Fear in the City (1976)

Country: Italy
Director: Giuseppe Rosati
Starring: Maurizio Merli, James Mason, Raymond Pellegrin, Silvia Dionsio, Franco Ressel, Cyril Cusack
Music: Giampaolo Chiti
Original Title: Paura in Citta
AKA: Hot Stuff, Street War

When it comes to giving crime a right proper kicking, no one kicks harder than Maurizio Merli. And he’s back in another hard-hitting poliziotteschi. This time he plays Inspector Murri whose methods are…hang on, you should know the spiel by now. Merli and his mustache are a regular fixture here.  Fear In The City delivers more of the same. The film starts with a prison break out. Master criminal Letteri (Raymond Pellegrin) and ten other prisoners barely raise a sweat as they traverse the prisons corridors until they get to the library. Inside the library, Masoni (Cyril Cusack), a model prisoner is doing a spot of reading. The escapees grab Masoni and drag him along as they make their way to the gates, and out into a waiting van.

After the breakout, the retribution begins. The gang start erasing all the snitches who got them put away in the first place. The first is a prostitute who gets picked from a roadside kerb. For $30 she promises to take the driver around the world. He agrees. She gets in. After a few minutes, she enquires where she is being taken. She is then grabbed by a guy hiding in the back of the car. Once restrained, she is shot. Next, three men burst into a bar, and shoot the bartender. The carnage continues as a couple are enjoying a bit of horizontal relaxation in a dingy room when the door is kicked in by a scary lookin’ guy brandishing a shotgun. He blasts both man and woman. The last guy to get whacked is a guy wearing an ugly green suit. I don’t know if the villains killed him because he was a snitch, or because anyone wearing such an ugly suit should die. Either way, he is kicked and pummeled and then hurled off a bridge.

James Mason is the Police Commissioner and he is in a quandary about what to do about the increase in crime. He wants action and results, but the men under his command are incapable of giving it to him. But despite the cities problems, there is one option that the Commissioner refuses to take – and that is get Inspector Murri (Maurizio Merli) back on the force. He doesn’t agree with Murri’s violent methods of law enforcement. Unfortunately for the Commissioner, the Minster for the Interior does not share his view, and insists that Murri be re-instated, and assigned to ‘sort out’ the city’s problems.

Unlike other Merli films, this one is a little different in that he actually does some police work. Usually he just drives along, and crime will happen outside his car window -no investigation required. But in Fear In The City he actually follows a few leads. He tracks down the niece of Masoni, Laura (Silvia Dionisio). She’s a good girl gone bad, who now works as a hooker. Naturally, Murri pumps her for information.

But Fear In The City is not so different that it doesn’t feature a high speed chase through the streets of Rome. This one happens to be on motorbike. Another staple of the Eurocrime thriller is the bank hold-up scene, complete with hostages. And to the film’s credit it gives it a twist. Rather than have Murri sneak into the bank and then shoot the ‘perps’, they have Murri sneak into boot of the getaway car. Once the crims have made their getaway, Murri pops out and shoots them.

The music by Giampaolo Chiti is avant-guarde jazz. Many Eurocrime thrillers go for loud pumping rock scores – but Chiti is more subtle. He creates a tense atmosphere using syncopated bass and bongo beats, and the film is all the better for it.

Fear In The City is exactly like it should be. Loud and violent. It may not be everybody’s idea of a great night’s entertainment, but if you like hyper-realised Italian cop thrillers, then add this one to your list.

Fear in the City (1976)

Hotel Reserve (1944)

Directed by Lance Comfort, Max Greene, Victor Hanbury.
James Mason, Lucie Mannheim, Raymond Lovell, Julien Mitchell, Herbert Lom, Martin Miller, Clare hamilton, Frederick Valk, Patricia Medina, Anthong Shaw, David Ward, Laurence Hanray, Valentine Dyall, Hella Kürty
Music by Lennox Berkeley
Adapted from the novel ‘Epitaph For A Spy’ by Eric Ambler

A holiday…in France…before the war
…yet even then the plane-trees
and cypresses of the South cast
shadows in the sun.

It happened in August 1938”

I hate making throwaway statements like ‘they don’t make em like that anymore’, but the sad truth is that they just don’t. These days we get explosions and car chases at the expense of character development. And the classic spy films of the 30’s and 40’s gave you an abundance of characters to develop. This is partly because pre-Bond, spies were generally the bad guys – and quite often there was a ‘whodunnit’ aspect to the films. A lot of the fun was trying to guess which of the myriad of colourful characters is actually an enemy agent. Thankfully, Hotel Reserve is no different and serves up all the ingredients we have come to expect in a tight little package that is totally enjoyable from start to finish.

On the French coast, Hotel Reserve is a modest holiday resort with a mixed collection of guests staying over. Among them is Peter Vadassy (James Mason) who has been studying medicine in Paris and intends to take up a position at a hospital once his naturalisation papers come through. You see Verdassy has an Austrian father, but a French mother. The family left Austria for France when Hitler came to power.

Other guests include Robert Duclos (Raymond Lovell) who is a Frenchman who is quick to voice his opinion on anything and everything in a very loud manner. Then there’s honeymooning couple Andre and Odette Roux (Herbert Lom & Patricia Medina) who ignore the other guests and want to be left in peace. Paul Heimberger (Frederick Valk) is a mysterious German with a secret, and Belgian Henri Asticot (David Ward) is an experienced world traveller. Representing the USA, there’s Warren and Mary Skelton (Valentine Dyall & Mary Skelton) and from Switzerland Walter and Hilda Vogel (Martin Miller & Hella Kürty). And rounding out the ensemble is the Englishman, Major Anthony Chandon-Hartley. As you can see, there’s a lot of characters and they all have their story to tell and their red herrings to sell. It may seem like there is a lot of characters to get to know in a very short space of time, but don’t worry – this film is kind enough to put inter-titles over each of the characters so you quickly know who is who.

The film opens with Peter Vadassy running into town to pick up a roll of film he had shot the previous day. When he arrives at the pharmacy, the shop keeper says it is not ready. As Vadassy makes arrangements to collect the film later, two police officers enter the pharmacy. They insist that Vadassy has a problem with his passport and take him to the police station for further questioning.

Vadassy is taken before Inspector Beghin (Julien Mitchell), a dour man who is the head intelligence officer in the region. There is nothing wrong with Vadassy’s passport. It is the photos on his roll of film that are of interest to the police. At the end of the roll, there are the shots that Vadassy had taken, but at the beginning there are some photographs detailing local military installations.

Luckily for Vadassy, the camera he has taken the shots with, has a different serial number to the one he purchased. It appears that someone has switched cameras with Vadassy. Whoever made the switch is an enemy spy, and most likely will wants the camera negative back. And even more likely, the traitor is also staying at Hotel Reserve, watching and waiting for an opportunity to switch the cameras over once again. Inspector Beghin insists that Vadassy finds out who the real spy is, or he will be deported from France.

This film often gets compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but it isn’t quite in that league, but none-the-less it is still very entertaining. If you enjoy classic espionage thriller like Journey Into Fear, Ministry Of Fear or Sleeping Car To Trieste then you’ll find a lot to like in Hotel Reserve. The novel ‘Epitaph For A Spy’ by Eric Ambler, which is the basis for this movie, was also adapted twice for British television. The first was in 1953, with Peter Cushing as Vadassy, and then in 1963 with Colin Jeavons taking on the role. It seems virtually impossible to find either of these series, but it goes to show that this is a much loved espionage story.

Hotel Reserve (1944)

Secret Mission (1942)

Directed by Harold French
Hugh Williams, James Mason, Michael Wilding, Carla Lehmann, Karel Stepanek, Herbert Lom, Nancy Price, Roland Culver, Walter Gotell
Music by Mischa Spoliansky

One of the writers credited for Secret Mission is Shaun Terence Young – better known to spy fans as plain old Terence Young, who would later direct three of the early James Bond films, as well as Triple Cross and Jigsaw Man.

Made in 1942, of course, this is a war time propaganda piece. It’s all about fighting the good fight for the just cause, but not much fighting actually happens. In the film four men stationed in England are sent on a mission to St. Antoine in German occupied France. The men are Major Peter Garnett (Hugh Williams) who is leading the group. Next we have Captain Red Gowan (Roland Culver). Then we have ex-patriot Frenchman, Raul de Carnot (James Mason), whose family lives in St. Antoine. And bringing up the rear is cad, Private Nobby Clark (Michael Wilding), who has a French wife in St. Antoine who he is not too keen to see.

The men are ferried across the Channel, through the mines, until they are just off the coast of France. From there, they have to make their own way in a dingy. Once on French soil, Garnett and Raoul hide out at Raoul’s family home, and Gowan and Clark hide at Clark’s wife’s home.

The real weakness of the film is the mission itself, which is ill-defined. It seems like a case of ‘let’s go see what Jerry is up to!’ While intelligence gather was no doubt very important during the war, in this instance it doesn’t really add up to a ‘Secret Mission’ as we’d expect in a spy film today.

The story is also riddled with subplots involving the loved ones of Raoul and Nobby. While Nobby’s plight is mostly comic relief, poor old Raoul plays the serious and dour, but at the same time righteous and patriot Frenchman, who fights to get his country back. With German occupation in his hometown, this only causes conflict between him and his family. Maybe Raoul would have been a far more sympathetic character had he not been hampered by Mason’s dodgy French accent.

The film has one or two lighter moments. One of them is when Garnett and Gowan, posing as Champagne salesmen talk their way into German Intelligence headquarters for the region. The Germans realise that the men are frauds, but believe that they are from the Gestapo checking up on them. The scene is a breath of fresh air in a rather drab film.

Generally this type of film enthrals me. I love the old character driven pieces from the thirties and forties, but unfortunately this one just doesn’t stack up.

Secret Mission (1942)