Friday, 14 July 2017

Killers Are Challenged (1966)

Image from the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive

U.S.A. and U.K. release title: Killers Are Challenged
Italian title: A 077, sfida ai killers
Also known as Bob Fleming - Mission Casablanca
Director: Anthony Margheriti (As Anthony Dawson)
Production companies: Zenith Cinematografica/ Flora Film/ Régina
Starring: Richard Harrison

Three scientists have invented an alternative energy source which spells the end for the oil industry. After two of them are murdered the CIA steps in to protect Coleman, the third scientist who has already undergone plastic surgery in order to disguise himself. After smuggling him to Geneva in a coffin, special agent Bob Fleming takes his place in Casablanca, attracting assassins left right and centre. He befriends the real Coleman's wife Terry (Wandisa Guida), not realising that she is in on the murder plot, having been bought by pale, wheelchair-bound Texan oil baron Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi) who is determined not to allow this new invention on to the market. Sturges is paying her a lot of money to betray her husband, and she in turn seems to have employed every European villain residing in Casablanca to help her, including Halima (Janine Reynaud) and Moira (Mitsouko). Bob Fleming has a job on his hands just staying alive - he is frequently shot at, punched in the face or knocked unconscious. Luckily Velka (Susy Anderson), who appears to be some sort of personal assistant to Sturges, saves him on more than one occasion, for reasons which she keeps to herself. Can Bob Fleming solve the mysterious plot, survive these constant attacks and get the girl (any of them would do) before the end of the film? Of course he can, but how he does it is a lot of fun!

Image from the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive

Described by Richard Rhys Davies in The International Spy Film Guide (2016) as "Daft sexy fun with groovy sounds," Killers Are Challenged is an entertaining, good-natured Eurospy film with plenty of action and a good sprinkling of comedy, with lines like "I've been kissed better than that by my dachshund," and an extended, over-the-top bar room brawl at the climax which looks like it came straight out of a Three Stooges film. The scene, featuring dozens of sailors, sock-workers and an enthusiastic dwarf, must have employed every available stuntman on the studio lot, and could easily have been taking place in the saloon of a Western. In another comedy moment, what begins as a typical belly-dancing act turns into a swinging sixties pop number as the camera tracks back from the dancer to reveal a room full of dancing teenagers. Moments like this reveal Margheriti's willingness to play with audience expectations. There is also a great visual gag early in the film involving a ballon seller and a large cactus. In the lead role, Richard Harrison is a likeable and believable spy, and he gets plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his athleticism and charm.

Bob (Richard Harrison) meets Velka (Susy Andersen) at the pool side
The Italians tried to market this film as another 077 film, Ken Clark having appeared as the titular agent in three previous films: Mission Bloody Mary/ Agente 077 missione Bloody Mary, From the Orient With Fury/ Agente 077 dall'oriente con furore (both 1965, Sergio Grieco, Italy/ Spain/ France: Fida Cinematografica, Época Films S.A., Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld), and Special Mission Lady Chaplin/ Missione speciale Lady Chaplin (1966, Alberto de Martino/ Sergio Grieco, Italy/ Spain/ France: Sincronía, Fida Cinematografica, Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld). There had clearly been no intention to make this another in the 077 franchise whilst shooting. Although Richard Harrison bears a strong resemblance to Ken Clark, mostly thanks to the hair, his character is called Bob Fleming instead of Dick Malloy, and the moniker 077 is never uttered once in the entire film, so it appears to have been an Italian marketing strategy to tie the films together at home.

Having seen all of those other 077 films, I can safely say that this one is better than all of them. Richard Harrison is much more natural in the role, and Bob Fleming a nicer guy all round. At no point does he slap a woman hard enough to knock her unconscious, which Dick Malloy is happy to do whenever he likes, including with women who are on his side.

The prefix 077 was not used when the film was sold abroad. It was picked up and released as Killers Are Challenged by American International Pictures in the States, perhaps because Richard Harrison had married Loretta Nicholson, James H. Nicholson's daughter, in 1961. It was not released in the UK until 1968, by Planet Films, with an 'A' certificate.

British critics did not appear to be impressed. This was Monthly Film Bulletin's review:

"Some elegant Casablanca settings, a flagellation scene with unconscious lesbian overtones, a pugilistic dwarf who proves indestructible in a bar-room brawl, and an incongruous English taxi-driver who describes himself as "a graduate of Scotland Yard" are the only details that distinguish this tedious Italian spy drama from so many others. Its characters as usual hide their personal inadequacies behind a small armoury of electronic devices, while violent deaths are meted out with alarming and gratuitous frequency. Ian Fleming has a lot to answer for."

The flagellation scene referred to feels like it came straight out of a Jess Franco film, perhaps partly because Franco regular Janine Reynauld is the one wielding the whip.

Moira (Mitsouko) in chains, whilst Halima (Janine Reynaud) (L)
and Terry (Wandisa Guida) (R) look on

This was a busy year for Antonio Margheriti. Like in 1964, in 1966 he released six films. Given he had none released in 1965, one can assume that he was incredibly busy in that year shooting some of these. Famously, 1966 saw him release his Gamma One quadrilogy (The War of the Planets/ I diafanoidi vengono da Marte, Wild, Wild Planet/ I criminali della galassia, War Between the Planets/ Il pianeta errante and The Snow Devils/ La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin, Italy: Merculry Film International/ Southern Corss Feature Film Company), but he also found time for two eurospy thrillers, Lightening Bolt/ Operazione goldman (Italy/ Spain: Seven Film/ Balcázar Producciones Cinematográficas/ BGA) and this film, Killers Are Challenged. It is testament not only to the skill of Margheriti but also to the efficiency of the Italian studio system at that time, enabling films to be churned out like cars from a production line. Some of those films may have been more Fiat than Ferrari, but they were proficiently made and always entertaining.

Image from the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive

Mitsouko plays a prominent role in this film as a sexy assassin who develops a soft spot for Bob Fleming. Despite having spent most of the film trying to kill him she ultimately saves his life. Most of Mitsouko's film credits in the 1960s are for eurospy films, and she even made it into a genuine James Bond film, appearing as a French agent in the pre-credits sequence of Thunderball (1965, Terence Young, UK/ USA: Eon). During my PhD research on Mission Bloody Mary, a film in which she starred, I tracked down and spoke to her son Sebastien in Paris. He told me that Mitsouko never knew her father, but he was most likely Chinese or Vietnamese. She was born in Tianjin in a French colony. Her mother was half French, half Chinese, and together with her daughter they fled the revolution in 1948 back to France. During the voyage her mother developed amnesia and forgot who she was. On arrival in France Mitsouko, only five years old, was placed in an orphanage and her mother eventually died in a mental hospital. Mitsouko eventually became a model which lead to several film roles in France in the 1960s. She stopped acting after her last film in 1966 and married. Sadly, the traumas of her very difficult childhood clearly never left her, and she killed herself in 1995.

Moira (Mitsouko) creeps up on Bob (Richard Harrison)

Killers Are Challenged is definitely one of the better eurospy films I have seen. It demonstrates the versatility of Antonio Margheriti, who was seemingly up for whatever challenge was thrown at him. Armed with a script by Ernesto Gastaldi, who cut his teeth on horror and sword-and-sandal films before developing a reputation for some of the classic giallo films such as Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/ Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (1972, Sergio Martino, Italy: Lea Film), Margheriti set off for Casablanca and used the local scenery and architecture to full advantage. The score by Carlo Savina, an incredibly prolific composer and arranger, is especially enjoyable. Even if you do not fancy watching the entire film, available on YouTube, I urge you to check out the theme song. You will be singing "Dooby dooby doo, wee wee" all day.

It is a pity that Antonio Margheriti only made two eurospy films, as it was clearly a genre he understood and enjoyed. However, after these and his mad flurry of science fiction films in that same year he jumped straight to horror and spaghetti westerns, leaving the adventures of super spies and spacemen far behind him.

Image from the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive

Lightning Bolt (1966)