After Murderers Row (1967), Ann-Margret flipped Hollywood the finger. At one point in the early 1960s contracts had been oozing from every pore, multiple deals with multiple studios, even one to star opposite Frank Sinatra. And despite showing considerable acting talent as a mother rather than moll in Once A Thief (1965), the career she had envisaged had not materialized.
In part, her reign as a glamor queen had been usurped by Raquel Welch, who had out-bikinied her in One Million Years B.C. (1966) and Fathom (1967), or by the slimmer versions of beauty emanating from Britain in the shape of Julie Christie or from French exile in the shape of Jane Fonda.. But mostly, you would say, her box office hadn’t matched her salary and she was learning fast that promise can only take you so far. So, she took a leaf out of La Welch’s book, and headed for Italy, for a three-year four-picture sojourn.
She was probably the biggest Hollywood star to head there during the whole decade, not the never-was-es and has-beens who usually made the Transatlantic crossing. But if she had thought she would get the pick of the roles, juicy parts directed by top arthouse names, she was sadly mistaken. It was clear Hollywood-on-the-Tiber viewed it the other way round, and saw her as adding some box office pizzazz to, by Hollywood standards, less well-made productions. This was her final effort.
I never thought I’d be saying this but in Criminal Affair Ann-Margret gets in the way of a neat heist thriller that occasionally slips into the broad Italian comedy unbeloved by everyone outside Italy. But this one does have a clever premise and like many of the best robbery movies the set-up is intriguing.
Criminologist professor Simpson (Rossanno Brazzi), classes filled with more adoring female students than Indiana Jones, has more than an academical interest in his subject, having planned and executed one jewel theft, and in traditional gangster fashion pulled a fast one on his confederates. As luck would have it, his bosses grant him an all-expenses paid sabbatical to Buenos Aires where he plans to pull off the crime of the century.
Accompanying him is mooning secretary Leticia (Ann-Margret) who prefers sporting herself in sexy ensembles or nothing at all to attract his attention rather than undertaking the more mundane tasks her job title might suggest. All to no avail, so it would seem, although she does, without her knowledge, play a vital role in his plan, as do some parakeets.
Academic profile opening doors, Simpson is able to scour police files to find his team, with one particular set of skills, that they can sing and properly for the grand plan is to stage a robbery at the opening night of La Traviata in the city, attended by the high and mighty who have paid colossal sums for the privilege.
He enrols other accomplices such as Georgette (Helene Chanel) whose task is divert the owner of the box overlooking the stage for which Simpson has another use. Her presence and that of the diva (Barbara Nichols) enrages Leticia, who resorts to swimming naked in the pool, flirting with the muscular butler and when that fails bombarding Simpson with dinner plates.
The use of the sewer is something of a heist trope, although there’s an original method of covering up the drilling and explosion, but mostly through misdirection we don’t quite work out how Simpson is going to fleece the opera house. Improbable a ruse as it is, nonetheless, as befits his high opinion of himself, the concept is a work of genius. Complications arise when the jewel robbers pursue him to Argentina. The film pretty much dispenses with the other heist trope, of spending much time on the character development of his new thieving team, beyond some obvious comedy.
The fact that Leticia has little to do deprives the picture of any reason for her presence, except as a dupe, physical attributes a distraction when necessary, and her lack of awareness that she is playing a key role leads to the movie’s sting in the tail.
But, in terms of the way the heist plays out, any actress could have played the part. It didn’t need to be Ann-Margret. And there’s not even any excuse, in a movie where singing is central, for her to sing. It’s possibly the most redundant role she ever took on. A bit more screenplay could have fixed that, had her character been developed along the lines of that of La Welch in her Italian-made heist picture The Biggest Bundle of Them All which appeared the same year.
And it might have better just to concentrate more on Rosanno Brazzi (The Battle of the Villa Florita, 1965) because he has mother issues, carries his absent-minded personality disguise well, and allocate more time to the intricacies of the plot and his pursuers. Viewed just as a heist picture without the unnecessary diversions of the female lead and the comedy it pretty much makes the grade. On the other hand Ann-Margret’s existence might simply have been that since he was also director he couldn’t carry the acting side of the picture on his own.
No doubt, though, I will have to check out, for your benefit, Ann-Margret’s other Italian trio.
You can catch this on Youtube though the print is a bit washed-out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Swf2yWL6E4Q