Reviews

'The Phynx': Stupefaction Guaranteed

When we learned to stop worrying and enjoy murder.


The Phynx

Director: Lee H. Katzin
Cast: Michael A. Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden
Distributor: Warner Archive
Rated: PG
Year: 1970
Release date: 2012-10-26

The title of this movie should be pronounced as "the finks". Why is it spelled like that? Because it's cool and arty, you dig? That pointlessly labored joke typifies the movie, which feels more like a send-up of itself than of anything else in particular. Welcome to the most weird and witless end of the creative explosion that marked Hollywood in the late '60s and early '70s.

This production belongs in the file with such star-studded studio turds as Candy and Skidoo, movies more stupefying than amusing in their clueless desire to appeal to the squarest old fogeys while pretending to be hip and edgy. Like those movies, it has a few moments worth seeing (though nothing on the level of the former's Ewa Aulin, or the latter's dancing trash cans) amid vast stretches of jolly tedium.

The collection of skits serving as a plot explains that America's "world leaders" have been kidnapped by the leader of Albania and are held hostage in his castle. These leaders include Johnny Weissmuller, George Jessel, Rudy Vallee, Xavier Cugat, Butterfly McQueen (who always complained that her roles were too stupid, and came out of retirement for this), two of the Bowery Boys, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy. That list is far from complete.

If only they'd all been let loose to do their schtick, but the focus is on four nobodies (then and now) recruited at random by a female computer called M.U.T.H.A. (the movie's almost pornographically tasteless highlight) to masquerade as a pop group called the Phynx. They perform songs by Mike Lieber and Jerry Stoller that have remained surpassingly yet unsurprisingly obscure. It's hard to tell if they're supposed to be spoof songs, but the pseudo-vaudeville or semi-skiffle "Feeling Too Good Today Blues" has a pleasingly outmoded zip that you might hear on a candy commercial.

Amid protracted coy sex games that serve as their super-spy shenanigans, including an endless routine about X-ray sunglasses that Benny Hill would reject as unsophisticated, the boys run across one or another of three dozen cameo appearances every five minutes. Many are pointless eyeblinks, like Harold "Oddjob" Sakata. Some, like Clint Walker and Martha Raye, are casually killed off.

Open parenthesis: This kind of "black humor" had become a mad, mad, mad, mad trend in the Sixties, as witness films as diverse as Casino Royale, which must receive a lot of blame for movies like this one, the Shirley MacLaine vehicle What a Way to Go, and the infinitely cleverer The Assassination Bureau Ltd..

There had always been comedies of murder (think of Arsenic and Old Lace or The Ladykillers) and there had always been snappy comedy-mysteries where corpses fell out of closets, but I believe this special sort of affectless, cold-blooded, consequence-free, even celebratory death-as-punchline in modern cinema started with James Bond.

Let's refine that: death was used as a punchline in "sick humor" of the '50s, and in cartoons (Daffy Duck blows his brains out at the end of The Scarlet Pumpernickel), and in the routines of comedians such as Jack Benny (the famous Xmas episode where Mel Blanc shoots himself behind the tree) and Sid Caesar, but the James Bond movies is where this device went from schtick to chic, from yammer to glamour. "She's just dead," says Sean Connery, dropping his dance partner into a chair after maneuvering her into a bullet. Thus we learned to stop worrying and enjoy murder. Close parenthesis.

Where were we? Oh yeah, the cameos. Aside from James Brown, Dick Clark, and a shamefully wasted Richard Pryor, none of these cameos would appeal to the college crowd this film is supposedly courting or lampooning, and yet the whole project would turn off their parents too, and it did. So to whom did this barely released fiasco appeal except the 17 viewers who wanted bragging rights of having claimed that it wasn't a hallucination? Now even that's devalued since it's democratically available on demand from Warner Archive.

There's a nice idea at the end, as rock music is literally capable of "tearing down the walls" of oppression, though of course this movie doesn't take oppression seriously. It blows the lid off Iron Curtain politics by revealing that Albania's leader (George Tobias) is a harmless cuddly aristrocrat! He and his wife (Joan Blondell) are under the thumb of the General (Michael Ansara) because he controls the tanks. It lacks the trenchant wit of Laugh-In, to be sure.

As a spoof of pre-fab pop groups or youth culture, this movie's not in the same league, ballpark, or other sports metaphor as the Monkees' Head. But now let's really get inside baseball. As a spy spoof very late in the day, with nods to detective and gangster movies, it's not as funny as The Spy with a Cold Nose, nor as swinging as The Last of the Secret Agents, nor with the je ne sais quois of 99 44/100ths Per Cent Dead--and if you actually got all those references, then you'll probably insist on sitting through it anyway, and God bless you.

So here's the best we can leave you with: it's real, stupefaction guaranteed.

3

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