Death and Diamonds/Dynamit in grüner Seide (1968)

‘It’s somewhat annoying when one of my clients end up in the electric chair.’

A criminal gang steal a supply of poison gas from a factory site in a daring operation that leaves men dead on both sides. The FBI is convinced that a notorious kingpin has ordered the theft as part of a wider scheme. Discovering that an English expert on burglar alarms is an integral part of the next phase of the plan, they incarcerate him and put an agent in his place…

The sixth of the eight-film West German series starring American actor George Nader as FBI undercover specialist Jerry Cotton. This time directorial duties are handed to Harald Reinl, and the film plays more like a heist movie than the agent’s previous investigations.

Speeding away from a burning factory site with booty in hand, you might think it’s time for gang boss Bloom (Carl Möhner) to sit back and savour a job well done, but you’d be wrong. An evil villain’s work is never done, and he busies himself polishing off most of the men he’d used in the heist. Unfortunately for him, one of them manages a few dying words and these point in the direction of security system expert Rick Trevor (Claus Tinney). He’s just finished a stint in the pokey back in Merrie Old England and flies into LAX, only to be conveniently delayed by visa irregularities. Nader steps into his shoes, and the game is on.

As the agency expected, the gang is really under orders from a man named Stone, an underworld mastermind who has never been identified. Möhner runs the operation from a club owned by his glamorous ex Lana (Silvia Solar). Having figured out that relations with a bad boy isn’t the best route to long-term happiness, she wants to keep things on a strictly business basis from now on. Of course, Möhner doesn’t get the memo, forcing Nader to step in. Already suspicious of the agent, Möhner keeps him in the dark, sending him on a fact-finding mission to look at the household alarm system of art collector, Santon (Karl-Heinz Fiege).

The crew then steal a newly-developed ‘Absorber’ unit which has just been shipped to the city after being developed at Cape Kennedy. The device is essential to their ultimate goal. Nader thinks it will be a raid on Fiege’s art treasures, but it turns out that the target is a meeting where experts will appraise diamonds worth approximately twelve million dollars. Nader baulks when he realises that the poison gas will be pumped into the conference room and tips his hand. By then, the operation is in full swing, however, and a rapid game of cross and double-crosses follows to secure the loot.

The continuing investigations of Nader as Jerry Cotton are often bracketed in with the Eurospy genre that sprung into vigorous life after the global success of Sean Connery’s early James Bond films. In truth, that is casting wide to some extent as the series is more firmly grounded in the criminal underworld rather than that of super villains planning world domination. There’s little evidence of the kind of outlandish gadgetry peddled by Q Division, with the film delivering only wristwatches that work as two-way radios and the Absorber. This device turns out to be little more than a vacuum cleaner with an extendable hose that hoovers up the precious gems in question. I guess some of the NASA technicians working on the Apollo space program had a little free time while their colleagues were off shooting movies at Area 51.

Despite these noticeable limitations, the production as a whole takes things up a notch from the preceding entries in the series. Debuting screenwriters Rolf Schulz and Christa Stern provide a script stuffed with shady side characters, intrigue, and so many perilous situations in the final third that Nader could have been forgiven for thinking that he’d stepped into an old-fashioned cliffhanger serial. Director Reinl also proves an excellent addition to the team, for the most part delivering a quick pace and some solid suspense when required. The stuntwork is also more ambitious, with one performer jumping feet first through the windscreen of an approaching car. It’s possibly the standout moment of the entire series.

However, this is a Jerry Cotton movie, and praise needs to be qualified by acknowledging the usual problems. There’s still the doomed attempt to make it look like an American movie. There’s far more stock footage of cars on US streets, but we still get appalling green-screen shots when we switch to the actors in closeup. As usual, this is present throughout the airport scenes and was such a feature of the films that you have to wonder why the unit didn’t go to a German air terminal and shoot the actors there. It might not have looked very American, but it could hardly have looked any worse.

Solar’s club is also one of the strangest (and cheapest) in movie history. There’s no bar or stage, just girls jigging about in their underwear surrounded by busy pool tables! All very nice, I’m sure, but not the ideal way to concentrate on your safety play. There’s also a slight plot hole around Stone’s criminal activities. After every job, the usual procedure is to liquidate all the low-level crooks involved in the caper. Even if that’s not common knowledge outside the FBI, it beggars belief that word would not have got around in the underworld. But he has no problem recruiting minions, apparently.

Reinl shot his first feature in 1949 but is probably best remembered for his output in the 1960s. Fritz Lang returned to Germany to make the overdue final film in his trilogy starring criminal mastermind Dr Mabuse in 1960. It was enough of a domestic success to kick start a series, and it was Reinl who picked up the baton for ‘The Return of Dr Mabuse’ (1961) and ‘The Invisible Dr Mabuse’ (1962). These displayed both the necessary style and thrills, and the director began a fruitful working partnership with star Lex Barker. They collaborated on a long-running series based on the popular ‘Winnetou’ Western novels of Karl May, beginning with ‘The Treasure of Silver Lake/Der Schatz im Silbersee’ (1962). There was also Poe-inspired horror ‘The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism/Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel’ (1967), which co-starred Christopher Lee. Reinl worked consistently throughout the 1970s and 1980s but varied dramatic subjects with several documentaries on the search for ancient astronauts.

A brisk, efficient thriller that is somewhat limited by its lack of production values.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (1972)

‘Maybe you’d prefer to drink from my empty skull.’

A dissolute writer is suspected by the police after one of his ex-students is brutally murdered. His maid meets the same fate afterwards, and realising that this will almost certainly mean arrest and conviction for the crimes, he persuades his wife to help him hide the corpse in their wine cellar…

High-quality Giallo from director Sergio Martino, who sprinkles his tale of suspicion and murder with more than a touch of Edgar Allan Poe. The Italian film industry was pumping out these horror thrillers by the dozen in the early 1970s, and all the main cast and crew here had plenty of previous experience in the field.

Things are not working out too well for Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli). Once a celebrated author, he has not published in years, even teaching opportunities vanishing due to his lack of output. As a member of the nobility, he doesn’t have to worry about money, but that’s a double-edged sword. Walled up in his crumbling villa, he’s taken to the bottle, inviting local hippies around for group debauchery and knocking about long-suffering wife Irina (Anita Strindberg). He’s also having an affair with ex-student Fausta (Daniela Giordano), and when she turns up with her throat cut, local Inspector Farla (Franco Nebbia) inevitably begins looking his way. Fortunately, Strindberg backs up his dodgy alibi.

But there’s much worse to come. The unhappy couple’s maid, Brenda (Angela La Vorgna), is mysteriously murdered at the villa a few nights later, putting Pistilli’s head firmly in the noose. But he proclaims his innocence and persuades Strindberg to help conceal the body in the cellar. The girl’s disappearance seems to draw little attention, but then Pistilli gets a telegram from his niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech) inviting herself for an extended visit. She’s already on her way, so the conspirators must grin and bear it. However, once she arrives, it becomes increasingly clear that she has more on her mind than just a casual holiday. The villa seems to be under surveillance too, but just who is mystery man Walter (Ivan Rassimov) and what are his intentions?

Unlike Martino’s previous excursions into Giallo territory, this project leans more toward the traditional murder mystery. Events are almost entirely centred on Pistilli’s villa, the cast is small, and the action is focused firmly on the three principals. Rather than the escalating body count suggested by the first act, this is more of an exercise in suspense and intrigue. Martino lays out his slow breadcrumb trail of clues, courtesy of the screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi, Adriano Bolzoni and Sauro Scavolini. When developments and revelations arrive in the final act, they are logical and satisfying. However, it’s probable that the final twist won’t surprise anyone with a passing knowledge of the horror genre.

Best of all, though, is the work delivered in front of the camera. Pistilli is superb as the twisted Oliviero, often drunk, fixated on his dead mother, protective of her black cat (named Satan!) and permanently teetering on the edge of an outburst, be it violent, sexual or both. Going toe to toe with him are the women in his life; Strindberg outstanding as the beaten-down wife with a core of steel, and Fenech note-perfect as the playful, promiscuous Floriana, whose actions progressively indicate a much darker agenda than is first suggested. Her character plays husband and wife off against each other, first just sleeping with both of them, but eventually suggesting that they kill each other. The dynamic between the trio is a tricky balance to strike in the context of a mystery plot where motivations and plans have to remain hidden. Still, all three deliver with force or subtlety as and when the situation requires it.

In the spirit of the low-key nature of the drama, Martino shows admirable restraint in his direction while still displaying a fine eye for composition and tone. The murders are gory but brief, although it could be argued that this is not so much to heighten their impact as to hide some rather inadequate FX work. Still, the camera movement is particularly good; hand-held for the violent scenes, more elegant moves reserved to build suspense and emphasise the claustrophobic surroundings.

If there’s not all that much here for the committed gore-hound, then Martino compensates for the lack of blood with plenty of sex. Not only do we get to see quite a lot of Fenech and Strindberg, including a shared scene, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual violence and perversion present throughout. It’s implied that Oliviero slept with his mother, and he forces himself on Strindberg a couple of times, once after attempting to stab her in a cage of doves in clear sight of anyone who might be passing by. Servant La Vorgna tries on an old dress that belonged to Pistilli’s mother, something which is clearly pushing her buttons, only to be slaughtered in the process. No judgement here, but this is a household with a lot of issues!

Despite the film’s undoubted strengths, a few flaws hold it back from the first rank of the Giallo thriller. These mainly revolve around the film’s second act. Yes, the story is designed as a slow burn, but there’s a feeling of marking time at this point. Fenech’s liaison with delivery boy and motorbike racer Dario (Riccardo Salvino) is the main culprit, and although it does play into the story’s eventual outcome, it could have been integrated a little more into the overall plot or discarded altogether. The police investigation also seems strangely half-hearted. Yes, there’s a somewhat contrived development halfway through that takes the heat off Pistilli, but is no one in authority interested when the only servant of a murder suspect suddenly up and leaves the district without a word to anyone? The Poe references also feel a little forced at times, although it only becomes obvious towards the end of the film.

Martino began his film career in various behind-the-scenes roles, including a few projects as an assistant director, before taking the plunge as the man with the megaphone on Spaghetti Western ‘Arizona Colt, Hired Gun/Arizona si scatenò… e li fece fuori tutti!’ (1970). A year later, he delivered the outstanding Giallo ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh’ (1971), which again starred Fenech. That film provided the title for this one, with the phrase appearing in a threatening note that she receives at one point in the story. Further Gialli followed and included two of the sub-genre’s most prominent examples, ‘All the Colors of the Dark/Tutti i colori del buio’ (1972) and ‘Torso/I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale’ (1973). He subsequently worked in comedy and crime drama but was also responsible for the controversial jungle exploitation of ‘Slave of the Cannibal God/La montagna del dio cannibale’ (1977) and the less contentious ‘Island of the Fishmen/L’isola degli uomini pesce’ (1979). Later, he ventured into the post-nuclear wasteland with the stupidly enjoyable ‘2019: After the Fall of New York/2019 – Dopo la caduta di New York’ (1983) and the rather dreary ‘Hands of Steel/Vendetta dal futuro’ (1986). He retired from the business in 2012.

A strong mystery thriller, elevated further by a trio of excellent lead performances.

The Suns of Easter Island/Les soleils de l’île de Pâques (1972)

‘You know, for some time, I’ve had moments of telepathy.’

Six strangers in different parts of the world experience strange visions and wake to find a silver circle embedded in the palm of their hand. Subsequently, they are drawn to meet on Easter Island to fulfil an unusual destiny…

Curious science-fiction piece from writer-director Pierre Kast, influenced by the ‘ancient astronaut’ theories of author Robert Charroux. An unusual co-production between France, Brazil and Chile, it features a multi-national cast and some memorable locations.

Physicist Maurice (Maurice Garrel) is experimenting with harnessing solar energy, while, continents away, astronomer Norma (Norma Bengell) is trying to correlate the position of ancient temple statues to a star map. Wealthy horse breeder Alexandra (Alexandra Stewart) has mediumistic abilities and is intrigued by the pictographs carved into stone hills near her home. Entomologist Marcello (Marcello Romo) is working near Valparaiso while ehtnologist Françoise (Françoise Brion) is carrying out research on the islands of Polynesia. Helvio (Zózimo Bulbul) is a student who practises the Brazilian folk religion of Macumba. All have sudden visions that are a mixture of humanity’s history of armed conflict and the statues on Easter Island. All wake up with a small silver dot imprinted on the palm of one hand.

Bringing their scientific expertise and spiritual beliefs to bear, each tries to decode the message behind their experience, Stewart assisted by her psychoanalyst boyfriend Alain (Jacques Charrier). As the days pass, she develops limited psychic abilities, such as telepathy and psychokinesis. However, she also feels a compulsion to go to Easter Island and to be there on a specific day late in the month of May. The other recipients of the visions share this compulsion, and, as they journey to their destination, they begin to meet, get acquainted and realise that all six of them are part of something of cosmic significance.

Robert Charroux was a French author who began writing science-fiction in the 1940s but became known for his theories regarding ancient astronauts. His book ‘One Hundred Thousand Years of Man’s Unknown History’ was first published in 1963 and was arguably a direct influence on the work of author Erich von Däniken. The latter’s ‘Chariots of the Gods?’ published five years later, took these theories into the mainstream. Although never accepted by the respected scientific community and thoroughly debunked since these theories of extraterrestrial visitations in humanity’s remote past were a global sensation in the 1970s. They elevated von Däniken to the status of a household name in many parts of the world.

Unfortunately, Kast seems determined to validate these theories with his film, sacrificing all drama, action, tension and character for attempted realism. However, there’s a constant clash between the almost documentary feel and the fantastical elements that result in a dull, plodding experience instead of the sense of wonder and possibilities that Kast probably intended. This is neatly encapsulated by the opening scenes where physicist Garrel claims to be descended from a long line of sorcerers and alchemists and uses geomancy to decode his supernatural vision. This method relies on the interpretation of random numbers of pen scratches made on a page and is linked to astrology. I don’t think too many top physicists use it. The visions are a mixture of basic animation and a series of still images flashing quickly across the screen. These show violence at civil protests, soldiers, tanks and battle casualties, which include dead children.

Garrel also adopts the role of ‘VoiceOver Man’, an assignment he carries out with some enthusiasm, in the end narrating a great deal of the film, including the climax! Inevitably, the audience is left feeling like they’ve attended a lecture rather than watched a movie, an impression heightened by the film’s lack of action. Broadly speaking, each of the six protagonists is introduced, has their vision, chats about it with a friend, colleague or loved one, and then uses some aspect of their scientific expertise or spiritual beliefs to decode it and head for Easter Island. However, given that all these visions feature Rapa Nui’s famous monolithic figures quite prominently, it’s hard not to conclude that everyone could have saved time and just bought a plane ticket instead.

When the group assemble and reach Easter Island, there is about half an hour of the film remaining. Once there, they wander about a bit and indulge in listless conversations for a quarter of an hour until something finally happens. These climactic events involve everyone sitting around in a dark cave and a lot of holding hands. This might be vaguely interesting if the cast could inject some life into the proceedings. Unfortunately, all their roles are severely underwritten, with each defined mainly by their particular scientific expertise, none of which is directly relevant to the development of the story. Stewart manages to bring some personality to the table, perhaps because she’s the only one not playing an actual scientist, but her mediumistic skills and psychic powers are ultimately pointless.

However, there is one place where Kast’s film scores a bullseye, even though it would have been impossible to miss the target. It’s the location work. The statues on Easter Island have intrigued the world since Europeans first visited its shores in 1722. There have been many theories about their purpose and significance, although most modern scholars believe them to have religious and spiritual meanings. Their unique appearance and the unclear methods behind their creation led von Däniken to assign them an extraterrestrial origin. Nevertheless, placing cast members next to them makes for some wonderful images, evoking the sense of awe and possibility that the film strives for throughout but fails to approach elsewhere.

It’s interesting to note that Kast was originally a documentary filmmaker whose work in features mainly came at the end of his almost 40-year career. His work seems to have made little impact outside his homeland. As per the film’s origins, the cast was multi-national; Bengell and Bulbul were born in Brazil; Brion, Charrier, and Garrel were French, and Stewart was a Canadian. Most of them enjoyed long and successful screen careers, and Brion and Stewart are still gainfully employed at the time of writing. The same is true of von Däniken. ‘Confessions of an Egyptologist: Lost Libraries, Vanished Labyrinths & the Astonishing Truth Under the Saqqara Pyramids’ was published in 2021.

Very much a product of its time and of interest only in that regard.

Samson Against the Pirates/Sansone contro i pirati/Samson and the Sea Beast (1963)

‘I’m looking for a brunette; small in places, large in others.’

Out on a sea fishing expedition, legendary strongman Samson and his friends rescue a beautiful woman adrift on a piece of ship’s wreckage. The galleon on which she was travelling was attacked by pirates, who kidnapped her friends, intending to sell them as slaves. Tired of hearing of such atrocities, Samson determines to hold their notorious chief to account…

Minor, inconsequential Peplum from Italian director Tanio Boccia, hiding behind his usual alias of Amerigo Anton. The film actually has more in common with a historical adventure picture than the mythological shenanigans favoured by Steve Reeves in ‘Hercules/Le fatiche di Ercole’ (1958), the film that triggered Italy’s brief mid-20th Century muscleman craze.

A quiet fishing trip on the ocean blue seems just the ticket for strongman Samson (Kirk Morris) and his happy-go-lucky friends Ramon (Franco Peruzzi) and Gaynor (possibly Pasquale De Filippo). The catch of the day turns out to be Amanda (Margaret Lee), niece of the Governor of Martinique, shipwrecked after an attack by pirates. Under the command of Sandor (Nello Pazzafini), the brigands slaughtered the ship’s crew, kidnapped all the women passengers, and sent the vessel to the bottom with a broadside cannonade.

Hearing Lee’s story, Morris determines to get even with the pirate chieftain Murad (Daniele Vargas), who commands his unholy troops from Devil’s Island. The three friends set out for his stronghold, posing as slave traders, but discover that Lee has overheard their plans and stowed away in the boat. She’s not about to leave best friend Sarah (the lovely Adriana Ambesi) and the other girls to their fate on the auction block. Soon after arriving on the island, they join forces with rebel leader Manuel (Aldo Bufi Landi), who plans to oust Vargas, but their schemes soon go awry.

A severely underwhelming entry into the Peplum genre, this project bears the telltale marks of a quick and somewhat contrived cash-in on the latest box office trend of the time. There’s the definite possibility that Guido Malatesta’s script was retooled to accommodate Morris and his muscles, as there are only a few scenes where his superhuman strength affects proceedings in any significant way. One of these is a lengthy sequence where he pulls against a boatload of rowers to prevent the mechanical advance of racks of spears. Vargas arranges this ordeal on the flimsy notion, unsubstantiated by anything we’ve seen that Morris needs to be humbled before the people as he is the ‘living symbol’ of a possible revolution.

The ‘trial of strength’ is one of the film’s best scenes but highlights another issue. Boccia can’t disguise the fact that there’s a very poor turnout by the local population to watch Morris in action, and the director struggles throughout to convey any sense of scale. The big set pieces take place on the high seas with the pirate army, but most of the principal cast are missing in action, so there’s a good chance that a lot of the crowd appears courtesy of another film. However, to Boccia’s credit, it’s not a certainty. The sense that this just a costume picture, or even a swashbuckler, tweaked for a muscleman is not assisted by the costume department. The pirates at Vargas’ court look like they spend most of their time crossing blades with musketeers rather than sailing on the high seas in search of booty.

Unfortunately, the film has other limitations, which speak to a lack of budget. The fight scenes are not well executed, particularly the tavern brawl, and the fishing village where Morris lives looks like a stiff wind could blow it away. And no audience member will be able to ignore the crocodile in the room. Yes, memories of Bela Lugosi heroically wrestling that fake octopus at the end of Ed Wood’s ‘Bride of the Monster’ (1956) come flooding back as Morris does similar duty with one of the worst prop reptiles in cinema history. Credit to Lee in this scene as she looks on screaming in fear when she was probably struggling not to scream with laughter. Or cry with despair.

The hopelessly underwritten script provides the cast with nothing they can use to build a performance. Characters are reduced to generic archetypes, such as ‘friend of hero’, ‘villain’s lieutenant’, ‘leader of the resistance,’ etc. Peruzzi and Ambesi get a romantic subplot, but it’s over so quickly you wonder why anyone bothered. It might have been an attempt to offset the lack of spark between Morris and Lee, who have no screen chemistry as a couple whatsoever.

Vargas does get to chew the scenery a bit as the villainous pirate king, but he’s offscreen for too much of the time and is only briefly involved in the climax. Lee comes out best as she’s able to give Amanda a little more fire than most Peplum Princesses, although she does seem to have spent a little too long in the makeup chair, perhaps in an attempt to make her look a little older than her 19 years. Morris certainly has the required physical development but makes no other significant contribution to the project.

Born in Venice in 1942 as Adriano Bellini, Morris started hitting the gym and entering bodybuilding contests while at University. In 1961, he was spotted working as a gondolier by a film producer, and Boccia cast him in the title role of ‘The Triumph of Maciste/Il trionfo di Maciste’ (1961). The muscleman had been created more than half a century earlier by Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone for silent films as a rival to the mythological Hercules. Morris went on to play Maciste half a dozen times but struggled after the Peplum movies went out of style in the middle of the decade. Subsequent movie roles were few, although they did include the kitsch sci-fi of ‘2+5: Missione Hydra/Star Pilot’ (1966) and Spaghetti Western ‘Crazy Westerners/Little Rita nel West’ (1968). He also appeared as a model in photo comics, perhaps a more appropriate forum for his acting talent.

A small footnote in the history of Peplum cinema. The crocodile scene is worth a watch, though.

An Orchid for the Tiger/Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite (1965)

’20 sharks each day are going to Hamburg zoo…’

A top secret agent is assigned to supervise the retrieval of 20 million dollars worth of gold from the wreck of an old French galleon. However, when the operation is complete, armed skin divers storm the ship and steal the treasure…

The second appearance of Roger Hanin as special agent Louis Rapière, codename Le Tigre. This week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ is tangling with mysterious criminal mastermind The Orchid, again under the supervision of director Claude Chabrol.

The French military submarine service has come up with a surprising find whilst on manoeuvres; an ancient galleon loaded with gold. Hanin gets the job of overseeing its retrieval by a navy ship and its subsequent transportation back to Paris. The recovery part of the mission goes well, but the shipment is hijacked, the entire crew machine-gunned, and the ship blown up. Hanin and his sidekick Duvet (Roger Dumas) barely escape with their lives.

Following the gold takes them to the isolated republic of Cayenne, where revolution is brewing. Incompetent local contact Col. Pontarlier (José María Caffarel) welcomes the uprising as a chance for him to get out of the ‘boring’ country. Hanin, however, is more interested in the presence of international spies from all over the world. It seems that all the espionage agents of the world are concerned about The Orchid, who is providing the necessary military hardware in exchange for the gold. The arms deal was brokered by zoo owner Jacques Vermorel (Michel Bouquet) and wealthy businessman Ricardo Sanchez (Carlos Casaravilla). The Orchid plans to install the latter as leader of the country post insurrection, but his principal agent in the region is the sexy but ruthless Pamela Mitchum (Margaret Lee).

This French, Spanish and Italian co-production from director Chabrol begins in much the same way as many a Eurospy feature of the period, including ‘The Tiger Likes Fresh Blood/Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche’ (1964), the first film in the short-lived series. It’s somewhat light in tone, thanks to returning stars Hanin and Dumas, but it still looks like the audience is in for the usual mix of fisticuffs, car chases and occasional gunplay. However, this turns out to be something a little different.

The setup is cheerfully vague, with Jean Curtelin’s script quite happy to put two secret agents in charge of what you’d reasonably assume should be a naval operation. Still, it places our heroes in the centre of the action, and the attack on the ship is well-staged and quite violent. Hanin and Dumas wash up on the island shores of Cayenne in just time to eavesdrop on the meeting between Bouquet, Casaravilla and the revolutionaries. When our heroes reach civilisation, they link up with lazy and rather stupid local man Caffarel and find that the place is crawling with the spy world’s best and brightest, who like nothing better than to hang out together at a friendly cocktail party.

By the time someone attempts to kill Hanin with a lasso as he drives by in an open car, one ridiculous development has led to another, and the film has revealed its true colours; it is supposed to be silly. Starting out straight and allowing the comedy in a little at a time is an unusual approach, but it pays dividends here. The cast was obviously in on the joke and never acknowledge just how idiotic things become, with Lee dressed in an animal skin for the climax, which sees Hanin indulge in some unusual cage fighting at the zoo. Brilliantly, the idiotic white supremacist villains hang around to watch and are still sitting there when the authorities arrive to round them up.

This mixture of action and laughter is not easy to pull off successfully, and things may get too farcical for some tastes. After all, most spy spoofs lay their cards on the table face up from the start and are usually not very subtle about it. Instead, Chabrol’s film confounds early expectations by lightening the tone as it develops, although he’s wise enough to keep the action coming at such a pace that the change isn’t jarring or too obvious. The fights are also surprisingly brutal and convincing, thanks to some razor-sharp editing.

Hanin originated both the story and the ‘Le Tigre’ character after a disagreement over rights issues brought his brief cinematic tenure as secret agent ‘Le Gorille’ to an end. Lee was an English actress who came to the Italian film industry via marriage and was a fixture in the Eurospy arena in the 1960s. The couple demonstrates good screen chemistry, and she’s pretty obviously having a ball as the black-hearted femme fatale. In a much later interview, she named this film one of her two favourites.

Chabrol went on to become a celebrated director of French’ New Wave’ cinema, but, at this point, he was making commercial films after a string of more artistic projects had flopped at the box office. ‘Les Biches’ (1968) was another commercial dud but enjoyed critical acclaim and was the first in the string of films that made his reputation. In later years, he described the two ‘Le Tigre’ films as follows: ‘They were drivel, so OK, let’s get into it up to our necks.’ An auteur filmmaker would probably choose to distance himself from earlier commercial work, however, if it was distaste for the material that prompted his approach here, then that can be viewed as a happy accident. Perhaps understandably, no official films followed in the ‘Le Tigre’ series, although two later films with Hanin were retitled with the character’s name, most notably ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse/Le tigre sort sans sa mère (1967)’ which also starred Lee.

Enjoyable, silly Eurospy spoof that makes for an entertaining experience.

A White Dress for Marialé/Un bianco vestito per Marialé/Spirits of Death (1972)

‘Even hypocrisy is better than this dirty carnival.’

A beautiful woman and her lover are murdered in the woods by her husband. Thirty years later, a group of friends are invited to the isolated castle of a nobleman. As the weekend progresses, they are slaughtered one by one…

Stylish, offbeat Giallo from director Romano Scavolini, who some sources claim also had a hand in the script credited to Remigio Del Grosso and Giuseppe Mangione. The final results are somewhat divisive, to say the least.

A double murder-suicide takes place on a summer day in the woods, witnessed by a young child. Thirty years later, handsome playboy Massimo (Ivan Rassimov) arrives at the gates of the remote estate of nobleman Paolo (Luigi Pistilli). He has an invite for the weekend, but taciturn butler Osvaldo (Gengher Gatti) informs him at the gate that his master and mistress are away. However, other guests begin to arrive; dark-haired Mercedes (Pilar Velázquez) and her older man Jo (Giancarlo Bonuglia), as well as her estranged husband Sebastiano (Ezio Marano). The party is completed by the volatile Gustavo (Edilio Kim) and his inebriated girlfriend Semy (Shawn Robinson).

The guests are old friends of Pistilli’s wife, Marialé (Evelyn Stewart), who has been living in seclusion since her marriage into the nobility. Rassimov still holds a torch for her, and it appears that Pistilli may be keeping her in his castle against her will. After Pistilli admits the group, they begin to explore the underground chambers of his ancient residence and find a room filled with old medieval clothes. Painting their faces and putting on the costumes, they hold a masquerade banquet where the wine flows freely. However, as the evening progresses, the body count begins to rise.

From the outline of the plot, it seems that the audience is on very familiar territory with Scavolini’s film; a ‘closed circle’ whodunnit in the manner of Agatha Christie, but no doubt updated with the extravagant kills that usually come with the Giallo label. To an extent, that is the case, but there’s a different emphasis here that’s likely to divide opinion. Rather than focus on the murder aspect of his tale, the director seems far more interested in documenting the less-than-endearing traits and personalities of the weekend house party. These are a vain, arrogant bunch with a propensity to violence, gluttony and lust, all of which they are eager to indulge. Italian cinema of the period was often quick to decry the idle rich, presenting them as desensitised, vapid and hollow. Scavolini takes this further, displaying their base, animal instincts and desires.

This choice of focus largely sidelines the mystery aspect of proceedings. The audience has to wait until around the hour mark for anything to happen in that regard. In a way, Scavolini’s priorities are understandable. The slow pace is not a dealbreaker, but the plot is paper thin, and the characters are largely one-note. There’s no trail of breadcrumbs for the audience to follow in the direction of the killer’s identity, and the final revelations are severely underwhelming anyway. The cast is solid, however, with Stewart’s ethereal beauty and nuanced performance being the standout. We’re never quite sure where we are with Marialé, and her presence provides the little tension and drama the film possesses.

The most positive aspect, however, is how the film looks. It’s beautiful. Scavolini worked as his own cinematographer and delivers some truly stunning, quality work. Shots are exquisitely composed without being over-stylised or distracting, and the choice of lenses infuses the images with a wonderful richness and depth, particularly noticeable in the location scenes. The lighting of the interiors is also remarkable, the subtle use of colours evoking mood and atmosphere. In later life, Scavolini dismissed this project as simply a job, but there’s little doubt that he took pride in his work and was an accomplished visual artist.

Stewart was born Ida Galli during the Second World War near the mountains of Northern Italy. She acted under several names, but most often as Stewart. However, it was under her own name that she began her career, her most notable role being a small part in Federico Fellini’s multi-award-winning classic ‘La dolce vita’ (1960). Supporting parts followed for Mario Bava in ‘Hercules in the Haunted World/Ercole al centro della Terra’ (1961) and ‘The Whip and the Body/La frusta e il corpo’ (1963), as well as for Luchino Visconti in ‘The Leopard/Il gattopardo’ (1963). Moving into genre cinema, she began appearing regularly in Spaghetti Westerns before taking her Giallo bow in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah’ (1968). Similar projects followed, such as ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione’ (1971) and ‘Knife of Ice/Il coltello di ghiaccio’ (1972). One of her last roles was for Lucio Fulci in ‘The Psychic, Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes/Sette note in nero’ (1977).

Some will be impressed; some will be bored, and others will feel that it’s a film all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Baron Munchausen’s Dream/Les Hallucinations du baron de Münchhausen/Les Aventures du baron de Münchhausen (1911)

After overindulging in food and wine with friends, the famous Baron Münchhausen is plagued by vivid nightmares…

An 11-minute trick film from French pioneer Georges Méliès. The marriage of his flair for bizarre and magical imagery with the tales of the notorious fantasist would seem to be the perfect fit. However, it was an opportunity largely squandered.

A night in for legendary storyteller Baron Münchhausen means good wine, good food and good company. Unfortunately, he gets too much of all three and can barely stand when the party’s over. Two servants manage to manhandle him to his bed, which lays beneath a large wall mirror. As the Baron sleeps, he begins to dream.

At first, he imagines a pleasant scene, with two couples dancing to a smiling fiddler, but the scene quickly changes to the inside of an Egyptian temple where he is violently attacked. Another switch finds him back in pleasant surroundings, but the women he admires suddenly transform into demons with animal heads and then soldiers who poke him with halberds. After that, the visions keep coming, each more terrible than the last.

By 1911, Parisian Méliès had been a highly successful filmmaker for about 15 years, getting in on the art form at its very genesis. After witnessing a demonstration of the Cinematograph developed by the Lumière brothers, Méliès built his own camera and began showing film as an accompaniment to his stage act as an illusionist. Quickly realising the new medium’s potential, he began exhibiting short ‘trick’ films that utilised early effect techniques, such as multiple exposures and stop motion substitution. These were highly popular, and the next few years saw Méliès building on his success, even opening a branch of his film company in the United States. However, by 1911, the party was almost over.

Moving pictures had caught the public’s imagination in a way few could have predicted. Still, it was necessary to maintain that early sense of wonder for the industry to survive and grow. Méliès’ flamboyant visions had appealed at first, but audience taste quickly evolved beyond mere spectacle and demanded more substance; in other words, story and drama. Although Méliès eventually attempted to embrace narrative to some extent with films like ‘The Conquest of the Pole/À la conquête du pôle’ (1912), it was too late. Financial problems and unfortunate business decisions forced him into bankruptcy in early 1914.

This film serves as a perfect demonstration of the issues that brought an end to Méliès’ career. Leaving aside its merits when viewed today, contemporary audiences must have found it disappointing. The adoption of Münchhausen as the main character might even have been regarded as false advertising. After all, the German nobleman was famous as a teller of tall tales and extravagant fantasies, so it would have been reasonable to expect some kind of a story. Instead, Méliès provides his usual cavalcade of monsters and demons trotted out via his familiar modus operandi. The protagonist might be any old man, and the story is so thin as to be almost non-existent. It might have been a tried and tested formula, but to the increasingly sophisticated audience of 1911, it probably looked like a worn-out bag of old tricks. In fact, some sources suggest that the film may not have even made it to theatres at all.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have merit, of course. Over the years, Méliès refined his technique so that the substitution effects and dissolves appear smoother, and there’s plenty of evidence of that here. Using a mirror to frame the action is a neat idea, too, with two actors parroting each other’s moments to establish its presence. The interactions between the old Baron and his fantastic visitors have a more significant impact as a consequence. There are also some fine examples of the Méliès imagination at work. The girl with tentacles in the spider’s web is a particularly striking image, and the dragon puppet from ‘The Witch/La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal’ (1906) makes a welcome reappearance. The Frenchman was apparently a great fan of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s stories of the blowhard Baron, but whether it was this that prompted the use of the character or whether more commercial considerations were involved is unrecorded. It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike some of Méliès’s best work, the majority of the film plays out on a single set, which perhaps betrays his increasing financial problems at the time.

It’s a surprise to many to find out that Baron Münchhausen was actually a real German aristocrat, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen. After serving in the Russo-Turkish War of 1735–39, he became notorious in high society for his exaggerated reminiscences and tall tales of his military exploits. Fictionalised stories of his adventures began to appear in German magazines and were collected into a book called ‘Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia’. First published in England in 1785, it was a hit all over Europe and translated into several languages, including a German edition which added new material by Gottfried August Bürger. The ridiculous nature of the stories, including a trip to the moon and riding on a cannonball, upset the real-life Baron, who threatened libel action. It appears this never came to fruition but may explain why original author Rudolf Erich Raspe never acknowledged the work as his own.

Some memorable images but an almost complete absence of story leave this as merely a monument to the visual imagination and filmmaking technique of one of the great film pioneers.

My Dear Killer/Mio caro assassino (1972)

‘Soon, they’ll have enough bodies to make up an Ice Hockey team.’

A man is decapitated by the shore of a lake. It’s thought to have been an accident with the machinery operator responsible also dead, an apparent suicide. But the investigating detective is not convinced by this ready-made solution, and his enquiries reveal a link to an old, unsolved case of child kidnapping and murder…

Nicely convoluted Giallo mystery from director Tonino Valerii that mixes the serial killer madness with elements of the police procedural. Inspector George Hilton tries to unravel the contradictions of evidence, motive and circumstances with aid from a script by Roberto Leoni, Franco Bucceri and José Gutiérrez Maesso.

Visiting an early morning crime scene is never a pleasure for dedicated detective Inspector Luca Peretti (Hilton), and the latest one is even more gruesome than most. Ex-insurance investigator Umberto Paradisi (Francesco Di Federico) is discovered dead on a remote shoreline with his head torn off, seemingly in a bizarre accident involving the earth mover he had hired to dredge the lake. The operator has gone AWOL and turns up shortly afterwards, having hung himself in remorse. However, Hilton isn’t buying it and begins digging into Di Federico’s life. He gets a line on the man’s recent activities through his common-law wife, played by an almost unrecognisable Helga Liné in a red wig.

When Hilton discovers that Di Federico was the original insurance investigator on the famous kidnapping of Stefania Moroni (Lara Wendel) a year prior, his spider-sense starts a-tingling. Wendel was the young child of a very wealthy family who turned up dead after being snatched, along with her father Alessandro (Piero Lulli), who went to make the subsequent ransom payoff. The killer was never caught. His suspicions regarding a connection are confirmed when Liné is strangled (in a public post office!) He also discovers that her husband quit his job shortly after submitting his final report on the Moroni case to insurance company boss Corrado Gaipa. Then went on investigating on his own time.

The members of the Moroni household are immediately on Hilton’s list of primary suspects. There’s weak-willed brother Oliviero (Tullio Valli), who lost a hand saving Lulli’s life in the war, and his cold, hard-bitten wife, Carla Moroni (Mónica Randall). Friendly uncle Beniamino (Alfredo Mayo) paid the youngster a lot of attention and even chauffeur Jean-Pierre Clarain in Hilton’s cross-hairs. Also count in Wendel’s mother, Eleonora (Dana Ghia) and her brother Giorgio Canavese (William Berger). She might still be grief-stricken to the point of losing her grip on reality, but she was about to start divorce proceedings against Lulli at the time of the kidnapping, and the custody battle for Wendel was likely to be a bitter one. Outsiders in the culprit stakes are Wendel’s pretty teacher Paola Rossi (Patty Shepard) and lakeside junkman Mattia Guardapelle (Dante Maggio).

This is a primarily grounded and logical exercise in mystery from director Valerii that still finds the time to include some rather gory kills in its 100-minute runtime. Centre stage is Hilton, almost unrecognisable from his usual Giallo role of the handsome but suspicious stranger. The solid screenplay provides him with plenty of opportunities to juggle the seemingly random mixture of circumstance and evidence and assembly a coherent case, the audience never too far ahead or too far behind his conclusions. Of course, the unknown killer is also trying to cover their tracks, and the body count begins to rise. The murders include a surprisingly graphic sequence employing a circular saw, which flirts on the border of torture porn territory.

The film is not without its flaws, however. Although it’s important to show Hilton’s life beyond the workplace and the price he pays for dedication to the job, the brief scenes with unhappy wife Anna (Marilù Tolo) seem largely redundant. The fact that the killer is apparently watching them in bed together early on is never addressed again, and the talented Tolo exists, never to return. On reflection, the original police investigation must have been a little haphazard, too, given that the murdered Di Federico and, later on, Hilton make a far better job of things. The conclusion where Hilton gets all the suspects in the same room à la Agatha Christie also seems a little quaint and old-fashioned, although it’s undeniably suspenseful. Shame then that the wrap-up seems so hurried it almost comes across as an afterthought.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here, not least Hilton’s assured, convincing performance as the single-minded detective. Valerii directs without an eye for extravagant composition or stylistic flourishes, but his no-nonsense style suits the material, primarily focusing on the nuts and bolts of the investigative process. The story is logical, with only a few strands left hanging after the resolution. The most obvious is that a gang committed the original kidnapping, but the killing spree a year later is strictly a solo affair. There’s also an excellent acting turn from seven-year-old Wendel. It’s a brief and wordless performance, but who couldn’t fail to feel a vicarious sense of triumph when she finally succeeds in planting the clue that will catch her killer a year later?

Hilton was born Jorge Hill Acosta y Lara in Uruguay and began his acting career on radio. He arrived in Italy in 1963 via Argentina and got his big break in films as the lead of Vertunnio De Angelis’ swashbuckler ‘The Masked Man Against the Pirates/L’uomo mascherato contro i pirati’ (1964). Further roles followed, including Bond spoof ‘Two Mafiosi Against Goldginger/Due mafiosi contro Goldginger’ (1965) before stardom arrived courtesy of Lucio Fulci. A prominent role in the director’s Spaghetti Western ‘Massacre Time/Le colt cantarono la morte e fu… tempo di massacro’ (1966). Other adventures out West followed, including ‘The Ruthless Four/Ognuno per sé’ (1968), where he appeared alongside Hollywood players Van Heflin and Gilbert Roland. That same year, he starred with one-time Oscar-nominee Carroll Baker in one of the first significant Giallo films, ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah’ (1968). After that, he mostly switched between the two sub-genres, with some crime movies thrown in for good measure.

Notable Westerns included the leads in ‘Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin/C’è Sartana… vendi la pistola e comprati la bara!’ (1970) and ‘They Call Me Hallelujah /Testa t’ammazzo, croce… sei morto – Mi chiamano Alleluja’ (1971). Significant Gialli included Sergio Martino’s twin triumphs ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh’ (1971) and ‘All the Colors of the Darj/Tutti i colori del buio’ (1972). There were also ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris/Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?/What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body?’ (1972), ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione’ (1971) and Luigo Cozzi’s late entry ‘The Killer Must Kill Again/L’assassino è costretto ad uccidere ancora’ (1975). Shortly after his death, he received the ‘Leone in Memoriam’ award at the Almeria Western Film Festival in 2019.

Not in the first rank of Giallo films, but certainly an accomplished and satisfying thriller.

Museum of Horror/Museo del horror (1964)

‘I’m learning that God made a mistake in attaching tongues to women.’

A mysterious figure dressed in black abducts a young woman walking home at night. The police are baffled by her disappearance, the latest in a series of such incidents. Their attention becomes focused on the residents of a local boarding house and a former actor who now runs an unusual museum close by…

Elements of the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Wax Museum’s horror combine in this black and white Mexican picture directed by genre mainstay Rafael Baledón. There’s also a significant ‘whodunnit?’ vibe as screenwriter José María Fernández Unsáin presents the audience with a series of clues and red herrings on the way to the mystery’s final solution.

Pretty young nurse Marta (Patricia Conde) lives with her mother, Doña Leonor (Emma Roldán), who runs a small boarding house. By day she works at the hospital with fellow resident and unofficial fiancée, Dr Raúl (Julio Alemán), but she’s attracted to the new boarder, Luis (Joaquín Cordero). He’s a once-famous actor whose career ended after an on-stage accident that left him hobbling around on a walking stick. He still owns the theatre down the street but has converted it into a museum to make ends meet. His unusual exhibition consists of life-sized figures from theatrical history, both actors and characters, but all women. Hardly a moneyspinner, you would think, but he seems to do alright.

The list of residents is completed by the grumpy Professor Abramov (Carlos López Moctezuma) and the entire company decamp for a night out at Club La Paloma. The entertainment is provided by blonde bombshell Norma Ramos (Olivia Michel), who returns their visit by coming to live at the boarding house. Meantime, Conde is giving Alemán the brush-off and cosying up to the gloomy and complicated Cordero, intrigued by his air of mystery and tragic backstory. Local police Comisario (David Reynoso) is still on the track of the missing women, though, and when Michel joins their number, he closes in for the kill.

When Mexican audiences went monster crazy in the late 1950s, film producers quickly flooded the market with appropriate products. Often, they were thinly-disguised re-workings of familiar properties, notably the Universal classic monster series. But other horror hits were also in their sights, and here, it’s Warner Brothers ‘The Mystery of the Wax Museum’ (1933) and its 3-D remake ‘House of Wax’ (1953) starring Vincent Price. Sadly, the resulting film is nowhere near as remarkable or as entertaining, coming off as a distinctly second-hand grab bag of unfocused ideas thrown quickly together.

What the film does well is keeping the audience guessing about the killer’s identity. Of course, the off-centre Cordero is our primary suspect, what with his strange line of business, expressions of self-loathing and mysterious past. He’s one mixed-up dude, that’s for sure. But, hang on, why is Alemán paying grave robbers for fresh corpses to use in ‘secret work’? And why does he have a head in a jar in his private laboratory? Come to think of it, as a hospital doctor, why does he have a laboratory at all? Old misery Moctezuma also turns out to be an authority on embalming, and he’s carrying out ‘secret experiments’ as well. He might not have a head in a jar, but he does curare in his room. As a deadly poison, that seems to have little to do with his field of research. So many mad doctors, so little time.

All these circumstances do push the suspension of disbelief, but perhaps it’s little surprise that events feel contrived, and the characters and their backstories are barely sketched out. The script is one of 17(!) writing credits attributed to screenplay author Unsáin for 1964, and the years on either side contain another 20 between them! That’s seriously impressive, of course, but the quality is bound to suffer amidst so much quantity. As a result, the denouncement here lacks emotional punch because we’re not really invested. There’s little more to the characters beyond their function to move the story along.

However, there’s still some enjoyment to be had here. The killer’s disguise looks a little like Lon Chaney in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925), and he has an underground workshop in catacombs beneath a cemetery. Access is gained through a crypt and an upright coffin (complete with corpse!) that opens like a door. There’s also an interesting scene where Alemán tries to win back Conde and diffuse her fascination with the melancholic Cordero. It’s very nicely played, especially by Alemán, who comes over as possessive, patronising, needy and narcissistic all at the same time! It’s a little character moment, but it does help undermine the handsome actor’s expected status as the story’s hero and reinforce the audience’s suspicion of him. Whether he turns out to be the killer or not is almost irrelevant, we just don’t want Conde to end up with him! A dream sequence also seems to exist solely to lift a few scratchy frames from Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961).

The film mostly gets by on the brisk direction of veteran Baledón and a cast stuffed with names from the heyday of Mexican horror. Cordero played ruthless scientist Dr Campos in ‘Santo vs the Evil Brain/Santo contra cerebro del mal’ (1958), the first film starring the legendary masked wrestler. He doubled as lead villain and monster in ‘The Hell of Frankenstein/Orlak, el infierno de Frankenstein’ (1960), messed about with Yetis in ‘The Terrible Giant of the Snows/El terrible gigante de las nieves’ (1963), werewolves in ‘La Loba’ (1965), zombies in ‘Dr. Satán’ (1966) and its sequel, a killer robot in ‘Wrestling Women versus the Murderous Robot/Las luchadoras vs el robot asesino’ (1969) and tackled a ghost in ‘The Book of Stone/El libro de piedra’ (1969).

Alemán starred in the 1959 vampire serial ‘The Curse of Nostradamus’, which was compiled into four feature films in the early 1960s. He also joined luchador Neutron in ‘Neutron the Atomic Superman vs the Death Robots/Los autómatas de la muerte’ (1962), repeating his role for ‘Neutron vs the Amazing Dr Caronte/Neutrón contra el Dr Caronte’ (1964). Reynoso enjoyed supporting roles in many horrors and genre vehicles and, most memorably, backed up luchador Blue Demon in ‘Blue Demon Versus the Infernal Brains/Blue Demon contra cerebros infernales’ (1968) and ‘Blue Demon vs The Diabolical Women/Blue Demon contra las diabólicas’ (1968).

Moctezuma had a supporting role in ‘La Llorona’ (1960), and the next version of the same folk legend ‘The Curse of the Crying Woman/La maldición de la Llorona’ (1963). He had his own encounters with luchadors Neutron and Santo in ‘Neutron Battles the Karate Assassins/Los asesinos del karate’ (1965) and ‘Santo vs the Strangler/Santo vs el estrangulador’ (1965) and the direct sequel ‘Santo vs the Ghost of the Strangler/Espectro del estrangulador’ (1966). Further horrors followed with ‘Night of the Bloody Apes/La horripilante bestia humana’ (1969) and ‘The Vampires of Coyoacan/Los vampiros de Coyoacán’ (1974) which starred two other luchadors, Mil Máscaras and Superzan.

A slightly anonymous horror-thriller that mixes familiar genre tropes efficiently enough for some decent entertainment.

Samson/Sansone (1961)

‘By the lame foot of Vulcan!’

While hunting, strongman Sansom and his friends are captured by a troop of mercenaries from the neighbouring kingdom of Sulom. Confident that he’s in the good graces of its Queen, he does not resist, but at court, he finds out that she’s no longer on the throne…

Early Peplum adventure, introducing US actor Brad Harris and the Biblical strongman as candidates to assume the mantle previously worn by Steve Reeves as ‘Hercules’ (1958). It did kick off a series of sorts, but there were only five features, two of them tag-teaming the character with other musclemen.

While out hunting with friends on the kingdom’s borders, Samson (Harris) gets into an argument over the spoils with fugitive Millstone (Sergio Ciani), who is hiding in a cave. Their bout of bromantic grappling is interrupted by some mercenaries from Sulom, who are looking for the runaway. Ciani escapes, leaving Harris and his buddies, played by Romano Ghini and Niksa Stefanini, to rake the rap. However, Harris isn’t too worried. He grew up at the court of Sulom, and ruling Queen Mila (Irena Prosen) is one of his oldest friends.

Against expectations, they are thrown into a jail cell on arrival and told to cool their heels. Harris puts up with the jibes of the guards for a while but eventually gets impatient, tears off the cell door and uses it like a battering ram to push more than a dozen soldiers before him and into the throne room. There, a surprise awaits. Prosen is apparently off somewhere on the coast recuperating after an illness and in her place is sister Romilda (Mara Berni), at one time his sweetheart. The incarceration has all been a mixup, of course, but handmaiden Janine (Luisella Boni, billed as Brigitte Corey) slips the big man Prosen’s ring as a message that all’s not well. Slimy mercenary leader Warkalla (Serge Gainsbourg) encourages Harris to wrestle court champion Igor to provide some entertainment, but it isn’t much of a challenge. However, celebrating his easy victory with a goblet of drugged wine isn’t a great idea, and he falls through an inconvenient trapdoor and ends up back behind bars.

Fortunately, Boni is on hand with an escape plan, and the big man learns what’s been going down. Prosen isn’t off at the seaside at all; she’s a fellow prisoner in the dungeon, incarcerated until she reveals the location of the kingdom’s legendary treasure. It’s these priceless riches that have prompted Gainsbourg to support Berni’s bid for power. However, one glimpse of Harris’ meaty biceps is enough to make her start having second thoughts about the whole business. In another shocking plot development, our unscrupulous pair have been taxing the populace into poverty and sent inflation to record levels (probably). So, revolution is brewing, and one bearded muscleman pulling chains apart with his bare hands may be all that’s needed to ignite the flame.

The surprising American success of Steve Reeves with ‘Hercules’ (1958) prompted a craze for sword and sandal pictures in Italy that lasted until the mid-1960s. Of course, it helped that the muscleman heroes involved had significant audience name recognition and didn’t come burdened with all those pesky intellectual property rights. Samson took his bow in the Old Testament’s Book of Judges, and it was unlikely that the author, or authors, would come crawling out of the woodwork, lawsuit in hand. Mythology, legend, and the Bible were out of copyright. Given the freedom this gave filmmakers to exercise their creative talents, it’s sad to report that commercial considerations prevailed to such an extent that a standard template for these heroic adventures was swiftly established. Samson’s debut picture merely assisted with that process.

Of course, the character had already appeared on the big screen, most famously with Cecil B DeMille’s Biblical epic ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949) crashing into movie theatres a decade earlier. Director and co-writer Gianfranco Parolini is not interested in that story; his Samson is a short-haired, bearded warrior whose super strength seems to come solely from some serious gym time. The film has no religious, mythological or supernatural elements, being more of an extension of the historical and costume dramas favoured by the Italian industry since the end of World War Two, only with the emphasis placed heavily on action.

Unfortunately, it’s the action where the film fails to deliver. Most of it is not well-staged, often looking clumsy and awkward. The notion of Harris and Ciani tricked into fighting each other blindfolded isn’t a bad one, but it’s a tricky sequence to pull off successfully. As it is, the two protagonists look vaguely comedic as they wave their swords around, slashing at thin air. Villain Gainsbourg should also review his hiring policy as there’s more than one occasion when his mercenaries should have done much better against one unarmed man, even if he can bench press his own body weight several times over.

The script is also rather slapdash when it comes to basics such as motivation and character history. This is no Samson origin story. All we learn about the big man is that he’s super strong, was raised at the Royal Court of Sulom and was once in a relationship with Berni. We don’t find out why he grew up there, why he left, or anything about his current circumstances, other than that he seems to live in a neighbouring kingdom ruled by King Botan (Carlo Tamberlani), who can conveniently furnish some troops for the final skirmish. It’s never clear how Berni and Gainsbourg managed to depose Prosen and throw her in jail, nor why he sticks around after he’s got his hands on the treasure. Or why Berni went along with it all in the first place as just the sight of Harris’ muscles is enough to make her regret the whole thing. All that we find out about Ciani’s character is revealed via some amusing but brief banter with his beautiful girlfriend Jaya (Manja Golec).

There’s also the incredibly illogical final act where the plot ties itself into knots to justify a tournament in which Harris can compete and the sudden raising of stakes that makes it necessary for Tamberlani’s men to storm the city square. This tournament is apparently an annual one, and the winning prize is to assume the leadership of the mercenaries. Can we take it then that Gainsbourg won this contest the year before? Now that would be a movie I’d like to see, given that the character is a skinny little weasel who barely draws his sword in the entire film. Rather brilliantly, he also orders his soldiers to masscare everyone in the square once the tournament has concluded. There is absolutely no reason to do this, and it comes straight out of the blue, but I guess evil has to evil, right?

However, it is only fair to point out that the print available for review was the version dubbed into English. Given that the voice actors sound barely awake, that lack of effort may have extended to translating the script, which might explain some of the lack of logic and other shortcomings. That also doesn’t help with evaluating the perfromances, but Harris certainly looks the part and handles the physical duties with style. Berni is also terrific when depicting her evil side, needing only a look and a stare to convey the sweet promise of treachery to come.

The pairing of Harris and Ciani in the same film is probably of most interest to Peplum fans. The American actor had come to the attention of Italian producers after playing a gladiator in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (1960), cast afterwards as ‘Goliath Against the Giants/Goliath contro i giganti’ (1961) before hitting the screen as Samson. Next was the title role in ‘Fury of Hercules/La furia di Ercole’ (1962), again co-starring Ciani, before he transitioned successfully into other genres. Billed as Alan Steel, the two films with Harris were Ciani’s first significant roles. After these, he played second fiddle to Dan Vadis in ‘Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator/Ursus gladiatore ribelle’ (1962) before stepping into the spotlight as Maciste in ‘Zorro contro Maciste/Samson and the Slave Queen’ (1963). Subsequently, he played Goliath in ‘Goliath and the Masked Rider/Golia e il cavaliere mascheratio/Hercules and the Masked Rider’ (1963), Samson in ‘Sansone contro il corsaro nero/Hercules and the Black Pirates’ (1963), Maciste again in ‘Maciste e la regina di Samar/Hercules Against the Moon Men’ (1964), Ursus in ‘The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre/The Invincible Three’ (1964) and Hercules twice in ‘Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma’ (1964) and ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964), making him the only actor to play all five of the legendary heroes during the Peplum craze.

Good production values and a decent cast can’t overcome the haphazard plotting and the poorly realised action scenes.