As I had iterated in my earlier review of The Scorpio Letters, the latter half of the ’60s were big on spy movies. The Britons essentially set the stage for a newly-revamped genre with their James Bond series, and everybody else was soon competing to create their own various fields of cinematic espionage. The craze became an all-out phenomenon in Europe, giving birth to what we call the Eurospy film today. In a way, it was a blessing. Sure, there were a lot of forgettable movies made during this time thanks to ol’ supply and demand model of economics, but the wave of low-budget (and sometimes no-budget) features gave many a struggling American actor a chance to find a little bit of the fame and recognition they were searching for.
Meanwhile, in America itself, the film industry was content with mainly manufacturing spoofs of the genre, as well as several classic television shows and TV movies (many of which would become feature-length movies for the purposes of international distribution). Occasionally, however, the odd feature-length theatrical flick would hit screens before being swept away from cinemas by the following week’s next great big spy movie. In the instance of the 1968 American-made espionage thriller Sol Madrid, the previously employed adjective “odd” would definitely suffice if one were looking to describe it in a single word. But there’s just something about Sol Madrid that warrants a little more attention and affection from those who regularly dive into these sort of waters.
For you see, it is here that David McCallum (who has been the only reason to watch NCIS since it first aired, and who has appeared as Alfred in several animated Batman projects) – having freshly been cast adrift from the series that made him known to American and international audiences alike, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – took on one of his few non-television starring roles ever. Cast here as an Interpol agent who goes by the name of Sol Madrid (which is just as odd to hear as it is to read), the soft-spoken, low-key (but always great) McCallum is actually a lot closer to the many unsung secret agents of the real world: the exact polar opposite of everything which made Sean Connery’s James Bond 007 a massive success around the world.
After nearly having his cover blown in a drug bust, McCallum is asked by his superior (Our Miss Brooks‘ own Robert Rockwell, in a small throwaway part) to find Commissioner Gordon and Stella Purdy. Or, to be more precise, Pat Hingle and Stella Stevens. The former’s character being an employee of the (Italian) mafia who took off with half a million dollars of dirty money. The latter, on the other hand, is the former girlfriend of the mob’s main man Rip Torn (back when he was ripped but not torn), who absconded with half of the half-million just to create a convenient backstory. Also because Torn’s Dano Villanova (are you sure that’s Italian?) is a very bad man indeed – fully prepared to turn Stella into “a junkie” once he tracks her down.
So, after tracking down Stella Stevens courtesy one very advantageous jumpcut, Mr. McCallum takes her – and more importantly, her half of the loot – down to Acapulco so he can get to Pat Hingle into a witness stand before Rip Torn gets him into a funeral parlor. From there, our unlikely (but nevertheless perfectly acceptable) hero attempts to forge an uneasy alliance with a bigshot European heroin dealer – as played by actual James Bond villain Telly Savalas – by luring him in with tempting smuggling turnarounds. After all, it’s easy to get past customs when you’re working with the government, right? Meanwhile, our man Madrid strikes up a friendship with a fellow US agent named Jalisco (Ricardo Montalban), who has been in Mexico so long, he has practically become part of the culture.
Michael Ansara, the late character actor who is perhaps best remembered today as playing Klingon baddie Kang in the original Star Trek series – wherein Senor Montalban also debuted his famous villain Khan – also appears in this odd little spy romp full of back-stabbing double-crosses, some decent acting (well, save for Ms. Stevens, of course, who comes off as being less convincing than David McCallum as James Bond, and who is probably the weakest link in the chain), and a delightful Lalo Schifrin score (wait until you get inside that swingin’ ’60s club with the funky psychedelic music!). Another great character actor, Paul Lukas, gives his final big screen performance here as one of the film’s many bad guys (practically all of whom showed up on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at one point or another).
But what is perhaps most interesting here is our witnessing the waning of the Hays Office Production Code during this motion picture outing. An opening shot of an oozing opium poppy pod. A woman is kidnapped and turned into a heroin addict. A straight up cold-blooded execution committed by the good guy – which, in all honesty, is just a part of the daily grind for the poor bastard. The numerous morals which the American film industry had strictly (op)pressed upon us is nowhere near as apparent here in this slightly daring title from Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton. Granted, it’s pretty tame when compared to today’s action films, but there’s just enough going on in Sol Madrid between the cast and the delivery that makes it worth seeking out.
The oddly named Sol Madrid makes his long overdue debut on DVD here as part of the Warner Archive Collection. The widescreen presentation of this much-anticipated cult item is a beauty to behold, and probably hails from the same source as a recent TCM airing. There are no extras to be found for this Manufactured-on-Demand release, but any fan of ’60s spy movies, David McCallum, and the venerable assortment of his prolific co-stars who appeared in various incarnations of Star Trek and Batman over the years won’t hesitate to pick this one up. Especially once you get a good look at that great artwork!