Sunday, February 10, 2013

Assignment Skybolt (Greece, 1968)

Imagine that the top of this credenza I’m standing in front of flips over to reveal a detailed tabletop map. And on that map is charted the influence of the James Bond craze, reaching out like the tendrils of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to every corner of the globe during the 1960s. This tiny bouzouki wearing sunglasses will represent Assignment Skybolt, the point at which that craze made landfall in Greece.

Assignment Skybolt was written and directed by Gregg G. Tallas, né Grigorios Thalassinos, a Greek born cinematic hyphenate whose career in low budget B movies hopped back and forth between the United States and Greece throughout his life, with a few noteworthy detours in between. Some may recognize his name in connection with the serial Mill Creek 50 Movie Pack habitué Prehistoric Women, but his directing credit also graces such U.S. made independent programmers as Siren of Atlantis and 1967’s Bikini Paradise. In 1965, he even made a proper Eurospy film with the joint Italian/Spanish production Marc Mato, Agente S. 077, better known stateside as Espionage in Tangiers. Skybolt, however, appears to be his lone attempt at making a spy film within the confines of the Greek production system and an all Greek cast.

Rather than aiming for the vague, market friendly internationalism favored by some Eurospy productions, Tallas wisely puts a hard emphasis on Skybolt’s uniquely Greek character. Thus he grounds the film in the familiar for its domestic audience while, at the same time, providing an exotic milieu for its American hero, secret agent Dan Holland (played by fresh faced Greek actor Nikos Kourkoulos under the name “Nicholas Kirk”). Holland is even shown to have a special appreciation for Greek culture, having fought -- presumably under the auspices of the CIA -- in the Greek Civil War years before. The long shadow that that war casts over the film’s events further places it within a specifically Greek political/patriotic context that no doubt resonated with Mediterranean audiences of the time.

Skybolt sees Holland arrive in Athens following the murder of a fellow agent, Ed Wilkins, who was on the trail of an H Bomb stolen from a Turkish NATO base. As being killed is typical spy movie shorthand for an investigative job well done, Holland is charged with retracing Wilkins’ steps out of a hope that he can pick up the scent again. Complicating things are his superiors’ suspicions that Holland’s own brother, Jack -- a former agent who served alongside Dan during the civil war and, after disappearing during a particularly perilous mission, was presumed KIA -- is somehow involved in the theft. Skeptical that Jack is still alive, and refusing to believe that, if he was, he would turn traitor, Dan resolves to prove those suspicions wrong.

Wilkins’ trail summarily leads to a nightclub called The Mermaid, where Holland quickly finds himself playing musical beds with the female members of the workforce. These include the torch singer Carla (played by Tallas regular Anna Brazzou), a stripper named Paula, and Toni (Elena Nathanail), who does a specialty dance number in which male patrons eagerly pop the balloons adorning her otherwise naked body. All the while, Holland keeps a close eye on the club’s sinister owner, Stenger, who certainly appears to be up to something, not the least for him periodically dispatching goons to rough Holland up.

Much of Assignment Skybolt’s action centers on The Mermaid, making it the odd spy film that takes place almost entirely within a bar. And while this is likely due in part to budgetary constraints (it appears that The Mermaid was one of the only indoor sets constructed for the film) it also proves in some ways to be an unexpected benefit. In that setting, the foes that Holland comes up against are more the back alley hoods and lowlifes of urban crime cinema than they are international master criminals -- a detail that, combined with the vague cloud of lingering guilt that hangs around Holland, gives the film a noirish tone that sets it apart from other espionage capers of the era. In light of Holland’s personal investment in his mission, this smallness of scale also gives the film an intimacy you might not otherwise expect. Ironically, this interiority is given its best expression in one of the film’s location scenes, in which Holland tails his brother, watching him from a distance across a lonely expanse of beach. At this point it appears as if what Holland’s superiors are saying about Jack might be true, and, in light of that, our master spy momentarily seems less masterful than he does isolated and adrift.

On the action front, Skybolt, despite its limited means, doesn’t try to shortchange its audience in terms of the expected shenanigans. An old car is sent sailing off a cliff, a ring fires poisonous darts, and Nikos Kourkoulos is given several opportunities to display his boxy karate moves. Perhaps more impressive is the movie’s generosity in laying on the cheesecake, kink, and suggested sexuality. The obviously issue-laden Holland in one scene whips Carla with his belt as a form of foreplay, a minister is distracted from his eulogy by the décolletage on display at a stripper’s funeral, and Holland has his balls repeatedly electrocuted in an extended interrogation scene. Hey, there’s even an implied blowjob.

Implied BJs aside, I don’t want to give the impression that Assignment Skybolt is in any way a great film. It is, however, a much better and more interesting film than I expected it to be. Often these fledgling national forays into spy cinema seem more concerned with hitting all the generic beats than they are with doing anything different, but Skybolt really does manage to stand apart from the Eurospy pack in some ways, most surprisingly for being somewhat dark and soulful. If surveys of the available filmographies are any indication, Agent Dan Holland was not to return in any subsequent screen adventures, but perhaps this is less a sign of the film’s failure than it is of Gregg G. Tallas feeling like he got it right the first time.


Timothy Paxton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy Paxton said...

Cool.... moving to the top of my list.