October 13, 2016

INTERVIEW: RICHARD RHYS DAVIES

Interview: Richard Rhys Davies (International Spy Film Guide 1945 – 1989)Davies curates one of the world's largest collections of vintage spy film posters and lobby cards. Many treasures from his archives can be seen at the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill website. After years in the making, he has completed the epic The International Spy Film Guide 1945 – 1989, which is now available for order (see Spy Vibe post here). He stopped by the Spy Vibe lair this week to chat about his new book, the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archives, and about collecting spy memorabilia. Welcome Richard!


Congrats on your new publication! Can you tell us a bit about the process of putting it together over the years? 

The International Spy Film Guide 1945 – 1989 (“The ISFG”) began life in 2004 as a database of spy cinema.  I wanted to keep a record of the foreign release titles of spy films. This helped identify titles when trying to locate a given film or poster. It was also the beginning of developing The Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive project which was primarily a touring exhibition of Cold War spy film posters here in the UK. The exhibitions took five years to come to fruition by collaborating with various academic and cultural institutions. We also staged the first ever symposium on spy films at The University of Hertfordshire.

Whilst the database was on going through this period I was also writing long form reviews for the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive website. Following the publication of my exhibition catalogue “Kiss Kiss Kill Kill The Graphic Art and Forgotten Spy Films of Cold War Europe”, I decided I would like to do another book. As the database was very well advanced by this point it seemed logical to utilise that and make an encyclopedia. I guessed I would be looking at around 500 films. Then the real trouble began. Over the coming months and years, hundreds of films started appearing. This was not helped by my broad-church approach which was to cover all 20th Century spy films made during the Cold War from every country in the world. I was determined not to compromise in terms of content, space and scope.




The design looks stunning. Did you try various iterations before arriving at the look of the layout? 

My first layout for The International Spy Film Guide 1945 – 1989 was completed about two years ago and followed the standard encyclopedia “entry after entry in as many columns as possible” approach. As soon as I finished the first layout, I stood back and thought it looked crammed and not what I wanted. I always wanted the illustrations to be an integral part of the book to really give the reader a flavour of what the various films did (or didn’t) have to offer. So I jettisoned months of work and started from scratch. I arrived at the layout and balance of image and text through this process. I also did a year of proofing with test proof copies in different formats. I had hoped to offer a budget black and white version but it was not satisfactory – “The ISFG” needed to be in colour.

Looking at the end paper image of the Minox camera, I see we have some similar ideas regarding design to capture the spy world. What images did you create for the book vs working with artefacts like posters? Did you work with other artists?

Because writing the book took so many years I had a lot of time to work on the branding and artwork. I came up with all the artwork myself including the still life shoot which involved buying various props to create a spy style with each prop denoting something of the life of the Cold War agent. The whole project from start to finish has been executed by me – text, photos, layout, design, marketing, branding and so on. My wife Clare and many friends and family have been invaluable in the decision making process and proofing.

Excellent work! It’s exciting that your book covers so many countries. How did you choose when it came to films on the cusp of espionage content?

In the spirit of being uncompromising, I decided to take a very broad-church approach. The reasoning was that if you enjoy the spy genre, then all the cross-over genre blends that exist would be of interest. Or indeed films that one might need warning away from – there are a lot of bad spy films. (That’s bad/bad rather than good /bad.)  If there are secret agents in the film as a key part of the narrative then they are included. I explain this approach in depth in the introduction to the book just so the canon-obsessed aficionados will be placated.

Regarding the wide range of countries, this was integral to project in so many ways. The overarching theme of the project is ‘international’. I loved the fact that this gave me a licence to travel all over the world and look at the fascist propaganda of Argentina, the pre/post fundamental films of Iran, the (possibly) lost comedies of Syria, the unknown genre work of South Korea; not to mention all the Chinese, Russian and Eastern Bloc films that were hidden from the West by the Cold War. Many of these unknown regions would conjure their own version of James Bond with their take on glamour, gadgets and spy style. James Bond and far far beyond.

The International concept also extends to the stylistic themes of the artwork I created (the jet-setting superspy mission, the PAN AM inspired iconography, spies in love and on the run etc.). And of course the bulk of the book’s content is posters and stills from all countries.

This international investigation led to the fascinating realisation that 65 countries of every political and religious creed are pretty much all saying the same thing and are exploring the same myths of heroism, escapism, romance and fear of “people from away”.




Does the book include movies crafted from TV series such as The Man from UNCLE, The Avengers, The Saint, etc.? What will fans of the television shows find?

The compilation films that companies like ITC edited together from television episodes in order to sell to foreign territories for theatrical release were a godsend. They allowed me to feature so many of the iconic and wonderful spies of the TV world. ITC compilation films made from The Baron, Danger Man, and The Persuaders etc. are all included. The same goes for the UNCLE films, the Peter Murphy films like “Danger Has Two Faces” and Spy Catcher J-3 from Japan, I also decided to include TV features, many of which deservedly got theatrical distribution abroad like David McCallum’s excellent “Hauser’s Memory”. Also included are straight to video releases and standalone TV features.

Cool! The many fans of UNCLE and other TV spies will be happy to hear that. What are some of the elements you feel make for more successful posters or lobby cards? What do these elements tell us about spy stories?

What is wonderful about Cold War era poster artwork is the distinct national styles that emerged in the poster artwork. Unlike the generic campaigns of today, artists were hired by distributors to give the film a style that would appeal to their specific country. I go into this in detail in the introduction to the “The Graphic Art and Forgotten Spy Films of Cold War Europe” book. Great Italian poster artist Renato Casaro told me; “If you have to do a campaign for more than one country you have to find a way in between to satisfy the different mentalities, tastes etc. Italy and Spain wanted action, France sophistication and Germany something in between.”

Each country produced exciting and dynamic design work – often within the framework of a nationally defined style such as the exacting photo montage of Japan, the high art paintings of Poland or the garish, sensationalist style of Italy.

Often the artists would distil the key motifs of the genre into the artwork such that the same images of guns, explosions, beautiful women, heroic men, codenames and a jet set world would reoccur across different cultural boundaries despite the national ‘house styles’ mentioned above. It is these internationally reoccurring motifs of the spy genre that mark the genre out as uniquely pan-world and I would argue mythical.


That's very interesting! How did you first get into spy films? What are your earliest memories?

Like all children of the 60s, Bond, UNCLE, Avengers, Danger Man, and Flint were all around us. And we loved them all – exciting, glamourous, colourful and cool. I remember for my sixth birthday party we had a spy party and all my school mates came with attaché cases. Later, when I started working in the film industry I ignored these childhood genre passions in favour of championing “good” cinema – Welles, Kurosawa, Truffaut etc. It was only when I hit 40 that I realised I had always got a kick out of watching spy films. Certainly a nostalgic thing but as we now know, nostalgia produces endorphins and a sense of wellbeing; so I just followed my instinct and got into spy films again. Then I read Matt Blake and David Deal’s “The Eurospy Guide” which was an epiphany in that I discovered there was a world of cinema hidden from view and unknown during my spy-filled childhood. From that point the nostalgia led to something new - cinematic archaeology.

When did you start collecting? What did you look for?

As I hit 40, I had decided to sell off a pile of British film posters and stills that I had acquired from the local cinemas at the age of 10. As I started to use eBay to sell them, I began to look at what was out there and ironically started buying instead of selling. Around the same time, I was letting rip with my passion for spy cinema and the posters became signposts for forgotten films. I would find a cool spy poster for an unknown film and wonder what the film was like. This set the ball rolling. Sometimes it took years to track down a copy of the film discovered as a poster – at least 12 years for the Kokusai himitsu keisatsu films (a Japanese Bond infused franchise). In this case it was worth the wait. However, the films don’t always match up to the promise of the posters; Eurospy actor Roger Browne told me he thought “some of the posters turned out better than the films”.

From some of the Eurospy films I've seen, I can attest to that theory. Were there specific items or images that really inspired you to embark on creating what became your archive?

Beyond Matt Blake and David Deal’s “The Eurospy Guide” which was a big influence, I was initially driven by European imagery and the fact that Eurospy films at that time were still way off the radar. Certainly a hunter/gatherer instinct was at work in tracking down posters and images that appealed to my love of Europe and its cultural diversity. From rainy, Cold War mittel-Europa cinema to the idyllic sunshine holiday-style of the Mediterranean – these images truly inspired me when blended with the supercool spy iconography of my childhood.

As the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive project developed with encouragement from Matthew Shaul of the University of Hertfordshire, I began to discover the hidden films from the Eastern Bloc and the amazing artwork that came with them. Following the touring show and the development of “The ISFG” every country became of interest.


Where did you track down pieces for your collection?

EBay was naturally the starting point for finding pieces for the collection but I have since purchased artwork from many, many different people and places. Bruce Hershenson’s auction site emovieposter.com is essential.  But it is the caches one discovers with an individual that can make for the most exciting discoveries. Usually when an artist studio or attic is being cleared or a production office archive sold off.

Does your collection ever go on display/exhibit?

We held five exhibitions across the UK between 2010 and 2014. There was one planned for Paris to be hosted in Catherine Deneuve’s cinema but that has yet to come to fruition. Photos of all the shows are on the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive website including a walk round on videoWe are open to invitations to make further exhibitions although putting artwork on walls often costs more than one would imagine.

Did you also collect books, toys, or records?

I have many reference books, but not so much merchandise. I have a few Cold War board games which are on the website, but I feel that area is well covered by other collectors, especially The Man From UNCLE and Bond merchandise. Indeed for this reason I have purposefully not collected Bond posters and to some extent Hitchcock posters as there are huge collections already around. The curious thing about the Bond posters is that they were often the posters with the highest print runs (100K+) but their desirability ensures they are most sought after and fetch the highest prices at auction. Bond is #1 even when he isn’t rare. I recall showing Sim Branaghan (the UK expert on British film posters) a quad poster I have for “Danger is a Woman”. He couldn’t believe he had never seen one and volunteered that it was hugely scarce. I am sure I picked it up for a low price.

What are you looking for now?

Mainly posters and stills for titles that I rate. You will have to buy The International Spy Film Guide 1945 – 1989 to find out which they are.

Has your interest in classic posters and lobby cards ever wandered into other film genres?

I have remained strictly tied to the spy and espionage genre only because one has to draw the line somewhere. I do have a small number of non-spy film posters – some from my childhood that meant a lot to me then like “Magnum Force”.

What 3 spy films would you bring to a desert island and why?

Like a top ten, this is an impossible question. I only managed a top 365 in “The ISFG” (hence my current ‘film a day’ posting on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the website of each one.) Actually I would probably go for some non-spy romantic stories for a desert isle to keep my spirits up. Trouble is there are so few that are any good. I would want Paolo Sorrentino’s “Le conseguenze dell'amore” aka “The Consequences of Love” or Eric Rohmer’s “L’ami de mon amie” on a desert island.

If it had to be spy films it would be “Danger Route”, “North by Northwest” and “Missione speciale Lady Chaplin”. All of these I could watch a few times over. “Danger Route” for Richard Johnson’s pitch perfect ‘spy in trouble’ and Seth Holt’s smart direction – the film is a great blend of the atmosphere of both Fleming and Le Carré. “North by Northwest” because it is the best spy film ever made and “Lady Chaplin” because it is so silly, epic and fun plus Daniela Bianchi (From Russia With Love) is the queen of Eurospy.

If you were an international villain or spy, what would your secret lair be like?

I have been busy building a secret lair in West Wales over the last year. What it looks like is a secret but you get an idea from Shag’s Dr. Scorpio’s Lair

Where can folks order your book?

The sensible place to buy it is direct from the website using PayPalWe ship to every country in the world – tracked and insured. If you don’t have PayPal and want to use a credit card you can buy it hereIt is also available on Amazon and eBay, but the price includes their considerable agent’s free (nearly 20%).

Thank you! I encourage Spy Vibers to pick up The International Spy Film Guide 1945 – 1989 (also available in deluxe edition). Enjoy!


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