Several of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels have plots in which James seems, for large portions of the book, to just be along for the ride. A large chunk of From Russia With Love is about the villains, and at least as much features Bond’s local ally, Kerim Bey, doing the work while 007 hangs out behind him and fondly contemplates the man’s warm, dry handshake. Icebreaker is John Gardner’s version of one of those “Bond on a holiday” books. Bond does almost nothing—which is probably for the best, because when Bond does do something, it’s usually an example of some of the worst espionage work the man has ever done. Pretty much every single person dupes Bond in this story, and sometimes on multiple occasions since Icebreaker doesn’t settle for mere double crosses when it could go for triple and quadruple crosses. A shocking number of Bond’s decisions, and nearly every conclusion he draws, are the wrong one. For Special Services felt like a Bond spoof because of the absurdity of the villain’s plot. Icebreaker feels like a spoof because Bond is so bad at his job.
At least when Fleming passed off a vacation as a Bond novel, he usually succeeded, delivering indulgent descriptions of exotic locations, customs, drinks, clothing—the usual—and energizing enthusiasm. Fleming made Bond sitting around learning about branch water exciting. Icebreaker is set in icy Finland (Gardner admitted he came up with much of Icebreaker‘s plot while on an all expenses paid holiday in Rovaniemi courtesy of Saab) and, for at least a portion, cruises by in much the same way as Fleming’s most indulgent travelogue writing, provided you (as I do) enjoy snowy, remote locations. Gardner, also like Fleming, takes the opportunity to reflect on (or show off) bits of esoteric knowledge, on Finland, the fine quality of Saab cars, vacationing above the Arctic Circle, and the complicated nature of espionage in countries that are aligned with “the West” but share borders and culture with the then Soviet Union. As such, the setting alone is enough to carry me through a story that is basically a rehash of Ken Russel’s strange Harry Palmer spy movie, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), starring Michael Caine—only with less awareness of its own absurdity.
Bond is sent to Finland for a mission already in progress, which in accordance with all John Gardner missions, is a hopelessly convoluted time-waster when a simple “go in and kill them, 007” is already overdue. Teamed with cranky agents from Mossad, the CIA, and the KGB—none of whom trust one another, of course—Bond has to observe and report on the comings and goings of a group of neo-Nazi terrorists. It’s not a very useful assignment. Everything Bond observes and reports on is something the involved governments already know about, so there’s no point to any of it. Because a James Bond book is supposed to be exciting, Gardner crams in a ridiculous number of feints, traps, and double crosses.
Villain Aarne Tudeer, who keeps Bond alive on the flimsiest of excuses, commands a Fourth Reich up to the usual Fourth Reich business. They idolize Hitler, cosplay like WWII era Germans, listen to WWII era German music, and give Mein Kamp-fy speeches. The book keeps assuring us that despite their absurd WWII fetish, Tudeer’s National Socialist Action Army is one of the most dangerous threats the world has ever faced, and they are mere inches away from sparking a global Nazi revolution that will destroy us all and usher in a horrifying new era of people who don’t speak German never the less insisting on saying things like “Jahol, Mein Fuhrer.” And that’s a plot that should work, and that is depressingly relevant today, in our environment of moronic Nazi fetishists and white supremacists.
But just as For Special Services undercut claims of Bond sidekick Cedar Leiter’s competence by making her a fool in action, so too is the threat of Tudeer’s terrorist organization unrealized in deed despite frequent narrative insistence. Billion Dollar Brain‘s similar plot, about a bunch of Texas rednecks building a new Nazi army in the wilds of remote northern Europe, was much more successful. In that movie, the racist army was regarded as patently ridiculous but still dangerous, since a moron with a tank still has a tank. Icebreaker doesn’t manage that, however, and no matter how hard it tries to sell us the plot, the whole thing is just too silly, even by James Bond standards.
Additionally, the crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses are more wearying than they are surprising. No one is what they appear to be, and then they are not what they appear to be after they stopped appearing to be the last thing they were appearing to be. Improbably coincidences abound, and through it all, Bond exercises the worst judgment of any spy in the history of spies. I think at least 25% of this book is made up of the sentence, “Bond decided she was either the greatest actress in the world, or she was telling the truth,” only to have Bond be totally wrong. So I guess there are a lot of greatest actresses in the world operating out of Rovaniemi, Finland. If you plan to read Gardner’s Bond novels, you better get used to this, because it also pops up in subsequent books a lot.
In Icebreaker‘s favor are, as was the case in the previous two novels, Gardner’s skill at writing breathtaking action sequences. A showdown between Bond and his Saab and an army of deadly snowplows on the lonely roads of northern Finland is tense. The bobsled chases and shootouts in beautiful, desolate Lapland are thrilling. And as mentioned, the locations and descriptions of these remote places are superb. We still get slammed with the clunky come-ons and sex joke dialog I’ve quickly learned to fear from Gardner’s Bond novels, but at least it’s surrounded by sweeping Arctic wastelands, some good action, and lovingly detailed descriptions of Bond suiting up in his snow pants.
Bringing the iconically fifties/sixties Bond into the eighties fell to British author John Gardner, and his first Bond novel, License Renewed—the first original James Bond book since Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun over a decade before—did its best to maintain the events and timeline of the original Ian Fleming novels while being set in and making sacrifices to the 1980s. Bond is greying at the temples, he drives a more fuel-efficient Saab turbo, he smokes low tar cigarettes. Overall, License Renewed wasn’t a bad novel; it just wasn’t great, and part of the problem with it was probably that Gardner was under so much pressure to maintain all the details that would make License Renewed seem like one of Fleming books.
Gardner’s second James Bond novel, For Special Services, maintains all the ties to Ian Fleming’s original novels (including conjuring up several specters—har har—from Bond’s past), but it gets a little more breathing room since it isn’t saddled with re-introducing Bond and acclimatizing him to the 1980s. As a result, it’s a better, faster moving, and more developed book than License Renewed.
Things kick off with a great action sequence in which Bond and some undercover SAS men foil a hijacking. We learn that there have been a large number of such hijackings lately, and Bond uncovers that they are the work of his old nemesis, SPECTRE—and more disturbingly, Blofeld, even though Bond knows Blofeld is dead. According to the combined intelligence of both MI6 and the CIA, this new Blofeld might be operating in conjunction with, or perhaps even be, an eccentric Texas billionaire named Markus Bismaquer.
Bismaquer (and yes, I did spend the whole book imagining it was actually Biz Markie) lives the life of a recluse behind the electric fences and walls of a sprawling estate that can only be reached by monorail, and it looks like he’s been doing business with all sorts of unsavory characters. At the request of the CIA, and because he is the world’s foremost authority on busting up SPECTRE operations, Bond is disguised as an art dealer, shipped off to the United States (along with his specially tricked out Saab) to determine if SPECTRE truly is back, and if so, whether Bismaquer is the new Blofeld—and if not, who is?
To assist in the mission, Bond is paired with Cedar Leiter, daughter of his old buddy Felix “My God James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” Leiter. Cedar represents one of the weakest aspects of Gardner’s writing, and one of the most irksome tendencies in all sorts of spy lit: the woman who is constantly described by everyone as tough, competent, and every bit as professional as a man, who then proceeds to spend the entire book giggling, freaking out, screwing up, crying, and pining for the male hero. Considerable words are spent on assuring us Cedar is a tip-top agent, and then every action, every line of dialog Gardner saddles her with, seems designed specifically to disprove these assertions. She’s not a thoroughly terrible character; she’s just very disappointing, a typical example of how male writers often fail to make good on their female characters.
Gardner’s propensity for clunky sex dialog is carried over from License Renewed, and once again we have two women (Cedar, and Bismaquer’s wife, Nena) who within ten seconds of meeting Bond are trading lounge lizard quality double entendres with him as they try to get him in bed. I know some will claim this is all part of James Bond, but it’s really not, at least not in the books. Plus, it’s not the sex and the seduction I mind; it’s how poorly written it is. Nena is one in what will turn out to be a long parade of the “villain’s kept woman” who are described as giving Bond “conspiratorial glances” the second he shows up with a suspicious cover story that no one should believe.
Much of For Special Services is a pastiche of plots and events from previous Bond novels. Bismaquer’s sealed-off, Disneyworld-esque private estate is like the silly cowboy fantasy land constructed by the gangsters in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond’s cover as an art dealer is similar to his cover as a genealogist in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The eventual SPECTRE plot is reminiscent Goldfinger‘s raid on Fort Knox (the movie more than the book). And Bismaquer himself is basically the same villain as Dr. Murik from License Renewed: an oddball billionaire who is back-slapping and gregarious one moment, then batshit insane and furious the next. And like Murik, once he uncovers Bond’s true identity, he makes sure to explain every part of his plan to 007 and take him along whenever he can.
As to whether or not Bismaquer is the new Blofeld? The identity of the new Blofeld is a screamingly obvious mystery that is drawn out through the entire length of the book, mostly via lazy cheats in writing. For example, early in, there is a meeting of the new SPECTRE in a Louisiana bayou mansion. Blofeld is presiding over the meeting, in full view of everyone present and without manipulating appearance or voice—this exposure should, logically, extend to the reader, but while Gardner describes almost everyone else who plays a role in the meeting, he intentionally leaves out describing Blofeld, because he needs that to be a mystery—even though the solution to the mystery is visible from practically the beginning of the novel. Why be coy? Why cheat the reader in the service of such a weak “revelation?” And why did the movie Spectre fill the need to follow Gardner’s lead???
If you thought License Renewed‘s plot was far-fetched, then For Special Services‘ absurd mix of ice cream, mind control gas, mesmerism, and impossible invasions of top-secret military installations will have your eyes rolling. It’s like the plot of a Bond spoof than of an actual Bond novel. However — all those criticisms thus entered into the record, I thought For Special Services was a fun read. It’s obvious that Bond is not Gardner’s character, and that maybe Gardner is a poor fit for Bond, but when the author gets away from the character and concentrates on the action, For Special Services has an opportunity to shine. The opening hijacking scene is thrilling, as is a tense car race between Bond and Bismaquer’s typically disfigured henchman. Attempted assassination by ants and a number of chases and shoot-outs also afford Gardner a chance to take a break from writing Bond the character and concentrate instead on adventure. I’ll even let the ice cream-based infiltration plan slide. But not Cedar Leiter. Oh lord, Cedar Leiter.
Because these moments are good, I suspect the embarrassing awkwardness of the character moments, of the banter between Bond and the women, and the derivative nature of the villain is because Gardner was forced into a formula and a character with which he could not identify. Fleming was no great wordsmith, but his novels had charisma and spirit, because this snobbish old British man truly believed in, reveled in, and wanted to celebrate James Bond. Gardner took the job of writing another man’s character and as that other man, and it’s obvious that it doesn’t work well for him. Perhaps sensing this, For Special Services relies much more on Bond in action than the previous book, and it’s a substantial improvement.
A Primer on Blended Scotch Whisky and 007’s Favorite Labels
It was a good plan. You managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain a madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target. But then his right-hand-man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you found yourself tied down in front of a villain sitting in an egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow-moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain to you his nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be blended scotch whisky.
For the villains of old spy and Bollywood thrillers, no secret lair or fortified chateau was complete without a hidden panel that slid open to reveal a silver serving tray, two rocks glasses, and a bottle of whisky. They drink it to celebrate. They offer it to the captured hero to gloat. They drink it again when their nefarious schemes begin to crumble around them. It’s near universal. Italy, Germany, India, Turkey, the United States—it doesn’t matter where you are. If you are a megalomaniac bent on world destruction or just a common thug who is sick and tired of Maurizio Merli slapping you around, chances are your drink of choice is scotch. You’re not going to catch Blofeld toasting the demise of James Bond with a wine cooler, and you’d never catch Bond wooing a sultry woman by ordering a Fuzzy Navel. Those drinks have their place, but that place is not a secret lair inside a volcano.
James Bond, one of global culture’s most recognized imbibers, drinks no fewer than 317 drinks throughout the series of books authored by Ian Fleming. Most of those are whiskey or whiskey cocktails, with Bond favoring bourbon over scotch. It’s not random that Bond champions the American spirit; he likes to tweak his nose at his country of origin from time to time. Ian Fleming famously switched from gin to bourbon because his doctor told him it was better for his health. But scotch need not worry. Bond’s number one drinking buddy, American CIA agent Felix Leiter, has only two functions in the novels: to slap his forehead and exclaim, “James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” and to order Haig & Haig on the rocks.
Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grains and water, with yeast added to activate fermentation. Scotch, simply enough, is whisky made in Scotland. Like champagne is to a specific type of sparkling wine from a specific region in France, so is “scotch” a legally defined and pugnaciously protected term. It has to be whisky, and it has to be from Scotland. There are other rules, but those are the basics. Within the sub-category of scotch, there are subdivisions, but the most important for now are single malt and blended scotch. A single malt is a whisky that comes from one distillery and is made from 100% malted barley. It does not have to be from a single batch distilled at the same time; just from the same distillery. For years, single malt was a niche product, but during the scotch revival of the 2000s, that changed.
Even with that change, blended scotch still makes up the bulk of the scotch that is made and consumed. Blended scotch combines a number of single malts in pursuit of a particular profile. These malts can come from any distillery, as long as it’s in Scotland. This blend is then further blended “neutral grain spirit”—something close to vodka, produced inexpensively and in large quantities. Traditionally, when people referred to scotch, they were referring to a blend, and when someone is asked to name a scotch brand, chances are that if they don’t say “Jack Daniels,” they’ll probably name a blended scotch: Johnnie Walker, most likely.
In a blend, the neutral spirit generally makes up the bulk of what you’re drinking. The higher the price, most times, the higher the amount of single malt in the blend, or the older the single malts. If you are going to put an age on the whisky, for single malts it is the duration between when it goes into a barrel and when it goes into a bottle. Whisky does not age once bottled. A ten-year-old whiskey from 1940 is still a ten-year-old whiskey. On a blend, if it carries an age statement, the age is of the youngest whiskey present. So if you combine a 50-year-old scotch and a four-year-old scotch, you have a four-year-old blend.
Because most single malts, despite the market for them on their own, are still sold to professional blenders (in fact, quite a few single malts will never be tasted by consumers, as 100% of the output is allocated for blending), and because less actual “whisky” goes into them, blends are less expensive and, thus more popular. Some are great, some are good, and some are terrible, but master blenders have been at this game for a long time now, and in a competitive market like whisky, few producers manage for very long with an inferior product.
If you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of scotch, or if you are looking for a gift for an old-timer, blends are almost always the best bet. Master blenders work hard and have passed knowledge down for decades about creating appealing, enjoyable, and above all, consistent blends. Single malts, lacking the cheaper-to-make neutral grain spirit, are usually more expensive and have traditionally been less popular. However, among whisky connoisseurs, single malts enjoy much greater popularity, even if master blenders will joke that drinking a single malt is like eating the ingredients of a cake instead of combining them to make a cake.
Of War and Whisky, Monks and Malts
Trying to pinpoint the “first” whisky is a fun but pointless endeavor. By the time people get around to writing something down, it’s been around for ages. For the sake of verifiable facts, however, let’s begin in 1494, which is the first known recorded appearance of whisky in Scotland. “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” With that entry into the Scottish Exchequer Rolls, whisky revealed its existence. But of course, that was just for the tax man. It had been around longer.
According to whisky lore, distillation came to Scotland by way of Ireland and is likely traced back to North Africa. St. Patrick, it is said, introduced distilling to Ireland in the fifth century, and the Dalriadic Scots took the process with them when they migrated to Scotland. St. Patty himself apparently learned the process from people in France and Spain, where distillation was used to create perfume and later used on grapes to create brandy. In areas where there were no grapes, and thus no wine-making, distillation of “mashes” made with an assortment of grain was adopted. The official use for this concoction, of course, was medicinal. Things that make you tipsy have a long history of being “medicinal.” Surprisingly, it was sometimes even true. Scientists figured out that the presence of certain antibiotics, which would not be discovered by medicine for thousands of years, in Egyptians mummies was because they occurred naturally in the beer Egyptians consumed.
The medieval version of whisky—the water of life, aqua vitae, or usquebaugh in Gaelic, sometimes shortened to usky and later…well, you can figure it out—was raw stuff that had more in common with backwoods moonshine that modern scotch. Distillation was primitive. The recipe and process varied from one maker to the next. Aging it in a barrel was basically non-existent. It was a local drink, growing in popularity but with no sort of agreed-upon definition or production method. A modicum of organization was introduced in 1505 when King James IV of Scotland granted the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh sole rights to make and sell usquebaugh in the capital. Whisky’s popularity continued to grow during the 1500s. The quality of spirit improved. Advances in still design and distillation produced spirits considerably less harsh than the early whiskies. And then there were the monks.
At the end of the 1400s, Europe and Britain were in a hopeless tangle of treaties that seemed designed to guarantee rather than prevent war. The first to go at each other were Italy and France, in what would become known as The Italian Wars. If there’s one thing England loved, it was going to war with France, so England allied itself with Italy. James IV of Scotland, however, had a binding treaty with France. In 1295, Scotsman John Balliol and Philip IV of France agreed that one country would always help the other if attacked by England. This agreement, known as The Auld Alliance, was renewed from time to time with little consequence, until eventually French monarch Louis XII called in the favor. As England came into the war on the side of Italy, Scotland was obliged by the Auld Alliance to invade England in support of France.
Italy—which is to say, Pope Leo X—was most displeased with Scotland and threatened the Scottish monarch with censure. England’s King Henry VIII decided that if the Pope was mad at James IV, Henry (himself not exactly a fan of popes, but whatever) might as well declare himself overlord of Scotland. He felt justified in doing this since, in 1502, England and Scotland had signed a non-aggression pact. By fulfilling Scotland’s old treaty with France, James IV was violating the newer one with England. James IV defied both king and pope, carrying out raids and sending Scottish sailors to reinforce the French navy. The war between the two neighbors came to a head in 1513, when James IV led a host of 30,000 Scots into battle against the English. the Battle of Flodden, sometimes known as the Battle of Branxton since that’s actually where it took place, went poorly for the Scots. James IV himself led the army and paid the ultimate price, falling in battle and effectively ending Scotland’s involvement in what was now being called War of the League of Cambrai.
Things settled down, but not for long. Henry VIII’s support of Italy in the wars had less to do with England’s love of the Pope and more to do with their hatred of France. The Reformation, which among other things sought to combat the vast wealth of the Church and the terrible poverty of its followers, was gaining steam throughout Europe, and Rome was scrambling to curtail the damage. In distant England, Henry VIII was pushing through a series of reforms to the Church of England that better reflected the mood of the population—and also happened to make it easier for the crown to confiscate wealth from the Church (and get a divorce). In 1534, Henry issued the first Act of Supremacy, naming the Crown, rather than the Pope, supreme head of the Church of England.
Among the things Henry did as the Church of England extracted itself from the Roman Catholic Church was begin the dissolution of monasteries. Monks were the original distillers. What else are a bunch of dudes living together going to do with their time? You can only chant so much. When Henry declared the monasteries to be no more, suddenly a lot of monks were out of a job. Forced to make it in the outside world, many fell back on their distilling skills, resulting in an influx of knowledgeable experts to the world of whisky-making and substantial advancement in the art and science of distilling. Whisky making continued to thrive and evolve in a loose and wild style, with the occasional violent conflict over taxation, until 1823 when the Excise Act essentially laid the foundations for the modern whisky industry. At that time, whisky was still a pretty rough spirit. The knowledge of the monks advanced the process substantially, but that’s “advanced” by the standards of the 16th century. It remained largely a provincial indulgence sold locally by grocers—grocers who had surnames like Walker, Dewar, Ballantine, and Chivas.
Blend in the Wind
In 1831, an inventor by the name of Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey, or Patent, still, sometimes also called a continuous or column still because why let something have one name when it can have like half a dozen? Traditionally, whisky had been made in a pot still consisting of a rotund “pot” with a neck where condensation takes place. In a pot still, you could only distill one batch of whisky at a time. Then you had to drain it, clean it, and pour in the next batch. By contrast, the Coffey still ran liquid through a long column that enabled distillers to ply their craft in a continuous flow. The only time you had to stop distilling was when you needed to clean the still or your workers went on holiday.
The invention of the column still also led to the production of “grain whisky.” But isn’t all whisky “grain” whisky, what with the legal definition of whisky being that it has to be made from grains? Well yes, but the designation of something as “grain” whisky at the time meant that it is made with, well, pretty much any grain other than barley. It is more accurate to call them “neutral” grain spirits, as the goal eventually became to produce a mostly-flavorless spirit, which generally occurs because it is distilled at a higher proof. Not everything that comes off a column still is a neutral grain spirit. Many bourbons, for example, are produced using column stills, and many grain spirits are rich in flavor because they are distilled at a lower proof and then aged. So, a little fuzzy sure, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the history and laws of booze are fuzzy.
Grain whisky off those early column stills had an altogether different taste than the rustic pot still whisky being cooked up by Scottish hillbillies. But that hillbilly stuff, well, it had it’s good points, too. A man named Andrew Usher wondered what might happen if you took that big, beastly pot still whisky and blended it with the more refined , delicate column still whisky. What might happen, it turns out, is you might create the biggest whisky market in the world. Since then, “blended” scotch has dominated the market. Up until very recently, it was pretty much all any whisky drinker consumed. Single malts were a statistically non-existent sliver of the market. As far as most people were concerned, single malts were nothing more than the raw ingredients that went into making true scotch; that is to say, blended scotch.
Yet, as mentioned, many hardcore whisky aficionados have changed their tune, trumpeting single malts as the true expression of a whisky while blends are diluted and “dumbed down” for the masses. Go to any reputable whisky shop these days and you will almost certainly see the bulk of the shelves taken up with an array of single malt scotches—Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and so forth—while the blends are relegated to the bottom shelf. This arrangement does not reflect the reality of the market as a whole, however, even if it may reflect the focus of people at that particular specialty shop. First of all, anyone who thinks a single malt is superior to a blend purely by virtue of being a single malt is a person whose opinion should not be trusted in any matter of import. There are fantastic, complex single malts. There are also dumb, simple, one-note single malts. There’s everything in between as well. The same is true of blends. There are blended scotches that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best single malt has to offer. There are also blends that are terrible, and the whole range in between.
The heavy weighting of a specialty shop’s whisky selection toward single malts also doesn’t reflect the simple economics of the industry. Over 90% of the single malt produced is used to make blends. There would be no single malt market if not for the demands of blended scotch. The world over, blends are still overwhelmingly what people drink. Chances are when ordering your first whisky, you probably ordered a blend. Those are the brands everyone knows. If your grandfather drank scotch, he almost certainly drank a blend (your dad didn’t drink scotch, at least not when he was your age; he drank beer and smoked weed). Recently, that wave of single malt snobs has come back around to the blends they once dismissed. Boutique whisky makers started making blends glamorous again. The over-inflation of single malt prices as they gear themselves more toward ultra-mega-billionaire investors and portfolio managers rather than drinkers also meant that people with less money to spend started eying blends. What they discovered was that a lot of these blends are good.
Going for a Walk
When you talk blends, especially blends favored by movie villains, there is no more obvious a place to start than Johnnie Walker, the drink of choice for screen villains and heroes alike. Johnnie Walker boasts an almost incomprehensible cinematic pedigree, thanks to its popularity, along with VAT 69, in the prolific film industry of India. Johnnie Walker has appeared in more Bollywood films than any other actor, including Johnnie Walker, a comedic actor who changed his name to reflect the popularity of, well, Johnnie Walker.
To count the number of villains who have sipped Johnnie Walker while relaxing in their lair, plotting the overthrow of the government, is an impossible task. Everyone from Dev Anand to Amitabh Bachchan to Dharmendra has celebrated victory or drowned defeat with Red or Black Label. Pretty much every Bollywood hero has had it offered to him by a sneering villain or femme fatale. The “dancing while displaying a bottle of whisky” routine that appears in so many Bollywood movies has resulted in Johnnie Walker Red likely being popular dancer Helen’s most frequent on-screen partner.
Johnnie Walker started as an experiment conducted by Kilmarnock farmer-turned-grocer John Walker, whose specialty was blending tea leaves. He figured that, although tea leaves were nothing like whisky, the experience could apply to making the harsh spirits commonly thought of as whisky into something more palatable. He began mixing malts together, then blended them with less abrasive grain whisky to create his signature store brand. It was a modest success but hardly a global juggernaut—at least until 1857, when Walker’s son took over the business. Alexander Walker was ambitious. He was the one who created the brand’s unique identity with the slightly askew black and gold label. He was the one who came up with the square bottle, a design that reduced breakage during shipping and also enabled retailers to fit more onto a shelf.
Alexander Walker’s three sons took over the business in 1889. Alexander Walker Jr. expanded and improved the product portfolio. By 1906, the John Walker & Sons whisky company offered three blends: the basic blend, with a white label; Extra Special Old Highland, with a red label; and Walkers Old Highland Whisky, 12-years-old and sporting a black label. In 1909, the three brand names were simplified: White Label, Red Label, and Black Label. In 1909, George Walker hired cartoonist Tom Browne to create a logo for the brand. Browne created a likeness of John Walker sporting a top hat, waistcoat and high boots—the iconic Walking Man.
Through a combination of canny, aggressive advertising and quality product, Johnnie Walker became one of the pre-eminent global brands. In 1925, when a lot of consolidation was happening and businesses were reeling from American experimentation with Prohibition, Johnnie Walker merged with Distillers Co. Ltd, an arrangement that stayed in place until they became part of Guinness in 1986. In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo, the whisky world’s number one Blofeld-esque supervillain. Diageo’s stewardship of Johnnie Walker has been fraught with controversy, as are most things involving Diageo.
The global beverage mega-corporation shuttered the facility in Kilmarnock, causing substantial economic strife in a small town who’s number one industry was Johnnie Walker. Accusations of a substantial drop in quality plagued the brand as well, though whether these are true or simply a symptom of the dislike engendered in so many people by Diageo and its business practices is a matter of debate. Suffice it to say that there’s a pretty good chance the entire town of Kilmarnock found itself dangling over a crocodile pit while Diageo offered it a tumbler of Johnnie Walker and explained its dastardly plan to close the plant (citation needed).
Bollywood’s relationship with whisky in general, and Johnnie Walker in particular, is also contentious and often contradictory. India consumes more Johnnie Walker than anywhere else in the world, and their fondness for it is what makes it the most popular whisky in the world. In fact, Johnnie is so popular in India that there are years when Indian consumers purchase more Johnnie Walker than is actually made. Counterfeiting Johnnie Walker is a booming business that India is only just now beginning to get under control, a fact that has led to a seemingly endless economic and legal battle between India and the Scotch Whisky Association, the body tasked with enforcing a variety of trade agreements and copyright issues.
In movies, Johnnie Walker represents the schizophrenia inherent in judging the perceived vices of others. Out of one side of the mouth, Indian cinema frames alcohol as a demon stalking virtue and traditional Indian goodness. Johnnie Walker, more times than not, is the drink of the evil or a crutch for the weak. Out of the other side of its mouth, of course, whisky is heralded as a symbol that you (and India) made it, that you have attained a better standard in life. That message, of Johnnie Walker equating to a more sophisticated status, is often undercut by the need to pander both to the urbane city dweller and the more suspicious traditionalists who see such advancement as horrifying and immoral.
Ultimately, the morality expressed by most Indian cinema is the same as the one espoused by the cinema of most other countries: buy a ticket. So Johnnie Walker remains both hero and villain, success and ruin. Whatever the case, you’ll see a lot of it. When the villain swivels around to offer you a pour from his bottle of Johnnie Black, sneer at him and say, “I prefer Green Label. But then, it’s less common so perhaps you’ve not familiar with it.” You may still get strapped to the nose of a nuclear missile, but at least you’ll die with the satisfaction of knowing you got a minor whisky-related leg up on the megalomaniac super villain.
Bond In a Pinch
Ironically, the most recognizable scotch in the world never makes an appearance in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Fleming himself, when he wasn’t downing a pint of gin or whatever, preferred bourbon because he thought it was healthier (he also thought Miller High Life was the greatest beer in the world). But as mentioned, while James Bond might have reflected Fleming’s taste for the American spirit, and while Johnnie Walker may be conspicuous by its absence, there’s no shortage of scotch consumed in the Bond books, most of it by Bond’s number one sidekick, Felix Leiter. And there’s nothing Leiter likes more than Haig & Haig on the rocks.
Perhaps no other brand is mentioned by name and consumed quite so often as Haig & Haig, known these days as Pinch and instantly recognizable thanks to the odd-shaped bottle enclosed in a thin web. Haig & Haig, or Pinch—or Dimple, as it’s known everywhere but the United States—was one of the first-recorded whiskey distilling companies. Well, in a manner of speaking. It got on the books when farmer Robert Haig was summoned before church elders in 1655 to answer for the crime of operating his still on the Sabbath. Blue laws, you know. Haig & Haig proper came into existence 1824, when one of the blasphemous farmer’s descendants, John Haig, opened a distillery in Cameronbridge, Scotland. In 1870, John’s son, John, became the first Haig to go into scotch blending. One of his best creations was Pinch, introduced sometime in the 1890s. Like many scotches, Haig & Haig was eventually absorbed into the conglomerate United Distillers and Vintner, and later became part of beverage leviathan Diageo.
Massive quantities of the stuff, still referred to at the time as Haig & Haig (that portion of the name was eventually dropped) are consumed in the Bond novels. Felix Leiter has two Haig & Haigs on the rocks in Casino Royale. In fact, it shares space with perhaps the single most quoted drinks order in James Bond history, short of “vodka Martini…shaken, not stirred.” Bond insisted ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A Dry Martini”, he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet…Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” That’s Haig & Haig, rubbing shoulders with the cocktail soon to be known as the Vesper.
In Live and Let Die, Bond and Leiter drink it in Harlem and share a bottle when they’re in Florida. Bond also drinks Haig & Haig by himself while wasting time in his hotel room in New York. In Moonraker, Bond finds a half a bottle of Haig & Haig in the villain’s desk and drains it with Gala Brandt. You know, to prepare for the harrowing life-or-death mission ahead. The Dimple also makes appearances in Goldfinger, the short story The Living Daylights, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Marc-Ange Draco drinks Pinch when he meets 007. Draco is one of the Bond associates for whom Fleming had the most affection (note his “warm, dry handshake,” a sure sign of trustworthiness in any Bond novel), so having him prefer Pinch is a glowing endorsement.
Bond in Black and White
Bond also proves fond of Black & White, a blended scotch whiskey that traces its beginnings to the 1880s. It was an offshoot of London-based whiskey makers James Buchanan and Company’s Buchanan Blend and was originally known as House of Commons. Buchanan was actually born in Canada, lived in Scotland, and was raised in Northern Ireland. He got into the whiskey business through his brother’s grain company, and after picking up experience, became a London agent for whiskey blenders Charles Mackinlay & Co. He set up his own company five years later, acquiring casks of whiskey for private clients.
He soon noticed that the bulk of the product available on the market did not appeal to the London palette. He set out to create a blend that would find purchase among the denizens of the big city. The result was House of Commons, deriving its name from one of Buchanan’s biggest booze clients, the British House of Commons. However, the distinctive packaging—a black bottle with a white label depicting a Scottish Terrier and white Westhighland Terrier—eventually became so recognizable that the whiskey changed its name to Black & White. Buchanan pushed Black & White into other markets: France, Germany, Canada, The United States, New Zealand and South Africa. He established satellite offices in Paris, New York, Hamburg and Buenos Aires. He used the money from his success to purchase several Scottish distilleries, including the lowland distillery Bankier and the highland distillery Convalmore. He built his own distillery, Glentauchers, at Mullben in 1898 and later acquired the Campbeltown Distillery Lochruan.
Buchanan, like many distillers, ran into hard times because of Prohibition. The industry was already in turmoil. Many distilleries were going out of business, so distillers began forming coalitions. Chief among these was the Distillers Company, Ltd. (DCL). Buchanan and some associates formed their own Scotch Whisky Brands, Ltd. in 1915. When, on top of that, Prohibition began across the Atlantic, things got dire. After a merger in 1919, Buchanan’s coalition changed its name to Buchanan-Dewar’s. Eventually, “Buchanan” was dropped. Dewar’s became part of the DCL family. Black & White changed hands a couple more times, passing for a time to Guinness before finding its way to its current home under the globe-encompassing umbrella of spirits megalith Diageo, which it turns out is actually controlled by SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Stavros Blofeld (citation needed).
Bond drinks his first Black & White in the novel Moonraker, when he stops in at a Dover pub called World Without Want to investigate the murder of a Ministry of Supply security officer. He also enjoys a Black & White in the movie Dr. No when he, Leiter, and Quarrel are having a post-dinner round before they confront a mysterious female photographer trying to snap their pictures.
Starting in the Pierce Brosnan era of movies, single malts started making appearances, first int he form of Talisker and, in the Craig era, Macallan. Additionally, the movies finally started tapping into that spirit that truly captured 007’s heart: bourbon. And that is another tale.
As a body of work, albums made to cash in on the popularity of James Bond movies and spy shows are generally regarded as “disposable,” something a group of studio musicians would throw together to earn some easy money. And while that may indeed have been the motivation more times than not, you can’t blame an artist for earning some cash, and you’ll frequently discover that talented musicians are talented musicians no matter how throw-away the project. But you’ll also discover that there are, after you do some digging, some genuinely strange histories attached to what might otherwise be pretty run-of-the-mill collections of Bond theme covers. For example, a record of James Bond surf and exotica tunes involving trippy jazz legend Sun Ra and members of Blood Sweat and Tears.
When I was selecting the line-up for a follow-up article about 007 cash-in albums, I didn’t expect to find the stories I found. But here we are, with records full of interesting music arranged by, for example, one of the most accomplished session guitarists in Hollywood, who worked with Nancy Sinatra; the son of a bandleader who worked at a restaurant where he likely performed for the Queen of England, Ian Fleming, and a playboy spy from WWII who inspired the plot of Casino Royale; or a truly nutty go-go pop record by an Austrian Jew who was arrested for being a German spy before being cleared…and becoming a British spy. And then there’s big band legend Count Basie, and his curious connection to Monty Norman and Dr. No.
So put on the headphones and prepare yourself for another swinging, occasionally baffling journey through James Bond themed records.
Billy Strange The Secret Agent File (1965) James Bond Double Feature (1967)
Billy Strange was, among other things, a guitarist for the famed collection of studio musicians that became known as the Wrecking Crew. If you’ve never heard about them, I suggest you do a bit of reading, because the story is fascinating, and a sobering look at how the music industry works (in short: many of the greatest groups in music history played their own instruments a lot less on albums than they’d like you to know). In addition, Strange worked with Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, and arranged the non-soundtrack version of Nancy’s You Only Live Twice theme, which adds a pretty amazing layer of bombast to the song. He’s also the guy playing guitar on her melancholy hit, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” and did the arrangements for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” He’s the guy playing guitar on the theme from the TV shows The Munsters and Batman. He worked with everyone from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys to Willie Nelson. So…by no means some fly-by-night musician. Strange was the real deal.
Obviously, a Strange album of James Bond music is going to lean heavy into the guitar. The first of two Bond cash-ins for him, The Secret Agent File starts with a banger of a version of the Thunderball theme (the movie was released the same year as this album), full of twanging surf guitar and macho brass. That’s followed by a moody rendition of “A Man Alone,” the theme from the stellar Michael Caine spy film, The IPCRESS File. Strange delivers most of the hits you will come to expect from a James Bond inspired album, including great versions of I Spy, The Man from UNCLE, Get Smart, Our Man Flint, and a moody arrangement of the theme from the bleak The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, based on the grim John Le Carre novel. There’s also top-notch versions of the James Bond theme; the nigh-ubiquitous “007 Theme” that manages to stand out from the pack and is very Ventures-esque (makes sense—Strange worked with the Ventures) and then figures what the hell, why not throw in some burlesque beat R&B sax; and the similarly ubiquitous Goldfinger theme.
Strange’s second foray into spy movie music, James Bond Double Feature, is more varied, both in content and style. While it’s unfortunate that we don’t get his version of You Only Live Twice with Nancy (you can find that on the Nancy Sinatra retrospective Lightning’s Girl: Greatest Hits 1965-1971), we do get quite a lot, though not a lot of James Bond. The album fulfills the letter of the title, if not the spirit, and presents two Bond theme covers, one for You Only Live Twice and the other for Casino Royale, both released the same year as this album. Both are quite good. The rest of the album is also good, despite the lack of any more 007 music. Strange shows his mastery of a number of styles, turning in everything from Ennio Morricone numbers (the theme from For a Few Dollars More) to breezy lounge pop (The Summer Scene, the theme from Alfie), and a pretty great version of theme from In Like Flint. So, while it may be light in the James Bond music department, this is still a good album to pick up, especially if you’re a fan of twangy surf-meets-spaghetti western guitar.
The Chaquito Big Band Spies And Dolls (1972)
Coming out in 1972, this Bond cash-in from Chaquito Big Band takes full advantage of the musical styles that had become popular by then. Lots of wah-wah guitar, Hammond organs, rapid fire percussion, and the sort of big brass and strings you were getting in everything from Isaac Hayes to the music from Enter the Dragon to big hit cop TV shows. The Chaquito of the group’s name was British composer Johnny Gregory, who among other accomplishments, led the storied BBC Radio Orchestra for nearly two decades. He came from a musical family, with a father who led a dance band at London’s legendary Italian restaurant, Quaglino’s. Apart from being a hot spot for British aristocracy (including Queen Elizabeth herself, who became the first reigning British monarch to dine at a public restaurant when she dropped by in 1953), Quaglino’s has a few important stamps on its James Bond and espionage history passport. Ian Fleming dined at Quaglino’s with Maud Russell, an American ant-fascist activist and, for a time, Ian’s lover. The two spent dinner arguing over politics, most likely having to do with Ian being at the time, like many upper-class Brits, in favor of appeasement rather than war with up-and-coming dictator Adolf Hitler.
Quaglino’s was also the restaurant that MI5 operative Major Thomas Robertson, who specialized in double agents, chose to influence a potential important asset: Agent Tricycle, aka Dusan “Dusko” Popov.* Popov would eventually be chaperoned at a Lisbon casino by young Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who watched with awe as playboy spy Popov used the money given to him by the British government to bankrupt Nazi after Nazi at the gambling tables. Popov’s brash actions made such an impact on Fleming that he eventually used the night as the basis for the plot of his first novel, Casino Royale. Later in life, when asked what it felt like to be one of the primary models upon which Fleming based James Bond, Popov, in a move as cool as 007, brushed it off, claiming (perhaps rightly) that his own life was far more exciting than Bond’s.
Johnny Gregory’s father, Frank Gregori, would likely have been the band leader at Quaglino’s while all of this was going on, and since young Johnny worked in the band for a time as a violinist, it’s even possible he performed for some point for Ian Fleming or Dusko Popov. True to his background in pop, dance bands, and scoring, the Chaquito Big Band’s contribution to the world of Bond cash-ins, is big and bold and very early 1970s. It starts out with a truly blistering rendition of the theme from the Sidney Poitier film They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, followed by a number of other ace arrangements of movie themes, including The Anderson Tapes, The French Connection, Our Man Flint, Bullit, and Shaft. There’s also some good original compositions. What there isn’t weirdly, are any James Bond themes. However, don’t let that sour you on this album. Chaquito Big Band delivers a high-energy album that bridges some gaps between the purer John Barry sound of the 1960s and the more groove-oriented sound of the 1970s.
Count Basie Basie Meets Bond (1966)
While a lot of accomplished musicians recorded albums of James Bond and spy movie music, most of them were big names behind the scenes, as talented arrangers and session musicians. But there’s no bigger name in the field known to the public than jazz pioneer Count Basie, who in 1966 decided to make a few extra dollars by committing his band to dashing off some disposable but well-executed spy anthems. Not surprisingly, of all the albums so far featured in these world tours, this is the one that skirts the closest to pure swinging jazz and big band, though it also remains modern and in touch with the John Barry style. Also not surprisingly, it didn’t fall on particularly receptive ears when jazz fans at the time, attracted by Basie’s name, gave the LP a spin and found it mostly to be a skippable cash grab. In subsequent years, it’s been reassessed, and generally gets more complimentary reviews.
Well, cash grab it may have been, but it’s still a pretty great album. The Count draws music from the first four 007 films (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball) and concentrates particularly on music from Dr. No, which gives him an excuse to flex some calypso muscle. In fact, the messy story of the Dr. No soundtrack directly involves Count Basie and a song on Basie Meets Bond, “Dr. No’s Fantasy” (of which the album contains two versions). When Monty Norman, officially the composer for the movie’s soundtrack (the bad blood between he and John Barry, especially over what would become the well-known James Bond theme, was the stuff of multiple lawsuits), was in Jamaica doing research alongside Island Records founder (and eventual owner of Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home, Goldeneye), he met up with Basie. Norman was struggling to nail the film’s signature theme, and Basie was interested in Norman’s Dr. No music, so Monty sent the Count some of his ideas. What Basie came up with and pitched back to Norman as a possible theme for the movie was “Dr. No’s Fantasy.” In the end, it was judged not “sinister” enough to serve as James Bond’s theme, though a version appears on the re-issued Dr. No Soundtrack and Basie’s two versions appear on Basie Meets Bond.
Given his connection, however tangential, to Dr. No, it’s no surprise that Basie would explore other tracks from that film, including arrangements of “Kingston Calypso” and the movie’s signature tune, “Underneath the Mango Tree.” Monty Norman’s life probably would have been easier if they’d gone with Basie’s proposed theme. Beyond the Dr. No songs, Basie and his band deliver breezy versions of themes from the subsequent three Bond films, as well as the inescapable “007 Theme” and, of course, a swingy, loungy version of the James Bond theme. Is it an essential album for Basie or harder-core jazz fans? I doubt it. But for aficionados of Bond music and some of the more esoteric pieces of James Bond history, Basie Meets Bond is a worthwhile curiosity with some fun, undemanding music with a twisty direct connection to official James Bond music.
Ray Martin and His Orchestra Goldfinger and Other Music From James Bond Thrillers (1965) Thunderball and Other Thriller Music (1965)
Ray Martin was a Austrian-British orchestra leader who made a name for himself as a dependable composer of “light” music. Wasting no time (notby choice) in establishing his espionage bona fides, he immigrated to England from Austria in 1938 and was promptly placed under suspicion of being a Nazi spy (even though he was Jewish). He was interned as a prisoner of war and sent to Australia, where he was held until 1941. Upon his release, he apparently bore no ill will toward the new home that had tossed him in a prison camp, because he promptly joined the Army. He worked for six years in British Intelligence and, in his spare time, he was an arranger and composer for the Royal Air Force Band, and he somehow mounted an operation to rescue his brother, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. If that doesn’t qualify a man to dash off a couple albums of James Bond and spy movie music, then nothing does.
The first of his two Bond albums, Goldfinger and Other Music From James Bond Thrillers opens with…you guessed it the theme from Goldfinger yet again. However, for a change, this version brings something new to that well-worn territory. Martin’s arrangement nails the brassy John Barry sound, but he gives it a little something extra by adding female vocals either sighing wordlessly or belting occasional lyrics from the original. No Shirley Bassey, these ladies, but they give the song a very mod, pop sensibility. After so many versions of this particular theme, it’s a joy to hear one that makes you take notice. The ladies stick around for most of the tracks, taking on, among other things, a vocal rendition of the guitar parts in the James Bond theme, which Martin really jazzes up. Because not only did the song need ghostly female vocals, it also needed a sax solo. Similar goosing is done to most of the song, including the theme from From Russia with Love and the one song other than Goldfinger and the Bond theme that might be the most ubiquitous, “007 Theme,” and even that Ray and the gang turn into something new. Every song is infused with go-go boots and miniskirts energy, much poppier than jazzy most of the time but always exciting and unique among Bond cash-ins. It’s one of my favorite of all of these albums.
He brings along the girls, the sax, and the gusto for his second Bond album, Thunderball and Other Thriller Music, anchored by a spectacular, fast-paced version of the Thunderball theme and delving into more non-Bond material, including a breezy arrangement of the theme from The Knack…And How to Get It, a version of “A Man Alone” from The IPCRESS File that could almost fool you into thinking the movie isn’t depressing, and similarly lunatic go-go pop versions of The Man from UNCLE, the Bond track “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Honey West, and more. Both of these Ray Martin albums are absolute joys. They are just…delirious. Beautifully, energetically delirious, like someone took John Barry, Esquivel, Lulu, Bruno Nicolai, Al Caiola, and a drive down the Amalfi Coast in a convertible MG and threw them all into a blender.
* Want to know more about the wild story of Ian Fleming and Dusko Popov? Well, I just happen to have written a book, Cocktails and Capers, that has a chapter dedicated to the story, with special guest appearances by Mussolini, Lucky Luciano, and a bunch of cocktail recipes.
James Bond cash-in albums will return in… Goldsinger: Now Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi!
Diving Into the World of James Bond Cash-In Albums
There are many elements that go into making and so have become defining factors of James Bond films: the clothes, the cars, the exotic locations, the drinks, the attitude—and of course, the music. James Bond without John Barry and Monty Norman’s instantly identifiable guitar and big brass theme might as well be that guy from Agent for H.A.R.M. John Barry’s work on the Bond films created the audio template in which all future Bond composers would operate. Even the ones who synth and disco’d things up in the 1970s and ’80s still colored within the lines of Barry’s style. As Never Say Never Again illustrated, James Bond without the James Bond sound was awkward.
When the Bond films proved runaway successes in the 1960s, hundreds of movies were made in dozens of countries, all looking to cash in on the same basic formula, and each of those movies needed music. What they came up with, often composed by exceptionally talented and creative artists, was usually breezy, swinging ’60s style cocktail lounge music laced with the occasional twangy guitar. Outside of film scores, there was an equally lucrative cash-in industry of record labels releasing Bond and spy-themed albums not connected to any actual movie—at least not officially.
Most of these albums were disposably enjoyable, offering nondescript but professionally competent renditions of popular Bond theme songs, as well as music from assorted espionage television shows. Some also mixed in original compositions done in the style of Bond music, and more than a few threw a half-assed rendition of a Bond theme song onto an album full of otherwise unrelated-to-spy-stuff easy listening tunes so they could justify calling the album Music to Thrill By or something and putting a picture of a guy with a Walther PPK on the cover.
There were a number of pretty great cash-in albums and cash-in composers sprinkled through the trend, the biggest of whom happens to have also gotten the closest to actually working on a James Bond film…even if it was 1967’s Casino Royale.
Roland Shaw: The Man with the Golden Horns
Towering above all other Bond cash-in album composers was Britain’s Roland Shaw, an accomplished musician who attended the Trinity College of Music and served in the Royal Air Force in World War II, where he lead the RAF No. 1 Band of the Middle East Forces. Shaw released a series of James Bond cash-in records that featured arrangements of 007 themes and background music that were often just as good as the originals, and in some cases, perhaps even better. His willingness to delve into the library of background music is what set Shaw apart from his contemporaries, most of whom were happy to simply churn out a thousand different covers of the themes from Goldfinger and Thunderball.
Recording for Decca between 1966 and 1971, Shaw and his orchestra released several James Bond themed albums, as well as one album of more general spy themes. Keeping the albums straight can be a chore, as in the true spirit of cash-in albums, they were re-released multiple times, often with different names and covers. Plus, Shaw’s previous releases were frequently reassembled by producers into wholly different albums. But the following run-down should cover the additions you need to make to your smooth spy lounge soundtrack.
Themes From The James Bond Thrillers (1964) Shaw’s first foray into the world of all-007 music sets the tone for all of Shaw’s subsequent albums. It’s a mix of main themes (From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and the James Bond Theme and other notable cues from From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Dr. No. Most of the best songs on this collection would pop up on later Roland Shaw albums, but a couple — “Dr. No’s Fantasy” (from Dr. No), “Leila Dances,” and “The Golden Horn” (both from From Russia with Love) — I haven’t found on any other album but this one. Shaw’s arrangement of “007” is, in my opinion, even better than the John Barry original.
More Themes From James Bond Thrillers (1965) Shaw’s follow-up to his first album of Bond music is another great one, partly because it sticks almost entirely to more obscure tracks and background music. There’s the obligatory arrangement of the theme from the latest Bond movie (Thunderball, with no one bothering to attempt a recreation of Tom Jones’ vocal bravado), but after that, Shaw shies away from themes and instead serves up great takes on the rest of what James Bond music has to offer: a few tracks from Dr. No (including a cover of “Underneath the Mango Tree” that has the first appearance of vocals on a Roland Shaw spy music album), From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger. There’s not as much that’s as “iconic” on this album, though once again it’s very good and serves to create a more complete universe of James Bond music.
Themes From The James Bond Thrillers, Vol. 03 (1966) This third volume of Bond music kicks off with a vocal version of the theme from You Only Live Twice. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this version is superior to the Nancy Sinatra original, it’s still an great version. The rest of it is pretty good as well, once again leaning heavily on music other than the themes — though you do get arrangements of the themes from 1967’s Casino Royale (both the Herp Alpert song and Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” with vocals that obviously can’t match Dusty) and Thunderball, just in case you didn’t have enough versions of the theme from Thunderball. The rest of the tracks are cues taken from Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Casino Royale, From Russia with Love, and one more from Dr. No. All good stuff, but the theme from You Only Live Twice makes this one essential.
Themes for Secret Agents (1966) This collection of brassy, bombastic themes ranges outside the James Bond canon and includes arrangements of music from The Man from UNCLE, The Saint, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Our Man Flint, I Spy, The Avengers, and The IPCRESS File. There are still several Bond themes, including “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and the themes from Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Thunderball, and of course the James Bond theme. Shaw keeps things fast paced and upbeat. In particular, I love his versions of The Avengers theme, From Russia with Love, and “The James Bond Theme”—that last one will make you feel like going out and getting in a speed boat chase or leaping from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of some dastardly assassin.
The Return Of James Bond In Diamonds Are Forever…And Other Secret Agent Themes (1971) This is a spectacular sampler of Roland’s work, sticking primarily to main themes rather than highlighting lesser-covered tracks. Released in 1971, it repackages many of Shaw’s arrangements of the Bond themes and combines them with other spy movie and TV themes featured on other albums. New for this album are superb renditions of the themes from Diamonds are Forever and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as well as the song “Let the Love Come Through,” which Shaw originally wrote for the 1967 James Bond send-up, Casino Royale. Those three tracks make this album worth the repeated material, but you also get Mission: Impossible, Peter Gunn, and Wednesday’s Child. The orchestra’s “Diamonds are Forever Reprise” decides that nothing jazzes up a song quite like adding a bunch of funky wah-wah guitars.
And They Strike…!
There were a lot of other great albums made to cash in on the popularity of music from the James Bond movies. There were even more passable but forgettable albums, and more than one or two terrible ones. And then there were a few that were, for one reason or another, completely weird. A lot of the people working in the field of cash-in albums were legitimately talented musicians, so the urge to tweak the formula and get a little bonkers must have been overwhelming.
While by no means the “weirdest,” here are some of my favorite variations on the spy lounge theme.
Cheltenham Orchestra & Chorus Songs from Goldfinger (1964) If you have at least a passing familiarity with cocktail lounge music, you’ve probably run across the New Classic Singers and their version of “Call Me.” Even if you don’t know them, you know the sound, because it’s the very typical lounge sound you’d think of: lots of strings, and a chorus hitting you with lots of “zu zu zu wow!” singing. If you can imagine that sort of lounge pop choral group doing Bond themes, then you can begin to grasp this record. Four songs isn’t really enough, but then again, maybe it is, because at just four tracks, it manages to be entertaining and even charming without the novelty wearing thin. Three of the songs are Bond themes: From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and the “James Bond Theme,” which is a pretty small offering of Goldfinger songs for an album called Songs from Goldfinger. The fourth is a track with the rolls-off-the-tongue title of “Theme For Guitar – Fran – Chucks Monster – Riff – Funky.” It’s a little…you don’t want to call this sort of bubblegum cocktail pop “edgy,” but let’s just say it eschews the soothing singers in favor of electric guitars, wild drums, and a sax player who apparently wandered in from a 1960s burlesque club.
David Lloyd & His London Orchestra Confidential: Sounds For A Secret Agent (1965) The thing that makes this album weird isn’t the arrangement or style of the music. It’s pretty straight forward cocktail stuff. No, it’s the fact that almost all of these “themes” are original pieces. You should be clued in almost immediately by the fact that the album features themes based on Bond stories that wouldn’t be made into movies for years yet. So what you have, then, are original themes written by David Lloyd for the Ian Fleming books, though a few movie themes make it in. Just in case you didn’t already have 10,000 versions of Goldfinger, you get another one here, and it’s pretty good. Also, you probably needed one more version of “007” from From Russia With Love, so here you go. Lloyd’s arrangement of the From Russia With Love theme is nice, with a lot of strings and even an accordion because, well, why the hell not? It’s like a version you’d here by a band of talented French musicians pestering you outside a cafe while you’re waiting to exchange microfilm with a beautiful Eastern European spy. After those selections, and the obligatory “James Bond Theme,” you get into the original stuff. While I can’t say any of it is overly memorable, it’s all decent, and if nothing else, it’s fun to hear what Lloyd imagined as the theme songs then compare it to what became the theme song for the eventual movie. John Barry’s job was never in jeopardy, but I like most of Lloyd’s concepts.
Harry Roche Constellation Casino Royale & Other Hip Sounds (1967) First of all, the fact that they refer to their songs as “hip,” even when it was hip to call things hip, means that you’re pretty much guaranteed something decidedly unhip. That said, this album opens with a decently danceable arrangement of “Strangers in the Night” that would play well if you’re looking to take a slightly tipsy dame in a “just a little bit too short” black cocktail dress onto the dance floor at a decent hotel bar. That song sets the mood for the rest of the album: hardly hip, but perfectly serviceable for a boozy night of cocktails in the lounge. Despite invoking the name of Casino Royale, there’s little in the way of Bond or other spy themes. You get a decent instrumental version of “The Look of Love.” The Constellation also turns in a fair enough rendition of the Tijuana Brass’ Casino Royale theme, this time with female vocals. The rest of the album is cocktail lounge standards. If you’re looking for spy anthems, you won’t really find them here, but if you’re in the mood for an undemanding collection of easy listening tunes that are, true to the genre, easy to listen to as background music, then you’re in pretty safe territory here.
The “Sleepwalk” Guitars Of Dan & Dale Theme From Thunderball And Other Themes (1965) Other than the Roland Shaw albums mentioned above, if you were to seek out one James Bond cash-in album, it should be this one, because not only is the music pretty oddball, it has by far the most interesting backstory. Dan and Dale was a studio-only group made up of guitarists Danny Kalb and Steve Katz of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Backing them up on organ, sax and other instruments were ultra-outre avant garde jazz musicians Sun Ra, Al Kooper, and other players from Sun Ra’s bizarre Solar Arkestra. Sun Ra and the Arkestra are best-known for discordant free jazz heavily influenced by Sun Ra’s personal mythology about space aliens, alternate dimensions, ancient Egypt, and Black empowerment. However, they were adept at a wide range of styles, so it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds to hear them earning a paycheck playing on album of James Bond covers and original spy-inspired compositions.
Everything here is a winner, leaning very heavy into the surf guitar sound that would become increasingly identified with espionage movies. There’s also more than a little exotica and Polynesian pop in the mix. Never has the “Spectre Theme” made the amoral organization seem so languid and ready for a luau. But then it gets stranger, because in 2021, the record was released as an mp3 album, but with a near-totally different line-up of songs. Except they’re not different songs; they’ve just been retitled by…who exactly is even responsible for the mp3 version (which is available through Amazon)? No idea, but by any name the songs are supremely weird and amazing.
James Bond cash-in albums will return in… You Only Listen Twice: Further Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi!
If you walked into Harry’s New York Bar in 1927, which as you know was and remains in Paris, then undoubtedly the biggest celebrity you were likely to run into was Ernest Hemingway, fresh of the critical and financial success of his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, published the previous year. But while he was the brightest star at Harry’s, Hemingway was by no means a man alone. Harry MacElhone, the Harry in the name of the joint, was a celebrity in his own right. MacElhone was a Scotsman whose influential fingerprints were on several of the era’s most iconic bars — Ciro’s in London, the Plaza Hotel in New York, and most notably, the Paris watering hole that still bears his name. MacElhone wrote a number of cocktail books throughout his storied career, including 1927’s Barflies and Cocktails (still in print), in which appears the recipe for a cocktail called the Boulevardier.
The recipe for the Boulevardier appears in a section called “Cocktails Round Town,” attributed to Arthur Moss. Moss was a writer, wit, and among a trio of wealthy American ex-pats who founded a magazine called Boulevardier — a boulevardier being someone who prowled the Parisian boulevards in search of revelry. The magazine did poorly, but it was high enough profile to attract submissions from the likes of Ernest Hemingway.
Moss was a regular at Harry’s, and when it came time for MacElhone to compile a book, he enlisted Arthur’s help. For his section, Moss profiles a rogues’ gallery of boulevardiers who called Harry’s home, each one paired with a signature cocktail. Among the barflies he included was a gadabout scion of the Vanderbilt family named Erskine Gwynne, who also happened to be another of the founders of Boulevardier. So it made sense that Gwynne’s cocktail would be called the Boulevardier. As Moss writes:
“Now is the time for all good Barflies to come to the aid of the party, since Erskinne Gwynne crashed in with his Boulevardier Cocktail; 1/3 Campari, 1/3 Italian vermouth, 1/3 Bourbon whisky.”
If you are familiar with a Negroni, then you will recognize the similarity between it and the Boulevardier, which is often shorthanded in descriptions as “a whiskey Negroni.” That’s a bit like saying a Manhattan is a whiskey Martini. Compared to a Negroni, the Boulevardier is a richer drink, the bourbon lending a velvet touch where gin adds a bright botanical flavor.
A Dash of Mad Science
Author and historian Gary Regan wrote in The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vitathat one of the best things about the Negroni is its versatility. The classic recipe is exceptional, but it lends itself to endless experimentation. That’s probably how the Boulevardier was struck upon in the first place. And that is one way in which the Negroni and the Boulevardier are very similar. It begs to be tinkered with — different whiskies, different vermouths, a few drops of orange bitters, altered ratios. Heck, even Harry MacElhone wasn’t 100% on the recipe. In another of his books, Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, he lists the Boulevardier as being made with Canadian Club. This was 1927, after all. After seven years of Prohibition (and an era that was much less fussy about categorization), it stands to reason that pickings were slim.
So who knows what Harry (or Erskine Gwynne) was using when he made the drink? Toby Cecchini, one of the owners of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar, where the Boulevardier is the house cocktail, prefers rye to bourbon. There are also options for how you serve it — straight up in a coupe glass, or on the rocks in an old-fashioned tumbler. But rather than wander pointlessly into the weeds, these variables should be embraced. Heck, Cecchini also suggests replacing the vermouth with Cynar or Braulio, and splits the rye into two styles — Rittenhouse (bonded, 100 proof) and the softer Old Overholt.
Not only is the Boulevardier easy to make, even for a novice, it’s also easy to play with.
Boulevardier: The Harry MacElhone Way
1 oz bourbon
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz Campari
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
For the bourbon, I had a mysterious bottle of 80-proof Mark Twain purchased in 2009 or 2010, produced apparently by Heaven Hill. It’s a serviceable 36-month-old bourbon that succeeds at being everything you think a decent bourbon should be while offering no surprises. For the sweet vermouth, Carpano Antica Formula, because I had a 2/3 empty bottle in need of finishing. And also because it’s lovely. You can disagree, but I feel like using “whatever is handy” is a pretty authentic way to create an old-school cocktail experience. For the Campari, I chose Campari. Because it’s Campari. When you need Campari, it’s hard to beat Campari.
This first attempt was a pretty good drink… but it wasn’t quite there. The relatively tame Mark Twain, at 80 proof, just wasn’t assertive enough to play with the bold, passionate Italians, all belting out “Funiculì, funiculà!” at the top of their lungs and drowning out the bourbon’s high lonesome bluegrass. A bolder, higher-proof bourbon might be less of a pushover, but if I was going to go bold, then I figured It was time to take Toby Cecchini’s advice and use rye.
Try the Rye
I used a 90-proof Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye. I also decided to be true to myself and make this one in a rocks glass with ice. It’s just how I like ’em. Now this was a really good drink. The rye spice and higher proof match the vermouth and Campari blow for blow, then they all go staggering off down the cobblestone street, arm in arm, best friends for life.
An American (and a Scotsman) in Paris
Wanting to pay tribute to the Boulevardier’s French roots, and not having to wake up early the next morning, I tried a third variation using Brenne French Single Malt Whisky, a spirit made in France, finished in ex-Cognac barrels, and turned into a brand by American Allison Parc. My bottle of Brenne is of an older generation, bursting with tropical fruit notes. It made for a very interesting, very worthy entry into the sweepstakes.
Not one to leave well enough alone, I started wondering how it would taste with a really bold whiskey. And there, staring at me from a shelf, was a half-full bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, a complex, peaty single malt scotch. “Why not?” I said. After all, MacElhone was a Scotsman. I regret nothing. It was exceptional. Smoky, peaty, bitter, and a little sweet. But just as the bourbon was a little meek, the Ardbeg threatened to bowl over its compatriots in the glass.
But the rye? Like Goldilocks said, the rye was just right (I think that’s how the story goes). If you are looking for a cocktail that will allow you to experiment and almost always succeed, the Boulevardier is a fantastic place to start. I didn’t push the boundaries of my home bartending skills with this one, but I built up some confidence, got pretty good at stirring, and had a quartet of lovely drinks.
Ypotron is a light and airy espionage adventure with sci-fi elements and almost no interest whatsoever in its own plot, so enamored is it instead with low-budget globe-trotting and extremely large hats. Like many Eurospy movies, Ypotron‘s lack of plot can sometimes fool you into thinking it has a really complicated story. A couple of times during the movie, I looked away or was distracted for under thirty seconds. When my attention returned to the film, I found in that very brief amount of time I had become hopelessly lost as to what was going on. However, after I rewound the movie and picked up where my focus flagged, I realized that no, I hadn’t missed anything. The plot just doesn’t care to keep itself front and center, not when it could itself get distracted by bikini girls, gratuitous Riviera type shots, and the donning of futuristic sunglasses.
As was the case with Scorpions and Miniskirts, the opening scene wastes no time in establishing the film’s disdain for logic, and if you can roll with it then you will probably be, like me, rather delighted throughout the movie even while recognizing how sloppy it is. Anyway, a futuristic door slides open to admit our hero, good-looking, rock-jawed Lemmy (or Robby, depending on your dub) Logan (Luis Davila, Mission Stardust, Espionage in Tangiers), to a room across which he slowly stalks whilst clad in a tuxedo and some weird sci-fi eyeglasses. Behind him, a slot opens in the metal wall, the barrel of a machine gun emerges from it…and Logan is mercilessly riddled with bullets.
Of course, he is OK, and it is soon revealed that he was simply helping to test out a new type of bullet-proof vest using the sort of test that would absolutely never, ever make sense. There is nothing about the testing of said vest that would require your top field agent to pretend to sneak around in a room until a hidden assailant cuts him down with live ammunition, but in the world of Ypotron, you will quickly discover that this nonsense is the most sensical of the nonsense with which you are about to be assaulted.
When it comes time to develop some sort of plot, Ypotron goes with the tried and true Eurospy chestnut about a kidnapped scientist with (naturally) a gorgeous young daughter. Said scientist is Professor Morrow (or Leikman, again depending on which version of the movie you have) played by Alfredo Mayo (Mission Bloody Mary, Special Mission Lady Chaplain, Espionage in Lisbon), and his daughter, Jeanne, is played by Gaia Germani (Hercules in the Haunted World, Castle of the Living Dead with Christopher Lee, and the Lemmy Caution film Your Turn, Darling with Eddie Constantine). Logan is assigned to track down the missing scientist, which naturally leads him all over as much of the world (or Europe) as the production can manage to afford. Along the way, he acquires the help of Eurocult staple Janine Reynaud (Two Undercover Angels, Succubus), forever plagued to have movies slather way too much make-up on her face.
After a seemingly endless (but not unwelcome) and ultimately pointless series of twists and turns, the plot leads Logan and Jeanne Morrow to the Sahara, where they discover a rocket base cleverly disguised as, well, a huge rocket launchpad. It turns out the shady SPECTRE-like organization that kidnapped Professor Morrow has designs on ushering in a new era of…oh, you know, the usual really vague and ill-conceived villain notions of what they’ll do after they hold the world hostage. Luckily for Logan and all mankind, they went to the “now I shall bring you into my sanctum sanctorum and explain all my plans to you while not really keeping an eye on you” school of villainy.
Ypotron is a slight film, even by the forgiving standards of the Eurospy genre, but just because it’s slight doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. I am always up for an espionage fantasy that throws a little science fiction into the mix, and although Ypotron doesn’t come close to the crackpot insanity of Operation Atlantis, where the plot is so far-out that I can barely even explain it (suffice to say it has to do with the Chinese building an entire underground Atlantis civilization, complete with wizards in shiny robes, just to cover up a clandestine mining operation), Ypotron still delivers candy-colored confectionery satisfaction. Many Eurospy films suffer from a lack of decent prints in circulation, which means the genre’s stock in trade — exploiting Europe’s many scenic locations — doesn’t come across, and renders cheap films even cheaper looking. Luckily, Ypotron is in relatively good shape, and thus we can indulge in its travelogue footage as Logan trots around in pursuit of the missing scientist. The villain lair may leave a little to be desired — it looks like they set up shop in an old boiler room — but there’s enough on-a-budget jet-setting throughout to keep the film looking more expensive than it actually was.
Luis Davila makes an excellent and handsome square-jawed hero, while Gaia Germani is simply stunning, if largely useless. Jeanine Renault (Kiss Me Monster,Succubus) adds a flash of life on the female side of the equation as a femme fatale, albeit one on the side of the good guys. She’s always a welcome performer. There’s a fair amount of action, and director Giorgio Stegani (who also directed the Eurocrime film The Last Desperate Hours) keeps everything snapping along so that you don’t notice (or barely notice) how silly it all is. It’s a shame he didn’t direct more Eurospy films, or more films in general. Screenwriter Remigio Del Grosso’s script may be slight on plot, but he heaps on the outlandishness to keep things interesting. He was an old hand at this sort of thing, and he wrote a number of highly entertaining movies, including Journey Beneath the Desert, The 300 Spartans, Secret Agent Super Dragon, and the gothic horror classic Mill of the Stone Women. Together, it’s a cast and crew that managed to eke out a mild victory with Ypotron.
It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.
Arjun Rampal plays Aadit Arya, super-duper Army commando and part-time international spy. When evil Kashmiri Muslims hatch a scheme to kidnap the President of India while he is in Switzerland, it’s up to Arya, and for some reason only Arya, to foil the dastardly scheme. You might think that the kidnapping of a country’s president would inspire a slightly more forceful reaction and better security, but I guess the security here is orchestrated by the same people who arranged the security for the transport of weapons-grade plutonium in James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. I also thought by the time of this movie, the whole evil Pakistani/Kashmiri Muslim thing was played out. Didn’t Sunny Deol single-handedly defeat the entire Pakistani army and all radical Muslim terrorists groups simply by staring at them in an intense fashion with a flag waving behind him in slow motion? Years after the fact, however, Rai returns to that seemingly eternal well, though frankly, the whole Kashmiri/Pakistani thing is really little more than window dressing by this point. It doesn’t feel like the movie’s heart is really into it. I reckon they assume you pretty much got the gist of things at this point, so they throw the Kashmiri terrorists in as a way to get the ball rolling without having to explain motivation.
In Switzerland, Arya poses as a reporter and meets the obligatory gorgeous female pop star, Alisha (Priyanka Chopra). Since this is a Bollywood film, we can’t have just one plot. So Alisha is the unwitting drug mule for slick Switzerland-based Indian criminal Sam Hans (Naseeruddin Shah, who steals the film, though that’s no big feat considering the rest of the cast), who works with her handlers to hide the drugs inside musical instruments. Having Alisha in the movie means that we now have our excuse for gratuitous musical numbers, though in all honesty, they’re pretty tame by comparison to many musical numbers. Most of them are just passed off as club performances or video shoots, which is kind of weak even if it is more “realistic.” None of the songs are all that catchy, and the choreography is pretty listless. In an effort to add to the realism, we frequently cut from people who do look hot and are able to dance to people who don’t and can’t. Seeing big hulking gangster henchmen beaming big, goofy smiles and doing that “I can’t really dance” dance is pretty funny, though.
Eventually, we learn that Sam is involved with the terrorists who kidnap the president, but he’s hardly in the scheme for political reasons. And since he’s the coolest character in the film, you can also figure that he’ll be the one with ulterior motives and depth of character that allow for the obligatory “moment of redemption.” There’s another subplot that unveils the fact that someone in the Indian Embassy has betrayed their country as well and is in league with the terrorists. Incidentally, the Indian Embassy in Switzerland is apparently staffed by a number of leggy bombshells in micro-skirts and cleavage-revealing tops.
Naseeruddin Shah seems to be channeling a bit of Gary Oldman crossed with Graham Norton’s wardrobe in his portrayal of Sam Hans. He’s flamboyant but stops just short of scene-chewing or going needlessly over-the-top, though he does wear lots of lavender silk suits and whatnot. Whatever the case, he turns in a good performance made better by the fact that everyone else is pretty bad. The hitman in the long shiny blue trenchcoat is just silly, and he looks sort of like Benny Urquidez mixed with Christian Slater, but with none of the menace such an abomination would actually exude. Our hero Arya is pretty much a non-entity through most of the film. He shows up from time to time to kungfu the crap out of people, but Arjun Rampal really isn’t much of an actor at this point in his career. He looks good, he handles action believably, but his character is thoroughly uninteresting. Villains are always the better and more complex characters, and it takes an actor of tremendous talent or a very good (for the hero) or bad (for the villain) screenwriter to make the hero more interesting than the villain. Compared to Sam Hans, Arya barely even registers. For long stretches of film, you’ll forget that he’s even in it.
Priyanka Chopra has little more to do besides tag along, get captured, and look beautiful. She does all these things well, and also handles most of the movie’s musical numbers. The one that doesn’t involve her is also the only one that isn’t set in a club and grounded in some daft semblance of reality. Upon successfully kidnapping the president, the vile terrorist organization retires to their lair of villainy to celebrate with a musical number that involves a scantily clad woman singing and dancing with a whole cast of bald gay guys in short shorts, combat boots, and chain mail. It’s like these terrorists pack an entire dance troupe of Right Said Fred clones with them. Maybe they should have just unleashed their nightmarish Right Said Fred army on the world. No one would be expecting some Islamic Fundamentalist to stand in front of a camera and broadcast through Al Jazeera that he’s “too sexy for this Jihad!”
But then, this terrorist organization does have a martial arts hitman in a shiny blue trenchcoat, and a squad that drives around Switzerland in generic “mercenary” fatigues, including a woman in camo booty shorts and a halter top. And you thought the revolution was all chadors and guys with scraggly beards. This is by far the battiest musical number, and as such, the best.
There are a couple of things this film does differently than the average Bollywood film, and even the average Bollywood action film. Most noticeable is the more or less complete absence of a romantic subplot. Oh sure Alisha and Arya are going to fall in love, but the film spends hardly any time at all on this. There’s not even a musical montage of them set against the various famous landmarks of the world. No, they simply meet, and then we assume they’re in love because this is a movie and they’re the male and female leads. Some Bollywood films would spend a good hour on a romantic comedy subplot, but Asambhav is content to simply take the well-worn path all action films take, and just say, “Look, they fall in love, OK?” Then it’s on to some kungfu. There’s also precious little comic relief. Arya gets saddled with a comic relief sidekick agent in Switzerland, but his mugging is graciously limited.
Even with all that, the director must have thought that the real star of the film was the director, because he crams every cheap trick and technique he can into the film. It’s like watching distilled essence of 24 mixed with Mission: Impossible, which seems to be this film’s main inspiration, especially since “mission asambhav” translates more or less to “mission impossible.” Or if that’s too good for you, then Mission: Impossible 2. For starters, this film can’t go ten seconds without a split screen. Sometimes, it’s five or six different frames in one shot. And it’s not just in scenes where split screen might heighten the tension or give us an alternate point of view. No, much of the time, it happens when something as mundane as a guy reaching for a tissue is all that’s going on. Need to pick up a pencil? Show three different angles, and make sure one of them is in slow motion with thumping techno music in the background. This movie also loves that thing where you start in slow motion, then the action speeds up to super-hyper fast motion for a second, then goes back to slow motion. Once again, this is used at the drop of a hat, often with no meaning at all. Walking down the street? Why not shoot it slow-hyper-slow? And it’s not like anyone is walking to a fight or anything. They’re just walking down to the mailbox to see if their new issue of India Times has arrived.
There’s also the tendency to have “ghost images” of a person appear, again for no real reason. Rather than augmenting or working with the action in the movie, all these goofy tricks simply distract you. They muddy the waters. They stink of a first-time music video director getting final edit on a feature film, though Rai is not a first-time director. He’s just a bad director. The one thing I will say in his defense, however, is that as far as I remember, there was not a single instance of “bullet time.” And let that be a lesson to all other directors: if bullet time is too tired even for Rajid Rai, who has never seen a stupid editing trick he didn’t like, then it’s really past its prime. So let bullet time go, people. Let it go. Rajit Rai did, and he replaced it with doing four-thousand split screens in one shot.
It’s amazing just how crippling over-direction can be. Asambhav would not be an especially good film even if it had a good director, but Rajid Rai’s relentless over-indulgence really pulls the carpet out from under what was otherwise an unimpressive-but-enjoyable action film. At the same time, I might have been bored if this movie had been competently directed. The sheer insanity exhibited by Rai does, I must admit, turn this film into an absolute disaster, but one that is largely entertaining. I don’t like to pull the “so bad it’s good” card all that often, but it sort of applies here. You have an average film. It’s made awful by an over-indulgent director. But then, it becomes so over-indulgent, so awful, that it comes full circle and manages to be sort of entertaining in a way. It’s by no means much of a recommendation, but it’s the best I can do. The fight scenes are solid but uninspired. The acting is mostly below-average. The musical numbers are largely unengaging. But you know, the whole thing is such a hideous eyesore that it kept me watching.
Plus, Sam Hans was all right. Every single time he shows up on screen, no matter how mundane his appearance, the soundtrack blares with “O Fortuna.” And it can’t bear to stop the song. They thought it was so cool that even when Sam talks, they keep “O Fortuna” rolling, only at a nearly inaudible level. As soon as Sam pauses, the song volume rockets back up, then back down if he speaks again. So Asambhav really has few redeeming features (Naseeruddin Shah’s hamming is the only one I can think of at the moment. Well, that and Priyanka Chopra’s midriff, and that crazy-ass hard gay musical number the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists put on).
It’s a crummy action film with awful direction. It’s a completely soulless, paint-by-numbers action film that could have been churned out by a computer. It’s never thrilling, and the lead male and female character disappear for large swaths of film, and you don’t even notice or care because they were pretty boring anyway. This movie is a total bomb, and that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. Don’t listen to me, because I’m going to tell you to go ahead and see Asambhav. The near universal chorus of bad reviews this movie received are right, and I am wrong. Don’t do it. Why do you even trust me any more? For God’s sake, man, that’s the road to madness!!!
In 1964, James Bond creator and sole author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, passed away. While the future of the movies, which had taken on a life of their own, was not in doubt (at least not for a couple more years, which was when Sean Connery left the series), the novels seemed like they might go to the grave with Fleming. After scrambling around for a way to continue the series, the Fleming estate and its publishing wing, Glidrose, chose acclaimed British novelist and well-known asshole Kingsley Amis to continue the series. Amis, who had previously written some Bond non-fiction and seemed to take the job solely so he could indulge his hatred of the character M, wrote the first post-Fleming Bond novel, 1968’s Colonel Sun. Critically, it was received about as well as one could expect (actually, about as well as any of Fleming’s novels), with common criticisms being that it wasn’t Fleming enough, or that it was too Amis, or it was Amis “writing down.” So on and so forth.
Whatever the case, plans were for Amis to continue, though when one hears some of the ridiculous ideas he had, including killing Bond off with an exploding Martini, one thinks that it was perhaps for the best that these plans fell through. Similarly, plans to hire a series of authors who would all write Bond novels under the same pen name—Robert Markham—never came to fruition. While the Bond franchise flourished on screen, it was dormant throughout the whole of the 1970s in print other than the occasional adaptation based on one of the movies. By 1980, however, with the movies still bringing in massive box office returns, Putnam Publishing—which had acquired the rights to the character from Glidrose Publications—figured it was time to hire someone new to put pen to paper (or probably finger to keys) and start authoring new James Bond novels.
The job fell to John Gardner—no, not that John Gardner; the other John Gardner. The one who didn’t write Grendel. Having grown up with an Anglican priest for a father, and during the war having proved himself not much of a military man (Gardner described himself as “the worst commando in the world”), young John Gardner was prepping for a life in the priesthood when he realized one day that he didn’t believe anything he was studying or preaching. His loss of faith ended any religious aspirations, and Gardner became a drama critic and depressed alcoholic.
By 1964 however, his drinking was under control, and he published his first novel, Spin the Bottle. That same year, he also wrote The Liquidator, his first adventure novel. It tells the story of Boysie Oakes, an icy, calculating, tough-as-nails bruiser who is recruited into the British Secret Service—where Oakes is terrified they will discover he is, in fact, a queasy, weak-kneed coward. The book was written as a response—a negative one, mind you—to the popularity of James Bond. Gardner was not alone in his desire to skewer Bond. A host of authors, including John le Carré, started writing books that were consciously “anti” Bond. le Carré went grim and bleak. Gardner went with humor. He built a fair career for himself as a novelist who didn’t mind dabbling in the world of espionage thrillers.
When it came time to chose an author to continue Ian Fleming’s legacy, the publisher found it difficult to fill the job. Most authors of note did not want to step into the shadow of Ian Fleming and James Bond, feeling that it was either too much cultural baggage to lift or that they were above such material. Eventually, the job was offered to Gardner, who after careful consideration, perhaps figured that this was a way to rectify some of the things he had always thought to be wrong with Bond.
Assuming the mantle of “author of the James Bond novels” was a loaded situation. Fans of Fleming would dissect the pages to see how “Fleming” they were, tolerating no deviation from how they thought Fleming might have written the book. Fans of Gardner would inevitably want to see the author’s style in the story, a new take and new direction for Bond, rather than a man trying to mimic Fleming. And a lot of other people, those who knew James Bond as Sean Connery or Roger Moore, would demand that the new books be like the movies, while others would inevitably complain they were too much like the movies. All of this you could predict would happen before Gardner had even typed his first word.
Expectation and misconception (in retrospect, many of the criticisms that say Gardner’s books aren’t enough like Fleming’s betray a lack of memory regarding Fleming; they are, in fact, remembering traits from the film and projecting them onto Fleming’s books) were only a portion of what Gardner had to deal with. The publisher was understandably protective of Bond and had a number of demands and restrictions. Gardner had to submit outlines for approval. There was a long list of things Bond, M, and the rest of the recurring characters must and must not do (M never curses, for example). And there was, overall, a specific formula and tone to which Gardner had to stick. It was a lot for a creative person to agree to. But agree he did, and in 1981 License Renewed, the first original Bond novel since Colonel Sun, hit the shelves.
License Renewed sets the stage for the entirety of Gardner’s run. They are contemporary stories, rather than being set in the ’50s and ’60s as were Fleming’s (contemporary themselves, for the time they were written). Some minor lip service is paid to Bond being older (he is greying at the temples), but the flow of time has been tweaked, so he’s not that much older (more Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, less Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again). Basically, it is as if the dozen or so years since Colonel Sun happened, but they only took a few years. In that time, a lot has changed for Bond, intelligence services, and the world in general. The 00 section has been disbanded, and Bond finds himself something only a step or two more active than a desk jockey. He’s also switched to low-tar, filtered cigarettes and has traded in his beloved Bentley for a more fuel-efficient Saab 900 Turbo.
The frustrating idleness in which we first reacquaint ourselves with Bond affords Gardner to do one of the things he really wanted to do with the character: show more of his life outside missions and MI6. While it may not sound fun to read several pages of Bond puttering around the house, it’s actually something I found interesting. Granted, it doesn’t last—even I don’t want a Bond book entirely about Bond doing household chores and wondering what’s on television. That’s more of a Harry Palmer thing.
When MI5 (In England, MI6 like the CIA takes care of international affairs, while MI5 is like the FBI and handles domestic incidents) starts to get suspicious about a temperamental, brilliant, disgraced nuclear scientist living in the remote wilds of Scotland, they ask MI6 if they might borrow a man for a bit of work. Partially agreeing, M privately reactivates the 00 section under the name Special Services and assigns it a single agent: James Bond.
After getting a new gun and bedding the assistant armorer (the books never had a Q; they had Major Boothroyd. License Renewed splits the difference, giving us a female assistant to Boothroyd who is irritatingly—extremely irritatingly—referred to as Q’ute), Bond is off on a typically convoluted mission to ingratiate himself with the reclusive, likely mad, billionaire genius Dr. Anton Murik, Laird of Murcaldy, though his lordship is highly suspect (I guess Gardner read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). To figure out what it is Murik is planning, and why he seems to be consorting with known terrorist mastermind Franco, Bond sells himself as a mercenary looking for work. Despite being on the verge of a major terrorist plot that will shake the world, Murik doesn’t seem especially suspicious when a stranger shows up out of the blue at a horse race looking for work that would make him privy to all of the doctor’s secret machinations. Helping Bond out along the way is the forgettable Lavender Peacock as Murik’s niece, the first in a long line of terrible female characters written by John Gardner. And I mean terrible. Almost incomprehensibly terrible. If female representation is important to you (it is to me), you’ll find yourself thinking even Ian Fleming was better at writing women.
I went into this book pretty excited and prone to liking it. I knew that it and all of the Gardner Bond books received lukewarm receptions, but that didn’t matter to me. Unfortunately, “lukewarm” is a pretty apt description of License Renewed. I understand the restrictions under which Gardner had to labor, and I understand what he was trying to do, but License Renewed never comes together. It feels like a promising draft but not a final novel. It’s not the usual things that are cited that bug me. I don’t mind that John Gardner isn’t Ian Fleming. This is a different author writing the same character in a different era. It shouldn’t read like a Fleming imitation. In fact, the whole “he’s not like Ian Fleming!” criticism rings false. His style is close—mechanically, if not quite in spirit—and like I said, before his death, Fleming’s style was often as savaged by critics as was Gardner’s.
What does irk me, and this may be purely an “in retrospect” effect because I am reading this book in now instead of 1980, is the late ’70s cheeseball factor that creeps in. Gardner’s handling of “sexy banter” between Bond and the three main female characters—Q’ute (oh God, how I loathe that nickname), Lavender Peacock (itself a pretty dumb name), and Murik’s mistress, Mary Jane Mashkin—is dreadful. I would say it’s only worthy of Roger Moore’s Bond at his worst, but that would be selling Moore short. Bond operates with all the cool of a middle-aged lounge lizard with new hair plugs working divorcees at the bar in one of Reno’s less popular casinos. The double entendres and sex talk are less James Bond, more Dean Martin as Matt Helm. I groaned aloud several times (which I’m sure Gardner’s Bond would have used as occasion for another lame double entendre), but never so often as I did during the ridiculous “assembling the gun” scene between Bond and Q’u…oh, let’s just call her Ann.
The primarily plot, in which Murik wants to hold the world blackmail by sending terrorists out to take over nuclear power plants, is a bit on the far-fetched side, but not unbelievably so. Within the world of James Bond, it’s perfectly passable as a mad scheme. Murik is a decent villain with the usual Bond villain shortcomings, and his henchman is…well, he’s just muscle. Like Red Grant without any of the interesting back story or character motivation. The secondary plot, about Murik’s fake lordship and the true heir to the Lairdship of Murcaldy, is inconsequential for most of the book.
Bond himself is about the same character as when last we saw him, except for the sub-Roger Moore sex quips. Complaints that this Bond is a little more wishy-washy, a little more unsure of himself, are again remembering Sean Connery more than the books, where Bond was frequently conflicted and, frankly, a bit over-emotional and even panicked from time to time. Lavender Peacock exists primarily so Bond has someone to bed, someone to assist him, and someone who can constantly say, “Oh James, you will protect me, won’t you?”
Gardner can’t write women, but he does write action well. Bond’s initial stalking of Murik’s remote castle, a car chase in the dead of night, and the finale on board a cargo plane are all fun. Once again, we have a villain who for no believable reason keeps Bond alive and brings him along to where he can muck things up, but I reckon that’s just one of the things you have to roll with, like Bond always getting captured.
Overall the book is as about as good as Casino Royale and about as flawed, though in different ways. For the most part, I enjoyed it just enough not to mind the flaws. License Renewed is not the sort of book I would go to war for. If you were bored by it or actively hated it, I would understand, but I thought it was perfectly acceptable. If you, like me, are interested to see where Bond would go after Fleming (and Amis) now that it was the 1980s, then License Renewed isn’t going to let you down, but it’s not really going to excite you either.
The official books that continue the adventures of James Bond beyond those written by Ian Fleming constitute a long, occasionally rewarding, often perilous minefield of reading material. For every success in the series, there is a scene of…oh I don’t know. James Bond visiting Euro Disney. Or James Bond sitting down at University of Texas student party hang-out Chuy’s to eat out of plastic basket while slurping flavored frozen margaritas. Which is to say that being “better” than most sanctioned 007 adventures is something of a loaded compliment. Apart from these official books, there has been of late a bit of a cottage industry in spin-off Bond adventures, from the semi-official “Young Bond” series to books that recast Ian Fleming himself as a secret agent. One of the earlier examples of these “expanded universe” type books was The Moneypenny Diaries (later subtitled Guardian Angel, after two more books were added to turn it into a series) by Samantha Weinberg, writing under the pseudonym Kate Westbrook. Framed as excerpts from the secret diary of Jane “Miss” Moneypenny, it’s a surprisingly complex, bittersweet, even realistic (within limits) alternate view of James Bond, as well as a meditation on the politics of the 1960s and the impact of Bond’s lifestyle and attitude on those around him — especially the women. It’s also a damn sight better than most of the official Bond continuation novels.
Moneypenny is one of the most interesting characters in the Bond franchise because she is one of the least interesting. Or rather, she is one of the least developed. Very few authors or screenwriters, Ian Fleming included, have given much thought to Moneypenny as anything other than a chance to fire off a couple of gags. Only John Gardner saw fit to take Moneypenny out of the office and have her join in one of Bond’s adventures (1986’s Nobody Lives Forever), but for most of that book, she is simply missing. When she does appear, she’s a victim of the fact that Gardner’s odious handling of women makes Fleming’s old-fashioned chauvinism seem positively enlightened. Moneypenny is basically in the story to yell, “James! Help me!” Beyond that book, it really wasn’t until the film Skyfall that anyone bothered to think of Moneypenny as anything other than a woman behind a desk trading a couple de rigueur double entendres with Bond before telling him he can go in and see M now. Skyfall‘s recasting of her as a junior field operative works within the context of that story and the tone of the Daniel Craig films, but it wouldn’t have worked for the literary Moneypenny, especially not if she is still grounded in the time and events of Fleming’s novels.
My initial trepidation about this book was that it would do to Moneypenny what other authors have done to Ian Fleming: position themselves as the true story of the subject, recasting them with a fannish over-enthusiasm and super secret agents cut from the same cloth as James Bond. “Oh, did we never mention that Moneypenny is a super kungfu bad-ass who punched Hitler and also loves tea?” sort of nonsense. It shows very little understanding of a character and does little more than cater to the modern need to turn everyone into a superhero. Such reinvention of established characters, such “shock reveals” can be fun, but we live in a time of their over-abundance. To do so would be not just a violation of the character, but a disservice to the many women (and men) who served in the secret service in capacities other than “Double-0 killing machine.” My fears proved unfounded. Samantha Weinberg understands espionage fiction. And she understands Moneypenny. Although the endlessly sexually harassed personal assistant to M does end up in the field, it’s not as a slam-bang action caricature. She’s not suddenly possessed of skills and strength she never had before. Instead, what Moneypenny faces is something much more in line with a John Le Carre novel, though slightly less bitter and more bittersweet.
The gist of the book is that they are portions of a diary Moneypenny kept in violation of her employment, discovered decades later, and after Moneypenny’s death, by her niece (the pseudonymous Kate Westbrook), who then took it upon herself to research, corroborate the entries, and add footnotes. The period of time covered by the diary begins immediately after the murder of Bond’s wife Tracy at the hands of Blofeld (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and his departure for Japan on a mission of revenge (You Only Live Twice). It is a time during which Bond is emotionally crushed. Depressed, inattentive at work, self-destructive. Such things are mentioned in Fleming’s books, but here we get a much more detailed look behind the scenes. While dealing with the impact of 007’s crack-up at work, Moneypenny also has a problem of her own: she’s been approached by an agent, presumably East German, offering information about her long-missing father (he disappeared on a botched mission during World War II) in exchange for seemingly innocuous information from her office. Complicating matters is the fact that her boyfriend, already under suspicion simply because anyone dating someone from MI6 is automatically under suspicions, seems like he might very well be in league with the agent, passing personal information about Moneypenny that can be used as further leverage against her.
Like John Le Carre, much of Weinberg’s book deals with the toll intelligence work takes on a person’s personal life, rendering it all but impossible to forge any sort of meaningful relationship and turning everything from a person’s past, no matter how innocent, into something that could be potentially used against them. Weinberg isn’t as serious minded as Le Carre, or as angry, but neither is she as frivolous or fantastic about tradecraft as was Fleming and most of the other Bond authors. In this aspect, The Moneypenny Diaries is a thoroughly grounded, low-key espionage thriller. Privy as we are to Moneypenny’s predicament, we understand the temptation, even when she knows the reward offered is probably a lie. Against this plot, we get glimpses into her past, from growing up in Kenya to the death of her mother, the disappearance of her father, and how she came to be in the employ of British Intelligence and M. And looming over this, but by no means overshadowing it, is James Bond and her relationship with him. It’d be easy to simply turn The Moneypenny Diaries into a critique of Bond’s treatment of women, but while that is certainly part of the story, it’s more complex.
Granted we are catching Bond at his worst in his own timeline. His banter, his come-ons, his flirtatious invitations take on an air not so much of sexism as they do desperation, loneliness, and self-loathing. Pitiful in their way, a life-preserver cast out by a man who has only ever forged a single meaningful relationship in his life only to have it yanked away. This might set some Bond fans against the book — unless they remember that this part of Bond was very much there in the Fleming books. So bad was he that at one point in the Fleming novels, M even considers the possibility that they might have to not just push him into retirement, but kill him. Moneypenny finds herself as the receptacle for Bond’s depression, the woman forced to make the man feel better. Smile at them. Defer to them. Tolerate their intrusions. There is a quiet power, and a deceptively profound comment on the way women are expected to — forced to — behave around men when Moneypenny quips with Bond about a dinner date then writes, earnestly and in private, “I wish he wouldn’t say things like that.”
A rather mundane seeming series of events (well, as mundane as they can be when they involve nuclear war and John F. Kennedy) in which Moneypenny accompanies M to a summit in DC and Miami culminates in Moneypenny taking a clandestine trip to Cuba, where Bond has been sent because 1) there’s a job to be done, and 2) because in an office full of people who have lost loved ones, his drunken ennui is starting to seem self-indulgent and they are hoping a mission will snap him out of it. In Cuba, Moneypenny is meant to do nothing more than deliver a radio transmitter to Bond, but of course, this is the James Bond universe. 007 is captured by the Soviets and, Moneypenny observes, seems to actually welcome the thought of his own execution. The only person on the ground who can help him is, of course, her. This entire adventure, which despite the shoot-out on a Soviet ship, is relatively grounded, is built upon the mention in one of Fleming’s book of a job that the depressed James Bond botches (before he is sent off to Japan). Of course, Fleming never implies that Moneypenny had anything to do with saving James’ bacon. In this, as well as in a return to Cuba to finish what was started, Weinberg shows a flare for writing action without going overboard. Again, Moneypenny is trained and competent, but she is also not a field agent. She doesn’t suddenly turn into a backflipping killing machine. She does her best, a believable best.
The Cuban mission serves to lend the book its political backdrop. Fleming never had much time for politics, but the structure of this book, as a diary being annotated after the fact, allows for much more in-depth fleshing out of the political climate (which begins shortly after the Bay of Pigs and culminates with the Cuban Missile Crisis). Bond remains characteristically apolitical, but M and Moneypenny (and Bill Tanner! Good ol’ Bill Tanner!) do not have that luxury. Real political figures and crises are woven organically into the story, with Weinberg-as-Westbrook providing copious footnotes explaining people and events, both real and from the James Bond universe). When the book puts Moneypenny and M in the same room as John Kennedy, I had momentary flashbacks to the awful John Gardner book where Bond hangs out with Thatcher, Reagan, and Gorbachev (to say nothing of the Thatcher role in For Your Eyes Only). But The Moneypenny Diaries is a much better book than Win, Lose, Or Die and the meeting between our fictional Bond characters and the actual U.S. President is brief and well-handled.
Upon its initial release, people obsessed with canon (oh, those people) fretted over whether or not The Moneypenny Diaries is part of the official 007 timeline. you know, the one that has gone on since the early 1950s but still features a man in his late-30s/early-40s despite being a veteran of WWII. Apparently there were even some folks taken in by the gag that these were the actual diary entries of an actual “Jane Moneypenny” writing about an actual James Bond (code name) whose exploits Ian Fleming became aware of in his capacity as personal secretary to the head of British Naval Intelligence (making Fleming much more a Moneypenny than a Bond) and fictionalized in a series of books. I’m thinking perhaps those claims were a bit of clever marketing, but you never know when it comes to the gullibility of people. Some of this stems from what I find to be the book’s one misstep: mentioning Ian Fleming. In the notes added by Moneypenny’s niece, Fleming is mentioned several times, turning him into a character, however tangential, in his own creation. It’s kept to a minimum, and only in the notes, but its a bit jarring and serves to shake, rather than expand, the reality Weinberg/Westbrook has created. My other small criticism is that at times the voluminous nature of the footnotes can interrupt the book’s actual narrative flow. On the other hand, most of the footnotes are interesting, fleshing out real world events and people or adding new dimension and new context to people and events from the Bond books.
Confusion over whether or not this book was “Bond Canon” even delayed it’s release int he United States. Published in 2005 in the UK, it didn’t reach American shores until 2008. In the end, it was announced that, yes, The Moneypenny Diaries “count.” While debates regarding canon are utterly uninteresting to me, what is interesting is that the decision by Ian Fleming Publications gives the official Bond series its first female author and…OK, technically, it’s the series’ second book written from a female point of view, but I think we’d be unwise to saddle The Moneypenny Diaries with comparisons to The Spy Who Loved Me. That puts a lot of weight on Weinberg’s shoulder,s unfairly or not, but she’s an abler carry of the Bond baggage. She brings something new to the franchise without subverting it, and she shows a keen interest in the history of Bond as well as the thematic and emotional make-up of the series — far more so than some of the other authors have shown. Inspired perhaps by the more emotionally complex approach of the Daniel Craig movies, she’s the first author since Fleming himself who has been willing to really dig into Bond, to portray him as vulnerable and confused, even as petulant and spoiled.
But while she pays ample attention to 007 himself, this is still Moneypenny’s story. She is not pushed out of the spotlight, even though she is a character that remains forever out of the spotlight. Her escapade in Cuba with 007 is thrilling, but the book’s real tension comes from the trouble she faces back in London. Sure, we know in the end Moneypenny is not going to betray England, even on a small scale; but Weinberg makes it exciting regardless. The Moneypenny Diaries succeeds where Ian Fleming failed with The Spy Who Loved Me, in looking at James Bond from the point of view of characters in his periphery, his colleagues, his victims, those who experience him and are then left with the wreckage he inevitably leaves behind, physical and emotional. Fleming might have fared better with his experiment had he not chosen to try to write it from the viewpoint of a twenty-something American woman. But then, analyzing Bond’s impact on the life of a woman is more interesting than the impact on a man. Even Fleming must have thought this about his creation. He just didn’t have the experience (as a gender; not writer) to pull it off. Weinberg does, and she does. The Moneypenny Diaries succeeds most of all not just because its insightful analysis of James Bond, not just because of its tense spy action, but because of the empathetic connection the author — and by extension, the reader — forges with that mysterious, impish woman sitting outside of M’s office.
Golgo 13 was (is) a long-running Japanese comic book aimed primarily at bitter guys in dead-end salaryman jobs who harbored daydreams of being tough-as-nails murderous sex machines but, in reality, were just nerdy guys reading a comic book on the train. So, much like me, except we don’t have a company cheer that I know of. The series was created by an enterprising writer named Takao Saito, who got his big break in the business doing manga adaptations of the James Bond stories. Saito’s Bond comics were fully-licensed components of the James Bond world, but they played fast and loose with the original books, often having very little to do with them other than the title and some character names (basically the same as what would happen to the movies).
Under Saito, James Bond became a radically different character in some respects, including being a master of disguise when the Ian Fleming books go to great lengths to point out that Bond refuses to use disguises (which was, to be fair, an aspect of his character that was dropped by the time Saito was writing the manga). Regardless of the lack of faithfulness to the Fleming novels, the comics were wildly popular and generally well-received by the average fan. However, the series eventually got canned in 1967 after covering Thunderball, Man with the Golden Gun, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Live and Let Die.
It has been postulated that the fact that the comics were so radically different from the original stories from which they took their name was one of the main reasons for the cancellation — this would have been shortly before or right around the same time as You Only Live Twice was released as a movie, which was the first Bond film to really differ dramatically from the original novel. More than likely, however, the comics were considered to be original James Bond stories, and after the death of Ian Fleming, his caretakers was keen to see that no one else continued writing new, original James Bond adventures outside the strict control of the Fleming estate.
Saito’s reaction to the cancellation of his Bond series was to keep on writing it anyway, but change the character’s name to Duke Togo, aka Golgo 13, a stone cold killer who will off anyone for the right price. Guilty or innocent, male or female, young or old, it didn’t matter at all to Golgo 13. Saito’s James Bond was drawn to look like Sean Connery (more or less), and anyone who has seen Saito’s James Bond will instantly recognize it as being pretty much the same as his design for the mysterious assassin Golgo 13. Over the years, the Golgo 13 stories would get much more explicit than they ever could have under the banner of James Bond, but it’s obvious that Golgo 13 is a direct outgrowth of the James Bond stories (with a dash of Lupin III thrown in from time to time), albeit one that’s filtered through a gleeful willingness to embrace the increasingly permissive environment of the 1970s.
Free of the shackles of conforming to the Bond character, Saito was able to indulge his every whim and extreme and finally show the people that he, as a writer, was completely insane. Not quite as insane as Kazuo Koike (creator of Crying Freeman and Lone Wolf and Cub, among others), but still plenty nuts. The world of Golgo 13 quickly plumbed the twisted depths of pulp storytelling, serving up a steady stream of wildly popular action stories dripping with gratuitous sex and violence, which as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, are the best types of sex and violence. Golgo 13 worked as a throwback to the hardboiled detective fiction of writers like Mickey Spillane married with the gritty sex and violence of 1970s pop culture. It was trash through and through, but deliriously cracked in the head and unique in its approach, as opposed to being a simple regurgitation of pulp conventions. It was obvious that Saito had become some sort of sick, mad genius, the comic book creating equivalent of one of his James Bond villains.
Golgo 13, who even after decades of comic book stories, has never revealed anything about his past. He is eternally thirty-something, with no home, no family, and no name. “Duke Togo” is just another pseudonym, since you can’t sign into hotels under the name Golgo 13 — don’t think I haven’t tried. What we do know about Golgo 13 (whose name is derived from Judas and the hill upon which Christ was crucified, as the Japanese love Biblical reference nonsequiturs) is that his life consists of killing and sex. He is an expert marksman who prefers a modified M-16 but is at home with just about any weapon. He’s an expert at karate, speaks just about every language known to man (even the clicking language of the Kalahari bushmen, I bet), is a trained medic, and can instantly become a master of any other discipline the plot requires of him.
And frankly, that’s all you need to know about him. Golgo 13 operates within the arena of pulp fiction, which means it relies on audiences recognizing a series of archetypal stock characters who are what they are because that’s what the story says they are. Golgo 13 is a master assassin, and that’s all we need to know about him. Whatever expectations that character type has associated with it are expected to already be known by the reader or viewer. There is no call for complicated back story, or any back story at all, because pulp fiction doesn’t dwell on such things. Whatever history you think of when you hear a brief description of Golgo 13 is probably right.
The Godfather Goes Golgo
During the 1960s, Ken Takakura was the king of Japanese genre film. With a pile of yakuza films to his name, among them the long-running Abashiri Prison series, Takakura became the face of the Japanese gangster film. But when upstart Nikkatsu Studio started messing with the tried and true “honorable yakuza” formula, they ushered in a new era and a new type of film: borderless action. With it came younger, hipper, weirder stars in younger, hipper, weirder movies, and guys like Ken Takakura and the “gangster with a code of honor” movies were suddenly old-fashioned. By 1973, when Japan got around to making the first cinematic version of Golgo 13, Takakura was a man on the way out — too old to fit in with the young stars, but too young to be sold as “an elder statesman” reclaiming old glory. That said, he was still a bankable name able to get work, and so he found himself cast in Golgo 13, a somewhat bizarre production partially funded by an Iranian film studio, shot almost entirely in Iran, and with — apart from Takakura Ken — an entirely Iranian cast.
If you only know Iran as a problematic theocracy who keeps threatening to figure out how to make nuclear weapons, then you are missing out on the vast majority of the country’s history. It wasn’t always under the thumb of mullahs and fundamentalists. In 1941, control of the country of Iran was assumed by Mohammad Reza Sah Pahlavi, supported by both the United States and United Kingdom. Commonly referred to simple as the Shah of Iran, he began a program of reform meant to turn Iran — a super-power in the ancient world — into an influential modern state. Many of the reforms were aimed at lessening the power held by rural landlords and the clergy — ostensibly to free the Iranian people, but also to further solidify The Shah’s own power by eliminating the competition. In the end, the “White Revolution” proved to have the opposite effect. Charges of corruption, of being nothing more than a puppet regime for the United states, of poking at deep-seated religious beliefs, precipitated the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which deposed the Shah, established a theocracy, and set up, more or less, what we know as Iran today.
Among the efforts of the White Revolution was the creation of a film industry. There had been Iranian films before — the first one was made in 1930 by a professor named Ovanes Ohanian. However, it was difficult to get a fledgling film culture off the ground when World War II reared its ugly head shortly after you started making movies, so it wasn’t until after the war, with the establishment of the National Iranian Film Society in 1949, that the Iranian film industry really took off. Although responsible for many films that gained substantial critical acclaim, Iranian cinema never gained the global following enjoyed by many other national cinemas, and even their pulpier fare — and they made plenty of it — remains obscure even among fans of the obscure. Landing a deal with a Japanese production must have been a big deal. The Japanese film industry was in a sorry state during the 1970s, but many Japanese films still enjoyed a level of international exposure even the best Iranian films could only dream of.
So Takakura Ken, director Junya Sato (Bullet Train), and a small Japanese crew packed up and headed to Iran for what ended up being equal parts a Golgo 13 film and an advertisement for the Iranian tourism board. For the film, Golgo 13 is recruited to kill an Iranian gangster and human trafficker whose primary attribute is his love for his pet parrot. The vast majority of the film consists of an expressionless, emotionless Takakura Ken driving around Iran, pausing for a series of shoot-outs and chases that are certain to take in the most famous tourist sites of the country. Dogging Golgo every step of the way is a noble Iranian inspector. And of course there are some dames, because it wouldn’t be a Golgo 13 story if there weren’t some women to die either because of him or by his hand. If that sounds like a James Bond movie, well, remember the pedigree of Golgo 13.
Sato’s direction makes good use of the many Iranian locations at the film’s disposal, and he shoots wide-open deserts and distinctive ancient ruins to great effect. The end result is a film that feels a lot like a Eurospy film from the previous decade. Takakura Ken is suitably one-note, but he’s an able performer who manages to get the most out of a very difficult character to make interesting. The story is a lot less perverse and twisted than your average Golgo 13 manga, but it’s still a solid action adventure, and the final shot (so to speak) is pure Golgo 13. All in all, it’s a successful, entertaining film — in execution, anyway.
At the box office, it tanked. Japanese cinema was already in dire straights, and the combination of domestic disinterest, a fading star, and a problematic and expensive cross-cultural production doomed this film in particular and the entire idea of a Golgo 13 franchise. Despite being based on what could be extremely graphic and shocking source material, and despite coming out at a time when Japanese film was pushing the envelope in terms of on-screen sex and violence, Golgo 13 the live-action film is curiously old-fashioned and tame. Measured against the frenetic, visceral nature of contemporaries like the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, or the Female Prisoner Scorpion films, Golgo 13 is strikingly…quaint. It’s an Elvis film, when people had moved on to the Beatles. Provided Elvis was a stone cold assassin and the Beatles were, I don’t know, Meiko Kaji or something. This metaphor really doesn’t hold up, does it?
Part of Golgo 13‘s problem probably had to do with Iranian financing. While the Iran of the early 1970s was not the ultra-conservative religious state we know now, it’s unlikely that the levels of sex and violence required for a proper Golgo 13 film (or a proper Japanese exploitation film in general) would have been a bit much. They might have been a bit much for Takakura Ken as well. Try as he might, it’s hard for Takakura Ken’s old “killer with a code of honor” to stay away from this material, where it doesn’t belong. And saying that it’s there might not even be fair. After all, the Golgo 13 of this movie makes some mean-as-sin decisions to leave certain characters to die, or leave others to a cruel fate simply because it makes his mission a little easier. But it’s Takakura Ken, man, and I think anyone with a history with the actor can’t help but inject some of that into this film, even if it’s not really there.
And so, despite being a quality production, Golgo 13 was quickly shuffled into the dustbin of history, forgotten by almost everyone. It would be several years before Toei would dust off the franchise, once again as a live-action production, and once again as a co-production with another country — although this time, one much closer to Japan and with a much more promising willingness to indulge sex and violence.
Sonny Goes Shooting
The second movie adaptation of Golgo 13 came to us in 1977, starring the legendary Sonny Chiba wearing some legendaryly 1970s clothing, and directed by Yukio Noda, who brought the world the 1974 pinky violence exploitation “classic” Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (which later begat that horribly boring series of DTV Zero Woman movies in the 1990s). That is a much more promising pedigree when it comes to the sort of stories usually associated with Golgo 13. The plot is pretty basic, as all good Golgo 13 stories should be: Golgo 13 is hired to kill someone, and the Hong Kong police department tries to stop him even though the guy he’s killing is sort of a dick.
Sonny Chiba does look a lot like Golgo 13 in many shots, though sometimes it looks like the humidity is turning his coif into a frizzy fro, and he’s certainly an actor who has shown a willingness to play ruthless and evil. As with the first film, this one was also a co-production, this time between Japan and Hong Kong. One would hope that means a lot of primo Hong Kong kungfu talent would be showing up. Unfortunately, it looks like the production skimped on hiring locals for the Hong Kong sequences, so instead of potentially cool team-ups like Sonny Chiba versus Ti Lung, we get Sonny Chiba casually evading a string of ham ‘n’ eggers like Callan Leung. Who the hell is Callan Leung?
Surely Sonny Chiba had Lo Lieh’s telephone number and could ring him up for a cameo and grimace-off. Sonny does bring Chiba movie staple Etsuko Shiomi with him, and she always looks fabulous in action, even if she’s only in the movie long enough for one fight scene before she gets offed. Sadly, a single Sue Shiomi fight scene and a lot of Sonny Chiba walking down the street don’t make for edge-of-your-seat cinema. I guess there wouldn’t have been much point to hiring top-notch Hong Kong talent for the action scenes since there are hardly any action scenes anyway. Japanese live action cinema was pretty zany in 1977. Lots of weirdness all over the place, and yet somehow Kowloon Assignment, based on such crazed material, is still relatively tame. Less so than Takakura Ken’s outing, but it’s still old-fashioned. The bloodshed is minimal, there’s a naked breast or two (if you count Sonny’s), the fights are few and far between, and Golgo 13 isn’t nearly as cool as he should be, possibly because that sort of stone-faced killer is more dynamic as a drawn piece of art than as an actual guy.
Plus, Sonny Chiba is always at his best when he’s allowed to go bug-eyed and over the top, which is not Duke Togo’s style. All in all, a major disappointment on all fronts. However, it’d seem unlikely that the Golgo 13 comic wasn’t an influence on better, more successful Sonny Chiba films, and that more successful Chiba films would likewise prove to be influences on Saito’s writing (or his stable of writers, as he was one of the few popular manga writers who doled responsibilities out to a team rather than doing all the work himself). In particular, there are some pretty significant parallels to be drawn between Golgo 13 and Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter anti-hero, Terry Tsuruga, a merciless killing machine who will take anyone out if the price is right, and kidnap your sister and sell her into sex slavery if you can’t pay his fee.
In fact, the original Street Fighter was the first to use a little gimmick where someone gets punched and the movie cuts to an X-Ray showing crushing bones and whatnot — a technique that is repeated during the finale of the Golgo 13 animated film. It’s too bad that the venomous mean spirit, nasty violence, and all-around sickness of The Street Fighter isn’t evident in Kowloon Asignment. It would have been a better and more authentic Golgo 13 movie if that had been the case. Instead, what we are left with is a film that is only mildly more exploitive than the first, with more outrageous fashion but a lack of the international scope Takakura Ken enjoyed by shooting in Iran. It would seem, then, that the only way to really bring Golgo 13 to life was to avoid bringing him to life — which meant eschewing live-action film and going animated.
Pull My Trigger Again…Softly and Gently
In 1983, Golgo 13 was brought to the big screen for the third time, but for the first time in the medium best suited for realizing the depth of the property’s depravity. Chances are, if it had been an animated feature in the 1970s, Golgo 13 still would have failed to capture the twisted nature of the manga. Anime had to become “80s anime” before Golgo 13: The Professional could exist. The task of making an animated Golgo 13 fell upon the shoulders of directors Osamu Dezaki, Shichiro Kobayashi, and Hirokata Takahashi. It was a bizarre trio of men to direct a movie packed to the gills with blood, gore, and sex. Shichiro and Hirokata both worked on Miyazaki’s Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, the friendliest of all Lupin III incarnations. Shichiro is best known for his work on the Urusei Yatsura series, while Hirokata dabbled in Rainbow Brite.
Osamu Dezaki was, at the time, best known for The Rose of Versailles, a flowery shojo anime that is every bit as emotional and melodramatic as Golgo 13 is mean and violent. Dezaki’s trademark is a unique style of playing with the artwork, using split screens and freeze frames (all fairly common nowadays) that would become richly detailed still drawings that helped tie anime to its manga roots. All three men worked on Space Adventure Cobra in 1982, however, which must have prepared them for their work on the over-the-top macho Golgo 13 a year later.
Needless to say, anyone following Dezaki into Golgo 13 thinking the babe-bangin’ assassin was suddenly going to have big eyelashes and find himself walking through spontaneous clouds of flowers while writing poetry as Vivaldi played in the background was going to find themselves somewhat out of their element. Working on original stories from Saito, Golgo 13 the movie is a shamelessly over-the-top work of grindhouse theater exploitation; an endless and welcome parade of cold-blooded murder, grim-faced psychopaths, statuesque naked women, and wanton acts of depravity, all of which revolve tornado-style around the central character.
he movie wastes no time jumping immediately into the action. We meet Golgo 13 (voiced by relative newcomer Tetsuro Sagawa in the original Japanese, Greg Snegoff in the dub) as he is wrapping up one assignment and taking on another — the assassination of a billionaire industrialist’s only son, who is being primed to take over his father’s empire. Enraged by the murder, industrialist Leonard Dawson (Goro Naya — who has a lengthy list of voice acting and regular acting credits to his name, including Lupin, Peacock King, Vampire Princess Miyu, various incarnations of Kamen Rider, and both the live action and anime versions of Casshern) swears bloody revenge upon the wily assassin, even if it destroys everything he’s built, and even if it means sacrificing his daughter-in-law to the perverse whims of disgusting hitmen.
And that’s the plot. From there on out, Golgo 13 kills people, and people try to kill him. When he’s not killing people, it’s because he’s having sex. Golgo 13 is a heady showcase of all the excesses that made the 1980s one of Japan’s most infamously decadent decades. There’s a lot of nudity and a lot of blood. People die in slow motion, with blood spurting brightly from gory knife and bullet wounds as their faces contort into that bug-eyed, twisted-jaw mask of death that is familiar to so many fans of ’80s anime. No one gets shot once when they can get shot a dozen times, and no woman goes very long before coming out of her clothes, either by choice or by force. Golgo 13 even shoves a grenade in a guy’s mouth and we get to watch the flaming body run around directionless while the surprised, fire-engulfed head tumbles to the ground in slow motion. Everyone, Golgo 13 included, is present merely to be abused in the most merciless fashion imaginable.
So it should be fairly obvious that I embrace the seedy excesses of Golgo 13 with unabashed enthusiasm. It plays the source material perfectly in that it never once goes for the ironic wink, nudge, or comedic interlude. Everyone is dead serious about even the most outlandish scenarios (like Golgo 13 killing a Nazi war criminal in the middle of an orgy by climbing a building and shooting all the way through another building to hit the Nazi in the third building right in the middle of the head), which really puts Golgo 13 among the ranks of the poliziotteschi from the 1970s, like Violent Rome and Violent Naples, which handled similarly outrageous sequences with the same sense of gravity (and also indulged in gratuitous perversity that would have been totally at home in Golgo 13). In fact, Golgo 13 the movie is equal parts poliziotteschi and Eurospy film, drawing on the aesthetic and amoral thematic climate of both genres (right down to Golgo’s wardrobe, which wavers between the turtleneck and slim suit look of sixties spies and the safari jacket and ascot look of the 70s). Although released in 1983 and rightly considered “80s anime,” Golgo 13 definitely maintains a blend of that and the previous decade.
Dezaki’s approach to the artwork makes wonderful use of his trademark split screens and other bizarre framing devices. The quality of the art is superb, achieving a raw and heavy gritty feeling that succeeds remarkably well at mimicking the shadowy noir look of old films, grafted onto the glam and neon of the 1980s — sort of like an animated Michael Mann film, in a way. Golgo 13 isn’t nearly as sleek-looking as something like Odin (it’s also not as boring), relying less on intricate backdrops and more on shading and mood, but the rougher approach suits the material perfectly. You’ll find a similar though slightly more polished approach in Wicked City, albeit with the added bonus of a woman whose vagina is a giant, drooling, fanged spider.
Unfortunately, you can’t really talk about the artwork in Golgo 13 without mentioning the ill-conceived and thoroughly abysmal CGI helicopter sequence. Dezaki and Shichiro worked together on something called 3-D Animated Homeless Child Remi, which sounds like something you really want to rush out and look for. I’m guessing this 1977 collaboration sparked their interest in the early days of CGI animation, and against all better judgment, they were hell-bent on cramming some into Golgo 13 at some point. And so we get the infamous helicopter attack sequence, in which the movie abruptly shifts from the richly realized cel animation to crudely rendered, jerky CGI completely devoid of detail. It looks like something you’d see in a real estate company demo at a county fair’s expo hall. It’s just so insanely bad that I can’t even express how truly bad it is. The entire sequence only lasts a minute or so, but it seems like an eternity, because everything that has been so good up to this point grinds to a whiplash stop so Dezaki and Shichiro can fart around with their Amiga or whatever they used to cough up this sequence.
OK, you can’t fault them for trying, but surely someone somewhere looked at it and said, “Fellas, this looks pathetic. I mean, this looks astoundingly awful. I’m not putting this in the movie.” But somehow, the CGI animation made it into the finished project, along with some crude CGI during the opening credits, which is a lot less offensive because it’s just during the credits and not integrated into the rest of the animation. Plus, that animation is of a skeleton with a Smith & Wesson, so that’s all right.
Golgo 13 has roots firmly planted in the sensationalist action-adventure fiction of the sixties and seventies, as well as in the gritty sleaze of 1970s grindhouse cinema which now falls under the banner of pulp fiction to many people. And that said, Golgo 13 is hardcore grindhouse insanity. It’s brash, offensive, mean, and so completely absurd that there’s no real way for me to find it truly offensive. It’s cheerfully perverse and delightfully violent. It didn’t make all that big an impact upon its release in America, and despite the enduring popularity of the comics, Golgo 13 only found his way to the screen once more, in Golgo 13: Queen Bee,released some years later. Since then, the Golgo 13 anime has sort of fallen through the cracks, which is a shame because it’s a spectacular and totally irredeemable piece of gloriously squalid movie making.
Obviously, the anime is the way to go, but if you find yourself with a chance to watch the Takakura Ken live action film, it’s a solid action movie. Sadly, the one I thought would have the most promise, starring Sonny Chiba, is the least of the three, though it’s still possessed of enough sleaze, violence, and incredibly garish blazers. Plus, so much sideburn on Sonny. But yeah, nothing pulls the trigger quite as lovingly or softly as the anime version, a stunningly tasteless yet gorgeously animated example of everything that was base, indulgent, and wonderful about anime in the 1980s. As for the future of Golgo 13 himself, one assumes he lies even now in some posh hotel room, expressionlessly making love to a woman while he contemplates the day his services will once again be called upon.
If you can roll with the first five minutes of Scorpions and Miniskirts (1967, Italy/Spain/West Germany. AKA Der Sarg bleibt heute zu; Death on a Rainy Day)—a movie that shows utter contempt for bothering to explain anything at all or connecting one series of actions to the next—then you are probably going to be able to walk away from the viewing experience with a sense of having been entertained while, at the same time, feeling like you didn’t quite get everything for which you’d hoped from a movie with a title as wonderful as Scorpions and Miniskirts. After all, Scorpions and Mini Skirts is a title that demands the benefit of the doubt.
Scorpions and Miniskirts begins with an initial minute that seems like the movie might earn its more giallo sounding alternate title, Death on a Rainy Day. We open with a funeral, complete with all the bell-tolling gravitas of a continental Gothic horror film. If Peter Cushing stepped out wearing a pilgrimy black Puritan minister’s outfit, it would not have seemed out of place. Surrounded by weeping mourners, accompanied by glum James Bernard sounding music, a coffin is lowered into the ground. The eulogy begins, and as dirt is being shoveled onto the coffin, the lid suddenly creaks open…
…and out pops a dapper spy in a smart suit, who immediately begins gunning everyone down as the music switches to breezy lounge-style spy jazz, with all the nonsensical “zabba doo zee ba ba zow!” vocals composer Jerry van Rooyen can summon. The mourners all whip out their own Lugers and MP40s and blast away at the spy until a helicopter swings in, latches a hook to the coffin, and spirits our hero (we assume) to safety, or to as much safety as you can expect while in a coffin with an unsealed lid, swinging wildly from a rope dangling beneath a helicopter.
There’s no denying that this whole sequence, like the title of the movie, is awesome. We’d be better off as a society if all movies began like this. But, awesome though the beginning of Scorpions and Miniskirts may be, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, even within the relatively liberal definition of “making sense” that exists in the world of Eurospy films. Who did these people think they were burying? How did this guy get into the coffin instead? What the hell was his mission? Was every single person at this funeral a villain? Given that he has killed just about everyone at the funeral, why does he opt for such a risky, overblown method of being extracted from the hot zone? Well, the answer to the last one is, “because it was cool.”
“Because it was cool” is pretty much the only explanation this movie has for just about everything that occurs in its free-form, meandering plotline, and if you are prone to close examination of a plot’s logic, then Scorpions and Miniskirts is going to be a hopeless endeavor for you. By the time this movie rolled off the Eurospy assembly line, film makers had largely given up taking the genre seriously—not that many of them had taken it very seriously to begin with. Even Goldfinger, the template for most Eurospy films, was already showing signs of tongue in cheek silliness…or did you think James Bond’s “duck on the head” disguise was supposed to be taken seriously, to say nothing of that baby blue terrycloth romper suit Connery parades around in when he’s hanging poolside in Miami. Sure, Daniel Craig made those little blue swim trunks work, but is he man enough to succeed in a Connery onesie?
Spy movies were always quick to spoof themselves. By the time they got to Scorpions and Miniskirts, everyone seems to be pretty much just goofing off until the trend collapsed for good. This entire movie seems nothing more than an elaborate joke pulled at the expense of its two main characters, Paul Riviere (Adrian Hoven) and Bruno Nussak (Barth Warren), a couple of swinging spies so over-the-top in their macho “grab any woman’s ass and give her a kiss” behavior that pretty much everyone seems to be rolling their eyes at the two rubes and humoring them until they leave the room and everyone can get on with life. Their antics are so awkward, so over the top, and generally so unsuccessful, that it seems like it must have been a conscious decision on the part of the film to take the typical spy movie sexual harassment and tweak it to the point that it comes across as genuinely creepy, sleazy, and kind of pathetic.
The plot, not the movie is particularly interested in it, sees France’s swingin’est swingin’ spies assigned to recover a mysterious vial of perfume that actually contains—and this is absurd even in the world of patently absurd Eurospy movie MacGuffins—a sample of human RNA, which the dastardly Chinese terrorist organization the Red Scorpion Society plans on injecting into the US Secretary of Defense so they can mind control him into starting World War III. If you have some scientific problem with the notion that RNA can be used to take over someone’s mind, or with the idea that the Secretary of Defense can unilaterally declare nuclear war on another country without any input from the President or Congress, then you’re probably also the same person who had a problem with that whole pointless coffin shootout prologue. I suggest you abandon this film now and go watch The Lives of Others. It’s fantastic.
Don’t worry, though. Even if you think the RNA perfume is the stupidest world domination plot since Agent for HARM‘s spore gun, you’re not going to have to deal with it, since this movie, as mentioned, has basically no interest at all in its own plot. It’s only there so the heroes have an excuse to visit scantily-clad women and smell them. Whatever minimal effort the screenwriters put into this script is really nothing more than an excuse to indulge in scene after scene of our two leads smacking women on the ass, dealing out terrible one-liners, and punching or gunning down endless waves of white guys dressed as Chinese henchmen—and we know they’re Chinese henchmen because they all dress the same and are bald. I guess that’s a step up from having a Manchu pigtail and a long pinky finger, though if that had been the uniform at this point in the game, it would have been pretty funny.
Scorpions and Miniskirts walks the razor’s edge between being a non-stop parade of fabulous and being so pointlessly free-form that it gets a little bit boring. Part of the problem with the movie are the leads, who I assume are meant to be parodies of the sort of casual-date-rape heroes in which spy movies of the era reveled. Their clumsy, aggressively blunt attempts at seduction (just grabbing random women and kissing them) are absurd even in a genre where extremes in macho chauvinism were the norm. I kept hoping that at some point they would be rebuffed by more than a put-upon smirk, and that one of these women would just haul off and sock one of these sleazy dudes in the face. No luck in that regard sadly, and as it stands the satire of the ladies-man man’s man hovers somewhere between kind of funny and kind of awkwardly off-putting. Pat of the problem is that the two leads here, despite never closing the deal, seem possessed of a considerable degree of malice and misanthropy that stops them from being truly funny or entertaining the way Tony Kendall was in the Kommissar X movies.
Actually, it’s worth bringing up the Kommissar X films in general. Scorpions and Miniskirts has the feel of a film that is trying to ape that series but without the charm and therefore plays out in a much…ickier…fashion. Kommissar X had about it a genuine sense of playfulness, and even if Jo Walker was a butt-slapping ladies’ man, he never seemed as obtuse or threatening about it. Plus, he was always balanced out by Brad Harris as the endlessly put-upon straight man. Because Tony and Brad had such good chemistry together, and because the films were so fast-moving and breezy, they worked well even if the plots had an air of “making it up as we go” about them. Adrian Hoven and Barth Warren do not have the same camaraderie, and they do not have the charisma of Kendall and Harris. That means Scorpions and Miniskirts meandering lack of focus isn’t always as easy to deal with as the same lack of direction in any of the Kommissar X films.
Even though Scorpions and Miniskirts has odious leads (even if it’s done for comedy reasons) and a level of violence that borders on some of Jess Franco’s crankier days, in other ways it’s oddly more sympathetic to its female characters than the usual Eurospy adventure. For one, although the women must suffer the fumbling come-ons and random attempts at kissing, none of them ever have to bed down with our two sad-sack heroes. Second, this is a rare spy film where the women don’t die or have to sacrifice themselves so the villain can make a point or the hero can get the point. The plot, such as it is, means that we visit a number of women with reasons to be wearing exotic costumes and micro-minis, and every time a new one is introduced, she joins the convoy trailing behind Paul and Bruno until, like everything else in this movie, it reaches the point of total absurdity. All of the women are beautiful, though as is par for the course, few of them really have anything to contribute besides enticing figures and long legs.
Similarly absurd in the levels to which it soars (or sinks), Scorpions And Miniskirts seems to spoof the racism that is often inherent in the genre. Decades later, the same thing would be done (considerably better) by the “OSS 117” films starring Jean Dujardin. Scorpions And Miniskirts is trying for the same thing, but just as with the parody of the irresistible hero, it’s done in a way that is meant to be a joke, but doesn’t actually come off as very funny. For Scorpions And Miniskirts, we’re in Yellow Peril territory, like Sax Rohmer turned up to eleven. Sometimes the jokes work—for some reason, a stereotypical Chinese guy in this is a bald guy in a turtleneck rather than the old Mandarin jacket and pigtail—and sometimes they don’t work as well, like when one of the heroes gets in a rooftop fight and keeps hurling Chinese people off the side of the building, causing a couple cops down below to shrug in bemused fashion and exclaim “I’m telling you, it’s raining Chinamen!”
So a bit of an odd duck of a film, but if my picking at the negative in it has led you to believe I didn’t enjoy it, then I made a mistake. I did enjoy it. It is insane. It is garishly gorgeous to look at. It tries to lampoon the racism and sexism of the spy genre while still also being offensively racist and sexist. But it’s also a delirious, out of control ride that has no interest in ever getting itself under control. It’s jammed to the gills with go-go dancing, fist fights, stunts, mini-skirts, sharkskin suits, and baffling stupidity. It’s not nearly as fun as a Kommissar X film, but it is still fun, as long as you go into it armed and ready, knowing that it has no point and knowing that it reels about somewhere between parody and genuine offensiveness, then it’s pretty easy to let yourself get carried away on waves of space age bachelor pad pop music and heroes who pucker up only to get sapped or fall off the side of a bed or something.