Giorgio Ardisson: The Italian James Bond

Fans of Eurospy films may want to check out Matt Blake’s new book Giorgio Ardisson: The Italian James Bond. Matt was one of the co-authors of the Eurospy Guide and really knows his stuff. Here he presents an overview of one of the most popular Eurospy stars, Giorgio Ardisson.

As a refresher, here are my reviews from Passport To Hell (1965) and Operation Counterspy (1966).

Here’s the spiel.

ardissonGiorgio Ardisson might not be the best known actor in the world; outside Italy his name was almost totally unknown and even in his own country his brush with fame was short-lived. But his career, which lasted from the end of the 1950s to the early 1990s, was fascinating. Not just because of the sheer variety of films and filmmakers that he was involved with, but because in many ways his story is also the story of Italian film itself.

He started out in the glory years of cinema in Rome, when it was the glamorous centre of a thriving and much respected industry, working in a variety of popular genres including peplums, swashbucklers and comedies. While the films of Sergio Leone were propelling Italian popular cinema onto a world stage, Ardisson carved out his own niche with a series of exceedingly profitable spy films which sold across the world. For a few years he was much in demand with producers looking for a lead actor with an American look. But then, with the arrival of the 1970s, things changed. Budgets dried up, genre lifespans reduced drastically and distribution networks collapsed. There was less call for good looking leading men as a grittier, more downbeat trend took hold of Italian cinema. So Ardisson re-crafted himself as a supporting actor in an increasingly peculiar selection of weird and wonderful films. Many of these were seen by almost nobody, many are still impossible to find and many of them are entirely rubbish.

This book is the first detailed look at the curious career of Giorgio Ardisson, including reviews of his most important films, interview material – much of which is published in English for the first time – and contemporary reviews. It’s lavishly illustrated throughout, including eight pages in full colour.

Giorgio Ardisson: The Italian James Bond is available from the Wild Eye Shop.

Giorgio Ardisson: The Italian James Bond

Passport to Hell (1965)

Country: Italy / France / Spain
Simon Sterling (Sergio Sollima)
Giorgio Ardisson, Barbara Simons, Jose Marco, Georges Riviere, Seyna Seyn
Piero Umiliani

Passport to Hell is in some ways a hard Eurospy film to review. This is primarily because it is pretty good. It eschews all the silly secret ray-gun weapon and underground lair tropes of the genre (which I love, by the way), and replaces them with a half decent spy story, which relies on cause-and-effect, rather than happenstance.

The film opens with a scared girl running down the road dressed in an overcoat. She runs into a tunnel, as a car comes from the opposite direction. Seeing that the girl is distressed, the driver stops and offers assistance. She says that men came to her house and tried to kill her — she escaped through a bathroom window. The driver offers to drive her to safety. Just as the girl thinks she is in the clear, the driver produces a pistol and shoots her. He then searches her dead body — well the overcoat really, but you know what I mean — and finds a microfilm.

Then the goons who were chasing her arrive, and screech to a halt in their vehicle. As they get out, they are reprimanded by the first driver for being clumsy idiots. It appears that these goons belong to a freelance spy organisation called ‘The Organisation’. The young girl was a CIA agent.

The film then cuts to the Soviet Embassy, and the CIA Chief, Taylor (Tom Felleghy) arrives to meet with Russian Colonel Dolukin (Fernando Sancho). Dolukin insists that it wasn’t his team that killed the girl, and proposes an uneasy truce between the Cold Warriors to investigate The Organisation. The man chosen to head the mission is Walter Ross (Georgio Ardisson), who is Agent 3S3 — a designation that means he is secret agent number three, of the third special division. It appears that they have one lead, and that is that they know who the top man in The Organisation is — that being Henryk d’Vorac. They don’t know where d’Vorac is, but they know his daughter, Jasmine (Barabra Simons) is. She is in Vienna, Austria, so that’s where Ross starts his investigation.

Ross get’s a pretty hot reception in Vienna. The Organisation has operatives watching Jasmine, and assigned to remove Ross. They attempt this with a finely executed Truck sandwich maneuver as Ross drives on some snowy backroads. There attempt fails, and a directive from the top comes down that now do they not only have to eliminate Ross, but Jasmine is to be killed too. As Jasmine’s father is the head of The Organisation, that sure is some ‘tough love’!

Of course, Ross doesn’t allow any misfortune to happen to Jasmine and the pair team up to find out what is really going on. This leads the couple to Beirut in Lebanon and into a whole new world of trouble.

Like many Eurospy films, Passort to Hell didn’t have an inexhaustible budget. And as such, when director Sergio Sollima was making the film he was faced with two options. The first was to go cheap on the setup of the story, and then throw all the money into the wham-bam climax. Or he could evenly disperse the money over the duration of the film. And that second option is what he appears to have done. The film is even throughout its running time. There is no silly, explosive finale. The film remains at the same pitch. Which for the learned film student is pretty good. As I said at the top, Passport to Hell is a fine film. But somehow a part of me craves the silly Eurospy tropes. I want to see underground lairs with armies of minions dressed in silver jump-suits with scorpion emblems on the back. I want to see rockets or laser cannons aimed at Washington or London. It is most likely a Pavlovian expectation I get when I sit to watch a Eurospy film – I expect spy-schlock, not LeCarre!

All in all, Passport to Hell is a good film, and of the hundreds of Eurospy films that were made in the sixties, it is possibly one of the best, buoyed by the sincerity of Ardisson’s performance and a script that refuses to collapse into goofy genre conventions.

Passport to Hell (1965)

Operation Counterspy (1966)

Original Title: Asso di picche operazione controspionaggio
Country: Italy / Spain / France
Director: Nick Nostro
Starring: George Ardisson, Hélène Chanel, Lena von Martens, Joaquín Díaz, Francisco Sanz, Manuel Quintana, Emilio Messina, Umberto Raho
Music: Franco Pisano

Operation Counterspy is a fun addition to the Eurospy genre. Like most Eurospy films it has it’s deficiencies – like a decent budget for set and costume design. But at least the film-makers have tried to save up their pennies for the climax, and present a memorable ending for their film. Unfortunately, this means at the beginning of the film, the production is bare-bones. There is very little in the way of location or travelogue shots to set scene and location. Most of the scenes are indoors and studio bound. But if you have the patience to sit through this small patch of rigidness at the beginning, you’ll find a whole lot to enjoy in Operation Counterspy.

In this flick Georgio (George) Ardisson plays Lord George Morriston (although IMDb calls the character Bond Callaghan – which indicates their might be quite a few different versions floating around), a suave sophisticated spy, and ladies man. When we meet Morriston he is in a French casino – I presume on the Cote d’Azure, but as I mentioned, there is very little expense spared on setup shots – and he is doing very well for himself. His winning streak is interrupted when is called outside into the cold night air for a mission briefing with his boss. I told you the start was cheap – I mean they can’t even afford an office set! Morriston is briefed on a Dutch safe cracked called Van Bliss – known as the ‘Velvet Paw’. Van Bliss has been commissioned to break into the safe of a Russian spy in Turkey. It is important that Morriston gets to the safe first.

So with little to tells us that we’re in another country – no, not even some stock footage of a plane landing – Morriston is in Turkey with a mute assistant named Franco. Franco is big and strong and likes to hit people – just the type of offsider you need! I presume they’re in Istanbul, because, quite simply a lot of Eurospy films are set in Istanbul. Morriston finds Van Bliss, and has Franco hold him hostage, while Morriston takes his place.

As Van Bliss, Morriston meets the next link in the chain, which is a pinch faced woman called Alina. Alina happens to be wearing a necklace with a golden spider pendant. She hands over half off his fee, and accompanies him on his mission to break into the safe at the Russian villa. It doesn’t take long to find the safe, and he quickly opens it, only to have Alina pull a gun and try to shoot him. Naturally, he doesn’t get shot and turns the tables. After some gentle persuasion he convinces her to share the secrets of the safe. Inside she retrieves a canister of film negatives. Before she can explain what it’s all about, she is shot through the window. As clumsy as that expression is, I mean that she was shot by a bullet passing through a window and then entering her body. Morriston escapes the gunfire by leaping out of the opposite window into the pool below.

Morriston, from the negatives gets a set of photo prints made up. They display six cities. Before he, or us poor viewers can make head or tale of it all, three hoods turn up to beat and torture Morriston. But he’s pretty tough and doesn’t tell them where the photos are. When it appears he cannot take any more, he says that the photos have been returned to the safe. The chief goon opens the safe, but it has been booby-trapped with a gas canister. Morriston uses the diversion to snatch a machine gun and fire at the goons, then flee. Two goons drop dead, but the head guy only receives a wound to the arm. He rushes outside to his car and drives off.

But who should be hiding in the boot (that’s ‘trunk’ to you American readers) but George. Once the car comes to a halt, Morriston climbs out and finds himself in the basement of a swinging nightclub. Naturally he makes his way upstairs and watches the performance, which features a svelte blonde girl belly dancing and writhing on the floor. It’s a pretty erotic spectacle (or maybe I should get out more often). The dancer also is sporting a ‘golden spider’ necklace. Putting two and two together, Morriston decides that this scantily clad woman is worth investigating so he meets her backstage after the performance. She isn’t so keen on visitors, so she presses a secret button under her dresser. It’s a silent alarm and an army of goons come to beat up on Morriston (once more).

These goons belong to the nightclub owner, whose name is Karatis. You can tell he’s the villain of the piece because he has slicked back hair and a neatly trimmed black goatee beard. Hmmm. Evil! But before Karatis’ goons can do too much damage to our hero, he is rescued by another blonde (they’re everywhere in this nightclub) – but this one is wearing a black plastic raincoat. Her name is Lena, and she just happens to be the sister of Alina. She wants to find out who is responsible for her sisters death. Of course, this paves the way for a partnership between Morriston and Lena.

Now, this all is steering us towards the climax, which as I alluded to earlier isn’t too bad. Karatis is your average type of evil villain who wants to take over the world, and to do this he needs two things. Firstly a nuclear arsenal, and secondly an underground lair from which to fire them at the world. Well tick both of those boxes because that just what he has, and further more he has his minions dress up in quasi-space age silver suits with a spider emblem on the chest. It doesn’t get much better than this!

I’ll tell you folks, limitations aside, this film is not too bad at all. George Ardisson cut a nice little niche for himself as a secret agent in a few good Eurospy films and Operation Counterspy displays all the hallmarks of the sub-genre. The film is fast paced and action packed, and I must admit I found the English dub to be kind of ‘fun’, with it’s more English than the English attitude. This is a film I am happy to recommend to Eurospy fans.

Operation Counterspy (1966)