If jungle adventure movies have taught us anything, it’s that modern man, with all his so-called “refinement” and “civilization”, is the most dangerous animal of all. Whatever perils the jungle may hold, it is those city folk — greedy, thoughtless, and cruel — who step within its borders who pose the greatest threat. Even though those city folk ultimately fall prey to quicksand, cannibals, and hungry wild animals. Hey, the jungle was just defending itself.
The 1968 international production The Face of Eve documents the skullduggery and rottenness of just such a group of cultured scoundrels, while at the same time dishing out some of the type of mildly saucy, comic book hijinks associated with campy contemporaries like Barbarella. It accomplishes the last by featuring a bodacious innocent as its scantily clad titular heroine, one who blithely goes about her adventures oblivious to the lust her casually undraped form inspires in the men she encounters. It accomplishes the first by putting seasoned vets in front of the camera and encouraging them to plumb their generous reserves of casually dissolute villainy. It all adds up to a nice balance of eye candy and mustache-twirling melodrama, making the end product something of a minor gem for anyone with a soft spot for these type of late 60s adventure movies with their uniquely at-once-racy-and-stodgy British style.
Eve is one of those 1960s films whose heavy reliance on professionals from the realm of television would normally make it an unbridled orgy of bland competence. However, in this case, those professionals’ work encompasses some of the coolest shows that 1960s-70s television had to offer. Second unit director Robert Lynn and director Jeremy Summers between them worked on a number of Gerry Anderson’s series, with Lynn helming episodes of both Captain Scarlet and Space: 1999, and Summers directing installments of UFO and The Protectors. Beyond that, Summers’ directing resume reads like a catalog of some of the greatest British detective and espionage series of the era, including stints on numerous episodes each of The Saint, Danger Man, The Baron, Man in a Suitcase, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and — probably most impressive to the nattily attired denizens of Teleport City — Jason King.
Eve‘s titular star Celeste Yarnall was also no stranger to television work, logging in appearances in everything from the original Star Trek, to The Wild Wild West, to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., with her most noteworthy feature role at the time being that of the girl whom Elvis sang “A Little Less Conversation” to in Live a Little, Love a Little. And opposite Yarnall, as the film’s male hero, is Robert Walker Jr., who is probably most remembered today — at least by nerds — for his titular role in the classic Star Trek episode “Charlie X”, a performance that left a deep impression on me when I was a wee sprout (in that it creeped the living bejesus out of me).
This is not to say, however, that absolutely everyone involved in The Face of Eve made their primary mark in television. The film was, after all, written and produced by Harry Alan Towers, the British producer whose checks would be cashed on more than a few occasions by Jess Franco. As such, it also features some of those players who were familiar recurring faces in Towers’ films, including Czech born actor Herbert Lom and Towers’ wife Maria Rohm. And then, of course, there is the man whom the Teleport City style book decrees must at all times be referred to as Venerated Horror Film Icon Christopher Lee, who at the time was three films into his run as the star of Towers’ successful Fu Manchu films.
Anyone familiar with those aforementioned British detective and spy series knows that they typically made up for their modest production values both by making their casts of characters as colorful and vividly drawn as possible, and by making the schemes hatched by their villains elaborate and often ingenious to the point of preposterousness. The Face of Eve, not surprisingly, follows this template, but not before first introducing us to the unsullied innocent who will stand in stark moral contrast to all of the evil human machinations we’re about to see unfold.
I’m talking of course about Eve (Yarnall), a presence who stands out amongst her co-inhabitants of the Amazon jungle, first of all, for having the stereotypical appearance of a Nordic goddess, and, second of all, for her very small leopard print bikini. Eve spends her days in the jungle balancing a peaceful coexistence with nature with a somewhat less peaceful coexistence with the brutish and horny members of an all-male primitive tribe. Spread throughout this is a lot of the expected vine swinging and animal frolicking, as well as, judging from Eve’s appearance, a lot of time spent fabricating brand-equivalent cosmetics from roots and berries. Also, Eve lives in a cave that’s totally shaped like a vagina.
Our hero, roaming fortune hunter Mike Yates (Walker), first encounters Eve when he arrives in the jungle looking for his partner, Moore, whose plane crashed during a survey run. Mike gets cornered by some of those previously referenced tribesmen, and Eve shows up just in time to disburse them with her handy whip-wielding skills. Fumbling introductions follow, with Mike only able to glean his savior’s name thanks to her limited language skills. Eve shows Mike to the wreckage of Moore’s plane, and then to Moore himself — or at least, that percentage of Moore that could be salvaged from the wreck and placed atop a funeral pyre — after which she disappears as mysteriously as she arrived.
Understandably intrigued, Mike decides to stick around for a while. And so he and his pilot Jose (prolific Spanish character actor Jose Maria Caffarel, here portraying a character who exists on the most thankless end of the sidekick spectrum) make their way to Cayuba, the nearest town. Cayuba turns out to be one of those magnets for shady ex-pats from far and wide that its in the best interest of any adventure film to contain. Mike wastes no time, once there, in shooting his mouth off about his encounter with Eve, and it is not long before he has caused quite a stir among the inhabitants.
First off, there is the American, Lucky Burke (Fred Clark), who, along with his wife Anna (Rohm), owns the town’s sole hotel. Burke, a character very clearly modeled on King Kong‘s Carl Denham, has some kind of history in show business back in the States, and is hungry to get back in the game — as is evidenced by the cheesy floor show, complete with ape-masked chorus girls, that he stages in the hotel lounge every night. Burke sees in Mike’s tale of a white jungle girl the potential for a money making attraction, and so is quick to get on the phone to the press with the story.
But the most interesting response to Mike’s tale comes in the form of news that there was, in fact, another “Eve” who was discovered in the same jungle several years previous. This Eve is reportedly the grand-daughter of Colonel Stuart, a retired military man and former explorer who now runs a ranch in Cayuba. It seems that, some twenty years before, Stuart’s son-in-law and daughter had traveled into the jungle with their infant daughter, Eve, in tow, in search of a fabled Incan treasure. Calamity befell the party, and all were presumed dead until, some years later, a mysterious figure named Diego turned up with a young woman whom he claimed to be the adult Eve. Diego, according to his story, had found the girl living in the remote jungle, and Stuart, eager to believe him, had taken her in as his own.
Mike and Jose head to the Colonel’s ranch, where we find that Stuart is a wheelchair bound invalid, and also played by Venerated Horror Film Icon Christopher Lee. Stuart is one of Lee’s infrequent sympathetic character portrayals from this period, and also, as is gradually revealed, a tragic one. To this end, Lee’s typically regal comportment serves the character well, as it combines with his ignoble circumstances to markedly poignant effect. What might otherwise come across as haughty here suggests a kind of wounded dignity, and, as a result, it’s hard not to feel for Stuart as the extent to which he’s been deceived is revealed.
For, of course, the young woman whom Stuart has taken in is not Eve at all, but instead a blonde-wigged imposter by the name of Conchita (Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros, who it’s hard to imagine sharing DNA with any two parents capable of producing something as thunderingly Caucasian as Celeste Yarnall). Conchita, furthermore, is secretly the wife of Diego, the man who claimed to have found her wandering in the jungle, and together with him is planning to cash in on Stuart’s presumably sizeable inheritance once the obviously frail old guy kicks off.
Diego, a figure of mysteriously indeterminate European origins with an immaculate wardrobe of foppish white suits, is played with cold blooded relish by Herbert Lom. Exuding from every pore a kind of lavish, exhausted libertinism, Diego is the kind of guy for whom even feigning the possession of a conscience is rapidly becoming too dull to even be bothered with. Nonetheless he obviously excels at the con, to the extent that Conchita, trapped in her masquerade as Eve, seems nearly as much of a victim as Stuart. At one point, when Diego orders her to murder Stuart by giving him an overdose of medication, she begs him to reconsider, telling him “You know I’ll do anything but that”. To which Diego replies, distractedly, “Yes. Yes. Of course you will.”
Of course, it’s not long before the story of Mike’s encounter with the real Eve has reached Diego and Conchita, at which point the pair begins to take whatever actions they deem necessary to prevent their ruse from being exposed. Their first step is to dispatch their thuggish cohort Bruno (Ricardo Diaz) to take care of Mike, but that only results in the kind of wild, cast-inclusive barroom brawl — complete with chorus girls comically smashing bottles over drunken guys’ heads — that movies like The Face of Eve practically have a contract with their audience to provide. Eventually, all is rendered moot when Stuart confides to Diego that he is, in fact, penniless, and invites him to partner in a search for the Incan treasure, which Stuart claims to know the exact whereabouts of. Outraged by this revelation, Conchita cruelly confronts Stuart with the reality of his deception, and then joins with Diego in his quest to find the treasure for himself. To make things worse for poor Col. Stuart, in the course of chasing after Conchita, he tumbles from his wheelchair and suffers a mortal injury.
From this point, all of the parties involved are placed in position for The Face of Eve‘s rousing, jungle-bound final act. Mike and Jose, informed by Stuart of the treasure’s location, race off to the jungle, with the goal of not only reaching the treasure before the villains do, but also of bringing the real Eve back so that Stuart may be reunited with her before he dies. Meanwhile, the Boris and Natasha of the piece, Diego and Conchita, arrive in the wild in their immaculate, jungle-appropriate attire, Bruno in tow, ready to piss off the natives in the course of their craven fortune seeking. Finally, we have Eve, whose luck in avoiding the tribesmen’s unwanted attentions appears to have, at long last, run out, a state of affairs which leaves her suspended in a bamboo cage over an open fire as said tribesmen frantically poke at her with their entirely non-euphemistic spears. “Will Mike and Jose arrive in time to save her?”, you can almost hear a non-existent narrator query.
The Face of Eve‘s promotional materials from back in the day touted its heroine as “The Original Flower Child”, though the film itself is nowhere near being hip enough to pull off such a smugly knowing conceit. At the same time, it’s also not nearly as hopelessly square as a lot of other British genre films of its day, which, in their vain courtship of the youth audience, took some pretty embarrassing stabs at being “with it”. In fact, I think that the greatest compliment I can give the film is that it takes itself just seriously enough. It cheerfully traffics in obvious jungle movie cliches — the minstrel-ized “natives” in their grass huts, the obligatory catalog of tropical perils — without feeling like it has to nudge you in the ribs about it at every opportunity. At the same time, it provides a script that is meaty enough for the assembled company of old pros to really have something to tear into. Overall, you get the sense that the movie knows exactly how corny it is, without it trying to position itself or its audience as being above the simple pleasures that such corniness can so often provide.
At the end of The Face of Eve, Eve does indeed return to civilization, though her stay there proves to be a very temporary one. Spooked by a waiting throng of reporters, she flees back into the jungle, tearing at her restrictive garments as she goes, until she is once again standing, gloriously bikinied, amid its unspoiled splendor. After all, there is no place for one as pure and uncomplicated as Eve in a world that would create the likes of Diego, Conchita and Lucky Burke. That world, sadly, is ours to suffer, with only the intermittent spectacle of righteous jungle girls with tiny clothes to provide momentary relief.