Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)‘What kind of chicken are you, Mr Manning?’

A nuclear scientist is rescued from the East, but the agent assigned to supervise his transfer from Hong Kong to America is murdered. A top agent is sent in to retrieve the situation but finds more than one opposing group trying to get their hands on the boffin and his secrets…

Italian-Spanish Eurospy from Roberto Bianchi Montero (directing as Robert M White) that features Spaniard Germán Cobos as this week’s ‘Bond On A Budget.’ Unfortunately, for him said budget stretches to a limited geographical itinerary; a quick stop-off in Barcelona and en extended stay in Hong Kong. Also, the production takes a pass on the ‘gadget’ element of the usual ‘Guns, Girls and Gadgets’ formula, leaving this a far more grounded production than many of its contemporaries.

It’s business as usual for special agent Robert Manning (Cobos), codename Agent Z-55. Just as things are starting to get interesting in the bedroom with his latest flame, the telephone rings, and it’s off to Hong Kong on his latest mission. Professor Larsen (Francisco Sanz) has been rescued from his Chinese captors by a team of Japanese Kung-Fu experts, led by a one-handed man, and sequestered in secret on the island. Unfortunately, the operative sent to bring him home has turned his toes up unexpectedly, and Cobos is next in line for the detail.

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)

‘What have you done with the hot blonde in my shower?’

Arriving during a sudden onslaught of Hong Kong tourist board footage, our suave hero has a run-in with the local fuzz at the airport who want him on a trumped-up smuggling charge. One car chase later, he’s checking into his hotel when he finds something is very wrong. There’s no mysterious hot blonde using the shower in his room! Rather than ring room service to complain, he pops next door instead and starts putting the moves on sexy brunette, Sally (Maria Luisa Rispoli) but, of course, she’s not there by chance. She’s working for local crime boss, Barrow (Gianni Rizzo) who keeps an armadillo on his desk, rather than a white cat in his lap, and is looking for Sanz so he can sell him to the highest bidder.

But Rizzo and Cobos aren’t the only ones after the nuclear expert. There’s also the Chinese, led by To-go (Milton Reid) and his pretty sidekick Su Ling (Yôko Tani). Cobos must navigate these muddy waters, playing the ex-con for Rizzo to get into his organisation, and trying to keep the rather violent Reid at arms’ length. And that pretty much sums up the first hour of the film; it’s generic, dull and only sputters into life occasionally. There’s the unmistakable feeling that none of the incidents that do occur is all that important, or will generate any long-term consequences. Also, the occasional action, mostly fistfights, are often shot in near-darkness, which doesn’t help with audience engagement.

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)

‘Your next cliché is right in there.’

However, everything takes a marked turn for the better as the film moves into its final act. Events turn increasingly violent as the stakes escalate. There’s nice confrontation backstage in a crowded cinema where the movie that’s playing covers the sound of the real-life gun battle. The audience in the cheap seats remains blissfully unaware that anything’s happening until one of the dead men falls through the screen and into the auditorium. It’s in these later stages that Cobos comes into his own too; his initial, somewhat bland and smug operative revealing his true colours as a hard man who will do anything to fulfil his mission. Whether this was an intentional tonal shift by actor and filmmakers is open to question, but it does work. The only downside is that audiences will be left wondering why it took so long for the film to find its edge.

There are some other minus points as well, the main one being the rather tiresome convention of caucasian actors playing orientals by the brilliant application of makeup around the eyes. This trope is evident in some of the supporting cast, but mostly with Reid who was of mixed Indian-Scottish heritage. His imposing physical appearance makes it obvious why he’s in the film, but couldn’t he have been recast as one of the non-Chinese villains instead? Similarly, Tani was Japanese. Elsewhere in the cast, the sharp-eyed viewer may spot Giovanna Cianfriglia as one of Rizzo’s henchmen; he became better known shortly afterwards as costumed crimefighter SuperArgo.

Desperate Mission/Agente Z 55 missione disperata (1965)

‘Armadillo!’

Cobos returned as Agent Manning in ‘Tecnica per un massacro’ (1967) also directed by Montero and enjoyed a long career on the Spanish screen. But it’s our ‘Chinese’ villains who boast far more interesting histories. Tani was born in Paris and began her career as a dancer before making her debut in a Japanese picture in 1949. Small roles followed in both French and Japanese productions until the late 1950s when she made her US debut in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ‘The Quiet American’ (1958). Her big break came that same year opposite Dirk Bogarde in British film ‘The Wind Cannot Read’ (1958), and she opened the following decade starring in the Polish science-fiction feature ‘First Spaceship On Venus’ (1960). She was the Eskimo heroine of Nicholas Ray’s ‘The Savage Innocents’ (1960) with Anthony Quinn and tackled similar exotic roles in many European films, including ‘The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse’ (1964). There was also time for Italian Eurospys ‘Goldsnake Anonima Killers’ (1966) and ‘The Spy Who Loved Flowers’ (1966) plus British low-budget sci-fi ‘Invasion’ (1965). She even starred in the final episodes of Patrick McGoohan’s TV hit ‘Danger Man.’

Reid was a wrestler by trade but parlayed his fearsome physique, bald head and vicious scowl into many ‘heavy’ roles on television and in the movies. Sure, many of them were non-speaking parts, but he became a very recognisable screen presence, getting his first big break in Lewis Gilbert’s weak adventure flick ‘Ferry to Hong Kong’ (1959) which starred Orson Welles and Sylvia Sims. Small roles followed in big-budget Hollywood production ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ (1960), Hammer studio’s ‘Terror of the Tongs’ (1960) and Italian-U.S. fantasy ‘The Wonders of Aladdin’ (1960). One of his most notable roles was as the doomed mulatto in another Hammer production; the excellent historical adventure ‘Captain Clegg’ (1962) with Peter Cushing. Appropriately enough, there were also bits in the ‘Bond’ franchise; in ‘Dr. No’ (1962), the spoof ‘Casino Royale’ (1967) and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977).

This is a fairly run of the mill Eurospy. However, there was the potential to deliver something significantly better if the filmmakers had committed fully to the edgier tone of its later stages.

The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse/The Secret of Dr Mabuse/Die Todesstrahlen des Dr Mabuse (1964)

The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse (1964)‘You are out and about with girls while I have to stay at this brothel and live like a nun.’

A British agent is sent to Malta where a top scientist is experimenting with a death ray on an offshore island. An unseen criminal mastermind and his troop of frogmen plan to get their hands on the device so that he can rule the world. Could this unseen villain really be the infamous Dr Mabuse?

World renowned film director Fritz Lang returned to his native Germany a decade and a half after the end of the World War Two to film the underrated ‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse’ (1960). Although the film did not receive the critical plaudits that had greeted his previous excursions with the character in the 1920s and 1930s, the film was popular enough to spawn a series of five homegrown ‘Mabuse’ pictures released over the next five years, of which this was the final one.

Dr Mabuse is always a difficult proposition for a filmmaker. Unusually for a title character, he is always offscreen for the vast majority of the story. He’s a puppet master, the shadowy presence behind the scenes who pulls the strings of a large criminal organisation and manipulates the forces of law and order. Without that focus, audience attention switches to the activities of the good guys and the problem here is that the investigations of British agent Peter van Eyck are pretty underwhelming stuff.

We open with van Eyck investigating Professor Pohland (Walter Rilla) whose recent criminal activities were apparently provoked by the spirit of Mabuse. Pohland escapes but, despite this failure, van Eyck is assigned to Malta to investigate another scientist, Professor Larsen (O.E. Hasse) who is fooling about with a death ray. Not surprisingly, various nations are interested in this contraption which works using a synthetic ruby and a mirror. What is a surprise is that van Eyck uses his sometime girlfriend Judy (Rika Dialyna) as cover for the mission, the two allegedly being on honeymoon. Obviously, there were no qualified female agents available for the role. The local British secret service are located behind a pharmacy (and in a brothel) with operations directed by Admiral Quency (Leo Genn, complete with eyepatch, scarred face and stainless steel hand!) and his deputy Commander Adams (Robert Beatty).

What follows are some lacklustre espionage shenanigans as frogmen are washed up on the beach and van Eyck has a series of clandestine meetings with various femme fatales. These include the Professor’ s daughter (Yvonne Furneaux) and the secretary of the local museum director, played by Japanese actress Yôko Tani. The main thrust of the plot revolves around the secret identity of Mabuse rather than the death ray itself, which we never see in use. Could it be Hasse or his chess-playing partner Claudio Gora? Local playboy Gustavo Rojo, or his brother Massimo Pietobon? Or is Rilla still hanging around somewhere? Or, perish the thought, perhaps it’s Beatty or Genn?

The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse (1964)

She was never going to order extra large pilau rice with her curry again.

With so many suspects, and no real clues provided, the mystery is rather less than gripping and the audience is left with a parade of pretty dull action scenes, punctuated by van Eyck wrestling with various female members of the cast. Yes, it’s more like a half-hearted James Bond adventure than a Mabuse movie. There’s absolutely no sense of a vast criminal network or any trace of the sophisticated surveillance methods that made the character seem almost omnipotent in his earlier incarnations under Lang.

It’s a pity that the series lost its way so badly as the first couple of entries were really quite decent. Those featured ’Goldfinger’ himself, Gerte Frobe, as world-weary Kommissar Lohmann, and were placed in the hands of better directors than Hugo Fregonese who got the gig here. None of this is van Eyck’s fault, a capable leading man who had started his career as an assistant stage director with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Recognition in front of the camera followed with a featured role in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s international hit ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) and he’d actually appeared in Lang’s 1960 Mabuse film. Furneaux starred opposite Christopher Lee in Hammer Studio’s ‘The Mummy’ (1959) and later appeared in smaller roles in Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ (1965) and Buñuel’s ‘Belle de Jour’ (1967).

The ending of the film hints at a possible continuation of the series, but it’s no real surprise that it didn’t happen. Very disappointing.