The Six Sacred Stones

The Six Sacred StonesAuthor: Matthew Reilly
Published by: MacMillan
Release Year: 2007

Matthew Reilly’s Jack West novels are not spy stories, but they cover every thrill-packed adventure cliché there is, whether your an Indiana Jones fan, a James Bond fan, a Sarge Steel fan, a Lord of the Rings fan, or a Clive Cussler fan you’re sure to find a fair amount of the type of adventure you crave in Reilly’s West novels.

As I haven’t looked at any of Reilly’s other books on this site before (I’ll have to rectify that), I’ll give you a simple overview of some of his earlier work. I first discovered (and I use the word loosely as the book was selling pretty darn well) Reilly through the book Ice Station, which featured a hero called Shane Schofield, call sign: Scarecrow. The book was possibly the most breathless thriller I had ever read, and despite an ending (that iceberg) which was a little bit silly, it was a hugely entertaining book.

Next came a slight change of pace in Temple, featuring a character called Professor William Race, which juxtaposed two stories. One in the here and now, and one in the past. Again it was a thoroughly entertaining book that crawled (or should I say leaped) away from the reader in the last few pages, almost ruining a fine adventure story.

Area 7
Area 7 - The second Scarecrow novel

Reilly returned with the second Scarecrow novel Area 7. In my opinion, out of the books I have read, Reilly’s worst book. The story is incredibly contrived, and while the story is still action packed and frantically paced, the book has an overall tone of gratuitous and unpleasant violence. I guess it’s a fine line between being thrilling but brutal, and crossing over into violence for violence sake.

The third Scarecrow novel was called (funnily enough) Scarecrow, and was a big improvement over Area 7, although there is one incident in the story, that enraged most fans of the series (I won’t spoil it here). Scarecrow’s run came to an end with the novella, Hell Island. At only one hundred pages in length, it is a quick throwaway. It also includes one of popular fictions most colourful lines…‘and the apes went apeshit!’

Seven Ancient Wonders
Seven Ancient Wonders - the first Jack West novel

Next came the first Jack West novel, The Seven Ancient Wonders, which brought back all the magic of Ice Station. I loved it. It had all the hallmarks of the best of Reilly — cracking action, likeable characters, high-tech mayhem, unbelievable escapes; but this time he added something new — a sense of awe and wonder.

That brings us up to date (well at least as far as I have read – I’ve never read Contest or Hovercar Racer), and to the second book in the Jack West series, The Six Sacred Stones.

This story starts six months after the events in Seven Ancient Wonders. Firstly, let’s tick of the six sacred stones. They are ‘The Seeing Stone of Delphi’, ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’, ‘The Basin of Rameses II’, ‘The Killing Stone of the Maya’, ‘Stonehenge’, and the ‘Twin Tablets’ (better known as the Ten Commandments). Why are these stones important? At the end of the last novel, Jack West and his team (I’ll talk about them a little bit later) saved the world from destruction by placing the capstone on the Great Pyramid of Gizeh. A celestial doomsday, known as The Tartarus Rotation was averted. But the thing is, The Tartarus Rotation was just the beginning. How do I put this? I am guessing that most readers are familiar with the circular Yin-Yang symbol, which indicates that for every good thing, there is an equal bad thing (and every good thing has a little bit of a bad in it, and every bad thing has a little bit of good in it). Now take the Sun for instance. It’s a pretty good thing. Without the Sun there’d be no life on this planet. But applying the Yin-Yang theory, then there must be a ‘bad Sun’ out there. One that doesn’t give life, but takes life. Well that’s the central conceit of The Six Sacred Stones. There is a ‘Dark Sun’ moving towards Earth and it is going to kill us all. Luckily though, this ‘Dark Sun’ has approached Earth before in ancient times, and a ‘Machine’ was built to repel the ‘Dark Sun’. Of course, over the years, this knowledge has been lost and the clues to the whereabouts, and the instruments required to operate the machine have been lost to antiquity. As you may have guessed, the keys to the ‘Machine’ lay with the Six Sacred Stones.

Then with got our cast of characters. One thing with Reilly’s books is that even though the characters have names, they are mostly identified by their call signs, and generally the call signs give you a brief insight in the characters. The main character is Jack West; call sign ‘Huntsman’. For those of you not familiar with Australian arachnids, the Huntsman is a dirty great big spider that is found everywhere. Generally they are considered harmless, but sorry, they scare me shitless – the only good huntsman is a dead huntsman in my opinion. West is the heroic Indiana Jones type – but with a military background, and a bionic arm.

Next there is Max Epper, called sign ‘Wizard’. Just picture Gandalph, and you’ll get an idea of his character. He is a learned scientist — one of those scientists who know a lot about everything. Not only is a great linguist, archeologist, mathematician and all the rest, but he also is adept at coming up with weapons and other high-tech devices. The guy can do anything. But he’s old, and he isn’t strong.

The rest of the team is made up from soldiers from several of the world’s smaller nations. There’s Zoe Kissane from Ireland, Zahir al Anzar al Abbas (known as Pooh Bear) from the United Arab Emirates, Benjamin Cohen (Stretch) from Israel, a Kiwi known as ‘Sky Monster’, who is naturally a pilot.

Another significant character is a young girl named Lily. She is the latest in a long line of gifted Oracles from Siwa in Egypt. After the events in the first book, Jack West adopted Lily and is bringing her up as his own.

As my clumsy Yin-Yang analogy alluded to earlier, for everything good, there is something bad, and that equally applies to the characters – there’s a high ranking American soldier known as the ‘Wolf’, a Saudi spy know as ‘Vulture’, Pooh Bear’s evil brother ‘Scimitar’, and a hard ass bunch of Amercian soldiers known as ‘Switchblade’, ‘Astro’, and ‘Rapier’.

The story itself is race against time — a running battle, if you will, with members of the various factions all racing to get their hands on the Sacred Stones and acquire the power that each stone possesses and passes on to its barer.

When you claim that an author has done his homework or research, invariably there is someone out there who will take delight in proving you wrong, by listing the factual errors in the work under discussion. So when I say that Reilly has done his research, please allow me to clarify that is not to say the books are factual. Reilly simply uses his research as a ‘jump-off’ point, taking elements that are grounded in reality and then putting them through the wringer to see where the story takes them. The beauty of this however, is that for readers, such as myself, who have not done in depth research on Egyptology, Stonehenge or Confucianism, the story almost rings true. Reilly creates a world where you almost believe in what’s happening despite the fact that it is continually stretching the boundaries of reason and common sense.

Sure, if you think about the book for a while, some the inconsistencies, and far-fetched situations could bother you, but Reilly writes at such a frantic pace, there is little time for rest and reflection…it’s all full-bore straight ahead. And that’s what I like about Reilly’s books…they read like an amphetamine-fuelled, rampage through every country and historical site on the planet. They are not perfect books, but they are perfect airport fiction.

From the Blurb:

The End Of The World Is Here

Unlocking the secret of the ‘Seven Ancient Wonders’ was only the beginning.

The world is in mortal danger.

SIX FABLED STONES

For Jack West Jr and his loyal team of heroes, the challenge now is to set six legendary diamonds known as ‘the Pillars’ in place at six ancient sites around the world before the deadline for global destruction arrives. The locations of these sites, however, can only be revealed by the fabled Six Sacred Stones.

AN EPIC MISSION

With only the riddles of ancient writers to guide them, and time rapidly running out, Jack and his team must fight their way past traps, labyrinths and a host of deadly enemies – knowing that this time they can not, will not, must not fail.

As Reilly’s books are essentially a series of cliffhangers, it should not surprise you that The Six Sacred Stones ends on a cliffhanger — a huge cliffhanger. The good news is that the follow up book, The Five Greatest Warriors has already been published, so you don’t have to wait too long for a resolution (in fact, when I was reading it, I simply reached over, picked up the next book and continued with the story almost seamlessly).

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The Six Sacred Stones

Matt Helm: Pilot (1975)

Release Year: (1975)
Country: United States
Director: Buzz Kulik
Starring: Anthony Franciosa, Anne Turkel, John Vernon, Patrick Macnee
Music: Jerry Fielding
Based on characters created by Donald Hamilton

The Ambushers
Dean Martin as Matt Helm

I had heard a lot about this Matt Helm series – most of it was bad. The biggest complaint seemed to be that Matt Helm was no longer a wild, swingin’ secret agent with a crazy bachelor pad (I am of course, referring to the Dean Martin films as the template for this series, as opposed to the Donald Hamilton books which are a different kettle of fish altogether). In this series Helm is a private investigator with a less gadget reliant household. The thing is that while this Helm show is not a spy show, and therefore quite different to the movies of the sixties, there is — at least in this, the pilot episode — a concerted effort to explain that this Helm is the same character, only that he became disillusioned with all the lies, double-speak and double dealing in the espionage community, and sickened to his stomach, walked away from that life and now works as a private detective.

This is best explained by a character called Harry Paine, played by John Vernon (I love John Vernon – I think he’s a great character actor, whether it be as the Mayor in Dirty Harry or the befuddled Dean of Faber in Animal House). Paine explains that ‘Helm used to be a professional, employed by one of the intelligence agencies’ The agency that Paine is referring to is, thankfully not I.C.E., but a branch of covert intelligence referred to only as ‘The Machine’.

It is interesting to compare this Matt Helm pilot, with the Derek Flint telemovie, Our Man Flint: Dead on Target (which I think was also intended as a pilot for a prospective new series). In both programs, the swashbuckling spy heroes from the sixties, had become private eyes. But in the Flint production, the film-makers didn’t see fit to explain the change in profession — and consequently the character. In that instance, it appeared that the writers weren’t even aware who Flint was. At least in Matt Helm the writers have seen fit to acknowledge the character’s past — and while at first it may seem a little disconcerting at first to see Helm as such a different type of character, it is not impossible to reconcile the two. Some of the differences could simply fall down to the different personality styles of Dean Martin, compared to Anthony Franciosa.

This episode starts with an actress named Maggie Gantry (Anne Turkel – I recently looked at Turkel as Modesty Blaise), and she is keeping trim by running a few laps at a local sports ground. As she runs, she is approached by a gentleman named Gerald Taber. Taber is a private investigator that she has hired to track down her father’s murderer. Taber has bad news. It appears that he has hit a bit of a wall. He tells her that ‘they can’t do it – they’re are in over their head’. Maggie continues her exercise regime as Taber watches on. That is, until a grenade is thrown at the detective and he is consequently blown sky high. Then a car swings on to the sports arena and at speed, chases after Maggie. Eventually she gives up and the car slides to a halt beside her. Two men get out holding machine guns and wearing gas masks to disguise their faces. One says:

“Repeat after me! Gerald Taber is dead!
Bryce Redfield is Dead!
Earl Gantry is dead!
You, Maggie Gantry will be… if you don’t stop now!”

The thugs get back into their car and drive off. Maggie is consequently picked up by the police on suspicion of Taber’s murder and is now being held at the police station. She is given her one phone call to call her lawyer, which she does. The Lawyer’s name is Kronsky (Laraine Stephens), and it just so happens that she is the latest flame of Matt Helm. Kronsky has given Helm’s home phone number to her telephone service if she needs to be contacted, so when Maggie rings through, Helm answers the phone.

Some things never change. Matt Helm didn’t like answering the phone or getting out of bed in the ’60s, and he doesn’t like it in the ’70s. None-the-less, he reluctantly passes the phone to Kronsky. She arranges to come to the police station straight away to help Maggie out of her predicament. Kronsky needs a lift to the police station and Helm obliges — he now drives a very sleek red Porsche (which is a big step up of the brown wood-panelled station wagon that Helm drove in The Silencers).

Helm accompanies Kronsky to the police station and watches as Kronsky arranges for Maggie to be released. As Kronsky has other duties to perform, Helm agrees to drive Maggie home. Back at her home she explains that she hired Taber to investigate the death of her father, Earl Gantry. Apparently, he was killed during the war, but not during a battle or as a direct consequence of the war. He was murdered behind the lines whilst driving a jeep. It is believed that a Staff Sergeant named Bryce Redfield fired an anti-tank rocket at Gantry to stop him reporting an elaborate black-market ring. She had hired Taber to track down Redfield. His enquiries led him to a man named Harry Paine (John Vernon) who is an arms dealer, and a shady military commander named Shawcross (Patrick Macnee).

From his old days, working for ‘The Machine’, Helm has come across both men and knows what they are capable of. But still, he agrees to help Maggie out and take up the investigation from where Taber left off.

Going against all conventional wisdom — and reviews of Franciosa’s turn as Matt Helm — I think that this pilot episode was pretty damn good. It had a decent enough plot, with a few twists and turns, and I was particularly fond of the way that Helm’s past, and the nature of the spying business was painted as a dirty and corrupt game. It gave this show that touch of gritty varnish that it needed. Then it had a good cast too. I don’t mind Franciosa — obviously he’s a long way from Deano, but he handles the light stuff pretty well, and when the script had a bit of meat to it, he showed he was capable of delivering the goods. A supporting cast that features John Vernon and Patrick Macnee cannot be sneezed at either.

The thing here though is, I am basing my opinion on the whole series on viewing this one single episode — and being the pilot episode, the one made to sell the series, maybe a bit more effort and money was thrown into it to make it a solid piece of entertainment. From the modicum of research I have done about the series, it would appear that most of the episodes did not hit the heights of this pilot and were pretty disappointing. If that is indeed the case, that is a great shame, because on the strength of this, the Matt Helm series could have presented a good alternative to a character like Mike Hammer.

I must admit, I’d be curious to see more episodes, and see where exactly the wheels fell off.

My thanks, once again to MB.

Matt Helm: Pilot (1975)

Literary Origins & Extra Reading: 2

It will come as no surprise that quite a few of cinema’s most popular spies also have healthy literary lives. Even some of the less popular cinematic heroes have quite a devoted following in book form. Here is a listing of further adventures of some of these characters. After all, we’ve all heard the saying ‘the book is much better than the film!’

Today we look at the character Jonathan Hemlock, who featured in two novels by Trevanian

“Trevanian” was actually the pen name of American author Dr. Rodney William Whitaker. Whitaker wrote in a wide variety of genres (Historical, Crime, Horror, Western as well as spy stories) and published books under several names (Nicholas Seare, Beñat Le Cagot and under his own name), but was best known as Trevanian.

Form Wikipedia:

His first novel, published under Trevanian at the age of forty when he was teaching at the University of Texas, was The Eiger Sanction, an intelligent, gritty and thrilling spy spoof. It became a worldwide best seller. In 1975 it was adapted as a movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. Trevanian described the movie as “vapid” in a footnote in Shibumi. He requested (and received) a screenwriting credit as Rod Whitaker. The balance of the script was written by Warren Murphy, the mystery author perhaps best known for co-writing the Destroyer series of men’s action novels.

Saddened that some critics did not ‘get’ the spoof, Trevanian followed it with an even more intense spoof, The Loo Sanction (1973), which depicted an ingenious art theft (which was copied by thieves in Turin).

The Eiger Sanction - Japanese Poster

As described above, Jonathan Hemlock only appeared in one film,The Eiger Sanction directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. The film was moderately successful, but not a runaway hit. Interestingly, a lot of the humour was removed from the Eastwood movie. For instance, Jonathan Hemlock’s CII controller is not simply ‘Dragon’. His name is ‘Yurasis Dragon’. I hear you groan, but the The Eiger Sanction novels was a cheeky little thriller, and the film unfortunately lost this in translation. I have never read The Loo Sanction (I have a dusty paperback copy lying around somewhere), but if the information from Wikipedia is correct, stating that it is even broader in spoofing the spy genre, it is not so surprising that it was never made into a film.

The Eiger Sanction 1972
The Loo Sanction 1972

Literary Origins & Extra Reading: 2

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

The Eiger Sanction
The Eiger Sanction - German Poster

Country: United States
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Vonetta McGee, Jack Cassidy, Thayer David, Brenda Venus, Jean-Pierre Bernard, Reiner Schoene, Michael Grimm, Gregory Walcott, Frank Redmond
Music: John Williams
Based on the Novel by Trevanian

SANCTION: A violation of the law, to enforce the law.

Apologies to long time readers, who have read this before – when I moved to the new template, some reviews got lost. The Eiger Sanction is one of them. So here it once again.

I’ll start by saying I am a big fan of Clint Eastwood, but sadly his forays into spy films, The Eiger Sanction and Firefox haven’t been Clint’s grandest moments. Never-the-less, they are still enjoyable in their way.

The Eiger Sanction starts with Agent Wormwood picking up a microfilm on a bridge in Zurich. Upon returning to his apartment, two men burst into his room attempting to retrieve the film. Wormwood swallows the film, but one of the assailants, armed with a switchblade, cuts it from his throat before he can get it down.

Meanwhile, in the United States, ex C2 agent, now an art historian, Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is lecturing a group of students. Upon returning to his office, he finds Pope (Gregory Walcott) sitting at his desk. Pope is a low level C2 agent with delusions of being a hard man. He has been sent to bring Hemlock to C2 headquarters. But Hemlock doesn’t feel too obliging. You see he has retired. Pope insists. Hemlock physically removes Pope from his office (in the usual Eastwood manner).

Afterward, Hemlock is notified that a Pissaro painting is available on the black market. Hemlock is not only an art historian but an avid collector, and has acquired a substantial collection through his black market contacts.

Soon after, ‘Dragon’ (Thayer David), the head of C2 is on the phone and convinces Hemlock to come in. ‘Dragon’ is an albino who has to stay in specially modified rooms dark rooms. Hemlock describes ‘Dragon’ in the film as: ”…a bloodless freak who can’t stand light or cold.” Not only is he physically grotesque, but his methods of coercion are equally reprehensible. He blackmails Hemlock into performing a sanction (assassination) by threatening to inform the IRS about Hemlock’s collection of paintings. Hemlock accepts the mission on the proviso that he receives a letter from the IRS stating that his collection is legal. It is agreed, and Hemlock is sent off to Zurich to kill one of the men who killed Agent Wormwood.

Hemlock completes his mission and returns home. It is not long before ‘Dragon’ is once again chasing his services. This time, ‘Dragon’ gives Hemlock a little more information. Agent Wormwood was in fact Henri Bach, an old friend of Hemlock’s. Hemlock has already liquidated one of the killers, ‘Dragon’ wants him to sanction the other. But they still do not know who the target is. All they have ascertained is that the second killer is a mountain climber and will be climbing the Eiger in the summer, as part of a good will climb involving France, Germany, Austria and the United States.

Hemlock is not only a super cool assassin, and art historian, but he is also a very good mountain climber. That makes him the logical choice for this mission. Hemlock agrees and starts training for the climb.

Well that’s a brief look at the plot, and you can see it’s all good old fashioned espionage fun. So it’s not the plot that let’s the film down. It’s the tone. In his book, The Screen Greats: Clint Eastwood, Alan Frank had this to say about The Eiger Sanction:

‘The Eiger Sanction (1975) was a disappointingly thin and routine spy thriller, with nothing to differentiate it from the dozens of similar that had been produced to cash in on the success of the James Bond movies.’

Frank is close to the mark in his assessment but probably had never read the Trevanian novel on which the film was based. By the mid seventies, the Bond imitators had moved from being mere carbon copies, but to parody. The Eiger Sanction was supposed to be a parody of the Bond movies or their ilk. For example, as mentioned in the film, the head of C2 is ‘Dragon’. But in the film his first name, which is ‘Yurassis’, is never mentioned. Yep ‘Yurassis Dragon’ (say it out aloud). Sure, it’s juvenile humour, but that is what The Eiger Sanction is, or should be about – taking all the Bondian set-pieces and clichés and poking fun at them. Richard Schickel in his biography Clint Eastwood said:

‘A send-up of sorts was perhaps intended, but that is not entirely clear…’

Two elements of the movies that do work well are the music by John Williams (would you expect anything less?), and the cinematography. This definitely a film that should be watched in widescreen. The panoramic vistas are breathtaking, especially in Monument valley, where Hemlock conducts his training for the Eiger climb.

So The Eiger Sanction is a disappointment, but not for what is does, but for what it doesn’t do. Because I am an Eastwood fan, I do tend to cut this film a little bit of slack. I enjoy it, but it is an ‘Eastwood film’. What I mean by that, is Eastwood doesn’t try to make Hemlock a character. It is Eastwood being Eastwood (or at least seventies style Eastwood, before he started branching out). If you have enjoyed The Gauntlet or The Enforcer you will probably find this entertaining. If you are looking to expand your spy film collection, this film is interesting but not really satisfying.

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

Literary Origins & Extra Reading: 1

It will come as no surprise that quite a few of cinema’s most popular spies also have healthy literary lives. Even some of the less popular cinematic heroes have quite a devoted following in book form. Here is the first post in a series, which lists some further adventures of these characters. After all, we’ve all heard the saying ‘the book is much better than the film!’

Today we look at Dr. Jason Love – a character created by James Leasor.

There was only one attempt to bring Dr Jason Love to the cinema screen. The book, Passport To Oblivion was filmed as Where The Spies Are with David Niven. The film was a flop and no further adventures were filmed. But the books kept coming into the seventies, eighties and nineties.

James Leasor doesn’t get much respect these days. Therefore, I have found it difficult to find accurate information on the Dr. Jason Love series and can only verify seven of the titles as being Jason Love books. I have listed some other titles down the bottom that may be Jason Love adventures, or possibly even alternate titles for the books I have listed. If you have any corrections or other information on Love and Leasor that you’d like to share, feel free to drop me a line.

Passport To Oblivion 1964 (Also published as: Where The Spies Are)
Passport To Peril (US Title: Spylight) 1966
Passport In Suspense (US Title: The Yang Meridian) 1967
Passport For A Pilgrim 1968
A Week Of Love 1969
Love-All 1971
Frozen Assets: The Return of the Intrepid Dr. Love 1989
Love Down Under 1992

Other books that may – but most likely don’t – feature Jason Love

They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore 1969
Never Had A Spanner On Her 1970
Host Of Extras 1973
The Chinese Widow 1975
Love And The Land Beyond 1979
Open Secret 1982

Literary Origins & Extra Reading: 1

Modesty Blaise: Pilot (1979)

Release Year: (1979 or 1982)
Country: United States
Director: Reza Badiyl
Starring: Anne Turkel, Lewis Van Bergen, Keene Curtis, Sarah Rush, Professor Toru Tanaka
Music: Kevin Knelman
Based on characters created by Peter O’Donnell

Most visitors to this site probably have an image in their mind of what Modesty Blaise looks like. For some, it may come from the illustrated book covers (American ones by famed illustrator Robert McGuiness), others may recall the long running comic strip that appeared in newspapers all around the world (I think I started reading around the Romero era). There may even be one or two of you who plump for Monica Vitti in Joseph Losey’s 1966 film adaptation, or Alexandra Staden from the recent ‘beginnings’ flick, My Name is Modesty. But whatever the image is that you have locked away in your head, it will, most likely, never prepare you for this small screen incarnation of the popular character.

This production was actually the pilot episode for a proposed television series featuring Anne Turkel as the ubiquitous Modesty Blaise. While Turkel is a very glamorous woman — whoa, actually let me stop there — I am not going to blame Turkel for the way Modesty looks. There are wardrobe, makeup and hairdressers to blame for all that. This pilot episode was made — well I don’t know — some sources say 1979, and IMDb says 1982. On style I’d guess the earlier date, but sure, I could be wrong. But at the risk of being lazy, and to help me convey a mental picture of what this series is like, the epitome of feminine beauty (at least on TV) when this pilot was made, could be summed up in two words — ‘Charlie’s Angels’.

This Modesty seems to be aimed at the ‘Jiggle TV’ crowd. Turkel is saddled with some big hair, is overly made-up, and the fashions – especially a hot-pink t-shirt she chooses to wear later in the mission, are in a word, ‘tacky’.

Now having said all that, I now have to repeat the process for Willie Garvin, played by Lewis Van Bergen. Rather than rattling through the same long-winded diatribe again, let me simply say that it looks like the Bee Gee’s hair stylist has got hold of poor Willie. This episode must have cost the producers a small fortune in hair mousse.

Okay, so the episode doesn’t meet my preconceived ideas about Modesty and Willie. But what if I stripped away the window dressing and simply judged the characters by their actions and their rapport? Does this episode, hidden beneath its glossy teased exterior, have the true essence of a Modesty Blaise adventure? Well, let’s take a look.

The episode starts with a slick title sequence. A gentle, flamenco guitar flavoured jazz flits over some stylised spy / crime imagery — loading guns and that sort of thing. Then it explodes into sax driven seventies disco rock with a shrill vocal, that tries hard to evoke the magic of Dame Shirley Bassey. Sadly it falls way short.

As the episode proper starts, Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin are attending an exclusive art exhibition. They are about to leave when, across the lobby from them, the elevator doors open, and a young women rushes partially out of the door and screams. She is quickly grabbed from behind and dragged back in. The doors close. Of course, Modesty and Willie have to act. The elevator is heading down, so Willie rushes to the stairs and starts scrambling down. Meanwhile Modesty waits for the next lift.

On the ground level, the lift door opens and the kidnapped woman is escorted out with two burly goons at her side. By this time Willie has made it to the ground level and has exited the stairwell. He sees the girl being shunted through the crowd, and he rushes over and immediately sets about bringing the burly goons down with some rather unconvincing karate moves.

While Willie takes on the goons one by one, the frightened woman runs back in the opposite direction. The second goon is on her tail. Naturally, as the show is called ‘Modesty Blaise’ and not ‘Willie Garvin & his cute sidekick’, our heroine must get involved in the action.

Now let me explain something here. All this action is taking place in a crowded foyer with an audience of wealthy black-tie types standing by and just watching. When Modesty enters the fray, visually she seems no different from the other patrons at the exhibition centre. Now if I was a big burly goon (don’t say it!) and chasing somebody through a demure black-tie event and a scrawny little princess-type leaped into the way, I wouldn’t be too perturbed. I know that fans of Modesty Blaise know that she can more than take care of herself, but this goon isn’t to know that. He should simply just try to brush her aside. Instead he breaks off his pursuit of the woman and chooses to engage in a fight with Modesty on a set of stairs. He pulls a knife and charges at her. She performs some particularly unconvincing martial-arts moves (every bit as unconvincing as Willie’s) and knocks the big lug down. Modesty then grabs the young girl and spirits her to safety.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what this is all about. It appears that the target of the kidnapping, Emma Woodhouse (Sarah Rush) is a computer genius. In conjunction with two other computer wizards, she has invented the ‘MTX Cryptographic Computer ©’. But, as so often happens when exciting new technological devices are created, the inventors get bumped off. The two other men who worked on the MTX project have both met with mysterious accidents. Now it appears that Emma, who is the only one left who can operate the MTX, is wanted by some very shady villains.

Actually the villains aren’t very shady or threatening at all. In fact they’re laughable. After what was a rather straight opening, the episode veers towards high-camp. If it wasn’t for the presence of professional wrestler Professor Toru Tanaka as one of the henchmen, the whole episode would have nose-dived into bad pantomime. He adds a modicum of physical menace.

During the episode there is a strange little sequence where Modesty meets Gerald Tarrant for the first time. Readers of the books and comics will be well aware of Sir Gerald. Of course, his character is similar here – he is the director of the Special intelligence Bureau. But as we first met him, he is bald — in fact he remains bald, that doesn’t change — and he sits stroking a white Persian cat. I am puzzled why the script writers (or whoever though to include this sequence) felt the need to allude to Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the James Bond series — that is unless they thought that they were appealing to the same market? Maybe it was a red-herring to make us suspect that Tarrant was a villain. I don’t know. I simply thought it was clumsy and unnecessary.

That brings us to the cast. I know Anne Turkel can act. She is in the cast of the pilot episode for the Matt Helm television series starring Tony Franciosa, and she does an admirable job. But I guess, it is quite a bit different playing a scared, wide eyed damsel in distress, to playing a sexy, confident and charismatic character like Modesty Blaise. On the whole she does a decent enough job. If the series was allowed to continue, I think she may have grown into the role, but of course, we will never know. But she is, as I have mentioned, saddled with the trappings of the day. Looking back now — almost thirty years, Turkel and the production just seems lame and, well let’s be honest, laughable. It may be a cruel judgment in 2010, but there was a reason that this series wasn’t picked up, and that is, it just didn’t quite work. On top of that now, all these years later, the only people who would seek this show out are extreme Modesty Blaise fans (or spy geeks like me) — and we’re a pretty tough crowd to play to.

Then we have Lewis Van Bergin, who is terribly miscast as Willie Garvin. His acting is amateurish at best, and he really comes from the ‘scratch your ass and mumble’ school of acting. Van Bergin would later star in the short-lived series, Sable, based on the comic by Mike Grell. Grell is no stranger to the fans of the comic book incarnation of James Bond, having done Permission to Die and the illustrated adaptation of Licence to Kill. But Van Bergin’s Willie (that’s a trifle clumsy on my behalf) is not the man he should be. He appears to have a better rapport with his co-star than his leading lady.

Earlier I asked, did this episode contain the essence of a Modesty Blaise adventure. I hate to be a fence sitter, but there is just enough to offer hope – but not enough to give the show the big thumbs up, The writers were obviously familiar with the source material (which I applaud), and they also realised that they were writing in a different medium and for a different market. You can’t really blame them for that. When it comes to dealing with Modesty and Willie’s backstories, it is quite accurate, but that isn’t enough. At best, it now serves as a curio for Blaise fans, and with each passing year, it is going to seem more out of tune with the times and the (most importantly) the character. At the end of the day, it is what it is, a piece of lightweight ‘Jiggle TV’. Maybe not the dog to be kicked, as some would have it, but by no stretch of the imagination is this a long-lost gem.

Thanks to MB

Modesty Blaise: Pilot (1979)

Secret Spy 33

Secret Spy 33

Here’s another amazing poster [click on image for a larger version] from the Chisholm Larssen Gallery. This is an Egyptian poster for a spy film — possibly from a Lebanese film called Secret Spy 33. I have done a quick search on IMDb but cannot confirm the film or its title. But none-the-less, even if it is actually from another film, the imagery encompasses all that’s good in spy films – debonair heroes who are crack shots, evil villains clad in black, and scantily clad damsels in distress. If I had to guess a date for this, I would suggest 1964/65 — post Goldfinger, simply based on the pose of the girl in the foreground. She seems to mimic Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger.

Secret Spy 33