The Series Project: Leonard

Leonard Part 6 poster

The Leonard movies are, as we all know, completely illegal. All copies of the films themselves have been consistently censored and apprehended by Interpol, and buying a copy of any of the films (other than part 6) have often resulted in some sort of scandal. Surely you all remember the infamous event in 1999, when actor Edward Norton was nearly arrested outside of CBS for merely mentioning that he was looking for DVD copies on a now-unavailable David Letterman episode. The actors and directors have had their resumes actively expunged, and you won’t find any information on these movies on IMDb, again, with the exception of Leonard Part 6.

I, dear readers, do have my own connections, though (and, no I will not reveal any of them). I did have to bend over backwards to get some of these movies, including traveling into international waters. One of them cost me several embarrassing favors, and another I had to watch on 16mm film, with Greek subtitles, in the traveling yacht of someone I had only met that morning. That same man was, if I may reveal a somewhat scandalous detail, arrested the following day by Interpol. Ironically, though, it was not because he owned a copy of Leonard: The Final Adventure. It was for drugs.

So I apologize that this week’s installment of The Series Project is a few days late, but the delay was entirely needed to track down and to watch all seven of the Leonard movies. This very article is a daring move on the part of CraveOnline, as it may be taken down any minute, wholly redacted by Interpol. I haven’t had any direct brushes with the police (I was very careful in my film consumption activities), but I have been receiving some mysterious telephone calls at strange hours, usually with no one on the other end of the phone (seriously!). So if you manage to see this article at all, you may be one of the lucky ones. If you hear that I have been imprisoned, however, you now know why.

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To offer a brief introduction to the series: The Leonard movies are largely about a CIA operative named Leonard Parker, who is like James Bond, but with a streak of magic in his universe. Each film is about high-profile case, each one features a notable celebrity cameo, and – as we all know – each one features a well-known world politician playing themselves, often doing something deliberately illegal on camera. To put the rumors to rest immediately: No, Manuel Noriega didn’t actually kill that guy. That was a stuntman named Barry DeMichelis, and he is alive and well and living in Pasadena. Noriega, however, did actually kill the pig.

The films started as an arch artistic exercise, turned into a fun and kind of mainstream magical fantasy entertainment, and eventually fell apart, succumbing to dumb jokes and bland fan service. It wasn’t until 2011 that the series would finally recapture the spirit of the original. A part eight is planned. It will likely not be made, but I’ve been wrong about this sort of thing in the past.

But to the seven movies themselves. Starting with the near-experimental…

The Syndicate (dir. John G. Avildsen, 1969)

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The Syndicate was stylistically daring for the late 1960s. At 145 minutes, it feels almost like a Chantal Ackerman prank than a would-be spy thriller. It was a British-funded film, and starred a British actor (Tom Courtenay from Billy Liar), but was shot in America, used mostly American actors, and was only ever released in America. The Syndicate was pulled from theaters on its opening day. John Marshall Harlan, then a justice on the Supreme Court, appeared in The Syndicate driving a car into a crowded mall, which was clearly not prepped for the scene. No one was killed, although the old woman did indeed lose a leg (which you can confirm online). It was one of the reasons Harlan resigned from the court in 1971.

The Syndicate, staged like a contemplative cross between James Bond and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, follows the adventures of a man named Frayn (Courtenay), who works as the well-paid butler for CIA agent Leonard Parker, played by a young Frank McRae in his first film. Leonard is a high-maintenance man, requiring fancy meals and his signature slippers when he comes in from special trips, and Frayn is the hard-thinking and stalwart servant who is always there for him. They banter lightly and have a clear affection for one another. The Syndicate imagines a brash, attractive, James Bond-type as a capable spy, but one with many neuroses, a good deal of social awkwardness, and a crippling, lingering agoraphobia. Leonard only seems at ease when he is at home with his butler.

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The bulk of the film is Frayn narrating about Leonard, telling us of the aftermath of his adventures. He alludes to a lot, each time implying that Leonard is capable of more and more amazing things. By the time he’s talking about magical levitation and all the rest, we kind of buy it. Or Frayn may just be a little too devoted to Leonard, believing that he is capable of the supernatural. But Frayn is never seen as the one out of control. He is the star through-and-through.

Avildsen would go on to direct Rocky, and you can see some of his soulfulness coming through in this near-supernatural early work. It's the second film, however, where things begins to take off.