MOD Movies: 'Confessions of an Opium Eater'
Vincent Prince is an ambiguous adventurer turned meditative hero in this surreal piece of exotic exploitation
Named after (and ostensibly inspired by) Thomas De Quincey's autobiographical account of his life of opium addiction, Albert Zugsmith's 1962 "Confessions of an Opium Eater" (Warner Archive) has little in common with the source beyond the title, the name of Vincent Price's character (Gilbert De Quincey), and the florid narration that Price drips through the film. Otherwise, this is less about opium addiction than sexual slavery in the Chinese underground of nineteenth century San Francisco and Price's Gilbert is an agent in a secret society playing both sides of the criminal underworld during a Tong War.
See a clip below, after the jump.
Of course, it involves a trip to an opium den and a poetic meditation on the mysteries of the opium dream, complete with an expressionist fever dream/nightmare montage, and Zugsmith tops that cool but familiar sequence with a surreal slow-motion escape, with Price seemingly floating through the air as he scrambles through the dungeon and leaps from Tong thugs. But Zugsmith is far more interested in the human cargo of young Chinese women smuggled into port in the first scene, kept in hanging bamboo cages that rattle through the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels, and forced to dance for prospective buyers at a flesh auction.
Albert Zugsmith was far more successful as a producer than a director, with such classics and cult items as "Written on the Wind," "Touch of Evil," "The Incredible Shrinking Man," and "High School Confidential." As a director, he's an inspired producer. "Confessions" is not skillfully made -- the filmmaking is flat and devoid of atmosphere or suspense or tension -- but it does have the lurid violence, exotic subculture, and implied sexual transgressions that were the stock in trade of Hammer films (surely an inspiration for Zugsmith), and the art direction of Eugene Lourie (a veteran of both Jean Renoir and Sam Fuller classics) creates a shadowy, sinister world right out of the craziest pulp fantasy of Chinese corruption. Just to add to the weird culture around Price, he casts midget Angelo Rossitto as a newspaper vendor waddling through the story, and Yvonne Moray as a midget woman named Child who adopts Gilbert after he rescues her from her bamboo bondage. The rest of the performances are inconsistent, to say the least.
It's like a knock-off of a knock-off, cashing in on both the drug culture of modern America and the lurid Fu Manchu movies that were making a comeback, pieced together from pieces that do little more than co-exist in the same film. The story makes little sense and Zugsmith has the grace of a clog dancer when it comes to conducting a scene, but Price rises to the occasion to play Gilbert as an ambiguous mercenary playing turn-of-the-century secret agent. He narrates like a barnstorming player on the rural circuit reading a second-rate poet given to florid description and he holds the center of the screen with more confidence and strength than his character should have in any of these situations. Which, of course, is just how we like our mysterious movie agents: confident, cool, and classy. Unlike the movie around him.
See a clip after the jump. Click on "More" below.
Available exclusively from Warner Archive:
MOD stands for "Manufacture on Demand" and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and "burned" individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here and on the MGM Limited Edition Collection on Videodrone here.