lørdag 29. juni 2013

Espionage in Tangiers/Marc Mato, agente S077

Spain/Italy, 1965

Directed by Greg Tallas

Luis Davila, José Greci, Alberto Dalbes, Perla Cristal, Tomas Blanco, Ana Castor, Alfonso Rojas, Rafael Vaquero, Barta Barry, Joe Kamel, Juan Cortes, Fernando Villena, Alberto Cevenini, Angel Menendez, Pedro Fenollar

It’s always a delight to see more and more Euro crime, gialli, Euro horror and spaghetti westerns showing up on DVD and even Blu-ray but not all types of films are as well-represented on the shiny format, and this is especially true of the European James Bond knock-offs of the 1960s – commonly referred to as Eurospy movies. I’ve recently become more and more fascinated by these films and will be taking a closer look at several cool Eurospy flicks – starting with Espionage in Tangiers.

It all begins in a fancy research facility, where brilliant scientist Professor Greff (Tomas Blanco) and his two assistants have finally succeeded in building a revolutionary disintegrator ray gun. Eager to confirm that it actually works the way it’s supposed to, the professor opens a window, points the ray gun and fires a blue beam of energy at a car parked outside and completely disintegrates it. It really would have been much nicer of him to try it out on some object in his lab instead of destroying some unfortunate person’s car but I guess it just looks cooler to disintegrate something big.

Professor Greff and his colleagues are all cheery as they successfully disintegrate a car.

It turns out that Professor Greff’s plan is for the UN to use the disintegration gun to create world piece, although exactly how he intends for this deadly weapon to bring peace to the world is never elaborated on. But while the ecstatic professor retreats to his office to call the UN and inform them of his great success, one of his shifty-eyed assistants (Angel Menendez) goes to the bathroom, where he opens a window and flicks the lights three times to give a signal to someone on the outside. Not long after, a rope drops from the floor of the building and two men dressed in black climb down and enter through the window.

The two deadly thieves make their way into the lab

Acting quickly, the men stab Professor Greff’s assistants to death (including the accomplice who opened the window for them) and grab hold of a small metallic plate that is a key component to the deadly disintegration gun. Then, suddenly, one of the men (Alberto Cevenini) guns down his own partner and takes off with the metal plate.

The efficient thief hurries down the street and delivers the plate to a mysterious man waiting inside a car. But as soon as he’s received the precious object, the mystery man quickly winds up the car window – trapping the poor thief’s head and crushing his throat till he’s dead. Wow! We’re still only in the pre-credits sequence and already most of the characters we’ve been introduced to have killed each other off. Now, that’s what I call a strong opening!

These guys don’t believe in loose ends

Next we meet our hero, secret agent Mike Murphy (Luis Davila) who is called in to retrieve the stolen metal plate. Time is of the essence as the disintegration weapon will be catastrophic in the hands of the wrong people. Unfortunately, there aren’t many leads to go on as the two dead thieves have proven impossible to identify. However, an agent in Tangiers named Hassan Rabah has apparently recognized one of the dead men from a photo, and so Mike is sent on the first plane to Tangiers to make contact with Rabah.

Our man Mike

The first we see of Mike. A classic secret agent introduction if there ever was one!

On the plane to Tangiers, Mike indulges in some requisite suave secret agent behavior by coming on to some poor stewardess who does the mistake of asking him if there’s anything he’d like. Surely, there’s no better way for a cocky secret agent to enjoy himself than with a bit of sexual harassment of a working woman? Anyway, Mike’s exchange with the stewardess catches the ear of fellow passenger Lee Randall (José Greci), a stunning young woman who also happens to be an agent and who has previously worked with Mike on another mission. Lee and Mike have fun catching up and agree to meet up later too.

Mike and Lee enjoy each others company on the flight...

...and they’ll soon get to see more of one another

But no sooner has Mike arrived in Tangiers than a sniper tries to take him out, and it is thanks only to a great stroke of luck that Mike survives the attempt on his life. He makes his way to his hotel to meet up with Hassan Rabah but finds that he has been murdered. Fortunately, a contact of Rabah’s phones and Mike schedules an appointment with him but this poor fellow also dies before he can reveal much – getting a knife thrown in his back, while Mike barely dodges another one meant for him. Indeed, everywhere Mike goes, deadly assassins follow and try to prevent him from getting too close to the people in possession of the metal plate.

No matter where Mike goes, death follows

It soon turns out that the sexy Lee and her travelling companion and lesbian lover Arlette (Ana Castor) are up to no good. They are actually working for deadly mastermind Rigo Orie (Alberto Dalbes), who is in possession of the metal plate and plans on selling it to the highest bidder. Will Mike be able to stop him?

Although a co-production between Spain and Italy, and with a Greek director at the helm, Espionage in Tangiers is a predominantly Spanish production, and its Spanish title, Marc Mato, agente S077, indicates that the hero has been renamed Mike Murphy specifically for the English version of the film. It is also interesting to note while both the Spanish and Italian titles make use of the agent number S077, this too is never mentioned in the English dub. Of course, none of this is too surprising as the Eurospy genre is notorious for the way different language variants of the films continuously rename both the hero and his agent number. But never mind all of that. What really matters is the fact that this is a really fun and enjoyable Eurospy adventure regardless of what the hero may be called.

A nice Italian newspaper ad for the film – prominently displaying the 077 agent number

Admittedly, the story itself hardly brings anything new to the table but director Greg Tallas is able to liven up the familiar – and at times silly – plotline with his affinity for outlandish moments, such as a cool scene in which Mike’s life is miraculously saved from an assassin’s bullet thanks to a Bible he was keeping in his inner jacket pocket. Not that he really strikes me as a Bible-reading guy but it’s good fun nonetheless. But the best such moment is a wonderful scene where Mike enters into what appears to be quiet coffin makers’ workshop – only for a series of henchmen to suddenly pop out of the coffins to attack him. The Eurospy genre is all about great moments like this, and luckily, Espionage in Tangiers is full of such charmingly outlandish scenes.

One of the film’s highlights

The opening sequence, in which a series of characters eliminate each other and the dangerous device exchanges numerous hands before finally reaching the big boss, is also impressive and it establishes right from the start that these people mean business and are not afraid of turning on their own in order to tie up loose ends. Indeed, there is very much a feeling of real danger running throughout the film as no matter where Mike goes there’s always some super-efficient assassin in tow to take out any potential informant before Mike can learn any more.

A general lack of sufficient budget is the Achilles heel of the Eurospy genre and the primary reason why these films could never compete with the spectacles of the large-scale James Bond adventures, but thankfully, Espionage in Tangiers appears to have been made with fairly decent means. It has pretty good production values, and adds some further gloss by employing effective location shooting not only in Tangiers but also in Nice.

Nice locations such as these give the film as classier look

We are also treated to some effective set-pieces, such as Mike being caught in a chamber filling with water, and several good fight scenes featuring impressive stunt work – the best one being a fight on a shaky rope-ladder.

Another cool action set-piece

A very important part of the film’s success is its Argentinean leading man Luis Davila, who starred in a long line of Spanish-Italian co-productions – among them the later Eurospy effort Ypotron (1966), the fun sci-fi adventure Mission Stardust (1967) and the WW2 flick Suicide Commandos (1968). Mike Murphy is very much a suave and cocky type of secret agent – always with a self-assured smirk on his face – that could very easily have turned into an intolerable dick, but Davila plays Mike with just the right amount of playfulness and rugged charm to make the character likable. Of course, the part requires more of Davila than to just act smooth and debonair, and he is given ample opportunity to demonstrate his physical skills in a series of fight scenes in which he proves that he can certainly throw a good punch. Davila can also be quite deadly when needed to and there’s a great moment where he barely dodges a dagger thrown at him by a hulking henchman, and quick as lightning he picks up the knife and throws it right back – hitting the henchman right in the throat. All while he smirks playfully of course.

Davila in action

Naturally, our secret agent also knows his way around women and Espionage in Tangiers boasts a couple of real knockout babes – above all the ravishing José Greci in the role of Lee. Greci had been a big peplum star and once the popularity of those films started to wane by the mid 1960s, she made a successful switch to Eurospy – starting with this film and following up with Operation Poker (1965), Last Man to Kill (1966) and Special Cypher (1966). Greci gets to act very seductive and sexy here but also quite cunning as she is not at all as nice as she first appears. Of course she ends up paying the price for this in a great scene where a brusque Davila slaps her around like a tennis ball. But, as is often the case in Eurospy, she is shown to like this rough treatment and – clearly turned on – she grabs hold of Davila and bites his lip with fiery passion. Ah! How times have changed!

And that’s how you please a lady! At least in the world of Eurospy

But the film even boasts another kinky girl – flame-haired nightclub owner and gangster chick Magda, who has a romantic past with Mike. Magda is played by sexy Argentinean spitfire Perla Cristal – known for her roles in such Spanish horror films as The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), Dr. Orloff’s Monster (1964) and Fury of the Wolfman (1972) – and is dubbed in classic bitchy fashion by the great Carolynn De Fonseca. She doesn’t show up until almost an hour into the film but Cristal makes the most of her limited screen-time, with her cattish attitude and camp bitchiness making for a lot of fun. In one surprisingly brutal sequence she has her goons torture an unfortunate enemy agent by tightening a wire garrote around his belly to make him talk, and she looks decidedly turned on as she observes the scene.

Perla Cristal as the nasty Magda

A surprisingly brutal torture scene

It must be said, however, that even though this film is great fun, it’s hardly a lost classic and it has its share of shortcomings. For starters there is a surprisingly scant use of music throughout the film, and that’s a pity since it could have helped set the mood in several scenes. Furthermore, the climax is unfortunately rather limp. Still, these are relatively minor quibbles as the film on the whole is very entertaining.

Overall, Espionage in Tangiers is a terrifically enjoyable little slice of Eurospy fun with a good cast. It’s no classic but it comes warmly recommended to fans of the genre.

© 2013 Johan Melle

The cast:

Luis Davila as Mike Murphy

José Greci as Lee Randall

Alberto Dalbes as Rigo Orie

Perla Cristal as Magda

Tomas Blanco as Professor Greff

Ana Castor as Arlette Steiner

Alfonso Rojas as Hassler

Rafael Vaquero as Rigo’s chief henchman

Barta Barry as Accomplice in Nice

??? as Mike’s boss

Fernando Villena as Inspector Ravel

Alberto Cevenini as Thief

Angel Menendez as Professor Greff’s treacherous assistant

??? as Andre, Professor Greff’s assistant

onsdag 26. juni 2013

A... come assassino

Italy, 1966

Directed by Angelo Dorigo

Mary Arden, Sergio Ciani, Ivano Staccioli, Giovanna Galletti, Aichè Nanà, Gilberto Mazzi, Ivano Davoli, Charlie Karum, Roland Redman, Aldo Rendine, Giovanna Lenzi

Over the years there has been no shortage of interest in the Italian giallo and lucky for fans these wonderful films have been well-represented on DVD but many of the earlier examples of the subgenre have not fared as well. It’s a shame that many of these early gialli remain so obscure because even though they lack several of the notable characteristics of the later films, they are still very interesting for aficionados.

A... come assassino is one of those early gialli and it is set in England in an old gothic castle. Fans of Italian horror cinema will be pleased to note that the castle in question is the famous Balsorano castle, where such horror classics as Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) were filmed. Anyway, it all begins with the discovery of the body of eccentric millionaire John Prescott, who has been stabbed to death with a dagger.

A familiar sight to Italian horror fans


The various family members gather at the estate for the reading of the will, and we quickly learn that they all despise each other and that everyone of them are likely suspects in the murder. Prescott’s heirs – seven in total – are made up of his sister Martha (Giovanna Galletti), a bitter, old widow; his only child, Julien (Charlie Karum), who is mentally retarded and prone to hysterical fits of laughter; conniving and seductive niece Angela (Mary Arden); distant relative Armand (Ivano Davoli), who also happens to be Angela’s boyfriend; temperamental and jealous nephew George (Ivano Staccioli), and his airheaded and flirtatious wife Adriana (Aichè Nanà); as well as Prescott’s faithful secretary Giacomo (Sergio Ciani).

The excited heirs

There is no ordinary reading of the will, however. Instead, Prescott has left behind an audio recording of his last will and testament to be played for his heirs. In the recording he takes great delight in mocking and passing judgment on each of his relatives – revealing exactly how he feels about all of them.

The last will and testament of John Prescott

Nevertheless, Prescott leaves all of his huge fortune to be divided equally among his heirs but there is, however, a diabolical little clause in the will. Before any of them will inherit as much as a penny, they’ll all have to live together in the family castle for a month. When a month has passed, up to three heirs may show up to claim the inheritance and it will be divided equally among them. However, if more than three heirs come to claim the inheritance, none of them will receive any money. It seems as if the sly old Prescott has found the perfect way to play a final, evil prank on his greedy relatives by pitting them against one another and pretty much inviting them to kill each other off. And, of course, that is exactly what happens as the Prescotts begin to plot, double-cross and murder each other – resulting in a bit of a Shakespearian tragedy, although decidedly less serious in tone.

Death Comes as the End...

The title A... come assassino – i.e. A... for Assassin – refers to the film’s murder weapon, an old dagger with the letter “A” carved on its handle, which will eventually prove to play a very important part in the mystery. Apparently an English-dubbed version was prepared under the title M... for Murderer but this version is currently unavailable – having never received any kind of video release anywhere in the world. In fact, there doesn’t appear to have been any video release of the film under any language. As such it’s one of the rarer gialli out there, with the only version currently in circulation stemming from an Italian television broadcast, which is fairly nice-looking.

If an English version was prepared then the scenes featuring the dagger were probably shot twice. First using a dagger with an “A” carved on the handle as seen in the Italian version, and then with a dagger carved with “M” for the English cut.

Like other early black and white gialli such as Death on the Fourposter (1964) and A Game of Crime (1964), this plays out in a gothic castle but employs a contemporary setting and, other than the brief inclusion of some nightgown-clad ladies roaming the dark with a candelabra, it never really attempts to emulate the gothic atmosphere of the classic horror films. This may come as somewhat of a surprise considering that the film was produced by actor Walter Brandi, one of the great stars of the classic Italian horror film era known for his performances in The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and Slaughter of the Vampires (1962).

The film isn’t entirely without gothic touches

While the inheritance plot set-up owes a fair bit to Agatha Christie, the story is actually a close adaptation of the 1957 stage play A... come assassino by Ernesto Gastaldi. The film’s theatrical origins are very much obvious as the plot is talkative and heavily stage-bound, with the action practically never shifting away from the old castle. That’s not to say that the film is boring, however, as Gastaldi, who would go on to become one of the most influential and reliable giallo screenwriters, is a solid scribe who knows how to set up an intricate and compelling mystery full of surprising twists. A... come assassino is no exception but the problem is just that it meanders along rather sluggishly in its first act.

The set-up in itself is quite pleasing, and the sequence where the old Prescott’s audio recorded voice mocks and criticizes his greedy heirs one by one is an absolute delight. But after this the film slows down its pace and gets bogged down by a series of dialogue-heavy scenes as the various characters take turns being interrogated by a police inspector who is eager to figure out the identity of the killer. The most mind-boggling scene of all occurs at the 40 minute mark when one of the characters looses it and is tormented as he thinks back on what has happened – cue a long three minute flashback montage of the various scenes we’ve seen thus far! An absurd, incredible moment that is absolutely ridiculous. Surely one of the all-time most pathetic attempts to pad a film’s running time, yet at the same time almost impressive for its sheer audaciousness.

The infamous flashback sequence

Fortunately, A... come assassino starts to pick up steam in its second half as the various characters’ diabolical plots against each other start to play out, and it is here that we really get to witness Gastaldi’s mastery in creating ingenious surprise twists. I’ll readily admit that it’s all rather complicated and that the credibility is weakened with each intricate twist of the plot but, truth be told, this is a hallmark of the giallo and an integral reason why so many of us love these films. It’s great to see that these characteristic elements are already in place in this early entry in the giallo canon. It should be noted, however, that the other integral giallo hallmark – flashy murder scenes – is not evident here, so don’t come in expecting an Argento-style bloodbath.

But while the twistful plot is fun, the best part of the film undeniably comes in the form of the cunning misdeeds of its sexy Machiavellian female lead Angela, played by American actress and model Mary Arden. Arden dabbled in various Italian films in the 1960s – including a key role in Mario Bava’s seminal giallo Blood and Black Lace (1964) – but A... come assassino was her only leading role and she’s an absolute delight to watch as she deviously plots, seduces and pits the various other characters against each other.

Mary Arden is awesome as the diabolical Angela

There are other interesting faces in the cast too, including peplum star Sergio Ciani, who under the anglicized pseudonym Alan Steel had enjoyed great success in the early 1960s by playing mythical muscleman heroes like Hercules, Samson and Maciste. The decline of the peplum genre in the mid 1960s meant the end of a lot of careers and several of these musclemen actors struggled to find their place in other types of films. This was to be Ciani’s only brush with giallo territory but he’s actually not as out of place here as I thought he’d be. He does a pretty good job and it’s refreshing to see him play such a smug and cynical character – a considerable contrast to the heroic roles he’d played in the past.

Other welcome faces include the excellent Ivano Staccioli – one of the most prolific and recognizable villains of Italian genre cinema – as the temperamental and possessive George, and the wonderful Giovanna Galletti – famous for her roles as the nasty Gestapo lesbian in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and as Baroness Graps in Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby... Kill! (1965) – as the mysterious Aunt Martha. And if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll notice Giovanna Lenzi, who years later would go on to direct the infamous giallo schlock-fest Delitti (1986), in a tiny and early role as a maid.

It would be great if the English version would surface someday because even though A... come assassino is a flawed film and by no means an essential giallo, it is a charming and enjoyable little film. Definitely worth a look if you are interested in early examples of the giallo.

© 2013 Johan Melle

The cast:

Mary Arden as Angela Prescott

Sergio Ciani as Giacomo

Ivano Staccioli as George Prescott

Giovanna Galletti as Martha Prescott

Aichè Nanà as Adriana Prescott

Gilberto Mazzi as Inspector Matt

Ivano Davoli as Armando

Charlie Karum as Julien Prescott

Roland Redman as Sergeant Robson

Aldo Rendine as Notary Jackson

Giovanna Lenzi as Mary, the maid