George Pastell contemplates death as the high priest of THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY
(still from www.chud.com)
Thursday, January 29, 2009
THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (1959)
Here is Hammer Studio's entry into the Kali canon, a companion piece to George Stevens's Gunga Din (1939) and Nicholas Meyer's The Deceivers (1988). Terence Fisher's film isn't as good as either of those, but all three are aiming for different effects, and this effort has some virtues of its own.
It opens with a recitation of what the film claims to be the founding myth of Kali. The great goddess was quite the monster fighter, we learn, which doesn't sound so bad. She invented the strangler's silk cloth because whenever she shed a monster's blood, more monsters would rise where the blood fell. How we get from fighting monsters to murdering travelers goes unexplained. Instead, we get a pre-credit initiation sequence including bloodletting and branding upon the arm.
Things are going bad for the East India Company. As native official Patel Sheri explains, trade shipments are simply disappearing, and disorder and instability prevail. Mr. Burns, a likely ancestor of Homer Simpson's employer, expresses the frustration of English merchants: "All we know is the situation is intolerable, and we won't tolerate it!"
Captain Harry Lewis arrives late for the meeting. He tells his superior, Colonel Henderson, that he's heard of thousands of disappearances from native informants. Oughtn't there to be an investigation? Why not. It means rescinding his letter of resignation, but his faithful flunky Ramdas can catch up with the letter. It means disappointing Mrs. Lewis, but she's the stand-by-your-man type and offers only encouragement. The problem is, Lewis ends up getting supplanted in charge of the inquiry by Captain Connaught-Smith, who has no use for Lewis since he was late arriving to bring him to headquarters. Never mind that Lewis was rescuing merchants from bandits. They get cut loose during some hubbub in the marketplace anyway.
The bandits are out of English hands, but they aren't free. They're renegade Thugs acting as freelance thieves, and Thug HQ is having none of it. Worse, one of them lost his strangling cloth to Lewis. "You have allowed the sacred silk to fall into the hands of an unbeliever," the high priest complains. Their punishment is having their eyes and tongues cut out. It turns out that Patel, if not a Thug himself, is in league with them. He can't stand to watch the punishment, but when someone offers him a hanky to wipe his sweaty brow, Patel slaps him.
Ramdas, who trains Turki the mongoose on the side, is one of the many Indians who's had a family member disappear. He tells Lewis that he could swear he saw his younger brother in a caravan, but the caravan leader says he had no boy in his employ. Lewis gives Ramdas a horse to pursue the caravan, and Ramdas gives him an amulet in return. Meanwhile, apprentice Thug Gopali takes instruction in schmoozing his way into a caravan. The high priest criticizes his performance as insufficiently pathetic, and demonstrates the proper abject manner while we notice that Gopali has an amulet similar to the one Ramdas gave to Lewis. As it happens, the priest is tipped off that Ramdas is on his way to the temple, and is the servant of the man who took the sacred cloth. "This Captain Lewis must be punished!" he orders.
Lewis's own investigations are going nowhere. Connaught-Smith can't be bothered with him, and strange men jump him in an alley. Connaught-Smith's idea of an investigation is to have an old man brought in and ask him if he's seen anything suspicious. No, not in 40 years? The next step is ordering the man to close his eyes and wander around the captain's office. The moral: in 40 years you have to have seen something! But no, he hasn't. Lewis has, of course; having shaken his attackers, he returns to report his silk cloth stolen -- like Connaught-Smith cares. Lewis has had enough. After losing at cards to his neighbor, Sidney Flood, he tenders his resignation to the Colonel after getting told that his criticisms (and his prophecy of the 1857 Mutiny) are insolent and disrespectful. Now he can conduct his own civilian investigation, after some cleavage-baring consolation from Mrs. Lewis.
Lewis has this odd attitude that people should care what happens to other people. So the East India Company doesn't care about thousands of Indians disappearing. That's predictable; they're mercenary bigots. How about the Indians themselves? Have any of them seen Ramdas lately? "Are you not interested in what happens to one of your own kind?" Lewis asks. "I am a merchant, he is a servant," says one. "I am a Muslim, he is a Hindu," says another. Everyone has his or her narrow identity that lets others disappear into the gaps. No one wants to talk about Ramdas. Maybe Lewis can learn something in the jungle on a tiger hunt with Sidney Flood. With the help of Turki the mongoose, he does learn something. He finds a mass grave, and all the corpses have broken necks. Connaught-Smith's response: so what?
"Have you ever heard of a cult of stranglers?" Lewis asks Patel Sheri. Uhhh, no. But isn't Patel interested in his fellow Indians? He might have been back in the day when he had real authority, but now the victims aren't his responsibility. Doesn't he want to know the truth? "Whoever rules decides the truth," he tells Lewis.
Meanwhile, a man is arrested for robbing Mr. Burns's house. Lieutenant Silver, a mixed-race officer, offers to interrogate the man. He takes off his tunic as if he's going to give the guy the third degree, then rolls up his sleeve to reveal the brand of a Thug. "Kali has sent me to you!" he tells the thief, ordering him to confess to murder and accept hanging by a noose. Then sweet Kali will forgive him. The thief complies, and at the day of the hanging, Lewis notices that some people in the crowd seem too happy to see the guy die. After they collect the body, he follows them out of town. He discovers the Kali temple, but is captured, staked and spread-eagled while a gratuitously buxom and speechless acolyte looks on. The high priest slashes Lewis's leg, and the scent of blood arouses a cobra. Fisher milks the snake's slow slither toward Lewis for all it's worth as our hero sweats over his fate, until it's Turki the mongoose, whom he'd brought along, to the rescue! Since "the death of a snake bodes evil," the priest deduces that Kali is displeased with Lewis's captivity, so he frees him.
Lewis promptly reports his discovery of a stranglers' cult to Col. Henderson, but Connaught-Smith and Silver, for different reasons, scoff him into silence. Meanwhile, it's graduation time for Kopali and the other apprentice Thugs. The final exam consists of strangling prisoners and slitting their bellies so their bodies don't swell and expose their secret graves. The prisoners are the two tongueless bandits and Ramdas, who recognizes Gopali as his little brother. Gopali kills him.
Arguing for strength in numbers, Patel convinces Burns and his colleagues to combine their resources into one big caravan. "I am confident the caravan will reach its appointed destiny," he predicts. Later, Lt. Silver suggests that such a crime will draw military heat. Not if we kill Lewis, Patel answers, especially if he dies by the sword to take anyone else off the Thugs' scent. Making it look like robbery will help too, and so will robbing and killing the neighbors so it looks even less like assassination. But the killers aren't efficient. They slay Sidney Flood, but his wife's screams awaken Lewis, who repels his attacker. Once Lewis learns about the caravan, which is in Connaught-Smith's charge, he's determined to catch up with it. Lt. Silver generously offers to accompany him.
Now everything begins to fall into place. Gopali proves himself an A student by totally suckering Connaught-Smith with his abject beggar act. This helps set up the movie's strongest scene, as the Thugs swarm over the caravan at night and strangle everyone but Connaught-Smith and three guards who were in tents. Connaught-Smith freaks out, screaming at the dead men to wake up and get up as a Kali chant builds in volume. He is now quite doomed.
Lewis and Silver catch up with a caravan that has vanished. Lewis feels certain that the Thugs have struck, and asks Silver to help him find fresh graves. That forces the issue with Silver, and with that settled, Lewis moves on to the temple, where the dead prisoners are prepared as "the greatest gift" to Kali. When Lewis recognizes Ramdas's body, he starts shooting and is quickly caught again. Now Kali gets a live sacrifice! Except that Gopali suddenly recognizes the amulet Lewis has been wearing....
Stranglers of Bombay is bound to be called racist for its treatment of India and its habit of implicating nearly every native character into the Thug conspiracy. Look past the obvious details, however, and we find Fisher and screenwriter David Z. Goodman attacking an indifference toward human life that extends beyond the Indians to most of the English characters. Lewis (and by extension his wife) is practically the only humanitarian character in the story, though Ramdas should get credit for familial loyalty. The film indicts a profit-motivated colonial administration that isn't really interested in governing, as well as what seems to be a degenerate caste-ridden culture incapable of human solidarity. Of course, the implicit answer to all these problems is imperialism, giving this screenplay from the sunset years of the empire a defensively nostalgic tone that can't help but seem patronizing to non-British viewers.
Ultimately, this is a Hammer film and that means more horror than history. The pacing could be better, but the formula of the desperate discoverer who can't make anyone listen works well enough here. Without Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, Fisher has to make do with Guy Rolfe as the hero. He seems a bit stiff at first, but his predicament and the obnoxiousness of his antagonists had me on his side eventually. Speaking of obnoxious, Allan Cuthbertson as Connaught-Smith is the only other real standout performance for me. None of the others are really bad, but George Pastell as the high priest is nothing compared to Gunga Din's Eduardo Cianelli when it comes to seething fanatic evil. There's little for the actresses to do, meanwhile, and the use of Marie Devereux as pure eye candy in the role of the mute (?) Kali acolyte is as annoying as she is attractive.
Stranglers is part of Sony's remarkable 4-film Icons of Adventure set of Hammer's non-monster period films, accompanied by Terror of the Tongs (thumbs up!), and two pirate movies that I haven't watched yet. The two-disc set is an embarrassment of riches, including commentary tracks and trailers for all films, a chapter from a Columbia pirate serial, a rare Andy Clyde comedy short, and a pretty bad cartoon. I'm probably not telling any movie-blog browser anything new when I say that the set is a must-have.