Week two of the new year was dominated by espionage, intrigue, world travel, and double crosses. This is my recap of Secret Agent Week.
OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009) dir. Michel Hazanavicius
Billion Dollar Brain (1967) dir. Ken Russell
Fay Grim (2006) dir. Hal Hartley
Night Train to Munich (1940) dir. Carol Reed
Our Man Flint (1966) dir. Daniel Mann
Spies Like Us (1985) dir. John Landis
I was astonished by the films this week for a number of reasons. I never would have suspected that I’d like Hal Hartley’s sequel to Henry Fool (a film I detested when it was released by a director I have never understood,) especially as a comedic spy thriller. I expected Our Man Flint to be much more of a Bond parody but it turned out to be not-much sillier than Bond films of the era in retrospect. All of its comedy was subtle and everyone played the film perfectly straight. I thought that the combination of young Michael Caine and director Ken Russell would have turned out something much more interesting than a Bond knock-off but Billion Dollar Brain was a bore. Perhaps most of all, I was amazed that the slowest moving action scene in any of these films–the chase at the end of Night Train to Munich–was the most compelling segment of any of them! I was not surprised but happily relieved that Spies Like Us holds up.
Here’s how the movies broke down in terms of the fun spy movie necessities.
|OSS 117: Lost in Rio||France, Brazil||2|
|Billion Dollar Brain||England, USA, Finland, Latvia||4|
|Fay Grim||USA, France, Turkey||3|
|Night Train to Munich||Germany, Czechoslovakia, England||3|
|Our Man Flint||USA, France, Italy, Galaxy Island||4|
|Spies Like Us||USA, Pakistan, Russia||3|
|Advantage:||Our Man Flint (Edges out Billion Dollar Brain on account of the fictional Galaxy Island!)|
Tools of the Trade
|OSS 117: Lost in Rio||Camera, Aston Martin|
|Billion Dollar Brain||Billion Dollar World-Conquering Computer, Biological Weapons|
|Fay Grim||Encrypted Composition Notebooks, Toy|
|Night Train to Munich||Coded Messages, Nazi Disguise|
|Our Man Flint||Radio Watch, 83-Function Lighter, Electro Defragmenter, Weather Remote Control, Pleasure Units, Anti-American Eagle|
|Spies Like Us||Russian Copy of a Timex Digital Watch, Decoder Ring, Satscrambler|
|Advantage:||Our Man Flint (Seriously, the Anti-American Eagle was awesome!)|
Suave Secret Agents
|OSS 117: Lost in Rio||Jean Dujardin doing a hilarious take on Sean Connery as an oblivious chauvinist|
|Billion Dollar Brain||Michael Caine being sent on one silly errand after another|
|Fay Grim||Parker Posey fumbling her way into the world of international espionage|
|Night Train to Munich||Rex Harrison staying cooler under pressure than any other man alive|
|Our Man Flint||James Coburn practicing sloppy gorilla style karate while bedding a harem|
|Spies Like Us||Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd taking the quickest route to GLG20 ever–cheating|
|Advantage:||Night Train to Munich|
It comes as no surprise that Our Man Flint won the silly contest. After all, it was engineered as a Bond spoof and it took every chance to push the boundary of believability with each of the Bond tropes just slightly over the edge into comedy. If you want to see where the Austin Power lunacy comes from, I think it’s more from Flint than Bond. However, for a pure thriller without all of the gadgets and debonair casino scenes, Night Train to Munich proved to be tops for the week. Rex Harrison makes a more aloof, more conceited, and ultimately better spy than anyone else this week. His mission to save a woman and her father from a pre-war Nazi concentration camp has a narrow focus with broader implications. It’s amazing to me that this film was made in 1940 on the cusp of war rather than many years after the fact. Fay Grim took a similar approach, swapping out Nazis for contemporary fundamentalist terrorists, but the notion of Henry Fool as a world weary super spy just never took hold as anything other than a joke to set up the movie.
I’ve got it on good authority that the other recent OSS 117 movie is also funny and that The Ipcress File (the first of the Harry Palmer movies with Michael Caine,) is much better than Ken Russell’s mess of a high concept, low action caper. There’s another Flint movie, too, and a whole host of spies in Nazi Germany films that I’ve now added to my queue.
Secret Agent week turned out to be much more varied and divergent than I would have thought and that’s a good thing. When you mention spy movies to almost anyone, Bond dominates the discussion. This set of films is small but considerable proof that there is a whole world out there beyond (and sometimes poking fun at) 007.
Other Movie Weeks in 2011:
Asian Action Week