Made in the heyday of the 60s spy craze, Deadlier Than the Male takes H. C. McNeile's hero Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond and gives him a swinging, secret agent spin. Under the pen name "Sapper," McNeile wrote ten Bulldog Drummond novels from 1920 until his death in 1937, when his friend Gerard Fairlie took over the series and wrote seven more. The character proved very popular in film as well print, portrayed by actors such as Ronald Colman, Ralph Richardson, John Howard, Tom Conway and Walter Pidgeon, among others. After a 15-year absence from theaters, Deadlier Than the Male resurrected the old-school Drummond in the person of slim, saturnine and dry-witted Richard Johnson. Pretty much all that remains of McNeile's original character is cosmetic: he's still an upper-class Brit bachelor who fights crime and his nation's enemies. The rest is all knock-off 007, but as James Bond wannabes go, this is one of the better ones.
The title is taken from the Rudyard Kipling poem, "The Female of the Species" (also the title of the 5th Drummond novel), and the film lives up to its title by presenting two of the more glamorous and gleefully sadistic female assassins to strut across the screen.
The film opens on board oil executive Keller's private jet, as gorgeous blonde Irma Eckman (Elke Sommer), posing as a stewardess, calmly lights an explosive cigar for him, strips down to a skimpy white wetsuit, dons a parachute and dives out of the plane before it, and all the other staff on board, are blown to smithereens. Splashing down in the sea, Irma is picked up by a motorboat driven by her equally stunning cohort, Penelope (Sylvia Koscina), and the two zoom cheerfully away, as the sub-Bondian main title tune (sung by pop group The Walker Brothers) croons on.
It isn't until an old chum named Wyngarde is killed (by speargun) by Irma and Penelope in front of his Mediterranean villa, that Hugh Drummond gets involved in the case. No longer the private detective of the novels (and minus the "Bulldog" nickname), now Drummond apparently works for the famed insurance company, Lloyds of London. Drummond is summoned by the chairman of the Phoenician Oil Company, Sir John Bledlow (Laurence Naismith), who is suspicious about a mysterious organization that charges a million pounds to "remove" certain obstacles to various corporations' business interests, and asks Drummond to look into the affair. When snide Phoenician boardmember Henry Bridgenorth (played by Leonard Rossiter, best known to UK TV fans as Reginald Perrin) votes to not pay this mysterious company its promised million pound fee, he's not long for this world: Irma and Penelope paralyze him with a drug and dump him, fully conscious, from his penthouse window to a messy death on the pavement below. Next on their hit list is fellow board member Weston (Nigel Green), buried under the rubble of his exploded office.
Soon Drummond becomes the ladies' next target, and they send him a gift of some bullet-filled cigars, mistakenly received by his visiting American nephew, Robert (Steve Carlson), who's entertaining a young lady friend in Uncle Hugh's flat. When that assassination attempt fails, Drummond is subsequently set upon in a car park by a handful of hired thugs, an exciting and well-staged brawl in which Hugh gets to show off his judo skills and thrashes his opponents. Meanwhile, Penelope easily ensnares young horndog Robert and takes him back to a rented London flat, where she coos and caresses him in between bouts of torture (including burning him with cigarettes and, it's implied, pulling out his fingernails). In a neat little humorous riff on the classic movie serial cliffhanger, Hugh arrives in the proverbial nick of time to rescue Robert from a ticking bomb.
Hugh would like nothing better than to leave his nephew in the hospital to recover while he carries on with the investigation, but once he learns that the sinister organization's next target is King Fedra (Zia Mohyeddin), an old Princeton chum of Robert's vacationing on the Italian Riviera, the elder Drummond agrees to take Robert along. The pair arrive in La Spezia, Liguria, Italy and, while Robert keeps tabs on his old friend the king, Hugh decides to accept an invitation to the castle lair of Carl Peterson, the actual mastermind behind the female assassination organization - who turns out to be none other than the supposedly deceased Weston. The stage is set for a final showdown between Drummond and Peterson, as the two go head-to-head in a game of giant robot chess, while the clock is counting fatally down on a bomb secreted somewhere on King Fedra's yacht...
Like other similar spy spoofs, Deadlier Than the Male can't compete with the Bond series in the big-budget action setpiece sweepstakes; there's some good fisticuffs, judo flips and shoot-outs here and there, but everything's decidedly small-scale. What the movie does offer as recompense is an assortment of exceedingly beautiful women, some witty repartee and a cheeky sense of fun that treads a fine line without devolving into camp, unlike the Matt Helm or Derek Flint movies.
Johnson makes for a droll, urbane hero, and much like Sean Connery's 007, beds more than his fair share of gorgeous gals, including Bledlow's secretary Peggy Ashenden (Justine Lord), the insatiable Penelope (who wants to give him a memorable last night before his impending death at the hands of Peterson) and, it's implied, Robert's date Brenda (The Abominable Dr. Phibes' Vulnavia herself, Virginia North, here all fresh-faced and adorable). Showing he has perhaps slightly more finicky standards than Bond, Drummond spurns the advances of the amoral Irma; unlike Bond, Drummond is never shown as the agressor in these encounters, merely the agreeable recipient, and something about Irma's icy, calculating demeanor turns him off (the crazy fool).
Overall, Johnson cuts an appropriately suave, sophisticated figure throughout, whether playing chess with Peggy in his club, trading cultured insults with Peterson or dallying with the various lethal ladies he comes across. Nigel Green matches him as the arch, arrogant Peterson. Green (so good as the stalwart Nayland Smith in The Face of Fu Manchu a few years earlier) is always an imposing presence, and he and Johnson make the most of their brief screen time together. German-born Elke Sommer and Croatian-born, Italian-raised Sylvia Koscina both seem to be having a fine old time as the ruthless sexpot assassins, Sommer's Irma the focused, in-charge one and Koscina's Penelope the playful, cheerful assistant. Suzanna Leigh livens up the final act as Grace, a reluctant recruit to Peterson's army of female killers. Naismith, Rossiter, and other veteran Brit character actors like George Pastell, Milton Reid and William Mervyn round out the cast.
The film was directed with serviceable flair by Ralph Thomas, and while he certainly lacked the equivalent budget afforded even the earlier, comparatively modest Bond films, the movie looks sumptuous enough, with the scenes filmed in Italy adding a welcome bit of scenery to go along with the acres of pulchritude on display. The film ran afoul of the strict British censors, who objected to its rampant sadism, kinky violence and promiscuity and slapped it with their "X" rating upon its initial release. Though it's surely tame stuff by today's standards, there's enough of a nasty edge to the killings to balance the typical 60s upbeat, snazzy spy movie tone, and somehow the movie seems more effortlessly sexy than more overt, flesh-baring films of recent vintage.
Leonard Rossiter, before he takes his fatal plunge.
I've seen plenty of the myriad spy films that followed in the wake of Bond mania, and can assure those who enjoy such things that they'll get their money's worth with Deadlier Than the Male. While the "female assassin" plot device is not new in this particular subgenre (it's done with considerable panache in The Avengers episode "How to Succeed...at Murder," for example), this film plays much more successfully as a thriller than the goofy, camp hijinks of the similarly-plotted James Coburn vehicle In Like Flint or the sloppy, action-bereft Matt Helm series (with sleepwalking lead Dean Martin). While nowhere near the sober, stylish Harry Palmer trio of films featuring Michael Caine - The Ipcress File (also starring Nigel Green), Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, superior anti-Bonds all - Deadlier Than the Male is definitely in the upper echelon of 60s spy capers and is in the end a whole lot of spicy fun, with a nice sense of stiff-upper-lipped Englishness about it. And dig that cool, super-sized robotic chess set!
The film proved successful enough to generate a sequel, Some Girls Do, in 1969 (also directed by Thomas). Richard Johnson returned as Drummond, pitted once again against Carl Peterson (this time played by James Villiers), along with Daliah Lavi, Bebe Loncar, Robert Morley and Maurice Denham. While not without its own charms, it was a case of diminishing returns and no further Bulldog Drummond films, spy spoof or otherwise, have since been released.
DVD Note: The above screencaps were taken from my copy of Hen's Tooth Video's 2003 non-anamorphic letterboxed release of Deadlier Than the Male. Much better value is Network's Region 2 double-feature set from 2005, including both this film and Some Girls Do in reportedly nice anamorphic widescreen transfers, along with some fun-sounding vintage extras. Those with region-free DVD players are directed to the latter version.
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