The works of Japanese Mystery author Edogawa Rampo (in private life, Taro Irai) have been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions, with his 1934 novel Black Lizard -- one of many chronicling the adventures of his master detective character Kogoro Akechi -- getting the film treatment twice within a period of just several years. Though difficult to track down despite the fact, the best known of these is probably Kinji Fukasaku’s 1968 version for Shochiku, a riot of camp psychedelia that featured a female impersonator as its titular femme fatale and a cameo by controversial author Yukio Mishima -- who wrote a stage adaptation of the novel -- as a human statue.
But there was another, earlier version of the story filmed for Daiei in 1962, in this case by director Umetsugu Inoue. Now, my only familiarity with Inoue is through the work he did for Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio in the late 60s and early 70s, but that alone has made me a huge fan. And now that I’ve seen his Black Lizard -- just one of many films helmed by him during a period in which he worked for almost every major studio in Japan -- I’m happy to say that the flamboyant aesthetic on view in his Chinese language movies was every bit as much in evidence before his defection.
In fact, while Fukasaku’s take on Black Lizard is furiously modish and very much of its time, it’s Inoue’s version that seems the most ahead of its time and, if possible, the most irreverent. For one thing, he stages the whole thing as a musical of sorts, with random dance numbers and songs popping up just infrequently enough to jar our expectations. The female master criminal at the center of the story is this time around played by Rashomon’s Machiko Kyo, a star whose dance background well suits her for those occasions on which her character is required to break into spontaneous soft shoe routines, as do her black garbed minions.
On the trail of the Lizard is, of course, the crack private investigator Kogoro Akechi (Minoru Oki), here portrayed as something of a smug egomaniac who constantly refers to himself as “the best detective in Japan”. Akechi has been hired by the jeweler Iwase to protect his daughter Sanae (Black Test Car's Junko Kano), who has been threatened with kidnapping by the Black Lizard and her gang as part of a plan to get hold of the Egyptian Star, a priceless diamond. (Perversely, Iwase seems eager to see Akechi fail at his mission, despite what’s at stake, perhaps due to the detective’s tireless flaunting of his “perfect” record.) However, unknown to the men, the Lizard, a mistress of disguise, has already infiltrated Iwase’s inner circle and manages to snatch Sanae from under their noses with ease, setting in motion a game of wits between her and the determined Akechi.
Kyo’s Black Lizard evinces an obsession with youth and beauty and, though on the opposite side of the law, Akechi compatibly proves himself to be much more of an aesthete than a moralist. Indeed, the sleuth finds himself increasingly beguiled with the Lizard as her criminal genius is revealed. (In an opening monologue, Akechi opines that a crime can sometimes be “visionary and noble” and that such crimes, unlike brutal everyday street crime, can make the world “a better place”.) The Lizard, for her part, finds herself responding in kind, if with chagrin, out of a feeling that she has finally met her intellectual match. This blossoming love between these two self obsessed decadents is cheekily documented by Inoue in a feverishly red lit, split screen soliloquy that he stages like a romantic duet.
Relying heavily on Dutch angles, anti-realist lighting techniques, and Sunday funnies color schemes, Inoue gives Black Lizard a pop art look that would be right at home in the camp obsessed world of 1966, but which seems tremendously forward looking in 1962. He also shows a tendency toward Meta staging, such as in the numerous instances of characters breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. And this is without even mentioning the scattered bits of musical business, which seem intended more to mine the narrative for absurdity than to enhance it; Pivotal moments go unsung, while a trio of burly bodyguards, onscreen for just one scene, see fit to introduce themselves with a hilariously tossed-off sounding song.
As Black Lizard progresses, the cat-and-mouse game between Akechi and the Lizard increasingly becomes an elaborate flirtation, with each trying to showily outdo the other in terms of mimicry and cunning. This eventually leads to a climax -- set in a cavernous underground lair decorated with human taxidermy -- that’s a farcical riot of doubles and switched identities, making a mockery of any attempt on the part of the audience to keep track of who’s who. Of course, by this point, Inoue is likely banking on the probability that that audience won’t even care, which I think is a good bet. Like Inoue’s great Hong Kong musicals, Black Lizard is a stylish delight. If that comes at the expense of its nominal function as a mystery thriller, I think most viewers will forgive that as a crime both visionary and noble.
(Umetsugu Inoue's Black Lizard is currently available on Hulu. The Fukasaku version can be found on YouTube.People, this truly is a golden age.)
My review of The Mummies of Guanajuato over at Teleport City was the most long winded I've ever written. The most absurd thing I could do would be to append it with a sequel. And so we come to my latest Teleport City review: of Mystery in Bermuda, the second film to feature all three of lucha cinema's biggest stars -- Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras. It would also be (ominous music) THE LAST! Check it out, won't you?
I like Eurospy films, and I cannot lie. But I can’t claim to have seen every one of them. There are a lot of them, after all, and they are of wildly varying quality. This makes the genre a bit daunting for newcomers, albeit alluring. And since I have, on occasion, had people ask me for guidance on the topic, I thought I’d lazily tick off several of my favorites among the many I’ve sampled. List article ahoy!
Please note, before continuing, that I am a bit finicky as far as what comprises a proper Eurospy, which is why you won’t find the British Bulldog Drummond entry Deadlier Than The Male on this list. A lot of people consider that to be one of the best of the genre, and, indeed, it’s a really fun and entertaining movie (with an awesome theme song by the Walker Brothers, to boot). But for my rigidly pedantic brain to consider a movie a “true” Eurospy film, it has to have been made on the continent and dubbed into English from the original Spanish, Italian, French and/or German. After all, it is only such distinctions that stand between a sensible discussion of a debased and overwhelmingly ignored cult genre and unbridled anarchy.
Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966). Dir. by Alberto De Martino and Sergio Greico. With its relatively high production values, colorful set pieces, and nifty gadgets, Special Mission Lady Chaplin -- one of a series of films featuring CIA operative Dick Malloy, aka “Agent 077” -- is one of the most truly Bondian of all the Bond knockoffs. Granted, hulking American star Ken Clark is a bit too galumphy for my tastes to be credible as a suave superspy, but that shouldn’t pose too much of a problem when there are so many other things to look at. Chief among those is From Russia With Love’s Daniela Bianchi as the titular femme fatale, who in one memorable scene sports a parachute dress that really lives up to its name. Definitely a fashion “do” for any girl for whom being thrown out of an airborne plane is a real possibility.
Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill (1966). Dir. by Gianfranco Parolini. Fast, fun and willfully ridiculous, the Kommissar X films -- based upon a popular and voluminous series of German pulp novels -- are for me the be all and end all of the Eurospy genre. This inaugural entry comes out of the gate with guns blazing, giving us everything we could want from a cheap but spirited 1960s spy film: fembots, costumed supervillains, cavernous underground lairs, poorly grounded control panels covered with blinking lights, and, naturally, plenty of radiation-suit-wearing minions to be indiscriminately picked off by our heroes. On top of that, we have the amusing interplay between those heroes, Brad Harris’s stiff necked Captain Tom Rowland and Tony Kendall’s mind bogglingly smarmy P.I. Joe Walker. And in case you miss the subtle point being driven home about Walker’s sexual irresistibility, there’s a lusty theme song to help you out: “I love you, Joe Walker! Just like every woman loves yoooou…”
Agent 3S3: Passport to Hell (1965). Dir. by Sergio Sollima. Sollima’s take on the spy genre is predictably hardboiled, and star George Ardisson, one of the most credibly two fisted of all the off-brand Bonds, proves himself well suited to the task. On top of being a bit more gritty than the era’s typical spy spoofs, Passport also boasts a somewhat more complex plot, with the internecine battles within an international criminal organization throwing an unexpected monkey wrench into our hero’s efforts to topple them. This, of course, does not mean that there’s no room within Passport for colorful flourishes and fun gizmos, as with Seyna Seyn’s poison needle firing compact (which was subsequently lifted by Shaw Brothers as Lily Ho’s weapon of choice in The Lady Professional). Another highlight is a bar fight that plays out as a Kinks song plays on the jukebox, happily orienting us within the movie’s Swinging Sixties milieu.
Death Trip (1967). Dir. by Rudolf Zehetgruber. This fourth entry in the Kommissar X series, my personal favorite, shows the clear benefits of people settling comfortably into their roles. This is especially true of stars Brad Harris and Tony Kendall, who here enjoy a more relaxed and less antagonistic rapport, while still maintaining the comedic spark seen in the earlier films. In addition to making nice use of its Turkish locales and featuring a scene in which Joe Walker accidentally takes LSD and turns into a normal person, this one also stands out for featuring some of Harris’s best stunt work. This includes a set-demolishing throw-down with strongman Samson Burke, as well as a wild climactic chase that sees Harris careening down a series of steep sand dunes with nothing but the seat of his pants to protect him. All the while, the burly stuntman-turned-actor looks like he’s having the absolute time of his life. [Read my review at Teleport City.]
Operation White Shark (1966). Dir. by Filippo Walter Ratti. Now, please note that I above described this as a list of favorite Eurospy films, and, by implication, not necessarily the best ones. After all, these films were never intended as works of art, but were instead, above all else, low budget cash-ins on the James Bond franchise. Some were more lavish than others, of course, but on occasion a film like Operation White Shark would come along to demonstrate just how far they could go in the other direction. OWS, however, also serves to demonstrate the solidity of the genre’s tropes, all of which it merely feints toward while nonetheless managing to be an entertaining entry in its own right. Many of the film’s charms are admittedly lame duck ones, but they are charms notwithstanding. I mean, who can resist one of the most bizarrely staged, non-Jess Franco directed nightclub numbers in cinema history, or a thrilling action set piece that exists only as a verbal description after the fact, or sets that could conceivably have been built in a corner of the producer’s wine cellar? Who knows, maybe even Rods Dana’s prickish take on super agent Marc Andrews will grow on you with exposure. In any case, I’d recommend giving it a shot. [Read my review at Teleport City.]
NOTE: if you’d like to delve further into the Eurospy genre, I suggest you avail yourself of my erudite fellow MOSS agent David’s spytastic blog Permission to Kill.
Hey, Starman. Is that a supernova in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me? That's right, gang, this latest episode of the Brains is positively engorged with scintillating info about everyone's favorite proto-tokusatsu hero, Starman (or Super Giant, if you're nasty). Thrill as Tars Tarkas and myself puzzle through all four of the Japanese Man of Steel's questionably dubbed and edited English language releases, pausing only to make the occasional dick joke. Because we're ten! As usual, we have a plethora of two options for you: either download the episode here or listen while basking in the sumptuous images provided by the slideshow below: