Thursday, July 26, 2018

FROM THE ORIENT WITH FURY (Agente 077 dall'oriente con furore, 1965)

Overshadowed by the nation's spaghetti westerns, Italian spy films of the 1960s are seen as poor knockoffs of the James Bond franchise rather than the creative revision of a genre. If the "Eurospy" genre has a Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci, I don't know of him. It's definitely not Sergio Grieco, or "Terence Hathaway," as he called himself when making spy films. He has neither the bold eye of Leone nor the dark dynamism of Corbucci. Nevertheless, filming on location in Paris, Madrid and Istanbul, he invests the routine proceedings with a certain seedy authenticity. You get the feeling that his settings might be where real spying would take place.

Grieco's "Agent 077," Dick Malloy, is American actor Ken Clark, a blond lummox who previously starred in Attack of the Giant Leeches. He carries himself with a certain self-amused arrogance as we find him fighting around the world until his boss calls in the middle of a barroom brawl. It's up to Malloy to rescue Professor Kurtz (Ennio Balbo), the inventor of the disintegrating "beta ray," who has been kidnapped by Goldwyn, (Franco Ressel), some sort of supercriminal -- he's not a commie because they only show up much later -- burdened with the same haughty voice that often dubbed authority figures in peplum movies.

The hunt for Kurtz involves a lot of pulpy details. Told to listen to a Beethoven record, 077 finds a clue inside the record sleeve. Important information changes hands when the two jagged halves of a coin are mated. More importantly, Malloy meets many women on his quest, including the doctor's daughter (Fabienne Dali) and Goldwyn's moll (Evi Marandi), as well as a wealthy Spaniard who joins the chase for awhile on a lark and a female agent from 077's organization first encountered in a shower. The category of pulchritude is easily where the 077 films are most competitive with the Bond movies.

From the Orient (no further east than Turkey, actually) arguably anticipates later Bond pictures in creating vignettes spotlighting comical cameos. In this case, spaghetti stalwart Fernando Sancho struggles to steal his scene as a Spanish tourist in a Paris dive who mistakes Malloy's brawl with Goldwyn's goons for an exciting floor show. Thinking of it as entertainment doesn't stop him from getting involved in the action himself, which pretty much kills whatever dramatic tension the scene was meant to have -- though to be fair, there may have been no dramatic tension intended. As early as 1965, the year of Thunderball, there was already more than a hint of parody in many of the Bond imitations.

This film is still more action than comedy, though the  line blurs quite a bit at the climax, when Goldwyn, previously a model of evil reserve, cackles like a maniacal child with a new toy as he blasts everything in sight with Kurtz's death ray. When it comes to just plain fighting Clark handles himself reasonably well; he at least looks plausible as a semi-suave goon. He and Grieco clearly had some sort of rapport, as they made five films together during the spy craze. This is the second of three 077 films they made (the third was a collaboration with Alberto de Martino), and while From the Orient is nothing extraordinary I enjoyed the location atmosphere and energetic idiocy enough to be willing to try another.

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