Monday, August 20, 2012


With the rediscovery of his 1962 crime comedy Mafioso, Alberto Lattuada got his foot in the door of cinematic history. Previously known internationally only for co-directing Variety Lights with Federico Fellini, Lattuada looked like another master from a golden age of Italian movie comedy, the years when "Italian Style" became a global brand. Lattuada had 40 directing credits in a career of nearly 50 years, but nothing of Mafioso's prestige has emerged lately. Instead, you can find some of his pictures streaming on Netflix, including his entry in the spy-parody sweepstakes that followed in the wake of the James Bond phenomenon. The director joined forces with four other writers to come up with a story that's sometimes sharply satiric toward the Cold War, and sometimes hopelessly childish.

Somewhere in Red China, Perry Liston (Patrick O'Neal) is being tortured on a machine that spins him like a top. He's a journalist, but the Chinese are convinced that he's a spy. Sharing his cell are Hank Norris (Henry Silva), who actually is a sort of freelance spy, and an elderly Chinese man who's happened to hold on to a valuable ring. In an unconscious cross between J.R.R. Tolkien and the origin of Iron Man, this dying sage bestows upon Liston a magic ring. Actually, it secretes a liquid which, when absorbed into the skin, makes a person invisible for exactly twenty minutes, but this can be done only once every ten hours. Hank scoffs at the whole idea, but when Liston vanishes in front of a firing squad he yells for the guard -- he now has valuable information to sell.

With the aid of a Chinese general's wife, Liston flies back to the Free World, where we next see him being tortured on exactly the same machine the Chicoms used on him -- the Americans later admit that they bought it from China. Matchless plays occasionally with the essential similarity of all the superpowers. The Chinese have surgically altered some of their citizens to pass for American; the Americans have apparently done the reverse. Later, we watch the Americans watching Liston on a spy camera, only for Lattuada to pull back to reveal that the Russians are watching the Americans. Again, he pulls back to show the Chinese watching the Russians on another screen. I may have forgotten the correct order, but you get the idea. Mocking the Cold War is arguably a mature approach to the spy parody, but most of the time Matchless plays like a bad B movie out of old-time Hollywood. Its invisibility effects are no advance on what John P. Fulton had been doing since the 1930s and the concept of an invisibility ring itself seems too primitive for the spy genre.

Likewise, later in the picture, after the Americans have recruited Liston to take down the eccentric millionaire Andreanu (the coincidentally cast Donald Pleasence -- You Only Live Twice came out that same summer), our hero's first move is to break up the villain's fight-fixing racket. The racket consists of having a hypnotist in the stands to mesmerize the opposing fighter so Andreanu's man will win. Liston takes care of the hypnotist by invisibly throwing ashes in his face, and to make things more certain gets into the ring to distract Andreanu's fighter, finally holding his legs in place so the other fellow can flatten him. Andreanu's mansion is staffed by robots that wouldn't look out of place in a Republic serial, apart from the 18th century livery they wear.

While robots keep his guests liquored up, Donald Pleasence enjoys a night at the fights -- but not for long.

Maybe there's a point to these juvenile gimmicks. Maybe for someone of Lattuada's age the whole Bond phenomenon was the stuff of comic books or Italy's counterparts of the pulps. But if a spy-parody picture is to some extent supposed to ape the style or supposed sophistication of the actual Bond pictures, Matchless fails except on the most superficial level of snazzy location shoots and attractive women. O'Neal and Silva get to chase each other around New York City and Hamburg, among other locales, and Lattuada got to film impressively on the roof of the Pan Am Building. The women are Princess Ira von Furstenberg, whom many ads promoted as the star of the picture, as Liston's artistic ally, and Nicoletta Machiavelli as Hank Norris's eventual sidekick.

Above, Princess von Furstenberg explains modern art to Patrick O'Neal -- and there is an explanation. Below, she gets the drop on Nicoletta Machiavelli.

Only Pleasence and the ladies, the former understandably, seem to understand what the genre requires. Pleasence gets to throw fussy tantrums and display an obsession with sunglasses, while the Matchless Girls are effortlessly charismatic. O'Neal, on the other hand, gives a cranky performance that does little to win an audience over, while Silva gives just about the worst performance I've ever seen from him. His Hank Norris is a buffoon from beginning to end and Silva plays him as an absolute barking idiot, clapping like a child while watching cartoons or gibbering like a lunatic after O'Neal eludes him yet again. In short, the role does not play to the actor's strengths, though he seems to have had fun playing a moron. At times, he seems like the only person having fun in the picture, and he's definitely having more fun than the audience.

I don't regret watching Matchless because it was often very pretty to look at as a virtual tourist of the past. Italian films from this period will usually look great if they have nothing else going for them, and cinematographer Alessandro D'Eva and art director Enzo Del Prato meet that minimal obligation with ease. But Matchless really tests how long you can watch pretty pictures without your intelligence feeling insulted, and it raises a question for future study: was this or Mafioso more typical of Alberto Lattuada's career?

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