Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Albert Zugsmith, the schlock-master who directed such classics as The Private Lives Of Adam And
Eve (1961) and College Confidential (1960), had more than one string to his bow. As
producer he was also responsible for such masterpieces as Sirk's Written On The Wind and
Touch Of Evil. Some of
the ambition of these directors showed must have rubbed off, for in Confessions Of An Opium
Eater (aka: Souls For Sale, or the more mundane Evils Of Chinatown), he pulled out
all the stops, producing a genuinely hallucinatory trash experience, deserving of major cult status.
Vincent Price plays Gilbert de Quincey, whose supposed celebrated ancestor wrote his original classic based on experiences in London in 1802. A hundred years later, and Gilbert finds himself in San Francisco's Chinatown, a strange place of deserted streets, white slave auctions and opium dens. Here a tong war is being fought out between oriental femme fatale Ruby Low's men (running the auctions on behalf of the mysterious Ling Tan) and the more progressive Chinese, whose leader George Wah has recently been murdered in a beach battle. Gilbert's arm conveniently displays the moon serpent tattoo, which suggests his sympathy with the slavers, but there's a sneaking suspicion that he's playing a double game.
As other reviewers have pointed out, this is a movie that has less in common with De Quincey's original classic (the title having been hijacked for marquee value) than with the mysteries of Fu Manchu. The flavour of the English author's meditative original is ditched in favour of a mad cinematic foray across roofs, through sliding doors, down lifts, along sewer ways, and into bamboo cages inhabited by midget women. Opened up for us like a series of fantastic boxes, this Chinatown is a secret place, the discovery and exposure of which takes most of the film. It's an exploitative locale in which the greatest pleasure for the viewer comes from investigating rooms and passages, than the dramatic curve of events. In recent years, Carpenter's Big Trouble In Little China (1986) has come closest to echoing the exotic experience of Zugsmith's inexplicably little known classic, but even in that, there's nothing like the same number of multiple settings and labyrinthine staging seen here. Jack Burton's exploration of the brothels of Chinatown, and his battle with Lo-Pan's super-powered henchmen, is more an amusing parody of type than the continually disorientated adventure Zugsmith's latter day De Quincey faces.
Clearly Zugsmith wanted his film to echo a drug experience, and its pell-mell action and surreal dislocations contain a heady confusion readily suggestive of a 'trip'. De Quincey's single experience of smoking opium in the den may be negative even if he smokes the pipe anyway. (He makes clear he doesn't like the drug - for reasons of censorship, one imagines.) But a script that rampages through the logic of 'reality' as well as the internal geography of buildings implies the vicarious pleasures of addiction.
A good deal of the dialogue consists of fortune cookie philosophy, confirming the stereotypical Hollywood view of Chinese wisdom. "Man's view of evil is like water boiling in box," says De Quincey sagely at one point. "Open a passage to the East and we flow east. Open one to the West and we flow to the west," or again: "There is no poison in a green snake's mouth as in a woman's heart." Such verbal meanderings have no real value in progressing plot, and suggest nothing about a character except moral shallowness. But when piled high, as here, they evoke the befuddlement of an addict, where the amplification of the obvious is commonly mistaken for profundity.
De Quincey's progress through one set after another has an urgent, kinetic nature, familiar these days to those who enjoy computer games. On each 'level' our hero has to solve the challenge of survival, and move on to the next to achieve his prize. Zugsmith's plethora of internal locations, breaking up screen space, would have no doubt interested von Sternberg who, in his own films, filled the frame with similar exotic distractions, most famously with Marlene Dietrich. Zugsmith's stock-in-trade is barer, less baroque, with none of that great director's sophistication, but he knows that a cluttered mise en scene can create continual visual interest. Confessions is a film alive with the shock of unexpected buildings and space, one where the eye hardly rests, before being persuaded on again after De Quincey.
There is also outstanding work from composer Albert Glasser. It is rare for an exploitation movie to rely heavily upon a commissioned musical score, let alone such a radical one. But here Glasser's spare, discordant, music lands a major part - whether playing interrupted over several minutes during the opening landing and fight scene, or merely underscoring the exotic and strange events. Having said that, the finest scene in the film is ironically without any music at all. The staging of De Quincey's drugged chase is quite without parallel, in B-movies or any other Hollywood production. An astonishing visual ballet acted out in slow motion and complete silence. Over minutes the drugged hero is chased out of the den, down passageways, up stairs, and out on the roof where he staggers drowsily in the daylight. Finally he drops and is shot on a balcony, where normal cinematic convention reasserts itself and the creaky plot moves on.
Other moments stand out in the memory too: the sudden and shocking glimpse of the drowned girl; the dead seagull dropping abruptly from the skies (badly done yes, but weird never the less); or De Quincey's most unromantic fate in the "widening waters of death - or the gates of Paradise?" Very little of this film in fact, is ordinary. It is an indication of the audacious treatment open to directors with none of the restrictions of 'good taste' or continuity values of more prestigious projects. For great performances and a more disturbing portrayal of a drug habit see something like The Man With The Golden Arm (1955). For a jaw dropping exercise in bargain basement cinema, one where all bets are off, Zugsmith's mad zenith in film is unmissable.