The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage

By Wesley Britton

Praeger Publishers (2006). 185 pages. $49.95

Reviewed by Craig Henderson

I swore I wouldn’t do it.

After making the mistake of buying Spy Television, the absolutely appalling book by the same author and publisher noted above, I swore — after recovering from the shocking news that these partners in crime had published not only a second but a third volume dealing with fictional secret agents in movies, television and print — really swore that I simply would not look at those books, no matter how strong my morbid curiosity might become.

But, as when passing a steaming, flaming train wreck, I just couldn’t resist. I happened across the second book, Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film (Praeger, 2005, $49.95) in a specialty store. This one was sold as “the history of espionage in literature, film, and other media, demonstrating how the spy stories of the 1840s began cementing our popular conceptions of what spies do and how they do it,” in every format from film and television to radio and comic strips. Five minutes of thumbing through its pages confirmed that it was just as bad as Spy Television (reviewed elsewhere in FYEO). 

Then an equally appalled friend insisted on loaning me a copy of Onscreen & Undercover, the third and, one would desperately hope, last in this series. Described as “a history of spies on the large screen, with an emphasis on the stories these films present… Onscreen and Undercover describes now forgotten trends, traces surprising themes, and spotlights the major contributions of directors, actors, and other American and English artists. The focus is on movies, on and off camera.”

Unfortunately, the focus is mainly on an endless, droning recitation of titles and actors, lumped into obvious categories as a way of breaking the manuscript into chapters. This book suffers from the same faults as the previous two: an amazing ignorance of the entertainment industry’s history, practices and personalities; research that is astoundingly bad or simply nonexistent; a naïve and perverse willingness, in the absence of basic research, to rely on any dubious source of information; a complete lack of fundamental editing skills on the part of both author and publisher; and basic composition that is often below the standards of average high school students.

What makes all three of his books so irritating and baffling is the fact that author Wesley Britton is not just some overly enthusiastic spy fan who somehow finagled a publishing deal. He is a college English teacher who has, according to a Praeger handout, a Ph.D. in American literature. But as we all know, doctoral degrees do not always convey talent and ability. After three books, Britton has conclusively demonstrated that. It’s Praeger I have to wonder about. The company’s Web site (www.greenwood.com) indicates that Praeger and parent label Greenwood Publishing have literally hundreds of nonfiction titles in print covering a wide range of topics. “Each title in the vast collection of works in the Praeger family is written by experts in their field, giving you the latest and most up-to-date information,” or so the site promises.

But three titles from the same author, all of them riddled with endless moronic errors, makes Praeger’s entire line highly suspect to me. These pricey volumes are aimed mostly at libraries rather than the general public, sold as reference works that seem to have an alarming lack of editorial oversight and quality control. Praeger editors apparently don’t know and don’t care what’s in a manuscript, as long as it arrives on time. Obviously, I urge readers not to waste their time and money on Britton’s three spy titles. But I also suggest asking your local library to pull any Praeger books from the shelf for review and possible removal.

As for Onscreen & Undercover, I promise not to dissect it at the lengths I went to when reviewing Spy Television. But these examples of its utter worthlessness fairly leaped off the page at me.

As noted, Britton’s ignorance of the subject he’s chosen to write about is bewildering and exasperating. He can’t spell the names of such well-known performers as Edmond O’Brien, George Sanders, Stuart Whitman, Curt Jurgens, Laurence Harvey, John Hurt, Nicolas Cage, Judi Dench, John Cleese, David Janssen, David Hedison, Janice Rule, Richard Conte, Hugh O’Brian, Edward G. Robinson, Laraine Day, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Lembeck and Mike Connors. He seems to think Gene Kelly’s first name was “Jim.” Barbara Parkins is “Perkins,” Rutger Hauer is “Howard,” and bandleader Kay Kyser becomes “Kaye Kaiser.” A reference to Italian bombshell Gina “Lollibrigina” is surpassed by the transmogrification of veteran ingenue Terry Moore into “Terri Nole” and beloved comic actor Tom Ewell into Tom “Muell.” Celebrated screenwriter Ben Hecht is Ben “Heck” to Britton, and William Gargan, star of the 1940s Ellery Queen films, is now William “Garbin.” Even Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary McGuffin becomes a “Mcguffan” here.

Fictional characters fare no better. Every Sherlock Holmes fan knows Dr. Watson’s name is John, not James. Alec Leamas, the spy who came in from the cold, is “Limas” here, and the man with the golden gun is “Scaramunga.” Lovey Kravezit, Matt Helm’s buxom secretary, is now “Lovy Cravitz.” French sleuth Lemmy Caution is “Lenny” to Britton. The author is so unfamiliar with actors’ names that he also confuses them with the characters in their films. Britton claims the villain in the Helm pic “The Ambushers” is played by Jose Ortega, who is in fact the movie’s villain, played by actor Albert Salmi, who goes unmentioned. Britton also claims that Elke Sommer portrays a character named Felicia Farr in “The Venetian Affair.” Farr, of course, is another member of the cast, an actress well known in her own right who also was married to Jack Lemmon for many years.

Film titles come in for their share of abuse as well. Rod Steiger’s 1975 film “Hennessy” is creatively labeled “Henessee” here, while Sophia Loren’s 1966 weeper “Judith” is inexplicably dubbed “Judas.” Another of Britton’s annoying quirks is the way he arbitrarily adds, drops and changes the prepositions and articles in titles, resulting in such hitherto unknown pictures as “The Torn Curtain,” “The Three Days of the Condor” and “A Deadly Affair.” “That Man in Istanbul” is “from” Istanbul according to Britton. “Agent for H.A.R.M.” is now “The Agent from H.A.R.M.” Even more oddly, Britton insists on making “Darling Lili” a more colloquial “Darlin’ Lili” — and he thinks it’s a serious World War II spy drama, not the Blake Edwards spoof of First World War spy-jinks that everyone else saw.

Britton is also pretty shaky on film eras, confusing golden age leading man Robert Taylor with 1960s leading man Rod Taylor, and putting Stephen Boyd into the 1946 thriller “13 Rue Madeleine” a decade before Boyd started in movies. But the confusion extends everywhere. Britton mistakes Irving Allen, producer of the Matt Helm films, for Irwin Allen, producer of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” Discussing the 1975 film “The Eiger Sanction,” Britton repeatedly refers to Jack Cassidy as John Carradine, who was, needless to say, not in that film. Mention of the novel (and later TV-movie) “The Scorpio Letters” by prolific spy-story author Victor Canning appears as “The Scorpio Letter” by someone named Victor Kang. Britton even insults custom carmaker George Barris by referring to him as Chuck Barris (the obnoxious game-show producer and host).

Britton’s ignorance extends into the real world as well. He claims Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in 1959. He mangles the names of fugitive Nazis Josef Mengele and Martin Bormann. He turns FDR’s wartime Lend-Lease program into a “land lease” deal designed to benefit Josef Stalin. He labels “The Manchurian Candidate” a 1950 novel, obviously never stopping to wonder how a story about Korean War veterans could have been published in 1950. And as in his earlier books, Britton still believes that ITC chairman Sir Lew Grade ran all of British television in the 1960s, and he still thinks that Grade’s company was called ITV Studios.

By now, readers must realize that even something as basic as release dates cannot be believed in this book. Britton thinks “From Russia With Love” came out in 1962, “Goldfinger” in 1963, “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1961, “The Quiller Memorandum” in 1965, “Salt and Pepper” in 1966, “The Road to Hong Kong” in 1968, “Assignment K” in 1965, “The Wrecking Crew” in 1968, “The Destructors” in 1965 — all incorrect, of course.

A Britton-Praeger spy book wouldn’t be complete without some real jaw-droppers, passages making claims so incredibly absurd that I have to read them again and again to be sure I’m not hallucinating. Here, for example, Britton’s broad definition of spy movies includes “Gilda,” the 1946 noir classic starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. In one lengthy paragraph, Britton manages to cram in all sorts of misinformation (and without ever mentioning Ford).

The picture, undoubtedly one of Hayworth’s best known, is “neglected” says Britton, who also notes that the film was “largely intended as a vehicle to launch Hayworth’s career,” which actually had been quite well launched long before “Gilda.” He does bring up her memorable song, “Put the Blame on Mame,” but refers to the number as “Put the Blame on Me, Boys.” Britton points out that Gilda’s husband was played by the great character actor George Macready, whose name he misspells in the space of one paragraph as both “McReady” and “MacReady,” before winding things up with this whopper: “George McReady’s [sic] role as Baldwin in ‘Gilda’ was reprised in an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E,. “The Guinness Affair,” which used the same actor and character name and the same Argentine location.”

Umm…ummm…oh, my head. Well, first of all, Gilda’s husband was Ballin Mundson, not “Baldwin.” More to the point, there is no U.N.C.L.E. episode titled “The Guinness Affair.” And it will come as no surprise to anyone except Britton that Macready never played a character on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. named Mundson or Baldwin or anyone else remotely resembling Gilda’s husband. There is, in fact, an U.N.C.L.E. episode titled “The Gurnius Affair,” in which Macready played an unrepentant Nazi and former German army field marshal named Gurnius. But Herr Gurnius had no connection with “Gilda” that I can fathom.

Britton also brings up one of my pet obscurities, 1964’s “Fanfare for a Death Scene.” But again he goes off the deep end in describing it as “originally intended for TV broadcast on the Kraft Suspense Theatre, but the film was deemed too adult for television and was instead released theatrically in Europe. In this case, ‘adult’ didn’t mean sex or violence, but rather a story darker than what the then three networks found acceptable in evening prime time.” The hero, Britton notes, was “Paul Striker…a confident ex-G-2, OSS and CIA agent.”

Actually, the agent’s name was John Stryker and the film was nothing but an unsold pilot for a series that would have been called “Stryker.” Certainly nothing in it was “too adult for television” — it was made to sell a TV series, fer cryin’ out loud. When it didn’t sell, it was given the ripe title “Fanfare for a Death Scene” and tossed into syndication to recoup a few bucks. The pilot, by the way, was made for CBS and produced by Leslie Stevens at United Artists. It had absolutely no connection with Kraft Suspense Theatre, which aired on NBC and was produced by Roy Huggins at Universal.

Despite all the aforementioned gaffes, one might still assume that Britton could make some effective and accurate use of the vast wealth of material that’s been published over the years about the James Bond films — and of course one would be wrong. The still from “The Man with the Golden Gun” in which Maud Adams is identified as Britt Ekland could be a simple mistake. But Britton’s description of the movie includes the revelation that the leading ladies were Britt Ekland and Diane Varsi. Where in hell he could possibly have come up with the name of Diane Varsi — an actress who had a decidedly minor career in the 1960s after her promising debut in “Peyton Place” — in connection with a James Bond film is simply beyond my ability to speculate.

But then he also says Sean Connery starred in seven of the official Eon-United Artists Bond films. And he thinks Solitaire was black in Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel “Live and Let Die” — it was the chickenhearted studio that made her white when the title was filmed 20 years later (just the reverse of what screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz actually proposed — to make Fleming’s white Solitaire black in the movie).

Britton also claims that Woody Allen was one of the five directors on 1967’s “Casino Royale.” He blithely informs readers that the murder of Tracy Bond was filmed and put on the shelf to use in “Diamonds Are Forever,” getting tacked on the end of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” only after George Lazenby announced he would not play Bond again. He also notes that producer Kevin McClory was able to make the renegade Bond film “Never Say Never Again” because “he had the rights to the name SPECTRE” (really, is that all it takes?).

So as anyone can see, throughout this book Britton wrestles endlessly with the facts, and he goes down to defeat far, far more often than acceptable. But even he is still entitled to his opinions. However, a writer of books such as this one is expected to have informed opinions. Something like the widely held belief of the vast majority of Bond fans that “Moonraker” stinks like month-old gym socks and marks the lowest point in the Bond series. So naturally Britton thinks it’s “arguably the best of the [Roger] Moore run,” adding that “Moore battling Richard Kiel’s Jaws in freefall remains one of the most memorable scenes in any Bond film.”

Obviously it wasn’t quite memorable enough for Britton to recall that Bond does not battle Jaws in freefall — he battles the pilot of the plane they were all in, finally wresting the pilot’s parachute away and leaving the man to plunge to his death. Only then does Jaws swoop in to take a bite out of Bond’s leg — and Bond immediately opens his parachute, which yanks him up and away from the deadly dentures.

However, the subsequent shots of Jaws trying and failing to open his own chute, then flapping his arms like a wounded albatross before landing on a circus tent to the accompaniment of big-top calliope music, well that certainly is memorable. In the same way the bad sushi I had for lunch is memorable.

The prosecution rests.