Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Spys And Bad Guys

Spysploitation’. In the wake of the huge success of the James Bond films came a flood of lesser efforts featuring secret agents. I have become quite enamored with the ilk over the past year.

“Murderers’ Row”. This is one in the Matt Helm series, starring Dean Martin. If James Bond can be seen as the father of the Austin Powers movies, then Helm is most certainly his lecherous uncle. Dino simply plays up the drunken, middle-aged, hipster persona that he’d cultivated in the 60’s. The dialog if filled with Martin’s trademark double entendres and watching him in action now seems a lot more creepy that it did back then. MR co-stars 60’s sex kitten Ann Margaret and Karl Maldon. It’s the only one of the series I’ve taken in so far, so I can’t rank it. The Helm films emphasize the comedy elements over the plot so I don’t feel the need to recap it here. It is exactly what I expected it to be… no more no less.

I also took in a 1968 Italian one called ‘The Killer Likes Candy’. Like so many Euro exploitation movies of the period, it features an American star. In this case it’s Kerwin Matthews, who you’ll know from his role as the good captain in ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’. In all honesty this is really more of a giallo (murder mystery) than a spy flick. The plot does feature the heroes as secret service agents but it has very little in the way of the more typical spy-flick trappings such as gadgets and world domination. All in all a pretty solid giallo, if a bit unremarkable.

The popularity of spyploitation began to diminish by the late 60’s, but that didn’t stop an occasional foray into the genre in the 70’s. Which brings us to Ted V. Mikels’ 1973 movie ‘The Doll Squad’. It is a pronouncedly low-budget affair, but one made in America. A former US spy has become corrupted and sets his sights on world conquest. To counter his threat the government calls in it’s special, all female, secret agents; the Doll Squad. It’s a fairly pedestrian affair. The actresses’ making up the Doll Squad were to my sensibilities only average looking and hardly the femme fatales the title suggests. I do give Mikels credit though for a concept that would become huge a few years later with ‘Charlie’s Angels’.

The final spyploitation film I’ll report on was a total and genuine surprise. It exists under two different titles; ‘Mission Top Secret’ and ‘Matchless’. It’s an Italian product that stars Patrick O’Neal and Donald Plessence. The movie opens with our hero being tortured on a whirling device by the Red Chinese. They demand to know who he is spying for and won’t believe the truth. He is in fact Perry Liston, a Korean War vet turned journalist. After the session he is returned to his cell, which he shares with a real spy (Henry Silva) and a elderly dying Chinese man. Perry shows the old man some kindness in his dying moments and eder bequeaths him a ring. When pressed it will turn the wearer invisible for 20 minutes. The caveat though is that it cannot be reactivated for 10 hours. Of course Liston uses it to escape and is helped a beautiful Chinese woman (in reality a US spy) to flee the country. These events lead him into helping the US Government in an unrelated secret mission.

The things I admired in the movie were first off, a higher quality of acting than I usually find in such fare. The casting was treat as it’s always great to see champion-heavy Silva in an evil role. But we also get the actor (whose name escapes me) who played Boss Hogg in the Dukes of Hazzard. Across the board the women are very sexy, putting the gals of ‘the Doll Squad’ to shame. But must of all I enjoyed the humor. Typically the laughs in a spy flick are very broad and often slapstick. The comedy in this plays a bit smarter, is often satirical and is sophisticated. In this regard it has more in common with ‘Dr. Strangelove’ than Matt Helm. I found “Matchless’ to be very clever and I enjoyed it more than any of these four. 

"Baddiesploitation". In 1960’s Europe there were a spate of movies that featured villains as their title characters. Often times they had roots in Euro-Comic Books. So I’ll talk about a quartet of this type. 

To begin with there is a1966 Italian flick entitled ‘Seven Golden Men Strike Again’. Unlike the rest in my post, this one has no ties to comics (to my knowledge anyway). The title characters are a band specialist criminals headed up by “the Professor”. He uses his brains to come up with intricate plans and with exceptional technology. Imagine the Impossible Mission Force as bad guys and you’re on the right track. The movie begins in the midst of a daring bank robbery which seems to be running quite smoothly. However the team (less 2 members) is caught just before they can abscond with the haul. They are interrogated by panel of international law enforcement, but won’t rat out the other team members. But surprisingly the session is interrupted by the missing pair; the professor and the femme fatale teammate. A negotiation begins and the elite band of super-criminals is hired by the US Government to kidnap a Caribbean dictator (clearly based on Castro). During the mission they also work on a side plot to steal 700 million dollars in gold. The movie includes lots of comedy and a fair share of red herrings. I found it to be very amusing and entertaining. BTW, I have no idea as to why the team is called ‘the Seven Golden Men’.

Next we move onto a 1967 French production called ‘Fantomas’, that is based on a comicstrip. Fantomas is a bizarre looking, evil genius that desires to rule the world. You recall the Frank Frazetta cover to Famous Funnies #210? The pointy-eared menaces in that will give an idea about the look of our title character. The production values on this one are very lush and impressive. It’s a pity that it’s so very heavy on the laughs. One of the main characters is a buffoon of a French Chief Police Inspector that makes Inspecter Clouseau look subtle. Of the baddiesploitaton films here, I rank it as the weakest. 

 Back to Italy we have a 1967 movie titled ‘Kriminal”. This too is based on an Italian comic. The masked super-thief called Kriminal, escapes the hangman and sets upon the theft of a fortune in diamonds. Having never read any of the comics, I don’t know how it compares to the source material. As a film though the costume element is pretty unnecessary and the movie would work very well as a thriller and caper movie without it. The production value is no where near that of ‘Fantomas’ but it reminds me to point out something. In viewing the baddiesploitaton and spyploitain movies from Europe and then comparing them to US made product they have a distinct advantage. The Euro films can feature dazzling locale shots that make many American productions look weak. 

My last baddiesploitaton account is one that I believe legitimately borders on an art film. I refer to ‘Danger: Diabolik” as filmed by Mario Bava in 1968. In this exceedingly stylish film, the British Government goes all out to capture the costumed super-criminal called Diabolik. It goes so far as to team up with the mafia to brink his downfall. The production value on this one dwarves ‘Fantomas’ and the shots that Bava chooses are extraordinarily thought out. It’s sad in a way that of all of the pics mentioned here, that it is the one that you’ll have most likely encountered. That is because it was lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. While I enjoy that series as a whole, I disagree with the choice to ridicule this film. I suppose the MST3K didn’t see it in the same light as I did. Of all the films in this post, this gets my highest recommendation. 

Pat Hilger

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