1965 | Italy, Germany
Director: Gianfranco Parolini
AKA: Hunting the Unknown; Kommissar X – Jagd auf Unbekannt
From time to time we accidentally wander into the realm of the nearly comprehensible, that no man’s land where the movies almost make sense. Our journeys sometimes bring us to these uncharted waters, and when cast adrift in them, we do the best we can in such a strange sea. But always what guides us, our great hope on the horizon that forever propels us forward even when things are at their most sane and logical is the knowledge that we shall one day, like Ulysses returning home to Ithaca, see again a familiar port and once more watch the sun set slowly and with fiery bombast over an ocean littered with films that are completely and unequivocally batshit insane. When we return to this port, to our home, we can rest assured that a smirking Tony Kendall and former peplum star Brad Harris will be waiting there with open arms, our sweet Penelopes clad in smart suits and ready to duke it out with any number of mad scientists, hooded assassins, or telekinetic donkeys we may have met on these, the legendary journeys. And so with the 1966 Eurospy adventure Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill — aka Hunting the Unknown — we can raise a mug o’ rum, drop anchor, and let loose with a content sigh. It’s good to be home, lads. It’s good to be home.
Although I rarely turn to quoting other critics and writers, I can’t help but highlight the words of Matt Blake, author of The Eurospy Guide (an essential book, if you don’t already own it) when he writes of Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill, “When God created man, He had no idea man would ever come up with anything quite this daft.” Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill, an Italian-German co-production based on the Kommissar X espionage potboilers from Germany, exemplifies everything that was good and right and completely loopy about the more ambitious espionage capers of the 1960s.
Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill has everything you have ever dreamed of in a spy film. It has two heroes — one a cheeky, smart-ass ladies’ man private eye (Tony Kendall, aka Luciano Stella), the other a hulking, straight-laced Interpol inspector (Brad Harris, aka Brad Harris). It has smart suits in spades, not to mention dapper hats and dames in a vast array of mod and/or skimpy outfits from bikinis to slinky cocktail dresses. It has fist fights, gun fights, and judo. It has boat chases and car chases and foot chases. It has a sprawling, space-age underground lair staffed by a team of robotized women in go-go boots. And of course, it has a megalomaniacal super-villain with a goofy plan to hold the world ransom. And unlike some films of the era that have all the ingredients but just invite too many chefs into the kitchen, resulting in a total confectionary disaster (1967 version of Casino Royale, I’m looking in your direction), Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill comes out of the oven smelling sweet as fresh-baked pastry but twice as delicious. In other words, this is a damn good movie.
Super-sleuths Jo Walker (Kendall, frequently accompanied by a theme song with the lyrics, “I, I, I love you, Jo Walker! Just like any woman would love you!”) and Tom Rowland (Harris) have one of those friendships best characterized by the cliche slogan, “Together, they just might save the world…if they don’t kill each other first!” Walker is always smirking, always checking out the ladies, and always breaking the rules and regulations by which the uptight Rowland has sworn to operate. Walker is hired by a beautiful woman whom he meets at random while driving down the road (this happens a lot when you’re as suave as Jo Walker) to find her missing nuclear scientist brother.
Rowland is assigned to investigate the assassination-by-explosives of several prominent businessmen, it looks like the two will finally get out of one another’s hair, which is especially good news for Jo Walker, as his hair takes considerable effort to style and maintain. Of course, this being a Eurospy film, we know way ahead of time that a convoluted and oftentimes completely improbably chain of events will lead to the two cases being one and the same. After all, no nuclear scientist has ever disappeared in a Eurospy film without said disappearance being the result of his being kidnapped by some evil mastermind in an underground lair.
It’s pretty evident that this film doesn’t take itself very seriously, and as such it’s already something of a parody itself. It feels like the writers just sat down one day with a big bottle of booze and tried to come up with a script that pushed every spy film cliche to the illogical extreme. Jo Walker isn’t just a ladies’ man. He actually seems to have almost supernatural power over them. His kisses are pretty tame to look at, but simply receiving one can make a woman he’s just met and slapped on the bottom loan him her expensive Italian sports car, no questions asked. A kiss from Jo Walker can make a hypnotized judo master instantly dismiss her allegiance to her villainous master in favor of helping Jo Walker. He can’t go a single scene without having some dame in a short skirt show up in his room. As Walker himself says when he returns to his room and finds a leggy bombshell he’s never met before waiting for him, “The later the hour, the shorter the skirt, the lovelier the guest.” It’s like every woman on the planet is issued a key to Jo Walker’s hotel room.
Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill is the rare Eurospy film that puts a lot of work into developing its lead characters and pinning the success of the film on the shoulders of its two leads. Luckily, they’re up to the task, because without Harris and Kendall, Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill would probably have ended up being just another goofy Eurospy film, along the lines of something like Operation Atlantis. Operation Atlantis is a pretty enjoyable espionage adventure, but only if you’re already a fan of Eurospy films. If you’re not, the combination of a completely insane and nonsensical plot and a lead actor apparently carved from solid granite and with all the command of facial expressions such material gives you will probably keep you from cracking the surface of the movie or getting past the first inane come-on line. Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill has a plot that is only marginally less nonsensical than Operation Atlantis , but Kendall and Harris are so engaging and charismatic and funny that even someone not accustomed to the peculiarities one frequently finds in Eurospy films can still find plenty to enjoy in this movie.
Kendall started out life as Luciano Stella, but changed his name just before appearing in Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body alongside Christopher Lee and Dahlia Lavi. Shortly before that, he appeared in the peplum film, Brennus, Enemy of Rome, which starred Gordon Mitchell, who worked the bizarre Mae West Revue alongside fellow bodybuilder and eventual Kommissar X star Brad Harris. Kendall then starred in a couple more costumed adventures before director Gianfranco Parolini cast him as the oozing playboy private eye Joe Walker, turning Kendall into a European superstar. In Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill, as will be the case in all subsequent Kommissar X films, his face is frozen throughout the movie in a smarmy smirk. His character is utterly ridiculous. Every line of dialog is a one-liner or a corny come-on, and the women eat it up no matter how feeble the attempt may be. He pours on the corniness thicker than the pomade in his hair, and believe me, there’s a lot of pomade in that hair. He also plays Walker with a sort of disarming feyness. Yeah, Jo Walker is tough, and he bags the dames, but he’s also not afraid to sashay if the mood hits him.
His polar opposite is the uptight, eternally put-upon Captain Tom Rowland played by Brad Harris. While Walker is blowing kisses, mixing cocktails, and jumping over police barriers in the most dapper fashion possible, Rowland is concentrating on calling into headquarters, reporting in, and doing that thing where he shakes his hands next to his head and makes the veins in his neck bulge out in exasperation over whatever impish mischief Jo Walker has gotten them into. Harris was born to play Tom Rowland, the Martin to Kendall’s Lewis, and the source of the film’s actually funny comedy. He’s totally convincing as a man who is being driven completely nuts by his sometimes-friend. Through facial expressions and body language (the two most important aspects of acting in an Italian film, especially one like this where the cast was speaking a mix of German, Italian, English, and lord knows what else) he mines comedy gold.
Harris was one of the few sword-and-sandal stars who successfully transitioned out of the genre when it faltered in the latter half of the 1960s. At that time, the two most popular genres in Italy became the spy film, thanks to the success of the James Bond films, and the spaghetti western, thanks to the success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Most of the stars of the sword and sandal films that ruled the first half of the 1960s with the iron grip of Hercules himself were unable to make the leap into these new genres. Some were just too big — as Steve Reeves said, you put a bodybuilder in a gunslinger’s clothes instead of a tunic, and he just looks silly. Some, like Reg Park, made their money and decided to call it a day rather than try to adapt to the new films. But a few, such as Brad Harris and Gordon Scott (both of whom had slightly leaner, more athletic builds than Reeves and Park), were successful in extending their acting careers beyond the lifespan of the peplum genre.
Harris was also tapped to choreograph the action and stunts for the films, which results in Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill boasting more dynamic, faster-moving action set pieces than many of its contemporaries. Harris was able to work everything out and tap the right men to pull the stunts off — including himself. He looks great in action. The fist fights are fast and brutal, and he gets to slide down a rope, run around with a machine gun, and kick guys in the nuts. Together, he and Kendall possess wickedly entertaining chemistry no matter how harried Rowland becomes and no matter how groan-inducing Walker’s pick-up lines get.
Boasting a decent budget and a fair scope, Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill may not look as lavish and polished as a James Bond film, but it still boasts a gorgeous pop-art sensibility in both set design and costuming. Every hotel room, every living room, is a swingin’ pad. Every lobby, every bar, is a swank cocktail lounge full of smartly dressed patrons. The only thing skinnier than Jo Walker’s slim-cut suit is his tie. And we get all this before we’ve even gotten to the villain’s lair, which is a sprawling underground facility patrolled by hypnotized women in go-go boots, black catsuits, and metallic lavender wigs, who do their patrolling in convertible stretch Caddies. The lair itself is an endless jumble of sci-spy stuff: multi-colored pipes, multi-colored liquids in beakers, multi-colored blinking lights, and of course, trap doors, drop-down cages, a corridor of fire, and other instruments of death.
Our villain, Oberon (Jacques Bezard), prefers the posh look of a silly space tunic, while most of his men wear the black pants and tight-fitting shirts preferred by your finer henchmen. From time to time, someone will wander by in a radiation suit, purely so we can establish that someone has seen the James Bond film Dr. No and people walk around in radiation suits from time to time, thus allowing Jo Walker to don one as a disguise, even though all he does once he has it on is walk up and start punching people. What’s the point of a clever disguise if all you do is show up, stand for two seconds with your arms akimbo in a manly fashion, and then you start punching everyone? Oh yeah — the point is that it looks awesome, and Jo Walker is all about looking awesome.
Two things get lost in this incredible jumble of cool: the plot, and the lead actresses. Oh, you won’t fail to notice the actresses, who spend the entire film clad in whatever makes their bosoms look largest and their rumps look the roundest, but good luck remembering anything about their characters — or telling them apart since half of them show up out of nowhere wearing the same metallic lavender-colored wigs and black catsuits. Maria Perschy plays Joan, the sister of the missing scientist, who also goes undercover as Oberon’s secretary. Then there’s Bobo (Olivera Katarina), who wears a lavender wig and wants to hire Jo Walker to investigate something, and in so doing puts him in contact with another woman in a lavender wig. Then Jo slaps some dame on the butt and she loans him her car. She turns out to be the daughter of an admiral, and she goes along with Rowland for the big finale.
Rowland and Walker raid Oberon’s secret island, and the robotized women are freed from their mind control and go on a rampage throughout the lair. They (the women, that is, not Walker and Rowland) all have lavender wigs on, too, and sort of out of nowhere, their leader and judo master falls for Jo Walker after she tosses him around judo style for a spell and he responds by planting a big smooch on her lips. Look, you’re just going to have to go with the flow, because women in lavender (and sometimes blonde) wigs are all over the place in this movie, and they’re all sporting machine guns.
Somewhere in there is a plot about Oberon and his partners possessing a large sum of gold and Oberon offing his partners so he can have all the gold to himself, and then irradiating it and using it somehow or other to hold the economies of the world ransom. It’s a wild mash-up of Dr. No and Goldfinger with no real concern for making sense, which is to its benefit. I can’t imagine anyone going into Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill worried about the intricacies of the plot, which isn’t so much thin as it is completely ludicrous. It’s nice that they put it in there, but this is largely an exercise in swanky, swinging fun and attitude, and Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill boasts both of those attributes in spades.
Director Parolini, a veteran of several pepla before he made the jump to spy films, keeps everything moving as fast as Jo Walker through a bevy of beauties. Even during scenes of exposition, what’s being said is so weird, and the guys saying it are so cool, that the movie never loses its cool or falters in its snappy pace. As far as I know, the Kommissar X books have never been translated into English. I’ve certainly never read them, and these are the sorts of things I would read if I could. So I have no idea how closely, if at all, this film reflects any of the books. Although James Bond is the obvious reason movies like this started getting made, Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill actually looks more toward the German Jerry Cotton films (also based on a series of books) starring George Nader.
Cinematographer Francesco Izzarelli was winding down a career that started in the 1930s (the Kommissar X series was his last work). He brings decades of experience and craftsmanship to the framing and photography of this film. It’s absolutely gorgeous, drenched in candy-coloring and full of beautiful locales and wacky sets all filmed to great effect. Matching the jaunty look of the film is the score by Bobby Gutesha, which is a finger-snapping mix of cocktail lounge music and that godawful-yet-wonderful theme song that will be stuck in your head no matter how hard you fight it. Like Jo Walker’s kiss and cocked eyebrow, you can try to deny it but it will eventually consume you, and your co-workers will wonder why you are walking around the office crooning, “I, I, I love you Jo Walker!”
There may be better Eurospy films than this, and there are more outlandish ones (some of the subsequent Kommissar X films, for example), but I don’t know if there are any that are this much flat-out fun. It’s unadulterated eye candy, pure pop cinema. It wants nothing more than to look good, have a laugh and a wink, and entertain the viewer. Kendall and Harris are beyond cool, and the entire goofy, action-packed mess will leave you a with a big, stupid grin on your face even as you realize that Joe Walker, Rowland, and a bevy of bikini beauties reclining by the poolside can only mean one thing: someone is getting pushed into that pool, and everyone else is going to laugh as the credits roll. Why not be one of them?