Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Matchless (1966)

The opening credits of Alberto Lattuada’s Matchless (aka Mission Top Secret) consist of shots (mostly closeups) of various beakers, flasks, and so forth churning with all manner of colored “chemicals.”  It’s a setup straight out of the Mad Scientists’ Playbook, though at the time this film was made, it would probably be more familiar from Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor to the younger viewers in the audience (and Lattuada would most likely be more familiar to cinephiles of the time for something like his adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat).  But I thought of neither of those during the film’s start.  My first thought was of Professor Julius Sumner Miller.  In my youth, our local PBS station, WVIA, would show a program called Science Demonstrations, and it was hosted by Miller.  On the program, he would wander around his low-rent lab set and give short lectures and demonstrations on physics (one of the first things he would say on each episode was, “…and physics is my business”).  The shows were informal and fairly crude, and most people who remember Miller at all probably do so because he had a distinctive look about him which was topped (quite literally) by a scraggly head of hair that would have made Mark Blankfield in Jekyll And Hyde…Together Again weep. 
However, my fondness for Miller goes a bit beyond the real-world trappings which most people view with a sense of kitsch or irony.  I truly admire Miller, because he was enthusiastic.  Here was a man who thrilled at the concepts of Newton’s Third Law of Physics, who delighted in the idea that water behaves as much like a lens as it does a hydrating element (The Professor appeared on the Canadian program Hilarious House Of Frightenstein, as well).  More than that, he was delighted to share his insights with people.  His desire was to inspire learning, to actively engage young minds and stimulate them to see the world through a new set of eyes, and he dismayed at the failures of our educational system.  “We are approaching a darkness in the land. Boys and girls are emerging from every level of school with certificates and degrees, but they can't read, write or calculate. We don't have academic honesty or intellectual rigor. Schools have abandoned integrity and rigor."  Now, I’m sure there those who would take the preceding statement as corny or archaic, but as Euripides wrote in The Bacchae, “Talk sense to a fool, and he calls you foolish.”   Frankly, I think Miller was right back then and even more so today.  But I also think that, if there were more teachers like Julius Sumner Miller, this would likely not be the case.  There is a difference between hearing and listening, and Miller was one of those people who got you to listen and thus to learn.
Journalist Perry Liston (Patrick O’Neal) is being tortured by the Communist Chinese for information as to why he is in their country (evidently not much).  Liston proves resilient, and the Reds chuck him back into his cell, which he shares with actual spy Hank (Henry Silva) and an elderly, moribund Chinese peasant who Hank wishes would die more quietly.  Perry shows the old man compassion, and in return the peasant gifts Perry with a very ugly ring.  However, the ring has the unique ability of making its wearer (but not his/her clothes) completely invisible for twenty minutes once every ten hours.  Perry effects his escape back to America (kind of involuntarily) and is enlisted by the military (including Boss Hogg himself, Sorrell Booke as Colonel Coolpepper) to steal a vial-stuffed briefcase from one Gregori Andreanu (Donald Pleasance).  But even with the help of artist-cum-spy Arabella (Ira von Fürstenberg) and his own distinct advantages, the job may not be as easy as it seems.
There is an interesting juxtaposition going on in Matchless, and it is one of sides; not sides as in planes which make up an object but sides as in “whose side are you on?”  We are introduced to the Red Menace villains of the piece as they torture Perry on a centrifugal motion device.  We then see they have given four soldiers plastic surgery to appear as WASPs for a Battle of the Bulge sort of infiltration of America.  After Perry is drugged by O-Lan (the gorgeous Elisabetta Wu), the film cuts to the same opening shot from Perry’s POV, and we assume he is on the same centrifugal motion device, about to be interrogated again by the Chinese.  Well, he is on the same device, but he is now in America, and he is being tortured and interrogated by the American military.  Coincidentally, the Americans also have four soldiers who have been given plastic surgery and are ready to be sent to infiltrate China.  This equation of the Chinese and Americans sets up a question of trust (and of brains, since neither side can come up with any ideas better than their enemy’s).  Both sides think and act exactly the same, and they distrust anything outside their basic purview. 
Even the agents working for America cannot be trusted by Perry as is setup in his encounter with O-Lan, and this will shade the relationship with Arabella to some degree (though her being an artist separates her in the viewer’s mind from the regulation-oriented military somewhat).  Hank is a venal opportunist who will betray his sworn allegiance for some money and a chance to save his own skin.  The Americans refuse to tell Perry what’s in the vials he is supposed to snatch (turning the case into a MacGuffin a la Kiss Me Deadly, Repo Man, etcetera, though we do see the vials rather than just an enigmatic glow), baldly displaying their distrust of a man they are entrusting to carry out an extraordinarily important mission.  Unlike so many other films in the Superspy genre, there is a cynical, antiauthoritarian streak going on in the film.  There is no beneficent government looking out for “the good side’s” best interest, just the same as there is no evil empire intent on dominating the world.  The two are one and the same; the only real difference being their map coordinates.  Essentially, all governments are bent, and the only person Perry (read: common folk) can truly trust is Perry. 
Perry’s invisibility schtick is also meaningful outside of its narrative function.  Whenever he uses the ring, he must be completely unclothed.  Thus, he is both well-defended as well as completely defenseless.  He is literally stripped bare, and this fits with O’Neal’s casual attitude toward everything that happens in the film, funny enough.  The invisibility also provides a counterpoint to the villainous Gregori’s outlook on the world.  Andreanu believes “in science and accuracy,” his estate populated by serving robots with clocks for heads (a play both on the idea of clockwork men and Gregori’s obsession with precision).  Also, when Gregori gets upset (despite his deep belief that he leads a “Zen” lifestyle), he insists on putting on a pair of sunglasses to make his eyes invisible to anyone who happens to be looking.  Perry, by contrast, takes everything off and goes with the flow of things, embodying more of the Zen philosophy than Gregori could ever buy or build.  The two symbolize the opposites of everything versus nothing, technology versus primitive, intellect versus instinct.  Perry wants to blend in, Gregori wants to stand out.
The film’s sense of humor is broad but never egregiously so (Hank watches The Man From AUNTIE on television, just to give you a taste).  Lattuada’s direction is solid, and his shot choices provide for interesting viewing, by and large (and there are healthy doses of tastefully enticing T&A throughout).  The Superspy elements are handled rather well, and the action elements (with the exception of a dull-as-shit car chase at the end) are tense and exciting (especially the central set piece at the bank).  At times, the film dips from the realm of Superspy/Super-Science into almost pure fantasy, but it never feels disconcerting.  In fact, I would argue that the film would have benefited by going just a step or two further down that road.  The visual effects, especially those involving invisibility, are surprisingly accomplished, and there are only a few times when an object appears to be just suspended on fishing line.  Matchless is a light adventure, nonetheless.  No one’s life will be changed by watching it for either good or ill, and as an entertainment I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the film’s title, but I would go so far as to say it isn’t joyless.
MVT:  Superspy films of this era have a certain flavor, whether they like it or not, and that Swingin’ 60s aesthetic is the thing I liked most about this movie.  The “Space Age” technology, the hiphugger fashions, the “everything’s a happening” attitude all add up into a decent little ambience package that fits the film nicely.
Make Or Break:  The Make for me was the first scene with Silva in the Chinese prison.  Here’s a guy who is so self-centered, he cannot bear having to listen to another man quietly drawing his final breaths because they’re keeping him awake.  It’s pure Silva doing what Silva does best, and it fits the odd-yet-blithe timbre of the picture.
Score:  6.25/10 

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