Next time Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has a date with a beautiful, mysterious woman, he's asking her to bring the MacGuffin.
"Come Early—There's a Full Evening of Fun In Store for you…When you Come Early You'll Get a Good Parking Spot."
Drive-ins have been around since 1933, when outdoor cinema had its world premiere in Camden, N.J. At their peak in 1958, the United States had 4,063 drive-ins according to The Drive-In Theater History Page. Typically, drive-ins showed an evening of two (or more) movies. At first, double bills consisted of two theatrical films that had been in release for a while. Then someone got the bright idea of making or buying up low-budget movies specifically for the drive-in market, movies like The Horror of Party Beach or Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.
It may have taken three movies to turn James Bond into a legendary franchise, but 1964's Goldfinger brought moviegoers flocking indoors to see Ian Fleming's hero. Spies were becoming a staple of movies and TV. So naturally someone had to hurry up and make a few spy flicks for the drive-in trade. That's how Espionage in Tangiers (known in Italy as Marc Mato, agente S. 077) and Assassination in Rome (Il Segreto del vestito rosso) managed to land on U.S. drive-in screens in 1965.
Although TV, VCRs, DVD players, and land prices took their toll on drive-ins, the industry is making a comeback. Although nostalgia may be fueling the boom, today's multi-screen drive-ins feature the latest hits—no one's making low-budget knockoffs of Pirates of the Caribbean for outdoor viewing. Thus, it's up to Dark Sky Films to bring back the drive-in experience of the 1950s and 1960s with its Drive-In Double Feature series, with promos for "sizzling burgers" and "frozen delights" in between two movies that wouldn't be out of place on a drive-in double bill.
With popcorn as close as your microwave, there's no need to deal with chilly weather and tinny speakers as you check out these two Sixties spy knockoffs. Of course, that may have been the best part of a night at the drive-in.
Facts of the Case
Espionage in Tangiers
If you're like most people, it means ray guns—like the one Prof. Grave (Alfonso Rojas, A Bullet for Sandoval) is testing over at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Powered by a small plate, it fires a beam that disintegrates objects.
When the plate is stolen, secret agent Mike Murphy (Luis Dávila, Ypotrón) gets a call. He hangs up, of course, since he's with a lady friend, but he springs into action eventually after they call back. We know he's dealing with rough customers because one of the two thieves shoots his partner after collecting the plate. That thief dies while caught in a car window after turning the plate over to his boss.
Our man in Tangiers recognized the photo of one of the thieves, so Murphy's off to Tangiers to question him in person. At least he would be if the man lived long enough. Thus begins a mission filled with beautiful women, betrayal, and daggers to duck.
Assassination in Rome
Shelley North (Cyd Charisse, Brigadoon) isn't buying it when everyone tells her that her missing husband is off on "an adventure" with another woman. Fortunately, reporter Dick Sherman (Hugh O'Brian, Ten Little Indians, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) happened to see her name on a list of queries at the American Embassy. Since they used to be an item, Sherman decides to give her a call.
Meanwhile, a drunk man has found a dead body dumped at the Trevi fountain, after complaining that putting in only three coins is kind of cheap. The body isn't that of Shelley's missing husband, but Sherman thinks there's a link. Throw in two bumbling, grumbling burglars who steal a pair of shoes from the dead man's lodgings and find a "package" hidden in a hollow heel, and suddenly Sherman's chasing through Rome and Venice in search of scenic backdrops and an unknown MacGuffin.
In Espionage in Tangiers, Luis Dávila plays Mike Murphy (or Marc Mato) with an odd sort of grin-smirk as he (or, rather, an anonymous dub man) delivers his lines. Every move he makes, another mistake he makes, since he's always failing to notice tails and is unaware of eavesdroppers on the phone. This makes it very hazardous to supply Murphy with information, since his informants rarely live to see the morrow, but it sets up the movie's many action scenes.
Murphy is a ladies' man, always kissing love interest Lea (José Greci, The Sicilian Connection) in supposedly odd places, though in the hallway while waiting for an elevator isn't that odd. However, Murphy slaps women when he learns they're working for the other side and wants to know their next moves. Since they're all strangely attracted to him, you'd think he could get information just by flashing that grin-smirk of his; either he'd charm the information out of them or irritate them until they couldn't stand it any longer.
On the bright side, the ending has a clever enough twist, although it makes you realize that no one has been menaced by the ray gun during the movie. When a bad guy escapes with said gun, don't you think he'd at least obliterate a couple of flowerpots in Murphy's vicinity on his way out? Although interiors appear setbound and cheesy, the exteriors here offer nice views of Nice and Tangiers. The picture held up well wherever it was buried, though I did notice a jumpy edit in one scene. There are also night scenes that tend to look like they're in black-and-white, even though they're not. There's a brief appearance by future Bond actor George Lazenby, but blink and you'll miss it.
There's an odd whistling noise in the movie's score. Um, wait a minute. That is the movie's score. Annoying as it is, I think the 2.0 Mono track handles it okay, though it muffles a couple of lines of dialogue here and there.
Since that was the first movie on this double bill, my expectations were diminished for the second feature, Assassination in Rome. It's no lost classic, but this international co-production (note the many credits in the opening) is a fun travelogue loosely disguised as a thriller.
"Why'd you want to meet me at the airport?" an informant asks Dick Sherman at one point. Sherman doesn't really have an answer, but it's obvious to the audience that the director wanted to come out here because it's a big, modern, interesting-looking space. Impressive backdrops are the motivation for most of the action here, from Shelley's lunch with one of Sherman's colleagues at a hilly outdoor cafe to a flashback sequence outside the Coliseum. When they run out of nice places to visit in Rome, Sherman and Shelley follow a lead to Venice so they can take a gondola ride and visit St. Mark's Square.
Hugh O'Brien and Cyd Charisse are likeable as the two ex-lovers who reconnect during an adventure, in the Hitchcockian sense of the word. O'Brien seems a bit too suave to be a newspaper reporter, with his sporty convertible, driving scarf, and rakishly positioned trenchcoat. Nevertheless, he and Charisse make the amiable chemistry of former lovers believable enough for a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, even if I got tired of Charisse calling his character "Domenick" instead of "Dick" (Does this mean her lines were dubbed in later?). Good casting gets some fun out of this nonsense.
Assassination has all the elements of a spy-movie knockoff: an informant keeling over dead, a mysterious word from a delirious man's lips, and even a secret door. Those elements are subordinate to the backdrops and the odd characters Sherman and Shelley meet: Erica, the reporter who left her third husband on their honeymoon; the two thieves who stumble on a place that's just been searched ("There's only one thing left for us, to clean up the mess"); and an artist who paints abstracts but still retains the services of a nude model ("I keep her around because she makes excellent coffee").
When you get to the end, the final reveal doesn't make much sense, especially after some wild logic leaps to get there. Still, the movie keeps moving without becoming repetitive and Sherman's wisecracks actually can be amusing.
The picture has a few faux-noir shadows on purpose, along with lines and hints of fading that sometimes mar the picture-perfect travelogue. The dubbing's noticeable, but at least it's done more carefully than in Espionage. The musical score has a standard thriller urgency with a jazzy '60s beat, and comes across well in the 2.0 mono.
The extras may be the main point of this collection, since there's an undeniable charm to those spots touting "crisp, hot, fresh french fries," even when the picture's marred by spots, lines, and fuzz. The package includes seven vintage trailers, presumably for films that'll come up on DVD from Dark Sky; none of the trailers for horror films seem like much, but Kill, Baby, Kill! comes from Mario Bava, well-regarded in fright circles.
The DVD seems to be set up to make you watch the whole thing; use the skip button if you want to avoid those little promos or even go straight to the second picture. Even Prof. Grave couldn't come up with something nifty like this.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a reason they call these B-movies. While fun, neither of these films is a classic like Goldfinger. It appears Dark Sky Films put the worst of the two movies up front on purpose, since Espionage in Tangiers is MST3K's kind of bad movie and will help you sharpen your quipping skills. Even so, Luis Dávila came back the next year with Ypotrón somehow. Assassination in Rome has its share of silly moments—and that's a lot of silly moments—but it's fun if you ignore the plot holes.
It's been a long night. It's time to fold up the blankets, unhook that tinny speaker, and turn on the parking lights for the drive home. Yawn!
If you're in the right frame of mind, you'll get some guilty pleasure out of this double bill.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Assassination In Rome
Perp Profile, Assassination In Rome
Studio: Dark Sky Films
Distinguishing Marks, Assassination In Rome
• Drive-In Intermission Programming
Scales of Justice, Espionage In Tangiers
Perp Profile, Espionage In Tangiers
Studio: Dark Sky Films
Distinguishing Marks, Espionage In Tangiers
• Drive-In Intermission Programming
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.