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In Like Flint

In Like Flint(1967)

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teaser In Like Flint (1967)

The international success of the Eon Productions' film adaptations of Ian Fleming's James Bond spy novels, beginning with Dr. No (1962) starring Sean Connery as British secret agent 007, sparked the equivalent of a cinematic meme that some have aptly dubbed "spy-fi." Espionage tales from all over the globe were brought to the movie marketplace to compete with Eon's line of annual sequels (From Russia with Love in 1963, Goldfinger in 1964), among them Agent Secret FX18 (1964) from France, Where the Bullets Fly (1966) from the United Kingdom and Italy's Operation Kid Brother (1967), which was headlined by Sean Connery's lesser-known sibling Neil. On American television, it was spy-game-on with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1967-1968), the period actioner The Wild Wild West (1965-1969) and the more broadly comic Get Smart (1965-1968), co-created by Mel Brooks. Not to be outdone by television, the Hollywood studios positioned themselves to capitalize on the good fortune of Bond distributor United Artists; while Columbia Pictures made flesh of novelist Donald Hamilton's super-spy Matt Helm as a vehicle for Dean Martin, 20th Century Fox countered with a wholly original character... the vaguely Hugh Hefner-like trouble-shooter Derek Flint.

Flint's maiden mission, Our Man Flint (1966), premiered in the wake of Eon Productions' fourth James Bond outing, Thunderball (1965). That film marked something of a crossroads for the Connery-Bond films, as the star of the show grew stockier (and crankier) with age and success and the films became less lean-and-mean and more gadget-based. Our Man Flint offered a more tenable working agent in former movie heavy James Coburn, who brought to the table a unique blend of atypical good looks and an almost Pierrot-like grace that allowed him to best villains hand-to-hand without appearing thug-like. Paired with an immediate sequel, In Like Flint (1967), the series split the difference between the high comedy of Get Smart and the parade of female flesh that was the stock-in-trade of Eon Productions but largely prohibited on network television. Character creator Hal Fimberg was a former Vaudevillian who had contributed to the screenplays of the wartime Abbott and Costello vehicles In Society (1944) and The Naughty Nineties (1945) before turning his talents to episodic television.

Hoping to reap big profits, 20th Century Fox kept its overhead low on the Flint films, casting contract players in the supporting roles, keeping shooting confined for the most part to studio interiors, and assigning production to utility directors. While Daniel Mann held the reins on Our Man Flint, the sequel was put into the hands of Gordon Douglas. Better remembered now for such gritty dramas as Only the Valiant (1951) starring Gregory Peck, the sci-fi classic Them! (1954) and the violent western Chuka (1967) with Rod Taylor, Douglas had got his start as a gag writer for Hal Roach before graduating to directing early "Our Gang" shorts and the later Laurel & Hardy comedy Saps at Sea (1940). If Fox regarded the Bond films as a business model, In Like Flint swings wide of its inspiration in execution, keeping Flint off screen for the first fifteen minutes while costar Lee J. Cobb serves as the plot's point man in a tale of international espionage within the aerospace industry and a bid to place a lookalike agent in the Oval Office. Introduced in a wry sidebar as Flint attempts to master dolphinese, Coburn is not handed the ball until forty minutes in, at which point he breaks into a top secret government installation before decamping to Moscow and a pas de deus with ballerina/informer Yvonne Craig (soon to be introduced by Fox as TV's Batgirl), a pretty Party member who is a sucker for his decadence.

In Like Flint (a play on the 40s catchphrase "In like Flynn," a testament to the cocksmanship of movie idol Errol Flynn) was the last 20th Century Fox production filmed in CinemaScope. It is only in the film's second hour that the widescreen process asserts itself, first as Flint insinuates himself (with aplomb!) into a ballet on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre and later while evading a goon squad of K.G.B. agents in a foot chase across the snow-capped rooftops of Moscow. The use of matte paintings by Emil Kosa, Jr., L. B. Abbott and Art Cruickshank (all of whom would be pressed into service for Planet of the Apes [1968] the following year) give In Like Flint a sense of wonder and majesty and a scale that is conducive to international (and interstellar) skullduggery, aided immeasurably by the invigorating score by Jerry Goldsmith. However poor its supporting cast may be in name recognition factor, the sequel receives added value through the performances of Cobb (particularly fine in an early scene with enemy agent Jean Hale), Steve Ihnat (as an army turncoat), Andrew Duggan (in a dual role as an LBJ simulacra and his evil twin), Anna Lee (in evil genius mode) and Herb Edelman, in his feature film debut as a Soviet premier.

In Like Flint put Coburn over the top as a proper movie star, giving him an instant recognition factor that stretched from Beverly Hills to the alleys of Marrakesh. Fox would have pressed the actor into further service in a second Flint sequel but by 1967 Coburn had founded his own production company and was pointed towards greater glory, with name-above-the-title status in such diverse films as The President's Analyst (1967), the Donald Cammell-scripted Duffy (1968) and Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker! (1971), as well as several collaborations with maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. A known associate of both Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee, Coburn shared with Flint a love of the esoteric and offbeat, agreeing to lend his brand to such non-blockbusters as Candy (1968), The Last of Sheila (1973) and the rodeo drama The Honkers (1972), directed by his In Like Flint castmate Steve Ihnat, who died of a heart attack while selling the film at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. The diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in 1978 knocked Coburn off the A-list for nearly two decades, with the actor limiting himself to guest appearances and voiceover work on screens big and small until he declared himself cured through alternative medicines - just in time to nab a 1999 Academy Award for his acidic performance as Nick Nolte's dissolute father in Paul Schrader's Affliction (1997).

Producer: Saul David, Martin Fink
Director: Gordon Douglas
Screenplay: Hal Fimberg
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editing: Hugh S. Fowler
Art Direction: Dale Hennesy, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: James Coburn (Derek Flint), Lee J. Cobb (Lloyd C. Cramden), Jean Hale (Lisa Norton/Nora Benson), Andrew Duggan (U.S. President Trent), Anna Lee (Elisabeth), Hanna Landy (Helena), Steve Ihnat (Gen. Carter), Yvonne Craig (Natasha).

By Richard Harland Smith

James Coburn interview by Roger Ebert, Chicago-Sun Times, October 26, 1980
James Coburn interview by Alex Simon, Venice, February 1999
"Flint Lives!" by Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog, no. 92, 2003
The Incredible World of Spy-Fi: Wild and Crazy Spy Gadgets, Props and Artifacts from TV and the Movies by Danny Biederman (Chronicle Books, 2004)

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