Wednesday, March 20, 2013


The popularity of Doctor No in 1962 led not only to the entire series of James Bond movies, but a lot of other spy movies in the 1960s, with varying levels of seriousness, from the ultra-cynical The Spy Who Came In From the Cold to the utter fluff of Caprice. Another movie which comes closer to the latter is Fathom, which is coming up a couple of times in the next few days on the Fox Movie Channel: tomorrow morning at 11:15 AM, and again Friday March 22 at 7:45 AM.

Raquel Welch plays Fathom Harvill, a skydiver travelling her way through Europe with an American troupe. At the latest competition in the south of Spain, it's been aranged that Fathom is going to be picked up by jeep and taken to her hotel. However, the jeep driver, Timothy (Richard Briers), doesn't take her to the hotel at first, but instead to a trailer manned by a Col. Campbell (Ronald Fraser), a man from a western intelligence service. He proceeds to inform Fathom that intelligence needs her services. Apparently, a nuclear trigger device code-named "Fire Dragon" was lost at sea when a US Air Force plane crashed into the Mediterranean. This is something that the Communists -- in particular the Chinese -- would love to get their hands on. And indeed, a known Chinese agent has shown up in the area, leading intelligence to believe that they know where Fire Dragon is and are about to get their hands on it. That's where Fathom comes in. The intelligence services can't get into the Chinese agent's compound, but an innocent skydiver like Fathom can, simply by literally dropping in from the sky. So she's being asked to skydive in to the compound "accidentally", with recording devices in tow to get information.

What she finds isn't quite what she expects. There's a dead body, and the Chinese agent Soon and her companion Meriwether (Tony Franciosa), who naturally suspect Fathom of something not good. They try to implicate her in the murder, but she's eventually escapes from the compound, presumably to give the data she's gathered back to western intelligence. Soon and Meriwether track down Fathom, and when they finally corner her, they have an even more fantastic story to tell her. Oh, there's a Fire Dragon, all right, but it's not a nuclear triggering device. In fact, it's a bejeweled dragon sculpture that went missing, with an American defector from the Korean War era trying to find it and take it out of China. Meriwether, in fact, is working for the Americans to find their deserter, and Col. Campbell is trying to trick Fathom.

What's a pretty little skydiver to believe? At this point, the story gets complicated.... Very complicated, in fact. Fathom, for her part, has no idea who's telling the truth, and who's trying to kill her. and Campbell, Soon, and Meriwether aren't the only ones with an interest in the Fire Dragon. In fact, it seems as if, as with that famous statue of a falcon, everybody who's anybody knows it's in the area and has come to find it and claim it for themselves.

That, I suppose, is the big problem with Fathom: that it has a whole bunch of twists and turns that don't seem realistic, with many of the characters not having plausible motivations for their ruses. But, as I said at the beginning, Fathom isn't supposed to be taken as seriously as some of the other movies in the 1960s spy cycle. So, being even more unreal than a James Bond film isn't quite as much a drawback as it might otherwise be. The filmmakers were only trying to entertain us here. And if that's the goal, I think they more or less succeeded. Raquel Welch is lovely to look at; the locations are nice, and the spy story is passable enough. The proceedings are also lightened up with the requisite amount of humor, including a running gag about how Fathom got such a strange name, anyhow. Fathom will never make any all-time greatest film list, but it still will entertain you.

Fathom is listed in a standalone DVD release at Amazon, although that may be out of print. It also received a DVD release as part of a Raquel Welch box set, and that one is listed as available for purchase at both Amazon and the TCM shop.

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