Nebo Zoyot/The Sky Calls/Battle Beyond the Sun (1959/1962)

‘They say that around the stars, it’s very windy.’

After visiting a scientific institute, a writer imagines a space-age future of glorious exploration featuring the researchers he meets. In his vision, two competing crews attempt to be the first to land on Mars…

Serious-minded science-fiction from the Soviet Union, with directors Mikhail Karyukov and Aleksandr Kozyr delivering the appropriate heroics. However, the impressive SFX, designed by Yuri Shvets and realised by Nikolay Ilyushin and Frantsisk Semyannikov, tend to overshadow the human drama.

Journalist Troyan (Sergey Filimonov) finds his imagination fired up by visiting a scientific institute. In his mind’s eye, he sees the scientists he has met as pioneers in an intergalactic future. Chief executive Ivan Kornev (Ivan Pereverzev) is now in charge of an orbiting space station, prepping the first manned trip to Mars. He’s even planning to crew it himself, along with pilot Somov (Valentin Chernyak), much to the concern of his wife, Korneva (Aleksandra Popova). However, preparations are disrupted by visitors, Verst (Gurgen Tonunts) and Klark (Konstantin Bartashevich), in their spaceship ‘Typhoon’. These renegade astronauts are secretly planning to use the space station as their own jumping-off point to the Red Planet.

When Pereverzev shares information about the station’s own expedition, Tonunts and Bartashevich take off at once, injuring Chernyak during their hurried takeoff. Pereverzev immediately assigns engineer Gordienko (Aleksandr Shvorin) as the pilot’s replacement, and they launch their craft in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, Tonunts has not allowed sufficient preparation time for their attempt and the ‘Typhoon’ goes off course, threatening to plunge into the sun. Pereverzev and Shvorin mount a successful rescue attempt, but it leaves their own craft with insufficient fuel to either reach Mars or return to the station.

In many ways, this is a typical Soviet science fiction picture of the period. Flush with the success of launching Sputnik 1 as the world’s first artificial orbital satellite, an unconnected series of films followed with a common theme: Soviet scientific genius. Obviously, it would only be a matter of a few years before cosmonauts walked among the stars. Although these films can be broadly regarded as propaganda, they’re also infused with a real sense of optimism about the future. This example also includes a surprising call for international co-operation in space exploration. Tonunts and Bartashevich are never explicitly identified as Americans, although their origins are heavily inferred by some brief library footage of ‘back home.’ However, they are never painted as out-and-out villains, more as misguided souls who are (somewhat ironically) place national pride above the good of humanity.

For the most part, the drama is predictable and relatively standard for this kind of enterprise. There’s the inevitable shower of 1950s meteorites, the dated technical discussions and a good portion of daring heroics and self-sacrifice. However, there are a few elements that tag it as a Soviet film. Perhaps most noticeable is the presence of Popova as head of Mission Control, but there are also the usual flat, business-like characters. There’s some expression of human emotion, but most of it is reserved for Tonunts and serves only to demonstrate his general instability and weakness.

Unfortunately, all readily available prints of the film are in poor condition, which does affect viewer appreciation of the SFX in particular. It’s a great pity because these are the most remarkable elements by far. Shvets’ technical designs are credibly functional and include the space station rendered as a rotating wheel, a concept first proposed by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903. It’s even been reported that director Stanley Kubrick took some inspiration from Shvets’ drawings when planning elements of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Ilyushin and Semyannikov bring these designs to life with some fine miniatures and optical compositions. One particular shot of Mars rising behind the astronauts on the asteroid where they are eventually marooned is particularly striking.

One person who took serious note of the SFX work was cost-conscious producer Roger Corman. Purchasing the American film rights, he handed the movie to one of his young filmmakers to create a version for homegrown audiences. The opening 7 minutes were cut (everything involving the daydreaming journalist), and new exposition was added. The competing Mars expeditions now represented ‘North Hemis’ and ‘South Hemis’, two new superpowers that had formed in the aftermath of the Atomic War of 1997. All the characters were dubbed into English, and the emphasis of Tonunts’ dialogue was changed to paint him as more of a traditional villain.

The only new footage was an insert of a clipboard which misidentified mission controller Popova as working for the wrong superpower and a brief sequence featuring some goofy monsters at the end. The creatures were included at Corman’s insistence. When interviewed for Corman’s biography ‘How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime’, the young filmmaker in question acknowledged that the monsters were supposed to be male and female. However, some commentators have pointed out their more specific resemblance to genitalia. It’s there if you look for it, although whether it was intentional is open to question. If you’re thinking of tracking down the film for that specific reason, go ahead, but you’ll likely find it a bit of an anti-climax (pun intended). The results hit theatres under the somewhat misleading title of ‘Battle Beyond the Sun’.

The young filmmaker responsible was Francis Ford Coppola, then at the very start of his glittering career. Interviewed for the book on Corman, Coppola doubted that he even saw the finished film, which is plausible considering the producer already had him shooting additional exteriors for ‘The Terror’ (1963) and working as dialogue supervisor on ‘The Haunted Palace’ (1963) around the same time. It is inferior to the Soviet original, thanks to the clunky opening exposition and the monster scene, but it’s not a complete hatchet job. The dubbing and voice acting are adequate, and there’s little variation from the basic plot. There’s no sign that it was supervised by the director who would go on to create some of the most highly-regarded films of the 20th Century, though.

Sadly, projects like ‘The Godfather’ (1972) and ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) were still far off when he received his first full directorial credit a year later. This was for ‘The Bellboy and the Playgirls’ (1962), a re-edit of black and white German sex-comedy ‘The Sin Began with Eva’ (1958). Coppola was hired to shoot additional colour scenes with Playboy Playmate June ‘The Bosom’ Wilkinson and friends. Yes, it’s just as terrible and quaint as it sounds, but we all have to start somewhere.

A relatively dry tale of space exploration, notably mainly for its technical aspects and the work of its SFX team.

Agente segreto 777 – Operazione Mistero/Secret Agent 777 (1965)

‘No, I never drink before eating… or being eaten.’

A medical doctor who became a secret agent comes out of retirement to investigate strange events centred around his old Professor. Enemy agents are interested in his revolutionary research into rejuvenation, which may be able to resurrect the newly deceased…

Italian Eurospy games with a twist of horror and science-fiction from director Enrico Bomba. This week’s (medically qualified) ‘Bond On A Budget’ is American actor Mark Damon, who takes on the usual groovy mix of ‘Guns, Girls and Gadgets’ and…er, the walking dead.

When an Armenian agent fries in his car at the bottom of a mountain road, it’s a matter of grave concern for FBI head honcho Zaref (Tiziano Cortini, billed as Lewis Jordan). The dead man has stolen microfilm in his pocket, and, although it’s mostly unreadable, it appears to contain details of the top secret research being carried out by Professor Keller (Walter Neng). Cortini decides that it’s a job for Bardin… Dr Bardin (Damon). The top agent has resigned to pursue a career water skiing around the playgrounds of the rich and idle with pretty Greek blondes, but the spymaster gets him back on board by appealing to a personal connection. Back in the day, Damon was one of the Professor’s students.

Arriving in Beirut, Damon finds evidence of a traitor at Leng’s lab and a tangle of romantic relationships at the core of the mystery. Leng’s number two, Dr Dexter (Stelio Candelli), seems to be having an affair with research associate Dr Serens (Seyna Seyn) while married to the old man’s daughter Louise (Mary Young). Meanwhile, she’s still holding a torch for originally intended spouse Karl Richards (Aldo Bufi Landi), who’s carrying on with nightclub singer Franca (Franca Ducci). When Landi succumbs to a heart problem, Leng and Candelli bring him back to life on the lab table, but an accidental explosion knocks them unconscious. Coming to his senses, confused and disorientated, the dead man grabs Leng’s jacket, which happens to contain all his research notes, and goes for a little walk…

Despite the potential for an interesting mashup of spy thriller with other genres, it’s sad to report that it’s Bomba’s film that could really benefit from a quick shot of Leng’s reanimation juice. Hamstrung by far too many static, talky scenes, the film never gets out of first gear and just wanders around a bit with its tie askew, much like the resurrected Landi. It’s a shame too because the opening has promise. Colourful animated credits dance across the screen to Marcello De Martino’s swaggering brassy theme, which is the perfect curtain-raiser to shots of 1960’s sun-drenched locations. Unfortunately, that’s about as good as it gets, with events soon exposing the paper-thin qualities of the script by Arpad DeRiso and Giovanni Scolaro.

What action there is comes with an underwhelming roadside dust-up between Damon and some faceless goons. Later on, something similar happens after our hero invites himself into the boudoir of the exotic Seyn to admire her lovely wallpaper and enjoy some amorous adventures on the couch. Oh, there is a very nice shot of the car falling down the mountainside at the beginning, so there is that. What Bomba doesn’t provide are any zombie hordes or robotic killers, just a sweaty, slightly bemused, middle-aged bloke walking about until he sits down in a cafe. The wandering dead, anyone?

What fills up most of the runtime is talk. There’s even a lengthy scene where Damon plays back the entirety of a hidden tape recording of Landi’s resurrection in the lab to the assembled suspects. This isn’t exactly new information for the audience because they witnessed the scene earlier in the picture. Casting Asian Seyn as a kind of half-hearted Dragon Lady is lazy stereotyping, and although Damon gives it his best shot, the baby-faced 32-year-old is burdened with an Elvis quiff and looks too young to be a hardened agent. Also, it’s interesting that Leng’s process apparently uses nuclear energy, given that his lab looks as sophisticated as the back room of an old radio repair shop. Even De Martino’s bright score throws in the towel pretty early on.

Director Bomba, credited here as Henry Bay, was a behind-the-scenes all-rounder who very occasionally appeared in front of the camera as well. Beginning his career in the early 1950s, he wore several hats on a limited number of projects over the next couple of decades: producer, production designer, writer and director, sometimes taking on more than one of these roles on the same film, sometimes not. As a director, his output was limited to half a dozen pictures, including loose sequel, ’Ticket To Die/Agente segreto 777 – Invito ad uccidere’ (1966), where Cortini graduated from spy boss to the role of Secret Agent 777. By far, his most notable film work was as one of the producers of the Orson Welles classic ‘The Trial/Le procès’ (1961), albeit uncredited. He performed the same role on the undistinguished international thriller ‘Last Train to Baalbeck/FBI operazione Baalbeck’ (1964), which starred Hollywood veteran George Sanders. He also worked on other film projects with actors Roger Moore, Lex Barker, Jean Marias and José Ferrer.

An exemplary exercise in treading water for 94 minutes.

The Terror with Cross-Eyes/Il terrore con gli occhi storti (1972)

‘You arrive like cheese on macaroni.’

Two men and a woman who want to become rich and famous decide to fake her murder and get arrested. Little do they know when they stage the crime scene in her flat that there’s already a corpse in the wardrobe…

Giallo spoof from veteran screen comedy director Steno. Italian funny men Enrico Montesano and Alighiero Noschese try to survive the mayhem.

Frustrated with his dead-end job at a local garage, aspiring actor and singer Mino Orlandi (Montesano) takes a job as a waiter at a party hosted by a famous film director. He catches the eye of wannabe starlet Mirella Trombetti (Isabella Biagini), but they are thrown out along with dilettante Giacinto Puddu (Noschese). Teaming up, the trio decide to make themselves famous by staging a murder at Trombetti’s home, not realising that her flatmate has already been murdered.

After calling the police, Trombetti leaves to visit her grandfather in the country while her fellow conspirators hang around, waiting to get arrested. However, when they see the police emerge from the building with a corpse, they go on the run, pursued by the bumbling Commissario Pigna (Francis Blanche). Realising that the only way to clear themselves is to find the killer, they begin their own investigation and find themselves up against some of the most influential figures in the underworld.

It’s always a sign that a popular film craze is past its peak when it starts getting spoofed. 1971 and 1972 were the years of the Giallo, with Italian producers and studios going all out for these convoluted murder mysteries with a touch of horror. Arguably, more than sixty such films made it to theatres during that period, most inspired by the international success of Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo’ (1970) and subsequent high-quality productions from directors like Lucio Fulci. Given the sheer quantity of projects involved, it was inevitable that the standard would be variable and the public would begin to lose interest.

Enjoying a considerably longer shelf life in theatres were the comedies of famous double act Franco and Ciccio, who ruled the Italian box office throughout the 1960s with their broad humour and knockabout shenanigans. However, by the early 1970s, their joint career was petering out, exacerbated by professional disagreements and personal animosity. Enter Enrico Montesano and Alighiero Noschese. Montesano had actually appeared in two of Franco and Ciccio’s films, ‘Nel sole’ (1967) and ‘L’oro del mondo’ (1968), so teaming him with Noschese as possible successors at the box office must have seemed like it was worth a shot. Their first effort, ‘Io non scappo… fuggo’ (1970), was followed quickly by three more films. However, by the time they were teamed with old-hand Steno on this project, Montesano had already begun returning to solo roles.

So, a comedy team who’d failed to catch on lampooning a type of movie synonymous with extravagant murders and borderline horror. What could possibly go wrong? Undoubtedly, the Italian and French producers put their faith in veteran director Steno, who had been making popular comedies for over a quarter of a century. He was also on script duty, along with Giulio Scarnicci and Raimondo Vianello (who was far better known for appearing in front of the camera). Sadly, their combined efforts are not very successful. There are some odd, inventive ideas here and there, such as the basic premise of faking a murder to gain media celebrity. As Montesano says at one point, ‘death is the best form of advertising’. This setup has some satirical possibilities, especially with the finale set in a TV station, but instead of exploring those, the film opts for lots of frantic running around and obvious, telegraphed gags.

The humour can best be summarised by quickly considering Montesano’s opening scenes. At work as a grease monkey in the garage, he squirts a customer in the face with foam, falls out of a car on the hoist and almost sucks his tongue out with a hand vacuum. Then he sings a song. Of course, when he works the party, he’s just as incompetent with a soda siphon, sitting on it at one point so other guests think he’s urinating. What also tries the patience is that our leading trio are almost constantly operating in a state of semi-hysteria. They talk over each other nineteen to the dozen, seemingly believing that the sheer volume can disguise the lack of wit and fresh comic ideas. However, a few moments elicit a smile, such as when Trombetti realises she’s being sprayed with animal blood instead of the red paint that she thought would ruin her dress. Her subsequent faint allows her to play the corpse much more effectively when her partners make a show of disposing of her body. But such moments are few and far between.

The title comes into play due to repeated close-ups of the killer’s cross-eyes, one of the few instances where Steno directly references the style of the Giallo. The criminal gang does include some familiar Giallo faces, though, with Umberto Raho prominent as an assassin and Gildo Di Marco and Luciano Rossi lurking in the background. But, fundamentally, this is little more than an undistinguished crime comedy.

Surprisingly enough, the film drew some flak from the press due to a joke riffing on the Manson Family murders of 1969. Critics were really not impressed by the lack of taste, and some commentators have gone far enough to suggest that this misstep is what caused the film’s descent into obscurity. Ironically, the gag itself is so lame that the filmmakers probably regarded it as little more than a throwaway. Is it tasteless? Yes, it is.

Things did not work out for the comedy team of Montesano and Noschese (the name doesn’t have much of a ring to it!). They joined up once more for ‘The Mighty Anselmo and His Squire/Il prode Anselmo e il suo scudiero’ (1972) before calling it quits. Bizarrely enough, Montesano is still in the news all these years later. Appearing in the Italian version of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in late 2022, he was disqualified for wearing a t-shirt in rehearsals that featured a historical fascist military emblem.

A largely forgotten and undistinguished crime comedy with little to recommend it.

Satanic Rhapsody/Rapsodia satanica (1915)

‘Locked up in the castle of illusion, dawn languished in the disconsolate autumn of the heart.’

An elderly Countess longs for the days of her carefree youth. The devil appears and grants her wish, provided she does not fall in love. She eagerly embraces high society’s party scene, but her meeting with two brothers proves to be fateful…

Another riff on a familiar tale as Lyda Borelli makes a deal with the devil under the watchful eye of director Nino Oxilia. This silent Italian production was based on poems by Fausto Maria Martini and runs just over 40 minutes, although some sources credit a length of just under an hour.

Social gatherings are a nightmare for the elderly Contessa Alba d’Oltrevita (Borelli) as she mourns the loss of her youth. So, it’s little surprise that she’s keen to accept an offer of rejuvenation from Mephisto (Ugo Bazzini) when he steps down out of a family portrait. There’s one caveat: the deal is off if she falls in love. This condition isn’t an issue as the fun-loving Borelli is only interested in having a good time, flirting with eligible men and leading them on before throwing them aside.

However, not all of her prospective beaus want to play her games, particularly brothers Tristano (Andrea Habay) and Sergio (Giovanni Cini). Both fall in love with her, and, aware of the fact, she finds flutters hither and thither through the party scene, playing one off against the other. However, the brothers have a strong bond, and instead of becoming rivals, Cini steps aside in favour of Habay. Then, Borelli rejects him, and the prospective suitor prepares to kill himself.

Although most famous as the Germanic legend of Faust, deals with the devil are rooted in the folklore of most every culture on Earth. The first historical record of the tale dates from the 6th Century when Theophilus of Adana supposedly sought Satan’s help to acquire a position as a bishop in the Byzantine Empire. The basics were already present and correct; the selfish ambition, the temptation, the repentance, the absolution and, finally, the payment of the ultimate price. The legend was an enormous favourite with early filmmakers, too, most notably French pioneer Georges Méliès, who shot multiple versions of the story.

Given the overfamiliarity of the tale, even by 1915, a new approach was clearly necessary. However, that’s what’s completely absent here. Instead of the doomed romance of Faust and Marguerite, we have the half-hearted canoodling of Borelli and Habay, as she floats through drawing rooms in shimmering dresses, and he broods heroically in corners, looking a bit miffed. Additionally, scenes of Borelli circulating amongst party guests exchanging (probably) bitchy small talk don’t really resonate in the silent medium.

The visual presentation needs to pick up the slack in the absence of an exciting story, but these aren’t particularly distinctive. Oxilia does deliver some variation in his shots and only lets the camera dwindle for a short time without an edit, but the work is still mainly undistinguished. There’s a little coloured stencilling here and there, mainly of wardrobe items, with Bazzini draped in a dark scarlet robe and Borelli favouring the odd touch of a watery green or gold.

The performances are very much of their time, although the cast avoids some of the worst excesses and over-emoting of the era. The best moment of the film is when Bazzini peeks covertly through the leaves of some houseplants, his face dominated by his glaring eyes, Spock brows and a Tory smile. But the real problem is the thin plot, which could easily be condensed into one of those early, short ‘trick films’ based on the tale.

The film’s release was delayed for two years, which explains why some sources list it with a 1917 date. The delay was not due to concern about the content or the ongoing war in Europe but instead its musical score. In a major coup, the producers had hired prestigious composer Pietro Mascagni to provide it, but the work took him two years to complete. It’s a mark of the high regard in which he was held that the producers were prepared to wait for that length of time rather than release the film without it.

Oxilia was initially known as a playwright whose 1909 work ‘Good-bye Youth’, written in collaboration with Sandro Camasio, was filmed on several occasions. He began directing films in 1913 and became known for ‘diva films’, a short-lived trend of projects designed to showcase leading actresses in tragic, emotional roles. Given that Borelli is rarely offscreen here, it’s fair to assume this was one such film. Sadly, a mere eight weeks after its release, Oxilla was killed in action in the mountains of North-East Italy, another casualty of the ‘War to End Wars.’

A drab enterprise, highly derivative and of little interest to any bar silent film enthusiasts.

Mystery in the Bermuda Triangle/Misterio en las Bermudas (1979)

‘The presence of those wrestlers upsets me.’

Spies target a Princess when she arrives to sign an important treaty with foreign allies in Bermuda. Fortunately, three famous wrestlers are currently on tour in the country.

Late period adventure for legendary luchador Santo and his grappling chums, Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras. Gilberto Martínez Solares co-writes and directs a strange brew of espionage, undersea scientists and a karate-kicking Princess.

A strange storm awakens fisherman Anselmo (popular singer Humberto Cabañas), and a plane disappears over the sea. The following day, his young friend, Ramiro (Ernesto Solís), claims to have heard nothing unusual, but Cabañas is troubled by a memory from his past. Fishing off the pier, Solís hooks what remains of a familiar silver mask out of the ocean, prompting Cabañas to remember when three famous wrestlers arrived on the island. They saved his life when he was lost at sea in a similar storm, but far more happened, and Cabañas begins to tell his friend the story.

Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras come to town for a triple tag team contest against the Killer Jackals of the Ring. They dispose of their opponents fairly easily as the sinister Goddard (Carlos Suárez) watches in the crowd at ringside. Afterwards, the Secret Service recruits the trio for a top secret mission. Princess Soreida of Irania (Gaynor Kote) is due soon, and she’s supposed to sign an important treaty with a friendly power on behalf of her country. However, rumour has it that enemy agents will do anything to stop her from putting pen to paper.

Out on a short shopping expedition, Máscaras is ambushed by three men, and one of them knocks him out from behind. Waking up, he finds himself in the hands of lovely passerby Deborah (Sandra Duarte), who has taken him back to her bachelorette apartment for some personal attention. Máscaras is quite smitten, and, fortunately, she has two friends, Rina (Silvia Manríquez) and Tania (Rebeca Sexton). However, when Manríquez gets Santo alone, she slips a hypnotic drug into his apéritif, and he spills his guts about the mission. Yes, the girls are working for evil spymaster Suárez.

However, Manríquez has something else going on. She’s really looking for her father, whose plane disappeared without a trace some months earlier. While our three heroes are fighting Suárez’s thugs, two men in silver jumpsuits and headbands materialise out of thin air and carry Manríquez away. Santo and the boys set out in hot pursuit, but meanwhile, Suárez decides to give Princess Kote his personal attention, kidnap having been abandoned in favour of assassination.

By the end of the 1970s, the masked wrestler movie was a genre running on fumes. The fact that it had lasted two decades was a tribute to the popularity of its stars, both inside the ring and out. Low production values, recycled plots, and threadbare FX were starting to look their age, especially given the high-budget science fiction spectaculars now coming out of Hollywood. Although this adventure was not a marked decline in quality, it proved the last screen hurrah for Blue Demon. Both Santo and Máscaras plugged on with a few more appearances on the big screen (and Máscaras would return in 2007), but the writing for the Mexican wrestling movie was on the wall.

This last outing for our Three Amigos is your basic kidnap-espionage plot with some science fiction elements crudely stapled on. There is a plot thread about mysterious disappearances and strange weather phenomena, but it’s very tangential to the main action, which focuses on spy chief Suárez and his gang trying to stop Kote from signing that pesky treaty. The film was shot in Port Isobel, Texas and the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ isn’t even mentioned by name. Still, a strange-looking shower head-cum-periscope does emerge from the water and trigger sudden attacks of stormy stock footage, and Manríquez’s character does link the two disparate storylines to some extent.

The ‘Triangle’ element turns out to be little more than a minor riff on the infamous ‘Latitude Zero’ (1969) but without the budget to reach those summits of incredible absurdity. It may have been added late on in production after the son of frequent series collaborator René Cardona scored an international hit with ‘The Bermuda Triangle’ (1978) (well, it played in the UK, at least because I saw it!). Oscar-winning film director John Huston starred in that odd docu-drama, but then he took any acting gig to help finance his own films.

So, in the best tradition of the series, things do feel disjointed from time to time. Santo was in his early sixties by this point, so most of the significant fighting is left to Blue and Máscaras, the latter being considerably younger than both his compatriots. However, veteran director Solares presents one of the series’ finest sequences in the square ring. The heroic trio fight their tag team contest in front of a packed hall of screaming fans. The bout was probably staged for the film because Solares gets his camera right into the thick of the action. This approach really sells the physicality of the combat and was far removed from the fixed and distant coverage such scenes usually received in Mexican wrestling films.

Series perennial Suárez gets a rare chance to be the chief bad guy, and his confrontation with Kote is another highlight. That’s because the Princess learnt martial arts as a child from wise old sensei El Santo. Because, of course, she did. There’s no biographical information on Kote, and she has no other screen credits, but given the skills she displays in the fight and a karate exhibition, it’s highly likely that she was the real deal.

The mystery surrounding the Bermuda Triangle was a big deal in the 1970s, along with the Loch Ness Monster and the belief in ancient astronauts. The last two are still hanging on, although struggling on the ropes a bit, but the Triangle has almost faded from the collective consciousness. Sadly, its intricate framework of time warps, portals, UFOs, and technology left over from Atlantis was put finally to rest by the invention of the GPS. Still, it sold a lot of airport paperbacks back in the day.

Aside from the adventure of Santo and his wingmen, several other filmmakers flirted with the Triangle as a story concept, if mainly for the small screen. The hopelessly soggy ‘Beyond the Bermuda Triangle’ (1975) starred one-time Hollywood star Fred MacMurray and the equally poor ‘Satan’s Triangle’ (1975) had Doug McClure, although the hilarious ending makes it well worth catching. There was also the fondly remembered network show ‘Fantastic Journey’ from 1977, which only lasted ten episodes, despite the presence of Roddy McDowell and Jared Martin. On the big screen, the Triangle even got a namecheck in the all-star disaster movie ‘Airport’ 77′ (1977), and it still crops up as a story device from time to time in newer films, just not ones that most of us have ever heard of. If you need proof of how thoroughly debunked the mystery has been, then the fact that the History Channel is running an investigative series on it should convince you.

More science fiction and less kidnapping would have helped, but it’s good to see everyone’s favourite luchadors take to the screen for one last ride together.

Kill the Poker Player/Hai sbagliato… dovevi uccidermi subito!/Creeping Death (1972)

‘I haven’t seen a snake of such dimensions such Mississippi.’

An insurance investigator arrives in a frontier town on the track of a man involved in a bank robbery two years earlier. Soon after his arrival, people start dying as a mysterious killer gets to work…

Unusual mashup of the Giallo and the Spaghetti Western from co-writer and director Mario Bianchi. American leading man Robert Woods hits the trail again with Frank Braña and Nieves Navarro along for the ride.

English investigator Jack Pinkerton (Woods) arrives in the small Western town of Redstone. As a representative of Lloyds of London, he’s looking for the third man who walked away with the spoils from a bank heist two years before, leaving his two compatriots dead of snake bites. His first stop is with Sheriff Lewis Burton (Braña), but the lawman is unimpressed with his credentials. Similarly, saloon barmaid Kate (Nieves Navarro) gives him a frosty welcome. Woods offers a very generous reward for anyone who’ll help him identify his quarry, and local rancher Clinton (Ivano Staccioli) and saloon owner Karl (Carlo Gaddi) both show an interest.

However, Woods finds himself unpopular in general and has to defend himself with his fists on several occasions and dodge the bullets of a mysterious assassin. Local oddball Dr Torres (Ernesto Colli) is also experimenting with deadly snakes, which have a way of getting loose. The bodies start to pile up, and Woods realises his target will stop at nothing to retain his freedom.

Despite the popularity and proliferation of both the Giallo and the Spaghetti Western at the time of production, very few attempts were made to combine the two. Lorenzo Gicca Palli’s satirical effort, ‘The Price of Death/Il venditore di morte (1971), demonstrated some of the difficulties involved. Bianchi mostly plays it straight, but the results aren’t any better.

The film’s main virtues lie in its cast. Woods was a reliable leading man with many miles in the saddle since his first leading role fronting Alfonso Balcázar’s routine ‘Five Thousand Dollars on One Ace/Pistoleros de Arizona’ (1965). So he knows the ropes and has the moves. The scheming Kate is a role firmly in the wheelhouse of Giallo vet Navarro, although she’s woefully underused. Experienced character players Staccioli and Gaddi fit seamlessly into their roles as prime suspects, and Colli’s eccentric snake wrangler is also a good addition.

However, not even a strong cast can make something out of nothing, and the script by Bianchi, Paola Bianchini and Luis G. de Blain has little to offer. Once Woods arrives in town and the main setup is established, the mystery never develops in an exciting or coherent way. Instead, the story disintegrates into little more than a series of violent encounters where various lackeys and sidemen try to beat him up. Unfortunately, the punch-ups are unimaginative, poorly executed, and have no specific consequences. They often feel inserted just for the sake of killing some runtime.

It’s a pity because the pre-credit scene is a strong one. The film opens with the two-year-old bank robbery and the unseen third man gunning down the manager and his staff with a pistol fitted with a silencer. He then catches up with his colleagues in the desert and uses snakes to kill them. These events are all accomplished without dialogue or music, just the sound of the gunshots, galloping hooves and the wind out in the desert. It’s very effective; even the snakes aren’t all that convincing, and silencers weren’t available until 1902. To be fair, though, the film doesn’t specify exactly when the action is taking place.

Unfortunately, the credits kick in accompanied by jaunty, inappropriate soft rock, and everything goes downhill from there. Some of the music cues are baffling, and I can only hope for the sake of credited composer Carlo Savina that they were added by the American distributors. Scoring a midpoint fight sequence with carnival clown music is just weird. At times, the film does seem to have its tongue in its cheek, but Bianchi never commits to this as a comedy. Woods is supposed to represent Lloyds of London, and hence an Englishman, but the efforts to play his ‘fish out of water’ status for laughs feel very half-hearted. It’s no surprise to find out later on that he’s flying under false colours anyway.

A few interesting ideas are scattered here and there, principally focused on the snakes. Colli’s oddball scientist (he wears a white lab coat in the Old West!) is milking the reptiles to create an anti-venom. Although such medication wasn’t widely available in the US until the late 1920s, it was successfully developed in France before the turn of the century. Someone doing their own research into the possibilities at this time is just about plausible. Much more importantly, it provides a valid excuse to have the reptiles on hand and available to be utilised as a murder weapon. This method comes into play at the climax, but, unfortunately, the scene is clumsily staged, probably due to the practical difficulties involved.

Another issue is that the film has lost some running time in its journey from the continent to American shores, perhaps as much as fifteen minutes. Trimming would explain why some sequences are very short, and the lack of establishing shots in places. This unfortunate combination makes for some very abrupt transitions between scenes, giving the film a rushed and fractured feel. The English language dub track also does the film few favours. The original release cut might leave a more favourable impression.

This was Bianchi’s second feature after Spaghetti Western ‘The Masked Thief/In nome del padre, del figlio e della Colt’ (1971). He diversified into sex comedies as the appeal of the Old West began to fade with audiences, and by the end of the decade, he was making thrillers about organised crime. He moved into horror with the poorly-regarded ‘Satan’s Baby Doll/La bimba di Satana’ (1982) and then into the adult video market as Martin White. Accounts vary as to the extent of his contribution, but he also worked on the TV movie ‘Sodoma’s Ghost’ (1988) after dissatisfied director Lucio Fulci walked off the set. Two more mainstream projects followed before he returned to the adult arena, where he worked until 2001.

A passable way to kill 90 minutes on a wet afternoon if you’ve nothing better to do.

Escape from New York (1981)

‘I’m ready to kick your ass into the next world, war hero.’

In the last years of the 20th Century, Manhattan Island has become a fortified maximum security prison, leaving the inmates entirely to their own devices. Terrorists hijack Air Force One and force the plane down in the city, and a notorious criminal is charged with rescuing the President…

High-concept dystopian action thriller from director John Carpenter that handed actor Kurt Russell the role of a lifetime. A fine supporting cast and top-notch technical support helped to fashion one of the most influential films of the 1980s.

It’s the eve of a vital peace conference, and the U.S. President (Donald Pleasance) is en route with information on a cassette tape that may avert a global war. But his plane crashes in the middle of New York, a city under the control of the most dangerous criminals in America. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) takes a fleet of choppers in to retrieve him, but Pleasance has already fallen into the hands of a top crime boss, the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).

Forced to back off, Van Cleef conceives a desperate plan; send in career criminal Snake Plissken (Russell) to get Pleasance and the tape. The peace conference is almost over, so Russell has less than 24 hours to complete his mission, his cooperation assured by the two explosive capsules Van Cleef has injected into his neck.

Much imitated but never bettered, Carpenter’s smash-and-grab chase through an alternative anti-future still has the smarts and power to keep an audience on the hook. The world-building is efficient and persuasive, and like the narrative, it’s kept reasonably simple, details of the global situation scattered here and there through the story like breadcrumbs, providing just enough information to convey the stakes involved but not getting in the way of what is, at its heart, a simple story. We have a man on a mission behind enemy lines, cut off from outside help and hopelessly outnumbered.

It’s a familiar enough scenario, but distinct elements set it apart. First comes the setting; a nightmarish cityscape of rubbish-filled streets, crumbling buildings, and urban decay. Crucially, although the story takes place over the best part of a day, Carpenter never allows daylight to intrude. The apocalypse has already happened here, even though the outside world is still hanging on by its fingernails. Cinematographer Dean Cundey and Production Designer Joe Alves combine their skills to create a coherent world that seems all too credible. Eccentric genius Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) may be refining petrol in his front room with the aid of a small oil derrick, but it’s just crazy enough to seem perfectly feasible. Events also play out to a superb electronic score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth, which helps create the unique ambience that sets the film apart as much as the dynamic, visceral action and its iconic anti-hero.

Russell’s performance as Plissken is note-perfect. The snarling, almost bored line delivery, the leather jacket and eye patch, the razor stubble and burning cigarette, he’s the whole package; a Man with No Name for the pulp sci-fi universe. Crucially, he’s not a pumped-up body-builder throwing out corny one-liners while he effortlessly offs the bad guys. Instead, he’s a man who makes mistakes, gets seriously hurt and is forced to constantly improvise rather than being permanently one wisecrack ahead of his enemies. The film is dark and cynical enough that we genuinely don’t know if he will make it out before his head explodes, and that keeps the audience with him every step of the way.

Originally, the film included an opening scene where Russell is caught while pulling a bank heist with partner Taylor (Joe Unger). Carpenter cut this for pace, preferring that the audience be thrown straight into the main story. That’s a valid reason, of course, but there’s a far better one; during the sequence, Russell goes back for Unger in a futile effort to save him from the cops. Retaining this would have undermined the mystique established in his scenes with Van Cleef and confirmed by the constant references to his rumoured death. Yes, his humanity does peep through a tiny bit on occasion in the finished film, but that’s much later in the proceedings and feels earned by his interactions with the other characters. In the beginning, the audience thinks that Plissken is capable of anything.

These other characters are vividly brought to life by an excellent ensemble headed by the legendary Ernest Borgnine. The interplay between his amiable Cabbie, Stanton’s unscrupulous, fast-talking Brain and Adrienne Barbeau’s Maggie feels completely natural and unforced, a testament to three professionals who make it look so effortless. Englishman Pleasance may seem a strange choice for an American President, but, again, he’s an absolute joy to watch, by turns pompous, cowardly and borderline psychotic. Van Cleef is also riveting as the police chief who may be enjoying his job a little too much, and his scenes with Russell are a masterclass in economy and understatement.

There’s also a lot of attention given to the more minor roles, with actors given unusual signature looks, thanks to excellent work by the costume and makeup departments. Frank Doubleday’s hissing henchman Romero is the most obvious example, but the same care and attention are present with characters that appear only briefly. And who can forget wrestler Ox Baker, whose startling appearance and physique give Russell a truly uncomfortable few minutes in the arena towards the end of the picture?

The film was a box office hit on release, making four times its original budget, but it proved to have an even greater afterlife on home media, cementing its reputation as a cult classic. What isn’t obvious watching the film, even all these years later, is what a small production budget Carpenter had at his disposal, a scant 6 million dollars. It’s a testament to the creativity and professionalism of the entire production crew that they could create so much with so little. In particular, some of the miniature work is stunning.

Some of the tech employed by Van Cleef’s police force looks hopelessly outdated now, but it works because it complements the grungy, rundown aesthetic of the city. State-of-the-art computer animation and images would look too clean and out of place, as would smartphones and CGI. This is a real world with a solid, practical existence, not the smooth perfection of a virtual environment created on a laptop. Similarly, we may not see much of the world outside the prison, but its rough edges help establish that it’s teetering on the brink, emphasising the last-gasp, Hail Mary nature of Russell’s mission.

One place where Carpenter’s film really hit home was with European audiences and filmmakers. The explosion of the home video in the early 1980s opened up a brand new market for the Italian Film Industry in particular, which had been in the doldrums for a few years after the golden age of Spaghetti Westerns, Mafia thrillers, Giallo, Eurospys and Peplum. Carpenter’s film and George Miller’s ‘Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior’ (1982) provided a template for all kinds of cut-price post-apocalyptic action that swamped high street rental stores over the next few years.

Carpenter began his filmmaking career with the science-fiction project, ‘Dark Star’ (1974), created with Dan O’Bannon, who would later write the screenplay for ‘Alien’ (1979), among several other notable films. Although it would be a few years before the film attained the status of a cult classic, it opened doors for him, and slasher ‘Halloween’ (1978) followed, becoming one of the most financially successful independent films of all time and birthing a franchise that is still ongoing at the time of writing (and may never end!) His subsequent career may be inconsistent in terms of financial success, but all his films crackle with creativity and ideas. Ironically, one of his failings is that broadly speaking, the more budget he’s been given, the less successful the project. Carpenter and Russell collaborated on the sequel ‘Escape from L.A.’ (1996), which had a budget almost ten times that of the original but only made back just over half its costs.

A classic and a benchmark of action and science-fiction cinema. Many followed; only a tiny handful got anywhere near it.

Cabiria (1914)

‘My beloved dove, climb unto the cart of Tanit and carry to her the sadness of my secret heart.’

A young child is caught up in the war between Rome and Carthage and, as the years pass, her fate is inextricably linked to the outcome of the brutal conflict…

Cinema’s first epic drama, produced and directed by Giovanni Pastrone. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Gabriele D’Annunzio, and between them, they created the character of strongman Maciste, who became more popular in Italy than the mythical Hercules.

When Mount Etna erupts, the young child Cabiria (Carolina Catena) is separated from her wealthy Roman parents and flees in the care of her nurse, Croessa (Teresa Marangoni). They are captured by Phoenician pirates and sold as slaves in Carthage to the High Priest of the Temple, Karthalo (Dante Testa). He plans to sacrifice the child to the god Moloch, but Marangoni persuades a Roman spy, Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato) and his servant Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) to mount a rescue.

The heroes snatch the girl but are pursued and forced to separate. Mozzato jumps into the sea, but Pagano is captured after managing to hand the child to noblewoman Sophonisba (Italia Almirante-Manzini). More than a decade passes as Mozzato fights for Rome in the war while Pagano toils in the dungeons in Carthage. Back in the city as a spy, Mozzato rescues his old friend and discovers that Cabiria (now played by Lidia Quaranta) lives under the name Elissa as Almirante-Manzini’s favourite slave.

When considering a groundbreaking film such as this, it’s tempting to refer constantly to the year of its production and cast all its achievements in that context. Of course, this is a perfectly valid approach because Pastrone broke the mould in many ways with his film, and it’s important to salute the ambition, vision and financial commitment involved in such an epic enterprise. After all, it was less than ten years since the dawn of film exhibition as mass entertainment. There had been some precedent for similar productions in Italy. Arturo Ambrosio and Luigi Maggi had given audiences spectacle with ‘The Last Days of Pompeii/Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei’ (1908), but only 17 minutes of it. Subsequent spectacle ‘L’Inferno (1911) had clocked in at a whopping 71 minutes, but that had been a series of sets pieces rather than an ongoing narrative.

The trust Pastrone exhibits in his audience probably raised a few eyebrows at the time. Not only did he count on them sitting still for over two and a half hours, but he also presented them with a narrative structure that featured several slowly developing story threads happening concurrently. This is commonplace today, of course, but it’s probably something that the movie-goers of the time had not encountered too often. Mozzato’s Roman patrician provides the glue that sticks everything together, rather than the title character Cabiria as you might expect. He first saves her as a young child, then fights in the siege of Syracuse, meets her parents later on by chance, and is there as a prisoner in Citra, where events conclude. Conversely, Cabiria is little more than a plot device, almost a McGuffin, being passed from hand to hand. The only positive action she takes is when she offers the captured prisoners water in Citra toward the end of the film.

The human story does take second place to the spectacle, and this is where Pastrone and his technicians really shine. A handful of composite shots are achieved with fine optical trickery, but those aside, the scale is achieved with physical sets and hundreds of extras. The temple of Moloch toward the start of the film is imposing, with its giant head that opens to receive human sacrifices with a belch of flame. There is no question that these images directly influenced director Fritz Lang when he realised certain scenes in his epic ‘Metropolis’ (1927) made over a decade later.

However, the film’s influence was felt far earlier than that. Pastrone also included some slow tracking shots, utilising an invention he called ‘the carriage’. Other filmmakers were experimenting with what became known as the camera dolly at the time, but it was this film that popularised the technique. For years afterwards, such shots were known in the industry as ‘Cabiria movements.’ Apparently, American director D W Griffith was so impressed by Pastrone’s film that he took ‘The Mother and the Law’, which he was shooting at the time and expanded it into the episodic ‘Intolerance’ (1916), which became one of his most celebrated works.

Pastrone is also quite faithful to the accepted historical record of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. There is a sequence of Hannibal crossing the Alps, and although it’s brief, it’s shot on location, and elephants are included, even if they are the wrong type. Numidian King Masinissa’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ romance with Sophonisba does appear to have some basis in fact; however, Archimedes’ use of giant mirrors and a ‘heat ray’ to burn the Roman fleet during the Siege of Syracuse is still hotly debated by historians today. It’s obvious why Pastrone chose to include it in his film, though, as it’s quite a sequence.

Similarly, the scene where Mozzato reenters Carthage by scaling the wall is also striking. The climb is accomplished with the aid of legionaries, who form a four-tier human pyramid with the assistance of their shields. Almirante-Manzini also deserves some credit for performing some of her scenes with a live leopard. The cast members had cause to be grateful that sound film hadn’t been invented yet. As it appears at some points in the inter-titles, the dialogue is so flowery and overcooked that it would have given them terminal indigestion. Trying to deliver those lines with a straight face would have been the greatest acting challenge of their lives.

Another consequence of the production was the introduction of the character of Maciste, who captured the public imagination to such an extent that a series of 27 films followed starring Pagano as the character. He was also revived as a rival to Hercules and his fellow musclemen during the 1960s and was easily the most featured character during that brief craze, leading another 25 films. Pastrone has him turning a millstone in a dungeon for over ten years here, unwittingly condemning every Peplum muscleman that followed in his wake to be chained to ‘The Big Wheel’ for similar punishment.

One element of the character, as shown in this film, can’t pass without comment. Arguably, Maciste is the film’s main hero, which is a distinct positive given that Pagano has been ‘blacked up’ for the role. Obviously, this decision might not sit too well with some modern audience members. There is a long tradition of ‘blackface’ in Italian arts and culture going back to the likes of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, which premiered in 1871. It’s still a point of contention in the opera world today.

After initially being involved with music, Pastrone joined the movie business as head of the Itala Film Company in 1909. As well as directing almost a dozen short subjects, some on historical themes, he produced, wrote scripts, and worked on technical innovations. After the success of his Roman epic, he went on to deliver several other notable projects under the name Piero Fosco, including ‘Il fuoco (la favilla – la vampa – la cenere)’ (1916), ‘Tigre reale’ (1916) and a couple of the ‘Maciste’ series, with Pagano. When the company merged with another in 1919, he was forced to abandon two films he had in development, and he became disillusioned with the film business. He directed one more film in 1923 and passed away in 1959.

Historically important and an essential watch for lovers of silent cinema.

Code Name: Jaguar/Corrida pour un espion (1965)

‘Are you the Americans about whom we have just received a phone call?’

The security at a naval base in Spain has been compromised. A top investigator is dispatched to plug the leak. Discovering how it keeps happening is a priority, of course, but he also needs to uncover the traitor in their midst…

This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is American leading man Ray Danton, who walked in 007’s shoes on more than one occasion in the 1960s. This time around, he’s spying in the company of some familiar faces in co-writer and director Maurice Labro’s take on ‘Guns, Girls and Gadgets.’

There’s a slight security problem at a US Naval Base just outside Alicante on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. News of the unscheduled surfacing of a submarine in coastal waters has got back to the Russians via film of the event, seemingly shot on the base. Enter super agent Jeff Larson (Danton), who arrives in town to find the obligatory mysterious woman in his hotel room. For a change, he’s the one in the shower while she’s sorting through his luggage. After a quick bout of energetic wrestling, a short password exchange reveals that Pilar Perez (Pascale Petit) is his local contact. Relations are predictably frosty at first, especially with Danton hitting on anything in a skirt, but there are no prizes for guessing where that story thread is going.

The investigation begins with Danton, aided by old friend Bob Stuart (Roger Hanin), who’s been relegated to a desk job due to a leg injury sustained in the line of duty. Danton’s first port of call is the Flamingo nightclub in town because manager Lina Calderon (Helga Sommerfeld) just happened to be taking a boat trip when the sub surfaced. It looks like a respectable enough place, apart from the brutish Karl (Horst Frank), who’s hanging out at the bar with ‘Enemy Spy’ tattooed on his forehead. Danton becomes suspicious that a Polish trawler anchored in the bay might be the transmitting station the Reds are using to send their intelligence to Moscow, so he decides that a little midnight swim is in order.

Bright and breezy Eurospy project boasting decent production values, which allow director Labro to mount some action sequences that are a little more ambitious than many of his cash-strapped colleagues of the time. There’s a well-staged face-off in a quarry with stint driving and fisticuffs (everyone seems to have left their firearms at home), a chase and fight across sun-drenched Spanish rooftops and some shooting on a real ship. None of it is remotely startling, but it does help to give a measure of scale to the proceedings and at least convey a sense that the stakes are high.

The film also has an interesting tone. At first, events are faintly ridiculous, with Danton wisecracking his way through most of them, juggling beautiful women with one hand and taking out bad guys with the other. But as the story unfolds and the body count rises, he begins to exhibit more of a cold, ruthless streak. It’s a subtle transition, and director Labro handles it well; it’s only when Danton starts torturing a prisoner that it’s obvious how dark things have become. Of course, events are never allowed to proceed too far in that direction, but it does help invest in the drama of the final act.

Unfortunately, Frank apart, villains Simon Walter (Charles Regnier) and Vassili Golochenko (Carl Lange) are colourless at best, simply vaguely robotic, professional enemy agents going about their everyday espionage business. Things are a little more interesting on Team Danton. Navy Captain Parker (Wolfgang Preiss) starts to unbend and step outside his comfort zone as he associates with maverick Danton and incurs the displeasure of ‘by the book’ commanding officer Luis Moreno (Conrado San Martín). Petit is as underused as most female agents of the time, but it’s still a lively presence, and her romantic banter with Danton is effective, if very predictable.

Regarding gadgets, there are the usual bugs and communication devices, and the Russians have a brainwashing doohickey that shines coloured lights in Danton’s eyes. They’ve also been spying on the base using four cameras placed around the perimeter in small concrete bunkers booby-trapped with mines. Why no one ever noticed these before Danton hit town is a bit of a mystery, but I guess he’s the security expert, right? Also, rather than call in the bomb disposal unit, everyone’s happy for Danton to take on defusing duties, which he accomplishes by taking off his shirt and while smoking a cigarette.

This was the first of Danton’s spy games, but his subsequent appearances in the genre were in projects of declining quality. ‘New York Calling Superdragon/Secret Agent Super Dragon/New York chiama Superdrago’ (1966) was just about passable, but ‘Lucky the Inscrutable/Lucky, el intrépido/Agente Speciale L.K.’ (1967) was merely a testament to a rapidly vanishing budget. In later years, he got to reboot James Coburn’s superspy Derek Flint for television, but the wretched ‘Our Man Flint: Dead On Target’ (1976) should probably have been called ‘Dead On Arrival.’ Hanin had already starred in his own short-lived secret agent series as ‘Le Tigre’ (‘The Tiger’) and was almost a fixture in Eurospy games of the 1960s. Projects included ‘Our Man in Baghdad/Il gioco delle spie’ (1966), ‘An Ace and Four Queens/Carré de dames pour un as’ (1966) and ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse’ (1967) and many others.

Other members of the cast were no strangers to espionage, either, with Frank a reliable sinister presence in Jerry Cotton adventure ‘3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan/Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu’ (1966), ‘Countdown To Doomsday/Fünf for 12 in Caracas/Cita con la muerte en Caracas’ (1966) and ‘Dead Run/Geheimnisse in goldenen Nylons’ (1967), although he usually favoured similar roles in crime pictures and Westerns. Sommerfeld also appeared in ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse’ (1967) with Hanin and starred in ‘Man on the Spying Trapeze/Anónima de asesinos’ (1966). San Martin played ‘Bond Villain’ in the generic ‘Target Goldseven/Tecnica di una spia’ (1966), and Preiss did his duty in ‘To Skin A Spy/Avec la peau des autres’ (1966) and ‘Dead Run/Geheimnisse in goldenen Nylons’ (1967) along with Frank.

Nothing special, but a cut above most of its competitors in the decade’s Eurospy game.

Devil in the Brain/Il diavolo nel cervello (1972)

‘You’d be happy to sleep with these dolls instead of your husband.’

A young man tries to see an old sweetheart, but she’s kept locked away by her family. He finds out that her husband died in suspicious circumstances, and the incident has precipitated a mental collapse…

Serious-minded Giallo thriller from director Sergio Sollima, who also co-authored the story, adapted into a screenplay by Suso Cecchi D’Amico. American actor Keir Dullea stars, along with Stefania Sandrelli and veteran Micheline Presle.

Returning to Milan from working in South America, Oscar Minno (Dullea) sees old flame Sandra Garces (Sandrelli) pass by in the back of a car. He follows, only to find the gate barred at the palatial estate of Countess Claudia De Blanc (Presle). He’d thought that he and Sandrelli were meant to be back in the day, but she’d married Presle’s son, his best friend, Fabrizio Garces (Maurice Ronet). Taking a room at a nearby boarding house, he watches the grounds and takes the opportunity to talk to Sandrelli through the fence. She acts strangely and doesn’t remember him, the result of a complete mental collapse after finding her husband shot dead and their young son, Ricky (Renato Cestiè), in the room with the gun in his hands.

Using friend Doctor Emilio Bontempi (Tino Buazzelli) for leverage, Dullea persuades Presle to let him see Sandrelli, and he becomes a regular visitor to their home. Determined to restore Sandrelli’s sanity, he starts to investigate with Buazzelli’s help. Returning from convent school, Cestiè becomes the focus of their enquiries. He exhibited disturbing behaviour before Ronet’s death, but could the young boy be a killer? Or is something else happening?

This is a resolutely low-key Giallo from co-writer and director Sollima, who jettisons a rising body count and elaborate, stylish murder scenes in favour of a solid mystery, which attempts to keep the audience on its toes. The crucial question is, of course, what happened to Ronet. How did he end up bleeding out on the carpet, and in what way is his death still affecting his family in the present. The official story is that he shot himself cleaning his gun, but Dullea doesn’t buy that, and no one else seems very convinced.

Sollima favours an unusual editing style with the film, flashing back to past events with no obvious transitions or visual cues. This technique throws the viewer off balance for the few seconds it takes to catch up. It isn’t used to the extent that it complicates the narrative, but just enough to cast doubt on the reality being presented and the testimony of the witnesses concerned. Even so, the facts of the matter seem to be clear. Cestiè’s increasingly violent behaviour before the fatal incident seemingly provides confirmation. His actions included poisoning the family dog and killing a sleeping vagrant with a bow and arrow. That was an accident, allegedly, but his father hid the body anyway. When Dullea and Buazzelli attempt to retrieve it from a flooded trench, all they can find is a mannequin. Curious and curiouser.

Unfortunately, in the debit column, there is a running time of 106 minutes, and there’s not an awful lot of incident to take us through it. The mystery engages, but it’s heavy with chat, and it sometimes feels as if the story is spinning its wheels rather than getting anywhere. Buazzelli and Dullea repeatedly speculate without talking to everyone involved and then seem surprised when new testimony derails their latest theory. Sherlock Holmes would not be impressed. Also, the final resolution, although surprising and well-executed, does leave a couple of story threads dangling.

The performances from the excellent cast are very appealing, though. Sandrelli is particularly good as the child-woman, a winning combination of wide-eyed simplicity and unselfconscious beauty. Buazzelli also makes much out of his supporting role, making a quietly effective soundboard and conscience for the more demonstrative Dellea. Despite her condition, the youngster is getting in pretty deep with his ex-love, and the doctor calls him on it, suggesting that her needs should be prioritised over his feelings. After all, there’s a weirdly compelling moment where she strips naked, and, for a second, Dullea finds himself tempted before his better angels prevail.

Cestiè is also quite chilling as the disturbed Ricky, channelling devil child Damien Thornhill four years before Harvey Stephens brought him to life in ‘The Omen’ (1976). Although his neuroses aren’t closely examined, his relationship with his mother, Sandrelli, seems of concern. The suggestion is that this strange intimacy has driven a wedge between his parents. Presle also gives good value as the older Countess, determined to paper over the cracks of her wildly dysfunctional family. What older skeletons might be hiding in the family’s closets are never revealed, but her behaviour’s enough to confirm that their cupboards are probably crammed with old bones of one sort or another.

Technically, the film is well-presented, with Sollima favouring an absence of self-conscious camera moves or flourishes, content for his editing to do the work and the drama to play out on its own merits. The darker themes of sex and family are there for anyone who wants to dig deeper, but the film can be enjoyed simply as a twisted thriller if required. The drama also benefits from another quality orchestral score from maestro Ennio Morricone. Although it may not be his best work, it still imbues proceedings with his usual touch of class. It’s also interesting to see Dullea two years before he appeared in low-budget horror ‘Black Christmas’ (1974). That film is considered by many as the first American Slasher movie and, given that the Giallo is widely regarded as the precursor of that entire genre, it feels very appropriate that he’s starring here. He probably should never have asked about those pod bay doors, though.

Sollima began his movie career as a film critic and author before breaking into the industry as a scriptwriter. Seven years after his initial work, he began working regularly, an early credit being Peplum adventure ‘Ursus/The Mighty Ursus/Ursus, Son of Hercules (1961). He stepped into the director’s chair on a couple of Eurospy adventures with George Ardisson before hitting the big time with Lee Van Cleef’s Spaghetti Western ‘The Big Gundown/La resa dei conti’ (1967). Another superb Western, ‘Face to Face/Faccia a faccia’ (1967), followed, but his career had peaked. There was Charles Bronson vehicle ‘Violent City/Città violenta’ (1970), but after another crime thriller ‘Revolver’ (1973), with Oliver Reed, he mainly drifted into television. He passed in 2015 at the age of 94.

A quality thriller that never quite rises to the heights.