The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.
If you wanted to, it seems like you could draw up a sort of family tree of the films Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan made during his late seventies to mid eighties prime, tracing each of those movies’ origins along three very distinct lines, each leading back to a particular career-defining blockbuster that provided the template for much of what was to come. Of course, while Bachchan would star in films that were virtual remakes of Deewaar, Sholay and Don over the course of his career, the lines leading back to those three classics would not always be perfectly straight. For one would also have to consider films like 1978’s Be-Sharam, which draw upon elements of all three.
The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.
The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.
The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.
But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.
In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.
So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.
The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.
On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.
Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.
And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.
Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.
And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.
According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.
But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.
John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.
The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.
Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.
In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.
Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.
The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.
Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.
Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern
There are a couple key themes that define Teleport City and to which I frequently refer. First among these is that Teleport City was always envisioned as a response to the taunt, “Get a life!” or, alternately, “Get a girlfriend!” Part of the reason the reviews I write so often diverge into tangential stories about silly adventures, history (both accurate and suspect), and the circumstances under which I’ve viewed these movies and how said circumstances have influenced my reactions is because I like to illustrate what I’ve learned and experienced first-hand from my many strange years in cult film fandom: that we do have lives, often exceptionally fun lives at that. The second of the over-arching themes that inform Teleport City is that you should be happy this is your hobby, because you will never want for new material. No matter how much you’ve seen, you’ve never seen it all, and you will discover new and amazing films from all over the world with pleasing regularity. Exploring these films leads, often, to exploring other cultures, other countries, other customs and histories, and learning about far more than simply the film you happen to be watching.
Case in point would be the little sub-genre — “family” might be more appropriate — known as “krimi,” a series of fantastical German murder mystery movies based on the works of British author Edgar Wallace and drawing influence from a sprawling landscape of source material that includes pulp adventures, noir crime dramas, James Bond, and old horror films. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of “krimi” films. Back in the day, I had a German film class in what we then referred t as “college,” or sometimes “university.” Back in this time period, I would ride to class on my pennyfarthing bicycle beneath trees dripping with the vibrantly colored leaves of fall, my letterman sweater rakishly unbuttoned and my books slung around my shoulder in a satchel, whistling the latest hit by The Ink Spots and thinking of my sweetheart Annabeth and the grand we time we’d have that weekend when I would borrow my chum’s horseless motor carriage to drive her up to the country for a picnic, where I would serenade her with some ukulele playing. Oh, that was truly the golden fall of ’92!
The film class covered the basics of German film — meaning we watched some Metropolis, Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Triumph of the Will, Jew Suss, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum, American Friend, The Seventh Cross, and the dreaded The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Although the professor was a grand man and once scheduled a make-up class at his own home, where he had an early, pre-flatscreen television version of a home theater, an indoor pool, and a feast of spaetzel and bratwurst (apparently being the head of the Germanic and Slavic Languages department married to the head of the Russian Language department has its perks beyond just being able to stage the siege of Stalingrad in your back yard every night), and even though he taught me the word vergangenheits-bewaltigung, there was no mention of krimi. For that matter, there was no mention of the Jerry Cotton FBI-adventure films starring George Nader, or of Superargo, so in the end, I have to question the quality of education I received. Still, and despite The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, one of the better film classes I took, even though (and possibly because) the professor wasn’t trained in film studies. Plus, Sigfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler was a fine book, and the class itself benefited from sharing a semester with a “Women and Film” class which was excruciating (this is what you get when you do schedule drop-add at the last minute — please, o Lord! No more Jane Campion!).
I also learned that I wanted a Wiemar Republic era nightclub in my house. Later, of course, I became more of a grown up and dispensed with such childish fantasies. Nowadays, I want a Jess Franco nightclub in my house.
With this basic foundation in German cinema, it was many years before I visited that nation’s movies again, and when I did, it was a decidedly different type of film than those I’d been watching in school. Fewer pensive stares and excessively long takes, and more George Nader and his perfectly sculpted hair jumping out of Jaguar cars and shooting gangsters. When the book Fear Without Frontiers came out, I got my first glimpse at the weird world of krimi and knew, immediately, that this was a type of film I was going to want to see. As is often the case, however, recent knowledge and enthusiasm abut a certain film or type of films has no direct correlation to the ability to actually obtain and watch the movies. So while I could sit in my study, contentedly puffing on my pipe and sipping a glass of fine Glenrothes as I marveled at photos of skull-faced killers and arch-villains in pointy crimson hoods or frog outfits, I could not carry my enthusiasm out to my own home theater for viewing. My only option at the time was to shell out stacks of lettuce in exchange for bootleg copies of dubious quality.
But the era of DVD often rewards the cheap and patient, and too long ago, Alpha Video — DVD-era heir to the throne of Goodtimes Video — was kind enough to make bootleg copies of dubious quality unnecessary, as one could now freely purchse semi-bootleg copies of dubious quality, but for four dollars instead of fourteen. Alpha Video dumped a number of krimi onto cheap DVDs, followed shortly by an “Edgar Wallace Collection” released by Retrocinema. I also discovered that some of the films I already owned were, in fact, based in some degree on the works of Edgar Wallace, though in at least some of these cases, the connection is dubious. In others, the whims and obsessions of the director override any other identity the film may possess. That is to say, The Devil Came from Akasava is not a krimi; it is a Jess Franco film. Slowly, and far more lazily than someone who possesses actual drive and motivation, I was able to piece together a half-ass knowledge of the history of Edgar Wallace and how the Germans came to love him so much that they based a bunch of cheap movies on his stories.
Wallace was born in the London slums in the latter half of the 1800s, his father an actor, his mother a dancer — two professions and a life that we can see reflected as major influences in Wallace’s work. In 1896, he found himself stationed in South Africa, serving in the Boer War and developing a nascent writing career as a reporter. His work attracted the attention of none other than Rudyard Kipling, who encouraged Wallace to continue his writing career. Wallace, himself a great admirer of Kipling, wisely took the advice, and before too long, he was making enough money as a foreign correspondent in South Africa to afford a wife and a comfortable existence for the both of them. Then, just as quickly, he lost all his money, because that’s the way us writers are. After returning to England in 1902, he published his first serialized novel in 1905, but once again he proved a better writer than financial adviser, as a crackpot promotional scheme that offered readers a reward if they could figure out the solution to the book resulted in lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the loss of his copyright for the story.
But at least he had a new career, even if he had to maintain it to stay one step ahead of poverty — something I’m sure no other writer has ever experienced. It was a relatively unspectacular career for some time, but in 1921, something suddenly caught fire. It was in this year that Wallace’s name became synonymous with mystery writing. By 1928, it is reported that nearly a quarter of the books being printed in England were Edgar Wallace mysteries. He managed to get himself a plum job as the figurehead president at British Lion Films, which meant that he would be getting cuts of all future and past films based on his work. In 1931, after an unsuccessful bid for Parliament (the gambling habit came back to haunt him), he went to the United States and attempted to scare up a screenwriting job for himself. He had a hard time finding takers for any but one of his scripts, and that one he managed to sell to RKO Pictures, though they insisted on a different title, something more exotic than The Beast. And so was born King Kong. Wallace died shortly afterward, in 1932. By that time, he had written some 250 books and plays, countless short stories, and left his family $68,000 — not a bad sum in 1932, so long as you ignore that it was countered by the $400,000 in debt he amassed as a result of gambling on the ponies and a love of throwing big parties.
One of his sons, Bryan Edgar, himself a budding writer, took on the task of selling his late father’s work for the screen and of writing new books in the style of and “inspired by the work of Edgar Wallace.” So I guess he was like a proto-Christopher Tolkien. When Bryan Edgar moved to West Germany after the war, he brought with him the infectious enthusiasm for his father’s work that had resulted in so many books and so many films based on those books. Wallace’s stories were very popular in Germany throughout the 1920s, thought exactly how this came to be I’m not sure. I guess it was part of the treaty the Allies made Germany sign at the end of World War I. “Cede all territories, disarm and disband your military, make Kaiser Wilhelm shave his mustache, and oh yes, you must read Edgar Wallace novels” — that’s the actual text of the Treaty of Versailles, though I would by irresponsible if I didn’t mention that there is a hand-written addition, in pencil, from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, ever anxious to be fair and forgiving, that says, “You can sell the books after you are done reading them, or trade them for a slice of bread.” Needless to say, this conciliatory amendment enraged David Lloyd George, who proceeded to doodle a picture on the back of the treaty of Woodrow Wilson and Kaiser Wilhelm, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Lloyd George, he was caught doing this by Georges Clemenceau, who used this knowledge to force England to cede its claim to Wilhelm’s mustache, which would now become the property of France and be placed prominently on the face of Clemenceau himself so as to teach Lloyd George a lesson about being naughty.
See the important things you learn when you read a review at Teleport City?
Anyway, much like the British, the Germans were keen on making cinematic adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels. However, all production of these films was halted, and indeed the books themselves were banned, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. When Bryan Edgar Wallace arrived in West Germany after the war, his appearance coincided with a general revival of interest in crime films, thanks in no small part to the films of the French New Wave, who were keen on drawing influences from old American noir and crime films and championing genres of cinema previously dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration. The atmosphere was right, and before too long, interest in Wallace’s works was revived, and so too was the production of films based on those novels. In 1959, with the release of The Fellowship of the Frog, the krimi was born.
There were two competing studios cranking out Edgar Wallace movies at the time, though most fans consider the string of films released by Rialto to be the definitive krimi series. Most of the films were dubbed into English for American audiences, and some were retitled for distribution elsewhere. Over time, the films based of works by Edgar Wallace became mixed in with the films based on the works of Bryan Edgar Wallace, writing in his father’s style. The result is a bit confusing, especially so far removed from the original years of release and with so little information previously available. The end result is a wonderful krimi maze as convoluted and confusing, yet fun to wander through, as the plots of the films themselves.
Phantom of Soho is among the films attributed to Edgar Wallace but actually the work of his son, and rather than being one of the Rialo productions, was made by the studio CCC. As far as krimi go, it is not considered to be the best, but that’s no indication that it isn’t very good, and it still serves as a textbook example of the shared elements of Edgar Wallace krimi. As with all exceptionally convoluted and twisted stories, it can be distilled into one very simple idea: someone is killing people in and around a cabaret in London’s seamy Soho district, and Scotland Yard needs to catch the killer. As with most “whodunits,” we encounter a number of possible suspects, including a massage therapist employed by the owner of the club, a knife-throwing fake Arab, a beautiful dancer and photographer, a salty old fisherman, a writer, and even the chief of Scotland Yard himself. Attempting to crack the case is stolid British inspector Patten (Dieter Borsche) and his rather bizarre assistant, Hallam (Peter Vogel). Cracking the case consists of the two inspectors spending a lot of time hanging out in the nightclub that seems somehow inextricably linked to the strange murders. Soon, we are neck deep in a plot that involves insurance fraud, blackmail, lots of women in black lingerie, and lost of people skulking about dark, twisting, and excessively foggy Soho streets.
Although Phantom of Soho is not a Rialto production, and although it is based on a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace rather than his father, it’s still quite a fun, old fashioned mystery with a few modern twists (primarily in the form of half-naked women parading about the place, and even a couple very brief glimpses of nudity — which must have been novel at the time for a mainstream film, and it contains pretty much everything that defines the krimi. First and foremost, there is the outrageous villain. The titular phantom of Soho is perhaps less outlandish than some of its krimi compatriots, largely because the phantom remains unseen for the majority of the film, represented only by a point of view shot in which we see only the killer’s hands, wearing sparkly silver gloves and brandishing a knife. But when the appearance of the phantom is finally revealed, it is suitably creepy and fulfills the krimi tendency to feature criminal masterminds in outfits that are at once very cool and utterly absurd. I don’t see how, even in a seedy neighborhood, you could parade around in sparkly gloves, a funerary shroud, and a decaying skull mask without attracting at least some attention, but then, this is only a loose interpretation of reality, so I guess such things are permissible. Edgar Walllace was a pulp writer, after all, and the pulps thrived on such villains. And besides, around this same time, Kriminal would have been running around in a full-on skeleton-themed body stocking, so maybe it was just one of the many trends of London in the swingin’ 60s.
We also have the requisite cast of potential suspects, suspicion being removed from them one by one and each succumbs to the blade o the mysterious phantom, until finally we are left with the core possibilities: the writer, the dancer/photographer, the doctor/physical therapist, the club owner, and the chief of Scotland Yard. All are connected in some way to a plot involving the sinking of an ocean liner in order to collect on the insurance money (this is not a central mystery to the plot, and is revealed fairly early in the story). The eventual reveal isn’t entirely a surprise, but then, it rarely is these days, given how many movies have been made in this style. And besides, the fun of the krimi is rarely in being fooled by the unmasking of the killer. It’s in the ride, and Phantom of Soho is an interesting ride indeed, steeped in eerie atmosphere cribbed from film noir and old horror films. The Soho of this movie is a fantastic, almost mythical creation, the result of someone who might never have been to Soho trying to make it up based on the things they’ve heard about it — not at all unlike American and Italian Westerns serving up a mythical version of the Old West based on legend and romance rather than hard facts.
This Soho is, as I said, covered in fog at all hours of the day and night. Clandestine couplings and seedy goings-on take place in every club, in the shadows of every alley, the rooms of every hotel, every movement softened to impressionism by the ever-present mist that clings to the neighborhood like the shroud of death itself. The Phantom of Soho exists in a fantasy world composed of such images — similar in a way to the city occupied by the heroes and villains of Streets of Fire so many years later — and seemingly equal parts 1920s romanticism and 1960s modernism, resulting in a film that exists in a time and place that is familiar but not quite real. This is realized through the use of studio sets and location shooting on the streets of Hamburg. The final product is a recreation of London that is completely unreal yet totally believable, obviously recognizable but with a hint of the alien, as if something lurking in that fog just isn’t quite right. It is the conjuring of this mood that serves to be the greatest attribute of The Phantom of Soho, for the plot itself is somewhat slow and prone to lots of talking.
Just as the movie strives to create a mythical London, so too does it strive to create fiction-perfect ideals of Scotland Yard inspectors in the persons of Patten and Hallam. Patten is the stock stoic cop in a trenchcoat, navigating the seedy underbelly of London without ever seeming to be uncomfortable or distracted by the women in their underwear that thankfully populate the focal point of the crimes. His opposite number is Hallam, who represents one of the genuinely funny comic relief character, primarily because the comedy of his character comes not from broad attempts at slapstick, but rather from the fact that the presentation of the character is just so weird. It’s a Germanic interpretation of the famous dry wit of the Brits (“At last, I can realize the dream of arresting my own boss.”). In a modern production of this film, Hallam would be played by Cripsen Glover. As it is, Peter Vogel looks like a Peter Sellers character and really makes the whole film worth watching — well, him and Helga Sommerfeld as Corrine, the dancer/photographer who spends most of the movie in fetching black lingerie and little else. Actor Peter Vogel was a tragic case, obviously talented but prone to depression. He attempted to kill himself on one occasion, by jumping out of a window during a film premier, and succeeded in another attempt at suicide, this time by poisoning himself. I really don’t know the details of his life and career, but his turn as Hallam is really inspired.
But if there is a real star of the film it’s the art design and direction. Director Franz Josef Gottlieb spent the 60s directing similar murder mysteries and pulp-inspired adventures, bringing an avant garde touch to his films that was most likely informed by French interpretations of American noir and the old German horror film’s fascination with expressionism and strange shot set-ups. The Phantom of Soho is full of arty composition and awkward angles, but far from feeling gratuitous, these decisions seem perfectly in line with the bizarre feel of the film and the desire to create a sense of familiar reality that is, at the same time, disturbingly unreal. This is probably thanks largely to Swiss cinematographer Richard Angst, whose career stretched as far back as the pre-Hitler Weimar era of the 1920s. Very early in his career, Angst found himself working alongside Leni Riefenstahl, one of Germany’s most talented and most notorious film personalities, on Arnold Frank’s demanding cycle of mountaineering adventure films: The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Storm Over Mount Blanc, White Frenzy, and S.O.S. Iceberg. Cutting his teeth in the silent era of German film undoubtedly informed the cinematographer’s sense of the surreal, and his experience on those challenging films helped him become one of the great cinematographers of early adventure cinema. In 1959, when legendary German director Fritz Lang returned to Germany for the first time since World War II (Lang not being especially friendly with the Nazis, nor they with him), he hired Angst for the color remake of his earlier India-themed epics, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. Angst’s approach to Phantom of Soho works wonderfully, infusing the film with a unique feel and tying it through imagery to the horror films of the silent era, just as the plot of the film would later tie into a new type of thriller: the Italian giallo.
There is much that is similar between the krimi and the giallo, and especially The Phantom of Soho, which is one of the more lurid krimis, and the work of Dario Argento. The krimi films grew from the pulp stories, with a dash of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes thrown in, and integrated the whodunit mystery with elements of horror and the fantastic. Giallo would take the same hybrid approach, one foot in horror and the other in the murder mystery, though the Italians did not carry over the reliance on a pulpy, outrageous villain in a crazy costume. But much of what we can see in the giallo cycle of the 1970s is present already in The Phantom of Soho: the mysterious killer, the list of suspects, the preoccupation with seedy locations, the inclusion of art and artists (specifically, writers, models/dancers, and photographers), and the protagonists working his way doggedly through a progressively more tangled web are all elements that became de rigueur for gialli — themselves outgrowths of the Italian pulp novels from which they take their name (“giallo” or yellow — because the books were easily identified by their signifying yellow covers).
Central to the plot of The Phantom of Soho is both photography and, even more so, writing. Among the many potential suspects in the film is a woman with a successful career as a writer and an intimate relationship with the head of Scotland Yard. She challenges the inspectors to solve the case before she does, confident that as a writer with a fresh and sometimes outlandish imagination, she is better suited for working such an unusual case as that of the phantom of Soho. In this sense, the movie becomes a story that is writing itself as it goes. Argento would use this same concept in his 1982 thriller, Tenebrae, which while not being a remake of The Phantom of Soho, certainly uses the Bryan Edgar Wallace story and the related movie as its inspiration and basis.
Although the pace of the film is slow — too slow for some people, with too meager a pay-off at the end — I think it’s a great little movie. The atmosphere is incredible, the cinematography inventive, and the story both strange and entertaining. It plays an important role in the long history of thrillers, and especially n thrillers infused with elements of the horrific. As an introduction to the world of Edgar Wallace and German krimi, one should probably start with The Fellowship of the Frog or any of the Rialto productions available on DVD. Being written by Wallace’s son and produced by CCC, The Phantom of Soho is more of a “related tangent,” and shouldn’t be used as a basis for building a working knowledge of krimi — though it absolutely should be included in any expansion of one’s knowledge.
Release Year: 1964 | Country: Germany | Starring: Dieter Borsche, Barbara Rutting, Hans Sohnker, Peter Vogel, Helga Sommerfeld, Werner Peters, Hans Nielsen, Stanislav Ledinek, Otto Waldis, Hans Hamacher, Elisabeth Flickenschildt | Writer: Ladislas Fodor | Director: Franz Josef Gottlieb | Cinematographer: Richard Angst | Music: Martin Bottcher | Producer: Artur Brauner | Original Title: Das Phantom von Soho
Whenever someone names a predictable title like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster or Yor, the Hunter from the Future as one of the worst movies of all time, my inevitable response is that if they think that’s one of the worst movies of all time, then they obviously haven’t seen enough movies. Certainly not enough to be making such bold proclamations such as naming it one of the worst of all time.
There are, of course, serious and contemplative films from India. There are some modern Indian films that are subdued, intelligent, and thought-provoking. It is highly unlikely we will ever review any of those films. Within the confines of the type of film I’m likely to review from Bollywood (which would be any film that is as silly or fantastical as the films we review from any other country), it’s almost redundant to describe them as “somewhat over-the-top.” If the average Bollywood film is always over-the-top, then a Bollywood “cult” film — action, horror, martial arts, or something of that genre nature — is going to be twice as over-the-top as its more mundane but still over-the-top peers. With me so far?
So it is no small claim when I say that, even within the context of over-the-top Bollywood cult films, Abhay manages to be still more over-the-top than the rest of the pack (technically, this is a Tamil rather than Bollywood film, but let’s not nitpick at this juncture). I don’t know what film classification happens above and beyond over-the-top. Perhaps there isn’t one, in which case “Abhay” is destined to become an adjective, a descriptive term for a movie so completely nutso that even over-the-top film shake their head in admiring disbelief.
Abhay first came to my attention when I was flipping through the meager selection of Indian films for rent at the local underground video store. Yes, yes, I know. World of Apu and Langaan and all that. Not what I was looking for. Suddenly, I was greeted by a cover featuring a screaming bald man, covered in tattoos and brandishing a huge knife, flying down the side of a skyscraper. At the top of the box, an employee of this particular video store had slapped a white label then scrawled a simple message in black Sharpie: “Completely Bonkers!!!”
I was sold. In my world, there’s no greater critical endorsement than “completely bonkers” followed by three exclamation points. It’s an even better public relations blurb than when all those punk bands would take out an ad in Maximumrocknroll adorned with fake critical slagging to the effect of “‘Filthy and horrible’ — Our Moms.” With considerable glee and a jaunty song in my heart (something by Kraftwerk, I believe, probably from the Computer Love years), I trotted up to the counter, paid my rental fee, and rushed home giddy with anticipation. Unfortunately, the disc looked like a team of hyperactive cats had been tap dancing on it. I don’t even know what you can do to a DVD to get it as scratched up as this one. Without much optimism for the outcome, I put the disc in my DVD player and confirmed what I feared: this disc wasn’t going to play. Putting it in the DVD drive of my computer yielded slightly more encouraging results, but not wanting to watch half the movie only to find it sputtered and died on this player, too, I advanced forward a little bit and confirmed that no matter which player I used, it was either going to not play at all or freeze up around the hour and a half mark.
With great sadness weighing down my heart, I returned the disc the next day, and the store confirmed that they too could not play the disc (though that didn’t stop them from putting it back out for rental). I used my free rental credit to rent something uplifting and spiritual (probably something where Paul Naschy turns into a werewolf), then returned to my humble hovel to seek out my own personal copy of Abhay. Heck, Indian DVDs only cost a few bucks anyway, so it wasn’t like I was taking a huge gamble. The tiny bits and pieces I’d seen as I tested the rental disc seemed to support the notion that I wouldn’t be disappointed by owning my own copy. A couple of days and $8.99 later, I was filled with a sense of euphoria once more as the package showed up from India Weekly, this times sans thousands of gashes and scratches on the surface of the disc.
Imagine my shock and woe, then, when after an hour and half of absolute joy, the disc sputtered and died in the exact same spot as the rental disc. “What sorcery be this???” I exclaimed incredulously. How could such a thing be? A little research on the internet soon turned up the answer: The disc, released by a company called DEI, was defective. Or rather, most of them were. The vast majority of people who bought the disc found that it died at exactly the same spot as my rental and purchased copy. Despite the fact that Abhay, from the half of it I saw, is prime material for release in the United States, no domestic company had snatched it up, presumably because they were saving their money for more movies about heroic cricket players. Thus, it was looking like there might be no way of ever seeing the second half of the movie short of buying a hundred Abhay discs and hoping one of them would turn out to be playable.
Oh, misery! I cried out to the heavens! Why have the Gods forsaken me? Why does the cruel, cold universe not want me to see Abhay? Dismayed at this disheartening turn of events, and reconciled with the fact that I would perhaps never get to finish a movie that freezes up right when the main character turns into a cartoon and starts spinning a slutty pop star round and round on his big Jim Bowie knife, I curled up with a bottle of rum and watched Odin instead, but its salve did little to assuage the pain.
Some days later, the sun dared peek once more through the grey lining of clouds obscuring my horizons. Tease me not! I cried out to the sun, for twice now he had let the warming rays of Abhay fall ‘pon my face only to snatch them away at the last second. Or more specifically, around the 5,400th second. On this day, a haggard man wandered out of the desert and, in between ingesting peyote and disappearing inside a sweat lodge covered in old cowhide, he said to me, “Why don’t you just buy the Tamil DVD? It’s the same movie, only in a different language you can’t speak.” Anxious yet dubious, I cashed in my defective DVD credit with India Weekly and ordered the Tamil release of the DVD, which goes under the name Aalavandhan. And lo the clouds did part and angels blew ‘pon trumpets of gold, for I was finally able to watch the entire movie without the specter of a defective disc throwing ice-cold water down my back when I least expected it.
But even then, there was a single tear rolling down my cheek. For although the disc worked and I had finally managed to watch this movie, I noticed that the non-defective disc was a slightly censored version that had been trimmed of several moments that were present on the watchable parts of the defective disc. Once more I threw my arms toward the heavens ‘pon high and bellowed with frustration and rage as the heartless Fates looked down from above and laughed at me as they pelted my face with cold, cold rain — but nary so cold as the coldness of their hearts.
I don’t usually go into a review of a particular DVD or aspects of that DVD, focusing instead on the film itself as something independent from its presentation on a disc. In this case, however, I feel like I should preface the proper review with some quick notes about the differences between the disc you can watch and the disc you probably can’t (a few copies play fine, some play fine for a while but suffer severe “rot” and become unplayable a couple of months later, and most like mine are simply defective right out of the box), if for no other reason than I seem to have spent so much time trying to get a playable copy of the damn thing.
The first notable difference is in the spoken language, though it you speak neither Hindi nor Tamil this is going to be of minor concern. Given the multi-lingual make-up of India, either language could be considered the “correct” language. It’s a Tamil film, but the Hindi audio track is just as authentic. The difference is in the English that appears throughout the film, which is slightly better in the defective DEI/Hindi version than on the non-defective Tamil version. The English subtitles are also better on the DEI version, both grammatically and aesthetically. But these are pretty minor quibbles with which one could live, especially considering the fact that the whole “disc will self-destruct at the 90 minute mark” thing overrides benefits like “subtitles marginally better.”
It’s the trimming on the Tamil disc that really steams my monkeys. There are several scenes of drug use that are central to the plot but edited out of the Tamil version. It fouls up one’s comprehension of what’s going on in a film that is already pretty bizarre. The notable edits come when title character Abhay (called Nandu in the Tamil version) seeks medication from a drug dealer and is instead shot up with heroin (leading to the film’s lengthy, highly entertaining freak-out and hallucination sequence) and when slutty pop star Sharmilee gets him all coked up. In both instances, the actual use of the drug is excised from the film, causing it to jump abruptly. It’s not like you couldn’t figure it out, but it’s still really irritating. There’s also a point in the Abhay-Sharmilee sequence where Abhay discovers he has been given a container of Ecstasy and offers it to Sharmilee. This too has been cut, along with a few lines of dialogue associated with the exchange. These seem like small cuts, but each moment is crucial to explaining what happens next. Without them, the film suffers and seems poorly edited rather than just poorly censored (similar to how criticism of jarring edits in John Woo’s Bullet in the Head are, in fact, short-comings of random cutting after the fact to fit the film onto one laser disc, rather than deficiencies in Woo’s original editing, which is quite fluid and smooth and doesn’t do things like randomly jump to a car-chase and shoot-out at the end without explaining what the heck happened to get us to that point). If there are additional cuts beyond these, I can’t say since this is where the DEI disc stops playing.
So there you have the frustrating circumstances. You can either have the uncut movie on a disc that won’t play, or you can have a disc that will play but contains a censored version of the film. I’m thinking of cobbling together my own version composed of the first 90 minutes of the Hindi disc and the last 90 of the Tamil disc, but then that sort of seems silly since I have them both lying around anyway. I’d like to see DEI either repress and re-release the film or just have a US company pick it up and distribute the uncut version. Until then, unfortunately, the trimmed Tamil version is the best we have. Which is a shame, really. Silly technical hitches like that shouldn’t mar what is an otherwise completely mind-blowing, thoroughly bonkers, and immensely enjoyable mind trip of a film that manages, as I said earlier, to be even more crazy and insane than the usual crazy and insane films India has to offer.
Kamal Hassan stars as heroic moustachio’d Vijay (always with the heroic Vijays, aren’t they), commander of a crack squadron of commandos who specialize in combatting terrorism. More important to the story, however, is that Vijay is about to marry gorgeous newscaster Tejaswini (Raveena Tandon, of Ziddi infamy). On this joyous occasion, Vijay decided he should visit his psychotic brother, Abhay (Nandu in the Tamil version) in the mental asylum and tell him the good news. I’m not sure what sort of reaction Vijay was expecting from the gibbering, bald nutcase (also played by Kamal Hassan, thanks to cinematic and shaving magic) who murdered their stepmother when he was twelve years old, but Abhay doesn’t take the news too well. In fact, he immediately proclaims Tejaswini to be a man-eating succubus who must have her throat slit in order to save Vijay. All things considered, Vijay decides against inviting Abhay to the wedding, obviously afraid of what sort of Best Man speech the guy would make. Abhay is obsessed though, and he soon orchestrates his escape from the asylum and begins a completely bizarre and violent quest to track down and murder Tejaswini.
Director Suresh Krishna and writer/star Kamal Hassan set lofty goals for themselves. Abhay was to concentrate heavily on the world as perceived through the eyes of its titular drug-addled psychopath, which means that there are ample opportunities to ratchet up the weirdness. To realize Abhay’s hallucinations and insanity, as well as facilitating Hassan playing dual roles without relying on age-old split-screen trickery that can give us so many Amitabh Bachchans in a single film, they tapped the visual effects wizardry of Das Chinmay, Sylvan Dieckmann, and George Merkert — who between them have logged major special effects work on big-budget Hollywood films like Serenity, Superman Returns, Poseidon, Starship Troopers, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Total Recall. Regardless of what you may think of those movies, there’s no denying that Hassan and Suresh Krishna were calling in some visual effects big guns, putting forth a vision that far exceeded anything ever attempted in Indian cinema, where effects work is often crude. The result made Abhay one of — if not the — most expensive Indian movie of all time. A huge amount of hype surrounded the film and the many special effects it would boast. Expectations were sky-high, and Abhay was poised to be the biggest release of 2001.
And it might have been, if many people had bothered to see it. Apparently, to be a big release, people have to actually show up for your release. Instead, and for a variety of reasons at which analysts can only guess, audiences shied away from the film, and it wasn’t long before the biggest film in Indian history became one of the biggest flops in Indian history. Like Megaforce, except that the effects are better, the movie is actually good, and Kamal Hassan never kisses his own thumb and thrusts it lovingly toward the camera.
Still, box office failure and critical and audience puzzlement at just what the hell Hassan was trying to do doesn’t mean the film isn’t spectacular, especially from the viewpoint of a cult film fan. It packs in a ton of breakneck action, some quality acting, and some absolutely inspired freak-out scenes. In particular, viewers go along with Abhay on a protracted heroin binge that is realized on-screen by everything from a seven-foot-tall Ronald McDonald wise man to Abhay turning into a cartoon character so he can engage in a bone-jarring kungfu fight with an animated version of Tejaswini. It’s absolute delirium, and for the most part the film manages to keep the frantic pace. Only once, during a lengthy flashback detailing the events that lead up to Abhay murdering their mother-in-law, does the film stumble. The flashback is interesting and essential, but far more drawn-out than it needs to be. The highlight of the overlong flashback scene is a prancing, dancing half-naked village idiot who keeps you thinking that the film is going to delve into weird pedophile territory, though it never does. The guy is just a harmless weirdo. Hassan could have chopped this sequence in half and had an even stronger film. As it is, it serves as a bit of interesting back story in a sequence that gets tedious, but at least it recovers for a blowout of a finale.
The special effects range from competent to outstanding, and though the film obviously revels in visual flash, it seems for the most part to be justified by the plot. And even when it’s just indulgence, it’s still pretty fun. The bulk of the effects are up to the standards of Hollywood productions of the time (2001), and they set a new benchmark for the quality of effects work in Indian films in much the same way Star Wars did in the United States and Zu Warriors did in Hong Kong. The animated sequences are also a real treat, though the animated versions of Raveena and Manisha Koirala aren’t nearly as sexy as the real things.
The martial arts choreography isn’t spectacular, but it’s still pretty good, and there are a couple stand-out action sequences, such as a car chase that sees Abhay leaping from vehicle to vehicle and the final showdown between the two brothers, that really make Abhay a stand-out action film as well as a screwed-up acid trip of a movie.
Highlighting the action is the fact that the cast performs quite solidly. Top Tamil star Kamal Hassan is wonderful in his dual role, creating two characters so individualistic and unique that you never once even realize you’re watching the same actor in dual roles. Vijay is stable, caring, but determined to protect his bride from his brother. Abhay is a scenery-chewing madman with a tendency to turn into a cartoon. Hassan is hardly a typical matinee idol. He lacks the rock-hard abs and sculpted male model body that so often passes for “tough guy” in the movies. Anyone who’s been in a scrap knows that most of these preening pretty boys are useless in a pinch. What you want is a guy like Kamal Hassan, boasting the same sort of body Joe Don Baker had in the 1970s. Yeah, sure, he ain’t got a six-pack. There’s a bit of a spare tire around the waist. But you never have any doubt in your mind that this guy could kick your ass while downing half a dozen beers without spilling a drop. He’s not buff, but he’s solid, and you know he’s tough. That he’s an engaging performer only sweetens the deal.
Raveena has little to do other than be occasionally stalked and menaced by Abhay while she looks ravishing, but one of my favorite actresses, Manisha Koirala (Dil Se, Company) has a hilariously grotesque part as a sleazy, sex-crazed, cokehead popstar who tries to bed Abhay before ending up on the bad end of one of his drug-induced hallucinations. She appears in a weird musical number, then shows up for the hotel scene, which she plays out almost entirely in English. I love Manisha. Love her to death, but man, acting in English is not what you might call one of her strong points. I have no idea what she thought she was doing. Bad as it is, though, it’s still pretty entertaining (and not as bad as all the English-language acting in the Hong Kong film Gen-Y Cops). Kitu Gidwani appears in flashbacks as the manipulative mother-in-law, while Anuradha Hasan plays the saintly real mother of Abhay and Vijay, who appears frequently to Abhay as a sort of ghostly Ben Kenobi hallucination.
The music is a non-entity most of the time. There are a couple run-of-the-mill numbers that simply wash over you and are rapidly forgotten. The only musical scenes that matter or are in any way memorable are Abhay’s hallucination about dancing with Sharmilee, and then Sharmilee’s utterly bizarre African-themed stage performance. The background score is…well, I don’t remember a thing about it, honestly. I don’t suspect audiences were coming (or not coming) to Abhay for the music.
Hassan’s script wastes no time, and even at three hours, he keeps the film skipping effortlessly from one crazy moment to the next. Hassan has a reputation as one of Indian cinema’s bolder and more unconventional risk-takers (placing him in the company of men like Ram Gopal Varma), and Abhay was certainly a risky movie. It’s equal parts psychological horror, Hong Kong action film, fantasy effects film, and musical comedy — even Indian audiences accustomed to seeing every genre imaginable crammed into a single film didn’t really know what to make of Abhay’s gloriously madcap combination of ingredients. Although it’s a financial failure, as a piece of mind-blowing phantasmagorical entertainment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film more enthusiastic and strange than Hassan’s big-budget ode to schizophrenic kungfu insanity. It’s a bit bloated, definitely way over-the-top, wildly imaginative, and as a result, an absolute joy to watch — if you get to watch it at all.
Release Year: 2001 | Country: India | Starring: Kamal Hassan, Raveena Tandon, Manisha Koirala, Shri Vallabh Vyas, Milind Gunaji, Kitu Gidwani, Anuradha Hasan | Writer: Kamal Hassan | Director: Suresh Krishna | Cinematographer: Tirru | Alternate Titles: Aalavandhan
This lavishly colorful and thoroughly enjoyable comic book romp features what is without a doubt one of the most wonderful moments in all of cinema, if not the most wonderful. Having just completed a major heist, our cool-as-liquid-nitrogen anti-hero, Diabolik, returns to his sprawling, space-age underground lair full of cool pop art furnishings, where he and his staggeringly beautiful girlfriend, Eva, proceed to make love on a gigantic rotating bed covered in piles upon piles of the money he’s just stolen. When I was young, and even not so very long ago, I always looked at this moment as the goal to which all people should aspire. Our lives should be like this, lived with ferocity and daring, panache and style, sexiness and suaveness. I swore, on that day, that I would work tirelessly toward such a destiny, never resting until I too could collapse into my rotating bed covered in cash and roll about with the woman of my dreams.
As it stands right now, rather than going out drinking with socialites, rubbing elbows with countesses, and dancing the night away in a fancy club before stepping out to steal priceless emeralds and sapphires (I always preferred those stones to diamonds), I spent the evening sitting at home drinking bourbon, watching Secrets of New York, and cutting out little color cover printouts for all the VHS tapes I’m finally converting to DVD-R in the name of conserving precious space in my ever-shrinking Brooklyn apartment. And while I could, if nothing else, cover a bed with money, the denomination would be pennies, and making love on a pile of pennies may be someone’s bag — but not mine. Diabolik would weep for me. Or rather, he would ignore me and laugh heartily before bounding off to live his dreamlike, lusty life of adventure and romance. Make no mistake about it. Though I may try to dress well and stay in slightly acceptable physical condition (though tonight’s dinner of bourbon and cake could put an end to that), I’m still pathetic in my own special, lonely way. Diabolik would look at the whole thing I call a life and shake his head in amused disbelief as he hopped in his Jag and drove off to go punch a criminal kingpin then make sweet love to his woman all night long. Rather than let this get down however, I simply double down on my efforts and try harder.
The 1960s were defined by different things to different people, and while some saw the paramount of the decade as a bunch of scruffy hippies wallowing in the mud for a few days in upstate New York, I always looked at the defining moments of the decade as the films Barbarella and Danger! Diabolik. That or the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Or, um, the start of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Or the Bay of Pigs. Or maybe the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the arrival of The Beatles. No, it was Barbarella and Diabolik, if for no other reason than they were the exclamation points at the end of an era of which I am particularly fond, that being the carefree Swingin’ Sixties that brought the world pop art, slim cut mod suits, mini-skirts, go-go boots, lots of spy films, and that cute pixie haircut sported by Twiggy. Not since the 1920s and the era of the flapper and the dandy has an era appealed to me so deeply.
Although born a shade too late to enjoy the proceedings, it’s the time with which I most closely identify and still attempt to recreate in my own impoverished and pathetically un-daring way. With the escalation of the war in Vietnam and ensuing civil unrest and violence, not to mention the whole hippie movement destroying any vestige of standards in the realm of courtesy, manners, social grace, and dress (I say that assuming it will be taken by hippies as a compliment; if not, I apologize — I have nothing but affection in my later years for the flower people), there was really no way the swingin’ era could survive. Being care-free was taboo, even though hippies tended to spend a large amount of time smoking pot, dropping acid, and staring at their hands. Likewise, adhering to a uniform anti-code of dress became the standard. I won’t argue that increased social awareness is a boon to an individual, though I would argue against anyone who claims those who defined the latter portion of the 1960s were any more politically aware than those who came before them who were seen as shallow because they enjoyed go-go dancing more than that weird wavy-hand dance.
I know many of you enjoy the ultra-casual, anything-goes world in which we live thanks in part to our hippie forefathers, but I can’t count myself among you. I don’t wear a shirt and tie because I have to; I wear one because I want to. I like it. It’s comfortable to me. Granted, I didn’t always hold this sentiment, and there was a time when I could deliver a wild-eyed sermon against the chains of suit and tie oppression as well as any other young punk rocker. But as you get older and start having more important things about which to worry, such as how you’re going to get that rotating bed covered in money and a delicious European partner in crime to accessorize it, you realize that punk, casual, mod, hippie — everything is as much a fashion uniform as anything else, and there really is no sin in putting a little effort into things. The only sin, really, is in wearing pleated, relaxed-fit Dockers. In this, there can be no leniency.
By the release of Danger: Diabolik!, the mod era was well on its way out, and what better way to send it off than with a duo of eye-popping, self-indulgent cinematic flings? In 1968, director Roger Vadim gave the world a zero-G striptease by his then-wife Jane Fonda, who was without a doubt in her prime as far as bombshell status is concerned (and she looked damn good defiantly power saluting the police mug shot photographer, too). Dino De Laurentiis, famous for throwing big budgets at low-budget genre ideas, produced this phantasmagoric Technicolor acid trip adapted from a French comic strip about a sexy space agent plying the galaxy in search of missing scientists and lustful encounters. It was such a hoot that De Laurentiis decided more of the same would be in order. Again he turned to European comic strips for his source material, this time setting his sights on Diabolik, the ongoing saga of a master criminal who confounds both the police and the established criminal underworld.
On paper it was supposed to be a spiritual if not narrative follow-up to Barbarella. De Laurentiis snagged Mario Bava to direct, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. Since his first film in color, Bava had been a master at playing with light and creating surreal atmospheres even on the tiniest of budgets. Films like Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) continue to influence films to this day thanks to their bold, convention-bucking use of color and lighting (not to mention violence). With Diabolik, Bava would be allowed to indulge his sweet tooth for candy-colored psychedelia equipped with a budget that dwarfed anything with which he’d previously been supplied. Not that the bigger budget mattered to him. In fact, though De Laurentiis granted Bava some $3 million for the film, Bava brought it in right around $400,000. You’d never know it. The film looks like he spent the full budget, and one can only imagine how out-of-this-world it would have been had Bava not been so conditioned to make the most of every single cent — or lira, or whatever currency applied.
French star Jean Sorel (Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other) was slated to portray the suave super-villain/anti-hero Diabolik, while the beautiful Catherine Deneuve (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) was to star as his partner and lover, Eva. Mere days into the production however, Bava determined that Sorel simply wasn’t right for the part. He was replaced by John Phillip Law, who had starred as the blind angel Pygar in Barbarella and would go on to appear as Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Law was a jaw-dropping hunk with near inhuman good looks, but he was never the greatest actor on the block. Still, since the idea behind Diabolik was not style over substance but rather, as with Barbarella, style as substance, he fit the bill perfectly and certainly looks the part. His reserved – some would say wooden – acting style clicks nicely with the character, a man so far removed from traditional human morality that he seems at times almost unable to act human, sort of like how the Sidhe are described in fantasy literature.
Casting woes continued however, as Deneuve refused to do the nudity required for the aforementioned “making love on a pile of money” scene. Bava had always thought more of concealing than revealing. While there is certainly plenty of flesh both male and female on display in the scene, there is no actual nudity per se, as in no one sees the earth-shatteringly taboo bare bottom or nipple. All the areas proscribed by or moral watchdogs as naughty were suitably and strategically covered by piles of money. But the scene had to be shot with both actors in the buff and Deneuve balked. She was quickly and, for us viewers, blessedly replaced by European starlet Marisa Mell. Nothing against Ms. Deneuve — we do love her — but like John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell was practically born to play the part.
Mell is every bit Law’s physical match. A beauty so great as to cause folk to drop to their knees and weep. As the sophisticated and liberated sidekick to the devil-may-care Diabolik, I can imagine no one else better than Marisa Mell. A serious auto accident in 1963 had left her partially disfigured, and after years of rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery, she emerged looking like some incredible kind of goddess, with the only lingering side effect of her accident being a quirky upturn at the side of her mouth which, just about everyone agrees, amplifies her beauty tenfold. Nothing is more boring and predictable than perfection, after all. It is most unfortunate that her life would take a drastic downturn not too long after this film. She was relegated to B and C-movie status then more or less forgotten, making ends meet by posing in a nudie mags and reading poetry to try and supplement what was, by most accounts, rather a wild lifestyle. In the end, she died from cancer in 1992, relatively penniless. A melancholy note, but still she exists on screen in this movie as one of the great and timeless images of grace and beauty. It is that way that I think she is best remembered, as a stunning woman with an impish and playful curl to her lip.
For the roll of Diabolik’s foils on both sides of the law, Bava had experienced French actor Michel Piccoli as the dogged Inspector Ginco, and the robust Adolfo Celi, still relatively fresh off his memorable turn as the vastly enjoyable villain Emilio Largo in the James Bond film, Thunderball (1965), as the flamboyant Mafia boss Valmont. It was as solid a cast of character actors as Bava had ever had. He plucks them down into a world that isn’t quite real. One of Bava’s great strengths, and the element that perhaps made his horror films so successfully eerie, is his ability to warp the familiar, to twist the mundane into something foreign and menacing. Here, he’s pulling the same stunt, but purely for laughs. The world of Diabolik is not the world in which we live, though it bears a striking resemblance. It is instead a campy pop-art extraction. Money is transported in bags marked with huge dollar signs on the front, for example. Stylistically it has the most in common with Bava’s previous Blood and Black Lace and forthcoming Five Dolls for an August Moon and Four Times that Night, both of which revel in trippy modernist fashion and psychedelic over-indulgence. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the characters from any one of those movies show up in the other, though Diabolik is in my opinion the most realized artistically and conceptually. It is also Bava at his most impish and playful, with only a slight hint of the blackness that would inform the humor of his later Bay of Blood.
The story, as stated earlier, was adapted from a long-running European comic strip, or fumetti. Although I’ll admit to being a comic book reader in my youth, with intellectual fare like G.I. Joe and the ten thousand or so Spider Man titles that littered the 1980s being at the top of the list, I don’t really count myself among the legion of comic book fans. I have little interest in them now other than academically, and even the ones that people insist I’ll like because they’re intelligent and mature, leave me cold and a bit disappointed. Even the ones where people tell me, “no, this one is different,” still fall flat. It’s not that I deny their power or their artistic merit, even if I find some of the obtuse attempts to appear more “adult” by adding more violence, sex, and cussing, to be monumentally tedious.This is not an absolute statement, mind you. every now and then I do run across one I love– Brian Wood’s DMZ, for example — but I am by no means someone to whom one should turn for authoritative opinions on the medium.
That said, these European comic strips from the 1960s seem like they would have been a lot of fun. Considering they birthed such chain-smoking, sexy anti-heroes as Diabolik, Barbarella, and Modesty Blaise, all clad in skintight fetish gear, I guess I would have been a fan. Having never read any of the original Diabolik comic strips, but having at least glanced over some English-language plot summaries, I don’t think the storyline for the movie is lifted from any single episode, though bits and pieces may have come from all over the comics. The main characters certainly come from the comic strip, and here we get to watch them as Diabolik goes through a series of heists that get him on the bad side of both the police and the old crime syndicates – the establishment, basically. Chief of police Ginco sets a number of traps for Diabolik, but each time Diabolik outsmarts the inspector and makes his getaway with the loot. When one of his heists angers crime lord Valmont, Ginco hatches an unholy alliance with the mob to finally catch this thorn in both their sides.
Each heist is more or less a little self-contained episode building toward Ginco’s plan to melt down the whole of France’s gold reserve in order to lure Diabolik into a trap. The heists are exciting and outlandish, this again being a fantasy world in which the standard laws of common sense and logic do not apply. In his quest to steal a priceless jeweled necklace, Diabolik defeats the inspector’s trap by pulling the ol’ “stick a photo in front of the security camera” gag. He later smuggles the jewels to safety by fashioning them into bullets, using them to kill an opponent, then posing as said opponent’s relative to collect the jewels after cremation. Obviously, there are some logistical problems with this plan, not the least of which would be fitting jewels into a revolver, but this is a comic book world.
We’re not meant to take anything seriously or worry about realism. This is part of the reason it’s also easy to accept Diabolik as the hero of the story even though he is, without a doubt, a villain. He kills cops. Not corrupt cops, but regular guys just doing their job. He has no concern for anyone but himself and his one true love, Eva. When he dynamites the nation’s tax records, he doesn’t do it out of any sense of Robin Hood-esque duty to the poor and oppressed masses. He simply wants to screw with The Man — which leads to one of the film’s funnier moments, in which the Minister of Finances (a cameo by British film staple Terry-Thomas) makes a public plea to all the outstanding citizens to come forward and voluntarily pay the taxes they owe. Comedic touches like this, along with the purposeful disregard for realism, keep the movie light-hearted and chipper even when our main character is committing acts of a most heinous nature.
It’s not that Diabolik is immoral, however. If anything, he is adamantly amoral, completely rejecting the standards by which society judges the concepts of good and evil. He’s not an evil person. In fact, he’s quite likeable, almost childlike, even when he’s clad in a skintight white leather outfit and scaling a castle wall to rip someone off. At his heart, he is 1968. He is the social upheaval, the youthful rebellion that was engulfing countries across the globe. It’s no coincidence that the two forces most opposed to him are established law and established crime – two sides of a coin in which Diabolik sees no difference. They are the old guards; the outdated, out-of-touch generation whose lack of modern sophistication and intelligence is best exemplified by the fact that Valmont’s gangsters dress anachronistically, looking like something out of a 1930s mob movie.
They don’t understand Diabolik’s approach to crime, his use of modern technology and embracing of modern ideals. Likewise, on the other side of the coin is Inspector Ginco, a man who seems to respect Diabolik in a way, just as Diabolik respects him. In fact, it’s possible that Ginco could catch Diabolik, best him, if only the inspector could break away from the established way of thinking. Unfortunately, he is a man too mired in the old ways, and thus destined to be one step behind Diabolik. If only he could escape the constant supervision and micro managing of the bureaucrats, Ginco could make real progress. In a way, Ginco must envy Diabolik his freedom of thought.
It is in this way, more than through the story itself, that Diabolik achieves the depth so many people seem to claim it lacks. It is a tale of a super criminal versus the cops on one level, but on a deeper level it is a tale of the generation gap, of the culture conflict between young and old that characterized the late 1960s. Diabolik and Eva are the new way, feared and misunderstood by their elders. They are the iconoclasts, perhaps more symbols than actual people, as is Valmont. Ginco is the man in the middle, who knows things and times must change but not by the methods employed by the amoral and self-serving Diabolik. He is, despite being the supporting character and foil to Diabolik, the most sympathetic and human of all the characters. He is, in effect, most of us, dissatisfied with the establishment but still committed to some sense of orderly progression and society.
The relationship between Eva and Diabolik is further example of the film’s hidden but most definitely present depth. They are in love, deeply and passionately. Ginco seems to forego romance in favor of duty, and Valmont can see women as nothing more than playthings to be insulted. But Eva and Diabolik are liberated and modern. They are sexually attractive and have an insatiable appetite for one another, but they are also in love. Diabolik steals for Eva, but Eva does not stay with him because he steals; she stays because she loves him. Stealing is simply what they do, a game, and an amusement. Another way for them to thumb their noses at the generation that does not understand them. Their relationship is strong, and they are willing to sacrifice for one another. In the face of a world that wants to rub them out, they always have each other. Sometimes, they have each other on a rotating bed covered in money. So Diabolik is not an example of style over substance as much as it is, as I mentioned earlier, an example of style as substance. The liberated pop-art lifestyle of Eva and Diabolik is a stark contrast to the buttoned-up, confining world inhabited by Ginco and Valmont.
Not that the style lets itself be overshadowed by the substance. They walk arm in arm, and even if you disregard anything Diabolik might have to say, there’s no denying its look. That Mario Bava pulled this off on a self-imposed minuscule budget is staggering. With the possible exception of Barbarella and some of the wilder Bond adventures from the 1960s, few films look as sleek and sophisticated as Diabolik. The fashion is impeccable, and for a man like me who has endless admiration for the mod styles of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s like some crazy kind of dream come true. Every outfit donned by Marisa Mell is gorgeous enough to make you cry, especially when it’s draped upon someone as beautiful as she was. Likewise, Diabolik’s fetishistic head-to-toe leather outfits are beautiful, leaving as they do only John Phillip Law’s intense and deep eyes visible.
Their underground lair is a sight to behold, as are the old Jags they both drive. I love me a good Aston-Martin, but if I had to chose, I’d go for a ’67 Jag. They’re just about the coolest cars ever manufactured. Ahh, I hope they come in automatic. Diabolik is, indeed, a mod-futurist fan’s dream, even more so than the more outlandish Barbarella. After all, someone out on the town dressed as Barbarella would turn heads but ultimately look just kind of silly; someone out dressed in the mod fashions displayed by Marisa Mell would simply look breathtaking. Someone dressed in Diabolik’s leather catsuit is probably on his way somewhere special.
This isn’t the type of film where you fret over the details, and if you do you’re just going to miss the point. Like I said, it exists in a fictitious comic book world. It’s not meant to be any more realistic than any other superhero/villain movie or comic book. What does count is the pace of the story, and Bava keeps things moving along at a fair clip. It’s not an action-packed movie, not by today’s standards where something big must explode every five minutes in between a sequence involving bikini girls freak dancing. But it is expertly and briskly paced, with a light-hearted tone that keeps you from worrying too much about the fact that the man we’re supposed to love is a murderer and a thief. Ultimately, of course, Diabolik is a criminal and must pay for his crimes. The film’s ending is vague in its resolution but absolutely fitting. Ginco must prevail, after all. The exuberance and reckless abandon of youth must be tamed. And so we are left with Diabolik encased in a coffin forged out of his own indulgence, a gold plating from which he cannot escape…
…or can he? We’ll never really know. De Laurentiis was so pleased with the fact that Bava brought the movie in $2.6 million under its $3 million budget that he practically begged for a sequel. Unfortunately, the reportedly mild-mannered Bava could not bear the oppressive and often dictatorial producer so no sequel ever came about. We are left then with the final shot of Diabolik imprisoned by his own greed, laughing either slyly or maniacally, protected by his special suit from the molten gold but unable, as far as we can tell, to escape. His rebellion, after all, was not perfect. And while the establishment is able, at least for the time being, to contain Diabolik and his socially challenging threat, while they may suppress it, it’s unclear as to how long that will be the case. It could always resurface. It is a beautiful tongue-in-cheek ending, one that even works quite cleverly in conjunction with the fate of Valmont, who finds himself on the more fatal and literal end of greed.
Although it would seem, at first, to be a major departure from Bava’s greater body of work, most of which up to the point had been gothic horror and giallo, Diabolik still manages to cover most of the director’s pet themes and thus fits quite perfectly into his oeuvre. Diabolik is an outsider who rejects what those around him see as established common sense. Appearances are, as always, deceiving at their very best. Diabolik’s use of disguises and his foiling of Ginco’s trap by using a photograph of an empty, peaceful room are the most obvious examples. And like most of Bava’s anti-heroes, Diabolik eventually gets his comeuppance.
For my money, Diabolik is an unabashed success on all levels. The art design is without parallel. The script is crisp, witty, and fast-paced. The universe Bava creates is wild and enjoyable. And the performances – yes, even John Phillip Law’s – are wonderful. It is the ultimate super-villain movie, with a villain so charismatic that you forget he isn’t the hero. Campy, clever, and never taking itself as seriously as some dim-witted critics seem to think it does, Diabolik is one of the best, if not the best, European comic book/fantasy/sci-fi films, not to mention of the most breathlessly beautiful and fun films of the 1960s.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi, Claudio Gora, Mario Donen, Renzo Palmer, Caterina Boratto, Lucia Modugno, Annie Gorassini, Carlo Croccolo, Lidia Biondi, Andrea Bosic, Federico Boido, Tiberio Mitri | Screenplay: Arduino Maiuri, Mario Bava | Director: Mario Bava | Cinematographer: Antonio Rinaldi | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Dino De Laurentiis