May 26, 2015

Movie Review: The Black Box Affair aka Il Mondo Trema (1966)

Okay, here’s the story with this one: someone had access to a funfair and so they decided to make a spy movie. That story could end a lot of ways (like the one about the guy with access to California scrubland who decided to make a spy movie), but surprisingly, the product ultimately cranked out by director Marcello Ciorciolini (Tom Dollar) under the name "James Harris" turned out pretty darn well, all things considered! It’s true that at least three crucial (and lengthy) scenes take place at said funfair (though in the film it’s supposed to be a couple of different funfairs in Hamburg and Vienna), but the real surprises here are—shockingly, for a totally formulaic Eurospy movie—the character moments.

The Black Box Affair is an incredibly low-budget Italian riff on the German buddy Eurospy formula perfected by the inseparable Tony Kendall and Brad Harris in the Kommissar X series and emulated in movies like Scorpions and Miniskirts. (Even the Jerry Cotton movies employ this two-hander strategy to some degree, though there’s no question that Phil is subservient to Jerry rather than an equal partner.) Here, the lead spy guy is John Grant, played by American actor Craig Hill (The Swinger). The producers were incredibly lucky with this casting, because Hill has not only charm and credible fight moves, but also the acting chops to make us care about a Eurospy hero who is, quite atypically for the genre, a tad more fleshed out than usual. (By which I mean that he is not just a stick figure... though I wouldn’t go so far as to call him exactly full-figured.)

The Black Box Affair begins in media res, with Grant gallivanting in some truly gorgeous Italian lakeside scenery. He heads for a big country house, but before he can even get in the door—before we even know his name, no less!—he finds himself attacked right off the bat by some gardeners working the grounds. He fights them off, makes his way inside, fights some more assailants… and discovers that his old spy boss, Mr. X, has commandeered his friend’s house where Grant was hoping to spend a peaceful vacation. All the fighting was a test to see if he was still up to snuff after being out of the spy game for two years. You see, John Grant’s carrying a bit more baggage than your average Eurospy hero. He’s been retired ever since his last assignment got his wife killed. (His general attitude is still overall Eurospy Guy though, meaning grief doesn’t place him above leering at the odd beauty.) Luckily for us (since we are here for spy action, not grief drama), he’s lured back in when Mr. X reveals that the man responsible for his wife’s death, top KGB agent Fabian, has resurfaced. Yes, Grant wants the assignment! And with Grant’s reactivation, he’s re-teamed with his old partner, Pablo (Luis Marin), in keeping with the typical German buddy formula.

Pablo, unfortunately, is kind of annoying. His “thing” is that he’s a ventriloquist—and not really a great one at that. This skill isn’t used for any cool spy moments, but instead for a few lousy attempts at comic relief. It was apparently a big part of Pablo and Grant’s past partnership that they called each other “Apache” and “Paleface,” respectively. This leads to far too much cringe-worthy “Apache”/“Paleface” dialogue between them—as if Jerry Westerby had maintained his annoying “Red Indian” banter with Smiley from his brief scene in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy throughout the duration of The Honourable Schoolboy as well, if I may bring a highbrow spy reference into a lowbrow spy review. These partners are far more interesting—and funnier—when they reminisce about a fellow agent who was “so caught up in James Bond he changed his name to Sean.” (He was killed in a gadget-related accident.)

Grant quickly manages to flush out Fabian, but the two enemies discover that they may be on the same side of this odd black box affair. The titular black box in question is a randomly assigned MacGuffin that is never actually seen, but which allows a nefarious third party (probably the Chinese, Grant quickly concludes—in part, probably, since the German Eurospy movies always seem to have an odd racist agenda against the Chinese and this Italian movie is trying to be German) to pit the Americans and Soviets against each other by sending and verifying fake nuclear strike orders to their planes. For the sake of the mission the two will work together for now in an effort to prevent a war between their countries that’s in the interest of neither. They may even be more alike than either realized. “You can’t forgive yourself for involving the person you loved in our dirty business,” says Fabian sensibly between puffs on his cigarette. “Many years ago something similar happened to me.” Despite this bit of free psychoanalysis, Grant vows to kill Fabian as soon as the assignment is over. But, crucially, not yet.

It’s a good thing The Black Box Affair has this surprisingly strong character dynamic, because its pitiful budget limits it in other departments. Far too much time is spent, for instance, with Grant and Pablo following people around in cars while explaining why—and where these people are going—via voiceover dialogue like in Joseph Losey’s messy Modesty Blaise. (At least the Lake Garda scenery is uniformly beautiful in these long and pointless drives.) Furthermore, much of the action happens on the soundtrack rather than on film. When Grant cleverly books a decoy ticket to Istanbul to throw his pursuers off the track, for example, he and other shocked onlookers at the airport watch as the plane he would have been on explodes on takeoff. The filmmakers couldn’t even afford to stick a firecracker in a toy jet, though, so we the audience only hear the explosion, while watching the onlookers. (The really disturbing thing, though, is how unconcerned Grant seems about inadvertently getting a whole commercial airliner blown up! Instead, he plays it cool when an airline rep tells him he was lucky he missed his flight.)

Likewise, we only hear rather than see a major shootout toward the end of the movie. Clever, that. Even the final final shootout, which takes place in some very dark woods, happens mainly aurally (although they do crush a real car with a crane). In fact, it sounds like the sound mixer simply spliced on the audio from a war movie. We hear scores of continuously firing machine guns over a small group of spies in the forest shooting at each other with pistols!

The best trick with the soundtrack, however, is the score by Gianni Ferrio (Danger!! Death Ray). Either the producers spared no expense on the music in order to elevate their cheapo film, or else Ferrio delivered far above and beyond what he was paid for. A great score makes even a low budget movie like this one seem much more expensive, and Ferrio delivers one of the best Eurospy scores here, from the catchy title song about black boxes to the hero’s theme to some particularly moody underscore for the more dramatic moments. (And, happily, it’s available on CD!)

And those dramatic moments, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, are indeed effective. Grant gets his final showdown with Fabian, and the outcome is surprisingly mature for this genre. In fact, the dramatic climax actually works much better than the action climax, and I really can’t believe I’m typing that about a Eurospy movie. I’m not saying it’s perfect, mind you. The parallels between Grant and Fabian could have been explored in more detail and been even more satisfying, but I was just so taken aback to find them there at all that that was enough for me. And on top of the drama, the film’s got some good comedy, too, like a pair of agents who greet each other by saying, “That sounded like an agreed dialogue between two secret agents in a thriller movie,” and, “Oh, but I hate secret agents!” Amusing dialogue, a great score, and an unexpected emotional throughline elevate The Black Box Affair well above its overall cheapness and transparent “we have access to a funfair” origins. It’s worth seeking out. (And the carnival setting also guarantees us the requisite hallucinatory funhouse sequence, which is always worth the price of admission!)

As for black boxes, tomorrow I’ll review another Eurospy flick that uses the same particular MacGuffin in its title as well. Stay tuned…


janclerques marinho de melo said...

Nós temos uma versão em inglês desse filme, que assistimos quando jovem.

jhon paola said...

Pablo, unfortunately, is kind of annoying. His “thing” is that he’s a ventriloquist—and not really a great one at that. This skill isn’t used for any cool spy moments, but instead for a few lousy attempts at comic relief.

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