Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on April 19, 2012
Like Bond before him, Flint’s success was mimicked by a few copycat films that attempted to replicate what had made Coburn’s character, and his espionage antics, so popular with audiences. One of the best examples of this is Alberto Lattuada’s MATCHLESS (1967) starring Patrick O’Neal, as a very Flint-like secret agent who reluctantly finds himself caught up in the spy game. The film was produced by Dino de Laurentiis in association with United Artists and the studio must have enjoyed profiting from this seemingly endless cycle of spy spoofs all linked to their original success with the Bond franchise.
James Coburn and Patrick O’Neil
The incredibly convoluted plot of MATCHLESS revolves around a decorated solider turned journalist named Perry “Matchless” Liston (Patrick O’Neal). During a trip to Asia Perry is captured by Chinese authorities who think he’s a spy for the U.S. government. While being held captive he meets two fellow prisoners, an actual American spy named Hank Norris (Henry Silva) and an elderly Chinese man who is gravely ill. When the old man dies he gives Perry, who has been particularly kind to him, a magical ring that can turn people invisible for brief periods of time. Perry uses the ring to escape from prison and ends up meeting a beautiful Asian spy named O-Lan (Elisabetta Wu) who sneaks him back to the US in a stolen plane. When he arrives in the U.S. he’s briefly mistaken for a counter spy and tortured until he agrees to spy for the Americans. Apparently they desperately need Perry’s help to “save humanity” from a diabolical mad man known as Gregori Andreanu (Donald Pleasence) who lives in an isolated castle run by robot servants. Perry is teamed-up with another spy, the lovely and mysterious Arabella (Ira von Fürstenberg), and together they set out to put an end to Gregori Andreanu’s evil schemes. Their mission is occasionally thrown off track by Perry’s old jail pal Hank (Henry Silva) and Hank’s love interest, the stunning Tipsey (Nicoletta Machiavelli). These two troublemakers want Perry’ invisible ring and they’ll do just about anything to get it. The muddled storyline also involves boxing matches, bank robberies, car chases, hypnotism and something referred to as “Operation Plastic Surgery” that has to be seen to be believed.
Many of the jokes in MATCHLESS are dated, including some insensitive race related humor that seems ridiculously out of place today. But a large portion of the laughs in this witless movie are also generated from Perry using his invisibility ring, which is only useful when he’s completely nude. Like the popular AUSTIN POWERS or OSS 117 films, MATCHLESS never takes itself seriously. It’s pure period camp but its aesthetic pleasures are worth noting and include a gorgeous female cast wearing fabulous fashions by the celebrated costume designer Piero Tosi and a memorable score by the incomparable composer Ennio Morricone along with Gino Marinuzzi Jr. With that much talent supporting your film it’s hard to go completely off the rails although some would probably argue that MATCHLESS does and I couldn’t fault them but I had fun with the movie.
Patrick O’Neal is serviceable as Perry “Matchless” Liston but I was particularly impressed with the female cast as well the film’s villains. Ira von Fürstenberg is effortlessly charming as the daring spy Annabella and Nicoletta Machiavelli is a captivating femme fatale. Both women probably could have carried the film on their own if they were given the opportunity but they’re often reduced to posing as eye-candy for their male costars to ogle. These women deserved better but I’ll take what I can get. I’ve always admired von Fürstenberg, the real life Princess turned actress, who appeared in some of my favorite giallo thrillers including 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (1970) and THE FIFTH CORD (1971), but she displays a natural flare for comedy in MATCHLESS that surprised me.
Tough guy Henry Silva gives what might be his funniest performance as the bumbling spy, Hank Norris, and in one memorable and surprisingly self-aware scene he laughs himself silly watching cartoons while torturing the hapless Perry. I also appreciated Donald Pleasence as the evil Gregori Andreanu. Pleasence is always great to watch and his role in MATCHLESS gave him the chance to play a swinging ladies man as well as a ruthless villain. Pleasence made MATCHLESS right after appearing in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), where he portrayed James Bond’s cat carrying nemesis, Blofeld. While he’s terrific in the Bond film, Pleasence gets more screen time in MATCHLESS and although his dialogue is sparse, he’s perfectly capable of stealing a scene with just a few choice words and a raised eyebrow.
After studying architecture, director Alberto Lattuada began his career in the movies as a set designer in the 1930s. In the ’40s he started directing films and his early work such as THE MILL ON THE PO (1949) and ANNA (1951), were successful examples of Italian Neorealism. In 1950 Lattuada co-directed VARIETY LIGHTS (1950) with Fredrico Fellini and he had further success with the anthology LOVE IN THE CITY (1953), also co-directed with Fellini along with Michelangelo Antonioni, Dino Rissi and others. As the ‘50s gave way to the ‘60s Lattuada’s work seemed to take on a more comedic tone with films like MAFIOSO (1962). Both VARIETY LIGHTS and MAFIOSO are available on DVD from Criterion but many of the Lattuada’s other films have never been officially released in the U.S. and can be hard to see unless you own an all-region DVD player. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across MATCHLESS currently streaming on Netflix. Like many hard-working Italian directors, Lattuada was coxed into making a couple of spy spoofs in the ‘60s with producer Dino de Laurentiis including MATCHLESS and FRAULEIN DOKTOR (1969), which is also available to watch on Netflix. MATCHLESS is the most lighthearted and loony of these two espionage films but they both feature attractive and resourceful female secret agents who often outwit their male counterparts.
MATCHLESS was based on a story by Ermanno Donati who is probably better known to fans of Italian horror and cult films as the producer of LUST OF THE VAMPIRE (1956), THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (1962), THE WACKY WORLD Of JAMES TONT (1965) and MAFIA (1968). Dontai seemed to gravitate towards unusual genre films with a distinct style so it’s not too surprising that he ended his career working for the controversial director Tito Brass on projects like DEADLY SWEET (1967) and SALON KITTY (1975). MATCHLESS was Donati’s third and last script credit but he seemed to have a knack for writing funny spy spoofs.
Fans of the Flint films as well as’60s spy comedy’s like the original CASINO ROYALE (1967) and Dr. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE (1967) should find the film appealing. But if you want to watch a serious film about the ins and outs of the international spy game you should look elsewhere. As far as I know MATCHLESS has never been officially released on DVD or video in the US so Netflix currently offers the best and easiest way to watch the movie. Hopefully MATCHLESS will find it’s way onto DVD in the future along with more of Alberto Lattuada’s films.
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