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Berry Picking #2: Filming in 1960s Beirut
The Beirut caught on film in Eurospy movies
In the last 3 days, I’ve watched three movies from the mid-1960s that were filmed in Beirut. Inspired by the success of the James Bond franchise on the early 60s, there are many Eurospy movies that were made during this period but there was a string of films involving Beirut as the backdrop. Given that we had our fair share of intelligence-swapping then (and now), Beirut being a hotbed of espionage is not that far fetched. There’s a reason we assume any foreigner just hanging out around town learning Arabic is a jasous.
I first learned about these films thanks to the “Thief of Baghdad” exhibit held at Dar el Nimer in March 2019 which featured part of Abboudi Abou Jaoude’s extensive film poster collection.
Films had different titles depending on the markets they were released in but what pulled me in was that a few of these were filmed on location in the city, not just a yellow-tinged set on a backlot in Burbank. I told myself I’d look up all these films and make it a point to watch them but then they got lost in the flood of my camera roll. In the process of looking them up four years later this Sunday, I found Agent 505: Deathtrap Beirut/Agent 505: Todesfalle Beirut from 1966 and watched it first.
“Interpol Agent 505 Richard Blake battles a mysterious criminal known as "the Sheik" who plans to eliminate the population of Beirut by dropping radioactive mercury on the city.” - the plot according to Wikipedia
The plot would normally be absurd if the city didn’t experience an elimination tragedy 3 years ago but overall, it’s still ridiculous in the way that most classic movies are. Its score is by Ennio Morricone who you may know from his work on one of my top 5s, Cinema Paradiso. It’s listed as a German/Italian film but I watched this YouTube version with Hollywood mid-atlantic English dubbing. It’s also available on Mubi. It’s a fun watch and Beirut is a star just as much as the actors. There are shocking shots of the original coastline, Beirut streets, and the mountain roads that you can still recognize today if you know Lebanon well.
However, if you want a movie that’s truly entertaining and unintentionally silly, complete with the TCM-level drama and constructed intrigue that also captures old Beirut, watch 1965’s 24 Hours to Kill.
I’d say watch both just for the Beirut footage because you can really see how the layout of the city has changed. Both movies showcase the airport just after Air Liban rebranded to MEA and both have the Phoenicia Hotel as their homebase. There are similarities between the two but 24 Hours is a better story despite them referring to Phoenicia’s Le Paon Rougeas “the red cockatoo”.
Plus, look what I found:
You can watch the full film on YouTube.
Lastly, check out Spies Strike Silently/Ombres sur le Liban (1966) where the agent ALSO stays at the Phoenicia (the hold it had on producers of the 60s is wild considering it was a very new hotel) and the antagonist’s evil lair is set within the villa that would become the Sursock Museum. Watch the full film on YouTube.
Up next, more Eurospy movies: Secret Agent Fireball/Le Spie Uccidono a Beirut (1965) and the spoof, Where the Spies Are (1965). Honorable mention: Appointment in Beirut/Rebus (1968) - I don’t know how long these will stay available on YouTube so watch them while you can!
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About the Berry Picking Series
Once a month, I share a nugget (very or loosely) related to wine from my random online deep dives or in-person encounters.
This series was formerly known as “Brainfood” but was renamed in Sept 2023.
Arabic for “spy”
French for “red peacock”