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Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Our Man Flint (1966)

Director: Daniel Mann
Stars: James Coburn, Lee J Cobb, Gila Golan and Edward Mulhare

Tura Satana made two films for director Daniel Mann, Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? and Our Man Flint, and in both she played an uncredited stripper. The strange thing is that even though the two movies were separated by only three years, they were an era apart. In 1963, she was a burlesque dancer of note, an obvious choice to play a similar role on screen. By 1965, she was a great deal more than that: no less than the epitome of feminine power, courtesy of the picture she made in between, Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Meyer apparently regretted that she only made one film for him, but hindsight merely underlines how massively important she was in that one. It also puts these others into perspective and highlights the Hollywood mindset at the time. Good or bad, the mainstream films she appeared in have dated, often painfully, but the indie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! plays better and more timely every time I see it.

In many ways, Our Man Flint is the honest version of the others. Irma la Douce was ostensibly about a prostitute but Wilder's version turns it into a man saving her from herself. Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? is a misogynistic romp that sets up Dean Martin as a bachelor supreme who marries only when his fiancée demonstrates what she can do for him. At least Our Man Flint is honest in its sexism, creating in Derek Flint less a James Bond spoof and more a wish fulfilment version of what every American male dreamed of being: a man utterly in charge of his destiny, who laughs at authority, achieves great physical and mental feats that literally save the world and, not incidentally, maintains a bevy of gorgeous women at his beck and call. Yet Varla would eat them all for breakfast. 'I never try anything, I just do it,' she explains in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and we believe it. Elvis Presley proposed to Tura. She turned him down. That's tough.

While Derek Flint isn't really a James Bond spoof, that doesn't mean that his film isn't. Director Daniel Mann suggested at the time that it was 'a spoof on Douglas Fairbanks pictures' involving 'swashbuckling in modern dress'. He may even have believed it, but Fairbanks was from another era and this was utterly of its time. It's absolutely a James Bond spoof, merely with Bond himself spun off into a peripheral character, named 0008 and with more than a passing resemblance to Sean Connery. He passes information to Flint during a fight scene at a strip club in Marseille. 'It's bigger than SPECTRE,' he tells him, 'it's Galaxy.' Coincidentally this is during Tura's performance. Later in the film, we see a character reading a 0008 book, another overt nod to the Bond series. So any pretense that this wasn't sending up Bond is ludicrous, it's simply that by relegating his equivalent to a minor role, Twentieth Century Fox inherently suggested their man is better.
They do more than suggest at the beginning of the film. A sinister organisation, which turns out to be Galaxy, is wreaking havoc globally by manipulating the weather: generating avalanches or hurricanes, triggering earthquakes or volcano eruptions, changing the global temperature at will. The bigwigs at ZOWIE (the Zonal Organisation World Intelligence Espionage) realise that their organisation has been infiltrated so they look outside for a saviour. They throw punch cards into their UNIVAC and out pops the name of Derek Flint, regardless what source data or who enters it. He's the man for the job. Chief Cramden doesn't want to hire him, because he knows he doesn't take orders well, but he's overruled. Then we meet him: running through a martial arts kata and defeating all comers. Coburn obviously isn't Bruce Lee (though Lee trained him) but he has a notable grin that hints at a good deal of character and a pristine air of supreme confidence.

Here's where he's firmly established as the wish fulfilment version of every male viewer. Not only ruggedly handsome and deft at martial arts, he's a renaissance man who gives Doc Savage a run for his money: an accomplished doctor, an antiques expert and a world class epicure, he's fluent in every language that arises. He can kill a fly with a blowdart, suspend himself between two chairs and stop his heart for three hours at a time. He's a master of improvisation. Of course he's rich. He has a penthouse apartment with talented guard dogs, his own private jet and better equipment than ZOWIE: his cigarette lighter 'has 82 different functions, 83 if you want to light a cigar'. His quartet of international beauties take care of his every need. And he has the chutzpah to tell Cramden to get lost. The world can save itself without his help. It usually does. He's 'the total man', the trailer calls him, 'as much at home in the casbah as he is in the boudoir.'

Of course he takes the job in the end, or otherwise we wouldn't have a film. He uses his unique talents to progress from exotic location to exotic location, exposing the good guys as idiots and tracking the bad guys to their lair. His immediate foil is Gila, a ruthless agent for Galaxy who is as exotically beautiful as you might expect, actress Gila Golan being a runner up for Miss World, Israeli via France and Poland. Needless to say she's extremely effective in everything she does, until Flint arrives on the scene, at which point he gets to interrogate her in bed. I last saw her in 1969's The Valley of Gwangi, the last of the five films she made in the sixties, this being her second. After that she retired, to return to the big screen only once for a Sergio Martino Italian football movie in 1984 that doesn't even have an English title. Our Man Flint was at the peak of her charm but of course has her dominant only until the right man comes along.
Coburn and Golan are by far the most watchable characters. Lee J Cobb does a capable job as ZOWIE's Chief Cramden, just as the white labcoat clad scientists who lead Galaxy do capable jobs, but all of them are only really there as props for Flint. Any way in which their actions seem topical is entirely accidental, such as the man made global warming that causes panic amongst the leaders of the world because they immediately see the damage it would cause. It was all completely generic at the time, nothing more than hokey science fiction transplanted into a spy story as was the norm. None of it makes the remotest sense, not that mad scientists are really supposed to make sense, but I've found over time that if you're going to tell a cartoon story and ignore reality, then at least go hog wild and go overboard on the style. Bava's Danger: Diabolik was dumb but it stands up better today as entertainment than many of its better peers.

Galaxy's island HQ in the Mediterranean is pretty cool but it can't hold a candle to Diabolik's underground secret lair. It's more notable for what it says about the writers, Hal Fimberg and Ben Starr, both best known otherwise for writing for television. Certainly this is as advertised as any home base of a secret terrorist organisation bent on world domination that I've ever seen. Not only do all the Galaxy henchmen wear uniforms, but the main building wears a logo. I loved the eagle that sits on the plinth outside it though. 'An anti-American eagle,' notes Flint. 'That's diabolical.' The HQ looks roughly as you might expect, with art installations, industrial facilities and random numbers in coloured hexagons. Yet the island is a tropical paradise full of jugglers, folk musicians and bikini clad women wandering around apparently at random. It turns out that they're pleasure units, conditioned to provide bodily service to the men. That's not sexist, right?

But there I go, rationalising a spoof again. To be fair, it's easier here because Our Man Flint is a comedy that is played delightfully straight. The Austin Powers movies owe a lot to the Flint films, this and its sequel, In Like Flint, which Powers reveals in The Spy Who Shagged Me to be his favourite movie. Yet they're overt comedies that couldn't be taken seriously if you tried. Flint is just as outrageous in his way as Powers but he's no more unbelievable than many of the serious superspies who saved the world on a regular basis back in the sixties, that comment reflecting more on the supposedly serious characters than on Derek Flint. This is a spoof that pokes fun at the spirit of the genre rather than specifics, so there are no overt gags and few references to its targets. We're supposed to be thrilled more than set to laughter. While Our Man Flint is often a dated mess of a film, it and especially James Coburn still succeed on that front.

1 comment:

otis rampaging heterosexuality said...

Its difficult to imagine a more rampagingly heterosexual geezer than James Coburn.