Our Man Flint came out at the height of the pop cultural “spy craze” that followed in the wake of the Bond films’ phenomenal popularity. By 1966, an apparently endless proliferation of globetrotting and gadget-mongering secret agents seemed to dominate American feature films and television programming alike. This trend can be explained by the convergence of factors impacting the national psyche: ever-present anxieties about the then-brimming Cold War warming up, an unabashed embrace of technological fetishism that came to be called the Space Race, as well as the (relatively) uninhibited lifestyle popularly espoused by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. Our Man Flint is also the film that cemented James Coburn’s status as a star. With his lanky frame, thatch of gray hair, and toothy grin, Coburn may not have had the conventional good looks of your average leading man, but he exuded an aura that mixed self-assurance and insubordination. This turned him, along with the likes of Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, into an embodiment of ’60s antiestablishment cool, a poster boy for what Bonnie and Clyde scribes Robert Benton and David Newman referred to, in their now-famous 1964 Esquire piece, as “the New Sentimentality.”
Along the spectrum of responses to the Bond films, Our Man Flint is pitched somewhere between dutiful homage and over-the-top parody, with its tongue planted too firmly in cheek to be mistaken for just another carbon copy. At the same time, neither is it the all-out deconstructive assault that 1967’s Casino Royale aspired to be—at least in theory. Our Man Flint has an investment in character that sets it apart. Producer Saul David and star Coburn saw it as an opportunity to put across their version of a philosophy that idealizes the rugged individualism of the frontier type, even a sort of Ayn Rand-inflected Objectivist Übermensch . Either way, Derek Flint (Coburn) is no organization man. Faced with immanent environmental catastrophe at the hands of a shadowy secret society, representatives of Z.O.W.I.E. (the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage, natch) are forced to beseech the reluctant Flint for assistance. Even the personal intercession of agency head Lloyd Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), with whom Flint has considerable history, is fruitless, until an attempt on Flint’s life convinces him, more out of self-preservation than altruism or patriotism, to lend a hand.
An expert in nearly everything, Flint flatly rejects the espionage equipment Cramden offers to outfit him with: a standard-issue Walther PPK and suitcase laden with gadgets. Flint dismisses them as crude, holding up instead a gold-plated lighter. “This has 82 uses,” he deadpans. “Eighty three, if you wish to light a cigar.” Elsewhere, Flint exhibits his prowess in myriad disciplines: boxing, fencing, the proper discernment of a bouillabaisse recipe, even surgery. After Flint confesses to having paid a visit to the Moscow Ballet, Cramden incredulously asks, “You went all the way to Moscow to watch a ballet?” Flint shoots back: “No, to dance.” The film’s funniest sight gag shows him laying stiff as a board between two chairs, having suspended his heartbeat in quasi-yogic meditation.
As resolute as Our Man Flint can be in its unapologetic individualism, it often swerves rather recklessly into chauvinism. And it’s never quite clear whether the film accepts its rampant sexism as par for the course, or wants to poke fun at it as an element intrinsic to the genre’s lexicon. Certainly, Flint’s conversion of villainess Gila (Gila Golan) to his enthralled amour with a single kiss is evident mockery of a Bond-film staple. And Flint’s motivation for tracking down the Galaxy group to their island redoubt has more than anything to do with rescuing his quartet of leggy “playmates” from their clutches. That they’re being brainwashed and conditioned as “Pleasure Units” amounts to a solidly amusing critique. But, of course, they are freed from abuse in Galaxy’s pleasure dome—amusingly rendered as an erotic sampler combining Roman orgy, swinging ’60s go-go club, and 1950s drive-in—only to return to sensual service in Flint’s phalanx.
Director Daniel Mann wasn’t known as a visual stylist. The consensus among his peers seems to have been that he was a "solid" actors’ director more interested in eliciting substantive performances than in fancy camera moves or aesthetically framed compositions. Our Man Flint saves up its relatively meager production budget for a handful of fairly impressive set pieces—in particular, Flint’s swank pad, complete with either/or artwork and modernistic design, and Galaxy’s volcano stronghold, which features a wild variety of outré flourishes like purple cobweb window fixtures, particolored numbered displays, swirling kaleidoscopes, and flashing gel lights. Otherwise, the globetrotting is strictly limited to B-roll footage and often visibly flimsy, blankly generic studio-bound sets. Twilight Time’s 1080p Blu-ray transfer looks a good bit brighter and sharper than that of earlier DVD editions, though differences aren’t necessarily overwhelming. The mono Master Audio track is serviceable, keeping the dialogue clear, and doing right by Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score.
Most of the extras have been carried over from the 2006 "Ultimate Flint Collection" set, though Twilight Time has gone to the trouble to round up a handful of interesting featurettes that weren’t available there. The first is a Mann profile, which includes respectful reminiscences from son-in-law Harold Ramis and son Michael (not the Public Enemies director). The portrait that emerges is that of an iconoclastic director who bucked the studio system throughout his career. The representative anecdote recounts his unprecedented appeal to have a disclaimer aired before an HBO movie he directed in the early 1980s to the effect that the editing of the film had been taken out of his hands by the network. The second new featurette details the controversy that ensued in the wake of Pauline Kael’s review, in which she dismissed Our Man Flint as "an appallingly ugly comic-strip film." Her pan wasn’t the problem though. The problem arose when Kael insinuated that any critic who did give the film a rave review had probably been part of a press junket to Jamaica that 20th Century Fox had arranged, to which Kael hadn’t been invited. Producer Saul David protested these allegations to the magazine’s publisher, with the result that Kael was quickly canned by McCall’s. The featurette carefully frames this incident with an account of Kael’s contemporary popularity as a critic, as well as her subsequent stint writing for The New Yorker, where she rose to even greater prominence as a zeitgeist-savvy tastemaker and forceful proponent for New Hollywood directors like Robert Altman and Brian De Palma. The third featurette chronicles the film’s production from first-draft screenplay (radically different from the finished film in all but basic premise), producer Saul David’s contributions and Coburn’s involvement, through to the finished film and its reception. It’s an excellent and informative half-hour overview. Per usual with Twilight Time, there’s an isolated score track, remastered in Master Audio stereo, that’ll give you an earful of Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific, albeit admittedly John Barry-inflected, score.
Among the older extras, a few stand out as more than your typical EPK fluff, though there’s certainly some of that too (here’s looking at you, "Perfect Bouillabaisse"). "Spy Style" and "Spy-er-Rama" are companion pieces that sketch some relevant context for the pop-cultural spy craze evidenced in numberless films and television shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy. "A Gentlemen’s Game" shines the spotlight, however briefly, on James Coburn: limns his rise from character actor to leading man, indicates some parallels between Coburn and his Derek Flint role, and relates how Coburn’s desire to avoid being shackled to Flint (he called it "James Bondage") prompted him to call the franchise quits after one sequel. The audio commentary from film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Eddie Friedfeld is compellingly listenable, packed with interesting information and even some rather saucy anecdotes. Comparisons between Our Man Flint and various Bond films abound. Equally interesting are the telling differences between the first draft screenplay, the novelization, and the finished film.
Pitched somewhere between homage and parody, Our Man Flint looks snazzier than ever in Twilight Time’s impressive Blu-ray transfer, rounded out with a compelling roster of extras old and new. All that’s missing is a cigarette lighter with 83 uses.