Apr 3, 2010

Movie Review: Super Seven Calling Cairo (1965)

I recently called Countdown to Doomsday a “middle of the road” Eurospy movie and asserted that I didn’t mean “middle of the road” in a bad way. Well, in the case of Super Seven Calling Cairo, I do... kind of. Maybe Countdown to Doomsday just caught me in a better mood, but this equally generic genre entry didn’t quite do it for me. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to like in Super Seven Calling CairoThis middle-of-the-road Eurospy movie is nothing special, but it does manage to hit just about all the notes expected of the genre, which is always a good thing. Roger Browne (whose trademark is smoking a pipe) plays the hero here, secret agent Martin Stevens (a role he reprised the following year in The Spy Who Loved Flowers). He’s American, but he works for the British Secret Service. I’ve liked Browne quite a bit in other films like The Fantastic Argoman and Password: Kill Agent Gordon, but in Super Seven Calling Cairo suddenly I found myself a bit sick of him, to be honest.

In this case, we first meet Browne shirtless, in bed with a girl. She coos sweet nothings, then gets up to go to the embassy. (As you do if you're a spy.)  He sees her pull a gun in the mirror and promptly swings around and shoots her dead with a pen gun, smiling smugly about it. Oh yeah, we’re in Eurospy territory here. One of the cool perks of these low-budget 007 knockoffs is that unlike Bond, Eurospy heroes tend to actually reuse their gadgets. Which makes a lot of sense, really, doesn’t it? Why would any government (or budget-constricted art director, for that matter) spend billions of dollars (or, um, tens) developing some sort of spy toy that would only be used once (as 007 often uses Q’s toys–in the exact perfect situation for that particular gadget, of course) and then discarded? Stevens gets at least three uses out of his surprisingly effective pen gun in the course of Super Seven Calling Cairo, which is pretty impressive.

I was also impressed by the MacGuffin in this story. As usual, it’s some sort of new metal. “Have you ever come across the word Baltonium?” asks Stevens' professor boss.

“Sounds like a brand name for cosmetics, sir.” replies his top agent glibly.

“Nothing so innocuous, I’m afraid,” the professor continues. “No, Baltonium is a new element. So new in fact that its discovery is still top secret. You see, it’s a hundred times more radioactive than Uranium. And furthermore, the metal’s properties are quite incredible. It can be handled in complete safety like an ordinary stable mineral.”

Browne furrows his brow and attempts a Conneryesque air of casual expertise. “That’s called ‘latent radioactivity,’ if I’m not mistaken,” he comments in a know-it-all voice.

“That’s right,” says his boss, duly impressed. He then goes on to explain that the missing Balatonium has been hidden inside a tourist’s movie camera, to make it a convenient MacGuffin-size and something which is easily switchable with basically identical items at crucial moments as the plot demands. Stevens is sent off to Cairo to recover the Baltonium film camera, where naturally his investigation will take him to a strip club.

As I mentioned in my intro, Super Seven Calling Cairo hits all its marks. Besides the cool MacGuffin, it also gets points for a dodgy character in a red fez spying on Stevens as soon as he arrives at the airport in Cairo, points for at least two nightclub striptease acts, and more points for a naked girl being in his shower when Martin walks into the Cairo apartment he’s staying in.

The girl, Faddja (the stunning Rosalba Neri) immediately gets indignant when Stevens starts ogling her the way Eurospies do when they discover naked women in their showers, but she doesn’t really have the right to indignation since her excuse for being there is so shoddy. She lives next door, she explains, but her shower didn’t work, so thinking this apartment was unoccupied, she came over to use this shower. Uh-huh. Martin knows as well as you and I do that that flimsy excuse means she’s spying for the enemy, but that doesn’t stop him from forcing himself upon her as Eurospies are wont to do. She doesn’t mind, though, and soon they’re in bed together.

At the local stripclub (er, nightclub–and I don’t really have to provide an explanation for why he makes that his next formula-dictated stop, do I?), Martin meets another pretty brunette, Denice (Fabienne Dali, who looks confusingly similar to Neri–and not intentionally so). Meeting her, he has the audacity to invoke 007 in a pickup line! “How do you know my name?” Denise asks him.

“Shhh!” says Stevens. “I’m a secret agent. James Bond, you know.” They both laugh it up... and then she agrees to go out with him. Further points are earned for a swimming pool scene (which actually turns out to be the first of several), a torture sequence intercut with a bellydancing number, and still more for the awesome travelogue shots of Cairo. We’re treated to some very cool footage of a guy actually climbing the Great Pyramid of Cheops (I’m pretty sure you can’d do that anymore!), which gives a good sense of how enormous it really is. So enormous, in fact, that the film stretches credulity a bit when an assassin takes the guy out with a pistol (a silenced pistol, no less, for a shot that would require a sniper rifle!) from quite a great distance on the ground... but what’s credulity in a Eurospy movie?

The action moves from London to Cairo to Rome to the Swiss resort town of Locarno as our hero follows the MacGuffin and the villains follow the hero. There’s a great bit of codeword nonsense at the Rome airport as Stevens instructs a fellow agent to relay the message to his boss informing him that “the foxhunt is going exactly as planned.” Boy, that’s some clever code! Does he think the bad guys will assume he’s talking about an actual foxhunt? Or might they guess that he means the mission is going exactly as planned? He might as well have not used code at all! Or just said, “the thing is going exactly as planned.” Whatever his reasoning, that brief exchange made me smile.

So with all these great locations and all the right genre cliches, why do I rather churlishly say that Super Seven Calling Cairo is middle-of-the-road? Because simply, there isn’t really enough weirdness going on here. The best Eurospy movies make up for their predictable formulas and minuscule budgets by piling on creative moments of strangeness so odd that you wouldn’t see them in a mainstream spy film–or even on The Avengers. Super Seven only features two moments of certifiable weirdness. In one, there’s a cool (though very brief) sequence in which the bad guys use a ray of some sort of immobilize our hero, causing him to see everything in negative imagery. This is particularly effective when they enter in their protective goggles, keeping them immune to the odd effects. It’s a nice moment of psychedelic surrealism, but in a movie otherwise too mundane. The other notable moment of weirdness comes from Martin’s daffy plan to disguise a woman’s dead body as a mannequin meant to model Napoleonic gear in a museum as a way of getting out of the murder frame-up the bad guys have put him in. Whichever one of the two similar-looking girls he’s with at the moment rather astutely recognizes the idea as “stupid,” but it does manage to fool the local police.

Other than those moments, the action is all rather pedestrian. In the first of several rather anticlimactic climaxes, Browne swims out to a pontoon in his clothes and has a lacklustre fight with a swimming thug in the water... not under the water, mind you, just in the water. Yawn. Then the bad guys try to run him down with their boat, but when he dives for safety, rump-up, it’s not nearly as appealing as when Raquel Welch pulls that trick in Fathom! There’s still a killing at a go-kart race and a rather obvious twist to come before a rather bland final climax involving a boat and a helicopter and a “mini-bomb” that looks like a Tic-Tac, but with none of those disparate elements interacting in the ways you’d hope they would. (For a better boat-and-helicopter Eurospy finale, see... well, see almost any of them, but particularly see Secret Agent Fireball.)

There’s certainly nothing overtly bad about Superseven Calling Cairo. (In fact, under the direction of Umberto Lenzi, it's better made than many Eurospy movies.) And that might be the problem. If it were spectacularly good entertainment or spectacularly bad entertainment, then it might overcome its rigid adherence to convention and disappointing lack of weirdness. But as it is, it’s an utterly unremarkable entry in the Eurospy cannon. It's still certainly worth a watch for die-hard devotees of the genre, but probably not worth the difficulty of tracking down for the more casual fan. That said, there’s a quality widescreen DVD available in Germany which sadly lacks an English language track or subtitles, but which served as the basis for an excellent fan-made dub (ie, combining the best available disparate audio and video elements to make a watchable English language version) by a dedicated and talented fan known as Skadog. This is the version under review.

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