Tagline – even Dr No would say ‘yes’ to Madame Sin!
This was evidently planned as a TV pilot (producer Lou Morheim gets a ‘created by’ credit, though he didn’t write the script), but it’s anyone’s guess how they expected a villain-centered show which kills off its ostensible hero in the climax of the first episode to get picked up; however, I admit that in 1972 I’d have tuned in every week to see Bette Davis get the better of some new guest good guy. Shot in the UK with US stars (Davis, Robert Wagner) and high-quality British support (Denholm Elliott, Dudley Sutton, Gordon Jackson, Alan Dobie, Roy Kinnear), it straddles a downbeat, cynical Callan/IPCRESS view of espionage with fantastical mod business out of Fu Manchu or The Avengers.
Down-and-out (ie: unshaven) agent Tony Lawrence (Wagner) is slobbing around London against a touristy backdrop of red buses and green parks, miserable because his wife Barbara (Catherine Schell) apparently died on a botched mission. He refuses an approach from Malcolm DeVere (Elliott), a well-dressed but ineffably seedy fixer, who wants to him to work for ‘a private individual’ – he says no, and is drugged by some passing nuns (one is Gabriella Licudi, of Unearthly Stranger), then airlifted in a helicopter by a sneering goon (Foster, adding a leering touch of puckish perversity to a standard minion role) to the well-preserved Scots mansion of Madame Sin (Davis). This apparently Chinese mastermind and sponsor of the sciences has a labful of mad boffins (Frank Middlemass, Arnold Diamond, Charles Lloyd-Pack) devising superweapons in her high-tech basement. Madame S wants Tony to help her brainwash a navy man (Jackson) so she can steal a nuclear submarine for some cackling revolutionary beards, and convinces him to go along first by producing evidence that his own former boss (Paul Maxwell with an amazing moustache) sent Barbara off to be tortured and then, when he sees through that, by producing the lady herself and revealing she’s signed up with Sin.
The major gadget gimmick is a gun that uses directed sound as a weapon – it’s versatile enough to instil false happy memories (and piano virtuosity) in a troubled servant (Pik-Sen Lim) and temporarily deafen Tony as he’s trying to blow the whistle. There’s a good, Hitchcocky moment when deaf Tony needs to bully a tourist (Kinnear) into making a vital phone call, which is complicated because he can’t hear whether the authorities are alert enough to take any action. Davis has blue eyeshadow rather than the false eyelids Christopher Lee favoured in oriental mastermind roles, but is clearly enjoying herself in high camp outfits – and her presence prompts some of the other players to raise their game considerably. The caper itself is a bit dull, with much dashing across the landscape pursued by helicopters, but it’s serviceable enough a plot.
After thwarting Sin’s plans, Tony is about to settle down with his wife when she announces that she’s carried out her mistress’s orders and poisoned him – whereupon, in a turn I wasn’t expecting when I saw this in the cinema on its theatrical release, he chokes to death and his new widow leaves the corpse to rejoin her true mistress, who might have been the dead hero’s mother to boot. With Burt Kwouk (inevitably), David Healy, Al Mancini, John Orchard and Barry Moreland (as an early hologram – though the script calls it a holograph, which is a kind of signature). Produced by Morheim (The Outer Limits), Wagner, Lew Grade and Julian Wintle (The Avengers), explaining the mix of US and UK film and TV traditions thrown into the mix (Morheim and Grade competed with flop Titanic projects in 1979-80, SOS Titanic and Raise the Titanic); directed and co-written by David Greene (Sebastian, Godspell, the Redgrave sisters’ remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?).
I think this should be remade with Tilda Swinton.
I second the vote for a Swinton remake. This sounds fun, and the cast alone and 70s era spy-fi subject matter wins half the battle. Seems like ideal Talking pictures fodder, so keep watching the listings! The ending, though now spoiled, is still going to be a hoot. Probably, a reshoot or revised script when it became obvious a series was not going to materialise? Though I love the underused idea of a show based around the villain, with a guest star hero each episode or season. What with the faltering Mrs M as Bond’s Mum strand of recent Bond, here is an interesting twist on that idea. Who is this Foster, though? Barry might be nice. I had to look on wikipedia to discover that director David Greene has quite an interesting filmography, of the kind that appeals to people like me, at least early on, with 60s spy pics The Strange Affair and Sebastian, counterculture chastising TV movie The People Next Door (a horror movie title, ditto soundtrack album cover), ignored (rightly?) Lovecraft (I think??) adaptation the Shuttered Room, deserved cult I Start Counting, and TV movie The Trial Of Lee Harvey Oswald. He did Godspell as well, which was a big deal of sorts at one time