The Man With One Red Shoe (1985)


Directed by Stan Dragotti
Tom Hanks, Lori Singer, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Carrie Fisher, James Belushi, Edward Herrmann
Original Music by Michael Masser (love theme) Thomas Newman
Non-Original Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (from “Scheherazade”)
Based on the French film ‘Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire’ (The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe).

The Man With One Red Shoe is a comedy spy film from the 1980’s based on a French film from the 1970’s. It is pleasant enough, but there aren’t any real belly laughs.

The film opens on the docks in Morocco and a CIA agent is having his car lifted onto a boat for transportation to the USA. Secreted in the tyres of the car is a large amount of cocaine. Watching off to the side, as events unfold is Cooper (Dabney Coleman). Cooper is also a CIA agent, but he is not on the same side as the agent on the dock. I guess that doesn’t really make sense – how can they both be in the CIA, but be on different sides? It appears that there are two factions in the CIA. One is under the control of the Director, Ross (Charles Durning), and the other is controlled by Cooper. Cooper wants Ross’ job and will stoop to any means to get it. In Morocco he arranges for the cocaine carrying car to be released from the crane as it is being swung towards the ship. The car falls down onto the dock, and the tyres pop, sending a cloud of cocaine powder into the air.

The mission is a failure and an embarrassment to the United States. Everybody is after Ross’ head. A Senate enquiry is set up to hear the evidence against Ross.

Ross knows it is Cooper who has set him up and plans to retaliate. But rather than stoop to dirty tricks, he knows Cooper has his home bugged and will act on any information he overhears. Ross tells his aide, Brown (Edward Hermann) that a special witness is flying in to Washington to testify at the Senate hearing. This is a load of bunk, of course. But Cooper doesn’t know that and sends a team of operatives to the airport to await the arrival of the mysterious ‘secret witness’.

At Ross’ behest, Brown goes to the airport. He has to select a person at random to be the ‘special witness’. It doesn’t matter who, just as long as Cooper believes. Brown chooses Richard Drew (Tom Hanks), simply because he is wearing odd shoes. One of them happens to be red. It so happens that one of Drew’s friends, Morris (James Belushi) has played a practical joke on him and stolen the opposing pairs of two sets of shoes, leaving Drew with only the odd couple.

Brown approaches Drew and briefly talks to him. Nothing special, but enough for Cooper’s agents who are watching to suspect that Drew is the witness. Cooper’s men then instigate a vigorous and compressive surveillance regime. Every movement, Drew makes is analysed. In fact, Drew is a talented violin player, who travels around the world with a symphony orchestra. His globe trotting, in the eyes of the espionage fraternity, only makes him seem more suspicious.

Cooper’s number one agent is Maddy (Lori Singer). Maddy, apart from being a competent field operative is Cooper’s ‘honey pot trap’. She is sent to seduce Drew and find out all his secrets. It is interesting to notice the differences between the French and American film in their attitudes towards sex and spying. Here’s a snippet of a syndicated article that appeared in The Video Age, June, 1986. In it, Richard Harrington talks to Pete Emmett, the publicist from The Man With One Red Shoe.

Red Shoe follows the basic spy jinks of Black Shoe in having a gorgeous femme fatale (Lori Singer) dog the hero. “The character is a female CIA agent in the French film also,” say Pete Emmett, the film’s publicist. The bad guys, led by Dabney Coleman, “tell her to go to bed with (Hanks) to get information and she does. French audiences expect that. American audience demand that she fall in love with him first. It’s a love story now, where there was none of that in the original.”

I must admit, reading that quote makes me cringe. It is a spy film after all, and we expect a bit of naughtiness. We knew that James Bond didn’t love Fiona Volpe in Thunderball, and I doubt that Matt Helm wanted to sincerely get to know The Slaygirls either. But here, the writers and producers felt that audiences couldn’t handle a relationship, where intimacy was just ‘part of the job’.

Other supporting cast members include James Belushi as Morris, and Carrie Fisher as Paula. They play a married couple, who are also fellow musicians in the orchestra with Drew. But to complicate things, Paula has had an extra marital affair with Drew, and now Morris is starting to get suspicious.

I really wanted to like The Man With One Red Shoe, but it just isn’t that funny. Maybe it’s a translation thing. The original French humour may not have translated well. Or maybe it was just a sense of timing. The original The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe was made in the early 70’s. By the mid 80’s, audiences were used to more throw away one-line gags, by the likes of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase. Whatever the reason, The Man With One Red Shoe fails as a comedy, and as a spy films there’s not much here that we haven’t seen before. But having said that, Tom Hanks is a very personable actor with a large fan base, and those fans may find this a pleasant way to pass 104 minutes.

The Man With One Red Shoe (1985)

Where Rodents Dare (1996)


Directed by Greg Reyna & Dave Marshall
Voice actors: Maurice La Marche, Rob Paulsen

Forget Blofeld, Dr Evil or Fu Manchu; when it comes to evil geniuses who plan to take over the world, the is only one true master – he is the Brain. The Brain is a laboratory mouse, who through ghastly experimentation has developed phenomenal intelligence. By day, he is trapped in his cage in the laboratory, with Pinky, a dimwitted rodent. Each night, this pair escape from their cage and attempt to take over the world.

Where Rodents Dare is one of the episodes from the Pinky And The Brain television series, and as no doubt you’ve guessed from the title, it is a pastiche of Where Eagles Dare.

The episode opens with the janitor coming to the ACME laboratories to clean the rodent’s cages. But waiting for him are Pinky and the Brain. Pinky is holding a test tube over his shoulder like a bazooka. Inside the test tube, Brain has concocted a freezing agent that he calls his ‘catalytic immobiliser’. It freezes it’s victim for 24 hours. As the janitor opens the door to the cage, Pinky ‘fires’ the test tube. The janitor is frozen and Pinky and the Brain escape.

Brain’s plan for world domination on this evening involves a summit of World Leaders who are meeting in a chalet, called Schloss Dunkershein, on top of the Swiss Alps. Brain reasons that whoever controls the summit, controls the world. And he intends to do this, by freezing the world leaders, just as he did the janitor.

By hiding in a parcel being posted to Switzerland, Pinky and the Brain move via delivery van and aeroplane to Switzerland. Like Where Eagles Dare, the soundtrack features military style snare drums on the soundtrack. But in Where Rodents Dare it is revealed that Pinky is in fact playing the drums as the action unfurls, much to the chagrin of Brain – ’…please stop that or I shall be forced to hurt you.’

Pinky and the Brain parachute from the mail delivery plane, down to their target. Upon landing, they slide off the ice covered roof, into a drain pipe, and ultimately off the mountain. Now Pinky and the Brain have to make their way back up to the summit again. This time they ride up on cable car. This doesn’t go to plan either, and our rodent heroes end up caught up in the cogs and thrown down to the bottom of the mountain again.

Next, they decide to scale the mountain in the style of The Guns Of Navarone. This isn’t without incident, but eventually the furry white duo make it to the top, and into the meeting room with the world leaders. In the room are the Queen, Mikail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton, Yassah Arrafat and a myriad of other world leaders. Pinky attempts to fire Brain’s ‘catalytic immobiliser’, but as always, the plan goes wrong.

Of course, Pinky And The Brain is aimed at kids, but like the best animated shows, there is another layer that adults can enjoy. The whole Pinky And The Brain series is littered with film injokes (especially from the Warner Bros. back catalogue). While the injokes will go over most children’s heads, any adult with evern a cursory knowledge of film history will get the references to Where Eagles Dare or The Guns Of Navarone, or in other episodes Godzilla or even Da Boot. But regardless, if you are a film boffin or not, there is a lot to enjoy in Pinky And The Brain.

Where Rodents Dare (1996)

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Directed by Brian G. Hutton
Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure, Ingrid Pitt, Derren Nesbitt, Patrick Wymark, Michael Hordern, Anton Differing, Robert Beatty, Donald Houston, Peter Barkworth, William Squire, Neil McCarthy, Brook Williams
Music by Ron Goodwin
Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean

It is often a fine line between some war films and some spy films, but generally the nature of the mission helps to separate the films into their correct categories. There is no mistaking that Saving Private Ryan is a war film. Whereas Where Eagles Dare, I believe is a spy film. At no time are the characters referred to as ‘soldiers’ – they are always referred to as ‘agents’. Also they are dressed in enemy uniform which makes them spies. So Where Eagles Dare is one of the great spy films. It is also one of the great ‘Boys Own Adventures’.

Sure, if you analyse the story carefully, you’ll realise that it is biggest load of nonsense ever contrived. But it was never meant to be art. It was meant to provide thrill-a-minute action, and a plot full of twists and turns. And on that level, Where Eagles Dare succeeds admirably.

The film opens with a German warplane flying over the Austrian Alps. Although it looks German, it is English and it is transporting seven men on a dangerous mission. As the plane moves towards it’s destination, the film flashes back to the mission briefing. They are told that an American General, Carnaby (Robert Beatty), who was travelling by plane to meet his opposite number in Russia, has been shot down. He has been captured and taken to a Nazi fortress called the Schloss Adler in Bavaria. Carnaby holds the key to the Allieds next major offensive and time is of the essence. They must rescue him, before the German’s get any information out of him. The mission is to parachute in, infiltrate the Nazi fortress, rescue the General and get out. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Some of the men on the mission are Major Smith (Richard Burton). He is the leader of the group. Next on board is Lieutenant Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). Schaffer is a walking arsenal. Then there’s Capt. James Christiansen (Donald Houston), Edward Berkeley (Peter Barkworth), Capt. Philip Thomas (William Squire), Sgt. Harrod (Brook Williams), and Sgt. Jock MacPherson (Neil McCarthy), who are all M.I.5 operatives.

After the briefing the film cuts back to the mission at hand, and the men parachute out of the plane and into the snow. There’s no point outlining too much of the plot as it would take as long as Alistair MacLean’s novel, on which the film is based. But there are double crosses, triple crosses, and convoluted twists and turns throughout, that will keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat..

You cannot talk about Where Eagles Dare without mentioning the cable car sequence. Two German spies are trying to make their escape down the mountain in a cable car when Smith attempts to stop them by leaping onto the roof of the car as it starts down. On the roof top, he attempts to plant a bomb, but the two spies inside the car, crawl out the windows and onto the roof. It’s a staggeringly suspenseful and well staged action scene, and one that was almost replicated in the James Bond film Moonraker, made eleven years later.

Hardly any of the characters in Where Eagles Dare are who or what they seem and certainly cannot be trusted – with the exception of good old Lt. Schaffer. Eastwood as Schaffer is pretty wooden, but it doesn’t really detract from the film. Eastwood’s acting is really limited to blowing things up or shooting people. It doesn’t require much emoting.

The real star of the movie is Richard Burton as Major Smith, the mission leader. Smith is the only character who really knows what the hell is going on. Even though it’s an action film, Burton still gives a commanding performance. His voice is so authorative, and in places threatening, it’s easy to believe the contrivances the script forces upon his character.

The film also feature’s a couple of beauties. After all this film was made in the sixties, and even a war film still has to adhere to the swinging sixties ethos. Mary Ure stars as Mary Elison, another spy who is working with Smith. And Ingrid Pitt has a small role as the buxom bar wench, Heidi.

Also worth mentioning is Derren Nesbitt as Major Von Harpen. He is the Gestapo Officer at Schloss Adler, and although Nesbitt’s role is fairly small, his presence and threatening persona dominate the middle of the film.

The music by Ron Goodwin is exceptional. It is deliberately melodramatic, and follows the plot twists well. It also makes great use of staccato – almost machine gun style – military drums.

Where Eagles Dare is one of the best films of it’s kind, and despite it’s age, it holds up incredibly well today. Highly recommended.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Les Patterson Saves The World (1987)


Directed by George Miller
Barry Humphries, Pamela Stephenson, Thaao Penghlis, Andrew Clarke, Henri Szeps, Joan Rivers, Graham Kennedy, John Clarke, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Garth Meade, Paul Jennings
Music by Tim Finn

Let’s get this straight, Les Patteron Saves The World is not a good film. But it moves at a fair clip, so you wont have time to be bored with it, if you have the courage to watch it. The film is a comedy and the jokes fly thick and fast, but most miss their targets by a long shot. Most of the joke setups are rather transparent too. For example Henri Szeps character is Dr, Charles Herpes. Now you know that somewhere in the picture, somebody is going to say “I want Herpes”, or “What was his name? It’s on the tip of my tongue!” Yep, they’re both included, but it takes a while for the payoff. You know it’s coming, but when?

If you have never encountered Sir Les Patterson before, well he’s a sight to behold. The one time, Australian Minster for the Yarts, is a lecherous, drunken, chainsmoking, unkempt slob. His complexion is ruddy, his teeth are yellow, and his hair is wild. In Les Patterson Saves The World, Les has received a promotion. He is now Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The film opens in New York. A limousine, sporting a boxing kangaroo flag, weaves it’s way through the traffic. In the back seat is Sir Les Patterson (Barry Humphries). He is on his way to the U.N. Building to deliver a speech, but on route he stops off at a restaurant for some nosh, with a couple of dolly birds. After his liquid lunch, Les pays with his credit card. Printed on the card is: ‘Bill to: The Australian Taxpayer’. Another insight into the type of the humour in this film is the card number: RU4 692 – yep, we’re talkin’ low brow all the way.

Already plastered, Les stops at his office to pick up his speech, but rather than study it, he ducks into the men’s room and into a cubicle where he has hidden a bottle of vodka in the cistern. Les downs a sizeable amount and replaces the bottle. His staff aren’t too impressed with the shambolic mess that stands before them, and make a futile attempt to sober him up before his speech. They attempt this by shoveling some food into him. Unfortunately the only food on hand is a couple of tins of ‘baked beans’. Now, dear reader, you know where this is going don’t you? Okay, I’ll spell out a little more.

At the United Nation building, with his suit covered in baked bean stains, Les addresses the assembly. During his speech, he burps, farts and scratches his nuts. After describing Australia as having ‘more culture than a penicillin factory’, he drops his notes. He bends over to pick them up. Seated behind Les, another delegate attempts to light a cigarette with his lighter. Les lets fly with an enormous fart which is ignited by the flame from the lighter. A giant wall of flame shoots back for three rows. Mustafa Toul (Garth Meade), the president of Abu Niviah, a fictitious Middle Eastern country, in his jellaba, is engulfed in the flames. Mustafa Toul is a human torch, and Les is in deep trouble.

Not surprisingly, Les is called back to Australia. His meeting with the Prime Minister doesn’t go well. It looks as if Les is out of a job, when the President of the United States (Joan Rivers) calls on the phone. It looks like an international crisis can be diverted if Les is sent to Abu Niviah as an Ambassor. So Les is given a promotion and packed off to the middle East.

Naturally this is just an opportunity for Mustafa Toul to extract his vengeance. He has a few things planned for Les, including scorpions on the testicles, and covering him in dung beetles. But before Mustafa Toul can carry out his evil plan, he is overthrown by Colonel Richard Godowni (Thaao Panghlis). With a new leader in Abu Niviah, Les is once again in the good books and the world is at peace again.

But all is not as it seems. Godowni is in league with the Russians, and intends to infect the Western world with a deadly, plague like virus called H.E.L.P. Once contracted, this virus instantly makes your face bubble, and green pus filled blisters appear. Godowni’s plan is to infect the U.S. with the virus sprayed onto a shipment of toilet seats.

Barry Humphries most popular character is Dame Edna Everage, and she pops up in this film too, as Agent Wisteria One. In the second half of this film, she gets as much screen time as Les, and it could be argued, that despite this film’s title, it is in fact Dame Edna who saves the world, not Les. As a cover, Dame Edna is leading the ‘Possums of Peace’, a Greenpeace style organisation, populated exclusively by Australian housewives, on a world tour.

The cast is interesting, but most are wasted, particularly Pamela Stephenson. Graham Kennedy, John Clarke, and Joan Rivers roles are little more than cameo appearances. Andrew Clarke, who appeared as The Saint, in The Saint In Manhattan plays Neville Thonge, Les’ assistant in the Middle East. He shares a bizarre Village People style scene in a hotel room with Hugh Keays-Byrne. Keays-Byrne is most famous for his role as ‘The Toecutter’ in the original Mad Max. Speaking of Mad Max, George Miller who directed this film is not the one who directed Mad Max and Babe, but the one who directed The Man From Snowy River and The Last Outlaw.

Les Patterson Saves The World is hard to categorise as a film. Sure it’s a comedy, but there are so many styles of comedy on display, from slapstick to gross out toilet humour, and many more in between. It has to be considered a failure, and the rumours are that it was pulled from distribution in the U.S. After just a few days. I don’t think it is quite that bad, and I’d suggest fans of Barry Humphries work, may even get quite a bit of enjoyment out of it. But for most people, ‘Beware’.

Les Patterson Saves The World (1987)

The Riddle Of The Sands (1979)


Directed by Tony Maylam
Michael York, Simon MacCorkindale, Alan Badel, Jenny Agutter, Wolf Kahler.
Music by Howard Blake

Those of you who have struggled through my numerous postings will notice I have a fascination with the beginnings of the spy genre and how it has evolved. That includes all the historical books and characters that were the precursors to the great spy boom in the sixties. Early characters like Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay, Ashendon, and even Fu Manchu. And books like Eskine Childers The Riddle Of The Sands. Here’s a bit of a preamble before I get to the review.

When you look up the history of spy stories, a few names pop up again and again. One of those names is Erskine Childers, and his novel The Riddle Of The Sands is considered to be one of the classics of the genre. Peter Haining is his book, ‘The Classic Era Of Crime Fiction’, has this to say:

“The 1903 marked a watershed in the history of espionage fiction with the publication of The Riddle Of The Sands: A Record Of Secret Service by Erskine Childers…the novel which marked the transition between the late nineteenth century genre of imaginary invasions and the coming of the ‘heroic spy novel’ in the twentieth century…”

We skip forward 76 years to this film production.

The film starts off the Frisan Islands, Germany in 1901. Arthur Davies (Simon MacCorkindale) is an amateur yachtsman and is charting the islands and the sandbars for The Admiralty. His solitude is interrupted when he spies the boat, the Medusa. From that boat a girl, Clara (Jenny Agutter) rows across and invites him to dinner. He accepts the invitation.

That evening, on the Medusa, Davies meets Clara’s father, Dollman (Alan Badel), who is the captain of the boat. Another guest is a German military officer. Over dinner, Davies in probed about his presence in the area. He says he is going to try his luck as a hunter and shoot some duck. Dollman and the German officer are polite, but try to persuade Davies to move on. They say that there are no duck in the area.

The next morning, Davies awakens to a cacophony of duck song. It appears that something in this area is not quite above board. So Davies sends a letter to his friend, Charles Caruthers (Michael York). Caruthers works for the Foreign Office, or F.O. as it is often called is spy literature and films. Davies invites Carithers to join him on his yacht. Caruthers agrees thinking it will be a luxury cruise. Instead he gets a berth on Davies’ small yacht, which began it’s life as a lifeboat.

Davies conveys his concerns, and suggests that Dollman is trying to kill him. At first Caruthers is sceptical, but piece by piece, incident by incident, it seems that Davies (and Caruthers as his traveling companion) are not welcome in these waters. Soon the two amateur sailors are snooping about, and stumble on the plans for a German invasion of largely undefended stretches of the English coastline

One of the problems with the film is that it feels like a period drama than a spy film. That is not because of the way it is shot or even the story, but because of the pedestrian pacing (particularly at the start). And the build up to the climax, could have been more tense. The Riddle Of The Sands cannot be considered one of the great spy films, but it is a very earnest and fairly successful attempt at bringing one of the great espionage novels to the silver screen.

What the film does have going for it, is some great atmospheric cinematography by Christopher Challis. The scenes as our two protagonists row towards Memot in heavy fog are well shot and very evocative. Equally the production design by Hazel Peiser and the set design by Robin Peyton lift the film above the ordinary.

So to finish off, I thought I’d shed a bit more light on The Riddle Of The Sands author, Eskine Childers. Despite the book’s status it appears that Childers was not a popular guy. At the end of the first World War he settled in Dublin and joined the I.R.A. Quoting from Haining again:

“..Childers was regarded as ‘the best hated man in the British Isles’ – Winston Churchill branded him ‘a mischief making, murderous renegade’.“

Subsequently Childers was arrested in 1922 and condemned to death. He was executed by firing squad. Such is life.

The Riddle Of The Sands (1979)

Burn Notice: Pilot Episode (2007)

Director: Jace Alexander
Starring: Jefferey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell, Sharon Gless
Music: John Dickson

About six months ago, Tanner at Double O Section wrote a tantalising review of a new television show called Burn Notice. It sounded like the type of show that was right up my alley, so I arranged to see a couple of the early episodes. And it delivered everything that Tanner said it would. But my big fear was, that like so many good television shows, it wasn’t going to be picked up by the Australian television networks, or if they did, they’d secret it away at 2:00 am in the morning. I am pleased to report that Channel 10 has picked up the show and it will be starting soon on Tuesday nights.

What’s it all about then? The show opens in Warri, Nigeria. In the bustling markets, agent Michael Westen (Jeffery Donovan) is waiting to be picked up. On this occasion he is working for the CIA. Although he admits to being a spy, he claims to not directly work for the CIA. A droll voice-over by Westen informs us that:

‘Being a spy is like sitting in your dentists waiting area. You read lots of magazines and every so often someone tries to kill you.’

The voice overs by actor Donovan are one of the more engaging features of this show. Not only do they explain what is going on, but are often used for comic relief.

Westen’s ride arrives. A bunch of burly goons, armed with machine guns, bundle him into the back of a black Mercedes Benz saloon. Westen is taken to a hotel and to meet Boris. A subtitle informs us that Boris is a ‘Wannabe Warlord’. Westen’s mission is to pay Boris $750,000 to stop blowing up oil refineries. Boris agrees to the Deal. Westen pulls out his mobile phone to organise the transfer of the money. As he relays the account details to the money men, halfway through, a voice at the other end says, ‘It’s off. We’ve got a Burn Notice on you. You’ve been blacklisted. I’m sorry.’ The phone goes dead. Westen has been abandoned by his superiors and doesn’t know why. But that isn’t his immediate problem. First he is trapped in a room with a gang of machine gun toting thugs and an irate warlord. As Westen can no longer deliver the money as promised he is given quite a working over.

As they are about to shoot him, Westen weasles his way out of immediate danger with a few simple lies. He tells Boris that he has the money – that he stole it and was trying to set Boris up. This doesn’t make Boris any happier, but he isn’t willing to kill Westen. He wants the money. Two goons are chosen to go with Westen as he retrieves the money. As the three men pass through the hotel lobby, Westen pretends to be sick, and needs the bathroom. He spits out a little blood to convince the goons that he isn’t faking – after all he has just receives quite a caning from the thugs. The two goons drag him into the men’s room, and it is here that Westen turns the tables and kills his guards (nothing too graphic).

Outside the hotel, he steals a motorbike and races to the airport. He makes it onto a plane, and a flight out of Nigeria. In his seat, he passes out. When we wakes up, he is in Miami, Florida.

Now folks, as action packed and frenetic as that opening scene is, it is not really indicative of the show. That was just the setup. Now the real fun begins. Westen is now trapped in Miami. If he tries to leave FBI agents will swarm all over him. He doesn’t know why. It seems that whoever has set him up wants him stuck in Miami. Further to this, they have frozen all his accounts, so Westen can’t even buy himself out of trouble.

Miami is quite awkward for Westen. It’s his old home town, where he grew up. That brings him into contact with his mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless), who is a needy hypochondriac. Westen wasn’t particularly happy with his home life as a child. In fact, that’s why he became a spy – to get as far away as possible from his family.

But Westen does have a couple of allies in Miami. The first is Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar). She is a ex – IRA killer who used to have a relationship with Westen. She is a lethal beauty. Next we have Sam Axe, played by cult favourite Bruce Campbell. Axe is an ex-CIA agent who now lives the simple life in Miami. He lives off rich divorcees, and spends most of his time drunk in bars.

From the above description Burn Notice may seem like an intense show. It’s not. Sure there’s an underlying mystery – who set up Michael Westen? – but each show is encapsulated and pretty breezy, in an almost feel good kind of way.

Burn Notice is the kind of American television we have been missing for the last ten years. It’s fresh, it’s funny, it’s cheeky, it’s sunny. What more could you ask? Highly recommended.

Burn Notice: Pilot Episode (2007)

Company Business (1991)


Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Gene Hackman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Kurtwood Smith, Terry O’Quinn, Daniel von Bargen, Oleg Rudnick, Geraldine Danon
Music by Michael Kamen

Company Business was a spy film that I was really looking forward to seeing. Not because Gene Hackman stars in it, even though I’m a huge fan of Hackman. Not because the production designer was Ken Adam, even though Adam’s futuristic set design in films like Dr. No and Dr. Strangelove revolutionised the way that films could look and feel. And not even because the score was done by Michael Kamen, even though I am fond of Kamen’s scores for Die Hard and Licence To Kill. The name that drew me to Company Business is that of the director Nicolas Meyer. I’ll be honest, I don’t know a whole heap about Meyer’s career, but what I have seen and read impresses me.

The first time I encountered Nicolas Meyer’s work was when I watched a little film called Time After Time (1979). In it, author H.G. Wells and Jack The Ripper travel forward in time to present day (back then it was 1979). They time travel using ‘The Time Machine’ from Wells’ novel of the same name. The film was pretty good, but it wasn’t great. But what intrigued me was the premise of combining a real life person, like Wells, and then combining it with a literary element, like the Time Machine, and then bringing to the story other characters from history, like Jack The Ripper.

This kind of intextualisation is very common today. Popular examples include The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. But back in 1979, this was an interesting and fresh approach to story telling. Oh wait, I hear you say. They have been mixing up characters and stories for years – What about Billy The Kid Vs Dracula or Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein? Sure, genre and character hopping has been happening for years, but before Time After Time the productions were more like ‘gimmicks’ rather than cohesive, well researched, well read, amalgamations.

My next encounter with Meyer’s work was on a film called The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976). Meyer didn’t direct this movie. He wrote the novel on which it was based. The Seven Per Cent Solution is a Sherlock Holmes movie, but like Time After Time, the line between the literary world and the real world was blurred. In the story Sherlock Holmes meets Sigmund Freud. I haven’t seen the The Seven Per Cent Solution in years, but I remember enjoying it. The film seems impossible to find now. Some Amazon Sellers seem to have copies, but the prices start from US$229.00. I think you’d have to be a pretty fanatical Holmes fan to shell out that kind of money for a film.

The next time I watched a Meyer film, he had reached the big time. He was at the helm of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan – in my opinion, still the best of the Star trek films. If you listen carefully, the film is littered with literary allusions, from Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens to Herman Melville – From hell’s heart, I stab at thee! Meyer was invited back to direct Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country, and once again he delivered a fantastic film filled with literary references.

That brings us to Company Business, written and directed by Meyer. For me, espionage is the perfect genre for mixing fictional and real events or characters. It is already a common practice. How many times have we had Kim Philby or Carlos The Jackal placed in fictional stories. Most of the time though, this is revisionist story telling, where the failures of the Western intelligence communities are righted by a fictional hero.

But now, let’s look at the film before us: Company Business. The film is set just before the fall of Communism in Russia. The Berlin wall is down, and Gorbachev is still in power. But back in Fort Worth, Texas, retired CIA spook, Sam Boyd (Gene Hackman) is doing a little industrial espionage for the Maxine Grey Cosmetic company. It appears that one of their competitors has been stealing their formulas. Boyd, rather unconvincingly, garners the evidence and presents it to the Chairman of Maxine Grey, played by Shane Rimmer. Bond fans will remember Rimmer as Commander Carter in The Spy Who Loved Me, but he also played uncredited technicians in Diamonds Are Forever and You Only Live Twice. In fact Rimmer is an American actor who lives in London, so whenever there is a British spy film, that needs an American, they often turn to Rimmer. Apart from the Bond films, he has appeared in Dr. Strangelove, The Saint, Danger Man, The Persuaders, Scorpio, S.P.Y.S., The Human Factor, Quiller, Return Of The Saint, A Man Called Intrepid, Charlie Muffin, The Holcroft Covenant, The Bourne Identity (1988), and Spy Game. Rimmer’s role in this film lasts for about 30 seconds.

After Boyd has tied up his industrial espionage case, he catches a flight to Washington. It appears the old boy is being called out of retirement by his old employers, the C.I.A. It appears Elliot Jaffe (Kurtwood Smith) and Colonel Grissom (Terry O’Quinn) have a little mission that isn’t exactly above board. They need a man who is not on the books. What is this mission? It appears that a Russian General Grigori Golitsin (Oleg Rudnick) wants to sell back Ernest Sobel to the Americans. Sobel was a U2 spy plane pilot that was shot down and captured in 1969. The Russians are willing to sell him back for two million dollars. But so it seems like an exchange, rather than a payoff, the American are swapping Pyiotr Grushenko (Mikhail Barishnikov) for Sobel. Boyd’s mission is to go to Germany and swap Grusenko and the money for Sobel. As this deal is ‘under the table’, Boyd will have no backup.

Boyd agrees to the mission and heads to the penitentiary at Fort William to pick up Grushenko. As he travels, on his car radio he hears that a prominent college professor, Norbert Kelly has gone missing. After picking up Grushenko, both men catch a flight to Berlin. Boyd hires a car and they drive past the remains of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. This symbolises that things are changing and both Boyd and Grushenko are dinosaurs. The world is not as they once knew it. So they head to a restaurant and get drunk. That’s what old spies do!

The next day, Boyd and Grushenko go to an underground train station that has been closed to the public for maintenance. The underground train system passes into the old East Germany for two stops. At the second is where the exchange will take place. Boyd and Grushenko get onboard a train and head down the line. At the location, both men get out. Grushenko is given the case of money. He has to walk through a no-man’s land to another train further along the track. He walks. And from the other end, U2 pilot, Sobel walks towards Boyd. As Sobel walks forward, something doesn’t seem right. Through his binoculars, Boyd watches Sobel’s movements and mannerisms. Boyd doesn’t think it is Sobel at all. In fact he thinks that it is a man he saw at the airport in Washington a few days previously – a man who happens to resemble the missing college professor.

Boyd calls a halt to the exchange. From the Russian side, agents start to fire their machine guns. Boyd rushes into no man’s land firing his pistol. He rescues Grushenko, and then with the Russians at their heels they make their way back to their train. Boyd takes the controls and races through the underground system to safety. I am sure that Boyd was just lucky that all the train lines happened to be clear on that morning, and that is how he could go anywhere he wanted. I’d hate to think that it was a silly plot contrivance!

After leaving the train, Boyd and Grushenko seek refuge in a gay bar. Boyd phones in to headquarters to ask for instructions. He is directed to a safe house. After the incident at the exchange, Grushenko isn’t as trusting as Boyd. At the safe house, he refuses to just walk in. From across the street, he shoots at the door bell. His hunch is right. When the bullet hits the bell, the whole safe house explodes. The door bell was wired to a large amount of explosive.

From then on, it’s a new ball game for Boyd and Grushenko. They no longer can trusts the Russian or the Americans. They are not even sure that they can trust each other. But therein lies the strength of Company Business. Sure it’s a spy film, but at it’s heart it’s also a buddy film, and the teaming of Hackman and Barishnikov works surprisingly well.

Because the Meyer films and stories I had seen or read, have such rich intertextual bases, I expected Company Business to be the same. But it in fact is a fairly straight spy story. I could make all sorts of ridiculous claims, trying to link Company Business to other great spy films and novels. For example: The casting of Shane Rimmer in a minor role, is a nod to the three Bond films in which he played minor roles – Driving past, where Checkpoint Charlie once stood is a homage to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – Having the exchange take place in Berlin echoes Funeral In Berlin – and I could go on making this stuff up. Spy films, particularly Cold War ones have such a rich, but in many ways similar history, it is easy to manipulate the similarities to make plot lines seem like deliberate homage’s. Whereas in fact, Company Business doesn’t seem to be trying to evoke any previous spy films.

Even on a literary level, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to layer the dialogue with lines from famous novels – spy or otherwise. Company Business seems to be telling it’s own story in it’s own style. And that’s a good thing, but not quite what I expected from Nicolas Meyer.

What you get from Company Business is 94 minutes of entertainment, with no pretensions.

Company Business (1991)