Wednesday 6 October 2010

Double Agent 73 (1974)

Director: Doris Wishman
Star: Chesty Morgan
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Chesty Morgan was a freak of nature, like so many of the actors who populate Cinematic Hell, a very popular one who made a lot of money out of a particular physical quirk that Mother Nature chose to gift her with: a 73FF bust. This makes her look rather unlike anyone you've ever seen, because anything of similar stature is probably the result of implant surgery and porn stars with giant balloons in their chests don't look remotely like Chesty Morgan. When constrained by an ambitious bra her assets provide a truly daunting cleavage, but when freed from captivity the laws of gravity ensure that they reach almost to her waist. Given that they're the entire point of this movie (as well as a companion piece called Deadly Weapons), we get to see a lot of them, in every meaning of the word. The excuse here is that she's a spy with a camera implanted into her left breast so she effectively has to get topless to partake in the plot.

She looks very strange throughout this movie, but less because of her mammoth mammaries and more because 1974 was obviously a notable nadir in the worlds of fashion and home decor. The clothes Morgan wears are scary beyond belief to anyone fortunate enough not to have lived through this era as an adult. It's hard to imagine anyone wearing them without wanting to take them off, though given the subject material perhaps that's the point. She's obstructed by more frills and ruffles than can comfortably be imagined and wears a platinum blonde wig throughout. She wears elephant bell bottoms, platform boots and blouses which don't even attempt to hug her figure, thus making her appear deformed: from behind she seems normal in size but from the front or sides she looks like she has a midget stuffed up her dress. She's heavier here than in her days as a 73-32-36 stripper but she isn't fat. It's the clothes that make her scary.

She was in her late thirties when legendary sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman cast her in two movies but she'd already had an interesting life, plagued by ill fortune that began when she was born Lillian Wajc to a well to do Jewish family in Warsaw in 1937, hardly the safest start to a young girl's life. She escaped the ghetto to a Israeli kibbutz but neither of her parents made it: her mother was hauled away in a boxcar and her father was shot during a Jewish uprising. In her twenties she married Joseph Wilczkowski, an American who co-owned a couple of Brooklyn meat markets and gave her two children. He was killed with two of his employees in an armed robbery dubbed 'the icebox murders', leaving her forced to overcome her thick accent to provide for her children. Later her daughter and second husband would be killed in unrelated traffic accidents, the latter sandwiched between two parked cars, but by then she was a stripper of legend.

With such a fascinating history to bring to film, it's sad that she got a trio of parts that cared only about her six foot rack. Wishman starred her in two films, shot simultaneously: Deadly Weapons saw her revenge the death of her boyfriend by smothering mobsters to death with her cleavage; and Double Agent 73 saw her left boob used for espionage. Wishman planned a sequel to this film but, fed up with Morgan's prima donna attitude and constant lateness, chose to kill off her character at the outset of The Immoral Three in the form of another actress. She was then cast by Federico Fellini, of all people, in Casanova, playing 'a woman with big boobs', to use her own description, but the scene in which Donald Sutherland chases her round a table was cut. Thus the cinematic legacy of a notable burlesque performer is limited to a Something Weird double bill and a deleted scene only viewable in an Italian documentary. So it goes.

On stage Chesty Morgan was old school: she never appeared nude and she relied as much on the tease as the strip. Yet the moment we see her in Double Agent 73, she's freeing her assets from captivity almost frantically. She spends the opening credits topless, lifting her left breast to take photos of things we don't see with an implanted camera we don't know exists yet. Wishman has been frequently described as 'the female Ed Wood', to a large degree because they shared an inability to comprehend plot consistency, so this shouldn't be surprising, but she wrote both this film and Deadly Weapons with her niece, Judy Kushner, so perhaps that ran in the family. As the film gets going it's difficult to work out just what we're watching. Doris Wishman was known for her sexploitation and the poster invited us to 'see Chesty Morgan expose the 'Big Two'', as she did during the opening credits, but then the film begins and seems to be utterly different.

We're gifted with a barrage of shots, each of them short and quickly edited into something else, some to introduce characters but often with no apparent reason. We see a number of shots of a man's shoes, for instance, but while the camera begins to pan up to show us who he is, it stops before it reaches waist height. We've already seen him anyway so the attempt is pointless. At one point he apparently walks into the camera, crotch first, and we can't tell if it's this is a clever segue or just ineptitude on the part of either the actor or cameraman. Certainly he's an inept character. He sneaks into a house where obvious hoods are playing cards to look for a microfilm by shuffling around everything he can find. As he tries to sneak back out, they catch him and Mr Toplar, the villain of the piece, orders him dead. He does escape briefly, but the bad guys drive their car at him so he flounders around in front of it and gets left for dead at the roadside.
He still has a line of dialogue to come, because the crooks are apparently as inept as he is so forget to actually kill him. After we watch a tree for a while to pass time, a stranger discovers him and asks, Who did this?' His reply is the key plot point of the entire film, if you care about the story. He mutters, 'Toplar, scar,' then points to his eye and dies, thus telling us that Toplar can be identified by a scar on his ear. Remember what I said about the lack of plot consistency in Doris Wishman movies? This is what I was talking about. My personal favourite example comes up next. As if we'd just watched a reel of a different movie, we switch to a naturist camp where a traditional game of volleyball is in progress. We're watching from an angle though, so the folks on our side of the net are naked as jaybirds while those facing us are all clad in shorts. Frankly, I find the attempt to avoid full frontal nudity in a film about Chesty Morgan's 73" breasts hilarious.

If you'd wondered where those twin stars had vanished to, by the way, they're about to show up. Morgan's character, Jane Tennay aka Agent 73, is lounging around nearby, though why she isn't naked in a nudist colony in a sexploitation movie I have no clue. She looks like nothing less than a cheap whore in red shorts and platform boots; huge sunglasses and earrings; and a black bra that has no tie but hangs down somewhat like a hammock. Her wardrobe in this film may be scarier than that of any other character in any other movie. Just wait till we get to the couple of square miles of pink fabric covered in white polka dots that she wears at one point. Anyway, she promptly gets called back to New York, making us wonder why this naturist camp is even in the script and how the most talented member of the crew seems to be the girl who dubbed Chesty Morgan's lines because she had such a thick accent that even Wishman couldn't understand it.

The next scene suggests that beyond entirely discarding the voice of her star, Wishman would have liked to have discarded her entirely too. In her unauthorised biography she calls Morgan a monster and she's said in interviews that she was the most difficult and only uncooperative actor she ever worked with over a long career in film. It's a surreal scene, set in the office of Bill, Jane's boss, as he explains the dangerous assignment he's about to send her on. It's painfully obvious that Morgan doesn't want to be there and it's far from clear whether all the snippets we see of her during the scene were shot for it. She looks vaguely drugged and she sighs often. She smiles uncomfortably at one point. She's out of focus much of the time and most of her lines are given while she isn't on screen. The underlying suggestion is that Wishman would have sent her home if only her boobs could have stayed behind to provide the gimmick she needed.

To prepare for a caper named Highlight One, Agent 73 is sent into surgery to have a camera implanted into her left breast. Sure, she's tasked with photographing all important documents on her mission as well as everyone she eliminates, so she needs a camera, but I'm still completely in the dark as to how this implant can meet the need. How many photos can this camera take and how can they be retrieved? Tennay never changes the film, not that that would appear to be a viable option. Where's the lens? If it's where the implant went in, then how does pointing at the ceiling take a picture of something in front of her? She does seem to have an astounding aim for a camera that she can't even see. How does it get past the barrier of skin? The photos we see in the end have better picture quality than this film. This insane plot device serves only to highlight the twin stars of the film and bring a whole new meaning to the term 'flash photography'.

Puns were certainly on the minds of the filmmakers, given that Tennay quickly proves able to identify an enemy agent, while hindered by a hospital gown of flowing turqouise frills, strangle her to death with a telephone cord and test out her new implant, apparently only to prove that 'Toplar's agents are everywhere'. Get it? Topless agents are everywhere? That this may be the single greatest intellectual achievement of this film amply highlights just how godawful it is. If only some of the attention given to puns was dedicated to plot consistency it might be better but after being proven as lethally efficient as any spy with a license to kill, Tennay is promptly shown up as a complete wuss, as she has extreme difficulty removing the band aids that cover the neat implant scar. This scene is painful to watch, proving that it's the little things that hurt the most, though that's a strange way to describe a scene starring a 73" bust.

She doesn't get any recovery time because a note is quickly shoved under the door to send her after her first target, Toplar's right hand man, Mark Chiaro. Her seduction technique is to sit next to him and look disgusted, but somehow that's enough to get her into his hotel room, which has its own office. Unfortunately he discovers her there taking photos with her breasts so she tries to knock him out with them in slow motion. The car chase that follows isn't in slow motion though Chiaro does manage to find time to light, smoke and discard a cigarette as he leaves the hotel! Logic throws its hands up in despair but perhaps not before the fashion police, given that Tennay is wearing checkered flares, white platform boots and a black fur coat. It all ends when she apparently parks in front of him so he can force her at gunpoint into his car, drive somewhere else and order her to get out so he can shoot her. She blows him up with her lipstick first.
While this surreal chase scene might not suggest it, there is an element of suspense to this film. Bill told Jane that she has to be back in his office by 10.00pm on March 11th. This is extremely imperative, he tells her, merely neglecting to let us know what date it is now so we have no way to gauge how long she has. This inept reading of the rules of suspense is enhanced by a shower scene. Yes, that sort of shower scene. A woman enters the plot entirely so that she can strip off and be stabbed to death in the shower by Dmitri, a hitman in a white turtleneck who looks like he should be in a Danish porn movie. He's good, good enough to be able to wipe his knife over her body and cover her in blood without leaving a single wound, and keep his white turtleneck pristine in the process. What sort of hitman wears a white turtleneck? At least we know that Jill Harris is only in the film because she's willing to get naked and murdered in quick succession.

I could run through these scenes one by one and highlight just how definitively awful they are, without exception, but that's a joy you should be able to discover for yourself. Just make sure you watch it more than once because the first time through is going to be painful, as Wishman bludgeons you to death, not only with Morgan's deadly weapons but with so much quintessential badness that it's hard to know what to look at. When Agent 73 turns the tables on the returning hitman, for instance, are we supposed to be looking at the horrendous pink chairs, the prominent bong that she uses as a weapon, the hallucinogenic pans over her breasts, her innovative choice of murder technique, the fact that she strips topless to pour a drink in her own apartment or just her perpetually pissed off expression? Only through multiple viewings can you really pick up on all the elements worthy of attention to the intrepid explorer through Cinematic Hell.

Perhaps you're still stunned by the fact that Toplar has a henchman called Igor who refers to him as Mr T. That provides no end of amusement. 'Mr T wants some dame rubbed out!' And we were led to believe he was a good Christian gentleman under all that jewellery. 'Mr T wants action and he wants it fast!' In a sexploitation flick, that doesn't bear thinking about. 'Mr T is awful mad.' So nothing new there. Maybe your eyes are stuck on the strange techniques the cinematographers, Yuri Haviv and Wishman's regular cameraman, C Davis Smith, bring to bear. There are so many bizarre shots here. One with Igor provides a great example. We get a long shot of him talking on the phone. Then we zoom in for a closeup. All good. Then we look at his arms for a few seconds. Why, we have no idea. No scene seems free of an unexplained camera movement, a zoom or a pan that always goes somewhere that has nothing to do with the price of fish in Denmark.

What stood out for me more than the zeppelins that Morgan carries around with her was how a sexploitation film written by a woman, directed by a woman and starring a woman could be sexist. From one angle, Agent 73 is a proto-feminist because she goes utterly against the norm for spy movies. Bond films may be great fun but nobody could claim that they aren't sexist, but here the spy is a woman with a wide range of lethal techniques to bring to bear. Morgan only had one in Deadly Weapons: using her ample cleavage to smother her enemies to death. This time out, she drowns them with ice cubes, explodes them with lipstick, kills them with earrings that act as throwing stars. Only one death actually involves her breasts, coated with poison to be licked off by someone who doesn't recognise that these 73" monsters don't belong to his wife. Yet even with such an emphatic leading lady, there are points of embarrassing sexism here.

For a start there's a love story that comes out of nowhere, when Bill suddenly decides that Agent 73 needs a protector. Atlantis Seven doesn't even turn up until almost halfway through the film but one date is enough for him to fall head over heels in love with his charge. He doesn't want to fall in love with her, he thinks at us while we watch night footage of traffic, but there's something about her. I wonder what that could be, especially as he declares his devotion while feeling her up. Even with Atlantis Seven in place, Bill worries when she disappears, enough to call him about it, but this is apparently a new meaning of the word that I was hitherto unaware of because he knows precisely where she's going next. It could be argued that all this exposes the weaknesses of the men rather than our intrepid heroine but I don't buy it. It feels like certain attitudes were so entrenched that even feminist filmmakers didn't think of leaving them out of their stories.

Certainly Wishman is far from your usual sexploitation filmmaker. Exploitation was always about getting the most buck for your bang and filmmakers that succeeded at it by definition tended to be at least a little sleazy and were often outright crooks. Yet Doris Wishman, certainly the most prominent female filmmaker working in the exploitation genres, if not the only one, seems to be a polite, restrained young lady who didn't lose those attributes as she grew older and got used to what she was putting on screen. When she began in 1960 with the nudie cutie, Hideout in the Sun, she was embarrassed to watch what she filmed. In later interviews, she cringes or rolls her eyes at mentions of truly outlandish stories like The Amazing Transplant or Let Me Die a Woman, films that sought out new gimmicks in possessed penises and real transgender patients. Above even Nude on the Moon though, her biggest gimmick, in size and earnings, was Chesty Morgan.

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