The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre/The Invincible Three (1964)

‘Who forced us to go and live in the rocks?’

Legendary strongman Ursus is not pleased when he discovers that the Tunisian city of Atra is under the rule of a man who has taken his name. Accompanied by two thieves, he vows to unseat the usurper and bring the war with a neighbouring tribe to a peaceful end…

It was the seventh and last time out for Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz’s strongman, who he had created for his 1895 novel ‘Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero.’ The Italian Pepium craze that followed the international success of ‘Hercules’ (1958) saw film producers hijack the character for a series of similar escapades. Here, he’s incarnated in the athletic form of veteran muscleman Sergio Ciani, billed as Alan Steel.

The city of Atra and the surrounding kingdom seem to be under the rule of elderly King Igos (Carlo Tamberlani). However, decisions of state are taken by legendary strongman Ursus (Mimmo Palmara) and his partner, slimy official Teomoco (Gianni Rizzo). Unfortunately for the populace, Palmara is an imposter – ‘False Ursus’ – who has used his fighting prowess to perform a bit of identity theft and hoodwink the King. He plans to seize the throne, of course, and liquidate the neighbouring Hanussa tribe, led by Samur (Nello Pazzafini). However, he receives word that the real Ursus (Ciani) is in town, accompanied by light-fingered rapscallions, Pico (Arnaldo Dell’Acqua) and Manina (Enzo Maggio).

Palmara suggests that the youthful Prince Dario (Vassili Karis) track down our three heroes, branding them as Hanussa spies and promising to renounce command of the city and return to his homeland. The callow Prince agrees, but his inexperience leads to capture by the Hanussa. Things look bleak, but he has an advocate in Pazzafini’s sister, Demora (Rosalba Neri), who he had taken prisoner on the latter part of his trip. Karis had been the perfect gentleman during her incarceration, and it’s obviously not going to be too long before the two pick out curtains and start spending Sunday mornings at the Garden Centre. Meanwhile, Ciani has challenged his namesake, and it’s not long before the question of who’s who will be settled by some personal combat.

Writer-director Gianfranco Parolini’s film is a curious mix of knockabout comedy and serious adventure. Proceedings open in the former vein with the acrobatic Dell’Acqua and stammering Maggio involved in a knockabout brawl with traders in the Atran marketplace after lifting some apples and a couple of knick-knacks. Dell’Acqua establishes his impressive tumbling credentials while we discover that Maggio’s voice problem is so severe that often he remains mute. After the duo escapes, Ciani turns up like an indulgent uncle to scold the pair and get them to return what they’ve stolen. The trio’s dynamics are almost certainly a nod to Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat’s partnership in Hollywood swashbucklers ‘The Flame and the Arrow’ (1950) and ‘The Crimson Pirate’ (1952). The pair had worked together as circus acrobats before Lancaster turned to acting, and Cravat played both roles mute to conceal a thick Brooklyn accent.

These comedy shenanigans are entertaining and well-played by the principals but sit strangely at odds with the more serious story developing alongside at court. Everyone there is playing it completely straight, with Palmara and Rizzo playing it straight and resisting any inclination to chew the scenery. It takes time for the two sets of characters to interact, so, at times, it feels like two separate films. The comedy takes more of a backseat when things come together, although Ciani remains a good-natured presence throughout. He also shows up well in the action scenes, particularly in the arena fight, where he goes up against Palmara on a platform raised above spikes. He’s getting the best of it, too, until he’s struck blind by a potion concealed in his helmet by the nefarious Rizzo.

Elsewhere in the cast, the women make the best of it, with the gorgeous Neri a passionate presence and Lisa Gastoni effectively conflicted as the disloyal Queen Alina. There’s also the mysterious Orchidea De Santis, who hangs around a little in the background, offering Ciani water on one occasion and providing the ointment to cure his blindness on another. It may be that she’s a helpful goddess, but she seems curiously timid for that, and the English version never addresses her identity, helpfully billing her merely as ‘Blonde Girl’. Something lost in translation, in all probability.

By 1964, it’s fair to say that Peplum was on life support with dwindling box office returns and audiences about to get far more interested in cowboys and spies. So, it’s pleasing to report that this film has little of the threadbare quality of some contemporary productions, the budget probably boosted by Tunisian money. However, some moments, particularly at the climax, seem to suggest a lack of resources. Rather than a pitched battle between the two tribes, one side just runs away (!), and the final showdown between Ciani and Palmara is ridiculously brief, particularly compared to their earlier combat in the arena.

Parolini already had experience with muscleman capers, having delivered entries like ‘Samson/Sansone’ (1961) and ‘Fury of Hercules/La furia di Ercole’ (1962) but really hit paydirt with the Kommissar X Eurospy series. The adventures of Agent Joe Walker, played by Tony Kendall, ran for seven films, and he was behind the camera in some capacity on all but the final entry. He often worked as sole director, such as on opening salvo ‘Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill/Kommissar X – Jagd auf Unbekannt’ (1966). In later years, he directed a trio of Spaghetti Westerns showcasing the fictional gunfighter Sabata and attempted to cash in on the hype surrounding Dino De Laurentiis’ remake of ‘King Kong’ (1976) by unleashing ‘Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century/Yeti – Il gigante del 20° secolo’ (1977). He passed away in 2018 after a film career spanning almost 60 years.

As a character, Ursus always struggled to establish a coherent identity in the world of Italian Peplum but closes out his account here with a likeable enough romp.

A Game of Crime/Crimine a Due (1964)

A Game of Crime/Crimine a Due (1964)‘If you really must cry, wait until we get home.’

A degenerate gambler owes money to the mob and steals from his employer to cover the debt. When his boss discovers the theft, he threatens to call the police, but a heart attack intervenes and offers some murderous possibilities…

Early black and white Giallo from director Romano Ferrara (credited as Roy Freemount) that also bears a nodding acquaintance with Film Noir. The principals’ plot and counterplot with murder for profit as the root of all evil. Ferrera also co-wrote the film, along with Marcello Coscia and an uncredited Alessandro Continenza, but the screenplay throws up little in the way of excitement or suspense, although it does leave room for some interesting speculation.

Feckless gambler Paolo Morandi (John Drew Barrymore) is on a streak of bad luck that may be terminal. He owes money to the local crime lord who, somewhat unreasonably, wants him to pay up or face some painful consequences. Girlfriend Christina (Ombretta Colli) has also been silly enough to go and get herself pregnant. What’s any self-respecting, worthless playboy to do? Lift a million lira from his employer Davide (Jean Claudio), pay off the syndicate and get Colli the abortion she doesn’t want. What a guy! Oh, and did I mention he’s also sleeping with Davide’s wife, Anna (Luisa Rivelli)?

A Game of Crime/Crimine a Due (1964)

‘Can you lend me a few quid until payday?’

Unfortunately, his amazingly cunning plan starts to unravel when Claudio notices the missing money and threatens to call the police. Rivelli tries to stop him, but it’s no dice. Claudio suspects the two are more than good friends, and he’s had enough. But fate intervenes in the shape of his weak heart, and he’s bedridden in the care of nurse Elisabeth Buckner (Lisa Gastoni). From there, it’s a relatively simple matter for Barrymore to switch his medication and exit Claudio. To Rivelli’s surprise, she finds that her ex-husband had recently taken out a hefty insurance policy, naming her as the sole beneficiary. The only condition is that she remains in the house to look after his invalid brother Carlo, heavily bandaged and brain-damaged after a devastating road accident.

All this doesn’t sit too well with local police Commissario Perrotti (Umberto D’Orsi), mainly after he receives an anonymous tip-off that Claudio was murdered. From there, we get the usual ‘cat and mouse’ between the authorities and the killers, with the film’s second act seemingly aiming for ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944) territory with the lovers torn apart by the burden of suspicion and their lack of trust in each other. Only it doesn’t really work because we’re never sure how complicit Rivelli was in her husband’s death. She doesn’t see Barrymore switch the medicine bottles and they never explicitly discuss the crime. Later on, when the blackmailing Gastoni meets her maker, D’Orsi has them in his sights, but the film’s resolution provides a very different outcome.

A Game of Crime/Crimine a Due (1964)

‘Well, that was unexpected!’

There are two main issues with the film that adversely affect its quality; the sluggish middle third and the twist ending. Because the climax isn’t just implausible, it makes no sense whatsoever, becoming more and more ridiculous the closer it’s examined. If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s followed by a wrap-up scene that almost beggars belief. Some of our black-hearted protagonists get what amounts to a happy ending and D’Orsi transforms into the most forgiving police inspector in cinema history. All of this comes crashing in out of left field like a runaway 18-wheeler and flattens any credibility the film had remaining. However, there is a possible explanation for this bizarre turn of events.

Earlier in the film, there’s a scene where Barrymore, Rivelli and D’Orsi discuss literature and their reading preferences, specifically the Giallo genre in which the film belongs. Rivelli doesn’t like that kind of book because they are too violent, but Barrymore does because they are ‘so far-fetched’. D’Orsi also finds them ‘full of absurd tricks’. It’s a pointless conversation in terms of the story but may have been intended to foreshadow the ludicrous conclusion. Were the filmmakers, in fact, satirising the Giallo? It’s tempting to believe so.

A Game of Crime/Crimine a Due (1964)

‘Now if only I can rewrite the ending…’

Barrymore was, of course, a member of the famous acting dynasty continued today by his daughter Drew. Like several members of the clan, he had issues with substance abuse and these curtailed any significant career that he might have had. He’d already appeared in makeweight Giallo ‘Death On The Four Poster’ (1964) and, from here, his appearances were limited to guest slots on network TV shows, which had petered out entirely by the mid-1970s. He was later rumoured to be living as a derelict before estranged daughter Drew made some living arrangements for him and paid his medical bills until his death in 2004.

Rivelli turned up in Eurpspy films ‘Lightning Bolt’ (1966) and ‘So Darling, So Deadly’ (1966), which was part of the ‘Kommissar X’ series with Tony Kendall. Despite being Italian by birth, Gastoni began her screen career in the UK playing bits on film and TV in the 1950s, her most notable appearance probably being in comedy ‘Three Men and a Boat’ (1955). A return to her homeland brought a featured role in ‘L’ ultimo gladiator’ (1964), forgettable Giallo ‘Night of Violence/Le notti della violenza’ (1965) and the female lead in Antonio Margheriti’s wonderfully demented ‘The Wild, Wild Planet’ (1966). She retired in 1978 but returned to the big screen with a significant role in the drama ‘Sacred Heart’ (2005) and was still working up until 2017.

A slow-moving and very minor Giallo with a few points of mild interest around its genuinely bizarre climax.