Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)

It is possible to see The Million Eyes of Sumuru as the Holy Grail of schlock movies: a film directed by Lindsay Shonteff and produced by Harry Allan Towers, two of the titans of British exploitation film making.  Sadly, the film never really lives up to such expectations, with the hand of producer Towers seeming to have had the most influence on the finished product.  Loosely based on a Sax Rohmer story, Sumuru presents us with a kind of female Fu Manchu in the title character, (played by Shirley Eaton), apparently hell bent on world domination via her all-female army.  Ranged against her are a pair of hip CIA agents played by George Nader and Frankie Avalon, who are working for British spy chief Wilfred Hyde White.  Which is where the film's problems begin - anyone who had seen Towers' Fu Manchu films, (which starred Christopher Lee and were played quite straight), might have expected this Rohmer adaptation also to be a straightforward crime thriller - with science fiction and horror elements - played out in exotic locations.  Well, they got the exotic locations, with most of the action unfolding in and around Hong Kong.  However, Eaton's steely performance as the villain is undercut by her opponents being mainly played for laughs - her triumphs are demeaned as her adversaries are so ineffective.  Her stature is further demeaned by actually being defeated by what amounts to the comic relief.

The lack of dramatic tension this situation creates seriously hampers the film, as does a meandering, confusing and overly complicated plot which never seems to get anywhere.  The collision of Hyde White's usual bumblings, Avalon and Nader's comic antics with scenes of Fu Manchu-style tortures (Nader is suspended and whipped in Sumuru's dungeon), various cold blooded murders (including a man being strangled by a female minion's thighs) and climactic action scenes which involve both soldiers and Sumuru's amazons being mown down in large numbers, reinforces the impression that two different films have somehow been edited together.  Which is, effectively, what happened, with producer Towers, according to Shonteff, having heavily re-edited the film in post-production.  Consequently, whilst some of Shonteff's trademark odd camera angles and zany humour is still present, it is highly diluted.  Although by no means a typical Shonteff movie, the comic secret agents and general parodying of the spy genre looks forward to Shonteff's later Bond knock offs like Number One of the Secret Service, whilst the strong female characterisations - they are far more capable than their male equivalents - prefigure his Big Zapper movies.  Indeed, it could be argued that the film's uneven tone prefigures Shonteff's later work, which often feature wild and abrupt shifts in tone, from cartoon-like comedy to extreme violence.  However, in those later films the shifts in tone seem deliberate and add to their feverish quality, whereas in Sumuru the changes in tone feel jarring and frustrating.  Moreover, in his later films, Shonteff tends to match his often bizarrely talented heroes with equally bizarre villains, avoiding the sense of mismatch which pervades Sumuru.

Having said all of that, The Million Eyes of Sumuru is still an entertaining enough film.  It's certainly better than, say, Five Golden Dragons, a similar Towers produced movie shot in Hong Kong at around the same time, which pedestrian in its execution and has an even worse mix of a comic lead and serious crime plot.  It's also far better than most of the movies Jesus Franco directed for Harry Allan Towers in the late sixties and early seventies, most of which are plodding and dull.  To be fair to Franco (and I'm not really a fan), Towers as producer seemed to stifle most of the flamboyant touches which make some of his other films entertaining, much as he did to Shonteff on Sumuru.  Shonteff also gets some decent performances from his cast, most notably Eaton, for whom the film is something of a career high, cast against type as both a villain and a brunette.  Klaus Kinski also gives a surprisingly good account of himself in an unusually comedic supporting role, (much of which apparently ended up on the cutting room floor, courtesy of Towers).  Wilfrid Hyde White plays the Wilfrid Hyde White character, whilst Frankie Avalon plays the Frankie Avalon character.  George Nader, an actor whose reputation would be forever (and unfairly) scarred by having appeared in the notorious Robot Monster, gives a perfectly decent performance within the constraints of the characterisation imposed by the script, which requires him to oscillate between comic relief and conventional hero.

Sumuru was successful enough to spawn a sequel: 1970's Girl From Rio, this time directed by Jesus Franco.  Starring Eaton again, this features an entirely new supporting cast.  I haven't yet caught up with this one, so whether it again features an awkward fusion of comedy and pulp thrills, or whether Towers this time just stuck to the thriller elements, I can't say. Hopefully, once I've seen it, I'll be able to enlighten everyone.



Blogger gavcrimson said...

I think I got more out of Sumuru than you did, but do concur that it does feel very much a producer’s film, having more in common with the espionage capers that were Harry Alan Towers’ forte around this period, than anything in the Shonteff catalogue. By rights its Bond influences should make it a sister film to Shonteff’s ‘No.1’ films, yet if anything Sumuru feels like a complete reversal of the No.1 formula, where everything was played for laughs by Shonteff bar the leading men’s performances, Sumuru on the other hand is completely straight in every respect except the lead performances by Nader and Avalon, which go the campy tongue in cheek route.

Curiously while Sumuru is a film where Shonteff’s directorial hand is at its most invisible, the sort of sequel to it ‘The Girl from Rio’ registers strongly as a Jess Franco film. Despite it also being made on Harry Alan Towers’ watch and adapted from Sax Rohmer, you can pretty much tell from the opening shot of The Girl from Rio to the closing one that you’re in the company of the man who made Succubus and Sadisterotica and was on the cusp of his Vampyros Lesbos period.

In the past I have found it hard to warm to Harry Alan Towers’ productions, to me Towers seems to operate in an unsatisfactory middle ground in-between the likes of Lew Grade and Dick Randall. Towers seems to have been as much of a stickler for filling his productions with former Hollywood stars as Grade, but never has the budgets to match, at the same time he is never as entertainingly sleazy as Randall. I’m sure Grade and Randall were strongly motivated by the idea of filling their pockets with the proceeds of film producing, but there is a showmanship and desire to entertain the masses in their work that I just don’t see in the majority of Towers’ productions. They often just feel like apathetic exercises in shipping out X-amount of B level stars to some far flung parts of the globe and letting 90 or so minutes of film run through the camera. With a couple of reservations though I would add The Million Eyes of Sumuru and The Girl from Rio to the small list of Towers’ productions that I actually like.

I think I may have watched The Million Eyes of Sumuru in the most ideal circumstances for it to work a treat on me though i.e. on afternoon TV during a dreary, wintry English day, where its exotic 1960s Rome and Hong Kong locations proved the ideal escape from weather that was only fit for ducks.

BTW: It seems there is also a 2003 film version of Sumuru, again produced by Towers, that appears to be an even looser adaptation than the 1960s movies, is set in the future and (based on the trailer) looks more indebted to H. Rider Haggard’s She than Sax Rohmer (both The Girl from Rio and the 2003 Sumuru are up on youtube in their entirety but I haven’t worked up the courage to watch the latter yet.)

7:52 am  
Blogger Doc Sleaze said...

I must admit that I was somewhat distracted when I watched 'The Million Eyes of Sumuru', which probably influenced my reaction to the film.

I'm also very wary of Harry Allan Towers productions - I think I've said elsewhere that I've always felt that they flatter to deceive with their apparently A-list casts, but lacking the budgets and scripts to ever satisfactorily deliver on the expectations they raise. They always seem too constrained and carefully calculated to appeal to international markets, hinting at the promised depravity and delirium, but never showing anything that might actually offend.

I'm hoping to catch up with 'Girl From Rio' soon and I'm interested to see if Franco managed to escape the constraints of Towers' usual formula - up until now the only Franco directed Towers film I've really enjoyed has been 'Venus in Furs', which is quite triumphantly a Franco film.

I too am aware of the 2003 Towers 'Sumuru' - I've avoided it up to now on the basis that just about every one of his films from this period I've seen has been dire - 'Death, Deceit and Destiny on the Orient Express' and 'High Explosive', in particular, come to mind.

12:28 am  

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