Mar 25, 2010

Movie Review: Countdown To Doomsday aka Inferno a Caracas (1966)

Maybe it was just because I hadn’t watched a Eurospy movie in a while when I put on Countdown to Doomsday, but the movie struck a chord with me. It’s really in no way remarkable, but it’s just a very solid entry in the genre, smack in the middle of the road. I don’t mean “middle of the road” in a bad way, either; I mean if you want to show someone who’s never seen a Eurospy movie before an example that checks all the boxes in a thoroughly competent manner, then Countdown to Doomsday would fit the bill. (It’s not the movie to start someone on the genre, though, if you want them to get hooked; merely if you want a demonstration that makes clear exactly what the genre is.) When watching these low budget European Bond knock-offs, sometimes familiar is exactly what I want. A tried and true genre entry that doesn’t stray from the lighted path is like comfort food for me. Sometimes I don’t want originality; I just want well-done cliche. Countdown to Doomsday certainly delivers on that account.

George Ardisson, a sort of blond, Italian Steve McQueen–and a pretty compelling leading man–plays Jefferson Merlin, or, in some versions, Jeff Milton. Merlin/Milton isn’t actually a spy; he’s an international private detective. But anyone who’s seen even a few of these films knows that the actual job title doesn’t matter: agent, detective, insurance investigator; it all amounts to the same thing. When a beautiful blonde is kidnapped on the beach in Caracas, her billionaire daddy hires Merlin to go down there and find her. Merlin’s investigation naturally begins at a strip club, where pretty much all Eurospy investigations begin. Remember that computer game, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? You would go from city to city around the world and then have a choice of three places to go: airport, train station, shipyards, etc. If “strip club” were an option there, a Eurospy hero would always opt for it first. And nine times out of ten, he’d be right. (The term “strip club” itself may be a misnomer, though; it seems that in the Sixties–in Eurospyland, anyway–all nightclubs had striptease acts. So these are classy places!) Anyway the strip club reconnaissance usually pays off, and this is no exception.

It seems the millionaire’s daughter, Helen, was working as a dancer at the club, under an assumed name. A lovely dancer named Gloria (Marion Grant) fills Merlin in on this, until her suspicious, sharp-eyed boss puts a stop to it. Apparently the club is a front for drug smugglers (the drugs are sewn into the dancers' bras and panties, of course), and Helen was an undercover journalist writing a story on it.

A late night visit to Gloria’s apartment (under the auspices of seeking more information) results in kicking and punching and Merlin unconscious on the floor and Gloria dead. Obviously, Merlin's been framed as the lead suspect, and he’s soon hauled into police headquarters, where the eager captain and shady police doctor (Horst Frank) try to pin the whole drug ring on him. Luckily, Merlin's busted out by a pair of Interpol investigators who know better. Pipe-smoking, Saint Volvo-driving Shepperton (Harald Leipnitz) and oddly domestic (for a secret agent, anyway) Florence (Pascale Audret) seem like a couple, but conveniently for Merlin they’re not, leaving Florence free for him.

As Merlin conducts a rogue investigation while still wanted for murder, Shepperton pursues more official channels. Merlin’s investigating involves lots of swimming and running around shirtless in the bad guys’ hideout and leads to more punching and kicking and eventual shooting and explosions, but Shepperton’s lower-key detecting turns up more actual clues. Leipnitz has an appealing, easygoing style (especially compared to Merlin’s shoot first/forget to ask questions approach), and he proves the more likeable lead. But there’s no question that Merlin gets to have more fun. His own investigation doesn’t actually get anywhere, but it does involve a big machine gun shootout against a whole cadre of henchmen inside a cave, getting buried under a heap of sand, some genuinely impressive fight moves and a pretty cool car chase.

The kidnapping and drug smuggling plotline somehow leads to a larger scheme to destroy all the oilrigs in Caracas in a manner that will somehow enrich our villains. It doesn’t really matter how A leads to B; in a movie like this you just go with it. B is more fun, anyway, and involves Helen being stuck in a scuba suit and tied, underwater, to one of the oilrigs that’s set to explode. So, just to recap, there is no countdown to any doomsday.  There is a countdown to a debutante getting blown up with some oilrigs, but definitely not doomsday.  That's pure hyperbole.  Still, it's fun.  Unfortunately, the bad guys are all dispatched with almost ten minutes left to go in the movie. Those minutes become devoted to saving the girl and defusing the bombs, but those tasks simply aren’t as suspenseful without any villains lurking around to thwart the hero in their completion. Oh well. It’s still fun... especially when there's lots of frogmen dropping out of helicopters!  (Including Merlin.)

Countdown to Doomsday is unique, I think, in that it demonstrates the dangers inherent for a spy in making out with a girl while operating a vehicle at the end of his mission. Most spy missions end this way (in Murder For Sale, OSS 117 finishes the day making out in a helicopter as he’s still taking off, with no eye on the controls!), but rarely does the hanky-panky cause the hero to drive his jeep smack into a nearby building, as happens here. Let that be a lesson to all Eurospies out there! Keep your eyes on the road.

Countdown to Doomsday isn’t particularly special and certainly shouldn’t be your first foray into the Eurospy genre, but it is a perfectly competent movie (well, save for one especially dodgy special effect, but hey, every Wolfgang Peterson movie has one of those too, and they’re generally forgiven). It’s perfectly entertaining, and there’s really no reason that it should be relegated to an unrestored pan-and-scan gray market transfer (through Something Weird). This is the kind of thing that should be shown on late-night or Sunday afternoon television. With more channels now than ever, why on earth isn’t there one left that shows this sort of movie? There should be. It’s an agreeable way to waste an hour and a half.

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