Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 60s Spy Spoofs

As part of our efforts to cater to up-and-coming classic movie fans, here’s our latest installment to our classic movie beginner’s guides.

In appreciation of the James Bond franchise and the newest installment that will hopefully still be released early next year, we thought it would be fitting to highlight four spy spoofs that had as much fun with the genre as their inspiration, if not more so!

While we’re partial to Don Adams’ Get Smart on the small screen (or The Man from U.N.C.L.E), here are four franchises to consider if you’re interested in the spy fad of the 1960s. Here we go!

Fantomas (1964)

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France’s answer to the Bond craze came with retrofitting a national comic book hero and supervillain for the ’60s. The blue-faced mastermind Fantomas (Jean Marais) is constantly avoiding capture by the bumbling Inspector (played by comedy’s best-kept secret Louis De Funes). Thankfully, he has the help of an intrepid journalist (also played by Marais). Two more installments would follow.

Our Man Flint (1966)

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Not to be outdone by his compatriots, James Coburn also got his chance to be a top-class secret agent named Derek Flint, who fits all the parameters of a world-renowned spy, including playmates, gadgetry, and continual globetrotting. His travels bring him in contact with a deadly adversary (Gila Golan) and the nefarious Galaxy! One more Flint film with Coburn would follow.

The Silencers (1966)

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Dean Martin is no one’s idea of a James Bond (a drunk one maybe), but his good-natured persona and womanizing ways make him the best off-beat answer to Bond as impregnable agent Matt Helm, also based off some serialized literature. It’s campy, low-grade spy spoofing at its best (or worst?). A bevy of sequels came out in rapid succession.

Casino Royale (1967)

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Definitely not to be confused with Eva Green and Daniel Craig’s iteration, this is the most unwieldy and extravagant of all the spoofs. The cast is absolutely stuffed with big names, and it really is an excuse to roll out the talent. Everyone from David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Ursula Andress masquerade as the incomparable Bond. The best thing to come out of the movie might be “The Look of Love,” but there are lots of memorable cameos.

What other classic Bond or spy spoofs would you recommend?

Gunman’s Walk (1958): A Cain & Able Western

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“I think it’s high time for this state to remember its history!” – Van Heflin

The whistling intro to Gunman’s Walk is one of the most insouciant beginnings to a western you might ever see. Regrettably, the opening lines of dialogue, penned by Frank S. Nugent, don’t stand up on their feet. It’s easy enough to understand Tab Hunter is a sharp-tongued pretty boy with a big chip on his shoulder. His reticent more unassuming brother Davy acts as his complete antithesis. This is the source of immediate tension, even visually, with the casting of such disparate actors as Hunter and James Darren.

Given these elements, the words coming out of their mouths aren’t of much use. It’s not simply in the opening arguments either but in their later verbal skirmishes. Even the brief interludes of candor, they are not always capable of holding a scene. They need a Van Heflin to work with, and he certainly makes them both better and more compelling. Because it is their conflict and confused relationship with him speaking to all other facets of the movie.

Gunman’s Walk finds its footing not only with the introduction of Heflin, but also when it settles into a story with ideas fueling relationships. We come to understand it to be more nuanced than mere bickering. Because with every fight there is an underlying trauma of some form. In the nucleus, you have the archetypal dichotomy between the two male progeny with divergent paths ahead of them. They are like Cain and Abel.

It’s their father who looks to guide them toward the straight-and-narrow or at least the western equivalent, which means molding them to be like he was when he was a boy. In fact, it goes further still. He wants to be one of the lads, even chiding them to call him by his first name.

Quick drawing, carousing, having a good time, and generally cultivating a “boys will be boys” mentality are all part of his regimen as their sole guardian. One boy shies away from this based on his natural tendencies and the other rebels more blatantly still, determined to be his own man, greater than his dad ever was.

Beyond their initial quarreling, we begin to comprehend the spirit of the brothers when they wander into the local mercantile. Tab Hunter notes the pretty “half-breed” working inside, and it’s the immediate barb to suggest this is also a drama about racism.

It cannot help but come front and center when Ed pushes a half-Sioux off the cliffside as he selfishly sprints after a prized white stallion, with no consideration of human life. The man killed, named Paul, happens to be the older brother of Clee (Kathryn Grant). She works in the mercantile and faces the debilitating, inbred bigotry of the town day in and day out.

What must come out of this is a trial. Because two bystanders speak up on behalf of their friend. They think it was murder, and it might as well be. But Lee will have none of it. He’s not about to let his son get railroaded by two natives.

It goes far to suggest a type of privilege not only earned arbitrarily through skin color but also in attributing who is memorialized in the history books and how they get remembered. Lee’s demonstrative cry to remember history is itself a highly ironic evocation, given the circumstances. Just what version of history is he talking about? Undoubtedly his version.

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There’s a trial to follow and of course, Ed gets off. A crooked witness comes to his defense — upon hearing what a generous soul Hackett is — though the conniving passerby is no better than a horse thief. Meanwhile, Davy finds himself in a Romeo and Julietesque romance, at least in considering his father would never agree to a union with a Sioux.

Ever disconsolate, Ed dodges jail once only to end up there again, this time for gunning down his father’s blackmailer. His attempts to frame it as self-defense fool no one in town and Lee is flabbergasted. Why would he do such a thing? Ed feels like his father has gone against his own principles. They’re further apart than they have ever been.

There is no turning back when Ed blasts himself out of jail, murdering another man, with a posse now out to get him. Lee has no choice but try and beat them to his boy — to try and do anything he can to shield him. One wonders if it’s already too late.

The final showdown feels like a foreign dynamic — father pitted versus son — there is no other way to go about it with the law bearing down on them. It ends unceremoniously, though the emotional toil remains heady.

Tab Hunter absolutely blows through his clean-cut, boy-next-door image and tramples on it with the hooves of his horse for good measure. As a result of constantly fighting the demons of his own malice and being cast in his father’s shadow, he remains all but unrepentant to the last frame.

Each subsequent film I see featuring Van Heflin cements my estimation of him as a giant among the unsung heroes of Hollywood’s elite. This is by no means a great western, but in the moments unearthing some semblance of deep emotional truth, it is Heflin who guides them with a craggy vulnerability. The final two scenes are pure class. They tear your heart apart.

It’s quite the statement given that during much of the film we wouldn’t mind tearing him limb from limb. He hobbles off with his boy and the boy’s wife, and we actually have sympathy stored up for him. It’s an extraordinary achievement in a relatively minor western.

3.5/5 Stars

Scandal Sheet (1952)

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There’s no need to mince words here. With a film christened Scandal Sheet you already have a good idea of what you’re probably going to get before it arrives. That’s fine. Straight to the point can be good.

But the media angle is only a half of it. It’s as much a film of lurid cover-ups and back-alley beatings as it is about dirty journalism. You need those lightning rods for a juicy scoop and it’s precisely these types of events that bring the newspaper hounds out of the woodwork.

If Samuel Fuller couldn’t wind up being the director of his original story, The Dark Page, then there’s arguably no better man to take up the project than Phil Karlson who has comparable sensibilities and an appreciation for gritty crime pictures and pulp fiction though he’s not quite as dynamic.

It’s true at one point Howard Hawks even had the project flagged to star two of his past favorites in Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. What a film that would have been. But when Karlson came aboard John Payne was offered the role (he would work with Karlson later on) that ultimately went to John Derek.

He and his faithful cameraman (Henry Morgan) are integral pieces of one of the most parasitic relationships on the Bowery that develop between newspapermen and the police. They’re rather like scavengers picking over the carrion or any other delectable scraps that might perchance be tossed their direction.

However, oftentimes the methods of an organization are employed from the top down. In fact, Steve McCleary (Derek) has become the star reporter under the tutelage of Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) the man who has taken over the helm of the New York Express. He took the once reputed but faltering behemoth and turned it into a sensationalized tabloid that subsequently has the highest readership it’s been able to attain in years. There’s no denying the stuff sells like hotcakes fresh off the griddle. What can you say? Sensation is tasty stuff and scandal is the favorite food of the masses.

The paper’s latest gimmick in pursuit of ever-rising levels of circulation is the implementation of a Lonely Hearts Ball trying to play up the angle of a few nobodies falling in love. It’s a real sob fest with all the trimmings for a great story. No one knew how right that assertion was.

What follows is a conflict of interest that’s ripe with dramatic irony. There’s a murder investigation and the paper is embroiled in the middle of it trying to drudge up the answers with the help of their readership. With such hysteria at its core Scandal Sheet shares, some of the same journalism beats of While the City Sleeps (1956).

However, in this picture, Donna Reed is the moral center because how could we ever suspect her of being anything other than that clean, respectful, Midwestern gal with heaps of integrity? She’s much the same here not wanting to besmirch her editorials with sleaze and believing in old washed up writers when no one else will give them the time of day. Even when her boyfriend is guilty of precisely that. In fact, that’s where a bit of their romantic tension is founded.

Steve’s good at his job and a real bloodhound on the beat and a handsome devil at that but a fairly ignorant stiff, the most aggravating reality about the picture being just that. The case is right under his nose and he doesn’t see it for the entirety of the film.

The easiest way to try and explain it away is much the way Walter Neff did in Double Indemnity (1944) though the roles are reversed, “The guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.” Except Broderick Crawford is no Edward G. Robinson and there’s not the same genial relationship that can be attributed to the earlier picture. It’s all business.

That’s why his romantic ties are so important. Because that’s the one area where he is steered in the right direction. Once again, Donna Reed is that crucial moral compass in a choppy sea lacking any amount of rectitude otherwise.

But then again, you get the feeling Donna Reed would never turn up in a Sam Fuller picture if this was his. Still, that should not completely neutralize what Karlson was able to do here — developing a film that’s pretty much as advertised. A gritty bowels drama that cases the insides of New York drudging up all sorts of drama in the name of yellow journalism. If that’s what you’re looking for you’re in for a treat.

3.5/5 Stars

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

KCConfidential.jpgSaying that Phil Karlson has a penchant for gritty crime dramas is a gross understatement. And yet here again is one of those real tough-guy numbers he was known for, where all you have to do is follow the trail of cigarette smoke and every punch is palpable–coming right off the screen and practically walloping you across the face.

Like all heist films, there must be a point of inception, however, Kansas City Confidential finds its story after the crime has been committed and the perpetrators have split up without a hitch. The man who takes the heat, their fall guy and the unsuspecting stooge is Joe Rolfe (John Payne who is adept at playing such roles) a nobody truck driver and a convict once upon a time.

It seems like the perfect crime as the three hired hands all wore masks and had no connection to each other, except for the stocky and demonstrative Mr. Big, the mastermind behind the whole operation and the one calling the shots. He sends each man off with enough money to tide themselves over until he contacts them to reconvene for their big payoff. Whether or not he will actually cough up the 300,000 clams he owes each of them is quite another story.

Still, each man heads his own way and Joe is getting grilled by the cops day after day in the hopes that he will crack. Finally, he is released, but with no prospects and no job, he sits in a bar stewing in his anger. The story takes it’s next big turn when he follows a lead down to Mexico to tail one of the hoods in on the job Peter Harris (Jack Elam). And although Joe is going in blind, he soon catches wind of the impending rendezvous in Barados and decides he’ll just show up as well, to get to the bottom of the entire mess.

It’s there where he first crosses paths with two other leering hoods, the beady-eyed Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and the silently brooding Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). However, while keeping tabs on these cronies, he keeps company with a budding lawyer Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), who has come to call upon her protective father, the former policeman Tim Foster. If this set up isn’t plain enough already, it certainly becomes increasingly interesting as the gears continue to turn towards the story’s inevitable climax.

Most certainly Kansas City Confidential boasts jarring close-ups, low budget facades and perpetually sweaty faces that accentuate its unsentimental noirish qualities. However, Coleen Gray acts as a more enlightened noir heroine, who does not grovel for her man or weep incessantly at the thought of danger. Instead, she’s training to be a lawyer, and rational but still unequivocally kind. Despite not having a proper meet cute, the chemistry between Gray and Payne still works surprisingly well.

What makes the film inherently more interesting is how the crime is embroiled with family issues. Because, as an audience, we know Mr. Big’s identity: a corrupted cop who got a bum steer and now is going to reap the benefits of setting up some real losers. Still, that doesn’t excuse what he did and Joe got dealt a similarly sorry hand. The fact that Foster’s daughter is involved sheds him in a more humane light and in the same instance makes Joe a more likable figure. In many ways, she brings out the best qualities of both these characters. It’s the darker recesses that lurk behind their characters. Those are made more evident by the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and Neville Brand, a real rogues gallery of baddies if there ever was one.

4/5 Stars