Ah, the amateur spy. It’s the stuff that dreams and movies are made of. Two films that explore the conceit are fun to examine. Each has a female lead, and both promote their protagonist’s age as an espionage advantage. 13 Frightened Girls (aka The Candy Web) is a 1963 frothy concoction. It employs the premise that a diplomat’s teenaged daughter can become a world-class secret agent. Mrs. Pollifax—Spy (1971) is at the other end of the age spectrum, with the eponymous character being a senior citizen. Proving one’s worth and defying stereotypes comes with the respective territory in both credulity-stretching films. 13 Frightened Girls fares better since the screenplay, by Robert Dillon/story by Otis L. Guernsey Jr., abandons any pretense of taking itself too seriously. Produced and directed by William Castle, one of the slickest and savviest movie marketeers, the flick targeted a demographic and capitalized on the spy film craze of the 1960s. It is very much of its time which is a substantial part of its charm.
The plot is as lightweight and delectable as a soufflé: Candance “Candy” Hull’s father (played by Hugh Marlowe) is an American diplomat based in London. Candy (portrayed with winsome cuteness by Kathy Dunn) is infatuated with Wally Sanders (Murray Hamilton) a beleaguered colleague of her dad. To salvage Wally’s floundering CIA career, she cultivates her connections with other daughters of London-based diplomats to gain insider info. After investigating and obtaining substantiating evidence, Candy anonymously sends Wally cut-and-paste notes, signed “Kitten.” They are stamped with the print of a cat’s paw for added theatrical flourish. Her beloved’s reputation is considerably enhanced. The explosive scoops he receives from the mysterious agent are catnip to U.S. Intelligence. And Kitten becomes a celebrity in the world of espionage—as well as an international target of those threatened by her exposure.
There’s an amusing montage displaying Kitten’s worldwide recognition, complete with Candy’s white kitty walking in the foreground of well-known global sites; its mewing turning into a roar. And it is impossible not to chuckle at Candy’s reading a 1918 (!) handbook entitled “Methods for Training for Modern Espionage,” and wincing when she reaches the chapter on the art of seduction. Candy, at 16 years of age, is skilled at nymphet flirting and that’s as close as it gets seduction-wise in this non-provocative movie. Sporting a long braid and pert bangs/fringe hairstyle, Candy is decked out, as are the other females in clothes by Lanz, a popular name brand of the 1960s. The diplomats’ daughters boarding school uniforms are royal blue semi-dirndl dresses topped up with matching hats: tailored confections that make one’s teeth hurt from their utter sweetness.
Candy’s school mates live in a rarified atmosphere, but have the universal traits consigned to teenage girls in entertainments of that era: obsessions with boyfriends, fixations on hairdos, party going and, of course, dancing The Twist. At least because of the multicultural teenagers, there was the unconventional opportunity to cast non-white young women. Black actress Judy Pace made her cinema debut as the representative of Liberia, and Lynne Sue Moon portrays Mai-Ling from Communist China. The latter role is given significant screen time, including a scene in which Mai-Ling shows off her posters of Mao and Khrushchev before playing and dancing to decadent Western music. Natasha the Russian (Gina Trikonis) is also painted with broad stereotypic strokes, as exhibited in a cutthroat tennis match with Candy. The solemn Soviet also dispenses dour Slavic remarks such as “A dead language is not worth dying for,” after driving-challenged Candy takes the wheel of the school bus as a prize for winning a contest in Latin class. Trikonis had appeared as a dancer in the 1961 film of West Side Story, which gave her something in common with Kathy Dunn. Prior to playing Candy, Dunn essayed the role of Louisa von Trapp in the original (1959) Broadway production of The Sound of Music. Two young actresses, attached to famous musical productions, wound up in 13 Frightened Girls.
Rosalind Russell, whose multi-decade résumé includes musicals on stage and screen, stars as Mrs. Pollifax—Spy. She also wrote the film’s screenplay based on Dorothy Gilman’s novel, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966), under the pseudonym C.A. McKnight. Those two elements scream “Vanity Project!” What seals the deal is Russell’s husband Frederick Brisson onboard as producer. Director Leslie H. Martinson had a prolific career directing episodes of various television series. His earlier directorial foray into spy films was the Raquel Welch vehicle Fathom (1967), which like Mrs. Pollifax was essentially a showcase for its star. Martinson’s helming of Mrs. Pollifax—Spy displays competence rather than inspiration. There is an escape sequence that is plodding in its seeming endlessness, and the entire movie has a schizophrenic feel: a sense of an unresolved tonal tug-of-war about whether to accentuate drama or levity.
The same disparity in tone is evident in the performance of Darren McGavin as Farrell, Pollifax’s gruff and laconic fellow spy. The rather thankless second banana role requires the actor to portray the standard burnt-out agent who oozes futility and sarcasm. He does not initially respond to Mrs. Pollifax’s determined attempts to ignite the fire in his belly. Eventually, her pluck and perseverance make him recalibrate. She is a calculating charmer who systematically wears down those who try to resist her, and the irresistible Ms. Russell plays these attributes to the hilt.
Indeed, the film shows from the onset that the New Jersey widow is purposeful in achieving her goal of becoming a CIA field agent. She flouts her friendship with a powerful senator to get a gig and points out that her age is a plus because she is viewed as expendable in the eyes of society. When subsequently posted to Mexico City as a courier on a routine assignment, she is kidnapped along with Agent Farrell and they get imprisoned in Communist Albania. Pollifax uses her wits and wiles to devise a prison break, permitting Ms. Russell more opportunity to pull out all the stops. This was her last film performance which adds a certain poignancy to watching the film.
It was not however, the final outing for Mrs. Pollifax onscreen. A 1999 made-for-TV movie entitled The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax starred Angela Lansbury. Lansbury’s hugely popular television series Murder She Wrote ended after twelve seasons in 1996. The similarities between series character Jessica Fletcher and Mrs. Pollifax, older widows who respectively sleuth and spy, made the actress a perfect fit for the segue into espionage. Despite this and Lansbury’s solid TV fanbase, Mrs. Pollifax did not return to the small screen for further adventures.
The implausibility of Mrs. Pollifax—Spy and 13 Frightened Girls is a component of their allure. And in a flimsy way, both movies could be viewed as social commentaries on feminism and ageism. I enjoyed spending time and metaphorically partying with Mrs. P. and Candy Hull, two gals who fulfill many a dream and fantasy.