The spies who thrilled me

The truth is that a lot of the great old spy movies aren't so great, but the sexiness and style of James Bond and the Avengers never gets old.

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published July 26, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

While we all publicly claim to prefer substance to style, there's something to be said for rolling around naked on a revolving futuristic bed verdant with $20 bills or smashing around in a silver-gray Aston Martin D.B.5. Those are just a few of the pleasures that the '60s spy genre offers us -- vicariously. You can't have everything, especially a sports car with an ejector seat and a rear bullet shield.

For plenty of people who grew up in the '60s, as well as for anyone who has watched way too much TV or even simply seen an Austin Powers movie, the dozens of spy movies and TV shows of the era were more of a mood that stretched across the decade than a fleeting trend. The genre typifies the '60s like no other, probably because it made such a perfect canvas for the colors of the time: our vague (or specific) Cold War fears, our realization that pop culture could be its own kind of art, our belief that technology really could make our lives easier. That few of the movies and TV shows of the genre were really any good is irrelevant. These were movies and shows made for a world that felt it had everything to look forward to and no particularly good reason to look back. They represented better living not just through science but also through go-go boots, lavish subterranean bachelor pads, and cigarettes that killed with bullets instead of cancer.

That must be why the style of the genre has proved to be so resonant, repeatedly reinvigorated in pop culture ephemera (music videos and pinball games) and in movies like the three Austin Powers pictures, including the latest, "Goldmember," and Roman Coppola's '60s love letter "CQ." Yet so much of the '60s spy stuff was lousy, or at least vaguely inadequate: Television shows like "I Spy" and "The Saint" were reasonably entertaining, even if their plots often meandered (and in the former, the banter between Bill Cosby and Robert Culp was the thing to watch, anyway). The Matt Helm movies with Dean Martin ("The Silencers," "The Wrecking Crew") and the Derek Flint movies with James Coburn ("In Like Flint," "Our Man Flint") were campy spoofs that never seemed to realize they didn't have to work so hard to send up the objects of their ridicule, which were pretty broad to begin with. And the movies that put great-looking women in the leading roles, like the 1966 "Modesty Blaise" (with Monica Vitti) and the 1967 "Fathom" (with Racquel Welch), suffer from lazy carelessness, as if having a hot babe in the starring role rendered minor details like plot and dialogue insignificant.

But glaring insufficiencies rarely cloud the fond, hazy memories of those shows and movies. Even the ones too junky to defend offer little details and pleasures that have stuck: the red phone in "Our Man Flint" that blinks ridiculously and plays a little tune (borrowed by Mike Myers for the Austin Powers movies), or the opening credits of "I Spy," with their Colorforms graphics and syncopated theme music, an opening that's like a jolt of caffeine by itself.

And then there are the examples of the genre worth going back to time and again. Television shows like "The Avengers" (specifically, the seasons spanning the Emma Peel years, from 1965 to 1968) and, of course, movies like the Sean Connery James Bond pictures are just as familiar to Scottish grannies as they are to American college kids. Add to those a few oddball underground choices, like Mario Bava's fabulous 1968 action adventure "Diabolik" (which isn't technically a spy picture, although its pop stylishness suits the genre perfectly). Somehow, on the basis of a few well-conceived shows and movies that have aged well, and a whole lot of disposable stuff that hasn't, the '60s spy genre has kept on grooving.

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Who doesn't love the early James Bond movies? Plenty of people, it turns out. In Great Britain, there's a certain segment of the population (aged around 50 now) that doesn't think much of them, mostly because they're redolent with the ancient, moldering sexual politics they'd much rather leave behind (in addition to the fact that Bond was so devoted to queen and country and all that rot). And I've watched '60s Bond movies with audiences that hissed at what they perceived as sexually retrograde behavior -- like the moment in "Goldfinger" (1964) when 007 dispatches a bathing-suit-clad cutie by slapping her on the fanny.

But I think there's a much better defense for that fanny slapping (and other such naughtiness on the part of that classy rapscallion Bond) than a half-hearted, "Well, things were different then." If we look at the movies -- any movies -- as repositories of appropriate or desirable behavior, we're bound to be disappointed. Or, worse yet, bored. Bond's behavior makes sense for Bond. (At least, for Bond as he was reinvented for the movies; the Bond of the original Ian Fleming novels is something of a puritan when it comes to sex, and he's prone to feeling guilt and repulsion -- imagine! -- when he kills someone.)

Bond is certainly a spoiled boy when it comes to earning the attention and affection of women; they're so compliant you can almost see their skin melting under his fingers. What's more, there are so many of them fluttering around him (not one, that I can recall, with a gun to her head) that he has to brush them away like flies in order to get any work done. It's all part of the gag.

Even so, I don't think the fantasy of James Bond is a purely male one, as long as you don't feel the need to always identify with a character in terms of needing to be him. Some characters reflect back a general aura of glamour that's simply delightful to bask in, and Connery's Bond is one of them. In the Bond movies, Connery plays a sex symbol without actually being one. Though many women may find the young Connery sexy, I'd say his stiff elegance is hardly erotic -- Pauline Kael described his demeanor at the time as the "waxy deadpan of a sex-fantasy stud dummy," and she didn't even get around to mentioning his wing-nut ears. That said, though, Connery as Bond is sexy, but mostly when he's not trying to be. His best look is that of wry, detached amusement, and luckily, he wears it often.

And then there's the fact that he's confident to the point of arrogance -- an unattractive quality in real life, maybe, but in an action hero it's not so bad. There's something comforting about a character who naturally assumes everything is going to go right, and so it does. (Our unshakable faith in Bond is also the thing that makes us remember vividly those few moments when we've seen him break a sweat -- like the scene in "Goldfinger" in which he's tied spread-eagled to a table as a laser beam heads for his most prized possession.)

Beyond that, Bond vibrates with so much masculine sexual allure that he ceases to be about sex at all -- he's all about getting it, over and over again, which only heightens the enjoyable cartoonishness of it all. He's always surrounded by lavish appointments -- expensive brandy decanters, beds spread with buttercream satin -- but his decadence is also discreet almost to the point of meekness. You never see Bond doing anything so gauche as spending money -- only wearing, eating and drinking it.

The soul of Bond is laid out right in front of us in the choices he's made: in the cut of a suit, in the gleam of a cigarette case. The '60s Bond movies are largely about things -- distressing to anti-materialists and bliss to those who have fully come to terms with their love of cool stuff. Nearly all Bond fans look forward to the scene where keeper-of-the-gadgets Q (the recurring character played by the late, and wonderful, Desmond Llewellyn) presents Bond with the latest immensely useful doohickeys, almost slapping him on the wrist in advance, since he knows none of them will be returned. In "You Only Live Twice" (1967) he meets Bond in Japan with "Little Nellie," a fully loaded helicopter that's been transported with her parts lovingly packed in a series of red-velvet-lined black suitcases. Bond's host informs him that Little Nellie "and her father" have arrived, and Llewellyn appears shortly thereafter in natty safari shorts, looking both exasperated with Bond in advance and excited to show him Nellie's features (which basically consist of cool missile shooters and other accouterments that will allow him to blow stuff up). There's a clever bit of something in every '60s Bond movie, from Lotte Lenya's knife-pointed shoes in "From Russia With Love" (1963) to that syrupy drop of poison that slithers down a dangling thread in "You Only Live Twice" -- it's meant for Bond, but it ends up killing one of his lovers by mistake.

The stylishness of the Bond movies isn't always jokey or simply clever. The great Ken Adam, who served as production designer on many of the '60s Bonds, devised amazingly distinctive looks for each one. "You Only Live Twice," which is, incidentally, my favorite of the Connery Bonds (and perhaps my favorite Bond ever, although I reserve a very soft spot for the most romantic and mournful of all Bond movies, the 1969 "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," with George Lazenby) features a gleaming rocket-launch station hidden entirely within a "Japanese" volcano. That a futuristic volcano HQ was built entirely at London's Pinewood Studios is another feat of near magic that qualifies as something beyond the typical optimism of the '60s. The set, which featured a sliding roof through which helicopters could actually be flown, reached 120 feet high -- it took almost every available light in the studio to illuminate it.

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The stylized male action figure known as Bond may be the first character that comes to mind whenever anyone mentions the '60s spy genre. But women had their place, too -- and it wasn't always rolling around in bed with 007. One of the great disappointments of '60s spy movies is that Joseph Losey's "Modesty Blaise," based on the characters created by Peter O'Donnell in his series of adventure novels, is virtually unwatchable -- and, worse, that the lead actress, Monica Vitti, captures none of the spark of O'Donnell's Modesty.

The "real" Modesty, as O'Donnell so vividly described her, is always cool, calm and in charge. Her right-hand man, a Cockney knife thrower named Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp plays him in the movie), doesn't think twice about looking to her for guidance in the stickiest of situations. (In O'Donnell's novel "A Taste for Death," an acquaintance of Willie's asks him if he minds taking his cues from a woman, and he replies that she's in command because "She's better at it than I am. Better than anyone.") Yet Losey's movie wanders and hops along at a puzzling cricket's pace -- it's lousy even as camp. And Vitti -- robustly exotic and, worst of all, simply not English -- is all wrong for Modesty. The film version of "Modesty Blaise" is one of the great blown chances of '60s moviemaking. Until someone does it right, it's best to stick with O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise books.

And in the meantime, there's always Mrs. Peel, who for my money outclasses even James Bond in looks and smarts and style, and certainly in sex appeal. During its golden era, "The Avengers" starred Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, one of the most inspired matches in the history of television, period. Great as the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully was in the best days of "The X-Files," it can't hold a candle to the crackling suberotic sonar signals that passed between Steed and Emma.

Steed had had other partners before (among them Catherine Gale, played by Honor Blackman, who would later go on to portray Pussy Galore in "Goldfinger"). After Steed and Emma had played several seasons together, the show dropped blatant hints, without openly stating it, that they'd slept together. Far from wrecking their chemistry, "Moonlighting"-style, those clues only heightened the charge between them. It was clear that the two were mad for each other, and that they could communicate just as well by the subtle arch of an eyebrow as by actual words.

It was also clear that it would be a lousy idea for them to hook up as an official couple: Their intuitive understanding of one another officially put them in the league of ancient, long-married couples anyway -- and they're much more romantic as a wry, skeptical non-couple. (If you never quite get together, then you can never really split up.) In Diana Rigg's last episode (Emma is leaving her post, since her long-lost and feared-dead husband has miraculously returned), she happens to met her successor, Tara (Linda Thorson), in the hallway of Steed's apartment building just as Tara is arriving to meet him. Emma directs Tara to the proper apartment, turns to leave, and then pauses: "He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise," she says.

"The Avengers" episodes didn't always move along as smartly as they could have. But the show was never short on touches of pure oddness, like that swirly red-and-white hallucinogenic child's ball in the episode known as "Something Nasty in the Nursery," or the hall-of-mirrors trickery in "The House That Jack Built."

And even when "The Avengers" was slow, you could always just bask in the presence of Steed and Emma. Pierre Cardin, in the days before he became a licensed gold-tone initial on a cheap wallet, designed the suits Macnee wore on the show: pearl-gray three-pieces worn with dove-colored suede boots; subtle golden windowpane plaids; sturdy tweeds for the country that looked molded to Steed's body rather than cut. Macnee's weight was said to have fluctuated somewhat -- a kind way of saying that he had a tendency to pack a little on. But Cardin always dressed him in a way that made him look slim and elegant, and Macnee's bearing took care of the rest. When I was a little girl watching the show in reruns, I could never understand why my big sister swooned over John Steed. Needless to say, I get it now.

At the time, though, it was Mrs. Peel I loved best, and I've never really stopped. Mrs. Peel wasn't just a girl spy -- she was a scientist who did spy's work simply because she felt like it. As Rigg played her, she met every baddie full-on with a sly smirk and a karate chop. Her outfits were tailor-made for the girl on the go: jersey zip-up jumpsuits with flat boots attached; leather vests and catsuits that didn't cling to her shape as much as echo its every movement; bell-shaped mini dresses for evening, which she'd wear with her hair piled high. She drove everywhere in a bright, tiny sportscar. When she got into trouble, Steed would sense it and step in at the last minute to save her. But she saved his skin in the same way, and just about as often. You could say that this very non-married couple represented the perfect married couple: They lived their lives as sharply defined individuals but were fiercely protective of each other when it mattered.

And if Steed and Mrs. Peel had nothing else, they had high style that hasn't been matched in any contemporary example of the spy genre. Last season, the woefully short-lived television series "Thieves," starring John Stamos and Melissa George, came closer than anything else I'd seen in recent memory. I was hooked during the first one, as I watched them rappeling down the front of a skyscraper (dressed in matching black catsuits -- the universal '60s thief uniform). Unfortunately, the show was canceled after only eight episodes.

But there's still plenty of evidence that the look and the feel of '60s spy shows and movies haven't been forgotten. Roman Coppola's recent "CQ," the story of a young, overserious filmmaker who's signed on to complete a junky futuristic spy thriller, blows lip-gloss kisses to pictures like "Modesty Blaise" and "Barbarella." But Coppola borrows most heavily -- and most lovingly -- from Bava's "Diabolik."

In "Diabolik" -- also known as "Danger: Diabolik" -- John Philip Law (who also starred opposite Jane Fonda in "Barbarella") plays a dispassionate thief who enjoys thumbing his nose at authority even more than he gets off on stealing money, jewels and bars of gold. He and his girlfriend, played by the equally beautiful and blank-faced Marisa Mell, pull off caper after caper, sabotaging a politico's press conference with laughing gas one minute and dashing off with a visiting dignitary's emerald necklace the next.

And in the evenings, they return to their underground pad, which is kitted out with a glass-walled shower (when Mell steps into it, her private parts are tastefully hidden by a large frosted dot on the side) and a huge bed onto which they've tossed their piles of stolen money. They don't so much make love among the bills as writhe around in their embrace, but the effect is still erotically luxurious, as well as winkingly honest -- these are hedonists who are so tuned in to their own desires that they can barely tell the difference between the feel of money-on-skin and skin-on-skin.

It's an over-the-top image -- but then, why would anyone be interested in one that stopped just below the top? The world of '60s pop culture spies was one of excess, luxury and humor -- not safety. Why walk when you can drive? And if you've got a Little Nellie, then why not fly? But only, of course, after you've pushed every knob and pulled every lever on the dash of that Aston Martin, just to find out what it can do. Necessity may be the mother of invention. But her indulgent father is Q.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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