“THIS WOMAN is the most thrilling act of espionage you’ve ever seen! She holds the key to “Matchless” – a spy plot as flawless as her beauty – as reckless as her body!”
Director: Alberto Lattuada
Cast: Patrick O’Neal, Ira von FÃ¼rstenberg, Donald Pleasence
Synopsis: A secret agent possesses a ring that makes him invisible for a short time, once every 10 hours. He is in pursuit of an evil criminal mastermind but, at the same time, must evade an enemy agent who also wants the ring.
In this lukewarm James Bond spoof, Matchless is a reference not to the qualities of our hero, played by Patrick O’Neal with his brow metaphorically arched and a knowing refusal to lampoon the filmmakers’ target, but to his nickname. Perry ‘Matchless’ Liston is a top columnist for the New York Tribune who seems to have a knack for getting himself into outlandish scrapes. When we first meet him, he’s in the clutches of the Chinese military who suspect him of being a spy who knows the whereabouts of a lethal chemical. When he withstands their torture – which consists of strapping him to a pole and spinning him around at speed – they decide he must die at the hands of a firing squad.
While languishing in a cell, Liston’s kindness to a dying Chinese prisoner earns him the inheritance of a large ring which its owner claims bestows the power of invisibility on whoever is wearing it for twenty minutes at a time every ten hours. Of course, Liston sets little store by the – now dead – man’s claims, and neither does his other cell-mate, a genuine spy named Hank Norris (Henry Silva). But when facing the firing squad, Liston inadvertently presses the ring in the manner described by the old Chinese man and promptly disappears, much to the amazement of both the soldiers and Norris, who immediately strikes a deal with his captors in which he promises to obtain the ring for them in return for his freedom.
For some reason, becoming invisible causes Liston’s pants to fall off, and he hotfoots it to the nearby home of O-Lan (Elisabeth Wu), a comely young wench who just happens to be the reluctant lover of the officer who oversaw Liston’s torture. O-Lan directs the search party away from Liston and then smuggles him out of the country the following day. But his Oriental saviour isn’t all that she seems; she’s actually an American spy, and she drugs Liston on the flight back to the States before delivering him to the American military – which means another spin on the same torture device used by the Chinese. Although, instead of facing a firing squad when he refuses to divulge any self-incriminating information, Liston finds himself recruited into its spy club and presented with the task of tracking down the formula for, and location of, the lethal chemical substance, both of which are in the possession of international villain Andreanou (Donald Pleasance).
While Matchless lacks the big studio backing of more familiar mid-60s Bond spoofs such as the Matt Helm and Flint movies, it shares with them the same glib sense of humour and comic book sensibilities. Where it differs, however, is in the reluctance and unsuitability of its hero to participate in all these international espionage hi-jinks. Liston is an outsider thrust into the world of spies and secret agents, and is more likely to settle into an exhausted slumber while working his way up a willing female conquest’s legs than to leave her shaken and stirred. Where Matchless differs from other spoof agent movies is in its satirical content which, while not exactly barbed, at least provides some wry smiles. Certainly, the humour from these observations is vastly more successful than the horribly broad humour of Henry Silva’s performance which strays too often towards the buffoonish. The normally reserved Silva looks as if he’s having a whale of a time – but unfortunately it’s at the expense of his audience. Donald Pleasance meanwhile, in a role which could have been a dress rehearsal for his performance as Blofeld opposite the genuine James Bond, steals every scene he’s in, and his habit of instinctively reaching for his sunglasses whenever something doesn’t go to plan is strangely endearing.
Matchless is a movie that’s brimming with ideas, too many of which are prematurely cast aside due to writer Alberto Lattuada’s lack of discipline. Inevitably, this means the film struggles to hold our attention past the halfway mark, despite the best efforts of all (but Silva).
(Reviewed 4th January 2014)