Esther and the King (1960)

Esther and the King (1960)‘Don’t you ever draw a blade in my council chamber, or I will kill you myself!’

King Ahasuerus of Persia returns home after a long but successful military campaign to reports of his queen’s adulteries and the political machinations of Prince Haman. Bound by law to chose a new consort, he picks the virtuous Esther, unaware that she is a jew…

Cinemascope epic that tells the Biblical story of Esther and her relationship with the King of Persia. The project was directed by legendary filmmaker Raoul Walsh and dates from a period generally known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. This was a short time when American studios exported stars and directors to make films in Italy where projects could be delivered with the expertise of local crews at a markedly cheaper cost than back home. It was a practice that came to a sudden end with notorious money pit ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) which lost a ton of money for 20th Century Fox, despite being one of the biggest box office draws of the year.

Here we find All-American beefcake Richard Egan struggling manfully to be a credible King of Persia opposite very English starlet Joan Collins in the role of the Biblical heroine. As the film begins, Egan is arriving home, ears full of stories of his queen, Vashti (Daniela Rocca) and her less than abstemious behaviour in his absence. One of her lovers has been ‘snake in the grass’ Prince Haman (Sergio Fantoni) who unsurprisingly has his own plans for the throne. Accompanying Egan is loyal lieutenant and brother in arms Simon the Judean (Rik Battaglia) who is stopping off at his local village first so he can marry childhood sweetheart Collins.

‘I do think you could have had a bath since we got back.’

By the time he reaches the palace, Egan is in a pretty foul mood and the usual endless entertainment of dancing girls and karaoke singers. When Rocca treats everyone to an inappropriately suggestive dance routine, Egan’s had enough. She’s on the outs, and his minions search the kingdom for a new queen. Unfortunately, this involves kidnapping unwilling nubiles (no Tinder back then) and Collins gets snatched on her wedding day. Not knowing she’s promised to his friend Battaglia, he picks her, of course. Although if a young Rosalba Neri hadn’t disqualified herself by snatching Collins’ cloak, I can’t help thinking he might have chosen differently.

From there it’s the usual court intrigues with Fantoni having a ball as the duplicitous Haman while Dennis O’Dea gets to act all wooden and noble as Egan’s Jewish adviser Mordechai. Plots and counter ploys result in a predictable finish with lots of extras driving chariots and waving the swords in the air. Still, it’s nice to see a big scene like that realised with hundreds of living and breathing extras, rather than soulless and unconvincing CGI.

Esther and the King (1960)

‘I am not, and never have been, a member of the People’s Popular Front of Judea.’

So right about now you may be wondering what this film is doing on this page. Two words: Mario Bava. Yes, with ‘The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday’ (1960) in the can but not released, it was back to the workaday world for the Master of Horror. Here, he’s credited as the cinematographer, but on the Italian release print, he gets the director nod. Now, this was part of the agreement that allowed Hollywood to film on the cheap in Italy: local talent had to get prominent credit in their own country. So these days films made under these arrangements get credited to both directors.

How much work Bava did on the film is, of course, hard to know after so much time has passed. He was the director of photography, of course, and no doubt helped to provide liaison between Walsh and the Italian-speaking crew. But did he do any actual directing? Well, he was experienced at handling large scale battle scenes, so he was no doubt involved there, and there is a repeated shot of slaves turning a wheel to open the castle gates which has a touch of his painterly style and colour palette. Any more than that, it’s hard to say.

Actress Hedy Lemarr had initially optioned the screen rights to the story as a possible star vehicle, but this had not worked out. A writer’s strike in Hollywood meant the project was eventually rushed into production and Walsh had to co-write the screenplay (with Michael Elkins), a job he hadn’t tackled since 1936! Not surprisingly, there’s the usual overblown dialogue that makes it sound as if everyone is speaking in capital letters and a lot of faintly pompous speechifying.

Esther and the King (1960)

‘There, there; don’t worry about it. Not everyone can be as handsome as me.’

If Collins seems like a strange choice for Esther, she often played such roles early in her career. It was almost twenty years before she would have sex in a glass elevator with Oliver Tobias in ‘The Stud’ (1978), follow that with ‘The Bitch’ (1979) and then achieve global superstardom as Queen Bee Alexis on TV soap juggernaut ‘Dynasty.’ She does fine as the heroine here, and if her delivery seems a little too mannered at times, it was perfectly in keeping with the acting style of the era.

This is a fairly typical Biblical epic of its day; straight-jacketed by the need to play it straight with its source material, but entertaining to its target audience.

Santo En El Hotel De La Muerte/Santo In The Hotel of Death (1963)

Santo En El Hotel De La Muerte/Santo In The Hotel of Death (1963)‘These modern rhythms are horrible. How disgusting.’

Murder strikes a party of tourists staying in a hotel near ancient Mexican pyramids. The establishment’s owner is a friend of the local chief of police, and he despatches his two best detectives to investigate the mystery…

The sixth film in the long series featuring silver-masked wrestler El Santo. This one finds him playing detective again in a plot that features disappearing corpses, blackmail, looted artefacts and strange deposits of clay left at crime scenes. But the audience could easily be forgiven for thinking they are watching a different film entirely; our grappling hero doesn’t even get a namecheck until half an hour has gone by, let alone an appearance or any dialogue!

Heading up the action until then is uptight policeman Fernando (Fernando Casanova) who is on the case with comedy relief sidekick Conrado (Roberto Ramirez Garza). Their investigations are hampered by the presence of nosy reporter Ana Bertha Lepe who also happens to be Casanova’s girlfriend. The other guests dismiss an early report of a dead Columbian tourist in the river as the witnesses are a newlywed couple. Apparently being just married means that you are prone to hallucinate corpses floating by.

Santo En El Hotel De La Muerte/Santo In The Hotel of Death (1963)

‘That’s two large garlic breads, por favor.’

However, the girl in question has disappeared, so handsome Casanova and not-so handsome Garza get assigned on the off chance of some crimebusting action. There’s no shortage of suspicious characters (and potential victims) hanging about either. For a start, there’s shady businessman Armando (Luis Aragón) and his three lovely stepdaughters.

Also loitering with intent are a beatnik writer (Alejandro Parodi), and a retired academic (Alfredo Wally Barrón) who gives daily tours of the nearby ruins. The hotel’s happening jazz combo has a blonde singer who plays the drums and should be arrested for crimes against music if nothing else, even though her performance is met with rapturous applause. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

So far, so good, but no sign of El Santo. Eventually, Lepe calls him on her boyfriend’s wristwatch after finding her beau unconscious after an attack by the killer. The bodies are piling up, and, even after being called, it seems like it takes forever for El Santo to show. Eventually, he arrives with barely half an hour of the movie remaining! It’s It is interesting to speculate whether he had a very limited timetable to make an appearance here, or whether the studio simply had little faith in his acting ability.

Santo En El Hotel De La Muerte/Santo In The Hotel of Death (1963)

Blow that horn, Daddio!’

The film was directed by Federico Curiel who was also involved with the script along with Fernando Oses. As a veteran of the square ring himself, Oses played masked wrestler Icongnito in El Santo’s first-ever film ‘Santo vs. the Evil Brain/Santo Contra Cerebro del Mal’ (1961). He also takes a small role here, but an injury had forced him to retire from the sport, so his usual place was behind the typewriter.

The solution to the mystery doesn’t really hold up under even idle scrutiny, and the villain’s actions make about as much sense as the rest of the plot. But the biggest disappointment arrives with a scene where Casanova goes snooping around the pyramids as part of his investigations. I kept waiting for the Aztec Mummy to appear and he never did. Boo!

Tolerable mystery flick if you keep your expectations pretty low.

N. P. Il Segreto (1971)

N. P. Il Segreto (1971)‘Now we’ll experiment by putting in some trash, but we could comfortably use human or animal excrement.’

An engineer has perfected a device that will automate all industries and eliminate the need for a human workforce. He is kidnapped, brainwashed and set free to wander the streets with no memories or identity…

Curious science-fiction piece from Italian writer-director Silvano Agosti that tells a story of seismic societal change. Unfortunately, it’s delivered in such a wilfully obscure and oblique manner as to leave any potential audience indifferent and frustrated.

Engineer N.P. (Francisco Rabal) heads up GIAR, the ‘Industrial Group of Reunited Enterprises’ and he declares an end to the world of work. His new machines will completely eliminate the need for manual labour. The workers will be freed from their toils and given a share of the incalculable profits that his new innovations will bring. His announcement means a round of TV interviews and meetings with very important people, including leaders of the priesthood. Unfortunately for Rabal, these prove to be thugs in disguise who kidnap and brainwash him, erasing all his memories.

N. P. Il Segreto (1971)

‘Putting a political agenda ahead of entertainment in a film? Don’t be ridiculous.’

Now it might reasonably be assumed that these villains are representatives of the captains of industry, who are desperate to retain the status quo. And that might be so, but we never find out. The film is not big on specifics. In another odd development, he’s left on his own and freed by a man in a raincoat. After some sleeping rough and dumpster diving, he is then recaptured (by the same people?) and forced to sign over all his work to them (apparently he can still remember his signature!)

While incarcerated, Rabal is declared a fatality in the plane crash that kills his children and their nanny. His wife Ingrid Thulin (‘Wild Strawberries’ (1957) and several other films by Ingmar Bergman) attends his funeral, which is the kind of big-budgeted affair generally reserved for heads of state. After that, his captors let the speechless Rabal go, and eventually, he gets taken in by Irene Papas (‘The Guns of Navarone’ (1960)) and her family in the poor part of town. His original reforms are pushed through, and they are all relocated to specially constructed housing zones where no-one has to work, and everyone lives on government handouts.

Ok, where to begin? The film is not big on dialogue and, although a lack of exposition can sometimes be refreshing, some information is required to keep an audience on board. For a start, how is Rabal’s perfect new society supposed to work on an economic level? All we see of his ‘machines’ and ‘process’ is some guff about recycling, and the only evidence we see of societal change is that Papas’ family move to a nicer neighbourhood and have nicer things. There are some scenes of mass street protests, but the point of these is never really explained, although Agosti probably should get credit for some fine guerilla filmmaking here. Sure, a few figures in the foreground of certain shots are holding up banners with messages relevant to the film but, given the massive scale of the crowds involved, these are highly likely to have been real political marches with a few members of the director’s crew photobombing the frame.

N. P. Il Segreto (1971)

‘You think so? Gregory Peck could kick your ass.’

There are also so much more basic storytelling issues. Rabal is supposed to be dead, so why would his captors release him back into the world? Why not just kill him for real? Ok, he doesn’t remember who he is, but isn’t someone going to recognise a world-famous man who has appeared regularly on TV and had a funeral attended by hundreds? Apparently not. Also, why do all that to him in the first place? His reforms come to pass anyway.

And now we come to the ending. This is a potential spoiler (and I say ‘potential’ because the climax is deliberately ambiguous), but if you don’t want my interpretation of what the ending may mean then best stop reading now.

The brief demonstration of Rabal’s process in the early part of the film focuses on a ‘Butterfiy’ device. This seems to be a method where organic material can be extracted from any kind of garbage and turned into food. It’s recycling to the ultimate; hell, one boffin even remarks that human and animal excrement can be used. So, taking ‘Soylent Green’ (1973) to another level, then? Soylent Brown, perhaps? If you’re at all familiar with the 1973 big-budget Hollywood movie starring Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson, then you’ll know where I’m going with this.

Having said that, it’s just a possible interpretation of the final scenes, and I can find no evidence that there was any litigation filed by the makers of this film with MGM over their far more famous production. Yes, that film was based on a novel (the superb ‘Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison) but the twist ending was not in the source material. In fact, by all accounts, Harrison hated it.

This is an odd film. Events proceed in a very standard linear fashion, and it is always clear what is happening on screen, it just doesn’t make logical sense in the context of the wider story.

There are some interesting themes here, but there’s never any real opportunity to engage with the film.

The Lost Volcano (1950)

The Lost Volcano (1950)‘You don’t suppose there is really a person called Bomba, do you, dear?’

After secretly befriending the young son of a wild animal trapper and his wife, Bomba, the Jungle Boy shows the lad the way to a lost city. An archaeology professor arrives on a scientific mission looking for the same metropolis, but the two guides with him form their own plans when they discover the ruins may contain a fabulous treasure…

The third African adventure from Monogram Studios featuring Johnny Sheffield and written and directed by series regular Ford Beebe. Sheffield had been let go by MGM after almost a decade playing ‘Boy’ to Johnny Weismuller’s ‘Tarzan’ because he was getting too old for the part. Executives at the more budgetary minded studio had no problem with his advancing age (he was still only 18 when the series began!), and starred him in a series of 12 pictures, concluding in 1955.

Here, we find Sheffield frustrating the plans of great white hunter Paul Gordon (Donald Woods), who is heading back to wife Ruth (Marjorie Lord), and young son David (Tommy lvo) with cages full of lions. Sheffield relieves him of his prizes, of course, assisted by a bird who knows enough about firearms to realise Bomba is about to be shot and knocks a rifle to one side! Woods is surprisingly cool about his loss, getting angrier about the fact that lvo insists him he hangs out with a Jungle Boy, who obviously can’t be real. Pretty servant Nona (Elena Verdugo) stands up for him, though, and actually seems to care more about him than his own parents.

The Lost Volcano (1950)

‘Stop it or I’ll get my Dad!’

Enter Dr Charles Langley (Grandon Rhodes), an archaeologist looking for this lost city ‘in the shadow of a volcano’ that’s so famous apparently it doesn’t even have a name. He’s accompanied by Barton (John Ridgely) and Higgins (Don C Harvey), two shifty types, who soon get interested when they find a dagger encrusted with jewels that Sheffield has repatriated from the ruins (apparently grave-robbing being added to the crime of teaching a young boy how to swing through trees in a loincloth).

Such plot as there is quickly resolves itself into a lengthy chase sequence after the bad guys kidnap Verdugo and the young lvo. They’re relying on the boy to help out on their treasure hunt, but she’s not putting up with any such nonsense. Her attempt to turn the tables is initially successful, but she’s soon on the run through the jungle with lvo still in the villains’ clutches.

The Lost Volcano (1950)

‘Finish up your dinner and I’ll let you go and play with the lions.’

Luckily, Sheffield is not far behind and sends her back to camp to collect Woods, Lord and Rhodes to form a ragtag rescue party. After that, we get the usual series of captures, escapes and re-captures with one of the crooks getting almost throttled by a python, apparently at Sheffield’s telepathic command! The climax takes place on the slopes of the ‘lost’ volcano, the movie’s title justified by the fact that this previously unknown geographical marvel sits beside a much bigger volcano that everyone does know about. I think.

Anyway, it’s about time we had a word about movie volcanoes. Why must they always erupt? And always in the final act? Why does their lava flow only in the immediate vicinity of the heroes and villains? And why doesn’t there seem to be any damage afterwards? Unless it’s on an island, of course, then the whole landmass has to sink beneath the waves. Oh, well. Volcanoes do what volcanoes do, I suppose. Elsewhere, it’s always good to see the Los Angeles Botanical Gardens and Arboretum making its usual reliable (if botanically inaccurate) appearance as the African continent.

The Lost Volcano (1950)

‘Do what I say or I’ll play you like a xylophone!’

Verdugo was often the liveliest presence in the low-budget films in which she appeared, but will always live on in the hearts of lovers of Universal Horror Classics after firing a silver bullet into the hairy chest of the ‘one she loves’: Lon Chaney Jr in ‘House of Frankenstein’ (1944). A natural blonde, she was often stuck in a black wig to play various ethnicities in minor programmers, but did find belated fame on TV as Robert Young’s nurse on big hit ‘Marcus Welby, M.D.’ She played the role for seven years and was nominated once for a Golden Globe and twice for an Emmy.

Sadly, there’s nothing remotely award worthy about this picture. It’s one of the dullest in the series.

The Possessed/La Donna del Lago (1965)

The Possessed (1965)‘Would you like me to get Elsa to bring you a thermometer?’

A young writer returns to a country hotel, looking for the maid who he became obsessed with the year before. But when he arrives, he finds that she is dead, an apparent suicide. Not convinced that she would kill herself, he determines to find out exactly what happened…

Unusual early Giallo film from writer-directors Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini, with help on script duties from Giulio Questi (‘Death Laid An Egg’ (1968)). Although ostensively a fairly standard murder-mystery, the filmmakers deliver an intriguing puzzle piece, with an unconventional narrative that beguiles and wrong foots the audience on a regular basis.

Bernard (Peter Baldwin) returns to the coast where he spent some time the previous year at a quiet hotel run by middle-aged Enrico (Salvo Randone) and his daughter, Irma (Valentina Cortese). He’s supposed to be there to write, but he’s really looking to reacquaint himself with pretty blonde maid Tilde (Virna Lisi). Unfortunately, he discovers that she’s dead. According to Randone, she committed suicide but he hears elsewhere that she was found with her throat cut down on the beach and the police never found the culprit.

The Possessed (1965)

🎵The Sun Has Got His Hat On! Hip, hip, hooray!🎶

Baldwin determines to investigate and contacts old acquaintance and local photographer Pier Giovanni Anchisi. Despite ribbing Baldwin about his first novel (‘you’ve got too much imagination’), the two join forces, Anchisi suggesting that Lisi and Randone were lovers and that she was pregnant at the time that she died. Another suspect is Randone’s newlywed son, Marco (Philippe Leroy) who has returned from the city with sickly bride Adriana (Pia Lindstrom). She’s confined to her room during the day but wanders the beach at night and seems desperate to talk to Baldwin…

There is little remarkable about the story set up; the key here is how it’s delivered to the audience. The focal point is Baldwin, who gives a strange, detached performance. His character is very passive for a leading man, just an observer who watches events through rain-streaked windows and cracks in door panels. Although he never seems to become directly involved, the story is told from his point of view. However, it doesn’t take long to realise that we can’t really be sure what we’re seeing on the screen. Are these Baldwin’s memories (repressed or otherwise), his dreams, his conscious fantasies or actually the reality of what’s happening around him? Is it a mixture of some of these things, or maybe all of them? The ambiguity is only emphasised by a complete absence of transitions between scenes, the filmmakers seemingly determined to provide no clues.

The Possessed (1965)

‘Louis, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’

Our main character’s behaviour is also slightly odd. Rather than ask after Lisi when he arrives at the hotel, he just waits ages for her to appear. He mentions that he glimpsed her naked with a lover the year before, but didn’t see her partner. Later on, however, he clearly ‘remembers’ that it was Randone. There’s also a striking sequence where he stares from his window at an outbuilding where Leroy is cutting up an animal carcass with a cleaver. Significant events always happen offscreen, heightening his isolation and ‘outsider’ status.

Although only appearing briefly, like Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ Lisi hangs over the story like an unquiet ghost, present in photographs, almost every conversation and forever in Baldwin’s thoughts. Their previous relationship is never clearly established and it remains just one of the lingering question marks after the credits have rolled. The climax seems somewhat weak at first glance with the killer revealed and all the loose ends perfunctorily tied, but is there more to it than that? The film’s final dialogue scene may just suggest otherwise. It certainly provides food for thought anyway.

Bazzoni and Rossellini conjure a fine, off-kilter atmosphere with excellent use of light and shadow and the stunning black and white photography of Leonida Barboni. Naked trees shiver in the whistling wind as the waves rush on to the desolate lake shore. Birds scream. A cemetery with strange wooden crosses lies drowned in snow. You can almost feel the cold sinking into your bones.

The Possessed (1965)

Lindstrom was too tall for the remake of ‘Don’t Look Now’.

This was pretty much Rossellini’s only writing and directing gig with his other work in the industry almost exclusively as a producer. So it’s likely that most of the credit for this film belongs to Bazzoni, especially as he conjured a similarly weird yet beautiful atmosphere with ‘Footprints On The Moon’ (1975), a film that has cult classic stamped all over it until its dreadful ending. His only other major work were spaghetti westerns ‘Man, Pride and Vengeance’ (1967) and ‘Brothers Blue’ (1973) and well-regarded Giallo ‘The Fifth Cord’ (1971).

Certainly not for everyone, but I found this to be a smart, intriguing exercise in mystery and misdirection. Recommended.

YouTube Post: Rondo Hatton & Claude Rains

I’m on YouTube again – this time discussing what I’ve been reading in January 2020.

For you cult cinema fans, I discuss these books that may interest you at the following points in the video:

18:20 Rondo Hatton: Beauty Within the Brute by Scott Gallinghouse, Tom Weaver, etc.

10:44 Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice by David J Skaal with Jessica Rains.

At 2:00 I discuss ‘Castle of the Carpathians’ by Jules Verne, which was filmed as ‘The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians’ (1981) which I blogged about on here recently.

Please feel free to ‘like, share and subscribe’ if you enjoy it!

Operation Apocalypse/Missione Apocalisse (1966)

Operation Apocalypse:Missione Apocalisse (1966)‘Radar section, call agent 087 via satellite, gamma 14 frequency.’

An-ex secret agent working in Hong Kong is reactivated to take on a highly secret mission. A mysterious criminal organisation has perfected a missile that can’t be intercepted and have threatened to launch it at a major city unless their demands are met. Nothing is known about them and time is running out…

Tame and anonymous Spanish-Italian Eurospy antics from writer/director Guido Malatesta, billed here as James Reed. This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is American actor Arthur Hansel, running all over the world courtesy of old library stock footage and tangling with the usual tepid mixture of guns, girls and gadgets. As per usual in low-budget projects like this, there’s far more of the first two elements than the last, although Hansel does get a wristwatch that contains radar, a deadly ski-pole and cufflinks that secrete acid (convenient when you’re strapped to a missile!)

Ex-covert operative Larry Fitzgerald (Hansel) is working as a translator in Hong Kong when old boss Chief-Z (George Rigaud) gives him a new mission. Atomic scientists have been going missing (as atomic scientists often do) and a mysterious organisation is blackmailing world governments with a brand-new missile. One of the missing boffins is the brains behind the new weapon, working on the instructions of seemingly harmless international playboy Mr Axel (Eduardo Fajardo). Hansel gets on to him pretty quickly through a clue which is just lying around but has somehow eluded everyone else, and eventually teams up with the bad guy’s Girl Friday, Dorine (Pamela Tudor) to take him down.

Operation Apocalypse:Missione Apocalisse (1966)

The Stills Photographer had taken the day off…

This is one of the most faithful copies of the Bond template. Hansel does so much womanising it’s hard to believe that he has the energy for anything else, and he even drinks martinis! He’s handy hand to hand combat too, easily dealing with Fajaro’s minions who favour the time-honoured tradition of attacking him one at a time. One fight scene is speeded up so much that it actually looks as if the film has gone wrong!

Sadly, there’s little else of interest in the final film. Dull incident follows dull incident with little to stick in the memory a few minutes later. There are a couple of moments worth noting, however, if perhaps not for the right reasons. Hansel’s stopover in Hawaii is brilliantly conveyed by having the actor and a female member of the cast sit on some sand in front of a rear projection showing stock footage of a beach. A professional bad guy who tosses our hero’s hotel room manages to miss a false bottom that conceals a two-way radio (with aerials) which is as big as the suitcase it’s hidden inside. Also when he gets captured later on, the bad guys fail to notice the bomb he has hidden in a cigarette packet! Like many a supervillain has learnt to his cost: you just can’t get the staff.

Operation Apocalypse:Missione Apocalisse (1966)Writer-director Malatesta also delivered some peplum films that featured the character of legendary strongman Maciste that were not even prominent enough to be released in America under the ‘Hercules’ banner. Another project was ‘Poppea’s Hot Nights’ (1969), starring husband and wife team Brad Harris and Olga Schoberová. She was better known as Olinka Berova and she was great in Czech science-fiction comedy ‘Who Wants to Kill Jessie?’ (1966) but not so good in the title role of Hammer’s dreary ‘The Vengeance of She’ (1967).

This was Hansel’s first starring role after a bit in ‘Cast A Giant Shadow’ (1966) with Kirk Douglas, and he later played the hero in Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s striking ‘Dr Tarr’s Torture Dungeon’ (1973) and appeared in ‘Mary Mary Bloody Mary’ (1975) which featured John Carradine. Tudor was promoted from one of the supporting arm-candy roles in previous Eurospy bore ‘Man On The Spying Trapeze’ (1966). Two such credits proved an impossible hurdle to overcome and she stepped out of the limelight in 1971, although she later did an uncredited bit in Bud Spencer action comedy a few years later.

Not quite the bottom of the Eurospy barrel, but pretty close.