Dark Sky Films is such a fun label, and their Drive-In Double Feature line does a terrific job capturing the nostalgic flavor of that nearly-kaput form of movie exhibition that their titles in this line are hard to resist. You might, however, want to make an exception in this case. You might say Dark Sky did their job a little too well: drive-ins often played the worst films imaginable and this collection's woe begotten pair of Euro-thrillers made in Italy makes for one especially dull night at the movies, much like real drive-ins often were. That both transfers are letterboxed but unenhanced doesn't help.
In the 1960s and '70s, the Italian film industry cranked out genre films with great abandon. When they stumbled upon an international hit in Hercules (1957), they churned out what seemed like hundreds of similar, usually bland peplum (pepla?), only to shift everything over to spaghetti Westerns when Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) made that genre popular. Though their budgets were modest, the movies churned out by some Italian directors exhibited much imagination, especially when it came to Westerns, horror films, and the Hitchcockian mysteries known there as giallo. With other genres, however, Italian filmmakers rarely rose above the pedestrian. This was especially true of Italian-made science fiction and spy thrillers born of the James Bond craze.
Espionage in Tangiers (Marc Mato, agente S. 077 , 1966**) reportedly was a big hit in Europe, though watching this singularly tepid 007 wannabe today one can only guess that audiences were so hungry for spy films that even a film as poor as this could turn a profit. No less than eight writers worked on the script, all for naught. There's virtually no attempt at any characterization while the paper-thin story (with multiple unmotivated double-crosses) plays more like an outline. The film might have been fun had it been more outrageous or had it opted for a more serious approach. As it is, it's cheap, unimaginative, and tame.
The film opens with an overlong but not terrible pre-credits sequence during which the key component of a newly developed molecular disintegration ray is stolen, only moments after its first successful test, at the International Atomic Energy Agency, a government laboratory with ties to the U.N. (Scientists casually first test the ray on an automobile parked outside, which evaporates when hit by the ray, begging the question: Couldn't they have tested it on something less wasteful, an apple for instance?)
Free-lance secret agent Mike Murphy (as Marc Mato is called in the English-dubbed version, played by Argentinean Luis Davila) is called on to investigate. Clues lead him to Tangiers and later to Nice, in scenes "filled with baffling intrigue" as Dark Sky's cover art text aptly puts it. Somehow mixed up in all this is fellow spy-sometime lover Lea (Jose Greci), treacherous Madame Steiner (Ana Castor), and Rigo Orry (Alberto Dalbes), "prince of the world's double-crossers." Given what comes before it, the film's "big surprise," the identity of the man behind the elaborate theft, makes no sense whatsoever, and the film simply stops dead in its tracks with one of the most lame-ass non-climaxes ever.
An Italian-Spanish co-production, Espionage in Tangiers is cheap but needlessly unimaginative and frequently sloppy in its production. Despite the exotic settings, locations appear to have been chosen based on their proximity to the airport rather than their visual appeal. Continuity is so far off at times that the film is almost surreal; Mike jumps into the water, swims 100 yards, climbs into a boat and is bone-dry. Davila has the right look but the characterization is more Matt Helm than James Bond, with Mike's lame wisecracks instantly tiresome and his constant grinning -- even when stabbing someone in the neck or while watching an innocent man being tortured -- strain all credibility.
If Espionage in Tangiers at least offers viewers the opportunity to experience a third-rate European James Bond clone, Assassination in Rome is bereft of entertainment of any sort. A resolutely uneventful thriller, this French-Spanish-Italian co-production (released in Italy as Il Segreto del vestito rosso, or "Secret of the Red-Attired One") stars past-their prime American actors Cyd Charisse and Hugh O'Brian, brought in for dubious marquee value, and offers very little beyond its pretty Italian scenery.
O'Brian plays Richard "Dominique" Sherman, an expatriate American living in Rome as editor for the Rome-American Daily, who comes to the aid of vacationing fellow American (and Dominique's former lover) Shelley North (Charisse), whose engineer husband goes missing the same day a man is found murdered in front of Trevi Fountain. "Looks like Anita Ekberg's been at it again," quips Dominique.
The convoluted but drab and deadly-dull intrigue revolves around some microfilm hidden in the heel of a shoe that was unwittingly stolen but a pair of bumbling burglars, Dino and "Old Mike," who had simultaneously ransacked the dead man's already ransacked apartment.
The picture is inexcusably flaccid. Nothing much happens, the characters are uninteresting, and the solution to the film's mystery is made obvious by extremely poor make-up that tips viewers off to the villain's elaborate ruse very early on. The utter lack of excitement is fractionally offset by a better use of locations than anything found in Espionage in Tangiers. Besides Trevi Fountain, key sequences are shot in front of the Roman Coliseum, in Venice and, best of all, at Cinecitta Studios, where one brief sequences shows off several colossal sets left over from some Hollywood-financed epic.
Charisse and O'Brian, whose own voices are heard on an English soundtrack that otherwise sounds like it was looped at New York's Titra Studios (the prolific Peter Fernandez clearly does at least a half-dozen voices) appear lost in a jumble of intrigue adding up to very little. Charisse, still very sexy in her mid-40s, probably negotiated to keep her wardrobe; over the course of the film's 98 minutes she goes through what seem like 50 costume changes.
Video & Audio
The 4:3 letterboxed transfers are disappointing, but as non-enhanced transfers go, Assassination in Rome and Espionage in Tangiers are about as good as this reviewer has yet seen, better than a lot of 16:9 jobs from the early days of the format. Espionage in Tangiers was shot in Eastman Color and released in 1.85:1 format; it looks especially sharp and the color is excellent, while Assassination in Rome, in Totalscope, looks only slightly less pristine, with some noticeable color fading and a few other minor flaws. The all-region DVD has (2.0 Dolby Digital) English mono audio only, but as usual for Dark Sky includes optional English subtitles.
The Drive-In Intermission Programming is essentially identical to other Dark Sky releases (e.g., Invasion of the Neptune Men / Prince of Space), with a few newer trailers thrown in, including Kill, Baby...Kill! and The Soldier (Vojnik), and The Hellfire Club. All of this material is either full-frame or 4:3 letterboxed.
Only the most forgiving Euro-thriller buffs will have the patience to make it through this dreary double-bill. Nevertheless, Dark Sky's to be applauded for making such obscurities available. If only the movies weren't so bland.
** The film is also known under the title S 077 Spionaggio a Tangeri with one source giving a release year of 1958. This would appear incorrect.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.