Saluting Elke Sommer

The 1960s was a great decade for blondes in the movies. Although the ultimate blonde Marilyn Monroe would only survive through the first years of the decade, her chief imitators–Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren were both going strong, and then there was Stella Stevens, the short-lived Sharon Tate and, as the decade drew to a close, Cybill Shepherd. And that was just in the United States. Europe had Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Ursula Andress and the lady I’d like to discuss, Elke Sommer.
Sommer had already made a handful films in Europe, but they were sufficiently unknown in those pre-video days that “The Prize” served as her formal introduction to American audiences. “The Prize” was a prestige film–made by M.G.M., boasting a sterling cast headed by Paul Newman and based on a best-selling novel about intrigue behind the scenes at the Nobel Prize ceremonies. It was a drama and gave us a glimpse at what I would call “medium-Elke.” Her Nobel “minder,” assigned to keep Newman’s footloose laureate out of trouble, is a no-nonsense sort of gal, but once Newman convinces her that there’s dirty work afoot, she becomes a real Scout, risking her life more than once. Sommer played a few of these adventurous ladies–in “The Invincible Six,” “The Corrupt Ones,” “Ten Little Indians,” even “Zeppelin.” Then there was “soft-Elke,” in films like “The Money Trap” and “They Came To Rob Las Vegas.” This Elke isn’t quite a square-shooter. She leads her men down the garden path, but with the best of intentions (i.e.–getting rich). These characters are not adventuresses; they let their guys do the heavy lifting. She looked so beautiful, so alluring in the closing scenes of “They Came To Rob Las Vegas,” a veritable Fata Morgana, that I’m convinced that the cinematographer was in love with her! “Fortified-Elke” only rarely appeared, but in the Bulldog Drummond re-boot “Deadlier Than the Male,” her Irma Eckman–super-villain Carl Peterson’s right-hand woman and head assassin–is positively venomous. Irma doesn’t kill to survive, she kills for the fun of it. Her little moues of annoyance when things don’t quite come off and her everlasting impatience with her partner Penelope (Sylvia Koscina), who has “taking ways” and likes to stop to savor the torture make her quite an unforgettable villainess–who does her best work in a tiny bikini and with a spear-gun. In the final Dean Martin/Matt Helm adventure, “The Wrecking Crew,” she played a watered-down version of Irma–oddly enough working for chief-heavy Nigel Green in both films.
Sommer probably preferred her comedies to her dramas. She played the female lead in one of the great comedies of the decade, “A Shot in the Dark.” As upstairs maid Marie Gambrelli, she sets the heart of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau a-flutter. She also appeared with Dick van Dyke and James Garner in “The Art of Love,” with Bob Hope in “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number” and starred in “The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz” as a East-German athlete planning to pole-vault over the Berlin Wall. These are all entertaining enough affairs, pleasant time-passers.
Sommer has also appeared in horror and fantasy films, including two directed by the great Mario Bava. “Baron Blood” is a shuddery gloss on the classic story “The Monkey’s Paw”–never use an incantation to raise an evil ancestor from the dead, especially if you lose the parchment and can’t send him back. “Lisa and the Devil”–never theatrically released as Bava imagined it, but now available on DVD–is quite simply an astonishing Gothic fantasy, a ghost story, an erotic fantasy–and Elke Sommer’s finest moment in the horror genre. It also re-united her, albeit briefly with her “Deadlier Than the Male” co-star Sylvia Koscina. Sadly, she went along with the producer Alfred Leone’s decision to re-fit the ghost story as a tale of demonic possession, in other words, yet another “Exorcist” clone.
Lastly something should be said about the films Sommer made in her native Germany and in Italy. These present us with a younger, almost feral Sommer. With upward-slanting eyebrows giving her a slightly demonic look, she played a young German woman in post-war Berlin who plays her American and Russian lovers off against each other (“German girls are best, yes?”) in Carl Foreman’s “The Victors,” and in “Sweet Ecstasy,” also known as “Sweet Violence” she plays the ultimate party-girl. But it was a strip-tease in the spy spoof “Daniella By Night” that landed her in the pages of “Playboy.” The film is okay, but Sommer is more effective in the Foreman film.
Elke Sommer was a “Queen-of-the-Bs” who made her share of A-pictures and even found herself in a couple of classics that will keep her name alive.

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