Monday, May 24, 2010

Secret Agent Super Dragon (United Screen Arts, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we watched last night was a really terrible one: Secret Agent Super Dragon, an incredibly lame James Bond ripoff from an Italian producer, Roberto Amoroso (“he’s a very loving producer,” I joked), though in a co-production arrangement common in Europe then and now common in the U.S. as well, as production costs have ballooned to the point where almost no single company can afford to finance a major feature, it had four studio credits — Films Borderie, Fono Roma, Gloria-Film GmbH, and Ramo Film — while the U.S. distributor (and probably the people responsible for the terrible English dubbing) was an outfit called “United Screen Arts.” We were watching it on a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 archive disc, and while dullness seems to have been one of the things the MST3K crew decided to look for when determining what films were bad enough for them to mock on air, this time they overdid it.

Secret Agent Super Dragon is one of those incredibly lame Italian production where some of the names of the people in the credits were “Anglicized” — director (or at least camera-pointer) Giorgio Ferroni was billed as “Calvin Jackson Padget” — and some weren’t; Ferroni took his co-writing credit under his real Italian name. Most of Secret Agent Super Dragon was filmed in Amsterdam — though a lot of the cityscapes were pretty obviously process work — still, the authentic Dutch locations (including a building with a mock windmill on its side and the English-language sign “Holland Souvenirs” — one of the MST3K crew joked that they had a miniature golf course on the second floor) were by far the most interesting parts of the movie. The star, if you can call him that (on one of their later shows the MST3K crew joked about a credit saying a film was “starring” so-and-so, “Is he really a star, or do we just see him on camera a lot?”), was Ray Danton, most of whose credits were on American TV series and whose biggest moment in film was probably playing George Raft in a 1960 biopic.

The film opens with a mystery woman (Marisa Mell) dressed entirely in pink — when she takes off her pink jacket she reveals a pink shirt, and under that she’s wearing pink underwear — visiting a rather tacky-looking home we’re supposed to think is a villa and seeing Bryan Cooper, a.k.a. Super Dragon (Ray Danton), lying by the pool, dressed in nothing but a pair of blue swim trunks (he’s not bad looking at all, though alas we don’t get a clear frontal view of his crotch), and when he gets up his response to her presence is to throw her into the pool. Things go downhill from there as the writers — Bill Coleman (the same Bill Coleman as the expatriate African-American jazz musician who lived in Europe for decades and appeared on some quite beautiful records? I hope not!), Remigio del Grosso, Giorgio Ferroni and Mike Mitchell (probably “Coleman” and “Mitchell” are two more Italians passing as Anglos) — prove utterly unable either to create or sustain any dramatic interest in a weird farrago of a plot involving a murdered colleague of Super Dragon’s, a series of patently fake Ming vases being sold at auction and apparently all being bought by members of the bad guys’ organization, and a dangerous drug that, like the Feenamint laxative that George Gershwin famously hawked on the radio in his 1934 series, is in the form of chewing gum, apparently because studies have shown that a highly toxic hallucinogen is more effectively absorbed when you chew it.

It’s true that Alfred Hitchcock, outlining his theory of the “MacGuffin,” famously said that nobody in the audience cares what the spies are after — the spies have to be after something for you to have a plot at all, but it doesn’t matter what it is — but the makers of Secret Agent Super Dragon took the “MacGuffin” to a level of blissful absurdity in which even audience members who did care what it was would have been hard-pressed to figure it out. It also doesn’t help that there’s a horrendously offensive comic-relief character, a fat schlub whose special talents (whatever they are, since we don’t really get much of an idea of them in the movie — all we know for sure is he made the hero a cool-looking bulletproof vest) are so essential for the operation (whatever it is) that the hero has arranged with his superiors to have him released from prison long enough to complete the mission, following which he’s supposed to be returned (bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of work furlough). This actor is so annoying one looks back wistfully to the relative subtlety of Allen Jenkins and Frank McHugh in their comic-relief performances in 1930’s Warners films.

Add to the mix a villain (Carlo d’Angelo as “Fernand Lamas” — I’m not making this up, you know!) who looks strikingly like the hero except that he’s a bit sexier, and who in the climactic sequence (again, as Dwight MacDonald might have said if he had ever deigned to see or review this movie, using those terms for courtesy) seems to be attempting to kill the hero by roasting him in a combination oven and aquarium — a pathetic attempt of a producer on a strangulation-level budget to duplicate the famously baroque killing methods of the Bond films. (One night, while we were watching one of the real Bond movies and the villain attempted to off Bond in an incredibly complicated way that just gave Bond time to escape, Charles said, “Hey, the next time you capture James Bond, just shoot him!”).

The MST3K crew did Secret Agent Super Dragon in one of the last shows before Joel Hodgson’s departure, when their own skills at ridicule were at their peak — and they showed through in some of the interstital segments, notably one at the beginning in which Tom Servo and Crow build Joel a truly annoying robot that just takes a few steps forward and issues a greeting in a nails-on-chalkboard voice (and the unseen woman who announced “commercial sign in 15 seconds” added, “And keep that thing away from me or I’ll kill it”); an hilarious skit in which Joel, Servo and Crow jam out on a jazz version of the film’s theme music; and a final wrap-up in which Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV Frank hold a seminar on super-villainry and decide that the problem with the villain in Secret Agent Super Dragon was that he didn’t have a companion animal. (There was also a neat “invention exchange” segment in which TV Frank offered something called “virtual comedy,” a sort of karaoke machine for aspiring stand-up comics — and Dr. Forrester altered the controls so TV Frank’s faux stand-up act would bomb instead of hit.) But overall the movie was so boring even the MST3K mockery could keep it interesting, and both Charles and I did a lot of nodding off while it was on!