The success of the James Bond films set off an avalanche of competing spy movies, some serious and some not so serious. Perhaps the most obscure of these franchises is the John Smith series, which began with The Sky Killer in 1969 (based on the novel Private, I).
Although this movie was made for the Movie of the Week series for ABC Television in the U.S., it was actually filmed at Pinewood Studios in the U.K. and has a very British flavor to it. Two of the main roles are played by Americans, but there is a very capable British supporting cast.
One problem is that the 'TV movie' format forced a complex plot into a short amount of time, so that it leaves your head spinning at times.
As the film starts, private detective John Smith (played by Robert Horton, best known for his Westerns) is hired by his ex-wife (played by luscious Barbara Shelley) to investigate her current husband, whom she suspects of having an affair. Smith unfortunately blunders into a crime scene, and is arrested for a murder. Smith's former boss, spymaster Max (played by Sebastian Cabot, happily getting away from his butler role on Family Affair) springs Smith from jail on condition that he find a missing notebook. (Smith, it turns out, is a former assassin for 'the government'.)
And not to forget: Smith has an attractive girlfriend who is a model (played by Jill St. John in her 'long hair' days).
What then ensues is a 'spy noir' where Smith is manipulated on all sides by duplicitous enemies and allies, there is skullduggery and blackmail and assassinations, and it moves at a good clip and is pleasant without being campy.
One problem is that there are so many plot twists that it's easy to get lost, or to find the ending a bit baffling. And you can't figure it out by reading the novel – it's out of print, but Amazon says it is coming back in September, titled The Spy Killer.
Robert Horton is surprisingly good in the spy role; Jill St. John doesn't get to do much, even her shower scene is rather tame; Sebastian Cabot is both charming and dastardly as the spymaster for some unstated international spy agency.
For gaming inspiration, this is cut-throat spying at its most devious, so would easily inspire a Pulp spy campaign.
This is a fun one to watch if you can find it. Don't expect Bond-style special effects, though…