The Avengers: The Sell Out

The Sell Out (Episode 2-09, November 1962).


Most people who know The Avengers at all, know the more famous Diana Rigg/Emma Peel seasons, with perhaps some basic awareness of Honor Blackman/Cathy Gale. But The Avengers started out as a more hard-boiled, harder-edged show, and did not really star Patrick Macnee as John Steed. The first season (now mostly lost) featured Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel, a doctor whom Steed drags into his plots on a regular basis. Hendry left the show, and Macnee succeeded to the throne as the lead actor in the series. But Hendry’s imprint remained throughout the second season, and you can see the producers trying to establish the same sort of dynamic between Steed and another Doctor, in the shape of Martin King (Jon Rollason).

The Sell Out is one of three Martin King episodes, and has the distinction of being the best. This is hardly cause to celebrate, as the other two are so mind-numbingly boring that even my passionate attraction to Patrick Macnee cannot make up for it. The Sell Out has a markedly different tone to either the Cathy Gale or Venus Smith episodes of the second season, even down to Steed sporting a tan trenchcoat and reporting to vague, shadowy superiors. In fact, it’s one of the few episodes where we actually see that Steed is part of an organization with a hierarchy. He’s ostensibly a member of the Ministry of Defense and has two superiors in season two: One-Ten and One-Twelve, both otherwise nameless entities a la Le Carre or Ian Fleming. That tendency is discarded in later seasons, right up until the sixth with the disastrous introduction of ‘Mother’ as Steed’s superior. But it’s interesting to see them here, even as a testament to how the show was shaped and changed.

The Sell Out follows Steed as he tries to discover who has been sending out confidential information concerning the whereabouts of a French national that Steed has been assigned to protect. Several attempts are made on the man’s life, and Steed is having difficulty knowing who to trust. Enter Dr. King, whom Steed enlists for assistance in keeping the Frenchman safe until ‘certain negotiations’ about a Middle Eastern nation can be concluded.

There is no mystery here, I’m sorry to say. It becomes pretty clear who the traitor is within about five minutes. Jon Rollason as Dr. King is dull as dirt, though I’m not certain if that’s his fault or the fault of a poor script. And yet, having rewatched The Sell Out under some duress, I conclude that my initial appraisal of it might have been unfair. There’s a lot to be said for the episode, and most of goes back to style and *sigh* Patrick Macnee.

Macnee pretty well carries the episode, as he does with most of the ones not featuring Cathy Gale.  For anyone who likes Steed, that’s reason enough to sit through this one. His interactions with One-Twelve are entertaining, particularly as they give the lie to any assumption that Steed is representative of the status quo. He’s almost consistently insubordinate, preferring to do his work in his own time and according to his own judgement, rather than obey a shadowy dictator. Steed’s concern to both complete his assignment and discover the traitor lead him into some shadowy hallways, including a number of questions about his own position within the organization.

This is likewise one of the few episodes that boasts location shots in London, as well as perhaps the only time we see Steed driving a sports car. Steed is much more a hard-boiled agent in this series than in any other, his rough edges not yet smoothed out, and his chicanery and barely curbed violence almost shocking to anyone who only knows him as an elegant Edwardian gentleman. Yet Macnee makes him charming – far more so than I admit I ever liked James Bond – and does not sacrifice his inherent decency. Steed’s a bit of a cynical bastard, but he’s a likable cynical bastard. The entire episode feels like the first draft Le Carre short story, and I’m not certain you can argue against that.

So while The Sell Out is not for a viewer just starting out on The Avengers, it’s an enjoyable little episode for those of us who’ve seen them all.

Bluebeard (1972)


Once upon a time, there was a movie. That movie was called Bluebeard and it starred Richard Burton. And I just had to watch it.

What did I get myself into?

Bluebeard was made in 1972; those who know 1970s Richard Burton should know that this is not a good sign. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who made a number of excellent films in his career: The Caine Mutiny, Murder, My Sweet, The End of the Affair, and The Young Lions. OK then.

Bluebeard features Burton as Kurt Von Sepper, a Baron, World War I vet and ridiculously rich man (with a blue beard that is never quite adequately explained) who cycles through wives. It’s not touched upon why no one questions the fact that Sepper’s wives and mistresses keep dying violent deaths, but whatever. He’s a Baron and stuff. He’s also a Nazi, this being set in pre-War Germany, and at one point orders (or commands?) the burning of a Jewish ghetto. That will come back to haunt him in the form of a young violinist who otherwise serves no purpose in the narrative.


What is important is Sepper’s latest wife, the lovely American Anne (Joey Heatherton), who falls for him because he’s a much better actor than she is. Their scenes together are roughly equivalent to watching Richard Burton try to act with a stick of plywood, which is interesting in itself.  Anne comes to live at Sepper’s awesome castle, where she’s given the run of the show…except she cannot go into that room with that one large golden key that he gives her. What does Anne do? What the hell do you think she does? She uses the key and finds all his dead wives in a freezer.

This naturally provokes a little tiff between Sepper and his new bride. Rather than arming herself with a poker and braining the guy as he comes in through the door, Anne decides to have dinner with him. He informs her that he has to kill her, even though he’d really rather not, because she saw his wife-cicles. In a display of cunning that until now I never would have given her credit for, Anne convinces him to tell her the whole story before he murders her, so that he can unburden his soul and maybe discover why he constantly needs to off beautiful women. So Sepper obliges.

Up until this point, Bluebeard has played at least semi-seriously – and that was its major problem. It’s like a Hammer film without the humor, or the camp, despite having Richard Burton with a prosthetic beard and a terrible German accent. Now, however, the film really gets going, and those who stuck with it this far are about to rewarded with a number of WTF moments.

bluebeard-1There’s the wife who won’t stop singing, so Sepper cuts off her head. There’s Raquel Welch as a promiscuous nun, obsessed with recounting every single one of her sexual escapades, then wanting to have sex in a coffin. There’s a crazed suffragette who’s into S&M. There’s a girl who goes to a prostitute to learn how to please a man and winds up in a lesbian encounter. There are also a LOT of breasts. I think that Raquel Welch is the only one who does not show her breasts at least once, and that’s probably because she’s the biggest name in the film besides Burton. The entire time, Burton looks slightly befuddled, as though he’s not quite certain what’s happening or how he got here.

Basically, Bluebeard is a disaster, but it’s an epic one. Scenes are quite obviously cut, with sudden costume changes; plot holes could fit a coach and four. Burton is remarkably game for the whole thing, trying to put some soul into his part as a supremely unsympathetic antagonist, but Heatherton has as much acting ability as most of the ornate furniture. It’s a bright, gaudy, violent and sexually charged disaster of spectacular proportions.

I honestly wish I could recommend Bluebeard on the grounds that it’s hilarious, but I really can’t. It’s far too terrible to be good, despite some truly fascinating moments of madness. If you must watch it, catch select scenes on Youtube.

Never mind Liz Taylor, this was the film that made Richard Burton an alcoholic. It nearly made me one.

The Avengers: Death On The Rocks

Death on the Rocks (Episode 2-10, December 1962).


Death on the Rocks is a highly entertaining episode for two reasons: good writing, and the added value of Steed and Cathy posing as a husband and wife.

For once in this second series, the plot is actually a pretty good one. A ring of diamond smugglers attempt to control diamond trade in London by lethally enforcing their wills against family members of resisting merchants. This naturally means that Steed must pose a man just getting into the diamond trade, and that Cathy must pose as his wife. Hilarity ensues, although I halfway expected Steed to make greater use of the fact that they ‘need to be convincing.’ Ah, well. We will have to wait until series 3 for a Steed/Cathy kiss, I’m afraid.

Meanwhile, Steed’s partner Samuel Ross (Meier Tzelniker), whose wife died at the beginning of the episode, has problems of his own. His daughter Jackie (Toni Gilpin) is dating Nicky (David Sumner), a young jeweler gone bad who is a sort of point man for the smuggling ring. Nicky is what I like to call the ‘overconfident young man’ category; a type that Steed, as resident Alpha male, regularly has to put in his place. And he is an obnoxious, overbearing character, talking big but ultimately a coward. While we do not get a good rough fight between Nicky and Steed, there are a few moments when the older man simply smiles and waves Nicky aside like a particularly obnoxious dog. I’m sorry to say that the entire final fight sequence is somewhat ruined by someone crashing into the camera, visibly rattling it. By the time we get things back into focus, Steed and one of the baddies are on the floor and someone else has fired a gun.

Death on the Rocks rises to the top of the early Gale episodes. Cathy and Steed are equal partners in this one, and seem to be enjoying one another for the most part. There’s an entertaining subplot concerning the redecoration of Cathy’s apartment, although few chances for Honor Blackman to show off her live-television judo skills. But their interplay is marvelous, from Steed carrying Cathy around on his shoulders, to her justified anger when she discovers that he hasn’t been totally honest about the danger of the case. Cathy has not yet become Steed’s regular partner and the rough edges of their relationship still show. I admit that in some way I prefer the intensity of their early relationship, which is softened by the time we get to the end of the Cathy Gale series. Steed’s roughness makes his character incredibly dynamic – a well-dressed and honorable gentleman who will smile and cut your throat. His final words to Cathy seem to take her aback; Steed has begun to prove that he really does care.

The Avengers: The Removal Men

The Removal Men (2-06, November 1962)


Introducing: Venus Smith!

OK, not quite. Venus Smith first shows up in The Decapod, which I’ll probably cover at some point. But this is my blog and I do what I want!

The Removal Men marks the second episode to feature Venus Smith (Julie Stevens), a nightclub singer and Steed’s other female partner. She appears  a handful of times in the second series, before Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale was a solidified second-in-command. Stevens is a likable enough actress, but the Venus episodes usually give her little to do beyond a few musical numbers and a few damsel-in-distress routines. It’s hard to believe that the same people capable of creating the tough-as-nails Cathy Gale could also create Venus Smith.

The Removal Men follows Steed on vacation of sorts, as he attempts to infiltrate a Murder Inc.-style ring that assassinates high-profile people for money. This is a chance for Steed to do his ‘bad Steed’ impression, first breaking into Jack Dragna’s (Reed de Rouen) flat and locking his wife in the bathroom. Steed is finally hired to murder a French film star (Edina Ronay), but it all goes wrong when Venus happens to recognize him. As is usual with the second series, the plot plays second fiddle to the characters, but the plot here is stronger than many others.

That being said, I’ve warmed far more to the Venus Smith episodes than I did on first viewing. Although Venus can be grating at times, she really is just an innocent who gets caught in the middle of Steed’s machinations. Unlike Tara King, who bears a strong resemblance to her in the final Avengers series, Venus really isn’t a spy and never wanted to be. She’s given more to do in her later episodes, but in this one she’s mostly window-dressing.

Without a strong female counterpart to buoy him, Patrick Macnee bears much of the burden of moving the story along. For those who enjoy Steed at his roughest (and I do), that’s just fine. He’s a fast-talking antihero here; he’s remarkably cool at the climax. This is one of those eps that highlights the hard-boiled nature of the early series – shadowy nightclubs, smoky rooms and grinning villains aplenty.

While not recommended for a first-time viewer, The Removal Men has some really excellent points.

Le Doulos (1962)


Is there anything that better exemplifies Gallic cool than Jean-Paul Belmondo in a trenchcoat and fedora? No? All right, then, we agree.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s exercise in film noir Le Doulos gives Belmondo ample space to be icy cool, and that’s just the way I like it. The film opens with our main character Maurice (not Belmondo, but Serge Reggiani) walking down suburban streets. He enters a darkly lit house and has a cryptic conversation with an old jewelry fence named Gilbert, the importance of which will only be understood in retrospect. The entire opening sequence sets the tone, though: this is a film of the underground, with gangsters that act like Humphrey Bogart in the midst of an existential crisis.

Maurice is recently out of prison, planning that ever popular ‘final job’ that will enable him to run away with his girl Therese (Monique Hennessey). He involves his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the ‘doulos’ or police informant of the title. Silien’s entrance shows us nothing but an overcoated, hatted figure shrouded in darkness. Belmondo keeps his hat and overcoat on through most of the first hour of the film, only removing them when he enters a nightclub. He wears the costume of his trade.

As expected, the heist goes horribly wrong and Maurice finds himself in the unenviable position of having shot a police officer with his partner’s gun. Things go from bad to worse for Maurice, as we follow Silien – apparently the one who betrayed him – as the police ask their informer about the murder. Silien’s motives are obscured – he beats up and then apparently murders Therese, yet does not tell the cops that Maurice was the other man involved in the robbery.le-doulos-1

Much of the plot is initially confusing, made all the more so by Melville’s roving camerawork. I would have to watch it again, but I’m 95% positive that Silien’s interrogation scene is filmed all in one take. The camera moves rapidly, turning to follow Superintendent Clain (Jean Desailly) as he circumnavigates the room. Belmondo remains the fixed point that occupies the center of the frame, practically stopping the camera’s kinetic movement each time it lights on him.

The audience does not know where their sympathies lie for much of the film, as Silien moves from one inexplicable act to another. Belmondo’s impenetrable gaze and ice-cold stare give nothing away, nor does the somewhat detached nature of Meville’s camera. The script is as dense as a Raymond Chandler novel, the characters flitting in and out and speaking in clipped, arcane tones. There’s almost no music to build the tension or clue the viewer into a sympathy with one character or the other. Belmondo jumps between iciness and sudden, frightening violence, but remains the anchor of the film. This is a gangster flick, after all.

I can’t complain about a single moment in Le Doulos, except to say that the final reveal is a bit of a let down. While it explains everyone’s actions, I confess that I wanted a bit more subterfuge. The film set me up for that, and I would have loved to see it fulfilled.

Le Doulos is an exercise in noir tones, a French version of an American gangster film, but in my opinion better than anything Godard ever came up with. This is post-war French filmmaking at its finest.