Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse/Le tigre sort sans sa mère (1967)

‘It must be fun to court an electronic brain.’

A top French secret agent meets an old colleague in Berlin who has information regarding a major espionage operation. However, a sniper’s bullet intervenes before any vital intelligence can be exchanged. The agent begins his own investigation, uncovering a plot to undermine East-West relations and start another war…

Running around Europe as this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ wasn’t much of a stretch for French actor Roger Hanin by the late 1960s. This Italian-West German-French co-production finds him tangling with the usual spying intrigues under the direction of Mario Maffei.

A meeting on a German barge goes south for French agent Julien Saint-Dominique (Hanin) when his old friend Felix (Edy Biagetti) bites an unexpected bullet in the middle of their conversation. Unfortunately, he’d provided little information before taking a header into the canal; just that something big was brewing. Outside his rented flat, Hanin rescues the beautiful Olivia (Margaret Lee) from a kidnap attempt in the street. The altercation turns out to be a novel (and pointless) way of inviting him to a conference with an American intelligence agent, Steve (Ivan Desny), who tells him to stay out of things and return to Paris.

Instead, Hanin starts to utilise his own contacts in Berlin; the elderly Von Rudolf, known as ‘Papillon’ (Ennio Balbo), and his blonde Girl Friday Frida (Brigitte Wentzel). He also saves Ingrid Richleau (Helga Sommerfeld) from an abduction attempt in the same place and by the same goons who seemed to be trying to snatch Lee. In a twist that will surprise no one, it turns out she’s the daughter of another of Hanin’s old friends and colleagues. What’s happened to him? He’s been kidnapped, of course! Berlin, eh? Not safe to walk down the street.

The case proves to be a tangled web, as Hanin finds himself followed, shot at, hiding in the funnel of a boat and sent over to East Berlin disguised as a Russian soldier. Eventually, events lead to a secret organisation using misinformation to stoke up trouble between the Superpowers. Hijacking communication channels from their secret underground base, they convince the Americans that the other side is planning to invade West Berlin through the sewers, setting the stage for the spark which will ignite global conflict.

Although all the ingredients are present and correct for a spy adventure on the more outlandish end of the spectrum, Maffei’s entry has a surprisingly serious tone, and the action is more grounded than in most similar vehicles of the time. There are no extravagant gadgets, flamboyant stunt work or quasi-science-fiction plot developments, with even the villain’s secret base looking reasonably sensible and fit for purpose. If that all sounds a little disappointing, then there is still some fun to be had, thanks to a capable cast and a brisk pace that helps to paper over the somewhat meandering plotline.

Hanin is a likeable leading man who can turn on the charm but also convince on the occasions that his character is required to display a harder edge. Lee also has a lot of fun as femme fatale Olivia, her loyalties in question throughout. She’s sexy and appealing on the one hand but ruthless and deadly on the other. The cat and mouse game that she plays with Hanin is the film’s most interesting element. Elsewhere Peter Carsten is excellent as the sadistic Günther, and there’s some nice work from Balbo and Hanin, who suggest a long-term friendship with just a few minimal gestures and facial expressions.

The story also takes an interesting direction when Hanin’s investigation takes him to Mexico to meet English spy Lord Kinsey (Jorge Rado). Within moments, Hanin has him pegged as an imposter and kills him, leading to a brief shootout with some of his men. Then he pops on a flight back to Berlin. In terms of the story, it’s completely pointless. However, it does allow Hanin to play tourist for five minutes of the runtime with yet another pretty blonde, Kinsey’s assistant Jill Garfield (Jane Massey). Including a splash of the wonderful local colour and Hanin hanging around some stunning locations may speak to some Mexican finance behind the production. There’s no other apparent reason for this sudden and relatively brief excursion.

Hanin and Lee had already teamed up in the far sillier spy adventure ‘An Orchid for the Tiger/Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite’ (1965). That was the second of two films where Hanin played secret agent Louis Rapière, known as ‘le tigre’. Presumably with an eye on the box office, this film was released in France as ‘Le tigre sort sans a mère’, the literal English translation of which is ‘The Tiger Leaves Without his Mother’. A pretty baffling title, to say the least, and the possibility that it was a nod to the character of Steed and Tara King’s spy boss on TV’s ‘The Avengers’ seems unlikely. Patrick Newell’s first appearance in that role wasn’t broadcast until September 1968 in the UK, and the film debuted in French theatres two months earlier. There was another ‘unofficial’ film in the series a year earlier when the Hanin-starring espionage thriller ‘Operation Diplomatic Passport/Passeport diplomatique agent K 8’ (1966) was retitled as ‘Agente Tigre sfida infernale’ for the Italian market.

Lee was an English actress, a Londoner born in Wolverhampton, whose beauty, natural screen presence and facility with languages saw her employed in films all over Europe in the 1960s. Equally adept at comedy and drama, she debuted as the heroine of Peplum adventure ‘Maciste contro i mostri/Colossus of the Stone Age’ (1962) and took a similar gig soon afterwards in ‘Sansone contro i pirati/Samson and the Sea Beast’ (1963). Subsequently, she did her apprentice work almost exclusively in Italian comedies, working her way up to leads from supporting roles.
Eurospy adventure ‘From the Orient with Fury/Agente 077 dall’oriente con furore’ (1965) was the first of several similar projects that included ‘New York Calling Super dragon/New York chiama Superdrago’ (1966), ‘Our Man in Marrakesh’ (1966), ‘Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die/Se Tutte le donne del mondo… (Operazione Paradiso)’ (1966) and ‘OSS 117 Murder for Sale/Niente rose per OSS 117’ (1968). She diversified into other genres over the next few years, appearing in films with notable stars like Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Rita Hayworth and George Sanders. She began concentrating on family life in the 1970s, and her final screen role was in 1983. In later life, she moved to California and began working periodically in the theatre.

Mildly entertaining espionage antics, elevated by the talented cast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double Face/A Doppia Faccia/Liz X Helen (1969)

Double Face/A Doppia Faccia (1969)‘I had to convince them that you weren’t a cop, just a pervert looking for dirty movies.’

After meeting on a skiing holiday, a couple fall in love and get married. But, as time passes, she loses interest in him and takes a lesbian lover. Then she dies in a car crash, her body burned beyond recognition. He inherits her extensive business empire, but was the wreck an accident and was it her who was driving the car anyway…?

Late 1960s Giallo picture that rounds up some of the usual suspects, but gives them little worthwhile to do in a convoluted tale of murder, false identity and intrigue. Director and principal screenwriter Riccardo Freda was a man with experience to spare but the intricacies of misdirection and mystery seem to have eluded his grasp on this occasion.

The film opens with a thrilling car chase, the pursued vehicle ending up in a fireball after a close encounter with a speeding passenger train. Following are Police Inspector Gordon (Luciano Spadoni) and John Alexander (Klaus Kinski). As the wreck burns, we flashback to more than a year before when Kinski met and wed the gorgeous Helen (a criminally under-employed Margaret Lee) after a whirlwind romance. She’s a very wealthy woman indeed, whose business interests she leaves in the hands of her father, played by Sydney (son of Charlie) Chaplin. Lee cools on their union pretty quickly, becoming far more interested in sexy brunette Liz (Annabella Incontrera). Kinski still loves her, but another vehicular mishap later, he’s a widower with a big, fat chequebook.

Double Face/A Doppia Faccia (1969)

‘Why does the weirdo always sit next to me?’

On the night of his wedding anniversary, he finds mysterious blonde Christine (Christiane Krüger) using the shower in his palatial home. Although this would be just another day at the office if he were a secret agent, Kinski is rather put out by the whole business instead. Especially when she lifts his car keys and forces him to attend some kind of late 1960s ‘happening’.

This event features a couple of guys riding motorbikes in a room full of people, loud psychedelic music and an underground movie show. As well as lots of groovy guys and gals freaking out. Not an event likely to meet with the approval of the seriously uptight Mr Kinski, and his mood’s not likely to get any better when he sees that one of the sex films on show apparently features his late wife!

From there, Kinski increasingly finds himself entangled in some kind of a plot, but he can never be sure exactly what is going on. He gets beaten up going after a reel of the film in question and does start to believe that Lee is still alive. However, he can never lay his hands on evidence that will convince anyone else. It all culminates in a showdown in a church confessional and the car chase that opened the film.

‘…and these are from the weekend we spent down at Brighton…’

This is a middling Giallo at best with a labyrinthine plot that resolves itself in a rather ridiculous fashion. It’s hard to imagine a more unnecessarily complicated conspiracy to reach a required outcome than the one employed here. Kinski makes an uneasy hero too; director Freda deserving some credit for casting against type, but it’s hard to identify with such a cold, withdrawn leading man.

There’s also a problem with the film’s early stages. No effort is made to establish the initial Kinski-Lee relationship or the length of time that has passed when we switch to their early scenes in London. By then, the marriage is failing and Kinski is having an affair with secretary Alice (Barbara Nelli), but, although hinted at, the affair is only clear much later on in the film. It is nice that Lee and Kinski get to see ‘Red Alligator’ win the 1968 Grand National, though, even if that particular horse race is actually held 220 miles away from London at the Aintree course in Liverpool.

In short, this is all a bit messy and, what with some truly atrocious model work trying to pass for one of the car accidents, this has the feel of something that’s been rather slapped together. The warehouse party continue for far too long as well, the scene desperately needing the attention of an editor’s scissors. If all this gives the impression of a film that has been re-edited since its original release, then that appears not to be the case; the cut I saw ran the 88 minutes that is listed as the official version. Some of the raunchier scenes were removed for US television and newly filmed sex scenes added when the film was released in France, but it doesn’t seem likely that any of those changes would have substantially improved the coherence of the final product.

Double Face/A Doppia Faccia (1969)

‘Here’s Klaus!’

Freda was a veteran of Italian cinema, most known in cult film circles for his work with Mario Bava on ‘I Vampiri’ (1957) and ‘Caltiki, The Immortal Monster’ (1959). In the 1960s, he delivered ‘The Terror of Dr Hichcock’ (1962) and ‘The Ghost’ (1963), both starring Barbara Steele, and two Eurospy adventures featuring Secret Agent Francis Coplan. He was also behind the typewriter for most of his projects and contributed the original screenplay here, although four other writers (including fellow director Lucio Fulci) are credited with the story.

The film’s advertising also made much play of the fact that it was based on the work of thriller novelist Edgar Wallace, who enjoyed a huge revival of popularity in Europe in the 1960s. In fact, the box office failure of this film put paid to adaptations of his work for a short time. This was ironic, considering the film actually has nothing to do with Wallace at all! It was just marketing.

Sporadically interesting Giallo picture that looks rushed at times and would have benefitted from a stronger story.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale/Pas De Roses Pour OSS 117 (1968)

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)‘What a shame. Mickey Mouse will never eat his cheese.’

Important political figures are being assassinated and the secret service in Washington believes that it’s the work of an organisation for hire. Their top agent undergoes surgery, so that he can take the place of the world’s most wanted killer in the hope that he will be recruited to their ranks…

André Hunebelle was the French filmmaker behind the 1960’s revival of the secret agent created by novelist Jean Bruce. There were half a dozen films in total and he directed most of them, although this time with the help of Renzo Cerrato and Jean-Pierre Desagnot. This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is American actor John Gavin, taking over from Frederick Stafford who we last saw wrapping up an operation in Tokyo. Gavin also tangles with the usual formula of guns, girls and gadgets, but in varying proportions.

The film opens with one of its few action set pieces; a gunfight in the street with Gavin in his role as the escaping ‘Killer Chandler’; shooting a few cops before making his getaway. It’s all staged, of course; getting him valuable column inches in the global press and piquing the interest of the sinister Major (Curt Jurgens) who’s behind this new incarnation of Murder Incorporated. Gavin is duly kidnapped and assigned the job of rubbing out a middle-east peace envoy who has brokered an unpopular truce between two warring desert tribes. To ensure Gavin carries out the task, he is injected with a poison that will kill him if he doesn’t receive two doses of the antidote to be administered on subsequent days by oily doctor Robert Hossein.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)

OSS 117 had a more personal examination in mind…

This is a decent enough set up and there are moments of creativity, but the finished product also betrays all the usual qualities of the other films in this series, both good and bad. Firstly, though, it’s well crafted. There’s a budget here and it shows; with a selection of fine locations, a solid cast and good production values.

The fight choreography is imaginative at times, with an early scene of a naked Gavin using various items to both cover his embarrassment and confound his enemies being a particularly clever and humorous highlight. There’s far more serious combat later on when he goes up against George Eastman in a the cramped doctor’s office and later on a roof of crumbling tiles. These are both well conceived and executed.

Unfortunately, that’s really as good as it gets. The only significant gadget is a large, metal ball that hangs from a helicopter and pumps knockout gas into the air. There are no big stunts, action scenes or gun battles. The film does score highly in another of the recognised departments of this type of movie, though: girls. But there’s a catch. When you assemble a top-flight trio of Euro-beauties like Rosalba Neri, Luciana Paluzzi and Margaret Lee, be sure to give them plenty of screen time and lots to do! Don’t waste Neri as a Spanish dancer who appears in one ‘morning after’ scene with Gavin and give her just a couple of lines. Don’t have Paluzzi appear in only about ten minutes of the film as a rather ‘hands on’ member of the villain’s medical establishment and then make her disappear without explanation. Lee does get much more of a look-in as the wide-eyed, thrill-seeking heroine and tries hard to give the role some weight; but it’s an underwritten character at best. Eurospy regular Seyna Seyn also has a minor role.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)

‘You can have the sports section when I’ve finished with it…’

Elsewhere there’s more evidence of a lack of due care and attention. Jurgens, who famously went up against genuine 007 Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who  Loved Me’ (1977), might have a real cool old mansion as his HQ instead of a giant submarine, but where are all his minions?

Sure, there’s Eastman as his right-hand man and Paluzzi, who wrestled so memorably with Sean Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965), but there’s no sense of a large-scale operation here at all, and therefore the stakes never seem all that high. Jurgens also has the ‘big lever that blows everything up’ in his office (the one so beloved of mad scientists everywhere) but it turns out to be a completely pointless plot device with no payoff.

Gavin was a capable actor, but almost a textbook case of someone who was never destined to become a Hollywood star. His handsome looks found him playing a number of bit parts in Rock Hudson vehicles at Universal in his early days, a couple of which were directed by Douglas Sirk. Gavin caught the well-known filmmaker’s eye and he cast him as the lead of war romance ‘A Time To Love and A Time To Die’ (1958) and opposite Lana Turner in ‘Imitation of Life’ (1959). Roles in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960) and Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (1960) followed but, inevitably, his contributions were overshadowed by the leads in those big hits. The lack of a subsequent success found him appearing more on television and in a few supporting roles in features. The final nail in the coffin was Sean Connery’s last-minute change of heart about reprising his role as James Bond in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971). Gavin had already won the role and was contracted to play it. At least producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli honoured the arrangement and paid him in full.

Another entry in the OSS 117 series that’s professionally made but suffers from a sloppy, uninspired script that wastes a good cast.

Slaughter Hotel/Cold Blooded Beast/La bestia uccide a sangue freddo (1971)

Slaughter Hotel (1971)‘It’s just that your desire to make love is obsessive compulsive. Go and take a shower.’

A masked figure stalks the halls of a private hospital for wealthy young women with emotional problems. Making use of medieval weapons, he begins a killing spree by decapitating a nurse out in the grounds…

Softcore giallo from writer-director Fernando Di Leo, who was obviously far more interested in the former elements of his tale than the latter. The story takes place in an isolated, old manor house which is now home to Professor Osterman (John Karlsen), assistant Doctor Clay (Klaus Kinski), and their small team of orderlies and nurses. The clinic caters to patients with psychological problems, on condition that they are rich young women who look great with their clothes off.

But what a strange institution it is! Far be it from me to criticise the practices of a seasoned medical professional like Karlsen, but, for a start, he seems to have a slightly cavalier attitude towards health and safety. Rather unusually, one corridor boasts an actual real life iron maiden, this torture device being secured by a chain that looks inadequate to protect a tricycle. What’s it doing there? I have no idea. It is a creepy old house, I suppose. But I have to flag him for another minor code infraction because close by is an open display cabinet filled with medieval weapons! There’s a big sword, a dagger, a crossbow, a mace and a noose. The last item is a slight concern as the patients are allowed to roam freely and we’re told at least a couple of them have attempted suicide in the past.

Slaughter Hotel (1971)

The auditions for ‘Men In Black 4’ were not progressing as planned…

And then there’s the good Professor’s clinical practices. He doesn’t seem to have any. The only medical advice he offers throughout the entire film is to tell nymphomaniac Rosalba Neri to go take a shower! Predictably her issues are the only ones we find out anything about; all the other women have cheerfully vague problems, such as Margaret Lee’s overwrought nerves, and Gloria Desideri’s occasional homicidal urges.

Di Leo admitted than he did zero research into mental health issues or institutions before he penned his script, and it really shows. Because that’s not what we’re here for, is it? We’re here for naked babes in deadly peril! Both Lee and Neri are drop dead gorgeous and we see a lot of both of them; everything in Neri’s case, although a double may have been used for some shots. I’m certainly not complaining, but they get to do very little else, and it is frustrating to see two such talented actresses being exploited like this, although hopefully they understood the nature of the project when they signed on and were decently paid. We also get perky redhead Monica Strebel as a naughty nurse with a very ‘hands on’ approach to black patient Jane Garret (in her only film). They’re about to indulge in some distinctly unprofessional activity when they stop to dance to the radio in Garret’s room. For about five minutes. At this point, there’s not a lot of the movie left. Shouldn’t we be building up to some kind of a climax (pun intended)?

There are a few killings along the way in all this, of course, but there’s no creativity to the staging or execution and no real effort is made to bring the audience into the mystery. Two policeman turn up in the last quarter of an hour and, instead of waiting for the reinforcements that are on the way so the clinic can be thoroughly searched, they set Lee up as bait for the killer! She’s happy to agree to this ludicrous plan, probably because it finally gives her something to do and, considering she’s second billed in the cast, it’s about time. But even this is a seriously damp squib with the killer initially revealed to have a serious, legitimate motive, as in most giallos, but then just going on a demented rampage with the mace! Lucky, one of our lawmen has that gun with an inexhaustible supply of bullets, which is always handy in such situations.

Slaughter Hotel (1971)

The croquet match was about to get interesting…

Di Leo began his film career in westerns as an uncredited contributor to the script of Sergio Leone’s classic ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964). He was involved with several of the spaghetti westerns that followed, including ‘Django’ (1966), and he wrote ‘Navajo Joe’ (1966), an early vehicle for Burt Reynolds. His career as a director was somewhat less distinguished and, if this example of his work is anything to go by, that’s no surprise.

The plotting is lazy, the musical soundtrack distracting, and the cast get nothing to work with at all. Kinski just hangs around looking vaguely odd and suspicious (pretty much his default setting!) and a lot of the supporting cast seem flat and disinterested. Even the usually excellent Lee seems unable to drum up much enthusiasm for once (and no wonder!) Only Neri seems to be really giving it her best, but her role is barely two-dimensional, and she can’t have been under any illusions as to the reasons that she’d been cast.

It’s quite an achievement to waste such a beautiful and talented cast so completely, but Di Leo takes up that challenge and succeeds effortlessly. For fans of the leading ladies only.

Dorian Gray/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray (1970)

Dorian Gray (1970)‘My god, Sir Galahad, you’re a landowner! A filthy capitalist!’

Young handsome aristocrat Dorian Gray wishes to remain young forever. He gets his wish and quickly adopts a hedonistic, narcissistic lifestyle. Meanwhile, his portrait takes on the ravages of age and the marks of his debauchery…

Swinging sixties adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde classic that chooses to focus on Dorian’s descent into depravity; in other words to concentrate on the sex. Yes, this is a borderline exploitation flick from producer Harry Alan Towers that features plenty of skin but, by today’s standards, it’s fairly tame stuff and that allows for a far more balanced assessment of its virtues and shortcomings.

In true tradition, the story begins with Dorian (Helmut Berger) getting a paint job courtesy of Sir Basil (Richard Todd). During the sitting they are visited by old rogue Sir Henry (a strangely miscast Herbert Lom) who is immediately smitten with Berger, and decides to turn him to the dark side using shards of icy wit and his beautiful sister, Margaret Lee, as his weapons of choice. From then on, the story hits all the usual marks. Berger’s early infatuation and storybook romance with poor actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) leads to his betrayal of her and a subsequent attempt to reconcile that comes too late. Berger then rededicates himself to the pursuit of pleasure, bedding various eligible beauties, including Lee, Maria Rohm and Beryl Cunningham. He also services elderly Isa Miranda from behind in a stable as return for a lucrative property deal, a scene I don’t recall from the original novel. There’s also a strong indication of a homosexual relationship with Lom. Of course, his eventual comeuppance is an inevitability.

This is all familiar stuff to anyone acquainted with the source material or the other cinematic versions. The main difference is one of emphasis. Although it was probably just an excuse to exaggerate the nudity and sex, the film presents a very strong statement about society’s shallow obsession with youth and beauty. Pretty much the entire cast fawn over Berger simply because of the way he looks and, as events reach the present day, there’s reference to his developing career as that most 21st Century of professions: the media celebrity. We see him doing a photo shoot with a young model, which we’re told will make her name and he seems to be beginning a film career. It’s certainly an interesting angle and one which a modern day remake could explore in some depth.

Dorian Gray (1970)

Dorian had just popped down to the corner shop for a pint of milk…

The film’s main weaknesses is that the time period is never clearly established. Although the final events certainly take place in contemporary times (dig those King’s Road fashions!), earlier scenes have no period feel whatsoever. We gather that many years are supposed to go by as the tale unfolds (the supporting cast do get some grey hairs) but, if so, then the story began in the 1940s and there’s just no indication of it. In fact, there’s no real sense that time has passed at all.

What aids the film immeasurably is the performance of Berger. He is ideal as Dorian, exhibiting the same clinical detachment as Hurd Hatfield in definitive version ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1945). That was a better film, mainly because the character’s indulgences were left to the imagination which endowed them with much more twisted possibilities than we see here. Also George Sanders was perfect casting as Sir Henry and delivered an acting tour de force, which Lom simply couldn’t hope to match. In fact, the character’s role as an insidious influence that corrupts everyone he meets is mostly assumed by Dorian, who is more proactive in this version.

Elsewhere, Liljedahl gives a much brighter Sybil than the soppy one provided by Angela Lansbury in the 1940’s film and Todd is reliably solid as painter, Sir Basil. Apparently, he was only aware of the film’s more salacious content when he found out it was showing in a ‘certain kind of West End cinema‘ shortly after it was released. ln a strange non-coincidence, Christopher Lee had the same experience with ‘Eugenie… The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion’ (1970) which starred Liljedahl in the title role, but, far more significantly, was also produced by Harry Alan Towers!

Dorian Gray (1970)

Dorian’s second career as an arm wrestling champion was off to a good start…

Director Massimo Dallamano began as a cinematographer and shot the first two parts of Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy with Clint Eastwood; before moving into the canvas chair with ‘Banditos’ (1967). A mixture of westerns and giallo thrillers followed, including the well-regarded ‘What Have You Done To Solange?’ (1972), although he’s probably most famous for controversial erotic drama ‘Venus ln Furs’ (1969).

Berger is mostly known for working on a string of projects with famous director Luchino Visconti, although he did appear in ‘The Godfather, Part ll’ (1974) and featured in one season of U.S. mega-soap ‘Dynasty.’ Todd made his breakthrough in war drama ‘The Hasty Heart’ (1949) and went on to lead ‘The Dam Busters’ (1955) and ‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’ (1961). Liljedahl never progressed beyond roles where she had to take her clothes off and retired soon after this; by all accounts regretting the whole thing.

This is a decent, enjoyable adaptation which manages a surprising amount of interesting sub-text for a movie of this kind. As a footnote, it’s interesting that amongst all the female nudity, actress Maria Rohm has her naughty bits covered (in true Austin Powers style!) with a conveniently placed pot plant when she appears naked! Why? Well, she was married to producer Harry Alan Towers!

New York Calling Super dragon/New York chiama Superdrago (1966)

Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966)‘Tell me, have you ever had a bath in electricity?’  

An ex-secret agent comes out of retirement when one of his old colleagues dies in a mysterious road accident. Taking over the operative’s last assignment means investigating some strange goings on a college campus in Michigan…

This week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ running around continental Europe (well, Amsterdam and Michigan actually!) is U.S. actor Ray Danton, who tangles with guns, girls and gadgets in his efforts to thwart the dastardly schemes of super villain Carlo D’Angelo. The fiend has been road testing a behavioural modification drug called Synchron in small town, USA and it’s sending the kids like wild, man. Well, getting them to beat each other up if you want to be more specific, rather than something of a more psychedelic (or interesting) persuasion.

Danton recruits convicted lifer Babyface (Jess Hahn) as his bodyguard, which proves an astute choice as he turns out to be a kind of mobile ‘Q’ Division, furnishing our underwhelming hero with a series of gadgets, including a bulletproof vest, a model mini-submarine and a watch that activates inflatable buoyancy balloons (handy when you’ve been put in a coffin and dumped in the canal). Oh, and there’s a little torch, which allows him to read messages written on a mirror in what looks like lipstick (but probably isn’t). That’s about it on the gadget front, but Danton does get to tussle with a fine selection of lovely Euro-babes including Margaret Lee (England), Marisa Mell (Austria) and Adriana Ambesi (Italy).

Apart from that, it’s the usual round of double crosses, semi-convincing fisticuffs, and undercooked story elements. There’s some silly malarkey about a bunch of guys in silver masks buying Ming vases at a charity auction, and a rather muddled climax that arrives suspiciously quickly, probably due to the influence of an over-enthusiastic American distributor. Unfortunately, the film has absolutely no sense of dynamism or style, an accusation which could be easily be expanded to include Danton himself, who’s certainly no Sean Connery (or Tony Kendall, or Roger Browne for that matter!) On the plus side, it is better than Jess Franco’s ‘Lucky The Inscrutable/Agente Speciale L.K.’ (1967), another EuroSpy which starred Danton, although that’s not saying very much! What really sinks this enterprise is the unmistakable feeling that no-one’s trying very hard, including director Giorgio Ferroni.

Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966)

The Green Hornet suspected that Kato had been skipping his sessions at the gym…

Danton began his career on TV in the 1950s and graduated quickly to supporting roles in big studio movies, such as ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow’ (1955) with Susan Hayward, and ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ (1958) with Errol Flynn. He also took the title role in Allied Artists’ factually dubious ‘The George Raft Story’ (1961), but the film was not a success and he decamped to Italy a few years later. There he made a string of films; several in the EuroSpy genre. In the following decade, he headed back to the States, and many guest slots on network TV shows.

Mell sealed her place in film history as John Phillip Law’s leading lady in Mario Bava’s cult classic ‘Diabolik’ (1968), but also featured in Joe D’Amato’s appalling ‘Quest For The Mighty Sword’ (1990) at the twilight of her career. Sadly, she lost her fight with cancer just a couple of years later, at the age of just 53. Despite combining beauty with bags of screen personality, Lee never made it out of continental genre flicks, despite appearing opposite her namesake Christopher in ‘Circus of Fear/Psycho-Circus’ (1966). She also made a good showing in the brilliantly trashy ‘Dorian Gray’ (1970), which is still one of the best versions of the Oscar Wilde classic, but probably not a film to include on your CV if you’re trying to make it as a serious actress!

These half-hearted EuroSpy shenanigans are really for die-hard fans of the genre only.

Dick Smart 2.007 (1967)

Dick Smart 2.007 (1967)‘Lady Lister has such a lovely jawbone.’

Freelance secret agent Dick Smart is paid $1Million to track down an Atomic Reducer when the authorities realise that the task is beyond them. He soon realises that the top secret device has been stolen by the beautiful Lady Lister and her partner, who are planning a controlled atomic explosion to create a fortune in diamonds.

Light-hearted, freewheeling Eurospy from Italy with British actor Richard Wyler running from one death-defying scrape to the next as this week’s ‘Bond on a budget.’ Production values are higher than usual for a 007 knock-off and there’s plenty of guns, gadgets and girls to keep an undemanding audience entertained. On the female front, we have the drop dead gorgeous Margaret Lee as Lady Lister, Rosana Tapajós as Wyler’s nerdy girl Friday and an almost endless procession of eye candy for our hero to wrap his lips around. There’s not a lot of hi-tech equipment on show, but Wyler does have a motorbike that turns (rather unconvincingly) into an auto-gyro as a nod to Bond’s exploits in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967). Our hero is quick with a gun too, although at times it does seem like he is shooting guys in suits and dark glasses at random, who actually may have nothing to do with the plot.

What sets this film apart from all others of a similar stamp is its heroic effort to cram more scenes into its 96 minute running time than any other film in history. ln one particularly fine sequence, Wyler is set upon by (yet another) bunch of faceless goons and escapes using a cable car hawser as a zip-wire. Unfortunately, with no establishing shots, we didn’t even realise they were on a mountain! Wyler then crashes into the cable car, uses a convenient rope ladder to exit, jumps to the ground, exchanges some pointless banter with a couple of watching kids, and then runs right onto a street where he is faced by the same goons (how did they get there so fast?) Then he’s apparently shot dead by Tapajós from a passing car, carried in a funeral cortege followed by Lee, and revived from his coffin by Tapajós again with some drugs and a kiss. All in about five minutes flat!

The obvious conclusion is that this film has been cut down from a much longer original by an editor either on the greatest caffeine binge of all time or so clueless that he removed bits and pieces from every single scene, rather than take out a couple of entire sequences. The plot isn’t so complex that its integrity would have been compromised by the latter course of action. However, that doesn’t seem to have been the case at all! The running time of the original Italian release only gives us 6 minutes extra, and that hardly seems sufficient to calm things down! It seems probable that, despite only having a couple of obvious gags, this was actually intended as a complete spoof of the whole ‘Bond’ franchise, with the helter-skelter nature of proceedings actually the main joke of the film. It certainly doesn’t take itself that seriously.

Dick Smart 2.007 (1967)

‘We’ll have to hurry up, we’ve got another 25 scenes to film before lunch.’

Richard Wyler was a respected theatre actor and novelist, who had appeared in big Hollywood films such as ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1948) and ‘The Strange Door’ (1951) with Boris Karloff. He also took the title role of 1960s UK TV series ‘The Man from Interpol’ and was allegedly descended from the man who signed the death warrant of English monarch King Charles the 1st. He also attempted to mount a Broadway musical of ‘Sunset Boulevard‘ with Gloria Swanson.

Lee, on the other hand, had a far more conventional career, appearing in prominent roles in many European films in the 1960s and early 1970s, including ‘The Bloody Judge’ (1970) with Christopher Lee. Her performance here is actually the film’s outstanding asset as Wyler does lack some of the charisma of a Sean Connery or a Roger Moore. Director Franco Prosperi began his career writing films for Mario Bava, and even directed some scenes in the horror maestro’s ‘Hercules and the Haunted World’ (1962).

The fragmentary nature of the finished film, and the atrocious English dub on the print that I saw, do detract from the entertainment on offer. However, this is still a far more engaging example of the Eurospy genre than the vast majority of its kind.