Here at long last is the promised new episode of Steve Mayhem's Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics. This episode is hosted by some joker named Todd Stadtman and concerns an old favorite of mine, Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales (the inspiration for the name of a certain podcast that is also due to make a comeback in the coming weeks). Stay tuned for the end credits to hear a brief preview of the all new Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics theme song, which was written and performed by yours truly with my old pal Dan Wool.
Zakhmee proves a good example of how Bollywood’s strict moral code clangored against its mandate to provide its audience with thrills and glamor. The film’s protagonists, two sanctimonious paragons of virtue played by Sunil Dutt and Asha Parekh, are boring. To compensate, director Raja Thakur and all involved take pains to show us just how much fun those on the other side of the moral divide are having. And, hey, given that the formula damns all of them to meet with their richly deserved karmic comeuppance by the final curtain, what’s the harm in it?
In the film, Dutt plays Anand, who is framed for the murder of his crooked partner by uber baddie Tiger (Imtiaz). Because Tiger has threatened his family, Anand stays mum and is thrown in jail to await trial. His well meaning but hapless younger brothers Amar (Rakesh Roshan) and Pawan (Tariq) are nonetheless convinced of his innocence. Armed with more enthusiasm than intelligence or cogent planning, the two decide to pursue the judge in the case, Ganguly (Iftekhar). They first attempt this by unsuccessfully trying to woo the judge’s free spirited daughter Nisha (Reena Roy), who turns out to be a hot pants wearing, motorcycle riding young hellion. When an attempt to bribe the judge directly by shoving handfuls of cash at him ends in them having to throw themselves from a moving car, they decide to instead simply kidnap Nisha in return for Anand’s release. This plan backfires when Nisha, by all appearances, is delighted to be kidnapped, seeming to take a shine to both of her hapless captors, Amar in particular.
Zakhmee marks the young Tariq’s return to the screen after being introduced by his Uncle, director Nassir Hussain, in 1973’s phenomenally successful Yaadon Ki Baaraat. It’s easy to see why stardom never seemed to take to Tariq -- or perhaps him to it -- while at the same time recognizing in him a quirky, bug eyed appeal, one that is put to very good use in Zakhmee. He has a puppyish quality that makes the spectacle of him and Amar trying to pass themselves off as hardened kidnappers one that can’t help but bear comic fruit, especially when that pair is pitted against a gleefully volatile cat girl in the mold of Reena Roy’s Nisha. As a result, director Thakur is wise to devote much of the film’s screen time to this trio’s antics -- not the least because their forays into Nisha’s day glo nocturnal world offer some of the film’s most wildly colorful moments.
And colorful moments there indeed are, such that a diaphonously gowned Helen doing a go-go dance to Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” on the leering Tiger’s bed is reduced to a mere sidelight. At The Eagle, the nightclub where Roy’s Nisha hangs out, both she and the all girl band rock out frenziedly to a Bappi Lahiri composition called “Nothing is Impossible” which, despite being chaotic to the point of being nonmusical, is nonetheless infectious and debauchedly celebratory while affording Tariq the opportunity to reprise some of his wigged out flailing from Yaadon ki Baaraat. Then we have the expected lair showcase when the otherwise conventional masala plot sees the vengeful villains kidnap Anand’s entire family and imprison them within their decadent digs. Unfortunately for them, the fact that they have included Nisha in their captive roll call insures that they have sewn the seeds less of revenge than of their own resounding ass kicking.
And by the way, if this isn’t Reena Roy’s shining moment as an action heroine, I have a lot of catching up to do. One need only witness Nisha’s entrance during the climactic brawl, crashing her motorcycle through a picture window to then whomp every minion in her path while popping some mean wheelies, to wonder why it is Dutt, rather than her, that gets top billing. Furthermore, this same sequence incorporates a clothes ripping, Sapphic cat fight between Roy and Helen that’s kinky even by the furiously sublimating standards of old Bollywood. Clearly, Zakhmee should stand beside Nagin as an essential representation of this underappreciated starlet’s unique talents and appeal.
With the aforementioned colorful lairs, wild costuming (check out the mesh peek-a-boo windows on the shirts worn by Tiger’s minions), frenetic action, Helen as a classic moll turned angel of death, and tantalizing glimpses of a pop-driven psychedelic demimonde, Zakhmee is no game changer in the world of 1970s Indian action cinema, but it certainly provides almost everything you might want from it. Just don’t pay too much attention to those nice people who are its ostensible protagonists; it is within Reena Roy’s shiny go-go boots that this film’s trashy, pulp addled heart truly lies.
Like many of the most entertaining Egyptian pop films, Hossam El-Din Mostafa’s The Bad Guys takes time-tested genre elements recognizable to all classic film buffs and places them within a uniquely Arab context. In this case it’s a classic heist-gone-wrong/dishonor-among-thieves tale set against the desolation of the Western Desert and punctuated with encounters with bloody events from Egypt’s recent history.
The Bad Guys starts with a trio of smugglers arriving in Alemain, the site of a decisive battle between the allied and axis powers during World War II and home to a vast, Arlington-like Commonwealth Cemetery populated by the bodies of allied soldiers. Like any gang of smugglers worth their salt, this one includes among its number a twitchy loose cannon, Hatem (Adel Adham), who promptly stabs a third smuggler, Erfan, in the neck and pushes him from their car. The gang is transporting a fortune in U.S. dollars for a client named Mr. Ellie and Hatem pragmatically calculates that the fee for same will be much more handsomely divided with the subtraction of one smuggler from the equation.
It should also be noted that Hatem considers himself the fiancé and life’s love of Erfan’s daughter Zhara (Wolves Don’t Eat Meat’s Wahed Sharif – Arooooooooo!), a love connection that Erfan fatally disapproved of -- though its delusional nature is clearly revealed once we meet Zahra and see how freely she recoils from Hatem. In any case, once Hatem and his remaining partner Diaa (Ibrahim Kahn) deliver the cash to Mr. Ellie, it is determined by Ellie that it is counterfeit. This means that Erfan, after substituting the funny money, has made off with the real cash and hidden it somewhere, necessitating that Hatem retrace his steps.
Meanwhile, Khaled, a manly good Samaritan played by Rushdy Abaza (who we’ve previously seen in Bride of the Nile and Oh Islam!) comes upon the not-quite-dead Erfan and takes him to the hospital. Erfan asks that Khaled fetch Zhara and, once she is at his side, confesses to the two that he has hidden the loot in Rommel’s Cave, a manmade cave near Mersa Matruh where the infamous general planned his ill-fated attack at Alamein. Khaled and Zhara then pile into Khaled’s car, only to find a knife wielding Hatem in the back seat demanding that they take him to the treasure. Initially, Khaled leads him to the Commonwealth Cemetery and tries to lose him in its maze-like rows while he and Zhara escape. They are quickly recaptured, but not before a suspenseful chase that takes them through the winding catacombs dedicated to housing the battle’s Italian casualties.
Khaled next seeks to hire a guide to lead them to the cave. This guide, who’s face is at first hidden by his head wrap, is later revealed to be Diaa, who is quickly becoming as unhinged as Hatem. (Suffice it to say that there is a lot of creepy laughter in this movie.) The route that Diaa plans for them takes them off road and across a vast stretch of open desert, where the tense little quartet runs the constant risk of dehydration, automotive breakdown, unexploded mines, and simply killing one another.
That The Bad Guys – which is also known as Duel at Alamein and The Evil Ones – is an “A” list production is evidenced by its top heavy cast, starting with Rushdy Abaza. The son of an aristocratic family, Abaza struggled in Egyptian cinema for a decade -- even, thanks to his fluency in the language, taking a brief and unsuccessful sideline into Italian cinema – before being given star-making turns by director Ezz Eddine Zoulficar in 1958’s A Woman on the Road and, the following year, the gangster picture The Second Man. Abaza’s subsequent stardom was such that he did not escape the notice of Hollywood. He had a small part in The Ten Commandments and was considered by David Lean for the part in Lawrence of Arabia that ultimately went to Omar Sharif (the director was reportedly turned off by Abaza’s haughty attitude).
Adel Adham, who plays the perpetually cap and shade sporting Hatem, was no less of a star than Abaza, and made his name playing heavies, which accounts for the easy menace he exudes here. As for the smoldering Wahed Sharif, she gives a ferocious performance that is barely undermined by the fact that she spends much of the film clad only in a tiny slip, black bra and panties. As the tensions within the close confines of Khaled’s sweltering car mount, Zhara matches her male cohorts point for point in terms of burgeoning crazy eye, and is just as prone to outbursts of savage violence (at one point the subtitles have her screaming “I’m stressed out!”, which is a monument to understatement.)
All in all, The Bad Guys is a lean and mean little crime thriller, combining the stylish fatalism of 50s noir with the worried edges of 70s Hollywood’s more cynical capers. Cinematographer Aly Khairallah flaunts an accomplished arsenal of claustrophobic angles and off balance compositions in driving home the increasing dementia of the principals. Meanwhile, the specter of the war’s thousands of dead hanging over much of the picture grants it a haunted, almost supernatural veneer. The performances by the accomplished cast entirely live up this expertly established mood, even if they do merely trace varying shades of mania.
Yet, while being as compact and basic in its aims as its title suggests, The Bad Guys does take an unexpected twist in its final act. As expected, the four squabbling travelers finally run out of gas in the middle of the desert. When they all go crazily chasing off after a mirage, Zhara gets separated from the group and is captured by a gang lead by a fearsome bandit named Gasser. The rest collapse and are rescued by a Bedouin tribe. The tribe is later attacked by Gasser’s band and the Sheikh’s daughter, Salma, is abducted. Out of gratitude to the tribe, Khaled, Hatem and Diaa agree to put aside their differences and take part in an attack on Gasser’s camp. What follows is a straightforward and well staged action set piece that includes the very Bollywood detail of Khaled, Hatem and Diaa disguising themselves as musicians to breach the camp. Nonetheless, in its swashbuckling execution, it provides quite a contrast to the gritty spectacle of psychological endurance that has preceded it.
Whether the above was a flaw, a capitulation to audience expectations, or an attempt at signifying something larger I’m not sure. But it does seem salient that, once the money is retrieved and the gang once again faced with the prospect of divvying it up, the brotherly feeling born of their brief alliance quickly dissolves. These are Bad Guys, after all, the film seems to be saying, though just how bad seems more subject than one might think to the exigencies of circumstance.
That a blue-headed super criminal piloting a rocket launched from the tower of a gothic castle is something that cannot be presented without tongue in cheek is an attitude not exclusive to the mid-1960s, although it is the most inevitable there. That said, we have to take what we can get. True, Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard, the final in French director Andre Hunebelle’s trilogy of mid-century Fantomas films, is also the silliest, yet it also represents a return of sorts to Fantomas’ roots. The film presents us with an “old dark house” scenario similar to that seen in the first sound treatment of the character, 1932’s Fantomas, which was itself based on Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s first Fantomas novel. As such, the perennial super villain manages to retain some of his menace despite all of the tomfoolery on display, as, like in that earlier film, he is an ominous, unseen presence for much of the story, terrorizing his victims from the shadows as more of an idea than an actual flesh and blood man.
This time out, Fantomas is subjecting some of the wealthiest men in the world to an exorbitant “life tax”, an amount that they must pay him annually for the simple privilege of not being murdered by him. One of these men, Lord Rashley (Jean-Roger Caussimon), knowing an excuse for a party when he sees it, invites all of his fellow extortionees to a soiree at his gloomy, fog enshrouded old Scottish castle. With an eye toward drawing Fantomas out, he also invites Fantomas’ nemesis, the reporter Fandor (series regular Jean Marais) and his photographer girlfriend Helene (Mylene Christophe, likewise). Also on the guest list is Comissaire Juve, the man who has made repeatedly failing to capture Fantomas his life’s work.
Juve, as in Hunebelle’s two previous Fantomas films, is portrayed by comic actor Louis de Funes, who again plays him as a pompous, self-regarding martinet who flies into hysterical pieces at the slightest pressure. Fantomas, working behind the scenes, makes the best of this high strung nature by rigging Juve’s guest room with a series of spook show contrivances, from hanging corpses to cheesy man-in-sheet ghosts. Each time, Juve reliably goes on a frantic tear through the castle’s corridors, loudly announcing to all the guests the horrors he has witnessed, only to have them all dutifully file into his room to see absolutely nothing. In between, the guests busy themselves with séances, games of cards and hushed speculation about Fantomas’ whereabouts and motives.
Meanwhile, a consortium of gangsters whom Fantomas has also subjected to the tax decide to seek an alliance with Lord Rashley and his group in order to present some kind of united front against Fantomas. Unfortunately for them, by the time they reach Rashley, he has, unknown to them, been murdered and replaced by Fantomas. During a climactic fox hunt, Fantomas tasks his black masked minions with abducting and imprisoning some of Rashley’s guests to show them that he means business (an end to which his men employ a dog in a fox costume). At the same time, Rashley’s assistant Berthier (Henri Serre), who is having an affair with Rashley’s wife, attempts to kill Rashley/Fantomas, tearing off his mask in the process. Fantomas kills Berthier and is witnessed by Helene doing so. Fantomas’ men chase her down and capture her, necessitating that Fandor – who has been lying pretty low up to this point – spring into action to rescue her. At this point, Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard sheds its genteel trappings and becomes more what we’ve come to expect from the previous films, spotlighting a runaway remote-controlled bed, an underground lair, and that manned rocket I mentioned launching from one of the castle’s towers.
As wearying as the 60s fever for camp may be, I have to admit that Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard is a very entertaining film: breezy, brisk, colorful, and, yes, even funny. It is also very well made, with high production values and excellent cinematography by Marcel Grignon (the equestrian scenes are especially well shot). It’s one of those films that give us the infrequent pleasure of seeing what is traditionally B movie material -- masked villains, haunted castles, cliffhanger thrills -- given A list treatment. And what character could be more deserving of such treatment than Fantomas, he of such purring decadence and regal sense of entitlement to all the world’s riches? As always, Hunebelle scores a coup with the casting of the suave Jean Marais as both Fantomas and Fandor, which is the only way to insure that these films’ protagonist could be remotely as cool as their villain.
It’s inevitable that some ambitious young director will eventually give us a grittier version of Fantomas, complete with a deep, tragic backstory awash in CGI blood spatter – and that I will be prompted to then look misty eyed at all of Hunebelle’s reflexive goofiness. For, indeed, there’s a loss in the fact that we’ve replaced that era’s need to regard such Comic book creations from behind a cupped palm with a need to take them deadly serious. What really matters in the end is that, whatever their attitude, those involved have sincere affection for the material -- which, in Hunebelle and company’s case, is abundantly clear.
Fighting Femmes, Fiends and Fanatics, the web series produced by Steve Mayhem and co-hosted by yours truly, will soon be making a long overdue comeback, with new episodes to be posted beginning the week of Halloween. In the meantime, you can stop by our brand new FFFF Facebook page, give us a "like", and check out previous episodes.