The short-lived 1960s reboot of the classic adventure series into a Bond-style mix of high camp and sexy girls.
Bulldog Drummond was a character invented by H.C. McNeile, writing under the name ‘Sapper’. A gentleman adventurer, Drummond first appeared in the pages of The Strand (where Sherlock Holmes had also been published), and continued his escapades in several novels between 1920 and 1954, as well as a fairly consistent series of often unrelated films during the same period – between 1937 and 1939 alone, Paramount produced nine films in the series starring John Howard, and around fifteen other unconnected films were shot in the era. Even Hitchcock’s 1933 The Man Who Knew Too Much started life as a Drummond picture, and a Drummond radio series ran from 1941 to 1949.
But by the 1960s, the character had fallen out of favour, seen as old-fashioned by the new generation of filmgoers. This is unsurprising, as although in many ways Drummond was a proto-James Bond – wealthy, a drinker of martinis and a battler for his country against nefarious foreign agents – in many ways he was quite the opposite – although considered to be an English gentleman, McNeile describes him as unattractive, brainless and thuggish, an adventurer who battles foreign spies as much out of a personal lust for adventure as anything.
All this considered, he seemed an odd character to revive in the middle of the James Bond era in 1967, but Bondmania meant that all manner of copycats emerged, and if they could make some claim to literary authenticity, all the better. The two Drummond films directed by Ralph Thomas and produced by Betty Box in the latter half of the 1960s managed to completely reinvent the character for the modern age, with Richard Johnson playing a version of Drummond that was only slightly true to the original. Johnson’s character is far more suave and sophisticated, in keeping with other Bond copies like Derek Flint and Matt Helm. Indeed, Johnson – who was up for the Bond role before it went to Sean Connery – manages to show us in these two films just how good he might have been in the role, even if the films themselves fit more into the slightly camp Euro spy films of the era that included the Thomas and Box’s own Hot Enough for June. Kitsch, lightweight and fun, the films are entirely of its era, with glamorous (and deadly) girls, urbane villains and the ever-laid back Johnson as Drummond, updated here to be a wealthy insurance investigator who finds himself dealing with life or death situations in assorted exotic locations – more super spy than the guy who comes around to see if your fence really has blown down in a storm.
The first film, Deadlier Than the Male, follows Drummond as he investigates the suspicious death of an oil executive, who had been a stumbling block in a takeover bid. It son transpires that a team of female assassins, led by the ruthless Irma (Elke Sommer) and the flirty but vicious kleptomaniac Penelope (Sylvia Koschina), are pumping off – in suitably exotic and extravagant ways – anyone who gets in the way of such deals, extorting millions out of the companies they deal with and gaining control over vast fortunes. They are led by the mysterious Carl Peterson (Nigel Green)_ who eventually holds Drummond captive in his Mediterranean castle full of giant radio-controlled chess pieces (like most cinematic super villains, Peterson seems determined to piss away his ill-gotten cash on ludicrous expenditures, in this case the ostentatious castle, the chess set and an all-female army that he doesn’t seem to have any sexual interest in). Also along for the ride is Steve Carlson as Drummond’s nephew Robert, seemingly to inject a bit of youth appeal and American presence into the film. He doesn’t get to do much apart from look clumsy next to his effortlessly smooth uncle (his attempts to seduce future Dr Phibes assistant Virginia North fail when she shows a clear preference for the older Drummond).
Although he shows a penchant for cosy, pastel-coloured cardies and surprisingly little interest in the hot babes that surround him, Johnson’s Drummond is still one of the smoothest, coolest Bond substitutes of the 1960s. Nothing ruffles him, not even a bomb that is about to explode, and Johnson moves through the film with a sort of effortless, relaxed charm, that is positively louche. He seems rather amused by the whole thing – as both actor and character – and he’s a lot of fun to watch, even as he resists the considerable charms of the two female stars. Dressed to kill, Sommer is suitably hard-faced and ruthless, while Koscina exudes the sort of effortless sexiness that you will never see today, and makes a great comic foil for her partner, while being flirty and deadly at the same time. Also along for the ride are familiar faces like Leonard Rossiter, Suzanna Leigh and Milton Reid.
While ultimately throwaway, Deadlier Than the Male is unquestionably one the better of the Bond imitators of the 1960s. It is full of what now feel like fantastic retro touches, and the effortless glamour of the leading ladies is never less than remarkable. It has plentiful comic touches and a tongue firmly in cheek, yet is also exciting, fast-paced and curiously violent in parts (there’s a surprisingly nasty scene with Koscina torturing Carlson), and with the fantastic Walker Brothers theme song, it feels very much like the epitome of 1967 cool.
It’s unsurprising that audiences responded positively to the film, and a sequel was ordered up quickly. Some Girls Do, again directed by Thomas, continues in much the same vein, though perhaps going for a more knowing sense of camp than in the previous film (which was hardly unaware of what it was) as Drummond gets involved in a serious of industrial accidents that are in fact acts of sabotage carried out by a small army of sexy women (including Yutte Stensgaard and an uncredited Joanna Lumley) who are are under the control of criminal mastermind Carl Peterson, this time played with verve by James Villiers. Peterson’s defeat in the previous film has clearly not diminished his wealth or determination to piss it away on mad schemes – not only does he have a swanky HQ located on the coast, but his all-girl army are in fact Fembots – I’d like to say the original fembots, but frankly it was a bit of the theme in these movies and so looking for where the idea originated is a bit of a task.
Drummond this time is assisted and irritated by dizzy blonde American Flicky (Sydne Rome), who seems desperate to be his assistant (and possibly more), though once again, Drummond seems amusingly disinterested in women – his sexual encounters with the villainous Daliah Lavi seem as much a means to an end rather than driven by Bond-like libido, and his odd relationship with malfunctioning fembot Vanessa Howard – better known for her oddly unsettling turns in British horror films of the early 1970s like Girly and What Became of Jack and Jill – is charmingly chaste and paternal. Drummond’s nephew is absent this time, replaced by a bumbling British agent, Peregrine Carruthers (Ronnie Stevens) as the comic relief – hardly a necessity in a film that is not exactly taking itself too seriously to begin with.
There’s a solid supporting cast that includes Robert Morley, Maurice Denham and Adrienne Posta as Drummond’s sexy ‘daily’ (daily what, you might well ask), and Virginia North returns as one of the fembots, who are all suitably sexy and exotic – it goes without saying that they are here as decoration as much as anything, but if you were in any doubt, the shot between one girl’s legs, her butt cheeks provocatively visible under her short skirt, should put your mind at rest. Yes, it’s objectification, but if you are going to watch these films through a po-faced 2020 mindset, then you’ll be continually appalled. In any case, both these movies feature tough, sexy, independent women who can kick ass with the best of them.
There’s another belting theme tune performed by Lee Vanderbilt (not as iconic as the Walker Brothers’ theme for the first film, but I might suggest the better song), some moments of impressive straight-faced violent action, and a sense of fun that runs through the film, but by 1969, it seems as though the market for kitsch spy movies was on the wane – either audiences had become bored with over-saturation, or tastes were changing and these camp stories were not in keeping with a post-1968 world, where political unrest, assassination, Vietnam and an overall bleakness made these films feel a little too trivial. Bond, notably, took a shift into more a serious direction that same year with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Some Girls Do was one of several cartoonish films of the era that didn’t make the money that was expected. It meant that the Bulldog Drummond films were brought to a sudden halt with this second film, and that’s a pity – seen out of time, the films are tremendous fun, and it might have been fun to see more. But it’s hard to see the series translating to the 1970s, where only Bond remained immune to changing tastes and a more dour approach to spy stories. Bulldog Drummond has been conspicuously absent from the screen ever since, and is now an almost forgotten character.
Both Bulldog Drummond films are now on blu-ray from Network Releasing, in impressive extras-packed editions.