The Crimes of the Black Cat/Sette scialli di seta gialla (1972)

‘They found the head of a black cat on the tracks.’

A blind pianist overhears a blackmail plot on the night his girlfriend ends their relationship. The next day she is murdered under mysterious circumstances at the fashion house where she works. Then her cousin is killed, and he determines to investigate over the objections of the police…

Fair to middling Giallo thriller that takes some second-hand story elements from previous entries in the sub-genre and attempts to mix them into something new. Director Sergio Pastore also assembles a cast of familiar faces for this Italian-Danish co-production partially shot in Copenhagen.

Composer Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen) is unsurprised when he’s stood up by young lover Paola Whitney (Isabelle Marchall) on a restaurant date. What he doesn’t expect, however, is to overhear two voices in the next booth planning a blackmail scheme. They are vague on the details, and his blindness prevents him from carrying out an identification. The next day Marchall dies suddenly in her dressing room at work, the only clues to the cause being some scratches on her face and a strange wicker basket that disappears.

It doesn’t take long to uncover that Marchall was starting a blackmail scheme with her cousin, photographer Harry (Romano Malaspina). Their target was the manager of the fashion studio, Victor Ballais (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), who’d been unwise enough to bed Ms Marchall in the glare of Malaspina’s flashbulb. Unfortunately, his playboy lifestyle depends on his wife, Françoise (Sylva Koscina), who owns the business. Unsatisfied with the efforts of Inspector Jansen (Renato De Carmine), Steffen determines to look into the situation himself, with the aid of right-hand man Burton (Umberto Raho) and Marchall’s roommate, Margot Thornhill (Shirley Corrigan).

Giving some old ideas a fresh coat of paint is nothing new in cinematic terms, particularly in the Italian film industry, where a slavish following of popular box-office trends was a given. So, director Pastore, who co-writes with Sandro Continenza and Giovanni Simonelli, can be forgiven for wearing his influences prominently on his sleeve. The concept of a blind detective goes all the way back to Henry Hathaway’s ’23 Paces to Baker Street’ (1956) but, of course, had been more famously revived in the person of actor Karl Malden by Giallo master Dario Argento for ‘The Cat o’ Nine Tails/Il gatto a nove code’ (1971). Similarly, director Mario Bava utilised the fashion house setting with far more style and effect for seminal early Giallo ‘Blood and Black Lace/6 donne per l’assassino’ (1964). Even the past event providing the catalyst for the murderous rampage had previously served as a plot device.

Pastore, therefore, has little to offer in terms of originality beyond the rather novel method used in some of the earlier murders. This M.O. does strain credibility more than a little, but it is the one thing the film possesses that is slightly different. The lack of ideas in the well-thumbed plot throws the weight of expectation on the technical execution and the cast, and neither really rises to the occasion. Pastore relies on an over-use of whip-pans and crash zooms to try and infuse the drama with some energy but beyond a dash of suspense in a final act scene set in an abandoned glassworks, the film never really gets out of first gear. There is also a particularly nasty kill late on, which is queasily effective thanks to some rapid editing but feels strangely out of place with what has gone before.

The cast features a roster of reliable performers, many with previous Giallo credits. They do what they can with the material, but many of the roles are severely underwritten. Steffen is perfectly convincing as a blind man but never approaches the levels of personality that Malden displayed for Argento, so he fails to engage any significant audience sympathy or investment. Raho manages some subtle moments as Steffen’s almost ever-present factotum, but the acting plaudits mainly belong to Giovanna Lenzi, here credited, as per usual, as Jeanette Len. Her performance as a drug addict blackmailed into helping the killer feels more urgent and immediate than anything else on offer.

There are a couple of nice touches for genre and horror fans, though. Steffen isn’t just a run-of-the-mill working pianist and composer; he scores films. His latest project? Apparently, it’s Lucio Fulci’s classic Giallo ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin/Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971)! There’s also a throwback to classic horror when Lenzi enters a pet shop, and all the animals go wild, recalling Simone Simone’s efforts to exchange her feline friend for a bird in Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ (1942). It transpires that Lenzi owns the pet store in this film, but it’s still a pleasing moment.

Crucially with a Giallo thriller of this kind, the mystery manages to stay engaging, even if it’s not hard to guess the killer’s identity, and everything is wrapped up a little too rapidly in the final scene. However, despite all the obvious flaws and shortcomings, the general level of production value and all-around competence does see it through. Pastore is wise enough to keep things moving, so the pace never flags, and he delivers the requisite procession of corpses to keep the audience interested, if not precisely on the edges of their seats.

Giovanna Lenzi had a role in Pastore’s first-ever film ‘Crisantemi per un branco di carogne’ (1968). The two often worked together over the years before and after their encounter with the Black Cat. They married in 1972 and remained hitched until his death fifteen years later. Lenzi had begun her screen career with a small role in the underrated Barbara Steele vehicle ‘An Angel for Satan/Un angelo per Satana’ (1966), which also starred Steffan. Minor assignments followed in early Giallo ‘A…Come Assassino/A…For Assassin’ (1966), Eurospys ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse/Le tigre sort sans sa mère’ (1967) and ‘Agente Sigma 3: Missione Goldwather’ (1967) before she snagged a more significant role in Giallo thriller ‘Deadly Inheritance/Omicidio Per Vocazione’ (1968). In the 1980s, she moved behind the typewriter and collaborated with Pastore on two projects, which she also directed, including the poorly-reviewed Giallo ‘Delitti’ (1987).

If judged on its own merits rather than compared to its far superior sources, this one just about gets a pass.

That Man in Istanbul/Estambul 65 (1965)

‘Bogo, show Miss Babyfat out.’

The CIA exchanges a kidnapped atomic scientist for a ransom of one million dollars, but there’s a bomb on the transport plane, and the scientist is killed almost immediately. One agent pursues the matter unofficially, her main lead being a deported gangster and well-known playboy who lives in Istanbul…

The identity of this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ is up for discussion in this Italian-Franch-Spanish Eurospy production from director Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi. Our agent in the field might be the glamorous Sylva Koscina, but most of the action falls to suave leading man Horst Buchholz.

CIA Chief George Rigaud is not a happy man. Not only did atomic scientist Professor Pendergast (Umberto Raho) go up in flames after the ransom payoff, but diplomatic sensitives (and an order from the President no less!) preclude any further investigation into the matter. This does not sit well with special agent Kelly (Koscina), who decides to follow up in Instanbul on an unofficial basis, with Riguad happy to look the other way. Clandestine photographs snapped at the exchange put handsome young nightspot owner Tony Mecenas (Buchholz) at the scene, so she secures a job at his club. Buchholz is an old hand at dealing with law enforcement, though, and he immediately sees through the charade.

From that point on, the two exchange the usual romantic barbs as they begin falling for each other, and he becomes sucked further and further into her investigation. She’s suspected from the first that Raho isn’t really dead and that the sadistic Gunther (Agustín González) and his cronies are taking orders from a secret mastermind. The challenge is to unmask the villain and rescue Raho as Buchholz runs all over Istanbul, dodging bullets and bad guys.

Isasi-Isasmendi’s movie may be formulaic plot-wise, but it has a playful, tongue-in-cheek approach that helps with the entertainment level. Buchholz makes for an athletic hero, aided by some decent stunt work, including some impressive high-speed driving on mountain roads. There’s a running gag that beautiful women know him wherever he goes, and there are even a couple of occasions where he breaks the fourth wall to address a remark to the audience. There’s also a direct romantic rival for Koscina after Buchholz rescues rich girl Elisabeth Furst (Perrette Pradier), who the gang have snatched off her father’s yacht.

What does derail proceedings to some extent is the length. Without a great deal of plot development, a two-hour run time almost inevitably leads to a saggy middle act, and the film begins to drift and drag as Buchholz makes one last-minute escape after another. The script also keeps Koscina off screen for long periods when more of the romantic back and forth between the pair might have provided the necessary sparkle and encouraged more audience investment in the drama.

Still, there is a surprisingly lively supporting cast of characters. As well as the afore-mentioned González, the rogue’s gallery of villains also includes award-winning German actors Mario Adorf and Klaus Kinski as assassins. Although they don’t share any significant screen time and Kinski is dreadfully underused, his face-off with Buchholz is one of the film’s undoubted highlights. On the side of the angels are the dry-witted Brain (Gustavo Re) and magician Bogo (Álvaro de Luna). Isasi-Isasmendi also finds slots for French actor Gérard Tichy, and familiar Spaghetti Western face Luis Induni in minor roles.

In terms of action, there’s enough bang for your buck, although it sometimes verges on parody. Surrounded by four speeding cars closing in for the kill, Buchholz manages to shoot out all their headlights in super quick time and make them all crash into one another. He also jumps from a crashing sports car onto the back of a truck in what would have been a fantastic stunt if we actually got to see it! Jazzing up all this nonsense with blaring horns and strident strings is a faux-John Barry score from composer Georges Garvarentz, which helps instil some dynamism when the mayhem is a little lacking.

Of course, Buchholz is best remembered as the youngest member of John Sturges’ ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) but enjoyed a film career of more than half a century. Through the 1950s, he worked his way up the ranks in the European film industry from short subjects and unbilled roles to leading parts in such prestigious productions as ‘Auferstehung’ (1958), a big-budget adaptation of the Tolstoy novel. Hollywood came calling with award-winning crime drama ‘Tiger Bay’ (1959), and his trip out west with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen followed hard on its heels. Joshua Logan’s romantic drama ‘Fanny’ (1961) and Billy Wilder’s excellent ‘One, Two, Three’ (1961) completed a formidable kick-off to his American career, but scheduling conflicts led to his being unable to take the lead in ‘West Side Story’ (1961) and another plum assignment on David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962). Instead, big budget flop ‘Nine Hours to Rama’ (1962) and poorly-received Bette Davis vehicle ‘The Empty Canvas’ (1964) hurt his prospects, and he returned to European films. Back in the US in the mid-1970s, he took roles in mediocre movies made for television, on network shows such as ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and appeared in the dreadful but hilarious mini-series ‘The Amazing Captain Nemo’ (1978). Back in Europe for most of the remainder of his career, he acted in such notable projects as Wim Wenders’ ‘Faraway, So Close!’ (1993) and Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997). He passed away in 2003.

A fun Eurospy, but tighter script control and a greater focus on the romantic elements might have made for something far more notable.

So Sweet So Dead/Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile (1972)

‘He has this morbid passion…for corpses.’

A killer targets the wives of some of the leading men of a small provincial city. Evidence of their adulterous affairs is left behind at each crime scene, but the men’s faces in the photographs have been mutilated beyond recognition…

Run-of-the-mill Giallo thriller, courtesy of director Roberto Bianchi Montero, working from a script he co-authored with Luigi Angelo and Italo Fasan. Ex-Hollywood leading man Farley Granger stars, along with Sylvia Koscina and Silvano Tranquili.

The pressure’s on at police headquarters after a General’s wife, Floriana (Ulla Johannsen), is found naked on a bed with her throat cut. The killer has scattered a collection of compromising photographs around the corpse, with the face of her lover erased from each one. The case lands on the desk of Inspector Capuana (Granger), whose wife Barbara (Koscina) moved in the same social circles as the victim. Medical examiner Professor Casali (Chris Avram) theorises that the killer is a sex maniac, and it’s not so long before he strikes again, butchering Serena (Femi Benussi), shortly after a late-night tryst with her illicit lover, Gianni (Andrea Scotti).

Prominent criminal lawyer Paolo Santangeli (Silvano Tranquilli) becomes connected to the case by representing Scotti. However, he would much rather be in conference with mistress Lilly (Nieves Navarro), who lives next door to his family home with her disabled husband. Tranquilli’s wife Franca (Annabella Incontrera) knows all about his cheating and has started her own out-of-town affair, while their teenage daughter Bettina (Angela Corvello) is seeing ‘unsuitable’ scooter boy Piero (Fabrizio Moresco). Koscina’s friend Renata (Krista Nell) is also on the killer’s wish list due to her ongoing liaisons with young stud Mauro (Paul Oxon).

At first glance, it might seem that the large number of extra-marital affairs and infidelities tag the film as more daytime soap opera than Giallo. However, this apparently tangled web of romantic intrigues serves only one purpose: to provide victims for the killer. Director Montero focuses firmly on the mystery and the ongoing investigations of Inspector Granger and his efforts to unmask the mysterious slasher. Unfortunately, the results are routine at best, with a mechanical plot, shallow characters and little creativity. There are few surprises, with the victims clearly signposted one at a time before the killer strikes and a staggering lack of detail regarding the investigation. Granger is told to tread carefully because the victims were from high society, advice he seems to take to heart as he prefers to haul in various pimps and streetwalkers rather than talk to some of the husbands involved. We never even see him interview Corvello after she witnesses one of the slayings!

However, spending more time on Granger’s efforts at detection would probably have meant less footage of the female cast with their clothes off. Yes, there’s plenty of casual nudity for our unfaithful wives, although only Navarro gets an actual sex scene. This naked romp proved far too hot for some, and the scene was heavily trimmed for release in certain territories. Ironically, the film was later re-edited with new scenes featuring adult stars Harry Reems and Tina Russell and released in America as ‘Penetration’. Not best pleased that he had been re-cast as a porn-watching detective, Granger threatened legal action and the film was withdrawn, although apparently, the re-cut version still played in parts of Europe.

Giallo is often attacked for its gender politics and attitudes toward women, and this is one such film that merits discussion in that regard. The victims here are explicitly targeted because of their infidelity and often meet their ends in various states of undress and just after sex. On the other hand, the men escape scott-free with no consequence for their actions other than the fear of being unjustly accused of the crime. In slight mitigation to the filmmakers, none of the women concerned has multiple lovers, and at least some justification is provided for their actions. Incontrera’s husband is already sleeping around, Navarro’s is virtually bedridden and probably impotent, and the initial victim, Johannsen, was married to a General, which suggests a considerable age gap. Even Granger is so obsessed with his job that it’s unlikely Koscina is having a great time between the sheets. However, given the slapdash nature of the production, it’s probably pushing it a bit to assign the filmmakers with conscious intent on any of these matters.

The film boasts little in the way of memorable visuals, although Montero does deliver one excellent sequence as Benussi flees the dark silhouette of the killer along a beach at night. It’s the one extended use of slow motion in the film, and it works very well, although the killer’s look is almost a direct steal from Mario Bava’s far superior ‘6 Donne Por L’assassino/Blood and Black Lace’ (1964). There’s also an entertaining supporting role for Luciano Rossi as Avram’s rather too enthusiastic right-hand man Gastone. Not only does he help the Professor with his autopsies, but he also ‘beautifies’ the dead bodies afterwards and takes photos of them! I’m pretty sure that’s the role of funeral parlour staff rather than the Police Medical Examiner’s Assistant, but maybe they do things differently in Italy.

Granger was a veteran of Giallo by this point in his fading career, and he anchors the drama with a solid performance, effectively selling his character’s emotional conflict at the climax. Sadly, there’s very little for the female cast to do except disrobe, die and fire the odd, half-hearted bitchy comment each other’s way. Navarro makes the best of it with her effortless sensual charisma, but all the women are drawn in broad, identikit strokes. The script has all the hallmarks of a project thrown together hastily, with the writers ticking a series of boxes to guarantee an easy hop onto the Giallo bandwagon. Unknown killer with a blade? Check. Beautiful women with their clothes off? Check. Intricate mystery laced with subtle clues, fascinating characters and gripping drama? Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Koscina’s four-decade-long screen career began with a featured role in the Second World War comedy ‘Siamo uomini o caporali’ (1955), which starred famous Italian funnyman Totò. Her big break arrived only three years later when she starred as Iole, Daughter of Pelias, opposite Steve Reeves in the international smash ‘Hercules/Le fatiche di Ercole’ (1958) and the sequel ‘Hercules Unchained/Ercole e la regina di Lidia’ (1959). She confirmed her comedic credentials in many other projects at this time, including several with old friend Totò. When tax breaks and low production costs brought Hollywood to Italian shores in the early 1960s, she picked up supporting roles in American features and soon graduated to starring with Dirk Bogarde in knowing British spy flick ‘Hot Enough for June’ (1964). Abel Gance’s ‘Cyrano et d’Artagnan’ (1964) followed, and she appeared in a minor role in Federico Fellini’s ‘Juliet of the Spirits/Giulietta degli spiriti’ (1967). She also had time to romance Bulldog Drummond in ‘Deadlier Than The Male’ (1967) and led cult item ‘He and She/L’assoluto naturale’ (1969). Notable leading men included Paul Newman in ‘The Secret War of Harry Frigg’ (1968), Kirk Douglas in ‘A Lovely Way To Die’ (1968) and Rock Hudson in ‘Hornet’s Nest’ (1970). The 1970s brought Giallo ‘The Crimes of the Black Cat/Sette scialli di seta gialla’ (1972) and work for Mario Bava in ‘Lisa and the Devil/Lisa e il diavolo’ (1973). She struggled with tax problems in the following years but was still working up to her death from heart trouble in 1994.

So sweet, so dead…and so anonymous too.

Totò nella luna (1958)

‘Pod Creature, stop that! You are the most moronic creature we have ever created.’

Concerned about humankind’s first baby steps to the stars, aliens are working to sabotage experimental satellite launches from Cape Canaveral. Meanwhile, an aspiring young science fiction writer is found to have a substance in his blood that makes him the perfect astronaut and two FBI agents travel to Rome to recruit him…

Genial, knockabout comedy starring Italian National Institution and ‘Prince of Laughter’ Antonio Vincenzo Stefano Clemente. A man of many names but better known as Totò. This star vehicle finds him hopping aboard the 1950s science-fiction space wagon that began roaring across American cinema screens at the start of the decade.

Irascible magazine editor Pasquale Belafronte (Totò) has had his fill of the space craze. Not only do rockets disturb his sleep, he’s also bothered at work where dogsbody Achille Paoloni (Ugo Tognazzi) can’t stop talking about comic strips and his new science fiction novel. Worse still, this loser is the frontrunner for the hand of his beautiful daughter, Lidia (Sylva Koscina). Meanwhile, extra-terrestrials are regarding the Earth with worried eyes and are drawing their plans against us.

The aliens’ beef is the American space programme, which has already progressed as far as sending a chimp into orbit. So they send down Interplanetary Alpha 1 Annelid (played by a pair of disembodied, cartoon eyes) from the Anti-terrestrial Space Control Station to put the brakes on the boffins. Annelid accomplishes this by generating some wibbly-wobbly smoke rings that stream through the atmosphere. These send the US rockets hopelessly off course, and they have to be destroyed, leaving the scientists baffled.

It seems that the extra-terrestrials have the upper hand, but they’ve reckoned without Tognazzi. A casual medical examination reveals that he has Glumonium in his blood, apparently from being brought up with apes by his zookeeper father. For some reason, this makes him the only man who can go into space, and FBI agents contact him in Rome to offer him the job. Unfortunately, there’s a language barrier, and Tognazzi thinks they are offering to publish his novel.

Of course, this is all very silly, with the humour drawn in broad strokes and plot developments largely predictable. The script throws in enemy agents led by Bond Villain wannabe Von Braun (Luciano Salce), who believes Tognazzi’s novel contains a secret rocket formula, which he attempts to recreate with explosive results. He’s assisted in his dastardly schemes by blonde amazon, Tatitana (Sandra Milo), who comes complete with a femme fatale uniform of black dress, big hat, long opera gloves and cigarette holder. Although it’s never mentioned who they are working for, his preference for tall, furry hats is a bit of a giveaway.

A nice wrinkle is thrown in late when the aliens create duplicates of Totò and Tognazzi, but the resulting romantic and comedic misunderstandings are not exactly groundbreaking. Still, it’s good to see Tognazzi’s devotion to all the clichés of the sci-fi pulps, such as giant cockroaches and vile octopus monsters. There’s also an amusing foreshadowing of modern fanboy culture when he expresses his opinion on a newly published comic strip. ‘Everyone knows that the inhabitants of Mercury don’t have four eyes!’ he sneers in contempt. ‘They have 16 of them!’.

The film is firmly earthbound for much of its running time before finally going into orbit in the last fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, by that point, it has overstayed its welcome a little with an insufficient number of events and too many formulaic situations to consistently engage the funny bone. Euro-horror enthusiasts may be surprised to see director Lucio Fulci with a co-story credit, but he cut his teeth in mainstream Italian cinema over several decades before meeting up with the ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1978).

Totò was a national institution in Italy, appearing in almost 100 films from 1937 to 1968 when two more features were released after his death in April 1967 at the age of 69. Although primarily beloved as a comedian, he also found success in dramatic roles as a singer and songwriter, writer, and poet. Koscina was more famous as the girl on Steve Reeves’ arm in the first two wildly successful ‘Hercules’ films of the late 1950s but also had a long, five-decade career in which included appearances as the leading lady opposite Paul Newman in ‘The Secret War of Harry Frigg’ (1968), Rock Hudson in ‘The Hornet’s Nest’ (1970) and a prominent role in the Bulldog Drummond spy romp ‘Deadlier Than The Male’ (1967).

Harmless, if somewhat lightweight, comedy vehicle that raises a smile or two.

Agent X-77 Orders To Kill/Baraka Sur X-13 (1966)

Agent X-77 Orders To Kill (1966)‘I was probing to assess his resistance capacity.’

Enemy agents attempt to steal a top scientist’s research and then assassinate him by sabotaging a commercial airliner. The plane crashes but the Professor survives, and various espionage operatives clash in their efforts to acquire his secrets, including French Secret Service man Agent X-77…

Rather dreary, run of the mill Eurospy shenanigans, with the only noticeable twist being the involvement of a French film company in its production, along with the inevitable collaboration of Italian and Spanish studios. The Gallic influence means this week’s ‘Bond on A Budget’ is actor Gérard Barry, who demonstrates the necessary charm and the usual ability to shot someone dead from a great distance without aiming his gun properly. Having said that, there is an effort to ground his adventures in a more realistic way that many of his contemporaries, although the lack of big sets, stunt work, gadgets and set pieces may have been as much to do with budget limitations as anything else.

The lack of production resource is pretty obvious from our opening sequence. The plane disaster is rendered through the tremendously convincing medium of two characters hearing a distant explosion and when Barry, posing as an accident investigator, visits the crash site all we see is the disordered interior of the passenger cabin and a few extras playing dead. Much of the subsequent action is centred on the hospital where the Professor is admitted and a series of less than stellar plot developments that seem merely designed to pad the run time to feature length.

These include the introduction of our faceless villains, their tacked-on plan to blow up a factory that’s supposed to be producing the Professor’s invention (whatever it is!), and Barry’s romance of sassy nurse Sylva Koscina, who falls for him after just one date at a restaurant cum-nightclub that bares an unfortunate resemblance to a poorly dressed film set. He also spends a good deal of time driving around in his little red car, constantly accompanied by a jangly zither on the soundtrack. Now that musical accompaniment worked magnificently in ‘The Third Man’ (1949) but here it’s just annoying. Extremely annoying. Especially when it plays over lengthy shots of tape reels spinning on the kind of computer that used to take six hours to add two and two.

Barry’s performance is from the Sean Connery school of Bond. He may smile and romance the ladies a little, but he’s all business really and is pleasingly cold blooded on a couple of occasions, particularly when he gasses a fellow agent who has switched sides for love. But action is at a serious premium here, with just a few bouts of unconvincing fisticuffs, a bit of gun play, some decent stunt driving and a couple of explosions. The plot is cheerfully vague throughout and simply disintegrates into some running about and the attempts of various agents to kill each other. Exactly what the Professor has invented is never really made clear. If it is some kind of amazing, brand new rocket fuel, then how come this anonymous factory outside Trieste is already making it? The script simply doesn’t bother with such trivial exposition.

Agent X-77 Orders To Kill (1966)

The audience were less than thrilled with the in-flight movie…

Directing duties here were appropriately split between Italian Silvio Siano and Frenchman Maurice Cloche, who it could be argued made a loose Eurospy trilogy with ‘Agent FX18’ (1964) starring Ken Clark and ‘Le Vicomte Regie Jes Comptes’ (1967) with former ‘Sinbad’, Kerwin Matthews.

Barry was a hero of French adventure films at the time, and later had a major role in ‘Open Your Eyes’ (1997), which was remade (poorly) in the U.S. as ‘Vanilla Sky’ (2001) with Tom Cruise. Koscina is best remembered as Steve Reeves’ better half in cheesy Italian muscleman epics ‘Hercules’ (1958) and ‘Hercules Unchained’ (1959) but had a significant career in more respectable cinema, appearing in Georges Franju’s ‘Judex’ (1963) and ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ (1965) for Ferderico Fellini. Also in the cast is Gérard Tichy, who was the title villain in ‘Superargo Vs. Diabolicus’ (1966) but also appeared in big budget productions like ‘Dr Zhivago’ (1965) and ‘King of Kings’ (1961), as well as Mario Bava’s impressive horror ‘Hatchet For The Honeymoon’ (1970).

There were certainly worse pretenders to 007 crown, but that market was seriously oversaturated by the mid-1960s and, without any remarkable elements, it’s inevitable that this example simply got lost in the shuffle.

Hercules Unchained/Ercole e la regina di Lidia (1959)

Hercules Unchained (1959)‘Polinices at the Gates of Thebes! lole! I have been tricked by the gods! 

Hercules returns home to Thebes accompanied by his new bride lole and Ulysses, the son of a friend. But the old king has abdicated and his two sons are contesting the throne. The mad Eteocles is in possession, but Polinices plans to overthrow him using foreign mercenaries.

After the worldwide success of ‘Hercules’ (1958) kickstarted the entire ‘sword and sandal’ genre, a direct sequel was really an inevitability. Stars Steve Reeves and Sylva Koscina returned, along with director Pietro Francisci, who also worked on a script that was ‘freely adapted’ from some more of the legendary hero’s original exploits. Unfortunately, the results are decidedly mixed.

The original ‘Hercules’ (1957) was a tatty, ragbag of legendary bits and pieces that mostly revolved around the great man’s labours, but here we get virtually no mythology at all!  There is a fight with a ‘giant’ and a mysterious Queen who uses the ‘waters of forgetfulness’ to snare her lovers, but that’s about it. What we get instead is a fairly dull and generic drama, which lacks action or creative story developments to make it memorable.

Hercules Unchained (1959)

‘Seconds out, Round One!’

The fight with the ‘giant’ pits Reeves against former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Primo Carnera, in the last role of his brief film career. Camera might have been 6′ 6″ but l’m not sure that actually qualifies him as a giant. It was always alleged that Carnera was backed by the mob in his boxing days, and several books, and subsequent films, were loosely based on his life, including Budd Schulberg’s ‘The Harder They Fall’, which became Humphrey Bogart’s final movie.

After his wrestling match with Carnera and a rather disappointing homecoming involving nutbag Eteocles (Sergio Fantoni) and his pet tigers, the big guy goes off to broker peace with Polinices, rather stupidly leaving Koscina behind. On the way, he ends up in the clutches of sexy Queen Onfale (Sylvia Lopez) who keeps him doped up on the local water which makes him lose his memory. She normally has her lovers killed and then mummified by some rogue Egyptians(!) but, of course, she falls for the big lummox instead and, understandably, he’s quite happy with the whole idea. Unfortunately, pesky Ulysses puts his oar in and spoils the party. What a killjoy.

Then it’s back to quickly wrap up the main story with some swordplay and a battle at the gates of Thebes. The rival brothers fight a duel for the throne, Hercules pulls over some siege towers, and Koscina resists the advances of the horny leader of the evil mercenaries. The battle is quite impressively staged but it’s a little brief and it can’t atone for the long, dull build up. Hercules does fight the tigers, but it’s really left to Fantoni chewing the scenery, and the smouldering Lopez to keep things afloat. Sadly, Lopez was dead within a year after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Mario Bava worked on the film as the assistant director, lighting director and SFX director. He was only a year away from his full directorial debut on ‘The Mask of Satan’/‘Black Sunday‘ (1960), the horror classic with Barbara Steele that made his name. Two years after that he delivered what remains easily the best Hercules film ever made; ‘Hercules ln The Haunted World’ (1962). This effort from Francisci pales in comparison to that.

Unremarkable ‘sword and sandal’ shenanigans with barely a whiff of sorcery or the machinations of the gods.

Uncle Was A Vampire (1959)

Hard Times for Vampires…Uncle_Was_A_Vampire_(1959)

A bankrupt nobleman loses his ancestral castle and is forced to work as a bellboy when it reopens as a hotel. Things seem to be looking up when a long lost uncle comes to stay. The only problem is that the new guest is a vampire.

Being fluent in 4 foreign languages and proficient in another 3 gave Christopher Lee a second career in films made in mainland Europe. ‘Uncle Was A Vampire’ (1959) finds him lampooning his ‘Dracula’ image in this mild Italian sex comedy. It’s a shame his voice is dubbed by another actor in the English version as it doesn’t help his performance but he’s still an impressive presence and a class act.

Elsewhere, the only other plus points are the female cast, who are certainly pleasant to look at and include Sylva Koscina, Steve Reeves’ squeeze from his 2 outings as ‘Hercules.’ Unfortunately, most of the proceedings resemble 1970s ‘family’ TV sitcoms with a fair amount of the clichés intact. There’s nothing wrong with some level of familiarity of course but the shameless mugging of star Renato Rascel pretty much puts the final nail in the coffin (so to speak).

'You will buy my new heavy metal album....'

‘You will buy my new heavy metal album….’

Having said all that, it’s fair to say that humour doesn’t always translate between nations, or eras for that matter, so it’s hard to judge the project to harshly. It certainly isn’t any worse than the Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin pictures of the same period or the Norman Wisdom comedies produced in the U.K.

And you do get to see Lee in his vampire heyday – even if he doesn’t sound like himself!

Hercules/Le fatiche di Ercole (1958)

Hercules_(1958)‘In your arms, I found I was not a queen, but a real woman.’

Hercules saves a beautiful princess when her chariot goes out of control. Her father has asked the muscleman to teach his son the ‘arts of war’ but Hercules is more interested in clearing the name of an old friend, who was accused of assassinating the previous King many years before.

Steve Reeves was a champion bodybuilder and small time actor (Ed Wood’s ‘Jailbait’ (1954)!) before he took this gig in Italy for writer-director Pietro Francisci. No one was interested in distributing the movie stateside until independent producer-exhibitor Joseph H Levine saw it. Later he called it: ‘One of the worst pictures I ever saw, but I knew it had great appeal.’ Spending more on promotion than the original production budget, Levine released the movie simultaneously to over 600 screens (unheard of at the time). It was an absolute smash and kick started a craze for Italian muscleman pictures, which lasted until the mid-1960s.

It’s hard to understand what the fuss was about now because the movie really is rather poor. Reeves is impressive physically but isn’t much of an actor and scenes where he wrestles a dopey lion and a stuffed bison are not convincing. The plot mixes its mythologies (Greek and Roman) and features such disparate elements as a geriatric lizard monster, a mysterious wise woman and a search for the Golden Fleece. The script ties this all up logically enough but the story still rambles all over the too generous running time. The English dubbing is terrible and Reeves meets other characters with the kind of outrageous coincidence often favoured by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his ‘Tarzan’ books. These include Gianna Maria Canale as the Queen of the Amazons and Sylva Koscina as the Princess Iole, who repeated her role in sequel ‘Hercules Unchained’ (1959), again with Reeves.

At the height of his fame, Reeves attracted quite a few hangers on...

At the height of his fame, Reeves attracted quite a few hangers on…

It’s interesting to speculate whether Ray Harryhausen saw this film and realised the cinematic potential in the Golden Fleece, realised so brilliantly in his vastly superior ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963). Actually, I’ve always wondered why no one knitted the Fleece into a nice sweater or a pair of socks. Reeves reportedly turned down the roles of James Bond and The Man with No Name and, although it’s possible to imagine him in Eastwood’s poncho, it’s hard to see him as 007.

There’s a new Hercules movie currently shooting with Dwayne Johnson in the title role. No doubt it will be ‘darker, grittier and more organic’ – like every other remake/reboot/re-imagining than comes out of Hollywood these days… Just wake me when it’s over…

Buy’ Hercules & Hercules Unchained’ here