Sunday, November 23, 2008

Quantum Of Solace

Right off the bat, I’ll say that I really enjoyed Quantum Of Solace. Following up Casino Royale was always going to be a big ask, and the film-makers have fallen short and presented us with a very flawed film. However, the film still has some truly great new Bondian moments, as well as providing a few reminders of the films of the past.

Minor spoilers ahead:

The film opens half an hour after the close of Casino Royale and James Bond (Daniel Craig) is racing along an Italian coastal road in his Aston Martin. Hot on his trail is a carload of goons, who are firing their machine guns at him. Thankfully, it would appear that the same fellow who trained the Storm Troopers in Star Wars trained these goons. Even at point blank range they can’t seal the deal and kill Bond. Although it is never made clear, it is safe to assume that these villains chasing Bond work for the same group as Le Chiffre and Mr. White (the villains from Casino Royale). I don’t think I am giving too much away when I say that this outfit is the ‘Quantum’ group. It appears that Quantum is the new S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

Driving, Bond is able to out maneuver the bad guys and is free to continue his journey. He arrives safely in Sienna, although his car is a little worse for wear – all shot to pieces and missing a door. He drives under cover, pulls up and then pops open the boot (that’s ‘trunk’ for you American readers). Inside is a very visibly shaken Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), the surviving villain from Casino Royale.

After that brief cowcatcher, we have the main title sequence. This time it has been put together by a company called MK12, who director Marc Forster has called in to do the graphics on this film. I must admit that I was slightly under whelmed by the visuals, especially when compared to Daniel Kleinman’s recent work, or that of the maestro himself, Maurice Binder. In my other life, when I am not writing about spy films, I while away my hours as a low-rent graphic designer, so I am always fascinated to see how the titles are presented. I was intrigued to note that they used a Herb Lubalin inspired stencil font for the titles. Now possibly I am reading too much into this, but this font style was very popular in the mid sixties through to the early seventies. Is this the designer’s subtle love letter to the Bond films of the past? And while talking about fonts, it is interesting to see that when Bond arrives in each new location, the city’s name is displayed in a different font, which reflects the nature of the country they are in. I think this is pretty cool – after all, the seasoned spy film viewer may have burst out laughing if green phosphorescent computer type flickered across the bottom of the screen.

After the titles we are back in Sienna and Bond, M (Judi Dench) and another agent named Mitchell are interrogating Mr. White. However the interrogation is short lived as Mitchell turns out to work for Quantum. Yes, he’s a bad guy. He attempts to shoot M and then flees with 007 hot on his trail. This diversion allows Mr. White to escape.

After a chase over the rooftops, Bond catches Mitchell and rather unprofessionally kills him. It’s hard to get information from a dead man. The only lead M.I.6 has to work on, courtesy of some marked dollar bills, is a man called Slade who is currently in Haiti. Naturally Bond is sent off to interview the man, and after a meeting him (if you can call it that – yeah, he kills him) he is contacted by a girl named Camille (Olga Kurylenko). Camille leads to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), who is the head of an ecological business venture called ‘Greene Planet’. As you’ve come to expect from Bond films, Greene is not all he is painted to be.

As the adventure unfolds, Bond reacquaints himself with a few allies from the past. The first is Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini). The scenes played out between Bond and Mathis are the best in the film – and dare I say it, some of the best in the series, recalling the relationship bond had with Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love. Another returning character is Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). When Casino Royale was released, I was concerned with the new interpretation of the character. But by using Wright again, and providing a bit of continuity, which Felix has sadly missed in the past – I am happy to accept the new Felix. Let’s just hope Wright continues with the role, and the charater does not have to be reinvented once again.

The climax of the film takes place in a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert. After seeing the movie I watched The Making Of …Quantum Of Solace on television. It answered one question that I had been asking myself – what is a hotel doing in the middle of the dessert and why would anyone want to stay there? In reality, the hotel is a real place, and is next to an observatory. Visiting astronomers and scientists stay at the hotel. Now, couple that little tidbit of information with MK12’s title sequence, which uses ‘star map’ graphics, and I begin to wonder if there was an excised sub plot pertaining to astronomy or astrology?

One strange part about the ending is the lack of people at the hotel. There only seems to be one staff member servicing the entire building – hopefully she made it to safety. Also, earlier in the movie, Mr. White says about the mysterious Quantum group, ‘the first thing you should know about us, is that we have people everywhere’. It appears that ‘everywhere’ does not include in the middle of the Bolivian dessert, because Greene only has one odious, pudding bowl haircutted minion on hand to protect him. There may be plenty of explosions and flame – as you’d expect at the climax of a Bond film – but Bond really only has to contend with Greene. There is no evil army of Quantum soldiers on hand to provide a modicum of resistance.

Some media outlets have reported that Dominic Greene, compared to Bond villains of the past, is pretty lightweight. And to that I say, they are absolutely right. But I believe this perceived weakness is due to the lack of a good henchman at his side. Auric Goldfinger, Hugo Drax and Karl Stromberg were never really a physical threat to Bond, but each of them had a cruel and strong henchman at their side (Oddjob, Jaws et al.) But poor old Dominic Greene is lumped with Mr. Puddingbowl Haircut, and Mr. Puddingbowl doesn’t seem to be of much use in a scrap. Mathieu Amalric ’s performance as Greene is quite good. He spits out his lines with the right amount of vitriol and never overacts to the point of parody – which has been an issue with Bond villains in recent years (Toby Stephens and Jonathan Pryce, I am looking at you!)

The main Bond girl is Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko, who we all fondly remember from The Hitman – don’t we? Camille is an interesting character with a back-story that could have been lifted from a Spaghetti Western. Her father was killed, and her mother and sister raped before her eyes. She, herself was left to die in a burning house. She now has scars, a fear of fire – understandable really – and a burning (sorry) desire for revenge.

The other girl in Bond’s life at this time, is agent Fields (Gemma Arterton). Fields is a M.I.6 operative stationed in South America. After a rocky start, she becomes Bond’s ally when he arrives in Bolivia to continue his investigation into the business dealing of Dominic Greene.

Those of you who are regular readers here, may have noticed that my reviews are rather formulaic. Generally when describing the plot, I write up to the point where the mission is declared. That is to say that I describe the story up until the point where the secret agent/hero has his mission outlined by his superior. This has worked well for the Bond films because this is usually the ‘M’ scene. The Bond formula consisted of a heinous act being committed and then M sending his or her – depending on your favourite M – best agent out to round up the perpetrators. But the last two films in the series have altered that formula. M and Bond no longer seem to know what’s going on. In Quantum Of Solace, although M and Bond meet early on, the mission isn’t really declared. There are a few hazy leads, and ‘people of interest’, but no actual crime or mission to investigate. Look at the films of the past – in Dr. No, Bond is sent to investigate the death of Strangways – in Goldfinger he investigates Auric Goldfinger, who M suspects is a gold smuggler – in Diamonds Are Forever, it diamond smuggling – I’m sure you get the idea. But nothing is defined in Quantum of Solace. M and Bond then keep in continuous contact throughout the mission (of course, ignoring the political and trust issues inherent in the story). Now, not that this is necessarily a problem, but this new relationship between M and Bond poses a dilemma for future installments in the series. As I have already alluded to, in the past Bond was called into M’s office and given his mission briefing. As we all fondly remember, Bond would also flirt with Miss Moneypenny on his way in and out of M’s office. And also quite often, Bond would also receive the latest hi-tech gadgets from Q. But with this new dynamic, there is no briefing scene, and therefore, very little room for Q or Moneypenny. I am sad to say, we may have seen the last of these much loved characters.

All of the above are simply my observations and ramblings – not really intended as criticism, more of an analysis of how the Bond series is changing. But I do have a criticism, and that is the Bourne inspired rapid cut editing that takes place during the action scenes. The technique is so abrasive it ruins the flow of the movie. I have heard it said, that this style of editing draws the viewer into the scene. The viewer is supposed to feel like they are right beside the hero in the fight or chase scene. I actually believe that the rapid editing diminishes the power of the sequence. It is often used when an actor doesn’t have the skill set required to sell the action scene he (or she) is participating in. If you look back to the first Lethal Weapon film (how long ago was that?), you may remember that the film ended with a horrendous, heavily edited fight scene between Mad Mel Gibson and Gary Bussey (who is only a little bit mad). Both men were not trained fighters – skilled in whatever martial art was supposed to be on display – and the fight was heavily edited to hide the actors shortcomings. Now applying that school of thought to the new Bond film, were the action scenes edited that way to hide Daniel Craig’s inability to perform an action scene? Of course not! We have all seen Casino Royale and know that Craig can handle fight and chase scenes. So begs the question, why would you dilute Craig’s performance by using this technique? The answer is Bourne, Jason Bourne. Once upon a time, Bond was the trailblazer and other spy films would follow and blindly imitate Bond. But now Bond has become a follower. I would have thought that the film-makers would have learnt their lesson with Die Another Day, where they adopted a style of editing that mimicked that of the hi-tech films of Tony Scott (Scott’s editor on Spy Game, Christian Wagner, also edited Die Another Day). The editing ruined Die Another Day, and while not as destructive here, it certainly reduces the impact of Quantum Of Solace.

As I said at the top, Quantum Of Solace is a flawed film, and many commentators are sticking the boots in. I choose not to do that. It is different, and it must be a tough tightrope to walk when you add another piece to a franchise that has been going over 45 years. You have to keep the old fans happy, but also win over a new generation of filmgoers who will (hopefully) continue to support the franchise. I, as one of the old school fans, gladly accept and embrace Quantum Of Solace as the latest Bond film. I enjoyed myself for the full 105 minutes of it’s running time and on future viewings I am sure I will do so again. But I hope for future installments in the series, please Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli (or the director that you entrust to carry on the legacy), do not slavishly follow filmic fads. You know better than that.

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The World Is Not Enough

The World Is Not Enough is not just the title of this movie, it is also the motto appearing on the coat of arms of the Bond family. From Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Glidrose Productions Ltd):
Griffon Or broke in excitedly, ‘And this charming motto of the line, “The World is not Enough”. You do not wish to have the right to it?’ “It is an excellent motto which I shall certainly adopt,’ said Bond curtly.
It’s a strange motto for Bond to have. It is more befitting the type of evil megalomaniac that craves world domination that Bond usually battles, rather than the man himself. But if that’s what Ian Fleming decreed, then so be it.

The film, while still being hugely enjoyable is a bit of a mixed bag. The casting of Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist is it’s biggest hurdle. Richards, as with all Bond girls, is very easy on the eye, but she doesn’t have the acting range required for the role as written.

The film also lacks a good solid villain. Robert Carlyle plays Renard who starts out as an unstoppable killing machine. Unfortunately, he is motivated by his feelings for one of the female characters in the film, which means as the story progresses, Renard goes from being a hardened unstoppable killer to a pussy-whipped henchman. It changes the tone of the movie, and reduces the power and excitement of the end scenes.

The film opens in Bilbao in Spain. Bond is acting as a courier and meeting a corrupt Swiss Banker. His mission is to collect a sum of money which was payed by an English businessman in the oil industry, Robert King (David Calder) for some documents relating to Russia’s oil pipelines. The documents were fake and King wants his money back. The transaction doesn’t go well and Bond has to shoot his way out – but he retrieves the money and returns it to London.

Back at M.I.6 headquarters, Robert King meets with M (Judi Dench) to collect his money. The mission appears to have gone well, and King leaves with case. But inside, the money has been dipped in liquid fertiliser and a miniature detonator has been inserted into the bank notes. As King makes his exit, the money, which is in effect a bomb, is detonated and King is killed.

Bond is the first to realise what has happened and witnesses ‘Cigar Girl’, armed with a rifle, in a boat on the Thames beside M.I.6 headquarters. Bond, logically believing she was the trigger person for the explosion, borrows a jet powered speed boat from Q Branch and engages in a chase along the Thames. Bond finally chases down ‘Cigar Girl’, but by this time she has left her boat and now is in an ascending hot air balloon. As she tries to escape, Bond latches onto one of the mooring ropes and is lifted up as the balloon drifts away. Feeling that she is captured, ‘Cigar Girl’ chooses to put a bullet in one of the balloon’s helium tanks rather than be taken in for questioning. The balloon explodes, ‘Cigar Girl’ dies, and Bond is thrown from a great height onto the roof of the Millenium Dome, where he sustains severe shoulder damage.

Once Bond has recovered from his injuries he is assigned to protect Elektra King, who is Robert King’s daughter. She has now inherited control of her father’s oil business and it is believed that attempts will be made on her life.

Over the years the Bond universe has been subject to silly and inconsistent casting. We have had Charles Grey, Maude Adams, Joe Don Baker, Martine Beswick, Burt Kwouk and Shane Rimmer appearing in multiple films as different characters. In the days before home video and DVD, this wasn’t so much a problem, because nobody could remember the faces of the minor support players. But with the scrutiny that digital age brings, means that inconsistency and poor continuity are blatantly obvious, even to the most casual viewer. Having said that, The World Is Not Enough shows the welcome return of a few characters. The first is Robinson (Colin Salmon), a staff member at M.I.6. His is not an important or flashy role, but it does provide a sense of continuity in the films. Robinson first appeared in Tomorrow Never Dies and continued the role in Die Another Day. More noticeable in his return is the character of Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane). Zukovsky is a Russian mafia Don and first appeared in Goldeneye.

The World Is Not Enough was also the last film Desmond Llewelyn appeared in as the gadget master ‘Q’. In this film they gave the aging ‘Q’ an assistant, ‘R’, played by John Cleese (R comes after Q in the alphabet, get it?) At the time of the films release, Cleese was inspired casting to take over from Llewelyn. Unfortunately for Cleese, in this film he is simply comic relief (and not that funny either), and in the next film he got lumbered with some ridiculous gadgets (invisible car – my arse!) Subsequently Cleese’s popularity as ‘Q’ waned. It is interesting to note that the ‘Q’ character does not appear in Casino Royale (2006) or Quantum Of Solace.

Onto the Bond girls – if you’ll forgive the clumsiness of that expression! Earlier I talked about how Denise Richards doesn’t stack up as a Bond girl (at least acting wise). Thankfully, Richards isn’t the only girl in the film. French beauty, Sophie Marceau plays the complex Elektra King. Elektra is a fascinating character, and for once – despite every actress’ ascertation that she is different to what has gone before – she actully is different. Italian actress, Maria Grazia Cucinotta has a small but flashy role as a character called ‘Cigar Girl’. She is Renard’s number one henchwoman, and as a bad girl her days are numbered. In fact she doesn’t make it past the pre-credit sequence. Rounding out the United Nations of Bond girls, representing England is Serena Scott Thomas, as Dr. Molly Warmflash (I’m not making this up - that’s her character’s name). Dr. Warmflash is the doctor who tends to 007 after he injures himself during his pursuit of ‘Cigar Girl’.

The film has an interesting, although not inspired collection of gadgets. Once again BMW supplies the car for Bond’s mission, it’s a Z8 Roadster, but it doesn’t get a full workout. The most useful vehicular gadget that Bond navigates is miniature jet boat, dubbed the ‘Q Boat’. This little beast is put to good use during the prolonged pre-title sequence. Bond races around the Thames and even cuts across land as he pursues ‘Cigar Girl’. Like most Bond vehicles, it comes with a selection of guns and missiles, with which Bond can defend himself. For the sequences in the snow capped Caucasus mountains, the villains are equipped with para-hawk gliders, which are like a snow buggy and with a parachute. They can drift from the sky and then land on the snow continuing their pursuit of Bond, all the while peppering Bond with machine gun fire.

While I find The World Is Not Enough to be an enjoyable Bond film, I still still see it as somewhat of a missed opportunity. The film has a good cast, a decent director, and David Arnold’s score is excellent, but still the film just doesn’t quite work. Even though I applaud the attempt to create multi-layered villains rather than cartoon clones of what has gone before, in this instance the duality in these characters only serves to mute the sense of threat or danger that these characters provide, and in turn weakens the film as a whole.

Put into the context of the Bond series, The World Is Not Enough also falls in between Tomorrow Never Dies – which I consider the best Brosnan Bond film but had poor villains, and the abysmal Die Another Day, which had even worse villains. Whatever strengths The World Is Not Enough may have, tend to be lost in this lacklustre period in the Bond cycle. I do not believe Brosnan was to blame. He was a good Bond; he was simply lumbered with poor scripts and miscast supporting actors. It will be interesting to see how the passage of time will treat this film – will it be seen as an interesting blip on the Bond radar, or will it be lumped with it’s surrounding Bond films as a particularly uninspired addition to the Bond canon.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Code Name: Tiger

Most reports on the various English language versions of this film that are currently available on the grey market are that they are severely truncated (The Tiger Likes Fresh Meat seems to be missing twenty minutes, and Code Name: Tiger is missing about twelve minutes). This heavy handed editing has apparently rendered the story almost incomprehensible. With that in mind, I have gone to the original French version, Le Tigre aime la chair fraiche, for this review. Considering my inability to speak French, this probably served to render the film just as incomprehensible as the poor English versions, but I was confident that the international language of spy films would shine through.

The film opens in a Middle Eastern country in a darkened cinema, and some diplomats are watching footage of a Mirage jet re-fuelling in midair. As they watch the film, a man with a knife enters the screening room and sneaks up behind one of the men watching the presentation. As the assailant plunges the knife into the back of his target, the film ends and the lights go on. The killer is out in the open and exposed. He makes a run for it with a squad of policemen on his trail.

Surprisingly, the killer runs rings around the local constabulary and makes it to a safe house. Here he is met by an albino in a natty white suit and Panama hat. From the safe house they drive through the country to an amazing location – it’s this fortified white stucco mansion that’s surrounded by palm trees – but what makes it surreal, is that the area has flooded, so half a metre of water covers everything. They walk into the mansion, which is fully furnish (with opulent furniture at that), with water up to their knees. They wade through unperturbed into the office of the unseen boss man. Both men are given a stack of bills as payment, and then the albino stabs his partner. We next see the dead man floating face down through the palm trees. It’s a bizarre but stylish opening sequence.

The minion was killed because he had in fact botched the assassination attempt in the cinema. Sure he killed someone, but not the man he was supposed to. His intended target was a Turkish diplomat called Baskine. The man the assailant actually killed was a French secret agent, and a friend of Louis Rapiere – known in espionage circles as ‘The Tiger’. And that brings us to our hero for the show. We meet The Tiger (Roger Hanin) at a training camp in France. He is in the middle of conducting a judo class when he is interrupted by a General. He informs The Tiger of his colleagues death. He also re-assigns The Tiger to take over the assignment. It is feared that there will be more attempts on Baskine’s life.

Next we join The Tiger at Orly Airport with a team of operatives, including the accident prone Duvet (Roger Dumas). For ‘accident prone’ – read ‘comic relief’. The Tiger and his men are on hand to protect Baskine as he arrives in France. Also loitering around the airport is the albino and a team of killers, including a malicious midget and a bad boy scout, all intent on turning Baskine into raspberry jam. With this many thugs at the airport, it will come as no surprise that an attempt is made on Baskine’s life, but it is foiled by The Tiger.

The Tiger’s heroic actions have brought him to the attention of Mrs. Baskine (Maria Mauban), the diplomat’s wife, and more importantly, Melhica Baskine (Daniella Bianchi), the diplomat’s daughter. Both women are grateful for his intervention at the airport, and as a reward for his heroics, he finds himself chauffeuring around the ladies as they go on a shopping spree in Paris.

Code Name: Tiger starts out as a promising enough spy thriller but soon bogs down. Maybe my lack of French is to blame, but I think even to a Parisian native, the dreary pacing would take it’s toll. But any spy film that features Daniella Bianchi cannot be all bad, even if she is wasted as window dressing. In this film she has little more to do than make goo-goo eyes at The Tiger, and then get kidnapped by the villains.

One of the films saving graces is the music by Pierre Jansen. Although used sparingly, it makes the few action scenes seem more exciting than they actually are. It is certainly better than his score for the Chabrol helmed Who's Got The Black Box.

I think that Code Name: Tiger may well be a fair to decent Eurospy picture, but as it stands at the moment, for English speakers – with poor, edited and dubbed versions it’s hard to know for sure. This wasn’t the end for The Tiger, though. He would return in an official sequel, Our Agent Tiger (Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite), and star Roger Hanin would appear in other spy films that were marketed as ‘Tiger’ films in other countries.


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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fantomas Strikes Back

Year: 1966
Directed by Andre Hunebelle
Jean Marais, Louis De Funes, Mylene Demongeot, Jacques Dynam, Christian Toma, Michel Duplaix
Music by Michel Magne

The man with the blue head is back! Fantomas Strikes Back is the second film in Andre Hunebelle's 1960's revival of the Fantomas character. The film is more comedic than it's predessesor, and Louis De Funes pulls out all the stops as he mugs his way through the film. If you don't enjoy De Funes prat falls then you won't enjoy this film at all. The film opens with an animated sequence which recounts the events in the first Fantomas movie. For those that don't remember, Fantomas escaped in a submarine. This film opens with an award ceremony. Inspector Juve (Louis De Funes) is presented with the 'Knight Of The Legion Of Honour'. The award is in recognition of how he thwarted arch criminal, Fantomas, a year ago. Juve makes a speech suggesting that Fantomsa is gone forever. Almost on cue, Juve then receives a telegram. It is from Fantoms congratulating him on his award - and on the flip side, another message says 'See you soon!'

But there are reasons why Fantomas (Jean Marais) didn't attend the ceremony personally. He had other affairs to attend to. These involve Professor Marchand who is working on a telepathic ray at a scientific research centre. Fantomas breaks into the centre and kidnaps the Professor.

Newspaper journalist, Fandor (Jean Marais) reports that the kidnapping is the work of Fantomas. As Fantomas hasn't been seen in over a year, nobody believes him. Juve believes that Fandor is trying to humiliate him after receiving the award. On a current affairs television program, Juve refutes Fandor's claims. But during the report, Fantomas cuts in with a pirate TV broadcast. He admits to kidnapping Professor Marchand and with the Professor's help he has perfected a ghastly new weapon with which he plans to hold the world to ransom.

When the television returns to it's normal broadcast, it shows Juve and his interviewer bound and gagged in their seats. After the televised humiliation, Juve adopts new methods to catch Fantomas. Taking a leaf from the James Bond textbook, Juve starts utilising a string of silly gadgets.

One of Professor Marchand's colleagues, Professor Lefevre (also Jean Marais) holds a press conference to explain the experiments that he and Marchand had been working on. It is a hypnotic, telepathic ray, which could control thoughts and send orders remotely. Lefevre suggests the Marchand and Fantomas cannot finish the ray without the work that he has been completing. Lefevre foolishly thinks that this means that Fantomas' threat is hollow, but when in reality he has just set himself as a target.

But Fandor has an idea. He prepares a disguise to make himself look like Professor Levre. That way, when Fantomas makes an attempt to kidnap Lefevre, he will in fact kidanp the wrong man.

Lefevre is scheduled to attend a scientific conference in Rome and Fandor takes his place on board the train. Juve also believes that Fantomas will attempt to kidnap the Professor, so he also boards the train wearing a silly disguise. But Juve is unaware of Fandor's plan and the two men continually but heads as the story unfolds.

Gadgets abound in this film, with false arms and legs, and cigars that fire bullets. The piece-de-resistance is Fantomas' car plane idea would be recycled in the James Bond film, The Man With The Golden Gun, made nine years later. This isn't the only sequence that recalls a scene in a future Bond film. The climax of the film features a parachute-less free fall from an aircraft. This sequence is re-used in the pre-title sequence in Moonraker. It seems ironic, that a film that is in itself has become a gentle parody of the Bond films, would in turn inspire sequences in the film series it was immitating.

Jean Marais' performance is somewhat muted in this film, by the multiple characters he has to play. He may have equal screen time as De Funes, but it seems like so much less, because one minute he is Fandor, the next he is Fantomas, and then he is Lefevre (or Fandor pretending to be Lefevre).

Fantomas Strikes Back is a very entertaining film, but the Fantomas character is not as menacing as the first film in the trilogy. Although Fantomas threatens Fandor, Juve and Helene (Fandor's love interest), you sort of get the feeling that he actually likes them.


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Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Year: 1972
Producer: Armando Novelli
Director: Fernando Di Leo
Starring: Mario Adorf, Henry Silva, Woody Strode, Adolfo Celi, Luciana Paluzzi, Sylva Koscina, Franco Fabrizi, Cyril Cusack
Cimematography: Franco Villa
Music: Armando Trovaioli
Original Title: La Mala Ordina
AKA: Manhunt In Milan, The Italian Connection, Hired To Kill, Black Kingpin, Hitmen

The last couple of posts have looked at the career of Sylva Koscina, and this review follows suit. Already mentioned is the fact that Sylva's career started to nosedive in the seventies. The seventies version of Koscina the actress is very different to the bikini clad Koscina of the sixties. Though still beautiful, her youthful glow was gone, and the roles she was offered and accepted changed. Now she was more matronly. Manhunt, as well as being a bloody good Italian crime film, is a nice example of how Koscina's screen persona evolved. In this film, her role is little more than a cameo, playing the ex-wife to a two-bit hood, and the mother of his child.

The film starts with the head of the Syndicate briefing two New York hitmen on their next assignment. The hitmen are David Catania (Henry Silva) and Frank Webster (Woody Strode). Their target is a small time pimp in Milan, Luca Canali (Mario Adorf). Canali was quite stupid - he stole a shipment of heroin from the mob and thought they wouldn't find out. Catania and Webster are told to be flashy in their execution. They should send a message, so that nobody else attempts to cross the mob again.

In Milan, our gun toting ambassadors have two contacts. The first is Eva Lalli (Luciana Paluzzi). Eva is to be their guide, and show the boys the sights and introduce them to her contacts. Their other contact is the head of Milan’s underworld, Don Vito Tressoldi (Adolpho Celi). With my penchant for spy films, it would be remiss of me not to mention that both Paluzzi and Celi starred as villains in the Bond film, Thunderball.

Luca Canali has a young daughter named Rita who he loves deeply. Unfortunately he doesn’t get to see her very often, because her mother, Lucia (Sylva Koscina) is extremely protective, and doesn’t want the young girl to find out that her father is a small time pimp. Still Canali tries to help out with money whenever possible – although Lucia often refuses to take the filthy lucre. She knows where it comes from.

*Slight Spoilers Ahead* I try not to give away too many twists in the plot when I review films, but in this case, the twist is at the heart of the characters motivations. It is almost impossible to talk about the film without revealing the machination that drives the story along. In this case, Canali did not commit the theft of the mob’s heroin. He is simply a patsy. The theft was carried out by Don Vito Tressoldi, and he simply reported to his superiors that Canali committed the offence. But Tressoldi didn’t expect that the Syndicate heads would send men from New York to tidy up. He thought he’d be asked to handle it, and he’d have control of the situation. Once Catania and Webster arrive, he realises this isn’t so, and he sends his men out onto the streets to find Canali.

Eventually, Tressoldi’s goons catch up with Canali and attempt to bring him in. Canali doesn’t know what is going on (he’s innocent, remember) and plays it cool to begin with. At a warehouse the goons start to insult and rough-up their prisoner. Canali doesn’t take to kindly to the treatment and fights back. After he has floored the two goons, he escapes.

Don Vito puts a reward out for the whereabouts of Canali, and begins to put pressure on all the people that know him. When Canali tries to acquire a gun from an underground dealer, within minutes, Tressoldi's men are on the scene. Canali shoots his way out and is on the run again.

Still confused and seeking answers, Canali phones Tressoldi and asks why he wants to see him. Tressoldi feeds him a cock & bull story. When Canali doesn't buy it, Tressoldi threatens to kill Canali's ex-wife and daughter. Canali immediately hangs up and races to Lucia's place of work. Lucia is not happy to see him. She is even less enamoured when she finds out that his 'mafia lifestyle' is threatening her and their daughter's life.

Canali drives Lucia to their daughter's school. Lucia goes in and takes Rita out of class early. As Lucia and Rita walk back to the car and cross the road, a van speeds out of nowhere and knocks them down. This (understandably) drives Canali into an uncontrollable rage. He steals the nearest car and engages in a high speed pursuit through the streets of Milan.

The first part of this lengthy chase ends when Canali forces the van off the road and through a fruit vendors stall. In Italian crime films there is always a fruit or flower vendor's cart by the side of the road, which somehow always gets destroyed in the chase scene.

Then the chase continues on foot with the killer running into a desserted swimming pool. Canali doggedly continues to follow. Next the bad guy steals another van. As he speeds off, at the last second, Canali runs and leaps, grabbing the driver side door. As the van speeds through the traffic, hanging on for dear life, Canali attempts to fight with the driver. Eventually the door swings open and Canali finds himself at the front of the van, on the windscreen. Then dear reader, comes one of the most amazing examples of manly revenge inspired action I have ever seen - to get to his quarry in the cab, behind the glass, Canali repeatedly head-butts the windscreen until it shatters.

Ultimately Canali avenges the death of his ex-wife and child, but even then it isn't all over for our battered and bruised anti-hero. He then has to contend with the two American hitmen, Catania and Webster. These two aren't local punks. They are professionals. And even though, Canali is really innocent, it doesn't matter to the hitmen. They don't leave loose ends.

I've seen Mario Adorf in quite a few films, and generally I find his performances quite annoying. He has a tendency to overact. He talks with his hands, screams, shouts and generally is overbearing. But in this film, it is entirely appropriate. In this film he is an innocent man whose whole world collapses around him and he doesn't even know why.

Sylva Koscina has the small but important role of Lucia, Luca's ex-wife. The part may be small, but it is central to Canali's motivations through the second half of the film, and it is imperative that an actress that the audience can quickly identify with and relate to was cast. Koscina is an actress that is easy to identify, but maybe not identify with. This role is several lightyears away from the cheescake roles she played in the sixties. And sadly, there isn't a bikini to be seen.

Manhunt is a great Italian crime drama. But if you're watching it solely for Sylva Koscina you are going to be dissapointed. It's a man's crime film, and the women are secondary characters. As for the men, Henry Silva and Woody Strode can play these type of characters in their sleep - not that they do so here - and provide a great deal of threat, menace and danger. Their presence is reduced during the middle of the film, but they are always lurking, and you know they'll be there for the finale - and they don't dissapoint!

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hot Enough For June

Release Year: 1964
Country: England
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Sylva Koscina, Robert Morley, Leo McKern, Roger Delgado, John LeMesurier, Richard Pasco, Eric Pohlmann, Richard Vernon, Amanda Grinling, Noel Harrison, Derek Nimmo
Director: Ralph Thomas
Screenplay: Lukas Heller; Based on the novel Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson
Art Director: Syd Cain
Music: Angelo Lavagnino
Producer: Betty E. Box
Alternative Title: Agent 8 3/4

Today I am going to break one of the cardinal rules of Teleport City – I am going to review a romantic comedy. But it also happens to be a spy film, so if we all keep very quiet and don't tell Keith, I think we can get away with it. The film in question is Hot Enough For June and it stars Dirk Bogarde and Sylva Koscina, and it was made by Betty E. Box and Ralph Thomas.

Some people do not like the films of producer Betty E. Box, and director Ralph Thomas. I am not one of them. I think they are some of the more enjoyable examples of sixties British cinema. Amongst their output are films like The Thirty Nine Steps (the Kenneth More version), The High Commissioner, Deadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do. Okay, they are all spy films and I have a penchant for spy films, so that makes me a tad biased, but who would you rather trust for your movie reviews and opinions – Teleport City or a throwaway blurb in a beaten up copy of a Leonard Maltin Movie Guide?

The film opens with Roger Allsop (John Le Mesurier) turning up at MI6 headquarters. He walks down a long corridor to a large counter. Onto the counter he places a large black leather bag and starts to retrieve items from it. First there are several passports, then a shoe with a hollowed out heel, a revolver, and lastly a lucky rabbit's foot. Although this foot didn't bring too much luck to it's owner. You see these are the personal effects of a secret agent who has just been killed. The attendant behind the counter picks up the items and places them in a cubby hole which has the number 007 allocated to it. Now MI6 need a replacement.

Enter Nicholas Whistler (Dirk Bogarde). Whistler is an unemployed writer who turns up at the Labour Exchange to collect his unemployment benefits. Much to his chagrin, rather than just collecting his money, he is also sent to a job interview at a glass manufacturing company. This glass company is actually a front for MI6, and it is headed by Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley).

Whistler turns up for his job interview late, hoping that would dissuade them for employing him. But Cunliffe and MI6 need a man who speaks Czech for their next mission to Prague and Whistler, who is bi-lingual seems like the perfect man for the job. Whistler really doesn't want the work, but changes his mind when Cunliffe offers him a particularly obscene amount of money as a salary.

So next Whistler is off to Prague to meet Mr. Galushka (Eric Polmann), the head of the state run Zapopaki Glass Works. Whistler he been told that the instructions for a new glass making technique with be handed to him at the works, but he must identify himself with the phrase, "It's hot enough for June." The contact in Prague will respond with, "Arrr, you should have been here last September." Even with the cloak and dagger code words, Whistler still believes everything is above board and he is simply doing some business with a neighbouring glass factory.

Whistler checks into a hotel and waits to be summoned to the Glass Works. When his summons arrives, he finds Vlasta Simoneva (Sylva Koscina) waiting downstairs as his liaison and driver. Up until this point the film has been a gentle paced comedy. The humour has been smile producing rather than inducing belly laughs and has been carried largely by Robert Morley who appeared to be having a good time hamming it up. But now at the twenty three minute mark, Sylva Koscina has entered the story and the film shifts to a romantic comedy. In most romantic comedies the relationship starts out rocky, and Hot Enough For June is no exception.

The trip to the glass works doesn't go well after Whistler makes some heavy handed comments about the Communists shooting each other. Vlasta can barely contain her contempt for this arrogant young Westerner who sees fit to criticise her way of life.

Once at the glass works, Whistler is given a grand tour by Mr. Galushka. As Whistler travels through the factory and talks with the staff, he slips the 'hot enough for June' phrase into each conversation, but no-one responds with the counter phrase. As he is about to leave, he stops at the washroom to wash his hands. The washroom attendant starts talking about the weather, giving Whistler the perfect opportunity to drop 'hot enough for June' in the conversation, but before he can, Galushka interrupts and drags Whistler away. Though now, Whistler is convinced that the man in the washroom is his contact and contrives to revisit the glass works again in two days time.

But in the meantime he must wait, and what do you do when you've got two nights and a day to kill in Czechoslovakia? You attempt to seduce Vlasta Simoneva. Whistler starts by asking her out for a drink that evening which leads to dinner later on at a colourful restaurant.

But things aren't as they seem. We already know that Whistler is a spy – even if he doesn't realise it himself. But the Czech Secret Police aren't so stupid. They know he's a spy and have assigned an agent to find out what he is up to. That agent, as you may have guessed is Vlasta Simoneva. Complicating things even further is that the head of the Secret Police (Leo McKern) in this part of the world happens to be Vlasta's father.

The next day Whistler and Vlasta spend the day jaunting around Prague doing the type of things that young couples do. There's a spot of swimming at the local pool, which gives Koscina an opportunity to parade around in a bikini. I believe that parading around in a bikini was almost a trademark for Miss Koscina. In Deadlier Than The Male, when we are first introduced to her character, she is in a bikini – albeit carrying a speargun. In A Lovely Way To Die, once Kirk Douglas is in the picture it doesn't take her long to strip down pool side either. As the day wears on, the jaunting around turns into flirting and finally our young couple, after a rain storm end up at her home in soggy clothes. Naturally they take them off and, well you know....

The next day Vlasta is relieved of her escort and intelligence gathering duties. It is deemed that she has gotten too close to her subject. Another driver takes Whistler back to the glass factory, and this time he successfully makes contact with the agent in the washroom. As the contact hands over the top secret information, it finally dawns on Whistler that he is a spy. Up until this point, it has all bee a lark, but now the game is serious.

Once Whistler returns to his hotel, he finds out how serious. The Secret Police, including Vlasta's father, turn up to arrest him. Whistler escapes by hiding in a cupboard, and then makes his way out into the unfamiliar streets of Prague.

An extensive manhunt is launched to track Whistler down, but somehow he manages to stay just one step ahead of the police. His objective though, is to make it to the British Embassy. Unfortunately the Secret Police are counting on that too, and have stationed a barricade of men at the gates, so Whistler cannot get past. Instead he returns to Vlasta's home. At first she is skeptical about his intentions. She believes he is using her to smuggle out State secrets. Whistler dispels that notion when he throws the information that he received into the burning fireplace. Vlasta, once again in love, agrees to help him escape to freedom.

Hot Enough For June is a pleasant film, but as a romantic comedy, it doesn't really work. As a romance the story is a bit forced and contrived, after all Vlasta is an intelligence officer who chooses to use 'romance' and 'sex' as a tool to get close to her target. She isn't forced to use this technique; it her option. With that as a starting point, it's hard to believe that over a day, that she'd do a complete backflip over a man that she despises on first meeting. And furthermore, betray her country and father for this same man. But I guess Bogarde and Koscina display a certain amount of on-screen chemistry that almost makes you believe this could happen.

As a comedy, the film is very light. There aren't any laugh out loud moments, but here are quite a few scenes that produce broad grins. Robert Morley makes the best out of the comedic moments in the script.

All-in-all Hot Enough For June isn't ground breaking or life changing cinema. It's the type of film that you watch and enjoy, but really don't know why. Well, ...actually I know why! It has Sylva Koscina in it. For me that's enough of a drawcard. As always she lights up the screen in every scene she is in. Digressing for a second, some people are perplexed at the success of Peplum films. 'Why would you want to see a steroid bloated man with no neck toss around paper mache rocks?' The truth is you don't (well not much, anyway. Maybe a little bit). You watch Peplum films for the girls dressed in candy coloured, flimsy negligees. And Sylva Koscina was a ground breaker in that area, when she starred opposite Steve Reeves in Hercules, and Hercules Unchained. No-one could wear a negligee quite like her. When Eurospy films came along, she was quick to slip out of her negligee and squeeze into a bikini, with equal success.

The sixties had a great many sex sirens. Some of them are still household names, and some are now relegated to cinema history. Sylva Koscina appears to fall into the later category, and is one of the most neglected and under-rated actresses ever.

But hopefully these reviews will change all that.


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The Black Falcon (Hong Kong, 1967)

I hadn't heard much that was good about The Black Falcon, the general consensus seeming to be that it paled in comparison to most of the other 1960s spy efforts turned out by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio. Given that, I was surprised to find that it was actually one of the most solidly plotted and engaging of the lot. I was even more surprised to discover that it was a close remake of Sergio Sollima's Eurospy film Passport to Hell, which was made just two years earlier.

Passport to Hell was obviously quite popular in Hong Kong during its day--or at least popular with the creatives at Shaw Brothers. The distinctive, projectile-firing compact used by Seyna Seyn in the film would show up in carbon copy as Lily Ho's signature weapon in the 1971 Shaw production The Lady Professional, and The Black Falcon, while omitting that particular gadget (perhaps they were saving it for later) plays Passport almost scene-for-scene. The original starred George Ardisson as a secret agent given the task of insinuating himself into the affections of an attractive young woman whose father is believed to be the head of a freelance spy organization known as "The Organization". Things ultimately turn out to be not quite as they seem, however, thanks to some internecine power struggles within The Organization staged in part by Seyn's character, the vicious and cunning Jackie Yen.

In The Black Falcon, Ardisson's character is portrayed by Paul Chang Chung, fresh from his lead role in the Shaw's wan Bond imitation The Golden Buddha, while Jenny Hu Yan-Ni plays the daughter of the supposed leader of The Organization--here called The Black Falcons--and Margaret Tu Chuan plays the femme fatale role originally essayed by Seyna Seyn. Passport to Hell is a standout in the Eurospy genre, in great part due to star Ardisson's commitment to some pretty intense and gritty physical action. Chang Chung steps up considerably in that regard, showing a vast improvement in his fighting skills in contrast to the lackluster display he put on in The Golden Buddha. Falcon even mirrors Passport's fight between Ardisson and the over-sized Dakar by pitting Chang Chung against the giant actor--and Shaw regular--Siu Gam in a brutal match-up.

Beyond that, most of Passport's major set pieces are represented here, from the bar scene featuring a weird arm wrestling match involving the contestants gripping a beer mug between them (though without Passport's groovy addition of having Kinks songs playing on the jukebox) to the scene in which two flatbed trucks attempt to sandwich Chang Chung's car between them. Of course, this being a Shaw spy film, director/screenwriter Daai Go-Mei also has to work in a space age secret lair for The Black Falcons and a silly, comic book-style supervillain outfit for Margaret Tu Chuan, even though those things are pretty much at odds with the otherwise relatively down-to-earth espionage plot laid out by the film's model. Still, the director, wisely hewing closely to the example set by the tightly-structured Passport, does a much better job at maintaining a persistent pace and coherent narrative thread than his colleague Lo Wei did in his own numerous contributions to Shaw's spy movie catalog.

So I'm going to style myself as a lone voice in the wilderness here and say that, despite what you may have heard about The Black Falcon, it really is worth checking out. And if you're a fan of Passport to Hell--or, for that matter, the Eurospy genre as a whole--I think you'll find a lot that's of interest in this Hong Kong take on the form.


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Monday, August 4, 2008

That Man In Istanbul

Release Year: 1965
Country: Italy/France/Spain
Starring: Horst Buchholz, Sylva Koscina, Klaus Kinski, Gustavo Re, Alvaro De Luna, Perrette Pradier, Mario Adorf, Barta Barri, Jorge Rigaud
Director: Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi
Screenplay: Luis Jose Comeron, Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi, Jorge Illa,
Music: Georges Garvarentz
Original Title: Estanbul 65

That Man From Istanbul is one of the most accessible and entertaining of the Eurospy films made in the mid sixties. It features Sylva Koscina in a major role. She may barely raise a footnote these days in lists of 'most popular actresses of all time' (particularly in Western countries), but in the mid sixties she was on a bit of a roll, starring in Hot Enough For June with Dirk Bogarde, Deadlier Than The Male with Richard Johnson, and A Lovely Way To Diewith Kirk Douglas. Unfortunately her career started to nosedive in the 1970's. In an ineffectual attempt to resuscitate her career, Koscina posed nude for Italian Playboy in 1975 at the age of 42.

In Robert Sellers recent book 'The Battle For Bond' (2007, Tomahawk Press) it says that when Kevin McClory was originally casting Thunderball he wanted Richard Burton as Bond and Koscina as Domino. From the book – page 123:

McClory was now in Rome choosing a suitable starlet to co-star with his new Bond. Just days after Honor Blackman had been chosen to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, McClory named Sylva Koscina, a 29 year old Yugoslav-born, Italian-bred actress, to star in Thunderball as Domino. He approached her on the set of her latest film saying, “You're the perfect Bond type, tough, as though you can carry a machine gun with ease, yet lusciously attractive.” Sylva was understandably interested.

Realising that the public were not going to buy Bond without Sean Connery, McClory chose to join forces with Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and in turn gain Connery's services. With the new deal, Koscina's part evaporated and the role of Domino went to French actress Claudine Auger. I wonder what would have happened to Koscina's career had she been a Bond girl? Would it have opened new doors, or would it mean that her career trajectory would have remained the same, but she would be more fondly remembered? Anyway Bond never happened for Koscina, though she ended up appearing in quite a few Eurospy features. One of them was That Man From Istanbul.

The film opens with a nifty little pre-title sequence where a light aircraft, with two secret agents in it, lands in a paddock in Turkey somewhere. Five cars packed with hoods with stockings over their heads meet the plane. One of the agents from the plane hands over a suitcase with one million dollars in it. The other agent secretly takes photos of the hoods with a camera hidden in his tie-pin. Once the hoods are satisfied that the money is all there, they signal another car. This car contains atomic scientist Professor Pendergast, who has been kidnapped. An exchange is made, and the plane takes off with its new passenger. Pendergast looks like he has been drugged or brainwashed. In the backseat of the plane he is sweating and fidgeting. Then he detonates a bomb inside his coat. The plane explodes and crashes.

We skip to Washington D.C. and into a C.I.A. briefing room. A team of agents are watching a report on the crash. X-rays from the bodies at the crash site reveal that the man they believed to be Pendergast was an impostor. The ransom the U.S. had paid was for nothing. As the briefing continues, the President of the U.S.A. phones in and cancels the mission. It seems he wants the affair to be handled through diplomatic channels. This doesn't please Special Agent Kenny (Sylva Koscina). She sees something in the slides of the crash site, that everyone else has missed. In the background there is car, and in the car is Tony Mescenas (Horst Buchholz). Mescenas is an American who was deported for running a string of gambling houses and extortion rackets. He also ran a kidnapping scam in the past, where he exchanged fake people for his kidnap victims. Kenny doesn't believe this is a coincidence, but as the President has cancelled the mission, she is forbidden to go to Istanbul.

For our viewing pleasure we are then treated to a colourful animated title sequence with a swinging sixties instrumental over the top. When we return from this interlude we are in Istanbul, introduced via some travelogue shots that look like stock footage. Then we move into Istanbul's nightlife. Neon lights flicker. Cool jazz plays in the background. And Mescenas is cruising through the streets in his red E-type Jaguar, being discretely followed by the police. Mescenas stops outside a club which he runs with two colleagues. The first is 'Brain' (Gustavo Re), who has a photographic memory for facts, and the second is Bogo (Alvaro De Luna), who is more of your garden variety minion. He does all the dirty jobs.

Mescenas enters the club, which on the surface appears to be an average Turkish nightclub with belly dancers writhing on stage. But underneath this club is another club. An illegal casino in fact. Mescenas takes a secret elevator down to the casino and alerts the patrons that they are about to be raided be the police. It seems the tail on Mescenas wasn't that discrete after all. But don't panic, Mescenas has the place wired up electronically, and all the gaming tables disappear into the floor and the walls. The police raid the club, but instead of finding an illegal casino, they find Bogo treating the guests to a magic show. It seems like Mescenas ruse has worked. Well almost! A drunk starts demanding for his chips to be cashed. Mescenas can't pay him without giving the game away. So what does he do? He starts a fight. Within seconds a bar room brawl erupts, the type usually found in western movies. But hey, after all this is a Horst Buchholz movie. Horst who, I hear you ask? Horst Buchholz is one of the two actors from The Magnificent Seven that nobody remembers. He played Chico, the Mexican peasant who wanted to be a gunfighter...but back to the story.

Of course, Agent Kenny has defied orders and is in Istanbul, and in Mescenas' club. As Mescenas, Brain and Bogo are regrouping after the police raid, Kenny approaches them and asks for a job. Mescenas' interview technique is not politically correct by today's standards. He asks Kenny to strip. She disrobes down to her underwear. Mescenas pretends not to be interested, but when the subject is as attractive as Ms Koscina a side glance is forgivable. Kenny gets the job, but doing what? As a side note, due to Generalísimo Franco's censorship laws, this scene is edited very heavily in the Spanish version (which is a real shame because 'Vella Vision' has released a pristine looking DVD).

The next day Kenny is snooping around some of the locations from the photos in the C.I.A. briefing. One of these locations is a cemetery and mausoleum where the plane crash victims were interred. It is the last place where the missing tie-clip camera was seen. As she searches, she is accosted by the Chinese grounds keeper, but proves herself adept at judo, and acquits herself quite nicely, thank you. As she leaves the cemetery Mescenas picks her up for work. It's obvious he has been following her. Her job? I'm not really sure what it is. It appears to be travelling around the sites of Istanbul and looking glamorous. She does it well.

As they look over the city from the spire of a mosque, Mescenas tells her that he knows she is a spy. Why is she interested in him? Kenny is a fairly trusting agent, and tells Mescenas the whole story about Pendergast kidnapping. Mescenas pleads his innocence and Kenny believes him. Then Kenny tries to convince him to help her track down the true perpetrators. But after being deported from the U.S., Mescenas isn't too keen on helping Uncle Sam. Mescenas may not be patriotic but he is greedy, and when Kenny tells him of the million dollars ransom that was paid to free Pendergast, his eyes light up. Welcome on board.

Their first lead is to track down the Chinese grounds keeper who attacked Kenny at the cemetery. His information leads Mescenas to the Chinese Embassy. It appears that though the Chinese did not kidnap Pendergast, they are interested in tracking him down for themselves. After all an Atomic Scientist is a valuable commodity. But the Chinese do have the tie-clip camera hidden in a safe at the Embassy. With stealth and the odd bit of brutality Mescenas breaks into the safe and retrieves the camera. His escape, however is not so easy. First he leaps through one window, crashes through another into a bedroom. Then somehow ends up in the sewer system. So it doesn't make sense, but that is part of it's charm.

From the photos in the clip, Brain recognises one of the extortionists, the man with the steel hand, Hansie (Gerard Tichy). Well it's not really a steel hand, it's more of a steel stump or dome. He lives in a boarding house down by the waterfront, where all riff-raff in this type of film live. Mescenas follows Hansie as he leaves the house, but Hansie realises he is being followed and sets out to trap Mescenas. Hansie starts to ascend a tall mosque spire with a spiral staircase. Mescenas follows. At the top on the balcony, Hansie gets the drop on his pursuer. A fight breaks out but Hansie has a slight advantage. From his steel hand a knife juts out. Mescenas is thrown over the side surely to his death. But no, he catches a rope and slides down to the next level. Mescenas rushes back up the stairs and gives Hansie a beating. Hansie is about to talk when he is shot from below, by one of his accomplices. From Hansie's dead body, Mescenas picks up the small hearing aid from the ear. It is not a hearing aid at all but a communication device. Mescenas hears the plans for the extortionists to meet at the coast road. In his red Jag, he makes his way there. It's another trap. The extortionists knew he'd be listening and try to run him off the cliff top road. He gets past one vehicle but is not prepared for being rammed by an army truck. Mescenas' sports car flies through the protective barriers by the side of the road and down the cliff.

In what really is a 'cliff-hanger', Mescenas leaps onto the back of the army truck as it collides with the Jag and hitches a ride. Meanwhile down the road, armed with high powered binoculars, the Chinese are watching. They have been following Mescenas, hoping he will lead them to Pendergast. They follow the army truck.

The truck stops in an underground carpark, and Mescenas starts snooping about. Inadvertently he sets off a silent alarm and the extortionists are alerted to his presence. Luckily for Mescenas, at this time the Chinese arrive and enter into a shootout with the extortionists. While all the shooting is going on the leaders of the extortion group sneak Pendergast out in an ambulance. Mescenas waits behind some crates till the shootout is over and then snoops around a bit more. In a back room he finds Elizabeth Furst (Perrette Pradier) tied up. She was kidnapped off a yacht. Naturally he frees her and sends her to a luxury hotel to recuperate.

Meanwhile the extortionists are not happy with one of their own. Gunther (Agustín González), who was driving the army truck, which Mescenas so cavalierly jumped on, is too be terminated for his incompetence. Evil organisations like this don't tolerate failure. As the assassin draws his gun, Gunther shoots and flees. He's on the run now and needs help. He phones Mescenas and offers information about the whereabouts of Pendergast in exchange for safe passage out of the country. A meeting is arranged. As Agent Kenny is the only licensed operative on the scene she wants to go to the meeting, but Mescenas does what any sixties, chauvinist, man about town would do. He locks her in a cupboard.

At the meeting Gunther is shot before Mescenas can get to him. Then he finds himself on foot, in the centre of a demolition derby. Some nimble footwork and some accurate pistol shots to car headlights save Mescenas' skin. Well barely. After the car pile-up, a hail of gunfire starts. He borrows a front-end loader and ploughs a path to freedom.

After the nights fireworks, Mescenas pays a visit to Elizabeth Furst at her hotel, poolside. As he attempts to gain more information about her kidnapping and the whereabouts of Pendergast, an assassin lurks in the pool (with a water pistol, no doubt!). He fires a shot at Mescenas which misses, but shatters his wine glass. Not taking a backward step, Mescenas dives in to confront his would-be assassin. Underwater, a knife is produced and the two men struggle until the assailant ends up with the knife in his torso.

The next lead Mescenas and Kenny follow was found on Gunther's dead personage. It was a season ticket to a Turkish Bath. At the bath, as they search, three goons kidnap Kenny and spirit her away. Out the back Mescenas finds wooden crates full of pieces of an atomic bomb. As he retreats, he is captured at knife-point. Then he is offered one hundred thousand dollars and Kenny alive if he leaves Istanbul. Mescenas refuses and escapes by losing a steam faucet. Clad only in a towel, he then scours the city searching for Kenny, but with no joy.

Despondent, he rings Brain. Brain passes on a message that Bogo and Ms Furst have information for him. Mescenas rushes to the hotel, but only to find that Furst's room is empty. Almost. An assassin named Doctor Shrenk (Klaus Kinski) follows Mescenas in. As most evil minions do, Shrenk takes his time in killing Mescenas and talks too much. In doing so he reveals that Pendergast is on a yacht in the harbour. Mescenas ducks under a glass coffee table while Shrenk fires at him with a pistol. And in one of those contrivances that can only happen in the movies, the coffee table turns out to be bullet proof. Mescenas picks up the table and uses it as a shield until Shrenk runs out of bullets. Then it's fisticuffs. During the fight, which rages through all the hotel rooms, Mescenas finds Bogo's dead body in the bathtub. This sends Mescenas over the edge and he drowns Shrenk in a sink.

Mescenas' attention is now on the yacht, and he climbs a cargo loading crane and lowers himself onto the boat as it passes underneath. After the death of Bogo, Mescenas sense of humour isn't as prevalent as it was, and as he storms the boat, he kills one sailor in cold blood, and then orders the rest of the crew over the side. On board he finds Pendergast and Kenny and sets them free. Then he set about settling the score with the leaders of this insidious plot. Oh, what is their scheme, I hear you ask? It hasn't really been mentioned yet, but it is something like this: They intend to build an atomic arsenal with Pendergast's help. Then from a remote island, control the world. Excellent; another World Domination scheme.

In the stateroom on the yacht, Mescenas find the chiefs. He cleans house with a machine gun. He kills them all, except for one. I wont say who it is, but no prizes for guessing?

That Man In Istanbul is one of my favourite Eurospy films. It has a good sense of humour and decent production values, and is fast paced. Maybe it is a little long, and Sylva Koscina isn't used as much as she should be, but small quibbles. Your response to the movie will depend on how you accept Horst Buchholz. I know of a few people who find his performance annoying and as such, don't rate this movie very highly. I disagree, but I think you're going to have to make up your own mind on this one?


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Monday, July 14, 2008

The Ambushers

Year: 1967
Directed by Henry Levin
Dean Martin, Senta Berger, Janice Rule, James Gregory, Albert Salmi, Beverly Adams, The Slaygirls
Music by Hugo Montenegro
Based loosely on the novel by Donald Hamilton

Along with James Bond and Derek Flint, Matt Helm is one of the cinematic world’s best known super-spies. As portrayed by Dean Martin, Helm was an inebriated womaniser who consistently saved the world while delivering a string of boozing and bosom jokes.

The Ambushers is the third and weakest of the four Matt Helm films, following The Silencers and Murderers’ Row; and preceding The Wrecking Crew. As with all the films in the series, it is easy on the eye. Along with the scantily clad females, there are plenty of lurid fashions, set designs and colourful lighting. It seems like a large portion of the budget went into making these parts of the movie look great. But it appears no money was spent on the special effects which resemble a ‘sparkler’ on a birthday cake.

Onto the plot, what little there is. The film starts with I.C.E.’s latest weapon, a Flying Saucer, being stolen during a test flight. The saucer is unique in that it can only be flown by women as the electro magnetic field produced by the craft is deadly to men (makes perfect sense to me!)

The pilot of the Flying Saucer is Sheila Sommers (Janice Rule) and she is forced to make a landing in Mexico where she is captured and tortured by the maniacal Caselius. Caselius has a penchant for torture and deviant sexual behaviour.

Meanwhile, Matt Helm (Dean Martin) – international superspy and freelance photographer is at the ‘Intelligence Counter Espionage’ (I.C.E.) rehabilitation centre brushing up on the latest espionage techniques. As Helm brushes up against one of the Slaygirls, he discovers the booby-gun.

Also at the rehab centre is Sheila Sommers. After he ordeal with Caselius she is traumatised an cannot remember a thing. She is pale white and pasty and refuses to have anything to do with men. That is until some bad guys make an attempt on her life. Matt Helm comes to the rescue at the last minute, and wins Sheila over. But that’s not all he wins. It seems he also wins her hand in marriage. When Sheila comes out of her catatonic state she believes she is married to Matt Helm. It was an old cover that they had previously used on a mission together, and now it seems like that is all she can remember. And as only women can fly the Flying Saucer, she gets to tag along with Helm on his mission to Acapulco. Why are they going to Acapulco? The only clue that they have to go on is that Sheila remembers a jingle for a Mexican beer company called Montezuma. Figuring it must be a lead, Matt is assigned to do a photographic shoot for a magazine, for the Brewery and it’s owner, Jose Ortega (Albert Salmi). And naturally, Mrs. Helm goes along as his assistant.

Ortega just so happens to be the number one henchman for Caselius. Caselius isn’t affiliated with any evil organization, like “Big O”. He works for himself and plans to sell the Flying Saucer to the highest bidder.

But back to the brewery. Not that this needs to be pointed out, but as you can imagine, placing drunken Dino in a brewery results in our perpetually pissed superspy being, well …more perpetually pissed. The height of boozy excess occurs when Matt Helm falls into a vat of beer.

The matt Helm films were never meant to be high-art. In fact they aren’t even low-art. But they do provide a platform for Martin’s humour, and for the girls to show an ample amount of cleavage. What’s wrong with that, I ask? Apart from The Slaygirls who linger in the background of many of the scenes, the film features Janice Rule as Sheila Sommers. Rule, while being a talented actress (maybe too talented for a Matt Helm film), isn’t as strong and charismatic as Stella Stevens from The Silencers or Elke Somer from The Wrecking Crew. But in it’s favour, The Ambushers has the luscious Senta Berger in the all-too-small role of Francesca Madeiros. She too is trying to track down Caselius.

After musical scores by Elmer Bernstein and Lalo Schifrin for the first two films, the series turns to Hugo Montenegro for the score to The Ambushers. Montenegro’s swinging tunes are okay on the ear, but don’t really follow the action or the story as it progresses. The music never reflects danger, excitement or romance. It simply bops along happily whatever the scenario may be. It may make for a fine pop album, but doesn’t make for a really good soundtrack to a spy film.

At the end of the day, you either love or hate Dean Martin’s drunken antics. If you’re on the negative side, then nothing that I have said here will make you want to sit through this. But for the fans, it’s not the best, but it is harmless fun and provides plenty of opportunities for Martin to trot out a string of familiar one liners.

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Fear In Fun Park

Year: 1989
Directed by Donald Crombie
Simon Dutton, Ed Devereaux, Rebecca Gilling, Richard Roxburgh, Nikki Coghill Max Cullen, Anthony Wong, Ernie Dingo
Music by Peter Best (Title theme by Serge Franklin)
Based on characters created by Leslie Charteris

As an Australian, I am particularly parochial about local productions. I like a good story where I recognise the landmarks and the settings in which the story takes place. To find out that there was a Saint tele-movie set in Australia delighted me no end and naturally I had to track it down – and that search has taken me quite a while – but finally I have got my opportunity.

Now there’s a reason that it has taken me so long to find this film; namely that it hasn’t been available. Why would a series based on a popular character like The Saint be held back and made unavailable I ask? Watching the first ten minutes of Fear In Fun Park gave me the answer. It’s bloody terrible. In my reviews for The Software Murders and The Blue Dulac, I have been fairly scathing of the acting on display; and let’s be honest, I watch a lot of shit, so I am quite forgiving of shortcomings in low-budget productions. But here the acting reaches the bottom of the barrel. And I am not talking about hack actors – most of the Australian cast have been around the traps for quite a while – and capable of much better than this. Even the accents seemed to be bunged on. Look I grew up in rural Australia, and would suggest I have a very broad ‘Aussie’ accent, but the characters in this film make me seem like an English language professor. I am guessing they are trying to ‘ocker’ up the show to make Simon Templar seem even more like a fish out of water. Maybe there is even a bit of an attempt to latch onto the memory of Crocodile Dundee which was a massive hit in 1985.

The show starts off in Sydney airport and a myriad of characters arrive of various flights from around the world. Naturally, one of these characters is Simon Templar; AKA The Saint (Simon Dutton). He has flown in from Hong Kong, on the request of a Chinese Businessman, whose daughter has gone missing in Sydney. Templar believes she has been snatched up by the Chinese underworld and drugged and forced to work in a brothel.

Also arriving from France are Harry and Aileen Brampton. Harry is the head of the powerful Brampton business empire, but recently his company has slumped, and it looks like he may have to sell off some of his companies assets. One of these assets is Sydney’s Luna Park - called Fun Park in this show (I am sure for legal reasons). Waiting to greet Harry and Aileen, is Harry’s daughter from a previous marriage, Fiona (Nikki Coghill).

Another recent arrival is a young confused Chinese girl who speaks no English. As she waits in the arrivals lounge, Templar offers her assistance. But before she can respond, she is approached by some Chinese business people and shuffled outside the terminal to a waiting car.

At this point Simon bumps into Fiona, who used to be a jetsetter and knows Templar from her old days in London. Their reunion is a pleasant one, and Simon is invited back that evening to have dinner with Harry, Aileen and Fiona. Simon accepts but must check into his hotel first. Fiona offers to drive him into town. As they leave the airport, Templar spots the young Chinese girl, looking rather distressed, ensconced in the back of a black Mercedes Benz as it weaves through the traffic. Templar asks Fiona to follow the car, which she does up until a certain point, where the car gets blocked behind a truck in Chinatown. Templar leaps from the car and tries to follow on foot, but loses the car in a maze of side streets.

Later that evening, as Templar dines with the Bramptons, he meets Fiona’s new fiancé, Justin (an incredibly youthful Richard Roxburgh). Justin is a real estate agent and has been asked to arrange the sale of Fun Park to get the Brampton company out of trouble. The thing is, secretly, Justin has a gambling problem and owes the Chinese underworld $954,000. The only way he can repay his debt is to arrange that Fun Park is sold to the Chinese.

The fly in the ointment, however, is that Fun Park is the legacy of Harry’s first wife, and Fiona would rather take out a loan to keep Fun Park as a family asset that can be handed down from generation to generation, rather than sold off for short term gain. Justin is caught is the middle – if he sells Fun Park, he gets out of trouble with the underworld, but risks losing Fiona. If he doesn’t sell it, then he keeps Fiona, but what good is that, when the Chinese underworld have a mark on your head.

As the story progresses, the threads of the Brampton family’s financial problems and Templar’s investigation into the white slavery ring come together, and this results in some chases through the streets of Sydney, on and over every conceivable landmark the film-makers could get permission to climb (these include the newly constructed Darling Harbour and Sydney Monorail). At times the movie feels more like an advert for the Australian Tourist Commission than a Saint episode (it even includes throwing ‘prawns on the barbie’).

Fear In Fun Park is an amateurish production despite the people in front and behind the camera, which is such a shame, because Sydney is a great setting for a Saint story. The white slavery story itself isn’t too bad, but there are a few too many story threads that probably only resonate with Sydneysiders who were there in the late eighties. One such is the ‘Save Luna Park’ thread, which was an issue when the Park had been left abandoned for years after a fire on one of the rides killed some children. It looked as if the derelict Park would be sold off to foreign investors, who would redevelop the land. Viewers from other parts of the world, particularly now (nearly twenty years later), may wonder what the hell the characters are talking about. Why? What protesters?

As I seem to do with all the Simon Dutton Saint movies, I 'llsign off by saying that Saint fans may feel compelled to watch this episode, but it really isn’t very good at all. Others should stay clear.


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The Blue Dulac

Year: 1989
Directed by Dennis Berry
Simon Dutton, John Astin, Camille Naud, Sabine Naud, Patricia Barzyk
Music by Serge Franklin (with additional music by Tony Britten)
Based on characters created by Leslie Charteris

Umbrella Entertainment have finally released the 1989 The Saint series on DVD. Now this series isn’t particularly good, unsure of whether it’s a comedy, or a gritty crime series. Thankfully this entry brings back some of the jet-setting glamour that was missing from other episodes. The Blue Dulac is set in France and features some grand homes and architecture. It at least looks like Simon Templar is living the high-life; rather than just being an average Joe with a penchant for theft and beautiful women.

The film opens in France. A young couple, Jack and Christine Coultar return to their palatial home only to find that is has been trashed. Red spray paint has been used on the painted art, walls and furniture; and all the mirrors, statues and vases have been shattered. The curtains and drapery have been shredded. The door to the safe lies open. Inside is a note saying that next time they come back when Christine is at home. Jack closes the door to the safe, but it has been wired to a bomb. The house is blown up and Jack and Christine killed.

The man that police believe is behind the atrocity is George La Force (John Astin – but he’ll always be Gomez Adams to me). La Force is a big time gangster who blows up anyone or anything that stands in his way. La Force looks like he’ll be brought to trial for the murder of Jack and Christine, but at the last minute, the Judge decides not to proceed with the case due to a lack of evidence. In fact though, La Force had a team of thugs hold the Judge’s family held at gunpoint. If the Judge had proceeded, La Force would have killed his family.

As so often happens in these Saintly adventures, Jack and Christine were friends with Simon Templar (Simon Dutton) AKA: The Saint. It is not long before The Saint is in France and attempting to bring down La Force’s empire of evil.

La Force has one weakness which Templar plans to exploit – it is a fondness, verging on obsession, for sapphires. Posing as a jewel thief named Lamont, Templar intends to steal The Blue Dulac, a priceless sapphire necklace, and apportion the blame to La Force.

Helping and hindering Templar in his quest are Sabine and Seraphin, a set of twins who’s father was killed in a bomb blast set off by La Force. As gorgeous as the twins are, their acting is sub-par. Bad acting seems to be a common fault in this series of The Saint. As likeable an actor as John Astin is, casting him as a bad guy in a movie set in France is doomed from the outset. I keep expecting him to say “Tish, you spoke French!”

Simon Dutton, as always, cuts a fine figure as The Saint. His hairstyle may have dated slightly, but he certainly isn’t painful to watch, unlike some of the actors and actresses in this show. For my mind, The Blue Dulac is a step up from The Software Murders (but that isn’t hard), but it is hardly core Saint material. If you’re a fan of The Saint then this maybe worth a look just to tick it off your list, but other than that I’d probably give it a miss.


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The Saint In London

Year: 1939
Directed by John Paddy Carstairs
George Sanders, Sally Gray, David Burns, Gordon McLeod, Athen Seyler, Henry Oscar, Ralph Truman, Ballard Berkeley, John Abbott
Music by Marr Mackie
Based on the short story, ‘The Million Pound Day’ by Leslie Charteris

In some ways, The Saint In London is one of The Saint’s most espionage based stories, but to tell you why and how would ruin some of the twists and turns that this story has to offer. As The Saint films of this era where barely more than B-grade programmers with rather stripped down stories, to reveal the twist would be criminal, so I’ll refrain.

You know, I like George Sanders as The Saint. He only made five Saint films, and then went on to become The Falcon (much to the chagrin of Leslie Charteris, who sued RKO claiming that The Falcon was The Saint in all but name). But Sanders as The Saint is very effective, even though some of the stories used (or the adaptations at any rate) were sub standard. Sanders shines through. He was a class act, and this shows through in his portrayal of the character.

The film opens with Simon Templar, AKA The Saint (George Sanders) arriving by car at the exclusive Restaurant Maxy. As he is about to enter, a man at the door asks for a cigarette. The Saint obliges, but as he lights the cigarette, the man who happens to be a thief, lifts Templar’s watch. As he does so, a police officer notices and tries to intervene on Templars behalf. The Saint protests that the officer must be mistaken and produces a watch from his pocket. It is in fact the pickpockets watch, which The Saint had swiped, as recompense for the pickpocket taking his.

Once inside the restaurant, The Saint orders a drink and a meal. Then rather sheepishly, the pickpocket makes his way into the restaurant and to The Saint’s table. He introduces himself as Dugan (David Burns), and trades watches with The Saint. The Saint offers Dugan a meal and a job as his valet. But Templar isn’t at the restaurant to meet Dugan. He has a prearranged dinner engagement with old chum Richard Blake (Ballard Berkeley). Berkeley has been having a spot of bother with a gentleman named Bruno Lang (Henry Oscar). And it turns out with good reason. Lang is in fact an underworld mob boss. Templar agrees to help Blake and arranges to meet Lang at a party. Along with Lang, he also meets Penny Parker (Sally Gray), who realises that Templar is up to something, and the ‘nosey’ side of her nature wants to find out what it is.

Templar first notifies Bruno Lang that he is on to him, by leaving a calling card on the steering wheel of Langs Car. The card say ‘Bruno Lang Vs. The Saint’. Lang shrugs it off as a joke, but Templar makes his way to Lang’s home, breaks in and riffles through the documents in the safe. He finds what he is looking for, and then makes a hasty exit. On his way out, he runs into a security guard who has been walking the perimeter of Lang’s estate. Templar knocks the guard down and makes a run for it.

Luckily for The Saint, the very, very nosey Ms. Parker has followed him to Lang’s. She hears the gunshots as the guard fires after Templar. She gets into Templar’s car and starts the engine. By the time Templar comes bounding out, the car is moving and he hitches a ride on the running boards.

As they speed along the road, away from the scene of the crime, they come across a beaten man running down the road, fearing for his life. Templar offers assistance, firstly by hiding the scared man in his car. And then by secondly raising his boot into the chest of the goon who was chasing the poor guy.

Templar and Parker take the man to a hotel and The Saint arranges for a doctor to come and see the man. Once he is patched up, the man reveals himself to be Count Duni. Duni is a foreign diplomat who was sent to England to oversee the printing of new currency for his country. Unfortunately he had been captured by some of Bruno Lang’s goon and was forced to sign over for the printing of an extra million pounds. Lang and his mobsters intend to ruch this new money into circulation as the new currency is released. That way it would be untraceable.

As complicated as all that seems, it is even more so. You see, when Templar rescued the Count, and clobbered Lang’s goon, a police officer noticed. Well he noticed Templar clobbering the goon then making a quick getaway. The officer wrote down the car number plate and passed it onto his superiors. It isn’t long before it crosses the desk of Inspector Claud Teal (Gordon McLeod) of Scotland Yard. Naturally Teal has been trying to catch The Saint for years, and is soon investigating.

The Saint In London is a pacey little thriller with a fine resolution. The one strange thing about this episode, is usually a character like The Saint, has one ‘hanger on’ who acts as comic relief. In this episode, he has three – Penney parker, Dugan, and even Inspector Teal. I suppose this only serves to make The Saint seem even more dashing. All in all, this is not bad.


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