The Covid-19 delayed No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond, is set for release this November – a more traditional slot for the franchise than the previous April 2020 date.
Whilst expectations for the picture may not be quite as high as expected due to the disappointing reception given to 2015’s Spectre, there’s little doubt that Bond fans will be out in force – social distancing permitting. Although we tend to think of Ian Fleming’s character as a unique creation, that hasn’t stopped filmmakers trying to get a piece of the action over the years. Some have proved successful, but many others have fallen by the wayside.
A downbeat anti-Bond, Len Deighton’s Palmer helped propel Michael Caine to stardom in 1966’s The Ipcress File.
Paying off his criminal past by working for the MOD as an agent, Caine’s Palmer was a good deal sharper than his superiors recognised, his cockney accent concealing a would-be bon vivant with a liking for classical music, fine dining and beautiful women.
Ipcress was followed by two sequels, Funeral in Berlin in 1966 and Ken Russell’s modish Billion Dollar Brain the following year. Both have their merits, but don’t quite match the novelty of Ipcress.
Unfortunately, Caine was tempted to revive the character for two lousy made-for-TV movies, Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996).
Palmer is well due for a remake given the straightened circumstances of the world.
Writing as Adam Hall, Elleston Trevor’s Quiller was a British secret agent famed for his resistance to harsh interrogation, which usually meant that he would be subjected to a brutal session in each of the authors’ nineteen spy thrillers featuring the character.
Only one Quiller movie was shot, with the very American George Segal as the spy, presumably for box office reasons. With a script by Harold Pinter and a cast that included Max Von Sydow and Alec Guinness, The Quiller Memorandum (1966) was a self-conscious attempt to create a ‘quality’ cold war thriller.
A shame that it turned out so dull.
The character was revived for TV by BBC1 in 1975 for the single season Quiller, this time played by the more suitable Michael Jayston, who popped up few years later as Smiley’s ally Peter Guillam in Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy.
C. McNeile’s (‘Sapper’) gentleman adventurer debuted in print way back in the 1920s, but by the 1960s, the success of the Bond movies persuaded the ‘Doctor’ series director Ralph Thomas to try his hand at the genre with a new modestly-budgeted take on the character.
Casting Richard Johnson (The Haunting, Khartoum) who had previously been up for the Bond role, Drummond was retooled as debonair insurance investigator up to his neck in campy intrigue in 1967’s Deadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do two years later.
Both are watchable in a lazy Sunday afternoon kind of way, but don’t stand up to repeated viewing.
The full movie of Deadlier Than The Male is available on YouTube
Meanwhile across the pond, Dean Martin was having fun playing the boozy laid-back, womanising super spy Matt Helm.
The character in Donald Hamilton’s novels was a ruthless killer, which could have hardly contrasted more with Martin’s shambolic half-awake turn.
Still, his take on Matt Helm was popular enough to generate no less than four movies from 1966-69 (The Silencers, Murderers’ Row, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew).
Footage from The Wrecking Crew featured heavily in last year’s Quentin Tarantino pictureOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Helm was revived in a low rating ABC series in 1975, with Antony Franciosa playing the character as a PI, again bearing slight resemblance to the novels.
In 2018 it was announced that Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born) was taking the role of Helm for a prospective film franchise. Little has been heard of the project since then.
James Coburn’s Derek Flint was cut from the same cloth as Martin’s Helm, with the big difference that Coburn could actually act.
Flint was an entirely celluloid creation, a zen spy with a penchant for karate and frugging.
Like a competent (and more amusing) Johnny English, in other words.
Coburn starred in two movies as the groovy secret agent, Our Man Flint (1966) and the less successful In Like Flint (1967).
Although Flint was obviously a parody, that fact didn’t stop the Italians spoofing the spy in Il Vostro Super Agente Flit (1966) and Come Rubammo la Bomba Atomica (1967).
The chief contender to be a female version of James Bond, Modesty Blaise began life in 1963 in a well-liked Evening Standard comic strip of the same name written by Peter O’Donnell which concerned the adventures of a freelance and sometime British Secret Service agent.
In 1966 director Joseph Losey decided in his wisdom to use the character in a ‘high camp’ pop art movie which cheesed off fans of the comic strip.
Losey assembled a cast that included Monica Vitti (as Modesty), Terence Stamp (as sidekick Willie Garvin) and Dirk Bogarde as the blonde-wigged bad guy Gabriel.
Modesty Blaise is available free to view on YouTube.
Modesty Blaise was resurrected for a TV pilot by ABC in 1982 and a Tarantino ‘sponsored’ TV prequel movie in 2002 (My Name Is Modesty):
Neither were of much merit.
Tarantino apparently still harbours an ambition to make a Modesty picture of his own.
Whilst The Saint isn’t technically a spy, Leslie Charteris’s thief turned righter of wrongs Simon Templar has featured in umpteen movies and series played by the likes of Roger Moore, George Sanders and Ian Ogilvy.
Val Kilmer took a disastrous crack at the character in 1997, which stymied his hopes of a long-running Bond-style franchise.
More recently Netflix debuted the TV movie The Saint in 2017. The less said about the film, the better, although it may be of interest that former Saints Roger Moore (voice only) and Ian Ogilvy featured in the cast.
Bringing us bang up to date, Chris Pine (Star Trek) is now said to be taking the role of Simon Templar in a movie directed by Dexter Fletcher (Rocket Man).
And finally, over the channel, two Gallic would-be Bonds.
Largo Winch originated in the 1970s as another comic strip character, this time a presumed orphan who finds himself heir to an international business empire, Group W.
Needless to say, Winch has a host of enemies to confront, both inside the company and from evil corporate rivals.
The character featured in an English language series for French channel M6 in 2001 and was then revived for the big screen in 2008 by Jérôme Salle, with the spot-on casting of Tomer Sisley (Messiah)as Winch.
With a generous budget (for France) Largo Winch was a moderate box office hit, leading to a sequel in 2011 (The Burma Conspiracy) which failed to recoup its budget.
Both movies attempted to cross over to international audiences with English dialogue and stars Kristin Scott Thomas in the first movie and Sharon Stone in the second.
Unfortunately, despite Sisley’s physical resemblance to the comic strip character, he appeared too reactive in the movies, usually playing catch-up with the bad guys.
Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, aka OSS 117
French secret service agent OSS 177 appeared in eight movies in from 1956 to 1971, played by a variety of actors, some of whom were US semi-stars presumably taking a tax vacation, including Kerwin Matthews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) and John Gavin (Psycho).
Written by author Jean Bruce, the character predated Bond by 4 years (the first novel was published in 1949) but has long lived in the shadow of his British counterpart.
In 2006 de La Bath returned in the spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which proved a box office hit in France, which unsurprisingly was followed by a sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009).
Played by Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as a gurning oaf (echoing Peter Seller’s Guy Gadbois in 1975’s Return of the Pink Panther), the movies seemed to confirm why Jerry Lewis was evidently so popular in France.
Jean Dujardin’s bumbling agent OSS 117 will return next year in Alerte Rouge en Afrique Noire (Red Alert in Black Africa).
For completists, the French acting legend Jean Marais had some success in the 1960s playing Bond-ish characters in movies including The Reluctant Spy (1963) and its 1965 sequel Full Fires on Stanislas, the Fantômas trilogy (1964-67) and Operation Double Cross (1965).
Note: You may notice the absence of both Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan.
Whilst I concede that they are in the same basic territory, I do feel that both lack the elan to truly rival Bond as an iconic figure.
To read the whole thing, including the best rivals in 2020 to Bond, click here.