Luigi Comencini's oeuvre is just bulging with goodies, a cinematic Santa-sack encompassing multiple genres and tones, in a career running from the late forties to the early nineties. I recently sang the praises of his desperate gambling comedy The Scientific Card Player, but he also made films about Casanova's boyhood, virtual reality and, in Italian Secret Service (1968), the then-resurgent espionage genre, Italian and world politics, and the decline of Italian idealism since the war.
Just as Pietro Germi's Divorce: Italian Style was about murder, and De Sica's Marriage: Italian Style took in adultery, betrayal and uncertain parentage, so Comencini's title contains a bitter joke: we know this intelligence service is going to be sordid, stupid and utterly lacking in the accustomed James Bond lifestyle.
But we first meet our hero, dashing Nino Manfredi, in the happier times of WWII, saving an English commando (Clive Revill) from a fascist firing squad by dragging up as a priest. Offering his crucifix for the victim to kiss, he substitutes a grenade and Revill pulls the pin with his teeth.
(If you asked me who my favorite male actor was, I couldn't say, because there are too many candidates: Laughton, Keaton, Lino Ventura? But if you asked me while holding up an 8x10 glossy of Clive Revill, I should unhesitatingly declare "Clive Revill!" Billy Wilder latched on to the Kiwi actor's facility with accents and used him in Avanti! and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and many other filmmakers have benefited from his glittering crispness and wit. He's very funny here.)
The film now jumps to the present day, where Manfredi and his wife are struggling to cope in modern Italian society. "Is this the country you promised me?" she demands. "I promised you the country they promised me," he protests. But Revill comes to the rescue, recruiting Manfredi for British intelligence (another bitter joke, I fear), and offering big money. All Manfredi has to do is kill a neo-Nazi.
This is where the plot starts to spiral out of control, for Manfredi and maybe for his director too, but complete chaos never quite overwhelms us. Killing in cold blood, in peace-time, seems a different proposition from all that wartime derring-do, so our hero decides to subcontract the job to a desperate character for half the fee. But this desperate character isn't particularly brave or dangerous, just desperate, and he sub-sub-contracts the killing to his lawyer (Gastone Moschin, a memorable fascist stooge in The Conformist). And so it goes, with eventually four—or is it five?—defaulting assassins on the trail of one inoffensive-seeming neo-Nazi (later, we will learn neither he nor Revill are what they've been presented as), an untenable situation that explodes when the last reluctant hitman unknowingly tries to recruit Manfredi himself to perform the murder he farmed out in the first place.
A bit like one of Bertrand Blier's black comedies, our protagonist rolls through the story, picking up bickering accomplices as he goes: a recurring gag has the sound cut off by glass barriers as they fight and yammer, as Florenzo Carpi's jaunty electric organ score tries to pretend it's all in good fun. When Manfredi tries to collect the bounty on a man who isn't dead yet... or maybe it's when the target is squirreled away in his home and sleeps with his wife... or when he's revealed to be a Quaker, not a neo-Nazi, and the McGuffin turns out to be the secret formula for "Cola-Cola," the plot could be described as going off the rails, but it's still fun watching the movie crash down its embankment, rolling over and folding up and making a lot of noise.
Bonus: learn how to transport a man in a double bass case.
The brainwashing joke at the end is the bleakest of all, and it's not absolutely clear that it even belongs on the end of this film, but it's very funny at the same time as being kind of horrifying and sad: just the tone Comencini hits with The Scientific Card Player, with its homelessness and murder as punchline, so maybe it's his own unique style. Further investigation will surely be rewarding.