Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lauren Humphries-Brooks on The Avengers (1963)

If you type “The Avengers” into Google, you’ll come up with tons of hits on Marvel’s Avengers franchise, and the multiple films, characters, and debates it has spawned. Even “The Avengers TV show” results in hits for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. But before Marvel began developing its expansive universe, there was The Avengers – a British TV show that ran from 1961-1969 (and then again from 1976-1978 as The New Avengers), featuring John Steed and a series of kick-ass female partners, beginning in 1962 with the brilliant Dr. Catherine Gale.

What you might not know is the little known 1963 Avengers film, titled simply The Avengers, that starred Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Honor Blackman as his first ever female Avengers partner Cathy. For aficionados of the show, The Avengers acts as a bridge between the rougher, more Le Carre-inspired world of Cathy and the smoother, psychedelic world of Emma Peel. It was also the film that got Honor Blackman the coveted Pussy Galore gig in Goldfinger (released a year later and mostly obscuring the relative domestic success of The Avengers film).

The Avengers is a quirky, highly British little spy drama in its own right, hovering somewhere between the campier style of its contemporary James Bond, and the more serious spy-fare of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Written by Avengers producer Brian Clemens and produced by the Associated British Pictures Corporation, the parent company of ABC, the film was intended to capitalize on the success and fame of the Cathy Gale era, and to drum up international interest in syndicating the show when it went to filmed episodes (which, in point of fact, it did, only without Blackman in the lead).

The plot here is right out of an Avengers episode. Steed and Cathy travel to Scotland to investigate a small passenger plane crash, where three passengers and the pilot were discovered with their flesh stripped from their bones. The passengers are an odd collection, including a British Brigadier, an American CIA operative, and a suspected arms dealer. The fourth passenger, Pelham (James Maxwell), is the manager of a flea circus, and has been taken to a hospital. Steed and Cathy visit him only to find that he’s gone mad. In a frighteningly powerful scene, he starts screaming about plans to unleash an invisible army on England. As with most Avengers episodes, the story splits there: Cathy goes off to investigate the dead Brigadier’s home (where she interrupts a burglary), while Steed interviews the dead pilot’s brother. He learns that the pilot once worked as a mercenary for a General Cavalo (John Carson), a South American general recently killed (in a most bizarre way) fleeing into the jungle after a failed coup attempt. Things get even weirder from there, as Steed and Cathy race to uncover the plot and save England from invasion.

For fans of the show, the plot of The Avengers reflects the increasingly outlandish, campy plots that would become a feature of the Emma Peel series. In fact, the plot plays very much like some of the Season 4 episodes, drawing into question whether the series was always going to go in that direction, regardless of Honor Blackman’s departure. Happily for the film, the production values have gone up, and it’s a joy to see Blackman and Macnee in a film that does away with the video-taped aesthetic of the early series, substituting in a cleaner, more polished look that begins to hone the show’s rougher edges. But the film doesn’t entirely abandon the “Brit noir” elements of the show. In one memorable sequence, Steed and Cathy track down one of Cavalo’s former henchmen (played by the memorable Philip Madoc) to a seedy nightclub, where they wind up in a drag-out fight that makes use of Cathy’s brilliant judo skills, and Steed’s ability to whack people on the head with his umbrella.

Macnee and Blackman are an excellent team, playing off of each other in a way that references the relative domesticity of the Steed/Cathy relationship—we see them at home several times, enjoying tea and brandy like an old married couple—while still maintaining some of that tension in their sarcastic exchanges that made that era of the show so dynamic. In effect, the film plays like an extended Avengers episode – more complicated, more polished, and with more elaborate set pieces, but still based in a small and compact world and with the same energy and sense of fun. Macnee in particular embraces the opportunity to bring Steed to the big screen, expanding the character’s humor with the occasional ad-libbed line, while Blackman’s trademark toughness neatly offsets the lighter moments between the partners.

Director Peter Hammond’s very distinctive visual style is on full display here, especially in the use of deep focus in certain key sequences and his penchant for filming long takes through distorted lenses (although Hammond felt that The Avengers belonged on videotape and not on film, and so later declined working with Clemens on the filmed episodes of Season 4). The secondary cast is a who’s who of British character actors, most of who appeared on the show as well. Hammond unfortunately underuses both Philip Madoc and James Maxwell, both of whom only appear in a few scenes before being summarily written out.

For fans of the show, The Avengers is a welcome and enjoyable little film, not particularly notable as a work of art, but an excellent bridge between the videotaped and filmed episodes. It’s also simply loads of fun. The plot’s ridiculous, but the performances make it, with Macnee and Blackman exercising all the charm and energy on the big screen that they did on the small.

(thank you to Hubert Vigilla for tracking down a copy of the ultra-rare Avengers color poster)

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