Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Million Eyes of Sumuru (Shaw Brothers, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation from its early days as a local program in Minneapolis: the ridiculously titled movie The Million Eyes of Sumuru, a 1967 production ostensibly based on stories by Sax Rohmer — the guy who created Fu Manchu and seemed in this instance to be following that up with a female version of the same character, though in this movie Sumuru is played by Shirley Eaton and not depicted as Asian at all even though most of the story is set in China. The film is one of those stories that makes absolutely no sense — it seems to have something to do with Sumuru’s desire to have her minions become the mistresses and, sometimes, wives of prominent men in political and corporate power as part of a long-term plan to destroy the male half of the human race, which she hates with a venom that sounds a good deal like a lot of the Lesbian feminism I remember from the late 1970’s — though she doesn’t allow her “slaves” (that’s how they’re referred to in the cast list) to have pleasure sex with each other any more than she does with men (when one of the “slaves” does get involved with a man, the penalty is instant execution), and frankly if they’d been able to get it on with each other this movie might have been considerably more fun than it is.

As it is, the two “heroes” — quotes definitely intended — are secret agents Tommy Carter (Frankie Avalon) and Nick West (George Nader), who are whirled out of China to Italy (where West is framed for the murder of a woman he’s never seen before but whose corpse is dumped in his hotel room by Sumuru’s minions as a way of getting him to participate in one of his diabolical “experiments”) and then back to Hong Kong, where the bulk of this movie was filmed at the Shaw Brothers’ studio. (The lead Shaw brother, Run Run Shaw, later became famous when his name turned up as the producer of Bruce Lee’s major films — and his name got even sillier when the British government, which then still ruled Hong Kong, knighted him and he became Sir Run Run Shaw.) The writers, Kevin Kavanagh and “Peter Welbeck” (the latter a pseudonym for producer Harry Alan Towers), seem to have been aiming for a James Bond spoof of sorts — and I’ll say one thing for this movie: George Nader is genuinely hot, flashing a nice basket in one scene (in fact there’s one sequence in which he and Frankie Avalon look like they’re about to go have sex with each other — at least it follows the conventions of “setup” scenes in Gay porn — though what actually happens thereafter is considerably less interesting), though he’s less interesting as an actor than as a body and he’s saddled with a lot of lame wisecracks that are considerably less funny than Kavanagh and Towers clearly thought they were.

There are at least two actors with major reputations in this film, both trying to do their best to maintain some sense of dignity; one is Wilfred Hyde-White, who seems to be the immediate supervisor of Carter and West in whatever sorts of secret-agentry these guys are doing; and the other is Klaus Kinski (Frankie Avalon and Werner Herzog: one degree of separation!), who’s playing “President Boong” (the writers never quite get around to explaining what he’s president of) and whom Carter and West are supposed to be keeping alive while Sumuru and his minions are trying to kill him (again, we’re not told why, though in a movie this cheap and stupid we probably wouldn’t believe the explanation even if the writers had bothered to come up with one). Klaus Kinski actually gets killed, but then it turns out that he was really only posing as Boong at the behest of Boong’s secret service and the real Boong is still alive — at least I think that’s what happened; this movie is so sleep-inducing I was having trouble keeping awake through much of it and, thanks to the suspense genius of director Lindsay Shonteff, the big final shoot-out is even more boring than the rest of the film.

Kinski offers a certain degree of kinky appeal in a role that could have been even kinkier — director Shonteff recalled in a 1994 interview that Kinski wanted his character to be seen emerging from a pile of cushions every time he made an appearance and he wanted to be equipped with a giant prop tongue that would lick the face of a girl whenever he talked to one. Alas (unlike Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard, who accepted Erich von Stroheim’s suggestion that his character write fake fan letters to Gloria Swanson’s character to bolster her illusion that she was still famous), almost none of Kinski’s ideas were accepted — though I can see Harry Alan Towers blanching at the probable cost of constructing and operating that fake tongue. Another nice bit is one scene in which Frankie Avalon actually makes an on-screen joke about not being allowed to sing in this film (which provoked a response from the MST3K crew to the effect that it was their job, not that of the people actually in it, to make fun of the film!).

It’s hard to imagine just who might have found The Million Eyes of Sumuru entertaining — maybe a bunch of straight guys who had just spent 20 years in a monastery and wanted to be reminded of what women looked like — but as it stands it’s a bore and isn’t helped by the fact that the extant print is faded and the color has leached down to a dirty brown and tan. The MST3K people even incorporated that into their mockery, which otherwise was amusing but nothing special — their own writing got a lot better as the show progressed — and this was still in the show’s local Minneapolis days, with the robots looking like they’d been made out of an Erector set (they probably had been!) and the charming inserts giving the original time and temperature — which by the time this show aired was 65°. In some of the earlier ones it was 32° — an odd sight for me who, as a lifelong Californian, has never lived in a place that ever got that cold!