One of the fascinating things about watching spy films from the 1960s is the layering of psychedelic elements into the plot, and their presentation on screen. Psychedelia is one element that truly separates a spy film from 1960s from those of the preceding decades, and those after it (although I am sure some throwback psychedelia filtered through to the ’70s and beyond – such as the Michael Caine film Blue Ice, but the tripping torture sequence in that film, I would suggest was meant to evoke the torture scene in Caine’s The IPCRESS File which was made in 1965).
The psychedelic elements in spy movies came out of several factors. Firstly, and most obviously, LSD. LSD was invented in the 1940s, but the C.I.A. started experimenting with the drug in the 1950s.
Beginning in the 1950s the US Central Intelligence Agency began a research program code named Project MKULTRA. Experiments included administering LSD to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, and members of the general public in order to study their reactions, usually without the subject’s knowledge. The project was revealed in the US congressional Rockefeller Commission report in 1975.
As the C.I.A.s experiments weren’t public knowledge until the 1970s they can’t really be held accountable for the profusion of psychedelic elements in spy films throughout the ’60s. However the rise in the use of LSD as a recreational drug, coincided with stories about ‘truth serums’ emanating from Russia, and ‘brain washing’ emanating from China. One of the first stories to capture the public’s imagination about ‘brain washing’ was Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate.
Once again, a snippet from the knowledgeable contributors at Wikipedia:
The Oxford English Dictionary records its earliest known English-language usage of “brainwashing” in an article by Edward Hunter in New Leader published on 7 October 1950. During the Korean War, Hunter, who worked at the time both as a journalist and as a US intelligence agent, wrote a series of books and articles on the theme of Chinese brainwashing.
[Also, brain washing…]
… originally referred to methodologies of coercive persuasion used under the Maoist regime in China, which aimed to transform individuals with a reactionary imperialist mindset into “right-thinking” members of the new Chinese social system. To that end the regime developed techniques that would break down the psychic integrity of the individual with regard to information processing, information retained in the mind and individual values.
To listen to a radio broadcast of Edward Hunter talking about Brainwashing, visit WFMU’s Beware of the Blog – Radio Site. Here you can also download an MP3 of the interview.
For stories about ‘truth serums’ we turn to the USSR – from Wikipedia:
A defector from the biological weapons department 12 of the KGB “illegals” (S) directorate (presently a part of Russian SVR service) claimed that a truth drug codenamed SP-117 was highly effective and has been widely used. According to him, “The ‘remedy which loosens the tongue’ has no taste, no smell, no color, and no immediate side effects. And, most important, a person has no recollection of having the ‘heart-to-heart talk'” and felt afterwards as if they suddenly fell asleep. Officers of the S directorate used the drug primarily to check the trustworthiness of their own illegal agents who operated overseas…
So combining drugs and brainwashing which had already crept into the arena of espionage, and adding the increasing public awareness of mind altering substances such as LSD eventually paved the way for film-makers to portray lurid and fanciful tales of espionage littered with psychedelic elements.
But these ‘real-life’ elements were not the only reason for ‘psychedelic spy stories’. During the mid to late sixties, there was a massive spy boom brought on by the success of the James Bond movies. Films and television shows emerged seemingly overnight, each of them eager to capture their own slice of the lucrative spy market. But how did these imitators separate themselves from just being pale imitations? The first thing they did was get away from the stiff authoritarianism of the Bond series. Bond was a suit with a gun. The imitators adopted more casual heroes: heroes who were hipper and more with the times. Derek Flint the hero of Our Man Flint and In Like Flint does work for a government agency, he works alone. But he can go-go with the best of them. Matt Helm as played by Dean Martin is The Silencers, Murderers’ Row, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew was perpetually inebriated and never in a suit. So in line with the loose heroes of these movies, the film makers adopted a modern approach in the presentation of their movies. Weird camera angles, shots through coloured glass and fish-tanks, psychedelic wallpaper and colour schemes were all adopted to in an attempt to present their movies as hipper and more in keeping with the times than the staid old Bond movies.
On of the more interesting opening scenes, happens in the film Hammerhead, where secret agent Charles Hood attends a piece of performance art, clearly based on the Theatre of the Absurd. During the opening, manikins are being shot and dismembered, while a food fight happens around them. One girl gets covered in tomato sauce and placed inside a giant bread roll, while nude violinists and accordion players serenade her out of key. It’s a very surreal sequence.
Slightly ironic, is the fact that Charles K. Feldman’s 1967 version of Casino Royale, itself a James Bond film, also tried to distance itself from the official Bond series by adding generous helping of psychedelia.
But for psychedelic excess, Joseph Losey’s film version of Modesty Blaise must take the cake. In the film we are treated to a swirling kaleidoscope of colours, and twisted imagery. One of the many stylised highlights of excess is when the villain, Dirk Bogarde, drinks from an over sized wine glass, which not only contains an electric blue beverage, but features goldfish swimming around inside as well.