The Road to Hong Kong (1962)

Director: Norman Panama
Starring: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Joan Collins, Robert Morley, Walter Gotell, Dorothy Lamour
Cameo appearances: Peter Sellers, David Niven, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra
Music: Robert Farnon
Songs by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen

I’ll confess that I am too young (ha, ha) to have watched and been a fan of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. And this is the only ‘Road’ movie that I have seen. I chose to watch it because of the espionage related plot. From other sources this film is generally derided for being the weakest of the ‘Road’ movies, but from my point of view this is a fairly decent 1960’s spy spoof.

What I find quite remarkable is that Road To Hong Kong was released in the US on 22 May 1962, a good 4 months before Dr. No was released in the UK (I mention the UK because The Road To Hong Kong was filmed in England. Incidentally Dr. No wasn’t released in the US till January 1963). Why am I comparing release dates? Well, The Road To Hong Kong is one of the better Bond send ups – only it was made before there were Bond films to send up. Firstly, the film features a title sequence by Maurice Binder. Secondly the production designer is Syd Cain, who worked uncredited on Dr. No (under Ken Adam), and as head on From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Live And Let Die. Apart from Bond, Cain worked on, Hot Enough For June and The Billion Dollar Brain. Then we have the cast: Walter Gotell appeared in seven Bond films and provided the voice of General Gogol for the James Bond Jnr animated series. Next we have Niven and Sellers, who both appeared in the 1967 comedy version of Casino Royale. Okay Robert Morley and Joan Collins never appeared in a Bond film, but both of them are not strangers to the world of espionage. Morley appeared in Hot Enough For June, Some Girls Do, and When Eight Bells Toll, plus many others. Collins appeared in the TV shows The Persuaders, Mission Impossible, and The Man From UNCLE. Theatrically she appeared in Subterfuge with Gene Barry. I think I have laboured the point, that while The Road To Hong Kong may not have been a very successful ‘Road’ picture, it was a very fertile training ground many of the people behind Bondmania and the spy-craze that swept the world during the sixties.

Let’s have a look at the story. After the title sequence, which features a vaudevillian dance routine from Hope and Crosby, the film opens in Hong Kong, at the American Intelligence Organisation headquarters. They are concerned, because the Russians have just sent two men around the moon in a spacecraft. The most disconcerting thing for them though, is that the cosmonauts have American accents. They play a tape recording to demonstrate. The voices are of Hope and Crosby. At that moment a girl, Diane (Joan Collins) is allowed into the room. She claims to have knowledge of the space mission. She says it wasn’t the Russian who sent up the spacecraft. It was a group called The Third Echelon. She describes them as ‘more desperate, more intelligent, and infinitely more dangerous the the Americans or the Russians’. Diane, who used to be an agent for The third Echelon, explains the story via flashback…

Ten days previously, in Calcutta, Harry Turner (Bing Crosby) and Chester Babcock (Bob Hope) are trying to sell a ‘Fly It Yourself’ interplanetary space suit to a gullible crowd. Harry is spruiking the suits virtues, how anyone can fly it, and you can go anywhere you want to go with one. These spacesuits consist a silver top and pants. Added to this are a helmet with a propeller on the top, and an engine, with another propeller strapped to the backside. To continue the Bond association, which I started in the opening paragraphs, the suit is like a cross between Little Nellie, the gyro-copter used in You Only Live Twice and the jet rocket pack that Bond used in the pre-title sequence in Thunderball. The innocent dupe, who was going to test fly the suit for the crowd does a runner at the last minute. Harry convinces Chester to put on the gear and demonstrate. Needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong.

Chester ends up in hospital with amnesia. He cannot remember Harry, or even his own name. Chester is then taken to the best neurologist in India, who just happens to be Peter Sellers. Sellers Indian routine will be familiar to anyone who has watched Blake Edwards The Party. I know that in some circles, The Party is considered a comedy classic, but in my opinion, Sellers cameo in this movie is funnier. But that is a personal taste thing, you’ll have your own opinion.

Sellers cannot restore Chester’s memory but he recommends a lamasery in Tibet (for those that don’t know, a ‘lamasery’ is where the ‘lamas’ live, as in Dalai Lama etc…). So, Harry and Chester prepare to catch a plane to Tibet. At the airport Diane is meeting an agent who has stolen a top secret Russian rocket fuel formula. The formula is passed to Diane on a series of cards, which she secrets away. In turn, she is to pass them on to a photographer who will take shots and make microfilm. The photographer is also to meet her at the airport. She’ll recognise the photographer from a symbol on his luggage – three concentric circles. Naturally there’s a mix up with the baggage, and Chester winds up carrying the photographer’s case. Diane approaches him and slides the formula into Chester’s coat pocket. Then Harry and Chester board their plane for Tibet, before Diane has time to realise her mistake.

Harry and Chester arrive at the lamasery, and indeed they can cure Chester. In fact the secret herb that can restore his memory, can also help him remember anything he reads. Chester takes the drug and is cured. But now Harry and Chester are not allowed to leave the lamasery. They belong to the temple. This wont do, so the boys escape using the old patty-cake routine. Once you see it, you’ll know what I mean! As Harry and Chester are con-men always looking for an angle to make money, they also steal a phial of the herbs. They figure they can use it on stage for a ‘memory routine’.

They fly back to Calcutta, and in their hotel room they decide to test the herbs. For the test they need something to read, and Chester pulls out the rocket formula from his jacket pocket. Chester takes the herbs, and reads the cards. Harry tests him on his knowledge and as he is successful, burns the cards. Unwittingly, now the formula only exists in Chester’s mind.

Diane is still after the formula, and makes an arrangement with Harry. She will pay them $25,000 if they will go to Hong Kong and recite the formula. It is an offer too good to refuse, and off go our two intrepid heroes. Harry and Chester arrive at the home of the leader of the Third Echelon. By an amazing elevator, they are taken to an underground, and underwater lair which houses a rocket base. I must make mention of the set design at this point. It is all staggering good. Sure it is a little on the cartoon side, after-all this is a comedy, but everything from the control rooms, the rocket launch site, the submarines, and even the interior of the rocket capsule, with the banana feeding machine is extremely well done.

The leader of the Third Echelon is Robert Morley. He demands that Chester reveals the secret formula. But this time the herbs don’t work (they have been substituted for tea). Chester cannot remember. Harry and Chester are sentenced to be killed. Their reprieve comes via one of the scientists, Dr. Zorbb (Walter Gotell). He suggests that they send Harry and Chester up into outer space instead of the two monkeys that were originally going to be sent.

As you can see by the plot, it’s all very silly, as you expect from Hope and Crosby. But generally it is all pretty good fun. As this is the first ‘Road’ film in ten years for the boys, there are plenty of jibes about their respective ages. And as you’d expect, it’s the banter between the two stars that really drive this film along. Sure, you heard some of the jokes before (‘walk this way’), but these guys are old friends. For fans of the other film in the series, don’t expect too much from Dorothy Lamour. Her role is barely more than a cameo towards the end. As I mentioned at the top, as a ‘Road’ film, this may not be the funniest or the freshest, but at the beginning of the sixties, film styles were changing, and maybe without even realising they were doing it, the team behind The Road to Hong Kong were providing a taster of things to come.

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The Road to Hong Kong (1962)

Assault on a Queen (1966)

Director: Jack Donohue
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Virna Lisi, Tony Franciosa, Alf Kjellin, Richard Conte, Errol John
Music: Duke Ellington
Based on a novel by Jack Finney (and has a screenplay by Rod Serling)

Assault on a Queen is a caper film from Frank Sinatra, and let’s be honest, although we all enjoy Frank’s legacy of cool, in general his caper films weren’t too good. Ocean’s Eleven is almost impossible to sit through, and Robin And The Seven Hoods is only slightly better. Assault on a Queen starts off fairly promising. For the first hour of it’s running time, I’d even say it’s the best Frank caper yet, BUT somehow the story, which has a great premise, falls off in the middle and just does not deliver.

The film, which is set in the Bahamas, opens with a boat racing into port, with an ambulance racing to meet it. On board the boat are Victor Rossiter (Tony Franciosa) and Rosa Lucchesi (Virni Lisi); two fortune hunters, who have been searching for a sunken galleon carrying gold off the coast. Their deep sea diver’s, diving suit has burst while searching for the galleon and he has drowned. The ambulance and doctor arrive at the port, and the doc pronounces the diver dead.

Assault on a Queen Novelisation
Assault on a Queen by Jack Finney

Later that evening at Blackbeard’s Tavern, Mark Brittain (Frank Sinatra) and his partner, Linc Langley (Errol John) are seated at the back, drinkin’ gin and playin’ gin. Entering the bar are Rossiter and Lucchesi. They are looking for a new diver and have been recommended Brittain. They approach him and make him an offer. Rossiter and Lucchesi believe they have a map that shows them the exact location of the sunken galleon. Brittain has heard all the stories before and is not interested. Brittain and Langley are fishermen, not treasure hunters. Rossiter and Lucchesi leave still requiring a diver.

After the tavern is closed, Brittain and Langley return to their boat, only to be blocked by the harbour master. He will not allow them on their boat as they owe over $600 in dock fees and for other supplies.

The next day, to get his boat back, Brittain goes to Rossiter and Lucchesi he agress to take the diving job. At this time, Brittain also meets Rossiter’s other partner, Eric Lauffnauer (Alf Kjellin). Lauffnauer is a German, who used to be the captain of a U-boat in World War II.

When we next see Brittain, he is all kitted up in a deep sea diving suit. He drops over the side and drifts down to the bottom and begins to search for the elusive galleon. After an hour on the bottom he hasn’t spotted anything. Just as he is about to return to the boat, he sees a sunken World War II German submarine. It appears to be intact.

Assault on a Queen

Rather than continue to scour the seabed for a treasure that may or may not be there, Rossiter and Lauffnauer come up with a new scheme to make them all rich. It is to raise and refit the old submarine, and then become pirates on the high seas. Their target: the ocean liner, Queen Mary.

Assault on a QueenWith a film of this kind, you really have to suspend disbelief, because it really is quite silly. And the acting is paper thin. There is no reason why Brittain should go along with Rossiter, Lauffnauer and Lucchesi’s hair brained scheme. Sure, there’s the lure of money, but it ain’t ‘easy money’. As I mentioned at the top, the film really loses focus in the second half. We know what the gang are up to, and even how they intend to do it, so we spend a great deal of the second half, just waiting for them to get on with the job.

The film features a great musical score by Duke Ellington. It’s jazzy (of course), with a hint of calypso, and over the top there’s a cool line in funk flute. But as good as the music is, it sometimes doesn’t follow the story.

Sadly this film is a misfire, but it is a good example of sixties Jet-Set cinema. It stars an American, Two Italians, and a German, in a story set in the Bahamas. You can’t get much more international than that. Just before signing off on this one, a quick bit of trivia: Reginald Denny who plays the Master-At-Arms on the ship was Algy, Bulldog Drummond’s dim-witted buddy in the film series from the 1930’s. And more interestingly, Virna Lisi, who looks fantastic in this film I might add, was originally cast to play Barbarella but turned it down.

Assault on a Queen (1966)

The Naked Runner (1967)

Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Frank Sinatra, Derren Nesbitt, Peter Vaughan, Nadia Gray, James Fox
Music by Harry Sukman
Based on the novel by Francis Clifford

The Naked Runner is a rather limp follow-up to The Ipcress File by director Sidney J. Furie. The film stars Frank Sinatra as Sam Laker, an American business man who lives in London. Now before you panic and think, this is late sixties, and Sinatra was probably competing with his old pal Dean Martin in the swingin’ spy stakes, let me tell you, you’d be wrong. It is a million miles away from the Matt Helm films. Does that mean it is any good? Sad to say, no! But Sinatra is quite good. His performance gets critisised in a lot of reviews, but he is solid, playing the highly stressed, confused, and distraught Laker. Maybe it’s a persona that people didn’t want to watch Frank portray?

So Frank’s okay. Why is the film bad? First I’ll give you a quick overview of the plot and then look at the negatives. British Intelligence Officer, Martin Slattery (Peter Vaughan) receives a phone call in the middle of the night from the Minister. It seems a political prisoner, Rudoph Frensal has escaped from custody at Wormwood Scrubs. Frensal was being held because he tried to flee the country with some highly secretive, technical information. British Intelligence believe he was freed by the Russian’s and now is on his way to Moscow, where they will retrieve the information. This cannot be allowed to happen. Frensal must be killed.
The hard part of the job is finding a man to do the assassination. They can’t use one of their regulars. They need a man who is unknown to the enemy and totally uncompromised. After going through file after file, Slattery is struggling to find the right man. Then while reading the local newspaper he spies an article about Sam Laker (Sinatra), who has just won an award for chair design. Slattery knows Laker from the war, where he had been seconded to Slattery’s unit from the O.S.S. But since the war, Laker has lived a life of a respectable business man.

Now Slattery has found his pawn, he needs to find a way to make him a killer. And Laker is not the type of guy who will simply pick up a gun for the sake of it. No, Laker needs to be manipulated into killing Frensal. Various psychologists are called in to analyse what makes Laker tick, and what is the best way to make him carry out the mission.

They contrive a plan to gently drag him back into the world of espionage and dirty tricks. Laker and his son Patrick had already arranged a trip to Leipzig trade fair. Slattery convinces Laker to do one small task. It is to drop off a message to a watch-maker near the fair. Laker reluctantly agrees. But during the few minutes that Laker and his son are separated, Patrick is kidnapped by Colonel Hartman (Derren Nesbitt). After Patrick’s kidnapping, Laker is told about the other, distasteful part of the mission. Laker is outraged, but they are holding his son and he feels it is out of his control.

Up until this stage the film is quite good. Sure, it is contrived. Very contrived. But it still has been fast paced and entertaining. But from now on, the film really bogs down. From my synopsis, you can tell where the film is going, but the film-makers drag this bit out for another sixty minutes. As a reviewer, I hate to admit this, but twice, I have fallen asleep during the second half of this film. That’s not why I will dispense with the synopsis though. As I said, you can tell where the story is going.

As I mentioned earlier, Sinatra’s performance is okay. Uniformly, the acting is good throughout the film. Peter Vaughan is excellent as Slattery, and is absolutely chilling in his deceitfulness. And Derren Nesbitt’s turn as Colonel Hartman has a modicum of menace about it too. It’s not surprising to see that he turned up a year later playing another similar role in Where Eagles Dare.

The real villain in this movie is the plot. It’s hard to point out the biggest flaw in this movie without spoiling the ending totally. But in a roundabout way; at the beginning, when the Minister and Slattery start planning the mission, at the meeting they discuss why they need Laker for the job. The reason being the enemy knows all their agents, methods and there is no way a regular British agent could get close enough to do the job. The ending; Laker has completed the mission, and confused is running to safety. Within seconds, British agents spring from nowhere to calm Laker down. Question: If the British agents were that close to Laker as he completes his mission, why couldn’t they have completed the mission for him?

The film is ridiculous. I’d only watch it if you were a die-hard fan of Frank Sinatra and even then, I’d have a pot of coffee percolating and a pack of ‘No-Doze’ handy.

The Naked Runner (1967)