Many years back, I reviewed the Charles Hood novels by James Mayo. I revisited them recently and was surprised to find my views barely changed, although I probably wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about them this time around. I posted some reviews elsewhere. My original reviews are all available on the archived threads.
The one omission from my collection was the movie version of HAMMERHEAD from 1968. Joy of joys, I found it, watched it and can now report my findings - about ten years on !
Be warned - spoilers abound.
You can also read this review on other websites.
Directed by David Miller
Produced by Irving Allen
Starring Vince Edwards, Judy Geeson, Diana Dors, Peter Vaughn, Michael Bates, Beverley Adams, Patrick Cargill
UK through Columbia (1968)
When Irving Allen announced an intended three picture series based on James Mayo’s Charles Hood novels, he openly declared: “I’m not interested in prestige productions anymore. I just want to make money.” It isn’t clear whether the first of the anticipated trio did make Allen any money, but it certainly ought to have done as it’s a classy example of the Euro-Spy subgenre which was popular in the cinemas of the late 1960s. In fact, when compared to Allen’s other ill-fated franchise Matt Helm, Hammerhead feels like a completely different type of film. Gone is the easy-going, laid back, disinterest of its cast. Gone are the constant wisecracks and prat-falls. Gone are the crazy gadgets. Gone are the way-out-west plots. Gone is the reinvention of a literary hero. Instead we have a thriller grounded in action and intrigue and, crucially, based firmly upon its source novel.
John Brinley made an initial adaptation, but Irving Allen brought in his staff writer Herbert Baker, who’d done much to reignite Matt Helm’s flame in Murderer’s Row. Allen paired him with William Bast. This last appointment was probably a softener to actor Vince Edwards, who had worked with the experienced Bast over many episodes of the television medical drama Ben Casey. Edwards was the star of Ben Casey, but whatever his merits it’s painfully obvious from as early as the first scenes that he isn’t going to be capable of sustaining our interest as a hero. Whatever charisma he has is buried beneath an austere smile and a slouched demeanour. He does eventually relax into the role, but appears to lack any sense of ironic fun. He’s also very uncomfortable with the sex scenes – which aren’t really sex scenes so much as ‘sexy scenes’ and I’d use that term cautiously too. In fairness to him, the screenplay generally avoids humour (and sex) and when the laughs (or the sex) are supposed to come, they don’t. In the hands of a more robust director, this might not have mattered so much, but David Miller’s career never quite took off and his best work, like the results here, is sporadic.
It’s fortunate that the trio of writers don’t abandon James Mayo’s story. They have edited it severely and the ghastly gory bits have been prudently excised, but they’ve still maintained a tough, formidable narrative, with all the main characters and the basic rudiments of the book’s plot remaining. A swinging sixties vibe has been introduced and kicks the movie off with a bizarre contemporary art performance and ends it with an unlikely hippy-trippy dance party. There’s also a nice song from Madeleine Bell (she of Blue Mink) dubbing for Judy Geeson during a nightclub interlude. Herbert Baker was probably responsible for these, as he created similar inserts for his two Matt Helm screenplays. Director Miller is careful enough not to dwell on the contemporary scene; it’s used more as a compass point to the lifestyle of Geeson’s kooky Sue Trenton.
The writers have clearly read Mayo’s book carefully and figured – as I did – that the author had his hero chasing the wrong woman. In the original, Hood visits a seedy harbour-side nightclub and seduces a barmaid called Kit. She has nothing to do with the villain or his scheme and, while she does assist Hood in his investigations, her unimportance to the main thrust of the story leaves her remarkably impotent. Not so Sue Trenton and the harem-girl Ivory. Although both are central to the story’s resolution, Mayo relegated them to Hood’s sexual periphery and Andreas’ voyeuristic tendencies. I found this odd and so too must have the screenwriters as they make Sue the heroine and Ivory the saviour – as it should be.
Judy Geeson is distinctly loveable as a young dancer / singer who bags a lift with Charles Hood as they flee the police, who have broken up the indecent art show which played over the opening credits. She’s barely got a stich on, but Edwards’ Hood is much too much of a gentleman to notice. Disappointing. The Bond writers would have known how to deal with this sort of set-up. Taking a shine to her saviour, Sue follows Hood first to Hammerhead’s penthouse and then to Estoril in Portugal. She’s been offered a job at a nightclub where the owners hope she can unknowingly be used to spy on Hood. This is a great expansion of her character and role. Geeson has bundles of enthusiasm, moments of pathos and a natural flair for light comedy.
Vince Edwards lacks all this in spades, which makes their affair a little hard to fathom. Mind it is a very chaste affair. The cinematic Charles Hood suffers from being undersexed compared to his literary brother. Twice confronted with the desirable and provocative Ivory, Hood spurns the opportunity to bed her. In fact he starts to rough her up in an abortive attempt to gain information. This is a totally unnecessary scene and here the writers should have followed Mayo’s own pages and had the two go to bed. This would certainly give the hero’s persona that wisp of Casanovan devil-may-care. Ivory is deliciously played by Beverley Adams – also from Matt Helm – but her role is underwritten and her appearance at the film’s climax is too convenient; a little more thought should have been put into how and why she rescues Hood.
So what happened to Kit? Well, in a major switch Hood’s squeeze becomes Hammerhead’s and she’s graduated into looking like Diana Dors and owning Kit’s Klub, the seedy bar where Sue sings and Andreas pervs over the girls. These saucy little scenes are very good. Dors provides a motherly, two-faced shoulder to cry on for Sue. She’s good too when slyly revealing Kit is intricately involved in Hammerhead’s plot. There’s a changing room full of delectable lovelies who provide Hood with vital intel. Joseph Furst (later to be in Diamonds Are Forever) pops up as an admiring customer, but he may as well not be there at all. The mid-section of Mayo’s novel, all the horrific fights and tortures, is virtually non-existent.
So it’s a surprise to realise the most startling aspect of the film is how gritty it is. This is no lame, tongue-in-cheek saga. There’s a concerted effort to make Charles Hood and his adventures what he is in the novel: a bon viveur, a tough nut and a man for whom trouble really is a middle name. The action starts bright and early. Hood appreciates the canvases in Hammerhead’s penthouse, admiringly reeling off artist after artist. This helps the audience establish Hood’s credentials. On leaving the apartment, as in the novel, Hood encounters Tookey Tate (Jack Woolgar, looking beaten up before he’s been beaten up) tries to help the cat burglar and is then assaulted by two thugs. This is a great confrontation, set in an underground car park, and has all the aggression and viciousness of a Bond fight.
After a briefing on board an express train, the action transfers to Portugal, a sunny, dusky, scenic relocation for the story – think On Her Majesty’s Secret Service everyone – where Hood boards Hammerhead’s yacht and carries out some snappy investigations. Hammerhead makes a slightly daft entry, lowered in a sedan chair from a helicopter, but he’s impressively filled out by Pater Vaughn. The writers disposed of Lobar’s real name in favour of his pseudonym. This makes explanations easier. They retained Conder’s description of him as being the immaculate conception of evil. They introduce the villain’s Achilles Heel as an addiction to pornography, but other than a couple of well-written comments on the nature of sexual addiction, this isn’t utilised to its fullest.
Things are over-confused slightly on the yacht, where Michael Bates makes an impression as the clumsy mimic Andreas, but otherwise the adaptation thins out the novel remarkably well. The secret submarine angle is ditched. The doppelganger ruse retained. The action stays rooted in Portugal. Hood’s approach to Hammerhead’s villa, the subsequent fight with the chauffeur and a chase with the police are all solidly, violently effective. The movie slows enough to reignite the machinations of the plot until Hood and Sue are recaptured at Kit’s Klub. Hammerhead begins to put his plan into action. Hood and Sue spend an afternoon trapped in a coffin inside a hearse. This sequence looks better on screen than it read on the page. The climax takes place as Hammerhead tries to escape by being winched up to his helicopter in that sedan chair. Ivory shoots him with a harpoon arrow fired from a speargun. I did say the ending made no exact sense. It was also a little short on genuine excitement. All the real thrills had happened already. There wasn’t even a showdown between Hood and the henchman George, a role for a young and enormously powerful looking David Prowse. I couldn’t fathom why Golos had to be renamed as George, but it’s hardly relevant to the story, so heigh-ho.
While I might be sniffy about the direction and the writing, it’s worth noting they are both a touch above the usual standard for this type of fare. Equally too the photography from Kenneth Talbot and the jazzy, nippy little score from debutant composer David Whitaker. The sets are gaudy and, importantly, don’t resemble cheap studio knock-ups. They blend well with the exteriors used. The editing is sharp. The costumes are trendy sixties fashions. The strange hippy festival which invades the last fifteen minutes could have been done away with and I would have liked to see more of Ivory, but there isn’t a lot to dislike about Hammerhead, the movie. It’s two biggest pitfalls are its lack of humour and its leading man.
Humour is always a hard nut to crack. It’s admirable the production team don’t really try. There are some laughs, or attempts at least, but none of it is forced. The cast clearly recognise the movie’s escapist leanings, but playing it straight works better than hamming it up. Unless you play it as straight as Vince Edwards. There really is no excuse for his dry, one expression performance. It’s terrible. People bemoan George Lazenby as Bond, but if you want to witness a real dullard at work, watch Edwards in Hammerhead. Occasionally, his charm and personality seep out, but mostly he keeps it bottled up. This is very noticeable in the opening London scenes and those with Beverly Adams. His posture, facial expression and vocal tone all suggest either boredom or disinterest. The director doesn’t help; instructing your hero to make a salami sandwich while Miss Adams writhes in next-to-nothing in front of him is a cue for disbelieving sniggers. Edwards doesn’t look suave or sophisticated: he looks petrified. Quentin Tarantino, a director I rarely agree with, stated the film needed Robert Culp. I thought the very same thing while watching it. Ideally however a British actor should have portrayed Charles Hood. It’s interesting to note that Irishman Stephen Boyd was the first choice and I reckon he’d have made a solid, if slightly intense, fist of it.
I really enjoyed this movie. It’s brisk, fun, exciting, occasionally tense and doesn’t treat its audience as if they’re buffoons. The end does leave a little to be desired, but I’m happy to forgive that. If anything, such a lapse only brings Hammerhead closer in its resemblance to the work of author James Mayo.
It can be watched on the following link: