BEHIND THE LACE CURTAIN

UK DVD RELEASE OF ROBERT TRONSON’S “RING OF SPIES” (1964) FROM NETWORK

BEHIND THE LACE CURTAIN: SOVIET SPIES IN SUBURBIA

Ring of Spies DVD

Robert Tronson’s ‘Ring of Spies’ (aka ‘Ring of Treason’) is the 1964 film version of the true-life Portland Spy Ring case. From the late 1950s until 1961 the five-strong ring passed secrets to the Russians from the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment at Portland in Dorset, ‘the most hush-hush joint in the country’. Bernard Lee – who is best known for his role as James Bond’s M, played Harry Houghton, an ex-naval officer who is shipped back from his post in Warsaw following a drunken incident at an embassy party. Houghton is posted as a clerk at the secret naval base at Portland and is approached by an agent from ‘the other side’ who convinces him to commit treason and steal them ‘a few titbits’. Houghton befriends his co-worker, Elizabeth Gee (played by Margaret Tyzack), whom Harry calls ‘Bunty’. In reality spinster Gee’s first name was Ethel. Pleased with Houghton’s attention and fuss, the two begin courting and Houghton convinces her to take ‘Top Secret’ documents from the safe. Gee thinks she’s helping US intelligence to keep tabs on the Royal Navy, but their contact in London, Gordon Lonsdale, is actually a soviet agent.

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[Harry and Bunty become part of a Ring of Spies]

Lonsdale (played by William Sylvester, later of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’), masquerades as a jukebox dealer in London, but in reality he takes the ‘borrowed’ documentation to antiquarian bookseller Peter Kroger (David Kossoff) and his wife Helen. There, behind the lace curtains at their bungalow at 45 Cranley Drive, Ruislip, Middlesex – inconspicuously nestled in suburbia – the pilfered secrets are photographed, documented, then sent behind the Iron Curtain, reduced to diminutive microdots which are hidden as full stops in such collectable books as ‘Songs of Innocence’ by William Blake. Houghton and Gee become wealthy for their sins, buying a bungalow and a new Zodiac car. But their boozing and conspicuous generosity in local pubs attracts attention. The police and secret service calculate that their joint £30-a-week incomes don’t match their extravagant lifestyle. Their home is bugged by an agent posing as a gasman and the spy ring’s full extent begins to be revealed. Anyone interested in rare 1960s British cinema and low-fi monochrome espionage is in for a treat with this engrossing rendition of a fascinating true story. Told with the minimum of flash and no distracting score (the only music is from record players, or odd atonal data electronica) ‘Ring of Spies’ deserves to be better known. Bernard Lee is well cast as the hard-drinking Houghton, who feels the world owes him something and has no loyalty to ‘Queen and Country’, in sharp contrast to his M character in the 007 films. Tyzack and Sylvester are also ideal for the roles of timid spinster and ice-cold spymaster. The supporting cast is good, with Thornley Walters as Houghton’s cheery commander, Winters, and familiar faces such as Paul Eddington and Geoffrey Palmer present in the background. Edwin Apps plays Blake, ‘a minor cog in the Middle East department’. One of my favourite 1960s actresses, Justine Lord (Sonia in ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ spy spoof episode of ‘The Prisoner’) appears early in the film, as Christina, Harry’s lover in Warsaw. Gillian Lewis played Harry and Bunty’s co-worker Marjorie Shaw, whose beauty has earned her ‘Runner up, Miss Lyne Regis’. The realistic settings and authentic filming locations – Chesil Beach, various London tube stations, the Round Pond in Kensington Palace Gardens, the magnificent roof garden at the top of Derry and Toms department store on Kensington High Street – ensure the story is always interesting and the monochrome cinematography adds docu-realism to the action. Interiors were shot on sets at Shepperton Studios.

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[Kensington Roof Garden, formerly known as Derry and Toms Roof Garden, London]

Don’t expect 007, nor even Harry Palmer, but the film’s depiction of low-key, cloak and dagger espionage is edgily exciting, as the spies are tailed on English country roads and suburbia by British agents disguised as builders, ‘News of the World’ newspaper van drivers and nuns. This is a must for fans of 1960s Cold War spy cinema. The story proves that fact is often much stranger than fiction. In reality, after being sentenced to 15 years in prison each, Houghton and Gee were released in 1970 and married the following year. This DVD release is part of Network’s ‘The British Film’ collection, a five-year project to release over 450 British films via a deal with Studiocanal. The project commenced in April 2013. ‘Ring of Spies’ is from British Lion and includes the original trailer (a ‘U’ rated trailer advertising an ‘A’ certificate film) and a gallery of publicity stills.

DVD format: Region 2 Rated: PG RRP: £9.99 Screen ratio: 1.66:1 87 mins Black & white

BUY IT HERE: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ring-Spies-DVD-Bernard-Lee/dp/B00JPDOQ1C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1438084556&sr=8-1&keywords=ring+of+spies

2015: THE YEAR IN-STORE

Some exciting new projects to announce for 2015. Arrow Films has recently revealed that it will soon be releasing two important Euro-cult classics – Tonino Valerii’s spaghetti western DAY OF ANGER (1967) and Mario Bava’s giallo thriller BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964).

Day of Anger

Both films are being released in Blu-ray and DVD combo releases, with BLOOD AND BLACK LACE also being issued as a steelbook Blu-ray edition. The editions include both the English language and Italian language versions of the films, and are packed with extras including documentaries, alternative version and interviews. I’m pleased to say that I’ve contributed booklet essays to both releases.

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All the disks are being released almost simultaneously in the UK and US. DAY OF ANGER comes out in the UK on 30 March, with BLOOD AND BLACK LACE out on 13 April. In America, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is out on 14 April and DAY OF ANGER will be out on 31 March. Titles are available to pre-order now – from Amazon or directly from Arrow Films.

As a follow-on from my 2013 e-book MARIO BAVA: DESTINATION TERROR (see earlier post), I’m currently working on a new book for I.B. Tauris. TERROR EATS THE SOUL: THE SPINE-TINGLING GUIDE TO EURO-HORROR will be published in paperback in 2016. It will look at all aspects of Euro-horror cinema, from Hammer Horrors and German Krimis, to gothics, zombies, vampires, werewolves and gialli.

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I’ve also started writing a new series for CINEMA RETRO magazine on Raquel Welch’s three big-screen western outings. WELCH OUT WEST will be running across the next three issues of the magazine, which is the whole of RETRO’s 2015 season 11. The first part, in issue #31, is “NO NOOSE IS GOOD NOOSE”, which looks at BANDOLERO! (1968) co-starring James Stewart and Dean Martin. The two follow-up parts examine the shot-in-Spain westerns 100 RIFLES (1969) and HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

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[above: publicity still of Raquel Welch on location in Utah for ‘Bandolero!’]

Issue #31 includes my article on the quartet of Italian science-fiction movies made by director Antonio Margheriti and set on space station GAMMA ONE. These lively, colourfully weird cult movies include THE WILD WILD PLANET, WAR OF THE PLANETS, WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS and THE SNOW DEVILS. The Moon may not be made from cheese, but these films certainly are.

POSTER - WILD, WILD PLANET

The issue also includes:

• A tribute to Pam Grier, the “First Lady” of kick-ass cinema • Exclusive interview with film preservationist Charles Cohen of the Cohen Film Collection • “Film in Focus” article dedicated to that great 1970’s film noir flick “Farewell My Lovely” with Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe • Celebrating the life and career of director Ted Post (“Hang ‘Em High”, “The Harrad Experiment”, “Magnum Force”, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”) • “James Bond’s Portugal” – some of the key OHMSS locations then and now. • Reliving the wonders of VistaVision • “The New Avengers” at Pinewood Studios • Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as gay lovers in the forgotten gem “Staircase” Plus: “Bite the Bullet”, Hammer star Olinka Berova, “Mark of the Devil”, Raymond Benson’s Ten Best Films of 1950, Joe Namath as “The Last Rebel”, all the latest DVD, film book and soundtrack reviews.

Issue #31 is now available and can be ordered from CINEMA RETRO directly. http://www.cinemaretro.com/index.php?/categories/21-Subscribe-to-Cinema-Retro%21

ONCE UPON A TIME

My first book for I.B. Tauris was published in the UK 10 years ago today. ‘Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns’ was the first of what has become a series of volumes looking at genres through ‘great’ (or at least, in my opinion, very good) films.

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I began writing the book in the late 1990s, as a project that would discuss 20 key spaghetti western films. This format hadn’t been done before for spaghettis and I thought it was an interesting way of approaching the subject, as the 20 films acted as a ‘narrative’, telling the story of the genre’s development from the early days of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ to the ‘end of the west’ western ‘My Name is Nobody’. It was the first book I had ever tried to write, outside of individual films reviews. But by starting with a defined structure – 20 films, in chronological order – it was easy to be aware of the ‘shape’ of the book from an early stage. The working title at this time was ‘The Good, The Bad: Once Upon a Time in the Italian West’. This was in the age before DVDs and all the films discussed were only available on videotape – and sometimes only in English language versions cut, dubbed or with Greek or Dutch subtitles.

While I was writing it, I had a book commissioned by Paul Duncan at ‘Pocket Essentials’, also about spaghetti westerns. I wrote this – a look at 33 key spaghettis – over four months in late 2000 and it was published in paperback in May 2001. It ran about 36,000 words and was text only. The book sold well and is now out-of-print. It was subsequently reissued in a slightly expanded version – 40,000 words, with a colour section of posters – by Kamera Books in 2010 and is still available. The first version has ratings for each film discussed. The second version only has ratings for films mentioned in the appendix. I added reviews for ‘Adios Sabata’, ‘Today it’s Me…Tomorrow You!’ and ‘Cemetery Without Crosses’ to the Kamera edition and completely updated the resource section on books, websites and DVDs. Technology has changed a lot since 2001. By 2010, DVDs of most of the main spaghetti westerns had been released – though some key titles were still absent. In 2014 all the films discussed in my book are out, often in ‘special editions’, on DVD and several on Blu-ray. 41fn0R8sh6L[1]

Immediately after my ‘Pocket Essential Guide to Spaghetti Westerns’, I had another ‘Pocket Essential’ book published – a history guide to ‘The American Indian Wars’, which was issued in September 2001 (this is out-of-print now too). After that I began approaching publishers with an outline and two complete chapters of my spaghetti westerns project. Philippa Brewster, editor for visual culture at I.B. Tauris, expressed an interest in the book and commissioned it. Tauris had already had success with a reprint of Christopher Frayling’s seminal ‘Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone’. Tauris came up with the ‘Filmgoers’ Guide’ subtitle and we ditched ‘The Good, the Bad’ and the project became known as ‘Once Upon a Time in the West: The Filmgoers Guide to Spaghetti Westerns’. The original text ran to about 150,000, but after rigorous editing, the published version is around 110,000. The book was published in hardback today in 2004. The dust jacket was designed by Chris Bromley Design and featured Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, blue sky and the Almeria desert. The book was well received – garnering several positive reviews, including in ‘The Times’, ‘Empire’ and an endorsement from Sir Christopher Frayling – and was published in a paperback edition in 2006. Howard Hughes - Kindle

The Filmgoers’ Guide format – pick a bunch of great films that tell the story of a genre – has served me well. I followed ‘Once Upon a Time in the Italian West’ with ‘Crime Wave: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Crime Movies’ in May 2006. This was published in collaboration with movie channel TCM and was released to accompany the channel’s ‘Crime Wave’ thriller season that July. In 2008 ‘Stagecoach to Tombstone: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Westerns’ was published. I think this is my personal favourite of the series so far. I like the way the title mentions the two films that bookend the narrative and it’s had by far my best feedback from readers. For ‘When Eagles Dared: The Filmgoers’ History of World War II’ in 2011 the format was altered slightly – I still look at key films from the genre, in this case war films, but they are discussed in the chronological order of the historical events featured in each film, rather than in theatre release order. The latest edition to the series in April 2014 is ‘Outer Limits: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Science-Fiction Films’. This looks at films from silent classic ‘Metropolis’ to 3D blockbuster ‘Avatar’. There will be more Filmgoers’ Guides to come in the future, but today the series is a decade old.

Here’s a rundown of the films I’ve covered in the FILMGOERS’ GUIDES so far:

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE ITALIAN WEST A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, A PISTOL FOR RINGO, THE RETURN OF RINGO, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, DJANGO, THE HILLS RUN RED, NAVAJO JOE, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, DJANGO KILL!, THE HELLBENDERS, THE BIG GUNDOWN, DEATH RIDES A HORSE, FACE TO FACE, DAY OF ANGER, THE BIG SILENCE, A PROFESSIONAL GUN, SABATA, THEY CALL ME TRINITY, MY NAME IS NOBODY

CRIME WAVE THE PUBLIC ENEMY, HIGH SIERRA, THE MALTESE FALCON, WHITE HEAT, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, KISS ME DEADLY, THE BIG COMBO, POINT BLANK, BONNIE AND CLYDE, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, GET CARTER, SHAFT, DIRTY HARRY, THE GODFATHER, CHINATOWN, THE GODFATHER PART II, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, LETHAL WEAPON, GOODFELLAS, PULP FICTION, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, OCEAN’S ELEVEN

STAGECOACH TO TOMBSTONE STAGECOACH, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, RED RIVER, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, HIGH NOON, SHANE, JOHNNY GUITAR, VERA CRUZ, THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, THE SEARCHERS, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, FORTY GUNS, RIDE LONESOME, RIO BRAVO, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, ONE-EYED JACKS, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF!, THE WILD BUNCH, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, McCABE & MRS MILLER, ULZANA’S RAID, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, UNFORGIVEN, TOMBSTONE

WHEN EAGLES DARED DUNKIRK, BATTLE OF BRITAIN, SINK THE BISMARCK!, TORA! TORA! TORA!, DAS BOOT, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, STALINGRAD, ANZIO, THE DIRTY DOZEN, WHERE EAGLES DARE, THE LONGEST DAY, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, SANDS OF IWO JIMA, BATTLE OF THE BULGE

OUTER LIMITS METROPOLIS, WAR OF THE WORLDS, GOJIRA, TARANTULA, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, FORBIDDEN PLANET, THE TIME MACHINE, PLANET OF THE APES, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, BARBARELLA, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, ALIEN, MAD MAX 2, BLADE RUNNER, THE THING, BACK TO THE FUTURE, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, APOLLO 13, INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE MATRIX, GALAXY QUEST, MINORITY REPORT, STAR TREK, AVATAR

All five Filmgoers’ Guides are available directly from I.B. Tauris, from booksellers and online, in hardback, paperback and ebook.

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MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: THE OAKMONT STORY

In the last six issues of film magazine CINEMA RETRO, I’ve been writing a series titled MISSION ACCOMPLISHED about Oakmont Films’ series of World War II B-movies from the late 1960s/early ‘70s. Previous features have looked at ATTACK ON THE IRON COAST, MOSQUITO SQUADRON, SUBMARINE X-1, THE THOUSAND PLANE RAID and THE LAST ESCAPE.

Hell boats_DVD

The latest issue of CINEMA RETRO, #30, looks at the last film in the series, 1970’s action-packed HELL BOATS, which was set (and filmed) in the Mediterranean. HELL BOATS is mainly set on Malta, which was an Allied stronghold and the island was fiercely fought over during World War II. In recognition of the resolute Maltese defence, King George VI awarded the island the George Cross for bravery in 1942. HELL BOATS depicts the sea war and commando action on Malta and Sicily, and pitted German E-boats against the Allies’ speedy Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs). Set in 1942, HELL BOATS has Lt Commander Tom Jeffords transferred to Valletta on Malta. There he’s assigned to plan an attack on a well-fortified former Italian submarine base at Augusta on Sicily. Augusta’s submarine pens are now being used by the Germans to store radio-controlled glider bombs. Jeffords must get his men and his MTBs in close enough to destroy the weapons dump – he decides on stealing an E-boat and entering the harbour disguised as Germans. Matters are further complicated when Jeffords begins an affair Alison Ashurst, the wife of Jeffords’ commanding officer.

German E-boat

HELL BOATS was directed by Paul Wendkos, who had also worked in the same capacity on Oakmont’s ATTACK ON THE IRON COAST. The film stars James Franciscus as Tom Jeffords, Elizabeth Shepherd as Alison and Ronald Allen as Jeffords’ love rival and superior officer Roger Ashurst. The actors’ performances are good, with this central trio enacting the love triangle romance of two officers in love with the same woman, the clichéd feature of so many World War II movies. You can’t beat a good location and artful cinematography to give a film a lift and HELL BOATS has both. This Oakmont production was filmed in its entirety in Malta, including Fort Manoel in Marsamxett Harbour (see below).

Fort Manoel

Other Maltese locations, including ruins, a harbour, a railway bridge and a village were used for a Sicilian cove, the fishermen’s village and the submarine base at Augusta. The scene where Jeffords first meets Alison was filmed on the Delimara Peninsula, on the southern tip of Malta. The Mediterranean magnificence as a backdrop to Tom and Alison’s dalliance is perfect and the romantic scenes are well played, on beaches or overlooking the harbour, in appealingly photogenic Maltese tourist board tableau. If the Oakmonts are of their time, with the glossy aesthetics of late-1960s cinema sometimes at odds with the serious, occasionally tragic, subject matter, they survive today as entertaining B-movies.

The titles of the six-part CINEMA RETRO series and their issue numbers are:
Issue #25 STEADY AS SHE GOES: BOY’S OWN ADVENTURE IN ‘ATTACK ON THE IRON COAST’
Issue #26 BOMBS AWAY! THE WOODEN WONDERS OF ‘MOSQUITO SQUADRON’
Issue #27 LOCH AND LOAD: SUB-AQUA XCAPADES ABOARD ‘SUBMARINE X-1’
Issue #28 DEATH FROM ABOVE: TAKING THE FLAK ON ‘THE THOUSAND PLANE RAID’
Issue #29 BOOM BOOM! A BRUSH WITH DANGER IN ‘THE LAST ESCAPE’
Issue #30 HEAD ON, DEAD CENTRE! DAMN THE TORPEDOES WITH ‘HELL BOATS’

Back issues can be ordered here from eBay:
http://stores.ebay.com/SPY-GUISE-INC-AND-CINEMA-RETRO/CINEMA-RETRO-MAGAZINE-/_i.html?_fsub=1017344&_sid=2869494&_trksid=p4634.c0.m322

By coincidence, UK DVD company 101 Films is releasing SUBMARINE X-1, THE THOUSAND PLANE RAID and ATTACK ON THE IRON COAST on DVD as part of ‘The War Collection’, which also includes PLAY DIRTY and the rarity HORNETS’ NEST.
SUBMARINE X-1 is out on Monday 8 September 2014, with more to follow in October and November. The DVDs are Region 2.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Submarine-X-1-DVD-James-Caan/dp/B00IYTT4SS/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1409846402&sr=1-1&keywords=submarine+x-1

 

THE MAKING OF RAY EL MAGNIFICO

Fistful

As this is my 50th blog post, it seems appropriate for this to discuss the 50th anniversary of the Italian release of Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Its release on 12 September 1964 marked the birth of the spaghetti western genre. Some outtakes have surfaced of the film’s making in Spain and Italy, from the archives of the Cineteca Di Bologna, which has been restoring Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy. These aren’t the first outtakes from the film to have emerged, but they are perhaps the most interesting, for what they reveal about action filmmaking in Europe in the 1960s.

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During the 11-week shooting schedule, the film was known as RAY EL MAGNIFICO in Spain and as IL MAGNIFICO STRANIERO in Italy. For the film’s eventual release, Leone settled on the title PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI, which became A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS in its English language publicity and promotional artwork – though the actual onscreen title on international prints is simply FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

Fistful titles

I’ve written an overview of the behind the scenes extracts and outtakes, which you can read at the Spaghetti Western Database.
http://www.spaghetti-western.net/index.php/Making_a_Fistful

The behind the scenes clips can be seen here:

There’s much more about the making of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and Leone’s other spaghetti westerns in my books ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE ITALIAN WEST, AIM FOR THE HEART: THE FILMS OF CLINT EASTWOOD and STAGECOACH TO TOMBSTONE: THE FILMGOERS’ GUIDE TO THE GREAT WESTERNS, all published by I.B. Tauris and available in stores and online as paperback, hardback and e-book.