Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

July 4, 2020

TRAPPED IN TANGIERS (Italy-Spain, 1957), starring Edmund Purdom, directed by Riccardo Freda

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With the first scene taking place on the Tangier docks in the murky evening—-a sports car whose driver’s face is not clearly seen is extracting a gun from the car’s glove compartment—-and with a slow and moody jazz vocal (kind of a cross between Julie London or Anita O’Day at their most languid, trading lines with a mellow and bluesy muted trumpet) on the soundtrack from the start, you know immediately that the makers of AGGUATO A TANGERI (aka TRAPPED IN TANGIERS) understand what a crime film is expected to deliver. Nightclub scenes, rich people having tedious parties where they sit around and drink, Interpol agents looking at maps and discussing strategy, narcotics deals transacted in seedy alleys after midnight, a hero (Edmund Purdom) pretending to be someone else for the majority of the film—in fact, the way Purdom is nursing a drink, smoking cigarettes, and hitting on the ladies, it’s as if he took a page out of Eddie Constantine’s playbook! And there’s no better crime-film playbook than THAT in 1950’s Europe!

Director Riccardo Freda was a master in many genres, including classics of sword and sandal/historical adventure, Eurospy, Eurowestern, and Euro-horror (I VAMPIRI, and Barbara Steele’s THE GHOST, the sequel to HORRIBLE DR. HITCHCOCK). He does an excellent job here of channeling the best elements of 1950’s B&W French and British crime films into the visual style, and the film moves as quickly as the better Columbia B-crime programmers of the late 40’s and early 50’s.

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Star Edmund Purdom was at the beginning of his long and successful European career at this point, after his short Hollywood starring phase. He is mostly known nowadays by MGM completists and fans of Euro genre and exploitation films. Originally a British stage actor with a Shakespeare background (he’d been in Lawrence Olivier’s Shakespeare troupe!), he came to Hollywood right as the old-school star-making system was coming to an end. His first two major roles in American films were as replacements for other actors, Mario Lanza and Marlon Brando. Obviously, stepping in unwanted for someone else who is loved by the audience is not the best way to start one’s career push. Then he was in two big-budget historical spectacles (THE PRODIGAL and THE EGYPTIAN) that did not do as well as expected because the wave of widescreen historical films coming out after THE ROBE was winding down. He was excellent in his next film, THE KING’S THIEF (with David Niven, George Sanders, and Roger Moore), which allowed him to turn on his natural charm and show his gift for swashbuckling with a light comedic touch, but by then Hollywood had moved on, and his final Hollywood film was done at Allied Artists (MGM to Allied Artists! Wow!), the bizarre STRANGE INTRUDER, where he plays a character dealing with what would nowadays be called PTSD, put into an over-the-top melodramatic plot. He was chilling in the role, but the film was not exactly commercial—-after all, a film where an emotionally scarred veteran is on the verge of killing the children of his old war buddy is not exactly a date movie! In fact, with the Warner Archive having reissued a lot of Allied Artists’ output, it’s telling that they have not yet reissued STRANGE INTRUDER on DVD….even today it still keeps its power to alienate! Purdom left Hollywood for good at that point, and started working in Europe immediately after—and he never came back. He was a natural for the historical spectacles being made in Italy in the late 50’s and early 60’s—-he’d starred in REAL Hollywood epics, and he had the Shakespearean background, so if you needed someone to play King Herod or whoever, he was the man. He was also VERY active as an English language voice artist working in Rome on the export versions of Italian films. Dozens of times I have been watching some dubbed film and suddenly, the rich, British stage-actor tones of Edmund Purdom start coming out of someone else’s mouth.

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TRAPPED IN TANGIERS was Purdom’s first film after STRANGE INTRUDER, and it was eventually released in the US in a dubbed version, a few years after its making, although I’ve never seen that English language version offered on the grey market or shown on cable TV or UHF. I have an Italian-language copy taped off European Cable TV in the middle of the night. Purdom is excellent and exudes star quality, whether grinning on the beach trying to seduce a young lady of affluent background, or maneuvering his way through the dark backstreets of the Tangiers waterfront, gun in hand. We’re not sure exactly who his character is until the film is 2/3 of the way through, but at that point, everything that’s happened earlier falls into place. This also features one of my favorite set-ups in a crime film, which has been done so often, I’ve come to expect it when someone is working undercover and posing as a criminal to get “inside” the organization: the inevitable scene where to show his allegiance to the mob, he is asked to kill the person who is ALSO an undercover agent and has been outed and caught. TRAPPED IN TANGIERS, though probably written off in its day as a formula crime film, was an excellent vehicle for Purdom to show other sides of himself that were not an display in his Hollywood work. I’ve seen him in dozens of European films and will probably review some more here eventually (don’t forget that he was the headmaster of the school in the early 80’s Spanish slasher film PIECES). People often write him off as either hammy and over-the-top, or wooden and unconvincing (how could you be BOTH of those things?), but I beg to differ.

With the exciting drug smuggling plot, mysterious waterfront setting, jazz score, crisp B&W photography, car chases, back-stabbing and double-crosses, and the cool and magnetic presence of Mr. Purdom, TRAPPED IN TANGIERS delivers the goods that I want in a 50’s European crime melodrama. The fact that it’s in Italian and not dubbed English just adds to the atmosphere, and this is a film with atmosphere to burn!

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