Jun 14, 2012

DVD Review: Our Man in Casablanca (aka Killers Are Challenged) (1966)

Thanks to Njuta Films, finishing up where Fin de Siecle left off, we now have the complete trilogy of Bob Fleming Eurospy movies on DVD. For the uninitiated, Eurospy movies were cheaply-made James Bond knock-offs produced at the height of 1960s Bondmania in Italy and Germany and France and wherever else they could scrape together a girl and a gun against a fairly exotic backdrop. Since these movies were expressly designed to cash in on the 007 phenomenon, they usually had titles and heroes evocative of that series—titles like From the Orient with Fury or Goldginger and heroes like OSS 177, James Tont, or, in one of the most egregious examples, Agent 077. (Bob Fleming, whose own name is clearly intended to recall James Bond’s creator, was sometimes referred to as 077—especially on the posters—but these movies are unrelated to the rival Eurospy series in which Ken Clark essayed the “original” 077, Dick Malloy.)

The Bob Fleming series (all entries in which were penned by future giallomeister Ernesto Gastaldi) kicked off with 1965’s Secret Agent Fireball starring the agreeable but aggressively bland Richard Harrison. It wrapped up a year later with the (2006) Casino Royale-like franchise reboot Fury in Marrakesh, in which Stephen Forsyth took over the role playing a younger, leaner Fleming fresh out of spy school. (I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek giving it credit as a prequel; in all likelihood the only real thought that went into it was that by using the same name the producers could at least piggyback on the moderate success of their first two films. I don’t know why Harrison was unavailable.) Those two movies were both released on DVD in crisp widescreen transfers by Swedish company Fin de Siecle. (Reviews here and here, respectively.) In between them, however, came another Harrison entry called Our Man in Casablanca (also known as Killers Are Challenged), and now it’s finally made an appearance on another impressive widescreen Swedish DVD, this time from Njuta Films.

The other two Bob Fleming pictures were directed by Luciano Martino, but for this entry Italian horror specialist Antonio Margheriti stepped in. (He’s credited on this print by his frequent English pseudonym Anthony Dawson, and shouldn’t be confused with the actor of that name who appeared in Dr. No.) Marghereti (who was hilariously name-checked in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) made surprisingly few Eurospy movies, but his other primary entry in the genre (excepting the solid giallo Naked You Die, which takes a strange spy twist only in its final minutes), Lightning Bolt, is one of my favorites, so I was quite keen to see his take on Bob Fleming. Unfortunately, Our Man in Casablanca is probably the weakest entry in the series, and while it appears to have a bigger budget than Lightning Bolt (or maybe the beautiful North African locations just give that impression), it lacks the wild creativity that made that film so much fun. Nevertheless, those locations, serviceable lead Harrison, and a veritable all-star roster of the genre’s most beautiful women (not to mention Njuta’s high-quality transfer) all make it still worth watching for fans of the genre.

Killers Are Challenged (in his review at 4DK, fellow blogger Todd pointed out that it seems rather unsporting for a spy to take on killers who are challenged) begins in a very confusing manner: there’s a man in a cemetery with a flashlight and a toy helicopter that blows up and a plastic surgery patient wrapped up in bandages and some ladies (Janine Reynaud and Mitsouko) in some sort of command center, and then there’s Richard Harrison chasing the guy with a new face. Only after all that do we finally cut to the standard spy briefing (held, as per Eurospy tradition, in the standard room with the standard curtain subbing for one wall; boss’s offices with four walls were well beyond the budgetary limitations of most Eurospy flicks), in which we finally learn that the guy with a new face (called Coleman) is a scientist who was “doing research on the structure of molecules.” Okay, now we’re getting somewhere!

These productions could rarely afford four solid walls for their office sets
Evidently Coleman’s made some real breakthroughs in the structure of molecules (we learn later that he’s fashioned them into that perpetual spy Macguffin, an alternative energy source), because “all-American agent Bob Fleming” (as Harrison’s character is introduced) and his boss want to keep him alive. To do that, they immediately kill him. Well, not really. They give him an elixir that simulates death long enough to transport him in a coffin. Coleman understandably has a few misgivings about this plan, so Fleming reassures him by telling him, “We’ll treat you like a ton of dynamite we don’t want to explode.” Um, okay. Is that a good way to be treated? Evidently it’s not quite good enough an assurance for Coleman, who still checks the drink he’s given with his very clever gadget first. It’s a ring that detects poisons.

“If there had been arsenic in the drink,” he explains, “the synthetic jewel in my ring would have lit up.” In other words, the prop department had an ordinary ring and wanted to make it an impressive gadget, so they did so with dialogue! And it’s precisely that kind of ingenuity that makes Eurospy movies so enjoyable. This movie’s full of that sort of gadget, like an impressive little doohickey that’s really a bomb.

But really-really, of course, it’s just a doohickey. Like something you might find in that drawer in your kitchen where you’ve stuck random things and parts of things that you have no idea what they are, but are fairly certain you’ll need one of these days. (We’ve all got a drawer like that, right?) Whatever it is, it’s small and has a moving part. Okay, I’ll buy that that’s a bomb! Well played, prop department, well played.

Fleming sets out impersonating Coleman, figuring that since everyone knows he had plastic surgery, the muscle-bound former peplum star can pass easily for the sickly-skinny scientist. Sure enough, this ruse succeeds; it makes everyone else want to kill him. Fleming plays the same trick on one of these would-be assassins at an airport that James Bond later plays on such a man at a different airport in Miami: he manages to covertly slip the guy’s bomb (which he’s just planted on Fleming) back onto the assassin himself, then smiles at him from a safe distance, raising a toast as the bomb goes off, blowing up the challenged killer instead of the spy.

In the noble Eurospy tradition of heroes who are jerks (brilliantly sent up in Michel Hazanivicius’ modern OSS 117 parodies), Bob Fleming is as suave as ever. In the film’s opening moments, when a hospital orderly tries to stop him from entering Coleman’s room by explaining that it’s past visiting hours (in other words, just doing his job!), Fleming lifts the little man up and hangs him by his coat on a handy coat rack, chuckling at his expense. You can tell he was the jock in high school who liked to give nerds like Coleman a good flushing.

Later, when he accidentally offends a local in a club and the man approaches him threatening, “Why, I’ll teach you…” Fleming cuts him off with a quick karate chop to the face, quipping to the man’s date (who’s naturally impressed by this alpha male display, rather than distraught about her unconscious boyfriend), “I’ve had all the elocution lessons I can stand.” While this sort of line in Eurospy movies usually demonstrates that no one but Sean Connery or James Coburn can pull them off without coming off like a jerk, Harrison actually acquits himself better than most. He even gets credited by a poolside beauty (Black Sabbath’s gorgeous Susy Anderson) with “the best opening line I’ve heard all week.” The line (a groaner about always carrying the “tools of his trade” when he goes swimming) wasn’t that great, but if she’s been listening to rival Eurospies all week (like maybe Kommissar X) then perhaps her standards have been dulled. I guess it is a better line than they usually come up with. Later, to put him back in his place after building him up so much, she also tells him, “I’ve been kissed better by my dachshund.”

Fleming even puts the moves on the real Coleman’s wife! (So much for that dynamite business.) He walks in on her while she’s showering in her hotel room, in fact, which was apparently bound to happen to any beautiful woman staying in any hotel in the Sixties (at least after Thunderball). So often, in fact, that they all became inured to it—including Mrs. Coleman, who’s played by Lightning Bolt knockout Wandisa Guida. Despite all his womanizing, however, when Fleming talks in his sleep, he doesn’t call out a girl’s name. Instead he cries, “Johnny Walker!” (Maybe that only happens after he’s been knocked out.)

"Don't mind me spying on you in the shower. I'm a professional spy."
Bob Fleming isn’t only a jerk to women. He also gives enemy agents a hard time. In a riff on Dr. No’s Professor Dent scene, he’s not content with a simple, bad-ass quip like, “you’ve had your six.” Instead, when an assassin enters Fleming’s hotel room armed with a machine gun and shoots up the figure in the bed, Fleming childishly taunts, “Missed me!” The confused assassin fires more. At that point, Fleming approaches him from behind (surprised?) and reveals the figure in the bed to be a creepy dummy. (Where he got it is unclear.) “You sure fell for that old chestnut,” he snarks. Fortunately, a surprisingly impressive fight ensues as the two men tear up the small hotel room, the assassin dons some nasty spiked knuckledusters, and Harrison performs some very commendable backflips. That fight alone is worth the price of admission. Seriously, this is what Richard Harrison does, and he does it well. It's not his doofy leer that got him cast, it's his first class fight moves.

Besides good action, Killers Are Challenged also boasts some good comedic moments. When Fleming instructs the local comic-relief cab driver to “take us some place with a little charm,” if you’re not already expecting a cut to a belly dancer then you’ve obviously never seen a Eurospy movie before. As it turns out, this proves to be one of the better cuts to belly dancing that I’ve seen, as when the camera pulls out, the belly dancer is soon joined by furiously boogying clubgoers, boogying in that particularly amusing and unbridled manner in which they do only in Sixties movies.

The satisfying comedic moment comes when we’re treated to some great shots later of these revelers dancing with no music, because Fleming’s got a receiver in his ear to listen to the bug he planted on Mitsouko. It’s pretty funny watching those herky-jerky Sixties dance moves to the barely diagetic soundtrack of an ordinary conversation.

Fleming probably wouldn't care anyway, but the unfortunate side effect of that conversation is that it puts Mitsouko’s character’s loyalty in question, and results in her being stripped and whipped by Reynaud for allowing herself to be so easily bugged.

The ostensible villain is introduced with a close-up of a sunbathing beauty and luxury hotel patio reflected in his mirrored shades, which makes for a pretty cool introduction. We then pull out to reveal that he’s a wheelchair-bound, cigar-chomping Texas oilman, complete with a hilariously dubbed “Texan” drawl. Coleman’s “damned invention” apparently makes petroleum obsolete, hence the ire of the Texan oilman. (And here the bashful scientist had us believe it was all just about molecules!)

Once Bob starts tangling with the Texan, the action begins to heat up. The comic relief cab driver turns out to be former Scotland Yard, which evidently means he gets his cab equipped with gadgets like a horn that sprays cement on pursuing cars and people. And a novelty box with a fake snake that pops out is submitted for the audience’s approval as a real snake, and a deadly one at that, meant to kill Fleming.

"This is what I think of your foreign culture!"
This bit leads to a shootout in a crowded Arab market (inevitable for a Middle-East set Eurospy movie) and a chase across scenic North African rooftops (also inevitable, but no less spectacular for its inevitability).

If all this is sounding pretty good to you, then besides being a person after my own heart, you’re probably wondering why I opened up by stating that Killers Are Challenged proves to be the least of the Bob Fleming movies. Well, besides the initial confusion, that mainly comes from one horrible scene. One horrible, interminable scene.

Towards the end, there’s an elaborate (and reeaaaly long) barroom brawl for absolutely no reason. Okay, it’s a delaying tactic, but it still hardly seems necessary, and it plays like the editor accidentally spliced on the last reel from one of Harrison’s Spaghetti Westerns instead of a spy movie. On the plus side, it does include a midget wearing a fez (and dubbed with a “hilarious” incongruous Bluto voice), and the befezzed midget does bite someone on the ankle, which is the very least you can hope for if you’re stuck watching a barroom brawl in a Eurospy movie.

But the audience is also asked to endure even more cringe-worthy jokes like a guy getting his pants set on fire, food fights, and a huge man with his head stuck in a chair frame charging like a bull to give Fleming the chance to yell “Ole!” And a player piano that starts going when someone rams into it. All of this goes on quite literally forever, and it really takes the wind out of the film’s sails in the third act. On top of the lameness of the barroom brawl, there’s no real classic spy finale to make up for it and erase its memory, leaving us feeling good about the film. Instead, you leave remembering that awful, interminable bar fight, borrowed from another genre! An interminable underwater sequence ripping off Thunderball would have been fine, because at least it’s the right genre. A cavernous villain’s lair with an interminable self-destruct countdown, ala Margheriti’s other Eurospy entry, Lightning Bolt, would have been even better. But this Spaghetti Western castoff is unacceptable, and no way to end a spy movie. Furthermore, Coleman decides that the world isn’t ready for his discovery anyway (I guess that’s why we don’t drive around in molecule-fuelled vehicles these days), basically negating everything we’ve just watched.

Wandisa Guida

Killers Are Challenged has a lot going for it: Harrison is a pretty likable spy-guy, the women are plentiful and all stunning to the number (Anderson takes the top spot, with Guida close behind), the locations are suitably breathtaking (especially the rooftops), that hotel room fight is fantastic, and the jokes are (mostly) actually funny—particularly the silent dancing bit, and also a gag where the villainess steals some poor sucker’s car, and when someone else stops to help him, Fleming steals his car while they commiserate. And I’ll even admit to a certain lowbrow taste and say that midget in a fez biting the guy’s ankle was the single highlight of the awful bar fight. But, man, that bar fight…

Susy Anderson

The movie’s cons are equally numerous. There’s no satisfactory denouement, that horrible, horrible barroom brawl that goes on forever, the plot’s hard to follow at first and doesn’t really come together all that well at the end, either; the villain is lackluster, and there’s basically only one location (barring a quick car chase in Geneva at the very end), even if it’s a good one (Casablanca). And did I mention the barroom brawl? All in all, I’m afraid the cons outweigh the pros. But if you just turn it off before its final act, you’ll be treated to enough good spy action and such an amazing abundance of beautiful women (even for a Eurospy movie, which are always packed with them) that genre enthusiasts with Region 2 players are still encouraged to track down Njuta’s impressive DVD (which also makes ample use of the spectacular original poster art on its menu screens). If you haven’t seen any Bob Fleming films yet, however, then I’d recommend opting for the thoroughly enjoyable insanity of Fury in Marrakesh first.

I'll leave you now with three final examples of Richard Harrison demonstrating typical Eurospy suaveness:

The Region 2 PAL DVD of Our Man in Casablanca (Killers Are Challenged) is available in America via importer Diabolik DVD. (It goes in and out of stock, so keep checking back.)

For other opinions on this film, you can watch a video review at Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill, and Jeremy Duns, author of the Paul Dark spy series, left his own thoughts on the movie in a comment on my post about its DVD release here.

Read my review of Secret Agent Fireball, starring Richard Harrison as Bob Fleming, here.

Read my review of Fury in Marrakesh, starring Stephen Forsythe as Bob Fleming, here.


Christopher Mills said...

Thanks for the review. I finally got a multi-region DVD player, so next time I get some extra cash, I'll try and get these from Diabolik. Unfortunately, every time I think to check, they seem to be out of stock.


Jerry Smith said...

Hey Tanner, this is very interesting post, covering with great info of most popular show, thousands of fan of this show and I also really like it and want to DVD set like are you afraid of the dark DVD set

Jack J said...


Are you sure this film is also released as "Our Man in Casablanca"? I realise that this is what the Swedish title means literally translated - but the English title isn't listed on IMDb.

The reason I'm asking is because I was trying to look up ANOTHER film by the same English title but this one was directed by Tulio Demicheli and is known in Italian as "Il nostro agente a Casablanca" (Italy/Spain 1966).

Tanner said...

You're right, Jack; there is another movie by that name with Lang Jeffries. I have that, too, but haven't gotten around to reviewing it yet. If you've got any questions about it, you can email me at doubleosection yahoo.com and I can try to help you. But Killers Are Challenged was also apparently released by that title in Sweden; at least that's how their DVD was issued. (I generally used the title as on the DVD I'm reviewing in my reviews.) I suppose I should add "077" to the title here to differentiate it from the Jeffries film.

Tanner said...

(Of course, that's misleading, too, since this isn't actually part of the actual 077 series [with Ken Clark], but the Bob Fleming series!)

Jack J said...

Hi again. Thanks for your reply. I have the Lang Jeffried movie but not "Killers Are Challenged/Vår man i Casablanca".

The IMDb doesn't list "Our Man in Casablanca" as an alternative title for "Killers Are Challenged" (but needless to say the IMDb is far from perfect). So I respectfully wondered if you might simply have confused the two due to the Swedish language title?

Tanner said...

Oh, no; I wasn't mixing it up with the Jeffries one; I was just going by the name on the box. It's not the on-screen title in the print, if that clarifies things. (That's the English language "Killers Are Challenged" title.) But it's the English translation of the Swedish title on the DVD, which is why I used it in reviewing that disc. I don't think it was released in any English-speaking territories under that title. I suspect it's just an IMDb oversight that it's not listed as an alternative in translation. (These Eurospy movies often had so many different titles!) I assume the company chose it because that's how it was originally released in Sweden, but even if they picked it out of the blue, it should be added as "DVD Title" or something.

This Swedish DVD release was the first I'd ever heard of this film being known by that title; it's also not listed as an alternative in the essential Eurospy Guide. (But even the Guide is also far from complete when it comes to alternate titles used in other countries.)