Sunday, October 5, 2008


"The Big Gundown" director Sergio Sollima's "Agent 3S3: Passport to Hell" with George Ardisson ranks as a reasonable but not exceptional example of the parade of European spy sagas that sought to clone the success of the James Bond films in the middle 1960s. "Passport to Hell" (**1/2 out of ****) was somewhat successful because it spawned a sequel, 1966's "Agent 3S3, Massacre in the Sun," with Ardisson and Sollima encoring respectively as star and director. Not only was this Sollima's initial outing in the spy genre, but it also was his second feature at the helm. Sollima made more of a name for himself in spaghetti westerns with "The Big Gundown" starring Lee Van Cleef & Tomas Milian, a sequel without Van Cleef, "The Big Gundown 2" with Tomas Milian and then "Face to Face" with Tomas Milian, William Berger and Gian Maria Volontè. Afterward, he helmed the Charles Bronson & Telly Savalas crime melodrama "The Family."

"Agent 3S3: Passport to Hell" is a relatively low-budget epic that benefits from Sollima's tight sense of pacing and a surprise or two as a resourceful spy (Giorgio Ardisson of "Massacre at Grand Canyon") searches for an elusive World War II espionage agent who has gone rogue and threatens the security of both NATO countries as well as the Warsaw Pact countries. George Ardisson is ideal for the role as a rough and tumble secret agent, but the lack of a flamboyant villain with a dastardly scheme to destroy the world undercuts this realistic film. The dubbed dialogue sounds pretty stilted, but at least the lips match the words. A beautiful but desperate woman clad in only a bathrobe, Elisa von Sloot (BĂ©atrice Altariba of Roger Corman's "The Young Racers") flees frantically into a brightly lighted car tunnel at night. An automobile pulls up in front of her and a man emerges to help her. The young Dutch woman—a C.I.A. agent as we learn later—explains that she is running away from two thugs who invaded her house while she was asleep and tried to kill her. No sooner has the poor girl told the gentleman, "I'm so glad you here," than he pulls a pistol and blows a hole in her stomach, killing her instantly, as the two men she spoke up wheel up behind her. As it turns out, the helpful gentleman rebukes his two henchmen and then removes a spool of microfilm from her corpse. He orders them to dispose of her body.The scene shifts to the Soviet Embassy as C.I.A honcho, Major Taylor (Tom Felleghy of "Atlas Against the Czar"), meets with his counterpart in Russian Intelligence, Colonel Dolukin (Fernando Sancho of "A Pistol for Ringo"), to discuss the death of Elisa. Dolukin reveals that 'the organization' killed Elisa. This 'organization," as he calls it, is "a private spy association" that has knocked off its share of Soviet spies, too. Taylor agrees with Dolukin, "Now, I think their dangerousness has been underestimated." Dolukin adds that he decided to call the meeting because "The more time you expend on the 'organization' the less you will have for Russia." Taylor dismisses Dolukin's optimism and the scene shifts to C.I.A. HQ where the superiors choose the man most qualified to undertake this deadly mission from Third Special Division. Agent 3S3 Walter Ross (George Ardisson) can shoot and kick his way out of any tight spot and proves it. Walter Ross' superiors want him to find Irmgard von Wittstein (Barbara Simon of "Gunfight at Red Sands") because she is the daughter of Henry Dvorak. According to Major Taylor, they suspect that Dvorak is the mastermind behind the 'Organization.' The C.I.A.'s codename for Dvorak is 'Mr. A,' one of the greatest spies of World War II that helped bring about the destruction of the Third Reich. They want Ross to learn the whereabouts of Dvorak from the daughter and they authorize him to do whatever it takes to complete the mission. Ross' boss says, "It's your job to get to know her. You can make love to her, torture her, blackmail her, even marry her, but you must absolutely succeed." Nevertheless, they warn Ross that he will be up against the cream of the 'Organization's crop of killers. Ross learns for himself what kind of danger that he has plunged himself in after he contacts the daughter. While he drives away from his first rendezvous with her, he finds himself boxed in by two heavy trucks that ram his vehicle unless he leaps from it. "Agent 3S3: Passport to Hell" has enough action, intrigue, and surprises to keep you interested. The on-location lensing in Beirut, Lebanon, as well as snow swept Austria, certainly adds to its scenic grandeur. One nefarious wench relies on a special make-up compact that fires deadly darts and there's an interesting bar scene where rivals arm wrestle with a glass of beer clutched between them. It is always interesting to see Spanish actor Fernando Sancho cast as a character other than a fat, stereotypical Mexican bandit, but the absence of a strong villain undermines this more than adequate thriller.

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