Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Avenger X (1967)

I used to have a small yellow afghan (blanket, not hound).  It would be more accurate to say that my family used to have a small yellow afghan.  It was about two feet by three feet, and it was as plain as an afghan could be.  Its yellow was not brilliant, more like the color of lemonade, maybe a shade deeper.  When it wasn’t covering up sick kids or cold feet, it substituted as the cape to my own personal superhero costume (add one safety pin and go).  It didn’t matter if the color didn’t match whichever character I was playing.  What mattered was that it was just the right size for me at that time.  For me, this is the encapsulation of what made American comic books great when I was a tyke.  They were for kids, and they didn’t make much sense, but they were loaded with imagination, and that counted for a lot.  

On the other hand, my experience with European comics isn’t nearly as extensive, but they tend to be far more mature in content if not necessarily in approach (look at the ultra-popular work of creators like Crepax, Jodorowsky, Manara, et cetera).  But what they also had is an emphasis on criminals (costumed and non) as protagonists.  Everything from Diabolik to Kriminal and back again, these are characters who we in the States would likely read about battling against a superhero like Batman and getting locked up in Arkham Asylum.  Of course, the atmosphere in American comics today has swung closer to this European model, mostly because the readership is generally older than they used to be.  By this I mean that comics were aimed at about an eight to twelve-year-old male readership for many decades, and this audience would turn over and restart, but then more and more readers didn’t stop reading comics.  These older readers then became comics creators, and they consequently started making books for people their own age and so on.  It’s a bit more complex than that, but we’re not here to spend the whole day on this.  I’m just pointing out that there is a cultural difference between American and “World” comics which results in films like Piero Vivarelli’s Avenger X (aka Mister X), for better or worse.

George Lamarr (Armando Calvo) is a CEO and a drug kingpin whose subterfuge is discovered by secretary/sexbomb Veronica (Nieves Salcedo).  When she tells him that she wants him to marry her in order to keep her quiet, she winds up dead, an X stamped in her forehead.  Naturally, Inspector Roux (the gloriously-named Franco Fantasia) recognizes this as the mark of master criminal Mister X (Pier Paolo Capponi), who was believed dead.  Also naturally, the very much alive X takes offense at someone using his modus operandi, and worse, using it incorrectly (he would never stamp his X on a woman’s head).  So, gangsters gotta pay.

Disguises for comic book characters are generally used to hide a secret identity, to protect a character and the people he/she knows who may be hurt by their enemies.  It can be argued whether the costume and the alter ego are one and the same (which they can be, though they almost always behave differently, the amplification of certain personality traits over others being kind of the whole point), whether they are different personae, which one is the “true” self, and which is repressed.  And depending upon the character, you would come up with different interpretations (or even multiple interpretations for any given one).  X does wear a costume from time to time (essentially a knockoff of Lee Falk’s The Phantom with a large “X” on his belt buckle), but it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things.  This is because he acts exactly the same in or out of costume.  He changes not at all, plain-clothed or not.  If anything, his comic book costume is merely one more affectation, a way to draw attention to himself rather than to deflect scrutiny.  You can argue that so many of these types of characters are the same way, but somehow it just falls completely flat with this one.  By that same token, X is a master of disguise (like Fantomas, Sherlock Holmes, or Pistachio Disguisey), and he uses these skills to walk among his enemies.  This illustrates for us exactly how he regards his lifestyle, and that is blithely.  He couldn’t care less about the lives of anyone around him (maybe with the exception of squeeze Timy [Gaia Germani]), and further, all of this is little more than a game to him, a lark.  His “good” name gets sullied, and he starts killing people (as well as trying to turn a tidy profit).  

Naturally, this brings up the debate over whether fictional characters need to be likable, and I don’t think they do.  However, they do need to be interesting enough to want to follow, and I think X is not.  He is a poor imitation of Diabolik with none of Diabolik’s more charming attributes.  Diabolik is all but a mute.  X talks constantly and says sweet fuck all.  Diabolik’s plans are clever and engaging.  X barely makes plans at all, his scheming more a hammer than a scalpel.  Diabolik’s haughty attitude is loaded with sexy style.  X’s haughty attitude is loaded with repulsive smarm.  Bearing this in mind, the characters in this film are divided into three social levels.  The working men are represented by characters like Roux, and they are generally dim-witted and gullible, ineffectual and harmless.  The gangsters are lower class, playing at their patrician machinations.  They have lavish, chic parties, and they sit around playing at pulling strings.  But at the drop of a hat, they would turn on one another, and whether this marks them as proletarian or bourgeois is up for discussion (as much as anything in this film can be).  X is the only truly upper class person in the film.  He considers the work of people like Lamarr to be “vulgar.”  He has tea served by a geisha.  He is a world-class golf champion.  He knows that going to Capri in March is out of season and oh-so-common.  Unfortunately, he’s also not nearly as witty as he thinks, and he’s insufferably snobby.  

I blame a lot of the problems with this film on the wretched screenwriting, which apes the genre in which it’s set, but like a voice actor (or any actor, for that matter) who can’t do accents, it winds up just being embarrassing in execution.  For example, it took over twenty minutes of screen time for the first action scene to hit.  It took more than twenty more for the next one.  The plot, such as it is, is little more than a series of plot conveniences, and it follows a flat line rather than the standard peaks and valleys (witness: the intermittent snooping of Roux simply for the sake of being a monkey wrench and sucking up some time).  Likewise, the direction is bland and truly uninspired (like so much else on display here), and the aforementioned action scenes aren’t exciting, period.  Instead of being stylish and sexy like the Bond films it is clearly influenced by, Avenger X manages to be patently unattractive.  How else do you explain a film where the women, played by some genuinely lovely ladies (including the dazzling Helga Line), are treated as nothing more than humdrum arm candy with an emphasis on the fashions they wear rather than on the tease of their disrobing?  The old saw says, “X marks the spot.”  Not so much with this one.

MVT:  X’s costume is the most interesting thing about the film, and considering how weak it is, that ain’t saying much.

Make Or Break:  The break is not a scene.  The break is that the film is loaded with tepid scenes of people lounging, and talking, and swilling booze rather than anything happening for lengthy periods of time.  What you see and what you get are two totally different things with Avenger X.

Score:  4/10

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