If you can roll with the first five minutes of Scorpions and Miniskirts (1967, Italy/Spain/West Germany. AKA Der Sarg bleibt heute zu; Death on a Rainy Day)—a movie that shows utter contempt for bothering to explain anything at all or connecting one series of actions to the next—then you are probably going to be able to walk away from the viewing experience with a sense of having been entertained while, at the same time, feeling like you didn’t quite get everything for which you’d hoped from a movie with a title as wonderful as Scorpions and Miniskirts. After all, Scorpions and Mini Skirts is a title that demands the benefit of the doubt.
Scorpions and Miniskirts begins with an initial minute that seems like the movie might earn its more giallo sounding alternate title, Death on a Rainy Day. We open with a funeral, complete with all the bell-tolling gravitas of a continental Gothic horror film. If Peter Cushing stepped out wearing a pilgrimy black Puritan minister’s outfit, it would not have seemed out of place. Surrounded by weeping mourners, accompanied by glum James Bernard sounding music, a coffin is lowered into the ground. The eulogy begins, and as dirt is being shoveled onto the coffin, the lid suddenly creaks open…
…and out pops a dapper spy in a smart suit, who immediately begins gunning everyone down as the music switches to breezy lounge-style spy jazz, with all the nonsensical “zabba doo zee ba ba zow!” vocals composer Jerry van Rooyen can summon. The mourners all whip out their own Lugers and MP40s and blast away at the spy until a helicopter swings in, latches a hook to the coffin, and spirits our hero (we assume) to safety, or to as much safety as you can expect while in a coffin with an unsealed lid, swinging wildly from a rope dangling beneath a helicopter.
There’s no denying that this whole sequence, like the title of the movie, is awesome. We’d be better off as a society if all movies began like this. But, awesome though the beginning of Scorpions and Miniskirts may be, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, even within the relatively liberal definition of “making sense” that exists in the world of Eurospy films. Who did these people think they were burying? How did this guy get into the coffin instead? What the hell was his mission? Was every single person at this funeral a villain? Given that he has killed just about everyone at the funeral, why does he opt for such a risky, overblown method of being extracted from the hot zone? Well, the answer to the last one is, “because it was cool.”
“Because it was cool” is pretty much the only explanation this movie has for just about everything that occurs in its free-form, meandering plotline, and if you are prone to close examination of a plot’s logic, then Scorpions and Miniskirts is going to be a hopeless endeavor for you. By the time this movie rolled off the Eurospy assembly line, film makers had largely given up taking the genre seriously—not that many of them had taken it very seriously to begin with. Even Goldfinger, the template for most Eurospy films, was already showing signs of tongue in cheek silliness…or did you think James Bond’s “duck on the head” disguise was supposed to be taken seriously, to say nothing of that baby blue terrycloth romper suit Connery parades around in when he’s hanging poolside in Miami. Sure, Daniel Craig made those little blue swim trunks work, but is he man enough to succeed in a Connery onesie?
Spy movies were always quick to spoof themselves. By the time they got to Scorpions and Miniskirts, everyone seems to be pretty much just goofing off until the trend collapsed for good. This entire movie seems nothing more than an elaborate joke pulled at the expense of its two main characters, Paul Riviere (Adrian Hoven) and Bruno Nussak (Barth Warren), a couple of swinging spies so over-the-top in their macho “grab any woman’s ass and give her a kiss” behavior that pretty much everyone seems to be rolling their eyes at the two rubes and humoring them until they leave the room and everyone can get on with life. Their antics are so awkward, so over the top, and generally so unsuccessful, that it seems like it must have been a conscious decision on the part of the film to take the typical spy movie sexual harassment and tweak it to the point that it comes across as genuinely creepy, sleazy, and kind of pathetic.
The plot, not the movie is particularly interested in it, sees France’s swingin’est swingin’ spies assigned to recover a mysterious vial of perfume that actually contains—and this is absurd even in the world of patently absurd Eurospy movie MacGuffins—a sample of human RNA, which the dastardly Chinese terrorist organization the Red Scorpion Society plans on injecting into the US Secretary of Defense so they can mind control him into starting World War III. If you have some scientific problem with the notion that RNA can be used to take over someone’s mind, or with the idea that the Secretary of Defense can unilaterally declare nuclear war on another country without any input from the President or Congress, then you’re probably also the same person who had a problem with that whole pointless coffin shootout prologue. I suggest you abandon this film now and go watch The Lives of Others. It’s fantastic.
Don’t worry, though. Even if you think the RNA perfume is the stupidest world domination plot since Agent for HARM‘s spore gun, you’re not going to have to deal with it, since this movie, as mentioned, has basically no interest at all in its own plot. It’s only there so the heroes have an excuse to visit scantily-clad women and smell them. Whatever minimal effort the screenwriters put into this script is really nothing more than an excuse to indulge in scene after scene of our two leads smacking women on the ass, dealing out terrible one-liners, and punching or gunning down endless waves of white guys dressed as Chinese henchmen—and we know they’re Chinese henchmen because they all dress the same and are bald. I guess that’s a step up from having a Manchu pigtail and a long pinky finger, though if that had been the uniform at this point in the game, it would have been pretty funny.
Scorpions and Miniskirts walks the razor’s edge between being a non-stop parade of fabulous and being so pointlessly free-form that it gets a little bit boring. Part of the problem with the movie are the leads, who I assume are meant to be parodies of the sort of casual-date-rape heroes in which spy movies of the era reveled. Their clumsy, aggressively blunt attempts at seduction (just grabbing random women and kissing them) are absurd even in a genre where extremes in macho chauvinism were the norm. I kept hoping that at some point they would be rebuffed by more than a put-upon smirk, and that one of these women would just haul off and sock one of these sleazy dudes in the face. No luck in that regard sadly, and as it stands the satire of the ladies-man man’s man hovers somewhere between kind of funny and kind of awkwardly off-putting. Pat of the problem is that the two leads here, despite never closing the deal, seem possessed of a considerable degree of malice and misanthropy that stops them from being truly funny or entertaining the way Tony Kendall was in the Kommissar X movies.
Actually, it’s worth bringing up the Kommissar X films in general. Scorpions and Miniskirts has the feel of a film that is trying to ape that series but without the charm and therefore plays out in a much…ickier…fashion. Kommissar X had about it a genuine sense of playfulness, and even if Jo Walker was a butt-slapping ladies’ man, he never seemed as obtuse or threatening about it. Plus, he was always balanced out by Brad Harris as the endlessly put-upon straight man. Because Tony and Brad had such good chemistry together, and because the films were so fast-moving and breezy, they worked well even if the plots had an air of “making it up as we go” about them. Adrian Hoven and Barth Warren do not have the same camaraderie, and they do not have the charisma of Kendall and Harris. That means Scorpions and Miniskirts meandering lack of focus isn’t always as easy to deal with as the same lack of direction in any of the Kommissar X films.
Even though Scorpions and Miniskirts has odious leads (even if it’s done for comedy reasons) and a level of violence that borders on some of Jess Franco’s crankier days, in other ways it’s oddly more sympathetic to its female characters than the usual Eurospy adventure. For one, although the women must suffer the fumbling come-ons and random attempts at kissing, none of them ever have to bed down with our two sad-sack heroes. Second, this is a rare spy film where the women don’t die or have to sacrifice themselves so the villain can make a point or the hero can get the point. The plot, such as it is, means that we visit a number of women with reasons to be wearing exotic costumes and micro-minis, and every time a new one is introduced, she joins the convoy trailing behind Paul and Bruno until, like everything else in this movie, it reaches the point of total absurdity. All of the women are beautiful, though as is par for the course, few of them really have anything to contribute besides enticing figures and long legs.
Similarly absurd in the levels to which it soars (or sinks), Scorpions And Miniskirts seems to spoof the racism that is often inherent in the genre. Decades later, the same thing would be done (considerably better) by the “OSS 117” films starring Jean Dujardin. Scorpions And Miniskirts is trying for the same thing, but just as with the parody of the irresistible hero, it’s done in a way that is meant to be a joke, but doesn’t actually come off as very funny. For Scorpions And Miniskirts, we’re in Yellow Peril territory, like Sax Rohmer turned up to eleven. Sometimes the jokes work—for some reason, a stereotypical Chinese guy in this is a bald guy in a turtleneck rather than the old Mandarin jacket and pigtail—and sometimes they don’t work as well, like when one of the heroes gets in a rooftop fight and keeps hurling Chinese people off the side of the building, causing a couple cops down below to shrug in bemused fashion and exclaim “I’m telling you, it’s raining Chinamen!”
So a bit of an odd duck of a film, but if my picking at the negative in it has led you to believe I didn’t enjoy it, then I made a mistake. I did enjoy it. It is insane. It is garishly gorgeous to look at. It tries to lampoon the racism and sexism of the spy genre while still also being offensively racist and sexist. But it’s also a delirious, out of control ride that has no interest in ever getting itself under control. It’s jammed to the gills with go-go dancing, fist fights, stunts, mini-skirts, sharkskin suits, and baffling stupidity. It’s not nearly as fun as a Kommissar X film, but it is still fun, as long as you go into it armed and ready, knowing that it has no point and knowing that it reels about somewhere between parody and genuine offensiveness, then it’s pretty easy to let yourself get carried away on waves of space age bachelor pad pop music and heroes who pucker up only to get sapped or fall off the side of a bed or something.