Our Man in Marrakesh

I expounded recently, in my review of Throne of Fire, on the fact that I am still a sucker for cool cover/poster art, even though I know full well that the movie being advertised is rarely as good as the illustration advertising it. So let me now explore another of my sundry weaknesses: I have a weakness for cool-sounding team-ups. It probably started back when I was a wee sprout camped out in front of the television late at night, watching old Universal horror films. Frankenstein and the Wolfman, in the same movie? Boss! And while the high concept team-ups were generally slightly more dependable than poster art, that didn’t mean that they still weren’t, by and large, a bit disappointing most of the time. But still, come on! Frankenstein versus the Wolfman! Dev Anand versus hippies! And in the case of Our Man in Marrakesh, Tony Randall versus Klaus Kinski. Tell me that one isn’t epic sounding. And while my gullible faith in the high-concept team-up often let me down, I was certain that Tony Randall versus Klaus Kinski in a lighthearted Eurospy adventure would live up to the promise. I’m happy to say that, unlike Throne of Fire, I was pleasantly rewarded this time around.

Klaus Kinski is one of those actors whose mere presence in a film is enough to convince that I might as well go ahead and watch it. Even if the movie is no good, it’s likely Kinski will be good for a laugh. He’s sort of like Vincent Price in that way, and while people bemoan the fact that no one ever did a proper pairing of horror icons like Price with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee or Price with Peter Cushing (they were paired in movies — Price and Lee in The Oblong Box, and Price, Lee, and Cushing in Scream and Scream Again — but anyone who has seen those movies was sorely disappointed by the amount of time their horror heroes spent on-screen together), I think what really would have been something to behold would have been Vincent Price versus Klaus Kinski. I can scarcely even fathom how delicious it would have been. I would have cast them as, oh let’s say a mortician and a deranged count who must…oh, I don’t know, join forces to save the local community center from being bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall. And there would be a scene where Kinski has to pose as a shopping mall Santa (because, you know, Santa Klaus — har har har) and makes children cry by telling them about medieval torture methods or something. And also there’s a pie fight, and a scene where Vincent Price ends up on an out of control pair of roller skates.

So where was I? Oh yes, Klaus Kinski. Putting Kinski in your movie, even for a few minutes, is enough to make me think, “This movie doesn’t look very good, but it’s got Kinski in it, so what the hell?” And I’ve seen plenty of movies where it seems like they put Klaus Kinski specifically for that reason. In the cruddy James Glickenhaus espionage film The Soldier, Kinski shows up in a throw-away role that feels like they may have just happened to catch candid footage of Kinski on vacation in the Alps and decided to work it into the movie some how. He might not even know he was in The Soldier. And his presence in Codename: Wildgeese consists almost entirely of him being a jerk while playing golf with Ernest Borgnine — once again, quite possibly nothing more than Knski vacation video that was inserted into the movie, since I assume Klaus Kinski’s vacations consisted to a large degree of banging aspiring actresses and yelling at Ernest Borgnine. Still, even at his worst, Kinski was pretty good, and at his best, he was absolutely mesmerizing. He was, of course, also completely and totally batshit insane. His working relationship with German director and fellow batshit insane guy Werner Herzog has become the stuff of legend, involving as it supposedly did, stabbing, shooting, taking contracts out on each others lives, and lord knows what else.

You know, total aside here, but as a kid, I always assumed that Werner Herzog looked like former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who to me was just a big fat guy with a tremendous wad of tobacco in his cheek, as depicted in a baseball card I had of his from the 1980s. I can’t remember which year it was, but he wasn’t looking too good. I was obsessed with that card, one of four that I was obsessed with. The others I remember with more clarity. There was Oscar Gamble’s 1976 “Ripped from the Headlines” card from Topps, famous among me and my friends because of the mind-blowing size of Gamble’s afro and his ability to tuck part of it into a baseball cap. Then there was the 1981 Topps card for Gene Richards, who we dubbed “the ugliest man in baseball” thanks to his particularly unflattering photo that year. Seriously, dude looked like a hobo who just rolled off a train and into a Padres uniform. Actually, that Topps set from 1981 is chock full of great moments (what the hell was up with Steve Trout?) Then there was the 1976 “Bubble Gum Blowing Champ” card for Kurt Bevacqua. He’s just standing there with his hands on his hips, blowing a giant bubble like it’s the most bad-ass thing in the world to do.

Anyway, it turns out that Werner Herzog didn’t look anything like Whitey Herzog; Werner Herzog looks more like Rollie Fingers. And as for the Oscar Gamble card — I have that shit in a frame, hanging up on my wall. No joke. As kids, we used to pretend 1981 Gene Richards was waiting under the bed and would come out and kill us once the lights were out, which leads me to think that a team-up between Klaus Kinski and 1981 Gene Richards would have been pretty cool, too. So my point is, I like Klaus Kinski, and his mere presence is enough to creep up even the most innocent and/or boring of movies. I mean, I always fall asleep during Crawlspace, but while I asleep, I have nightmares thinking about Klaus Kinski peering down at me from within an AC vent, like some sour-pussed little angel, yelling insults at me in German. And now that I know Gene Richards is in there with him — man! There is no way I’m getting to sleep tonight.

And then there’s Tony Randall. Good old neat and tidy Tony Randall. Good old effeminate (unlike the not at all effeminate Rod Taylor) Tony Randall. Good old bangin’ hot chicks ’til he’s 80 Tony Randall. Pitting him against Klaus Kinski seems like the perfect idea, and it pretty much is. Randall stars as Andrew Jessel, a mild-mannered traveler who finds himself on a tourist bus from Casablanca to Marrakesh along with a group of other travelers who are not what they seem. There’s doddering old British guy Arthur Fairbrother (Wilfrid Hyde-White). There’s less doddering old British guy George Lillywhite (John Le Mesurier). And there’s scintillating Senta Berger (The Ambushers) as Kyra. One of them is a courier transporting two million dollars to local master criminal Casimer (Herbert Lom) to exchange for a case full of secret documents that are all part of some scheme to corrupt the United Nations, because lord knows the U.N. doesn’t do well enough with that on its own. Casimer has the bus tailed, but due to over-zealous security concerns, he ho idea who the courier is. He just knows that everyone on the bus is lying about who they are.

Jessel winds up in Kyra’s room, where the two of them discover the body of a man Kyra claims is her lover. It’s right about here that Our Man in Marrakesh tips its hand and lets you know that, although it’s going to have plenty of thrills and adventure, it’s also going to play out with a fairly witty sense of humor. For instance, upon seeing a body with a knife protruding from its back tumble out of a closet, Jessel starts to panic and explain that he thinks there might be something suspicious about the body. Kyra uses her Senta Berger powers to convince him to help hide the body, spinning some vastly complex yarn about jealous parents, attempts to scandalize her, so on and so forth. All Jessel seems to know is that the longer he’s with this woman, the more guys who pop up to shoot at him. Eventually, Jessel ends up with Casimer’s cache of secret documents, and he and Kyra find themselves on the run across the Moroccan countryside, pursued by dogged henchman Klaus Kinski and aided at times by cop-hating truck driver Achmed (Gregoire Aslan) and adventure-seeking Eaton graduate turned Lawrence of Arabia, El Caid (Terry-Thomas).

Our Man in Marrakesh has a lot going for it. First, the cast is top notch, relying on the dependable talents of a host of solid British character actors. Terry-Thomas is…well, he’s Terry-Thomas. You know he’s going to say “splendid” and “old chap” a whole lot while grinning his magnificent gap-toothed smile. Herbert Lom, last seen around these parts hassling Jason Robards — and rightly so — in Murders in the Rue Morgue), plays Casimer with a mix of sophistication and desperation, never going over the top even in a movie that would have tolerated it (there’s plenty of over the top once Terry-Thomas shows up). No one in this movie phones it in, and no one comes across as a stiff, as was very common in Eurospy films, especially for the hero. But Tony Randall was hardly the typical Eurospy hero, and Our Man in Marrakesh trades in the predictable rock-jawed man of action for one who is constantly confused and terrified before ultimately rising, more or less, to the occasion. Randall turns in exactly the performance you’d expect. About the only thing he doesn’t pull off is the obligatory “seducing the lady” scene, but that’s played mostly for laughs anyway, and considering the fact that Randall was siring new kids well into old age, one has to assume that he just knows something I don’t.

Our Man in Marrakesh relies primarily on the appeal and charisma of Austrian bombshell Senta Berger to fulfill the femme fatale position, and she does so perfectly. Berger was one of my favorite dames of the 1960s, with outrageous curves and a smoky stare that would burn a hole right through a lesser man than Tony Randall. Even as the things she asks him to do for her become increasingly outlandish, I found it easy to believe that he would end up going along with her no matter what. She just has that sort of hypnotic appeal. On the opposite end of the law is Casimer’s window dressing girlfriend, Samia, played by the drop-dead beauty Margaret Lee. Lee was a familiar face from all sorts of Eurospy productions in the 1960s, including many of the best and most enjoyable like Secret Agent Super Dragon, Agent 077 Fury in the Orient, Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die, and Dick Smart 2007, among others. Even though Senta is the head-turner here, there’s no denying that Margaret lee’s parade of mini-dresses and bikinis is more than enough to keep the eye occupied. It’s just that hers is a more comedic role, designed mostly to get Herbet Lom to either roll his eyes or jump up and run off to bed.

And then there’s Kinski as the head henchman Jonquil. He spends most of the movie wearing a fedora and running around while yelling at other henchmen to come with him. It’s not a big role, but it’s crucial, and Kinski throws himself into it with his usual manic energy. In the end, it turns out the only way to defeat him is by making him wave his arms around wildly as he falls into a pond, accompanied by pratfall music.

Spy spoofs were easy to come by the in the 1960s. In fact, most of the Eurospy films were made with a sense of humor. But then, so were most of the Bond films, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. Our Man in Marrakesh is aided greatly by a spirited, witty, fast-moving script that perfectly balances thrills with laughs. It makes sure you are smiling, but not at the expense of wowing you with frequent chases, fist fights, and scenes of Tony Randall sliding off of rooftops. The action and comedy culminate in a finale that sees Casimer and his army of thugs pitted against Jessel and Achmed’s army of street hustlers in a hurricane of guns, swords, curved knives, and guys falling into ponds.

Our Man in Marrakesh comes to the world courtesy of the team of director Don Sharp and writer-producer Harry Alan Towers. If Sharp and Towers are a duo that sounds familiar to you, that’s because the same men brought us the fabulously campy and energetic Face of Fu Manchu just a year earlier. British producer Towers was famous for throwing lots of money at somewhat ridiculous concepts, sort of like a British Dino De Laurentiis, except that Towers would also throw tiny amounts of money at stuff, too (thus the Fu Manchu films directed by Jess Franco). Sharp, aside from directing Face of Fu Manchu and Brides of Fu Manchu for Towers also directed the excellent occult thriller Witchcraft, one Hammer’s better vampire outings, 1963’s Kiss of the Vampire and then went on to direct episodes of The Avengers.

Between these two men, they give Our Man in Marrakesh a more ambitious scope and A-list feel. Sharp brings the same polish, crisp pace, and playful energy to Our Man in Marrakesh that he would bring to The Avengers and many of his other films, while Towers throws his weight and cash around enough to score a great cast and beautiful location work — or anyway, I assume it’s beautiful location work. Since the best you can hope for right now is a relatively washed out looking old print of this film, you have to infer how great it would look if it wasn’t all tattered. Suffice it to say that Towers and crew make their most of the local color, taking us on an action-packed tour of Morocco. On top of that, the “no one is who they seem to be” plot works pretty well without ever becoming irritating or obvious. You really don’t know exactly who is who until the very end. Even the “mistaken briefcase” complication that could have been a tired old “oh no, not this again” device works out pretty well. Plots in Eurospy films are usually either terrible, or just completely loopy. Our Man in Marrakesh has a plot that is actually quite good — the difference between English spy films and continental spy films, I reckon, where the focus was more on the outlandish.

However, I do have to point out one rather glaring gaffe in the film. It comes when Tony and Senta are fleeing from Casimer’s men and the police. They burst into an open air market where the entire crowd is standing perfectly still on their marks. After a couple seconds of Tony Randall scrambling around, the crowd suddenly starts milling about. Although it’s nothing more than a missed cue and a failure to edit it out of the film, it also lends the film a really bizarre, surreal couple of seconds.

So Kinski and Randall didn’t let me down. I had a blast watching this film. It’s too bad Sharp didn’t stick around to direct more spy films. He obviously had a knack for it. Although I hadn’t heard very much about this movie, and there are almost no reviews online or in print (the indispensables Eurospy Guide is the only mention of it I found, and the only reason I even knew that it would be something worth looking for), I was completely satisfied. Randall makes for an excellent everyman hero, and he’s supported by an able cast who act like they care rather than acting like they’re above the material…like you, Jason Robards. For shame!