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.

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.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)‘Attention, there’s a slippery area six square metres large on my right.’

Three young professionals get their kicks playing sex games with casual pickups from bars. However, when one of them dies in the throes of passion, they dump his body and cover up the death. Six years later, they receive an incriminating photograph of the night in question and a blackmail note…

Obscure Giallo thriller from co-writer and director Mauro Severino that seems just as concerned with social commentary as delivering any significant levels of mystery or suspense. Presenting critiques of the ‘smart set’ seems to have been ‘flavour of the month’ in Italian cinema at the tail end of the 1960s, and several examples of Gialli take this approach.

Another night means another menage a trois with a stranger for career girl, Lea (Marília Branco) and up and coming designer, Vanni (Daniël Sola). But, when their voyeur friend, Andrea (Roberto Bisacco) pops up to watch and take the usual dirty pictures, they discover their latest conquest has expired. Panicked, they cover up the mishap and go on with their lives. Six years go by and each his progressed well in their chosen career, and spend their leisure time hanging out with the local branch of the young and idle rich.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

‘Oh, that pose is so 1969…’

The blackmailing letter throws them into another state of panic, of course, as they see all their aspirations slipping through their fingers. They decide to pay up, but, after a midnight rendezvous to drop off the money, all they get is a note demanding more. At first, they suspect each other, but the aborted money drop confirms that another party is involved. They begin to suspect old friend Caletto (Lino Capolicchio). He’s an artist who flirts with radical political causes and has just returned to Madrid after some time away. They renew their friendship within him and invite him into their circle, all the while trying to satisfy themselves that he is the culprit they seek. When they become sure of his guilt, the question of murder raises its ugly head.

The Giallo was still an ill-defined beast at the end of the 1960s. Initially, a series of paperback books first issued in the 1930s that reached new heights of their popularity in the post-war period, these were generally mainstream murder-mysteries and thrillers. Later on, the movie iteration became far bloodier and more stylised, and a form that is now generally regarded as the forerunner of the American Slasher film. That distillation of these elements didn’t begin, however, until the release of Dario Argento’s international critical and commercial hit ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970) almost a full year later.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

‘Was your card the Ace of Spades?’

So here we have the Giallo format appropriated for social commentary, rather than horror or thrills. Our central trio is only concerned with retaining the status that their success and money has brought, even though Severino takes pain to show the emptiness and superficiality of this lifestyle. These beautiful people spend most of their time in a weary, listless stupor, their privilege having brought them little but an existence of endless boredom. So when Branco and Sola invite Capolicchio to one of their get-togethers, it’s the artist who shakes up the scene with some silly and nonsensical party games.

Unfortunately, the audience is unlikely to be engaged by any of these characters. On the one side, we have our humourless protagonists and their indolent gang, most of whom are just there to fill out the frame. We do get introduced to the bearded Filippo (Ivano Davoli) who is apparently Branco’s husband, but his presence is barely more delineated than any of the other members of the group. This may have been the intention, of course, to present its members as subservient to the collective and their standards of conformity, but it doesn’t make them attractive or interesting. The wild card is Capolicchio, but his quirkiness is so overdone that his antics and tiresome dissident posing pale very quickly. Is he assuming the role of the sacrificial lamb here in a kind of significant statement? If so, then the audience is far more likely to be eagerly anticipating the flash of the blade rather then concerning themselves with any message that the filmmakers are trying to convey. If any of the audience is still awake by the latter stages, that is.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

Luca’s new band needed some better instruments.

Severino had a career of about a quarter of a century in the Italian film industry but did not amass an exhaustive amount of credits. After a solitary acting gig on television, he moved behind the camera as an Assistant Director on just over half a dozen pictures, including historical drama ‘Queen of the Nile’ (1958) starring Vincent Price and horror-sci-fi mash-up ‘Hands of A Killer’ (1962). This picture was his debut as a feature director. Afterwards, he moved into television, mostly as a writer, taking on both roles for the 5-episode mini-series ‘Una città in fondo alla Strada’ (1975).

Of the cast members, the real success story is Capolicchio who went onto a long and award-winning career, although he had already nabbed an Italian Golden Globe as ‘Best Breakthrough Actor’ a year before this production hit theatres. Shortly afterwards, he toplined Vittorio De Sica’s acclaimed ‘Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini/The Garden of the Finzi-Contains’ (1970) and went on to star in Antonio Bido’s above-average Giallo ‘The Bloodstained Shadow’ (1978). He is still working in the industry as of 2019.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

‘I couldn’t afford a bunch of roses.’

Perhaps the most surprising element though is the participation of world-famous composer Ennio Morricone on soundtrack duty. He delivers a decent score as you would expect, although the nursery rhyme chanting is a little overdone and does become a bit distracting. His presence is easily explained when you consider the man’s almost unbelievable productivity. In a 60-year career, he racked up over 500 soundtrack credits, everything from the iconic ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1968) to pulp science- fiction like ‘The Humanoid’ (1979), Arnold Schwarzenegger’s encounter with ‘Red Sonja’ (1985), and Dario Argento’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (1998). He finally won a belated Oscar for Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’ (2015) after previously being nominated five times. He passed in July 2020, and the world is a poorer place for his departure.

A slow-burning drama which is likely to frustrate fans of the Giallo as we understand it today. The social commentary may have been an accurate reflection of its time it’s likely to be lost on a modern audience.

Agent 505: Death Trap Beirut (1965)

Agent 505 - Death Trap Beirut (1965)‘Only someone who had experimented with refrigerants would have thought of it.’

Four-fingered master criminal The Sheik plans to kill everyone in Beirut by dosing the city with mercury, delivered via his own private rocket. Interpol send in top agent Richard Blake to assess the situation, infiltrate the villain’s lair and foil his deadly plan…

This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is Czech-born actor Friedrich Strobel Von Stein, better known as Frederick Stafford, whose travel itinerary here is limited to Beirut rather than the main tourist spots of Europe. Helping him out on his mission is pretty young blonde reporter Genevieve Cluny and ‘comedy’ sidekick Chris Howland. All are gathered together under the eye of director Manfred R Köhler, whose other main assignment in the canvas chair was delivering ‘Target For Killing’ (1966), a far superior exercise in the spy game which starred one-time Hollywood heartthrob Stewart Granger.

Like the filmmakers, lnterpol are obviously working on a limited budget here as the only gadgets available to Stafford are a pen radio (think ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’) and a briefcase that drips a colourless, flammable liquid that can be ignited by a cigarette. If that last one seems rather random, it proves real handy when the luggage in question is stolen. Our mysterious villain (just who is he?) has a far better arsenal at hand; guns that fire needles of frozen oxygen (they disappear in the bloodstream!) and a deadly telephone handset that redefines the term ‘nuisance call.’

The plot revolves mostly around Stafford’s investigations; getting up close and personal with bad girl Gisella Arden, taking part in an interminable isotope heist from a ship in port and hanging out at ‘The Red Cockatoo’, a dodgy club owned by dragon lady Carla Calo. On a positive note, some of the outdoor locations are well-chosen and help give the action scenes a little extra flourish. There’s a good stunt with a helicopter (even if the rotors seem to stop dead immediately a few seconds after it lands), and the old ‘empty car going off the side of the mountain’ is far better realised than in most films. Stafford is also not bad as the lead, displaying the necessary suavity and a good moment of eyebrow action almost a decade before Roger Moore made the move his own. He also has no time for a Martini; his signature tipple instead being ‘Two raw eggs, banana, an orange, lemon juice, two teaspoons of sugar and three jiggers of rum’.

Agent 505 - Death Trap Beirut (1965)

‘I told you, you should have used protection.’

There’s the odd moment of wit, as he tells a bad guy ‘We could go on fighting like this for an hour, but l just don’t have the time’ before finishing him off. Although it’s probably best that girls don’t put him to the test when he says: ‘I’ll spank you and I’m very good at it.’ Another mission followed for Stafford in ‘Furia a Bastia Pour OSS117’ (1965) and he also went on to star in Hitchcock flop ‘Topaz’ (1969).

What lets Stafford and the rest of the cast down is the drab, uninspired script, which is a surprise as writer-director Köhler’s regular job was behind the typewriter. However, the quality of the projects with which he was involved is incredibly variable; everything from Harry Kümel’s haunting ‘Daughters of Darkness’ (1971) to the rags and tatters of Jess Franco’s dreary ‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ (1968). Another disappointment here is the score from world-famous film composer, Ennio Morricone; significant moments signposted by a crash of orchestral instruments rather in the manner of a silent melodrama. It happens so often that it even starts to become annoying. Of course, it is possible that this was added in the English dub so l guess we have to give the great man the benefit of the doubt.

Stafford is fairly surrounded by international agents in this one, including his hotel chambermaid who is played by Renate Ewert. She was already battling drink and drug problems by the time of filming, brought on by disappointment with her acting career. Sadly, she died at her apartment later the same year that the film was released. The official cause of death was starvation, and it was three weeks before her body was found. Shortly afterwards, her parents committed suicide, unable to cope with their daughter’s death.

Professionally competent, but a dull, formulaic spy adventure of little interest.

 

H2S (1969)

H2S‘How about pretending to be a mantis giving birth?’

A young student finds himself involved with a rebellion against authority at a strange university. Eventually, he escapes to a mountain wilderness with one of the female students, but their new life together brings its own problems…

Once in a while, trawling through the underbelly of obscure and low-budget cinema brings you to a film that defies analysis. All that can be done is to describe what happens on the screen, and confess yourself completely stumped. This is such a film.

Matters open with a 5-minute educational(?) sequence about the behaviour of rats. When population reaches critical mass, they eat each other. Lovely. Then we meet our hero Tommoso, a small, young man who dresses in shiny shoes with large buckles, green stockings, rolled-up trousers, a blazer, and a bright green shirt. His hair is fluorescent orange. Yes, he looks like a leprechaun. Why? Who knows? He’s enrolled at a rather unusual establishment of higher education (or he may have been kidnapped) where tuition consists of watching little girls killing goldfish, and other informative demonstrations. These are led by US actor Lionel Stander, still several years away from his most famous role as old retainer Max on T\/’s ‘Hart to Hart’ with Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers.

Not surprisingly, the students would rather be doing media studies or hanging out at the Uni bar,  so they stage a rebellion that involves wrapping their Principal in toilet rolls. He gets his own back, though, when he invites the student leader to lunch, and then eats her instead. He’s aided in his nefarious schemes by a very tall and strangely dressed woman who bares an unmistakable resemblance to a giant bird. This is probably significant. Why? Who knows?

Tomato escapes all this horror to a snowy mountainside along with fellow malcontent Alice, where they build a shiny log cabin, and decide to speak only in grunts. Things seem to be going well, if rather slowly for the audience, until Alice gets bored and starts wanting things. Most of these involve nasty role-playing games that push Tomato to the point of death. What’s it got to do with the first half of the film? Who knows? But Tomato isn’t very happy about the way the relationship is developing, and decides to go back to school…Probably to finish his education and take his place in normal society. Who knows?

This is the kind of obscure, freewheeling satire that could only have been made in the late 1960s, or under the influence of suspicious substances. Or probably both. Writer-Director Roberto Faenza was an art student (surprise, surprise!) and the rumour is that the film was banned in Italy, and all copies were ordered destroyed. Why? Well, it’s all about conformity and rebellion I guess, and without an in depth knowledge of Italian politics, I can’t really tell you any more. It’s certain that the film was never released outside that country, and that Faenza didn’t make another movie for 10 years, although he has carved out a respectable career in Italian film since.

H2S (1969)

‘Excuse me, can I go to the bathroom?’

Our young leads are played by Denis Gilmore and Carole André. Gilmore was a Brit, and returned to the old country to star in much-loved living dead biker flick ‘Psychomania’ (1973), while André appeared in Visconti’s much less distinguished project ‘Death In Venice’ (1971). Her career took an upswing later on, though, when she showed up for cult 1980s cheesefest Yor, The Hunter from the Future’ (1983).

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about this film (apart from its actual existence in the first place) is that the music score is by Oscar-winning film composer Ennio Morricone! His work here is very good, but even long time fans of the composer will have to admit that there are some…um, slightly eccentric entries in his filmography.

Not exactly entertaining, but strangely fascinating. Although, not necessarily in a good way…

Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983)

Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983)‘You said you didn’t believe in ghosts and legends were cow excrement.’

A soldier of fortune becomes involved in a quest for the Four Crowns; ancient artefacts that, if opened, hold the key to unlimited power. One is in the hands of an academic, but the others belong to the leader of a bizarre religious cult whose sinister influence is growing.

Aspiring film impresarios Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus took over the ailing Cannon Films in the late 1970s and were keen to flood both cinema and the emerging video market with as much commercial product as they could. Hence they agreed to distribute this Italian production starring Tony Anthony (real name Roger Pettito) and Gene Quintado. The actors also co-produced and Anthony received a co-credit for the original story too.

The film opens with a long action set-piece featuring Anthony as our swashbuckling hero, penetrating the dungeons of a strange castle. There he finds a forest filled with animals and birds. How this can exist underground is never explained but I expect that’s the power of the Four Crowns for you. Anyway, there’s also a secret treasure chamber and it’s loaded with nasty traps designed to deter the casual visitor from getting his hands on the magic key inside. Object after object hurls itself at Anthony; spears, fire bolts, arrows, tiny plastic pterodactyls; the usual stuff. And if we were in any doubt that this movie was part of the early 1980s 3-D revival, then the director keeps reminding us later on by taking every possible opportunity to poke things out of the screen; even during scenes of explanatory dialogue. Depending on who you believe; the film was shot in either ‘Super-Vision’ or ‘Wonder-Vision’, special 3-D technology invented exclusively for this film. Surprisingly enough, that just wasn’t true.

The opening sequence lasts about 20 minutes and has no dialogue, just an elegant score from one Ennio Morricone, who was obviously a bit strapped for cash at the time. Or maybe he’d agreed to the gig without seeing any footage beforehand. At one stage Anthony is chased by a rolling ball of flame. The whole thing is strangely reminiscent of another film. But just when we think we’re going to get an enjoyably cheesy ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981) rip-off, things transform into something entirely different: a heist thriller. And a very dull one at that.

Anthony delivers his key to a bearded academic who uses it on one of the crowns and then spouts some cheerfully vague bullshit about how unbelievable power will be unleashed if you unlock all four. Of course, such power can’t be allowed to ‘fall into the wrong hands’!  Somewhat inconveniently, the other three crowns are already in the possession of this nutbar beardy bloke, who lives in an inaccessible mountain fortress with his brainwashed followers. How did he get them? Ebay probably. Anthony refuses to be involved in such stuff and nonsense, of course. Sensible chap, you might say; only in the very next scene he’s recruiting the usual ragtag team of misfits to take on the job! All of them were ‘the best’ back in the day, but have fallen on hard times since (yawn!) One of them tosses midgets around in a kind of bizarre circus/theatre act; another has a bit of a problem with booze, etc. etc. but they all sign up for ‘one last job.’ The key doesn’t seem to like them much either; whizzing around all over the place on barely visible strings, making everything shake and forcing everyone to pull very silly faces.

Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983)

He’d just seen the last few pages of the script.

The heist itself is somewhat less than dynamic (interminable would be a better word) and freaky cult guy doesn’t even become aware of what’s going on until the last ten minutes. He never exchanges a single meaningful word with any of our heroes; hardly making for a conflict we can invest in. However, the climax of the film is gloriously stupid and completely off the wall. I suppose it was their version of what happened when the Nazis opened the Ark of the Covenant. On a slightly smaller budget.

Does the ending make up for all we’ve suffered up ‘til then? Like hell it does. But that part’s still pretty funny all the same. A prime slab of 1980s straight to video cheese. If truth be told, a slightly smelly one.