Tag Archives: Spy

CAPSULE: MODESTY BLAISE (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Losey

FEATURING: , , Dirk Bogarde, Clive Revell, Harry Andrews, Rossella Falk, Michael Craig

PLOT:  Master thief Modesty Blaise and her associate, Willy Garvin, are enlisted by the British Government to protect a diamond shipment to a Middle Eastern sheik from a heist ring overseen by Master Criminal Gabriel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It certainly is strange, even for a comic book film, but in very much the spirit of its time.

COMMENTS: The current craze of adapting comic-book characters for the screen isn’t just a recent phenomenon. It’s only the consistent box-office success that’s relatively new. But, as Modesty Blaise proves, satisfying the preexisting fan base has ALWAYS been the fly in the ointment.

Purist fans of the British “Modesty Blaise” strip (which at the time was more known internationally than in the U.S., and still is) have long complained that the film doesn’t truly represent the source material. Not being familiar with the strip, I’ll leave it to those with more knowledge of the character to make those criticisms. What is evident, from what can be seen onscreen, is that director Losey, previously known for dramas such as The Servant and These Are the Damned, was going POP in the largest way possible.

The photography (by Jack Hilyard) and design (by Richard MacDonald and art director Jack Shampan) take precedence over anything else in the movie. In retrospect, that might not have been an altogether bad thing. The script—by Evan Jones, based on an original story and script by “Modesty” creator Peter O’Donnell and an uncredited pass by Harold Pinter(!)—appears to be a mess, though the flaw may be in its execution.

The 60’s Pop-art fascination with the comics had its basis in camp. Losey’s approach is no different, going for an arch, self-aware tone, most blatantly during a scene where Modesty, while searching a friend’s apartment, comes across her own comic strip. The movie’s Modesty also can change her wardrobe and hair color at the snap of a finger. Camp also explains the (horribly sung) duets she and Willie have at two points in the film, the last during the final confrontation with the bad guys. The camp isn’t quite as broad as what would soon be seen on television’s “Batman” series; Losey’s approach is more intellectual and narrow, as if channeling  directing a comic book spy film.

The main complaint about the film from purists is Monica Vitti, who in no way resembles the character as drawn. For the film, however, she’s more than perfect, bringing with her the ennui from her roles for Antonioni. Terence Stamp does a serviceable job in his role, basically a pretty boy-toy. The supporting cast (Clive Revell, Harry Andrews) is good, but it’s Dirk Bogarde who runs away with the film as the villainous but fey Gabriel, followed closely by Rossella Falk as his sadistic wife (and beard), Mrs. Fothergill.

Modesty Blaise is not an especially good a comic adaptation, or very weird. Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik both hew closer to their sources and go even more over the top. As an example of mid-60’s cinema Pop Art, however, it is good on its own terms.

DVD INFO: In 2002, Fox released a DVD that was fairly decent at the time—widescreen and anamorphic, although there were no extras. This past summer (2016) brought a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino-Lorber. It includes a commentary by film historian David Del Valle and director Armand Mastroianni which is entertaining—although Del Valle mistakenly credits camera operator Gerry Fisher as the DP. Also in the release are featurettes with first assistant director (and Joseph Losey’s son) Gavrik Losey; writer Evan Jones; and assistant art director Norman Doane. An image gallery and a trailer round out the special features.

THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART THREE

This is Part 3 of a 3 part survey of “The Prisoner.” Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 is here.

“A Change Of Mind,” (directed by Patrick McGoohan) opens with the Prisoner confronted by thugs from the gymnasium (which is fairly typical for workout fundies). Seeing that No. 6 would rather exercise in the woods, they accuse him of being “unmutual” (not status quo) and ferociously pick a fight with him. The Prisoner reacts by beating the hell out of them. Then, like all bullies who get whupped, they go and tattle. Of course, No. 2 (played by John Sharp this week) and his gang threaten a spanking,  in the form of a lobotomy for No. 6—a literal change of mind. Unfortunately, they haven’t found out yet what they need from No. 6: why the Prisoner resigned as an agent. The solution? Make the Prisoner believe he has been lobotomized. The episode uses Rod Serling circularity, with another confrontation in the woods and a table-turning that leads to the charge of “unumutuality” going much higher.

“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” (directed by Pat Jackson) is a genuine oddity in a genuinely odd series. Its contrasting textures are off-colored, with the presence of “star” McGoohan kept to a minimum. He’s hardly even in it, as he was busy filming Ice Station Zebra (1968). Of course, the production team could have simply waited for McGoohan’s return. Instead they found an opportunity for a change of pace. Whether they succeeded or not is intensely debated.

On paper, the plot sounds fatigued. Yet another mind-swapping thriller, the type that “one idea” Universal hack Curt Siodmack wrote repeatedly.  When the Colonel (Nigel Stock) arrives in the Village, he is informed by No. 2 (Clifford Evans) that a professor Seltzman (Hugo Schuster) has invented a mind-swapping machine. Unfortunately, Seltzman is missing and, apparently, once done, the process cannot be reversed, which is hardly going to stop No. 2, if it means obtaining information from the Prisoner.

Yet again, the Prisoner is abducted and drugged, only to awaken in the body of the Colonel. It doesn’t take him to long to do the math and go looking for Seltzman. Along the way, No. 6 has his only love scene in the entire series, played by Stock (because the hyper-Catholic McGoohan refused to ever do a love scene). Stock plays the Prisoner throughout most of the episode without resorting to impersonation. His performance is an effective one, matched by Evans’s charismatic No. 2.

Apparently, the script was loathed by almost everyone, and many “Prisoner” fans rank it as the low ebb of the series. There’s no denying that it doesn’t quite come together, but it is a compelling effort.

The Prisoner, "Living in Harmony"“Living in Harmony” (directed by David Tomblin) is another episode which sounds wretched and could be dubbed “the Prisoner goes west.” However, as when the original “Star Trek” crew relived the gunfight at the OK Corral (in “Spectre of the Gun,” also from 1968), the end result is among the most refreshingly ludicrous in the show’s run.

The Prisoner finds himself in the guise of a recently resigned sheriff Continue reading THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART THREE

THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART TWO

This is Part 2 of a 3 part survey of “The Prisoner.” Part 1 can be found here.

Does 6 plus 6 really equal 12? So asks the aptly titled “The Schizoid Man” (directed by Pat Jackson). After a seemingly innocuous trifle about bonding with a psychic villager and a bruised thumb, the Prisoner lies down for a good night’s sleep, but it appears that the room night light has a faulty bulb.

Drugged once more, the Prisoner is taken by men in white coats who wheel him into the hospital, turn him into a southpaw (via electroshock, in a moment of karma for all us lefties who were at the mercy of brainwashing status quo teachers with rulers back in first grade), throw away his razors, and give him a new do.  After an indeterminate amount of time on the gurney, the Prisoner awakens with a new look in a new surrounding, as pawn of an elaborate scheme composed by the new No. 2 (Anton Rodgers), a surprisingly young administrator.

“You are Number 12,” the Prisoner is told at the Green Dome, “and you are to break Number 6.” “But I am Number 6.” And so he is, or at least his double is. And if you think that in addition to being an attempt at uncovering the reason for the Prisoner’s resignation, this is also a ploy to get him to own his number, you would be right.  See Number 12 fence with Number 6. See them box. See them duel with pistols.

Now actually, Number 6 is Number 12 , Number 12 is Number 6, and Number 12 is in cahoots with Number 2. Of course, No. 6 (12) knows this is a feeble scheme hatched by No. 2. Of course, No. 2 knows that No. 12 (6) knows that No. 6 (12) knows. But, what if No. 12 pretends to be No. 6? Perhaps then he could escape. And the helicopter circles back, as it always does. And the psychic is remorseful over having cooperated with No. 2, but neither she nor No. 2 counted on a bruised thumb. Ah!

The script for “The Schizoid Man” so impressed McGoohan  that he hired its writer, Terence Freely, to join the production company’s board of directors. In contrast, for years director Pat Jackson claimed to have been utterly confused by the script, but simply directed it as written. His confusion was an honest one and shows in one of the series most legendary episodes. McGoohan responds with a tour de force performance.

Director Peter Graham Scott was reported to have been equally confused by the script for “The General.” Again, that turns out to be a plus (and undoubtedly an astute choice by McGoohan and company).

The Prisoner cannot even enjoy his coffee without Village trauma drama when he hears an announcement ordering history students to immediately return to their dwellings, which is followed by his witnessing the Professor being caught and manhandled (by his students) while attempting to escape.

The Village is obsessed with a new fad, Speed Learning: “Learn a three-year course in three minutes.” “It’s not impossible,” says No. 12. The Prisoner finds the Professor’s tape recorder, which has “information” that may prove damaging to the General and No. 2 (Colin Continue reading THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART TWO

THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART ONE

The British series “The Prisoner” (1967-1968), starring and co-created by , is the model for cult television. It is an indirect sequel to a previous series, “Secret Agent” (AKA “Danger Man,” 1960-1962), which also starred McGoohan. By general consensus, “The Prisoner” ranks as one of the best, if not the best, example of science fiction as a television genre. The consensus, for once, is probably accurate, because “The Prisoner” is far more than science fiction, dispensing with genre expectations. We could also describe it as being psychological, surreal, allegorical, existential, countercultural, satirical, Kafkaesque, psychedelic, nightmarish, absurdist, comic bookish, supernatural, born from the spy genre (in a far more interesting breed than 007), and enigmatic. It’s still enigmatic today, with enthusiasts and critics compelled to attempt to express its mystification in the absence of creator McGoohan, who steadfastly refused to ever explain it. Even its reputation is aptly enigmatic; it’s heard about more than actually seen. “The Prisoner” often causes polemical arguments among many who have seen it and debate the chronological order of its seventeen episodes. It was created smartly and contrary to our priorities and agendas regarding television. To many of us, the series should be ongoing. In its blueprint stage, the goal of “The Prisoner” was always to end, and yet in its (for us) brief run, McGoohan crafts a saga that feels narratively and aesthetically accomplished. Comparatively, many series, after being cancelled prematurely, will feel unfinished, cheating its dangling audience. At the other end of the spectrum, many ongoing series have trekked on well past the point of what should have been a well-developed beginning, middle, and satisfying climax. “The Prisoner” was originally intended to be even briefer, but was extended in order to ensure an American market. In hindsight, “The Prisoner” might even be seen as an advance metaphorical commentary on that puerile abomination known as reality television: elastically taunting and playing with our concepts of reality, daily humdrum, juxtapositional narrative, and cryptic completion.

What we do know is the idea for “The Prisoner” sprang from McGoohan’s exhaustive workload on “Secret Agent.” In “The Arrival” (directed by Don Chaffey), its unnamed protagonist (McGoohan) quits the British Secret Service with no reason cited; but as we know, departing an intelligence position is hardly a done deal. Drugged and abducted by arcane forces, he  awakens …

Where Am I?

In the Village.

What Do You Want?

Information.

Still from The Prisoner (1967-1968)Whose Side Are You On?

That Would Be Telling. We Want Information.

You Won’t Get It.

By Hook, or By Crook, We Will.

Who Are You?

The New No. 2.

Who Is No. 1?

Continue reading THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART ONE

WOODY ALLEN’S WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY (1966)

What’s up Tiger Lily (1966) is from ‘s early period, when he was a funny guy, but he was also just as prone to experimentation in his Genesis period (his next project was the infamous experimental James Bond disaster Casino Royale, which he acted in and co-wrote). The concept for Tiger Lily is so simple, one wonders why no one had attempted it before (or since): Allen took a Japanese spy film—a not so subtle ripoff of the Bond films called The Key of Keys, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi—and redubbed it. Allen himself appears to introduce this one-of-a-kind, playful hybrid.

Allen has since dismissed What’s Up Tiger Lily as juvenile doodle, but its youthful pulse on the absurd is convincing, winning, and is probably the closest he gets to authentically weird cinema. There are some who maintain that in addition to being his first film, Lily is also his funniest.

Most of the mainstream suddenly became acquainted with Allen with this film, which was an unexpected hit (Allen later joked that his overnight success was a decade in the making). In addition to the dubbing, Allen also re-edited  the film, and the result is so refreshing that the original film becomes a viewing ordeal (the opposite of what happened whenever ‘s edits inexplicably made godawful films even worse, i.e., Face of the Screaming Werewolf).

Whether or not What’s Up Tiger Lily is Allen’s funniest film is debatable, but it’s certainly his silliest, because of its inherent helter-skelter weirdness. Its the cinematic equivalent of a Mad Magazine, with subtle-as-a-pair of brass knuckles humor and spliced-in performances from the Lovin’ Spoonful making it a bouncing off the wall party favorite (it’s probably not as fun to watch alone). There are just as many jokes that fail as ones that work, but they are delivered with such kinetic, Tex Avery-like speed that it hardly matters. Comparatively, the whole of Mystery Science Theater 3000 seems like an academic lecture.

Allen and his team are not so much writing here as jotting down improvisations (” Woody, since the story is difficult to follow, would you mind giving the audience a rundown on what’s gone on so far?”) There’s certainly no polish in the lame impersonations (“This Peter Lorre impression is killing my throat”), animated stars covering the nipples of cabaret dancers, blatant sexism, jokes about confusing Japanese with Chinese, vibrators, cattle prods for the bedroom, Japanese toys,  masturbation, along with non-stop ethnic and religious jabs:

“Spartan Dog! Roman Cow! Russian Snake! Spanish Fly! Anglo-Saxon Hun! I’m dying—call the rabbi! I had an idea that it was Mormon Tabernacle Choir who helped you escape, but there was no motive. The Best thing about my mother is that she can really take a punch!”

“Did you bring the mayonnaise? Never mind, we’ll use Miracle Whip! No bullets? Ah, but if all of you in the audience who believe in fairies will clap your hands, then my gun will be magically filled with bullets!”

Poster from What's Up Tiger Lily (1966)

In Allen’s version, walking-erection superspy Phil Moskowitz (Tatsuya Mihashi, also the star of 1960s films The Bad Sleep Well and High And Low) has received a commission from the High Majah of Raspur to find the Secret Recipe for Egg Salad, which is now in the hands of the evil Shepherd Wong. Assisting  Moskowitz are two buxom Japanese babes: Teri and Suki (“I’m such a great piece”) Yaki (Mia Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi, who also appeared together in King Kong vs. Godzilla and the 007 entry You Only Live Twice).

To quote that eternally underrated band, The Sparks, this is the film in which we see Allen with Angst in His Pants.  It’s no wonder that the sophisticated filmmaker holds this adolescent, politically incorrect, blatantly racist, sexist, sloppy, and dated entry in such contempt. It may be an embarrassment for Allen, but the rest of us will be losing our stitches.

 

CAPSULE: ZETA ONE (1969)

Beware

AKA The Love Factor

DIRECTED BY: Michael Cort

FEATURING: Robin Hawdon, Yutte Stensgaard, James Robertson Justice, Dawn Addams

PLOT: While in bed with a blonde, a secret agent flashes back to his last mission, when he was in bed with a blonde while he was supposed to be out investigating a gang of female aliens abducting girls in miniskirts.

Still from Zeta One (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s camp value, and lovely birds in and out of teeny tiny miniskirts, in this soft porn parody of Barbarella and the Bond movies, but you have to sit through a ridiculous amount of padding to get to the “good” (and to the “weird”) stuff.

COMMENTS: When there are no naked women on the screen, you may try to entertain yourself during Zeta One by musing about Robin Hawdon’s mustache and its role in the plot. You see, in the flashbacks, alleged superspy John Word sports dashing soup strainer, but in the present time, he’s clean-shaven. But it’s not that the director simply forgot that he had a mustache in earlier scenes. The first time we see Word he’s wearing a fake mustache, which conspicuously falls off when he’s startled by Ann Owen, the sexy secretary from his secret agent office, who has snuck into his kitchen to pump him for information about the mission he just completed. To divert her questions, and to fill up time, the couple play a real-time game of strip poker: we watch them shuffle the cards, deal them out, consider their hands, draw, exchange bets and double entendres, lay down their hands, and then—the loser takes off her shoes! On to the next hand. This procedure burns up ten minutes of screen time, before they fall into bed and pillow talk turns into potential treason as Word flashes back to his last mission. It’s twenty minutes into the film, and the plot is just starting. That plot involves a race of all-female topless aliens who are kidnapping leggy young Earth women and training them to be the next generation of girlnapping topless aliens (for reasons I never quite puzzled out), while a portly supervillain-type is trying to horn in on the alien action (again, I have no idea why), and so hires a volunteer stripper to be abducted so she can scope out the alien civilization of “Angvia.” Once Her Majesty’s Service (or whomever) gets an earful of this scheme they call in Word, who, manly stache intact, just happens to be rolling around in bed with two naked blondes when he gets the call to action. But the plot continues without Word, who procrastinates by bedding another swinging chick, until he finally finds the time to go to central headquarters (where he encounters the film’s only funny joke, a wisecracking elevator). At no time does putative protagonist Word actually appear in the same scene with the villains, the aliens or the abducted stripper. His parts all appear to have been cheap padding added later. Which is a shame, because the few scenes the filmmakers managed to shoot for the sexy sci-fi parody they were making before the money ran out weren’t bad, and might have made a decently campy 45-minute film. That movie had geometric futurist sets decorated in bold primary colors, lots of those lava lamp/kaleidoscope freakout psychedelic effects (often incorporating nude women into the hallucinatory tableaux), and an army of kung-fu alien babes in bikini bottoms, pasties and pageboy wigs. The wraparound movie just has a smarmy would-be Bond lying in bed with naked women reminiscing about exploits he was not involved in in any way. But what about his fake mustache? My proposed solution to the facial hairpiece conundrum is to speculate that Robin Hawdon was called in for two separate rounds of padding: once when he was sporting a hearty lip bush, and a second time after he had shaved it off for another role. To explain the follicular discrepancy, they filmed a scene where he takes off a fake mustache, but they couldn’t think up any way to go back and insert dialogue in the earlier part of the film to explain why he needed a lip toupee to entertain Swedish stewardesses in his bachelor pad in the first place. But, why not just keep the fake mustache on for the new scenes? I have no good answer for that—maybe starlet Yutte Stensgaard refused to kiss a mustachioed man.

According to Nick Gillies at Den of Geek, the continuity director of Zeta One petitioned IMDB to have her credit on this film removed from the movie database!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…encapsulates everything that was weird and not-so-wonderful about the [swinging London] era.”–Gordon Sullivan, DVD Verdict (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: CASINO ROYALE (1967)

DIRECTORS: John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, Richard Talmadge (uncredited)

CAST: David Niven, , Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, , Barbara Bouchet, Joanna Pettet, Terence Cooper, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, Jacqueline Bisset, Bernard Cribbins, Ronnie Corbett, Anna Quayle, John Huston, William Holden, Charles Boyer, Vladek Sheybal, Burt Kwouk, Peter O’Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, David Prowse

PLOT: There really isn’t one, but here goes: Sir James Bond (Niven) is called out of retirement by M (Huston) when the new head of SMERSH is revealed to be Bond’s nephew, Jimmy (Allen).

Still from Casino Royale (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird in the way a film by  or  is; nevertheless, it’s another one of those out-of-control, all-star, over-budget fiascoes that leaves you wondering “What were they thinking?” If this website were called 366Self-IndulgentMovies.com, Casino Royale would definitely make the list.

COMMENTS: Not to be confused, ever, with the marvelous 2006 Daniel Craig film (which might well be the finest Bond movie yet), this 1967 boondoggle is based very loosely on the same source material: Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel. The product of six different directors, including John Huston (The African Queen) and Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and six writers, among them Ben Hecht (Notorious), Billy Wilder (Ninotchka) and  (Candy, Barbarella), the 007 spoof Casino Royale is a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Clocking in at an excessive 137 minutes, it’s a completely incoherent psychedelic mess, which, if you’re in the right frame of mind, can come off as intermittently hilarious.  Reportedly, the film was as chaotic to make as it is to watch, with Sellers and Welles warring on the set, and the former finally walking off the movie before it was finished. The final result, however, comes off as so utterly insane that the abrupt departure of Seller’s character (“Evelyn Tremble”)–who is (SPOILER ALERT!) murdered offscreen–fits right in with the freewheeling, anything goes “storyline” of everything else in the film. This version of Casino Royale is probably best remembered for the two hit singles spawned from the soundtrack: the bouncy, jaunty title song played unmistakably by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and the languid, Oscar-nominated Dusty Springfield ballad, “The Look of Love.” Burt Bacharach’s score is a true relic of the Swinging Sixties, and large chunks of it show up in the third Austin Powers film. In fact, Austin Powers probably wouldn’t exist at all without Casino Royale. If one pays very close attention, it is striking that parts of this movie actually do bear a resemblance to the Daniel Craig “remake.” Bond falls in love with Vesper Lynd (Andress) who is kidnapped and then betrays him. He also plays cards with Le Chiffre (Welles), who later straps him to a chair and tortures him (although not in the notorious way that he does in the 2006 film). When Bond escapes, Le Chiffre –(SPOILER!) is shot in the head by SMERSH. Of course, these plot strands go back to the original novel, but that’s all that is left of Fleming.

By the end of Casino Royale, matters have gotten so out of hand that there are appearances by the Frankenstein monster (Prowse, who later played Darth Vader), a performing seal, a clapping chimp, and a troupe of stereotypical tomahawk-wielding “Indians” dancing the Frug. Since the film opened right before the Summer of Love, one has to wonder; what were the cast and crew smoking?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hideous, zany disaster… a psychedelic, absurd masterpiece.”-Andrea LeVasseur, The All-Movie Review

LIST CANDIDATE: MODUS OPERANDI (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Frankie Latina

FEATURING: Randy Russell,

PLOT: The CIA convinces an alcoholic ex-agent to track down two stolen briefcases in return for

Still from Modus Operandi (2009)

the name of the man who killed his wife.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:The post-Tarantino/ fake-grindhouse movie is a sub-genre that’s less than a decade old, but already feels stale. Newcomer Frankie Latina, however, freshens the formula by spiking this exploitation cocktail with a shot of some sort of quick and dirty experimental hallucinogen he synthesized in his kitchen using drain cleaner, pencil shavings, and an over-the-counter hangover remedy. It’s a minor, but bizarrely entertaining, concoction.

COMMENTS: Exploding cowboy heads! Random film stock switches from black and white to Eastmancolor! Pubic hair shaving! Debuting director Frankie Latina throws everything he can think of into Modus Operandi, including the kitchen sink and whatever other plumbing fixtures he can bum off his Milwaukee pals. Bizarre bikini coke party! Authentic funk soundtrack! Time lapse shot of rotting fruit! Ideas and interruptions come fast and furious, and yet the plot is comfortingly simple to process. The missing briefcases are classic MacGuffins, and although it’s utterly preposterous, almost everything in the story tracks—except when the film breaks and VHS nude model auditions suddenly bleed into the movie. Gratuitous Alexandre Dumas quote! Strip club massacre! Danny Trejo! Ideas, you see, are free, an important asset when you’re filming a movie with no money. Latina disguises the fact that his movie has almost no action by blindsiding the audience with exploitation staples (nudity and gore) and stylistic non sequiturs at every turn. There is little of that alienating “look at us, we’re making a bad movie and we know it” jokiness in Modus Operandi; instead, the comedy in this parody arises from juxtaposition and weirdness. Senseless zooms! Snuff movies! Real life lesbian vampires! Among the film’s subtler jokes is the fact that the nominal hero and supposed ace agent, Stanley Cashay, is a middle-aged, frequently nude drunk who has no observable talent and who doesn’t actually do anything remotely heroic, or even interesting. The CIA is desperate to rehabilitate him from his stupor, but once sobered up the only thing he does is to put in a phone call to his underworld contact, Thunderbird. Thunderbird then calls Xanadu, Xanadu calls Foxy Borwn-wannabe Black Licorice, and somehow, through a confusing series of swaps and double crosses between a series of colorful agents, the briefcases eventually work their way back to Cashay. Meanwhile, Latina delivers more of what we tuned in for. Japanese torture vixens in black corsets! Hitchcock tributes! Intermission sequence with suggestive ice cream licking! As the promo for “Ayesha Ayesha,” the fake Bollywood spy babe TV show that’s a smash hit in Modus Operandi‘s universe, explains, it’s “psychedelic… razor sharp… rainbows and waterfalls… espionage… Air Mumbai… ice cold… bizarre adventures… far out!” To which we can only add: Corkscrews to eyeballs!  Split screens! Background painting of a topless woman riding a unicorn!

Modus Operandi also features fellow low-budget auteur Mark Borchardt (American Movie, Coven) in a small role. It’s “presented by” recently retired adult star Sasha Grey, for no observable reason except for the huckster logic that a porn starlet’s endorsement will sell tickets. Latina is already at work on his second feature, Skinny Dip (due out any day now), which brings back Trejo in a larger role and adds an expanded roster of acting talent including Grey, , Brigitte Nielson, and Pam Grier (now entering her fifth decade of exploitation filmmaking).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…its free-floating storytelling is more akin to the associative human mind than cinema’s traditional flow of familiar establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, and cutaways. Like a found-footage film, Modus Operandi‘s logic is fragmented and unpredictable…”–Diego Costa, Slant (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: A master thief and his girlfriend carry off a series of audacious heists while evading the police and a rival criminal.

Still from Danger: Diabolik (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some perplexing plot developments and slightly surreal moments, Danger: Diabolik never really journeys beyond its cops-and-robbers framework.  Ultimately, it’s more a product of its era’s weirder impulses than anything truly out-there.

COMMENTS: Full of kitschy décor and colorful costuming, Danger: Diabolik is a time capsule of the late 1960s.  The high-tech hijinks of its masked title character (Law) are redolent of Batman and James Bond, but with his frivolous capers and improbable escapes, Diabolik tops even those series’ campy excesses.  The entire film is just a string of cat-and-mouse encounters, as the Javert-like Inspector Ginko (Piccoli) lays a trap—be it priceless emeralds or a 20 ton ingot of gold—only for Diabolik to abscond with the loot, and his sexy accomplice Eva (Mell).

It may be perplexing at first to see a glamorous ball of fluff like Diabolik being directed by Bava, a man who’s best-known for stylized horror films like Black Sunday.  But Bava seizes on Diabolik’s ridiculous premise as a perfect opportunity to pour on the eye candy, unhindered by considerations of logic or self-restraint.   So instead of just getting one more of the routine super-spy pastiches that were clogging the theaters in 1968, we get some delirious sequences influenced by psychedelia and pop art.  The most effective such moment transpires when a prostitute tries to describe Eva’s appearance, leading into a bizarre animated cavalcade of mutating female faces.

The rest of Diabolik, however, is less audacious.  The cast seems to exist outside of these creative outbursts, and their performances drone on, whether they’re madly overacting—like Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi as an angry gangster, or Terry-Thomas as a tooth-gnashing government official—or else, like John Phillip Law, underacting to the point of barely giving a performance.  Law is so deadpan that it’s easy to forget he’s there, and that’s not exactly a desirable trait in a brazen anti-hero.  But who needs a believable performance when you’ve got sex amidst piles of cash?  Or a giant mirror as a method for deterring the police?  Or a grand finale that features an explosive vat of molten, “radioactivated” gold?

Diabolik’s triumph is that it dispenses with plausibility from the very first gush of multicolored fog, and doesn’t look back, prioritizing scenes of wacky spectacle over minor details like dialogue and characterization.  So it’s certainly not a good movie, per se—in fact, a truncated version was mocked in the last-ever episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”—but it does carry its worn premise to enthrallingly absurd heights.  For a viewer who wants some unrestrained campy nonsense, that should be as much of a lure as freshly cremated ashes chock-full of emeralds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Utilizing wide-angle lenses, day-glo colors, psychedelic sets, and outrageous costumes, Bava creates dynamic compositions which could have come straight from a comic-strip panel, along with some indelible images, none more so than Diabolik covered in gold at the end, or the shots of he and Eva making love on a spinning bed while covered by a pile of money.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Jules.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, ,

PLOT: An enigmatic hitman is sent on an obscure mission to kill an unknown man for unexplained reasons; the movie follows him as he meets with a long string of contacts of unclear significance, each of whom gives him a matchbook with further instructions and offers him a piece of dime store philosophy.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Set in an unreal moviescape of secret rendezvous and mystifying portents, The Limits of Control has definite shadings of weird. It’s a bold experiment in pure cinema, and like most bold experiments, it’s partly successful and partly frustrating. Stripping the plot down beneath its bare essentials, to the merest skeleton, Jarmusch proves that you can get pretty far on cinematic tone and technique alone. He also proves that you can’t quite get all the way to a good movie solely through cinematics.

Still from The Limits of Control (2009)

COMMENTS:  Dawn’s light breaks across the open eyes of a lone man lying in a hotel room bed. He gets up, puts on a natty suit, and does tai chi exercises, measuring each move slowly and precisely. He goes to a cafe, sits alone, and orders two espressos in two cups; he sends the order back when the waiter brings a double espresso in a single cup. Night falls. He returns to his hotel room, lies down on his hotel room bed, eyes wide open. Time presumably passes. Dawn’s light breaks across his unblinking face. A new day has begun.

It’s a typical twenty-four hours in the life of the character known only as the Lone Man, a secret agent who spends most of his days walking around, looking at the Spanish scenery or visiting the modern art gallery, sitting alone quietly in a cafe sipping espresso, and staring off into space blankly. He’s a quiet man, one who makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name look like a chatterbox. He won’t say one word if zero words will get his point across. Occasionally, another spy will meet him at a cafe and they will exchange Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)