‘Bogo, show Miss Babyfat out.’
The CIA exchanges a kidnapped atomic scientist for a ransom of one million dollars, but there’s a bomb on the transport plane, and the scientist is killed almost immediately. One agent pursues the matter unofficially, her main lead being a deported gangster and well-known playboy who lives in Istanbul…
The identity of this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ is up for discussion in this Italian-Franch-Spanish Eurospy production from director Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi. Our agent in the field might be the glamorous Sylva Koscina, but most of the action falls to suave leading man Horst Buchholz.
CIA Chief George Rigaud is not a happy man. Not only did atomic scientist Professor Pendergast (Umberto Raho) go up in flames after the ransom payoff, but diplomatic sensitives (and an order from the President no less!) preclude any further investigation into the matter. This does not sit well with special agent Kelly (Koscina), who decides to follow up in Instanbul on an unofficial basis, with Riguad happy to look the other way. Clandestine photographs snapped at the exchange put handsome young nightspot owner Tony Mecenas (Buchholz) at the scene, so she secures a job at his club. Buchholz is an old hand at dealing with law enforcement, though, and he immediately sees through the charade.
From that point on, the two exchange the usual romantic barbs as they begin falling for each other, and he becomes sucked further and further into her investigation. She’s suspected from the first that Raho isn’t really dead and that the sadistic Gunther (Agustín González) and his cronies are taking orders from a secret mastermind. The challenge is to unmask the villain and rescue Raho as Buchholz runs all over Istanbul, dodging bullets and bad guys.
Isasi-Isasmendi’s movie may be formulaic plot-wise, but it has a playful, tongue-in-cheek approach that helps with the entertainment level. Buchholz makes for an athletic hero, aided by some decent stunt work, including some impressive high-speed driving on mountain roads. There’s a running gag that beautiful women know him wherever he goes, and there are even a couple of occasions where he breaks the fourth wall to address a remark to the audience. There’s also a direct romantic rival for Koscina after Buchholz rescues rich girl Elisabeth Furst (Perrette Pradier), who the gang have snatched off her father’s yacht.
What does derail proceedings to some extent is the length. Without a great deal of plot development, a two-hour run time almost inevitably leads to a saggy middle act, and the film begins to drift and drag as Buchholz makes one last-minute escape after another. The script also keeps Koscina off screen for long periods when more of the romantic back and forth between the pair might have provided the necessary sparkle and encouraged more audience investment in the drama.
Still, there is a surprisingly lively supporting cast of characters. As well as the afore-mentioned González, the rogue’s gallery of villains also includes award-winning German actors Mario Adorf and Klaus Kinski as assassins. Although they don’t share any significant screen time and Kinski is dreadfully underused, his face-off with Buchholz is one of the film’s undoubted highlights. On the side of the angels are the dry-witted Brain (Gustavo Re) and magician Bogo (Álvaro de Luna). Isasi-Isasmendi also finds slots for French actor Gérard Tichy, and familiar Spaghetti Western face Luis Induni in minor roles.
In terms of action, there’s enough bang for your buck, although it sometimes verges on parody. Surrounded by four speeding cars closing in for the kill, Buchholz manages to shoot out all their headlights in super quick time and make them all crash into one another. He also jumps from a crashing sports car onto the back of a truck in what would have been a fantastic stunt if we actually got to see it! Jazzing up all this nonsense with blaring horns and strident strings is a faux-John Barry score from composer Georges Garvarentz, which helps instil some dynamism when the mayhem is a little lacking.
Of course, Buchholz is best remembered as the youngest member of John Sturges’ ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) but enjoyed a film career of more than half a century. Through the 1950s, he worked his way up the ranks in the European film industry from short subjects and unbilled roles to leading parts in such prestigious productions as ‘Auferstehung’ (1958), a big-budget adaptation of the Tolstoy novel. Hollywood came calling with award-winning crime drama ‘Tiger Bay’ (1959), and his trip out west with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen followed hard on its heels. Joshua Logan’s romantic drama ‘Fanny’ (1961) and Billy Wilder’s excellent ‘One, Two, Three’ (1961) completed a formidable kick-off to his American career, but scheduling conflicts led to his being unable to take the lead in ‘West Side Story’ (1961) and another plum assignment on David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962). Instead, big budget flop ‘Nine Hours to Rama’ (1962) and poorly-received Bette Davis vehicle ‘The Empty Canvas’ (1964) hurt his prospects, and he returned to European films. Back in the US in the mid-1970s, he took roles in mediocre movies made for television, on network shows such as ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and appeared in the dreadful but hilarious mini-series ‘The Amazing Captain Nemo’ (1978). Back in Europe for most of the remainder of his career, he acted in such notable projects as Wim Wenders’ ‘Faraway, So Close!’ (1993) and Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997). He passed away in 2003.
A fun Eurospy, but tighter script control and a greater focus on the romantic elements might have made for something far more notable.