Friday, September 18, 2020

Recent discovery: Missione speciale Lady Chaplin

The echoes of Thunderball are impossible to ignore in Missione speciale Lady Chaplin (Special Mission Lady Chaplin), the last — and most enjoyable — of American actor Ken Clark’s three “CIA Agent 077” Eurospy entries. Even so — despite the best efforts of co-directors Alberto De Martino and Sergio Grieco — the entertainment value has little to do with Clark, whose athletic prowess cannot conceal his stiff-as-a-board performance. Both he and the similarly wooden Jacques Bergerac — as the villain of the piece, the aptly named Kobre Zoltan — are constantly out-classed by former Bond girl Daniela Bianchi’s enthusiastic handling of Lady Arabella Chaplin: celebrated fashion designer in the public eye, mistress-of-disguise assassin at Zoltan’s behest. She and a variety of cool spy gadgets propel this derivative saga, which gets additional bounce from Bruno Nicolai’s jazz-laden score, and a plot that starts in Madrid and then takes its characters to New York, London, Paris and Morocco.
Dick Malloy (Clark) and his boss, Heston (Philippe Hersent), head to Madrid after learning that somebody has been trying to sell a dog tag supposedly recovered from the USS Thresher, a sunken American nuclear submarine. This implies that the sub has been raised, a notion rejected as impossible when our heroes consult with Zoltan, a marine salvage gazillionaire who throws lavish parties and entertains his guests with dueling scorpions. It initially appears that Zoltan is right; when Malloy investigates via a bathysphere descent, the Thresher is at the ocean bottom two miles down, where it’s supposed to be. But a closer examination reveals that its 16 Polaris missiles — all armed with nuclear warheads — have been removed.
Zoltan is indeed behind the dirty deed; he and Arabella also orchestrate the heist of a heavily guarded propellant from a moving train, during a nifty sequence that showcases her resourcefulness. Needing a way to then smuggle the propellant across several borders, Arabella oversees a chemical process that transforms the compound into explosively flammable dress material (!) subsequently used in one of her fashion shows (!!).
Malloy quickly catches on to Arabella’s double life, and seems rather forgiving of her lethal tendencies; by this point we’ve seen her cold-bloodedly execute at least four men. More crucially, Malloy constantly remains a step or two behind Zoltan’s activities, while evading assassination attempts by dozens of gun-toting lackeys — almost always decked out in black turtlenecks — during reasonably well-staged action sequences. (One wonders how Agent 077 has maintained his excellent reputation.)
The film opens as Arabella, disguised as a nun, enters a monastery and coolly kills the resident monks (actually similarly disguised government agents); her arrival is accompanied by bells and sleek walking bass, which explode into the lusty title theme crooned seductively — in English — by Italian pop sensation Bobby Solo. The credits appear as the lyrics worship Lady Chaplin’s enchanting allure (“No matter … you hurt me … I love you still!”). Elsewhere, Malloy is introduced against Nicolai’s recurring 1-3-1-3 action motif, this initial time via brass. Once briefed by Heston, Nicolai switches to sinister orchestral touches as Malloy and colleague Jacqueline (Mabel Karr) obtain the dog tag; he narrowly prevents the seller from being shot by an assassin. The subsequent foot chase concludes in a deserted bullfighting stadium, where screaming brass stingers accompany Malloy’s calm dispatch of half a dozen gun-toting thugs.
Later, his first glimpse of Arabella — they pass each other in a hallway, where Malloy notices a telling bandage on her hand — occurs as Nicolai introduces her theme: a mischievous 4/4 horn and vibes ballad with a 1-2-3-1-2 motif. Malloy subsequently crashes one of Zoltan’s high-society parties, arriving just in time to join the guests watching a scorpion duel; Nicolai backs this disconcerting spectacle with a cool brass swinger backed by throbbing bass and double-time percussion.
Ostensibly bidding farewell, Malloy doubles back and finds his way into the mansion’s secret lab, where something mighty strange is taking place. A minor melee leads to the first of several mano a mano skirmishes with Zoltan’s lumbering, hook-handed lieutenant, Ivan (Peter Blades); Nicolai punctuates this brawl with jagged brass bursts strongly reminiscent of John Barry’s similarly explosive touches in Dr. No, when Sean Connery’s James Bond repeatedly strikes the tarantula with his shoe. Malloy manages to drive off against another swinging action cue, the melody backed by descending walking bass riffs. His car is intercepted and viciously crushed by a bulldozer; he narrowly escapes via a clever ejector seat that propels him backwards, and out the trunk, against a brass-heavy arrangement of the title theme.
Malloy’s subsequent bathysphere descent is accompanied by shimmering orchestral touches that sound verymuch like Barry’s underwater cues in Thunderball; unknown to our hero below, the crew of the topside boat is dispatched by armed men in two helicopters, while Nicolai adds a sinister reprise of the 1-3-1-3 action motif. Finally alerted by a descending corpse, Malloy exits the bathysphere and makes it to the surface by using a portable re-breather that looks precisely like what saved Connery’s Bond in Thunderball. Malloy therefore gets the drop on the thugs waiting to kill him.
Elsewhere, Arabella arrives in London against a saucy, swinging reading of the title theme; she boards the London-to-Dover train, dressed as one of the soldiers guarding the special car carrying the propellant. After gassing them, she de-couples the car during a suspenseful sequence, while Nicolai supplies a medley of his by-now-familiar action cues. A saucy reading of the 1-3-1-3 motif, dominated by muted trumpets and unison horns, shadows the subsequent montage as Arabella supervises the complex process that transforms the bricks of propellant into bolts of shimmering orange cloth.
Jacqueline, meanwhile, has gone undercover among the women in Lady Chaplin’s modeling troupe, where she grows suspicious of the sudden appearance of a dress made with unusual orange material. Her resulting investigation takes place during a fashion show backed by a slinky cocktail piano combo; unfortunately, she decides to steal the dress by wearing it, which leads to a shocking demise when Ivan shoots the dress and blows her to bits. Justifiably furious, Malloy finally lashes out at Arabella, who — predictably, in the manner of these stories — agrees to work with him and betray Zoltan. This leads to a pell-mell series of action sequences, starting when a disguised Ivan tries to gas Malloy in a taxi; Nicolai augments the tension with agitated percussion and rising brass stringers. Malloy narrowly escapes, then begins a skirmish with Ivan that includes a chase alongside a funicular railway, the action cues coming fast and furious. 
Zoltan, meanwhile, has deduced Arabella’s betrayal while they’re en route to Morocco, where the missiles have been hidden in a seemingly abandoned tanker ship; he tosses her from their private plane … whereupon her skirt miraculously transforms into a parachute (!), as we again hear a brass-heavy reading of the title theme. But she’s far from safe, upon landing; trapped on a rocky beach by gun-toting thugs alerted by Zoltan, her goose appears to be cooked … until Malloy amazingly pops out of the ocean and dispatches the goons with a spear gun that fires explosive pellets. Nicolai relies on brass stingers and suspenseful orchestral statements during Malloy’s subsequent skirmish with Zoltan, in the bowels of the ship; the villain sets fire to the cargo hold and threatens to detonate the missiles. thereby destroying a good chunk of Morocco. Instead, he suffers an appropriately ironic — although highly unlikely — demise.
Arabella subsequently finesses her way to the cash-laden suitcase Zoltan would have received, for delivering the missiles and propellant to the agent of an unspecified world power; it appears that she’ll escape with the loot, as she settles into a train compartment (a scene that strongly evokes From Russia with Love). Ah, but the train steward who collects her ticket turns out to be Malloy; he slaps handcuffs on her, but seems conflicted about what to do next — one of the rare moments when Clark delivers a properly timed smile — while Solo delivers a brief vocal reprise of the title theme.
That title theme vocal was issued on a 45 single by Italy’s Ricordi label, but the B side (“Nevada Smith”) has nothing to do with Missione speciale Lady Chaplin. Nicolai’s score remained unreleased until 2007, when Italy’s Digitmovies label assembled all the film cues into a 27-track album: in numerous cases, stitching multiple cues into a single track. The album does not include Solo’s two vocal performances, due to contractual restrictions (and the loss of the original master tape). On the other hand, Nicolai’s instrumental expansion of the title theme, on the final track, suggests that the film originally would have concluded with this cue; Solo’s vocal reprise of the song likely was a last-minute substitution, due to his then-rising popularity.

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