Tuesday, June 29, 2010

'Our Man Flint' (1966) & 'In Like Flint' (1967) — double-naught spoofs

My recent post about The President's Analyst gave me a jones for more James Coburn, and for days I was unable to shake it. Succumbing, I looked at the DVD shelves here and was surprised by how many Coburnpalooza opportunities I have available: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Charade, The Americanization of Emily, and others. All great and worthy gotta-haves for a movie buff, to be sure. I just hadn't noticed before how well Mr. Coburn and his Cheshire Cat teeth are represented in co-starring positions in my Movie Room.

Given that I was looking toward revisiting Coburn in a front-and-center starring role (my hand hovered over Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but I have to preset my head for Peckinpah), and given that The President's Analyst shares a dry martini shaker with the spy-movie parodies of its era, my Coburnmania choices were obvious: Our Man Flint and In Like Flint — two lesser films compared to those others, but a pair that benefit mightily by headlining Coburn in a star-making role that shows off his flair for charismatic humor as well as tough-guy cool. They're a twin set of James Bond spoofs that still manage to guilty-pleasure me (well, one of them does at least) while offering no pretense of being, say, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, or Charade, or even Young Guns II.

By the time of the fourth Bond film, 1965's Thunderball, the 007 spy craze had exploded across pop culture, spattering the walls with poison blow-dart ink pens and steely-eyed, ultra-virile heroes. Perhaps the Cold War fantasy adventures of "real men" ruggedly vanquishing godless Commies and other evil empires, all while bedding improbably beautiful women, were a meat-eating guy's antacid against the discomforting reflux from real global tensions — not to mention home-grown indigestion embodied by the Beatles, antiwar protests, and the Women's Movement.

Plus, utilizing the Cold War for entertainment sure simplified things for moviegoers and TV-watchers. Head-throbbingly complex geopolitical currents were reduced to sprightly three-act action dramas that could be wrapped up before the closing credits rolled. Guns, gadgets, and girls were the primary colors of the comic-book spy universe.

Certainly there were serious-minded Bond imitators, such as the Harry Palmer series starring Michael Caine. But someone was bound to play the genre for laughs, and in short order the Bond spoofs outnumbered the Bond movies themselves. In fact, the '67 film version of Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale, hit the screen (with all the elegance of a paintball tournament) as a clowned-up comedy nearly 40 years before Daniel Craig got a case of the Vespers. Cocktail crooner Dean Martin starred in four mixed efforts featuring soused secret agent Matt Helm.

Even the women were allowed to flash their double-Os, such as Raquel Welch in 1967's Fathom ("the world's most uncovered undercover agent," natch) and Monica Vitti in Modesty Blaise ('66). Fresh-faced Andrea Dromm (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming) starred as a secret agent and danced "the Shark" alongside Troy Donahue in 1967's Come Spy With Me, but the movie bombed so thoroughly it has yet to appear on home video.

On TV, The Beverly Hillbillies' Jethro Bodine figured that being a "double-naught spy"  guaranteed a life of "all that fightin' and lovin'," whee-doggie.

Then as now, a Hollywood trend didn't end until it was well past tired, and titles such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, both starring our beloved Vincent Price plus his army of lethal fembots, made sure that we all tired quite thoroughly.

More recently (2006 and 2009) we get the two French "OSS 117" spy-film spoofs directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. These critical and box office successes drip with exacting 1950s-'60s period "look and feel" and float on Sean Connery look-alike Dujardin's natural charm as a clueless James Bond-Inspector Clouseau hybrid. Together Hazanavicius, Dujardin, and Bejo went on to international acclaim with 2011's The Artist.

The best of the spy-spoof bunch was 1966's Our Man Flint, a pop lampoon that remains a hyper-kitschy and entertaining time capsule. It helped make Coburn a full-fledged star as a Bond surrogate played so straight you could shave with him. Terrific with this dry, crackling material, Coburn is Derek Flint, ultra-secret agent called in to assist ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage). Silly it is, yet this tongue-way-in-cheek action-comedy garnered favorable reviews and became Fox's third highest grossing film of the year.

Our Man Flint made a shrewd move by sticking to the Bond template. The brilliant and resourceful Flint works alone (although in this case as a playboy free agent rather than as a government company man), follows each clue to the next level, employs superhuman physical and mental prowess, beds gorgeous gals, gets captured, and prevents world domination in an orgy of destruction at the evildoers' secret volcano island. However, instead of being a bozo-nosed vaudeville like the Austin Powers movies, Our Man Flint out-Bonds the Bond films by respectfully retooling the familiar Bond elements and then turning the knob to 11.

Our hero, having just returned from teaching ballet at Moscow's Bolshoi, is called into service. ZOWIE agents have been killed while seeking the mysterious masterminds behind GALAXY, an organization controlling the world's weather and deploying natural disasters to hold humanity hostage. Their aim: a scientifically regimented utopian new world order (one that might actually be wonderfully beneficial if you can get past the whole Mad Scientist Dictatorial Domination thing).

While tracking down the lab-coated bad guys and enforcing The American Way, Flint performs impromptu surgery, stops his heart for prolonged periods, repeatedly annoys his flustered boss (Lee J. Cobb, Broadway's original Willy Loman) with his undisciplined ways, invents a Zippo lighter with 82 functions ("83 if you want to light a cigar"), traces a poison through a bouillabaisse recipe served in only one spot on Earth, jump-starts a man's heart via a lightbulb socket, wisecracks with British Agent "Triple-O Eight" (a Sean Connery lookalike, and SPECTRE gets a name-check), judo-chops gangs of bad guys, avoids disintegration in an electrofragmentizer, and finds his four live-in lovelies ensnared and brainwashed within GALAXY's Dr. Evil-like volcano H.Q.

Supported by Jerry Goldmsith's groovy musical score (really, it's marvelous), Flint does it all while keeping his tailored suits spotless, his demeanor cool, and his women satisfied.

There's little that approaches suspense here, mind you, something even the lesser Bond films managed to generate to some degree. In that regard you can rightly charge that Flint is too cool and competent for the narrative's own good; on the other hand, is worrying whether our comic-strip hero can overcome a sticky predicament the point of the Flint films to any degree?

Comparisons between Flint's pastiche heroics and the Austin Powers series are obvious. (Mike Myers frequently acknowledges the debt in the films.) However, Our Man Flint and its sequel, In Like Flint, are exaggerated burlesques of their own time and the pop superspy tropes that flourished then. Therefore, we can more accurately compare the Flint flicks with Scream or similar sendups of contemporary conventions and clichés that had grown so familiar to audiences that laughter was the only response left.

And guys, you may want to think twice about watching Our Man Flint with a wife or girlfriend. As part of their broad comedic approach, both Flint films unashamedly parade coprolitic sexual attitudes that would make even Mr. Powers wince.

By their nature, '60s spy movies unzipped a phallocentric revolt against the era's "sexual revolution." Our Man Flint is giddy and harmless while still being sexist in ways that no one could get away with today. Flint's sybaritic lifestyle includes a Playboy-ideal Manhattan penthouse staffed by a quartet of pliant babes who, it's clear, exist to provide him with anything he desires. The sexy villainess (Gila Golan, Miss Israel 1961) likewise falls into his arms and bedsheets within minutes.

The film's final third is an adolescent male Disneyland of bikini-clad centerfold models brainwashed to be smiling, willing "pleasure units" who "offer their bodies for the good of GALAXY." Although played for good clean "Yeah, baby!" fun, the scenes of Joe Blow henchmen queuing up to enjoy the sexual-slavery "pleasure units" like Happy Meals should leave even Maxim readers squirming.

Another raise of an eyebrow is occasioned when, as the supervillains' volcano lair self-destructs, we watch Flint and company cheer as hundreds of uncondemned people, including a crowd-scene's worth of those "pleasure units" we just saw, are blown to smithereens. The surprise crematorium for all those apparently disposable Happy Meals is greeted with the thrill of a Fourth of July fireworks display. The tone of comic camp keeps the moment from being consumed by any chance we'll think about its implications too hard (or at all), and yet, upon reflection ... yeesh.

The gender-sexual snark appears again in the sequel. Indeed, it's the very dough this lumpy pastry is baked from, and it's a big reason In Like Flint doesn't wash down quite as well.

"Women running the world? [laugh] You can't be serious!" That line, exclaimed with righteous derision by our hero, pretty much summarizes the plot and purpose of In Like Flint, which tries to top its predecessor by sending sardonic übermensch Derek Flint to Moscow, outer space, and the Isle of Uppity Brassiere Models. Instead it comes across as a flabby mix of the Batman TV series and a third-tier men's magazine.

In the New York Times, the headline above Bosley Crowther's review read, "Durable Hero Defeated by Deficient Script - Usual Bevy of Beauties Doesn't Help Much." After that the review itself can only be redundant.

In his review at the time, Roger Ebert's sigh was audible:
"The sexiest thing in the new Derek Flint misadventure, "In Like Flint," is Flint's cigaret lighter, which is supposed to know 82 tricks but actually delivers only five, of which one is the not extraordinary ability to clip Lee J. Cobb's moustache."

The plot has something to do with a space laboratory, a duplicate of the U.S. President, Lee J. Cobb in drag and not looking happy about it, a cryonics chamber, and a cosmetics firm fronting for an all-female organization (based in the Virgin Islands, oy) out to overthrow global male authority by (again) brainwashing women, this time via salon hairdryers.

(I hereby apply the label "Womanchurian Candidate" to the trope of brainwashing women for nefarious purposes. Ian Fleming's 1963 Bond novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, made a plot device out of brainwashing women with allergy medications, turning them into biological warfare delivery mechanisms.)

In Like Flint has its amusing moments, some fun action and sci-fi elements, and once again Coburn is appealing as the smirking superspy-scientist-athlete-adventurer who's now also a dolphin language expert, matador, and international ballet master. And of course he's still the irresistable "free love" representative whose mastery includes all women most guys only fantasize about.

Still, trying to connect the plot dots is a pointless exercise, especially after Flint confronts the empowered "ladies" and wins them to his side by telling them that they're being a bunch of silly-billies who shouldn't worry their pretty little heads so.

The fade-out sees Flint beginning an orbital three-way with two lovely cosmonaughties.

The best thing in this he-male mother-goosery is Jerry Goldsmith's sticks-in-your-head musical score that spoofs period flavorings. And as with Our Man Flint, the theatrical poster art by Bob Peak is a target acquisition for collectors.

In Our Man Flint the gender attitudes add to the fluffy fun when viewed in their anthropological context. Here they're just smug and condescending.

The Flint films tell us that beautiful "liberated" women with upright breasts and Space Age blonde hairdos are either disposable "pleasure units" or, if they're smart and assertive, castrating queen bees who really need (and want) a man's leadership; Derek Flint is naturally that man.

In Like Flint makes hand-waving gestures toward equality by giving Flint a superfluous "I don't compete with women" line and by showing the diabolical dames incapacitating squads of military men by batting their eyelashes and pressing their bikini'd flesh.

All the same, the clear message is that these little darlings who've merely tired of dish-pan hands should remember their place and not threaten the Natural Order of Things.

But it's all done as a comedy so wheeee it's okay.

Simply as a movie In Like Flint is further kneecapped by sloppy pacing, shoddy production values, and Lee J. Cobb looking like he's planning to make a stern call to his agent.

One of the poster treatments added this —
— which strikes me as, at best, an optimistic assessment of its target audience.

Directing it was 60-year-old Gordon Douglas. I'll step out on a limb here and suggest that Douglas might have been of the wrong generation to direct a film as "mod" as In Like Flint, compounding any issues we might attribute to the script.

Douglas' career was hardly distinguished, but it was interesting. His tenure reveals remarkable Hollywood staying power, starting as a teenager with Hal Roach and Our Gang shorts (first as a bit-part kid actor, later as a director), and building a résumé that included RKO serials such as Dick Tracy, the first and best of the 1950s Giant Bug movies, Them! (which yielded this favorite movie image), Laurel and Hardy's Saps at Sea, Bob Hope's Call Me Bwana, Frank Sinatra's The Detective, Sidney Poitier's They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!, and Elvis Presley's Follow That Dream.

Derek Flint (sort of) appeared onscreen one last time in Our Man Flint: Dead on Target, a 1976 pilot for a would-be Fox TV series starring Ray Danton. It watered down the "spy fun" premise and stunted the Flint character, and it is unwatchably awful. I'm not kidding: it's repellent even as a kitsch artifact. There's no "so bad it's good" here. Every regrettable thing you remember or have heard about the '70s — the hair, the clothes, the on-the-cheap look of the very worst TV that made it on the air — is on display, freighted further by terrible dialogue and acting that would make paper bags feel secure. For the curious, it's available on DVD as part of the three-disc Ultimate Flint Collection, if you can find it. If you do, I challenge you to sit through Dead on Target.

More interesting is Flintlock, an unproduced teleplay by none other than Harlan Ellison. It was a would-be pilot for a proposed 1972 TV series. You can find it reproduced in Ellison's retrospective collection, The Essential Ellison. Ellison's script also revises the character and tone quite a bit, and I don't think it altogether works dramatically (and potential directors must have scowled at seeing their camera directions provided for them in detail), but at least it's the most literate and potentially intriguing approach to the Derek Flint character.

Music: Arvo Pärt, Alina
Near at hand: A program from last Saturday's 2010 Science Fiction Hall of Fame induction ceremony.