Forgotten Films: The Last of the Secret Agents?
Steve Rossi and Marty Allen were a talented comedy duo. By the mid-60’s, they had made countless television appearances on variety shows, honed a successful stage act, and recorded a number of well received comedy albums. What Steve Rossi and Marty Allen weren’t though was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, after whom their comedic styling were clearly patterned. They weren’t even Bud Abbott and Lou Costello who had completely redefined the entire straight man / buffoon relationship years earlier and then elevated it to new heights. In spite of this though they tried to transition their act to feature films in 1966 with the spy spoof The Last of the Secret Agents?
America was in the midst of a spy craze in the 60’s. Undoubtedly inspired by the cold war, there was no way to turn on a television set or walk into a movie theater without seeing something espionage related. As James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. began to become familiar faces to the public, it was only a matter of time before they became ripe pickings for satire. In the fall of 1965, the television sitcom Get Smart debuted to impressive ratings and films like The Spy with the Cold Nose and Agent 8 ¾ were doing respectable business at the box office so other production companies were scrambling for similar products.
In what would be a less than perfect storm, producer Mel Tolkin (a well known comedy writer) and director Norman Abbot (nephew of Bud) decided that Rossi and Allen would be a good fit for their planned entry in the spy spoof market and they added the attractive and well connected Nancy Sinatra (daughter of Frank) to the cast to round it out. They also padded the supporting cast with cameos from established comedians of the day like Harvey Korman, Lou Jacobi, Edy Williams, and perennial bad guy Theodore Marcuse.
In the tradition of the other comedy duos they hoped to follow into big screen success, Steve and Marty essentially portray themselves as two out of work entertainers stranded in Paris after their night club act is canceled. After failing at several menial labor jobs, they accidentally intercept a secret message while applying for another one and end up abducted by the GGI (Good Guys Institute). It seems that the dimwitted duo have been used by the evil organization THEM to transport stolen works of art without their knowledge and now the GGI wants to turn the tables on their nemesis.
They boys are outfitted with the latest in spy technology which equates to the M637 device, an apparent cross between an umbrella and a Swiss army knife that includes a radio, pen, and machine gun among other gadgets. The seemingly innocuous umbrella as a lethal weapon is a running gag throughout the film that never picks up much speed. After being dispatched to infiltrate a party given by the ringleader of the art thefts (which also gives Steve a chance to sing!) to discover his secret repository, Allen and Rossi pay a visit to a local restaurant where Steve’s girlfriend (Sinatra) works and they get to try out a few slapstick gags in between the spy spoofing.
The second half of the film finds the duo (now a trio with Sinatra haplessly in tow) on the run from THEM and trying to rendezvous with the GGI. This gives them an opportunity to trot out just about every spy cliché of the day including motorcycles, helicopters, and even an extended sequence on a train where everyone in the compartment seems to be a secret agent of one type or another. In the final reel, everyone converges on the stolen art hideout and the boys get to do some heroic hijinx to wrap up the proceedings in true film fashion.
The movie’s humor is all over the board from simple physical gags to some pretty risqué word plays but thankfully most of it is fast paced so it’s easy to forget the clinkers in between the few inspired moments that pop up. Sadly, it is obvious a few minutes into the film that Steve Rossi and Marty Allen aren’t going to be able to successfully carry a full length feature. Their interaction is enjoyable at times but grates easily and they lack the comedic depth of that most of their competition boasted. This film would prove to be the duo’s first and last. They would end their partnership, which was already almost a decade old, just a few years later although they would reunite many times thereafter.
The film was shot under the title of Agent XYZ but while it was in post-production Nancy Sinatra’s singing career took off with her hit These Boots Were Made for Walking. The producers convinced her writing partner Lee Hazelwood to hastily compose a title song for the picture which was renamed to match his tune The Last of the Secret Agents? A new title sequence was assembled to highlight the catchy song which was played over a montage of spy trappings. It gave the film a strong opening but the new number wasn’t enough to save it. Nancy Sinatra scored a minor hit with the title track but the song was conspicuously left off the soundtrack album which had already been pressed by the time the change was made.
Many films end up lost or forgotten due to circumstances like legal issues and ownership disputes that they have no control over. Some films though, like The Last of the Secret Agents?, lapse into obscurity because they lack the appeal to make them cult movies and fall through the cracks of the mainstream system. Paramount Pictures released the film to disappointing box office returns in 1966 and then sold it off to television syndication where it languished for years afterward. There has never been a proper US home video release of the film and it has never appeared on DVD. While The Last of the Secret Agents? is not completely without merit, it quickly sank to the bottom of the spy spoof genre which wasn’t a very lofty category to begin with.