that Marlowe—who drifted through a grimy, shabby world but tried to keep himself clean—was a Pinaud man, though to be honest, I doubt he ever reached for the Lime Sec.

The gimlet is the perfect drink for when you’ve splashed a little lime scent upon your weary visage. But don’t trust Marlowe’s friend, Lennox — his half-and-half proportions were likely because they were drinking rotgut gin. A saner ratio is 2 oz. Plymouth Gin, 1 oz. Rose’s Lime Juice—some will say it has to be Rose’s, otherwise it is not a gimlet. As The 1954 Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts wrote, “A true Gimlet must be made with Rose’s bottled lime juice, which vanished like nylons during the war but is now seen around again.” However, much like Pinaud products, Rose’s Lime has undergone changes over the years, making it perhaps less vital than it once was. Go ahead and give it a go, but I prefer fresh lime juice.

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge. Take a sip and stare into your glass, your heart heavy with the weight of a tragic world.

Diments Are Forever: A Tale of Spies in Swinging London

The Amazing Mod Spy Fiction and Disappearance of Adam Diment

On Diabolique Magazine

“Had Diment not written espionage novels, his disappearance probably wouldn’t have attracted as much attention. Literature is full of authors, even popular authors, who come and go in the blink of an eye, never to be heard from again, without generating so many theories as to their fate as have arisen about Adam Diment. That he was young, with moddish good looks and impeccable style, and was making the scene with a parade of beautiful young women and hip celebrities made his disappearance all the more puzzling. Who would walk away from that life? Surely there must be more to the story. Something incredible. Maybe even something sinister. Or maybe there’s not.”

Read it >>

La Dolce Vida con Omicidio

Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much

On Diabolique Magazine

“Judged on its own merits, it’s a spry little thriller with gorgeous photography and a couple of game leads (even though both of them end up dubbed). When they imported it to the United States, AIP retitled the film Evil Eye, chopped it up, and changed chunks of the plot by dubbing in new dialogue and adding additional scenes. In both its original Italian and altered American editions, it failed to accomplish anything at the box office. Had not Bava gone on to become a legendary name, it’s likely almost no one would remember The Girl Who Knew Too Much or think to elevate it to its rightful place in the history of giallo.”

Read it >>

Win, Lose, or Die

Vying with Role of Honour and Never Send Flowers (we’ll get to that one…sadly) for the worst of Gardner’s Bond novels, Win, Lose, or Die is a dreadful way to close the 1980s run of novels. Coincidence, naive stupidity on Bond’s part, and blind luck have always played a role in the series, but this one pushes it beyond the pale. An upstart terrorist organization is able to somehow get an entire group of women recruited by the British military, trained, stationed in the same place, and all assigned to the same ultra top-secret mission. To successfully send an entire detachment of women through Women’s Royal Naval Service (aka WRNS or “wrens”) training and get them all exactly where you need them—surely even John Gardner knew that was a load. I am always amused when terrorists are able to get exactly the job they need—peanut salesman, janitor, night watchman, usher—in exactly the place they need to be to pull off a scheme. No terrorist plot in movies or books ever gets foiled by HR saying, “I’m sorry, but we don’t currently have any positions available for janitors or food delivery sevices. We will keep your resume on file.”

This is a book built on the premise that everyone involved will make increasingly stupid decisions in defiance of all evidence before them and refuse, at any point, to think or behave in a way even slightly resembling a rational human being. It’s so bad that, even though I steadfastly object to the trend of emoji and emoticons, I’m tempted to let my review of this book be nothing more than a little cartoon middle finger, which it turns out would serve both as my comment on the book and the book’s opinion toward its readers.

What makes the eventual quality of the book worse is that the premise is not a bad one: James Bond gets assigned to a case involving the Royal Navy and so, among other things, he has to pick up his former career as a Naval officer, also receiving a long-overdue promotion from Commander to Captain Bond. Watching Bond go through a series of refresher courses and Naval training isn’t thrill-a-minute, but it is interesting, and a new angle on a character who, by 1989, had very few new angles left to offer either writers or readers. Bond finds himself back in the mess hall because the hilariously named Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terrorism—seriously, it sounds like something from The Venture Brothers—plans to attack a top-secret naval mission. Hidden in the midst of conventional looking war games, it turns out that Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and George Bush will be holding a secret high-level summit aboard one of the ships. BAST plans to blow them all up.

The plot is so dumb that even the characters in the book can’t help but point out how dumb it is. Bond himself, subjected to some villain cackling and plan-spilling about how the three deaths will throw the world into utter anarchy, explains that both England and the United States have, you know, plans of succession for such things. And the bulk of the Soviet government…well…they’ve been trying themselves to kill Mikhail Gorbachev themselves, so it’s unlikely they’ll collapse into chaos. So there’s that.

There’s the fact that somehow the entire security detail assigned to the summit ship—the entire detail—secretly works for the bad guys. And then there’s the fact that everyone knows exactly what the plan is and could foil it at any time yet they chose to all play along to the inevitable last-second save, because why the hell not? Seriously, the US, MI6, and Soviets all seem to know exactly what is happening and when. The main bad guy’s phone is tapped from an early point, and they listen in on every single plan, know his whereabouts at every single moment—and then they decide to just let it all play out, because nipping the attempted assassination of three world leaders in the bud is, to fall back on a John Gardner Bond plot classic, “just what they’d expect.”

Amid the smothering awfulness, there are a few bright spots. Bond’s time at the Naval base is, as mentioned, a nice change of pace. And there’s some stuff at an Italian villa that requires Bond to act supremely stupid. Gardner has 007 do that all the time, but at least this time there is some nice scenery. By and large, however, this is perhaps the most half-assed of Gardner’s Bond outings to date. Hell, 007 hardly does anything besides walk down corridors and get beat up and kicked in the balls (yep).

Also…Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terrorism…come on! On the other hand, this is the franchise that gave us Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.

League of Gentlemen

“Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.” — Bulldog Drummond, 1929

Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; 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 comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work.

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 the emotional reprieve of 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 (for example, Dead Presidents, a couple of decades later).

A year after League of Gentlemen, Dearden directed another controversial film about a touchy social issue. 1961’s Victim starred Dirk Bogarde as a closeted gay lawyer who takes on a blackmail ring preying on other gay men (homosexuality being a crime punishable by imprisonment at the time). Risking exposure, Bogarde decides to unmask the blackmailers. The film is often regarded as the spark that started a gay rights movement in the UK, which eventually led to the legalization of homosexuality in the UK.

Which makes it odd to me that so many critics dismiss Dearden’s films as empty, commercial, and bureaucratic. Not everything he made dwelled on social 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 often strike that sweet spot between commercially viable and socially challenging.

League of Gentlemen begins with a scene that seems like it should have come from a German krimi film. A well-dressed man emerges from a manhole onto a steamy London street and then hops into a waiting Rolls Royce. He drives himself home and sets about the task of writing seven letters. Each of these he places in a parcel alongside an American potboiler titled 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 (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 was unceremoniously dumped into retirement—”Made redundant.” The 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 is to use their 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, they will all be £100,000 richer.

For most heist movie fans, the important thing isn’t the crime itself; it’s the scenes of planning and, even more important, assembling the crew. Much of League of Gentlemen‘s run-time shows us the lives of the conspirators. This crew is a 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 man brings a specific set of skills to the heist, as well as 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).

Then there’s the heist-before-the-heist. Guns, other than hunting rifles, are difficult to obtain in England, so Hyde decides the weapons they need must first be stolen from a nearby military base—allowing them not only to arm themselves with state-of-the-art gear, but also to the military that slighted them all. This plan is based on an actual occurrence. In 1954, the Irish Republican Army launched two 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), the IRA infiltrated the bases disguised as British soldiers and took advantage of on-base distractions, such as dances, to obscure their chicanery.

This wasn’t the first time the IRA equipped themselves by robbing their British enemies. In December of 1939, they mounted what became known as the Christmas Raid, taking advantage of lax security and distractions caused by base festivities. The version that appears in League of Gentlemen is an amalgamation of the 1954 raids, and like those—and like every single movie heist ever that has every move planned down to the last detail—it doesn’t go off without a few hitches to heighten the suspense.

Having armed themselves, Hyde and the lads set about the bigger of their 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. And 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, 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, 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. And 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 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 or the very politically-charged Dead Presidents. There is something, however, 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. Making this point however, is not the primary focus. League of Gentlemen is more interested in being a breezy, humorous little thriller.

Dead Presidents is the most overtly political of the three. The veterans are all young black men who served in Vietnam and returned home to shattered communities, racism, and drugs. 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 action.

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 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. 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.

Originally envisioned as a Hollywood film starring Cary Grant and David Niven, producer Carl Foreman was unable to obtain the services of Grant (busy making North By Northwest and Operation Petticoat), which derailed the project entirely. The rights to the script by Bryan Forbes were then procured by Basil Dearden, who had just opened his own production company, Allied Film Makers, along with Forbes, Richard Attenborough, Guy Green, Jack Hawkins, and producer Michael Relph. They were each unhappy with the current system and difficulty filmmakers faced getting financing and so decided to give it a go themselves. League of Gentlemen, after being tweaked to make it more British, 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 was a good gamble. League of Gentlemen was one of the top grossing British films of 1960. Ghe scars of the Second World War were still relatively fresh in the minds of the British public. Many of 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 (which leads me to image what The Best Years of Our Lives would have been like with a heist). Their midlife crises reminded them that, just fifteen years ago, they’d been duking it out with Hitler, sharing cigarettes with comrades on the front, and defending British air space from the Luftwaffe’s blitz. How do you go from that to saying “yes, sir” to some bank manager?

And though League of Gentlemen deals with the male wartime experience, let’s not forget that for many women the war was equally harrowing and heroic, and the return to civilian life just as jarring. 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?

The thieves of League of Gentlemen struck a chord with many viewers who were finding peaceful life difficult, who looked at post-war England and thought that, though no one wanted a war back, something vital and adventurous had been lost. What’s more, many felt that the men and women who fought this epic struggle had been tossed back after the war with no concern for their well-being or respect for what they’d sacrificed. It remains an issue to this day, and always has been. 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. 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 that inspires Hyde to mount this complicated heist remains.

Of course, it’s also a fun movie, which helps. 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. That the script spends so much time telling the stories of each of the men makes them relatable, which makes the complex double-heist that much more tense. 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. Jaunty British can-do attitude keep the politics from becoming oppressive.

With so many British pros executing their craft on-screen, one can almost forget Basil Dearden behind the camera. His direction is not flashy, but it more than gets the job done. The two heists 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’re wearing a gas mask. Although League of Gentlemen is a largely light-hearted and spirited affair, Dearden knows how and when to ratchet up the stakes.

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.

Bubblegum Ninjas

Camp, Kobayashi, and the Psychedelic Grandeur of Black Tight Killers

On Diabolique Magazine

“Among Nikkatsu’s grooviest, wildest forays into pop art espionage was Black Tight Killers (Ore ni Sawaru to Abunaize, 1966). It seems like it was constructed out of some mad fever dream by director Yasuharu Hasebe and production designer Teruyoshi Satani after they stayed up all night at a psychedelic go-go cabaret, drunk on Suntory whisky and overdosing on a steady stream of pop art and spy movies (and possibly mushrooms). When they awoke the next morning, two things had happened. One, their clothes had vanished; and two, they had made a movie about a photojournalist who gets tangled up with a gang of black leather clad go-go girl assassins who fling razor sharp 45 rpm records and are armed with ninja chewing gum, among other things.”

Read it >>

From Mumbai with Love

Farz, Aankhen, and the Influence of James Bond on Indian Cinema

It may have taken until 1983’s Octopussy for James Bond to visit India, but 007’s influence on the subcontinent’s cinema stretches back much farther, part of a global phenomenon that produced hundreds of swanky spy films that adapted the Bond template for a specific industry’s  prevailing aesthetic, moral tastes, access to locations, and budget. When one writes about international spy films, one eventually grows weary of typing the phrase, “In the wake of Goldfinger…” and yet one must do, because the impact of Goldfinger sent shock waves through the industry of just about every film-producing country on the planet. There were two Bond films before it (Doctor No, 1962, and From Russia with Love, 1963) as well as eleven original novels by Ian Fleming (starting with Casino Royale, 1952, and running through 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Fleming’s twelfth 007 novel, You Only Live Twice, was published in 1964, the same year as Goldfinger the movie was released), but it was Goldfinger that, in the opinion of many, perfected the Bond formula and inspired the wave of imitators (as well as contrarians aiming to subvert or combat the James Bond film style).

Starting shortly after Goldfinger‘s release, the world was flooded with spy films and television shows. Far and away the most prolific industry was Europe, so much so that “Eurospy” has become the term for a whole cycle of films bearing a certain style and usually—but not always—made in Europe (the goofball Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin, for example, are American productions, but they’re very much Eurospy in their sensibilities). European productions had the advantage of easy access to a variety of stunning locations and a cooperative environment in which French, italian, Spanish, and German productions (as the industry leaders) could swap casts, crews, resources, and locales—with Turkey sometimes getting in on the co-production action as well (but also maintaining their own healthy domestic spy film output). In Asia, especially after the release of You Only Live Twice (which opens in Hong Kong and takes place largely in Japan with a cast of well-known Japanese stars alongside Sean Connery), Japan and Hong Kong led the way, producing dozens of candy-colored spy films (such as Key of Keys, Golden Eyes, and Ironfinger in Japan; Golden Buddha, Brain Stealers, and a whole series of “Jane Bond” films starring the likes of Connie Chan and Josephine Siao in Hong Kong) that leaned heavily into the mod-est and most pop art aspects of mid-1960s design. James Bond himself may not have been able to bear the racket of the Beatles, but Japanese and Hong Kong productions both were more than willing to draft the fashion and music of youth culture into their productions.

In south Asia, the film production behemoth India, anchored by Bollywood but composed of sundry production regions with their own distinct flare, certainly wasn’t going to be left out of the fun. However, compared to Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, and the United States, India had a much more complicated national and moral identity to navigate. The sex and violence (of James Bond films may have raised the ire of certain critics and moral watchdog groups, but ultimately, they and most of their imitators were able to get away with quite a lot. In India, by contrast, onscreen kissing—something the other industries didn’t think twice about—was taboo. Even Turkey, where you would think certain Muslim moral imperatives would impact film content, was pretty much a free-for-all during the 1960s and ’70s.

Additionally, the concept of nationalism and patriotism, almost completely absent in most 1960s spy films except as perfunctory window dressing, was serious business in India, which had gained its independence from Great Britain only in 1947 and, at the same time, had undergone an extremely contentious partition which created a second country, Pakistan. Animosity between the two countries, thanks in large part to predictably poor insight on the part of Britain but also stemming from long-standing issues between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority, was instant, and in fact remains a globe-impacting geopolitical issue still today. As such, “king and country”—or “prime minister and country”—was much more important in India than it was in the average Bond film, where the Russians may show up but one hardly gets the feeling that anything important is truly at stake other than 007 and SMERSH trying to outmaneuver one another for fun.

Farz: The First

Farz (1967), India’s first foray into the world of post-Goldfinger espionage films bears many of the characteristics that defined the genre across the globe—cool clothes, slim suits, sexy sirens, handsome heroes, assassins in Wayfarer sunglasses, flashy locales, off-the-wall spy gadgets, and a smirking attitude—but it also has some uniquely Indian elements, such as taking patriotism much more seriously and wearing scarves at all times of year. And yes, it and song and dance numbers as well, but honestly, so many spy films of the era relied so heavily on music and on nightclub scenes that Bollywood’s fondness for musical items doesn’t seem all that out of place.

Aesthetics were one of the most important elements of the Bond films (At the time Doctor No was released, England, and much of Europe was still grappling with the horrors of World War Ii and the grim-post war austerity measures that helped people survive but created a drab existence; it’s snappy, color-saturated style in a world still so grey was a big reason why it succeeded),. Farz may not measure up to the production values of Bond, but it manages to achieve, at the very least, the level of some of the mid-tier Eurospy films from the same period. And calling any of these films “mid-tier” is absolutely not a reflection of their potential to entertain. Farz, for example, obviously suffers from a low budget (though it’s hard to tell whether some of the film’s crudity—abrupt music cue changes, choppy edits, etc.—is actually part of the film, or whether it evolved after decades of prints being abused and spliced), and it takes several missteps, but it’s hardly an unenjoyable film, even if at times it taxes one’s patience. I’m sure many modern viewers, watching Sean Connery swagger across a hotel lobby and go through the entire process of checking in, might feel the same way about Doctor No.

Actually, Farz really only takes one big misstep, though it’s enough of a misstep to kill the film dead in its tracks any time it surfaces. I am speaking of the odious slapstick comic relief that comes in the form of a couple of bumbling brothers who become the loyal sidekicks of our main hero. Their sub-Sammy Petrillo/Duke Mitchell quality shtick is unfunny immediately upon making itself known, and from time to time when the film needs to pad itself out and they don’t have a musical number handy, they’ll cut to five minutes of these idiots walking into walls or grabbing each other by the shoulders and falling down. So steel yourself and keep the faith. If you can endure their bits, the rest of Farz is going to shower you with mod white suits and Chelsea boots.

From Hindustan, Orders to Thrill

Farz kick things off with a dastardly plot already in progress: terrorists are trying to blow up a dam. Luckily, heroic Indian secret agent 303 is on the case with his trusty camera to capture the bad guys red -anded. He could have also considered shooting them or perhaps arranging ahead of time, since he obviously knew where they were going to be, for some sort of security force to swoop in and capture anyone. But I guess these were simpler times, and so instead he takes pictures of them and their car, shoots a little, then rushes off to…file his report? Develop his secret film? No. He rushes off to visit his younger sister, Kamla. He does at least take time out to call his superior officer and tell him he has some important information, though apparently not important enough to tell right then and there. He drops the film off to be developed not at a secret spy facility, but at a photomat down on the corner. I’m starting to think our hero not only isn’t James Bond, but he’s barely even Johnny English. But then, it’ll turn out he’s not our hero at all.

The terrorist organization consists of five guys who are constantly berated by their boss. The secret underground terrorist lair leaves a considerable amount to be desired, consisting as it does of some cool Mario Bava-esque lighting and a folding card table with a rotary phone on it. Here’s a tip for all who aspire to be a henchman for some megalomaniacal would-be world conqueror. If, on the day of your interview, you get a tour of the secret underground lair and it is furnished only with a folding card table, pass on whatever offer you are given. In fact, don’t join up with any secret globe-conquering society that has a folding card table anywhere, let alone in the main control room. And if the main control room also doubles as storage space for crates and boxes…I don’t know. Maybe the guy is new and villainy and just hasn’t had time to unpack. He probably just bought Blofeld’s former secret lair off the EvilBay auction site, and he doesn’t get five minutes to set his stuff up before he’s having to slap around incompetent henchmen.

The terrorists pile into their station wagon and track Agent 303 to his sister’s house, where they plant a time bomb in the engine of his car. They could have just shot him, but I guess they figure he went easy on them back at the dam, so it’s the least they can do. The bomb is apparently set to go off many hours later, because 303 drives around, takes care of a few errands, and finally parks his car at a dead end before the bomb goes off, leading to a shoot-out in which our noble hero is gunned down and stabbed by a sexy femme fatale. Man what a way for the hero to start a film. Oops, wait. He’s dead. I guess he’s not the hero after all.

Farz‘s actual hero is Gopal, aka Agent 116, played by future superstar Jeetendra in one of his earliest lead roles. Gopal is introduced doing what all good spies do during their off time: frolicking in the hills with a sexy woman in cool 1960s fashion. The call of duty interrupts their courtship, however, which is at least better than a courtship, and Gopal is assigned to pick up Agent 303’s case, track down the killers, and spoil whatever nefarious plot they might be hatching. En route to doing this he meets a beautiful socialite named Sunita, played by yet another future superstar, Babita Kapoor (also the future superstar mother of superstar daughters Karisma and Kareena Kapoor).

Like many of the Bond imitators but unlike the Bond films themselves, Jeetendra’s Agent 116 is hipper to modern youth culture—less Sean Connery, more Elvis, especially in his signature slim cut white suit with matching white Chelsea boots. When he wears a tuxedo, he accessorizes with a Kentucky Colonel style ribbon tie. Now that’s class. Plus, he’s got Elvis’ pompadour, and the musical nature of Bollywood cinema means that this makes an excellent double bill with Elvis’ own half-hearted stab at a James Bond film, Double Trouble (also released in 1967). Naturally, Gopal falls instantly in love with Sunita, but in all honesty, who wouldn’t? The only problem is that her father, Damodar (Sajjan), happens to be the leader of the terrorists! And so begins a series of action set-pieces that require Gopal to run up and down a whole lot of stairs, fight big heavy guys, and partake in lavish dance parties. Most of Gopal’s mission revolves around recovering the lost film, which seems rather a moot mission considering that about five minutes into the assignment, the goons are attacking him over and over. You’d think that after you’ve seen each of them several times, shot a few of them, and seen them constantly piling in and out of the same station wagon, the photos of them would become needless. But I guess Gopal needs something to do in between Sunita’s various parties and trading witty barbs with her father.

Along for the ride are a couple of bumbling comic relief brothers who manage to be so far away from funny that they circle all the way back around to funny, but then pass that and jet still further out into the very nether regions of unfunny. One of them is short and has giant Khrushchev eyebrows. The other is blind as a bat and thus serves as Gopal’s driver. Gopal must think they’re about as useful as I do, because he frequently sends them on off-screen tasks, and thank God for it, because when they are on screen, this movie screeches to a halt. The annals of unfunny comic relief are stuffed to bursting, but these two really reached those rarefied airs of unfunny that only the most odious of odious comic relief can hope to attain. They achieve total unfunniness nirvana.

Although much is made of the sex and violence of James Bond films being the primary reason for their appeal and/or moral bankruptcy, it was the gestalt fantasy they offered that made them so much more successful than other spy films. Sure, for British viewers of a certain political alignment, there was satisfaction in a world where England, post-Empire, was still a major global player, but that aspect of the Bond films didn’t mean much to the rest of the world. But those brilliant locations—bright, colorful, exotic—and that amazing sense of fashion…those things had universal appeal. International travel not related to war was still a rarity for most people, as was haute couture. But via James Bond, a viewer in rural Buckner, Kentucky or a marginal working-class neighborhood in Birmingham, England could trot the globe attired in the most stylish of clothes, eating and drinking lavishly and without regard for finances. Farz was India’s chance at the same, and while the movie doesn’t hop from country to country, it certainly goes all in on fashion…but, once again, with a uniquely Indian cinema flare that sports an openness to youth culture and outlandish mod fashion than would ever surface in a James Bond movie. 

In particular, there is an outfit worn by luckless Agent 303’s sister, Kamla (Kanchana), who has been tricked by Sunita’s dastardly father into thinking Gopal is the villain. This leads to her, through typically convoluted Bollywood fashion, attempting to seduce Gopal by dancing around his mod hotel room whilst wearing…I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like this, well, you see…OK. She has these leopard print bell bottom pants, right? And they’re skin-tight, only they seem to be padded or at least cut Jodhpur style. And then she has a shiny pink top trimmed with leopard skin, and the whole thing is topped off with a sort of floppy pink and leopard skin hat. It is quite possibly the most astoundingly awful yet hypnotic outfit I’ve seen this side of a Jess Franco film.

Eventually, we learn that Sunita’s father is naught but a pawn of some sinister shadow organization, and in a dramatic turn of events, it doesn’t turn out to be Pakistani in origin. I’m pretty sure they’re Chinese, but it’s hard to tell, because a grimacing Indian guy in fake eyelids and yellow face make-up is scarcely any more convincing than a Caucasian in the same. The villain is Chinese, however, not because Farz has much to say about the state of Sino-Indian relations, because he has to be, since the finale of Farz is a rip-off of Doctor No. It’s also pretty awesome.

Live and Let Pie Fight

Despite the cringe-inducing comedic scenes, Farz is a pretty good first attempt for India at a Bond-style espionage adventure. It takes its nationalism far more seriously than Bond or any of the Eurospy films would have ever dared. While Europe had entered a phase in which such flag-waving patriotism was considered out of fashion, at best, India was still serious about it. That said, Farz is hardly a serious film. It may not be Bond, but it’s not The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, either. Jeetendra makes for an energetic, likable secret agent with a spectacular wardrobe, and Babita Kapoor is to die for, even if she has almost nothing to contribute to the film other than herself in an array of gorgeous outfits. That’s enough. She certainly doesn’t contribute much to the dancing, despite instigating so much of it. Babita, it turns out, was famously flat-footed when it came to this crucial aspect of Indian cinema. No less that Indian megastar Shammi Kapoor publicly marveled at her inability to learn even the most basic of steps.

But if Babita wasn’t a great dancer, it was made up for by the fact that she wasn’t a great actress, either. She realistically described herself as a “flowerpot” in her films, paid to look pretty and get rescued by the hero, who is busily dancing his heart out and judo chopping guys. Babita’s performance in Farz isn’t bad at all, though, and it’s not like she has a lot to work with. She doesn’t carry the weight of the film the way Jeetendra does, with his jumping all over the place and giving smoldering rock and roll looks to the camera as he flops his pompadour down into his face in that way we all know drives the ladies wild. His youthful enthusiasm mixed with Babita’s two left feet (it only makes me love her more) actually resulted in the development of a new style of movie dancing. Thus was born a more aerobic form we see still in many films, with less formal dancing and more just sort of running around, jumping, and tumbling.

If you are looking to explore India’s contributions to the James Bond spy craze, Farz is important because it was more or less the first. For that reason alone, you should give it a go. And if you need other reasons, there’s Babita looking dreamy, Jeetendra looking steamy, and Kamla wearing that nightmarish leopard woman attire. It has some trippy lighting and camera work, some decent action, a great finale and villain, and good music and musical numbers. In fact, people who don’t care for Indian films are often told to just fast forward through the musical numbers, but let me suggest this instead. Since the music here is awesome, watch the music numbers but fast forward through any scene involving the bumbling brothers. You’ll be much happier watching Babita pose than you will watching those two bump their heads and fall down.

Farz became a pretty big hit. Jeetendra was transformed into a bona fide leading man, and Babita sustained a decent career despite her limitations, until she finally retired to become a business manager for her even more successful daughters. However, Farz is far from the best Bond-imitation India has to offer. The movie directly inspired by Farz‘ success, Aankhen (1968), uses many of the same elements but does them better and without a lengthy pie fight. And seriously, man, all of sudden there are like ten thousand pies in that scene. Why were there so many pies? It just doesn’t make any sense at all!

All Eyes on Aankhen

You Only Live Twice, a James Bond movie full of ninjas, hollowed-out volcanoes, egg-shaped monorail pods, and Sean Connery as the world’s most convincing Japanese man, was released in 1967. The Eurospy trend was in full-swing by then, and YOLT‘s Asian locations encouraged Japan and Hong Kong to get in on the fun as well. The result is that, soaked in the psychedelic, pop-art sensibilities of the mid-to-late 1960s, a lot of great spy movies were being made across the globe. Indian cinema, which has always been packed with insane set decoration, candy coloring, and fabulous outfits, would seem tailor-made to pump out more than a few eye-popping entries into the world of psychotronic spyjinks. And they didn’t let us down. Farz, an Indian espionage thriller that did major business at the box office, was released in 1967. A year later, and doubtless under the influence of both Farz and You Only Live Twice, writer-director Ramanand Sagar gave us Aankhen, another great Bollywood spy film, but this time with the budget to trot the globe in classic James Bond style.

Aankhen is a straight-forward film padded out with musical numbers and a multitude of subplots, all of which are pretty good. There are more secret passages and trap doors than can be kept track of; there are hidden cameras, hidden transmitters, underground lairs, quick-change disguise kits, fist fights, machine gun fights, femme fatale princesses, swank nightclubs, scantily-clad dancing girls, and guys in slim-cut suits and Wayfarer sunglasses punching each other in the face. There’s boat chases and car chases and guys dressed as Arabs. There’s gorgeous travelogue footage of Japan and Beirut from when Beirut was the hip, freewheeling capital of the Middle East. And of course, there’s a villain with a monocle, and he puts a little kid dressed as a Roman soldier into one of those spiked-wall- chambers. Everything drips with that highly stylized pop-art look that defined sixties spy films.

There are also a few things that set Aankhen apart from other spy films of the period. For starters, most spy films played it tongue-in-cheek. Politics almost never entered into the picture. Sure, James Bond may have been fighting the Russians, but he wasn’t really fighting the Russians. You didn’t go to a James Bond film to get all worked up about hating the Soviet Union. In fact, real-world politics were nothing but window dressing for an espionage fantasy world, so much so that the Bond movies quickly dropped SMERSH and the Russians as their primary villains and relied on the shady comic-book style secret society SPECTRE for its go-to villainy. The European Bond knock-offs were even more fantastic and less concerned with serious politics. They were escapist adventure, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, but not reflective of any sort of reality and not really concerned with communicating any sort of meaning other than, “Drinking a martini while wearing a tuxedo looks cool.”

Aankhen on the other hand, like its predecessor Farz, takes its patriotic politics seriously. The action is punctuated by public service announcements about the righteousness of fighting for the glory of Mother India. They’re never as ham-handed and heavy as they would get in the 1980s and ’90s, but they’re still more serious about it than, say, Our Man Flint was about teaching us the evils of Communism when instead it could focus on the allure of flexible Russian ballerinas. At the same time however, while the patriotic bravado of Aankhen might be serious, it also seems largely like last-minute lip service, the heroic justification before it gets back to guys in bishts shooting at each other with machine guns.

Something else that sets Aankhen apart from many other Bollywood films is Mala Sinha. Not only is she willing to wear a flabbergasting green sombrero (more on that in a bit); she also splits her time between shouldering the bulk of the movie’s musical numbers and gunning down evil spies. Circa 1968, Bollywood women—and let’s face it, women in cinema from all over the world—were still spending most of their time in action films waiting to be rescued by the hero. Not so Mala Sinha’s Meenakshi. She’s slinking about in a cocktail dress in one scene, then prowling about some ruins with a machine gun in the next. She’s the leader of the spy ring. She’s the one that does the romantic stalking. Her romantic obsession might be a bit melodramatic, but that’s just the style of these movies. It doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s a character who manages to be a gun-toting, Capri-pant-wearing ass-kicker, rather than being either the damsel in distress, the saintly mother, or the sinister femme fatale. Mala became famous for both being one of the first actresses to demand more from a female character than being window dressing, and for showing a keen interest in using the fame that came her way to help launch the careers of young up-and-comers—such her Aankhen co-star, Dharmendra.

The Spy Who Loved Dharmendra

Dharmendra, still early in his career in 1968, became one of India’s biggest stars, and was the father of another one of its biggest stars, Sunny Deol. Starring as Aankhen‘s hero, Sunil, Dharmendra looks every bit the dashing, globe-trotting spy in his array of suits and sunglasses. He turns in a credible performance, handling himself well in the movie’s action scenes as well as during its swinging romantic interludes. Sunil is the son of India’s number one spy and great hero of the war. As such, he has a lot to live up to. Not that this is a movie about the son trying to emerge from the shadow of a larger-than-life father. I’m sure you can get that in other Indian films, but the tone of this one is basically, “Sunil’s dad was a total bad-ass, and so is Sunil!”

Sunil finds himself in mortal combat against a group of terrorists whose primary mode of operation is to stage acts of violence that will incite the Indian populace into riots against the government, who in turn will think the original violence was perpetrated by dissidents within their own society. Thus, the terrorists can limit themselves to a few surgical strikes that turn India against itself, leaving the terrorists plenty of time to recline in their sprawling underground lairs, laughing menacingly as they put their finishing touches on their spiked-wall torture chambers. But the good and righteous Indian people aren’t going to stand by and let their country be torn asunder. Knowing that the government is simply stretched too thin to effectively deal with so insidious an enemy, groups of private citizens have formed their own counter-terrorism and spy rings.

One such group is headed up by Major Saab (Nasir Hussain), who has a giant global radio system hidden behind a revolving bookcase, which makes marginal sense at best since every time someone calls him on it, the set makes a deafening beeping noise that can be heard seemingly throughout the entire house. The major’s star operative is the dashing young Sunil, who has been spending time in Japan—ostensibly studying to become a judo master, though we never see anything of his training. I always thought that becoming a master of any martial art required that you train twenty hours a day and spend the other four sitting shirtless underneath a waterfall, but Sunil seems to spend most of his time joyriding around Japan as part of various tourist groups. This gives the movie an opportunity to do two important things: show off lots of travelogue footage of Japanese locations (Japan was chosen because of You Only Live Twice) and give Sunil an opportunity to meet half-Japanese, half-Indian Meenakshi (Sinha herself was half-Nepalese).

Meenakshi falls instantly in love with Sunil, because that’s how Bollywood rolls. In a change of pace, she’s the one who relentlessly pursues the coy object of her affection through a musical number which showcases a pretty amazing outfit capped by a giant floppy green sombrero. When jumping out the bushes in said outfit and busting out in song doesn’t frighten Sunil away permanently, and when he performs admirably in a scintillating paddle boat chase (at least they weren’t in giant swans), she decides he is definitely the man for her. Although Sunil seems interested in this possibly batshit crazy beauty, he’s also hesitant to commit since he walks a dangerous path that “rubs hard on death.” So he must spurn her advances and the charming things she does, like stealing his mail and reading all his personal correspondence (“Who taught you how to spy?” the spy asks. “Love!” the insane woman responds back with giddy glee).

News comes that Sunil’s brother has been killed while trying to bust up a weapons smuggling ring that’s been shipping guns and explosives from Beirut to India. The villain is absurdly, gloriously evil and spends the whole movie laughing in an evil fashion while wearing an evil monocle and giving evil arch-villain speech about evil. So Sunil and Aankhen jet off to Beirut to defeat this guy. Sunil meets with Indian patriot Mehmood (played by Mehmood, which is convenient) and a spy ring currently operating under the guise of a traveling cabaret dance troupe, because what else would spies in a Bollywood film travel as? Everyone dresses fabulously, except for when they’re in disguise, as the disguises are either the aforementioned sheik robes or Sunil’s two choice disguises: “crazy fakir” and “Turk in a loud blazer.”  It turns out that the leader of the dance troupe/espionage ring is India’s top female operative—Meenakshi! So it wasn’t love at all that taught her how to spy; it was being a spy!

So let’s review. Two sexy heroes. Cackling villain with a monocle. Kid in a spike chamber. Good action scenes. Exotic, globe-trotting locations. Cool outfits. Big green sombrero. What’s left? Oh yeah, the musical numbers, most of which are staged by Meenakshi and her troupe of spy-dancers. One of the numbers involves Sunil’s sister singing to Krishna to save her missing son. Could have done without that one, really. Mithun’s song to Krishna in Disco Dancer was much better. But the number with Mala and her troupe dressed up as belly dancers makes up for just about anything that smacks of religious piety. The songs themselves are performed by the big names of the time: Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, and Asha Bhosle. They’re all pretty good, and the background score is a swinging combination of orchestration, cocktail jazz, and twanging spy guitar music.

Even with the breaks for filler and a woman on her knees singing to Krishna, we still get a film that fills most of its running time with sneaking about, secret chambers, spying, and gun fights. It was a big budget production, and they make sure every penny shows up on the screen, even if there are occasional shortfalls. I mean, we’re not talking a Ken Adams hollowed-out volcano or anything, but the film is at least as slick and jet-set looking as your higher echelon of Matt Helm or Eurospy films, and the combination of typically overblown Bollywood opulence with psychedelic sixties pop-art is a sure-win situation. Aankhen doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary, but it executes the sixties spy formula with panache, energy, and while wearing canary yellow toreador pants and a giant green sombrero.

Scorpius

Well, I hope you really enjoyed No Deals, Mr. Bond, because we’re back into dodgy territory with this one. There was a cult scare in the 1980s, similar to the Satanic Panic of the 1970s (umm, and also the 1980s again; we panicked a lot in the 1980s), which is probably why Gardner decided to turn in a story in which Bond goes up against a mesmerizing cult leader who, as is always the case, is using the religious fervor of his converts for more materialistic gains. Pretty much every spy novel franchise inspired by James Bond had at least one story where the main character went up against some robe-clad Moonie stand-ins, so I guess Gardner figured why the hell not? The resulting book isn’t particularly good. It’s another in the increasingly large pile of Gardner plots with a simple solution that everyone refuses to take for reasons no better than, “it’s what he’d expect us to do.”

Bond is in the middle of a refresher course when M calls him back to headquarters. Not long after, people start harassing 007. He discovers that he’s to investigate a nutty religious cult called the Meek Ones, led by Father Valentine, who plans to use his deluded followers—many of them from well-connect families—as assassins and suicide bombers. Valentine is really Vladimir Scorpius, a former Soviet agent turned freelance arms dealer. Despite the duplicitous nature of the villain’s identity, almost every assassination scheme he hatches is telegraphed well ahead of time and proves exceedingly easy to foil. So Gardner just has Bond and all of the other characters do a bunch of dumb time-wasting stuff so that action happens for enough pages to satisfy the publisher.

Bond is paired with, a woman from the IRS, since they too are investigating Valentine and the phony credit card company he’s established as a front. Not the most thrilling of cases, but I suppose it beats all that guano farming we got in Doctor No. Mostly though, what sinks this book is it’s the insistence against all evidence on the page to the contrary that Scorpius is a dangerous, charismatic leader who can inspire unquestioning fanaticism in anyone. Even Bond falls under the hypnotic sway of Scorpius dime-store new age philosophy, and Gardner expects us to swallow it. It’s simply too much to buy, and the more Gardner writes scenes about 007 staring deeply into the persuasive eyes of Scorpius, the more comical it becomes.

Throw in a finale at a Hilton Head resort—Hilton Head!—and you have a real clunker of an adventure. There is a long history of Bond having his adventure wherever the author last took a vacation, but when it’s Jamaica or Greece or Finland, it’s one thing. When it’s a resort for middle-aged bankers in flip-flops and gaudy golf shirts…come on, Bond! What’s next? 007 going out for Kahlua Mudslides at a Bahama Breeze restaurant (actually, we’d get close to that once Raymond Benson took over the series, but one thing at a time)?

During the finale, Bond accomplish nothing. The one thing he does causes the death of a supporting good guy, and in the end, Bond’s presence on the scene contributes absolutely nothing to the take down of Scorpius. In fact, the entire plot of the book, which sends Bond undercover in Scorpius’ sham cult, is superfluous to the wrap-up. If 007 had sat in his room ordering pay-per-view, exactly the same amount would have been accomplished.

Speaking of pay-per-view, there’s a scene where Bond watched The Untouchables on his flight to the United States and ruminates on how this Sean Connery chap is a pretty good actor. Good gravy, Charlie Brown.

No Deals, Mr. Bond

If real-world politics made their way into Fleming’s novels, it was purely by accident. John Gardner, on the other hand, seemed to have really wanted to put current events and issues in his writing, though one assumes having to adhere to the publisher-issued Bond formula tethered his aspirations. Let the harsh reality of Cold War politics remain the purview of John le Carré. Icebreaker hinted at political content but still defaulted to the usual megalomaniacal madman (in that case, one who dreamed of resurrecting the Reich, complete with retro uniforms and a soundtrack of “Greatest Nazi Hits” piped through his secret base).

But Gardner, when not neck-deep in James Bond, wrote a series of books that had more in common with le Carré than Ian Fleming. With No Deals, Mr. Bond, he finally achieved enough clout, or had at least been around long enough, that it seems he was given a little more leeway to “do his own thing.” The result is one of the Bond book series first full-on Cold War espionage thrillers since, well, since From Russia with Love, really. It’s also one of Gardner’s better Bond books, possibly because he seems energized by pretending that he’s not really writing a James Bond novel.

We join Bond in the midst of a mission to extract two agents from East German territory. The agents, Ebbie Heritage and Heather Dare (pretty good spy names, those), were part of a “honey trap” operation—the common practice of using good-looking agents to seduce enemy targets and extract pillow talk secrets, classified information, and all the other stuff moon-eyed fools spill when someone bats their eyelashes at them. Five years after completing the mission, Bond is pulled back into it and learns the history of the two women and “Operation Cream Cake.”  It turns out that Cream Cake’s intention had been to use five honey trap agents —four women and one man—to spirit  two highly ranked Soviet defectors to safety in the West. The operation was a disaster, however, and the agents taking part in it were dispersed and given new identities. The whole sordid failure was then put to rest — until two of the female agents turn up gruesomely murdered.

Bond’s charge is to find the remaining members of Cream Cake and get them to safety. Some of them have already caught on they are in danger, however, which means there will be a lot of scrambling around as Bond attempts to herd the agents in while also trying to determine the identity of the murderer and juggling the (inevitable, for this sort of story—news that one of the surviving operatives may, in fact, be a double agent. And because Bond can never deal with just three or four complications, it looks like his old enemies at the now renamed SMERSH are somehow involved, and they are none to happy with James Bond.

Overall, despite the usual Gardner plot contrivances and decisions that are made expressly to complicate the plot and cause the reader to roll eyes, this is among his best efforts in the Bond arena. Although this story—with its jumble of East German, Soviet, and British spies and politics—was closer in spirit to what Gardner wanted to write, one thing with which he was expressly unhappy was the title forced upon him by the publishers. Gardner had originally called it Tomorrow Always Comes, which isn’t exactly a stellar name but is a damn sight better than the title the publisher initially wanted: Oh No, Mr. Bond! With the exclamation point. Between that and an operation dubbed Cream Cake, it would seem that 007 had wandered into pure Carry On! territory, and that the story would be full of flabbergasted British gentlemen being shocked by saucy ladies exposing their knickers.

Title aside, this is a pretty good one. Bond gets to chum around with an Irish buddy, and for once we have a plot that doesn’t seem like it could have been wrapped up easily in a few pages if M hadn’t dismissed some common-sense, surefire plan as “too obvious.” Which means that for once, all the twists and turns through which Gardner runs Bond are actually a good deal of fun. Somehow, a plot that involves England, East Germany, and Russia that plays out quite a bit in Ireland ends up for the finale in Hong Kong. It’s another one of those “I could kill you, but why not play a game instead” sort of deals where the villain devises a ridiculously elaborate way to kill Bond (these almost always boil down to “let’s play The Most Dangerous Game!”), but I don’t really mind it this time out since the Hong Kong stuff is good and the whole book is a good deal of fun. Best of all, this novel doesn’t really tie into any others or require you to have read previous of Gardner’s Bond books, so you can skip right to it and enjoy yourself.

Nobody Lives Forever

As John Gardner settled into the role of Bond author for the long haul, he began to lose interest in the aspects of the novels that made James Bond “James Bond.” Partly this was a symptom of the times. What worked in the 1960s, what defined James Bond first in Fleming’s novels and later in the Connery movies, didn’t really translate to the 1980s, at least so far as Gardner could see (there was still plenty of flash and cool in the 1980s, but it must have passed Gardner by). Which means that we are increasingly left with a sort of bland guy who just happens to be named James Bond — which, in a way, might be bringing the character back around to how Fleming originally imagined him, as an anonymous blunt instrument into whom a reader could pour his or her own identity; a characterless cypher of a man who might not be interesting but to whom interesting things happened. But honestly, by the middle of the 1980s, with decades of suave, awesome James Bond under our belts, did anyone really want an anonymous 007?

Released in 1986, Nobody Lives Forever has a similar feel to the movie For Your Eyes Only, in that both are essentially one chase scene after another. I admit, after the grind that was Role of Honour, the only thing that moved me on to this book was a combination of grim determination and the need to finish all the novels. It isn’t a triumphant recovery from a terrible previous entry, but it is a recovery, with a brisk pace, a lot of dumb coincidences that set off alarm bells to which Bond never pays attention, and another go-round for the newly reformed SPECTRE, the Daleks of the James Bond universe (when in doubt, trot ‘em out). It’s also the first (and only) Bond book that puts Moneypenny and, unbelievably, Bond’s maid and “Scottish treasure” May in the middle of the plot, if not the actual action. Sadly, if you were hoping that John Gardner would take the opportunity to reveal Moneypenny as a resourceful and brave woman despite not being a field agent, well…you haven’t been paying attention to the way Gardner writes women.

Bond is en route via a leisurely drive to pick up his housekeeper May from a clinic where she’s been recuperating from an illness (I guess he didn’t want to send her to Shrublands) when he learns that blimp enthusiast and head of SPECTRE Tamil Rahani miraculously survived his tumble out of an airship in the last book, though he sustained so many crippling injuries that he basically a crushed man with only weeks to live. He has decided to spend his final few bedridden days by putting a price on James Bond’s head and waiting for one hitman or another to bring it in—something you have thought was sort of like a standing invitation for the past few decades. Thus Bond finds his progress across Europe hampered by a number of assassination attempts, many of which are almost comically unsuccessful thanks to the assassins trying to do one another in as well.

Along the way, Bond picks up Sukie Tempesta, a lovely Italian princess, and her bodyguard, Nannette ‘Nannie’ Norrich. That at least one of these women is a SPECTRE operative is screamingly obvious to everyone except James Bond, though to his credit he does at least vacillate between being cautious and being the typically gullible oaf Gardner turned him into. And also as one expects from Gardner, he goes to great lengths to establish at least one of the women—Nannette—as a cool, competent bad-ass, then of course constantly undercuts that claim with the way he actually presents her on the page.

The cliché of Bond getting captured by the main villain, who then inexplicably refuses to just kill Bond and end things then and there, is well established by this point and just something you have to deal with. When Fleming did it, he usually came up with some way to make the delayed execution plausible. Under Gardner, however, that almost never happens, and the illogic of the situation is simply too glaring and impossible to ignore. That’s certainly the case here, where Bond’s inevitable capture and inexplicable stay of execution never makes any sense other than “the formula required it.”

At least this time around, Gardner keeps the (slightly repetitive) plot moving quick enough so that few of the book’s weak spots stick around long enough to sink the ship. Role of Honour really seemed to be a case of Gardner not giving a shit about the book, and it dragged on forever. Here, Gardner still doesn’t give much of a shit, but at least he seems mildly engaged in writing decent action bits in between all the dumb coincidences, irrational behavior, and terrible sex jokes. And it really only takes a day or so to read, so at the end of things, an easily satisfied lout like me—especially coming off a thoroughly boring and dreadful entry in the series—Nobody Lives Forever is a decent enough adventure.

Who Saw Her Die?

The violence in an average giallo film can evoke a host of reactions: a thrill, repulsion, disapproval, disbelief, incredulity, excitement, and even a sort of “oh, so it’s the straight razor again then, is it?” boredom, depending on your particular disposition. Rarely does the violence inspire anything approaching emotional sympathy or distress. This isn’t a failure of the genre, and in fact is often by design. This violence usually serves a little more than a visceral shock or as a way to move the plot along. Creating an emotional attachment to the characters, and a more sympathetic reaction to the violence done against them just isn’t a priority. So, when one encounters a giallo that not only tugs at the emotional heart strings, but succeeds in connecting with the viewer on a more personal level, the impact is amplified.

Aldo Lado’s moody thriller Who Saw Her Die? (Chi l’ha vista morire?, 1972) is the rare giallo that attempts this, and the rare one that succeeds, and it is thanks primarily to a committed performance from former James Bond George Lazenby in a role that puts him through an emotional ringer. Lazenby, looking haggard and emaciated even before tragedy befalls his character, plays Franco Serpieri, a sculptor living in Venice apart from his estranged wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg, who also stars in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), who lives in London.

They have a young daughter, Roberta, played by Nicoletta Elmi, who despite only being eight or so when she made this movie had already appeared in two other giallo, Giallo in Venice and Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, both 1971) and who would go on to appear in more Bava (Baron Blood), giallo (Dario Argento’s Deep Red), and general genre weirdness (Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Lamberto Bava’s Demons). In terms of little kids with impeccable Italian sleaze and gore records go, she’s matched only by Giovanni Frezza, a Lucio Fulci regular who gained fame as “little Bob” in House by the Cemetery and also appeared in Fulci’s Manhattan Baby, Enzo G. Castellari’s post-apocalyptic adventure Warriors of the Wasteland, and, once again, Lamberto Bava’s Demons.

Roberta comes to visit her father and, for the first twenty minutes or so of this film, the two have a grand time in old Venice. There’s a great amount of father-daughter chemistry between Lazenby and young Elmi. We, of course, know that these moments of bliss are inevitably going to be interrupted. As the rapport between father and daughter grows, the tension of the film slowly ratchets up. First, there’s an expectation of danger in this sort of film and, second, the off-kilter score by Ennio Morricone is brilliant at creating a threatening, moody atmosphere.

Sure enough, someone is stalking Roberta, someone involved in a previous child murder from the film’s prologue. Unaware of the evil following his daughter, Franco is naively willing to leave her alone with her friends on what he thinks are the safe streets of their neighborhood while he gets some sculpting done and engages in a tryst with a local flame. When Roberta fails to return home that evening, Franco starts searching the neighborhood for her; casually, at first, reasonably assuming she’s at a friend’s house. But when she doesn’t turn up at any of the places he expects to find her, Franco’s search becomes increasingly frantic. It also introduces us to the bulk of the film’s potential suspects, including a sleazy art dealer (played by former Bond villain Adolfo Celi, making this the most James Bondy giallo ever), a shifty homosexual who might also be a pedophile, a steely eyed boy toy, and Franco’s closest friend, who also seems to pay an unsavory amount of attention to Roberta before she vanishes. Other suspects come and go as Franco prowls the fog-shrouded labyrinth of Venice in search of his missing daughter.

The bulk of this film rests on the shoulders of George Lazenby, who at the time of its release was still somewhere between a punchline and forgotten. Lazenby was catapulted to fame when he won the role of James Bond after Sean Connery’s departure from the series, a plum acting job that was also obviously fraught with peril given how beloved Connery was in the role. Lazenby, an Australian with no acting experience, basically bluffed his way into the role, but what made almost as many headlines was his swift departure from the series. After just one film, the phenomenal On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby announced he was turning down the offer to appear int he next Bond film. As far as he was concerned, Bond was over, a relic of the 1950s that had no place in the age of hippies, social revolution, and the Vietnam War. He grew his hair long and grew a mustache which he refused to shave while doing the press rounds for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service much to the consternation of Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who didn’t want some shaggy hippie parading around under the mantle of 007.

On top of all that, reports were (and he later confirmed them himself) that Lazenby conducted himself poorly on the set of his first film, assuming a degree of egotism and self-indulgence that made him a number of enemies, including his co-star Diana Rigg (“I can no longer cater for his obsession with himself,” she said. “He is utterly, unbelievably … bloody impossible”). Lazenby might actually have been correct about Bond being out of touch with the times, but his behavior made him more or less persona non grata in the British film industry. He quickly found himself unable to secure quality work. Or any work, for that matter. As Lazenby himself tells the story, Harry Salztman said to him, “If you don’t do another Bond you’ll wind up doing spaghetti westerns in Italy.”

Even those were hard to come by. He put together what he described as a plotless anti-war comedy, 1971’s Universal Soldier, but really he spent more time indulging in the drugs and sex of the late-era counter-culture. Eventually, he drifted to Italy, where he secured his first real post-James Bond role in Who Saw Her Die? After wrapping, he took what money he earned from it, and whatever remained of his On Her Majesty’s Secret Service paycheck, and spent the next year and a few months sailing around the world with his girlfriend, Chrissie Townsend. Honestly, if you have to fail, that’s not a bad way to do it.

The fact that Who Saw Her Die? was an Italian horror film, and that Lazenby was Lazenby, meant that no one took it or him very seriously. But just as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has benefited from time and reconsideration, so too can one look at Who Saw Her Die? today unfettered by whatever baggage might have been strapped to George Lazenby’s reputation at the time. And what one finds is perhaps one of the best performances in the entire giallo genre. Whatever hard living gave Lazenby his wracked, hollowed-out appearance (he’s still muscular, but he also looks emaciated at the same time, like a body that’s been slightly mis-assembled), it works to his advantage here in the role of a father increasingly wracked with guilt, frustration, and grief. He has a few emotional explosions, but for much of the film he opts for a more reserved but still palpable quiet desperation that is much more effective than the histrionics in which one might be tempted to indulge.

In their scenes together, he has an easy believable chemistry with his young co-star Nicoletta Elmi that makes her later disappearance truly effective in a way rarely experienced in giallo. He ha similarly powerful scenes with Anita Strindberg as his wife, who like him is wracked with guilt and determined to unravel the mystery revolving around the disappearance of their little girl. It is a convoluted tangle of events surrounding Roberta’s disappearance, but no more so than in any other giallo. At times, it’s difficult to keep straight who is who and what they’re guilty of (everyone is guilty of something), and in classic giallo style, ultimately almost none of it has anything to do with the central plot. The reveal of the killer and the connection to another case is hardly surprising, but the film has by then successfully disarmed the expectation that its finale hinges on this revelation.

Most successful films in the genre accomplish their success by layering style (visual and sartorial) on top of their confusing plots, making logic and clarity less important. Who Saw Her Die? doesn’t lack for style, but it succeeds mostly thanks to Lazenby (and somewhat because of Strindberg, who is a strong actress but doesn’t have much screen time) and for the way director Aldo Lado and cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo (fresh off working with Dario Argento on 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet) shoot Venice. This isn’t a film full of eye-popping visual trickery. Instead, it settles into a grim, colorless depiction of one of the most famous cities in the world. It avoids the big tourist attractions and wanders the places where actual Venetians live and work, getting lost among the city’s backstreets and twisting alleys, its tiny courtyards and cul-de-sacs and crumbling piles of rubble. When it takes to the iconic canals, they are shrouded in a fog through which the characters drift like half-seen ghosts. At times, the only color that seems to exist is the red of blood.

The viewer can never find firm footing in the film’s world. The geography of Lazenby’s first search for his daughter becomes increasingly confused as his panic mounts, at times seeming to double in on itself and lead nowhere. The film’s most notable scene has Lazenby pursuing, then being pursued, through the misty streets, a chase that culminates in a cat and mouse game inside and around an abandoned warehouse. Di Giacomo and Lado stage the sequence in a disorienting fashion. It quickly becomes unclear, other than Lazenby, who is who or what they want. Rotting floors, stairwells, and fire escapes are rendered like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing.

Much like his character (though without the missing child), Lazenby found himself wandering aimlessly through the early 1970s. When he found himself broke and Chrissie Townsend pregnant with his child, he had to dock his endlessly questing boat and find real work. At first, luck seemed to be on his side. He washed up in Hong Kong and enjoyed an audience at Golden Harvest, a fresh-faced upstart studio that had collected dissatisfied young filmmakers from Hong Kong’s older studios (and would later become the home of people like Tsui Hark, John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung). At the time, though, one man ruled the roost at Golden Harvest: Bruce Lee.

Unconcerned with Lazenby’s reputation, Golden Harvest was overjoyed to have a former James Bond calling on them. Lazenby was cast in Bruce Lee’s upcoming film, which Lee was determined to make the martial arts movie to end all martial arts movie. Lazenby was scheduled to meet with Bruce Lee for lunch, but Lee never showed up. He had, shockingly, passed away. The film he was shooting and in which Lazenby was cast, Game of Death, became a fiasco of legendary proportions, as Golden Harvest scrambled to recoup their losses and capitalize on the sensation of Lee’s death by pasting together Lee’s footage with a pastiche of nonsense, stand-ins, lookalikes, and perhaps most absurdly, scenes in which a still photograph of Bruce Lee’s face is simply pasted onto the film to obscure the face of a double.

Lazenby may not appear in Game of Death (a bullet dodged, frankly), but he did get work in Hong Kong, starring in a reasonably fun martial arts adventure called Stoner, alongside martial arts superstar Angela Mao and, curiously, Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong mistress, Betty Ting Pei. He went on to star in two more Golden Harvest productions, The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and A Queen’s Ransom (1976) before returning to Australia and, later, moving to the United States. Although he never achieved the fame that could have been his had he played his hand better, he managed to build a career out of small film and television parts. In the 1990s, he kept busy alongside Sylvia Kristel in a television series based on her Emmanuelle films. He and Kristel appeared at the beginning of each episode, reminiscing about the erotic adventures of their younger selves.

He also had a recurring role on the cartoon Batman Beyond and became a regular on the convention circuit, where his frank honesty about his past made him a fan favorite. Of course, almost all of that talk revolves around his brief tenure as James Bond. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has, over the decades, gone from one of the most derided Bond films to one of the most beloved. Horror and thriller fans are rediscovering and reassessing Who Saw Her Die? and discovering, as did I, the best performance in George Lazenby’s checkered, interesting career; and one of the very finest, most thoughtful, and most emotionally mature films of the giallo genre.

A year after the release of Who Saw Her Die?, Nicolas Roeg and Anthony Richmond shot Venice in a similar fashion in Don’t Look Now, a film that has many similarities with Who Saw Her Die?—grief over the loss of a child, location work that minimizes Venice’s most famous sights, and a lanky shaggy-haired protagonist with a mustache. Don’t Look Now is rightly considered a moody horror masterpiece, which is a level of prestige generally denied Who Saw Her Die? But that doesn’t stop Aldo Lado’s film from being pretty damn good in its own right. If Who Saw Her Die? is considered not quite the measure of Don’t Look Now, it still holds its own plenty well when measured against it.

Role of Honour

Whatever good will was built up with the brisk action of For Special Services and the intriguing locations of Icebreaker is undone with Role of Honor, a dreadful entry in the series. Nothing makes any sense, every character is poorly written, Bond’s mission is moronic, and fully forty pages of the story are devoted to descriptions of Bond learning how to program a computer. The villain “every single person in the world, including myself, says I should not believe you, Mr. Bond, but I think I’m going to trust you” gullibility is ramped up to levels even the liberal amount of suspension of disbelief I have when reading Bond novels can’t tolerate. The villain is yet again a rehash of Murik and Bismaquer, a brilliant but insane billionaire who is friendly and fun one second then insanely filled with rage the next. But mostly, Bond learns COBOL.

When Bond inherits a small fortune from a distant relative, M uses the event to weave a plot in which Bond has been accused of impropriety, causing 007 to resign in disgust and take up the life of a wild and crazy playboy and disgruntled ex-agent who might be swayed to the cause of some other intelligence organization. This is all so Bond can worm his way into the inner sanctum of reclusive computer genius Dr. Jay Autem Holy, who builds realistic computer simulations used by the world’s military, flamboyant art thieves, and a shadowy terrorist organization that is pretty obviously SPECTRE under new management yet again. As was the case with Murik in License Renewed, Dr. Holy is on the verge of launching a massive terrorist action that will threaten the entire world, yet when Bond shows up with a half-assed cover story about how MI6 hurt his feelings, Holy accepts it and brings Bond into the fold—but this happens only after forty pages of Bond holed up in a Monte Carlo hotel room learning about computers.

His teacher is Percy Proud, a CIA operative who was formerly married to Holy before Holy faked his own death. Anyway, it’s Gardner’s Bond and a woman, so cue juvenile dick jokes and double entendres. Despite having basically no character, we’re meant to believe that over the course of his training, Bond falls head over heels in love with Percy. In perhaps the worst example of writing yet in Gardner’s run as a Bond author, 007 will frequently picture Percy or think of her, and it’s written in a way that practically demands cheeseball romance movie soaring string music. All things considered, I prefer the dumb sex jokes.

Once Bond infiltrates Holy’s secluded mansion, he meets yet another woman who casts conspiratorial glances at him and immediately wants to bed him and make dumb sex jokes. And then Bond is kidnapped by not-yet-announced-as-SPECTRE 3.0 so that at least something happens besides Bond hanging out in a bedroom typing “10 print James Bond is cool/20 goto 10.” Despite the fact that James Bond killed Blofeld, and then killed the other Blofeld, and ruined all sorts of other SPECTRE plots, and despite no one being sure whether they believe that Bond resigned from the secret service and harbors a grudge against them, SPECTRE still recruits 007. Then after some training in the desert, they dump him back at Holy’s compound for the big mission, a scheme so half-baked and stupid that it only gets off the ground because M decides it should and I guess spoiling the scheme at the first opportunity isn’t as cool as waiting until the last second then revealing that there was no last second, and that the villain’s master plan had already been found out and disarmed before it even started.

John Gardner himself said that Role of Honour stinks, and far be it from me to disagree with him. For Special Services and Icebreaker were dumb and had silly plots and some bad writing, but at least they also had some positive attributes that made them readable. Not so, Role of Honor, a book that exceeds every length of slack I try to cut it. Gardner lies at least part of the blame on coincidence — that the plot he came up with about computers and war-simulator video games was close to a more or less throw-away scene in the off-canon Bond film Never Say Never Again, and so he had to do a lot of last-minute replotting. But that excuse only gets him so far, and there is enough rotten in this book that “it was too much like a scene from Never Say Never Again” can’t account for all of it.

The convoluted fake disgracing of James Bond makes little difference. We spend multiple chapters reading about him learning to program computers, a skill he never has to use. The in to SPECTRE’s plot is Holy’s advanced computer model of their nefarious plan, a plan so simple, so common, so exactly like any other SPECTRE plan, that it doesn’t need any sort of advanced computer simulation in the first place. Then the plot is exposed and disarmed before it’s ever set in motion, and the only reason we have a climax to the book with a fist fight in a blimp is because M figured, why the hell not? And also, why not leave James Bond in the dark that the entire world isn’t actually about to be destroyed, because…I don’t know. Screw James Bond?

The only moment this book has going for it is one off-hand paragraph where Bond is excited to be driving into Monaco, only to discover that the Monaco of the 1980s blows. Traffic, chain stores, package tourists, tackiness, scoured almost entirely of the romance and glamor he remembered. It’s about the best Bond segment Gardner has written up to this point. It understands that 007 is a man forged in the 1950s but now in the 1980s, forced to deal with the erosion of the world he knew. It’s the first moment where the reader gets a sense that Bond is a man out of time and that at least part of him knows that. It’s certainly a more effective means of conveying the passage of time than previous attempts at a similar nostalgia, which have mostly just been Gardner having Bond mechanically think of the names of past women and villains in his life like a bulleted list. It’s too bad that one effective and thoughtful moment is couched in such an awful book.