Shoe Leather

My week-long adventures on Shadowplay always overrun, don’t they? Don’t worry, not too much spying left to do.

Superspies go east in both MISSION TO TOKYO aka TERROR IN TOKYO originally ATOUT COEUR A TOKYO POUR OSS 117 and Koroshi, a feature-length edition of the show Danger Man AKA Secret Agent. The latter is really just two episodes of the show cobbled together. Cobbling and cobblers are much in evidence throughout.

The French movie is part of a series produced by Andre Hunebelle, he of the unfunny FANTOMAS films of the sixties, which could have played like Francophone DIABOLIKs, but were instead almost complete cobblers. There were eventually eighty-eight OSS-117 novels, By this point in the adventures of Hubert Bonnisseur de la Bath, who started off as Ivan Desny, became Kerwin Matthews, but was soon Frederick Stafford (who would get headhunted for Hitchcock’s TOPAZ, with underwhelming results), with John Gavin and Luc Meranda later stepping into his shoes for one outing each. At this point in the rather logey series, there seems to have been a realisation that an infusion of genuine Bondian derring-do was needed, so they’ve hired Terence Young as co-writer.

This was, arguably, misguided, for a couple of reasons, and amusing for a couple more. Firstly, Young was more a director than a writer (though he did have a surprising number of early writing gigs, and maybe had a hand in DR. NO) so it’s uncertain whether they’d have been better off with, say, Richard Maibaum. Secondly, I don’t know how good his French was. The whole situation amuses me because of how little loyalty Broccoli & Saltzman earned from their 007 team: Young had just directed his third Bond picture, but apparently thought nothing of working for the competition. The hilariously awful Bond knock-off OK CONNERY aka OPERATION KID BROTHER managed to dragoon not only Sean Connery’s non-actor sibling Neil, but M and Moneypenny and Tatiana Romanova and Professor Dent/Blofeld AND Largo.

With Young advising, this OSS entry gets off to an action-packed start, but it’s just a car chase. The action soon shifts to Tokyo, and they really went there, for once. Unlike the exotic orientalism of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (still in Bond’s feature) the environments are pleasingly ordinary, like an Ozu film stretched into widescreen and peppered with punch-ups. It’s all quite low-key and lived-in, even in its culturally-specific quirks — there’s a scene at a kind of photography bar where strippers pose for raincoated salarymen — Our Man Hubert is issued a camera at the door. Everyone looks like a tourist in their own land.

An assassin takes aim at Hubert through a spyhole built into a bit of ad signage, a detail which would turn up, modified, in BRANDED TO KILL, a genuine Japanese movie, the following year.

Stafford is paired with a proper actor as leading lady: Marina Vlady. Her backstory is that she’s been drugged, date-raped and blackmailed into working for some unknown enemy power — after one scene, though, she’s over any trauma and is flirting cheerfully with OSS 117. I don’t blame Vlady, I blame the writers. But it IS nice the way she’s not too impressed with her dashing master-spy.

Even in a desultory and dubbed spy caper (the Japanese roles are voiced in a markedly more racist way in the English dub, as opposed to the French and German versions), a good actor can make a difference. Vlady and Jitsuko Yoshimura from ONIBABA are fine, but when Henri Serre, Jim from JULES ET JIM, shows up, things improve. Serre should have played the lead, he’s incredibly refreshing. The uncanny Valery Inkijinoff (magnetic in Duvivier’s LA TETE D’UN HOMME), who spent most of his latter years playing yellowface, quite convincingly owing to his genuine Asiatic appearance, is also valuable.

Michel Boisrond directs; the plot involves miniature fighter planes — drones, avant la lettre; the fights are actually well-staged, with Hubert proving a master of turning furniture into weapons, Rudy Rassendyll style. The music, by Michel Magne, takes a back seat too often. This kind of adventure should be brassy vamping from beginning to end.

The real problem with all this is that, with fewer and smaller action scenes than a Bond romp, Hubie’s work seems mostly to be of the leg variety — strictly shoe-leather. He pads amiably about from one scenic locale to another, The Mikado cabaret to neon-dappled boulevard, ryokan hotel to picturesque temple, in his winkle-pickers, slipping them off to go indoors of course, asking questions, looking a bit wry. At one point, avoiding a dart gun, he substitutes himself with an inflatable dummy, and though it would be unkind to say you don’t notice any difference, the ruse is worryingly successful.

Frederick Stafford

Stafford isn’t bad — he’s just David Farrar. Agreeable but dull. And. without the panther prowl and ironic sang-froid of Connery, or the bizarro pop art trappings, the going becomes a touch turgid. Still better than Coplan FX-18 or, God knows, the wretched Kommissar X films. OSS-117 has enjoyed a more recent revival, though, as the spoof series with Jean Dujardin, which isn’t exactly great but IS pretty funny.

I get the same disengaged feeling from Danger Man’s eastern adventures. The show’s makers didn’t even pay up for foreign travel — zero views of Mount Fuji here — they just hired Burt Kwouk and some background plates. A fair bit of yellowface too. But the show is oddly appealing — if I were a dope-smoker I could undoubtedly chill out to it. Watching Patrick McGoohan go into rooms and ask questions would be entertaining enough. The show always looked nice, maybe even more so when it was in B&W. And it did give us The Prisoner, which took the elements of pop art, op art, surrealism and cod-expressionism that were creeping into Bond and his many imitators, and put them front and centre with a touch of Kafka and existentialism and all that good stuff.

The first episode that makes up Koroshi features Amanda Barrie, a wonderful actor who ought to have been a massive star — but in what? Amazingly funny in Carry On Cleo, she apparently didn’t fit in with producers’ plans, and only became a fixture in soap opera land later, where she outclassed everyone around her.

The second episode, Shinda Shima, is graced with future Prisoner co-stars Kenneth Griffith and George Coulouris, who has a machine gun built into his desk (“Hit me with a sled, will you?”)and is directed by Peter Yates, a good action director who seems like he SHOULD have been shoehorned into the Bond films but somehow never was. Yoko Tani appears in both episodes, as different characters.

MISSION TO TOKYO aka TERROR IN TOKYO originally ATOUT COEUR A TOKYO POUR OSS 117 stars Andre Devereaux; Kate Percy; Kichi’s Wife; Radek; Jim; Alexandre Dumas; and Rear Adm. Chuichi Hara.

Danger Man AKA Secret Agent stars Number Six; Leader of the Lystrians; Cleopatra; John Bray; Kato; Pennyways; Adolf Hitler; the Duchess of Argyll; Walter Parks Thatcher; Assassin in Bedroom; and Capungo.

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2 Responses to “Shoe Leather”

  1. reading these has been great fun for me, overrun all you want!

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