‘L’invincibile cavaliere mascherato’
aka Robin Hood in der Stadt des Todes, aka Invincible Masked Rider,
aka Terror of the Black Mask
(Italy-France 1963) directed by Umberto Lenzi, starring Pierre Brice
French actor PIERRE BRICE will always be best known for his portrayal in many German films as WINNETOU, the heroic Apache chief taken from the pages of the novels of Karl May, usually paired with Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand (though in a handful of films, with either Stewart Granger or Rod Cameron). These films made Brice a superstar, particularly in Germany–until his death in 2015, he was being invited to Winnetou fan festivals, and his 2004 photograph on his Wikipedia page shows him signing autographs at such an event. While the films may have typecast Brice to some extent, he was fortunate that with the make-up and long black wig he wore as Winnetou, when he was NOT in the role, he looked a bit different, and one’s first impression was not to shout out, “hey, that’s Winnetou.” He was featured quite well in the 1965 western (not a Winnetou film) A PLACE CALLED GLORY with his friend and co-star Lex Barker, a film that played widely in the US, distributed by Embassy Pictures–you can also hear him speaking his charming French-accented English in the American release of that film.
Brice also was quite the heartthrob in a number of non-Winnetou roles. Many years ago on VHS I saw him opposite Elke Sommer in the early Max Pecas erotic drama SWEET ECSTASY. This was distributed in the US by Audubon Films, which specialized in imported sex-oriented product in the early-to-mid 60’s, and Audubon issued a VHS tape of the film in the 90’s, which I highly recommend. One review of SWEET ECSTASY on a cult film website mentions Brice as resembling to some extent Alain Delon in Purple Noon, and that resemblance certainly did not hurt his getting those kind of roles. Below is a poster for the film under one of its alternate titles.
Another film that features him well (at least in its second half) is the one under review, ‘L’invincibile cavaliere mascherato,’ an Italian-French swashbuckler trading on the Zorro legend, with elements of Robin Hood thrown in, which was made in 1963, after the success of the first Winnetou film, TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE.
This review is of the German release version of the film, titled ‘Robin Hood in der Stadt des Todes,’ which is literally translated as ROBIN HOOD IN THE CITY OF DEATH. As these 60’s European co-productions were shot MOS (without sound) and then dubbed into multiple languages, one could argue that any version is as good as another (although if Brice dubbed his own voice in the French version, that could well be the preferable one). Seeing a film starring a Frenchman, which is set in historical 17th Century Spain, and then has German coming out of the mouths of the cast is certainly a unique experience, though one gets used to it quickly and it gives the proceedings an interesting spin. Also, the German voice actors are well-suited to the characters they are voicing and do their best to “act” them–it’s not like some English language voice tracks which sound like radio announcers cold-reading a script.
Brice is actually not featured much in the first half of the film, as the situation is being set up, the villains get to practice their villainy and build up audience hate, and Brice’s character, who is “called for” from a distant area, must travel to where the action is, creating a great deal of audience expectation.
Put simply, a number of regional power-brokers who are some kind of second-tier royalty jockey for power and influence in Spain. Don Gomez seems to be the most powerful, but he is old and somewhat feeble…and he also seems like a decent man, which does not get him very far as he negotiates with the evil Don Luis. When he is killed, his daughter Carmencita will inherit his estate, and Don Luis can’t allow that to happen, so he re-instates an old informal promise between Don Luis and Don Gomez that she should marry Don Luis’s stepson Don Diego, whom he has not seen since childhood. He then basically takes Carmencita as a prisoner in his estate. He sends for Don Diego to come from a distant province, to fulfill that arranged-marriage promise.
However, at the same time, while they are waiting for Don Diego to arrive, a mysterious black-clad swashbuckling figure starts avenging the wrongs done by Don Luis, messing with his power structure, killing some of his enforcers, etc. Who might the mysterious figure be? Oh, and from the first frame of the film there is a subplot of a plague which is sweeping across Portugal and Spain, killing many and killing them quickly, so add that into the mix.
When Don Diego does arrive, he affects a kind of spoiled, wimpy pose–I’m somewhat reminded of Robert Lowery’s performance as Bruce Wayne in the 1949 serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (still my favorite Batman adaptation)–so no one will suspect that he’s the masked freedom-fighter and also so that he can work behind the scenes IN the palace….he even provides advice to his stepfather that plays upon Don Luis’s vanity (so he’ll accept it) and is meant to weaken things even further. Then you have Carmencita falling in love with the masked avenger, who ironically is the man she is betrothed to marry and whom she considers to be a foppish coward she is not in love with, although she does think he’s a decent fellow.
Brice’s performance as the vain and cowardly Don Diego is quite funny and he affects many little “bits of business” (as Laurel and Hardy called them) to both convince the other characters that he is harmless and, as an actor, to call attention to himself when he is not the focus of the action in a particular scene. It’s always interesting to watch an actor play a character who is posing as someone else….and when the film is over and we realize that Brice’s character was not actually Don Diego (!!!), it adds a third level to this masquerade. Throughout the film Brice winds up playing a few different characters, though all in the same body (you’ll see what I mean when you watch it–I don’t want to give too many spoilers), and he handles all convincingly. He can make you laugh as the foppish Don Diego, he can thrill you as the masked cavalier, and he can inspire you in his final and real persona. I also noticed that in the climactic fight sequence Brice is doing some of his own stunt work, including jumping onto tables while fighting without missing a beat. Bravo!
And speaking of masquerades, the climactic scene of the film takes place at a Masquerade Ball, which is the perfect setting for a film whose protagonist is a masked avenger. As everyone who was abused by the evil Don Luis joins with Brice to give the Don his fitting comeuppance, the audience feels a great sense of satisfaction….also, the climactic swordfight at the ball is very well choreographed, very well shot, and shows the attention to detail in action scenes which director Umberto Lenzi always tried to bring to this crime and action films (when he could–in some of his later films for Italian TV he was hampered by quick shoots and low budgets).
Where do you begin with director Umberto Lenzi? Double-checking his IMDB credits to remind myself of films I’ve forgotten, I see that I’ve already written about one of his films on this blog: CATHERINE THE GREAT, starring Hildegarde Knef (just use the search box here to find that review). I’ve seen probably 25 of his films, ranging from the early 60’s historical ones (Queen of the Seas) to peplum (Messalina vs the Son of Hercules, with Richard Harrison) to Eurospy (008:Operation Exterminate) to Spaghetti Westerns (Pistol for a Hundred Coffins, with Peter Lee Lawrence and John Ireland), to the exciting series of erotic thrillers made with star Carroll Baker, to war films (Desert Commandos, with Ken Clark, where the Germans are the heroes!), to Giallos (Seven Blood Stained Orchids) to some of the greatest 70s Eurocrime films (Gang War In Milan, Syndicate Sadists, Almost Human, Violent Naples, and the amazing The Cynic, The Rat, and The Fist), and finally the Italian Cannibal genre. He drifted into Italian TV movies in the 80’s and early 90’s, and many of those wound up on video overseas, very much welcomed by his many fans. He always had excellent taste in actors and was probably a good actor’s director, considering the performances he got out of people. Look up my IMDB review of MEAN TRICKS (1992), his last film—-a low-budget crime film shot in the Caribbean and starring CHARLES NAPIER (!!!) who is given free rein to create a character who should be in the “renegade badass cop” hall of fame (it’s almost on the same level as Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans)—-and you’ll see that the master, Umberto Lenzi, did not lose his panache and his ability to create a fast-moving, entertaining product even when working in the reduced circumstances of Italian TV movies. ‘L’invincibile cavaliere mascherato’ is a solid accomplishment, a film that still entertains and excites 50+ years after its creation, and a proud entry in the Lenzi filmography.
Interestingly, while this is clearly a Zorro knock-off, the German dialogue (and the German release title) mentions Robin Hood, and in the final scene after the swordfight, he’s dressed somewhat like Robin Hood and mentions going back to his “homeland.”
Is this a classic? Does it need to be? What it is…is a solid, colorful, fast-moving, competently made European co-production genre-film with many nice touches and with a charismatic lead actor in a role that will be new to many who are mostly familiar with his performances as Winnetou. The locations are atmospheric, the sets capture the period well enough for the non-specialist, the supporting cast is impressive. This German-dubbed version is a beautiful letterboxed copy, so I could take in all the detail and the scope of the compositions.
The film is not hard to find in pan and scan English-language versions, and various versions surface from time to time on You Tube. With both Pierre Brice and Umberto Lenzi having many fans around the world, it’s a lesser-known gem perfect for that rainy night or leisurely Sunday afternoon….also, perfect 3 a.m. viewing for any night shift security guards out there (as I once was). I can easily imagine watching this again in a few months (I’m fairly sure I saw the pan-and-scan American TV version of Terror of the Black Mask back in the 1980’s).