The cinematic directions taken by Young Son have practically qualified as a spectator sport (I’m currently trying to sell the documentary rights to HBO. I’ll keep you informed). Throughout his life his favorite films have included “Dune”, “Thunderbirds Are Go!”, “The War of the Worlds” (the good version), “The Emerald Forest”, “The Godfather” and practically anything featuring Helena Bonham Carter.
At the top . . . the absolute apex of his consideration . . . we find Daniel Mann’s 1966 feature “Our Man Flint”. If you doubt the enhanced level of his approbation then consider the list of awards he’s bestowed: Best New York Movie Apartment . . . Best Telephone Ring Tone . . . Best Secretaries . . . Best Supervillain Lair . . . Best Use of Guard Dogs . . . Best Wristwatch . . . Best Cameo by a 007 Clone . . . Best Use of Cold Cream . . . Best Discussion of the Ingredients Involved in the Making of Bouillabaise . . . the list goes on and on.
(I’ve sometimes contemplated the place contemporary film art would hold in history if Young Son was in sole charge of the Academy Awards,)
(Anyway . . .)
Now I personally can’t claim to match his appreciation for this movie. But I would hardly go so far to call it a bad film, and I know many people (several who’re more qualified in terms of criticism) who share my opinion. “Our Man Flint” may not be worthy of the Louvre, but I have yet to meet someone for whom the film hasn’t produced at least a small smile. Perhaps not immortal cinema, but it manages to entertain.
So! Shall I get into some background?
(“Oh please do!”)
You’re so kind. “Our Man Flint” was a mutation from a particular branch of the cinema tree/1960s variation. These were the years when the box office was being dominated by a franchise of films featuring a well-known Scottish actor in adaptations of the works of Ian Fleming. Now studios could care less about books being adapted, or Scottish actors. What they did (and do) care about is Money, and there was obviously geedus to be made in spy films. And not just spy films, but spy films in more or less the same mold of the James Bond features.
So it was that the mid-Sixties one could wade through a literal glut of espionage-themed adventures. The problem was that, in the hands of directors such as Guy Hamilton and Terence Young, one of the reasons for the success of the Bond films lay in their gently self-spoofing attitude. Not a large wink given to the audience, but a small one to let us know a joke was on. Such a quality was far too elusive to copy (at least fast enough to suit the money people in Hollywood who wished to rush Product into the theaters). As a result we ended up with a slew of efforts possessed of admittedly haphazard quality. Among them: “Licensed to Kill” (re-marketed as “The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World”, which should tell you something), “The Last of the Secret Agents?” (good only for Allen & Rossi fans, as well as a snappy theme song courtesy of the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra Team and the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” series (or rather: a series of films built around Martin’s usual comedic shtick). Slightly improved would be films such as “Where the Bullets Fly”, while one can usually find “O.K. Connery” (best known as “Operation Kid Brother”, and the less said about this the better) occupying the nadir.
Sometimes, though . . . sometimes . . . a film would come close to the desired effect and, while not totally eclipsing the Bonds, would manage to carve out a rather impressive niche all its own. “Our Man Flint” falls into such a category.
Its director, Daniel Mann, cut a rather interesting path throughout his career. He would be responsible for films such as “BUtterfield 8”, “The Rose Tattoo”, “Come Back, Little Sheba”, “For Love of Ivy” and “Playing for Time”. Not a person who could be nailed down easily he was someone who managed to entertain no matter what subject unfolded before his camera. For “Our Man Flint”, Mann would employ Ben Starr and Hal Fimbers: two men who, between them, would work mostly on a wide variety of television shows. If “Our Man Flint” was attempting to capture the elusive quality of the Bond film formula for success, then the team in charge could well claim a fluid and adaptable nature of their own.
“Our Man Flint” certainly benefited from it’s star. Here we find James Coburn entering his prime. Lithe and athletic, possessing an almost Cary Grant sort of charm (as well as a wicked grin which could kill at a thousand yards), Coburn was clearly the right choice for the role. Smoothly confident, trained in martial arts by no less than Bruce Lee, and able to reel off the most improbable dialogue with a straight face (“I noticed these men were wearing Battle of the Bulge campaign ribbons” when explaining his dispatch of a pair of traitors), Coburn made his performance in this film almost too easy. Mann and his people were obviously trying to produce a spoof on the Bonds, and Coburn cheerfully went along for the ride (when asked if he went all the way to Moscow just to see a ballet, Coburn smoothly replies: “No, to teach”).
If Coburn’s performance didn’t clue the audience in that “Our Man Flint” was a spoof, the plot certainly did. The world is being assaulted by radical changes in the weather, all courtesy of an organization known as Galaxy (sort of a cross between SPECTRE and Greenpeace, but with much better funding). The members of ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage. Well . . . it would be, wouldn’t it?) are obliged to find a special agent qualified enough to take Galaxy on. Enter Derek Flint: a man so eminently qualified it almost hurts. Lee J. Cobb, in one of his trademark curmudgeonly performances, plays the head of ZOWIE, as well as Flint’s former commanding officer. Flint’s inherent inability to follow orders makes him a thorn in Cobb’s craw, but consent is reluctantly given for Flint to take on the mission (this after some nicely amusing scenes following Cobb’s efforts to recruit Coburn).
The rest of the story is formulaic. Flint travels to this and that part of the world in search of clues, eventually ending up in the sumptuous volcanic headquarters of Galaxy where further derring-do is exhibited. What helps keep the story buoyed are the nice little touches inserted at every opportunity (e.g. Flint’s infiltration attempt ruined by the intervention of an “anti-American eagle”, the leaders of Galaxy carrying names which are in clear conflict with their ethnic background), as well as everyone giving their all to fill occasionally two-dimensional roles. A nod must also be given to Mann’s editor: William Reynolds. At 108 minutes, “Our Man Flint” seems a much shorter film thanks to Reynolds’ smoothness.
Gila Golan has the job of being the film’s “Bond Girl”. Not particularly capable of delivering splendid performances but, then again, the same accusation could be leveled at most Bond Girls. Her main job here is to serve as a center for Coburn’s romantic leanings, as well as pouting prettuly at the sneering pronouncements of Edward Mulhare (here playing one of the major baddies). As I mentioned earlier, everyone in the cast tries their best. But “Our Man Flint” is clearly Coburn’s show (with Cobb providing good utility infielding).
Overall, Mann keeps tight rein on the spoofing (compared to, say, the over-the-top variety in the “Austin Powers” films) and, if “Our Man Flint” doesn’t provide knee-slapping humor, it at least is capable of lightening the viewer’s spirits (and the ears as well, courtesy of another textbook nifty soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith). I can’t say whether such a film would succeed out of its native cultureal milieu of the mid-60s (an attempted 1976 television pilot flopped). But “Our Man Flint” managed to succeed where so many other attempts failed and, with that, it managed to earn a fond place in the hearts of fans.
Perhaps Young Son might have a point after all.