Friday, July 17, 2020

Recent discovery: Agent 077, sfida ai killers

This one resulted from a pleasant suggestion from a fan, who wondered why I hadn't explored actor Richard Harrison’s second outing as “all-American CIA Agent Bob Fleming.” Answer: No reason at all, aside from lack of time and space. So let's make up for it now.


Allegiances shift at the blink of a seductive eye in 1966’s Agent 077, sfida ai killers, released in the States as both Killers Are Challenged and Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca.
Apparent good gals turn bad (rather randomly); bad gals turn good; other bad gals staybad. Perhaps aware that their film doesn’t make much sense, director Antonio Margheriti and scripter Ernesto Gastaldi hid behind the respective pseudonyms Anthony Dawson and Julian Berry. 

Harrison once again has an affable looseness as Fleming, reprising his role from 1965’s Secret Agent Fireball (which you’ll find in my first volume). He’s reasonably adept with a quip, and he definitely holds his own during an energetic mano a mano skirmish with a thug who wields spiked brass knuckles. Editor Renato Cinquini gives this scuffle the brisk intensity of James Bond’s train compartment struggle with Red Grant, in From Russia with Love.

Carlo Savina’s score is an occasionally awkward blend of light jazz and orchestral string cues, and the title theme — vocalese by Nora Orlandi’s 4+4 — is positively dire. That said, Savina’s jazz touches are quite pleasant; he favors walking bass, percussion and flute-driven reeds, the latter often echoed by muted trumpet. Some of these cues evoke fond memories of Henry Mancini’s work on both Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky. Riccardo Pallottini’s cinematography is a bit too self-indulgent; he succumbs to pointless overhead camera angles and ground-level close-ups that stare into Harrison’s nostrils.

Once the ghastly title theme concludes, double-time walking bass powers a lively swing cue while a scientist watches in horror as a colleague — in an approaching helicopter — is blown to smithereens; this observer soon meets a similar fate. They’re two of three researchers who’ve perfected a new energy source “that will make all other types of fuel obsolete” (a common goal in 1960s Eurospy films). In order to protect himself, the third scientist — Coleman (Marcel Charvey) — has changed his face via plastic surgery. This gives Fleming the opportunity to draw enemy attention by impersonating the man, while the actual Coleman is spirited to a safe house in Geneva. Cue all manner of attacks, many — but not all — arranged by smarmy Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi), a wheelchair-bound Texas oil tycoon.

Sturges often is accompanied by the slinky Velka (Susy Andersen), whose relationship with the man — nurse? escort? paid companion? lover? — remains undefined. Savina introduces her with a deliciously sexy burst of bossa nova that once again favors bass and flute. Velka earns most of the subsequent jazz cues; she has a habit of popping up at unexpected moments, often saving Fleming’s hide … despite the fact that she just as frequently seems to put him in danger. Savina works in some fast-paced action jazz midway through the caper, when Fleming is ambushed in an open-air marketplace; the ubiquitous walking bass is augmented by harpsichord during a later car chase.

Pouty Halima (Janine Reynaud) and Moira (Mitsouko, born Maryse Guy) — both atrocious actors — serve as the death-dealing lieutenants to an initially unseen “big boss,” although Moira’s heart doesn’t seem to be in her nefarious activities. As a result, she earns a gratuitous whip-and-bondage “punishment” from Halima. That’s an oddly exploitative sidebar, but worse is yet to come; the film climaxes — if it can be called that — when Fleming lands in a protracted waterfront bar fight that leaves no cliché behind: destroyed furniture, bottles broken on heads, a drunk who continues to enjoy his tipple despite the carnage surrounding him, and even a series of (sigh) dwarf jokes. It’s slapstick nonsense on par with The Three Stooges, and it brings the film to a thudding halt for what seems an eternity; Savina wisely didn’t even try to grant this a musical backdrop.

Agent 077, sfida ai killers failed to generate a soundtrack album, although the title theme is included on Orchestra Cine Sound: Suspense Screen Themes Best 14 (release date unknown), issued on Japan’s Philips label.

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