At a swinging costume party, a dying man urges Egyptian-outfitted Cleopatra (Teresa Gimpera) to deliver an urgent message to super secret agent Lucky the Inscrutable (Ray Danton), masked man of mystery and many talents. Poor Cleo bags a bullet from an evil assassin but Lucky fights his way through a slew of oddball enemies to reach the headquarters of Archangel, a powerful secret society of financiers all dubbed with thick Jewish accents! Inducted into this influential organisation, Lucky is then dispatched along with playboy sidekick Michele (Dante Posani) on a crazy, cross-continental adventure to foil an international counterfeit ring.
Popular opinion has it the late, globe-hopping Spanish schlockmeister Jess Franco directed nothing of merit but this is untrue. Admittedly a great deal of his uneven output is an acquired taste but The Diabolical Dr. Z (1965), jazz fantasia Venus in Furs (1970) and his Marquis De Sade adaptations: Eugenie... The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969) and Eugenie De Sade (1970) are accomplished efforts. But it is the lesser known Lucky the Inscrutable that arguably stands as Franco’s most enjoyable and indeed, accessible movie. Often misidentified as a standard Eurospy flick, with this fast-paced comedy Franco set out to make a literal comic strip on film, incorporating pop art colours, offbeat camera angles and even speech bubbles. It is a spiritual cousin to Danger: Diabolik (1968) but while Franco matches that film in terms of gloriously surreal costumes and stylised comic book action, one area where he outdoes Mario Bava is with inspired slapstick set-pieces and quotable, playfully witty dialogue. This film is routinely laugh-out-loud hilarious in a manner that will have anyone who sat through the director’s turgid porno-horror efforts wonder why he so rarely scaled such inventive heights again.
Franco and his screenwriters concoct a deliberately preposterous plot that alludes to Kiss Me Deadly (1955) with the inclusion of a mysterious box that provides the apocalyptic and playfully post-modern punchline. Along the way the action is rife with surreal satire as Franco lovingly spoofs not just spy movies but Pepé Le Moko (1937), vintage detective stories and his beloved serials. He also pokes fun at the bed-hopping antics of James Bond and company without lapsing into the tiresome misogyny of the Matt Helm films. Indeed, the titular hero is the butt of most of the jokes. Unflappable and indestructible he may be, but Lucky is also egotistical and, on more than one occasion, inept including a running gag wherein this self-styled master of disguise is recognised by just about everybody. This satirical depiction of a delusional dimwit spy hero anticipates the antics of Jean Dujardin in the sly spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006). Given the original, serious OSS 117 movies were all the rage around Europe at the time it is more than likely Franco was ahead of the curve.
Imported Hollywood star Ray Danton plays the cracked comedy with a quite marvellous air of deadpan cool. Danton never quite made it to the big leagues but acquitted himself well in a fair few films, most notably Budd Boetticher’s gangster film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and the George Raft biopic Spin of the Coin (1961). He made a string of movies in Italy and Spain throughout the late Sixties before returning to the United States to begin a directing career, mostly horror movies including The Deathmaster (1972), Crypt of the Living Dead (1973) and Psychic Killer (1975) though he also directed a lot of television including episodes of Magnum, P.I. and The Incredible Hulk. Among the supporting cast, Franco himself makes a cameo as a duplicitous hobo with a penchant for bad puns (“You’re hungry? I’m Hungarian!”), keep your eyes peeled for Patty Shepard future vampire queen in landmark Paul Naschy flick Werewolf Shadow (1970) and the ever-watchable Rosalba Neri exhibits an all too rarely tapped flair for comedy as a sultry army officer-cum-femme fatale who hops between the sheets with lucky, er, Lucky in a sex scene staged like a comic strip complete with speech bubbles and, bizarrely, images of Karl Marx and Mao Tse Tung. Music by Bruno Nicolai including a marvellously catchy theme song.
Legendary director of predominantly sex-and-horror-based material, Spanish-born Jesus Franco had as many as 200 directing credits to his name. Trained initially as a musician before studying film at the Sorbonne in Paris, Franco began directing in the late 50s. By using the same actors, sets and locations on many films, Franco has maintained an astonishing workrate, and while the quality of his work has sometimes suffered because of this, films such as Virgin Amongst the Living dead, Eugenie, Succubus and She Killed in Ecstasy remain distinctive slices of 60s/70s art-trash.
Most of his films have been released in multiple versions with wildly differing titles, while Franco himself has directed under a bewildering number of pseudonyms. Actors who have regularly appeared in his films include Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee and wife Lina Romay; fans should also look out for his name on the credits of Orson Welles' Chimes of Midnight, on which he worked as assistant director.