Jim Schuyler (Kirk Douglas) is a magnificently macho, skirt-chasing super-cop living the high life in the Swinging Sixties. Barely five seconds into the film, he skilfully sidesteps his young girlfriend (blink and you’ll miss Ali McGraw in her movie debut) for a foxy femme at the racetrack, ditches her for another one night stand, then wakes beside yet another ditzy dame the next morning. The man is a machine. Between bagging bombshells, Jim somehow finds the time and energy to administer a brutal beating to a gaggle of mafia types gathered at his favourite restaurant, an act of reckless heroism that irks his superiors and leads him to quit the force. Fortunately Jim is hired by an old pal, fast-talking lawyer Tennessee Fredericks (Eli Wallach) to protect the defendant in a high-profile murder case. Sexy Rena Westabrook (Euro-cult goddess Sylva Koscina) stands accused of killing her wealthy old geezer of a husband and pretty soon sparks start to fly between the sultry femme fatale and daring detective as Jim slowly unravels the tangled murder plot.
As a murder mystery, A Lovely Way to Die is damn near incomprehensible. Repeat viewings have done little to clear up exactly who killed gardener Sean Magruder (The Waltons’ Ralph Waite), what the phoney English lord and his gang of murderous cronies are up to in the mansion next door, or what well-mannered but sleazy playboy Jonathan Fleming’s (Kenneth Haigh) stake is in all of this. At one point, Fleming’s bodyguard roughs Jim up and delivers a presumably significant speech detailing who he is and how he owes Fleming a favour - only to disappear from the story, never to be seen or heard from again.
On a narrative level the film is a total failure, but what makes it so eminently watchable? Two things really, the first is director David Lowell Rich’s flashy style, which indulges tricksy photography, elaborate staging and luscious Swinging Sixties décor at every given opportunity. Rich was a regular television hand from the early fifties to the Eighties and seems to relish pulling out all the stops for a feature film - often to the detriment of his storytelling, but then there you go. He followed this with the cult thriller Eye of the Cat (1969) plus a pair of memorably campy made-for-TV horror movies produced by Aaron Spelling, The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973) and Satan’s School for Girls (1973), but is possibly best known for directing disaster flick The Concorde… Airport ’79 (1979) where he allegedly behaved vilely towards actress Sylvia Kristel.
The second thing worth relishing are the performances. Kirk Douglas takes a character who must read as despicable on the page and makes him downright likeable. Just look at the scene where he spies a scantily clad Koscina giving him a come-hither look from the balcony and bites into an apple with such lascivious relish you can’t help but laugh. By this point in the Sixties the influence of James Bond was all-pervading, hence Jim Schuyler gets more action in the opening scenes than Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer managed in a lifetime. Eli Wallach is delightful as the canny mid-western legal eagle who has a folksy saying for every occasion. And Sylva Koscina oozes sex appeal. Koscina could really act as evident from her scene-stealing assassin in Deadlier than the Male (1966), her adulterous socialite in Lisa and the Devil (1973) or the amazing rant she delivers towards the end of the giallo classic Crimes of the Black Cat (1972). While mostly consigned to modelling an array of flimsy negligees and bikinis, the actress still weaves a nice line in steamy banter with Kirk Douglas and once again illustrates why sex appeal has as much to do with performance as physical allure.
A film that against all odds succeeds in entertaining despite its deficiencies but one more likely to appeal to fans of Sixties tat than serious cinefiles.