Thu 9 Jul 2009
CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER. Alllied Artists, 1962. Vincent Price, Linda Ho, Richard Loo, June Kim, Philip Ahn, Victor Sen Yung. Screenplay: Robert Hill, based on the novel Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincy. Director: Albert Zugsmith.
De Quincy was Thomas de Quincy, an English decadent who is best remembered for his books Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, and Confessions of an Opium Eater, works that graced many a Victorian library shelf and were read under many a blanket by young boys. Not very promising material for a film of high adventure.
The place is mid-nineteenth century San Francisco’s Chinatown, that dark haven of mystery and low adventure celebrated in a thousand pulp tales (and little relation to the the real thing).
Into this cauldron of the exotic and erotic swaggers our two-fisted sailor hero, Gilbert de Quincy, a man who knows his way around a brawl, a broad, and a bottle — Vincent Price.
Did I mention this is a very odd little film?
Vincent is in Chinatown to find his old friend Richard Loo, but before you can say Kung Pao Chicken, he is up to his neck in the sex-slavery racket of Chinese girls imported from the mainland and sold as concubines and prostitutes to wealthy and ruthless men. Loo is out to smash the racket, and Vincent finds himself reluctantly part of the crusade when a few innocent inquiries nearly get him killed. He’s walked right into a hornet’s nest.
And what a hornet’s nest. Pretty girls in chains, exotic dances, Oriental finery, secret passages, trap doors, a collection of S&M gear that would make de Sade salivate, a mouthy Chinese midget concubine in a golden cage, and a full blown sex auction beneath the dark and narrow streets of old Chinatown — just a few of the elements of this one. The scenes of Price imprisoned in a bamboo cage suspended off the floor are worth the price of admission alone.
There are also innocent young women thrown overboard in chains whenever another ship gets too close to the smugglers, bodies washed up on the beach, tong hatchet men, and of course the obligatory psychedelic trip for Vincent on the ‘smoke of dreams.’
This is sheer melodrama, a barn-burner as the Brits used to call them, with hammy performances, fortune cookie dialogue, and enough angst for a dozen soap operas. It’s nice to see Loo get to play a hero for once, and if you ever wondered how Vincent Price would do in a role better suited to John Wayne, now you know.
The movie does at times have a nice claustrophobic feel of the alien and the strange about it, and the cheap sets and curious camera work sometimes manage to convey the feeling you are watching this entire movie in someone else’s opium-fevered dream. During one or two of the fights you half expect the entire place to come down like the great earthquake, and whether deliberately or not, Price’s sheer size gives his character a bull in a China shop feel that adds to the alienation and foreignness of his surroundings.
Confessions is only a little less politically incorrect than say, a Fu Manchu movie, but at least there is some effort made to present some of the Asian characters as people and not just stereotypes. Not much, but some.
Silly, stupid, and ridiculous as this one is, it is also undeniably fun to watch in the same guilty pleasure way of reading or watching old “Yellow Peril” pulp fiction from yesteryear.
Price clearly knows the level of material he has to work with here, but to his credit he has some fun with it, and seems to enjoy playing the two-fisted adventurer while fully aware how miscast he is in the role.
No one embarrasses themselves or their careers in this movie, and in one like this one, that’s almost the best they can hope for.
That said, after watching this one you might want to go out for Italian or Mexican instead. Too much MSG can give you an awful headache.
Note: It’s been a while since I read de Quincy, but I don’t think his opium dreams yielded anything quite like this. Just as well Coleridge, Poe, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire never smoked what this movie is selling.