Entertaining European fluff -could have been a real winner
The basics for quality escapism are present in STUNTMAN, a forgotten programmer among the thousands cranked out in Europe in the '60s. With a bigger budget, more talented auteur, and some A-list casting, it could have been a minor classic.
Instead we have a diverting, strictly B movie. Cutting corners doesn't ruin it entirely, but certainly reduces its appeal.
Holding up the A-list is Gina Lollobrigida, looking radiant in a role that pokes fun at Zsa Zsa Gabor and many other jet setting femmes (even Liz Taylor) who are serial marriage hounds. Gina's on her seventh hubby, grabbing a doddering, wheel-chair-bound millionaire, while her boyfriend, title hero Johnny (Robert Viharo) rues the fact that he doesn't have enough coin to win Gina's heart.
Johnny is famous enough to have teenyboppers seeking his autograph as a daredevil movie stuntman. What makes the film work, and also makes the viewer wish more quality had been pumped into the project, is the clever gimmick of integrating Johnny's stunt prowess into his real-life situations. There are scenes of movie stunts being shot, but the lion's share of the impressive action footage (staged by Europe's best, Remy Julienne) is not on a movie set.
Set in France for no obvious reason (this is an Italian production in nearly all respects), story concerns Johnny getting caught up with international thieves, played in cartoonish fashion, all seeking a valuable objet d'art. Utterly scrumptious Marisa Mell (in perhaps her most glamorous movie styling) is the femme fatale, providing quality nude scenes along the way, and keeping one guessing as to her true motives.
The wonderful French New Wave actress Marie Dubois joins the fray later on as perhaps the film's most level-headed character, looking great and natural no matter how nonsensical the action escalates around her. Gina is brought back into the picture in the final reel for a satisfying and quite clever ending and twist.
The fast & furious action and slapstick is well-staged by journeyman director Marcello Baldi, but he clearly is a C-level talent, here outstripping his usual mediocrity in a B venue. But what if this had been an A picture? Blake Edwards cranked out many a super-production (think PINK PANTHER as far back as '63) with less going for him, and clearly could have hit this one out of the ballpark. Even Richard Rush's classic THE STUNT MAN made a decade later, for all its quirkiness could have benefited from some of the plot gimmicks Baldi used.
Weak link holding the project back at every turn is Robert Viharo, a journeyman American actor who comes off here as a third-rate imitation of John Richardson or Franco Nero. Viharo had another shot at leading man status in Don Edmonds' BARE KNUCKLES ten years on, but he simply can't carry a picture, C, B or A level. At times I thought he was merely a real-life stunt man thrust into the leading acting role, so mundane were his acting chops.
Fortunately, thanks to Mell's winning performance this obscure title has an afterlife on the collector's circuit. But oh what might have been!
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