British intelligence assign American soldier of fortune Charles Hood (Vince Edwards) to Portugal to help stop an international criminal mastermind named Hammerhead (Peter Vaughn) plotting to steal a secret report on nuclear defense. Hood manages to board Hammerhead's yacht posing as the seller of a rare volume of antique pornography. Much to Hood's dismay this leads to an unexpected reunion with Sue Trenton (Judy Geeson), model, singer and fun-loving girl-about-town seemingly determined to charm her way into his life. With Sue tagging along, Hood discovers Hammerhead intends to kidnap Britain's NATO delegate, Sir Richard Calvert (Michael Bates) and replace him with a lookalike.
Producer Irving Allen holds a special place in movie infamy. He was the blowhard who insulted Ian Fleming and thus bungled then-partner 'Cubby' Broccoli's first attempt to buy the screen rights to the James Bond novels. When Broccoli finally clinched the Bond deal in partnership with Harry Saltzman, Allen – probably lamenting his mistake – latched onto Donald K. Hamilton's Matt Helm novels to sire his own, decidedly campier spy franchise as a vehicle for actor and crooner Dean Martin. Beginning with The Silencers (1966) and continuing in haphazard if intermittently endearing fashion with Murderer's Row (1967), The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1969), the Matt Helm films had an indirect impact on the Bond franchise. When Sean Connery learned how much Dean Martin was earning as co-producer of inferior product he promptly quit after a dispute with Broccoli and Saltzman. Allen likely held visions of a second spy franchise with hero Charles Hood when he bought the rights to Hammerhead, a bestseller written by British author Stephen Coulter under the pseudonym James Mayo. Coulter/Mayo, who served in the Royal Navy Intelligence during World War Two alongside his friend Ian Fleming, wrote five Charles Hood novels along with numerous other adventure and espionage works under his real name though only one more of his books reached the screen: Embassy (1972) wherein Shaft's Richard Roundtree starred as a C.I.A. agent.
Co-written by Matt Helm scripter Herbert Baker, William Bast (friend and biographer of James Dean) and John Briley (future Oscar winner for Gandhi (1982)!), Hammerhead adopts a similar strategy adapting grittier source material into a colourfully campy affair. Yet whereas the Matt Helm films had Dean Martin ambling amiably through comic book plots with time-outs for juvenile gags and scantily-clad eye-candy, Hammerhead is a candy shell with a very sour centre as result of its misanthropic hero. Certainly James Bond can be sadistic, misogynistic and ruthless yet his screen incarnations bring a moral dimension and undeniable charm to counterbalance his flaws. By comparison Charles Hood, introduced sticking out like a sore thumb in his sharp suit at an avant-garde art show where sexy hippie chicks dismember a mannequin on stage to rapturous applause, confetti and an impromptu food fight (ah, the Sixties), comes across disgusted with the milieu of Swinging London, annoyed with every beautiful woman he meets and, judging by his snide reaction to each plot twist, by this adventure in general.
As portrayed by Vince Edwards, Hood is a brash, rude, perpetually scowling, curiously charmless hero. You need a mega-wattage movie star to make a character like this engaging and lord knows Edwards, a former contract player in the Fifties turned TV star via Ben Casey whose notable cult film credits include Bert I. Gordon's best film The Mad Bomber (1974) and Space Raiders (1983) one of Roger Corman's low-budget cash-ins on Star Wars, is not that guy. An early scene where Hood marvels at famous works by famous artists while lamenting the modern hippie-infected art scene is clearly meant to establish him as a cultured action man in the Bond mould. Yet he comes a patronizing show-off. An even stranger moment occurs when Hood first glimpses Hammerhead's mistress Ivory (Beverly Adams, Lovey Cravesit herself from the Matt Helm films) performing a sexy dance. Roger Moore's 007 would have given Ivory the old suggestive eyebrow-raise. Charles Hood slaps her face with a sandwich. Yes, you read that right. He slaps her in the face with a sandwich. Why? God only knows. In fact Hood does not do anything particularly heroic throughout the movie, given – spoiler warning! - Hammerhead manages to pull off his scheme and claims several innocent live before being finished off by a minor yet memorable supporting player.
With such an unimpressive protagonist in the driver's seat is it any wonder Coulter/Mayo's labyrinthine plot (closer to Alfred Hitchcock than Ian Fleming) proves so uninvolving? Yet despite some failings, Hammerhead exudes considerable charm. The fast-paced action mixes Bondian intrigue with an Avengers-style surrealism (Peter Vaughn's sadistic germophobe makes his grand entrance lowered from a helicopter inside an antique wardrobe!). David Miller invests most of his energy into the action scenes, which are well staged with some striking sequences and surprisingly brutal (a graphic gut-shot, an arm repeatedly slammed with a car door), and incidental pleasures. The latter include a silly game of pass the parcel at the post office, sledgehammer subtle double-entendrés, and an engagingly eclectic supporting cast: Kathleen Byron (sorely wasted), Diana Dors, Dave Prowse (yes, Darth Vader himself in yet another henchman role) and Hammer starlet Veronica Carlson as a stripper. Most notable of all is the delightful Judy Geeson. As adorable zonked-out flower child Sue Trenton, Geeson wears some amazing outfits, lip-synchs enthusiastically to the theme song (David Whitaker's groove-tastic score is also first rate) and damn near elevates the entire film with her relentlessly perky good cheer. She also utters some words to live by: "You can't stand back and look at life. You've got to participate!") One can't help but wish THIS Judy Geeson showed up to greet John Wayne in Brannigan (1975). That would have been one heck of a movie.