An Introduction to 'Eurospy' Movies: Bargain Basement Bonds!
A World in Bond-age
Simply saying that James Bond was "huge" in the 1960s is a severe understatement. Ian Fleming's series of novels about the suave British super-spy were consistent best sellers and the films based on them struck immediate box office gold around the globe, inspiring a tidal wave of merchandising and kicking off a worldwide craze for all things spy-related which lasted several years. (In his autobiography Back to the Batcave, actor Adam West summed up Sixties pop culture as "The three B's: Bond, Batman, and the Beatles.")
Naturally, as soon as United Artists started raking in box-office dollars with the Bond film series, knock-offs started coming out of the woodwork, hoping to get a piece of the pie. The other major Hollywood studios quickly tried to launch their own spy franchises, like 20th Century Fox's very entertaining, tongue-in-cheek pair of "Derek Flint" films starring James Coburn (Our Man Flint and In Like Flint), and Columbia's "Matt Helm" series starring Dean Martin. American and British broadcasters also tried to bring the Bond formula to television with espionage/action series like The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and I Spy. The most blatant Bond imitators, however, came from the B-movie studios of continental Europe. Dozens of quickly made, low budget spy flicks rolled out of Italy, Germany, France, and Spain at the height of the Bond craze, all hoping to suck in unsuspecting moviegoers with titles and poster art that shamelessly copied 007 motifs. Though most of these so called "Eurospy" films quickly disappeared from view, they maintain a cult following to this day and still provide an entertaining, exciting and sometimes oddball viewing experience for Bond fans.
Bargain Basement Bonds
I'm a long time James Bond fan who's seen every film in the 007 series several times over, but until fairly recently I'd had very little exposure to the "Eurospy" knock-offs. This is due to the fact that very few of these long-forgotten flicks have been released on home video (at least in the U.S.) and therefore they are only viewable through, shall we say, "secondary" sources. When I recently came across a YouTube channel devoted to Eurospy flicks, I decided that it was finally time to start satisfying my curiosity. I've only seen a handful of these low budget epics so far but each one has been a strange, enjoyable trip that's left me hungry for more!
I began my Eurospy experience with the audaciously titled 008: Operation Exterminate, an Italian production which tweaked the Bond formula slightly by making the title character a female secret agent. The lovely Ingrid Schoeller is "008," an American spy who gets teamed up with a colleague from M.I.6 (Italian actor Alberto Lupo, trying to be as suave and cool as Connery but failing miserably). Together they must track down a kidnapped scientist whose new "anti-radar technology" is in danger of falling into enemy hands. Like most of the quickie Italian B-Movies of the era, the English dubbing in 008 is substandard at best, resulting in some truly awkward dialogue, but there was enough exotic European scenery and two-fisted action in this flick to keep me interested. 008: Operation Exterminate was one of several Eurospy adventures directed by Italian journeyman Umberto Lenzi, who would later achieve legendary status among horror fans for his late 70s/early '80s splatter flicks like Make Them Die Slowly and Nightmare City.
Ingrid Schoeller as "Agent 008"
...to "Super Seven"..
After 008, I moved on to a pair of films also by Umberto Lenzi, featuring "Agent Super Seven" (ha!). Unlike 008, which at least tried to switch things up by giving us a female heroine, Super Seven Calling Cairo (1965) and its follow up The Spy Who Loved Flowers (1966) simply copied the Bond formula to a tee, right down to their poster designs and the casting of American actor Roger Browne - a square jawed, tuxedo clad Sean Connery lookalike - as super spy Martin Stevens. In Calling Cairo, Stevens is dispatched to recover a lost radioactive element and in Spy Who Loved Flowers he treks across the European continent on a mission to eliminate three enemy agents. In both cases, he gets into his share of fist fights, gun battles and car chases and (naturally) romances a couple of hot Euro babes along the way. Nice work if you can get it! Out of the two Super Seven films, I preferred The Spy Who Loved Flowers, which was less talky and had more action.
Next I moved onto 1965's Secret Agent Fireball (aka The Spies Kill in Beirut), starring American bit-player Richard Harrison - who sort of resembles recently-disgraced NBC News anchor Brian Williams. Harrison portrays Agent Robert Fleming - an obvious nod to Bond creator Ian Fleming - aka "077" (groaaaan!). Fireball takes us on yet another globe trotting trip across Europe and into the Mideast, where our hero tangles with a seemingly endless series of Russian bad guys and beds a variety of hot babes while searching for a missing microfilm. Harrison tries to play Fleming as a self assured, smooth lady-killer like Connery's Bond, but unfortunately he comes off more like a smirking, smarmy prick. He's so unlikable that I was actually kinda rooting for the bad guys in this one (haha)! Harrison also starred in 1966's sequel Killers Are Challenged (aka Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca), then Stephen Forsyth took over the Fleming role for the third and final film in the series, 1966's Fury In Marrakesh. I have not seen the latter two films as of this writing, but they're on my list to check out soon.
"Secret Agent Fireball" (1965) Trailer
Seeing Double 007's!
I wrapped up my initial Eurospy experience with one of the most notorious spaghetti Bond wanna-be's: 1967's OK Connery (also known as Operation Kid Brother and Operation Double 007). As far as I'm concerned, the producers of this flick deserve a plaque in the Stunt Casting Hall of Fame for having the gall to build their entire movie around Neil Connery - Sean Connery's non-actor younger brother. He plays a successful surgeon/hypnotist who also happens to be the lookalike younger brother of a certain, ahem, other famous British secret agent - who's never mentioned by name, of course. The plot of OK Connery walks a fine line between loving Bond homage and out-and-out ripoff - "Dr. Connery's" brother is unavailable when a criminal syndicate begins a plot to take over the world, so Neil's character is pressed into service in his place. OK Connery featured several other cast members with ties to the "real" Bond series, including Lois "Miss Moneypenny" Maxwell, Bernard "M" Lee, Adolfo Celi (who played "Mr. Largo," the head of SPECTRE, in Thunderball) and Italian hottie Daniela Bianchi of From Russia With Love fame. The result is a movie that feels like a Bond flick from an alternate universe!
In the biography Sean Connery: From 007 to Hollywood Icon, author Andrew Yule said that when OK Connery wrapped and Maxwell and Lee returned to London to begin work on the next "real" Bond film, Sean was angry with them for "helping" the Italian film's producers "exploit" his younger brother. Lois Maxwell supposedly put Sean in his place by informing him that they were paid more for their work on OK Connery than they'd ever made from their appearances in the "legit" Bond series. Right on, Lois! You go girl!
"Operation Kid Brother" aka "OK Connery" (1967)
There's plenty more where these came from...
Naturally the above films are just a drop in the Eurospy genre bucket, which comprises dozens of movies from a variety of studios and countries. Yes, the films I've seen so far have been mostly silly, unoriginal and in some cases, unintentionally hilarious, but I am already learning that Eurospy films are like potato chips - you can't watch just one!! I am now on a 'secret mission" of my own - to scour the internet and every movie streaming site I can find to seek out more Eurospy films! That ought to keep me busy till the next "real" James Bond film is released a few years from now...!