Three Golden Serpents

The sad passing of actor Tony Kendall – aka Luciano Stella – back in November of 2009 inspired me to get back on board with the project of reviewing the Kommissar X films for Teleport City. Not that I can say with authority that the Kommissar X films represent the best of Mr. Stella’s work, mind you – I haven’t, for instance, seen Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century, or Hate Is My God, to name just a couple of his many non-Eurospy efforts. It’s just that it’s those movies, and Kendall’s portrayal within them of dick-both-public-and-private Joe Walker, that won him permanent residence in a very special secret space-age lair located deep within my heart.

With this decision made, however, the difficulty remained in getting my hands on one of the few X entries that I hadn’t yet seen. This, of course, necessitated that I once again surrender myself to the vagaries of the gray market. It’s no secret that many of the movies I review are attained via this route, and I make no apologies for it, especially given that the alternative is to not see or review these movies at all. It’s for this reason that I have, like most obscure movie enthusiasts, conditioned myself to forgive a lot in terms of image quality, and especially in the case of the Kommissar X films, which have so far been at least as poorly served in their legitimate DVD releases as they have been in bootleg form, with ravaged, clipped-at-the-edges TV prints and murky VHS dubs being the norm.

Thus I wasn’t surprised when, after ordering a DVD-R copy of the sixth Kommissar X film, Three Golden Serpents, and then waiting a month and change for it to arrive, that what I had before me was a severely washed-out looking, VHS sourced copy of the movie with what appeared to be Turkish subtitles obstructing the lower quarter of the screen for much of the running time. Now, while I wouldn’t stand for this low level of visual fidelity in the DVD-R of Avatar I picked up down on Mission Street the other day – for three dollars I expect quality, damn it! – for a film as rare as this one I’m willing to make concessions. After all, years of watching hard-to-find movies in this manner has trained me to not let a certain amount of visual noise interfere with my enjoyment of a film.

That’s assuming that the film itself is actually enjoyable, that is. If not, mentally compensating for the shortcomings of its presentation can be a little more difficult. A crappy print can easily serve to amplify all that is disappointing about a feature, and while its original tones may have been vibrant, if the content of the movie itself is dull or off-putting, it becomes that much easier to assume that the bleached and lifeless colors you’re seeing on screen are part and parcel of the filmmaker’s original, less-than-inspired vision.

This is not all to imply that I found Three Golden Serpents entirely disappointing. It’s just that, as directed by series newcomer Roberto Mauri (whose previous directing credits include King of Kong Island and a number of obscure Spaghetti Westerns, but exactly no spy films), it’s definitely somewhat of a departure from what had come before. In particular, it has more of a hard exploitation edge to it than the previous Kommissar X entries, and is markedly more mean-spirited. At the same time, the characters of our heroes Joe Walker and Tom Rowland appear to be a bit on auto-pilot, with less of the shtick-y but good-natured hijinks that marked their earlier outings. Mind you, there is still evidence of the series’ patented goofiness to be seen – we get the spectacle of the burly Rowland mixing it up with an intimidating dwarf, commandeering a mini taxi while dressed in an undersized bellhop uniform and a climactic mud fight, for goodness sake — but it’s perhaps just not enough to cut through the combined challenges of nth-generation murk and the general air of tawdry-ness that hangs over the whole affair.

With the somewhat low-key, Montreal Expo-based antics of the Kommissar X series’ fifth entry, Kill, Panther, Kill!, it might have seemed safe to assume that the franchise had settled into what was, compared to the settings of the earlier films, fairly pedestrian territory. But with Serpents’ Thailand setting we happily see a return to the emphasis on exotic locales that we saw in the initial four movies. Unfortunately, our introduction to that setting is conducted in about the most unexciting manner possible, by way of some uninspired travelogue footage that sees what appears to be a middle-aged Midwestern couple making their leisurely way around Bangkok as the male half of the couple drones on affectlessly about various sights and local customs. This goes on for quite a while, and marks an unflattering departure from the opening sequences of pretty much every earlier Kommissar X, which typically took us right into the middle of the action without pause for preface or scene setting.

Finally things get interesting when the young woman who is accompanying the couple wanders off on her own and is accosted by frequent Kommissar X series generic goons Herbert Fuchs and Pinzo Mattei, who bundle her off into a waiting boat. It turns out that the woman is American tourist Phyllis Leighton, and that she is the daughter of the older woman, Maud Leighton, who is played by German actress Loni Heuser. We will later see that Phyllis has been taken to a secret island, where she will become just one of many young, white Western women held captive, pumped full of hallucinogenic drugs, and subjected to Chinese water torture until they become mindless sex slaves for the pleasure of the wealthy Western men willing to pay their masters top dollar for their services. Hence the origin of Three Golden Serpents’ alternate U.S. title, Island of Lost Girls.

Of course, the Kommissar X series’ penchant for far-fetched scenarios notwithstanding, the notion of Western sexual tourism in Thailand is anything but a fictional construct. At the same time, the idea of locals kidnapping white tourists to partake in the trade does indeed come across as a fanciful embellishment. My guess is that Thailand has a large enough supply of economically disadvantaged women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation – as well as a large enough influx of Western males eager to pay for their flesh – to make such a scheme not worth the risk. It’s for this reason that I found distasteful Three Golden Serpents‘ practice of spicing up these island sequences with the inclusion of topless female extras who appear to be drawn from the local Thai populace — most of whom convey a pretty believable level of despondency — while all of the white actresses playing the captured Westerners remained conspicuously well covered. Not that anyone would expect the film to be a muck-raking expose of sex slavery, but in this case it’s conceivable, if not likely, that the production actually benefited from the practice.

Anyway, it’s not long before the distraught Mrs. Leighton is seeking the assistance of New York Police Captain Tom Rowland (Brad Harris), who just happens to be in Bangkok for one of those international police conferences that he seems to attend so frequently. Unfortunately, Rowland tells the woman that his hands are tied, because the matter is outside his jurisdiction – even though such impediments to his legal involvement will seem to trouble him less and less as the film progresses. Mrs. Leighton then makes mention of a certain world famous private detective by the name of Joe Walker, who, by this point in the series, is also actually being referred to as “Kommissar X”, though nothing in the films themselves ever explains why (I suspect that the answer lies in one of the hundreds of German pulp novels upon which they were based). At this, Rowland groans and rolls his eyes, because that’s just the kind of relationship that he and Walker have.

Our introduction to Joe Walker in Three Golden Serpents underscores the caliber of filmmaking we’re dealing with here, coming by way of a recycled and re-dubbed scene from the earlier Kill, Panther, Kill! in which Walker is made to seem as if he’s talking on the phone to Mrs. Leighton in Thailand. This is not all to the bad, however, because the scene also allows us another glimpse of the beautiful Hannelore Auer, who played Walker’s secretary-with-benefits in that previous film. In any case, once summoned, Walker jets his way to Thailand, at which point the villains’ serial attempts to murder him immediately commence.

Now, I’ve gone on at length elsewhere about the type of lazy plotting in 60s spy movies that allows the villains to do the heroes’ work for them by calling attention to themselves with all kinds of ill-advised and ostentatious assassination attempts when they could instead simply evade capture by laying low. I also know that this is not just lazy plotting, but also a matter of simply being entertaining. After all, those kind of cat-and-mouse sequences were the most memorable parts of the Bond films that inspired the Eurospy wave – so much so that it wasn’t until I watched the Bond films as an adult, and for the umpteenth time, that I realized that they actually had plots. Still, it has to be said that the Kommissar X films are probably the most egregious offenders in this regard (and bless them for it), and perhaps Three Golden Serpents most of all. Consider that Joe Walker is only in Thailand to investigate what could easily be a routine missing person case, and that there’s no reason for him to assume that this is the result of anything other than run-of-the-mill criminal activity – until, of course, someone tries to blow up the taxi he’s riding in with a flame cannon.

Three Golden Serpents also makes such profligate use of the old “informant killed by a surreptitiously fired blowgun dart just as he/she is revealing crucial information” scene that you’d think no one involved knew it was a cliche. They seriously do this at least three times – basically enough that the film could justifiably be re-titled The Blowgun Massacre, or, if you wanted something more kicky, Pffft! (Which is not outside the realm of possibility, given the myriad titles the average Eurospy film went under throughout its shelf-life.)

It is in the course of fending off one of these aforementioned assaults that Walker and Rowland come upon their first, most important, and perhaps only clue. It is a telltale tattoo on one of their attackers’ arms, picturing three intertwined snakes, that will subsequently be seen on the arms of myriad subsequent attackers, and will ultimately be traced to a benevolent association run by a successful Chinese businesswoman by the name of Madame Kim Son. From there our two heroes will be lead on a labyrinthine trail involving a puzzling array of possible suspects… oh, who am I kidding? It’s Madame Kim Son. Madame Kim Son is the brains behind the whole island sex slavery operation. She’s also in cahoots with a cult-y guy called Landru, who we met earlier and already knew was an expert in all manner of poisons, so that doesn’t come as much of a surprise either. (Though what did come as somewhat of a surprise was the deeply unpleasant scene in which Landru demonstrates the lethality of one of his poisons by injecting it into a squalling Siamese cat.)

Once the pieces have all fallen together like those of a fairly easy puzzle whose pieces are actually quite large and few in number, and probably made of chunky wood, Walker goes about scheming his way onto the island. This he eventually does by way of posing as a potential client – and then, being Joe Walker, by trying to put the moves on Madame Kim Son during the boat ride over for good measure. This turns out to be an imprudent tack, as we soon learn that Kim Son’s sex slavery scheme is merely part of a super-scheme by her to exact revenge against every white man on the planet. The specifics of how she intends to do this weren’t apparent to me, but in Joe Walker’s case it involves her chaining him to a post and shooting him full of hallucinogens. This affords Tony Kendall the opportunity to demonstrate that he has perfected his ability to deliver a more standard movie-style version of Joe Walker having a drug freak-out since his more idiosyncratic pass at it in Death Trip – and he is aided in this by some superimposed images of crocodiles that swirl around his head as he does so. Then Tom Rowland and a bunch of other law enforcement types parachute onto the island and everybody has a fight in the mud.

While it’s my least favorite of the Kommissar X movies so far, Three Golden Serpents is not all disappointment. As the above synopsis probably made plain, it is not bereft of moments of enjoyable stupidity. Furthermore, the musical score by Francesco De Masi and Roberto Pregadio is both unusual and weirdly effective – though the absence of Bobby Gutesha’s “I Love You, Joe Walker” song is a sin of omission if ever there was one. It also has to be said that director Mauri keeps things moving at a swift pace, though in some ways that brevity counts as a failing. Because at times it seems that Mauri is so intent on keeping us moving from one workmanlike action set piece to the next that he forgets to slow down for those moments of patented absurdity – in particular, the business of Joe Walker being as one-dimensionally caddish as a cartoon cat, as well as the dopey verbal sparring between he and Rowland — that make the series what it is. When we do see these things, it is fleeting, making us long for one of those wonderful yet, in a narrative sense, superfluous scenes like the one in So Darling, So Deadly in which Walker mugged ruefully over Rowland’s pathetic attempts at dancing to the rock and roll music.

I feel kind of bad, because I set out to review Three Golden Serpents as a tribute to Tony Kendall, and then I kind of ended up hating on it. This pains me especially because, as I think I’ve already indicated, Kendall is an actor for whom I feel sincere affection — mainly as a result of my exposure to him via the first several Kommissar X films. Fortunately, though, those films, like Three Golden Serpents, also endure, despite the sorry state that the purveyors of cut-rate DVDs and gray marketeers present them to us in. And with them endures Tony Kendall. Perhaps, then, this is the test of true charisma: That a man can have his voice dubbed and redubbed, his visage marred and distorted by decades of film wear and tape degeneration, and still emerge as a commanding and memorable presence. Thanks for the awesomeness, Tony.

Release Year: 1969 | Country: Italy, West Germany | Starring: Tony Kendall, Brad Harris, Monica Pardo, Loni Heuser, Hansi Linder, Herbert Fuchs, Pino Mattei, Walter Brandi, Rotraut de Neve, Carlos de Castro, Vilaiwan Vatanapanich | Screenplay: Jameson Brewer, Manfred R. Kohler, Gianfranco Parolini, Paul Alfred Muller | Director: Roberto Mauri | Cinematographer: Francesco Izzarelli | Music: Francesco De Masi, Roberto Pregadio | Also know as: Island of Lost Girls, Kommissar X – Drei Goldene Schlangen