Espionage In Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)

Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)‘Every time I drink Martinis, I want to be a mermaid.’

An elderly scientist has developed an effective countermeasure to a new deadly weapon possessed by both the United States and Russia. He agrees to pass to his secret to the Americans, but an enemy agent has infiltrated their organisation, and he is assassinated. However, this is a blunder by the Russians as the formula is in code. When a top American agent arrives, the race is on to find the key to the cypher…

This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is clean-cut American Brett Halsey, making a beeline for the usual mid-1960s mash-up of girls, guns and a couple of low-budget gadgets. This Spanish-French and Italian co-production was directed by Federico Aicardi and Tulio Demichili, with the latter on script duties with five other writers, including infamous Eurotrash filmmaker Jess Franco.

Isn’t it always the way? Secret agent 077 George Farrell (Halsey) is just about to grapple with latest flame Irán Eory when the powers that be call on the telephone, asking him to save the world. Again. He puts the meet off until the next day, but his masters know him only too well; almost immediately there’s a knock on the door and, just an hour or so later, he’s on his way to Lisbon. His mission is to contact renegade scientist, Professor Von Kelster (Rafael Bardem), but the old boy is hiding out at a top-secret location (his estranged wife’s art studio!)

And no wonder the boffin is worried. He possesses the only means to nullify this unnamed secret weapon which transmits ‘electronic waves at a velocity more than the speed of light.’ The vibrations it creates can blind people too! Sounds nasty. Oh, and don’t worry, about how the Professor calculated his formula or how he found out about the weapon in the first place or anything else really, because the movie never bothers us with such irrelevant information.

Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)

‘I’m sorry, ladies, but my dance card is already full.’

So Bardem has hidden his formula within the musical notations in two books with a 4-letter cypher key needed to decode them. It’s a wise move because the Ruskies have already infiltrated the US spy network, thanks to double-agent Robert Scott (Daniel Ceccaldi). Bardem’s contact has been killed and replaced by beautiful assassin, Olga (Jeanne Valérie). She finishes off the boffin with her purse gun when he realises that she’s an imposter because she can’t read music. Halsey arrives on the scene after the fact but picks up the cypher key, thanks to some invisible writing on a mirror.

A replacement for the American side arrives in the shape of dark beauty Marilù Tolo, but rather than reveal they are colleagues, Halsey proceeds to flirt with her in that charming 1960s way that borders on sexual harassment. She’s a rookie, chosen for this vital assignment because she can read music and go undercover as a singer in a local club. Didn’t the entire US spy network have someone with more experience who could read music as well? Given that the Russians had to use Valérie whose lack of ability in this area blew her cover and, ultimately, costs them the mission, it would seem that this skill is a rare commodity in the world of espionage. Perhaps most spies are just tone-deaf.

Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)

‘Have you got the latest Van der Graaf Generator LP recording?’

Of course, it’s up to Halsey to obtain the secret with Tolo’s assistance. They bond after disposing of the body of a dead foreign agent from her hotel room, and he does eventually reveal they are working together. I’m not sure when exactly, and why he didn’t tell her in the first place, but I guess those revelations may have been cut from the print that I viewed, which does seem to have lost approximately seven minutes from its original running time at some point over the years since. Even so, the first significant action arrives just over an hour into the film. That’s way too late for an audience to wait in an enterprise such as this. Although for cult movies fans, there’s always the early glimpse of Erika Blanc, appearing here as ‘Girl in Bikini’ under her initial screen name of Erica Bianchi.

In terms of gadgets, we are restricted to some non-standard surveillance equipment. Halsey has an electronic bug hidden in a remote-controlled bluebottle (geddit?), but it’s deployed only briefly. It may have been intended to use it far more, but it’s so poorly realised that probably the filmmakers didn’t care to linger on such a shoddy example of the FX technician’s art. Elsewhere, there’s a mysterious man in a suit, who identifies only as ‘Skylark’, who watches proceedings via a TV in a suitcase while sitting in hotel lobbies and cafés. It’s one of those magic ‘see all’ movie TVs that doesn’t need a camera at the other end to transmit pictures, although he spends just as much time perving on scantily-dressed women in their hotel rooms as he does following the main action. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the climactic gun battle in a deserted monastery. It’s an excellent location and the drama is well-staged, but it’s taken a very long time to get to that point, and a good percentage of the audience may not have stayed the course.

Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)

‘Are you looking at me, Daddio?’

Halsey had begun his screen career in small roles, sometimes uncredited, which included an appearance in Gill-Man sequel ‘Revenge of the Creature’ (1955). By the end of the decade, he’d worked his way up to be a featured supporting player in low-budget movies such as ‘The Cry-Baby Killer’ (1958) which marked the debut of a certain Jack Nicholson. Just a year later, the busy young actor took the lead in teen-drama ‘Speed Crazy’ (1959) and appeared with Vincent Price in the title role of ‘The Return of the Fly’ (1959). Bigger budgets meant smaller parts, so he turned his gaze to Europe and the lead in Italian-French swashbuckler ‘The Seventh Sword/Le sette spade del vendicator’ (1962). Many leading European roles followed, including appearing twice for horror maestro Mario Bava in two of the director’s lighter, more mainstream efforts: ‘Roy Colt and Winchester Jack’ (1970) and ‘Four Times That Night’ (1971). After that, he moved back to the United States where he became a regular face on network television right up to the mid-1990s, appearing on ‘The Bionic Woman’, ‘The Love Boat’, ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’, ‘Charlie’s Angels’, ‘Knight Rider’, and several times on ‘Fantasy Island’ among many others.

A rather slow-moving Eurospy without the dynamism or outlandish flourishes that mark out the best of the genre.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)‘With this suit, I could swim through the centre of the sun.’

A notorious criminal mastermind steals 10 million dollars from under the noses of the police. The authorities escalate their campaign to apprehend him, forcing an underworld kingpin and his mob into taking action against the thief. Can the villain stay one step ahead of both the combined might of the forces of law and order and the criminal underworld?

Stylish and extravagant big-screen adaptation of the popular Italian comic book series from director Mario Bava. Unlike the maestro’s previous offerings, this was a big studio production with backing from well-known producer Dino De Laurentiis, big-name stars and shot on various locations, but mostly at his studio in Rome.

The film opens with the latest diversionary tactic employed by Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) to snare super heist merchant, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his lover and partner in crime Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). Instead of ten million dollars in banknotes, the cargo protected by a convey of motorcycle policemen is just blank paper. The real deal is going with him in an unmarked car with a much smaller escort. Law isn’t fooled, of course, and uses a smoke machine on a road bridge and a dockside crane to grab the swag. Piccoli is called in to face Minister of Finance Terry-Thomas but, after a humiliating press conference which Law and Mell disrupt with laughing gas, Piccoli gets special powers to end the Diabolik menace.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


Squeezing local mobster, Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) by raiding on his clubs and businesses, the detective strikes a deal with the crimelord: hand over Diabolik and the pressure will be off. Meanwhile, Law pulls off another daring heist; snatching an emerald necklace and escaping via a rise with a catapult. But Celi kidnaps Mell and offers Law an ultimatum: the ten million dollars and the emerald necklace in exchange for her safe return. Law accepts the deal, but still has a few tricks up his sleeve when they meet for a showdown.

Diabolik was a character created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani whose instant popularity created a whole new sub-genre of Italian comics known as the ‘Fumetti neri’ (‘black comics’). In his original incarnation, Diabolik was a ruthless criminal genius, who let nothing stand in his way but, over time, and after legal actions by an outraged ‘moral majority’, the character softened into more of a hi-tech ‘Robin Hood’. Fumetti neri in general split into two distinct camps, those targeted more at a juvenile audience and those ‘prohibited to minors’ which emphasised more adult themes, including far higher levels of sex and violence.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


A project to adapt the character to film had begun several years earlier with Jean Sorel in the title role and Elsa Martinelli and his lover and partner in crime, Eva Kant. However, the project collapsed quickly, and it’s unclear if anything more was shot than publicity stills. De Laurentiis acquired the rights and brought Bava on board, intending the film would accompany his production of Roger Vadim’ ‘Barbarella’ (1968) into theatres. Law was under contract to appear in that film, but delays caused by working with the SFX allowed him to take on the role of Diabolik first.

Bava was happy with his casting but less so with Catherine Deneuve who De Laurentiis selected for the role of Eva. As it was, she only lasted a week into filming before Austrian actress Marisa Mell replaced her. By all accounts, this was because Deneuve refused to disrobe for the film’s most iconic scene, where Diabolik and Eva make love naked on a revolving bed covered in money. However, given her subsequent filmography and the fact that the final scene is not explicit, it may be that Bava was able to use the situation as a way to get her released.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 


The finished film is a kaleidoscope of 1960s pop culture, with bright, eye-popping colours and a wonderful mixture of striking production design and Bava’s genius for optical effects. Rather than presenting the action in a static way to reflect its comic strip origins, Bava keeps his camera moving, deliver a fast-paced narrative decorated with stylistic flourishes which give the film a feel of hyper-reality. Bava achieved the apparent scale and complexity of Diabolik’s underground headquarters by combining the actors with Bava’s matte paintings. Other visuals were created by cutting pictures of buildings, aircraft and other items from magazines, posting them on to a sheet of strategically placed glass and then shooting the action through it. Although it sounds like a terrible idea, Bava makes it work.

There are some other noteworthy touches too. Bava uses animation to draw lines on a map, and for a photo-fit device used by the police to try and identify Eva. He also employs his usual trick of foregrounding objects to give depth to scenes, sometimes shooting through some that break the image into squares approximating the comic book panels, such as empty bookshelves and a bedstead.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


There’s a flamboyance and a real sense of freedom to the picture, fueled by a playful, liberated sexuality, displayed not by promiscuity, but the unfettered passion between Diabolik and Eva. It helps that Law and Mell have such sizzling chemistry and give note-perfect performances, sensibly resisting the temptation to play to the gallery. Celi is his usual, reliable self as boss of the criminal underworld and Piccoli underplays beautifully as our larcenous duo’s official nemesis. Thomas also provides a beautiful cameo as the government minister, begging the populace to pay their taxes voluntarily after Law and Mell blow up the tax office and destroy all the official records!

The cool 1960s vibe also gets a major assist from composer Ennio Morricone, who delivers a jazzy, uptempo score that’s an integral part of the film’s ambience. Sadly, the original tapes are no longer available, having been destroyed in a fire, and the only way to enjoy his work is to watch the film, although a re-recording from 2014 is available. Also on hand to deliver his expertise is artist Carlo Rambaldi who designed Diabolik’s iconic mask before going on to significant work in Hollywood, rewarded eventually with 3 Oscars, including one for ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982).

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

The character of Diabolik has his roots in older fictional masterminds, such as Germany’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ and the French ‘Fantomas’. Like those characters, in the source material, he plays with notions of identity, using lifelike masks to take on the appearance of anyone he chooses. This idea was dropped from the film, leaving him more in common with later villains such as ‘Kriminal’. He was developed as a direct rival to Diabolik but arrived on the big screen first in the form of Glenn Saxson. In a sly tip of the hat, the bank manager who hands the ten million dollars over to Piccioli at the start of this film is played by Andrea Bosic, who served as Saxson’s official opponent in those earlier ‘Kriminal’ pictures.

There are some flaws in Bava’s film, though. The process shots and rear-projection are so hideous and poorly done that it’s tempting to believe that it was a deliberate choice, made by the director to contribute to the comic-book aesthetic. If so, then it’s one of the few visual missteps in his career. The script, credited to several writers, including Bava, is a little scrambled and untidy, but that may have been intentional too, as it does lift some sequences directly from the source material and contributes to the freewheeling atmosphere.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

Diabolik’s return to the big screen any time soon seems an unlikely proposition, even though the global audience today shares some of the feelings of the public who first elevated the character to its iconic status in Italy after the Second World War. Specifically, a distrust of authority figures who increasingly excuse graft and political corruption by using the loopholes in a legal system designed solely for their benefit. This growing cynicism would embrace a subversive character such as this, but any new iteration would need to walk a very fine line. After all, a lot of his actions would be interpreted by most as aspects of domestic terrorism, even though he has no political agenda or desire to enforce change on the system.

Bava’s cut-price optical effects helped bring the film in for a cost of approximately $400,000 when it had originally been allocated a budget of $3 million. De Laurentiis offered him the chance to direct a sequel with the unused money, but Bava turned it down, unhappy with what he felt was interference from the studio during the filmmaking process. Perhaps the money would have been better used smoothing off some of the rougher edges of this film anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable Sixties romp, tinged with psychedelia and filtered through the genius of Mario Bava.

Evil Spawn (1987)

Evil Spawn (1987)‘Remember that scientist who went crazy a few days ago and then was crushed by a jeep?’

A fading Hollywood star finds leading roles harder to come by, and, in her desperation, resorts to an experimental anti-ageing treatment. Unfortunately, this has been derived from Venusian spores, and she transforms into an alien creature with a lust to kill…

Welcome to the world of Grade-Z movie mogul Fred Olen Ray. This micro-budgeted, uncredited remake of Roger Corman’s ‘The Wasp Woman’ (1959) may be credited to writer-director Kenneth J Hall, but it’s Ray who seems to have been the moving force behind the production. His name might not appear on the screen, but he produced the film and even directed a little of the finished product.

The film opens with a caption informing the audience that a probe has returned from Venus bringing alien spores and that the following story we’re about to see involves the misuse of these extra-terrestrial germs. We’re even shown a less than wonderful spacecraft model approaching Earth (probably sourced from one of Ray’s other productions). After the drawn-out opening credits that follow (never a good sign), a bearded man in a laboratory (Gary J Levinson) is attacked by a nasty orange glove puppet. He gets sick and lurches out to an alleyway where he interrupts a couple of bickering lovers and ends up caught between a jeep and a hard place.

Evil Spawn (1987)

‘I’m not sure this mud pack is working…’

This incident’s been arranged by Evelyn Avery (Dawn Wildsmith, billed here as Donna Shock), who works as the assistant to mad skin specialist Dr Zeitman (John Carradine). He’s too busy dying to know what she’s up to and hands over his great work to her before he finally expires. Wildsmith, who seems to have the same hairdresser as Elsa Lanchester’s ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, then takes the serum from Carradine’s research and offers it to over-the-hill film star, Lynne Roman (Bobby Bresee). She’s desperate to regain her youth so she can be cast in the prestigious lead of a new production by director Mark Randall (Mark Anthony). Bresee takes the injections, of course, and the inevitable transformations follow.

If the finished film has more than a touch of the ‘home movie’ vibe around it, then that’s for a good reason. Most of it was shot in Bresee’s real-life Beverley Hills house. Her character only leaves it twice; to go to a party with Anthony and to visit the office of her slimy agent Harry (Fox Harris). Of course, we don’t see her and Anthony at the party, or her travelling to the agent’s office (basically a desk he sits behind with a few posters on the wall from other Ray productions, including ‘The Tomb’ (1986) also with Carradine). At least Bresee didn’t have far to go after filming finished every night.

‘Damn, these aren’t my reading glasses!’

Carradine’s one scene in the picture was his conversation with Wildsmith (Mrs Fred Olen Ray, at the time). Ray directed it and made the dialogue as non-specific as possible so that he could insert the footage into subsequent movies, as and when required. He also supervised a different version of this film, hiring director Ted Newsom to add extra footage with actor Richard Harrison so that he could reissue it as ‘The Alien Within.’ Sadly, it doesn’t look as if Carradine had to do much research to get into character as the dying scientist. He seems to be having difficulty breathing and delivering his dialogue. This could have been great acting, of course, but, if so, it’s remarkably convincing.

If this all sounds like it makes for a terrible movie, then, yes, the film isn’t very good. However, surprisingly, there are a few compensations. To begin with, Bresee is quite good as the fading actress. Perhaps too good, if the intention was to present this as a comedy, which is possible given some of the corny dialogue and Wildsmith’s campy performance. The commentary on the problems of an actress ageing in Tinseltown is not exactly subtle, but it’s still valid. Bresee is betrayed by her agent, gets the brush off from director Anthony and finds that boyfriend, Brent (John Terrence) has traded her in for younger model, Tracy (Leslie Eve). Her only real friends are biographer, Ross (Drew Godderis) who can’t help with her career, and secretary Elaine (Pamela Gilbert), who is far too young and beautiful to be allowed to live!

Evil Spawn (1987)

‘If I write myself a few more lines, no-one will notice.’

Another plus is the full-sized creature FX designed by Ralph Miller III and executed by Hal Miles, Michael Deak and their crew. The monster doesn’t look great, and we never see the suit in motion, but, given the minimal resources that were probably available, it’s actually pretty good. Also, some of the gore FX, such as an arm being torn off, are even better. They look like they belong in a production of a far higher quality. There just isn’t enough of them. This becomes less of a surprise when we look at Miles and Deak’s subsequent credits.

Deak worked on entries in both the ‘Halloween’ series and the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise and many productions of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. He eventually graduated to the SFX crews of major studio tentpoles such as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003) and ‘Hulk’ (2003) before supervising the FX on Michael Bay’s ‘The Island’ (2005). He also worked on the ‘Tranformers’ series and ‘TRON: Legacy’ (2010) before taking a decade-long break to return for ‘Bill & Ted: Face The Music’ (2020). Miles specialised in animatronics, and his later credits include James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss’ (1989), ‘Gremlins 2: The New Batch’ (1990), ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ (1991), ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie’ (1995), among many others.

‘This sounds like something out of a bad science-fiction film,’ Bresee mutters at one point. Quite.

She (1911)

She (1911)‘She-who-must-be-obeyed, by her mystic powers, knows of their approach, and summons them.’

After wandering for years, two lovers reach the kingdom of a deathless Queen, who offers the promise of Eternal Life. But the gift is only offered to the man…

This 25-minute film may not have been the first screen version of the famous H Rider Haggard novel about the immortal Queen Ayesha, but it is the first attempt at a full adaptation that has survived. French movie magician George Melles juggled with the concept of ‘an eternal flame’ in ‘La Colonne de feu/The Pillar of Fire’ (1899) and ‘The Mystical Flame’ (1903). However, these were ‘trick films’ showcasing his fantastic facility with production design and early SFX and contained nothing else from the original story. Sadly, Edwin S Porter’s 1908 version, which likely did, is lost to time.

The time: 350 BC, the place: Egypt. Kallikrates (James Cruze) and Amenartes (Viola Alberti) are in love, but the prospects of a long-term relationship aren’t good. She is the Pharoah’s daughter, after all, and he is just a priest of Isis. They flee together; him on a camel, her jogging to keep up! Twice twelve moons later, with a baby in tow, they reach the coast of Africa and the kingdom of She-who-must-be-obeyed (Marguerite Snow). Unfortunately, Snow takes a shine to Cruze and offers him the chance to bath in the flame of eternal life with her. He prefers to stay with his family, though, and the next thing we see is Alberti running back to their camp, grabbing the baby and getting the hell out of there. A helpful caption tells us that she knows ‘her son or his descendants shall return to avenge her husband’s death.’

She (1911)

The mobile phone bill was never welcome.

Fast forward to the second half of the film and 1885 in Cambridge, England. Academic Horace Holly (William C Cooper) takes charge of a pre-pubescent Leo Vincey (actually played by a girl, Marie Eline), the son of a close friend now deceased. Eline grows up into James Cruze, of course (neat trick, that!) and on his 25th birthday, he and Cooper open the old box that forms his inheritance. A letter from his offscreen dad informs him that he is descended from Kallikrates and that the old man’s murderer is most likely still alive 2000 years later and living in a lost city in Africa. So, nothing unexpected there, then. The papers also charge him to avenge his ancestor’s death because a couple of millennia is never too long to hold a grudge!

It probably seems ambitious to attempt to cover the events of an entire novel in just 25 minutes. However, the enterprise may not seem too foolhardy to those familiar with the source material. Haggard’s original is slow, more than a little stodgy, and not exactly packed with incident. Of course, some things have to be discarded; our heroes time with the rock people, the character of Ustane and the guided tours of Kôr, but the main events remain. Director George Nichols even gives us the original Egyptian scenes, which are only told in flashback in the novel. There is also an attempt to show the journey to the Hall of the Eternal Flame, which is one of the book’s best sequences, rather than the chamber being close at hand (in the 1965 Hammer version, it seems to be in Ursula Andress’ basement). It’s also good to see the People of the Rocks armed with what appear to Roman spears and shields.

She (1911)

‘…and the Extra Point is good!’

The Thanhouser Film Corporation who were behind this production tackled ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) next and brought several of these performers back for that venture, including Cruze in the title role. However, it’s best remembered now as the film where Jekyll and Hyde were played by different actors, Henry Benham donning the fright wig and fangs for at least some of Hyde’s scenes. Cruze and Snow were married in real life, but Cruze was physically abusive, sometimes in public, and she divorced him in 1923. Gifting some valuable real estate to their daughter Julie in 1933 to avoid giving up to creditors, he began legal action in an attempt to get it back from her five years later. He was unsuccessful.

Rider Haggard’s novel was vastly influential in the fantasy genre, both literary and cinematic. This filmed version is, of course, rather primitive when viewed today. Leaps in technique, performance, staging and SFX were occurring at an accelerated pace in the early days of the medium, and this effort probably looked hopelessly dated within a decade or so. However, you can’t fault the filmmakers’ ambition taking on such a project and, bearing in mind it’s vintage, it delivers the goods on its, admittedly limited, level.

Certainly of historical interest.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)‘You will be devoured last after I have eaten up all of your fellows.’

At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…

Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.

It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Your dinner is in the bin.’

The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.

It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

🎵So let them say your hair’s too long… 🎶

And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.

The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘But you know I’ve always looked up to you…’

What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)

Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Not so fast, Mr Odysseus.,.’

Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’. 

Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)‘How many times do I have to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts?’

A struggling writer is about to leave Rome and fly back to the United States. On the way back to his apartment one night, he witnesses a woman being stabbed in an art gallery. She survives the ordeal, but the police inspector assigned to the case is convinced that it’s connected to the murders of three young women in the city over the past few weeks… 

Writer-director Dario Argento’s debut film redefined the Giallo picture and turned into a marketable international commodity, provoking a avalanche of similar Italian pictures over the next five years. These edgy, stylish and violent horror thrillers are considered the precursor to the American slasher craze, which began with John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978) and is still producing new movies almost half a century later.

Author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a cynical, defeated man. His sojourn in Italy has produced only a factual book about rare birds, rather than the Great American Novel that he had intended to write. Tickets are already booked for a flight home with girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) when he goes to pick up his final paycheck with friend, Carlo (Renato Romano). On his way home alone, he passes by an art gallery and witnesses two figures in the mezzanine of an art gallery struggling with a knife. The woman is stabbed, and her assailant escapes with Musante trapped between the automatic glass doors that open onto the street.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) survives the attack, to the relief of worried husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) who owns the gallery. Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) believes the violent assault is linked to the recent murders of three young women in the city. The victims were not connected, and Salerno is keen to keep eyewitness Musante close at hand, especially as the writer is convinced there was something odd about what he saw, although he can’t quite put it into words. Salerno encourages Musante to investigate the case himself, and the American needs little encouragement.

Groundbreaking films can be difficult to assess once a great deal of time has passed. Whatever innovations they brought to the table will often have become familiar with their use by other filmmakers in subsequent years, sometimes almost to the point of cliché. It’s refreshing, then, that the dynamic cutting, pace and abundance of exciting technique ensure that Argento’s film still holds up remarkably well today, even though its impact has inevitably lessened a little with the years. Rewatching does expose some weaknesses in the narrative and story structure, but these are not major enough to compromise the suspension of disbelief or affect the entertainment value.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Argento got the inspiration for his story from Frederic Brown’s noir novel ‘Screaming Mimi’. It had already been filmed by director Gerd Oswald under that title in 1958 but, despite being mostly faithful to the decent source material, the results were a disappointment. Argento elected to use the book only as a jumping-off point; specifically the notion of a psychotic triggered by an object of art. Like the novel, the film does open with an assault visible from the street through glass, but Brown’s original has it in a hotel lobby, and his protagonist only witnesses the aftermath. The only other similarity is a passing reference to Musante’s character having a drinking issue, the reporter in Brown’s story being a (barely) functioning alcoholic. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Argento chose not to credit Brown’s novel.

One of the film’s great virtues is its pacing. The script sets up Musante’s character very quickly. The quick, potted history of his unproductive time in Rome is covered in casual conversation with friend Romano, and he’s across the street from the art gallery less than five minutes into the movie. This scene is rightly celebrated as a masterful example of concept, production design, editing and execution. Musante getting trapped between the two sliding glass doors may be a somewhat unlikely development, but it’s an important touchstone for his character that helps to inform his later actions. All he can do is watch Renzi bleeding out on the carpet, reflecting his own artistic impotence and failure.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

These circumstances help explain why Musante stays to investigate the killings, rather than getting out of Rome on the first plane after Salerno returns his passport. Similarly, the script may give the talented Kendall little to do, but her presence is essential in how it softens Musante’s character. Without her, the writer would come across as almost entirely self-absorbed and more than a little arrogant. It helps enormously with audience investment and sympathy that the two actors have good chemistry together and present a convincing romantic couple. 

But what takes the picture to the next level are Argento’s attempts to do something interesting with every scene, either visually or by use of Ennio Morricone’s masterful score. The music is particularly effective in elevating potentially generic scenes such as the one where Musante questions antique dealer (Werner Peters); the wordless chorus of female singers performing almost in a half-whisper providing a unique ambience. Just as importantly, the young director never allows technique to overshadow the drama, avoiding the self-conscious showboating that many directors of the period favoured.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

There’s also outstanding use of locations. Instead of the Eternal City as seen through a tourist’s eyes, this is a Rome of crumbling plasterwork, broken light bulbs and run down, abandoned buildings. Again, it’s not overplayed, it just serves to give each scene a visual identity, and ground the more stylised aspects in a solid, tactile reality. This attention to detail is ever-present on many levels; for example, there’s an almost playful scene where Musante and Kendall discuss the previous murders. She is almost laughing as she reads out the details from newspaper clippings. Argento intercuts this banter with black and white photographs of the murdered victims at the crime scenes, a device which would raise few eyebrows now, but wasn’t something you expect to see in a film of this vintage.

Similar care is taken with most of the supporting characters, with some sly comedy courtesy of stuttering pimp Garrulo (Gildo Di Marco), the contradictory patter of snitch Faiena (Pino Patti) and the dietary habits of artists Consalvi (Mario Adorf). Again, these could have been very generic roles in very generic scenes, but they are made memorable, thanks to the quirky traits Argento bestows on these minor characters. There also an effort to show the police at work, both with new forensic methods (very dated now, of course) and with standard, routine procedure. Nothing unusual when viewed today, of course, but not a common aspect of the films of the time.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Those watching the film for the first time today, expecting buckets of gore are likely to be disappointed. Proceedings aren’t entirely bloodless, but the kills are not very explicit although Argento’s camera does linger and emphasise some of the more lurid aspects. We see the killer’s hands (Argento’s own) in black leather gloves, fondling the tools of their deadly trade. It’s almost fetishistic. The director breaks up the rhythm of the violence too, with the razor attack in the elevator swiftly delivered with multiple slashes of the weapon straight into camera. Familiar now, of course, but not the done thing at the time.

The film isn’t without some flaws, however, and these lie in the story development. For a start, we’re supposed to buy into the notion that seasoned copper Salerno not only grants Musante an inside view of the police investigation, he also encourages his only eyewitness to dig into the case himself. This is especially hard to swallow when the killer has already targeted Musante. Later on, an unknown assassin (US actor Reggie Nalder) is hired to deal with Musante and, although this leads to an excellent action scene and a fine gag, it doesn’t ring true in terms of the plot. This is explained when you learn that Argento ran into the holidaying Nalder on the street one day and wrote him a part in the film at the last minute.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Also, it’s more than a little puzzling why the killer intends to rub out Musante in the first place. Why is he a threat exactly? His investigation hardly seems to be getting closer to the truth (despite what he says!), and the fact that the author is still struggling to recall something that he witnessed at the gallery isn’t news that’s likely to have escaped police headquarters. Sure, he’s been going around asking a lot of questions, but if that’s a valid criterion for being on our murderer’s hit list then why isn’t he after the entire police investigative team as well?

But the main issue is that no-one thinks to check out the origin of the painting. After all, it was sold by the first victim to a mysterious customer on the night she was killed. Musante stares at it off and on for most of the movie (he has a copy of it on their apartment wall!), and it’s only on the same day that he and Kendall are finally due to fly back to the States that he thinks it might be a good idea to look up the artist! In Brown’s original novel, the reporter is always aware of the importance of the little black statuette in the case (the ‘Screaming Mimi’ of the title) but keeps his knowledge from the police. Here, however, Inspector Salerno knows all about the painting from day one, but somehow never considers it as an appropriate line of enquiry.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

These are minor quibbles, however. The virtuosity of Argento’s framing, the superb cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, the editing of Franco Fraticelli and the production design of Dario Micheli (check out those fantastic pieces in the gallery!) combine to create an unforgettable experience. Despite a slow start at the box office, the film became a massive hit, both critically and commercially, playing for three and a half years in one Milan cinema. By 1971, the Italian film industry had gone Giallo crazy, and more than 60 similar pictures were delivered in the next couple of years.

Musante was an American actor who’d made a significant impact with a showy supporting role in ‘The Detective’ (1968), an unusual vehicle for Frank Sinatra which had played more as much as a character study than a conventional thriller. He never went onto to become a star but played second leads in a few significant pictures such as Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Grissom Gang’ (1971)and excellent crime drama ‘The Last Run’ (1971) starring George C Scott. He transitioned quickly into television and split his time between Italy and the US. Kendall had an uncredited bit in ‘Thunderball’ (1965) before making a big impression in a supporting role in ‘To Sir, with Love’ (1967). The female lead in social drama ‘Up the Junction’ (1968)followed, and she enjoyed another big hit in the title role of ‘Fraulein Doktor’ (1969). After leading roles in Sergio Martino’s ‘Torso’ (1973) and Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Spasmo’ (1974), she retired from the screen in 1977. 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

The film launched Argento on a celebrated filmmaking career, of course, as he followed up with further Gialli The Cat o’Nine Tails’ (1971) and ‘Four Flies On Grey Velvet’ (1971). An unsuccessful side-step into historical drama with ‘The Five Days’ (1973) was followed by arguably his most significant works; ‘Deep Red’ (1975), and the astounding ‘Suspiria’ (1977). Further projects such as ‘Inferno’ (1980)‘Tenebrae’ (1982)‘Phenomona’ (1985) and ‘Opera’ (1987) kept the bar high for many years, but his subsequent output is generally regarded as disappointing.

A daring piece of work that helped to define an entire sub-genre of film and was the calling card of a major new filmmaking talent. However, you can push all that historical importance to one side if you want and just revel in a cracking horror thriller. An essential Giallo.

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)‘What kind of chicken are you, Mr Manning?’

A nuclear scientist is rescued from the East, but the agent assigned to supervise his transfer from Hong Kong to America is murdered. A top agent is sent in to retrieve the situation but finds more than one opposing group trying to get their hands on the boffin and his secrets…

Italian-Spanish Eurospy from Roberto Bianchi Montero (directing as Robert M White) that features Spaniard Germán Cobos as this week’s ‘Bond On A Budget.’ Unfortunately, for him said budget stretches to a limited geographical itinerary; a quick stop-off in Barcelona and en extended stay in Hong Kong. Also, the production takes a pass on the ‘gadget’ element of the usual ‘Guns, Girls and Gadgets’ formula, leaving this a far more grounded production than many of its contemporaries.

It’s business as usual for special agent Robert Manning (Cobos), codename Agent Z-55. Just as things are starting to get interesting in the bedroom with his latest flame, the telephone rings, and it’s off to Hong Kong on his latest mission. Professor Larsen (Francisco Sanz) has been rescued from his Chinese captors by a team of Japanese Kung-Fu experts, led by a one-handed man, and sequestered in secret on the island. Unfortunately, the operative sent to bring him home has turned his toes up unexpectedly, and Cobos is next in line for the detail.

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)

‘What have you done with the hot blonde in my shower?’

Arriving during a sudden onslaught of Hong Kong tourist board footage, our suave hero has a run-in with the local fuzz at the airport who want him on a trumped-up smuggling charge. One car chase later, he’s checking into his hotel when he finds something is very wrong. There’s no mysterious hot blonde using the shower in his room! Rather than ring room service to complain, he pops next door instead and starts putting the moves on sexy brunette, Sally (Maria Luisa Rispoli) but, of course, she’s not there by chance. She’s working for local crime boss, Barrow (Gianni Rizzo) who keeps an armadillo on his desk, rather than a white cat in his lap, and is looking for Sanz so he can sell him to the highest bidder.

But Rizzo and Cobos aren’t the only ones after the nuclear expert. There’s also the Chinese, led by To-go (Milton Reid) and his pretty sidekick Su Ling (Yôko Tani). Cobos must navigate these muddy waters, playing the ex-con for Rizzo to get into his organisation, and trying to keep the rather violent Reid at arms’ length. And that pretty much sums up the first hour of the film; it’s generic, dull and only sputters into life occasionally. There’s the unmistakable feeling that none of the incidents that do occur is all that important, or will generate any long-term consequences. Also, the occasional action, mostly fistfights, are often shot in near-darkness, which doesn’t help with audience engagement.

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)

‘Your next cliché is right in there.’

However, everything takes a marked turn for the better as the film moves into its final act. Events turn increasingly violent as the stakes escalate. There’s nice confrontation backstage in a crowded cinema where the movie that’s playing covers the sound of the real-life gun battle. The audience in the cheap seats remains blissfully unaware that anything’s happening until one of the dead men falls through the screen and into the auditorium. It’s in these later stages that Cobos comes into his own too; his initial, somewhat bland and smug operative revealing his true colours as a hard man who will do anything to fulfil his mission. Whether this was an intentional tonal shift by actor and filmmakers is open to question, but it does work. The only downside is that audiences will be left wondering why it took so long for the film to find its edge.

There are some other minus points as well, the main one being the rather tiresome convention of caucasian actors playing orientals by the brilliant application of makeup around the eyes. This trope is evident in some of the supporting cast, but mostly with Reid who was of mixed Indian-Scottish heritage. His imposing physical appearance makes it obvious why he’s in the film, but couldn’t he have been recast as one of the non-Chinese villains instead? Similarly, Tani was Japanese. Elsewhere in the cast, the sharp-eyed viewer may spot Giovanna Cianfriglia as one of Rizzo’s henchmen; he became better known shortly afterwards as costumed crimefighter SuperArgo.

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)

‘Armadillo!’

Cobos returned as Agent Manning in ‘Tecnica per un massacro’ (1967) also directed by Montero and enjoyed a long career on the Spanish screen. But it’s our ‘Chinese’ villains who boast far more interesting histories. Tani was born in Paris and began her career as a dancer before making her debut in a Japanese picture in 1949. Small roles followed in both French and Japanese productions until the late 1950s when she made her US debut in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ‘The Quiet American’ (1958). Her big break came that same year opposite Dirk Bogarde in British film ‘The Wind Cannot Read’ (1958), and she opened the following decade starring in the Polish science-fiction feature ‘First Spaceship On Venus’ (1960). She was the Eskimo heroine of Nicholas Ray’s ‘The Savage Innocents’ (1960) with Anthony Quinn and tackled similar exotic roles in many European films, including ‘The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse’ (1964). There was also time for Italian Eurospys ‘Goldsnake Anonima Killers’ (1966) and ‘The Spy Who Loved Flowers’ (1966) plus British low-budget sci-fi ‘Invasion’ (1965). She even starred in the final episodes of Patrick McGoohan’s TV hit ‘Danger Man.’

Reid was a wrestler by trade but parlayed his fearsome physique, bald head and vicious scowl into many ‘heavy’ roles on television and in the movies. Sure, many of them were non-speaking parts, but he became a very recognisable screen presence, getting his first big break in Lewis Gilbert’s weak adventure flick ‘Ferry to Hong Kong’ (1959) which starred Orson Welles and Sylvia Sims. Small roles followed in big-budget Hollywood production ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ (1960), Hammer studio’s ‘Terror of the Tongs’ (1960) and Italian-U.S. fantasy ‘The Wonders of Aladdin’ (1960). One of his most notable roles was as the doomed mulatto in another Hammer production; the excellent historical adventure ‘Captain Clegg’ (1962) with Peter Cushing. Appropriately enough, there were also bits in the ‘Bond’ franchise; in ‘Dr. No’ (1962), the spoof ‘Casino Royale’ (1967) and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977).

This is a fairly run of the mill Eurospy. However, there was the potential to deliver something significantly better if the filmmakers had committed fully to the edgier tone of its later stages.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)‘Don’t be silly; I don’t want to oscillate her, I want to duplicate her.’

Evil genius Dr Goldfoot has decided to take over the world, taking advantage of his resemblance to one of NATO’s top generals. When the military men gather in Rome, he begins to eliminate them one by one, using his Girl Bombs; seductive robots who explode on command. An agent of the Secret Intelligence Command attempts to foil the scheme, with the help of two bumbling friends…

‘Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine’ (1965) had been a worldwide hit for American International Pictures but had done some of its best business in Italy. After the domestic success of ‘The Amazing Dr G’ (1965) for the Italian comedy duo Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, producer Fulvio Lucisano was looking to finance a sequel. So why not combine the two projects into one? Bring Vincent Price back as Goldfoot and star him alongside Franco & Ciccio!

Producer Lucisano had worked with Mario Bava on ‘Planet of the Vampires’ (1965), and American International were only too familiar with the horror maestro, having distributed several of his films Stateside. Some of these had been joint ventures, and Bava had even shot separate versions for the different markets simultaneously. He was also known for bringing in projects on time, and on budget. What could possibly go wrong?

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

‘Don’t knock it, it’s better than a real job!’

Dr Goldfoot (Price) is up to his old tricks again. This time, he’s perfected a new army of girl robots. Not only do they look fabulous in gold bikinis, but they explode on contact with NATO generals! Working with Oriental sidekicks, Hardjob (Moa Tahi) and Fong (George Wang), he’s planning to take control of a nuclear missile and start another world war between the US and Russia. All that stands in his way is disgraced secret agent, Bill Dexter (Fabian), his love interest Rosanna (Laita Antonelli) and two blundering hotel doormen (Franco & Ciccio, of course).

Fabian attempts to convince his boss Colonel Benson (Francesco Mulé) of the threat that Price poses, but he’s already screwed up once too often, and he’s thrown out on his ear. The handsome young agent gets more of a sympathetic hearing from pretty secretary Antonelli, and things start looking up when a mistake allows idiots Franco and Ciccio to become registered as fully-qualified agents. Mulé gets the office computer to select the two best operatives to investigate the exploding Generals situation and, of course, it spits out the names of our gormless duo, after some tinkering from Price. Rather enjoyably, the mad genius breaks the fourth wall on a few occasion to explain his schemes to us, but the film fails to commit to the idea of the villain as narrator, which could have been interesting. And might have been funny.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

‘Laugh, damn you, laugh!’

The later stages opt for the same approach as the first film; an extended chase sequence, this time, mostly around a funfair. This is delivered in the style of a silent movie, complete with intertitles and under-cranking the camera to speed up the action. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work because there is no creativity behind the gags. It just falls flat. Curiously, it contains Bava’s most extended appearance in one of his films; as an agitated passer-by who gets involved in the action and, subsequently, as an angel in the clouds. There’s little other evidence of his involvement, beyond some nicely-framed shots and a sequence where the girls dance in a roomful of mirrors. It’s a hint at what the film could have been.

These shortcomings may be due to a production decision made early in the film. There were always going to be two separate and distinct cuts of the final film; one for release in America that prominently featured Price, and one for Italy which highlighted Franco & Ciccio. Indeed, a different scriptwriting team worked on each; Robert Kaufman (returning from the first film) and producer Louis M Heywood for the American version, and Franco Castellano and Giuseppe Moccia for the Italian one. How these scripts were finally mashed together is anybody’s guess.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

‘Haven’t you got that hair dryer fixed yet?’

There’s further evidence of a general downturn in quality too (and the original wasn’t that good!) The Supremes catchy theme song has been replaced by a useless effort from the slightly less famous outfit, The Sloopys and American International studio star Frankie Avalon has been switched out for teen heartthrob Fabian. He was another crooner who music moguls were trying to mould, unsuccessfully, into the next Elvis. His performance here is stiff and wooden, but at least we are spared Avalon’s tiresome mugging from the first film.

Strangely enough, the Italian cut of the film with, more Franco & Ciccio and less Price, is better. The story is more coherent and feels more fully developed. Perhaps it’s closer to Bava’s vision of the property, which makes sense as he would have been more familiar, and probably more in tune, with the humour and taste of his own country. However, there is more Franco & Ciccio, which is never a good thing.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

‘You mean, my new single didn’t even make the Top 40?’

If it seems a little baffling as to why a director such as Bava would take on such a project, there are several possible reasons, any one of which might have been sufficient on its own. To begin with, Bava was a massive fan of science-fiction, and the story falls broadly into that category. Perhaps it’s significant that his next project was ‘Diabolik’ (1968), who was a far more successful comic book villain in every sense. Also, he may have wished to try his hand at something different, and there’s the fact that Bava’s films were not all that successful on their original release, particularly in Italy. Ironically, this film proved to be his only real box-office hit domestically! In other words, he may just have needed the work.

Art fantastic Price may have thought a trip to Italy and working with Bava would be a meeting of minds. After all the director’s father, Eugenio, was a well-known sculptor and Bava himself was known for the visual brilliance of his films. However, when asked about working with the actor, Bava remarked: ‘Oh, that pain in the ass. All he did was talk about statues all the time.’

A clumsy, low-grade comedy that was undoubtedly the director’s worst work, and an experience that Price probably wanted to forget.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon/Ercole contro i tiranni di Babilonia (1964)

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)‘I have heard tales of this legendary hero who is usually involved in superhuman undertakings far away.’

The rulers of Babylon are angry when the demi-god, Hercules continually disrupts their slaving expeditions. Although they don’t know it, they have unwittingly kidnapped the Queen of the Hellenes, and the muscleman is on a mission to liberate her from their evil clutches…

The 17th ‘official’ Hercules film that came out of Italy in the wake of the international success enjoyed by Steve Reeves in the title role. It was a loose, disconnected series of features with many different producers and several studios cashing in on the sudden craze. This time around the muscleman appears in the form of American actor Rock Stevens whose brief sojourn on the Tiber was to be followed by far greater success back in his homeland.

The ancient kingdom of Babylon is under the rule of a triumvirate; oldest brother, Assur (Tullio Altamura), bald warrior, Salmanassar (Livio Lorenzon) and their beautiful sister, Taneal (Helga Liné). Much in the manner of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, their dead father has left the kingdom to all three of them to rule together and, although they don’t agree on much, they do agree on one thing: the kingdom needs slaves and lots of them. So, they are less than pleased when news comes back that their hunting expeditions are being broken up by one man (Stevens). Incredulous, they send top warrior (and Liné’s bedwarmer) Behar (Franco Balducci) to deal with it. Unfortunately for him, Stevens easily defeats the raiding party using an assortment of paper-maché rocks and his paper-maché club.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

‘I am not over-compensating, ok?’

Meanwhile, our evil siblings get a state visit from Malik, King of Assyria (Mario Petri) who offers a fortune in gold for all their female slaves. Apparently, they are needed to repopulate his kingdom, but the trio doesn’t believe him. Liné gets him to her apartments for a private interview (not difficult, what guy wouldn’t?) and slips some truth serum into his wine. Then the secret’s out: Esperia, the Queen of the Hellenes (Anna Maria Polani) is doing slave duty below stairs, and he plans to force her into marriage so that he can add her kingdom to his own. Meanwhile, Stevens is on his way to Babylon (courtesy of a highly unlikely piece of business with a carrier pigeon), and everyone has cottoned on to his true identity as the legendary Hercules.

This is a rather feeble and generic Peplum adventure taken from the end of the cycle when Hercules and his heroic contemporaries had racked up over 50 big-screen adventures between them in the space of about seven years and, inevitably, the formula was wearing pretty thin. The main variation was the presence, or not, of any fantastical or mythological elements, and this comes down in the latter category, despite some half-hearted attempts to pay lip-service to the supernatural. Liné’s character is referred to as a sorceress, but it’s very half-hearted. All she really does is slip Petri that mickey and fool around with a ring at the climax, which seems to do precisely nothing.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

‘You never take me anywhere!’

Still, there are some things for the aficionados of the genre to enjoy. Our regal siblings spend as much time and effort trying to outwit each other as they do tackling the threat posed by Stevens. Their murderous plots and counterplots are reminiscent of the Roman court intrigues in Robert Graves classic novel ‘I, Claudius’ and, of course, George R R Martin’s much-later ‘Game of Thrones.’ This is the film’s most enjoyable aspect, although it does take the conflict pit of our hero’s hands somewhat. Stevens doesn’t really have to deal with the villains; in a world where almost everyone double-crosses everyone else, he can pretty much leave them all to get on with it!

There’s also a ‘tribute’ to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (1960) when the nasty Lorenzon devises a way to identify the hidden Queen amongst the female slave population. He has all of them tied to stakes out in the sun and gives them no food or water. After a while, Polani can’t take what’s happening to her sisters in bondage and declares herself, only for all the others to make the same declaration. Rather than carry on with the torture, Lorenzon simply shrugs his shoulders, admits defeat and sends them all back to the slave quarters. On the debit side, a lot of the climactic footage is lifted from Robert Aldrich’s biblical epic ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ (1962) and other crowd footage was probably sourced from there, or other projects.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

‘I am Brian and so is my wife!’

After starting his career on television in the US, Stevens went to Italy and made a quartet of Peplum pictures, of which this was the first. Returning home, he reverted to his birth name of Peter Lupus for professional purposes. A regular gig as Willy Armitage on the iconic network show ‘Mission: Impossible’ followed. The show ran for seven seasons, and despite producers attempting to replace him midway through with Sam Elliott, he stayed with the show until it ended in 1973. Afterwards, he found getting work difficult but he did resurface as Nordberg on Leslie Neilsen’s much-loved (if quickly cancelled) comedy half-hour ‘Police Squad!’ Of course, when the show was resurrected as the ‘Naked Gun’ film franchise, his role was taken by O J Simpson.

Director Domenico Paolella was a journeyman in Italian cinema, like many his output slavishly following the trends of the time. After a start in documentary filmmaking, by the 1960s, he was delivering pirate movies and swashbucklers before moving into the Peplum arena with ‘Maciste contro lo sceicco/Maciste Against The Sheik’ (1962). Once that cycle had run its course, he moved into Eurospys with the hopelessly muddled ‘Agente S 03: Operazione Atlantide’/‘Operation Atlantis’ (1965), made a couple of Spaghetti Westerns and ecclesiastical dramas which were, somewhat unfairly, marketed as part of the brief and rather bizarre ‘nunsploitation’ craze.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

‘This is the secret passage? No wonder, I was looking behind the bookcase.’

Liné should be a familiar face to fans of cult cinema, appearing in dozens of genre pictures in the 1960s and 70s, sometimes in roles unworthy of her abilities. At times, she was relegated to surprisingly minor roles, but, by her account, she accepted everything she was offered because she needed the money, even working as far afield as Mexico. She’s probably most recognisable to most from the title role of Amando de Ossorio’s ‘The Loreley’s Grasp/La garras de Lorelei’ (1972), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She starred in several of the better Eurospys including ‘Operation Poker’ (1965) and ‘Special Agent Lady Chaplin’ (1966), the two films featuring super villain ‘Kriminal’, and in ‘Nightmare Castle’ (1965) with Barbara Steele. She also appeared in Gialli such as ‘So Sweet…So Perverse’ (1969) and ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972), made pictures with Euro-horror star Paul Naschy and even played opposite the Man in the Silver Mask in ‘Santo vs. Doctor Death/Santo contra el doctor Muerte’ (1973).

Despite some points of interest, this is a distinctly minor chapter in the adventures of Hercules, and probably only really for hardcore fans and completists.

King of the Jungle (1933)

King of the Jungle (1933)‘Do you think it’s safe to take your child into lion country?’

After his parents die on safari, a young child is reared in the jungle by lions. Many years later, he attacks the compound of a rancher who has teamed up with a hunter to kill the big cats in the area to protect his cattle. But the ‘Lion Man’ is captured and sold to a circus owner along with the animals…

Olympic swimming gold medallist Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe missed out on the lead in ‘Tarzan, the Ape Man’ (1932) but was almost immediately snapped up by Paramount to take the title role in this competing production. However, what initially looks like a dreary rip-off develops instead into a film with its own identity, thanks to directors H Bruce Humberstone and Max Marcin, and a better than average script, to which Marcin also contributed.

What was it with African explorers back at the start of the 20th Century? Were their parenting skills so poor that they thought it was OK to drag their infant offspring into the unexplored regions of the dark continent? It seems so, as here we have two more examples of the breed, Robert Adair and Florence Britton, picking up a permit to travel through the depths of the Kenyan jungle with their young son. One nifty cut of an editor’s scissors later and the permit is tattered and lying on the grass in the wreckage of a campsite stalked by lions. The sole survivor is the couple’s boy (Ronnie Cosby), who is too young to understand what has happened but old enough to play with lion cubs. Fast forward a couple of decades, and he’s grown into Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe in a leopard-skin loincloth, a full-time member of the pride with no memory of his previous life and no knowledge of the ways of man.

King of the Jungle (1933)

Flash liked to hang out with his buddy Thun at every opportunity.

But there’s trouble in paradise. Rancher Ed Peters (Douglas Dumbille) has decided to take action to protect his herd from the ravages of the local cats. Great White Hunter Joe Nolan (Robert Barrat) has a notion to cage the beasts and sell them to circus owner Neil Forbes (Sidney Toler). A native hunting party kills a lioness and takes her cubs back to Dumbrille’s compound, and it’s game on. Crabbe releases the cattle from their pens one night and the sceptical Dumbille sets a trap for him, encouraged by Barratt. They capture half a dozen lions and get Crabbe as a bonus, Barratt selling him onto Toler, who intends to exhibit him as ‘Kaspar, the Lion Man.’

So, after less than half an hour of the picture, Crabbe is frightened off to San Francisco to appear as the leading attraction in a circus; a development which foreshadows the fate of the somewhat hairier ‘King Kong’ (1933). He escapes on arrival when an over-zealous customs man unlocks his crate and, after a dip in the bay, he fetches up in suburbia, dodging automobiles, scaring old ladies in the park and tangling with the cops. All this activity prompts a ‘calling all cars’ police bulletin, and he’s on the run when he arrives at the home of schoolteacher Frances Dee. She doesn’t approve of his shocking table manners or efforts on the piano, but she takes pity on him anyway. A bond has been formed and, when the circus leaves on tour, Toler persuades Dee to come along and look after his prize asset.

King of the Jungle (1933)

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

The rapid development of the story from what looks like a dreary ‘Tarzan’ riff into a circus drama and romance confounds expectations and is to be applauded. Similarly, instead of Toler proving to be the slave-driving villain of the piece, he’s a somewhat reasonable guy, if you can forgive him for buying Crabbe in the first place. The Lion Man gets well-paid for his work, lessons in his letters from Dee and treated like any other employee of the show. His facility with the big cats makes him the show’s main attraction, of course, and he plans to buy back the lions when he has enough money and repatriate them. Not a plan to find favour with Toler, but does the circus owner descend to dastardly plots and schemes to stop the Lion Man? No, he just tries to talk him out of it, sees it hopeless, and accepts it. It’s this refreshing absence of expected melodrama in all departments that means the picture has aged surprisingly well.

The drama focuses instead on Crabbe’s attempts to adapt to civilised society and, although this never delves too deeply, it’s a pleasingly modern approach. Crabbe was a very inexperienced actor at this point in his career and, perhaps it’s this lack of formal training that results in an absence of the more exaggerated flourishes and affected manner of some actors of the period. Dee is also a charming foil and, although their scenes together may not fizz with chemistry, their relationship comes over as quietly engaging.

King of the Jungle (1933)

‘…and over there is the Santa Monica Freeway…’

Our leading man also deserves some credit for his work with the lions. He gets up close and personal with them on more than occasion, although it’s highly likely that a double was used for some shots. Still, a rehearsal with one of the big cats went south when it nipped his leg, resulting in a ‘severe laceration’ and a trip to the local emergency room. Animal lovers should be a little cautious too; the rumble between a longhorn and a lion may have been just play, of course, but it’s reasonably certain that the Animal Humane Society weren’t around to monitor the action.

Crabbe was, of course, only three years away from a blonde makeover and screen stardom as ‘Flash Gordon’ (1936). His appearance in the serial, and it’s two sequels, may have typed him in the lower end of the talent pool, though, which was unfortunate. Although he could never be considered a great actor, he was still a strong and very natural screen presence, who usually acted circles around his co-stars on the subsequent, low-budget projects in which he appeared.

King of the Jungle (1933)

Larry’s new date was a real looker.

Dee was also an underrated performer, who seems to have been destined for big things at one point after major supporting roles in ‘An American Tragedy’ (1932), ‘Little Women’ (1933), ’Of Human Bondage’ (1934) and ‘Becky Sharp’ (1935). But she married western star Joel McCrea in 1933, and it seems that she was never very ambitious about her career, taking what’s arguably her best-known role in producer Val Lewton’s ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943) apparently so she could buy her mother a car.

A surprising spin on the more typical ‘ape-man’ tale. The different story elements make for a decent drama, even though it never seeks to address some of the deeper themes and questions that it raises.