‘You phoney baloney, you shoot like Buffalo Bill.’
A US military plane explodes off the coast of the remote island of Santa Magdalena. The top secret device it was carrying could trigger a nuclear war, so understandably, all the superpowers send their secret agents to the crash site with orders to recover it at all costs…
This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is American actor Craig Hill who ends up channeling his inner 007 in Vienna. This Italian-Spanish co-production comes from director and co-writer Marcello Ciorciolini, who adopts a slightly more grounded approach to his spy game than some of his contemporaries.
Visiting the estate of an old friend, retired secret agent John Grant (Hill) is set upon by two men posing as gardeners, who he dispatches after some brutal combat. He crashes into the house, ready for anything and gun blazing, but it’s all a test set by General MacGregor (George Rigaud) and his ex-boss Mister X (Herbert Montureano) to see if he can still cut it after two years out of harness. Despite passing the ordeal with flying colours, Hill refuses the offer of a new assignment. However, when they explain that the Russian team in play is led by Fabian (Rolf Tasna), he changes his mind. He has vowed to kill the red agent, who he believes was responsible for the death of his wife.
Hill arrives in San Magdalena with old partner Pablo (Luis Marin), and it’s not long before they are tangling with the opposition. Rather than interrogate three captured agents at gunpoint, our superspy throws his weapon away as he fancies a bit of the old hand-to-hand. Later, he
discovers hotel switchboard operator Myriam (Rossella Bergamonti) in his room uninvited. However, she’s searching his room rather than using the shower, which is a definite red flag. In the restaurant, he finds himself seated at a table beside fashion guru Mamoiselle Floriane (Teresa Gimpera). As she’s dining alone too, the inevitable happens, and the pair hook up.
As Hill’s investigation proceeds, he begins to suspect that the black box was removed from the plane during refuelling at the airport in Vienna. It also seems that Tasna and his Kremlin boys are at a loss regarding its whereabouts. The disappearance of a top scientist suggests that someone is trying to unlock the box’s secrets and both sides suspect the Chinese, forcing Hill and Tasna into a reluctant alliance. The Viennese trail leads Hill to the city’s high-end fashion salon run by Gimpera, whose presence on holiday in San Magdalena now seems to be a little more than just a happy coincidence.
Ciorciolini’s film is caught somewhere between a hard-nosed espionage thriller and an attempt at pandering to the more outlandish expectations of an audience now used to the more comic book aspects of a James Bond adventure. On the one hand, the fight scenes are serious and violent, and there’s Hill’s tragic backstory and his vendetta against the impressively stone-faced Tasna. Hill’s initial test at the hands of his fellow agents pulls no punches and ends with our hero smashing both of them in the face with the business end of a shovel. I can only hope the agency had a decent dental plan!
By contrast, Hill’s romance with Gimpera is flirtatious and sweet, and there’s some playful banter about another agent who changed his name to Sean because of a Bond fixation. Further silliness arrives when Hill and Marin’s contact in Vienna turns out to be a dentist who insists on taking out one of the latter’s teeth. Hill’s partner is also part-Apache and uses a tomahawk and a scalping knife as his weapons of choice, at one point carving bloody initials into the foreheads of a trio of vanquished opponents. The script keeps banging on about his heritage ad nauseam, presumably as a substitute for anything as challenging as providing some actual character development. It also doesn’t help that Marin looks about as Native American as you’d imagine a Spanish actor in a suit could.
The film’s main virtue comes from Hill’s performance as he switches effortlessly between humorous charm and ruthless efficiency as the script requires. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t bare close examination. It’s hard to credit that a government agency would send a retired field agent into a situation that, if mishandled, would result in a significant international incident at best and nuclear Armageddon at worst. Especially given that said agent has a personal score to settle, that’s likely to cloud his judgement. As it is, Hill’s emotional damage is only relevant at the points when the story needs them to be, with the rest of the time, the agent quite obviously getting a kick at being back in the game.
As with many Eurospy projects, the lack of budget shows up in the final act with a general lack of scale and spectacle. After enjoying all the fun of the fair at the Vienna Prater, Hill and Marin track the villains back to their secret hideout. Unfortunately, this proves to be a run-of-the-mill suburban house, and the scientist’s lab is a handful of random pieces of electronic gear sitting on an old desk in the front room. The final confrontation takes place at night in a wrecking yard. Poor Hill. He never even got to meet Orson Welles on the big wheel.
Ciorciolini began his screen career as a writer in the early 1950s, mainly working in comedy, historical dramas and the sword and sandal genres. Notable projects included ‘Robin Hood and the Pirates/Robin Hood e i pirati’ (1960) starring ex-Tarzan Lex Barker, ‘Ursus in the Land of Fire/Ursus nella terra di fuoco’ (1963) and more than half a dozen scripts for top Italian comedy double act Franco and Ciccio, including some uncredited work on spy spoof ‘The Amazing Dr G/Due mafiosi contro Goldginger’ (1965). His directorial career began the same year and included another Eurospy project ‘Tom Dollar’ (1967). Half of his ten credits behind the megaphone found him reteamed with Franco and Ciccio.
Hill’s career also began in the early 1950s with small bits in top Hollywood productions such as multi-Oscar winner ‘All About Eve’ (1950) and meatier supporting roles in smaller pictures such as Samuel Fuller’s ‘Fixed Bayonets! (1951). By the end of the decade, however, he was far more likely to be seen on television, most famously as one of the leads on the crime show ‘Whirlybirds’, which ran for three seasons. This success generated a few leading film roles in independent productions, such as the unusual science-fiction morality play ‘Flight That Disappeared’ (1961). However, by the middle of the decade, he had decamped for Europe, returning for the occasional role back home. On the continent, he became best known for starring in more than a dozen Spaghetti Westerns, from ‘Taste of Killing/Per il gusto di uccidere’ (1966), ‘Bury Them Deep/All’ultimo sangue’ (1967), ‘Three Crosses Not To Die/Tre croci per non morire’ (1968), ‘And The Crows Shall Dig Your Grave/Los buitres cavarán tu fosa’ (1971) to ‘My Horse, My Gun, Your Widow/Tu fosa será la exacta… amigo’ (1972). He also found time to appear in Paul Naschy’s horror trainwreck ‘Los Monstruos Del Terror/Assignment Terror/Dracula Versus Frankenstein’ (1970) and, later, in stylish Giallo ‘The Bloodstained Shadow/Solamente nero’ (1978). His final credit was in the Spanish science-fiction comedy ‘Flying Saucers/Platillos volantes’ (2003), and he passed on in 2014.
Gimpera was already married to advertising executive Octavio Sarsanedas with three young children when she became an actress via a short modelling career with her husband’s agency. She debuted in the title role of the little-known but well-regarded comic book spy adventure ‘Fata/Morgana’ (1966) and went on to further espionage adventures with Ray Danton in Jess Franco’s ‘Lucky the Inscrutable/Lucky, el intrépido/Agente Speciale L.K.’ (1967) and Bruno Corbucci’s comedy ‘Spia spione’ (1967). Many film projects followed, including some avant-garde work, comedy, horror and a role in Alfonso Brescia’s Giallo ‘Naked Girl Murdered in the Park/Ragazza tutta nuda assassinata nel parco’ (1973). Her marriage having disintegrated many years before, Gimpera met Hill again in the 1980s, and the two married a few years later, remaining together for 24 years until his death.
A Eurospy that never fully commits to either humour or a dark edge but contains elements of both and integrates them with some success.