Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six (Philippines, 1966)

Surviving examples of Filipino pulp cinema from the 1960s are so few and far between that it's always exciting when one turns up -- even though, admittedly, I was less excited about the prospect of actually watching Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six than I was by the mere fact of its existence. Like the previously reviewed James Batman, Doble is one of many spy spoof/action comedies from the period that starred the (still!) massively popular comedian Dolphy, and, having seen James Batman, I felt that I had already pretty much gotten what those movies were all about. Basically, they combine standard action movie tropes with broad, Mad Magazine style parody. And, while the ability of Mad's writers to substitute the word "blechhh" for any similar sounding word struck me, at age 8, as being the height of wit, it's not the sort of humor that stands up to repeated exposure once you're well into your adult years.

That said, Napoleon Doble did hold a few surprises for me, not the least being just how dark it was willing to go in the process of fulfilling its mandate to be a full fledged action thriller in addition to a rollicking comedy. As in James Batman, Dolphy plays a double role here, this time as both police agent Napoleon Doble (for you youngsters, that's a pretty obvious play on the name of Napoleon Solo, one of the heroes of the old Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series) and Doble's arch nemesis, Elias. The film begins with Doble interrupting Elias and his gang in the course of a bank robbery, leading to a violent shootout in which Elias is gravely wounded. Elias, a putty-faced grotesque reminiscent of a Dick Tracy villain, then attempts to make a getaway in his car, but passes out at the wheel and crashes. Later, under the care of his private plastic surgeon, he orders that his face be altered to look exactly like Doble’s –- a task that, once accomplished, enables Elias to wreak all kinds of predictable mistaken-identity-based havoc in the hero’s life.

While Dolphy’s Napoleon Doble comes across as something of a likeable doofus (most of the film’s comedic episodes center around him and his crew of fight-happy domestics), his portrayal of Elias offers something altogether more sinister. Steely eyed, cold and merciless, this villain rules over a shadowy mansion staffed by armed goons and a personal harem of beautiful women -- the “Sexy Six” of the title -- whom he treats with predatory callousness. Especially creepy are the scenes in which Elias stalks and abuses the young dancer Anna (Lourdes Mendel), a woman he has targeted as a future addition to his collection of mistresses; there is even a sequence in which he paws over Anna’s drugged and unconscious form, his cupped, jittery hands obsessively outlining the curve of her breasts. In essence, Elias is the Anti-Dolphy, and it seems telling that the actor digs into the part with such apparent relish.

Like most Tagalog language films of its time, Napoleon Doble, despite being a vehicle for a hugely popular star, is a pretty threadbare affair, and indeed has its odd moments of looking a bit drab and undernourished. However, director Carling Marquez more frequently bucks his limited means to fill the screen with some surprisingly inventive visual compositions, which alternately call to mind the look of film noir, the French New Wave, and the pop art sensibility of the Batman TV series. Most of these are used toward either accentuating Elias’s fearsomeness or making manifest his twisted interior world.

While the darker aspects of Napoleon Doble may in part be the result of the respective creative quirks or its director and star, they are more reliably the product of the Philippine’s populist film industry, and, in particular, that industry’s staunch dedication to the business of providing a little bit of something for everyone. It is thus that a film marked by such sinister trappings, not to mention some fairly violent action scenes, can go on to deliver the expected parade of dumb boob and toilet jokes, a couple of song and dance numbers, and, finally, a downbeat, melodramatic ending that requires one last, hasty sight gag in order to remind us that it is, above all, meant to be a comedy.

Throughout all of this, I found myself grateful for Dolphy’s particular brand of comic delivery, which I’d have to describe as being distinctly low key. Touring through the cinematic comedy of Dolphy’s era -- be it perpetrated by one of his fellow countrymen, like Chiquito, or the Etruscan horror that is Franco and Ciccio, or even a screen comic who I’ve been known to like on occasion, like Egypt’s Ismail Yassin –- can be a soul sapping exercise, soundtracked by endless shrill exclamations of cowardice and explosions of desperate, rubber-faced mugging. Fortunately, the fact that Dolphy, in addition to being a funnyman, must also comport himself as a man of action precludes him from any of the tiresome “feets don’t fail me now” shtick that so many of his contemporaries all too easily fall back upon. This, of course, doesn’t guaranty that I’ll find him funny. But Dolphy, with his unique combination of sardonic baring and secret agent cool, gives the impression that he doesn’t really care whether I do or not.


Tars Tarkas said...

Who would win in a battle between Napoleon Doble and Napoleon Dynamite?

Todd said...

Which reminds me: What do you get when you drop a bomb on a kitchen floor?

Unknown said...

...what do you get?

On a Dolphy-related note, you've done the film proud. I'm waiting for his next installment of 60s spy-fi, Genghis Bond (1965), to arrive in the post from, and am expecting more of the same: two Dolphingers for the price of one!

Todd said...

Thanks, Andrew. I, too, am hoping to get my paws on Genghis Bond in the near future. Any idea why these films are suddenly popping up now? It seems like, for years, all we had was James Batman, and now we're seeing a trickle from a newly tapped vein of 1960s Dolphy goodness.