The Karate Killers (1967) ****

What a hoot! A sheer blast! The most brilliant yet of the madman dominating the world schemes, autogyros to out-Bond Bond, a fabulous cast and of course the most incompetent spies this side of Get Smart.

You can’t get better than a scientist inventing a way of turning water into gold. Takes chutzpah to even think of that as a plot. No having to batter your way into Fort Knox as poor Bond did in Goldfinger (1964), you just turn on the tap. But, wait, the formula is lost and our intrepid heroes have to – heaven forbid! – track down five gorgeous women to find it. Was there ever a more onerous proposal?

I never saw any of these films when they came out. At the time I guess they would have been viewed as small screen rivals to James Bond. But although 007 in every picture would eventually be trapped in the madman’s lair, he spent most of the film beating the sh*t out of the bad guys. In sharp contrast, The Men from U.N.C.L.E. seem always to be on the wrong side of a beating, number one hero Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) more hapless than number two Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).

With hindsight, it looks like this was never meant to be taken seriously and without going into over-spoof plays exceptionally well as a light-hearted romp. Solo seems to be constantly outwitted with Kuryakin invariably coming to the rescue, the former too often duped by beauty, the latter a bit more discerning. There’s a lovely moment here in their reactions to the instruction by boss Mr Waverley (Leo G. Carroll) to hunt down a dead scientist’s quintet of daughters/step-daughters; Solo gives a knowing smirk, Kuryakin shows disdain.

Must be the best cast yet assembled: legendary Joan Crawford, suddenly hot again after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1965), Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968), Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Kim Darby (True Grit, 1969), Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965)  and Jill Ireland (Mrs Charles Bronson) as you’ve never seen her before.    

The U.N.C.L.E. duo are in a race against T.H.R.U.S.H. operative Randolph (Herbert Lom) to track down the missing formula. Randolph has a head start. He has been having an affair with the scientist’s wife Amanda (Joan Crawford) who is shocked to discover his charming exterior conceals a ruthless interior.

Solo and Kuryakin track down the scientist’s daughter Sandy (Kim Darby), a good bit brighter than your average eye-candy spy girl, who points the way to the step-daughters and to the possibility that each has one part of the missing formula. Was there ever an easier justification for introducing such a random set of characters?

First up is stark naked Countess (Diane McBain) locked away by jealous impoverished husband (Telly Savalas) in a castle in Rome. Then we’re onto Imogen (Jill Ireland), a flamboyant lass shaking her booty at any opportunity, arrested by a constable (Terry-Thomas) for indecent exposure, and involved in a punch-up in a London night-club where Solo is nearly drowned (yup!) and Randolph instructs the band to keep playing since the ruckus is nothing to do with them.

Then we’re off to Switzerland and Yvonne (Danielle De Metz) and a machine-gun ski chase down a mountainside (beat that, Mr Bond). And so on until all the clues, contained in photographs of the dead father, have been found and, wait for it, the puzzle remains incomplete. Eventually it’s unravelled and the final showdown is on.

But what a way to go. Never mind the ski chase, the picture opens with the duo being attacked by a fleet of autogyros (one-man mini helicopters, the “Little Nellie” of the later You Only Live Twice, 1967 ), and as usual someone, this time Kuryakin, is trapped on a low-tech machine, this time on a ice-block travelator where blocks of ice are smashed to bits by nasty spikes.

Randolph is the most droll villain alive. “Don’t be so melodramatic, my dear,” he informs Amanda when she uncovers his villainy and is about to be murdered. The whole jigsaw is exceptionally appealing, the global whizzing about, Japan also included not to mention one of the poles where T.H.R.U.S.H. has established its HQ.  

The action is a good bit more thrilling, the aerial and ski sequences very well done on a budget a fraction of the Bonds, and there’s more than enough going on to keep interest levels high, not just where to go next, and who to encounter, but the gathering of the clues,  and working out of the final mystery, which offers a nice emotional touch.

Kim Darby is more of a typical ingenue here, sparkier than you might expect but not offering the originality of character expressed in True Grit, while Jill Ireland is a good bit more sassy than she ever appeared thereafter. Barry Shear (Wild in the Streets, 1968) directed.

This is the best so far that I have seen on the series. My interest had begun to flag but, thus fortified, I will continue with my endeavors to watch them all. on your behalf, of course.

Jessica (1962) ***

Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins in a Fountain (1956) had set a high bar for Hollywood romances set in Italy. Since Jean Negulesco had directed the latter he was expected to sprinkle box office magic on this slight tale of young American midwife Jessica Brown Visconti (Angie Dickinson) adrift in a rustic village in Sicily.

She’s the kind of beauty who’s going to raise male temperatures except Jessica, having been widowed on her wedding day, is not romantically inclined. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the entire male population becoming so entranced that their wives become so enraged that led by Maria (Agnes Moorehead) they embark on a sex strike, assuming that without any pregnancies (contraception being frowned upon in a Catholic domain) to deal with Jessica will become redundant and go away.

And that so annoys Jessica, who is doing a good job as a midwife, that she turns on the flirting to get back at her female tormentors. Luckily, there’s a reclusive landowner (Gabriele Ferzetti) who happens to be a widower, although romance takes a while to stir. There’s also a priest (Maurice Chevalier), in part acting as narrator, who turns to song every now and then.

So it’s a surprise that this unlikely concoction works at all. It’s charming in the obvious ways, the lush scenery, a traditional wedding, gentle comedy. But it’s a decade too late in taking an innocent view of sex. There’s no crudeness, of course; it doesn’t fall victim to the 1960s’  need to sexualise in an obvious manner. And not every husband is continuously ogling Jessica so Nunzia (Sylva Koscina) and young bride Nicolina (Danielle De Metz) are in the awkward situation of potentially betraying the sisterhood.

But in resolving the central issue the story develops too many subplots and introduces too many characters, often leaving Jessica rather redundant in terms of the plot, with not much to do, especially when her prospective suitor is absent for a long period going fishing.

Angie Dickinson is delightful as the Vespa-riding innocent turned mischievous. However, in some way though this seemed a backward step for Dickinson, a rising star in the Lana Turner/Elizabeth Taylor mold after being John Wayne’s squeeze in Rio Bravo (1959) and Frank Sinatra’s estranged wife in Ocean’s 11 (1960) and following a meaty supporting role in A Fever in the Blood (1961) elevated to top billing in The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961). It seemed like Hollywood could not make up its mind whether it wanted her to be like Gidget or be given free rein to express her sexuality.

Ferzetti and Dickinson

A charmer like Maurice Chevalier was ideal for what was in effect a whimsical part. The singing probably met audience expectation. Perhaps like Sean Connery’s perennial Scottish accent, nobody ever asked Chevalier to drop his pronounced French accent even to play an Italian. But the picture is whimsical enough without him.

There’s a surprisingly strong supporting cast in four-time Oscar nominee Agnes Moorehead (Pollyanna, 1960), Gabriele Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969) and French actor (and sometime writer-director) Noel-Noel. Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina (Deadlier Than the Male, 1967), Frenchwoman Kerima (Outcast of the Islands, 1951) and Danielle De Metz (The Scorpio Letters, 1967) all make a splash.

You can catch it for free on YouTube.

The Scorpio Letters (1967) ***

Desultory spy thriller with over-complicated story that’s worth a look mostly for the performance of Alex Cord (Stiletto, 1969). I can’t say I was a big fan of Cord and I certainly didn’t shower him with praise for his role as a disillusioned Mafia hitman in Stiletto. But now I’m wondering if I have been guilty of under-rating him.

Normally, critics line up to acclaim actors if they deliver widely differing performances – Daniel Day-Lewis considered the touchstone in this department after Room with a View and My Beautiful Launderette opened in New York on the same day in 1985. But usually screen persona rarely changes, amounting to little more than a heightened or amalgamated version of the actor’s character or features. Once Charles Bronson, for example, started wearing his drooping mustache he was never seen without.  Actors may grow old, but never bald.

The macho mustachioed Cord of Stiletto is nowhere in sight. In fact, in The Scorpio Letters minus moustache and resisting attempts to reveal his musculature, he is almost unrecognizable. In this picture Joe Christopher (Alex Cord) is flip, resentful, thoughtful, occasionally pedantic, more natural than many of the crop of Hollywood new stars being unveiled at the time, and for once as a transplanted American in London rather scornful of British traditions. There’s a realistic flourish here, too, he is so poorly paid – and on a temporary contract – that he has to take the bus. And although he is an ex-cop fired for brutality, that level of violence ain’t on show here. Virtually the opposite of the character Cord created for Stiletto, I’m sure you’ll agree. So full marks for versatility and talent.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is not up to much, at the very bottom of the three-star review category, almost toppling into two-star territory. Christopher is investigating the death of a British agent who was the subject of a blackmail attempt. By coincidence – or perhaps not – another part of British Intelligence is investigating the same death and this brings Christopher into contact with Phoebe Stewart (Shirley Eaton) and eventually they work together to unravel a list of codenames and uncover the conspiracy with a bit of risk to life and limb.

But the pay-off doesn’t work despite all the exposition attempting to build it up and you’re left with a kind of drawing-room drama rather than exciting spy adventure. It’s determinedly London-centric with red buses, red postboxes, Big Ben, and The Horse Guards all putting in an appearance. The scene shifts to Paris and Nice without a commensurate heightening of tension. Despite a couple of neat scenes – a chase held up behind a wedding party, an irate German chef, an interrogation in a wine cellar – it’s much too formulaic.

Cord apart, Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger, 1964) adds some glamour, but her rounded portrait depicts a character with warmth rather than oozing sex. This is the kind of film that should be awash with character actors and up-and-comers but I recognized few names except for Danielle De Metz (The Karate Killers, 1967), Oscar Beregi (Morituri, 1965) and Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963).

One-time top MGM megger Richard Thorpe (The Truth about Spring, 1965) was coming to the end of a distinguished career which had included Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953). This was his penultimate film. The appropriately-named Adrian Spies (Dark of the Sun, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the Victor Canning thriller. Making his movie debut was composer Dave Grusin (Divorce American Style, 1967)

Albeit made on a budget of just $900,000, MGM intended the picture for theatrical release but with a short cinema window to make it available for a speedy showing on ABC TV. It was originally scheduled for a May 1967 theatrical release but MGM, contractually obliged to deliver the picture within a specified time to television, could not fit in an American release. So it made its debut in the “Sunday Night at the Movies” slot on February 19, 1967, and was shown in cinemas abroad. Nor was it shown first on U.S. television because the studio believed it to be a disaster. Reviews were positive. Variety (February 22, 1967, page 42) called it “very hip.”

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