FILM REVIEW: Deadlier Than The Male

Deadlier Than The Male Bulldog DrummondI never thought I’d catch myself saying this, but there’s a genuine place for remakes and re-imaginings in Hollywood.  In a day and an age where original properties seem like gold dust in a river of reclaimed sewer water, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’ve lost the plot, but hear me out.  The fact of the matter is, without new takes on classic characters they can actually become lost to future generations.

Step forward Captain Hugh Drummond: detective, patriot, hero and gentleman.

 

 

‘Bulldog’ Drummond was originally a British soldier in the trenches of WW1, just like his creator Herman McNeile a.k.a. ‘Sapper.’  He finds life unbearably tedious after the war, so he sets himself up as a freelance adventurer, ready to tackle any mission that holds the promise of thrills.  The stories were a phenomenal success, spanning some 19 novels, a radio series that ran for 13 years, and some 26 movies before vanishing over history’s horizon.  I do have vague memories of hearing Drummond’s name lumped in with the likes of Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and Mike Hammer, but I didn’t actually encounter him until I saw this movie at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre last year.  I’ve since bought and read Sapper’s original book and I loved it to bits, though it was quite a different animal (as you can tell from the images above.)

Deadlier Than The Male is a perfect example of how a character can be updated yet retain the essence that made it so popular in the first place.  Gone are the 1920’s setting, the shadow of war and Denny, his faithful bat-man.  The early James Bond films had been a huge cinematic success, so studios were naturally trying to emulate the formula.  Nothing changes, eh?  The pre-title action scene sets out their stall in the first few minutes, with sexy assassins, clever gadgets, an exotic location and a theme song from a popular act of the day (The Walker Brothers, in case you’re interested.)  The star of the film was Richard Johnson, a charismatic actor who’d been in the running to play James Bond in Dr No and – based on this film – I think he would have done a damned fine job.  Johnson is perhaps most remembered in the role of investigative scientist Dr. Markway in the quintessential chiller ‘The Haunting’ (1963) but you may also recognise his voice if you’re a fan of radio 4 comedy Bleak Expectations.  Far from the hulking, ugly brute of McNeile’s novels, Johnson’s Drummond is an attractive and debonair man-about-town.  He may earn a wage as an underwriter for a large insurance company but it is clear from the beginning that he’s more than just a suit.  Martial arts expert, detective, ladies man and bon vivant – there’s nothing and no-one that Hugh Drummond cannot handle.

The plot in brief concerns the murder of various high profile figures in the oil industry by a pair of female assassins, orchestrated by a mysterious figure for his own gains.  One of the dead men is represented by Drummond’s company, another is an associate who was previously investigating the case.  A fragmentary clue makes it way to Drummond’s door and it’s not long before the killers are after him.  A game of cat and mouse ensues, with the roles frequently changing.  Ultimately Hugh follows the trail out to the Mediterranean, uncovers the criminal mastermind and sets himself to bringing the whole cynical organisation down.  It’s involving, enjoyable and energetic stuff, but nothing particularly original.

What makes the film shine is the chemistry between characters and the sheer exuberance of the project – characteristics of the book that have transferred across beautifully.  For all his huge frame and broken features, Sapper’s soldier was always a gentleman of quick wit and ready humour.  Against his playboy nephew, Hugh fences playfully, whilst his banter with the arch-villain is full of crackling tension, masked by sophistication and a scathing grin of indifference.  The old Bulldog really shines through in those moments and it’s a joy to behold.  The other pairing that stands out is that of the female assassins.  Elke Sommer is stunning, bad tempered and business-like as Irma whilst Sylvia Koscina plays the impish, inno-sexy sadist Penelope.  Their little resentments and childish oneup-manship is a constant source of delight and if the denouement doesn’t make you laugh out loud you’re dead inside.

Given that director Ralph Thomas primarily directed  saucy comedies such as the ‘Doctor’ series and ‘Percy’, the sexual politics do leave a little to be desired, but Deadlier Than The Male manages to avoid the worst of Bond’s excesses.  Sadly it never reaches his level of cool either, relying far more on snappy dialogue than blood-pumping action.  Nevertheless there are one or two surprisingly hard-edged moments, such as the ambush in the car-park and the callous murder of Leonard Rossiter’s character.  There was talk of this being a pilot for an ongoing television series – which could have been priceless – but in the end it was not to be.  The film did do well enough to earn a sequel, but ‘Some Girls Do’ was a real hack job by comparison.  We’ve seen how film-makers and studios can wreck properties, how a fundamental failure to understand what made the original so great can lead to poor pale imitations, so this shouldn’t be too much of a shock.  It’s a shame it happened so soon though, because the shoddy sequel marked the end of Hugh Drummond on the screen.  Thankfully the books are still available and many of the films and radio episodes are available online, should you care to track them down.

Of course, what we really need is for some sparky new talent to rediscover the joys and update Bulldog Drummond for the next generation.  Any takers?

Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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