Continuing our occasional series looking at the post-Bond spy movies that emerged in the 1960s with a rather odd comedy-thriller from the Harry Alan Towers stable.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Harry Alan Towers’ lengthy film career was his extraordinary ability to make films that were set in exotic locations and packed with well-known stars, and yet have the results look breathtakingly cheap. Given that he worked with several different directors on these movies, I’ll be damned if I can work out just how he managed it. But there you go. Not that cheap means bad, by any means. But it is rather odd nevertheless.
Our Man in Marrakesh is a great example. Of course, the film almost certainly was cheap, and there are certain points – some truly dreadful back-projection in driving scenes for instance – where you will cringe in embarrassment at how shoddy it is. But you really expect a movie shot in Morocco and starring the likes of Tony Randall, Herbert Lom, Terry-Thomas, Wilfred Hyde-White and Klaus Kinski to have a bit more visual style to it, especially when directed by Don Sharp, who could give a certain class to most things (even the Fu Manchu films that he shot concurrently with this for Towers look considerably slicker).
All that said, you might be expecting me to dismiss the film. But in fact, Our Man in Marrakesh (aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead) is extremely entertaining, a light-hearted spy spoof that rarely lets up in the action and proves to be the perfect time waster.
Randall is American Andrew Jessel, arriving in Marrakesh on a busload of potentially suspicious characters, none of whom is who they claim to be. One of these new arrivals is a courier, bringing $2 million to shifty businessman Mr Casimir (Lom), in exchange for documents that will somehow or other help fix a United Nations vote in favour of the Chinese. It’s all rather vague, to be honest. Jessel immediately winds up in trouble when he finds a dead body in his hotel room closet – or, more accurately, in the room belonging to Kyra Stanovy (Senta Berger), which he’s accidentally been given the key to. Persuaded by the comely Miss Stanovy that the body is her boyfriend, killed by his family, he reluctantly agrees to help her move the corpse out of the hotel. However, it soon turns out that she is not the person she claims to be either. Before long, Jessel is up to his neck in trouble, fleeing from both the police – who think he killed the man in the room (whose body keeps being taken back there) and Casimir’s men, who need to retrieve the documents that he has inadvertently stolen from the gangster. Meanwhile, Casimir and the audience wait to find out who his contact is. Could it be George C. Lillywhite (John Le Mesurier) or Arthur Fairbrother (Wilfred Hyde-White)? Or could Jessel himself be more than he claims?
Our Man in Marrakesh is a curious hybrid of styles. For the most part, it is played surprisingly straight, seemingly a serious-minded (if essentially trivial) espionage drama. But Randall, naturally, plays it for laughs on the whole, meaning that some scenes are a strange hybrid of grim-faced threat and comical jokiness. It really shouldn’t work at all. That it does is thanks to Sharp’s ability to ensure that the film never really pauses for breath. He has a knack for handling action scenes, and despite the low rent appearance of the movie, the film has impressive moments of tension, fisticuffs and high drama throughout. Of course, Randall doesn’t really convince as a romantic lead, and he’s much more at home fleeing villains or fumbling about than he is trying to be seductive with Berger, but his presence ultimately helps the film. He certainly makes it more fun than the similar Towers film Five Golden Dragons, and keeps you from worrying too much about the rather gaping plot holes.
The cast of familiar faces is also a welcome distraction. Klaus Kinski pops up as a murderous thug employed by Lom and Terry-Thomas provides an amusing turn as a sheikh who has been educated in England and so has a taste for cucumber sandwiches. Margaret Lee – aka Mrs Towers – turns up as a bikini-clad bimbo who is little more than set dressing, and Gregoire Aslan plays heroic lorry driver Achmed, filling out a surprisingly decent cast.
Seen today, of course, the film feels very much the nostalgia piece, taking place in a highly Westernised Arabic country where the rich go to play. This sense of a lost world adds to the film’s curious appeal, making it seem a throwback to a more innocent time.
Ultimately, Our Man in Marrakesh is throwaway stuff, but as far as throwaway stuff goes, it’s highly entertaining. Like most Euro-spy films of the 1960s, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and at no point allows narrative coherence to get in the way of dramatic action. Ideal chill-out viewing for all the family.
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Quick correction: Harry Alan Towers was actually married to Maria Rohm, who has an uncredited role in this film.
You’re right, of course – I think I was mixing up the wife and girlfriend!
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