A new Frolic Afield at a new place. The Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema is the written word supplement to the wildly popular Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast. And I am over there writing about Covert Action, the movie in which the Eurospy film collides with the Eurocrime film and brings Maurizio Merli along to slap some people.
There’s a problem often faced by those of us who chose to both watch and write about the Eurospy films of the 1960s: as enjoyable as they can be, and fun and breezy and cool, there is often very little that can be said about them in the form of an article. When you try to put finger to key and review one of these movies, you suddenly realize just how much of its run time — which was probably under ninety minutes to begin with — was taken up by fluff and filler. Travelogue footage, nightclub scenes, guys just walking through hotel lobbies while swinging music plays — all great stuff, but the visual appeal of these de rigueur accoutrements of swingin’ sixties spy cinema doesn’t often translate to having very much to say about a film, even when you’ve enjoyed it. Such is the case with Ypotron, a light and airy espionage adventure with sci-fi elements and almost no interest whatsoever in its own plot, so enamored is it instead with low-budget globe-trotting and extremely large hats.
In addition to flying sports cars and a machine that mixes the perfect martini, one of the accoutrements of worldly masculine adulthood that impressionable young boys weaned on sixties pop culture grew up to expect is the ready availability of pliant female robots. What surprises me about this particular trope is not just how much it turned up in movies, TV shows and dime fiction throughout the decade, but how much it showed up in stories that were ostensibly set in the then present day. It’s as if the people who cooked up these ideas were somehow convinced that the technology already existed to create fembots, but that some self-appointed guardians of knowledge were conspiring to keep the discovery away from the general public–perhaps out of some misguided fear that people might use such an invention irresponsibly.
Funny thing about the James Bond movies is that, while they are models of conspicuous consumption, their basic tropes are so much just that –- basic –- that one could recreate them in a backyard home movie and still have them be easily identifiable. Make your bald headed uncle wear his shirt backwards and put him in a high-backed chair with a cat in his lap and you have your villain. Get the babysitter to dance around in a swimsuit to a Ventures record and you have your credit sequence. Make sure that your hero’s suit has at least been recently pressed, and that he can hold a cocktail glass in a somewhat rakish manner, and you’re good to go. Then you can have your mom…Well, that got weird awful fast, didn’t it? Anyway, you see my point.
The sad passing of actor Tony Kendall – aka Luciano Stella – back in November of 2009 inspired me to get back on board with the project of reviewing the Kommissar X films for Teleport City. Not that I can say with authority that the Kommissar X films represent the best of Mr. Stella’s work, mind you – I haven’t, for instance, seen Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century, or Hate Is My God, to name just a couple of his many non-Eurospy efforts. It’s just that it’s those movies, and Kendall’s portrayal within them of dick-both-public-and-private Joe Walker, that won him permanent residence in a very special secret space-age lair located deep within my heart.
It’s time for another visit to that magical land where smarmy cheeseballs can sashay up to any hot dame that strikes their fancy and plant a kiss on her without getting slapped in the face or slapped with a lawsuit. The amazing kingdom where smart suits and cocktail dresses are the norm and endless explosive attempts at assassination are met with nothing more than a cocked eyebrow and a knowing smirk. It’s the astounding universe of the Kommissar X films, among the most enjoyable and most bizarre entries into the spy craze that swept across the world in the 1960s thanks largely to the success of the James Bond films.
Austrian writer and director Rudolf Zehetgruber had two shots at the Kommissar X franchise, and Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, the second entry in the seven film Eurospy series, was the first of them. It’s a commendable, if not especially controversial effort on his part, although, thanks to a particular directorial quirk it revealed, it has resulted in me becoming damn near obsessed with the man. In my review of Death Trip, the fourth Kommissar X film, I described how Zehetgruber, the director and writer, inserted himself – i.e., Zehetgruber the actor — into the action, casting himself as a sort of all-purpose deus ex machina who single-handedly bridged an impressive array of narrative gaps and plot holes.
For me, one of the hazards of watching one of the Kommissar X movies is that it means I’ll have that “I Love You, Jo Walker” song stuck in my head for the next two weeks and will be at constant risk of bursting into it at any given moment, which is actually more of a hazard to those around me than it is to myself. Personally, I don’t care if the world knows that I love Jo Walker (though my wife might have some questions about it). Given that he’s a character with all the depth of a walking Playboy cartoon, it’s actually surprising how lovable he can become with repeated exposure. Death Trip, the fourth entry in the Kommissar X series, is also quite lovable, though only once you get past the expectations that it raises and learn to love it for who it really is.
In the opening moments of Kill, Panther, Kill! we see the daring escape, during a prison transfer, of master criminal Arthur Tracy (Franco Fantasia). Tracy has been in stir for four years after thieving a fortune in jewels worth three million dollars. Now his loyal henchmen, Anthony and Smokey, lie in wait beside a desolate hillside road that’s apparently intended to be overlooking Malibu — but is actually some anonymous European location — as the LAPD van baring Arthur approaches. After dispensing with Arthur’s guards in a hail of machinegun fire, the three pile into a getaway car, at which point Anthony (Siegfried Rauch) says he knows of an ideal place for them to hold up. “They’re holding a rodeo this week in Calgary,” he says. “Nobody will look for us there.” And truer words were never spoken. The only thing that I’d be looking for at a rodeo in Calgary would be a thorough ass-kicking.
From time to time we accidentally wander into the realm of the nearly comprehensible, that no man’s land where the movies almost make sense. Our journeys sometimes bring us to these uncharted waters, and when cast adrift in them, we do the best we can in such a strange sea. But always what guides us, our great hope on the horizon that forever propels us forward even when things are at their most sane and logical, is the knowledge that we shall one day, like Ulysses returning home to Ithaca, return to a familiar port and once again watch the sun set slowly and with fiery bombast over an ocean littered with films that are completely and unequivocally batshit insane.