Missile X – The Neutron Bomb Incident/Teheran Incident/Cruise Missile (1979)

The years you spent at the embassy in America must have eroded your brain.’

A Russian missile test is disrupted by armed men, who massacre everyone and steal the weapon. In Teheran, an American agent is killed, and his replacement suspects that the death is linked to the peace conference about to take place nearby. Then his Russian counterpart reveals that he has trailed the stolen missile to the city. The two agents combine their forces to find the warhead…

Drab and lifeless multi-national spy shenanigans with listless direction, a dreary script and an over the hill cast wearily going through the motions. A West German-Italian-Spanish-American and Iranian co-production, primarily filmed in the latter country when it was on the brink of a real-life revolution. A fact that is immeasurably more interesting than anything that ended up on the screen for the paying audience.

This week’s ‘Bond on A Budget’ is American veteran Peter Graves as Alec Franklin, flying into Teheran to investigate the death of a colleague. Not only are the circumstances decidedly fishy, but there’s also a high-level world peace conference taking place less than 100 miles away. In the best tradition of Eurospy adventures of the long-gone 1960s, it’s a solo gig because why send in a crack team to deal with a potential threat to world security when you can entrust it to one guy in his early fifties with just a handgun for company? Yes, this is pretty much a gadget-free zone.

It’s not long before Graves hooks up with his Russian counterpart and old friend, Konstantine Senyonov (Michael Dante), who is looking for a cruise missile recently heisted from a test site near the Caspian Sea. As per usual in these kinds of doings, the main villain needlessly reveals himself by telling his minions to knock off Graves, but, of course, it doesn’t go well. His ruthless killers are entirely unprepared for our hero’s fighting moves which are about as slow, clumsy and awkward as his age might suggest. Cleaning up afterwards, Graves finds a poker chip from a casino owned by the Baron de Marchand (Curd Jurgens, fresh from his underwater lair in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977)) and decides to check it out.

Rather than play the tables, Graves gets chatted up by Jurgens’ flirtatious girlfriend, Nina (Carmen Cervera) and also zeroes in on the establishment’s manager, Stetson (Robert Avard Miller), who seems to be on the outs with his boss. Meanwhile, in his backroom laboratory/secret headquarters, Jurgens has stashed both the missile and renegade Russian rocket man, Professor Nikolaeff (John Carradine, waiting patiently for his paycheck). Dante has brought comrade Galina (Karin Schubert) to deal with the missile once they find it, but the clock is ticking because Carradine needs less than 48 hours to get the warhead into position.

It’s hard to know where to start with a film that has so many issues. The setup isn’t without some potential, but the story develops into a tired old rigmarole of intrigue and half-baked action that has rarely been regurgitated with such an apparent lack of enthusiasm. One of the major problems is the casting of our leading man. Yes, Graves had led the IMF through more than 100 successful assignments on the original ‘Mission: Impossible’ TV show, but he looks far too old for this kind of role here. Roger Moore was a similar age when he finished playing Bond, but he was far better preserved than Graves, who looks almost a decade older than his actual age. This is a problem in the action scenes (such as they are) and in the bedroom when he spends some quality time with Cervera. There was less than 20 years between them in reality, but the age difference looks to be so much more.

There are much bigger problems, though. Director Leslie H Martinson was a veteran filmmaker who had racked up a long list of extensive television credits on many primetime series, often orientated towards action, including nine episodes of ‘Mission: Impossible’ in the early 1970s. He’d also helmed the occasional film, such as ‘PT 109’ (1963) and the movie version of ‘Batman’ (1966) from the Adam West TV show. He was an experienced director. However, almost every scene here is so devoid of pace, creativity and energy that it’s almost like watching scenes being acted out in early rehearsal rather than a finished film. Similarly, the flat editing leaves the gun battles and fight scenes dead on arrival, and the poor dubbing of the robotic supporting cast is almost comically wooden. Finally, Alberto Baldan Bembo’s score is so poorly integrated with what’s shown on the screen that it seems likely that it was written for another project entirely.

However, there may be some mitigating circumstances. The film reached West German screens in February of 1979 but wasn’t released stateside until December. This version credits legendary low-budget filmmaker Ted V Mikels as the ‘US producer’, and he also gets a story ‘adaptation’ credit. He’s probably most familiar to cult movie enthusiasts as the creator of ‘The Astro-Zombies’ series and other films such as ‘The Corpse Grinders’ (1971) and ‘Blood Orgy of the She-Devils’ (1973). It’s impossible to know what post-production tweaks he may have made to the film, but it might explain some of its technical deficiencies.

A series of crippling strikes and protests paralyzed Iran for a few months before the Shah’s retreat into exile in January 1979 and the revolutionary fighting that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. There is no evidence of that kind of disruption in the finished film, so it’s likely that it was shot in the earlier part of 1978. We do hear a repeated radio broadcast – in English – concerning the Ayatollah’s activities in Paris, and there’s also a line of dialogue that mentions him by name. However, it is delivered by an actor with his back to the camera, and there’s an immediate cut away afterwards. Given that the Ayatollah didn’t move to Paris until November 1978, it’s likely that all these references were added in post-production. Perhaps they were part of Mikels’ ‘adaptation’ for the US market as he tried to give the film some air of topicality.

Graves wasn’t finished with the spy game, of course, returning as Jim Phelps to head up the small screen revival of ‘Mission: Impossible’ in 1988. He also turned down an appearance in the big-screen reboot with Tom Cruise when he discovered that Phelps would be revealed as a traitor. Sadly, Jurgens died in January 1982 from a heart attack and looks distinctly unwell here. He’s very red-faced at times, hobbles about on a stick, and some of his dialogue is a little hard to understand.

Carradine was on a bad movie roll, his previous big-screen excursions being ‘Doctor Dracula’ (1978), ‘Vampire Hookers’ (1978) and ‘The Bees’ (1978), producer Roger Corman’s execrable cash-in on ‘The Swarm’ (1978). Some better projects followed in the early 1980’s such as ‘The Monster Club’ (1980) and ‘The House of Long Shadows’ (1983), but there was still time to fit in Jerry Warren’s hilariously atrocious ‘Frankenstein Island’ (1981).

An almost impossibly dull plod through over familiar territory, delivered by all concerned as if they already had one foot on the aeroplane home. Simply dreadful.