Long ago in early 1960, a dogged 24-year old went to Schonberg, Ontario, with 18 actors and approximately $25,000 his brother had raised from three Detroit businessmen, and in eight days, on existing farms and whatever costumes and props could be cobbled, shot a western, The Hired Gun. After wrapping, when interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen about the likely quality of his finished film, the genial, unpretentious writer-producer-director quipped, “It may only be another grade B western, but you’ve got to admit it hasn’t any psychological nonsense interfering with the action.” And sure enough, in a time where westerns were eagerly consumed, the scrappy production was picked up and released in America by legendary exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner.
And thus the template for filmmaker Lindsay Shonteff was established. In his 40+ years as a director, he worked in multiple genres: horror, crime, troubled youth, martial arts, combat, and erotic thrillers. But his favorite was clearly tales of espionage, perhaps because he conducted his film shoots like a master spy: read the surroundings, quickly amass an arsenal, enter the fray, use the available resources, complete the mission, get out, and present the results to the interested parties. And even though he was born, raised, and deceased in Canada, he earned his reputation and notoriety in England, where most of the best-loved secret agent cinema sagas originated.
His debut feature The Hired Gun had not been a particularly large or notable success, but it did draw the attention of another Canadian filmmaker who was fated to make his impact on English cinema, Sidney J. Furie. Furie had directed a variety of films, including two Cliff Richard musicals and a pair of horror outings, when producer Richard Gordon (Fiend Without a Face, Corridors of Blood) had set him up to direct Devil Doll, a horror tale involving an evil ventriloquist. A rival producer offered Furie another project that interested him more, so Furie recommended Shonteff to take over the production, and kept in touch with him during the shoot. Shonteff was able to complete the 1964 project in less than 2 weeks, so Gordon was pleased enough to retain him for another thriller, Curse of Simba (released in the US as Curse of the Voodoo). This project proves an early example of the director’s ability to make do with limited resources, using existing stock footage and filming in what expansive green spaces were available in London to create the story’s African setting; it was also completed in just above two weeks. And to continue the symmetry between the Canadian expats, as Furie made a worldwide splash with his 1964 adaptation of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File, Shonteff would also soon receive his first significant success by delving into the burgeoning genre of spy movies.
Collaborating with first-time screenwriter Howard Griffiths and producer S.J.H. Ward, Shonteff created secret agent Charles Vine and his first adventure, Licensed to Kill, in 1965. Vine, savvy in both complex math and handling a Mauser Broomhandle, is retained to protect a defecting Russian asset trying to provide anti-gravity technology to the Brits, because “that chap who cracked the gold conspiracy” is indisposed. After its UK release, American producer Joseph E. Levine, who had previously acquired US rights and made material changes to Monty Berman & Robert S. Baker’s Jack the Ripper which made it a stateside hit, purchased Licensed for the States, and again worked his ballyhoo skills on it. Shifting some scenes and deleting others, and commissioning a theme sung by Sammy Davis Jr., Levine released the film in America as The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World, nicking verbiage from Avis car rental’s famous “We’re #2, We Try Harder” branding to hype the film. It was enough of a success in theaters here that ABC premiered it in prime time 4 years later, the only Shonteff film to air on American network television. S.J.H. Ward would produce another Shonteff film immediately after, a romantic youth drama called Run with the Wind, but the two men would soon separate, with Ward producing two more Charles Vine films without him, Where the Bullets Fly and Somebody’s Stolen Our Russian Spy.
At this point, Shonteff reached a crossroads that dramatically affected the rest of his career, oddly enough involving rival female-fronted spy movies. As he recounted to critic Allan Bryce for a profile in Shock Xpress called “Nickels and Dimes and No Time,” the popularity of Licensed/Second Best had gained him an agent in London, and the interest of American producer John Kohn, who set him up with a five picture deal in America. Kohn was developing Fathom with Raquel Welch as a potential franchise for 20th Century-Fox, while prolific producer Harry Alan Towers, who had just made several films with Christopher Lee as Sax Rohmer’s infamous character Fu Manchu, had already greenlit The Million Eyes of Su-Muru, a female arch-villain adventure based another Rohmer book series, to be shot in Hong Kong with Bond girl Shirley Eaton as the criminal mastermind. Unaware his agent had issues with Kohn, Shonteff was steered to Towers’ project, and when Fathom was a go, he had to decline the offer, ending his Kohn relationship and American deal. While he said the experience of working with stars as Eaton, Frankie Avalon, and Klaus Kinski was fun, he was dismayed to see many of the comic material he shot removed from the finished film. Upon his return to the UK, he also learned his agent had nixed a significant offer from a Hollywood agency that would have benefited them both, and decided to go off on his own. “[I] walked straight into the wilderness. At the time I thought I was being incredibly brave. Now I realize I was being incredibly stupid.”
From here, he spent years moving through multiple exploitation templates, often raising production funds himself. After rogue detective movies as Harper and Bullitt got popular, with capital from a Canadian friend, he made Clegg. “It was made for peanuts [and] my blood,” he told Bryce. “The final budget was [$26,500 American] for a colour 35mm feature, which meant making a lot of tough deals, paying people very little money, and shooting in four weeks. But we finished it and the picture did okay.” It was a hit for UK distributor Tigon, and Joseph Brenner Associates, who had taken his debut The Hired Gun, released it here as The Bullet Machine, and then again as Harry and the Hookers to lure in the raincoat crowd. With the rise of giallo-style murder mysteries, he followed that with a slasher called Night After Night After Night, which, after an editing dispute, he took the pseudonym Lewis J. Force for credit. When saucy “smashing birds in Soho” stories were in vogue, he made a groupie drama, Permissive, and a satire on UK sex farces, The Yes Girls. On the heels of hit heist movies as The Italian Job and The Hot Rock, with money earned from England’s Eady Levy to subsidize local production, he brought back Tom Adams, his star from Licensed to Kill, in a bank robbery procedural, The Fast Kill. And taking a cue from the rise of martial arts sagas and female-driven action works as Coffy, he cast Australian actress Linda Marlowe, who previously appeared in Night after Night, to headline two movies as ass-kicking detective Harriet Zapper – Big Zapper and Zapper’s Blade of Vengeance.
In an interview with Dennis Barker for The Guardian in July 1975, Shonteff explained his creative philosophy behind this kind of trend-hopping. After the collapse of his first opportunity to work with Hollywood studios, he would grow to prefer the autonomy lower budgets provided him. He described how at the time, he wanted to return to the Western genre, but since they weren’t in favor, he never pressed it. “You see, if some major company goes out and makes a Western and puts a lot of muscle into the advertising and a lot of money and gives it a saturation booking, and it makes a fortune, that is when I can make my Western, because then the road is open for me. If I go first, I fall down. I can’t lead as such, I have to follow.”
This work ethic would facilitate his most prestigious production in 1976, a serious adaptation of Len Deighton’s book Spy Story, which involved characters from his “Harry Palmer” stories (including the aforementioned The Ipcress File), but was not a direct sequel to that series. In the Barker interview, he explained that based on the performance of his films in foreign markets, he was able self-finance this dream project. “My pictures [weren’t] good movies necessarily, but they were good enough. It is sad that I had to approach it in this way, but I knew that if I made the right kind of movie for the Far East, they would buy it…stupid or not, they made money, because I knew the market place. That got me to where I could buy Len Deighton’s novel, which cost a lot of money.” While stepping up in class with his source material, he stayed true to his frugal nature. His script adaptation was basically transcribing viable parts of the book and jettisoning elements he didn’t want. He eschewed marquee actors, saying he had no patience for their agents or their restrictions when he was trying to work fast. “We just hit and run…we go in to shoot it and we leave. We don’t necessarily ask permission all the time.” And when a nuclear sub was not available, he simply dressed the decommissioned HMS Belfast, saying, “[A] nuclear sub is pretty much like a ship. It’s not claustrophobic; the rooms are just as big…” Critics from the BBC and the Daily Mail gave it good notices, but Spy Story did not perform as well as his exploitation films, so it would be his only reach for highbrow audiences. Later, in his talk with Bryce, he reflected, “Shooting the book as literally as I did had the drawback that it was too talky.”
Shonteff thus returned in 1977 to the genre that previously elevated him, the spy spoof. Though he no longer had the rights to his previous character Charles Vine, he created an all-new series of films centered on “Charles Bind,” a name lifted from an installment of the long-running “Carry On” series, Carry On Spying. The first installment, No. 1 of the Secret Service, starred Nicky Henson of Psychomania and There’s a Girl in My Soup as Bind, with several familiar Brit actors interacting with him: Richard Todd from The Dam Busters; Jon Pertwee, the third “Dr. Who”; Aimi MacDonald, former co-star of John Cleese and Marty Feldman on “At Last the 1948 Show”; Dudley Sutton from The Devils; and Sue Lloyd, co-star with Joan Collins in The Stud and The Bitch. “It was one of my most pleasurable films to make,” he told Bryce. “and one of our most commercial.” In America, No. 1 got an unexpected boost when, after a small theatrical play from Trans World Films, who also released the blind-man-heist caper Blind Rage, Cannon Films acquired the distributor’s library, and through their existing home video arrangement, it received a big box tape release from MGM/UA, thus putting Shonteff’s knockoff in direct and equal company with every James Bond film the major studio controlled!
The 1979 follow-up, No. 1 Licensed to Love and Kill (released in America as The Man from S.E.X.), saw Henson replaced by Gareth Hunt of “Upstairs Downstairs” as Bind, and became infamous for an attack scene involving an attack from a stripper twirling deadly blades on her tassels. But it would not be until 1990 when Shonteff would make a final installment, Number One Gun, with former child star Michael Howe of John Mackenzie’s Unman, Wittering, and Zigo taking over the role of Bind, and working with the lowest funding ever allocated to the series, so low Shonteff took no salary for any of the multiple jobs he performed on it. “It’s a pretty stupid picture,” he cracked to Shock Xpress. “It has been compared to Hudson Hawk (which I loved) and is just as stupid. I’m into that humor, but not those budgets.”
Indeed, while Shonteff always prided himself on being able to do more with less, the closing end of his career saw him effectively stretching a pound note until it screamed. In his 1960 Ottawa Citizen interview, he had opined, “I’d kind of like to do a war story with a cast of five,” and with How Sleep the Brave in 1982, he essentially did just that, shooting a Vietnam drama entirely on the Berkshire countryside. Having composed almost all his earlier films in 2.35 scope, it was probably both a challenge and a comedown to shoot the back-to-back 1984 projects The Killing Edge and Lipstick and Blood on consumer-grade videotape. For a spell, he even emigrated to America to make films, including his long-desired Western return, The Running Gun, and an erotic thriller, Ice Cold in Phoenix, its title a hat tip to prolific English director J. Lee Thompson’s classic Ice Cold in Alex. He would also take a break to teach film in his native Canada. Reportedly, he was completing production on his final film, Angels, Devils, and Men, when he died on March 11, 2006.
Overall, the recurring attitude Shonteff presented through his body of work was making simple movies with a complicated mixture of pluck, humor, determination, and resignation, from his early snark about making a “grade B” film at the launch of his career, to acknowledging he was a “follower” midway through, to stating in his last in-depth interview, “I really made a lot of junk. But in amongst the junk there were a few good movies.” If things had gone a different way, he may have become the respected studio stylist that his friend and mentor Sidney J. Furie became. But, to borrow from Joe Levine and Avis, in his secondary market status, he tried harder. And for the constant legion of fans his films have earned over time, that was good enough.