Saturday, 28 December 2013

Happy New Year

“Free at last…. Good luck and god bless you”


Sunday, 1 December 2013

Review: The Golden Lady (1979, Jose Larraz)

When is a Jose Larraz film not a Jose Larraz film? When it is The Golden Lady a 1979 offering from the Barcelona born director that resembles just about everything other than one of his own films. At the higher end of its multiple aspirations The Golden Lady muscles in on territory occupied by Charlie’s Angels, The Avengers and the James Bond franchise, deliberately inviting comparisons between the latter two in the ‘special guest star’ casting of Patrick Newell and Desmond Llewelyn, both playing as close to their Bond and Avengers characters as copyright laws would allow. The Golden Lady also has its wicked eye on the decadent, disco loving world of The Stud, inadvertently its Bond influences often make it come across as a humourless Lindsay Shonteff film too, and its storyline about a group of pistol packing, attractive women steps on the feet of Donovan Winter’s The Deadly Females.

Slick in execution, metropolitan in its landscape, and doing its best to pass itself off as a big budget Hollywood affair, The Golden Lady belongs to a different universe entirely to the earlier, atmospheric and predominately rural set series of British horror films that Larraz is better remembered for. It is a Larraz film only in the sense that Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs was a Mario Bava film, or that Poltergeist was a Tobe Hooper film, yes that is their names adorning the directed by credit, but abandon all hope ye who seek auteur tendencies here. The conclusion that you can’t help reaching is that Larraz was merely a director for hire on this project. By all accounts it wasn’t a happy experience for its director, who’d go on to cite it as one of the worse films he was ever involved in, with the majority of his ire being reserved for the film’s script. While I’m not sure this is Larraz’s absolute nadir –faded but painful memories of his 1980s horror efforts The Edge of the Axe and Rest in Pieces suggest they were more hard going- The Golden Lady is definitely the most faceless of his films. It has the feel, less of the work of a horror auteur, than of a director who occasionally dabbles in the strictly commercial side of cinema in-between a day job of shooting ITC series episodes. In that sense it is the kind of film that would sit more comfortably among the filmographies of Val Guest, Robert Young or Gerry O’Hara, than Larraz.

The Golden Lady of the title, and the film’s female James Bond character is Julia Hemmingway (Christina World) a mercenary by trade, but who leads the kind of jet-set lifestyle more associated with a wealthy socialite. Larraz’s leading lady Miss ‘World’ is none other than Take An Easy Ride’s Ina Skriver, hiding out under a new acting pseudonym invented especially for the purposes of this film. Skriver’s Danish accent and acting ability haven’t improved a great deal in the three years since Take An Easy Ride, but at least she now gets to play a character who owns her own car, helicopter and private jet, rather than having to hitchhike her way into the back of other people’s.

Enter Charlie Whitlock (Newell) a quintessentially English, smoking jacket and monocle wearing businessman who instigates the plot of The Golden Lady by hiring Hemmingway to dig the dirt on three business rivals of his. All of whom represent Whitlock’s main competition in a looming bidding war over the rights to a petroleum contract in the Middle East. Despite the film’s title Hemmingway doesn’t go it alone, and seeks out three other golden ladies to help her out with this assignment, each hired on the basis that their good looks will render Whitlock’s rivals putty in their hands.

My good friend Suzy Mandel was at one point mooted to appear in this film, The Golden Lady even shows up in some versions of her CV, but in fact Suzy had emigrated to the States before filming had begun. The makers of The Golden Lady may have narrowly missed out on having a bona fide Playbird in their cast, but they luckily still managed to round up a trio of striking starlets to play Hemmingway’s assistants, including a pre-‘V’ June Chadwick, the high priestess of all late 1970s British trash culture that is Suzanne Danielle, and Czech model and Confessions of a Window Cleaner bit player Anika Pavel. In the Charlie’s Angels tradition each of the golden ladies has her own distinguishing characteristics and fashionable hairstyle. Chadwick’s character Lucy (aka the short haired one) is the boffin of the group, whose Hi-Tech commuter, nicknamed ‘Corky’, provides onscreen data on the other two golden ladies, spelling out their strengths and weaknesses in a time-saving way of character development. Carol (Pavel) is a redheaded NYC fashion model who when not posing for photo shoots is getting her hands dirty in the world of espionage. Carol’s plus points according to Corky are “no particular political-religious allegiances”, but her failings include “vanity…. nymphomania”. Saying that it is rather unfair of Corky to single Carol out for criticism in that department, especially as vanity and nymphomania are a common failing among both female and male characters in this film. Last but certainly not least is Suzanne Danielle as the statuesque and fearless Dahlia. How tough is Dahlia? the first sight of her in the film sees Dahlia modelling army camouflage and nonchalantly strutting her stuff around a war zone as an unspecified war rages around her, a sequence that culminates with Dahlia in silhouette, gun in hand and the smouldering remnants of a downed plane in the background. Intros to action heroines don’t come much better than that.

Early on in the film Hemmingway stresses to Whitlock that “I’m involved in commercial espionage not murder” but no sooner have Whitlock’s rivals surfaced in London than car chases, kidnap attempts and dead bodies start to pile up around the golden ladies, as greedy unscrupulous businessmen get pitted against each other in a grab for the oil. Whitlock’s rivals in question include Dietmar Schuster, an AC/DC German businessman who is in town with his younger lover Wayne Bentley, a ballet dancer whose prima donna behaviour and bi-sexuality make him a target for seduction by the golden ladies. Then there is Yorgo Praxis (Edward De Souza) a Greek, self-made billionaire and shipping magnate, who in no way, shape or form is meant to remind you of the Greek, self-made billionaire and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (taking characters who mirror real-life figures and dropping them into salacious, fictional plots appears to be one of many tricks the makers of The Golden Lady picked up from Jackie Collins.) Technically there is a fifth, unofficial golden lady in the form of Anita (Ava Cadell) an inexpensive prostitute that Hemmingway has hired to distract Praxis whilst the other golden ladies infiltrate and bug his London residence. What a distraction Anita does turn out to be, riding Praxis like a bucking bronco and faking violent orgasms as if her life depended on it, in a scene that gave Ava Cadell the chance to show off her newly enlarged breasts and guarantee The Golden Lady coverage in the T&A stills loving pages of Continental Film Review. Anita is later the subject of a hilarious put down when Praxis tells Hemmingway that Anita is “a good child really, but …”.

Hemmingway puts herself forward for the business of seducing the final man who stands in the way of Whitlock’s bid for the oil. Not surprisingly, as Max Rowlands-a man who seems to have learnt everything he knows about male grooming and fashion from Paul Raymond- also happens to be Hemmingway’s former lover. As the instigator of his labyrinthine plot, Whitlock continues to pop in and out of the narrative, ensuring that the Golden Lady’s makers got their money’s worth out of Patrick Newell. Desmond Llewelyn’s appearance however is of the ‘take the money and run’ school of cameo appearances. Cast as Lucy’s mentor, Llewelyn sticks around long enough to dish out a few Bondian gadgets before he is out the door and in search of a paycheque. “Haven’t I met him somewhere before” enquirers Hemmingway. “I believe he is quite well known in his trade” replies Lucy, in a scene that offers a corny wink to its audience and a brief ray of comedy in a film that often could be accused of taking itself way too seriously.

Paradoxically the closer attention you pay to the plot of The Golden Lady the less sense it starts to make. Schuster is really a KGB agent living under a false identity, Hemmingway’s entire mission is a smokescreen for an assassination attempt on a visiting oil sheik, and Rowlands is secretly in with the CIA and also wants to get back in Hemmingway’s knickers. The Golden Lady never entirely convinces you that its makers were the encyclopaedic knowledge on international espionage that the film would love you to believe. Suspicions linger that we’re witnessing filmmakers trying to bluff their way through this area of expertise with the help of a tangled web of a plot and lots of then topical chit-chat concerning oil barons, the energy crisis, ‘big shots from Israeli’, Swiss bank accounts, et al.

The big diversionary tactic here though is the characters’ wealth and the billionaire lifestyles of the beautiful people. Fur coats, diamonds, champagne and disco music are all worshipped as the new gods here. Ina Shriver alone must have gone through an entire designer wardrobe during the film, her character rarely sporting the same outfit for more than one scene, you’d be amazed at how much of the film consists of characters going back and forth between the lobbies of high-class London hotels and the back seats of limousines, and a Panther Deville –the vehicle to be seen in if you were a female mercenary or porn baron back then- commands enough screen time that it is deserving of its own co-starring credit.

As with the same year’s The Bitch, there is also a helicopter ride opening scene and aerial views of New York City that serve no real purpose other than to flaunt the fact that the money was there to afford such luxuries. As to where the money was coming from… a loan of Lucy’s computer isn’t needed to detect that Philips, the Dutch multinational engineering and electronics conglomerate, are likely to have had money in this film. Their logo turns up in the end credits and as discreet product placement within the film (Corky the computer bearing the mark of Philips itself). A little more ill at ease with The Golden Lady’s all important veneer of top-drawer sophistication is onscreen evidence that its makers took a backhander from the Wall’s Ice Cream Company. Namely a scene towards the end in which the golden ladies commandeer a Wall’s Ice Cream Van and use it as cover to enter an airport, cunningly masquerading as Wall’s Ice Cream representatives.


On the rare instances that The Golden Lady contemplates working class Britain it does so in a consistently negative light. A visit to a council block of flats quickly has Hemmingway drawing her gun in anticipation of trouble, and leads her onto a squalid flat and a blood splattered corpse in its bathroom. Elsewhere a sub-plot sends Dahlia and Lucy to an amateur boxing club where they are immediately bothered by uncouth, punch drunk and sexist blokes. A pinch of Dahlia’s bottom from one of them being all it takes to start a brawl. After the dust has settled Lucy and Dahlia are granted an audience with the man they are after, a low-class boxer who matter of factly admits to moonlighting as a hit-man but whose lack of a decent education renders him useless to the golden ladies since he is unable to decide if his all-important mysterious employer spoke with a Greek, Italian or Yugoslavian accent. The underlining message here appears to be that the Britain that lies at the wrong end of the tracks is no place for a golden lady.

Miss Hemmingway is on safer ground in the back of the Panther Deville or at the discothèque she whisks Rowlands off to. A disco isn’t perhaps the most logical of locale to discuss top secret matters and affairs of the heart, and it is not long before their intimate conversation is interrupted by a performance from Blonde on Blonde, alias singing Page 3 girls Jilly Johnson and ‘naughty’ Nina Carter. Costumed in matching Marlene Dietrich/The Blue Angel outfits, the duo take to the dance floor to perform their song ‘Woman is Free’ no doubt winning a few new fans by wiggling their sparkling hot pants as they exit. How does one top the spectacle of singing glamour models in Dietrich apparel and hot pants? An unseen MC provides the answer by introducing “the fabulous Hot Gossip”. Rowlands and Hemmingway might have been able to control themselves during Blonde on Blonde’s routine but the onstage antics of Arlene Phillips’ fetish outfit loving dance troupe forces then to head for the exit in order to find the nearest 5-star hotel room to fuck each other’s brains out in. Hot Gossip’s appearance proving that there is nothing quite like an adult woman dressed as a schoolgirl or a man wearing only leather Y-fronts being lead around by a dog collar to get an estranged couple in the mood, or to momentary distract a cinema audience from a film with a head scratchingly convoluted plot.

Blonde on Blonde Ambition

As The Golden Lady drifts away from its Bond/The Avengers model and towards being a “Spawn of The Stud” movie, thanks to the scenes showcasing London’s disco nightlife and Hot Gossip, one thing that occurs to you is how few imitations of The Stud there actually were. Huge success, nay phenomenon that The Stud was, the Collins sisters pretty much had the sexploitation niche that they’d carved out for themselves with that film all to themselves. Either as a duo, in the case of the Stud sequel The Bitch, or solo in the case of the Joan-less, Jackie penned The World is Full of Married Men, or the Jackie-less, Joan vehicle Nutcracker. My pet theory as to the lack of Stud imitations is that the chief ingredients to that film’s success –a name star reinventing herself as a sex symbol in middle age, a glamorous portrayal of well-moneyed hedonism, and known pop hits scattered about the film like confetti- was all just a too prohibitively expensive formula for the British sexploitation industry to attempt to copy. The Golden Lady then stands as one of the few films to take on the Collins sisters at their own game. Whereas The Stud had Joan Collins as its older woman figure, The Golden Lady tries to match it with the similarly mature Ina Skriver, The Stud took Legs & Co (and their friend Floyd) out of the Top of the Pops studio and onto the big screen, so The Golden Lady does likewise by letting the ruder Hot Gossip loose on a cinema audience. The Stud gave nude walk on roles to sexploitation actresses Pat Astley and Susie Silvey, to which The Golden Lady answers by playing the Ava Cadell card. The Stud centred on characters leading lifestyles others only dream about, The Golden Lady centres on characters leading lifestyles others only dream about…and who get to shoot people as well.

Where The Golden Lady begins to lag behind is in the soundtrack department. The Collins films were spoilt rotten when it came to disco and pop hits, The World is Full of Married Men soundtrack album –which yours truly picked up a few years ago at a local branch of Oxfam- is a no expenses spared, double album affair complete with gatefold sleeve and 28 tracks that are a who’s who of the period’s radio friendly pop scene (Sylvester, Heatwave, Billy Ocean, Bonnie Tyler, Sarah Brightman, Tavares, Taste of Honey.) The best the makers of The Golden Lady could come up with is Charles Aznavour and The Three Degrees to sing over the closing and opening credits, and in the obligatory soundtrack LP only Aznavour, The Three Degrees and Blonde on Blonde warrant a mention on the 10 track soundtrack’s cover.

More crucially while Oliver Tobias’ performance as a man running from his working class background and attempting to better himself by swimming in a sea of predatory older women, creeps, hangers on, snobs, brainless revellers and top 40 hits, gave The Stud its unexpected heart and soul, there is no comparative character here- male or female. The Golden Lady is amusingly true to its gender reversal James Bond concept in this respect by making its male character all a tad one-dimensional, only good for one thing and with a tendency to become irritatingly pathetic and love struck soon after. “Look we made love that’s all, but I can’t change my way of life now” Hemmingway tells a crestfallen Rowlands, words that could have come from the mouth of Mr. Bond himself. Rowlands isn’t that easily put off though, and right till the final scene in the film is still trying to win her heart by blowing kisses down the end of the phone to her. At which point Charles Aznavour joins in the Julia Hemmingway love-in by romantically singing her praises over the end credits (“here I am alone, she had wayyyyyssssss, so right for meeeeeeeeee”). ‘Can a Paul Raymond clone ever forget The Golden Lady and find True Happiness’, is the question you’re left pondering over after the end credits, sadly sequels that may have answered that question were not forthcoming.

Unfortunate echoes of Donovan Winter’s The Deadly Females threaten to derail The Golden Lady, the frequent name dropping of real world issues in both films is the classic sign of an uppity exploitation film that wants to con people into thinking that it has hidden social-relevance. Too many cooks also are in danger of spoiling the broth here, with four heroines and various love interests, confidants and enemies pushing the number of main characters into double-figures. Performers who can cut it in action movie terms like Suzanne Danielle, and talented actors like Edward De Souza deserve more screen time but have to share it with an equal amount of deadwood characters and actors. The film also has an annoying habit of investing in minor characters like the bi-sexual ballet dancing toy boy or Ava Cadell’s prostitute character, only for them to be abruptly written out of the film by having them turn up as corpses with bullets in their heads.

Unlike the Donovan Winter film though, The Golden Lady does remember that films about groups of lethal, ass kicking ladies are meant to have a pulse. For a rookie when it came to action cinema and a director who never touched on the genre again, Larraz turns out to be surprisingly gifted at bringing the action set pieces to life. Saving the best till last, The Golden Lady’s climax in which Dahlia forces a helicopter pilot to give chase to an assassin who is fleeing by motorcycle is a genuinely exciting piece of stunt work and filmmaking. One with a sense of for real danger about it as that pursuing helicopter dive bombs the ground in perilously close proximity to nearby trees and the man on the bike, giving the impression that the production was only seconds, if not inches, away from having a Vic Morrow moment. An extra frisson being generated here by the fact that it really does look like Suzanne Danielle was in that helicopter for the duration of the scene.

The Golden Lady is 90 minutes of 24-carat, escapist nonsense, designed with a late 1970’s middle-of-the-road audience in mind, and appropriately pitched halfway between mainstream and exploitation genres. It might simultaneously be both a career low-point for Larraz, and the best film Suzanne Danielle ever appeared in. After watching it you may well feel the need to reacquaint yourself with Vampyres or Symptoms in order to restore your faith in him, but on the other hand it almost convinces you that she should be forgiven for Carry on Emmannuelle and The Boys in Blue.