Posted by David Kalat on November 17, 2012
Speaking of faux-James Bond thrillers of the 1960s. . . didja hear the one about the British secret service agent, his slutty girlfriend, the death ray, and the man who could cheat death? Sounds good, huh? Well, think again, sucker!
In the pitch of the Cold War, the British Secret Service has eyed warily the latest developments from “Projection Island.” There, the brilliant but mercurial Professor Larsen has invented a Death Ray. Yup, he even calls it that.
As it happens, keeping this thing out of enemy hands needn’t be hard: Professor Larsen is a mercenary who will happily sell the Death Ray to the highest bidder. All the Brits have to do is just pay him his money and call it a day. But rather than take the easy way out, the Brits have chosen instead to populate Projection Island with a surplus of spies to try to acquire the device by almost any means conceivable, save for the simplest and most direct.
Meanwhile, legendary supercriminal Dr. Mabuse is eager to get his phantom paws on the Death Ray, too. To this end he has unleashed his own army of frogmen, secret assassins, and double agents. The ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil will be staged, for no particular reason, at the birthday party of Larsen’s beautiful daughter, with the future of the planet in the balance.
Described like that, The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse actually sounds more than mildly exciting. Of course, those of who have seen it will accuse me of being overly generous.
The story behind the German Dr. Mabuse films is too long to go into properly unless you have a couple of days to spare. I’ve written a book on the subject, and to date I’ve recorded 15 hours worth of audio commentaries (much of that containing material not in the book), so the best I can do by way of cramming all of that into a one sentence summary is: in the 1960s there were a bunch of German made sci-fi thrillers about a master criminal named Dr. Mabuse, and these films mostly anticipated the James Bond cycle.
But by the time of Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse, the lines of influence had been inverted. This was the last gasp of producer Artur Brauner’s run of 1960s Mabuse thrillers. The wheels had come off the enterprise by this point. Death Ray is a low-budget quickie content to merely cash in on the James Bond craze.
For that matter, it’s almost a James Bond parody—while it isn’t played for laughs, it comes awfully close. Just one example: to access the secret British base, you have to go into its fake front, which is disguised as a pharmacy, and say the password. Now, mind you, the secret password is to ask for some aspirin. Because nobody who isn’t an authorized agent in on the know would ever think to do that. If this isn’t a joke, it’s some of the stupidest screenwriting I’ve ever encountered. I prefer to think it’s a joke.
Peter Van Eyck is the nominal star, as British superspy Major Bob Anders (“Ken Anders” in the original German language version). He’s a naff sort of spy, though, who remains one step behind Mabuse throughout—and for that matter one step behind the real British agent working the case! At the risk of spoiling things for those who haven’t seen it (because, seriously, this blog is making you desperate to track this puppy down right now, isn’t it?), Bob Anders is a decoy intended to attract attention away from his undercover counterpart. Helping him in that task is his girlfriend Judy (Rika Dialina). She tags along to help establish a cover story that he is on vacation.
However, the British have populated Projection Island with so many spies it seems as if there are more spies there than actual inhabitants. The principal industry seems to be gossip, so the very instant Anders arrives everyone knows who he is and why he’s there. So why even bother bringing Judy along?
Once on Projection Island, she is “rescued” from an off-screen and probably bogus bomb threat. Her rescuers are members of the local branch of the Secret Service, who recruit her to join their ranks. No La Femme Nikita style training for her though. They just set her up in a brothel run by British spy/whores to extract classified information from their johns during moments of passion.
Anders is morally outraged at this turn of events, but she assures him she is quite happy with her new job. “Don’t worry,” she purrs, “You don’t have to pay.”
She may be a willing prostitute but a bad spy. She enjoys putting on the airs of a international woman of mystery, carrying a revolver in her cleavage, and identifying her code number 996, but she overlooks key information and treats the mission like a game.
Not that her moronic companion Anders is any better. He’s a frumpy killjoy who stays one step behind the clues all the way, and beds all the wrong women. He gets himself seduced by Mercedes (Yoko Tani), one of Mabuse’s agents. Right in the middle of foreplay, she whips a gun out of the bed cushions and plugs him point blank in the chest. He survives, because he had the presence of mind to wear a bullet proof vest (and pressed so close to him she couldn’t tell?), but lacks the presence of mind to save her from being immediately assassinated by Mabuse to foreclose any risk of exposure.
Anders also carries on a loveless sexual affair with Gilda Larsen (Yvonne Furneaux) who just happens to be Professor Larsen’s niece. She is also a Champion Sharpshooter—but don’t expect this slapdash herky-jerky screenplay to ever bring that character detail up for anything meaningful. It’s just another random idea introduced and abandoned in the same breath—along with prescient dreams, four-thousand-year old hypnotists, and killer sharks.
For any of these ideas to have ever paid off, Ladislas Fodor would have had to remember them as he wrote, and I get the feeling he wrote this while drunk.
I say that with admiration for Fodor, who has a keen sense of pulp adventure, and has written some very worthwhile scripts in his career. This simply was not his finest hour.
At its best, this is strange enough to be endearing, and at its worst it is cheap enough to be disappointing. In other words, it’s hard to love yet despite myself I do love it.
OK, now here’s where it gets interesting. I’ve spent a thousand-plus words slamming this silly little trifle so that even if you haven’t seen it before, you have a good sense of its modest ambitions and minor significance. But most importantly, I hope you’ve been noticing the plethora of 007-knock-off tropes on parade: the British spies identified by code numbers like “996,” the exotic locales, cartoonish threats to the world, sexy Bond girls, and so on—such that you will have the appropriate reaction when I show you these:
This is the bad guy
And here are his frogmen
When I first saw this film, back in 1995 (I remember the day clearly. No, seriously, I do) my first reaction was: hey lookit the Thunderball knockoff.
This wasn’t just any old generic James Bond wanna-be, this was a James Bond parody dotted with specific references to Thunderball.
When I started writing the chapter on Death Ray for my book, however, my research revealed a startling incongruity: Death Ray was filmed in the spring of 1964, exactly one year before production started on Thunderball, and arrived in German theaters a full eight months before Thunderball started shooting.
This is problematic. The connections feel palpable, enough so to beg the question. And if the chronology of events precludes Thunderball inspiring Death Ray, we are left with the suggestion that Death Ray inspired Thunderball. Aren’t we? Or is there some other explanation?
You see, back in 1959, Ian Fleming had flirted with the idea of a James Bond movie series, and had teamed up with filmmaker Kevin McClory to develop an original Bond screenplay—which resulted in Thunderball. But the project didn’t get off the ground, Fleming grew restless and went back to novel-writing, and in fact wrote his next book (called Thunderball, natch) as an adaptation of the unproduced screenplay.
McClory sued Fleming, saying the author had no right to go publishing it under Fleming’s name alone without securing McClory’s cooperation first.
Years passed, the lawsuit dragged on, and Sean Connery was cast in Dr. No. As it happened, the producers’ first choice was Thunderball, but that story was still tied up in legal proceedings, so Dr. No was Plan B. And the producers waited for their chance to get their hands on the story they wanted most—Thunderball.
This eventually happened, and opened a floodgate of pain. McClory was not an easy man to work with, and he took the production of the film as vindication that he was indeed one of the true creators of James Bond. In 1983, he produced Never Say Never Again as a remake of Thunderball, separate from the officially sanctioned MGM series. He then threatened to continue to make his own parallel series of Bond films indefinitely, to be comprised entirely of successive Thunderball remakes!
It is conceivable that the makers of Death Ray saw the closing titles of Goldfinger, it which it was promised that James Bond will return… in Thunderball! and decided to synchronize their cash-in efforts. They could have bought a copy of Fleming’s novel and used it to inspire their own film, stealing a bit of Bond’s thunder and beating it to theaters.
As an explanation, though, it’s a bit wanting. The novel depicts villain Emile Largo as a suave athlete—it was only in the film that he acquired the eyepatch that links him visually to Death Ray’s “Admiral Quency.” And the frogmen do not leave much impression when encountered on the printed page—not compared to the way their underwater fight sequences impress, in both Thunderball and Death Ray. Simply put, the connections between the visual content of the films are more obvious than any connections between their narrative content.
And so we are left with the troubling suggestion that the makers of the filmdom’s biggest, most ambitious, most enduring movie franchise cribbed ideas from the last gasp of CCC’s dwindling Dr. Mabuse series (which was itself desperately bolstering its fallging appeal by stealing from the 007 films) or else we have just found nothing more than a startling coincidence.
It’s a wildly unsatisfying ending for a blog post, isn’t it? Well, it’s only fair, given that this is a wildly unsatisfying ending to a movie, and a wildly unsatisfying ending to a movie franchise!
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