Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

July 3, 2016

El Rostro del Asesino/Hand of the Assassin (Spain 1967)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 9:53 am

EL ROSTRO DEL ASESINO (aka Hand of the Assassin—-Spain 1967)

directed by Pedro Lazaga

starring German Cobos, Paloma Valdes, Jorge Rigaud, and Fernando Sancho


Spain’s 60’s film industry was not as large as Italy’s, but Spain produced a steady stream of films in multiple genres (peplum, spy, crime, horror, mystery, western, etc.), some of which got a theatrical release in North America, and more of which found a home on late-night UHF television. As with Spanish art and literature, there is a distinct and rich national character found in Spanish film. Even dubbed in English, a Spanish film can be identified as NOT ITALIAN probably within the first 3 minutes. This review is of the English-dubbed HAND OF THE ASSASSIN, which did air on American television back in the day. It’s a shame this did not get a theatrical release here as it would have been perfect bottom-of-the-bill fodder for the rural drive-in circuit—-the settings are unique, the atmosphere is vaguely Gothic and mysterious, and once it becomes a murder mystery, the romantic couple in the car could check back-in every five or so minutes and the dialogue would fill them in on whatever they missed.

Basically, what we have here is a rural inn in NE Spain (not far from the French border) run by an older and controlling man and his younger and unsatisfied wife who was once a nightclub singer but gave up that chancy career for the stability of marriage to a “secure” mature man. The vacation season being over, most of the guests have left, so only one staff member, Pedro, remains. The wife drinks excessively and the early scenes have a nice “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” feel to them.

The inn itself is quite interesting. The opening credits give thanks and acknowledgement to a monastery where the film was shot, and being a monastery, it doesn’t look at all like a traditional Inn or hotel. Some of the IMDB comments on the film find this a flaw, but really, the filmmakers were quite astute to shoot there. With the religious icons and high ceilings and foreboding feel of a monastery which is hundreds of years old, a mysterious and semi-Gothic feel is created, and this is added to by fog and some kind of fuming cauldrons in the basement, which are alluded to as “mineral waters” in a line of dialogue. With a well-done atmosphere, a lot of flaws can be forgiven in a film such as this.

Heavy rains then hit the area causing flooding and washing out the roads, so a number of various travelers are forced to seek shelter at the inn. Thus, we have our diverse mix of people needed to get the main plot going.

Among the travelers is ANOTHER dysfunctional couple with older controlling man and younger unsatisfied wife. The lady who co-runs the inn, as a former nightclub singer who has had a lot too much to drink, decides to sing a song for the guests assembled in the dining room for a light dinner and coffee and/or cognac. Before she starts, that other couple have a physical argument at their table and their briefcase falls to the floor, opening and showing wads of cash. They quickly close it and get back to their arguing. Then the hostess/singer asks for the lights to be turned off for atmosphere, and does a wonderful and sexy Spanish torch song for a few minutes. When the lights are turned back on after the song, the older man with the briefcase is found stabbed in the back and the money is gone.

The film then kicks into a kind of Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None vein, and of course everyone’s backstory begins to emerge and then we move from character to character and back and forth. There’s the retired military man, the multi-generational family, the academic, the scientist, the man who spent a few years in jail for a crime he did not commit, the grandmother, etc. All are played realistically by a fine cast many of whom will be familiar to fans of 60s Euro genre films. Each performer finds small “bits of business” to ground their characters in something the audience will accept as “real.” Especially good (as he always is) is Fernando Sancho, best known for countless portrayals of Mexican military officers and bandits in Eurowesterns, but a man who worked in many types of films, and here he’s quite effective as the man with the criminal past. Just watch the scene where he is standing near the hotel front desk next to the postcard display….keep an eye on the small details of his character. Yes, this film is dubbed in English, but the flat, functional dubbing actually works well in this context as the characters don’t talk too much so what they DO say is delivered in a somewhat jaded and tired manner, which is just what’s needed. Also, the retired military man, played by Jorge Rigaud, is dubbed by the same voice actor who dubs Jack Palance in many films. You’d think IT WAS Palance, though I don’t think Palance would be doing voice work for other films the way Edmund Purdom did. In any event, this would probably be the character Palance would have played if he’d been in this film, so that fits just right.

As is common in this genre, or in any Ten Little Indians homage, when you think the film is over, it is not, and you realize you’ve been watching everything the wrong way throughout the film.

Director PEDRO LAZAGA’s name did not ring an immediate bell, and checking his credits, I see that his best-known film to North American audiences might be the excellent GLADIATORS 7, starring Richard Harrison. He has a number of unexpected camera angles, he seems to be a good actor’s director, and he knows how to create and sustain a mysterious atmosphere. Also, whoever did the production design/dressing of sets on this also did a fine job by taking the monastery setting and using a lot of what was already there, adding only what was needed to complement it.

HAND OF THE ASSASSIN has excellent atmosphere, a fine cast, a wide variety of seemingly shifty characters, a unique monastery setting, a decent murder mystery plot, and a pace that’s both on the move and leisurely enough to caress the details. Had I seen this at 3 a.m. on a UHF station in 1975, I would have been raving about it for decades to anyone who’d listen. Even though I’m getting to it a bit late, it still delivers the goods to those who want such goods, and it’s a testimony to the professionalism and creativity of all involved with the production….and the under-rated 60s Spanish film industry. Who needs the corporate crap at the local multi-plex. Take a chance….watch a film you’ve never heard of.

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