Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)‘You will be devoured last after I have eaten up all of your fellows.’

At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…

Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.

It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Your dinner is in the bin.’

The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.

It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

🎵So let them say your hair’s too long… 🎶

And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.

The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘But you know I’ve always looked up to you…’

What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)

Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Not so fast, Mr Odysseus.,.’

Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’. 

Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.

Target For Killing/Das Geheimnis der gelben Mönche (1966)

Target For Killing (1966)‘Our secret agents in Pakistan and Vietnam communicate regularly by telepathy.’

A veteran special agent is assigned to protect a young girl who has been marked for death by a mysterious criminal organisation who work in secret from a monastery. He soon discovers that their leader is using ESP and a revolutionary brainwashing technique to further his mad ambitions…

Fast-paced Austrian/German/Italian Eurospy that features ex-Hollywood matinee idol Stewart Granger as this week’s rather silver-haired ‘Bond On A Budget.‘ Granger had some previous experience in these kind of shenanigans as the lead of ‘Red Dragon’ (1965) which often gets bundled in with this genre, although it was more of a crime thriller really. In fact, despite a new name, he is supposed to be playing the same character, as his exploits in the previous film are referenced by local Police Commissioner Rupert Davies.

The story opens mid-flight with ‘marked woman’ Karin Dor being chatted up by our handsome hero. He seems to be making progress, but can’t help noticing the flight crew heading for the back of the plane and, a few seconds later, their parachutes deploying below. How they managed to leave without compromising cabin pressure is a bit of a mystery, but we’ll let it pass. Luckily, Granger was a pilot in the war about twenty years earlier, so he’s able to land the plane with only a slight wobble. The control tower doesn’t even need to talk him down! Now, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but all someone without specific training will achieve in those circumstances is to pile up on the runway (if they’re lucky enough to make it that far). Yes, I know screen personalities as diverse as Doris Day in ‘Julie’ (1955), Karen Black in ‘Airport ’75’ (1974), David McCallum as TV’s ‘The Invisible Man’ and Lou Ferrigno as ‘The Incredible Hulk’ have all accomplished the feat without breaking too much of a sweat, but it’s simply not possible. You may as well expect to manage re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere after attending an open day at Cape Canaveral.

So some serious suspension of disbelief is essential here, and the script often does little to help the audience in that regard. There some silly business about Granger being scared of Davies’ pet snake (which he keeps in his office!) and super villain Curt Jurgens has a stable of scantily-clad babes draped all over the furniture at his HQ just because he likes the way they look. Associate Dr Yang (Luis Induni) can read people’s thoughts and turn them into mindless zombies. Although they do have to receive electric shocks and stare into an aquarium at the same time! There’s also a scene where Jurgens’ chief Lieutenant Scilla Gabel shoots off multiple rounds with her machine gun, then ‘blows it out’ and rubs the barrel of the weapon against her cheek. Now, we know her character gets turned on by pain, but burning your face off with hot metal might seem to be taking things a little too far! As it happens, it seems to have no effect on her at all. She must have thick skin, I guess.

Target For Killing (1966)

‘What do you mean I’m too old for this shit?’

The production also looks a little tatty here and there, but all these shortcomings can be forgiven when you consider the wonderful casting. For a start there’s Granger, still oozing Hollywood charisma in his 50s and fully committed in the surprisingly violent fight scenes. Dor went onto to tangle with the real thing in the shape of Sean Connery in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) and Jurgens crossed swords with Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977).

Not enough for you? Minor villain and eventual rat fodder Adolfo Celi came out on the wrong end of another encounter with Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965) and the lovely Molly Peters was 007’s personal masseuse in the same movie! On top of all the Bond connections, we get Klaus Kinski as a conflicted trigger man, Davies who was TV’s ‘Maigret’ and Erika Remberg who appeared with Moore on the small screen in ‘The Saint‘. Director Manfred R Köhler was also responsible for an earlier example of the genre: ‘Agent 505 – Death Trap Beirut’ (1965) with Frederick Stafford.

Curiously enough though, with the notable exception of Granger, the most memorable performance here is from Gabel. Her only major credits are an appearance in Joseph Losey’s misfiring ‘007’ satire, ‘Modesty Blaise’ (1966) and opposite Gordon Scott in ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ (1959) (which featured support from a pre-stardom Sean Connery!) Here, she oozes a playful, dangerous sexuality in various tight fitting outfits, leaving little doubt about her character’s preferences and motivation. While Jurgen plots, she’s  always in the background, usually stroking some inanimate object or other in a suggestive way! Although, rather brilliantly, in one scene she’s just doing her knitting!

This is quite an entertaining Eurospy if you forgive the slightly uncertain tone; the film never really deciding how serious – or silly – it wants to be. Yes, there’s a bit of an age gap between our romantic leads, but who could blame a young woman like Dor getting her head turned by the handsome Granger? After all, he’s just so damn suave and capable! If ‘Bond’ had come along a decade earlier, he would have been on the shortlist for the role. No question about it.

Good fun if you’re not too demanding.

Mill of the Stone Women (1960)

Mill_of_the_Stone_Women_(1960)‘Why do warm-blooded beauties suddenly turn to stone?!’

A young man visits a famous sculptor to collect facts for a magazine article about the weird carousel that has been in his family for generations. He soon becomes infatuated with the artist’s beautiful but mysterious daughter. ls she really an invalid, or has she been confined to their windmill home for more sinister reasons?

Unusual and stylish multi-national horror tale that boasts rich colour photography and bags of atmosphere. The film opens with leading man Pierre Brice arriving beside a desolate canal in his search for the home of reclusive sculptor Professor Wahl (Herbert A E Böhme). He asks a local fisherman for directions but instead of getting the usual pop-eyed ‘Castle Dracula’ treatment, he learns the unusual nickname of the place which provides the title of the film. Once at the mill, Brice wanders the strangely large interiors, catching glimpses of the gorgeous Scilla Gabel. He also sees the carousel in action, whose life-like figures are modelled on famous female killers from history, and their victims.

The film is a little slow, but this allows the mystery to develop, and the director to create an increasing sense of unease and disorientation. Normality is supplied by Brice’s friends who are students of Böhme at the local college, but Brice is inevitably sucked back to the mill and into the arms of the alluring Gabel. Things come to a head one night when Brice shows his true colours, and we realise that perhaps this straight-laced young man is not the conventional hero we were expecting him to be. What follows shortly afterward is a tour de force of delirious confusion, which seems to be part reality-part hallucination. It’s an excellent sequence and the highlight of the film.

Perhaps inevitably, the third act resolution is a disappointment, with standard genre conventions established and strictly observed. The climax is contrived and rather obvious; naked flames in a laboratory being a bit of a giveaway. And it’s in these last scenes where the film falters, and what could have been a gothic classic turns into something that is just rather good. It’s possible that a more daring ending was originally envisioned; after all, four separate writers worked on the screenplay.

Sadly, director Giorgi Ferroni never returned to the genre, although there are rumours that he walked away from this, and it was finished by Mario Bava. The maestro certainly had a track record of finishing films others had started in the early stages of his career, but there seems to be no definite evidence that it happened here.

Mill_of_the_Stone_Women_(1960)

The Professor was feeling nervous about the penalty kick.

This was truly an international production. Ferroni and the majority of the crew were Italian, as were a number of the cast. The dialogue was in French, which was Brice’s mother tongue, and a couple of the other actors were German. Brice later found European fame as Native American Winnetou in a series of films from Germany, and Gabbel had a featured role in wacko spy spoof ‘Modesty Blaise’ (1966).

The print that I saw was the European dub (as opposed to the U.S. one which is supposed to be pretty tragic) and, although the English soundtrack is not perfect, it still does not divert from the quality on display. Although it falls a little short at the finish, it’s still a film I would strongly recommend.