The Black Box Affair/Black Box Affair – Il mondo trema (1966)

‘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.

Naked Girl Murdered in the Park/Ragazza tutta nuda assassinata nel parco (1972)

‘I couldn’t find my smoking dentures.’

A businessman is murdered at an amusement park in the afternoon. The police think it’s a robbery gone wrong, but the insurance company aren’t so convinced, especially considering the victim took out an expensive policy earlier the same day…

Rather curious Giallo from director Alfonso Brescia that often has the feel of an old-fashioned Agatha Christie murder-mystery. Austrian actor Robert Hoffmann leads the action with the reliable support of the ubiquitous Adolfo Cell.

Berlin 1945: in the retreat from the Allies, a Nazi officer flees with a teenage girl, leaving her mother and young brother to die. Twenty-seven years later, in Madrid, respected businessman Johannes Wallenberger is found dead in the ‘Tunnel of Horrors’, a fairground ride at a popular amusement park. Inspector Huber (Celi) favours the theory that it’s a robbery gone south. However, the dead man was carrying a considerable sum of money, and his visit to Luna Park in the middle of the day was out of character.

Insurance Company supremo Losel (Tomás Blanco) is even less inclined to believe a random robbery, given that the man had taken out a multi-million dollar life insurance policy a few hours earlier. He assigns his top investigator Chris Buyer (Hoffmann), to get close to the family over the objections of antagonistic colleague Martin (Philippe Leroy). Going undercover to romance pretty daughter Catherine (Pilar Velázquez), Hoffmann eventually gets invited to spend the weekend at the family mansion.

Brescia’s thriller begins promisingly with a pre-credit sequence set during the fall of Berlin at the end of the Second World War. A young mother and son watch helplessly as a Nazi soldier sets a bomb in their home and absconds with the family’s teenage daughter. This dialogue-free scene is shot in black and white and mixed with relevant stock footage, and it’s an intriguing way to kick things off. Some sources credit Giallo veteran Rosalba Neri playing the uncredited role of the mother, but although there is a physical resemblance, it’s likely to be a misidentification. The opening credits follow, scored with an impressive piano-based theme by Carlo Savina.

Flashing forward to Madrid in 1972, Brescia presents some surreal images of skeletons floating in darkness inside the ‘Tunnel of Horrors’ before the old man’s corpse emerges into the daylight, lying across one of the cars. All this is quite a striking way to open proceedings. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there, with neither the cast nor director able to strike any sparks from the rather listless, undeveloped story.

Hoffmann’s insurance agent is a big part of the problem. His fencing with old sparring partner Celi is half-heated at best, and the character is resolutely unsympathetic. He dallies with amusement park waitress Ursy (Teresa Gimpera) and even beds Velázquez’s promiscuous sister, Barbara (Patrizia Adiutori). At one stage, it even looks like he’s set his sights on her mother, Magda (Irina Demick). It’s all in the cause of his mission, of course, and his behaviour makes sense in the story’s broader context. However, the actor gives too bland a performance to sell the drama in an effective way.

Pacing is also an issue, with matter slowing to a crawl once Hoffmann joins the family for the weekend. The household has the usual roster of suspicious servants; sinister butler Bruno (Franco Ressel), curt maid Sybil (María Vico) and strapping stablehand Günther (Howard Ross), who’s lusting after Adiutori. Here, the film drifts into ‘Old Dark House’ territory, with such well-worn cliches as the ‘family portrait’, the ‘locked room’ and a sudden ‘lights out’ that prompts an unfortunate trip to the fusebox.

These shortcomings are mitigated somewhat by the big reveal of the killer’s identity. It’s a genuine surprise, even if it creates some plot holes better left unexamined. Unfortunately, Bresica also muffs it, tagging on an action climax featuring characters largely peripheral to that point. It clarifies some plot points, but it’s an odd choice, to say the least, and one that makes for an unsatisfying finish. It’s also a very flat visual experience, and Bresica fails to inject the drama with any real urgency. Savina also opts for the easy way out, favouring the kind of wordless girlie chorus that has graced many a sub-Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

The brightest elements are the performances of Demick and Adiutori. Neither character is precisely nuanced, but there’s some fun to be had from both, with Adiutori’s endless flirting and sarcasm providing the breezier moments that the film so desperately needs. Demick is also entertaining as the semi-unhinged Magda, whose odd behaviour seems initially triggered by grief until it becomes clear that she’s probably always been a few sandwiches short of a buffet.

Hoffmann was born in Salzburg and studied acting in Paris, getting his big break in the title role of the TV show ‘The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ in 1964. Filmed in French, it was dubbed into English and became a staple of children’s programming in the UK over the next ten years, usually shown in the mornings during holidays. Some leads in adventure and crime films followed before he starred alongside Edward G Robinson, Janet Leigh and Klaus Kinski in the multi-national caper movie ‘Grand Slam’ (1967). His first brush with Giallo was the excellent ‘A Black Veil For Lisa/La Morte Non Ha Sesso’ (1968), followed by the considerably less impressive ‘The Insatiables/Femmine insaziabili/Carnal Circuit’ (1969). Later, he starred in ‘Spasmo’ (1974) for director Umberto Lenzi and appeared in science-fiction disappointment ‘Eyes Behind the Stars/Occhi dalle stelle’ (1978). His workmate dropped off in the mid-1980s, but there was still time for a couple of appearances on US Network TV soap opera juggernaut ‘Dallas’. His last screen appearance was in 2004, and he passed away in 2022.

A somewhat sluggish and disappointing entry.

Lucky the Inscrutable/Lucky, el intrépido/Agente Speciale L.K. (1967)

Lucky The Inscrutable (1967)‘Along with all my other talents, l happen to be a master of false bottoms.’

A suave, super spy is sent to less than exotic climes by his chief, Archangel, to break up a counterfeiting operation. On the way, he runs into a spot of bother with guns, girls and gadgets (without the gadgets) but a killer smirk and some half-arsed witticisms are just two of the weapons in his arsenal. Well, the only ones really…

Italian/Spanish spy spoof brought to us by cult director Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco, and starring Ray Danton as this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’. Unfortunately, as it turns out, he’s on a very small budget indeed. Yes, instead of the usual round of Paris, Lisbon and Casablanca, poor Danton gets brief stopovers in London and Rome, before he’s sent to Tirana in Albania. And he never gets to leave. It’s not exactly the French Riviera, is it?

Actually, the film opens well, with a scene that evokes nothing so much as ‘West Side Story’ (1963)! A gang of cool cats wait in the street for their mark, girls coo prettily on the soundtrack, and the photography is quite gorgeous. Not that any of this helps the operative who meets his Waterloo at the hands of the gang and sets the film’s plot in motion. Such as it is. Yes, it’s bad. Everything heads around the u-bend immediately. The fight choreography is lame for a start. Ah, it’s supposed to be a comedy. Only it isn’t remotely funny. Slight problem that.

Actually, the film gets increasingly bizarre, frantic and desperate as it goes, the running time unreeling at the rate of the rapidly expiring production budget. Most of the so-called plot developments are simply an excuse for another ‘madcap’ chase scene, and these are executed with very little stunt work and a complete absence of wit or flair. The addition of ‘comedy’ music also means there’s a distinct echo of old two-reelers from the silent movie days!

Lucky The Inscrutable (1967)

‘Have you heard of something called deodorant?’

Are there any girls? Well, yes, there’s plenty of eye candy for Danton to smarm over, but none stick around long enough to make any real impression apart from the lovely Rosalba Neri. Typically, she’s wasted in just a couple of scenes as a sexy Albanian policewoman.

Are there any guns?  Yes, plenty. Sometimes it even looks as if the cast are firing them. We also get scratchy, black and white artillery emplacements firing on Danton’s private plane! Shame it’s a colour movie. Are there any gadgets? Well…no. Not really. None at all, in fact.

Director Franco went onto become something of a cult figure in Euro-cinema with a prodigious output of 203 features! It’s inevitable that the quality is all over the place, of course, but there’s no denying the sense of visual style that he brought to such projects as ‘She Killed In Ecstasy’ (1971) and ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ (1972). Unfortunately, his skills as a storyteller were less well developed, and that was a problem as he scripted most of his pictures. And with his habit of regularly knocking out more than half a dozen projects a year, there are some truly wretched examples of his work, such as ‘Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein’ (1972) and ‘The Castle of Fu Manchu’ (1969). The latter was a collaboration with Christopher Lee and the two also worked together on other, better films such as ‘The’Bloody Judge’ (1970) and ‘Count Dracula’ (1970), although these also suffered from a lack of production values. And this film is one of Franco’s real bargain basement efforts. The cheapness is even acknowledged in the film’s ridiculous climax, which is about as useless as it gets.

Spy spoofs were ten a penny in the 1960s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a worse example than this. The best aspect of the film is its brief length, but this is small consolation to the audience, as the film overstays its welcome in the first quarter of an hour.

Not recommended. Even for hard core Eurospy freaks.