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The disastrous box office reception and critical indifference to American International Pictures' spy spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) was laid with near exclusivity by its producers in the lap of Italian director, Mario Bava. A second generation special effects artist who had worked his way up through the Italian film industry by proving himself indispensable in several capacities behind the camera, Bava's directorial debut, La maschera del demonio (1960), had been a cash cow for AIP when the independent distributors released the film stateside in 1961 as Black Sunday. Though Bava was a resourceful storyteller equally at home in a variety of film genres, he would find himself branded internationally as a maestro of horror, terror and suspense, whose subsequent films - I tre volti della paura (US: Black Sabbath, 1963), La frusta e il corpo (US: The Whip and the Body, 1963), Sei donne per l'assassino (US: Blood and Black Lace, 1964), Terrore nello spazio (US: Planet of the Vampires, 1965), and Operazione paura (US: Kill, Baby... Kill, 1966) - earned him unintended infamy as the Italian Hitchcock, whose own comedies (Mr. and Mrs. Smith , The Trouble with Harry , Family Plot ) were often undervalued as well.
In truth, comedy was the genre closest to the heart of Bava, whose nature alternated between melancholic reticence and provincial jocularity. Quick to pull a funny face to ease a tense moment, Bava had long wanted to turn his hand to comedy but by the time the opportunity arose he felt hobbled by a roster of personal problems ranging from his troubled marriage to income tax woes and a sense of failure over his lack of success as a director. Produced to cash in on the vogue for spy films kicked off by Eon Productions' Dr. No (1962), the maiden voyage of Sean Connery in the career-defining role as super spy James Bond, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs was itself a sequel to AIP's earlier Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), a takeoff on Goldfinger (1964), the third go-round for Connery as Agent 007. Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine had packaged two of AIP's biggest stars - Vincent Price (who had headlined a run of successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman) and Frankie Avalon (leading man of the lucrative Beach Party films), both of whom were announced in the trades as signed for the follow-up.
By the time of principal photography in April 1966, Avalon had withdrawn from the production, citing a need to be at home with his newly-born third child. In his place, AIP offered vocalist-turned-matinee idol Fabian (aka Fabiano Anthony Forte), a veteran of Don Siegel's Hound-Dog Man (1959), Henry Hathaway's North to Alaska (1960), and George Pollock's Ten Little Indians (1965), in which he had gone toes up early on as Victim No. 1. Top-billed Vincent Price deplaned in Rome eager to see the museums during his off-hours but soon grew distressed by a disorganized production. The film's script weighed in at over two hundred pages and there was friction between Bava and American line producer Louis "Deke" Heyward, who had performed his own rewrite. Price was further dismayed at having to share the screen with lowbrow comics Franco and Ciccio, stars of the unrelated espionage lampoon I due Mafiosi contro Goldginger (The Two Gangsters vs. Goldginger, 1965), which had been a huge hit in Italy the previous year. Fabian came to share Price's reservations about Franco and Ciccio but when Duke Heyward reminded him that the pair was Sicilian (and likely connected to the Italian Mafia), the heartthrob elected to keep his complaints sotto voce.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (whose Italian title, Le spie vengono dal semifreddo -- "The Spies Who Came in from the Cool" - mocked Martin Ritt's 1965 John Le Carr adaptation The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) was shot at Cinecitt (where soundstages 8 and 9 housed Dr. Goldfoot's laboratory -the largest set constructed at the studio since production of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra ). When AIP executives Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson demanded increased production value, Bava staged several setpieces around Rome, shooting without permits at Parco di Principe (until his crew was dispersed by police), at the Rome Hilton (where Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser was registered), and at Luna Park, site of the 17th Olympic Games. Additional production value was supplied by the presence of Italian starlet Laura Antonelli, years before her emergence as an erotic film actress. The 24 year-old Antonelli had been hired on the promise of her pulchritude but the nubile newcomer's mother remained entrenched on-set, forbidding anything but the suggestion of nudity. In an interview with Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas, Arkoff later opined Antonelli's lack of cooperation: "The only picture she ever made with her clothes on and she made it for us!"
Le spie vengono dal semifreddo was a hit in Italy (where Vincent Price was third-billed behind Franco and Ciccio) but AIP decreed the comedy too Italian for American moviegoers. Film editor Ronald Sinclair recut the feature for US distribution while Coriolano Gori's score was scrapped in favor of one by Les Baxter. While preserving the logline of Price's mad genius sending girl-shaped incendiary devices to assassinate NATO leaders by way of provoking war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the result differed so markedly from its Italian source that to credit Mario Bava as its director, much less blame him for its failure, seems a miscarriage of justice. The film's dismal returns for AIP severed Bava's ties with Arkoff and Nicholson, sending him into a personal depression that only grew worse with the death that September of his father and mentor Eugenio, who suffered a fatal heart attack after being struck by a car on the Via Gregorio VII. In time, Bava would rebound with the live action comic book Diabolik (US: Danger, Diabolik, 1968), the influential psychothriller Ecologia del delitto (US: Twitch of the Death Nerve, 1971), and the Gothic shocker Lisa and the Devil (1972), which shares with Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs a fascination with female simulacra and which was similarly taken away from Bava and recut for US distribution as House of Exorcism (1973).
By Richard Harland Smith
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark by Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog, 2007)
Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants by Sam Arkoff, with Richard Trubo (Birch Lane Press, 1992)