Ever notice how every secret agent in the movies seems to have a gimmick? Well, Perry Liston – code name: Matchless – has got a winner. When confronted with unavoidable capture or certain death from enemies, he can literally vanish into thin air. He’s not superhuman though. His ability to become invisible at will is completely dependent on a unique ring given to him by a fellow prisoner in a Chinese jail. And the ring’s powers are limited: it can only be used once every 10 hours and the wearer can expect his invisible state to last no more than twenty minutes. Those are the rules and Matchless (1966), a quirky genre offering from Italy, plays fast and loose with the gimmick [In some markets it was released under the title Mission TS (Top Secret)].
In the title role, Patrick O’Neal is not really a professional spy. He’s actually a reporter from The New York Tribune who signs his columns with the byline of “Matchless.” While on assignment in China, he is captured and tortured in a secret prison by Chinese agents who think he possesses top-secret information about a lethal chemical substance. He miraculously escapes a firing squad only to end up imprisoned by American military intelligence who are after the same thing. Considering his limited options, Liston agrees to masquerade as a secret agent for the U.S., teaming up with fellow spy Arabella (Ira von Furstenberg). Their mission leads them to the lair of international criminal Andreanu (Donald Pleasence) who keeps samples of the deadly chemical in a Munich bank. Complicating their assignment are Hank Norris (Henry Silva) and Tipsy (Nicoletta Machiavelli), rival spies for the Chinese.
Matchless is less a spy spoof than a fantasy adventure with sci-fi elements. Besides the ‘Invisible Man’ gimmick, there are Andreanu’s household of robotic servants including a black cyborg attendant named Charles, centrifugal force spinners used as torturing devices, and the post-operative results of “Operation Plastic Surgery” – Chinese and American agents who have had their facial features altered in order to infiltrate the enemy’s ranks. And since Matchless was made in the midst of the sixties spy craze, there are plenty of gorgeous women in scantily clad, mod outfits served up as eye candy.
Ira von Furstenberg – a European Princess in her third film role – gets to sport a flashy wardrobe (one ‘evening wear’ outfit accents her bare midriff) but co-star Nicoletta Machiavelli makes an even stronger impression, particularly in the sequence where she drops from the sky via helicopter onto Andreanu’s estate, clad in a silver metallic suit. It looks like something out of Fantomas (1913-14) or Les Vampires (1915-16), the fantasy serials of film director Louis Feuillade.
Von Furstenberg would go on to appear in numerous European genre films, many of which have become cult items such as Klaus Lemke’s twist-filled crime caper Negresco – Eine Todliche Affare (1968), Mario Bava’s baroque murder mystery Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), the 1971 giallo The Fifth Cord and the spaghetti western Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears (1973). The actress retired from acting in the early 1980s but continued to travel in high fashion circles due to friends like Karl Lagerfeld, former creative director of Chanel, and ex-sister-in-law Diane von Furstenberg. Ira’s life would actually make an intriguing biopic with a background that included a forced marriage at age fifteen to 31-year-old Prince Alfonso von und zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg of Spain (allegedly her parents told her she would be placed in a convent if she didn’t agree to be married) and a stint as public relations manager for the fashion designer Valentino Garavani.
As for Patrick O’Neal, he makes a serviceable, semi-dashing hero but the supporting players are much more colorful in Matchless with Donald Pleasence in total villain mode and Henry Silva in a scene-chewing, over-the-top performance as an enemy agent. Hollywood veterans Howard St. John and Sorrell Booke turn up as U.S. military operatives and Eddra Gale, the Chicago native who made her screen debut as the oversized La Saraghina in Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), has a cameo role.
The director of Matchless – Alberto Lattuada – may sound familiar to you. That’s because he co-directed Variety Lights with Fellini in 1950 and has worked on numerous Italian and European films including the historical epic Tempest (1958), the popular romantic comedy Venga a prendere il caffe…da noi (English title: Come Have Coffee with Us, 1970) and Stay As You Are (1978) starring Marcello Mastroianni and Nastassja Kinski in her first starring role. Il Cappotto (1952), an adaptation of the Nikolai Gogol short story The Overcoat, and Mafioso (1962), a black comedy starring Alberto Sordi, are among Lattuada’s most critically acclaimed films
While Matchless is a lesser known trifle in the director’s filmography, it’s still a lot of fun and a cut above the usual Eurospy knockoff of its era. Not only does it boast a catchy music score by Ennio Morricone, Piero Piccioni and Gino Marinuzzi, Jr. but it features a wide range of interesting locations, spanning the globe from New York (glimpses from the top of the Pan Am building, the Brooklyn Bridge and the subway) to London to Hamburg, Germany.
The special effects are enjoyably goofy (how about the scene where Arabella is carried down a corridor by the invisible “Matchless”?) and Mike Myers of the Austin Powers films would love the pop-art opening credit sequence, set amid an array of multicolored test tubes and beakers filled with bubbling liquids.
Matchless was ignored by most U.S. film critics when it opened but it was covered by Variety, which noted, “If audiences are not yet satisfied with spy spoofs, United Artists’ Matchless may be an appreciative reception from the action market. The Dino De Laurentiis production has a kinky sense of humor that staves off a feeling of déjà vu until the final reels, when pic’s straight-faced pitch for suspense casts a pall over the entire film.”
A more positive appreciation was expressed by Lee Pfeiffer of Cinema Retro who wrote: “It should be noted that the deceitful American marketing campaign disguised the fact that “Matchless” is a comedy and presented it as straight spy thriller. One can only imagine the reaction of the gobsmacked viewers who were expecting a tense Cold War thriller and instead were treated to a film that was more akin to a Jerry Lewis production. I don’t want to overstate the attributes of “Matchless” but it is an unexpectedly enjoyable romp. If you’re idea of good viewing is “Operation Kid Brother“, then this one is for you.” If you are a fan of the latter spy spoof featuring Neil Connery like I am, then you know Matchless is right up your alley.
To my knowledge, Matchless has never had an authorized release on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. but it has popped up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and on streaming platforms like Prime Video in the past. Currently, you can sample excerpts of it on Youtube.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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