Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Recent discovery: James Tont Operazione U.N.O.

Actually, it's more accurate to call this one a recent re-discovery.

As explained in my books' introductions, I didn't have the energy — or page count — to thoroughly cover the wealth of "Eurospy" films released in the wake of the 1960s James Bond entries; attempting to do so would have led to madness. Italian filmmakers were particularly aggressive about milking the secret agent cow, so I did make a point of including a dozen or so with (reasonably) solid jazz scores.

But I'm fully aware that many more likely await, and — with more time available, now that the books have been published — they'll pop up here, as warranted. I've spent considerable time with Matt Blake and David Deal's The Eurospy Guide, a voluminous alphabetical listing of such films; I only wish the authors had been more detailed about the existence — and quality — of jazz scores (then again, I guess that's my job).


A recent perusal reminded me of a film I'd seen way back in the day, and which remains one of the most notorious copyright offenders...


Although Italian filmmakers produced a wealth of James Bond spoofs in the wake of Goldfinger and Thunderball, none was more brazen than 1965’s French/Italian co-production of James Tont Operazione U.N.O., also known under the more eyebrow-lifting title of Goldsinger. Writer/directors Bruno Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi shamelessly stole — ah … parodied — all manner of elements from its British namesake, starting with the fact that the hopelessly inept Tont (Landa Buzzanca, who later starred in numerous Italian sex comedies) is best known by his code name: Agent 007½. That, by itself, was enough to arouse the wrath of the United Artists legal department, which issued a stern admonition: 

“Only James Bond, the character from the novels by Ian Fleming, can be Agent 007 … Warning is given to all Italian companies which, exploiting the success achieved by Agent 007, have distinguished the leading figures in their films by the same numerals.”1

Most prints were hastily changed back to James Tont Operazione Uno, but it’s easy to find Internet versions that still bear the Goldsinger title.

The plot and execution aren’t even clever or funny enough to merit being a cartoon; this is truly dire, lowest-level-of-the-basement rubbish. That said, the film boasts a modestly engaging jazz score by Marcello Giombini, starting with an opening power anthem belted out by an unidentified singer who clearly emulates Shirley Bassey, with lyrics so close to its source that lawyers representing John Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley must’ve been vexed. Several underscore cues also are obvious riffs on Barry’s military-esque march cue, heard when Goldfinger prepares to invade Fort Knox. Those aside, Giombini supplies plenty of seductive combo cues, dominated by sax and piano, because Tont spends most of his time (unsuccessfully) attempting to seduce a limitless parade of breathy babes, rather than diligently chasing down the particulars of his bizarre assignment. Indeed, were it not for CIA colleague Barbara Ray (aka Agent SOS 112, played by sultry Evi Marandi) and a talking mouse (!), Tont wouldn’t survive the story’s first act.

The obvious “lifts” from Goldfinger and earlier Bond entries aside, it’s somewhat eerie that Corbucci and Grimaldi anticipated a few stunts and gadgets from future 007 entries. An energetically choreographed vehicular chase sequence along country roads — orchestrated by the Jose Canga Troupe — climaxes when one of the baddies “surfs” the top of his car, while it’s driven on only two wheels (several years before Sean Connery would pull that same trick in Diamonds Are Forever). Moments later, Tont’s Fiat Uno turns into a submarine car, which drives along the ocean floor before reappearing on a distant shore (again, years before Roger Moore’s Lotus Esprit would display similarly aquatic talents in The Spy Who Loved Me).

The mission begins in Trinidad, when Tont — apparently also an adept surgeon — recovers some microfilm from the guts of an enemy agent, while generously removing the man’s inflamed appendix at the same time. The master villain of the piece turns out to be Erik Record Goldsinger (Loris Gizzi), a wealthy music producer who communicates with his field operatives via the lyrics of songs performed by various pop stars (played by Pino Donaggio, Gianni Morandi and Valeria Piaggio). Goldsinger is accompanied by his silent, grim-faced henchman Kajo (George Wang), who dispatches adversaries not with a steel-tipped bowler, but with elongated, razor-sharp fingernails that can be hurled like knives. Goldsinger has been employed by Red Chinese agents to orchestrate “Operation April Fool,” which will destroy New York’s United Nations headquarters, as revenge for China being refused entry to the world body. (That’s surprisingly trenchant, for a film this inane; actual admittance for the People’s Republic of China didn’t arrive until 1971.) The method is a solid gold LP scheduled to play Giuseppe Verdi’s “Freedom Chorus” as an anthem during a commemorative UN reception; the disc actually is a miniaturized bomb that’ll explode when the final note is played.

En route to saving the day, Tont endures all manner of setbacks, including getting gilded — except in “one little spot,” which allows his skin to breathe — and nearly sliced to ribbons not by a laser, but while strapped to a huge vinyl disc on a giant turntable, which slowly spins as a wickedly sharp lacquer cutter digs a groove into everything it contacts. His escapes and stunts are a stretch, to say the least; he avoids being squashed by a descending ceiling in an enclosed room, when exiting via a mouse hole; he “swims” from New York City Harbor to London, with the aid of a propeller strapped to his backside; and he later evades Rome-based baddies by flushing himself down a toilet, and re-emerging in Hong Kong.

Giombini employs a sassy big band jazz cue during a montage that backs Tont’s arrival in Las Vegas, where he liaises with CIA Agent Tristian Rider (Walter Maestosi); Tont’s later visit to New York’s Central Park earns a sweeping bit of orchestral jazz that evokes Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The standout cue is a swinging bit of “traveling jazz,” heard while Tont repeatedly evades Goldsinger’s minions in Rome, as his Fiat Uno miraculously changes color at the press of a dashboard button.

Most surviving prints are at a 4:3 aspect ratio, clearly panned and scanned from the film’s initial widescreen release; actors chopped out of frame are an occasional annoyance, but the story isn’t coherent enough for such things to matter. Amazingly, this laughably awful flick generated a sequel the following year, directed solely by Corbucci: James Tont Operazione D.U.E., released in the States as The Wacky World of James Tont. Bruno Canfora’s score for that sophomore effort is primarily silly cartoon music, and doesn’t warrant our attention. That same year, Corbucci also co-wrote Il vostro superagente Flit, a parody of Our Man Flint; Canfora’s score for that one also doesn’t come within shouting distance of jazz.

Although a September 1967 issue of The Film Daily claims that United Artists and Danjaq S.A., as the producers of Goldfinger, “were entitled to a preliminary injunction restraining defendants RKO General and Independent Television Corp. from further distributing, licensing, exhibiting and otherwise dealing in the picture known as James Tont: Operation Goldsinger” [in the United States],that decision must have been handed down after the film had been broadcast at least once on television … because I distinctly recall having seen it, as an 007-obsessed adolescent. One simply cannot un-remember Tont’s hand flushing himself down that toilet.


1. James Chapman, Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films (New York, Columbia University Press, 2000), 120.

2. Anonymous, “Production Notes,” The Film Daily, Volume 131, Sept. 7, 1967, 196.

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