Deadlier than the Male (1967): Bulldog Bond

24 JULY 2023

JBC rating: ****

James Bond Connections (5):

  • Featuring Lawrence Naismith (Donald Munger in Diamonds Are Forever) as Sir John Bedlow.
  • Featuring Milton Sandor (henchmen in Dr No, Casino Royale [1967] and The Spy Who Loved Me) as henchman Chang.
  • Featuring Virginia North (Olympe, an Angel of Death in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) as Brenda.
  • Featuring George Pastell (train conductor in From Russia with Love) as Carloggio.
  • Featuring the voice of Nikki van der Zyl (Bond girl dubbing artist, various, 1962 – 1979) as the voice of Penelope.

An update of English writer H.G ‘Sapper’ McNeile’s long-running hero Bulldog Drummond for the post-Bond jet age, the highly entertaining comedy thriller Deadlier than the Male is the most well-known of three late 1960s spy movies starring the darkly handsome Shakespearian actor Richard Johnson*, who famously turned down the chance to play the first James Bond in Dr No (1962). The popular Drummond thrillers – following the action-packed adventures of a patriotic war veteran defending Britain from sinister foreign villains – dated back to the 1920s and were an acknowledged influence on Ian Fleming when he began writing the Bond novels in the 1950s. In adapting the series for the post-James Bond world, the film shows the heavy influence of the EON franchise. Additionally, the film offers 007 fans the chance to see an actor who very nearly was James Bond in a film very close in style and content to the 1960s 007 movies.

Deadlier than the Male updates McNeile’s First World War gentleman hero as a veteran of the Korean war. Following Fleming, who by casting Bond as a government agent in Casino Royale (1953), professionalised the clubland hero personified by writers such as McNeile, Drummond’s adventuring is here legitimised by his work as an insurance investigator. As the film opens, Drummond is tasked by Laurence Naismith’s oil company chairman Sir John Bledlow (above) – in an identical performance to his later appearance as Donald Munger in Diamonds Are Forever – to investigate the suspicious deaths of several company executives. Evil mastermind Carl Peterson, played by Nigel Green, is using his two gorgeous but deadly assassins Miss Eckman and Penelope (hilariously played by Elke Sommer – below left – and Sylva Koscina – below right) to kill off the board members of an oil company in various blackly comic events. Secretly a member of the board himself, Peterson is engineering a majority which will enable him to obtain rights to an oil field. Dressed in a variety of racy bikinis and resplendent evening wear, Sommer and Koscina dominate the film. Hilariously treating their killing spree as a great lark, the pair prove a comedic but believably deadly presence throughout. One of their victims, manservant Carloggio, is played by George Pastell, who featured as the train conductor in From Russia with Love (1963). Like several 1960s Bond girls, Penelope’s voice is dubbed by voice artist Nikki van der Zyl.

The Drummond here is cleansed of the infamously crypto-fascist elements of the novels. Instead, Johnson’s portrayal of Drummond as a smooth, sophisticated, and capable tough guy, ever ready with a wise crack, remains close to Connery in the 1960s – minus any overt sadism. Throughout the film, Drummond demonstrates Bond-like ingenuity to escape several mortal threats, especially during the climax when he’s trapped in Carl Peterson’s Mediterranean castle. Like a true Bond villain, Peterson provides Drummond with every luxury whilst planning his execution. Facing an increasingly hopeless predicament, Johnson has a great time trying to cause as much mayhem as possible to engineer any possible chance of escape. This includes mocking and enraging Peterson, humiliating henchman Milton Reid’s Chang in a duel (below) and rejecting the advances of Miss Eckman before deliberately provoking her jealousy by spending the night with Penelope. The memorable – and extremely Bond-esque – climax features Drummond trying to escape execution on Peterson’s life size chess set with automated pieces.

Director Ralph Thomas, working from the amusing and imaginative script by Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster, David D. Osborn, and Liz Charles-Williams, maintains a fast pace whilst keeping the focus on character and fun. Cinematographer Ernest Steward ensures every scene is glamourous and captures some stunning views on location in the Italian riviera. American group The Walker Brothers provide a fantastically bombastic and very Bond-style theme song. One unexpectantly winning departure from Bond is the inclusion of Drummond’s visiting American nephew Robert, enthusiastically portrayed by Steve Carlson, hoping to use his Uncle’s swanky London flat as a base from which to pick up young women. Hilariously, his attractive date Brenda (quietly played by future OHMSS angel of death Virginia North) seems far more interested in the older Drummond. Brenda is involved in one suspenseful scene when she innocently smokes one of Eckman’s deadly exploding cigars (below). Robert is soon embroiled in the story, including a nasty scene where he is kidnapped and suffers several cigar burns whilst being tortured by Penelope. Robert later plays a key role in the climax. Rather than being a distraction from the adventure, these civilian characters add warmth and effectively ground Drummond’s otherwise superhuman qualities.

Deadlier than the Male remains a highly entertaining comedy thriller with considerable appeal for Bond fans – not least the chance to see nearly-Bond Richard Johnson in the best – and most spy fantasy / 007-esque – of his three late 1960s espionage themed films*. By adapting a work which was a huge influence on Ian Fleming for the post-Bond era without losing its individuality, the filmmakers managed to create something far more than just another 007 knock off. Highly recommended.

See also: Danger Route (1967) and Drummond sequel Some Girls Do (1969).

How well do you think Deadlier than the Male compares with the 1960s Bond movies? Do you think Richard Johnson would have made a great 007? Please leave a comment or an alternative review below.

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