Killers Are Challenged/A 077, sfida ai killers/Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca (1966)

‘I’ve been kissed better by my Dachshund.’

Three international scientists have been collaborating on a new energy source that will make fossil fuels redundant. Two of them are murdered, and the third decides on plastic surgery to hide his identity. The CIA assign their best agent to take him into protective custody, but his mission becomes complicated when enemy agents target the scientist’s wife…

Frustrating spy-jinks from director Antonio Margheriti in a French-Italian co-production that stars US actor Richard Harrison as this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget.’ It’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Secret Agent Fireball’ (1965), with Harrison reprising the role of operative Bob Fleming, this time on the loose in Casablanca and tangling with the usual mixture of guns, gorgeous girls, and low-budget gadgets.

Inventing a new energy source for the benefit of humanity is fine in theory, but scientists Maxwell and Boroloff soon discover the drawbacks when they are rubbed out. Remaining partner Coleman (Marcel Charvey) disappears, booking himself a session with a plastic surgeon to change his face. The CIA get wind of his location and send top agent Bob Fleming (Harrison) to bring him in. After some reluctance on Charvey’s part, Harrison succeeds in having him delivered to Geneva economy-class via some knock-out drops and a coffin. However, hostile forces are closing in on the egghead’s estranged wife, Terry (Wandisa Guida).

Of course, Harrison gets the job of protecting Guida, but it’s far from an easy gig. Wheelchair-bound oil magnate Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi) will pay anything to have the discovery suppressed and has hired a criminal gang to do the job. Harrison goes on the offensive by romancing their beautiful but fairly hopeless operative Moira (Mitsouko), whose heart isn’t really in her work anyway. She soon incurs the displeasure of handler Halima (Janine Reynaud) and the unseen boss of the outfit. Several attempts are made on Harrison’s life, and he finds himself indebted to the mysterious and sexy Velka (Susy Andersen), who seems to have a knack for turning up just at the right moment.

In terms of plot and execution, this is pretty much your standard Bond riff of the day; scientists in the crosshairs, an invention of global consequence, a series of captures, escapes, fights and gunplay. However, Margheriti’s film does have some interesting elements, especially considering the Italian connection. Not always noted for their national cinema’s favourable presentation of women, here it’s the fairer sex in the ascendancy, albeit not too overtly. Although Harrison is the nominal lead and displays the usual smug arrogance of the alpha male secret agent abroad, he’s often shown as less than capable as the sexy Andersen, who saves his life more than once and out-manoeuvres him at every turn. He’s also very slow to tumble to the identity of the head of the gang, who are almost entirely women. Of course, they bring in men for the strongarm stuff, and oilman Cecconi provides the bankroll, but otherwise, it’s the girls in charge.

Having the men mainly reduced to delivering the physical aspects of the film works well here because Margheriti knows how to shoot action. The fight scenes are athletic and surprisingly violent, with Harrison and his various opponents performing well. The film’s highlight is an extended barroom brawl that displays the director’s familiarity with classic-era Hollywood Westerns. There’s a wonderfully humorous slant to all the mayhem, which is echoed in knowing moments elsewhere in the film. This includes the inexplicable presence of an English taxi driver who ferries Harrison around and thwarts the bad guys with a car horn that shoots jets of foam! Unfortunately, these comedic moments are too few and far between, with most other events coming across as serious, even rather downbeat on occasion. Because Margheriti doesn’t commit more to the comedy, it creates a tonal clash that can make things feel disjointed.

This is even more unfortunate because it’s plain that Andersen really gets the humour, giving the audience a playful, knowing femme fatale who thoroughly enjoys her work. There’s a natural sexual chemistry in her scenes with Harrison too, who plays the lover with other women elsewhere in the film but never with such conviction. The remainder of the cast fade into the background somewhat, although Guida scores as the ice-cold Terry. A bigger budget would undoubtedly have helped as the stunt work is mainly limited to dummies diving from high places and an empty car falling into the harbour at the climax. Gadgets are also in short supply, restricted to various bugging devices and a bomb hidden in a cigarette lighter.

The fact that the finished product is a cut above most of the spy shenanigans emerging from Europe in the wake of ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) is probably down to the team of Margheriti and scriptwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Margheriti was a veteran of genre cinema whose solo debut in the director’s chair was science-fiction adventure ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1960). He worked extensively in horror, Giallo, Peplum and Spaghetti Westerns, also delivering another Eurospy, the disappointing ‘Lightning Bolt/Operazione Goldman’ (1966). His films are sometimes cheesy, often uneven, but almost always entertaining in some way.

Gastaldi is celebrated as one of the foremost screenwriters of the Giallo, with premium entries such as ‘So Sweet…So Perverse/Così dolce… così perversa’ (1969), ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh’ (1971), ‘All the Colors of the Dark/Tutti i colori del buio’ (1972) and ‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave’ (1974). He also directed his own classic example, the unfairly overlooked ‘Libido’ (1965). Like Margheriti, he worked in many other commercial genres, including science-fiction with ‘The Tenth Victim/La decima vittima’ (1965) and the Spaghetti Western with ‘I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death/Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino’ (1969). There were also Peplum projects such as ‘Perseus Against the Monsters/Perseo l’invincibile’ (1963) and horror for the likes of iconic director Mario Bava with ‘The Whip and the Body/La frusta e il corpo’ (1963).

Andersen had a surprisingly brief career given her excellence here, debuting as Suzy Golgi in ‘The Warrior Empress/Saffo – Venere di Lesbo’ (1960). A role in the ‘I Wurdalak’ segment of Mario Bava’s classic portmanteau horror ‘Black Sabbath/I tre volti della paura’ (1963) was followed by four releases in 1964 which was her busiest year by far. After this excursion into the Eurospy arena, she made only four more films, finishing her screen career opposite Klaus Kinski in crime drama ‘Gangster’s Law/La legge dei gangsters’ (1969).

One of the better examples of the Eurospy, although more concentration on the comedic aspects would have helped elevate it further.

Perseus Against The Monsters/Perseo L’lnvincibile/The Medusa Against The Sons of Hercules (1963)

Perseus Against The Monsters (1964)‘This claptrap has made you lose your head.’

Prince Alcaeus of Seriphus attempts to open trade routes closed by the hostile forces of Argos. Unfortunately, his party are decimated by a sea monster and the survivors are turned to stone by the legendary Medusa. His father attempts to forge an alliance between the warring kingdoms by offering his beautiful daughter Andromeda in marriage but the girl has other ideas, and just who is that handsome, square-jawed stranger on the beach?

More Greek Mythological tomfoolery, courtesy of the Italian/Spanish film industry, who roll out yet another ‘peplum’ in the wake of muscleman Steve Reeves’ star turn as ‘Hercules’ (1958). Yes, it’s the usual mixture of swords, sandals and togas, courtesy of director Alberto de Martino, who cheerfully throws in a couple of rubber monsters to keep things moving right along. The story is based on the same legends that gave rise to FX maestro Ray Harryhausen’s swan song ‘Clash of the Titans’ (1980), and the recent inferior remake, although this time out there’s no Kraken, which is a shame, or a ‘cute’ mechanical owl, which isn’t.

We join heroic Perseus (American actor Richard Harrison) just hanging at the beach, spearing fish, waxing his board and shooting the curl. Ok, maybe not; but it doesn’t look like teaching archery to a beautiful, but mysterious, woman is gainful employment either, especially as she’s probably a goddess (we never find out). But our beach bums’ days in the sun are numbered when evil Prince Galenore (Leo Anchéraz) turns up and spears his pet deer. It all kicks off, but the beautiful Andromeda (Anna Ranalli) plays peacemaker, proposing a contest between the two with herself as the prize. As it happens (and completely unexpectedly), Perseus turns out to be the long lost true king of Argos, although no one knows it (apart from the audience).

After the obligatory archery match, wrestling match and posing contest, Harrison is declared the winner, but he declines Ranalli’s hand due to the political situation. Instead he accepts a job as chief guard at the palace (for some reason). A quick snip of an over-enthusiastic editor’s scissors later and he and Ranalli are desperately in lurve (of course) and the dastardly Anchéraz is stroking his beard and hatching a kidnap plot. From there, it doesn’t take a genius to see exactly what’s going to happen next, what will happen after that, and then after that.

Perseus Against The Monsters (1964)

From the Prop Store It Came…

One thing you have to give the film is pace. There’s precious little time spent on our mooning lovebirds (hooray!) and a lot more on the action, although not much of it actually involves the monsters. Probably the best part of the film is the Medusa’s valley, populated the men she has turned to stone, but De Martino fails to make much of its creepy possibilities.

The Medusa herself looks like the long-lost cousin of Tabanga, the walking tree that starred in ‘From Hell lt Came’ (1957) and Harrison’s final tussle with it is seriously lame. The sea dragon is a much better example of practical FX, but it’s simply not very mobile and its’ high kill count pushes credibility beyond breaking point. Especially when it looks like it needs half a dozen prop guys to move it to its next target. So what we’re left with is an awful lot of sword fights. These are enthusiastically performed, but they’re not particularly well executed and some are even speeded up a little at the climax.

This was Ranalli’s only lead in a career of just half a dozen films, but Harrison soldiered on for years, relocating to Hong Kong in the 1980s to play Master Gordon in a seemingly endless series of low-budget action fkicks with titles like ‘Ninja Force’ (1988) and ‘Ninja Operation 6: Champion On Fire’ (1986). De Martino gave the world the iconic ‘Puma Man’ (1980), which is simply one of the best worst films ever made. He was also responsible for James Bond rip-off ‘Ok Connery’ (1967) which featured Sean’s brother Neil, Exorcist rip off ‘L’Antichristo’ (1974) and Omen rip-off ‘Holocaust 2000’ (1977) which starred Kirk Douglas!  Screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi had a long career in Italian cinema, both as writer and director, and delivered some interesting examples of the Giallo film as well as working with legendary director Sergio Leone and collaborating (uncredited) on cult science fiction satire ‘The Tenth Victim’ (1965).

Most movies in this genre that got released stateside gained a ‘Sons of Hercules’ tag, and this one was no exception, becoming ‘The Medusa Against The Sons of Hercules’ (1963). Of course, the result was the usual testament to really awful dubbing but did boast the excellent ‘Sons of Hercules’ theme song, which is worth a couple of dollars of anyone’s money!

Flat and rather perfunctory nonsense, enlivened every now and then by its silly monsters.