Friday, July 10, 2020

Nazis, Spies and Bikers - Adamson Style

Kent Taylor as New Nazi Party leader Count von Delberg in THE FAKERS.
Severin Films' AL ADAMSON MASTERPIECE COLLECTION permits an engrossing comparison between their choppy and discombobulated 1970 release HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS and the more organically pleasing picture it grew out of, a pleasantly engaging little spy picture called THE FAKERS (1967, 94m 49s). Filmed under the title OPERATION M, it opens with an immediately engaging animated title sequence, the first Bob Lebar created for Independent-International, bearing the reconsidered title SMASHING THE CRIME SYNDICATE and a copyright date of 1973. Further upping the ante is Adamson's first proper film score, suggesting that he (or perhaps production consultant Sam Sherman) had recognized that their previous use of library music had worked against the commercial viability of their product. A flashy montage of rotoscoped nude models in high contrast and psychedelic colors, animated USA flags, swastikas, hammer and sickles, Stars of David, inky handprints, and $20 bills, this stylish surge of creativity is given additional verve by the opening theme, "Faker," sung by Debbie Stuart (à la Shirley Bassey), which is credited to Nelson Riddle though the musical score, per se, was more economically provided by Don McGinnis, who made free use of Riddle's catchy motifs. 

John Gabriel eyes a counterfeit bill with mob boss Keith Andes.
The film opens, in a manner now evoking RESERVOIR DOGS, with our protagonist waking up in the back seat of a moving car with the heated story already in progress. We won't know this for awhile, but this is danger-man-for-hire Mark Adams, played by John Gabriel (credited as the lyricist of "Faker") - he arranges his escape from the car, upsetting the driver, who proceeds to spill over the side of a cliff, delivering immediate action and fatality. The unconscious Adams is picked up by a passing truck driver and taken to hospital, where the film embarks on a more-or-less feature-length flashback, complete with handy self-introduction. While comatose, he recounts the story of how he was hired by his boss Joe, "a very big man in the syndicate," who has been contacted by a Las Vegas branch of the New Nazi Party who need funding to put into action "an idea so big, only the syndicate could handle it." Joe wants Adams to meet with the man behind the New Reich, a Count von Delberg (Kent Taylor), who owns stolen money plates dating back to WWII capable of making fool-proof counterfeit currency, which he plans to circulate to refinance his army of goose-steppers. Joe wants those plates - probably more for his own gain than for any patriotic reason. 

Guest stars Broderick Crawford and John Carradine.

What's wrong with the film from the beginning is that Adams and his boss are so cordial and likable that we are left wondering why our putative hero wasn't conceived as a secret agent working on behalf of our government, rather than a charismatic hood working on behalf of a warm and friendly mob boss. As it happens, he actually is; this is just another curve thrown at us to make the story more "interesting." Adams has been working undercover for the past five years; his actual bosses are Gavin (Broderick Crawford, an implied FBI man, giving the same performance he always gives, but he's solid and ideal for the role) and his next-in-line Brand (Scott Brady, ditto). When one of "Why did they send you?" Gavin asks female agent Jill Harmon (Emily Banks), when Brand drags her into his office. "I don't like sending out female agents, especially when they're pretty." "Thanks for the left-handed compliment!" she fires back perkily. Gavin also "has a feeling the communists are in on this" - well, okay, why not? 

Vicki Volante hides from her pursuers at Marineland - a surprisingly Hitchcockian scene.
"Everything simple so far?" the suave Adams asks us from the depths of his coma, while neatly pocketing his gun in a shoulder holster onscreen. And so it goes, with our comatose hero supposedly reminiscing about how he got into this position, while also telling us about scenes and situations to which he was not privy. Adams also encounters more than his share of female trouble, courtesy of a jailbait femme fatale (Anne Randall), the competitive agent Harmon, the icy blonde Leni Marvenga (Jacklyn O'Donnell) and also the Count's apparently Nazi-friendly attaché Carol Bechtol (Vicki Volante), the Count's unknowing attaché and mistress, who becomes a target for the Communists whose bid for the plates was snubbed. The film reaches its genuinely engrossing high point as Carol flees her would-be assassins into the midst of a packed afternoon at Marineland, where Adamson, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and editor John Winfield create a seriously good sequence, almost ten minutes in length, that proceeds without much dialogue and is inventively storyboarded on multiple levels of single compositions. Adams saves Carol, only to discover that she's assumed her position in the Count's employ because she wants to destroy him, actually a surviving Nazi war criminal who was responsible for her parents' death at Auschwitz.
Before he worked for Herschell Gordon Lewis, Col. Harlan Sanders made an Al Adamson cameo!

Adams' coma finally comes full circle around 74m into the picture, making us realize it was only a ploy to underline the fine points of an overcomplicated plot, which only served to make them more complicated in the process - but there is terrific stuff along the way, some of it quite quirkily funny, including a delightfully perverse encounter with a fellow undercover man posing as a pet shop dealer (John Carradine) bedeviled by a pair of ditzy twins (Alyce and Rhae Andrece) whose lovebirds aren't being very amorous, a bit of judo oneupmanship with Agent Harmon, and a romantic sidebar as Adams and Ms. Marvenga take a stroll through the park and meet Col. Harlan Sanders himself while having lunch at KFC.

Agent Harmon (Emily Banks) throws Adams for a loop.
In its original form, THE FAKERS is an engaging, neat little spy picture whose quirks are ultimately forgivable, even embraceable, but the story behind it is a tragic one. When it was still OPERATION M, it ran out of money mid-way through production, and other producers came into the project like Rex Carlton, who - when the film finally proved unsaleable - committed suicide, dropping roughly $40,000 of debt on Adamson's shoulders. To make a long story short, Adamson subsequently formed Independent-International with Sam Sherman as a means of repaying that debt to his investors, a scheme that was ultimately successful - and which explains why his shelf of work at that time became the raw material for drastic re-evaluation and reinvention.

Robert Dix at the head of HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS.
HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS (90m 11s) may be the crudest of the various reworkings, which takes the original's New Nazi Party plot and ties it to the swastikas paraded by a motorcycle gang led by the fairly straight-looking Cunk (Robert Dix). The movie - which cuts THE FAKERS down quite a bit and adds roughly 15 minutes of additional footage shot in Utah - opens with the Bloody Devils (played by an actual biker gang, the Hessians), who are in league with the Count's Master Race philosophy and on his payroll, tracking down a pair of commie hit men and treating them to a chain-beating until they are covered in blood ("Now everyone will know you're a red, ha ha ha," one observes.) The Bob Lebar titles are slightly reworked to incorporate biker graphics, and the original theme song is kept. 

Pick-up cameraman Frank Ruttencutter goes for the symbolism during a biker's love scene.
Whereas THE FAKERS looks beautiful, having been scanned and restored from its original 35mm negative, HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS was not so carefully preserved. The version presented makes extensive use of the FAKERS negative but the material unique to the revision is culled from various surviving 35mm prints, which are faded and scratchy as they looked the last time they played under the stars at various drive-in theaters.

The extras include a trailer and TV spot for HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS, as well as a feature-length commentary by Sam Sherman (incorporating a brief phoned-in addenda by John Gabriel), and an  hilarious featurette called "Sam Sherman Interviews Actor John Gabriel," in which the poor, smiling, dressed-up-to-be-interviewed-on-camera, and clearly suffering actor finds it all but impossible to get a word in. All in all, another entertaining, eye-opening, and educational evening with the AL ADAMSON MASTERPIECE COLLECTION.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.