Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pirates of Tripoli (Columbia, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I ultimately showed was Pirates of Tripoli, a film I’d recorded earlier in the day as part of a two-film tribute on TCM to Paul Henried, who also appeared in The Scar (a.k.a. Hollow Triumph), an interesting film noir which casts Henried as a small-time crook who finds a psychiatrist who looks like him except for a scar on his face, kills the psychiatrist and impersonates him, only to find that the psychiatrist was also a compulsive gambler and was in hock to the Mob, so he’s in more trouble than he was in his old identity!).

This was a 1955 Sam Katzman production for Columbia starring Henried and Patricia Medina (Mrs. Joseph Cotten, who had also appeared in 1951’s The Magic Carpet, another cheapie Katzman/Columbia actioner set in the Middle East) in a pretty typical tale concocted by writer Allen March: Malek, Bey of Tunis (John Miljan), carries out his imperialist agenda to conquer all the north of Africa, including the fictitious principality of Misurata, ruled by Princess Karjan (Patricia Medina), which is so easily overrun by the Bey’s forces (especially after he infiltrates people inside the city to open its gates for him — I joked that they must have entered through a Trojan vole) that one half expects Miljan to pose in front of a banner containing the Arabic for “Mission Accomplished.”

Princess Karjan and her sidekick Sono (an almost unrecognizable Lillian Bond) don male drag (absurdly unconvincing male drag) and sneak out of the besieged palace and escape to Tripoli, where they hope to enlist the aid of the pirate captain Edri al-Gadrian (Paul Henried) to help get rid of the occupier and restore the princess to her throne. (This does begin to sound like Henried is playing Victor Laszlo again, only in a funny costume.) Karjan promises Gadrian half a million gold dinars for himself and his crew if her insurgency succeeds.

As preposterous as his overall plot is, and as freely as he borrows from other, older, better movies, Allen March does manage to construct a story full of exciting action scenes (even though he doesn’t manage to pull off the delicate balance between drama and camp David Mathews managed in his script for The Magic Carpet; this is one movie that takes itself way too seriously, including having a third-person narrator delivering rather clunky bits of exposition at intervals to make sure we understand the story) — including a plot by Karjan, Gadrian and Gadrian’s comic sidekick Hammid Khassan (Paul Newlan) to sneak back into the palace at Misurata to steal the royal jewels to buy new ships from Italy to replace the ones Malek’s men destroyed in a Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack on Tripoli (they get the jewels but then Malek’s men hijack the merchantman vessel that’s taking them along with Karjan to Italy; Gadrian and Hammid escape and plan the Princess’s rescue from torture and certain death) and a final confrontation in which Gadrian manages to reconquer Misurata for the princess by floating the one ship he has into its harbor flying the flag of a plague ship and thereby distracting Malek’s security forces while Gadrian’s ground troops sneak into the city and take it back.

There’s also a quite interesting character named Rhea (Maralou Gray), Gadrian’s blonde-bimbo girlfriend until he dumps her for Karjan, who gets her revenge by leaking his plans to one of Malek’s agents and gets stabbed (by Malek’s agent, who mutters, “Now only one of us will know the secret”) for her pains (a real pity, since she’s by far the most fascinating and multidimensional member of the dramatis personae until she gets knocked off midway through). In any event, the good guys win, the bad guy is beheaded when Paul Henried pushes him into a guillotine (one of the most inadvertently entertaining aspects of this movie is counting up all the anachronisms — not only is there a guillotine well before the time and place it was actually invented, but Hammid has an air pistol called “Gentle Mary” that fires a dagger and therefore can kill silently even though at the time this movie presumably takes place no one had any idea of how to compress air) and Gadrian is about to leave Karjan now that she’s been restored to the throne of Misurata when a whistle (a plot device carefully “planted” earlier with some awfully To Have and Have Not-ish dialogue) summons him back for a life as prince consort of Misurata (so this movie ends where The Love Parade begins).

Pirates of Tripoli is a cheap production (no fewer than nine composers, including Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Louis Gruenberg, are identified as contributing to the stock music cues from the Columbia library music director Mischa Bakaleinikoff — Charles jokes that the quality of a movie involving either Mischa Bakaleinikoff or his brother Constantine is inversely proportional to the fullness of their name in the credits — assembled to score this film), though at least this time they spent enough for Technicolor as opposed to the Cinécolor of The Magic Carpet and director Felix Feist (whose best-known credits are the 1936 MGM musical one-reeler with Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, Every Sunday, and the 1953 version of Donovan’s Brain) keeps it in constant motion and never allows the movie to become boring — a far cry from some of those leaden so-called “action” pieces we’ve seen caricatured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000!