The Avengers: The Secrets Broker

The Secrets Broker (Episode 03-19, February 1964).


The Secrets Broker is an odd episode – I return to it time and again in the hopes that I can bring myself to fully enjoy it. It’s not a bad episode per se, but it lacks a certain something to draw it into a cohesive whole.

The death of an agent prompts Steed and Cathy into investigating a wine merchant and a spiritualist circle in connection with the potential theft of necessary plans for underwater navigation. Steed discover some excellent claret and a sinister wine merchant, while Cathy hangs out at the design facility in the hopes of picking up some information, where she discovers that the chief designer’s wife is having an affair. The viewer is unfortunately subjected to far too much of the latter, turning the episode into a domestic melodrama for a good portion of its runtime. Steed’s investigation into the wine merchant angle turns up far more interesting results, narratively-speaking, with a gang of villains using blackmail and faux spiritualism to gather information and pass it on to “the enemy.” It all culminates in several deaths, a wine-tasting, and a séance.

All of that makes The Secrets Broker sound more interesting than it is. The episode has many ingredients that should form one of the best entries into the season, but it somehow manages to fall short. I’ve mentioned the domestic melodrama angle, with the lovers played by Patricia English and Ronald Allen. English is usually more dependable than this – she played Carlotta in Mission to Montreal, and reappeared in the Emma Peel episode Never Never Say Die, and was a highlight in both. But here she’s forced into the part of a whiny, self-pitying wife, passionate about her singularly uninteresting lover who forces her into cutting alarm wires at the design facility, all to avoid the embarrassment of having to explain their affair to her designer husband.

Avengers writers seem more at home with pseudo-science than with pseudo-spirituality – both this episode and Warlock make very little out of their supernatural elements. The spiritualism angle is never fully developed, although it did have promise. Mrs. Wilson (Avice Landone) and her daughter Barbara (Jennifer Wood) run a spiritualist circle that works next door to the wine shop, helping to funnel information via Barbara’s “trances.” While Mrs. Wilson herself is one of the better, nastier female villains in The Avengers, the use of the circle is never made clear. The pair are charlatans, but it’s difficult to grasp why they need to use spiritualism at all – everything seems to be done very effectively at the wine merchant’s.

The episode does have some strong points, however, including Jack May as the creepy wine merchant Waller. Waller feels like a villain without an episode: his sinister voice and demeanor could have been used to much greater effect, but the episode pops when he’s on the screen. The same goes for our two heroes, who manage to get in some nice repartee and even an edge of flirtation while feeling their way through. Cathy’s “what makes you think I have depraved tastes?” response to a bottle of apricot brandy Steed gives her evokes a knowing smile from Patrick Macnee and a near giggle from Honor Blackman. Steed has some of his best scenes with Waller as they verbally spar via an ostensible discussion of wine. Cathy has the least to do, but she does get in a few nice judo throws in a short but intense fight in the wine cellar.

I’ve now written more about The Secrets Broker than I have about almost any other episode. I still struggle with this one – I want to like it more than I do, and perhaps in time I will discover even more to say about it. In any case, it’s worth a look, and hardly boring, if only just for that apricot brandy joke.

1984-a-thon: The Razor’s Edge (1984)

When Todd over at Forgotten Films asked me to participate in the “1984-a-thon,” my first reaction was: “there were good movies made in 1984?” Then I went through the long, long list of films released that year and was pleasantly surprised at the number of excellent films included therein. The 1984-a-thon also meant that I finally got around to watching a film that has been on my queue for too long:

The Razor’s Edge

1984 The razors edge - El filo de la navaja (ing) (hs)

Back before he joined up with Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch and went through a dramatic career resurgence, Bill Murray was known first and foremost as a comedian.  Armed with that wry, knowing sense of humor and slapstick that most of us associate with his persona, he appeared in a handful of comedic roles and made a name for himself in films like Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and, of course, Ghostbusters. But Murray always considered himself more than just a funny guy (not that that’s anything to sneeze at) and so took on his very first dramatic role in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. 

The Razor’s Edge was directed by John Byrum from a script written in collaboration with Murray, and bears only a nodding resemblance to the 1946 film with Tyrone Power in the lead. Murray is Larry Darrell, a young man from a small town in Illinois who joins the ambulance corps during World War I, leaving behind his fiancée Isabel (Catherine Hicks). The horrors of war take their toll, opening his eyes to the moral bankruptcy and complacency of the life he left behind. When Larry returns to his hometown he’s unsatisfied with the safe and business-like life offered by post-World War I America and heads to France to “find himself” through hard work and intellectual introspection. Isabel is horrified by the way he chooses to live and leaves him for his erstwhile best friend Gray (James Keach). Larry finally falls for Sophie (Theresa Russell), the girl who always loved him but who remained divided from him by circumstance. The rest of the film meanders through France, Britain, and India as Larry searches for meaning in a life and world that has ceased to make sense to him.

John Byrum only directed a few films in his career; The Razor’s Edge was the third, and unfortunately bears the hallmarks of an inexperienced filmmaker. Most critics of 1984 focused on Murray’s performance as the major problem with the film, but things go much deeper than that. The film has a wandering, episodic structure, as characters move in and out of each other’s lives, yet the audience remains almost aloof from the characters. Larry is the central figure, but the characters who surround him and inform on his existence are so sketchily drawn that they almost become non-entities, figures there for Larry to bounce off of rather than characters in their own right. Murray’s wry, comedic sensibility might be partially to blame here – like the film, he seems aloof from the very beginning.


As Larry moves on to find himself in a Buddhist monastery, the film takes on an Orientalist theme. This is hardly surprising in an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel, or in a film of this period – in fact, the DVD version of The Razor’s Edge includes trailers for Seven Years in Tibet and Gandhi. The idea of a Westerner turning to Buddhism to find the meaning of his life is hardly unique, but the film fails to examine the underlying problems of that portion of the plot. In general  The Razor’s Edge is a story about introspection and enlightenment that refuses to examine itself, its superficiality at odds with the growth of its central character.

This superficiality has more to do with the script and direction than anything else. The script and performance styles have a weirdly anachronistic feeling to them; more than once I felt as though I was watching actors from 1984 pretending to be people from 1920. Both Catherine Hicks’s Isabel and Theresa Russell’s Sophie are contemporary characters dropped into another world, their voices, attitudes, and dialogue more in keeping with the America of 1984 than of 1920. Sophie is supposed to be Larry’s “true love,” but Russell’s performance – which should have been affecting – instead comes off as almost callous and unbelievable in her behavior. She’s a Valley girl dropped into the Midwest of the early 20th Century. It was difficult to feel any sort of sympathy for Sophie or for Isabel, both of whom are intended to be damaged and complex characters but lose their complexity in the script.


The major exception to this anachronistic tendency is Denholm Elliott, playing “Uncle” Templeton. Templeton is a dandy, a “man-about-town” still trying to live in the society prior to World War I. He is part of a less confusing world, ill-equipped for the changes wrought by the war and its aftermath, and as such feels like a man out of time. Unable to cope with the new society, Templeton tries to retreat to his memories of the past in his opulent Parisian home, stalwartly maintaining his savoir faire in the face of a society he cannot understand. Elliott plays him with a pathos missing from most of the other performances – Templeton is both pathetic and lovable, and you want him to find a place in the gone world. It seems odd that the character most out of touch with his time period should come off as the most believable.

Then there is Murray. While far from pitch-perfect, his performance as Larry has been unfairly maligned. Certainly Larry carries around some of Murray’s trademark sarcasm, but there is an underlying sensitivity and intelligence to the character that hints at the actor’s later ability to walk the line between humor and melancholy. The war does not transform Larry so completely that he fails to retain his fundamental personality – the character keeps a continuity often missing from these tales of transformative experience and the search for meaning. You believe that he can change as he does. Murray is fun to watch in almost any incarnation, but here he proves that he does have a strong dramatic sensibility that does not have to be at odds with his more obvious style of comedy.

The Razor’s Edge is not a bad film, but it squanders the opportunity to be a great one. It hints at a depth and introspection it never quite achieves, burying some excellent ideas (and performances) beneath romantic renderings of a bygone era. The female characters fail to spark, and there is at least one scene where a pivotal moment fails to achieve its emotional aim. At the same time, watching a younger Murray in a rare dramatic role provides a glimpse of the mature actor beneath the immature facade. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to capitalize on that until much later.

The Razor’s Edge actually owes its existence to Ghostbusters. When The Razor’s Edge had difficulty obtaining backing after Murray’s casting, Dan Aykroyd came to the rescue: he convinced Murray to appear in Ghostbusters in exchange for Columbia Pictures greenlighting The Razor’s Edge. Whether or not that was a good exchange must be subject for debate, but it’s likely Murray would never have done Ghostbusters if it had not been for The Razor’s Edge. That in itself might be reason enough to give this film a chance.

The Avengers: The Little Wonders

The Little Wonders (Episode 03-16, January 1964).


The Little Wonders is a fan-favorite episode for a number of reasons, not the least of them being that it contains the one and only on-screen kiss between Steed and Cathy. It’s also one of the most amusing episodes to come out of Season 3, hinting at the slightly crazier plots to come when Mrs. Peel enters the fray.

Steed starts off the weirdness by putting on a clerical collar enters the orders as a way of uncovering the machinations of a criminal syndicate known as Bibliotheque, whose members pose as clergymen. He takes the place of the Reverend Hardbottle (arrested at customs) at a “convocation” designed to establish who will be the successor to the dying Bishop of Winnipeg.  Meanwhile, Cathy investigates the connection between Bibliotheque and a doll’s hospital in central London. These two threads will come together, of course, but not before Cathy has a chance to be threatened by men in sunglasses and Steed carves out a name for himself in the syndicate.

This was one episode I wished could have been a two-parter. The Little Wonders brings together some of the best character actors to feature on The Avengers through its long run. There’s Kenneth J. Warren, who will return several times over the course of the show, as “Fingers the Frog;” Lois Maxwell (that’s Miss Moneypenny) as a machine-gun toting nurse, and John Cowley as “Big Sid,” to name just a few who simply don’t get enough screen time. Steed gets into the spirit of playing a vicar/gangster, referring to himself as “Johnny the Horse” (the derivation is equestrian), and carving naked women in his spare time. Cathy has the more thankless job as she attempts to discover why Hardbottle had a priceless doll in his possession, resulting in her apartment being torn apart and an altercation with a doll-mender whose part could have been elaborated on. She also inadvertently becomes Steed’s girlfriend for a few seconds: just long enough for him to kiss her without getting slapped for his trouble.

The Little Wonders plays the clergy angle to the hilt, luckily without wearing it too thin. While there are some moments of filler – no one really cares about who’s going to take over Bibliotheque, but there’s a lot of time spent on the issue – the episode moves along at a dashing pace, with enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing. The greatest flaw is in a sudden about-face in the third act, which feels a little confusing and perfunctory; there’s also the question of what “top-secret information” consists of, and why government officials have such difficulty keeping secrets. It’s all in good fun, though, and there’s enough going on in The Little Wonders to justify the praise it receives. If I was listing the top ten episodes of the Cathy Gale era, this one would be right up there.

Young and Innocent (1937)

Young and Innocent


Alfred Hitchcock made some great and not-so-great films in his long career as the Master of Suspense. We often focus on his acclaimed “masterpieces” of suspense cinema: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Rear Window – these are the films that many viewers think of when they think of Hitchcock. But Hitchcock was a director in his native Britain long before he came to America, and the films he made during that period sometimes exceed his later works in both humor and suspense.While some film lovers will know The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps, titles like Rich and Strange, Murder!, and Young and Innocent are routinely ignored. Some of this must have to do with the prevalence of public domain prints, which are often murky and imperfect reproductions of films that deserve much better. But Hitchcock’s British films contain not just the seeds of the style and themes that would come to fruition in his later American career; they are enjoyable, even brilliant works of cinema in their own right.

Young and Innocent opens with a stylized murder that we instantly recognize as Hitchcock. After an argument with her husband Guy (George Curzon), actress Christine’s (Pamela Carme) body is washed up on the beach below her home. She’s discovered by Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), who runs off to get help only to be spotted by two young women. When the police arrive they claim that he was running away, and Robert is arrested for Christine’s murder. In the legal farce that follows, the police discover that not only did Robert know the dead woman, but he was also left a hefty sum of money in her will. What’s more, the dead woman was strangled with the belt of a raincoat that Robert claims he has lost. Realizing that he’ll get no justice without that coat. Robert  escapes from the courthouse just before his case is brought up, hiding out in the car of Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam), the Chief Constable’s (Percy Marmont) daughter. They begin a cross country chase to find Robert’s raincoat and prove that it was not his belt that strangled Christine.


Young and Innocent is the “wrong man” narrative that Hitchcock made a central theme almost from the very beginning of his career. His best known silent film The Lodger operates on the same principles of a falsely accused man who must prove his innocence to both the police and to the girl he loves. The plot brings into relief issues of the justice system –  often shown as ineffective at best – and the vagaries of human nature, as the hero finds help (and hindrance) in some of the oddest place. In the case of Young and Innocent, the audience has no doubt about the veracity of Robert’s story. Without being shown the murder itself, we are given enough information within the first few minutes of the film to determine that Robert had nothing to do with it; it was Christine’s husband Guy, the man with the nasty eye-twitch, that killed her. The crux of the plot then trades on Robert convincing Erica that he’s been falsely accused. It is her story, really, as she comes to maturity via her experience, and her growing conviction that Robert could not have committed the crime.

Erica is on the cusp of womanhood, but she still presides over her father’s table, playing both good daughter and mother to her four brothers. Robert represents adulthood, a mature love, and an implicit threat to the family’s status quo. Erica’s faith in him saves him, just as his gentleness with her hints at an adult world she has never quite touched. Pilbeam and De Marney are excellent together, the latter playing the wry and dashing Hitchcock hero to perfection. Pilbeam looks and acts every bit her age (she was also the young daughter in The Man Who Knew Too Much),  yet manages also to fulfill some of the requirements of a strong Hitchcock heroine. She’s not a pushover and she’s not a victim. The youth of the two leads lends a lightness that might have been missing from older, more experienced actors – there is a sense of play in their friendship and then burgeoning romance, and an atmosphere of fun permeates their scenes together.


The comedy of Young and Innocent is its most endearing feature. The film contains an extended sequence making fun of the local police (and Scotland Yard), as Robert easily escapes from their clutches after a scene with his venal, incompetent lawyer, resulting in a madcap chase through the English countryside. An element of slapstick runs through the film: police officers are forced to ride in the back of a wagon “with the other pigs,” a child’s party interrupts Robert and Erica’s escape, and Erica causes a slapstick fight at a local truck stop as they try to locate Robert’s missing raincoat. Hitchcock had an innate sensibility and love for British society of all classes, and Young and Innocent is full of British character types, each both endearing and grotesque in their own ways. The most enjoyable of these is Old Will (Edward Rigby), who provides a crucial clue to the identity of the murderer and Robert’s salvation. He’s an endearing character who makes the film even more pleasurable to watch.

This is a Hitchcock movie, though, and Hitchcock movie means at least one feat of camerawork that we might not expect. There are any number of excellently shot and framed scenes throughout Young and Innocent, but the most obvious and influential “Hitchcockian” moment must be the crane shot nearing the end of the film. It begins in a hotel lobby, swoops slowly over a group of dancing couples in a ballroom, down over their heads and to the band playing at the front, coming to rest finally on the twitching eyes of the drummer, whom we know from the start is the real killer. The entire sequence is a single shot, but you almost miss the brilliance of the camerawork until after the fact. If all Young and Innocent had to recommend it was that single shot, it would be enough.

Young and Innocent is less solid than The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes, and only hints at some of the greatness that will come along in Hitchcock’s later masterpieces. But it is a light, joyful film, entertaining without being challenging, and with enough depth of plot and characterization that you come away feeling both lightened and intrigued by the outcome. It is a comedic film, but with an undercurrent that acknowledges the seriousness of its subject. Young and Innocent is a work of light, even in the midst of darkness. As Robert says: “I can laugh, because I know I’m innocent.”