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Get ready for more than you probably wanted to read about Our Man Flint:
Movie comedies with topical references sometimes need to have their context explained, if today's viewers are to understand some of the gags, and perhaps "get" the film's overall tone. I remember instructor Bob Epstein at UCLA going over the arcane references in 1933's International House, so we'd know for example what all the 'Peggy Hopkins Joyce' jokes were all about. This then is a guide to Our Man Flint, an escapist comic spy movie that unconsciously tells us a great deal about the happy year of 1965.
The most successful James Bond imitator by far was Derek Flint, a lanky, toothy cool cat created specifically to outdo the reigning king of screen espionage. 007 is a connoisseur of wine, but Derek Flint is a master at 101 professions including biochemistry, surgery, and ballet. He carries only one gadget but it's a lulu -- a gold cigarette lighter with 82 extra functions, including a high-powered text transmitter and a blowtorch. Former character actor James Coburn took the step to leading star status on this show, mustering every ounce of charisma in his lanky frame.
Our Man Flint made a big splash in 1966. Audiences loved every corny joke, sexist reference, and sadistic gag in this flashy fantasy. SuperSpy espionage movies were hip and everybody (especially young boys) wanted in on the coolness. The words 'spy spoof' entered the lexicon as more realistic spy fantasies (the excellent The Kremlin Letter, for one) did only moderate business. Within a few years, 007's films would also become self-parodies, and stay there for decades until the franchise reboot with Daniel Craig decided to jump on the Batman "dark knight" bandwagon.
Flint is an outright cartoonish parody. A techno-futurist conspiracy called Galaxy is causing natural disasters worldwide by remotely controlling the weather. Galaxy's three benevolent scientists Dr. Krupov (Rhys Williams), Dr. Schneider (Benson Fong) and Dr. Wu (Peter Brocco) demand that all nations surrender to their authority and leadership. Opposing the nefarious weathermen is Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage, or Z.O.W.I.E., which needs new recruits. Against the wishes of ZOWIE head Lloyd C. Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), the computers choose freelance agent Derek Flint (James Coburn), an individualistic hedonist who lives in a Manhattan penthouse with his four amorous girlfriends. Flint joins ZOWIE only after an attempt is made on his life. Travelling to Marseilles and then to Rome in his private Lear Jet, he infiltrates Galaxy by purposefully falling into a trap set by seductive Galaxy spymaster Gila (Gila Golan) and her treacherous second, Malcolm Rodney (Edward Mulhare). Every attempt to eliminate the resourceful Flint, only brings him closer to his goal.
Derek Flint is the ultimate Yank hero of the day, a self-made wonder. He embodies all his country's technological, medical, and (pseudo) intellectual achievements; he subscribes to the Playboy Philosophy as if he had ghostwritten it for Hugh Hefner. As pointed out by Pauline Kael, Flint even looks like Uncle Sam as a young man, even if he's far too egotistical to salute a flag. Slow to arouse when threatened, Flint is a vision of the invulnerable American. He bows to nobody, not even the governmental officials that come off as a pack of well-meaning, ineffectual clowns. It may be totally unconscious, but there's something more accurate about this parody of the American Hero, than anything else I've seen.
ZOWIE is a secret espionage wing of the United Nations. It's a spy organization dedicated to fighting renegade crime and terror. A select group of international representatives serve on its council, yet the whole shebang appears to exist at the pleasure of the President of the United States. Like the paranoid Howard Hughes, this LBJ sound-alike can listen in on ZOWIE conferences, and veto or redirect decisions. This "United Nations" is the kind of rubberstamp organization that America wanted from the start.
James Coburn is magnetic as Derek Flint. He's got the kind of superficial hip self-assurance that oozes the vibe of "I'm cool and you're not", and a ragged smile that would be ugly if Coburn weren't so arrogantly self-confident. Flint is a take-charge guy with a commanding voice (that's launched a thousand car commercials) and a stealthy way of walking that's half commando, half Bobby Darin hipster.
Flint's foes at Galaxy are a duplicitous female that he screws into submission (pardon), and an effete snob with delusions of grandeur, that he knees in the groin to prove who's got the bigger... billing. The film's action is breathtaking. Assistant director and stunt arranger Robert 'Buzz' Henry makes the screen come alive every time a fight breaks out, with dynamic angles and percussive action. Coburn's onscreen his fighting has nothing to do with martial arts -- we wouldn't see much of that until Kung Fu movies came along in the 1970s. The actor makes flinging his arms and legs in extreme wild punches and kicks, while howling and making faces, look like outrageous fun. Coburn acts the part of a fantastic fighting machine, and given the cartoonish level of realism here, does a sensational job. The fight in the ZOWIE hallway is a perfectly directed collection of kicks, chops, knife throws and gun blasts. Buzz Henry tailors the action to Coburn's character. Whereas Sean Connery is a big-shouldered bruiser, Flint is more the kind of Playboy who doesn't want to muss his suit or raise a sweat.
The tightly structured script follows the axiom that Bond must be out-done, everything must be beyond cool, and the action cannot be allowed to slow for a moment. Flint's big introduction sees him "chosen by a computer", a big deal in 1965 -- today all of us are accustomed to being targeted by computer, so the idea has lost its appeal. More spoofiness is generated with references to and a brief scene in which Flint crosses paths with Agent .0008 (Triple-O-Eight), a James Bond clone with his own pocketbook adventures. He's quickly given the bum's rush. The scale of the action builds with comic-book precision. As with Danger: Diabolik (and scores of other heroes of legend and fantasy), Flint undergoes the rite of apparent death and resurrection. Heroes who survive that are by definition unbeatable... like Hercules, they've already visited the Underworld and returned. The fantasy stakes jump to the level of Flash Gordon when Flint arrives at Galaxy Island, a science fiction Utopia that we all know Flint will blow to bits.
Our Man Flint has a purity of pulp expression that says more about America in 1965 than any other fantasy of the year. It subscribes to a pre-Vietnam War vision of American dominance. Like Teddy Roosevelt with his big stick, Flint decides to do the job of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps on his own. A dirty fighter, he snaps necks left and right, and kicks two kung fu opponents from a high crane instead of allowing them to withdraw. The hissably villain Malcom Rodney represents the class snobbery we Yanks rejected at Concord and Lexington. We of course loved James Bond but rankled at the 'spear-carrier' billing America received in the 007 franchise. Our country, not Britain, was at the center of world power. We had stalemated the Russians in the Cold War and were about to show those Asian Reds what-was-what way down yonder in Vee Et Nam. Flint may be a spoof, but he's also a perfect representation of American values at that specific moment, before our self-image of unity and omnipotence popped like a balloon.
Because Galaxy Island is a self-contained vision of a future technocracy, Our Man Flint is also a science fiction movie. With the smug arrogance of a Yankee tourist, Flint strides through the dozens of bikini'd bimbos and pleasure-faire performers in the faux-Utopia's 'pleasure valley', trying to decide whether to buy it... or bomb it. The sex-worshipping pagans obey a musical chime signal and march like sedated robots back to their jobs, echoing images burned into our collective subconscious from Metropolis (back to work, proles) and The Time Machine (suppertime, Eloi). Culled from the herd by the sharp eye of an "Anti-American Eagle" -- the one foe, pointedly, that gives Flint pause -- Derek Flint is given the hard sell by the three scientist-dictators. Krupov, Schneider and Wu regret that they are forced to use harsh methods to impose their benign philosophy on a 'decadent, uncomprehending world'. They're eggheads and foreigners, even though the Nazi and the Chinese have swapped name cards. By controlling the weather, the scientists plan to transform the planet into a peaceful Garden of Eden. They claim to follow no political ideology, and promise to turn their marvels over to the world as soon as all those intolerably warlike nations have been disarmed, most notably, of course, the United States.
The downside is Galaxy's requirement that all people conform to this new techno-Utopia. Galaxy's philosophy is a Hugh Hefner wet dream, the culmination of the infantile sex fantasies exploited by Playboy and SuperSpy movies. Woody Allen knew this was at the heart of the craze, when his diminutive Little Jimmy Bond dedicated his villainy to "a better world where every guy has a chance to score with a top broad". Galaxy considers women to be 'pleasure units'. The male Galaxy 'citizens' are working-class stiffs, with potbellies and balding hair. Instead of doping them with religion, Galaxy gives them sex. Who needs political motivation when starlet #645 or whatever awaits at the end of one's shift? That guy on the torture clock in Metropolis wouldn't be so despairing, if Rotwang had worked for Galaxy.
Although he enjoys the delights of the post-workday 'reward room', and stashes that new sex pill away for later use, Flint is against Galaxy's 'pleasure unit' system. He apparently prefers a Free Market vision of sexual conquest. Citizens below his level of super-attractiveness will just have to make do with Trickle Down romance.
Galaxy dares to oppose the U.S., so it has to go. No arrests, no trials, we're talking expunged: the proper fate of any enemy of America. Flint rejects the scientists' pleas for understanding outright, with the simple arrogant statement that it's their idea of perfection, and not his. The scientists actually surrender, but so what? Flint doesn't care that he's destroying technology that could revolutionize the world.
In the brutally casual ending, Cramden, the Navy, Flint and his rescued harem laugh like children and party-on as the thousands of Galaxy island citizens are wiped out. We're reminded of the pitiless mantra, "Let this be a lesson to all those who try to make of the world their private hobby horse", as coined in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, another futuristic dictatorship defeated by a Secret Agent.
Galaxy Island sinks beneath the waves like Atlantis. As if watching the winning touchdown in a football game, America drinks and cheers as the 'Others', whoever they may be, are blown to bits. The film's last image shows the escape of the Anti-American Eagle, which rises from the flames like a Phoenix. Originally, we all took the Eagle as a simple joke. Now the he seems to predict that the 'Others' are not entirely defeated. Derek Flint has single-handedly restored the status quo, but there'll be another day.
As a production Our Man Flint is actually kind of cheap. Outside of the action sequences, Daniel Mann's direction is rather flat, and the cinematography of big time talent Daniel Fapp (West Side Story) is even flatter, using generic 60's high key lighting that looks chosen for speed. The art direction strives for a futuristic comic-book look that occasionally works, as in the Galaxy Great Hall, a paper-mache tribute to bad taste that somehow seems appropriate. Elsewhere, stock shots proliferate.
But there is nothing cheap about Jerry Goldsmith's incredibly cool, influential soundtrack. In his notes on the original lp record album, Saul David admitted that the whole film played like an unfunny mess until Goldsmith's brilliant music went up against it. Combining Latin rhythms, the crisp guitar work of Bob Bain and Al Hendrickson, and embellishments from Shelley Manne on drums and Ronnie Lang on alto sax, the music provides the oomph and power the images don't always have, bolstering the action and adding spectacle to the views of Galaxy Island. Goldsmith is a master at making music and action complement one another. In the above-described hallway fight, a boffo music sting launches the action, but then wisely leaves the rest of the fight with accompaniment. On Galaxy Island, a dizzying crane shot shows Flint climbing at least 30 or 40 feet up the access ladder of an industrial dock crane. A grinding guitar riff keeps perfect time with the spy's machine-like progress. It's a marvelous bit of synchronicity. Even with its outdated humor, Our Man Flint is packed with similar pulpish thrills.
Our Man Flint:
Producer Saul David appears to have been a big Jazz fan. He made seven pictures, five of which were big hits. I first saw Flint on a double bill with David's Von Ryan's Express, an entertaining thriller. The utopia of David's later Logan's Run has a lot in common with Flint, as if this is what might have been had Galaxy not been expunged. The film's Sandman costumes look a lot like recycled Galaxy jumpsuits.
The back cover of the Flint pocketbook novelization shows a still of Gila Golan in bed with Derek Flint, which conjured exciting ideas of a sexier 'continental' version of the film. As covered in a Savant article on cuts made to What's New Pussycat?, many of these stills were promo fakes to hype the movie in venues like Playboy. Yet, a suspicious cut occurs when Flint and three of his girls enter the 'drive-in movie' sex fantasy room. The score changes abruptly, and Flint is suddenly alone when he frees his last playmate from a necking session in a late-model Triumph roadster. Whatever the deletion may have been, it happened after the film was mixed and the negative cut.
The original vinyl soundtrack album carried a different piece of go-go dancing music than that heard in the Reward Room. Jerry Goldsmith shares a composer credit on it with Randy Newman.
In bits elsewhere in the film are James Brolin, a technician on the Galaxy submarine, and the late Tura Satana, a stripper.
The film's title sequence, with its nearly explicit nudes, rivals the spicy Maurice Binder titles for the Bond pictures. Perhaps the censors were obliged to let the images go by because the stylized solarization effect made them semi-abstract.
Flint is attacked by 'Hans Gruber, Hitler Youth Movement, escaped during the Nuremburg Trials', in a Marseilles lavatory. The name Hans Gruber was used again in Die Hard, for the terrorist kingpin who isn't a terrorist. This leads me to believe that the name was cleared through legal against any possible lawsuits, and then used again in the same studio's McTiernan thriller, for the same reason. In 1978, Columbia legal issued a pre-shooting change to 1941, saying that the name "Wild Bill Kelso" had been traced to a WW2 flier who might be offended. The edict was ignored.
One of Flint's four girlfriends has been made into a parody of Doris Day, complete with stiff blonde wig and an ever-present ("Please don't eat the") Daisy in her hair.
The oft-seen El Segundo Sewage Treatment Plant was probably the site for much of the 'industrial' interior of Galaxy Island. One fun flub can be seen when the actors, extras and stuntpeople jam into elevators (identically to Metropolis) to flee the explosions. On an escalator, a huge fake rock falls from above and bounces harmlessly off Gila Golan's head. This perhaps explains her later decision to take a role in The Valley of Gwangi.
Howard Lydecker of Republic serial fame was in charge of miniatures, especially the generic volcanic island set that looks so wonderfully fake (out-doing Mothra) while being cool at the same time. The variety of explosions that blow it up (including some nice double exposures from L.B. Abbott) are sensational, considering how cheap the film probably was.
TT's Isolated Score Track is a real bonus, as we get to hear Jerry Goldsmith's remarkable music -- which has not dated one bit -- synchronized to the picture and undisturbed by dialogue or sound effects. So we're really talking about a soundtrack album included for free, with cues not heard on any CD issue.
Included is a tall stack of featurettes and interview pieces done for a special Fox Home Video DVD edition in 2008 or so. Of particular mention are screen tests with Gila Golan, James Coburn and Raquel Welch (!), and a piece about a mini-battle that was waged between producer Saul David and film critic Pauline Kael. She lost her reviewing job at a magazine when Fox complained about her dissing of this picture, and the earlier The Sound of Music.
The commentary provided by Lee Pfeiffer and Eddy Friedfeld is a casual affair that observes the action, notes the actors and is a bit slow with interesting information. The commentators frequently drift off topic to discuss other spy movie franchises of the day, which may be just what some listeners want to hear.
More focused are the liner notes by Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo, who confronts the PC disaster indicated by Our Man Flint's sexism & chauvinism -- yet also lauds the qualities that make the film such an enjoyable entertainment.
Next month TT is scheduled to release the 1967 sequel, In Like Flint. Although the movie is pretty much a bust, its Jerry Goldsmith music score is not... so we'll be hoping for another Isolated Score Track.
Finally, kudos to Twilight Time -- their discs from both Fox and Sony now carry English subs whenever possible. I finally understood some Flint dialog that has escaped me for 47 years.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Our Man Flint Blu-ray rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.