Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 19, 2011
When it came time to cast Dr. No (1965) director Terence Young’s first choice to play James Bond was actor Richard Johnson. Johnson’s movie star good looks, captivating voice and masculine charm made him the perfect candidate to play a sly British spy that effortlessly seduces beautiful women while saving the world from vicious criminals and madmen. Johnson declined an exclusive 7-year contract that the producers of the James Bond franchise offered him because he didn’t like the idea of being tied to a particular character for any length of time. But that didn’t stop him from playing a spy in other films. Richard Johnson was terrific as Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond in the lighthearted and extremely stylish espionage adventure Deadlier Than the Male (1967) and its sequel Some Girls Do (1969). But I think Johnson’s most interesting and challenging role as a British intelligence agent can be found in Seth Holt’s ambitious spy thriller DANGER ROUTE (1967). DANGER ROUTE lacks the camp appeal and visual allure of Deadlier Than the Male but it provided Johnson with a complex character that he effortlessly brought to life and showcases why the actor was a prime candidate to play Bond.
In DANGER ROUTE, Richard Johnson is Jonas Wilde, a world-weary killer working for the British secret service. He’s called on to assassinate potential enemies of the Empire but Wilde has grown tired of his job and wants out of the spy game. Naturally his bosses have other plans and they order Wilde to kill a Soviet scientist, who has defected to the West, before he can share any important information with the Americans. The job will put Wilde’s life in danger and eventually lead him into the hands of a traitorous double agent who intends to kill him.
Nothing is exactly as it seems in this interesting spy drama. Characters continually hide behind false identities and we’re never really sure what their motives are. The spies in DANGER ROUTE don’t carry fancy gadgets and the film’s star never shoots a gun. Richard Johnson’s character is forced to use his wit, cunning and charm to get in and out of tight situations and he disposes of his victims with his bare hands and martial art skills. Johnson’s intimate way of murdering his enemies leads to a disturbing final act of violence at the end of the movie when he’s forced to kill a double agent that has betrayed him. This brutal scene underscores the sense of melancholy and regret that Johnson’s character constantly fends off. Unlike many other early spy films, DANGER ROUTE never tries to glamorize the life of a British secret service agent. Richard Johnson’s character does have a nicely decorated apartment, albeit small. He also drives a nifty sports car but he avoids parties and openly longs for a simple and undemanding life. He’s not a killing machine or an unapologetic hero. He’s a man with a job to do who was plucked out of obscurity because he had the natural ability to survive and thrive in extreme conditions. In many ways his stamina and strength are a burden to him and I admire the way that Johnson was able to convey a masculine vulnerability in DANGER ROUTE without resorting to tears or histrionics. He seems to be taking his acting cues from guys like John Wayne or Lee Marvin and it’s fascinating to think about how different the James Bond films would have been with Richard Johnson in the lead. I suspect that Johnson would have given us a more serious and somber Bond that closely resembled the character in Ian Flemming’s original novels.
Richard Johnson has some beautiful and talented costars in DANGER ROUTE including Carol Lynley and Diana Dors. The stunning Barbara Bouchet (Johnson’s’ one-time girlfriend) plays a seductive spy and the stalwart British character actor Harry Andrews is Johnson’s boss. Carol Lynley is especially memorable as Johnson’s younger live-in girlfriend who likes to throw parties at the flat they share together. She only appears in the early and later half of the film but you won’t forget her. I also thought Diana Dors was terrific as a servant girl working at the luxurious estate where the Soviet scientist is staying. Richard Johnson does a believable job of feigning a working-class accent to seduce the vulnerable Dors who willingly sneaks him into the estate so she can get him into bed. Johnson merely uses Dors to get his hands on his target but their brief encounter is one of the movies highlights and it provided Johnson with the opportunity to show audiences how he could effortlessly slip in and out of character.
DANGER ROUTE was the only spy film made by Amicus Productions in Britain. Much like the studio’s main competitor, Hammer Film Productions, Amicus is mostly remembered for the horror films they produced but while I was watching this interesting spy movie it made me wish that Amicus had dabbled in other genres more often. There’s a dry realism that underlies every scene, which is partially due to the film’s limited budget and use of location shots, but by most accounts director Seth Holt was mainly responsible for the look and overall mood of the movie. Holt began his career as an editor and producer for Ealing Studios while working on some of the studio’s best productions such as Dead of Night (1945), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). He went on to direct some of my favorite Hammer horror films including The Nanny (1965), Scream of Fear (1961) and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971). He also directed episodes of some memorable spy themed shows for television such as Danger Man (1960-1961) and Espionage (1964), which must have helped him prepare for making DANGER ROUTE.
The film was based on a popular spy novel written by Andrew York (aka Christopher Nicole) but Seth Holt took many liberties with the original source material. DANGER ROUTE does have its talky moments, which slow down the action considerably, but the film definitely benefits from his direction. Holt was able to maintain a level of suspense and keep an audience guessing but he was exploring new territory with this picture. It seems obvious from the movie’s opening moments that Holt was making meta-references to other spy films while shooting DANGER ROUTE. The director was apparently eager to deconstruct the romanticized world of espionage that was created by the popularity of the James Bond films and he does a remarkable job of it on the limited budget that Amicus provided him with. DANGER ROUTE doesn’t take a nationalist stance and no particular country benefits from the film’s final outcome. In an especially telling scene one of the characters (Gordon Jackson) tells Richard Johnson that, “It doesn’t matter what country you work for. If you’re not a member of the ruling class, you’re a sheep.” This emphasizes the director’s desire to shine an unflattering light on the secret service and the ways in which governments use their power to manipulate and control the agents who work for them. Seth Holt was a talented director with great promise but alcoholism eventually got the best of him. DANGER ROUTE was the last film he completed before he began working on Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, which was disrupted by Holt’s untimely death at the young age of 48.
In a recent interview with Richard Johnson the actor complemented Holt’s direction and cited him as one of the best directors he ever worked with. I think that’s obvious when you watch DANGER ROUTE. Holt got a surprisingly nuanced and impressive performance from the film’s star while crafting one of the more thoughtful and original spy films to come out of Britain in the ‘60s. Unfortunately DANGER ROUTE isn’t available on video or DVD yet but you can currently see the film on Netflix while it’s one of their “Watch Instantly” offerings.
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